The olive green grass was too long for this time of year, and as Isolde and Harald crossed the fields they wondered where the town’s flocks had gone. It was only last harvest that they had celebrated the great number of births for the spring. But now, with winter on their doorstep, there was the unspoken anxiety that there might not actually be enough to go around in the shorter days to come.

Still, there was work to be done, pigs were being herded and slaughtered for smoking, pens were being mended, and fresh thatching was being put on homes for the coming storms. Isolde led Harald out to the fields and they waved to old man Ivar as he herded out his sheep, and they themselves were going down to tend to the milk cows and bring back the fattest of the calves for the night’s feast.

“Do you think we’re cursed?” Isolde asked with a sly smile. She looked over to Harald when she asked it and noticed his eyes quickly dart away from hers.

“Nah,” he replied. “I mean, maybe, but it’s probably just raiders making off with the cattle when they can.”

“Doesn’t really explain the weird infections though,” she said as her boots began to slide in the slick mud of the field.

“Not everythings magic and curses, you know.” Harald seemed to be getting frustrated and Isolde couldn’t tell if it was the thickening black mud or the conversation. “Infection always spreads,” he went on. “It’s probably something that came with those traders from Harwich or something.”

Isolde shook her head but kept silent, their village hadn’t been visited by any regular traders for a long time now.

“Hey, did you talk to your dad?” Isolde asked, changing the subject.

He stopped and looked at her before shaking some thought form his head and continuing on.

“It wasn’t a good time,” he replied.

“It never is,” she said half under her breath.

She knew Harald had heard her but he didn’t say anything, no matter how much she wished he would, she knew he would never say anything.

“It could be elves…” he said suddenly.

“Elves?” Isolde half laughed. “How can you be so adamant that it’s not a curse, but then say its an elf?”

“Because I’ve seen them,” he said seriously. “But I’ve never seen a-“

The conversation was suddenly cut as the both stood slack-jawed at the peak of the field’s little rise. They hadn’t even noticed the smoke lightly rising until the burnt out homestead was right in front of them. Dead cows and calves lay strewn across the grass as though they had just dropped where they stood, and as for the rest of the herd, there was no sight at all.

They moved down in silence, looking at the great black and white beasts on their sides, all pox-ridden and half rotten. The sight of the baby calves in the same state made Isolde’s eyes sting, but she couldn’t look away. The house itself has been little more than a shelter for milking, but now it was only ash and the charred remains of a skeletal frame.

“Raiders…” Harald said to no one in particular. He looked at Isolde and met her eyes. “We need to tell the Jarl right away.”

“Raiders?” Isolde asked in disgust. “Harald, look at the poor things, how could raiders have done this? I was here yesterday milking in the afternoon, and these cows were as healthy as you and me.”

“Get down!” Harald hissed, and Isolde quickly ducked behind the carcass of one of the cows.

The smell was sour, but only where the pustules had burst and she scrunched her nose as Harald shimmied over to her.

“Look,” he said pointing to the far end of the field.

Isolde saw it right away, but she couldn’t tell what it was that she was looking at. From where they were ducked down, it looked like the inky black shadow of a man hunched over something. But the darkness of its form was impenetrable, it had no features, only a shape.

They stared for a long while and the shape shifted only slightly as it busied itself, unaware of their watching.

“Hey!” Isolde cried out as she stood up right.

“What are you doing?” Harald cried out to her, and the shadow stood as stiff as an arrow and seemed to snap its head at them.

Isolde yelled again and the shadow took off, moving with the same serpentine movements as a snake. Isolde ran across the field as fast as her legs would allow through the slick mud, but the shadow slipped into the woods and was gone.

“What was that?” Harald asked between breaths as he made it to her.

“I don’t know,” Isolde answered hesitantly, but her eyes were locked on the calf at her feet. This was what the shadow had been hunched over and the poor thing moaned in agony as its little legs flinched helplessly on its side. It was half dead, open sores across its sides and its deep black eyes looked at Isolde as though it were begging for mercy.

“Look at the mark,” Harald said as he stooped down next to her.

He ran his finger along some curved lines that looked seared into the skin and the calf’s eyes widened as it mooed in agony.

“Stop it,” Isolde said and she swatted away his hand. “The poor thing looks half starved.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Harald said as he stood back up. “These cows have had more than enough to feed on this season.”

“It was that… thing… that shadow,” Isolde said. “You saw it too right?”

“Yeah… I mean, I think so.”

“Oh, come on, Harald! Don’t do this too me!”

“We should go see the Jarl,” Harald said.

“We should go see Ivar,” Isolde corrected. “He’s closer and he might have seen it too.”

“What about this little one,” Harald asked, nodding down to the struggling calf.

Isolde looked at the poor thing and knew what they should do. Harald knew too, but they both just looked at it with pitying eyes.

“Maybe it will get better,” he suggested.

“Yeah, maybe…” she knew it wouldn’t, but they left it where it lay all the same.

Isolde stood up right and looked deep into the woods. What was that thing? She looked for a long time before giving up, there was nothing there but the tall pines. With a shake of her head, she turned with Harald and they walked back to try and find Ivar.

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