They ran through the woods, white clad ghosts flitting between the trees. Lachlan caught sight of Sheilagh and swerved to join her, hoping that she would be one of the lucky ones. He called her name, then realised too late that she was not alone. A roar of hungry triumph told him that The Beast was close by, but it was a meaningless, abstract realization. For the moment at least, all of his thoughts were of Moira.
She wore the ceremonial robes, as they all did, an ornate headdress singling her out as the Chieftain’s daughter, but where it would look foolish on Sheilagh, a child’s drawing of a clown, Moira looked beautiful and elegant, as if she had chosen to dress that way. He slowed to a jog, his voice dying in his throat. The women turned to look at him, expectant and confused.
Sheilagh frowned, the familiar name made strange by the other woman’s voice. Lachlan looked away, trying to hide his shame even as he turned towards the woman he truly loved.
“We need to keep moving. It’s close.”
As if to confirm this, a cry went up from the path ahead, cut short by a feral snarl. Like sparrows, the trio turned as one and plunged into the undergrowth, running at right angles to the path, away from The Beast’s latest kill. As they ran, Sheilagh fell in on his left, Moira on his right, and without thinking, he gripped their hands and pulled them both along.
It would be so easy, he thought, to let Sheilagh slip, to run on ahead and take another path. But what if she survived? Each year, The Beast decimated the youth of the village, but that still left strong odds in her favour. And even if she was taken, there was no guarantee that Moira would be his; They had talked in the shadows of the fire hall, but she only knew him as Sheilagh’s betrothed. Could she ever understand how he felt for her? Had she always known but chosen to ignore it? He was beneath her after all, by birth and by caste; Even if they were free to wed, would she want him?
The thoughts tormented him, stinging him as the low branches lashed at his face, drawing blood which speckled the front of his own robes. Blood which scented the wind and drew the attention of The Beast.
It broke through the treeline before them, rearing up on its shaggy haunches, baring it’s broken, clotted fangs and spreading it’s great sinewy arms in welcome.
They faltered, frozen by the sight of the thing they had been raised to fear.
It was time to decide; Push Moira forwards and hope that he could live with himself and with Sheilagh afterwards, or sacrifice Sheilagh and hope that Moira would understand and accept him.
The Beast roared, forcing him to act.
Closing his eyes, he raised his hands, gathered the ceremonial robes in his fists and pushed.
Karl A. Russell comes from the North West of England, where he lives with his wife and five year old daughter (his toughest critics). He’s been writing on and off for his whole life, but only started to actually finish and submit things a couple of years ago, when the spectre of turning 40 started looming in the not too distant future. He can be found most weekends posting at Flash! Friday and The Angry Hourglass.
Karl is currently working on a novel, which he might get to the end of this time, if he doesn’t waste all his spare moments on Twitter. If you want to read more of his work, his pay-what-you-want charity collection is available here.