Below the Moon

by

Rachel Wolff

 

“Latch the windows tight, Raffa.  ’Til night is through.”

Raffa, with her wrinkled and age-spotted hand already on the lock, glared at her husband, Gellar.  Did he think he was the only one to have lived through this before?  She snapped the lock closed then pushed the treated iron bar in place--the bar her neighbors laughed at when she paid dearly to have it installed.  But they’d never lived through a full moon night as she had, long and long ago.  They laughed with the confidence of the young.  And foolish.

“Did you gather the sheep from the north pasture?”

Raffa gritted her teeth.  She’d brought the herd in hours ago, and Gellar had even seen her close up the barn. But she nodded without giving him the lashing he deserved. This time, she could give him more rein.  The sweat trickling from his forehead spoke so loudly of his fear that she did not even need his scent to confirm it.  But the stench of nervousness rolled off him like a cloud of vapor, giving her small comfort that she was right.  Usually, nothing frightened Gellar.

“Did you tell Lissa?  You know how she--”

“I told her,” Raffa snapped.  “And we both told her tales to raise her hair all through her childhood, despite the prattling of those light cursed druids.  She knows to stay inside.  And we are safe.”

Gellar swiped the sweat from his brow, holding her gaze.  His eyes, at least, as stone gray and steady as the day they wed, betrayed nothing.  Just as well.  Gellar’s panic scared Raffa, but his eyes reassured.

“The lads down the tavern laughed, Raf.”  Gellar’s hands trembled as he drew the silvered bolt across the wooden door.  Would it hold?  Was that why his hands shook so?  His hands were always steady, whether holding one of their grandchildren aloft or adjusting a mule’s pack, stroking her cheek, or whittling one of his famous carved figurines.

The sky, streaked pink and red, was visible through the last open shutter.  Raffa closed it off and slid the final bolt into place then brushed the front of her apron, giving her hands something to do.  She avoided Gellar’s eyes.  How else to keep him from naming her fear?

“The well women did, too,” she said.  “And as for Petris . . .”

Gellar grimaced.  Raffa had seen Petris corner him, screaming curses for what he considered heresy.  “The druids!” the miller had yelled.  “The druids will protect us!”  Foolishness, of course, as she and Gellar knew.

Gellar tried talking the younger man down, but Petris would have none of it.  Oh, Petris admitted a full moon night would be possible, but he denied the chaos and disaster that it spelled.  Light help him, Petris’s mother was a babe in cradle during the last one, lucky to have survived at all.

“Naught to do but wait it out now, my light.”  Gellar glanced at the three barrels of water that filled a quarter of their cottage.  Raffa had asked him to fill another.  She hoped he did not now regret his earlier assurance that they had plenty.  Three sacks--two of meal, one of dried beans--a long stack of cut wood, and, of course, the ewe, fresh-killed and drained, and hanging from the rafters, completed their stores, but for Raffa’s tins of hoarded spice.  Would it last the whole night?  The average night lasted forty-five eventides, forty-five sleeps, and days were as long.  Having naught but darkness for so long had never bothered Raffa before, with thin slivers of moon lighting what little it could, but this time, the moon was due to be full and they had to keep it out, keep the beauty of that light from touching them. . . .

Gellar took her hand and drew her to the table.  “We’ll be fine, light of my heart.  I’ll not let anything hurt you.”

Raffa tried to smile.  But she remembered too vividly the last such night.  That time, she’d only just become a woman, but now gray streaked most of her hair.  “Lucky,” the town’s lone surviving elder called her when he pulled her from the wreckage of her family’s home once light returned with the sun.  “Lucky enough to face another,” she muttered under her breath now.

Nodding, Gellar studied their dirt floor, a picture of worry, though his scent did not prickle her nose anymore. Maybe he truly believed what he said.

Raffa’s eyes strayed to the door, waiting for night to begin.

#

An hour after sunset, Raffa felt the pull of the moon deep inside her.  Through the walls and the bolted shutters, from above the rafters, it pulled, though she could not see it.  Like sweet fire and exquisite pain.

Darkness came as it always did, with ringing bells from the local temple, answered by the gong from the druids’ grove.  Soon the bells fell silent.  A death pall hung over the cottage, thicker than porridge.

Raffa shivered, clasping the ends of her shawl tight in one fist.  But it provided little warmth and less security. She stoked the fire in the hearth, coaxing the flame to life with kindness and a bit of tinder.  She wanted to light a candle, but those they would use sparingly.  They had only five--candles were dear; these had cost her more than she should have spent--and they had to last ‘til next sunrise. The hearth fire warmed enough to stop her shivering, but made less impact on her sight.

“Stop mulling, Raf.”  Gellar’s voice was soft, soothing.  “Make us up some pottage.”

Raffa’s hands itched for something to do, so she measured out three ladles of meal, a dozen of water and two fists of beans into a pot swinging over the fire.  A pinch each of two spices, and the pottage’s fragrant smell carried into the room as it popped and hissed, boiling out the water.

By the time it thickened, more sounds erupted outside. Some village youths ran past, banging clubs together. Though the children often took to the streets when night began, Raffa doubted that anyone would sleep this first eventide.

The pottage tasted bitter on her tongue, but Gellar gobbled his down.  Perhaps she would slice strips of the ewe for the next batch.  She eyed the great beast dangling above her and licked her lips.  She’d have to use it up soon; it would molder before the full moon was through.

Raffa cleared their bowls away, setting them on a water barrel.  When the pottage dried, crusting on the bowls, she would scrape them out.  She would waste no water on rinsing them.

She watched Gellar, his slender face and sharp nose accented by the flickering light from the hearth.  So calm he was, now that night had fallen.  She hoped they would survive it.

#

Raffa woke from sleep at the end of the third eventide, and listened to the now familiar screams outside.  She reached for Gellar, needing his warm arms around her, but her hand touched bare mattress instead.  Gellar never slept long, and these eventides less than others.  She sat up, scanning the dusky cottage until she saw him, a dark shadow by their front window.

He stood arrow-stiff, pressing his hand to the shutter. Hearing her rise, he turned his head.  “They’re dying out there,” he said, his voice hoarse.

“I hear them.”  Raffa approached him, but something in his gray eyes troubled her.  They shone with a dark ache.

“We’re safe here.”  Gellar made it sound like a question.

“We are.”  She held out a hand to him.  “Come sit, my light.  Let my pottage lie easy on your tongue.”

“I don’t want no damn pottage!” he shouted.  “They are dying out there, Raffa!”

“They had a choice.  They could have listened and taken precautions.  It’s not your fault they act so.”  Raffa held his gaze.  “Nor is it mine.  The sun will rise again, no matter what they do.”

Gellar let out his breath and took her hand.  “Forgive me, my light.  I am troubled, but it is not your doing.”

Raffa stilled her own anxiety and led him to the table. She made her pottage, slicing great chunks of ewe into it. But the screams outside sounded more like howls than she cared to admit, and she repressed a shudder.

#

Gellar’s breathing came more labored.  Occasionally, he forced himself to stillness, but most often he paced the length of the cottage.  Five paces up.  Five paces back.

Raffa watched with cool detachment as he curled his fingers and ran them through his unkempt hair.  Every few rounds, he held his hands to his ears, as if he could block out the cacophony of a world in the midst of a firestorm.

Shrieks, howls and screams were drowned now by the sounds of the mob, armed with swords and knives, that roved through the village and countryside.  Men who’d once held gentle crafts were bent to killing now, crazed by the light of the moon, letting the madness of its cool reflection infect them.

Raffa wished she could block out the noise as Gellar tried to, but even if she plugged her ears with candle drippings, she would hear them.  She heard them in her sleep.

Only fifteen eventides done, each one marked by the bells from the temple.  The gong from the druids grove had gone silent.  Another thirty to go, if this night lasted as long as usual.  And no evidence spoke of an earlier sunrise.

Once she heard clear voices from beyond the latched windows.  Kerrik, a forester who lived nearby, shouted that his wife had murdered their children then come for him.  But Kerrik also screamed that his well gave forth naught but blood now, so Raffa wondered who it was, truly, who had wielded the axe.

The sheep’s stripped bones cluttered a corner of the cottage.  The last of its flesh had gone, and the bones had flavored their last dinner.  How would Gellar take its absence in the next?  Not well.  Raffa would wager her life on it.

#

Gellar pounded on the shutters with his fists, startling Raffa from uneasy sleep in her chair by the hearth.  “Shut up!” he yelled.  The shrieking and howling outdoors--were they human voices anymore?--continued without pause.  And Gellar kept pounding on the shutter as if he could stop the madness from in here.

Raffa rose to go to him, just as the shutter cracked beneath his fists.  A shattered board clattered to the dirt floor, and the pale light of the full moon shone into the cottage.  It was beautiful.  And dangerous.

Gellar turned, his eyes alight, and Raffa backed away. “I’ll not leave my herd where they’ll be slaughtered,” he told her, his voice uneven.  “I’ll kill them myself first.”

“You can’t go out yet.”  Raffa tried to keep her voice calm, but the hairs on her neck rose in warning.  “Night’s bare half over.  You’ll be caught up in that.”  She gestured toward the open window.  As if to prove her claim, a scream rose from just on the other side.  One of their friends? Their neighbors?

“I won’t . . . I can’t . . .”  Gellar buried his face in his hands.  “How can you be so cold?”

Raffa’s smile was thin, the barest touch.  “I lived through the full moon before.  As did you.  So I ask you, how is it you are so weak?”

Gellar leaped towards her, snarling, his lips drawn back from his teeth.  “What do you know of it, bitch?”  He reached Raffa in two strides and grabbed her throat.  “You feed me naught but meal and beans when I desire meat.  You mock my need for untainted air and open sky.  You stare at me as if at an unweaned dog with your cold eyes.  Your cold eyes. . . .”

Gellar squeezed her throat.  Her eyes bulged, and she gasped for breath.  She clawed at his face with her nails, leaving long, thin strips of pale skin hanging from his cheeks.  A low rumble started in her belly and surged upwards, exploding in her throat.  She slammed her knee into his groin and shoved the heel of her hand into his chin, snapping his head back.

He grunted, releasing her, and fell to the floor.

Raffa turned from him and moved to stand in the light of the moon which drew her, implacable, irresistible, like the cry of a child.  She bathed in its cool, crisp beauty, tears streaming down her face.  How could she have hidden from such wonder?

Changes took her.  She shuddered with their suddenness and basked in the newness of her body, larger now, and strong, so strong.  Coarse fur covered her arms and legs, her limbs grew longer, bulging with muscle, and ending with razor-sharp claws.

Something moved at her feet.  A scream pierced her sensitive ears.  She swiftly silenced the sound, and a thrum of pleasure ran through her; she tingled from head to feet. Licking blood from her claws, she stared at the moon, full and round as a ripened womb.

“Lucky, they told me,” she whispered to what remained of the man on the ground, her voice a rough growl.  “As if I could die this night.”

Raffa wrenched the remains of the shutter from the window and leapt through.  Loping into the darkness, she added her howl to the song of the night.

#

Dawn came, as it always did, even after a full moon night, and the first gleaming touches of sunlight touched Raffa huddled on the doorstep of the smoldering shell of her home.  Her clothes were torn to shreds and long gouges, from claws or knives or both, rent her arms, chest and back, as if she had battled with a hundred beasts during the long night.

The survivors, few as they were, staggered from what was left of their homes looking dazed and battered.  They would have to rebuild, of course, as they had done before, gather those who were left and try to keep their memories of this night alive.  But so many were gone.

Gellar, dear sweet Gellar!  Ripped apart and burned with their house, holy light, who had killed him?  How could she have survived when he was dead?

Stifling a sob and wiping tears from her cheeks, Raffa drew the tatters of her shawl closer, though it gave her no warmth now.  She comforted herself the only way she could, with the knowledge that she would never have to live through another such night below the moon.



END

 
 
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Rachel Wolff lives in western Oregon with her husband, also a writer, and their two cats. In addition to short stories, she has recently completed a fantasy novel, Child of Eight, and is hard at work on her next one.
 
 
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