The sun was low in the sky when John awoke. He lay still for a few moments, savouring the looseness of tired muscles and the cool play of the breeze, refreshingly chill on the damp patch on his face.
The damp patch on his... the damp.... what? John sat up uneasily, putting a hand to his cheek, which felt vaguely slimy. He looked suspiciously around the tiny glade.
Tall oaks rose majestically towards the lavender sky, in which the first faint star of evening was almost, but not quite visible. A single willow leaned gracefully over the chattering brook, seeming to sip daintily from the cold pure water. John had drunk from the brook earlier, and had washed the day’s sweat from his face, enjoying the fresh tang, so much better than the flat stuff from the castle well.
Everything seemed normal. The grassy sward ran down a gentle slope to the brook, unmarred by weeds or any blemish. A chaffinch trilled from somewhere nearby. From the edge of the clearing, a monster glared at him.
Adrenaline surged into his blood like a kick in the stomach. He struggled frantically upright, grabbing at his sword, which he was not wearing. The groping, panicked fingers encountered only a small knife, suitable for trimming quills. John froze.
The monster was large, grey and attenuated, about half again the height of a wolf, with madly staring eyes. A huge mouth gaped open, crammed with rows of enormous, needly-looking teeth. John cast about frantically for a means of escape, wishing he had stayed in the solar with his books, or could fly, or had not been born. The monster moved, angling towards him on long, stick-like legs. Its action was rather like that of a praying mantis, John decided, the thought floating transparently across the surface of his stalled mind.
Could he get to his horse in time? John cast frantically about. The horse was nowhere in sight. Besides, he’d loosened the girth when he stopped here. What about leaping up a tree? He glanced upwards, hopefully, and saw sky. The monster was between him and the trees. It was edging closer. John took a step back and fell into the stream.
The stream was cold; not deep, but unpleasantly lined with pebbles. John scrambled to his knees, tugging desperately at his penknife. Water! Perhaps the monster was a troll and could not cross running water. Holding up his now saggy breeches, John lurched across the stream and squelched out, almost losing a shoe.
As he turned, he was just in time to see the monster sail gracefully across the stream.
“Ave Maria, gratia plena -” was all John could get out before the monster was upon him. It fetched him a mighty blow with its foot. John, overwhelmed, fell over. The monster leaned over and licked his face, delicately. Its beard was slimy. John screwed his eyes up tightly and commended his soul to God and St Wulfstan.
He waited to die, cold, alone, and damp. The sun had gone right off the ground now, and it was quickly becoming quite chilly. There was no priest to hear his confession and bring him the comfort of the church in his last moments. There were no wailing maidservants. There was no trouvère to immortalise his dying battle. Perhaps just as well, John thought ruefully, becoming aware that once again he had failed to Measure Up.
A volley of loud clopping sounds assailed his shrinking ears. Well, John decided, at least he would die with his eyes open, thereby not being totally shamed in his own eyes and those of the world. Not that there would be anything left of him to find; the monster had definitely looked as though it needed a square meal.
He edged his eyes open a tiny way and squinted out. The monster was lying down a few feet away. The noise was made by it rapidly snapping its ferocious jaws together, quickly and repeatedly, as it tossed its head about. John opened his eyes the rest of the way, forgetting to be alarmed in his astonishment. This was nothing like the behaviour he had been led to expect from monsters. First they roared, then they ravened, then they either devoured you or were vanquished in single combat and their heads stuffed and hung in the hall. There might be details about their eyes gleaming like the coals of hell, hot sulphurous breath, etc etc.
John sat up cautiously. Catching the movement, the monster crawled over towards him, dragging itself along on its elbows and belly, and whining. It put its head down on the grass and stared up at him, making him feel that something was expected of him. This was nothing new; John had spent his life with a vague feeling that something was expected of him and he had no idea what.
Well, he was going to die anyway. Probably going to die, a small voice of hope whispered to him. Almost certainly going to die, he corrected it sternly. He reached out to pat the monster’s head. It whined again, and licked his hand.
A friendly monster? John supposed there must be such things, but he had never heard of one. He looked again. Viewed with calmer eyes, it was rather an ordinary-looking monster as these things go. There were no twisted horns dripping gore, or extra heads, or bats’ wings. Lying down, it really looked more like a pile of dirty rags than anything else. And wasn’t there something teasingly familiar about the position in which it had arranged itself? With one front leg sticking out and the other hidden? Didn’t it really look a bit like a hound, sort of? John just wasn’t sure.
CONTINUED IN FOLLOWING POST