Goruk was a shadow slipping into the distance, silhouetted against the burning evening sun. He did it casually – like he was just heading back into his hut – and naturally, and no one ever noticed that he was gone. It would be dark before he came back to their village, and Bagroof thought that he might have an idea.
The other men chattered on around him as the fire spat yellow-and-orange embers in the middle of their circle. A thin trail of smoke snaked up into the sky, golden on one side and lilac on the other. A steady wind carried the smell of rain down from the mountains, and the tall grass rustled as it passed.
The good thing about being the quiet one was that it gave you space to observe. He watched the rest, wearing the smiles on their faces as they exchanged words and anecdotes. Morguk was still trying to convince Berethum and Agrisaf of the giant beast he saw (as tall as ten trees, he said), Zanu and Tarran were laughing about something humorous that happened during their hunt earlier today, and Riastak, the youngest of them – hardly a man – listened in on the conversations.
For a moment, Riastak caught Goruk’s gaze, and a transcendent understanding passed between them: they were men alike, in spirit if not in age or body. Riastak was young, but built well. When he is fully grown, he will have the stature of a chief. Bagroof, on the other hand, could have never hoped to be even as big as his peers.
The moment passed, and Riastak went back to listening in on Morguk’s tale of the giant elephant. Bagroof got up to leave. Goruk was out of sight, but there were more ways to track a man than by sight.
Girls have been disappearing from the village. It started with Siris, many months ago. They thought that she must have wandered away while collecting herbs, and got pounced on by a wild cat. They sometimes found the mangled bodies of lost friends hanging from tree branches, and the feral yellow eyes of the wild cats close by, warning them to keep away. But Siris’ body was never found.
A while after that, Gillian also went missing. Then Rainee. Then Valarie. And it became clear that it wasn’t a question of what was behind the disappearances, but who. Bagroof observed these things, and he observed the people in the village. Tonight, he was going to find out if he was right or not.
The sky faded from a calming purple to the deep darkness of ebony, and it was getting harder to see. Dark clouds rolled across the skies, blotting out the light of stars; and when the wind came, carrying the smell of the rain with it, Bagroof was afraid that he might lose Goruk’s scent. But when the wind died down, Bagroof was always able to catch Goruk’s trail.
It was late when Bagroof arrived at the foot of the mountain. There, he stopped and ate some berries from a bush to quieten his stomach. As he ate, he caught the glimpse of a small ghoulish face, as white as snow, hidden in the leaves. In the center of the face were two eyes, like little black stones. It hooted at him, then flew away, disappearing like a phantom into the night.
When his tummy stopped making hungry noises, he carried on.
The scent stopped at the mouth of a cave. It was completely dark outside, and thunder rumbled overhead without the accompaniment of lightning. In the darkness, Bagroof could see a faint yellow flicker on the far wall inside the cave. He got onto his hands and feet and cautiously crawled in, keeping his head low.
It was the crying he heard first – a strangled sort of sound, like words that got caught in the middle of your throat. And then he heard the scraping of stone against stone. The floor of the cave sloped off to the right side into a steep decline which led to the bottom of it. Bagroof kept to the left, and as he approached the edge overlooking the bottom of the cave, he got down onto his elbows and knees, and his chin almost touched the ground as he moved, silent like the growing grass.
When he peeked over the ledge, he saw Siris by the yellow firelight, but not Siris as he had known her. Siris was a healthy girl with hair as brown and red as the river mud, and with skin the color of chestnut. The Siris he saw, motionless against the cave wall, looked like she had aged thirty years in the time she was gone. Her skin wrapped around her bones in dry folds, and her hair was like dried weed on her shrunken skull. Part of her cheek was gone, and something white squirmed inside her mouth. The eyeball on the same side as the cheek was missing, the the other one, closer to the ground, stared out into the fire without any spark of life in it.
There were more bodies, two of them just beyond the fire, where he couldn’t see. What he could see, where Siris’ dead body was also facing, was Goruk standing with his back against the fire, a piece of chalk in his right hand, slashing away at the cave wall; and with his left hand, he held Valarie’s throat. Her cry rose, bubbling from her mouth, and as soon as she made a sound, Bagroof saw Goruk’s hand tighten around her neck so her eyes rolled up and her tongue stuck out. Then, just before she slipped into the eternal sleep that waited at the end of life, he released her neck, and she heaved with the exertion of taking in breath.
It would be midday before Bagroof arrived back at the village, alone and hollow-eyed. He would not speak, or even eat for days after that; and when he finally opened his mouth, his voice was cracked and hoarse, and his words came out in incoherent sentences. But with time, this is what they gathered from his testimony:
All along the walls of the cave, he could see outlines in chalk: faces, he realized, of the girls from the village, with their faces caught in the moment as they slipped from life into death. It had to be the young girls – they were easier to subdue, and their necks were thin enough for Goruk’s hand to wrap around for him to conduct his macabre work.
He looked up from Valarie’s choking, dying face when he heard the scream of a madman, and found Bagroof soaring from the ledge above, then landing onto him a moment later. Again and again Bagroof hit him, at first with his bare fists, and then with a piece of loose rock he found. Blood and bone and brains were splattered all across the cave floor; but in the seconds before his death, even as blood came out of his mouth and ears, Goruk had looked up – right through Bagroof – at some invisible, unknown person.
“I try to draw you,” he said, choking on his own blood. “You don’t look like what I think.”
And with that, he had died.
But what about Valarie? Some of them asked. Bagroof gave no answer, only cradled his knees and rocked back and forth while tears rolled out of his eyes. He never cried aloud, only silently. But when he cried, he cried for hours and hours, until he went to sleep.
Using Bagroof’s description, a group of men had traveled out to the cave in the mountains. Riastak was among them, as were Morguk and Zanu. They found the cave with Goruk’s body in it, dead beside a pile of ashes, and also Siris and Rainee’s bodies. They did not know the last girl whom they found, and thought that it must have been a girl from another village whom Goruk had found, perhaps in the woods. They also saw the chalk pictures on the walls, the outlines of faces of girls choking to death.
But they could not find Valarie. They did not see any footprints, or found anything that might have helped them to find out where she went next. If Bagroof hadn’t been laying dazed in his hut, and had followed them out into the cave, he might have been able to tell them there was something they missed. A painting on the wall that Goruk had not done.
It was against the far wall, beyond the bodies of Rainee and the unknown girl. A large man with no face and wings like an eagle protruding from his back, arched towards the heavens. In his hands were sickles, like he was ready for the harvest.
If they had found Valarie, or asked Goruk if he had been alive, they would have given the same answer. They both, after all, have met the winged man.
He was Death.