Miriam was late. The weather slowed her pace to a crawl, wind whipping at her legs in spite of the heavy cloak she wore. If only she had not tarried for so long at Annalise’s, but the woman was so lonely after Jacob’s disappearance and presumed death. Finding a body would have made things easier, but the wreckage of his boat was all that could be found. The reality is that men died on the sea.
The country lane was little more than a bog at this point, sucking at her boots with each step. Cutting across the fields would probably make for better progress than the endless mire stretching out before her. Her mind began to drift back to the evening’s conversations. Annalise had continued on about Miriam settling down.
Miriam sighed. It was the same argument. Having a man would be safer, she had said, adding that it would be more respectable than living as a spinster. The years were passing and youth will fade. Prospects will dry up as the years pass. She wasn’t bothered overmuch, though. She had too many things to accomplish right now.
She remembered her mother, by now fretting endlessly for certain. That’s the way with old mums, though she was unbothered by her daughter’s lack of interest in a family. Her father, the gods rest him, was too protective to be concerned over her solitary life. Probably no suitor would have met with his approval anyway.
In spite of the storm’s din, Miriam could faintly hear something out of place. It was a sucking sound, much like her boots in the mud. However, there were more feet, moving in rhythm. A hose, probably. She laughed wryly at the thought that someone else was as foolish as herself to brave this weather. The horse may be sparing its rider the trouble, but would wear out the poor thing.
As she struggled on, she listened to the beast behind her. It didn’t seem to be laboring through the morass. By now the pace should have been noticeably troubled. She climbed up to the bank, finally having enough of the mud. The sound continued steady, though she could still not see the beast. Something made her wary of the approach. Taking to the fields became a welcome option.
It was easier going, but she was no longer sheltered by the trees that lined the road. After several miles the sound of footfalls returned, but the expected sound of hooves were not there. Rather, it was a rhythmic slapping sound. It could not be a horse.
Miriam was not easily frightened, but her concern was growing. Ragged breathing cut through the howling wind. No living creature could be heard over the storm, she was sure. Regardless, the slapping sound grew louder and had a fleshy quality to it. She could still see nothing, but redoubled her efforts against the endless maelstrom.
The sounds never seemed to get closer. Whatever it was seemed to stay just out of sight. The Tangle was close and the woods would make things rough for her pursuer. As the treeline grew close, the sound began to close in on her. Ducking into the thick foliage, she moved as swiftly as possible without stumbling.
The sound seemed to grow hesitant. Miriam slowed to take another look. What she saw froze her blood: It was shaped like a horse, but with the skin stripped away. There was a rider, but, rather than legs, the torso was fused to the creature’s back. The figure’s swollen head lolled about and it was flayed of skin the same as its mount. She knew what it was and this sent her into flight.
Miriam tried to contain her rising panic, maintaining speed without losing her nerve. She knew there was a creek nearby and that she had to cross it. According to legend this would stymy the monstrosity. The woods were definitely hindering the pursuit.
Briars and limbs lashed at her, but Miriam did not notice. The creature was now forcing its way through the thick growth. Time was precious to her, and she lifted up the hem of her dress to run easier. Suddenly, she burst through the woods and was splashing into the creek. It wasn’t much, but would suffice. Reaching the other bank, she stopped and stared back, desperately trying to get her breath. When it erupted from the woods and struck the water, it screamed and leapt backward. It cannot cross running fresh water.
Miriam remembered the childhood rhyme. She always thought it was simply to frighten children into compliance, but she knew otherwise now.
“An truth, stray not over long,
Stray not far from the throng,
In solitude there is danger,
And hellish is the anger,
Please, my child, do not fret,
Cross the creek, if you have met,
The slobbering stench of demon free,
Beware, beware, the nucklavee.”
With a rude gesture, Miriam picked up her dress and raced away from the impotent fury of the creature.