BLACK ANNIS AND THE BARGEUST
by Sarah L Byrne
They call me Black Annis, though I am no such thing. My hair was yellow before it was grey, and Agnes was a saint of old, or the lamb-of-god for those that know their Latin, while here I am, a heathen woman or worse. Walking the woods alone at dusk with not even a lantern to guide me, for though I may be old my eyes are well enough.
They call me Black Annis, the village folk do, and tell tales of me to terrify their children. Come home straightways from the market, my girl, or it may be Black Annis will catch and eat you. Put the cradle far from the window, sister, lest Black Annis reach her long arms through to snatch it.
The truth of it is that I never had any mind to a husband, though I dare say I was fair enough, with my yellow hair and all, that I might have had one. But I had no more urges that way than a woman can take care of herself, if you take my meaning, and nor did I ever crave a child in my belly or even in my arms. Such ways the church calls unnatural, and they would not have me even to be cloistered, and a woman who frowns upon a neighbour’s ugly squalling newborn might as well have cursed the child. So Black Annis dwells alone in the woods and walks alone at night to gather her dinner – which she expects to be rabbit from her traps and greens from the riverbank and not the flesh of infants – and is content enough.
But what’s this I see? Ah, now, these children did not heed the warnings. Four of them, or five, is it? No more than ten years old any of them, out here in the woods with the light fading. Have they not been taught better than that?
I’ll crouch down here, hid by the bracken, and if I stay still they’ll see me not. Save myself their shrieks and stone-throwing. Black Annis knows how to stay still, how to listen; the ripple in the water of a fish’s approach, the whisper of a rabbit’s paw on dry leaves. So what’s this coming through the trees? Creeping along behind those poor little souls.
No rabbit is that, no deer neither. Not with that weight enough to crack fallen twigs, that breath like a bellows blast though they don’t hear it over their chatter; the shape of it now in the low light coming into view, black shaggy fur, the glint of teeth. Eyes blazing like fire.
A Bargeust from the lands to the north, a black dog, a thing of legends and nightmare; harbinger of death it is. Following behind those little ones.
A decent soul would warn them. But they see me, this’ll be my fault, same as everything bad that happens in these parts – Black Annis brought the Bargeust, set it upon us, she did. Serve them right if I stayed hidden.
But it’s creeping closer and they still haven’t seen it and there’s nothing else to be done.
So here I am, Black Annis rising up out of the damp earth, looming out of the darkness. I’ve not forgotten how to make me a glamour when I need one and a terrifying sight I am with claws of iron and hair like duckweed. Their eyes are round as saucers as they see me, their screams stab my ears, used to the quiet as I am. They run as I intended, but then – ah, no! – one of them trips and falls, and the beast springs.
There’s time for nothing else; Black Annis throws herself in its path, and the weight of it hits me like a storm. There’s the fading sound of footsteps as they flee, never looking back; no help for Black Annis. I don’t know if they’re more afeared of me or the beast. Hot breath in my face and teeth like blades and coarse fur by the fistful as my back hits the ground and my fingers reaching blindly for that little hunting knife but all too late and never any use…
The stillness of the wood at night. All dark now, with only the fiery eyes of the beast to see by. Or, do I mistake it, do my own eyes not see better in the dark than they used to?
Just thee and me, my Bargeust. Let us look at one another.
What’s this, your leg bleeding? There now, let old Annis see, she has gentle hands and she’ll hurt you not. Did you stumble into one of the huntsmen’s traps, or did they take a shot at you, poor creature? No wonder you were enraged, and with no one to learn you any better how else should you go on?
My voice is gone dry as old leaves, but perhaps it is just so long since I did have another soul to speak aloud to, for all that I rattle on in my own head. I had a dog of my own once, a faithful friend and a warm presence on a cold night. But short lives they have, and my poor little one has been dead in the earth these long years and me all alone.
Well, I’m for my home now, and what’s this? You’d come along with me, would you? Have me tend your wounds, let you sleep at my door?
They call me Black Annis, don’t you know it, you poor dumb beast? You don’t want to be trusting the likes of me. But then you might say a little old woman, all alone, don’t want to be trusting a diabolical creature such as you seem to be, with them great fangs and eyes of flame.
So let them tell their tales, talk of us how they will. We will go along very nicely, you and I, Black Annis and her Bargeust. Let them call us what they will.
“Black Annis and the Bargeust” © Sarah L. Byrne
Sarah Byrne is a writer and scientific editor in London, UK. Her short fiction can be found at http://sarahbyrne.org.
“Discussion” digital illustration by Fran Eisemann. Stock Used: “From Darkness Cometh Light 54” by mizzd-stock, Ida May Walker, Denmark; “New Black Wolves 13” by Lakela; Ria, Vienna, Austria; “Mystical Forest Stock” and “Moon Stock” by Wyldraven, Vaughn Mir.