The white lace curtain you’re holding aside to peer out the kitchen window is trembling. Something in your guts, deep in your bones, stirs in a way you haven’t felt in years. Any other day you would have called it indigestion, but no. It’s more like rage, but it might be something much worse than mere rage.
Up the gravel path are treading the duke’s men. In the chill autumn air their breaths billow from the visors in their enameled helmets.
You can greet these dogs with civility, as you’ve trained yourself to do, despite them brazenly invading your territory like this. They could be spoken to genially and sent on their way with the right combination of polite deference and self-assurance. You sense today will be different, though. They’ve come to collect, and by their heavy, determined steps they believe they will, at any cost.
One of the soldiers tromps directly through a flowerbed, crushing the last fire-orange blooms of the marigolds your wife planted there.
That feeling, indigestion or rage or whatever it is, courses through you, from your bones into your veins, burning and boiling. You stand up straight, breathing deeply as you let the curtain fall back to its place. The farmhouse kitchen feels smaller than usual.
Your skin is creaking and groaning at the joints. It’s been decades since you’ve last struggled so much to hold your form together.
Your wife is standing in the middle of the kitchen, shoulders squared. She looks ready to fight, and admiration rises in your throat. She’s so brave, so fierce. An image of her mangled and bleeding, throat pinned under the marigold-stained boot of a soldier, makes your whole body tremble for a moment. Steady.
“Gather everyone and go out the back,” you tell her, voice low. “Hide in the cellar and bar the door. Don’t come out till I come for you.”
She stares at you for a moment, defiance in her eyes. Does she see how close you are to coming undone? Does the creature writhing under your skin show itself in your eyes, your stance? You’ve told her your secret, sure, but there’s a gulf between hearing tell of something and seeing it with one's own eyes.
Your wife’s gaze softens as she watches you. “You’ll be alright on your own?”
“I’ll take care of it,” you reply.
There’s a rap at the door, sharp and forceful. The both of you jump, and you feel something tear in your back across your shoulders. You clench your fists, willing yourself to keep calm, to hold yourself together. You’ve gone so long living like this, tending your sweet little farm with your wife and all your farmhands. You can’t let some headstrong soldiers ruin everything you’ve worked for.
“Hurry…” you growl, and the sound is bigger than your body. It shakes the floor and the eaves and the tiny silver teaspoon in the sugar bowl on the counter.
Your wife blinks, biting her bottom lip, then turns and vanishes down the hallway leading to the bedrooms.
You take a steadying breath, then go to open the door.
The duke’s men are not at attention, they’re scattered around, standing in flower beds and in the grass and on the clovers, basically everywhere except the flagstone you and the farmhands so carefully laid. Steady.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” you say quietly, gripping onto your carefully cultivated good manners like your life depends on them. You step out onto the stoop and shut the door behind you. It makes you feel more exposed, vulnerable, but you would hate for the soldiers to see or overhear your wife as she gathers everyone out the back door.
The leader holds his ground as you step out, and his beady eyes peer at you from the holes in his visor. He’s uncomfortably close as he speaks to you. “We still haven’t received your duty for this season. It’s a month overdue.”
“I do apologize,” you say smoothly, calmly. It surprises you. Perhaps you can still fix this without a disaster unfolding. “The drought was bad this year, everything must be kept to feed my family. I’m sure you understand.”
“That’s not how it works,” the soldier barks. “It’s twenty percent, drought or no drought.”
You frown. “I thought the dues were eight percent this year.”
The soldier chuckles, a mechanical sound from inside his helmet. “There’s a fee for insolence.”
You hold your breath for a moment, gritting your teeth, and when you finally let it out the ground trembles. Some of the soldiers look up at the sky, thinking the sound was thunder.
“That seems… harsh…” you say, quiet as you can. It sounds rough in your ears.
“The others have already paid up. It’s your turn.”
“Mmm…” you purse your lips, gazing out at the fields over the soldier’s pauldron. “No, I think not.”
“Then you’ll be facing the consequences,” says the soldier. He is not afraid, not in the slightest. He thinks he’s facing down a harmless farmer, after all. The others’ hands all go to their swords. “Present your twenty percent or we’ll take it by force.”
“No,” you say again.
The soldier nods, oddly cheerful, then turns to his companions. “Go round up the others. Check the cellar-”
“Stop,” you snarl, and the soldiers’ armor rattles as they all freeze, watching you.
The leader cocks his head, expecting a submission. He knows few can continue being defiant once their loved ones are threatened. He fingers the hilt of his sword, anticipation growing.
You consider for a moment, body stiff. That twenty percent could be the difference between life and death. If you give in now, if you relent, someone could die in your charge. One of the hands, one of their children. Your wife, her sister, her niece. Any of them. Worse, when you roll over the first time and expose your tender belly to the teeth of the dogs, the next time you refuse they will come down harder, jealous of their victory. It will be worse.
“I’ll give you all one more chance,” you rumble. Your body feels like a sizzling sausage, flesh a boiling mess under skin ready to split open at any moment. “If you don’t all turn around and leave my property right now, you’ll be fertilizing next season’s harvest.”
The soldiers look between each other, then the leader bursts out laughing. He throws his head back, and you can see the gap between his helmet and gorget where his throat is exposed. You let him laugh for a little while longer. It will be the last thing he feels, after all.
Your skin can take no more and finally you come apart.
The pain is exquisite, blinding, white-hot as your being explodes inside-out. You’ve been folded up inside a little box for so long, everything smashed down. Now you are coming free and the ache of stretching back into your proper shape is as acute as a thousand individual stabbing knives.
Even as it happens you wish you could have held it together just a moment longer. This will be the end of everything. You wish you could have taken one more sip of your tea before you’d noticed the duke’s men coming up the lane. You wish you’d said good morning to the farmhands, cooked them breakfast. You wish you’d kissed your wife one last time before she turned away down the hallway. You wish you’d told her how much you love her.
Then the pain is fading, gentling, the cramps dissolving as you stretch. You can breathe, you can move. You are bound no longer, and despite the lingering ache and the regret and the horror of it all, it’s a relief. Such a relief. When you can finally see again, you’re met with the sight of your farmhouse’s shingled roof. There are leaves clogging the gutter. Oops, you’ll need to take care of that later. You remember the ladder is broken.
Oh, but you won’t need a ladder anymore.
You turn to find the intruders are gazing up at you in terror, and you remember that seconds ago you were so filled with rage you were shaking. The uncomfortable indigestion feeling is gone, it evaporated as soon as your meager human disguise finally gave out. All that’s left is the rage, and it is potent.
The soldiers are cringing back, panicked, as well they should be. You could roar and send them running, and perhaps that would be the better thing, the more human thing. But you did warn them already, after all, and sometimes a warning is also a promise.
Everything is already ruined anyway, now that you’ve shredded your skin. May as well be thorough.
The leather of their armor is like paper in your teeth and claws, and the steel squeals almost as loudly as your prey does as you rend them. You tear them apart as easily as the plow tears the soil. It’s lovely, finally destroying them like this. Their blood is sweet, the crunching of their feeble bones delightful. You’ve missed this. God you’ve missed this.
At last you’ve torn the last soldier’s body into enough pieces that he stops moving and you settle down for a moment, panting, your breath forming a cloud around you. The sight of your own muzzle stretching out in front of your eyes catches your attention, and you click your jaws together, feeling your long, sharp teeth and tasting the delectable vestiges of the soldiers’ blood. There’s blood everywhere.
Your stomach sinks. You’ve killed the duke’s men. There will be consequences.
You will have to slink away, hide in the forest until the mobs stop searching for you. You’ll have to find the mage again, have her craft you a new skin. You’ll ask for an uglier one this time, one harder for someone to love so you cannot fool anyone else again.
The thought of leaving is a greater agony than losing control of your form was. You think of your wife kneeling by the flowerbed digging up her ruined marigolds, on the broken ladder cleaning the gutters, sitting all alone at the kitchen table and stirring her tea as she gazes out the window, wondering what’s happened to you.
The least you can do is say goodbye, even if the sight of you terrifies her. That has to be better than the uncertainty of never seeing you again, right? You turn towards the cellar at the back of the farmhouse, bracing yourself.
She is there already, watching. She’s been watching the whole time.