“But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.” - Isaiah 34:14
The forest hushed, and among the brush Sergius slowly lowered himself to the ground. The birds trusted him, but they had no love for men, and their silence urged him to hide. His mother had warned him: trust not the men for they hate what you are.
Morning sun kaleidoscoped off fresh dewdrops and projected patterns of light across him as he slipped through the underbrush. He was propelled by human hands, a gift from his mother, and inhuman legs, a curse from something else.
Sergius reached an outcropping above an overgrown path. Like much of the forest it had been abandoned by the humans when they declared the area forbidden. He crept to the edge and leaned over to inspect the human who had invaded his forest—it was a girl.
She didn’t look more than sixteen, just a few years younger than Sergius, and was dressed in a white blouse and blue skirt that fluttered in the breeze. Her steps were uncertain, her form silhouetted against the falling leaves.
He had seldom seen humans, and not this close since his mother had died—a victim of the cruel winter. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t fear this one. His curiosity burned, and he drove forward.
He crept along the small outcropping that flanked the path, never taking his eyes off the girl. She stopped and crouched down, forcing him to halt. Sergius possessed keen ears, and tilted his head to each side listening closely. She was weeping.
The girl wrapped her arms around her legs and buried her head between her knees. Her sobbing increased. His apprehension faded, and was replaced by pity. Pity for the fragile thing crying alone in the woods.
Sergius emerged slowly. He was aware of his appearance, and didn’t want to frighten her. He lowered his head and held his arms out, his palms open. As he came closer he could see the dried stains of blood on her blouse.
“Do you need assistance?” said Sergius in a calm, soft voice.
The girl looked up at Sergius, and wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. Her mouth dropped open as she swallowed the sight of the half man—half monster. Her gaze met his feet first which had been replaced with two cloven hooves. Then her eyes followed up his legs, which bent backwards abnormally, to his waist, which gave way from fur to flesh that was lean and muscled. Wide eyed she continued to his nose which was broad and flat like an animal, then to his eyes, which were a pale green, and entirely human, to his horns which spiraled out from either side of his head, then up and over the satyr as she fell backwards, unconscious.
Sergius stood up straight, baffled. He looked around, and could see no one. He could hear his mother’s warnings in his head, and how he should take special care to avoid humans. But looking down he couldn’t help but feel empathy for the girl. So with all the care he could, he lifted her up, and took her with him.
The girl ran her fingers through the hair on his chest and clung tightly as she started to awaken. “Are you going to kill me?” she asked weakly.
“Certainly not,” said Sergius, glancing down at the girl as he navigated through the forest.
Sergius noticed yellow-black bruises on the girl’s face. The swelling was enough to force one eye nearly closed, and her tears glimmered in the sunlight. The thought of someone injuring this fragile thing caused him to grimace and snort.
“What’s your name?” said the girl.
“My mother named me Sergius,” he replied, keeping his eyes ahead.
“I’m Prudence. They say you’re a monster—that you eat children.”
“I don’t eat children,” Sergius paused, “But I am a monster.”
Prudence swallowed hard. “You live here? In the woods?”
“I live in the woods,” said Sergius. “Not these woods, but one slightly over a bit.”
“Is that where you’re taking me?”
“Yes, to my home. You can rest there, and if you feel fit I’ll escort you back to the edge of the forest.”
Prudence, exhausted and weary, closed her eyes and was lulled back to sleep in Sergius’s arms by the rhythm of his long strides through the forest.
When Prudence awoke she was lying on a bed of clovers beside a small lake. She leaned forward and with her eyes still closed, turned her face towards the aroma of cooking fish. Ahead of her was a quaint, crooked stone cottage covered in moss where smoke piped from a small stump of a chimney.
Sergius emerged moments later from the humble dwelling with fish and steamed vegetables on a clay plate.
“It’s good to see you’re awake. I have food here… if you’re hungry.”
Prudence accepted the plate and devoured the food while maintaining her manners as best she could. She looked up, embarrassed that she had cleaned her plate so quickly, her cheeks stuffed. Sergius only smiled. He was glad to have some company.
“How long were you walking through the woods?” asked Sergius.
“I don’t know,” she mumbled, still chewing her last mouthful of food, “Since early last night, so for more than half a day,” replied Prudence.
“You need to be careful. You were nearly to the deep wood, and it’s not safe there.”
“Not safe?” inquired Prudence, swallowing the last of her food, “Even for you?”
“My heritage is less than pure, but there are some who would give into the wild within them. If there was any humanity in them it’s gone now, replaced with darkness. I don’t mingle with the wild ones who live beyond my forest—in the deep wood.”
“You speak so well for a, well… a man who lives in the woods.”
“My mother smuggled me here twenty years ago when I was just a baby,” he said, resting against a tree beside her. “She was worried I would be killed for what I was. We made a home here.” Sergius looked down. “She died not long after. I’ve been alone since.”
“I’m so sorry. I lost my mother too.”
Sergius lowered his head and took the empty plate away from Prudence. “How did your injuries come about?”
Prudence held a hand up to her bruised eye, and rubbed it as if she had forgotten. “My father has a temper.”
Sergius frowned and looked away, fearing that he had been too forward. “If you want to make it back to your village before dark you must leave soon. I can take you to the edge of the woods.”
Prudence nodded and they began walking quietly through the forest, following paths created by the migrations of deer and elk.
“Will you be safe?” asked Sergius. The question was clear, and he didn’t need to motion to her bruises.
Prudence took his hand in her own two and smiled, “Yes, I think I will be. But, would it be alright if I visited?”
Sergius was shocked. He didn’t expect her to want to visit him again—a creature like him.
Misunderstanding his surprise and fumbling her words Prudence revised her request, “I mean, if it’s alright, and just sometimes. If, well, if I need to get away.”
He smiled and nodded, and her eyes beamed brightly.
Prudence flung her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “Thank you for saving me,” she whispered.
Sergius smiled, widening his broad nose, “Of course.”
Prudence curtsied, and continued off into the field. She was still several hours from her home just beyond the mountains. He didn’t want to leave her alone for the trek, but he dared not leave the safety of the forest.
He returned to his small meadow and laid among the clovers. He had made his first friend.
She returned several days later and brought Sergius a book entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. Sergius liked a character named Ignorance the most. The character, like him, was young and didn’t know much about the outside world. Ignorance wasn’t able to get into heaven in the story, and Sergius wondered if he wouldn’t be able to either. He wondered if heaven would even take him.
He could read, a bit, and was more than happy to let Prudence help him learn more. She sat near the edge of the water and read to him, and he closed his eyes and imagined the cities and towns that existed in her stories. His mind wandered, and he dreamt of what it was like to be human—all human.
From then on she visited him once a week, sometimes twice. His freedom from worldly problems excited her, and she desperately wanted to escape from hers; to live in the wild with him. But she worried about her sisters, and how they would fare without her, and in the end always returned to her village.
Prudence became accustomed to the forest, and the animals that lived there, and they grew fond of her. Many times Sergius would find her sitting by the water cradling one of the many young fawns as the older deer grazed nearby. Her attachment became apparent when she found one of the young bucks dead not far from Sergius’s meadow.
“What could have done this?” asked Prudence. “Are there wolves?”
“No,” replied Sergius. “There are things in the deep wood, and they sometimes venture out, but they will not bother us here.”
She asked him about the deep wood more than once, but he always managed to avoid answering her.
He often thought of the shadowy region beyond his home where the trees were thick and light was shunned. It was a place that always made him uneasy, not because it frightened him, but because it excited him—a part of him at least. The sanctuary of his meadow was all he had to retain his humanity, and the wild part of his nature beckoned him to give in to the wild. But he was strong enough to resist it—he hoped.
The topic of her father only came up once. She told Sergius that he was the Judge of a puritan hamlet on the other side of the mountains. He was a cruel stocky man, and when she could, she would take the brunt of his anger to keep her sisters safe. She was the eldest, and she saw it as her duty to protect them. Talking about it upset her, and Sergius never mentioned it again.
Fall had arrived, and Sergius waited for her at their usual place, but she didn’t appear. Weeks passed and he watched the leaves turn a deep red then fall from their branches. He continued to make the short trek to the edge of the forest every few days anyway, in hopes she would arrive.
It was nearly winter when Prudence finally appeared. She was wrapped in a thick wool scarf. Sergius was overjoyed to see her, and his hands held the last book she had lent him, excited to discuss it with her. But he paused, and his eyes widened as the smile dropped from his face.
Her face was bruised again. She was limping, and he suspected that her injuries might be more severe. Her pace slowed, and she stumbled.
Sergius bounded out from the cover of the trees into the field and caught Prudence before she hit the ground. She was deathly cold and shivering. He lifted her in his arms and carried her back to his cottage, taking special care not to reinjure her.
“It’s bad,” said Prudence, now wrapped in a blanket and holding a cup of hot tea prepared by Sergius. “My father knew I’d been visiting you. He’s been watching me.”
Sergius listened, but had trouble looking at the deep black and yellow bruises that covered her face. She was bundled up tightly from the chill, but he could imagine the extent of it across her small frame.
“Father says I’m never to come back here,” said Prudence. “You saved me, Sergius, you saved me more than you know. When I collapsed in the forest that day, the day you saved me, I never planned on returning. I had enough, he broke me, and I wandered into the forest to die. I would stay here, with you, but I can’t. I can’t leave my sisters to him. If I’m not there, then I… I don’t know what he’ll do to them.”
“I understand,” said Sergius, trying to comfort her. It was half true. He understood responsibility, and dealing with the reality of the life you’re given. He lived with it every day. But he knew there was something she wasn’t telling him. It broke his heart, the only piece of him that he knew was entirely human.
When she recovered she stood up and looked towards Sergius, waiting for him to speak.
The words came slow. “Take care, Prudence. I hope you’ll remember me.” He rubbed his thumb on her cheek and couldn’t help but look down, “I hope that one day we will see each other again.”
“We will,” she said teary-eyed. “I love you.”
She kissed him softly on the nose. They embraced, and had trouble letting go.
Sergius escorted her back to the clearing. As she walked away he tilted his head and watched her go. He had tried to do good, but always had the feeling that his life was unfair, that his life asked too much of him. But now he knew that everyone faces their own challenges, and that there was a young girl who had more strength in her than he ever could.
Sergius returned to the warmth of his cottage. He thought about Prudence, and her sisters, and her father, and her people for the rest of the day and into the night. How strange it must be to live among people. The forest was his home. His friends were the birds, and their songs gave him comfort, but at that moment he noticed that their singing was strangely absent. Excited, he shot up; she has returned!
Sergius erupted from his home and sped towards their meeting place, but where he expected to see Prudence he instead saw five strange men, each one armed with a musket.
“There it is! Fire!” shouted the front man.
A storm of musket balls whistled by Sergius, releasing a cloud of sulfur-smelling smoke. With extraordinary speed he dodged the shrapnel, dipped low to the ground, and pushed off with his hands and feet sending him soaring into the posse of men. Instincts had taken over.
He landed hard on the man who had shouted, his collar bone snapping under the pressure, leaving him convulsing in shock. Springing back up Sergius landed a hoof onto the face of another, smashing his jaw. Grabbing the next by the throat, Sergius lifted him up and slammed him into one of the other men. He lunged at the last man before he could finish reloading his weapon. It had all taken place in a breath.
The helpless man was pinned against the cold earth. Sergius leaned in, his eyes burning like fire. Long, spiraling horns sank down and framed the sides of the filthy, yellow-toothed man’s face.
“Where is she?” said Segius flatly, his soft voice replace with something feral.
“The witch? We know she’s been fornicating with the beasts in the woods, and now she’s got a devil in her belly! She’s got a date with the gallows—a fitting end for what she is!”
Shock washed over Sergius, and the fire in his eyes extinguished. He had to save her. Leaving the injured men, he raced towards the village. What had taken Prudence hours he could cover in minutes. The terrain was unfamiliar, but as he approached he could see smoke rising in the distance.
It was a quaint puritan town. Smaller than what he expected. In the center was a square surrounded by a ring of buildings and sprawling farmland.
Bounding over the heads of two armed guards just outside the town, Sergius landed on the edge of a fence then pushed off hard and leapt onto the roof of a church. He crept along the edge and looked down on the townspeople gathered in the square. They were surrounding a wooden platform beside an enormous fire.
On the platform was a girl, a rope hung loosely from her neck.
She looked up at him—it was Prudence. She smiled. A squat man in black robes pulled a lever and she dropped through a trap door in the platform, snapping back and hanging limply from the rope. Sergius, his exhausted body steaming in the cold air, let out a savage cry.
With one enormous leap he soared above the heads of the gathered crowd, and landed in the center of them with enough force to shake the ground.
There were at least a hundred, watching him, speechless. Their eyes wide in their gaunt, grey faces. If they did indeed have anyone among them that posed a threat to him he had already dispatched them in the woods. He looked towards Prudence, hanging limply from a wooden beam, silhouetted in front of the bonfire behind her, and raced towards her.
The townspeople instinctively moved out of his way. With one pull of the rope he tore down the scaffolding, sending splintered wood crashing to the ground. He held her and rubbed his thumb on her cheek. She bore new injuries, and her skin was cold. She was dead.
Holding the small, fragile body in his arms he stared up at the onlookers. They remained still, immobile from shock, or fear, or both. Only one dared look back—the squat man in black robes who had killed her, the Judge. His black robes and pompous sneer betrayed him. Sergius locked eyes with him, and the portly man, realizing the danger he was in, turned around and fled.
His short arms flailed wildly as he ran up a hill to a large house overlooking the square. Sergius put his hand to Prudence’s stomach. Poor, sweet Prudence, he thought, what has he done to you? Anger like he had never felt boiled up inside him. His fury absolute, he leapt into the air and covered the distance to the Judge in moments.
The Judge, in a panic, slammed the thick oak door of his home behind him for some respite from the furious beast. The door proved insufficient and Sergius burst through, knocking the heavy door from its hinges. Still drunk with anger, he seized the Judge by the throat. Using his momentum, he lifted the Judge across the room, knocking away bookshelves and tables, and pinned him against the back wall. Sergius’s fingers squeezed tightly around his throat, the Judge’s feet dangled uselessly above the floor. Sergius let loose a blood-curdling roar.
The familiar sound of a girl quietly weeping forced Sergius to calm and he looked over. There were three young girls there, huddled together. They were scared of Sergius, and weeping over the loss of their sister. He noticed the bruises he saw on Prudence mirrored on them. If the Judge wasn’t stopped he would break them like he broke Prudence.
Sergius leaned in close to the Judge, “My entire life I had always thought that I was the monster.”
They would finally be safe. It was his gift to Prudence. Turning around he dragged the Judge out of his home and into the town square by the collar of his robe.
“Help me! Kill him! He’s a devil! Kill him!” cried the Judge, but not a single person from the crowd dared take a step.
Sergius’s grip tightened as he dragged the Judge through the muck in front of the terrified villagers.
The Judge struggled, his robes nearly choking him. “Fine, I confess! I did it, I did it. Have mercy on me! The child was mine! Leave me to pay for my sins!” shouted the Judge.
The townspeople stirred. The revelation came as less of a shock than they would have wanted to admit to themselves. Slowly, one by one, their faces solemn, the crowd divided—allowing Sergius and his captive to pass.
The Judge continued crying for help long after they left the town, but Sergius ignored him. His clothes were torn and covered in muck by the time they reached the woods, and still he cried for mercy.
He dragged him back to his glen and then deeper, to where the darker, wilder things lived. Tearing a long strip of cloth off of the Judge’s robes, Sergius tied him to a tree.
The Judge, now bound and broken, looked up at Sergius. “She sealed her own fate when she loved you more than me. Now what? You’ll kill me? Become the murderous monster we all knew you were?”
He leaned down and looked the Judge in the eyes. “If I ever lose my humanity—it will not be to you.”
Sergius turned around, the sight of the Judge repulsive to him, and left him there for the dark things.
“She cried out when I strung her up! She cried out for you!” spat the Judge.
Sergius, in a flat, emotionless voice responded. “I came when she called for me. No one will come for you.”
And as the Judge screamed for help, the dark things took him.