The cow loves her farm. She loves her farmer and his wife and her nice warm barn. But something is coming, something that will shake up not just the chickens, but everything she knows…
Once upon a time, in a land far from here, lived a cow. She was, by and large, a happy cow. The grass was green, the water was clean, her master milked her regularly, and her stall was filled with fresh straw every evening when she came in to lie down. She lived a placid and entirely peaceful existence.
But one day, when the afternoon’s eating was done, and the cud was turning like clockwork between her teeth, she saw something that changed not just her life, but the lives of everyone in the world.
She’d just backed into her stall and was, as was her habit, peering over the top of the door to watch her small and perfectly formed world drifting by. The farmer was setting out bales of hay whilst his wife took washing off the line that ran between the house and the barn. Chickens, pesky beastly little things that they were, were pecking the last of their feed off the muddy floor and the sun was making an orderly retreat below the horizon.
A figure appeared in the corner of the cow’s vision and she turned her heavy head to stare more fully at it. It was human shaped and carried itself suitably, but it wasn’t human. She knew long before its cowl was swept back to fall on its shoulders that the face hidden beneath was far from human.
Its skin was the colour of grass turned brown in the sun and its mouth was wide and leering. Tusks thrust up from its lower jaw to flatten its upper lip, but its eyes were what stole her attention. They were yellow, the sort of yellow that comes when the rape ripens in the fields. Set dead centre in them were tiny black pupils that contracted to little more than dots with their exposure to sunlight.
The farmer had seen the creature and was already hustling his wife towards the house. The farmer was scared, though the figure had given him no reason to be so. Maybe there was something out of sight she couldn’t see. The cow heaved against the stall door and craned her neck, but still had only her limited view of the courtyard.
The figure with the bilious skin and evil eyes stomped across the courtyard, entirely ignoring the farmer and his wife. He paused when he reached the chickens that, the cow realised, had stopped dead. They were cowering, pressing their stomachs to the mud and tucking their heads beneath their wings. She had little love for chickens, but there was something so entirely submissive about their postures that made her ache a little.
The creature bent, grabbed one, hauled it in the air and wrung its neck. Then it bit deep into the chicken’s breast. The burst of blood drew a scream from the farmer’s wife and the cow backed into its stall. The creature stood, surrounded by feathers and silence, and ate the chicken, mouthful by mouthful.
As a vegetarian, the cow was only dimly aware that the farmer and his wife ate meat. She knew it happened but, she was glad to say, never in her presence. Watching this thing devour the chicken, one of the inhabitants of the farmyard, made the fur that ran along her spine stand up and the skin beneath it shift and crawl.
When there was little but legs and bones left, the creature tossed the carcass to the ground and reached for the next.
‘That’s enough.’ The farmer advanced, slowly, across the courtyard. ‘We pay our taxes, that’s enough.’ His voice barely shook, which the cow thought was a good sign.
The creature turned to him and, as it did so, the cow caught sight of a wry smile. Not the sort the farmer gave when it began to rain, and definitely not the sort when his wife gave the call for dinner. This was the sort of smile the cow had seen a fox wearing the last time it managed to sneak its way in to the coop.
‘You pay your taxes? Do you think I give a rat’s arse about your taxes?’
‘I can’t pay them if you kill my livestock and your boss won’t be happy when I tell him why.’
The farmer reached the chicken murderer and stood up straight and tall in front of him. The creature extended one bony green finger and poked the farmer in the chest. He remained straight, though he took a step back.
‘You won’t tell my boss anything. If I hear one peep out of you, I’m coming back for her.’ The creature jabbed the same digit over the farmer’s shoulder to where his wife stood in the doorway. She vanished from sight, but both men in the courtyard knew who was being spoken about.
‘You won’t touch her. The Accord makes it clear what happens to your kind if you touch her.’
The creature bristled. ‘I’m hungry.’
‘Then let me give you some bread. But leave my chickens alone.’
There was a silence in the courtyard that reminded the cow of the long breath nature took before a storm began. It was a silence that promised so much and that, even though you knew exactly what was coming, still gave you chills and an expectation that made your stomachs churn.
‘I don’t think I will. Not today. You see, we just got word from the Capital. It seems your king just broke the Accord. And when I say broke, I mean he tore it up and tossed it on the fire. What do you say to that?’
‘I don’t believe you. King Darvin is dedicated to the peace process. He would never jeopardise it.’
‘How about if someone kidnapped and murdered his daughter?’
The farmer went white. He was normally a ruddy, tanned complexion from his hours in the sun, but at that moment, he looked the same colour as the cow’s haunches. ‘I don’t believe you.’
‘I couldn’t give a toss if you believe me. I’m still eating your damned chickens.’ He grabbed the next and, before the farmer could stop him, tore its head off. The cow lowed softly and lowered her head. The world was coming apart. She didn’t understand one word in ten of what was being said between the two, but she knew how shocked the farmer was and she knew the chickens would no longer be pecking around her feet and clucking in that irritating way that made her want to stamp on them.
The farmer grabbed the corpse, for all the good it would do now, and wrenched it from the murderer’s hand. In reply, the creature slammed a clenched fist into the farmer’s face and he dropped to the mud, clutching his nose.
‘Will!’ The farmer’s wife stood in the doorway, covering her mouth with both hands, her eyes wide and white above them. The creature turned her way and, once again, the cow saw the smile. He saw those nasty eyes light up and then the creature stomped across the yard towards the house.
The mistress squealed, but she didn’t leave the doorway. Instead she raised one shaking hand, in which she clutched a cleaver the cow was pleased she’d never seen before. The creature slowed for a moment, before sweeping its cloak to one side. A sword hung at its belt, curved and looking for all the world like something had been nibbling the blade.
The cow pushed her bulk against the door of her shed, but the wood was strong and the bolts stronger. She shoved harder, hearing the barn creak around her, but the door held. The creature reached the bottom of the steps and the cow ‘mooed’ loud, shaking back and forth in her stall.
The farmer’s wife swung the cleaver, but the creature swayed aside then batted it from her hand. The mistress screamed as the creature grabbed her wrists and pinned her against the wall. The cow was so transfixed, she missed the farmer rising from the mud and stumbling towards the house. She missed him grabbing the cleaver. And she missed the look in his eyes that, until a few seconds earlier, she would have sworn could no more appear there than rain fall upwards.
The creature pressed its huge body against that of the farmer’s wife and the cow, with every ounce of muscle she possessed, slammed against her stall door. It burst open and she thundered across the yard. The creature heard her and turned, but it was only in time to see the cleaver whistle straight towards its face. The farmer buried the blade deep, chopping a chunk off its nose before bursting an eyeball and driving it into its brain.
The cow stopped in its tracks as green blood sprayed the farmer and splashed across the floor. He grabbed his wife’s hand and dragged her away from the body as it slid down the wall. The cow ambled closer, unable to take her eyes from the corpse. Then it moved. All three took a step back.
The creature’s eyes fluttered open, glazed and blinking as it peered up at the cow’s master and mistress. ‘The Accord is broken. Your wretched king will be so unhappy with you. Long live the One True State.’ As the words left its mouth, the creature tugged open its cloak. The cow didn’t know what she was looking at, but the farmer seemed transfixed by a bright silver badge pinned at the creature’s throat.
The farmer clutched his wife, holding her tight to him as tears ran down both their faces. The cow wanted to ask what was wrong but she had no words. The creature was dead and they were safe, so what was wrong? The farmer and his wife broke the embrace and started rushing around. The cow heard the words ‘leave now’ but she ignored them the same way her master and mistress were ignoring the body on their porch.
The cow ambled back to her stall and backed in, lowering her head to butt gently at the comforting walls.