Gulls cried faint and unseen through a heavy morning mist that cast all the world in damp and dripping grey. Distant waves rushed foaming upon the pebbled shore, filling the cool air with scents of salt and brine. Here, where the river widened to meet the sea, the waters mixed in eddying whorls. Ripples lapped the muddy banks. Splashes sounded where fish leaped, or struggled in the nets and traps.
Wigleof led the way from one spot to the next. His little sons followed, lugging the baskets that would soon be filled with this day’s rich catch. They whispered to each other, joking, teasing. They were good boys and dutiful, twins, sturdily built, curly-haired like their mother. He loved them well.
At their home, a small thatch-roofed hut walled in wattle and daub, Wigleof’s sweet-natured wife Aelda would be hard at work, helped by their daughters and tending the baby. Perhaps later, she’d walk to the village by the abbey, to trade smoked fish for milk, eggs and honey.
Or she might send Aeldwyn, their eldest, who greatly admired the nuns — Sister Gehilde most of all — and spoke of joining their order. Wigleof had no objections to this, though he held a private measure of doubt for her reasons. If Aeldwyn thought the life of a nun was nothing but restful prayer, candle-making, clean robes of soft wool and hymn-singing, he suspected she might be in for a surprise.
He chuckled to himself as he hauled up the first wicker-woven fish traps. They were well-full with sleek silver-scaled bodies that flapped and flailed, gulping. The boys chattered eagerly as they opened and loaded the baskets.
Then they hushed, frowning.
“Father,” said Leofric, his tone unusually subdued, “what happened to this one?”
Wigleof looked at what the boy held in his small hands. The fish did not flail, flap or gulp. “That one’s dead,” he said.
“But what happened to it?” Leofwald asked, his tone also subdued.
Expecting to find nothing out of the ordinary, Wigleof took the fish, and frowned himself. An odd oiliness sheened its skin, and its flesh felt strangely warm. He had never pulled a warm fish from the river, or from the sea. Its eyes bulged, yellow-white and murky, rather than shiny black. It might have already been partially stewed.
Upon a closer-yet inspection, he found that its fins and tail were tipped with fine barbs curved like cat’s claws, and in its mouth were not teeth but stringy tendrils. Something about it struck him as altogether loathsome, unnatural, and vile.