Something Haunts the Haunted

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There was once a raddegy house that sat on a hill that shivered with each roll of thunder. The house had sat there, patiently, for three hundred years, but nobody had ever been in or out.

That did not mean that the house was deserted.

The house on the hill was home to three witches. Presently, the youngest shuffled down the steps to the first floor. The stairs groaned at the weight of his tiny feet. His oil lamp illuminated the path; the light shooing spiders and insects out of his way.

Physically, he was a boy of six. In actuality, he had lived much, much longer than that. William Abercrombie wasn’t sure how many years he’d lived—he and his family had been locked up in their house since the day he was born.

He reached the ground floor and checked the grandfather clock opposite the stairs.

“Witching hour,” he whispered. That meant his mother would be in the kitchen.

William entered to find Evangeline Abercrombie knelt over the dining table. Her hands tumbled over each other as she muttered an incantation in a tongue William did not fully understand. He was still learning his spells.

The smell of rotten meat assaulted his nostrils. When his mother finished her incantation the meat burst into flames. The fire sprouted like a finger and tickled his mother’s chin. But it was a nice flame—it did not burn her.

Evangeline blinked out of her trance. “Rejuvenated…” she muttered, to no one in particular.

When she noticed William her eyebrow became a taut bowstring. With nary a word, she swept towards him, her nightgown trailing behind her. “William, honey, whatever are you doing up at this hour?”

William rested the oil lamp on the floor as his mother scooped him up. He took his mother’s braid on his hand, dimly aware that he was playing with it. “It’s daddy. He’s sick.”

Evangeline swallowed audibly. “William, dear, what are you talking about?”

“Daddy’s not well. He’s coughing. He looks older and he—he can’t get out of bed, mommy.”

Her countenance tightened. “Have you done anything since you discovered this, William?”

“I came to you first.”

“Good.”

William gave Evangeline’s braid a sharp tug. She didn’t bat an eye. “What’s wrong?” William asked, “Don’t people get sick?”

Evangeline hugged William tight. She had a mother’s touch. Delicate, protective, and ready to kill the first thing that harmed her son. “William, dear,” she said, “I want you to be brave.”

What’s wrong, mommy?” He twirled her braid in his hands.

Your father hasn’t gotten sick in four hundred years.”

“Mommy, is it bad that daddy’s sick?”

Hush, child,” Evangeline said, “You’ll be in your room in a moment. You need to sleep, darling.”

That’s not what I asked, mommy.”

I know.”

Then why didn’t you answer?”

Because you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Thunder roared. The windowpanes hissed.

Can you make the rain stop, mommy?” William asked.

Yes.”

Will you?”

No.”

Why not?”

Evangeline did not answer. She opened the door to William’s room.  

The boy was greeted by the musty smell of old books She laid him down and tucked him in. “You’re safe now, William,” Evangeline said. She planted a kiss on his forehead. When she stood, her braid slid out of her son’s grasp.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the room for a fraction of a second. “Don’t go,” William whispered.

I must tend to your father,” Evangeline said, “I’ll see you in the morning, love.” William glanced at the floor. Black smoke rose from cracks in the wood. It swallowed her. When the smoke retreated into the floorboards, she was gone.

William glanced at the pile of books his parents had left him. There were books on witchcraft, world history, English, math and practically everything else he could think of. It as all that he knew He stole a glance out the window.

Well, I thought she’d never leave,” a baritone voice said.

William jumped. He turned to see an elderly man making his way towards him with soundless footsteps.

Hewas like a magnet to darkness. The shadows in the room danced to embrace him. They veiled him. “Alone at least, aren’t we, dear William?”

What are you?” William asked said, voice quivering. “Why do you keep coming to me?”

The old man’s laugh was like marble scraping steel. “What I am, you ask. Yet what am I not? I am dead, but I live. I am imprisoned, but freed. I am old, yet younger than you might imagine.”

No.” William said, “No more riddles. I don’t want riddles. What do you want from me?”

“I want to help you,” the old man said, “Oh, don’t look at me like that. You know it’s true. Who told you your father was sick? Did not I?” The darkness shivered with the old man’s laugh.

William blinked to find the man nose to nose with him. His breath was like cobwebs tickling William’s lips. “What would you say if I told you I could make your father healthy again?”

“I’d ask what you wanted in return.”

The old man grinned with unfettered knowledge. He ruffled William’s hair. “You’re clever, boy, you know that? But you asked the wrong question. What you should ask yourself is this: is there anything you wouldn’t do for family?”

Another crack of lightning that illuminated half of the old man’s face. William might’ve seen malevolence etched into his features, but the light was gone so quickly he couldn’t be sure. He trembled under his covers. “What if I say no?”

The old man straightened. With an undertone of glee he said, “Your father dies, of course. You’ll never see him again.” The old man wandered to the window as if he’d forgotten William. He stared off into the distance. He twirled a finger around a yellowed geography book. “William, my dear boy, do you know what happens to witches when they die?”

William’s stomach twisted. His father had told him stories of dead witches. He wasn’t sure of the truth to them. “I’ve been told they rot in Hell. They’re buried alive as maggots eat their flesh. No one hears their screams.”

The old man flashed him a thin-lipped smile. “That barely scratches the surface. Tell me, William, is that what you want for your father?”

No.”

Then let me heal him.” The old man tore his gaze from the window and frowned as if he was mourning. Shadows pranced across his face. “I wish to help you, young man. Don’t send me away. There’s so much good I can do.”

William matched his look with a level stare. “You never answered my first question,” he said.

The old man flinched. “Why—what question did you ask, dear boy?” He tapped his chin. “I seem to have forgotten.”

William furrowed his brow. “Who are you?”

The old man snapped his fingers, “Ah! Yes…that.” He scowled at the notion of revelation. His veil of darkness expanded. The room went dark.

The next crack of lightning did not scare away the shadows. William felt the old man’s icy breath in his ear. “I am a friend,” he said, “I can help you. I can help your father. Your family. All you have to do is agree. I ask again: is there nothing you wouldn’t do for family?”

Get out.”

“As you wish. But your father’s sickness will grow worse. If you ever need me, do not hesitate to call. I seek only to help. Remember that.” The darkness receded and the old man vanished like a snuffed candle.

#

Rivulets of rain raced down David Abercrombie’s window. He heard it all. It was just like his father said when he died all those years ago. When a witch goes, he hears it all. Every last sound left in the world wants to reveal itself to him before he goes. It’s agony and it’s bliss.

He heard the rain hiss on the window. He heard its patter on the roof. Every squeak his bed made sounded like a battle cry his ears. It was enough to drive any mortal mad.

David was not, strictly speaking, mortal.

Evangeline brushed the curtain tapestries out of the way and sat on the side of the bed. For a moment, she could not bear to look at him. She stared at the gilded jewels lining rotted walls. “What’s going on, David?”

You know what’s wrong,” David tried to sit up, but only succeeded in sputtering out a series of coughs. “It’s all coming back. Everything I’ve done. I’m dying, Ev.”

Tears welled in his wife’s eyes. “But why now? Why of all times does it have to be now? You can’t wait a few centuries?”

David locked his fingers between his wife’s. “I can’t control my mortality. My time comes when it comes. It’s like I told you that day long ago. I’ve done dreadful things. Monstrous things. And there will be a price.”

Evangeline sniffed. The smell of their waterlogged house filled her nostrils. “I know,” she whispered. She drummed her fingers on her husband’s hands. “It was going to kill you eventually, I never thought—”

That it would be now?” David finished for her. There was a crack of lightning. The ceiling shook the dust from its boards. “Death comes for everyone. Even witches.”

What about—about him?”

Him?” David said, calmly. “He’s going to go with me. We’re bound, Evangeline.”

Still,” she furrowed her brow, “He doesn’t want to go—he won’t go. Not without a fight.” She shuddered at the thought of him. “Is there no way he can break the bond?”

He’s locked away, my love,” David said. He squeezed her hand. “He will not hurt you. I promise.”

Evangeline leaned in for a quick kiss. When they parted she whispered, “You’re going, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re dying.”

“Yes.”

“Then die knowing I love you.”

“I love you more,” David said, and then sputtered into a coughing frenzy.

Evangeline bit back a smile. “Save your breath, darling.”

I will, I will.” David said. Her smile infected him. He sank back into his bed, sighing as he did so. He must caught the look Evangeline gave him. “You’re worried about him, aren’t you?”

He doesn’t want to die,” Evangeline reiterated, “And what if he gets out?”

Do you trust me?”

What?”

Do you trust me?”

Evangeline looked away. “Yes,” she muttered, “I do.”

Then know that I cast the spell myself. Know that I did what I had to—to keep us safe. I did it for us, my love. For our family.”

I’m not mad at you,” Evangeline said, “I understand. The family comes first.” She stood up and adjusted her nightgown. A roll of thunder shook the house. Dust whisked into her hair.

You’re beautiful, you know.” David croaked.

Thank you,” she said. She swallowed a lump in her throat. Try as she might, she couldn’t get him out of her mind. Something had to be done, but what was she to do? “David,” she said, “Get some rest. I’ll see you in the morning.”

He was already snoring.

Evangeline down the steps. She muttered an incantation under her breath and a flame sprouted in her palm. The fire tingled her cold fingers. Shadows flailed as she glided down the stairs. The fire’s light pulsed. It grew brighter, then dimmer every other second. I need to see the basement, she thought. I need to know he hasn’t escaped.

You really think I’m not down there?”

Evangeline knew that voice. His voice. The one wreathed in darkness. The shadows loved him. They always had “How many years have you kept me locked up? You think I’ll get out now? Just because my jailer grows weak?”

What do you want?” she asked.

You have the nerve to ask that?” the old man moved quicker than the eye could see. His footsteps were breathless as he swirled across the floor. “I want to make a deal with you, my love.”

Don’t call me that,” Evangeline snapped. She shivered. She would not face him. She would not let him know she was afraid.

As you wish,” the old man said. The shadows smiled with him. “As I was saying,” he put his hands on her shoulders. They felt like dust. “I’d like to make a deal. I’ll heal your husband, and he will release me. How long has it been since I’ve seen the outside world? Have you ever stopped to count the days? I have.”

If I free you, what’s to stop you from going after my family?”

Nothing,” the old man laughed, “And that’s really all this is about, isn’t it? Family. That’s how all this started, isn’t it? For the sake of the child. Your words, I believe. And now you have a choice: let your husband die, or free me. Break the bond, and he lives.”

Evangeline whirled around and advanced on the old man. Rage tinged her voice. “David spent his life keeping you locked away. Do you take me for a fool, old man? I will not let his life’s work dwindle down to nothing. Do you hear me?”

A voice sounded from the stairs. “Mommy. Who are you talking to?”

William leaning against the railing. It creaked under his weight. When she looked back, the old man was gone. “No one, honey. Go to bed.”

But—”

Go to bed!

William dashed up the stairs.

Evangeline fell to her knees. Her sobs came in rapid succession. They gave her little time to breathe. She had the chance to save her husband’s life. Why wouldn’t she take it?

She had to see the basement.

She rose to her feet and muttered the same incantation that brought the fire before. It jumped into her hands. Her shadow pointed like a needle behind her.

She needed the light. He would be powerful in darkness. She couldn’t have that. Hundreds of years alone with only hate to keep him company would make him a dangerous foe, darkness or no. She had to take away any advantage.

Evangeline said the words she had haunted her mind for four hundred years. The door that had been sealed since William’s birth let out a shriek as it opened.

She felt her hairs dance on the back of her neck. She hadn’t seen the vault in centuries. It stood implacable at the end of the hall.

Only this time there was no one to shout agonized pleas for mercy as she and David bolted the doors shut.

Her flames chased off the darkness. His darkness.

And she saw him.

He laid in a ball, his head parallel to the ground. His hair was straw. By the look of it most had been torn out by the root. He was naked. The tips of his fingers were red—the old fool had scratched so hard to get out he tore away layers of skin. The outline of his spine nearly protruded from his body. His skin hugged it tight.  He let out a shuddering breath and laughed.

It was a hollow laugh. Empty. He wheezed his way back into silence, placed his palms on the ground and took a deep breath.

Then he spoke.

“You know….I’ve always wondered why those flames of yours only burn what you want them to.” He did not deign to look at her.

“They obey my will.”

“Spoken like a true politician.” She could feel him smirking. “You know that’s why I’ve never liked magic. You can’t question it—it is magic, after all.”

“There are rules—”

That—you—broke!” He reared up to face her. He was gap toothed and bits of his tongue were missing. Scars spiderwebbed across his face from where he scratched at it. Evangeline almost felt sorry for him. All he’d had was hatred and his twisted self-penance.

“You had a hand in that,” she said, “Your actions were not without consequence.”

“Then tell me why you were the ones dealing out punishment with impunity, hm? Who decides who gets punished for breaking those rules?”

Evangeline did not speak. She had no answer.

“Why have you come?” He asked.

“I needed to be sure,” Evangeline said. “I needed to be positive William is safe.”

He grinned at that. “Safe…heh….he’s far from safe.” As an afterthought, he added, “He wants his daddy back, you know. I don’t know how far he’ll go, but who’s to say what he’ll do? What deals he might make.”

Evangeline almost let her worry show. She forced it back at the last second. “He would never—”

“What makes you so sure?” He smiled, exposing black gums. “He’s a child, Ev. A child who never learned who I am. What I did. He’s a kid who will do anything to save his family. After all, family is everything.”

Anxiety wrote lines across Evangeline’s face. She had to get back to William.

She rushed out the vault.

He shouted back to her. “That’s right. Run! Ru—” His words were drowned when she sealed the vault.

Evangeline raced up the steps. Her throat was raw from dehydration. Clouds of dust exploded in her wake. A splinter stuck her bare foot. She winced, but did not falter. She rushed onward ignoring the flecks of blood sprinkling the steps.

She opened the door to meet blackness. She said the words, and her fire came to her. But the darkness was persistent. It begged for more time to stay. “Why do you do this, Ev?” the old man’s voice echoed through the darkness. “You always have your little fires, don’t you? Always chasing away my darkness. Why is that? Are you scared of a man’s mere spirit?”

“It reminds me of you.”

A scoff echoed through the veil. “You wound me, Ev. But you have forgotten something—light doesn’t drive off darkness. It only scatters it.”

Evangeline pursed her lips. “Does it, now?” She repeated the words, and the flames burned brighter—brighter—and brighter still, until at last the room was illuminated. The fire’s fingers touched the immediate area. Her shadow was tall behind her.

She almost missed it peel itself off the floor.

Evangeline’s shadow towered over her, dancing and stretching. It sank back to her normal height. Her shadow touched Evangeline’s cheek like a breeze in autumn.

Then it attacked.

Her shadow pounced on her. Cold fingers clasped around her throat. Evangeline threw fire at it. All it did was disproportion her foe.

Her heart hammered at her chest. She arched her back and tried to breathe. She could hear the old man laughing, his voice like a dying echo.

Evangeline tried to say the words—tried to quench the flames, but words eluded her. Her mind raced with a thousand thoughts a second. She could try a different attack, but if she couldn’t say the words, it would drain her.

What choice did she have?

Her fingers raked the floorboards for the nearest shadow—that of a vase on top of a rickety table.

She could have sworn her shadow was smiling.

The vase’s shadow was within her grasp. The words tumbled over each other in her mind. If she could not speak them aloud, she would have to will the spell into being with her mind.

She thought the words again. Again. Again.

With one final haul she tore the vase’s shadow off the floorboard and struck her shadow with it. The vase splintered into shards of darkness. Her shadow sprawled to the floor.

She couldn’t give it time to recover. She said the words and her fire swept away. Her breaths quivered. For a time, she sat on all fours.

He would not rest, would he? Something had to be done.

#

William was not entirely sure what he was doing. He was only obeying the old man. He was just trying to keep the family safe. The old man floated overhead like a shadowy cloud following him. Lightning illuminated the house for half a second. William glanced at the old man. “Why are you scowling?”

“What?”

“You’re scowling. Why?”

The old man was silent for a time. Was it his imagination, or did the darkness shift accordingly to mask the old man’s face? “I don’t like the light,” the old man said. “It gives me…less to work with. But that needn’t concern you. Go to your father, William. He wants to speak with you.”

William shied away from entering. “Are you sure about this?”

“Do you want your father to rot in Hell, William?”

“No.”

“That’s right. You love you father, don’t you? You’d do anything to save him, right?”

“Right.”

“Then let’s go. Quickly, now, while there’s still time.”

“Why do you need my help?” William asked, “What relevance have I to you?”

“Your father must agree to be healed of his own accord, dear William. I cannot persuade him.”

“Will he see you?”

“His mind may need some…persuading,” his tongue lingered on the word. “But no. He will not see me.”

William shuffled along in semi-darkness. His father’s door loomed over him. He reached for the handle, tarnished with rust. The door creaked open, alerting David Abercrombie to his son’s presence. “You must do exactly as I tell you, William,” the old man whispered.

With a thought, candles in the room went out. William did not hear his father’s protest, for the old man commanded his attention. “Go tell your father you love him.”

William meandered to his father’s side. He smiled. “I love you, Daddy.”

“William—” David moaned, “Is that you? Light a candle, would you?”

The old man rested his hands on William’s shoulders. “Notice—he didn’t tell you he loves you.”

“Don’t you love me, daddy?”

“What? Of course I do, William. Please, light a candle. I want to see.”

The old man swirled around William as if he were a mist. “Do not listen to him, William. We need darkness if I am to heal him.”

“Daddy, I’m going to make you better,” William said. “My friend is going to help you.”

David’s eyes had lit up. “Your friend, William?” David said, “What is your friend going to do?”

“He’s going to heal you, Daddy. I don’t want you to die, and neither does he. He says he can help.”

“What’s his name?”

“He calls himself John Hale.”

“William, listen to me. You need to get out of here. Now.” David forced himself to sit up, coughing vehemently with the effort. “But, Daddy,” William said, “We’re going to make you better. We’re going to help you. Do you want to die?”

“William, I—”

“The truth, now,” the old man said.

“The truth, now,” William said.

“William…I…I don’t want to leave you, but—”

The old man beamed. “That’ll work,” he said.

He stepped forward. The candles reignited. The darkness peeled off his flesh. “Hello, Mister Proctor,” the old man said, “I see you’ve taken up a new name. It’s been a long time, my friend. Too long.” A wrinkled hand clasped David’s forehead. A white light glittered between his fingers.

“No—no—!” David cried. “Ev. Evangeline!”   

#

Evangeline curled into a ball on the floor. She had not said the words when she attacked that shadow. It had drained her. She could feel blood in the back of her throat. She struggled to recuperate.

Evangeline!” It was David’s voice. Coming from the bedroom. If she was too late—

No. She couldn’t think of the consequences.

Evangeline dashed up the steps. David’s room was not far away—she just had to come without alerting the old man.

Sweat caked her forehead. She blinked it out of her eyes. The boom of thunder loomed in the distance. She had to get to David.

She thrust the door open to see him—the old man, holding a leathery hand to David’s face. A strange light glowed beneath it. David’s face changed. His wrinkles scurried off. Gray hair gave way to its natural blond.

Evangeline did not stop to think about what was the best course of action. She said the words. A beam of light rocketed from her outstretched hand and struck the old man. He stumbled backward and crashed into the opposite wall. The windows cracked. Shattered glass rained down. Lightning flashed. And the old man whimpered. For a moment, all was silent.

Evangeline noticed William’s presence. He stood in a corner. If he knew the words, he would have made himself sink into the wall. Evangeline knelt to be at eye level with her son. “William, I want you to run. Get out of here, before he recuperates.”

“I don’t want daddy to die.”

“He won’t,” she lied.

William nodded and started for the door.

Then the old man’s eyes snapped open. He said the words and the door slammed shut.

The old man laughed his empty laugh.

“It’s…not…over…yet.” He said, “I haven’t finished healing him.”

“You’ve done enough.” David said. The witch stood tall. He towered over the old man. Wind flitted through the window. “I’m dying, old friend,” he said. “And it is your fault.”

“David, David, I—” the old man began.

“I will not have your excuses. I am dying because of what I did to you. I could not keep you at bay.

“You broke the rules—”

“I know what I did! And I accept the consequences. Unlike you. Now….” He raised a palm to the old man’s face, deaf to his pleas for mercy. “I want you out of my house.”

He said the words, speaking as if what he was doing was a simple occurrence; nothing more. Light tingled in the essence of his skin. It danced toward the old man until it enraptured him. There was a final shriek, and the old man vanished.

David turned to his family. Already his wrinkles were crawling back onto his visage. “He’s gone.” he said.

“For how long?” William asked. “That wasn’t his true form, was it?”

“No.” David said, “It was not.”

“Then I know what I must do,” Evangeline said. David turned in time to see bands of argent swirling in his wife’s palms.

By the time he realized she’d conjured a dagger she’d already stabbed him.

He coughed up blood. When it was done, the dagger turned to wisps in Evangeline’s hands.

David’s face slackened. He managed a faint smiled and a nod.

He collapsed.

William looked at his mother standing over the corpse. His face was a sheet of paper. He said nothing.

“Come with me,” Evangeline said.

#

“Your father and the old man were linked,” Evangeline said. She opened the vault and light rushed out to greet her. The old man lay sprawled on the floor. A pool of blood circled his abdomen. “We kept him down here for four hundred years.”

For a time, William said nothing. “He called himself John Hale.”

Evangeline’s mouth twisted, as if considering the notion. “Yes,” she said. “He went by that name, once. He was a witch who hunted witches. Strictly against our code.” She meandered through the vault. She never stopped to examine the old man’s body. She glanced at William, who stood in the doorway. “What your father did was worse.

“He and I were convicted of Witchcraft, you see. The problem was—your father and Hale were good friends, so he staged a fake execution to grant us freedom. Your father didn’t like that. He called Hale a traitor. That he would save the two of us yet condemn all others….” her voice trailed off. “It sickened him.”

Evangeline glanced at the body for the first time, as if trying to discern whether what remained matched that description.

William thought he looked more pathetic than anything.

“Hale fought your father,” she continued, “He told him there was nothing he could do. ‘Witches cannot harm other witches,’ he said. That, too, was against the our code. But Hale had already broken it. Your father was not that type of man. He refused to break the code.

“So he bonded himself to Hale. His life was Hale’s life. His sickness was Hale’s sickness—his health, Hale’s health. He bonded himself and refused to use magic for four hundred years. Here Hale remained.” Evangeline gestured to the body on the floor, already paling in color. “Until your father grew sick.

“It was the bonding that killed him, in the end. To maintain such magic for so long—I’m surprised he lasted so many years.” She did not sound particularly grateful. “I had to kill him, love. I couldn’t let Hale come after you.”

“No,” William said, “You didn’t.”

“William,” Evangeline said, “Don’t you see—we did this for you. To protect you. This was all for our family.” Her eyes pleaded with him.

“You go too far, mother,” William said, implacable. “There had to be other ways.”

“There weren’t.”

“And you and daddy? Why weren’t you two punished? You broke that code just like he did.” William gestured to the corpse.

“Our cause was just.”

“But who is to say which cause was the better?” William rebuked, “You did this to him with impunity.” He backed away. “Maybe I’ll be punished, too, one day.”

He said the words. The vault closed behind him.

William ascended the steps. He paid no heed to his mother’s cries. She had earned her place. She killed his father—she helped lock up that man Hale.

Her cries were distant by the time he reached the top of the stairs. He couldn’t tell if she was sobbing or fuming.

He didn’t care.

He said the words he had been practicing for so long. The words he had read in books upon books his parents had left in his room. The ones he read every night.

The locks to the front door unlatched, and William opened the door and touched the grass for the first time in his life.

His mother’s cries were silent now. He had almost forgotten her. He had never seen such wonder.

The storm had passed, giving way to clear blue skies and warmth he had never felt before. It was not like the fire he was so used to. It felt more…natural. The grass was soft beneath his feet and mud squished between his toes. He looked down at the hill overlooking the town. Each house was almost as rickety as his own. He wondered if anyone lived down there.

“Now where was I?” William muttered to himself. He took one step. Then another. And another, until the house on the hill was nowhere in sight.

“Ah, yes. The world.”

 

 

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In Sight of Ravens – An Epic Poem

In Sight of Ravens (2)

The man trailed through the black burn of a forest,

The girl with fire in her veins scampered behind him.

As the black tower rose in the west with windows glowing red as forge fires.

 

“We’ll rest here for the night,” said the man.

“Is there nowhere safer?”

“Nothing is safe,” said the man. “Not here.”

 

The man woke at the first light, expecting birdsong

In the moments of waking, he forgot where he was.

But the birds did not come when they sky was all ash.

 

He crouched over the girl

The first signs of light dawning on the horizon,

The man tugged at her blanket.

A quick, sharp pull to test her reflexes.

The girl had taken to sleeping with her short sword by her side.

In the beginning, she was slow to hone her defenses

She would fumble to retrieve the blade from its sheath.

But this was not the beginning.

 

The point of the blade at the man throat

Before he’d a chance to sit back on his heels.

The girl’s eyes glowed with the fire in her veins

Held at bay by her will

But she swallowed the fire out of the waking world

And the glow sank below the surface.

Recognition came and she lowered her sword. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be,” said the man. “You’re learning.”

 

That night, the man found a rock that speared the apex of a hill,

Filling its descent in shadow. He urged the girl under the stone’s shelter

Then followed after

When the rain cleared they opened their bedrolls

He made a paste of nuts and acorns for the girl, crushed between two rocks.

When she’d finished her supper, the girl climbed into her bedroll

Sleeping, teeth chattering.

But the man couldn’t sleep, so he gave her his cloak

She didn’t shake as much, then.

The man thought he saw the girl hugging her sword to her chest.

But the dark was a shroud about them.

He wondered how it could be that there were some in the Enemy’s lands who liked the dark.

But those who like the dark weren’t fond of them. 

 

The next day they came upon a hill with a steep climb

A hill that was half a mountain

The girl followed, making breathless

A child’s imitation of war.

 

“Fwsh, fwsh” she would mutter before lying flat against the slope:

An imitation of arrow flights.

She hissed her words, shouting pretend orders to pretend soldiers.

The two climbed over the hill to find a cobblestone road.

He’d let her have her fantasies

Soon war would come to her

And she was not like to play pretend then

 

They traveled down the cobbled road

The man had smelled it before he saw it. It was a stink he knew all-too well.

They halted when they spied a tavern where the road crossed two ways.

The girl sniffed the air, wrinkled her nose. “What is that this foul smell?

“You’re not going to like it.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“You don’t want to know.”

Scorch marks had clawed their way up the side of the tavern.

The roof had caved in, and the black burn was strong.

But the tavern did not hold his attention for long.

 

They littered the ground—the burned and black figures, sprawled on the ground

Limp as discarded tunics.

They stood there and studied it.

“What are those gray men?” the girl asked.

She did not look away.

 

“They’re statues,” the man lied. “I’ll look inside.”

“I don’t want you to,” said the girl.

“There might supplies. We could—”

No!” The girl said. The fire flared beneath her eyes.

“Okay,” the man said. “Let’s move on.”

 

Those bodies were only the first of many.

Some were bloated and burned in crow-cages

Where their namesake were pecking at their flesh and their eyes.

Others hung by a length of hempen rope,

Their bodies gray and their mouths slack.

The flies would settle on their face, only to lift into a black cloud

When the two approached.

 

The corpses of men scabbed the road; dried to leather.

The man wondered if they should return if they ran out of food.

Strips of dried meat were easy to ration.

But he did not let the thought linger for long.

 

But as they progressed down the road he found patches of cloth

Clusters of dead spiders within.

He knew what that meant. The clicks, the insects.

They were coming

The Swarm was coming

“You are not to wander off, understand?”

The girl nodded.

 

The road ended, abruptly,

Leading to a valley below, and in its center:

A mockery of a holdfast

With stones that poked out at odd angles,

Hastily built by the Enemy

The man checked the crenellations along the battlements for anyone inside.

There was a flash of movement, browning cloth fluttering behind.

He dragged the girl roughly out of sight

Her protests died on her lips

As something emerged from the shoddy stone structure.

It was a bandaged form almost resembling a man,

Save for the lumps crawling across whatever lay inside

The linen that covered its form like a burial shroud

“What was that?” the girl asked. “A corpse?”

“Swarm,” the man told her.

“What are Swarm?”

“Creatures enchanted by dark magic. Watch.”

There was movement again in the holdfast.

The man watched one of the Swarm exiting the holdfast.

In a small hole where its eyes should be, the spider poked through the bandages

And scuttled across the bandaged skull,

Only to squirm back inside another linen opening.

More poked out all over its body, only to duck back in.

 

The girl squeezed the man’s fingers until they went white. “How does it stay together?”

“I don’t know,” the man said. “Those bandages give it concrete form, I’d venture.

“I’ll not pretend to know the workings of the Enemy.”

“How do we stop them?”

“It might be time to use that fire,” the man said.

“If there’s one in that holdfast, there’ll be many.

“Swarm don’t travel alone.”

“They’re not hurting anyone,” the girl protested.

“It’s going to hurt us if you don’t do something about it.”

“If I use the fire it’ll die.”

“That’s the idea.”

“I don’t want to kill things.”

The man set his jaw. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

 

The man had told her to stay where she was atop the hill.

Stay and watch.

He hoped she listened.

He couldn’t chance to look over his shoulder to be sure.

He was already quickly approaching the holdfast.

Two Swarm were outside the hastily-built watchtower

Talking in clicks and screeches.

With bandaged hands clutched at spears.

 

The man drew his longsword at cut one at the neck

And it crumpled into rags and spiders.

Then there were screeches.

Or as near as the Swarm could manage:

A loud, long, clickickickickick.

Two more came out of the holdfast

And the windows on the spires

There were dozens descended the steps.

 

He cut the next upon the belly

And it spewed a spray of unraveling and spiders.

By that time one had fallen,

There was another who had circled the watchtower,

A spear at the ready

And a spider crawling across the back of its hand

Only to disappear in the strip of cloth around its wrist.

The man pivoted away as the spearhead flew past the bridge of his nose,

And then opened its belly as he pivoted back.

But he’d not time for respite.

More were coming from all sides with axes and swords at the ready.

He gave ground until found his back to the wall as the Swarm were converging on him.

Some running, others scuttling on all fours,

And more were crawling down the wall, all browning rags and scurrying spiders.

But then both spider and linen burst into flames and they hit the ground like sacks of flour.

The man did not stay to watch the rest of them die.

Instead he stepped over the pile of burning rags and spiders

Then trudged back into up the hill to fetch the girl.

The girl glowed as the fire within her came pouring to the surface.

Rivulets of tears raced down her cheeks,

Where they dried and steamed.

“I didn’t want to kill them. I don’t want to be a murderer.”

“You don’t have a choice.”

The glow faded

He hugged her.

She was hot to the touch, but he didn’t let go.

 

Under the Moon and In Sight of Crows

Edible Arrangements of Arsenic (1)

TO Ragnild, Queen of Untherland,

FROM Darza, your lover and servant–under the moon and in sight of crows,

 

I do not wish to bore you with long digressions of the raids I’ve been conducting here in northern Untherland. Rather, I would ask how you fare. Up north, I seem the only person unaffected by the sickness that’s passing through my camp. Perhaps it is due to my time spent here as your envoy to my Uncle Thorgal in years past. It matters little. The camp reeks of vomit all the same. And your brother’s men harry us while our defenses are weakened.

I call him Uncle, you call him brother, we call him enemy, others call him King. Thorgal has collected so many names that I wonder if he can still remember his own. But I swear to you he’ll not impose his false claim as King. He’ll be put down like the rabid dog he is.

But as I’ve said, I’ll not bore you with such digressions.

You’ve sent me many letters over the past few months. Doubtless I should return the favor. So what to write about? The weather? Well the weather’s fucking wet, and it’s all anyone talks about when they’re not retching, or bitching about the retching. Now coupled with this sickness, the rains have produce a field of small lakes dribbled with retching, or loose bowels.

The mud is polite as a Lady, at least. It curtsies right off my boots so I don’t have to clean it. Though the rain makes it difficult to re-read your letters when I find myself alone and lonely at night.

I can’t say I have much time for loneliness during the day, though. That’s when the fighting happens. That’s when arrows and spears break upon my shield, when I dodge blows that cut might my arm or life from me. That’s when men on all sides scream for help as they lie in the grass and dirt with broken lances and cloven helms, or heads.

I enjoy seeing Uncle’s holdfasts fall and timbered towers burn. I love seeing Uncle panicked, trying to rally his forces—would that he wore a cooking pot upon his head. Mayhaps that would lend him a little more authority.

All the same, I’m far from home, swaddled in an old, damp cloak. The other day I sailed past forests decorated with hanged men and women swaying in the wind. But the weather had been to work on their sigils. Who’s to say whose side they were on?

And by the Nailed God, but I am hungry—that might be the worst of these misfortunes. It’s the quiet discomfort that hurts the most. You don’t see it coming, and then it twists your guts while you’re trying to concentrate on important matters.

I’ve dreamed of roasted duck and honeyed chicken almost as much as I’ve dreamed of you. My comfort comes in the letters you send me. I would read them again were it not for the fucking rainshower that never seems to stop.

I have, however been keeping them on my person at all times It’s a comfort to touch them. Your script is a comfort, for I can imagine how your fingers danced to make it so beautiful.

I must assure you that you do not send me, “too many worries” in your letters, as you say. You are my Mother. Your worries only serve to rally me. Sometimes it seems I fight more to crush your fears than to crush Uncle Thorgal himself.

Keep writing me, please. Send me more of your worries. Send me your loves and fears and secret little things. It’s good for my morale—and my forces’ in turn.

But it’s just now stopped raining, and I can see the sun through the shade of this tent. I think I shall go outside and reread your letters at last. I’ll be sending a raven your way with this letter. I pray it finds you well.

I will quell this uprising. I swear it under the moon and in sight of crows.

 

Your Sworn Sword, Daughter, and Obedient Servant,

Darza

 

 

The Mongrel and the Murderer #3

Mordred’s knees shook, and he stumbled onto Bedivere, who caught him for support. “Stand up,” the knight said. “Stand—”

Mordred seized Excalibur and ripped it from its scabbard. His hands felt alive again, carrying a blade. He pivoted, bringing the sword up in a swift deadly arc. Steel met steel with a bone-jarring clang. Somehow Bedivere had gotten his own blade out in time. Mordred laughed as his hands vibrated “Very good, mongrel.”

“Give me the sword.”

“I plan to.” He drove at him, the longsword alive in his hands. Bedivere jumped back, parrying, but Mordred followed, pressing the attack. No sooner did he turn one cut than the next was upon the mongrel.

The swords were waves, clashing, only to fall back and clash again. Mordred’s blood was singing. He balanced death on every stroke. And with my wrists chained together, the mongrel may even give me a contest. His chains forced him to use a two-handed grip.

High and low, he rained down steel upon him. Left and right, swinging so hard that sparks flew when the swords came together, upswing and sideslash, always attacking, moving into him. Stepping and striking and moving and slashing faster and faster and faster…

…Until, breathless, he stepped back and let the point of the sword fall to the ground, giving them a moment of respite. “Not half bad,” he acknowledged. “For a mongrel.”

Bedivere took a slow deep breath, watching him warily. “I swore I would not hurt you.”

“As if you could.” He whirled the blade back up above his head and flew at him again, chains rattling. This is my birthright, he thought. This is what I was born to do. Excalibur in my hand, killing traitors.

Mordred could not have said how long he pressed the attack. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours; time slept when swords woke. He drove him into the trees.  Bedivere stumbled once on a root, and he went to one knee before bouncing back to his feet. Fall, damn you!

His sword leapt up to block a downcut that would have opened him from shoulder to groin, and then Bedivere cut back, again and again.

The dance went on. Mordred pinned him against an oak and cursed as he slipped away. Their duel brought them to a brook, half choked with leaves. Their footwork was done on a sodden brown mat. Steel rang, steel sang, steel screamed and scraped. Bedivere had started grunting, tiring, yet somehow Mordred could not reach him. He blocked every blow like an iron cage about him.

“Not bad at all” Mordred again acquiesced.

“For a mongrel?”

“For a squire. A green boy.” He laughed a ragged, breathless laugh. “Come on, come on! The steel’s still ringing. The music’s still playing, and might I have this dance?”

Bedivere’s steel came at him, blade whirling, and suddenly it was Mordred struggling to keep steel from skin. One of his slashes raked across his brow, and blood ran down into his right eye. God’s bloody bones, he thought. Damn him to Hell! His skills had gone to rust and rot in Tintagel, and the chains were no help. His eye closed, his shoulders were going numb from the jarring they’d taken, and his wrists were raw. He knew he was not swinging as quickly as he’d done earlier.

Bedivere forced him back into the brook again, shouting, “Yield! Throw down Excalibur!”

A slick stone turned under Mordred’s foot. As he felt himself falling, he turned mischance into a diving lunge. His point scraped past Bedivere’s parry and bit into his upper thigh. A red flower blossomed. Mordred had but an instant to savor it before his shin slammed into a jagged rock. The pain was white and blinding. Bedivere splashed into him and seized him by his hair. “YIELD!”

Mordred drove his shoulder into Bedivere’s legs, bringing the knight down on top of him. They rolled, kicking and punching until finally the mongrel was sitting astride him.

Mordred managed to get Excalibur overhead, but before he could cleave the knight, Bedivere caught his wrist and slammed his hands on a rock. Again the white pain roared. Excalibur fell from his hands and Bedivere grabbed it.

“No—” Mordred screamed, but Bedivere was already lunging for the rock in the brook that Mordred had slipped on. He drove Excalibur into the stone. Blue flame shot up and danced about it.

Morded lay there, stunned. Before he could collect himself there was a boot rushing down to meet him.

When he awoke, he was bound by the ankles again, and sitting by a fire. He smelled nothing but the iron of his blood, and he tasted copper. His face had been bandaged. He rolled over to see Bedivere poking a fire with a stick. “You didn’t kill me.”

“This is not news to me.”

“Let me free it,” Mordred said. “Let me free it from the stone. I am the true king. I can prove it.”

“No.”

“Let me free it!” Mordred said, struggling against his bonds. “Let me free it.”

“No.” Bedivere rose, and put the fire out. He hauled Mordred by his collar and threw him over his horse like a sack of flour.

“Let me free it. Please.”

“No.” Bedivere swung into his saddle and booted the horse forward. Mordred watched as Excalibur shrank as Bedivere rode downhill and it looked to Mordred as though his birthright was swallowed up by the ground.

“Let me free it…”