In the winter cold I rise
Look the killer in the eyes
Spilling blood I claim my prize
Singing slaying songs.
In the woodlands dark and sere
Where the creatures creep in fear
I will light a fire here
Singing slaying songs.
In an empty castle’s shell
Haunted by the fiends of hell
Axes toll a killing knell
Singing slaying songs
On the ocean’s tide they come
Chests of gold and casks of rum
Think I’ll go and get me some
Singing slaying songs.
Through the city streets I walk
See the demon-shadow stalk
Now his outline’s drawn in chalk
Singing slaying songs
On the land or on the sea
Doesn’t matter much to me
Last thing that you hear will be
My savage slaying song.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
Slaying Songs: A Reaver’s Hymn
All rights reserved
Nothing made my day brighter in high school than when there was a game pending, and the cheerleaders would walk around the school in their outfits, pleasant distractions from the daily drudge of learning. They carried themselves like queens, however, and we males would smile and nod and greet, trying not to ogle, and then wipe the sweat and drool from our faces when they passed. One of them happened to be in my homeroom, and in she walked, strong, shapely legs in a short skirt, and all the bells and whistles in my heart rang with adoration, and not a little lust, but I was tongue-tied around pretty girls, like most nerds.
She was a nerd too, with aspirations of being a writer, so the yearbook said when we graduated, but she was also a cheerleader: popular, pretty, capable of breaking hearts with a dismissive swish of the hand, and I was a tragic figure, secretly in love (and not a little lust) hiding my feelings.
Then, one bright magic morning, in her cheerleader outfit, she approached me, and I felt the stupid grin spreading, willing it to go away, and making it worse. And then she smiled at me! I was, for whatever reason, deemed worthy of her smile.
And then it got better: she spoke to me. If it had been manly to swoon, I would have done so on the spot.
“Alfred, did you do the homework for English class?”
In the midst of controlling my swoon, I thought: Who doesn’t do homework for English class? But I replied that I had.
“Can you let me borrow it; I didn’t get the chance to do it.”
Chivalry, thy name is Alfred. I produced it, and handed it to her, thinking again: We’re both in the honors class; surely she knows how to paraphrase and make it her own.
At lunchtime she gave me back my homework, and later that afternoon, I submitted it to Mr. D. He was my favorite English teacher, a large man with a droll and deadly wit. He wore Van Dyke whiskers, and had the memory of a herd of elephants. I took several elements of style from him in my own career later on, though I never got to tell him.
The following day, he distributed the homework back, and on mine was a bright red ‘D’ with the comment: “Who copied from whom?” He looked at me askance, and said nothing, and I took the paper in a silence of my own, thinking “How did she screw this up?”
Class was taught, and then over, but since he was my favorite teacher and LOVED my writing, encouraging me often to pursue it, even up to the time I graduated, I felt I owed him an apology. Here’s what came out:
“Mr. D, I deserve this grade for what happened, but really? You should know who copied from whom.”
His laughter boomed as he nodded, and said “Okay. That’s what I thought.”
I walked away, restored to myself, the spell of the cheerleader broken forever. Until she signed my yearbook.
Wearing her cheerleader outfit.
A knight set out upon a Quest
The Lion blazon on his chest
To rescue him a maiden fair
From wizard’s cold and darkened lair
“Fair maiden,” cried he, “I have come
to take thee back to thy kingdom.
“We must make haste! ‘Tis dusk I see
and we have many miles to flee!”
The great oak door that barred his way
Did not yield to the axe’s sway
“Fair maiden, do not take a fright.
I think the moon shall rise tonight.”
He swung until his arm was sore
And in due time broke down the door
He burst inside and flushed deep red
For there he saw upon the bed
The maiden and the wizard locked
And both of them complete defrocked
And breathing hard and laughing soft
within the wicked wizard’s loft
She started up. “Get out!” she cried,
“And tell not what you here espied!”
“But maiden…” cried he, sore and vexed
Not seeing she was oversexed
“Get out, you empty armored head
or ‘pon the road they’ll find ye dead.”
And this was what the wizard said
And so the brave knight turned and fled
The knight, his courage gone astray
Vowed he would Quest no more that day
that month, that year, that century!
He still lives with the memory
Of lovely woman’s treachery.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
Quest / Day of the Dark Full Moon (compilation)
December 10th, 1983
All rights reserved
“We’ve got t’leave,” said Orliss.
He spent the rest of the day packing what he needed for the road. Being a hermit, of sorts, there was always a travel bag at the ready.
He opened Meralys’ closet to Jaika; nothing was an exact fit, so she took what felt snug, and left the rest. There were also riding clothes, an unexpected and welcome bonus, so she took those as well.
“We was farmers once, and Meralys loved ‘er horses,” Orliss explained.
“You must tell me more of your life once we’re on the road.”
“I daresay we’ll not have th’ time, missy.”
He still called her ‘missy.’ She’d given up trying to change it. Besides, it could also be her name; no one need know her real name here. As of now, only two men who’d she’d had no intention of meeting, and had stumbled into quite by accident, knew it.
And then she received another startling revelation, from none other than Orliss himself.
“But you must tell me how it came to be that a young woman came to be traveling alone.”
She looked up, surprised, a smile of shocked amusement on her face.
“Your accent’s a ruse,” she said.
He smiled, “You’re quick. A good one, isn’t it?”
“Very much so, but why?”
“Helps me fit in, gain information. When I’m drunk though, it doesn’t seem to be a character. But it was ever my intention to fight back. With you here, that will make it easier.”
“He said we were to be wed. He knew my name, and when he left…I felt…”
“We’ll have to look into all that. Now’s not the time. We need to be gone by nightfall. I’ve a feeling he’ll be back, and he won’t be alone, and he won’t have those dogs.”
She nodded, and couldn’t repress a shudder, which he saw.
She sighed, and composed herself.
He placed a meaty hand on her shoulder. “I know. You’ve been swept up in a series of events that make absolutely no sense to you. I can’t explain how they do. I don’t know why you’re here, or why Dominick is after you, or me, for that matter. He won the war when he killed Meralys, and I was too devastated for thoughts of revenge.
“But I let him take the woman I love from me, and did nothing about it.
“I can’t allow that to happen again, but I can’t promise you it won’t.
“The truth is, the years of dissipation were real, and have taken their toll, but now there’s what’s left, and I have to use it to rid the world of him, and not just for you.
I don’t know the part you play; I’ve read no great books, and there’s no ancient prophecy.
“In fact, we had a somewhat shaky beginning.”
“Yes,” she reddened at the memory. “We did.”
“This is a strange and dark place; you’ve doubtless felt its power. That’s where I’ll need your wood lore; you’re under no obligation to stay, and I can see you to a ship this very afternoon that will give you safe passage, but I’m asking: will you help me?”
“I will help you, Orliss. If it wasn’t for you, I likely would not have survived. He’s attacked me twice, and there’s no denying there’s a bond. I felt it. I have to break it, but I don’t know how, and that’s where I’ll need you.”
“So, partners then?”
His hand was still resting on her shoulder, and she put her own hand over it.
They left the cottage empty and set out for the town to buy horses.
Jaika had to admit that in her travels, she’d never met anyone like Orliss. There was more to him than met the eye. He’d been stinking and drunk, and she’d been violent and desperate and frightened out of her wits, and in a few days, they’d become totally different people, though she was still frightened out of her wits.
Her travels up until now had been solitary; she slept when she needed to, ate when she was hungry, and traveled often to the point of exhaustion, wandering, seemingly aimless, but now knowing it wasn’t.
None of what happened to her now seemed coincidental, but she hoped she wasn’t some sort of celestial pawn, even though the darkly divine nature of her encounter was already a factor.
Gods of the forest, is that why you removed your protection? If so, you’ll not find me a willing puppet to your unknown plans.
The bargain for horses struck, they rode back on the dirt trail that led to the temple.
“I’ve not seen it in many years. I went as far as the tavern, and it seems the devils were content to leave me be, after they destroyed me.
“Now, that’s not the case.”
They arrived on the temple grounds. It sat in the middle, a circle of smooth walls like an aged, empty turtle shell.
The ivy leaves were beginning to turn with the season, as were the trees, edged with the slightest of red and orange and gold.
We must kill him before winter.
She stayed at the top of the trail, holding the reins of their horses as they grazed, and Orliss investigated.
There was no way she could bear to go near it right now; it was enough she might have to later.
He peered through the cracks, same as she did, but he didn’t stay long to observe anything, or so Jaika thought, as he walked around it rather quickly for his size.
She wanted to call out, to ask him if he saw anything, but the demon priest might not necessarily be nocturnal.
Orliss stopped, seemed to be thinking of something, then walked toward the back of the temple, but instead of going around again, he walked through the high wild grass.
Jaika only saw trees and weeds. It seemed to her there was nothing to mark it as a path.
Curious, she dismounted, tied off the horses, and went to follow him.
He was standing at the edge of a cemetery, the stones faded, fallen, and the gates broken. There was a low-lying fog covering the grassy ground, burning off slowly in the mid-morning sun.
She came and stood next to him.
“Most of the people I’ve known.”
She pressed no further, and let him have his moment, and started to walk back toward the horses.
“Don’t go, Jaika.”
She’d learned that when he called her name, things were different, so she stayed, standing beside him, scanning the mossy, discolored markers.
After a moment, she said “We should be going, Orliss.”
He sighed, and nodded. “There’s just one more thing left to do. Something I should have done years ago.”
“We’re going to burn the temple down.”
“Orliss, it’s stone, and there’s nothing in it. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Oh, stone burns, Jaika. There’re different kinds of fire.”
“You’re talking in riddles.”
“I’m going to bind the spirits in this place.”
She went quiet at that, put some stray strands of hair behind her ear, losing the set of her shoulders, sighing.
“Is this something I should be a part of?”
He turned to face her. His eyes held a tenderness, but also a glimmer of fire.
“You already are.”
“But you’ve burned your books.”
Jaika didn’t want to know, so she asked no more questions.
He sat on the stained marble bench, and closed his eyes.
Jaika took the quiet time to look around.
The gravestones, faded with age and stained with elements, listed precariously in their slots, all but toppled, the names and dates long obliterated.
The high grass extended all across the plot land, and the mausoleum sat squat and dark, a diseased mushroom full of decay and vermin, a black blot on the green field.
She shuddered. There was something tainted and palpable in the air, like demon breath.
Orliss, some memory tapped, began to chant in a soft voice that pushed against the silence, chipping away at it.
Jaika didn’t know if he was praying, or casting a spell, but either way it looked like he would be a while. She went to check on the horses, and stayed with them to reassure them that their riders were still close by.
She ate a small snack while she waited.
The fog had burned off, and the mild warmth and clear skies of the early afternoon belied the peril they faced, and as the morning lazed into the afternoon, Jaika saw spread through the fading mist where Orliss sat.
The nervous horses whickered and stamped, and Jaika moved out of the range of their hooves. Fighting panic, her hand trembling, she drew her short sword, and went to investigate.
Orliss was where she’d left him, but what was in the light got her attention.
There were people, hundreds, of all ages, standing by their markers, but something about them was very strange.
Jaika realized that their features were just the veneer over their bones, and the wounds and diseases that ravaged them were visible: there were murder victims , their ghastly wounds almost translucent in the afternoon sun.
And of those who were mutilated: she could see their severed limbs flickering where they’d been hacked, the bloody stumps of meat and gore still dripping spectral blood.
Those who’d died of diseases, in childbirth, in accidents, all bore the marks of their passing, she saw the skeletons just underneath the veneer of flesh. The people were buried dressed in their finest formal wear, which was now little more than scraps, hanging like dead creepers from their limbs.
Sunken eyes, missing teeth, swollen tongues, open sores, torn female clothing, bruised faces, tilted heads with rope burns on their necks, and heads of glorious female hair ridden with lice, and small children with smiling mouths full of worms and centipedes pushed back against Orliss’ magic with a palpable malevolence.
He might have been marble himself, though his whiskers flew about him like a halo of tumbleweed, and sweat stains ruined his clean clothes.
Vermin began to appear and tentatively sniff at him, and began to snap at his flesh.
They went right through Jaika, as if she wasn’t there at all.
He flinched, and winced, and gasped, but picked right back up and didn’t stop chanting until, finally, he did. As he stood, he brushed the vermin from his body with a fell sweep of his arm, and Jaika gasped as they vanished. It had all been illusion to get him to stop.
A spirit-man came forward, his transparent flesh desiccated, and pointing what was left of his finger at Orliss, he spoke telepathically.
Jaika heard his voice in her head; it sounded like wet, shifting gravel, grating and unpleasant. She bore it for Orliss’ sake.
You should be here among us, priest.
“I know, and I’m sorry, but I’m not.”
We could make it so you are.
“Or you could tell me where Thonian ran off to fight.”
You name him! Oh, your boldness…
“I’ve no time to sit here preening with you; do you know where he is, or don’t you?”
If we did, we would not tell you, for your magic is weak, and cannot compel us. But it is as you say: we know not where he has gone.
Why do you disturb us, Orliss? A woman’s voice was speaking now, as she made her own way to face him. Have any of among us haunted you?
Then why do you seek us?
“This is my friend Jaika.” He extended his arm in her direction, and their broken eyes followed it to land on her. Jaika tried not to tremble.
” Thonian has marked her for his bride. I cannot allow it, and in the process of stopping him I might…I might be able to…free your souls.
The outburst was immediate, with some opting to pass through him and kill him, and still others to finish hearing what he had to say.
The latter won.
This is a bold claim, from a man whose magic has passed into legend.
“And yet I say it.”
Making no promises!
“But telling the TRUTH! DAMN your obstinate, bitter, foolish minds!”
Along with our souls, you mean? The woman spoke to them both, not unkindly.
Orliss seemed to deflate. “I meant…will you help me find him?”
The staring seemed an eternity.
A breeze stirred, and Jaika gagged on the stench from the risen dead, and held her breath; if either of them said anything now, they would lose their cause.
The two spirits that spoke to Orliss conferred, then walked among the others.
The early afternoon went into the late afternoon by the time the two of them returned.
Yes, Orliss. For the sake of our souls, we’ll be glad to help, but if you fall into the river of doubt, the stream of surrender, your souls are forfeit to us.
Are we agreed?
Orliss looked at Jaika, and after considering, she gave him a nod.
“We are,” Orliss said.
Then we take our leave, until tonight.
They slipped back into the ground in clusters, angry at their awakening, but excited to be involved in what could be the ancient land’s new beginning.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Jaika’s forest training took hold; she stood still, and let the silence grow for a bit, showing them she meant no harm.
“I didn’t intend to disturb you. I was looking for shelter from the rain.”
The man laid the knife on the altar, took a black linen cloth, and daubed the blood away from his chin in a rather elegant motion given the context.
His silver eyes, scorching in their intensity, never left her, as he set the cloth aside.
“Well, you’ve found it.”
Two men moved to block the aisle.
If they closed behind her, she was dead.
She slashed at the closest one, the blade cutting his hand in half, his scream joining the surprised shouts of the others, and as the second man lunged, his right hand landed on her shoulder, his fingers snatching at the vest, but as she passed him she spun, and his hand slipped off.
Pulled off balance, he stumbled into the aisle where the thrown dagger slipped under his raised arm and pierced his chest from the side, and he dropped like a stone.
The demon cleric roared at her to stop.
Caught off guard by Jaika’s swift escape, there was a delayed reaction, and as others rushed forward to chase her, she shoved the front door open, pushing down the panic…
And was out in the downpour, in the gathering dusk.
She kept running, partly to get away from the temple, partly to keep her thoughts from spinning out of control.
Thoroughly soaked, shaking from the adrenaline and fright, out of breath, she began to slow down.
She looked back, but the only signs of disturbance were her own; no one, nothing, pursued her.
The rain began to ease as she continued walking, putting as much distance between her and the temple as she could before she needed to sleep. Somehow she managed to keep focused on walking, on trying to find a place to sleep. If she gave in to the other now, the fear would paralyze her, though she doubted she’d ever forget the heaviness of those silver eyes burning into her soul.
I wonder if I’ll even sleep tonight.
Traveling on fading reserves, she needed a shelter that was dry so she could make a fire, but she’d have to forego hunting. She decided to look for a cave, and made for the low lying hills.
The problem with caves was that other things lived in them; she’d have to make her peace with what was there, or kill it. She was fine with either; killing it would solve her hunting problem, and she’d cook it over her fire.
Stopping to fill her water skin from a small stream, she arrived at the hills just as the clouds were blowing away, and the gibbous moon was rising. Her clothes were still damp, and she was shivering.
A wavering light was coming toward her, and she tensed, having no real fight left, but not willing to die.
It was a man carrying a torch.
Concealing herself as best she could, she listened; he was by himself, and he was singing something incomprehensible. From the sound of it she surmised he was drunk.
The torchlight lit up the wet trail a little distance in front of him, and he was weaving.
Stepping out from behind her cover, Jaika’s knife was at his throat, and in an instant she regretted it; he reeked of vomit and cheap beer and bad perfume.
She managed to hold her gorge, however, and kept her voice low.
“Keep walking. I’m in need of food and shelter, and you’re going to provide it, or die.”
He stopped, burped, and chuckled, his soured breath a cloud of foulness in her nostrils.
“Whazzat cha say, girlie? Y’wanna bed down with ol’ Orliss?”
She pressed the knife harder, and he stiffened, rising up on his toes.
“I said nothing of the kind, and I don’t think you’re as drunk as you’re pretending.”
He swallowed, feeling the chill of the blade in a cool thin line at his throat.
“I’ve pretended t’ be a lot o’ things, missy. Drunk ain’t one of ‘em. If it’s food n’shelter y’need, I’ll provide such without all the threat o’ red violence, if y’please.”
His voice was strained, but audible, and reluctantly, Jaika lowered the knife, and gratefully stepped out of the circumference of his stink.
The threat of red violence, however, sobered Orliss up a bit, and as they walked the road, he gave Jaika the torch in case he stumbled and lost it in the wet grass. He’d taken it from the tavern, and had no way to relight it if it went out.
Jaika realized she must’ve been closer to a town than she thought, if he’d found a tavern. She’d ask him about that later.
On the way, he told Jaika he was a hermit, and lived alone in an old ramshackle cottage that belonged to a hedge witch, now deceased, courtesy of some farmers that had lost some livestock to wolves, which they said worked for her, and they took care of the wolves too, lest she come back through one of them.
He found all that out by way of the tavern where he drank, and had no idea if it was true, since he’d found the cottage empty when he arrived.
“So, is abandoned property normal around here?” Jaika asked.
“Whaddya mean, missy?”
She told him of the abandoned temple, and her adventure there.
His eyes widened, and he sobered up even more when she was finished.
“Yer lucky y’got out o’ there, missy.”
“If they’d managed to block me in, I’m not sure I would have.”
“Aye, good judgment there. Here we are, just up this path.”
She followed him off the main trail to a gravelly path that led to a small cottage in a small clearing.
It looked comfortable enough.
Jaika found herself beginning to relax.
There was a large fireplace, and he built a fire from wood he had stocked in a neat pile just outside. He lit it expertly, in spite of his bleary demeanor, and heat filled the place and beat back the chill of the night.
And Orliss, it turned out, was a wonderful caretaker.
He provided her a voluminous robe (for he was a voluminous man), and she had to double tighten the belt, and she laid her clothes out flat before the hearth to dry.
“You can hang ‘em after the place heats up, missy. I’ve a rope for that. Sorry to peek at your smallclothes,” he shrugged. “There’s a creek you can wash ‘em at in the mornin’.” They both turned red at the mention of it, and said nothing further.
His cat, it turned out, had a litter of days-old kittens, which he let Jaika tend to as he left her to get himself clean.
When she’d finished with the kittens, he’d returned from his bath and gave her a half loaf of toasted bread and a small wheel of yellow cheese, and made a pot of honeysuckle and ginger tea, sweetened with wild honey and a dash of dandelion brandy.
“Bless you, Orliss.” Jaika cupped the steaming mug in her hands, and inhaled the wonderful aroma, erasing the earlier smells of the evening. “I’m sorry I threatened to kill you.”
Orliss chuckled dryly.
“Happens more often n’ you know, missy.”
“What do you know about the temple?”
He looked at her a moment, and she stopped chewing the big piece of bread she’d just bitten off, her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s.
“What?” she mumbled around the mouthful.
It was a funny sight, and Orliss wanted to laugh, but the seriousness of what she just asked outweighed the merriment.
“Are y’ sure y’ want to know?”
She downed the bread with a couple of swallows of tea.
“They were going to kill me, Orliss, so yes, I very much want to know, but hurry. This brandy’s beginning to work, and given the day’s events, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be awake.” In spite of those silver eyes…
Orliss gathered himself into the chair on the other side of the fire, his breathing steady now, his eyes more clear of the haze of drink.
He took a small swallow of his own tea, and his gaze grew glassy staring at the fire.
“A’ right then, missy: a fireside tale it shall be.”
It was a typical village, like a thousand others, full of farmers and tradesmen, and the countryside provided them with healthy crops and livestock, and prosperity. Their women were strong and hearty, and their children well cared for and loved.
Close knit, they say, and everyone known and counted as friend or enemy, sometimes depending on the circumstances, until one man’s reach exceeded his grasp, and greed settled like gold dust upon his soul.
What was one farm, when he could own all, one wife, when he could have women, and what were children for, if not labor?
But if discovered, his neighbors would drive him out at best, or have him drawn and quartered at worst, so he kept the smile on his face, and the lust in his heart, until the day a caravan passed.
Full of strange folk, the wagons were. Their women wore jewels and gold and silver around their slender necks, gold studs and chains that ran from their noses to their immodest navels, and between their rounded breasts, and gods-knew-where else. Their bodies were marked with whorls of colored ink, and they bewitched the people, men and women alike, with their bonfire dances.
Their men wore bands of copper and bronze and leather on strong biceps and thick wrists, their calloused and scarred hands carried knives with wavy blades and hooked serrations, strange markings on them, and bejeweled handles, and the blades sharpened keen to where a man wouldn’t know he was cut ‘ til he died.
Among all the finery, there was one dagger, plain, with an onyx handle, a single diamond at the top of the pommel. It had a long, tapered silver blade that never seemed to lose its shine, or its edge, which the leader of the caravan demonstrated, cutting wood, leather and metal alike as if they were melted butter.
Some of the men were drawn to it, but when told the price, weren’t willing to pay, until one night, by the light of a single candle, in the scarlet tent of the caravan’s leader, the price was whispered into the ear of the greedy man.
His eyes widened, his thoughts raced, and his heart raced faster.
Here was the key he’d been looking for, and though everything that was still decent in him railed against it, he sat back in his chair, amazed at the thought that he would soon be plunged into a river of blood that would carry his soul to the underworld, and he would willingly ride its damning current.
And he agreed.
By morning, there was no trace of the caravan.
The day dawned as before, and the villagers, puzzled but relieved, slowly picked up the threads of their lives, and the rhythms and comforts of life resumed for a while.
Until the next full moon.
A lone wagon creaked along the well-traveled path, its bright colors washed out in the bright moonlight.
Four of the caravan’s men came out of the wagon, each bearing one of the long bladed daggers, and met the greedy man at his home.
In an hour, the spell was cast, the villagers in a deep sleep.
By morning, in the middle of the village square, the hearts were burning, the bloody night’s work was finished, and the spell was complete.
The price was paid.
And when the greedy man put the long blade into the fire, his eyes turned silver, his soul was damned, and his flesh became immortal.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr
All rights reserved
My attempt to get into the ‘spirit’ of Halloween.
It was strange to return after all these years.
This had been the forest of her childhood, full of wonder and magic, a king’s treasury of things to do and see. She’d explore it for hours, get caught up in the building of a spider’s web, or watch squirrels hide their winter stashes, or imagine herself among the hawks soaring above the pines, or rarely, with the eagles above the hawks.
At night, she knew where to find the owl’s nest, and where the foxes burrowed.
She hunted rabbit and quail, and fished the river.
If she got there in time, she’d watch the torrent of bats blast from their caves into the warm summer nights.
She’d return home then and eat dinner; her mother had stopped worrying about her forays, thinking one day death’s hand would simply close, and that would be the end, but she left dinner out all the same.
They had their ritual, which sometimes varied, but not much: Jaika would sit down to eat, the scrape of her chair signaling to her mother that she’d arrived safely, and her mother would join her.
“How was your walk?” she’d ask.
“It was wonderful. I wish you’d explore with me.”
“I’m too old, and you’re too curious. I’d slow you down, Jaika.
Jaika would smile, and look fondly at her mother, now with subtle white streaks in her chestnut brown hair, knowing it was true, but saying it wasn’t.
Her mother would smile too, and wonder at her daughter’s own ginger mane, all disheveled and smelling of creation, her freckled cheeks flushed from the outdoors, her dark brown mahogany eyes, bright but slowly filling with sleep, and she’d sit with her chin in her hand, loving her daughter, listening to the woodland stories until Jaika finished eating.
Jaika had her father’s appetite. He’d passed away some time ago on a boar hunt. As he chased one, he didn’t see the other in time as it burst from the underbrush, and the horse reared and toppled him. The younger boar’s tusks were smaller, but they killed him all the same.
She shot it in the leg with an arrow to mark it by its limp, and when her time of grieving ended, she sought it out and slaughtered it, leaving the carcass for the scavengers.
There was no one left who remembered now, but the act of vengeance satisfied her.
After her mother died, she left home the following summer and went off to see the world. In the years that followed, she learned that just beneath the surface of the senses were creatures of nightmare and beings of dread so harrowing that if they ever breached the ethereal barriers that held them, the sight alone would drive people insane.
It was a new forest in a new land, and its wonders were a bit darker; there was a sense of timeless power buried deep within, full of the sense of presence and aura, but invisible, inaudible, moving just underneath, and all over, like meadow mice.
She could almost hear the chants, feel the runes etched in wood and stone, see the small lights that flickered in her periphery fade from her direct gaze.
She felt no danger; her instinct was well-honed for such things, but she was wary, and walked with a lighter tread than she would have normally.
The needles beneath the pine were still dry, and she had a blanket in her pack, which she spread, and laid out some light fare, and her water skin, and sat in the lap of the tree’s roots, a spreading web of wood covered tendrils like fingers grasping and clutching the ancient dirt beneath.
Around her, the land was quiet in the way that rainy forests are, full of small noises and rustlings that would have otherwise gone unheard and unnoticed.
She’d come across the abandoned temple quite by accident, not even seeing it at first, as she took shelter under a panoply of thick and fragrant pines to get out of the damp drizzle that caught her outside in the early afternoon.
About to close her eyes for a moment’s respite, she saw the ravaged gray wall through the lattice of evergreen branches.
Knowing by the light that evening was soon, and not knowing when the weather would break, and doubtless far away from anything that resembled civilization, she regrouped, repacked, and set out to explore what could be excellent shelter to spend the night.
She hoped she was right.
The temple walls were broken in diverse places and heights, cracked and discolored with age, but they weren’t fallen.
Unfamiliar ivy snaked along its sides and roof, seeking out the holes, and slinked through them to claim the inside too.
The surrounding grass was high, which could work to her advantage, or detriment; she was willing to gamble. Whatever hunted her would have to see her first.
There was a door, but something was blocking it, which only made her curious.
Walking around, she found a stone she could step on, and testing the sturdiness of the ivy, she used it to pull herself up.
She peered through one of the cracks, and gave her eyes time to adjust to the view.
A bare altar of black marble was the first thing she noticed, with black candles in bronze stands on either end of it.
There was a runnel carved into the altar on one end; her knife had one. Her mind resisted the implications of what that could mean.
Above the altar was a symbol, a rune of some sort that she didn’t recognize; another vibration of that unseen power shimmered under her skin, a sense that she ought to know it, but nothing came to mind.
She walked around to the back, and peered through another crack.
There were two rows of long benches, ten on each side, and a center aisle.
And in the aisle, just by the door, was a casket, old and ruined, long and heavy, but the wood was broken and splintered outward, as if what had been inside broke through to walk the earth again.
“Or maybe it was just broken up for firewood.” But she wasn’t convinced.
The drizzle turned to rain, and the sky had grown perceptibly darker.
The rain hardened, and she pulled her leather vest over her head, which was the only thing it could protect.
Hearing water falling inside, she looked in again, and saw a hole in the roof, the water cascading through it, draining off somewhere she couldn’t see.
She hadn’t noticed it; she dared not ask herself if it had been there all along.
It was big enough for her to get through, and the drop wouldn’t hurt as long as she braced herself. She’d jumped off enough rocks and boughs to have gotten the hang of that.
Her choice of shelter, it seemed, had been decided for her.
She scrambled onto the roof, pelted by the hardening rain, and tossing down her pack and short sword, she turned feet first and let herself slip through, landing on the floor with a solid slap as she bent her knees to absorb the impact.
And the place flared to life about her, full of candlelight and fireplace heat, with the low rumbling speech of men in blue tunics and the dulcet, softer tones of women in red gowns.
There was a window full of resplendent moonlight, and the air full of funereal music, and a man in black leather crosshatched with bands of gold studs was standing at the altar, a long blade dagger glinting like a steel diamond in his fist, looking directly at her with silver-blue eyes that heated her skin and iced her spine.
There were no cracks in the wall, no water, no ivy, and nowhere to run.
The altar gleamed with dancing firelight like a portal into the void.
The music stopped, and every eye in the room turned to focus on her.
The man at the altar smiled, and a drop of blood bloomed at the corner of his mouth, and meandered its way down to his chin.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
October 23, 2014
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