Whispers in The Dark (part five)

There is a woman in a dark room. She spends most of her time seated in an old rocking chair, staring at the wall. Other times, she haunts the halls of her prison, her eyes like bruises against the sickly pallor of her skin. Everyone says she is mad, that she has lost her mind and all sense of what is real. Likely they’re right. After all, she’s not a person anymore. Just a tombstone filled with ashes.

She is treated kindly enough, the nuns don’t feel afraid of her anymore. All they feel is a distant pity, the kind that you might feel for someone in a coma. The bishop’s men told their abbess that she was uncanny, a witch initially destined for the stake, but later given a chance to take the cloth. Yet in all these years, the woman has not once shown any sign of uncanny attributes.

Behind the veil that makes the separation between reality and dreams, there is a grave. It lies atop a hill, among the charred remains of a house. A house that once stood tall, a house that once echoed with the laughter of those who dwelled within. Nothing but ghosts now.

There is a woman in the grave, lying beneath the ground. She lingers somewhere between life and death, gazing up between the dirt and rocks that cover her, watching those who come to stand vigil at her lonely prison. Sometimes there is a creature, with blue skin and hair like white silk. Other times, it is a woman, a woman with sad dark eyes, wearing a gown of the purest ivory. For some reason, it hurts her most when it is the woman who stands at her grave, a physical pain somewhere below her breastbone, and she shuts her eyes so she cannot see.

There is one who never leaves, a man, he wears an ochre mask and is cloaked by feathers stained with green. He just stands there. Waiting. And all she wants is to ask him what he is waiting for, why he and the other specters won’t leave her in peace, but when she tries to open her mouth, she finds that it is full of ashy soil.

Other times, she lies not in the grave, but stands in a mist so dense, so suffocating, that one might compare it to a blanket. It’s just another prison, but in this one there is no one, not even the specters, and she is utterly alone.

One day, there is a voice, crying out from between the tendrils of mist, calling a long forgotten name.

“Vesna? Vesna, it’s me.”

The voice is familiar, awakening memories that haven’t surfaced in years. She backs into the mist, away from the voice, away from the memories. The voice won’t go away, it persists, pushing forward, grasping at her arms, her legs.

“How long has she been like this?” There is another voice, murmuring in answer, but she cannot make out the words. Usually, all voices that penetrate the mist are like that, distant and indecipherable, mere distractions. This voice is different, it is crystal clear, bright as birdsong breaking the silence of dawn.

“Vesna, it’s me. Don’t you remember? It’s your sister, Olena.”

The voice begins to sob, awful aching sobs that make the numb edges of her heart tingle. At first she resists, but then she begins to move forward. Towards the voice, towards the light.

Then she is there, the hard back of the chair she sits in stiff against her back. The harsh wool of her habit rubbing against her skin. There is a grey form kneeling at her feet, head bowed and hidden from her. She reaches forward, placing her hands on the woman’s shaking shoulders. The woman looks up, her eyes widening with astonishment and delight.

“Vesna?,” she gasps. “Oh Vesna, we thought you- we thought you were dead.”

Vesna slowly shakes her head, feeling as if she is awakening from a deep slumber. Her tongue is thick and clumsy in her mouth, her mind unable to form words.

The woman throws her arms around Vesna. Still sobbing, but they now seem to be tears of joy. Finally, she draws away, looks up at Vesna, her eyes questioning.

“Do you…remember me?”

Vesna stares at her, trying to place that tugging of painful familiarity. There is a memory swimming to the surface of her mind. Twin sisters, almost indistinguishable were it not for the vast difference in their personalities. Both with eyes the color of cornflowers, and hair so resplendently gold that even the sun appeared dull in comparison. Talented, kind, intelligent, admired by all and loved by many. Vesna remembers that once she had felt the bitter bite of jealousy when she had looked at them, but that feeling has long crumbled to dust.

“Olena?,” she whispers, unable to keep the shock from her voice. The woman kneeling before her, how can it be? Yet, those eyes are still cornflower blue, unfaded by time. Her hair as resplendent as ever, that dimple still marking the crease of her left cheek. Olena is now a woman grown, and Vesna’s heart quails at the realization.

Vesna wants to close her ears when Olena begins speaking, because Olena is speaking of the past. Of things that Vesna has been slamming the doors of her mind against for years. All these stories that Vesna wishes could be untold, all these years that she wishes would bleed away. Yet here they are, stretched out in front of her, and her unwilling eyes must read the words.

After Vesna was taken away, the bishop argued that both Cherina and Olena should be sent to convents. Yet by then the people’s ire had cooled, the last of their rage having been spent in the flames that killed Sobena. So the sisters were sent to live with distant relatives of their father. Now wholly orphaned, betrayed by the villagers they had lived with their whole lives, stricken by the loss of their mother and their sister. Olena lapsed into a deep depression, while Cherina found solace in her rage.

The relatives they lived with were kind enough, though the sisters never answered the questions they were pressed with. Wounds never heal, but the pain does fade with the passage of time. Cherina found love, and eventually marriage. Olena also found love, though it took her significantly longer. She found a place to ply her trade, and they both set up lives for themselves. Lives pitted by the memories of old sorrow, but lives nonetheless, and there was happiness to be found, despite all.

Cherina believed Vesna dead, burnt at the stake, her ashes now floating on the wind. But Olena refused to give up hope, and year after year, she stopped strangers at the markets and stores. Plied them with questions, had there been rumors of a witch-girl from Drevach? Did anyone know of her, what had happened? Yet it wasn’t until a couple months previously that a stranger passing through finally told Olena what she had so long waited to hear.

That there was a nun in the convent that resided in his home town, that it lay across the sea, in a place so remote that it seemed redundant to name it a village. Apparently the nun was said to be mad, and when he had asked to know more, he was met by hushed whispers and sideways glances.

“Don’t you know? She’s one of the uncanny… a witch.”

“Hush… she could be listening…”

“You daft? Why’d you think they locked her away behind convent walls in the first place? Witches are rendered powerless by holy places.”

“Heard she was originally from Drevach. Big trading town, lotsa folk pass through there.”

“Why didn’t they kill her?”

“Bishop offered her a choice, be burnt at the stake or take the cloth. Damn fool. ‘Never spare a witch,’ least that’s what my da always used to say.”

“Mayhap she bewitched him…”

So it went on and on, but Olena had heard all she needed to hear. She left her finances in the capable hands of her sister, gathered up the funds she would need, and left on the first ship.

“Cherina… she’s married?” Vesna is unable to absorb this new knowledge, because somewhere, her mind is still that of a young girl. She is still Vesna, living in Drevach with her two sisters. Her life stretching out in front of her like a trail of blank pages. Now all those blank pages have gone, leaving only ashes in their wake. She finds herself on the other side, not knowing how she got there. Not knowing how all those years passed her by without her even reaching out to touch them.

Olena is still speaking, her mouth moving, eyes sparkling and animated. She is telling Vesna something about Cherina being pregnant, about her husband and how he runs a spice route.

“Vesna?,” her sister pauses, her face concerned. “What is it? Why are you crying?”

“Oh… am I?” Vesna hadn’t felt the tears spilling from her eyes until now, they leave warm tracks down her face, and they feel more real than anything has felt in a long time.

“So look, I’ve spoken to the abbess. She’s not the superstitious sort, and as far as the convent is concerned, they don’t actually believe you’re uncanny. They think you’re ‘mentally disturbed.’ I told them I want to take you home to my family, that we’d take care of you.”

“But- the bishop.”

“Oh him? He died five years ago.” Olena smiles, her face glowing with that youthful optimism that reminds Vesna so much of how things once were, long ago. “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to stop us now. They’ll never lock you up again.”

How can Vesna hope to explain? It’s not these walls that hold her, but the walls of her own mind. She could have left, had she wanted to, but she chose this. She chose this as punishment for her sins. Death would have been easy, death would have been welcome, but no. This is her purgatory, and there’s no way out.

“Olena…you don’t understand. I can’t go.”

“Oh sweet sister, I know you blame yourself. We all did. Cherina blamed herself for not stopping them, I blamed myself for giving up. But you have to let go of all that now, it’s time to live.”

“You don’t know what I am. Mother never told you.”

“Vesna, whatever you are, we love you.”

“I have to tell you-”

“You can tell us, Cherina and I both, when we get home.”

The woman in the grave resists, she covers her face with dirt and tells them to leave her be. If she awakens from her bed of soil, she will have to face the world, all the demons will come out of the dark. Her sorrow, her guilt, her loss… but worst of all, she will have to look in the mirror and accept what she is.

Though she struggles, trying in vain to disappear back into the mist, she cannot escape her sister’s iron grasp.

“I’ve already lost mama, I won’t lose you too.”

There was a tale that their mother would tell them when they were young, about a man who was imprisoned as a stone statue for many years. Then at last, his love was able to awaken him with true love’s kiss. He didn’t come awake all at once, their mother said, but slowly. First his feet, than his legs, and slowly stretching up and up through his body, filling him with animating force.

Standing in the sunlight, for the first time in so long, Vesna feels like the man from the story. A stone statue of grief, the layers of granite and marble sloughing away like dead skin. Underneath, she can feel her living, breathing, skin. She feels reborn, and she is afraid, because how can this moment last with the flames of the past burning behind her? How can anything last, when she is what she is?

The journey to where Cherina and Olena now lives is long and tiresome, but Vesna, still enraptured by the world around her, hardly notices. To her, a world that had at once seemed sad and wilting, now seems like a blossom newly bloomed.

At last they reach a village, or perhaps not a village, for it is larger than any village that Vesna has ever seen. There is many buildings, and so many people, there is fish markets and spice traders. It is a place that swims with color and sound, and it threatens to overwhelm her. Olena explains that it is a city, and that this is where her sister and their relatives live. They come to a house, very different than the one that they once lived in, on the hill. There is servants to take their things, there is marble arches, and the sunlight appears multi-colored from where it spills from a window of stained glass placed in the center of the ceiling.

It is at the bottom of a intricately carved wooden staircase that Cherina meets them. Her cheeks are red and rosy, her face rounder than Vesna remembers it being. Her gown is pulled tight across her middle, and she has a hand braced against her bowing back. Yet her eyes have not changed, and they still gleam with that shrewd intelligence. Her mouth still curves in that slightly haughty smile, that smile, that hides so much warmth. A smile that now quivers as she folds a hand across her face, gasping as she slides to the floor in a cloud of voluminous skirts.

“Vesna,” she whispers. “I never dared hope-”

Vesna dashes to her sister’s side and they embrace, both crying the joyful tears of those who have been parted for far too long.

“How? How can this be?” Cherina’s face is all astonishment and wonder. As if she has witnessed a miracle.

Olena standing nearby, looks ever so slightly smug.

Vesna places a tentative hand on Cherina’s stomach and feels a slight flutter. “Oh…” she exhales, her hand flinching away.

“It’s alright, you can touch. Very vigorous, isn’t she?” Cherina laughs shakily, and Vesna notes that she is flushed brightly and her forehead is beaded with sweat.

“Oh Cherina, I’ve shocked you. You should sit down, rest..”

“No no, I’m fine.” Cherina protests, but she allows Vesna to take her arm and escort her to a nearby chair.

“When is she due?”

“The physician says it’ll be a few months yet, and I say she’ll come sooner. Babe has a mind of her own.” Cherina takes a deep breath, appearing to right herself, before casting a stern look at her sisters. “But enough about that. Sit, I’ll have them bring us some tea. You must both tell me all that has happened.”

So Olena tells Cherina how she found Vesna, about the convent in which she had been imprisoned. There is little to tell, for Cherina already knows most of the happenings that took place after the stranger came through.

Then it is Vesna’s turn, and she knows that is not just her long imprisonment that they want to know of, but everything before that. She wonders at how her sisters have stood by her side, all these years, never knowing the full truth. Always wondering about Vesna and her rumored uncanny powers, how easily they could have turned on her, how easily they could have placed the blame of their mother’s death on her shoulders. Somehow, they didn’t. Somehow, as they await her tale, there is not a flicker of doubt or distrust in their eyes.

She doesn’t want to lay the truth out in front of them, she doesn’t want to witness the moment when their sisterly love turns to fear and disgust. She doesn’t want to see how Cherina will place her hand protectively over her unborn child, horrified that she allowed an uncanny creature so near. Vesna doesn’t want to, but she must. She owes it to them, and besides, they were the sisters who always told each other everything. She can’t be the first to break that silent and sacred pact.

So she tells them the tale, even the worst parts. She rips it from her breast like a beating heart and hands it to them, piece by piece.

At last, having told them of her long confinement, she reaches the end. An end at which she feels equal measures dread and relief. She folds her hands in her lap, and keeps her gaze to the floor. “I understand if you want me to leave now,” she whispers. “I’m sorry. For being what I am.”

“Don’t be so stupid!” The chair scrapes against the floor as Cherina lunges to her feet, her eyes flashing with anger. “You know the tales mother told us. You know that she never taught us to view the other-kin as monsters. Do you really think so little of us? Think that we’re like… them? The ones who burnt our home to ashes, who took our lives and stamped them into the ground? The ones who killed our mother? Yes. They killed her, Vesna. And if you want someone to blame, then blame them. They’re the true monsters.”

Cherina’s eyes begin to spill over, and she leaves the room, her arms folded protectively around herself.

Vesna remains sitting, silent and shocked. Of all the reactions she had expected once her tale had been told, it was not this.

“Don’t let her words hurt you,” Olena says quietly. “She’s still angry. I think we all are, but Cherina never knew how to deal with her temper.”

Vesna turns to Olena, unable to accept the calm way in which Olena speaks. “I don’t understand… I don’t- how can you even look at me?”

“We always knew you were different Vesna. I guess we just never realized how different you truly were. It hurts that mama never told us, but she had her reasons, and were I in her shoes, I would likely have done the same.”

The two sisters wrap their arms around each other, and Vesna cries into Olena’s shoulder. Wondering, like she has so many times, how her sisters can be so strong. Wondering why, even though she is the oldest, they have always been the ones to comfort her.

That night, lying in the unfamiliar bed of Cherina’s house. Vesna finds that at long last, the mist has dissipated, and that when she climbs the hill to stand among the ruins of the burnt house, there is no grave to confine her, not anymore. The specters have faded into the woods, leaving only the man in the ochre mask. When he comes toward Vesna, she does not flinch away. She stands stock still, surrounded by the last tendrils of mist, feeling her heart pound with unidentified emotion.

At last she can ask the question she has been waiting to ask, for so long.

“Are you my father?”

His mouth stretches to form that awful smile, that smile that had once haunted Vesna’s dreams. It no longer has the power to frighten her, and she just smiles back. Wondering what it would feel like to also have sharp shiny teeth.

“No,” he says, at last. “Just a distant cousin. Before he died, he asked me to watch over your mother…and you.”

“Before he…died?”

“Yes. The forest he resided in was cut down. The Leshy, they cannot survive, not without their woods to protect them. We are born from trees, they are our lifeblood and our tie to existence. A sacred pact that has been held between our kind and the forest, for as long as trees have covered this world. We defend the trees, they defend us.”

Vesna feels her heart shatter a little more, feels a sob wrack her body as she kneels in the dirt. Not even knowing what, or who, she is crying for.

He watches her, expressionless. “He fought to the very last, you know, but there was just too many.”

“What about my mother?,” she asks, breathless with loss. “I thought you were supposed to ‘watch over’ her.” Vesna pounds her fist into the dirt. “Why didn’t you save her? Why?”

“There was nothing I could do. It was out of my reach, out of the reach of the forest. Had she made her home among the trees, she may have stood a chance. My priority was always you, anyway. Why do you think I’ve been watching you all these years? Waiting for you to awake?”

“Well I’m awake now. What do you want?”

“For you to come home.”

“Home? I am home. Home is where my sisters are, where my heart is.”

The glance he gives her is filled with irony, “we’ll see.”

She wants to ask him what he means, but he has already disappeared, and she is left kneeling in the soil. Burning with pain and confusion, feeling the holes inside her heart sinking into one another. When there is so many empty spaces within her heart, how does she have any heart left? Or maybe she doesn’t, maybe she never did to begin with.

She’s not real. She’s a creature made of twig and moss hiding under a human skin. She realizes that the demons can’t come leaping out of the dark, because they’ve been here all along. A monster inside of her, clawing to get out, and one day it’s going to split her wide open and devour the world.

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Whispers in The Dark (part four)

Noontime spills across Drevach like warm honey, dripping into the crevices, casting a gold glow through windows, forming patterns on the floor. The heavy sheet of cloud cover that hovered so ominously has now fled, chased by a day so vibrant that one might think summer has returned, if not for the cruel, slicing wind.

Vesna and her mother see none of this, for still they kneel on the attic floor, their hands intertwined. Suspended about them are columns of dust that have been caught inside sun rays, the dust glows, like crushed gold. On any other day, Vesna might have wondered at the beauty of the sudden sunlight, piercing like swords through cloud cover and grey mist. She might have lain among the dust columns, daydreaming.

Today, all visions of light have been thrust into the darkness. There are wintry hands stealing up on her heart, and though she desires only to flee, the story won’t stop… Somewhere, dimly, in the back of her mind, she knows that the tale is about her mother, and ultimately, about her. Yet, how can that be so? This is a tale of maidens and monsters, of forbidden love and creeping shadow, a tale of such strangeness that it seems only a bedtime story, much like the ones that Sobena once told her and her sisters.

 

‘Through the dimly lit window of the past, there is a child being born. The mother’s cries of pain echo through the hut. Having been shunned by her family, there is no one in the room that the girl knows. Only a small stooped woman, known as the village healer, to aid in the birth.

The mother does not care about the absence of her family, their presence would bring her little comfort. It is he that she calls for, but he is nameless, and her wretched screams have no words to form them.

Amidst blood, tears, and sweat, a girl is born. The healer catches her as she gushes from the womb. The mother smiles, relief blooming across her exhausted face, and she reaches to take her babe. The labor has been long, but the birth a success, an event to be celebrated, and yet the healer’s face has gone white, her lips voicing no words of congratulations. She is grim and silent even as she places the babe in her mother’s arms. She does not remain to help clean up the afterbirth, instead, white and shaking, she flees from the room.

A child, and yet no child at all. For no rosy flesh does the child have on her bones. Limbs of wood and hair of lichen green. Bark ridged over her back like scales, and such teeth. Long and gleaming they are, and predator sharp.

Yet her mother only smiles, kisses the babe on her mossy brow. Rocks her until her raspy cries become raspy coos.

As time passes, the child learns to appear as other mortal children do. Rosy cheeks replace hollowed ones, full fleshed limbs replace thorny branches, ebony hair replaces the lichen, and oval white teeth soon replace pointy sharp ones. It is too late, the old healer told one villager, and that was all it took. A single spark can start the flame of gossip, however cruel and untrue, and it will rage and burn until there is nothing left. This is no longer any place for the woman and her uncanny child.

So it comes to pass that when the woman can stand it no more, she packs her meager belongings, and with child in tow, leaves at first light. When they reach the outskirts, it is not the village that the woman turns her lonely gaze towards, but the forest. Perhaps there is the flash of yellow eyes in the depths, a leafy hand reaching out from thorny bush, perhaps the cadence of mournful voices rising in farewell. Or maybe, it was just the wind moaning, just a solitary fox staring out from among the trees.

The woman brings her child to a place where she knows no one knows her name. A place far from the village in which she grew up, far from the forest, and anything that she once knew. She makes a living in the village, working in the local bakery until her face is smeared with flour and her hands are chapped. They ask questions, and she tells them nothing, allowing them to believe what they will. At first her existence is layered with suspicion and gossip, but she is a hardworking and uncomplaining, and before long she is simply accepted as another facet in the village they call Drevach.

Despite hardship, and a face lined by exhaustion, the woman still shines with a beauty that is immortal, and that few have. It is not long before she attracts the eyes of a merchant who takes residence in the hill overlooking the village. He lost his first wife to a case of pox, and he has been alone ever since. The girls of the village will not spare him so much as a glance, for though he is a kind-hearted man, he is not considered comely. Dusty brown hair, freckles and a square jaw, carrying perhaps more years than most would find desirable. He has not the piercing dark eyes or the striking stature that young girls so often search for.

Yet the woman sees past his calloused hands and unremarkable face. She sees that at his core, he is a man of good intentions and quiet intelligence. So they are married, as April turns to May. Barefoot on a ground blanketed with apple blossoms, dressed in a simple gown of ivory, white blonde hair bound atop her head. The child is there too, of course, but she is not greeted with the kindness that the merchant’s relatives grace her mother with.

How odd she is, how unlike her mother in appearance. Where does she come from? What sort of foreign man would father a child of such queer stature? Such disconcerting eyes she has, like dark pools of water. One could swear that her hair is black, but it appears nearly emerald when the light touches it just so.

The child is afraid, she longs to escape, she does not understand this strange world that her mother has dragged her into. Then she feels warm hands on her shoulder, and she turns, thinking it is her mother. No, it is he, the merchant on the hill, and his eyes are so kind, so understanding. With one glance, he quiets the gossip of his relatives. With one touch, he makes her feel like she belongs.

So the woman and the merchant are married. Together, they live as a family, in the house on the hill, and it is, very nearly, happily ever after.’

 

The tale has come to a close, her hands have gone numb in her mother’s grasp. There is a peculiar feeling rising up inside of her, she realizes that it is laughter. Panicky, hysterical laughter. The laughter that comes when too many emotions at once are straining against the pen of one’s mind. When one doesn’t know which emotion to release first. Vesna feels this, bubbling behind her teeth, burning her throat, threatening to spill forth. She rips her hands from her mother’s and stands, wobbly on her feet like a newborn foal.

Sobena says nothing, she remains kneeling on the floor, her hands folded, her face a closed door.

“How- how can you be so calm?,” Vesna’s eyes flash, and she knows which emotion is the first to break free. Thundering like a horse down a racetrack, her rage mounts and builds, creating cresting waves in the ocean of her mind. “How could you know, all these years? Never tell me, never say a word. Knowing that I am a… monster?”

A flicker of anger passes across Sobena’s still face. Standing, she grips Vesna’s shoulder and stares her in the eye. “Never,” she breathes. “Never call yourself that. Vesna, you must understand, being different doesn’t make you a monster.”

Vesna pulls free from her mother’s grasp, bracing herself against a dusty shelf with shaking hands, knocking bottles to the floor. “This- what I am, is more than just different, mother. I killed two men, I took their lives. What does that make me?”

“If you consider yourself a monster for that deed, than I am no better than you. Had you not killed those men, I would’ve done it myself.” Sobena’s words glitters with an icy passion that Vesna has never heard in her voice before.

Sobena, so kind even to those who speak ill things behind her back. So forgiving, even to those who have committed theft or been shunned by the village. Yet now, hearing her mother’s words, Vesna knows that she speaks nothing but the truth.

“I don’t deny that I should’ve told you sooner. Forgive me, my girl. I was selfish, I only wished to keep you at my side a little longer.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no time. Soon the villagers will be here, and you must be gone by then.”

“Gone? To where?”

Outside, there is a mounting cry. The buzzing of angry bees borne forth on hot summer air, the sound of danger from which there is no escape. Mortals, how volatile they are, how quickly they rise to the hunt. Tongues lolling, teeth snapping, hands grasping. When they sense prey, all reason falls to the dust, forgotten and disregarded. They are no more than hounds on the trail of a bleeding deer.

Vesna can feel fear clawing at her insides, devouring her own reason, directing all her thoughts to one that pushes itself to the forefront of her mind.

Run.

Sobena turns to Vesna, her own fear reflecting on her face, and Vesna feels ashamed, for she knows that Sobena is not afraid for herself, but for Vesna.

“Vesna,” she whispers. “You must run. You know how little this village tolerates magic, or anything resembling the uncanny. I don’t want to imagine what they’d do should they get their hands on one of the other-folk.”

Vesna shivers inside. Other-folk. That is what she is now. Not the heroine in the tales, but the very thing that the heroine runs from, and in the end, must face. Other-folk, they are the creatures that lurk on the edges of the pages, filling us with terror. Vesna wants to claw her way out of her own skin.

“No,” Vesna shakes her head, already turning towards the stairs. “My sisters are down there. If I run, you will all have to face their wrath.”

“Vesna, wait!”

But Vesna is down the stairs, her fear propelling her forward, towards the slavering hounds that await. Everything in her cries to run the other way, to escape out the trapdoor, flee into the woods. She cannot. She cannot abandon her sisters.

Cherina, brave Cherina, she stands in the entryway, stubborn and unmoving. She shouts, but her words are lost in the noise. Olena stands next to her, barefoot and quivering, but still holding her ground. Vesna knows that the mob will lose their patience if held back much longer. They will push her sisters aside, mere hindrances that they are, they will flood into the house, leaving destruction in their wake.

Trembling from head to toe, mustering every last shred of courage she possesses within her sinews. Reminding herself who her father is, that if he had sharp shiny teeth, she can have sharp shiny teeth too. Vesna pushes past her sisters, and steps out in front of the crowd. Dimly, she feels Olena grab at her sleeve, hears Cherina cry out, her voice painted with naked fear.

The crowd goes silent.

A single woman steps out from among them, her dress a mourning black, her face stained with tears. “You,” she cries, pointing a shaking finger. “You killed my son! Killed him in cold blood. Vengeance I say, vengeance!”

The crowd murmurs in approval. Vesna says nothing, she is powerless to protest. How can she hope to explain? Even had the crowd understood the circumstances of the events, they would not care. Always will they take the side of the common folk, against those who are uncanny, freakish, or of foreign blood.

The bishop comes forward, placing a comforting hand on the shoulder of the distraught woman. Crossing himself, he flings a rosary at Vesna, and she cries out as it glances off her cheek, breaking skin. She clasps a hand to her cheek, and the crowd cheers.

“See how she flinches from the holy?,” calls the woman. “Witch!”

The crowd takes up her cry, and Vesna has to fight the urge to cover her ears as the shouts grow in fervor. “Witch! Witch! Witch!

“Take her away,” says the bishop. “She will face judgment for her sins.”

Two men come forward and grab her arms, as if she is a dangerous criminal and not an adolescent girl. Her sisters run forward and try to pull them off her, Olena is sobbing her name, begging for the bishop to reconsider. The men brush them off easily, laughing at their feeble attempts to free her. Olena is crying, and Cherina’s face is flushed with humiliation and anger.

The crowd has her firmly in their teeth, a helpless animal dangling before them, but all Vesna feels is relief. They will leave her family in peace now, they have what they want, there will be no more wreckage.

The bishop stops, turning to look at the house. “This is a tainted place,” he tells the villagers. “It has been touched by the devil’s handiwork…” he pauses, and the crowd leans forward, listening with bated breath. “Burn it to the ground!”

“No!” Vesna gasps, straining against the grip of her captors.

One of the men cuffs her across the face, “shut it.”

The villagers advance, holding torches that burn brightly in the descent of evening. Her sisters have been detained, Cherina appears unconscious, her head at an awkward angle, her lip bloodied. Olena stands limp between her captors.

Sobena is in the entryway, pleading with the villagers, her hands outstretched. “Vesna never meant to hurt anyone,” she tells them. “She’s just a girl.”

“She’s a monster,” spits one of the women. “You saw what she did to our boys.”

“I wonder what that makes you,” leers another. “Bein’ the mother of this freak. Maybe dear ol’ Fredrick’s death was less natural, and more… magical.” The villager points an accusatory finger in Sobena’s direction, his voice rising. “You know the tales, good folk! I’ll bet she conjured up the storm so she could have all his good wealth an money.”

Thus far, Sobena has appeared frightened, but somehow still calm. Somehow holding her own, even with the world pitted against her. Now her hands clench, bright red spots appearing on her cheeks, she lunges for the villager. “how could you?!”

She’s still screaming as the crowd converges on her. “I loved him! You all know I loved him!”

Villagers to whom she had offered bread when they were in need, villagers to whom she had spoke kind words when their worlds were shattered by the death of a loved one. Villagers who had come to respect and admire this stranger in their midst, despite her refusal to speak of the past. Villagers, who had been friends, neighbors, and confidants, now they spill forth, they pull at her hair, they spit cruel insults and call her names.

Though she struggles, there is too many, Sobena is restrained, and they are pushing her backwards, pushing her into the house. They slam the door shut, barring it from the outside. The crowd is jeering, calling for blood. There is flames twisting up towards the darkening sky, there is someone screaming, but is it not Vesna.

Vesna is numb, a tombstone filled with ashes. Somewhere, deep inside of herself, there is a girl crying. A little girl made out of bracken and moss, a girl who does not understand why mortals act as they do. A girl who is not a girl, but a monster, and as she sinks her claws into her own flesh, she knows, this is her fault. None of this would have happened had it not been for her. So she bloodies herself against the walls of her own mind, breaks herself down, smaller and smaller, until she no longer exists.

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Whispers in The Dark (part three)

There is mice skittering about in the contours of the abbey, the abbess kneels at an altar, absorbed in her evening prayer. Outside, the cold sharpens its icy claws, and world is still, as if frozen. Somewhere in the village, there is a woman in a thatched hut, she is weeping. She has lost her only son, he had only just turned twenty two, and now he is gone. She knows he was not always the best of sons, and sometimes he stayed out all night with his friends, whoring and god knows what else. But he was still her son, and she loved him, loved him as only a mother can love her child. Her Petra. She prays for his soul, prays that he has a place in heaven now.

Laying in the abbey, her black hair shrouding her face, Vesna dreams of death. Her dreams bleeding until the insides of her eyelids are coated with red.

The day dawns with a clap of thunder, resounding across the sky. The stars shuttering in and out from beneath a thick layer of cloud cover. Vesna awakens in a cold sweat, her heart pounding in her ears as she sits up, tangling her feet in bed sheets. At first, she has no recollection of the previous days events. Then, with a start, it all comes back to her. Drawing her knees up to her chest, she begins to shiver uncontrollably, her teeth chattering against each other. In this moment, she would give anything for a familiar face, someone to hold her, tell her it was all a bad dream. The room is empty, she is alone, and still the shaking won’t stop.

Sister Catherine finds her patient in a state of near delirium when she comes in. Her fingers tangled in her hair, Vesna rocks back and forth, banging her face repeatedly against her knees.

“Stop! You must stop, you will hurt yourself,” Sister Catherine hurries across the room, catching Vesna’s hands in her own. Vesna lifts anguished eyes.

“What have I done?,” she whispers.

Sister Catherine frowns, not understanding. “What do you mean?”

Vesna seems not to hear her. “Oh dear god, what have I done?” She grips the front of Sister Catherine’s habit, her eyes glittering. “I didn’t mean to do it,” her voice is that of a frightened child who wishes only to be consoled.

The nun, alarmed by her passion, strokes Vesna’s hair. Striving to comfort her. “Shh, it’s alright my child. You didn’t mean to do what?”

Vesna gasps for air like she is being strangled, remembering blood stained leaves and gory branches. “To kill them. I didn’t mean to kill them. I-I just wanted them to leave me alone.”

Sister Catherine goes very still, shock whitening her face. “What?”

Choking on her own frantic sobs, Vesna releases her grip on the habit, falling backwards onto the bed and curling into herself.

The nun slowly straightens from the bed, her face resembling parchment, her fingers shaking as she crosses herself. Struck by sudden indecision and fear, she stands frozen.

Then, as if faced by the open maw of a hungry predator, she turns and flees from the room.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

There is a face at the window. There is the echo of laughter, gusting in the wind. Vesna closes her ears to all sounds, and retreats within herself. She grips the thin blanket she lies tangled in, she pulls it up over herself and nestles beneath, the taste of tears in her mouth. She imagines that she is home, that she can feel Cherina’s solid warmth beside her, that this is the scent of spice cake in her nostrils, not the lingering memory of blood.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

Like charcoal scraping on paper. Or iron grinding against bone. Will this relentless sound ever cease tormenting her? It is inside her skull, behind her eyes, boring ever deeper. Shuddering, she casts the blanket from her and sits up in the bed, eyes roving wildly, trying to locate the source of the noise. From behind the glass there is a toothy smile, and the creature’s nails slide down the window once more.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

“Stop!” Vesna cries, leaping from the bed. “Please,” she sobs, tugging open the window. “I can bear it no more.”

The creature cocks its head, mouth curving like a sword folding in on itself. “Good. Perhaps now you’ll desist in your tasteless display of self pity.”

Now that the creature is right before Vesna’s eyes, she sees that it looks not unlike a woman. Yet inhuman, and frighteningly so. Skin of the palest blue, hair like white silk, lithe form clothed in a shroud that seems no more than a shimmering mirage… and such eyes. Lightless eyes that devour, bottomless, and so large that they appear almost childlike. To Vesna it feels that she is back in the forest with her nightmare all over again.

“What-” Vesna begins, only to choke on her words. “Who are you?”

The inhuman thing sniffs and peers at her tapered nails with marked disinterest. “I am a Vila,” she looks up coldly. “Not that you know what that is. Stupid mortal child that you are.”

“I know what a Vila is,” responds Vesna defensively. “Mama told us tales about them when we were children.” She looks at the Vila from beneath lowered lashes, shyly. “I thought Vilas were supposed to be…” she trails off, unable to finish her sentence.

“Beautiful?,” the Vila finishes for her, her expression now beginning to emanate very strong dislike. “Well, maybe, your very human definition of beautiful is a little tepid. Or perhaps it is that we have begun to fade, that we no longer maintain our former beauty. All because of mortals and their insignificant miseries, mortals and their inability to accept anything that is not right in front of them, mortals praying to their crippled god as they willfully forget the old faith. It is because of mortals, mortals, like you, that we are no longer what we once were.” The Vila breathes out sharply, her eyes piercing Vesna like angry wounds.

Vesna’s gaze finds the floor, and when she speaks, her words are halting and contrite. “I’m deeply sorry little mother. I-I meant no offense.” Recalling something that her mother once said about appeasing an angry Vila, she tugs a ribbon free from her tangled mass of hair. Keeping her head bowed, she offers the ribbon. It is meager, and she knows it, but it’s all she has.

The Vila snatches the ribbon haughtily, her anger slightly abated. Though Vesna can still sense it, burning and fierce, like a nest of hot coals at her feet. “At least you are not utterly mannerless,” she loops the ribbon about her neck and ties it neatly.

“You may dispense with the ‘little mother’ title. I am no Domovoi. My name is Jovanka. I’ve been sent to give you a warning.”

“A…warning?”

“Yes, a warning, stupid child. Thanks to your inability to keep your mouth clamped, the entire village now knows of your deeds.”

Vesna stares, horrified. “They know?”

“Oh yes, they know. At the very least they know that you were somehow an instrument in the death of those two men. But those who are wiser might guess that there was something…uncanny involved.”

“It’s true though, I killed those men,” whispers Vesna through numb lips. “Whatever fate they have planned, it’s no more than I deserve.”

There is a sharp crack, and Vesna flinches away from the window, her hand clasped to her face, a thin line of blood streaming from claw marks on her cheek. “Wake up,” snaps Jovanka furiously. “What were those men trying to do before you killed them? Would you have had them rape you instead?”

“Now come. We have wasted enough time.”

Before Vesna can argue, there is the sound of booted feet outside her door.

“Be careful,” someone whispers. “She may appear harmless, but there is a demon within her.”

Her mind trying, and failing, to make sense of the events unfolding before her, Vesna slips out the window and follows Jovanka into the woods.

The Vila is fast, quicksilver fast, her feet barely brushing the forest floor and she leaps forward. Vesna’s body feels stiff and immobile, and she stumbles, frequently. Her feet tripping over themselves and tangling in the long habit the nuns have placed her in.

“Wait,” she gasps, “I can’t keep up.”

Jovanka pauses, her long mouth curling in disdain. “I know you carry mortal blood… but can’t you do better than this?”

“What do you mean? You said yourself that I am mortal.”

The Vila seems to bite back words, her mouth forming instead a huff of disgust. Still, she slows her pace, and Vesna is able to breathe again.

As they move through the wild thickets of the wood, Vesna finds that she is brimming with unanswered questions. About the Vila, about the man in the ochre mask, about Vesna herself, and the uncanny way those men died. Yet it is one that keeps nibbling at the back of her mind, and though she fears angering the Vila further, she must ask.

“Who sent you to warn me?”

Jovanka does not pause in her seemingly random path through the woods.

“Someone who told me explicitly not to reveal their identity to you.” The Vila glances over her shoulder, “you ought to be grateful for your narrow escape. Now still your tongue, I have no patience for you, and still less for your needless questions.”

Vesna knows that her mother would chide her for her blatant disregard of the customs that a mortal should follow when dealing with other-folk. So rare that is almost unheard of that an other-folk should choose to aid a mortal, and when they do, they must be treated with reverence. So Vesna stills her tongue, closing gates to the tidal wave of questions that threaten to break through, and simply concentrates on following Jovanka. Unknowing of what their intended destination is, yet somehow uncaring.

Her legs are scratched and bleeding, her body aching and worn, when at last the Vila stops in the space of a small clearing. She is somehow perched in the branch of a nearby tree when Vesna looks up, and she does not question how she came to be there.

“You have a choice to make,” Jovanka tells her. “A fork in the road, as you might say. Will you go that way?” Jovanka gestures towards where, framed by trees, Vesna can see the outline of her house waiting in the distance. “Or, this way?,” this time her arm sweeps towards the wall of trees that lie before them. Thick ropes of hanging moss swing lazily from the branches, and there is a scent of musk on the breeze.

Vesna shivers, “what fate awaits me among the trees?”

Jovanka’s eyes glitter with wicked delight. “It’s a secret. But I’ll tell you this, all answers to your questions lie that way.”

Vesna feels a sharp yearning that tugs at her heart like a fishhook. Feels the breeze whispering at the edge of her gown, tugging her forward. Can almost hear her name murmured among the tangle of trees. The scent of musk tantalizing, the moss so dark, so green, like her own eyes.

“No,” she says. “I’m going home,” so saying, she turns her feet toward where she knows her sisters, her mother, await.

The Vila is suddenly behind her, sharp teeth gleaming. “Are you so sure your home lies the way you think?”

“Yes,” answers Vesna, surprised by her own certainty, by the knowledge that she speaks the simple truth. She continues forward, pausing only to lift thorny branches from her path. When she looks back, perhaps to bid farewell to Jovanka, there is no one there. Just the echo of laughter in the wind, she can almost hear it whispering;

“Fool. A thousand regrets lie before you.”

Yet she feels no regret as she opens the door of her home, as she is embraced by her sisters, as her mother sheds tears of relief and holds trembling arms out to her. No regret at all.

“What has happened?,” asks Sobena. “We didn’t think they’d send you home so soon. The abbess sent no word of your condition, and we’ve heard nothing of the killer being found.”

Vesna blanches, joy forgotten in the face of what she must tell her mother. She would sooner hide, sooner burn these words before they can slip free from her mouth, but she knows that fouler words, from others, will reach her mothers ears if she does not speak first.

“What is it Vesna?,” Olena asks, all concern, and Vesna realizes that she has been silent, holding her breath.

“Nothing, nothing. Only I must speak to mother, in private.”

Sobena wastes no time, briskly sending the twins to do some chore, sweeping Vesna towards a secluded spot upstairs. Vesna has always told her sisters everything, they have always known her secrets before anyone else, and Vesna does not miss the look of reproach Cherina throws her way as they ascend the stairs.

Standing in the attic, amidst cobwebs and dust, Vesna feels her throat constrict, as if she can choke the words down. Imagine that none of it ever happened. Her mothers shrewd gaze is upon her, burning out the truth.

So Vesna lays the grisly bones of the tale before her mother. Starting with the man in the ochre mask, his words to her, of fathers and tales untold. At the raw red center of the story, she weeps to tell her mother of the dead men and the branches that pierced them. At last, she ends with the blue skinned creature at her window, the Vila with her sharp tongue and claws that were sharper still, how she drew her into the wood and ultimately rescued Vesna from those who would have harmed her. The choice she had to make, and how she chose to return home.

Sobena is silent at first, her eyes shining with tears, her mouth a quivering line.

“Oh child,” she whispers at last. “All my fault, this is all my fault.” Hands clasped to her mouth, she slumps to the floor, the hem of her dress dragging in cobwebs.

Vesna kneels before her, gathering her mother’s hands in her own. “What do you mean mama? How can you possibly be to blame, for any of this?”

“God forgive me…had I only told you sooner- though, what good would it have done? Come closer child, for though it pains me to no end, though I have only wished to protect you from the inevitable truth, there is a tale I must tell you.”

“It begins with the wood, and ends with the wood, as many tales do.”

There is a man in our wood…

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Whispers in The Dark (part two)

Vesna awakens herself to full consciousness with her own cry of fear. She casts her eyes about the empty bedroom, half expecting the man in the ochre mask to leap from the shadows. But there is only sun rays kissing the oaken floor with gold. Strands of morning, silken soft, streaming across the bed to warm her face. Still, she still feels a cold shroud against her skin, cast over her by the dream or by the taloned man himself, which she does not know.

Downstairs, Cherina treats her with cold indifference. Olena is sympathetic but silent, and her mother won’t stop scrutinizing her, as if trying to puzzle something out. After a while it becomes too much for her, and she goes out onto the pasture and sits, her head in her hands. She had briefly considered seeking refuge in the forest, but with the dream from the previous night still haunting her, she doesn’t dare.

“Vesna?” Footsteps, behind her. Without turning, she already knows that it’s her mother. There is no mistaking that gentle voice, the way she softens it when she’s concerned.

With Sobena’s calm demeanor and willingness to listen quietly, it is little wonder that the villagers come to her so frequently to seek advice. But Vesna doesn’t want to spill her woes just now, she knows there is little her mother can do, and she has enough worries without Vesna adding to them.

“Mama, I’m alright. Sorry about yesterday.”

There’s a soft rustle as her mother sits down beside her. Vesna keeps her head in her lap so her mother won’t see the tear stains on her face. Sobena starts to speak, then stops, seeming to be wrestling with some internal decision.

“You’re different, different then the rest of us. I know you resent that, but sometimes I think it’s a good thing.”

“How is it a good thing?” Vesna asks bleakly.

“Mortals are…weak. Made weak by our greed and desire to control things. You’re not like that. I know you don’t understand now, but someday, I think you will.”

Vesna leans into her mothers comforting embrace, wishing that nothing in the world existed but this. This field of soft green, these arms around her, the calls of birds echoing in the autumn sky.

Sobena still appears to be struggling, her mouth moves but no words come, and her eyes are wet with tears that do not fall. “There are things, things I must tell you,” she holds Vesna tighter, and Vesna can feel her trembling. “But not yet.”

Vesna returns home alone, disquieted by this strange conversation with her mother. Cherina is waiting for her among the copse of trees outside their house. She is holding a pair of pale green shoes. Vesna starts to speak, to apologize, but Cherina stops her, abruptly shoving the shoes towards her.

“These are for you,” she says brusquely.

Vesna accepts them, and knows that she has been forgiven.

They are beautiful, well-made shoes, having been carefully felted by Cherina’s clever hands. Vesna holds them against her chest, admiringly smoothing her hands over the soft material.

Cherina clears her throat uncomfortably, her face tilted so that her hair falls across her face. “You have such soft feet, and you weren’t wearing any when you went into the forest yesterday…” This is her way of admitting that she was worried.

Vesna wordlessly throws her arms around Cherina’s waist, burying her face in her shoulder. The shoes fall to the ground between them. Cherina tenses, then slowly wraps her own arms around Vesna. “You know how much we love you, right?” Her voice is muffled against Vesna’s hair, her words barely audible.

Vesna can only nod, for she knows that if she speaks, the dam holding back her tears will break, and that once she begins, she may never stop.

The remainder of the month is spent in preparation for Market Day. It is the height of harvest season in Drevach, and Sobena’s seasonal spice cakes are much welcomed by the local peasantry. She cooks tirelessly, and Vesna helps her. Milking the irritable cow, fetching eggs from the neighbors, stirring and kneading endless bowls of dough. Meanwhile, Olena and Cherina spend their time weaving, often late into the night. Cloaks, hoods, scarves, and hats. Winter clothes that will fetch good prices at the market.

It is growing cold, and they must be prepared for the harsh winter storms. They will buy beeswax for candles, vegetables for pickling, meat for curing, wool for warm clothes, feed for the livestock, and many other things essential for the coming months. It is the busiest time of the season, everyone is always exhausted, always working, and there is little time for play. It is also a good time, and though Vesna has no trade of her own, she still feels useful, satisfied, content. Neighbors are too busy bringing in the harvest to prod her with awkward questions. There is a sweet sense of accomplishment at the end of each long day, and the kitchen is always fragrant with the smell of spices and ripe fruit.

The sun has not yet risen, and the clouds are streaked with indigo. Vesna and her sisters are picking their way down the path above the village. Sobena is baking the last of the spice cakes, and she will come later, after the sisters have set up stall. It is bitterly cold, and the twins are soon shivering. Vesna is unaffected, she has never felt the cold. Instead, she wraps her own shawl about Olena’s shaking shoulders. Cherina is far ahead the two of them, likely she is already calculating prices and quantities. As ever, she is the practical one.

The village is still sleepy, the residents just beginning to stir from their homes. Vesna breathes in the crisp morning air and smiles. She feels that today, luck must smile down upon them.

As the hours progress, customers begin to flock to their stall. Mostly young farmers, undoubtedly drawn by Olena’s clear laugh and how her unbound hair shimmers gold in the light of the rising sun. Or perhaps by Cherina’s stern beauty, the way her dress catches her curves as it brushes the ground, her full lips curved in the slightest of smiles. Meanwhile, Vesna, who has long known that something about her warns men away, keeps her head down as she passes out the goods.

As a child, Vesna adored the market. It was an exotic world to her, brimming with strange languages, expensive silks and fragrant spices. People were kind to her here, many of them having black eyes and still blacker hair, like her. Unknowing of the bad luck that rode her shoulder like death. Ignorant of her inherent awkwardness and lack of charm. To these foreigners she was just another inquisitive soul, naive enough to buy their overpriced candles, kind enough to listen to their wistful tales of distant homelands, not yet corrupted by life and lies.

But market only came a few times a year, and it was not as if Vesna could go away with these merchants, not as if she could climb aboard their painted wagons like one of the village stray cats. Besides, once in her company, they would soon enough understand why the villagers called her cursed, and she would be cast aside. After all, no self respecting merchant can abide bad luck.

Vesna is older now, too old to be trailing after sellers nabbing treats and silk kerchiefs. Now she has a stall of her own to look after, and despite her fondness for the market, there is little joy in what she does. Is it the heat of the afternoon sun on her unprotected neck? The wary glances villagers cast her from beneath their mops of blonde hair? Or maybe it’s the appraising smiles everyone casts on her sisters and their effortless beauty, that poisonous stab of jealousy she feels in the depths of her heart…

Regardless of the reason, Vesna can no longer stand at the stall with her beautiful sisters. She mutters an apology as she escapes into the crowd. Blinking back hot tears, she hides in a darkened alley outside the tavern. Lifting her skirts to avoid drenching them in mud, she frightens a stray cat lapping up water from a gutter. The cat, eyes gleaming gold in the shadows, arches its back and hisses.

Vesna laughs bitterly, “I frighten even you? Tell me puss, what is the matter with me? Am I hexed? Besmirched? Possessed by foul demons? If this was an old tale, you’d be a kindly spirit sent to cleanse my soul and give me a happy ending.”

The cat backs away and growls, low in its throat, the fur along the back of its neck raised and bristling.

Vesna leans against the wall of the tavern, no longer caring if her clothes are dirtied, “but this is no old tale, is it puss?” She shuts her eyes, briefly, but they fly open when she hears voices nearby. The cat turns, leaping nimbly onto the rooftop and disappearing into the gloom.

“Petra, where you going? Thought we were headed to the tavern for drinks.”

“Gimme a sec, was sure I heard voices back here.”

“You daft man? Likely you just heard the voices talking in yer thick skull.”

Vesna holds herself stiffly against the wall, wishing she could disappear. A man comes tottering around the corner, likely been in the drink already if the way he stumbles is any indication. He peers doubtfully into the shadows for a moment before his eyes light upon her.

“Ooh Vasily. There’s a lass back ere.”

“A lass? An now you’re seeing things!” Vasily joins his friend, his face drawn in a scowl of irritation.

“See?” Petra turns to Vasily, smirking.

They are village locals, likely they have just returned from a days work in the fields. Petra looks to be in his mid twenties, Vasily is older. Though it’s hard to know for certain, they both have weatherworn faces, lined by exhaustion and a hard life. Vesna doesn’t know either of them, but her mother has most assuredly brought fresh baked bread to their family at one time or another. But they don’t know this. To them she’s not their neighbor’s daughter, not a stranger they might be kind to just for the sake of being kind. She’s fresh prey, and they’re hungry.

Vesna moves to go around them, but Petra grabs her arm, “where do you think yer goin?”

“I don’t want any trouble, my family will be looking for me.” She tries to seem unafraid and nonchalant, but her voice betrays her fear.

“Really now? An here I was thinking you was just another tavern whore.” He turns to Vasily, “think she’s a virgin?”

The other man shrugs, a slow smile spreading across his face, “only one way to find out.”

Petra grabs the front of her dress and pulls, hard. Ripping the fabric and exposing the white skin of her breastbone. Using her free hand she scrabbles at the brick wall behind them and pulls free a chuck of loose mortar. She brings her hand up, hitting him in the side of the head. He lets her go, cursing, bright blood welling up from where she hit him. Vasily lunches for her, but she slips away, falling backwards into the mud. Peter is still cursing, holding his head protectively. Calling her a fiend and a bitch-spawn.

On shaking legs she scrambles to her feet, barely noticing her scraped palms from where she caught herself when she fell. The alley ends in mortared bricks, and there is nowhere to run. Vasily laughs, shouldering past Petra to block her passage forward, his eyes gleaming with amusement and lust.

“She’s a feisty one, just how I like them. C’mere sweetheart, we’re gonna have us some fun.”

Vesna tries to scream, but her throat is locked, and all that comes out is a panicked rasp. Vasily is in front of her now, leaning in close, his breath smelling of tobacco and vodka. She can feel rage building in her breast, a slow burn spreading through her body until she feels that there is molten lava in her veins. Her vision blurs, and she can just barely make out when Vasily’s expression turns to raw terror. He lurches backwards, his face contorted in a silent cry.

There is something in his mouth, and he’s clawing at his throat, gasping for breath. Leaves. His mouth is full of leaves, shimmering gold, green, brown, as they spiral to the ground. A branch protrudes from his chest. The leaves are now stained with red. He convulses, falling to the ground, and for a brief moment, there is silence.

Then Petra cries out, running to Vasily’s side. He looks at her, his face a mask of hatred. “What’d you do to him? What’d you do?”

“Monster,” he spits. There’s a knife in his hand, it promises revenge.

Vesna’s face feels wooden. She can’t speak. She can’t cry out. She can only watch.

Petra stands purposefully, raising the knife as he comes toward her. Then, somehow, there is wood encasing his arm, crushing it. She can hear him screaming. He’s still screaming when her world fades to black.

 

•••••••••••••••

 

The sun has returned from his hunt across the sky, and is now drenched in blood. He is bathing in a sky stained with crimson, he has spilled a glass of wine, he is sleeping in a feast of oranges. The stalls are being closed, villagers crowding to the tavern for a celebratory meal. Yet Vesna has still not returned. Olena cannot imagine why, but there is a stale taste of dread permeating her mouth, and she cannot bring herself to smile when people compliment her on her good work at the stall.

“Credit to your mum you are!”

“What a beauty, and clever too!”

Olena can only nod in thanks, her mind elsewhere, her thoughts unraveling in threads of worry. Her mother had joined them hours before, sometime after Vesna disappeared. She looks worn, her eyes red with exhaustion, her voice raspy from bartering all day. Cherina seems equally tired, subdued and distant as she packs up the remaining woven cloaks they have not managed to sell.

She touches her mother on the shoulder. “Mama? I’m going to look for Vesna.” Sobena gives her a distracted nod before returning to stacking baskets.

Olena pulls the hood of her cloak over her head, shielding her face from curious stares. She has a thin blade at her waist, but she doubts it will do her much good if the local men get too bold, she can only hope that it will deter them. The clouds above promise early snows, and she shivers, wrapping Vesna’s shawl tighter about her shoulders.

“Vesna,” she whispers, “where are you?”

She hopes that her fears are unfounded, perhaps Vesna became distracted by the exotic goods being displayed. Or perhaps she stopped to converse with one of the stall-holders and lost track of time. Olena also fears that she will have to give up her search, the sun has retreated beneath the horizon, and a blanket of darkness is lowering itself across the land. The crowd, though somewhat dispersed, is growing rowdy, and several times she is painfully jostled as she picks her way through the village.

Olena is turning to go back when she notices a commotion of voices next to the tavern. As she comes closer, she can hear horrified gasps, and the sound of weeping. A woman abruptly pushes past her to vomit on the sidewalk.

She tugs at the sleeve of one of the bystanders, an old man. “What happened?”

He holds his head, overcome by the horror of whatever it is that he has seen. “Two of our best boys, a young woman too. Sweet Christ, what has become of this world?”

There’s a tight feeling in Olena’s chest, and she becomes frantic as she pushes through the crowd. “Let me through!” She cries, curling her hands into fists as she shoves her way to the front. The sight that meets her eyes turns her legs to jelly, and she slumps against the wall, her sight blurring with tears.

“Vesna, Vesna. My sweet sister.”

Vesna is motionless on the ground, her hair sticky with blood and grime. She is laying on her stomach, and Olena laboriously rolls her over, leaning in to listen for a heartbeat. There is nothing, at first, but then there is an erratic beat coming from beneath Vesna’s breastbone.

Olena looks up at the crowd, her face stained with tears. “She’s alive! My sister is alive. Please, someone get help!”

The crowd is still for a moment, uncertain and startled. Finally a young man turns and disappears around the corner, presumably to find a healer. A woman comes forward and kneels next to Olena, feeling Vesna’s pulse and smoothing back her hair to touch her forehead.

“Poor child,” she murmurs. “Who could’ve done this?”

Olena notices, for the first time, the two men laying behind them. One laying facedown in a pool of his own blood, the other at a strange angle, his face frozen in a mask of agony. Olena has never seen death, not like this, and she makes a strangled noise as she clasps her hands to her mouth. The woman puts a consoling hand on Olena’s shoulder, her eyes kind and understanding.

“You get used to it, after a time. The death, the dying. Never makes it easy though.”

A man wearing the badge of a law enforcer pushes his way through the crowd, shouting. “Disperse, the lot of you. Nothing to see here!”

He frowns at Olena and the woman. “Let the law handle this, the mayor will be here soon.”

Olena finds strength in her sudden anger. “She’s my sister, and she’s not dead, not yet. I won’t leave her.”

The enforcer opens his mouth, then shrugs, confused. “Find her a healer then, she’ll be wanted for questioning once she’s conscious.”

Olena directs a glare at him before turning back to her sisters prostrate form. She is thankful for the steady support of the woman beside her. Without it she knows that she would give in to her tears. It seems an eternity before a healer finally appears.

In Drevach there is a strong distrust of anything involving the old faith, of wise women or sages. Women who call themselves healers and do not belong to the church are often prosecuted. So it is not a village healer to comes to their aid, but a nun, Sister Catherine, hailing from the villages local abbey. She places a small wooden icon against Vesna’s lips before she allows them to move her.

“To dispel evil spirits,” she explains, crossing herself.

With the help of a few stolid villagers, they move Vesna to the abbey and find her a bed. Olena hovers, until the nuns send her away.

“You’ll do no good here, my child. Return to your family, tell them of the events that have transpired before foul gossip taints their ears. Come the morning we’ll send word.”

Olena is afraid, afraid for her sister. Her hands cling to her wrists, her face drawn and white. “What if she…” her sentence cracks down the middle.

One of the older nuns sighs sharply. She has little patience. Prayers have already been disrupted, and Olena’s fear only serves to make the younger novices more anxious.

“Shock is your sister’s greatest injury. She is otherwise unharmed, save minor bruises and scratches. We will examine her in the morning, but rest assured, she will live.”

Reluctantly, Olena allows herself to be escorted from the abbey. Holding a lantern to light her way, the cold biting at her with sharp teeth, she returns home. Her mother meets her at the door, throwing shaking arms about Olena’s neck and drawing her inside.

“Thank God,” she whispers. “The villagers were saying things, and I…I didn’t know what to believe.”

“Oh mama. It was awful, Vesna was lying there, so pale, so cold, I thought she was gone-”

“Shh,” Sobena guides her to a chair, Olena sinks into it gratefully. Sobena kneels at her feet, the firelight playing on her features, and Olena puzzles at how beautiful her mother still is, even after the years have etched lines of grief and exhaustion into her face. Lines that now appear deeper than ever.

“Tell me.”

So Olena tells her, and wonders why, at the end of her tale, instead of relief, she sees only dread in her mothers eyes. Wonders why her hands shake so as she rises, why when she finally speaks, her voice is hoarse, sounding older and more tired than it has ever sounded before.

“Go to bed.” says her mother, standing straight-backed at the window. Half of her lit by candlelight, the rest thrown into shadow.

Sobena stands there for many long hours, above her, the clouds devour themselves as they advance across the sky. Yet it is not the clouds she turns her eyes towards, but the dim outline of the forest.

“It is true what they say,” she tells the night. “All gifts he gives come with a price.”

The night does not respond, and though the hearth is warm, she shivers as she turns away from the window.

At the edge of the forest, there are many glittering eyes watching the house.

Watching, and waiting.

A581B2A3-CA3A-418D-93E1-FDFD3945A15A

Whispers in The Dark (Part One)

We respect the old spirits. We offer them gifts so that they may leave us in peace.

There’s a woman in our house, she is old, her face wizened like an apple left too long in the sun. You will never see her unless she wishes to be seen. Some nights, when the moon is blanketed in black velvet, she laps at the fresh cream we leave on the threshold. She gives us nothing in return, but the hearth remains clean, our hair unknotted, the eggs fresh and unspoiled.

There’s a child on our roof, it might be made of stone, it might be made of moss. It is never seen, because it does not wish to be seen. Through long winter nights it murmurs secrets into the gloom. Sometimes, if you are very still, and if you listen carefully, you might hear a whisper or two. We leave oatcakes on the turf, steaming and fragrant. Unwelcome visitors will feel sharp pebbles on their faces, on their backs. Flowers will be left at our doorstep in spring, from whom we do not know, from whom we cannot see, but there will be an echo of laughter hanging in the air.

There’s a man in our wood. Once, we might see him, might glimpse him, and we will wish that we had not. His teeth are sharp, his claws long. His limbs are of wood, his hair of moss, he stinks of soil and rot. Many who venture into the wood, they do not return. The villagers leave unwanted babies at the edge of the wood, ill-behaved children are sent to gather mushrooms. Women disappear at the stream sometimes, where the water meets the border of the aspens. He takes many forms, and you never know if he was really there, or if you imagined it. On occasion, he leaves us gifts, blesses us or assists us, but there is always a price. He takes more than he gives, and this has always been so.

There is old spirits all around us, in the streams, in the woods, deep down in the earth. You cannot move without touching upon their realms. So you must move with respect, with caution, you mustn’t forget them. Still, we avoid them, for curiosity is rarely rewarded when dealing with the other-folk. This is something our elders teach us, and those of us who are sensible, take heed.

Father warned me about the stream, where it turns murky green as it meets the edge of the wood. I didn’t listen, because I was not sensible. I took my bucket there, hoping to catch minnows, to peer into the depths and dream about my future. Instead I saw a fox, and handsome he was, with a white ruff and furled red tail. He looked at me with those glittering black eyes, and I was lost. We stayed like that for a time, eyes locked, then he turned and faded into the woods.

I followed.

It was some time before he revealed his true self, and by then we were in the heart of the wood. I was afraid, of course, but I knew that the other-folk respect courage. So I was courteous, I told him stories, and did not ask that he release me. He told me about the forest, about the trees and how he liked to lay among their roots and listen to them grow. How it hurt, how it tore at the contours of his heart when those trees were kissed by the blades of axes. He told me these things, and I listened to his gravely voice, wondering at how the fear I had felt before now dissolved like sugar on my tongue.

I do not know how long I stayed with him in the wood. I only remember how tender he was when he laid me down among the leaves, how he kissed me, and his scent was not of rot, as they say, but of pine needles and apple blossom. I remember waking, at the edge of the wood, my head pillowed by soft grass. Stumbling home in a daze, avoiding the probing questions, the wary glances, the scandal that arose around my disappearance.

I didn’t care. There was a happiness inside me. A happiness that grew until my belly was round and smooth, until it protruded from my body like a ripe melon. I never saw him again, never had any illusion that I would. Still, there were times when laying awake at night, singing softly to my unborn child, I yearned for him.

There’s a man in our wood, and on occasion, he leaves us gifts, but there is always a price.

 

There is a woman in a dark room, remembering how hot words had caught in her throat like flaming swallows. Why couldn’t she speak as she watched them burn her home to the ground? Where was her voice? Not even a whisper. Nothing from her unmoving lips, still as if carved in stone.

“Heartless,” they whisper behind their hands. “Didn’t even cry at her own mother’s funeral.”

“Witch. She’s a witch.”

There was a life, before this, but now the memory of it is slipping through her hands like sand. There was soft hands, golden sunlight chasing blue sky, pretty dresses, smiles and laughter. There was someone kind too, but she can’t remember their name, or their face. Wasn’t there a young girl too? Dark eyes and darker hair, laughing as she twirled in place, ribbons coming loose from her pale blue dress. That’s her, that must be her, but when has she ever been happy enough to laugh?

No. No, make the memories go away, it doesn’t matter, not anymore.

The woman stands and goes to the window, the sun is rising outside. Her skin starving for a single ray of light, so pale that she can see the blue veins coursing just under her skin, but she slams the shutter closed. There is no place for light in this room. This is a room of penance.

Somewhere, a million miles across the sea, ten years into the past, there is the same girl. Her name is Vesna, and she has dark eyes and still darker hair. Vesna lives in a small village called Drevach. Their house is too small for its occupants, and the prices in the market are high, and yet somehow, everything is still perfect. Vesna lives with her two sisters and her mother. Her sisters are identical twins, each replicating the other, and both still so very different.

They were born with their mothers white blonde hair and her blue eyes. Both have that dimple on their left cheek, smiles that could melt the thickest ice, and such soft hands. Vesna is different, but that has never lessened the love the rest of her family has for her. There had been a father, a quiet merchant with kind eyes and nut brown hair. But there was a storm, and his ship sank. Vesna had been younger then, but she still remembers the day they learned of his death.

Sobena will never remarry, everyone knows and respects this, and for a time sorrow continuously ate at her soul like a starving ghost. Now, her children have returned the light to her eyes, they have given her reason to find joy in living again. They now live off of her diseased husbands savings and the little that Sobena brings in from her occupation as a baker in the village. Both of the sisters, Cherina and Olena, are distinguished seamstresses. Vesna has five aunts, they live together at the far end of Drevach and are respected for their wisdom and piety. From time to time they visit, laden with spices, fruit preserves, gifts, and gossip.

Everyone has their place, everyone is useful, in their own little way. All except Vesna, who always burns the bread, tears the cloth when she attempts to sew, and brings general bad luck wherever she goes. Piety and wisdom are not among her attributes, much to the despair of her relatives. Churches make her feel trapped, and she does not know if she is wise, but her aunts call her featherbrained whenever she opens her mouth, so she imagines that she is not.

She runs errands, weeds the garden, washes dishes, clears the table, cares for her sisters, but as she grows older, she can feel herself becoming more restless. It seems that Vesna cannot turn her hand to anything, however hard she may try.

She thought that perhaps she might have a gift with animals, like their father did, but the horses shy away when she comes close, Olga, their cat, won’t purr for her, and the cow always knocks over the milk pail when she goes to milk her.

Vesna, it seems, is cursed.

Cherina and Olena always try to comfort her.

“You’re good at singing,” they tell her, and she doesn’t have the heart to tell them that the last time she tried to sing her voice broke into a million pieces.

In October, she turns sixteen, and at her birthday, there are so many relatives asking questions she can’t answer. Has she taken up sewing like her sisters, baking like her mother, perhaps selling merchandise, since her father had such a gift for numbers? All of those aunts running their hands through her liquid black hair, commenting on its length, its unusual shade of black. Her neighbors and their tow-headed sons, casually asking her mother about marriage proposals. All of them watching her disapprovingly as she stands immobile and stony cold in their claw-like hands.

She can’t seem to stop tripping over the new dress Cherina made for her, and the honey cake baked by her mother tastes like ash in her mouth, while the wrapped presents all seem to mock her.

Finally, she can find an excuse to leave, and she’s running through the woods behind their house. The ribbons on her dress catching on roots, her hair snagging on branches. She runs forward, heedlessly, her heart pulsing like an angry wound in her chest. Vesna collapses on the forest floor, sobbing for breath. As she sits cradled in the roots of the trees, envy stabs mercilessly at her. She looks at her reflection in the still water below and tries to imagine herself with Cherina’s golden hair, Olena’s sweet smile, her mother’s social graces and deft hands.

Instead, there’s just a piece of darkness staring back at her. Dark eyes and still darker hair, cold skin the color of a fish belly, and no soft curves under that dress they put her in. Vesna curls into the embrace of the forest and wonders what will become of her.

She awakens to cold night air on her skin, and an owls lone hoot somewhere above her. She looks up to see the dusky sky framed in the trees above, there is stars shimmering there, and the faint glimmer of the moon modestly layered in veils of clouds. They will wonder where she has gone, her Aunts will tut in disapproval, remarking how unlike her sisters she is, how ungrateful to disappear when everyone has put so much time into this special day, and her poor mother, what a burden a child like that must be. The guests will have dispersed, the decorations and unwrapped presents all swept away. It is now safe to return, but Vesna wishes the roots in which she still lies entangled could absorb her like water.

Olena is waiting for her at the door, and she knows that it is Olena, not Cherina, because her feet are bare against the dewy ground. Cherina always wears shoes.

“You were gone such a long time, I thought the Owl King must have kidnapped you and that I would have to come rescue you.” Olena tries to make it sound like she’s irritated, but Vesna can see that she’s smiling. Olena was always the sweet tempered one.

“He did, and he made me slave away for him for eight long years. I’ve only just escaped.” Vesna shoves her hands toward Olena dramatically, “see? Ravaged and torn. I had to weave his clothes out of thorns.”

Olena studies Vesna’s hands with mock solemnity. “They look hideous, deformed and gnarled by scars. Never fear, I shall avenge you.”

“Will you stab him with your sewing needle?” Vesna laughs.

Olena nods, “the trustiest sword I own. He will know great pain before he dies.”

Vesna hugs Olena, feeling how cold her skin is beneath her thin nightgown. Her sister has likely stood here for hours, waiting for her to return.

“Thank you,” Vesna whispers, “for not scolding me.”

Olena smiles ruefully, “you’ll get enough of that from Cherina and mother. Especially Cherina, she’s furious with you.”

“Get a bite to eat and go to bed,” Olena tells her, “I’ll let mother know you’re home.”

As Vesna climbs the stairs to their bedroom, she reflects, not for the first time, that Olena is goodness in-personified.

Cherina is laying in bed when she enters the room, but when Vesna attempts to speak to her she rolls over abruptly, her shoulders stiff and angry. Vesna knows to leave her be, Cherina will be angry for a time, but she will forgive her, she always does. She knows she deserves it, but Cherina’s ire still hurts, and she has to fight back tears as she slides into bed next to her sisters stiff form.

Exhausted and heartsore, sleep soon takes her.

She dreams of the forest, of tangled roots and dripping lichen. The branches obscure the sky, and it is eerily quiet. There is a shadow awaiting her by the stream, and she approaches, her senses tingling with curiosity.

“I thought you would never come,” he turns to face her. He appears golden, backlit by the glow of fireflies, and his face is ornamented by a mask made of ochre stained wood. At first, she thinks he wears a cloak of feathers, but as the lights allows her to glimpse his back, she realizes that they are wings. Wings such as she has never seen. So long that they brush the ground, the feathers streaked with green.

“Do we…know each other?”

“No, but I knew your father.”

“My father?” Vesna, recalling the few memories she has of her father, knows that he was a ever superstitious man with a deep seated fear of the uncanny and inhuman. He was never without a talisman around his neck, and he often carried salt in his pockets.

He cocks his head to one side, “have you ever wondered why you are so very different from your sisters? Why they are beautiful and good and kind, and why you…you are not?”

Vesna has to blink back sudden tears, for his words slice deeply. It is something that everyone knows is true, something they all wonder, secretly, silently. Though no one has ever voiced those thoughts aloud in her presence.

“You don’t know anything about me,” she whispers.

“Oh, but I do. I understand you, Vesna. I fathom you in a way that your family, how ever hard they may try, never will. We are very much alike, you and I.”

“No, no we are not. You are a bewitched creature. An uncanny demon who preys on mortals and feeds on their worst fears. Leave me be.” She raises her hand, as if to ward him away, though she knows he is infinitely more powerful than her. Weak, frightened, little mortal girl that she is.

She wishes she could be courageous and good, like those heroes in the old tales. Cherina would have found a way out, with her clever mind and sharp tongue. Olena would have known how to appeal to his better nature, but Vesna isn’t like her sisters.

The man, if he can be called such, smiles widely, revealing a mouth full of sharply pointed teeth.

“There is a story…” he begins, advancing forward with a predatory grace.

She tries to back away from him, but finds that the trees have formed a wall behind her, surging to meet her shoulder blades. Her mouth is dry, her heart pounding frantically in her chest. She wants to press her hands to her ears, silence his words, but they are trapped by branches.

“There is a story that your mother has sought to keep from you,” he is so close, so close she can see that beneath the mask, his eye sockets are empty. “She can try to deny the truth, but deep down, she knows. You are your fathers daughter.” Slowly lifting his taloned hands, he removes his mask.

She awakens, screaming.

0F2939F8-BFB3-4DD4-8765-633CFC042D22

The Experiment

It’s a wintry day, the hospital gown I’m dressed in barely reaches my ankles, and I shiver as I stand on the cold marble floor beneath me. I knew what I was agreeing to when I signed the contract, but that doesn’t stop the sick feeling in my gut. The hard metal chair they’ve set out for me looks uninviting, so I perch on the edge, unwilling to make contact with the freezing surface just yet. My hands shaking with cold, I clip the microphone onto the edge of my flimsy gown. I plug the wires into place, hearing a faint whir as the monitor behind me comes to life. “I’m ready.” I say into the microphone, and the tremor in my voice is all too noticeable. Excitement perhaps? Or maybe fear?

 

I suppose I shouldn’t overanalyze my emotions, after all, it’s far too late to turn back now. The door opens and two scientists step in, their matching white uniforms only adding to the surreality. Brian and Mathew, they’re both well renowned in their field, but they’ll become celebrities if this works. Brian gives me a look of concern, barely decipherable behind the white mask he wears. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

 

I give him a jerky nod, swallowing down my fear, it tastes like stale crackers, and I almost choke on it. Brian is sweet, but like all men in his line of business, his underlying motive is money. Or course he wants to discover something new, who doesn’t? But when it comes down to it, it’s all about those crisp dollar bills being folded into his hand. Why am I doing this? To be honest, I’m not sure anymore. I’ve always been curious, wanting to know how the world works, what the rules are, and how to break them. But I never thought that I’d become a human Guinea pig, I guess we surprise even ourselves sometimes.

 

Mathew is busy, Mathew is always busy. He has a glint in his eye as he uneasily moves around the room, making sure everything is in place. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to him that this venture might kill me, maybe he has, and he just doesn’t care. He rolls a long silver table in front of me, it’s wrapped in a sheet. Brian nods to Mathew before he pulls the sheet off in one clean sweep. I catch my breath, my eyes riveted on the items laying on the table.

 

These items of power, no one knows where they came from, we don’t know how they work, we don’t even know if they work. I guess we’re about to find out. A ring that renders the wearer invisible, I take a good long look at it. As a child, I’d always wanted something to make me invisible. It’s a pretty ring, but not remarkable, a simple silver band with a tiny ruby set in it, like a single drop of blood. Lying next to it are a pair of hearing aids that enable the wearer to hear anything on earth, no matter how distant. That frightens me, truly frightens me, after all, I’m not sure I want to be able to hear everything on earth. My mind can’t even encompass what that might be like, how overwhelming that could be.

 

Then to the right of the aids, a cookie. It looks like a normal chocolate chip cookie, like the ones my Mom used to bake. A brief wave of nostalgia passes over me. Whoever eats it grows taller at the rate of a foot per minute. We haven’t discussed what to do if I don’t stop growing, but I imagine that the solution lays with the pale blue drink on the right hand side of the table. Alice in Wonderland was my favorite story as a child, and suddenly, I know what my choice will be.

 

Lastly, whoever drinks the liquid in the bottle shrinks at the rate of three inches per minute. It’s blue, a pale soda blue, like the gatorade my brother spilled on my polkadot dress on my twelfth birthday. It’s curious, the things we remember. Childishly, I never quite forgave him, but it was my favorite dress. Not to mention the fact that it was my birthday.

 

“Lisa?”

 

My cheeks turn a delicate shade of pink as I realize that Brian has been trying to get my attention. “Yes?”

 

“It’s time. Have you made your choice?”

 

I glance over the items on the table one more time before nodding. Brian nods, keeping his expression carefully blank, he’s worried about me, but he knows we’re past that now. We’re past everything.

 

“Good luck.” His tone is neutral, clipped, but I can see the pain hiding in his eyes. He doesn’t want me to do this. Mathew is retraining himself from doing a gleeful little jig, but he presses his hands together, composes himself. He will save his jig for afterwards, if there is an afterwards. Brian gives me one last glance before they turn and leave the room.

 

I sit there for a moment feeling lightheaded, the panic is coming back. Brian always makes me feel better with his somber stare and warm brown eyes. I suck in a deep breath, hoping that I’m not about to be sick. I need to have my head on right for this. It’s my job to recount everything exactly as it happens. I take the cookie, carefully, reverently, as if it’s an offering to the gods.

 

“The cookie is in my hand.” I say clearly, into the microphone. “It’s cold, hard, and heavy. Almost like a rock.” I give it a gentle squeeze. There’s no need for me to take notes, Mathew is doing that now. They’re watching me too, through a camera that turns to record even my tiniest movements. Like everything else in the room, it’s extremely unnerving.

 

“It looks like a normal cookie, but when I bring it up to the light it has a…almost metallic shine to it. The chocolate chips don’t seem to melt when I warm it with my hand.” I bring it to my nose and breathe in. “It smells like ice cream. A sweet, frozen smell. Like cold cake.”

 

I take a very deep breath. “I’m breaking off a crumb now, it breaks easily, more easily than you’d think, considering that it feels like a rock. No smaller crumbs bounce away when I break off the bigger one. I hope it doesn’t taste like dirt.” I allow myself a grim smile as I survey the crumb. “Here goes nothing.” I whisper breathlessly before placing it delicately in my mouth.

 

I’m not sure what I expected, maybe something dry and gritty, like gravel. Not this, definitely not this. When I was a little kid my Mom used to make chocolate chip cookies every Sunday, not those thin crispy ones that you buy at the store. No, she made thick chewy ones that would melt in your mouth. I used to tell her that her cookies tasted like dreams. Every Sunday evening she’d buy a carton of french vanilla ice-cream, then make a cookie sandwich with a thick layer of ice-cream in-between. We’d watch the sunset, two mugs of hot cocoa on the table between us, and our cookie sandwiches dripping ice-cream onto the little blue paper napkins she set out. Those were probably my fondest memories of my Mother, she was happy then, relaxed. Her blue eyes full of laughter as she stirred her hot cocoa, and then, like a naughty child, licking the chocolate residue off her finger.

 

Then everything changed, and she didn’t make chocolate chip cookies anymore. Those memories were soon in the past, but they still smelled like cocoa and tasted like french vanilla ice-cream melting on my tongue.

 

It comes back to me now, like it’s fresh out of my Mom’s oven, still warm as it dissolves in my mouth. I blink back sudden tears, bringing myself back to the project.
“It’s good.” I finally say. “Like warm chocolate chip cookies spread with butter. The texture is both chewy and creamy, and everything about it tastes very real.” I don’t mention that it tastes just like my Mom’s cookies, they don’t need to know that. I continue chewing, trying to savor it, make it last. The speaker comes on and Mathew’s staticky voice spills into the room. “I thought you said it felt like a rock.”

 

“Yes. It feels like a rock, apparently it doesn’t taste like one. The texture is nothing like I expected, feeling the cookie, I assumed that it would be like trying to swallow a stone. Thankfully, it’s like I’m in a bakery right now.”

 

He hesitates on the other end, Mathew has a weakness for sweets, he’s probably trying to focus on the project instead of the cookie in my hand. “Does it smell any different?”
I breathe in through my nose, almost expecting to smell my Mom’s favorite lavender perfume, or that melting chocolate smell that her kitchen always had when she was baking. Instead I’m startled by that sweet frozen smell again, and the scent of bleach from when they sterilized the room. “No, it doesn’t smell any different.” I say, unable to keep the disappointment out of my voice. I put the cookie down on the tray before swallowing it all, it hurts going down, a little like swallowing a warm rock. I tell Mathew this, and I hear the scratching of pen against paper from the speaker.

 

I wait for a minute, it seems like the longest minute in my life, the seconds ticking by like hours. Finally, I feel a curious sensation in my gut, then a slight pain as my spine stretches upwards. I was a petite 5 foot 3 when we started. Now I’m willing to bet that if we measured me, I’d be a good six foot. We’ve agreed that we won’t let me get any taller then ten foot, after that, the growing has to stop. “Did it work?” Mathew’s voice sounds dubious. I’m about to respond when I feel a sudden rush of dizziness. “Lisa?”

 

“I’m fine.” I manage. “It worked.” My voice sounds reedy from nerves and excitement. From the speaker there’s a heavy silence.

 

“That’s amazing Lisa.” Mathew finally says, his voice is unsteady. I feel the stretching sensation, and I know that I’m growing again. “Seven foot.” I squeak. “I always wanted to be tall.”

 

Mathew laughs a little, slightly hysterically, his pen still furiously scratching away. “Any symptoms?” He asks cautiously.

 

“I’m dizzy, and I might throw up. My spine aches terribly, and I feel like I’m very slowly unraveling.”

 

“Two more.” I say unsteadily as I ride another wave of nausea. My back is going to need a massage when this is over, it doesn’t hurt as much as I expected it to, but it’s not like it’s comfortable. Yet another, nine feet tall, this is getting ridiculous, I hope I don’t faint. Finally, the tenth foot, and my spine gives a little crick as I stretch my back. According to theory, I should stop growing when I’m about ten foot tall, the cookie crumb will have spent itself, like a battery that needs to be replaced. If this is true, than that would mean about five feet for every cookie crumb. I don’t want to think about what would happen if I ate the entire cookie. In the case of emergency, I’ll drink the elixir and reduce my size again. I wait a minute, nothing happens. “Its stopped.” I whisper into the microphone. Dizziness, everything blurs, then goes black.

 

“The experiment was successful.” They tell me when I wake. “You have a strong immune system, you’re going to be fine. Now we just have to wait and see if this wears off, if not, then we may have to use the elixir.” I’m supposed to wait about a day before trying the elixir, they seem to think that the affects of the cookie aren’t permanent. Which is a relief, I don’t exactly fancy going through the rest of my life ten feet tall. Mathew looks like he might be having a coronary, so Brian takes over the notepad and snaps a couple of pictures. “For the public.” He explains. “No one is going to believe this, and even with evidence, they’ll think these pictures are photoshopped. But until we’ve found a way to reproduce the cookie, we can’t risk using more on anyone else.”

 

I feel giddy with relief, I’m alive, it worked, the experiment worked.

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Until Death Do Us Part

I’m not afraid of you. I do not fear your talons, your sharp edged scales, your narrowed eyes with their molten centers and amber borders. Not even your pile of whitened bones, stacked as high as your treasure. You wonder why I don’t flee, why I don’t wave my kerchief in a desperate hope that some hero will come to my rescue.

You wonder, and you wait. You are hungry for my flesh, hungry for my bones to ornament your glittering vault of secrets. But you are curious, and if you are good at anything, it is at being patient. You think that behind my eyes, I have my own vault of secrets, and that somewhere, just out of reach, a jeweled key waits for you to unlock it. So you endeavor to make me fall in love with you, for once you hold someone’s heart in your hand, you have access to all their secrets, even the ones they do not wish to share.

You imagine that I want you to be noble, to be courteous, kind, and brave. So you bring me plump rabbits for my dinner, berries bursting with flavor, silver chains to drape over my neck. Things that glitter, that shine, glow and glimmer. You pile them at my feet, you await my approval. Like a knight facing his vanquished foe on the field of battle, you wait for my heart to kneel and surrender.

It’s true, I can’t help but love you a little. No maiden is impervious to the kind attentions of the beast who holds her captive. Still, I am no fool. I know that this is a game, and that all games have their end. I am gracious when I accept your gifts, but I keep my demeanor cool, I create distance between us, I refrain from meeting your gaze. Everyday that I resist your charms is another day I remain alive.

I am a shield maiden’s daughter. I was born of rising ocean crest, of stinging sea spray and hot metal sparks. I grew to be a maiden in my mothers hall, my hair growing long and golden down my back. I took after my mother in appearance, so I suppose I must have been considered beautiful, but I have always distrusted beauty. It is a sly and cunning thing. Something that you might keep, for a time, but it will be gone before you can turn to look it in the eye.

It is not uncommon to hear my mother’s name echoed in the sagas, on the tongues of jarls and kings. She is revered as a legend, and it is never easy to be the daughter of a legend. You will forever try to place your feet on the path they follow, and you will wonder why your feet never seem to fill the prints they leave. You will stand in the length of their shadow, wondering why it seems to stretch beyond the horizon.

No one ever knew me, not when they were lost in the depth of my mothers gaze the moment they stepped across our threshold. She had lovers beyond count, and many a boy that I had coveted ended up entangled in her bed. I love my mother, she is impossible not to love, but there were ofttimes I wished that a story of my own would sweep from the sky and bear me up in jewel studded arms.

And so it has.

You can’t wish to take back wishes, not when the Norns have already woven your desire into the sheaf of fate. In this I have been a fool, and it is why I don’t wave silk kerchiefs out windows. I have made my own destiny, and it is my responsibility to see it through.

I live inside a mountain, and she imprisons me in her embrace. It is a mountain of great majesty, shrouded by mist, clothed in moss, her bowels bulging with treasure and bones. I admire her, she reminds me of my mother, her stoic beauty and impenetrable walls. Not to say that I wish to remain entrapped here forever. I have pondered escape, scouted the distances between me and the ground below, observed the routes my captor takes in his nightly excursions into the coal black sky.

He has wings, and I do not.

Oh to have wings, to have great muscles stretching out beyond the length of your back, unfurling to meet the wind, to carry you up and beyond the tethers of humanity and mortal existence. To bring awe to the eyes of beholders, to feel the sky flexing beneath you. To know that you will always have freedom within your grasp, to feel the ecstasy that soaring in a storm must bring…

My mind often has these fanciful thoughts while I sit at the opening of the mountain. Where it widens, the maw of a hungry beast, ending in a sharp ledge, then dropping straight down into the murky greenery below. I daydream, and imagine feathered wings lifting me off the granite on which I stand, and into the brilliant blue. I have little else to do once I have finished my duties, for my duties are few and mostly self afflicted. He seems to care little about how I spend my day, the restless rattling of a bird in its cage does not concern him. I cook meals over the small fire he allows me, I wash my clothes in the water that runs through the mountain, I sweep at the stone floor with bundles of twigs I have gathered…it becomes tedious after a time, and I tell myself stories, so I don’t altogether lose my mind.

It is different on the days that he is with me, and I hate that I yearn for those days during the time in-between. When his mood is fair, he spins tales for me of far-off and exotic places, he makes me laugh with his dry humor, he brings me gifts. Despite the joy that I feel when he appears at the mouth of my cave, I am shrewd enough to know that it is all an elaborate manipulation on his part. Everything he does has a reason, a strategy that he has spun out between his talons while lounging among his jewels in the dark.

He knows that when he leaves me alone for days I will crave company, even if that company is his. He knows that in the dull light of my cave, the vivid colors in the fabric he lays before me bring me joy. He knows that though I hide it well, I am homesick and often plagued by sorrow, and that his generosity, the warmth in his voice when he speaks to me, the affection in his eyes, all of these things, they kindle a glow in my heart.

Sometimes, I even wonder, how can I hope to resist? He has been alive for centuries longer than I, he has played out countless games against scar-bitten heroes, clever jarls, sly kings, those of the sky, those who dwell in the deep, and he has won against them all. Then I remember, I am my mother’s daughter, and sometimes it is the sparrow, small and insignificant, who has the sharpest beak. So I layer my tone with shades of winter when I speak to him, I keep my gaze distant and far away, I never thank him overly much when I accept his gifts.

For what could a dragon, with mountains of treasure, with armor that no spear can pierce, and breath so hot it can melt iron, do with the love of a maiden? I am a conquest, a battle to be won, and at the end, my heart will be his to have on a silver platter. My skull will ornament his hall, my bones will lay next to him, my last breath to warm him. He has immortality, and I, like all things mortal, will fade with the years and turn to dust. A hundred years is a drop in an ocean to him, and wether I die tomorrow or live to die another day, it makes no difference to him. His heart is vast, an endless cavern of empty spaces and echoing halls, and I cannot hope to fill them all.

He is infinite, I am finite.

So I stand in the wind, bathing my face in sun rays, thinking on how I might end his life, before he ends mine.

How does one kill a dragon? Those of us who have heard the sagas will know that any dragon has a weakness. A diamond shaped scale at the throat, at the belly, or between the wings. It could be anywhere, or perhaps it does not exist at all. At times, it all seems hopeless, for I have no weapons at my disposal. Then I envision what my mother would say if she could hear my thoughts… she would laugh at me, most assuredly.

“You say you have no weapons?,” indicating her own eyes, she would ask; “what are these?” Tapping her finger against the side of my head, “what is this?”

My mother believed that the most valuable weapons are the ones we were born with. Our eyes, our ability to observe the world around us. Our nose, informing us if there is smoke wafting in the wind. Most importantly, our ears; gathering information, listening for a rustle in the dark or the unsheathing of a knife.

“Use your senses wisely, and you will be that much more likely to win in any given situation.”

That night, I find him perched on the ledge that protrudes from the cave. His wings folded, his head bowed in greeting. It is habitual, something we have both grown accustomed to, after all, I have now been here for many moons. After I have greeted him, he enters the cave, in a shuffling way that seems awkward for a majestic predator of such size. He has brought gifts, a brace of young rabbits among them. I prepare them for the stew I already have bubbling over the fire. He watches, fascinated I think, by this strange human ritual. Who has ever heard of a dragon skinning a rabbit? He need only bathe it in his fiery breath before swallowing it whole.

“Have you been well, Falleg?”

He calls me Falleg, it means beautiful in our language, and is likely a term meant to endear me to him. I call him by no such thing, for I never address him by name, but in my mind it is always Dragon.

“Yes my lord. Have you?”

It is a string of niceties he subjects me to whenever he has returned from a long journey. I find it frustrating, and see no use in pretense. He is my captor, I am a prisoner, and one day I will be his next meal. But if he finds it amusing to converse with his dinner in this manner, it is not for me to argue.

For the remainder of his stay, I watch him from the corner of my eye. Observing where his scales layer over one another, searching for one that appears weaker, or is a different shade. I listen closely as he speaks of his journey, for some hint he might let slip. Yet, in the end, I still have nothing. The armor of his flesh, gleaming dully in the firelight, is seemingly impregnable, the flesh of his underbelly as hard as the rest. The tale of his journey is threaded with intrigue and fantastical events, most of which are likely made up for my benefit. Despite myself, I find that I’m drawn in by his story, his gravelly voice, the way it rises and falls at key points in the telling. Few would believe me, but dragons tell the finest tales.

When it comes time for him to leave, I follow him out to the ledge, the night air cold against my skin. I wrap my arms around myself and stare up at him, wondering why, after all this time, I still do not feel fear at the sight of smoke wafting from his nostrils, at the steely sharp teeth gleaming in his maw, at those talons, sharp as knifes. All of this power, all of this monstrosity, it could snap me in half without a thought.

He turns to look at me, as if reading my thoughts. His gaze is indecipherable, but the edges of his mouth are pulled back, his scaly skin crinkling at the corners, and I realize that he is smiling. I feel cold fingers brushing at the edge of my heart, I stand as if frozen, mentally trying to push those whispers of fear from my mind. Unfurling his wings, he turns to face the night, and lifts into the sky. The force of the air from his takeoff throws me backwards, and I fall against the floor of the cave, sharp rocks scraping my palms and the backs of my legs.

Laying there in the darkness, wind lifting my hair in frenzied circles, I know that I don’t have much time.

My dream is of a labyrinth, narrow winding passages, and of dead ends. All is darkness, and I use my outstretched hands to guide me. The ground is slippery with moss, and I stumble frequently. In the distance I see a glow flickering against the walls. I enter the cavern from which the light emanates, and it is at first so bright that I have to shield my eyes with my arm, using my other hand to steady myself against the wall. Then, lowering my arm, squinting my eyes, I see something that fills me with wonder.

Gold… an island of it, stretching from wall to wall, glittering so bright I fear it will blind me. At first, it is only a dim flicker of yellow, then as my sight clears I begin to make out details. Unused suits of armor, chains that once belonged to men of importance, crowns encrusted with precious stones, brooches lined with pearl, arm rings carved in the likeness of wolves and sea serpents. This is many kingdoms worth of riches, it stuns me, and for a moment my mortal heart is filled with covetous greed. It passes, this moment, I am not foolish enough to believe that I could maintain this much wealth. Wealth, like beauty, is cunning, and at any time it can creep up behind you, wrapping gold plated hands around your neck.

I take a step into the chamber, my movements triggering a small avalanche of coins. I kneel among the treasure, running my fingers through the shimmering yellow sea that envelopes my hands. The locks of my hair, hanging over my shoulder, look faded and dull in comparison.

Lost in thought, I fail to notice the sharp edge of a blade that protrudes out from among the coins. I brush my hand against it, and the pain feels all too real in the dream. My cry of pain is startlingly loud in the silence of the chamber, bright blood drips down my palm. Gingerly, I use my other hand to tug the blade free. I grip the hilt, and see that it is a sword, the length of it engraved with runes. The blade is steel, the wooden hilt lined with silver. It is the only thing I have seen in this room that appears almost plain, and yet, holding its substantial weight in my hand, I feel in it an honesty, a strength that is all at once comforting and familiar.

It is then that I sense something behind me. I smell smoke, and feel the heat of flames against my back. There is a voice echoing in my ears, but I cannot make out the words.

I awake. Sunlight is streaming in to light up the cave, but after the vibrance of my dream the world seems muted. I hold up my palm to the light, the flesh appears unscarred, but I can still feel the ghost of the blade slicing through my skin.

Many of us believe that dreams are mirrors of the future, often distorted, but that if you look closely, the truth is still there, reflecting back at you. I remember that we had a seer in our village, she would interpret people’s dreams, among other things. As a child I was fascinated by the idea of magic. Driven by curiosity, I went to visit the seer. I asked her to interpret a dream I had had about a squirrel eating acorns. It was a foolish matter to bother a seer with, but I think she was amused.

“Does it have to have a hidden meaning?,” she asked me. “Very likely it’s just a dream about a squirrel eating acorns.”

Though her words seemed logical enough, I was disappointed.

“When the gods wish to impart some message to you, they will make it obvious, more often than not.” She gave me a wry smile. “They know mortals aren’t particularly clever.”

“But how will I know?”

The look she gave me seemed almost sad. “Trust me child, you’ll know.”

I could not understand what she meant by those words then, but here, with a vision of the chamber still flickering before my eyes, I think I finally do. My dream has brought to me a clarity. A clarity that glitters, clear as a flame in the dark, beckoning me to follow.

He has not conquered me, not yet. Yet, there is still a part of my heart that keens for him, cowers from the knowledge of what I must do. I feel tears slide down my cheeks, and wonder who it is that I weep for. Myself, or for him.

It is many days before I hear the beat of wings outside my cave again. It is a cold autumn morning, and there are thick clouds sprawling across the sky. I am standing at the entrance of my cave when he arrives, my breath fogging in the air. I wonder what it must be like, to have liquid fire living inside of you, scales that radiate such heat, to never feel the cold. I imagine the lonely existence dragons must live, and wonder if that’s why they hoard their heaps of treasure, to guard against the emptiness, to fill the void.

I look up to find him regarding me. I have to turn away, to avoid falling into his molten eyes.

“What are you thinking of, Falleg?”

“I was thinking that it has been long since you last visited. You must have tales to tell.”

“I do, indeed. Won’t you invite me inside?”

I lead him into the cave, hugging myself to avoid shuddering with cold. I feel his talons against my shoulders, and I flinch, my heart thudding. Then I feel warm velvet against my skin, the comforting weight of thick fabric draped over my shoulders.

“A gift, Falleg.”

I can feel myself responding to the kindness in his voice, and once again, I have to draw a sheathe of armor across my heart.

“You are very generous,” I say, my voice nearly inaudible.

He says nothing, but I can tell by the satisfied huff of air behind me that he is pleased.

A beautiful cloak, the color of dark cherries. It is well made, the stitches tight and neat. I pull the edges around me, feeling soft fabric ripple beneath my fingers, and I wonder who it once belonged to.

As always, he regales me with details from his latest adventure. How bright the sun was, how a sudden storm came and spiderwebs of lightning flashed across the sky. The herd of dust colored deer he glimpsed from above, the white one that ran apart from the rest. How he followed the white one for a time, and how he watched her transform into a beautiful maiden at the side of a glittering pool. Fairytales straight from a child’s storybook, all of it lovely and mesmerizing, but none of it true.

What of the cloak?” I wish I could say, “Whose blood did you spill in it’s taking? A passing merchant on the road, or perhaps a jarl’s son? You speak of maidens, but I know that if you truly saw one, she now resides somewhere behind your rib cage. Why do you always lie to me?

So many bitter words that I bite back, that I clamp behind my teeth and cover with a smile.

I sit down in front of him, my hands neatly clasped in my lap. “There’s something I wanted to ask you.”

He looks down at me, his eyes are wary. “Yes?”

I take a deep breath in, filling my lungs with courage. “I’ve heard such tales about your kind… but most of all I have heard about your treasure.”

He seems less wary now, more quizzical. He waits for me to continue.

“Such tales,” I say dreamily, “such treasure. More treasure than my mother could ever fit in her hall. I’ve always wanted to see it for myself. All of that gold…in such quantity that it would cause kings to faint in ecstasy.”

I glance up at him through my eyelashes. He appears nonplussed, an expression that appears so strange on his face that I have to fight the urge to laugh.

“You have treasure, do you not?” I’m naive, naive and hopeful, a child who just wants to peek behind the closed door.

I expect to see suspicion, but he’s still so bemused that I don’t think it has occurred to him to be otherwise. Perhaps because that’s how he sees me, a foolish girl swimming in innocence, not an ounce of guile to her name. Or perhaps that’s just how dragons see all mortals.

“I have treasure,” he says. Is that a flicker of pride I see in his bottomless eyes?

My own eyes widen, my hand fluttering to my throat as if I cannot contain my excitement. “You do? Could I see it?”

The corners of his eyes crinkle in amusement, “No, I don’t think so Falleg.”

“But…why not? I always thought that such a magnificent lord as yourself would have the most treasure of all. Though-” I look down at my lap, biting my lip.

“Though?”

I keep my gaze downcast, appearing reticent to reveal the information. “The tales often told of a dragon lord in the north, a great black one, and they said that he had the most treasure of all. That his hoard was so vast that it spanned kingdoms beyond count. I suppose none have more treasure than he.”

Hah! These tales, they lie. How can his hoard compete with mine?”

I have to shield my face from the angry red sparks that spew from his mouth.

He lets out a deep sigh, his massive frame still quivering with rage. “Forgive me, Falleg. I forget myself.”

“No my lord. I apologize, I never meant to offend.”

His amber eyes gleam, catlike and crafty, “perhaps I should take you to see my treasure after all, hm? Then you can judge for yourself.”

I stand, clapping my hands together with delight, “truly?”

“Yes, I will take you. It is below this place, in another cave entirely.” His mouth curves in a smile that seems almost cruel, his eyes brimming with laughter. “You may ride on my back.”

Riding a dragon, it is not wondrous or thrilling, as the tales often suggest. The pain is excruciating, for the heat of his back scorches my legs, and where my hands grasp his scales, angry blisters rise. When we leave the ledge, he turns in midair to make a headlong flight down the mountain side. And perhaps I was not afraid before, but I am now. The fear is bile rising in my throat, threatening to choke me. The fear is the wild thumping of my heart, hammering against my rib cage in a rising crescendo. The fear is my every instinct telling me to let go. I don’t listen, my hands are full of white hot glass, my legs pressed against flesh made of sharp edged swords, but I don’t let go.

The sky spins past me, wind whipping my hair free of its braid. I close my eyes.

We land with a jarring thud that takes the breath out of me, and I open my eyes to see that we are at the entrance of a yawning cavern. I try to keep myself silent, but I can’t help but cry out with pain as I disentangle myself from his back. I tumble to the ground, unspeakably grateful for the feel of cool stone against my cheek.

He stares down at me, inscrutable. At my tattered dress, where the edges are singed and blackened by ash. My slashed bleeding legs, on which burn scars are already forming. My hands, marred by ugly blisters. A curious expression crosses his face, one that I cannot interpret, but it seems almost akin to astonishment.

When I have regained my ability to stand, he leads me into the depths of the cavern. My knees are knocking together, but the pain has numbed to a dull throb. There is many long twisting passageways, and many dead-ends, I shiver when I remember them from my dream. All the while, my anticipation is growing, but when we reach the final chamber, all those heaps of gold seem somehow diminished in comparison to my dream. I am surprised to feel a pang of disappointment. The sight of all these riches was at first so sweet and spicy on my tongue, but already that flavor has faded, leaving behind only a dull memory.

I realize that he is looking at me, and I have to remind myself to appear lost in wonderment. I wander further into the chamber, making sure I stumble a little. I kneel where I had in the dream, running my hands through the coins as if overcome.

I hear his voice behind me. “Magnificent, is it not?” There is such pride in his voice, as if he speaking of his own offspring, and not of a chamber filled with cold, dead, metal.

I nod slowly, working my hands down through the gold. “Yes… more gold than I ever imagined. This is truly a hoard that puts all others to shame.”

Lost in delight over the quantity of his hoard, cozened by my flattery, he doesn’t see when I pull the blade free from its gold wrappings. It feels just as it did in my dream, the weight solid and real. For a moment I find it hard to believe that this is reality, that I am kneeling here, in this gold, with this sword in my hand, and a dragon behind me. Then the dull throb in my hand reminds me that this moment is all too real, and that if I’m going to move, I’ll need to do so quickly.

“Look at this,” I say, “it glitters so brightly, more so than anything in this chamber.”

He lowers his head down towards me.

I turn, still kneeling, the hilt of the sword grasped firmly in my hand. I bring the sword up, and jab forward, the blade sliding with little resistance into the well of his eye. If you have ever heard a dragon scream, you will know what it is like to have it haunt you for many years after. It will wake you in the blackness of the night, something indescribable, something that has you clasping your hands over your ears in a vain attempt to shut it out. He screamed. And it took everything in me to continue stabbing that sword into the depths of his eye, soaking my hair and my arms with amber fluid, and finally blood.

Feeling his blood on my hand was like dipping my hand in molten lava. I let go of the sword then, screaming in pain. Such pain that I thought I would faint, such pain that I thought I would never feel relief again.

Perhaps I did lose consciousness for a time, because when I had finally stopped screaming and opened my eyes, all was silence around me. He lay not far from me, red spattered across the chamber, gold melting from the heat of his blood. The hilt of the sword still protruded from his eye, and I felt a dim sense of shock that the sword had not been incinerated.

Cradling my hand against my chest, I stumbled a few paces forward. His other eye looked at me, and I sensed that he was still alive, if just barely.

“Falleg,” he whispered, his voice echoing in the hollowness of the chamber. “What a fool I was to think I could have you.”

“You would have killed me.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Yes, and so you would have remained with me forever. Oh how I would have savored your flesh, how I would have treasured your bones. How I would have loved you, even in death.”

“And now you are the one who is dead.”

“So I am, and my treasure is now yours to take.”

“I don’t want your treasure.”

“Ah, Falleg. How magnificent you are. Truly.”

I take the final paces forward and place my hand against his scaly head, “I loved you.”

“I know, and I love you still.” His eye blinked once, then closed.

I pull the sword from his other eye, and I stumble from the chamber. I leave, and I don’t look back.

When I return home, I don’t tell them what happened. I don’t tell them that I, daughter of a shield maiden, born of sea crest and fiery spark, slew a dragon. For how could they hope to understand? They ask questions, of course they ask questions. I disappear one day, and return another, one hand crippled beyond repair, the other grasping the hilt of a sword. I discarded the cloak somewhere along the way. This charred memory of a hand and the sword that killed him, these are all I need to remember him by.

As far as I know, his hoard remains imbued in that chamber. It is cursed gold now, cursed like the treasure that tempted Fafnir and ultimately led him to his demise. It is not the gold itself that sows ill will and discontent, it is the ones who find it, man and beast alike. They poison their own minds, believing that wealth represents their self-worth, and thus they are entrapped.

Now, all these years later. I can feel old age weighing heavy on my shoulders, but it is an honest weight. Like the weight of a sword in my hand. As a shield maiden I have vanquished many a foe, but none I have loved as I did the dragon in the mountain.

I often pray that his soul resides in the halls of my ancestors, and that one day, I shall join him.

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