Blighted

 

THE LAND OF GRIMNEY

BITTER IS THE SALT

THE CRYING TREE 

THE GWUMP

THE DIARY OF CORA PEARL

THE LAND OF GRIMNEY POEMS AND PICTURES

FANTASY CHILD I – THE KEY TO THE KINGDOM

FANTASY CHILD II – THE BLOODSTONE OF VORGANIA

FANTASY CHILD III – THE LEGACY OF LOST SOULS

 

 

 

BITTER IS THE SALT


THE REMEMBRANCE

Preface

Prologue

Chapter one

Chapter two

Chapter three

Chapter four

Chapter five

Chapter six

 

THE CONFRONTATION

Chapter seven

Chapter eight

Chapter nine

Chapter ten

Chapter eleven

Chapter twelve

Chapter thirteen

 

THE BURDEN

Chapter fourteen

Chapter fifteen

Chapter sixteen

Chapter seventeen

Chapter eighteen

Chapter nineteen

 

THE REALIZATION

Chapter twenty

Chapter twenty one

Chapter twenty two

Chapter twenty three

Chapter twenty four

Chapter twenty five

 

THE REVENGE

Chapter twenty six

Chapter twenty seven

Chapter twenty eight

Chapter twenty nine

Chapter thirty

Chapter thirty one

 

THE TRUTH

Chapter thirty two

Chapter thirty three

Chapter thirty four

Epilogue

New Beginnings

 

THE CRYING TREE

THE GWUMP

Two Short Stories


 
 
 

THE LAST RAMBLINGS OF A MADMAN

 

Suck blood from a stone they said

The poppies are red with blood

The marrow has gone from the bone

And tomorrow I rot in the mud

Trapped in a box of my own

A mountain of dirt all around

Ground into dust as I groan

No one cares that I hear not a sound

Tears that I cry are forgotten

Like tears in the rain they are drowned

Feeling my flesh turning rotten

As I’m sealed like a corpse in the ground.

 

 

 

 

BITTER IS THE SALT

 

The REMEMBRANCE

Preface

“I remember a story my grandfather once told me, it was about a very handsome young man who always did good deeds. A jealous wizard cursed him and whenever a good deed was done, the man grew a wart and his skin wrinkled, but he was not deterred. The wizard was furious and made the curse stronger. The man became twisted and deformed, but he continued to care. Much of society shunned him; good though the man was, his appearance had become so unspeakable, that even the very people he had helped turned their backs on him. The man retreated and hid beneath the still waters of a lake, but not all people judged him, for behind that grotesque face, some knew him for what he truly was and they still loved him”.      

 

James Henry Willard

 

Prologue

Buried beneath mounds of earth, the dead eyed man seemed to live in a hole in the ground. The more time he spent writing the further away he drifted. It did not matter that the man was a soldier, for in the depths of despair his mind had fractured. Stories were all that the Captain had, and they drew him deeper and deeper into an alternative realm, where the line between fantasy and reality had blurred. Self absorbed delusions became godlike hopes and dreams and a portal appeared to open into a land where the madness could be channelled into a greater meaning. He had many questions... Why did he exist? How could he escape? In a no man’s land of blasted landscapes and grotesque forms of decay and death the soldier looked desperately for a little salvation, but no matter what he wrote, the optimism always perished. His words haunted him, and the Captain’s isolation trapped his damaged mind. It was there upon that fragile bridge, in the void between two alternative lands that the many voices started to speak, and the Captain listened. He knew that if he was ever to complete his work, he would need to understand and voice their thoughts as his own. Thus, with quill in hand, and a candle to light his way the dead eyed man’s quest began...

 

Chapter

1

The door ahead was not a blank space, rivets and grooves gave shape to the rough, ancient wood. Zachary Nova studied the surface. Daylight could not be seen against the dark panels, and shapes moved in shadow. He could see the weevils as they burrowed and crawled, churning lines through the worn surface, his  own deep lines, his own crawling. What was simply understood was the form and shape of what he saw, and the repulsive memories that had gone before gave new meaning to the image. Zachary’s thoughts were tainted, and his own face appeared reflected in the door. Weevils became slugs, scratches in the wood deepened like his own scars, and the rivets linked around him like chains, for the pain of being caged was far more than a lock and key away.

“You talk of the Grimney gods... The Zoriat... Pure idol fantasy... They’re a myth created by lost souls who’re desperate for hope”. Zachary’s voice was muffled, distorted by a twisted jawline. “Did you bring the mirror? I wish to gaze at my beautiful face for one last time”…

He had chosen to sit in the shadows, for whenever the moonlight from the barred window caught his face, the deep scars, lesions and disfigurement became illuminated beneath a ghostly blue veil.

The man opposite leaned back behind a large wooden table. “The Zoriat guide our path, but you’ve strayed so far, you’ve no way back to them”. Lord Gilbert was young, elf like with short blond hair. His clothes gave him the look of an aristocrat, but the smell of pipe tobacco and alcohol were not masked by his expensive cologne.      

“I have the mirror… Although why you would want it remains to be seen, but with your lack of vision I imagine you can only look inward”.

Zachary smiled a crooked smile, his displaced teeth barely visible “I suddenly realised how important everyone was and how each of us matter so little. You will have your answers Lord Gilbert… After all I called you here to take my confession…. Amongst other more important things”…. 

“It belongs to my”…  “Wife”… Lord Gilbert said sadly before placing the ornate silver handled mirror gently upon the table top. He caressed the frame in both hands as if it were a new born baby.  

“Any cracks in the glass? Most wives bring bad luck”. Zachary shook his head and drew his stool a little closer to the table, leaving the darkness behind him. “But you Lord Gilbert don’t know the meaning of bad luck”.

His face was a grotesque sight. The moonlight revealed every scar, every swollen piece of lacerated dried flesh, every bump, every tear that marked the face of a man who had walked in fire and lost his identity in the consuming flames.

“Who am I?.. I didn’t always look like this”.  Zachary’s deep blue eyes haunted Lord Gilbert, for they were not dissimilar to his own, and they seemed to hold some unfathomable recognition. 

“Do I know you?” Lord Gilbert inquired. “You have not given your name”.

Zachary closed his eyes and in an instant Lord Gilbert saw any familiarity  vanish. The scarred creature that sat before him could have been a goblin, a troll, and that perception made him more comfortable with the situation, as Lord Gilbert had always viewed such species as inferior.

“Explain why you sent for me? If you want my help, I cannot give it. Your crimes are so heinous I would do nothing to save you”.

“You are wise”. Zachary replied slowly, “Sometimes trying to save people can cost you all that you are. That is my story. That is what I am here to tell you”.

A large brown moth flew in through the barred window. He reached out his scarred hand and opened his palm. The insect folded back its wings and settled gently beneath the man’s curling fingers.

“Tell me who you are? But do speak slowly as your voice is hard to understand due to your”… Lord Gilbert’s mouth twitched nervously, and he hesitated.

Zachary opened his eyes and glared across the table. “My what?” He could sense Lord Gilbert’s discomfort, and relished it. He looked down at the moth, in his eyes its ugliness made it irrelevant. 

“Moths cannot change into butterflies. Who cares about ugly things?” Zachary closed his fingers around the insect and crushed it. “Only beauty is worth preserving”.  

Zachary tilted his hand and the moth’s remains fluttered down upon the cobbled floor.

“All is dust… Unless you can recapture your beauty”….

Lord Gilbert shifted uncomfortably in his chair and rubbed the back of his hand across his perspiring brow. “You need my help and the letter you sent said you have something important to tell me”.    

Zachary smiled “I can change your life. Bring you happiness”.

“How could one such as you”. Lord Gilbert remarked flippantly looking down at the dead insect “Bring happiness to life, when all you contribute to existence is the death of innocence?”

Zachary laughed and his jaw moved unnaturally “Just as you always were, full of pretention and judgement. You are quite unworthy of your sick wife”.  

Lord Gilbert leaned forward and smashed a gloved fist down upon the table. “If you know me sir, you should be aware that I am the law and I can save you or condemn you just as easily!” he said with a raised voice. “It is time you stopped playing games. Tell your story, or I shall leave you for the hangman’s noose!”  

Zachary looked down into the palm of his hand. He could not see his life line due to the scarring.

“I had a life before the fire. I think it was a beautiful life. I could have lived in a fairy tale, but I didn’t”…  He clenched his hand into a fist and closed his eyes, once more blocking out the dead land that surrounded him. “It could have begun with once upon a time”….

Zachary’s voice carried his thoughts beyond the present. Slowly the darkness of the cell lifted and the four stone walls that crawled with bugs began to fade around him. Time rolled back, regenerating his memories into the here and now.

“This is what I remember, this is where it began”….  Slowly he opened his eyes. The dark became awash with glowing beams of sunshine, and the daylight made him squint. Zachary raised his hand and opened his palm. He smiled for his skin was soft, unblemished. 

The two red suns of Grimney blazed above and the sky was a beautiful shade of green. Zachary brushed his fingers through his long blond hair, and stared across the open meadow where silky blue butterflies settled upon a sea of silver flowers.

Amidst the splendour of this natural paradise, beneath rolling purple tipped hills stood a small thatched cottage, white walled and surrounded by a wooden picket fence.

Zachary stood up, and brushed his fingers against his ruffled clothes, the material was slightly damp from the morning dew.  

He heard a soft female voice call out to him. “Husband”…

He gritted his teeth in anticipation.

Zendra Nova stood at the cottage gate.  A raven haired beauty, dark curled locks tumbled about her shoulders, her skin like woven silk, she had an ethereal quality, the look of an angel.

“I’ve finished the painting” she said tossing her hair back, and tilting her head to one side. “Not up to your standard, but nothing ever is”.

“I am eager to see”. Zachary responded hesitantly, bowing his head and lifting his booted feet. He began to cross the meadow towards her, taking care not to disturb the many beautiful butterflies that had settled around him.

Overlooking the cottage was a small hill, dwarfed by its purple topped majestic brothers, upon the brow there was a strange deformed man, his twisted and withered frame seemed to absorb light, and although the sun was directly upon him, he appeared in perpetual shadow. His pale grey eyes were the clearest aspect of his features, and they watched at a distance as Zachary walked slowly through the gate and entered into the cottage.

Behind the cottage door was a large room, lavishly decorated. Plush curtains draped about the clear glass windows. Expensive ornaments of bronze and silver stood upon the mantelpiece above an elaborate marble fireplace, beneath which lay a huge golden rug.

Zendra looked down disapprovingly at her husband’s booted feet and flicked her fingers. “I’ve just polished the floor”.

“Sorry”. Zachary was always apologetic. “I didn’t realise”. He slid off his boots and placed them on the doorstep.

“That’s better”. Zendra responded. “You’re always so messy”. 

A curved oak banister staircase in the room’s corner led up to another level. At the centre of the polished wood floor there was an easel, and upon this stood a canvas painting.  

Zachary and Zendra stood side by side gazing down at the image before them. Their expressions differed greatly, a mixture of pride and fear. 

“You have captured our likenesses well”… Zachary muttered; staring at the immaculate work before him. A contrast of many colourful shades had created a fine portrait of the Nova family. Mother and daughter stood in the foreground embracing each other tenderly.

“I’m very proud of the brushwork”. Zendra stroked her finger against the canvas.  “In particular the way I captured the contours of Marta’s face and the blondeness of…. Of my daughter’s hair”…

“Our daughter”…  Zachary was not really listening because he was focused on the two shapes that stood in the background emerging from the dark. The first was perfectly clear. The pale white smooth porcelain features, blue eyes and long blond hair unmistakeably belonged to him.

The fact that he had been separated within the picture from the bond of his family was troubling enough, but not unexpected. It was the other image that haunted his mind. That of a black shadowy figure, its arms reaching out from a distorted frame, its long dark fingers that almost seemed to touch every other figure in the painting, that is what troubled him most.

“What is in the darkness Zendra?” Zachary asked “I understand my place in the picture, but what is that?” He motioned his hand towards the shadowed shape.

Zendra bit into her bottom lip, but not deep enough to draw blood. “That’s the sickness, the death I nearly endured”. She sighed heavily, drawing in deep breaths. “I’m cured now, but the illness is always there… It’s waiting”.

Zachary lifted his arm and nervously placed it around his wife’s shoulder. “The disease has gone”…  He said firmly, squeezing Zendra’s shoulder “The Grimnian Gods chose to save you”.

Zendra flinched and in response he swiftly withdrew from any contact. She wrapped her own arms around herself, in her disturbed thoughts it seemed a far more acceptable means of comfort.

“The Gods?”… she scoffed uneasily at their mention “I’m far from their care husband”…

The cottage door opened and Marta greeted her parents with a smile, but her expression quickly changed into a look of deep sadness. She placed her school books upon a table by the window, and pressed her back against the wall and slid her body to the floor.

“What’s wrong Marta?” Zendra asked, pushing her husband aside and kneeling down beside the girl.

Marta bowed her head and began to sob. “Tori… You know Tori don’t you mummy?”

Zachary folded his arms, and gritted his teeth, as a mixture of emotions flooded through his body, a combination of anger and fear “Marta, you were not supposed to leave school… We told you to wait… What if”….

Marta looked up at her father, tears welling in her big green eyes. Zendra tried to comfort her daughter by stroking her hair, but it did little to help.

“What if I was to go missing like the other children?”…. Marta’s whole body was shaking and she breathed so heavily that she had to catch her breath after nearly every word. “Tori has disappeared daddy. She’s my best friend and she has gone now”… Her head fell forward once more.

Zendra looked up at her husband, desperately hoping that he would find the appropriate words to comfort the child.

Zachary closed his eyes, and tried to think. “Eight. That makes eight”. he whispered. “Eight children missing in eight months”…

“That’s no comfort to my child Zachary”. Zendra edged closer to the fragile little girl and wrapped her arms around Marta’s slender shoulders, and held her tightly.

“Our child… She is my daughter too”. Zachary looked saddened “I love you both, I’m here to protect you”…

“Love me? No you don’t. You lock yourself away for hours on end and don’t talk to us. At least when I paint, it’s about our family, but you? Your artwork matters more than we do. It always has”… Zendra replied bitterly, before kissing her daughter on the forehead and stroking the child’s face with the back of her hand. “I’ve seen the portrait that you painted and I’m not the girl in your picture”.

Marta looked up at her mother and father and tried to be strong. “Please don’t fight”.  She said desperately. “It won’t help Tori or the other children”.  

Zachary smiled at his daughter. “You’re right Zendra. Please let’s not talk like this in front of the child”. He chuckled uncomfortably. “As for that portrait, I painted it a long time ago”. Zachary responded sadly “The girl who you refer to, she never loved me”.  He shook his head “It’s not important. What is happening here and now is all that matters”.  

“I agree with you for once, but probably never again”… Zendra’s voice was empty of emotion, as her thoughts moved beyond the four walls of the cottage. In her mind the shadow from her painting was moving closer and if she did not stop it, her whole family would be smothered by the darkness. “No matter what the price” She said solemnly, hugging her daughter ever more tightly “It has to be stopped”.

 

Chapter

2

The comforting white walled surroundings of the cottage were different at night. Hungry red eyed creatures prowled on all fours through the silver meadows, and the butterflies hid beneath their wings from all the crawling, scratching bugs that scuttled through the dark.

In the marital bed Zachary slept restlessly, his dreams disturbed by the crying voices of lost children calling for their mothers. It was all in his mind, but the tortured screams were so vivid that they jolted him back to wakefulness.

He stretched his body across the bed and ran his fingers across the silk sheets. “Zendra?” he whispered, coughing gently, his throat dry due to the stress of the nightmare.

Zendra was not beside him. She was locked in the adjoining bathroom, staring into a mirror. She was not admiring her beautiful reflection because her expression was one of disgust. Zendra placed the flat of her palm over the glass, and blocked out the image. She bowed her head and looked down at her other hand; it was clenched into a fist. Slowly she opened her fingers. Zendra was holding a small glass bottle containing a dark blue liquid that was thick like syrup.   

“I will drink no more once this bottle is empty” she said quietly, holding back her tears “My thirst is poison to others”…

A small stone struck the outside of the bathroom window. Zendra did not move. She stood like a statue, frozen to the spot. A second stone bounced against the glass. She felt an icy cold running through her veins, and when a third stone struck, she could feel the hairs on the back of her neck rising, as fear of the outsider gripped her heart and soul.

Zendra slid her bare feet silently across the floor and nervously approached the window. She looked down into the moonlit meadow below.  The shadow man was watching her, his face clearer than before, his skin white like chalk and his head smoother than a pebble.  Zendra’s wide eyes watched as the man’s black clad form merged in and out of the dark. He raised a black gloved hand and beckoned her down.       

Zendra shook her head, unlocked the window, and pushed it open. She gripped the ledge and leaned her body forward. The air outside was cold and stung her face.

“Kyan Frith… Our business is concluded”. She kept her voice low, because she feared being overheard. “I don’t need your medicine any more”. She glanced tentatively over her shoulder, before looking back at the shadowy figure. “Go away, and never return”. 

Frith smiled, but showing his teeth merely made him appear more menacing. “Zendra”… he said coldly “If you refuse my medicine you will die”.   

“I will tell you again Frith… I am done with your medicine”. Zendra became choked with emotion. “It costs too much, and I will give you no more”.

“You would give up your family? What will they be without you? Our value will always be judged by another”. Frith’s face began to darken. “So be it… We all have choice…. If death is what you wish, then death will be your keeper”.  Frith knelt down, and pressed his hands flat upon the ground. His fingers arched. He craned back his neck and glared menacingly at Zendra. Frith’s body began to shudder and his pale grey eyes blinked unnaturally and turned yellow. His jawline jutted forward, and his spine cracked as his torso stretched. Frith began to pant as his hands became paws and black fur sprouted through his clothing. Frith bared his sharp white teeth and growled at Zendra, his yellow eyes narrowed as he watched the frightened young woman at the window.

Zendra backed away, terrified by Frith’s transformation into a wolf. Overcome with fear, she closed her eyes.  Seconds ticked by, like the swinging of a bladed pendulum, time passed with an ominous sense of destiny. Zendra’s eyelids flickered and she opened them. The wolf had retreated into the night and all she could see were Frith’s yellow eyes piercing the darkness; they blinked once before they were gone.                   

Zendra stood in silence. She could hear her own heart beat pounding in her chest. “Death will be my keeper” she whispered. “Yes” she said sadly. “It’s about time”… 

There was a knock on the bathroom door. Zendra ignored it at first, because she needed to be alone. The encounter with Frith had forced her to face the prospect of her death. Time was fleeting, the dark shadow in her painting was reaching out, and it would smother her if she was unable to escape it. 

“Zendra?” Zachary stood on the other side of the bathroom door. His ear pressed against the wooden panels. “Have you fallen down the plughole?” He knocked once more, his light hearted comment masking his concern.

“I’m fine Zachary… Please go back to bed”. She lifted the small glass bottle to her lips and unscrewed the lid. “I’ll be with you shortly, just taking my medicine”. Zendra gulped down the contents and swallowed every drop. She gazed once again into the mirror. “I wanted to live for my daughter”. Zendra could not look her own reflection in the eyes. “Nothing is stronger than a mother’s love”. She looked back at the ashen face in the glass. “Was it too much to ask to be allowed to watch my daughter grow up?”       

Zendra bowed her head. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She leant against the wall and thought of the future. Feelings of despair wrapped around her body like a suffocating shroud. Drained of all hope, Zendra felt that she was standing at the edge of the deepest abyss, and it was her destiny to tumble helplessly into the void.       

Above the white walled cottage dark blue storm clouds gathered, carried on a cold wind they unfolded across the two moons of Grimney. The strange luminous red sky deepened in colour. The heavens resembled a sea of blood sweeping over the land, punctured by glowing green stars; it was a magnificent sight to behold.

The wolf bounded frantically onwards, baring his teeth, panting aggressively, saliva pouring from his tongue. Thoughts of despair, fear, and anger fought for dominance in his mind. Above all the wolf was focused on returning to his brother. The wolf’s dark fur glistened with perspiration, and his plush coat appeared tinged with crimson, as moonlight broke through the fracturing clouds and swept across the sky like a blanket of scarlet flame.

The first droplet fell, bursting upwards and forming a crown of water upon the cottage’s thatched roof. A second raindrop tumbled, followed by another, until the surrounding meadows were engulfed in a raging torrent, as a monstrous storm rumbled and churned against the air.

Zachary and Zendra lay side by side, but far apart. They were both wide awake, listening to the roar of the falling rain.         

“There are troubled times ahead”. Zendra whispered, rolling onto her side and turning her back upon her husband. “We have to prepare for the worst”. She stared into the dark, looking for answers, but all she could see were dancing shadows reflected though the window as the storm gathered momentum. 

Zachary was lying on his back, his arms folded across his chest “Is that your way of telling me that our marriage is over?”  He asked, closing his eyes and muttering a short prayer under his breath. “I know you think I put my talents before anything else. But it’s not true. I’m proud of my paintings, but they’re just canvas. You’re flesh and blood and that has more value than anything else”.

Zendra did not answer immediately, she felt empty inside, and struggled to find the words to explain herself. “No.... It’s more than that Zachary. You and my daughter must continue without me”…

Zachary felt enraged, and slid out of bed. He edged his way through the dark and sat down in the corner of the room. “This is about my sister in law and the portrait I painted”. Zachary kicked out his foot in frustration and sent his boot sliding across the wood floor. “You’re my family Zendra! You and our daughter, she’s my flesh and blood too!” he said forcefully “My brother hasn’t spoken to me in years. It was a mere infatuation that amounted to nothing, and as for the painting".... 

“That doesn’t matter to us now, I know what your one true love is” . Zendra closed her eyes, trying to hold back the tears. “You stood by me when I was ill. I know you’ll stand by me again, no matter what”. She stopped to catch her breath as tiredness gripped her. “That is what matters husband”. 

Zachary nodded slowly, pondering her words, unsure of his own emotions. A sense of dread welled up inside his stomach, and for a moment there was silence. “I will always stand by you” he said flatly “Love conquers all. No matter the sacrifice. I will protect you and our daughter”.

“We’re not living in a fantasy land Zachary” she whispered. “Life is no fairytale, no dream”. In the dim light Zendra gazed at the short deep lines engraved in the palm of her hand and clenched her fingers into a fist. “There are happy memories... That’s what makes it so much worse. You never cared enough Zachary and one day all you’ll have is a picture of Marta and I, and you’ll probably still let that be lost”.       

Zendra did not respond again. The disturbing events of the night had left her mentally and physically exhausted.

Zachary lifted himself uncomfortably from the floor and climbed back into bed. He slid alongside his sleeping wife and stroked his fingers gently through her hair. The lightning outside illuminated the outline of her slender form beneath the sheets. He leaned forward and kissed her gently upon the cheek. Zachary brushed back her dark hair and placed his soft lips against her ear “Trust me”. he whispered soothingly “Love does conquer all. That’s all we need to believe”. Zachary draped his arm around his wife’s shoulder, lowered his head against the pillow and closing his eyes, he too fell into a deep sleep.

Marta was not asleep, the violent storm had woken her and she was standing outside her parent’s bedroom door. Marta had hoped to find comfort in their bed, but all thoughts of reassurance had faded for she had overheard much of their conversation. Marta stood alone in the corridor watching raindrops falling against a nearby window. The trickling water rolled slowly down the glass, Marta was transfixed by the patterns they formed, but she felt sad for each route the raindrops took was twisted and uncertain. 

 

Chapter

3

The storm had passed by morning and the sky was a deep green, and glowed in the warming light of the two red suns. Red winged mogrins flew across the sky, occasionally hovering over the meadows in a triangular formation before continuing on their way.    

Zachary was awake and fully dressed. His wife and daughter were still asleep when he placed the note upon the kitchen table. It simply read “Gone fishing, talk later”.  He picked up his rod and tucked it under his arm. He normally packed sandwiches, but today he had lost his appetite. Zachary had not been able to sleep, he looked tired and there were dark rings beneath his eyes. He felt guilty about leaving so early, but Marta never woke up before midday, and Zendra would have time to think about their future. Tucking a dagger into his leather belt and another into his boot, he opened the front door and stepped out into the sunshine.       

The air smelt crisp, and the meadows were soaked in glistening dew. Spider webs, beaded in sunlit raindrops glinted like diamonds. Butterflies formed a blanket of silver around Zachary’s booted feet. He walked with his head bowed, the weight of the land pulled against his shoulders. The butterflies arose around him fluttering like autumn leaves caught on a rising wind. Zachary was unmoved by the beauty of the new dawn. He felt lost, and uncertain, analysing over and over again the meaning behind his wife’s words. “Prepare for the worst?” he thought, “That is what she said”… Ahead of him was Wibbly Wood, its giant Yangtang trees rising up from the fertile soil and forming a plush canopy of yellow and gold. As he entered the forest and passed ominously between light and shadow, he felt an icy sensation sweeping down his spine. “What if Zendra’s illness had returned? What if”….

Zachary felt a sudden sharp jolt against his shoulder and the force of the blow made him drop his fishing rod and turn around. He was confronted by two men dressed in black leather armour; the first man stepped back and lowered his club “You walk a dangerous path mister”.  He was a muscular framed warrior with long black dreadlocked hair and a hollow eyed dark face that was tattooed with tribal symbols. “You looking for someone? The man says you are”… He smiled menacingly displaying a grotesque mouthful of decaying silver teeth.

His smaller framed bald headed, chubby companion looked thoughtful as he puffed smoke from a clay pipe. “If he was Dredge… Well, if he was he sure weren’t expecting to find us”. He slid a small wooden club from a leather holster fastened to his belt. “Now what’re you doing here son?”… He coughed and spat before pointing the club casually at the nervous looking man.       

Zachary’s hand hovered over the hilt of his own knife, but he decided not to draw it, the two men looked dangerous and he had no desire to challenge them.

“Drayker asked you a question”… Dredge’s dark red eyes narrowed as he watched Zachary carefully “You going to answer the man? Or are you looking for a knife fight?”

Zachary placed both hands in the air, and shook his head. “I don’t know who you are, or what this is about, but as you can see”. he said prodding his fishing rod with his boot. “I’m planning to spend the day by the lake, so if you don’t mind I’ll be on my way”. 

Dredge surged forward and gripped Zachary by the throat and shoved him roughly against a nearby tree. “You go when we say you can go!” He held him by the neck and leant forward, until the two men were nose to nose, and eyeball to eyeball.

“The man says that two youngsters went missing walking home through this forest”. Dredge snarled, spitting bile into the face of his startled but somewhat bemused prisoner. “Speak now, while you still got your tongue!”.

Zachary glanced over Dredge’s shoulder, in an attempt to make eye contact with his calmer more rational companion.

“Methinks he may struggle to talk”. Drayker said casually tapping his clay pipe against his armoured thigh and shaking out the ash. “It must be hard when you’re choking him”.

Dredge released his grip. “Threats are not enough”. He grabbed Zachary roughly by the shoulders and shoved him down upon his knees.

“Talk or die”…

Zachary felt the cold blade of Dredge’s curved dagger against the soft skin beneath his chin. “I’m not the only man who walks through this forest”. He said quickly.  “Eight children in all have gone missing. You could kill me here, no one would know, but I’m innocent, and I’m a good father and”...

“Shut up!”. Dredge yelled. “I’ve heard enough of your bleating!”.

Zachary closed his eyes and prepared himself for the worst. 

Drayker slowly refilled his clay pipe and lit it; the activity gave him time to ponder Zachary’s words. He nodded thoughtfully, and smiled. “We’re only looking for two children, Tori and Jorkin, the other six don’t count”.

Zachary was angered by the remark. He opened his eyes and glared at Drayker “Because they were poor and from outside of town?”… Brushing Dredge’s blade aside he snarled. “Either use that or put it away!”       

Dredge stepped back unsure of how to react to the man’s foolhardy behaviour. He stood in stunned silence, but rage overcame rational thought and he raised his curved dagger and prepared to strike.

“Stop that at once you naughty men!” A gruff female voice cried out.  A portly wiry haired middle aged woman lumbered into view. She drew back a bow string with her thick fleshy fingers and aimed an arrow. Her dark red eyes narrowed as she sighted her target.

“Put that knife down!” the woman shouted “I’m very hungry and I might kill you and put you in my pot!”….   

Dredge slid his curved dagger into its leather holster and stepped back from his captive. He glanced across at Drayker and winked, he was thinking that between them they could overpower this strange woman.   

Drayker puffed upon his clay pipe, and maintained a firm grip upon his wooden club. “Methinks you’re the Widow Gower…. The Witch of the Wood”. he said drawing in a deep breath of sweet tasting smoke.

Zachary remained kneeling upon the ground. He did not move, but simply stared straight ahead, not blinking, hoping that her threatening behaviour would drive them away. 

“Yes, I’m a witch and I can guard these woods from the child stalker without your help”. The Widow Gower swung her bow back and forth between the two dangerous looking men. “So you’d best find a new place to hunt, or else you’ll become the hunted and end up in my stewing pot”… 

Drayker drew deeply upon his pipe and blew thick smoke from his nostrils. He nodded slowly and calmly as he watched the wispy grey sweet smelling cloud float around him. “Dredge” he pondered “Methinks we should make our excuses and”....

Dredge waved a long grubby finger at the Widow Gower and interrupted his colleague. “Better watch your back witch, I don’t fear your magic!” he snarled “If he’s involved in the snatchings then you’ll hang alongside him when the time comes”. Dredge bared his decaying silver teeth, and spat. “Yeah the man thinks right” he glanced dismissively at Zachary. “Weakling boy, saved by an old crone. If you were a real man, you’d have saved yourself”. Dredge laughed mockingly, “No backbone and no guts”.

Drayker put aside his pipe and reached into a large leather pouch strapped to his leg. “Methinks the Widow Gower’s appetite has changed? Perhaps this will refresh her poisoned memory?” He drew out a roll of paper, bound together with string and tossed it to the ground and it fell not far from the widow’s fat bulky feet. 

The Widow Gower drew the bow string so tight that it shaved through the skin of her chubby fingers. She watched the two men through narrowed eyes, and did not lower her arrow until they had left her sight. After they were gone she was still wary, but her reputation protected her, for the Widow Gower was greatly feared, as it was believed she enjoyed the taste of human flesh, and indulged in dark magic.

Zachary blinked and rolled his blue eyes. Tears pooled within, and coated his lower eyelashes. He was not crying because he had control of his emotions. He had been driven to focus his thoughts elsewhere, away from the two men who had threatened him. 

The Widow Gower lowered her bowstring and wiped her torn fingers against her black sackcloth tunic smearing the material with green blood. “You’re no fighter”. She muttered grumpily, bending down and picking up the roll of paper and tucking it in her pocket “You live in a dangerous land. If you can’t look after yourself”…

The Widow Gower raised her bow and loosed off an arrow, it spun through the air and pierced the fleshy body of a giant spider that was hanging down from the branch of a tree. The creature fell and caught Zachary’s shoulder.

“God!”… he shouted as he shuffled his body to safety, and watched transfixed as the hideous creature twitched and stiffened.    

“Raxla… Highly poisonous arachnid”. The Widow Gower scooped it up in the palm of her hand and shoved the dead spider into her mouth. “But”… she said sinking her bucked teeth into its fleshy white abdomen and spitting out a leg “It tastes very good”…

Zachary felt physically sick. The Widow Gower was not a pretty sight. She was ringed from the neck to the waist down by layers of rolled fatty flesh. Her bloated form was held in place by a black sackcloth robe and a white belt made of deer skin.

“You look shaken young man” she said sucking her teeth and spitting out another part of the spider that disagreed with her tastes. “My house is not far from here and you can be my guest” The Widow Gower grinned at him “Promise not to eat you”….

Zachary did not wish to offend his rescuer. He considered that unwise. If she was a witch as many had said, she posed a far greater threat to his safety than Dredge and Drayker ever could. “Yes” he nodded somewhat reluctantly. “I would love to be your guest”.

In hindsight had he known what cards the hand of fate had dealt him he would have declined the invitation.  It is fortunate that we do not know the future, for such knowledge is curse not a gift. If we possessed such vision we would perhaps be inclined to destroy ourselves. 

 

Chapter

4

The Widow Gower’s cottage was small and drably furnished, dirty windows overlooked twisted bush weed plush with blue and orange berries. Makeshift wooden chairs crawled with lice and cupboards over burdened with pots and pans spilled out across the dirty stone floor. All manner of animal skin hung upon the crumbling clay walls. In the room’s far corner there were several large bulky sacks, stacked one upon the other. A white powder lay at their base, spilled out across the grubby floor.

Zachary had taken a seat at a large lopsided wooden table and attempts had been made to balance it with an ancient book entitled “The Witches’ Almanac” regardless of this the table still wobbled on its unevenly matched legs.     

“What’s in the sacks?” he asked, his voice a little shaky, as he watched the strange fat woman waddling back and forth in front of him.

The Widow Gower picked up a wooden stool and placed it down upon the floor in front of her nervous guest. “Oh that stuff, oh I forget” she said dismissively. “No, no, I don’t, it’s salt mixed with white sand”. Her puffy fleshy face reddened with rage. “An expensive and useless purchase, bought from two unscrupulous traders... That’s if I remember rightly”.      

Zachary nodded. He understood what the Widow Gower was saying. In Grimney salt was a very precious commodity, and many merchants sold their salt mixed with other substances to increase the weight, and therefore bulk up the price.      

The Widow Gower smiled, but the expression looked unnatural and he shuddered.  “I know that I taught them a lesson”. she continued, her voice ice cold as she stared at the sacks. “I’m sure that I hunted them down and took my revenge”. The widow shook her head, it was difficult to remember the events, because dark magic had clouded her memories.  

Zachary could see by the animal skins hung upon the wall that the Widow Gower was quite a hunter. “You killed them? It must be hard for you to make friends”. He pretended to sip a nauseous brew of gadroon tea from a wooden cup, before placing it back upon the table with a look of disgust that he could not disguise. 

“Killed them? Oh no, of course not... At least I don’t think I did, sometimes I can’t always remember”… The Widow Gower chuckled under her breath. “No, I wouldn’t have thought so, that would’ve been far too easy”… she said winking a dark red eye. “Friends? I think not. I like being alone, Erasmus was the sociable, amiable one. Me? I just wanted rid. I’ve learned so much more without friends to bug me and you know my feelings towards bugs now don’t you young man?”.  The widow looked Zachary up and down and licked her fleshy lips and grinned. “Although you’re quite beefy, a good pair of biceps and I’ve noticed a very firm bottom”.  

“Yes”. Zachary hesitated “Well I do appreciate your help. So” he thought quickly trying to change the subject. “Who were those men that attacked me?” He reached for the wooden teacup but drew back his hand.     

“Not liking the tea? How odd, I boiled that frog for more than an hour, even gave it a good squeeze to get all the juice out” The widow shook her head and pulled a curly white hair from her flabby chin. “Yuk” she exclaimed before tossing it over her shoulder. “You know young man, you are so delicious I could just gobble you all up”. The Widow Gower giggled girlishly and fluttered her eyelashes at her attractive guest.

“I’m sorry” Zachary lifted the teacup “I was not wishing to offend”.  He held his breath and gulped down the bitter tasting liquid. “Delicious . I could really taste the frog”. 

The Widow Gower slid her large fleshy feet from a pair of filthy sandals. “That spider was more than enough for me” she belched “Excuse me where are my manners? What would Erasmus say?!” She laughed. “Must rest my big fat bottom as it’s pulling me down”. The Widow Gower placed her large rear end upon the lopsided stool and reached down to rub the dry skin from her dirty feet.  

Zachary placed the wooden cup down upon the table beside him accidently crushing a bug. “Nasty” he said brushing the squashed insect aside and smiling at his host. “Too small to eat I would think”…

The Widow Gower nodded in agreement and lifted her fat feet into a bucket of cold water. “Lovely, very good for the circulation, but a massage would be better”. She took the roll of paper from her pocket and placed it upon her lap. “Are you any good at massage?” she smiled and winked a red eye at Zachary “What am I thinking?”. The Widow Gower roared with laughter and returned her feet to the water. “Oh dear me, now, yes, Dredge and Drayker? They’re just a couple of bounty hunters hired by some of the villagers to find their missing children”. She stirred her feet inside the bucket and splashed pools of water over the side.  “They were probably planning to beat you until you confessed” she said stifling an inappropriate giggle “Then they’d take you back and claim their reward, they are a tad unscrupulous”.  

Zachary frowned and shook his head “Just as well you showed up, as I didn’t intend to fight them”.

The Widow Gower lifted her feet and the water dripped from her fleshy toes. She gazed down admiringly. “My feet are the only part of my body that I actually still rather like, but my late husband loved all of me”. Her voice became tinged with sadness. “At least every day that passes brings me one step closer to seeing him again”. She sighed and looked up into Zachary’s handsome face. He was a beautiful man. His pearl white skin radiated with a strange translucence that glowed like sunlight on snow and his large blue eyes glinted with a refreshing intelligence, a look that the Widow Gower had not often seen in the race of men.      

“I would imagine that fighting would not be good for your looks!” the Widow Gower said as she slipped her wet feet back into her sandals. “You’re a very pretty family… I know your wife, and saw her with your daughter just yesterday walking through the wood”.

Zachary raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You did?” he said picking up the wooden cup and taking another sip of gadroon tea. “She never mentioned seeing you. Do you know who I am?”

“No. Not your name” she continued, taking a knife from her belt and slicing through the string around the roll of paper. “I never spoke to her. Just know who she is. Your daughter does you proud. She is a striking girl, such beautiful curly red hair”.     

Zachary felt a cold chill sweep through his veins, the sensation made him feel lightheaded and nauseous. He placed the wooden cup back down upon the table. “My daughter has blonde hair” he whispered. “You must be mistaken”. Time appeared to stand still, and his mind seemed to be pulling away from his body.

The Widow Gower placed the knife upon her lap, unrolled the paper and studied the contents. “Your daughter is blonde you say?” Her voice was flat, and emotionless. She gripped the paper top and bottom and showed him the picture sketched upon it. 

He recognised the face of the young girl “Tori”. Zachary muttered under his breath, she was Marta’s friend from school.  He studied the gentle contours of the child’s face and her thick red curly hair and sad grey eyes that stared vacantly into oblivion. The artist had captured the likeness of the missing girl so vividly that Zachary could almost imagine the child’s pale lips opening to form a sad smile.   

“This is the girl I saw with your wife”. The Widow Gower scrunched up the paper “It says that she went missing in the woods yesterday”.

Zachary was unsure of how he should react. He knew the implications of what was being said. Zendra had not mentioned meeting Tori on the day that the girl had disappeared. The horrific thought that his wife was involved in the abduction of children made him gag, but fortunately his stomach was empty.       

“I’m not sure what you are suggesting” he said in a shaky voice.

The Widow Gower opened her fat fingers and dropped Tori’s portrait to the floor. The image floated gently down and settled upon a pool of water. Zachary watched as the ink ran from the paper and merged, turning the pool a dark shade of red.    

“You know what I’m suggesting”. The Widow Gower said harshly, as she placed her hand upon the hilt of her dagger. “It’s your wife… The she wolf… What has she done with the children? Where did she take little Tori?”

Zachary shook his head. “You can’t be certain”. He sounded bewildered “My wife is not capable of such things”.

The Widow Gower drew her knife and pointed it at Zachary. “You need to leave”. She said forcefully gripping tightly upon the hilt. “I know what I believe, and I doubt that’s mere coincidence”.

Zachary stood shakily, and backed away towards the door. “I’m sorry about the loss of your husband, really I am, but what do you plan to do?” he asked wiping his sweating palms against his tunic before bending down and picking up his fishing rod.

“After the loss of my noble and gentle Erasmus it’s easy to lose yourself and everyone else” her red eyes glared at Zachary “I’ll do more than hurt you”. The Widow Gower was quite prepared to fight because she had lived in the wild forest all her life and had no qualms when it came to killing. “I will do what I believe is right. Now go, before I skin you and boil the flesh from your wretched bones”.     

Zachary had no reason to doubt her words. The animal skins draped across the walls were a testament to the fact that she was skilled in the art of butchery.  

“All I ask” he said softly as he opened the door to leave “All I ask is that you don’t do anything until I know the truth”. And with those words Zachary was gone.

Once he had departed from the cottage, the Widow Gower breathed a sigh of relief. She lowered the knife and placed it back down upon her lap and considered the potential outcome of the encounter. Grim thoughts began to manifest themselves in her mind, for it quickly occurred to her that Zachary might be tempted to protect his family. A guilty secret may have been revealed, and she and Zachary were the only two individuals that knew. He did not appear to be a threat, but how far would a man push himself to keep his loved ones safe?

The Widow Gower’s dark red eyes fell upon “The Witches’ Almanac” that supported the lopsided kitchen table. She smiled. If Zachary decided to take action against her she would be quite prepared to retaliate.  

Outside the cottage Zachary was being watched. The wolf was in the wood, hidden amongst the trees and bramble bushes. The creature had Zachary’s scent in his nostrils, and the man’s image reflected in his deep yellow eyes.    

Zachary held tightly to his fishing rod and his knuckles turned white. He breathed deeply, as the colour flushed from his face. He leant against a tree to regain his balance as the shock had made him dizzy.           

“It can’t be true… Kidnapping children?” Zachary felt sick and he closed his eyes. “My wife would never be involved in such a crime”.

 

Chapter

5

The journey Zachary undertook back through the forest was made with a heavy heart. Every tired step was followed by the steady pace of the wolf who shadowed his every movement.

The day wore wearily on. Each tired hour laboured slowly into the next. Evening shadow crawled across the land as the twin suns began to descend behind the purple tipped hills.

Zendra sat quietly at the kitchen table, hands clenched upon her lap. Zachary had been gone far longer than she had anticipated and his absence was beginning to trouble her. Marta had already gone to bed, and Zendra suspected that her daughter was wide awake and crying into her pillow.

Zendra heard the handle of the cottage door rattle, and her heart began to beat a little faster until the sounds of footsteps merged and blended with the rhythmic pounding in her chest.  

Zachary appeared in the archway of the kitchen door. He was aware of his wife seated pensively at the table, but he was unable to look upon her face, instead he diverted his eyes and focused his attention on the wall behind her.   

“Are you feeling better?” Zachary asked as he placed his fishing rod against the back of a chair.

“You’ve been gone so long”, Zendra replied nervously “Did you catch any fish?”

Zachary was in no mood for idle banter. He looked warily upon his wife’s face. He could not believe that hidden behind the glinting light in Zendra’s soft blue eyes there was perhaps a most terrible secret.

“No”. Zachary answered firmly, placing a stool beside the table and sitting down. “The net has been thrown but no fish have been caught in it yet”.

“Yet?” Zendra shuffled awkwardly in her chair. “I don’t think I understand”. She tried to make eye contact with her husband, but he simply looked away. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes, something is perhaps very wrong”. Zachary answered, leaning forward across the table. He looked directly into his wife’s eyes. “The lost children, someone saw you with Tori shortly before she went missing”. 

Zendra’s eyes closed and her blood ran cold. “Oh, I see. The mind plays tricks, who knows what we see in reality”. She started to tremble.

“Is it true?”. Zachary clenched and unclenched his hands, his palms were moist with sweat, but he tried to remain composed. “Any thoughts on how that could be?”

“Not sure… What you”…  Zendra looked up sheepishly, but quickly stared down at her trembling hands. “What are you suggesting husband?” her mouth twitched as she stumbled over her words.

“I am suggesting that you are involved in Tori’s disappearance”. Zachary waited for a reaction, but Zendra was silent. “Therefore”, he continued “I would ask that you tell me the truth”…

Zendra’s eyes deadened and lost their glint. “Husband, I will not lie to you”. She wanted to be far away, but there was no escape, for even her thoughts were a barbed tomb. “I am responsible, but it’s not what you think”.    

“What I think?” Zachary held his breath as if the air around him had suddenly filled with poison. Dizzy with all manner of terrible thoughts and visions he gripped the arms upon his chair until his knuckles turned white.

“Are the children”… It was question Zachary could not believe he was asking. “Are they dead?” He bowed his head and wished the land away.

“I was ill… I was dying”. Zendra tried to hold back the tears. “I exchanged the children for medicine. I did not want to leave you or our daughter”.

Zachary slowly lifted his eyes and glared at his wife, a deep frown carving ridges into his forehead. “I asked you… Are the children dead?”

“No” Zendra shook her head firmly and her dark curly hair bounced across her slender shoulders. “The man who took them is Kyan Frith” she said quickly hoping to block any interruption. “His kingdom has been cursed by disease. All the children there have died. I helped him find replacements to breathe new life into the place”. She felt a tear fall from her eye, but Zendra remained still and allowed it to splash upon her lap. “I am no longer helping him. I am no longer taking his medication. The disease will return and his kingdom will die”. Zendra swallowed heavily. “And so will I”, the emotion swelled in her throat. “I think of the old story of Lord Thaydus; a noble young knight struck down with a fatal illness. He set out on a quest to find the immortal blue fire of the Zoriat”, she took a deep breath and tried to regain her composure. “His friends and family followed him willingly to seek the cure, because they loved him, but they all fell and died along the path, except for him and he journeyed on to the end of this land”, her voice was flat and distant and she chose not look up at her husband. “On the day he found that legendary flame, he hesitated and turned away in despair, for nothing mattered anymore. For what is life without family? Without our friends? We all live for others, never for ourselves”. Zendra found the courage to look into Zachary’s expressionless face and smiled, but still the tears fell.  “That I understand and I promise husband that tomorrow I shall go into the village, and turn myself over to the authorities”.

Zachary leant back upon his chair and loosened his grip upon the armrests. He took several deep breaths and stared at the cracks in the ceiling, perhaps the roof was about to fall.    

“Tomorrow”… Zachary closed his eyes and longed for soothing dreams. “We will try to find solutions… There are always answers. I know there can be a future for us” he said wearily “I intend to keep our family together”. Zachary wanted to reassure Zendra as much as he wanted to believe his own hollow words, but he knew that the Widow Gower was a witness. If the witch reported what she had seen the villagers would raise a lynch mob. He concluded that he would have to act against her if he was to save his family from tragedy.             

The two moons ascended and darkness fell. The yellow eyed wolf circled the white walled cottage, senses sharp, ears raised. The wolf had overheard every word. His paws brushed against the long grass and the cold wind rippled through his black fur. He gathered speed and bounded to higher ground. The wolf was focused on protecting those he loved and Kyan Frith in his current form had all the desires of a wild untamed beast, and this wolf would kill to keep his brother safe…

A dark oak ornately patterned grandfather clock had stood for many years in the corner of the cottage’s living room faithfully announcing the passage of time, it must have struck midnight many hundreds of times, but tonight would be the last hour of its existence.    

Zachary sat beside his wife. The moonlight streamed in through the window behind him and tinged Zendra’s skin with silvered light.

“What should I do?” Zachary did not expect a reply as Zendra was fast asleep. “How can she sleep?” he asked himself. He was afraid of the morning and believed that wakefulness would hold it back for longer.

Zachary had often taken his family for granted, but his wife and daughter had always been a vital part of his world. They were a reason to go to work, and a reason to smile. He valued beauty above all things, and they were both so beautiful.

Zachary closed his eyes. He knew that a terrible ugliness had pervaded his home, and at its heart was the mother of his precious daughter.

Zachary’s thoughts troubled him. If Zendra confessed to the crimes of kidnapping children, what effect would this have upon Marta? The family name would be tarnished, and sullied.

He needed to find Kyan Frith. If the children were safe then perhaps he could persuade the man to return them? If the missing children could be reunited with their parents, maybe all would be forgiven? His heart raced, it was only six hours before dawn, and he feared the light of day would cast dark shadows over all.

Marta was crying, her sobs echoed down the corridor and even though they were muffled by the bedroom walls, Zachary could still hear her. The child felt isolated, she knew more than her tender years could understand, and at the fragile age of twelve she too dreaded the new day.

The door to Marta’s bedroom opened and a flickering candle swept a dancing yellow light across the floor.

Marta was startled. “Daddy is that you?” she called out nervously, gripping the bed sheets tightly and peering out over the material.    

“Yes Marta” Zachary replied gently. “I heard you crying”. He placed the candle down upon a dressing table. “I was worried about you”.

Marta closed her eyes and felt her father’s arms wrap around her shoulders. She felt comforted by his strength. She knew that she would never come to any harm when he was by her side.

“Why are you crying?” he asked, holding his daughter close. “I’m here now and you’re safe”. He stroked his daughter’s golden hair and kissed her upon the forehead. “Please talk to me Marta”.

Marta’s body was trembling and she buried her face into her father’s dark woollen shirt. “I am worried that you and mummy are unhappy”. Marta could smell the scent of her father’s skin and it comforted her.

Zachary drew himself back and placed his hands firmly upon the child’s shoulders. “Look at me angel”.

Marta looked into her father’s deep blue eyes, she could see her own image reflected within, but something was tainted. The way her father looked down at her, his unblinking stare was supposed to reassure.

“Something is very wrong isn’t it daddy?” the child whispered. “Are you and mummy in trouble?”

Her father’s eyes seemed to flicker nervously as if his true focus was fixed on sights not meant for the eyes of children.

“Marta” he replied stroking the back of his hand gently against his daughter’s pale cheek. “Please don’t worry, I will always make things right. No matter what the cost I will protect you and keep you safe”.

“Is that a promise daddy?” Marta asked opening her eyes so wide that it captured her father’s reflection so clearly that Zachary could even see the dimple on his chin.

“Yes” he answered “I will never fail you”. He drew back his hand “Now you must sleep”. Leaning forward he kissed his daughter upon the cheek.

Marta tried to smile, but a soft touch, a kiss and caring words were not enough for the child. “What about the painting of that lady? Who is she?” Mara asked innocently. “I hope that you still love mummy and I hope you still love me”

Zachary bowed his head and looked towards the door. “I will love you always and forever”. The conversation was over, and he had nothing more to say to his daughter. “You’re my most beautiful girl and you must rest. All will be resolved in the morning. Nothing more should be said and done tonight”.

Those words were to be the last Zachary would speak in a normal family environment. The darkness of the night was poised to unleash a force so destructive that it would twist his identity and plunge his life into the depths of depravity.

 

Chapter

6

Zachary needed to escape the cottage. He picked up his pipe, opened the front door and stepped out into the night.            

The two moons had disappeared beneath dark blue clouds, and their light threw a faint shallow glow against the dim sky.

“What to do?” Zachary muttered as he crammed tobacco nervously into the pipe’s bowl and lit it. He raised the blazing match to his lips and gazed into the golden flame. “Fire is so dangerous, yet so beautiful”. He pursed his lips and blew upon the flame and watched as it flickered and died, a wisp of smoke curled from the smouldering match. Zachary looked saddened “It’s tragic that beauty can be so easily lost”.

A bowstring was drawn tightly back, a flaming arrow held in place and pointing skyward. Black gloved fingers loosened their grip, and the bolt flew high, tearing through the heavens like a comet, blazing a fiery trail before plummeting downwards towards its target.

It struck, embedding itself into the cottage’s wooden roof. A second flaming arrow pierced the rear wall, and a third plunged through an open window igniting the furniture in the room beyond.

The fire spread quickly, sweeping across the dry panels, until a carpet of flame carried upon the wind enveloped the roof completely.

“Dear God” he shouted as he watched the cottage blazing behind him. He tossed his pipe to one side and charged through the door. The smoke was thick, and the heat was intense. He could see the flames licking against the walls but ignored the danger and stumbled through spiralling grey veils of smoke. As Zachary reached the staircase, he could feel his hands blistering, but the pain did not hold him back. He charged up the steps and reached the smoke filled corridor. Murderous flame burst through the ceiling above him, and sparks of burning wood fell at his feet, the door to his own bedroom had caught alight, yellow, and red fire blazed against the panels. He could hear his wife shouting.

“Husband!” Zendra cried “Save our daughter!” Zachary leapt into a sea of flame, and felt the skin upon his legs burning. He screamed in agony as he tried to turn the door handle, but he found that the bedroom was locked from the other side. “Zendra!” he shouted; gasping as the acrid smoke choked his lungs. “For God’s sake free yourself!”

“No, not this time!” Zendra cried, her voice muffled by a wall of fire and wood. “My life is best ended!”.

Behind the bedroom door Zendra sat huddled in the furthest corner. She hugged her knees to her chest and blinked through weeping eyes. Grey smoke rolled beneath blazing holes in the roof, pouring down the walls; slow, blinding, suffocating. “I love you Marta”, she whispered. “I will always love you”. Her husband continued to pound his fists frantically upon the door, but Zendra ignored him. Drifting into memories the doomed woman smiled and reached out her hands. She imagined Marta reaching back, until all became lost amidst the impenetrable smoke and her eyesight faded to black.   

Zachary could hear the ceiling cracking as more blazing embers fell. His woollen shirt began to burn and the skin upon his shoulder smouldered as the fire singed his flesh. Zachary turned away in despair, polluted tears streamed from his eyes, and thick streaks of dampened soot blurred his vision.

Marta’s bedroom lay further down the corridor and he walked blindly towards it. Zachary stepped sideways into a small storeroom, so far untouched by the fire. A large square picture wrapped with brown paper leant against the wall. He opened a window and lifted the picture from the creaking floorboards and hurled it to safety. 

Zachary stumbled back into the corridor. “Marta!” he shouted. “Can you hear me?!” He needed the child to cry out, because his eyesight was completely blocked by smoke and although the heat was behind him, he was barely able to breathe.

“Daddy!” Marta cried stumbling forwards into her father’s open arms. “I can’t see the way out!”

“I’ll save you!” Zachary replied sweeping the child from the floor and holding her head against his chest, in a desperate attempt to shield her face from the fire. “We won’t die”.

Zachary staggered back down the corridor stumbling through walls of searing flame that arced around him. He walked through hell, and felt his hair catch fire. His face began to peel as the air around them belched, churned and crackled with flame and poison.

The staircase poured with fire, pools of flame burned away his boots, and Zachary’s toes melted as he lumbered down each step. “God help us!” he screamed “God give me strength”.

The wood beneath him split in two, Zachary lost his footing as the stairway collapsed. Marta tumbled from his arms and plunged downwards into the endless smoke.

Zachary tripped, no longer supported by his own feet. He crashed through blazing embers and smashed his face into the floor beneath, his jaw snapped and his teeth shattered.

He reached out his scarred hands and attempted to drag his burning body to safety, but the agonising pain and smothering smoke sapped his strength. Zachary managed one last cry for help before the darkness swept through his mind and  consciousness deserted him…    

Dreams can mask many misfortunes and offer the dreamer an escape from reality. They can protect you from horror and reunite you with those who have died. Sometimes it is good to believe in dreams because when tragedy strikes and loved ones die, it would be a blessing to those left behind if they never awoke again.     

Zachary was beyond pain. In the world outside of his mind lay a body that was broken, scarred and deformed by fire. A dreamscape was his only solace and he stood naked and barefooted beneath a green sunlit sky, surrounded by golden meadows.   

Alone and isolated Zachary found his mind continually drifting. He tried to imagine his wife and daughter standing beside him, but all he could conjure were shadows and shattered shapes.

Zachary could see that the sunlight was fading and the green sky was becoming darker. A man’s silhouette cloaked in veils of shadow arose in front of him. Zachary watched as the golden meadows withered and died and turned to black ash beneath his feet.

He fell to his knees, his naked body crumbling. He raised his hands in front of his face and could only stare in disbelief as the skin of each finger turned grey and flaked away from the bone.       

“I will not die in my sleep!” Zachary screamed, as his eyes fell back into his crumbling skull and disintegrated. 

The dark silhouette swept forward and embraced the dying dreamer. Its smothering touch was enough to send his mind spiralling backwards and with a vicious jolt the man awoke and found himself once more inside a flesh and blood body.               

“You’re safe now” a deep voice called out to him. “You’re in the home of Kyan Frith”.

Zachary’s body felt stiff and his eyes were coated in a dark fog which barely allowed him to see beyond the tip of his nose.

“I’m blind” he muttered, Zachary’s tongue felt like leather and the inside of his mouth appeared dry and rough like it was coated in sand. “Nothing feels right”. He tried to frown, but even the skin upon his face appeared to move unnaturally.

“I am sat beside you my friend” Frith replied slowly. “I saved you from the burning building”.

Zachary blinked and black tears formed in his eyes. The droplets washed away a little soot and allowed him a chance to see Frith’s dark shadowy form.

“Where is my wife? What happened to my daughter?” He dreaded asking the question, for already a sense of despair was sweeping through his mind.  

"Your daughter is alive”.

Tears of joy began to fall from his eyes and Frith’s ghost white face became clearer.

“I dragged you from the flames” Frith continued, as he leaned forward over the injured man. “I saved your daughter and I saved you” Frith mopped Zachary’s brow with a damp cloth and bowed his head, his body continually fading in and out of shadow.

“I was unable to rescue your wife”. Frith sounded solemn. “But I did all I could”… 

Zachary could not feel any physical sensation. His mind and body felt numb. It was not simply the shock of discovering that Zendra was dead, it was much more than that. He knew that he was lying down because he could see that beneath his head there were bed sheets and soft pillows. What was missing were the natural sensations of touch, for although he had physical contact with solid objects and materials Zachary could just as easily have been lying on thin air.          

“I cannot feel anything” He attempted to rise from the bed, but his strength deserted him, and he slumped back down again. 

“You were very badly burned, and I have treated you with medicine that has numbed your body” Frith placed his hand gently upon Zachary’s shoulder. “Your daughter has suffered the same, but she is yet to wake”.      

“God” Zachary rolled over onto his side and stared into the wall. “Why did this happen?” he sobbed “Who did this to us?”

Frith leant back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling and a strange grin formed upon his face. “The Widow Gower, I saw her upon the hill, and she fired the arrows that burned down your cottage”.

Zachary closed his eyes so tightly that he felt the pressure of his eyelids might burst them in their sockets. “That woman” he muttered digging his fingers into the bed sheets and scraping harshly against the material. “She judged my wife, and has condemned my daughter into a living hell”…

Frith’s grin became a wide smile as he listened.      

“I will kill her for what she did to us”. Zachary’s breathing became heavy and his tormented emotions finally gave way to a physical response. The feeling was so strong that it burned inside his gut and bubbled with all the rage of a volcano on the threshold of violent eruption.      

Frith could see Zachary’s body trembling, and he could sense the despair and anger coursing through the man’s soul. “The Widow Gower is a very evil woman” Frith said firmly as a further means to encourage his hatred. “Her death would be a blessing, for she has brought misery to so many and out of this terrible tragedy you could restore some happiness”.

Zachary was not listening because his mind had entered a very dark place, and words would not penetrate the prison of his thoughts. Actions would not free him, for although he had not seen the damage the fire had caused to his own physical appearance, he feared the worst, and what of his daughter? “Yes” he thought deeply “The Widow Gower must die”… 

Frith… Kyan Frith… The name sparked some recognition, and Zachary dug deeper into his thoughts. He raised his head slowly and stared at the shadow man. “I know your name”.

Frith’s body seemed to melt into the dark, as if the statement itself was causing him to vanish. “I have had dealings with your wife”. Frith responded hesitantly. “I provided her with lifesaving medicine”.         

“Of course” Zachary’s head slumped back against the pillow. “You are the child taker".  He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “The man who steals children to save his dying kingdom”. Zachary chuckled “If of course that is actually the truth”.

Frith bowed his head and looked away. “I did not lie and I resent the accusation” His tone was ice cold. “It was a fair exchange. Your wife would have died long ago without our help”. Frith smiled “In this land we have to learn to look after each other”. Black tears glistened in his pale grey eyes “It sometimes means that we must do bad deeds for good reasons”. Frith blinked and the tears dried. “I will help you take revenge against the Widow Gower”. He gazed across the room to where a glinting silver dagger stood "She is a powerful witch and you will need a magical weapon to kill her”.

Zachary clenched his fists and pulled tightly against the bed sheets and twisted the material in his scarred hands. “As I said before, the witch will die. After what she has done to my family, there is a very high price to pay”.  

Frith nodded in grim agreement “Yes, there is always a high price to pay in matters of revenge”.       

Frith had his own reasons to hate the Widow Gower, but he had no need to disclose them. He had fuelled Zachary’s rage and that was enough. Frith simply sat back comfortably in his chair and allowed the shadows that formed his appearance to roll around him.     

“You will need to drug her”. Frith continued. “It will deaden her ability to use magic”. His pale grey eyes focused once again on the silver dagger. “When she is suitably weakened, you can cut her down with a poisoned blade”.

Zachary listened, but wished that he could close his ears and eyes and block out every aspect of the conversation, and simply fall into the abyss and be lost.      

Frith smiled “When the Widow Gower is dead I will erase your scars. Yes, I shall obtain more medicine and heal your wounds”. He nodded, dark veils sweeping around his pale bald head “If you help me, I will restore you and your daughter to your original selves”.      

“Can you do that?” Zachary asked, his voice choking with emotion. “Make us beautiful again?” Beauty, it was beauty that he prized above all other things. A life without beauty would be barren and empty, and the merest thought of beholding his own ugliness terrified him.

“Yes, but for now all I can offer you is a mask and fine clothes, as your own were destroyed in the fire” Frith understood, for he too had once been a handsome man who had turned heads and made the ladies smile. “I know your despair. My family has suffered as much as yours and I too wish to save them from further misery”.  

Frith began to transform back into a wolf, his ears elongated and he sprouted thick black hair and his eyes turned yellow.  He went down upon all fours and flared his nostrils.

Zachary was unaware of the change in his host’s appearance as he began to drift into sleep.

“I shall go and hunt for food”. Frith snarled bearing his sharp teeth as his jaw rapidly extended. “Yes. You must rest”.

The wolf turned away, bounded across the stone floor and vanished through an open door. Frith’s black coated body merging into the dark. The wolf’s nostrils flared once again as he scented prey and scanned the silhouetted tree line for a victim. Kyan Frith now had three mouths to feed, and he would never allow his beloved brother to starve to death, whatever the price, Frith would sacrifice all to keep him alive.    

In the depths of a deep underground cellar a little red headed girl awoke from a drugged sleep. She rubbed her eyes and stretched her aching limbs, and squinted into the darkness. The surroundings were cold and damp, and she shivered in the icy air.

“Is anyone there?” she called out nervously. “I’m Tori, I don’t know where I am”.

She attempted to stand and stumbled forward, her bare feet displaced on the uneven stone floor. Tori felt her way through the dark, a candle burned in the distance, a shallow source of light that offered the only guidance.

“Can anyone help me? I’m afraid”. Tori’s voice was barely a whisper. She drew nearer to the flame and saw to her horror a pile of bones stacked high in the cellar’s corner. Tori heard a strange squelching sound behind her and she turned slowly around.

“Is someone there?” Tori asked, backing into the candle and burning her arm. “Ouch!” she shouted gripping her elbow.

Tori felt something cold and slimy beneath her bare feet and it caused her to slip. She slid down against something warm and soft, and reached out to support herself. It was to be Tori’s last conscious action, as a monstrous creature surged forward and smothered her with its body. Tori managed one last gasp as a jet of oozing slime burst upwards covering the candle, dousing the flame and thus leaving all in darkness.

A night and a day passed. Zachary spent the time seated in a large armchair in the room’s corner. It was far away from an open window and shaded from light. He knew that his daughter lay unconscious in an adjoining room, but he had not been able to face her. He was gripped by the memory of what Marta used to look like and had so far been unable to contemplate the damage the fire had caused to both himself and his daughter. Zachary had touched his face with deeply scarred fingers, and knew that his once smooth unblemished skin felt bumpy, swollen and unnatural. There was no pain, for his mind and body were numb, a combination of the dark blue medicine Frith had been giving him, mixed together with his own state of disbelief.

Zachary began to wonder why he had struggled to save his daughter, if Marta was as badly burned as he imagined, death would have been a blessed relief.         

“Grief” Frith muttered as his dark form emerged from the shadows and rippled like a cloud of black ink. “We all have scars that may never heal. Some wounds can be seen in the faces of others, and when we share their pain, we show that we care”.

Zachary’s sad blue eyes studied Frith’s pale face. The man looked like a ghost. His skin was moonlight white and he looked transparent.

“What are you?” he asked. “Are you dead?... Are you a wraith?... Or some such creature?”

Frith smiled falsely, whilst his body continued to roll back and forth against the air, it moved like a tide of dark water lapping on some strange and distant shore. “What I was before is all but nearly forgotten”. Frith’s shadowed eyes filled with black tears. “I too am a victim of the Widow Gower’s hate. It was she that cursed our Kingdom and condemned all the children there to death. Once she has gone, Grimney will be a better land to live in”.

“Why did she curse you Frith?” Zachary asked looking down at the scars upon his hands and regretting deeply his meeting with the wretched witch. “What was her reason?”

“Does evil need a reason to make mischief and to blight our lives?” Frith shook his head slowly “It was not just I that the Widow Gower cursed. She has brought death to the Kingdom of Sadgin. She is corrupted by dark magic, and each spell she casts takes away another piece of her soul and her memory”.

Zachary was not satisfied with the answer, but he was consumed with hatred, and Frith had seen the witch burn down their cottage. Yes, if evil did exist then the Widow Gower embodied it.

“I have said that I will help you Zachary. As I helped your wife before this tragedy struck. You kill the Widow Gower and I will heal you and your daughter and make you both whole and beautiful again”.

Zachary breathed heavily, the air smelt sweet in his lungs. The scent of Goldfrip and Pormenta wafted in through an open window, beautiful wildflowers that grew in meadows and forests the length and breadth of Grimney. The scent soothed him, and momentarily masked the memory of another smell; that of his daughter’s burning flesh as he stumbled blindly through smoke and fire in a vain attempt to save her from injury.

He gritted his teeth “I’ll need a change of clothes and a mask, but yes”. he nodded “I’m up for the task of killing that witch, no question, because that is something I wish to do”. Zachary clenched his scarred hands into fists and squeezed “It is something I will do most gladly”.    

        

THE CONFRONTATION

Chapter

7

The Widow Gower’s life was not a joyous one. She spent most evenings mixing noxious potions. Insects that gathered on the cottage walls did not live long; she would cast spells and give them the faces of those who had angered her and then squash them. The source of her rage and bitterness stemmed for the death of her husband Erasmus Gower. He had died unnaturally, poisoned by the consumption of white sand and since his death she had lived in her memories, but in truth they were nothing but a torment to her. Days and nights had become meaningless as she simply waited to die. The widow held so tightly to Erasmus’s memory that it was choking away her own life. She would never truly accept that her husband was dead and conversations between them continued as before, but all his replies were imagined. The Widow Gower dreaded normality, but her reclusive nature and separation from everyday life protected her. She had embraced her loneliness, for no one could ever love her the way Erasmus had, he was her heart and soul and the endless, widening separation had destroyed life’s meaning.

She longed to see her children again, but they had grown into adulthood, fled the widow’s cottage, never to return. In moments of extreme bitterness she cursed the shallow nature of her fickle offspring. Such was her power; she wondered whether her curses had killed them.

The Widow Gower believed that she had grown old and ugly. Most nights she stood in front of a full length mirror. The properties of the glass were blessed with mystical powers and allowed the widow to assume the form of her younger self. Her regenerated reflection would sweep outwards in a swirl of glowing silver stardust, and her aged and bloated body would transform into the youthful flame haired beauty of her distant past.       

“Being young and beautiful is merely a brief illusion”. The widow knew that behind the smile and her dark red sparkling eyes of her younger, slimmer self, there was no escaping the reality of her  faded youth.  As she often said at times of bitter loneliness “It is simply a mask that hides what you truly are at the end”.

Tonight and as always the Widow Gower lowered her eyes and turned away from the dream of all her youthful yesterdays. The stardust began to flake from her face and body, and it quickly blackened, until all had turned to ash.

In truth all she knew were her fading memories and the illusion of magic was there to comfort her, but that could never be enough to create happiness. Erasmus was gone and no matter how powerful the magic nothing would ever change that. By the time the Widow Gower had brewed yet another steaming pot of gadroon tea she was once again, as always, the frumpy, wiry haired, lonely, elderly witch that she had grown to despise. 

The Widow Gower stared down into the green liquid and thought of happier times. Erasmus had been the love of her life, and after his death she had spent several weeks trying to resurrect him. Many frogs perished as she attempted to transform them into the likeness of her lover. In the course of recreating the perfect husband the Widow Gower had made several strange men who flicked flies off the walls with their tongues, and had a simple vocabulary that consisted of the word ‘ribbit’. Conversation and table manners shattered the illusion, and the Widow Gower had released her creations one by one. She liked to imagine that they had hopped off to a lake somewhere and formed a commune in a lovely watery habitat.           

The widow had chosen to pursue the darker aspects of sorcery, but her cursing had its own consequences. The Widow Gower’s memory was deteriorating due to the poisonous nature of her spell casting. Sometimes when she stared at her own reflection she struggled to recognise herself. She often thought that this was a mixed blessing, and not something she entirely regretted. One day the Widow Gower hoped to forget herself altogether.

Zachary Nova stood alone in the meadow, his scarred face hidden behind a purple facemask. He stared at the scorched rubble that had once been the family home. Dead flowers beneath his black booted feet lay crisp with soot, their beauty destroyed by the fire. Zachary’s thoughts drifted to Zendra. Somewhere beneath blackened stone and charcoaled wood lay the remains of his wife. He considered digging for her bones and giving her a decent burial, but in truth he believed it was best for her to remain a beautiful memory.     

Such memories, such grand memories, for Zachary had built the cottage stone by stone, beam by beam, hammered in the wooden fencing panels and stood hand in hand with wife and daughter as they gazed proudly at its white walls. Their home for many years had taken long months to construct, crafted with great care and love, but all had been reduced to rubble, all their dreams had been for nothing.

All Zachary owned was gone. The long purple coat, shirt and trousers, and the black silk scarf draped around his scarred neck and shoulders were not even his. The outfit was on loan from Kyan Frith and he did not wish to cover it in ash by searching for the dead, Zachary thought it might offend the kindness of his saviour. He wiped away a tear with a black gloved hand, and it trickled from the eyehole of the mask. Zendra was gone, and being buried beneath the cottage was as good a place as any to spend eternity.

Zendra however was not the reason for Zachary’s return. He had thrown a valued treasure from a cottage window, and hoped that it had survived the devouring flames. He moved amidst the rubble, stepping over scorched books, and shattered ornaments, some objects he recognized, a round piece of metal with melted roman numerals was all that remained of the grandfather clock. The recognition stabbed him through the chest like a blade of ice, and he closed his eyes momentarily. The realisation made the devastation all the more personal.

The sweeping rays of the setting suns shone down, and golden light rolled across the mounds of ash and blackened stone. Zachary caught sight of a glinting object sticking from a scorched wooden beam and he knelt down and plucked it from its resting place.

An arrowhead, shaped like a serpent. A jewelled eye at its tip looked benevolently outwards, its expression oddly passive.  A most expensive piece of weaponry, Zachary’s eyes dimmed and closed. The significance of the arrowhead was not lost on him, and he tucked it into his overcoat pocket.      

The picture wrapped in brown paper had fallen away from the fire. It was still intact although the ashen wind had stained the wrapping and Zachary wasted no time in bundling it up and carrying it to safety.  He lifted stones and lumps of wood and slid the package beneath, and concealed it out of sight. He could not take it with him to the Widow Gower’s house, the object was heavy and his plan was to make a swift exit once the deed was done.

Zachary stood and stared hollowly at the setting suns. This would be the Widow Gower’s last sunset. He reached a gloved hand inside his coat and slid out a silver dagger encrusted with purple jewels. Taking a deep breath and thrusting the blade forward he sliced at the air. Zachary had never killed anything larger than a fish, and wondered how difficult it would be to kill a human being. He needed to reshape his thoughts, after all, the Widow Gower was not human and Zachary had to believe that fact. The Widow Gower was a witch, and her death would free others from her evil influence. Zachary slid the blade into his black leather belt and watched as the two red suns descended behind the purple hills. It would be dark soon, and it was always best to hunt at night. 

 

Chapter

8

A large circular tin bath stood at the centre of a dimly lit room, the Widow Gower’s immense blubbery body floated beneath green water, copious amounts of blue foam clung against the many folds of glistening pale skin that brushed gently against the sides of the tub. Candlelight shone down from above and guided her fat fingers, as she turned the pages of ‘The Witches Almanac’ occasionally drops of green water dripped upon the parchment. The Widow Gower was deeply engrossed in the book, her dark red eyes narrowed as she memorised each word, her thoughts focused entirely on learning new spells. 

Outside the Widow Gower’s cottage Zachary was using the silver dagger to unscrew the hinges that secured the witch’s front door. He felt sweat beneath his mask, and it quickly turned cold against his skin. Fear and apprehension began to make his black gloved hand shake, and when the first hinge fell away, he nearly swallowed his own tongue.  

The Widow Gower remained oblivious. She placed the book down beside the tin bath, and slid beneath the green water and held her breath. She dreamed of death, of joining her husband in the afterlife, but the witch’s body was strong and her subconscious mind would never allow her to drown.

Zachary had gained entry to the widow’s cottage. He moved through the dimly lit confines, wrapped in shadow, with his back firmly pressed against the wall. Wherever moonlight or candle flame blazed a glowing trail, Zachary hunched his shoulders and kept his body low against the floor. He passed unseen through a large wooden door, and entered a room that was lit by black candles, a large portrait of a distinguished looking man hung proudly upon the wall and the inscription beneath etched in silver lettering read ‘My beloved Erasmus Gower’.         

Zachary stared into the man's brooding eyes, Erasmus's never ending stare made him feel deeply uncomfortable, as if he was being judged as a common criminal. Zachary almost expected the man’s thin lips to quiver with rage for having the gall to enter the Widow Gower’s property uninvited.

Distracted by the painting his stumbled and tripped over several large sacks of salt, and fell against the wall. His clumsiness did not knock over the candles or dislodge the portrait, and Zachary was relieved that his presence had thus far gone undetected.    

An iron stewing pot stood upon a small stove, its contents bubbled and he could smell the bitter sweet aroma of Gadroon tea. Breathing deeply he slid a small glass bottle from inside his jacket and popped the cork. Before his departure Frith had gifted him the means of the Widow Gower’s destruction. Zachary had been informed that tincture of perenik would dull the witch’s senses and prevent her from using dark magic. Once the potion had subdued the Widow Gower, he would strike against the evil witch and kill her with one thrust of his poisoned silver blade.

Zachary raised the bottle and gazed down at his reflection. The bubbles churned and rolled and distorted his masked features. The phantom image bore no resemblance to the man he once was, and because of that fact it made the actions he was about to undertake so much easier. He tilted the bottle and poured. The green gadroon tea sizzled, and the steam turned red. A strange crimson froth belched from the depths of the pot. Zachary held his breath and hoped that the tea would not boil over or change colour completely. Green and red merged and separated. The pot rattled and shook as the fire from the blazing stove sparked and spat. The tea bubbled ferociously and trickled over the side. Zachary closed his eyes and waited.

“What’re you doing in my cottage?” The Widow Gower, her huge body wrapped in a loose fitting blue robe stood in the doorway. She was holding a cup and saucer and her red hair was dripping wet. “Turn around. Let me see your face”.

Zachary opened his eyes and gazed into the pot, he was relieved to see that the green gadroon tea had settled. “I’m sorry” he said slowly “I do not have a face”. He turned around and smiled but his expression was lost behind the mask.  “I was walking through the forest and saw that your door had been broken into, I was worried so I came in to investigate”

The Widow Gower nodded and the skin beneath her chin wobbled “Seems plausible, after all only a fool would break into my cottage” her red eyes narrowed. “You do know who I am?”

Zachary clenched his black gloved fingers around the glass bottle and slid it discreetly into his trouser pocket.  “You’re the Widow Gower”. He breathed heavily. The skin around his neck was beginning to hurt and his scarred body was cold and sweaty beneath his clothes. He pulled his long purple coat and scarf tight around his shoulders. “I think I have a chill” he said gently “Perhaps a cup of tea might help? If you would be so kind?”.        

“Yes” The widow smiled. “A cup of gadroon tea always hits the spot. Erasmus always liked his tea. Do please join me”.

The Widow Gower was unsure of her house guest’s intentions. However she had learned a terrifying new spell. If this mysterious stranger should become a threat, she would crush him like a bug, strip his body, boil his bones and eat his flesh for dinner.  

The Widow Gower raised a cup of hot tea, pursed her thick lips and blew. The steam rolled around her large nostrils and caused her freckled nose to twitch. She sipped the gadroon tea gently. “So” she said firmly. “Why were you walking through the woods at night?”

Zachary was seated at the head of the kitchen table and the Widow Gower faced him at the opposite end. A cup and saucer stood upon the table in front of him, and he was doing his best to ignore it. “I was lost in the woods”. His blue eyes looked across at the sacks of salt stacked in the room’s corner.

“You’re safe here” the Widow Gower replied, as she followed Zachary’s stare to where the sacks lay stacked. “Salt and white sand”. The Widow Gower remarked as she took another mouthful of tea and gulped it down. “My husband Erasmus was the victim of unscrupulous merchants”. Bitter memories flooded through the widow’s mind. She lowered her eyes and stared down into the half empty teacup. “They sold us white sand and poisoned my husband”. A strange dark red residue had gathered at the bottom of the cup and it floated amongst the flakes of gadroon tea. “They had not intended to murder him, they had not realised that white sand was poisonous”. The Widow Gower’s eyes welled with tears, but they dried as quickly as they had formed, and her expression filled with anger. "But I had my revenge, and taught them both a lesson that they would never forget”.  The Widow Gower gulped down the last drop of tea. “Although I forget what their punishment was, using magic can blind the strongest mind, but I know it was a bitter punishment”. She licked her lips, the taste was slightly different, but fading memories of lost love distracted her “And what of you stranger? What happened to you?”

Zachary watched the witch closely and lowered his black gloved hand beneath the table and felt for the hilt of the silver dagger. He had no idea how long it would be before the tincture of perenik took effect. He had to bide his time. “Surely you remember?”   

“Do I know you?” The Widow Gower began to feel queasy, and a strange sensation had formed in the pit of her stomach. “Tell me who you are?” She reached down and picked up the teacup and slid a fat finger across the rim. The Widow Gower gazed at her fingertip.       

“You killed my wife, maimed my daughter and scarred me”. Zachary began to draw the silver blade from his belt. “You believed she had kidnapped the lost children”. He could see that the Widow Gower’s skin had stained red and it would not be long before she realised that she had been drugged.  

The widow sniffed her fingertip and curled her thick lips with disgust. “Tincture of perenik” she muttered, but the Widow Gower was finding it hard to speak due to the fact that her tongue had begun to swell inside her mouth. “So” she said through gritted teeth “You are an assassin?”      

“My wife did take the children, but they came to no harm”. Zachary’s blue eyes flashed with rage “But you had no right to kill her”. He gripped the hilt of the silver blade and pulled it from his belt. He kicked back the chair and it fell to the floor. “You destroyed my life”. Zachary pointed the blade at the witch “Because you made the wrong judgement about us you will die too”.

The Widow Gower’s hands began to swell and her dark red eyes bulged. “Sit down!” she shouted, but Zachary ignored her and began to cross the stone  floor. “You were warned!” The widow gasped. She closed her eyes and began to chant. The widow’s jaw began to crack and her mouth widened.

His movements became stilted, as if the widow’s whispered words were penetrating his bones and causing the joints to lock together. He tried to step forward but a wall of sound was holding him back and his vision was starting to grow dim.

The Widow Gower’s tongue vibrated against the inside of her swollen cheeks and a terrible screech began to emit itself from the depths of the witch’s throat.  Zachary dropped the silver dagger and it cluttered against the stone. He fell to his knees, his gloved hands pressed firmly over his ears. The high pitched screech grew in pitch and forced blood to seep from the corners of his blue eyes.

Zachary grabbed the table leg and dug in his fingernails. The chair that stood behind him rattled as the floor shook beneath it. Zachary knew that he was dying, that the tincture of perenik had failed to work. He had but one chance, he fell upon his hands and knees and grasped the hilt of the silver dagger, and hurled it spinning through the air.

It struck the Widow Gower squarely in the chest and in an instant the high pitched screech descended into a dread death rattle. The widow spat blood and grabbed at the blade and pulled it from her chest. The widow’s swollen hand fell limply to her side and the silver dagger slipped from her grasp. Dark green blood oozed from a deep wound and the Widow Gower’s head fell back against the chair.                

Zachary seized the dagger and secured it in his belt. He could not bear to look upon his victim, but he believed that the witch was dead. His task was completed and Zachary’s desire for revenge had been satisfied.  Escape was all that concerned him, to linger in the widow’s cottage would only generate nauseous despair.

The Widow Gower’s high pitched screech had drawn all manner of beasts to the cottage’s shattered door, although curious most were too afraid to venture inside and cowered away from the moonlight. Other night prowlers, like the yellowed eyed wolf simply watched from a distance. Dredge and Drayker had been camping in the forest close by, they had heard the Widow Gower screeching. Armed with knives and clubs the two men crossed the threshold and stepped into the dimly lit surroundings of the witch’s cottage.    

Zachary was standing over the Widow Gower’s body, his head bowed and lost in bleak thoughts. Drayker gazed at the masked man and called out to him. “Stand still and we will not harm you!” Zachary’s reaction was swift. He drew the silver dagger and with his long purple coat billowing around him like a cloak Zachary sped forward and pushed the two startled men aside.

Dredge gave chase and pursued his quarry into the forest. Drayker remained behind, he was far more cautious than his savage colleague. Drayker approached the Widow Gower and knelt down beside her. “Are you dead?” Drayker asked as he reached out to take hold of the widow’s wrist. Drayker was startled when the witch raised her head and grabbed him by neck. The Widow Gower’s dark red eyes bulged and green blood gurgled from the witch’s throat and stained her teeth. Drayker tried to pull away, but she gripped his wrist like a vice.  “He is the child taker, the scarred man, he is the villain you are seeking”... The Widow Gower gasped her final words, slackened her grip and fell back into the chair. Drayker watched as the witch’s head became limp and with a final rattled gasp the Widow Gower breathed her last breath.

 

Chapter

9

At night in the depths of the dark forest death was always near, only predators roamed without fear. Glowing eyes watched from concealed treetops, whilst poisonous reptiles slithered through decayed undergrowth. The most common victims of the night stalkers were small vulnerable creatures that chose to run and not stay hidden.   

Zachary fled, diving through the darkness, weaving a daunting path through the towering trees. Crimson moonbeams fractured between the branches as he followed the broken light.  He knew that Dredge and Drayker would pursue him relentlessly. Zachary could see no means of escape, and feared being lost in the forest. A large twisted bramble bush grew just ahead and he crawled beneath it to hide. The curled thorns scratched against his mask and tore the skin upon his neck. Zachary ignored the pain and remained silent as he watched the forest floor for movement.    

Dredge’s leather boots came into view, but Zachary kept his head low and his eyes down, he feared that the moonlight would reflect its light within his eyes.

“Where are you?!” Dredge shouted. “You can’t escape the man!” He spat tobacco through his decayed silver teeth.  “I’m going to gut you, split you from neck to navel!” He looked over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of a pair of yellow eyes, they stared from the shadows and followed Dredge’s every movement.  He sneered and raised his club. “I’m the hunter here! Stay in the dark if you know what’s good for you!”      

The yellow eyed wolf leapt forward, his black fur glistening as he pounced upon the bounty hunter. Dredge tried to defend himself and grabbed the beast tightly by the scruff of the neck, but the wolf was too swift and sank his fangs deep into the man’s shoulder.  Dredge pulled the beast closer and tried to throttle the animal with one hand, but the wolf retaliated and shook the ferocious man back and forth like a rag doll. “No!” Dredge yelled, tossing aside his club. “I’ll kill you!” He tried to reach for his curved dagger tucked inside his boot, but Dredge could feel the tendons tearing beneath his shredded leather armour. He screamed in agony as his arm separated at the elbow and he fell back clutching at the bloodied stump. “You damned ragged wretch!” Dredge’s eyes flashed with rage and he raised his severed arm as a weapon. “Is that the best you’ve got?!”  He tried to sit up, but the man failed to curse the beast for a second time because the wolf leapt forward and sank his jaws deep into Dredge’s neck and ripped out his larynx.   

Zachary dragged his body from beneath the bramble bush. The thorns tore the purple thread from his long coat as he struggled free. The wolf raised his head, blood dripped from  jagged fangs and the wolf’s yellow eyes raged.  Zachary stared through the round holes in his mask, somehow the grotesque scene before him seemed to lessen when his face was hidden.

The wolf flared his nostrils and scented the fresh blood oozing from the corpse and drank, his tongue rolling against the still warm flesh of the dead man.

Zachary ran, he did not wish to fall prey to the wolf’s bloodlust. He did not care that the sweat that seeped from his scarred skin was attracting other hungry creatures to follow the scent.  He ducked behind a dead tree and slid inside a large hole where the trunk had rotted and crumbled. He tucked in his legs and held his knees against his chest. Zachary was short of breath and his body was beginning to ache. The injuries he had endured wracked his body and a heat like ice and fire poured through his veins.  He fell against the inside of the decayed tree and weevils and centipedes tumbled down upon his shoulders. He was oblivious to the crawling insects. An overwhelming nausea swelled in his stomach and he felt his grasp on reality fade, as he began to slip into unconsciousness.

The wolf had also picked up Zachary’s scent and with his nostrils flared, held low to the forest floor the animal followed its nose to where the dead tree stood. The wolf approached with his teeth bared as a warning to other potential predators. 

Inside the hollow tree Zachary slept. He was unaware of the wolf’s approach. The animal did not attack, but simply licked the wounded man’s neck in hope of eliciting a positive response.

Zachary’s mind fractured, his own existence melted away. In his delirium he felt reborn amidst a landscape of blasted trees, blowflies and churned mud.  Banks of thick green fog drifted across the pock marked wilderness. Deep holes filled with stagnant water vibrated and rippled as a barrage of flame and fire raged against an alien sky.

The nightmare seemed so real. Zachary staggered forward and his booted feet sunk into the mud. Zachary was reduced to dragging himself over bloated corpses, many of whom had been torn apart by some ungodly power. Mounds of red clay stained his clothes and clung to him in deadweight. Struggling onwards, shielding his eyes from the lights that blazed in the sky, he was enveloped in a maelstrom of fire and thunder that ruptured the very ground beneath him.     

He hauled his exhausted body into a deep trench and slid down against the mud packed wall. A long passageway stretched out on either side and sandbags were stacked behind him as a means of barricade.    

Wooden steps led down into a dark hole that had been dug out of the ground, an iron roof overhung the entrance as a means of protection from the whistling fires in the sky. Zachary ducked his masked face beneath the iron roof, took the first step and started down into the pit. 

There was a small room below the ground. Dried mud was packed tight into the walls and rats scuttled through the dark.  The air smelt stagnant and the room was deathly quiet. Upon a wooden desk at the room’s centre stood a single white candle. The yellow flame glowed, and its flickering light guided the shaking hand of a khaki uniformed man. He was leaning over the desk and writing in what appeared to be his diary.

“Over the Mountains of the Moon, down through the valley of Kil Kar Koon, beyond the forest of Forever Night, within the wastelands out of sight”...

The soldier was deep in thought and unaware of Zachary’s presence. The words formed upon the crumpled mud stained paper and flowed from his quill freely.

“There lay a chasm so wide so deep, that tumbled sheer by a rock face steep. Down beneath in this dark abode, there swept a path a winding road”. 

Zachary was somehow able to hear the man’s thoughts. They echoed inside his head and beyond his own mind the words seemed to melt and fade into and out of the walls. The sound of the man’s voice was everywhere. He stood transfixed and continued to listen. 

“Torches hung from cobwebbed walls, and moisture dripped into stagnant pools, a gravelled path led the way through cold dead tunnels of black and grey. Bats did hide beneath their wing, hidden creatures were whispering, staring eyes trapped dull light, to give their vision the power of sight”.

The candle began to burn out as the wick sank into the melted wax. The room darkened.  The words echoed still, but drifted further.  Zachary felt reality splinter once again, as if his mind was on the cusp of dreams, that magical realm between sleep and wakefulness.       

“I with my travellers did walk this path, as the creatures watched we heard them laugh, for they knew no man had been below, where an ocean of ice had frozen in flow”.

Zachary felt the ground shift and watched the candle fall, the light was extinguished, and he slipped further into a dark void. Downwards Zachary tumbled carried upon the last words of the poem as the letters flashed before his eyes.

“I with my colleagues explorers so brave will march into Heaven before death and the grave, and continue the trek to pass through a door, that leads to another world unseen before”.

All was silent. Zachary was consumed by a terrible emptiness, for he was trapped between two worlds; unsure of life, but certain of death. He had been in darkness many times, but it had never seemed so hopelessly black. Zachary could not speak and he was unable to see. All he knew were his own tortured thoughts, because if this was the bleak nature of death it would be an eternity of never ending madness.    

In his mind Zachary imagined a white circle of light and  he pushed all his thoughts towards it. The light bathed his soul with warmth and he began to feel again. The pain in his wounds ebbed away and he felt his body lifted.

Kyan Frith carried Zachary over his shoulder.  Frith moved swiftly through the trees and the dark mist rolled around his silhouetted frame. He embraced the shadow and saw his way clearly through the dark. Frith’s eyes remained yellow as he watched every movement, but the woodland creatures turned away, they cowered with fear as he passed unhindered through the forest.

In his delirium Zachary caught glimpses of fur clad predators; each stood their ground and did not leave the cover of the trees. He was uncertain of the identity of his saviour, he had no recollection. The smell of death and decayed flesh irritated his nostrils and weakened by his scarred body Zachary once more slipped into unconsciousness.

 

Chapter

10

Zachary’s eyes stung and he blinked against faint candlelight. He could see Frith seated beside him. The man’s phantom form remained blurred beneath layers of dark mist. Zachary clenched his hands and gripped the bed sheets.

“Thank the Zoriat gods”. Zachary remarked cynically. His hollow words meant little as he did not believe in them, for why would a god create such a brutal and violent land as this? Zachary placed his scarred feet upon the wood floor; he was calmed by the fact that he was again hidden deep in the woods and safe inside Frith’s cottage.       

Frith removed his gloves and toyed with a black jewelled ring. “My beloved brother had one just like this, we exchanged them” he said softly. “It is a rare and valuable stone, but worth so little compared to the value of healthy flesh and bone”.

Zachary touched the charred skin upon his face. “Where is my mask?” he asked, the pain had eased but he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his appearance.                    

“It is beside you on the bed”. Frith leaned back in his chair and his ghost white hands gripped the armrests. He bowed his head and raised his pale grey eyes and gazed across at Zachary. “Your daughter was asking for you earlier. She sleeps now and does not know that her mother is dead”. 

Zachary squinted and rubbed his dry blue eyes with his scarred palms. The light from the candle flame was still irritating him. “I’m not well enough to see the child”. he responded. “Besides you promised me a cure if I killed the Widow Gower and that I have done”. He tried to smile, but his jaw ached and all he could manage was a lopsided grimace. “I’m now a murderer and revenge has been satisfied. My wife can rest in peace knowing that her murderer is dead”.

Frith nodded solemnly “Struck down by the hand of the righteous. A just punishment for an evil witch” he breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes indeed” Frith smiled and his pale grey eyes sparkled “Be thankful that I saved you for a second time”.

“Did you fight off that wolf?” Zachary asked as he reached for his mask.”You look unscathed”.

The clouds of darkness that surrounded Frith grew thicker. “I am the wolf”, he brushed his tongue against his sharp teeth. “That I hope may one day change, when the curse is finally broken”.

“A shape shifting flesh and blood wraith”. Zachary fixed the mask in place. “You killed Dredge”. He gazed pensively through the eyeholes at the phantom man. “You are a very disturbing individual”. Zachary drew his tongue across his top lip, the scar tissue felt rough and blistered. “You said that you would heal my daughter, mend our wounds”. Zachary slid his scarred feet into his boots. Outside the two suns were beginning to rise and a low light caught the hidden faces of the two men. “Where is the medicine that you used to help my wife?” Zachary licked his thumb and forefinger and snuffed out the candle. “The Widow Gower is dead and you must keep your promise”.

Frith rolled his pale grey eyes and looked up at the ceiling. He was distracted by a large red spider that was feeding upon a fly. “I’m afraid my friend that the medicine has a high price” Frith watched the fly’s wings twitch violently as the spider sank its fangs in deeper. He lowered his eyes and glared at Zachary “In exchange for the medicine I will need a child”. The dark mist enveloped Frith’s face and his pale features were blanketed in darkness. “I have a duty, for I must repopulate the Kingdom of Sadgin” Black tears filled his eyes and they trickled down his cheek. “A cursed disease killed all our children and we must give them to the Kingdom in exchange for the medicine”.      

Zachary sat down upon the end of the bed and lent forward. “Something doesn’t always ring true; I know that you said you would help us once the Widow Gower was dead”. Beneath the mask Zachary felt that he was frowning, but his skin was too scarred to form any kind of expression. “I don’t remember that being part of the deal”. Zachary buttoned his purple shirt and pulled on his black gloves.

Frith did not need to read Zachary’s face, but he could clearly hear the cynicism in the masked man’s voice. “Trust me my friend, I risked my life for you and your child” Frith needed to restore faith. “I braved the flames at great personal risk to my own self” The dark mist fell away from Frith’s body, but swept back again even darker than before. “In truth, you have no choice but the door is there if you choose to take it” Frith gestured with his hand and pointed to the way out. “Believe me, you need the medicine, for the bounty hunters will be on your trail, and unhealed you will be easily recognised. Who will look after your dying daughter when the pain returns?”   

‘Dying daughter’ those two words made Zachary feel nauseous and he nodded with regret. “I need proof that the medicine works, if you can give me that”. Zachary bowed his head and breathed heavily. “Yes, if you can give me that I will do as you ask”.

“You are a good father”. Frith responded. He reached into his tunic and slid out a small glass bottle and unscrewed the lid. “Reach out your hand to me”.

Zachary removed a black glove and stretched his arm forward.

Frith tilted the bottle and the last few drops of blue liquid dripped from inside. Zachary watched the droplets fall, splashing upon the scarred skin on the back of his hand.

The liquid absorbed into his skin and Zachary’s eyes widened with astonishment. The scars began to fade. Within seconds the ridges and lesions melted away and his hand became smooth and natural again. 

“I don’t believe it”. Zachary muttered, as he clenched and unclenched his fist. “It’s a God given miracle”.

Frith screwed the lid back upon the empty bottle and slid it inside his tunic. “I call it the Essence of Purity. It erases all the pain, illness and ugliness from the body, it is the ultimate elixir of life”.

Zachary sat and gazed at his hand and finally he looked up at Frith. “How is it possible?”

“You must help me, if I am to help you”. Frith spoke softly, and chose his words with great care “There is a poor village nearby. It belongs to a tribe of nomadic settlers, their children starve and lupus diremortis is rife”. He narrowed his pale grey eyes and smiled. “Understand this, Sadgin offers salvation and hope to the youngsters that are suffering in that God forsaken place”. Frith watched Zachary through the dark mist. “Bring me a child from that village and I promise you that I will make you and your daughter well again”.   

“Frith I hope I can trust you”. Zachary nodded thoughtfully “But, yes. I will do what I can”. Zachary had to agree. In exchange for the Essence of Purity he would assist Frith in his plight and help the Kingdom of Sadgin grow again. The choice was easily made, for he wanted his daughter to have a future and for his own suffering to end. 

 

Chapter

11

The village of Krilt was a small settlement, a dozen makeshift wooden shacks built beside a lake. The water provided the nomads with fish to eat and a place to bathe. The lake was also a means of protection because the still water ran deep and the forest predators rarely crossed the lake’s expanse for fear of drowning. The night hunters who dared to brave the icy water encountered further obstacles to thwart their desire for food. As soon as the two suns descended the village children lit bonfires and they were duty bound to stand guard and feed the flames until morning.            

At midnight, beneath a moonless sky, Zachary approached. He carried a large sack under his arm and a rag soaked in Wormwart was tucked inside his glove. He had journeyed around the lake and had not even got his boots wet. Zachary hid amidst the trees and watched the village from beneath the hood of a long red robe. he was disguised as a Gadroon monk, but his pilgrimage was not one of good will.

A large dark skinned boy was seated upon a tree stump. He was guarding the North entrance to the village and he poked his bonfire with a large stick. The fire belched and sparked and threw a circle of golden light around him. The boy was wide awake and his eyes darted back and forth. He was alert to the many threatening sounds that echoed from the forest, and a jagged axe rested by his feet.   

He knew that he had to take great care selecting his victim, the nomads would be swift to act against him if they were alerted to his presence.

In the East a second boy roasted a large bird upon a spit. He took several bites from the meat, and watched the forest carefully. His eyes never strayed from the darkness beyond. This boy was too cautious,  and he never let go of the small dagger that he was holding.

He fought against his conscience. He had to believe that Frith was telling him the truth, that the fate of the child he kidnapped would live a better life once they had reached the Kingdom of Sadgin.

Zachary edged his way through the dark and crouched down beside a large bush. He pulled back the brambles and pushed his masked face through the gap. Zachary gazed across at the boy who guarded the bonfire in the West. He shook his head when he saw him. This boy was very tall and his behaviour seemed strange because the boy appeared to be constantly talking, although he was too far away from his companions to be involved in a conversation with any of them.   

“No good”. Zachary whispered as he directed his attention to the young boy who stood watch in the South.

The final boy was small framed and looked under nourished. His bonfire was dying and he was seated cross legged beside it with his head bowed. Zachary concluded that the boy had fallen asleep. Smiling to himself at having selected his target, Zachary crawled from beneath the bush and began to drag himself on all fours towards the sleeping child.      

He watched the other children but each one was looking away, their eyes fixed to the North, East and West. Zachary closed in upon his prey, but the sleeping boy did not stir.

Sliding the silver dagger from his robe and pressed it against the child’s throat. The boy moaned gently and opened his tired eyes.

“Scream and you’re dead”. Zachary whispered “The blade is poisoned; the slightest cut will kill you”. 

Zachary could see the terror in the child’s eyes, but the boy was too shocked to cry out. He shoved the rag into the boy’s mouth and the strong aroma of wormwart quickly put the boy to sleep again. Bundling the unconscious child into the sack he dragged him through the dark.

He stayed low and hid in shadow, he prayed that the two red moons would remain hidden behind the clouds. He reached the cover of the trees and heaved the boy’s body over his shoulder. He had completed his task and as he made his way back through the forest he smiled behind the cover of his mask.

At last Zachary could find some peace of mind and heal the wounds that he and his daughter had sustained. Zachary closed his eyes and under his breath he thanked the Grimnian Gods for Kyan Frith’s promise of life. Feelings of joy and sadness twisted together and wrenched at his heart. Zachary thought of his dead wife, “At least Zendra’s death has been avenged”. The memories of that dreadful night, the terrible fire that raged could never be forgotten.  “Once the scars are healed” Zachary whispered “Marta and I can have a future together”.           

A trapdoor in a back room of Frith’s cottage was bolted shut and padlocked to a heavy iron chain. Frith was seated in a black leather armchair, on the wall behind him hung a large portrait of two richly attired handsome young men.

Sculptures stood around him, beautiful nude figurines carved from jade. Frith admired the smooth contours of their form. His pale grey eyes wept dark bitter tears as he remembered the skilled hands that chipped and shaped the stone.      

Frith composed himself, and the tears dried against his pale white skin, but left black streaks upon his face. “You have returned with our salvation”.

“I have” Zachary replied softly. The unconscious boy was cradled in his arms and he lowered the child gently down upon the stone floor. “The child is drugged, but he will recover”. He stared at the seated man. “Why do you weep?” Zachary looked at the painting and studied the magnificent sculptures. “Is this your work?”    

The dark mist gathered and spiralled around Frith’s body. “No, my brother was the artist” Frith’s features became heavily shrouded by his own enveloping darkness. “He saw the beauty in the land, and he saw the beauty of people”.   

Frith looked down at the unconscious boy. Golden candlelight lit the child’s angelic face and Frith was saddened by the frailness of the little boy’s body. “The value of innocence should never be forgotten. My brother cannot make jade sculptures from the jaded, but it would be a dream of ours, to turn ugliness into beauty” Frith chuckled, but he did not smile. He clenched his hands into fists and dark mist rolled from his fingertips. “You may not understand the analogy, you may think me mad”.  

Zachary did not care; he had completed his task, and brought Frith the child. He was only interested in curing his wounds and healing his daughter’s injuries. “I’ve kept my side of the bargain”. He said firmly prodding the boy in the ribs with his boot “The boy is healthy, disease free, bit malnourished maybe, but fit for purpose”.  

Frith was bemused by the statement and slightly repulsed, but he accepted that Zachary was not aware of the truth and simply nodded in response. “He will  do” . His face blackened, as the mist seemed to stick to his pale white skin in oily folds. “I will take him below into the passageway that leads to the Kingdom of Sadgin, and exchange him for the Essence of Purity”.    

Frith’s cold white hands clutched the armrests and his black robes fell around him like a shroud. “It is time”. He said solemnly rising to his feet. “My friend you must remain here, you must not follow”. Frith crouched down beside the trapdoor and  pulled the bolts across. “The route I take to Sadgin is dangerous”. He slid a large iron key into the padlock and released the chain. “Remember” Frith whispered as he raised the trapdoor and gazed down into the gloom “Death awaits those who do not listen”.

The coldness of the Frith’s stare chilled Zachary’s blood. “Something waits in the dark below” Frith lifted the unconscious boy upon his shoulders and raised a flaming torch.

Zachary edged forward cautiously and looked down into the dimly lit void. Pools of translucent slime had gathered in the worn stone ridges that formed the staircase. 

Frith spoke a final warning “It is a creature that kills swiftly and silently” he took his first step into the depths grabbing the trapdoor’s iron handle and lifting it. “Wait for me here” Frith commanded as he closed the cellar door and descended the stone steps.

Zachary waited in painful silence because he knew that he was not alone. Somewhere in the cottage his injured daughter was sleeping. He thought that he should go to Marta’s bedside, but fear of her appearance held him back. He touched his masked face and closed his eyes. “Frith must heal our scars” Zachary whispered. “I can bear these wounds no longer”.  

He stared at the trapdoor. The iron bolts, heavy chain and padlock made him very aware of the danger that Frith had spoken of “What if?” Zachary thought. “What if Frith encountered the creature?” A chill ran down Zachary’s spine and a sense of dread gathered in the pit of his stomach. “What if Frith was killed?”

Zachary raised the trapdoor and guided by candle flame he ventured into the cellar. A narrow passageway lay beyond. Hot wax dripped upon his fingers but he ignored the pain. Darkness fell behind him and he walked slowly forward. The walls on either side glistened. Zachary touched the stone, it felt moist against his fingertips. 

The door at the end of the passage was forbidding. Iron bars secured into the wooden panels hinted at the nature of things behind it. He turned the curved wrought iron handle and dragged the door open. The rusted hinges creaked as splintered wood scraped against the stone beneath.

A second staircase, steeper than the last led further beneath the cottage, Zachary took each step with care. The air became thinner and the candle flame wavered and dimmed, he breathed deeply, as he continued downwards. The walls were thick with slime and it trickled between the gaps in the jutting stone.   

Progression to the chamber below was slow and hazardous. Zachary’s scarred nose twitched uncomfortably as a stagnant musty aroma entered his nostrils.

Upon reaching the bottom step, he was relieved to discover another light source. Moonbeams lit the confines of a circular chamber in which he now stood. Above him a high ceiling stretched to a narrow peak and Zachary could see the crimson sky. He blew out the candle and placed it down upon the cobbled floor. The melted wax sizzled against moist stone.

Ahead of him were three doors, each one defined by their distinctive colour. The centre door was coated in red, but the paint was chipped and the silver handle looked loose and broken. The door directly to its left was painted blue and a pool of slime oozed from beneath it. The final door was jet black and the face of a screaming cherub was carved into its wooden panels.

Zachary’s hand shook as he tried the silver handle of the blue door and it clicked as he pulled it open. He stepped cautiously inside. The room was dark, and the floor beneath his feet was uneven. He edged slowly forward with his arms outstretched. Zachary could see a shallow yellow light and made his way towards it. A large black candle stood upon an oak table. Lifting it from its stand he raised the yellow flame above his head bathing his dank surroundings with light.

In the corner of the room he could clearly see a mass of twisted bones. Rib cages and skulls lay entwined together upon the stone floor and they glistened against the eerie light. Zachary was horrified by the discovery. “It’s a Charnel House” he muttered looking away in disgust. In this dank and dimly lit chamber Zachary had discovered the tragic fate of the missing children, and he could only assume that Kyan Frith had butchered them.                   

“I’ve got to stop that monster”. Zachary said as he edged away from the grisly scene. He heard a strange squelching sound and directed the candlelight back towards the table.

A large black shape dragged itself across the cobbled stone floor. Its skin glistened and its form rippled with every tired motion. Zachary lifted the candle, but the light was not strong enough to define the identity of the hideous creature.

“What are you?” he asked as the shapeless mass oozed itself ever closer.

“I am Sadgin” the creature spluttered, its words barely understandable as it slithered forward sucking at the foul smelling air. “Where is my brother?”

Zachary dropped the candle and it fell into a pool of slime, and extinguished the flame, he ran towards the door and slammed it shut. His hands shaking he slid the bolts in place. Zachary sat down upon the floor and closed his eyes; he could feel the wooden panels behind him stretching, as the bulk of the monster pressed against it. He was safe, the bolts were secured and he hoped that his own weight would also prevent the beast from escaping.      

Zachary was unsure of what to do next. His body was shaking and the pain from his wounds began to return and he felt sick with fear.

A dark shape fell upon him and grabbed him around the throat. Zachary was hauled to his feet and pinned against the door.        

“You were warned!” Frith screamed as darkness rolled from the phantom’s fingertips “Shame on you!” Frith began to crush Zachary’s neck. “I told you to stay upstairs!” Zachary began to gasp as he tried to pull Frith’s hands away from his throat.

Frith’s eyes began to turn yellow and Zachary struggled helplessly as Frith continued to choke the life from his victim. 

“Stop”... he cried. “You’re killing me”...

Frith released Zachary from his grasp “I’m sorry” Frith said softly, as he watched Zachary fall to the floor in an exhausted heap. “But you really must learn to do as you are told” he smiled “Still no harm has been done”. Frith blinked his eyes and they returned to their original shade of pale grey. “But you would have been better served had you not discovered the truth”. The dark mist folded around Frith’s body, and he knelt beside Zachary and patted him gently upon the shoulder. “I think my friend that you deserve an explanation”.

 

Chapter

12

Zachary Nova had once believed that he and his loved ones would live happily ever after, but it was not to be. The ruins of his beautiful cottage, devastated by fire and the death of his wife had led him into the darkest time.

Kyan Frith was seated in his black leather armchair. He remained silent as he sipped yartroot from a tall glass. “You and I my friend share the same terrible burden”. Frith licked his thin lips and rolled the herbal drink back and forth over his tongue and swallowed. “We would walk through fire for those that we loved”.  

Zachary stood against the wall, arms folded across his chest. He hid his rage behind the mask, but his blue eyes betrayed his feelings. “You’re an evil creature... A monster, you should be dead and I will do everything I can to bring you to justice”.

Frith frowned and narrowed his pale grey eyes. “No my friend” He shook his head. “Evil? No, I am not a monster; such creatures are driven by greed, hatred, lust or perversion”. The dark mist formed about Frith’s shoulders and rolled against the sunken white cheeks of his sullen face. “What I have done, I have done for love. No, I am not evil”.       

Zachary bowed his head and clenched his hands together. He needed to sit down because his legs were shaking. “Is the boy dead?” he asked as he seated himself upon a stool. “If not I want him released” He leaned back against the wall and folded his arms. “I demand you release him”.      

“Save him or save yourself”. Frith spoke slowly and swallowed down the last drop of yartroot. “We live for others, not for ourselves and I miss the man my brother was”. He stared at Zachary’s distorted appearance through the patterned ridges in the empty glass. “What you see is not the truth”. Frith placed the tall glass upon a small table next to the armchair. “You should know your own price before you pass judgement”.

Zachary thought of his daughter, Marta’s beauty had to be restored. If she remained scarred he would never be free of that tragic day. “Where is the medicine you promised?” he said forcefully.

Frith gazed at the jade sculptures and their perfectly carved forms saddened him. “My brother never had a head for business. He was a creative and it was I who persuaded him to work for me”. The darkness swirled and coiled around Frith’s body. “We were salt merchants, but I bulked up our stock with white sand”. Jet black tears filled his pale grey eyes. “I did not know that white sand could turn salt toxic”. Frith spoke through the black mist, his ghost white features ever more haunting as the veils of shadow brushed against his marbled skin.

“The Widow Gower’s beloved husband Erasmus died because of me”. He laughed hollowly. “He was poisoned unintentionally”. A black tear trickled down Frith’s cheek “But my guilt over his death was not enough for the witch”. Frith reached for the tall glass and gripped it between his fingers. “She cursed us and turned my beautiful talented brother into a crawling slug with a taste for the flesh of children”. He squeezed the glass tightly until it began to crack. “The Widow Gower's black magic damaged her mind and destroyed her memory. It was quite ironic that she was concerned about the fate of the children, when she was in fact largely responsible for their deaths". Frith clenched his teeth and glared at Zachary. “My fate was to become a shape shifting wraith, a beast of the night and I was given the hideous knowledge of how to break the curse”. The glass shattered and the pieces fell about his feet. “But the Widow Gower’s twisted magic did offer us a small gift”.           

Zachary unfolded his arms and leaned forward “What is the gift?” he asked. “Where is the medicine?” he wanted to leave, he did not trust Frith and doubted his words. “What is the truth?”

“My brother was a good, kind and honest man and it is my punishment to watch him suffer, but I will not watch him die”. Frith raised his hand and felt the dark blood ooze from his lacerated skin. “I feel no pain, although my heart is near to breaking”. 

Zachary did not care “You promised me medicine. Tell me where it is?” he asked for a third time. Frith’s suffering was not his concern.

“The medicine, yes, I call it the Essence of Purity” Frith grinned through the ever present mist and shadow “My brother secretes it. The medicine is made from pure innocence, and it is a by product from the consumption of children”. Frith smiled coldly at Zachary. “One child, one bottle for that is the rate of exchange”. Frith slid a rusted wrought iron key from his robes and placed it upon the tabletop and tapped it with a long white finger. “This is the key to the red door where the boy awaits his fate, you may release him. If not, in one hour the little boy you brought for Sadgin will be consumed”. Frith reached for an hour glass that stood beside the armchair. “You do have a choice”. Frith upturned the device and placed it next to the key.

Zachary watched as the white sand began to fall. He was sickened by Frith’s grotesque revelation and his mind became clouded and confused by the imagined sounds of screaming children.  

“You have to decide Zachary. You can save the boy, but if you do, you and your daughter will pay a terrible price”. Frith stared at the grains of falling white sand “Time will run out Zachary and your wounds will never heal”. He lifted a red handkerchief from his robe and wiped the dark blood from his fingers. “Your daughter will die. So what will you do to save her? How strong is your love for your own flesh and blood?”   

All that Zachary once believed began to fall apart, as each grain of sand contained inside the hour glass poured away his own crumbling existence. Love, true love could only be understood with the raw pain of loss. He had lost long before his daughter was born, but he loved Marta, she was a reflection of his own beauty and the child gave him value.

As the last grains fell, Zachary bowed his head and the raw agonising reality forced him to accept that the poor boy’s grisly sacrifice was in truth utterly justified.  

The cottage had become like a tomb and Zachary did not watch the last grains of sand fall. Instead he went outside and sat under a tree. It was a quiet night. The green sky was filled with stars and the two red moons illuminated the forest. At a different time he would have relished the peace and quiet of the wood, but tonight was somehow very different. The silence spoke to him in ways he did not desire, Zachary felt helpless and in a state of trance. The nausea he felt in the pit of his stomach had become a twisted knot of guilt, anger, fear and desperate sorrow. He bowed his head because all he could do to end his daughter’s suffering was to wait for the little boy to die. 

 

Chapter

13

Frith cradled the unconscious boy in his arms. He spoke softly to the child, words of reassurance, it mattered little that the boy did not hear.

‘The Long Walk’ that is what Frith called the journey down the dimly lit passageway. He walked solemnly as if marching to the slow beat of a drum. Despite the many children that Frith had sacrificed, the act itself seemed to tear strips from his soul. Frith was glad that he still felt the pain of the children’s deaths their suffering reminded him that he still had a conscience. This perceived compassion gave him hope that when the curse was finally lifted he and his brother could return to their family and live happily once again.

Frith laid the child gently upon the stone floor and slid the bolts of the blue door aside. He gazed down at the boy’s frail and delicate form, it made Frith sad and black tears rolled from his pale grey eyes. He thought of the desperation the child’s parents would experience when they found their loved one was gone. Frith knelt beside the boy and leaning forward he kissed him softly upon the cheek. “May the Zoriat bless you”. It was part of a ritual, Frith’s way of saying goodbye. He opened the door and carried the child inside. “Brother” Frith said gently. “I have brought you hope”. The distant candle flame threw long twisted shadows across the stone floor, and Sadgin’s grotesque form emerged from the dark and rolled through slime towards his prey.

The slug like creature spoke “I have lost count my brother. Please is this to be the last?” His words were muffled by fleshy lips that churned with hanging drool.     

Frith looked away and sought a little solace in his memories. His brother had gone through stages of change, each more despairing and horrific than the other. The curse had not altered Sadgin over night. It was gradual and destructive. His once strong athletic limbs had twisted and shrivelled and Sadgin’s appetite changed. No doctor could help him and Sadgin became bedridden. Frith could only watch helplessly as his brother’s physical appearance altered beyond all recognition.     

“Two more”. Frith said sadly as he stepped back into his own dark mist. “It’s been such a terrible price”.  Frith hugged the unconscious boy protectively. “But we will not stop”. His heart was heavy. “Just two more children and the curse will be lifted”.      

Zachary was tired, mentally and physically. He longed for the life he had lost and regretted his past. Memories haunted him, phantoms tormented his thoughts, and pain wracked his scarred body. He was trapped, chained to the whim of Kyan Frith. Zendra and Marta had been his heart and soul, and without them a hole deeper than the darkest pit welled within him. Zachary remembered the days he had spent fishing, he thought of how the fish had gasped as he hooked them from the lake. He had stared into their eyes and watched them die, death had held no meaning, but now death was Zachary’s keeper and he pitied his own existence. He reflected bitterly upon the choices he had made whilst the fire raged. On that fatal night love had divided him, a painting composed from memory had delayed the rescue of his daughter and the picture had remained unscathed whilst Marta burned. Zachary’s greatest love was the subject of that portrait, and his proudest moment was not the birth of his only daughter, but the final flourish of his brush as he dabbed the last drop of paint upon the canvas.

“Two more” Frith muttered under his breath. “Two more children and I can cure my brother”. He slumped down into the armchair and stared at the jade statues, their sublime beauty never failed to impress him. Sadgin had been such a talented man, and Frith longed to see his brother with a hammer and chisel, carving yet another sculpture.  

Zachary entered the room and stood with his back against the wall. He crossed his arms and watched Frith. “You have the medicine?” he asked.

All that remained of the child was contained inside a glass bottle. Ten years of malnourished existence had been distilled into a small measure of dark blue syrup. Frith held it between his thumb and forefinger, and gazed into the glass. He was saddened by the boy’s death, but the painful journey was nearly at an end.

Frith held up the bottle. “I could make a fortune with this. But the moral implications are too great. The children are contained in pure form; an elixir that is never to be corrupted”. Frith smiled through the dark mist. “Drink and you will be healed”.

Zachary stepped forward and stretched out his scarred hand. He took the bottle from Frith and in doing so he briefly touched the cold lifeless skin of the phantom man.

He drew back his hand, removed the cork and drank. The medicine was warm and sweet, not unpleasant to taste but the thought of its creation repulsed him. Zachary gagged as it slipped down his throat. He wiped his lips upon the sleeve of his purple shirt. 

“Revolting” he remarked as he consumed the last drop of elixir. “Did you give some to Marta?” 

Frith bowed his head and closed his pale grey eyes. “I am sorry there was only enough to ease your daughter’s pain” he said bitterly “But not enough to heal her wounds”.

“What?” Zachary tightened his fingers around the bottle. “You promised me that the child would be enough to cure us both”.

Frith shook his head and grinned. “The boy was malnourished and lacked strength. We will need another”. Frith stared at Zachary and he could see that the man’s face was beginning to heal. “The serum is working my friend”. Frith said with a cold smile. “You may see your daughter if you wish. She is sleeping at present” The dark mist rolled around Frith’s ghostly face.

Zachary slipped the mask from his face. He touched his scarred skin “Not yet, not until Marta is better”.

He looked down at the palms of his hands. His fingers tingled and a deep warmth rippled through his body “Do you have a mirror?”

Frith nodded slowly and pointed a long bony finger. “There is one by the statue in the corner behind you”.

The circular mirror that hung upon the wall was ornately decorated with expensive silver leaf. Zachary gazed into the glass and watched his scarred flesh twitch and bubble. The deep lesions began to fade and his twisted jawline clicked and straightened. His blond hair grew back around the temple. His beautiful blue eyes stared into the mirror and Zachary smiled uncomfortably at the reappearance of the unblemished face he so cherished and admired. “It’s a horrible miracle” Zachary turned away in disgust. Although he was pleased to be handsome again, the overwhelming memory of the dead boy’s grotesque death sickened him.   

“It pains me to say that you will have to bring me one more child” Frith said solemnly “Then at last your daughter can be cured too” He grinned. “At least now you will not be recognised, after all I suspect the bounty hunters will be looking for a scarred man” The black mist lapped back and forth against Frith’s body “I have seen a boy down by Shackel lake, he is a hunter”. Frith’s eyes flashed yellow. “Bring him to me Zachary and you and your daughter will finally be free of us”.

 

THE BURDEN

Chapter

14

Tragic memories haunted the cold dark waters of Shackel lake; a grim history lay beneath its depths. A warning sign that read “Danger Do Not Swim” was often ignored, and those that chose to risk the savage undercurrent had been dragged beneath the surface and drowned.

Hugh Cantrell was twelve years of age. He was seated upon a log eating a large bread roll, crumbs fell against his red leather armour and he brushed them away. It was a very warm morning and the two red suns blazed above the tree line. Cantrell wiped the sweat from his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. A short silver sword rested against his booted feet and he watched the reflection of the trees and sky as they rippled upon the lake’s surface.

Zachary hid amidst the trees and studied the boy from beneath the hood of his red robe. He could see that Cantrell was in robust health. The child’s glowing cheeks and ruddy complexion saddened him, for he knew that this boy was the ideal victim.

“I can see you stranger” Cantrell bit into the bread roll. “You’re a hunter?” He chewed and swallowed “I’m a hunter too. Although you’re not a very good one as I’ve had my eye on you for ages”. Cantrell held up his half eaten roll. “You hungry? If so you can share my lunch”. 

Zachary clenched his gloved fingers and made a fist. He had no desire to make friends. “Thank you” he replied, edging his way from the behind the trees and taking a seat upon a tree stump beside the boy. “I’m not hungry, but the offer was appreciated”.

Cantrell crammed the last piece of bread into his mouth “Excuse me” he said as he wiped his lips upon his monogrammed handkerchief. “I need to eat when I hunt”.

“Who are you hunting?” Zachary asked as he lifted back his hood.

Cantrell gazed at his beautiful unblemished face. “You’re not the man I’m looking for” He reached into a leather rucksack and produced a dark red apple. “You’re not the child taker” He took a hefty bite. “I seek the scarred man” Cantrell said spitting a pip. “The killer of the Widow Gower and I plan to bring him to justice”.

‘The scarred man’ Zachary understood. “So, you’re a bounty hunter? Don’t you think you’re a bit young?”

Cantrell raised an inquiring eyebrow “I’m offended. What do you mean?” He rolled sweet apple juice over his tongue. “Not at all, I am quite prepared for the confrontation”  

Zachary was bemused by the reckless courage of the little warrior. “Are you good with that sword?”

“Sword?” Cantrell reached for the hilt and raised the blade into the sunlight and admired its smooth silver contours. “Oh no, the weapon I have is far more effective, I just use this for skewering fish”.  

“Oh” Zachary lapsed into an introspective state. “That is good to know, being a Gadroon monk I am quite opposed to violence” Zachary felt for the bottle of wormwart inside his robe. “I suppose you are using yourself as bait?” He had no wish to continue the conversation because he feared that he might start liking the boy.         

“Yes!” Cantrell said excitedly “I’m the bait in the trap!” He tossed the half eaten apple into the lake and laid his silver sword down upon the grass “But the weapon of my choice is this” He reached into his rucksack a second time. “The jaynus thorn” Cantrell pointed a small handheld crossbow at Zachary. “It’s a bolt dipped in a drug and it knocks you out in seconds”.

Zachary loosed his grip upon the wormwart bottle. “Of course” he said knowingly, sliding out his hand. “May I see?”

The Gadroon monks were respected throughout Grimney and Cantrell had no reason to distrust a man of the Gods. “Certainly” he replied and handed the crossbow to Zachary.

“I made it myself” Cantrell said proudly. “What do you think?”

Zachary’s thoughts darkened. “It’s impressive” He examined the weapon and he brushed a black gloved finger against the trigger. He looked up at the young boy and nodded “You have talent”.

“Thank you” Cantrell was proud of his skills. “My father has taught me to make all manner of weapons” he chuckled “Although it has to be said that he has no other uses”.   

Zachary was not really listening, he was deep in thought. The boy had to die, for he longed to see Marta’s beautiful face. “I like to paint, although much of my work was destroyed by fire”. His voice descended into a whisper. “You like to make weapons and to kill things”. 

Zachary pointed the crossbow at Cantrell and the boy’s ruddy complexion turned white.

“What are you doing?”  he asked nervously, desperately reaching for his silver sword.   

“Killing is an art, but not an art you should take pleasure in” The adrenalin in Zachary’s veins seemed to turn to ice and he slowly pulled the trigger. The bolt flew and grazed the boy’s neck leaving a dark green residue smeared against the wound.      

Cantrell dropped the silver sword. “Why? I thought you were a monk?” His eyes watered and he clutched at his neck and pressed the palm of his hand over the scratch. “Tell me why?”

Darkness penetrated Cantrell’s mind, and he struggled to maintain consciousness. He tried to stand, he thought he could run, but his knees buckled and he fell forward into Zachary’s open arms.

“Sleep my boy” Zachary muttered as he stroked the child’s hair. The drug’s potency could not be denied and Zachary was impressed. Cantrell was asleep and breathing gently. It was ironic that he should be concerned for the boy’s welfare because in a few hours the boy would be dead, absorbed by Sadgin the slug in exchange for the gift of life.

Zachary sat quietly for a moment. He thought of his daughter and how she felt in his arms. He closed his eyes and hugged the unconscious boy. Marta was an only child. “Maybe” Zachary thought. “Maybe the boy’s father had other children who would console him?” He clung to the belief that every parent would kill to protect their offspring. “I know I’m doing the right thing” he whispered “I’m just so sorry”. Zachary opened his blue eyes and looked down at the boy. “That you’re the terrible price of sacrifice”.

 

Chapter

15

Zachary returned to Frith’s cottage and laid the unconscious boy down upon the stone floor beside the trapdoor. Frith smiled and patted Zachary upon the back. The deathly coldness of Frith’s touch chilled Zachary’s body and he shuddered as if Death itself was laying its icy hand upon him.

“The job is done” he said as he stepped back, fearful that the dark clouds that surrounded Frith would also envelope him. “That is last time I will help you Frith, now take the boy below and bring back the medicine so I may leave with my daughter”.

Frith was pleased, but thought of the future. He knew that one more child was needed for the curse to be lifted. However, he decided to savour the moment and said nothing of this fact. “Zachary my friend, you’ve brought us the gift of life” Frith looked down at Cantrell and tried to express a little pity. “This poor unfortunate boy’s sacrifice will bring hope to us all” The dark veils rolled from Frith’s fingertips and brushed against his pale face “But it is one life for three”.

“No” Zachary bowed his head and looked away in disgust. “Ten lives for three Frith. You cannot discount the others”.

Frith was not listening. He knelt down and slid back the heavy bolts and lifted the trapdoor. He took several steps down into the cellar and dragged the boy onto the stone steps. Frith reached for a glass lamp and lit the candle inside. “Wait here, this is not an experience I wish anyone to share” Frith began to descend. He looked up at Zachary and black tears filled his pale grey eyes. “I share your despair” he said solemnly shining the lamplight against Zachary’s beautiful unblemished face. “But beauty has a heavy price and when we are all beautiful again there will be no more acts of ugliness” He lowered the lamp into the dark “Soon all will be well”.   

Zachary watched as Frith faded into the gloom and the lamplight that guided the phantom was soon swallowed by the darkness. He lifted the trapdoor and slammed it shut. His legs began to shake and his heart raced. Zachary slumped down into Frith’s leather armchair and his head sank into his hands as he plunged once more into the depths of numbing despair.       

Zachary slept, but did not dream. In the prison of his anguished mind he never heard the screams that echoed from the cellar below. Time drifted steadily onwards, seconds became minutes and minutes became hours.   

He awoke and opened his eyes. The fading sunlight warmed his face and he squinted against the glare of bright sunbeams, and looked away. The twin red suns had blurred Zachary’s vision. He blinked against clouding tears and the deep shadows in his eyes lifted. A small silhouetted figure stood motionless before him, and as Zachary’s eyesight adjusted to his surroundings he could see a much cherished familiar face.

“Marta!” Zachary leapt from the armchair and hugged the child. “Thank Grimnian and the Zoriat Gods that you’re safe!” Marta was unscathed her skin showed no trace of injury. At long last father and daughter were reunited and Zachary was filled with joy.

“Why did you not see me when I was hurt daddy?” The child flinched and her body stiffened against her father’s embrace.

Zachary stroked Marta’s hair and kissed her gently. “I wanted to see you but I could not” he whispered, as if a lie spoken quietly was somehow less of a lie “I had to find the cure”. 

Marta placed her head gently against her father’s chest and closed her eyes. “I see” she said softly. “But where is mummy?”

Zachary squeezed his daughter tightly, for a moment he considered not telling her, he thought that he could maintain the illusion of a happy family for just a little longer, but in truth perhaps they were never really a happy family at all. “There are only two of us now”.

Frith stood amidst the dark mist, his veiled form concealed behind a jade statue. He watched the reunion and did not interrupt. Frith thought of his own brother hidden away in the cellar. “One more child” he whispered “That is all I need”. Frith gazed at Marta. She was a beautiful girl and the serum had restored her to robust health. Frith considered his options, “Yes” he nodded, his pale features darkening. If Zachary refused to bring him another child, Marta would have to be sacrificed.      

 

Chapter

16

The power of rage can be overwhelming.  No matter how high the walls, regardless of wealth and status, the ugliness of this land can seep through and consume a family.

Latimer Cantrell had lived a selfish life and he spent much of his opulent existence slouched lazily upon a gold throne. A large mouth and a taste for expensive wine had made him fat.  Latimer enjoyed his food and his monstrous bulk hung in folds beneath his robes. Isolated from the denizens of Grimney, he had wanted for nothing. Latimer had never known the pain of loss until now. 

Two days had passed since the disappearance of Latimer’s son and terrified servants had experienced their master’s wrath. He had taken a whip to his maid, and she had fled his mansion bloodied and tearful. Latimer’s servants were paid more than they were worth, so he had no qualms about inflicting pain upon them. A little suffering was better than a life in poverty.

Grimney would never be free of violence and Latimer’s art of war exploited that fact. He was attracted to the brutal ways of Grimney. Latimer traded in weaponry and he had earned a small fortune. He was a skilled swordsmith and fletcher, for him death and butchery were simply an art form.

Latimer was not a warrior, regardless of his skills he was an overbearing bully. He loved his son, but was too unfit to search for the boy. Outside help was needed and the bounty for Hugh Cantrell’s safe return was measured in heavy sacks of gold.    

Astrid Zarne, a dark skinned young woman dressed in a long grey overcoat, knee high boots and grey leather armour gazed at the corpulent merchant. Latimer’s obese body draped against his grotesque golden throne sickened her. Astrid dragged her long fingernails through spiky white hair. “I will find your son”. she said adjusting her white eye patch. “His mother must be deeply distressed”.

“Mother?” Latimer raised a bushy eyebrow. “He never knew his mother. She was just another feeble woman, weak in body and mind, merely ornamental. Her influence would have ruined the boy”. He jabbed a fat finger towards Astird. “I am the master in my kingdom” he said proudly. “But you... I accept that you’re a different type of beast. A fine and full womanly body, I admit, but with the guts of a man”. Astrid’s reputation was well known to Latimer. She had captured the outlaw Angus Bower and despite the loss of an eye her hunting skills were legendary. “You will be working alongside a man named Drayker”. Latimer reached across for a glass of wine, but the mere effort of stretching made him breathless. “Drayker’s partner is dead”... he remarked slumping back upon his throne. “Dying it’s such a trivial, tedious business”.

Astrid remained composed and shook her head. “I work alone”. She clutched the hilt of her sword. “I don’t need anyone else” she said grumpily. Despite his wealth, Astrid despised Latimer and considered him a parasite. “I have no wish to share the bounty”.

Latimer laughed and the rolls of fat that hung about his face rippled. “A ragman named Ryder” He sipped his wine. “He’ll be joining you too”.

“Ryder?” Astrid narrowed an icy blue eye and her white painted lips twitched uneasily. “Who is Ryder?”   

“Just capture the scarred man”. Latimer lifted his huge buttocks and his silk robe rippled as the air rumbled beneath him. “I want him delivered to the Cabal”. His nose twitched uncomfortably and he reached for a bottle of perfume. “The aroma is as rich as I am”. Latimer chuckled and sprayed his stomach and thighs. “You know where the Cabal is?” He waved his hand dismissively, Latimer viewed the bounty hunters as scum and wanted them gone.

“I know the prison, it’s a terrible place to die”. Astrid shook her head, and her voice became a whisper. “I’ve been on the inside and on the outside”.   

“I’m sure you have and I bet they made sport of you”. Latimer replied, failing to hide his contempt. “I could afford to make sport of you”. The fat man reached once again for the bottle of perfume. “Recognise the scent? I’d doubt that. The aroma is Black Orchid. One thousand tobran a bottle” he breathed heavily due to the sudden motion and sprayed the thick sweaty layers of folded skin beneath his chin. “Just leave and take Ryder with you, I’m sick of the smell of him. Not only is he diseased but he’s poisoning the rich, perfumed corridors of my mansion”. 

Astrid nodded and smiled because she had a vivid imagination. She had found a place in her thoughts for Latimer Cantrell. She could see him clearly, his legs restrained and stretched wide apart. Slowly and with pleasure Astrid’s smile grew wider as she imagined forcing a spear up the fat merchant’s rectum. Perhaps, one day Astrid would make sport of him.

Outside the merchant’s throne room Ryder waited silently. A black beetle crawled upon the hooded man’s grimy brown sackcloth tunic.

Drayker stood beside him and his nostrils twitched uncomfortably. He lit his pipe and puffed heavily. The sweet aroma of inhaled tobacco masked the stench of Ryder’s rotting clothes.

The hooded man’s bony jaundiced hand motioned towards the insect and he plucked it from his sleeve. The beetle wriggled frantically. Ryder parted his dry blood stained lips and slipped the insect between his decayed teeth and swallowed.

Drayker gagged on tobacco smoke and tapped his pipe against the wall to scatter the embers. “You’re as sick as you look”. He unscrewed a pewter flask and drank. “I have to hunt with you?” he said scathingly, wiping his mouth upon his handkerchief.       

“We’ll capture the scarred man”. Ryder grinned. “I need the money. I have malnourished mouths to feed and the robes of my faith have crumbled and need replacing”. He reached inside his tunic and produced a small jar of crawling insects.

“Your faith?” Drayker remarked raising a bushy eyebrow. “Are you monk? Bounty hunting is not a religious pursuit as far as I remember”. Drayker began to refill his pipe and he saw this as an opportunity to avert his gaze from the grotesque ragged man. “And you have a family too?” he asked. “I guess there’s someone for everyone in this land, even fallen worshippers”.

 Ryder held the jar of insects in front of his shrouded face “I have a wife and a newborn. At least it was newborn when I left all those years ago”. He signed and spat a globule of blood. “It’s best that I’m forgotten and my faith deserted me long ago; all that remains of my old beliefs are these tattered bloodstained robes”.   

“Methinks not, I’m sure you’ll be remembered for your deeds of faith”. Drayker smiled and relit his pipe. “And as a husband, you, like those insects are a prize catch”.

Ryder tapped the glass with a blackened fingernail “We’re all born to fail. The Zoriat gods made us that way, we are born into death. As for these” he grimaced beneath the shadow of his hood. “They’re doctor’s orders, I’m from a poor village, but in these times I trust his judgement over that of the gods”.  He chuckled and his lips moistened with blood; “For if I am, as I once believed, made in their image, they must be sicker than me”. 

Outside Latimer Cantrell’s mansion, the bounty hunters horses waited. Saddled and watered, the grim trio of armed warriors mounted their steeds and rode out to pursue the hunt. 

Drayker was a superstitious man and the return to the forest was met with fear. A campfire blazed and he gazed into the churning flames. Drayker remembered an old Grimney fable and he looked uneasily at Ryder and Astrid. The one eyed woman was sat upon a large rock staring beyond the fire into the darkness. The hooded man was seated beside her counting the beetles in his jar. Drayker’s voice trembled as he spoke “They say that if you look into the fire deeply enough you can see a reflection of your own death”.  

Astrid shivered against the cold night air and pulled her long grey coat tight around her shoulders. “Death? I am death” she drew her sword from its scabbard and admired the blade; it was flecked with blood. “I live in cold reality Drayker” she said dismissively “I don’t believe that our destiny is already written”. She slid a cloth from her leather armour and began to wipe away the crimson stains. “Grimney is full of stories of magic, but stories are exactly that, just stories” she narrowed her eye “You believe in fairytales? Trust me Drayker there are no fairytales”. 

Ryder gazed out from beneath his hood and scratched his white bony chin. “Fairytales are for children” he remarked scathingly. “Fairytales don’t mean spit in this land”. He brushed his tongue across his decayed teeth and spat blood into the fire. “We’re like the bugs in my jar; that’s how they see us, crawling around blind to reality”. Ryder pulled his hood further down over his hidden face and shuddered. “This life, it’s all lies”. He shook his head and watched the flames. “We’ll all be dead before we know the truth”. 

Drayker sat back smiling and puffed heavily upon his pipe. “Who are they? What’s the truth to you Ryder?” he asked raising a bushy grey eyebrow. “I had no idea you’d be so full of philosophy”.   

“Who are they? They are the Zoriat; the Grimney gods who watch us crawl, indifferent to our suffering”. Ryder wiped his bloodied pale lips upon the sleeve of his sackcloth tunic. “What are we worth to them? Nothing. We only have value with a price our heads”. 

Drayker shrugged his shoulders “Methinks I don’t agree”  he said with a smile. “Personally, when all is done, I want to get back to the wife and my farm, too much bitterness and hate in people, never does anyone any good”. He tapped his pipe against the rock upon which he was sitting. “Me? I have animals to rear, crops to plant and food to buy” he sighed and began to refill his pipe. “I just hope we find the boy, claim our reward and avoid any further bloodshed”.

Astrid listened and continued to polish her sword, her one eye focused upon the forest around her. In these woods danger was never far away.

“I hear lies everywhere” Ryder continued. “They’ll never cure lupus diermortis; it’s a disease of the poor, but who needs us? All rotted and decayed. That’s why our hunt is for a rich man’s child, it’s not about anyone else; we’re human waste in the eyes of the rich”. He unscrewed the lid of the insect jar and once again reached inside. “Our deepest pain is to be the scum of this land and no one cares whether we live or die”. He lifted another wriggling insect and popped it into his mouth, and chewed.

Astrid nodded her head slowly, for she too understood the nature of Grimney’s divided society. The rich and the poor fed off each other in different ways, but there was no love lost or given. The need for money was the only reason for a relationship between the two. If the lost children had all been poor, no one would have cared to look for them, they would have been forgotten, only to be mourned by friends and family. The disappearance of a rich merchant’s child had brought Astrid a little hope that all the children could be found. “But someone always dies” Astrid whispered. “That’s the nature of the beast”. She raised her sword and admired the gleaming blade against the firelight, “But not I, for I will always win”.  Astrid gazed through the raging flames and smiled at Drayker and Ryder. “Yes”, she said firmly. “It is time for our blood hunt to begin”...                  

 

Chapter

17

“You know my friend” said Frith as he placed his black gloved hand upon Zachary’s shoulder “Happiness never lasts”. He lowered his dark form down into the armchair. “My brother was part of who I was, but time changed all that. The tragedy of time” his ghostly features faded into dark mist. “It is painful to look upon old pictures. The agony of remembrance is a heavy burden. I dream of times gone by, but all is lost in yesteryears, much happier times".

Zachary’s eyes glazed and he began to yawn. He placed his hand over his mouth and raised his eyebrows. This was a vain attempt to create the impression of astonishment as opposed to the utter boredom he was feeling.

Frith bowed his head. “To be reminded of what you once were and how much you have physically deteriorated is a truly horrific experience”.

“I couldn’t agree more”. Zachary said rather flippantly, stifling another yawn.  He considered Frith’s conversation and manner of speech to be rather flowery and pretentious. “But still, after all is said and done there is some hope for the future”. Zachary gazed at the portrait painting that hung above Frith’s head “You and your brother”. Sadgin and Kyan Frith had indeed been two very handsome young men. “How can you break the curse?” Zachary asked. “You helped me Frith” He smiled warmly “But how can I help you?”  

Frith dug his long white bony fingers into the armrests. “We need one more child”. He stared coldly at Zachary. “The curse will be lifted and you and Marta can be happy”. The black tears welled and dripped down upon his pale cheeks. “Otherwise, I’m sorry to say that we will have no future”.

Zachary shook his head. The nightmare had to end. “No... My friend” he responded sarcastically. “I did what you asked”. The thought of another dead child was too unbearable to contemplate. “Marta and I plan to start a new life far away from here”. 

“It is not that simple I’m sorry to say”. Frith tried to sound sympathetic. “The first boy you brought was malnourished”. He drew a heavy breath “What was drained from him will not be enough to maintain your health and good looks”.

“I will not bring you another victim”. He glared at Frith “I will not help you again”. Zachary was enraged by the suggestion that he would sacrifice a child’s life to save his own face. “I’m sorry but we’re done with you and your brother”.

“Is that so?” Frith believed that Zachary was a vain and self centred man. “It’s easy for you to say that now, but when your scars return and you’re wracked with pain, you will need more medicine”. The dark mist spiralled around him “Just remember Zachary that your daughter has lost her mother and if you die Marta will be an orphan”.    

“One final child will be enough to keep me well?” Zachary whispered. “If I bring you that Frith, can you truly promise that my daughter and I will not die from our scars?”   

“Yes” Frith smiled, for no other words were needed.

Perhaps all would have been well had Marta Nova not overheard every word of their grim conversation. She had been standing behind her bedroom door, her ear pressed against the wooden panels listening intently. Marta stumbled through the dark and laid face down upon her bed. She wrapped herself tightly inside the sheets and crushing the pillow against her face she sobbed. Marta would not rest tonight and feared that the ghosts of the dead children would enter her dreams, steal away her screaming soul and leave an empty shell.

Marta wanted to sleep, but the ache inside kept her awake. The pain was in her chest and behind her eyes. Everything was ending. The innocent life she had cherished and the deep bond with her family was passing into memory. Marta’s mother was dead, and her father’s nature was too monstrous to comprehend. Innocence was lost and ugliness prevailed. The future seemed empty and it appeared to Marta in the form of a dark passageway that narrowed and closed in upon itself. There was no door at its end, just crumbling walls of dead suffocating stone.

Marta understood, she knew that Tori and the other children had died so that she could live, and the thought sickened her. She could not bear to be healed through the bloodshed of others. Marta felt completely isolated and alone. She could still hear Frith and her father talking in the room beyond, but they were like strangers to her now. Time had somehow become unreal. Minutes, hours, days and months no longer seemed important. Marta was living every second with a new desperate intensity because for Marta time was running short.     

Marta’s mind did eventually succumb to dreams, vivid and  painful, images of happy years long gone. The subconscious state consumed her and tears streamed from the child’s eyes. Marta’s restless body tossed and turned, for the meaning of love had turned to ash.    

“Marta” the voice in the night was unmistakable. Her father spoke softly, in a tone of reassurance. Marta opened her eyes. Zachary was seated beside her bed. His handsome face bathed in the yellow light from the candle he was holding. “I do love you, you know” He reached down and stroked the child’s hair. “We are going to have a new life and start afresh”. 

“I’m not so sure”. Marta hesitated and turned her head to the wall. “What about the other children?” She closed her eyes to shut out the light. “They have no lives because of you, I know they’re dead”.

Zachary withdrew his hand. “You were listening at the door?” Marta did not answer and a cold fear swept through Zachary’s body. “Love can be very complicated”.

“Yes daddy”. Marta had overheard every word of the previous conversation. “How could you do that?” her throat dried and she choked on her words. “Tori too?” Marta did not open her eyes, for deep inside they had become wells of tears. If she blinked and stared into the night Marta believed that she would simply cry forever.

“I had no choice” Zachary’s hand began to shake and the candle flame flickered. “You were badly burned in the fire Marta and I had to make terrible sacrifices to save you”. Zachary rested the base of the candle upon his knee to steady it. “You must understand that I love you and I could never let you die”.  

Marta clenched her fists and gripped the bed sheets in anger. “They were not your sacrifices to make”. Her eyes remained tightly shut. She could not bear to look upon her father. “Love should not be given if it causes suffering to other people. What you did was wrong”. Her eyes opened and the tears flooded forth. “It’s evil. What you have done is simply just evil”.

“I’m trying to save you Marta” Zachary felt uncomfortable in the light and he blew out the candle. “The Zoriat gods are protecting us”.

“No, not the Zoriat, I do not think so. No true god would allow children to suffer so much, unless there was something better beyond this land”. Marta stared into the blackness and choked back her tears. “Why did you never come to my bedside when I asked for you? Why was it left for Frith to nurse me?”

Zachary loved his daughter and gazing upon Marta’s beautiful face was something he had always cherished. The thought of the child covered in scars and horribly wounded was too awful to contemplate. That is why he had stayed away from Marta’s bedside, but he was unwilling to tell her, guilt and shame silenced him.

“Daddy?” Marta needed an answer. “Are you still there?” In truth she knew that her father was still seated beside her, she could hear him breathing. “Talk to me please? Promise me no other children will die”.

Zachary leant forward and whispered into his daughter’s ear. “One more child and all will be well”. He slumped back into his chair and considered his words. “I will save you whether you like it or not”. Zachary waited. He thought that Marta might object, but instead she stayed silent. “There is nothing you can do to stop me. I love you, you’re so beautiful and that is all you need to know”. Zachary placed his hand firmly upon Marta’s shoulder and the child flinched. It did not matter, he had gone far too far to turn back from the abyss. Survival meant sacrifice and one more death would bring life. The tragic fall had become a final leap of faith.

 

Chapter

18

Frith was seated in his armchair, head bowed, his thin white fingers clasped tightly around the stem of a wine glass. Frith’s pale grey eyes looked black against the yellow haze of the candlelight. He had listened to the conversation between father and daughter and it troubled him.

Zachary placed a chair beside Frith and sat down next to him. “Marta knows everything” he muttered. “I need time to think”.  He picked up the half empty wine bottle “You’re not the only one who appears to be cursed”.  Zachary poured himself a glass and gulped it down before pouring another. “I wish it was stronger,  I want to be drunk”.       

“My friend”. Frith sipped the wine and savoured the taste. “Our pain can end tonight, by the light of dawn you and I can be free and we can cure our loved ones”.

“Maybe” Zachary said. “At least it’s good wine” He continued to drink and quickly finished the bottle. “Do you have anymore? I shall need it, that’s if I am to bring you another child”.

Frith smiled and the dark clouds seemed to fold away from his pale white face. “Yes Zachary”. He reached down and produced a second bottle “I have a cellar filled with wine”. He reached across and handed it to Zachary.

The green sky outside grew darker and thunder began to break against the chilled air. Frith smiled sadly. “I’ve hated more than I’ve loved, but the love I have for my brother is stronger than all my hatred”. The flowing wind rattled against the doors and windows. “Sometimes I think that Sadgin hates me. I’ve kept him alive so long. Watched him suffer in hope of a cure; Am I wrong?”

Zachary shook his head and considered the question. “We are what others make us”. He brushed a finger across his dried lips. “For good or ill I do what I think is best”.

A storm maybe coming” Frith said solemnly “Best to wait until it passes, perhaps it is just a time to talk and to remember what truly matters”. 

The distant rumble of thunder continued. A lightning flash, reflected against an overhead window pane lit the faceless jade statues. The colour drained from Zachary’s skin. “Rain?” his face was ashen. His thoughts rolled back to the ruins of the family cottage, and the portrait buried amidst the rubble. “The painting!” Zachary said sharply as he poured more wine and gulped it down. “It will be destroyed”.   

“Nonsense” Frith replied. “I saved your precious portrait. I followed you to the ruins and brought it back here”. His pale grey eyes sparkled with intrigue. “She is quite safe. Your lady in the picture” he grinned knowingly. “Whoever she is”.

“You followed me?” Zachary was irritated “Why did you do that?” He tapped his fingers angrily against the glass and the wine rippled. “I don’t think I like you spying on me”.  

“Maybe so, but had I not done so, you would have lost your precious portrait and Dredge would have killed you” The dark mist formed around Frith’s face and concealed an icy smile. “It is quite safe. I have secured it in the cellar. May I ask you my friend, to tell me about the lady in the picture?”

The wine was strong and Zachary was developing a taste for it. The sweet calming sensation of intoxication was something he longed for, but he always disliked the aftermath. “Perhaps we should talk, at least until the wine runs out”. Once again Zachary lifted the bottle and topped up his glass. “The lady in the portrait, is my sister in law. She was the love of my life, she should’ve been the mother of my child, I would’ve been happier”. Zachary gulped back the wine and drew his tongue across his dried lips. “My brother and I, we both loved her and our relationship ended because he had wealth and status”. He flinched and placed the empty glass upon the floor. “Regardless of my brother’s drunken nature, he won her over and I married Zendra instead”. Zachary sighed and his voice lowered to a whisper. “The life I had with Marta and Zendra is not the life I wanted, but nothing will change that now”. He raised a shaking hand and gazed at it. “At least I can still paint. Unlike most in this land I have the gift to create. And that talent makes me more valuable than anyone else”.

“Why is that?” Frith asked raising an eyebrow.

“Because art makes history” Zachary’s eyes widened madly as he spoke. “And creativity is the key to all things. Flesh and blood Frith, it matters little, but a poem, painting or story. That’s eternal, it’s timeless. Such things have far more value than any baby that’s born into this land”.   

Frith shook his glass gently from side to side and circles appeared in the wine, he watched them lap and fade. “I can offer you hope Zachary, I have grown fond of you, regardless of the horror. Once you have brought me the last child, we can all be healed”. He raised his pale grey eyes and smiled against the dark. “We can all leave this forest, and you and your daughter can start a new life with my family if you wish it. After all that you will have done for us, it is the least I can offer you in return my friend”.  

Perhaps it was the effects of strong wine, but Zachary felt compelled by the warmth of Frith’s words and he did not hesitate, he simply lifted his glass. Frith understood the gesture and followed with the very same. Two glasses clinked together in a symbolic act of trust, and even though Zachary’s glass cracked on contact, neither considered it an ill omen. In that brief moment both men believed that there was indeed hope and that their bond was forever unbreakable.

The jade statues stood cold and black against the wall. The  candles had burned down and the dripping wax had cooled and melted into the floorboards. Frith had fallen asleep, and Zachary snored drunkenly beside him, an empty wine bottle lying across his lap.

Marta kissed her father’s forehead. She had decided that freedom and peace of mind could only be found beyond the cottage’s prison walls. Whilst the raging storm had thundered and shattered against the forest canopy, Marta had struggled with tormented dreams. It was time to say goodbye, Marta pulled a red cloak around her shoulders and prepared for her final journey. She stepped barefooted into the dewy air. The storm had passed and green leaves cupped with rainwater trickled and splashed upon the grass. Marta pulled at a branch and droplets fell upon her face. Her throat was dry, and the water trickled against her lips. The touch of nature was a beautiful distraction, and she felt at peace with the land.         

Zachary’s body twitched violently and the empty wine bottle rolled from his lap and smashed upon the floor. He awoke with a desperate thirst. Dehydrated by alcohol Zachary struggled to his feet. “Frith I need water”.  

The cottage door was ajar and it seemed to beckon back and forth against the wind. Frith’s pale grey eyes opened slowly. The dark mist rippled against his furrowed brow. “Yes my friend, the wine was indeed strong”. Frith felt a cool breeze against his face and blinked wearily as the new dawn’s sunlight poured in. “Has someone visited?” Frith said with a wry smile “Or has someone just left?”.       

Marta’s bed was empty and Zachary laid the flat of his palm upon the sheet. “Cold” he said uneasily. “She must have left some time ago”. 

“We will find her my friend”. Frith crouched down and knelt beside the bed. “I need her scent”. He gently lifted the pillow and held it against his nostrils. “I know the aroma of children”. His pale grey eyes closed as he inhaled deeply.

Zachary stood framed in hazy sunlight. The curtain draped window behind him shimmered and he watched uncomfortably as Frith continued to sniff the pillow.

“I have her”. Frith’s eyes opened and glinted yellow. “If I am to hunt her down, I shall need to change my form”.     

Frith’s body began to shrink and his bald head sprouted thick black hair. His spine began to curve as he fell upon all fours.

Zachary stepped back and turned away in fear. He did not wish to witness the terrifying transformation. Zachary understood the need for Frith’s hunting skills, but as he listened to the snarling sounds growing behind him, he began to dread the outcome of the hunt. In life Zachary had been taught that he should never trust the nature of the wolf.       

 

Chapter

19

The masokins had gathered beside Shackel lake. Tall, spindly, yellow skinned and naked, barefooted amidst sharp bramble bushes they jumped and danced together. Thorns tore against their flesh and blue blood seeped from their injuries, but they did not seem to care.

Marta had hidden herself behind a tree. She had observed the masokins before. In the past their deranged antics had baffled her, but as she watched their suffering, Marta began to understand. Life is full of agony and it can strike without warning, forcing the strongest warrior to their knees. These disturbed creatures welcomed pain, indulged the sensations as a means to control it. After what seemed like an eternity the dancing and jumping stopped and their thin yellow skinned legs oozed and bubbled with blood. Marta watched the masokins hold hands and one by one they limped wearily from the lakeside and left the forest.

A curved tree, as old as time, its bark dried and grey overhung the lake. Marta chose a path that led around the bloodstained bramble bushes. She placed a bare foot upon a solid branch and clambered through brown shrivelled leaves and dark sprouting fungus. Within moments Marta was seated with her legs dangling down into the cold water. She felt the current rippling between her toes, and gazed at her fractured reflection. Marta knew the tree’s grim history, for it was nicknamed ‘Old Man Death’. Bent and cowled it represented  despair, and many had slipped from its boughs.       

Marta had known one of the lake’s suicide victims. Dorethia, her mother’s sister, jilted at the altar had plunged to her death some ten years before. Shackel lake was well named, for its current held like a solid chain and the dead were never retrieved.

The future had been decided and for Marta it was bleak and empty. She contemplated the minutes of her death, the sensations of the water as it flooded her lungs. She knew that she would be unable to struggle once the current took her.

Marta remembered her mother and wept at the love that she had lost. The destruction of the family cottage and the last words she had spoken to Tori before she was kidnapped and murdered burdened her with further torment. Marta’s last thoughts were of her father, and she felt bitter regret that he had sacrificed the lives of innocent children simply to restore their beauty. She knew that she would have to die, to prevent further deaths. Marta drew a deep breath and with a heavy heart she slipped from the bough and plunged silently into the lake.

The drowned dead drifted endlessly through the shimmering misty darkness. Arms outstretched in grisly welcome, their decayed bodies caught amongst the rippling reeds. Marta floated amongst them, her eyelids closed to the horror of empty blackened sockets, bloated bodies, and pale faces of macerated flesh.

The wolf arrived ahead of Zachary and had witnessed Marta’s fall. He leapt upwards and clambered across Old Man Death’s withered branches. Nostrils bearing down, struggling to regain Marta’s scent, the wolf pounced into the lake. He made swift his descent, pulling frantically against the current. The wolf’s yellow eyes scanned the depths, as he plunged deeper and deeper. Marta had sunk to the bottom and the reeds stroked her lifeless face and her outstretched arms moved limply in the void. The wolf opened his jaws and bit tightly into the collar of Marta’s nightdress and summoning every ounce of strength he lifted the child and dragged her upwards towards the light.

Zachary stood helplessly at the lake side. He clenched his hands together in faithless prayer, so tightly clasped that his knuckles turned white. He knew that Shackel lake had rarely spared those that entered its chill waters, it was a vacuum, a barren, lifeless abode.       

The water bubbled and frothed as the wolf’s powerful hind legs propelled him onwards. He struggled to the surface, his quarry in tow. Zachary waded into the lake and grabbed his daughter’s limp body and dragged her onto the bank. He laid Marta gently upon her back. The child’s face and lips had turned blue and her eyes glistened. Zachary knelt beside her and gripped the child’s hand tightly, her skin was cold like ice. He gazed into his daughter’s eyes, they looked so full of life, but as Zachary placed his head against her chest, the stillness of the little girl’s heart made him bow his head and the tears began to fall. The wolf approached and sat down beside Zachary and brushed his wet fur against Marta’s marbled face. She failed to respond and the wolf began to whine. No words were spoken, for both Zachary and Frith knew that Marta was dead.  

The wolf closed his yellow eyes, even in his feral state Frith was overwhelmed with terrible despair. He had nursed Marta, cared for the child whilst her father had turned his back. Frith began to transform. The thick black hair fell away and his yellow eyes blanked white, and with a heavy blink, glinted back to pale grey. His jaw grated against the palate and his teeth slid down into shrinking gums. Frith turned his head awkwardly, as his spine clicked and straightened. The long sharp fingernails upon Frith’s hands shortened to a neat cut. “I’m so sorry Zachary”. Frith whispered as he placed a hand gently upon his shoulder and squeezed. “I did all I could, but it was not enough”.

Zachary was silent, trapped in the empty gaze of his daughter’s dead stare. All hope for the future was gone and he reached down and gently closed Marta’s eyelids.

“My friend I can still offer you a life with my family”. Frith’s thoughts focused once again on his brother’s plight. “I need one more child, and so Marta’s death need not be in vain”.

“What do you mean?” Zachary’s body shuddered as if he had experienced a sudden ice cold shock. “What are you suggesting?” 

Frith withdrew his hand from Zachary’s shoulder. “Marta can restore my brother. No other child needs to die”. The dark mist folded around him in a masking shroud. “I know that thought will seem grotesque to you”. he continued. “But I saved you and Marta from the fire and you my good friend can save my brother and I from our torment”. Frith paused for thought, and waited for a reaction from Zachary, but he was to be disappointed. “That’s if you wish it”.      

Zachary was not listening and therefore he did not answer. He had become like stone, cold, empty of thought, feeling and understanding. Instead Zachary lifted the child from the damp grass and cradled her in his arms. He stood for a moment unsure of what to do next. Finally Zachary turned away and began to walk slowly and solemnly back through the forest. Frith’s cottage was not a welcoming sight, but it was the only home Zachary knew, for all else had fallen into ruins and was lost forever. 

 

THE REALIZATION

Chapter

20

The curtains remained closed. The sunlight was not welcomed. Zachary laid his daughter’s lifeless body down upon the bed. He lifted a sheet and draped the material over her. “This is too much to bear”. He felt faint and gripped the bedpost for support. “Frith, I shall take her back to the ruins of her home, and bury her there”. Zachary felt barely able to breathe. “Marta can sleep alongside her mother”. He closed his eyes, and the shared memories of his daughter’s short life flooded his mind. All was lost and that made him nauseous with grief. 

 “If that is your wish” Frith replied thoughtfully. “But consider our future”. The dark mist rolled between Frith’s fingers as he gestured his hands towards the dead child. “Marta’s death can bring us hope my friend. In the ground she’ll simply go to waste, but in my hands she will provide medicine for us both, and heal my brother”.  

Zachary was horrified by the suggestion. “No, she will not be fed to your monstrous relation”. A seething rage was bubbling inside him and he began to shake. “No more of this sickness”. Zachary could not believe what he was hearing. “I appreciate your courage”. He knelt beside the bed and wept. “I know you risked your life twice for us, but this is my child and it’s bad enough that I failed her”. Overcome by feelings of guilt he spoke softly and breathed deeply. “And I will not be involved in this evil any longer”. 

“I see”. Frith stepped back from the bedside and stood behind Zachary. “I respect your decision my friend”. He looked down at the back of the kneeling man’s head and smiled. “I will help you bury your daughter; it is time for us to dig the depths once more”.

A large wardrobe stood in the bedroom corner, it was made from a thick dark wood and was barely noticeable. It was padlocked, but Frith carried the key.

Zachary stayed by Marta’s side, and with his hand he gently traced the contours of her shrouded body. He drew away sharply when his hand touched a lock of Marta’s golden hair. Zachary was in despair, and he lowered his head. “All I have in my life is death” he cried bitterly. “There can be no gods beyond this land”.

Frith unlocked the wardrobe door and opened it. He glanced pensively over his shoulder. Zachary remained upon his knees, his attention devoted entirely to that of the dead child.

Inside the wardrobe, resting against the wood panels was the portrait that Zachary had painted. Frith admired the young woman’s beautiful appearance. She was raven haired and her luminous emerald eyes captivated him. Zachary’s skilled and meticulous brushstrokes emphasized her dark, unblemished, youthful complexion. “You must not give up hope Zachary”. Frith gazed longingly at the lady and nodded into the dark mist. “Perhaps you may have a future after all. I can help you find that, but first you must let go of the past”. Frith reached into the wardrobe and picked up a bow and two silver serpent headed arrows. “So therefore I must help you to do that”. He drew back the bowstring and gripped the fletching. “You need to get off your knees my friend”. Frith aimed the arrow at Zachary, sunlight caught the point, and two jewelled eyes glinted. “Stand up and face your future”.

“This is where it ends”. Zachary groaned as he lifted himself wearily from the bedside. “I can go no further with you”. He turned towards Frith and frowned. “You plan to kill me?”

Frith strained against the bowstring and maintained his stance. “I don’t want to kill you my friend” He stared down the sight. “I’ve been your saviour from the beginning, but I need your child whilst she is still fresh”. The dark mist grew thick around him “And I am sorry, but I will have to hurt you if you refuse”.  

Zachary stared, he was unable to blink. The sunlight through the curtains glinted against the arrowhead. He recognised the distinctive jewelled eyes of the silver serpent. “It was you... It was you who burned down the cottage, it was you who killed my wife”. So many emotions churned and twisted inside his body, fire and ice poured through his veins. “You’re not my friend”. His voice quivered with rage. “You’re a fiend. You tricked me into killing the Widow Gower”.   

“Unfortunately, I must confess, you are right”. Frith could see little point in continuing the charade. “Your wife was going to the authorities, I tried to reason with her, but she was beyond reason. I had to stop her, had I not done so my brother and I would have been killed”. He maintained his aim and did not lower the bow. “The Widow Gower’s curse was an act of evil, therefore the witch’s death was justified”. He smiled uneasily. “Remember that I did save you and your daughter from the flames”.

“I’m not that naive”. Zachary’s fingers twitched, he wanted to snap Frith’s neck, but he was too far away and the arrow would move faster. “You saved us for your own gain and exploited us. You poisoned the Widow Gower’s husband and you used me”.   

“What I did, I did for love”. Frith began to loosen his tight grip upon the bowstring. “There is no evil in that Zachary”. Frith’s pale grey eyes narrowed. “But you turned your back on Marta when she was scarred and that surely cannot be forgiven”. The dark mist blackened around him. “All those poor children sacrificed but they will not be lost for nothing”.  

The arrow flew. Zachary raised his hands in a helpless attempt to defend himself, but he was unable to avoid the spinning projectile. He staggered backwards, the arrowhead firmly embedded in his shoulder. Zachary fell against the wall and slumped down beside the bed. The pain tore into his mind as he tried to pull the arrow from his flesh. Zachary watched in agonising despair as Frith lifted Marta’s lifeless body from the bed.

“I’m sorry, because I like you Zachary” Frith said softly. “I always liked you and I will heal you too, and make you understand, that love means sacrifice”. He lowered his pale grey eyes and walked head bowed from the room.

Zachary gripped the arrow shaft and pulled. He groaned as his blood bubbled and seeped. The wound was not too deep, and the point slipped out easily. He pressed his fingers over the gash, and the blood soaked into the torn fibre of his purple overcoat. Zachary slid back against the wall, and pushed himself up. He felt breathless and dizzy and placed his hand firmly upon a bedpost for support.

Frith raised the cellar door and gazed into the dark. Marta lay at his feet and he stroked the dead girl’s matted blonde hair. “I’m sorry child” he said softly. “This was not my choice for you, but family is everything”. He lit a torch and held it aloft. The firelight rippled against the cold stone steps. “I hope Marta that you are enough to end our nightmare”. Frith wrapped his arm around the dead child’s waist and lifted her into his own darkness. “The last journey” he whispered as he kissed Marta upon the forehead and began to descend.  

Zachary reached the cellar door and stumbled down the steps. He grabbed at the torch and wrenched it from Frith’s hand. “Give me back my daughter!” he shouted. “Or I’ll burn you!” Zachary waved the flame back and forth in a threatening manner.

Frith sighed and shook his head. “You are becoming a nuisance to us”. he said as he turned around to face his assailant. Frith was irritated by Zachary’s interference but ignored the man’s feeble threat. “No you won’t burn me, because Marta would burn too”. Frith reached out his hand and smiled. “Listen my friend, I can help you again, but life is for the living. Can you not see that your child is truly dead? So please give me back the torch so I may continue”.

Perhaps it was the empty smile, or the way Marta hung lifelessly beneath Frith’s arm like a rag doll, that ignited Zachary’s rage. He pulled the jagged snake arrowhead from his purple overcoat and plunged it violently into Frith’s neck.

The dark mist swirled frantically around the phantom man. “What have you done?!” Frith gasped. “You’ve killed me!”. Frith’s black blood spurted from lacerated skin and he stumbled backwards with his hand clasped around his throat.

Zachary grabbed his daughter’s hair and pulled her free and she fell heavily against the stone steps.

Frith lost his footing and grabbed hold of the torch to steady himself, but Zachary released it from his grasp and Frith tumbled backwards down the stone staircase. He dropped the torch and his black cloak became engulfed by fire. Zachary descended the steps slowly and watched as Frith plunged helplessly into the cellar. The phantom’s arm snapped as he struck the hard stone, and upon reaching the cellar floor his fragile bones shattered with a sickening crunch.  

Zachary stepped away from the flames and watched as the phantom burned. Frith tried to smother the fire with his hands but the fire licked against the skin of his palms and his fingers simply disintegrated in the intense heat.      

“Help me!” Frith screamed his face bursting into blisters. “Have pity!” 

Zachary acted swiftly. He removed his overcoat and threw it over Frith’s flailing body and smothered the flames. 

Frith lay face down against the cold stone, wisps of sweet smelling grey smoke drifted around his twisted broken body. His legs were folded into his stomach and his arms were bent inwards against his chest. Zachary watched as Frith reached out a shaking hand. “You don’t realise what you have done”. He spluttered. “If you kill us, the girl in the painting will die”.

Frith’s skin hung away in charcoaled folds, and he was missing several fingers. Zachary looked away in disgust. “I’m not listening to any more of your lies”. His nostrils twitched uneasily as the aroma of charred flesh made him hold his breath. “Death is what you and your brother deserve” he puffed. “I’ve no sympathy for either of you”.

“We used to trade with your sister in law”. Frith coughed black blood and his pale grey eyes wept beneath blistered eyelids. “Selene is dying, save us, and we will save her”.

Zachary was dumbstruck. Frith did indeed know the name of the lady in the portrait, and Zachary tried to remember whether he had mentioned it to the dying phantom before. “No” he shook his head bitterly. “As I said before, it’s all poisonous lies and I will listen to you no more”.

Frith slumped into his burned rags. “The widow’s curse has won”. The dark mist was thick around him and he appeared broken both mentally and physically. “My brother? You would murder my brother?” Frith gasped bitterly. “So much suffering for Sadgin and now he must die in utter hopelessness?” He closed his pale grey eyes and the dark tears fell. “Yes... We will all die... It was all for nothing”. Frith scarred bald head sank down upon his chest.

“If that is the way it must be”. Zachary said wearily. “Then so be it”. He picked up the flaming torch and glared down at the dark man.  “Believe me it’s better for us to die like men than live forever in the shameful forms we are in”.  Zachary turned away and walked down the passageway. He stepped through the far door unhindered and descended the second staircase. The air thinned and the torchlight dimmed.

Ahead of Zachary were the three doors. He ignored the red door, its loose broken handle made entry impossible, and the screaming cherub carved into the wooden panels of the black door dissuaded him from venturing in. Sadgin Frith waited behind the blue door. He was unsure of the creature’s strength, and feared its unnatural hunger for human flesh. If Sadgin Frith proved to be aggressive, Zachary would set him alight, and burn the monstrous beast alive. 

 

Chapter

21

Sadgin Frith’s grotesque existence was ruled by his perverse hunger. The slow, tormented passage of time had blackened his memories. Despair and loneliness had isolated him. Sadgin’s physical decline, the effects of the Widow Gower’s curse, had made him a prisoner inside a body that no longer functioned as he remembered. Sadgin dwelled in darkness, his eyes had become weak and he could barely see, or hear. He rarely had visitors, just his brother and the child victims he needed to consume to elicit a cure. It was a bleak, depressing life, and one that had been bereft of hope, but this day was different, for Kyan Frith had promised an end to the suffering. One more child, his brother had said, one more child and Sadgin could leave the cellar and live once more amongst the living and not crawl amidst the bones of the dead. 

A thin yellow candle flame flickered upon the tabletop above him. Sadgin’s bulbous watery eyes blinked and rolled beneath glistening folds of slimy dark skin. The door opposite opened slowly, and Zachary peered into the gloom. He held his torch aloft and the firelight rippled against moist walls and danced upon thick pools of dried blood. The carnage became ever clearer with each sweep Zachary made with his torch. The bones of dead children, tangled in macabre patterns were piled high in each corner of the room. Amidst the carnage of bleached bone lay the giant form of Sadgin Frith, his monstrous body rested upon a bubbling stream of his own viscous bodily fluids. The bulbous eyes, fogged white, stared unblinking at his unwanted visitor, and Sadgin watched with uncertainty as Zachary stood back against the wall.         

“Sadgin?” Zachary said nervously. “I don’t know if you can understand me, or even hear me?” he said slowly, pausing after each word. “But your brother is dead, and children are definitely off the menu”. He did not expect an answer, and concluded that Sadgin was probably dumb.  

A trail of thick saliva fell from what appeared to be Sadgin’s warty black lips. The creature’s mouth was nothing more than two thick folds of overlapping skin that rippled with hanging drool. “I can hear you”. A strange deep gargling voice called out in response. “Who are you? A desperate father seeking revenge?” Sadgin breathed heavily, and salivated further, his bulbous rolling eyes welled with tears. “Are you going to kill me? Are you an assassin?” Sadgin slid further beneath the table, attempting to hide from the light, and escape his own shame. “The Grimnian Gods they know I deserve death”.

“I’m sorry, but it’s the best way for you Sadgin. Because If you were ever cured”. Zachary’s voice became choked with emotion. “How could you live your life knowing that you had the deaths of innocent children on your conscience?” Zachary cleared his throat, but felt the horror of his own involvement strangle his words, and he fell silent.   

“I always wanted to die. I’m walking towards a slumbering death”. The creature’s fleshy lips frothed. “And I was so strong on my feet once”. He chuckled bitterly. “So much guilt; I deserve my fate. Cursed by the Widow Gower, I no longer walk. Just dream”. His tears mingled with oozing slime, and they were quickly lost. “I’m a  ghost of myself. I asked my brother many times to help me die”. The saliva trickled from Sadgin’s lips and fell upon cold stone. “But he alone loved me,  would not spare me this dreadful suffering”. Sadgin closed his eyes and they rolled unnaturally beneath their swollen eyelids. “So my brother is dead?”...

Zachary nodded; his expression grim and cold. “He wanted to cure you, so he could cure himself. You’re a child murderer, whatever you were before is nothing compared to the thing you are now”. 

“I see that truth”. Sadgin said softly. “In the back of this room there is a storeroom. It contains several sacks of salt”. His watery white eyes reopened and he stared pitifully at Zachary. “Please bring one to me, and sprinkle the contents over the floor”.  

The door that Sadgin spoke of was set back deep inside a cobwebbed stone alcove. The wood panels had crumbled, and termites had riddled it with holes. Zachary gripped the rusted door handle and pushed it open. Inside he found several large sacks of salt, and laying down his torch he dragged them from the storeroom. One sack was bigger than the rest and summoning every ounce of strength he hoisted it upon his shoulders. Zachary carried it back to Sadgin and laid it down before him. 

Sadgin’s white bulbous eyes blinked against the flickering candlelit darkness, and in the poor light he tried for one final time to forget what he once had been. “I was a handsome man, agile and adventurous”. His sorrow made him wince and his black slimy body rippled as he shuddered at the memory. “Talented too”. His tears fell. “I do think that I can justify such conceit when you see me now”.             

Zachary shook his head and slid the snake arrowhead from his purple overcoat. “All those children are dead and you wallow in your own self pity” he said scathingly. “I think that’s the real sickness in all of us”.

“That is true” he replied bitterly. “But self pity is all I have left. Please cut open the bag, because I’m done with man”.  

Zachary crouched down beside the sack and shredded the material with the sharp point of the arrow. He rolled the sack upon its side and the salt spilled forth.  

“What happens now?” Zachary asked, stepping away and picking up the candle from the tabletop “With nowhere else to go?”

Sadgin slid slowly forward and a trail of slime seeped from beneath his huge blubbery frame. “Your fate I do not know, but I will die with great regret, but at least I will finally die”. 

Zachary stared through dancing candle flame as Sadgin Frith’s slimy bulk mounted the mounds of salt. Zachary gasped, the chemical reaction was almost too ghastly to behold, but he still watched regardless.   

Bodily fluid seeped heavily from Sadgin’s swelling pores and the tragic creature began to dehydrate, as the salt drained every drop of moisture from his shrinking flesh. Zachary grimaced and looked for a method to end the creature’s life more mercifully, but in the dim light no weapon could be found. “How does it feel?” Zachary asked desperately.

“Bitter” Sadgin gurgled as his lips began to melt and fall away. “Bitter is the salt”. Sadgin’s bulbous tearful white eyes disintegrated and pools of liquid oozed into the moist salt. The scene of agony and despair made Zachary bow his head and snuff out the candle. He stood in darkness, his legs trembling, Zachary was numbed by the sight of Sadgin’s grotesque desiccation and as he staggered from the room clutching at his stomach, Zachary felt an overwhelming desire to vomit.

Zachary feared the yellow eyed wolf, defenceless and alone he stumbled blindly down the ominous pitch black passageway. He felt his way through the dark and his fingers touched the moist stone walls. Zachary went down upon his hands and knees and crawled. He was desperate to escape, and ignored the thick slime that clung to his knees and elbows. Zachary reached out and dragged himself up the stone steps. The journey seemed endless and memories flashed vividly and coldly through his mind. Zachary knew that he would not find solace beyond Frith’s cottage, the Widow Gower’s curse had claimed so many lives and only in death would Zachary escape its grasp.

The door at the top of the stairs was ajar and Zachary rolled his tired body through it. He fell upon his back and blinked tearfully against the ever falling shadow. Tragedy had enveloped all. It was like Zendra’s painting, the monstrous dark creature reaching out, smothering life and leaving nothing but a living death.     

Zachary stood upon his feet, very shakily at first and steadied himself by clutching the handle of the black door. Moonlight blinked silver through the high narrow ceiling and briefly lit the circular chamber. Zachary stared into the face of the screaming cherub, and nervously glanced over his shoulder. A blood trail dripped from the highest step of the second stone staircase. Zachary could see Kyan Frith the yellowed eyed wolf, his fur matted with thick crimson, standing lamely over his dead daughter with his teeth bared and lips rolled back in a resentful snarl.      

“It’s over Frith!” Zachary shouted “Your brother is dead. You’ll have to live with the curse, or terminate your own wretched existence like your poor brother did!”

The wolf was enraged, but weakened by his wounds he knew that he could not harm Zachary. So instead the wolf turned his savagery to the pale, beautiful, lifeless face of Marta Nova and sank his fangs deep into the child’s cheekbones and tore the flesh from her skull.

“No!” Zachary shouted hurling the arrowhead at the monstrous creature. “Leave my daughter alone!”

Congealed blood dripped from the wolf’s jaws and raising his head, he snarled bitterly at Zachary. The wolf winced as he placed a blooded paw upon the stone floor, and lowering his sad yellow eyes he turned away solemnly and limped into the lonely, isolating night. Zachary did not venture up the second staircase; Marta’s new scars yielded no further pain for the dead child. Instead he turned the handle of the black door and stepped into the high walled moonlit antechamber that dwelt behind it.

What Zachary saw haunted his thoughts. Spiralling shelves stacked one upon the other, twisting upwards to a circular glass ceiling. A shaft of moonlight caught the hundreds of small glass vials that stood in rows, the blue liquid within glimmered against the moonbeams. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the ugliness of the room. The truth shuddered in his soul, dead cold ran through his veins, each bottle represented a child, and the slaughter of so many innocent children was beyond his comprehension. “It’s a massacre” Zachary could barely breathe. “All this for love?” he lifted a glass bottle from the shelf and gazed into it. Tears began to fall, as he wondered at the nature of the child whose essence was contained inside. Who were they girl or boy?! Were they happy or sad during their brief life? He thought of the family of each dead child, they would never know the fate of their daughter or son, never weep over a grave, and never be able to truly say goodbye. Zachary slipped the bottle into the pocket of his purple overcoat, and stepping back, he left the room and slammed shut the heavy black door. He now fully understood the symbol of the screaming cherub that had been carved into the dark wood; it represented the voices of hundreds of dead children. Zachary found a purpose to breathe again, because at least he had his own daughter to bury. He ascended the stone staircase to where Marta lay blooded and torn, and imagined that he could hear the tormented voices of the lost children screaming for help. His every thought tarnished, his every dream shattered, Zachary scooped Marta into his arms and carried her safely from the cottage.              

Marta’s blood left a trail in the woods, scented fresh, it attracted all manner of scavenger. The lesser creatures licked the leaves where the warm droplets clung, but others, the more powerful beasts flared their wide nostrils and breathed deep, hoping for a more satisfying feast.

Zachary held his daughter tightly against his chest. He could not bear to look upon her face because the wolf had torn away her lips and skin, and little trace remained of Marta’s beauty.

Ahead stood the decayed tree and Zachary went down upon his knees, and carried his daughter inside. The pungent stench of rotting pulp masked the smell of blood. Zachary held his breath and hid in the dark. He gazed out and watched the predators gather, but they soon gave up the hunt, and returned to the forest hungry.  

The decayed tree had become a sanctuary. Zachary closed his weary eyes, and dreamed of better times. Memories, tainted by the death of loved ones, thoughts that had once made him smile, simply led to further despair. Zachary bowed his head, and wished that he was dead. All he could do was wait and as night followed day, and the two moons ascended, fell, and arose again, he felt the old agony return. The wound in his shoulder stung, and the deep scars that had burned into his skin began to reappear, tearing across his face and body in the form of blisters and lesions. Breathless from the pain, his scarred hands trembling,  he rolled his dead daughter to one side, and slid the medicine bottle from his purple coat.

“Will my nightmare never end?” Zachary whispered as he unscrewed the lid and sipped.

All vanity had faded, his good looks, and youth no longer mattered. It was merely the pain that bothered him and once it had eased he placed the bottle back into his coat pocket.

“What now?” he muttered bitterly. “Where can I go from here?”   

Zachary felt two rough hands grab him by the ankles and he was pulled from inside the decayed tree into blazing sunlight, before his eyes could adjust, the butt of a wooden club smashed him across the jaw and rendered him unconscious.

 

Chapter

22

In a blur of vision and confused thought, Zachary raised his head. He could feel the blood trickling from his chin and tried to lift his hands, but a heavy chain prevented him from doing so. Clenching his teeth he pulled against the manacles. The strain split the skin upon his wrists, and the veins in his arms bulged. 

“What’re you struggling for? We’ve all got to die”. The man’s voice was cold and gruff.  “You’re shackled by the wrists, you’ve got a split lip, but that won’t kill you, although I might”.  

Zachary’s eyes gradually adjusted to the fading light. He could see three cowled shapes huddled around a large wood burning fire.   

“Why am I shackled?” Zachary asked, brushing his dry tongue against the inside of his mouth and tasting blood. “Who are you?”

“A man that no one would mourn for” The gruff voice replied “A man like you”.  

Astrid and Drayker remained silent; the appearance of their prisoner sickened them. He was a mass of scars and his swollen mouth added to the monstrous image, for here was the scarred man who killed children.

Astrid bowed her head and Drayker could not hide his resentment. “I can’t talk to this thing”. He looked to his side and stared at Ryder. “You caught him, you talk to him Ryder”. 

“What words would this evil creature understand?”. The hooded man spat bloodied tobacco into the flames and it sizzled. “We should burn the bastard alive”. “He did not look up at his prisoner, but remained with his face hidden beneath the tattered hood.  “You’re shackled because you’re a child murderer”.  He sneered”. “I’d cut off your hands, but they wouldn’t let me”.

Zachary lent back against a tree, the metal shackles digging into his scarred skin. “Where’s my child?” he asked “What have you done with my daughter?”

“Your child?” Astrid’s black gloved hand rested upon the hilt of her sword and she wanted to draw the blade and kill the villain. “You murdered you own kin?”

“Where is she?” Zachary’s blue eyes glinted and danced with the yellow glow of the firelight.  “Where is her body?”

Drayker filled his pipe with tobacco and used a smouldering twig to light it. “We buried the girl with due care and respect” he said softly.  “We could’ve kept her as evidence of your crimes”.  He took several puffs and blew smoke into the fire. “But we’re witnesses, and we don’t need her poor little broken body to know that you’re guilty”.  Tears glistened in his tired eyes. “What kind of man could do that to a child?”.  

“Don’t judge me, you don’t know me”. Zachary shook his head and chuckled under his breath. “This situation is absurd”.  He muttered. “How could you think I could kill my own child?” Zachary tried to contain his anger; he did not like being judged. “I’m not a murderer” he seethed. “Who are you people?”

“Oh you are murderer methinks. You killed the Widow Gower and slaughtered my partner”. Drayker sat almost motionless, numb, shrouded in folds of wispy smoke, it obscured his view and he was glad that his vision was unclear. “I pity those children”. Drayker spoke slowly and carefully. “To think that your face was the last they saw before they were butchered”. Drayker blinked his eyes and the tears trickled. He drew his fingers against his cheek and wiped them away. “I can’t remember the last time I shed a tear for anyone” he shook his head. “No the last creature I cried over was a dead lamb”.

Drayker stood up and turned away in despair “If you’ll excuse me”.

“Tread carefully” Ryder whispered, barely looking up at his colleague. “Bounty hunting is a brutal and competitive business”.  His bony hand toyed with the hilt of his dagger. “Better watch your back”....   

Astrid chuckled and watched as Drayker gave a brief but nervous glance over his left shoulder. “Is that a threat or a joke?” he asked nervously, unsure of how to react.

“Don’t you worry” Astrid replied with a knowing smile. “We’re all friends here”. She rolled her one good eye and scowled at the hooded man. “I know that when you extend your right hand in friendship Ryder, I have to watch out for the left one, because in that one you’ll probably be holding a knife”.  

“I know the man can be, but methinks that’s not very reassuring”.  Drayker sighed heavily. “Just watch our prisoner” he muttered grumpily taking a puff on his pipe. “His price is high enough for a three way split, no need for any more bloodshed, I just want to get home to the wife and my farm”. He walked from the camp, and vanished into the dark, leaving only a trail of tobacco smoke to mark his passing.          

Zachary had remained quiet, watching the interplay between the three bounty hunters. He had been considering ways in which he could prove his innocence or perhaps gain their sympathy. So far he had drawn a blank “High price? Is that dead or alive?”      

“You’re a dead man”. Ryder said with grim smirk. “Latimer Cantrell hired us; his boy was one of your victims”.  He raised his head slightly and Zachary could see the man’s cold white jawline beneath the shadow of the hood.  “He’ll skin you alive for what you’ve done”.  Ryder’s decaying teeth were drawn back beneath grey lips. “If you were anyone else, I’d pity your fate”.       

“You look sick”. Zachary responded. “I could help you get better, I have medicine”.   

Ryder laughed and coughed blood. “Lupus diermortis; it robs you of your dignity, your faith in the gods and then it takes your life”. He raised his sackcloth sleeve and wiped his mouth, leaving a crimson smear across his sunken cheeks. “I’ll stick with my doctor’s advice”. Ryder said scathingly, pulling his hood forward before lying down beside the fire. “I’m not taking anything from you, unless it’s your life. Nothing you have will give you worth; you’ve fallen further than I”. Ryder’s breathing became laboured. “I’ve said enough. I’m going to sleep. Watch him Astrid he’s poison”.   

Astrid watched the green stars, gazed upon the two red moons, and blinked against the crackling orange flame of the campfire, but rarely did the glance of Astrid’s one good eye fall upon the scarred features of her captive.

“Why did you do it?” Astrid asked. “What reason could you have to kill children?” 

Zachary closed his eyes and lent his head wearily to one side. “I’m tired and the question is meaningless. You don’t know anything about me”.   

“Not meaningless when young mothers and fathers bury small empty coffins”. Astrid smiled bitterly and drew her trembling hand through her white spiky hair. “Tell me your name?” She narrowed her one good eye, and adjusted her eye patch. “You can see that we both have scars, but you must be in great discomfort”.

Zachary lifted his forearms and pulled against the shackles. “This is not my discomfort” he displayed the scars upon his palms. “As deep as they are, the scars don’t matter either, neither does my name, or what you believe me to be, I’m nothing, the only feeling I know is pain, and even now I’m numb to that”.

Astrid listened to the scarred man, and decided to look upon him for what she thought he was, an empty shell, with self pity pouring through it.

“They’ll hang you for what you’ve done”. Astrid’s eye glistened with a single tear and it fell against the back of her hand. That single droplet represented the depth of Astrid’s emotions, or perhaps the smoke had stung her eye. “Where are the bodies of the ten children? What did you do with them?”   

“Ten children?” Zachary shook his head, he knew the numbers were so much greater, but revealing that information would only make matters worse “Ten maybe but only one that really mattered”.

Astrid threw another log into the flames, and the light it conjured blazed high. “They all mattered, because all children matter” she drew her dagger and looked at her reflection in the blade. “I look tired, battered” she sighed. “I rarely talk to the prey, but you’re different. I want to understand you, but then again perhaps it’s best not to dig too deep”.   

“You’re a bounty hunter”. Zachary said coldly “I imagine that Cantrell hired you to find his boy and no one else”. He laid his head back upon the grass and gazed skyward through the towering branches that hung above him. “Your interest is quite simply blood money, that’s the value of life to you”. 

The two red moons fell behind dark blue clouds, and both Zachary and Astrid sat in silence, listening to the crackling fire.

“You don’t know anything about me” she responded bitterly. “My scars happened long before I ever picked up a sword and became a hunter of others”. Astrid was not one for staying quiet for long, she always had much to say, and was eager to fight her corner with words as well as weapons.  “It was a man like you that rode into my village when I was a child”. Astrid swallowed hard. “He brought hatred and death to my family” she pointed her dagger aggressively at the scarred man. “I will never be beaten or broken again. I suggest you go to sleep if your conscience can allow it”. She watched her prisoner, he did not change his position he was simply watching the movement of the clouds as they sped across the sky. “Count the stars this night if it’ll help you sleep” Astrid said harshly “Because it’s probably the last time you’ll ever see them”.

The hopelessness of sleep; Zachary imagined the pleasure of what used to be, but in a mind warped by images of death and decay, he could see little good in dreams. Zachary knew that he would never find peace again, and even if he dreamt of loved ones, and the way he used to look, wakefulness would shatter the ghost of that illusion. 

Inside his pocket Zachary could feel the glass bottle pressing against his thigh, it remained intact, unbroken in the earlier scuffle. Was it a promise of hope? A bargaining tool? He had to believe in something, even if it was the grotesque life essence of some poor dead child.

Zachary rolled on to his side and placed his chained wrists across his chest, he would have embraced himself had he been able, but the restraints prevented him. Instead Zachary closed his eyes and waited. He listened to the fire as it spat and crackled, the warmth offered little comfort, but he felt his spirit lifted, as his mind poured into dreams, and he drifted into a deep sleep. 

 

Chapter

23

A bloated black rat had grown fat upon the flayed, scorched meat of the dead. The rodent moved slowly, dragging its swollen belly through mud and blood. It scurried amidst broken tree stumps and pools of stagnant green water. The black rat’s nostrils twitched, attracted by the scent of fresh meat. The rodent’s impassive red eyes glinted against blinding flashes of orange light, as the scavenger continued to hunt.    

Zachary awoke beneath the glowing orange sky and stared upwards at a single silver moon. He felt the cold moist mud upon his back and sitting up, his hands sinking into the dead earth, Zachary blinked against the moonbeams and the flashes of rumbling light. He recognised his dreams, the stark images, twisted to unnatural extremes, the obliterated dark grey landscape, unchanged, and as hideous and melancholy a sight as it ever was.

A yellow and green cloud drifted eerily across the lost land, and Zachary placed his hand over his mouth. The black rat stood upon its hind legs and inquisitively raised its nostrils and sniffed against the air. The blinding cloud descended. Consumed by choking fog, its skin blistering beneath matted fur, the black rat’s body twitched and spasmed; the rodent frothed at the mouth, and rolled over upon its back, its lungs corrupted, the black rat vomited violently and died quickly.  

Zachary needed no further warning; he leapt to his feet and ran. He splashed through pools of stagnant water, mud and clay clinging heavily to his boots.

The yellow and green mist rolled ominously across the dead plains. Zachary tried to move at speed, but each step he took was impeded by the churned wasteland, as he struggled to maintain his balance.        

A long deep trench lay just ahead and Zachary jumped down, fell to his knees and covered his eyes and mouth with his hands. Curling into a ball he tensed every muscle in his body. He knew he could not escape the drifting poison cloud, and decided to hold his breath and pray that death would pass him by. 

A small iron covered door opened in the trench wall, and Zachary heard a muffled, metallic voice. “Give me your hand”...

Zachary reached out, and just as the choking cloud descended, he was hauled inside to safety. He lay in darkness, shivering against the cold. “Anyone hear me?” he called out, hoping for a response, but all was silent.  

Zachary spoke again. “I know that someone is there”. He waited and listened. Above ground he could hear a faint rumbling and the walls crumbled, and flaked as some ungodly force shook against them. “Please answer me”.

A hiss, a spark, and a flash of sulphur; a rising flame drawn to a candle, bathed the room in shallow light. The soldier in a battered khaki uniform leaned forward. Zachary could see the faceless phantom very clearly, and it frightened him. A long metal tube attached to a beige mask was linked to a bag that hung around the phantom’s waist and two dark dead eyes blinked beneath tinted yellow lenses.        

“Who are you?” he asked, dragging himself back against the wall. “Am I dreaming?”

The dead eyed man placed the candle down upon a wooden box, and between heavy breaths he spoke poetry to Zachary. “Over the Mountain’s of the Moon, down through the valley of Kil Kar Koon, beyond the forest of Forever Night, within the wastelands out of sight”... He raised his gloved hand and unfastened a clip and began to lift the mask. “Who am I? This is who I am”....   

“Wake up! Wake up!” Zachary heard Astrid’s voice crashing through his dreams. Her hand was upon his shoulder, shaking him vigorously. “You’re talking in your sleep and I want to know why!”... She threw another log into the fire, and sat down beside him.

Zachary shuffled uncomfortably and turned his body to face her. “At least”... he grumbled, irritated that his dream had been interrupted during a possible revelation. “At least let me have one night of peace before I meet my maker”.

“No” she shook her head. “Not after what I’ve just heard”. Astrid adjusted her eye patch and ruffled her white spiky hair.”Insects”. She cursed as she plucked a wriggling bug and tossed it into the flames. “That poem... I know that poem”... She glared at the scarred man, waiting for a reaction. She was disappointed when he simply yawned, rolled his eyes and looked away.

“I’m tired... Let me sleep”.

Astrid extended her booted foot and pressed it against his nose and chin. “Listen mister” She shook her head. “Or whatever you are, how would you feel if I added a heel print to that ugly face of yours?” 

Zachary craned back his head, until the bones and muscles in his neck and shoulder clicked uncomfortably. He looked up into the girl’s face and stuck out his tongue and licked Astrid’s boot. He grimaced and spat into the grass. “I don’t know what you’ve been stepping on previously, but it’s a damned sight more unsavoury than I am”.

Astrid quickly withdrew her boot, disgusted at the scarred man’s behaviour. “You’re revolting creature. Just cooperate and maybe I can help you”.

“Help me?” he said bitterly. “Look at me. I’m far beyond help don’t you think?”

Astrid nodded in grim agreement “Oh you’re a grotesque” She looked around for her two colleagues, but they were nowhere in sight. “But that poem, I don’t know it all” she whispered. “But I’ve dreamt the first few lines, and I’ve stood in that mud swept wasteland”. Astrid closed her eye. “It’s a map, and if you know the whole poem, you know where the map ends”.     

Zachary considered the young woman’s words. How was it possible that they could both share the same dream? “A map?” he shook his head in disbelief “A map to what?”...

Astrid smiled, but there was little warmth in her expression. “Do you know the whole poem?” she leaned forward, jutting out her chin. “I need to know it all”. She deepened her tone and attempted to sound menacing. “So tell me”. Astrid’s hand gripped the hilt of her dagger.

Zachary could see that the warrior woman was very deliberately trying to intimidate him, but he remained indifferent.

“It’s in your interests to keep me alive” he said grimly. “But I don’t really have much reason to live”. Zachary considered the future and it made him despair. The beautiful face in the portrait offered a glimmer of hope, but a rope with a noose at its end was a fate that Zachary with all certainty could depend upon. “No, I will tell you nothing, because I’m a dead man, and I have nothing more to say to you” He closed his eyes and drew in several deep breaths. “Other than these words... Why don’t you choose what happens to me?” He had been guided by the whim of others for so long, and he could think of no other way to respond.         

Ryder’s eyes opened, and his nostrils twitched, he never slept well. Whether awake or asleep, ill health dogged him. He had listened to Zachary, and decided, that between his own breathlessness and physical discomfort, he needed to find the strength and the words to condemn him. “You’ll make no deals with us” he said licking his tongue against the dried blood that lay crusted upon his lips. “Astrid Zarne”. Ryder turned his head slowly and lifted his body into a seated position. “Dreams aside, this creature is a murderer of children and maps in the shape of poems are little more than deranged delusions”. He spat blood into the flames. “Look at you”. Ryder raised a bony finger and jabbed it aggressively at his captive. “You’ll hang, and it won’t be a long drop, they’ll raise you up by the rope, and slowly choke the life from your vile body”. Ryder lowered his head and his hood fell further forward, until the pale coldness of his white chin was the only thing that separated skin from shadow. “Make peace with whatever Gods you have, for tomorrow they will claim your soul”. Ryder grinned and blood frothed through gum and tooth. “For a man like you it’ll be hard to meet your maker”.

Zachary observed a single trail of blood; it trickled from Ryder’s mouth and dripped from his pale blue lips. “I’m dying” he muttered shallowly, drawing heavily against the smoky air. “But at least I’ll live longer than you”.

Zachary knew that he could not escape. He considered offering Ryder the cure for his ailments, but the sick man’s previous refusal made it unlikely that he would ever accept. Zachary looked at Astrid, she appeared distant, lost in her own thoughts. Perhaps the poem could save him? But if he gave Astrid the knowledge of each verse, she would have no further use for him, and a grim death would surely follow.

Zachary simply closed his eyes and considered sleep. “Tomorrow” he thought “Maybe tomorrow I will meet my maker”. He felt a terrible coldness ripple through his veins “And what of poor Selene?” Zachary shook his head. How could he reach out and save the lady in his portrait? Such an endeavour was surely more than any dream would allow?....

The next day, surrounded by the beauty of the forest, and beneath drifting clouds that scattered the occasional raindrops, the bounty hunters saddled their horses, and left the camp.

The journey seemed endless and the passage of time slowed as if in damning stagnation. Tainted by memory, Zachary agonised over every minute that passed. Bound at the wrists and tied to the saddle of Astrid Zarne’s horse, Zachary bowed his head as he pondered the futility of his own existence. Latimer Cantrell’s son was dead, along with the children of many other despairing families. Zachary did not expect mercy, nor did he want it, he hoped for a swift execution, for anything less would be an injustice.

Zachary tried to look up into the sunlight, but blinked back into darkness as he became caught in the blinding glare. Zachary did have a reason to live, there was a chance for redemption. If he could survive long enough, and take the medicine to Selene, then she could be restored to good health, and Zachary would at long last have a future again. He longed to be free of pain, both mental and physical, and to see once more a land of joy where sunrises and sunsets meant more than simply opening and closing of the eyes.      

 

Chapter

24

Through the tireless labours of six powerful ogres, the giant stone wheel turned. Cog against cog, grated and strained as an iron drill twisted further and further into the moistening sand. Water seeped into deep channels and flowed down into a net that stretched across a vast pit that filtered sand from water. The liquid dripped into a dark chasm below, and forlorn dishevelled creatures, ragged and broken by years at the wheel craned back their heads and blinked longingly into the light above. The twin suns were forever out of reach, and in the depths of this subterranean prison they could not catch the rays. They simply lifted buckets above their heads and caught the falling droplets. Once filled the creatures bowed in thanks and shuffled wearily away, soaked to the skin but indifferent to their discomfort. ‘Water is our only salvation’ they muttered, and even in its gritty state, the water was the only pleasure left to these poor underland dwellers.

The caverns beneath were haunted by a labyrinth of lost souls. The endless winding dank smelling passageways were filled with hazards. Pits of poisoned spikes for those that strayed from the known path, and blood hungry beast who had shunned the upper reaches, stalked and fed upon those who had the misfortune to encounter them.

At its darkest depth beneath an endless spiralled staircase was the Governor’s quarters. A large circular chamber loomed high, and central to the room, was a round stone table where the governors of the past sat silently in decay, their crumbled mummified bodies still robed in jewelled splendour. A grand feast was always laid upon the table, but the dead do not eat, and the food quickly rotted.

Thranmere Skrimm was raised in the stone vaults of the Cabal, a man who had no future, and who had never been outside. He was the master of this prison, and it was his duty to live and die in service of the Queen. A final seat stood empty at the table, and it was here that Skrimm sat when he was hungry or needed to talk. Skrimm knew the grim truth, that in death this would be his last resting place. The dead governors were Skrimm’s family, and he still sought their guidance in matters of judgement. Men and women cannot be buried where there is only stone, therefore the dead rotted where they fell, for that was the way of things in the Cabal. It was a living hell for the worst kind of criminal, and no better for those who acted as its jailors.   

It was here that Zachary was brought in chains and forced to kneel before the man who was the last living governor. Skrimm leant forward upon his throne and his ancient black silk robes flaked and tore with every laboured movement. “You are the child killer” he rasped. ”You will never see the dawn light again” he pointed a long white bony figure at the accused. “And you will go blind in the dark as many of us do”... He clenched his hand into a fist and blinked his cold white eyes. “But you will be thankful for your future loss of vision, for there is nothing of joy to be seen here” he smiled menacingly. “All is in isolation and decay”.

Zachary and the bounty hunters watched in horrified silence as Skrimm reached two fingers into his mouth and pulled out a loose rotten tooth. “Utterly painless”. The Governor muttered with a cynical chuckle. “So, tell me” he continued, looking up at the small gathering. “What is the prisoner’s name? And what does he have to say in his defence?”  A blood trickle dripped down into the short hairs of Skrimm’s white beard but he did not wipe it away.  

Astrid shook the heavy chain that was padlocked around the prisoner’s throat. “Best to answer him” she said softly.

Drayker stood in the background and filled his pipe. He disliked the environment, and the repulsive sight of dead men and women in varying degrees of decomposition sickened him. 

“Speak to the Governor”. Ryder demanded, prodding Zachary sharply in the back with his dagger. “Show some respect”.  

Zachary had very little to say. He knew what lay ahead. “I’m a dead man” he replied. “My name does not matter. Before I end my days here and face the wrath of Latimer Cantrell, I ask to be given the right to write a letter”.   

Ryder laughed and shook his head. “You have no rights”. He grabbed the man’s hair and pulled him back exposing the pulsing veins in Zachary’s scarred neck. “Let’s be done with him”. Ryder placed the blade to the scarred man’s throat. “Now we’re in the company of the authorities, just allow me to cut him out”.

“No!” Astrid shouted tugging hard upon the chain and wrenching the helpless captive from Ryder’s grip. Zachary let out a yelp, as a clump of hair tore away in Ryder’s clenched fist.

“What’re you doing woman?!” Ryder wheezed and cursed her under his breath. “He’s guilty, and we’ll get our reward whether he’s dead or alive”. He sneered. “Look at him. Like all of us, he never lived in the first place”.

Astrid raised her one good eye and pleaded with Skrimm “Not without a proper judgement” she said firmly. “I know the law, and even a man of his nature has a right to a fair trial, he must be allowed to contact someone to be his advocate”.

Skrimm sat back upon his throne and stroked his short white beard, blood stained his long bony fingers but he did not care. “No one listens and no one will see, but he may write his letter” he spoke with utter indifference. “Tragically, I fear that all his words will fall on deaf ears, but I will send word to your employer to say that the child killer is my prisoner”. Skrimm spoke through bloodied lips and the lines around his sunken white eyes grew deeper. “I imagine that you wish to receive your reward? The Zoriat gods I am sure we’ll be thankful to you all, for it is they who guide our path for good or ill”. He smiled at Astrid. “But as the lady says, this wretched, worthless man may write his helpless scrawl if he chooses”. Skrimm’s white eyes fell upon Ryder. “Remember that I am the iron hand of justice, the prophet of the law. Depart from my tomb, for the hunt is done. Go with your friends and return to the land, for you do not belong, for this is the domain of the dead”. Skrimm looked back at Zachary, his cold white eyes studied the man’s horrific scars “And like you my prisoner” Skrimm said with a cold bloodied smile. “The soon to be dead” The Governor bowed his head and fell silent.        

Drayker breathed deep and the cold dank air combined with tobacco smoke made him wheeze. Drayker longed to return to the farm where his dear wife awaited him. The journey was done and he was already considering the ways in which he would spend the reward.

“Thank you”. Astrid bowed her head politely, and draped the heavy chain gently across Zachary’s shoulder. “I’m glad he will be taken care of”. She had other thoughts in regards to the scarred man. The dream of words that she had shared with her captive meant far more than claiming the bounty. In time Astrid would need answers and it was in her interests to prevent the mysterious prisoner’s execution, but she was not a foolish hunter. Astrid would wait for opportunities, and only take chances when it appeared safe to do so.

 

Chapter

25

Zachary closed his eyes and imagined an open space. He filled it with images of forget-me-nots, and the faces of those he had once loved, but it was of little comfort. The pain was once again slowly creeping through Zachary’s scarred skin and with every twitch of his damaged body the images began to darken. But there was a light; a spiralled flame from a tall candle that stood upon a large wooden table. Zachary’s eyes began to open and the flowers crumbled, and the faces melted away.

Grey stone walls began to rise, tearing through the dust as they lifted through the desert floor. A giant oak door slammed into place, and a barred window caught by moonlight merged into the stone. A tunnel lay behind it, revealing a passageway that led to the surface, but it was no means of escape; too narrow to crawl through, but just wide enough to channel light, the tunnel gave a cruel, painful, longing glimpse of the upper realms. Zachary held up his fingers and the moonlight rippled against his scarred skin. He clenched his burned hand into a fist, for he was entombed inside a small cell beneath Grimney’s desert wastelands. Amidst the anger, despair, and guilt Zachary longed for an untainted land where he could run free and forever.     

Lord Gilbert had listened intently and he understood, but he was unsure of what to believe. “Too many coincidences” he thought, “How could this scarred monster be... How could he be”... Lord Gilbert leaned forward over the large wooden table and stared uneasily at the scarred man’s hideous injuries.... Only the blue eyes, those soft blue eyes gave any reflection of the scarred man’s past identity.... “Zachary”... Lord Gilbert muttered, struggling to face the horrific truth. “It’s you... Isn’t it my brother?”.....

Zachary smiled and regardless of the intention, only one side of his blistered mouth lifted and his expression looked more like a sneer. “Yes Gil” he nodded. “I am your brother”.

“It can’t be”. Lord Gilbert reached beneath his cloak and slid out a silver hip flask. “To look death in the face and to know that it’s your brother” he unscrewed the lid, gulped and swallowed “Is just too much to bear”.    

Zachary reached out his scarred hand and picked up the ornate silver handled mirror “I’m not as you remember”... Zachary slid the small bottle of blue liquid from his shirt pocket and pulled the cork. “But people change”....  

Lord Gilbert watched as his brother drank and the medicine worked quickly. The scars faded and Zachary’s jaw clicked and straitened, and slid back into place. His shattered teeth regrew and the bumps and lesions fell away revealing smooth unblemished skin. The bare scalp once lacerated and barren, sprouted thick blond hair and cascading locks tumbled around his shoulders catching shafts of glowing moonlight.         

“It is done”. Zachary gazed proudly into the mirror and smiled. “How do you feel?” he asked, raising an eyebrow and staring across at Lord Gilbert. “How do you feel to once more see your long lost twin brother in the flesh?”...  

“I don’t know how to feel... But if what you told me is true... How could you know the whole story? Tell of things, when you were not even present?” Lord Gilbert shook his head and averted his gaze. “You’re my twin, but we’re so different”. 

“Different?” Zachary shook his head in disbelief “But that’s just it... We never looked different”. Zachary gazed at his unblemished reflection, but he felt nothing but contempt. “So why do you think Selene chose you over me?”

“The difference Zachary?”. Lord Gilbert said pointedly. “Is that you had a daughter and Selene never wished that with me, or maybe she was unable”. He took a deep breath.

“A daughter? Maybe” A bitter rage consumed Zachary and he raised the silver mirror and brought it crashing down against the tabletop, the frame cracked and the glass spilled across the floor. “But that’s just it. Children are born because we adults have no meaning in our lives and so that cycle continues, generation upon generation”. Zachary’s body was shaking with rage. “But you had all the good fortune and I had none. You won Selene’s hand and I was finished after that”.

Lord Gilbert was startled by his brother’s sudden surge of anger, but he remained calm. “That mirror belonged to Selene”. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “You know she’s dying, Kyan Frith told you”. Lord Gilbert wiped the palms of his hands against his tunic. “Selene did love you Zac. It was unfortunate that she realised that after she married me”. He licked his dry lips. “But it was too late then. We’d no idea where you’d gone Zac and over the years she grew fond of her life with me and we became as happy as we could be”. He sighed and looked down at the expensive gold wedding ring he was wearing. “Sometimes real love can grow out of shallow desires”. Lord Gilbert smiled sadly at Zachary. “I’m sorry brother, that’s what happened with Selene and I”.   

Zachary brushed broken glass from the tabletop, cutting his finger, but he did not notice the blood trickling from his skin, and the splinter fell away without further injury. “Selene can be saved. You know that now, but you’ll have to take me out of here. You’ve got good reason, and you have authority”.

“You could just tell me how to find Kyan Frith’s house”. He watched his brother closely, struggling to keep him in focus in the dwindling candlelight “Whatever the situation, you’re still responsible for the death of children”. Zachary and Gilbert had been born into Grimney united as one, and as twins they had laughed and played together, but time had hollowed out a monstrous chasm between them, and the gulf had grown blacker and deeper, and with this final horrific revelation, the separation could never be bridged.

Zachary laughed. “No Gil”. He gazed up at the barred window, and caught the moonlight in his icy blue eyes. “I won’t die in here. You get me my mask, and my coat, and I’ll take you there”. Zachary turned his gaze to his brother, but there was no warmth or affection, just cold words. “It’s my way only. You have no choice. You decide whether Selene lives or dies. It’s your turn now, but leave me here for Latimer Cantrell and your... Wife will surely die”.

Lord Gilbert had many thoughts in mind and his hopes for the future went further than Selene. He knew that the medicine could help the disease ridden villages of Grimney. If he could truly trust his brother, he believed the disease lupus diremortis; ‘the Red Plague’ could finally be eradicated. But he thought again. It seemed somehow amoral to use the medicine, but no death should be meaningless and he considered his words carefully.      

“If anything should happen to me” Lord Gilbert said quietly. “I will write a letter and you can deliver it”.

“A letter to whom?”. Zachary replied picking up a piece of broken mirror and gazing into it.

Lord Gilbert smiled and watched his brother. “Dr Micaylor Jenus, she’s a leading researcher. She’s been hunting for a cure for lupus diremortis. I know there is one, but we know it doesn’t work”.  

Zachary was not really listening, the doctor’s name meant nothing to him. His looks had been restored and Zachary was once more captivated by his own reflection. “Yes” he responded. “Write your letter Gil. Keep it on you. And if the worst, comes to the worst, I’ll deliver it”. Zachary looked up from the broken mirror and smiled. “Regardless of that, I guess we’d better go”.

 

THE REVENGE

Chapter

26

Two shimmering black specks, caught in the glare of the twin suns galloped across the wastelands. Powerful hooves rising and falling churned the sand. Zachary’s gloved hands gripped the reins of a mighty black stallion, and he shook them frantically. The vast desert lay before him, rolling sands, windswept, isolating and desolate.

Zachary’s bootstraps were chained to the saddle, for he had become a prisoner of his own twin brother. Stagnant bitter memories forced a smile to form beneath his purple mask, but Zachary’s blue eyes did not show any trace of happiness. The old scars had faded from his skin, but they cut deeper now and were buried within.

Lord Gilbert was a short distance ahead, a red cape trailed away from his shoulders, outstretched and rippling against the wind. He was thinking of the future, and the desperate journey ahead. Time was against him, and the froth and perspiration that poured forth from the mouth and body of his horse failed to cause concern. Lady Selene was dying, and every second was another breath lost, another gasp nearer to death.       

Born together, regardless of the blood tie, the twin boys grew apart and their separation had begun early. Zachary and Gilbert were identical in appearance, but completely different to each other in talent and character. Gilbert was a practical man, good with numbers, rational and diplomatic, his greatest weakness was his addictive nature, and over the years alcohol had played a major part in eroding his already troubled marriage.

Zachary had always resented his twin, a mirror image of him that was always better in the eyes of their parents. Gilbert was the favoured one, the athlete, the mathematician, the diplomat, the boy with a future.

Zachary was not that boy. He was perceived as slow, lazy, and academically weak. As a child he could not run as fast, and was often unwell, whilst his brother indulged in every sport imaginable and excelled. In isolation Zachary had turned to more solitary pursuits, long nights painting and writing bathed in the light of a single candle. Pursuits that had broadened his mind, but never advanced his life, whilst Gilbert studied and gained the qualifications needed to achieve status and respect.

Zachary watched his brother from a distance, full of resentment, as his own abilities continued to be ignored and Zachary withdrew further into isolation, until he felt that he was a mere shadow of his twin.

Selene had given Zachary hope, he had painted her portrait, applied the paint to canvas, as if he were gently combing through the strands of her hair. Zachary loved Selene, and believed that she would marry him, but his brother had challenged him for her affections and the so called ‘lesser man’ stood aside and Gilbert stole her away.     

This was an act of betrayal and the loss of Selene tore into Zachary’s heart, and that pain turned into despair and a deep sickness that consumed his mind for years.

Zendra was always second best, and Marta was the daughter he would have wanted, but only had it been with his twin brother’s wife.

Twisted, Zachary’s life had become so twisted, that his chains had formed knots, and tied him to things that he had never really desired. The chains had fallen away, but only briefly, for now he was bound to his brother, and if he did save Selene, what good would it do him?

Zachary did have an option, and the thought of it made him uncomfortable in the saddle. Kyan Frith could still be alive, and they could be riding into the mouth of the beast. Frith would want vengeance for the death of Sadgin, and if he was waiting for Zachary’s return, the outcome could be grim, but favourable. If Gilbert died, Zachary could take his place and pretend to be his twin, or simply offer comfort to Selene, and gift her with a cure. Yes, perhaps in her grief at the loss of her husband, Selene might switch her affections and fall for him once more. The idea made him feel sick, but at the same time the plan gave him hope, Zachary could have a future again, and be with the woman he truly loved.

It took several hours, from sun up to sun down before the brothers reached the isolated cottage in the forest. ‘All would be well’. Zachary thought, but both men were unaware of a hooded rider who had tracked them through the desert. The lone rider had followed, unnoticed every step of the way.

‘This is the place Gilbert’ he said grimly. ‘Release the chains and I’ll lead you to the medicine room’.

Lord Gilbert dismounted and tied his horse to a wooden post. “It looks quiet”. He remarked, guiding Zachary’s horse and tying it securely next to his own. “You’d better show me the way”. Lord Gilbert unlocked his brother’s chains and Zachary climbed down from the saddle.

“Stay close, we must be cautious”. Zachary opened the cottage door, and stepped inside. Lord Gilbert glanced briefly over his shoulder, and drew his sword before he too walked nervously inside. The light was shallow and once they had stepped beyond the threshold the two men only had splintered shafts of moonlight as their source of guidance.

The hooded hunter hid amidst the trees and watched to see what the outcome of this journey would be. A black gloved hand remained firmly upon the hilt of the watcher’s sword, expecting trouble, but wise enough to wait, rather than to confront it face to face, for only a fool would do that.      

Inside the cottage Zachary drew back the tattered curtains. Moonbeams flooded in through the window and the room in which the two men stood became filled with light. Lord Gilbert held his sword firmly, and   nervously watched every corner. He glanced at the eerie statues, and with a pensive look, gazed over his shoulder at Zachary.

“Well Zac” Lord Gilbert whispered “It doesn’t look like anyone is home”. He gestured to go forward, and his hand shook and threw a quivering shadow against the wall behind him. “Lead the way, time is short”.

“Nervous? Or do you need a drink to stop the tremors?” Zachary asked with a wry smile.

“Ever since Selene fell ill, I’ve been far more than nervous”. Lord Gilbert shook his head.  “The alcohol is masking my pain and like you I need to hide sometimes”.

“I know your trouble, and you know mine”. Zachary tapped his purple mask with a gloved finger. “You know since I started wearing this, I’ve felt less afraid, less like myself, and more like someone I never knew... It’s as if”...  Zachary did not finish the statement, he had no need to tell his brother what he was thinking. “The trapdoor... We need to take the staircase down into the cellar, there we will find the black door that contains the potions, and from there we can gather enough to cure Selene”.

 

Chapter

27

The trapdoor was open and surrounded by lit candles. Wax had melted into the floorboards, once dried it held each one firmly in place.

“This is the way”. Zachary whispered. “We’d best take care it looks very dark down there”.    

Lord Gilbert placed a gloved hand upon his brother’s shoulder. “Is he in here with us? Kyan Frith... Could he still be alive?”.

Zachary nodded and brushed Lord Gilbert’s hand aside, he did not wish to be touched. “We’ll need a candle or two to see our way”.  Taking a deep breath he continued. “Yes... If Frith is still alive, he’ll try to kill us”. He grinned beneath his mask. “So we’d best be on our guard”. 

The two men raised candles above their heads and descended the stone steps. Lord Gilbert’s gloved hand shook, Zachary could see the candlelit shadows flickering against the stone walls, but his candle maintained a steady flame. “My brother needs another drink, but I do not, for I am not afraid”. He said under his breath, regardless of whether death was a mere step away, for he had no fear.

Lord Gilbert’s candle was beginning to collapse, the wax had melted deeply and pooled around the wick. He prodded it with a gloved finger, and tried to scoop out the excess wax, but the flame dimmed and began to go out.

“Zachary”... Lord Gilbert whispered. “Wait... I can’t see my footing”....

Zachary did not stop for his brother; if anything he quickened his pace. Guided by his own candlelight, he left his brother in the dark.

Lord Gilbert reached to his side and used the rough stone walls for support “Zachary!” he shouted as he stepped blindly down each step. “Zachary... Why won’t you wait for me?!”

Sharp claws scraped against the hard stone floor, and Lord Gilbert did not call out again, only his nervous breathing penetrated the cold silence. The wolf snorted angrily as he gazed down into the cellar, his vision unaffected by the darkness, his black fur unmarked; a sleek sinewy body showing no trace of injury. The wolf had picked up the men’s scent as soon as they had arrived, and his yellow eyes narrowed, as he slowly descended each step towards the disorientated and frightened man. 

Lord Gilbert reached for his sword and slid the blade slowly from its scabbard, but in the confines of the stairwell, the sound of metal drawn against metal drew further attention. The wolf quickened his pace, aware of the imminent danger, the yellow eyed beast pounced and bit heavily into Lord Gilbert’s sword arm. The startled nobleman dropped the blade and it cluttered down the stone steps. Lord Gilbert struggled with the yellow eyed wolf, gripping the beast roughly by the scruff of the neck. Blood pumped freely from the nobleman’s lacerated wrist, the wolf’s frothing jaws and razor sharp teeth continued to tear and bite into the man’s flesh, causing Lord Gilbert to weaken. 

Zachary heard his brother screaming, but he made no attempt to help him. The sword had fallen far from its owner, and it lay glinting a mere three steps away. He lowered the candle and picked up the sword, Zachary could see Lord Gilbert’s family crest carved into the jewelled hilt. He held the blade proudly and defensively and waited for his brother to stop screaming; that happened very abruptly. Lord Gilbert’s voice went from screams to gasps and finally it withdrew into a ghastly death rattle that seemed to go on forever.

“Kyan Frith!” Zachary shouted. “You killed my brother! It ends here and now! It’s either you or I!”. He knelt down, placing the candle at his booted feet and holding the sword with both hands, Zachary pointed the blade forward. “And I have no intention of being the one that dies!”.

In his feral state, Frith was driven by the instinct of the wolf. In his anger all rational thought was overwhelmed by pure animal aggression. The wolf gathered pace as he bounded down the steps, blood pouring from his jaws. Frith could see the candlelight and aimed his raging body towards it. All his hopes and dreams for a happy future had ended with Sadgin’s demise. Frith wanted an end to the nightmare and all he could imagine as he leapt recklessly through the air were the outstretched arms of his beloved brother welcoming him to a peaceful death.

Zachary felt the full force of the beast, as the wolf’s huge bulk bore down upon him. The creature’s claws dug deep into his shoulders and he found himself shoved backwards against the wall. He felt a sharp pain at the back of his head, and his eyesight briefly dimmed. The blade of the sword pierced the wolf’s narrow chest and shattered his ribcage. The severely wounded animal yelped in agony and tumbled roughly to the floor. 

Zachary was covered in bloodied saliva, his long purple overcoat torn at the shoulders. He lifted himself from the cold stone floor and stared through the dim light. He watched resentfully as the wolf limped away. “No. You won’t get away again”. Zachary lifted his sword and took a step forward, but a terrible pain caused him to feel nauseous.    

Zachary touched the back of his head with his fingertips and he felt that it was moist with fresh blood. Fear gripped him, and his vision began to blur. He needed medicine, he believed that his skull was fractured and each step he took became heavier and heavier. He dropped the sword and reached out into blackness. The candlelight became lost behind him, his legs gave way and he slumped unconscious in the passageway.

 

Chapter

28

Dreams freed Zachary from pain; the subconscious illusions protected the injured man’s mind from the grim truth that his life was ebbing away. The flow of blood that seeped from the wound was soon stifled, and droplets of the blue elixir were administered to Zachary’s dry mouth as he slept.

Time and the miraculous power of the healing medicine combined, generated in him a rapid cure. Zachary’s eyelids, heavy due to depths of his slumber, began to flicker and rise, and the tears fell, but he was beyond sorrow.          

The dark mist was thick against the stale air, but the veils gently brushed against Zachary’s unblemished face, and caused no harm.

Kyan Frith sat amidst the maelstrom of his own darkness, and his pale white cheeks were stained in crimson and his eyes bled tears. “You?.... Why have I saved you? I wanted to save my brother. No future. All is blank”... Frith coughed heavily and a dark blood trickle ran from the corner of his mouth. “I’ll never hear Sadgin talk again. Never hear him laugh. He’s gone forever. All the memories; all that we shared are nothing now”. He tried to raise his arm to wipe away the black globules, but he was too weak. “But you... I have something to tell you Zachary Nova”.

Zachary sat forward and felt the back of his head, all was intact, no scars or fractures. He was once again in good health. “Frith”... Zachary muttered. “You murdered my brother”. His tone became more forceful. “You’re a monster, a murderer, not only of children, but now you can add a nobleman to the list”. He pointed his finger at Frith. “They’ll hang you. It’s you they want and I’m going to take you in. You’ll confess”.

Frith laughed bitterly and his mouth filled with dark blood. “You let your brother die. And I am the fiend?” The blood seeped between his teeth and coated his pale lips. “You brought your brother here so that I would kill him”. Frith began to gasp, he was barely able to catch his breath. “I failed him and I am quite sick to death... Of so called humanity; and you thought that I was evil?”

Zachary could not believe what he was hearing. The hypocrisy and self righteousness of Kyan Frith was beyond belief. “You burned down my house. You killed my wife, scarred my daughter and sold poisoned salt to the Widow Gower”. He laughed, but found no humour in the situation.  “But it’s more than that. Hundreds of children are dead. Innocent lives destroyed. For your own selfish reasons and I am evil?!”.   

“Fathers”. Frith struggled to speak. “Mothers, brothers and sisters would all kill for their kin”. The darkness swirled and rolled at Zachary’s feet. “I loved my brother, I would’ve died for him and you took him away... What you did was not just wrong it was callous and merciless”. Black tears welled in Frith’s pale grey eyes and as they fell they turned red. “But I did the wrong things for the right reason. Such things are justified if it’s done in the name of love. Now. I have nothing. My whole existence was for my brother. What can I do now?”.

Zachary breathed deeply and glared at the phantom. “You just wanted to save yourself from the curse. You’d have left him long ago otherwise”. He took a deep breath and glared at Frith. “All you can do Frith is die and be done with yourself, this land will be a better place without you”.

Frith nodded as his white skin began to dry. “You see without reason, judge without understanding. You have no depth. The Zoriat gods drew blank when they made you”.  The flesh upon his skull cracked as layer upon layer slowly flaked away. “You?... What you have done? Lived the life of a selfish man, you are, without a shadow of doubt, the real evil in this story Zachary. Not me, for you betrayed your own family”. Frith’s pale grey eyes began to close and the dark mist faded, seemingly absorbed into the phantom’s dying body. “I have learned my lesson... I have lost all that mattered to me and I wish to die”. Kyan Frith slumped back in his armchair, exhausted by life and the injuries he had sustained. Frith’s thoughts as always drifted to that of his beloved brother. The love for Sadgin remained so strong, and even though Frith’s heart was only moments from stopping, in his mind he felt comforted by the purity of that love. The belief that he would be reunited in another realm, where he and his brother would be as they once were, young and carefree, without the pain of mind and the degradation of the body that had burdened them in their final tragic years. “But you Zachary” Frith whispered in his final breath. “You have learned nothing at all”.

Zachary watched the phantom die. He felt no pity; only a deep anger and resentment. Kyan Frith was a creature who had helped his monstrous brother slaughter over a hundred innocent children. He shook his head, and slid the purple mask back over his face. “How could you love that disgusting thing? He said contemptuously. “You were a hypocrite Frith and if there’s an afterlife, you’ll be the one who learns the true meaning of your sins. I’ve never known such ugliness”. 

Kyan Frith’s corpse began to dissolve and his pale skin darkened. Frith’s cheeks sunk in, and his mouth twitched. The dead phantom seemed to grin, but his lips fell away and his teeth crumbled into a fine powder. Zachary watched in horror as Frith’s fleshless skull fell into his shoulders and finally Frith’s whole body folded in upon itself and collapsed.

Zachary stood back, sickened by the sight of such swift decay, as if Kyan Frith had been consumed by the ugliness of his own sins. The dark energy seeped from the phantom’s remains and swirled along the floor, but with its host dead, the shadowed mass faded upon the air, and vanished into the ether. Zachary had no further reason to stand and watch. He picked up a candle and headed to the cellar. Zachary considered the disturbing possibility that his own brother could still be alive, and if that was the case, should Zachary save him? Or would he simply let him die? Zachary hoped that he would not have to make that choice. “Please be dead” he muttered. “Please, just let him be dead”...    

Dying is the reward for suffering and death is a soothing gift. Zachary closed his brother’s lifeless eyes. “Yes. That’s the truth of it”. In the dim candlelight Lord Gilbert had the appearance of a broken porcelain doll. Zachary was thankful for his imagination, therefore he did not see the gushing blood and torn flesh, instead he imagined a flowing crimson scarf draped thickly about his brother’s neck. He was grateful for the ability to turn a grim reality into another more appealing image. In a land of so much ugliness, the artistic eye could distort any reality and make it appear beautiful.

The old life was gone, that which was safe and secure, but ultimately unfulfilling, a life where he had poured every ounce of misplaced feeling into the emptiness of false love. Marta, Zendra, and his brother Gilbert were mere ghosts, and their only value was in his memory, Zachary was sad for their loss, but uncomfortable with the sense of freedom he also felt.

He descended the two flights of stairs and entered through the black door into the high walled antechamber. Once more he found himself standing in the midst of spiralling shelves, endlessly rolling one upon the other.  

Zachary filled a black sack; he needed to take as many bottles of potion as he was able to carry. Guilt and remorse no longer had relevance; to dwell in the meaning of such words would achieve nothing. Zachary had one single purpose, he had to save Selene. In the portrait Zachary had painted she had only ever been a dream away. But no longer would he be satisfied with stroking his finger over cold canvas. Zachary had to touch the soft skin of Selene’s beautiful face.

Zachary made his way back up the stairs. He stepped slowly over Lord Gilbert’s body, but turned back when he remembered the letter his brother had mentioned. Zachary knelt down beside the corpse and reached into the dead man’s tunic. He withdrew his hand and his fingers glistened with blood, the white paper on which the message had been written was drenched in crimson and illegible.  

“I’m sorry Gil, but they’d never use it as a cure for lupus diremortis, business being the way it is they’d stay with what they already have”. Zachary felt sick with guilt. “But I promise you, I will save our Selene”. 

It was not a happy feeling as he scrunched up the blood stained letter and tossed it aside. “They say Gil that when you die you meet your maker”. He placed his hand gently upon Lord Gilbert’s shoulder. “You’re in the Zoriat’s hands now, may he take good care of you”. Zachary had considered trying to save his brother, but had he done so, his life would have ended at the Cabal, or worst still at the end of a hangman’s rope.   

 

Chapter

29

Although the forest was filled with predators, travelling at night would be the safest option. Zachary could not risk waiting until dawn. He did not know what arrangement Lord Gilbert had made with the prison governor, but hiding in a house of death was not an option. He needed to escape the forest, and Selene’s illness was cause for swift action.

A cart filled with sacks of salt stood behind the cottage and he cut open a bag, and scooped out some of its contents. Zachary carefully placed the potions inside and beside that he also placed Lord Gilbert's sword. Zachary untied his horse and fastened it to the cart.

He looked back at the cottage. Zachary considered burning it to the ground, but then he remembered the portrait. The place should not burn, it would mean the loss of his masterpiece. He would not see that destroyed, it was the only thing left in the cottage that had any real value to him.

Zachary stepped forward, his intention was to retrieve the painting, but someone grabbed him from behind. He saw the flash of a blade against the moonlight and felt its cold steel at his throat.

“You move and I’ll slit your jugular”. The woman’s voice was familiar, the tone as cold as he remembered.

“Astrid Zarne”. Zachary replied, stretching his black gloved hands out before him, palms open to show that he was unarmed. “How nice to meet you again, bit of a coincidence... But”...

Astrid shoved Zachary onto his knees. “You can’t win, so put your hands behind your back. Do as you’re told, or I’ll kill you”.

“You’re making a mistake. I’m not the man you’re looking for”. Zachary trembled. “Take off my mask and look at my face”.

Astrid was not listening and she quickly tied the man’s hands. “I know your voice, and I know your clothes. It was you... You left the Cabal with Lord Gilbert”. She pulled the ropes tight, causing Zachary to wince. “You also know my name, not many do”. She smiled coldly. “Oh yes, you’re the same man, I’m certain of that”.          

Zachary remained on his knees. “Why were you waiting at the Cabal? You got something on your mind?”

Astrid moved in front of the masked prisoner and stared into his icy blue eyes. “You know why I’m still interested in you?” she asked. “It’s because of the dream, because of the poem. I think you know it all, but I only know half of it”. Astrid reached down and lifted Zachary’s mask. She stood back, amazed by the fact that the scars had healed. “So, you’re a beautiful monster. Have you been consorting with witches and found yourself healed?” Astrid grinned. “No matter, you’re still a monster in my eyes”.

“A monster?”  Zachary was bemused. “Is that what you see? One eye left you blind has it?” He shook his head slowly. “No, I’m the victim of monsters. I chose a family life, not like you; I mean look at you”. Zachary pulled at the ropes in anger. “How many have you butchered? And what good reason could you have? No, I value others”.  He thought of Marta and Zendra; there had been many happy times and those past reflections hurt him deeply. Zachary’s memories had become invisible wounds, but, given time and the right woman they could be gently healed. “I’ve loved and lost, but true love never dies”. He nodded and thought ahead. “Yes”. Selene was the future. He had always known that fate would draw them back together. “I can love again. I don’t expect that you ever loved anyone”.     

Astrid wiped the blade of her dagger on her leather belt. She wanted to gut him like the rancid little fish he was, but instead she took an apple from her tunic and began to peel it. “We both want answers. Even you need them. So let’s put our differences aside and help each other, are we agreed?” She glanced over her shoulder at the cottage door; it was wide open and creaking eerily on the wind. “I assume Lord Gilbert won’t be joining us? I assume he is no more?”

“He’s dead”. Zachary said firmly. “I didn’t kill him”. His voice became a whisper. “It does not matter who did”. He took a deep breath. “His wife Selene is dying and I have the means to cure her”. Zachary was finding it hard to smile, the ropes were cutting into his skin, but he continued to struggle to loosen the knots. “If you escort me to Lord Gilbert’s home, I will tell you the whole poem. Perhaps it might be a map? It may shed some meaning on this twisted land we live in?”.      

“Only the Zoriat gods have all the answers”. She grinned and slipped a piece of apple into her mouth. “And no one in their right mind believes in them. And in every case they only speak to the dead”. Astrid did not trust her captive, but she was a seeker, and she believed that magic was binding her to this wretched man. “It is settled”. Astrid knelt down behind Zachary. “Remember this. I have fought in wars and I’ve worked with the Chaos Engine, the Red Hand and the Grimney Militia”. Astrid said as she cut away his bonds. “If you try to deceive me” Astrid nicked his neck with the tip of the blade and Zachary’s blood trickled from the shallow cut. “You’ll find me a lot worse than they could ever be and I’ll slice you a lot deeper”.

 

Chapter

30

The mourners had gathered, dressed in black robes and netted veils they stood at the foot of an ornate four poster bed. White candles lit the surroundings, and each mourner sobbed quietly, caught in their memories of happier times; a false reality that was mostly imagined.  

“Oh our poor Selene.... So many good times that we shared together” a tall mourner muttered. “She’s so silent; I fear that she is dead”. The mourner looked down through a pair of horn rimmed spectacles. “Is Selene dead? Please tell us it’s not so”.  

“Yes... I think so Vereta”. Another mourner sobbed, lifting a handkerchief under her veil and blowing her nostrils heavily “Poor child. She was so young, so full of Life”.

Selene, offended by their presumption, shuffled her bloated body uncomfortably beneath the bedclothes. She reached down and picked up a large book. “Go away you vultures!” Selene gasped and she threw it at her visitors. “I’m not dead yet”... She slumped back upon the pillow; perspiration rolling from her forehead, her skin looked transparent like glass. “Come back when I’m cold and not before!”

The mourners bowed their heads and shuffled uncomfortably through an open door. Selene’s laboured breathing growing steadily worse. “Borchek!” She drew the sheets up to her swollen chin. “I’m freezing!” The room was warm and a fireplace crackled with blazing red embers, but fever made the sick woman shiver.   

“Borchek” He had heard his name called so many times before. Jorvik Borchek was an elderly servant who had worn deep grooves into the hallway’s wooden floor. Borchek was loyal to the Gilbert family and his pacing back and forth had cost him much in boot leather. “Coming Lady Selene... Yes... I’m on my way” And once again he trudged wearily down the passageway. This was a route he had taken a thousand times before, and he despaired at the thought that soon he would have no call to walk the hallway again.       

Selene lay upon her back with the tip of her nose poking out over the bedclothes. “Borchek”. She tried to speak firmly. “Keep those selfish mourners out”. But Selene’s voice cracked due to the dryness of her mouth. “They’re just waiting for a handout, my sisters have been dressed in black for the last eight weeks”. She chuckled and wheezed, and reached for a glass of water by her bedside. “They live in hope, but Gilbert won’t let them have anything of mine. All my jewellery goes to charity”. Selene sipped the water slowly and struggled to swallow.

“My Lady” Borchek always spoke softly. He was educated and polite. A good servant understood that they should be seen but rarely heard.  “Dr Micaylor Jenus has offered her treatment again”. He held his breath and waited for the expected response.      

“That blinkered, misguided, stupid woman?!”. Selene raised the glass, but it was expensive crystal and not to be smashed. “Tell her that I don’t need drugging to the point of death. Not when I can still lift my arm to drink”. Despite her weakness Selene’s voice grew in volume “And tell her that I’m still alive even after her six week and then six month terminal diagnosis”. She breathed heavily; the act of raising her voice was physically exhausting. “And tell her it’s no thanks to her that I am!”    

“I shall do so”. Borchek nodded solemnly. “You must not distress yourself my Lady, Lord Gilbert will return with help. There may still be a cure... If that letter he received proves to be true”. Borchek stroked his neatly trimmed grey beard and smiled. “Grimney is full of magic and an alternative medicine maybe the key to your survival”.

Selene took a second sip of water. She gazed at her reflection in the glass. “That bloated face and my broken body”. Selene despaired, she looked ghastly from all angles, and did not resemble the beauty that Zachary Nova had painted all those years before. The passage of time, combined with the ravages of the illness and Selene’s inability to have children had destroyed her beauty and her health. Lord Gilbert had long since lost interest in her physically, for he had dreamed of fatherhood, but Selene had grown fat and indulgent, food had replaced desire and not even magic or medicine could bring their union hope. A dire possibility entered the young woman’s troubled mind that Lord Gilbert’s rescue plan was in fact an excuse for him to hide away until she had succumbed to the illness.

Hope was not that far away, it was carried upon the rickety wooden wheels of an open cart, laden with salt sacks. Two unlikely saviours, seated side by side, drove their horses on with whip and rein. Astrid and Zachary had formed an uneasy alliance, neither trusted the other, but had decided to put their differences aside. A verbal agreement not to discuss the child murders had been established, nor anything else related to past events.

Astrid found the arrangement impossible to follow. “Salt merchants?” Astrid remarked. “The house you visited belonged to them?” 

Zachary adjusted his mask. He felt a twinge of pain in his shoulder, and a burning sensation rippled through his body. The old wounds and scars were resurfacing and he would need the potion before the journey’s end.

“The salt is poisoned. That’s the cause of all this trouble” Zachary said grimly, shaking the horses’ reins “Bitter salt”. 

It was dusk when the cart pulled up outside Lord Gilbert’s manor house. A high wall surrounded the building, and an armed guard dressed in black armour watched as Astrid and Zachary dismounted.

“Halt!” The guard’s gauntleted hand slid down and gripped his sword hilt. “Identify yourself!” he demanded.

Zachary raised his black gloved hands and tried to pacify the guard. “I am here to help, listen please hear me out”.

Astrid stood back, and watched the guard closely with her one good eye. 

“How can you help? Who sent you?” The guard was wary of all visitors, especially those that carried weapons. The dark skinned, one eyed woman looked like an outlaw, and the man?... The guard was unsure of what to make of him.

“I was sent by Lord Gilbert”. Zachary began to explain, gesturing with open palms after every word he spoke. “I’m here to help Selene. I have medicine that will cure her. If you turn me away, she will die. I know this to be true. So do you”. 

“I see” the guard nodded thoughtfully, as he considered the information. Lord Gilbert had great influence in Grimney. As a High Statesman he had the power to quash a sentence or issue an execution order, Lord Gilbert was loved and hated in equal measure. “However” The guard pondered. “You could be an assassin”.

Zachary smiled behind the mask. He wanted to laugh, but held back for fear of offending the armour plated oaf who stood before him. “Lord Gilbert is not here”. Zachary was almost biting his lip. “He sent me to cure his wife. She is dying. If I was an assassin, I would not be needed, as she only has days to live”.  

“Yes”. The guard replied, loosening his grip on the sword. “You make a good point. I’ll take you up to the manor house. Bring your medicines, but if you fail, I’ll arrest you”. He looked across at Astrid. “But that woman” The guard said pointing a gauntleted finger. “She stays here”.

Astrid’s lip twitched. She disliked the guard’s comment. Another ignorant man she thought, but for the moment she decided not to create an issue. “You go up”. Astrid said frostily. “I’ll stay here and water the horses”.

 

Chapter

31

The elderly servant guided Zachary down the passageway. “So”... Borchek inquired. “You’re a doctor of some kind?”

“Yes”. Zachary replied and he adjusted the mask upon his face due to further discomfort. “I will cure your Lady Selene... You have to trust me”.

Borchek had his doubts, for old age had not dimmed his eyesight. He had observed the faded bloodstains on the mysterious man’s long and ragged purple coat; such things hinted at a far darker nature.   

The servant stopped outside the door of Selene’s bedroom. He raised his shaky swollen knuckled hand and tapped gently upon the wood.  

“My Lady?”... Borchek spoke in a tremulous voice, barely a whisper. He always feared that his mistress would not answer. “Can you hear me?” Borchek’s tone became a little sharper. “A doctor is here to see you”.

Behind the muffled panels, a faint voice called out, distinctly female, but weaker than water. “Send the doctor in”. Silence returned, each word spoken was another strained breath.

Borchek turned the door handle. “You can go in”... He paused and studied the stranger’s appearance once more. “Yes... Do go in... Doctor?”...  

Zachary stepped through the entrance and closed the door. He did not wish to be disturbed. He knew that Borchek would be waiting just outside. If the treatment failed, Zachary would have to overpower him.  

Ahead stood the four poster bed and white curtains had been drawn around it. Zachary hesitated, and waited for Selene to call out a second time, but she made no further sound. A sickening fear gripped Zachary. Perhaps he had just heard Selene’s final words?

“Lady Selene?” Zachary drew a deep breath. “Can you hear me? Or are you asleep?”  

Zachary longed to stroke Selene’s soft olive skin and gaze into her beautiful dark eyes. “I’ve travelled so far for you Selene” he whispered. “You cannot die”.

The urge to kiss Selene’s red lips overwhelmed him. Time had torn them apart and the loss of Marta and Zendra would mean little once his true love was cured. Zachary could wait no longer, and he slipped the bottle of blue potion from his overcoat pocket and stepped forward.  

“You’re my destiny”. Zachary whispered as he pulled back the curtain. He gazed down at the sleeping angel, but she was barely visible in the dark. “Selene I’m here to help you”. It was clear by the movement of the crisp white bed sheets that the lady was was still breathing.     

“Thank the Zoriat”. Zachary said with a broad smile. “At last the Gods of Grimney have served me well”.

Zachary’s eyes adjusted to the shallow light and he unscrewed the lid. He knelt beside the bed and placed the potion bottle against the woman’s pale lips. “Drink Selene... It’ll make you well”.

Selene’s eyes remained closed as she sipped the blue elixir. Once the potion was drunk, Zachary lowered Selene’s head gently back down upon the pillow and watched nervously.   

Immediately Selene’s puffy cheeks began to flood with colour. Zachary reached beneath the bed sheets and gripped the sick woman’s hand. He could feel the coldness in her fingers, but very gradually her skin began to grow warm.   

Selene’s dark eyes opened and the tears trickled. She could see the masked figure crouched down beside her. “What’s happening?” she asked. “I feel”.... She pulled her hand away sharply. “Why are you holding my hand? Who are you?”.         

“Lady Selene... I’ve given you medicine”. Zachary was unsure of what else he could say and his big blue eyes grew wider, as his vision became clearer. “I am”.... He looked down at the large mound of flesh that lay beneath the bed sheets. “You are”... Zachary began to realise that his true love had grown enormously fat, he had not noticed at first, an allergic reaction to the elixir, or perhaps he had been blinded by love and simply not noticed. He stood up and stepped back, bewildered by the sight. “I think”... Zachary was lost for words. It quickly dawned on him that his terrible misfortunes had all been for nothing. Zachary shook his head. “Once upon a time... Once upon a time I had this dream”.... So many thoughts poured through his mind. “Life is not a fairytale”. Zachary’s beautiful wife and daughter were lost forever.... And Selene... The girl of his dreams, who Zachary had immortalised in the portrait, was now a grotesque, monstrously overweight, bedridden slob.

Selene sat up in bed and outstretched her arms. The rolls of fat wobbled beneath her armpits and her biceps rippled and sagged. “Wait” she said weakly. “Tell me who you are?”.

Zachary edged further back, reaching his gloved hands behind him as he searched for the door. Selene was cured, but love’s last breath deflated his heart, and all hope for the future was snuffed out like a candle at bedtime. “I’m sorry”. Zachary looked away and reached for the handle. “I’m so sorry that everything has gone so horribly wrong”. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. He did not look back, for Selene, the beautiful lady in his portrait, and the one time love of his life was in his mind quite dead....

The hallway corridor seemed longer than before and the door at the far end an eternity away. Borchek walked beside the masked man. “What’s your conclusion doctor?”. He asked nervously, still unsure of the nature of the mysterious stranger.   

“She’s got very fat, but she’ll recover”. Zachary mumbled, but his voice barely concealed the disappointment he felt “All this way, all my losses for absolutely nothing”.

Borchek was not the most perceptive man in Grimney, but even he could hear the bitterness and resentment in the way Zachary spat out each word. “If you really have cured Lady Selene” Borchek responded hesitantly. “Lord Gilbert will be so relieved. How can we ever thank you?”

Zachary clenched his gloved hands into fists. Marta, Zendra, Lord Gilbert, the Widow Gower, Kyan Frith and countless children were dead. Zachary’s despair turned to anger. Borchek’s offer of thanks had fallen upon deaf ears. Blinded by rage, Zachary turned upon him and grabbed the startled servant by his tunic. “Don’t ever thank me!” he snarled. “I did it for love!” he shook Borchek roughly. “But that love no longer exists!” Zachary shoved Borchek against the wall. “What does it all mean? It’s just not worth it anymore”. He loosened his grip and the frightened servant slipped from his grasp. “How did she contract lupus diermortis anyway? Never mind you go tend to your fat Lady. I’m done here now”.  

Borchek crumbled to the floor and raised his hands. “My Lady went among the poor, she cared for them, gave them food and for that she has suffered greatly”.  He was dazed and confused, but stayed still and made no attempt to stand. “Please don’t hurt me!” Borchek pleaded. The masked man was obviously mad and the servant had no desire to unintentionally provoke his wrath a second time.

“I won’t hurt you”... Zachary shook his head. “I was”... He felt faint and stepped back from his frightened victim. “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” his whole body was shaking and he could no longer think rationally. “The tragedy is” Zachary said coldly. “I’ve forgotten what true beauty looks like”. Tears glistened in Zachary’s blue eyes. “Something pure and beautiful was all I ever wanted”.

In the mansion courtyard the guard stood quietly and watched as Astrid guided the two horses to a water trough. He studied the woman’s face closely and she looked familiar. The sword, eye patch, and leather armour, could only mean one thing, that he had seen her portrait on a wanted poster. The guard approached the cart. Perhaps a clue to the woman’s identity was concealed among the many sacks stacked inside? He waited until Astrid’s back was turned and drew a knife. The guard sliced open one of the sacks and a white powder poured forth. He scooped up a few grains and tasted it. “Bitter salt” The guard muttered. “They’re salt merchants”. The guard noticed a grubby white sheet next to the sacks, specks of blood had stained the material. “Now this is more interesting”. The guard pulled back the cloth and found the bloodstained sword.  He recognised the coat of arms almost immediately. “Lord Gilbert”. The guard reached for his own blade, but Astrid was swifter, and with a knife at his throat, the guard did not draw his sword. He simply raised his arms in surrender.

“That’s very wise, as you can’t win”. Astrid said forcefully. “Now I don’t know anything about that sword, but it’s clear from your reaction, that you do”. Astrid gazed at the contents in the cart. “You can keep the cart and the bags of salt”. She unclipped the guard’s sword belt and it fell around his knees. “Give it to the poor, it’s about time the likes of you did something for them; it’ll preserve what meagre food they have. I’ll be going as soon as my colleague gets back, try to stop us and you’ll be dead”. 

Zachary approached. He did not speak, his thoughts were scattered. He grabbed a second bottle of medicine from the cart, and tossed away the first. 

“We’d better leave”. Astrid said forcefully, drawing the blade closer to the guard’s throat, but causing him no injury. “I think we’ve out stayed our welcome. We’ll just take the horses, that way we’ll travel faster”.

Zachary nodded in solemn agreement. He had no good reason to stay. Zachary did not care if Astrid killed the guard. All he wanted to do was ride out and leave the land behind.

 

THE TRUTH

Chapter

32

Over the next few nights Zachary’s dreams became more vivid, and the focus of his unconscious mind shifted to the words within the poem. Seated around a campfire Zachary spoke the strange verse out loud.

 

Over the Mountains of the Moon

Down through the valley of Kil Kar Koon

Beyond the forest of Forever Night

Within the Wastelands out of sight

There lay a chasm so wide so deep

That tumbled sheer by a rock face steep

Down beneath in this dark abode

There swept a path a winding road

 

Astrid sipped hot tea from a metal cup and listened intently. At long last, after many years of dreaming displaced fragments and phrases the words of the poem finally slotted together.

 

Torches hung from cobwebbed walls

And moisture dripped into stagnant pools

A gravelled path led the way

Through cold dead tunnels of black and grey

Bats did hide beneath their wing

Hidden creatures were whispering

Staring eyes trapped dull light

To give their vision the power of sight

 

“Yes. It is a map after all”. Astrid nodded and smiled as the complete picture formed.

 

I with my travellers did walk this path

As the creatures watched we heard them laugh

For they knew no man had been below

Where an ocean of ice had frozen in flow

I with my colleagues explorers so brave

Will march into Heaven before death and the grave

Thus continue the trek to pass through a door

That leads to another land unseen before.

 

“I long to see another land, where man has no place”. Astrid tipped the last contents of the metal cup into the flames. “I’m tired of Grimney, and my life is going no place here”. She smiled sadly at Zachary. “I started dreaming those words when my family were killed, I just never knew them all”.

Astrid stared into the dark green sky, beautiful though it seemed, everything below the horizon seemed tainted. “Heaven. What was Heaven?”.   

“There has to be something better. But we must get organised”. Provisions would be needed. Climbing equipment and warm clothes for the long trek through icy conditions; items that could be easily purchased from any outland store in Grimney.

“Something or someone is guiding us”. Zachary reached into his overcoat pocket and slid out a half full bottle of the blue potion. “I will not show my face in Grimney again”. The masked man unscrewed the lid and sipped. “I’m dead in this land”.      

Zachary’s memories were tainted and he too wanted to escape. He was grateful that Astrid had asked no questions about Lord Gilbert and Lady Selene. The events at the mansion, and the tragedy of the lost children no longer mattered. Astrid and Zachary knew that there was no future living in the past, and together, bound by tragedy and misfortune they decided to put aside their differences. Astrid outstretched her hand. “I still don’t know your name”.

Zachary did not hesitate. He reached across and shook hands with the woman who had once hunted him. “Zachary” he responded. “My name was Zachary”.      

An uncommon bond had formed between the outlaw and the bounty hunter and once they had found the promised land all past ills would be forgotten. Many long years would seemingly pass before Zachary learned the final truth of his existence. The last journey, a journey into dreams was about to begin and it would end in the shadow of another.

Before the fall of the seventh winter, Zachary and Astrid had taken a million weary steps. The Mountains of the Moon had been climbed, and a frozen wasteland, swept barren by a biting wind had been crossed. A deep chasm lay at its furthest reaches, and using ropes they had descended below. A vast cave that seemed without end arced high over a frozen ocean. Ice bears did not follow, and no living soul, animal or otherwise were seen by either traveller. Their clothes became rags and Zachary’s medicine froze in its bottle, but the deep scars that reappeared upon his face, became concealed by the tattered mask and the long grey beard that descended beneath it. Once the provisions ran low, melted ice became their only means of survival, and still they walked. Zachary and Astrid could not turn back, hope was all they had, and even as the boot leather wore away and gave rise to the numbing agony of frostbite, Zachary and Astrid each driven on by the encouragement of the other, refused to give in to weakness. Step after heavy step, one foot placed clumsily in front of the other they trekked forever onwards. In the depths of the chasm, night and day were lost, and the need for sleep had become painfully frequent. A million miles from the Land of Grimney, exhausted and cold, Zachary and Astrid laid down together side by side upon the ice, closed their eyes and dreamed of hope. 

Zachary reached out in desperation and his frostbitten fingers clawed at the ice, he did not wish to die alone. Zachary could not speak, but words had become meaningless, and holding tightly to Astrid’s hand, Zachary found a little comfort. His thoughts drifted into memory and his heartbeat slowed. Astrid’s hand gripped his own like a vice, but as time passed, her fingers loosened and slipped away.

The ice beneath began to crack and thaw and Zachary could feel the freezing water oozing upwards. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and muttered a silent prayer. The water seeped into his ragged clothing and he arched his back. The frost filled air that poured into his lungs was so cold that it burned. The ice fractured and Zachary slid downwards slipping through a hole in the ice. A blue light glinted below and he sank into the glowing depths of the vast freezing ocean.

Zachary tried to hold his breath and air bubbles flowed from his mouth as he sank further down into the clear blue. The light beneath glowed brightly and he tumbled helplessly into it.

Astrid floated beyond the light. She tried to reach out, but another current took her and Astrid was carried further into darkness. She drifted aimlessly, until a giant deep water geyser caught her in its flow and forced Astrid’s body upward.

Above her the rapid flowing waves were thawing. She gasped for air and reached out her hands and gripped a slab of floating ice. The feeling she had was one of elation. “I’m alive!” Astrid screamed, coughing water from her lungs. “Thank the Zoriat I’m alive!”

In the far distance the sounds of a thunderous waterfall echoed against the walls and ceiling of the chasm. The giant slabs of ice were tossed like skimmed pebbles once they were caught up in its devastating power. Astrid drew ever nearer and clambering onto the broken ice she tried to jump from slab to slab, but the current was moving too rapidly.

Astrid Zarne, the survivor of many duels, skirmishes and battles smiled wryly. “No more!” she shouted and turned to face the waterfall. She gripped the hilt of her sword defiantly but did not draw it. “Yes” Astrid thought, as she braced herself for the fall. “A battle against the elements is one that I can never win”.

 

Chapter

33

Zachary was half drowned, but the mystical blue light seemed to be keeping the breath in his body. An uncomfortable silence surrounded Zachary and a blackening sea swept around him like ink. He was nearing the surface and he could see glowing ripples of orange and yellow reflected through the water. He reached upwards and pushed aside an upturned bloated corpse, the sight of the dead man and the stench of the poisoned air made him gag. A picture in sepia floated beside the corpse; a young woman holding a baby.

Dearest James, with love always from Catherine and your new baby Emma’.

Zachary had little time to read the inscription as he splashed through the filth.

The blue light dissolved and Zachary struggled across the deep pit. Sinking back into the morass, he tried to swim, but the water was heavy and stagnated with thick slime. He cried out for help and gripped at sodden mud walls, but they fell away as he tried desperately to climb out. A green film clung to his scarred face and stung his eyes, and skin. Exhausted and helpless, Zachary fell back, but someone grabbed his arm and dragged him upwards through the sucking clay.

The sky above was filled with explosions and a thunderous roar accompanied the flashes. But Zachary was oblivious, because his ears were clogged with mud and his eyelids were swollen by chemicals. His rescuer lifted the broken man over his shoulder and carried him barely conscious across a landscape that no longer had any face, or hint of humanity.    

Zachary slept, it may have only been for a few hours, but he had lost all notion of time. When he did finally awake, he was lying on a wooden slatted bed, inside a small underground room. The room lacked detail, and the light was poor, it was simply lit by a glass lantern and a few lopsided candles.

Zachary touched his face, his skin felt soft and clean. He looked down at his sleeves, Zachary was wearing fresh clothing, a khaki uniform of some kind, but the collars were stiff and scratched his neck.

Zachary sat up and turned his head awkwardly. He could see the back of the khaki uniformed soldier, and as before he appeared to be feverishly writing. The rapid movement of his quill caused the candle flame upon the wooden desk to flicker back and forth dementedly.

Zachary stood up, the floor felt solid and the corrosive air in his lungs wreaked of reality “This is no dream” Zachary muttered, as he cautiously crossed the room to where the man was seated. “Stop writing and look at me” he demanded. “Tell me who you are?”

The man put down his quill and looked up, his dark eyes appeared dead to the light, his gaze was oddly unnatural, and he had a faraway, distant look, as if he was somehow observing things that were unseen by others.

“Who are you? Is this Heaven?” Zachary asked a second time, but with more firmness than before. “I have a right to know”.

The dead eyed man smiled and leaned back in his chair. He replied softly and clearly. “I am Captain James Henry Willard and you are far from Heaven”.

“Your name means nothing to me”. Zachary responded. He noticed a mirror on the wall to the side of him and crossed the room to look into it. 

“I saved you... Dragged you from that shell hole” the dead eyed man continued. “We share dreams you and I... Except”.... He stopped talking momentarily and picked up the quill and dipped it into an ink well. “Who dreamed who? I may merely be the figment of someone else’s imagination, but here and now, as I speak these words, I feel very much alive”. The dead eyed man continued to write.

Zachary’s face had been restored to its former glory; his skin was unblemished and showed no trace of scars. “You cured me?”

“I cured you Zachary”... The dead eyed man answered. “I have the power to do that”. He scribbled down further words as the Captain struggled to reach his conclusion. “This is no-mans’-land. A hell between two worlds, I helped make you”. He smiled a joyless smile. “I live in dreams and like you I’ve tried to break free of life’s chains. I am one of the Zoriat... One of the gods”...

Zachary stared once again at his reflection, even though his beauty was restored, he did not feel joy, instead Zachary was gripped by a seething rage. “A Zoriat?! Until now I believed there were no gods... But you... You guided my life?! You are the Master of my destiny?!” He turned and faced the Captain and spat in the man’s face as he shouted him down. “What purpose did all my suffering achieve?!” Zachary made no attempt to hide his contempt. “You’re just another monster, Grimney is full of them”. Zachary wanted to kill him.      

“It was during this war; that’s where I lost faith in my own God”... His voice was choked. “But the book into which I write gifted me with some extraordinary power... I can help others to create another reality”... The Captain said thoughtfully. “I became a God... One of the Zoriat of Grimney... I gave you all free will, I wrote that into each and everyone of you... I wished to see what kind of spirit was within you, and by doing so”... He scratched against the writing paper with his quill and the ink smudged. “You gave me a better understanding of my own self... I know now that humanity should never play God, but they do”... The dead eyed man dabbed the black stain with a cloth. “Zachary... In this world in which we meet each other... Only the good die young... The innocent are consumed... And beauty is often the ugliest thing of all and goodness resides in the ugliest of faces”. 

Zachary bowed his head and looked away from the mirror “You wrote me? I’m not flesh and blood? Merely a character in your story?” he thought the Captain was rambling and Zachary wanted obvious answers. “And what did you find out about me?” he asked bitterly “Your long suffering creation”.

The dead eyed man put the cloth to one side and frowned. “That we all make mistakes”. He sighed heavily. “That some of us rise to the painful challenges that life throws at us and in doing so we become better people, but that others fall very short of the mark, and forget the value of life entirely”.

“And what of me?!” Zachary asked resentfully. “I saved my daughter’s life... Only for you to take her away?! I killed a monster that preyed upon little children, and I saved Selene from dying!” Zachary gritted his teeth in frustration. “What of my life? After so many good deeds were done, am I to have nothing?!”.

“But did you really care?... Did I?”.... The Captain said solemnly. “At the end of it all, caring is everything... And life is about losing... Everything” The man’s eyes remained lifeless. “All you can do is look into the face of your God and be judged, for we all have that right to judge do we not?” He smiled but his eyes told another story. “A village poisoned by salt, your daughter’s body lost and forgotten and all value placed on beauty and little else”. The dead eyed man agreed that Zachary had a valid point. “You do deserve an escape from this hell, we all do. So much pain so much tragedy... Perhaps when the Great War is over, I will have more than just my imagination to hide inside”. He turned his head and smiled. “I am your Creator, so I’ll give you one wish and I promise, in all fairness that I will grant it for you. All you need to do is ask”.

“I am not responsible for all that took place”. Zachary turned away and stared once again into the mirror. “It is you... If you are a god, and I was created in your image, you must truly despise yourself and humanity”. Zachary’s handsome face had always been a great comfort to him and he did not wish to lose that again. “If you have the power, all I can ask is this. That you let me spend the rest of my existence beside the woman I truly loved”. Zachary admired his beautiful face in the glass, but as he spoke he could not conceal the sadness in his watery blue eyes “Lady Selene, but not as she is now, but as she is in my painting, in those days when she was so beautiful and in love with me. Please... Let me be beside her again”.

The Captain nodded once more. “In my mind, you’re a mere fragment, an image that only I can see. Maybe there is no magic Zachary? Maybe the thoughts I pour into the book are simply my neurosis... But sometimes the story simply writes itself”. He dipped his quill a second time and returned to his writing. “An ancient book needs an ancient writing tool”. He stroked his thumb against the feather. “Zachary Nova... I tried to make a better world, but this nowhere land always seeped in”. The dead eyed man scribbled frantically, tearing into the ancient paper. “The supernatural is at the heart of imagination, but what is imagination? A gift? A curse? Yes... You heard my words... I gifted you the map... And it guided you here. I’ve been alone so long”... He sighed. “But for what purpose? I thought perhaps, you would have the answers. What use is the power of creation if you don’t know what to do with it?”...

“So you play god without good reason?” Zachary whispered. “You simply roll the dice and write my fate because you can?”. He shook his head with disbelief. The dead eyed man’s philosophy sickened him. “I want to be free of pain... No more disease... No more scars; if you can rewrite my life... You should give me what I deserve”. 

The Captain nodded. “What you deserve? You deserve a better god. I can’t be responsible for you Zachary, or for the fate of all those others in Grimney... I must be rid of this cursed book”. He turned back the ancient pages and gazed at the inscription. “It says that ‘Imagination is the only limit’, but in a world like this I find it hard to imagine anything positive”. The dead eyed man had been wandering lost in no-mans’-land when he had stumbled into a waterlogged shell hole. Amidst the mud blood, filth and squalor of the pit he had found the ancient book protruding from the mud wall. Once the dead eyed man touched the pages, flashes of blue light surged into his fingers and consumed his mind with strange visions of a fantasy land called Grimney.  

“This war has claimed millions of young innocent lives”. The Captain said sadly. “They’ll all be forgotten, they’ll have no story, but through my words Zachary you can live forever and be remembered”. He dipped his quill into the inkwell. “You’re just one man, but I’ve given you life”. He smiled coldly. “But a man who has suffered as much as you does indeed deserve his place beside Lady Selene” The dead eyed man leaned forward and began to inscribe his last words into the magic book. “They’re no fairytales Zachary, just lonely men and women living and dying in their dreams”.  

Zachary felt his body stiffen and his skin dry, the sensation was painless as all physical feeling left him. He managed to call out “What’s happening to my life?” before his flesh became like paper and he faded into mist.

Zachary’s last words to the dead eyed man fell upon deaf ears, for he was too engrossed in his final lines to care. “If beauty is all that you love” he scribbled “Beauty is all you will have”. The Captain closed the book “And in a realm like this one” he said bitterly. “It leaves me with absolutely nothing”. The dead eyed man wrote the title of his work upon the front cover. “Bitter is the Salt by James Henry Willard”. He put down his quill and reached forward and brushed his shaking hand over the title. “All I ever could write was bad prose, melodrama and bathos” he said resentfully. “What’s the purpose of a magic book if I can only end my story so tragically?”. He closed his dead eyes, but there were no tears. “In my mind, tragedy is all I know”. The dead eyed man’s voice became a bitter whisper “God is dead... Mankind is God”. He cupped his shaking hand around the candle flame and blew it out.

 

Chapter

34

The noise did not wake the dead, only the dead eyed man sat up upon his slated bed. He could no longer withstand the madness and taking a knife he sliced the pages of his story from the magic book.

“What’re you worth?! What value are you?!”. The Captain screamed as he cut away everything that he had written. “Who am I?! I’m damned to hell!” He picked up the book and bundled it into a rucksack. “Robbed of innocence, that’s what I am!”

A lantern stood nearby and the Captain smashed the glass and tossed it upon the torn manuscript. Oil seeped forth and blackened the crisp white paper. The dead eyed man struck a match and tossed it down. “Burn for what you’re worth, let me die and be forgotten”. 

The pages ignited and a raging yellow flame sparked high and turned to the colour blue. The fire seemed to form into a tormented face that twisted and writhed before dying away.

“Burn” The dead eyed man muttered as he shielded his eyes against the blaze. “I’m done with you”. He ventured up the dugout steps and walked blindly through a green haze. He began to cough, for without a gasmask his eyes watered and his lungs wept bile.    

Ahead stood a battered tree, but not a tree like any the Captain had seen before. A black writhing mass smothered its branches. Soot laden leaves, he thought, caught against the wind? But there was no wind, for the air was still and stagnant.

A shell exploded and blew the Captain to the ground. The sound of vibrating wings generated a hideous humming and the branches of the tree cleared quickly. The dead eyed man watched as the sky above blackened behind a million glistening blow flies.

“The tree” the Captain gasped, sliding the magic book from the rucksack. “I’ll bury you here until you’re needed again”. The dead eyed man gazed up at the battered branches. But how long would its roots hold in no-mans’-land? “You’re not for me”. He muttered. “This book belongs in innocent hands”. The Captain felt weary and he held the book tightly to his chest. “We’re lost you and I.... Catherine, Emma?”.... He stared across the landscape at an alien world devastated by humanity and he knew that his life had ended long ago. “There’s no beginning here” the Captain whispered. “Just the end of my time” he closed his dead eyes and stroked the cover of the magic book. “Who would believe?”... Tears trickled from his dead eyes. “It’s like I never existed”. He took a final deep breath, but the air tasted bitter and it corrupted his lungs. Dawn would come soon, but the birds they never sang anymore. He thought once again of his wife and baby daughter. The Captain loosened his grip upon the book and gave a slight smile. “It’s a dead war and we belong beneath a living tree”...   

 

Epilogue

‘If beauty is all that you love,

Beauty is all you will have’.

Zachary Nova’s long journey was over; a voyage of self discovery that had ended back at Kyan Frith’s forest cottage. All was silent in that isolated dwelling. Lifeless and solemn, the high walls held on to their dark secrets.

Selene’s portrait remained hidden inside the cupboard, locked away from sight, where only darkness surrounded it. A curious new addition had taken shape next to the beautiful woman. The portrait now contained the image of Zachary Nova, immortalised in the painting, and as handsome as he had ever been. The face of the man lacked happiness, his sparkling blue eyes looked moist, as if the paint was still wet and they reflected an inner torment that only a madman would ever understand.

Zachary longed for a little light, for another chance to gaze upon the portrait and to see his own beautiful face. But the cupboard was dark and Zachary had only weevils, spiders and other crawling insects to keep him company. Such creatures had never been his friends, although harmless and benevolent they lacked beauty, and beauty was everything.

Zachary had obtained his wish, but in truth it was a wish only he could have wanted. Beauty retained forever. He was free of hatred, war, disease, decay and the tragedy of aging. Zachary’s dream, although the definition of a terrible, never ending nightmare had been gifted to him as he had so foolishly requested. Selene and Zachary were reunited forever. Love had finally conquered all and death would have no dominion.           

 

NEW BEGINNINGs

But what of the lost children born into a cold land screaming for the comfort of a mother? Had they been welcomed to a better place? Beyond and further still, in a realm of butterfly meadows, flowing waterfalls and meandering streams, there stood another ancient tree. Rooted in all eternity, it towered high upon a hill, its overhanging golden branches wrapped in silver leaves.

The butterflies fluttered and danced amidst this idyll. Wings outstretched flapping back and forth in a motion that seemed to beckon. Beneath their glowing wings, the lost children gathered.

Marta stood amongst them; her transparent form lapped and flowed upon the air like water. Her faintly smiling face lit like a dawn sun. Memories were forgotten, dreams became real and her heart was filled with love. The little girl reached out with her mind and hand in hand the children ascended the hill. Together, united as one, they circled the tree and sang and danced as choirs of angelic voices chorused alongside them. Eternity was theirs and suffering was no longer of the flesh, for their bodies had been discarded and each mind was free. Marta dreamed away the other land and beneath that mighty tree each child was embraced by the eternal power of the ever growing universe. 

The End    

 

THE CRYING TREE

A

SHORT

STORY

 

Axes swung and hacked large gashes into the bark of the ancient oak. The leaves above began to shiver with every heavy blow. The wounds in the wood began to splinter, as the axe heads penetrated deeper and deeper, until with one final swing, the tree began to crack in two.

“Timber!” a gruff voice shouted. As the oak began to bend and split from its roots, tumbling backwards it crashed to the ground.

 

Three woodsmen stepped forward, and lowering their axes they strolled proudly around the felled tree, like hunters after killing their prey.

 

Moonlight streamed down from above and lit their faces, two of the men Matlock, and Kobe were bearded, dark eyes looked out from beneath thick sackcloth hoods, the men were shabbily dressed in black tunics and baggy green trousers, the bottoms of which were tucked into mud stained leather boots, they wore gloves, for the night was bitterly cold, and their breath turned to steam against the icy air.  

 

The third man Derious Cross appeared to be different from his colleagues; his hair was short and neatly cut his face clean shaven. His complexion, pale and unblemished. His clothes were of a finer quality, purple and blue, and made of expensive velvet. Derious wore a pair of boots that were polished, and shining. The man pulled a thick red cloak around his broad shoulders and smiled with pride.   

 

“The last tree, it won't be enough to sustain us this winter my friends” He looked around at the empty plains; bare stumps marked the felling of what was once a thriving forest. 

 

"We've done a good job here though" Derious smiled proudly and winked at his two colleagues. "And there are many more forests that we can chop through".

 

Matlock crouched down beside the mighty oak, and brushed his hand through the crisp brown leaves, and watched sadly as they fell away. “This is all we have Derious, there is no more. It'll make a good fire”...

 

“But it won't burn for long”.. Derious replied, his sparkling green eyes rose upwards towards a large hill silhouetted against the moonlight. “Up there, on Haunted Hill, there's a new forest for us “...      

 

“No” Kobe shook his head firmly. “That forest is protected by magic” The man could not hide the fear in his voice. “Many woodsmen have disappeared after cutting down trees from there”...   

 

Derious began to chuckle “Well, the winter months are biting. One tree, between three. That won't keep us warm for long”.

Once more he gazed up towards the hill. The shadows somehow seemed darker there, as if they were swallowing the moonlight.

 

“I am not afraid. I'll have my axe. As for this tree” Derious gestured casually towards it “Take what you will. Because tomorrow, I'm going up that hill, and I'm getting a tree all of my own”...    

 

Matlock and Kobe stared uneasily at each other and they too raised their eyes and focused their gaze upon the horizon. Kobe shook his head and sighed. “You won't come back if you go, they say that wood is home to shape shifters, and tree demons. You'll leave your wife a widow and your newborn without a father”..

 

Derious Cross was not in the slightest bit concerned with petty superstition. He simply laughed at his friends. “I'll turn Haunted Hill into a business. I'll cut down every tree if I can, and sell the wood to the highest bidder”.  

 

“You'd spend the money on new clothes”. Matlock said, wiping his axe head with a cloth. “Not that you'll get the chance. You go into that forest, and you'll be dead by sunset” Once more he glanced across at Kobe, both men knew that even daylight could never penetrate the  foreboding blackness that allowed Haunted Hill to maintain its dark, terrifying secrets.

 

Matlock shook his head gloomily “What about the baby?”…

 

“What about her? She is fine, and in good fettle. She has her father what more could she want?”

 

The baby lay upon a frayed rug, crying softly, the infant’s clothes were ragged. There was no fire burning in the empty hearth, just ash settled upon the grate. 

 

Amelia Cross stood at a worn table, leaning over a wooden tub that rested upon it. Her rough hands moved rhythmically through the dirty water as she washed the baby’s bottle. She was an attractive woman, older than her years, dark bags swelled beneath her eyes and her hair hung down to her slender shoulders in grubby tangles.

 

The door to the small cottage opened and Derious stumbled in. His eyes were glazed and the smell of stale ale quickly reached his wife’s nostrils, and they twitched with irritation.

 

“Hello my angel by the hearth” he said flippantly, hanging his axe upon a hook on the wall “It is me”. Derious sat down at the table and smiled “Where’s my tea?” he asked, slurring his words.

 

Amelia sighed heavily, and dried her hands upon a dirty cloth. “Your supper is in the baby. We only had one plate of mushrooms this night husband”.      

 

“That’s not good enough” Derious clenched his fist and shook it at her “You” He pointed his finger accusingly “You should have been out and picked more. How will baby Daria grow big on that?”

 

“Don’t blame me husband. You never bring money into this house” Amelia’s expression hardened, and the lines on her forehead deepened. “I can’t even light a fire because the wood ran out”.  She looked her finely dressed husband up and down disapprovingly. “You spend our money on clothes for yourself and drink the rest, but our bellies stay empty”.

 

“This is my fault?” Derious sounded astonished. “I work everyday, and I need to eat more than the both of you. As for my clothes” He vainly brushed an imaginary speck of dirt from his velvet tunic. “I earned the right to wear these”.

 

Amelia was saddened and looked down her nose at the drunken man. “Our baby cries at night because she is cold and hungry, her clothes are threadbare, how can you neglect her so?”.

 

Derious, placed his hands upon the table and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. “I do what I can, but I am just a man remember”.

 

“You always say you’re just a man”.  She gritted her teeth in anger “A man that needs to become something greater, a man who needs to stand strong and provide warmth for his family”. Amelia looked across at the empty hearth. “We have not had a good fire in that hearth for months”.

 

A cracked mirror hung upon the wall, and Derious gazed at his reflection in the glass. He was indeed a handsome fellow, youthful and glowing with colour. “I’m quite a catch, you’re very lucky to have me. You should not say such hurtful things”. He smiled proudly and turned towards his care worn wife. “Tomorrow I’ll bring you all the wood you need. You can build your fire, and all will be well”….

 

The two red suns glowed brightly against a green sky. Derious closed the cottage door quietly behind him. Bleary eyed, his axe at his side, he set off at a brisk pace across open meadows, rich with coloured flowers and dancing butterflies.     

    

After an hour of walking he reached a winding pathway that led upwards. He ignored a large warning sign painted with blood red lettering, the words “Haunted Hill, walk with care” did not worry him.

 

Instead he began to whistle a cheery tune, as he ascended the path to the top.  Before him stood a large forest, darkened by the tall trees that stood together in huddled masses, their branches webbed together formed a canopy away from the light.

 

“So this is a haunted forest” he chuckled, gripping his axe tightly in both hands. “If there are ghosts, they should be afraid of me”.  With one bold step Derious Cross moved from sunlight into shadow.   

 

The temperature dropped sharply, and Derious pulled his red cloak tightly around his shoulders. He ventured further in. His breath froze upon the air and dissolved into steam. Yellow eyes glowed in the dark. Something was watching him.  The man pursed his lips, and attempted to whistle again, but his lips and tongue seemed frozen and he was unable to make any sound.

 

A giant oak tree stood before him, its roots twisted deep into the ground, its branches curled into grotesque arthritic shapes. Derious gazed up at the monstrous tree, and smiled uneasily. “You’ll do for starters”.

 

Derious raised his axe and swung it heavily into the bark, cutting a large gash into the wood. He took several more swings, and the wound became deeper.  Stepping forward he brushed his fingers against the split, and found that it was moist. He looked more closely and watched as a clear liquid began to run down the fractured bark. It trickled like tears, and as he continued to chop, the sap gathered in a pool at the base of the tree. Swing after swing struck against the ancient oak, and the overhanging branches seemed to become more twisted as if flinching with pain with each mighty axe stroke.

 

Derious was so determined to fell the tree that he was unaware of the two yellow eyes moving slowly towards him through the blackness.

 

 “Wretched tree, why won’t you fall?!” he shouted, swinging his axe once more, scattering splinters of damp wood into the dead grass. The pool of liquid was growing, and the yellow eyes were almost at his shoulder.

 

He lifted the axe above his head but a clawed green hand grabbed at the handle and wrenched it from his grip. Derious spun upon his heels and turned towards his assailant.

 

The terrifying creature that stood before him was covered from head to hoofed foot in green leaves. It had a long chin that was bearded with twigs and thistles. It opened its mouth revealing row upon row of long pointed thorn like teeth.

 

Derious backed away, raising his hands in appeasement. “I mean no harm”…

The yellow eyes blinked and rolled unnaturally, glaring down upon the man. It stepped forward tossing the axe to the ground. Outstretching a long branch like arm, the creature grabbed Derious by his tunic, its sharp green claws tearing the material as it threw him roughly against the wounded tree.

 

Derious scrambled to his feet, slipping in the pool of sap, and somehow managed to push past the tree sprite, not stopping to retrieve his trusted axe, Derious fled through the wood in blind panic.

 

The yellow eyes watched him run, and made no effort to pursue him, instead it laid its hands upon the ancient oak and screamed like a banshee.

 

Derious never looked back. He ran as if the devil was chasing him, he ran until the very breath in his body had almost left him, and only stopped when sunlight touched his face, and the meadows of flowing flowers fell crushed beneath his heavy booted feet.

 

Amelia sat quietly upon a rocking chair, cradling her baby in her arms. She fed the infant from her bottle, but the liquid inside was soon gone, and the little girl began to cry softly once more.

 

The cottage door was flung open, and Derious staggered through, he slammed it behind him, and slid the bolt across. “Bring me ale wife!” he shouted slumping down to his knees, his body trembling.

 

Amelia placed the baby gently upon the floor, her arms reaching up for her mother. “What’s happened husband?”.

 

Derious was in no mood to talk. “Just bring me ale woman, and be quick about it!” 

The young woman opened a cupboard and lifted out a bottle and handed it to the hysterical man. “Are you hurt?”

 

He unscrewed the lid and began to gulp down the liquid. It dribbled from his lips and fell upon his torn tunic.

 

“Have you been brawling in the tavern again?” she asked disapprovingly.

 

“No” He belched as the gas welled quickly in his stomach. “I don’t want to discuss it”. He took several more swigs, and quickly emptied the bottle. “But if you want to eat today, you’ll have to go out with your basket”. He glared at his wife “It's mushrooms for dinner and supper today”.

 

Derious spent the rest of the morning hiding beneath the patchwork sheets upon his bed. He was trembling and shaking, too nervous to show his face to the world.

It was midday when there was a knock upon the cottage door. Slowly, and meekly he placed his bare feet upon the stone floor, and ignoring the cries of his baby daughter he stepped over her and opened it.

 

A strange lady dressed in green robes, with a hood pulled down over her face stood before him. She carried a basket beneath her left arm, and a cloth covered the bulging contents.

 

Derious was not very welcoming. “Who are you?” he said harshly. He was in no mood to speak to strangers.

      

“My name is Gwethen” she replied, “I am a herbalist, and I have goods to share”.

 

“Well, you’re in the wrong place, I have no money. All I have are mouths to feed and can offer you nothing”. He began to close the door.

 

Gwethen reached out a long spindly arm, and placed the palm of her hand upon the man’s chest. “Wait, I ask for no money. I ask that you allow me inside, and let me show you what I may gift to you”.

 

“Gift to me?” He held the door and did not close it.  “You have something that will cost me nothing?”

 

Gwethen smiled beneath the hood. “I can make you powerful. I can give you a life longer than any man in Grimney”.

 

Derious smiled. “Then come in”. He stood aside, and the strange woman shuffled past him. “But try to trick me, and you’ll find that an axe head buried in your skull”.

 

Gwethen took a seat at the table, and placed the basket down upon it. “I have a magic potion” she said “A potion that will give you great strength, I ask for nothing in return”.

 

“Really?” Derious responded cynically sitting down at the table opposite her.  “Everything has a price. Why would you give me something for nothing?”

 

“Because you deserve what I have” Gwethen pulled back the cloth, and revealed several glass bottles containing clear white liquid. “The liquid in these bottles is full of nature's goodness. They are the reason that trees live such long lives. If you drink this elixir, you too will live beyond the span of human life”.

 

“You might be trying to poison me. Then when I’m dead you’ll rob me blind”. Derious frowned and shook his head. “Why would you give me such a gift? After all in this life nothing is for free”.

 

"I believe we all get back what we give out"  Gwethen lifted a bottle from the basket and slid it across the tabletop “Then you may look, and not drink. Why would I steal from a man who has nothing? All you have is a wife and baby. Are they nothing to you also?”

 

"I need broader shoulders to carry them both. They are indeed a liability to me" Hesitating Derious lifted the bottle and stared through the glass at the contents. It looked like water. He uncorked it, and sniffed, it smelt of summer meadows.

 

“If you have no wish to drink, then return the potion now, and I shall leave. You will never know the mistake you made, and you will live and die as mortal man. If you choose to drink your shoulders will be able to carry any burden that is placed upon you”. Gwethen reached out her long fingers and curled them back and forth. “Return to me my magic potion and I will be gone”.

 

Derious shook his head. “No” he said firmly “If I drink this how much longer will I live exactly? How strong will I become?”

 

Gwethen smiled “Stronger than any man, and you will live for hundreds of years” She lowered her arm and placed the cloth back over the basket “Drink and grow stronger and more powerful than you could ever imagine”

 

Nervously Derious raised the bottle to his lips, and slowly he began to pour the contents into his mouth. It tasted salty sweet, and warmed his stomach as it slid down. Once the bottle was empty he wiped his lips upon his sleeve and smiled at the mysterious woman.

 

“Now what will happen?” he asked placing the bottle upon the tabletop, and belching heavily "All I feel is indigestion". 

 

Gwethen began to chuckle, but her laughter was cold, and mocking, and as it increased Derious became more and more uncomfortable. She reached up her hands and threw back her hood. The face beneath was ghastly to behold. Her eyes were a piercing shade of yellow, and her skin was green in colour. A mass of curling brambles, and sharp thorns grew from her head.

 

Derious leapt from his chair and moved back against the wall. “You’re the creature from the forest”.

 

“I am the very same” she cackled, bearing her sharp curved teeth. “I am the Tree Guardian, a Wood Spirit. You tried to harm one of my children. Now you will learn a lesson of what it is like to suffer as they do”…

 

Gwethen’s body began to transform, her face began to change shape, and twigs began sprouting from her chin. Her robes split as leaves tore through the material. She grew taller and began to tower over the frightened man. “I’ll see you again boy. You know where to find me. You will come to me in time. You have much to learn about the nature of life”.

 

Derious fell to his knees and crawled beneath the table. He watched as Gwethen’s shadow passed over his little baby girl, but he was too afraid to move. He curled into a ball and buried his head, and when he looked again, Gwethen’s shadow had gone, and with a sigh of great relief he saw that his baby daughter had not been harmed, and that the Tree Spirit had left them both in peace.                

 

Amelia returned at sunset, her basket filled to the brim with mushrooms. She found her husband slumped at the table, his head resting upon it, empty bottles of beer lay scattered upon the floor, and the little baby lay amidst them.

 

“Dear Lord” she said, placing the basket upon a chair and picking up her daughter and hugging the infant to her breast. “This is no way for my child to live” She shook her husband’s shoulder and he sat up with a startled expression on his face.

“What has happened here husband? You’ve been drinking. Our child lies amidst all this” she said kicking away the bottles “Whilst you sleep drunkenly”.     

 

Derious rubbed his head with both hands. “I don’t feel well. I have problems of my own you know” His voice was soft, and he was in no mood to argue with the woman.

 

“We’re not your problem. We’re your family”.  She hugged the baby tightly and kissed her gently upon the forehead. “I cannot live like this. No fire to warm us. You’ve no love to give us. What will become of us?” Amelia began to sob.

 

“I’m having a bad day. I’m tired, and I need to sleep” Derious stood up slowly, his head throbbing. “She’s your child too. I’m a woodsman, not a baby sitter”.

“I know what you are, and I dread what you will become”. Amelia’s tears tumbled from her eyes. She continued to clutch her baby, and chose not to wipe them away.

 

“Don’t criticise me woman!” Derious shouted, waving his finger at her. “Without me there would be no baby, and you’d be nothing but an old maid. Look at you. Who’d have you? Be thankful that I gave you a roof over your head. That I provide wood for the fire”.

 

“Wood?” Amelia laughed hollowly. “What wood?”  She rocked the baby gently in her arms. “The day you do that I might thank you for it, but for now you’re good for nothing”.

 

Derious raised his hand, as if he was about to strike her.

 

“Hit me, and we will leave you” Amelia snapped. “I have nothing more to say. Go sleep off the drink”.

 

“Fine” He lowered his arm, and turned his back upon her. “One day, I’ll be someone you’ll look up to. I’m your husband, and I should be respected. One day I’ll be something great. Remember that. You mark my words woman. I will be great”

 

Derious stumbled across the room, and pushed open the door to the bed chamber. He felt nauseous and dizzy. Climbing into bed, he wrapped the covers around himself, in the morning, he thought, in the morning all would be better.

 

It was very late when Amelia climbed into bed beside her husband. He was wrapped tightly in the sheets, and she had to roll him to one side to unravel him. She pulled the covers over her shoulders and laid facing away from him. She was angry, but an overwhelming feeling of sadness consumed her. 

 

Derious was restless his dreams were not peaceful, and he began to groan. Amelia pulled a pillow tight around her ears. She had little sympathy for the drunken man. Beneath the covers she felt something sharp poking into her legs, and because of this moved further away. However, it was not long before she received another jolt in her ankle, this time she sat up and lit a candle that stood on a table by the bedside.

 

“Derious” She said poking him in the back with her finger “Derious, go and cut your toenails”.

 

“What is it wife?” Derious groaned, turning around to face her.

 

“You’re poking me in the leg with your toes”.  Amelia lifted the candle and held it up to her husband’s face.     

         

Derious looked peculiar. His skin had a strange green and brown tinge. “My toenails are fine” He replied wiping beads of sweat from his forehead and drying his hand on the sheet “I cut them this morning. What’re you talking about woman?”

 

Amelia moved the candle back and forth in front of her husband’s face “You’ve gone a funny colour. Go look in the mirror”. 

 

“Nonsense, it’s just the poor light” Derious threw back the sheets and swung his body around and placed his bare feet down upon the stone floor.

 

“Wife” he said uneasily, his voice cracking with emotion. “My feet, my toes, they have something growing on them”.

 

“What like?” Amelia slid quickly out of bed and holding the palm of her hand against the flame to protect it, she crouched down next to her husband.

 

Several root like appendages had sprouted from his toes and they curled across the stone floor. “I’ve been cursed. Bring me some scissors” He lifted his feet, and brushed his fingers against them. “What’s happening to me?”

 

Amelia placed the candle upon the floor, and began to snip them. Derious flinched with pain, as the roots fell away, but as soon as she snipped them they began to grow again.

 

“I don’t know what to do husband” she said in a trembling voice. “I’ll have to take you to the doctor in the morning”.

 

Derious, was not in the best of moods, he had spent the entire night cutting his toes free of the ever growing roots. He was barely able to slide on his boots, and as he gazed in the cracked mirror he could see that his skin was becoming dry and brown.

 

“We must go and see Doctor Fraven” Amelia said placing her hand upon her husband’s shoulder and squeezing it gently. “He may have some kind of solution”.

 

“What can he give me for this?” Derious retorted raising his hands to his face and looking down at them. Several long twigs had grown from his fingertips, and leaves were beginning to sprout from their buds.

 

“My God, I’m turning into a flower”.        

       

Amelia smiled uncomfortably. “Do you want me to prune you husband?”

 

“No” he said once more gazing at his reflection in the broken mirror. “I want the doctor to see me buds and all”.

 

Doctor Fraven looked grim, he stared across his desk, his puffy blue   eyes peering out over a pair of horn rimmed spectacles. He drummed his little fat fingers nervously, and seemed unable to blink.

 

“What I’m seeing is most unusual”. He said looking across at Derious’s curious face. The sick man’s skin had become coarser, and his hair had started to fall out leaving crusty brown patches.

 

Amelia and her husband sat opposite the baffled doctor hoping that he would at least have some solution to the problem.           

 

The Doctor looked thoughtful and smiled “Have you considered seeing a tree surgeon?”

 

Derious was furious and raised his hand, jabbing a leafy finger towards the so called medicine man.  “If that’s the best you can offer I’ll find my own solution”.

 

“It must be some sort of infection”. The Doctor scratched the top of his bald head, and then stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Have you encountered anyone else exhibiting your symptoms?”

 

Derious snapped several twigs from the tips of his fingers, causing Amelia to shudder “Don’t be ridiculous” he said, tossing the twigs away in angry frustration “I’ll find my own solutions. I know precisely what I have to do. I know precisely where I have to go. You can do nothing for me”. He reached across and grabbed his wife by the hand.

 

“We have to go to Haunted Hill”.

 

Amelia was uncomfortable with the idea, and equally uncomfortable with her husband’s touch. His skin no longer felt natural, it was cold and dry, and made her palm itch, perhaps she was becoming allergic to him?

 

Doctor Fraven bowed his bald head, and raised his hands. He did not like the tone of the man’s voice, but he accepted that he do could nothing to help, and bowing out of the situation seemed like the wisest thing for him to do.

 

The wheelbarrow had seen better days and its warped wooden panels were riddled with worm. Amelia had considered chopping it up and using it for firewood. It was fortunate that she had not chosen to do this because it now had a new cargo to carry.

 

Derious was slumped inside, his legs and arms hanging limply over the sides. The sunlight shone down upon him drying his dull brown and green skin. His hair had completely fallen out, and in its place there was a briar of tangled twigs and thorns, a scattering of leaves curled around his crusty ears, and his green eyes welled with tears.     

 

Amelia lifted the wooden handles and the wheels creaked with the strain. She took several deep breaths and began to push.

 

“I’m worried about our baby”. She said puffing out her cheeks. “Do you think that Kobe will look after her properly?” 

 

Derious looked irritated by the remark. “Typical. I’m turning into a thistle bush, and you’re worried about that baby”.

 

“It’s natural that I should be concerned about our child husband”. Amelia was in no mood for such selfishness, and deliberately rolled the barrow wheels over a cluster of large rocks.

 

“Careful woman!” Derious shouted as his whole body shuddered. “Are you trying to break my back?” 

 

Derious reached his leafy fingers into his torn tunic and clumsily lifted a flask of water to his dry lips. He gulped down the contents and tossed the bottle aside, shattering it upon the rocks.

 

Amelia dropped the handles, and placed her hands upon her hips. “You’ve drank all the water. What about me? I’m thirsty too’.

 

“My insides are wood dry. My need is greater than yours. Just push. We need to reach Haunted Hill” He gazed at the palms of his hands. His skin was layered with a substance similar to that of bark.

 

“Time is running out for me wife”. He squeezed his hands shut, and brown flakes tumbled upon his tunic. He brushed them away and closed his sad eyes. “Why am I the victim of such a wicked curse?” 

 

The two red suns began to descend and the light was fading. Dark shadows fell across Haunted Hill, and the tall trees, thick with their bowing branches groaned gently against the wind.

 

Amelia hesitated, her eyes widening with fear “You want to go into the forest?”

 

“I can barely walk” Derious replied, gazing down at his booted feet. The leather was swelling, and beginning to split, the roots were trying to tear through. “Yes” He nodded painfully, the brown skin on his neck crumbling away. “It’s here we’ll find the solution to the problem. So just push”.

 

The trees seemed alive, great monsters in the dark, wrapped in veils of twisting shadow, their branches intertwining like spider web.

 

Amelia was afraid, but she continued to push the wheel barrow, and its one wheel creaked eerily.

 

The yellow eyes were watching, following the uninvited guests as they moved deeper into the wood.

 

“Stop!” Derious shouted.

 

“What is it?” Amelia’s eyes darted back and forth, drawing light from wherever she could.        

 

The ancient tree stood before them, its wounds weeping sap. Derious’s axe lay nearby bound into the undergrowth with twisting weeds.

 

“Get my axe” he demanded.

 

“Yes husband”. Amelia went down upon her hands and knees and began to rip away the foliage that held it.

 

“Gwethen!” Derious shouted, his voice drying in his throat.

 

Amelia lifted the axe in her bleeding hands, the weeds had not given up their prize without a fight.

 

“So” a cold harsh voice echoed from behind the tree. Gwethen stepped out, and stood tall upon her arched hoofed feet. “You came as I thought you would”.

 

Amelia stepped back, holding the axe against her chest. “Who are you?” she asked, her voice trembling with fear.

 

The Tree Sprite bared her many curved teeth into a twisted smile. “I am Gwethen. The Guardian of this forest and you are trespassing”.

 

“Cure me”. Derious demanded trying to sit upright in the wheelbarrow in a hopeless attempt to appear taller.

 

“You are cured. You are becoming what you deserve to be. Now take your place in the forest where you belong” Gwethen glared menacingly at Amelia. “As for you be gone, or you will feed the soil about your feet with your remains”.  

 

Amelia gazed briefly at her husband. “I’m sorry husband but I have a child to care for” She lifted her skirts, and turning on her heels she fled from the forest.  

      

Gwethen laughed uproariously. The leaves that covered her face rustled and her yellow eyes fell upon the helpless man.

 

“You wanted a long life, you wanted power, and beauty, this you may have, now rise and take your place in the forest”.

 

Derious, tipped himself out of the wheelbarrow and attempted to crawl across the ground. He heard the sound of his leather boots splitting, and screamed as the roots growing from his toes embedded themselves into the earth.

 

Gwethen watched as the helpless man was forced into an upright position, the roots wrapping themselves tightly around his ankles. He tried to bend forward and pull at them, but his skin began to tear through his clothes, and layers of bark began to spread all over him.

 

“Help me!” he screamed as branches began to sprout from his neck. He reached up his hands and tried to snap them, but as quickly as they broke away more branches began to form. Buds opened, and leaves unfurled. He outstretched his arms and they too became rigid as layer upon layer of thick bark wrapped around them. 

Gwethen’s ghastly laughter echoed through the forest.

 

Amelia did not look back, she fled as fast as she could, whatever fate had befallen her husband she had no wish to join him.        

    

The following morning, all seemed normal. The birds sang and the two red suns glowed. The air was crisp, and the meadows danced with life, and nature’s wonderment.

 

Amelia walked alongside Matlock and Kobe, they were both carrying axes. The forest on Haunted Hill as always seemed unnaturally quiet, but as they ventured deeper they could hear sobbing.

 

A new tree had grown overnight, tall and magnificent, and it stood alone in a clearing.

 

Amelia approached nervously and placed her ear against the bark. She could hear a heartbeat frantically pounding inside. The sound of crying was also more distinctive. Stepping back she gazed up at the towering branches.

Two green eyes surrounded by thick bark looked down upon her and the tree’s eyes were weeping sap.

 

Amelia smiled and gestured to Matlock and Kobe “This is the one I want”.

 

Matlock and Kobe stepped forward and began to swing their axes against the tree. With each swing the sobbing grew fainter, until it faded into eerie silence.     

 

That night Amelia sat in her rocking chair, cradling her baby gently in her arms. The little infant was happy and giggling contentedly.     

 

Amelia smiled and gazed at the crackling fire blazing away in the hearth. It was filled to the brim with burning logs.

 

“Dear husband, you finally kept your word. At last you’ve given me wood for the fire”. Amelia rocked her chair back and forth, and with a wry smile, she began to chuckle to herself.

 

THE END

 

 

 

THE GWUMP

 A

 

SHORT STORY

 

 

 

The Gwump lived a relatively untroubled life. He dwelt inside a cave beneath the still waters of Grimney Lake. He slept during the day, and even at night he kept himself hidden from sight. The world above was unfriendly. Children would throw stones into the lake, hoping to drive him further into the depths. No one cared about the Gwump, he was loathed simply because he was so ugly.   

 

They had cruel chants.

 

“The Gwump, the Gwump!

 

With his hideous hump!

 

We hate you!

 

We hate you!

 

That’s why we berate you!”.

 

But he did not care, for he had gifts that made him happy, even though he did not have any friends. He loved to paint wonderful pictures.

 

One day a young girl became lost in the forest. She was a fair maiden, her skin like porcelain and lips as red as flame. She came upon the stream and tired and weak she lay down beside it, and cupped her soft hands in the water to drink. Beneath the rippling water she saw her own reflection, and was comforted by the sight of her beautiful face.

 

Ursula Klimt had been told about the Gwump, but the forest around her held more fear, for the wolves were hungry, and were still on her trail, drawn to her by the smell of perfume and perspiration.  

 

Ursula’s deep blue eyes were wide and full of fear, and she bowed her head and began to sob. Her tears tumbled, and fell into the lake. The Gwump who never slept very deeply was awoken by Ursula’s sobs, and began to swim upwards towards her.

 

“What am I to do?” she muttered, her voice trembling. She stared once again into the water, her reflection merging with the features of a ghastly looking creature.  

 

The Gwump’s head bobbed up through the surface. His face was covered in patches of wiry black hair and his nose was long and hooked, and covered in red warts. Two very long ears stuck out from either side of his deformed misshapen head, and his eyes were large and completely white.    

 

Ursula was frozen with fear, as the Gwump crawled out of the water, his hunched body thick with clumps of black hair, and dripping wet.

 

“Don’t hurt me!” she cried raising her arms in submission. 

 

The Gwump squatted down in front of her, and rested his long bony arms upon his hairy knees. He smiled, but his teeth were black, and he looked far from friendly.

 

“Why? Why would I do such a thing?” he answered innocently, flicking out a long brown tongue and licking the moisture from his thick green lips.

 

“You’re the Gwump”. Ursula, fumbled around for a weapon and found a long stick and waved it at him aggressively.

 

“Do you want to beat me with that?” the Gwump asked, leaning his body forward and bowing his head “I used to get beaten when I was smaller so I understand if you wish to hurt me”.

 

Ursula lowered the stick, and placed it down beside her. “No, I don’t wish to, but if you try to eat me, I’ll fight back”.

 

The Gwump lifted himself from the ground and screamed at the top of his lungs, it was a horrible sound and made Ursula flinch. He reached out a long clawed hand and grabbed the girl by the arm, dragged her towards him, and spinning her around she plunged into the lake, kicking and screaming as she slipped beneath the surface. 

 

The Gwump leapt forward as a large red eyed wolf pounced upon him and he wrestled the beast to the ground throwing it against a tree. The wolf yelped in pain, and quickly retreated back into the forest.

 

The Gwump jumped into the water, and grabbing the terrified girl, he dragged her down to the bottom of the lake.   

 

As she tumbled helplessly through the dark Ursula could feel the icy water pouring into her mouth and the breath of life squeezing from her lungs. In mere moments fear overcame the young maiden and she lost consciousness.

 

Ursula woke some time later and found that she was lying upon a large bed wrapped inside warm fur. A blazing fire burned in a rock built fireplace, and a row of dead fish hung above the flames, sizzling and cooking amidst the crackling smoke.

 

“Where am I?” Ursula called out, her voice echoing against the vast walls of the chamber. Nervously she slipped out of bed, and placed her feet down upon a wolf skin rug, her toes twitching.

 

She stepped cautiously across the stone floor, the fur skin draped around her bare shoulders. She could see that her dress was hanging beside the fire, and was dripping pools of water beneath it.

 

“Gwump?” she whispered “Are you there?”

 

The Gwump was seated in another chamber. He was surrounded by beautiful paintings, and with brush in hand he had nearly completed a portrait of Ursula. The likeness was remarkable, and his touch was so gentle, and with each stroke of paint, the more radiant the picture became. 

 

Ursula stood behind the strange and twisted creature, even she was amazed by his work, and she gazed around the walls admiringly.

 

Beautiful landscapes, birds, and creatures of all kinds, emblazoned with colour almost leapt out from the canvas.

 

“You have quite a talent Mr Gwump” Ursula nodded approvingly “I mean for someone so”… She shook her head, her pale cheeks blushing with embarrassment.

 

The Gwump dabbed the portrait gently with his brush, and sighed sadly. “For someone so ugly?” He rolled his white eyes, and continued to paint.

 

“I didn’t mean to upset you”. Ursula replied pulling the furs tightly around her shoulders. “I don’t always think before I speak, I’m very sorry”.

 

“It is hard for many to see what true beauty is”. He added a dab of yellow paint to Ursula’s hair, and smiled. “I see beauty, wherever I go, I know nothing of my own looks, for I never really see myself, only as a reflection in the water”.

 

“You saved me from the wolves. My name is Ursula”. She began to reach out her hand, but quickly drew back. The creature looked dirty, and although it was clear that the Gwump had a delicate touch she could not bring herself to shake hands with him.   

 

“I did what was in my nature Ursula” the Gwump continued, scratching his warty nose with a claw like fingernail. “At least I have found myself a new friend. Perhaps you will come and visit me in the future?”

 

Ursula nodded, and tried to sound sincere. “Yes. Of course, I owe you my life”. She looked down at her bare feet, and admired their delicate form. “If I can repay you in anyway, you only need to ask”.

 

The Gwump climbed down from his stool, and turned towards her. He seemed deformed, his left shoulder was higher than his right, and his back was covered in large fleshy lumps. He looked up into the young woman’s beautiful face and smiled sheepishly.

 

“I’ve never had a friend before. I’ve always been alone. When I was born, my parents, they gave me to the forest, and I learned to live in the wild”.  

 

Ursula stepped back, although the Gwump was softly spoken and appeared unthreatening, his appearance was grotesque in the extreme.

 

“I’ll be your friend, if you promise to lead me safely from the forest”…

 

The Gwump’s eyes began to well with tears. They trickled down his face and dripped from his hairy flared nostrils. “I am so touched by your kindness” His voice cracked with emotion. “I should give you a gift. Maybe you would like one of my paintings?”

 

Ursula chuckled. “I fear Mr Gwump that your paintings would be ruined if we tried to carry them up to the surface. They maybe watercolours, but too much water would destroy them”.

 

The Gwump scratched his long whiskery chin, and rolled his eyes. ”Yes, indeed, I am not as clever as you Ursula. Perhaps I may give you another gift”.

 

“It’s not necessary” Ursula smiled, but it quickly faded and instead it was replaced by a deep frown. “I want nothing from you”.

 

The Gwump began to crawl about the floor, scraping dust and grime from the stone, until he had a small pile of loose powder in the palm of his hand. He reached outwards and displayed it to the young lady.   

 

Ursula looked down disapprovingly. “Dust? Dirt? I’m sorry Mr Gwump, but that’s not worth anything where I come from”.

 

“No no, you don’t understand” The Gwump was getting excited. “I was blessed by the Zoriat. Given a gift, a gift to paint, and make things by magic”.

 

The Gwump began to rub the palms of his hands together in a circular motion.

 

“My touch contains the power to create”...

 

Separating his hands he squeezed them into fists and outstretched his arms.

 

“Look”. He gazed into Ursula’s face and opened his hands. The dust had turned into gold dust. 

 

“My God” Ursula stepped forward as her fear and distaste for the wretched creature vanished. She dipped her fingers into the gold, and lifted her hand to her face.

 

“Is this real? You can make gold?” She brushed the dust against her red lips and traces of the glittering metal fell upon her delicate skin.

 

“Yes. It’s very pretty” he chuckled “But not as pretty as you”.

 

Ursula’s blue eyes sparkled as she continued to gaze in awe at the glowing dust. “Can you make me lots of this?”

 

“All you need are my hands Ursula. But I know what gold is, and I like to keep my talents a secret. I can make you another handful if it pleases, but no more, for I believe that gold is beautiful, but too much beauty can be bad for the soul”.  

 

Ursula nodded slowly, and licked her lips. “You and I will be great friends Mr Gwump. Someone like you should have a friend like me. I promise if you get me home safely tomorrow, I will visit you every week”.

 

The Gwump bowed his head and began to laugh. He looked over his hunchbacked shoulder and stared with great admiration at the portrait of Ursula, his new friend. She was without doubt as beautiful as he had painted her.     

 

Sleeping in a bed was dangerous for the Gwump because he found it hard to breathe when lying down. He often slept amidst his paintings, leaning his twisted body against the wall. Tonight was different and sleep was far from his mind, instead he chose to sit beside Ursula and watch her while she dreamed.

 

She was so beautiful, like an angel. The Gwump had never seen a girl like her before. It made him feel warm inside, and his stomach seemed to spin into knots, it was the strangest sensation. It seemed like a very pleasant form of indigestion. 

 

Upon waking, the gold dust was poured into a small leather bag, and Ursula tucked it into the puff sleeves of her blue dress. The Gwump escorted her down a dank passageway that led to a circular pool of water.

 

“We have to swim through this” he said, bending down beside Ursula like a dog with its mistress. “It will take us back to the forest”.

 

“Wherever you go I shall follow”. Ursula replied taking several deep breaths of air.  

 

The Gwump smiled broadly and bounding forward on all fours he plunged head first into the pool.  He heard a splash from above, and watched the water froth and bubble as Ursula dived down alongside him. He pointed a long bony finger down the spiralling tunnel, and they both swam towards a circle of white light. The Gwump reached back and grabbed Ursula by the hand and splashing frantically with his large hairy feet he pulled her upwards through the mouth of the cave.  Together, hand in hand they ascended into bright sunlight, and scrambled up upon the riverbank.  

 

Ursula breathed the fresh air, and rolled onto her back. She smiled with relief at the green expanse of sky and the two red suns glowing above her. 

 

“Now I will lead you from the forest” the Gwump said, standing once more on all fours and shaking his body hair free of moisture. “But promise me that you will return to see this lonely creature”.

 

“Yes” Ursula reached into her dress pocket and slid out a small mirror, and looked into it. She looked a little unhappy with her dishevelled appearance. “Of course dear Mr Gwump, I will not forget you”.

 

Ursula sat up and looked across at the ugly creature “Now will you lead me out of this wretched forest?”  she asked adjusting her matted hair in the mirror.

 

The Gwump was delighted, and began to jump up and down clapping his large bony hands together. “I’m so happy I found you” he said “My life will never be quite the same again!”

 

Ursula looked up from her mirror, and gazed at the Gwump’s hands. The talent this creature possessed was remarkable, and she could not help smiling in admiration. Yes, the Gwump was indeed far more valuable that he looked, and society had been wrong to view him as a menace and a liability.

 

The Gwump guided Ursula safely out of the forest. Their journey did not pass unnoticed.  The wolves had picked up the young woman’s scent and they were following at a safe distance. The Gwump was a formidable creature and even though they were blighted by hunger, they dared not risk an attack.

 

A large signpost stuck out of the ground. Huge red lettering stated ‘WELLFAR VILLAGE AHEAD’ The Gwump bowed his head and shook it sadly, for beneath those words were ‘HUMANS ONLY’..

 

Ursula reached out her hand and placed it uneasily upon the creature’s shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry but you can go no further”. She drew back her hand, and wiped her palm upon her dress. “But I promise that I’ll visit you again”.

 

The Gwump looked up into Ursula’s glorious face. “Thank you my angel. Until then I shall simply stare at your portrait”

 

Ursula chuckled “Beauty and the beast”… 

 

The Gwump was not offended by the remark, because Ursula was his friend “To see your face is like dancing through rainbows” he remarked cheerfully.  “Please do visit me again soon”… He turned away and bounded back into the forest. Ursula waved goodbye, but the Gwump did not look back. He did not need to, he had her image firmly in his mind, and all the land seemed beautiful because of that.           

 

The villagers in Wellfar lived in wooden shacks that stood upon raised pillars. Their homes were suspended above ground to protect them from predators. The villagers lived harmoniously on the outskirts of Grimney Forest. In summer the meadows around their houses bloomed with a sea of red flowers, and nourishing blue Will-Der berries.  It was here in these tranquil surroundings that Ursula Klimt lived with her husband Leith. 

 

The house they lived in was sparsely furnished. A large oak table, surrounded by four wobbly chairs, a wooden four poster bed in one corner, and a tin bath in another. Seated at the table was Leith Klimt. He was a big man, with a large round face, and dark green eyes. His head was shaved, and he had a small white goatee beard. Leith stroked his whiskers and stared across the table.

 

A second man was seated opposite. Shadows fell across Vance Scarab’s pale face, the dark leather eye patch he wore added to his somewhat sinister appearance. He leant forward across the tabletop and smiled. “They’re hunting me Leith. I’m tired of hiding”.

 

Leith sighed deeply and scratched the tip of his nose with a shaking finger. “It’s dangerous you being here Vance. I mean, Grimwood Scribes has put a bounty on your head”.      

 

Vance chuckled because he understood what his friend was trying to say. “I’m an enemy of the State. They’ll hang me if they catch me. I guess if they catch me in your company, they’ll hang you too”…

 

Leith found it difficult to look into Vance Scarab’s one good eye, and he began to drum his fingers upon the tabletop “Ursula’s life is at risk too Vance. There are three lives at stake here”.   

 

Vance began to laugh. “Perhaps I should go and live with the Gwump?”…    

 

“Perhaps you should”… Ursula said from behind them.

 

The two men turned their heads. The young woman looked dishevelled, her dress torn, and her hair matted in sodden clumps. She staggered forward and fell to her knees.

 

Vance remained seated, he seemed unconcerned and looked down at the scorpion emblem emblazoned upon his red armour. This creature defined his reputation. He was part of a clan, and as such he rarely concerned himself with the suffering of others.  

 

Leith leapt to his feet and helped his wife to a chair. She opened her eyes, and a deep frown clenched the skin of her forehead together. “What’s he doing here?”

 

Vance winked his one good eye and grinned “Ursula, I’m always pleased to see you”. He winked a second time. “But only with my blind eye”.

 

“I’ve been through hell, so your jokes are not appreciated Mr Scarab” Ursula reached out and grabbed her husband by the hand.

 

“I’ve been attacked, and mistreated” She fluttered her eyelashes at Leith, and deliberately rolled her eyes as if she was about to faint.

 

“Darling” he wrapped his arms around his wife’s shoulders. “What happened to you?”

 

“The Gwump”... she responded hugging her husband tightly against her body. “That vile creature, he attacked me”…    

 

Vance leant back in his chair and folded his arms, the left side of his mouth curled upwards, and he narrowed his eye and watched as Leith rubbed his wife’s back, and kissed and caressed the beautiful woman’s face.

 

”Ursula, that creature needs destroying. How dare he hurt you” Leith stared across at Vance. “That beastly thing, we drove it out of town, yet it still causes trouble, it’s a social menace”.   

 

Vance nodded and folded his arms even more tightly across his body. “Like me?”  He gritted his teeth into a strange smile “We all sit in judgement.  But the more money and power you have, the more you can judge”.   

 

Ursula glared at Vance “We have no money, but that creature tried to buy me. I refused and he tore at my clothes. I was lucky to escape with my life”

 

Leith’s eyes welled with tears. “We should punish that vile creature”. He looked across at Vance.

 

“I’ve helped you enough, now you help me. Bring me that things head”.

 

Ursula raised her hands and placed them upon her husband’s shoulders and squeezed “No. He likes to paint”. She narrowed her eyes and grinning coldly she turned her head towards Vance Scarab. “Bring me his hands… That will teach him the ultimate lesson”.

 

Vance was silent for a moment and then he began to roar with laughter. “What’s in it for me?”

 

Ursula was about to speak, but Vance raised a black gloved hand. “Don’t bother to answer” he responded harshly “I don’t kill anything without good reason, and I suggest that if your honour has been compromised Ursula, then it’s Leith’s duty, not mine to right that wrong”.    

 

Ursula nodded and gazed seductively into her husband’s eyes. He was melted by her beauty, and as she gently kissed his lips, he knew he was duty bound to slay the Gwump and thus preserve his wife’s virtue.

 

The Gwump enjoyed his own company, but he was distracted. His thoughts straying back to Ursula. The more he thought about her, the more angelic she became in his mind. She was indeed like an angel, and as he sat upon his stool in front of her portrait, he brushed his hairy hands across the canvas.

 

“I’ll never look at my own reflection in the river again” he said softly, his white eyes welling with tears as he became overcome by Ursula’s flawless image. “Why would I want to see my face, when I can simply look at yours?”

 

Leith Klimt had arrived at the river, Night had fallen. The two moons glowed brightly overhead, and diamond splinters fractured across the water and danced like fairies upon glass. 

 

Leith had a leather rucksack strapped to his back, and he rolled his shoulders against the uncomfortable straps.

 

“Swimming was never one of my strong points” he muttered nervously as he edged to the side of the riverbank and dipped his boot into the water.  

 

“No” Leith looked about himself and his eyes alighted upon the many small stones that littered the ground “Best to confront it on dry land”. 

 

The Gwump was sleeping. He was seated with his deformed back pressed up against the wall, and his bulbous head hanging forward.  His dreams were somewhat restless, and his large hairy ears were twitching back and forth, a continuous dull tapping sound had penetrated his thoughts. The Gwump’s white eyes opened and he gazed around the cavern. The sound was coming from the far end of the tunnel. He shuffled to his feet, and ventured cautiously down the damp passageway.

 

The sounds echoed in his ears, and he gazed down into the circular pool, vibrations beneath its surfaces were causing gentle ripples. The Gwump took a deep breath and plunged into the water.

 

He had only managed to swim a short distance, before he was struck upon the head by a small stone, moments later another followed leaving a trail of bubbles in its wake.

 

The Gwump’s huge hairy feet frantically propelled his body upwards. More stones were falling around him, plummeting into the darkness and bouncing against the rocks below.

 

Leith stood upon the riverbank, and watched as a grotesque shambling shape emerged from the water. It crawled on all fours like a giant brown bat scenting pray. Leith stepped back and dropped the handful of stones he was holding.

 

“You’re the Gwump? Are you not?”  Leith was afraid and found that he was unable to blink. 

 

The Gwump pushed himself onto his feet and stepped towards the frightened man. He unfurled his long hairy fingers, and jabbed a long fingernail at Leith.

 

“You know me of old” The Gwump’s white eyes stared coldly at the man “It was your kind that used to beat me with a stick when I was a child”. 

 

Leith shook his head “Not I”.. Leith smiled, and reached a shaking hand over his shoulder. “I come with a gift from Ursula. You know her I think”.

 

The Gwump grinned, and his expression seemed to soften. “Yes. I do. She is my angel. What has she got to give me?”

 

“Come closer Gwump” Leith replied, beads of sweat glistening upon his forehead.  “Reach out your hand and I will give you the gift she wants you to have”.

 

The Gwump looked innocently at the man, and reached out his hand. Leith pulled a short silver sword from his rucksack, and cutting through the air, the blade severed the Gwump’s hand at the wrist.

 

The Gwump screamed in pain and stepped backwards, cradling the bleeding stump against his chest. He looked up in bewilderment at his attacker.

 

“Why?” He cried “Why do people hate me so?”…

 

Leith pointed his sword at the helpless creature, and stared down the blade. The Gwump’s blue blood dripped down upon the ground, and wherever his blood fell, a small golden flower grew. 

 

“You attacked my wife!” he said forcefully “You’re a beast that needs destroying! You will never use your hands to hurt anyone else!”…

 

The Gwump’s white eyes widened, and in his rage they began to fill with blood. His breathing became unnaturally loud, and his teeth seemed to grow longer.

 

Leith gripped the sword handle tightly and raised the` blade. “Dead or alive I’m taking your other hand too”.

 

The Gwump swallowed his pain, eyes burning blood red with rage he pounced upon his enemy, pinning him to the ground. The colour seeped from Leith cheeks, as the full weight of the Gwump’s body pressed down upon his chest.

 

“Release your sword” the Gwump hissed, saliva dripping into the petrified man’s face.

 

Leith tossed it to one side and stared up into the monstrous creature’s face. “Wait, I’m sorry. But you shouldn’t have hurt Ursula”.   

 

The Gwump grabbed Leith tightly around the throat, and dug his fingernails into the man’s neck. “I never touched her” he growled, looking down at his bleeding stump. “You have disfigured me”…

 

Leith chuckled. “Disfigured?” He grinned “You were disfigured before, but I’m sorry” he said quickly “Ursula said you hurt her, that I was to bring your hands to her”.

 

The Gwump glared into Leith’s eyes “I understand. I am betrayed!”. He loosened his grip, and his eyes began to lose their redness “Ursula wants my hands so she can make gold for herself”.

 

“What?”  He was gasping for breath, under the Gwump’s body weight “I know nothing about that. How is that possible?”

 

“If I rub dirt between the palms of my hands” he said sadly  “I can make it into gold”.  The Gwump lifted his hairy body and rolled over onto his back, he lay motionless beside Leith and looked up at the darkening sky.  “I’ve been mislead” he said solemnly “You’ve been mislead”.

 

Leith remained motionless too afraid to move. He raised his head slowly and looked down towards his booted feet. He could see that his sword was just out of reach.

 

“I’m sorry Gwump. I truly am. It seems that Ursula lied to me too” He licked his dry lips. “Go back to the river, I’ll go back to the village and bring you a doctor”.

 

The Gwump groaned in agony and staggered to his feet. He gritted his sharp teeth and snarled “I thank you for that. But I will decline your help”. He began to hobble down to the riverbank, his blood steadily trickling from the stump. He gazed over his shoulder and said rather menacingly. “I will be visiting Ursula in due course”..

 

The Gwump waded into the water, and ducked down beneath the surface and disappeared from sight. Only a small circle of rolling ripples and a cloud of blood marked his passing.

 

Leith sat up quickly, and grabbed his sword. “Wretched creature” He stood up and brushed himself down. “You’re a naughty girl Ursula”. He chuckled and looked down to where the Gwump’s severed hand lay. “Gold”. He smiled “But I’ll need both hands for that”…

 

Leith approached the riverbank and gazed down into the water. “Should I?  Or shouldn’t I?” The thought of making gold was irresistible, and Leith began to take off his boots. “This’ll be so easy”.         

He slipped off his socks and wiggled his toes, dipping his foot into the water. “Cold” he gasped drawing back. “Still, nothing ventured nothing”…  He was unable to finish his sentence as the blade off a sharp sword entered through his back and exited through his chest.

 

Leith’s blood trickled from his lips, as his body slid away from the blade and rolled down into the river. Leith’s corpse was caught by a gentle breeze, and began to float away, swallowed by the vast dark waters, soon to become food for the fish. 

 

Ursula sat at her dressing table, gazing into a large mirror suspended upon the wall before her. She brushed her long blonde locks, and smiled at her reflection. She was indeed a very beautiful young woman; her likeness was that of an angel.   

 

She placed the brush down upon her lap, and sighed. “What is Leith doing?”  Ursula heard the floorboards creak, and a dark shadow loomed behind her.

 

“What?” she said gazing briefly over her shoulder, only to find the Gwump’s hairy fingers grabbing at her face, and covering her mouth.

 

“Scream for help, and I’ll tear out your throat” The Gwump’s words were delivered with such malevolence, that Ursula simply nodded in compliance.

 

The Gwump drew back his hand and crouched down beside the petrified woman. He raised his stumped arm and placed it down upon her lap.

 

“Look at what your husband did to me” he growled, his white eyes once more turning red. “I demand that you look at your folly”….

 

Ursula lowered her head and stared down at the bandaged stump. Blue blood was seeping over her dress, and she felt physically sickened by the sight.

 

“Oh” she said with a gasp. “You poor creature, let me get you a doctor”…

 

The Gwump grabbed Ursula around the throat and he dragged her from the chair. He pinned the woman against the wall with his one good hand.

 

Ursula stared into the Gwump’s raging eyes. “You intend to murder me?” she said firmly. “I knew you were a barbarous creature”.  Her expression hardened. “I knew you were a monster”.

 

“No” he replied softly “I intend to punish you”. The Gwump’s mouth began to open unnaturally wide and his jaw cracked as if dislocated.

 

Ursula watched as a dark green cloud seeped from the Gwump’s postulated tongue. It smelt of rotting fish. She grimaced, her nose wrinkling in response to the vile stench. It flowed around her face, stinging her eyes and skin. Ursula fell into a swoon. The Gwump closed his mouth and released the young woman from his grip. She slid down against the wall, her eyes rolling frantically in her head. The last image she saw before passing into unconsciousness was the Gwump standing over her with a ghastly grin spread across his face. 

 

Hours passed and Ursula’s body began to twitch, and spasm, until her restless dreams jolted her back into her body. She grabbed at the leg of the dressing table and gasping for breath she hauled herself into the chair.    

 

She opened her eyes and gazed into the mirror. The reflection was not her own. Instead she saw the grotesque features of the Gwump staring back at her. She blinked and looked away, but when she returned her gaze the hideous creature was still staring back at her.

 

“It can’t be” she muttered the Gwump’s mouth moving in synchronization with her own. She reached up her hands and touched her face. Her skin felt as it always did, soft and smooth, not a hint of hair grew from her chin or forehead.

 

“That cursed creature” she said grabbing her brush and hurling it at the mirror shattering the glass “He’s stolen my reflection”.  She began to cry. “How could he be so cruel?”

 

Ursula wiped her eyes and gazed coldly across the room. A large axe was hanging upon the wall. She looked back at her broken reflection, and spoke to the Gwump’s fractured image.

 

“I’ll kill you for this”…. Ursula took several deep breaths, reached forward and using all her strength, she ripped the mirror from the wall and hurled it to the floor. The glass exploded into a million shards, and the Gwump’s reflection was scattered into oblivion.  

 

The Gwump sat beside the riverbank gazing up at the two moons of Grimney. The night sky was a luminous shade of red, and falling meteorites blazed a golden trail against a sea of glowing stars. 

 

“I don’t understand human nature” he said hoping that the answer could be found in the Heavens. The Gwump felt lost, and betrayed. A well of sadness weighed heavy in his belly, and he felt like crying. He stroked his bandaged stump. “There is no good reason that I am hated. I am only hated for my ugliness”.

 

He looked at his reflection in the water, his hideous white eyes, and deformed shoulder, the matted clumps of coarse black hair growing from his face. 

 

The Gwump nodded with disgust “I am truly a monster”… 

 

The sound of twigs snapping alerted the Gwump; his long hairy ears swivelling back and forth. He jumped to his feet, and swung around. 

 

Ursula was standing before him holding a large axe. She smiled at the creature her fingers twitching. “Give me back my reflection or I’ll cut you in half”.

 

“You took away the very thing that gave me a reason for living”.  The Gwump replied in a fractured melancholy voice “I lived to paint. You lived for your beauty” The Gwump’s white eyes began to weep “We have both lost what mattered to us”. 

 

“You’re going to lose far more than your hand Gwump, if you don’t give me back my reflection!” she shouted stepping forward with her axe held high.

 

The Gwump jumped out of the way, and turning on his heels he dived into the river and vanished amidst a flurry of frothing splashes.

 

“Coward!” Ursula shouted. “I’ll come after you!”  She walked down to the water’s edge and waded in, lifting the axe above her head. “Darn it” she cursed, realizing that she would not be able to swim holding an axe. She returned to dry land, and finding a tree stump nearby, she embedded the blade into the wood.      

 

The Gwump sat upon his stool in front of Ursula’s portrait. He began to cry, the tears dripping from his long hairy chin. “Is beauty worth nothing?” he cried.

 

Ursula answered him frostily. “My beauty is worth more than your worthless life”.

 

The Gwump slipped down from his stool, and straightened his body as best he could. Ursula stood before him, soaked to the skin, she looked very angry. She stared around the cave at the many paintings that hung from the rough walls.. “This is your last chance Gwump. Restore my looks or I’ll destroy your pictures”.

 

“Even you would not be so cruel. These are all I have”. The Gwump began to cower. He was cringing at the suggestion.

 

“Fine”. Ursula drew a knife from her boot, and stepping forward she slashed at his paintings, tearing huge gashes into the creature’s artwork.

 

The Gwump’s eyes turned bright red and he leapt on top of Ursula, gripping her shoulders, he hurled her to the ground. 

 

Ursula slashed at her assailant with the knife, cutting his face, but the Gwump was strong and bit into her throat.

 

Ursula screamed and using every ounce of strength she lifted the creature from her body, and scrambled to her feet. She grabbed her portrait and bleeding profusely she staggered down the passageway.

 

The Gwump tucked his legs into his body and rolled into a ball. His cries of pain echoed in Ursula’s ears as she made her escape. 

 

Ursula’s journey to the river’s surface was marked by a rainbow trail of oozing crimson and flowing paint. Her neck was badly torn, and as she struggled onto the riverbank, she could feel the blood pumping from the wound. She lay upon her back, coughing up dirty river water.

 

She reached for her portrait and held it up in front of her face. The paint had merged, her image washed away, and lost forever. “I’ll make you pay! I’ll come back!” she spluttered “I’ll come back with the whole village and I’ll”…   

 

Growling… The sounds of growling interrupted her. Ursula found the strength to stand and gazed into the dark, white shapes moved amidst the shadows, the wolves were in the wood, and gathering around her. The smell of fresh blood had drawn them from the forest.

 

“Damn”. Ursula looked across at the tree stump, but the axe was not there, someone had taken it. The wolves began to surge forward, bearing their teeth, their tongues dripping saliva.

 

“No” She stumbled back sliding on loose pebbles and nearly losing her footing. “I’m too beautiful to die”.

 

The wolves were hungry and her beauty did not matter, because they had simple needs and their stomachs needed filling. Ursula tried to flee, but the wolves pounced and their teeth tore into her body. Ursula screamed for help, but no one came. She could only watch as the wolves tore her flesh from her body, and ate their way to the bone.

 

The Gwump had not heard Ursula’s death throes. He remained lying upon the floor, sobbing. He was in a state of despair. His hand severed, his paintings destroyed, and the terrible thought that Ursula and Leith might return with other villagers and drive him from his home.

“What can I do now, I’m done for?”…

 

“Get up Gwump”. The creature felt a boot kicking him gently in the back. The Gwump sat up and gazed into the face of a one eyed man.       

 

“I’m Vance Scarab” the man stated looking down at the wretched creature. He reached into his tunic and pulled out the creature’s severed hand. “So you have the power to make gold?”

 

The Gwump shook his head in disgust. “Humans, they drove me out of their world and persecuted me because of my looks. Hurt me. Despised me, but now they all want me, because I can make gold”. 

 

Vance looked at the remaining paintings and smiled. “I’m an artist myself you know. As for Leith, I killed him, and Ursula has been eaten by wolves. Just as well I threw her axe in the river”.  He grinned and nodded “But yes you can give me your other hand”.

 

The Gwump shuddered at the suggestion. “I have no need of it, for the hand I paint with was cut off”. He reached out to Vance “Take it and be gone”.

 

Vance smiled and raising his arm he grabbed the Gwump by the hand and shook it. The Gwump looked astonished.

 

“You wish to be my friend?” the creature asked innocently.

 

”I have no desire to hurt you. We’re both outcasts. Hated, despised by the masses. We’re the same you and I” He looked once more at the Gwump’s beautiful paintings. “As for your artistic skills, I’m filled with admiration. You have value. You may look the way you do, but real beauty it’s not as superficial as you may think”.

 “But I can never paint again” the Gwump said sadly withdrawing his hand from Vance’s grip.

 “No Gwump” Vance stepped forward and using a damp handkerchief he gently dabbed the wound upon the creature’s hairy face. “When I lost an eye, I had to rely solely on the other one. You will adapt”. He placed a hand firmly upon the Gwump’s shoulder “With my help and my guidance you’ll paint again”.   

 The Gwump managed a slight smile. Perhaps, at long last, he had found a true friend. 

 

 

THE END

 


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