First Monday Free Fiction: The Bleak Heath

Welcome to a somewhat belated September edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

The Bleak Heath by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertThis month’s free story is The Bleak Heath, a novelette in my Thurvok sword and sorcery series. As for why this particular story, I like to pick stories which are somehow related to the season. And at the moment, the Lüneburg Heath nature park is in bloom, an event I sadly missed due to being away for WorldCon and EuroCon. However, last year I wrote a story inspired by my annual hiking trip to the Lüneburg Heath, a story I eventually published as The Bleak Heath.

The Thurvok series is unique among my fiction, since it is credited to Richard Blakemore, the 1930s pulp writer protagonist of my Silencer series. In one story, Richard outs himself as a Weird Tales reader and sword and sorcery fan. He also muses that he would like to take a stab at writing something like that one day. This throwaway scene got me thinking, “What if Richard actually did write a sword and sorcery series in the 1930s?”

Fast forward a couple of  years, when I found myself writing a couple of old school sword and sorcery stories for the annual July short story challenge and thought, “What if this is Richard Blakemore’s lost sword and sorcery series?” And so the decision was born to pass off the Thurvok stories as a forgotten sword and sorcery series from the 1930s with myself as the editor who rediscovered them.

So prepared to accompany Thurvok the sellsword and his companions Meldom, thief, cutpurse and occasionaly assassin, the sorceress Sharenna and Lysha, Meldom’s childhood sweetheart whom our heroes only just saved from the gallows, as they brave the dangers of…

The Bleak Heath

East of the city of Greyvault, there was a plain that stretched all the way to the Desolate Peaks. Few things grew here and even fewer people lived here, for the soil was poor and white as ash.

One of the few things that did grow on this plain was the hardy heather plant and so the entire plain was blanketed with patches of heather, crisscrossed by paths of white sand and dotted with juniper bushes and stunted birch trees and rocks that looked as if they had been randomly deposited here by a giant’s hand.

For a few weeks in late summer, when the heather was in bloom, the entire plain shimmered purple. The rest of the year it was brown and bleak. And so the people of Greyvault called it the Bleak Heath and did not go there, unless it was absolutely necessary. For the good people of Greyvault believed that the heath was cursed and haunted by ghosts and monsters born of sorcery and black magic.

But nonetheless, some travellers did cross the Bleak Heath, out of necessity or desperation. Four such travellers, two men and two women, were marching across the heath on foot, their forms outlined sharply against the slate grey sky.

One of the men was tall and muscular, with black hair and bronzed skin that was rarely found so far up north, where the winters were long and the sun was weak. He was clad all in leather, a great sword hanging on his hip. This was Thurvok, the sellsword.

The second man was shorter and more slightly built, lithe and wiry rather than muscular. His skin was pale, his hair dark and his eyes as grey as the skies above the heath. He was clad all in black, the only relief a silver amulet glittering at his neck and a silver dagger gleaming at his waist. This was Meldom, thief, cutpurse and occasional assassin, though he had recently sworn off killing except when absolutely necessary.

One of the women was tall, almost as tall as Thurvok. Her statuesque form was swathed in a moss green cloak. Strands of long hair the colour of flame fell from underneath the hood of her cloak. This was Sharenna, the sorceress.

The second woman was slight and clad in a gown of plain white linen of the sort worn by penitents and prisoners condemned to die on the scaffold. Her bare feet were wrapped only in rags, that offered scant protection against the prickly heather plants that sprouted from the path here and there. The harsh wind blew her long dark hair into her face and made her shiver in her thin gown. This was Lysha, daughter of a merchant from Greyvault and Meldom’s childhood sweetheart whom the other three had recently saved from the gallows.

Lysha did not complain about the cold and the harsh wind. In fact, she barely spoke at all. Nonetheless, Meldom noticed that she freezing and so he took off his own cloak and wrapped it around Lysha.

Lysha flashed him a grateful smile. “Thank you. But won’t you be cold?”

Meldom shook his head. “No, it’s fine,” he lied through his chattering teeth, “I’m used to it.”

As they continued on their way across the Bleak Heath, Sharenna moved closer to Meldom.

“Maybe we should stop and make camp for the night,” she said, keeping her voice low, so none of the others would hear, “Your girl is in a bad condition and you are not much better off.”

Meldom had his teeth clenched, so they wouldn’t chatter in the cold. But nonetheless, he shook his head. “No, we have to go on. It’s not safe here.”

“But why?” Sharenna wanted to know, “There’s no sign of any pursuit. And besides, I think that after the chaos we caused, the Rhagur rulers of Greyvault have bigger problems than us to worry about.”

Thurvok, slowed down his mighty strides, allowing the others to catch up.

“Such as the fact that their current governor was strangled by the murdered corpse of their previous governor,” he said with a grin, for the sight of a murderer getting his just comeuppance at the hands of his victim was a source of rare amusement to him, “And this time, the Rhagur can’t even blame the people of Greyvault, for it’s all too clear what really happened.”

“The Bleak Heath still isn’t safe”, Meldom insisted, “Or why do you think most travellers approach Greyvault via the Forest of the Hanged? Hint, it’s not because the route is so scenic and the smell of rotting corpses so intoxicating. It’s because awful as the Forest of the Hanged is, the Bleak Heath is worse.”

Thurvok looked around, scanning for hidden dangers, but all he saw were purplish blooming heather, jutting juniper bushes and scattered rocks.

“Doesn’t look very dangerous to me,” he remarked.

“But trust me, it is,” Meldom insisted, “There are… things here. Men turning to stone, rocks coming to life, creatures emerging from the night’s mists to snatch unwary travellers until not a trace is left…”

Thurvok emitted a roaring laugh. Sharenna shot him a warning glance, but Thurvok ignored her.

“Oh, come on. You know I don’t believe in that sort of thing.”

“Normally, I don’t believe in that sort of thing either,” Meldom replied, more than a little testy, “But this is different. I grew up in Greyvault. I’ve heard the stories all my life, stories about travellers gone missing on the heath, never to be seen again…”

“Stories, sure,” Thurvok countered, “Doesn’t mean they’re true.”

Before they could come to blows, Sharenna intervened. “Could we maybe just agree that whether the stories are true or not, this is no place to be abroad by night?”

She nodded at the sky, which was turning from pink to violet to deep indigo.

“So I’d suggest we find shelter and make camp.” She turned to Meldom. “Is there a village around here or an inn or a cave or some other place where we could rest?”

Meldom shook his head. “There’s nothing. Just heath and rocks. And the rocks are cursed.”

“Maybe we should find shelter among a cluster of rocks or behind a particularly large one then,” Sharenna suggested.

“Didn’t you listen to me?” Meldom snapped, “The rocks are cursed. Some say that they used to be men who tried to cross the heath and were turned to stone for their troubles.”

“You don’t believe in that, do you?” Thurvok asked, his eyes wide with incredulity.

“I don’t know what to believe, all right? All I know is that people have been vanishing and rocks randomly appearing on the Bleak Heath since before I was born.”

“Whether the rocks are cursed or not, we need to find shelter for the night,” Sharenna said, ever the peacemaker, “And personally, I think that even cursed rocks are safer than sleeping out in the open and risk freezing to death.”

Thurvok was about to agree to her plan, because it made sense. But before he could, he was interrupted by Lysha, who had trudged onwards, while the other three were arguing.

“Look,” she exclaimed and pointed into the distance, where the unrelenting bleakness of the heath was interrupted by a light on the horizon.

Thurvok turned to Meldom. “I thought you said no one lived here.”

Meldom nodded. “I did. Because no one does.”

“Well, where does that light come from then?”

“There are stories…” Lysha replied, her tone haunted, “…about lights dancing on the heath and luring travellers foolish enough to attempt to cross it by night to their doom. Maybe that’s what it is.”

Thurvok was about to repeat that he did not believe in such things as malicious magical lights. But one look into Lysha’s face told him that she was truly terrified — and given what she’d been through these past few days, who could blame her? — so he just grunted, “But that light’s not dancing.”

“Doesn’t mean that it’s not one of the trick lights that lure travellers to their doom,” Meldom countered.

“Can we maybe all agree that we need to find shelter for the night and soon?” Sharenna, always the sensible one, intervened, “And since we’re moving in that direction anyway, we might as well check out the light and it’s source. After all, it could be a hermit’s hut…”

“No one lives on the Bleak Heath,” Meldom mumbled under his breath.

“…or another traveller’s fire…”

“And no one crosses the heath, unless they’re really desperate,” Meldom grumbled.

“…and there is strength, safety and warmth in numbers,” Sharenna concluded.

“But what if the light intends to lead us to our doom?” Lysha wanted to know.

“Then we’ll deal with it when it happens,” Sharenna said firmly.

Since no one had any better ideas, they set off towards the light again, Thurvok and Sharenna taking the point, while Meldom lingered behind, supposedly to protect Lysha, though Thurvok could tell that the heath and the mystery light really did bother him. But if he had any comments about that, he kept them to himself.

The light did not flicker, dance or move, as they approached. On the contrary, it stayed right where they had first spotted it, a lone spot of brightness on the Bleak Heath.

As they came closer, they could make out the faint outline of a square-shaped building against the darkening sky. The light they’d spotted streamed from a window left unshuttered. So someone did live on the Bleak Heath after all.

Sharenna slowed down and let herself fall back. “Any idea what that might be?” she asked Meldom.

Meldom shook his head. “That’s not supposed to be here.”

“Maybe it’s a hermit,” Thurvok suggested, “They tend to live in secluded places.”

Hermits, he told himself, also tended to be eccentric, but harmless. At any rate, none of the hermits Thurvok had encountered during his travels had ever tried to kill him.

Closer and closer they approached and just in time, too, for night was falling and the temperatures were dropping fast. Even Thurvok was feeling the cold in his bones by now.

The house that was the source of the mysterious light was a small, squat structure that sat amongst a cluster of juniper bushes. It was built from the massive rocks that lay scattered around the heath. Thurvok marvelled at the effort this must have taken, for the rocks were beyond the capacity of a single man to lift. A circle of smaller rocks surrounded the little stone house, forming a makeshift fence. From a lone unshuttered window, light spilled out onto the heath. A path of snow white sand led right up to the door.

The four of them paused just outside the stone circle. The wind was blowing icy cold across the heath by now and the firelight shining from the window looked very inviting indeed. Nonetheless, they hesitated, for crossing a perimeter circle without protection or invitation was rarely a good idea. Too many such circles were enchanted or otherwise boobytrapped.

“So what do we do now?” Lysha whispered.

At this moment, Thurvok decided that he’d had enough of all this superstitious talk of cursed rocks, malevolent magical lights and enchanted fences.

“Knock,” he said and stepped across the stone circle.

For the space of a heartbeat, he froze. But nothing untoward happened and so he marched right up to the door and rapped his fist against it.

After a heartbeat or two of hesitation, Sharenna followed, stepping into the circle. Once more, nothing happened. Meldom and Lysha followed as well, though Meldom kept one hand on the hilt of his dagger, just in case. And so all four of them stood in front of the door of the little stone house and waited.

For the space of several heartbeats, nothing happened. The house was clearly occupied — the light shining from the window suggested as much. Yet the door remained shut.

Impatient, not to mention cold, Thurvok raised his fist to knock again.

“Do you think that’s wise?” Meldom hissed.

“Wiser than standing out here, freezing our backsides off,” Thurvok replied and rapped his fist once more against the heavy wooden door, louder and more insistent.

This time, the door did open with a low, mournful croak. A face peered out, ancient and wizened. Strands of greasy white hair escaped a black scarf that was wrapped around the head.

“Who dares disturb an old woman at this ungodly hour?”

Her eyes narrowed, as she spotted Thurvok.

“Men. I want nothing to do with men, for they are filthy beasts. Begone, begone.”

The old woman made a shooing motion and the door slammed shut once.

The four travellers standing outside the little stone house exchanged a glance.

“Now that was… odd,” Sharenna remarked.

“She did make herself very clear though,” Meldom said, “She won’t let us in, because she thinks we’re filthy beasts.”

“Not all of us,” Sharenna mused, “She spoke of men. Men are filthy beasts. So maybe she’ll be more friendly, if Lysha and I knock. After all, we’re not men.”

“Or maybe she’ll do something worse than just slam the door in your faces,” Meldom grumbled.

Thurvok was inclined to agree with him. But then he cast a sideways glance at Lysha and saw that she was really very cold. She needed warmth and shelter, they all did, and right now that little house and its eccentric occupant were their best bet. So he relented.

“Might as well try,” he grunted.

So Sharenna motioned Thurvok and Meldom to stand back, well out of sight. Then she put her arm around Lysha and walked right up to the door again. She raised her hand and rapped against the door, her knocks lighter and less thunderous than Thurvok’s.

Once more, they waited. Lysha was shivering pitifully, so Sharenna pushed the shorter girl in front of her, both to shelter her from the cold wind and perhaps also to arouse the old woman’s pity. Provided the old woman opened the door, that was.

After what seemed an inordinately long time, the door finally did open with another dreadful croak. The old woman peered out.

“Begone, I said, begone.”

“Please, we…” Sharenna began.

The old woman finally seemed to realise that the person standing in front of her door was not the same who’d knocked earlier. At any rate, she pushed the door open further, eliciting yet more soul-rending moans from the aged wood.

“You’re not men,” the woman said and narrowed her eyes.

“No, we’re not,” Sharenna said, “But we’re travellers, in need of warmth and shelter.”

The old woman focussed her gaze on Lysha shivering in her thin linen shift.

“It’s never a good idea to go traipsing around the heath in a nightgown, girl.”

“Well, it’s not as if I had any choice,” Lysha said under her breath.

“We’re refugees, fugitives,” Sharenna added, “We only want to share your fire for the night.” She reached into her bag and produced a coin that gleamed in the wan moonlight. “And of course we’d be willing to pay you for the privilege.”

“All right, then come in,” the old woman finally relented, “But only the women. No men. I will not tolerate any men in my home.”

Sharenna shot a questioning glance at Thurvok and Meldom.

“It’s all right,” Thurvok assured her, for Meldom was too busy keeping his teeth from chattering to reply, “We’ll manage. Go.”

So Sharenna and Lysha entered the little stone house with its friendly firelit windows and its not so friendly inhabitant.

The door slammed shut behind them, leaving Thurvok and Meldom standing alone on the windswept heath.

***

The little stone cabin was surprisingly cosy inside with a fire blazing in the hearth. The room was dominated by a large table of massive oakwood, holding several jars and bowls as well as a mortar and pestle. Bundles of dried herbs were hanging from the low ceiling, while jars lined up on shelves against the wall held even more herbs, ointments and other substances.

Sharenna smiled. So the old woman was a hedge witch. And a busy one, by the looks of it.

“Come in, girls, and step closer to the fire.” The old woman beckoned with a bony hand. “I am Kadexa, by the way.”

“Have some broth,” she said and ladled broth from the cauldron over the fire into two wooden bowls. “A good hearty broth will warm you up in no time.”

“Thank you,” Sharenna said and wrapped her hands around the bowl, savouring the warmth. Beside her, Lysha did likewise.

The old woman nodded. “Tis no night to go galivanting about on the heath.” She regarded Lysha through narrowed eyes. “What were you doing out there anyway and in a nightgown, too? Those awful men didn’t hurt you, did they?”

It was Sharenna who answered. “No. We had to leave Greyvault in something of a hurry, that’s all.”

“Pah, Greyvault…” Kadexa spat on the floor. “They tried to hang me once, the men of Greyvault, tried to hang me for witchcraft…”

Sharenna reached for Lysha’s hand, for both of them had escaped the same fate, Lysha barely a day ago.

“But they could not, because nature is my friend. And so the bough broke, as they tried to hang me, and the ravens that live in the Forest of the Hanged attacked the executioner and tried to peck out his eyes…”

The old woman smiled a savage smile.

“When they found that they could not hang me, the men of Greyvault drove me out onto the heath instead. They thought that I’d die out here, that I’d freeze to death or that I’d be torn limb from limb by the wolves…”

“Wolves?” Lysha whispered under her breath.

“But nature is my friend and she provides for me.” Kadexa’s smile softened. “That was two and forty years ago. I’ve been here ever since.”

“And you live here all alone?” Sharenna asked, not without sympathy, for the old woman’s fate might easily have been hers.

“Not alone,” Kadexa insisted, “Nature’s creatures are my friends. The birds, the bees, the shining dung beetles, the sheep that graze the heath and even the wolves that prey on them. They keep me company. And sometimes, the girls and women of Greyvault come to see me, when men have done them wrong, when they jilted them after having gotten them with child. Cause I can help.”

The old woman narrowed her eyes and regarded Sharenna and Lysha. “Is this why you have come to me? Because you need my help?”

Lysha blushed. She clearly had little experience in such matters — after all, the Rhagur had planned to hang her in retaliation for the murder of their governor precisely because she was a virgin.

“We need help,” Sharenna said, “But not of that sort, though it’s very kind of you to offer. Mostly, we need shelter and a place to stay for the night.”

Kadexa nodded. “So what did you do to get driven out of Greyvault? Dally with the wrong man, rebuff the wrong man, want nothing to do with men at all?”

“We…” Sharenna began, but Lysha pre-empted her.

“They wanted to hang me. Because of something someone else had done. My friends saved me, but we had to flee.”

“So they tried to hang you, too, eh?” Kadexa said knowingly. “They like hanging people, the men of Greyvault. Particularly women who won’t do as they’re told. Doesn’t matter whether you did anything or not, just that they believe you did.”

Sharenna and Lysha both nodded, for they both understood.

“So that’s why you’re wearing only a shift,” the old woman continued, “Not a nightgown, but an execution gown. They made me wear one like that, too. But not in white, no, I wasn’t even pure enough for that. My execution gown was blood red, the colour of a condemned murderess.”

“Were you…?” Lysha wanted to know. “A murderess, I mean?”

Kadexa shot her a bone-chilling gaze. “Did you do what they say you did?”

Lysha shook her head.

“See? And neither did I. But the men of Greyvault, they wanted to be rid of me, so they found a body dead of poison and pinned it on me. Cause that’s what men do.”

Lysha lowered her gaze. “I… I’m sorry.”

“Whatever for?” the old woman grumbled, “They did it to you, they did it to me…” She focussed on Sharenna, her gaze piercing. “…and they did it to you, too, didn’t they?”

Sharenna nodded, remembering the fate the priest kings of Khon Orzad had intended for her.

“Cause that’s what men are like, what they do to women.” Kadexa trundled over to the hearth and began stirring her cauldron. “And that’s why I want nothing to do with men and why I won’t allow them in my home. Cause men only exist to hurt women.”

Privately, Sharenna felt that this was very much an oversimplification, condemning an entire gender on the basis of what a few particularly nasty specimen had done. But the old woman had clearly been through a lot in her life and had probably gone half mad from isolation, too, so Sharenna decided not to argue with her. It would only upset her and do nothing to change her mind.

Lysha, however, was determined to defend the honour of the male sex.

“Not all men are villains,” she declared, dark eyes flashing with passion, “The two you left standing outside in the cold protected me and saved me from the gallows.”

“Because they have another use for you,” Kadexa countered, “Or has none of them tried to make you lie down and spread your legs in gratitude, so they can swive you?”

Sharenna was pretty sure that no swiving of any kind had occurred, if only because there hadn’t been any time for such things. She was also pretty sure that Lysha would not be exactly averse to any swiving, should the opportunity present itself.

Lysha, however, decided to be offended by the mere suggestion.

“Of course not,” she replied hotly, “Meldom is a true gentleman who’d never take advantage of a lady in such a way…”

Sharenna suppressed a snicker, for that description did not match the Meldom she knew at all. But then love was not just blind, it also tended to blind you to the truth about your beloved.

“…and Thurvok, too, I suppose.”

“Pah.” Kadexa spat into the fireplace, her spittle hissing as it hit the glowing embers. “Men are all the same. You’ll see, child. In time, you’ll see.”

She stirred her pot some more in silence, then she abruptly got to her feet with a groan.

“It grows late,” she announced abruptly, “The embers are burning low and the wolf moon stands high in the sky.”

She turned to Sharenna and Lysha, favouring both of them with her piercing glare. “You should sleep. I have a spare cot in the room yonder.” She pointed at a darkened doorway. “But just one.”

“That’s all right,” Sharenna said, “We can share.”

However, the cot turned out to be narrow, barely wide enough for a single person. So Sharenna left the cot to Lysha and settled down on the floor instead, wrapping her cloak around her body as a blanket.

It wasn’t very comfortable and so Sharenna lay awake for a while, listening to Lysha’s even breathing, certain that the girl had fallen asleep. But she hadn’t.

“She’s wrong, you know?” Lysha said into the darkness, “About men. They’re not all bad. Meldom isn’t.”

“I know,” Sharenna replied, “But she’d old and bitter and she’s had a hard life and men have treated her badly. And unlike us, she never met any of the good ones.”

“Meldom is a good man,” Lysha said with a yawn, “And Thurvok, too, I suppose.” She paused. “They will be all right out there, won’t they?”

“Of course,” Sharenna said, suppressing a yawn of her own, “They can take care of themselves.”

***

Outside, Thurvok and Meldom huddled in the shelter of some juniper bushes, close to a miserable fire of twigs and peat, and cast longing looks at the fireglow streaming from the window of the little stone house.

“That old hag at least could’ve let us share her fire,” Meldom grumbled.

“Didn’t you hear her?” Thurvok said, “She said she doesn’t want men in her home.”

“What does she think we’re going to do to her? Ravish her?” Meldom made a face.

Thurvok shrugged. “I have no idea. But her house, her rules.”

Meldom nodded. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

He stirred the fire with a stick, as if trying to coax some more warmth out of it.

“At least, the old hag let the girls inside,” Meldom said, “Sleeping rough is fine for you and me, cause we’re used to it. But the girls aren’t…”

Sharenna had never complained about sleeping rough, Thurvok mused. Of course, she usually didn’t have to sleep alone either.

“…particularly Lysha,” Meldom continued. He turned to Thurvok, suddenly anxious. “She is going to be all right, isn’t she?”

“Of course,” Thurvok said, “After all, she’s in there…” He flicked a hand at the little stone house with the invitingly glowing window. “…where it’s warm and where there’s a proper fire.”

“And a crazy old hag who hates all men,” Meldom pointed out.

“Yes, men. Not women,” Thurvok countered, “She was very particular about that. So yes, Lysha and Sharenna will be all right. And besides, Sharenna can take care of herself and of Lysha, too, if need be.”

“If you say so…”

Meldom still sounded doubtful. He poked the fire with his stick again and still could not coax any more warmth from the meagre flames.

“Lysha shouldn’t be here at all,” he said quietly, staring into the miserable flames as if the answer to all life’s mysteries were to be found in there, “She’d not made for such a life.”

“At least, she is alive,” Thurvok pointed out, “Better than dangling from the gallows, quite dead.”

“She still shouldn’t be here,” Meldom argued, “We’re gutter scum, you and me…”

“Speak for yourself,” Thurvok grunted.

“But Lysha isn’t like us. She’s special, precious. A glimmering jewel, a shining star in the night sky…”

Thurvok rolled his eyes at his friend’s sudden eruption into poetry.

“She shouldn’t even be with men like us, men like me.”

“I don’t hear her complaining,” Thurvok grunted.

“Only because she’d too polite, too good, too pure,” Meldom insisted.

Thurvok raised an eyebrow. “You really are besotted with her, aren’t you?”

Meldom nodded. “Aye. Since I was fourteen years old.”

“So why did you never do anything about it?” Thurvok wanted to know, “I mean, you didn’t, did you?”

Meldom shot him a dark look. “Of course not. I may be gutter scum, but I’m not a complete bastard.”

“But why not?” Thurvok probed, “I’ve known you for almost a year now and I’ve never known you to be shy around women. But for some reason, you won’t make a move for the one girl with whom you’ve been besotted for years now.”

“Because it would be wrong. I’m…”

“Gutter scum,” Thurvok supplied, “Yes, I know. And she’s a glimmering star in the night sky. But sometimes, the gutter rats do look up to the stars. And sometimes, a star falls down and lands in the gutter.”

“Those are some dreadful metaphors,” Meldom remarked.

“You used them first,” Thurvok countered, “But anyway, my point is that back when you met Lysha, you were a thief and she was the daughter of a rich merchant. And now, you’re still a thief and she’s a fugitive from the gallows who can never go home again. Whatever gulf there once was between you, it no longer exists.”

Meldom thrust his stick so hard into the fire that he scattered embers onto the ground. “So you’re saying that just because the Rhadur wanted to hang Lysha for something she didn’t even do, I should go and… and defile her?”

“No, all I’m saying is that you can finally do what you’ve been wanting to do since you were fourteen,” Thurvok corrected, “Look, I’ve got eyes. I can see how Lysha looks at you, when she thinks you’re not watching. She cares about you, as much as you care about her. But it’s up to you to take the first step, cause she won’t.”

“Just like you and Sharenna, you mean,” Meldom countered, “After all, you tiptoed around her for weeks, until she finally got you drunk and took you to her bed.”

“What’s between Sharenna and me is none of your business,” Thurvok grunted. He lay down on the ground, using his bag for a pillow and his cloak for a blanket.

“Yeah, and what’s between Lysha and me is none of yours,” Meldom said. He wrapped himself in his own cloak and lay down on the other side of the dying fire.

Thurvok did not reply. He just closed his eyes, pulled the cloak tighter around himself against the cold. Before the fire had died completely, he was fast asleep.

***

Thurvok did not sleep well that night, which was unusual, for Thurvok normally lay down, closed his eyes and slept like the proverbial log.

But that night, he was frequently woken by the cold creeping into his bones, and when he did sleep, he was plagued by uneasy dreams of monsters and dark magic.

All right, so the wind was icy and cutting, the ground was hard and the last embers of their meagre fire had long since died away. But then Thurvok was not unused to sleeping rough and slept under the stars far more often than he slept in an actual bed. And most nights, he barely noticed the difference. But that night, he did.

He was missing Sharenna, he realised, missing her body curled up next to his, missing her warmth that blazed like the magical fire at her core.

Meldom wasn’t faring any better. For whenever Thurvok resurfaced from his uneasy sleep, he could hear his friend thrashing about, moaning or mumbling words in a language Thurvok did not understand.

Privately, he suspected that Meldom was suffering from the same malady as Thurvok himself, the cold and the lack of a warm and soft body beside him.

Thurvok opened an eye and looked at the stone hut. A ghostly light was flickering in its windows, sometimes greenish, sometimes purplish and sometimes orange.

They could both be in there right now, comfortable and warm, Thurvok curled up next to Sharenna and Meldom curled up next to his Lysha. If only that old hag didn’t hate men, all men.

Though at least the girls were safe and warm. Not that Sharenna couldn’t handle sleeping rough, she could. But Lysha seemed to be more delicate, a porcelain doll that might shatter at the slightest impact.

She was, Thurvok reflected, not at all like the girls Meldom normally went for. He tended to like busty tavern wenches not slight waifs that the lightest gust of wind could blow over. He also tended to like blondes rather than brunettes.

But then, Meldom had never looked at any of those girls — and there had been many — like he looked at Lysha. And maybe he deliberately chose women who were the exact opposite of the one he couldn’t forget.

Thurvok smiled. So it seemed as if even Meldom, the consummate cynic who’d seen it all before and hadn’t been impressed then either, had something like a heart. Who would have guessed?

He must have drifted off again after that, for when he came to again, he found that he could not move, could not even breathe.

Somewhere at the back of his panicked mind, Thurvok recognised the symptoms. Among his people, it was considered a terrible curse, to lie helpless and paralysed while a demon choked the life out of you.

But Thurvok did not believe in curses, demons or black magic. In his experiences, when you woke up to find something choking the life out of you, the hands round your throat were usually human rather than ghostly. And humans could be wounded, could be killed.

And so his mighty muscles strained against their bonds — definitely bonds, physical bonds, and not the invisible chains of magic — until he managed to get one hand free. He reached for the knife at his belt, drew it and thrust upwards, thrust at where the chest of his assailant should be.

But his blade only pierced empty air, while the cord — and it definitely was a cord, not hands — drew even tighter around his neck. Already his vision was going and soon his conscience would flee as well.

So with the last vestiges of strength he had left, Thurvok managed to free his other hand and claw into the tightening cord around his neck to tear it loose. He expected to find hemp or maybe leather or even silk. But instead, he found stems, leaves and blossoms and the distinctive scent of juniper and wild heather.

So that was why his knife had not found the heart of any physical attacker. Because there was none. His enemy was the heath itself, his attacker its shrubs and plants.

And so Thurvok hacked and slashed at the sprigs of heather and shoots of juniper that wrapped themselves around his limbs and throat again and again, as if guided by some unseen hand.

The heather sprigs and juniper branches did their best to wrap themselves around his neck and cover his mouth, but nonetheless Thurvok managed to shout out a warning to Meldom, lest he find himself in the same predicament.

The malevolent vegetation did its best to tie him down, but Thurvok managed free his right arm and right leg once more, tearing out the heather plants by the root and sprinkling his body with the poor, sandy soil.

He rolled over to hack at the springs and twigs encircling his left arm and leg and chanced to see Meldom engaged in a similar fight of his own, grimly hacking and slashing at plants that were threatening to tie him down again and again.

It was a desperate, largely silent struggle in the dark. But in the end, Thurvok and Meldom were just two men, while the accursed heath had an endless number of plants to muster.

And so it came as it had to. Gradually, Thurvok and Meldom tired, their muscles stiff with cold and exhaustion. But the plants did not tire and so sprigs and shoots grew back faster than Thurvok and Meldom could hack them off. They wrapped themselves around their arms, legs, ankles, wrists, tying them down like two unfortunate sinners stretched out on the rack and left to their fate.

Thurvok felt the rough caress of a juniper branch on his skin, as it wrapped itself around his throat and slowly tightened like a hangman’s noose. Once last time, he tried to free himself, but could not, for his bonds were too strong.

And still the juniper noose tightened, gradually choking the life out of him. His head felt light and his vision faded. Not long now.

His mind was going, his consciousness fleeing and the last thought Thurvok had was, “At least, the girls are safe and warm inside…”

***

Sharenna did not sleep well that night either. And it wasn’t just because she’d left the cot to Lysha and made her bed on the hard floor. After all, Sharenna had slept rough before. And while the floor of the little stone hut was hard, it was at least sheltered from the cold and the wind and the rain. She had certainly slept under worse conditions on many other nights. And yet then, sleep had not eluded like it did tonight.

It was Thurvok she was missing, she realised. His warmth, his strength, his solid comforting presence, even his snoring. And wasn’t it strange that even though she’d spent most of her adult life sleeping alone, it had taken only a few months of sleeping next to someone else to make her unable to fall asleep without him?

Maybe the old woman wasn’t so wrong after all? Maybe spending your life in isolation was preferable to relying on somebody else. After all, Sharenna’s life in Khon Orzad, peddling love spells, amulets and minor curses in a little rented room above a bakery, hadn’t been so bad. As a matter of fact, she’d probably still be there, if Xomoran, the High Priest King, hadn’t taken a carnal interest in her and had her sentenced to death on a trumped up heresy charge, when she rebuffed him.

No, her life of solitude in Khon Orzad hadn’t been bad. But this life — travelling the world, having friends, having a lover against whom she could curl up by night — was better. Much better. Even if it meant sleeping rough on occasion.

Lysha wasn’t faring much better. Her breathing was laboured, her sleep unquiet. Not surprising really. Getting yourself sentenced to death and almost hanged for a crime you didn’t commit would do that to you.

Not to mention that unlike Thurvok and Meldom or even Sharenna herself, Lysha wasn’t the sort of person who’d ever expected to find herself facing the gallows. Because nice girls for good families normally never saw a prison cell from the inside and certainly didn’t feel the kiss of the noose on their necks. No wonder she was freaked out and scared.

In her pouch, Sharenna had some herbs that could be brewed into a calming tea. She should have brewed some for Lysha to ensure that the girl at least got a good night’s sleep before they travelled onwards across the Bleak Heath tomorrow. And while she was at it, maybe Sharenna should have taken some herself.

As she listened to Lysha groan and moan in her sleep, Sharenna finally decided that she’d heard enough. She’d get up, ask Kadexa for some water and brew a cup of calming herbal tea for Lysha. Or maybe she could ask the old woman for some soothing herbs right away. After all, as a hedge witch, she was certain to have something. At any rate, back when Sharenna still peddled her trade as a minor witch, soothing teas and ointments had been one of her most popular products, after love spells and remedies for female troubles.

So Sharenna got to her feet and wrapped herself in her cloak.

“I’ll be right back,” she whispered to Lysha, though she didn’t know if the girl was awake enough to hear her, “I’ll just get you something that will help you sleep easier.”

Lysha emitted a groan that might have been an acknowledgement, so maybe she was awake enough to listen after all.

Sharenna tiptoed into the main room, only to find it deserted. The fire had burned down to embers by now and was casting a reddish glow onto the walls.

Of course, Kadexa had probably long since gone to bed. And since she neither missed a sleeping companion nor had a close brush with the scaffold mere days ago, she probably had no problems finding sleep either.

Sharenna did not want to wake her, so she tiptoed across the room where a water pitcher stood on a table pushed up against the wall. But the pitcher was empty. Sharenna picked it up, wondering whether there was a well or a rain barrel somewhere outside where she could fill it up. Then she heard the chanting.

Words, harshly mumbled in the old tongue, the tongue of magic. So Kadexa wasn’t asleep after all. She was at work, casting a midnight spell.

Normally, Sharenna would be loath to disturb another practitioner of the craft. But something compelled her to follow the chanting. A feeling of unease that pooled deep in her stomach.

So she ventured further into the witch’s lair, past the long worktable and the bundles of dried herbs that hung from the ceiling towards the doorway at the far end of the room. Light was flickering from that doorway, witch light, green, purple and a sickly yellow.

The chanting grew ever louder and more insistent. Sharenna could make out individual words now and recognised that it was a spell to command the spirits of nature. But this was no harmless, benevolent hedge witch spell. No, this was magic of the darkest, blackest kind, the sort of magic no one should dabble with.

Sharenna paused to call up her own magic and draw on the fire burning deep within her, just in case she needed it. Then she ventured onwards, through the door and into a narrow hallway.

She could feel them now, could feel the currents of magic, the force that bound all nature together. She could feel them swirling around her, pulsating outwards from the doorway on the far side of the corridor like the malevolent heartbeat of a sleeping monster about to wake. The witch lights intensified, flashing green, purple and yellow in rapid succession.

And then Sharenna was at the doorway on the far side. The worktable, the dried herbs and the cauldron in the front room were only for show, she realised. For the real work of magic was happening here, in this small backroom.

There was a second fire here, burning with a bright blueish flame in its hearth. There was a cauldron as well and a complicated arrangement of beakers and bottles, flasks and funnels, alembics and aludels, crucibles, coils and condensers. So Kadexa wasn’t just a simple hedge witch, after all. Cause simple hedge witches did not have laboratories with complex alchemical apparatuses.

The old woman stood hunched over the cauldron, chanting, stirring and occasionally tossing in ingredients. Multicoloured steam rose from the cauldron and drifted into the arrangement of tubes, coils and aludels, where it condensed into liquids of various colours that pooled at the bottom of flasks, beakers and alembics.

Sharenna had done her best to be as silent as possible. Nonetheless, Kadexa must have sensed her presence, for she briefly looked up from her work, her face taking on a greenish cast in the glow emitting from the cauldron.

“Oh, it’s you. Watch or come in and help, if you want. You’re a practitioner of the craft yourself, are you not?”

Sharenna nodded and took a step closer to the cauldron, propelled by some unseen force. “What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like,” Kadexa grunted, unfailingly stirring the cauldron, “Casting a spell, of course. A spell to drive the men from the heath, the evil men. A spell to let the heather and the juniper take them and feast on their bones. That way, they’ll never harm another innocent maiden again.”

“What men?” Sharenna wanted to know, “Soldiers from Greyvault? The Rhadur?”

They’d thought that they hadn’t been pursued after they’d rescued Lysha and her fellow sufferers from the scaffold, but what if they’d been wrong? The Rhadur did not like being cheated out of a victim for their gallows, let alone twelve. And while a spell of necromancy made for a fine distraction, it lasted only so long.

“I don’t know if they’re from Greyvault or not,” Kadexa grunted, still stirring her cauldron, “One is, the shorter one. As for the big one, he is from elsewhere. Somewhere far away, a land of steppes and burnt grass far to the east of the known world. And anyway, what does it matter? All men are the same everywhere.”

A short man from Greyvault and a big man from the steppes far to the east? Could it be…?

“You’re talking about my companions, aren’t you? Thurvok and Meldom.”

“I don’t know their names,” Karexa replied, “But yes, I’m talking about the men who came with you. Whom else would I be talking about? The men of Greyvault, they know better than to try crossing the heath. For they know what I do to them, what I’ve done to every single man who tried. They know about the bones that feed the heather. They know about the upright stones that were once men. They know that no man may cross the heath without facing my vengeance.”

“But you cannot do this,” Sharenna exclaimed. Her hands took on an almost imperceptible glow, as she called up her own magic. “You must stop, stop this now. Thurvok and Meldom are good men. They haven’t harmed you.”

“They’re men and all men are evil,” Kadexa grunted, all the while unfailingly stirring her pot, “You’re just too besotted to see them for what they are.”

“Or maybe you are too blinded by your own hate to see Thurvok and Meldom for what they are,” Sharenna countered.

Now Kadexa did look up from the cauldron, her eyes blazing with hatred. “Oh, I see clearly enough. I was like you once, trusting men, believing they had my best interests at heart. But then I saw the truth. I saw the truth on the day that the men of Greyvault dragged me to a tree in the forest and put a noose around my neck to hang me.”

“And that was a horrible thing to do to you,” Sharenna said, her voice soothing, “I know how you feel, believe me, I do. After all, the priest kings of Khon Orzad tried to do the same to me. They tied me to a stake by the tideline and left me to drown…”

Kadexa continued stirring her cauldron, while the steam rose into the alchemical apparatus. “Then why are you fighting me, girl? You should be helping me instead, help me stop men from ever hurting another woman and having her executed on trumped up charges again.”

“Because you’ve got it wrong,” Sharenna pleaded, “Thurvok and Meldom, the two men at whom you’ve directed your spell — they didn’t hurt me, they saved me. They risked their own lives to save me from execution at the hands of the priest kings of Khon Orzad…”

Kadexa’s eyes narrowed. “You should’ve saved yourself, girl. It’s never good to rely on others to save you, particularly not men. Cause they’ll always demand a price. Every single time.” She shook her head. “But anyway, soon it won’t matter anymore. Not long now and it will be done.”

Sharenna paled. “What? What will be done?”

“The spell. It’s almost done now and once it is, nature will have claimed those men and feast on their bones.”

“You mean that literally, don’t you?” Sharenna whispered. Unnoticed by Kadexa, her hands were glowing with barely contained magic.

“Of course,” Kadexa grunted, “Heath soil is poor and the flesh and bones of men make good fertiliser for the heather and the juniper trees. They’ll make the plants grow stronger and flower, when the time comes. It’s a good use for men. More useful than they’ve ever been in life.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you do this,” Sharenna said. In her right hand, she called up a fireball and hurled it full force at Kadexa.

But the old woman was faster than she looked. She mumbled a few words in the old tongue and the eerie glow from the cauldron expanded around her to form a magical shield. Sharenna’s fireball hit the shield, was deflected and exploded harmlessly against the wall.

Undaunted, Sharenna tried to call up another fireball, but once again Kadexa was faster. She called on the smoke rising from the cauldron, twisting it into a whip-like cord. Before Sharenna could react, Kadexa lashed out and the cord wound itself around Sharenna’s throat, as solid as any hangman’s noose, even though it was naught but smoke.

“I have no wish to harm you, girl,” Kadexa grunted, “But I will, if you interrupt the ritual again. For those men must die. That is the law of the heath…”

Kadexa had barely uttered that last word, when she abruptly fell to the floor, narrowly missing the cauldron.

Behind her stood Lysha, barefoot and still clad in her execution gown. In her upraised hand, she held a frying pan.

“And that is quite enough out of you,” she said, a steely determination in her voice that belied her slight frame.

With its mistress down, the whip of smoke lashed out uncontrolled. Sharenna tore the smoke cord from her neck and then commanded the smoke to return to the cauldron.

“Quick, give me some rosemary, charcoal dust, coarse salt, powdered mandrake root and dried orange peel,” she said to Lysha, her voice still hoarse from almost being strangled, “I must neutralise the spell, before it kills Thurvok and Meldom.”

By the flickering light of the cauldron, Lysha dashed over to the shelves that lined the laboratory and read out the labels on the jars and bottles. She found what was needed and handed the respective jars to Sharenna, who sprinkled the ingredients into the cauldron and uttered some words in the old tongue.

It worked, too, for gradually the winding coils of smoke drew back into the cauldron. The eerie witchlights faded, leaving the fire — now burning with a regular orange flame — the only source of light.

With the spell banished, the strain both of getting almost strangled and of countering Kadexa’s magic got to Sharenna. She swayed and had to hold on to the edge of the cauldron for support.

Meanwhile, Lysha was still flitting through the laboratory like a helpful hearth ghost in a white nightgown.

“I found rope,” she announced, “So we can tie her up.”

Sharenna nodded. “That’s good. But we need something more to bind her or she will just free herself again and send her magic after us.”

“She can do that?” Lysha wanted to know.

“She’s very powerful. More powerful than me. So we’ll need a binding spell, too.”

Sharenna just hoped that she still had enough strength to pull it off.

“What do you need?” Lysha asked.

“Check the jars and the dried herbs in the other room. See if you can find bindweed or creeping nightshade or better yet, strangling vine.”

Lysha flitted off, while Sharenna bent down to securely bind Kadexa’s wrists and legs with the ropes they’d found. The old woman groaned, so Sharenna gagged her with a kerchief for good measure.

A moment later, Lysha returned, bearing two jars. “Is this what you need?”

Sharenna took a glance at the jars. One contained dried bindweed blossoms, the other creeping nightshade.

“This will do,” she said and got to work. She wound the bindweed blossoms and the creeping nightshade into the ropes that bound the old woman and muttered a few magical worlds in the old tongue.

“There.” Sharenna pushed herself to her feet, but promptly swayed and had to be supported by Lysha. “That should hold her, for a while at least. And now let’s go and check on Thurvok and Meldom.”

***

Thurvok lay still like a corpse, his body and limbs tied down and half overgrown by heather and juniper plants. He could not move, let alone free himself. All he could do was breathe and that only barely, as a juniper branch tightened mercilessly around his throat.

He was aware that the plants were slowly dragging him underground. Already the poor sandy soil of the heath was seeping into his boots and his clothes. Not long and he and Meldom would be completely underground, their bodies overgrown by the heath, no trace left, their remains never to be found.

But at least the girls were safe. They’d probably wonder what had happened to them, would wonder whether they’d just taken off and deserted them, as men sometimes did with women. But they were safe, both of them. And Sharenna could take care of herself and of Lysha, too.

Already, sand was seeping into his ears, his mouth, his nose. Thurvok tried to move his head, tried to spit and sneeze it out, but found that he couldn’t. Even breathing was getting more and more difficult. Not long now and it would all be over.

And then suddenly just like that, the plants stopped. They were still there, still tying Thurvok and Meldom down, but they were no longer trying to pull them into the ground.

Experimentally, Thurvok tried moving his right arm. It took all his strength, but this time around, he could pull it free, uprooting several heather plants in the process. He reached for his throat and hooked his fingers into the juniper branches that encircled his neck like a hangman’s noose. With a mighty effort, he tore them loose and filled his lungs with air with a shuddering grasp.

“It stopped,” he heard Meldom say, his voice hoarse, “Praise the stars, it stopped.”

Thurvok managed to draw his knife from its sheath at his thigh and began to saw through the steams, branches and roots that still tied him down. By now, he could lift his head a little and saw Meldom doing likewise, doggedly cutting at the plants with his trusty dagger.

And then the door of the stone cabin burst open and Sharenna and Lysha stumbled out, both looking rather dishevelled. Lysha emitted a cry and rushed to Meldom’s side.

Sharenna left her to it and staggered towards Thurvok to kneel down by his side. In the wan moonlight, Thurvok could see that her skin was paler than usual and that there were dark rings under her eyes. He knew the signs well.

“Witchcraft?” he asked.

Sharenna nodded and drew her own dagger to cut him loose.

“The old woman really doesn’t like men and uses her magic to turn them into stone or feed them to the heath. She’s been doing this for more than forty years now.”

“Is she…?”

Sharenna nodded. “Safely tied up and gagged and ensorcelled by a binding spell, too, for good measure. She’ll eventually get free, though, and then she’ll be out for all our blood. I’d suggest that we’re far far away from here by then.”

Thurvok sat up, shook the sand from his hair and the last remnants of the heather plants from his arms.

“Well, I for one don’t intend to stay here even a moment longer than absolutely necessary.”

“Me neither,” Meldom shuddered as Lysha helped him to his feet, “So those legends about the Bleak Heath…”

“All true, at least after a fashion,” Sharenna said, “The old woman said that she’s been living out here alone for forty-two years now. In that time, she must have used her magic to kill dozens of travellers…”

She helped Thurvok get up, both of them leaning on each other.

“…and after a while, facts became stories and stories became legends.”

Lysha looked back at the hut and the fading glow of the magical fire still flickering in its windows.

“We should really get away from here,” she said, “Before the old witch wakes up again.”

“I agree,” Thurvok said, hooking his arm around Sharenna’s waist, as much for her support as for his own. He turned to Meldom. “Where to now?”

“Further eastwards,” Meldom, who was leaning on Lysha, replied, “Another day’s journey and the heath turns into woodlands at the foothills of the Desolate Peaks. There are villages there and small towns. Places to rest.”

“Sounds good,” Thurvok said, “Lead the way then.”

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.

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