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.
This 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?”
This story was available for free on this blog for one month only, but you can still read it in The Bleak Heath. And if you click on the First Monday Free Fiction tag, you can read this month’s free story.