Prophecy

When blood sun sets,
And full moon rises,
Look east to the weeping maiden.

When nightingale sings,
And nighthawk cries,
Look west as the lost sun rises.

Two figures disturbed the evening stillness of the valley. They moved through the brittle grass and bare trees, grabbing for handholds to climb the slope, and a sweet voice drifted on the wind.

          “Stop the infernal humming,” the boy said, yanking his shirt away from a thorn bush.

          Ahead of him, the girl reached the top of the slope. Beyond lay rolling hills, muted gray in the dimming light.

          “Look,” she said, pointing. “The weeping maiden.”

          A thin tree stood alone, a veil of curling leaves brushing the grass. In the dying light, it seemed a weeping woman, head bent, and the wind stirring her hair. The first sliver of a white moon lifted above the horizon, and behind them, the red disk of the sun cast a glow over the forest.

          A bird burst out of the underbrush, calling, before circling and flying toward the distant mountains.

          “Now what?” the boy asked, panting.

          “Now we wait.”

          They sat with their backs to the valley, watching the colors dance on the clouds.

          “How will we see the star if the sun is in the way?” the boy asked, and the girl grinned.

          “Gran says it’s not at a star. Gran says it’s an evil spirit.”

          The moon glistened, spinning silver mists over the grass, and the girl turned to watch it, the light glowing on her upturned face.

          “What kind of evil spirit?” the boy asked.

          “The bad kind, I suppose.” She leaned her head back against his neck. “Why? Are you frightened?”

          He snorted. “It’s only an ancient song. All that’s going to happen is we’ll get wet from this dew.”

          The golden edge of the sun touched the horizon like a brand, scattering red sparks over the forest.

            “Nita,” the boy whispered, but the girl sat, eyes wide and unblinking, staring at the cold moon. Her lips moved with silent song.

          The boy struggled to his knees. The red light ran over his skin and clothing, dripping into the grass. He tried uselessly to wipe it away. The sun flared, spears of light piercing him; he screamed a long, wavering cry.

          The girl leapt to her feet, her face pale with silver light. “Astor?”

          But she didn’t turn. Her arms hung at her sides though she struggled. “Let me go, Astor. You’re hurting me! Let me go!”

            Behind her, empty grass whispered. The sun sank below the horizon, leaving a red glow like embers on the dark clouds. The girl stood frozen, bound by the moon’s silver chains. She hid her face and wept.

          Somewhere in the growing twilight, a nightingale sang.


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At a Local Inn

Coals whizzed out of the fireplace in orange arcs, pattering with sharp hisses around the room.

                “That’s cheating!” Vanka wailed and dove behind an overturned table.

                “That’s magic, my dear.” I fell back against the wall for a breath. “What would you do with thirty golden varnums anyway? Gamble it away?”

                Vanka let out a guttural shriek. A dagger buried itself in the wooden beam inches from my head. It was my turn to dive for cover.

                The golem was crouched at the edge of the room, draped in chains, watching us with baleful eyes.

                The inn had been a lively, cheerful place when we’d arrive as the sun set, first Vanka and the prisoner, me close behind. When she’d seen me, cursing turned to threats and threats to shoving, mostly on Vanka’s part. That was when the general populace decided to clear out. Now it seemed the bar was partially in flames, though I didn’t take time to look.

                A bit of Vanka’s cloak stuck out from behind the overturned table. The coals flared under my command, igniting the fabric. I grinned as she leapt around the room, cursing and batting at herself.

                “You dance beautifully,” I called.

                She snatched a chair and sent it arcing toward me. I ducked, and it splintered against the wall. The room suddenly went quiet.

                “Rolf,” Vanka said.

                “Yeeeees?” I stayed huddled on the floor. I wasn’t about to fall for that.

                “Where is he?”

                “Where is who?”

                “You know who,” she snarled.

                “Ooh, this is a fun game. Do you mean the King of Avary? I believe he’s in his castle.”

                “He’s gone, Rolf.”

                I popped my head over the pile of crates I’d been hiding behind. The golem had vanished. A few drops of molten metal were cooling on the floor, and a black hole had burned into the wooden planks from a red-hot lump of coal.

                “Rather clever for a golem, isn’t he?” I remarked and jumped as Vanka let out a deafening shriek.

                “You mud-humping, slug slime!” She charged at me, but I cowered, holding up my hand placatingly.

                “Now, hold on, Vanka, my dear. Staying here and beating each other into a bloody pulp isn’t going to do either of us any good.”

                Her nostrils flared, eyes blazing like an angry bull.

                “We could work together,” I coaxed. “Split the reward.”

                “Split it?” She spat on the floor. “After I caught him and you let him escape? You’re lucky I don’t skin you alive and wear you for boots!”

                “Fair. I’ll admit you’ve earned perhaps a bit more for getting us this far. How about, and it hurts me to say this, I take a mere a third of the reward, plus”—I rubbed my chin thoughtfully—“a pittance, only half of another third? All the rest will belong to you.”

                Vanka frowned, considering this, before she snorted. “As it should be.”

                I grinned like a cat. “Shall we be off then?”

                “Fine.” She yanked her dagger from the wall and shoved it into her belt. “But stay where I can see you.”

                “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

                The inn collapsed in a shower of red sparks, but we sped on, following the trail of molten metal and heavy stone tracks, into the night, after our prey.

Aftermath

Leaves skittered across the cabin floor, caught in the whirl and eddy of a night-time breeze. The door creaked on broken hinges. On the hearth, graying embers hissed and spat as cooling tea crept from the shattered mug into the red glow.

A chair lay on its side, one leg mangled. The end of the heavy bed jutted out into the room, lines in the dust where it had reluctantly moved from its place. Blankets lay crumpled over deep grooves carved into the heart of the wooden floor.

A scarlet drop ran along the jagged glass in the windowsill. With a soft moan, the tattered curtains gave way and fluttered to the floor. A red splash was painted there, leading out into the darkness, across the soft dirt, disappearing among the brooding trees.

Through the oppressive night shuddered a mournful cry.


Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay