This is a dark fantasy/horror story I started early about halfway through 2022. I was initially writing with hopes of submitting to some specific places, but progress on it eventually stalled and... yeah! I stumbled back onto to it while searching for another file and decided to wrap it up. It's still not perfect, but I think the end product is interesting enough to share. Hope you enjoy!
Heith had been worried, at first, that Torleif’s guards would stop her. Some of them were newer and not as acquainted with her and the habits she’d established.
She was lucky, though. It was Gunkstad standing guard tonight. He had been a member of Torleif’s retinue since before the old pig had married her. He’d known her when she’d only been a maiden in chains, like all the other thralls Torleif kept like chattel.
Gunkstad was used to her strolling through the grounds at night. She’d done it a few times every week ever since Torleif had claimed her as more than a bed warmer.
“I would think your husband’s warmth would hold more appeal than the night’s cold winds,” Torleif had grumbled one morning, years before after he’d woken in the night to find Heith gone.
Heith had just smiled. “I sometimes dream of the lonely days before I met you, dear husband. The night air clears my head.”
Stroking Torleif’s ego had always been the best way to get what you wanted from him. Torleif’s complaints ended and men like Gunkstad learned not to mind the sight of her walking beneath the midnight moon.
She had not lied to her husband entirely. She dreamt of her old life often. Of her doting father and her raven-haired mother. Of the village she’d once called home and the community she’d been a part of. She dreamt of the life she could have had if the sails of Torleif’s ships had never darkened their shores. Of the life he’d stolen from her and the vengeance she wanted desperately to claim. The vengeance she would finally take tonight.
Gunkstad gave her a courteous nod. He would be dead before the morning sun, along with all the others, and Torleif in kind.
She made her way to the edge of the homestead’s fences, her eyes trailing up to the stars above her. She looked for the constellations her mother had spoken of and found them at once. The Long-Tailed Bear, the Lovers, and the Crescent Sword were all where they needed to be. The full moon loomed high as well, painting the land with an eerie pallor.
The final piece she’d needed, a small jade stone, was hidden in the palm of her hand. Its small smooth shape pressed against her flesh— a sensation that filled her with quiet hope.
She followed the fence’s perimeter until she found a familiar panel with a small gap. It was too tight for the burliness of a man, but Heith could squeeze through. Wincing as the rough wooden edges scraped against her, she slipped through and then all but sprinted toward the hill at the edge of Torleif’s homestead.
She made the climb as quickly as possible, heart pounding hard in her chest. The full moon’s glow would make her visible even to Gunkstad’s old eyes, and the man would have no choice but to investigate if he saw her mounting the hill.
She had spent ten years playing the part of the doting wife. Countless nights gritting her teeth as Torleif humped away at her like a rutting hound. It was unbearable to think her efforts could all be undone by this final climb.
She could hardly believe it when she reached the top unnoticed. There were no shouts of alarm or guards bustling after her in the darkness. She peered back down on the breadth of Torleif’s homestead and found it as unexpecting as it had been when she first left the house. The guards had seen nothing.
She allowed herself the poor judgment to stare down at it for a moment. It looked so humble from on high. Just a simple farm with a modest straw-thatched hall and a half-dozen smaller houses for slaves and household warriors. So pastoral and peaceful. You would never guess at the villain that called it home.
Heith didn’t have to guess though. She knew Torleif—perhaps better even than the man knew himself. She knew his ridiculous pomp and his outsized ego. She knew the vicious glint in his eyes and the cruelty that lived inside of him, ever on the edge of the surface. She had seen the atrocities he was willing to commit for wealth and satisfaction.
She’d never forget the day he’d taken her. His raiders had fallen on her village, garbed in their iron shirts and boiled leathers, weapons in hand, howling like hungry wolves.
They’d killed all the old folk and most of the men. The rest—the women, children, and useful survivors—had gone into chains, shipped off to the Iron Shores or the Anderlands for handfuls of silver.
Heith’s father had died fighting. He had rushed to join the town’s defense when the warning bells rang. Heith had wanted to go with him, but he’d refused. Other fathers had taught their daughters to fight. Heith had never been offered such training.
“Leave such things to others,” he would say when she pestered. “Your mother has skills enough to teach you.”
His refusal had always angered her. In a way though, she supposed she should be grateful. All the girls who had gone out to fight had been slain. And her mother had indeed had skills to teach her.
The townsfolk had called her mother a witch, and Heith supposed that’s what she had been. Mother had known things beyond the normal ken of men. Things she had taught Heith, and that Heith had used to help sustain herself in the long bitter years of her marriage with Torleif.
It had taken no magic to catch his eye. Heith had always been beautiful, and she’d had wiles enough to seduce the man absent the aid of sorcery. Magic had helped, however, to keep her womb barren.
That had been one of the first tricks Mother had taught her. A drop of her blood, a few flakes of rosemary, and words paired with intention were all it took to keep Torleif’s seed from taking root.
That had only been the start, though. She had spent the past decade conjuring spells of all sorts and severities. Withered crops and animals that starved no matter how much you fed them. Favored thralls who died absent reason. Buildings that collapsed from rot well before their time.
“This place is cursed,” Torleif often muttered. “What have I done to earn such wrath from the gods?”
Heith could have told him, but the tally of his sins was too long to ever fully recount. The very stench of his breath was a crime, as far she was concerned.
Tonight, she would finally see him answer for all of it. No more waiting or preparing. No more 'smiling through her rage as the hands that butchered her parents fondled her. For ten years, she had gathered resources and bided her time. Now, finally, the moment was here. The stars were aligned, and the full moon was glowing. There was nothing left to do but see it through.
She searched for the spot where she’d buried the other stones. At first, it was hard to find. She had hidden it well, taking pains to make sure it looked like any other patch of unspoiled earth.
She finally found its place and knelt in the grassy soil to dig it up with bare hands. She pulled it out of the damp ground and emptied its content into her dirt-stained hands.
The jade piece she’d spirited away from the house was joined by a rough-hewn garnet, a sliver of basalt, a chunk of quartz, and a portion of amber. The curse would falter if even one of them was missing.
Heith held them in her hand for a moment, feeling their weight and dwelling on the time and effort it had taken to collect them. Long years burdened by endless nightmares. She could still smell her village burning when she breathed deeply enough. She could still hear the desperate screams of the dying and enslaved. She still saw her mother and father’s corpses, faces locked into cold dead stares, whenever she closed her eyes.
Heith peered up at the orb of the full moon. She drew in a breath and remembered the instructions her mother had given her, so many years before.
“Put the stones down as I’ve shown you and stand bare beneath the light of the moon. Once they’re ready, give each a taste of your blood, and chant the old words of power.”
Setting each down with almost tender care, Heith ordered the stones on the ground as her mother had instructed. The spaces between them formed a rune of dark and ancient power.
She drew in an anxious breath, her chest heaving as her mind raced with doubts she could no longer strangle into silence.
What if it doesn’t work? What if I remembered the stones wrong or can’t recall the words as mother spoke them?
A worse thought came to her. What if there had never been any magic to begin with? There had always been other ways to explain Torleif’s misfortunes. What if Torleif’s seed had been lame? What if the crops had withered on their own? What if she’d wasted her life in pursuit of a vengeance that had never been more than a dream?
There was only one way to find out. Heith closed her eyes, slipped her gown off her shoulders, and let it fall beneath her into a heap on the ground. She stepped out of its crumple and the cool evening air washed over her, caressing her flesh and sending a shiver up the length of her naked spine.
She reached back into the bag she’d pulled out of the earth and retrieved a small knife she’d hidden along with the stones. Heith wrapped her hand around its blade and, with one quick sharp movement, pulled it free from the sheath of her grip. She gasped as the blade cut a stinging gash across her palm.
Dropping the knife, Heith opened her bleeding hand wide and dribbled crimson onto each of the arranged stones. She chanted the words echoed by her mother in her memories —the ancient verse of the witch’s tongue.
Nothing seemed to happen. The minutes stretched on and on until every new second felt like its own terrible eternity. The wind blew against her, its whisper tinged with the mocking of her cruel and bitter past.
The cut on her hand throbbed and her tongue began to dry, her voice growing raw as her chant echoed on. More moments passed and her voice finally broke. Heith fell to her knees and wept
Ten years of planning and dreaming. Seeds of hope planted in her breast that had sprouted into nothing but weeds. There would be no revenge against Torleif. No retribution for all that he’d done—to Heith and so many more.
“Please,” she said, her exhausted voice struggling to form words. “Please do what I ask.”
She felt the cold weight of a deathly hand settle on the bare skin of her shoulder. Talons marked the tips of long inhuman fingers.
“Do not fret,” said a voice like distant thunder. “I have heard you and I am here. I have seen the contents of your heart. I can give you what you ask.”
“Yes,” Heith said, her voice trembling. “Please, yes.”
There was a pause. “There is a price.”
“Whatever it takes,” she said without hesitation. “I’ll pay it.”
A low sound emerged from the creature’s throat—a grim rumble like ominous laughter.
“Let us begin then.”
The hand withdrew from Heith’s shoulder. She didn’t move. For a moment, she barely breathed. When she finally mustered the courage to turn around, she saw that the space behind her was empty. There was nobody here with her. Had the curse really worked? Or had she simply imagined it all—her mind addled by despair?
Her answer came seconds later. The midnight din was pierced by the sound of a terrible scream. The first voice was joined by almost at once another, and then another still — a chorus of pain and terror. Overlapping wails sang out into the night like a monstrous choir. Torleif’s household awoke to an end of blood and horror.
Heith’s lips curled into the thin shape of the first true smile she’d known in years. She didn’t know what price the curse would ask of her. Whatever the demon wanted, there could be no price too high for the elation she felt, watching death fall as the moon rose ever higher.