G. W. Thomas
The hooting of an owl told Liaro he had failed to return home by the second hour of darkness. The home-trail was familiar enough in the gloomy night air that he stepped up his pace from a trot to a true run. Wekka and their son, Torel, would be worried about him, waiting by their cabin's single window, watching the homeward path.
Liaro took the final bend -- the one that curved around the stream that gave the family water for drinking and washing -- and saw something was wrong. The lamp was not lit inside the cabin. The house stood dark and untenanted.
Opening the door, a simple slat-board affair without a lock, he peered inside. No sign of Wekka or Torel. The trapper put down his bag, filled with the wonders of the bazaar at Taavst: a silver comb for Wekka and a wooden carving of a knight on a horse for Torel that, when turned over, became a fire-breathing dragon. The gifts had come from Liaro's brother, Trellon. The trapper secretly hoped that he would not have to trade the presents for food this winter.
Liaro lit the lamp on the table. His thumping heart lessened at the sight of a parchment scrap resting nearby. He frowned at the extravagance of using the precious supply of paper for something as commonplace as a note. Despite their simple lifestyle, everyone in the household could read and write. Even Torel, his six-year-old son, knew the rudiments.
When Liaro read the paper his recently acquired calm disappeared. There in Wekka's elegant scroll were words to chill the man's soul. The note read: "We have gone where you dared not." It wasn't signed.
"Damn!" the hunter cursed, not Wekka so much as himself. He never should have told her about the ancient burial ground or its rumors of treasure. But the more scorn he placed on the idea of visiting the deserted ruin, the more Wekka pushed for them to steal some of its supposed wealth. "It's probably nothing more than old buildings. The treasure is just lying there." The Gods knew, Liaro admitted, they could use the gold, with the fur being so poor this season. A plague of mange had stricken the animals, making the fur worthless and their flesh a sickly green. Still, he would find a way to survive the winter.
Liaro sighed. He had been on the road ten days. He was tired and footsore. But now he'd have to go find Wekka and Torel -- and little Torel! That thought made him the maddest. Foolish enough to risk her own life, but their son's as well?
Leaving the bag with his brother's gifts, the hunter went to gather his father's ancient war ax from the wall. The pegs were empty. Good, the man thought, Wekka didn't go unarmed. Liaro still had his long dagger on his belt, the only weapon he took with him on his trips to Taavst when he sold his furs. But would it be enough against -- what?
Liaro hit the trail again at a good jog. The lamp in his hand flew from side to side, spilling small dots of oil. The trail to the old stones known as Raven's Barrow was not long. The abandoned village lay on the far side of a ravine that divided Liaro's traplines from a long-deserted stand of trees where no animal lived -- though it was rumored that the mange had come from that lifeless forest.
An hour's jog, during which Liaro tripped twice and almost sprained his ankle, brought the man to the edge of the ravine. Down a dusty bank lay the crumbling stones of a town site no longer known by its original name. Next to the broken outer wall was the barrow-ground and its ancient graves. Liaro slowed his pace, drew his knife and descended the sandy slope one foot ahead of the other. Rocks and roots provided foot-holds halfway down the bank. He had to slide down the rest of the gravely run to the thorny ground below.
The barrow-ground was weed-wracked but had ulcerous spots where nothing grew. Liaro swung his lamp around, his dagger ready in his other hand. He looked for some opening or crypt into which to enter the catacombs rumored to exist below the grave markers.
He found what he sought at the middle of the graveyard. A tall stone proved to be the corner of a stairwell leading down into the darkness. No door blocked the yawning portal. In the dust, which covered everything, he could make out two sets of human footprints, easily recognizable as his wife's and son's. Beside them were stranger marks, long sweeping trails as if cloth had been dragged through the dirt. Liaro followed the spoor with one eye on the passage ahead.
The tunnel had no intersections or doors but ran straight while descending several feet. A set of stairs fell to a small chamber. The room was empty, dirty, and had two doorways, one on each side. Liaro stepped inside, raised the lamp. The portal to his right offered darkness. The one to the left did as well but also a soft sighing sound and the cloying scent of violets.
The hunter did not debate any concept of bravery with himself, but stepped into the right doorway and waited for the other to become filled with mysterious enemies. He waited for several minutes. Nothing but darkness greeted his eyes.
Liaro turned at last. A hideous face leapt out from the darkness, its open mouth screaming wordlessly at the hunter. The man reacted. Dropping the lamp, he slashed with his knife. A black second or two passed as Liaro found the lamp with panicking hands, held it high. Any moment he knew sharp bony points would dig into his flesh. The lamp was as ready as a weapon as the blade. But as the dust cleared in the cramped corridor, he saw that no living or undead thing attacked. A mummified object had disconnected itself from its alcove, broken in half by the hunter's knife.
Liaro checked the lamp. The oil was more than half empty. He had spilled a goodly amount on the trail and now here. He prayed a quiet prayer that it would be enough to find Wekka and Torel and to return home. Looking farther down the hall, the trapper realized what had happened. He had miscalculated the curve of the wall -- which turned in a sharp curve to the left -- and had run into the niche holding the dried remains of some long-dead citizen.
The line of the tunnel carried the hunter deeper into the catacomb, the wall on the outside of the curve filled with niches containing ancient sleepers. The tunnel ended in another chamber, diamond-shaped, Liaro thought as both sides gradually widened. On the far side of the room another doorway broke the wall. The hunter turned from his path to look at a black hole in the floor. A circular pit filled one point of the diamond. Liaro peered down but could see nothing but blackness. A brackish stench rose from the hole, an odor the trapper recognized. The Mange.
The pit was forgotten as Liaro sighted the last point of the diamond, another doorway from which light was streaming out. Sounds were coming from that direction, too. Torel's laugh and Wekka's equally joyful giggle. Liaro approached the door quickly, calling out, "Wekka! Torel!" Snorts of laughter answered him.
"You decided to join us after all, husband?" was Wekka's greeting, given without turning.
"Quickly, we've got to get out of here. It's not safe."
Wekka ignored his panic, pushing something into Liaro's hand. "Look, Liaro. We're rich, just like I said." The man examined the shiny object, quite heavy but only the size of a man's skull.
The hunter dropped the weight, partly because of the lamp's rays glittering off the shape, but also because of the gruesome scowl peering out from the golden treasure. The block, which was solid gold, had the appearance of a man, compressed into a shrunken replica, painfully contorted into an icon of agony.
"Forget it, Wekka. It's evil."
His diminutive wife disregarded the forsaken thing on the dirty floor. She turned back to the wall and brandished another, a woman this time, but equally tortured. Liaro gazed passed the monstrosity and his grinning bride to go the wall, which had a hole in it at about knee level. Inside the crevice many of the replicas pressed to free themselves. There must be hundreds of them, realized Liaro.
The man grabbed his wife by the shoulder.
"Leave them all, Wekka. We must go."
"No, Liaro!" the woman declared. "I'm not going to starve through the winter with a treasure hoard sitting right at our doorstep. I'm rich! I'm going to Stormcock to live in a palace -- "
Liaro opened his mouth to argue, but something had separated itself from the far darkness of the doorway. A tall, shrouded form reached across the expanse between the man and his wife. The deadly grasp was fastened to the one holding the gold -- Wekka. Two stalk-like arms wrapped around the woman, burying her within its musty robes.
Torel screamed. The smell of corpse-rot and violet water became a choking cloud. Liaro stabbed at the thing's head. The beast dodged slightly, swinging an elongated arm. The hunter leapt around the gangly appendage, stabbing over and over into the desiccated bulk, trying to free Wekka. The knife came away again and again but no blood flew. Like a bear shaking off a terrier, the creature spun, throwing the man into a wall.
It was Torel's cries that pulled Liaro back to life. Drawing himself up off the floor he could see the monster. The boy and the woman were gone into the chamber outside. The hunter made to follow but stopped only for a second. The ax, his father's war weapon, sat forgotten on the floor where Wekka had left it.
His hopes renewed, the husband rushed into the far chamber. Torel's shrill cries tore into him as he saw the monster herding the boy toward the pit. Liaro raised the ax and launched himself at the monster's back. The ax bit like a timberman's tool into wood. The beast gave a dull hiss as Liaro pulled the blade out and struck again. The second swipe cleaved one of the long arms, causing a small object to fall and roll towards the pit. Torel caught it and then backed away again.
Liaro struck again and again. One cut tore away the mask from a diseased and evil face. A last blow broke the hideous skull in two.
For a long minute dust choked the dark chamber. Liaro stepped over the remains of the crypt thing and took his little boy in his arms.
"Come, Torel. We must go."
"Not without momma."
"No, not without Wekka."
The walk back to their cabin was slow in the darkness. Several times Liaro had to help his son over roots and fallen logs, the youth's arms filled with his heavy burden.
Once home, Liaro put the boy into his simple twig bed, after a draft from the wineskin on the wall. Sleep would not be so easy for Liaro. He put the old war ax back on its pegs and wondered at its origins. Then he placed the gold artifact on the table in front of him. He could hold the tears back no longer.
It was Wekka's face. He wished she didn't look quite so pained. Was there recrimination there in her tortured countenance? Forgiveness?
The winter would be hard. They might starve, but Liaro doubted he would ever bring himself to return to the barrows. Or melt down the golden thing sitting before him -- Wekka's gold.
This story first appeared in Dragon Soup #7 (September 1998).
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM