It’s been a while since I posted a free read. Sorry about that. We’ve been busy under the rock with one thing or another. The original version of today’s free read first appeared in Wicked Karnival Halloween Horrors back in 2005. This revised version appeared in Magus Press’ The Sound of Horror. This free read also became the inspiration for my first novel, The Black Act. Hope you enjoy. And a Happy Mother’s Day to all the Moms out there.
Queen of Samhain
“Lord, woman,” Anna wiped Claire’s feverish brow with a damp cloth, “how this obsession has aged you. I barely recognize you.”
A weak smile crossed the withered face of her twin. “I could have fought this wasting of my body, had the Guild not stripped me of my charms.” She ran a waxy hand down Anna’s sculpted cheek, as a violent cough seized her and pulled Claire away from the straw mattress.
Leaning forward on the hard, rail-back chair, Anna rubbed between the ailing witch’s shoulder blades. “It is not your body, but your soul that is languishing.” She brushed a lock of ginger-grey hair from her sibling’s sweat soaked neck. “I told you not to return to the woods after nightfall. Our kind is forbidden from joining in the revelries of the forest people. We are taught that from birth.”
Lying back against her burlap pillow, Claire nodded and closed her glazed, green eyes. “I have betrayed the Oath of the Wise Women. I am a disgrace to the Guild.”
Anna stroked the side of her sister’s head and listened to her breathing deepen. “There is talk of sending you into exile.”
“I know.” Claire turned her head toward the small window carved into the thick wall of the two-room cabin. “I will not live to see exile. That is why I need your help.”
The gnarled fingers of her feeble twin encircled Anna’s wrist with a desperate strength. “I am too weakened to complete the task myself.”
Rising from her chair, Anna sat beside her fragile sister on the tiny, driftwood cot. “What is it you would ask of me?”
Their eyes met and the hunger, the madness, in Claire’s gaze made her shiver. “I have trespassed in the sacred oak grove, sister.” She bowed her head. “I have captured his queen.”
Straightening her brown, muslin skirt, Anna folded her hands in her lap. “This is not your only secret. I know you have been to the exiles’ camp, beyond the boundary of our hidden valley.”
The weakened sorceress fidgeted with the dark, woolen blanket tucked across her breasts. “I know the Guild will never see my motives as valid, but you can understand my reasons can’t you? I must have him.” Her gaze lifted from her lap, and tears dampened her ashen cheeks. “Once you’ve laid with him …” She squashed her crumpled face into her palm and sobbed inside the protection of her hand. “His charm is like a sickness.”
Standing, Anna walked to the scant pane of glass, and watched the afternoon sun filter through the furry limbs of nearby pines. “The Oak King is best forgotten, sister. You would be wise to set his consort free and let her return to the underworld, before the rising of Samhain eve.”
“But I can be his queen forever, if you will help me perform the Rite of Transformation.”
Anna turned to face the foolish witch, with lips pulled tight in a thin, angry slit. “That is considered a black act by the Guild. If we are caught, it could mean execution, never mind exile.”
Claire’s eyes darted away, but not before Anna caught the spark of lunatic hope smoldering within.
Crossing the short distance to her sister, Anna stood over the bed, folding her arms tightly across the starched bib of her apron. “How did you manage to catch the Queen of the Forest? Was this another trick the exiles’ taught you?”
“She ascends three days before the waking of the dead at Samhain. To rouse the King from his autumn slumber in the sacred grove. To take him below to prepare for the rising of the departed. I waited for her, at the entrance of the clustered oaks …”
“Where is she now?”
Claire shimmied up the rough headboard, clutching the meager blankets tight to her skeletal frame. “In the storage shed out back. I have shackled her in iron.” Her large eyes dropped from Anna’s; her cracked bottom lip trembled. “The metal will not injure her. It only binds her to a physical form.”
Shaking her head, Anna sat, and wrapped her long fingers around the waning wise woman’s shoulders. She stared deep into Claire’s eyes, searching for a scrap of the sage, reserved woman that once dwelled within. “The exiles have taught you well indeed. Tell me then,” she pulled back from her lost sibling, “how did you not wake the King when you took his lady?”
Claire looked away. “I was quiet and quick.”
Dread built a tight cocoon around Anna’s heart. She and Claire had never harbored secrets from one another. “You cloak your mind, so I cannot see your deeds, your heart.”
Scowling, Anna rose from the bed and rubbed her tingling arms as she paced. Claire swung her legs over the edge of the straw mattress, and caught her about the waist as she passed.
“You still haven’t answered me. Time grows short. I must have the Queen’s blood before the full moon blooms this Samhain eve.”
Anna pushed her away gently. Her hands fluttered to the nape of her neck, tucking wisps of coppery hair back into her loose bun. “What choice do I have?” Defeated, she dropped her head. “Without the transformation, you will perish. Tell me what I must do.”
A crafty smile split the face of her dying twin. “I have the tools for the sacrifice underneath the bed. Would you bend and retrieve them for me, sister?”
Anna dipped to her knees, keeping her gaze fixed on the crazed Wise Woman. She tucked her arms beneath the meager cot. Her left hand fell upon something cold and metallic. The fingers of her right hand brushed against a rough, wooden surface. She gripped the hidden items and dragged them out. Her palm slipped down the onyx-handled dagger, pledged to Claire on their mother’s deathbed. Beside it, sat a freshly carved birch bowl. Anna removed the silver-and-ebony dirk from its sheath and inspected the fine, steel edge.
“The blade that ends her life must be sacred to me.” With a sheepish, yet wild-eyed look, Claire leaned over the bed and scooped up the plain basin in her trembling palms.
“Stab her in the heart. It is the seat of a wood spirit’s essence. Bring the life fluid to me in this.”
Anna clipped the scabbard to a small, silver belt beneath her apron, and took the vessel Claire held out to her. “And what becomes of me, dear sister, after your transformation is complete?” She clutched the bowl tight against her chest.
Claire fiddled with the ragged neckline of her nightgown. Her gaze darted toward the worn floorboards. “I will see you safely out of the valley. I will not leave you for the wrath of the Guild.”
Hands flexing against the rounded sides of the basin, Anna let out a bitter rush of breath. “Your mortal spirit will die, Claire, as you take on the Wood Woman’s form. You’ll barely remember me after the change…Let alone worry for my well-being.” Turning toward the main room of the cottage, she left the dim, cramped bedroom without a glance back at her broken twin.
The door to their shanty groaned in feeble protest, as she swung it back on its rusted hinges. A sudden, autumn wind picked up as Anna stepped out onto the makeshift stoop. Eyes narrowed, she stared at the slat board storage shed, tucked against the nearby tree line of pine and fir.
The dark, towering trees swayed in the late-afternoon breeze, brushing the roof of the shack. As Anna drew closer, she could hear the muted groans of the worn, cedar boards. She drew the dagger as her hand fell on the shed door, feeling little comfort from the weapon.
As she worked the rusted wire away from the corroded hasp for the second time that day, faint, guttural and anxious whispers came from within. Her fist tightened on the haft of the blade, as the crumbling cable slid from the lock and fell to the dirt at her feet. Anna dug her nails into the soft wood, and heaved the entrance open.
Inside, weak shafts of deep golden light poured through the gaps in the faded, uneven walls. Fat motes of pollen and dust floated in the thick air. And nestled in a gloomy corner, avoided by the amber sunbeams, was the Queen.
She went by many names; Queen of the Otherworld, Lady of the Dead, but her station remained constant. She was the consort of the Oak King, Lord of Abundance and Bounty. She was the dark to his light. He was the day to her night. For as long as the Wise Women had existed in the secret valley, they had been taught to respect this balance of Woodland Royalty. But Claire’s dalliance, and subsequent obsession, with the Oak King, now threatened to shatter this natural equilibrium.
The Queen stood, unfurling her long, bluish-grey body as she stepped from the shadows. Anna stepped back and watched her slip, with unnatural grace, toward the center of the storage hut. Streaks of dusty-blue mold grew in the hollows of her sharp cheeks, and down the length of her spidery arms and legs. Fat, wormy branches of orange lichen sprouted from her scalp, and fell over her shoulders in a vivid, straggly carpet. Her eyes were wide, opaque toadstools of black. Their thick, dark caps fluttered with silent anger, shooting pebble spores that floated to the dirt floor and wriggled through the hard earth, burying themselves quickly. She was an organic universe, and Anna regarded her with quiet awe. Never, on the other side of the wooden walls of the shack, speaking with this Wood Nymph in the early morn, had she expected such odd, frightening, yet strangely ethereal otherworld beauty.
Anna’s gaze dropped to the heavy, iron shackles encircling the Queen’s slender, fungal wrists and ankles. Her gaze followed the lengths of chains to a fat, long spike hammered into the ground, near the farthest corner of the shed.
Anna lowered to her haunches, placing the dagger and basin before her, just beyond the reach of the wood spirit. “I should set you free.”
The forest monarch nodded. “You should, but you won’t.”
Anna frowned as the lithe, wood wisp cocked her head and gave a vague, smug smile. “Perhaps I will let you go. I could deny Claire her foolish wish. The wasting will bring death to her soon, I am sure. Her mad infatuation would end, and I would have peace of mind.”
The Queen knelt in front of her, and skulked closer on all four, spongy limbs. “Aye, that would be wise.”
Anna gathered the bowl and weapon into her lap and scrambled back. The lengths of chain appeared to grow, and the Queen’s mossy fingers brushed up against her leg.
“But tell me, witch woman, what will make your heart ache more?” She tossed her head, and her slimy curls squirmed like slugs as they brushed across the earthen floor. “To watch your beloved twin slowly die, or to spill the blood of a forest nymph you despise?”
Anna shimmied away from the touch of her cold, rapid breath. “I do not despise you. I respect the balance your kind maintains, and the code that stands between our people.”
A low, raspy cackle came from the Queen. “If you truly valued these tenets you speak of, you would not be here now, brandishing a knife and ready to pierce my heart.”
Anna’s hands fell from her lap, and her tools of sacrifice tumbled onto the packed dirt between them. “Why is it I cannot deny Claire? I cannot fathom the punishment that will answer this horrible crime of mine, yet I am driven to commit it for her.” She cried into her open palms.
“Do not grieve, child.” The Queen’s rough, velvet touch caressed her neck, and she shivered. “Perhaps the Oak King was enticed as much by your sister, as she was bewitched by him. I think we both know Claire has been practicing the black arts far longer than she will admit. Her beguiling ways have caught up with her.”
“Still, I must try to save her, wretched though she may be.” The smell of rotting pumpkins filled her nostrils, as Anna gathered up the dagger and basin and slowly stood.
Slinking back into her shadowed corner, the Queen nodded sagely. “Just remember, witch, balance always finds a way to restore itself. What happens now, don’t mistake, it was meant to happen. The Curse of Goddard ran far deeper with its taint than we, the Fae Folk, sensed, admitted. What needs to be done, we have ignored for far too long. Cleansing…we knew it then, long ago, but we chose to ignore it, hoped his discarnate spite would wither and fade, or pass to the Summerlands…”
A calm coldness spread through her body, and Anna plunged forward into the deep murk where the forest nymph waited, as the Queen’s words faded into nothingness. She went with eyes closed, letting her intuition guide her. She clutched the dirk with hands that felt awkward and young.
There came a low, sinister laugh to her left, and then her right. Coarse, icy palms cupped her neck, and a murmured chorus of jumbled words seeped into her mind. Anna concentrated on shutting out the distracting glamour. Her fingers itched against the blade.
She hollered out as she whirled around and lunged forward. The dagger found its mark and there was a wet, ripping sound. Black blood jutted from the ragged tear in the center of the Queen’s chest, spraying the front of Anna’s apron. The wood wisp shuttered, and a weak moan gurgled up from her throat. She staggered back, and slumped into a pile of soft, spoiled pumpkins from the final harvest.
Anna dropped her weapon. Quiet tears spilled down her cheeks as she skittered to the corpse, jabbing the basin beneath the wound with shaky hands. “Forgive me.” She looked into the pool of dark liquid collected, and then backed away from the fallen fae.
The shack door slammed shut behind her as she left. Anna jumped, letting out a tiny yelp. The ebony fluid sloshed dangerously close to the edge of the bowl, and she stopped to steady her grip. The moon’s silver light reflected off the murky pool, and she stared at its wavering image.
How did so much time pass? she wondered. The small hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She could not have been more than half an hour in the shed. Anna was sure of that, yet three hours of daylight had somehow slipped away. The full Samhain moon rose high over the silhouette of the distant mountains.
She pulled her attention away from the deepening, indigo sky and picked up her pace, casting a nervous glance behind her as she scampered toward the cabin. The dirt crunched beneath her feet as she drew closer, echoing like thunder in her ears.
The tip of her buttoned boot touched the porch platform as the earth beneath her trembled, and a deep rumbling came from behind her. Anna clutched the full vessel tight against her midriff, and slid her foot away from the stoop.
“Wise woman, what have you done?”
Her heart froze in her chest.
“Turn and face me. You must answer for your deed.”
Anna held her breath until her lungs burned, preparing herself for what was to come, and then turned.
“Lift your head. I must judge your callous act by the guilt in your eyes.”
Anna obeyed, taking in the looming presence of the Oak King. His yellow, hawkish glare bore into her. His pale, Oak-bark brows were drawn together in a frown of bitter sadness.
His massive, tree trunk legs brought him a step nearer. He cocked his head, and his fuzz dappled antlers traced willowy shadows across the ground in front of her, as they played with the climbing moonlight.
Anna’s eyes dropped to his snaky, clubbed feet, and she followed the trail of his white, wide roots with her gaze. They disappeared into a large, jagged hole behind him. Beyond the lip of this chasm, she spied a set of earthen stairs leading down into the underworld.
“You have killed my consort.” The words came out impassive, but she could feel the acrid despair that haunted his undertone. “The consequences will be great.”
Her response caught in her throat, strangled by the gnarled barbs of fear. Anna dropped her head and folded her hands low against her waist. “What will you do to Claire?”
He laughed and stepped closer, wrapping his smooth, icy palm around her shoulder. “Always concern for your sister, yet what care has she for you? You’ve come to commit her crime, despite the danger it has put you in.”
Through the thick fabric of her dress, her skin tingled beneath his touch. A deep, distant pain gnawed inside her arm, spreading up her neck and down her side.
“Still, you both must pay if the balance of the forest is to be restored.”
Anna tried to cry out, but nothing came. She tried to flee, but the Wood Man ensnared her wrist in a feathery, branchlike grip, pulling her tight against his chest.
“A life in exchange for a life.” His thorny fingernails dug into her arm, “That is how it is with the forest people. The dead must rise tonight, attended by the Oak King and his Queen. They shall walk among the living this Samhain, as they have since time forgotten.”
“Then I must get the Queen’s blood to Claire.” She struggled to lift her face from his clammy skin. In a slow, dreamy instant, she realized her hands were empty and wet. Somehow, she had dropped the vital life fluid.
“It is not that simple, I am afraid. Your sister must be punished, not rewarded.” The forest ruler took her chin in his hand. “Besides, my love, are your lips not already stained with the essence of my departed lady?”
His voice came through a haze, and Anna raised her fingertips to her numbed lips. They came away wet and sticky, and an unpleasant fire throbbed in her mouth. “You,” she closed her eyes, and her head spun with a fog of frantic thought, “tricked me.” An absent tickling crawled over her scalp, and she dug her fingers into her thick knot of hair. Her hand came away with scraps of moist flesh and russet curls clinging to it. “What are you doing to me?” She was disconnected from the pain, and her question seemed to come from the lips of another.
“The change will not take long.” The Oak King pushed her back from him, but held fast to her arms. A wide, long-toothed grin spread across his angular face. “Be patient.”
There was a soft pop, and Anna’s ruined eyes dribbled down her cheeks. All went black for a moment, until jet toadstools sprouted from her emptied sockets, and she saw with the preternatural vision of a wood wisp. Something damp and coarse slithered down her neck, and slippery limbs of lichen burrowed underneath her dress, tearing the starched material away from her reshaped form.
“Can you walk, my lady?”
Whispers filled her head as he lifted her into his smooth, large arms. The cool breath of the dead brushed against Anna’s newly transformed body, as the Oak King carried her down the crumbling stairwell and into the fissure.
Where are you going? The protest drifted into her head, but it came weak, and almost alien, to the Queen. What are you doing, Anna? In her mind, the nymph watched as Claire sat up in bed, eyes wide with panic.
The Queen wrapped her newborn, moldy arms around the corded neck of her consort. “What fate awaits her, my lord?”
He kissed her pointed chin. “She will forever waste away, crippled by her mad infatuation until her body turns into a living corpse.”
She rested her head against his collarbone. “It is befitting of her transgression.”
They entered a corridor of clay, and phantom limbs reached out from their loamy tombs to stroke the face of the Queen, welcoming her. She brushed their wispy fingers across her lips and smiled.
“Come,” the King ducked beneath a low archway, and they entered a vast, murky chamber, “let us prepare for our ascension.”
The dead sighed in anxious agreement.
Copyright © 2012 Louise Bohmer. All rights reserved. No part of this short story may be distributed, shared, or posted online without the author’s written permission.