Fear of the Dark
OK, my turn 🙂
Here are the prompts I was given as inspiration for a story:
Going into it, I didn’t expect to be inspired by any heavy metal or hip-hop. That was the music of my youth, high school rebellion/teen angst stuff. These days I’m much more mellow and melodical (yes, I know that’s not a real word, but it sounds right). Johnny’s version of Hurt is one of my favorite songs, but familiarity doesn’t breed inspiration. A Time for Us instantly brought up lots of emotions and vague images, and Poor Wayfaring Stranger did the same. But Fear of the Dark actually had a much more powerful effect.
It starts measured and controlled, before the power and rage come flying out. It instantly reminded me of one of my favorite characters, one who I created early on in my writing career and have visited on several occasions in multiple formats. He’s the unnamed man, and he has a lot of darkness in him. I felt the inspiration and ran with it. Enjoy.
The fire crackled and threw sparks high into the dark sky, followed in flight by raucous laughter and harsh voices. Tree branches swayed above like sorrowful dancers performing for an uninterested crowd. The men watched the flames, captivated by the flickering light, assured the world held nothing more dangerous than them. It had been a good day for bad men.
“That carriage twas the richest mark we hit in months.” The speaker tossed a bone into the blaze, wiping his mouth on a tattered sleeve. “Nobles have the best eatin’ and finest drink.” A wineskin passed from rough hand to rough hand.
“Those soldiers gave up right quick when they seen us pull up. Castle living makes ‘em soft.”
“Ya see tha welp piss hisself when I pwicked his cheek?”
“His ma was a right plumper.” An ugly man, with a scar across his cheek and halfway through his nose, threw another log onto the bonfire and snarled at those sprawled on the ground. “If we had the time, I woulda pricked her good.” His words held no humor but garnered several hearty cheers.
“I told yas,” a quick reply cut through the mirth, “that be bringing trouble we don’t need.” Firelight reflected orange off the armor of the man who stepped before the fire. Tall and broad-shouldered, steady in his gaze if not his walk, he casually rested a hand on his hilt. “Have your sport with the local dollops or farmers’ wives, but leave the ladies in coaches be. The lords got gold enough to lose some, but they be coming for our heads if’n we ruin their women.”
The men grumbled, but quietly. High in spirits and well supplied with drink, they had no desire to argue with their leader. He had brought them this bounty, after all, and he was an angry bugger when in his wine.
But a voice from the darkness arose in challenge. “You speak your own doom, brigand.”
“Eh?” The man’s hand gripped his hilt tight, and he craned his neck to see the speaker. “Who said that?”
A few of the less inebriated men sat up straighter, tension moving through the pack faster than the wineskin.
“Cole, you out there?” The leader called to his sentries. “Macon, you fall asleep again? You’s supposed to be keepin’ watch.”
The voice replied, drifting through the trees from a new position. “Your men are beyond earshot. They’ll not be answering any but the gods now.”
More men rose to their feet, backs to the fire and eyes straining to see into the shadows they created. Naked blades gleamed in the night.
“‘Tis a ghost!” Said a toothless drunk, quickly silenced by an elbow to his ribs.
“Don’t be no fool, Dillon,” his neighbor answered. “It be just a man playin’ with us.”
“Playing a dicey game,” the leader said loudly. “He may have got past our watch, but he didn’t get the drop on us. You hear that, stranger? You want to mess with Jarl and his boys then come into the light so we’s can see ya.”
“What if I am a ghost?” The answer echoed from everywhere and nowhere, heads pivoting to find the source. “What if I’m spirit more than man? Your fire would not reveal me.”
The shuffle of feet and creak of leather filled the silence, men turning to each other for reassurance. Jarl, a head taller than the rest, would have none of it. “Don’t be such gullible twits. I tells ya, it’s some dolt thinks he can scare us or rob us while we drunk. Lazy Bill, you and Dillon take a torch and see to Cole and Macon. The rest a yas get a brand each and clear the woods.”
“Yes, come to me.” The voice was fainter, farther away but no less powerful. No one moved.
Jarl pulled his sword. “Yas swiven maidens,” he yelled. “Get out there and cut the fool from arse to eyes!”
He slapped the back of the nearest man with the flat of his blade, and everyone jumped into action. A pair lit proper torches of pine tar from the fire and headed into the woods together. The rest either pulled out a smoldering log or grabbed a fresh stick and stuck it into the flames until it lit. One by one they spread amongst the trees.
The mysterious voice was mute, and the men filled the emptiness with bluster and curses. Jarl stayed by the fire, exhorting the laggards too drunk to get their wood to light. A grizzled old man dug a lantern out of the mess wagon, his hands shaking with the flint.
Moments passed. The darkness swallowed the roaming men, pinpricks of light appearing and disappearing behind trees. Silence returned. Then the clash of metal on metal, and a strangled scream of agony that ended too quickly.
“Bill, you out there?” Jarl asked. “Dillon?” No one answered.
Another scream, from the other side, followed by a laugh that rang like a bell.
“You’re making it too easy. I’ll save you for last, Jarl. You’ll hear them all die before I send you to hell.”
“You’ll not frighten me,” Jarl roared back. “Many have wished me to hell but none got their prayer answered.” He raised his sword defiantly. “All you men get back here. He be pickin’ you off piecemeal, you worthless louts. Come back to the fire and we’ll see how brave he be.”
The men were already streaming in, some at a trot and others walking warily, turning with every stride to cover their retreat. More clatter followed the last stragglers, the sound of heavy impacts and bodies hitting the ground. When they had regrouped, once again backs to the fire and circled in safety, their numbers were noticeably smaller.
“Ha!” Jarl paced in front of his men, his words for his own benefit as much as theirs. “Let’s see ya come into the light. Face me. Jarl ain’t afraid of nothin’, man or spirit.”
But he drew back when a shadow stepped between two trees at the edge of the clearing, the shape of a man but no light reflected off any surface, save the blade held pointed down. Several men gasped and drew tighter.
“Keep lookin’ round,” Jarl ordered. “He might not be alone. But if he is, I’ll end him soon enough.”
Jarl took a step forward but waited for the stranger to come clear of the trees. When the shadow approached it revealed itself to be quite human, a man of ordinary size in simple traveler’s garb, a cowell over his head.
Jarl raised his sword but was stopped by a word.
“No!” The stranger kept his own weapon at his side, but the command in his tone made everyone freeze, all heat from the fire sucked out of the air.
“I said you would be last.” He pulled back his hood, revealing a plain face, nothing distinctive except dark eyes, filled not with firelight but with hatred. Hatred strong enough to quail the hardened thieves gathered round. “You will live in fear until then, knowing I’ll come for you when the rest have fallen. It won’t be long, but your last moments deserve to be haunted.”
Jarl hesitated. The man’s words dripped with confidence, and he had already killed several of Jarl’s best men. Jarl was no fool. Nor was he a coward, and he knew he only lead as long as the rest feared him. “You be learnin’ you don’t always get what ya want in this world.” With a swagger he closed the distance and swung a two-handed stroke at the open neck.
But the stranger’s sword was there to block, moving faster than Jarl could follow. Jarl didn’t wait but pressed the attack with blows that had brought larger men to their knees. The stranger danced and parried, flowing like the wind to avoid the sword or striking like a whip to counter. Jarl barely felt the first slice that opened a gash on his arm, and even when the man’s blade pierced his armor and plunged deep in his belly he kept fighting. But he weakened quickly. His swipes now wild and weak. The man sidestepped and let Jarl stumble past, a backhand blow sending him to the ground.
Jarl lay still, struggling to breathe and waiting for the final blow to fall.
“Wait your turn.” The voice once again came from darkness, this time the black inside Jarl’s head.
Their leader defeated, their courage broken, several men turned and ran into the night. Those who remained were united in purpose. The man with a scar waved his arms and they spread to encircle the stranger, their only hope in numbers.
It was a false hope. The stranger became a shadow once more, dancing in and out of their midst, untouched by light or blade. He cut them down one by one, and those who tried to flee made it only a few steps before a sword took them from behind. Some dropped their weapons and begged for mercy. They found none and were culled in turn. At the end it was silent again, except for Jarl’s ragged breath and the whimper of the old man, holding his lantern as if its glow would protect him.
Jarl turned his head, vision clearing, and saw the two men facing each other. Words were exchanged. The old man nodded and lowered the lantern, opened the screen, and blew out the wick. Light left his face. He set the lantern on the ground and knelt beside it. The blow came quick, severing his head from his body, both tumbling to the earth without a sound. Jarl closed his eyes.
“Wake.” The word was accompanied by slap on the cheek. Jarl hadn’t been asleep, merely hiding from his fate, but a firm hand clenched his jaw and shook his head. “You’re not dead yet.”
Jarl blinked, the stranger only inches from him. The hatred still in his eyes.
“Who are you?” Jarl asked.
“I’m one whose women you ruined. One who seeks revenge.”
“But we didn’t. We left those ladies unharmed.” Blood sputtered over his chin. “I even called off ol’ Scratch.”
The stranger shook his head. “Today. What about yesterday? And all the days before? And what about all those village girls, the ones who have no one to avenge them? How much pain and suffering have you caused over the years?”
He grabbed Jarl by the collar of his mail shirt and yanked him upright. He moved around behind to support Jarl, who had no strength of his own, and forced his head back and forth, scanning over the bodies lying still in the grass.
“These were your men, and now you’ve lost them. But your loss is nothing compared to mine. My wife raped and tortured by bandits, my little girl cut open and left on the roadside. I loved them more than my own soul, but you felt nothing for these men who followed you in life and now lead you in death. I can’t bring you the pain I’ve felt, the pain you deserve, so I’ll give you a clean death and let the gods treat you as they will.”
“We never killed no children.” Jarl roused, tried to spin free but was held in a grip tight as iron. “You gots the wrong guy. I didn’t do it.”
The voice whispered in his ear. “It doesn’t matter who held the blade. It doesn’t matter if you were there. You all did it, and you’re all going to pay.”
The stranger plunged a thin knife between the links of Jarl’s shirt, piercing his heart. He held it in as the dying man spasmed, pulling it loose only when all movement stopped. He let the body slump to the ground and cleaned the knife on the dewy grass. Hood over his head, he walked into the trees, shadow swallowing him once more.
Death hung in the clearing, only disturbed by the crackle of fire. Soon it would fade and the carrion eaters would come. The roads would be safe for a little while, and death would find a new pack to hunt.