“You smell of death,” the witch said. Her age-mottled nose wrinkled in disapproval.
“You speak truly, honoured one.” Turgan bowed. “I am indeed dying.”
Oil lamps flickered between rodent skulls, and somewhere in the back of the cave, water dripped.
Turgan kept his gaze lowered, as befitted a man addressing a crone. “A fungus devours my flesh. Already my blood is sour and my liver is cold, and the healer says I’ll cross the life-end river before the new moon. I beg your forgiveness for my discourtesy in entering your home under this shadow, but I need your help.”
The witch’s eyes narrowed. “You think I will fight death for you? Go away, fool.”
He shifted his weight. Already, his knees ached from standing. “I just need more time.”
“Didn’t you hear me? Even if I could prolong your life, I would not.”
She turned her skinny back to him and poked the embers beneath her cauldron. Apparently, he was dismissed.
Turgan refused to budge. Judging by the sand-white hair, the knot-gnarled fingers and the way the wrinkled skin folds hung from her thin frame, this woman had already defied death far beyond her allotted years. She knew how.
“Honoured one, I beg you, show me the path. I’ll do what it takes… no matter how difficult, costly or dangerous.”
The witch fed the fire with dried camel patties and broken fir, and the flames spat yellow sparks. “That’s what they all say in their greed for more life.”
Sensing the question behind her words, he snatched the chance. “I neither love life, nor fear death.”
She swivelled on her heels. “Then what do you want?” Her small eyes peered like those of a hawk fixed on its prey, but there was something else: interest.
“I was married. Thirty years ago.” He studied his sandalled feet rather than meet the condemnation he knew he would see in the witch’s eyes. “I was young – we both were. Neither of us had sought the bond. Our parents’ combined force…” The words came haltingly from his dry throat.
“I treated her like a possession. An unwanted one. And she… she tried to make the marriage work. Laina gave me her patience, her love. I gave her nothing. Nothing but hard words, violence and disdain. She suffered in silence, always forgiving, praying, hoping. Now I see clearly what a monster I was, but at the time, I blamed her for my unhappiness.” The words flowed faster now. “I chafed at the imposed bonds, I found fault with her conversation, her cooking, her body, her caresses. Being married to me was a daily torment, yet she never gave up. And then…”
The shame of recall washed his cheeks with heat.
“And then?” The witch pointed her poker at his chest.
“One day I just walked away, without apology, without explanation. Without farewell.”
“Ha! So now you want to harvest the fruit of the love you once disdained? The coming of death always makes such youthful fruit seem sweet.”
She fed another camel patty to the flames, and the fire’s heat grew. Sweat trickled from Turgan’s armpits and slid down his sides.
“Your victim has had thirty years to heal. Now you want to break open her wounds with your demands?”
“I want nothing from her.” Turgan met the witch’s sceptical gaze. If Laina had built a new life and found a better man, he would rejoice with the gladdest spirit. But his actions had not been waterdrops that evaporated in the sun without leaving a trace. They had been cruel flames, scorching deep holes into Laina’s defenceless heart. “All I want is to kneel before her and kiss the dust at her feet.”
The witch stared at him as if reading his soul. Hot fingers seemed to probe his insides for sincerity. Leaning still against the wall of the cave, he allowed it to happen.
At last, she ceased. “What about your obligations to the people in your life now? Your friends, your associates, your current family?”
“My affairs are settled, my debts paid, and no one will wonder where I have gone.”
Was there a small nod of approval? Already, she shot out the next question: “How far from here does your once-wife live? How much time would you need?”
“Ain-Elnour is in Koskara. In peace times, the journey would take two moons with a trade caravan. Now, with the borders closed and the land in the grip of war… four moons, perhaps five… if she still lives in Ain-Elnour. I may have to search.”
The witch was rubbing her chin and gnawing her lower lip, calculating.
“So there is a path?” Turgan stepped forward. “Tell me, honoured one. Tell me what I must do.”
“There is a path, but…” She studied him through narrow eyes. “Are you man enough to take it?”
“That path is difficult, dangerous and dark.” Her voice was grave. “You’ll travel to Koskara, find your once-wife, and speak to her. You will be in your physical body – but you will not be alive.”
“A greywalker?” he whispered. Like a cold fist, understanding squeezed around his chest. “No! No, I won’t do that.”
Her nose wrinkled, and her lips curled in contempt. “Anything, you said. Where’s your courage now?”
Thirty creepy, atmospheric stories by Rayne Hall.
The horror in these stories is spooky, creepy, unsettling and sometimes disturbing. It is not very violent or gory; however, the stories may not be suitable for young readers without parental guidance. PG 13.
This book is a compilation of volumes 1-5 of the Six Scary Tales books. It includes the acclaimed stories Burning and The Bridge Chamber.
All stories have been previously published in magazines, ezines, collections and anthologies. British English.
Stories in collection include:
The Devil You Know, Greywalker, Prophetess, Each Stone A Life, By Your Own Free Will, The Bridge Chamber, Only A Fool, Four Bony Hands, The Black Boar, Double Rainbows, Druid Stones, Burning, Scruples, Seagulls, Night Train, Through the Tunnel, Black Karma, Take Me To St. Roch’s, Turkish Night, Never Leave Me, The Colour of Dishonour, Beltane, The Painted Staircase, I Dived The Pandora, Terre Vert and Payne’s Grey, They Say, Tuppence Special, Disturbed Sleep, Normal Considering the Weather, Arete.
Genre – Horror
Rating – PG-13
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