FlashFic: The Hearts of Men

So last week screwed me up a little, with the holiday. But, I’m back with a new story, inspired by a piece of creepy #NerdArt. This one is In Darkness from Freelance Illustrator Beste Erel in Istanbul, Turkey. Even though this has that very speed-paint style, it really grabbed me. It’s super creepy and the oddness of it told of a mystical and dark, though not necessarily evil. Something old and untouchable by the beliefs of fickle humans. Check out more of Beste’s work over at ArtStation.com.

In Darkness by Beste Erel at ArtStation.com
In Darkness by Beste Erel at ArtStation.com

 Gudhild’s stomach turned and twisted in knots. He gripped the haft of his spear until his knuckles were white. The darkness pressed in on him as the nighttime forest fell utterly silent. Except for the approaching step-step-step of crunching leaves and twigs. He wished he had his shield in hand instead of strapped to his back. The faint, almost glowing mist hovering over the forest floor sent a shiver through him.

A part of him wanted to turn and run as he watched the strange, shuffling figure approach, but requesting this meeting had been like moving mountains. Moonlight filtered through the rustling tree canopy, making hypnotic spots of silver light dance across the figure. It wore what looked like a helmet with four-point antlers jutting from the top-sides of its head, almost as if the horns were actually his.

Gunhild realized he’d thought of the figure as male, even though he could not tell from the its stride or build what its true gender was. For all he knew, this was the dark witch herself. But as he had that thought, he realized that no, this would not be her. She would not meet him here, in the open. Not when he was coming to her as a begging supplicant.

When the figure reached about fifteen paces away, the sweet fragrance of the forest’s blue bells and cloudberries soured in his nose. With the witch’s emissary close enough, Gunhild realized the figure was indeed a man. Or, at least male. He was bent at a stoop like an old hag, and his feet swished in the leaves with each step. His features were fine and delicate like a young maiden’s, but somehow also sharp. He had no breasts save those of a thin boy either. Even the figure’s voice did little to make thing clear.

“Greetings, I am Bingr.” The voice was low but melodic. Bingr’s words were calm and pleased. “You come to prostrate yourself to The Darkness?”

Gudhild relaxed his grip on the spear and bowed. “Greetings, Bingr. I am Gudhild. And yes, I come to seek her counsel in the war for the old ways.”

The figure sniffed. “Yes, of course. You have the sacrifice?”

Gudhild nodded and patted the sack tied to his belt. His fingers touched the sticky bottom of the burlap pouch and he wiped what he knew was blood on his trousers with a grimace.

Bingr smiled and turned back the way he’d come. “Follow me.” This time, his steps did not make a sound on the forest’s detritus-littered floor.

Resisted the urge to let his jaw drop in shock, Gudhild struggled to find an explanation for how this shuffling creature could suddenly be so silent. But, what shook him to his core was the idea that Bingr could have approached without a sound. He only made noise for Gudhild’s benefit. This…thing was no mere servant of an old-ways seerwitch. This thing, despite its frail and twisted stature, was far more dangerous than that.

Quiet continued to permeate the forest, save for Gudhild’s own footsteps, which seemed unnecessarily loud despite his efforts. Night’s deep blue gave way to an even deeper purple as they moved farther into the wood. Light from the moon no longer trickled through the trees in silvery shafts. Now there was only a vague, dim light that made everything barely visible.

The two eventually came to a massive, gnarled tree at the center of a small clearing. Branches reached up and away from the tree in every direction, twisting every which way. The ends of those branches were lost in the misty gloom. At the center of the tree, seemingly carved out of the center was a massive knot in the trunk the size of a small door. The wood of the tree rippled and twisted toward the center of that knot. Here, the hint of rancid rot that laced the earthy smell of peat and black soil rising up from the ground tickled his nose unpleasantly.

Bingr stopped beside the tree and held his hand out toward the knot. “Here you are, but you must leave your weapons here.”

He had expected this. Gudhild set his spear against the side of the tree. He unbuckled his sword belt and laid it next to the spear. Turning back to the strange man, he nodded. “Now what?”

Bingr indicated toward the giant knot in the tree.

Gudhild’s face twisted in confusion. “What? I don’t understand.”

The twisted figure waggled his hand at the knot again. Gudhild realized that since he was coming to seek the witch’s magick, that maybe this place was magick too. Sighing, he stepped up to the deformation in the tree and knocked. At least, he would have knocked if his hand hadn’t passed right through the wood.

The figure rose a hand to its mouth and giggled as the inside of the knot shimmered and disappeared. In the knot’s place, a set of stairs descended into a dark hole. Dank, musty air wafted up from the hole, wrinkling Gudhild’s nose.

A glance back showed him Bingr’s nod. Gudhild swallowed hard. Descending into these dark depths with no weapons was indeed a test of his fortitude. If he should die, would this be enough to absolve his past sins and let him into the great halls of the Father?

Summoning his courage, he stepped into the tree and descended into darkness. He crept down the dark stairs as they spiraled around and around. For the first few feet, tips of roots poked out of the earthen walls and ceiling. After what he guessed was the first full circle, the dirt and roots were replaced with jagged stones, then by rough hewn granite blocks. The shine from the moon had completely vanished, yet somehow there was still a strange, ever-present grey light which he still could see by.

After at least four rotations—he could not even begin to guess how far down—the stairs ended in a short hall. A few feet ahead, the hall opened into a much larger space. Soft, yellow light flickered from the larger room.

Gudhild inched forward.

“Come, Gudhild.” A pair of soft voices echoed into the hallway in perfect sync. One deep and rumbling, the other soft and feminine. The melodic words matched and contrasted each other at the same time. Yet somehow they still seemed like one voice. “Have no fear of the Nightkin here. You are under my protection.”

As he made his way through the door, he found himself in a small room with a pitched ceiling. Simple torches adorned the walls, bathing the room in golden light. When he looked to his left, where the voice seemed to have come from, his breath caught in his chest.

Gudhild slipped his shield from his back and dropped to his knees. Pulling his bronze aegis to himself, he kept his eyes locked on what he saw. At the head of the room sat a throne made of woven roots and vines. To the left and right of the royal seat were more strange creatures, twisted things with part-animal faces, feathers or bizarre antenna sticking out of their heads. Above the throne, a massive skull was mounted to the stone wall, a skull that looked human except for its size and the massive fangs.

What caught Gudhild’s eyes the most, though, was who—or what—sat on the throne itself. His gaze started at the creature’s long, black-feather covered legs and moved up. The feathers faded into the soft, pink flesh of a woman’s flat stomach and firm breasts. Long, golden hair fell down over her shoulders, just covering her nipples. She sat casually, leaning back in her throne.

When his gaze fell on her face, though, he truly lost his breath. Her countenance was chiseled of the finest ivory. Never had he seen a woman like this and, despite his awe and fear, he felt the stirrings in his loins.

Her mouth parted in a faint smile. “You have come to seek audience with The Darkness, child Gudhild?”

The strange, disharmonious voices that came from her lips made his ears itch. I must not fail now, now matter how terrifying or…alluring these creatures be. “Yes. From the south, tales of a new faith threatens the old ways. These tales tell of a being of ultimate, unlimited power who claims dominance over all things, even the likes of the Fae. This supreme being has supposedly even sacrificed his own child for the sake of mortal man. What can be done against this new power to preserve the old ways.”

“You hold the old ways close to your heart, Gudhild?”

He nodded. “Aye.”

She nodded in return. “I have heard of this new power. It is young and brash, but should not be underestimated. Even so, the old ways do not die so easy. We of the Fae have been here since the beginning. We will be here until the end of all things and the close of the Ragna Rokkr.”

Gudhild grimaced. She danced around his question. He needed to know if there was anything that could stem the tide of this new faith. “But what of men? Is there nothing to be done for their hearts? Nothing that can keep them to the old ways?”

The Darkness chuckled. “Who knows the hearts of men? They are so fickle. Only fear and love can keep a man’s heart true to a thing. But when  greater fear or a greater love come, he will abandon all he knows for it.”

There. “So the Fae can do nothing to stem this tide?”

“No.” She shook her head. Her hair swirled about as if she was under water. “In faith, men will follow their hearts. That is as it should be.”

His fingers gripped the hidden Frankish steel handle. He closed his eyes. “Yes, as it should be. A man must follow his heart.”

Gudhild leaped up from his kneeling stance, sliding the long-bladed dagger from the back of his shield. He did not need to look to know the sacred runes were there, etched into the blade. He did not need to think back to remember that the steel of the dagger had been tempered in the blood of those who had sacrificed themselves. These things he knew. These things he felt in the power of the weapon he held.

Coming down, he pounced down on the first creature left of The Darkness. Cartlidge snapped as his dagger drove into the side of its neck. When he yanked the blade free, black blood spurted out, splattering across his face and chest.

A scream pierced the air, but he did not pause to find it’s source. Gudhild rammed his weapon into the gullet of another of The Darkness’s minions then stabbed it in the eye. Dark green ichor slid down Gudhild’s hand, burning his flesh. But he could not stop.

He tossed the blade into his other hand and slashed at The Darkness’s remaining monstrosity. The unholy creature went down in in a gurgling heap, clutching its throat. Leaping back to the front of the throne, Gudhild wiped the evil blood from his eyes. His hand screamed in fiery pain. He looked down at it and grit his teeth as the outer layers of skin melted off his arm.

Gudhild held up his failing hand at The Darkness and screamed. “This! This is the cost of the Old Ways! No more of your evil, I say to you, for the light comes. The light of the one god above all will banish The Darkness.”

Anger and hate welled up in him. Anger at the failings of the old ways, how they had done nothing to protect his kin as they were slaughtered by the southerners. Hate at what he had become, a killer of the Fae. A killer of gods.

He lunged forward, sinking his dagger deep into The Darkness’s chest. Yanking his blade free, he stabbed again and again, turning her naked chest into a shredded mess. With each stab, he screamed at the metal image of people he’d once known now dead.

Finally, when his strength was gone and his arm felt heavier than iron, he fell back and collapsed onto the stone ground. The only fire left in him was the burning of his throat. Tears streamed down his face, both from the pain and at what he’d done.

“Pour little Gudhild. Like a child you are.”

No. It’s not possible. A shiver ran down his spine at the melodic twin voices. Raising his weary head, he peeked through the sweat and blood soaked strands of hair draping down over his face. There, he saw The Darkness sitting up on her throne. Her chest was sliced in more than a dozen places, but no blood oozed from her wounds. Instead, the tenuous strands of skin snapped as rushing air tried to suck them into the endless abyss within her flesh.

The Darkness chuckled. She rose up off her throne, stepped down beside him and placed a hand on his head.

Gudhild’s chest tightened. Air rushed from his lungs and out of his mouth. His eyes went wide as he felt himself being pulled toward the gaping maw in her chest.

“Who knows the hearts of men?” This time, her voice was hollow and harsh, as if it was echoing through the realm of death to reach his ears. “I do.”

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