Today, I managed to settle down and write a response to the latest flash fiction challenge on Chuck Wendig's Terribleminds blog - The Dead Body. There were only two rules: the word limit was 1,000, and the story had to open with a dead body. This is what came out:
The body swayed in the trees rocked by storm winds and illuminated by lightning. It was naked, except for the green, leather gloves it wore on both hands—the hands from which it was suspended from the tree.
It might have been an attractive body, if there hadn’t been a gaping wound where its stomach should be. Perhaps… but Garamond wasn’t looking at the body, didn’t notice the slender hips or sculpted chest, the beauty of fine-chiselled cheek bones or luxurious fall of hair. Garamond fought his breakfast back into place, swallowed bile, forced his focus to the other trees in the grove, the ground onto which he’d nearly stepped.
If it hadn’t been for the crow flying out of the chest cavity, he’d have crossed into the spell, been trapped within it. The crow could fly, and had not been caught in the markings carved through grass and rock and the earth—or perhaps the spell had not been intended for crows.
Garamond noticed the small bodies curled on the ground, wings crumpled as though they’d cushioned the falls. He studied them, praying their tiny lives hadn’t been used to fuel the magic, releasing a soft sigh of relief when he noticed they breathed. What had drawn them into the circle?
Lightning flashed again, and cloud subsumed the dawnlight, as Garamond circumnavigated the clearing, the spell’s workings becoming easier to identify, now he knew to look for them. Each one served a purpose. Each one was part of a pair. Some were meant to contain, and some were meant to focus. He didn’t notice the steps echoing his own, great bodies passing as glimmering white shadows, through the not-so-distant trees. Garamond returned to where he’d almost blundered into the trap.
Why here? He crouched. Why here where it can catch anyone who comes along?
And why now? Why this day, and not the day before, or the day after?
Everything was significant. The timing, the bait—ah, the bait. He had been forgetting it was a trap. And traps were set for catch things. One set snares for small game such as rabbits or pheasant, dug pits for bear, used the right gender and race to lure intelligent humanoids to locations where they were vulnerable. Why this?
What was to happen today?
Noting the symbols carved into both earth and tree, Garamond settled, cross-legged in the middle of the path. He eliminated solstice celebrations, moon-linked festivals, seasonal first days. None of those were due,-and there had been no unusual phenomena to spark such sacrifice.
Shifting his thoughts from the forest to the village, he sifted through rumours: a visiting nobleman, the king’s messenger passing through, stories of her ladyship visiting the clans…
Her ladyship—and her proclivities were well known. Garamond studied the body. The man had been the right build to draw her attention, had the long hair attract her like a butterfly to nectar. Was he looking at petty revenge on his lord’s behalf?
No; Garamond pushed that thought away. His lord had no need of magic, was wary of its practitioners. Would he hire? Again, Garamond pushed the thought away, and made himself look at the body.
He wanted to lift the hair, see if those ears were elven, wanted to take a closer look at the face. Was it marked by tribal tattoos, did the throat show signs of having worn torc or collar? Apprehension knotted coldly in his gut. Had the clans objected to her ladyship’s choice of lovers?
Garamond discarded that idea, too. Her ladyship’s lovers had never bothered the clans, before. No, this was something new. One of her secrets, perhaps, or something to bring her, if such a device was needed.
Garamond knew too little of the lady’s past, too little of her travelling, but he did know she sometimes took a side road, and her journey almost always took her longer than expected. He had dismissed the forest too soon.
What was there in the forest to draw her ladyship’s attention?
He stood and studied the trap. The body wasn’t immediately visible from the path. It would have been seen easily four paces in, where a natural gap led to the giant beech dominating it. It would be the perfect place for a rendezvous, but that didn’t explain the fairies.
Sensitive to magic, the little creatures had flown into the trap, anyway, and, judging from the way their bodies had fallen, they hadn’t followed the crow’s path. They’d obviously flown in in a panic. Garamond couldn’t make sense of it, but he stared harder, studying every detail, again, hoping for something that would make sense, wishing something to stand out.
Why the green gloves?
Why strip the rest of the sacrifice bare and leave the gloves?
Why green? Why a beech?
Green-fingered, Garamond thought, in the forest. A druid, and that explains the fairies. Possibly elven, the beech for wisdom, providence, a sacred site. So, who?
Feet stamped impatiently behind him. Hitherto silent, the shadows had gathered, demanding his attention. Startled, Garamond turned, drawing his sword before he was facing them. Unicorns, ever the fairy companions, nodded their approval, and snorted, still bobbing their heads. Garamond lowered the blade, and the nearest nose-nudged him over the circle and into the spell.
He shouted in alarm—and discovered the spell did not touch him. Yes, it had been a spell of entrapment, but not for him. The unicorns did not enter, snorting anxiously at its edge. magical creatures then. In spite of the approaching storm, the clearing smelt ‘wrong’. Defilement.
A beech tree. Now, Garamond understood, whipped around, tried to seek a battle ground where he was not likely to crush fairies underfoot. He met the serpentine sorceress as she dropped from the tree, taking her down as the spell broke with the storm. Rain cleansed the spell marks as Garamond carefully gathered and settled the fairies in the beech tree’s branches.
The druid, he buried, while the unicorns stood guard.
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