by J. Thayne
After his betrothed is abducted by undead, Lodun seeks her captor.
The Lich Queen
Alcmene watched from her seat of bone as her thralls fought before her. The rotten skeletons, still decorated with some strips of putrid flesh and muscle, parried and dodged with their rusted weapons. As lithe as any living thing, their bony feet danced across the damp earth of Alcmene's lair. One of them lunged forward, thrusting it's sword into the other's ribcage, catching it between the bones. Taking the opportunity to gain advantage, the skeleton that had just been impaled brought it's sword down swiftly, severing the other's spine at the base of the neck. Even as it's skull hit the floor with a sickly crunch, it's body collapsed in a brittle cacophony, the magic leaving it.
The winner turned to face Alcmene and raised it's sword-arm into the air, not noticing or caring about the blade still jutting from it's chest. Silence reigned in the cavern as the torches and wall sconces cast violently flickering shadows across the walls and floors, as her champion awaited it's reward.
Bored, she gestured minimally to one of her hand-maidens, a veiled skeleton of a deceased virgin. The she-corpse bent, retrieving a thrashing, squeaking animal from a closed basket at her feet, and handed it to the champion. Dropping it's sword, it tore the rat in half and began lovingly rubbing the animal's warm blood over it's bones, staining them even further, a sign of the mistress's favor.
Thoroughly uninterested in her champion's display, Alcmene stood and descended the steps of her throne. Her hand-maidens mutely moving to carry the train of her flowing ebony dress. The ring of spectating skeletons silently followed her from the room with their hollow gazes. She moved with nary a sound through the earthen passages, seeking a particular room which she had found herself using with some frequency as of late. A small room, lighted with torches, with a single item in the center. Her scrying pool.
She approached it, laying her hands gently on it's rough stone edges. The water inside trembled with her approach, as though it relished her touch. Alcmene dipped a long-nailed finger into the center of the water and withdrew it quickly, sending smooth, repeating ripples out to the edges of the stone basin. She bent over the surface as the water took on color unlike anything it could have reflected in the cavern. The dank room was brightened further as an image of a field coalesced, still slightly distorted by the water's movements.
Alcmene at first saw only the field. The viewpoint shifted, showing a young girl picking flowers, dressed in the rough wool and linen common in the nearby village. Alcmene frowned. This was not what she had desired to see, and wondered why the pool had shown it to her. Her expression relaxed as a young man came into view, walking towards the girl. The bodies of small forest animals were strung over his shoulder. The day's hunt. She took in his handsome features, thinking again what it would be like to touch them, rather than the cold, dry bones of her thralls. It had been centuries since she had felt the touch of living flesh against her own.
Then she saw the two young lovers share a chaste kiss, before the young man strode towards the village. A flare of anger and jealousy welled up in Alcmene's breast. She glared through the pool at the wench, before realizing why the scrying pool must have shown her this. A cruel, tight-lipped smile etched itself on her face. The first it had felt in many years.
Lodun walked briskly down the muddy street of the village, still heady with thoughts of Nacia's soft lips on his. He made his way home, pushing open the heavy wooden door, greeted by the smile of his mother as she saw him and the cleaned quarry he laid on the table.
"Lodun!" shouted an excited voice from the other room. A small girl ran into the kitchen, a grin so wide it looked like her head was about to split open. Grinning back, he caught her mid-stride and lifted her up, swinging her round once before plopping her back down.
"Erica. I've caught something today I think you'll like," He said as he pointed to the string of animals he'd laid on the kitchen table. She looked, and her mouth opened in surprise.
"Rabbits!" She skipped to the table and ran a small hand over the soft fur.
He put a hand on her head and mussed her short hair. "I know you were getting tired of squirrel."
She made a face. "They taste funny. Even in a stew."
Lodun and his mother laughed at his sister's forwardness. They set to skinning them as Erica watched, waiting for them to finish one so she could have a bit of rabbit fur to pet.
Once she had been given a piece and trotted into the other room, his mother looked up at him and said, quietly, "Nacia's mother stopped by today, looking for you. Have the two of you decided yet?"
He nodded. "We'd like to do it this fall, after the harvest."
His mother's eyes widened in slight surprise. "So soon? I thought you might wait until spring?"
He looked up from the rabbit in his hands and grinned. "I know, mother. We don't think we can wait that long."
She laughed and said nothing for a moment. When she did, some of the smile had left her face, "Your father would be proud of you, Lodun. Nacia's a good match for you. I know you two will be happy."
He just nodded, saying nothing, thankful for her words. They passed the rest of the evening in silence, as his mother began making a stew from the rabbit and vegetables from the garden. Lodun had finally gotten Erica to give up the piece of fur after promising to tan it for her, and made her wash before supper.
After they had eaten, Lodun was tucking Erica into bed, telling her a bedtime story filled with heroes and dragons that alternately had her cringing and yawning, struggling to stay awake to hear it. He was nearly finished when he heard shouts coming from outside.
Lodun quickly went to the door and stepped out. As far as he could see, other people were doing the same, looking in the same direction. He heard more shouts, and several women screamed. He ran back in the house, coming out a moment later with his father's old sword in hand. He ran through the gathering crowd toward the source of the commotion. He noticed he wasn't alone. The blacksmith and several farmers were now moving with him, the blacksmith with another sword, the farmers with their scythes.
They broke through the press of people and stopped in their tracks. Belatedly, Lodun noticed they were before Nacia's house. More disturbing than that, however, were the creatures that stood before them, keeping the crowd back. Not a hard task, as nobody was willing to approach the skeletons that ringed the house, holding their swords out threateningly. The people were mostly frozen in fear and shock, too afraid to approach, but too transfixed to run back to their homes.
"What in blazes..." Lodun heard the Blacksmith mutter next to him. The large man's soot-covered, bearded face was twisted in fear and uncertainty.
As Lodun turned back to the ring of dead, what he saw next gripped his heart in a fist of terror. Nacia walked from her home, flanked before and aft by crimson skeletons, as another, yellowed, shoved her screaming mother back through the open doorway and slammed the door behind it.
"Nacia...Nacia!" Lodun yelled as he ran forward, raising his sword to smite the nearest ghoul. It surprised him by delivering a bony kick to his stomach that knocked him to his back, gasping for breath and losing his grip on his sword. Lodun rolled over to look up through pain-blurred eyes.
He searched for and caught Nacia's face. She was looking directly at him, her gaze unwavering. He might have expected to see fear and tears in her eyes, but they were cold. As their eyes met, he saw a tight smile curve her lips, a look of contempt on her face that he never thought could have graced her beautiful features. She looked at him this way a moment more, before she turned and began walking away toward the fields, surrounded by the coterie of skeletons, keeping watch, and making it clear they would allow no one to follow them.
Lodun struggled to his knees. He caught up his sword and stood, meaning to go after them. A thick hand on his shoulder restrained him. He turned with a grunt of anger, but the look on the blacksmith's face forestalled his protestations. If he had seen a look of sad resignation, he would have simply torn away, but it wasn't. Instead the smith looked like he wanted to do the same as Lodun, barely restraining a snarl of anger.
"Not yet, boy. You'll accomplish nothing but your own death if you go after them now." His grip tightened almost painfully on Lodun's shoulder. "Come with me." He let go and turned back to the crowd, pointing out and repeating the command to several other men. As the crowd gaped at the retreating forms of the skeletons, Nacia's white nightgown still barely visible among them, Lodun, the Blacksmith, and the men he'd called out moved back into the village. Lodun followed anxiously, casting glances over his shoulder, even though he could see nothing but the people as they craned their necks.
They crossed to the other side of the village, to the last house on the outskirts before the wilderness resumed. The smith pounded on the door with his meaty fist. A thin voice from inside said something Lodun didn't catch, and the door was opened a moment later. The old man standing at the threshold stared with widening eyes at the group of men standing before his house.
"Solas," the smith began, "something has happened. We need your counsel."
The old man blinked in surprise, before hurriedly inviting them in. As the group trailed in behind him, they found it difficult to find standing room amid the piles of books and parchments that littered every available space in the old man's home.
Turning to face the smith, he spoke, "I assume this has something to do with the commotion I just heard? Tell me, what has happened?"
"We just saw a woman taken by a band of ghouls," the smith said, with more directness than Lodun would have been able to manage at the moment.
Solas' eyes widened in further surprise. As he turned and began picking through his books, he asked if there was anything else.
To his own surprise, Lodun spoke up. "Yes. She...seemed to go willingly. I saw her face. It was...changed."
Solas hesitated, then seemed to find what he was looking for. "Ghouls, you say..." he muttered. "The living bones of men, yes?" They all nodded confirmation.
"Hmm..." he mumbled, finding a certain passage and glancing about the page.
The smith interrupted him. "We would follow them, if such a course is likely to bring the girl back."
Solas looked up, with a worried expression. "I'm afraid it is not so simple." He looked directly at Lodun and said, "You said she went willingly, without protest." Lodun nodded, and he continued, "Then it is not a matter of simply taking her back. She has likely been put under a spell of possession. Only the one who cast such a thing may remove it." He shook his head mournfully, "It is beyond me, I'm afraid."
"Then tell me where I can find this warlock or wizard! I'll put my father's sword to his throat until he frees Nacia." Lodun snarled.
Solas looked at him a few moments, perhaps gauging his determination, before closing the book in his hands and rubbing his eyes. Without looking up, he spoke, "It is no wizard you seek, young man...but the Lich Queen. I had hoped..."
"What?" asked the smith.
Solas shook his head, as if changing his mind. Abruptly he left the men standing there as he disappeared into another room, returning after a few minutes holding something in his hand. He opened his fist to the smith, revealing two amulets, appearing to be made of ruby, or some other red gemstone. They glinted in the candlelight, and Lodun could see the fine craftsmanship that went into casting the golden settings and chains.
"Take these. I only have the two. They may offer some small protection against sorcery, but I cannot guarantee it." As the smith took the amulets from him, Solas sighed. "If you intend to chase after them, you will likely find the Lich Queen's lair somewhere to the northwest. That is where legend says she made her home." He shook his head again. "I'm sorry I can't be of more help. It is troubling to think that she still lives. Nobody has seen or spoken of her in living memory. I cannot fathom why she would reveal herself now, only to spirit away some poor girl. I'm sorry."
With that, Solas seemed finished. They gave him their thanks and left him to himself, gathering on the road outside. The blacksmith bade the other men to go to their homes and return with torches. As Lodun was about to do the same, the smith stopped him.
"They will bring enough. Calm yourself Lodun. There will be fighting before the night is done. 'Tis better if you go into it with a clear head," he said, while holding out one of the amulets to him.
Lodun took it and placed it around his neck. It felt heavier than something of it's size should be. Tucking it into his shirt, he walked with the smith as they walked back through the village, meaning to begin their search in the fields the skeletons had fled through. As they walked, the men returned in ones and twos, bearing torches and weapons. By the time they reached the field, nearly a dozen men had heard of the search and joined in. Lodun's confidence was bolstered by the display of loyalty. Surely some of them knew of his intent to marry Nacia, but they respectfully kept their silence.
Following Nacia's abductors proved not to be too difficult. Such a large number of dead left plenty of trampled grass and vegetation in their wake, and with most of the men of the village being hunters of varying skill, they found they could track them easily, even through the forest. Even so, they were too far behind to catch up quickly, and before long, they had made their way to the marshy area north of the forest.
The search slowed, even though the mud made the tracks easier to spot, it sucked and pulled at the men's boots.
"Ahead! I see a cave!" shouted a man at the head of the group. Even as the last word left his mouth, Lodun watched as a fleshless arm shot up from the mud, grabbing the man's trousers and yanking him to the ground. When he hit the mud, more hands rose up, taking hold of his head and holding his face down. Even as Lodun and the others rushed forward to help him, it was clear that he would soon suffocate. For every arm they broke, every hand knocked away, two more replaced them, and soon they began attacking the rest of the group.
After some moments of struggle, the fray was joined by full skeletons exiting the cave entrance, hacking at the men while they struggled to defend themselves and stay upright at the same time. Only Lodun and the smith were spared, untouched by the grasping claws, and seemingly avoided by the skeletons. Seeing this, they positioned themselves between what was left of the group and the advancing ghouls, warding them off.
Sensing this, the skeletons stopped, seeming to reconsider. Suddenly, one of them raised it's yellowed arm and pointed straight at Lodun, then pointed to the cave. It repeated this twice more before lowering it's arm and regarding him mutely.
The smith snarled, "I'm at a loss, boy. One of us has to stay if any of us are going to make it home alive." He looked Lodun straight in the eyes. "Do what you need to boy. If I can, I'll be waiting here for you." With one hand, he reached into his belt, taking something from it, before holding his arm out to Lodun. "Take this...and keep that blasted amulet on!"
Lodun looked at the smith's outstretched hand. A silver-handled dagger was clenched in his fist. Lodun took it and slipped it into his own belt, at the small of his back. He swallowed hard, and nodded. Fear and anger warred for dominance as he took first one step, then another toward the still skeletons, who followed him with their dark sockets. As he drew closer, sword raised, they parted, allowing him to pass. Even as he did so, he snapped his gaze back and forth between them, as if they might try to stab him in the back as he walked past. They didn't try any such thing, but turned to follow him at a respectful distance.
Just inside the entrance, a crimson skeleton waited. As he drew up to it, it beckoned, once, then turned and strode further into the dank cavern. Lodun, with his retreat blocked, and still determined to find Nacia, followed with trepidation, thankful that the other men couldn't see how badly he trembled and shook.
He followed the crimson ghoul further through the twisting cavern, quickly losing count of how many turns they'd made and intersections they'd passed. He was losing confidence in his ability to find his way out on his own. Finally, as they entered a brightly lit room, he couldn't help himself. He dashed past his guide, sprinting to the white-clad form hung from manacles dangling from the ceiling.
"Nacia!" he shouted, reaching her. Dropping his sword, he wrapped his arms about her, feeling a moment of confusion as something pricked his hand as it reached her back. With a feeling of dread, he withdrew his hand. A thin cut along his finger was welling with blood. He looked up into her face, and fell to his knees as he saw that it was slack, eyes closed. Her chest was still, drawing no breath.
He snapped his head up to look in the voice's direction. What he saw stunned him. From the other side of the room, a tall, beautiful woman entered, flanked by veiled skeletons. She was dressed in a black, flowing dress, the bodice cut low enough that he could easily see the cleft between her well-endowed bosom. Her skin was pale as snow, her hair midnight black.
Only momentarily taken aback by the unexpectedness of her beauty, he reached for his sword, meaning to take his revenge, but found it had already been taken up by the crimson skeleton that had led him here. Tears of frustration and sadness began to fill his eyes as he looked back up at the still form of Nacia.
In a dry, hoarse voice completely at odds with her looks, as if it were rarely used, the Lich-Queen spoke, "Cry not, young one. She may still live, should you choose it."
He looked at her in disbelief. "She is dead, you wretched creature!"
To his surprise, she laughed. "Of course she is. Death is both my business and my pleasure."
"Then how..." he started, his words strangled in his burning throat.
"Death is mine to command, child. A word, a mere gesture from me, and she will live again."
"Then...please. I beg you..."
She shook her head, a mocking smile still on her lips. "That is not why I brought you here." She slowly approached him, reaching out a hand to touch his cheek. He pulled back, out of her reach. Anger flashed across her face as she more forcefully took his chin in her hand. The smile slowly returned.
"I will restore her life...but in return..."
"You...will remain here. With me. Your life...for hers."
She blinked in surprise, then laughed, taking her hand away. "My my...so quick to agree. Either you love her more than I thought, or I have chosen a simpleton."
"I understand. I will...stay. Now fulfill your promise."
She shot him a withering glare, showing her displeasure at his tone, but said, "Very well." She moved behind Nacia's body, and removed the dagger. Lodun winced as he heard the blade grate against bone.
The moment the knife was free, Nacia gasped, her eyes fluttering open. She swayed from the chains, panting heavily, before her gaze found him.
"Lodun?" she asked uncertainly. "Where..." she began, then saw the multitude of skeletons that were standing idle about the room. She gasped, and the breath stuck in her throat. Lodun saw her eyes roll and her head drooped once again. She had fainted.
The Lich Queen moved to stand in front of Lodun once again, smirking. One of her minions now unshackling Nacia's limp, but living, form.
She was about to speak again, but Lodun moved with lightning speed, drawing the dagger from his belt and, as he rose from his kneeling position, drove it into her chest, just below her breasts. His free hand took hold of her shoulder and he drove the blade in to the hilt, drawing a choked gasp from her. Her wide, shocked eyes moved from the knife to stare into his.
He grinned madly as her hands found his, trying to pry them away from the dagger handle. As she did so, Lodun saw her begin to smile. He let go of the blade and stumbled back a couple steps, as her smile erupted into resonant laughter, breaking through her hoarseness and revealing the dulcet tones she thought she had lost centuries ago from disuse.
She slipped the dagger out easily, without so much as a wince, holding it out to be taken by one of her hand-maidens. Not a single streak of blood marred it's gleaming blade. Lodun, all hope gone now, sank back to his knees, not even able to meet her gaze.
"Poor boy. You really are a fool, if you thought you could slay the Queen of Death." She stood before him, and crossed her arms, surveying his subdued form. "You will learn, though."
She snapped her fingers, and the crimson skeleton that had guided Lodun stepped towards her. She addressed it by voice, so that Lodun would hear her orders. "Take the girl outside. Leave her with the men there, and make certain they remove themselves from this place."
The skeleton inclined it's skull, then turned about to follow her command. She held out a thin, smooth hand to Lodun. "Come now, I have kept the bargain."
He looked up balefully at her, but took her hand anyway. She was surprisingly strong, pulling him to his feet as easily as would the Blacksmith. One of her hand-maidens handed her a goblet, filled with what looked like wine. She took a long, slow drink, then held it to Lodun.
"Drink now, to your newly raised status. Through my beneficence, you have been raised from your lowly squalor to that of royalty. That is no trifling gift. Drink," she commanded.
He took the goblet woodenly, briefly considered throwing it in her face, but did as she asked. Moments after he swallowed the first sip, he felt a burning in his gut. The burning quickly turned to pain.
The goblet clattered to the floor, spilling it's contents to be soaked into the earthen floor, as he gasped for breath that refused to come. His eyes bulged and he felt himself suffocating. As he fell to the ground, vision blurring, he choked out, "Why?"
As his vision faded, Alcmene laughed sonorously and smiled down at him. "What use have I for living things?"
She bent down. He could no longer see her, but he could feel her breath on his face as she whispered, "You will be eternally young and beautiful. In time, you will thank me."
((Author's note: Written for the Poison Apple Theatre dark fantasy contest.))