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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #2119462
Weird Tales Contest Winner: Sword and Sorcery, pleasantly overdone.
Cadoc stood still before the small wooden hut, dappled beneath trees and vines. Lines hung in odd directions, thickly laden with herbs and clothes not fit for rags. He held quiet and did not call out: men spoke of this place in whispers and warnings. A woman stepped slowly before him, her bold smile belying the scraps that scarce hid her curves as she moved, in shadow. Her long hair, blaze-red, rivaled the sun, but her bright green eyes gave that fire shame. Her wild beauty was, even in rags, unmatched.

Her smile twisted like the vines above, inscrutable. "So, a man comes unbidden to my home. You must be brave, to risk the wiles of the witch. What have you to say, handsome warrior?"

Cadoc stood stoic. He had searched long, through wood and swamp, for this small chance. "My name is Cadoc. I have come, fair Aideen, for a boon. A shadow walks, not far to the south of the Green Tower. What fell deed brought it, I know not. Some fool disturbed it, and now it hungers. Cattle were found, drained of color and life, then a man, and then a child. Daily some creature is consumed by that growing hunger and its fell power. We learned soon that steel does not touch it. I beg you help and your spells against it."

The laughter of the witch was like that of a beast, and yet sweet like a bird's song. "Oh, you have drunk of desperation, to come this way! Sooth, the rumors told you I crave blood and steal babes from mother's breasts, yet you approach my door."

The warrior waited in quietly for her mirth to pass, til only the wind spoke. The fey witch's finger suddenly cut the air, an arrow pointing at his soul. "Speak my help to mortal fools, and you will have your aid. Let them know Aideen cares for them, to spite their dark lies. Pass your dagger to me."

"My dagger?" Cadoc asked, but reached to offer it.

Aiden's cackle shook the strong man's nerves as she neared, crimson hair swirling about her hips. "Your sword is useless in this. Iron, not steel, for unbinding a shade, yes? Your arm, warrior, for spell must meet your blood's kiss along its blade. Yes, like that."

A sharp sting, warm drops, and the smell of metal mixed with strange words from no human tongue. The cold dagger remained unmoved, but the witch seemed pleased. "Good, good. It is done. My vision shows you worn, in garments torn, before the shadow. The dagger you will use to slay. Will we talk of a price?"

The warrior frowned. "Is it not meet to name price before bargain is struck? I will carry your message, as you bid me do."

Aideen stepped beside him, running a soft hand along Cadoc's bulging arm, then down his side. "Ha! When deed is done, you will return. Or think you your will might resist me? A favor for a favor I will ask. After, my word you will bring. Now, go! And do not fail me. Cadoc."

The warrior fled, stumbling over root and rock, escaping bright eyes and hard laughter, sword left behind in his haste. Long days and nights he walked, in wet lands with life fading, to find the shade that threatened. Finally, among dank waters and gnarled trees, a vision of evil walked, with dark wisps of limbs and yellowed eyes, towering above. Cadoc, whose garments on his quest failed him, was clad in fewer rags now than the witch, and plainer. His great warrior's body was in fear shrunk against a tree, dagger lifted, as vile Shade approached.

Cadoc, breast beating, threw himself in the path of the shadow, and shadow came to meet him. In swift winds, wisps of darkness reached to grasp him, but he threw himself in quickness aside, slashing. Where dagger passed, black mist itself burned with acrid stench, though no light betrayed its magic. It was a battle of eerie silence, but for the splash of foul water and Cadoc's hissing breath. The Shade gave no sign of its hurt, but threw itself, relentless against him. Time and again, Cadoc did circle and dodge, and slash, with speed and skill fit for legend. Each time, the Shade bled smoke, and diminished, by inch, in size. Each time, the Shade flew faster, and foul wind curled the hair of Cadoc's arms and legs when it neared, sizzling when water struck them. No mortal man could keep such driving speed for moments, but for hours Cadoc, in desperation did.

Gasping and weak from dance after dance with death, Cadoc fell to his knees as darkness dived down upon him. But in his final blow, spelled iron split yellowed eyes in twain, and an eerie shriek in echoes was heard. Mist swirled and spun into the iron dagger, and was gone. A moment of sweetest victory Cadoc knew, and then, with a pang, his heart stirred. To his feet, Cadoc rose and walked with urgent speed where the spreading fire in his chest compelled him, to his Aideen.
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