Dark Pages preview #2

In the ongoing series of previews from the Dark Pages anthology from Blade Red Press, here’s an excerpt from the second story in the collection:

Heart of Ice
by Martin Livings

Lidja sits astride the deacon’s sodden corpse as he writhes, his erect penis cold and wet inside her. Sweat runs down the young sorceress’ chest, between her small breasts, as she rocks back and forth against the dripping body. Her hair, usually black, sweeps across her eyes in a golden blur. She tilts her head back, smiling, and looks to the corner of the guest room. There, next to the hearth, huddles the deacon’s betrothed, his beloved Gudrún. Her pale blue eyes are wide, and her perfect body is naked beneath the blankets because her nightdress is wrapped around Lidja’s slight body like a chameleon’s skin. The scent of the frightened girl still clings to it. The fire beside Gudrún seems to laugh quietly to itself in crackles and pops, amused by the girl’s terror. This in turn makes Lidja smile.

“Garún,” the corpse moans, bringing Lidja’s attention back to him. His face, though grey and bloated, is still that face she knows so well, the face she has imagined close to hers so many times before. His fetid grave-breath fills her nostrils. She breathes it in, savours it. “Garún,” he says again. He can’t pronounce the name, tongue black, swollen.

“Yes, my love,” Lidja whispers back to him. “Yes, it’s me.” The lie is the smallest of her sins.

He moans and settles back against the stone that lies in the centre of the room. It is the size and shape of a small bed, its surface flat and rough and smeared with the dirt of the field from which it came…

*

“Einn, tveir, Þrír!” the men of Myrká chanted, and in unison they strained to lift the massive rock. It came away from the muddy field with a sucking noise, and left a large, wet hole like an open wound in the earth and snow where it had lain for centuries, carried there by the passage of long-gone glaciers. It looked like the capstone of a grave, just as she’d envisioned it.

Lidja smiled, satisfied, from atop her gelding as she watched the men toil with it. She was impressed by their strength and dedication. The men, their faces red, chests bare and sweaty despite the winter chill, shuffled over to the cart, and with a single skilful motion deposited the rock over its side. The wooden wheels and axle creaked and cracked and buckled beneath the sheer weight of it, and for a long moment nobody dared speak or move or even breathe. But somehow the rickety cart didn’t collapse, though the wheels sank deep into the ground. The draft horses would make short work of that, however.

*

“How did you know it would be here?” the priest, Gunnarsson, asked. He stood by her horse, his robes tucked up into his rope belt to keep them clean. His legs looked as if they’d never seen the sun before, white as the snow that still covered most of the ground.

“It spoke to me,” Lidja answered, not looking at Gunnarsson. “Called to me. It’s waited here for me, all these years.”

The two watched in silence as the draft horses were harnessed to the cart. The animals seemed agitated, bothered by the proximity of the stone. Or perhaps it was Lidja’s presence that was upsetting them. It had taken her gelding many years of training to tolerate her, and even now she could feel it twitching between her thighs. Animals could sense her kind. They used to act the same way around…

“…your mother,” Gunnarsson said from beside Lidja, taking her by surprise. She’d been lost in thought.

She turned to the priest. “What?” she snapped.

“Your mother, Freya. I was sorry to hear about her passing.”

“Oh, such a nice way to put it,” Lidja replied bitterly. “I suppose you think she’s with your God now?”

Gunnarsson shook his head, solemn. “No, child,” he said. “Your mother burns in hell as a witch. As will you.”

Lidja laughed. “Ah, Father, at least we can agree on one thing.” She looked back to the stone, sitting there in the back of the cart. “But before I do, I can do something you cannot.”

“And what is that?”

“I can return the deacon to his grave.”

Gunnarsson didn’t respond. He just looked at the cart as well. The horses were secured to it now, and one of the men slapped them across their hindquarters with a whip. They whinnied, even more displeased than before, and dragged the cart across the field. The wheels barely turned, ploughing twin furrows into the soil and snow as it inched forward.

“It is not too late for you, Lidja,” the priest said at last, his voice soft. “God forgives all sins.”
Lidja’s eyes remained upon the stone. She shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “Not all.”

*

Lidja puts one hand flat against the rock, feels its chill, more cold even than the deacon’s wet, dead body. And getting colder.

The deacon spasms beneath her, inside her. It’s almost time.

Under her breath, she begins her incantation in a language old as the land itself. The stone beneath her hand turns colder still. The deacon seems unaware, lost in his undead ecstasy. He shudders beneath her again, grunts like an angry ape.

A freezing sensation runs through her body, starting in her loins and spreading out, filling her with ice water. She gasps as it threatens to swallow her whole; her mind flickers like a scrap of burning parchment caught in a blizzard. She struggles to remain conscious, to push the cold, empty darkness aside. She leans hard against the rock, continues the spell she memorised from the most potent grimoire that had belonged to her mother, before…

*

“Lidja!” Her mother’s voice cut through the gale outside, where Lidja was gathering firewood against the night. Something in her mother’s tone sent a twinge of fear through her stomach. She yanked her hatchet free of the lump of wood that she’d been trying to split in two and ran back towards the hut where she’d lived her whole life, just she and her mother, Freya, the most hated and feared woman for many miles. Freya the witch. Freya the demon. Freya the sorceress. And Lidja, daughter of Freya, tarred with the same brush. Her mother’s daughter.

She stepped into the hut and quickly closed the door behind her, to keep the worst of the winter wind outside. She shook herself like a wet dog, snow falling from her hair and shoulders, then looked for her mother. She wasn’t in the main room of the hut; the fireplace in the middle, its rough iron chimney going straight up through the roof, illuminated the scant furniture: a few tables, two straw beds covered in furs. Lidja was alone here.

“Mother?”

She crossed the room and pulled aside the deerskin curtain that separated the cooking area from the living space. Her mother stood in front of the rough wooden table that had always been there, her back to Lidja. A handful of small bones were scattered before her. Even from where she stood, Lidja could see the patterns they had formed, knew what it meant. Spirals of deceit, constellations of lies.

Her mother knew.

Freya turned, eyes afire with barely-controlled rage. “Lidja,” she said through clenched teeth, “what is the meaning of this?” She clutched a birch rod in her hands, one that Lidja knew all too well.

Lidja stood there in the entryway, eyes lowered.

“I see your intent, daughter,” her mother continued, anger simmering like a three day stew. “I see the past and the future. You know that.”

Lidja nodded, still silent.

Freya took a step forward. “Did you honestly believe you could hide this from me? From me?” she shrieked.
Still Lidja didn’t respond, kept her head down. She knew her mother’s temper, bore many scars from years of punishment. She knew the sorceress’ strengths. And her weaknesses.

“Hold out your arms, child,” Freya ordered her daughter. She was shaking with rage now, apoplectic. She raised the rod that she held in her hands so tightly that her knuckles were as white as bone.

“No,” Lidja murmured.

“What did you say?” her mother hissed. “What did you say?”

Lidja looked up. “I said no. I’m not a child anymore.” There was a strength in her voice that she didn’t know she possessed. She felt as if she’d left her body and was floating beside it, watching on, detached. She watched herself meet her mother’s gaze without flinching. One hand lowered to her side. “You can’t tell me what to do anymore.”

“We’ll see about that!” The beech rod whipped upwards, above Freya’s head. She bared her teeth, ready to strike.

Her mother was a fine seer, could see the future and the past with a startling clarity. But, like all seers, there was one occurrence that was hidden to her.

Her own demise.

Lidja swung her hatchet without fear or anger, just a stony resolve. Its head sank into the side of Freya’s neck. The beech rod fell to the earthen floor, and Lidja let go of the hatchet’s handle. It stayed there, sticking out at an odd angle. Freya’s lips moved, but no words emerged, just a deep, wet burble. She shuddered, and blood coloured her lips, dripped down her chin like berry juice. She fell to her knees, her confused eyes finding her daughter’s. They held a silent plea for mercy. Too late.

Lidja reached out and grasped the hatchet’s wooden handle again. Pulled it free.

Blood gushed from Freya’s neck like a burst dam, a flood released. She collapsed sideways to the earthen floor with a wet thud. She didn’t move again. Beneath the body, the dirt drank deeply of her.

Lidja stood there for a moment longer, her mother’s blood on her hands, her face, her soul. Then she put down the bloodied hatchet and opened the rear door of the hut. She grasped Freya’s ankles and dragged her body outside, into the snow. It would be her grave, at least until the spring thaw.

She returned inside and closed the door, leaving her mother and her guilt behind. Freya’s casting bones were still on the table, still in the pattern that had betrayed her. She gathered them up, focused her will on them, and tossed them across the table.

When they came to rest, they showed her the rock, so clear that she might have been standing in the field next to it.

Lidja smiled. She had much to do, and not much time. It wouldn’t be long before the people of Myrká sent for her. She had to be ready.

*

The rock cracks.

Lidja looks past the squirming corpse beneath her, and sees that the stone is no longer stone. It has turned to ice, clear and blue like the glaciers to the north. And across its smooth surface, a delicate spider web of fractures radiates out from beneath her palm, spreading wider and wider until it covers the ice entirely. She looses a triumphant cry, thrilled by the results.

The corpse’s eyes open again, milky-white cataracts clouding them. He looks at Lidja, a troubled expression on his grey, dead face.

In the corner, Gudrún sobs.

The deacon’s head turns towards the sound. “Garún?” he slurs. His eyes return to Lidja. “Garún?”

“Shhh,” Lidja hushes. She leans down and kisses the corpse lightly on the lips. Her tongue darts out, just a little, tasting his cold, dead flesh…

*

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