Adventure Fantasy Fiction

Compulsively, Alaric kept turning to verify that he wasn’t being followed. Bringing a plow-horse and cart to his hoard was dangerous, but he didn’t have a choice. He was low on time and energy. Yet, owning the lands where such an extraordinary treasure was located wouldn’t protect him. Last winter, he’d lost a frantic race with poachers to cull and claim deer and other transient prey animals; the poachers had stripped his land bare, casually abandoning deboned carcasses in utter disregard of the meat that could have fed his family. A mere farmer lacked sufficient weapons-skill to defend his land’s boundaries. Only recourse to his hoard had seen them through.

As bitter as a sea-hag’s breath, the breeze scurried ahead, a harbinger of this year’s winter. Already, the squirrels looked painfully thin beneath their furry fluff: the lack of tree-nuts suggested that a particularly barren winter (and its boon companion, famine) approached. Desperation on the part of their less observant human neighbors would set in soon enough.

After he’d found his own subterranean cache last spring, Alaric had agonized about whether to dig it up all at once to conceal aboveground (where intruders might find it) or whether to keep it hidden underground. For two seasons, he’d left it buried, only taking a few pieces every now and then for extraordinary needs. Then he’d awakened sweating one brisk autumn night, fleeing a nightmare he didn’t care to recall. What he did remember was being in dire need of resources, yet unable to reach it, frantically raking through heavy snow with half-frozen hands prickling with pain.

So, after he’d gotten last year’s harvest in, Alaric had taken a fragment of his new wealth to the witch who lived in the nearby forest. She called herself a ‘wisewoman,’ but everyone knew the truth. There, he’d requested three days of rain. Specifically, not a downpour: just unpleasantly chilly, constant drizzle.

With a gap-toothed grin, the witch had asked about his harvest. In a farming region, the question initially passed innocuously, as if she’d inquired about family health. If one believed in the benevolent concern of witches. Then she’d posed a pointed inquiry about his neighbors’ harvest. When he’d pleaded ignorance, she’d winked conspiratorially at him. Honestly, Alaric hadn’t cared if the witch thought he sought to delay his neighbors’ harvest so he could carry his crops to market first: that belief might be safer for him.

Beady yellow-green eyes had gleamed as the witch accepted his offering. Passing it between her hands and stroking it with her bony fingers like a fell black cat, she’d seemed far too interested in the source of his wealth. When she asked him how he’d come by it, Alaric had claimed he’d found it in a stream-bed. Her answering wordless grumble had sounded safely dismissive enough.

Rain just warm enough not to freeze had fallen for the next three days. Only Alaric had ventured outside in the unpleasant weather. The ground around his discovery went muddy, which made it easier to pluck the hard chunks loose with his fingers. He’d found more lumps than expected and he couldn’t bear to leave even one behind. One piece could someday mean the difference between starvation and survival. The stumps of the two smallest fingers on his left hand ached in rueful memory of the last failed harvest. But his traded fingers had bought enough food for Althea and Melina.

Althea and Melina… A lump lodged in his throat like a rock.

Alaric shook his head to clear cobwebs from his mind. Letting his vigilance lapse by drowning in memories could prove fatal. Although the sun hid behind a shield of clouds, no foul-weather spell cloaked his passage today. Yet, waiting for cover of darkness could cost Althea and Melina their lives.

After a solitary journey that lasted forever and a day, Alaric finally reached the cave, located just above a stream. Too long. Why hadn’t he found a hiding-place nearer their cottage? He held his breath, but he heard only the mournful cries of the few birds who had delayed their winter pilgrimage south and the trickling gurgle of the brook. After one final double-sweep of his head, he tied the horse’s reins to a tree. Then he drew the fairy-lantern from under his cloak and darted inside, shivering as he plashed through the shallows of the brook.

The lantern glowed. Bowing his head to avoid dripping moss above and lifting his feet to dodge roots below, Alaric clambered to the rear of the cave. Carefully, he lifted the stones weighing down the old blanket he kept draped over the treasure in a wishful attempt at concealment. Rough wool rustled and fell loose, and there it was. Still there. Not that he had any reason, such as a murder attempt, to suspect discovery of his trove, but a sigh of relief gusted out.

How much to offer the witch? Too much could be as dangerous as too little. A father and husband’s devotion warred with self-preservation. Memories of Melina’s golden hair gliding along his rough fingertips like fine-spun thread made Alaric’s eyes fill with tears. He imagined Althea’s sturdy, strong fingers closing on his shoulder in a reassuring squeeze.

To the rank fumes of Avernus with doubt! Alaric resolved. Buy back their health by any means necessary!

Careful not to nick his hands, he hefted one of the last two large fragments, which appeared to be part of a massive femur. Although no magic flowed through Alaric’s veins, he felt the weight of the bone’s age. Despite years of field labor, he could barely lift it. Did it come from a dragon? He wondered once more.

Alaric’s mind’s eye added firm, leathery flesh around the stray bone, adorned with iridescent scales. Spine prickling as he imagined the blast of the beast’s fiery breath, the descent of fanged jaws towards the unprotected back of his neck, Alaric shivered. Enough! Althea and Melina need you!

Exiting the cave took doubly long. The prospect of tripping over a protruding root and shattering his burden into tiny, useless shards haunted Alaric. By the time he emerged, the force of his clenched teeth made his jaw ache. As he traversed the stream, his ankle turned on a rock. He hissed in a combination of pain and ruthless concentration on balance.

Carefully, Alaric laid the bone in the cushioned bed of straw piled in the waiting cart-bed, then piled more straw atop the bone before draping the blanket over it. Good enough to fool a casual onlooker, he decided. Please, gods, be with me and speed my path!


Every dip and bump of the rickety cart made Alaric flinch. He muttered blasphemous, unjustified oaths at his patiently oblivious plow-horse as his knuckles clenched the reins so tightly that they turned bone-white.

Time had not improved the condition of the path leading into the witch’s forest. Alaric’s cart barely fit through the overgrowth. He told himself that he imagined the vegetation pressing uncomfortably close on all sides. Low-hanging tree branches disturbed by his passage swiped at Alaric like clinging hands. As he penetrated deeper into the forest, the shadows grew oppressive. Finally, he pulled out the fairy-lantern. He didn’t imagine the forceful near-hiss as branches recoiled from the light.

Finally, he reached the witch’s ramshackle cottage. Surely it was no coincidence that it lay in the darkest shadows of the woods. Bracing himself, Alaric lifted the bone, wrapped in the blanket, and carried it to the door. Lacking a free hand, he lifted one foot to tap the door.

When the door opened, he once more questioned this decision. No one else can help, he reminded himself. Although the witch’s gray hair was neatly tucked into a long plait, luminous cat-slit eyes peered at him from a weathered face. Yet… she still looks younger than she did the last time I paid a visit, over a year ago. But I only gave her a toe-joint then.

“Alaric.” The witch hummed in a sweet voice at odds with her withered exterior. “We’ll bypass pleasantries, as this can be no mere social call. Not lightly would you bear an offering of such might into my domain. The moment you entered my forest, it whispered to me. Your need must be great. And you always bring me such nice presents.”

Alaric didn’t like her possessive words. “I seek an exchange, lady,” he clarified, lingering on the word ‘exchange.’ He doubted she was any sort of lady, but politeness seemed prudent when addressing a woman of power. Although he wanted to scream in anguish, he fought to keep his tone measured. “My wife and child have fallen ill.” Despite his efforts, his voice went hoarse. “It is the Great Plague. I request a healing.”

“Ahhhh,” the witch husked. “I will require an infusion of a great deal of life to prepare a cure. Show me what you have brought and I will take its measure.” With a dramatic sweep of one arm, she indicated that he should enter.

Puffing with exertion, Alaric set the massive bone down on a nearby work-table. Slowly, he drew the covering away to reveal the bone.

The witch made a noise like a woman in the heights of pleasure. She bustled forward to lay both hands on it eagerly. “Where did you find the remains of a terrible lizard?” she demanded breathlessly.

Although he wasn’t sure what a ‘terrible lizard’ was, Alaric wasn’t about to continue the conversation about its location. Letting her reaction guide him, Alaric declared, with more confidence than he felt, “Remains of this size from a terrible lizard should suffice for a cure.”

“Hmmmm,” she purred, absorbed as her bony fingers stroked the smooth surface in wonder. Abruptly, her attention returned to him as she tipped her head to stare at him, eyes glimmering avariciously. “Do you have any more of this lucre in your coffers?”

“I’m disinclined to engage in conversation while my wife and child lie suffering,” Alaric parried.

The witch coughed delicately. “Ah, but I fear we have not yet resolved the matter of payment.”

Alaric saw red. The greedy wench! No doubt she would absorb far more life from the bone than required to heal Althea and Melina. Clenching his teeth, he fought for control. Reaching for the bone, he murmured, “I see. I thought you would be intrigued by such an offering. My mistake. I’ll take it elsewhere then.”

Impulsively, the witch clutched at the bone. Clearing his own throat, Alaric aborted the movement, advising the witch silently with raised eyebrows that she had betrayed herself.

“My good man,” she fumbled. “It is not the nature of your offering that I quibble with: solely the magnitude. I recall that you brought me a fragment of this same terrible lizard once before. You clearly have more than you previously revealed.”

“I’m not obligated to provide an inventory of my possessions to obtain magic from you. Merchants in the marketplace make no such demands, or they would shortly find themselves without customers.”

“But, for the lives of a wife and child, surely material possessions are no object. I require more.”

Briefly, Alaric considered handing over the last large fragment without argument. Yet he would need to return to his hiding-place to retrieve it, and venture the attendant risks: besides nosy neighbors, the witch herself now had motivation to spy upon him, by mundane or arcane means. Do Althea and Melina have time for me to complete another trip? Assuming they survive, would it be prudent to forfeit my entire trove to keep them alive this once? Will Melina thank me for that choice when it’s her turn to sell off fingers or toes to support me and Althea in old age? Will we even survive another winter if the poachers return or if next summer’s crops fail?

“I told you: I found it in a stream,” Alaric lied. “I saved this fragment for an emergency. But…” he paused, trying to seem frantic. I know so little of magic: I hope this works how I expect that it will.

“But?” the witch prompted.

“I have a few smaller pieces that I can offer you, although I need to fetch them from my cart.”

“Bring them in and we’ll discuss whether they are sufficient,” the witch ordered peremptorily.

At his cart, Alaric turned his back towards the witch’s hut, blocking the view of his hands with his body. Reaching into his belt pouch, he set the two pointed fangs sheltered within on the cart. With a rock, he cracked them into fragments, until their original shape was lost. Then he swept the fragments into his belt pouch. Although Alaric was no artist, he chiseled his best expression of dread and fear onto his features before he returned to the cottage.

As if agonized by indecision, Alaric slowly extended the belt-pouch to the witch. Halfway to her, he paused, conspicuously hesitating.

“Yes?” the witch asked archly. She knew she had him.

“Lady,” he choked. “Please… this is all I have.”

“What good are material possessions when weighed against the absence of one’s family?” she taunted cruelly. “Show me what’s inside and make haste, farmer. The gods only know how much longer your wife and child have.”

With a near-sob, Alaric dropped the pouch into her outstretched palm. “Take it,” he whispered hoarsely. Once he’d released it, he covered his eyes shakily with one hand.

Dumping the contents into her hand, she clicked her tongue in feigned disappointment. “Nowhere near the quality of your other offering.”

“I’m sorry, lady.”

Theatrically, the witch sighed. “I suppose they will do. You have a bargain.” Greedily, she reached for the large bone with her other hand, as she closed her fingers around the fragments in the palm of her hand.

Alaric interposed his hand. “Swear by your power that you will use the life you absorb to cure my family first. Whatever remains is of course yours.”

Her eyes narrowed ominously. “I do not appreciate such demands, farmer.”

“If my family is to die anyway, I will keep the bones for myself rather than give them to you. If you want them, witch,” he snarled out her title, letting his anger temporarily surface. “Swear.”

Glaring, the witch finally muttered, “I swear on my power that I will prepare the cure for your family before I absorb any life for myself.”

He nodded silently and removed his hand.

The witch placed the bone-fragments onto the worktable and lay one hand on the leg-bone. She closed her eyes and chanted in a guttural foreign tongue. A crimson glow haloed the bone. As she moved her fingers slowly along the bone, it crumbled away until about half had vanished. Her free hand filled with a sparkling golden powder.

Gasping, she stopped chanting and opened her eyes, which glowed the same ominous red hue. “So… hard… to stop. Take it, farmer,” she rasped as she held out her hand. “You need merely sprinkle the dust upon your family to cure them.”

Gently, Alaric swept the dust into his hand. He carefully transferred it to his empty belt pouch. “Over half the bone is left,” he observed pointedly. “You haven’t even touched the smaller fragments.”

“How dare you?” she hissed. “You have the remedy you bargained for. Do not press your good fortune further.”

Any impulse to tell her the truth died a silent death. With a curt nod, Alaric turned away.

Predictably, the chant resumed. Unlike before, it built rapidly to a crescendo. A wanton cry made him spin in surprise.

There stood a red-haired woman in the prime of life. The witch’s previously loose, shapeless draperies now clung taut to sweet curves. If not for those feline-hued eyes, Alaric might not have recognized her. He stared. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the large bone chunk had fully dissolved into powder… It had restored at least thirty years of life to the witch!

The woman smiled and unleashed a throaty laugh. “Not what you expected now, am I? Why hurry away so soon, Alaric? It has been too many years since I’ve kept company with a man.”

“Um… I regret to remind you of my dying wife and child,” Alaric stuttered.

Pouting with plump, rosy lips, she sighed. “Hasten on your way, then. Perhaps you may yet save them.”

Gathering his wits and words about him, Alaric spoke precisely, “What a magnificent transformation, lady. Perhaps the last few chunks of bone might restore your youth further. You might even pass for a marriageable young maiden. I believe the duke’s heir is seeking a wife.”

“An excellent point!” the woman chirped. Greedily, she turned back to the worktable and resumed spell-casting.

Though his heart throbbed with the need to bolt to his cart and drive posthaste to his cottage, Alaric waited patiently for revenge.

Mid-chant, the witch sobbed in horror. Though she cut off her words, it was too late. There stood a girl not much older than Melina. Yellowish eyes grew fixed with horror as she stared down at her small hands.

“Ahhh,” Alaric murmured. “I suppose I should have mentioned that those last fragments were once teeth. Not surprising that they retain the residue of the lives the terrible lizard consumed with them. In retrospect, it seems obvious that they would be more effective for spell-casting purposes. Perhaps… too effective?”

“You tricked me, farmer!” The witch’s malice shone through the facade of the small child. “I’ll make you pay for this.”

“I think I’ve already paid you more than enough,” he retorted. “Would you prefer to be a babe in arms? Perhaps, as you grow in body, you’ll grow likewise in spirit and accept the price of your own greed. I will return to my wife and child and restore to them the balance of their remaining years. Good fortune to you, wisewoman.”

The witch wept into her child-sized hands.

August 19, 2022 15:59

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Michał Przywara
21:04 Aug 25, 2022

I liked this story. A bone economy, where the bones are presumably drained of life so that others may benefit - it's a good dark fantasy setup. Then we have a simple farmer that stumbles over a dragon's skeleton. A fortune for a poor man. He gets into trouble when his family falls ill, with poachers (I like how they left the worthless meat and only grabbed the bones), and with a greedy witch. The ending is a good twist, turning that greed against itself. It's also kind of funny, but I suspect he might pay dearly for it one day. There's s...


L.M. Lydon
18:04 Aug 26, 2022

Thank you for your kind words. You perceive exactly what I was attempting to achieve. I like the bone concept- I may try to find a place for it elsewhere.


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Graham Kinross
04:22 Aug 24, 2022

I don’t see how Alaric felt annoyed that she was taking extra. It’s a transaction, people only do that for profit. He knows she’s a witch, she wasn’t helping out of the kindness of her heart. I like that he tricked her though.


L.M. Lydon
13:55 Aug 24, 2022

Thank you for your comment. I don't entirely disagree with you. It's an unusual experience for me for a story to fight me the entire way, and this one did. Wanted to do something where the "currency" was bones, with a witch, and Alaric. Ran low on time and energy so I put it out of its misery. I guess the only justification is that being acquainted with starving himself, Alaric resented being gouged in a life and death situation.


Graham Kinross
14:07 Aug 24, 2022

I’d love to read a continuation of this. Maybe more about the witch than Alaric.


L.M. Lydon
19:18 Aug 25, 2022

Deeply tempting to write! I'll keep it in mind going forward.


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A. Vaughn
00:05 Aug 25, 2022

For running low on time and energy, your syntax and descriptions were spot on and felt well planned. I was sucked in and your world building is strong but still easy to read, which I really appreciate and envy to be honest - I love fantasy but world building is a struggle. Honestly, great work - I know it's hard to battle stories, but I really like how this one played out, you should be proud!


L.M. Lydon
19:19 Aug 25, 2022

Thanks so much for your kind comments! World building is a huge struggle but I enjoy the freedom (most of the time). Spent months working on a world for a novel, so a short story is both simultaneously more restful and more challenging to do a lot in little time..


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