I might have mentioned this before but I’m taking Intermediate Fiction this semester and having a blast. The class is challenging me to come up with short stories every two weeks, giving me plenty of practice meeting deadlines. My problem now is that I feel like writing a novella or even a whole novel to expand upon this story! I wish I had more time…For now I’m keeping a list of ideas so that I can work on them later.
This story was inspired in part by my novel, Asta and the Barbarians. Like the novel, this story is set in an older time period with gods and goddesses, and the main character is both a woman and a fighter. Who knows? This might become a companion to Asta and the Barbarians. Anyway, I hope you like it. I’ve tentatively called it “A Match Made in the Hollow.”
Anwyl’s face twisted as she screamed, marring her otherwise unparalleled beauty. She thrust her arms out before her and the earth shook. Fissures like spider webs erupted over the ground, spreading from her feet and reaching out across the entire hollow. Animated corpses of men, any man who had ever prayed to Anwyl for guidance, clawed their way out.
“Attack!” William Eckersley waved his strange sword in the air before he banged it against his shield. “For your kinsmen, for your families, for your lives!” Then he charged.
The men who had volunteered for this quest shook where they stood, but they drew their weapons and followed Mr. Eckersley’s lead.
Jessa Copeland was frozen with terror. Even from a distance she could smell the putrefaction of the undead, hear their guttural moans, and see the grotesque patches of missing flesh. Her hand grew slick with nervous perspiration; she squeezed the revolver tighter but what good were the weapons of mortals against the minions of a goddess? What good was an amateur to a group of trained men? She could trade in her corset and bonnet for a coat and some trousers, she could rub soot into her skin and tuck all of her blond hair into a man’s riding hat—but she couldn’t hide who she really was: A child who had rushed into something she wasn’t ready for.
Jessa blinked away tears.
“You’re mad,” Charles said through the slot in his door.
“Perhaps.” Jessa leaned forward and lowered her voice. “But if I don’t do this, I’ll be Mrs. John Lamberton in six month’s time, and I’ll never be able to work or travel or go to school or —”
“You don’t want to go to school,” her brother said. “It’s boring.”
“I’d like the option! I know John won’t give it to me.” Jessa impatiently brushed the hair out of her eyes. “He’s a good man but he’s so stubborn. He’s already said he expects me to give birth to five children and run his house for him.”
Charles adopted a mocking, wide-eyed look. “You mean he expects you to be a wife once the two of you are married? The nerve of some men!”
Jessa sighed and pressed her forehead against the rough wood. “I’d like to learn more about myself and the world before I’m confined to a single role. Is that so wrong?”
“Have you tried talking to Mother and Father? Perhaps they can call off the wedding.”
Jessa snorted. “Father? Go back on his word? Do you know him?”
Charles shook his head. “This isn’t going to work.”
“Father has disowned you. That makes me the first born. Our law states a first born over the age of eighteen has a right to answer any call-to-arms from any noble family.”
“That quest, once completed, will mark that individual as an independent adult, able to own land, move out of their parents’ home, seek higher education or employment, marry or not.”
“You’re a woman. The Right of the Firstborn doesn’t apply to you.” Charles sighed when his sister scowled. “I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.”
“Will you lend me the swords and the revolver or not?” Jessa hissed.
“I can’t. I’d be sending you to your death.”
“Brother, please, I have to try!” Jessa licked her parched lips and glanced over her shoulder, hoping none of the passersby on the street had overheard. “What was the point in teaching me how to fence and shoot, and the basics of running a business if you never intended me to use any of it?”
The ground cracked open to her right and bony fingers reached out from the depths, greedily searching for the light. Jessa shrieked and backed away, heart hammering in her throat. She pointed the pistol with a trembling hand, trying to remember everything her brother taught her. The memories of her training escaped her no matter how hard she tried to hold onto them, like grains of sand slipping through her fingers. All she could think about was the body rising from the earth before her.
His neck was bent at an odd angle; splintered bones stuck out from the gelatinous tendons. Pink veins spread across his wide, unblinking eyes. Chunks of hair were missing from his scalp. There was a hole in his cheek where Jessa could see the bone of his jaw. He gnashed his remaining teeth at her and growled. Then he yanked the sword out of his chest and advanced.
“Goddess of travelers watch over you,” Charles said as they embraced. “Try not to die, little sister. I’m awfully fond of you.”
Jessa screamed and pulled the trigger. The bullets embedded themselves in the dead man’s throat and chest, but he continued to advance. Jessa shoved the revolver back into the holster at her hip and drew her short swords. She ducked out of the way when the corpse brought his weapon down; then she straightened up and swung both swords over her head. The blades sliced through the flimsy tissue protecting his ribs.
The corpse howled as new blood stained his torn clothes. But he didn’t fall. He used his sword with skill and speed despite his appearance. He blocked every one of Jessa’s blows. They moved back and forth, dancing just out of each other’s reach. Then Jessa’s sword sliced the air, severing whatever tendons were left in the undead man’s neck. The head flew about a yard or so from the force of her swing. The man dropped to the ground at last.
Jessa took a moment to sheath her swords and reload the revolver. Then she aimed for the heads of the corpses fighting her comrades and shot as she walked, pausing only to cut down the occasional animated cadaver in her path.
“The heads!” she heard one of the men shout above the noise of battle. “Aim for the heads!”
She didn’t pause to see if anyone heeded this advice. Her gaze was fixed on the shifting form of William Eckersley, who battled the goddess herself on the other side of the hollow. She could still hear his voice at the back of her mind, see his face thrown into shadow by the fire last night.
“Is it true what the men are saying?” she asked, deepening her voice in an effort to sound masculine. “Did you reject the affections of the love goddess?”
Eckersley stoked the logs of the bond fire with his cane, his dark eyes reflecting the flames. “I rejected Anwyl’s twisted will, not her affections.”
“Did she dare ask the most eligible bachelor in the county to choose a wife?”
Eckersley smirked at her. “If it had been as simple as that, I might’ve conceded.”
Jessa blinked in surprise. Every woman in town gossiped about this nobleman. Some sniffed at his pride, called him a pompous prince who thought himself too good for any of the ladies his mother had tried to marry him off to. Others spoke of his good looks, his quiet manner, and his riches in hushed, adoring tones. Could it be that William Eckersley simply hadn’t found the right woman to marry yet?
Eckersley leaned back against a tree, throwing his handsome face into shadow. “Anwyl appeared to me in a dream. She told me she had planned a clever love story for me and she would put it into action very soon. She was quite proud of herself for coming up with the scheme and thought I would be pleased. When I refused to be a pawn in her game, she cursed our city with a mysterious, incurable disease.”
“That’s why so many of our people are dying,” Jessa whispered in horror. “And you think the only way to stop this disease from spreading is to kill the goddess herself? How will you do this?”
The gold and copper sword swung down, only to be deflected by a sword of glass. Anwyl smiled and cast Eckersley aside with a mighty shove. He stumbled but didn’t fall. He blew the strands of dark hair out of his face and advanced again, shield and sword at the ready.
Jessa swerved around skirmishes. She ducked to avoid the swings of the undead. She, straightened up and fired a few rounds, and then continued to run. She knew she needed to help Eckersley somehow. He couldn’t finish the goddess on his own.
“The place we travel to is called The Lover’s Hollow. One of Anwyl’s altars was built there many years ago; it’s considered to be a sacred place. If we burn incense and pray to her, she’ll have to come. As for how I’ll vanquish the goddess…” Eckersley rose, drew his sword, and held it out over the fire so that Jessa could see.
It was a curious blade; the fuller divided an edge of gold and an edge of copper. The cross guard was slightly uneven, thicker on one side than it was on the other, and it appeared to be made of pale yellow bone.
“I’ve never seen the likes of it before,” Jessa said.
“It was forged on the night of the summer solstice using goblin’s gold, the copper of a poor man who was pure of heart, and the ulna of an expert swordsman.” Eckersley took a few experimental swings. “Sprinkled with the tears of Druce, god of wisdom, it is said to be one of the few weapons on earth that can slay a minor god. They call it—”
“The Sword of the Divine,” Jessa said, recalling the old story. “But…it’s just a legend.”
Eckersley sheathed the sword. “To every myth there is a bit of truth.”
“Yes, but we can’t know which part of the myth is true,” Jessa said, trying to fight her rising panic. “This sword could indeed be made with all the components you described, but it may not have the power to kill a god. Still, you’d risk your life and the lives of these men—”
Eckersley’s brow flattened with determination. “For my city, for my family, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t risk.”
Anwyl, despite being clothed in a billowing dress of red and white, moved flawlessly over the uneven ground, twisting, thrusting, blocking, snarling. Her sunshine gold hair miraculously stayed out of her face.
Eckersley, although an excellent swordsman, struggled to break her defense.
Jessa hastily replaced her empty pistol with her second sword as she drew nearer. Holding one sword above her head and the other by her waist, she spun toward Anwyl. The goddess kicked Eckersley in the stomach and jumped out of the way, just in time to deflect Jessa’s blows. Eckersley lost his shield as he rolled in the grass, but he leapt to his feet again, gripping the Sword of the Divine in both hands.
“What are you doing?” he shouted at Jessa.
Anwyl grinned and stepped back, then slowly lowered her sword.
Jessa kept her swords up, confused and out of breath—but ready.
The goddess threw Eckersley a sly look. With her free hand, she blew a kiss Jessa’s way. A blast of cold wind washed over Jessa, pushing her a few paces back. When Jessa regained her footing, her disguise had melted away. Her weapons were cast aside. Her skin was clean and her hair was curled, and flowed over her slim shoulders and down to her lower back. She wore a purple silk gown she’d never seen before. She gaped at herself in horror. Then she turned to Eckersley. He stared with a mixture of shock and wonder.
“William, meet Jessa Copeland,” the goddess said with triumph. “Your perfect match.”
Anwyl waved her sword; the undead bodies collapsed like marionettes whose strings had been cut. The men who remained lowered their swords and rifles, blinking in confusion.
“My work here is done,” Anwyl said.
With a wink, she vanished.