By: Catherine Olaso
The black stallion reared back with a sharp whiney, his protest piercing the long silence between Tristian and the village guide.
“Steady, Eros,” Tristian soothed, cinching the reins. The horse stomped the ground, terrified to go further into the fog rolling off the mountain. He flared his nostrils, his eyes wide from the stench of death pervading the mist.
“Ain’t safe to be out during the Blood Tide.” The old guide stuttered in fear. The lantern he raised cast haunting shadows across his weathered face, emphasizing the patch over his left eye. “Every autumn equinox, it turns our crops to blood, it does. Kills all them what tries to stop it.” He hunched warily atop his horse. “This be as far as I take ye.”
Tristian surveyed the base of the cliff, then nodded thanks, dropping two guineas into the guide’s impatient hand. The guide produced a toothless grin and squeezed the coins into a tight fist, as if to defend his precious prize against taxation. His face sobered with a final caution. “Ye must behead it quickly, and whatever ye do…don’t let it trick ye into speaking its name.”
“What name must I avoid?” Tristian’s brow creased with curiosity.
“Ain’t to say.” The old man shrugged. “Those what know it already be dead.”
“Then how is it you offer this rule?” Tristian asked, but the guide had already disappeared into the tenebrous night.
Tristian straightened, unsure if he shivered against the dampness or the guide’s uneasy rambling. He drew his cloak tighter around him, adjusting the hilt of his sword for reassurance. Blood Tide or no, he had been hired to defeat the apparition responsible for decimating the village’s fall harvests – a task at which many had tried…and all had failed.
“Courage, Eros.” Tristian nudged the stallion into a gentle gait up the steep, rocky incline, his shoulders tucked in and his keen eyes alert against the fog circling in eerie formations. He’d collected many a bounty – a comfortable living in his twenty-five years, but somehow this venture left him with a foreboding he couldn’t shake. Still, he wasn’t one for superstition and pressed his steed harder.
The terrain gradually leveled as shale merged with trees and vines. The mist thinned enough to allow dappled shafts of moonlight to illuminate Tristian’s view. Shredded remnants of threadbare cloaks clung to branches and brambles. Rusted swords overrun with moss lay half buried beneath pine needles and ferns. Bits of broken lanterns gleamed a twinkling alarm, the shards of glass scattered among the baneberries like razor-sharp thorns. Tristian felt an icy breath wash over him.
“A new one seeks to thwart me. Impish fool.” A voice hard with the hiss of vipers and the sting of wasps pricked Tristian’s skin. “Did they warn you against speaking my name? Take heed, brave hero. As you can see, it is a detail your predecessors ignored.” Callous laughter jarred Tristian’s resolve, prompting an unaccustomed flinch. Prudence beckoned him to dismount and unsheathe his sword.
“Surrender,” he demanded, extending the silver blade. He kept his tone firm, refusing to allow weakness.
“So easily? No. I suspect you are more resourceful than that.” The harsh laugh turned into the happy giggles of a child. “But beware, my name is deadly. Just one slip…hmm…how will you fare?”
“Perhaps ‘tis wise to hold my tongue.” Tristian inched toward rustling branches.
“That would ruin the game and make me very angry.” A flash of red burst from the fog then disappeared. “As long as you speak, I quell the Blood Tide. Cling to silence, and I release the wave.”
“Alright.” Tristian crept along the edge of a bog, his sword ready. “Why do you torment the village?”
“My question first.” The fleeting glimpse of red fabric resurfaced among the reeds. Tristian squinted through the mist, but saw only enough to make out the slim build of a young woman.
“Pray, what is the bounty upon my head? Last told it was a mere fifty gold pence.” She laughed again, this time sounding like a withered crone. “Don’t be shy. What is the price?”
“One hundred gold pence,” Tristian said, his step quiet as he scanned the pines for the best place to intercept her.
“Still an insult.” She scoffed. “No matter. It shall be remedied after they hear of your failure.”
“My answer, nameless one. Why turn the crops to blood every year?” Tristian waited, sensing hesitation.
“Tis an unhealed wound. They let me starve, such a cruel deed demands equal recompense.” The petulant voice grew closer, almost within Tristian’s reach.
“You distract me,” she said, glimpses of a red skirt again slicing the fog. “Why have you not asked to see my face? The others did. Gaze upon me…that you may know my name.” Tristian felt a cold vibration beside him.
“I’ll not tempt fate tonight. I have but one purpose – to slay you.” He lunged to the left, feeling the twist of a thin wrist slip through his grasp. He deflected his shock with another lunge, this time connecting with something real and fluid. The writhing form couldn’t break his hold and crumbled to the ground. Tristian stared into the eyes of a docile girl…her face an innocent beauty he hadn’t expected.
“I’ll pray an angel will take you home.” He lifted his sword for the final blow, but paused at her scathing laughter.
“My name passes your lips! The curse claims you!” She rolled to her feet. “Men look upon me and call me an angel… but you have begged one’s mercy. Either way, your blood feeds the tide sent to the village!”
Tristian fell to the ground, his life gone as his blood swept down the mountain.