This story was originally written as part of NaNoWriMo 2015. To read the complete story, go to the MISCELLANY section of this website.
The Heron said nothing, and Jack had a wicked feeling that the stories weren’t true. This bird wasn’t anything special, just a strange creature that lived alone in an old forest. But then the Heron croaked and it was a terrible broken sound. It rolled its yellow eyes back into its head.
“You shall die by the cut of a blade,” the Heron began. “When the truth is swallowed, then your neck will bleed. And yes, you’ll find your lady love. When the sun comes by another name.”
Then the Heron’s eyes rolled back to face Jack and the bird glared at him. “This bird wants his meal,” the Heron hissed. “Give it!”
Jack held the orb up as far as he could. He’d lost about an inch when he gave up his boots, but the long neck of the Heron was able to dip down far enough to reach the orb. With its thick, strong beak, the Heron pecked at the orb like a hammer coming down steel. Each time the beak pounded on the orb, Jack felt his hand and his arm rattle. He was just about to stop the Heron and set the orb down when the thing cracked. The Heron pulled back, its eyes both hungrily staring and gaping in awe.
“Yes!” the bird cried.
Jack stared in disbelief as well. The orb cracked open and crawling out from it was a tiny starfish that glowed with phosphorescent light. Jack caught his breath at the beauty of it. The little starfish pulsed and waved its tentacles while it mewed a strange, innocent hum.
The Heron clacked its beak together twice and lunged at the glowing starfish. In one quick snap, the beak had closed around the delicate little body, and the light was snuffed out. The Heron swallowed the starfish whole.
Jack felt sick. He had traded that poor creature’s life for a few riddling words. Twitch meowed in the knapsack. The Heron cawed and flapped angrily when it heard the cat.
“Twitch,” said Jack, thinking of what would happen now if he took the cat out and let the feline have his way with the bird. His hands were close to pulling the sack open. But then he stopped himself. No use. What’s done is done.
The Heron seemed to laugh at Jack’s sickened face.
“What did you think you were bringing this bird?” the Heron said. “Your human heart is weak to mourn over meat.”
Jack had no answer. The Old Heron croaked again and then flew back up to his nest high in the tree.
Jack took the broken pieces of the orb’s shell and let them fall to the ground. Twitch was silent.
Jack Lightning felt the smokey breath of the fire burn his eyes.
“You’re sitting too close, lad,” said a grizzled old drinker a few tables away. “Pull up next to us here, get yourself out of the smoke.”
But Jack didn’t feel like making old men happy or making himself more comfortable. He wanted to feel the sting of the smoke.
Twitch was on his lap, snoring softly and curled up into a little black and white ball of fur. Jack took one last gulp of his ale and then waved the serving wench to his side.
“More,” he coughed.
The poor girl tried to smile and be friendly, but Jack could tell she was disgusted by his miserable state. He was drunk, no doubt about that. He hadn’t moved from that spot for fourteen hours. He looked wilder than an ape and a bit crazy too. No shoes, no hat to cover his rain-soaked, greasy hair. The haggard look of a man who had been traveling through all manner of storm and wilderness. I think she only comes near because of the cat, he thought as he watched the serving girl go to the barkeep and fill up Jack’s tankard.
When she returned, she tried smiling again. “A bowl of broth next?” she said gently. “How about a bed?”
Jack took the tankard of ale and resumed his essential task of staring listlessly into the fire. The girl left without another word.
It was so alive, he thought. Like a star come down from the heavens. Such beauty! It had to have been magic. No other explanation. There’s no natural creature on this earth that could look the way that starfish looked. None. And I sent it to the bottom of the belly of that monstrous bird. For what? For a bunch of meaningless garble. A stupid, selfish string of words that mean nothing. No, even worse. I gave up that thing of beauty for LESS than nothing.
“You shall die by the cut of a blade,” the Heron had said.
Jack laughed to himself. Of course I’ll die by the blade. I’ve lived by nothing else. Slowly the memories crept into the corners of his waking mind. He blocked them out as well as he could, but they kept seeping in like the smoke from the fire. The flash of his knife. The scream of the poor man. The glow. The pulsing beat as he held it in his hand.
“It was just luck,” he said out loud. Just luck. Yes. He took another swallow of his ale and let the memories drain down his throat.
“Excuse me, sir.” The serving girl was back. Jack’s eyes could hardly focus now, but through the haze he could make out a sweet face. Soft eyes. Hair the color of honey. “Sir,” she said again. “Master Ben says we need to get you to bed.” She seemed to indicate the barkeep. He was behind his counter, wiping it down and looking annoyed at Jack’s presence. “You’re falling asleep anyway, sir. You’ll spill your drink.”
She tried to take the tankard from Jack and he didn’t put up a fight. Her hair smelled of sage and a bit of rosemary. As her hands passed over his, he felt their softness. Such softness for a tavern wench. Or am I dreaming again? Is this part of the memory.
“Thank you,” he managed to whisper.
“‘Tis my pleasure,” she replied. “Come on, puss.” She picked up Twitch with a gentle touch and held the cat under one arm while she raised Jack up from his seat with the other.
“‘Bout time!” the grizzled man at the nearby table sneered. “Throw him out with the pigs!”
“He stinks!” called another harsh voice.
“Crazed like the pixies in the Sundown Bog,” cackled a woman’s voice.
“Been to see the Devil, he has!” another drunk chimed in.
“Throw him to the pigs!”
The serving girl said nothing. She helped Jack to a staircase. “Up this way,” she said. She was stronger than Jack would have thought. She practically carried him up the stairs.
Soon he was floating on a bed made of down, the soft cotton sheets swaddling him like a babe in arms. Twitch was nuzzled into his neck, warm and purring.
“They call me Dawn,” said the girl. “I’ll be in to check on you. Get some rest.”
Jack slept and dreamed of the starfish. He heard the voice of Dawn floating through all of his visions. Dawn. Like the morning sunrise. Like the promise of the new day. Like being born a second time. Dawn. Her voice and her honeyed hair mixed with the clean smell of his pillow. He watched as the glowing starfish faded and turned into her smiling face. He felt tears drip down his face. He snuggled into Twitch.
When he woke up, the room was cold. The fire had gone out. The only light came from the faint gray light of the moon shining through a lone window.
“Twitch,” Jack croaked into the darkness. My voice sounds like the Old Heron, he thought. “Twitch!”
He felt the bed sheets for the cat, but they were empty. “Twitch!” He sat up.
“Don’t move again,” said a man’s voice. It was low and soft, but the note of a threat hung from it like an icicle hanging from an eave. “Be still or you won’t like what happens next.”
“Where’s Twitch?” Jack said, his voice low as well. He knew when things called for secrecy.
“Why ask that?” said the man. “You know we have him.”
Jack did know, but he hoped it wasn’t true. “He’s just an old stray.”
“I’ll kill you.” Jack tried desperately to think if there was anything in the room he could use as a weapon.
“With what? We know you have no blade. And we know you have no musket. We know you have nothing but a headache and a guilty heart.”
Just then, Jack heard footsteps coming up the stairs. They made their way to the door of his room. He wanted to call out a warning. Dawn! he thought. She’s coming!
“The serving wench!” hissed the hidden voice of the man. “Ready boys!”
Dawn opened the door, a taper in her hand, and Jack saw as two shadowy men attacked her. They were quick. One had his hand over her mouth before she could scream. The other had a knife pointed toward her gut before she could move. The taper fell from her hand and the light was snuffed out.
“Quiet, lassie,” said the grim voice in the dark. “Don’t curse your luck.”
“She’s no part of this,” Jack said. “Let her go.”
“She’ll yell for a constable. No, my lad. She’s a part of things now.”
Jack knew his words were hollow. “What is the cat to you? I need to know the truth before I hand him over.”
The hoarse voice chuckled. “You want truth, eh? Tell me, Jack Lightning, how did you come by the orb of Etherel?”
Jack thought these robbers many things, but never in his wildest thoughts did he consider that they had a connection to the orb. He was speechless.
“That’s what I thought, Bogg,” said the man with his knife to the girl’s gut. “He’s as cowardly as they come.”
“He’s dangerous, Willy,” said the man Bogg, the one who sat in the shadows. “But yes, a coward just the same.”
Jack didn’t have the strength nor the truth to defend his honor. He had only lies. “I won the orb by luck. What is it to you that I did? The man I won it from is dead.”
“Aye, that he is, Jack Lightning. That he is.”
Jack heard the croaking words of the Heron ring in his ears. You shall die by the cut of a blade. But why should the girl — Dawn — why should she suffer for him? And poor Twitch. Jack wondered if the cat was dead already.
“If you have Twitch, why are you still here? Why not just go and do with him what you will?”
“You would let us leave here alive with your precious feline? Somehow I think not. Somehow I think you’d come for us. Just as we have come here for you.”
“The kitty’s an extra bit of luck,” said Willy. “You’se the one we come for.”
“Silence!” hissed Bogg. “We haven’t come here for Jack Lightning. We’ve come here for the truth. For a confession.”
“I tell mine only to a priest,” said Jack.
“You shall tell it to me,” said Bogg. “Or your lassie here will bleed.”
Jack could hear the girl struggle, but Willy and his comrade held her fast. She wasn’t going to escape.
“If I tell you how I came by the orb, then you’ll let her go? And what of the cat?”
“He stays with us. You know why, of course.”
He’s lucky, thought Jack. “I’ll tell you half the truth,” Jack bargained. “Then you let the girl go. Once she’s safe, I’ll tell you the other half.”
No one spoke. No one moved. Jack knew that Bogg was considering the deal.
“She’ll squeal!” whined Willy at last, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“Nay, she’ll be a good little girl, won’t she,” said the other man who had his sweaty hand over her mouth. He sniffed her and brushed his lips against her cheek. Jack was disgusted, but swallowed his anger.
“Begin,” said Bogg.
Jack took a deep breath. He had never spoken these words out loud before. Even in his own head, he had drowned them with songs and drink and thoughts of treasure.
“I met the man on a boat, sailing for Eventon,” he began. “He was sickly and the captain was sure he wouldn’t last the journey. I tried to comfort him. He gave me his boots. Slick and black, they were. He said they were a gift… for giving him so much cheer and good companionship. I thought he would die. We all did. But then the ship reached harbor and we got off into the city, and the man didn’t die. He coughed up blood and half his innards it seemed, but he didn’t die, and none of us could explain it. I tried to give the boots back, when I saw that the man was going to recover. But he insisted and said to take them with his blessing.”
“We didn’t come for no tale about boots,” sneered the greasy Willy.
“Shut it,” snapped Bogg to Willy. The man kept quiet. “Keep on, Jacky boy,” Bogg said to Jack.
“I kept the boots. I also took down the man’s address. He said to see him any time for a good bit of ale and a song. He said he owned a shop, one of them alchemy shops, deep in the flea-bitten district of Eventon. I never thought I’d see him again.”
“But you did,” hissed Bogg.
“I did. I’m ashamed to say it. I needed money. I’m a thief and when a thief needs money, he goes to easy marks to get it. And the old man seemed one. Sickly, owned a shop. How could I know?” Jack’s voice caught in his throat. He hated for the girl to hear him say such things. Why should I care about her? a bitter voice inside him cut in. She means nothing to me. But no — the way she smiled, the honey-softness of her hair.
Jack cared. Dawn was her name. Bright as the sun rising. And he hated for her to hear this tale.
“He’s stalling!” Willy cried. “Watch him, Bogg! Let’s just kill him and be over with it.”
“No!” Bogg’s voice was like an icicle shattering.
“Why do you want to hear all this anyway?” Jack dared. “I have half a feeling you know it all already.”
Even in the darkness, Jack knew Bogg was smiling.
“I do,” the man in the shadows said at last. “But I want to hear you say it. You’re a dead man anyway, Jack Lightning. But to save the girl, you’ll tell me the truth.”
Jack spoke the words he’d never dared speak before. “I went into his shop. The Blood Moon, it was called. He welcomed me in, poured me a drink. We talked and sang sea shanties, and he asked me to stay the night. Said he had a spare room above the shop. I smiled and fingered my knife. I said I couldn’t stay. I said I needed to be going. He saw the look in my eyes, and he knew. He pleaded a bit. Said that his wares were precious, not to take any. He offered me the coin in his coin box, said it was more than enough. But I’d gotten greedy. I’d eyed and been awed by all the treasures in his tiny shop. One in particular, one on a high shelf…”
“The orb,” Bogg finished.
“Aye. The orb. It glowed and pulsed like it was alive and something about it made me remember a tale the sailors had told when I used to sail with the crew of the Grey Gull. They told a tale about the Old Heron, and the egg the Heron hungered for. ‘Bring the Heron his glowing egg and he shall tell you your fortune.’ I saw the orb there in the man’s shop and somehow I knew. And the promises of the Old Heron echoed in my head. I was mad with desire for it. I lunged at the old man. He didn’t even scream.”
There was silence and Jack looked to the two men who held Dawn. “Let her go,” he said. “The first half of the truth has been spoken.”
“No,” said Bogg. “The first half isn’t done. Finish it. Say the words.”
Jack looked at Dawn now. It was the first time he had looked at her since she’d come into the room. He could see her face, despite the darkness. It’s the brightness in it, he thought. Her face glows like a candle. When he looked into her eyes, he saw them wide with fear. He knew then that she had no love for him. He had no fear to say the words.
“I killed the old man and took the orb without a word.” He swallowed hard and the words went down like rocks in his throat.
“That is the first half of the truth,” said Bogg. He must have signaled to his men, for in the next moment, Jack heard the sound of steel going into flesh, the muffled grunt of the girl as the robbers stabbed her in the belly. He could see her figure drop in a heap to the floor, a lifeless, heavy sack of bone and blood.
The “no” caught in his throat.
Bogg laughed. “She was dead the moment she stepped on that staircase.”
“But I told you my half—”
“Yes, and now it is time for the other half.”
“There is no more truth for me to speak,” Jack said with venom. “I’ve told you everything.”
“I’m sorry, Jack, but you’re wrong,” said Bogg. “You’ve only spoken half of the truth.”
“I’ve told you everything!” Jack cried.
“Softly now, softly.” Bogg laughed again, and then Jack heard the door creak open. He couldn’t make out the face of the new figure, but something about the way the figure moved made Jack think it was someone with many years on his shoulders.
“You see, Jack,” Bogg continued, “you’ve told us everything you know. That’s true. But what you’ve told us is only half. The other half of the truth is standing here before you.”
The figure who had just come into the room coughed. Jack knew that cough. It was wet, as if blood had been hacked up with it.
“Hello, Jack,” said the voice of the figure. An old man. The alchemist shop. Jack had heard a voice from the grave.
“I killed you,” Jack whispered.
“Yes, we heard you say that earlier,” said the old man’s voice. “And yet, how can you kill a man who knows how to cheat death? Who knows the hidden mysteries of science and alchemy? The real truth is that you stole from me. And now I’m here to get my goods back.”
“But the orb…” Jack sputtered. “I already gave it to the Heron.”
“Did you now?” said the old man between coughs. “No matter. It’s a shame you don’t have your knife anymore.”
“Nor your hat,” said Willy.
Jack’s insides burned when he heard the voice of that murderer. He shot Willy a withering, hateful glance, though little good it did him in the dark. But even in the dark he could make out some details, and when he looked at Willy he thought he saw a hat on the man’s head. A familiar hat, floppy and a bit dashing, worn by age but still soft suede…
No, Jack thought. It can’t be.
“Nor your boots,” said Bogg. “Though the boots were never yours to begin with, were they?” Bogg’s clicked the heels of his own boots on the floor.
They aren’t, they can’t be, Jack thought. Then he remembered the knife in the third robber’s hand, the one that had killed the poor girl.
Dawn was her name, Jack thought. Her hair like honey.
“Do you know, Jack?” said the old man, shuffling closer to Jack’s position on the bed. “Do you know how I came by the orb in the first place?”
Jack had no more answers. He closed his eyes and tried to picture Dawn one last time. All he saw, instead, was the glowing starfish, soft and wavy like a feather in his hand.
“It wasn’t very hard,” the old man continued. “They can be found most readily for those willing to look for them. Since you stole mine, I find it is most appropriate for you to pay me back. You know my companions, I’m sure. There is Bogg, who happens to be wearing a nice, new pair of black leather boots. And Willy, here, is sporting a fine old hat. And Grew, he’s happy to wield such a shining, sharp knife.”
Jack didn’t hear the old man’s words. He was still dreaming of the starfish, the one he’d given up for food to the Old Heron. Just to hear a few stray words, he thought. The starfish was so beautiful — its phosphorescent glow, the way it moved like a cloud.
Then he heard a meow. “Twitch,” Jack said, almost like a question.
“Quiet, puss.” It was Bogg’s voice.
The next thing Jack knew, they’d slit his throat. He didn’t even scream.
“Cut open the chest, just between the ribcage.” The excitement in the old man’s voice was barely contained. He was so close now. So close…
Grew took his knife and did as he was told. The knife was sharp, but this kind of work was hard and bloody. Gristle and cartilage flew off in pieces as he sawed through the chest cavity.
“It’d go faster with an axe,” said Willy.
“An axe is too imprecise,” said the old man. “We must be careful.”
When Grew was finished, Jack’s heart was exposed. But it wasn’t a heart anymore. It wasn’t beating. And it glowed with a faint blue light. It was a strange, oblong kind of thing. An orb.
“That’s the one,” said the old man.
“But where’s his heart?” said Bogg with his sandpaper voice.
The old man smiled as he plucked the orb from out of Jack’s cold chest. “The heart of every man is just as you see. A thing made for bargaining.”
“So now it’s on to the Old Heron?” replied Bogg.
“Yes,” hissed the old man. “I want to know my fortune.”
Somewhere in the room, a black and white stray mewed.