This story was originally written as part of NaNoWriMo 2015. To read the complete story, go to the MISCELLANY section of this website.
Before long, he heard the soft gurgle of a stream. Running along through the trees was a creek, muddy and shallow. Sitting on the edge of it was a raggedy woman, her hair stringy as ivy vines, her clothes the same color as the brown water. Her back was to Jack. She sat dangling her barefoot feet above the flowing water, humming softly a dark tune. Jack had a good ear for music, and he could hear a minor key as quick as a bird. He tried to step away from the creek and the woman, but twigs snapped and ground betrayed him. She whirled her head in an instant, and cut off her last note like an axe falling on a prisoner’s neck.
Jack almost wretched at the sight of her face. Pock-marked and shriveled, her face had little maggots crawling in and out of the open sores and punctures which littered her cheeks. Her eyes were wider than a cat’s because the skin around them had thinned and stretched back to her temples. She grinned and her teeth were knife-sharp. Her voice carried the same dark tone as her song.
“Well met and fine greetings, my fair man,” she said. “Come to hear me sing? I love to have an audience. Come, sit by me and dip your feet into the waters if you can. I won’t bite.”
Something about those teeth made Jack doubt it. “Afraid I can’t stop now,” he said, doffing his hat in a gentlemanly way. “Perhaps on my return, we’ll share a duet.”
The hag laughed. “You lie as good as a jackal! But somehow, I have a hunch that you won’t pass by this way again. Come then and sit by me. I won’t bite, I swear it on the moon!”
“The moon, madam? The moon is ever-changing. I can’t trust an oath by the moon.”
“But I am of the moon and the moon is of me. How can a lady not swear by the very stuff of herself? For I am Maggie o’ the Moon, fairest lady of that fair orb.”
Jack stiffened at the word. Did she know? But no, of course she could not know. Jack’s hand relaxed.
“Forgive me, madam, I did not know.”
“That’s alright my handsome jack, for if you sit with me and sing a while, I’ll be satisfied.”
Jack needed to think fast. He saw a trap as true as ever, but how to throw her off the scent.
“May I leave a marker in my stead?” he asked at last. “A token of my good word and a pledge to come back this way again when time is more to my liking?”
Maggie o’ the Moon let her smile drop. Somehow, despite the closing of her mouth and the disappearance of her hideous teeth, she looked more frightening. Her sadness was worse than her fake mirth.
“I suppose it had better be something worth having, if I can’t have my fancy man here beside me,” she pouted.
“Madam, take a few coins from my purse,” Jack offered.
Maggie o’ the Moon scoffed. “Am I worth nothin’ to you but a few farthings?” Then her face turned dark and scowled. This was the worst face of all. It was like watching the moon eclipse and the face of it turn blood red. She began to get up from her spot by the riverbank. She looked ready to bite.
“Alright, alright!” Jack tried to stem her anger. “You name the thing! I’ll give you whatever you ask!”
This mollified her for a moment. She sat back down with a soft thud and grew pensive. She leered at Jack then, looking him up and down. “Ah me,” she muttered, “so much worth taking.” She licked her lips.
Jack suppressed as much of a shudder as he could. He wondered what magic this hag might have and if she could see into his pockets. Just then Twitch meowed and fidgeted around in the bag.
“What’s this, what’s this!” Maggie shrieked. “A kitty for Maggie to play with?”
Twitch kept struggling, so Jack had no choice but to open his bag and lift the wriggling feline out. Poor Twitch was jumpy and didn’t expect to see another face, particularly not one so hideous as Maggie’s. It took all of Jack’s effort to not let the poor cat slip from his fingers. Then complete terror took him as he realized Maggie might ask for the cat. She’d just as soon eat him as give him a pat, he thought.
But Maggie’s face soured when she saw the scrawny black-and-white. “Nay, a mangy thing is that!” she spat. “Barely worth picking my teeth afterward.” She grinned and grinded her razor-like teeth together.
Jack smoothed Twitch’s fur and hummed a little ditty to the poor, nervous wreck until at last he calmed and purred. “Agreed,” Jack said, “he’s much too sickly. Not right in the head, in fact.” He placed the cat back in the knapsack.
“But Maggie is still owed, she is.”
The hag licked her lips again and squinted at Jack’s belly. “And the hour is getting time for supper.”
Jack took a slight step back. He kept his fingers lively, just in case he needed to reach for his knife. “Not too late, I think. There’s still some time for merriment yet.”
“Aye, for merriment…” She started to get up, to creep toward Jack. The worms crawling in and out of her face were slithering faster now. Jack could see her claws more clearly too. Each finger had a long nail that look like the edge of jagged knife.
Jack gulped. If only I didn’t have to look at that hideous face, he thought. But I can barely stand to glance in that direction without feeling sick. Poor Maggie needs a proper bag on her head. Then he had a sudden thought.
“My lady!” he bowed graciously. “I have suddenly thought on the perfect gift for your fair form!” He took off his hat and doffed it, then held it out for Maggie to see. Jack’s hat was one of his oldest possessions, a fine deep blue leather with a peacock quill in the sash. Its brim was wide and it conformed with supple grace to his head. That hat had been with him through thick and thin. But it was still beautiful, despite the wear and weathering of its many years. And Maggie’s face, perhaps, could be shielded a bit by the wide brim…
“My hat, gentle madam of the moon,” he continued, “is a gift as fine as any for so sweet a lady as yourself. I offer it to you now, in my stead. For though I cannot stay and sit with you, my hat at least will comfort your head.” He held the hat to her.
Maggie looked at the hat curiously. Her head cocked, her eyes unsearchable, Jack didn’t know what to make of it. Does she like the offer? She started creeping toward him again. Jack held the hat with one hand but began to move his other hand towards the knife hidden under his shirt. She clinked her long fingernails together. Jack had his hand on his knife. One quick move and he could have it out and in her gut the minute she came upon him. But as Maggie drew closer and closer, her fingers did not go for his throat. They reached out to caress the soft leather hat. She drew one hand over the long, fuzzy peacock feather. She gingerly lifted the hat from Jack’s hands and placed it on her head.
“Ah!” she said as the hat melted into her head and slouched a bit to one side, obscuring part of her face. “So soft! I bet as soft as yer belly,” she added with an ugly wink.
“It suits you well. Better than it ever suited me.”
“Mmmm,” Maggie said as she preened and paraded in her new hat. “Tis true, tis true! I like it well. I’ll take this for my bargain and let you leave in peace.” She ran her fingers along the brim and smiled like a child who had gotten away with some mischief. “But if ever you pass this way again…” She flashed her teeth once more with lusty hunger. “… I shall insist you sit beside me on the bank.” Then with a hiss and a girlish squeak, she capered back over to her perch above the creek and sat down to dangle her feet once more.
Boots gone, hat gone, Jack felt quite naked now. Still, he thought, my cat’s in my knapsack and my treasure’s still in my pocket. I don’t need boots or a hat to meet with the Old Heron.
The forest grew quite thick and darker the further he traveled. The little clearing and the flowing creek seemed a world away now. Even hideous Maggie seemed less terrifying than the shadows and darkness that closed in upon him as he headed into the very center of the Herne.
“Yes, I hear it too, friend,” said Jack. There was a whistling of wind through the thick trees. It had a high sound, like the weeping of banshees. Jack knew something was watching them. He looked up into the tops of the trees. Perhaps we’ve found the Heron, he thought. But there were no nests up there. Just a canopy of thick leaves that blocked out any trace of sunlight. Jack looked about him, trying to peer into the gaps and spaces between the trees and underbrush. But there was nothing save black shadows. Not even an animal stirred in this part of the forest. And yet, something followed them. Something stalked.
Twitch was restless now. He wriggled in the knapsack and Jack feared he might scratch the leather to ribbons. So Jack began to sing. It was a whispered song at first, just a mumbled string of melodies. But then one of the melodies caught his mind and he began to find the words.
“Away, away, cried the maiden dear,” Jack sang as softly as he dared. “For in this land is naught but tears. I canna leave, the sailor said, for I do love thee in my stead. Too’la, too’la, too’la, la’rey, the sailor kissed her on the quay. He kissed her on the quay.”
Twitch was satisfied. He purred and settled down. Jack stopped his song after a few more quiet verses.
“Doooonnnn’t sssssstoooopppppp…..” something hissed into the silence.
Jack froze. He looked around to see what had spoken, but all was blackness and unmoving trees.
“Doooooonn’t sssssstooooppppp…..” the scratching voice said again. “Sssssiiiiinnng agaaaaaain….”
“I—” Jack started. The voice was bone-chilling, creeping down his spine like a long knife. He could hardly breathe let along form words or song. What is it? Where is it? This cannot be the Old Heron. This is something else.
“Sssssiiiiinnng!” the hissing voice demanded.
Jack couldn’t think of a single note.
“Yoooour faaaaccce is faaaair, yoooour eyessssss are bluuuue,” the chilling hiss said. It seemed so much closer now, like it was breathing down Jack’s neck. “Ssssiiiiing that ssssoooonnnng or the Gruesome will devoooour you.”
Jack summoned every ounce of courage he could muster. This took more courage than his fight against the dreaded sea captain of the Red Wenches. This took more courage than the harsh years he spent living and stealing on the streets. This took more courage and cunning than the whole year spent finding and fighting for the orb in his pocket. Something about that formless voice was fear personified. It was fear speaking to him from the heart of the Herne, the fear that probably birthed the trees themselves. The hidden fear of this ancient place. The Gruesome, it had called itself. Jack had never heard of such a creature, but now, having heard its horrible voice, he would never forget it.
“Away, away—” Jack began, but his voice caught in his throat. He cleared it and hoped the Gruesome would not mind. “Away, cried the maiden lost. For in the sea you must be tossed. I will’na leave, the sailor said, for I do love thee in my stead. Too’la, too’la, too’la, too’low, the sailor kissed her and would not go. Away, away, the maiden mewed. For the ancient fighting’s been renewed. I shall not leave, the sailor called, for I do love thee best of all. Too’la, too’la, too’la, too’rey, the sailor died that very day.”
“Yeeesssss,” hissed the voice. “You havvvve caaaauuught the meeaaassssuuuure of it. Ssssiiiiiiinnng agaaaaainnn.”
Jack couldn’t believe the words he spoke in reply. “But that is the end of the song. The sailor is dead. There’s no more to sing.”
The voice hissed with rage, a long, high-pitched sound. “Nnnoooooooo!” it cried. “Ssssssiiiiiinnng agaaaaaainnnn!”
I have sealed my death! Jack thought in a panic. His entire body began to tingle now, as if centipedes and spiders crawled all over him, as if little pricks of needles were dancing on his skin. He writhed and shuddered. The Gruesome was closer, he could feel it closing in.
“I cannot!” Jack cried. “My fear prevents me!”
The voice laughed. It was like the crackling of fire. “Fffffeeeeaaarrrr…. Yeeeeessssss… Now, I shaaaallll ssssiiiinnnng… The Gruesome shaaaaallll haaavvvve hisssssss supper…”
It was impossible to tell where the creature was coming from. There was still nothing to see in that dark forest. But Jack could feel an even darker shadow overtaking him, he could sense the hot breath and the wet mouth of something huge opening its maw to devour him. He tried to sing. He tried desperately. But the words would not come. The tune was lost. And so was he.
The Gruesome — hidden, invisible, larger than the largest snake and yet unseen — was about to close its formless jaws around the man and his cat and the secret treasure stowed away in his pocket. And then Jack tried a gambit that only desperate men can make. He bargained.
“What about a gift instead of a song?” he bellowed into the unseen mouth that was going to eat him.
Suddenly, the air was a bit fresher. The hot steam of the Gruesome’s throat was momentarily gone.
“A giiiiiffffft?” it said.
“Aye, a gift. You’ll like this one.” Jack reached under his shirt and took out the knife hidden there. “This knife, you see, is no ordinary knife.” That much was true, in fact. The knife was the first thing Jack had ever stolen, back when he was just an urchin living on the streets of Farrow Town. His mother dead by the plague, his father killed by the king’s men, Jack was only ten and alone. He stole the knife because he knew he needed steel in order to live in the bleak and dangerous world. He stole it from a fat inn keeper who let him sleep in the pig sty. He stole it and stab the inn keeper. His first murder.
But the knife had served him well. It proved a fine instrument to keep a boy safe, and later to aid a man in his thievery. The Gruesome would have no love for such a gift, Jack knew. But all this story is not what Jack told to the creature.
“Whyyyyy woooould I waaaaannnnt a kniiiiffffe?” the Gruesome hissed.
“You loved the song, eh? Well this knife is the token of that sad and lovely tale. For the poor sailor had bled from the blade of this very knife. The song I sang was true, you see. And this knife is the proof of it. Look here,” Jack said, pointing at a little speck on the blade. “The sailor’s blood, sure as I am standing here. And if you listen closely, you can hear the blood still singing.
In fact, it was from the blood on this knife that I first heard the song you so love. And if I give the knife to you now, it will sing for you, and perhaps one day you may sing the song yourself. What greater gift could I give you? For I am a man, and my voice will one day give out, and you’ll never hear the tune again from me. But if you take this knife and let it sing for you, then you’ll have the song forever.”
There was no sound. No movement. Jack almost wondered if the Gruesome had gone away. But then he heard air seep out from nowhere, like the trees exhaling. The Gruesome sighed.
“Yyyeeeessssss…” it said at last. “I will taaaaake it.”
“Ah, but how can I give it to you if you remain unseen?”
The Gruesome hissed again, an angry hiss like a kettle boiling over. But then, upon the moist, dark earth, the thing appeared. It was like a snake, and like a swan with its long curved neck, and like a bat too in its eyes and pointed ears. It was longer than the trunks of the trees. Its entire body encircled Jack and its long neck towered and swayed above him, the face and rodent-like eyes peering dangerously close to Jack’s own.
“Heeeeaaarrrr it ssssiiiiinnng,” said the Gruesome. Both the top and bottom of its mouth had two sharp rows of teeth.
Jack had found his courage and his voice again. He held up the knife, and with his lips barely moving, began to sing softly. “Away, away, cried the maiden dear, for in this land is naught but tears…” It was a satisfying ruse, for it seemed the knife was singing.
“Yyyeeeeesssss!” smiled the Gruesome.
“But, my friend, how shall you keep this knife?” Jack said, warming up to his part now. “For you have no hands nor a belt to hold it? I tell you what you shall do. Open that wide mouth of yours again, and I shall put the knife there. Perhaps if you keep the knife in your mouth, it will sing the words of the song for you there. Now open wide that I may place it in.”
The Gruesome nodded. Jack heaved back and with all his strength and aim, hurled the knife into the mouth and down the throat of the huge creature. The Gruesome snapped its jaw shut, and as it did, the knife streaked down its gullet. Jack could see the sharp object outlined in the Gruesome’s swan-like neck. The creature tried to swallow it down farther, to get it into its belly. But the more the Gruesome struggled, the tighter its neck became. The knife’s blade poked through the thin neck. The Gruesome tried to cough it up, but that only pulled things tighter. With one final choke, the Gruesome pushed the knife blade right through its neck, the silver steel piercing through the flesh, black hot blood squirting out the puncture. The Gruesome flung its neck back and forth, its head lolling to either side. It tried to screech, but that just pushed the knife out further. The sound of its hissing was caught there, cut upon the knife.
Jack wasted no time. He ran. He clutched the knapsack and secured the orb and never looked back to see if the Gruesome had stopped breathing.
When he stopped running, he collapsed upon the ground. He lay there for a while with eyes closed, listening for any sound that the Gruesome had followed. He listened for danger. All was silent. Then he opened his eyes and saw, high up in the highest tree, a huge nest and a thick pale yellow beak peering over it.
The Old Heron.
There were no other nests in the trees. Unlike other herons Jack had seen, the Old Heron did not live in a heronry. He lived alone. It didn’t take long for the Old Heron to emerge. His long, s-shaped neck rose from the shaggy nest, displaying the plumes of wispy feathers on his chest. His body was more grey now than blue, but his head still had a bold streak of black above his eyes and long feathers that sprouted from his head and hung down his back like stray hairs. His eyes made Jack catch his breath. They were as yellow as dandelions with just a pin-prick of black in the center of each. They caught Jack in their glare and never released him.
The heron descended from his nest like a hot air balloon deflated to the ground, his huge wings spread out to catch the air currents as he fell. He floated down to a long-hanging branch of the tree and perched there. His height, his long legs, his fine snake-like neck were on full display. He was the largest bird Jack had ever seen, and he had spent time with vultures and eagles. But the heron was greater than even those, his long years upon the earth making him a massive, ancient giant. All he did was stare at Jack with those unblinking, unnatural yellow eyes. Now that the Heron was closer, Jack could see just how thick and sharp the bird’s beak was. It was like a dagger’s blade.
Anyone who got on the end of that beak would find a hole in his gullet, Jack thought. And here I am without a knife.
Jack waited for the bird to make a sound, to squawk or croak at him, but the Heron was silent. He just sat there on the low-hangning branch and stared directly at Jack. Then a sort of grumble started in the back of the Heron’s throat. It sounded like the start of his squawk, but nothing came out of his beak. Jack had a moment of panic; the look of the bird, the strange noise — they could all be leading up to one quick stab of his beak and that would be the end of Jack Lightning. He needed to act fast. He took out the orb.
As soon as Jack held up the glowing, oblong sphere, the Heron screeched a hideous croaking cry.
“Aaaarwk! Aaaarwk! Aaaawrk!” The Old Heron beat his huge wings and the force of them felt like a high wind against Jack’s face. Jack thought for sure that the Heron was about to dive at him, stab him with that thick, sharp beak, and start eating his entrails. But Jack held firm and clutched the orb with steady fingers. The Old Heron settled down, but his long neck extended as close as it could toward the orb. The Heron’s eyes — so unmoving, so blank before — were now glinting with hunger.
“So,” the bird began. His voice was not human; it scraped like sandpaper scratched over iron. “You found it at last.”
Jack found his voice. “Aye. I’m ready to make the deal.”
“Why should this bird make a deal? Why not just take the sweet egg from you? Cut you open with this bird’s beak.” The Heron clicked his beak together like a pair of scissors.
“You wouldn’t want to try,” Jack said. He reached over his shoulder and unslung the knapsack. “I’ve got my own weapon.” He opened the sack and pulled out Twitch. When the little cat saw the Heron, he gave a hiss, and the Heron jerked his neck back. He flapped his wings and let out another cry of angry “arwks.”
Jack put the cat away. “Well done,” he whispered to Twitch as he closed the bag again. “Now stay alert. We’re not done yet.”
The Heron had settled down. “This bird sees you are clever. That is so. This bird will not cut you open.” He gained his confidence back and leaned back in toward the orb. “The egg means no use to you. The egg is food for this bird. This bird can make a deal then.”
“I’m glad,” said Jack.
“What is your offer? This bird will hear it.”
Jack had been rolling the words over in his mind ever since he first heard the legend of the Old Heron. Give it a rare gift, give it the food it desires, and the Old Heron will answer you questions three: your fate, your time, your heart’s desire.
“I want your answers to the questions three,” he said to the bird.
The Heron squawked again, turning his head upward and bellowing his shouts to the treetops. Then he shook his head and the white plume on his neck and chest shook like tall grass in the wind.
Jack waited for the Heron to speak, but the bird was silent now and staring again with his bright yellow eyes. “What is my fate?” Jack said at last. “How shall I die?”
The Heron said nothing.
“What is my time? When shall I die?” Jack waited, but the Heron made no response.
“Will I find my heart’s desire? Shall I ever have a lady love?”