NOTE: I haven’t posted a story here in a very long time, so here’s a short and fresh one. It’s a first draft, so feedback, suggestions and critiques are welcome. The story was inspired by a Slavic legend about a female demon who wandered the fields in order to find workers to engage in conversation. She made them answer riddles and if they gave a wrong answer, she beheaded them with a sickle or scythe. (Due to the extremely harsh working conditions, especially during the summer, people would die of sunstroke – this is believed to be a possible explanation for the emergence of the legend.) There are several variations of the character’s name besides the one I’ve used in the story, depending on which part of Eastern Europe you hear it from.
For a similar short story – that is, written in the present tense and with a mythological theme (but this time, Greek mythology – more specifically, the Minotaur), click here.
She walks the fields at midday, when the sun burns and the air is heavy with the sweat of those who toil. Perhaps she, too, was human once, a very long time ago. Back then, she must have made a trade. Her soul, in exchange for something. Freedom, maybe. Power and influence. A lover she felt she couldn’t have had otherwise.
Whatever it was, it seems like such a small matter, compared to all of eternity and yet, if one thinks about it, a small matter can become an eternity in itself, if one feels that their happiness depends upon it. But she doesn’t think about it. Not anymore. She has no memory, no past and no future as she walks the fields. When she strikes, it is not her passing judgment. She is but an instrument, a tool in the hands of those powers she meddled with, so long ago.
It is high noon. The sun has reached its apex and it burns those who still have the ability to feel. She knows the workers will have to sit down for their meager lunch of stale bread and cheese. She stops her walking and gazes around. There they are at the edge of the field, in the shade of the trees, sitting with their legs crossed, talking, eating and passing water flasks among each other. She cannot go near them while they stick together. But she knows there is always one drifting away. Her eyes wander along the thin line of trees. There, she spots a lone seated form leaning against a trunk.
* * *
Pawel is not hungry. He has a plan. He is fifteen years old, an orphan, living with his uncle and aunt, whose own children are younger than him. His uncle finds fault with him and beats him, even though he does everything he is asked, without a word. He never knew his father, and his mother died when Pawel was ten years old. Her younger brother took him in out of duty, but Pawel knows his uncle wishes nothing more than to wake up one day and find him gone. He will, tomorrow. Pawel is running away tonight. He’ll go to the city and knock on all doors to ask for work. He’ll sleep in the streets for as long as he has to. He will never go back to the village.
Lost in his thoughts, he doesn’t notice her shadow approaching until it falls over him. He looks up and sees a beautiful tall woman staring him down. Her hair hangs down her back in a heavy braid and her gown is like nothing he’s ever seen. It has a stiff high collar and long, heavy bell-like sleeves. It must feel like hell to be wearing it in this heat, but she shows no signs of discomfort. A glint catches his eye, so he looks and sees a razor-sharp, unsheathed sickle hanging from her intricately embroidered belt. The handle is made of gold, encrusted with jewels that are not of this earth.
* * *
In the middle of a burst of laughter, an older man whom everyone thinks is at least half mad suddenly stops and turns his head, glancing along the line of trees.
‘Where’s Pawel?’ he then asks the boy’s uncle.
The man looks around.
‘Damned boy,’ he says, ‘nothing but trouble. He better come back or he’s not spending another night under my roof. Why, first I tried to reason with him, then I tried to beat some sense into him and he –’
The older man stops him with a gesture of his hand.
‘She’s here,’ he says.
Pawel’s uncle sees the man’s fixed, widened stare. He pauses. He knows what they say about arguing with a madman.
‘Who’s here?’ he asks, just to humour him.
The old man casts weary glances to both sides, then leans forward.
‘The Lady,’ he whispers through his teeth.
‘What lady?’ Pawel’s uncle asks. A shiver runs through him. He remembers a story he heard once, back when he was a boy.
‘You don’t mean Pscipolnitsa?’ he says.
The old man backhands him.
‘Don’t call her over!’ he sneers.
* * *
If she has heard her name called, she shows no sign of it. Instead, she sits down on the ground, facing the young man, and crosses her legs. Pawel finds it strange that she, a noblewoman, thinks nothing of getting dirt on her expensive gown.
‘Why are you not sitting with them?’ she asks him.
Pawel hesitates. What is he supposed to tell her? About how his uncle is never happy with him and hits him?
‘What does my lady mean?’ he says, eluding the question.
She is not to be swayed.
‘You keep away,’ she says. ‘Why?’
‘Why?’ he echoes.
She sighs and shakes her head.
‘Fine,’ she says.
She considers him for a moment.
‘I’m bored,’ she then declares. ‘Do you know any riddles?’
Pawel is relieved.
‘Well, there was one I heard – ’ he begins.
‘I’ll do the asking,’ she declares, silencing him. ‘Tell me, what is that thing that the more you have of, the less you see?’
‘Darkness,’ Pawel replies without hesitation.
‘That was an easy one,’ she says. ‘How about this? It is greater than God and more evil than the devil himself. The poor have it and the rich need it, but if you eat it you will die.’
‘Nothing,’ Pawel says, with a smile.
She frowns. The boy is clever. It’s been long since she has encountered such a clever one.
‘I have one you won’t know,’ she says, ‘There are four brothers as old as this world. The first runs and never wearies. The second eats and is never full. The third drinks and is always thirsty. The fourth sings a song that is never good.’
Pawel chuckles. ‘Water, fire, earth and wind,’ he says.
Three right answers, but she will not let him get away. She knows the boy is hiding something. Without moving, she watches him from narrowed eyes. He squirms under her gaze. He feels as if she was reaching into his head. A smile spreads across the woman’s face, beautiful and cold. And sharp.
‘What are you going to do tonight, little one?’ she says.
He freezes. She cannot know. Surely, she does not. She is only toying with him, the way her kind do, to get a laugh out of the wretched born to toil their fields.
‘What – what do you think I am to do?’ he protests. He tries to get up, but finds himself bound to the ground. Cold sweat runs down his forehead. ‘What is someone like me to do but – but – the work that I do for the lord and for my uncle?’
She has him pinned with her eyes alone.
‘You are lying,’ she says.
He looks down and sees her fingers clasping the handle of the sickle at her belt.
‘I beg you, my lady,’ he pleads. ‘Let me go!’
Her hand is so fast that the boy only sees the glimmer of the moving blade.
* * *
‘Look,’ says the mad old man, pointing towards the sky.
They all turn and see the crows gathering and plunging down like arrows.
‘It is done,’ the man says.
* * *
She is on her way again. There is no rush for the likes of her. There is no rest for the likes of her either. The blood never sticks to her sickle. The blade is always new and sharp, shining in the light of the scorching sun.