Harver’s quest to find his death took him near and far. He sailed ships and threw himself at treacherous mermaids, who swam away from him quick as they could. Sirens abandoned their rocks at news of his approach, clearing the paths for many trade vessels. His name was known in the southern islands before he arrived on their shores and all chances of death at a monster’s hands seemed robbed from him.
A gorgon, who had turned twenty men to stone only a week before, gouged out her own eyes when she saw Harver. In the grand desert, a manticore plunged its scorpion tail through its own body when Harver entered its cave. Harpies ruined their nests and flew away, demons hid in woods and earth, and a row of petrified basilisks marked the forester-turned-hero’s passing where they preferred to exist as statues than face whatever curse all believed would befall them should they dare to kill Harver.
Even the dumbest of monsters wouldn’t touch a hair on Harver’s head. He found three trolls in the mountains of his homeland and hoped he had found his end when one charged after him.
Another troll stuck out an arm to stop his friend. “Hold on there. That’s Harver the Hero. He’s fixing to fool you into killing him and being cursed.”
“There’s only one curse on me and it won’t hurt any of you,” Harver said, drawing his sword. “Now, come here and kill me before I lose my patience.”
“Nice try, little man,” one troll said. “You’ll have to wake up pretty early in the evening to trick us into taking your life. We’ll choose death for ourselves instead.”
Bursting with rage, Harver went to work chopping and slashing, and within moments three trolls heads rolled down the hill. They laughed all the way. “Hah!” the last one roared. “That’ll teach you!” Then their bodies rolled after them and the trolls said no more.
“You are remarkably unpersuasive,” Bother said.
“That must be why you lived alone,” Nother said. “At this rate, you’ll be the only man left in the world.”
Neither glum had left his side since attaching themselves to Harver’s shoulders in the forest. They didn’t seem to need food or water and didn’t care if the sun shined or the clouds poured. Even iron didn’t seem to upset them. Harver had long ago given up on being rid of the fat little fiends. Death was all that mattered now.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Nonetheless, a treasure pile amassed at his home in the woods. For every beast he sent into exile or monster he slew, gold, jewels, medals, and land titles were tossed onto him. He dumped all of it in that little house by the woods, filling its emptiness with the fortunes that most men covet and yet their own didn’t care for at all. No one came to steal this treasure either. Cutpurses and cutthroats alike wouldn’t mug or murder Harver, some said out of respect, others said out of the same fear that drove monsters away from him.
“The cliff remains where you left it,” Bother reminded Harver.
“And it won’t run away, though only because it has no legs,” Nother said.
Harver knew that as well. “If every monster in the world is dead and I still live, I’ll walk off that cliff.”
All the monsters in the world were not dead—in fact, he found the servant of one waiting for him in his home upon one return. At first he thought the shriveled creature was some lost old man, wearing man’s clothes and man’s skin, but a closer look revealed a deadness in his eyes and a bend in his spine.
“You’re some creature’s familiar,” Harver said. “Why are you here?”
“My masters are … perturbed by your recent activities,” the familiar said. “They would like to know what it is you want, so they may give it to you in exchange for leaving them alone. I see you have mortal riches, land, and glory beyond compare, but there must be something you seek.”
“I want an end to my misery.”
The familiar nodded and left the house to bring word back to his masters. In the days that followed, messenger after messenger brought word to Harver that this duchess or that princess or some wealthy maiden had been stolen from one land or another, and many fretting fathers claimed that monsters had carried them off in the night. Harver saw some promise in pursuing this, as a woman’s charms might be worth enough to a monster for him to bear a curse.
Yet when Harver stepped outside his house with all the messages gathered, he found the missing women, all locked in a giant wooden cage next to his garden. The shriveled familiar stood before the door, ignoring the cries and sobs of the kidnapped ladies, along with several others of lesser birth. “I told my masters of your desire and your home of treasures and they believe a lovely woman would end your misery.”
“They cannot,” Harver said.”
“If anything, such a woman would make you value your life a little more and you wouldn’t want to leave her side.”
“But I don’t value my life at all.”
“They did not know what kind of woman you would be interested in, so we sought and brought women of all looks, talents, and status. Some of them aren’t even human.”
Harver’s heart thudded and he stood a little straighter than he had in some time. Deep inside, he remembered a dream he had of sharing his home with a woman he loved, in the days before the glums sat on his shoulders.
“Don’t think any of them would bother to love you,” Bother said.
“They were brought here against their will,” Nother said. “They’ll run off the first chance they get and then you’ll have much more trouble.”
Harver’s head thudded then, as if an idea were nailed into his head with a hammer. He ignored the glums and forced a smile at the familiar. “Tell your masters, whoever they are, that I’ll accept the women. For now. You may leave.” The shriveled man scurried off and the women wailed. Some of them wanted to be picked as Harver’s wife, others wanted to go home, but all of them wished to leave the cage. “None of you are going anywhere yet.”
He ignored their wailing and set to work. At his table he laid out messages, wrote replies, and then the forester headed to the mountain village where he hired messengers to carry his letters abroad. At the same time, he used his gold to buy all the village’s food and hired workers to travel afar and purchase even more food.
“Keeping them here won’t make them like you any better,” Bother told Harver when they passed the cage of women on the way home.
“If anything, they’re sure to like you less than the monsters that kidnapped them,” Nother said.
“That is my intent,” Harver said, and he told the glums nothing else of his plan. He had grown desperate after all their taunts and torments, so desperate that their words didn’t matter, monsters didn’t matter, and he refused to even tell them that he wouldn’t walk off a cliff because the cliff couldn’t make promises.
But kings could. And lords. Fathers of stolen daughters.
Harver waited, and waited, and on the third morning of waiting, he stepped outside his house to find a host of merchants, lords, and kings, all of whom had sent him a letter for help, and received a letter telling them who had their precious daughters.
“You’ve all come here to retrieve your lost women,” Harver said to the gathered wealthy men. “Well, you can’t have them. Not without giving me the promise of death!”
The lordly men looked at each other and then burst into laughter. “Retrieve them?” one asked.
“I came to see my daughter be wed,” said another.
“My princess deserves someone so grand as Harver the Hero,” a king announced to the crowd.
“We should be so lucky!”
“Three cheers for Harver, Hero and Hundred-Times Husband!”
The cheers rang over the forest and Harver’s home, but his shouts buried them all. “You’ll simply let me have your daughters because I’ve killed monsters? Will you let me have anything I want if I demand it?” He pointed at a merchant. “All your ships!” Then he shook his fist at a lord. “All your soldiers!” Then he aimed his sword at a king. “Your kingdom will be mine! I will take the whole world without a soul willing to stop me! I ask for death and you give me every single thing you own? Fine, I’ll take it! All you kings in all the world, kneel before me!”
Harver did not have everything they owned. Moments after he pointed a sword at a king, a hundred soldiers arrested him, carted him away without armor or blade, and tossed him in a dungeon, where he was chained to the wall. He couldn’t even move his arms to strangle himself if he wanted.
“What a wondrous world you rule,” Bother said, sounding tired.
“Bet that cliff looks quite inviting,” Nother said, sounding bored.
“If you wouldn’t mind, try beating your head into the wall.”
“We personally wouldn’t mind it in the slightest. Put an end to it and make someone happy for a change.”
Harver tried, but the guards soon caught him and tied a pillow to his head. When he stopped eating, they let him, and soon his hunger took control and he ate despite his desire to die. The glums spoke to him less as his power to get himself killed waned and for long stretches Harver heard nothing but his own breathing in the dark dungeon and the occasional cry of some faraway prisoner who might have been in another cell, or level, or castle altogether.
One day or night, for Harver couldn’t tell one from another in the underground, he at last heard someone speak. “It seems our gift did not go well for you.” An unearthly light illuminated the cell and the shriveled familiar approached the chained, glum hero.
“Leave me be,” Harver said. “I can’t hurt you or your masters, although you could kill me if you wish.”
“That would be against my instructions. And unfortunately for us, the humans upstairs are in discussions. They’re willing to offer your freedom in exchange for slaying my masters.” The familiar leaned close. “I’ve been instructed to offer an alternative. I suppose you could have freedom from us.”
Harver yanked at his chains. “Not freedom! Death is what I want! Tell your masters that!”
The familiar’s eyes widened in surprise. He nodded, his light doused, and Harver was alone in the darkness. Mostly.
“Your bargaining must be … so awful,” Bother croaked.
“Little thing could’ve killed you,” Nother said. “If you were a nicer person, maybe he would have.”
The familiar soon reappeared. “My masters are seeing to your request. Death is coming.”