Harver opened his eyes. The barely visible cell lingered around him and the chains jangled from the shackles on his wrists. “I’m alive,” he said, words that would’ve comforted any other prisoner’s ears after a sleep that had promised never to end. Instead, Harver clenched his teeth and growled. “I’m alive! How can I be alive?”
The shriveled familiar appeared as if he had been listening. “You’re alive?”
“Yes!” Harver shouted. “Death. I want it. Now.”
“Death visited this cell,” the familiar said. “It took the others—it didn’t take you?” The creature shook his head. “Dear me. I must report this.” The cell’s darkness swallowed the light once more and Harver was left alone again.
“Mostly,” he muttered. He waited to hear the glums gloat and mock him for failing to die again, a task so many struggled to avoid and failed, but he heard nothing. “Well? What now? Anything?” He glanced at his left shoulder, and then his right, but saw no bulbous fairies with big mouths. His eyes couldn’t catch the glums until he looked at the floor, where Bother and Nother lay motionless. Empty flab hung off their bodies and skin hugged their bones, as if the fat creatures had been starving for some time. “Dead? Death came for them, of all creatures in all the world, but not for me.”
Tears stung Harver’s eyes. The unfairness of it all, that those two jesters should be allowed to die and that he should have to live—it was unfathomable. Harver sighed, listening to his own breath, and then began to whistle. He hadn’t whistled once since the glums dropped onto his shoulders, not even a note, but now the sound flew freely from his lips. It wasn’t the best whistle in the world, perhaps not even a good one, but the whistle was his, and he couldn’t have made it unless he was alive.
“I’m alive,” he said again, a little gentler than before. “I’m alive and that’s not bad. Living isn’t so intolerable. I have a house full of gold, a dozen lands in my name, many more titles to my person, a legion of women, and one of them must be the bride I’ve dreamed of, who would help make my empty home not so empty anymore.” Harver’s chains jangled again as he sat up straight. “You can take the pillow off! I won’t hurt myself anymore! I won’t bother monsters! I want to live!”
At that moment, the cell door opened, flooding the cell with a light more earthly than that of the strange familiar. Guards unshackled Harver from the wall, untied the pillow from his head, and led him up, up, up into the castle. The forester smiled as the sunlight hit his face for the first time in what felt like ages. Then he sat down across the table from the king he’d threatened, surrounded by seventy-seven guards, and the smile died.
“You have two choices on what’s to be done with you,” the king said. “Either you head across the valley from my castle to a ruined fortress, where the feasting strigoi dwell, earning your freedom, or you can waste away in your dungeon cell as you have done for days now.”
“Stay in the dungeon or head out there to battle monsters?” Harver asked.
“The offer hardly seems fair, seeing how often you’ve beaten such beasts, but these ones have their eyes on not only my kingdom, but all my neighbors. They are too terrible a threat to ignore and we need to put an end to them in one fell swoop, before they send any other familiars to the royal families with requests for surrender.”
“I refused. We have Harver the Hero on our side.”
Harver argued that he was no hero, begged and pleaded to be released anyway, and then finally, when all hope seemed lost, he accepted the king’s terms. He considered running away the moment he left the castle, but soldiers escorted him past portcullis and moat, and then through the valley to the lair of the strigoi.
“It’s only another few monsters to slay,” one soldier said upon seeing the sweat of Harver’s brow. “You’ve killed many more in the past.”
That felt like a different Harver, one with nothing to live for. “I must pretend,” Harver said quietly to himself. “I must act like a man with nothing to lose and cut these flesh-eating, blood-drinking night creatures down like each was any dragon or troll.” The forester wasn’t certain if he could, but his only other option meant dying in a dismal dungeon, forgotten and unloved.
Just before dawn, the soldiers ushered Harver to the fortress gate and the man they called a hero reluctantly stumbled inside. Faint torchlight flickered through the stone halls and dark stairways led Harver down, down, down into the depths of the fortress, where an ethereal light replaced the light of fire. A wide chamber opened at the bottom of the last staircase. Water pooled amid stone stairs and furniture that lined the chamber’s walls and clung to the pool’s edges, and on each fixture sat or stood a figure who wasn’t stone.
Black eyes stared from man and woman alike and narrowed at Harver’s appearance. Huge mouths stuffed with meat and teeth dropped their dripping food and gaped at him as if the creatures’ throats could stare as well. Blood smeared the monsters’ claws and feet, and stained their fancy suits and dresses that didn’t fit at all over their muscly, bent frames. Nearest to the water sat shriveled men, women, and children, two for every strigoi, and Harver counted at least thirty-three strigoi before fear made him forget how to count any higher.
“Here comes one who does not belong,” one slavering monster snarled.
“It is the Harver thing,” said another.
One shriveled familiar stood from the pool and Harver knew his face. “Sir, I believe we’ve made good on two agreements. What are you doing here?”
“He took the king’s deal,” one strigoi said. He spat blood into a cracked wine glass and sipped it gently.
“We had a deal,” the familiar said. “Women were given. Death visited your cell. You asked. We delivered.”
“Death didn’t kill me,” Harver said, raising his sword with a shaky hand. “The women were taken. Your deal fell through, but I have another. Tell your masters to leave.”
Several strigoi dropped what meat remained in their hands and stood up, and those who were already standing took purposeful steps toward Harver.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
“Or kill me,” Harver squeaked. “I’ve asked for death from many monsters. Can you give it to me?”
“He is correct,” the familiar said. “He wanted many creatures to kill him and they wouldn’t, fearing his curse.”
“What manner of curse?” growled a strigoi as she straightened out her torn dress.
“What have the dead to fear?” asked another. “We live forever without fear of killing any man!” The chamber filled with hoots, and howls, and great piles of teeth gnashing together. “Kill him! Suck out his blood! Chew his flesh! Gnaw his bones! Swallow his soul! Spit out his curse!”
Every bit of blood, flesh, bone, and soul in Harver told him to flee at that moment, faster than he’d ever fled in his life. That would mean death and he knew it. He still had a thud in his heart, echoing with all his desires to fill his empty home and empty life. Deep down there remained some small speck of self-resentment and doubt, perhaps given by the glums, perhaps inherent in a man full of regrets and dreams that never were, but it was enough gloom for him to hate his own life for one more moment.
Harver lowered his sword. “Do the deed. Come on. Which of you dares to do it?”
The creatures shuffled, snapping at each other and the air. One stepped forward, then stepped back, and another would take his place and retreat as well.
“One of you must be willing—you can’t all stand there snarling and drooling, hoping I’ll die of impatience. When I get impatient, that’s when I kill. A dragon learned that first and he would’ve filled this room. Later there were sea monsters and giants. They’re all dead now. And many more monsters never gave me the pleasure. Creatures who could tear down castles and skin men alive chose to cut their own throats rather than risk killing me. And there are those that fled, so many that I can’t count them now, but they certainly numbered more than thirty-three. You creatures proved it best of all! You sent Death to me, and while it didn’t go empty-handed, it wouldn’t take me. Do you understand? Death itself refused to kill me. If Death wouldn’t meddle with this curse, well, let’s see which of you is braver than the reaper.” Harver looked around expectantly.
Not a single strigoi moved one muscle.
“So no one will do the deed?” the hero asked. “Then you have three choices. One, you let me grow impatient and I cut off your heads. Two, you off yourselves so my curse can’t touch you. And three, best of all, the lot of you sneak out of here before dawn, journey to the other side of the world, and never come back. I’ll say I killed you while you make a mess elsewhere. And then I’ll find some monster dumb enough to finish me.”
Every strigoi stood up. They straightened their suits, tidied their dresses, and wiped gristle from their faces. Then the eerie light faded from the room and an evil wind sighed past Harver, exhaling all the monsters and familiars from the fortress. Harver sighed with relief and dropped his sword. He didn’t want anything more to do with it.
Outside the soldiers cheered at his appearance and congratulated him on his pardon. Harver didn’t bother seeing the king. He walked from the fortress without rest until he reached his home by the forest. His gold and jewels remained where he left them, as they had whenever he returned. He didn’t intend to be away from them for so long again.
First Harver set to work on another set of letters, each apologizing to the women who were kidnapped for him. Later he visited some of them and met one with so cheery a demeanor that he hoped any glum who landed on her would starve for lack of misery to eat. They were wed in a grand castle, built on land Harver owned at the center of places he had cleared of monsters, so he knew no terrors would dare bother them. He never went seeking death by monster again, nor did he revisit the cliff, for he had a full life now, and he refused to throw it away.