When Jon heard that, after a miscommunication with a publicist, I was a story short for my Christmas Takeover, he offered up a second story. This is a story he's been holding onto for a while, and as with Chris Kosarich, he will have another story (one he wrote specifically for my Christmas Takeover) later on in the month.
A Mother's Gift
By: Jon Jefferson
She hadn't waited till morning. Instead, she left in the night long after the house had fallen to slumber. In the wee hours before dawn, she had never thought the woods could be so dark and empty, empty of everything but her labored breathing and the thump of her feet as she ran the path that would take her through the woods.
She was lost, lost and alone. She had never come this far into the woods, but the legends said she would find them deep in the woods where her steps were unknown. So far all she had found were trees and more trees. Their skeletal branches scratched against the star-it sky as her feet crunched the late winter snow.
Jardan pulled her coat tight against her body, though it did little to stop the chill air. The leather envelope she had stowed inside had slipped down. She caught it before it fell out the bottom of her coat and to the ground. She secured it and set out once more.
A fool's errand, the marker of the black skull only existed in local legend, but she had tried everything else. She was desperate. She was alone. She had acquired the tribute at a high price, her mother would have said too high a price, but she paid it and what's done is done.
Her mother had paid a price once. The ring with a square cut diamond surrounded by three emeralds had been the most expensive piece of jewelry she owned. Jardan had seen it in pictures form the time she was born. Her mother wouldn't talk about it, changed the subject whenever she brought it up. After awhile, she didn't ask, though the pictures nagged at her. She had taken the story to her grave.
She jumped nearly out of her skin when the shadow stepped out of a moonbeam through the trees. It was a black mass outlined in the moon's light, stuck in the middle of her forest path, and it didn't look like it would move at her approach. It shambled toward her, but stopped at the edge of the moon's light.
"Good 'morrow." The voice scratched in the air like a chill north wind.
Jardan's breath caught in her throat. Lady Shelton's cane bit into the forest dirt with a loud thunk as she edged closer.
"What's this? No words for an old woman lost in the woods in the middle of the night?" Thunk of the cane, then scrape scrape as her feet brushed the ground. "Besides, it's late. You should be home tucked in your bed."
"Yeah..." She didn't know what to say. The woman inched closer and closer. She stepped from the path into the first line of trees. "Maybe another time."
She thought she had been out of reach, kept a distance from the woman on her path, but the next thunk came from her shoulder as the cane had stretched out and caught her.
The old woman swung again and connected with the base of Jordan's skull. The force of the blow knocked her to the ground. The next strike hit her in the abdomen and knocked the wind from her lungs.
"Ignoring an old woman and running from your duties," Lady Shelton said. "I'll have none of it."
She grabbed the collar of Jardan's tunic and drug her back through the woods, back the way she had come. "Your father will not be pleased, not pleased one bit."
Jardan went limp, resistance would be met with an even tighter grip, nails dug deeper into her skin. A lesson from her mother, another opportunity would come. After a time, Lady Shelton released her grip, though she pressed her to lead the way through the forest. The woman's cane smacked her shoulders to guide their path. Under the grey light of dawn, they had found their way home again.
"Just in time," Lady Sheltons said. "Your father will be expecting his breakfast." With that, she shoved Jardan toward the wood pile and then continued through the front door of the cottage.
She tripped over some loose branches and caught herself on the stacked wood. Jardan picked herself up and dusted herself off. In the process, she felt the package still in her coat, reassured that it had gone unnoticed by the old woman.
As much as she wanted to run gain, she could feel Lady Shelton's eyes on her. The woman watched her through the cottage window. It was a fight, the urge to look back at her, the urge to curse at her from the wood pile. It would be another offense that Jardan would pay for later. Lady Shelton exacted the trolls with precision.
She had set the armload of wood beside the pot belly stove in the kitchen. Though it wasn't large, just being enough for a couple of cook pots, it was the heat for the small cottage. With practiced ease, she had lit a fire and placed a pot of water on the top next to an old iron skillet. Four eggs to the pot of water to boil as the water heated for her father's coffee, jerked meat with potatoes in the skillet; she prepared the same breakfast in the winter months, at least until the root vegetables were gone.
No sounds came from her father's room, though she knew he would awaken. The smell of breakfast pulled him from his bed in the morning. He would stumble to the table in his underclothes and tape a knife against his plate in anticipation.
Lady Shelton would remain in her room until later, but her presence filled the air of the cottage anyway. She had an energy about her that grew stronger the further Jardan's father slipped away. Her father had become little more than a child, at least in mind.
She cracked and peeled the eggs while the water soaked the coffee grounds. Her father finally stumbled from his room and crawled along the floor. His movements slow and methodic, deep thought to move a hand and then a leg and then a hand again, but still he made his way to the table and climbed up into his seat. She set the plate in front of him and then sat down across from him with a plate of her own. He stabbed at an egg with his knife, intent to chop it to bits before he turned to the next one. Through it all, he didn't acknowledge her, never even looked at her.
Jardan pushed a few potatoes around her plate as she watched her father. Lady Shelton cleared her throat from behind her. Jardan's father turned his attention from the eggs to her, and a smile tore at his lips. She glided to the chair to the side of Jardan and her father.
In the light of day, the woman had changed. Though Jardan still felt the effects of the night's run and subsequent return to the cottage, not a trace of the night could be seen on Lady Shelton. Flushed with life, her face had a glow. In the day's light, her hair smoothed to a softer, lighter blond. The gray that Jardan saw the night before was gone, as well as the age in her voice.
"Good morning," Lady Shelton said. "No, don't get up. I have no desire for breakfast this morning." She placed an icy cold hand on Jardan's wrist. The skin where the woman had touched her still puckered in goose flesh when she pulled her hand away.
"Ordinarily," Lady Shelton began, "I would not feel the need for such precautions, but it's you and your lack of respect that have brought me to this." She snapped the lock shut that secured Jardan's leg chain to the wall.
She didn't struggle, didn't fight. What good would it do? The woman had taken Jardan's voice and was intent now on her soul. Her mind raced as she thought of the ways she might break free of the chains.
Lady Shelton was to leave the cottage for a few days and, as she put it, "The girl would not roam free." Jardan's father had not come out of his room in days. She could hear him breathing, even now, labored and raspy. She wanted to scream at the woman, command her to release him, release them, but her voice had come out as a dull croak since the morning.
"If you're a good girl," Lady Shelton said, "I might even bring you back a treat when I return." With that she was gone, and she didn't look back.
That had been hours ago.
She struggled and pulled hard against the chain. Bolted to the wood of the cottage wall, something should give, but it fought her at every turn. The palms of her hand had chaffed with the effort. Blood welled up in her knuckles and broke free of the abused skin.
Finally, with a crackle, the nails tore through the wood. She gained an inch and redoubled her efforts. Before long, she ripped it free of the wall. She scanned the room - there had to be a key, something, anything that would release the clamp around her ankle and free her from the chain.
She hobbled around the room, her foot asleep from the tight clamp. As she dumped drawers and overturned baskets on the room's shelves, the soft clunk of a heavy iron weight hit the floor. She gripped the pry-key in triumph as her hands shook in the effort to break open the clamp.
Elation turned to sour dread as she realized the time. Lady Shelton had chained her at dawn's break. Twilight filled the cottage's sole window. She had little time. The woman would be on her way back, if not already approaching the cottage. She threw on warm clothes and raced out into the approaching darkness.
She had once thought that running through the forest was difficult and dangerous at deep night, but it didn't match the troubles she found in the twilight. Shadows and sounds echoed around her, and she jumped at the snap of twigs and the wind through the tree branches. It was a blind race through unfamiliar woods, the sun no longer there to guide her.
Her breath billowed out in gasps, the moisture frozen in mist. Her lungs screamed pain as her blood lashed through her veins. She couldn't stop, refused to stop. The chill air threatened to flay the skin from her bones if she gave her sweat a moment to freeze. She ran, forced herself forward toward a destination she no longer remembered.
When she finally stopped to catch a breath, she realized she didn't know where she was. Nothing in the area around her looked familiar. In fact, it looked - how could this be? It looked out of season. The chill of winter didn't suffuse the air around her. Not like the run. There was an unusual warmth to the air that felt unnatural.
She had found her way into a clearing of sorts. A worn narrow path led through the trees, but the area around it didn't have the pall of winter that covered the rest of the forest. Twilight still filled the sky, but it was a murky twilight, not of the earth going to sleep, but of something different, a moment in time frozen between times.
It took her a few moments to catch her breath again, though she had gained enough presence of mind to continue walking as she recovered. It could not be explained, but the compulsion to follow the worn path pulled her on.
Her clothes, wet with sweat, chilled her bones as the wind cut through. Cold and hot at the same time, she fought between removing her coat or pulling it tighter to her frame. As she adjusted it, she felt something in the breast pocket. The ring - in her race to escape the house, she had forgotten all about it. The old woman must not have searched through her belongings.
Darkness fell across the path. No, that wasn't it. The darkness pushed toward her, not from the sky, but from the path ahead. The tree line to each side of the path grew dense. It no longer had the sparse edge of a light forest in winter. This area had condensed and overgrown. Not only did the standing trees have the look of deep winter, but the forest floor had been littered with fallen trees and broken bramble. The thicket had a pall of death and murk she had felt no where else in the forest.
The slow drip of water into a standing pool echoed within the cavern. Bio-luminous light refracted and bounced through the various sections of tunnels she had wandered into. Jardan hadn't expected the cave. She simply followed the pull that guided her forward through the forest. Before she had realized just how lost she had become, she could no longer remember the way back. Time had recessed into memory. The light in the caverns, if it came from the sun, was no indication of how long she had traveled through.
At one point, she had slipped the ring, her mother's ring, onto her finger. It lodged itself on the ring finger of her left hand. The first time she had noticed the green and gold of it, she had attempted to pull it off. Her finger had swollen and the ring held fast. That was the last bit of attention she gave it till she felt the pulse.
Maybe it was more like a pull, a gentle tug. The ring had a life to it that asserted itself as she stumbled blind through rough stone passages. Twisting and turning, the paths must have crossed over and through ones she had traveled on before, and the pull intensified. At first she fought it, fought against the insistence, but the more she fought, the stronger it became, so strong that she began to run. She ran to chase into the destination or to escape from the power of the ring, she couldn't tell which made more sense.
Her pumping blood screamed in her ears as she gasped for breath. She had stopped just through an opening in a large chamber. Light radiated up at the far end as it traveled along the wall and across the ceiling. Jardan had once heard legends of this chamber, the cathedral. Like may bush stores and tall tales, few if any of them ever could be believed, but here she was, standing at the far end of the cathedral, a single element in all the old tales held true.
A place of worship carved from stone lay before her. Pews had been shaped and polished from the stone of the floor, two sections that stretched twelve rows ahead of her. At the far end, just before the light that filled the chamber, a stone altar had been carved on a raised platform. A church had been built into the nether regions of the dark forest and she was possibly the first to have entered the sanctuary in ages.
Jardan's mind raced as her view flittered back and forth and then back again across the room. She couldn't focus on any one thing. It was too large, too much for her to take in, until she stood next to the very last pew. Her eyes had become accustomed to the light and she saw, for the first time, the congregation. Skeletons still sat in the pews. All twelve rows in each section had become the final home of doomed parishioners. The sight of the long dead unsettled her at first. As she walked the line down the center of the pews, she approached the altar. There she found two more skeletons, there limbs entwined as they held each other in death.
Thump, scrape. Thump, scrape. The sounds bounced off the walls of the cathedral and broke Jardan from her inner thoughts. She searched back toward the entrance and had to swallow her fiercely beating heart. Lady Shelton had followed her. The old woman approached through the pews as she tapped her cane hard into the floor and dug her foot across it. Though the sound of her approach caused dread to flood through Jardan, it was the soft cackle that build into a filling echo that froze her blood.
"Your mother," Lady Shelton said, "once came here unbidden as well." Thump, scrape. "You never knew that, did you? She never told you of her trespassing, her theft."
Her mind raced as she thought of escape. There was no where left to run. She couldn't fathom the way out of the cavern even before now. This would be a blind run that would only bring her back to this woman, this wraith that had plagued her family for far too long.
The memories came in a flash, a story her mother once told her. Jardan had always thought it was to scare her, to control her, and guard her from the evil she couldn't believe. That's the way of old wives' tales and tall tales, isn't it? The hidden message to scare the children to do what the parent wants.
A little girl had run from her parents and gotten lost in the deep woods. The way her mother told it, it was the deep woods that she forbade Jardan enter. She had wiped the tears from her mother's cheek in the last telling. A girl of six, too young to watch her mother wither away.
That had been the day her mother died, a victim to the wasting. Her life sucked from her bones, just like her father. Lady Shelton knocked on their door a few days later. The earth hadn't even grown cold over her mother's grave.
Thump, scrape. "I told her," Lady Shelton said, "told her I would take them all. Her debt would be paid from all she loved."
"Emerald and gold, buried far below." The last words of her mother, spoken on her deathbed. Jardan tugged at the ring, her mother's ring, that had fused itself to her finger. It wouldn't budge. In the story, the girl had taken something from he dead she found buried in the earth. She screamed out of her thoughts when the end of Lady Shelton's cane stabbed into her shoulder and pushed her to the ground.
Jardan's palms and knees scraped across jagged rocks. The fabric of her britches held, but there was nothing to protect her hands. The skin tore in several places. Even with the pain, she had presence of mind to roll away from the next strike of the cane. The crook smacked the space that had been occupied by her head.
"Hold still little girl," Lady Shelton said. "It's your turn to carry the burden." The cane connected with Jarden's leg with a thump. Jarden rolled again, away from the woman's reach.
Blood had oozed across her palms and over her fingers, but it's lubrication still wasn't enough to break the ring free of her flesh. Jardan pushed herself to her feet, as more of the sharp rocks on the floor bit into the flesh of her hands, and ran. She tripped over the edge of the cathedral's raised section when she turned her head to see Lady Shelton. The old woman didn't rush, didn't run. Thump, scrape, her methodical progress followed Jordan through the cathedral.
"You have no where left to run," she said. "Give yourself, like your mother and your father before you. It will hurt less when you accept your fate."
She couldn't explain it, nothing more than a moment of happenstance, but Jardan had looked at the skeletons near the pulpit. Her eyes had focused on their hands. The left hand on one of them had been perfectly preserved in the deep cavern, except for the third finger of the right. It wasn't there. Jardan risked everything as she studied the space around the hand. The bones were gone, like that finger had been removed while the others had been left intact.
The cane slammed into her ribs and knocked the wind from her lungs. Cold, sharp hands entwined in her hair and pulled her to her feet. Wiry flesh, like steel cables, held her up, balanced on her toes. She fought, fought so much harder than her mother had ever fought. She dug her nails into the flesh of the old woman's arm and kicked at the woman's legs. It wasn't enough.
Lady Shelton lifted Jardan's chin with the cane's crook and forced the girl to look in her eyes, and the fight left her. Black orbs swam where eyes should be. They fed on the light and the life that had fueled her. They cut deep into the core of Jardan and she could not pull away.
As she felt her will ebb, she noticed a glimmer, something she never thought to see in the old woman's eyes. A bit of her mother still lived, a portion broken off in the woman who fed on her. That last glimmer of hope, of life, renewed her strength. She broke her gaze away from Lady Shelton and twisted free of the woman's grip.
Jardan fell back and away from the woman as she slid across a rough floor. Her hands scarped further by sharp obsidian stone, she grasped a stone fragment with a longer edge.
She didn't look up, didn't break her focus from this final task. Jardan held the tip of the stone against the skin at the base of her ring finger. She took a last gulp of air and then plunged the rough blade through the knuckle and severed the finger from her hand. She could hear nothing but the pounding in her ears as she scooped it up and rushed to the skeleton on the floor.
"I pay my mother's debt," she said. She placed the finger on the skeleton's hand.
There was no flash of light, no sign of some significant magical effect. Nothing, except silence. She scanned the cathedral and found herself alone with the dead.
Her hands shook as she packed her injured hand with cloth. She still didn't know how she would find her way out of the cavern, but at least the curse, her mother's legacy, was over.
About the author:
Jon M. Jefferson writes Speculative fiction with forays into Noir and Bizarro. His stories have appeared in the 2013 Indies Unlimited Flash Fiction Anthology, the Weird Tales Magazine website, and in Siren's Call Magazine. His work can also be found on Amazon and Smashwords. Flash fiction stories can be found at his site Misadventures in Strange Places or his anthologies, short stories and novellas can be found at his Amazon Author Page.