They Return Every Year to Lay Flowers on the Spot

They Return Every Year to Lay Flowers on the Spot

The villagers returned every year to spread flowers across the bog. A riot of pinks and blues, purples and yellows, even shocks of pristine white sprinkled like snow for one glorious afternoon before they were left to wilt in the mud. Then they returned to their festivals and dances, their stories and feasts, hoping against hope the colorful blanket would mask the skeletal fingers clawing their way up from the earth to the travelers who passed this way. Without trade from the countryside, the village would wither as sure as the gardens they cleared every week to hide the ghastly summer sight.

A nervous energy filled the air as he skirted the edges of town. The kind that often hovered over trade transactions when one party knew they had taken advantage of the other and hoped their blissful ignorance wasn’t feigned. He’d seen it so many times before it no longer struck him as uncomfortable. It was more like a plea for his presence, which might have been otherwise unwelcome.

With the streets crowded, no one paid much attention to the way he moved among them, shadowed cowl pulled over his head, hiding everything but his ice-blue eyes. He listened to the whispers, the corner conversations that took place when the locals thought none of their visitors could hear. He steered clear of the church; they wouldn’t be fond of his interference. If he was careful, he might be able to solve their problem and leave before more than a handful of people knew he’d come.

“They aren’t sure how much longer the flowers will work,” he murmured to himself as he passed beneath the shady archways of a narrow back alley.

In truth, it is probably luck that has kept them safe this long. The petals of random flowers have no power on their own.

He bowed his head in agreement, waiting until the sole other occupant of the street h ad passed before he offered a response. “I don’t think they realize the extent of the danger present in their situation.”

It makes me wonder why the flowers have been successful thus far.

All his work began in the same place. Rather than apply random force, or present himself prematurely as a target, he needed answers. There was always one person who knew. In every town, city or village, there was always one individual who knew every secret, no matter how small. He only needed to find them, and hope they were the sort he could approach without causing a ruckus. If his informant were popular and well-to-do, they might not speak to a stranger in a dusty black cloak who often muttered to himself in the corners of taverns. He didn’t expect to find many of that sort in a place this small, though.

It took him most of the afternoon before he located the cramped shop near the far end of town. Close to the bog, where the earth had turned foul, and far from the prosperous market square. It was the sign that first drew his eyes; Madame Ardel’s Potions and Fortunes, and it wasn’t until he stood directly beneath it that he noticed the rusty old wind chime, its delicate shapes so worn by weather they could no longer be identified. But if the wind blew just right, they would sound the tiniest tinkle, a sound like muted flutes. And it was the wind chime which decided him; he would find his contact here.

A louder, more confident bell sounded when he opened the door and passed inside. It looked as though the buildings built on either side of the shop were trying to squeeze it out of existence. The bottom floor held a small display of herbs and trinkets. Signs proclaimed they could be used for protection or to attract one’s true love, and a list of potions hung over the tiny counter. In the room above, he expected to find a table set with a ball of crystal used for fortunes. And above that he might find a small loft where the practitioner likely slept.

He didn’t have to mount the stairs and check, however, as a young woman bounded down the stairs the moment he entered, a confused look on her face. Her eyes brightened when she saw him, and she didn’t question his state of dress.

“Ah, Messier, what can I help you with today? Are you interested in having your fortune told? The Madame was not expecting any visitors today, but I’m certain she can be ready in a moment or two.” She lifted her eyebrows expectantly.

She was too young to have knowledge of all the herbs hanging along the wall, nor of the symbols marked on each of the special charms. Perhaps she was the storekeeper’s daughter.

“No fortune today, I’m afraid,” he said, his voice so soft it would have been lost but for the absolute silence of the small shop. “But I wonder, is the Madame the owner of the wind chime that hangs beneath your sign?”

The young woman huffed. “That old thing. She made me hang it up. I told her it would only upset people. It doesn’t even work anymore. Just chinks and crinkles unless the wind blows just so.”

He smiled, realized she couldn’t see it and reached up to lower his hood. She started when she saw the pallor of his skin, white as new-fallen snow. His sunken cheeks paired with the dark circles beneath his eyes often made him look something like a walking skeleton. He shifted so that his snow-white hair concealed some of his features and it seemed to ease her tension.

“I understand your concerns. Even so, I can understand why she would want to display it. Might the Madame be willing to speak with me? I only require a few moments of her time.”

The young woman blinked, but she was already backing up the stairs. “She doesn’t usually speak to those not willing to pay, Messier, but since it has to do with the chime… Just a moment.” Turning on her heels, she disappeared back up the stairs. When she reached the top, he heard a door slam and the muffled sound of feet pounding up a second set of stairs.

It’s no wonder you were drawn here.

“Yes, but I wonder how long it’s taken with the rust obscuring the sound. We shall have to see to that before we leave.”

His silent companion nodded her ascent, but said nothing more. The shop attendant returned with wide eyes and motioned for him to follow her up the narrow stairs. He took his time, lifting his long robes to keep from tripping.

The woman who waited for him beside the fortune teller’s table was as aged and withered as the wind chime which hung outside. The girl’s grandmother, he corrected his earlier assumption. The old hag dismissed the girl with a wave of one skeletal hand, but the young woman hesitated, leaving only when the older woman hissed something in her direction. Then the wrinkled hand motioned for him to sit in the only other chair in the room, across from her at the table.

“I am Azmih,” he said softly as he sat. “I am sorry I didn’t come sooner.”

“I was not certain you would,” Madame Ardel rasped. “I did not think the old chime would work. Nor did I know if any of your order were left.”

Azmih bowed his head. “Only me, I’m afraid, and the sound did not reach my ears, until I stood outside just a moment before. But the earth alerted me to your plight. The earth and some sense I could not place until I saw the order’s chime hanging beneath your sign. Can you tell me what has happened?”

“Foul magic,” the old woman hissed, laying both hands on the table in front of her. “Forbidden magic. It happened when I was a girl, if you can believe it. The elders turned their heads, thinking it would bring them prosperity. But when the sorcerer died, he left it behind. We dared not approach the swamp for decades until it started to rise.”

“It?” He did not interrupt, waiting for a lull in her story to speak.

“The undead thing. Even now you would see its hands rising from the bog, rotten flesh still clinging to its joints. It served the sorcerer when he lived, but never brought him the wealth or prosperity he promised us all. Now they march with baskets of flowers to the edge of the ooze every week in the summer, hoping to hide all sign of it. Each year its arms reach higher. No one knows what will happen when it starts to wander the nights again.”

“You think the flowers keep it trapped in the bog?”

“Heavens no, child!” The old woman squinted in his direction and snorted. “Ah, forgive me. You might be more ancient than I, but youth still clings to your face. I’m not sure what keeps it in the bog, but I don’t think it will stay much longer. Might start carrying children off again and the priests will lose their minds if we resort to the old sacrifices.”

Azmih bowed his head. “I believe I can manage it for you. This falls within my jurisdiction. But if I do, might I beg one night of hospitality?”

The madame wheezed something he believed was a chuckle. “Necromancer, if you can exorcise the bog, my humble kitchen will feed you and my humble loft house you as long as you like.”

* * * * *

No amount of flower petals could mask the rotten stench rising from the mud. Already the colors were blighted by the creep of damp ooze. Something bubbled out of the bog and when it popped a whiff of decaying flesh permeated the air. Beneath his hood, Azmih wrinkled his nose. But it did not stop him kneeling and pressing one pale finger to the tip of a boney protrusion.

The skeletal finger flicked as if reacting to pain. Something rumbled deep beneath the mud, muted by the many layers of earth between them. Shuddering like leaves on the wind, the flower petals danced aside as the fingers shifted the muck. Hands became visible, fleshless limbs, as black as the mud in which they had made their home for so long. Elbow joints followed and shoulders and, finally, an ancient skull. Rubies had been crammed into the eye sockets and most of the teeth were missing. It rattled and hissed as it peered at him, hands braced against the mud to lift the torso higher.

“Bold thing,” its hissing rasp echoed beneath the moonlight, “to disturb me from my sleep.”

Azmih folded his hands in front of him. “And bold are you to expose yourself so brazenly to one who does the work of Death.”

The creature rattled its lower jaw in a mockery of laugher. “I know what you are, Necromancer. I know why you come. But you have no power over me. I was never a living thing.”

“Made you may be, but if your master was what I suspect he was, your existence still falls within my jurisdiction. I am bound by the hand of Death that granted my power to see you returned to the earth and the ether.”

The ruby-eyed skeleton seemed unconvinced. “Tell me, then, why you hesitate, oh servant of death.”

Azmih tilted his head to one side. “Because I wonder why you have lain so long beneath this rotten bog when you could have had anything from the village you wanted.”

“Bah, if that were true I would have more than flower petals.”

“So it is the flowers that have kept you here?”

“Not the flowers, you buffoon, the maidens who bring them.”

Azmih arched one snowy eyebrow. “If you were never a living thing, why should maidens interest you at all?”

“It was what the villagers offered when my master died.”

He wasn’t sure that answered his question. Based on what the madam told him, he doubted the maidens the villagers offered had been warm or vibrant by the time they reached the bog. “Whatever the case, I should like to do this the easy way. If I may find something else which appeases you, will you agree to depart in peace?”

The skeleton let its hands slip and its chin came to rest on the muck. Azmih could almost imagine an old man’s sigh as the jaw rattled again. “As fair as the summer maidens are when they deliver the flowers, it has been boring since my master died.”

Azmih laid his palms against the rubies embedded in the skull’s eye sockets. “These are what bind your consciousness, are they not?”

A filthy hand lifted one of his and pulled it aside. “And what assurance do I have that this is not some kind of trick to see me quickly to my doom, Necromancer?”

“Nothing,” Azmih replied with a shrug. “You will simply have to trust I am a man of my word.”

The creature snorted, but released his hand. “Very well, servant of Death, but do not make the mistake of believing I will be powerless when you remove me from this body.”

Azmih knew well what he was dealing with, and he had already prepared the proper protections on the pouch into which he let the rubies fall.

The bog would swallow the lifeless bones by morning. One day, long after he departed, the village maidens might even stop coming to sprinkle flowers across the muck.

*********
Take a look at what my writing partner did with this prompt.

And if you’d like to participate, share a link to your response in the comments and I’ll feature it next week.

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