This is my entry for The Review Game's November 2010 Writing Challenge Contest. Read the entries and vote for your favorite. There are lots of awesome pieces.
last edited: 2/8/11
Daniel sighed, watching his breath fog in the morning air. Dew and frost clung to the trees surrounding the clearing where he stood. A bird cawed from inside the forest, its cry hitting Daniel's ears like shattered glass. Shivering, he wrapped his coat tighter around himself, clenched his teeth, and resigned himself to the awful feeling of waiting.
Nerves already wound tight, Daniel whipped around, eyes wide. An old lady stood in front of him, bent and wrinkled and covered in rags of all styles and colors. He gaped. She smiled.
"And what beguiles you? Someone so full of promise should not waste his time worrying." To make her point, the lady tapped Daniel's stylish boots with her gnarled wooden cane. He took a step back, afraid of the insightfulness of the comment, and kept his eyes on the ground.
"Are you…" His voice came out hoarse and whispery, so he stopped and cleared is throat. "Are you Lady Willow?"
He'd heard stories of her. Everyone had. Stories where snakes slithered down throats and murmured secrets to their hosts, plants had lovers and spoke of the future, and people grinned like bandits and riddled like prophets. Oh, he'd heard stories all right. They were enough to send needles down his spine.
"I'm not a lady, and a willow is a tree." But she winked as she said it. "Now I've answered your question, so you answer mine." She folded her hands on the top of her cane, leaning on it and peering into Daniel's eyes with such intensity that he felt naked even though he wore two shirts, a thick coat, leather gloves, sturdy boots, and a woolen scarf. He lowered his gaze. From the forest, the bird shrieked again.
"Dueling," he stammered, but then looked at her and answered more forcefully, bringing his hand to the sword dangling from his side. "I will be dueling soon."
"Ah, serious business, I see." Lady Willow rubbed her chin, thinking. "And who will you be dueling?"
"The son of Lord Germaine, James."
"And why, pray tell, are you dueling him?" Lady Willow cocked her head and smiled as if she already knew the answer.
"He thinks I dishonored his sister," Daniel murmured, blood coloring his pale, cold cheeks.
"What?" Lady Willow cupped her ears. "Speak up, child, I'm old!"
"Because I slept with his sister!" Daniel shouted. Lady Willow laughed a laugh that sounded too happy to belong to a cackling old woman, her tangled white hair shaking with her shoulders. The bird seemed to guffaw with her, a series of caws sounding from the forest. Frowning, Daniel snorted. Seeing his breath cloud the air only made her laugh harder.
"How young he must be, too, to make such a big deal out of that!" Lady Willow finally sputtered, still chuckling.
"You wouldn't think it so amusing," Daniel said, glaring, "if your life was on the line."
"I'm afraid I don't see your point. It's funny no matter which angle I look from." The old woman's smile was becoming quite irksome, Daniel decided.
"You're immortal." Daniel sighed. "You wouldn't understand." His anger trickled away as he thought about what was to come, leaving despair in its wake. He couldn't win this fight, he knew. Thinking of James wielding a sword, he shivered, but this time it wasn't because he was cold.
"Ah, but you could be, too." Her voice fell to barely a whisper, and Daniel had to lean close to her face. She cupped her hands around his ear and the wind seemed to quiet so he could hear her words. "I could make it so you won't die in this duel, or in any other during your lifetime."
If Daniel were a dog, he would've raised his hackles. He thought of the stories.
"What's the catch?" He hissed, suspicion gnawing at his heart.
"Watch over a friend of mine who's been rather lonely." Lost staring in the old woman's wrinkled face, Daniel gasped when he felt something perch on his shoulder. Turning, he came face to face with a crow.
"Ah!" he cried. The crow cawed and pecked at Daniel's black hair.
"See? You were meant to be!" Lady Willow cackled.
"But I never agreed—" Turning to face her, Daniel's words caught in his throat. She was gone.
"Lady Willow!" But the wind swallowed his shout and brought from behind him the sound of hoof beats. The crow pinched Daniel's shoulder more tightly with its talons.
A sense of foreboding in his chest, Daniel turned to see James approaching on a brown mare. The other young man sported fighting clothes, a stronger physique, and a pair of cold eyes, swapping Daniel's style for practicality. Catching sight of Daniel, James sneered.
Before Daniel had time to move, or even speak, the crow let out a blood-curdling shriek and took off, flying straight at James. James squinted and frowned, not understanding, as the bird came towards him. Then his eyes widened.
He yelped as the crow hit him, scratching and pecking at his face, and brought his hands to his face to fend it off. Surprised at the commotion, the horse whinnied. The crow dug its talons into James's face, and his yelps turned to screams as blood ran from the wound. Daniel watched, frozen in terror, as the horse reared at the noise and threw James to the ground.
"Help! Get it off!" James screamed, trying to sit up as the crow attacked even faster and more powerfully than before, its wings a blur of motion. It shrieked to match James's cries and went for his throat.
"She eats hearts." Lady Willow stood at Daniel's side, leaning on her cane, calm as death. Shaking, but not from cold, Daniel looked at her with wide eyes.
Daniel knew he should say something, do something, but words and actions clouded his mind like molasses and all he could do was turn to James and the crow. Stories, he thought, should've listened to the stories.
Gurgles replaced screams now, and as James stopped moving the crow's attack slowed and red covered the earth. She hopped onto his chest and began to peck.
Covering his mouth with his hand, Daniel turned away as the metallic smell of blood reached his nose. He clutched his stomach, his heart hammering in his chest.
"One a day," Lady Willow specified, holding up a finger in front of his face. "Feed her well."
Squeezing his eyes shut and bending over, Daniel gagged. Behind him, he heard squelching and scratching sounds. Disbelief, confusion, and horror warred for control of his emotions as he tore off his coat, hoping the cold would wake him up from this nightmare. The wind rejoiced at the chance to chill him to the bone and swirled around him like a storming adversary. He stood there, hugging himself, for a long time. When he opened his eyes, Lady Willow was gone again.
He felt a familiar weight on his shoulder. Daniel turned to look into the crow's beady eyes, his expression blank and his face pale. Her blood-soaked talons stained his white shirt red, and as she nuzzled his hair the liquid dripped onto his ear.
The wind howled.
The crow cawed.