THE CURSED TOWN by Simina Lungu
When the green creeping things crawled from the forests on the hill towards the town below, there was only one thought in the townsfolk’s minds:
“We should have known.”
The signs had been clear enough. The legends plain, without any obscurity for once. Everybody knew them. There wasn’t a single soul who had not heard about the mountain town, and how a group of people had stumbled upon it, empty and dead, the buildings covered by a green, sickly moss. They found only a single living being, a withered woman dressed in faded rags. She glared at them with beady eyes, and they were sure she was laughing at them, sharing a private joke they could not understand.
“You are not meant to be here,” she said. “This town was never meant to be. The land belongs to the woods and the secret things dwelling beneath the trees. They came for us. They swallowed us up. If you stay here, they will do the same to you.”
She died afterwards. Later people would say that should have been a sign for them to leave, that the town was not for them—it wasn’t for anyone, really—and it was better left alone. What was in the forest could keep it. But it was a good place to settle and most of the buildings were still standing. Why not start a new life there?
For years, it felt like the right choice. Generations came and went, and the town prospered. The legend remained, told on snowy evenings while households gathered around the fireplace, shivering from more than cold, caught in the uneasy notion that something was watching them, an ancient presence always there in the back of their minds. But many laughed and claimed imaginations were always stronger when the sun went down and the legends of old were just that—legends. Stories told to entertain and nothing more. No one in town took them seriously.
Until the green creeping things began their slow advance like a wordless, immovable army, ready to conquer the town below.
“Fables and superstitions! We’re enlightened folk, after all. We’ve left the dark ages behind a long time ago. There’s no point dragging them back.”
Ruan was master of the town and as pompous as one could get. He knew in the back of his mind that his charges did not take him seriously, but, so far, there had been no need. Perhaps that was the main reason why he refused to acknowledge the threat of the green creeping things. If there was a crisis coming, he wouldn’t have a chance. People would demand that he stand down and allow someone more competent in his stead.
“We’re an enlightened folk,” he repeated stubbornly. “Surely we’re not going to allow ourselves to be frightened off by a bunch of plants.”
“People are saying they are more than plants. They said they swallowed an entire pasture. A herd of cows, just vanished. It’s quite a loss, you know.”
Ruan took in his advisor standing a few paces before him, hands clasped behind him in a posture one would have described as deferential—unless they looked more closely and spotted that faint gleam of contempt. Ruan had noticed it plenty of times. But Hektor was competent and quick thinking. It was better to have him close by, than working with his adversaries.
“People say a lot of things when they turn hysterical, Hektor. The mark of a good leader is to know when to listen to them—and when to take what they say with a pinch of salt.”
“This would require a lot of salt,” Hektor commented. “You can see the plants for yourself. You can’t deny they’re getting closer.”
Ruan did not answer. His hand brushed against the wall. He drew it back with a grimace. The damp was settling in much earlier this year. It brought moss and mould in their houses.
“I suppose you have a plan,” he said, wiping his hand on a monogrammed handkerchief.
“Perhaps,” Hektor admitted. “At least, the start of one.”
Ruan waved that aside.
“Whatever it is, do it fast. The sooner we put this mess behind us, the better.”
He strode away to get ready for the opening of the Harvest Fair. Hektor watched him with raised eyebrows.
“I suppose there is no point in telling you there will be nothing for you in the aftermath.”
The house was the last in town, lonely and cold. There were no curtains at the windows, no bright welcoming signs at the door. When Hektor approached it that evening, a thin trail of smoke made its way out of the blackened chimney. It filled the air with a dark, dizzying smell.
He did not bother knocking, fully aware he would receive no answer. Instead he pushed open the creaking door and stepped in, blinking owlishly, trying to let his sight adjust to the dim light in the small room. The scent was stronger in there, wild flowers and dried reeds, and something else he could not place. His eyes took in the cauldron burning on the fire, the many vials orderly arranged on wooden shelves, the ancient books in languages he could not understand. Only afterwards did his attention turn to the other occupant.
“Mistress Asa,” he greeted, trying to keep his voice from wavering.
She was much taller than him, with dark hair falling in ringlets of night over her shoulders. The green dress made her look like something from the forest so close to her hut. Her bluish eyes glittered with a faint hint of mockery. Hektor was sure she had guessed his apprehension and was quite amused by it.
“This is unexpected,” she said in a deep voice, its strange accents further pointing out how unlike the others she was. “The master’s trusted advisor visiting the town witch. This could cause quite a scandal, my good Hektor.”
He took a step forward in a feeble attempt at boldness.
“You told me time and again you are not a witch,” he pointed out. “That all of this,” he added, glancing at the ordered rows of vials, “is not magic, but knowledge we cannot understand.”
Asa turned away. Her pale hand caressed the vials.
“But that is not what folk in town say, is it? And I am sure that is not what you believe, either. Otherwise, I would not be exiled here, would I?”
Hektor had gone there fully expecting her to toy with him like this. In truth, he could not really blame her. It was Ruan who had forbidden her from living further inside the city, but he was Ruan’s advisor, and he had said nothing against the decision. At the time, even if he was morally disgusted by it, he had seen its wisdom. The people were terrified of Asa. It was better if she did not walk in their midst, for her sake as much as theirs.
“What if I can put a stop to your exile? Give you a good house in the middle of the town and the mark of an apothecary above your door?”
Asa leaned against the shelves, her arms folded. Her smirk was back.
“We both know Ruan will never agree to this.”
“Forget Ruan,” Hektor said sharply. “If you and I save the town, Ruan and his decisions will not matter.”
Her eyes widened. Hektor ignored the surprise. He walked to the small window. Until then, he had avoided looking at the forest after dark. He knew that was when one could see it clearly: the approach of the green creeping things, always more alive when the sun went down.
“The town is in danger. They are coming.”
“The town was always in danger,” Asa pointed out flatly. “They were always coming. This place is theirs more than ours.”
Hektor shook his head.
“Was theirs. It’s ours now. And I don’t intend to give it up.”
He knew Asa was now standing behind him. He could hear her breath close to his ear. He did not turn around, suddenly afraid he would see the green creeping things reflected in her eyes.
“What do you intend to do?” she hissed. “Destroy them? Tear them to pieces? Because, let me tell you, I want no part of that. Your price is handsome, but it will not buy you murder.”
Hektor snorted. He could not blame her for that, either. Ruan surely believed that was how Hektor intended to stop the advancing army. But he had other plans.
“This is where you are wrong. I have never been a warrior. My solution is never death. I look for compromises first and foremost. That’s what I am good at. And this is how I will deal with our problem.”
She searched his face as if she was seeing him for the first time. As if she realized Hektor was not the man she had expected, and he had overturned her notions of him, piece by piece.
“The green creeping things come from the forest. That is where I must go. I have to convince them to let us be. That we can reach an understanding before we exterminate each other. And I need you with me.”
Asa drew back, her eyes narrowing.
“Why?” she challenged.
Hektor’s smile was soft and patient.
“Because, as much as you try to convince me of the difference between knowledge and magic, I believe there is plenty of magic in you. And I think they will listen to that.”
He waited with bated breath, half afraid she would refuse. In the end, though, she nodded.
“Tomorrow night,” she said. “Be here. We’ll try your way.”
Hektor could suddenly breathe more easily. The relief at her acceptance was so powerful it made his knees weak.
Asa’s hand shot up and fastened around his arm. The hold was not tight, but it kept him in place.
“I thank you for your offer,” she said softly. “I think you are a good man, Hektor, the kind Ruan could never be. You would make a good ruler of this town. I am sorry you were born in this time.”
Walking back home, Hektor wondered why Asa had looked at him like that—like he was branded, a condemned man with no chances of escaping his fate.
That evening, Hektor made his way back to the town, aware of the forest above them and the green creeping things moving ever closer. Already they had sent small scouting parties into town. He could spot the greenish light on the old walls, a sickly glitter that was more than moss. How long would it take for them to encompass the town? A month? A week? Less?
His house was safe. The wooden walls held nothing green on them. The trees in his yard were just that—trees. They had been so long inside the town, they had forgotten they had once belonged to the forest.
It was a strange evening, filled with dark thoughts and the shadows of tomorrow’s adventure. Hektor could not forget Asa’s eyes. The look that told him: You are doomed. He clenched his fists and tried to rid himself of that helpless sensation. His fate could not be set in stone. It never was. People made their own destiny. And that was all Hektor wanted. To make his own fate—and that of his town as well.
The green shadows would not leave his mind. He glimpsed them in the corner of his eye as he hugged his son good night, as he told the usual bed time story to his wide eyed daughter, as he lay next to his sleeping wife and listened to the lullaby of falling rain. They did not know he was marked. His family had no idea he was going to face the green creeping things the next day, to negotiate for the safety of his town. To give his life, if that was required of him. Asa certainly seemed to think it was.
The next morning, he was woken by a terrible commotion outside. Shouts and yells and panicked cries, as if the town were all aflame. He sprang up and bounded outside, where he froze, unable to move. The house next to his was there no longer. In its place was now a mossy hill, shivering in some unseen wind. Hektor could swear it was breathing.
“The blacksmith and his daughters,” one from the crowd shouted. “They were inside. Where are they now?”
Hektor knew with a terrible certainty no one would see the blacksmith’s family ever again. The green creeping things had taken their first victim.
Asa did not sleep that night. She watched the changes that fell over the forest as the rain tumbled on and on, heralding a wet and gloomy autumn. She shivered and pulled her blue shawl closer. It always got so cold next to the woods. In winter, not even her fire would warm the walls of her lonely home. If she still lived there. Perhaps Hektor would keep his promise.
She knew, though, that it wasn’t Hektor’s ability to keep promises that worried her. It was his future. The shadows gathering around the man who promised to save the town, who vowed to be different from Ruan. Master Ruan was not a bad man, but he was too much of the ordered stone world of mortals. He heard only the voices of the town. Hektor could bring a balance between the voices of the town and the voices of the wood—if the green creeping things let him.
Slowly, Asa pushed open her front door and stepped outside as the raindrops tapered off with the arrival of the new dawn. Shivering, she made her way across the untamed yard, towards where the old willow tree swayed sleepily. The Willow was cranky and did not like to be woken up that early in the morning. But Asa needed advice.
Asa had not lied to the people of the town when she had told them her skills had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with knowledge. It was the knowledge of the forest. One could hear many advantageous things, when one knew the language of the trees.
Ever since she was a child, she had known the language of the trees. She would often listen to the chatter from the forest. Trees could be surprisingly human at times. They bickered and laughed and boasted. When she was fifteen, she had fallen in love with the young hazel tree in front of her window. He had taught her the ways of the mountains, the knowledge of the forests, the tale of the green creeping things, a terrifying legend even to the trees. And that was how Asa became known as the town witch.
Not that the town had any witches, at least not according to Master Ruan. They were living in enlightened times, after all. Owning a black cat did not send you to the pyre. Gathering herbs did not banish you into the wilderness. It only had you living on the outskirts of the town, away from your kin, for your own good, of course.
Asa reached out and gently stroked the Willow’s bark. The branches sang in greeting. The Willow had always treated Asa like an inexperienced daughter who inspired exasperation and fondness in equal measure. Asa trusted her more than she had trusted anyone else in her life, man or tree. Yes, even the Hazel tree at the window of her old childhood home. He had turned out to be quite fickle, in the end.
“The storm is approaching,” Asa said. “And I always knew there was a way to stop it, but I cannot accept the outcome. I saw his fate. I do not want this to happen. Not to him. He deserves better.”
The branches shuddered, gentle and scolding at the same time. Asa tightened her hand against the bark.
“I know. I know the way of things. There has to be a price—a sacrifice of sorts. A loss. But why him? We need him in the aftermath.”
She felt the Willow’s tears. She too was mourning a future loss. Suddenly, Asa was afraid of the answer to her questions. She did not want to accept it.
“Don’t worry,” she said confidently. “I intend to return from tonight’s escapade—and I’ll make sure Hektor can come home, too.”
The Willow remained stubbornly silent. It was a particular characteristic of all trees. They ignored you when you started telling them lies.
Hektor was worried when he met Asa that evening. His eyes were full of shadows and Asa could see the green creeping things peering over his shoulders. He had been close to them. He told Asa about the blacksmith’s family. Asa was not surprised. The Willow had told her it had been the same last time—and every time before that. The green creeping things did not take the entire town at once. They went about their attack slowly, one house at a time, until the streets were all a sea of sickly green, with some houses here and there standing like islands, unconquered for now, waiting for the tide to finally submerge them.
“We have to act,” Hektor said. “Before it’s too late.”
Asa agreed. But she knew what acting meant, and suddenly she realized she was terribly afraid. For the both of them.
“The forest is waiting for us,” she said. “You will have safe passage—until we reach the hiding place of the green creeping things.”
Hektor did not ask Asa how she knew. But, then again, he had already told her the day before that he suspected she had more magic than she let on.
The forest greeted Asa like a dear friend. She rarely walked its paths—the trees had always warned her of the dangers there—but she was immediately recognized as someone who could speak the language of the trees. Hektor they accepted because he walked beside her, and because he had that look in his eyes. The look of one chosen for a terrible destiny. You did not interfere with such people. You did not put yourself between them and their fate.
They did not talk. Both of them sensed the path beneath the trees was to be walked in silence. Words would have broken the spell of safety.
Unlike the previous evening, there was no rain and no fog. The sky was clear. A thin crescent moon floated sleepily above the trees. The branches cast strange shadows in its light, swaying and shuddering. They were afraid, Asa guessed. The lair of the green creeping things was near.
They knew they were there even before they saw the mouth of the cave. The area nearby was choked by that greenish growth that glinted palely in the moonlight, like deadly candles in a swamp. The trees were all dead, swallowed by the green army. As the two looked on, horrified by the sight, they noticed that mass of green shifting. It was a sleepy motion, and Asa knew they weren’t aware of the intruders yet. She grabbed Hektor’s arm.
“We must go in,” she whispered. “Now, before they see us.”
Hektor nodded. His eyes were wide and his face pale. He had the look of one about to face his executioner. Asa realized with a jolt that he knew. He was aware of what was going to happen to him.
“We are going to walk in,” she said firmly. “We will bargain with them—and afterwards get out alive. There can be no other outcome.”
Hektor’s smile was tight, but Asa appreciated the effort he put in.
“Of course. No other outcome.”
They stepped inside the cave. A curtain of green slowly formed behind them to cover the entrance.
The world did not change. Hektor had expected things to be different once they stepped into the domain of the green creeping things. He had been sure he would be able to feel it—their power, their magic, their will bent against anyone from the town. He felt nothing, though. The cave was not an entrance into hell—it was just a hollow like any other. And he was beginning to think that maybe Ruan was right this time. Maybe the green creeping things weren’t magical. Maybe he was wrong, allying himself with Asa and looking for spooks.
He noticed how tense Asa was, as if she were listening to sounds he could not hear. He also noticed something else. A thin green tendril was slowly crawling down the wall towards her shoulders. Without thinking, he grabbed her and wrenched her back before the vine could touch her. She staggered into him, her eyes on her would be attacker.
“They’re coming,” she whispered.
Before their eyes, the green creeping things that had, until then, been slumbering on the walls of the cavern, detached themselves from their surroundings. They formed a tall figure, which was neither man nor woman, neither human nor plant. It had no eyes, but Hektor knew it was surveying them, looking inside their minds and their intentions.
“So—we’ve come to it again,” it spoke. “The time of bargaining.”
Even though he heard the words clearly, Hektor had the distinct impression the creature had no voice. It spoke inside their minds, the sentences shaped by their fears.
“Again?” he repeated. “I do not remember us ever meeting before. I do not think anyone from the town ever came here.”
“But the town was not ours, originally,” Asa reminded him. “There were others before us.”
The figure before them bowed its head in agreement.
“All gone. All failing the final test. All losing the game.”
Hektor took a step forward. He could feel Asa’s troubled eyes on him and knew she wished she could stop him. But neither of them was in any position to stop anything now.
“I am here now to play your game,” he announced. “We both are. And we intend to win. Which means you will have to leave our town alone.”
The laughter caused by his daring words shook the ground beneath their feet.
“Your town is cursed. It can never be completely left alone. There will always be this game we must play, once every two hundred years. It doesn’t matter who wins tonight. In two hundred years, the battle will begin again.”
“But, if we do win the game,” Asa said. “You will leave us alone for the next two hundred years.”
The figure turned to her. Hektor had the impression it was more frightened of her than of him.
“You know the rules of our world. Yes, we cannot break them. But—your kind has never won the game.”
Hektor heard the smile in Asa’s voice without having to look at her.
“My kind has never known the rules before.”
“What must we do?” Hektor asked.
For a long while, their enemy was silent. Hektor was beginning to fear it would refuse to bargain with them. He should have realized that the green creeping things enjoyed toying with their prey.
More tendrils disentangled themselves from the walls and came crawling over the ground. They encircled Hektor and Asa. It was easy to feel their greedy hunger. But they would not touch the two. Not until the game was played.
“You may go,” the green figure said, to Hektor’s surprise.
“Just like that?”
He felt the amusement of their challenger in his mind. Beside him, Asa shuddered.
“Of course not,” the spokesman for the green creeping things said. “There is to be a game. A test of wills. The winner gets the town. It has always been so.
“You will leave. You will run back to your town, racing like the wind. A group of my people will run after you. If they catch you—the town is ours. If they reach the first house in the town before you—the town is ours. If you win, it is yours—for two hundred years. That is the way it must be. Well, let’s get this settled, then. Run!”
They ran. Like the wind, like some terrified creatures in a dreadful chase, before their predator tired of toying with them and caught them. They ran, through dark tunnels, with the green creeping things whispering their malicious threats, keeping their distance, for now, but ready to pounce, ready to start the race that would win them the town.
At the mouth of the cave, they found their way blocked. There was no time to panic, though, not with what was coming after them. They hacked at the vines covering the entrance. The sound the green creeping things made then was piercing, pain and sorrow and rage like no other. And the two knew that, if they were caught, they would be shown no mercy.
They sprinted through the forest, with nothing but the wavering moonlight to guide them. Trees drew aside their branches to let them pass. They would help the one who spoke the language of the trees and her friend, but they could not do much. They were afraid of what would happen to the wood, if the trees broke their long lasting, yet uneasy truce with the green creeping things.
Through the dark stillness heralding the first light of dawn, Asa and Hektor raced on. They did not look back. They knew enough legends to realize looking back would bring their downfall, tilting the balance in favour of their chasers.
They reached the eaves of the forest. They could glimpse the town through the trees. And, much closer, Asa’s house waited for them. It was, technically, the first house of the town. They would not have to run further than that. Asa had never thought she would be grateful for her exile. It certainly offered them an advantage.
But they were not out of danger. The green creeping things were coming. One long thin vine wound itself around Hektor’s ankle, tripping him. Asa helped him up as he wrenched himself free.
He did not thank her. He did not say anything to her. But she saw it clearly in his eyes—he would have wanted her to keep on running. To leave him behind. She would have had a better chance, then. He was right. If one of them fell prey to the green creeping things, the other would have more time to reach the house. But she already knew Hektor would never allow anyone but himself to be a sacrifice—and she intended to keep her vow and save him from his fate. They would reach the house together, or not at all.
On and on they ran, holding on to each other, offering encouragements. The green creeping things were close by—so close they could smell their wild, hilly scent. The house was near, but the race was hard. They were starting to fear they might not make it.
Crack! The sudden, deafening sound behind them had them stopping in their tracks. Against their better judgment, they turned round. The advance of the green creeping things was now slowed by the fallen trunk of an old willow—Asa’s Willow.
“Mother Willow!” she cried.
For a moment, she was tempted to go back and rescue the Willow—even though no rescue was possible anymore. But, at least, the green creeping things would not have her. Hektor grabbed her arm, steering her towards the house.
“Now!” he urged her. “Now’s our chance! We’ve got to run!”
Yes, now was their chance. The Willow had bought them the time needed to save themselves and the town. Just like Asa had wanted. Except that she had never wanted it like this.
They fled towards the house, focusing their remaining energy on reaching it. The door was unlocked. Once over the threshold, they bolted themselves in, safe from the night and the green creeping things.
From outside, a haunted cry pierced the air. The green creeping things mourned their defeat. They would have to wait another two hundred years, before they tried to recapture the town.
The next day, all traces of the green creeping things had vanished, as if they had never been. Their victims did not return, though—the cows from the first pasture they had swallowed up, the blacksmith’s family and Asa’s Willow.
Asa refused Hektor’s invitation to move to a house further inside the town. She knew he could persuade Ruan—if he wanted to, after his victory over the green creeping things, she could even dethrone Ruan—but she decided to remain on the outskirts of the forest. She would plant a new tree there and teach the young sapling the wisdom of the old Willow. It was a better way to spend her time than by pretending she was accepted and respected by the townsfolk.
Hektor remained Ruan’s advisor. Any ambitions he might have had were tempered by the green creeping things and the chase through the forest—and the notion that he was a man who should be dead, and was only alive through circumstances he could not understand. He remained with his job and his family and never spoke of the night in the forest. He never visited Asa’s hut again.
As for the green creeping things, they retreated in their hiding places in the forest, a secret even to the trees. There they dreamed of the time when they would come out once more. Perhaps the people of the town would be less cunning then. Perhaps the next time the game was played, they would come out the winners.
Deep in their damp caverns in the ancient hills, the green creeping things dreamed of future conquests.