Sorry again for the delay, but we hope the story was well worth the wait.
In the Garden of Marielle
“The goddess has chosen her champion!” The priestess’s words rang through his ears as he stared at the wrought iron gate, “We offer him to you, oh Lady Marielle, to defeat the monster in your garden.” She bowed her head.
Around him echoed the sound of chanting prayers that he be kept safe, prayers that he can slay the beast, and prayers for his soul to be protected. His hands shook as he clasped a sword of Marielle and desperately wished he didn’t have to do this.
“Let us send forth our champion!” the priestess called and everyone grew silent. She took in a deep breath.
“Stop!” Hushed outrage shivered through the crowd as everyone turned to see Hatchet’s older sister Carol breathing heavily, her blond braid flipped over her shoulder. “This is crazy.” She said, “He’s just a boy. He’s not capable of killing a monster. Wouldn’t someone better trained be worthier of this task?” Her eyes fell on him, “You don’t want to do this, right, Hatchet?”
Before he could answer, the priestess stepped between them, “Marielle has chosen him. We cannot ignore her wishes.” The woman’s voice grew softer, “You should be proud of him, not holding him back.”
“My whole family believes in this goddess,” The woman shot back, “They are all proud.” She looked towards him, “But I’m not willing to lose him to an early death trying to destroy a monster.”
“Blasphemy,” The priestess hissed. “Remove this woman from my sight.”
Two strong men grabbed her by the arms and unceremoniously dragged her away.
Hatchet watched as his sister disappeared past the crowd and turned back towards the gate. It seemed to loom overhead and butterflies fluttered in his stomach. Maybe he could just walk away- Strong hands shoved on his shoulders and he fell forward through the gate. It closed with a click.
“By midnight it will lock itself,” The priestess said from behind him. “Good luck.”
His heart sunk as he wordlessly made his way into Marielle’s garden. On his left was a hedge blooming with roses and nightshade. An odd couple, but he couldn’t care less about the flowers.
He followed the hedge down until it turned into an arch. He stepped through it into a walled-in stone patio. The flower beds that lined the stone square were overrun with poisonous weeds, but he didn’t dwell on it. The patio continued on, creating a stone path that led to another arch made of brick that encircled another garden.
He began walking towards it, the situation suddenly settling in. He looked down at the sword in his hands and suddenly felt his fingers go numb. He had to kill a monster. He was the seventh son of a farmer, he could clean out a barn and feed the animals, but killing? The sight of blood made him queasy.
Slowly, he began walking again until he came to the brick archway and peered inside. It was an apple orchard. The brick wall corralled the trees and statues lined the edges of the orchard. Some of them were women in long robes holding out their empty hands, others were creatures with horns.
He took a step inside, his eyes on the statues, their blank eyes giving him goosebumps. He passed a painted statue of an onyx horned human with clawed hands that were blackened to the elbow. It looked so life-like, that he couldn’t help but stare for a moment before he continued on.
Crunch! Hatchet froze and slowly turned around. The horned statue he had stared at was leaning against a tree an apple in its hands. “Tell me, farm boy, are you prepared to kill the monster?” It took another bite of apple.
Hatchet’s hands shook as he tried to raise the sword, but his grip felt uncertain. He wasn’t ready for this. His heart pounded in his chest and his head felt light as he stared at the confident creature.
It watched him curiously. With a snap of its fingers, the sword in his hands evaporated into black smoke. “Much better,” it said with a wicked smile, “Now, how about a proposition?”
The horned monster tossed its apple over its shoulder and crossed its arms, “Yes. Now I take all that quivering to mean you’ve never fought anyone with a sword before, and I doubt you want to start now.” It paused dramatically and said, “How about, instead of killing me, we set a trap?”
“What!?” Hatchet said, shaking his head, “No,” his voice quaked, “I-I’m supposed to-” He swallowed, realizing there was no way he could kill this monster. The horns alone were enough to destroy any resolve he might’ve had, “kill you.” He finished his sentence half-heartedly.
“Even if you managed it,” the monster laughed at the impossibility, “you wouldn’t be able to walk out of here,” It absently picked an apple off the tree, “The gate is locked- if you can even reach it.” It crunched down into the soft red skin. “This is Marielle’s fly trap. I’ve been stuck in it for years.”
He turned back to the creature, “Years?”
It raised a clawed hand, “Follow me.” It moved away through the trees to the opposite wall where there was another archway. Through it was an open field of wild flowers and bones. “The Field of Fallen Champions.” The monster leaned against the wall. “This is the fate of anyone who walks in here. They wandered around searching for the gate, but Marielle hid it from them. Eventually, they all died.”
Among the bones, Hatchet could just make out swords similar to the one he had brought and a shiver ran down his spine. This was going to be him. He glanced at the monster with horns that curled above its head and the dark claws that were extremely sharp. Every second he spent convinced him further that he couldn’t take the creature on, not in a long shot
“You’re trapped here.” It took another bite of the apple. “So, will you help me to help you get out?”
“I don’t even know your name.” Hatchet said his voice quivering, “Why should I believe you? Who’s to say that you didn’t just kill them and make up that story?”
A spark made the creature’s eyes glow. “I’m called Surian, and if I had wanted to kill you, you would already be dead.” It reached out a clawed hand, “So deal?”
Hatchet shied away from the clawed fingers. “What is this plan?”
Surian took a bite from its apple. “The only way out is tricking Marielle.” It chewed on it for a second, “We can’t trap her here, but we can slow her down.”
Hatchet balked, “I’m sorry, did you just say trick Marielle?” He shook his head, “You’re crazy.”
“Believe me, it’s a lot easier than you think.” Surian tossed its apple aside and grabbed another. “Marielle has a lover, one that she turned into a bear to keep forever in her garden.” It spun the apple on the tip of its clawed finger as it said, “I bet if we killed it, Marielle would want to confront us. Then, we can trick her.
“Why not do it yourself?”
Surian chuckled, “Marielle, hates mortals and she desperately hates me. This garden is my cage, and I don’t even get the freedom of walking around in it. Once her champion dies, I turn to stone. I need you alive so I can act.”
“I thought she was the goddess of love? How can she hate?” Hatchet said glancing over his shoulder nervously.
“Twisted love, you mean. She isn’t good, my friend. Anyway,” Surian waved his hand, allowing Hatchet’s sword to appear, “let’s go on a bear hunt.”
It didn’t take long to find the bear. He was in a cave on a hill in the center of an open field. As they entered the cave, he was sleeping.
“We need to be quick,” Surian whispered. “make it clean.”
Hatchet nodded, bringing the sword up.
The bear’s ear twitched.
He brought the sword down, and the bear let out a growl, but it didn’t move. Surian checked for breath and found none. The bear was dead. The horned monster stepped away and in a cloud of black smoke vanished.
A sudden toxic mist curled into the cave, and they both turned to find a woman, dressed in a robe of pink, her blond hair curled into ringlets and her face contorted in rage.
“What have you done?” Marielle hissed.
“I…I…” Hatchet tried to answer.
“You wicked thing!” She shouted. “I loved him. I kept him safe. I made sure he was taken care of.” She raised a hand, wild chaotic energy wrapping around it.
Instinctively, Hatchet tried to dodge it as she flung it out towards him. He fell to the ground and a shadow fell across him. He glanced up, and saw a pair of onyx horns, a cloud of noxious energy swirling around him as Surian took the blow.
“I told him to do it.” Surian growled.
“You! I knew I should have killed you before.” She said, “But no, you said let chance deal with it and you made me this garden. You even made me sign a contract.” She laughed wickedly and raised her hand again, that same swirling energy engulfing her hand. “It will be a pleasure killing you.”
Surian raised a finger, “Section C of our agreement in the fine print states that if you attack me, the contract is null and void.” A grin displaying a pair of elongated canines stretched across its face, “So we will be going.” With a bow, it reached for Hatchet.
She released her power towards them just as black smoke encircled them. A scream of anger echoed in Hatchet’s ears and the slight tang of some flower filled his nose as the darkness consumed him.
A second later, Hatchet was alone outside the iron gate. An apple lay on the ground next to him. Famished, he picked it up, dusted it off, and took a bite.