There was snow on the ground when the Wryneck arrived at Hindel Village. Winter had not been kind to the village, and most of its occupants were bundled in bed that night. None of them chanced to look out their windows, or they would’ve seen the Wryneck stomping through the streets, snow hissing into sludgy water as his clawed feet touched it.
Only the bravest and thirstiest had journeyed to the Goose and Wing, at the far corner of the village, practically wedged into the mountain ridge that marked Hindel Village’s boundary. The Goose and Wing was the Wryneck’s destination as well, and he moved with a decisiveness denied to mortals, the unflinching resolve of demonic immortality.
When the doors flew open, an unholy heat spread throughout the pub. The music and shouted conversations trailed off. Every head that wasn’t lying sideways on a table looked toward the open doors and the source of the sudden heat.
What they saw would’ve turned anybody sober. Twenty feet tall, indigo skin stretched across four arms studded with muscles, legs thicker than any draft horse’s, and a long veiny tail that twisted and snapped with a mind all its own. Practically scrapping the ceiling was the Wryneck’s head, wreathed all the way around in knotted, spiked horns. Just below were a pair of long, pointed ears, and between them was a pair of eyes that blazed like golden fire and a mouth stuffed with fangs.
“Who dares?” the Wryneck breathed out. His words were the sound of skulls being pulverized.
Of course the guests of the Goose and Wing knew. No drunken revel could blur their memory of Elva Daloren’s arrival the night previous. She was the reason they endured the snow and wind to be there tonight. On a wooden platform in the center of the pub, raised above the stone floor, Daloren herself stood there, a man-sized harp braced against her hip that could’ve braced three more without straining.
She held out a hand. “I dare, sir. I should certainly say I do.” She looked out across the guests packing the Goose and Wing. “I’ve been singing about it to all these fine people, about how I dared.”
The Wryneck approached her with such speed that nobody could get out of his way even if they wanted to. He left a trail of half-vaporized bodies screaming and wriggling behind him to tower over Daloren.
“That won’t do, sir.” Daloren shook her head. “Restore them.”
The Wryneck growled, a low, penetrating sound that rattled the rafters of the Goose and Wing.
Daloren took in air clear to her bellybutton and let it back out. “Then I will.”
Without looking, harp still held against her hip, Daloren passed her hands across it. The sound dominated the pub, drawing in the fearful cries of the still-living guests and silencing them.
Her hands began moving faster, the near one a steady series of notes, the far one dancing across the harpstrings in a random, inexplicably melodious manner. The Wryneck had previously folded his four arms over his chest. Now they fell to his sides. As the music rose and dipped, he leaned down closer over Daloren. What he heard was impossible. There could be no explanation for it.
Then Elva Daloren began to sing.
It was not a unique voice. By itself a listener might only say diplomatically that it matched her husky body and long dark hair. Yet with the harp behind it, her song became the commander of an army. In a language supposedly unknown to humans, the song fanned out across the Goose and Wing.
Before the song was done, those who had been injured or killed by the Wryneck’s touch stood whole again. And when it was done, after Daloren’s far hand had left the harpstrings, the Wryneck knelt. On one knee, he came nearly eye-level with her.
“The souls of one hundred demons and devils inhabit this harp, sir.” Daloren lovingly turned a finger in a circle on the instrument’s polished black frame. “Each attempted to bargain for my own soul and failed.
“Except there are only ninety-nine now. One devilish soul I had to release to restore the people you thoughtlessly pushed through.” She locked eyes with the Wryneck. “Perhaps it shall behave now. If not, I will know where to find it.”
Daloren eased the harp from her hip and stood it on the platform. “It was snowing on a night like this when I took your soul, sir. When I proved you couldn’t bargain for mine. Do you remember your words to me then?”
The Wryneck gazed out across the people in the pub. “No one beats the Wryneck,” he thundered.
“And I offered to marry you.”
Even the Wryneck was not brave enough to reply.
“I didn’t set out to capture demons and devils, you know this, sir. I would be just as content by your side as I am against your throat.” Daloren extended her hand. “My music will end, the souls of those who torment and tempt will be gladly released from this harp when you join your hand with mine, sir.”
The Wryneck stood. For a single moment, one of his four huge hands reached out for Elva Daloren’s. But the hand fell away, and as quickly as he’d barged into the Goose and Wing, the Wryneck was gone. From the pub and from Hindel Village.
“As I said, I know where to find him,” Daloren told her listeners. She braced her black harp once more, and played on.
Samuel Barnhart’s short stories are everywhere. They’re online and in print, have been performed onstage and used in high school curriculums. He, however, is anchored to South Florida and a three-compartment sink that never seems to empty. He sometimes blogs at sambarnhart.tumblr.com(Mr. Barnhart does, not the sink).
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “No One Beats the Wryneck”:
Fantasy pieces have to strike us just the right way by being what we look for in everything we publish: different or unexpected. Samuel Barnhart achieved this and he once again graces our magazine with this short and delightful piece. And just when we think we figured out what’s going on, the author hits us with that totally unexpected ending in two sweet sentences.