He drove Phantom through the darkening forest, shouting and cursing at the friend that had borne him since he was a teen. In the dying light, Erik could see foam streaking back from Phantom’s mouth. The stallion’s breath came in ragged gasps as he pounded the trail. Erik drew his sword and slapped the flat of the blade against Phantom’s flank. The horse screamed but ran faster still.
Erik ducked a low-lying branch, but a twig caught his hair and tore out a patch. He hardly noticed, for above the shallow rise was the witch’s cottage.
He reined Phantom in right on the witch’s doorstep, leaping from the saddle before the horse had barely slowed. As his boots struck the ground, Phantom collapsed and twitched lifelessly.
Erik kicked the door open. It slammed against the wall and rebounded. He shouldered through, naked blade held low.
“I am here, witch!”
“I can see that,” a young woman said from the table. A simple, wooden bowl of root vegetables in broth lay before her. She set the spoon down beside it.
Erik tore open his coat and yanked at the chain around his neck.
“Take the key!” He shouted and held it out, dangling broken links of gold. The witch stood and crossed the room slowly. Erik’s hand punctuated the air with impatience until she lifted the key from his palm. She held it close to her face and squinted with examination.
“It is the key,” said the witch.
Erik’s shoulders relaxed with his long exhale. His body shook with release.
“Finally,” he said, “it is over.”
The witch cocked her head to the side.
“However do you mean?” she asked.
Erik caught his breath and stared.
“The curse,” he said. “It is lifted.”
“No. The curse became permanent last night when the sun went down.”
“It is a year today!”
“It was a year yesterday, foolish prince. With the setting sun, it is a year and a day.”
“You said a year!” Erik turned to her and lifted his sword still wet with traces of a dead horse’s blood.
“I said you needed to return the key within the year, yes. That year included the day I said those words, not a year on top of that day.”
“It is today!” Erik roared at her and held the sword fully upright. She merely looked at him, then the sword, and laughed.
“When you return to your estate,” she said, “have someone show you a calendar and explain it. That is, if there is anyone willing to be near you.”
Erik growled deep in his throat and readied the blade. In an instant he screamed and dropped it, the glowing hilt tearing loose bits of burned flesh. He held his charred hand below the wrist.
“Always the fool,” she said. “I am a witch.” She turned away from him and walked back to the table. She tossed the key onto its surface.
“You have your treasure,” said Erik, wincing as his hand oozed. “Remove this curse. I beg you.”
“The key means nothing. It is just a trinket.”
“Why? Have you any idea,” and Erik shuddered while his memories flooded him, “what I have done this last year? Do you know the things I have done to save my family?”
“I have heard your name go from Erik the Fop to Bloody Erik. They used to speak of you with sympathetic dismissal. Now they hardly speak your name for fear of reprisal.”
“My father. My sister. That curse has them putrefying with disease. Please, lift it.”
“They are dead, Prince Fool. The year ended yesterday.”
Erik fell to his knees.
“All those people,” he whispered.
“Slaughtered at your hand, because you dared to dally with a witch and dispose of her like one of your strumpets.” She sat back in the chair and dipped the spoon into the broth. “Go, Bloody Erik. You rule those people now.”
“Just kill me and be done with it.”
“And spoil a fine curse?” The witch guffawed, and bits of turnip flecked the table. Her laughter pushed him from the cottage.
Erik walked past the cooling body of the finest stallion ever bred and set foot on the dark trail. At midnight he approached a village in mourning, though he could not tell if it was for the king that was or the king that would be.
Robert J. Santa has been writing speculative fiction for more than twenty-five years. He lives in Rhode Island, USA with his beautiful wife and two, equally beautiful daughters. When not writing, Robert is the editor-in-chief of Ricasso Press. Technically, he is also the editor-in-chief of Ricasso Press when he is writing.