Art Credit: A Carrion Warning (c) 2012 by Justine McGreevy
Charlotte finally realized that she’d wandered too far. Maybe it was the unfamiliar tree line, or the rapidly fading daylight, or the carrion birds lining the clearing that stared at her without making a sound.
Then she saw the thrones, empty and stark in the dying light, all three carved to resemble skeletons. Or perhaps not carved, exactly. She stepped close enough to touch one, and she could swear those were actual human bones assembled into the world’s most disturbing and impractical chair. Charlotte tried to take calming breaths, but the air was heavy and sank in her lungs.
Suddenly her vision blurred and the edges of the forest seemed to slip. After a moment everything steadied except for her stomach, which ached with unexpected hunger. Her fingernail snagged between bones as she wrenched her hand away, and she had the bizarre thought that her nails were the wrong length.
“Disconcerting, isn’t it, when time misbehaves?” The question rang across the clearing and Charlotte stumbled backwards. Another disorienting shift and the thrones were no longer empty. Three women in charcoal rags stared at her, waiting.
“Sorry I touched your chairs,” she mumbled, her mind hazy.
“These old things?” The woman on the left stroked hers and smirked. “We were planning on replacing them anyway.”
Charlotte’s focus sharpened, and she realized that she recognized these women. She also knew that they were dead. They introduced themselves as Lura, Thera, and Morna, confirming the impossible.
“But you were caught. Executed.”
“Caught, yes,” Thera said. “But clearly not killed. Something made the king decide to torture us instead.”
“Pride. Ignorance. Impotence.” Lura counted off reasons on her fingers.
“The king stripped us of our powers and relics and then banished us here, where time limps at an uneven gait, stuttering and surging at will. He enchanted the air to hold us still, expecting it to drive us mad. Instead the pompous fool left us with a weapon. We learned to speak to the cursed wood, trace the snagged threads of time, absorb the air’s weight. We control it all now.”
“And use it how?” Charlotte asked, then wondered if the enchantment also made people ask dangerous questions.
“Well, for one, if a body stays still while time surges forward, it tends to starve to death.”
“Should we show her?” Morna asked. “She did admire the chairs.”
But Charlotte was already sprinting around them. She charged into the woods, trying to ignore the skeletons posed as benches, trunks, desks… Then the furniture freak show changed, and she stumbled in horror. These pieces still had clinging sinews, thickly dripping fluids, peeling patches of skin. Finally she reached a small boy, head bent and knees clutched to his chest. He looked so whole and alive compared to the others that Charlotte tried to rouse him, but he remained cold and still.
“He’ll be a footstool soon,” Lura said from behind her. “It’s amazing how once the process begins, the meat slides right off the bone.”
“What have you done?” Charlotte whispered, unable to look up.
“We’ve killed time, pardon the pun, and created art. Furniture seemed better than a tasteless pile of bodies. Or was your question technical? It did take us a while to find the correct combination of paralysis and time spells…”
The scream that had been building in Charlotte’s lungs erupted, shattering the forest’s unnatural silence. When the last piercing echo faded, she turned to find the sisters watching her impassively.
“So dramatic,” said Lura. “Like she expects to die. We want to offer you a job, girl.”
Charlotte just stared, not trusting Lura’s words or her own voice.
“We want to send some pieces to the king,” Thera explained, “as a housewarming gift for his betrothed daughter and an invitation to visit us.” They grinned wickedly. “Will you take them?”
Charlotte nodded. Anything to escape.
Morna beamed. “Wait here.”
They wandered off, debating what to send. Charlotte stared at the ghastly gallery that made her stomach turn over and her whole body twitch, until finally she couldn’t bear it.
Morna sighed as they moved Charlotte’s inert body. “Why do they always run?”
Lura shrugged. “But look at how compact her ribs are.” She prodded Charlotte’s sides and grinned. “Perfect for a coffee table.”
Jillian Schmidt lives in Oregon with her husband and a family of bicycles. Though she often claims to dislike the horror genre, there are more dead bodies in her stories than she’d like to admit. She blogs at http://writingonalimb.blogspot.com.