Tales From The Tangled Wood: Six Stories to Seriously Creep You Out by Steve Vernon by Steve Vernon - Read Online

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Tales From The Tangled Wood - Steve Vernon

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Vernon

What People Are Saying About Steve Vernon

If Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch had a three-way sex romp in a hot tub, and then a team of scientists came in and filtered out the water and mixed the leftover DNA into a test tube, the resulting genetic experiment would most likely grow up into Steve Vernon. – Bookgasm

Steve Vernon is something of an anomaly in the world of horror literature. He's one of the freshest new voices in the genre although his career has spanned twenty years. Writing with a rare swagger and confidence, Steve Vernon can lead his readers through an entire gamut of emotions from outright fear and repulsion to pity and laughter. - Cemetery Dance

Armed with a bizarre sense of humor, a huge amount of originality, a flair for taking risks and a strong grasp of characterization - Steve's got the chops for sure. - Dark Discoveries

Steve Vernon is a hard writer to pin down. And that’s a good thing. – Dark Scribe Magazine

This genre needs new blood and Steve Vernon is quite a transfusion. –Edward Lee, author of FLESH GOTHIC and CITY INFERNAL

Steve Vernon is one of the finest new talents of horror and dark fiction - Owl Goingback, author of CROTA

Steve Vernon was born to write. He's the real deal and we're lucky to have him. - Richard Chizmar

The Hunter’s Heart

The storytellers have it all wrong. Hearts are rarely sweet, nor are they tender. The heart is, without a doubt, the toughest meat in the carcass. You need to soak the heart in strong red wine to cook it properly, five days marinating is good, with the savor of a little garlic and some onion and a bay leaf and a stick or two of cinnamon. A lot of coarsely ground black pepper for certain sure, and a whole lot of tears.

The heart has a skin of its very own. It has a membrane that is both thin and strong that holds the organ safe against the thunderstorm of its own beating, or perhaps it merely hides whatever darkness that might be concealed deep inside.

The girl must die, was what you said.

You told it to me, my Queen. You threw my duty at me like a heavy and certain hunting spear. You commanded me, and because I had looked too long into the wishing pool of your eyes my heart softened. I would do whatever you asked of me.

I had no choice.

Take her out into the woods, as deep as you can, you told me. And cut her heart out and bring it back to me.

So I walked to the edge of the woods and I threw a stone into the darkness and I followed the path of the stone. You must understand that I never actually found the stone I threw, but I followed it nonetheless.

I wore a pair of iron soled boots and I walked into the deep north woods until my boot soles were worn down to the thinnest of tin. For a time I walked upon the meat of my own shadow and when shadow meat was worn to wind I learned to walk upon myself, until nothing was left but the trust of simple truth.

The truth was, I could not take her life, no matter how many forest shadows grew about me to hide the terrible deed that you wanted me to do.

And when you return bring me her heart within a chest of black oak, you said to me. And I will burn it on a fire, so that I may know that she is truly dead.

And it was here and only here that my heart failed me and my aim fell far short of my mark. Every time that I reached for the hilt of my hunting knife to end this bitter song, the hilt softened in my hand like wet willow and slipped from my grasp.

I could not do it.

I walked deep into the heart of the dark north woods, leading the girl behind me on a leash of softly chewed leather. She was a fair wee thing, her flesh as pale as the white snow of early winter, her cheeks as red as a pyre of burning roses, her hair as black as the ebony of moonlit grave shadow and for this they called her Snow White.

Why did we come so far into the dark north wood, hunter? Snow White asked me. Why do we travel so very far from the safety of my castle home?

She looked at me when she asked the question, fixing me on the spot with her unblinking eyes.

We hunt the deer, my princess fair, I glibly lied. You accompany me by the command of your good mother, the Queen.

Snow White’s gaze iced over. Slow millennial heartbeats glaciated past before she finally spoke.

My mother is dead, the child coldly told me. My birthing broke her soft heart in two.

That is a sad story, I said.

At the heart of it, most stories are, she replied.

You have a very good point, I said.

What good is a hunter without a sharp spear point? she asked, and then she shrugged, as if letting go of some great weight. Her voice gently deepened. For a moment I heard her mother speaking behind the mask of her hard words. My father sleeps with another woman who leads him around by the leash of his man-meat like a well-trained hound. She calls herself the Queen, but in fact she is nothing more than the Royal Harlot and the castle bed-warmer.

Old beyond her years and wise beyond time, that was all that the child would say.

*

The heart is carved from a peculiar stone, my father once told me. There isn’t a hunter who can follow or find or fathom a whit of track upon its cold, hard and beating surface. Love is born there and harder things, but look not for any sign or readable track for the heart will show you nothing at all.

My father’s words were carved from laws and judgement beyond question. He was a ranger, a hunter, who lived long in silence. When he spoke he hung each syllable upon a long steel rack, stretching the words for all to hear. His speech was ten hands tall and overshadowed anything I might possibly have to say.

And a woman’s heart is hardest of all, my father said, no doubt thinking of my mother who had left me alone one day while my father was out hunting far into the deep north woods. There is neither a hoof nor a heel so heavy as to leave any kind of track across the soft elusiveness of that hard dark beating meat.

My mother had never returned that day, and when my father came home with the meat of something small and tender and soft thrown across the hind end of his horse, he found me alone in my cradle, rocked by naught but the lonely west wind and my hunger belly squirming.

Your mother is gone, he told me there in my cradle. And will no longer be here to wipe the snot from off of your tears. You had best learn yourself to walk and talk, because tomorrow has rushed up upon you and left you with no one to fall back upon but yourself.

So I stood up in my cradle and my first spoken words were lost in the clamour of my father hacking with his hand axe at the strange carcass he had brought home. He cleaned the meat and sliced it remarkably thin, bringing it to a long slow simmer in his largest cooking pot, weeping tears and sprinkling black pepper.

Is this deer? I asked him. It tastes strangely.

It is dear, my father replied. Chew it slowly.

My father was both ranger and a hunter, as was his father before him. He was one of those strange cold men who seemed to have a knack with murder. He would journey into the woods and the animals would lie down before him and beg for their death.

The ancients talk of a drum, my father once told me. Crafted from a bit of wood carved from the heart of the tree that holds the world in its branches, and a bit of hide lifted from the back of the immortal stag that grazes close by the tree.

What does such a drum do? I asked, not more than a hand and a finger of years away from the cradle, and already out on my first hunt.

It is said that if you beat such a drum on the hunt that nothing can escape your spear, my father said.

Surely, we must find ourselves this drum, I said. For the hunting would certainly be much easier.

My father snorted his contempt like a stag snorting downwind of a clumsy hunter. I knew that snort far too well. I had heard it far too often growing up. My father laid his scorn upon me like a doting mother might lay an extra winter blanket.

The only drum that a hunter truly needs beats deep inside the meat-cage of his chest, my father said. Always follow your heart, boy. It will you lead you straight trail-true.

And then he slammed the hammer of his hand hard against his chest as if he hated what lay within, and I wondered what shadows might lay hiding deep inside my father’s heart.

*

Snow White and I tracked further into the dark north woods. I kept expecting her to ask me if we were there yet, as children will do on long journeys, but she said not a word. It seemed that she was a strong child, and her strength only made it all the harder for me to do what the Queen had commanded me to do. It was easy to kill a whining weakling. It was far harder to end the life of someone who deserved to live.

So I sought comfort through the distraction of explanation. I hid behind the mask of father and teacher.

When you hunt the deer, I told her. You must always remember that a deer will travel in big circles. The deer will swing back around behind the hunter, hoping to evade the hunter’s spear by travelling in the wake of the hunter’s shadow.

So he comes back to us? Snow White