She always felt happy at harvest time. Her leather satchel bag, currently empty, thudded against her thigh with every step. The tune lingering in her mouth hummed cradle-soft across the curdled skies.
One for the damned, harvest-kissed, two for the fortunate missed and three for the hungry morn dawning.
Her footsteps scuffed along the gravel in time to the beat. She had been tramping a long way but was almost there now. Blackbirds cowering in the brambles took flight as she walked by. The birds always knew.
Four for the birds in the winds, five for the red skies, blood-tinged, and six for the shadowless warning.
It was an old song, half prophesy, half war-cry, now condensed to nothing more than a children’s tune to hum on long and winding roads. The sound of it filled the empty air before her.
She squinted a dark eye over the treeline at the crimson dawn lingering behind those clouds. The red sky was a warning, though she doubted he would listen to it. They rarely did.
She did not have much of the dawn left, but her feet kept their steady pace. She was not in a rush. She was never in any rush.
On seven you’ll pay for your sins when eight come those legs long and thin – now it’s time, now the Harvestman’s yawning.
A farmhouse crept into view on the edge of the horizon, already awake despite the early hour. The farmhands kept long days in the autumn, some longer than others. It wouldn’t make a difference. Let them watch if they wished to. They wouldn’t be able to stop her collecting what she was owed.
That was the very first rule of the harvestmen. You could not just take. That was stealing. That was theft. There had to be payment first. Not cold coin, a cheap and worthless currency, but older treasures from when the world was still blood-smattered from its birth. Fear. Grief. Anger. The only things worth keeping.
The human had not known what she had done at the time. She had not known what she had summoned with her wordless screaming as his thick fingers clawed their way over her mouth, cramming it shut. But the will had been there, vicious and cruel, full of spite and fear and bile and it had awoken the harvestman. Perhaps the girl would not have done it, if she had known. It didn’t matter much. The call had been sent, the payment had been given and it had set into motion things too heavy, too powerful, to be stopped.
Her footsteps crunched to a slow stop as the bindweed-bound hedges abruptly gave way to a wooden gate. The man leant upon it. His dawn-light shadow lay thick across the scrubbed earth. He did not notice that she cast no shadow of her own.
He startled as he saw her. Something flickered in his eyes – mistrust, suspicion, perhaps even snippets of some childhood song echoed warningly in the back of his mind – but it soon died. No one ever expected the wheat and cider-haired girl before them to be a harvestman, even if they still believed in such things. They focused on the sea-swell of her curves and the smoothness of her skin, or those dainty freckles smattering her delicate snub nose. They never noticed the black sheen of her eyes until it was too late.
The man’s gaze darted up and down the road to ensure they were alone. He leaned towards her. His breath stank like old lies and stale beer, and the pattering thud of his heart echoed loudly in her ears. She could smell it from here, fetid and decaying. Pungent, the stench oozing in greasy waves with every pulsing beat. Her throat prickled as the hunger began to ache there, urging her to rush before dawn died and she missed her only chance.
That was the second rule of the harvestmen. You could only seek a kiss once. If he had not succumbed before the morning rose true, he would go free. Sometimes she had to chase them. She only ever walked of course, but she was fast and inevitable. She appeared abruptly when they thought they had escaped, with that same steady calm.
Today though, her quarry seemed inclined to linger. His eyes flared with an echo of her own hunger. They trawled from her hips to her breasts and stuttered there.
“Early for you to be out, Miss,” he said. She did not say anything, she always struggled with the human tongue, but her dark eyes blinked. He seemed a bit unnerved by her wordless watching.
“Are you alone? It’s not safe for folks out by themselves. Especially for a pretty young lady like you. Unsavoury people about, you know.”
His eyes darted down the empty lane again and then back to her body. She took a step forwards until their breaths mingled in the silence, every hiss and hush dancing together. She tiptoed up until she could see her own reflection in his wide, startled eyes, the realisation dawning far too late within them. Fear slicked through him and she smiled as she bestowed her kiss.
His lips frozen to hers, he had no choice but to copy as she stretched her mouth into a yawn. He choked upon his whimper of fear as eight long legs scuttled out from her mouth and into his. Insidious, blade-sharp and whisper-thin. His body stiffened. His only movements were the jerky crescendo of his heartbeat, the pounding pulse and those hot, sticky breaths pattering into her like a thunderstorm until fear-bright eyes faded to sour milk.
As the legs withdrew with solemn slowness back past her teeth and down her throat, he slumped, falling from her lips to the floor beneath. A thin dribble of crimson smudged his chin. She spat out the drained, withered lump into her palm and examined it with wintery detachment. It always surprised her how small their hearts were in the end. She slipped it into her bag and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
A small smile settled on her lips as she walked away. The old familiar tune hummed down the empty road, setting the birds to flight.
About The Author
E.M. Duffield-Fuller is an English Lit PhD student at Aberystwyth University and a mother of two boys. She has previously published a fantasy novel, Remnant, and a historical novel, The Heir of Drymote (as Beth Fuller). She has also written a short story, The Half-Hanged Witch, which was performed at both ElthamReads and ElthamCultureFest, and wrote a short children’s story, The Ballad of Barti Ddu, for a charity competition.
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