This story is by John S Malnor and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The wind of Provence, France, brings blue skies and clean air. But Le Mistral, as it is called, sometimes brings a bit more.
LeMaris made his way up the cobblestone streets of Menerbes, a small hilltop village in Provence-Alpes-Cote D’Azur, France. The weekly market day promised enticing scents and the colors of life. He soon had water, baguette, fromage, and nougat for lunch with his brother. Tasher, at fifteen, was two years older, but they were often mistaken for twins. Now in their second week vacationing in Menerbes, the boys had the run of the place.
The street ahead was busy, so he turned down an alley, his walking sticks clicking as he hustled along. He’d adapted to being born with cerebral palsy, and his legs worked okay, but he couldn’t build much strength even with physical therapy.
As he moved along, the old stone walls grew higher, the light fading, even at midday. He turned a corner and jolted to a stop. A woman sat on a stool in front of a small table. The scarf covering her face reminded him of a Van Gogh sky. It fluttered in a breeze he couldn’t feel.
“Sit.” She nodded her head slightly, her deep voice quiet yet commanding. He could feel she meant him no harm. He sat.
A hand emerged from her shawl, elegant fingers, each adorned by a silver ring etched with detailed patterns, nails in smooth yellow ochre. Tarot cards, the same pattern as her scarf, were placed in front of him one by one. It became very quiet.
Her slender fingers began to turn over the cards, one by one. At the sixth, a sigh escaped her lips, echoing down the alley. The card held a picture of two boys, one with his arm around the other. For a moment, they sat in silence.
The hand, now a fist, escaped again into the light. He looked at it for a moment and then put out his own hand, palm up, dirty fingernails down.
“Keep this with you. Always.” Hope and sorrow entwined in the whispered words, as a weight dropped into his palm. He opened his hand to reveal a dark black talisman with a now familiar pattern. Two people, one with their arm around the other. Carved into the back, “le vent qui rend fou” (the wind that makes you crazy).
She looked away, her scarf whipping around as a cold wind whistled down the alley. “Le vent de voleurs” (The wind of robbers). Her whisper barely audible in the sudden silence of the alley.
He stood and hustled back to the bustle and sunshine of the market.
He fell asleep that night holding the talisman, wondering what it meant.
He dreamt of a dark shadow reaching toward him, grabbing the talisman, and trying to wrest it away. He held on, but a final surge pulled him completely out of bed. He fell with a thump onto the floor. The skin on his palm began to burn and the pressure on the strap weakened, then stopped as the shadow disappeared.
“What the hell?” Tash was looking down at him from his bed across the room.
“Uh, Tash, I gotta tell you something.”
His brother’s mouth hung open as he told him the about the woman, the talisman, and the dream.
“Geez, LeMaris, don’t tell that to anyone else. They’ll think you’re crazy!” His brother’s eyes showed concern shrouded in fear. LeMaris didn’t lie.
The boys left later that morning on a guided walk around Menerbes. Now in the quiet fall season, it was just the boys and Lucas, their guide, who was five years their senior. The walk set off uphill to where Menerbes perched along the stone ridge. A sharp wind had folks holding onto their hats.
“These winds are Le Mistral, and they are part of Provence.” Lucas began. “It is said that after nine straight days, the wind can bring madness, even to the spirits.”
He motioned for them to follow.
After hearing about architecture, sieges, and the 100 Years War, they followed a narrow goat path away from the village. History wasn’t top on their list, but they loved hiking and were enjoying the day. LeMaris was getting a workout on the narrow trail.
“Ahead is a cave, made famous by treachery and murder.” Lucas began, his voice deeper and meant to be scary.
“Pierre de la Vache was a violent highwayman that led a group of criminals who attacked and robbed travelers, leaving many dead and injured. The gang took refuge in a cave along this trail – a little bit ahead of us – and the town grew angrier as the crimes continued.”
Lucas continued walking backward, talking as the boys followed.
“Even under pressure, Pierre’s twin brother Julien wouldn’t betray his brother. But on the ninth straight day of Le Mistral, he relented and led authorities to the cave where the brothers played as children. When Pierre realized what his own brother had done, he grabbed him and pulled him off the cliff in front of the cave. They died together, and strange things have happened in this area ever since.”
At that moment a cool wind whipped down the trail, and the guide tripped backward, falling toward the edge of a steep ravine. Tash leaped forward, pulling the man away from the edge.
“Merci my friend.” The guide’s face was white, his fingers trembling as he took deep breaths to try and recover. Under his breath he whispered, “Le vent de voleurs” (The wind of robbers).
LeMaris made eye contact with Tash, their eyes round in surprise at the phrase LeMaris first heard from the tarot reader. He reached up to feel the talisman hanging around his neck, strangely comforted by its presence.
After a moment, they continued onward to the cave, where they took a break to look around. Prehistoric drawings were on the back walls of the cave, and it was easy to see how a small group could live there. On one side was a small green plateau, while the other was guarded by a sheer cliff. Menerbes stood resolute nearby. Lucas left the boys as he climbed higher for a better cell signal. Tash didn’t love heights, so they stood back from the edge, enjoying the amazing view of the valley below them.
LeMaris suddenly felt pressure pushing on his lower back, forcing him toward the edge. Tash grabbed his hand, as their feet began to slide, even with heels dug in. LeMaris jammed his walking sticks into the ground, stopping their movement. The force grew as the wind picked up, swirling leaves around them and growing into a full-on gale. They slid further, the edge now only a couple of feet from their toes.
LeMaris looked over his shoulder and saw the blurry shapes of two men, each pushing one of the boys. The pendant grew hot on his chest, and the pressure diminished a bit. Tash’s right foot was now braced against a rock at the edge, his heel hanging over the abyss as he turned to push harder.
“Do something!” Tash cried, his footing continuing to slip further, toes gripping the very edge.
The boys fought side by side, shoulders touching, facing away from the cliff. They pushed with all they had against the two apparitions, which grew more solid as the boys were nearer death.
“Keep this with you, always.” The woman’s words came back to him.
Feeling the heat on his chest from the talisman, he cast his crutches aside and lunged forward, pushing the pulsing pendant into the forehead of the attacker.
A scream rent the air, the glowing pendant burning through the man, his body turned opaque, then transparent, and finally, the pressure stopped. LeMaris fell forward, free and safe for the moment. Tasher started to slide over the edge. In a desperate effort, he grabbed a ledge, holding on by his fingertips.
Diving back into the fight, LeMaris scrambled forward, slamming the pendant into the face of the remaining demon. Another piercing scream, and then it was just the two of them, Tash still hanging on, now by just one hand. LeMaris grabbed onto his wrist but didn’t have the strength to pull him up. After hearing their cries, Lucas rushed to them, helping LeMaris pull Tasher back to safety.
The three sat, catching their breath, with the vision of Pierre and Julien de la Vache fresh in their minds. LaMaris’ crutches were gone, the only victims of the fight. Tasher helped him up, and they headed back to Menerbes.
LeMaris paused crossing an alley, his arm around Tasher, the boys and the pendant, now as one. Sitting on a stool in front of a small table was the woman. Her scarf, lifted by the breeze, revealed the hint of a smile. He smiled back, tipping his head in a respectful salute, and turned for home.