Cannot sleep my lady? Then draw close to the candle and listen.
I will tell you a tale of the old old days there were not in fact so long ago as you would hope.
The King in those days had two sons. The eldest son, the heir was a foul creature, handsome enough to look upon but nobody could long bear his presence without wanting to flee him or strike him. The King indulged his eldest son and the people suffered for it, but not so much that they would rise up and turn horror into anger.
In those days a traveller came through the wood, astray in the dark heart of it, lost and cold. Each path mocked him with its turns and every way he took brought him back across his own earlier path. If he called on the Virgin for guidance she did not hear him or choose to answer.
The denizens of that house were several and they were foul welcoming him with mocking eagerness, complimenting the length of his limbs and the strength of his frame and the beauty of his features. They themselves were short and twisted things, pale and half formed with faces that called to mind the slack hanging faces of the dead. They dragged him into their hovel and sat him at their table. They all assured him that his presence honoured their dreadful cottage, all except for one more malformed than the rest who lacked the power of speech and simply rested his bulbous head on the table and damped the wood with his drooling.
He ate their rancid meat and drank their fusty water as hospitality demanded and he felt his stomach rebel but his manners kept the foul mess down.
And then they offered him a treat fit for a prince. The offer was made with leering smiles and wicked hints of tone and gesture. Behind the cottage there was a path of pale cobbles half buried in the mud, white and brittle they looked and his feet slipped on them as the creatures swarmed him toward their goal, a clearing in the woods like a bald patch on a diseased scalp. There was a slab there, a stone altar, rough and cruel and well used. The old worshippers had altars like this before their gods were purged with fire and salt. There on the altar was a maiden, still and pale and as the stories would have you be assured, fair beyond measure.
The stranger demanded to know what was meant by it, how these misshapen brutes should come to have the company of a woman so unmarred. The creatures smiled, or scowled or drooled according to their nature and the leader of them explained in sly words how they were commissioned to the work by a great man, and that the lady was a pleasure fit for a prince.
The prince, they explained, would not visit until later and so if the gentleman visitor wished he could avail himself of the lady. A modest donation to their coffers would suffice.
The stranger drew his sword and butchered the monsters. Their pale flesh parted beneath his steel, their limbs fell jointed to the ground. They did not resist even so much as a child might and died in confusion that their gift should be so scorned. When they fell dead the stranger tried to rouse the lady and found that no power short of the final trump on the day of resurrection could do so. She was cold and still and would never rise again from that brooding stone. What surgeon’s art had preserved her in so fair a condition he did not dare imagine.
He did not hear the prince, the heir approach. The young man was grievously wounded as the prince slashed his face back and forth with his dagger decrying him as a slayer of his loyal and secret servants, and demanding of him where he would find his cold pale brides now.
And that is the tale I have told. I do not know if you smile or frown at it, for my brother’s blade took my eyes that night so long ago, when our father still lived.
In the morning I will bring you your breakfast to fit you for your journey.
Blow out the candle when you are ready my lady.
Finn Cullen’s first novel “A Step Beyond Context” is available now at Amazon in Kindle and Paperback versions.