And now, I bring you a story from a guest blogger, whom I happen to respect immensely and who has written a story specifically for my blog! The Dragon has a blog of its own, of course, but not… well, not for stories like this. 😉
The harvest moon shone silver through storm-riven clouds. As I latched the shutters, a last breath of cold wind forced itself into the room in a spatter of rain. With a quiet sigh, I turned and faced my guest again. She had moved close enough to the fireplace that I thought she might get singed, huddled against the heat while water dripped from her soaked form to the stone floor beneath.
“Can I offer you some wine?” I asked her. Rules of hospitality. Where I grew up it would have been bread and salt. But she would hardly appreciate it – and there were limits to what I would promise. I really had not looked forward to company tonight.
She did not answer, but I went and filled a goblet for her anyway and placed it beside her. She didn’t seem to notice. Soaked to the skin and shivering with cold, slight of build, elfin face turned towards the fire; for all the world, she looked the very image of a human girl.
After a while, she stirred and bowed her head gracefully in thanks, then bent to sip the dark liquid. One sip. Two… Three times. The fire flickered but did not go out. I smiled.
Her voice, when she spoke, was so soft I almost missed it. “I offer you thanks, kind lady, for your hospitality and for your fire.”
I couldn’t quite place the accent, slight as it was, but I doubted she lived hereabouts. “It is my pleasure, I am sure.” I replied, bowing slightly in her direction. “No-one should be outside in this weather.”
The girl shivered, face still turned towards the fire. “True, too true.”
“Do you have a name, kind lady?” she asked me then, her voice was soft and melodic against the faint crackle of the fireplace.
“Yes,” I answered gravely. “Of course.”
Silence has never bothered me; it is an old friend – and one which has been visiting me more and more often of late. I studied her quietly as she waited for me to continue, wondering at the game she was playing.
“Oh,” she said at last. “Well, you have offered me your hospitality and your fire. I must return the favour.”
I inclined my head in her direction. “As you please.”
She glanced up at last, with just a faint flicker of annoyance on her delicate features. “Lady, you mock me. And that is most unkind.” Her eyes were large and dark with emotion.
I glanced at the goblet, then at the fireplace. The playful flames were dancing across the wood, casting the room in hues of gold and orange. She was right, of course. And now she had bound me to answer. “I have offered you my hospitality,” I said at last, “and wine, in lieu of food, as hospitality requires. You are safe beneath my roof, for the night. But the fire was a gift freely given.”
I watched her carefully as I said this, trying to gauge her reaction. If I was right…
“Ah, well played!” she exclaimed, her amusement as plain as the echo of silvery bells in her voice. “And I must offer a suitable gift in return.”
I leaned back carefully, my eyes never leaving her face. Yes, this was no ordinary forest dweller blown in by the storm. She was from the old world, the ancient kin from beyond the twilight veil.
She saw my reaction as well, of course. And her sudden smile glinted like a dagger in the firelight. “I will offer this in return,” she said, her plentiful teeth gleaming red from wine and fire. “A story, true and simple.”
I hesitated, sensing a trap. But the old customs bound her as much as me – as long as I kept by them. Refusing a gift would be… most unwise, under the circumstances. “All right,” I nodded. “Sounds good.”
“Good?” Her eyes glowed with joy. “I don’t think so.”
“There was,” she began, in a voice of midnight silk, “a young maiden…”
The farmer lived at the edge of the great forest. He was neither rich nor poor, neither old nor young, and though work was hard, he was well content, for he loved the land and all the green things which grew there. But most of all, he loved his daughter.
Time passed, as it does within the human lands, and though it might seem that things did not change much – yet change they did. And one day, as the daughter stood tall and proud by the door, awaiting the return of her father, she saw a strange man looking at her from amongst the trees of the forest.
That evening she spoke with her father and told him what she had seen.
“It does not matter,” he answered her. “Pay it no heed.”
But in his heart, he was troubled, for he sensed a change on the land.
The next morning, as she waved goodbye to him from the house, she went to the garden plot and tended to the herbs and the bees. But while she worked, she kept an eye on forest, half-expecting the man to appear again.
That night, when her father came back from the fields, she told him that she had seen the man again, watching the house from the forest.
At her words, her father smiled kindly and told her not to worry, for he had seen the same thing and it was but a wolf which looked like a man, and nothing to worry about.
But in his heart, he was troubled still, for he now suspected that things would never be the same again.
The next day, as he left for the fields, her father told her to stay indoors during the day and not to come out. And besides, he admonished her, the house could do with a good cleaning.
She looked around at the spotless place and thought it deeply unfair. But she nodded and said she would do so, for she loved her father almost as much as he loved her. So she said goodbye to him, went in the house, and set about such chores as would keep her busy until evening.
Somewhen past midday, as the sun was turning in the heavens and starting on her journey to the land of the shadows, she thought she heard a bird calling from outside the house. But she was busy spinning yarn for the weaving and paid it no heed.
A while later, as she was working the loom, she thought she heard the cry of a wolf from the direction of the forest. But she remembered her father’s warning and drew the curtains closed against its call.
At last, as she was done with the weaving and the great forest was throwing its long shadows over the house, she thought she heard a knocking on the door. Expecting her father there, she went and opened it and looked outside.
There was no-one about.
But at the edge of the forest, she saw the man again, looking straight at her.
Later that evening, as she told her father what had passed, she could see that he was disturbed. But he said nothing; just sighed and told her it was going to be all right. She knew then that it was anything but.
As she wove the tale, I listened closely – not only to what she said but to how she said it. Stories – and even more, storytelling – were the lifeblood of her kin. But there was more to it than that. This was no mere story, told in a firelit room while the storm raged outside. This was something more. Something darker by far.
And so I rose, waving to her to continue the tale, and added more wood to the fire.
Frowning at the interruption, she waited until I was done before continuing the tale.
“The next morning…”
The next morning, rather than going out to the fields as was his wont, her father told her to dress in her finest clothing and to prepare for a trip.
“Where to, Papa?” she asked, curious about this. For she had never been away from the steading.
But he would tell her nothing, just that she needed to get ready.
As the sun passed through the sky overhead and the shadows started to lengthen, he walked with her to the edge of the forest.
Soon enough, the stranger appeared again. He was clad in brown and greens, and his eyes sparkled with mischief and merriment. But he bowed courteously enough to the pair of them, and she thought him both mysterious and elegant, for she was unused to the ways of the world.
With gestures and mimics, he led them on hidden pathways through the forest, quiet as a falling leaf. Nary a word did he speak the entire while, nor did the forest give any sign or sound of his passage. The tall trees loomed overhead, with only the occasional clearing bringing any light to the world beneath the canopy. And though there was life there – she felt it, rustling and whispering all around them – she saw no actual sign of any living beast besides the three of them.
After a while – when she felt that they had surely walked for a long while, though she felt strangely fresh and not really tired at all – it dawned on her that the sun always seemed to be in the same spot overhead, never moving. But her father only shook his head when she asked, and would not speak of it.
I raised a hand in sudden inspiration, as a thought took me. “Excuse me a moment,” I asked her. “Would you like some more wine?”
From the look she sent me, I gathered that I had been most rude indeed, and that wine was not really on her mind just then. So I went and fetched a goblet for myself, before settling carefully back in the lounge opposite her. “Please continue, my dear.”
Yep, she was irritated. Too bad.
Shooting me a dark glance, she continued the story…
At long last, the terrain changed under them, and they started climbing uphill. And soon enough then they came to a new clearing. But this one, unlike the others, was not empty. Set in the centre of it, there was a rough circle of old, weathered stones.
Their guide stopped at the edge of the clearing, looked at them once, and bowed. Then, still without a word, he turned and disappeared around a tree.
He did not appear again.
She looked at her father, uncertain of what to say or think.
“Well,” he said at last. “We have been summoned, so we must appear. Come, my dear. Just promise me: be careful what you say or wish, in this place.”
“But why, Papa?” she asked of him. “Why are we summoned?”
He smiled gravely at her. “To present you at court. It is the law of the land.”
“Yes. The King requires all humans on his land to swear him fealty as they come of age. I did so. And so must you.”
And so saying, taking her hand in his, he walked with her between the standing stones…
The court of the troll-king was the most confusing place. Everywhere she went, people were talking, eating, dancing, partying… and sometimes all at once. They had been given a room of their own, as soon as they arrived, but she no longer knew where it was, and none of the people she spoke to seemed to understand her or give her bewildered questions any heed.
Somehow, she had lost sight of her father. And now she was, she knew, most thoroughly lost. Walking around at random, she searched in desperation for a familiar face, a place she would somehow recognise, or even – oh dear! – somewhere quiet.
At last, almost dead on her feet, she came to the fountain.
“What?” I exclaimed. “I got that about the court of the troll-king – it was certainly as confusing for me as it was for her, I think! But what’s with the fountain? Didn’t you forget a part there?”
If hate could be liquid, then that was what I could see in her eyes. Hot and dark and broiling. I smiled happily at her. “Sorry, please do continue. This is a good yarn.”
I don’t think the hissing sound she made then, was meant to be part of the story.
Oh, it was beautiful, of course. The silvery tinkle of water flowing in silken drops and streams from it was mesmerising to behold. Beautiful, old beyond belief, but most of all – wondrously quiet. As she entered the chamber which held it, all of the noise and confusion of the court receded into the distance. And as she looked up, she saw – not the rough rock ceilings of the endless mountain halls, but the clear night sky with stars twinkling like diamonds on a heavenly necklace.
She placed herself at the edge of the fountain, looking up into the free air, and wishing – wishing – for peace and quiet and just a little bit of rest…
After a while, she realised that she was no longer alone. More a presence than a sound, a shadow moving amongst the shadows, just outside the edge of her vision. She turned her head towards it, but it danced away in the twilight, skittish and shy.
She smiled, suddenly feeling happy for the company, for she had been alone and scared for a long time. So, hoping to lure it closer, she began speaking. Not of anything grand or intriguing, but commonplace things – of growing up at her home. Of the fields in the summer, with the sun playing through the stalks of the grain. The cute, timid mice, whom they fed during winter though there were sometimes little enough to eat for them all. And of the birds, who sang and trilled at her as she worked in the garden.
And speaking thus, all unknowingly she cast her spell. And he was captured and bound within it, though he knew it not, for this was something far beyond his ken.
As she spoke, the shadow gradually moved closer, drawn in by her voice and words. She never looked straight at it, sensing that doing so might scare it away for good – and she was loath to be alone again. But after a while she began asking questions – just small, trifling things, speaking more to the fountain, it seemed, than to it. And after a while, it answered.
It had a good voice, she decided. Deep and strong, not at all shadowy. She felt comforted by it. They spoke together for a long while, never quite touching – and yet drawn ever closer together by the bonds they wove. And when at last he laughed out with her, her answering smile shone like sunshine on the sparkling water.
“Oh, I like that!” I exclaimed. “Sunshine on sparkling water! Masterful imagery, my dear! I couldn’t do it better myself, I am sure. No, please don’t get up!” I continued as she rose to her feet, her whole body quivering with outrage. “I will get you whatever you need. Just continue, please. What’s next? Would you like some more wine? Will they get married?”
I could feel it then, the violence boiling within her, straining against the bonds of hospitality which bound her to peace this night. Bound – and held her. I had, after all, been nothing but a good host and an avid – if slightly too enthusiastic – audience.
“Yes-s-s,” she hissed at last. “They will get married!”
The next morning, the prince introduced her to his father.
She did not yet know that he was a prince, of course. In her mind, princes were handsome, young men, slender and elegant and richly dressed, riding white horses to fight dragons and rescue damsels. Not 8 feet or more of husky brawn, built like a rugged mountain with warts on his nose and tufts of hair sticking out his ears. No, definitely not. And yet … and yet, looking at him, she did not see his faults. She saw the emotion in his eyes, the careful way in which he moved around her to shelter her from his inadvertent strength. And she remembered the night, that night when she fell in love with a shadow by the tinkling fountain…
Truth to tell, neither of the fathers were enthusiastic about the match. But the prince was headstrong, and the maiden – well, she was in love. So what could one do?
They moved out of the mountain halls after the wedding. She insisted, for she hated the place and yearned for the freedom of the fields and the fresh air of the outside. And he, being in love with her, moved with her, forsaking his folk and family.
And so, for a while, they lived at her father’s farm. It was a good time. The prince was as kind and helpful as he was young and strong, and proved both a caring husband and a good help at the farm. It did not take long for her father to grow to respect and like his son-in-law.
But one day, on a fateful morning, as dark clouds moved overhead and caused the light to falter, the prince told her that they had to move back. His folk, he told her, were languishing without him, and he could forsake his duties no more. And also, his kin could not live long without bare bedrock under their feet. Already, his strength was beginning to falter.
It was their first argument.
But in the end, they made up, and she kissed him and hugged him and told him not to worry, and she would for sure move with him wherever he wanted – as long as it was not inside the mountain again. For couldn’t they, surely, find somewhere to live together? A place which would suit both him – and her?
Smiling fondly at her, he assured her it wouldn’t be a problem.
“Did they kiss?” I asked her curiously. “You know, when making up? They would, wouldn’t they? So shouldn’t it be part of the story too? Not just a hug, but – you know?”
She stared at me, eyes no longer black but shadowing into the colour of old blood. Speechless.
I gave her my most beneficial smile in reply.
I guess the fireplace didn’t count as being protected by the laws of hospitality. I shook my head sadly at her, as I went to fetch the goblet she had thrown at it. “No need, my dear,” I admonished her gently. “I would rather clean it than burn it, really.”
I kept at a careful distance from her as I did so, though. No reason to provoke her heedlessly.
The manor house stood on a rocky outcrop overlooking the forest, its back to the grey mountains that were his home. It was built like a fort – which indeed, in a way, it was – stone by careful stone, quarried and shaped by his own hands and skill. Few indeed are those who surpass the mountain trolls in skills of stone and the ways of its shaping, and he was a prince of his people.
And so, a month and a day after they found the place, the house stood ready for her. And when she moved in, all of his people and many of the folk of the forest came by and wished them luck and offered them gifts and tokens of respect and love.
She loved it there. At least at first, that was. But she missed her father fiercely, for he had not moved with them but had stayed at the farm. And also, as day turned into day and month into month, she started longing for new things, new experiences. And new people. For now that she had been out in the world and had seen some of its wonders with her own eyes, she wanted more.
The prince tried, of course. But she found the company of his people wearying, with their incessant pranks and brawling, their untidiness, and their strange humour. Month by month she felt more and more at a distance from the world outside, lonely and miserable and missing the prince with a fierce longing whenever he was away at court or amongst his people.
The first argument was followed by a second. And then a third. And yet more after that.
The shadows grew unrestful around her.
Speaking of shadows…
She was old, I sensed, and probably a master weaver amongst her people. But every time she had to start anew, after being interrupted, the enchantment she was working frayed and split. It was thick and strong withal, at its centre around her, but the rest of it…
I sighed deeply, and the thick leather of the lounge creaked as I shifted on it. “I appreciate your gift. Really, I do. Such an, um, exciting story. But it is getting kind of late, you know? Could we, maybe, continue in the morning, or something? Maybe next time?”
“No!” She exclaimed. “No! It must be now!” And then, seeing as I might object, “Hospitality demands it.”
Well, what can one say to that? Besides, it really was a good story…
One day, as the prince was away on his duties again, it knocked on the door. When she opened it she saw a young man, cleanly dressed and pleasant enough of built, who asked her kindly for some water and advice for the road ahead.
As she drew water from the well, she asked him his business in these parts. And he told her that he was travelling to visit his kin, who lived beyond the mountains.
They chatted for a while, for she was curious about the world outside, until at length he said his goodbyes and thanks and went on his way.
She stood there, silent and lonely by the well, for long moments. Watching him as he walked the path away from there.
That same evening, as the prince returned again, he asked as always how her day had been. And she smiled and said, well enough, and then asked him about his trip to the court. But she hardly listened as he replied, for her thoughts had returned to those moments by the well.
Some days later, the prince had to leave again. There was trouble amongst his kin, he told her, and he had to be there to mediate and pass judgement. She bade him goodbye with a heavy heart, wishing him safe travel and urging him to come back quickly to her again, and then went in the silent house to wait for him.
When she heard the knock on the door, she at first thought that it must be him, returning already, and so she ran to open it. But outside she found the young man again, clearly tired from the trip yet smiling at her gladly, and asking her for some water as she pleased.
They chatted gaily together by the well for a long while, and it was late in the day when he said his goodbyes at last.
It was long past midnight, two days later, as the prince arrived home again. He walked quietly through the hall and into the kitchen and ate sparingly, taking care not to make noise and wake up his wife. Then he tip-toed up the stairs to the bedroom and spent a long minute gazing, wistfully, and a bit sadly, down at her sleeping form.
“Yes, that’s a problem, really,” I said to myself, gazing into the fire. “People don’t speak together these days. Not like when we were young… You know, just the other day I heard this story…”
“Don’t! Interrupt! Me! Again!” Teeth bared, she looked tense enough to kill me, hospitality or no.
I nodded vaguely in response, “Sure. Didn’t mean to, really. I can tell my story after yours. Please, do go on. No reason to be upset, really. I’ll be a good girl and listen.”
Was that really foam, around her mouth? Nah, probably imagined it…
A full moon went by, and for a wonder, the prince was able to stay at home for the while. But at last duties called again, as urgently as before, and he had to leave.
“My love,” he whispered to her as they kissed their goodbyes. “Please be careful.”
She felt his sadness, but she did not understand its cause.
It was high noon when the knock came on the door. Feeling suddenly shy and timid, she walked slowly to open it, not sure of what she would find there – or what she hoped to find there.
He stayed until sunset. She did not invite him inside, and they barely touched. But as they spoke, she felt something awaken inside of her; something, she had missed ever since she had first discovered it, so long a time ago, in the darkness by a fountain…
When he left, she asked him if she would see him again.
He looked into her eyes then, and she sensed a deep sorrow in them. “No,” he told her. “I cannot.”
And so she did the only thing she could. And she cut off a lock of her hair and wound the strands together into a ring. A token. That she would remain with him always – and that he remember her.
His eyes were dark with foreboding. But he said not a word as he accepted her gift.
Three days later, the prince returned. He went into the house and sought her out. “My love,” he said, “I have been away for too long. Have you missed me?”
She told him, sadly and gravely, that she had. And she hugged him fiercely, for she thought she loved him still.
But as they hugged, he noticed her hair. “My love,” he asked her, “what happened?”
“Oh,” she told him, “it is nothing. I had an accident in the kitchen.”
But her voice trembled as she said it.
The prince turned away then, and his shoulders sank. And in silence, they went to bed.
Sleep eluded her that night. She lay awake, thinking of the young man who had visited her. His words. His face. The grave kindness of his eyes. And the world outside, beckoning, calling her. And she turned then and looked at her husband, his coarse face with the warts and the tufts of hair. And she found, as she compared the two, that it was no longer love, which she felt for him. But something else, darker, more visceral than thought, more liquid than love.
Quietly and slowly, so as not to wake him, she slipped out of bed.
Silently she stepped down the stairs to the kitchen.
The harvest moon was shining through the windows. A most fitting sign, she thought, as she found what she looked for.
Back again, then. Walking silent as a ghost up the cold, stone steps. To the room where he lay.
There was just enough light, through the drawn curtains, that she could see his sleeping form on the bed. Just enough light.
And so she walked there, whisper-quiet like a shadow of love gone, and did what she had to do.
She placed the head on the pillow and kissed the cold lips goodbye. But she did not clean the blood. There was too much of it, and she would be gone from the house before morning anyway. It would, she thought, make a fitting tomb. There was but one more thing he could give her – gold for the road. And so she opened the pouch he always carried around his neck.
But it was no gold she found within. No riches for the road.
Nothing but a ring of hair.
“Oh, how sad!” I exclaimed, as I got out a handkerchief and blew my nose. “Really. But you know, you mangled the story quite a bit there, at the end. That was not really what happened.”
The sudden, violent flare of the fire made it seem like the whole room was burning. “What do you mean, ‘not what happened’?” she yelled, incensed beyond all care. “This is my story. Mine! And it will happen!”
As she lost control, the last part of the dark spell sputtered and died.
I shook my head firmly, gazing past her at the closed door to the bedroom beyond, where my husband lay sleeping. “No, it isn’t.”
Story by Northern Dragon © 2019, all rights reserved.
Fireplace Image by Vladimir Maric from Pixabay
Shadow image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Manor house image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay
Magical lady image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay