Posted by: lordkyler | April 15, 2015

The Curse – Short Story Week

Music, lights, and laughter filled the great hall at Castel de Montresse, rising to the majestic, vaulted ceiling and spilling out the massive stained-glass windows. Everyone in the kingdom had been invited to the celebration. Everyone, perhaps, save for the black-cowled figure brooding at the castle gates.

His robes flowed from his shoulders like spun midnight, rippling in the cold night wind like a nightmare’s shadow. Beneath the inky velvet folds of the cloak were robes of the deepest purple, yet they shimmered like starlight and bore arcane sigils of eye-dazzling complexity.

In one hand the shadow clutched a gnarled ebony staff, on the other, a raven perched. The bird stirred impatiently, causing the dread figure to tear his malevolent yellow eyes away from the great hall.

“Not yet, Grôthe,” said the stranger, in a voice like one dead. “We will wait for midnight.”

Nevertheless, he began to approach the castle, seeming to glide weightlessly, an apparition of the night.

The streets were empty. The king had been generous in his good fortune. Baron and beggar alike had been invited to feast at the King’s table this momentous day. After so many years, the Queen had finally given birth to an heir, a healthful and robust daughter, the future queen Auroure. Today was her christening.

The streets were filled with banners and ribbons in all colors, but in the gloom of night, they hung pale and restless, like wraiths. The steady tapping of the stranger’s staff against the cobbles rang hollow among the empty buildings, a lifeless beat to accompany the tuneless sighing of the wind.

The midnight bell began to toll, a bold, joyful sound that carried over the barren city with all the levity of a man laughing at a funeral. Judging from the raucous noises that made it past the wind, few of those inside would pay the bells much heed. That would change shortly.

At the first chime, the walking shadow crossed the drawbridge into the fortress. At the second, the gates swung open for him. For three more, he passed through the detritus of merriment strewn around the great courtyard. At the sixth, he passed a slumbering guard, but the man did not wake. Four more times the bell pealed as he climbed the broad stone steps to the great hall. At the eleventh stroke, he reached the door, and gathered himself, cloak pooling around him like liquid shadow.

At the moment of the twelfth ring, he raised his staff and spoke.

“Now.”

The massive doors of the great hall flew open violently, as though blown in by a hurricane. The chill night air rushed inward, extinguishing candles and provoking startled gasps across half the hall. The music cut off abruptly, allowing all within to hear the great bell fall silent mid-ring. A few perilous seconds later, the bell crashed to the ground with a hellish clangor and a shrill, tortured ringing that caused some to faint.

The whole of the hall stood in frightened awe, and all that could be heard was the whisper of a name, Mallister. His name was a vile whisper among the common folk, blamed for all manner of ills and misfortunes. There was no doubt in their minds that this was he whose name they cursed.

Mallister raised his hand, sending his raven to fly across the hall. The bird squawked ominously and took up a perch on the King’s throne. The King rose slowly, eyes hard, demanding answers. Yet even in those eyes was a flicker of fear.

Mallister spoke softly, though his dead voice seemed to echo and carry oddly around the hall. “A most magnificent gathering, your highness. I admit, I had not expected to see such lavishness at a funeral.”

“You are mistaken, sir,” the King said coldly. “We celebrate a birth this day.”

“Ah, a birth, a death. They are not so different, you will find, from the other side.”

“Say what you will and be gone, abomination.”

“Abomination, is it? A strange word. It certainly seems to imply some significance. And yet, on this most momentous day, when every swineherd and dung-hauler is seated at your table, you have managed to overlook an entire abomination.”

“You are not welcome here, Mallister.”

Mallister stepped into the hall slowly, staff tapping against the tiles. Those nearest drew back with pale faces. “Ah, so your rudeness was intentional? It is as I feared. And as I was right about the invitation, so am I right about the occasion.”

“You will not dare touch her,” the king growled. “She has been christened and blessed by the good sisters of the faith. You have no powers here.”

Mallister laughed, a flat, cruel sound. He walked forward with a steady, gliding pace, seemingly unaffected by the king’s threats.

“Slay him!” cried the King, and several guards stepped forward warily, spears and swords raised hesitantly. One zealous young man rushed forward, axe raised and helm lowered.

Mallister waved a hand contemptuously. There was a flash and a burst of black smoke, and when it cleared, a cat stood hissing atop a pile of empty, tarnished armor. The other guards drew back in panic. Mallister snapped his fingers and another soldier dropped to the floor like a marionette with its strings cut. The remaining guards turned and ran.

“You cowards!” the king roared, drawing his own sword, but the second it came free from the scabbard, it burst into green flames. The king recoiled in surprise and dropped his weapon.

“What matter of demon are you?” he hissed.

“A slighted one,” replied Mallister, and walked past the king without a second glance. As he approached the gilded cradle where the young princess lay, his raven returned to his shoulder, croaking almost gleefully. His staff tapped out a beat, coming ever closer, like the drum of an execution…

A tortured sob rent the dread hush, and there was a sudden commotion as queen Yvonne shoved past her attendants and threw herself in front of her child. She was frail and ashen, her hands shook, and her once-lustrous golden hair seemed pale and frazzled. Childbirth had taken a terrible toll on her. It seemed unlikely she would live to see her child’s first birthday, and yet she had found the strength to stand on quaking knees before Mallister himself.

Mallister paused and arched an eyebrow.

The queen looked him in the eyes and fell to her knees. “Please, good sir, spare my child. By every power in earth, heaven or hell, I implore you to show mercy. If you must have your revenge, take it on me instead.” She said nothing more, but stared tearful and unflinching into his vile yellow eyes.

Mallister’s baleful gaze passed from the queen to her child, and back again. The whole world seemed to hold its breath.

“I once had a mother,” Mallister whispered. The queen held his gaze, refusing to break eye contact, and after a moment, Mallister’s resolve seemed to crumble and break like sand before the tide. He turned away and closed his eyes as if in pain. “It is too late for me to fully turn aside from this path,” he said, “but if your husband will bow down and beg my forgiveness, I will temper the curse.”

All eyes turned to the king. Slowly, as though fighting great resistance, the king fell to one knee, and then the other. And when Mallister did not speak, the golden crown bowed low and touched the flagstones with a small clink that seemed as loud as a death knell.

“Please, Mallister, forgive my arrogance,” the king choked out. “Spare my daughter.”

A wicked grin stretched Mallister’s thin lips, and he raised his staff high. “Eighteen years shall the princess live, strong and happy,” he proclaimed, His voice carried across the hall like the horns of hell, like the whispered shout of death itself. “But on the very day of her eighteenth birthday, she shall be pricked by a poisoned needle, and shall fall into an endless sleep!”

The king’s head rose from the floor, and he glared daggers at Mallister, but he did not dare arise. The queen was sobbing, but whether from sorrow or relief, it was impossible to tell. Mallister turned back to her.

“But because of your love, noble queen, I make you this promise: if, from this day forth, the only cloth to ever touch her skin is the finest Zhanjeel silk, she will one day be awoken by true love’s kiss.”

“Thank you,” sobbed the queen.

Mallister turned, stygian cloak swirling, and left the hall. His raven gave one last raucous cry as they passed the threshold, and Mallister vanished into the night.

Inside Castel de Montresse, all hell broke loose.

•••

“I gotta say, boss, that was your best performance yet,” Jaime said, clambering aboard the wagon. “Getting the bloody king to kneel to you? That was genius!”

“Yes, it worked out better than I thought it might,” Maurice said, wiping off his “Mallister” makeup. He had already stashed the robes among the sacks of potatoes and turnips; within minutes he would be unrecognizable as the mythic figure he had played. “I think it will be quite effective. It cements the power of the assumed sorcerer, and it increases the king’s hatred and fear. But I think I was actually more pleased with the queen’s intervention.”

Jaime snapped the reins, setting the horses into a slow trot. “Oh, yes, very well done. Much more natural than the initial change of heart, I thought. And that thing about the silks-” he laughed.

Maurice laughed with him. “I couldn’t resist. It makes such a profit.”

“I mean, can you imagine? Every diaper, every nightgown…”

“Every tablecloth and curtain in the palace, if the queen’s actions were any indication. Chauncy is ready with the shipments, isn’t he?”

“Oh yes, he’s had wagonloads of the stuff ever since he hijacked the Pynchon caravan. Everything’s ready to go.”

“Excellent. A good night’s work, all around.”

Jaime reached the place where the road entered the forest, and gave a soft whistle. A half dozen young men and women slipped out from between the trees and clambered aboard the slow-moving wagon.

“Excellent work, fellows,” Maurice called out. “No mummer’s troupe ever did so half so well. Leone, the transformation was marvelous.”

“That mangy thing gave me a few new scars,” Leone said, lifting his shirt to show some fresh red scratches among the old white ones. “Are you certain we can’t use a mouse or a frog?”

“We’ll talk about it,” Maurice said. “And Renaud, green flames?”

Renaud twirled a vial between his fingers with a mischievous grin. “They watch the king’s sword pretty closely, but they don’t pay as much attention to the scabbard.”

“Just a moment, lads,” Jaime interjected. “They did fall for it, right, Brigitte?”

A solemn girl in the back of the cart nodded. “You can see the fires from here if you look. The king will take no chances. Every loom, spindle and tailor’s shop from here to Chaldón is aflame.”

“A good night’s work,” Maurice said. “This will cement our trade hold on the central kingdoms. We’ll take a few weeks to celebrate before moving on to our next target. Jaime, any possibilities?”

Jaime scratched his chin contemplatively. “I hear that the isles of Sveldenjarl up north are haunted by a great, mischievous horned spirit. They have some valuable trade routes, to say nothing of their marvelous pearls and fishing industry.”

“Hmm,” Maurice mused. “Perhaps they need a priest that can drive away this foul spirit… Victor, can you do something with horns?”

“Certainly,” Victor grumbled, inspecting a loose seam in the midnight robes. “Just get me some furs and I’ll have you a wild spirit that would make the Arch-Vicar soil himself.”

“Very good, my young friends” Maurice said, and turned back around to face the road. He took a swig of wine and raised the bottle toward the night sky.

“To fear and stupidity,” he cried. “Our greatest allies.”

He laughed, and his ravens laughed with him.

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