This short story was contributed by guest writer Sarah McCance
Night’s icy claws wrap around the back of my neck as sharp whispers of foreboding echo in the mountain breeze. I watch the souls rise from the village. Crisp, pale ghosts dancing above the rooftops. They look down upon the family and friends they cherished during life. Some will vanish into the air, shedding their earthly bodies like a bad skin. Others will stay. They will rot from the inside. For centuries, they will gnaw at their own thoughts until nothing remains of the human they once were.
I watch more souls than ever descend on the village. Thousands peer down. Old and young, men and women, dying by the hundreds under their watchful eyes.
“You’re worrying,” a lighthearted voice says from my elbow. Jenoverious stands there, his dark hair whipping in the wind, and a ghostly grin playing around his pale lips.
“It’s my job to worry,” I respond, my words freezing in the mountain air.
Jenoverious peers down at the village, his face showing no more interest than he would give a mildly amusing kitten.
“King, king,” he sings over my shoulder, “you’d be better off abandoning this village. They gain you nothing tactically, and they only supply cloth for the kingdom. These peasants aren’t worth your time.”
I open my mouth to respond, but quickly close it again. I remember a time when my father cared for these peasants. When the palace halls were filled with the sounds of children playing, and I had the ability to laugh with them. Back when we would spend entire weeks enjoying parties and revelries with these ghosts. Back when Jenoverious wasn’t dead.
I still remember the way father looked at me when he heard he was dying and I was to be the future of the kingdom. Tears filled his eyes and the words ripped out of him.
“But a peasant could rule better than my own pathetic offspring.”
I close my eyes against the memory. I was never supposed to have this throne. Jenoverious was the Prince Heir. Jenoverious was supposed to do this. Jenoverious was supposed to be king. But here I am.
My eyes catch sight of the village again. Father loved the peasants, and father was a king. A ruler among rulers.
Peasants die inside those little cottages. Simple peasants. They don’t give decrees, or dance in drunken hazes. Instead, they curve their spines into S’s as they labor in the fields. Their hands bleed from disgusting cracks, their stomachs go empty, and they cower at the thought of the monsters that lurk in the darkness of the mountain.
They tremble and they work, but all the while they are worthless to every living being. If I were a good king I would cherish them all. I would eat with them, and play with their young. I would bury their dead, and bring royal wine to their weddings. Instead, the courts laugh at me. My father disowned me. And the peasants curse me. I have risen to a rank no one believes I should ever hold, and they’re right.
Father built empires out of ashes. He cured the sick, and fed the hungry. He was the ruler I’ll never be. He himself told me so. He knew how to keep a kingdom happy. He knew how to handle food shortages, monsters, and rebels. He maintained respect. He was a king who knew how to be a king.
“You’re feeling sorry for yourself,” Jenoverious says. I let out an earth-churning sigh and throw my head against my mare’s long mane. I don’t say a word as I watch more ghosts rise from the village.
Jenoverious raises an eyebrow in my direction. “Well aren’t you mopey this evening.”
I snort, “The courts wouldn’t listen to any of my suggestions this afternoon. I’m the king! I’m supposed to rule, not them!”
Jenoverious thinks about this for a second. “Sounds like you need to prove you’re worth their respect. You need to prove what father said about you was wrong.”
“How?” I growl in frustration.
Jenoverious paces for a moment before staring back at the village.
“What was father known for?” he asks me.
“His love for peasants,” I say dismissively. Then I freeze, I look back at the ghosts glittering above the rooftops, their broken faces staring down at loved ones that they will never speak with again.
Jenovarious’s cold hands grasp my shoulders as he points below. “Save the village, and you’ll get all the respect you deserve.”
Lights burn in every household, their blaze ignited with the fever of a thousand men. Children’s voices echo off the cobblestones, every cry of despair following the last. The doctor’s cottage sits in the middle of the agony. Hundreds of carriages wait in front and millions of voices shout from inside the four walls. I don’t bother with the ornate knocker mounted to the door. Instead, I shove people out of the way, so that I might swing the door on its hinges.
It takes the citizens a second to notice me. Their bleary faces blink away the darkness of a million sleepless nights. My gold-threaded cape flutters around my ankles as I part the sea of people before me. The doctor stands when his gaze meets mine.
“Your majesty,” he says, dropping into a low-kneeling bow. The citizens seem to focus as they recognize me. One by one they drop into bows and curtseys, their eyes sharing silent whispers even as their throats make no vibration.
“This disease,” I say, addressing the doctor. “What’s the cure?”
The doctor lowers his head. His eyes staying fixed on my feet. “My king, there is no cure.”
“There is always a cure!” My voice carries my father’s same authoritative tone. Even though I know there’s not always a cure. Father himself was proof of that.
The doctor’s face goes ghastly pale. He trembles from head to toe, searching the ground around my feet. “Sire,” he starts, but I cut him off.
“I will find the cure myself! Who among you knows of another healer?”
Not a soul steps forward. The men and women alike tremble where they stand, not one of them willing to risk the wrath of a king.
A rustle of fabric catches at the corner of my vision. A small boy no older than seven years, peers out from behind a woman’s long skirts. His blond hair brushes against the tips of slightly pointed ears and his eyes are the devil’s shade of blue.
“You,” I call, singling him out.
The woman, his mother presumably, clamps a hand around her mouth as the small child steps forward. He comes to stand in front of me, craning his head back so that he might meet my eyes.
“You are Fae?” I ask, referring to the monstrous species that roam the hills.
“My King,” his mother wails, “he is but a child.”
“Silence!” I shout.
She quivers as she watches her boy look up at me. “Do you know of a healer?” I ask him, for he is Fae. They are monsters who snatch children from bed, and torture men for years in the span of a second. But they are magic. They produce healers that wish away any ailment.
The boy cocks his head to the side. No fear residing in his gaze. Perhaps he does not know who I am. Or perhaps he is possessed by the steadfast bravery that seems to claim only children.
“The witch,” he says in a sing-song voice. His mother lets out a deafening sob, from behind him.
“What witch?” The boy points in the direction of the mountain. “She resides in a cave, and brews potions to cure anything.”
A witch. My stomach takes a sour twist at the thought of asking for help from such a creature. But the faces of the villagers, the wan, tired, grieving faces of the villagers stops me. They look hopeful. I am their king, the one they curse and mock. Yet, they still look with hope at my figure. I am their final hope. A small thrill rushes through me. Hope is something that spreads like wildfire. If I am their savior I’ll forever have their loyalty. The kingdom will quickly learn. The peasants’ love will spread. The courts will have no choice but to accept me.
I’ll prove father wrong.
The cave is black around its edges, as if it had been burned from the inside. Jenoverious and I approach with a sense of dread hanging from our shoulders. The darkness clings to my nose, choking the inside of my throat and burning my eyes. Mold sticks to the bottoms of my shoes, and dampness weighs heavy on my shoulders.
A haggard woman sits in the dirt, a needle moving between her fingers, as she threads pieces of bone together. Her face is drawn in all the wrong areas. Flabs of skin sag at her cheekbones, the corners of her mouth, her eyebrows.
“My King,” she coos, her translucent eyes looking up at mine.
I shudder at the pupiless gaze.
“What might I do for you?” she asks, stringing another bone onto the necklace in her lap. The tilt of her lips makes it all too clear she knows why I’m here, and asking is only a formality.
“The cure,” I say flatly.
“The cure,” she repeats, “oh, you mean the cure for that little village? I have that cure.” She sets aside the bone necklace she’s making and removes another string of bones from the cabinet above her head. I hold my calloused hand out for the string, but she clutches it close to her chest.
“My payment,” she cackles, the glint in her eyes conveying a high price.
“What do you want?” I say through clenched teeth. The witch cocks her head, peering at me.
“Perhaps your ears,” she mutters to herself, “or perhaps your hair. It really is a lovely color.” She circles me, taking in every inch of my form, from my shaggy brown hair, to my long, lean fingers. “No.” A demonic grin plays around her lips. “I want your…. Smile.”
My hands begin shaking, as the blood in my veins turns to a frigid shade of blue.
“Yes, what a lovely smile.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, my words betraying me as a hint of confusion and fear creep into my voice.
“Your teeth. All of them,” she says, waving a dismissive hand.
“You…. you must be joking. I, a king, a man of superior blood, giving you my teeth? Unimaginable.”
It’s such a foolish idea. Such a joke to be played. The witch could never think of striking such a bargain. I scoff, waiting for the real offer. But her face is impassive. Her lips are locked in a tight line. She truly wants my teeth. Horror begins to seep inside my bones.
Jenoverious lays a hand on my shoulder as he says, “give them to her.”
“What? No! I won’t. I can’t pay that price!” I nearly shout turning to him. His face is blank, empty… dead. It’s an expression I’ve never seen before.
“It’s needed,” he says impassively.
Needed. He’s right. I need the respect. Without it I can’t rule. I can’t do anything. I’m a figurehead. But my teeth. How does a toothless king sound to the world? Well, it’s certainly something to make songs about.
“But a peasant could rule better than my own pathetic offspring.”
My body goes numb as realization sinks into my skin. I have no choice. The villagers. The courts. My teeth are not worth more than the kingdom. Than the lives of those who placed their trust in me.
I want to be king, but, at the moment, I’m nothing more than a fool. Perhaps, this could change that.
“Deal,” I whisper to the witch.
My mouth burns of iron as I enter the doctor’s cottage. Tears leak from the corners of my eyes, and I clench my fists against the white hot agony racing through me.
I find the doctor passed out with fever as I stumble inside. His body lays broken and his forehead shines with the tears of his skin. My hands run up and down my pockets as I desperately search for a parchment and pen to write with. Finally, I find some.
I have a cure, I write, handing the parchment to the woman wiping the doctor’s sick brow.
“You do?” she asks, hope spilling out from between her lips.
I nod and pull out the necklace of bones.
Place this around his neck, I write for her.
Quickly, she whips the necklace away from me and strings it around the doctor’s neck. He moans slightly at the cold bone against his skin, but lays still.
The room is unnaturally silent as all its occupants hold their breath. The doctor doesn’t move. His sores continue to bleed, his breath continues to grow shallower, and his eyes remain shut.
Then with a sudden intake of breath, he opens his eyes. His irises are a pure gold, that sends arcs of amber cascading around the room. The doctor cries out as his chest is dragged upward. Tears leak from beneath his eyelids, and his face wrinkles with agony. He gasps for breath, his fingers clawing at his own throat. Beads of golden blood spill down his neck, drowning the floorboards. The world washes itself in light from his body. The glow of angels’ wings burns everything it touches. It consumes its way around the room, enveloping the sick, and leaving the healthy alone. With another cry of pain from the doctor the light reaches its zenith moment, blowing its rays out through the windows, and sneaking its way through the cobblestones until it’s enveloped the whole village.
And with that final burst of energy, it slowly begins to dim. The light recedes back into the doctor, coiling itself around his neck and disappearing into the bones laying there.
The doctor’s breathing evens out as his body is floated back toward the bed. He lays peacefully still for a long moment, the last dregs of golden light abandoning him. The bloody sores, which had left him mutilated and hideous moments prior, have dissolved back into his skin, leaving no trace that this man was once beckoning death.
I slowly approach him, and take a knee in front of the bed. “Doctor,” I whisper as best I can.
The doctor’s eyes slowly flutter open, his brown irises are now flecked with leaves of gold. My palm presses against the doctor’s shoulder squeezing slightly. I force my eyes to ask the question my voice can’t. To plead for the answer.
The doctor’s lips part, and streams of tears fall down his face. “I feel good,” he sobs to the waiting assembly.
There’s a moment in which disbelief is so palpable that not a soul dares speak. Then slowly a cheer goes up from behind me. Villagers embrace, tears being thrown around as readily as applause.
I keep my eyes locked on the doctor. On the necklace of bones still hanging around his neck. I can feel wetness dampening my cheeks.
I did it. Finally, I did it.
I turn to grin at Jenoverious, but he’s not there. My eyes quickly scan the room but he’s nowhere to be found. I can feel my heart drop into my stomach as I imagine Jenoverious returning to the afterlife. Leaving me alone in this forsaken world.
I shove people away from me as I race for the doorway, but a huge hand clamps around my back. A large man quickly encircles me in a hug. I try wriggling out of his grasp, but he overpowers me with his strength. My eyes scan frantically over his shoulder, and, finally, I lay eyes on the back of Jenoverious’s head. He’s talking with someone. Someone with pale sagging skin, and wide translucent eyes. It takes me less than an instant to recognize her. The witch catches sight of me, and then she’s gone. Her body turning to race down an alleyway.
“Jen,” I gargle to Jenoverious, my voice getting lost within the cacophony.
After a few minutes Jenoverious turns around. He spots me, and makes his way over; expertly disentangling me from the man’s arms.
“What was she doing here?” I try to snap at him, my tongue searching for a way to make the consonants.
He doesn’t respond, just grins and loops one arm around my neck. “Listen,” he whispers.
For the first time I pay attention to what the crowd’s been chanting.
“All hail our king! All hail our king!”
For some reason the words aren’t as rich as they should be. I look back at Jenoverious. His face is portraying all the love and pride of an older brother, but there’s something off. Something I can’t put my finger on.
“Father was wrong about you,” he whispers, smiling. “A peasant could never rule better than his own pathetic offspring.”
Copyright by Sarah McCance 2021 All Rights Reserved