There was once a young woman whose father was a mighty knight in the service to his king. They lived in the king’s palace, a beautiful castle with thick walls for protection and cheerful stained-glass windows for light and large fireplaces with deep chimneys for warmth. The young woman, whose name was Sarah, grew up there. Unlike the other ladies of the castle, Sarah spent most of her time watching her father train the soldiers in the courtyard, or riding his horse, or jousting with the other knights.
Sarah was a sweet girl, well-liked by most of the men-folk of the castle. The women tended to get frustrated with her, because she refused to spend time in ‘womanly pursuits,’ such as weaving and embroidering and cooking. She did play the harp, however, and such was her skill with that instrument that on those few occasions when she deigned to grace the castle with a song or two, it was inevitable that those present would stand still, as if spell-bound, until her fingers left the strings.
“It is amazing she can play at all,” Lady Beatrice, the king’s spinster sister, was heard to remark on more than one occasion. “Surely all the time she spends out of doors, playing with the boys, have left her hands far too rough and calloused for such gentle work.” And indeed, it was true that Sarah did spend most of her time in the yards, playing chase with the dogs, or riding the half-lame gelding her father gifted her with for her sixteenth birthday. She spent time with her father’s squire, watching as he polished and repaired her father’s armor and weapons, and it must be said that more than once Sarah did these chores herself while the squire, a sturdy boy two years younger than her, sneaked into the kitchen to steal hot, sticky buns or pinch a joint of fowl which he would share with Sarah for their afternoon snack.
So avid was the girl’s attentions to the duties of knighthood that Sir William, her father, was heard, more than once, to joke that all she needed was a firm cloth to strap across her chest and a mummer’s beard, and she could sit a horse in the summer games. At these times, the men would laugh and the women, particularly Lady Beatrice, would scowl. Sarah herself had no reaction to this joke, for her father was ever careful to make sure she was not present lest he give her ideas he might later come to regret.
Her father needn’t have bothered himself over the matter, however, as these were thoughts Sarah herself had come up with on her own long ago. “It is not fair,” she would complain to Gerard, her favorite dog. Sitting in the lee of the kennel, with her legs drawn up to her chest and Gerard’s head resting on her knees while she gently rubbed a silky ear or scratched his broad forehead, she would oft tell him of her trials and tribulations (as she saw them) while he, with the wisdom of his kind, listened in silence and accepted the head rubs that were his due. “I know as much about fighting as any of the new squires. More, even!” she would complain, and Gerard would lick her nose. It is a well-known fact that it is nearly impossible for a young woman to stay angry when there is a dog licking her nose.
This, then, was Sarah’s life. It was a good life, if a little dull. It was a happy life, if a little quiet. It was a peaceful life, which was really the problem with it as far as Sarah was concerned.
It wouldn’t last.
Winter was normally a quiet time in that part of the world. The ground was too hard to till. The air was too cold to grow crops. The roads were too icy to invade one’s neighbors. There was little to do except the day-to-day business of keeping up the castle. Even the training of the men-at-arms in the yard was, for the most part, curtailed except for a few hours a week to keep the men in what the king liked to call ‘fighting trim.’
As the days grew shorter and the stores of lamp oil grew lower, people took to their beds earlier and earlier. Thus it was that one night, scarce past the seventh bell, most of the castle folk were preparing to adjourn to their rooms or cells or mats in the kitchen, when there came at the thick wooden door to the great hall a raucous clatter. Curious looks were exchanged, and Sarah’s father went, with two other men, to see what was the matter.
One of the king’s men was there, shivering in the icy night air. One of the king’s guards he was, one of two who had the misfortune to draw the gate-watching duty for that night. “There is a man,” he said between teeth-chattering shudders, “outside the gate. He seems grave wounded and more than half-frozen.”
Weapons were swiftly collected by the men before venturing out into the cold. More than one war had begun and ended on the same night when an act of mercy was rewarded by a swift van of soldiers taking and holding the open gate until the main force of the invaders could arrive. Charity is a gift to the Gods, it was said, but stupidity profits only the Black Lady.
The precautions were unnecessary this time, however. The man collapsed outside the gate was alone and unarmed. The king called for the fires, previously banked for the night, to be built up again. The castle chirurgeon came down the stairs quickly, still tying off his night-robe around his frail old body. Curious on-lookers were made to stand back so that the chirurgeon had enough light to ply his craft as he looked over the nearly frozen man. From her place at the balcony over-looking the great hall, Sarah also looked the man over although it is unlikely that she and the chirurgeon saw the same things.
What the physicer saw was a man in his mid twenties, suffering from malnutrition, frostbite, and a particularly nasty gash along his left thigh. What Sarah saw was a man in his mid twenties, fair of skin and dark of hair, with a pleasingly handsome look to him and the well-worn clothes of one who has seen much and done more in his time. In short, she saw her One True Love, or so she imagined at the time.
“Oh, let him be well,” she whispered softly to herself. Many of the other young women in the castle expressed similar sentiments, and the older women smiled knowingly. If the young man lived, the collective fathers of the castle were in for a rough winter.
Live he did, although it was several long, dark days before his eyes opened. Many were the times that the chirurgeon had to chase moon-eyed young women from the room so that he could care for his patient. The frostbite turned out to be a minor issue after all, some warm blankets and hot broth were all it took. The gash on his thigh was far more worrisome. As the chirurgeon told the king, “I’ve not seen it’s like before. It looks jagged. like the claw of an animal, but animal claws usually come in groups.”
The chirurgeon worried about the wound becoming infected and poisoning the blood. Hours each day he tended to the stranger, cutting away dead flesh and balancing his humors. None of this helped, however, and the chirurgeon was eventually forced to remove the foul-smelling leg lest the rot spread into the man’s trunk and kill him.
Drastic as the measure was, the amputation seemed to save the man’s life. Slowly he healed, and there came a day when at last his eyes opened.
“Where am I?” he asked the chirurgeon, his voice cracking with disuse.
“Relax, you’re ok,” the chirurgeon told him, helping him sit up and sip some water. “You are in the castle of King Alexander. You were hurt and wandering around in the cold before we found you.”
From her vantage place by the door, Sarah saw a peculiar look cross the stranger’s face. “How long?” he asked. “How long have I been here? What day is it?”
“You have been here for just under a month,” the chirurgeon said. “We are now twenty-seven days past the Midwinter.”
“Twenty-seven days,” the stranger lay back on the bed, staring up at the gray stone of the ceiling above. “Thus do they treat their champions.” His hands bunched the bed-sheets in anger. He made to sit up, but the chirurgeon’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“Rest, friend,” he said. “You’ve been sick. Your wound went bad and we had to cut it off.”
“Cut if off?” the stranger asked, brows furrowing in confusion. “You cut off my wound?”
“Your leg,” the chirurgeon said softly, his face a mask of sympathetic regret. “We had to remove your leg.”
The stranger barely spoke the rest of that winter and some few days into the spring. He became sullen, and withdrawn, and if he spoke at all it was with anger and bitterness. “Hard to blame him,” said Regar, a former knight who has lost his arm to a misplaced lance during a tourney some three years prior. “He’s clearly a fighting man, and now what’s he to do?”
Even Sarah grew tired of the snappish reproaches to her offers of kindness, and after a time she learned to let the stranger be. Such was his dark humor that he refused even the most basic of courtesies, and would not tell his name. In time, The Stranger came to be as much name as description for him in the minds of the people.
Winter turned to Spring, as it always does, and gradually the days got longer and warmer. The snow began to melt, turning the roads to thick, clinging mud and swelling the streams. Soon it would be time to begin the yearly planting, and the folk of the castle welcomed the change eagerly. A long Winter it had been, and dark, and the folk were more than ready for Spring’s cheerful budding.
On the third day after the turning of the weather and the first melting of snow, came another stranger to the castle; a visitor for The Stranger. Tall, he was, and though his hair was white, his face and body were those of a young man still. He wore a white silk shirt partly open under a short, tight silk jacket.. His face was sharp and angular, with high arching eyebrows and hollow cheeks. Fey, he seemed, and yet of such bearing and beauty to set a-flutter the hearts of women young and old alike. He arrived at the castle gate one evening just as the sun was going down, and none marked his coming or could say whence he had traveled.
The king himself came down to meet this new stranger, and very nearly did events take an unfortunate turn when the new stranger stood away from the king and would not allow him to draw near. The stranger apologized then, seeing the king’s face grow red with anger, and said he was recovering from a winter illness and had no wish to repay the king’s generosity and hospitality by making a gift of his sniffles to the monarch. He introduced himself as Elathan, saying he was an old friend of The Stranger, whom he named Conn.
Elathan refused to enter the castle, again citing his recent sickness and his desire not to spread it to his friend’s hosts. Instead, he and Conn walked the grounds, near the stables and kennels. Conn supported himself with a crutch the chirurgeon leant him, and Elathan walked slowly to accommodate him. Sarah, seeing the direction of their wander, slipped by means long known to her around to the kennels ahead of them, and waited inside to hear what she might hear.
“Where have you been?” Conn’s voice held all the bitterness and black rage he had nursed all that half Winter, directed now squarely at this strange fellow who claimed to be his friend. “They cut off my leg! Why didn’t you come? Why didn’t you cure me? I know it is in your power to do such a thing for a mere mortal such as myself!”
“Indeed,” Elathan agreed amiably with a faint smile. “But why should I? You served your purpose. Now, however, I find I may have use for you again, and thus I offer you a new bargain. A new leg will I give you, superior to the old in many ways, and made of finest silver. Also, you will stay with us, in my palace, until the next tournament. You’ve seen my lands, you know the pleasures to be had. In return for all of this, you fight for us again at the next tournament.”
“So I can be wounded and abandoned again, and suffer through another winter of pain and grief?” Conn scowled angrily at the tall stranger. “I think not. Find yourself another fool willing to make fool’s bargains with you. I’ll have none of it!”
Elathan’s smirk faltered for a moment. Then it returned, stronger than before. “You drive a hard bargain. Very well, Conn Map Art. If you fight for us again, we will cure any injury you sustain in winning the battle and you may continue to live amongst us until such time as we lose a trial, or you die.” He paused and looked at the crippled warrior at his side. “Have we a deal?”
Conn was silent for a time, then he nodded. “We have a deal, Elathan Map Dalbaech. Now get me out of here.”
Elathan’s laughter rang against the stones of the castle courtyard like steel rings upon steel in the clashing of swords. “Don’t be a fool. You know I cannot help you. You must find your weapons and armor, wherever you stashed them this mid-winter last, and bring them to that place you already know of, where you may cross into our world by moonlight.”
“But my leg!”
“Find someone to help you then,” Elathan shrugged carelessly. “This is your problem, not mine. We have a deal, and if you do not hold up your end then never shall you know a moment’s peace again in all of your short life. Hurry, Man. The pleasures of my court await, and the forging of the silver leg will take some time. Hurry.”
No reply was made, and silence reigned in that part of the courtyard. Sarah peeked her head up over the low wall of the kennel to see what she might see, and gasped loudly. There was Conn, frowning a mighty frown as he balanced on one leg and his wooden crutch, but nowhere was there to be found any trace of his companion. Even the ground behind showed clear evidence of a one-legged man with a crutch struggling through the clinging mud, but no other set of footprints betrayed where the tall, stranger had walked beside.
Conn looked up sharply at the girl’s gasp, and his eyes narrowed. “You there, girl. Come out. Listening to us were you? Well then, I think I’ve found my help. Prepare food and clothing for four days, and two mounts. We’re going riding. Tell no one. There is something I need you to do.”
Sarah wiped sweat from her brow, leaning against her gelding Butterfly’s flank. The days were cool still, but exertion had raised that sweat upon her and now it threatened to chill swiftly as she took her ease. Her blue wool dress clung to her uncomfortably, and from time to time she thought she caught Conn throwing appreciative glances her way from his position on a nearby fallen log.
It was the log, in fact, that pointed the way to his buried treasure, treasure she had just finished removing from it’s sheltering nest of pine branches. A full suit of chain armor, under-padding, and two belts dripping with weapons lay gleaming in the early afternoon sun.
“Hurry and pack them away on my horse,” Conn said. “We’ve a few hours to go yet before sunset, and I mustn’t be late.”
Sarah gritted her teeth at the brusque order and stirred her tired body back into motion. Any remaining bloom on the rose that was Conn had faded during their trip from the castle. He made her do all the chores of the road; cooking, saddling and grooming the horses, helping him into his seat. Not a word of thanks ever did he offer, although his bleak wrath of earlier the Winter past was turned, like the turning of the seasons, to a sort of manic impatience which he oft took out on the young woman.
“I’m hurrying,” she said with a deep sigh. She began packing away his armor, knocking the dirt and needles from each piece before tucking them away in the saddle bags.
In the quiet after the initial heady excitement of the flight from the king’s castle, Sarah had time to reflect on how easily things had gone, and how strangely. “Why haven’t we been caught up yet?” she asked, “surely our tracks would be easy for the king and my father’s men to follow. And we did steal a horse.” She didn’t include her own in that theft, as it was her own and thus impossible for her to steal.
Conn’s laugh was harsh and sardonic. “They haven’t found us because it doesn’t suit ‘Lord’ Elathan for them to do so,” he said. “I’m sure they will once I arrive where I need to go. And,” he lifted a finger towards her, gifting her with an evil smile, “I am a cripple. I couldn’t possibly steal a horse. You, on the other hand, stole two of them. I expect the king’s men will be quite wroth when they catch you. I wonder if they will wait to bring you back to the castle before hanging you, or will they simply throw a rope over the nearest tree-branch and do it right on the spot?”
Sarah shivered as a chill ran through her blood. She tried to turn, to run away, but found herself unable to. She kept working, putting away the helmet and greaves and tying the saddlebag shut. Again she tried to run, but with a snap of his finger, Conn brought her to his side. “Help me into my saddle,” he ordered, and Sarah could not but obey.
“What.. what is this power you have over me?” she asked between grunts as she pushed and prodded him into place on his beast. “My will is not my own. How have you done this?”
The one-legged soldier mocked her openly with a leer. “Your will is mine, foolish girl. A gift from my friend, whom you heard me speaking with. You will help me until I no longer want you, and then you will take the blame for these crimes. Yes, and the punishment too!”
Sarah found she could still weep, and so she did.
The hill, Sarah decided, was creepy. Like a verdant blister it rose from the surrounding pines, tree-less and ringed with small, flat stones. A faint mist clung about it and giving it a ghostly look in the pale light of the full moon.
They had arrived at the hill an hour or so before, and Sarah had helped Conn to don his armor and weapons. The spare greave and boot were carried in a pack upon his back, and the crutch bowed alarmingly under the additional weight. The hill had looked almost as queer even then, without the extra light, but Sarah had to admit that the moon added just the right touch of otherworldliness to the entire affair.
She stood by the two horses, watching as the handsome but cruel warrior began making his way widdershins ’round the hill. Once he went, then again, and then thrice. Each stone he passed he kicked briefly with his good foot, and the while he muttered words that sounded sinister and alien in Sarah’s ear.
His third circuit complete, Conn turned to Sarah. The moon washed the color from his face, and in that moment he looked just a bit like Elathan; pale and fay. His smile was callous. “And now we part ways, dear sweet Sarah. Once I step to the top of this hill, the cloak cast over us will lift and the king’s men will have no problem finding you.” His lip curled and he licked his teeth. “I imagine that pretty neck of yours will look especially slender when encircled by the firm grip of the rope. I wish I could stay and watch you hang, but I have more important things to do. Fare poorly!” He turned and hobbled up the hill, and the mist swallowed him without a trace.
Suddenly, Sarah’s limbs here her own. Distantly, she could hear the sound of muffled hooves, several horses picking their way through the carpet of needles. Panic seized her, and she knew without a doubt that the fair-seeming monster that was Conn spoke true. They would find her, and they would kill her. For had she not stolen the queen’s horse? Who would believe the tale that was the truth, her only defense? Magic was the thing of childrens’ stories, and there was none to speak for her.
She realized she had but one hope. Gathering her skirts about her, she hurried onto the foreboding hill. The moon light seemed almost to dazzle her as she emerged from the shelter of the trees. She had to work swiftly. The king’s men were near, she felt, and would run her down in a moment if they saw her.
She turned to her right and began circling the hill, walking as swiftly as she dared. She reached out to touch with her foot each of the low, flat rocks making a ring halfway from the top of the bald prominence. In a soft but clear voice, she repeated the eldritch words Conn had spoken, repeating them again and again aloud as she had done in her mind when he had been about this same business.
Once she circled the stones, and she could hear the jingle of bridles. Twice she circled, and the very sounds of horse lungs, like bellows, came to her ears. Three times she circled, and men emerged into the clearing. “Halt!” one yelled, and she recognized the voice of Roderick, the king’s most trusted knight. Swords rang from scabbards as the soldiers prepared to run her down.
Sarah turned towards the crest of the hill and ran as though the very demons of hell pursued her. Behind her, hooves thumped as the men spurred their horses into motion. She scrambled up the slope, clawing at the grass as she nearly fell, tripped by her skirts. Regaining her feet, she could hear the snorting breath of the animals almost upon her as she made one final lurch for the apex just as a cloud passed over the moon. The world went dark. She slammed head-first into something that felt like stone, and she knew no more.
Voices were speaking softly in the darkness when Sarah awoke. Her head throbbed worse than the time her father’s squire had caught her across the crown with one of the wooden practice swords they played at from time to time. From somewhere nearby, a creaky voice softly sang a lullaby in some tongue Sarah could not put a name to.
She waged a mighty battle, and in the end her eyelids relented and opened. The room was dimly lit, but even that faint radiance caused her to squint and suck in her breath. The singing stopped, and a moment later a head came into Sarah’s view, hovering over her.
The head was hideous. A woman’s, or so it seemed, but so misshapen as to be barely recognizable as such. The nose was long and crooked several ways all at once, and upon the left nostril there dwelt a large wart like a toad upon a lillypad. The eyes were too close together, and so narrow and beady they looked like a pair of child’s marbles set into empty eye sockets. The lips were twisted to one side by a strange growth on the right cheek, and when they parted, the teeth beyond were blackened and rotting and uneven. The hair, what there was of it, was wispy and white and greasy. But none of these were the worst of it. No, the worst of it was the skin. Green as pond scum it was, with an iridescent sheen like oil floating upon water.
The beady eyes blinked in surprise at the shriek issuing forth from the bedridden girl, and the owner of that wondrously horrid head took a step back. The lips parted again in what Sarah would later realize was a smile, and the same creaky voice, like the timbers of a ship long at sea, spoke in English. “Now now dearie,” the voice said, “let’s have none of that. You just lay back and rest, you’ve taken a nasty lump to the head. Lay back and rest, and Auntie Sootstockings will fetch you a nice bowl of broth.”
Sarah was quite sure she did not know what to make of that remarkable speech, nor of the fact that this creature, so obviously a witch straight out of legend, had not yet tried to eat her. She was, however, quite sure that the pounding in her head intensified when she tried to sit up, and thus she was forced to concede that perhaps the old witch had a point. She sank back into the pillows.
The old crone bustled off, and Sarah used the moment to study her surroundings. The bed upon which she found herself was crude, the posts looking like nothing so much as bare, gnarled branches of some sickly tree. The walls, she decided after a brief inspection, were dirt. She was underground. The light came from a small fire in a hole dug into one wall, a primitive fireplace of some sort. The stool the wart-nosed creature had been sitting on was of a kind with the bed: rudely made of wood, one leg noticeably shorter than the other two. She could not see the floor from where she lay, but she had no reason to suspect it was anything but the same packed dirt as the walls.
So wrapped up in her situation was Sarah that she utterly failed to notice that, at her earlier cry of fear, the speaking voices had ceased. She wasn’t even entirely sure they had been real, perhaps being merely a trailing end of some dream she could not quite remember, until the owners of those voices stepped into the room.
Sarah was proud of herself. She did not scream again.
One of the creatures what peered down at her in curiosity was, like the crone, built at least roughly along the lines of a human. This is to say, he possessed two arms, two legs, a head, two eyes, and the other usual assortment common to most of that species. That he was not human was all too readily apparent, however, in the proportions of those traits. His round head was almost as big as his entire torso, and sat atop a neck so slender it was a wonder the entire thing didn’t snap off and roll away. The legs were comically short, giving the man-thing a waddling walk as it moved closer to the bed. The arms, by contrast, were twice as long as Sarah’s, and dragged along behind the creature. It was dressed in filthy brown and green rags, and the greasy red tam o’ shanter perched precariously atop his head did nothing to conceal the fact that he was as bald and smooth of dome as a baby’s behind.
The other creature made not even a passing attempt at humanity. If it had remained still, Sarah would have taken it for a small tree, leafless and dying. It’s bark was gray and much cracked, it’s limbs were spindly and long. Two knots near the center of the trunk just above a small declivity gave it the impression of a horrible sort of face. When that declivity widened and opened, Sarah realized it was a face after all, which naturally only made things worse. Trees are not supposed to have faces, Sarah was absolutely certain of that.
The little bald man bared his teeth at Sarah, and it was all she could do not to faint. His teeth were sharp like those of a cat, but there were dozens of them it seemed.
A voice issued from the mouth-slit of the tree-thing, and Sarah’s mind rebelled against imagining that it actually came from the creature despite the evidence of her eyes and ears. “I ken ye hap sceered th’ lass, Scabber me bain.”
“Aye, t’would appear t’be th’case,” the grotesque dwarf replied. “Sorry, m’girl, I dinnae mean ta. We were jus’ curious ‘ow ye came ta be here in the Underland, is all. We’ll not hurt you, we just want to talk.”
Sarah took a deep breath and let it out slowly, a trick she learned from practicing in the yard to calm herself when things were going poorly or she was having a hard time learning a new technique. It worked as well in this dirt cave as it did in the mud of her father’s training ring, and if her mind did not stop gibbering and trying to crawl out of the back of her head to hide, at least it did so quietly enough that she could think. She noticed that the longer these two remarkable creatures spoke, the better she could understand them. She was not sure why this should be and resolved to attempt to puzzle it out later when she had time alone. More pressingly, the creatures seemed to expect a response, and so she composed herself to give them one.
“I am not entirely sure,” she said. “I was helping a man… a stranger who came injured to our door around mid-winter. He… he needed my help with something…” Sarah discovered that the details of the last several days had a tendency to slip from her grasp like water if she concentrated on them. If she let her mind wander, however, she could sneak up on the edges of those thoughts and capture at least part of them that way. “He was going somewhere to fight. A place he’d been before. The pretty man with white hair said he would fix his leg if he fought again. And I helped him get…. I helped him get… hidden under bushes, it was. Bright in the spring sun, gleaming like water. Shiny, metal… oh, why can’t I remember?”
The ugly little dwarf and the leafless tree-thing turned towards each other at this. And while it would be many years before Sarah would learn to read the faces of the tree-things, that of the dwarf was all too easily deciphered. Surprise and fear were writ upon his ugly features for all to see as he said, “Pretty man with white hair? Shiny? Mid-winter? She must mean the Champion. We must warn the King!”
“Aye,” the stiff voice of the witch-crone announced her return even as the smell of hot broth filled the air. “You do that, and leave the girl to rest. Smack into a rock she ran, headfirst, as though fleeing the very Hounds themselves. Quite a nasty knock to the head she has suffered, and needs her rest without the two of you nattering away at her and driving her to distraction. Off with you, shoo!” She waved one arm at the two while cradling the bowl of soup in the other, and the two bowed and hurried off on their mission.
“Drink this,” the ugly old woman said, holding the bowl to Sarah’s lips and helping her raise her head with a surprisingly strong hand. “It will help you get your strength back, and then you should sleep.”
“Oh, I couldn’t sleep,” Sarah said after swallowing a few mouthfuls. “I just woke up. I am not at all sleepy.”
“Yes dear,” the witch ignored Sarah’s words, easing the girl’s head back into the pillows. By the time the crone withdrew her hand, Sarah was already snoring softly.
Twice more Sarah woke, was fed, and went back to sleep. Each time, just on the border of wakefulness, she thought she heard voices talking softly. The first time she could not make out what was being said, although the second time she caught the words, “nasty scar,” and, “getting better.”
When she awoke next, Sarah found her caretaker, the crone, sitting by her side, humming and knitting. Crooked teeth revealed themselves in a smile. “Hello dearie,” the crone said, “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Sarah said, meaning it. The pain in her head was almost entirely gone, leaving only the very faintest of headaches. She tried sitting up, and was rewarded with not a wave of dizziness as in times past, but with merely a different angle of view of the little room. The floor was, she was not surprised to see, dirt. “I am much better, thank you. I um… I am sorry that I screamed when I first saw you. It caught me by surprise is all, seeing a stranger’s face.”
The crone laughed and shook her head. “It is kind of you to try to dissemble, girl,” she said, “but I am perfectly well aware of what I look like, how your kind sees us. Do not trouble yourself over it.” She paused, then lifted a finger in warning, “However, there are others who are touchy about such things. It might be best, as long as you are in the Underland, to keep a tight rein on your screams, screeches, shrieks and wails.”
Sarah ducked her head to hide her blush, mumbling, “Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.” After a moment, she looked up again to find the crone back at her needles. “I am sorry, you have taken such good care of me and yet I do not even know your name. Mine is Sarah. Sarah of Whiterock castle.”
The crone smiled again, and Sarah found the sight of those twisted lips and those jagged teeth not quite so hideous as before. “I am Auntie Sootstockings,” she replied. “I thought I mentioned that before? Oh well, no matter. Now you know my name. When you are feeling up to it, you have a visitor.”
“A visitor?” the girl looked blankly at her nurse. “Who would want to see me?”
“I’ll call him in, shall I?” Auntie Sootstockings gained her feet with much creaking and popping of joints. She waddled over to the only doorway in the room and out into the next. “She’s ready for you, your Majesty,” Sarah heard her say. A moment later, a man so tall he had to duck his head to stand in the room, entered.
Sarah gasped and shrank back in the bed, her face paling and breaking into a light sweat in fear. “Elathan!”
One of the tall man’s eyebrows lifted just the smallest amount, and his lips quirked into a wry smile. “No, although by your reaction I see you’ve met my father. Tell me about it.”
And indeed, though the resemblance was quite marked, Sarah began to notice differences between this man and the one who had visited the castle where she lived. He was older looking, for one thing, with a few small, faint lines on his face that the visitor shared not. Also, he seemed somehow less cruel. This is not to say that he seemed kindly like old Cook back home, simply that his severity was tempered with a kind of compassion that was lacking in the man he called his father. He was, if anything, even more beautiful than Elathan, and Sarah hoped he could not hear her heart pounding against her ribs.
“How can he be your father?” she asked. “You seem…” Sarah bit her lip then as she realized how close she had come to possibly offering offense to this man that Auntie Sootstockings called ‘majesty.’
She had no need to concern, however, for the man smiled sadly. “Older? Yes, I know. I am not, but life is harder in the Underland than in the Summer Garden above. Now, tell me how it is you came to meet him, under what circumstances and what transpired, then and after, to bring you here to this sunless place.”
Sarah sat up and leaned herself against the headboard of the bed. She ordered her thoughts, cleared her throat, and began to speak.
After telling her story, the tall man left Sarah to rest again. She did not sleep immediately, but did spend some time simply laying there and thinking. Talking to the man had helped her with her memory. Indeed, it almost seemed as if whatever it was that prevented her from remembering simply melted away in his presence. She found herself able to recall the smallest details when asked for them.
She wondered at the vicious disdain and hate that Conn had directed at her. She wracked her mind, trying to think of a reason, an offense or insult she may have offered him to account for such bitter animosity. She could think of none.
When next Auntie Sootstockings came in with a bowl of savory stew, Sarah asked her, “Auntie, did you know Conn Map Art? The two who were here before seemed to.”
The crone looked startled for a moment, then waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t you worry about it, dearie. Those two think they know everything and everyone, but most of the time they’re just looking for attention.”
“You’re avoiding the question,” Sarah pointed out between spoonfuls of the thick, salty stew.
Auntie was quiet for a goodly long while, and Sarah had decided she was ignoring the question entirely when finally the old woman spoke. “Yes, I know him. Not well, but I could point to his face in a crowd. Even if he weren’t the only human in that crowd,” she chortled to herself. “He is the Champion of Light, you see.”
Sarah’s spoon paused midway between bowl and lip. “Conn is the Champion of Light? But he… “ Sarah set the spoon back in the bowl, frowning. “No, I am afraid that I do not see at all. He was, and forgive me if he is a local hero, but he was extremely cruel to me.”
Auntie Sootstockings glanced at the girl in surprise for a moment, and then laughed. “Oh no, dearie. He’s not a local hero. Quite the opposite. You see, he’s the Champion of Light. That is to say, the Court that styles themselves the ‘Fair’ or ‘Seemly’ amongst our kind. They live in the Summer Garden, above, and force us to live down here in the Underland. We are called the Dark Court, or the Unseemly. So no, he’s no hero to us.”
Sarah’s brows knitted as she thought this over, for there was much in what Auntie said that puzzled the girl. “But, how can they be Light and you are Dark, when you are so kind to me and they are… at least their Champion, is so very very cruel?”
The old crone creaked and popped her way onto her stool and pulled her knitting from a small satchel slung over her shoulder. “Well, dearie, it is quite simple. ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ have nothing to do with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in our case. It has simply to do with what type of faerie you are. The Sidhe and their favored species, such as pixies and sylphs, are ‘Light’ because they are pretty and fair to look upon. Seemly, as they say. The rest of us, the goblins and kobolds and redcaps and crones and knockers and all the rest, are Unseemly, Dark, ugly to look at.”
“I see,” Sarah said. “Still, that is all very rude. It is not as if you had any say in how you look. You were just born like this, right?”
“That’s right, dearie.”
Sarah are in silence for a time, the only sounds in the room the crackling of the fire, the clink of spoon and bowl, and the click-click of Auntie’s needles. At last, Sarah stirred the quiet to ask, “So, what is a Champion of Light then?”
“Ahh yes,” Auntie Sootstockings nodded her wizened old head. “The Champion. Well, you see, every tenyear, there is a great contest, to see who will live in the Summer Garden for the next year, and who will be banished to the Underland. Once upon a time, this was a grand battle between the Light and the Dark, but too many died. Eventually, the King and Queen of the Light met with the King of the Dark, and they agreed to settle the matter using single combat. Of course, the King of the Light did not relish the thought of facing his son in battle, so it was further agreed that each side could pick a Champion. That way, only one person has to die each tenyear.”
“Oh!” Sarah smiled brightly. “This happens every ten years? So then you have a chance to come out of the Underland next time, right? Here from the way you were talking, I thought the Dark Court had been down here forever.”
“We have,” Auntie nodded sadly. “Or almost so anyways. You see, dearie, since the contest is now Champion against Champion, we have yet to win a single contest. And yet, the thought of going back to the old ways, of hundreds or perhaps thousands dying, does not bear thinking about.”
Sarah frowned a mighty frown of dissatisfaction. “How is it you’ve not won a single fight in all that time? Surely there must be SOME in the Dark Court who are capable warriors?”
“Oh yes, most certainly. We have many strong, doughty warriors,” Auntie said. “However, the Light cheats. Well, you’ve seen.”
Sarah puzzled over this for a moment before admitting defeat. “I am afraid I do not understand, Auntie. Please explain it to me.”
“The Light,” Auntie shook her head, “cheat. You’ve seen their Champion. He’s a human.”
“So? I would match that tree-thing that visited me against any knight in my king’s army.”
Auntie smiled gently at the girl, and Sarah wondered at how she could have ever been afraid of that smile. “Dearie, the lowest squire in your king’s army could beat the mightiest ogre or troll in all of Faerie, with but a scratch.” She held up one needle and pantomimed a sword cut with it. “Iron, you see, or steel which is but iron made supple. It is deadly to us. Even the slightest scratch, the barest nick. In the last contest, just this last mid-winter past, the Light’s Champion, this Conn Map Art, faced off against our Champion, Oakthews the troll. Oakthews was over seven feet tall and very nearly as wide. He swung his spiked club and it cut straight through Conn’s armor and tore a gash in his leg that would put the mightiest of men down. But Conn was already swinging his sword, and it glanced across Oakthews’ arm. Oakthews… was a long time dying, but die he did while Conn still breathed and thus the contest went to the Light again. Thus it has ever been, since as far back as we can remember.”
Sarah held her breath during the description of the battle, only letting it out in a long, sad sigh at the telling of the death of the Dark Court’s troll Champion. “Well,” she struggled to find the words, “Why don’t you get your own human Champion? Then it would be fair again.”
Auntie Sootstockings set her knitting down in her lap and leaned forward. “Look at me, dearie. I’m considered almost Seemly by the standards of my people. What human would fight for us? The Light offers a decade of beauty and delicacies and the choice of fair Faerie women to dally with. What have we to offer but ugliness and darkness and mushroom stew? And trust me, dearie, you get very, very tired of mushroom stew after a year or two.”
And Sarah had no answer for that, so she ate her mushroom stew in silence, thinking it quite tasty actually.
Auntie Sootstocking had a point about the mushroom stew, Sarah decided two weeks later. It was tasty at first, but when it is almost the only thing you ever eat, it loses much of its appeal. Setting the bowl aside, she rose from her bed and went to stand in front of the silver plate, polished to a bright sheen, that she was using as a mirror.
Gingerly did she probe the area around the stitches on her forehead. The wound she had received running face-first into the stone lintel of the door to Toadsberg’s common square when she first arrived was healing well, they told her, although she would forever bear the mark of her adventure in the form of a scar that, they also told her, would fade to a faint white line in time. “Barely noticeable, if you wear your hair the right way,” Lumpnose had solemnly promised her when she brought it up.
Lumpnose was, of course, the dwarf who, along with his friend Rootmoss, had found her and brought her to Auntie Sootstockings’ attention after her, as he liked to call it, ‘little run-in.’ Lunpnose was not a dwarf, actually, and when she mistakenly called him such he grew quite upset. “I’m a redcap, thank you very much,” he had retorted indignantly. “Don’t be letting the dwarves hear you calling me one of them, they’ll enchant your hair so it turns blue.” With this stern warning ringing in her ears, she had never again made the mistake of calling him a dwarf.
Auntie had, several days after the visit from the King, decided Sarah was well enough to go out although she was strictly instructed not to wander far or she might get lost, and if she felt at all dizzy or tired or weak she should return immediately or else sit and rest for a while and wait for help. Sarah had laughingly told the old crone she was quite alright, thank you, and that she could take care of herself. Still, she did take it easy those first few days, merely exploring the common square and the tunnels directly off of it.
Living underground was a new experience for Sarah. Although she lived in a castle which, Rootmoss maintained, must be much the same, Sarah had spent most of her days out of doors. It took some getting used to, never to see the sun in the sky or feel it’s warmth upon her face, never to feel a breeze stir her hair or playfully rustle her skirts.
And, of course, there were the people. Auntie had not exaggerated when she said that she was as close to pretty as most of the Dark Court got. Even Rootmoss who, Sarah found out later, was both female and Lumpnose’s wife, was far from the strangest thing she saw in those first days in the Underland.
Humans are nothing if not adaptable however, the young doubly-so, and thus it was that by the end of her first fortnight in Faerie, Sarah had grown accustomed to the strange shapes and odd smells. No longer did she see hideous dwarves and walking trees, she saw only Lumpnose and Rootmoss. No longer did she see massive, sharp-toothed baby eating nightmares or hunched, hairy creatures with moss growing on them, she saw ogres and trolls. No longer did she start with fright or wonder when a passing badger or wolverine suddenly stood on it’s hind legs or began speaking. She took it all in stride, in the way of young people.
She did miss variety in her meals, however.
Turning from the silver plate, she slipped out of the bed-room and into the main room where Auntie Sootstockings sat on her wobbly three-legged stool, patiently knitting and purling. She looked up when Sarah sighed dramatically. “What is it, dear?”
Sarah worried her lower lip for a brief span, like a dog with a bone to which still cling some choice bits of meat. “I can never go home, can I?” she asked.
Auntie put her knitting down in her lap and looked up at the girl. Even if the crone were standing, Sarah would have bested her by a full head or more in height. “No dearie,” she said after studying the young woman’s face. “I am afraid that would not be wise. They will still want to hang you for the horse theft, will they not?”
“Yes,” Sarah nodded. “I… can I stay here? I mean, in Underland?”
“Of course you can, dearie,” Auntie smiled and picked up her knitting again. The clicking of needles filled the air once more. “You can even stay here in this house if you like, although we’ll probably want to dig you out a room of your own. These old bones of mine aren’t as young as they once were, and I find the comfort of a bed soothing now and again. We will work something out.”
“But what shall I do in the meantime? I mean…” Sarah paused to gather her thoughts. She was on the verge of an idea, a concept, but did not know quite how to say it. “Back home, I was the daughter of the king’s finest knight. Although not actually royalty, I was the next best thing. I… I wasn’t a servant…” she peered at Auntie to see if the old woman understood what she was fumbling at.
It appears as though she did, for Auntie nodded slowly. “You want to know if you need to pay your way, earn your keep, yes? That I cannot tell you dearie. You should talk to the King.”
“Talk to the King?” Sarah blinked in surprise. Even in her own castle, one did not simply approach the king and speak to him without going through several layers of servants, and one only did it when the need was dire. Still, Auntie seemed to think it was the most normal thing in the world, and so Sarah set her mind to accomplishing this task.
As most know, setting one’s mind to something is one thing and actually doing it is another thing entirely. Sarah found herself, two days later, inventing reasons to put off going to see the King. Her head was still hurting, her dress needed mending, or cleaning, her hair needed a wash, he surely must have better things to do…
In the end, Lumpnose bodily pushed her from the stoop upon which Sarah was explaining how she was simply certain that such presumption on her part would anger the King and he would exile her to the human lands where she would surely be slain. Lumpnose, Sarah discovered, was far stronger than he looked.
“He’s not going to exile you, you daft girl,” he scolded. “For one thing, he’s not like that. For another thing, you are by far the prettiest girl in Underland, he would be a fool to send you hence. And for the last thing, he would have a revolt on his hands if he tried. You’ve made quite a few friends in your short time with us, girl.”
“Besides,” said Rootmoss, “I think he likes you.”
“Likes me? He hardly knows me.”
“That has nothing to do with the kind of ‘like’ I’m talking about,” the dryad responded with what Sarah had learned was a smile. Sarah paused in confusion, then blushed as comprehension found her.
The tunnels that lead from Toadsberg to the King’s city of Darkhome wound this way and that to avoid stubborn tree-roots or large rock formations that it was easier to simply tunnel around than through. Thus it was that a trip that would, on a flat surface plain, have taken perhaps half an hour, lasted more than three hours before Sarah finally found herself spilled into the vast cavern.
The ceiling of the cave was lost in the darkness above, and for a change Sarah didn’t feel a compulsion to duck even while knowing in her head that there was room for her head. This cavern was built by the ogres and trolls and spriggans, and was sized accordingly.
Sarah found the King at last, in a place set aside for training in the ways of arms. She felt oddly at home, as if that ogre there was merely Sir Bart after a particularly nasty night of drinking, and that sullen troll there was Sir Reginald’s new squire, fresh from his father’s lands and unhappy with the arrangement. In the ring, the King faced off against the largest ogre Sarah had yet seen. As it was plain that they were wrapping up when she approached, Sarah paused to lean on the gnarled wooden fence and listen to the King’s parting words of advice.
“I know it’s not what you are used to, but use the shield. Remember, all he has to do is scratch you.”
The King, spotting Sarah, broke into a smile that was equal parts delight and chagrin. “Good day, m’lady. Do you need aught of me?”
Sarah’s heart leapt in her bosom at the sound of his voice, and she furiously scolded herself to behave and not stammer and blush like a love-struck girl even if, were she to be utterly and ruthlessly honest with herself, she was. “Your Majesty,” she said, and almost cursed as her voice cracked. “Ahem. Your Majesty, I was told I should ask you if…” she trailed off as a new thought suddenly caught her unawares. “Wait. Is this to be your Champion?” she pointed at the ogre who was even then putting away his massive club and shield.
The King followed her gaze and his face fell. He nodded sadly, “Yes, that is he. Our mightiest warrior, Thundergrip, but I fear he will lose just like his older brother Stonecrusher lost but a short couple of months ago. The memory of him is still bittersweet in our minds, but if we’re to have even the slightest chance of winning, we must begin training right away.”
Sarah’s eyes widened and her back stiffened as if she were struck by lightning. Suddenly, it all made sense. She knew what she had to do. She knew why she was here. “No,” she turned to the King, her eyes still round as saucers. “Not him. Me.”
Silence greeted this for a beat, two beats, and then the ogres and trolls and spriggans began to laugh. “You?” bellowed Thundergrip. “You’re naught e’en half my size, little mortal.”
“I know I’m not,” Sarah spoke swiftly and loudly over the hooting and chortling of the creatures around her. “But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the iron, right? The steel sword?”
The laughter died instantly. Every Faerie there was thinking of how Stonecrusher had died, and before him Granitetower, and so on, a line of dead friends and family stretching back centuries, all felled by the hated metal, iron.
“Yes,” the King nodded slowly, “What of it?”
Sarah turned to face him, her smile never wavering. “I’m human. I’m immune. A mere scratch won’t kill me.”
“This is true,” the King said, “But Conn Map Art is, in addition to bearing steel, a skilled knight. You, unless I miss my guess, are not?”
“It is true I am not a knight,” Sarah said. “But I have watched my father, who trains the king’s other knights, all my life. I have trained with the squires. I have fought with them and sometimes I win. We have ten years to prepare…”
“Exactly,” the King nodded and his warrior nodded with him. “Not nearly enough time.”
“You don’t see it,” Sarah shook her head so her hair flew about her. “For a human, ten years is a very long time. We learn fast compared to you, because we have such a short time to do it in. Train me. Teach me. All of you. Conn Map Art will be whiling away his ten years in pleasures and delicacies, counting on his steel sword and his steel armor to win the day for him. I will spend every day learning to beat him. We can do it. I can do it.” She looked around and saw doubt, but the beginnings of interest on the faces of the fae. “Besides, what is the worst that happens? If I lose you don’t lose one of your people, and you will have gained yourselves ten more years to train Thundergrip.”
The ogres and trolls and spriggans thought about that for a span of time. Then, almost as one, they turned to the King. “It’s not a bad idea, your Majesty,” said Lankweed the troll.
“No, it’s not,” the King nodded. He looked at Sarah closely. “Do you know what it is you are offering? You will train, and train hard, every single day for ten years. And if you fight, you may still die. Are you willing to do this for us? For a bunch of ugly, misshapen creatures you barely know? Why?”
“Because you are not misshapen,” Sarah smiled softly. “Not to me. You saved me, you took me in, you sheltered me. You gave me mushroom stew and a bed to sleep on, when I was a stranger to you. What they are doing, the so-called Light, is not fair. This contest is not fair, and them cheating is not fair. I will even the odds. And if I die, at least I will die surrounded by friends, after spending ten years in my new home, with my new family.”
Sarah fell silent after that speech, somewhat surprised at herself. She had never spoken before a crowd before, but had watched the knights and the king do it all her life and it felt natural.
The King continued to stare at her, speechless in the aftermath of her offer. Then suddenly he grinned broadly. “Conn Map Art lost a leg against Stonecrusher. Elathan replaced it with one of enchanted silver. Enchanted silver handles iron about as well as we ourselves do,” he said, speaking aloud to himself as he thought through an idea. Then he turned to one of the spriggans and ordered, “You have nine years to figure out a way to safely steal a sword from the human lands. A steel sword.” He grinned at Sarah and shrugged. “If they can cheat, so can we.”
The sound of several dozen cheering ogres, trolls, and spirggans fairly near knocked Sarah over. Thundergrip swept her up onto his shoulders and an impromptu parade began. The parade turned into a celebration feast, in which all were invited to attend but the King swore Sarah and his warriors to secrecy about the reason for it. “No sense giving the Light a chance to figure what we’re about,” he smiled.
Deep into the night the celebration went on. Sarah sat beside the King, and they feasted on mushroom stew, fried mushrooms, mushrooms and potatoes, mushroom stuffed mushrooms, and mushroom wine. While his people ate and drank and toasted his health around him, the King leaned over to Sarah so that he might whisper in her ear.
“Yes your Majesty?”
“If this works… if you win… in ten years, if you live, will you marry me?”
“Yes,” Sarah replied breathlessly. “With all my heart, yes.”
For ten years, Sarah trained under the best warriors of the Dark Court. She went to sleep exhausted every night, woke up the next morning and did it again. Somehow, the creatures of the Dark Court stole a good, steel sword for her, and it was left in her room on the morning of the contest.
She bested Conn Map Art in three passes. The first was a feint towards his head which he raised his sword to block. The second was a cut to his gleaming silver leg. The enchantment died the moment the steel of her blade touched it. Weighed down by several hundred pounds of suddenly inert silver, Conn was unable to turn effectively. Sarah’s third stroke went through a gap where his belly, swollen with a decade of easy living and sweetmeats, pushed against his armor. As he lay dying, Sarah lifted her visor and looked down upon him. “I am sorry it came to this,” she said, and then he was gone.
The Dark Court had won for the first time in more centuries than most could count. The Light Court was banished to the Underland, while the Dark moved up to the beautiful and ever-blooming Summer Garden.
Sarah married the King, and together they ruled wisely. By the end of the seventh year after the contest, they brokered a truce with the Light Court, whereby there would be no more contests, no more bloodshed. Instead, people would live wherever they wanted to live. There was more than enough room in the Summer Gardens for all, and some of the Dark Court honestly did prefer to live underground (as, in fact, did some of the Light Court once they were given the opportunity).
This, then, was Sarah’s life. It was a good life, if a little dull. It was a happy life, if a little quiet. It was a peaceful life, which was really not a problem as far as Sarah was concerned.
She hoped it would last forever.
So what I need, critique-wise, for this story are a couple things. 1) Did you like it? 2) What parts could be tightened up? 3) Where can I trim a little? It is currently sitting pretty at around 10,400 words, and I’d like it to squeak in around 10,000 even if possible. 4) Anything else you feel like saying about it.