This morning the sunbeams are coins my father casts into the bannered crowd. Hoisting me onto his shoulder, he fiercely kisses my mother’s cheek, her laughter bright as emblazoned silk. This memory is long ago, far away. My thoughts are thirsty roots that drink the past. The earth holds everything in her depths.
Now my father babbles and drools in his tower, broken and ivory-yellowed. My mother rules the kingdom as best as she can, but she is alone. I am no longer a child to be coddled in her lap, but neither have I yet proven myself. I refuse the maid-servants assigned to me. I fetch my own meals from the kitchen, where the cook shares his secret recipes.
They say a girl becomes a woman by eating the shadow in her heart. In all my waking hours and in all my dreams, desperately I wait for this chance.
One afternoon, while roaming the forest, I discovered vertebrae among the moss. Following the trail of bones, I came upon a shallow grave upturned by wild beasts. From the brass buttons and fragments of once-colorful clothes, I realized this had been a gypsy youth, secretly and hurriedly laid to earth. I was taught that gypsies were murderers and thieves; they were forbidden on my father’s land. Yet I gathered together what remains I could. His head at last I found by the bank of a stream. His hair in the water was very beautiful. I piled stones to safeguard the grave. The next rainfall would wash away the blood, and the loam would take everything in the end as it always did.
My torn hands bled from the stones, but I felt no pain. I roamed deeper into the forest. In time, I came upon a slate table beneath a gnarled oak in a glade. Upon the table stood a bottle of wine and a pewter cup, next to a game of chess. I poured a little of the wine for it was a warm afternoon. But before I could drink, a small man appeared.
At first I thought him a gypsy dwarf, for he was raven-haired with an unpleasant look. But a gypsy’s eyes are brown as the earth, while this man’s eyes were clouded grey. In fact, my first impression was that he was blind, but this did not prove to be true. At once he spoke to me, “Do not drink, you have no right.”
“I am the king’s daughter,” I replied. “This is my father’s forest.”
“Aye,” said the little man, “but the wine is mine.”
“I beg your pardon, sir. I was merely thirsty, coming upon this abandoned table.”
“Are you an idiot, girl?” snapped the little man. “The table is not abandoned. I was only in the woods fetching my supper.” I noticed the brace of coneys at his side and the rustic crossbow slung over his shoulder. He was dressed strangely, in animal hides and rough leggings. Yet precious stones also glinted upon his hands.
“Who are you?” I asked warily.
“Not a thief who would steal a poor traveler’s fare,” he snarled. “I am a pilgrim, a journeyman. I am called Kant.”
My cheeks flushed, for he had insulted me twice now. Yet I remembered my mother’s lessons in diplomacy. “Once again, I beg your pardon, master Kant,” I replied evenly. “I should have looked for the owner first.” I stepped back. “Be well in your travels.” I turned to go.
“Wait!” the dwarf called out. “You have poured the wine.” My confusion must have shown on my face. Impatiently, he gestured towards the table. “The wine, it has been poured. Now the match must be played.”
Then I recognized what he was. This odd little man was a magician. I saw it about him as one sees the strength in a badger or the swiftness in a fox. My heart quickened. “You are my test,” I declared.
The dwarf glared, picking at a wart on his nose. I did not mean to be cryptic. “You are my chance to prove myself,” I explained. “You are my shadow.”
The man started at this, studying me with obvious dislike. He untied the coneys and slung them in a heap onto the ground. “We shall see,” he merely said. “But first, I am hungry, and I must eat. You will make me a fire.”
It was late in the afternoon, and I was deeper in the forest than I had ever explored before. I looked in the direction of my father’s castle. I was already late for fencing practice, and after dinner I would have history lessons and embroidery to finish. The evening would be cold and I did not have my cloak. I was unarmed except for a dagger at my hip.
But if this was my shadow as I suspected, I could not return home. Here was my chance to prove myself. In his tower, my father the king babbled and drooled. I looked back to the little man. “I will help,” I said.
“You will fetch the kindling, girl.” He turned his hunched back and began to prepare the coneys. I watched his quick, gnarled fingers, the way he wielded his little knife. The blood shone brightly in the dappled sun.
I went to fetch the kindling.
Now in those days, the forest was wholly untamed and perilous. The villagers scoured its outskirts for firewood, mushrooms, berries and nuts, but rarely did they venture farther than a bowshot into its depths. Every few years, someone disappeared into the trees forever, and stones were laid at the forest’s edge.
Master Conner my father’s warden, however, had instructed me in tracking, herblore and archery. I was confident in my woodcraft and always eager to practice it. In those days, I was proud to believe only he and Jack the woodcutter knew the forest better than I.
This did not mean I was unafraid. I was, after all, still just a girl. By the time I had prepared a fire and the coneys were spitted and roasting, I was aware that the shadows had begun to grow.
And with them, so did the little man.
As the light drained from the great boughs, his coarse beard bristled and thickened. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his yellow teeth broaden and grow more sharp. His eyes sank into his skull and his brow grew heavy. When we first met, I could have sworn I was the taller. But by the time the coneys were fit for eating, it was he who stood a whole head taller than I.
He sat down to the meal and did not share any of the food. This angered me, for I was hungry and I had helped with the fire. The smell of the roasting meat made my mouth water, but I held my tongue. To pass the time, I strove to make conversation. “I might warn you, sir,” I remarked, “one needs to be careful traveling alone in these parts. There have been gypsies hereabouts.”
The man uttered a series of short, guttural barks which I took for laughter. Grease dripped down his chin as he tore off another mouthful of meat. “You need not worry about me, girl. The gypsies know who I am.”
Streaks of violet and crimson stained the sky. A chill wind lashed the forest canopy. In the restless firelight, an abrupt and horrible vision overtook me. Instead of a leg of coney, the man held in his fist the roasted arm of a human child. The vision lasted only a heartbeat, but in that moment, the man seemed to grow even larger. He ate heartily, cracking and sucking the marrow from the bones.
By the time he began to devour the second coney, he was even bigger than the blacksmith Hans. The sun shrank below the western hills and the cold, crescent moon began to rise. I imagined by now the whole household would be searching for me, combing the forest with lanterns and hounds. I strained my ears, but I heard nothing beyond the insects and the scratching of small, secret beasts.
My companion Kant began to consume the third and last coney. Across the glowing fire pit, through the smoke and fitful sparks, I gazed upon a veritable giant. Now his arms were as thick as my waist. The wart on his nose was the size of an overripe apple. At last, he licked his fingers, wiped them in his beard, and was done with his meal.
Night had fallen.
He drew himself to his feet, towering over me, twice my height. He glowered down, his eyes twin glowing, silver coins. “You are my shadow,” I announced.
He laughed again and it was the sound of a drawbridge lowering. “I am a pilgrim,” he said, “a journeyman. I am called Kant.”
“Well, master journeyman Kant,” I said, “I have poured the wine, have I not?”
His black lips stretched apart, revealing evil-looking fangs. “You have poured the wine.” He strode to the stone table and I followed. “When the wine is poured,” said the giant, “the match must be played. Tonight, if I win, you will give me your body to eat.”
“And if I win,” I retorted, “you will give me your body to eat.”
My shadow grinned. “Agreed.” He picked up the cup and dashed its contents across the table. I looked down at the chessboard, and my heart caught in my throat.
Here were all those I knew: master Conner with his goshawk upon his wrist; Hans the blacksmith hammer in hand; clever Jack with his long-handled axe; the pink washerwomen by the river; the shepherds with their crooked staves; the strong-boned farmers plowing their fields; lonely and beautiful, my mother presided over them; next to her, my father hunched, silent and beleaguered in his rusted armor and crown, yet he looked up at me strangely with calm and knowing eyes.
Against them all, Kant played his own army: pestilence and famine, war and rebellion, thorny ambition, and black bitter avarice. And madness, of course.
We had no need of dragons.
Without ceremony, we began. Where we stood, the field rose to meet us. On that cracked, stone table beneath the ancient oak, I battled my shadow as best I could, as best as I had been taught. He was a magician, but I was a king’s daughter and determined to prove myself.
As we contested, I noticed a youth standing beyond the glade. Though he hovered outside the circle of firelight, an eerie glow suffused his form. He opened his mouth and his gray lips moved. He raised his arm and beckoned to me.
I grasped a brand from the fire and approached the apparition. “Who are you?” I asked in wonder. But the youth only turned and began to walk away.
The giant demanded, “Where are you going, girl?”
I hastened back and quickly replied, “It is getting darker. I went to put more wood upon the fire.” He seemed satisfied by this answer, and thrust a playing piece across the board.
After a moment, the youth reappeared, this time with two others, a boy and a young man. Once more I contrived to slip away. “Who are you?” I asked again. But again, all three only turned and began to walk away.
The giant demanded, “Where are you going, girl?”
I hastened back and loudly replied, “It is getting colder. I went to put more wood on the fire.”
The giant squinted narrowly. “Mind your manner,” he growled, “lest you wish to hasten your own defeat. Your game is precarious as it stands.”
It was true, this match was not going well at all. On many winters’ nights, I had played against my father before the great hearth. I remembered his ruby ring, the flickering embroidery of his sleeves, the laughter in his eyes, creased with care. Some things only a king can teach. On this night, my thoughts were thirsty roots that drank the past.
Now I wondered for the first time what would happen if I lost and never returned home. In time, my mother would lay a stone at the forest’s edge. She would rule the kingdom as best as she could, then she would die alone.
My father had left us long ago.
Awaiting the giant’s next move, I glanced beyond the fire and saw the three spectral figures once again. I went to them quickly, stealthily. “Who are you?” I demanded.
This time, the boy walked past me into the glade. Fireflies passed through his form. Approaching the table, he reached out and moved a playing piece of my own. The giant scowled, muttering under his breath, all his mind and will bent upon the battlefield, and did not seem to notice this new opponent who had taken my place.
The two others led me into the forest. “Where are we going?” I asked. But they made no reply. In the darkness, I stumbled many times. Soon the canopy thinned, and we emerged onto a path lined with bones. At my feet lay the broken skeletons of birds and beasts, great and small. Their numbers were countless.
Here I stood upon the path of the dead.
In the starlight, my companions appeared pale and wasted. Yet I recognized their rotted, once-colorful garments, the brass buttons of their boots. These were gypsy brothers, spirits unrested, their eyes the color of the earth.
“Tell me,” I asked. “Where does this lead?”
The eldest pointed down the road. It was clear I was to continue alone. I wondered how long it would be before the giant realized I was gone. If my absence were discovered, surely I would forfeit the match. Then I was foresworn to give him my body to eat. I would be skinned and butchered, and roasted like the coneys. The grease of my fat would drip down his chin. My own bones would end up upon this road.
“I cannot,” I said, “I must return.”
The youth lay his hand against my arm. He did not seem much older than me. His hair was very beautiful. He leaned in and kissed me upon the lips. Something cold and hard slipped into my mouth. I removed it and stared at it in surprise.
It was a brass key.
It was a small, simple, yet extraordinary thing. The youth regarded me unblinking. I had never been kissed by any youth before in my life, and I wondered if this was what all kisses were like. But I did not think this was the case, as he was dead.
Without warning, a beast appeared down the path. The hairs rose on my arms, and the blood drained from my face. I thought of bears and wolves and boars, but it was none and all of these, bounding towards us. Before I could stop him, the youth dashed forward to meet it. Instantly, the beast trampled him into the earth, and fell upon him with slavering jaws.
I cried out and rushed to his aid, snatching up a heavy bone. But to my astonishment the youth only gestured for me to continue on down the path. Intent on devouring him, the monstrous beast took no heed of me. But he could distract the creature for only so long.
I put his key in my pocket and hurried past. The eldest brother poised watching me go. He raised his left hand where an amber eye shone upon his palm. This transformed into an owl which spread its wings and flew after me.
Racing down the path, I passed human remains. Some were still intact, possessing hair and skin, jaws askew, while others were mere bones half-buried amongst the roots. The tawny owl followed at my shoulder, speeding me on.
The path ended and I came upon the ruins of a tower. I trod gasping amidst its stones. Somehow, eerily, I knew this place. All at once, it dawned on me that this was my father’s castle, that this was my own home. Everything was gone: the apple orchards, the stables, the entire keep itself. Ivy wreathed the crumbling walls. Tall trees and saplings grew in the fountain court.
There was moss everywhere.
The bone in my hand twisted, leapt from my grip, sprang across the yard and transformed into a she-hart. A door in the tower opened, and out rode a hunter in a mask which was the skull of a horse. He sat astride a black goat, wielding a black spear. Upon seeing the hart, he spurred the goat forwards. The hart leapt aside with the hunter in pursuit, both crashing away through the trees.
The way now lay open into the tower.
I pushed through the door, past thick cobwebs brittle with insect husks. Through chinks in the stone, starlight pierced the darkness. The tawny owl circled upwards. There was only one direction. I drew my dagger and ascended the steps.
I came to the topmost chamber whose vaulted ceiling had collapsed long ago. In this place, the wind and sky shone bright. Someone sat hunched upon a broken throne overlooking the land, a ruby ring gleaming upon his withered hand.
I circled the throne.
My father the king looked up at me.
I remembered the flickering embroidery of his sleeves, the laughter in his eyes, creased with care. On this night, many wounds pierced him. The blood seemed black in the starlight. I sheathed my dagger, clutched his hand and kissed his ring. “Father,” I exclaimed. Gently, I peeled the moss from his neck and face. “Father.”
The owl transformed into a looking-glass. In it, long ago, far away, I saw gold coins cast into a bannered crowd. “Father,” I said one last time.
He crumbled into cinders. Amongst the dying embers lay the coins. I scooped these up, stood and faced the long path down which I had come. Far towards the horizon, I could still see the light of the fire where my shadow played beneath an ancient oak.
I cast the coins into the air. They turned into moths, scattering across the wind. I took up the ruby ring and left the tower. As I emerged into the courtyard, a sharp clatter of hooves echoed between the broken walls. The masked hunter had returned. He charged towards me, his black spear leveled at my breast.
I slipped on my father’s ring and raised my fist. The golden moths spilled from the sky and beat about the hunter’s face. With a furious cry, he swerved aside. His steed stumbled and his spear broke upon the tower wall.
I ran past him up the path.
I had not forgotten the guardian beast. It waited for me ahead, cruel tusks gleaming. The brass key sang. When I took it from my pocket, it lengthened, spilling into a sharp-edged sword.
The beast hurled itself towards me and I leapt aside. It whirled and charged again. This time I slashed and stabbed. It reared and fell, wounded between the ribs. The wound burst wide and the youth clambered forth. The beast thrashed, struggling to its feet. But I had grasped the youth’s hand and we were already fleeing up the path.
The eldest brother waited for us, palm upraised. As we drew abreast, he lowered his arm. I heard a vast rumble behind me, and felt the earth tremble. The tower had fallen.
When we left the path, I no longer stumbled in the dark. Through the trees I eventually saw the light of a fire, and knew we had come back to the glade. The giant Kant stood before the stone table, arms folded like twisted trunks, his chin buried in his hand. Opposite him, the boy poised, small and pale in the firelight. Breathlessly, I reclaimed my place.
The three brothers drew back.
The giant raised his shaggy head. “It is your move, girl,” he said, “unless you wish to forfeit the match.” He showed his teeth, nostrils flaring. I think he could already smell my roasting flesh.
I studied the playing field, my heart pounding in my chest. “No, master Kant,” I replied, “I do not.” Many sacrifices had been made. Now I realized this match could never be won. He was a magician and I a mere king’s daughter. Yet I still held the sword that was a key that was a kiss. When I raised it, my father’s ruby blazed. “But I do not wish to play this game anymore.”
The giant Kant stared. I leapt up onto the table. With both my hands, with all my strength, I drove the sword down, plunging it into my shadow’s heart.
His mouth formed a round O. For an instant, I saw myself reflected in his eyes. The silver irises thinned and disappeared. He staggered backwards, crashing into the earth.
The blood poured from him as darkness pours from the forest, from the unmapped places, from superstition, from fear. He clawed at the hilt in his chest, bellowing and roaring, gnashing his teeth. Yet he was mortally wounded, and began to shrink, diminishing and furling upon himself. At last, he transformed into his true form.
Before me, the figure lay spread-eagled upon the earth, lips wet, trembling. I climbed down from the table. “Don’t be afraid,” I said.
The girl looked up at me. She now seemed so young. She drew one last breath and spoke our name. Then she was still.
The youth stepped forwards and drew the blade from the body. The sword shrank back into a key which he placed upon his tongue. He smiled once at me. Even in death, he was a handsome lad. Then all three brothers faded away.
My trial was not yet finished. I took out my dagger and set to work as the little man had set to work on the coneys.
I roasted my shadow and ate her.
It took me all night. But I had the wine to wash her down, an excellent vintage. It tasted of sunlight, strawberries and walnuts. It tasted of my father’s land.
From my shadow’s skin I made a cloak. From her bones I fashioned a stout walking stick. The rest I buried in the glade, beneath the oak. When I was done, feeling weary and full, I lay down by the fire and fell asleep.
I did not need to dream.
I awoke refreshed at the break of dawn. As I brushed the dew from my eyes, the sunrise struck the oak’s ancient crown. While I slept, its brown leaves had turned to gold. Where the table once stood, only a circle of white mushrooms in the green sward remained. Of the three brothers, there was no sign.
It has often been the way of such things, and I was not surprised.
My father’s ring shone upon my hand. My mother the queen waited for me. Quickly, I took up my new cloak and staff and started home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David K. Yeh has worked thirteen years as an expressive arts therapist. He has written four plays produced in Toronto; his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in On Spec, Electric Spec, Lackington’s and Apex, as well as Bundoran Press’ Second Contacts anthology. David loves being in the forest, especially around a campfire at night.