The Fairest of Them All

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a lot of short stories, most of them in response to various writing competitions or open calls for anthologies or magazines. However, most of these stipulate that the work must be unpublished, which includes posting it on a blog like this one, so I haven’t been able to share my work on this page. Reedsy.com is a website for writers which posts free writing prompts every Friday and encourages aspiring authors to produce a piece of writing between 1000 and 3000 words based on one of these prompts. They’ve just started publishing all the entries each week on their website, and I have to admit some of the entries are pretty good.

Of course, there will be weeks when none of the prompts inspire, but I had an idea straightaway for an entry based on their Week 2 set of prompts, so the link to the page is here – https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/2/ – and my story is below. If you like my story, please go on the reedsy website and like it there too; if you don’t like it, why not leave a comment, suggesting ways in which it could be improved.

I’m not quite sure how to define this one: is it a Gothic fairy tale, or steampunk, or magic realism? Does it actually matter? The story is below:

The Fairest Of Them All

It was evening when I first saw her, but her beauty lit up the cottage like a blazing lantern. The seven of us were dirty and sweaty from toiling all day in the mine – tired too: it takes it out of you after a while – but our fatigue vanished when we beheld this lovely creature, curled up across several of our beds, dark hair fanned out over the pillow.

Jon was the first to say anything. “A fairy – in our ‘ouse!” he breathed. Poor soul – he was dropped when he was a baby and he’s been a bit simple ever since.

“Don’t ‘ee talk daft!” Gort chided, cuffing him round the head as he usually did. “Whoever ‘eard of a fairy goin’ ter sleep on a ‘uman bed?”

It must have been our voices that woke her, for the next moment, she sat bolt upright, looking for all the world like a frightened fawn. A pretty little thing she was – not much more than fifteen summers, I would say – and my heart was lost from the moment she turned those big brown eyes on me.

“Who are you?” She sounded scared, but she still had her manners because she added politely, “I’m so sorry to have intruded. I knocked, but there was no reply.”

“Don’t ‘ee fret.” That was Gort again. Because he’s the oldest, he always thinks he’s in charge. “You’m ‘aven’t done no ‘arm, from what I can see. But where ‘ave ‘ee come from? There ain’t another cottage for miles about.”

She lowered her gaze then, looking out at us all from under downcast lashes. Finally, “The Castle,” she whispered.

That was when I knew we couldn’t keep her. If she was from The Castle, they’d no doubt be out looking for her by now. I studied her clothes – ragged and dirty they were, and torn as if she’d run through brambles; but her face wasn’t that of a serving girl and her bearing was – well, regal somehow.

“Will they be lookin’ for ‘ee?” Marn broke in. I wondered if he was thinking of a reward.

Her face clouded. “They will if the Huntsman returns and tells them I escaped. He was supposed to kill me, but …” Her lip trembled and she buried her face in her hands. “He tried to do something worse, and that’s when I managed to escape – while he was unbuttoning his breeches –“ 

I think at that moment that everyone of us felt an anger so strong we would have torn that huntsman limb from limb if he’d stood before us. How could anyone hurt such an innocent child? I thought in wonder.

She looked up once more, her eyes brimming with tears. “Can I stay here? I’d feel safe with all of you looking after me.”

Not a brother among us could have denied her. She was bewitchingly beautiful, you see – all snow white skin and ruby red lips and coal black hair. She wasn’t much more than a child, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to put my arms about her and hold her safe for the rest of her life. Love – if that’s what love is – but nothing sinful. My feelings for her were as chaste as the lily flowers that grew outside the window, and as pure as the mountain stream that flowed through our garden. My love was true – but alas! that’s more than could be said of my brethren.

*

It was but a day or two later when the first disaster occurred. Marn and Besil were working a seam together – we thought there might be diamonds buried deep within its veins – when Besil’s pick slipped and went clean through our brother’s skull. That was the story Besil told, but I was uneasy. I’d seen the way he looked at Marn that morning when the girl smiled at him: venom in his eyes that put me in mind of one of those snakes in the forest; and a part of me couldn’t help wondering if it really had been an accident. Besil was pale and shaken, as well he ought to be – but I detected something else in his face: a sort of slyness that had no right to be there.

And after that, it seemed like our family was cursed. Gort went to fetch water from the stream and never came back. We found him hours later, face downward in the water. Ruan thought he must have caught his foot on something and fallen, catching his head on a rock so that he died quickly and painlessly, but …

Poor Lily – that’s what I called her in my mind, on account of how pure and beautiful she was, although she never did tell us her given name – was inconsolable over both the deaths. The tears she shed – more precious than any of the diamonds we’d discovered over the years – showed her gentle heart. She could have been our sister, the way she wept.

That’s what made the next incident so terrible. After Gort’s drowning, Lily had begged us never to venture out on our own again – couldn’t bear to lose another one of us, she said. There were five of us left now, so Besil and Ruan went to fetch water whilst Hult and I gathered mushrooms, leaving Jon with Lily lest she feel afeared by herself. We had a basketful of mushrooms when we heard the shouting. Running in the direction of the noise, I saw Besil and Ruan in the stream, struggling with each other. “She be mine, I tell ‘ee!” Besil was hollering, and, “She don’t love ‘ee like she do me. I be going to marry ‘er, I tell ‘ee!” from Ruan.

And then the world stood still as I saw my own beloved brother, Ruan, grab a rock and hit Besil over the head so that he fell into the water and didn’t move again. Ruan looked up and saw us, and a queer look crossed his face. “She be mine!” he muttered, unwittingly repeating Besil’s words.

For a moment, I just stood there, staring in shock, unable to comprehend what had happened. What madness had driven Ruan to act in this way? Hult started to run towards the stream and I nearly went after him, not wanting Ruan to attack him too, but something held me back.

I saw Hult moving towards Ruan, as determined as a wolf stalking its prey. Then he was on him, grappling with him. I thought at first that he was trying to knock some sense into him: it was only as I approached that I realised my brothers were fighting to the death.

I began to run myself, calling out to both of them to stop this insanity. We were all brothers and Lily was as a sister to us, but they heeded me not. As I neared the stream, I saw that Hult had Ruan in his grip, twisting his head and neck with such force that something suddenly popped. Ruan’s head lolled back lifelessly, his dead eyes wide and staring. I felt the bile rise in my throat and tried to understand what could have driven gentle Hult to act in such a way.

He watched me now, wary like a bird caught in a trap. “Step away, Tom.” His voice escaped in a hoarse croak. “She be mine.”

I was silent then, remembering how Lily had kissed me goodbye as I left the cottage – not a sisterly kiss, but one that spoke of other things, igniting longing and desire within me so that the thoughts I now had of my sweet innocent Lily were anything but pure.

“No,” I told him. “She be mine.”

And then, like Ruan before me, I grabbed a rock and dashed my brother’s brains out.

*

How long I sat there, I do not know, only that the sky darkened and the stream ran red with blood. Eventually, I stood up and walked back to the cottage, a strange excitement buzzing in my ears. Tonight, I would take my angel to my bed and lie with her as if she were already my wife. My loins burned as I thought of her – my sweet little Lily, my love.

The cottage door stood slightly ajar. I pushed it open and peered inside. Lily sat by the hearth, sobbing as if her heart would break. I was at her side instantly, my lust dissipated by her distress.

“What be the matter, child?” I asked her gently.

She turned her tear-stained face to mine, and only now did I notice that her bodice was torn and her shoulder bare.

“Jon …” She struggled to get the words out. “I … I don’t think he wanted to hurt me. He asked for a kiss, and then …”

“Where be he now?” I surprised myself with the roughness of my voice.

“Asleep. He fell asleep after he’d taken what he wanted.”

Anger grew in me then. He had deflowered my Lily, my pure, innocent bride to be, and he would have to pay.

 Ignoring the girl’s pleas, I strode from the room, making my way towards the sleeping chamber at the back of the house. Jon lay asleep on his bed, looking as guileless as a new-born babe, but I knew what he had done. He slept on as I held a pillow over his face. I held it there until his chest ceased to rise and fall, all the while my heartbeat hammering with exultation. My brothers were gone, but I had something far more precious in this fairy creature who would fill our cottage with love and laughter and babies.

*

A noise at the back of me made me turn around. She stood there, trembling – so helpless and pitiful that I could no longer contain myself. Drawing her to me, I kissed her long and hard on the mouth. She looked up at me, eyes wide with uncertainty, and I thought of Jon and what he had done to her, and I made myself pull away from her lest she thought I would hurt her.

She was breathing heavily, her breast swelling against the torn blouse. Lust flamed within me again, and then I noticed the pure white stone that hung in the hollow of her neck and shame washed over me. How could I contemplate despoiling something so innocent?

Her fingers slipped into mine. “Let’s get away from this place,” she said simply. “It reeks of death.”

I followed her into the forest and it seemed fitting somehow that we would lie amongst the bracken and listen to the song of birds as we came together.

But before we had found a fit place to stop, my foot caught against something hidden under a pile of leaves and a disembodied voice crackled out of nowhere: “I repeat: the prisoner is dangerous. If seen, do not approach, but call for backup.”

My mind whirled. What fell magic was this? Hastily, I kicked away the leaves to discover the source of the invisible stranger. The body that lay there was stiff and cold, his face blue. Bits of him were already beginning to rot. I stared again, noting his strange black clothing with The Castle insignia, the metal box at his belt still spewing out meaningless words.

“It now seems that Jenkins was able to escape by using a homemade variation of a glamour-stone, by which he convinced officers on duty that they wanted to help him. He was accompanied by one of the Huntsmen on duty at the time, who is now regarded as an accomplice. If you see either of these men, I repeat: do not approach, but call for backup.”

The voice faded away. Lily looked at me and shrugged. “Oops,” she murmured.

I still did not understand as she came towards me, brandishing a blade that had appeared out of nowhere. “I thought you worked at The Castle,” I said stupidly. We never ventured as far as the village, but we knew The Castle was a bad place, full of cells containing crazy people. I wasn’t surprised she’d decided to run away, but I wanted to know why the Huntsman she’d claimed had attacked her was lying under the leaves.

She was approaching slowly, her eyes more luminous than ever. I stood transfixed, mesmerised by her haunting beauty; but as she reached towards me, for a second something flickered and the merest impression of something twisted and cruel contorted her face.

Startled, I stepped back, throwing up my hands to defend myself from the knife she was jabbing at me. My fingers caught in the stone at her throat, and as the chain snapped, the glamour around her melted away and I saw my precious Lily for what she really was: a misshapen, hunchback of a man with features sharp as those of a ferret.

I was still struggling to make sense of it all as the blade slit my throat …

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