When my brother was I was just five years old. My father had died in the field the day before, on a clear Autumn day, he was smitten by lightning. My mother named her second born child, Sienna, for that was my father’s name and very little other than that did the man leave to us. It was hardly his fault for the taxers paid on the land we farmed were very high and always the lien was paid first. Yet we had ample food, always, and our roof did not leak except in heavy rain. When I reached the age of manhood at sixteen all the land that my father had tilled was passed to my name. It was an inheritance without good balance for the taxes were mine while the land still belonged to the Crown.
Sienna was a difficult child and he became a difficult man. Many things went missing and Sienna was more often than not in possession of these items. His skill was with his hands, there is no doubt, but work escaped his notice. Yet Sienna was cheerful and many loved his company, if they only would look to their pockets while they drank. Her younger son was the apple of his mother’s eye yet a stone on her heart. Again and time again, did the Warden of our section of town warn us that no good would come of Sienna’s lighthearted plunderings.
In a small town thievery is noticed more and there are fewer to look towards when something misplaced turns into something taken. Sienna began a life of cutting pouches from the belts of drunken tavern patrons and he lavished his ill-gotten gains on the service wenches. It was they who my mother blamed for Sienna’s fate for it was they who tended to him when he was in the stocks. The stocks were the first place of public shame and punishment and the last place where a criminal could expect to walk away from whole. It was the sheriff’s way of announcing a departure from stern lectures and a week digging ditches or mending the stockade. Sienna usually could charm his way out of hard labor and his charm helped him escape most of the harshness of the stocks. The wenches who kept him clean and well fed thought the copper would flow again from his hands to their and in this they were correct, at least for a while.
How loud was his protests! He yelled out his innocents even as they dragged him away. Sienna, not a week released from the stocks had taken the purse of the paper merchant. He slipped away from the man without so much as a hesitation in his step and slipped into the tavern, where the sheriff and three guard awaited him. Of course, Sienna, had artfully slipped the man’s purse out of his cloak even as the coins inside relocated into his own, but that too was expected. The coins all bore the mark of the King’s mint, and none but craftsmen could trade in them. For Sienna to have them at all things would go very ill for him but they were stolen as well. Sienna screamed his mistreatment as they hauled him away but they stopped long enough to beat him senseless. I, Beloth, arrived in time to watch my mother faint away at the sight. But worse things were afoot for my brother.
I suspect that they might hang him from the walls by hand hands for two weeks and he might not live. No one would be able to openly help him. I thought they might cut off one of his hands or perhaps even both. They might hang him outright, I knew that, too. I thought they might sentence him to a month inside the office of the torturer and few escaped that place with their minds or bodies intact. But the sentence handed out by the court was Devourment. My mother shrieked aloud again and again and I had to pick her up to get her out of the court before they held her too. My brother stood there, ashen, as his waste spilled from his trousers.
There was no hesitation that we would make an Offering to the Crown for the injustice that my brother and my mother’s son had committed, and while there was no law that said we would have to face ruin for it, we dared to hold back nothing. I sold my birthright to the land for nearly nothing, but that was its honest worth. The farm tools, the pigs, our cottage, the land on which it sat, our furniture, the clothing not on our backs, and even my mother’s spinning wheel we took and laid out for any to bid upon. There are times the sum of a man’s life makes him cringe in horror and this was my moment. Everything, all that we had had for generations and all of my life, my father’s life, my mother’s life, all of the toil and sweat and long hours, everything we were was turned into what might have half way filled a thimble with gold.
By law, the offering was not for the release of a prisoner or the forgiveness of his crimes, but for an audience to make the plea. I knew this, and everyone knew it, but the reduction of a family to ruin and poverty meant we would have to leave town to make our living as we could outside the protection of the Crown within the walls. Banishment, voluntary as it was, meant a slow death for my aged mother who was already in her dotage and whose body could no longer afford hard work. But the three of us would have to make a way for ourselves again.
My heart sank in my chest and I could feel it beating as if there were something else inside of it. It was not the Magistrate or even the sheriff who came to make judgment on the Offering but the Warden whose job it was to make sure the streets were washed clean of foulness once a week. This was a terrible thing to do to us, regardless of anything my brother had done, but a Jester came with him. The Jester mocked the man by bowing low and acting as if the man were the King himself as he pranced before the Warden. Worse, even before the proclamation the Jester stood over our offering with his hands on the sides of his face as if he were viewing some wondrous thing. Our friends, the people we had known all our lives, the people we had traded with, eaten with, and watched grow up and grow old laughed at the spectacle. When the Jester made sport of trying to lift the Offering he pretended it weighed as much as a team of oxen and the crowd roared. The Warden was nearly too drunk to read the proclamation of rejection. With a gesture of contempt he picked the offering up and stuck it in his pocket and walked out of the room, staggering.
We stayed in a barn next to out former home but we knew we had to leave there soon. With the crop coming in there would be no room for us and we knew it. We would not, could not ask, to be taken in. The sentence of Devourment ran through the town like a flood of water raging. There was shock, horror, yet there was the undercurrent of excitement. Many had suffered by the hands of my brother and some of them were glad to see him gone, even if they would not have chosen this ending. There would be a fair, a celebration, and all would attend. Sienna’s life had affected many people in the town and now his death would affect all.
We were not allowed to see him or speak to him before the sentence was handed out. We had to watch as the rest of the town did as the cage in which they kept him was lowered into the courtyard of the dungeon. The walls were high and no handhold would be gained. There were streaks of red where some had tried to escape but were caught by the monster and hauled back into the catacombs were the monster lived. It was a gruesome fate. I had only seen it twice in my life and needed not a third time to hate it. My mother panted and wheezed as she stood transfixed. I hoped my brother would go inside quickly but I feared the coward in him. I hoped he would not shout for her but again, Sienna had no heart to give.
Sienna was given a sword, a device which he had never trained a day in his life to use, and a small shield, and a torch. My brother was always a man who loved a show, and it surprised me that he made one of his own death. He tossed the shield aside and saluted the Magistrate with the sword. Without any hesitation Sienna entered the catacombs of the dungeon. Whatever my hoped were, whatever my fears might have been, no matter what my imagination conjured, nothing prepared me for the swiftness.
My heart had barely beaten ten times when there was a scream like none other I had ever heard. The scream was cut short then another issued forth and then another. With each scream my mother’s whole body convulsed but not a sound came from her lips. The crowd gasped, some cheered, but the cheers where from those pretending to be brave. The celebration was over. The punishment had been handed over to pain and with one last cry that trailed away in the wind, my brother died.
My mother collapsed into a sleep that a tonic had given her. We would leave the next day and I knew not what to do or where to go. In three months’ time ice would form and snow would fall. My mother might not last the night. Secretly, I wished it so. Yet even as I walked the streets and wondered what I would do I saw a guardsman come forth from the house were the wenches kept business. Far too drunk to fight, or even stand, the man fell on his face before me in the half dark of the street. I stripped him bare of his uniform, his helmet and his boots. I picked up his sword and went forth.
Sienna was dead. But if I could bury his body before the sun rose again I could keep his soul from wandering the earth. I did not want to see him again and I did not want my mother to think something might happen after Sienna’s death that might rival his pain in life. Whatever was left of his body, if I could return it to the earth, it might be enough. I did not know. I did not care. All I knew is that I had nothing left but my mother and hoped her dead by morning. Little else did I have to lose, or so I thought.
Picking up on my brother’s trade, I stole a torch from the stable and a rope. The dungeon was not guarded for why would it be? I entered the catacombs. The torch showed the way but for a little distance and the light was so close to me that outside the small area of light there was total blackness. I had to hold it down and it front of me a ways or the top of the flame licked the ceiling and created a thick smoke. I could feel all manner of sweat rolling from my body. The helmet sat uneasily upon my head and I did not realize the sword would be so heavy. My arm ached and I wonder how on earth I was to fight in such a narrow passage. What was the best attack; to slash or to stab? My footing was unsure. I could smell fresh blood and gore everywhere I turned. I turned once more and found myself in a large room with the monster.
The head of this creature looked much like a toad’s so wide was its mouth but the body was much longer and it was taller than a man. Its arms where thicker than my waist and its legs were like heavy coiled snakes that had claws instead of fangs. It stood in the middle of the room and moved not at all.
“There was no celebration for you,” it said, “surely you’re not here on your own, are you?”
“The man you slew today was my brother.” I said as loudly as I could. My voice sounded tiny and lonesome to me. “I have come to claim his body or your head.”
The monster made a noise and I realized it was laughter. It stood there with its arms held open wide and it turned its back to me. “Strike then! End this life of mine! I shall count to ten before I move, I swear it!”
“Will you not yield to me the body of my brother?” I asked. I was terrified at its fearlessness.
“That?” it pointed to one side of the room. There, in the shadows was Sienna. From the waist down he was gone. Only his face remained totally intact but there was gore and blood on every spot of his torso. “If I allow you to leave with it the King will punish me, I think.”
“Punish you?” I asked.
“My curse is that I must feed at least once a week.” It said. “The flesh must be human, and it must be alive when I feed or I will become intolerably sick and the pain is considerable. The same is true if I do not feed; the sickness will come and the pain will grow until I do. The King cursed me but well. My family was chained to the walls here when I was first brought here. They taught me what I needed to know about my curse.”
“You, you killed, you killed and…” I was stunned.
“I had no choice, really.” It sat down and leaned against the wall. “Put that sword away, you’ll only hurt yourself with it. You’ll do no better than he.”
“Let me have the body and I will go.” I offered.
“I have no decided to let you live but I am thinking about mitigating your suffering.” It said. I learned how to do that as well. But the King wants a show when there’s an execution so I do what I have to do. You know what the worst part of this is?”
“Yes, that too, “ it said, “but in my life I have never known any pleasure greater than my curse. The taste of human flesh is sweeter than any other sensation I knew before, magnified by a thousand times a thousand times a thousand. The King knows his curses, the man is incredible with them. He knows the loathing I have for myself now and he knows I must feed and he has made so I enjoy beyond reckoning what he has done to me and what he still does to me, each time.”
“If I take my brother’s body who will know?” I blurted this out and I knew I sounded afraid.
“Why is your brother’s body so important to you?” The thing asked. It stretched out as if to sleep. I had the odd feeling it was baiting me into attacking.
“His soul will wander the earth if he is not buried by sunrise.” I said. “I would not have my mother face him again, not after…” I stopped speaking. It seemed wise.
“What if you just tell her you buried his body?” The creature was on its feet so quickly I dropped the sword. I fumbled the torch and it went out. I waved the sword in front of me and it cut nothing but air.
“Oh stop it, please.” The monster said. “Here.” It raked its claws against the stone wall and sparks flew in bunches. It held the torch out to the sparks and it reignited. “Here’s take this if you think it will help.”
I took the torch and realized its hands were larger than the shield my brother had tossed aside. Blood caked them and in horror I realized that just hours ago those claws had rendered my brother. The creature now stood so close to me I could hear its breath. Even were I to stab it with the sword I do not think the blade would go all the way to the other side of the body. I could have hewn it with all my might and not gashed it to the bone.
“I have a weakness.” The monster announced. “When the sun comes up I fall into the deepest of sleeps. I will remain asleep until the sun sets, even though I never see the face of the sun herself. If you are still alive when that happens, you may be able to kill me. If you do kill me, then the curse will pass to you.” It sighed and the sound was like a giant bellows. “If I am dead I cannot be punished. I wonder if death would not be a kindness. I have lived the time of many lives here.”
“Why is it you do not leave?” I asked but my blood raced. The idea that I might somehow survive the night was alive again.
“Leave?” It laughed and the sound hurt my ears to hear it. “And go where? And do what? And live like some wild animal in some cave? And what if the King find me again? Do you think this the worse he could do? What if he cursed me to live in your form but with this same hunger? That man is not King because he rules with reason but because he rules with fear.”
The monster stood and turned its head to look at my brother’s body. “Every time I kill I wonder what life it is I have taken. Is there not a limit? What will happen to me when the King dies, immortal that he seems? What happens when a prince is born to replace him? Will I then serve every King that comes this way?”
“If I get you a body to replace my brother’s will you allow me to keep his?” I asked suddenly.
“I am no guard.” I replied. “I will take my brother’s body and in return I will give you the man whose clothing I wear.”
“Oh!” the monster cried aloud, “so now I will help you murder a guard and steal from the King. If you decide to return at all. “ It laughed. “Okay. I will help you. Take the body of your brother. Return here before dawn. The sun will not rise for another four hours. Is that time aplenty?”
Hi! So here’s the thing here… how would you end this story?