Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (29 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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Justus paused, and then tipping up his chin, he said, “Lend me a

bow, and set me a target in the garden.”

Monster’s furred fingers stretched into his mane, scratching

vigorously as he thought, and when he dropped them again to the

table, their weight sent a shudder through the wood. “Anyone can

hit a target. I have a better idea. Tomorrow, you may accompany me

outside the castle walls, and we shall hunt together.”

Justus wondered if he was agreeing to his own death, if he would

be the prey. “Thank you, Monster.”

Perhaps outside the monster’s domain there would be a chance

to take him unawares. An arrow might pierce an eye, throat, or belly more effectively than Justus’s cutlass could pierce that variegated

hide. If Monster climbed a tree or stood near the edge of a precipice, Justus could turn the creature’s own considerable weight against


“What else do you enjoy, Karin? There are many hours to fill, on

this lonely mountain. Would you like to see the library? I just enjoyed an amusing tale of the Lord of Misrule and highly recommend it.”

“I like being read to,” Justus said, “but I never learned to read.”

“You shall be taught,” Monster promised. When the meal was over,

Justus was given to Valfrid for an hour’s instruction in deciphering the mysteries of a book. By the end, he knew the alphabet, and hated every letter. He doubted he’d live long enough for it to matter whether he remembered it, anyway

Justus spent the rest of the day wandering the halls. He had not been forbidden to do so. The castle was clean and tidy, and Justus didn’t see

• 244 •

• Cory Skerry •

a single rat, though he came across three industrious female servants dusting furniture and cleaning windows. The friendly laundry girl was not among them.

So there were at least five female servants: Rigmora, the laundry

girl, and these three older women. He hated that it raised his hopes—

but clearly the castle still needed a staff to run it, and maybe these women were sacrifices who had been spared.

But when he asked them about Gudrun, they each shook their

heads and gave the same answer:
We’re sorry, fröken, but we mustn’t
speak of those who came before.

He spent a long time in the entry hall, staring at the desiccated

faces of the virgins who “came before.” A few times he lost his breath, thinking a mask might be Gudrun’s face, but each time he convinced

himself it wasn’t. He inspected every mask there, but they lined other halls as well. Hundreds of dead girls. If Gudrun’s face hung on a wall here, it might be weeks before he found it.

The next morning, there was a sharp knock at the door. Justus’s hand was under his pillow and on the handle of the cutlass before he even fully awoke. Snow-bright sunlight illuminated the room, colored a

chilly green by the frosted glass of the window.

Valfrid’s keys jingled and Rigmora entered with a pile of warm-

looking clothes. Justus, unshaved face buried in a pillow, waved her away, pointing at the chair until she nodded, set down the garments, and left him to his privacy.

The dress was serviceable wool, double-layered with a quilted

skirt. There was no unobtrusive way to slit the cloth; he must leave the cutlass behind, or resign himself to clumsily hoisting away yards of fabric to reach it. He chose the latter.

Justus shaved and then, still wearing his underclothes, climbed

into the wool dress. There was a warm, fur-lined cloak as well, and

Justus threw it over his arm as he descended to the main hall, where Valfrid and the Greve waited.

Justus had expected that even a beast like the Greve would have

• 245 •

• Castle of Masks •

a retinue, but Valfrid was not dressed for the out-of-doors, and no

other servants were present.

Valfrid presented Justus with a satchel. “A lunch, a teenage boy’s

bow,” the dour servant said, “and ten arrows.”

“Expect a gift when I return, Valfrid,” Justus said, then added,

“and another for Rigmora, and the remaining eight for the lord of

the castle.” Monster exchanged an amused, patronizing smile with

Valfrid, and Justus pursed his lips. They would see.

Justus opened the satchel, unwrapping the bow and one arrow

to get a look at them. The bow was of exquisitely carved yew in the

shape of two fish joined at the tail; the arrow was fletched with exotic citrus-hued feathers.

Monster opened the giant front door without touching the pulley

system needed by the servants.

Justus watched this feat with a dry mouth and damp palms.

Monster must be mocking him with such a display of casual power.

As he walked through, he imagined that any moment the beast

would leap on him from behind and eat him alive. His back prickled

at the thought, but when Justus turned to check, he only saw Monster heaving the door closed, the unexplained twin wounds glistening in

the glare of sunlit snow. They hadn’t even grown scabs.

Some of the tower windows glowed green, the bright sky shining

through from the windows on the other side, and Justus gestured at

the expensive colored glass. “How that must have cost!” he said.

“I wince when I think of the wasted funds,” Monster agreed,

catching up to Justus in three easy strides. “It was before my time.”

“What would you have done instead?” Justus asked.

Monster paused, studying Justus with disturbing focus. “No one has

ever asked me that. A fountain, in the center of a pond. Perhaps with lily pads, pretty little silver frogs from the south, and dragonflies.”

Monster held out a hand, silently offering to carry the bag containing the bow and arrows, but Justus tightened his grip. He wasn’t about to be separated from his weapons.

The path they took was lined in thick, coniferous woods and

• 246 •

• Cory Skerry •

carpeted in a crust of snow. “And you, Karin?” Monster asked after a few minutes of silence. “What would you do with such an exorbitant


Justus was caught off guard, but only for a moment. “I would

buy herons to eat your silver frogs, and blackbirds to feast on your dragonflies. And a very long bandage for your disgusting wounds.”

Monster howled, a twisted blend of laughter and a wolf’s call, and

slapped at a tree in his mirth. A shower of snow landed on Justus, and he shook it from his hair, trying not to join Monster’s appreciation.

He must remain aloof.

The bow was smooth and cool in Justus’s hands, and he carried it

under the cloak as they walked so if he saw an opportunity, he might take it. The first time he shot the bow, a hare that had been perched on the bank above them tumbled and lay still. Monster turned,

surprised, and admitted he’d not even seen it hiding in a patch of

snowless ground. Smugly, Justus accepted the arrow as Monster tied

the rabbit by its feet to his gameline.

“Who gets this one?” Monster asked.

“Valfrid and Rigmora can wrestle thumbs for it. I’ll find you

something bigger.”

Monster paused, then asked, “Do you enjoy killing, Karin?”

Justus shrugged. Hunting and killing weren’t the same thing. “I

enjoy hunting. Some women are bakers and some are gardeners. I’m

a hunter.”

Two wild turkeys fell with Justus’s arrows in them, both under

Monster’s thoughtful gaze. A stupid third turkey, panicked by the

unexplained deaths of its comrades, flapped straight toward them.

Justus drew the bow—and then lowered it.

“We probably don’t really need ten,” Justus said.

Monster said nothing.

When they stopped for lunch, it was by mutual agreement, on the

crest of a hill. The valley below them flowed to the horizons in a rich patchwork of colors and textures, as varied as Monster’s pelt. The

deep autumn air smelled like rotting apples and cold maple leaves.

• 247 •

• Castle of Masks •

“I don’t hunt my own lands often,” Monster said. “But every time I

come through, I wonder why.”

“You get enough maiden steak to satisfy you,” Justus said.

Monster turned sharply to look at him. Justus regretted opening

his big mouth, but Monster was quiet again. Justus sat on a stone

and ate the lunch Valfrid had given him: some jam tarts and dried

fruits, a rind of cheese and a skin of weak, once-warm wine. Monster devoured one of the turkeys.

“What, no salt or pepper for the cultured monster who reads?”

Justus asked, when Monster finished with the organs and moved on

to crunching the bones.

Monster snorted, his steaming breath raising a cloud of feather

fluff from his bloodstained snout. “This turkey thoughtfully ate

some herbs, so it was already stuffed.”

Justus stifled a laugh and looked out into the woods. He wasn’t

supposed to be enjoying himself. He should have shot Monster

through the eye, while the Greve was eating. Now it was too late.

“What are you?” Justus asked suddenly.

Monster met Justus’s eyes. “I am this.”

“But how did you become
? Were you a baby monster, once?”

Justus persisted.

Justus’s arrows were lying within Monster’s reach. The Greve

plucked one from the quiver and turned it over in his enormous

fingers as he spoke.

“I will tell you a story,” Monster said. “Long ago, there was a rich man, a magnificent hunter, who tried to impress a woman with his

prowess. He told her he would bring her a thousand beasts, and so he set about killing everything he could get his hands on—never two of

the same kind. Squirrel, hare, grouse, deer, wolf, even fish and snake.

On the last day of his hunt, he killed an owl.

“The owl was a witch’s familiar. The witch found her pet in the

rich man’s personal tannery, tacked up to dry on the wall. Devastated and bent on revenge, the witch set about stealing a piece from each

of the thousand beasts, and sewed them into a cursed cloak.”

• 248 •

• Cory Skerry •

There was a snap, and Monster looked down at the arrow, which

had broken into four pieces in his mighty grip.

“She presented this cloak to the rich man and told him that only

the greatest hunter should wear it. When the arrogant Greve put on

his gift, it transformed him into a bulk of muscle with a thunderous voice and immense strength, indistinguishable from the human

he once was. The witch thought herself clever, because now the

hunter had become a great prize. Surely another hunter would make

short work of him to gain such a rare and strange pelt—but she

underestimated the fears of men. No one wanted to risk their life,

even when it became clear it would save the lives of others.”

Monster belched and got to his feet. “Forgive me, I didn’t think it

would be so brittle,” he said, handing Justus the splinters of broken arrow. “Perhaps the head can be saved.”

Justus wondered what he thought he was doing. He expected to

shoot down Monster with these feathered sewing pins? To stab him

with his butter knife of a cutlass? Maybe the witch should have made a tinier, weaker monster with her curse.

When Monster took to the trail, Justus followed at a short distance.

Snow began to fall. It caked the hem of his dress, attracting more

snow with annoying regularity, and Justus paused periodically to

shake it loose so it wouldn’t trip him.

He studied Monster’s broad form, shaped so much like a man’s in

the shoulders and back, undeniably animal in the tail and bent hind

legs. The unhealed wounds showed angry and red in his otherwise

impenetrable pelt. If Justus could get close enough to stab into the wounds Monster already had, perhaps he could ruin Monster’s guts.

But if he’d already been punctured there, and he was walking around

with no apparent pain, Justus did not imagine it was much of a gap

in the Greve’s armor.

Perhaps he could be poisoned, but then again, perhaps Monster

would smell the impurity. Justus didn’t want to risk it. Perhaps while Monster was asleep . . . but Justus knew better. Any hunter avoided

taking a predator in its lair. It was best to catch it during a routine,

• 249 •

• Castle of Masks •

when it was focused on drinking water or eating its kill—not when it had nothing better to do than wake up and savage you.

Justus was wondering if Monster would stop at a stream to drink,

as his muzzle was unfit to suck at the nozzle of a water flask, when the clump of snow weighed too low and dragged the hem of his

dress under his boot. Justus stumbled to the side, stepped on the hem again, and fell down the steep ravine.

He skidded over an expanse of decaying leaves and pine needles.

Snow-laden branches whipped Justus’s face and tangled in his hair,

but every time his fingers closed on a clump of roots and leaves, his momentum ripped them free. Even after a stump knocked the wind

out of him, Justus was most worried about being sliced by the hidden cutlass. He couldn’t untie it any more than he could slow his descent.

The ground disappeared from beneath him. He caught a sickening

flash of a rocky embankment and a foaming stream. Everything stopped.

Justus’s head spun, but the grip on his ankle drew him back to

safety. Monster clung to a gnarled pine with one hand, his hoof

hooked behind a boulder.

Monster turned Justus rightside up before tucking him close.

Monster’s arm was as big around as Justus’s torso, comforting and

solid. Justus finally drew a shuddering breath and inhaled the

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
4.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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