Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (9 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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Yannis heard himself say, “By the soles of their feet.”

The king unsmiled. His eyes shone like scorched stones, cooling,

cold. “So you

“Only the phrase.”

“Yes. The soles—not of their shoes, which are pristine as when

sewn for them—but the skin of their feet.
is marked as if worn right through. Blemished,
and decorated in silver and sparkle, too. As if they’d bruised and torn them, then dipped them

• 76 •

• Tanith Lee •

in rivers of moonlight and rime. You must follow these bitch-whores

of mine, and see how they get out, and where they go, and if—
it’s to that hidden underland, and next—what goes on
. Things no man can see, of course, and keep his sanity. But you’ll already have been there, as I said, when you lost half your leg. You’ll already know.

You’re already partly mad. Why else are you here now?”

“And were the other men mad, sire?”

“They must have been, would you not say, old Crook-Shank?”

“Have you,” said Yannis, “never yourself
your daughters?”

“I?” The king stared at Yannis. “A king does not ask. He is

Without asking. I set others to find out. And now
are here. If you succeed, you will be my son, and a prince, my heir, to rule after me.

Any of the twelve whores you choose shall be your wife. Or all of

them, if you want. I’ll have someone fashion an extra large bed for

the sport. If you fail, however, your head shall be slashed from your body, as the best of your leg once was. Top to toe, soldier. That’s fair.

And now,” said the king, “since this is the first of the moon’s three round nights, the servant outside will show you the way.”

It was rising in the long middle window, the moon, round as the

white pupil of an immense dark eye. It watched him as he entered

and was closed in, but it watched them, also, all twelve. Together, they and he made thirteen beings. But the moon perhaps made fourteen.

Besides, there were the animals.

Three big, wolf-like dogs sat or stood, still as statues; a strange

pale cat, with a slanted yellow gaze, lay supine. Additionally, there were little cages hung up, in some of which small birds perched

twittering—and as the door of every cage stood open, several others

flitted to and fro, while occasionally one would let loose a skein of lunar song, or a moon-white dropping would fall, softly snow-like

on the floor.

The princesses were arranged, like warriors before a skirmish,

some on the richly-draped yet narrow beds, or they stood up, and

two were combing their hair with plangent silking sounds, and

• 77 •

• Below the Sun Beneath •

drizzles of sparks that flew outward in the brazier-spread fire-glow.

This combing and spark-making was like the playing of two harps, a

musical accompaniment to the birds’ descant.

A magical, part uncanny scene. It lulled Yannis, and therefore

made him greatly more alert.

But he took time, as with the king, and since they stared full at

him, even the dogs and the cat, and some of the birds, to study these women a while.

For a fact though, he could not properly see past their hair.

Charms they had, and they were alike, all of them to each other—

and unalike, too—but the hair was still, in each one her symbol,

extraordinary, unique. Three colors, every time transmuted. For

had hair red as amber, and
hair brown as tortoiseshell, and
gold as topaz—and
red as beech leaves,
brown as walnut wood,
gold as corn fields—
red as summer wine,
brown as spring beer,
gold as winter mead, and
was red as copper, and
was brown as bronze. But she—Yannis hesitated between two flickers of the brazier-light—
—the youngest, there, there in the darkest shadow of the farthest bed—
had hair as gold as

“Well, here’s our father’s latest guest.”

It was the tallest, eldest girl who spoke, with amber hair. In age, the soldier thought, she was some years his junior, but then a wealthy,

cared-for woman, he knew, could often look much younger than her

years, just as a poor and ill-used one could seem older.

“There is a chamber set by for you,” levelly said the girl with

tortoiseshell hair.

“Every comfort in it,” said the girl with topaz hair.

“But we know you won’t enjoy that since—” said the girl with hair

like beech leaves.

“You must watch us closely and follow behind so that—” said hair

like walnut wood.

“You may report to the king what we do,” concluded hair like


“A shame,” said Summer Wine.

• 78 •

• Tanith Lee •

“And unkindness,” said Spring Hair.

“Every inch of your tired frame must protest,” said Winter Mead.

“But such is human life,” said Copper, tossing her locks as she

stopped her comb.

“Alas,” said Bronze, also stopping hers.

Then, in the sparkless gloaming, Gold-as-Gold said this: “We

know you must do it, and will never deny you have now no choice.

Come, join us then in a cup of liquor for the journey, and we’ll be on our way, while you shall follow, poor soldier, as best you can.”

The soldier bowed very low, but he said nothing, and when they

poured out the wine, each had a bright metal cup with jewels set

round the rim. But the cup they gave him was of bright polished

metal too.

Then the young women drank, and the soldier pretended to drink,

because what the witch had told him was so firmly fixed in his brain he was by that instant like a fine actor who had learned his part to perfection. And presently he did speak, and said might he sit just for a minute, and the young women who were by then finishing putting

on their cloaks and shoes for the outer world, or so it looked, nodded and said he might.

Yannis thought,
The draught came from the same pitcher. The drug
must be in the cup—but no matter, I never even put my lip to it without
my finger between.

Next he plumped down the cup, spilling a drop. He let his head

droop suddenly and seemed surprised. He smiled for the first,

stupidly. Then he shut his eyes and thought,
God help me now
, but he had not forgotten the secret of the trance.

Another moment and Yannis himself sat upright in the chair, even

as his body stretched unconscious across it. He was out of his skin.

And oh, the moonlight in the chamber then, how thrillingly clear, a

transparent silver mirror that he could see straight through. And the soul-cord that connected flesh and spirit, more silver yet.

He let himself drift up a wall, and hung there, and watched.

They came soon enough, and tried him, gently at first. Then they

• 79 •

• Below the Sun Beneath •

mocked, and Amber and Beech Leaves and Spring Beer slapped his

face, and then Cornfields came up to him and tickled him maliciously.

Walnut Wood kicked his sound ankle, and Bronze and Winter Mead

spat on him. Tortoiseshell cursed him articulately, in which Summer

Wine and Copper joined. Only Topaz stuck a pin into his arm and

twisted it.

Sure he slept, they then turned together up the room to its darker

end, where Gold yet stood, the youngest of them. She instead came

down, and hesitated by him a second. Standing in air, the soldier

thought, Now what will

“Poor boy,” said Gold, though her face was impassive, and she

anyway half his age. “Poor boy.”

“You silly,” called one of the others. “Why pity him? Would he pity

? Hurry, so we can be off.”

So Gold left him, or his body, sleeping.

But Yannis pursued all of them, unseen, up the room.

They spoke a rhyme in that ancient and angular other tongue, and

then they stamped, each one, on a different part of the floor. At that, the dogs, cats, and birds—who had taken not much note of him—

looked round at the far wall, which sighed and slowly shifted open.

Beyond lay blackness, but there came the scent of cold stones and

colder night. One by one the girls fluttered through like gorgeous

moths. Yannis followed without trouble. Even though the hidden

door was already closing, he strode on two strong legs straight

through the wall.


Beginning with an enclosed stone stair, which did not impede the

now-fleet-of-foot Yannis, the passage descended. Nor did the almost

utter dark inconvenience him; his unbodied eyes saw better than

the best. After the stair came a descent of rubble, but everything

contained within the granite bastions of the palace. Here and there

the accustomed steps of the princesses now did falter. Once, Yannis

found to his dismay, he reached out to steady the youngest princess.

• 80 •

• Tanith Lee •

Fortunately, she seemed not to realize. But he must be wary—her

compassion might have been a trap.

He had learned her name, nevertheless. The eldest girl had called

her by it. Evira. That was the name of the youngest princess, Gold-


Ultimately, the way leveled. Then they walked on in the dark until

splinters of the moon scattered through. At last full moonlight led

them out onto a snow-marbled height, far above the city. They were

on the western hill, where massed the houses of the dead.

Yannis knew they must soon enter some mausoleum, and next

they did, after unlocking its iron gate with a key the eldest princess carried.

Yannis had lost all fear. He had no need of it.

Within the tomb lay snow and bones, and the ravages of the

heartless armies of death and time.

And then there was another door, which Yannis, as now he was,

saw instantly was no earthly entrance or exit. And despite his power and freedom, for an instant he did check. But the twelve maidens

went directly through the door, even she did, Evira. And then so did Yannis too.

Beyond the door lay the occult country.

It was of the spirit, but whether an afterlife, or underworld below

the Sun Beneath—or an else-or-otherwhere—Yannis was never, then

or ever, certain.

Although it was unforgettable, naturally. In
how not?

Should the sun have sunk into a country beneath the earth, then

this land, lying below the other two, had no hint of daylight. Nor

was the round full moon apparent. Yet light there was. It was like the clearest glass, and the air—when you moved through it—rippled a

little, like water. The smell of the air was sweet, fragrant as if with growing trees and herbs. And such there were, and drifted flowers,

pale or somber, yet they glowed like lamps. Above, there was a sort

• 81 •

• Below the Sun Beneath •

of sky, which shone and glowed also, if sunlessly. Hills spread away, and before them an oval body of water softly glimmered. Orchards

grouped on every side, they too glinting and iridescent. The leaves

nearby were silver, but farther off they had the livelier glisten of gold.

The moment this somewhere closed around them, the women

discarded their cloaks and shoes, and shook out the flaming waves

of their hair. Then they ran towards the lake.

As they ran, he saw their plain garments change to silks and

velvets, streams of embroidery budding at sleeves and borders like

yet more flowers breaking through grass.

And he was aware of his own joy in the running, and his lion-like

pursuit, his joy in the otherworld, in life and in eternity. Strong wine.

Strong as—love.

He did not glance after the spirit-cord, however. He sensed he

might not see it, here.

When the women reached the lake, they were laughing with excited

pleasure. Some of the silver and golden leaves they had sped under

had fallen into their hair—ice on fire, fire on water—he, too, had

deliberately snatched a handful of each kind of leaf. But the leaves of the lake-side trees were hard with brilliancy.
were diamonds; they did not deign to fall. Impelled he reached out and plucked one.

It gave off a spurt of razorous white—like a tinder striking—filling the air with one sharp snap.

“Someone is behind us,” said the eldest princess, amber-haired.

The others frowned at her, then all about them.

Yannis thought,
Strange, Amber is the oldest of them, yet she is
young like a child, too. Perhaps in knowledge, soul-wise, the youngest
princess of all . . .

And I
, he thought,
What am I? Perhaps in fact I am only drugged
and dream all this

But the youngest princess, Evira, said quietly, “Who could follow

here, sisters?” Trusting, and like a child as well.

They could not see him, he knew. Not even the silver and gold and

diamond hidden in the pocket of his no-longer-physical shirt.

• 82 •

• Tanith Lee •

Then what looked to him at first like a fleet of swans appeared

across the lake. Soon he saw twelve gilded boats, one for each

princess. Who guided these vessels?

Up in the air, Yannis stood a pillar’s height high. He scanned the

vessels; each rowed by itself, and was empty.

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
10.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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