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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

By Morgan Smith

Copyright 2017 Morgan Smith

Shakespir Edition

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Skin Deep

Based on an old Scandinavian folktale

In the village of Anhof, the alehouse was filled to bursting, and not one man in five could hear himself think.

The problem of the king’s eldest son was well-known, of course. The curse was held to be a famous one, although, since not a single villager here had ever ventured farther than to the yearly market held at Liffing, only five miles east, it is unclear what their definition of “famous” might have been.

This characterization, moreover, did not deter them from recounting to each other the sad tale of the king’s feckless queen, who had not seemed to be able to bear any children for some years after the marriage was solemnized and had, in the end, resorted to seeking out a certain wise woman who lived high up in the mountains, and who was known to have strange, arcane powers in such matters.

The charm’s instructions had seemed quite clear. The queen was to eat two onions, while standing in a sacred grove in the full light of the turning moon, and then walk backwards three times around the carved, hogbacked stone in the grove’s centre. After which, she was under strict instruction to make her way back to the castle, speaking to no one, and to join her husband in their bed.

In due course, the queen had given birth to twins, and that was when the stories split apart. Had she eaten the onions peeled or unpeeled, and had the witch withheld this vital detail? Had she inadvertently uttered a word, sometime between the carefully enacted ritual and her bedchamber door?

The more charitable held to the view that the witch had purposefully not said whether the onions had to be peeled or not, and that if a woman stubbed her toe and swore under her breath as she walked past the guard at the door, it would be unfair of anyone to be cursed, since she had not spoken those words to any being but herself.

The mean-minded said that it was just like the woman to have not managed a simple task without error.

It did not, in the end, matter too terribly much to anyone what exactly had gone wrong. The point was, something had.

One of the boys was pronounced as everything a king’s son should be. He was utterly unblemished, had the requisite number of fingers and toes, and he looked out upon the world, from the very first, with a clear and untroubled gaze of lambent blue.

The other, the elder – well, for a long time, the adage “least said, soonest mended” was held to be the wisest course, especially if one wanted to avoid arrest and consignment to a dungeon.

But people will talk. Late at night, in the alehouses, a traveling tinker might mutter a word or three. A couple of shepherd boys might murmur to each other what that tinker had said. And down by the river, when they went to do the washing in the spring, the women might relay what little they knew.

A monstrosity. Scaled and serpentine; fanged and taloned; and dangerous, most of all. It demanded raw flesh at every mealtime – no, not merely raw: living flesh. A Great Wyrm, some whispered, but wingless, and with legs, able to walk and to speak.

And to kill: his strength was almost immediately legendary.

Not a man, and yet with a man’s clear intelligence, and, as the years went by, with a man’s desires, apparently.

At first, it had been sorrowfully hoped that the aberration would not long survive. After all, babes with deformities did not frequently live much past the first months, even when they were not an utter abomination. Later on, it was merely an existence to be carefully ignored, both out of kindness and self-preservation.

And then, just as the king had concluded a very worthy betrothal for his younger son, the problem had reared its scaly head and demanded that the rule of law be respected. It was not to be born, said the elder royal offspring, that the ancient statute requiring the younger son remain single until the elder had been safely married off be set aside. He would not countenance this. He could not.

He demanded his bride.

And so, where once the tale had been a slightly pleasurable if somewhat terrifying matter for discreet gossip, it now formed a material and immediate problem for every merchant, farmer, or craftsman in the country.

***

In a well-appointed throne room, decorated with embroidered hangings depicting various hunting scenes, and laid with a floor of alternating black and grey slate flagging, the king was harassing his counselors for an answer to this most pressing dilemma.

Strewn about the floor was a veritable snowfall of parchment sheets. All of them had been copied out in perfect, ornate hands, and all of them bore impressive seals and ribbons.

And all of them, in the most polite and courteous of words and impressive phrases, couched amid expressions of sincere but heartfelt regret, contained at their hub, a simple word.

No.

No, they would not, for any amount of gold plate or trade concessions, send their royal daughters to be wedded to the eldest son of King Ranwulf. Nor would they allow the child of any prince, duke or earl to be sacrificed in this endeavor. Indeed, or so the king saw, reading between the lines, they would not attempt to suborn any lesser or especially impoverished member of their nobility or gentry to immolate their daughters in this cause.

Just, no.

“Well,” said one counselor, clearing his throat, “Well, we shall have to think of something else.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, while everyone tried to think of what “something else” might consist of.

“Perhaps,” said the queen, diffidently, “someone might be found among our own people? Oh, I know,” she said, catching her husband’s impatient glare, “We can’t expect any of the nobility to reconsider. But it might be that some of the – er – less well-to-do might attempt it? For a price?”

Ranwulf opened his mouth to object, and then snapped it closed again.

She was right, really, and he knew it. What place had family pride in this? Prince Lind certainly did not care. He had never placed even the slightest value on his family’s honour or ancestors.

From the start, Ranwulf had known that his son’s demand for a wife had been born of bitterness, resentment and malice, and the outrage that was his eldest son had, moreover, made it plain to all of them that his enormous strength and stamina, not to mention his poisonous fangs, would be put to terrible use should he be thwarted. He had said a great many things, some of which had been naked threats, but the one thing he had not said was that he expected a royal bride.

Just a bride.

Two days later, the proclamation went out.

***

In Anhof, as elsewhere, the king’s words were greeted with disbelief.

The queen’s original suggestion had, as was to be expected, been modified by unanimous consent to form more than a request.

It was, in fact, more of a decree than a proclamation. Having come to the sticking point, the wise counselors had transformed her idea into an edict requiring each and every community to forward, with haste, one eligible, unmarried female to the capital, there to be presented to His Royal Highness for inspection as a prospective bride.

The wording was careful, but not a single villager in Anhof, at least, was in any doubt. Theirs was not to reason why. Theirs was to sacrifice some girl – any girl – on the altar of the kingdom’s future.

And there wasn’t a cursed thing they could do about it.

The proclamation did not spell out any details of the retribution in store, should they fail in this endeavor. It was unnecessary to do so, since the villagers’ imaginations could supply prospects far more terrifying than any open words could have done.

It had induced consternation, of course, and fury, and no little anguish.

How could they send a child of theirs into certain and horrific death?

How could they not?

And, in a scene repeated in every corner of the realm, names were slyly, or diffidently, or ruthlessly offered up.

All of which, in Anhof, had the natural effect of causing more discord and heartache than any other local dispute ever had. The tanner was accused of trying to settle old scores. The blacksmith claimed that Weaver Elspeth was merely trying to clear the field for her own daughter to marry the reeve’s son, by suggesting that the smith’s eldest was admirably suited for a life at court.

It was a set of quarrels that went long into the night.

The trouble was, though, as the alewife eventually pointed out, name who they might, there was no guarantee that the woman selected would be a willing participant.

“You can put a mule to harness,” she said, sagely, “but even with the whip, there’s no saying they’ll pull your wagon, is there?”

This had the unlooked-for effect of silencing everyone. In their minds, they suddenly, separately, tried to imagine telling some girl – not their own daughter, of course, but some girl, any girl – that she had been singled out to save their village’s skin by being sent off to an unspecified but obviously bloody fate.

“Perhaps,” said the reeve, “Perhaps one of them would consent…willingly?”

***

On the following morning, when every unmarried woman, flanked by her family, had assembled themselves on the village green, and when they had listened to a rather pompous speech begging them to consider the future of those families if not the entire village, the reeve was met, not unexpectedly, by a nervous silence.

No girl in Anhof had come unprepared.

All of them had known beforehand what would be asked.

All of them, in their suddenly virtuous hearts, had resolved that this was the one time where their parents’ impassioned plea or stern order must be respected.

All, perhaps, except one.

Katya was not the sort of girl that anyone ever took much notice of.

She was neither pretty nor plain. Her hair was unremarkably brown, as were her eyes, and her height was neither so tall as to occasion questions about “the weather up there” nor so small as to be referred to as “the little one”. She wasn’t outspoken or quarrelsome, and no one, if they thought of her at all, which was seldom, had ever said she was bold or courageous.

She was simply a nonentity, even in her own family, where the only time she was noticed was in the event of an omission of some chore or task being performed, and even then, her mother frequently had to think hard to recall her name.

It was no wonder, then, that when her daughter stepped calmly forward and said, in confident, untroubled tones, “I’ll do it,” Katya’s mother, for several seconds, did not react at all.

Moments later, as a sort of relieved and grateful sigh flowed out from the gathered folk, her mother’s brow wrinkled slightly in an effort to collect her thoughts and said, rather disjointedly, “No – no. You mustn’t.”

It was too late. The reeve had grabbed the girl’s hand and pulled her forward, and the blacksmith’s wife was patting her on her shoulder with approval. Several of the people present made shift to comfort the grieving mother, but this was a short-lived effort. Katya’s mother watched as the carter helped the girl into his wagon, in great haste to be off before the chit thought better of her offer, and merely asked fretfully if anyone knew if Katya had fed the chickens that morning.

The deed was done. Anhof’s future was saved.

***

Katya, if she had thought about it at all, had thought merely that at least she would get to see a real city before she died. The reeve, as an inducement, had mentioned a sum of actual coin for the courageous sacrifice, in order that she might buy some new, fashionable clothes and present herself nicely before her doom. This alone might not have been enough to sway her, but with the mention of an additional payment to the girl’s family, and the hint of future considerations, coupled with the fact that she was well aware that not only were her marital prospects in Anhof virtually nil but that her continued existence formed a bit of a block to her three younger siblings’ chances as well, had induced her to step forward.

But in addition, Katya had noticed that even quite ordinary happenings that Anhof was witness to had the habit of becoming massively exaggerated, sometimes to mythic proportions, and that consequently, it was more than probable that the tale of the first-born prince’s deformities had been embellished and added upon so much that the reality was very likely quite benign.

This belief stood her in good stead through the four-day journey to the capital, where she was installed at a hostelry known to the carter, although she had had to jog his elbow twice to remind him of why they were there, and a third time for him to belatedly recall her name during the introductions.

In the morning, after several repeated questions and a recounting or three of why she was here, she was directed to a good seamstress and various other merchants and began to array herself for the upcoming ordeal.

If she had had dreams of elegant finery, these had by then been put to rest.

The city was cold – much, much colder than Anhof. Damp winds rattled her bedchamber windows, and chill fog dogged her steps as she went down the crowded streets to consult with the recommended dressmaker. She couldn’t stop shivering, her nose was permanently red, and by the end of her first evening in the city, the tips of her fingers had started to turn blue.

Instead of the shining silks and gossamer skirts of her imagination, she had chosen heavy linen and serviceable woolens: layer upon layer of them, from unfrilled drawers and a number of scratchy petticoats to two high-necked gowns, a close-buttoned jacket, an oversized shawl and a demi-cloak with a fur-lined hood. She bought thick wool stockings at a stall at the end of the road, sighed over a pair of thin kidskin gloves and paid a quarter of their price for roughly-knitted mittens instead.

In fact, so consuming was the need to somehow, finally, get warm again, that it was not until the appointed morning arrived that Katya really gave her future very much thought.

By dint of three requests the night before and another in the morning, they had brought her some hot water to wash with, and she gritted her teeth and slipped out of her nightdress, trying to not to notice the gooseflesh her skin had become.

She began to dress: first her old shift, then the new underthings. All the petticoats, and the thick socks over top of her old, much-darned ones. Both gowns and the jacket came next, and, after slipping her feet into her new boots, she wrapped the shawl, muffler-like, around her shoulders.

She didn’t bother to look in the mirror. Her vague dream of beautiful clothes lifting her finally out of the limbo she had always occupied had lost out to her desperate need to not feel as though icicles were stabbing her all day long. If she had been offered a funeral pyre, she would have jumped in without a thought.

She arrived at the castle gates on foot, since she hadn’t been able to catch anyone’s attention long enough to bespeak a carriage, a cart or even a tinker’s wagon. The wind had reddened her cheeks and she had acquired a case of the sniffles.

Even then, the enormity of her choice failed to sink in.

There were plenty of other girls here, and not all of them were weeping or looking frightened. Not all of them had the look of potential spinsters, resigned to their sacrificial fate. Some of them had apparently weighed the fireside whispers against the possibility of becoming a princess and decided the risk might be worth it. These girls looked well-to-do. They looked excited and confident.

They looked warm.

Katya shivered and drew her cloak more closely around her, huddling into the fur of the hood. Inside, hopefully, there would be fires lit, or charcoal braziers, and the windows shuttered against the chill. She wished they’d get on with this.

The King and Queen came out onto a balcony, and waved graciously. After that, an old man in a dark blue cloak came out and made a speech of thanks, which Katya heard very little of. The wind had picked up again and was blowing the words away.

Finally, the first hopeful bride-to-be was led inside, while the rest of them, commoners all and therefore not worthy of civilized comforts, waited in the courtyard.

Katya’s toes turned icy.

There was a sudden scream of anguish, and then a fearful silence.

A guard appeared and motioned to the next girl in line.

***

The mood in the courtyard had changed. A few of the more confident ones had tried to leave, but the gates were locked and guarded. Several girls had fainted. Many were weeping in terror, and even the ones who, like Katya, had maintained their composure, looked more than apprehensive.

But despite her outward calm, Katya was fighting a rising wave of fear. It seemed the rumours had not lied, not this time, and she had, in a moment of vanity and recklessness, doomed herself.

The line moved her slowly, methodically, inexorably, to her fate. She had lost whatever false courage that had propped her up through the last few days, and she was now not even slightly different than any of the other frightened, despairing girls who had thrown caution to the winds here.

And she was still very, very cold.

And then, suddenly, as if by magic, there was no one in front of her, and a stony-faced guard had grabbed her wrist and was pulling her up the shallow steps and pushing her through the great oaken doors.

***

Her first thought was that for royalty, they were certainly stingy with even minor comforts.

Her second thought was that rumour had, in this instance, actually been kind.

There was only one small brazier in the room, and beyond that lay the most horrific of sights.

He was coiled up, an enormous snake of a man-thing, iridescent scales shimmering in the pale light from the two lamps set on a table beside him. He was watching her with those cold, unblinking eyes, as black as coal, and she could hear her own breath rasping in her throat as she fought down a scream.

He opened his mouth to reveal long, yellowed fangs, dripping with ichor, and then she really would have screamed, just like the others before her, but she had no breath for it. All that came out of her was a sort of kittenish meow of grief and panic. She shut her mouth and swallowed very hard.

For a moment, they looked across at each other, silently, and as that moment lengthened, Katya became aware of something rather astonishing.

He saw her.

He was looking directly at her, which was a somewhat unusual occurrence for her. Most of the time, people’s eyes tended to take her in as a peripheral afterthought, immediately discounted as being of no interest or use to them, but Prince Lind’s eyes were most assuredly and unwaveringly on her.

He saw her.

Not as simply the next offering in this deadly performance of tragedy, but as a single, unique being.

He saw her.

It wasn’t that she found her courage, real or false, at that point. It wasn’t as if she felt any relief – quite the reverse, because she could read in his eyes that she was not, even so, precisely a person to him. She was prey, she was a toy, she was a weapon in some battle she did not even begin to understand, and this frightened her far more than his actual appearance.

It was just that being noticed was so new and alien a concept that her fear took a small step backwards to make room for a new sensation: that of curiosity.

“Er,” she said, licking her lips. “Er, how’d’ye do, Your Highness?”

The man-thing uncoiled and slid away from the stone chair it had been resting on.

“How do I do?” it asked, and its voice was just what she expected, a sibilant hiss, replete with menace. “How do I do? I do what I like and I do it very well.”

“Oh,” said Katya, faintly. She had just barely managed not to take a giant leap backward when the serpent-thing slid forward, but it had taken every ounce of willpower not to, and now, as he came just a little closer, she could not think why she had not run screaming from it.

Except that it seemed that that was what he was waiting for.

She was a country girl. She knew what snakes were like. They waited till you moved, before they struck.

She held her ground.

“Tell me,” it said, “tell me why you aren’t hammering on the door, begging to be let out? Why aren’t you screaming? All the others did so.”

“It’s colder out there,” said Katya, after a moment. “It ain’t warm in here, but at least I’m out of the wind.”

The noise it made then was unnerving, the hiss intertwined with a rattling, clacking sound that echoed around the empty stone walls. It was a second or two before Katya realized that the man-thing was laughing.

She grinned back and stepped up to the brazier.

The mirth was short-lived. Prince Lind looked her over once more. The snake’s tongue flicked out between the fangs.

“A pity,” it hissed. “A pity, since this is not the way the game is played, my dear.”

Game? She thought. What game? But she knew, instinctively, what it was he sought.

Hadn’t she played that same game, all her life long, with her mother, her father, her siblings, her entire village? That moment of victory, when through her persistence they finally, wholly and completely, acknowledged her existence, and were, however briefly, ashamed.

But then, no one’s life had been at stake.

She reached out her hands toward the warmth of the brazier, trying to think of some way to delay. If no scream came, mayhap someone would come to see what was happening? It was just barely possible that they might, and that they might then try to save her.

A frail hope, but this was now all she had.

She leaned closer to the only source of heat and said, as evenly as she could, “Surely, there’s no hurry about it, though? I mean, you could let me warm up, at least.”

It made that revolting laughing sound again.

“Just as you like,” it said, with mocking courtesy. “Shall I get you some wine?”

She watched in fascination as it slithered to the table and filled a silver cup from a crystal flagon, watched as the thing slid back toward her and held it out.

She took the cup, repressing a shudder as her fingers came into contact with those dry, hardened talons and papery skin, and managed a bleak smile of thanks. The thing drew back its lips, revealing those terrible fangs once more.

She was aware that he knew precisely what she was doing. She was aware, moreover, that her weak little stratagem had amused him. Her heart sank. All her gambit would do was buy her a few more minutes of life.

“You must tell me, of course, when you are comfortable,” the Prince said. “Meanwhile, what shall we do to pass the time?”

“Well, you seem to like games, Your Highness. Mayhap we could play one?”

The black, unwinking eyes narrowed.

“A game…,” it mused. “Indeed, a game should be played. But for what stakes? Ah, no, my dear, not that. I fear I must disappoint you, there. But you say you wish to be warm? Let us play for your clothing, then. I will dice you for every stitch you stand up in.”

Katya blushed. It was an outrageous suggestion, even for a peasant girl, but even while she registered the humiliation, her mind was racing.

“But what will you forfeit, my lord? It hardly seems fair, if you will not spare me, that you should not lose something, even so.”

“I never lose,” said the Prince.

“So you say,” Katya said. “But still, if I must shed my clothes, then you should shed something as well. Your precious skin, perhaps?”

For a moment, she thought she’d gone too far. Her heart thumped loud inside her chest; she thought for certain he must hear it.

But then came that rattling laughter, once more.

“Touché, my dear. I do salute you. Very well. I wager my skin against yours. Shall we begin?”

***

It was extremely fortunate for Katya that two years before, a mania for playing Hazard had swept her village. It was not clear who had introduced them to this game of the high-born, and even yesterday, Katya would not have counted knowledge of the game in any sense an advantage, since her father had lost three fat geese and a bushel of barley to its lures before her mother had put a stop to his participation.

But at least, when the Prince announced his preference, with another hideous smile and a flick of that impossibly disgusting tongue, she felt reasonably confident that she could manage to play without having to ask too many questions. She understood the rules.

The Prince’s assertion that he never lost held some truth. She was forced to give up her cloak and her shawl and then her jacket, in very short order.

But on the fourth cast, she called a main of eight and nicked with a twelve, to the surprise of them both.

There was a moment when it occurred to her that he might not honour the stakes. Indeed, why should she have thought that he would play fair at all? She shrank under his infuriated gaze, but then, he hissed out what seemed to be a sigh, and stepped a little away from the table.

There was a sort of trembling in the air, a vibration that rocked, ever so slightly, the stone floor beneath her feet, and then an odd, tearing sound as the shining scales at his throat seemed to part and fall away. The Prince straightened up and shook himself, and the snakeskin slipped to the floor with a clanking sound.

He won the next two throws, and Katya took off her first gown, and her shoes.

But then she won again, impossibly, because he threw the main he’d called on a chance, and then there were two piles of scaly skins lying in heaps beside her carefully folded things.

He had, even after the first loss, played with an indifferent, careless air, and she could feel his amusement hanging about her. Now, though, he was playing in earnest. He barely looked at her, concentrating his eyes wholly upon the game, but she didn’t mind that. He might be watching the dice, but his attention was utterly on her. It was a most novel thing, and despite knowing that no matter what happened, she was still doomed, she was actually enjoying herself.

After she lost her second gown, she was shivering visibly, although she was trying very hard to control it.

Prince Lind muttered a curse, and got up to slide the brazier closer to her side.

“Th-thank you,” she managed, between chattering teeth.

“Don’t imagine I do it for your benefit,” he hissed. “It’s monstrous distracting, all that shaking. You want to keep your mind on the game.”

A red flannel petticoat joined the clothing on the floor before she won again. This time, when Lind sat down again, it occurred to her that he seemed different.

Smaller.

He called a main of five. The cubes flipped up and through the air and tumbled down.

Eleven. Another skin lost.

She kept her eyes down. The last thing she wanted now was to anger him. At any moment, he might tire of this, and then…she swallowed, and pushed the thought away.

They’d been at this for ages. Why didn’t someone come to see what was happening? Why wasn’t the guard bringing another victim in here?

She lost another petticoat and her new woolen socks.

The Prince refilled their cups, and clinked his against hers in a sort of half-exasperated salute.

And then she won again.

He got up again, this time very slowly. The snake-tongue flicked out again, and the dark eyes seemed almost to devour her in a fury, but he stepped past her and this time the trembling was real, she could feel the stones rumbling and the walls were shaking and he cried out so loud, she thought he was dying.

It was somehow more terrifying than anything else about this terrifying day. She could hear the roar of an unholy wind whistling past her ears and there was a red mist rising, like a spray of blood, and a high, keening whine, as if there was some small animal caught in a trap.

Katya fell to the floor, her hands over her eyes, and wept in terror.

***

Somewhere, from very far away, there was a voice, asking her in desperate tones, if she was all right. Begging her to say she was, to say anything, to please be all right.

From even farther off, there was a frantic thumping of fists on wood.

And then a strong arm was around her shoulders, and a man’s voice was whispering “Hush, now, love. It’s all right. I swear it.”

Katya pulled her hands away from her face and looked up into deep brown eyes.

Eyes that saw her, and only her.

Below those eye was a straight, aquiline nose and a tender mouth, and his arms tightened around her shoulders.

The pounding on the door grew more agitated and frantic.

She looked at the man holding her. Behind him lay five snake-like skins and half of her own wardrobe. One of the wine-cups had fallen from the table and lay on the floor beside them.

“Wha- what happened?” she whispered.

“I don’t know,” he said, bewildered. “In truth I don’t, but – oh, my love, whatever it was is down to you!”

She sat up, suddenly very aware of his arms and her half-dressed condition, and blushed a deep red.

The pounding was now joined by some shouting.

Prince Lind – well, she assumed it was still Prince Lind, although how he could have become so transformed was not something she could grasp, not in her present state – Prince Lind seemed disposed to ignore the rising clamor outside the room.

“You have a name, I imagine?” he said, smiling down at her. “I don’t mind telling you it’s going to be deuced awkward introducing my bride if I don’t know her name.”

“I – oh, you cannot be serious,” she said.

“Why not, my love? Why should the Prince not marry the loveliest, bravest, smartest woman in the realm? What else could be more fitting?”

“But I’m just – I mean, I’m only…” her voice trailed away, in awe and disbelief.

Because Lind still saw her, all of her, and only her.

Because beauty is not only skin deep.

###

This story first appeared in the anthology “Fantastic Beasts”.

About the author:

Morgan Smith has been a goatherd, a landscaper, a weaver, a bookstore owner and archaeologist, and she will drop everything to travel anywhere, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Writing is something she has been doing all her life, though, one way or another, and now she thinks she might actually have something to say.

Discover other titles by Morgan Smith

A Spell in the Country

Casting in Stone

Flashbacks (an unreliable memoir of the ‘60s)

Short Stories:

On Tollswitch Hill

Easy Meat

No Good Deed

The Plague Village

Friend me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/morgansmithauthor

Visit my blog (Traveling Light): https://morgansmithauthor.wordpress.com/


Skin Deep

A tale as old as - well, you know the drill. A romantic tale based on an ancient Scandinavian story, this first appeared in the anthology "Fantastic Beasts".

  • ISBN: 9781370136568
  • Author: Morgan Smith
  • Published: 2017-04-01 00:05:10
  • Words: 5526
Skin Deep Skin Deep