Harsh Fairy Tales
Harsh Fairy Tales
"So, Kyle," said Jon Lowell, a rather big man wearing a dark tunic and full black beard, "Are we in agreement?"
Kyle Branwen, noticeably thinner and with much less beard, and wearing pitch black clothing lined in pure white, rubbed his eyes and sighed. He had been brooding over the idea for the better part of an hour, but did not like it. "I would have to give that answer the person this involves." Kyle turned his head away from Jon, to a young girl with long dark hair and white dress. "Marian?"
Marian shifted in her chair uncomfortably. "Would he kill a dragon for me?"
Jon burst out laughing. "My son Rowan? Kill a dragon? That would be a sight, aye."
Kyle shook his head and leaned closer to Marian. "Marian, dragons don't exist. They're only in stories. They do not kidnap princesses, and knights do not go out to rescue them."
"And as for Rowan," interjected Jon, "The boy is more a scholar than a fighter. He barely had skill with a sword, but his pace in learning far exceeded my oldest." He walked over to Marian and leaned in with a yellow grin. "He wouldn't even see the dragon before he was dead."
"Jon, please stop frightening my daughter. You want her to marry this Rowan, right?" Kyle rose from his seat and walked to a nearby cupboard, pulling out a bottle of wine and three cups. "I do not doubt that Rowan is a good boy, but marriage was not the way I wanted us to be in an alliance."
Jon guffawed. "Look at you, Kyle the Mediator. You're more coercive than the Keatons. You got a crow on your herald; thought you liked to pick at the dead."
Kyle swirled his cup of wine and took a sip. His heraldry was a white crow. The common one crowded battlefields and ate the remains of the dead. But other tales spoke of them as informant, scouts, and as Kyle acted among his age of strife, mediators.
A shout rang up outside, and the sounds of many somethings stamping the dirt ground outside the stone castle breezed in the open window. Kyle left the other two cups, and walked to it. He peered outside, looking over the gate, to see many horses, all bearing unknown, steel armored and helmeted men, clothed mostly in blue. The man in front of the column of horses wore no helmet, and was slightly balding, with little neck and a grim face. He glanced up at the window and narrowed his eyes. Kyle looked at the herald on his cape, a white hawk with spread wings blazoned on it.
Jon, already beginning to drain his cup, stopped in mid gulp. "What is it?"
"Lord Brandon Keaton, king of vultures, has come calling."
Jon spit out what he had in his mouth, and tried to wipe his beard. "Why in the hells is that buzzard here?"
Kyle put his face in his hand, rubbing it. Brandon Keaton was known as a man constantly in fury, and known to get what he wanted with any means necessary. Some less than what a lord would want public, so the rumors went.
"I know what he wants," said Kyle, and he brisked to the desk, shuffling papers until he found what he wanted. His eyes narrowed at the words, and Brandon's stamp of a hawk, then handed it to Jon. Jon looked it over, mumbling the words.
"Marriage?" He blurted out. "No wonder you're against the idea."
Kyle took the paper back and placed it on his desk. He walked over to a hook on the wall where his own cloak was; a pitch black piece of cloth with a roosting white crow on it. He swung it around and clasped it at the neck with a pearl brooch. He looked to his daughter, Marian, who remained quiet.
"Marian," Kyle said, "I do not know how this day will unfold, but take care. I will try to get us out of it." Kyle sat at his desk, his face set in a frown, prepared to meet with Lord of Keaton. A knock announced his arrival, and Kyle told them to enter.
The guard opened the door, and stood to the side. In walked Brandon Keaton, a blue tunic covering a mesh of chainmail, and a sheathed steel sword at his belt with a sapphire on its hilt. He stomped in, scanned the breadth of the room, taking note of Jon Lowell on one side, and his prize, Marian Branwen, on the other. His gaze focused on Kyle in the middle, looking at the man with disdain.
Kyle did not flinch, did not show any emotion, and began the meeting. "How may I help you, Lord Keaton? Or should I say Brandon? May I call you Brandon?"
"Lord Kyle Branwen," said the man. "You do me dishonor to not even meet me in your hall, much less your gate. Is there a problem?" He looked towards Jon Lowell. "I see the wolves are here. Your banner hangs from the castle walls. I wondered why."
"Brandon," Kyle began, "You came uninvited, and under pretenses that I cannot agree with. I was still making a decision on your..." Kyle shuffled around some papers on his desk before placing his finger on the paper he refound today, "Proposal."
"It's a fine alliance," said Brandon. "Your daughter Marian and my son Alistair would make a good match."
"Marriage between the crows and the hawks?" Jon laughed. "You've never liked each other."
"Marriage would change that," Brandon said to Jon. "Why are you here in the first place, anyway?"
"Well, just so you know, you're too late. Marian has been promised to my family, or at least one of my sons to this one."
Brandon shook his head. "Why? You're... you."
"My answer is no, Brandon," said Kyle flatly.
The room was silent for a moment, then Brandon spoke. "Why not?"
Kyle leaned forward, bridging his hands and resting his head on them. "Because we've never seen eye to eye. You antagonize every lord and land around you. You've gained land by bullying behind treaties. I fear I would lose more than I'd gain with you. The answer is no, and will remain no."
"Kyle, please," said Brandon. "This is a good idea. You want peace, and I am offering it."
"Really. From my experience, I think not."
Brandon grumbled. "I will get what I want, Kyle, I assure you."
"Is that a threat?"
Brandon became flustered. Kyle allowed himself a grin, but his eyes still tried to bore into his adversary's skull, looking at his embarrassment with enjoyment and apathy. He noticed Brandon grumble before he turned, with a swish of his cape, and strode out of the room.
"That went well," said Jon.
Kyle sighed, and leaned back in his chair. He looked to Marian, noting the look of confusion on her face. She looked to her father for some answer, only meeting a strained grin.
She had dreamed again. She watched, hidden in the cave, the sun shining on an armored knight, sword and shield in hand, attemping to size up a large, winged lizard. The knight bashed his iron shield twice, causing the lizard to roar. After a minute, he did it again, and again. It sounded more like wood then iron, and heavier than that dinky shield.
Just as the dragon reared up, Marian remembered such creatures did not exist. And between the knocking, a beating of rain on a cloudless summer day.
She opened her eyes, her body, now a number of years older, sprawled out on the bed. The room was dim, a fleeting light issuing from the windows, trying to show as much from the obscured sun as possible. Rain rapped on the windows, and beat on the castle's stone walls. She groaned, and rolled out of her bed. The knocking came again.
"Alright," she called. "I'm awake."
After grumbling and yawning, Marian approached her door and opened it. She looked up at a young man, dress finely and with a blue cloak clasped at his neck with a bird. Her tired face went immediately into a scowl. "Alistair."
Alistair Keaton bowed a little, not looking pleased or annoyed at her presence. "Lady Marian."
Marian's eyes narrowed. "Do you need something, Alistair?"
He straightened. "My father has returned from the north. He asked for you as he ate his breakfast."
Marian wondered why the buzzard would not leave her alone. "Wouldn't my presence on such a dreary day ruin his appetite?"
"A lot of things would ruin his appetite these days."
Marian sighed, resigned to the fate of meeting Brandon Keaton, the lord of Brawen Castle. "Alright. I'll treat with him, and hear what he has to say." She slammed the door in his face, and walked to her dresser. She changed from her night clothes into a wool dress, then opened the door to find Alistair still there. As she entered the hallway, he fell in behind her, his boots hitting the cold stone in time with her own shoes. Marian let him follow her, knowing it was an act to remain aloof at his power over her.
After some minutes and turns, Alistair went in front of Marian and knocked on a door. A gruff 'Enter' was heard, and Alistair opened it, standing aside for Marian.
The study had not changed in years. The cupboard was still there, as was the desk. The only things changed were the flags, from the black and white of House Branwen to the brown of House Keaton. The other was the thin and kindly man man being replaced by the old and angry man.
Lord Brandon Keaton was cutting his sausage when she saw him. He was still balding, and his body still seemed larger than it should under his bulky clothes and thin neck.
Marian thought his overstuffed coat made him look more like a vulture. Just as she did, Brandon looked up, his eyes with disgust and a scowl on his mouth. He waved to the chair in front of the desk, before plopping a piece of meat in his mouth and attacking it again.
Marian curtsied, then sat down, playing the dutious future-step-daughter act once again. "How was your journey, Lord Keaton?"
"Horrible," he said more to his eggs than to Marian. "Lowell would not even meet me. He sent his bitch of a wife out to talk. All she could think about was you, asking how I treated you, if I even fed you." Then he looked up at her. "I've treated you alright, correct?"
"Of course, m'lord," she lied. "Your son has been quite friendly with me. I look forward to our marriage." Alistair seemed to develop a cough after she said that. Marian glanced at him.
"About that. Preparations are being made for the wedding. I hope we can get you two wedded and bedded by summer. Then once you're with child, cart you off home. Can't have a Keaton born in this place." Brandon shivered while looking around the room. "Good enough for crows, how those corpse-eaters flock to the towers."
Marian stayed her urge to jump up and claw the man's face off. "Must I leave? This is my home."
Brandon slammed his fist on the desk, causing Marian and Alistair to jump. "You'll do what you're told, or I will finish what I started. Your life can be lost by my word alone." He paused, then, keeping his gaze on Marian, said, "Is something wrong Alistair?"
Alistair cleared his throat more. "Nothing, father."
Brandon looked to him this time. "You looked troubled."
"Just the weather."
Marian turned to look at Alistair, who, upon meeting her eyes, turned to look out the windows.
Brandon turned his attention to a cup of wine, gulping it down before starting on his eggs. "You're free to leave. Maybe after this business with Jon Lowell -may God pierce his soul with a rusty spear- we can head to my own castle in peace."
Marian bowed in the chair, then lifted herself and headed for the door. Alistair fell into step behind her.
"Not yet, Alistair," called Brandon. "I need to speak with you."
Alistair stopped, and looked to Marian. She gave him a scowling glance, then left the room, letting him close the door.
After breakfast, Marian found herself a bench sitting under an eave in the castle courtyard. Some boys were playing in the rain, running around in the mud. One was swinging a wooden stick at another, while he roared and tried to scare the stick-wielder away. A girl egged them on, hiding under a tree to not get rained on.
A teenage boy with black hair, wearing rough clothing, approached her. He gave his 'm'lady,' and handed her a letter and a bundle of black cloth, then walked away. A few adults came by, and went out to round up the children. It was at that point that Alistair found her again.
"Did you see them, Alistair?" She said to him. "I remember those tales."
"The whole dragon kidnapping princesses for ransom thing always confused me," he said as he stood next to her. "Why dragons cared for princesses or gold, I never found out. Wouldn't the dragon eat the princess? Wouldn't a cow be better?"
Marian looked at him. Her father always said the same things. She then sighed, and leaned back, letting the stone wall support her. "Well, it doesn't matter. There are no dragons, no wizards, no lazy princesses waiting for a handsome knight to find them. Instead we have bands of wolves, wizards would be burned on sight if they even existed, and princesses are married to old men."
"I'm not old."
Marian rolled her eyes. "And if you didn't exist, your father would marry me, or just forget it and throw my head on top of the wall. Never liked his idea of a proposal, though."
Alistair found the ground an interesting sight. "That's not how I wanted to ask someone to marry me."
Marian gave a strained laugh as she remembered the day, when Keaton made full his own threats. "It was hilarious, Alistair. Right after your father sliced open my mother's stomach and cut off my father's head, he gave the head to you to present to me, then you said 'will you marry me.' I laughed."
"Last I remembered, you wailed."
The rain beat on as the two basked in their silence.
"What are fairy tales?" said Marian.
"Stories written long ago to make people happy. Break from the harsh reality."
Marian got up from the bench. "I'm not happy." She then turned and walked away, her steps resounding off the stone walls.
Night came, and the rain continued to beat. Marian was in her bed, turning from side to side, trying to settle and sleep. Thoughts her grim future, a Brandon with a wild grin, and an Alistair laughing with her father's head. She heard a long moan from outside, rebounding off the walls of the castle. She groaned. "Why are you people braying like sheep this late at night?"
Then there was yelling. Someone called 'to arms,' horses neighed, and the clanging of steel rang inside and outside the castle. Yellow light streamed in from the windows.
Marian realized that was no calls for a party. She threw off her covers and jumped to the window. Figures were moving about the line of trees in the distance. Some poles among the line held flags, but she could not see the color from the black of night, nor from the slackness from rain.
Marian laughed. She guffawed at the window, her breath misting on the glass. She did not need to see the heraldry on the poles.
At that point, the door slammed open, making Marian squeak and jump, and there stood Alistair, breathing heavily.
"I came as soon as I could," he said.
Marian shrunk away, looking at Alistair with the face of a cornered animal. "Why are you here?"
Alistair began to approach. "Father wanted to head out himself. He told me to stay near you, take you to his study."
Marian's teeth cricked. "What for?"
Alistair's shoulders dropped. "Why else? A man who came to claim what was promised him years ago. Jon Lowell has come to take his son's bride."
Marian grinned then. "I know."
Alistair had the look of surprise. "You called him here?"
"Who else would convince the wolf to come?"
Alistair joined her at the window, Marian shifting away, keeping her eyes narrowed and aware of any movement she disliked. "Indeed. Though it doesn't seem like he will win this day. Wolves are still smaller than dragons."
Marian forced herself to look out the window. Alistair proved true, as the men who entered the field were stopped, the charge meeting the brick wall that was Keaton's forces.
"When I was young," began Alistair, "I, too, wanted to be that knight. I wanted to save the princess, and live in happiness." He sighed, and shook his head. "All I have had was watching my father sign people to die, and force others to ally with him in the chaos. My own mother..." Alistair looked towards Marian. "My father forced her into marriage, and in all my years, she's never looked happy."
Marian stared at Alistair. This boy she met years ago seemed to become much older than her. He was as scared as she was when he handed her her father's head. Now his eyes were narrow, straight, his blue cape resting around his shoulders and arms, framing his entire form.
"Someday, we grow up, and realize the stories are fake," Alistair said to her. "Unless you wish for me to be your charming prince, or handsome knight. Or you can wait for Lowell to get here."
Marian looked out the window again. Lowell's first wave was breaking, and Lowell's rear men were beginning to retreat. She saw Jon Lowell on a horse in the middle, trotting among his men to rally them away. She could hear his voice booming for quick action, convincing them to fight another day.
Marian sighed, and realized she had to take action. She turned to Alistair, and her eyes bore into his. "I do not need a hero, Alistair. I only need people that will choose to do what is necessary." She turned to a dresser under a window, and shuffled until she found the bundle of black cloth the boy gave her. She unwrapped it, and produced a steel dagger bearing a wolf and crow on both sides of the scabbard.
Alistair had a look of confusion, then horror. "You don't plan to use that on... Marian, please, he's still my father."
Marian's dead-set expression did not change. She spun the dagger in her hand, and took it out half an inch. "Do you wish to join him?"
Alistair stood, dumbfounded. His shoulders dropped, slowly, and he sighed deeply.
"I'm sorry, Alistair," said Marian. "But this is not a fairy tale. There are no noble heroes."
"God damn that man!" Brandon Keaton sat in the main entrance of the castle. He was armored in plate from the waist up, blood spattered over his entire body, especially over his right knee, where an arrow protruded from it.
"Lowell is running away," said a man approaching from the entrance. "Half his force remains. We can finish him off."
"I would care more," said Brandon, "If I did not take an arrow in my knee!" He yelped in pain as a man wearing a silk robe tore out the arrow and quickly wrapped it in a bandage. A few more unbuckled and lifted off his armor. "Officers, get me to my study. We need to discuss what to do about this intrusion."
Two more men, armored in steel and chain, lifted Brandon by his arms, and helped him walk to the study. A young man with black hair was standing just outside, watching them. "Boy! Open that door."
The boy opened the door, then jumped out of the way to let the entourage through. When Brandon and his helpers were inside, they stopped like they turned to stone.
Standing to one side of the desk was Alistair, trying to look away from them. More armored men stood around the walls, swords in hand.
Sitting in the chair behind the desk was a young woman, draped in a black cape, her hands bridged in front of her face, a look of familiar boredom in her eyes.
"Lord Brandon Keaton. So good of you to join us."
"Marian," said Brandon. Her eyes reminded him of someone. "Alistair, what is the meaning of this."
Alistair stayed quiet.
"I'm sorry, Lord Keaton. Or should I say Brandon? May I call you Brandon?"
"You can call me father after you marry my son, unless I decide to finish what I started first." Brandon began to sweat. Those eyes just bored into his skull, making him feel queasy. Or was it blood loss?
"Maybe. I might still decide to marry him. I think Jon Lowell wants to present his own son to me, though."
"That is my decision, whore, not yours." The eyes he looked into were not the same he saw this morning. Maybe from years ago.
"Calling the lady of the castle a 'whore' is not proper manners, Brandon."
"Address me as Lord Keaton."
"Is that a threat?"
Brandon looked straight into those eyes. The memory of a man, looking at him with apathy, disdain, boredom. A man who would not move from the path he had chosen.
"Then I guess the Branwens were fated to die."
Marian blinked, glanced behind Keaton, and said, "As you will."
Brandon felt a sharp pain in his back. There were gasps in his ears. His knee buckled from under him, dragging the other with it when he dropped to the floor. His vision hazed as he looked to his son, still finding the floor more interesting than the events around him.
Those eyes, that look of boredom, of annoyance, came in clear as day.
"Thank you, Rowan. Jon will be proud," said the eyes.
His vision whipped down to the floor, and blackened in a black that lasted for an eternity.
The black-haired boy, Rowan, wiped his hand on his shirt. He nodded to Marian, then walked outside the view of the door.
Marian leaned back in her chair, taking in a deep breath as she did so. "I'm sorry," she said to the men Brandon was with. "You will have to forgive me someday. I give you leave to at least take him to his bed."
The officers looked around in confusion, let out their breath, then dropped down to pick up the body of Brandon Keaton, plus one dagger in his back.
When the body and the other men left the room, Alistair finally spoke. "I'm still not comfortable with this."
"It was not meant to comfort you, Alistair. It was meant to be acted."
Alistair sniffed, keeping his fists tightly closed. "Was their really no other way?"
Marian scoffed. "Dragons were not slain by single armored knights with nothing more than a sword and shield. He'd either be chomped in half or melted from this supposed fire breath they had. He also could not parley with them; he was, in fact, a metal meal." She placed her hands behind her head, and crossed her legs. "In reality, armies filled with bowmen would of brought them down from the skies. Or tricked into a trap and starved or stabbed. I choose to trick it somewhere it couldn't escape, then kill it with a ballista."
"That's not very heroic."
"Reality is not built on heroics, Alistair." Marian looked to him then with a grin. "It's built on harsh fairy tales."