A few days of Christmas #4

This is yet another of my stories from Christmas cards past.  In this case, from 2004, and so long that you could hardly call it a card.

Annabelle Tirree and the Ghost of a Wicked Man

or Just Enough Rope

Once, some years ago, a man died in such a way that he was not buried according to the traditions of his people. He was a very wicked man and the truth of the matter was that those who killed him were also wicked men. He died in a forest and his spirit haunted that forest for many years.

But this is not the story of that man. This is the story of a young woman who was curious enough to walk into trouble, but clever enough to find her way out.

Her name was Annabelle Tirree and she had been raised by two loving parents, sorcerers both, who had always taught her to stand on her own two feet and never swing with the wind. She was born in a village on the edge of a great forest filled with dark places and deep secrets. As she grew, so did her birthplace. When she took her first steps, the village became a hamlet. Around the time she attended letter-school, the hamlet expanded into a town. By the time neighbours had begun to talk of marriage for Annabelle Tirree, the town had reached the status of a small city.

Yet still it didn’t expand in the direction of the great forest filled with dark places and deep secrets. Annabelle Tirree was no stranger herself to the great forest, having an abiding curiosity regarding deep secrets, and no great dread of dark places. She spent many childhood hours in the shadows of the mighty oaks, and engaged the sprits that dwelt in the deep pools and the dark hollows in countless conversations regarding where the wind comes from, and whether life is very long or very short.

One day, around the time that her town became a city, Annabelle Tirree went walking in the great forest. She intended to find a tree-spirit and ask what it thought about marriage and about young John Galway who lived across the road from her and looked about ready to propose, but though she wandered far into the forest’s secret glens, she heard no sprit.

Presently she came to a path that was darker than most. So blithe was she, and so accustomed to the darkness of the grand wood, that she did not notice at first the taint that hung about that place, the deeper darkness that pooled in the spaces between the ancient trees. When she did mark these differences at last, like any so young, she assumed she could do something about the problem. And, also like any so young, she was right – though not in the way she thought.

Ahead of her on the path, she saw a piece of an old hempen rope dangling from the branch of a tree. Though the branch looked sturdy, it was clear to Annabelle Tirree that it had once been damaged by the burden of that rope. It dipped at the point of the knot and its bark there wore the marks of an old wound, one received in youth and never quite forgotten.

Old father Oak,” said Annabelle Tiree, “it is plain as a chestnut that this rope troubles you. Let me cut it down and so banish the worst of the darkness from your wee bit forest.” So saying, she cut away the rope. It crumbled to dust in her hand and sped away in a sudden wind.

The worst of the darkness did not go with it, however, and the air of that place remained as oppressive as ever. Annabelle Tiree was undaunted, but about this time, she noticed the lateness of the hour. So far had she traveled that day that she would not make it back home before daylight left the world, so she decided to remain in the dark place she had found. As her mother often said, better the devil you can face than the devil at your back. Annabelle Tiree stretched out and fell fast asleep.

As soon as her head hit the mossy root of the old Oak she had freed from the rope, Annabelle Tiree was visited by her parents. Being sorcerers, they often communicated with her in this manner, sometimes merely to find out where she was, sometimes to ask her pick up this or that root or leaf from the forest. At this time, though, they were more curt than she was used to expect. “Daughter,” said her mother, “you have awoken a troublesome ghost. He will vex you, but I have no doubt of your eventual triumph. I have always known you to be just as clever as you ought.”

Looking just as severe, her father said, “Daughter, you have awoken a wicked spirit. Like many wicked spirits, it has a number of weaknesses. Learn them well and use them to your good. We will look forward to your return.”

The rest of Annabelle Tiree’s dreams were much less pleasant, crowded with gangs of grim-faced men on horseback riding to an unpleasant task. She kept seeing the mossy floor of the forest swinging beneath her.

When she awoke at last, Annabelle Tirree felt little surprise to find herself staring into the eyes of a ghost. Huge, they were, and staring out of its pallid head as though death had come as a surprise – which it had not. It was poorly dressed and had a tangled head of hair.

Well,” said Annabelle Tirree, “you will be the ghost I have awoken. No doubt I am responsible for you or some such truth.”

The apparition stood up. “Aye,” it said, and its voice was the rasping of a saw on a rusty chain, “thou has released me from a piece of my death, though I’ll not tell you how. In consequence of this, I will have your hand in marriage, and I will have your help to return myself to life.” The ghost raised a hand, gray, rat-bitten and stinking of rot. “Yes, for I have heard it whispered that the dead, once turned again to life can be killed only as they were killed before.” And now it laughed. “I will be a king, Annabelle Tirree,” it said, “and you will be my queen. I will love you so much as to keep you in a tower.”

Annabelle Tirree listened to all of this. She stood to face the ghost, and smoothed back a lock of errant hair. “And what makes you think that I can help you return to life?”

The ghost made a dismissive gesture with its hand. “Do not pretend, Anabelle Tirree, that thou art anything other than the daughter of two sorcerers, for I know that it is so. Thou hast the secret lore of wizards and the will to use it. A tether binds us now. No lie shall win thy freedom. No truth will send me hence. Work thy wizard ways and set me free.”

And if I do not marry you?” said Annabelle Tirree. “And if I do not bring you back to life? What then?”

At this, the ghost seemed to come towards her without moving from where it stood, growing huge in her eyes. Its voice, when it spoke, was a thunderclap. “Then I would haunt thee forever, Annabelle Tirree. Thou hast released me from the bonds of the forest, and though I may not haunt any other but thee, I will give thee no peace but that thou bend to my wishes.” Having said this, the ghost retreated, or grew smaller. “It profits thee little to resist, Annabelle Tirree. Bring me to life and be my bride. I will deal with thee in mercy, though I ravage all the world beside. You will be my own special thing.”

Annabelle Tirree thought on this. She had no wish to be haunted all of her life; nor did she wish to release upon the world a man who could die in only one secret way.

Well,” she said at last. “A marriage and a resurrection both are ceremonies. I will require a book and some objects. For these I must go into the city.”

The ghost shook its head. “No, I do not think so, Annabelle Tiree. I am comfortable here in the thicket that was my final resting place. I will not suffer thee to leave.”

Then how am I to work magic?” said Annabelle Tirree.

The ghost’s bulging eyes narrowed. “My sight is not as it was in life, but even I can see a fellow trembling in the trees yonder. No doubt this is some callow youth who has sensed thy peril and come to save you. Go to him and tell him to fetch thy list.”

Annabelle Tirree looked and sure enough, John Galway shook behind a nearby tree, and could you blame him? Few can stand before a grave-touched sprit as did Annabelle Tirree.

The ghost stood, imperious and unperturbed, as Annabelle Tirree walked quickly to her young man. John Galway opened his mouth as though to speak, but Annabelle Tirree held up her hand. “Hush, John Galway,” she said quietly. “Look over my shoulder now at that ghost. Do you think that he sees us well?”

Inspired by her example, the young man mastered his own fear long enough to look. “No,” he said at once. “His eyes bulge from his skull like bursting grapes, but for all that, he seems not to focus on us.”

Well and good,” said Annabelle Tirree. “I have made up a plan. Here is what you must do. Go into the city. Stop first at my parents’ home and take from their hands the book of lore that they have for raising the dead. Then get me these three things: the bell that calls men to work in the slaughterhouse, a pig that is no fool, and just enough rope.”

John Galway looked as though he had many questions, but Annabelle Tiree brushed them away. “There is no time,” she said. “Find these things for me John Galway else my cause is lost.”

John Galway hesitated just a moment more; then he nodded and off he went.

It is very possible that John Galway had a tale of his own in the getting of the objects that Annabelle Tirree requested. How did he determine which pig was no fool? How did he convince the foreman at the slaughterhouse to give up the bell that called the men to work? How did he measure just enough rope?

These things we will never know, for this is not John Galway’s tale. It is the tale of Annabelle Tiree and the ghost, so all that we know is that for many hours she was left alone with the shade of that wicked man. He told her, in that voice of his that still sounded like a saw cutting a rusty chain, of his many plans for the world. He would call himself King Undying the First. He would burn the feet of those who would not bow to him, and flay the skin from their bones. He would find men both wicked and fearful and set them up as his barons and lords. “And through all of this, Annabelle Tiree,” he rasped, “I will keep thee as my only precious thing in a tower far away.”

At last, from whatever travails he might have passed, John Galway returned. This time, Annabelle Tirree saw him first, and she marked how close he needed to approach before the ghost saw him also. “Here is thy young man,” said the ghost. “Go to him now, for he dares not approach me further. Get thy spellcasts and bring them for me to examine. I would that this were over soon and I with breath in me again.”

The first thing Annabelle Tirree did when she went to John Galway was to bend down and look into the eyes of the pig he had brought. “Truly, John Galway,” she said, “you have done well. This pig is no fool as I can tell by his eyes. Have you the bell? Yes. And that,” she said, taking the rope he held out to her, “is just enough rope.”

What is it all for?” said John Galway.

A guess and nothing more. I thank you, John Galway, for all you have done, but you must go now and leave the rest to me. I have freed this ghost and it is now my job to send it back.”

The young man nodded, reluctant as he was to approach the ghost, but he was brave enough to insist that he watch from behind a tree, and Annabelle Tirree was lonely enough in that dark place that she agreed to let him.

When she got back, the ghost was eager to examine the objects John Galway had brought, but he was, as Annabelle Tirree had guessed, half-blind, and could not, with his staring eyes and rat-bitten fingers, guess what they were. “This,” he said, lifting the bell from the slaughterhouse gate. “Is it some magic thing?”

Just a wedding bell, husband-to-be,” said Annabelle Tirree. “It will ring at the end of my spell, for I cannot marry you until you are alive.”

And this?” he said, touching the broad back of the pig that was no fool. The pig knew, as pigs will, that this was a ghost touching it, but as it was no fool it had seen a plan in the eyes of Annabelle Tirree, and it did not squeal at the clammy touch of the dead.

A horse, my betrothed, said Annabelle Tirree. “If you are to be the king of all the world, then you must return to the living in grand style.” With this, she helped the ghost up to the pig’s broad back. A freshly dead man may seem to weigh more than he did in life, but the ghost was long-dead, and though the pig feared to bear such a burden, it still was no fool, and did not flinch.

Yes,” said the ghost, “a fine steed for a king that does not quail to bear the dead. And what is this?” It fingered the rope.

A necktie, my promised one,” said Annabelle Tirree. “This is such as all the nobles wear. Let me fix it around your neck. Ah, but you are high up on your horse, and I cannot reach you. Here, let me climb this tree.”

So saying, she grabbed a low-hanging branch and climbed up so that she might tie the rope around his neck. When she was above him, she threw an end of the rope over a higher branch. To distract the ghost, she kept speaking as she tied. “Oh, and a fine tie it is, my troth-plight. They will mark you as a man of distinction before they even know you are their king.”

The ghost of the wicked man was most vulnerable to flattery, so he did not notice as his bride slipped the far end of his tie under his steed and fixed it firmly around the animal’s stomach. There was just enough rope.

Now the ghost grew impatient. “The book of lore!” it said. “Now you must read the spell that will bring be back to life, for then I will be King Undying. None shall kill me save by the method I died the first time and that secret will die with—well, that secret will I take to my—well—“

That secret,” said Annabelle Tirree, who was more clever by a yard and a half, “will be as undying as you yourself.”

Yes,” said the ghost. “Exactly. Read the spell, then. Ring the bell. I am eager to be alive again and wed.”

And so she did. With the ghost sitting on the pig that it thought was a horse, wearing a rope that it thought was a necktie, thrown up over a branch and tied to that selfsame pig, Annabelle Tirree read the spell of return to life.

It was a long spell, and complicated, and though the impatient ghost grew angry at the delay, it eventually begain to feel warmth returning to its limbs, flesh growing back to replace what the rats had bitten away, and breath filling its lungs again. “Yes,” rasped the ghost. “And now I will have the world as my smallgarden, and my benefactor as my bride. Ring the bell, wife-to-be, ring the bell and marry us. Then I can shut you up in a tower to show you how well pleased I am with you.”

Ring the bell?” asked Annabelle Tirree. “Certainly.” And with a stone she picked up from the forest floor, she struck the bell a mighty crack.

Now that pig, you may remember, was no fool at all, and it knew the particular sound of the slaughterhouse bell, as only a foolish pig would not. Though it had sat still to be ridden by a ghost, it would not abide the sound of a slaughterhouse bell. The very moment the stone rang the bell, the pig was off. The ghost, now a man, and living, was thrown from the pig’s back.

He would have been fine there, sitting on his duff on the forest floor—if only it were not for that necktie. There was just enough rope, when the pig had run his distance, to hoist the man up and let him dangle by his neck. His eyes bulged out as they had once before, and his hands scrabbled at the noose around his neck as it began to constrict.

Annabelle Tirree stood and watched. She saw a question in the staring eyes of her new husband. “How did I know? Oh, it wasn’t that hard, with those eyes and that voice. I cut the rope that hung you, didn’t I? That’s what bound me to you. Well, now you’re hanged again, and this time I’ll see it’s done right.”

Which is exactly what she did. First waiting until the wicked man was dead, Annabelle Tirree untied the rope from both pig and man, then called John Galway over and together they buried the corpse in the manner of his people. Annabelle Tirree coiled up the rope that she had hanged the man with and threw it into his grave. “Well,” she said as they walked away, having reassured the pig and gathered the bell and her parents’ book of magical lore, “that’s me married and widowed in a single afternoon.”

It is,” said John Galway. He hesitated for a moment, and then added, “And do you think you might marry again? Once you’ve mourned for your husband, I mean.”

The mourning’s all done,” said Annabelle Tirree. “Once I’ve had a good wash, I’ll be rid of that wicked man.” Then she smiled. “And then – well, I suppose I might marry again. If I found the right man. He would have to be clever. I can tell you that.”

John Galway thought about this for a long moment. “And what about me, Annabelle Tirree? Am I clever enough for you?”

Perhaps you are,” said Annabelle Tirree. “You have many engaging qualities. And you certainly know how to pick a pig.”

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About davidlomax

Writer, teacher, husband, dad. Geek from way back. Author of the totally pre-orderable Backward Glass, out in October 2013 from Flux Books (http://goo.gl/4FOM2). View all posts by davidlomax

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