“What is that stench?”
Jack skidded to a halt outside the cottage, swiping his arm across his sweaty forehead, his hair damp beneath his cap. He’d recognize Adair’s deep, smooth voice anywhere. The knife of humiliation paired with desire cleaved him. His cheeks burned, and he wondered if he could retreat without being seen. It wasn’t often his sister and her husband visited, and he wondered what could have prompted their appearance.
Damara’s singsong laugh floated out. “It could only be Jack!”
Adair and Jack’s mother, Maura, laughed as well, and Jack glanced down at himself. His worn cotton trousers and tunic were stained, and surely he did reek of the manure he’d spent the balmy spring day spreading on the baron’s growing fields. Given the curse of his hair, it was the only job Jack could get, and he counted himself lucky the baron kept him on with each passing spring. It didn’t pay well, but he was careful to make his coins last through the long winter.
With a deep breath, he lifted the latch on the door. Best to just get it over with. He didn’t remove his cap as he walked inside, and his false smile froze on his lips as he took in the bare room. His belongings—some books, his clothing and a glass ball holding a map of the kingdoms of the realm—were still stacked in the corner, visible through a part in the faded curtain that separated his pallet from the rest of the cottage.
Yet his mother’s things, chiefly her figurines and tokens, which had been spread out willy-nilly over the rest of the space, were nowhere to be seen. Her bed had been stripped of linen and her closet stood empty. A blackened pot remained on the stove on the far wall, along with a cracked plate and bowl.
Jack had never seen the cottage so neat, or so very bare. “What’s happened?”
Damara and their mother shared a glance. It was Adair who stepped forward, teeth gleaming as he smiled. Not one of his fair hairs dared to be out of place. His high cheekbones and creamy skin were as flawless as the day Jack had met him as a boy. He was still the most beautiful man Jack had ever seen.
Hands clasped, Adair smiled warmly. “Jack. So wonderful to see you, old friend.” He turned to Damara. “Isn’t your brother looking well?”
Damara managed not to scowl. “Yes. Quite well.”
Her belly swelled with another child and she rubbed it idly. Her dark comeliness, with her wide eyes, full mouth and lustrous mane of gentle curls, was the perfect counterpoint to Adair’s luminously pale features. Despite her low birth, her staggering beauty had eased her way since childhood, and when she’d blossomed into a woman, it had sealed her future as Adair’s wife.
As the baron’s son, Adair was certainly everything Damara could have dreamed of in a husband. He’d once been everything Jack had dreamed of too, but not for his wealth or power. Jack cleared his throat, which had gone dry. “Congratulations on your impending child, Damara. You look as lovely as ever. But I must ask what brings you here and why our home is so changed.”
Adair reached for Jack’s shoulder and then seemed to think better of it. His hand waved in the air as he spoke. “Dear Jack. My father grows old, and although Damara and I have enjoyed these past years in our own little cottage, it’s time to return to my family home.”
Their “little cottage” would be mistaken for a manor house by many, although it was dwarfed by the baron’s home across the meadows, perched high on a hill and soaring into the sky.
“I hope the baron does not ail.” Although the man had never liked Jack, he did provide him a job.
“’Tis nothing serious, we hope. But it has led us to reflect on these many years your mother has stayed with you. So dedicated to her son, despite the hardship of life here.” Adair put his hand to his heart. “Her devotion touches us, as I’m sure it does you.”
Jack resisted the urge to snort. His mother had begged Damara to take her along when she’d married, but Damara had refused. If Jack had a coin for each time Maura had cursed him, blaming him for his father’s abandonment and her sorry lot in life, he wouldn’t need to climb the stalk to find the giant’s treasure. “Very touching indeed.”
One of his earliest memories was his mother pleading with his father, assuring him that Jack was his son, and she hadn’t lain with the devil. It was his only real memory of his father, who’d left them soon after. When Jack was old enough, oh how he’d longed to follow and find a new life. Yet the guilt of leaving his mother to fend for herself had been too powerful.
Adair went on. “Although she is greatly reluctant, we believe she must join us at my father’s house.”
Jack wasn’t sure how to feel. Betrayal, anger, hurt—and relief—flickered through him. “What of me, Mother?”
Maura, who wore her best dress of long-faded blue lace and silk, contorted her sagging, wrinkled features into a mask of grief. “Of course we all want you to come live with us at the baron’s home, but it’s simply not possible.”
Adair’s mouth turned down at the edges. “It wouldn’t be…appropriate. You understand.”
Oh yes, he understood. All too well. “Of course. Wouldn’t do to have me bring bad fortune to the house of the baron by passing its gates and sleeping under its roof. Not again.”
Adair’s eye twitched, and Damara frowned at Jack. “When in heavens would you have slept under the baron’s roof? Honestly, Jack, you’re so ridiculous sometimes!”
Adair’s smile was brittle. “Such a sense of humor.” He wrapped his arm around Damara’s shoulder. “Well, we should be going, my beloved.”
Although he’d often wished to be free from his mother’s tirades and bitterness, Jack couldn’t help but feel bereft as she swept past him to the door. “I’ll visit upon occasion, my dear. But the drafts here are such a drain on my weary bones. I dare not say just how often I’ll be by.” She ran a hand over the knot of her wiry, graying dark hair. “I’ve been so unwell. The meadow air shall be such a tonic.”
Damara’s eyes flashed for a moment before she lifted her lips in a smile. “It will surely be, Mother.”
The women beamed at each other, and Jack wondered what secret his mother had unearthed to force Damara to agree to this new arrangement. He was sure Damara had committed many venal deeds from which to choose. For a moment, he was struck with wistfulness for the young sister he’d once known so long ago.
She’d shadowed his steps, woven flowers into his cursed hair, and simply loved him. That had all changed when she’d been old enough for school in the village. At first, she’d only distanced herself from Jack around the other children, but soon enough he had become other in her eyes morning, noon, and night.
“And look at the wonderful gift Mother has presented us to warm our new home.” Damara held up a small brass sculpture of a hawk in flight.
Adair sighed reverently. “Such a piece of beauty. How you honor us, dear Mother.”
The sculpture wasn’t worth much, and Adair had owned vastly more impressive items even as a young man. The first time Jack had seen Adair’s chambers, he’d gasped in awe at the collection of treasures. Yet the brass was pricey beyond anything Maura could afford. Unless…
With a few strides Jack was in the kitchen, and he flung back the tattered curtain from the window. The small square of yard stood empty, Inga’s empty tether flapping in the breeze. Jack’s chest was tight, and he curled his fists. “Where is Inga?” No, no, no.
“Oh, Jack, you know very well that old cow has dried up and won’t calve again. This is the only way she was worth anything. I left your share there on the counter.”
Heart pounding, he ignored the dull coins. “Where did you take her?” he asked, although he knew the answer, terror gripping him. “How long ago?”
Adair chuckled. “That’s our Jack. Such a sentimentalist.”
Their laughter followed Jack on the spring air as he raced from the cottage, tearing down the lane towards the village. The slaughterhouse stood on the other side, at the edge of the forest. Jack ignored the glares as he sprinted past the ale house and church and skirted the marketplace.
His lungs burned by the time he reached the foul-smelling building. The ground squelched beneath his boots, stained red by the drainage pipe that emptied from the stone abattoir. He burst inside, cringing at the sound of braying animals being led into the far room. He foolishly called for Inga, as if the poor creature could answer.
The stooped butcher appeared. “Get out! You have no business here!” He spat in Jack’s direction.
“I only want my cow. I’ll return your coins to you.” He had no idea how he would get the rest of the money his mother had spent on the sculpture, but he’d find a way. He’d do anything. “Please. I’ll pay more than you bought her for.”
The man’s scowl remained, but he tilted his head. “That eager to get the animal back?”
Hope bloomed in Jack’s chest, its tendrils spreading with each thump of his heart. I can get my sweet girl back. “Yes! I’ll pay double.”
“Triple. That’s twenty-one coins.”
“Whatever you want. I’ll pay it.”
Eyes gleaming, the old man replied, “Swear your oath.”
Jack stretched out his hand. “I swear.”
The butcher eyed Jack’s hand as if it were one of the fanged snakes of the forest. Finally he held out his own gnarled, blood-stained fingers and they clasped on the deal for the briefest of moments.
Cackling under his breath, the butcher disappeared beyond the throng of animals. Jack tapped his fingers against his thigh as he waited, nervous energy zipping through him. How would he get the money? Perhaps the baron would give him more work. Surely there were latrines that needed scrubbing? Unless—
His pulse skipped like a stone over water. The beanstalk. The treasure.
But that was surely madness. No one had ever claimed so much as a coin from the giant’s treasure, and Jack had never even climbed a foot of the stalk. Yet if he could do it for anyone, it would be for Inga. All these years she’d been at his side. Yes, he could do it for her sake.
He craned his neck for a glimpse of Inga’s familiar brown eyes, listening for the distinctive bleat, low and soft, with which she greeted him every day. His hands itched to pet and scratch her, and feel her warm solid strength again.
As he waited, his mind whirled. It was late spring now, and the beanstalk had been growing steadily, disappearing into the clouds. It was possibly at full height already, for it had been a particularly warm and wet springtime.
He could leave Inga with water and feed, and perhaps convince a neighbor to milk her while he was gone, although he hoped to be gone not long at all. He would locate the treasure and evade the giant and—
His knees almost gave out as he caught sight of the butcher returning. Nausea roiled Jack’s stomach, and the room swayed. The arms of the old man and several workers trailing behind him were piled high with bloody slabs of meat. As grief’s claws tore through him, Jack tried to force his lungs to expand.
The old man dropped the flesh onto the stone floor at Jack’s feet. Still-warm blood sprayed Jack as all the pieces of Inga’s body were dumped before him. The laughter of the butcher and his men rang in Jack’s ears.
Tears swam in his eyes, and he struggled to speak when the only sound he thought he could make was a hoarse scream. He backed away, shaking his head. He scraped the word out from his sandpaper throat. “No.”
The old man, still merry, clapped his hands. “Oh yes. Now pay me your debt. Twenty-one coins, or you shall go the way of your precious old cow!”
“No!” Rage flashed through him, and he wanted to tear the butcher limb from limb as the bastard had Inga. “That wasn’t the bargain.”
The butcher narrowed his eyes, all mirth vanished. “It was indeed. Twenty-one coins for your cow.” He spread his arms wide. “And here she is—all yours. Now you pay, or suffer the consequences. You know how the baron feels about debtors.”
Oh lord. He’d sworn his oath. Jack swallowed hard. “I need time. A week or two. Then you shall have your coin.”
The butcher extended one finger as if he would poke Jack’s chest, but moved no closer. “One week. No longer.”
Hands shoved Jack forward with renewed laughter, and he tripped onto the pile of meat and gristle that was once his sweet friend. He could not leave her in such a place. Piece by piece, he carried Inga into the forest, shouting at the birds who came poking as he gathered wood and struck a spark.
The makeshift pyre smoked and sizzled as he burned her remains so she wouldn’t be prey to the wild animals of the forest. Falling to his knees, Jack emptied the contents of his stomach, tears streaming down his face as he gasped for breath.
Inga had been his one friend. He had failed her. If he’d had the courage to climb the beanstalk before, he could have given his mother all the money she wanted. His weakness had cost Inga her life. Closing his eyes, he curled in on himself, willing the earth to swallow him whole.
# # #
The candle flickered wildly before a gust of cold air extinguished it, leaving only a thin trail of smoke. Rion closed his book with a sigh. Although it was spring, the castle felt as chilly as ever, with drafts in every dark corner. Midnight had come and gone, but Rion still felt no urge to take to his bed, although he knew he should. He had another full day’s work awaiting him. The crumbling castle’s endless repairs at least kept him busy.
Yet some nights, his eyes refused to grow heavy, and his bed was all too empty.
Without the candle’s glow, the library was plunged into darkness. Only a sliver of a moon hung in the sky, and here in the clouds the meager light struggled to find its way through the window cut into the wall. But Rion didn’t need light to find his way from his high-backed wooden chair to the doorway. The library had always been his favorite room in the castle. While his parents had never been much for reading, he’d spent countless hours lost in tales of faraway lands. The cushion on his chair was so thin from years of wear that it was of little use. He raised his arms overhead as he left the library, leaning left and then right to stretch out his back.
The torch he’d left alight in one of the wall sconces in the passageway still guttered, casting shadows on the gray stone. He left it to burn out, preferring the darkness as he made his way to his chamber. The hall forked at the great staircase, going both left and right around the vast open space at the center of the castle before meeting again on the other side of the atrium. As he turned left, a faint sound caught his ear.
Stopping in his tracks, Rion listened, breath frozen in his lungs. There was only the eternal silence, as usual. Exhaling, he went to the top of the wide stairs, which plunged down steeply to the main level of the castle. In the gloom, he squinted. He could make out the large square hole the cursed beanstalk would grow into by summer, eventually filling the atrium and curling to a stop below the ceiling.
He’d inspected the stalk earlier in the day, wishing—not for the first time—that he could chop the damn thing into pieces before it reached the castle. Yet he knew no axe could so much as scratch it. This was how it had ever been, though Rion’s mother and father had never been able to tell him why. Just one of the many questions they’d answered with peaceful smiles, telling him it was simply as it was, and as it should be.
Oh, he’d tried to destroy the stalk anyway, using all his might and every weapon he could find or fashion, but in the end he’d had to concede defeat. The stalk remained unblemished year after year.
Rion listened again for the odd noise. Currently, the stalk was many feet below the castle, and none of the Outsiders had ever attempted to climb before summer. To do so would be suicide, and the Outsiders’ wicked greed, which rendered them such selfish creatures, prevented such folly. Whatever he’d heard was likely a rodent scrounging for crumbs. That was a thieving that Rion was willing to endure, for at least the sound of their scurrying and the occasionally messy evidence of their existence meant that he was not the only living thing in the castle.
Dismissing the idea of an early invader, Rion continued on his way down the dark hallway as it wound around to the other side of the castle. In the blackness, he passed closed doors silently. His footsteps faltered, as they did many nights, as he neared one particular door. From the outside, it appeared as many others in the castle—solid oak with a brass handle. A twisted beanstalk and its leaves wound a faintly carved path across the wood.
Although he told himself to keep going, Rion paused and traced the carving in the door with his fingertip. The handle was smooth under his palm, and the door swung inward without so much as a creak. The curtains on the huge four-poster bed had been drawn since the morning he’d discovered his mother’s body there.
She’d weighed so little at the end that she’d already seemed like ashes ready to be scattered on the wind. But it had been peaceful, at least. The other memories assailed him, and he swallowed hard. Even as his father lay dying, the old man’s grip had been iron on Rion’s wrist. Rion never knew if it was the shock of all but one of his children abandoning the family’s duty that did it, but their father’s heart had sputtered to a stop the very day that Rion’s last sibling sent word that he would not be returning from across the sea.
“My son.” His blunt nails dug into Rion’s skin. “You must carry on the legacy. Do not fail your mother or your forbearers as your brothers and sisters have. Such selfishness, it breaks my heart. In my day we honored our parents instead of following our own whims and desires.”
Perched on the side of the great bed, Rion shifted, his gaze dropping away. His own desires were perverse by any rendering. How could he condemn his siblings? “But Father, you left home. When Mother sought a mate from across the sea, you were the one she chose, and you returned here with her. Surely your parents mourned your loss?”
His father spat. “They cared not. I was nothing more than chattel to them. But we raised you all with love and honor. Yet one by one you abandoned us and your heritage. It falls to you now, Rion. My brave boy.”
“Father, I…” Tears pricked Rion’s eyes. “I love you and Mother with all my heart. But…”
His father’s gaze was unfocused. “You must go and find a wife while your mother still lives. Give her a bounty of grandchildren. And above all, protect the treasure at all costs. It is your sacred duty. Keep the Outsiders away. Be on guard always.”
All his life he’d heard tales of the dreaded Outsiders who lived in the valley below. “But the boy who climbed the stalk last summer…he seemed to be merely an ordinary man. He seemed to be…like us.”
His father’s grip on him tightened. “No! Do not be fooled, my son. The Outsiders are evil. They carry disease and want to steal what has been commended to our protection. It is the way it has always been, and ever shall be.”
Rion could only nod. His parents of course knew best. They’d traveled beyond the castle, while Rion had never felt anything but its worn stone beneath his feet. What did he know of the world?
“I shall do my duty to our family, Father. I pledge my word.”
That young man who’d conquered the stalk was the first Outsider Rion had ever laid eyes on, and to Rion’s surprise he wasn’t hideously scarred or bearing horns. From where Rion had hid, watching as his brother frightened the boy away, the Outsider had in fact appeared handsome, like the knights and squires in books. Rion’s loins had stirred shamefully, and he’d been glad of the shadows hiding him.
The Outsider been so terrified by the clamor and visage of the giant that he’d leapt back and tumbled right out of the castle. His scream as he plummeted haunted Rion’s dreams still.
Closing the door to his parents’ room behind him with a thud that echoed dully, Rion continued down the passageway toward the simple chamber that had been his since birth.
The curtains on his four-poster bed were permanently drawn back. Several wooden chests nearby held Rion’s clothing. Although he did possess some finery of velvet and silk tucked safely away, most of his garments were simple trousers, tunics and woolen sweaters for the long winters. Even now in spring, he shivered as he pulled on his nightshirt and climbed beneath the icy sheets. Without a second thought, he reached down for his cock.
As a young man—still a boy, really—he’d hidden away behind his bed curtains, fantasizing about the brave knights captured in the drawings in some of his books. The fair maidens had never sparked his imagination or his desire. While his older brothers had longed to leave the castle and find pretty girls in frilly dresses, Rion had secreted himself away in the castle’s nooks and crannies so he could listen to his sisters tell tales of the strong, brave men they hoped to marry.
Jerking himself harshly, Rion stared at the arch of the ceiling high above. He’d long ago stopped such pointless fantasies. He knew his duty—next winter he would find a wife, bring her back to the castle, and carry on the family line. In twenty-eight years he’d only ever known the touch of his own hand, so perhaps having a wife would not be so bad.
Even if she was not a man with hard muscles and firm, hairy flesh, she would have a warm body and mouth. That was something. Perhaps fortune would smile on him a little and he would find a woman of good spirits and intelligence. A woman who would be a friend. He’d learned to school his physical yearnings; there were more important things to consider.
Desire played no part in the rough stroking of his cock. He brought his body to release to warm himself and bring on slumber. He arched up his hips, grunting as the tension built, his body tightening like an archer’s bow drawn back. For a moment as he let go, spending over his hand, pleasure flickered through him, and he closed his eyes, lips parted.
Then it was gone. He wiped himself clean before pulling the blankets up to his chin for another long night.
Copyright © Keira Andrews and Leta Blake