|"Idle Hours," by Henry Siddons Mowbray (altered)|
Editor's note: This story has lots of atmosphere. It's a terrible little tale, full of lies and scares. You wont want to pass this one up.
Based on “The Twa Sisters,” an anonymous ballad that dates back to 1656.
Not a single soul could be seen treading the paths of the small lonely village in which our ghastly tale will ensue. It was a dreary day with no radiant sun to light the path and no sweet music coming from the households. Quite easy to presume then, that the occupants were obviously not in the mood for lively instruments on this specific day. Alas, the wind blew strongly over the houses, drowning any sound that may entail from within, and carrying its force to the sea nearby, which was quite a rising tempest.
In one of the petite houses there lived a small family, consisting of two girls and their old man, whose state was such that he had already laid out his last will and testament and had acquired a particularly pleasing spot of the churchyard where he wished to be laid to rest. His wife, who had in her heyday been known as the belle of the town, had long since passed so that the younger of the daughters scarcely retained any memory of her mother.
It was said that Cailinn, the fair, young maiden of the household, resembled her mother so much that the old man could not help favouring the beauty. However, everyone knew the true meaning behind the rumour, that “Kirra is so plain, nay, even ugly, that the ol' mister can't help lovin' the other'un mor'.”
At the moment this plain Kirra could be seen sitting beside the fire in the front of the house, idly occupying herself with some notable needlework. Her hands were thick and dry like the bark of a fallen tree, yet her fingers boasted an easy skill weaving patterns over the red cloth.
“Sister, could you please help me with this tricky stitch? I can't seem to untangle it,” said a soft voice after awhile. The request belonged to the fairer of the siblings, who was presently attempting to imitate her sister in the elusive art with visible distress.
“I cannot,” came the harsh reply, “if you do not concentrate.”
At this, Cailinn let her end of the quilt fall to the floor and sighed in defeat. “You're right, it's hopeless!” she cried. “Father needs me. I must go sit with him,” she said as she made to stand up from her chair.
Kirra grabbed her arm and sat her back down. “Mary Hearne is with him. We gave her the last dress, don't you forget that.”
The dress had been a royal purple with strands of gold lining the neck and hem. It had been meant for Derry to take into town for a lady of high birth, but they had needed a hand with the old man on the day of the harvest when both sisters were needed on the field. They might have managed by taking turns, but Cailinn had insisted. When the little woman came to claim her due, it hadn't taken long before she wrinkled her nose at their modest offerings and claimed the lustrous clothing for herself. No doubt she would dress in it to put on airs, then give it to Derry all the same for a few coins.
“Then I will get some fresh air,” declared Cailinn. When no further objections came from Kirra, she stood up a second time and walked out into the garden.
Sadly, the air was not so much fresh as damp, and Cailinn found herself shivering. In the abandoned street she could not see familiar faces with whom she could exchange a few consoling words and had no particular desire to stay out for long. “If I remain here I'll catch my death of cold,” she muttered. But her feet seemed rooted to the spot, though her head knew better than to linger. The seaside village had never been known for its warmth, but this day was terrible even to the most seasoned sailor. And Cailinn was certainly no sailor.
Another minute passed before she forced her reluctant feet to move towards the dreary house. All the flowers in the garden seemed to stoop at the sound of her sad steps. She did not wish to go in, back to the gloom that pervaded the rooms, reeking of death. She knew she could not help Kirra with her sewing, nor Mary with her nursing. So she stopped a second time, looking around at everything and nothing.
She was tugged out of the moment as the sudden sound of hooves startled her and drew her to face a curious sight. On the small path stood horses unlike any she had ever seen, more beautiful even than some of the maids she knew. Their hair was shining and their shapes were toned like carved statues. Atop the horses were men clad in rich and colourful clothing. Shades of red, blue, and green mingled with brown and gold to emanate the only colour in the drab street on which they were halted. At the front of the party stood a magnificent white horse, ridden by a man in a humble green vest and a brown coat. In his left hand dangled a dead rabbit by its ears.
“Fair lady, would you do us a kindness and pray tell the name of this place?” he spoke, his voice booming in the solitude.
“It is the seaside village,” Cailinn answered in confusion. “Some folk call it Stony End.”
A ripple of laughter erupted from behind the man. “Aptly named,” said the man with the rabbit. “A grimmer place I have not seen. And yet, the village would boast of a fair-haired beauty such as you, my lady.”
Cailinn blushed in reply. “I thank you kindly, sir.”
“No need. I speak only the truth,” the man said as he jumped down from his horse and led it along to the gate. “I would be much obliged if my lady could tell us the way to the castle. It seems the rain is keen on enshrouding our vision.”
“Oh,” gasped Cailinn, suddenly recognising the royal party. “You are—”
“A weary man who has been hunting with friends and now wishes to present the day's catch to the king,” he interrupted.
Cailinn blushed again. “The castle can be found if one follows the road past Obertown, my lord.”
“You have my thanks, and my rabbit, if I may.” He got down from his saddle and lay out the rabbit gently on his palms.
Cailinn approached the gate shyly. “My lord is too kind.”
But before she could receive her token of thanks, a creak turned everyone's attention to the house, from where Kirra emerged, clad in her plain grey tunic.
“What's all this noise?” she yelled as she eyed the strangers with suspicion. “Who might you all be?”
“Is this... a sister?” asked the man, sounding surprised. When Cailinn nodded, he jumped over the fence, startling her.
“I am the prince and these are my companions. I mean to wed your sister,” he addressed Kirra with a gracious bow. “My first gift to you,” he continued as he handed her the dead rabbit. “And certainly not the last.”
Kirra grasped onto the rabbit greedily, as if the prince might snatch it back. “The prince, you say? What might the likes of you be wanting with my sister?”
The prince bowed again before proceeding. “At our court we keep a sage old man who sees the future. He has served us well and good thus far. It was his counsel that I lead my friends on a long hunt across the kingdom, looking for the fairest maiden a man may ever lay his eyes upon, and to wed her after a fortnight. The wedding would signal the prosperity of our kingdom for a long time to come, if the chosen bride has also a fair heart within her.”
Kirra was as unconvinced as the dead rabbit in her grip. “How would you know if my sister has a fair heart?”
“My prince is too courteous,” cried a man from the hunting party. His hat concealed part of his face, but one could see he was not the handsomest man in the kingdom. “He has left out the part about the ugly sister! The fair bride who keeps an ugly woman for a kin. It must needs be this household the old man spoke of indeed.”
“Quiet, Roland,” the prince shouted not unkindly. “Else you would soon be babbling all the secrets of the court.”
The man who spoke out of turn had no reply to that except a broad grin that further twisted his unremarkable features. “As you command, sire.”
“It was not a command. Still,” the prince turned to the women, “await my return a fortnight henceforth, and you shall see a grand wedding. If that is not your wish, do not step outside your house the day of my return and I shall know. Until then, a pleasant evening.” This time the prince opened the gate with little effort and climbed onto his saddle with a swift swing.
“Your Highness,” Cailinn called out as the party began to move forward once more. “You do not know my name.”
The prince looked back with a smile, but it was the hatted man who replied. “It is ill luck to know too much about one's betrothed before the wedding.” The party rode off in a gallop after that, leaving no room for further questions.
Cailinn turned to see her sister stroking the rabbit with a thoughtful expression. “Sister, I--”
“You will wed the prince, no doubt,” Kirra interrupted at once. “And I will cook the rabbit for dinner tonight.” She disappeared into the house in a hurry, clutching the animal so hard that it was like to die a second death.
The following days came and went, each one longer than the last. Cailinn walked about the house in a daze, barely noticing Kirra's disapproving glances and remarks.
“You haven't helped me today at all,” her sister would complain. Cailinn muttered her apologies but Kirra had no use for empty excuses. Then finally the day came when both sisters were summoned to their father's room by Mary Hearne, who put on a solemn face for the occasion.
“Tonight is the night,” she announced with a nod. That brought Cailinn out of her trance. “Tonight?” she whispered, terrified.
“He's not like to live to see the morning,” explained Mary. “I will stay if you want.”
Kirra stepped forward. “There's no need. Thank you for all you've done, Mary.”
The receiver of the acknowledgment nodded grimly and left with the sweep of her royal purple gown.
When morning came, the old man was dead. He had left the house to Kirra and all within it to Cailinn as her dowry. No one expected the elder sister to marry, including herself. She would have been pleased with the dividings, save for all her finely made gowns that now belonged to the younger.
“You do not deserve them,” she accused in a stony voice. When Cailinn tried to reply, she slipped away without a word.
Soon the day came when the morrow would see one of the sisters whisked away to the castle. On this day Cailinn begged her sister for a walk, wanting to make amends. Kirra was loathe to comply, but the entreaty was so fraught with distress that she agreed after a time.
Their chosen path led them to a stony cliff that overlooked the violent sea that brought cold winds into the village. The edge of the cliff was made up of a myriad scratchy stones that gave the village its name. Blood would be drawn if anyone dared to walk barefoot on these stones, and only death awaited below where the fierce waves crashed loudly against the precipice which was merciful in its height but brutal in its rocky formation.
Here the two sisters stopped, well before the very edge where one might easily slip and fall. They could hear the crashing sound beneath that was as fearsome to the ears as the sound of a thunderstorm. As Cailinn shivered with unease, Kirra stared out into the open sea, brooding. Her eyes were dark like the rest of her features, and her hair blowing in the wind looked like dark seaweeds. A sudden gust of wind nearly sent both of them stumbling towards the edge, so determined was its strength.
“We should turn back,” shouted Cailinn, her voice barely audible above the storm of wind and waves. Strands of her fair hair scattered in frenzy as the wind's invisible fingers raked them apart.
Kirra did not move. She stepped closer to her sister, slowly reaching out as if to gain balance. She could see her younger sister struggling to stay standing. She was ever so much weaker than her and the Stony End had never suited her feeble nature. When the two pairs of hands joined each other, Kirra guided her weak kin away from the edge, one step at a time. Her efforts were marred by the strong wind that sliced at their legs, knocking the light Cailinn over and leaving her feet dangling in empty air.
She heard a shriek, almost indistinguishable from the screaming winds that now surrounded them from all sides. She could feel the pale hands that clung desperately to her own, and for a split second she froze as she turned to see what had happened. Then she let go.
The body fell to the bottom without a sound as the breeze carried it away from the rocks below and towards the sandy shore. Kirra saw the clash of gold on gold as the lifeless body of her sister hit the sand, spreading her hair in all directions. She winced as she watched the monstrous wave opening its mouth to swallow the body, but as the wave engulfed her sister into extinction, she started to run. She ran precariously along the cliff and down to the shore, stumbling in the interference of the sand. She ran out into the cold blue waters and waded, almost drowning in the attempt. When at last she felt her fingers grasp a leg, it was all she could do to pull it ashore. Two mouthfuls of seawater she gulped before she emerged from the barbarous waters, drenched to the bone.
She stared at her prize fish with empty eyes. Even in death her sister was fairer than she, tangled hair and cold fish-like skin notwithstanding. With all her remaining strength, Kirra heaved the body to a small concave near the cliff, taking care the face stared upward at the grey sky. She had neglected to close the eyes and her heart gave a frightened jump every time the head bumped clumsily into a rock, those clear blue eyes full of reproach. With a final grunt she laid the corpse before her and began the day's work.
It was almost night when she returned home and sat by the fireplace. Her fingers were frozen stiff like a bunch of icicles that needed melting and her stomach was grumbling. But the fingers must come first. The crackling fire spread its painful warmth to the room, thawing them all. Kirra grimaced and withdrew her hands to her lap to bring out an object from under her skirts. She held it at arm's length for observation.
Suspended in mid-air, Cailinn's face seemed harmless, barely resembling the sister Kirra once knew. The skin had now turned a ghastly pale, but the shape was still there. Yet the thin eyeless mask brought a shudder, and she hastily put the dreadful thing down on a chair. For a long time Kirra stayed seated, still, unable to move her gaze quite entirely away from the mask. Finally she stood up and picked up the clammy work of her creation. She walked to her bedroom and lay in bed until she found herself convulsing with tears.
Soon her face felt as wet as the sea, but she could not stop crying. Slowly she reached out her hands to her sister's face and felt the strange coldness of the dead skin. With one sweep movement she covered her own face with it and lay still in the darkness.
When morning came, she went outside to await the arrival of her suitor. He was not long in coming, and the party was the same colourful one as before. Kirra welcomed the approach of the prince with a gracious bow.
“Your Highness, now my patience of the past fortnight is rewarded,” she remarked.
The prince stepped down from his horse and took her hand in his.
“Likewise, my lady,” he spoke as he lifted her hand to kiss it. He looked up at her face with a courteous smile and froze as his smile vanished. Spotting this change, Kirra felt her heart stop in fright and her throat seemed to be choking on its own. But the prince merely dropped her hand in a daze and whispered. “You have grown still more beautiful since we last met.”
For a moment Kirra felt happier than she had ever felt before. The compliment was so sincere and splendid she could not help the blushes painting her pale face. Then she stood rooted in her spot, as if struck dumb. She raised a hand to her face and touched it as gently as possible, as if afraid the touch would damage it. No matter how much she repeated the act, she could not distinguish her own face from the mask. She felt around her eyes and traced the contours of her face until at last the prince interrupted her with a curious look.
“It's time to go,” he said quietly.
Kirra lifted her hand and took the prince's outstretched one to get on the saddle of a beautiful mahogany-coloured horse that had been brought out for her. She felt as if she were under a spell; so numb was her body. Through the rest of the journey she remained distracted, barely responding to the prince's courteous talk. Only when the party passed a clear sparkling lake in the middle of the forest did she lift up her gaze.
“My prince, I would be glad to take a rest by the water,” she requested with imploring eyes. Surprised by her sudden attention, the prince motioned for the rest to stop and helped Kirra step down from the horse. Her feet had barely touched the ground when she hurried toward the water in a quiet frenzy, dreading what she would discover but needing to find out the truth.
The lake was perfectly clear like a shiny new mirror. She stared down at the water with a terrified gaze. There was not a single trace of her old face in her reflection. She gasped inaudibly and looked away before returning her gaze once more to the horror in the fluid mirror. To her dismay she saw the face of her dead sister staring back at her in reproach. The mask had fastened onto her like a leech and she could no longer feel her own face.
“My lady?” the prince said softly, having approached her by the lake.
“I am ready, sire,” she found herself announcing with a sudden calmness. She did not know why she had said it, but meekly followed the prince to resume their journey.
Past Obertown the castle loomed ahead like a fearsome giant. Its towers were like spikes, ready to pierce anyone who was foolish enough to attack them. When they reached the front gates, Kirra saw the pair of hostile guards that looked like gleeful executioners and wanted nothing more than to flee. But when she opened her mouth to scream, the words that came out surprised her.
“What a delightful castle this is!” she spoke as if in a trance.
Inside, the returning party was greeted with a banquet that was a far cry from a cheerful feast and rather gave off a funereal atmosphere. The great hall was sparsely decorated, resulting in a feeling of eerie emptiness. The long table was laden with all kinds of dishes in all different shades of unappetizing grey. Kirra almost gagged at the sight, but once again the strange thing happened.
“What a delightful banquet!” she exclaimed like a happy child. It was as if she could not control her own mouth.
The prince looked at her curiously and led her to the end of the table where an ugly man was occupied in gobbling up the plate of food in front of him.
“Roland, you are late,” the man addressed the prince through bites. Bits of food came flying out of his mouth as he spoke. “Is this my bride?”
“Yes, sire,” replied the prince.
“Well, well, prince charming on a white horse. A job well done, I daresay!” the man's unpleasant laughter boomed over the vast hall. Kirra looked on with repulsion as he got up from his chair and took her hand.
“Are you glad to meet your true prince?” he barked.
Kirra gulped as she realised what had happened. Suddenly she felt terribly dizzy and she thought she could hear her sister's voice chanting in her head.
“You will spend the rest of your life with this vile man, you will spend the rest of your life in misery and there is nothing you can do to stop it,” it said.
She felt her lips curling up to form a smile. “My liege, nothing pleases me more.”
The prince, if he could indeed be called one—so revolting was his manner—ogled her firstly with suspicion, then as he observed Kirra's serene face, with satisfaction.
“You surprise me, woman,” he huffed and pointed at the seat next to his. “Claim your seat, my princess. We shall be wedded on the morrow.”
Kirra tried to run away, but her feet dragged her in the opposite direction and her body sank to the chair with a thud. A smile was fixed on her mask, betraying her true feelings. She looked down the hall at the unfamiliar faces whose smiles seemed to signal impending doom. She reluctantly looked at the ashen food before her and tried to declare she wasn't hungry, but her lips moved of their own accord.
“I am so terribly hungry I could eat a dozen dishes,” they announced to the guests at the banquet.
There was nothing she could do. She reached out for a plate with her hands at a snail's pace, trying all the while unsuccessfully to protest with her mouth. When the lumpy piece of grey meat reached her tongue, she tried to spit it back out. To her utter horror, the mouth started chewing down the food until it was ready to swallow. The taste was like bile, but Kirra could not cry, nor could she speak her mind. She reached for another bite, and another, and another, as her sister’s face began to meld into hers and Kirra was no more.