“Tell me again about when I was born,” he said.
“Which time, my prince?” Yes, oh which time, little brother, she thought, though she knew. She had knitting in a basket in her lap but the King was absent from court and so his son had none but his sister for company, and his sister was good only for telling a particular story. “First or second?”
“…Second!” he said, as if he didn’t always choose so. The first, common birth was not a proper match to his growing understanding of his place. It also would not hold his attention, for what child could maintain interest in an event from before self-awareness? His second birth was just as unknown to him, but it did have a backdrop of mad dogs and violent death.
The first was far simpler to tell than the second, but as such more vague and unsatisfying, she knew, to storyteller and listener alike. She knew both stories but the first to her was little more than an impression. She recalled the sight of their father holding the swaddled baby in his arms, face forever cast in mourning, chair beside him empty and she remembered how they buried her mother. That memory was colored by the eclipse of her status as enthusiasm for a son and heir overcame the king’s grief. So few details but it was not only that paucity which set the second story apart. For a second birth was surely the new mark of a king, a miracle known to all as unprecedented, more powerful than the spiritual rebirth urged by the King’s advisers and made law by his decree. To have died and been summoned back to life demonstrated the power of the Strangers and the importance of the prince. To have died, like his mother, giving birth, had only provoked the king’s grief and while the kingdom dreaded that mood, it was not extraordinary. The Strangers had not honored the prince’s mother with a second birth. To have been born only once and died only once was no mark of distinction.
Little brother had no memory of his first birth, much as for that matter had she of her own. His second birth was equally unknown to him, and even though he reappeared in their father’s arms a babe of perhaps two years, his age when he had died several years before, he was but a clone of the first and born with no more memory of that first life than a tadpole has of the frog.
Little brother now was a talkative child with that curious, if overly serious, look on his face as he asked her for the story again. As always, the black-haired dog sat next to him. The sight of his small fingers in the dark coat of the dog made her queasy, much as the touch of her reconstituted brother made her feel ill.
She laid the needles and yarn in the basket, pulling it into her stomach a little as she breathed out, smiling. Her brother shifted from one foot to another, allowing himself this small display of childlike anticipation. The sky rumbled with Strangers’ thunder. At some point he would grow out of this fascination for his own legend and what use would she be then, she wondered, still smiling. The Strangers would have all of him. “Little brother,” she said, “it was spring, and the first warm and sunny day of it at that.”
“We needed to get out in the sun and we were sick of the rain, sick of it.”
“How well you remember,” she said, and he flushed as if his chattering had betrayed his dignity, a tinge angry with her, suspecting her of subtle mockery. She must remember that. “Yes, we were tired of the rain all that winter and even into the spring, to where the gloom of cloudy wet days lasts the longer because night begins so much later.” She recalled the damp smell of the castle and how drying stone smelt faintly of sea-salt and when she was very young she would touch it with her tongue but it only ever tasted like grit and dirt. After accepting her new status she had gained purpose in initiating her little brother into such mysteries of a child’s life in the castle, and this was the first season in which he seemed to take an interest in her. He toddled after her as she roamed the rooms, as if she were leading him on a survey of his future property. She showed him the odd cupboards and forgotten storerooms and nooks and niches where a boy or girl could hide from a dreary tutor. He was learning all the castle lore of generations of royal children but the long winter was vexing and she was eager to show him their domains out of doors. The rain having ended seemed like a blessing on her, urging their father to let them out and let her have care of her little brother. Her father and his courtiers were only too glad to see the bored child and the fussing infant out of doors and out of sight and hearing, although they must not go further than the wood around the creek a stone’s throw from the walls. She could be trusted with her little brother, even if she let him crawl in the damp grass the sheep cropped in the meadow between creek and castle. No one knew a killer would strike in those familiar, domesticated woods.
Her father; serious at the first birth and even more so at the second. How clever of him to discover these Strangers, all the people said, even with their off-putting religion and uncertain intentions. People saw no harm in the strangeness and the king was seen to sacrifice the most, so little grumbling was heard. The apprehension the people felt when the young prince died so tragically was transformed by the next gift of the Strangers when they raised the boy from the dead.
The dog and her little brother were living, undeniable proof of their power and their strangeness. Her brother, the clone of the infant who had died in the woods. This dog, the same dog from the woods, now fixed to the boy’s side, for the term and duration of its life, turned into the most loyal of beasts, the fit punishment in the Strangers’ laws for a killer. The dog was not a clone but the Strangers said its mind had been made empty and filled back up with nought but a fierce devotion to her little brother. And still, the dog remembered something. It looked at her as if it remembered the stick, and remembered her holding it, and remembered that this combination was a threat. Did it remember that its fangs once shredded that infant’s flesh, she wondered. If so, little brother, a blessing you cannot ask your questions of it.
She saw the Strangers but rarely, like people they were but paler and less sturdy. It was said they had descended from the stars and she supposed they were lighter and feathery for that purpose. She had never seen them descend or ascend, only seen them crouching under the low doorways in the old part of the keep, part of the retinue that followed her father wherever he went. She supposed that the most obsequious of the Strangers must be murderers, or at least criminals, bound for life to obey and protect; if killers, then the clone of their victim, if other crimes, then the healed victims. How violent must be their homeworld, she wondered, if every servant was bound by dint of such laws. And she had the upsetting thought of what it might mean for her own little world of the castle and domains and the little towns beyond and if they meant to extend their practice beyond her little brother. She wondered at the power of the Strangers, that they seemed to serve her father but he could not command them to resurrect his wife or allow him another.
Little brother leaned against his dog, and the dog looked at her with that wariness that worried her almost as much as the touch of her reborn brother disturbed her. She had no doubt of the sincerity of the dog’s devotion for her brother. There was no longer any hint of the feral in those brown eyes, as there had been that day in the woods by the creek that ran outside the castle walls.
“When I saw you dead, I thought you forever dead. I was so young then, I did not know what gifts these Strangers had brought us.” She saw a frown of annoyance on her brother’s forehead, but he held his tongue as if wondering if she was attempting a new aspect of the tale, by thus speaking out of the established order. She might have been, she mused, although she had really only been giving voice to that wonder and shock at the powers of the Strangers, shock and surprise she had carried with her all these recent years. The tale itself, and its ending, she would always give to him exact and unchanging, except that which must be adapted to the attention span and interest of a growing boy.
“You did not speak so finely then as you do now, my prince. You were a small boy of few words but you crawled down that bank as determined as you are today. I was of a mind that summer to teach you of the orchards and crops of our father’s fields, as I knew our dear mother would have wanted. And, as well, there were bug’s nests and bird feathers to discover, little brother. So first we tramped down to our little creek.” Among the insects and small birds I had hoped to stride as imperious and mysterious as the Strangers amongst us.
While we walked through the warm sun and the smell of wet earth drying, that dog stalked us from deeper within the woods where the creek meandered toward the castle from up the valley in which we lived. The creek ran past the copse and cut a trough through the meadow and then sank down through a culvert under the cold castle walls, emerging the far side of the bailey swollen with filth. This side was yet clear, with the shadows of brown trout flicking among the glint of light on the surface, mossy flat round stones in the brindle creek bed. “Once as a little girl, as old as you are now but younger than I was then, I waded in that creek and was horrified to find within moments that leeches had attached themselves to me and were clinging to my shins and calves. At first I shivered with loathing and thrashed in the water uselessly, but I had no one to help me so I forced myself to pluck them from my skin. That day I was going to teach you not to be afraid of leeches.” This was part of the tale as always told and yet it did not concern him and he no longer shivered in vicarious disgust. This might be the last time to mention the leeches. “I watched carefully as you paddled your feet in the cold water in the shade of the bank. No leeches ever attached themselves to your skin.” As if it were part of his legend.
“Tell me about the dog,” he demanded. He turned and looked at the beast, still unable to hide the wonder in his eyes that here existed the last being that had been allowed to bring harm to his person, the future king. The dog’s fur now was well-brushed and lustrous, gleaming black in the light from the window to the side. The eyes were alert but calm, not the mad orbs she remembered, rolling in the emaciated skull above the famine-ridged snout.
Very well, little brother. “The dog lay in the darkness of the copse of beech trees that followed the line of the creek from the point it left the forest proper until just before it passed under the castle walls. We were in the copse, me just up the bank from you. I think of us all as being held in a bowl of earth between the forest and the castle. The dog, we know it must have been now, lay hidden among the toothy leaves of the saplings that crowded the slope down from the forest, under their shadow, while you and I lay almost under their roots where they grew to the edge of the bank. Bracken and fern covered most of the bank’s edge, except for this worn strip of beach serving the occasional thirsty horse or playing child. And this day a starving dog, which whimpered even as it growled when I saw it crawling past a tree trunk.
“I was startled, and clambered up the bank and almost to the edge of the copse, meaning to scream for a guard, for none could hear us under the leaf-laden trees, but then I saw that this would leave you in danger and I could not do that, my prince. I turned back and you were splashing your feet, unaware of the dog that slunk toward you, eyes white with fear and a strangled growl in its throat and slaver on its lips.”
Nowadays the Strangers have eyes everywhere, they are a powerful people and father is powerful and they watch over his son. But in those days their network was not as developed, so if the guard could not see you, he could not see your danger. And that day the guard could not see you.
Mother died the first time you were born. Father could not remarry so I must rule upon his death, absent you. How risible, little brother! The Strangers came and gave you a second birth and fixed that dog to you and relieved me of responsibility. I saw that your first body did die and only a pinch of yourself was used to bake the second you. This imperious you who remembers nothing of that day and must needs hear it described over and over again.
“There was no guard with us nor nearby to hear us and I could not run and leave you. The creek was running high with spring snowmelt from the mountains above our valley and under the trees and between the damp earthen banks I knew my cry could never be heard. You paddled your feet and did not notice the dog, come ever closer, crouching among the ferns on the high end of this little beaten trail of a beach. The dog raised its lips and its yellow-white fangs flashed like the brief light of a sunbeam during a lull in the rain.
“Then I saw the dead branch between you and me. Perhaps you had dragged it to play with, or through foresight of its need.” Though you were too small for either then and perhaps I confuse the things you have done in this, your second life, with what you had not done, but might eventually have, in your first. It was the first time she had wondered aloud about the provenance of the branch, as if trying to convince herself it was placed there for a purpose. The boy looked pleased to be considered so prescient and she told herself to include the detail next time. “I picked up the branch, two foot of dense, sodden wood, and I looked at the dog, hefting my club.”
This is the story and ever as you have heard it. You have heard about how I swung the heavy stick but the wily cur dodged the blow and sank its teeth into my arm and shredded my skin and I cried in pain and dropped the branch. She rubbed the scars on her wrist under the sleeve of her blouse. I told you how I screamed and the dog let go my arm and ran past me and sank its teeth into your head, pulling you into the water.
What had I thought, that the Strangers would make kings into lions thereafter only to be seen in zoos? I had no dealings with them and my father was stern with us during those days after they first fell from the sky and combined their evangelizing with displays of fierce might.
Had that dog only killed one of the ducks in the moat that day or the day before and so not been so brazen as to even approach us, surely you would not have died that first death, not then. Surely I would not have made that swift calculation, of becoming the only child of a sworn celibate widower, and betting on the protection of the Strangers. Because the dog was starving and nearby, I swung that club onto your tender little skull.
Even then the dog shied away. I beckoned it but it stayed in the shadow of the undergrowth. I pulled your body, dragged you by the leg along the beach and laid you bleeding in front of the dog. It refused. I reached down and grabbed its scruff and it wriggled free and tore the skin of my arm with its flashing teeth but I grabbed it again and pushed its muzzle into your warm blood and it lost its caution and sank its fangs into your face. I thought I heard you whimper but then the dog shook its head furiously and your body swung loose under your broken neck. Then did I leave the murk and run out into the open from under the trees to the base of the castle wall. And still I waited until I found the path to the gate, to give the dog time to shred the last life from you, and lest my screams startle the dog from the task I had assigned it.
Now the dog stares at me, remembering and not remembering, but always, always wary of me and protective of you, forever more. *
About the author: Gryffyd Eamonn Dempsey lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and various cats and dogs. He has published stories and poems in NFG, Zahir, Space & Time, and other venues, including Planet Magazine in December 1999. He occasionally babbles away at www.gryffyddempsey.com.
About the artist: Ruimin Lv is a freelance illustrator/concept artist. He paints digitally and is developing a style of B&W painting that combines traditional ink and water painting and nontraditional subjects. He passionately wants to apply this special style to diverse subjects. His favorite subjects cover a wide range, including fantasy art, sci fi, portrait, character, vehicles, landscapes, supernatural creatures, animals, fairy tales, historical figures/events, and more. His online portfolios:
Personal website: http://www.wix.com/magicbrushlv/ruimin