A Monster Calls (Page 8)

And you have worse things to be frightened of, said the monster, but not as a question.

Conor looked at the ground, then up at the moon, anywhere but at the monster’s eyes. The nightmare feeling was rising in him, turning everything around him to darkness, making everything seem heavy and impossible, like he’d been asked to lift a mountain with his bare hands and no one would let him leave until he did.

“I thought,” he said, but had to cough before he spoke again. “I saw you watching me earlier when I was fighting with my grandma and I thought…”

What did you think? the monster asked when Conor didn’t finish.

“Forget it,” Conor said, turning back towards the house.

You thought I might be here to help you, the monster said.

Conor stopped.

You thought I might have come to topple your enemies. Slay your dragons.

Conor still didn’t look back. But he didn’t go inside either.

You felt the truth of it when I said that you had called for me, that you were the reason I had come walking. Did you not?

Conor turned round. “But all you want to do is tell me stories,” he said, and he couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice, because it was true. He had thought that. He’d hoped that.

The monster knelt down so its face was close to Conor’s. Stories of how I toppled enemies, it said. Stories of how I slew dragons.

Conor blinked back at the monster’s gaze.

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?

The monster looked up and Conor followed its gaze. It was looking at Conor’s bedroom window. The room where his grandma now slept.

Let me tell you a story of when I went walking, the monster said. Let me tell you of the end of a wicked queen and how I made sure she was never seen again.

Conor swallowed and looked back at the monster’s face.

“Go on,” he said.

THE FIRST TALE

Long ago, the monster said, before this was a town with roads and trains and cars, it was a green place. Trees covered every hill and bordered every path. They shaded every stream and protected every house, for there were houses here even then, made of stone and earth.

This was a kingdom.

(“What?” Conor said, looking around his back garden. “Here?”)

(The monster cocked its head at him curiously. You have not heard of it?)

(“Not a kingdom around here, no,” Conor said. “We don’t even have a McDonald’s.”)

Nevertheless, continued the monster, it was a kingdom, small but happy, for the king was a just king, a man whose wisdom was born out of hardship. His wife had given birth to four strong sons, but in the king’s reign, he had been forced to ride into battles to preserve the peace of his kingdom. Battles against giants and dragons, battles against black wolves with red eyes, battles against armies of men led by great wizards.

These battles secured the kingdom’s borders and brought peace to the land. But victory came at a price. One by one, the king’s four sons were killed. By the fire of a dragon or the hands of a giant or the teeth of a wolf or the spear of a man. One by one, all four princes of the kingdom fell, leaving the king only one heir. His infant grandson.

(“This is all sounding pretty fairy tale-ish,” Conor said, suspiciously.)

(You would not say that if you heard the screams of a man killed by a spear, said the monster. Or his cries of terror as he was torn to pieces by wolves. Now be quiet.)

By and by, the king’s wife succumbed to grief, as did the mother of the young prince. The king was left with only the child for company, along with more sadness than one man should bear alone.

“I must remarry,” the king decided. “For the good of my prince and of my kingdom, if not for myself.”

And remarry he did, to a princess from a neighbouring kingdom, a practical union that made both kingdoms stronger. She was young and fair, and though perhaps her face was a bit hard and her tongue a bit sharp, she seemed to make the king happy.

Time passed. The young prince grew until he was nearly a man, coming within two years of the eighteenth birthday that would allow him to ascend to the throne on the old king’s death. These were happy days for the kingdom. The battles were over, and the future seemed secure in the hands of the brave young prince.

But one day the king grew ill. Rumour began to spread that he was being poisoned by his new wife. Stories circulated that she had conjured grave magicks to make herself look far younger than she actually was and that beneath her youthful face lurked the scowl of an elderly hag. No one would have put it past her to poison the king, though he begged his subjects until his dying breath not to blame her.

And so he died, with still a year left before his grandson was old enough to take the throne. The queen, his step-grandmother, became regent in his place, and would handle all affairs of state until the prince was old enough to take over.

At first, to the surprise of many, her reign was a good one. Her countenance – despite the rumours – was still youthful and pleasing, and she endeavoured to carry on ruling in the manner of the dead king.

The prince, meanwhile, had fallen in love.

(“I knew it,” Conor grumbled. “These kinds of stories always have stupid princes falling in love.” He started walking back to the house. “I thought this was going to be good.”)

(With one swift movement, the monster grabbed Conor’s ankles in a long, strong hand and flipped him upside down, holding him in mid-air so his t-shirt rucked up and his heartbeat thudded in his head.)

(As I was saying, said the monster.)

The prince had fallen in love. She was only a farmer’s daughter, but she was beautiful, and also smart, as the daughters of farmers need to be, for farms are complicated businesses. The kingdom smiled on the match.

The queen, however, did not. She had enjoyed her time as regent and felt a strange reluctance to give it up. She began to think that perhaps it was best that the crown remained in the family, that the kingdom be run by those wise enough to do it, and what could be a better solution than for the prince to actually marry her?

(“That’s disgusting!” Conor said, still upside-down. “She was his grandmother!”)

(Step-grandmother, corrected the monster. Not related by blood, and to all intents and appearances, a young woman herself.)

(Conor shook his head, his hair dangling. “That’s just wrong.” He paused a moment. “Can you maybe put me down?”)

(The monster lowered him to the ground and continued the story.)