A Monster Calls (Page 9)
The prince also thought marrying the queen was wrong. He said he would die before doing any such thing. He vowed to run away with the beautiful farmer’s daughter and return on his eighteenth birthday to free his people from the tyranny of the queen. And so one night, the prince and the farmer’s daughter raced away on horseback, stopping only at dawn to sleep in the shade of a giant yew tree.
(“You?” Conor asked.)
(Me, the monster said. But also only part of me. I can take any form of any size, but the yew tree is a shape most comfortable.)
The prince and the farmer’s daughter held each other close in the growing dawn. They had vowed to be chaste until they were able to marry in the next kingdom, but their passions got the better of them, and it was not long before they were asleep and naked in each other’s arms.
They slept through the day in the shadows of my branches and night fell once again. The prince woke. “Arise, my beloved,” he whispered to the farmer’s daughter, “for we ride to the day where we will be man and wife.”
But his beloved did not wake. He shook her, and it was only as she slumped back in the moonlight that he noticed the blood staining the ground.
(“Blood?” Conor said, but the monster kept talking.)
The prince also had blood covering his own hands, and he saw a bloodied knife on the grass beside them, resting against the roots of the tree. Someone had murdered his beloved and done so in a way that made it look like the prince had committed the crime.
“The queen!” cried the prince. “The queen is responsible for this treachery!”
In the distance, he could hear villagers approaching. If they found him, they would see the knife and the blood, and they would call him murderer. They would put him to death for his crime.
(“And the queen would be able to rule unchallenged,” Conor said, making a disgusted sound. “I hope this story ends with you ripping her head off.”)
There was nowhere for the prince to run. His horse had been chased away while he slept. The yew tree was his only shelter.
And also the only place he could turn for help.
Now, the world was younger then. The barrier between things was thinner, easier to pass through. The prince knew this. And he lifted his head to the great yew tree and he spoke.
(The monster paused.)
(“What did he say?” Conor asked.)
(He said enough to bring me walking, the monster said. I know injustice when I see it.)
The prince ran towards the approaching villagers. “The queen has murdered my bride!” he shouted. “The queen must be stopped!”
The rumours of the queen’s witchery had been circulating long enough and the young prince was so beloved of the people that it took very little for them to see the obvious truth. It took even less time when they saw the great Green Man walking behind him, high as the hills, coming for vengeance.
(Conor glanced again at the monster’s massive arms and legs, at its raggedy, toothy mouth, at its overwhelming monstrousness. He imagined what the queen must have thought when she saw it coming.)
The subjects stormed the queen’s castle with such fury that the stones of its very walls tumbled. Fortifications fell and ceilings collapsed and when the queen was found in her chambers, the mob seized her and dragged her to the stake right then to burn her alive.
(“Good,” Conor said, smiling. “She deserved it.” He looked up at his bedroom window where his grandmother slept. “I don’t suppose you can help me with her?” he asked. “I mean, I don’t want to burn her alive or anything, but maybe just–”)
The story, said the monster, is not yet finished.
THE REST OF THE FIRST TALE
“It’s not?” Conor asked. “But the queen was overthrown.”
She was, said the monster. But not by me.
Conor hesitated, confused. “You said you made sure she was never seen again.”
And so I did. When the villagers lit the flames on the stake to burn her alive, I reached in and saved her.
“You what?” Conor said.
I took her and carried her far enough away so that the villagers would never find her, far beyond even the kingdom of her birth, to a village by the sea. And there I left her, to live in peace.
Conor got to his feet, his voice rising in disbelief. “But she murdered the farmer’s daughter! How could you possibly save a murderer?” Then his face dropped and he took a step back. “You really are a monster.”
I never said she killed the farmer’s daughter, the monster said. I only said that the prince said it was so.
Conor blinked. Then he crossed his arms. “So who killed her then?”
The monster opened its huge hands in a certain way, and a breeze blew up, bringing a mist with it. Conor’s house was still behind him, but the mist covered his back garden, replacing it with a field with a giant yew in the centre and a man and a woman sleeping at its base.
After their coupling, said the monster, the prince remained awake.
Conor watched as the young prince rose and looked down at the sleeping farmer’s daughter, who even Conor could see was a beauty. The prince watched her for a moment, then wrapped a blanket around himself and went to their horse, tied to one of the yew tree’s branches. The prince retrieved something from the saddlebag, then untied the horse, slapping it hard on the hindquarters to send it running off. The prince held up what he’d taken out of the bag.
A knife, shining in the moonlight.
“No!” Conor said.
The monster closed its hands and the mist descended again as the prince approached the sleeping farmer’s daughter, his knife at the ready.
“You said he was surprised when she didn’t wake up!” Conor said.
After he killed the farmer’s daughter, said the monster, the prince lay down next to her and returned to sleep. When he awoke, he acted out a pantomime should anyone be watching. But also, it may surprise you to learn, for himself. The monster’s branches creaked. Sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all.
“You said he asked for your help! And that you gave it!”
I only said he told me enough to make me come walking.
Conor looked wide-eyed from the monster to his back garden, which was re-emerging from the dissipating mist. “What did he tell you?” he asked.
He told me that he had done it for the good of the kingdom. That the new queen was in fact a witch, that his grandfather had suspected it to be true when he married her, but that he had overlooked it because of her beauty. The prince couldn’t topple a powerful witch on his own. He needed the fury of the villagers to help him. The death of the farmer’s daughter saw to that. He was sorry to do it, heartbroken, he said, but as his own father had died in defence of the kingdom, so did his fair maiden. Her death was serving to overthrow a great evil. When he said that the queen had murdered his bride, he believed, in his own way, that it was actually true.