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His White Hause-Bane

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I came upon the castle on my way to a tournament. It had been raining for days, washing out the lane until it was hard to distinguish from the deer tracks that wound through the forest. By the time the rain finally ceased, leaving the sky washed clean as a bluebell, I had been wondering for some time if I had become lost. I knew it when I spied the spires of a small white castle. They rose high and elegant, silhouetted against the cloudless sky, and were nothing I had ever seen before.

I rode to the castle, thinking to ask for directions to put me on my way and hoping for an invitation to dine with the lord and spend the night, for the day was very cold. Perhaps it was my hopeful thoughts of mead and hot meat that distracted me, or perhaps it was something else. But I had dismounted before I realized that there was something strange about the place, and was almost at the doors before I knew what it was.

There was nothing else in sight. No other homes, no fields, no orchards. Nothing but the castle, rising from the mud like a great white tooth.

I hesitated, uneasy. But then the doors opened, and I saw flickering firelight within.

A woman beckoned me forward. “Come.”

“My horse…” I began.

“The stableboy will see to him,” she said, and repeated, “Come.”

Her voice was low for a woman. Husky. I found myself hurrying forward, eager to escape the biting wind, and did not wonder why I saw no stableboy, or stables for that matter.

The doors closed silently behind me. The lady of the castle stood tall and proud in a heavy brocade gown with a mantle of fur across her shoulders. Her thick hair was piled atop her head and secured with gemmed pins, and there were many rings upon her fingers. She looked not like the lady of a small keep, but like a queen, and her gaze was fierce as a warrior queen of old.

“Welcome,” she said, but she looked not at me but upward. I followed her gaze. The arched beams of the ceiling were carved from the same ivory stone as the castle. I had never seen workmanship so fine. “I am Lady Grey.”

I greeted her and introduced myself as Sir Richard, and inquired about the lord of the castle.

“He is here,” she said. “It was he who bade me give you shelter for the night. Will you dine with us?”

I tried not to sound too eager as I accepted, not wanting her to think me greedy or desperate.

Lady Grey’s gaze again strayed upward. “Come.”

I followed her into a great dining hall where a supper was already laid out upon the table. There was mead and wine, a boar’s head with tusks, bread and pottage, and a platter of roast venison. It was the feast I had dreamed of, but I hesitated when she asked me to sit.

But for a single hound lying by the lord’s seat, no one else was in the room. No servants, no entertainers, no family, no other guests. No lord. Even the hawk’s perch, carved of that same white stone, had no hawk, but only a pair of empty jesses.

It came to me then how strange it was that I had left my horse outside in the care of a stableboy I had never seen. Uneasy, I took a step back.

“Sit,” repeated Lady Grey. “My husband wills you to dine with us.”

“Where is your husband?” I asked.

“He is here,” she replied.

“But when will he come to the table?”

“He is here,” she repeated. “Now. He is here.”

The hound opened its brown eyes and whined as if it expected to be struck.

I felt a fool to flee from food and shelter back into the cold, and very rude besides. But the castle was no warmer than the forest had been, and Lady Grey’s strange words chilled me to the bone. I took another step back.

“I… I must be on my way,” I said. “Please give my regards to your lord.”

Lady Grey seemed so proud and fierce, I expected her to be angry. But she only looked at me with a great weariness, like a dying beast too far gone to even snarl. Then she pointed upward, at a pair of windows that I was certain had not been there a moment before. They were set so high that nothing could be seen from them but sky, and they seemed to stare at us like cold blue eyes.

“He sees you,” she said. “It is too late.”

I turned to the door. But it was gone. There was nothing where it had been but an expanse of white stone.

Every tale I had ever heard of witches and enchanters came into my mind then, and I knew that I must break free of this evil place. But I had taken vows, and I could not depart without knowing whether Lady Grey was the enchantress I must slay or the captive I must rescue.

I drew my sword, but kept it low. “Who are you?”

“I am Lady Grey.”

Frustrated, I recalled how she had answered my question about the whereabouts of her husband, replying to my words alone rather than to the obvious reason why I was asking. I tried again. “Are you trapped here? Or are you holding me captive?”

“Trapped." The honesty in her voice could not be denied. “Yes. I fell into a trap.”

The hound gave a sudden bark, crept out from beneath the table, and crouched at her feet.

“Then I will free you.” I spoke with more confidence than I felt. I knew from the tales that enchantments could be broken. Some broke at the point of a sword, and some by the answering of a riddle. I had never been good with riddles, so I hoped there was a foe to slay.

“Is your husband the enchanter?” I asked. When she looked puzzled, I said, “The one who trapped you?”

“Yes.” She never nodded, I noticed; she did not shake her head or make gestures with her hands. She merely stood and spoke. It made her seem stiff. And yet she moved with power and grace. She was a riddle in herself, the Lady Grey.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He is here.”

“But where in here?”

“Here.” Unlike myself, Lady Grey did not seem frustrated by repetition. She simply spoke, her voice calm but her eyes bitter and wild. “He is here.”

I looked around, but saw no one. There was only the table laid out for a feast, the empty hawk’s perch, and the smooth white walls. I walked to where the door had been and reached out my hand, thinking that perhaps the wall was a mere glamour.

My palm struck stone. In a burst of fear and anger, I pounded it with my fist. But it was unyielding, smooth as polished bone.

It was bone. My old master of the hunt had whittled me a pack of small pale hounds that I had treasured as a boy. I knew that texture. The entire castle must have been carved from the bones of some massive beast, a dragon or a leviathan washed ashore.

And I was trapped within. I glanced this way and that, but except for those two staring windows, far too high to reach, there was no way out. The arching white beams of the ceiling were like the bars of a cage, if a cage could be made of bone.

A cage of bone…

Once again, I remembered the master of hounds, and how fast he could break down a hart or boar. I’d always enjoyed watching him work, with his cleaver flashing, showing me how to cut at the joints. How to dismantle the ribcage that protects the heart.

My eyes went to the shape like the point of an arrow, where the beams met. A sword driven under the ribs would pierce the heart.

The ceiling was high, far too high to reach, but I drew my sword and pointed to that spot.

“There—” I began.

But my lips were shrinking, stiffening, pulling back from my face. The white walls spun around me, and the rest of my words were lost in a shrill scream like a hawk’s.

My sword clattered to the floor. Terror seized my heart, and I tried to flee. But rather than running, I found myself aloft, flying in desperate circles around the ceiling, a great white dome like the inside of an egg. Or a skull.

The windows! I thought, and arrowed toward them. But just before I reached them, they closed over like a blink.

As I circled, screaming in horror and rage, the hound set up a mournful howl, and Lady Grey looked up at me with the gaze of a wild thing that would bite off its paw to escape a trap, but could not reach its jaws close enough.

“He will come for you now. He will bind you with jesses, as he bound the hound with collar and leash, and bound me with these.” She dabbed her fingertips at her fur mantle and brocade gown as if they were the slimy skin of some loathsome worm.

I could not imagine how any of us could escape. The hound and I could not grasp the hilt of a sword, and Lady Grey, though tall, had only a woman’s strength. But I was unwilling to give up. I plunged downward with a speed that astonished even me, and lit upon the hilt of my sword. Looking into her eyes, I screamed, then leaped aloft again, flying to that arrowhead at the rib-arch point. Hovering, I screamed again.

I had no real hope that she would understand, or that she could accomplish a feat of strength of which even I might not be capable. She glanced from me to the sword, and I saw puzzlement in her fierce and hopeless eyes.

The hound nudged her, whined, then pointed, freezing and aiming its muzzle toward me as they do to alert hunters to the location of the game. And at last, I saw understanding come to her. She stooped and picked up my sword as effortlessly as if she was a knight herself. I could not understand how she could have had such strength, but for the first time since I had come to the castle of bone, my heart lifted.

The hound lifted its muzzle, pointed toward me, and gave a resounding cry, as if it had a boar at bay.

The walls of the castle began to contract like a clenching fist. But before they could crush us, Lady Grey flung the sword like a javelin. Fast as thought it flew, and struck home at the arrow’s point.

A scream of agony rose up, so loud that I feared it would shatter my light hawk’s bones. The air itself seemed to tilt like an overturned table. And then I was gasping on my knees, my palms braced on damp earth and flattened grass, in the cup of a dell beneath the open sky.

The castle was gone. Before me a knight lay sprawled on his back, his blue eyes open and unseeing, his teeth bared in a final snarl. His chest was a ruin of blood and bone, as if it had been somehow shattered from within. With a shudder, I turned away.

“Free!” Lady Grey’s cry was joyous and fierce. She gestured at herself as she had within the castle, her lips curled in disgust, but this time the pads of her fingers brushed at her face, as if her body itself was hateful to her. “At last, I will be free of this cage!”

Then she fell to the ground. I started to rush to her, thinking she had fainted. But she writhed where she lay, her fur mantle seeming to flow into her sprawled limbs. In the blink of an eye, the woman was gone, and a grey wolf rose from the place where the lady had been.

The wolf glanced at me, and in her hot yellow gaze I saw the same wildness that had been in the lady’s. Then she turned away, indifferent to me, raised her long head to the sky, and howled.

I backed away, but another came forward. It was a great white wolf, running over the hills toward her. She ran to greet him. They nuzzled each other with a startling delicacy, like long-lost lovers. I recalled then that wolves mate for life. And then the wolves loped away into the woods, side by side, never looking back.

I watched them until they vanished from sight. When I heard a sound behind me, I spun around. Then I relaxed. I had never seen the young man before… and yet I had. Much as I had recognized Lady Grey in the eyes of the wolf, I recognized the hound in the eyes of the man.

“I…” He stopped, then began again. “My voice… I haven’t heard it in so long. I don’t know how long I’ve been enchanted. Maybe it’s been a hundred years. Maybe everyone I know is dead and buried.”

“I do not think so,” I replied. “You saw that Lady Grey’s mate came for her. She was under an enchantment, but I doubt that he was. And wolves don’t live a hundred years. Was she already in the castle when you were captured?”

Reassured, he nodded. But despite my own words, I was relieved to spot my horse, grazing placidly beneath a tree.

The young man pointed. “My village lies to the north.”

“I will see you safely there.”

He looked at me doubtfully. “A knight to escort a farmer?”

“Think of it rather as a hawk to escort a hound,” I advised.

He smiled, and we set off. As we went walking down the lane, a pair of crows flapped heavily past, winging their way toward the dell where the enchanter-knight lay dead.