Lord of the Castle
High above a seaside village, in a kingdom whose banners flew before our land was born, there is a castle on a cliff. From the village, whose doors practically touch the sea, there is no known road to reach the castle’s black stone towers or the fearsome gates of new iron that face directly out upon the deadly drop. So high is that cliff in the bitter clouded air that sea birds fly in swirling flocks beneath its lip. The village is peaceful, threatened but seldom by troubled seas and never by foreign enemies. It is a snug harbor for traders and fishermen. Some say the castle’s unseen lord has worked a protective enchantment on the village below, preserving the peace for its own sake. Others say he is ghoul biding his time, farming the isolated villagers for his own dreadful appetites. No man in the village knows his face or seeks knowledge of him. None will swear that anyone at all lives in the black castle. Their fear to speak of it openly is proof enough of their belief.
To that land a stranger came one summer. He was a poet and storyteller, with his quill and his instrument of many strings upon his back. He came aboard a merchant ship, and with the modest measure of gold in his pocket he took rooms at the Fisherfolk’s Inn. He partook richly of food and drink, buying generously for those whom he met, and so had made himself a host of new friends in the space of an hour. Being a gatherer of stories he asked them for theirs, and set the best of them to lively tunes. He had stirred much delight among the villagers by the time the sun went down.
“Friends,” said he when the supper hour grew late, “you have given of your hearts and tongues to fill my coffer, and I go from here a richer man for the tales you have given me. I ask a final gift, the answer to the great mystery of this place. Having heard it I will depart at sunrise, your humble and eternal servant.
“As my ship drew into port I sat aloft with the watch mate, and what did I spy but two towers of black compassed round with high walls of the same stuff, all fronted with a fearsome iron gate. Instead of a road leading to the gate, I saw only a deadly face of sheer rock, with a ring of stones like swords at the bottom ill masked by the crashing of waves. I saw sea birds circling like harpies round a wicked altar. A man who slipped from the gates of such a castle would surely fall to the crags below and have his innards punched out. He would make a fine feast for gulls, but could never live to tell what he had seen.”
The company fell silent for a moment, then tried to renew their merrymaking without paying the stranger any mind. They knew not the answers he sought, or else they guarded them in fear. The bartender reached for his cup, thinking he must be drunk to jab at their superstition so recklessly. The young man held his tankard fast and shook it in accusation.
“You keep your greatest secret from me, yet what have I done but show you kindness and pay for your ale? You wrong me, friends, if you reckon me an innocent or a fool. I have heard in parts east and south of here many rumors of your dreadful castle, else I would not have found my way here to look upon it.
“In the desert bedouin lands they say an exiled Spanish inquisitor lives there, ruling his own cult of misfits and freaks, children of incest and adultery. In the lands of mountain snow they claim the devil himself summers there, hell being too hot even for its own prince. In the eastern gypsy lands I heard my favorite story of all. They whisper that the hideous immortal begotten of Baron Frankenstein, having paid his spiteful creator with vengeful murder, claimed the fortress as a sanctuary from the world’s eyes, building gates against the sea to ward off supplicants and invaders alike. They say he feasts on whatever unlucky bird, beast or man wanders near, and that he uses their bones for a grand ossuary. This they say is a cathedral of darkness lined with the skulls and flayed members of the dead. The chapel’s inner shine is said to be most dreadful sight of all, a desecration fit to drive hardy men mad.
“I see none of you will affirm or gainsay these rumors, yet your trembling silence gives me pause. Perhaps I shall settle on that version and be content. I say now that I would give all I have to the man who could show me into that high castle, that I might know its nature for certain.”
No other at the inn made a reply, though the barkeep was still glad to accept his gold. Surveying the room in the bleariness of drink, supposing the hour had come to retire as friendless as he arrived, the young man spied a lone figure in a corner where the candles had burned out, beckoning to him.
The hulking fellow had a coarse hooded shepherd’s cloak, yet there was a salty confidence in the set of his jaw. The young man could not quite see the eyes beneath the heavy cowl, but his expression was friendly enough as he pointed to an empty seat and a full jug. The poet poured out thanks.
“I was afraid I had used up my welcome,” he said. The big man nodded in polite reply, pouring out spirits, parting his cracked lips in a grin. The young man noticed that his face was pitted and scarred by age or injury or both. That must be why he went heavily draped in a house of ease.
“Do not think harshly of these folks, mate,” said his host in a boom of springtime thunder. “They are of the sea, and seafaring folks is the most superstitious kind you may ever hope to meet.”
He spoke with a lilting cadence, not in total accordance with his rude clothes. Poetry of curious refinement played about the edges of his accent, at odds with his common oaths and expressions. The young man sat forward with interest.
“Thanks for your kindness to a traveler, friend,” said he. “It is true that dwellers by the shore hold tight to their fancies and idols. Did I truly give offense asking after the black castle?”
“Hard to say,” came the reply after a time. “Offense ain’t really the word for it. Your questions touch their fear of what they don’t know and don’t care to know. Asking after what’s stood unknown to them all their lives is nearly a blasphemy. You might as well question the storm as brews the sky, or the depth of the sea below us. Them’s fit things for men of learning to know, but science ain’t a thing prized by such folks as these. They wish only to know what the sea brings, not what the sea is, if you takes my meaning.”
The young man took the meaning, though it went against his own hunger for the world. Having things explained eased his agitation, and shared the jug down to the bare clay.
“You know these people and dwell among them,” he said, “yet you view them at a greater distance than they see themselves. You are no mere villager.”
“I was not born here,” said the big man, “and I have had some small learning, but I am every bit a fisherman as them, and a man of strange creeds myself.”
This amused the young man, although the stranger’s face betrayed no joke in the words. The lips were set hard for an instant, then opened with renewed softness.
“All the same, it’s only fair to tell you there are sure ways into the castle for a man of wit to guess.”
The young man set down his glass with a force that shivered the planks.
“Then I have found my guide! I knew you for a man of adventure.”
The other put up his hands in denial. “You take me wrong, mate,” said he. “I make no offer to guide you. I only wished to let you know for whatever satisfaction it gives.”
“I’m less satisfied than before, if you taunt me with riddles and vain hope.”
“Long years have taught me that true hope’s never in vain. If you wish to find your way to the castle, I’ve no doubt you shall. None of these men have ventured there because none of them wish to see it. That don’t mean outsiders never come, them with the same fond wish as yours. As far as I know, everyone who dared has found the summit, and found welcome through them black iron gates.”
“It must not be the great feat it seems, then.”
“I would not call it easy.”
“Riddles again. You speak from experience, no? Have you been there? Have you seen the walls of bone?”
“I may mimic the tones of grand old books, but I am no great wit and a man with no high ambitions left. I share in what the wind and sea offer me. I believe in my heart that him who looks on the mysteries of that castle ends his journey a disappointed man.”
The young man could not see the sense in that, for surely the discovery of anything, even nothing at all, brought the satisfaction of having dared to find out. He weighed the big fisherman’s words long into the night, after the drinks were drunk and the two men parted friendly company with the hope of meeting again in a day or two. The young man’s dreams in his rough bed were all of soaring, of ascent, of discovered treasures beyond the reach of rumor.
He rose late in the morning, shaking off the last of the drink, and set out blinking in the bright sunshine. He walked to the edge of the sea, where foamy breakers lapped and churned without end. Standing as close as he could to the foot of the cliff, he studied it from several angles. He looked at the rough wall of rock. Its height was frightful when seen from directly below. He ventured a few paces onto the slab where the hungry tide surged among the juts of rock. It was a perfect trap for the unwary climber, yet the words of the big fisherman rang true in his heart. He dared, and so stood as good a chance as any.
It seemed at first that no means save magic would avail. He searched with care around the foot of the cliff for hidden passages and secret routes. Not one could he find, yet resolved to brave the cliff with all determination. Making his way home along the stony shore, he looked a out to sea and spied the bulky shape of his friend in a small boat, drifting placidly on the tide. He raised his hand in salute, yet though the big man seemed to be look in his direction, he made no sign of recognition. The young man reckoned the distance and the misty air might impair an older man’s eyes.
From the drydock master he purchased a length of strong oiled rope and a small hoisting tackle. From a small dinghy sitting neglected in the harbor he quietly borrowed half a dozen rusty hooks, sufficient to hold a goodly weight and not likely to be missed. He spent some time fashioning these implements into a crude climbing harness. The labor lasted into the evening, at which time he procured a few easily carried provisions from the innkeeper’s wife. He supped that night in disappointment, for his friend of the previous night did not appear. Still, he slept a deep and confident sleep knowing his third day would end in the revelations he had come seeking.
He was below the cliff by dawn. The sea roared, indifferent to the tiny invader. Securing his harness of hooks and ropes, he began to find subtle footholds in the streaked mossy face of rock. His progress was slow and slippery, but determination fired him. Before two hours had elapsed he could see the progress he was making. The implacable surf churned, even at the approach of low tide. He allowed himself a single glance downward and regretted it. The sleek fingers of rock reached for him with malice. Gulls roiled in screaming flocks above and below him. He reckoned himself nearly halfway up, but from his limited perspective it might have been less.
His mind swarmed with fancies of what waited above. He wondered whether the gates would be opened in welcome, or if gaining entry would require further art. Would the lord be within, or would the poet find empty halls for his trouble? He held to the hope of gaining a full songbook from one valiant journey. His heart and head swelled with pride as he pulled himself higher.
A moment too late he realized that he had reached a softer stratum of stone where sea birds nested in hollows. What he saw were easier, more pronounced niches for his hands to grip. Thrusting his fingers into the largest of these, he was astonished by a ruffle of feathers. A huge gull shrieked and beats its wings in his face. Blinded by the frenzied bird, he tried to bat it away with his free hand. Only after three or four birds joined the fracas did the young man lose his grip. He was trying to fix a hook over his head and pull himself safe above the reach of their attack, yet they beset him with all their might for flapping and pecking. Their cries blocked out other sounds. He did not hear his own groans of fright and pain. He was fully away from the cliff and plunging down before he realized he had let go.
It seemed to him that he fell as long a time as he had climbed. The folly of that impression had not struck him before the spike of rock did. He felt every jagged edge that twisted, mangled and pierced him. Once at rest he could not move so much as a finger. The cold surf pricked his warm flowing wounds.
As throbbing pain receded from his dead limbs, he would not believe that he was doomed. Surely rest would renew his energy and he could begin again. He had been all but promised that those with true desire would pass through the black castle’s gate. Reflecting on this assurance, he caught a familiar sight at the edge of his vision. A boat drew near the treacherous rocks. The looming figure aboard tied it off and leapt onto the slippery stones with surprising sureness of foot.
The young man, blinded from loss of blood, half drowned by briny foam, reached feebly toward the man he took for a rescuer. His voice croaked out, desperate to make his plight understood. The big man strolled about him in a circle, surveying his broken body, then knelt down to look him level in the face. The young man pleaded with his eyes for help and deliverance from the deadly place. He had spurned and nearly forgotten the black castle, when the fisherman spoke as though reading his inward thoughts.
“My friend,” he said with fond warmth rather than sorrow or worry, “I salute you. Few dare to give so much for this journey, and as I told you theirs is the greater reward. I know the pain and disappointment you must feel, but I tell you that your heart’s desire is granted.”
“Liar,” the young man sputtered through his blood-filled mouth. “Treacherous… tricked me.”
“The truth,” admitted the other with a look of smiling self-reproach, “is the only trick worth knowing. Years ago it touched my sense of honor, but that feeling is lost to time.”
“Who the devil… are…”
“A mere gatherer, a fisherman, as I told you,” he said, and cast off the cowl of his cloak. In daylight his scars were more pronounced and hideous. They were not burns or natural wounds but the seams of a face horribly sutured together, a medical travesty. Surely a head so ghastly could not hold wisdom, or wit, or such crafty guile. A massive hand on a ropy forearm came down to touch the dying poet’s forehead with something like tenderness. The limb bore the same obscene pattern of mottled and quilted flesh. It was a nightmare fit to torment murderers and crypt-robbers. A shrill moan of horror leaked from the young man. His companion showed no embarrassment.
“I confess I am not entirely of nature, thanks to the damnable cunning of my father. But in my long life I have learned reverence for nature. She has adopted me for a proper son. I take what the sea gives me, being careful always to share my prosperity. One must yield a little back, never taking the whole, for who is entitled to all things?
“I come every day at low tide to gather bones and flesh and wood, whatever is left here for me by the surf. I must tell you the bones are my favorite, for reasons already known to you.”
He lifted the skeleton of a large fish, which had been trapped in a crevice and unable to swim back to deeper waters. He thrust the delicate fragments into a bag of oiled canvas tied over his shoulder. The young man twitched a lone finger, the last of his ability identify and accuse the treacherous other.
“Do not reproach me,” said the monster with the gleeful yellow eyes, “for not admitting it was I who dwelt in that castle above us. I am a simple man and humble. I guard my privacy too jealously. Call it the hard usage of the world that led me to such retirement. If the villagers knew more about me, it would harm the peace I have built for all our sakes. I have seen so many of them born and dead that if they must fear and shun my legend, I say let them. As I know them now, they are good to me.
“But enough. There is time to put your mind at ease. I congratulated you before, for as your host I welcome you into my home. You shall abide there as long as those walls stand. I only regret that I cannot escort you there today. There are customs to be honored, and such formalities take time. Here you will remain for two days or three. The sea will soften your flesh and my dear birds may take their share of you. But know and believe, by my solemn pledge, I will return to gather every remaining bone of you. You shall not adorn any mean room or passageway like a fish or bird or shipwrecked innocent. As a valiant pilgrim you shall hold a place of honor in my holy shrine. Upon its very altar I shall polish and fix your limbs, for the delight of the ageless ones.
“Thankful though I am to the sea and the birds and the lips of those who drove you to seek my home, I am in your debt most of all for your sacrifice in coming to me. The voyage here from any quarter of the world, most of which I have seen, is no small feat. You are a valiant man, to be hailed with due honor.” He bowed his great tortured head in almost worshipful salute.
For the next quarter of an hour the young romantic wept bitterly, for there was nothing else to do as he watched the other ascend to the sky. Throwing the cloak back from his shoulders, heedless of the circling birds and thump of the little boat in its sheltered pool, the lord of the castle sank fingers of unimaginable strength into the tiny hollows of rock. He climbed with expert swiftness and dexterity, the sack full of bones clanking on his hip. On and on he went, disappearing into the haze as the tide surged about the ears of his observer.
Some hours later the last of the young traveler’s life left his eyes. He would have watched in awe as room was made for him along the panels of a sacred chamber deep within the castle. Lights were burning dim by the time the work was complete. The bone bag was empty, its contents compassing a small column in a larger hall. But in the holy of holies a perfect space was prepared for the latest of the faithful. The lord hummed an impromptu strain on a few lines of Milton, just under his breath, and gave thanks.