That night, as with every night for the past two moons, Jossen took the carriage into town to delight the inhabitants of the Black Dog Tavern. Previously known around town as the half-foot fool, when Jossen first had entered the tavern with the moleskin notebook clutched in his pudgy hands, the owner of the establishment had only allowed him to read as a lark. The drunkards and harlots had fallen quiet, awaiting a good laugh. But no one chortled as the poetic prose flowed from his lips. That night, as with every night, when the story was finished, the room had erupted in a chorus of applause. Men had shaken his hand, their eyes glossy with tears of admiration. Women had wept and clung to his cloak. He used to blush in embarrassment at their adoration. He was once just a simple stable hand and had never known a woman’s touch or a man’s appreciation. But slowly, he became accustomed to their praise and now he bathed in it as he drank and shouted out his tales.
That night, when he finished reading and returned the notebook to his cloak pocket, the men applauded and the women rushed forward. All except for one. Jossen saw her through the throng, the beauty, the angel, the golden-haired goddess in the evergreen gown. She sat at the farthest table, leaned back in a chair, running her long pink nails around the mouth of her flagon. Her lips were pursed in rye amusement. She appeared unimpressed. Jossen pushed his way past the lustful women and shouting men and stumbled to her table. She watched his approach and any words he might have conjured in defense of his work vacated his thoughts. His knees went weak and he leaned against her table for balance. The mead in her flagon swirled, then settled.
“Good evening milady,” Jossen stuttered. “Did you enjoy the reading?”
The woman smirked then picked up her drink and brought it to her thin, pink lips. She drained it in a single swallow and Jossen watched as it flowed down the smoothness of her throat. There seemed to be light emanating from her very presence. He averted his eyes and kicked himself for being foolish enough to approach someone of such high blood.
“It was good.” Her voice flowed like velvet. “But it was not what I search for.” The woman stood.
“Please. What is it you seek?”
The woman smiled and placed her fingertips upon his forehead. “My name is Gessle and I’m searching for the best tale ever told. I have traveled far to reach this town because I’ve heard rumor of you, Jossen, but it appears they were mistaken.” She removed her fingers and took a step towards the door.
“No, please.” He clasped his hands. “Let me read for you again tomorrow night. I will bring my very best work.”
She smiled and her teeth glowed as white as fresh milk. “Perhaps.” With that, she seemed to float across the barroom and out the door.
Jossen hurried to the bar and had the tavern owner hail the carriage. There was no time for drinking and whoring tonight and the owner gave him the sack of coins for his work. When the carriage arrived, Jossen slipped out the back, gave the driver a handful of coppers, and told him to ride fast. The driver uncoiled his whip and they galloped through town. Jossen pressed his face to the carriage window and searched for Gessle, but she was nowhere to be seen and when they passed onto the dirt road that led to his shack, he leaned back and began to plan. He had a long night of work ahead. It would be hard work indeed, drawing out a story divine enough to enthrall her.
When the carriage arrived, he bid the driver goodnight and shuffled to the door. There was no lock on his front entrance for no one would think to rob a place so ramshackle. There were no gutters and sections of the roof had caved in. Inside, the floorboards had rotten and rats had chewed holes in his straw bed. Some nights, when he lay upon it, he could feel them moving within. Jossen tossed the sack of coins upon the rickety kitchen table then found a candle and matches. When the wick was lit, he strode to the wolf-skin rug that lay beside the cooking pot. Kneeling, he yanked it back and revealed the trap door. Six iron locks held it in place. Jossen removed the keys from his pocket and twisted them one after another. Each fell away with a soft thunk and he lifted the wood slab. Below, stone steps stretched into the blackness.
A cool draft tickled the flame, casting flickering shadows as Jossen descended. He whistled as he walked. When he emerged in the musty cellar, Jossen set the candle on the workbench amongst the hammers, the pliers, and the spikes.
“I told another one tonight.” He clutched his notebook in one hand and stepped forward. The candlelight fell upon his back, casting a dark shape upon the wall. “There was a woman there, the most beautiful being to ever grace this land, but she wasn’t impressed. I may have another chance though. I need you to do better this time.”
The creature hung where Jossen had left it, its arms splayed out and affixed to the wall by chains. Its wings were pressed against the stone tight enough that they could not flutter. The creature was humanoid in shape but far too small, the size of a child rather than any grown thing. The evergreen corset it had worn when Jossen had found it sleeping by the lake was torn to a loincloth that obscured its groin, but its skin was still a rich tan despite being locked in the dark for weeks. As with every night, the previous wounds had healed, leaving no scars or traces of blood. The creature’s eyes were pinched shut and the rag was still in place, threaded through its mouth and tied behind its pointed ears.
“You can’t hold out on me this time,” Jossen said as he dragged a stool across the dirt. “She’s searching for the greatest story ever told.” He placed it in front of the creature and sat down. “I’m in love. And I need something truly perfect. For her.”
Air flowed from the creature’s nostrils, but still, it averted its eyes, the lids pinched shut so tight that its forehead quivered.
Jossen reached out and pulled the rag from the creature’s mouth. “Come now, don’t hold out. If you tell me a good story, maybe I’ll take you for a walk.” The creature did not budge. Jossen sighed. “Always the hard way.” He stood, went to the bench, and picked up a hammer and a handful of spikes. “Don’t forget, I gave you the chance to be nice.”
Jossen started with a blow to its claw like hand. The creature squirmed. He struck harder, cracking the fingers. The creature screamed, but did not open its eyes. For hours, Jossen went through his tools, driving spikes through limbs, clipping off claws, tearing off chunks of flesh. Finally, as he sawed through its wing with a jagged blade, the creature opened its eyes and black tears flooded down from its golden pupils. Jossen dropped the saw, dove for his notebook, and placed it beneath the creature’s pointed chin. As the tears struck page, they transformed into floral, looping writing and as it sobbed on and on, the story spun forward, of knights, and princesses, and high adventure upon distant mountain slopes. Sucking in breath, his arms quivering from their exertion, Jossen read the story as it unfolded. Soon, he was crying too, for it truly was more beautiful than anything he could have ever fathomed. When the final tear fell and blossomed into the end, Jossen closed his notebook and slid it into the breast pocket of his cloak.
“Thank you,” he said, shoving the gag back in the creature’s mouth and synching it tight. The golden eyes glared at him and Jossen ruffled its evergreen hair. “This is truly your best work yet.”
He picked up the candle, now only a nub, went back upstairs, and fell upon the straw bedding. Outside, birds chirped and the sun rose, ushering in a new day. As he fell asleep, Jossen’s mouth perked in a grin, for those pages held his destiny.
When he woke late the next day, he ate a quick meal of venison and cabbage stew, then reread the story. Again, it brought tears to his eyes and he kissed the parchment. This was his masterpiece. As night descended, purple then black, he donned his best britches and shirt. When he heard the drumbeat of hooves upon the dirt path, he checked the locks on the cellar, covered it once more with the wolf pelt, and went outside to meet the carriage.
The tavern was packed that night, as more outsiders piled in to bear witness. Jossen made his way through the crowd to the stool in the corner of the room. The crowd fell silent as he climbed to his seat. The notebook felt rough in his sweaty fingers. He cleared his throat, and searched the sea of faces, but Gessle was not amongst them. His heart throbbed and his mouth ran dry.
The crowd began to murmur, then someone shouted out. “Get on with it already!” There was a chorus of jeering support.
Jossen sighed, his hopes as beaten as a hunting trail, and began to read.
The story followed a young knight as he fled a bloodied battlefield in search of his love, Susanna. Across scorched fields and burning cliffs, he searched for her. Fighting dragons, and demons, and trolls, he searched for her. Until finally, he returned home alone, to find her ghost waiting for him. As the story ended, there was not a dry eye in the tavern and when he read the final words, the crowd cheered and pounded their hands together so hard pain flashed across their faces. They showered him with coin and women reached for him, yearning to drown him in kisses and perfume. Men bowed and shouted for an encore, but Jossen stuffed the story into his cloak pocket and pushed his way through the throng, his head cast down.
Before he could reach the door, he felt a hand on his shoulder and her velvet voice flowed into his ear. “That, was true beauty.”
Jossen turned and there she was, more heavenly than before, donned in a white gown fit for a priest’s blessing of matrimony. Gessle leaned down and brushed her lips across his ear as she whispered, “take me with you.”
The carriage rode fast through the night. Gessle stroked her hand through his hair and Jossen felt the point of her nails brush his neck. He studied her and stammered for words. “I, I did not think you had come.”
Gessle leaned back upon the wooden bench and smiled as she looked out at the passing forest. “How could I have forsaken such potential? You had me last night, but I had to be sure it was not a fluke. You truly are the most talented storyteller I’ve ever bore witness to.”
Jossen bowed his head. “How can one be so kind, yet so beautiful?”
Gessle stroked his neck. “Only for you.”
They arrived at the shack and Jossen gave the carriage driver a silver coin. He thudded down upon the muck and offered his hand to Gessle. She took it and he led her down the steps and in through the door.
Jossen rummaged around the shack, lighting every candle he could find until the room was as luminous as a shrine. Gessle studied the shabby decor.
“It is not much.” Jossen produced a bottle of mead and two clay cups. “But perhaps once the printing press arrives, I may buy a home in town.”
“I think you should.” Gessle eyed the wolf-skin rug. “For the two of us. And whomever we may create.”
“Oh, yes,” Jossen stammered as he pulled at the mead cork. “Whatever you desire.”
“And this,” Gessle outstretched her hands, “is where you pen your stories?”
“Yes, yes,” Jossen strained, twisting the bottle. Finally, the cork came free. He poured the two mugs. “This is where I write my stories.”
Gessle strode forward, picked up one of the mugs, and downed it. “Then I need to see what more you can do.”
She pressed her hands against his chest and pushed him backwards. Stumbling, Jossen landed upon the straw bedding. Within, the rats squeaked.
Before him, Gessle brought her long nails to the straps of her dress.
Jossen gulped, clutched his chest, and felt the notebook in his pocket.
Gessle pulled the straps to the side, and the dress fell away. Thin, porous wings sprouted from her back filling the room. Her face elongated and contorted, her ears growing points. Her pupils glowed with golden fire and when she spoke, her voice was a booming thunderclap that made the mausoleum of candles flicker.
“WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER.”
Jossen screamed and pushed further onto the bedding.
One long, clawed arm shot out, grabbed him by the neck, and lifted him into the air. His stubby legs quivered as her grip closed around his windpipe. Gessle’s mouth gaped wide, exposing pointed teeth.
“TELL ME NOW.”
Jossen’s vision swirled with the white, flickering candlelight. He raised one pudgy hand and pointed at the rug.
Gessle hurled him at the pelt and he landed hard enough to crack the floorboards. He tried to crawl away, pulling the pelt with him and exposing the locks, when a clawed foot dug into his back and pinned him to the ground.
Jossen struggled beneath the grip, slunk a hand into his pocket, and produced the keys. He unlocked them one by one. When the last metal lock fell aside, Gessle reached down, wrenched the trapdoor open, and tossed him into the black. Jossen fell hard, struck his head upon the stone, and descended into a pit of unconsciousness.
When he woke, his vision spun. He attempted to move his hands, but they were held tight by metal bracers. Jossen blinked through the pain and caught a single glimpse of light pouring down from the opening in the floor. In the beam, he saw two silhouettes hovering on fluttering wings. Then, the trapdoor fell, the lock clicked, and his world was consumed by black.