The Cairn of House Aescritor
by Gerald Warfield
A low hill broke the forest canopy. At its base, where woods yielded to barren slopes, a solitary gelding waited, tethered to a sapling.
Atop the hill, a woman slumped on a faded tapestry, her velvet dress puffed around her. She drew a lace shawl close about her shoulders, but it was ineffective against the coming night. Before her rested a kitchen knife with a worn, wooden handle.
Head bowed, she did not see the pale specter rise from the ground. Chill winds gathering as the last glimmer of sunlight carried a rasping voice. “My lady, you have made a mistake to come here.”
She looked up, her eyes wide, her hand at her throat. “Are... are you the Emerald Knight?”
“You know me? Then all the more astonishing that you visit my cairn at night. If you desired but a glimpse of my personage you could have observed in safety at the bottom of the cairn.”
“No. I’ve come to join you and the rest of my family.” She glanced the length of the apparition. “If you are indeed, the Emerald Knight.”
“Whether you are a descendant or a mere serving wench, it will soon not matter.” He extended a skeletal hand.
The woman leaned forward and snatched up the knife. The ghost laughed, but she grasped the handle with both hands turning the point to her own chest. “I do not fear you.” She swallowed as if to steady her voice. “By my own hands I have come to deliver my spirit to the cairn Aescritor.”
The ghost leaned closer, tilting his ragged head in puzzlement. “Few rush into my arms so willingly.”
“If you are the Emerald Knight, then you are my uncle of many generations past. Yet how do I know? I do not see your infamous sword.”
He stiffened his back and towered above her. “The dead have little need for swords or other trappings of life.”
“Yet you live in splendor in your cairn, its marble halls alive with the laughter of wine and the rustle of silk.”
“I’m afraid the ‘splendor’ of my halls is somewhat exaggerated. And surely, for those who live, the flesh of the quick has more appeal.”
“It is from the flesh of the quick that I retreat, for tomorrow I am to be betrothed in a loveless alliance. Instead, I will end my torment now and enter the halls of my ancestors.”
The ghost laughed, a more pleasant, indulgent sound than before. “I fear you’ve been misled by the songs of troubadours or perhaps the gossip of servants. Almost, I would stay my hand for one who comes so unwittingly.”
She pressed the point of the knife to her chest above her bodice, and a red drop of blood welled on her pale skin. “I am desperate, fair knight. I enter your domain whether you welcome me or not.”
“Hold,” he spoke kindly. “This mound conceals neither halls of marble, nor strains of music, nor the gentle rustle of silk but a mass grave.”
“Still, I would abide among ghosts of honorable men rather than the vain charade of Castle Aescritor.”
The ghost shook with dry laughter. “How naïve, dear niece. Everything about you bespeaks incompetence: your lace shawl, worthless against the night air, that poor excuse for a knife, and your ridiculous imaginings of the grave.”
“You will not dissuade me, uncle.”
“Then come, I will show you the great cairn of Aescritor. Gaze upon its grandeur, and then tell me of your desire to enter herein.”
At an exaggerated wave of the knight’s hand, a portal swung open near the bottom of the hill, and the lady meekly followed the specter to the threshold and into the dark interior.
Bones. Everywhere bones mixed with earth, and armor, and rust.
“Here, mold claims all,” the knight said. “The finest silks, the reddest lips.”
About her, the earth moved as bones stirred.
The knight gestured. “Rise not, my comrades. The lady is here but to behold our piteous existence.”
The bones quieted, sinking back into the earth.
“Gaze now upon my palatial halls.” And with a wave of his hand a faint glow illuminated the interior.
Cracks fissured the dank walls. Roots hung from the low ceiling, and the odor of decay thickened the air.
In the small room before them, a casket hewn of rock had partly collapsed. Within, lay a skeleton adorned with shreds of a rotted uniform and a broadsword, its blade rusted through. An emerald near its hilt glittered in the unnatural light.
“There, my dear. Proof of my identity.”
The lady knelt at the edge of the sepulcher and peered inside. “I see remains of bravery too soon forgotten,” she said, touching the crumbling brocade of a sleeve. “Only the stone for which you are named still glitters brightly.”
Beyond the casket, the knight continued down the passageway. “I cannot say your words leave me unmoved, and for that you have my gratitude. But the remainder of the cairn is not as...”
The lady had turned and hurried toward the entrance.
“Aha, you have come to your senses... What? My emerald! Stop!”
She fled through the tunnel, skeletal hands rising around her, clutching for her ankles. The knight pursued her with speed. His icy hand raking her back.
But her momentum propelled her though the portal and the few steps to the edge of the woods. Her horse reared in fright.
The knight cried out from the earth, “My emerald! You deceived me!”
She turned, gasping for breath, eyes flashing in the moonlight. “All too easy, vain knight. This stone will save my family.”
“But the betrothal you do not want.”
“To one of my father’s creditors?” She spat. “Now, there is no need. With this...” She clutched the emerald. “I shall stay the money-lenders’ hands from our estates — and from me.”
Slipping the gem into her pocket, she mounted the gelding, and soon the wails of the knight faded behind her.
Copyright © 2015 by Gerald Warfield