The man who rode ahead of our party was dressed in armour, dented and scraped from scores of campaigns. I could not tell if he wore it simply out of habit, or to deliberately intimidate me. I suspected it was a matter of both impulses acting in synergy.
He was the Lord Executioner. I had been told the title referred to him being chief executioner of the king’s will, rather than specifically the man who wielded the axe. But since King Gorvan was a notoriously unforgiving ruler, I could not help inferring that executioner was an appropriate title, in all its permutations. He glanced back at me, one eye lost behind a black patch. Grinning wolfishly he gestured me forward.
Reluctantly I twitched my horse’s reins till I paced beside him.
“It’s not far,” he said, his voice a sardonic growl, “Master Builder.” He said that last with an edge of contempt. As a builder, my profession was to erect things; as a soldier, his was to tear them down. “They tell me the palace garden you erected in the kingdom of Maropah is lovely.”
I cleared my throat, knowing I should not rise to the bait. “I’m told the keep I designed for Dane Arkah has withstood all comers—including your own most valiant army.”
He squinted at me with his one eye. “That was yours?” He thought for a moment, then nodded to himself, as if marginally more impressed. “And now you are to build a bridge?”
“I build what I am commissioned to build.”
“You’ll have your work cut out for you, I’ll say that.”
The brush fell away just then, revealing a churning river cutting across our path.
“There’s more to nations than warring, more’s the pity. King Gorvan wants the trade routes expanded, and you can’t get a caravan through that.”
Rising imperiously from the swirling water were conspicuous outcroppings of hewed rock. It took me a moment to infer their significance. “A castle was here?”
“Aye, centuries ago, so legend says. There was some matter of a curse and all was washed away.”
Speaking more to myself than him, I said, “I suppose some of the sturdier remains could be incorporated as supports for the bridge, but others will have to be hauled away to allow for the construction of proper supports.” I sighed ruefully. “An undertaking, indeed.” I turned to him. “A curse, you say?”
“I’ve marched troops through here on occasion, and haven’t seen much that couldn’t be explained. But, then,” he flashed his wolfish grin again, “I did not set out to disturb the grounds.” Wheeling his horse about, he called, “Good luck, Master Builder.” And his ironic laugh lingered long after he had vanished over the hill.
And so my company set about their tasks, each man knowing his trade. The speed of the eddies had to be measured, soundings taken, and the treacherous parts of the river marked with pennants. Once I identified the particular idiosyncrasies of the beast facing me, and knew what local stone and wood were available, I could settle on a design. The hardest part would be clearing the ruins. But I had tackled worse and my crew was experienced.
I thought only a little about the mention of a curse.
Wearing waxed hip boots, I waded through the briskly flowing river as my men fanned out about their tasks. Fortunately it was the dry season—construction would have been nigh impossible with the river at its acme during the rainy months. Lurching, I grabbed onto one of the shards of rock rising from the river. The castle may well have been destroyed generations ago, but its remains stood defiantly. The architect in me admired those remains’ resilience. I also felt a sentimental twinge knowing I would have to tear most of them down.
Pushing away from the rock I leaned into the current, wading clumsily toward a more peculiar outcropping that seemed narrow, like a pillar. Ignoring the river current rolling past my legs I shielded my eyes against the sun and stared.
“What is it?”
I inclined my head at Ourath-Kjell as she waded toward me, relying on her staff to keep her upright. An old woman with white hair and sharp features, she served my company as our resident sorceress—for when engineering required more than just a hammer and pulley.
“It doesn’t appear to have been a support pillar,” I answered, glancing about at the ghosts of long-crumbled walls. “It looks as though it may have been the centrepiece of a room.”
“I came to tell you—there is magic hereabouts,” Ourath-Kjell said casually.
I looked at her, concerned.
“Not dangerous, not yet, but there is a presence about these ruins. We must be cautious.”
“I’ll tell the men,” I said, hoping it would not complicate things too much. She had had to perform exorcisms before. But it did not always take.
I returned to assessing the mysterious stone, slapping it experimentally. Drawing my knife, I rubbed it against the object and was rewarded by chunks crumbling away. Clawing with my fingers at what I loosened with my blade, I began to uncover the true stone beneath. “This is just accumulated dirt and grime,” I said, excited by my discovery. As I scraped away more of the covering, it became apparent what it was I had found. “It’s a statue!” I clambered up onto what I now knew was a pedestal and, flush with triumph, began scraping at where the face would be.
Finally I dropped down, landing heavily in the river, feeling the disturbed water surge over the tops of my wading boots, soaking my stockings beneath. I ignored the sensation as I stared at the face I had uncovered. I felt like an explorer charting an unknown land as I gazed upon features that had not been seen by mortal eyes for generations.
“She’s beautiful,” I muttered.
I turned at the uttering of my name, in time to see Ourath-Kjell sway. I caught her. Her small, dry eyes stared at me a moment. “The magic just grew very strong.”
Haltingly, I looked up at the statue of the unknown woman.
I stood on the shore as ropes were looped about one of the stones and knotted to the saddles of waiting horses. Ourath-Kjell was at my side. She nudged me.
I followed her gaze up the hill. Perched upon his steed, a shimmering silhouette in the morning sun, was the Lord Executioner. I could not make out his expression, but he touched his hand to his head by way of acknowledgement, and I nodded curtly in return. Then I turned back to the matter at hand.
The horses surged up the bank, the lines snapping taut behind them. The stone stood impassively for a moment, as though oblivious to our efforts to relocate it. Then air bubbles began breaching the surface. The water grew murky as the silt stirred. The stone trembled, then began lurching forward, as though an old man gripped by the ague.
I grinned—then gasped in horror as a worker lost his footing on the slippery riverbottom. The current tumbled him round, throwing him beneath the massive stone as it slid forward. His scream was cut off by the water closing about his head, and the river turned scarlet.
“Gods!” I shouted as men rushed into the water. But it was too late.
No one spoke the word curse, but it was on everyone’s tongue. The death was the most devastating of the recent mishaps, but there had been minor inconveniences as well. And that black arts had brought the castle low, generations back, was widely known.
As I sat in my tent that night, poring over designs by candlelight, the tent flap pushed aside. Ourath-Kjell hobbled in, an equally aged man shuffling behind her. I sat back. “Well?” I asked of this interruption.
“This is Barl,” she said. “He knows something of the legends of this place.”
“Indeed?” I leaned forward.
Ourath-Kjell gestured the old man forward. He doffed his feathered cap. “Well, good sir, it were long ago. Before me father’s father’s time. But there were a castle here, occupied by a good family, so they say, but not entirely a ‘clean’ family,” he said, darting a glance at Ourath-Kjell. “No offence, Ma’am.”
“He means they had hill people blood in their line,” she explained.
“True enough. But they did no harm. And they had a daughter, beautiful as the first blossom of spring, so it’s said.”
I smiled to myself—the stone face now had an identity, it seemed.
He went on. “This daughter attracted the eye of many a suitor, even with that, you know, hilly aspect in her background. One such suitor was a warlord. She rebuffed him and in a fit of rage, he slew her. And then he called on dark forces and sent her father’s castle into the river.”
I stared, expecting further elaboration. Instead he stood, twisting his cap between gnarled hands. “There must be more to the story. Why did he raze the castle? Why erect the statue?”
“That’s all I know, Sir,” he said.
I pondered for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. See that he gets a good meal before you send him home,” I said to Ourath-Kjell.
The old man grinned and returned his cap. “Thankee, Sir.”
After a time she returned to stand in the doorway. Eventually, she issued a dry sigh. “I could attempt a cleansing spell.”
“Which might irk whatever spirits lurk about even more. No, I have another idea.”
I spread my modified design upon the table, small stones used to secure the corners. The Lord Executioner stood back, powerful arms folded across his metal-encased breast. A smaller man, King Gorvan’s aesthetic advisor no doubt, leaned over as I indicated my choices. “The bridge will be two wagons wide, allowing passage to and from. I elected not to go with a cover as it attracts highwaymen and, during the summer days, can be quite stifling.”
The advisor nodded approvingly. “And the materials?”
“Stone for the foundations. A mixture of wood and stone for the supports.”
“There are many fine minerals in the area. Quartz, some stores of zircon imported from the east, and other stones.”
“To support a bridge?” I said dubiously.
He laughed. “For ornamentation. As I’m sure you’re aware, clear or translucent gems used over more conventional stone can be quite attractive. Struck by the light, they can create an impression of an aura.”
With my quill I dutifully made a note in the margin.
“And this?” he asked, pointing beside the bridge.
“That,” I said, smiling, “I envision as the centrepiece. A statue of a beautiful woman whose story is part of the local colour. Perhaps the bridge could be named ‘The Maiden’s Path’ or something.”
The Lord Executioner’s voice growled from behind him, “The bridge is to be named Gorvan’s Bridge.”
The smaller man shrugged at me, almost apologetically. “Still, I like the concept. You have a design for the woman in mind?”
“It’s already there, a part of the ruins.”
“Splendid,” he said, clapping his hands. “I’m sure the king will be pleased.”
As I glanced past his shoulder, the Lord Executioner’s visage was less readable.
There was little in the way of mishaps over the next few weeks. Had my decision not to disturb the statue deflected the wrath of the ancient curse? Or was good fortune attributable to the sacks of garlic-smelling charms Ourath-Kjell had procured, which the workers wore about their necks?
I had not heard from King Gorvan about my designs, but I assumed no news was tacit approval.
I watched from the hill as one of the last of the obstructing stones was toppled in a foam of water while at my back I could hear the eager rasping of saws as beams were cut to size. I pulled my cloak about myself, my eyes lingering upon the statue in the centre of the river.
“What are you brooding about?” asked Ourath-Kjell, unheard in her approach.
I shrugged. “The old man’s story left questions unanswered.”
“And you want to know those answers?”
I turned to her, realizing that I might be asking for things I did not fully comprehend. “Is there a way?”
She frowned. “There is the dreamwalk. But you might find it troubling, disorienting. Dangerous.”
The moonlight upon the hill was startlingly sharp. My crew had retired to their tents, or returned to their homes in the local villages for the night, so that only Ourath-Kjell, myself, and two trusted aides stood among the breeze-tousled grass.
I lay upon the dew-damp ground, a cloak beneath me. My two assistants lit weird-smelling torches as Ourath-Kjell loomed over me, her old staff stabbing into the dirt just a hand’s width from my head. She began to chant and, as she had instructed me, I joined in, echoing her words. This continued for some minutes, somewhat tediously. I suppose I had anticipated frightening sights; flashes of lightning or cracks of thunder. Instead, I lay upon damp grass, muttering nonsense fed me by an old woman.
“I can barely keep my eyes open,” I said at last, interrupting. “How much longer?”
“Then sleep,” she cooed. “Sleep, and we will watch over you.”
That isn’t what I meant, I wanted to say. I don’t want to sleep, I just want to finish the ritual. But my tongue felt thick in my mouth, and my eyes fluttered shut.
When they opened, I was alone upon the hill.
I thought it was damned impolite of them to have just wandered off. Clearly I had dozed longer than Ourath-Kjell had intended, disrupting the ritual, and she had returned to her tent.
Rising stiffly, I brushed off my cloak, surprised to discover it was dry, despite the dew. I don’t know what it was that attracted my attention, or why I moved toward the river, rather than back toward my camp, but I did so. As I crested the hill, I inhaled sharply.
Beyond was not the river, but a mighty castle resting upon solid ground. I staggered back, my poor brain grappling with this vision. I wanted to run back to my camp, but stopped. Obviously my camp was no longer there. The spell worked!
I started to laugh, a tad hysterically, then clapped hands over my mouth. Then I remembered that Ourath-Kjell had said I would exist in this time only as an unseen spirit. I could laugh like a fool if I wanted. But suddenly I did not feel like laughing as I remembered why I had come. Squaring my shoulders, I started toward the castle.
The gate was wide open—odd given the hour. Servants manned the entrance but did not perceive me. Restless horses were tethered in the receiving hall, suggesting the castle was entertaining visitors. I hurried my steps and slipped through a door into the main hall beyond.
I stopped. A dozen armoured men stood in the centre of the chamber, while a lord and lady sat at the far end. Their servants stood about, some boldly holding swords. I observed all of this in a moment. But what truly caught my eye was the radiant statue that was the centrepiece of the room.
Seeing it here, as it was meant to be seen, in its place of honour, was breathtaking.
Then my eye was caught by a flicker of movement by one side of the long chamber. In the shadows beneath a balcony that encircled the chamber, a figure seemed to be furtively observing the proceedings. Curious, I approached, confident in my anonymity.
Suddenly the figure whirled at my approach and a woman’s voice said, “Who are you?”
I stopped, stunned. “You can see me?”
The woman stepped from the shadows and I inhaled sharply. I had come face to face with the figure that would dog my thoughts centuries hence, a face I knew only as it was rendered in cold stone. As captivating as the statue was, it was as the moon is to the radiance of the sun when compared to the living woman. “You—you can see me?” she said.
I stared, not comprehending the question. Then I glanced at the statue. I was wrong when I named her the ‘living’ woman. “You’re a—a ghost?”
“Aren’t you?” she demanded.
I started to object, then reconsidered. “Let’s say I’m a spirit.”
“Very well, Master Spirit,” she said, then curtsied a little playfully. “I am Ellah-Band. Or, at least, I was.” Her face grew dark as she glanced at the party of men.
I turned, attempting to discern the nature of the argument.
The leader of the soldiers was shouting. “This statue is an affront! To erect it, and here, where all visitors will see, is a base insult.”
“Is it not enough that you robbed me of my only daughter?” asked the lord of the castle, sounding not so much angry as weary. “Will you rob us of her memory, as well?”
I glanced at the daughter. Without looking at me, she said, “Yes. He’s the one who killed me.”
The warlord of legend, I mused.
“Aye, I slew your harlot of a daughter,” snarled he. “She was great with a child that was not my own. She was my wife, and she betrayed me with a travelling minstrel.”
I glanced at the woman again, surprised. This was not part of the legends.
She darted a look at me, then shrugged apologetically. “He sang so very sweetly,” she said.
“And for that you slew her? You base varlet!” shouted the lord, rising unsteadily to his feet.
“She was a whore, and my honour needed to be satisfied. Now, that honour is once more being mocked, by this statue, which reminds everyone of my humiliation. I will not stand for it. I will raze this castle—either by strength of men, or by dark arts. But mark my words, it will fall, and I will erase her memory from now until eternity!” And so saying he stormed from the room, his men falling in easily behind him.
“He won’t, will he?” she asked fearfully. “Not my father’s castle?”
I made to speak, then remembered that I was observing things that had already transpired. “Did you love the minstrel?” I asked.
“I was but seventeen. I’m not sure I know what love is. I don’t think I loved my husband. And now…now I will never love anyone,” she whispered. “And my poor father’s home will be razed, and my beautiful statue forgotten…”
Even as she spoke she began to fade before my eyes, and I thought perhaps her spirit was dissolving. Then I realized the castle itself was evaporating. Suddenly my legs were wet and I was standing hip deep in water, an almost full moon hovering overhead. I looked around, disoriented, and spied Ourath-Kjell standing upon the shore, my two men at her side, torches still smouldering in their hands.
She gestured me over. “You’ve been sleepwalking. Come to shore and we’ll get you dry.”
I glanced over at the statue as the water coursed obliviously around its base, trailing silver ribbons of reflected moonlight. Pulling my cloak about myself for comfort, I waded back to shore.
Strangely, in the morning, I felt uplifted. What I’d witnessed the night before, though sad, had nonetheless assured me my plan was correct. The maiden would be remembered—through her statue, which all travellers would see. The crime of the past, if not corrected, could at least be muted, and the jealous warlord’s efforts to erase her memory undone.
If only things were so simple.
As I looked over supply lists two days later, seated under a sapling tree, a shadow fell upon me. I looked up at the Lord Executioner and the king’s advisor.
The smaller man said, “King Gorvan is most pleased with your efforts.”
“I’m glad,” I said, rising.
“There has been a slight alteration to your design,” said the Lord Executioner flatly.
“Oh, yes, I should’ve mentioned,” said the smaller man absently. “As the bridge is to be called Gorvan’s Bridge, our liege feels it appropriate that he be represented.”
I stared, a small smile half-frozen on my face. “I’m sorry, I don’t—?”
“Instead of the statue of some unknown girl, Gorvan desires his image be erected in its stead. He feels it will provide greater interest to travellers.”
“But,” I stammered, “the girl is part of local legend. If you only knew the story—”
“It is called Gorvan’s Bridge, and Gorvan should be depicted,” said the Lord Executioner.
I wanted to snarl at him that it was not I who had decided to call it Gorvan’s Bridge. But I bit back my words. “But what of the maiden’s statue? It’s stood for generations.”
The little man shrugged. “Tear it down. Other than that, Gorvan is most pleased with your work. Yes, indeed.”
Once, in the east, scouting locations for a watchtower I had been commissioned to build, I had stumbled into some quicksand. A guide who was with me pulled me free, and no harm was done, save to my clothes. But that feeling of sinking helplessly rushed back to me now.
My plan had been capriciously revised by a self-indulgent despot. I stared bitterly at the portraitures that had been delivered to my camp, depicting King Gorvan in romanticized glory, upon which I was to base my design for his statue. He looked younger in his portraits than I knew him to be, and wiser than I suspected he was.
The work on the bridge itself was nearing completion, yet I procrastinated.
Why? It was not my obligation to right ancient wrongs! Thanks to Ourath-Kjell’s charms and spells, the streak of bad luck had long since been broken, so it was not fear of restless spirits that filled me with such reticence.
But I had seen her. Heard the music in her voice, the sadness of the maiden who had never known true love. Perhaps I had even grown to love her, if a man might love a dream. And now I was being asked to betray that love, and leave her spirit restless for eternity.
I stood upon the now-completed bridge staring at the statue, ripples in the water catching firefly sparkles of moonlight. Normally, when a job neared completion, I looked upon my efforts with pride. But I was barely conscious of my great bridge that stood where no bridge had stood before. For there was now no longer an excuse to delay.
Heavy footfalls sounded beside me and I glanced over to see the Lord Executioner. “Rather late for an inspection,” I said wearily.
He shrugged. “Gorvan grows restless to view his bridge.”
“He sent you?”
I stared, momentarily bemused. The Lord Executioner was full of surprises if he had come, on his own, to warn me of his king’s displeasure. “I thought you didn’t respect builders.”
He shrugged again. “I respect a man of principle.” He stared at the old statue. “But a pragmatist lives longer.”
“Perhaps if I explained to Gorvan myself—?”
“Gorvan is like a snake—once he has an idea between his teeth, it is difficult to open his jaws again. I knew as soon as you mentioned your idea what Gorvan would demand. I’ve served him too long not to anticipate his whims.” He spat into the river absently. “I won’t pretend to understand your sense of obligation to the spirits of the past, but Gorvan wishes a statue of himself, and a statue there shall be. He is a vain man and will destroy any obstacle to his desires. The only thing he would not tear down is a statue of himself.” He chuckled. “Now that would stand for eternity. But everything else,” he nodded at the stone woman, “he will not hesitate to raze. And anyone who would thwart his will shall likewise be cut down—and I will do the chopping.”
I stared mutely at him.
He strode away. “Do not hesitate too long, Master Builder.”
My stomach was a knot, and something wet lurked at the corner of my eye. I noted the way the water broke against unseen stones and how, if the light caught it just right, the stone beneath was momentarily revealed. I stared, something elusive flittering through my mind, like a fish that refused to be caught.
And then I snagged it. Slapping my palms against the sturdy rail of my bridge, I turned and raced toward shore.
A week later, the sun was barely burning the grey from the horizon as I rode at the head of a twelve-man entourage. King Gorvan himself was at my side, the Lord Executioner next to him. Gorvan stared grimly ahead as our horses made their way along the road. “This hour is ungodly,” he remarked peevishly.
“Any later and the day’s traffic will begin in earnest,” I said. “I knew you’d want to see your bridge in its unspoilt majesty.”
“We could have closed the road.”
“The point of the bridge is to encourage traffic, my Lord,” said the Lord Executioner.
Gorvan frowned but said nothing more. My hands were sweaty as I clutched the reins, my breathing shallow. We approached the rise that fronted upon the river and, without any pause to acknowledge the moment, the king urged his horse forward and the rest of us kept pace. In a staggered line we spread out along the crest.
I sat very still, heart pounding in my chest.
The bridge was more serviceable than audacious, but it was a fine design. The newly laid planks, not yet dulled from the thousands of tramping feet and hooves that the coming months and years would bring, gleamed with an almost ivory glow in the dawn.
Gorvan cared little for that. Instead, his gaze moved automatically to the statue that sparkled in the breast of the river. “Gods,” he whispered.
The statue stood imperiously as the waters coursed unheeded about its feet, the royal head staring upward, the arms akimbo on the hips. In shape and pattern it was not especially novel or spectacular. But in substance…
“What…what is it made of?” Gorvan asked, his eyes dazzled by the twinkling of his lifeless twin.
“Quartz, amethyst, some zircon. Anything that could be acquired and that would catch the light. You are a mighty king,” I said, lathering it on thickly. “Your brilliance lights the kingdom, so could your statue do less for the river?”
The statue of Gorvan twinkled in the dim morning twilight, as though made of starstuff.
Ourath-Kjell, who rode behind me, coughed delicately and muttered warningly, “The sun.”
I looked up and realized the sky was brightening, the sun rising higher on the horizon. Hastily, I said, “My Lord, the local village is most pleased to offer you their hospitality after your long journey here.”
The king stared at his scintillant doppelganger, like a child entranced by a butterfly.
“Food and a place to rest before you return home,” I repeated.
He glanced back at his statue, then at me, then nodded, grinning toothily. “You’ve done well, Master Builder. Exceptionally so. The delay, though trying to our patience, was worth it.” Wheeling his horse about, he started back the way we’d come, his entourage at his heels.
As he passed me, the Lord Executioner muttered, “I’m glad I did not have to kill you, Master Builder. But, oddly, I’m disappointed that you capitulated.” And then he was following after his king.
Ourath-Kjell and I remained. I glanced back at the river just as the dazzling light of the sun struck its breast, the radiance, like fire, racing across the rippling surface. The sun struck the statue of Gorvan, powerful rays cutting easily through the translucent stones we had used in its making, and in moments, where once a statue of King Gorvan stood, there was now revealed a stone form of a beautiful young maiden, encased in a nimbus glow created by the transparent and translucent gems we had shaped around her form.
In twilight hours, Gorvan’s statue would command the river, but when full light lay upon it, whether in day, or by moonlight, it was a statue of a maiden that travellers would see.
Suddenly a startled laugh erupted behind me. I turned to see the Lord Executioner seated upon his mount, returning to make some final comment, and discovering my secret. He laughed till tears ran down his cheek. At last he wiped at his eyes with a gloved hand. “I underestimated your gall, Master Builder.”
I shrugged. “It was the king’s own advisor who suggested I use crystals in my designs.”
He bared his teeth in his now-familiar wolf-like grin. “Aye, I recall. And what do you think King Gorvan will do when word reaches him of the trick you pulled? Not today, or tomorrow. But sooner or later he will hear of what you’ve done here.”
“And is Gorvan the kind of man who can order the destruction of his own visage?”
The Lord Executioner’s face went blank as he considered my words, then he looked at the statue again. He roared again with laughter. Knowing the maiden’s statue was encased within his own, vain Gorvan had insured her protection from his wrath. “You are clever, Master Builder.” He wheeled his horse about. “But I suggest you not tarry too long in Gorvan’s kingdom, unless you can encase yourself in his image as well.” And he trotted off after his lord.
Nor did I tarry, but assembled my crew that day and moved on to other lands, other commissions.
Gorvan did not have the statue destroyed, even when he learned of my “jest” —he could not bring himself to order his own image defiled. However, I knew enough to avoid his borders myself, as I enjoyed no such protection.
And though the bridge was officially named Gorvan’s Bridge, I heard over the years that it had acquired another name, more commonly known to travellers and merchants who had seen the glowing woman upon the flowing water.
To them, it was always known as the Maiden’s Path.
Story copyright © 2017 by D.K. Latta
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Michelle MB
D.K. Latta lives in Canada and has had a few dozen SF and fantasy stories published over the years. He’s also written reviews of graphic novels, movies, and books, and blogged extensively about Canadian film, TV, and cultural identity, including contributing pieces to Huffington Post Canada. Recently his creative passion has been focused on The Masques Chronicles—collections of adventure and suspense stories imagining a decades-spanning Canadian superhero pantheon.
Michelle MB is an aspiring digital artist with a habit of frequently travelling to and exploring other dimensions. Unfortunately, bringing back samples and souvenirs from these places has proven to be extremely difficult, and much gets lost during travel. She has been known to haunt locations all over Europe and North America, but is currently based in the United Kingdom, where she is studying how to better create bridges between these universes, so that more of the fantastical can be experienced here.