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The Crowned Pauper

Heavy is the Head

By Bronson FleetPublished 2 years ago 13 min read
The Crowned Pauper
Photo by Nathan Mcgregor on Unsplash

The soft tapping had not stopped since she first came. Her and her cataclysmic, ruinous, fatal pet. It began with a curled fist tapping on my bolted door and then continued long after upon the window of my bedroom.

I had never received a visitor here in all the many long years living in the valley of destruction. Beneath the sickly yellow moon and the shadow of ancient peaks that bore no name.

"Take the barn," I said from behind my oaken door, my heart beating like a fleshy drum. "I use it little and will be no bother. Stay a day or two, and then be gone."

That was a lie. I had never used it. And in my reckoning, never would. As long as she remained there and interrupted my silence no more all would be well.

All was not well, for the tapping continued. Tap, tap, tap. Stop, please. Rap, rap, rap. I'm begging you!

But, it would not stop. I left my bedroom last night, for the woman's pet, with its hideous yellow eyes sat on the sill and would not leave. Its sickled beak pecking away at the thin glass that staved off the frigid night air. I sobbed silently, begging in whispered prayer for an end to the madness.

In darkness...my home is always dark, whether night or day. For the light of the sun cannot penetrate the chitinous fog that has fallen over this land, and the light of a lamp burns my eyes.

In darkness, I slunk away from my molded mattress and closed the door of my nightly chamber. Then, carefully, moved down the stairs and rested upon my ottoman. For a blessed moment, silence had returned to my home.

Tap, Tap, Tap. Each successive knock worse to me than the snap of a bone. "Oh! I'm drowning!" I cried and fell to the floor, drool spilling from my crescent lips and stinging, salted water pouring from my eyes.

It was hard to breathe, for each tap seemed to puncture my lungs like a needle into a balloon. When breath did come, spiteful words came with it in short, incoherent bursts. "Away, away!" "So cruel...hateful!" "I will not, I WILL NOT!"

But my words mattered little to the horned creature pounding upon my facade. Instead, they seemed to encourage.

I stood, screaming, running through the dark towards the only thing that still gave me comfort. My refuge and justification. The brick and mortar that defended my mind and fortified my heart.

I ambled through a cobwebbed hallway, between the ajar door of the inner study, and slid aside the tall bookcase holding my books of rotten knowledge.

Beyond it was a sanctum of the oldest construction. Six sides of mossy brick laid when man was still young. And at its center point, a dais of pure black stone that seemed to sweat and even breathe. My eyes turned then to the item that laid upon it. Through heaving breath, I approached its glowing form slowly.

With awe, I bowed before it, then reached out with trembling fingers to touch its silky frame.

Encased within the picture's wooden border and beneath its dusted glass, was a scene shaped by leaded paint. A bipedal figure stood, man or woman I did not know, back bowed with malnutrition and age, clothed by filthy rags. Upon its head was a bronze crown, polished gleaming, stained by the blood of conquest.

My eyes drank the scene like desert water, and then I clutched it closely to my chest. It was small, but heavy as gold. A great burden but also salvation.

Rap, rap, rap, echoed the owl's insistent tapping. "Even here?" I muttered helplessly. Tap, tap, tap, my home began to rumble and shake in time with the melodic beating.

The sanctum's brick began shaking and cracking. Dust, unmoved for generations lifted with the vibrations and attacked my senses.

I closed my eyes and sobbed weakly, the picture frame still clutched in my desperate fingers. "What do you want?" I finally whispered, and at once the shaking stopped. I continued, "Oh, torturer, you have succeeded. Ask your favor."

The world was silent for just a moment, and my tears dried upon my cheeks. I waited with bated breath.

Tap, tap, tap. Come, tap, tap. Come, to, tap. Come, to, me. Come to me. COME TO ME.

I walked as if in a daze out of the unholy sanctum like a guilty wretch does towards the gallows. Perhaps I had know the truth of things from the first moment she and that devilish pet had appeared at my stoop. That my world of dark and quiet peace would be shattered forever. But I am not a creature meant for hard truths.

Come to me, the horned owl demanded over and over again as I strode back through the cobwebbed hall and past my ottoman. In one hand I clung to the wood framed painting, and in the other I held the knob of my rusted bolt. The lock screamed as it slid with terrifying finality.

Without my prompting, the door swung inward, open to the cruelty of the syrupy fog and hungry foliage.

I stepped forward though the gaping portal, and the horned demon was gone. But to my right, I saw the glow of a burning candle peaking through the thinning siding of the barn. She waited there for me, she and that hook beaked flier.

I heard a slam from behind as I made my way through soft detritus, my home had closed to me forever. Whatever waited ahead, whether a god or a devil, that door would not open for me again.

It took only a moment, for it was not far, to reach the entry of the outbuilding. It's bowed wood splintered by the appetite of termites. All was quiet within, but my fear of the place was so great it might've been easier to approach the heart of the sun.

With a sunken head and a resigned sob, I pulled the handle and slid the barrier aside. As soon as the obstacle had been diverted, a force pulled me forward, my legs stumbling to keep up, and then I saw her.

There she waited at the room's center, the owl swaying rhythmically on her shoulder. If I was lucky, I would've died then and there under the gaze of her visage, but, there are no lucky souls in the Valley of Destruction.

She was robed by black lace. Her decaying body revealed by moth eaten holes in the once fine material. Her hollow eyes dug into my flesh like a gravedigger's spade, and her stringy hair slithered like venomous snakes.

I crossed my arms over my chest and squeezed the image of the crowned pauper, then lifted it to block the view of the corpse woman. When eyes fell upon it, my mouth drew agape in a silent scream. The image had vanished, and all that remained was its black background painted by heavy oil.

I dropped it to the earthen floor where its glass shattered. Suddenly, my head grew heavy, and warm liquid began running down my brow. I lifted my hands and felt a crown upon my head stuck as if pinned by needles.

Help, oh please help, I wanted to scream, but my throat was dry and cracking. I pulled my fingers from the crown upon my head and wiped the blood upon the dirty rags that had replaced my dampened nightgown.

"Here," the woman said, and so I did. Half compelled and half insane. The owl upon her shoulder dancing wildly now, casting otherworldly shadows onto the wall behind it.

In an instant, I was there. Before her and her pet. Close enough to kiss or to kill. The canyonous wrinkles surrounding her thin lips deepened further as they widened into a cruel smile. I closed my eyes.

I could smell her though. Smell her rot. It entered through my breath and took hold of my flesh like a thousand fisherman hooks. The owl frenzied further, its wickedly sharp talons ripping the flesh from the old woman's shoulder. The candle's flame guttered as if blowing in a strong wind, though the air was still.

"Know me?" the being asked slowly, titling her head just the slightest bit. She spoke with a gutteral rasp, like a child raised by wolves.

"I know you not!" I screamed and closed my eyes.

"Eyes open. Know me?"

"Please! End this! I know you not!"

"Open and SEE!"

My eyes opened, and I saw for the first time. Her shape was familiar, the curve of her cheek, the lobe of her ears, the pout of her lips. She was sorrow incarnate. Pure destruction. More a hurricane than woman. I knew her. Woe to me, I knew her well. For she was the keeper of the valley and the haunter of my dreams.

She smiled as the light left my eyes. "Have you come for me at last?" I asked, the crown growing heavier and heavier upon my brow.

"Come for you. Come for you. Crown. Crown whisper, and I come." The owl on her shoulder began pecking at her temple, taking flesh with every nip, though she seemed to feel it not, even as heavy black blood began pouring from the wounds.

"Please no..." I began sobbing again, the crown so heavy it threatened to snap my porosised spine. But my pleas only hit her like sweet nectar, and she began to laugh.

"Please!" I screamed and raised my hands to the bronze circlet, ripping it upwards with all my strength, but it would not budge. I sank lower as her laughter rose, and from outside I heard the hell hounds from the pit of the valley come to join in her unholy joy.

She laughed and they howled, louder and louder until my ears threatened to burst. The candle grew brighter and hotter and danced in time with the music of the woman's triumph.

I tried to run, but my feet were held still, by magic or fear I did not know. The crown and the rags clung to me like muscle to bone. Once my only justification, my salvation and shame, now they would be my end.

Suddenly, the woman lifted her arms wide as an acrobat, and her pet was knocked from her shoulder. Before it hit the ground, its wings spread and it began circling above my head. A buzzard waiting for its meat.

She was still a moment, her arms far too long for her diminutive frame, and then, fast as swooping hawk, she plunged his arthritic fingers into the flesh of her chest and began to pull.

Lace and flesh ripped as one as her central cavity was torn asunder. I watched in horror, but could not turn away. There was no bone to speak of, for she was not a woman, only hate in human form. Instead, beneath the thin veneer of humanity, there were the plagues of Exodus. Locusts and maggot and flies. Long legs of sleeping spiders, and the deathly waters of the river Styx.

I screamed but my voice was lost in the chorus of the damned. Her laughter and the hounds outside overpowering me completely. And still I pulled at the bronzen crown stitched upon my head. My fingers growing bloody with the effort.

Then, a gleam showed in the creature's open wound, and my screaming halted. It was a rubied dagger of hammered silver. The light of the candle bounced malevolently from its gems and seared my eyes.

The barn began to shake and rattle. Its wooden planks screaming with the effort of maintaining their own weight. The blade, now fully revealed, she plunged her stiletto fingers into the open cavity.

The woman gasped in ecstacy as she ripped it free and held its gleaming length up to reflect the light.

"My crown is too heavy," I wept in despair as the dagger was lowered and bent towards my heart, my clutching fingers numb and ruined. My world ending.

"No. No you're crown. Mine." And the knife plunged. Defeated, I waited for its kiss.

Tap, tap, tap. The rythmic noise came again, piercing through the symphony of howls and cracking wood like a bell. The womans weapon stopped a hair's width from my flesh, and for the first time, her eyes left me and traveled up to the owl tapping against the barn's central beam. It was odd that only now did she seem to notice the It was odd that only now did she seemed to notice the winged beast.

"No place! No place here! My valley! Go!"

The owl continued tapping, and I heard its command once again. Come to me, come to me, but now it seemed far less unfriendly. Like a poultice for the spirit, my back straightened with every echoing syllable.

"Devil!" The dark robed woman shrieked. "Not your place. My valley. Go!"

My strength returning and seeing my chance, I reached my drenched hands towards blade tickling my chest, and the woman wailed at my touch as we wrestled for the begemmed prize.

At the same moment, the tapping stopped and the horned owl screeched, my knees trembling at its ferocity. It dove from the roof towards the woman, its razor claws outstretched before it, and made impact with the being's hollow eyes.

Immediately she released the dagger and fell backward into the dust, loose straw and hardened oats cushioning my fall. The keeper of the valley fell backward opposite me, the claws of the horned owl sunk deep in her darkened visage.

My feet now unfrozen, I clutched the dagger tightly and clambered away from the fracas. The bird screeching and the woman screaming, her stalk like arms flailing against the owls beating wings.

I made the wall of the barn before the Keeper's tendril fingers found purchase on the owl's thin body. She squeezed and the bird's insane attack was ended.

She stood shakily, her eyes gone, her flesh cut to ribbons, but her smile returned, wider and more cruelly than ever before. With incredible force, she tossed the owl aside. It struck the wall with a loud snap, whether its wing or its neck had produced the sickening noise I did not know, and had little time to consider, for without my defender, the woman's interest returned to me.

"A foul trick," it bemoaned, though its black grin did not falter. "A beastly pet. My valley. My valley."

The opaque vector came towards me then, half walking and half floating, its form growing taller and thinner with each step.

"Stay back!" I shouted and waved the dagger before me from my heap against the wall. "Back, or I will cut you!"

The creature only laughed and the hounds howled. Pieces of the barn began falling now as the intensity of its reverberation overcame its integrity.

I let my arm and the silverin dagger fall. Neither served a purpose now.

"You take crown." The fell sorcerer said as it closed in upon me, her victory seemingly inevitable. "Whispers. Mother. It whispers."

It was true. Even I could hear it now. It whispered to me dark secrets, not of dark worlds remote and unknown, but of the dark worlds within. Of the things I could not carry, or could not face. I hated it and loved it all at once. Like the bulwark that holds back the flood even as the valley grows dry and the grass withers. Even then I feared to take its unbearable weight from my brow.

Tap, tap, tap. My resigned eye perked and glanced away from the black death to my front. And there I saw a horned owl with broken wing tapping upon the wall. Come to me. Come to me.

And in that moment, for the first time, I heard the invitation for what it truly meant. Go away from her, Come to ME!

The woman was upon me now, her hand near my blade, but I was no longer resigned for her to take it. I jerked it aside and lifted it high, and with one smooth movement, I plunged it downward. Not towards her, but towards mine own self.

The blade, its razored edge gleaming, cut into my bloody crown like the butcher's cleaver into swine. The woman pulled back, her mouth wide with shock and pain, clutching all over as if her own flesh had been wounded. Blood exploded from the laceration as if from an artery, but before the liquid even hit the ground I was pulling my weapon back for another blow.

Again and again I stabbed, and the weight upon me began to lessen. The hounds and the black woman moaned together with each stike, and the barn began to disintegrate as if reverberated.

With one final movement, I jammed the blade home, and the crown fell from my head, the grip of its metal jaw upon my scalp finally unclenched.

Gingerly, I picked the ruined treasure up in my hands and stood, the dirty rags that clothed me falling to pieces as I did. My crooked back now straight and strong. Naked, I stepped forward and the once imposing woman slithered back from me like shadow from fire. Shingles of the wooden barn toppled to the floor around us, but neither cared.

When we reached the barn's center, our roles now reversed, I spoke. "Your valley, your crown. I need it no longer." And I tossed the ruin, like so much trash, towards me feet where she groveled.

Reaching out, she caught it, and then all at once I felt a force throw me backward as the black shape before me exploded into a thin miasma of noxious fumes and pain.

I hit the wall with such force that my breath left my body completely. My eyes grew dark as last of the woman dispersed to nothing in the howling wind while the barn collapsed around me.

Tap, tap, tap.

Even in death? My clouded mind whined.

Tap, tap, tap.

No more! I tried to scream, but instead my eyes only opened. Confused, I tried to stand but found myself stuck beneath and heavy board. With effort, I pushed it aside and took in the world before me.

Was I dead? No, there was too much pain for that. And the barn was here, though now collapsed. But I was no longer in the valley, or at least not as I had ever seen it before.

The ever present fog was gone, replaced by longs views down carved valleys and far horizons. Grass grew green and tall, and the sun shone warm and loving.

Tap, tap, tap.

I looked to my feet, and there was the tiny owl pecking upon the debris. Its yellow eyes glowing like the sun above. I smiled at it, half heartedly at first, and then contagiously. A spirit I had not known for a lifetime and half entered me then, and I began to laugh as the little bird tapped.

Come to me.

Come to me.

fiction

About the Creator

Bronson Fleet

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