A Short Story by Johnny O'Brien
The soft sound of the hissing rain all around him filled his ears. The night was dark and wet, but he knew he was getting close to the cave. He could feel it in his bones, in his soul. He paused under a tree to wipe some of the rain from his face and forehead and shake drop from his unkempt hair. The man was a picture of a turn of bad luck. His clothing had obviously once been fine, yet now was torn and dirty. Much like the man who wore them, they were a shadow of their former self. He was thin and haggard looking and his clothing, cinched around the waist with a common length of hemp rope, had been made for a man a few sizes larger. He shuddered and pushed off from the tree, drenched immediately again as he emerged into the downpour. He cursed the Goddess as he stumbled along, looking for the mouth of the cave that would lead to his freedom. At least he hoped it would. She was his only hope now, short of going to the Goddess who he had just called to the lowest. With as much as he had cursed her during the months of his torture, he knew he had no chance of her help. She was his only hope…and that made him shiver more than the cold rain did, with its hint of winter in it.
He pushed through brush and up against tree and rock as he searched through the dark gloom of the night. It would be around here somewhere. It was only a matter of time before he found it. Her cave was known to be somewhere upon this mountain and he had been looking for two days now. He had to be close…he had run out of food and water was being gotten from any stream or brook he came across. He had to be close to her cave or he’d end up dying before he got any help. That would be just like his life to end that way. He stumbled suddenly, almost falling to the forest ground before he caught himself on a tree. He sunk to the ground, as tears began to leak from his eyes to join the rainwater sliding down from his hair. He lifted his hands to scrub at his eyes and scowled. Damn the fae….how dare they do this to him. He was a rich man and a pillar of the community back at his home. He had wealth and power and influence! It simply wasn’t fair that this happened to him! He had done nothing to deserve this!
“You lie. You lie. It’s plain as the sky,” a soft, sing-song voice piped up out of the darkness around him. He choked on a sob that welled up in his throat and grabbed for a stone from the ground and flung it out into the darkness. He threw more stones into the night until he slipped and fell onto his side while reaching for a stone. He lay there for a time before he got up slowly to his feet. He felt so very weak these days and he knew why he did. It was the ring. It was sucking the life out of him day by day. He had been bigger than this, more healthy and better off. He had been a famous merchant, traveling all over to sell his wares to people high and low alike. He even had begun to sell to the fae. That had been his greatest mistake, for he had given them the chance to curse him like they had. He could remember that day still, as if he would ever forget it.
It had taken him months to find the proper place and time with which he could meet with the fae. And months more to make sure he had just the right items to sell to them, that they would want. He had brought three full wagon loads to the standing stones and by the time the night was over most of it was sold or traded for other goods which the fae seemed to have brought with them or simply produced out of thin air. He had found the fae to be as mysterious and other-worldly as he had expected. They had passed over the small but expensive collection of jewelry and instead bought every bolt of cloth he had brought, whether it was wool or silk. The fruit and the vegetables were bought up quickly as well. As were the small toys for children and the copper cookware. In return he had received gold and silver and jewels as pure as morning dew. And the leader of the fae, the one they called the Prince, spoke to him privately when it was all over and the fae were preparing to leave.
“You have dealt with us fairly and honestly, Master Merchant, and for such a gift we give you this gift in return, so that you may remember this day and all it has given you,” the Prince had said and placed into his hand a small ring of beaten gold and amethyst stones. It was clearly for a man’s hand, if slightly delicate looking. He had thanked the Prince that day and placed the ring upon his finger, and watched them fae leave back to their world. Then he had gathered up his men and his wagons and went home with his new riches, more than he had ever had before.
The ring still sat upon his finger, glinting in the darkness with an unnatural light of its own. A gift he had called it, but it was really a curse! They had cursed him to lose all he had gained and not only from them but in his life entire. It was the only explanation for what had happened after he had gotten home. He had paid his men off for their work guarding his caravan and listened to their complaints. Saying he had claimed that they would be paid more for their guard work. He had explained to them that is was conditional after all. The fae hadn’t been a threat, so he didn’t need them so much; therefore they were paid slightly less. He should have realized the sudden tight feeling of that ring on his finger was the curse taking hold. He had ignored it, however, and thought it was nothing. He had gone home and showered his wife and children with the new wealth he had acquired.
He had taken a few days off before going back to his business. The ring had gotten tighter and tighter after he had returned to his business. The more he sold the tighter it became. He ignored the discomfort as best he could and by the end of the day it had gone away. By the next morning he had put it out of his mind and returned to work. By the midpoint of the day, however, the curse placed upon him had revealed itself completely. During a sale he was making to a young nobleman the ring had piped up in its sing-song voice and told the young man that he was being lied to. He had tried to salvage things by smoothing the young man’s ruffled ego yet the ring had piped up again and the nobleman had stalked out of his store. And that was only the beginning of it all. He had tried to remove the ring but it was stuck tight to his finger and wouldn’t come off. He had tried lard and grease from his wagon’s axles but it wouldn’t come off.
He had tried to run his business but the ring continued to demonstrate its curse over him. His business began to fail as people stopped going to him at all. His savings were slowly used up as his business fell on hard times and his family began to look at him differently as well because of it. He went abroad to seek out magical help to remove the curse. He went to witches and wizards and paid what they asked for to remove the ring but none could help him. He had finally returned home one day to find he had no home. His wife had sold his home and business while he was away and left with the children. Probably back to her mother’s home, he was sure. Thus it was that began his true misery under this terrible curse. He could not remember a single day of that time, clear and to itself. Instead it was as if the days bled into each other and became one long period of torture he was being forced to endure.
He was no longer sure of the passage of days but he thought it wasn’t too long past the annual day of Samhain. He stopped to catch his breath in the darkness and came to lean against a rough rock face, sticking up from the mountain side, taller than even his impressive height. He thought it had been some while over a year in time since he had lost everything. He had been reduced to begging for money and food and hoarding the money like the worst of misers. He would spend it on anyone who could have magic and help him. Magicians and witches and those whom it was claimed had fae blood within their veins. He knew that it would take magic to remove the ring from his finger and so he searched far and wide for someone to help him. All of it had been for naught, for no one could help him, even though they took his money readily enough. He had been to almost every source of magic in search of help for his curse and none had been able to. Though many had mentioned the one he now sought. She was a fae, like the ones who cursed him and a powerful one at that. She would help any who sought her aid, for good or ill, yet the price she charged was always high, and always higher than you thought it was.
Where was The Blue Hag? Why wasn’t she easier to find? He knew the answers to those questions lay within the questions themselves, but he had to find her. He had to beg her to remove this cursed ring at any price. It didn’t matter the price he had to pay as long as the ring was taken off. “You lie. You lie. It’s as plain as the sky.” The ring piped up in its singing voice once more to him. Before he could respond with an invective to the piece of jewelry another voice, raw and coarse cut through the night from above him. “Lie! Lie! Die! Die!” He stumbled back away from the sheer facet of the mountain side and looked up, searching for the voice’s origin. There seemed to be nothing there but the night. He heard the flapping of wings for a soft moment and whirled around. Nothing but the dark forms of trees and rocks greeted his eyes. A shriek suddenly pierced the air and he spun back to face it and found a rectangular opening in the rock face, spilling out light from within and a hunched form standing within the doorway. The form was shadowed, standing as it was in front of the light of a pair of burning torches within the mountain tunnel. It held a staff in one hand that it leaned on for support and its robes were tattered and old, yet the colors of white and blue could still be see on them.
“What is it you want here on my mountain!? Speak up boy; I haven’t got all night to jabber at you.” The creature spoke, its voice coming hoarse and ragged, yet distinctly female underneath it all. A dark formed flapped down from the night sky and landed on her shoulder cawing the word ‘lie’ over and over until she snapped at it to be silent. This was the Blue Hag. This was Cailleac Bhuer. If anyone upon this world could help him break the curse he had upon him it was her. He moved slowly forwards until he was closer to her, though he then wanted to recoil in horror. She was the ugliest creature he had even laid eyes upon. Her hair was stringy and white and one of her eyes was covered in a yellowish film. Her other eye was good and so sharp and clear he felt naked under its penetrating gaze. Her staff was made of holly and topped with the skull of a carrion crow, much like from the same bird that perched now upon her shoulder.
“Cailleac Bhuer…I beg of you for help. I have been living in misery for a long time now because of the actions of a group of the fae. They have placed a curse upon me.” “You lie. You lie. It’s as plain as the sky.” “You see? Because of this ring I have lost all that I had. My wealth…my status….my family, all of them is gone from me forever. I beg of you Cailleac Bhuer. Please help me remove this ring.” He spoke to her with a tremble in his voice…from desperation or from fear even he could not say for both feelings rode high in him now. The Blue Hag stood in silence watching him with her eyes, both of which he was sure now saw him even though one looked to be blind and useless. Finally she turned and started to hobble down the tunnel away from him even as she spoke to him over her shoulder. “Come in and close the door behind you. I’ll not waste my heat on the outdoors, not when winter is coming to the lands so soon.”
He rose up unsteadily, feeling dizzy with relief or lack of food and stumbled into the tunnel. The door was rock upon outside it seemed and wood on the inside. It closed with a shriek of rusty protesting hinges and locked securely once closed. He turned then and moved after The Blue Hag as she walked down the torch lit tunnel. A cool draft told him that the place had air holes somewhere within it, even if he could not see it. He had lost sight of her while he closed the door yet the tunnel had no branches leading off it so there was only one way he could travel. He stumbled and walked down that tunnel in silence but for the crunch of his boots upon the stone and sand floor. He finally arrived in a large circular cavern of a room as big as a small house. Shelves had been carved into the walls themselves and a few wooden pieces of furniture gave the place a lived in feel. A large cauldron made of some metal sat nestled among a roaring bonfire and the smells coming from it made his mouth water.
The Blue Hag was rooting around in a shelf and removed a glass jar from it. Within was contained a large purplish colored organ, a liver most likely of some animal. She threw it whole into the large cauldron before she replaced the jar on the stone shelf and looked to him. In the light of the room she looked even more hideous than he had thought. She paused to spit into her cauldron as she hobbled past towards him and snatched up his hand within one of her gnarled and withered hands. She peered intently at the ring for a long time, turning his hand over for a while to look at the ring…or maybe it was his palm she looked at. Finally she let go and he cradled the hand back to him and looked to her, swallowing the fear and the revulsion he felt just looking at her.
“You’ve been dealing with the Seelie Court. They don’t go around cursing people, boy. You’ve got what happened all turned around in your mind. I can understand why it seems like a curse to you however. This ring was given to you to help you abstain from lying. Every time you lie it will tell everyone around about it. The reason it won’t come off is because you had a grace period. There were a number of days where all it did was tighten around your finger when you lied, until it became too tight to come off. Typical human foolishness if you ask me. Alright then boy, bring that hand over here to my table and we’ll get that ring off you.” The Blue Hag turned and hobbled back to the table. She leaned her staff against a wall and he followed her to the table as she rummaged in a small wooden box which rested on one of the shelves. She turned around to face him, a large meat cleaver grasped in one of her bony hands.
“No. I don’t want my hand cut off!! Please…Cailleac Bhuer…anything but that! I’ll pay any price…but I don’t wish to lose my hand. Please, any price but that!” He begged her and saw her eyes narrow sharply as she regarded him with an unimpressed expression. Her good eye looked like a tiny diamond glittering in the depths of her craggy face. She spat on the floor and slammed the cleaver down into the table where it stuck. He flinched as she did that and stepped back as she approached and snatched up his hand once again, looking at the ring. After a short while she thrust it away from her and looked to him closely. “Are you sure you wish to pay the price for removing the ring this way? It will be high to pay and I will expect you to pay it in full before I remove that ring.” She spoke and her voice was as chill as a new winter day.
“Yes Cailleac Bhuer, I will pay your price. If you will remove the ring without taking my hand off to do it I shall pay your price in full!” He said, relief flooding him…she could remove the ring. He was finally going to be free of his curse. Free to live his life once again. Cailleac Bhuer frowned up at him and muttered something about “not listening” as she turned around and hobbled over to her staff grasping it up. She held her staff up and over her cauldron and the fires burned brighter and hotter, changing color from red and orange to blue and green. She chanted in a strange musical language, her voice seeming to lose its ragged roughness and rise above the mountain and the sky itself. It soared from her lips with a crystal beauty that awed him to his very soul. She swung the staff around and struck the side of her cauldron three times. Each time the cauldron sounded like a huge great funeral bell, ringing out the mourning of those who lived while a loved one has passed on.
“Done, Done and Done! Three times done and the deal is sealed! For three years and three days you shall work for me. You shall fetch and carry firewood. You shall hunt for me, cook for me, clean for me. All this you shall do and you shall serve me in whatever ways I request of you. At the end of the three years and three days, I shall remove the ring from your finger and you shall then be free to leave.” She spoke to him as the fire returned to its original hues and she rested her staff upon the floor. His knees ceased to support him and he found himself falling to the floor. Darkness encroached around him as his body simply took a much needed break from the days of no food and little rest.
“Be careful with that you fool of a man. Set it down, carefully, in the basin. If it breaks open in your hands what is inside will eat you alive before I can stop it. Gently now…set it in the basin gently. Good, now stand back”, his mistress snapped at him, as she always did, and he obeyed as he had always done. The egg he had placed in the basin was the egg of a salamander. One which was without a mother any longer so his mistress took the egg in for whatever her reasons. He was still unsure if she would eat it or raise it for the chances were equal for either choice. He watched carefully as she laid some kind of magic around the egg and with a gesture a burning fire filled the basin and surrounded the egg. She turned away from it, grabbing her staff from where it rested against the table and hobbled over her cauldron and tasted what was cooking inside with her large wooden spoon.
He had learned what she cooked in that pot and he had been violently ill all over the floor at the knowledge. He had gotten used to the smell these days…it hardly bothered him at all to know she ate humans…or fae if the craving took her for some of her own kin. He had even hunted down humans for her upon the mountainside, killing them and dragging them back to her cave for her. He was more fit now than he had been when he first arrived. He looked like a completely different man however. His experiences here and before he came here had marked him. Had made him different than the easy life he knew before.
“Has the sun set yet, boy?” Her voice came to him, sounding curiously casual to him. He told her it had set a few hours ago and he thought to himself that she should know that. She knew so very much about the world that the rising and setting of the sun was a minor thing for her to know without seeing. She nodded and hung the spoon up on its hook, looking to him with a pensive expression on her face. She stared at him and he simply watched her back and waited for her to speak. “Come here boy. Give me your hand. Your time is up and I shall remove your ring now.”
He blinked staring at her in confusion for a brief moment before his memories supplied what she spoke of. He looked down to the ring around his finger and then to her. Three years and three days…it had seemed so much longer, or shorter depending on when he thought of it. But the time was finally over. He allowed himself a small tremulous smile as he walked over and held out his hand to her. He had seen her work magic so powerful that it made him shudder in horror to see it performed and now she would perform magic for him and remove the ring. Perform magic of the price that he had paid for three years and three days. She rested her staff in the crook of her arm and reached her hands out, one taking hold of his wrist and the other taking hold of the ring. She paused for a moment and looked him in the eye and then she pulled the ring off his finger and let his wrist go. She tucked the small ring into her pocket and removed her staff from the crook of her arm, to lean upon it again.
“Mistress…I don’t…I don’t understand. I thought…” He trailed off as he looked at her bemused expression. She turned and hobbled back to her cauldron and looked into its depths. “Of course you don’t understand boy. You thought I would use powerful magic to remove that ring from you. I told you years ago when you first came here. It was not a cursed ring. It simply was a ring to help you prevent yourself from lying. You have lied to yourself and to others every day since receiving that ring. For one year and one day you lied. You reap what you sow, so says the Goddess. You sowed bad tidings for yourself with those lies. You needed only to spend the proper amount of time to repay those lies with truths. If you do evil to others you will receive it back threefold. If you do well to others you will receive it back threefold. To repay the time of lies you spent, you had to spend threefold it in a time of truth. Then the ring would come off. You have done that here, boy, and so the ring is now off your finger. You are free to leave now and return to your world and your life. Try and make a better one this time around.” She spoke with a small hint of kindness in her voice and didn’t raise her head to watch as he uncertainly turned and headed for the entrance of her cave.
He had traveled the length of this tunnel countless times to leave on errands for her and yet now he was walking it for the last time. He kept pausing and staring back over his shoulder to see if she was there watching him, but she wasn’t. He reached the door and pulled on the beam, pulling back the door on its rusty hinges. He stood then looking out at the moonlit mountain side spreading down before him. The dark, shadowed shape of the trees and rocks spread out like a blanket before him all the way down to where the lights of the small town near the base of the mountain sat. He was free now to return to the world out there. He looked down to the hand that had bore the ring for so many years. His skin was white underneath it, untouched by time and the elements. He rubbed that spot where it had been and looked once more to the world outside that cave. He shut the door and relocked it before he turned and headed back towards the cavern and to his mistress. He had paid her price and it was higher than he thought it would be. He had paid a price in time and the world beyond had no place for him any longer. He knew he would never be able to rejoin it. His time had been paid here, with his mistress and he knew he had to remain or he would be lost again.
He entered the room and looked about, finding that his mistress was gone somewhere for the time being. Her cauldron and the basin with the egg in it still burned merrily but the rest of the room was silent and empty except for him. He approached the basin and looked at the egg glowing now within the flames. He turned and walked across the room to where his bedding lay upon the floor. He sat down there upon the bedding to wait for her to return. He glanced to his small pillow and blinked at the sight of his ring sitting there upon it. He looked around the room, half expecting to see his mistress’ wry face grinning at him from across the room, but she was not there. He picked up the ring from its cushion and held it up before him. Gold and amethyst glimmered back at him as the firelight played across it. Without a word he placed the ring back on his finger, the golden and gem-stoned band covering the white patch of skin. He looked down at his hand with the ring upon it. It was as if it was meant to be there. He leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes, waiting for his mistress to return. He was free to choose his life again, but this was the life he chose.
John O'Brien is a Canadian who spends a large majority of his free time getting lost in fictional worlds, or dreaming them up himself, when he's not making videos as a hobby.
1. What, to you, is the story about?
To me, the story is about the trouble that can arise because of a lack of understanding or communication, either on the speaking end or the listening end. In this story it is definitely the fault of the listener, the protagonist.
2. What is the plot?
The plot is that a merchant, once successful and influential, receives a magic ring from the Seelie Court of the fae in return for his fair dealings with them. After returning home, the ring refuses to come off and begins to speak everytime he lies, telling everyone around that he is. He slowly loses everything he had valued in life, either because of the ring or because of his spending resources to try and get it removed. Finally, destitute and desperate, he seeks out the fabeled Blue Hag for her help. She agrees to help him in exchange for years of servitude. When he has served his time, she removes the ring and he is free to go but he chooses to remain.
3. Can you explain the ending?
The ending has the merchant getting what he asked for. The ring is removed without him losing his hand (which would have been the easier but more painful way) but the cost to him was higher than he first thought. He's been away from the world, all of humanity in fact, for a little over three years. When he has the opportunity to leave, he chooses not to because he doesn't have a place in the world anymore...but he does have a place with the Blue Hag. He chooses to put the ring back on because his time spent serving the Blue Hag was a time spent living in truth to himself. He no longer sees the ring as cursed and understands and has come to peace with the fact it was his own fault.
4. Who are the characters?
There are really only two characters in this story. The Merchant, who is nameless because I didn't feel he needed a name in order for his character to be portrayed. The other character is Cailleac Bheur, the Blue Hag, a mythical fae type creature from Irish/Gaelic mythology.
5. What were your influences writing this short story? Were you influenced by philosophy, literature, author(s), life, music, etc...?
My influences writing this story kind of is fantasy literature and mythology but for the most part this story came about because I was taking part in a casual writing challenge where we were given a prompt to write a story about and the prompt I was given was "fairy ring" and instead of writing about the circle of toadstools that bears that moniker, I decided to take it literally and write about a ring belonging to a fairy and it just kind of flowed out from that point.
6. What are your intentions with writing this story?
Mostly my intentions with writing this story was just to write...as a creative outlet.
a) Are you wanting to expand the short story into a longer work?
I am not intending this story to be expanded into a longer work, no.
b) Were you wanting to write a shorty story about a man and his struggles
I think this story is less about a man an his struggles and more about how sometimes the struggles in your life are put there by yourself without you realizing it at the time.
c) How are you wanting the audience to feel after finishing your story?
I would hope that the readers would be feeling pensive and introspective after reading it.
7. Do you feel the story had an appropriate resolution/ending?
I have always been happy with the ending to this story so yes I think it did.
8. Similar to question 1, what are you trying to convey in the story?
I think what I'm trying to convey in this story is the need to listen, to communicate properly with those around you, to pay attention to signs that something might be wrong and that you may well be your own worst enemy. I suppose that it is kind of a tale of hubris bringing someone low.