F The Crone’s Curse

Editor’s Foreword

Be careful what people call you!

How many in all?” Richard asked the man at his side, as he surveyed from the tower the mass of men, women and children who were huddled together–clutching one another out of terror and fear.

Soldiers herded still more towards the mass of crying, shouting and moaning people.

“Count is at 2500, your majesty. Give or take a few of course.”

“Of course.” Richard nodded. “Has the decree been proclaimed?”

“No, Your majesty. It will be shortly, however,” Sir Guillford Wessex said, pointing towards an officer who was stepping up to a raised platform near the huddled mass of terrified, wailing people.

“Ah, there he is,” Richard said.

“By order of His majesty, King Richard I of England, it is here by decreed that all of those gathered here–” The man raised an arm in the direction of the huddled people. “Will die. In accordance with the terms for the surrender of Acre agreed upon between King Richard I of England and Saladin, the treaty having been broken by Saladin–the forfeiture of life of these inhabitants of the city of Acre shall serve as a reminder to Saladin that the King of England expects all promises made to him to be honored or dire consequences shall be suffered.”

A murmur ran through the crowd of people gathered near the city walls who had come to see what fate awaited the people who had been shoved, pushed and prodded into the heavily guarded mass.

Richard sighed. “Are the men ready?”

“They’re always ready to serve their king,” Wessex replied matter-of-factly.

Suddenly, from the right, the figure of a rag tag woman bolted into view. She shrieked and screamed, ripping her clothing and smearing ash upon her head and face.

Crone

“What is she going on about?” Richard frowned and pointed to the screeching woman below them.

“I will find out,” Wessex stated and called a knight to him and then quickly dispatched him to the chaotic scene below.

Knights surrounded the ranting woman, but did not touch her. They seemed hesitant to get too close to the offensive hag.

“What is the problem? Why isn’t she being removed?” Richard sounded impatient.

The knight promptly returned, out of breath and delivered his information to Wessex.

“Who is she?” Richard jabbed the air in her direction.

“A witch, your majesty. She says to tell you, the king, that if you kill these people she will bring down a curse most vile–most hideous, so accursed that you truly will feel the heart of the lion.”

“What riddles does she speak? What means thou, ‘truly feel the heart of the lion’?” Richard growled.

“I know not, your majesty. I only repeat what the witch has shrieked,” Wessex said flustered at Richard’s questions.

“Hmm.” Richard frowned again and watched below as the ring of knights surrounded, but did not touch, the shrieking hag.

“I care not for witches,” Richard said after a few moments of silence.

“What should I tell the knights?” Wessex asked anxiously. “And, what should they do with the woman?”

Richard laughed slightly. “Tell the knights that the King of England is anointed by God and fears no witch.”

“And the woman? What is to be done with her?”

Richard shrugged. “Kill the witch.”

Wessex raised his eyebrows and left the room.

After a few minutes, Richard watched as the screaming old crone was led into the pathetic hoard of captives.

“Kill them. Kill them all,” Richard said and started to leave, but then he heard her voice–loud and amazingly strong for one so old–“Richard! King of the infidel! King of the white men in clothes of steel! Hear me! I am Ala-amena, The witch of Acre and loyal to only Saladin,” she paused, and then continued, “The blood of the innocent is upon your head. You who they call, Richard Coeur de Lion, Richard the Lion-hearted! On this day, I curse you! I curse you with a fate far worse than which you suffer upon these people. You will crawl upon all fours. You will eat as an animal, and smell as an animal! You will live to be all that your name says you are Richard Coeur de Lion!” the witch shrieked and waved her arms around for emphasis.

A knight approached her and seeing Richard’s fury, took off the aged crone’s head with one swoop of his sword. Her scarf-covered head rolled in the dirt and the crowd of spectators hissed in fury and fear. Most rushed off after this evil omen.

But, then the knights began to insist that the rest of the crowd remain to witness the full carnage that King Richard had ordered as a result of Saladin’s defiance and disregard for the terms of surrender at Acre.

Suddenly, the knights were upon the hoard–swords, axes, all swinging high. Chopping, slicing, maiming, dismembering, slaughtering–not one was spared.

The crowd that had been forced to bear witness to the horrific scene stood silent and stared, mouths agape as they observed all in disbelief. This foreign king was an animal! How could he stand there and order the deaths of innocent women and children?

Richard sat in his velvet-covered chair rapping his fingers against the engraved armrests. “Is it finished?” he asked Wessex.

Wessex cast his eyes upon the blood bath beneath the window. Even as battle seasoned as Wessex was, never before had he seen such a repulsive act committed. Naturally, he would not express such views to the king, but the fury he felt was hard to control.

Sir Guillford Wessex breathed deeply and sighed as quietly as he could.

“Yes, your majesty. It seems the deed is done,” he said somewhat agitated.

“You do not approve?” Richard asked, his eyebrows arched in a questioning expression.

“It is not for me to decide,” Wessex replied, cleverly dodging Richard’s displeasure.

“Aye–it is not. Bear ye that in mind. None of this would have been necessary had Saladin been a man of honor and kept to his word,” Richard stated. “It is upon his head that these deaths rest.”

Wessex frowned. “I do not believe the rest of Acre sees it this way, Sire. They believe it is the English king whom is responsible for the deaths of these innocents.”

“Innocents?” Richard roared. “Barbarians! Heathens! Unbelievers! But, innocents? You speak falsely, Sir Wessex, for none of these that have died today were innocents!”

“But, your majesty, the children surely…”

“The children will grow up to beget yet more followers of false gods! We have served Christendom here today. Doubt not the legitimacy of our cause, Good man!” Richard was tired of the disapproving stares and whispered comments. At least Wessex had the gall enough to tell him outright what he believed.

“Aye. Your majesty. It is a heavy burden this cross we bear, but a just one,” Wessex uttered eager to appease Richard and direct his fury elsewhere.

Richard shoved himself up from his chair by the armrests and strolled to the open window. The sand swept rockiness of the land was stark in contrast to the bright red of the bloody mangled pile of bodies he saw before him. Carts began to collect the remnants as heads were impaled on poles to be sent as reminders to Saladin.

Richard glared at the carnage. It was a necessary thing, vile as it was. Unfortunately, many under his rule held differing opinions. A knight with a cartload of piked heads rumbled by going towards the city walls to erect the grisly message outside of the city gates.

Richard crossed his arms against his green tunic. “Remember this, Saladin,” he muttered as the cart of heads clamored out of view.

And so, the crusades continued–land was taken, cities fell; land was seized once again in the seemingly endless exchange of hands that the Holy Land went through. Each side had its own agenda. Both sides fought in the name of a god that would be horrified at the atrocities committed in each of their names. Finally, Richard made his way towards home–the slaughtered and the fallen put out of mind, the words of one soot-besmirched crone completely forgotten. Richard’s grand return would have to wait. On his journey homewards, the Duke of Austria captured him and held him as a royal hostage. Negotiations began and the Duke sold Richard to the Emperor Henry VI. For fourteen months, Richard languished as a royal prisoner while his followers back in England struggled to raise the money to pay his enormous ransom. Richard paced within the lavish chamber that functioned as his prison. Back and forth he paced, anxious, agitated, confined until at long last his beloved minstrel found him and rescued him from the clutches of his jailers.

Richard headed home. But, his country was not the comforting, welcoming realm that he had longed for–unrest and bickering among the nobles and with his brother had caused irreconcilable strife. Richard was faced with yet another battle at home.

One night, Richard was quite alone in his chambers when the uncanny urge came over him to stand up and bellow–to roar as a lion would. He arched his back and threw back his head and roared. The voice of a man slowly took on the sound of a lion. The roar felt cleansing, but at the same time terrified him. What was this sound that he had emitted? Was he by some devil possessed? Fear gripped him as fear had never done before, and, sweating profusely, he collapsed on his bed before the raging fireplace.

Knocking sounded upon the door–such a knocking that the door threatened to come crashing down.

“Your majesty? King Richard art thou well?” the desperate cries rang out, “Sire?” The hammering on the door continued–loudly.

“Aye! Aye! I am well! Stop that bloody battering upon my door!” Richard shouted back and the noise ceased instantly. Out in the corridor he could hear whispering and the sound of several feet scurrying off in a hurry. He never truly was alone.

Richard rolled over on his back and stared up at the canopy above him. An odd tingling sensation buzzed in his arms and legs–what the devil was wrong with him? Richard poured himself a cup of wine and swirled it around absently in the golden goblet, as he sat thinking. Having drunk it all, he finally dozed off to sleep in the chair before the fire, warm and much troubled.

Morning came quickly. After breakfast he had a meeting with some nobles seeking his intervention in a dispute over some land. Much of it boiled down to ancient bickering and family feuds, but he was king and rule he must. The one Earl of something or other droned on and on about original boundaries and procured a battered parchment map, pointing here and there. Richard nodded as though he were listening to this man’s constant prattle on what he considered rightfully his. Would these men never shut up? Richard ran a hand along his beard in contemplation. Briefly, he glanced down at his hand and to his astonishment noticed that his fingernails had grown to about two inches in length. Richard remained calm and quickly darted his hand into his robes at his lap. Richard’s eyes felt saucer wide as he struggled to maintain his composure and casually eyed his other hand. It too, had two-inch long, talon-curved nails.

Richard wiggled his toes within his green velvet slippers. He could feel his toenails click against each other and scrape his flesh. His mind raced.

“I have heard all that needs to be said. I will send my Lord Steward round on the morrow with my decision,” he abruptly stated in the midst of one man’s dialogue, placed his hands upon each armrest and shoved himself up. He nodded to the men, and robes billowing behind him, he made his quick exit. Richard walked briskly. He wanted to run, but a king running down a corridor would not go unnoticed.

He ripped open the door to his chambers and slammed it shut again, bolting and barring it behind him. He observed his nails and kicking off his slippers he stared aghast at the talons curling from his toes.

“Damn!” he said quietly and slowly. He scrambled around in a chest on his table until he came up with a pair of clippers. The nails were strong and tough to clip, but he got the deed done with hasty speed. Richard sat down and studied his handiwork. What more could go wrong? He was almost afraid to leave his chambers.

At supper that night he had a ravenous appetite–eating an entire chicken by himself and a bowl of mashed turnips. His wife stared at him reproachfully. He couldn’t seem to sate his appetite, but stopped even though he remained hungry. A minstrel sang a heroic ballad while Richard rested before the great fireplace in the hall. The fire blazed, casting its warmth over all near, but Richard felt too warm. It was as if he were wearing a thick, fur pelt. He felt so warm. Richard touched his neck to wipe away the sweat, which dripped there and was startled when he touched a coat of hair. He ran his hand up into his tunic sleeve. His arm too was covered with thick, heavy hair. The dimly lit hall gave him a cloak of cover from noticing eyes and he drew his robes tighter around him. As all eyes were on the lute player with the angelic voice, Richard quietly slipped into the shadows and out of the hall. He made–again–a quick retreat for his chambers. The candles were lit and the room bright. He hated the darkness and the light from the many dancing flamed candles lit the room as bright as day. Richard stood before the great looking glass on the wall and pulled his robes and tunic up over his head. Standing there in his loose, linen breeches, he looked in horror–his body was covered in a reddish blond fur–not hair–but thick and silky fur. Richard gasped and stumbled in shock to the nearest chair.

What was this? He could tell no one! Surely some sort of witchery was involved here and any doubt of his competency to rule would plunge the country once more into mass chaos on the scale not seen since his imprisonment when the country had been ruled by his brother, John.

Richard gazed into the fire and noticed that his fingernails had grown again. It had just been that afternoon that he had sheared them away and here they were grown back again so quickly!

He was scheduled to leave for the battlefield tomorrow. He had planned on getting a good night’s sleep, but how could he with this bedevilment upon him? He stuck his head out of the door and called for someone to summon his good friend, Sir Guillford Wessex. They had been through much through the years, perhaps, such witchcraft would not frighten Wessex.

A servant knocked and announced Wessex’s arrival. Richard quickly unbolted and unbarred the door, and standing out of view behind it, opened the door just enough for Wessex to slip through. Richard quickly bolted the door behind Guillford again.

Sir Wessex watched curiously as the King frantically bolted the door. What had him so spooked? The king turned around to face him.

“My god, man!” Wessex gasped and jumped backwards instinctively. “What the devil has happened to you?”

King Richard shook his head. “Devil be right. I cannot explain these things that have befallen me.” One by one, Richard showed Wessex the oddities.

Wessex frowned and looked perplexed. “And you say you roared? Like a lion?” Wessex questioned in disbelief.

“Aye–and my voice grew from the voice of a man to that of the primal sound of a beast,” Richard confessed.

Wessex sat down and reached for the wine that Richard held before him. He drank it down swiftly. “Whom have you told?”

“Only you, Guillford. I trust no other. Especially with such a diabolical secret.” Richard sat down in the chair across from Wessex.

“A wise choice.” Guillford raised his eyebrows and stared at the king before him. “What of the morrow?”

“What of it? I must be there. I must be in the midst of it. I cannot let the men see a king who is faint of heart.”

“Aye. You have a point there. Perhaps you can remain hooded and cloaked and remain in your tent as long as possible.”

“Aye. Perchance the day will be colder and a cape will look appropriate,” Richard sounded doubtful.

“Perchance. Then again, you are king. Who dares to question your reasons?” Wessex smiled and lifted his goblet towards Richard.

Richard laughed. “I question my reasons, good man!”

Guillford smiled. “Maybe it will go away during the night?” he said weakly and waved his hand towards Richard’s hairy arms and hands.

“I do not count on it.”

Guillford suddenly bolted up straight in his chair and slapped his knee hard. “Damn it! Now I remember!”

“Remember what?”

“The witch at Acre! Her curse was that you would be all that your name implied! She cursed you with the body of a beast!”

Richard stared at Guillford for a moment. “I remember her. I had her killed.”

“Aye. That you did.”

“Do you think…?” Richard began and stared at his own arms.

“You are Richard Coeur de Lion, are you not? The lion part is looking stronger about now,” Guillford said matter of factly.

Richard nodded. “A witch’s curse. Never believed in such foolery until now. No other explanation for it really.”

“Question is, now, where does it all cease?” Guillford tapped the armrest of the chair nervously.

Richard looked up at Guillford suddenly terrified at his impending fate. “Certainly this is the worst of it–look at me!” he bellowed.

“You did have the old crone killed.”

Richard frowned at Guillford. Then he shrugged. “We need another witch.”

“Another witch, Sire?”

“Aye. To undo what Saladin’s crone did. Isn’t that how all of this nonsense works? One spell, counter spell, so on and so forth? Have we no witches lurking about?” Richard said, back to Guillford, as he studied his face in the reflection of the looking glass.

“Women know of such things, not I, Sire.” Guillford said seriously.

“Hmm. Well, it will have to wait until after the battle in any event. I’ve no time for witches and potions right now. You’ll see to it that you are the only one in my tent aside from me?” Richard asked.

“Aye, your majesty. That I shall. The Devil himself won’t get into your tent, I assure you that.”

“Ah, Guillford. The Devil himself might be the only one in the tent if this witch’s spell reaches greater potency.” Richard tried to laugh and sound lighthearted about his curse, but Guillford saw through his apparent fear.

“See you on the morrow, your majesty,” Guillford bowed and Richard walked him to the bolted door.

“I will ride to my tent alone so I can go undetected. I will be in a heavy cloak. You will know me.”

“Aye, my king, I would know you in any shape or form.”

Richard lifted the bar and slid back the bolt allowing Guillford to exit. He quickly resecured the door and crossed the room to his bed. He needed sleep for tomorrow’s fight–and for whatever else lay before him. Slipping his tunic over his head for the second time that night, he suddenly gasped aloud, “God save me!” His voice was hoarse and terror-stricken.

There pulsating on his breast was the pumping heart of a lion–covered in pale, light fur and opaque thin flesh it looked as if new skin were trying to grow over the beating animal heart. Veins and arteries grew from the outside of his flesh and back into his breast. Purple, red pulsating streams rose here and there and then disappeared into his flesh. The heart quivered and quaked, jiggling with each pulsing beat. Richard stared in terror. The curse was not yet finished.

On the morrow, Richard dressed for battle, his lion’s heart nearly covered with the flesh of a beast now–he had to pare his nails again lest they not fit in his armored gloves. He waited until the last of his personal guard had departed as ordered with the imposter king that he himself had installed within the king’s litter. Pulling a heavy woolen, black hooded cloak on over his armor, he slipped out a secret door to the stables. Seizing a fit horse, he mounted it and spurred it onward to the battle sight. The horse could sense the beast within him. It whinnied and neighed defiantly trying to throw him off. It cared not that he was king.

“Damn it, horse! I don’t like the situation anymore than you do! Cease your bucking!” Richard commanded sternly and the horse complied, but every now and then cast a worried, apprehensive glance backwards at its strange rider.

Once at the battle sight, he rode furiously to the tent door where Guillford stood guard just as promised. Without a word, he leapt from his horse, handed the reins to Guillford, who in turn passed them to a squire, and entered the tent behind the cloaked king.

Richard pulled back the hood. Guillford stepped back.

“It has worsened,” Richard said simply.

“I see.” Guillford nodded.

Richard’s face was contorted. The entire profile was different. He no longer had the face of Richard but of a feline-like being ­ half man, half cat. His nostrils flared and his nose was flat and broad. Except that he was upright, he looked more lion than man.

“I will observe from here.” Richard pointed to a small slit in the tent wall. “I will emerge if necessary.”

Guillford raised an eyebrow. “Begging your pardon, your majesty, but it might be safer if you remain in the tent.”

Richard nodded. “I have considered this, but if I am needed I will come. I still wear the crown. I still am king.”

Guillford nodded. “I must go.”

Richard clasped hands with Guillford and started to speak.

“No one shall pass into the tent,” Guillford said before Richard could express his worries.

“You are a good knight, Guillford.”

“I am a good friend, my king.”

“Aye. That you are. That you are.” Richard slapped Guillford on the back with an impact so powerful that he nearly knocked the big man off of his feet. Richard’s strength had increased.

Guillford bowed and backed out of the tent, securely closing the flap behind him. He stood guard before the tent along with a group of knights who followed orders and asked no questions.

The battle raged. As time passed, the troops grew weary and not seeing their gallant king their resolve began to weaken and wither. Richard began to sense that he was needed. He looked down at himself and removed his tunic, which he tossed to the ground on top of the pile of armor that he had discarded piece by piece.

The crown still securely on his head, he savagely rent the side of the tent and charged into the midst of the battle. His adrenalin rushed, his blood coursed, he roared with an angry battle cry.

To the front of the line–to the front of the carnage, he charged.

An enemy archer spotted him, saw him coming. But what he saw was not a man.

Charging in a flying leap straight towards him was a massive, golden-maned lion. Before the archer could even have doubts about what his eyes told his brain he was seeing, he drew back his bow and shot an arrow towards the roaring, fang-gnashing beast at the front of King Richard’s lines.

Lionheart

The great beast took the arrow deep in the shoulder and roared a savage, frightening roar of immense pain and agony. The beast crashed to the ground and writhed in pain.

Two of Richard’s knights charged forward, swords drawn to dispatch the mighty beast when suddenly Guillford jumped from his horse in the nick of time.

“Halt!” he commanded as one man was preparing to run the wounded lion through.

Slowly, Guillford crept to the fallen beast’s side and took its huge maned head onto his lap.

“My Lord, King,” he said softly.

Before his eyes and the eyes of the gathered knights, the lion’s body began to melt away and left that of a gravely injured, dying, naked man–King Richard.

One of the knights dropped to his knee and crossed himself. “Saints’ preserve us!” he uttered in horror.

Richard looked up at Guillford who smiled comfortingly at him.

Blood poured from the mortal wound–the fur melted away, but Richard saw that the only thing that remained of the witch’s curse was that quivering, quaking pulsating heart of a lion attached to the outside of his breast.

Richard wept tears of pain. Guillford held him as he died.

“Long live King Richard!” he shouted from his position on the ground, the dead king cradled in his arms. The knights gathered round and echoed his cry. The quivering red heart gave its last beat and stopped its pumping.

“Long live King Richard the Lion-hearted!”

 

About the Author

[photo] Angeline Hawkes received a B.A. in Composite English Language Arts in 1991 from Texas A&M-Commerce and was named 2007 Alumni Ambassador for the Literature Department. She has publication credits dating from 1981. Angeline's collection, The Commandments, received a 2006 Bram Stoker Award nomination. Her newest fantasy series is entitled: Tales of the Barbarian Kabar of El Hazzar [various publishers]. Dead Letter Press published Blood Coven, co-written with Christopher Fulbright. Her story, “In Waters Black the Lost Ones Sleep”, appears in Chaosium’s anthology, Frontier Cthulhu. Angeline has seen the publication of her novels, novellas, fiction in 30+ anthologies, several collections, and short fiction in various publications. She is a member of HWA and REHupa. Visit her websites at www.angelinehawkes.com and www.fulbrightandhawkes.com.

 

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Notes:

Color images created by Dan C. Rinnert.

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