|The Three Beds
Author: kalynn.osburn PM
King Markham is lord of his vast lands, a proud and just man who has won the right to rule. But when he seeks a bride his equal, will the task prove more than he is up to?Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Adventure - Words: 7,327 - Published: 12-19-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3084394
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Three Beds
There was once a kind and wise king, who brought together the warring tribes of his nation in peace and prosperity. Bit though this king, Markham son of Marcus, was a just and patient ruler, he had spent his life uniting his country and thus had no time for marriage. Now, with his hard won peace, the time had come to consider not only a wife, but heirs to continue his great and noble lineage. Markham sent out his heralds to the provinces, bidding them to recite this message.
To ladies fair and fine
To lassies bred and born
Our High King Markham
Doth wish himself a bride.
Think nothing of coin or land
Come as the quality ye be
That his highness might find
Yor face and form a pleasing one
And they did come, noble and peasant, rich and poor, to the grand household of Markham. Tey paraded before the king. A grand fete was held, lasting a full turn of the moon, and all were fed till their stomachs were fit to burst. The larders were opened and the casks of mead and ale flowed freely night after night. Succulent delicacies piled high upon the table, as befitted the women who were potential queens.
But though there were many fine women in his lands, Markham found none which pleased him.
"They are all pleasing in their own way, but I see no woman who is altogether worthy of me." Markham sighed in frustration and sent the women home with gifts and trinkets so as not to insult their families. Finally, he turned to his Seeress, a woman with knowledge as profound as he grey hair, and entreated her in her wisdom, to find him a worthy bride.
The Seer retreated into meditation for many days and nights, taking no meals and purifying herself by drinking water from a sacred pool. She danced in the white smoke of incense made from henbane and lavender, and sat without moving a muscle for hours on end. When she emerged, the seer went straight to the king. "The gods have revealed to me their wisdom." She announced before the court. "What you seek an not be easily obtained. The woman you would ask for, in order to be truly worthy of you, must embody the seven maidenly virtues, so that all will recognize her as your equal."
Markham thanked the seer and rewarded her. "The seven maidenly virtues." He said and stroked his beard. He had heard of them in childhood stories, but like most boys had taken more interest in the tales of warriors and great glory in battle. He called to his bard and bade the man sing what he knew of this.
The bard took up his lyre and plucked out the tune on his string.
A lady pale and flaxen locked
may count herself among
the meanest beasts of burden
least she remember always
the honors due her sex
and seek always to be worthy
A gentle heart which understands
and seeks to care and comfort
A noble soul which bares
it's sweet emotions to all
A strength of spirit which
holds fast an endures all
An unwavering loyalty to
ones hearth and home
The bravery to take up the sword
and protect ones kith and kin
The soundest mind to oversee
the houses of she and her spouse
And the wit to never allow another
the rights to her domain
Markham smiled as he imagined such a fine woman within his halls. "A lady with all this would certainly make for a worthy wife. Where might I find this great and noble lass?" He turned to his bard, but the man knew not. He asked his councilors, who had gathered the noble ladies of his lands for him, but they knew not. He again entreated the seer, but even she could not tell him. None of the ladies, though fine in their own right, could claim such an embodiment of female virtues.
And so Markham took a sacred vow. He made offerings of meat and grain and ale on a pyre and swore, that until such a woman was found, his bed would remain empty from the companionship of ladies. His councilors advised him strongly against this, for even a lesser bedding could produce an heir. But Markham was adamant. "I am the high king, I have fought ten years in battles to forge my kingdom. In this time, I have before gone without all essentials for a time. I starved with my men in the desert heart, I froze without shelter in the campaigns of the north, and when the enemy stripped of armor and cloth to show their bravery, I did the same and slew the in the pouring rain. If I can not last without the privilege of the fairer sex for a time then I am not fit to be called a man!"
Weeks turned into months, which stretched on into a year. And Markham began to regret his vow. As his household increased, he watched others flirt and fancy with one another. The house began to fill with swelling bellies and the laughter of small babes, and he was saddened to know that not one was his own.
Then, one night during the storms before Samhain, a man came stride a stallion, dressed in cloths which were worn but of excellent color and quality. He claimed himself a bard to a great household, and had been caught out in the seasons on his return home. Markham welcomed him with suitable hospitality and granted him food, bed and shelter from the night. He seated the man at his own table, for the colder the nights, the more entertainment was called for. He bade the man what he was doing so far from home so close to winter, when all manner of dangers traveled the roads.
"My mistress bade him on a mission for her. She awaits my quick return and will be most grateful to hear of your generosity to me." The man said as he stroked his long, pointed nose.
This piqued the king's curiosity, for bards were usually held in retainer to great kings, and he had never heard of one in a ladies retinue all her own. "Your mistress, is she a noble lady of the blood, to have a faithful bard number among her servants?"
"Ah she is a queen in her own right. But her kingdom is deep within the wild glens and smoky mountains. Few have ever traveled there, for it is hard to reach and even harder to leave." He commented, searching over his mutton for any missed morsel.
Markham poured the man a goblet of wine. "Oh? I have seen many lands far and wide in my battles. And what quality of lady is she, to keep her kingdom so hidden and secret from this world?"
The bard laughed, a sharper sound which echoed roughly against the walls. "A finer quality I would wager, exists not, and certainly not on any of those who have been entertained in your walls." He took the eyeball from a sheeps head and popped it into his mouth with joy. "She is a gentle and kind hearted woman, who cares deeply for those in her service and tends to them as kin."
Markham chuckled, but now his search for a wife was becoming a subject of much speculation. It amused him to be spoken to so frankly when others tried so hard to be political. He leaned forward, hope rising in his chest. "And is she strong of spirit?"
"Oh indeed, she won her kingdom from a terrible and fearsome beast who tormented the land. It took her many long months to defeat him, but in the end she persevered." The bard stretched out, his long limbs barely fitting under the table.
"She is loyal to hearth and home then?" Markham entreated.
"There is always a fire burning at her hearth, and an honest guest is welcomes with such a grand sup as you have set before me here." He spread his arms wide and the candlelight flickered, making his shadow for a moment seem like great wings. "And brave as well, for as she is yet unwedded, she alone defends her people from all dangers."
Markham felt his heart leap, surely such a woman was a wonder to behold! "And is her mind sound and full of wit?"
"Indeed my lady is well educated, a mind so bright and a wit so deft. Once, when a man insulted her birth, she used words so cunning and apt chosen that all hair vanished from his body, leaving him bald as a babe!" And at that both men laughed at the image of a grown man so humiliated be a woman's tongue that she left him stripped of all manly hair!
That settled it. At the very least Markham vowed that he must meet this woman! "Allow my man to accompany you home bard. If it so suits your mistress, I would invite her here as a lady of the realm and treat her to even greater hospitality than you have received!"
"Ah but that comes to a problem sire." The bard confessed. "Surely you understand that a lady such as she can simply not be parted from her lands. She is solely responsible for their ruling and protection. She could not leave her duties, even for a short while, and certainly not long enough to travel here."
Markham considered for a moment. "Has she no councilors, no steward she might entrust her work to, even for a short while?"
"I am afraid not my lord, for there are some duties which she and only she can complete." The bard opened his hands. "I am afraid that if you truly wish to meet with my mistress, it is you who shall have to venture forth from home."
Markham stroked his beard with a deeply furrowed brow as his guest continued to bed with a pretty serving girl he had flirted with through out the night. Could he leave his lands to meet this woman? By long tradition it was the woman who left her household to join her husband, even simply to meet with him. But then again this was an unusual situation. If the bard could be trusted than this woman would be a magnificent queen, fit to rule by his side. His councilors were a shred but trustworthy lot and his guard was filled with loyal men who had been with him in battle.
He did not sleep that night but sat in the kings bench instead, considering his options and weighing the consequences. He took no more wine or ale which might muddle his thoughts, but sat there, staring at the spot where the bard had been. When dawn came, Markham announced to his people that he would set out for this strange land in search of the foretold bride. The people cheered for it was their hope at long last to see their good and just king well married. His councilors on the other hand, warned him against it. "It is to close to the darkness of winter!" the pleaded. "It is the time when all manner of strange magic's roman the land. Stay here through the snows and wait till spring thaw to set out. If she exists at all, she will still be there come the sun."
But he would not hear of waiting. Markham set out with a full retinue behind him with the bard at their head. A kings guard came with him, and their armor shone like the light of the sun itself. His own bard and musicians came as well, and so did follow servants, cooks and stewards who could attest to the vastness of his household. It took near three days for all to travel as far as the borders of his city, and another week to come to the end of Markham's lands and holdings.
And it was then that things began to go awry.
One of the wagons slipped into a hole, breaking the axle beyond repair. Rather than wait, Markham sent back a guard to lead the wagon back to the city. That night, some of the horses wandered off into the mists and ate bog mushrooms, causing them to fall ill and their keepers had to stay with them for they could not continue. Little by little one inconvenience or another lead to more and more of his retinue being left behind, until only the kings guard were left behind, their determination and loyalty unwavering.
Nearly a moon had passed since they started their journey, and when the bard announced that they had reached the borders of his mistresses lands, the guard faltered. No marker or tower was set to show that someone rules here, but then none was needed. Great trees loomed high overhead, dappling the dusk sun across the ground. Their branches and moss clung so close together that there was not enough room for a horse and rider to pass between them. As they made camp for the night, strange sounds echoed through the woods, and lights flittered between the boughs above them.
The guards pleaded with their king not to enter, for these woods were surely cursed. "This journey has been plagued since the outset." Claimed his captain. "Please, return with us to the safety of our own borders and marry a woman of a rival to solidify alliances. It would be far wiser."
But Markham set his jaw in stubborn refusal. "I have come this far, as if you are such cowards you will not tread through some sticks and leaves to follow me than be off with you!" he shouted and bade the bard continue forward. He left behind his horse and people, taking with him only his own cloths, his sword, and the gifts he intended to present to the lady.
As they stepped into the woods, Markham turned to see if his men had gathered some steel to follow him. But he so was he surprised when he could see nothing of his guard or even of the world beyond these trees. Nothing but grey fog and blue-green trees covered his view. Markham turned back to the bard, and was somewhat comforted to see that his guide at least remained.
"Is all well my lord?" the bard asked when he saw the king had stopped.
"Quite well." Markham responded. "Only wondering how much further it is to your ladies house."
"Not far at all." He promised and lead them deeper and deeper into the woods. "Follow me god king. Follow me." He said with a strange smile.
And Markham did follow. He followed him from dawn till noon, and from noon till dusk. Then again on the next day, and the day after that. They did not stop but to sleep, the bard setting a furious pace, and on the third day the king felt himself beginning to weary, his stomach growling with hunger. But before he could chastise his guide, the bard looked to him. "We shall reach my mistresses' household by the setting of the sun tonight."
Markham smiled with relief, but as the day wore on, he began to realize his state. He had worn the same cloths four days now, slept in them on the ground and sweated in them. The smell was an unpleasant musk. He was covered in dirt and leaves and twigs and his beard was covered in mud. I can not appear before a lady as such! He realized and asked of the bard if there was a stream he might clean himself in.
The bard lead him to a pool of clear, crisp water, and Markham stripped himself of the foul garments and set about scrubbing himself thoroughly. When he was washed and felt altogether like himself again, he turned to find his cloths and made them as presentable as possible. But lo! Nothing lay on the shores. Not his cloths or gifts nor anything he had brought with him through the forest. Markham shouted angrily for the bard, cursing him and swearing what he would do if the man had stolen his goods. But all that answered him was the caw of a raven, who watched him from a branch above with a curious familiarity.
There was nothing for it. Markham would have to return to his kingdom like some poor beggar. But the woods were more difficult to navigate when then he thought. By nightfall he was thoroughly lost. A terrible downpour began to fall, and the winds chilled him to the bone as he wandered, naked and alone. Finally, he saw a light in the distance. Praying that it was not some foul spirit, which frankly he half suspected at this point, he headed towards it. Soon the smell of sweat meats roasting on a spit met his nose, and it encouraged him forward. Surely, even in this remote place, one would not ignore the laws of hospitality and the courtesy due a guest.
Markham would have been happy enough to find a humble wattle-and-daub house in which to seek shelter. But how then was his shock and joy when the trees parted and a great and magnificent household came into view. The roof was tall and peaked, with hand carved filigree in the woodwork. The posts and door was painted with reds and greens and yellows, and all the hinged and handles were wrought with silver and gold. He felt suddenly quite shabby and mean next to this place, and resolved to make amends for his appearance to whoever so dwelled here.
Suddenly, the raven appeared, swooping in from the trees and knocked three times on the great doors. To Markham's surprise they opened, and the bird stared at him, cawing as though to invite him in. The warmth from the inside beckoned to him, and Markham entered with only some reservation.
The house was well lit and deliciously warm with a great hearth in the middle of the room. There were fur rugs and great benches set against a table piled high with food! And such a feast it was! A roast board with apples and chestnuts, leek and pepper stew, buttermilk and fruit pastries, fresh baked bread and rich golden mead all set up as though company was expected. Markham hoped not. He could handle a small embarrassment of one person seeing him in such a state, but not of interrupting a part with his shabby state.
Markham ignored the voracious gnawing at his stomach and looked around for something to cloth himself in. The raven cawed loudly and landed on a bench with a set of garments lay. As he put them on, Markham was surprised to find them well fitted to his body and eyes the bird cautiously. Once dressed and warm, Markham sat at the table, refusing to give into his appetite and waiting patiently for the host to arrive.
It was not until nearly the stroke of midnight that a figure appeared in the doorway, tall and full, and Markham nearl dropped his goblet when he saw her.
She stood straight and firm, with a great regal baring. Her hair was a deep sable and curled into lazy ringlets around her shoulders and sweet oval face. Her eyes shone like honey from the hive and her lips smiled easily as she stroked her ermine mantle and greeted him. "You are Lord Markham, the great king to the west, who united the five warring lands." She said surely. "It is an honor to receive a man of your reputation in my household. I am Sidaleigh, and you are most welcome here."
Markham felt his voice catch in his throat. This was indeed a great lady he had been brought too! And to appear before her a beggar, without even a single gift to offer! Still, he was a king, and gift or no he was determined to make an impression, hopefully a favorable one. "I am Markham." He confirmed, standing himself up to full height as he recited his lands, holding, deeds and lineage for her.
Sidaleigh sat at the head of the table and listened politely to his pronouncement with a pleasant smile on her face, nodding now and again as he related all he sought to astound her with. When he finished, she bade him sit next to her at the table. "You are indeed a great man of many means." She said as he swelled with pride. "And yet…" she rebuked lightly "You could not think to bring a gift to your hostess."
Markham burned with shame. Of course she would note the terribly breech of etiquette. But the more he was near here, the less it seemed to matter, She smelled of elderberry and lavender and her skin was the color of apple blossoms. The curve of her breast showed with just the right amount to be no less than modesty and no more than immodesty. Her hips filled the chair without spilling over. He bowed to his hostess and told her what had befallen at the river, and the loss of his gifts to her, which had been no less than three jeweled pieces, a torch, a broach, and a bracelet, all golden and set with emeralds.
"A fine gift to be sure." Sidaleigh said appreciatively. "And such a shame that these were somehow filched." She eyed the raven on it's perch with an arched brow.
Markham noted this, but said nothing. "But now that I see your generosity, I think these paltry in comparison. I make you a pledge now, that I shall accomplish any task you set to me."
"Not one task, but three. Once for each gift I am owed." Said Sidaleigh.
"A fair bargain. Markham said, and it was.
And they ate and feasted and spoke. At the end of the night Markham was lead to a small cot in which to bed down for the night. He was so tired he hardly noticed, and the cot was comfortable and warm enough.
It was not until he awoke in the morning that he thought it strange for a guest to be given such low accommodations. When he had dressed and washed Markham took himself to the great room and was shocked to see that no one was there to greet him. The roaring storm had quieted and all that sat at the table was a bowl of hot oats with honey and cinnamon and a mug of fresh milk for his breakfast.
And the raven.
Once he had eaten, the raven scratched at a piece of parchment left on the table and then cawed at him demandingly. A little sour to be ordered about so by a bird, Markham picked up the parchment and read.
A good morning to you king. I am afraid a most pressing business has called me away from you for the day, but fear not. This shall present you with the time you need to complete the first task I have set for you. I the middle of the woods, past the green stoned river, you will find an oak tree thrive time three the width of a man and nine times nine his height. You must chop it down without using an ax, saw or blade and bring it to me. My raven will attend you. I will see you come evening my good king.
Markham was at once both struck with the talent of her words and the problem of her demand. "How am I to fell a tree with no blade or saw?" he said aloud. "The task your mistress sets is impossible." He shouted at the bird.
The raven eyed him as it cleaned a bit of meat from its claws.
Markham felt somewhat ignored. "I will fell this oak!" he said. "And when I return with it your mistress will see the strength of the man she marries." He stormed out, taking with him food for the day. It did not lighten his mood when the black creature appeared, flying in front of him by a few paces as though he was the one lagging behind.
It took till the sun was high to reach the great oak tree. The sheer size of it was astounding! He encircled the tree three times over and exclaimed "I could not fell this with a team of axes, much less none at all!" he stood back, considering the problem. In frustration he looked to the raven. "And what help are you meant to be?" he said and the raven cawed as if laughing.
As he stood there, the groaning sound of a tree falling reached his ears. A cloud of dust and leaves off in the distance brought his curiosity and Markham followed it. The source of the noise should not have surprised him, for it was a troop of beavers who had brought down the tree, and were now setting about the trunk to make it into their dam. An idea struck the king and he walked out softly towards the animals. "Ho there! What a fine job you have done to bring down such a might tree."
The beavers paused in their work and looked up, not familiar enough with man to fear him and called back. "Thank you kindly sir. This will make a fine dam for our families home, provided we are ever able to finish it."
"A large brood have you?" Markham observed.
"Aye that I do, but it is not my brood which prevents me." The beaver confided. "Every day, my kin, unsheltered, are picked up and eaten by a huge sea bird with massive talons and eaten! It comes while we work, and the more of our tribe we loose, the longer it takes us to fell the wood tofinish the dam!" the brown creature shook it's head sorrowfully and Markham felt genuine empathy for it.
"What if I were to show you a tree large enough that, when brought down, would provide enough wood for your home five times over?" he offered.
"You speak of the great oak." Said the beaver smartly. "Well enough, but it would take many days for us to fell it, and in that time the sea bird would easily kill many of us."
Markham stroked his beard. "I will make a deal with you beaver. Fell the great oak in three days time, and in return for half of the wood and passage to where it must go, I shall fend off the sea bird for you."
"A fair bargain that." And the two swore on it.
The beavers started in on the oak, and sure as the afternoons are hot, the raptor came, screeching it's hunger. The beavers scattered in fear, but Markham took up a long branch and swung it round with sure precision. It struck the bird smartly on its skull, and the creature soared high again, ready to dive. Again it came down, the wind tearing in it's wake, and again Markham aimed and cracked the bird, striking it into the ground. Quickly it took flight, and quickly Markham bludgeoned it when it came for its meal a third time. Finally the bird gave up, and took off into the sunset.
But the beaver spoke true. On the second day the raptor returned, and again Markham kept his word and defended the beavers. The bird once looked to win when it took hold if his arm and tore at it with talons like daggers, but Markham had suffered wounds before, and did not let the pain blind him. He brought the branch down like a sword and heard the animals foot crack! He fell to the forest floor as the bird took off again, screeching in fury at another lost meal.
On the final day, the tree was nearly chewed through. The seabirds shadow hung on the horizon and Markham was ready. He had bandaged him arm heavily, and used it to fend off the talons and beak as it tore for his flesh in rage. Finally, Markham saw his chance and took it. With all his force he brought the rod down against the bird's eye and heard the deathly snap of a skull crushing inwards. The sea bird screeched one last time and fell to the ground, dead.
The night when they brought the great oak down the river, Markham rode atop it, calling out in triumph. Sidaleigh came out to the porch and smiled as she listened to his tale. "You could have tricked them somehow." She considered. "It would not have been difficult for you."
"Perhaps…" Markham admitted. "But I had given my word to help them. A man who can not keep his word is neighbored with the meanest of beasts."
Sidaleigh's eyes lowered and her look was one of deep pleasure. They ate together gain and talked late into the night. Sidaleigh herself tended his injured arm and wrapped it tightly with a poultice so he would feel no pain. Again Markham was led to the same room as before, but now where once lay a cot was at least a proper bed, with hay filled pillows and some blankets. After 3 days with little sleep and much fighting, it was as comfortable as he could have asked for.
The next morning he rose to fruit filled breads and a thick slice of roasted ham for his breakfast. Again the lady was no where to be seen, but her note lay atop the table as the raven stood ready to accompany him.
I hope you slept well. Near the marshes over the hill lies a great grey goose who's feathers are said to be more soft and downy than any other. Capture this goose without any harm to her, and bring it to me.
As he went outside, the air had begun to turn crisp and cold, He could see his breath as he exhaled and Markham wrapped a cloak tightly about himself. The raven lead him to the marshes and once there, it did not take long to locate the goose. It left a trail of feathers all strew about its home. As he approached the nest, the goose raised its head and Markham was stunned to see it! It's wings were three times as long as he and as it saw an intruder, the goose trumpeted and beat it's wings together. A violent wind took hold, and tore saplings from their hold in the ground and near sent Markham backwards across the bogs.
The king backed away to where he could safely observe the giant goose. As he watched and considered he noted that the goose would not wander far from it's nest. Sure enough as he watched, Markham saw eggs within the next. It must have no mate to fend for it. He realized and thought to how to turn this to his advantage. The bird was huge, but lean and had plucked away many feathers from fretting over it's state.
Thinking quickly, he took the bread from his pack and knotted it up, tossing chunks towards the birds sitting. The goose craned about, looking for any intruder, and slowly snapped at the bread, gobbling it up greedily. An idea came to him and Markham slowly began to show himself. Every few hours he would appear, and before the mother goose could become angry, he would toss the bread towards her and leave. For three days he did this, each time getting a little further away from the nest. Little by little the goose came to expect his presence and especially the food he brought. On the third day he brought all the bread he could carry and lay it just far enough away that the goose would have to leave her eggs entirely to get it.
When the goose moved to eat, Markham very carefully snuck into the nest and pulled the eggs into his pack, carefully nestling them so as to not break even one. He slid up behind the mother and loosely put a rope about her long neck. From there it was no hard to lead her, with the added incentive of her eggs, back through the marshes and to Sidaleigh's home.
Sidaleigh was thrilled to see how craftily he had gained the goose's trust. "So clever." She praised. "But I did not request the eggs. Why did you bring them as well?"
"It seemed a poor sport to rob a devoted mother of her brood, simply for being hungry." Markham answered and was greatly heartened by the softness with which she brushed by his arm.
Again, they feasted and laughed, and again Markham was lead to his room. The bed was now wooden with a softer pallet and warm blankets. It was altogether more comfortable and he slept with greater ease.
He awoke to the smell of bacon and a hearty omelet with good brewed beer at the table for him. Still Sidaleigh did not appear, but her note was all the more dear.
My valiant king, in the dark of the woods past the borders of my kingdom lies a cave all strewn with the bones of men. Therein lies a great wolf with eyes as red as blood and teeth like swords. It kills far more than any one wolf needs and has intruded upon not only my domain, but those of men. Bring me it's hide, and this shall be your final gift to me.
Some men might have despaired, but Markham smiled. Finally the chance to show his prowess in battle to the lady! He went off with a glad heart and sure of triumph. For many days he traveled, always the raven leading the way. He was growing used to the birds presence, and it did not seem so strange anymore to share conversation with it in the nights.
As he left the dense woods, the sounds of animals became less and less. The ground under him went from living root and greenery to pale grey ash. The scent of trees and life faded and was replaced with that of rotting meat. The fog never departed, but where the mist in Sidaleigh's woods was cool and refreshing, this was heavy and hot and dense. He coughed as it filled his lungs and wearied his body.
And then he saw it.
The maw was large enough to fit a chariot and horse team. The paws could crush a man under them. It's fur was the color of storms and blizzards and when it's eyes opened Markham could see naught but fire and death. He did not freeze in fear, but backed slowly away, for this truly was the biggest beast he had ever laid eyes on!
Suddenly the wolf raised its head and stared at where the king was crouched behind the rocks. "Come out human." It spoke with a deep growl. "I can smell the stink of cities on you."
Without hesitation, Markham stood, his arm itching for a sword and shield…at this point he would have taken a tree branch. But he smiled as though greeting an old friend and bowed. "Hail Lord of the forests!"
The wolf scoffed. "I am no Lord, nor am I a fool little human." He bared his teeth. "The witch sent you to kill me."
"Witch?" Markham said with genuine confusion, though he had begun to realize this for himself. "I know of no witch."
The wolf laughed. "She calls herself Sidaleigh, and all that she rules was once mine." He shouted sharply. "You would be wise not to trust her foolish man, for look…" he gestured with a paw to the piles of skeletons that made his bed. "These too were her paramours, who she sent against me. They were men who sought her favor and fell to my power. Now they are but bones and offal." He looked at Markham with utter disdain. "And you bring now sword or shield with which to defend yourself?" he roared with laughter. "Run little man, before the hunger comes upon me again, and you meet your doom on my teeth!"
But Markham was determined and ran closer to the beast. "Oh but of course I could not hope to kill you!" he swore. "One bite would surely end me! Yet the moment I laid eyes upon you, I simply had to see you up close!"
"Flattery is the took of snakes, for it's hiss keeps prey still." The wolf growled out.
Oh indeed." Markham agreed, for now that I see you from this angle, I think perhaps you are not so big after all. Certainly not the biggest." He watched as the wolf bristled at such a brazen insult and snarled at him. "After all, many things can break a man's bones."
The wolf brought his face close and Markham could feel it's hot breath rank with meat. "My teeth have cracked the ribs of a giant!" he boasted.
"Shall we put it to a test then?" Markham said. "I recently found a dead animal, huge beyond belief, with bones the size of your head. Perhaps, if I brought one to you, you might prove your skill and I will return to Sida…the witch, and tell her you are not one to be trifled with."
"Or I could eat you up here and now an save myself the trouble." The wolf countered.
"You could." Said Markham. "And then show all the woods that the wolf is indeed a creature limited to the easy morsels of man meat."
The wolf roared with rage and pounced at Markham, missing him by only inches. He snarled like a demon but did not attack. "Go bring me this bone!" he thundered. "And when I have broken it, I will break you and drop your body at the witch's feet!"
Markham hurried, searching for the place where he has dropped the great raptor. It had of course been torn at by other predators, leaving the carcass well stripped. He found the biggest bone he could and took from his satchel a small dagger. With it he set about whittling small holes all throughout the bone, making sure not to drill too deep or to let the hole become too large and noticeable.
It took some time but with great strength he brought the bone back to the wolf, and by now it was snowing and quite cold. The sight of the massive beast brought no relief, as the fury in its eyes had not lessened with time. It took one look at the bone and laughed. "That?" it howled. "That is the great bone you talked of!" he swooped down upon it and began to chew, it's huge teeth making horrible sounds as the scraped against the bone.
Markham watch as the bone cracked with a deafening noise. The wolf's eyes suddenly widened and the beast began to choke. "Something wrong proud beast?" he asked and the wolf rear and began to salivate profusely.
In truth the gagging sounds were horrific, and the wolf began retching and thrashing about to dislodge the bone from it's throat. Finally it gave one last gagging sob as it fell to the ground and lay still.
"Great you were wolf." Makham said shrewdly. "But too proud by far." And he took a sharpened shard of the bone and set about the monumental task of skinning the great beast. And as he skinned, he thought on the wolves words, of all the strange happening since he set about his quest.
When he finally gave the pelt over to Sidaleigh, she received it with a strange look of sorrow ad regret. "He was great once, truly noble and wonderful, but all fell to pride and vanity and he had to be stopped." She said and turned to go inside.
"Hold now lady." Markham said and took hold of her arm. He noticed the ravens then, gathering about the trees, eyeing him with curiosity. "While I fought, the wolf spun a strange tale. A tale of bones a betrayal and witchcraft."
"Some have come before you." Sidaleigh confirmed. "All knew what they faced when they agreed to my conditions. They were proud and strong me and stood no less a chance than you." She did not turn as she spoke. "And as for your accusation of witchcraft, a woman may be much within her lifetimes, for we are creatures of survival. We are what we must become to endure." She removed his hand. "I am afraid you shall dine alone tonight my lord. I have much to attend to." And with that she disappear into the house.
Indeed Markham did dine alone that night. A terrible snow storm came through the woods, at come dawn the king knew he it was unlikely that the woods should be passable before spring. This only served to increase his suspicion. The ravens from the night before had not left, but stared at him through glass windows, while the familiar raven who had kept him company watched him closely.
He did not see Sidaleigh the net night. Nor the night after that. It was not till the full moon rose high, casting a silver pallor across the land, when she graced the table. She entered in a rich gown, decorated with golden knotwork and warm woolen cloak dyed green. "You have done well my lord." She said smoothly, her face shining with pride. "Yu have but one task left before you may take me as your wife."
"Nay" said Markham, his mind swirling with mistrust. He grabbed her roundly and brought her close to him. The raven cawed at him angrily but Markham ignored it. "I have kept my word and presented you with three gifts. I have bested your tasks and proven myself a worthy man a hundred times over." He lifted her into his arms and moved down the hall to her bedroom. Convinced that the wolf had spoken truth, Markham did not know what he planned to do, but he did know what was due him. He was due a wife, and he intended to take him one.
He kicked down the door to her bedroom and made to the bed, when the sight of it stopped him cold.
In the room lay a bed, carved of oak and wrought with the artwork of his recent deeds. The mat and pillows were stuffed with soft goose down and the bed was covered with a great wolf pelt the color of storms and blizzards. It was a bed fit for a king and his wife.
"Forgive me lord." Said Sidaleigh with coquettish annoyance. "But till now I did not have a bed large enough for a king such as you."
Markham dropped to his knees before her and begged forgiveness for his actions. Sidaleigh listened quietly till the king had exhausted his words and held up her hand for silence. "I chose you the moment I saw you to be my mate, but I had to see for myself if you were worthy to wed as a husband." She took him by the hands and lifted Markham to meet her eyes. "I spoke true when I said I did not have a bed that would fit you, and I thought it fitting that you should have a hand in making one." She took him to the pillows and smiled as she pushed back her curls. "Now Markham…I said there is but once challenge before I take you as husband."
"And that is my lady?" King Markham whispered breathlessly.
Sidaleigh bit her lower lip with excitement. "Take me to bed."