“The North Tower’s fallen,” the Queen said.
At the other end of the long dining table the King paused, fork caught between plate and mouth. “Oh? I didn’t hear anything. Are you sure?”
The Queen thought back to a summer long gone; to the balmy days of a dalliance with a foreign Prince, young and beautiful and distractingly gallant. The unfrequented North Tower was where she had toyed with him before his unfortunate demise.
“Quite,” she said. “I felt it in my bones.”
“It’ll be the bloody roof next,” the King fumed. “And where will we be without a roof?”
The Queen glanced upwards. High in the darkness pigeons cooed. Already the cold flagstones of the ancient hall lay befouled by an inch-thick layer of droppings and shed feathers. A little light might not be a bad thing. Though, once the roof went, the rest of the timbers were sure to follow; rotting in the rain, the wind, and the snow.
“Wasn’t it your Great-Grand-Uncle who built the tower?” she asked.
“Hmmph. The Mad Baron, yes.”
“Well then,” she said, a small smile on her pale lips. “It was obviously a botched job. The rest of the Castle is far more robust.”
The King harrumphed again and stabbed a ghostly morsel with a ghostly fork. By the side of his plate a mottled, tarnished-green, three-pronged echo sat in the thick dust. It was a miracle it was still there, overlooked in the sepulchre gloom. Most of the rest of the cutlery and crockery–the items that weren’t broken, leastways–had vanished over the years. Though the Castle was reputed to be haunted and was most certainly dangerously derelict, a few brave or desperate souls briefly made it their home. Until the King chased them out.
“Damned mortals!” he’d curse, a tinge of almost-red shading his enraged visage. “Can’t they damned well leave us alone!”
And then he’d mope for a week or two, slowly recovering the strength it took to stray from the dining table to which they were forever bound.
The Queen didn’t mind such trespasses. A splash of colour, of noise, of life, was welcome now and then; fair trade for a rusting plate or a cracked bowl. But sometimes they left behind more than they took. One band of brigands had ignored the still serviceable fireplaces and set up camp disturbingly close to their dining table, the scorch mark a permanent reminder. The culprits would be long dead by now. Dead, or ghosts, and what really was the difference?
Such vandalism, as much as the weather, would surely hasten the Castle’s end. Timbers wrenched loose for fuel. Remnants of the once-great tapestries made temporary bedding and then left lying for the rats to gnaw through. Stones prised from crumbling walls to block up archways, the stout wooden doors hacked through to gain entry many, many interlopers before.
The Queen wondered what would happen when the roof fell, when the walls fell, when the table they sat at was no more than a mossy shadow. Would they then be released from their chains? Or would the Castle itself become a ghost, its ethereal walls imprisoning them even though they were no more substantial than the goblet that had appeared in her hand?
With a start, she stared at the bejeweled chalice. One of a pair; a gift from the father of that tragic Prince, to thank them for their kind condolences for his only son. So it was that time again: the inevitable conclusion to every ghostly meal. Over and over again. A hundred deaths. A thousand. A million…
She shuddered and summoned the nerve to resurrect the smile on her face. Best get it over with.
“A toast, dear Husband,” she said, “To your ancestors’ superior stone masonry.”
“A toast?” he echoed, screwing up a gimlet eye, staring at the goblet’s twin, full of dark glistening liquor. “It’s not… poisoned, is it?”
“Tsk,” she sighed, “You can swap with mine if you like.”
She always offered and he never accepted. Not that it would make any difference. One thing was certain: both goblets were poisoned.
It was the simultaneous, dramatic and really rather messy death of the King and Queen that convinced the attending courtiers plague had finally struck the Castle. They fled, taking nothing with them for fear that all was contaminated, spreading the plague rumour as they went, until the Castle stood empty and forlorn, frozen in that fateful moment. Undisturbed, the King and Queen’s bodies had mouldered and decayed, their skeletons slipped from their rotted chairs, leaving their surprised ghosts eternally supping.
She knew who had poisoned her husband’s goblet: she had. A moment’s madness. The depths of a melancholy that had descended after the untimely death of her most enchanting paramour, savagely gored on a boar hunt with the King. She had suffered the sudden and stark realization that her youth was being frittered away with this jealous husband two decades her senior, with only the exhilaration of dangerous and all too brief flirtations to enlighten the tedium.
But who had poisoned her goblet? She might have supposed she’d somehow made a mistake, distracted into pouring a fatal dose into both of the brand new goblets. But why then did the King always refuse to swap?
She had long ago confessed her crime, hoping to end their eternal torment, whereas he never budged from his stance of the cruelly wronged victim.
Was that what kept them here? The not knowing?
How, after so many years, would that ever change?
She raised her wine even higher and waited until the King did the same.
And then they drank, the vengeful King a watchful moment after his unfaithful wife.
And then they died, all over again, never noticing that in each of their goblets one of the blood-red gems had dissolved into the heady wine.
And, slowly, the Castle settled into its ruin.
Liam Hogan is an Oxford Physics graduate whose award-winning short story, “Ana”, appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press). “The Dance of a Thousand Cuts” appears in Best of British Fantasy 2018. He lives and avoids work in London.
Check out Liam’s work at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk