FREE Extract: The Princess In The Threadbare Gown

Since the events in this story unfolded, the people of the Shadow Valley have been hanging Jongeliers from their porches, front doors and gateposts.

Jongeliers— if you didn’t already know— are effigies of famous people who suffered terrible ordeals to protect the people they loved. They are usually several feet tall, made of broken wicker, worn out clothes and old socks, stuffed with rags and spices. But the most important part of the Jongeliers are their terrifying faces: drawn, stitched and carved to frighten anyone who would look upon them…

* * *

Almost a hundred years ago, Toseland and Alice met on a busy flagstone courtyard in the underground city of Los Kralice during the Evenlight Festival. The star-crossed lovers stood staring into each other’s eyes as music and dancers skipped about them. But, instead of this being the start a wondrous love story, it was the origin of something that should never have been.

Alice was the daughter of Edvard Mistry, a wealthy doktor who had preordained her entire future: a first-rate education, an apprenticeship in the Healing Halls at San Cristophe, a position at his Practice in Los Kralice, marriage to a man of position and power, and a litter of intelligent, obedient children.

Toseland, however, worked as a hawkshaw: a lowly detective, a spy. He was not the sort of man that Doktor Edvard Mistery wanted for his daughter. But it was this very occupation that led Toseland into the doktor’s employ. He was commissioned to investigate a succession of men for the hand of Alice Mistery. He followed each man, day on day, week on week. They were exactly the kind of men that Doktor Mistery was looking for: wealthy, hard-working, diligent and loyal; men that would take the heart of the woman he loved.

So, Toseland lied to Doktor Mistery. He cast them all with a variety of crippling dependencies: Opium, Gin, The Green Dragon, and the lustrous affections of numerous women. Doktor Mistery was confounded and utterly baffled, but suspicions soon rose in his mind.

After reporting his lies to Doktor Mistery one afternoon, Toseland went to the bandstand in the park where Alice waited for him every day. He spoke to her about the men he was following and the false reports that he had given to her father. He confessed to her that he could not compete with these men, but she kissed him tenderly and informed him that no man— no matter how rich, or arresting, or powerful— would ever change her heart.

Toseland smiled and held her close, but his happiness soon faded as Doktor Edvard Mistery descended upon them. Toseland apologised for his heinous lies, confessed his undying love for Alice and pleaded with the doktor to let him have her hand in marriage. Doktor Mistery laughed bitterly in his face. “You?” the doktor said. “A detective, a spy— a liar. Never, sir. You shall never marry my daughter, my Princess. I promise you that no man or beast, ill-wind or treacherous sea, will stand between me and the death of your love.”

The doktor went limp and crashed to the floor. Toseland watched him fall, his legs folding underneath him as he went down. Alice Mistery stood over her father, a bloodied rock in her quivering hand.

* * *

Toseland and Alice left Los Kralice immediately. They travelled for several days, until they came to a village on the far side of a vast river. In the village a farmer offered them food and shelter for the price of a days work. They agreed and began herding cattle, weighing corn and ploughing the fields. Alice and Toseland collapsed into bed that night and slept as soundly as they had ever done. In the morning the farmer offered them more work and they agreed.

A day turned into a week. A week into a month. A month into six.

Alice Mistery married Toseland Jeremiah AppleGarth on christmas day in the village square beneath the moon and the stars and the gently falling snow. Toseland built a small home for them in the village with timber and thatch. Alice filled their home with straw for a bed and built a cookfire every night to prepare supper. By day they worked the farm, by night they sat in the warmth and security of their home, hand in hand, arm in arm.

And, with each passing day, their thoughts of Doktor Edvard Mistery and his dark promise of destroying their love drifted further and further from their minds.

* * *

It was a year to the day after the marriage of Toseland and Alice, when the alarm sounded through the village. Cries of panic and distressed tore through the streets as the villagers woke to a terrible horror. Half a dozen men were showing signs of infection: an abominable skin disease of fetid, infectious pustules that bubbled with puss and corruption.

The disease soon spread through the village, but only targeted the men. Every woman sat and watched as her husband, or father, or brother, or son, came down with the ghastly affliction. They pooled their money and sent word to Los Kralice for help.

Now, Alice was immediately aware that her father— the very doktor that they had ran away from— might come right to her door. But, looking into the hollow eyes of her husband, the virus swarming through his veins, she knew that this was a risk she had to take.

Two days later, as most of the women had taken to the fields, three doktors on horseback came to the village. They were dressed from head to toe in black robes: heavy waxed overcoats, masks with circular glass eyelets, and a nose shaped like a ravens beak to hold incense and spices.

They harnessed their horses, slung rifles over their shoulders and took a small boat across the river to the village. They whisked through the dwellings, checking on every man, father, brother and son. “There is little hope,” the doktors said finally. “These men are victims of a vicious plague that is sweeping the countryside.”

The women that had remained in the village to care for the sick protested violently, insisting that something must be done.

“There is nothing we can do,” the doktors said, reaching for their rifles. “Except end their suffering.”

At gunpoint, the doktors forced the women back. “Bring them out!” they ordered. “Bring out the infected.”

The women refused and told the doktors to leave at once.

“The plague must be eradicated, burned from existence, by order of the Pharmacon in Los Kralice.”

The women held fast, barricading the doktors from leaving the village square.

“Move aside,” the doktors implored. “Or you leave us no choice.”

Gunfire echoed across the fields.

The doktors forced the disease-ridden men out of their homes and into the village square where the women lay dead. One of the doktors uttered a short benediction before the ear-splitting noise began again. One by one the infected men dropped to the ground, gunshot wounds exploding from the backs of their heads. Some tried to run, but they were gunned down in the street, screaming, clawing the muddied earth. The doktors piled the bodies in the middle of the square and set them alight. Using dry branches, they transferred the fire to every home in the village. Soon, the entire village was nothing but fire, smoke and death.

The gunfire had alerted the women who were working the fields. They’d dropped their scythes and sheers and ran like thunder towards the village. As the women returned, they found a terrible human bonfire blazing in the town square. Across the water, three doktors sat on horseback, watching silently, their black masks removed.

The women screamed at them, wailing bloody vengeance. Finally, they collapsed, exhausted onto the dry earth, crying like children. But one woman continued to stand as the village fell into a smouldering ruin behind her. Alice stood tall, her eyes locked on Doktor Edvard Mistery— her father, the man who had put the men and her village to the flame.

Doktor Mistery saw Alice standing, watching. He dismissed her at first, for she was covered in dirt and clad in a threadbare gown. But then, as the smoke began to clear, he saw that it was his daughter, his hope and joy, his Princess.

Alice turned to the heartbroken women around her. “Our husbands are gone; our fathers, brothers and sons, too. I for one cannot live in a world without my love. Can you?”

The women shook their heads, tears falling to the earth.

“Then we must go to join them,” she said. “The river will have for us. The tide will pull us down and we will let it. Water shall fill our lungs and we will welcome it. We shall not struggle. We shall not fight. We will make Death afraid to take us!”

Alice pulled a rock from the earth and dug it into her palms. Blood bubbled to the surface. The women mimicked her and joined hands in a ritualistic blood pact by the waters edge. The line moved forward until they were perched on the riverbank, toes curled over the lip; hot, fresh blood splashed on their feet.

“Alice!” Doktor Mistery screamed. “Don’t do this. Get away from the edge.”

Alice gave her father an empty smile before leading the women down into the water below. The doktor jumped from his horse as their bodies plunged into the turbulent river. Not one of them struggled, not one of them fought; they simple dwindled and sank.

Edvard Mistery knelt by the bank, thrashing around in the water, desperately searching for his daughter, but it was utterly hopeless. His colleagues came to his side and pulled him away, his face struck with fright and disbelief. But then, to his horror, a figure emerged through the smoke and flames on the other side of the water. Doktor Mistery twitched as the figure came into focus, bile rising in his throat.

Toseland Jeremiah AppleGarth stood upon the bank, swaying to and fro.

The doktor jumped up, rifle in hand. “She killed herself for you!” he yelled across the river. “She threw her life away thinking you were dead!”

Toseland stared towards the direction of the voice, smoke billowing around him. It was a voice that he recognised, one that he knew, one that he’d hoped never to hear again.

Doktor Mistery perched upon a rock, rifle pinned to his shoulder, finger pressed to the trigger. The bullet was a direct hit. Toseland spun like a top and crumpled to the ground.

The doktor dropped to his knees and cried for his daughter, but his grief was short lived. A shiver of dread crept through his bones; a dark chill that hardened in his veins and cloaked his heart with shadows.

Suddenly, and without warning, night descended.

The river turned grey as though all colour had been bled away. Ominous clouds formed in the sky, urgent and prickling with energy, as a dark wind whipped at the three doktors, lashing the water into a chaotic frenzy.

Doktor Edvard Mistery watched with horror as a dozen figures, rose silently from the colourless water. Their faces were hidden behind wet hair, congealed with mud and moss, their once white clothes, dirty and ragged. They glided to the rivers edge and mounted the banks as spray and dirt catapulted through the air. They shuffled forward, arms outstretched, fingers clawing, heads drenched and stooping.

“River Wraiths,” the doktor whispered, backing away as they approached. The River Wraiths gathered speed, like a howling wind, and scooped up the doktor’s colleagues. Screaming and begging, the River Wraiths dragged them into the violent water.

Doktor Mistery inched away as one of the River Wraiths crept towards him. She angled her head and glowered through her sodden hair. “Fa-ther,” she hissed.

The doktor’s skin turned to ice. “Alice?” he whispered. “What have you done?” But she said nothing, just advanced steadily towards him. “Be gone, River Wraith!” he yelled. Shaking with fear, he pulled a wooden crucifix from beneath his leather robes and held it high. “Be gone, Demon Child!” The River Wraith kicked the cross away, gnashing her teeth and growling like a primal beast. “Return to the depths where you belong,” he cried, his voice failing, his heart breaking.

Alice smiled cruelly at her father. “You did this,” she snarled, standing over her father on the muddy bank, dripping with dirt and filth. “I am nothing—”

“No!” the doktor screamed. “I love you, Alice. I will always love you.”

“How can you love this?” she said. “I am nothing but anger and revenge.”

“There is love in you,” he urged. “I know it.”

“My love it dead,” she replied. “You killed him.”

The doctor’s face was coated with fear, twisted and deranged. Every inch of his flesh crawled. Icy shivers and a sickening wave of bile swept through him again. He rose to his feet and took a step towards the River Wraith, towards his daughter, towards Alice. She sneered, coughing and hacking up mouthfuls of dark water. He moved again, his face promising to break into tears. “Go back,” he demanded. “Return to your watery grave!” He moved closer.

“We shall return,” Alice promised, stepping away. “If we cannot have love, then none shall have it. On this day— the shortest of the year— we will return to these shores and destroy all that love has built.”

“Then, for as long as I live, I shall be here to stop you,” the doktor said, struggling hold his composure.

“But one day you will be gone.” The River Wraith’s laughed in unison as they returned to the water, chanting, “One day. One day. One day—” They descended until all but their eyes and scalp were submerged. Their eyes bore into Doktor Edvard Mistery as he scrambled up the bank to retrieve his horse. Then, as swiftly as they had come, the River Wraiths slipped beneath the surface and were gone.

* * *

So, on the eve of the shortest day of the year, it is said that the River Wraiths return to the banks of the river to eradicate love and happiness. But the people of the Shadow Valley protect themselves with their Jongeliers, their wooden effigies of Doktor Edvard Mistery who returned to the waters edge every year to look into his daughter’s eyes and use his love to force the River Wraiths back into the cold, dark, forgotten of the River Myr.

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