The restraints tightened as the man on the bed stretched forward. “Let me tell you a story.”
There sat in a far off place a lamp post, the only one of its kind. Underneath it gathered three characters. They hailed from different worlds. A scholar, of proud bearing and rich dress, came from the highlands to the north. A farrier travelled up from the south, he reeked of iron and dung. Last, to round out the cast, was a bonepicker. Where she came from nobody knew. They gathered beneath a burning gaslight on a warm summer night. They gathered to tell each other stories, of truth, of fiction and between. For just as one was honest so was the next a liar. The farrier always went first. He told his tale thusly.
Once there was a desperate woman. Her love had grown sick and she knew not how to cure him. A passing witch told her of a sacred herb grown only in the northern forest. In those days the forest was ruled by a great wolf. Proud and strong, the wolf had sworn an oath to halt the advance of man. None left alive dared test his savagery. Yet still, she went into the forest.
The wolf saw her fruitless search and approached in the guise of a hunter.
“What are you doing child? Do you not know of the wolf? Run or he will find you."
She started at his appearance for even disguised the wolf could not hide his predatory gaze “Sir I know the tale well but my love lies dying. I must find the herb that can save him."
“You would steal from the forest to save a man?”
“He is the world to me. If I cannot help him then the wolf may take me."
The woman’s words stirred something in the wolf’s heart.
“Foolish words little one but the wolf may hear them still. What would you give the forest for this love of yours?”
“He has but to name it sir. My life, my wealth, anything,” she said, hope rising at his words.
The wolf’s human guise fell away. “When your love’s colour returns visit this glade once more. My price is your company."
She shrank back in terror but her voice stayed strong “I agree.”
The wolf smiled and was gone.
The woman found the herb in her basket and hurried home. She nursed her love back to health until his cheeks were filled with colour. The couple rejoiced but when asked how she had saved him she made no mention of the forest. The wolf was left alone.
The three loitered. The gaslight flickered softly. His thoughts composed the scholar rose. He launched into his tale with glee.
Once there was a hopeless woman. Her name lost to time, not so her crime. She stood accused of the oldest profession. Dragged before the magistrate they heard evidence from her clients. She told them of her tragedy. Of a husband dead from war and the struggle for survival.
The magistrate, a powerful noble, was touched. Not by her words but by her looks.
“This woman suffered greatly and fell through no fault of her own,” he declared.
“I believe it only just to commute her sentence. Let her serve in my household. Through honest work she may earn her freedom."
The local priest was disgusted by such blatant designs. She stepped forth, robes billowing about her. “There can be no excuses before God. Let her face the full brunt of her punishment. Only God forgives."
The noble frowned in irritation. That the church might contest with him! “She is as much a victim of circumstance as a criminal. God will understand when our love saves her soul."
The priest's ire was truly roused. “Circumstance? This woman sinned and with knowledge of the consequence. She corrupted our community and will continue to do so until justice is extracted in full measure."
The noble gestured to his guards. “God loves the weak and puts it to us to save them with our strength. I myself swear before god to take this wayward child and mould her into a saint."
The priest lifted her sceptre, that all could see the mark of God upon it. “She will taint the both of you. Let God's will be done."
“In this court I am God's will and justice both. I have spoken, let it be done,” said the noble. His guards laid their hands upon the woman.
It was then a stranger interceded. He had dallied in the court a while, observing the proceedings with curious eyes. What provoked him to act was a mystery. He stood between the woman and the court, between man and God’s will. The guards retreated as if from fire. For a moment he beheld her face. He knew her fear, her guilt, her shame.
“Who dares?” cried priest and noble both.
The stranger clicked his fingers and they burned down to the bone.
“This is my justice. Go and remember its price."
The woman stared at two charred corpses and the stranger's terrible smile. From the court she fled and sinned no more.
The group pondered morals such as they were. At last they turned to her. The quiet bonepicker felt out of place, plucking at her overalls. She had no fire in her eyes, or power in her voice. She had nothing but the words to begin her tale.
Once there was a woman, called to a scene. She was bid enter a room, priests cowering by the door. The chamber was cold, as suited its inhabitant. She spied the bed, to which a broken body was bound. It had been a man, once. She approached him soundlessly but his eyes unshut. They bore into what was left of her soul. The restraints tightened as the man on the bed stretched forward. “Let me tell you a story,” he hissed.
Once there was a useless woman, called into a scene.
“Stop!” cried the scholar.
“It’ll just go round and round,” agreed the farrier.
A noose hung from the lamp post. The bonepicker felt it tighten about her throat.
“Let me try again,” she said, to the screaming in her skull.
Once there was a woman leaving the room.
“Too late,” said the bonepicker.
Once there was a woman.
The bonepicker reached toward the bed. The man screamed, lashing at her in rage. With a touch she steadied him; with a clawed hand she wrenched the demon from his breast. It hissed and scratched uselessly, stories shattering around it on the floor “Once there was a woman! Once there was a bonepicker!”
“Yes,” she replied. “I am here."
She swung the demon against the wall. Its wail shook the halls. She dashed it twice, then thrice. On the third blow it shattered. The echo of its howls died away. A man lay on the bed, snoring peacefully. She loosed his restraints, they were no longer needed.
As she left, priests and doctors flooded in. One caught her before she flew.
“Was it difficult? What did the creature say?”
“It is done, that is enough."
“No other could have done it. It murdered two of our own."
“Do not call me again."
“I’m sorry but-“
But she left him behind.