The Tenth Ghost
The old woman sits beside the fire, and the children gather around her to listen to a story before thye are taken to bed. Some of the little ones ask for their favourite tales, but their elder siblings sit quiet, knowing their grandmother always chooses the tales herself, according to what she remembers, for although her memories are clear they come to her like doves to a dovecote, one at a time, whenever they wish, not like dogs to their master, all at once when summoned.
"Now, children, listen you well, and Granny will tell a tale of the time when she was just a wee little girl, like Bolka here, or maybe a bit older, Fantal's age, it's been so long Granny can't remember for certain."
The little girl with the brown braids mutters 'Billa', for Bolka is her eldest sister's name, the one who was married away last year. The boy, Gera, doesn't correct Granny's mistake for he knows she will forget it again tomorrow, and besides he doesn't mind being called by his father's name, in fact he is flattered to be mistaken for a grown man. He is not quite old enough yet to realize that Granny mistakes him for another slim, red-haired little boy with a freckled face, who sat at her knee listening to these same tales.
"It's been so long indeed, that Angrif the Wise wasn't Djun yet. His father, Grohmul the Terrible, he was Djun. Angrif, now, Th'reksht has granted him a long life and many blessings as befits a good and just ruler. But Grohmul was different. He was brave, and he was wise, and he was a great man until he made one unforgivable mistake. He cast down the temples and the sacred places of Th'reksht and his sacred spirits, and declared himself god in their place. Th'reksht is not called the Wrathful for nothing, and the Lord of the Heavens took offence and sent the sacred spirits to cast down the proud Djun.
"My aunt was a servant in the palace kitchens. And in those days men cursed by the Djun, and sometimes 'by the Djun's Nine Headless Wives'. For nine wives the Djun had had, and each one was dead. And the servants and guards saw their ghosts in the palace sometimes, white and mournful shapes as intangible as mist."
The children listen silently now, and the smaller ones lean a bit closer to their siblings for safety. The very smallest boy puts his thumb in his mouth for comfort, and the eldest girl, his cousin, who would usually scold him for such babyish behavior, sits staring rapt, now, because she remembers this story and it is her favourite. Granny lifts up all her gnarled fingers before her, then bends one little finger down.
"The first one was his own cousin, and he married her when he was young himself and she only fifteen years. It was an arranged marriage, and it lasted five years. They had no children. The Djun accused her of plotting treason with her brother, and both were executed for it. Her ghost is that of a young girl in a nightskirt, her hair open, and she appeared in windows and doorways, crying with no sound."
A second finger is bent down. The children stare, imagining the fingers to be ladies losing their heads.
"The second one was a servant girl he fell in love with and made a Duchess. She bore a child but got accused of adultery and the child was disinherited and no-one knows what became of it. Her ghost is a lady in a wide ball-gown, a coronet on her hair, who appeared at the top of the great stairs, then vanished, and was seen again a moment later at the bottom of the stairs, standing straight but now headless. It is said the Djun cut off her head with his own very sword."
Another finger is bent, then another, one by one the grandmother tells the stories:
"The third one was a princess from a distant land. All was well for a few years and she gave birth to Angrif himself, and to Gifa his sister. But the father of the princess proved a disloyal ally, or so it was said, and the Djun suspected she would not be a good mother for his heir and had her locked away to a country estate. Her children were raised by others. A few moontides went by and the woman was found dead, by her own hand or so it was thought, until her ghost was seen in the Citadel. She was tall and exotic, and a smell of incense floated about her, and her gold braclets could be heard jingling soflty as she walked, and to everyone who had the courage to face her the wraith whispered: 'He was my death.'
"The fourth one was a lady of the first level from the city. She, too, was accused of adultery and the Djun killed her with his own hands. Her ghost appeared at the top of the Tower of Nobles, dressed in a long cloak flowing in an unseen wind. She seemed to be gazing upon the city of her birth but if one watched long enough one saw the hood of the cloak blown down, revealing a severed, headless neck.
"The fifth one was the daughter of a country noble seeking some special favor. She spoke out of turn once, criticizing her husband in public, and the Djun had her executed for that. Her ghost appeared in the weaving room, which was her favourite place while she lived. If someone entered the room at night she might be seen bent over some empty loom, weaving the rays of the moons into a shining fabric. Unlike the other ghosts she did not seem unhappy at all.
"The sixth one was a distant relative of the Djun, a third cousin perhaps. She was plain-faced but known as a woman of wisdom, and it is said the Djun listened to her advice sometimes in small matters of the household, which is more than can be said of her precessors. But once she made the mistake for asking her husband to pardon a criminal sentenced to death, because she pitied the man and thought he was innocent. The Djun announced his judgment was not to be questioned by anyone, and had his wife executed together with the criminal, which made the common people think they were killed for adultery. Her ghost…
One of the girls interrupts:
"What was her name? What were their names?"
"Oh, if those I ever heard I have long since forgotten. Angrif Djun's mother, the princess, was called Fanlath, Granny knows that because she's seen it writ on lady Gifa's memorial stone. Born of Grohmul Djun and Fanlath, so it says.
"Now, where was I? I wish you didn't interrupt me." She looks at her fingers.
"Ah yes, the sixth, her ghost. She walked the corridors below stairs, among the servants. Granny's aunt saw her once, drifting past the kitchen door. She was finely dressed, all in black velvet shadows, with pearls like little moons embroidered on them, shining with ghost-glimmer. And all the keys of the household hang from her belt and her grim expression was that of a steward making rounds, supervising the workers. Sometimes she frowns at those who stare at her too long and they instinctively go back to their work. The servants called her the Pearl Mistress, and it may be that was her nickname in life already.
"The seventh was another lady of the first level, a widow this time. She did not remain in the Citadel long, for the Djun was losing control of his own fears and he accused her of having poisoned her first husband and planning to poison him as well. She was executed for treason and her head was stuck on a pole above the gates. Her ghost was a headless shadow that was sometimes seen near the Djun's old private quarters, but much more often her voice was heard weeping softly in empty rooms.
"The eighth one they called a princess, but she was nothing but a temple dancer from a conquered land, brought as some kind of war trophy. She was soon accused of adultery and the Djun had her executed – this time he did not kill her himself, as he had done to the earlier ones blamed for that crime. Her ghost walked in the gardens just before the first light of dawn, wearing a foreign-style gown, her lips painted dark and tears flowing from her large, cohl-rimmed eyes.
"The ninth one was a beautiful young noblewoman from the country, courted by many and known for her chaste and gentle ways. The court was hopeful this would be a good match at last, and the wedding was the grandest ever seen in the city. Soon the nobles had cause for more rejoicing – the lady was with child. But the Djun overheard her praying to Th'reksht in the Citadel chapel, for there was still a chapel, he hadn't declared himself god yet, and what the lady secretly prayed for was that her child would be a boy and would be named an heir to the Djun. He interpreted this as treason, since none but he had the right to name his heir, not even a god, and he was satisfied with young Angrif. So he accused the young wife of treason and cut her head off with his sword right there on the chapel, thereby killing the unborn child as well. Her headless ghost, visibly pregnant, haunted the chapel, knelt in prayer, until the Djun had the place destroyed when he outlawed Th'reksht and his priesthood."
The old woman pauses. One of her fingers, a forefinger in the right hand, is still raised upright.
"Who knows who this finger stands for? Tell Granny."
"The baby?" Suggests a girl obviously shocked by the last story. She is fingering nervously the sacred symbol strung on a cord around her neck for protection. The symbol is the shape of a point-eared, large-eyed little man.
"The Old Djun?" The boy Gera guesses, knowing from the other stories that the Djun did fall and die.
But the eldest girl, whose favourite tale this is, remembers the answer:
"It's Venovel, you silly." She chides her cousin Gera.
"You have it right, Calla. Venovel it is." Calla is the girl's aunt, Billa's poor mother, who died giving birth to her youngest, the little boy sucking his thumb half-asleep now, and had her three children adopted by her well-to-do merchant brother, which is part of the reason there are so many little ones in this household, and also part of the reason why the eldest girl, Alija, feels she has to look after her cousins. Alija doesn't mind being mistaken for their mother, she certainly feels she is doing her best practising to become a mother someday, and besides she knows not to interrups Granny. The old woman bends down the last finger and rests her hands in her lap.
"Venovel it was, the lady who came from nobody knows where, appeared all of a sudden like a ghost herself. Flesh and blood she was but some say she did not have a human heart in her breast, for she had sold her heart to the Lord of the Graves to become a witch. And they say she seduced the Djun to follow her wishes, and that it was her enchantment that made him defy Th'reksth and brought the wrath of the Lord of the Heavens upon him. And the spirits appeared from the clouds in the sky and from the breast of the earth and from the Mountain of Thorns, and they walked shadow-silent past all the guardians and appeared to the Djun just as he was about to execute Shuna the Brave, she who had led the people to rebel against him. That is a long story and I've told it often enough, about the Spirit Crystals and the Downfall of the Citadel and the Peace Hounds made by Venovel's magic. For now I'll say, no one knows what Venovel was, but they do know the Djun, mortally wounded, took his great axe and cut off Venovel's head and then died himself. And the head when they found had pointed ears like a spirit, and the corpse it was cut from had four fingers to each hand, but the clothes were Venovel's. Few saw her alive for the Djun kept her hidden at first, and she did not leave the Citadel or appear at any celebration beside him, and indeed they were not formally wed, for there was no longer a priest to wed them, the Djun having destroyed all worship but the worship of his own self.
"Your Granny saw Venovel once. I was playing in the outer yard with the servant's children, and suddenly I felt eyes on myself, and when I looked up there she stood on a high balcony, and I thought she was the fairest woman in the whole world. She had turned her eyes away from us already and her features were more perfect than any statue, and her hair was long and a rich, shining brown. And she smiled, and turned, and walked back in. None of the other children saw her and they did not believe when I spoke of her, but when I described her to my aunt who was looking after me because my mother was ill, she said it must be Venovel, for no-one else would stand on the Djun's own balcony.
"Granny has told you of her Auntie Gemma and how Auntie Gemma saw spirits in the kitchen the night the Citadel fell, this was the very same aunt who was looking after me when I saw Venovel, she was my mother's younger sister. And now, children, it is time for you to go to the land of dreams. I see little Kathro is sleeping already, his thumb in his mouth, the wee darling."
Granny actually remembers Kathro's name right, at least this time. The children complain, wanting to hear more, one girl about the princess Fanlath, her brother about the headless ghosts and how it was possible for someone without a head to weep, and one calls for Shuna's story, and so forth. But little Billa has noticed this story wasn't complete. Something is missing.
"What about her ghost? Venovel's ghost? What was it like?"
It is a fair question, since the grandmother seems to have described the ghosts more vividly than the women they had been while alive. May of the smallest ones fear they would see nightmares of headless women that night. Some of the eldest almost hope they would, for there is something fascinating in all those mournful shadows, and something oddly comforting in the calm one who wove moonlight and the dutiful Pearl Mistress walking her silent rounds below stairs in a Citadel long lost into legends.
But Alija smiles, for she remembers the ending, and waits for it appreciatively. Granny, too, seems to have hoped for this question to give more effect to her words:
"There wasn't a ghost. The Old Djun's grim shadow was sometimes seen in the ruins, even in the new Citadel, as were the Nine Headless Wives – indeed, Granny remembesr a tale of the fifth, calm one weeping, not for the fire or the war or the long-ago loss of her own life, but for the sight of a broken loom in the ruins at her feet.
"But not Venovel. Never a ghost for her was there seen, not once."
And somehow the children all know without being told that this lack of a ghost is more scary than any ghost could possibly have they sit silent, until the mother comes to scold the grandmother, her mother-in-law for frightening them with such horrid tales and to hurry them into bed and pick the sleeping little Kathro in her arms, gently taking his thumb from his mouth for he is too old for that, really. But the mother, who has laid down her sewing and sat listening for most of it, hasn't interrupted the story for she has enjoyed it altogether too much herself.