Child of Darkness
by D J Tyrer
“Robur scares me,” the Queen told her husband. He didn’t disagree.
Robur was their son, the Crown Prince. They had wished so deeply for him, yet now repented of that wish.
“We ought never to have called upon the blessings of the Dark Mother,” the King agreed. “Her blessings always come with a price.”
Thirteen years earlier, the royal couple had been childless and desperate. Enquiring of all their advisors, priests and sorcerers, nothing they had attempted had ensured the conception they so desperately sought until an old crone had come to them, saying, “Seek you the sacred Tree of the Dark Mother for there your wish shall be fulfilled.”
Together they had followed the crone into the darkest and coldest part of the woods where a strange tree grew; if it was a tree at all.
The Sacred Tree bore no leaves and had a tarry flesh rather than bark. The branches of the tree quivered as if in a stiff breeze, yet the air was totally still. The King and Queen shivered as they gazed upon it.
“The Sacred Tree is the eldest Son of the Dark Mother who mated with The Great Unnameable at the very dawn of time,” the crone proclaimed. Turning to the Queen, she told her: “Go to it, Your Majesty, and embrace it and your wish shall come true.”
So, she had, approaching it cautiously. As she drew near, the branches snaked down and embraced her. Willingly, she gave herself over to the Tree and, nine months later, Robur was born.
“His hair moves when there is no breeze,” the Queen observed, shuddering at the memory of the tree’s caress. Although his skin was pallid, his hair was as black as the flesh of the tree.
“Not a one of the governesses we have engaged to watch over him has stayed more than a few months.”
“That will change now that he is on the cusp of manhood. He shall have a tutor in the courtly arts and a swordsman to educate him in the martial sciences. That will toughen him up, instil some discipline in him.”
“I hope so…”
Robur was never happy. As the Crown Prince, so much was expected of him, yet even the most basic and fundamental of those assumptions was wrong.
“Why?” Robur asked the empty air, hair curling in agitated contemplation, “must I be a boy when that is not who I am?”
In his heart and soul, Robur knew that, in reality, she was a girl no matter how her body appeared and no matter how nobody believed her protestations. If only they would give her the chance, she would prove it to them.
The door opened and Robur’s father entered, a little warily.
“Hello, son,” he said, stiffly.
Robur winced, but did not answer.
“We shall be having a Grand Ball in a week’s time,” the King said. “The Royal Tutor will measure you for a new outfit.”
“I want to wear a dress.”
“Foolishness!” exclaimed the King. “Foolishness! The Royal Tailor will measure you for a new outfit and you shall wear it. You will comport yourself as befits the Crown Prince of this land and uphold the dignity of our house.”
Robur sighed and nodded, wishing it were not so.
The tailor arrived and Robur allowed himself to be prodded and measured, loathing every moment of it. Then, they left Robur alone again, repeating her question to the air.
“Why do you accept that that is how things must be?” asked a nasal voice, startling her from her reverie.
Robur turned to see a figure crouching on the sill of the window. The room was several floors above the ground.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Why are you here – and what do you want of me?”
The figure eased itself into the room and Robur recoiled in horror: it was like a man in general outline, only the head was adorned with long, pointed ears and an elongated snout, and what she momentarily took to be britches were in fact the shaggy cloven-hoofed legs of a goat. The skin was dark like pitch.
“What are you?”
“Your grandmother was my mother at my second birth, so I suppose that makes me your uncle.” The creature paused to scratch the thick, matted fur of its belly. “Once, I was a normal man, a woodsman, but I gave myself over to the carnal rites of the Dark Mother and, on the holiest of her holy nights, she devoured me and reshaped me within her churning womb and rebirthed me in this manner, a loyal servant of hers till the end of time.”
“The Dark Mother? My grandmother? I don’t understand…”
The creature ignored her questions and stepped over to her, its legs moving as if they had additional joints. Reaching out a gnarled hand, it seized Robur’s chin and tilted her head to better examine it.
“Your face is a pallid mask like that of your grandfather, but your hair is reminiscent of your father.”
“My hair,” stated Robur, “is nothing like my father’s hair; his hair is a sort of golden colour.”
The creature that called itself her uncle laughed. “Oh, the King may have raised you and may be married to your mother, but he is no father to you: your father was the first-born son of the Dark Mother and her consort, The Great Unnameable, conceived at the very dawn of time, a mighty tree not a man.”
“Yes, a tree. Well, of sorts: as much a god as its parents ever were. That is why your mother named you so, after the oak, for she knew the caress of the Sacred Tree.”
“Wait – so, I’m the son of a tree?”
“Uh-huh. Your mother felt the caress of the Sacred Tree and bore you; she and the King could not conceive together.”
“And the tree…?”
“Was the first born of two deities at the dawn of time.”
“But, I haven’t heard of such gods…”
“Your… parents should have taught you.”
“They have told me of Tamash and gods such as he…”
“Oh, the Dark Mother is much, much older than they.”
“But, still, you haven’t answered my questions as to why you came here.”
“I came because you called to the Dark Mother and she has heeded your prayers: oh, not consciously, perhaps, but I heard you calling out just then and your grandmother hears all your cries.”
“So… what? Have you come to help me in some way?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, indeed.”
“But, how do you plan to help me?”
“I bring you the advice you have not dared consider.”
She didn’t answer, just looked at the being, her brow furrowed.
“How do the story-tellers put it? Oh, yes: You shall go to the ball!” He gave a mock bow, then continued: “I shall bring you a most beautiful gown and you shall go as your true self.”
“How will you get me a dress?”
“Oh, there’s an elderly seamstress who is very grateful to me.” He leered. “Very grateful, indeed!”
The night of the Grand Ball arrived and Robur was duly seen at its opening as the King commanded. But, then, Robur slipped away, back to the room where the half-man was waiting, a package in his hands.
“Here you go,” he said, passing it to Robur and bowing. “A dress fit for a princess, your majesty.”
Robur unwrapped it, pulled it on and turned before the mirror to admire it. “It’s beautiful, but…”
“But? But? Do not lose heart now!”
“But, I don’t look right…”
“Well, your hair should be no problem: you have something of your grandmother’s plasmic nature in it. Will your hair to grow and shape itself as you desire.”
She did so and watched in fascination as her hair lengthened and took a fashionable wave.
“As for makeup…” The half-man handed her a box. “I am no expert in its application, but I have known enough women that I might guide you. The trick is not to apply it too heavily if you know not the techniques.”
Opening the box, Robur began to apply the colours to her face whilst the half-man watched, cautioning her now to go lightly, and to follow the curves of her bone-structure until she clapped her hands in delight, saying, “I look like me!”
“And, most beautiful you are,” he told her, kissing her hand.
“Go, wow the court!”
And, wow she did: every young buck desired to dance with her and all wondered who she was.
“My name,” she told them, “is Willow.” It had seemed to make sense to maintain the arboreal meaning of her name.
But, there was one person in the hall who saw past her transformation, who knew that Willow was Robur: her mother.
“Who is that mystery maiden?” the King queried.
“It… it’s Robur!” the Queen exclaimed. “See how the hair moves of its own accord? It is our son in some mocking disguise!”
“Can it really be?”
“Could there be two so alike? Look, see the face is the same beneath the makeup.”
Shocked, the King stepped forward and declared it to the assembled court, stunning them into shocked silence, adding:
“Guards! Seize Robur!”
Willow span and ran for the doors, guards close behind.
Bursting through them, she saw the half-man waiting for her, calling, “This way!” She followed him through a maze of passageways used exclusively by servants and out into the palace grounds.
“How did you know where to go?”
“Oh, I use them to rendezvous with the odd serving-maid…” he grinned.
“Where are we going to?” she asked as they slipped through a culvert beneath the outer wall.
“I’m taking you to meet my brothers. You will stay with us and learn to be a priestess of your grandmother…”
Many years passed as Willow learned the ways of the Dark Mother and how to worship her in the embrace of the half-man and his six equally-hairy brothers.
But, one day, a handsome prince from a neighbouring kingdom came to the forest hunting the unique beasts that lurked within it, the bounty of the Dark Mother who so loved the woods where her son dwelt. Separated from his men, the prince spotted the half-men’s dwelling amongst the trees.
“A rather rude building,” he muttered to himself, “but hopefully they can direct me.”
The half-men were away, leading the prince’s hunting party a merry dance as they futilely sought to spear such unusual prey, but Willow was home and greeted the prince as he approached.
She felt wary, but was captivated by his pleasing appearance.
“Why, hello,” he said, “I am Prince Gregor and I am, unfortunately, lost in these woods.”
Introductions were quickly completed and directions given, then the prince swiftly poured on the charm. Willow needed little encouragement and pretty soon she and Gregor writhed in a passionate embrace mirrored by the writhing of her hair, which twined about him. One thing led to another, as they naturally tend to do, only for the prince to discover that the sweet maiden was not quite the maiden he imagined.
Shocked and uncertain how to proceed, he leapt to his feet with a gasp, ran to his horse with a cry of denial, and rode away to the palace of Willow’s parents.
“In a little house deep in the woods,” he told the Queen over an invigorating brandy, “there was a beautiful maiden who, it transpired, much to my shock, was no maid but a man!”
Naturally, the Queen knew who this must be and, aghast at the thought of Robur continuing to bring shame upon her and the kingdom with such antics, resolved that her child would die.
Thus, she headed into the woods, disguised as an old peasant woman, and searched for her child so that she might kill her.
Meanwhile, Gregor had begun to repent of his hasty reaction. Yes, he had been startled, but was it really so terrible? She had been very beautiful and he had savoured her kisses and responded to her embrace. Was it not possible that he might be able to grow used to her difference, delight in it, even? Finally, he resolved that he would return to her, apologise and declare his love.
“Oh, hello, how may I help you?” Willow greeted the old peasant woman who approached the dwelling of the half-men. She suspected that she was some lover of one of the seven brothers come in search of satiation, for none of them were known to discriminate when it came to dispensing their affection.
“I come selling apples, young lady. Lovely, juicy red apples that delight the palate. Would you care to try one? A single taste and you are sure to buy a bushel of them.”
“They sound delicious! Very well, I shall try one.”
She did, and she died.
“My poison worked!” crowed the Queen. “The abomination is destroyed!”
Unfortunately, for her, she had not heard the approach of the prince, who had, however, heard her words. Enraged, he drew his sword and struck her down with a single blow, knowing not who it was he killed, not that he would likely have cared. His mind was blinded with rage.
But, avenged or not, Willow was still dead.
Devastated, Gregor fell to his knees and sobbed and was sobbing still when the seven half-men returned to their home, having finally shaken off the pursuit of the prince’s hunting party, leaving them in a far distant corner of the woods.
“What have you done to our beloved Willow?” they cried as one.
The prince took up his sword, imagining them fell horrors of the sort he had been hunting earlier that day, which was in part the truth. Then, his mind grasped their words and he realised that the seven beings shared his loss.
“It was no I, but this old crone who killed her. She poisoned Willow and I struck her down for the crime. Come, assist me in burying the maiden.”
The eldest of the half-men smiled even as his brothers and the prince cried heavy tears, for her knew something no-one else did.
“Yes, he said,” let us bury her.”
Into the ground they placed her and none but the eldest brother noticed that her hair probed into the soil of her grave, rooting itself even as they layered in soil atop Willow’s corpse.
Within minutes, the ground began to bulge and split and a black and tarry sapling sprouted from the newly-dug soil. With great rapidity, the sapling grew into a tree as mighty as the one that had fathered Robur all those years before, and upon one branch there formed a fruit of great size.
“What is it?” Gregor asked, a little fearful. “What is happening?”
“Watch,” the eldest half-man told him, and he did.
As they observed with enrapt gaze, the fruit split and out slipped the naked, juice-smeared form of Willow – only, now, it was plain to see, she had been restructured into the woman that she always truly had been.
“You are beautiful!” Gregor exclaimed as he helped Willow to her feet.
“I take after my grandmother…” she replied with a hint of a smile.
DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines in the UK, USA and elsewhere, including Disturbance (Laurel Highlands), Tales of the Black Arts (Hazardous Press), Amok!, Stomping Grounds and Ill-considered Expeditions (all April Moon Books), History and Mystery, Oh My! (Mystery & Horror LLC), Destroy All Robots (Dynatox Ministries), and Sorcery & Sanctity: A Homage to Arthur Machen (Hieroglyphics Press), and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor).