The Fisher's Daughter and the Bannyfell
Under a twisted tree, next to a black creek, in a valley that was a stranger to sunlight, lived the Bannyfell. It was a creature of raw night. It was the unknowable ink painted between the midnight trees and it was the hunger of the creatures that dwelt there. It knew no master other than the sun and needed for nothing whilst it could hide from his fire.
So it was as kingdoms rose around it and men, fevered for power, sought to control the dark. At last, a Sorcerer arose from those men and crafted a magical staff of black ash that could call the Bannyfell from its creek. With this terror at his command the Sorcerer made himself a King and bent all the lands around his city to his will, making their wealth his own.
The Sorcerer King had three sons and indulged them with every excess his riches afforded. The first son was a champion of the jousts, the thickness of his sword arm only rivalled by that of his head. The second was fleet of foot and won every festival race, never faster than when fleeing responsibility. The third was clever, unbeatable in discourse or games, his wit making him lazy and sour.
Each year the king would order his subjects to choose one amongst them to sacrifice to the Bannyfell so that he might call it out under the sun. In return he promised to keep it from devouring them all. First they sent criminals, until none were left and no one would commit a crime for fear of being offered up. Then they sent the lawyers, as without the criminals they were the next best thing. Next they sent the gossips and the tattletales. Then the drunks and the gamblers. Then the touched and infirm. At last they sent those whose crimes were simply that they were set apart in humour or opinion. The lives of the townsfolk grew evermore grey and mirthless, richer only in fear with every year that passed.
And so, there came the day when the sorcerer King ordered his subjects to send forth their anointed and none could be found. Daughters, sons, fathers and grandmothers found that finally there was not a single person they could blame or give up. The King became angry, striking his staff on the wooden slats of the platform in the town square, demanding a sacrifice or he would choose one.
Then a small voice came from the crowd.
"I will be your sacrifice."
The people parted and in their midst was a girl, half the height of most men and twice as dirty as most boys. She wiped her nose on her arm and started toward the stage. Around her waist was a scarlet sash and tucked into it was a knife as big as her arm. Her steps were swept forward with soft whispers of amazement. The whole town knew her as the fisher's daughter. Her parents had been lost to the shivers a year before but the girl had continued their work. She took the catch of the other river folk and gutted it with her father's largest knife, making it ready for market.
Whispers became mutters. Mutters grew to chattering. Chattering broke into shouts and by the time she arrived at the foot of the stage it was on a wave crest of cheers. It broke upon the scowl of the Sorcerer King and silence fell.
"I will be your sacrifice. On one condition."
The king sneered but before he could deny her she said.
"If I can defeat any one of your sons in a test of their choosing, they will take my place."
The King's laughter was sonorous and cruel. He called forth his sons, their smiles twisted, who lined up along the edge of the stage. The sea of shamed villagers sank back, leaving the fisher's daughter stranded on the shore of her challenge. Then the youngest son stepped forward. He looked the ragged girl up and down before snorting.
The girl tried, but her learning had been gill and scale. Letters she knew only in passing for the market. The youngest son sounded out the spelling as he walked away, waving to his elder brother as he passed. The quick, thin prince pranced down from the stage.
"A race. To the outer gate and back. Ready?"
The fisher's daughter nodded and before she could turn the prince had sprinted away. Instead of following, the girl sat down looking hopeless. She was still there when, his brow thick with sweat, the prince returned. He shook his head at her and returned to his father's side. The eldest son drew his broadsword and chuckled as he leapt the space between them, thumping a plume of dust from the square when he landed.
"The first to knock the other's blade from their hand."
The girl nodded again and drew her father's knife. It was a sword on her but barely a toothpick to the prince. He jumped forward and she jumped back. He swiped, narrow eyed, but she rolled away. He twisted, but she dived beneath the stage. The prince only laughed harder and brought his mighty sword down, splintering the first plank. The fisher's daughter scurried further in and another swipe followed. With each dash into the stage the prince followed, smashing a path to her through the thick timber. Blow by blow the prince demolished the stage, laughing at his own trail of destruction. In the end there was nowhere left to crawl and the fisher's daughter held out the knife defiantly. With little more than a flick of his wrist the first son knocked it to the ground and turned away.
The girl gathered the knife, looking at it sadly before replacing it in her scarlet waistband, then pushed herself to her feet. The Sorcerer King and his sons stood in the wreckage of their stage and he beckoned her forward.
"You must have known this was hopeless, young fisher. Now you will feed my pet. Your bravery is revealed for the stupidity it truly is."
He held his staff aloft with both hands and screamed a summons for the Bannyfell. As he did, the girl whipped out the knife with the grace of practice and rammed it in to his belly. She shoved the gurgling Sorcerer back and he fell upon his eldest son. Weak from chopping the timbers in the duel, the prince could not hold his father’s weight and fell beneath him.
The fisher's daughter stepped forward and cut his throat. She might have been stopped by someone with great quickness, but tired from his sprint the second son arrived too late. He dropped next to his brother, still crushed by their father. The fisher girl's knife carved its dance through his neck and she stepped across them to the third son.
"That. Is not. In the rules." The lazy prince said with shock before the knife gutted its final catch of the day.
The fisher's daughter wiped another stain onto her brown streaked dress and then shivered. A shadow had fallen across the square, chilling the silent crowd. Expecting them to rejoice she looked at the townsfolk but saw instead that their mouths hung open. Their expressions were oddly familiar from what usually crossed her workbench. She looked to where they gawped, to the gloomy edge of the square.
The Bannyfell had risen to its summons and from dark corners its black claws reached out to her. Even in the grey shade, those arms ran across the dust like a hawk's shadow on a field, tearing forward. Instead of trying to escape their grasp, the mouse of a girl stepped toward them. She walked to the Sorcerer King's staff and stamped hard.
It broke with a crack that shook the earth and the Bannyfell stopped.
"You are free. All are free." The girl told the claws reaching from the corners. "Let pride forever be tyranny's death."
The arms drew back, threads of night wound quickly in. The creature gave a howl, as joyful as wolves at a new moon, and was gone. It had fled back to the night, back to its black creek. Then the crowd broke into disbelieving triumph, and the fisher's daughter smiled.
Under a twisted tree, free from the sun, the Bannyfell sleeps its days still. Dreaming of that girl with a scarlet sash.