by Caspian Gray
In the dark woods there once lived a masked robber king. He was tall and thin as spindles, with black hair and black eyes, and he worked alone. He lived in the back of a long, bleak cave, past the dripping water and the hanging roots and the cold stone walls, in a round chamber in the middle of a hill. Thick rugs covered the floor, and the walls were hung with velvets and rich tapestries, and strewn all about were ladies’ rings and ornate daggers and coins from every nation. The robber king had robbed farmers and merchants and knights and bandits, but he knew that something was missing. He looked at his silks and ivory and chests of mysterious treasure, and he knew that he would be willing to give it all up, but he did not know for what.
To quell this strangeness, the robber king left his dark forest and went maskless to the city, where everyone knew him as a rich merchant and not as the king of anything. He looked at cages full of kittens with tiny hunter’s claws and dogs with mouths full of teeth, but he knew that no one of them would keep him company. He looked at stalls full of exotic fruits, but he knew that none of it would fill him up. Then he looked at all the maids, with plump faces and plumper bosoms and long braided plaits, but he knew that they would not keep him warm. Still, all of these things had their uses, so he bought chickens and snakes and fat juicy berries and gorged himself, and he bought a necklace of long, thin jewels and gave it to one of the loveliest whores and then took her to bed.
It was in this city, not so far from where the robber king had bedded his strumpets, that there lived a girl. Her mother was one of those whores, and the girl grew up among them but had none of their charm. She was thin and wild-haired and wild-eyed, and smelled like dirt and bruises and sticky fingers.
Other girls worked with the whores, or usurped their territory and clientele, but this girl made only trouble. She burst in on the women at work and laughed at their sagging tits and bored expressions, almost as hard as she laughed at the shape of the naked men and the way they were built all wrong between the legs. She herself had no breasts to sag, and no secret hair in need of shaving, and that was how she knew that she could never be one of them. She stole food when she was hungry, and coins when she could get away with it, and her happiness was so fierce she thought that no one could ever take it away.
Such a girl could not possibly continue to get what she wanted, for it is not the way of girls to get what they want, or at least not the way of girls whose mothers are whores and whose fathers have never seen their faces.
There came a day when she burst into a room where the whore did not just laugh her away, and where the man was too angry to try to hit her only once and then watch her scamper off. On this day, the whore was drunk or cruel, and the man was drunker or crueler, and they beat her until she could barely breathe, and then the man finished in her instead of in the whore, and when they were done the girl could not drag herself away. The man, who had never been a murderer before, hid her body in his cloak and dragged her out to the deep, deep woods, and there he left her so that no one would know to accuse him of such a crime.
On this same day, the robber king left the city and its whores before the sun was up. On his way home to his round cave he heard a creeping something in the forest and came to a stop. The noises were too loud to be a fox, but too few to be wolves, and the robber king stepped off the path to find what made them.
Swathed in mosquitoes and covered in crusted blood was the terribly broken body of a girl. The robber king tried to brush the insects from her face, but they only settled on his hands and arms as well. Her eyelids fluttered open and closed, but she had no words to offer him. He dropped his things and tried to pick her up and carry her to his home in the way that would hurt her least.
She was bleeding, red over brown, so the robber king disguised himself and returned to the city, and there he found a chirurgeon and brought the man to his lair. The chirurgeon clucked his tongue and pulled out bandages and pouches of herbs and a long needle with catgut thread. He spent a long time sewing the girl up, and when she woke he brewed her teas and tried to make her drink them, though she batted them from his hands and spat at his face as often as she submitted.
It was days before the chirurgeon declared that she would live, and the robber king paid him handsomely for his help. The poor foolish chirurgeon stopped not far from the cave to admire his new riches, and as he was bent over on the path the robber came up behind him and slit his throat. Then he took back his wealth and threw the body to the side of the path for the wolves and the foxes and the maggots to take.
When he went back to his cave, he found the girl sitting up, curled in the middle of one of his fine rugs like a flower from the woods.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Who hurt you so badly?”
“Everyone.” She shrugged again, then tilted her head. “Who are you?”
“The man who saved your life,” he replied.
“I think that the other man saved my life,” said the girl.
“But it was I who found you, and I who brought him here.”
“And you who killed him.”
The robber looked down at his hands and the front of his shirt, but there was no bloodstain to mar him. “I have not killed anyone,” he said.
“You killed him,” said the girl. “And I would have killed him, too. I hope you’ll kill me next.”
“But I have just saved your life,” said the robber king, reaching out to stroke her hair, which was still embedded with leaves and twigs. “And no one would save a life only to take it away again.”
“I would,” said the girl, and she bit the hand with which the robber king stroked her.
So it was that suddenly the robber king was neither lonely nor empty nor cold, but busy caring for a girl he could not hope to understand. When he tried to feed her she threw the food against the walls, and only when he left would she scrape it off and lick it from her fingers. When he gave her presents she tossed them away, and whenever he left her alone in his cave of riches he would return to find her inside his chests, eating gems and pieces of silver.
“Why do you do these things?” he asked her. “You must eat the food I give you, and you must keep the presents, and you must stop wasting my precious treasure, for if we have no money than we have nothing.”
“I hate it,” she said, with breath that still smelled like gold. “My body will turn it into shit, and then no one will have anything.”
And yet the robber king loved her, for he had never had anyone to love before, and he did not know that perhaps love was supposed to go a different way.
When the girl was well enough to walk, she made him promise to take her with him on a robbery, for she knew without being told what he was.
“What I do has no place for children,” he said. “And there is no place at all for a little girl.”
“I will be bold,” she promised. “What if someone comes behind you with a sword or a pistol? I will be there to save you.”
“I have never needed saving,” said the robber king, though this was a lie — his body bore many scars that perhaps having fellows would have prevented.
“What if someone runs away?” she asked. “I will chase them through the woods and kill them, so that they cannot summon help.”
“The woods would swallow up anyone who got away. They would never find what help they sought.”
“What if –” the girl began, but the robber king held up a hand to silence her.
“I have been doing this alone for many years,” he said. “And I do not need help. But perhaps, if you wish to come, you should ask.”
“I do want to come,” she said, which was not asking at all.
“Then you may, but do not interfere.”
“I won’t,” she promised, but even then the robber king knew that this little girl would never keep a promise.
So the robber king went into the city and waited there for news of rich travelers who, for bravery or necessity, would have to travel the paths in his wood. Then he returned home and put on his red and gold robber’s mask and collected the little girl, and he stowed her safely in a tree so that she could see how he made his riches, and so that she would see why they still called him a king.
The robbery itself gave him no trouble, for once anyone saw his mask the fight went out of them. He collected jewels from the women and gold rings and pocket watches and coins from the men, and when he was finished he flourished his hat and bowed low before them, that they could see he was a gallant thief and not just any highwayman. Then he straightened to blow the women masked kisses, and usually their faces were amused or surprised or even flattered, but this time the mouth of one of the women formed a small “o,” and then she screamed. The woman crumpled and her dress ripped, for the little girl was behind her, standing on the hem. She had a pen knife and a terrible grin, and as the robber king and everyone else watched, she bent down to stab the woman again. The robber dropped his bag of spoils and dove for her, dragging the little girl away from the woman and up into the woods, sprinting through the leaves with no mind to his secret pathways, conscious only of the need to get away and a growing feeling of shame, an emotion which was entirely new to him.
“You are a monster,” said the robber when they were back in his cave. Then, with something like awe, he added, “And yet I love you.”
“I am a monster,” said the girl, quieter than breathing, “and I will burn you up and eat your insides.”
But who can say if the robber king heard her reply?
The robber king tried not to bring her along on any more of his robberies, but even when he waited until she was asleep and crept in the dark out of his own home, somehow she knew to wake and follow him. Quickly his robberies became murders, and always when it was over he brought the little girl back to his home, though she wore blood up to her elbows.
Worse were the days when she waited until the robber king slept and then struck out on her own, into the city or into the woods. The robber would wake and go to his treasure chests, but where there had once been gold and silver there would be only bones and fragments of fur and hair. The little girl guarded these, for they were her greatest treasures, just as gold was his.
And still, when he left, she found time to eat pieces of his gold. Though he searched and searched, there was never so much as the glimmer of a single jewel in their latrine.
The little girl grew up, and her face was covered in dark freckles and her hair was long and always tangled, and she wore blood beneath her fingernails to color them. She was beautiful, and the robber loved her; when it suited her she went to him in the night. They made love as painful as hate, and the robber king woke in the morning as sore as if he had spent the night fighting for his life, but still he wanted more.
Then one day the woman he loved left and did not return. The robber king sat all night in his cave, waiting to see what horror she would carry home over her shoulder, but daylight broke and she did not return. The robber counted a few coins into his hands — and one finger bone, for luck — and then left his cave to look for her. He searched the woods first, but there was no sign.
With his throat tight, the robber went into the city. Perhaps his arrival should have caused a stir, and usually all the merchants put out their best wares and all the whores put on their best rouge when they knew that he was coming. Yet on his day no one noticed him, for everyone was gathered in the city square. There were five bodies laid out there, one man and one woman and three children, all of them mangled and bleeding from the throat. The robber king had to close his eyes and turn his face away, for he recognized the handiwork of the woman he loved.
She was there, tied to a stake in the middle of the square, with blood staining even her teeth. The crowd jeered at her and threw things, and she watched them with a wild stare and eyes full of hunger and hate. A small man stood next to her, trying desperately to restore order. Slowly he succeeded.
“Who are you?” he asked her.
“I am the robber king’s wife,” she called, loudly enough for the whole crowd to hear, though she was no such thing.
“The robber king?” the man asked. “He who wears the gold and scarlet mask?”
“None other,” said the woman, threading out her lie. “And I am she who paints his mask red with blood.”
The man gestured at the bodies laid out before her. “Did you kill these people?”
“I did, and if they still lived I would kill them again.”
The little man looked stunned, and for a moment the crowd was quiet before it erupted into angry shouting and the throwing of stones.
“Stop!” yelled the little executioner. “Stop! There must be justice!”
“Burn her!” screamed the crowd, full of people wiser than the robber king, who knew that such a woman could never live among them.
The little man spoke to her quietly beneath the crowd’s war of noise. “We could make a bargain,” he murmured. “If you were to tell me where the robber king keeps his treasure, perhaps I could save your life.”
The woman looked out into the crowd with her hungry eyes, but no one in it mattered to her; no one in it was enough. Finally she found the face of the robber king, and he stared at her with eyes full of love, but she turned away.
Yet, perhaps at least once in her life, she had loved him.
“He has no treasure,” she hissed. “He spent it all on whores and drink and worthless things, and now he lives in a cave in the woods with nothing.”
“Then perhaps you could lead me to the cave,” said the man. “For there is a price on his head, and if I were to collect it I could save your life yet.”
The woman cackled, so loud and so vile that for a moment all the crowd fell silent again.
“He has no head,” she laughed. “I buried it in the dirt, and cut off his limbs and hung them from trees. There is no reward left to collect for one such as him.”
The executioner could make no reply.
As the priest fought his way to the front of the crowd, the robber king kept his gaze on the face of the woman he loved. She would not meet his eyes. He tried to speak, and then he tried again, and again, but he had no voice.
With a terrible waver of his heart, the robber king realized that fear was stronger than love.
The priest murmured words the robber king could not hear. The wild woman he had loved — but not loved enough — screamed curses and obscenities over the priest and the crowd both.
“Send me to the devil!” she shouted at them, but the robber king wondered if even the devil would keep her attention.
Finally they brought a torch to the kindling at her feet and she laughed, and kept laughing, until her laughter became screams and the screams were too horrible to hear.
The robber king stood amidst the crowd of people and waited, though most of them drifted away when the screaming stopped and the tortured body finally ceased to dance against the flame. He stood his ground, breathing in deeply the smell of burning hair and burning flesh and black meat, to take the smoke of her death into his own body, that he might harbor it there.
“I love you,” he whispered, under his breath. “I love you, I love you, I’m so sorry, I love you.”
And when there was only ash and fragments of bone he left the square and walked the long way to his round cave in the black woods. The forest was silent around him: no birds, no animals, no leaves and twigs in the wind, and worst of all no unidentifiable sound that was bigger than a fox and smaller than a wolf.
The robber king sat in his treasure room, on a chest that contained either gold or withered strips of skin, and he looked at what gems and silver coins and beautiful things remained. There was nothing inside of him: no loneliness and no hate, no sadness and no anger, no guilt and no regret. Finally he picked up a piece of gold and put it in his mouth and slowly, slowly, he swallowed.
Caspian Gray currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with two men and a dachshund. Her work has previously appeared in ChiZine, Sybil’s Garage, Odyssey, and Random House’s anthology The Full Spectrum, which won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award in the YA category.