STÖBERHUND • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

He seized me up like a carrion bird and like a dead thing I let him.  Then I came alive again.

“Oh no,” Reinhardt purred — defaming the language of cats — “oh no, my girl. Under Heaven you swore to your bargain; you can’t go back on it now.”

Does Heaven demand fidelity to an evil pledge?

***

I was green with retching and sick to be caught this way now my man was dead.

When Reinhardt promised shelter and board, and to take the child, when it was born, and leave me free — in my black despair I thought without irony that he was my deliverer.

***

“Here’s that stray for you, Mechthild!”

Reinhardt paid her to keep me but she wasn’t his creature. You can’t buy such kindness as she showed me, as I felt in the touch of her hand. If Reinhardt’s shadow hadn’t darkened everything, I’d’ve been glad in her care.

She was honest; she fed me fresh meat, and cream puddings, and took naught herself til I couldn’t hold back my shame.

“Mechthild, you keep me too fine — and he’s not counted his coin so close that we can’t both share.”

“It’s all for the child, isn’t it?” she said. “Think of the child.”

I thought of the child all the time. When it quickened — when I felt it alive within me — I grew into something new myself.

***

Here Reinhardt’s called the king’s back-gate man. Harsh-boned, he might have annealed into more noble shape had a different heart driven him. But he has a taste for the dirty work.

We’re all the queen’s people, here.

They say the king loves her, though he shames her even with her own ladies.

They say she refuses to dance the tricky minuets of court; when she’s up at her father’s Jagdschloss, she leaves her ladies behind to play as they will, and summons our own village women if she wants someone to hand her her linen.

They say she has no luck. “Drops ’em too early, like a cow poisoned by bad pasture,” said Waltrun, who has daughters in service.

The king has plenty of sons, they say, but the queen’s not their mother.

***

I puzzled it out and went cold all over. Why such care of me by a man like that?

“Mechthild — he wants my child for the queen.”

“He wants it for someone, surely, but that is a far jump!”

“I am no one, Mechthild, and have nothing, and a bit of ham in the pea soup would be a treat to me. But he bids you give me roast squab and butter cake?

“God knows,” I said, “I didn’t welcome this child, but He knows I love it now, and I will break that bargain though Reinhardt agree or not.”

“What will you do? He has a long reach.”

“If I can’t hide, I must go full in the open.”

***

I kept to forest paths til I was clear to the Jagdschloss gates. The queen held audience on Wednesdays; they said she was open-handed but not a fool, and had her brothers at her back.

In the great chamber, no one would deny me my moment. But when I drew close enough to see clearly, I felt fingers from the grave seize me.

Reinhardt had no intent I should ever rise from childbed.

I clenched down on myself but my knees went anyway and cold sweat soaked me. Women caught me before I hit the floor.

I kept pleading, “I can’t lose my place, I must speak — ”

They tried to ease me, til the queen herself came walking down the long room, stooped and gave me her hands, and the women either side of me helped me curtsey in decency.

Then I fainted.

***

“You needn’t fear anything here, child. Seek you justice against he who dishonored you? You wear no ring.”

She had a good countrywoman’s face despite her lace and jewels, and didn’t scorn to speak as we do.

I looked around but there was only one more besides us — Waltrun’s Heike, who’d told her my name and village. This must be the Queen’s dressing room, quiet and snug.

“Your Grace,” I said, feeling thick and clumsy now I was in her presence, “the only dishonoring I did to myself, after. He who got me with child — he was forward — in love and in death too — but there was no wrong in him.”

“What do you ask of me?”

“Absolve me from an ill-made pledge; I have damned myself otherwise.”

“Isn’t that for the priest — ”

“No!  None but you, and perhaps not even you either.” I swallowed. “This my treasure was purchased for you.”

Slowly she went the color of cold skimmed milk.

“A man found me,” I said, “who has power in these parts; he offered me the Devil’s bargain and in my weakness I took it — I sinned against my child and pledged it away.”

“Herr Reinhardt,” she said.

“Who will come to you, perhaps in four months’ time, with a tiny bundle wrapped against the cold, and say ‘look what Christ God has sent you on His own birthday!’ And will tell you that the poor nameless girl who bore it had not blood enough left in her to live on and be its mother —

“I entered your hall thinking Reinhardt’s only evil against me was keeping me to my pledge; but we know little outside this place and you know, Your Grace, how far we are from court.

“I have never gone beyond my own village, but my man was born elsewhere; his mother in her widowhood returned to her own people. So he thought, and so he told me. And why should we have thought different?”

“Think you different now?”

“I think my man wore his father’s face, as I have just seen in the portrait of the King that hung on the wall behind you, and I think I carry in me the King’s own grandchild.”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)


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Every Day Fiction

  • I felt the story ended prematurely. The fact that the heroine may be carrying the King’s grandchild, though kind of a twist, held no resolution of her fate for me. So I had an impression the story ended when 1000 words were up.The story is a bit more than 100 words already, actually.
    It was an easy and well flowing read, but I stumbled on til a couple of times, and I’m not sure using it instead of the conventional “till” added anything to the atmosphere of the story.

  • I found this story difficult to follow with some awkward patches that just threw me.

  • Love all that Sarah writes and this is no exception. Loved the rich imagery. Stöberhund seems to translate as gundog. Came out as 998 words, so yes it’s more than a 100 words.

  • For me, the unrelenting spate of fantasy and devil stories is wearing thin. On the heels of the Super-villian story, the Energy Sphere alien story and the Shrunken Head story, I found myself meeting this one with a big sigh, thinking “Enough already!”

  • lavender

    I love the fantasy stories. To me, flash is too short for drama or character led pieces. This story though was quite difficult to follow, I got confused a couple of time and had to go back and re-read bits but maybe that was just me being a bit slow. There was some lovely descriptions and I think if it had been a longer piece I would have got into the story more and cared about the characters.

  • MaryAlice Meli

    Sarah, I love your stories and your writing of them as unique and delightful. This story was not either one for me and I must agree with Lavender that it seemed to want to be a longer story. As well, the fantasy elements seemed overworked and created some confusion for me.

  • Rose Gardener

    It took me a little while to work out the father of her baby must have been the result of one of the king’s philanderings. I can’t help thinking she’s brave to lay her child’s fate (and her own) in the hands of the cheated wife! Not a criticism of the story, just saying the queen is not the person I’d have thrown myself upon to plead for mercy. Lovely opening line, Sarah.

  • Carl

    Sarah, your stories are never easy reading for me (and this one was less easy than some others), but I always find they are worth the effort, having a richness I seldom see elsewhere. So I’m ready to read more.

  • I meant the story is a bit more than 1000 words, sorry for the typo. Google docs says it’s 1012 words, though perhaps it’s less than 1000 in Word. Anyway, the satisfying ending for this particular story has fallen overboard from the 1000 words vessel.

  • JenM

    A wonderful fairy tale! Thank you, Sarah. 🙂

  • J.C. Towler, EDF Editor

    Concerning the word count:

    We use the word counter on Microsoft Word to determine the word count for stories. When you remove the “***” which denote a scene break, the story clocks in at 997 words. (We don’t count scene break punctuation against the overall word count for any author.) Different programs may count words differently which may explain some of the discrepancies.

    We hold all authors to a strict 1000 word limit. Not saying one has never slipped by us, but it would be a surprise if one did.

    I wanted to clarify this in the event anyone felt some sort of preference or exception was granted to any contributor at EDF.

    –John

  • Paul Friesen

    I concur with difficulty in being able to follow at points. THe beginning was extremely difficult for me, by the middle I was getting into it, but then the end threw me again and I left confused.

  • Bud Clayman

    This was indeed a difficult story to follow as most people have mentioned.

    While I’m not a fan of it or the style in which it was written, I do think it took a lot of talent to create. I’ll give it three stars, but it was a stretch for me to comprehend.

  • joannab.

    4 stars from me because just a little confusing. but so beautifully written, as usual, sarah.

  • Julia McCahill

    Yes, I had to read this story twice to put all the parts together, but it was worth it. I enjoyed the complexity of it and the archaic language.

  • Kathy

    I love what you do with language, but some of the sentences feel as if forced to fit a stylistic construction that may be appropriate for this fantasy world, but hard to read. I did wonder if the unusual phrasing was the result of severely editing a longer story so not to exceed the 1000 word limit.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    I’m grateful to all the readers who grace me with their willingness to wrestle with one of my stories, and I’m always sorry when a story fails them.

    This was written with the intention of submitting to EDF so I was mindful of the wordcount all the way through. I cut dialogue and description that seemed not to further the story, but I ended the story at what I felt was the point of ultimate tension and crisis, both discovering at the same time, the truth of the situation.

    I didn’t mean this to be fantasy but an attempt to ask–what is the human reality driving mythic stories? Who is the cruel manipulator and “fixer” who became Rumpelstiltskin?

    When the MC suspected Reinhardt was planning to give her baby to the queen, she didn’t know the value of that baby–just that it was likely a solace for a woman unable to carry to term–a loving woman who could love and accept a child of unknown provenance. Only when she recognized the face in the king’s portrait did she understand whose child she must be carrying.

    Perhaps the king’s bastard had been conceived before the marriage with the queen–she’s still of childbearing age and the king probably had liaisons from the time he was old enough to lift someone’s skirts. The queen has withdrawn herself as much as she can from the sordidness around her; she’s not interested in politics; she just wants a child to love.

    And Reinhardt is serving both of them. He will let the king know–feel free to include this one among all your other bastards–it’s spawn of your spawn. It’s not just some mongrel peasant infant your queen can play mommy to. It’s your own blood.

    And the poor queen will think she has something of her own, that the king will have no interest in, that he’ll let her raise and love, and he can designate any of his bastards he wants in line of succession–she couldn’t care less–

    And the MC realizes, just at the moment of approaching the queen for mercy and protection, exactly what Reinhardt’s game is, and why he’d not likely to leave her as a surviving link to the king’s bastard, when she’s already trying to back out of her bargain. She didn’t know who her man really was–but she will if she ever sees a portrait of the king…

    I felt that a resolution of the story, one way or the other, could not equal the drama of the moment of these two women knowing the full truth, and what this demands of the queen’s compassion, and political clout.

  • Jane

    This was very interesting, but very difficult to follow.

  • Kathy

    Sarah, I appreciate you taking the time to explain what you had in mind for this story. Not every story – especially flash fiction – originates from such a rich foundational imagining as this one did. Your writing skills and previous stories set the bar high and that leads to higher expectations from your loyal readers. (And that’s a good thing!)

  • Chris Edwards

    I also found it hard to follow, but appreciated the effort at painting a mythical atmosphere.

  • I also found it hard to follow, but appreciated the effort at painting a mythical atmosphere.