Science Fiction & Fantasy

Transcendent Annual Series

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Fiction

The Lady of Shalott

As far as she could remember, the Lady had never been outside the tower. She might have been born here. She assumed she had been born, but maybe not. Maybe she just appeared, her complete adult self, flowing red hair and porcelain skin, dressed in a gown of blue trimmed with gold, with no memory of anything outside these rounded walls.

All day, every day, she wove a tapestry set on a loom against the wall. She might have been weaving forever, and she didn’t know if she would ever finish. The cloth was filled with pictures: ivy climbing up an old stone wall, willows dripping into rivers, tangled rose vines, flocks of birds soaring in a blue sky. At least, she thought that was what she was making. She could only shape what her mind told her, not what she saw.

She knew one thing for certain, as firmly as she knew she had bones inside her skin and flesh: She must not look out the window set in the wall of her tower. She must never look outside, because that was her curse.

And what would happen if she looked out? She didn’t know that either.

• • • •

A knight must do good.

Make a name for himself by doing good, by going on quests and such. Succoring the weak. Slaying monsters. Or all of them at once, if the opportunity presented itself.

Sir Lancelot found a task that might encompass all the fame and virtue he could wish for. If only he could be clear as to what this was actually about.

“A curse, you say?”

“On the tower,” the lowly swineherd replied, pointing.

“That tower there?” Lancelot asked, also pointing.

“Aye, that’s the one.”

Across the vale, past a river, down a glen, and nestled in the middle of a dense copse, the tall stone edifice stretched straight up. The top was crenellated, and a single window gazed out. The space was black, nothing visible within. He hoped there might be a maiden looking out, brushing her hair while humming with a sweet voice.

He had seen the tower from the road. It looked promising, so he asked around. Nobody seemed to know anything about the storm-gray tower, except that it was cursed.

“Does anyone go there?” Lancelot asked.

The swineherd scowled. “No. It’s cursed.” The grubby man looked the knight up and down, squinting, appraising. Encased in shining armor, Lancelot sat mounted on a powerful white steed, great sword secured to the saddle, all bedecked in bright colors and heraldry, but the fellow didn’t seem very impressed. Well, after all, this was the road to Camelot. Knights passed this way all the time.

“How long has that tower stood there? And who built it? What banner does it fly? What manner of folk travel to and from it? Are they armed?”

Clearly overwhelmed, the swineherd gaped at him.

“Then simply tell me this: How many men guard the tower?”

“None, sir!” the swineherd declared. “There’s just a maiden lives there, but she’s cursed!”

The knight brightened. “A maiden? Then she is a prisoner. I must rescue her and lift the curse!”

The swineherd gaped at him again and said, “I need to be going, sir.”

“Right then! I thank you!”

The grubby man trundled off, walking stick digging into the dirt along the side of the road. There were no pigs in sight.

• • • •

Lancelot could not find anyone who knew the manner of this curse, so he assumed it was the usual: A witch, envious of her beauty, had locked the maiden away until some true knight might rescue her. This was going to be a good day, he decided.

• • • •

The silk thread she wove with had always been there, piled in a basket by the loom. Sometimes in the evening, when the sun no longer came into her chamber, and her eyes grew too weary for weaving, she’d light her lanterns and sort the thread into colors and thicknesses, imagining what pictures she might make of them, what scenes they’d be best for. Then she’d gather them all up and sort them again, seeing different scenes and shapes this time. She’d stroke the fibers, brush the skeins along her cheek. They felt so rich.

Only rarely did she wonder where the thread came from and why she never seemed to run out, no matter how much she used or how long and ornate the tapestry became. She had never taken the whole thing down to measure it—the finished length of it was rolled up on the loom’s cloth beam, waiting. The rolled cloth seemed quite thick. Surely she’d woven enough and could finish—bind off the edge, pull it down, consider the whole of what she’d made.

But she never did. She kept weaving because it was all she had. She might throw all her thread out the window just to see what happened, but she never did that either, because doing so would require going to the window, and she did not dare look out. As long as there was always thread in her basket, she would keep on. She hummed to herself sometimes, but apart from that, all she ever heard were sounds that came in through the window. A breeze, maybe. Distant thunder. The music that she knew came from birds. She had seen a bird once—it flew in through the window and perched at the top of her loom. The drab little thing had brown streaked feathers and a black eye. But it made such beautiful sounds, warbling and trilling through its tiny beak. It only stayed for a minute or two, hopping back and forth, fluttering its wings, obviously distressed. When it finally took off and swooped out the window, she almost watched it go, almost looked out to see the sky that must be there. But she did not.

One morning, a new sound came from outside the window, something she had never heard before, and she could call up no image in her mind to match it. It was like the sound when she dropped a bobbin on the floor, wood and stone crashing together, but much louder. Like pigeons clambering on the roof. Like banging on a rug to clean it. Rhythmic, loud, like thunder but going on and on. And there was shouting. There were voices. Other voices, not hers. Outside the window.

She couldn’t ignore it, and she couldn’t look out.

It was the curse coming to life, and she curled up on her pallet with her arms around her ears, trying to block out the noise, wondering what she’d done wrong—she hadn’t looked out, not even once, not even to see the sky.

Once, she tried to cover the window to curb her fear that she might accidentally steal a glimpse. It was difficult, attempting to peg a blanket from her bed to the stone, while also not, again and always, looking out the window. She managed it somehow, but the air in the room grew quickly stuffy and smoky. With the sunlight blocked, she only had lanterns, and they filled her chamber with fumes. She had to leave the window open or suffocate.

Truly, she was cursed to be trapped here without knowing why. She wondered if she had angered someone, but she couldn’t remember who. She couldn’t remember how it had begun.

The noise stopped at dusk, but started again in the morning. When she tried to weave, her hands shook with every beat and banging. She left the loom to wash her face and brush her hair, to distract herself.

She had a mirror stored in the same little box where she kept her brush and knife and other essentials. The circle of polished bronze on a filigree handle showed her pink lips and blue eyes, locks of red hair framing her face. She did not know if she was pretty or not, because she had nothing to compare to. Moreover, she wasn’t entirely sure why being pretty was so important, but she thought it must be, or she would not have a mirror.

The mirror reflected back anything, which was how she got the idea that maybe she could hold it up to the window, then look at the mirror and not out the window.

Hunkering down, keeping her face and eyes well below the sill, she held the mirror up. Angling it back and forth, she tried to alight on some discernible image. Blinded herself for a moment by flashing a bit of sun into her eyes. But then, finally, she resolved a picture of blue sky and clouds. They must be clouds, the white smears and shapes. She angled the mirror again, panning it down, and saw trees. She knew all this, as if she must have spent some time outside the tower at some point. A great green carpet standing on tall posts of living wood. Trees, yes.

And then she saw men cutting down the trees. That was the noise, sawing and chopping with axes, the crashing as a tree fell through its fellows, ripping branches as it went. She couldn’t hear the words they shouted. Instructions, maybe. Warnings.

There were so many people, she was afraid. Who were they, what did they want, what were they doing to her tower, and did they know she was cursed? They were clearing a wide space and using the fallen lumber to build—ladders, maybe? Scaffolding? Whatever it was, a latticework of wood was taking shape below her.

She moved the mirror again, and the reflection showed her a new picture: a figure standing apart from the others, mounted on a pure white horse, observing. He was silver, his hair blond and gleaming gold in the sun. His jaw was square, his bearing noble.

A knight in armor she thought he must be, and he was beautiful. He was the moon and sun. Someone nearby spoke; he turned to the voice and smiled. She fell in love with him, just like that, without warning, without choice, without hope.

Now she truly saw the depth of her curse.

• • • •

When Lancelot first went to the tower, he left his steed behind and crept forward carefully, sword in hand, waiting for the demons or ogres who must be guarding it. Nothing opposed him. The place might have been abandoned.

He shouted a hail up to the single window, but his voice fell flat, absorbed by the forest, and a chill went up his spine. Of course someone lived in the tower, how could they not? An abandoned tower would have been crumbling and covered in ivy. There would be ghosts and creatures nesting amid the broken stones. This was a perfectly serviceable tower. Only it was not attached to any castle, and he had no way of getting inside.

He must reach that window and rescue the maiden. And so he went to Camelot, to the chief castle builder, who suggested constructing a scaffold to reach that height.

It didn’t make quite as good a story, a knight seeking help from a castle builder, but he only had to think of that maiden trapped in the tower. He would do anything to help her, and so he did. Hired the castle builder, brought in all the workers and tools required, and got to work. The scaffold would be finished in a week, and then he could simply climb to the top and look within.

“But sir, my lord,” the chief castle builder said to him on the first day. “What of the curse?”

“Ah yes, the curse,” Lancelot agreed. “What of it?”

“The locals have been telling the men stories of the maiden in the tower, and of the curse laid upon her.”

“Do they say what the curse is? What will happen because of it?”

“Well, no . . .”

“Then that is why I must go up there.” He smiled at the window in the tower with great anticipation. “To rescue the maiden. That is her curse, that she is trapped in the tower.”

The chief castle builder furrowed his brow. “Sir, my lord—it is my impression that there is more to it, that she is perhaps trapped in the tower because she is the curse.”

Lancelot frowned. “How so?”

“Well, no one seems to know. My lord.”

“I’m sure this has all been blown entirely out of proportion.”

“You’re probably right, my lord.” The man went away to supervise the clearing of the forest and the raising of the next level of scaffold.

• • • •

The Lady went into a panic. According to her mirror, the workmen below had built a third level on the scaffold. They were getting closer, and she wasn’t entirely sure what would happen when they reached her. She knew, absolutely, that she should not look outside the window. But what happened if the outside came in?

“No no no!” she muttered, putting the mirror away and pacing around her little room, tugging at her hair. Maybe they didn’t know about the curse. Maybe they didn’t realize the danger of what they were doing.

She ought to send a message. Maybe scrawled on a scrap of paper secured to the leg of a pigeon. A flaming arrow. However, any message she sent would require looking out the window to deliver it. This was terrible.

Her tapestry hung on its loom, showing mountains and forests blending into a scene of ducks flying above a silver lake, or how she imagined such things might look if she could remember seeing them. For the first time ever her heart ached, thinking she might never get to complete the tapestry, that she might never see it finished. Even though she still couldn’t imagine what she might do with it when it was finished. If it ever was.

She could send them a message. Find some way to tell that beautiful knight with his silver armor to stop building, to save them all. Maybe she could even find a way to tell him how much she loved him. Such a thing was absurd—he’d never even seen her. He would think she was mad, and maybe she was. But she had to try, and if she was going to send a message anyway, she ought to tell him.

Choosing several skeins of yarn and thread, she set up a makeshift loom, tying down the threads of her warp, stretching the warp and securing it to a weighted basket. This would be a band, like a girdle, with words crafted upon it: Stop, I am cursed, you must stop or we are all doomed. (I love you I love you I love you!)

She had to weave faster than she ever had, but the weaving also had to be clean and neat, so they could read the words she stitched. She had to do it before the scaffold grew any higher.

• • • •

By the third day the scaffold was more than halfway up the tower, and Lancelot knew that very soon he’d be looking through the window. The anticipation was almost more than he could bear. Who was this maiden, and what had she suffered?

To pass the time, he rode to various settlements in the area, searching for more news about the tower and its curse. No one knew the details. But everyone was sure there was a curse, and that it was no doubt terrible.

This lack of information was frustrating.

In the middle of the fourth day, an object sailed out of the window. He’d left his horse picketed some ways off and was walking a circuit of the tower once again, searching for any detail he might have missed, when the thing fluttered down like a wounded bird. He was in just the right spot to catch it.

It was a woven band made of silk, slippery in his hand. The kind of favor a lady might tie around his arm before he rode in a tournament. It was black and red with hints of gold, a swirling pattern running through it, odd swoops and curls that drew the eye but that he could not follow. It might have been runes, it might have been some spell woven in arcane patterns. Between the colors and strange shapes, the thing hurt his eyes. The pattern seemed to writhe of its own accord.

It might have been a plea for help.

This must have been the meaning, surely. The maiden was there in the tower, she was real, and he would see her soon. This token she’d sent him was an omen, a sign of hope. Lancelot’s heart soared. Only one more day, perhaps less.

• • • •

They did not stop building the scaffold, and the knight gazed up at her window—as she saw in her mirror—with such an expression of longing and assurance that her heart nearly gave out. She swooned, falling back upon her pallet. Oh, how she loved him! He must be the noblest knight in all the world!

And she wept, because she did not know what would happen next, and she was terribly afraid.

Her unfinished tapestry looked down on her, bright colors mixed with pale, swirls and patterns that she once thought made a picture, even a blurred one, of the world she could never see—what she thought she might see if she ever looked out the window. Now she saw that the picture she had woven was chaos, all abstraction: shapes and shadows, meaningless splashes of clashing color. The cloth now seemed to expand, mocking her, filling the room with the beautiful and terrible truth of her life, of her curse: None of it was real, and none of it mattered.

Only he mattered. The knight. He was perfect.

If she was cursed anyway, if the workmen and the scaffold came relentlessly closer, if they were so determined to ruin her by disrupting that boundary that encapsulated her life—why then, she would look out. She would see the knight with her own eyes and know the truth before the curse—whatever it was, whatever doom it held for her—came to pass.

First, though, she tore the tapestry from the loom, ripped apart every careful knot she’d made, sliced through it with her knife until the chamber was covered with a flurry of wool and silk. Fiber flew everywhere, a choking mess of it that made her laugh. The true worth of all her work, all this time, however much time it was. Colored bits of thread flashed as they floated through the air, catching bits of sunlight.

Then she fell to the floor and crawled. Her goal: the stone ledge of the window. The space within its arcing frame shone blindingly, the sun coming directly at her. She reached up, put her hands on the ledge. Gripped hard, pulled herself up, and looked out.

Where the images in the bronze mirror were blurry, wavering, uncertain, what she saw directly with her eyes was clear and sharp. The pale naked wood of the scaffolding, the brown and green tunics of the men working, passing to and fro across the newly made clearing around the tower. The brilliant blue of the sky—the blue thread she had been using to make skies was dull in comparison.

She passed over all this quickly, wanting only to see one thing, one solitary image: the knight in armor. He was tall; he was handsome. He stood with hands on hips, gazing upward. His smile was uplifting; his eyes shone with depth. She could see rivets and fluting in the steel across his chest and shoulders that she couldn’t see before.

Leaning on the window ledge, she gazed her fill of him.

She had a hope, for just a moment, that nothing was going to happen. The curse wasn’t real, and she wouldn’t be punished in any way for looking, as she always believed she would be. She leaned out the window to feel the sun on her face, a fresh breeze on her skin. She smiled, and then she laughed, because the world was beautiful and she was free.

The knight saw her and raised a hand in salute. She started to wave back.

That was when the skin of her hands split and red flesh spilled out in a ropey mass, dripping blood.

An earthquake rocked the land, shaking the tower, rattling stones from the walls above her. Clouds gathered, blocking the sun, turning day to night. And she thought—ah, so this is the curse. So this is what happens if I look out the window.

And the monster that burst out of her swallowed the trappings of her mortal self.

• • • •

He saw her, and she was lovely. Because of course she was, being a maiden in a tower in need of rescue.

She waved at him, laughing, and his heart sang. This was a worthy maiden. Perhaps this was fate, and they were meant to be together. He cupped his hands and started to shout at her, to ask how she fared and assure her that all would be well—

And then things got very confusing very quickly.

The maiden vanished. Or something. She was, apparently, instantly replaced by a spray of blood and a glabrous mass of dripping tentacles, writhing out from the window as if reaching for the sky itself. They curled and gripped like fingers around the edge of the window and ripped, tossing the stones away. The tower cracked like a snail’s shell, and a massive, pulsing body oozed out. The thing was far larger than ought to have been contained by the tower that had until recently stood there.

It smelled of swamp and despair.

The chief castle builder came up to Lancelot, shoulders slumped, a defeated look in his eye. His men were running, screaming in terror. One of the tentacles grabbed one of the workers and thrust the poor screaming soul into what was presumably a mouth. It wasn’t entirely clear.

“I told you,” the chief castle builder said tiredly. “Cursed.”

“Huh,” Lancelot replied.

Well, he was here to either rescue maidens or slay monsters. He could no longer attempt the former, but at least he still had the latter. He drew his sword, which would have glinted nobly in the sun, but undulating black clouds had roiled in from every horizon and now covered the sun utterly. An unbreakable darkness fell upon the land.

Lancelot wanted to drop his weapon and weep uncontrollably, but that just wouldn’t do. He was a knight. Of Camelot. And he was here to slay monsters. This encounter would be legendary.

He gave his sword a swing, and it whistled as it sliced the air. He squared his shoulders, set his jaw, and knew that this was what he’d been born for.

One of the dozen—three dozen? three hundred?—gray and veined tentacles came for him, cracking like a whip, curling as if weightless, ready to snatch him and squeeze until he popped. But Lancelot was ready. With a quick lateral cut and a slash down, he separated the tip of the offending limb from the rest of it, and stabbed it where it lay writhing on the ground. The monster groaned, a bone-leeching noise that rattled the very earth. Thunder and lightning rocked the air continuously.

The next awful limb attacked before he could catch his breath, and he dispatched this one as well. His heart was proud, his arm strong, and his sword true. He turned to the panic that had erupted throughout the clearing.

“Men! Draw weapons! To me, to me!”

But these were workmen, not knights and warriors. Not a trained soldier among them. These were men who might pick up a pitchfork to defend a homestead from marauders, but they were not his vassals to call to some greater need of war.

Still, at his voice they paused at the edge of incipient madness. They looked at their hands and saw their tools, looked at Lancelot and saw his sword. And they saw what might be possible. They raised a cheer and turned to face the monster that was now sprawling over a great swath of countryside.

For a while they rallied. Axes, saws, awls, and hammers in hand, the workmen formed a line, slashing and stabbing until the thing’s fetid blood soaked the ground. The shattered stone of the tower seemed to melt in the acid ooze of it. More tentacles grew to replace the old, but for a time they seemed to keep ahead of the onslaught, and drove back the creature from whence it came. They learned to brace against its howls and screams. They somehow grew accustomed to the stink of its slime.

But the thing had an eye. A great, muddy, golden eye. And when it opened and turned its gimlet gaze upon him with all the power of its unholy origin—that was when Lancelot finally dropped his sword and screamed.

And then it was over. All of it.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.