The Castle On The Hill Part 2

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This story was made available in the book ‘Tales of Asnor: Invasion of Domnex. It takes place in the world of this novel, known as Asnor. Everything written here is 100% canon and enriches the existing lore. I’ve decided to re-publish this story here, because I want people to enjoy this without having to purchase my book. (This isn’t the main story of the book)

Note that the ending of this short story plays into a location and events of Tales of Asnor: Invasion of Domnex. This connection is lost without reading the novel.

Spoiler grade: Minor to no spoilers for Tales of Asnor: Invasion of Domnex

Content disclaimer: gore and tedious farming

Word count: 3,027


Chapter 2: Zachary

24th day of Mi’deiro – 731 (Asnor counting)

8 years before first invasion of Domnex

The journey from Baekor, a small town just outside of Bloomdale in Reantis, to Vreyhold was brief but filled with regret and guilt. It was easy to board a ship to Abora, but leaving the one person who truly needed Zachary was the hardest thing he had done in his entire life. Even standing before King Keres Fern himself couldn’t distract Zachary’s mind from the problems haunting him.

     But he had to try. He had earned some time off after those four years of pain and agony. A brief holiday was exactly what he needed, and King Keres’ offer was the perfect opportunity.

     “You can choose any bed on these grounds, and live a day in the life of the person sleeping there.” The black-haired king said to Zachary.

     There were so many options. He saw various men and women in expensive outfits, a few footmen wearing a black livery and a jester in colourful tights. Even the king’s golden crown seemed alluring to Zachary, but then his gaze wandered away from the group surrounding him. Behind an old couple to his right, he saw something unusual.

     A rosebush. It was the exact same kind of flower as the one growing in his backyard at home, but these roses were three times as big. Could this be the solution he had been looking for? The answer that could solve all of his problems?

     “Who is responsible for the plants and flowers in the castle?” Zachary asked King Keres, whose dark eyebrows shot up in surprise.

     “That would be Gwen.” A fat old lady stepped forward as the king announced her. She reminded Zachary of his grandmother, only shorter and rounder. Her leather gloves and boots were covered in dirt, and a single twig even clung to her white hair which was tied up in a bun.

     “I want to be in your bed.” Zachary declared for everyone to hear. He had forgotten his grief and guilt, for Gwen might hold the secret to his salvation. He couldn’t wait to start learning from her.

     “It’s been fifty-three years since a man said that to me.” Gwen muttered as she placed a cup on the edge of the stone well. “be a dear and fill that up for me.”

     Zachary did as he was told and pulled up the bucket from the well. He peeked inside it but saw only darkness and shadows. Without spilling a single drop, he filled the cup to the brim. Gwen took the first sip, followed by Zachary himself.

     Before he knew it he fell down on hands and knees, gagging and almost vomiting. He hadn’t expected the well-water to be so disgusting.

     “When I was your age, I was playing in septic pits for fun and never gagged once.” Gwen spat out. “I’ve said it a hundred times before, the men of this new generation are more delicate than flowers.”

     “I’m sorry.” Zachary coughed, spitting out the remaining water.

     “Get on your feet, boy. We have a lot of work to do.” Gwen turned around and walked to one of the houses near the right wall. The rest of the group went their own way as well. It was King Keres who helped Zachary find his feet again. “Gwen isn’t the best with people.” He explained to Zachary. “If you work hard, she might warm up to you.”

     With a “thank you.” Zachary followed Gwen to her house. It looked quaint from the outside with wooden walls and a thatched roof. They didn’t enter, though. Gwen threw a pair of brown leather gloves at Zachary and ordered him to put them on. After that, he followed her into the small garden next to her house. A wooden fence marked the border, and within grew all kinds of medicinal herbs, bigger than Zachary had ever seen before.

     “Before we get to work, can I ask you a few questions?” He asked the old lady opening the gate to her garden. She responded with a “Grmph.”

     “How is it that your plants are so huge? There has to be some kind of secret.”

     “Hard work.” Gwen said while picking up a few buckets resting against the wall of the house. They were old, rusted, and filled with brown slimy goo. “A good compost works wonders as well.” She handed over the buckets of compost to Zachary, who almost had to gag again because of the terrible smell. He had worked with a dozen different kinds of compost, but never this brown goo.

     Her secret couldn’t be the compost. Everyone already knew the wonders of compost, but that couldn’t explain her miraculous plant-growth. Maybe if he showed Gwen how good he could work in her garden, she would let him in on the secret.

     Without waiting for more instructions, Zachary knelt near the closest plant to him and mixed the compost with the earth. Gwen visited each plant with a tiny pair of scissors. Zachary was familiar with everything that grew in the garden. They were plants to treat all kinds of common diseases and infection. He also recognised a few tobacco plants in the back, which is used for smoking.

     As Zachary scooped up another handful of goo, something hard got caught between his fingers. He looked down at his hand and noticed a small piece of bone. When he realised what it was, he dropped it and stumbled backwards.

     “What’s the matter with you?” Gwen complained upon seeing Zachary crawling away from the bucket.

     “You… you put dead animals in your compost.” Zachary stuttered at the old lady, perplexed by his findings. He had never seen a farmer turn livestock into food for plants.

     “Of course.” Gwen muttered as if nothing was wrong. “It’s the best way to dispose of an animal carcass. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of that before.”

     “No.” Zachary sighed, getting on his feet again. “Then again, I don’t work with animals.”

     The gears in Zachary’s head were turning as he processed this new information. Perhaps Gwen had a point. Turning the dead livestock into compost would prevent predators from eating it. Possible diseases from the corpse might be eliminated as well.

     “I apologise for reacting the way I did.” Zachary said to Gwen after thinking over this new revelation. “Maybe it is common, I just didn’t know.”

     “Don’t worry about it kiddo.” Gwen patted Zachary hard on the back. “Why don’t we head inside for a cup of tea, you’re looking a little pale.”

     Zachary picked up his bucket of compost and put it back near the wall of Gwen’s house. The old lady was already inside when Zachary entered her cosy dwelling.

     Plants in clay pots dominated every available space of the building. It was like walking into a forest. A large kitchen was the first thing Zachary saw when entering, and a metal kettle hung in the fireplace. Gwen picked leaves from one of the plants near the window. “Some fresh mint tea should clear your mind.” She said with a smile as her guest approached. “We can sit near the fire while we wait for the water to boil.”

     Zachary grabbed a wooden stool from under a counter and took place near the hearth in the kitchen. He had hoped for a nice bench, but the only space suitable for a sitting area in Gwen’s house was occupied by large plants. She loved her profession so much that she was willing to sacrifice her own comfort for it.

     “Why did you choose me?” Gwen said as she placed her own stool near the fire. “You could have been dining with the king.”

     Zachary stared at the kettle hanging over the fire while chewing over his words. How much should he share with her? The whole story? What if she brands him a coward and then refuses to tell him the secret of the plant-growth? Then again, she might take pity on his situation as well.

     “It started four years ago.” Zachary whispered, afraid to hear his own words. “My wife woke up in the middle of the night, complaining about sounds she heard in her own head. We went to the doctor in Bloomdale, who sold us an expensive tonic. It helped, but when we ran out, the sounds came back. My wife said it sounded like rats scratching against her skull. Three months later, all she could do was cry in pain and agony. I couldn’t afford more of the tonic, so I decided to grow the required plants myself.”

     “I’m sorry to hear that.” Gwen said in her sweetest voice. “Most people start growing plants to sell them. What you’re doing is so much more honourable.”

     “It’s not working, though.” Zachary muttered as he buried his face in his hands. “The herbs take too long to grow. I can only relieve her pain for three days every month. Three days to be with my wife, and after that, she goes back to her screaming and crying. I… I couldn’t take it anymore, so I escaped to this castle. My brother is looking after her until I get back, but he has his own family to take care of as well.” He tried his best to fight the tears, but they surfaced anyway. “I can’t believe I abandoned her like that.” His voice broke as he cowered in the stool near the fire.

     For a full minute, Gwen let him cry. The kettle whistled and she poured two cups of tea. After taking a sip, Zachary managed to calm down a little.

     “Your plants are unusually large.” He eventually said to her. “If I knew how I could use that on my herbs at home to treat my wife.”

     “I hear you.” Gwen said, taking a sip from her own cup of tea. “How far are you willing to go to help your wife?”

     “Please.” Zachary turned to Gwen, dropped his cup and fell to his knees. “I would do anything. I love her, but what we’re doing now isn’t living. I need to know.”

     “Only a select few would accept this secret and make it their own.” Gwen responded to the man kneeling before her. “Tell you what, we finish our work for today, get a good night’s rest and I’ll tell you tomorrow before you leave.”

     “Thank you!” Overcome with joy, Zachary started kissing Gwen’s leather boots.

     “No, no.” Gwen quickly protested. “I’m pretty sure I stepped in dog shit before you came here. Get on your feet.”

     Zachary obeyed and accepted a fresh cup of tea from Gwen. When they had finished their break, they returned to the garden outside. He resumed spreading the compost, cared for the plants growing around the castle and removed weeds near the walls. When evening came, he and Gwen fell into her bed, tired and exhausted.

     An hour later, Zachary was still awake. Even though his entire body was begging for sleep, Gwen’s loud snoring made it almost impossible. He decided to get up for some fresh air. Zachary left the tiny bedroom and entered the overgrown kitchen. He wanted to go outside, but then curiosity took over.

     There was another door in the kitchen. It might just be a storage room, but Zachary couldn’t resist taking a peek. As he approached the door, he knocked over one of the stools near the fireplace.

     It made a terrible ruckus, and Zachary cursed himself for being so clumsy. He didn’t want to wake Gwen and put her in a foul mood. After putting the stool back where it belonged, he approached the door and opened it.

     It was dark. Too dark to see anything. Luckily, Zachary remembered that there were torches outside near the well, so he quickly left the house to fetch a torch and returned to the mysterious room.

     Now that the chamber was bathing in a golden light, Zachary could see the strange machine. It had lots of gears and levers, a large opening on the left and a tube on the right. A familiar looking bucket of goo stood under that tube.

     Was this where Gwen made her compost? It certainly was an unusual approach. Then again, the goo was unusual to begin with it.

     Perhaps Gwen’s secret was the compost after all, and the strange machine was the key to understanding it. Zachary inspected the metal construction, but couldn’t come to a clear understanding of how it functioned.

     Something had to be inserted in the large hole on the left side of the thing, that much was clear. Then the large lever had to be turned and something got squeezed out of the tube, into the bucket.

     But what was the ingredient? Surely it couldn’t be the dead animals, Gwen had explained that many farmers used that, yet their plants grew in normal proportions. It had to be something else.

     In a desperate attempt to solve the mystery, Zachary reached into the hole of the machine. The metal was cold and wet, and something was left behind inside of it. Something that hadn’t been squeezed together yet.

     He grabbed the mysterious item and pulled it out of the machine. Zachary’s arm was covered in a red substance, and he immediately dropped the item he had retrieved with a shriek.

     It was a human hand. The bones were shattered, and the fingers were bent in unnatural ways, but it remained a human hand. The red substance covering Zachary’s arm was blood.

     The bone he had found in the bucket wasn’t an animal bone.

     It was human.

     “You just couldn’t wait until tomorrow, could you?” A sharp voice said from the doorway. It was Gwen, wearing her white nightgown.

     “You use people.” Zachary whispered to her in an accusing tone. “Not animals, but people.”

     “Look.” Gwen sighed as she entered the room. “It’s not such a big leap from using dead animals. She would have rotted in the well with the others, but now she can be of use.” Gwen said while nodding to the severed hand on the ground.

     “In the well?” Zachary repeated her words. “The well of the castle? There are more corpses down there?” The more he thought over Gwen’s words, the less sane they began to sound.

     “Shit.” The old lady muttered to herself when she realised she had said too much. “The point is, plants feed on this. It doesn’t make much sense to me either, dead horses have a lot more mass than humans, yet people yield far greater results. You’ve seen what grows in this castle, it’s extraordinary.”

     “But…” Zachary muttered, his eyes flashing back to the severed hand on the ground. “How would I even acquire a corpse? We burn our dead.”

     “There are people out there that nobody will miss.” Gwen quickly responded. “You said you would do anything to help your wife. Do this for her.”

     “K… killing people?” Zachary shrieked. “Never! That’s monstrous!”

     “This is why you had to wait until the morning.” Gwen dictated in an angry voice. “You had to be eased into this, that’s the only way you’d accept the truth. This is the way to help your wife. The only way.”

     “No.” Zachary violently shook his head, backing away from the hand on the ground. “No, I won’t do that. I can’t do that.”

     “Then we’ve reached the end of our conversation.” Gwen reached into a pocket of her nightgown and revealed a glass phial containing a green liquid. “I really am sorry. It’s cruel to do this to your sick wife, but I can’t take risks. I have to follow the rules of Vreyhold.”

     Gwen took a step closer to Zachary and threw the green liquid in his face before leaving the room and locking the door.

     “Hey!” Zachary banged against the wood with both his arms. “Let me out!

     He took a step back and prepared himself to ram his entire body against the door when a familiar sound drew his attention. He turned around to see where it was coming from, and suddenly he was back home.

     His wife was in the bed, crying and clawing at her own head. She was tearing out her sweaty hair in an attempt to make the scratching stop, but nothing helped.

     The crying pierced Zachary’s very soul, and his tears returned.

     “Please, just stop.” He begged his wife. “I just gave you some medicine, the herbs need time to grow.”

     His wife responded by crying even louder. He couldn’t take it anymore. There had to be a way to make her stop.

     Zachary walked over to the bed and did the one thing he had been thinking of for so long. He grabbed the pillow and pushed it down on his wife’s face.

     Just a few moments of silence was all he needed. The pillow muffled her screams. The harder he pushed down, the less sound she made.

     When his head stopped hurting, he threw the pillow away. His wife’s eyes were staring at the ceiling, her mouth bruised and forced open, but no sound came out.

     Peace, at last.

     Zachary stepped away from the bed, but the second he turned to the door the crying resumed. His wife’s eyes were still staring, and her mouth remained in the unnatural open position, yet she was still crying.

     Even covering up his ears couldn’t block out the sound.

     “Just stop, please.” He begged, to no avail. Zachary pushed his hands against his skull, but nothing helped.

     In a desperate attempt to make the pain stop, he grabbed his ears and started pulling at them. If he couldn’t make his wife stop crying, maybe he could prevent himself from hearing it.

     He pulled and pulled harder, his skin tearing open and blood pouring down his hands. With one final scream, he ripped his own ears out.

     Even that couldn’t stop the wailing. He heard it in his mind as he bled out on the floor of Gwen’s house.

       “Just stop crying.” He continuously repeated to himself, his voice growing weaker and weaker.