Grace stood outside the gate leading to the massive castle and stared in awe at the monstrosity in the distance. It was very late, and in the dark, she could make out the shapes of large domes and tall steeples piercing the night’s sky. She could see the soft glow of lights behind stained glass windows and as a gust of wind blew by, she heard the rattling of leaves on the trees that dotted the huge courtyard surrounding the castle. From the wrought iron gate she could make out the brick path which the trees bordered. The path led directly from the gate to the front door. The door was too far away for her to tell what it was made of, but she guessed either some metal alloy or hardwood. The building—what she could make of it in the dark—was intimidating and at the same time magnificent. She pushed the gate and it creaked as it opened. Slowly, she strolled down the path, looking left and right as she made her way to the front door and clutching the wide skirt of her gown that was being blown by the wind. The courtyard was beautiful. For a castle that held many myths, the grounds were well kept. The grass was neatly mowed, and as she walked, she recognized the trees on either side of the path: orange, peach, apple. It was an orchard. She smiled. The sight of the trees brought back memories of her and her little brother Tom hitting the orange tree in their father’s house with a stick and subsequently enjoying the fruit of their labor while laying on the grass. Their father did not have an orchard, just that lone orange tree in the middle of the compound. However, it yielded so much fruit in its season that many got spoiled because her family could not eat all the oranges fast enough. They often managed to sell plenty at the local market, but there was always a surplus of oranges. Tom called it the enchanted orange tree. She wondered if the trees on the castle grounds were enchanted. The orchard went as far as her eyes could see. With these many fruit trees, she tried to fathom why the locals never came in to steal some fruit, then she quickly remembered one of the myths surrounding the castle: the one who enters will never come out. Of course, she did not believe the myth, but most people believed it strongly. That explained why the gates could be open and people would never venture inside its walls.
She arrived the front door. As she had guessed, it was made of heavy wood. There was a large metal knocker shaped like a human skull on the door.
Grace shuddered and proceeded to knock. The door creaked open and she jumped. A howling gust of wind blew that sounded like an owl hooting “Who!” The door remained ajar and she pushed it all the way in. She had to push hard because it was very heavy, but finally, she was inside. The door slammed shut behind her and she could have sworn she heard a click, like a key turning in a lock. She turned around to look, but no one was behind her. As she peered around, she figured she was standing in a hallway, dimly lit by wall-mounted candles. It was quiet, and fear began to creep up her spine. Perhaps the myths were right. Perhaps it was a bad idea to come here. But when she thought of her brother, laying on his bed back home, withering away, she reminded herself that she was doing the right thing. The walls on either side of her were decorated with old, framed photos of people. Perhaps they had lived here, she thought. She took a step forward, then another, and another, pausing after every step and listening for sounds. Her fourth step saw her engulfed in a thin mesh of cobwebs. “Ugh!” she cried as she pulled them off her body. She heard the sound of critters moving. She must have disturbed them with her exclamation, she thought. She dusted her gown with the palms of her hands to ensure there were no more cobwebs on her, then kept walking. She didn’t know where the long hallway led, but she hoped she would find someone at the end of it. She could see a door at the far end. Perhaps it would open up into a living room. She regarded the pictures on the wall as she walked towards the door. The people looked wealthy from their attires. A royal family? They must have been, to live in such a grand castle. The men stood with their chests out, heads held high, adorned in red robes and holding golden staffs. The staffs looked the same in all the pictures. The women wore purple ball gowns and black shawls with black gloves. They looked eerily alike and were beautiful beyond words. There were no names on the pictures or the frames that held them. Grace had started to increase her pace–in a bid not to waste too much time admiring the pictures–when she stopped abruptly in front of the photo of a child. She let out a faint gasp and her heart raced as she beheld the picture. It was a little girl, probably no more than seven or eight. Her cheeks glowed red and her pink lips curled in a smile. It was the cruelest smile Grace had ever seen. It seemed more like a snarl. All her teeth appeared to have sharp, pointy ends and her huge eyes bulged; the red veins in them easily visible. The child looked possessed; like she knew something, or was about to do something…something evil. Grace turned from the horrifying picture and ran. The image of the little girl was etched in her memory, she couldn’t shake it off. She reached the door at the end of the hallway, quickly turned the knob and screamed as the knob, shaped like a human hand held her hand in a tight grip, then quickly let go.
The door opened, and instead of leading into a room, Grace saw a spiral stairwell. Without thinking, she ran through the door and up the stairwell. She heard the door slam shut behind her and that clicking sound again. Hot tears streamed down her face as she ran, jumping two stairs at a time. She was afraid. There was definitely something strange going on in this castle and she didn’t know if she would make it out alive. Something told her it was too late to try, that none of the doors she had come through would open to let her out. The spiral staircase was very long, and soon, exhaustion began to set in. Panting, she reached the top of the stairwell and entered a lush living space. There was a fireplace in the middle of the room where a roaring fire was slowly licking the wood. The carpet was thick, decorated with golden skull patterns set on a red background. The cushions looked plush and inviting, complete with throw pillows all in a pattern similar to that of the carpet. Like the rest of the castle, the room was lit by wall candles.
“Well, well. What have we here?”
Grace jumped and let out a tired yelp. Her nerves were still raw from the picture of the possessed girl and the thing with the door knob. She was getting frustrated with the sudden surprises of the castle. She turned around to see a small woman standing behind her. The woman looked very old and wrinkled. She was stooped, bent as if she could not stand straight, and her face was stern, almost malicious as she stared at Grace. The woman was completely bald in the middle of her head but had long white strands extend from the edges of her scalp to the floor. She wore a long black robe that was too big and dragged on behind her as she moved closer to Grace.
“Shhhhhh,” The woman breathed shakily. “I’m in no mood to quell the Masters if you wake them from their slumber.”
Grace stood rooted to the floor, too tired to do anything else. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. The woman stood in front of Grace, her height barely reaching Grace’s waist.
“Bend,” The woman commanded.
Grace knelt, and the woman reached out and held her face between her small wrinkly palms, looked into her fearful eyes, then let her go.
“Sit,” The woman instructed, and Grace sat on one of the cushions. “Grace Middlehorn,” The woman began in her shaky voice that sounded like the rattling of a snake’s tail. “You have come because of your brother.”
“H—how did you know?” Grace sounded alarmed.
The woman took a seat across from Grace.
“The eyes tell a great many secrets,” She chuckled. Then her face became stern again.
“Please,” Grace said, “You have to help me. My father is no more, and my brother is all I have. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make him better. I’ve gone to other towns and villages in search of elixirs, I’ve bought strange potions, yet nothing makes him better.”
“So, why are you here?”
Grace paused. She did not believe in superstitions, but everyone in town seemed to think there was something magical about this castle; dark, but magical nonetheless. So if all the natural remedies she had tried did nothing for her brother, she figured she might as well try any alternative. She was that desperate to help him. “I—people say there is something about this place. It holds magic.” She said, “If you are able to help my brother, I’ll be very grateful.”
“Ah, the myths of the great castle,” The old woman sat back on the cushion, “There are many stories about this old place, no?”
Silence. The fire crackled and hissed as the old woman held Grace’s gaze.
Suddenly, the old woman jerked as she sat up. She widened her eyes and they bulged like they were going to pop out of their sockets. “They are true, you know.” She whispered, “The stories, every single one of them.” She smiled. Her lips parted to reveal her teeth. They looked very familiar, like those of the little girl in the photo.
Grace shuddered. Her heart began to race as she recalled those pointy teeth and bulging eyes and malicious snarl. She swallowed, “P—please, h—help us.”
“Me? Help you?” The woman burst out laughing. Her face twisted into the ugliest thing Grace had ever seen and as she cackled, Grace saw that her tongue was cut in two, down the middle, giving it the appearance of a snake’s. How she spoke coherently was a mystery to Grace. “I can’t help you, the Masters can. But at a price!”
“Anything!” Grace shouted, “I’ll give anything, I’ll do anything to have my brother well again. He’s too young to die!”
Suddenly, there was a sound like a rushing wind. Grace heard it coming up the stairwell. It whooshed into the room and all the candles went out, including the fire in the fireplace. The entire room was thrown into darkness so thick that Grace could not see her hands lying on her thighs.
The old woman whispered, “Looks like we have succeeded in waking the Masters.”
A figure appeared in the dark. It was very tall. So tall, that Grace had to bend her neck backward to see its head. Its arms were long, reaching the floor and its fingers were long, jagged claws. It glowed green in the darkness, casting a green glow around the dark room and illuminating it. Grace gasped as she saw its head. It had 3 faces attached to a single neck. She quickly closed her eyes.
They spoke at once, “How dare you wake us from our slumber?” Their voices sounded livid, and Grace shut her eyes even tighter.
The old woman stood from the chair she had been sitting on, and knelt before the creature, making her appear even smaller than she really was. “Masters, it is this vermin who had the impudence to infiltrate our home that has woken you from your wonderful slumber,” She croaked. “But Masters, hear what she says! She asks for you to heal her sick brother.” The woman smiled a bone-chilling smile. “Here is a good chance to reward me, Masters.” She rubbed her palms together and licked her lips with her forked tongue.
The Masters looked at Grace, curled into a ball on the chair, eyes shut tight and they laughed. Their laughter hurt her ear drums so she covered her ears with her palms. “Open your eyes!” They shouted. “Is it true what Welda says?”
Grace opened her eyes. She was shivering from fear. Her lips quivered as she spoke, and she was holding back tears. “Y—yes.” She managed to whisper.
“You will have what you seek!”
Grace looked up at them, surprised that they had agreed so easily to help her. “Thank you! Oh, thank—”
“There is a price.” They chorused.
“Anything. I’ll pay anything.”
“We will take in return for your brother’s health, your beauty!”
Grace was stunned. Indeed she was beautiful. The entire town knew it. She knew it. Her long pointed nose, perfectly shaped lips and wide eyes were the envy of many town maidens. They often asked for the secret behind her glowing complexion and begged for her beauty regimen. Of course, Grace did not see her beauty as anything extraordinary, but faced with a decision to lose it or lose her brother, she was unsure; hesitant. “W—what will I look like?” She whispered.
“You will look like Welda!” They exclaimed. “She will take your beauty, and you will take her ugliness.”
Welda’s smile widened to reveal sharp teeth. Grace let out a moan of agony.
“You have three seconds to decide,” Welda said. “One,”
Grace could not do it. She could not be trapped in Welda’s hideous body for the rest of her life. She remembered the picture she saw downstairs and knew she did not want to be that person.
But she also thought of her dear brother Tom, and how he was suffering terribly. She knew that if she did not agree to pay the price, he would die. Would she rather watch her brother die than give up her beauty to save him?”
“I’ll do it!” She sobbed. I’ll let you take my beauty in exchange for my brother’s health.”
“Very well,” The Masters said.
The floor began to quake. Grace fell down as she felt a force creep up her body. Suddenly, she felt like she was on fire. A sharp pain shot through her body. She thrashed about and shrieked over and over as she felt her skin peel; twisting and turning on the floor and crying for help. This continued for what seemed like ages before all became still. She was too weak to lift herself from the floor. It was quiet. She opened her eyes. The room was lit again with candles and the fire was burning in the fireplace. The Masters were gone and the room appeared like they had never been in it. She sat up and looked at her hands. They were wrinkled and covered in ugly scabs and spots. As she stared at the hands which were now hers, she knew what the rest of her body looked like. She tried to stand but found that she could not stand up straight. She looked around for Welda, but she too had disappeared from the room. Grace knew she was free to go. She sat on a chair and sobbed. Outside, a cock was crowing incessantly. It was dawn.
The cock kept crowing, and she suddenly sensed brightness through her closed eyes as her blanket was dragged off her head by Tom. “Wake up woman!” He shouted. He sounded excited. “It’s the market day. We have oranges to sell!”
Grace opened her eyes and squinted. She was on her bed. Remembering what had happened, she quickly jumped from the bed and looked at her hands. They were smooth, no spots or scabs. They were hers! That was when she realized that she was actually standing tall, not stooped down. Her heart began to race. her breath came in deep puffs. What happened? She was supposed to be ugly. “Tom! TOM!” She screamed.
Tom’s expression changed from excitement to alarm. “What’s the matter Grace?” He asked.
“Tom…” She whispered, and held his shoulders, “Were you sick? I mean, seriously sick to the point of death?”
Tom was even more perplexed, “No. What are you talking about? I’ve not been ill in years!” He laughed, “I’m as strong as an Ox.”
Grace was still panting. She observed her body, her feet. She walked to the vanity table her father had made for her a year before he died and looked in the mirror. It was her face. She felt her forehead, her cheeks. She opened her mouth. No pointy teeth. She turned to look at her brother in horror. She gulped her saliva, “I—I think I just had the most terrifying dream,” She whispered. Her mouth was dry. “It felt so real.”
Tom walked to his sister and embraced her, “Grace,” He whispered, “You’re as pale as if you just saw a ghost. I was not sick. I was not dying. It was just a dream.”
“I—I went to that castle…I exchanged my beauty for your health.”
He chuckled, “Now, that sounds ridiculous. No one goes into that haunted castle. And you’re still the most beautiful young woman alive!”
“It was just a dream,” He hugged her tighter, then let her go, “It was just a dream, alright?”
She nodded, still dazed.
“Get ready, or we’ll be late for the market day!” He bounded out of her room.