This is a revamp of one of my favorite faerie tales. Since it is fairly long for a single post, I broke it into three parts. Click on the links to see Part 2 and Part 3.

Circe and Her Swine by  Briton Rivière, 1896

Circe and Her Swine by Briton Rivière, 1896

Inga emptied the heavy buckets of slop into the pigs’ trough. Her stomach growled. The aroma of the swill seemed less foul today. She wiped the sweat from her brow, ignoring the grit she smeared across her face in the process. She told her stomach to be quiet. She needed to find a way to get her husband out of the dungeon soon or she really would be reduced to stealing slop from swine like the other servants under this miserable king’s thumb. She stared at the tiny window that ventilated the entire dungeon. Although she knew he smelt nothing but the pigs in that room, she knew the chief torturer reserved that room for himself. Even pig-tainted air was a luxury in those putrid halls.

 Tonight, she promised herself. Tonight I look in the window, when it is dark outside and a fire burns in the hearth. He won’t see my face if I am careful.

 When she finished her chores for the day, she returned to the small room that housed all the outside women servants.  Seven of them crowded into a six foot by eight foot shed, sleeping on straw with thin, scratchy burlap blankets as their only cover. The stench of the room overwhelmed Inga when she first came to live here even though it had no door to trap the scent, only a blanket over the opening that served as their entrance, and no window. The other women told her that closeness alone saved them from hypothermia during the winter. Besides poor accommodation, the women were given little to eat.  Most combined their meager daily rations with snippets from their animals’ feed to fill their bellies enough to survive. Occasionally, soldiers came to the shed. That was worse than anything else.

 Inga struggled to keep herself awake as the other women fell asleep. It was not that the waiting was long, but it was difficult. In spite of the cold and the great hunger in their bellies, the women who lived in this room fell asleep quickly at days end, and Inga was no exception. Not anymore. She foiled her rescue mission many times with her simple need for sleep. Not tonight! Tonight she bit her fingers, pinched her thighs, and kept apart from the other women so the chill ran along her spine. Even so, she caught herself drifting to sleep.

 When she saw that the other women in the room slept deeply, she pulled herself to her feet, whispering a prayer that no soldiers would visit them that night, and crept quietly across the yard to the tiny window where a faint light glowed. She approached it from the side and peeked around the wall. Inside, a man with burly muscles and several scars that Inga suspected were self-inflicted sat on a wooden chair, dozing next to a respectable fire with a bottle in his hand. Inga leaned a little further into the light of the window to be sure the man was definitely asleep. She glanced around the yard. She saw no one, so she grew bolder. She moved to squat directly in front of the window and gauge its size. It took her three months to starve herself down to the size of a well-fed peasant. It only took a few weeks working as the swineherdess for the wicked king to reduce her to a size small enough that she could easily fit through this window if need be. What about my husband? Can his shoulders fit through this window? Can he walk to it anymore? pushed that thought aside. Surely he must be able to walk. He had to be.

 Inga surveyed the room before creeping quietly back to the shed, slipping in just before one of the soldiers passed by on his nightly rounds. She slipped in under the burlap next to a woman whose name she did not know, but who shared her blanket when Inga first arrived at the wicked king’s castle. She tried to form a plan in her mind during these quiet hours, but the weariness of the day overwhelmed her and she fell asleep.

A few hours later, like regular clockwork, all the women in the room began to stretch and wake at the same moment, hours before sunrise. Inga fluttered her eyes open with the rest of them, wondering if she dreamed her excursion to the dungeon window. She smiled a little to herself. No matter. Dream or not, she intended to put something into motion. She didn’t quite have a plan yet, but she had a beginning. She rushed over her preparations for the day and gave her breakfast to the woman who shared her blanket. She went about her morning chores hastily, hoping to be done with them by the time the other women began theirs. She failed, but the shack was empty when she returned to it. That was all she needed. She went to one corner and swept aside some of the straw. She found the loose board and pulled it up just enough to slip her hand inside, noticing she did not need to lift it as far as the day she first decided on the hiding spot. She snatched two coins very quickly before returning the board and the straw to their original state. She tucked the crowns into the excuse of a bodice she wore and ran back to the pigpen to do the rest of her day’s work.

When the butcher came to the sty after the sun rose, Inga smiled sweeter than usual. She started working on him the day she got her position as swineherdess, but she his interest waned quickly as she thinned. Nevertheless, it wasn’t completely gone. She walked over, attempting to make her thin hips sway noticeably under the bag-like dress she wore. The butcher certainly perceived the extra attention and watched her approach with appreciation. When she was certain he wanted to see what she had to offer, she reached into her bodice. When she pulled out the coins, the greed in his eyes switched very quickly from her person to her possession. She stopped where she was, wanting to be well out of his arms’ reach. She knew very well the butcher could overpower her easily. She held the coins out a little ways. “I have a favor to ask.”

The butcher agreed readily and asked no questions. Inga gave him the coins and each of them returned to their work, the butcher two crowns richer, and Inga two crowns closer to hope. That night Inga fought off the sleep again. She found it easier than the night before as anticipation rippled in her veins. By the time she looked through the window, the chief torturer lay sprawled out on the floor, wine bottle in hand, kindling smoldering in the fire place. He must have started the fire, then drank the wine, and never been able to add any logs. Inga glanced around and slid through the window, landing awkwardly on the floor. She built up the fire again and rolled the torturer closer to it, then slipped out of the door on the side of the room opposite the window. Darkness quickly swallowed her in the hallway. There were no torches, and Inga dared not light one for fear it would give her away. She put a hand on the cold, rough, stone blocks of the wall and felt her way forward, hoping her eyes could adjust to the dark. She walked on for several yards, finding no turns or twists. Her bare feet made no sound on the ground and the silence closed in on her until her heartbeat and her breath sounded as loud in her ears as a trumpet.

She walked on, wondering how to find anyone in this dark place. She jumped at the first groan she. It took her a full minute to recover her breath. When her heart stopped pounding enough that she could hear the faint sound of the groans again, she listened hardtop the voice. It was familiar, but it was not her husband. She crept quietly along, following the groans. Quiet tears dropped down her cheeks; she knew she would not be able to save this man as well as her husband. When she came to the man’s cell, she whispered as quietly as possible.

“Ambassador?”

She heard the man startle in his cell. “Whose there?” he shrieked “Leave me alone! Please!”

 Inga hushed him several times. “Ambassador, it’s me, Inga.”

She repeated herself several times, all the time fighting the urge to run. Finally the man calmed down. He crept closer to the cell bars to hear her. “Whose there?” This time he whispered and Inga knew she spoke to the efficient man who earned the respect of many kingdoms.

“It’s me, Inga.”

The ambassador groaned. “Ugh, it must be those drugs they gave me.”

 “No. It really is me. Please, I need to know where my husband is.”

The ambassador chuckled quietly, a man bitterly resigned to a terrible fate. “I’m talking to ghosts now. Alright, Your Majesty, if you’re really there, His Majesty sleeps in the torture chamber, tonight and every night. Just follow this passage a until it ends and listen for the screams to find him. He’s left alone until daybreak, if you know when that is.”

Inga shuddered. She heard the ambassador move away from her. In this consuming darkness, she did not know how much time had passed. She decided to follow the walls of the dungeon back to the torturers room for tonight. She crept back quickly, hardly daring to breathe. Just one more night, she promised herself, one more night. The torturer still lay passed out on his face next to the dwindling fire. Inga added another log to the fire, then pulled herself out through the window. She huddled close to the wall watching two soldiers walk by less than fifty feet away. She calculated the time her adventure took by the position of the moon. Less than one hour. When the soldiers passed out of sight, she slipped quietly across the yard to the shed. The other women in the room still slept their laborers sleep. Inga laid down next to the woman who shared her blanket and fell asleep.

Advertisements