Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 12
Once upon a time, there was a busy and prosperous town. Whitewall was its name, for every building from the mayor’s great house to the shepherds’ simple cottages was built of stone that shone white as snow in the sun. On one side of the town was a deep quarry, whence the stone was taken, and on the other a vast forest with an ancient pool. The town could not expand into the quarry, which was a solid barrier, and would not expand into the forest, which was held sacred, and so as it grew the buildings formed a line against the trees. In this way too, seen from afar, the place resembled a wall all of white.
But though so constrained, the town grew great, and the quarry still greater, and in time the sound of steel against stone grew loud enough to reach the forest’s pool. In this pool there lived a great worm that had slumbered too long for any to recall that it existed. In days of old, the heathen peoples of that place had revered it as a god, but it grew tired and they forgetful, so that only that vague memory of the pool as holy place remained. But the workmen woke the worm, and the worm remembered.
“Who has woken me from my slumber?” the worm demanded. “Who will serve me in these strange new days?”
The people of Whitewall were afraid, but the mayor made pilgrimage to the pool to speak with the worm and see what was requested. He saw the great head high above the water and he trembled. He saw its small, silver eyes and he quaked. But the worm was pleased to see an emissary, and it spoke not harshly to him.
“In days long past the people of this place brought tribute to honour and sustain me. They were my servants and I their lord. Yet in my way I served them too. No warring tribes would harry my vassals, and no thieves or vagabonds would anger their protector. Serve me like your ancestors, and I shall serve you too.”
The mayor took the serpent’s words back to his people, and through hope of prosperity or fear of reprisals, all agreed that they should send the tribute that was asked. A fine chest was crafted, and into this each citizen of Whitewall placed some fine trinket to please the worm.
The mayor carried the chest to the pool, and with its long tail the worm drew it into the water.
“This is good,” spoke the worm, “but I must have more. Your town has grown more vast than any I have ever known, and yet its tribute is the smallest.”
The mayor took these words too, and though the people were not pleased to find the worm had thought so little of their gifts, the more prosperous amongst them were content to offer more. The farmers with the largest fields sent away a portion of their produce, and the merchants with the grandest shops paid a little to make less their loss. With the three strongest men of Whitewall to help push the cart, the mayor brought this new tribute before the worm, and the worm swept it into the pool with its tail.
“This too is good,” spoke the worm, “but I must have more. Do you think these morsels can sustain me? Do you think my honour not great enough to deserve a grander gift?”
Once more the mayor returned to town with news of the worm’s response, and this time they were afraid—almost as afraid as they had been when first the worm spoke—because if they offered much more they would surely go hungry themselves. But none wanted to risk the worm’s wrath, and so the shepherds slaughtered a portion of their flock and the merchants repaid them in part, and the mayor with six men brought this new tribute before the worm.
“This is good also,” spoke the worm as it swept the cart into the pool, which stained the water red. “But still I must have more! This is a poor tribute for one so great as me.”
“But great one,” said the mayor, “I am afraid we have no more to give.”
“Then perhaps your town has grown too populous,” said the worm. “Perhaps in this way I can serve.” And once more its tail stretched out from the pool, this time towards the six men who had helped to push the cart.
“Wait!” cried the mayor, running to the pool’s edge. “If the choice is truly so dire, then we have yet one gift to offer!”
The worm regarded him with a silver eye, small as a sixpence in its vast head. “Very well.” Its tail vanished once more beneath the surface of the pool. “But know that if you do not return by nightfall with what is mine by right, I shall come to you to claim it.”
The worm watched the mayor walk away, half expecting to see him next as a speck on the horizon. But the man was true to his word, and he returned not with one cart, not with two, but with twenty all full to bursting with stones of purest white.
“How is it,” asked the worm, “that you have such riches to offer, when not an hour before this you told me you had no more to spare?”
“In truth,” said the mayor, “I thought such a simple token beneath your dignity.”
“No,” said the worm. “No, this is good.”
The worm swept the carts into the pool with its tail, and as it did so the people of Whitewall fled. All at once the water began to boil and spit, and before it could even swim to the side the worm was cooked to death. For though Whitewall held a good stock of meat and grain, it was known best for its quarry, and from that quarry came quicklime.
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
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