Marble Palace
A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Marble"
Originally featured on 12-07-2007
As part of our series "Things Both Flat and Round"

I met a man on my way to the Marble Palace. He seemed unsure of which leg to put forward first, jerkily stepping with the aid of a gnarled log. He had thick twists of scar tissue covering his skin, like knots in a tree. He said:

“I see you are on your way to the Marble Palace. I can tell by the loaf of bread you carry for the lion, the fur coat to hide from the bear, and that finely crafted and bejeweled silver dagger on your side for the snake. You are on your way to visit those immaculate arches and spires that grant men wishes. I can tell what you are seeking from those belongings you carry, but even one who did not know the significance of those objects together could tell you are a man who has searched for a long time. Your eyes have a dark shadow below them, and you walk like a man with a singular purpose. I was once like you, strong and young, with a forbidden wish in my heart, and like you I once sought out the magic locked in that stone. I foolishly spent my wish on wrath, bringing the most horrible of deaths to another man, and I have paid for that wish ten times over.

“You see, I come from a small village very far from here, and in my youth, I loved a woman there. She had fine golden hair, the color of wheat in autumn, and possessed all the knowledge of a lady, she could play the harp and dance more beautifully than any other, and the knowledge that usually belong to men, for she had run her ailing father’s farm since she had been young. Of course, a girl so beautiful had many suitors, but I was her favorite. We would go for long walks through the woods by her house, and for three seasons, I helped her with the harvest. One day, she went out riding with a wealthy noble, a son of a nearby lord, and she was killed when her horse spooked after being charged by a wild boar. I waited outside her house for three days, sleeping in the woods, and subsisting on only the flesh of that cursed boar. I hunted down the board that had killed her, but his blood alone did not quench the rage deep inside me, and I became obsessed with finding and killing the young knight whose negligence had lead to the death of my fair maiden.

“I plotted and schemed. I became acquainted with all manner of poison and tool of assassination. Shortly after the death of my love, the young knight had ascended into his father’s throne, and the protection his position afforded him made my task considerably more difficult. One day, the young lord and his entourage departed from the castle to travel to a hunting lodge, and I seized upon the chance to exact my revenge. I had chosen the weapon favored by the indigenous people of the south, a long pipe that one loaded with a feather-quilled dart, the tip of which had been dipped in deadly nightshade. I slept in a tree on the road to the hunting lodge and I waited. I heard the dogs barking in the mid-morning as the caravan approached. As the party passed, I became distressed, for I could not see the young lord. I followed them, trailing them for two days before an opportunity presented itself. One night, while the party camped, someone lighted a lamp inside the covered palanquin that carried the young lord, allowing me to see shadows inside through the covering fabric. Taking aim, I shot my deadly projectile at the shadow. Alas, my aim proved lethal, but I did not kill the young lord, who slept on the floor, while his brother moved about in the light. His brother died instantly, and I became aware of my grave mistake when, roused by the alarm, the servants carried his body out from inside the coverings.

“This was but the first of a series of mistakes, the young lord proved elusive, eventually hiring a double to pretend to be him during public events. The double died to my skillfully fired arrow. The lord’s two brothers were also victims, the one who died the night while on route to the hunting lodge, and another who died by poisoned wine.

“Finally, in desperation, I sought out the Marble Palace. I first heard about it from an old man who earned his drink by telling stories, and dismissed it at first as drunken rambling. However, I became intrigued by the level of detail with which the old man would describe the Marble Palace, the way he described the intricacies of the arches, linked together like honeycomb, and the ghostly spires, projecting out every which way like the spines of a porcupine. I listened most intently when he told me of the statue of the stone man with outstretched hands. In the old man’s story, a traveler could clasp the statues hands and be granted one wish. Soon I became obsessed, and would routinely go to the old inn the old man frequented and listen to him, buying him drinks until he fell asleep.

“I became convinced that the only way to have my revenge was to travel to the Marble Palace and have my wish realized. I packed the same three items I see you carrying, a loaf of bread for the lion who guards the gate, a fur coat to hide from the bear who lives within the courtyard, and a silver dagger for the snake that coils around the stone man’s neck. True to the story, I had my wish fulfilled. When I clasped the stone-man’s hands, I asked for the young lord’s death, who, by the time I made my wish, had grown old, as had I.

“As soon as I had uttered my wish, I felt the statue’s hands grasp my own with so much strength, they crushed the bones in my fingers. Blood began to seep out of the statue’s eyes and the stone mouth parted and began to whisper in an unknown language. I tried to pull away, but I could not free my broken hands from the statue. Then, the statue ceased to move. Its hands slowly uncurled, and I cradled my broken fingers in my lap.

“I fled from that unholy place, and eventually settled back near my home, near the abandoned farm that had once belonged to my love. Drought has punished that area of the country, and I fought against the wind that would strip the dry soil from the earth, preventing anything from growing.

“One day, a man found me in the field and told me he was the nephew of the man I had killed. I heard a story of the lord’s death, and the full gravity of my wish descended upon me. The man told me the lord had died a slow death of petrifaction, gradually turning into stone while he and his loved ones watched. He died over the course of three days, each more agonizingly painful than the last.

“The man informed me that he had come to kill me, to seek revenge for his uncle’s death, and a battle ensued. I emerged victorious, but you see now that I walk with a limp.

“This man was not the last relative who has sought me out, and you can see my wrecked body for proof.

“I tell you this story, young traveler, so that you can avoid the same mistake I made. If I had wished for peace from my desire for revenge, I might have salvaged what I could have from my life. Heed my words and do not wish for destruction!”

I listened patiently while the crooked man detailed his story. When he concluded, I nodded. “Old man,” I said, “yours is a terrible story indeed, and I am glad to have met you because my own purpose in searching out the Marble Palace was a dark wish for revenge. However, you have saved me from making that wish.”

I unsheathed my dagger and plunged it into his heart. “I no longer need to make my wish. You killed my father and now you die.”

Read More By Jim McCollum

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