She was left as a warning. The bridge was not to be crossed again. She lay at the center of the long cracked stone, a still-lit lantern flickering beside her, her white dress as pristine as it was when she left home the day before. If anyone else had passed her, they might have thought her asleep, the pale pink glow of life still hung about her cheeks. If anyone else had passed… But they didn’t. Another three days passed before she was discovered, lantern still fiercely burning. Another three days before the bridge was even approached closely enough for her angelic form to be noticed. The traders, carrying furs and fabrics, raised the alarm.
Her death, the daughter of the mayor, was a striking blow to the community. She was brought home on top of the furs and fabrics in the traders’ cart, lantern left behind. The trees across the bridge shook with the sudden force of wind and the traders looked back, convinced someone was watching. They left the scene quickly, cart clattering over the dirt road back toward the village. The gate was opened once again for them, and they were greeted with grief and alarm as they reached the steps of the city’s community hall. She was carried up the steps on a blanket of grey rabbit fur and laid down at the mayor’s feet. The crowd that had gathered upon the spreading of such news watched in quiet and expectant shock.
The mayor demanded an explanation, frozen on the spot as he stared down at his lost daughter. The traders glanced at one another, each waiting for the other to speak. The younger, a soul of merely twenty-four years, stepped forward.
“We found her on the bridge,” the trader said and gestured back down the dirt path from which they came. A woman, with the harshness of the world and the love of a full life etched on her face, pushed her way through the whispering crowd, but stopped when she reached the steps. Her hands covered her first sob as she fell to her knees, shaking her head and practically collapsing onto the steps before her. This sudden outpouring of grief from the mayor’s wife, a woman known for her strength and composure, woke the hitherto quieted emotions of the crowd surrounding her. Their anger, confusion, grief, and fear pressed forward onto the traders, the shoulders of the sobbing mother, and the mayor, consumed by disbelief.
“Bring her inside,” he ordered as the crowd began encroaching on the steps. He repeated the order when the traders hesitated and he stepped down, lifting up his wife by her arm and leading her inside. The traders followed, carefully lifting the girl on the grey fur blanket. She was gently laid in the center of the main room, resting on the heart of the lion that had represented their community for so many generations. The mayor’s wife was escorted to her quarters as the mayor, and the community representatives, took their seats. The order was given – despite some argument – for an ornate gold and glass coffin, so that her beauty may live as long as fate should have allowed. The order was received by the goldsmith and the glassblower of the community.
Furthermore, the order read, the girl was not to be disturbed that night by any man, woman, or child, lest they desire severe punishment. With the mayor then retired to his quarters with his wife, the community representatives posted five guards to the safe side of the bridge and two extra guards to those who already stood watch at the main gate. Another pair were posted to each door of the main council chamber, where the girl now rested.
The night, with a full moon blanketed by mist of an oncoming storm, lent itself to uneasy sleep and active imagination. The minds of the townspeople wove in and out of dreams, nightmares ruled by screams and a woman in white. The dawn could not come soon enough. She was found overturned, dress stained with muddy palms and fingers. When she had been properly and gently repositioned, the mayor demanded questioning of all the guards posted to the doors; none had seen anything out of the ordinary, and none had let anyone passed. Indeed, the doors had been well locked, and the unlocking had taken some time, just before she was discovered so mistreated. With no more evidence to aid him, the mayor ordered the goldsmith and the glassblower to work at double speed; the girl required protection. While he waited, he doubled the guards at the doors and ordered a conference with the guards at the gate, who also had nothing more to offer. When he had finished with them, he sent for the guards at the bridge, but answer came there none.
All the messenger found when he reached the bridge was the cold metal lantern, still burning bright at the center of the bridge. There was no sign that any guards had been present there for even a moment – no footprints, no scuffs of armor, no weapons left behind, and no oil from their torches. The only other information the messenger could give was that he was certain he had been watched from the moment he arrived at the bridge to the moment he left. The breeze of the trees had not reached him except in the pale sound of their leaves. Fear grew…
Thank you for reading this excerpt of my short story, “She Was Left As a Warning.”