The Traitor Hag by I. Papadopoulou

The castle was the most magnificent building Helias knew. He was a cook boy and he lived in the strongest and the safest castle in the world. It was so strong that people even claimed it was alive, protecting its inhabitants. Helias believed that. He had whispered to the walls.

“Are you alive?”

“Can you feel my touch?”

The walls never responded but Helias spoke to the castle many times, attempting to find signs of life in its stone wall and dark corners.

It was an old castle and, as far as anyone knew, it had never fallen to enemies’ hands. It stood proud and strong at the top of their little island. It was where the Lord lived. Helias was the Lord’s servant, as everybody in the castle was. Nobody had ever seen the Lord. Nobody knew His name. All they knew was the Lord was good and He was their protector.

The people in the island swore Him their fealty and He gave them His protection. The Lord never came out to eat or to celebrate. He lived in the heart of the castle where nobody could reach. Helias wondered if He was the castle.

Many intruders came. They would climb to the castle, which had strong and tall walls that housed all the inhabitants of the island inside it, and they would try to tear it down. They all failed because the castle had never fallen and it never would.

One day, a new intruder appeared. Helias watched the lone figure walk up the hills. He saw how the intruder used a stick to walk slowly. The intruder wore black clothes. All the islanders watched as the lone creature came to their large doors and knocked.

Three simple knocks from a frail old hand. Yet, these three knocks echoed all over the castle. Helias looked down and  saw that the intruder was an old woman with a hump and having her whole body covered under dark layers of cloth. Only her face was visible, thin and frail. Her knocks still echoed around every wall and every heart and mind on their island and castle.

“Is your Lord here?” the woman called . Helias heard her as if she was right next to him, instead of metres down. He looked around and could see that everyone could hear as well as he could.

“Our Lord is always here. Inside His castle.” A woman called back. Helias recognized her as one of the head women, responsible for the co ordination of the service in the castle. “Who is asking?”

The woman looked up at the castle walls and raised her hand. “Does it matter?” she answered. “I am an old woman, asking for food, water and shelter inside His Castle.”

Helias knew that the gates had never opened. There had never been a time when the inhabitants of the castle would open their gates for anyone to enter or to exit. “Our gates never allowed a stranger to enter.” The head woman said. “The Castle has never fallen.”

The woman looked around and Helias felt she could see his face. “Does a castle fall because someone new can see it?” she asked after a few moments.

“Our castle had never fallen because we never allowed anyone to enter.” The headwoman answered. “We will not provide you entry and break our Lord’s tradition. The castle has never fallen and it never will  so long as the gates are always closed.”

The old woman sat on the ground. “So be it.” She said. Everyone stopped paying her attention. One moment, everyone in the castle seemed to listen and see her and the next everyone had turned back to their responsibilities. Helias was no longer at the castle walls but inside the kitchen, descaling a fish.

Once he was finished, he ate his dinner in silence. He was certain that he was, by that point, the only one that still remembered their lone intruder. He put some bread aside and wrapped it in a cloth. He walked, shivering from a soft breeze, to the castle’s edge and looked down. She was there, sitting on the ground. It was dark and he was so high. He should not have been able to see her but he could. Her form was clearly defined, as if a slight light made it so.

He looked down at her and he then looked around in the castle walls. There were no guards. There was barely a need for them. The castle had never fallen, the walls stood tall and unbending since their creation. Their Lord willed it so.

Helias put his finger in his mouth and whistled. The old woman looked sharply at him from the ground. She didn’t seem surprised to see him. She got up from her spot and walked slowly to stand right under him. He held the cloth with the bread inside and felt the weight in his hand. He felt as it tugged, aching to fall down. Helias’s fingers loosened and the cloth with the bread fell. The woman caught it and opened it. He watched as her frail, thin fingers took the bread and brought it to her mouth. She smelled it, she touched to her face, then she opened her mouth and ate a bit.

Helias saw her looking up at him. Her eyes looked into his, despite the distance and the darkness, and his heart beat so fast that he was certain it would burst. He did the only thing a boy of his age could do , when faced with eyes like hers, old and far too wise. He escaped to his bed and hid under his covers.

The next day, Helias went about his daily routine. He peeled potatoes, washed dishes and polished silverware. He cleaned floors and washed counters. He had forgotten of the old woman and the food he had given her. Like everyone else, he had forgotten that there had been this strange and lonely intruder at all.

It was only as he was on the verge of dreaming, that he remembered her face. It was only in that last moment of consciousness that he realized that now the old woman lived inside the castle. The old woman had managed to infiltrate their castle and nobody had noticed.

Helias like everyone else on the island, had thought that she had always been there. He thought that he had known her as had everyone. Helias remembered that she was an intruder only for that moment of sleep.

The next day he woke up with no memory or this. It was only as he was falling asleep the next night that the memory and the realisation came again. That happened for a long time. Helias didn’t know how long though; nobody did in the village. Time didn’t matter. The castle would never fall. The walls were strong and the gates would never open. Their Lord lived there after all.

One morning, Helias heard the bells. There was another intruder. This one came with men in dark metal suits, as black as the night itself, to test his skill with their castle. Helias wasn’t even surprised that they were there. There had been many men and women before them and there would be many after them. He didn’t exit the kitchen to hear of their attempts. He didn’t bother to pay attention as the head woman turned them away.

He didn’t pause any of his tasks for them because they weren’t important. To Helias, they were barely people. He went on with his duties as did everyone else. Their intruders stayed and tried to tear the walls down for weeks but Helias barely registered their weapons or their attacks. The ground sometimes shook but Helias believed in the castle and the Lord. It would stand as it always had.

The old woman was there, in his mind, right before he went to sleep. One night, at that small moment of memory and realisation, Helias felt an old hand on his face. It startled him awake. The hand was old and it smelled. It smelled of dirt, disease and experience. It wasn’t beautiful to Helias. He didn’t understand the beauty of the inevitability, the eventual loss of youth, of life and of physical energy.

His eyes widened and he saw the old woman’s face, for the first time since she had invaded their castle, aware of who she was and what a dangerous and unprecedented feat she had achieved. He wanted to scream, to demand mercy from her attack but she only smiled and Helias couldn’t make a sound. She sat on his bed.

“The Castle will fall tonight.” The old woman said. “Your Lord will be forced to exit it and it will fall.” She handed him the cloth, with which he had covered the bread he had given her when she first came. “You need to be ready.” She said.

“The Castle has never fallen.” Helias said. “It never has and never will.”

The old woman smiled and shook her head. “It will because I am here.” She said. “It is always because of me that castles like this fall.”

Helias didn’t understand. He didn’t know how to respond. He felt a surge of hatred for her. “Why did you come?” he asked, hating her for the doom she foretold of everything he knew and believed in. “Did you come to make our castle fall?”

The old woman took his hands and brought them to her face. She kissed them and Helias felt the sudden chillness of her skin. He felt the scratchy hands and the years of them. He also felt, as if he had a sudden new sense, the lives lost, the walls tore down and the thousands of bodies the old woman had touched.

“Because every Castle has to fall. Every Lord has to lose. They have to when they grow too comfortable and too insular in their power.” She said to him. “I tear them down.” She repeated sadly.

Helias hated her. Yet, he also believed her.  “Why did everyone forget you?” he asked her. “Why do I forget you, even when I see you?” He knew that he deserved a slap for demanding an answer and he was ready to endure her anger.

The old woman didn’t seem angry and she took away the cloth from her head. It fell down and Helias saw that there was no hair left. She was bare of it all.  Her scalp was full of scars. There were bites of insects, burns, cuts and bruises. All of them were on her bare head, next to each other, like pieces of a map. Helias didn’t know how he knew that. “Yours is not the first Castle.” She said to him. “There have been many.” She said. “Your name means the sun, did you know that?” she asked him.

Helias didn’t know that. Nobody had ever explained his name. He only had it because he had it. He accepted it as his name in the same way he had accepted the walls that never fell and never would. He nodded in childish refusal to admit ignorance.

“Little Helias. Little Sun.” She sang as if it was a lullaby. “You are the only one that remembers me because you are the only one who cared I was hungry. Had your castle and your Lord cared as well, I wouldn’t have had to tear it down.” She said to him. “But if they grew to believe that the Castle will fall because someone enters, even an old and weak hag like me, then they have grown too insular in their power.” She said to him. Helias felt her hands over his body, as she kissed him and caressed him. She softly pulled him out of bed and helped him undress from his night clothes.

Like the mother he never had, – or perhaps the grandmother – she gave him new clothes, once made with fine cloth, velvets and gold decorations. Helias followed her movements, half awake and half asleep. “You look like a Lord now.” She told him.

She took him by the hand and they walked slowly around the Castle. Everyone was asleep. They reached a steep, dark and covered in moss staircase, which Helias didn’t even know existed. They walked further and further down until they reached the lowest and deepest part of the castle. The old woman opened a secret door on the floor and from it the men with the  dark suits came out. To Helias they looked like ants, all rushing out of the anthill.

As they came out and rushed up the stairs to the sleeping islanders, Helias felt a tug in his tongue. They were all sleeping. The Castle was lost and they wouldn’t even be able to defend it. They might even be slaughtered in their sleep. The old woman pulled him and lead him through the door.

They walked further and further against the current of the dark ant soldiers that were storming the Castle. Eventually they reached the  shore. They had walked through a long cave, Helias had never known of its existence, and they were at the mouth of the cave, facing the sea. There was a boat, small, wooden and cheaply made.

The old woman climbed on the boat. “Push us.” She told him and Helias put his small, childish arms against the wooden boat and pushed with the strength of man. It was a strength he didn’t have before.  Once the boat was in the water, Helias felt the cold water rise to his waist and he was awake enough to look back to the cave that had lead the ant soldiers to take the Castle.

The woman grabbed his arm and pulled him on the boat. “Row us away.” She told him and Helias did so. He had never done before. He had never been in the sea, or felt the water on his skin. He had always been inside the castle. It was that isolation, that unmoving and unbending solitude of it and its inhabitants that had kept the walls of it standing since its beginning.

It was the same things that had made it fall, Helias bitterly thought. He rowed until they were far away. He stopped and looked back at his Castle. He saw the flames as they rose to the sky. He saw as the gates, after hundreds of years, opened and one of the walls started falling on the ground. “The Castle fell.” He said.

The old woman nodded. “They always do.”

“What of the people?” he asked. He felt his original anger and childish vengeance at her return. He stood suddenly and the boat rocked dangerously. He stumbled and he felt he would fall to his death in the deep, dark and dangerous sea. “What of my Lord?” he asked her.

The old woman raised her eyebrow. “He is not your Lord.” She told him. “He has not been for many days now. When you gave me the food, you gave Him up. When you remembered me and didn’t force yourself away, you gave Him up. When I pulled you with me and you didn’t scream for help or warning, you gave Him up. When the men came in and you didn’t run ahead to wake the others, you gave Him up.” She said and her words cut deeply into Helias. “Because you are a little Sun.” She said. “And you had known, even if you couldn’t think it, that the Castle had to fall as well.”

Helias wanted to protest. He wanted to call her a liar, a monster, a traitor. But all he could think and feel was that he was the traitor. He looked back at the castle. “Was it alive?” he asked. “People said the Castle was alive. I spoke to it. Could it hear me?”

The woman sighed and folded her arms. “I don’t know.” She said.

“What of the Lord? Was he real?” Helias asked her.

The old woman didn’t answer. “Row the boat.” She said. He sat down and did as she asked. They travelled in the dark sea for a long time.

He avoided thinking of it. He didn’t want to remember that he once lived in the castle that had never fallen. Eventually, they reached a new island, empty other than the goats and small animals that lived on it. He pulled the boat on the shore and they climbed up. The woman had not taken her old stick and she used him for support.

They climbed up and stood at the top, the highest point of that little island. She stood next to him and pointed at the horizon. “When the clouds clear, you will see the town there.” He told her. “Little Helias. Little Sun.” She softly sang him.

Helias felt tired. He realized suddenly that he hadn’t eaten since they left the castle. He hadn’t drank anything either. He was tired, hungry, and thirsty. He began to lie down. She didn’t protest. He felt relief as his back touched the ground and he closed his eyes, feeling a soft breeze.

He dreamed. The last time he had slept was at the Castle, the night before it fell. He dreamed of his castle. He dreamed of the Lord. He dreamed of the wall and that they had never fallen and were never supposed to. And they never would have, if the traitor hag had never used her ploy to tear them apart. Helias recalled the myth of the traitor Hag. She was the destroyer of castles like his. They were excellently built and their walls would always stand. It was only through treachery and schemes, they could fall.

And it was always the traitor hag who did it. As she had done it long ago in her own castle, though nobody knew its name.

He was then awake but he couldn’t see. He was in a dark place. Helias raised his hands but he couldn’t stretch them. There was a wall around him. He started screaming. “Help! Help! Help!” he called for the hag. He had never asked her name and he didn’t know what to call her.

“Help! Help!” he cried again. His voice hurt from the screaming and he tried desperately to move but there wasn’t any space.

“Shhh…” the traitor hag said. “You are where you are supposed to be.”

He screamed louder. “Let me out!”

“Every Castle needs its Lord.” The woman said. “Yours had one, that came from a different castle. He had seen the fall of the castle of his birth and he saw the castle of his life fall too. Every castle needs its Lord. Every boy needs his Castle. Every Castle needs a heart, living and bleeding, to make it a place of wonders, of myths and heroic conquests.” She told him. “Your Lord was that. You now are too. Your old castle has fallen and your Lord is well because he has finally managed to leave it.”

“Traitor!” Helias screamed at her. “Your are the traitor hag!” he screamed at her.

He heard her laugh. “I am.” She said. “It is one of my names. Do not worry, little sun. You will exit this Castle one day. Every Castle needs its Lord. Every Castle needs to fall. Until then, hear the whispers of the lives that will exist around you. I am sure many little boys and girls will whisper to you, trying to find out if the Castle is alive or not.”

“You are the traitor hag!” he screamed but there was no answer. Nobody was there to listen to his screams. Nobody cared of his castle and how it fell. There were countless castles that fell. People only wanted to hear stories of the ones that were so strong, so well-made that they never did. Eventually Helias had no more voice and energy left. He felt every brick as it was piled on him as people built a castle.

They called it the Castle of the Little Sun. The Castle had its Lord and He was good.

Ioanna is a Greek author, currently residing in Glasgow, Scotland.  She works in further education and is currently a Museum Studies student. She has a fantasy short story forthcoming with Hexagon.

Instagram: @joanne.Papadopoulou

Twitter: @IoannaP12806964