Author's Note: Well, here we are. The final chapter. Hopefully you enjoyed the story, and aren't too angry about the ending :) Now to edit it… *shudders*
Chapter XXXII: And Last
You have no idea what an appetite it gives one, being executed. – C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
Rigmor was the first person to reach the scene of the duel. The Magician was still alive when she got there. His body twitched as if he was suffering an electric shock. A dreadful rattling noise issued from his mouth. The sword was still embedded in his chest.
The princess looked at him coldly. Then she grabbed hold of the sword, pulled it free, and sliced off his head. His corpse crumbled to dust before it hit the ground.
Solvej lay on the ground a few feet away, curled into a sort of half-ball, clutching her throat. As Rigmor approached she heard her muttering something under her breath. The wound on her throat did not appear to be bleeding. Instead blood trickled from her mouth, dribbling down her chin to drip on her red jacket.
"How bad is it?" Rigmor asked, kneeling down. She paid no mind to the sawdust getting on her purple skirt.
Solvej managed a faint smile. There was blood on her teeth too, and a thin stream was beginning to drip from her nose. "About as bad as it could be."
The ghost took her hands away from the wound. Rigmor recoiled in shock. There was no blood. Instead the skin around the cut had turned black. Blisters full of pus dotted the gangrened area. The edges of the cut appeared to be decaying before Rigmor's eyes. And most alarming of all, the blackness was spreading. It was slowly but surely creeping up and down Solvej's neck, onto her face and her shoulder.
"Oh my god," Hjalmar whispered.
Rigmor jumped. She hadn't heard him approach them.
"We need a doctor," he said shakily. "Is it a sort of poison? It must be poison. We'll have to find the antidote– Oh my god it's getting worse what do we do–"
"Hjalmar," Solvej said, propping herself up on her elbow, "you're babbling. It isn't poison. It's magic. Where's that sword?"
It took Rigmor a moment to realise she was still holding it. "Here."
She held it out to Solvej hilt-first. The ghost shook her head.
"You'll have to use it. See the wound the Magician made?" She gestured to her throat. "You'll have to cut out the skin around it."
"My god!" Rigmor and Hjalmar exclaimed in unison.
"I know," Solvej said. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. "It sounds horrible, it'll hurt like hell, you'd never dream of doing it. But it's the only way to get rid of the magic that's causing–" She gestured to the blisters and the decaying skin "–all this."
Rigmor looked at the wound and winced. It was getting worse. "Isn't there a spell you could cast, or a potion that would cure it?"
Solvej shook her head. "Not that I know of. The Sky Queen's sword was forged specifically to destroy monsters far darker than the Magician. It's the only thing I can think of that could undo the damage he caused."
The princess took a deep breath. "Hjalmar, help me hold the sword."
Hjalmar moved to stand beside her, looking as if he wanted to run a hundred miles in the opposite direction.
Rigmor forced herself to consider the situation from an emotionally detached position. She had become very good at that when she was cursed. It came in handy now. Fact: Dark magic was slowly killing Solvej. Fact: the quickest and surest way to stop this was to cut out the infection. Fact: she would have to do this cutting out. Fact: delaying would not make things any easier.
She took another deep breath, trying to calm herself. A sick feeling had wormed its way into her stomach. Slowly she raised the sword. Hjalmar looked at her questioningly. She nodded once, and he winced.
"Hurry up," Solvej hissed in an angry whisper. The blackness had crept up to her lip by now. She shook constantly, even though the afternoon was warm and the sun was still shining.
The first slice of the sword was the worst. Solvej's whole body tensed. Her fingers scrabbled at the ground. Her teeth sank into her bottom lip and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
Rigmor didn't dare try to cut away the skin around the wound for fear of striking bone, muscle or blood vessel. She didn't know if a ghost could bleed to death or be beheaded, but she didn't intend to find out the hard way. Instead she slowly scraped away the decaying skin around the wound.
The blackened skin crumbled and disintegrated as the sword's blade scraped over it. Gradually the gangrened area shrank, and Solvej's skin returned to its normal pallour.
Hjalmar's hands shook so badly that he was barely holding the sword at all. Rigmor considered telling him to move out of her way. But then she would be the only one performing this impromptu surgery, and Hjalmar wouldn't be able to help her if she did something wrong.
Rigmor held her breath for the final few minutes. If something went wrong now– If she cut too deep, or not deep enough– If some of the magic still lingered in the wound–
Almost all of the blackness had fallen away by now. It had stopped spreading, and now it shrank instead. The skin of Solvej's throat was raw and red, but astonishingly there was no sign of the knife-wound. It was as if it had been scraped away along with its effects.
Finally all the decaying skin had disappeared. Rigmor let out her breath and staggered backward. In the process she collided with Hjalmar. The two of them stumbled and almost fell. Solvej sat up, rubbing her throat.
"Not an experience I would ever care to repeat," she said decidedly. "Now what's for dinner? My latest brush with death has given me an appetite."
The King and Queen, despite their own curiosity and alarm at what was happening, had been kind enough to keep the every bit as curious spectators away from the scene of the duel. Now they saw that it was safe to approach.
"What happened here?" the King bellowed as he huffed and puffed his way across the training yard.
"Oh, nothing much," Solvej said, trying to stand up and almost falling on her face. "I almost died, that's all. Now I'd like something to eat before I return the sword to the Sky Queen."
The King and Queen looked at each other. Then they looked at Solvej, who had finally made it to her feet but was shaking violently; at Rigmor and Hjalmar, still holding the sword and half-leaning against each other; and at the few specks of dust that were all that remained of the Magician.
"Is the curse broken?" the Queen asked after a long silence.
Solvej nodded, swaying on her feet. "It broke as soon as the Magician died."
Rigmor took a minute to consider how she felt. For the first time in her life there was no phantom weight on her shoulders. There was no shadow lurking in the back of her mind. She was free. She was free.
"So you killed the Magician after all," the Sky Queen said. She smiled, almost proudly. "I hoped you would. But what's this? Some of his magic still lingers on you."
Solvej winced and nodded. "He stabbed me, your Majesty. We got rid of the worst of the magic, but..."
"Not all of it," the Sky Queen finished. "Let me see the wound."
There was no wound now. There wasn't a scratch left on Solvej's throat. But the residue of the Magician's magic hung around her like a mist. The Sky Queen grimaced as she examined where the cut had been. She had to stand on tiptoe to reach Solvej's shoulder. The ghost obligingly knelt down so she could see better.
"I'll have to cleanse the remnant of his magic," the Sky Queen said. "It will only grow and fester if I don't, and it could turn you into a ghoul."
Solvej's eyebrows shot up. She had never realised there was any danger of her becoming a ghoul, a flesh-eating sort of undead spirit. It was not a comforting thought, to know that might happen to her.
"This will hurt," the Sky Queen said.
A brilliant white-gold light flickered into existence over her hand. Brightly coloured spots danced before Solvej's eyes when she looked at it. The Sky Queen pressed her glowing fingers against where the wound had been.
It burned. Solvej felt as if boiling oil had been poured over her neck and shoulder. She bit her tongue to keep from screaming.
This awful burning lasted for what felt like a century. Solvej bit right through her tongue. Blood filled her mouth. She winced at the taste and tried not to swallow it. By the time the Sky Queen stepped back and the burning stopped, blood was trickling out of Solvej's mouth and dripping onto her shirt.
"I've cleansed the last of the Magician's magic," the Sky Queen said. "You need not fear becoming a ghoul now."
Solvej's tongue hurt too much to speak. Instead she nodded, wiping the blood away with the back of her hand.
The Sky Queen gave her a curious searching look. It was particularly unnerving when it came from someone who looked like an eight-year-old girl. "What do you intend to do now? You have gained your revenge. You can move on now."
I can? Solvej thought. For the first time the implications of the Magician's death sank in. Oh. I can.
"I'll think about it," she said.
"So," Rigmor began.
"Um," Hjalmar said at the same time.
They both stopped. An awkward silence fell. Both of them carefully avoided looking at each other.
Rigmor tried again. "We're still engaged, you know."
Hjalmar nodded. He still kept his eye trained on the bookshelf opposite. "I know."
The princess waited. He said nothing more. At last she spoke again. "So... What are we going to do?"
Hjalmar shrugged helplessly. "I wish I knew. I don't want to marry you. No offence, but–"
"None taken," Rigmor said. "I don't want to marry you either. At least not yet. I don't know you well enough, and you've never known me without the shadow of the Magician hanging over me."
"But everyone will expect us to get married. We went to the trouble of pretending you were a Duke and everything." Rigmor pictured the gossip that would follow if he didn't marry her now. It didn't bear thinking about. "I suppose we'll just have to tell everyone the truth."
Solvej left the Sky Queen's palace in an unusually pensive frame of mind. She could move on, go to that strange and mysterious fate that waited souls after death. Or she could linger on earth, as a ghost.
If she left she might see her family again – might, for who knew what waited on the other side of the veil that separated the living from the dead? Who knew if there was anywhere for souls to go, or if she would cease to exist the moment she chose to leave? On the other hand, if she stayed she would get to continue her work. She could travel the world. She could learn more about the present day. She could finally finish her encyclopedia.
There was really no contest.
A shadow fell over the sheet of paper on the desk before Hjalmar. He looked up, not really surprised to see it was Solvej.
"What did the Sky Queen say?" he asked.
The ghost stepped through his open window and sat down on the windowsill. "She was glad the Magician's dead. What are you doing?"
"Writing to my mother. She'll be furious I didn't write to her earlier." Hjalmar set down his pen and raised an eyebrow. "Why are you fidgeting with the curtain?"
Solvej let go of the curtain and tried to look as if she hadn't been fidgeting with it. "The Sky Queen said I could move on now the Magician's dead. I said I'd think about it. And I have."
It took Hjalmar's brain a few minutes to process this. "You mean, you can..." 'Die permanently' sounded too harsh, so instead he said, "...stop being a ghost?"
"Yes, if I wanted to. But I don't want to." Solvej got up from the windowsill and stepped through it onto the magic carpet. "I've still got far too much to do. And if you want, I could deliver that letter to your mother as soon as you've finished it. I could take you with me, if you've got over your fear of flying carpets."
Hjalmar pictured the look on his mother's face if he arrived on a flying carpet, letter in hand, with Solvej. "...I'll think about it."
The flying carpet began to move away before something seemed to occur to Solvej. She turned back to him. "What about you and Rigmor?"
Hjalmar thought of his earlier conversation with the princess. "We've decided to... not call off our engagement, exactly, but not get married either. Not until we know each other better, at least."
Solvej looked rather disappointed at that.
Well, let her be disappointed, Hjalmar thought. It's none of her business if we get married or not.
But what happened? asks the reader who has reached the end of this story. Did Hjalmar and Rigmor marry? Did Solvej finish her encyclopedia?
The answer to both questions is yes.
Years later a new Queen ascended the throne, with her King Consort by her side. Foreign royals were always rather wary of this king and queen, for it was whispered that she had personally killed a Magician who tried to kill her, and he was a necromancer who created a ghost to help him. The same whispers said that the ghost was the godmother of their third daughter, who was rumoured to be a witch.
Among the witches and wizards of Vardiholm, for centuries afterwards they spoke of the witch who had gone among Elves and goblins and all manner of strange creatures just so she could accurately write about them.
And if you had visited Vardiholm one summer afternoon when Rigmor was Queen, you would have seen a woman with a ridiculous feathered hat helping a little princess learn to control a flying carpet. The girl's parents – her father especially – watched warily, ready to rush in and help if something went wrong.
But nothing ever did.