1440 c/o Valerie O'Riordan

Beta Bluebeard

The bishop's horse wheezes as the castle heaves into sight above the crest of the hill. The bishop, dark and dense against the skyline, his nose curved like the moon, kicks the horse in the gut, his hands flapping urgently as he yells at the villagers to hurry the hell up. His bishop's hat is lashed to the saddle. It flops about as they trot and he keeps an anxious eye on it.

Twenty-five children sing hymns to an empty room. Smoke mingles with their breath, and their voices trail off as distant shouting and banging grow louder. They hear the scraping of heavy things dragged across uneven floors. Through the windows they see a dark cloud dusting ashes onto the hillside. They look at each other, uncertain.

The villagers march upwards, their feet and eyes swollen, their fists hardened. They reach the castle in darkness and swarm all over the walls, scratching and ripping and beating at the doors and windows, pulling down wooden slats and loose stones, their fingernails bloody as they tear their way inside.

The bishop clip-clops along the corridors. He smells soot and roasting meat. His stomach stretches and yawns. He hears running footsteps and the crackle of sparks, and the echo of tiny high voices ricocheting nervously off the walls. He turns, and turns, and turns, lost, and pauses to put on his hat at a deliberate and solemn angle. He licks his fingers and adjusts his beard, and feels better.

The children hear the horse and their singing breaks into calling and begging. The villagers are calling out now, crying and shouting, sprinting and falling down the corridors, and they knock the bishop off his horse as they pass, stamping on his hands and hat, and the horse, scared, gallops in a panic up and down the banquet hall, scattering children and parents like plastic skittles.

Gilles dashes up and around the staircase, dizzy, the turret walls closing in around him, and he screams as he runs, leaving behind all the dignity of his position, scrambling on his hands and knees to reach the top. A serving girl hears him coming and plunges past him down the steps – he grabs her and slaps her and kisses her and slaps her again and drags her back upstairs, makes her guard the door as he crawls to the tiny window, his palms grazed by the rough stone floor, soot and dirt grinding into the cuts as he grips the windowsill and peers out onto the courtyard below.

The servants are shovelling the carcasses onto the pyre, their arms gory and sweaty, and the yard is littered with bodies pulled from hidden rooms and sheds when the alarm was raised and the bishop's mount spotted. Fatty smoke and splatters of gristle spit out from the flames and burn the workers' faces.

"Don't stop, don't stop," screeches Gilles from his turret, his voice muffled by the curtain that he jams into his mouth to stop screaming. But the serving girl has escaped downstairs, and the workers in the yard are overwhelmed by the villagers, knocked to the ground and held there by spitting women as the men plunge their arms into the flames and pull out arms and legs and cry as they recognise a trouser or a ring or a stray curl of hair.

The bishop emerges, smoothing his crumpled muddy hat and robes, followed by the alchemist, trussed up and knocked about, already babbling to anyone who will listen, this madman, this evil baron, this murdering bastard, he almost married a child, he actually married a kidnapped bride, this religious nutcase, this warlock. The bishop slaps him hard across the face and wipes his hand on his robe, then wipes his robe with another, less obvious piece of his robe, and Gilles, forty feet above, giggles.

They spot him then, his face clumsily powdered and rouged, grinning down at them in the firelight. The bishop snaps his fingers and the villagers shake pale sticks, bones like banners, dead legs and arms dancing in the air above their gaping faces, the fire behind them wavering and exhaling dark soot that soon obscures them, and Gilles sinks down to the floor, moaning and giggling,

The jury can't quite believe it; this skinny dirty-haired case, this bankrupt horror.

"He took my daughter, he sliced her up," roared a red-faced butcher from the heaving balcony.

"He turned my son into gold!" hollered a woman from outside, held back by the guards.

"No, he didn't," says the Bishop, smoothly pocketing the deeds to the lands, "He merely attempted the act by means of witchcraft."

The crowds outside screamed and beat the walls until the courtroom shook and shuddered and the prisoner was hidden away in the dungeon. In chains, he looked at the child scrubbing the floors of the empty cells and he licked his cracked lips and laughed and stared at her blue eyes and moaned again. She hummed to herself, deaf and tuneless, and Gilles fainted, hanging from his shackles, his shoulders creaking.

They burned him after they hanged him, his strangled corpse smouldering on the pyre for days, and when his remains had been taken away, they shovelled clean dirt over the scorched earth. The bishop surveyed his new home and its bloody floor and its piles of bones and teeth in unexpected rooms. He picked his way delicately around them and sat at the head of the long banquet table and signalled for some wine, and checked his reflection in the surface of his goblet, and patted his hat and nodded.