Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess named Molly. She lived in a great castle with six-foot-thick solid-stone walls that had been built so long ago that nobody could remember its construction. Indeed, it was doubtful that it had even been constructed by human hands. The walls were made of 100-ton stone blocks that fit together so tightly that one could not find a crack that would accept even the blade of a fillet knife, yet they had no mortar between them.
No modern mason could shape stones with such precision. Could any human have done such precise work? How had the massive blocks been transported from their quarry over three miles away and 500 feet lower? And to what purpose? What monster could have prompted Molly’s ancestors to build such sturdy walls? These questions had been posed by Molly as a small child but, like so many of her questions, they went unanswered.
Molly was forbidden to leave the castle grounds, for there was an ogre who lived in the forest and had eaten many a man from the nearby town. Indeed, besides her mother and the servants, the only people whom Molly had ever seen were the villagers who came once a month to deliver supplies. Molly’s mother had to pay triple prices, for the teamster would not cross through the forest without twenty men ringing his wagon with crossbows to defend it from the ogre. And he could not draw it with horses, for they would bolt at the first whiff of ogre-scent. So, instead, he used oxen with blindfolds over their eyes lest they see something in the trees that might frighten them.
Molly, who was desperately lonely, looked forward even to this meager contact with the outside world, though the teamsters unloaded their wagons wordlessly and with the greatest haste as they were deathly afraid of not making it back to town before nightfall. Yet so great was Molly’s beauty that word quickly spread far and wide of the enchanting princess who lived in what was commonly referred to as the haunted castle. Princes in kingdoms hundreds of miles away could think of nothing but the stories they had heard of her radiant beauty.
Molly, however, knew nothing of her fame and was despondent, for her sixteenth birthday was approaching and she could not bear the thought of spending it alone. Who would risk being eaten by an ogre just to attend some girl’s birthday party? “Nobody,” Molly answered her own question, “nobody at all.” She sat and cried for hours, despairing over her sad plight.
“If only there were some way to kill the ogre.” kill the ogre… kill the ogre…
“Oh, I hate that echo,” thought Molly, who had learned long ago not to talk to herself out loud because of the strange echo, which gave her the creeps.
“Why does the castle echo so?” Molly asked of her mother that evening at dinner.
“All old castles echo, dear,” her mother responded peevishly, “Eat your vegetables.”
“But why,” Molly persisted, “does it return only certain words? Especially when I speak of Grandfa…”
“Hush!” snapped Molly’s mother, cutting her off in mid-sentence, “There’ll be no dessert for you. The one of whom you speak is dead and buried and is of no concern to you. Now off to your room and I don’t want to see you again until you’ve completed your algebra homework.”
“The one of whom you speak?” thought Molly to herself, as she bent over her homework assignment, “What kind of way is that for Mom to refer to her own father? Anyway, dead he may be, but not buried. Isn’t that his casket in the secret room?”
With so much time on her hands, Molly had spent endless hours exploring the castle. Once, when she was about twelve, it had occurred to her that the dimensions of the rooms were wrong. She carefully paced off the sizes of each of the rooms and, using her knowledge of geometry, drew a sketch of the floor plan. But the dimensions didn’t add up. There had to be another room!
After much investigation, Molly discovered a hidden lever that, when pulled, caused a bookcase to rotate, revealing what must have once been her grandfather’s study. There was a portrait of Molly’s grandmother on the wall, much younger than when she had sat for the portrait that hung over the living room fireplace. The walls were lined with dusty medical books and there was a bust of Hippocrates on a pedestal. In the corner, suspended from a metal pole, was a human skeleton, wired together for the purpose of anatomical studies.
Molly knew that, in his youth, her grandfather had been a medical doctor, so none of this came as a surprise to her. But why was his casket set in the middle of the room? The brass plate affixed to it had his name and the date of his death engraved on it. But why hadn’t it been buried in the family plot? And why were the hinges sprung open and the lid sitting loose on top of the box?
Looking around the room, Molly spotted a great leather-bound book on her grandfather’s desk with the word “necromancy” in gold letters on the cover. Beside it lay his journal, open to the day he died, the page half-filled with his handwriting. Molly reached to open the book but, the moment she touched it, something strange happened. The skeleton in the corner of the room rattled and Molly’s grandmother, in her portrait, turned her head and spoke a single word:
Little Molly turned and fled, hitting the hidden lever as she ran past. That was over three years ago and Molly had never returned to visit the secret room.
“Maybe I should go back and read his journal.” read his journal… read his journal…
“There’s that echo again,” thought Molly, clasping her hand over her mouth. Because she spent so much time alone, it was hard for her to remember not to talk to herself.
The next morning a prince arrived from a neighboring kingdom, accompanied by thirty soldiers with crossbows and heavy swords. He left his guard outside the wall and crossed over the drawbridge alone, carrying a heavy rosewood chest.
“Go to your room! Now!” Molly’s mother shoved her towards her room, “I’ll answer the door.”
From her bedroom window Molly craned her neck to observe the proceedings a hundred feet below. The prince was the most handsome man that Molly had ever seen, perhaps three or four years older than herself. He bowed low to Molly’s mother and placed the rosewood chest at her feet. When he lifted the lid Molly saw that it was filled with jewels – diamonds and rubies and sapphires – more jewels than even her mother possessed in her vault.
Then he asked for Molly’s hand in marriage!
But, to Molly’s astonishment, her mother pushed the box of jewels aside contemptuously with her foot.
“Bring me the head of the ogre who lives in the forest,” she said sternly, “and only then can you marry my daughter.”
“It will be done,” said the prince, gravely, though Molly thought that she could see his hands tremble.
As the prince retraced his steps across the drawbridge carrying his spurned chest of jewels, he had every intention of beating a hasty retreat back to his own kingdom. But, just as the gate was about to close behind him, he turned and caught sight of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in an upstairs window.
Molly waved to him just as the gate closed, blocking his view. But that was all it took. With just that one glance the prince fell madly in love and was prepared to fight, kill and die for Molly.
That afternoon, Molly, still confined to her bedroom, could hear the din of a terrible battle being fought in the forest. Later, using her spyglass, she caught sight of the prince and two of his men running for their lives back towards town. Molly put her head in her hands and sobbed, sure that she would never see the handsome prince again.
“The ogre scared him away,” she said aloud through her tears, “If only there were some way that I could help.” I could help… I could help…
A few days later their monthly supply wagon arrived. Molly’s mother told her to stay in her room as she would supervise the unloading of the wagon herself. But Molly, disobeying a direct order from her mother for the first time in her life, crept silently down the stairs and held a drinking glass to the stone wall so she could hear the conversation on the other side.
Molly’s mother inquired, in a careless manner as if it were of little concern to her, whether the teamsters had seen the visiting prince in the last few days. Yes, they replied, he and his two surviving comrades were holed up in the local hotel, recovering from their wounds. The prince was waiting for reinforcements. So great was his love for Molly that he had beseeched his father, the king of the neighboring land, to send an entire battalion of soldiers to help him fight the ogre. And they would bring a new weapon, recently invented, which they called a “cannon.”
To Molly’s amazement, her mother laughed derisively at this news.
“He will lose them all,” she predicted, “You’d best have the carpenters in town get busy now making caskets. There will be many bodies to bury. This ogre cannot be defeated with mere steel or gunpowder weapons.”
“How can she be so sure?” said Molly, thinking aloud, “Sure the ogre is from hell but, even still, maybe it can be defeated.” can be defeated… can be defeated…
That night Molly crept silently to the secret room. Thinking ahead, she brought a can of oil to lubricate the pivots on which the bookcase rotated. She didn’t want the heavy door to squeak on its hinges lest her mother be alerted. Once inside, Molly looked around and found another lever similar to the one on the outside but not hidden, and pulled it. The bookcase rotated silently closed, plunging Molly into total darkness.
Hastily, Molly fumbled for her matches and lit a candle. “If that bookcase won’t re-open, I’ll be trapped in here” she thought, “Nobody will think to look. I will die here – alone.”
Brushing these thoughts aside, Molly opened the book on necromancy. She expected her grandmother to say “forbear” as before but, instead, she turned in her portrait and smiled at Molly. The skeleton, in spite of the wires holding it together, raised its hand to salute her.
There was a ribbon in the book that caused it to fall open to a chapter about immortality and how to achieve it. There were many notes written in the margins in her grandfather’s hand. It was clear that, as his health had begun to fail him, the old man had given up on conventional medicines and had turned to the dark arts to prolong his life.
“But he was trained in medicine,” Molly thought, “How could he have given up?”
Molly turned to the bust of Hippocrates. “He had taken an oath in your name. But he must have renounced his oath.” renounced his oath… renounced his oath…
Next Molly turned to her grandfather’s journal. Just as she suspected, on the last page was a contract – with the devil. Molly’s grandfather had sold his soul for immortality. Clearly, he thought that he had tricked the devil for, if he was immortal, how could the devil ever collect the promised soul?
But it was the devil who had tricked him. Immortality Beelzebub had granted, yes, but not in the form of a man. He had given the old geezer immortality in the form of an ogre. The old man had asked to be young and strong and strength was what he had gotten – in spades!
"People should be careful of what they ask for," Molly thought, "They might get it."
There was her grandfather’s bloody thumbprint. The deal that he had made with the devil could not be taken back. Using her knowledge of the law, Molly studied the contract looking for loopholes. But the devil, trained as a lawyer, had thought of every eventuality. What was done could not be undone.
Like all contracts with the devil, there was one caveat. If a person with a pure, unblemished soul offered to die in the condemned one’s place, the contract would be rendered null and void, for the devil could not take such a pure one into hell with him.
“So, I must die.” I must die… I must die…
Heavy in her heart, Molly closed the book on necromancy, opened the secret door and returned to her room. She thought of her grandfather and of the terrible mistake that he had made. She thought of her handsome prince and the battalion of men that he would lead to their deaths the next day.
That night Molly could not sleep but lay in her bed tossing and turning. The one image that she could not get out of her head was that of the prince, so handsome, turning to wave at her.
“I must save him,” she said aloud, staring up at her bedroom ceiling, “I can’t let him die.” let him die… let him die…
The next morning Molly was awoken by the boom of cannon fire. An entire battalion – a thousand men – marched against the ogre. But how could they defeat one who is immortal? One who is from hell?
Hastily, Molly pulled on her pink dress. It had been purchased for her to wear at her sixteenth birthday party. But she knew now that she would not live to see her birthday. It was a good dress to be buried in.
Molly sprinted across the drawbridge and ran towards the sound of the cannon. Soldiers lay dead or dying all around her as surgeons scrambled to operate on the ones who might yet survive. So preoccupied were they that they did not even look up to wonder why a pretty girl in a pink dress was running through such a scene of carnage.
The ogre had made its stand on a hilltop, knee-deep in the bodies of its victims. To her horror, Molly saw that it held the prince high in one hairy hand, his feet kicking at the air. The ogre opened its terrible maw and put the prince’s head in its mouth.
“No!” shouted Molly, running as fast as she could, “No! Take me instead!”
There was a shimmer of light and, for a moment, the world seemed to be frozen in place, as though Molly were running through an oil painting. Then the din of battle erupted again but, at its center, was not an ogre but a decrepit old man holding a handsome young man by the throat.
He let go of the prince and looked to his granddaughter.
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” he cried, “You’ve lifted the curse. Now I can die in peace.”
“Then die now,” said the prince, snatching up the sword that he had dropped and, with one stroke, decapitating the old man.
Molly threw herself into the arms of the prince and they hugged each other. Then the prince took up the head that he had promised Molly’s mother and they walked together to the castle to be married.