Lady of the Skulls by Patricia A. McKillip
As with Tanith Lee, Patricia A. McKillip represents a return to an emphasis on well-crafted language as opposed to break-neck pacing. Indeed, like Lee, the pacing of the story is much more leisurely, and it also has more than a little of the detective story about it. Unlike Lee's "A Hero at the Gates," however, "Lady of the Skulls" is not a detective story disguised as a fantasy. It is instead a modernizing of a traditional fairy tale trope: the choice that exposes the hero's heart.
To summarize the action of "Lady of the Skulls," we are presented with the classic "maiden in an enchanted tower" trope. The tower resides in the middle of a desert and is filled with all sort of amazing riches over which the lady serves as custodian. A hero may spend twenty-four hours in the tower, but after that he must either leave or take what he believes to be the most valuable thing in the tower and leave. If he guesses right and indeed takes the most valuable thing in the tower he will live and posses the whole tower. if he guesses wrong, he will die the minute he steps outside the gate. In a modern twist, the story is told with the maiden, not the hero, as the focal character. We get to see what it might be like to be the custodian of an enchanted tower. Of course, you can guess how the rest goes. A gaggle of heroes comes and falls to deciding what treasure is the greatest. One of them picks a "smart" answer, water, and dies. The other are horrified except one who's nicer and smarter than the rest. Can you guess what he chooses? Yep, the lady. Incidentally, the story ends before we find out if he's chosen right. The real interest of the story comes when the knight learns how the lady was made custodian of the tower. She used to be prostitute until she refused to service a wizard. The wizard, seeing that a life of selling herself for money had forced the woman to erect a "tower" within herself, magically sets her as the undying guard over a real tower in the desert. So for years, she has lived in the tower by herself with plants grown in the skulls of the tower's victims as her only solace (hence her name "lady of the skulls.")
"Lady of the Skulls" marks a departure with the last several tales in that it presents us with an explicit moral point. The fact that we never find out if the knight did guess right may obscure it for a moment, but it is no more than a literary technique to get us to think more carefully about what we've just been told. I'll take my stab at what I think the moral is, though if I'm wrong I won't drop dead the next time I step out the door. I think the wizard has given the woman what she wants: a place where no man will abuse her again and those who do ignore her person-hood will pay the ultimate price. The only way she can leave or be taken from this place of safety is if a man comes who values her more than all the treasure, or one she feels safe enough to confide her story to. It may not be a fool-proof plan, but it's good enough for wizarding work. Of course, the problem is that it takes years of waiting alone in the tower for Mr. right to come and that can get awful dispiriting in addition to having to watch so many people get hurt. Putting that into the cogitator, I think the moral comes out thus: if we are vulnerable and open to relationship, people will take advantage of us and hurt us, but the emotional and psychological costs of removing ourselves from all relationships are too high not to risk it.
Sunlight on the Water by Louise Cooper
Cooper's tale is in a similar artistic vein to McKillip's. The feel of the work also seems to bare a strong similarity to Ursula K. LeGuin. As with Dunsany's "The Horde of the Gibbelins," this story really needs to be read through tabula rasa, so I'll leave it at that. See what you think of the ending and the moral. I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on this one.
Next Up: Paladin of the Lost Hour by Harlan Ellison and Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon