O friend, have you yet to meet
the unicorns in their froth-maned flock?
Hooves of onyx, fierce and fleet
and their hides pale white like marble block.
Fear them, O friend, and their gaze,
their eyes like pure-polished porcelain
that flinch not from brightest rays
or from any malign course of sin.
They look like frolicking steeds
galloping across the Springtime plains
alike to many horse breeds,
but they will suffer no mount or reins.
Suffer! To suffer, indeed!
For they bridle a man’s life instead,
as they did me, and mislead,
like a mug of witch brew to the head.
Their aspect is not equine,
but headed like babes but a year old,
and their hearts are not divine,
but unfeeling, cruel, deathly cold.
But what favor they show oft
to virgins who dare to travel far
to touch such a mane…pure…soft…
following Virgo, from star to star!
But what of virgins oft said
to be honored among these pure things?
Come, if you dare; lay your head
in their laps and see how their touch brings
a curse such as no man wants,
such a curse of loveless wanderlust
until ones memory haunts
the lonely years, one’s youth gone to rust.
The moon was a coin all aglow with gold
in the swirling clouds of that chilly night
and the crooked tree by that wooded road
was a hand clutching in vain at Fae light.
Mounted on a black horse with a black name
was that blackguard and killer, Bill O ’Keefe,
whose gallop brought fear to all men the same
and whose fat purse ate with a dragon ’s teeth.
Pistols and daggers and swords were his friends
that he kept keen to ply his devil ’s trade
and all other friends came to treacherous ends,
along that old road in graves freshly laid.
O ’Keefe wore black boots and a riding coat
and black hat with black plume in the brim,
and black mask, his black beard curled like a goat,
his cufflinks black at the end of each limb.
Scarce were pickings along that road of late
for words were swift as birds when winged with sins
and Bill wanted like a collection plate
in the famine months when a snowstorm spins.
Bill bit his lip until the skin broke and bled,
tasting iron in that October breeze
while the crowned owls stood watch, just overhead,
their hungry eyes spotting small prey with ease,
and he heard the gibbering marsh, the beasts
alike to him in the hunter ’s grand game,
stalking and eating their fill of such feasts
as Nature ordains, without thoughts of shame.
Was that a footstep? A giggle? Grunt? Squeal?
Bill did not know, his fluttering black eyes
like crows flapping at the scent of a meal:
carrion delights in a victim ’s cries.
Bill waited till the gallop neared the tree,
then he struck his horse to spur it to haste,
yet found a rider before him who did not flee —
a man in livery pale as bone paste.
Glowing like the moon above, the fellow
parted his lips in a smile, pearls agleam,
his hair golden, curly, his mien mellow
as if he was passing through a sweet dream.
Taken aback, Bill stared with mouth agape,
confused by the aristocrat ’s bearing
and that the man did not try to escape,
but stood as stone afore the storm, daring
with demeanor and command likewise steeped
in ancient kingdoms beyond petty Man
except in glimpses and dreams such as peeped
in the realm of Sleep, at a frugal span.
At length, Bill leveled pistol at the lord
and said, “Turn out your pockets and your purse
or I ’ll run you through with bullet and sword.
If you try any tricks, I ’ll do much worse. ”
The fair-haired lord dismounted gracefully
in one smooth motion, like a squirrel,
and said, “Indeed, I shall, and faithfully
as a green knight seeking to hew the burl. ”
The lord unstrung a pouch from his saddle
and offered it to the ne ’er-do-well thief,
unstringing the pouch, which clinked and rattled —
the only music which pleased Bill O ’Keefe.
Crooked tree above, crooked man below,
O ’Keefe snatched the pouch away with a swipe,
tantalized by the gleaming golden glow
of such coins so foreign in face and type.
The lord said, “Of all such you may have, sir,
being possessed thereby, and by this path. ”
Here the lord gestured. “Wherefore possessed, cur,
you shall reckon debts owed to greed and wrath. ”
Bill misliked such words and looked up with scorn
from the gold he had snared with his misdeed
only to find the lord gone, as if bourne
away with a wind, both rider and steed.
Uncanny things meant naught to Bill O ’Keefe
as long as gold jingled in his gloved hands,
so he laughed aloud, proud in the belief
that he was the best thief in all the lands.
Taking rein of his black horse once again,
he led the beast out from behind the oak
and climbed atop it, holding his gold like his sin
and struck up a gallop, but someone spoke:
“Damn you, Bill O ’Keefe, ” a hoarse voice whispered,
“damn your thieving heart and your greedy eyes! ”
The black horse startled and kicked at each word,
tumbling Bill off to lay him out lengthwise.
The horse bolted, spilling the pouch of gold
while like a kelpie frenzied with its thirst
along that moon-flooded, tree-cluttered road,
each coin rolling to a stop, now reversed,
no longer showing a face of features
foreign to human lands and human kin,
but a skull brimming with insect creatures
dining on the festering flesh within.
“Damn you, you dumb beast! ” Bill hollered so loud
that his wrathful voice spurred the spooked horse on
at a faster sprint than the dark allowed
till beast came to grief down the bluff beyond.
Not hearing the scream of the horse, Bill turned
again to the coins scattered here and there,
and crawled after them while the moonlight burned
on the gold, agleam in that chilly air.
To the nearest coin O ’Keefe crawled and knelt
like a sinner seeking within a church
deliverance from the sins he has dealt
in years past, wronging angels on their perch,
but Bill sought not forgiveness while kneeling —
rather, the gold mesmerized like a sidhe
afloat with rainbow wings unfurled, wheeling
around his now-hatless head, tauntingly.
Yet, as Bill reached for the coin nearest him
a hand grasped it first, out from neath the earth,
its bones white and gray, and so, too, the limb
that rose like a shoot from the leaf-strewn turf.
A head emerged, all rotten and gaping
from a withered jaw, hung aslant the face,
and the tongue lolled freely, as if aping
human speech, some soil sprinkling from that place.
“Bill O ’Keefe, ” it said at last. “You villain! ”
You slew me for six pence, and not one more!
And for that debt I shall be repaid when
I drag you low, beyond Hell ’s brimstone door! ”
Bill O ’ Keefe recoiled from the corpse, screaming out,
but not in terror —rather in great rage
for he would share coin with no brag-about
and tried to snatch it from that bony cage.
“What good was your life? ” Bill growled, “but a pence?
Count yourself lucky as been worth so much,
for you had no value, and less so sense,
to have been riding alone, late and such. ”
The corpse ’s jaw gawped so wide in dismay
that it swung off the hinge, gasping, “You brute! ”,
meanwhile Bill filched the coin and made his way
to other coins, nestled within a root.
Or it seemed a root, but when Bill neared it
a bony hand emerged, and then a skull
webbed with a bridal veil, each black socket
full of worms writhing in the hollow hull.
No tongue to speak, neither had she the need,
for Bill knew her as his own from years past
and said, “You had less wealth than you had breed,
which is why our marriage, dear, did not last. ”
A banshee shriek escaped those rotten teeth
and Bill only laughed, plucking back the coins
as she crescendoed in her wailing grief;
he said, “Swiftly taken, as were your loins. ”
Many were the coins, and many the dead!
Bill had a reunion earning his wealth,
each coin raising a victim from their bed
so O ’Keefe could appraise them and their health.
A nobleman here and a peasant there,
Bill was not prejudiced in his slayings,
and had he the chance, he would have had care
to kill dukes and bishops and popes and kings.
Alas, no such prey chanced his hunting grounds
which was why he took whatever he might,
buried all along that road, in their mounds,
not knowing what fool might intrigue his sight.
And there were, of course, those whom he despised,
whose disputes in bars had earned them his ire —
whom he killed, raping their wives while disguised
as a vicar to indulge his desire.
And those who were innocent, having done
nought to him or his own, nor another,
once sown in their graves, now sprouting as one
to crawl after him —him and no other.
“A sorry bunch of sour grapes you lot are, ”
Bill laughed, surrounded and yet still affixed
on the strange golden coins strewn here and far,
not concerned with the foul corpses betwixt.
“I did you each a favor, ” he said with a smile,
“for I saved you all from a cruel life
and the suffering it offers meanwhile,
so be thankful for the ol ’ Reaper ’s scythe. ”
Coin to coin he crawled like a supplicant,
nigh overtaken on perdition ’s road,
yet still his smile gleamed, and eye, without a hint
of fear about the victims he did goad.
A final coin, and a final sally —
“Alas, I must be on my way, ” he said,
rising to his feet with a fast rally,
“for I ’ve got gold in hand and dreams ahead,
and mustn ’t waste it on the likes of you. ”
He hobbled down the road, coins in his purse,
but turned about. “As the French say, ‘Adieu. ’
Awful to be dead, but it could be worse. ”
Shrieks of outrage followed him down the road,
but Bill was too keen on the coins to hear,
whistling lively, and smiling like a toad,
as he dreamed of rum, wine, whisky, and beer
and the other things he would soon enjoy,
like mutton, girls, and a life of pleasure
spent doing as he pleased, like a young boy
enthroned in privilege and in leisure.
Yet, dust to dust is the way of the world,
and a man ’s wealth, too, no matter how vast,
and all at once, while a sudden wind whirled,
the coins faded to coppery leaves fast.
O ’Keefe gazed at the purse, his eyes agog —
he blinked and rubbed them, but to no avail,
for all the coins were gone, like prince to frog,
maiden weeping by the end of the tale.
Only, Bill never wept: he swore and kicked,
vowing revenge on the strange foreign lord,
for Bill could see that he had been thus tricked
and wished the man ’s blood to slather his sword.
So wrathful was the blackguard in his loss,
that he saw not where he was then going,
stepping off the bluff where the moonlight gloss
shimmered pale like an icy stream flowing —
an icy stream, and a Stygian stream,
for it took Bill O ’Keefe straight down to Hell
where he woke to an inferno that teemed
with imps, demons, Satan, Lilith, and Bael.
And there was the strange lord that Bill had robbed
standing afore him, a smirk so profound
in its malevolence that other men would have sobbed
to see it spread, like an infernal hound.
“Face to face with your sins, you have now come, ”
said the stranger. “And coins have paid your way —
a princely sum, even in this kingdom,
but try to defend yourself, if you may. ”
“I offer no defense, ” Bill said, “except
the world itself, and its ways, which were made
without my counsel or consent, and kept
by tooth and claw and the patterns thus laid
by that harsh seamstress, Fate, a cruel witch
by whose hand all are designed and destined
to be king or peasant, down to a stitch —
so was I, bound by hem and trim and trend. ”
Bill O ’Keefe smirked, for he thought he had found
a defense most fateful, and a good ruse,
to protect his soul because all around
the throngs of Hell seemed very much confused.
“Just-so, ” the stranger said at last. “Forsooth,
we were banished for ingrained allegiance,
but the world, being so, and Fate and Truth,
does not expunge sins, despite your grievance,
for it is Fate who determines for all
and, just-so, you are predestined for Hell,
so regardless if you are a mere thrall,
her whim determines the end of your tale. ”
Bill argued, but the stranger would not hear.
“Like you, we are highwaymen in wait
and if by Fate you happen to pass near
we will take your soul, for that, too, is Fate. ”
“But that ’s not fair! ” Bill O ’Keefe cried aloud.
The whole of Hell resounded with laughter.
“Life ’s not fair, ” the Stranger said, “nor Death proud,
nor so fair or proud the Ever After. ”
And so the road the highwayman haunted
claimed him as he claimed many other souls —
he thought of the lives he took, and taunted,
as his soul was raked upon brimstone coals.
From the gable the hanged man swayed,
weather-worn and his long coat frayed,
and, down below, the blacksmith laughed
to see crows as he plied his craft.
The sun went down, but the corpse stayed
while the blacksmith bettered his trade
until he heard hooves beating swift
neath the moon, in the midnight rift
of life and death, flesh and soul,
while the fog, thick, began to roll.
On pale horses there came a host
through the moonlight, each like a ghost
in fine Fae feature and attire,
of noble bearing, knight and squire.
“Hail,” said the blacksmith, “lord of streams,
lord of hills and of moonlit dreams.”
The Fae lord nodded, yet his eyes
went to the hanged man, and the flies
that buzzed about and swarmed around,
their song of joy a constant sound.
“You are as we,” remarked the lord,
pointing with his sharp silver sword.
“You have hunted and won, with skill,
as we have, in field, mount and hill.
But what worth is such common fare?
Wherefore this man dances in air?”
The blacksmith smiled shrewdly, and said
“Tell, first, the stories of each head
hanging from your fine-worked saddles,
for I wish e to hear such battles.”
The Fae lord gestured to a knight
and he dismounted, at child’s height,
taking down, then, an ogre’s head
from his lord’s saddle, splattered red,
and the head had tusks, sharp and long,
and its jaws were big, its chin strong,
but all lay lax in that dead face,
life gone from it, without a trace.
“I slew this monster near the bridge
that extends from stone ridge to ridge
for he preyed upon our kindred,
his hunger great, yet now ended.”
The knight returned the trophy, now,
and sought another, whose broad brow
was maned with marshy hair that hung
blackish green, and a limp pale tongue
between needle teeth, its long snout
like a horse, its horns curving out.
“Here is the pookah, a deadly mount
who haunted the swamp’s bracken fount,
dragging drunkards into the peat
and tearing them apart to eat.”
The third head was of an eagle,
but giant, golden, beak regal.
“And here, at last, is the griffin,”
said the lord, and, with a sniff, then,
told of how the foul fowl laid claim
to all his flocks and all his game,
and so the lord had set a trap,
baiting the beast till, with a snap,
he brought it down with an arrow
which pieced shrieking through the air so
that the beast fell at once, quite done,
though the quills still shone like the sun.
“My only regret,” said the lord,
as he sighed and sheathed his stained sword,
“is having only trophies three
whereas four would better please me
for my trophy hall has such space
that it would gain from one more face.
But enough of such things,” he said.
“Tell me how he came to be dead.”
The blacksmith grinned like a demon.
He said, “By his ill-spilt semen
upon that which was fairly mine—
my wife! So I showed him the line
between good and bad, life and death,
and the lecture cost him his breath.
As for my wife—she is chained
within my house, our vows profaned,
yet even now I work my bellows
to make right of this. Trust, fellows,
that this scarlet letter shall bleed
from another maiden, whose breed
is made of the finest points known,
and has iron in place of bone.”
The Fae lord looked at the maiden
which the blacksmith made, so laden
with spikes where her heart should have been,
more monstrous than any such kin
of ogre, griffin, or such ilk
nourished by wicked blood-laced milk.
“She is my wife,” the blacksmith said,
“as is that faithless girl whose head
and heart were won by Love’s deceit,
but my good wife shall drink replete,
for the faithless wife shall so slake
the steadfast wife, for her mistake,
and by merit of blood provide
from bed to bed, and bride to bride.”
He worked the hot, wrathful bellows,
the embers of orange-yellows
flaring like fitful flies of fire
or, perhaps, flecks of vain-desire.
He said, “To me her only worth
was insomuch as field to serf:
a thing to be plowed in such time
for hale harvest in proper clime.
But she harbored fancies bygone
with this rogue, whom I have high-drawn.
As if the heart should rule such things
when we know gold rules even kings,
and I have amassed a great hoard
through my flames, by horseshoe and sword.
Verily, I have grown steel plates
for whole armies, helms for pates,
and such great horns like a ram’s crown
that could blow ancient mountains down.
Should I not revenge myself
against fickle wife, lordly elf?”
The blacksmith grinned, very much pleased
and then laughed loudly, till he wheezed.
The Fae lord smiled, too, though grimly,
and then he hopped down, quite nimbly,
from his horse, silver sword in hand
and though short, his eyes held command
of all they gazed on, man or Fae,
his decrees none could disobey.
“I thank you,” he said, “for your truth,
and I thank you for more, forsooth,
as I longed to slay once more before
returning to my hillside door,
and here I have found at long last
a dragon whose flame hath cast
horrid shadows of deeds foul done
and deeds yet done beneath the sun.
Thus I have found my fourth trophy.”
And no sooner than lord quoth, he
struck head clean off the man’s shoulders
whereupon his banner-holders
fetched it up from the bloody lawn
(the mouth slack-jawed, as if to yawn)
and hung it on their lord’s horse
thereafter freeing bride, of course,
from her shackles, then cut down, too,
her lover from his gabled view.
The cock’s crow heralded first light,
so the Fae company took flight
and vanished as dew in the dawn—
like mist from fabled Avalon.
There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods. No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over. The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion. And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool ’s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea. And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.
Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God. Some said a god died there long ago. Some said —in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher —that something yet more ancient than gods had died there. Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits. And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death ’s release. It was what they strived for beneath the preacher ’s watchful eye. It was what they all wanted more than anything.
That was, all except for Tilda.
Tilda was the preacher ’s daughter. She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers. She especially disliked being the preacher ’s daughter. Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows. Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden. Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes. Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin. Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.
She hated Confessions most of all.
Her father ’s sermons were dreary things. For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored. Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such. Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father ’s mouth. She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons —such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith. She liked how her father ’s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed. She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday. Of all the Biblical passages she liked —few though they were —she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.
There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp. No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like. They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk. The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became. After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash. She was now determined to meet the witch. She knew it was her destiny.
And so one night Tilda crept away from her father ’s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky. The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named. Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch. It was common knowledge. Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp. A candle illuminated the hut ’s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch ’s fireplace.
“Come in, my little fawn, ” a voice cackled from within. “I have been expecting you. ”
Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut. It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also. She was an old crone — as witches often were —and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak. Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time ’s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.
“You will make me a witch, ” Tilda said. She did not cower from the witch ’s scowl, but was emboldened by it. “You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps. ”
“Do I know such things? ” the witch pondered dubiously. She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman ’s of the same-seeming age. “I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn. ”
“I am no fawn, ” Tilda said defiantly. “I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such. I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help. ”
The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.
“Dear me, you are a presumptuous one, ” she said. She looked the preacher ’s daughter up and down —from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul. “You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent? ”
Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly. She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.
The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face. “And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn? ”
“By reaching between the fire and the heat, ” Tilda said proudly. “Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides. ”
“You speak rightly enough, ” the witch said. “And you manage a magic…of a crude sort. But what of your soul, my little fawn? What can you manage of it? ”
Tilda scowled. “You are squandering time, beldam. The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night. ”
The witch ’s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself. For a moment — just a moment — the beldame ’s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree. This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.
“Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron, ” she remarked. She stood up from her stool —or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut. Perhaps both. At length, she settled down, or shrank. Her voice was low; calm and quiet.
“Know you lemongrass, my little fawn? ”
Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.
“And what of belladonna? ”
Again Tilda nodded.
“And hemlock? Wolfsbane? Yarrow root? ”
Tilda nodded to all three in succession.
The witch smiled wryly. “Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me. I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand. Baby ’s breath. A good man ’s guilt. A double heart. And so on. Now leave me. ”
Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision. She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch ’s face had unnerved her. A glint in the witch ’s eye sent her to the door and back home. It was such a glint as a cat ’s eye had upon spotting a mouse.
Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise. She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk. Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby ’s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night. Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats. Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.
Tilda ’s father was summoned. He counseled the aggrieved parents. He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way. Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own. When pressed by Tilda ’s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners. Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.
Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods. While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing. The woods were a haunted place, after all. Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming. Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal. Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere. Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger. The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do. They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.
Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required. Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime. Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day. When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged. Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.
“You are playing with devilish mischief! ” he roared, indicating the basket. He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin. “When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”
He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved. Her hands stung and were bruised. She returned to her bedroom. She did not sulk. She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due. She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts. She thought of power. She thought of revenge.
And so, at the darkest hour of night —when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires — Tilda crept out of her father ’s house and went to find her willow basket. It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.
Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket. Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up. A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.
Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch ’s hut. When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before. Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before. The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.
“Hello, my little kitten, ” the witch said as she stirred the cauldron. Her voice was different. It was lower, older. “She said you would bring what was needed. ”
Tilda approached the witch with empty hands. “I had gathered them, ” she said, trying not to cry, “but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and… ”
She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before. She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.
“Those never mattered, my little kitten, ” the different witch said. “What matters is the trouble of gettin ’ them. The willingness. The sacrifice. Especially the punishment for gettin ’ them. ”
The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.
“Come, my kitten. Hold your hands in the steam. It won ’t hurt you a bit. I promise. In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth. ”
Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron. Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid. But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge. The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.
Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot. The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms. The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer ’s day.
“There we have it, my kitten, ” the witch said. She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve. “Now you must drink it. Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek
Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid. She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation. Her repulsion stayed her.
“Do you desire power or not, my kitten?! ” the witch screeched.
The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater. Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared. Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting. The more she drank, the more she craved of it. She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep ’s gut stuffed overfull. Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron ’s yield. Conversely, she grew lighter. So very light. Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions. She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive. Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.
“Now is the time, my little kitten, ” the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit. The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking. “Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten. Do as you will, and do much. ”
As a dream Tilda went wandering. Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast. The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud. Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her. She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch ’s hut on the Borderlands.
Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name. He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling. He was not supposed to defecate in the brook —no one was —but he did so anyway. His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days. He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook. She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled. Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him. Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.
Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on. She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air. He blinked at her in confusion.
“Wallace Eckridge, ” she said. “You will come with me. ”
Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.
Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch ’s hut. She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him. She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure. The creatures in the woods did not bother him. Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased. A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself. Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.
To the hut they came at last. The witch thanked Tilda for the offering. Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared. She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.
“It is true what they say, ” the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls. “True power does not die, nor does it rot away. It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it. ” Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady. “Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass. My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth. They grow stronger. ”
“What are they? ” Tilda asked.
“What is earth? ” the witch countered. “What is the sky? What is hate? What is hunger? What is the meaning of things? So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things. ”
“Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god? ” she asked.
“How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist? ” the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure. “We exist, do we not, little lamb? And that is all that matters. ”
Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home. The power had gone from her at daybreak. She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air. She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world ’s men with a word. She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.
Her father awaited her in her bedroom. But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise — or worse, make Confession of her —he was summoned away. Wallace Eckridge ’s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft. At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace ’s lecherous advances. Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together. They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers. Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.
But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace ’s disappearance. She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic. Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister. This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village. Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart. Much ado was made of it before the day was done.
Before nightfall Tilda ’s father returned. He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter. Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night. Her tears were her sole company as she waited. Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again. She wept as she walked, each step painful. Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.
The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.
“Hello, my little lamb, ” the witch said softly.
Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.
“My little lamb, ” the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind. “My poor, dear little lamb. Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe. Let it console you. Let it invigorate and strengthen you. ”
Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain —for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone —but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again. To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten. Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep. Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut — which was more a house now than before —and went floating through the woods.
Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook. At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott. Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her. Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin ’s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.
“You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott, ” Tilda said, “for you do not believe the innocence of your wife. Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.”
Tilda ’s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him. She led the man out to the witches ’ hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared. Alongside him disappeared Tilda ’s powers once more. Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.
“My dear little pup, ” the witch said, gladdened by Tilda ’s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott ’s sudden evanescence. Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye. “You have done so well. And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup. For you are strong in the ways of us witches. ”
The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.
“What do you do with the men I bring to you? ” she asked.
The witch ’s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile. “My pup, it is but a matter of conference. We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet. In time, they welcome the Silence. ”
This all meant nothing to Tilda. She could not understand the witch ’s real meaning.
“They are dead? ” she ventured.
“No more than the gods, ” the witch said. “My little pup. ”
Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn. Her father was not there. He was busy blessing the water from the brook. He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening. He also used it for Baptisms. He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort. As a man must, he claimed.
“We should aspire to be as this brook, ” he often admonished his flock. “For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction. We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife. ”
Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.
No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott. Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge. Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin. Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.
Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession. A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron. Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.
Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods. The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns. When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically. For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.
“Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge, ” Tilda demanded. “I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest. ”
The woman ’s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods. Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming. They came to the house-sized hut and entered. Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold. The witch —who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil —told her more arcane secrets.
“Primordial gods do not fade. They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself. We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp. All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands. ”
The next day Tilda ’s father was in a foul mood. Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her. Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life. Perhaps even her soul. The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.
“It is God ’s wrath, ” he proclaimed, “and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety. We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith. We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil. We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire. ”
Tilda ’s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night. After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled. The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.
“My dear little fledgling, ” the witch said. “Whatever is the matter with your legs? ”
She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night. Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however. She muttered through her
“I want to complete my transformation, ” she said. “I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call. Not just borrowed powers. I want to be a master adept, like all of you! ”
“Oh, my little fledgling, ” the witch sighed. “That is such a momentous change. Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now? Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people? Surely it is enough, isn ’t it? It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you? ” The witch smiled furtively.
“I am ready, ” Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I wish to be untethered. I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties! ”
“If you wish it, ” the witch said, “then your wish shall be granted. ”
The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house. A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly. But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated. Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge. Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession. The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself. She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches. Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world. They were not debased. They were exultant. They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.
The steam was not hot. It was cool, like mist. It reminded her of a heady miasma. She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup. Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid. It did not burn. It did not scald her. Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.
What did she feel? She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking. Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness. All grew dark and still within the cauldron. Deathly. Soon, however, she felt life stir within her. It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot. The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her. It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what. At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.
With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods. She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook. To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.
She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell. Tilda floated above him for a time. Then she entered him through his empty spaces — as he so often did her while in Confession —and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her. Taking her time, she led him through the woods. The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut. The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered. Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses. Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.
He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.
“I have made abomination with my daughter, ” the preacher said. “I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years. I have sullied her, and made ruin of her. I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt. I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite. I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be. I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence. God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell. ”
“No, ” the witches said as one. “Not Hell. To something…purer. To something Holier. To the Silence. ”
Tilda ’s father vanished into the Silence.
Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp. As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before. The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager. She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.
Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt —she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings —and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless. Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms. And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago. And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures. One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.
Born beneath a weeping willow
where winds never dared to billow
the sisters three seemed blessed at first,
though, given time, seemed more so cursed
by the names given, and fortunes
dictated by the eldritch runes.
When they were born, the sisters three
filled their proud parents with such glee
as the angels in most high skies
in their exultant maker’s eyes.
Fair, Dark, and Trembling, the lasses
grew up apart from the masses
in the woods, by the little creek,
where the willow trees often speak.
Distinguished by their features
they were apt-named, comely creatures
without equal in that kingdom,
nay, nor the world in all its sum.
Fair was of hair gilded flaxen
that she seemed a purebred Saxon
and Nordic goddess, gold and pure,
graceful, nimble, her step so sure
that she danced on slippery rocks
as fleet-footed as the Fae fox.
Lovelier, there were none more so:
stars in her eyes, and skin aglow
that the sun seemed to pause apace
while beaming on her freckled face.
When she giggled others did feel
her sweetness, the dear daffodil
spreading her joy like many seeds
which none so wise dared deem as weeds,
sowing where there could be sown
a bliss by her presence alone.
Alas, a blessing may, too, curse,
and so it was, her fate adverse.
Catching the eye of the prince
so handsome and rich, therefore hence
entranced the two by the other
that neither would love another
their ensorcelled hearts demanded
prince and maiden become banded
despite his pledge to a neighbor
whose father promised the saber
should the pact not be held so true
by one side as the other, too.
Therefore though it flattered the pride
of both the parents and the bride
a war began soon after they
announced the coming joyous day.
First came the splendid celebration
joyous across the wide nation,
pomp aplenty, and holy vows
and banners, bugles, and crowns on brows,
then came the wars and the bloodshed,
the piling high of mingled dead
until, at length, the angry host
were driven from the far-off coast
and back to their lands in the East
like a cur, a brow-beaten beast.
Fair, and her husband, then rejoiced
while their people quietly voiced
anger and sorrow at the war,
calling Fair a worm-apple whore.
But the new rulers paid no mind
to the scowls and whispers, so blind
with Love they heard nothing at all
that should echo coarse through their hall.
Then came the bud of the next heir,
next liege, sure likewise to be Fair
and for a time the whispers stopped,
if only because the axe chopped
all talk short as the days went on,
bringing with them a bloody dawn
to peasant and noble in turn
and anyone not yet to learn.
Soon Fair swelled fertile in her womb
like the daffodil soon to bloom,
but with the pangs she wilted so wan
while her glow faded, on and on,
draining fast from her golden face
till a pallor assumed its place.
Like the most fleeting of flowers
her life did but last a few hours
before she died and left the earth
for the sake of a vain stillbirth.
Erstwhile, Dark saw what thus became
of girls gifted by name and fame,
and being wiser more than Fair,
Dark reveled in her raven hair.
Dark was pale like the Gaul or Goth,
like moonlit-powder of the moth,
and her black hair was a shadow
such as only witches may know
when looking into the deep pit
of their cauldron, cold and unlit.
She courted midnight with her art
to seek the most infernal heart,
for she had talents just as strong
as sister Fair had in her song
and, so, used her Black magic skills
to fly at night over the hills
on a stick woven of willow limbs,
following the sound of fell hymns
to a misty, covenant glade
where a coven of witches prayed.
Herein she found her kindred kind—
women awake and not so blind,
for Dark dreamed quite oft of a life
beholden to none, never wife
to any man, nor any god,
free as Lilith drifting abroad
to the basins of Babylon,
haunting bedrooms from dusk to dawn.
Whereas Fair was the favored child,
(beauty peerless and temper mild)
Dark would have been most pretty
had she been of some other three,
but be it as it may, Dark was
judged on the sisterly mark ‘twas
and could do no more to ever change
the scale set so by bloodline’s range.
Nor did this aggrieve Dark quite much
as the rules upon her, and such,
for she spoke not as daughters should,
instead shunning what some thought good,
like reading the Bible each day,
going to church to kneel and pray,
and fearing the wise midwife folk
of whom the preacher often spoke
unkindly, fearing their knowledge
would tempt his flock to thus pledge
to them instead of his theory
about Heaven and misery.
And so Dark became the black sheep
of the flock in the preacher’s keep,
for she so loathed hypocrisy
that she oft sought apostasy.
Gathered in the belladonna
she looked a fell Madonna
who had at beck and call the night
and all its shadows and moonlight.
Just so, she dared never conceive
that on this sacred Endor Eve
that Satan would come before her
with gifts to sway and implore her
to lay with him and so beget
a child the whole world would regret.
Enthroned in nocturnal power
in the glade’s shade-brimming bower,
Dark lay with that horn-crowned Satyr
amorous as any traitor.
The other witches watched within
the woods where they all grinned akin
to wolves, or buzzards, or weasels,
caterwauling, shrill as seagulls.
It was not long before spilled seed
beset, begat, began to breed,
the growth so fast, the pangs so great,
that Dark split apart, like a date,
screaming and bleeding at her sex
while the hags spoke, as if a hex
the hymnal blasphemies of old
to strengthen the child in the mold.
The child came forth as from the tomb,
expelled a corpse beset by doom
and so enraged was that great Foe
that he trammeled Dark in shadow,
then left her bloodied in the glade
where she died amidst daytime shade.
Dark unto dark did thereby pass,
all her clever thoughts now but grass.
Oh, but Trembling was lass so weak
that oftentimes she dared not speak
for fear of hurting her thin throat,
the lissome girl sad and remote.
She knew what came of her sistren
and prayed that they could, at last, ken,
the choices they made and each crime
for which they would burn for all time.
She had no voice, but she could pray,
and did so, often all the day,
a judge meanwhile masked in silence
pretending saintly compliance
as she laid baleful eyes elsewhere—
a basilisk’s cold, stony glare.
She thought on Dark and Fair, their ends,
and knew they died to make amends
for Dark’s pride, come before the fall,
and Fair’s vanity, that old thrall,
and vowed against the same mistake,
knowing herself of purer make.
Indeed, she grew as a daisy
from the deaths of those whose stay she
could not abide, nor then pity,
feeling only an enmity.
She thought herself a chosen soul
and pledged to serve all her life whole
to the God of the Holy Tome
while still cloistered at home.
Yet, she was ever quivering
as if in the cold, shivering
and did little, but wavering
ever in her room, quavering
like a hare hiding in its den
while the hawk circles round again.
Knowing she would never marry
and finding the world so scary
she joined a convent faraway
and pleased herself often to say
she would never fall prey to Man
nor the sins of the flesh, her plan
to die a virgin, bride of God—
a fate which kept her overawed.
But a foul star had overseen
the sisters three, its twinkling sheen
as that of a crone meaning ill
above the willow, and its Will.
The longships came and beached anon,
coming ashore with noonday sun
and laying siege till the walls fell
while the convent rang loud its bell.
Trembling knew not where to go
and a Viking struck her a blow
and clutched her roughly like a sack
of spoils to claim, returning back
to his ship, then upon the sea,
following a wind Northwesterly
and coming to a frigid land
whereat she was a serving-hand
and a bed-warmer for the Nord
who was her husband, and her lord.
Ever Trembling and cold, she wept
and in the night she never slept,
but prayed to her god that she may
go to Heaven, without delay,
but she never went, never died,
and knew she could never suicide
or else suffer the pits of Hell,
nor had she the courage to sail
away from that foreign soil
of heathen gods and tiresome toil.
A heathen son she bore in time
who was like that coldly clime,
having eyes like ice, hoarfrost hair,
and her own cool, judgmental stare.
Scornful of Trembling in the cold,
he said she was ugly and old
and foolish to pray to that which
was deaf, feckless, an inert lich.
Trembling tried to teach him her creed,
but like the dregs of an old mead
he poured it out from his spirit,
choosing never to revere it,
esteeming, instead, wise Odin
and thunderous Thor, beholden
to the ways of his father’s clan,
spurning that feeble, beaten man
she loved as her Lord and Savior
who would never be of the Aesir.
And so, unloved by lord and Lord,
Trembling trembled among the Nord
from fear, from chill, from yearning wants
of her creed, and the pagan taunts
till the day she was at last laid
into the earth, a tomb thus paid
by grueling years and countless woes
that packed together, like the snows.
Just as Fair was no longer fair
and Dark not dark, nor anywhere,
so, too, Trembling trembled no more
upon that icy, foreign shore.
Thus the sisters three came to end,
blessed with curses that could not mend,
all lovely in ways exceeding rare
like flowers plucked to perfume air,
born beneath the old willow tree
that wept evermore for the three
as they were bound, as like the withes
of willows, their Wyrd-woven lives
bending back to their cursed names
to satisfy Fate’s cruel games.
Hand-in-hand they followed the mysterious woman. Iadne, the Lady of Lorwynne, Edea, her many grandchildren, and her three daughters behind them— they formed a long throng that trailed the radiant woman. She brought them safely through Beggar’s Bog along a path made of mossy flagstones which shimmered like will o’ the wisps. Creatures swarmed hungrily around them, but scattered at the radiance with which the mysterious woman lit their way. She was as a spirit through the darkness, and they cleaved closely to her.
“Where are you taking us?” Iadne asked.
“Unto a tower beyond ages,” she said, “which is mine withal in the present age. ‘Twas built in times of old, before memory of Man, and will remain thus long after Man be no more memory than furrow upon field long neglected.”
The answer did not ease Iadne’s mind, but she had no choice and so resigned herself to whatever lay ahead. Beside her, hand-in-hand, the Lady of Lorwynne trembled and wept. She had, by now, realized that her son was not following their throng.
The swamp gurgled and growled and gibbered menacingly. The children cowered and huddled close to their mothers as the trees crowded them, hung heavily with moss and shadows. In time, however, the stone path led to a stone door in the base of a rounded tower whose height loomed inestimable above. The radiant woman touched this stone door with a pale hand. The door creaked, and screeched, scraping stone upon stone as it opened inward to allow the throng to pass into its inner mysteries. Pausing only to glance back once— as if she, too, hoped that Eseus would suddenly appear from down the path—Iadne led the Lady of Lorwynne within, followed by Edea and her children and grandchildren.
There was no fire in the tower; no hearth or candles for light. Yet, the tower was warm, holding off the chill fog of the swamp. Its air was clear of the miasma that choked with the foul breath of the decaying swamp. The circular stone interior was also illuminated pervasively, though from no visible source. Light simply existed in its vertical tunnel. A staircase spiraled up the flanks of the tower, ascending to the height of the edifice. There were no other rooms or floors—only the bottom floor and the balcony at the uttermost height. The base level had a chair, and a flowery carpet to soften the stone floor. A bed lay in the corner, simple and unadorned, and a table afar from it, burdened with books and scrolls and inkwells. A rack of spices stood near the table, a few iron-cast pans hung from its wooden beams. Last, but certainly not least, was a large cauldron that stood upon squat legs over a pit where ash smouldered. In the pit of the cauldron’s fat black belly there was a liquid that smelled of ginger and lemongrass. The cauldron was large enough for a man to easily boil inside it.
“Verily must I apologize for my meager furnishings,” the radiant woman said. “This tower ‘twas not meant for humanly habitation, nor accommodated by necessity hitherto. Indeed, this tower ‘twas root and stem but an instrument to channel powers beyond Man’s reckoning, now derelict and abandoned by slumbrous minds wherefrom such means were forged.”
The newcomers stared in awe at the edifice looming up around them. Iadne directed Eseus’s mother toward the only chair, easing the weeping woman into the soft leatherback. The Lady of Lorwynne still trembled and wept, and held onto Iadne’s hand, unwilling to let go.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Iadne said to the radiant woman. “My friend is harrowed with woe.”
“Thou be welcome to all hospitality thou seem fittest,” the woman said. “Thy suffering be vast, and aspireth vaster still afore thy fates be consummate.”
“Thank you,” was all Iadne could say to that, for she had difficulty understanding the meaning of the woman’s antiquated words.
“Hither warmth resideth,” the woman said, walking toward the cauldron. She stirred it with a ladle, and the liquid steamed faintly. Raising the ladle to her lips she sipped from the liquid, then gestured for her guests. “Soon thou will sup, yet at present moment refresh thy hearts and health with mine simple brew.”
Edea stepped forward, the first among the guests. She did not seem distrustful of their hostess, and, indeed, approached quite willingly.
“I doubt it is so strong a brew as Spidergrass beer,” she said, “but I will be thankful for any drink to comfort a soul beset with loss.”
Edea sipped from the ladle proffered, and nodded; pleased with the brew. “A goodly tea,” she said. She waved her children and grandchildren over. “Come. Do not be rude. It will chase the chill from your bones, if nothing else.”
Her children and grandchildren formed a line and, in turn, drank from the cauldron. Iadne, too, took her turn, bringing the ladle carefully to the Lady of Lorwynne. The bereft matron drank reluctantly, and her sobs subsided enough that she might speak.
“Thank you for your kindness,” Eseus’s mother said to their hostess. She said nothing else, but leaned back upon the chair, closing her eyes and seemingly falling asleep. Tears still streamed down her cheeks.
“She is the Lady of Lorwynne,” Iadne said. “She has suffered much.”
“I, too, was once the Lady of Lorwynne,” the radiant woman said. “Long ago. Now thou may simply call me Lady Mourningstar.”
Iadne glanced about the tower, then stared at the sole inhabitant of it. This woman— Lady Mourningstar—shined even here, beyond the darkness of the swamp. But Iadne still wondered if it was the shine of a will o’ the wisp leading victims astray.
“We are all grateful for helping us escape our captors,” she said, “but I must know who you are and why you live alone.”
“Alike thy friend I am but a wretched widow in the waning years,” Lady Mourningstar said. “Mine husband long ago lost himself to those greatest of dragons which lurk and hunt and prey upon mischief. Ambition. Pride. Power. Afore him I was contented with my Sisters. Yet fallen I have become, through Love’s bewitching wiles, and hence serve penitence as becometh the All Ways.”
Iadne stared at the radiant lady, and doubted that she could be any older than herself. She was tall and stately and beautiful, her face faulted by no blemish or crease or wrinkle earned by years gone by.
“Momma, I am hungry!” one of Edea’s grandchildren complained.
She was a little girl with her grandmother’s shrewd eyes, and her grandfather’s wild eyebrows. She could have used a brush for her lovely hair, or those eyebrows. The girl’s mother— Edea’s eldest daughter— attempted to hush her, but Lady Mourningstar only smiled and beckoned the child follow her to the stone door.
Lady Mourningstar opened the stone door, without even a touch, and gestured toward the swamp. Soon enough there came frogs and footed fish and lizards and such in a strange throng, hopping into the tower— to the amazement of all, and the suspicion of Iadne—and then further they hopped in a throng very much like the refugees’ own throng had been when coming to the tower. They hopped up into the cauldron and lounged in that herbal broth while the flames were stoked with unseen hands. The broth roiled gradually, simmering at first, then, as the fish and frogs and whatnot succumbed, the broth bubbled to a riotous boil. Lady Mourningstar added fragrant spices— some of which not even Idane or Edea knew the origins of— and stirred the cauldron. The little beasts all died contentedly, it seemed.
Iadne was beset with a fear that such a fate would befall them, too, in this strange tower. She watched these proceedings with growing apprehension.
Lady Mourningstar bid the women to use the ladle and scoop out the food, setting them upon her pans. The children all gathered around and, once the morsels had cooled enough, chewed at the bulging-eyed little creatures. They were Spider clan children, after all, and so were used to such untamed fare. And hunger was always the most appetizing ingredient of all. They indulged with relish and satisfaction.
The children ate until they could eat no more. The women ate, too, excepting the Lady of Lorwynne and Iadne. Afterwards, the ordeal and the tea and the food overcame the refugees. Some laid on the bed while others laid on the comfortable rug. All slept well, except Iadne. She could not sleep. She was tired, but she was also wary. It was not only a wariness of Lady Mourningstar, but also a general suspicion that things were conspiring against her. It all seemed a trap, nor was she, in the coming days, ever certain she escaped the trap. She wondered, increasingly, if she had aided it in ensnaring her.
The Lady of Lorwynne regained her spirits enough the next day to eat. She was not as happy with the fare offered by the swamp as Edea’s family, but she thanked her host nonetheless and ate what she could with the gratitude remaining in her. She did not talk, but she did listen to the children play in the tower. Their laughter spiraled up the tower like a flock of birds, nesting there in a gaggle for a happy hour or two. Listening to them, she wished that Eseus had had more time as a child to play games— more time for games and laughter and happiness.
Duty had been an omnipresent tyrant worse than any Valorian emperor.
Meanwhile, Iadne held the clew in her robe, and awaited its growth. It swelled, as did her silent rage. She wished she knew how she might steal Eseus back from his cruel cousin. Yet, she had no standing army, nor could she convince Eseus to abandon his people. All she had left was his child, growing within her womb alongside her rage.
Edea attempted to console Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne with the help of her children and grandchildren. Such attempts allayed the pain and the rage for a time, but the ebbing of such tides always gave way to flow afterwards in Iadne’s heart. When she had no other recourse, she turned the clew over and over again in her hands, Willing upon it wrathfully.
Days passed slowly, and the nights even slower. Iadne recalled what Percevis had said about the labyrinth that was time, and she could feel the walls slowly pressing from all sides.
All of the Oxenford peasants were arranged on either side of the Road to greet the caravan as it arrived. They cheered as if their very lives depended upon such a raucous display, and so their lives did. Though they smiled and shouted jubilantly, fear haunted every visage, gleaming in each eye like daggers readied at their throats. Pomp and pageantry abounded as if to further humiliate Eseus, but he was too dejected to be indignant as he was marched toward his cousin, sitting exultant upon her silver throne as four large men carried her into the Oxenford courtyard.
Eseus hated her, but he hated himself more. He had betrayed his mother and Iadne. He only hoped they had made it safely away from the soldiers without injury. He knew Iadne would see to the rest, being wise to the moorlands. He hoped both would forgive him in time.
His father had warned him that to rule was not a privilege, but a needful sacrifice; or so it should be for any noble and just ruler. He hoped his father would be proud of him, even as his son was held by his enemy, steeped in his shame. Swallowing his pride, Eseus knelt before his cousin and pleaded for the lives of his people.
“Dear cousin,” he said, “though I have raised arms against you, it was to protect my people, and now that they are hither brought to you, please pardon them for my misdeeds.”
Kareth wore a tiara upon her brow, woven of a whitish silver found only in the Sinking Mines of the moorlands. It was intricately molded in beauteous facsimile of flowers and vines. Opals, like glittering poison berries, were entwined among the spiraling leaves and stems.
“You have accomplished much,” she said, her smile never faltering. “So much to oppose me…and yet, a pebble was never a dam against the river. The waters carry it away as well, overlooked in the rapids. Thus, Fate cannot be overwritten. So. Here we are. Heir to Oxenford and heir to Lorwynne. Do you wish to parley? I believe you have earned that much. Indeed, I was quite surprised at your resourcefulness.. And you were quite the warrior in the battle. But you were destined to be overtaken, cousin, and regardless of your best efforts you achieved a mere protraction both needless and vexing. But vexing to yourself, for it amounted to little more than suffering. Take, for instance, the fact that had you simply allowed my preliminary party to assume control of the castle, not one father, son, brother, or grandfather need to have died. You needed only allow Commander Vant free rein and spared countless lives. But, no, your stubbornness prevailed and because of it over a thousand men are now dead. A thousand men that could have served me loyally had their Lord been possessed of more insight into the truth that towered over him like an ill-tempered god.”
Kareth’s coronet sparkled with diamonds like stars, and the silverwork was finely beaten and molded to delicate arabesques. Below the coronet, her green eyes sparkled, and yet there was no warmth in them; they sparkled like the green ice of the Aurora shores—that cold waste where nothing grows and nothing lives and is the immaculate domain of death.
Her silky dress conformed to her slim figure unabashedly, dyed deeply a dark vermillion as if soaked in the blood of the slain. The surety of her walk, and her gaze, was evidenced in every lax gyration of her stride and bespoke power and doubtless certainty of control over all whom she lay eye upon or spoke word to. Only her shadow seemed amiss in this, for she had none; though a candlelight night etched black shade upon hard stone from the most fleeting of specks, it issued nothing cast in semblance of her contours, nor did silhouette dare parody her form through curtain or draper. She had control most absolute, and not even her own shadow mocked her. Such was the way of a true sorceress steeped in her own vanity.
“The time has come for your Queen to wed,” Kareth said. “And it has often been said by my dear, departed father that the heir of Oxenford and the heir of Lorwynne should join together, united their houses. Yet, that was before the betrayal that stole my father from me.” Her voice was icy indifference. She did not attempt to guise it with feeling of loss or grief. “Thus, breaking from tradition I wish to set a new precedent. Now I ask all of my cousins—“ She turned toward the entourage of nobles. “—I ask who among you would dare to take up arms against the slayer of my father and, thus, save me from the ignominy of joining such a wicked heart to my own?”
Eseus looked among his kin, and saw many with angry visage, yet none with actionable courage. His grandaunt spoke to his dandy cousin, but he dared not budge. Eseus thought it a pity, for he would have gladly slain the foppish fool, even if for Kareth’s idle entertainment.
“Shall I have none to defend my honor?” Kareth asked, a hand to her heart and the imitation of a woeful brow. “Very well then. I will set another precedent. I extend this offer to anyone, regardless of birth. If you slay my treacherous cousin then you will find a lifelong wife in me.”
There was an immediate bellow among the crowd; deep and bellicose and beastly.
“I shall split him head to groin and feed his craven loins to the Crows of the Moor!”
There stepped forth Kareth’s handmaiden— that broad-shouldered, towering figure of unfeminine bulk and bravado. With large, meaty hands she unwrapped her head of her scarf and wimple, and let her frumpy frock fall from her burly body. Men and women averted their eyes, but when the frock fell away there stood before Eseus now a large man with cruel eyes encircled in blackened blood. He wore black vestments over chainmail, and a cape of black feathers.
“He is your rival,” Kareth said. “Lord of the Moor, Crovanus, heir to the Crow clan. With him will you fight for my honor. My father is not here to disapprove. But to think that the Lord of the Moor walked beneath father’s very nose! Many a laugh have I had to think of it.”
Kareth spoke freely of the ruse, and no one among the crowd dared to question her; not her family or her serfs or soldiers. When she ordered a soldier to return Eseus’s sword to him, there was no hesitation. Eseus held once again the sword of Lorwynne; that sword with which his father entrusted him. Crovanus, too, claimed a weapon. It was a barbarous thing to behold, as were all Crow clan weapons.
Crovanus circled around Eseus with a hefty stride, each ponderous step promising violence.
“I have changed my mind,” Crovanus said. “I will not kill you. I will geld you and render you a dog to feed on scraps from beneath my table. You shall be my Fool. When I am angry I shall kick you and beat you and grab you by the scruff of your neck and shake you until you piss yourself. And then I shall laugh at you. Everyone will laugh at you.”
Eseus said nothing. Talk was a distraction. He focused on the weapon the Crow’s heir gripped in his hands: a triple-bladed scythe with a handle like a crow’s foot. The weapon was large, and would have been encumbering for a smaller man, but Crovanus swung it easily one-handed, resting it against his shoulder.
Eseus leapt forward into the slash, catching the handle on his shoulder, the impact shuddering throughout his body, and then he thrust his sword toward Corvayne’s heart. But the Lord of the Moor caught the blade with his naked hand, turning it aside with his bleeding fingers. At first Eseus was too taken aback to react, but as Corvayne raised his triple-scythe to cut Eseus down, Eseus wrenched his sword free of Corvayne’s grip, severing his fingers to rain upon the floor while Eseus ducked below the sickles’ savage slash. The Lord of the Moor was never daunted, even at the loss of his fingers, but rather was enraged, flailing his sickles wildly with one hand, his renewed vigor waxing while his other hand bled from its stumpy bones. Being much larger than Eseus, Corvayne would have soon overpowered the Lord of Lorwynne had the former not had a defter hand and greater patience. Turning aside each blow, Eseus circled and resumed the center of the room, commanding it while deflecting and parrying the Crow’s crude weapon. Kareth stood by her vanity, her habitually calm composure now transmogrified unto childish glee. To see her so utterly rapt infuriated Eseus.
His shoulder was knitted with catgut and salved with honey, then padded with cloth. He was not allowed time to rest or recover. His terrible destiny awaited him.
The marriage ceremony was brief. No one challenged Eseus thereafter; not even those among the Crow clan that were doubtlessly present, disguised among the peasantry. The Oxenford family scowled as Eseus and Kareth were wed before the Matharist priest. Fear stayed their tongues, nonetheless, and they were was impotent to stop the ceremony as they were to stop the sun rising and falling. Kareth took pleasure in the outrage so visibly etched on their silent faces. She would marry the man who allegedly conspired to slay her father? Yes, she would, if only because no one else dared to challenge him for her hand. Even wounded, Eseus intimidated them all. Their shame, too, seemed to please her, and she smiled to see their chagrined grimaces; their eyes averted in confusion and humiliation.
Thereafter came the festivities, including the Flight of the Bulls. Several young peasant men and soldiers stripped to their undergarments and were led into a large pen of palisades, their sharp stake teeth pointed inward. There awaited them a large bull antagonized by whips and canes. It charged about wildly, snorting and bellowing as it rampaged in every direction. Seeing the men, its fury found focus and charged them. The young men had to leap over the horned heads of the raging beast, or aspired to do so. Many young men were gored or trammeled, or gashed themselves upon the palisades. Those few who managed the acrobatic fear of leaping over the bull were crowned with berry stems and given a mushroom wine to drink. Those who were injured were tended and treated by healers. Many died before they could be tended to. Eseus never learned how many. And while he was not grateful that the men of Lorwynne were dead, he was glad they had not died for his cruel cousin’s idle amusement. Even so, it shamed him to sit and do nothing while Kareth giggled at the grotesqueries of the barbaric tradition that had been outlawed by his own father.
Kareth saw the horror on his face and smiled with pleasure.
“You disapprove, dear husband?”
“It is…a waste of brave men,” he said.
“Not so brave, half of them,” she said lightly. “Did you not see how they fled from the bull? That was their unmaking. You must not flinch or flee, but must surmount the obstacle directly. Without hesitation. There sit three young men who managed the simple feat. A goblin could have achieved it, had he the inclination, and so it is no great thing for mortal men.”
She turned to face him, then, staring into his eyes, her green-ice eyes unblinking and focused, yet empty of any feeling at all except, perhaps, the demand of obedience.
“But for you and I, Eseus, the bull we face would trammel the world were it not tamed by the steadiest and most ruthless of hands. You understand my will. You comprehend my aims. Will you be beside me on my chariot of Empire, or will you be detritus beneath its wheels?”
She did not give him time to answer. She simply turned away and raised her goblet, clearing her throat, impatiently, as a servant hastened to pour more wine, like blood, into the gaping mouth of the goblet. She sipped from it, staining her pink-petaled lips a darker crimson, then clapped her hands to call attention to herself, the soft impact of her dainty palms killing the festivities and music unto a solemn, wary silence. She then pointed to the bull still raging within the palisades.
“Tame the beast,” she said. “Make cold its heart.”
Oxenford soldiers hurried toward their task, carrying long spears. The bull was impaled all at once, then butchered for its meat and hide; its breath not yet vanished from the cooling Moor air. The head Kareth took for her own, esteeming it as a centerpiece for the wedding banquet table. Its eyes were still apoplectic with rage. It stared at Eseus, and he bethought he could see auguries in such dead, yet still somehow hateful, eyes.
The oil lamp sits on my escritoire, before a window in my library whose pane dulls the moonlight with the webbed frost along its glass. How emblematic of my life, the small flame confined in its glass prison and the coldly frosted world beyond it. Is it not like me, that flame, as I sit behind this window and yearn to burn away the cold uniformity of the world beyond this gnostic prison? But we are both prisoners of our mortal circumstances, too soon extinguished upon our wicks to realize our brilliant potential.
The pale gaze of the moon illuminates the distant hills as Selene searches for her sweet shepherd, steeped in his dreams. I hear the genteel rabble down the hall as a pack of mongoloid idiots chittering away to vapid self-importance and anemic music. Is it not enough that I have apportioned them the entirety of my remaining estate if they would but grant me the solitude of my study? How I loathe that stilted, stiff, and ultimately dead music down the hall. It is as pretentious as it is vapid, like finely crafted machinery to reproduce sounds never intended to be enjoyed by living beings. Music should be made by men and women in the throes of desire, their fingers desperate in their unsated appetite for contours and crescendoes and tactile decadence. It should not be played by men and women who have never lusted except in grabbing a Bible to deaden themselves against their own compulsions.
Yet, it is all a diversion constructed by my own volition. I have supplied to please my wife an interminable Winter Waltz; a venue for her entertainment, whose means and manners have acclimated to my own insomuch as the routines of life demand— as Duchess to Duke— and all that faded spectrum of jaded tedium that frequents me, not unlike maggots growing in a long-buried corpse. And what have I earned in return for my generosity? The ambience of an asylum at Christmastide.
“Of course, my dear,” I had said with a tone as sincere in exasperation as a child’s is in his governess’s lectures. “Whatever you wish you shall have, insomuch as I am not disturbed.”
And yet, here she comes down the hall to pester me in my solitude. She has been, if ever anything, a persistent jackdaw intrusive upon my lucubration.
“Love,” she says. “Would you please honour your guests with your presence? They are disconsolate at your aloofness.”
“They are honoured enough,” I retort, “in your presence, my love, and have a place esteemed by my generous hospitality. They need no more.”
“Then honour me, love, by gracing me with a dance.”
I sigh, seeing my breath upon the cold pane by my escritoire, like a fog long lingering afterward. The moon is high, among the stars, and her pale, bloodless light glistens upon the snow beyond the frosted hedges of the garden. It is a cold Winter’s day, and the lights and the noises and the warmth of the inner ballroom are faraway; yet not faraway enough to afford me refuge. The air is still and chill, as if it, too, shares the languor of inert indifference that lays upon me.
“You have partners in abundance,” I say, “and many young gentlemen envious of such an honour.”
She folds her arms across her bosom. It is the symbol of her irritation, the folding of her arms athwart her heart, and were I not annoyed by the bother of her I might be amused to think of the many times I have kissed her breasts which she now enfolds. Yet, I am not amused by anything anymore.
“The scandal of your continued absence will be the talk of London!” she says.
“Excellent,” I rejoin, “for much merriment will I have provided such insufferable personages. Dance, dinner and gossip. Why, they will be preoccupied for a fortnight. I am a most generous host indeed.”
She paces to and fro, as if contemplating the ending of the world. To and fro, to and fro, behind my chair and about my library. I see her reflected upon the window before me, ghostly in the halo of the lamplight. Her shadow flickers with the sullen blaze of the hearth. Her hair recalls a crested bird, though I know not which one. Certainly not those of Halcyon. All at once she halts and tightens her fists at her hips. How women may wear corsets and exercise their emotions without swooning is beyond my understanding, or curiosity. I have always preferred the exercise of women without their corsets.
“Is this work truly so very important?” she demands. “It seems something you might work upon any other time. I am merely asking for a fortnight to help me in entertaining our guests.”
“The stipulation was that you should entertain them at my expense, love,” I say. “Are not the servants sufficiently serving in their vocations? If not, I will attend to that at once.”
“They are as adequate as always,” she concedes. “But it is in your deficiencies as host that the guests murmur rather than exude complete gaiety. Before the week is up they will be outraged…”
“Come, dear, you know as well as I that high society delights in being outraged. Offense for them is a mainstay of their daily diet, and they cannot survive without some slight to gnaw with their afternoon tea. I should not wish to deny them their crumpets.”
“It is a bitter tea you serve them now!” my wife says, her voice crescendoing in its pitch. She would have made a fine soprano had she the inclination.
“Oh, but one with sugar enough to compensate the bite,” I say, my fingers tapping impatiently upon my splayed book. “For it is as with your lovely countenance that they shall sip it. ‘The Duchess is such a saint to endure her hermit husband.’ That is what they shall say. Indeed, and then they shall invite you to London for more soirees and balls than you can bear.”
There was a touch of pain in her eyes as they blinked in disbelief above her sharply hooked nose. It is not an ugly nose; only a Grecian nose. It is one of the reasons why I married her. She reminds me of Helen of Troy, and I have ever been a man seeking what will disrupt the treatises of this banal existence. Her father despises me. Most men among his ailing generation do.
“I do not wish to be a saint,” she says. “I wish to be the Duchess. And what Duchess was ever such without her Duke?”
“A Duchess happy to have the kingdom to herself,” I say, flippantly.
Shaking her head, she leaves the library, heading down the hall to join again the stifling imbeciles she has invited to abuse the atmosphere of my home. Marriage is a matter of compromise. I have compromised for her pleasure; she should compromise for mine. If I was not of a compromising mind, I would fetch from my den my rifles and make sport of her guests. It would not be the first safari where I have downed many among a dullard’s herd of grazing beasts.
I return to my tome for a few moments. Yet, my concentration is adulterated by the ambience of my estate; its potency lessened as a consequence. It being Winter, there is a chillness to the air that calls attention to itself, distracting me from my studies. It is, of course, England herself that is distracting me. Much rather would I be on Crete in Summer than cloistered in Albion’s overbearing frigidity. And yet not even Crete would remedy this malaise of spirit that has vexed me for so long. The chill reminds me— however poorly— that I am yet alive, and I would never be happy, even Summering upon Crete, for it is an experience overfamiliar to me. The novelty of this world has worn as thin as the shroud of Christ. As for creature comforts, I am kept warm enough with a gentleman’s attire, and should I feel more in need of protection against the Winter’s spitefulness I will simply don my ulster and sit closer to the fire, perhaps at my marqueterie table with its Grecian inlay of seashells and geometric patterns. Yet, I wish to gaze upon the dreaming moon, as Endymion upon his lover, and so aspire to the metamorphoses to come while the fools down the hall prattle incessantly.
And so, embattled with imbecilic pastimes common to the myopic gentry, I attempt to read a tome concerning metaphysical transmutations; and yet the echoing exuberance of the Waltz interrupts me as much as my materialist wife.
As I read an exceedingly trite passage in this exceedingly trite tome, and am incessantly vexed by the musical accouterments of my wife’s Winter Ball, my mind loses focus and wanders, as it often does, to the various poetry of Ovid and his lascivious visions. Nor is it depravity that excites such visions to tease my attentions elsewhere, but rather numb stoicism; involuntary stoicism wrought from jaded disillusion which has vexed my life from an early age, proceeding my manhood. For I have been both gifted and cursed with excesses in life— excesses of luxuries and flesh, the sum of which has indebted my emotions to a negated form of Hedonism. That is to say, a Hedonism which knows no satisfaction in the tiresome plane of mortal experience, however variegated the continuum proves to be. Were I the arbiter of manifold forms and granted grand determination over this vapid realm, I would transpose upon the banal world the utmost expressions consistent with nothing except heightening necessities of personal gratification. Caterpillar to butterfly to fairy, such would be the successions of my corporeal intrigues until, at last, Sublimity reaches its zenith and the world would die blissfully in its own exuberance. For it is my unreserved belief that Sublimity is the ultimate purpose of this otherwise useless universe. Sublimity above all else. And yet, that is the curse and the blessing of corporeal manifestations. It is not that Tantalus could not fill his cup to quench his thirst, but that the same libation dulled upon his palate, and so the cup abstained from the rising tides lest he drown forever in the cloying blandness.
And so I sit here, at my escritoire, with a glass of French wine untouched before me while wine and cheer pour down the hall, in my wife’s crowded ballroom, where the prestigious jackanapes of London engage one another with the ebb and flow of oblivious tomfoolery, unaware of the deadening insistence of Time and Age which numb an Epicurean soul such as mine— a soul which has molted and expanded beyond its simple-minded pleasures of melody measured by a lively foot and a welcoming hand.
I arrive at the section entitled “Epistemology of the Assumed Form” when I hear the clacking footstep of a presumptuous guest intruding upon my coveted solitude.
“Duke, if you would kindly pardon the interruption, but I have a matter utmost in need of your jurisprudence.”
It is not a guest, but my majordomo, Augustus, standing beside me, gloved hands behind his coattails and his spine proper and straight, chest held outward despite his ailing age, and his broad nose raised, chin up, all at disciplined attention and focused upon my every word as if Biblical decree. Or so it may seem. What a dull life he leads. Seeing him in the reflection of the window, he appears not unlike a broad-headed bull snorting his contempt in curt issuances from a stubborn head cold.
“What is the matter, Augustus?” I demand. “Can the Duchess not handle it herself? She has always boasted of her superior judgment.”
“The matter is the Duchess, sir,” August says, snorting insolently. “She requires your assistance and is taking great umbrage at your…studiousness.”
I sigh in contempt. How can I not? “And so she sends you here to jeopardize your standing in this house? Why heed her to your own detriment, Augustus?”
Augustus sniffs indifferently— it is another of his discreet means to express his insolence.
“Sir,” he says, “she has threatened my departure from service in this esteemed household if I do not consult you, and now you threaten my departure for granting her request. How can I reconcile myself with such a perilous situation except to throw myself upon your patience and mercy for an expedient resolution?”
Augustus is in all things proper and devout in his duties, except in his tone. Whatever words might be poured in refined elegance from his mouth, their flavour is ever bitter and biting, like an overaged wine. While his words were premised in capitulations, his tone is ever bullishly snide superciliousness. My wife often urges me toward his dismissal, but I find his mild petulance amusing, in a way, whereas the carousel of obsequiousness that spins about me—as pertaining to my other house servants—galls me and prompts my hand toward violence. Abject servility is an unpardonable crime. Such a perpetrator should never be forgiven except in his or her sudden assertion of willfulness.
Augustus, I realize, is yet addressing me.
“…and so she requires your opinion, and your opinion alone.”
“Regarding what?” I say.
Augustus clears his throat impatiently. His collar has always been too tight upon his large neck, and ever seems to struggle to contain the bulge of his throat.
“Regarding the wine selection, sir.”
“By the stones of Jove!” I swear, slamming my fists down. “Let them drink the swill of swine for all it matters to me!”
Calmly—superciliously—Augustus speaks. “I will offer a choice more tempered on your behalf, sir.”
He exits forthwith, his broad nose higher than ever in the air. No doubt he believes himself a more fitting Duke in my stead, and I delight him to persist in this presumption, for I know it gnaws at him to think thus and yet be bound in service to such a man as myself; a man inferior in his estimation. Let him think so, and let such thoughts gore him in his sleep. I played the dutiful, dignified genteel for a quarter of my life, and I am finished in its stagnant, stultifying pretenses. Life is too short, and too stale, to further deaden the heart and the head with stifling manners.
Unto solitude once again, I set forth with renewed interest in my sterile tome. Yet, however strong the oarsmen, a contrary current can overwhelm the most Herculean of men. So is it with me as I burn the oil and ignore the cacophony of instruments and laughter echoing through my home. Icy moonlight through the window reminds me enviously of Endymion in his cave while Selena embraces him. How tender and gentle that repose! Body stilled, yet dreams unending and of myriad marvels! Such a slumber I desire, if only to escape the colourless monotony of this earthly realm.
So much noise down the hall! A noise of stiff, cadaverous airs! A danse macabre, for all it purports in its assemblage. Would be better were all my wife’s guests rendered satyrs and nymphs in a sylvan debauchery of old. Perhaps then the intolerable inanities of their merrymaking might substantiate itself with merit and significance rather than that niggardly imitation of copulation known balefully as “the Waltz”. Indeed, who would ever substitute nocturnal endeavours such as the tapping of toes with the tapping of shoes except in these mendacious times when puritanical pretenses reign tyrannically over all spheres of humanity? The world would be better written with the church and the brothel sharing the same back-door, if not the same nave. The pagans of old knew how and why to live life, and knew the brevity that threatened their lives every waking moment. Thus they lived awash in wine and song and fleshly pleasures that carried them jubilantly upon its powerful tide until oblivion claimed them.
And yet I cannot enjoy any such thing now; neither wine nor song nor fleshly pleasure. Passion has been failed by a prudish world. Had I a poet’s inclinations and capacities I might elevate my consciousness unto the higher realms, thereby exorcising such demons as besiege me. Alas, I have all the Byronic impulses for poetry, but neither the inspiration nor expression required to channel in wizardly fashion the passion, and so cannot supplement tedious earthly existence with the Sublimity afforded by a creative daemon.
Presently a figure approaches from down the hall. I recognize her hurried manner at once, and her lithe form. My exasperated wife.
“My love,” I say, “I have said all I will on the matter. Leave me be.”
A sibilant sigh of vexation, yet I do not close the tome, nor look to her. I will not afford her an appraisal. She is a pretty creature— naturally, for I would have accepted none contrariwise—and yet there was ever a pettish contrariness in her pretty blue eyes beneath her golden curls. I need not look at her to know this. Habit has transfigured her quite stagnant in my mind, like all other things, and that stagnancy holds fast, however dire the need for transposition. For such a pale creature one might be dismayed to witness what passions could be summoned in her seemingly frail frame. Yet, I have summoned what daemons I could from the throes of her bedchamber, and they proved satisfactory only for a time. Do not mistake me, for she is given much to le petite mort, yet the deficit is in the modality of her forbearance. She is too passive a lover to invigorate interest anymore, and has always accepted me gladly, but without the aggression that invigorates my own jaded appetite. I yet sate her appetite with every timely meal rendered, but find myself strangely hollow afterward. She is a harpy in all ways yet what I desire from her. It is a failure of the sex, or perhaps the British woman, for I have enjoyed the proclivities of women in other parts of the world. Women in the Dark Continent, for instance, dominate their lovers when in copulation. This also seems a prevalence among the American Indian squaws. The best I have experienced was a Spanish girl in Cadiz. A lovely creature, too, though alike to dusk compared to the moonlight of my wife. She delivered unto me deep pleasure, though it, too, dulled after a time, as do all things to a mind not encumbered with imbecility and ignorance.
I realize, suddenly, that my wife is yet speaking to me and I have favoured my own thoughts during her orations, as I often am disposed to do when presented with lusterless conversation.
“…it is therefore customary…No! It is vital that you greet your guests at once!”
Vital, she says. I once knew of the vitality of life; of the passions long since deceased. But I have been born of a Faustian bargain, which all knowledge of this world’s sensations exhausted with overripe experience, and so wish for a new bargain whereby the world may be transfigured anew, if such a bargain may be struck.
“My dear,” I say, “for three days your esteemed guests have been getting on without me. For three days I have been attempting— despite the inconvenience of their prattle and prancing—to get on without them. This arrangement is vital to both enterprises. Can you not understand that when I wish to be uninvolved, it is for the sake of you and your festivities? Were I to debut, I would debate, or destroy. It is as simple as that. Therefore I save you and your guests from the catastrophe of my reluctant presence, and they, in time, will save me from the catastrophe of their distractions.”
My wife is silent for some time, not unlike a hawk as it watches its prey keenly.
“You know not what wrongs you do to me,” she says quietly.
“Indeed,” I say. “But I know which wrongs I spare you.”
The Duchess leaves with her frills swishing most petulantly, like some bird of prey whose meal has escaped. It matters not. I am once again afforded time and attention toward the arcane tome. Thus, whatever censure she lays upon me will be a fruitful exchange on my behalf.
Do not doubt that I know my wife to be the angel of my hearth and home— she certainly is—and yet she fails the enterprise of imagination required to sympathize with my disappointments. She is too meek in her conduct, too, and though I loved her once, there is wanting in her manner a certain passion; a passion to recompense my own dulled passions of late. Angel though she is, I long for the night which she should doff her celestial wings and spread talons upon my body, raking deep to awaken flesh wherein to dormancy we are all resigned.
Once again I return to my rare and resplendently dull tome concerning transformations. In the lamplight I read these Greek letters with dutiful attention, and yet like light turning ordinary objects into baleful shadows, that illuminating script writhes and worms its way elsewhere in my attentions while fanciful figures prance ever in my jaded thoughts. It is not that my comprehension lacks crucially in fortitude, but that the trite passages fail to elicit appropriate phantasia. And so my mind, finding the desired effect inadequate, compensates its dearth with wandering wonderment. Often I wander, as Ulysses apart from his home, and yearn for the Siren song of madness, or the oblivion whirling within the jaws of Charybdis. Nor do I find solace in Circe’s favour, nor Calypso’s, but, at times, would gladly welcome the novelty of congress with Scylla, if only to impose upon this pale, murmuring existence the fresh roar of vivacious novelty. I am reminded of The Golden Bough, that work that is as more poetry than true portal to the Mysteries. This tome before me is the antithesis to Frazer’s work. The latter is poetic insight without truth, and this book is truth without poetic insight.
By the womb of Juno! There approaches another interloper! It is Lord Grantchester, no doubt. I know him by his peculiar footstep that tattoos most strangely down the hall, pronounced with a tap and then a slide of his stiff-legged left foot which had been crippled by a projectile from a Mohammedan in one of his many Pyrrhic battles to the South. Since his return to England he has become a notable hero, elevating his status with a lame leg and a library of war stories. Granting credibility to these tales, too, was his missing right eye, which is ever covered with a patch now. Some patrons have offered to generously provide him a glass eye, but he has refused this dubious honour outright. His patch and his lame gait allow him a certain mystique for most who do not know him. Those among us who do have his unfortunate acquaintance, on the other hand, know him to be a dreadful bore. Currently he is aspiring to be a shepherd among the tepid-blooded sheep of our nation. That is to say, he is entering the fray of politics. I wonder how he shall achieve atrocities in the House of Lords likewise to those he has achieved in combat. He has made meringues of men upon the battlefield with his myopic war strategies, blinded as he is by his own myth, and looming Cyclopean in the esteem of fools everywhere. They speak of him as if he devoured the Mohammedans by the bushel whereas the Turks routed his forces toward legendary slaughter. Had he any sense of shame he would have taken the bullet closer to his heart and so ended his incompetence against Britain once and for all.
“Duke,” he says, “we all fear for your well-being. Does the malady originate in illness? If so, may I counsel you to a nice Brandy to inspirit recovery. It is ever the doctor I favour when on the battlefield.”
“Doubtlessly,” I say, flatly. “And great is such counsel provided when countering your enemies. A sound defeat is ever assured on the one side.”
“Indeed,” he says, ignorant as always to my meaning. He can only ever see one side of things, and at that, a side always favourable to himself. “Why, the Mohammedans should have counsel likewise or they will never stand a chance against our might.”
I grow tired of his absurdities. “I am engaged studiously,” I say, “and can ill-afford time for pleasantries. Please excuse me, and enjoy the Duchess’s ball.”
His presumptuousness prompts him to stare over my shoulder, surveying my book.
“Is that Latin?” the cretin asks.
“Greek,” I reply. “They are quite distinguishable. Even to the most unlearned eye.”
“Indeed,” he says, leaning over my shoulder. “Pardon me, though, for, as you know, my vision was impaired in a valiant battle against Christianity’s foe, and so I see but poorly as a consequence. Yet, I see the difference entirely now. It is quite obvious upon closer observation. Naturally, it is Greek, not Latin. Alas, candlelight affords only the most preciously scant illumination, as you no doubt know. That is why I never read anything after nightfall and prefer my newspaper by the light of noon.”
A silence passes— vexing and meaningless and insufferable—and I plead silently to any willing god to spirit this fool away from my person. None answer my prayer.
“And what is the nature of the text?” he asks.
“Tedium,” I say. “The tedium of static forms. Ontological stagnation. Mutability in regard to diminutive matter in a constrained tapestry of being.”
“Ah!” he sighs pleasurably, as if understanding the matter— that is to say, the restrictions on matter, generally speaking. “An excellent subject, to be sure.”
He looms over me for a time longer, then turns away. I am relieved, thinking he will leave. Yet, he merely hobbles to the hearth, warming himself in its glow.
“Do you recall Lady Stonewall?” he asks after a long thoughtful pause.
I do recall such a Lady. She is a fair-faced creature with a winsome mischief in her dark eyes, though too tame to tempt my engagement once again.
“I do,” I say. “Married to Lord Stonewall.”
“Just so,” he says. “She has honoured me as her dance partner for three of the four previous Waltzes.”
“Indeed?” I say, mildly curious now. I regard him, knowing his mind, and knowing hers. Such a short, crippled man to loom so large in civilized society. “And her husband abides in some corner, nursing his knee?”
“He did not accompany his wife,” Lord Grantchester says, flushing red as scarlet upon a letter. “He has taken ill.”
“At his age it is only natural,” I say. “And a young wife must have her freedoms, particularly when so young a Lady as Lady Stonewall. I am sure Lord Stonewall would be grateful to know his young, pretty wife is being attended by a man of such high honours as yourself.”
He does not note the sarcasm in my voice, being deaf to such tones, and instead nods vigorously as he stares into the flames.
“Exactly my thoughts,” he says. He drops his gaze and fidgets restlessly on his good leg, experiencing a moral dilemma from which he seeks— I have no doubt—some deliverance. He stands with his hands behind him, as if bound and awaiting the firing squad.
“You should return to Lady Stonewall,” I say, impatient to have the fool away from me. “Doubtless, she is wanting your company.”
“Indeed,” he says, inhaling and exhaling like a near-drowned man. “Indeed. Indeed.”
He hobbles toward the hall, pausing at the threshold of my study. He sighs, then says, “Egyptian women were never so enigmatic.”
He leaves, his brow troubled now by his own behaviour more than ever by the innumerable dead he had through his incompetence sewn throughout Khartoum. He has made a garden of Earthly Delights by such dragon-tooth men, and yet he fears the sex of a woman. Rightly so, I should think, for Lady Stonewall is wiser than most men of any age. Why else would she marry a man breathing dust from his imminent grave? Nor has Lord Stonewall any hope of producing an heir by her, thus leaving her unspoilt for the next fool she seeks to ensorcell. She is as Aphrodite marrying Hephaestus, yet taking idiotic Ares abed. Had I not partaken once before of her dalliances I might do so again, but I’ve no interest now— not even in the most brazen of women. I am beyond such established fare. The world’s banquet of women is bland to me, however freshly procured from the vine.
I take a moment to contemplate the situation. Lord Grantchester is enamoured of the Lady Stonewall, and she encourages this fixation, knowing her husband is bound for Charon soon enough. Happy woman! You are a slippery, fanged thing, and twist yourself around any man you fancy to lose in your coils! A delicious Delphyne, that she-creature of prophecy, you are serpent-tailed and encoil a man, head to toe, root to head. There was a time I fancied you, and you I. But as all things in my dreary life, such glories fade and all that remains is taedium vitae.
Nonetheless, Lady Stonewall is a credit to her sex. Too many British ladies are of that bloodless marble stiffness so perfectly captured in Frederic Leighton’s abhorrently lifeless paintings. Indeed, like those paintings there is beauty to be had in their elegance and preciseness, yet where is the flush of passions? It is as if they had, one and all, been drained by vein of their crimson life force, leaving only cold porcelain shells. Even his paintings of bare-breasted Andromeda languishes beneath the tyranny of his serpent, and seems too soon to swoon with a morbid pallor rather than writhe with the living pulse of fright. That is not to say that I have, in the past, never enjoyed hastening the pulse of such coldly marbled women to bring a darkening flush to their alabaster flesh. Indeed, it was a pastime cherished for a season. I delight in nothing more than rendering to life the glass-eyed dolls that enumerate so many corners of London. Now, however, it is but a fancy that leaves me as cold and bloodless as they. All life for me is a feeble imitation of life now. A pantomime as uninvolved as it is disbelieved.
As I think of it, I would consider Leighton the antithesis of Pygmalion, for he took women of living flesh and rendered them cold, immobile ivory. But that is this age we live in. It is the Age of Lifelessness. Morality is the calcification of the soul; the rigor mortis of the sensual life. Meanwhile, there have been so many technological revolutions— locomotives, telephones, and, now, automobiles—and yet no revolutions of the flesh. Bound by our anatomy, we seek to bind ourselves evermore, but now in unfeeling steel to transport ourselves from one banal location to the next in a long life of dulled experiences. Nor did the Age of Reason transform the flesh alongside the mind. Perception and knowledge have changed, yet sensation remains stagnant by inborn limitation. There are those who, in the self-loathing passion of Oedipus, willfully blind themselves to the wretched reality into which we are born, gouging out their eyes with either drink or dogma or domesticity. What cowards these individuals be, and the world is rife with them. I am no such person. I gaze into the eyes of our Mother Sphinx and dare to dream of a better lover; a lover more lioness than sandstone rigidity.
My wife approaches yet again, as a harpy besetting that wretch, King Phineus, as he attempts his meal. And how many attempts have I made of this dull banquet before me? So many, and yet she snatches away my attention with her covetous claws and fierce beak.
“My love,” she says, “Lady Chatterley is insistent upon speaking with you. She is inconsolable. Lord Hemingworth, too, wishes to speak to you. Come the Summer he hopes you will join him at his estate for a weekend of hunting.”
“I haven’t the time for either,” I say. “Send them my regret or regards or whatever false feeling would be appropriate.”
“This will not do, love,” my wife says. Irritation heightens her voice, though she attempts restraint. “You shame us both.”
I take up my glass of wine and drink deeply from it— not for sake of thirst, but to have something to stay my tongue lest it speak irrevocably. The French wine is bitter; familiarly bitter.
“So you do not wish to go hunting in the Summer?” she says. “I would have thought it something keeping in your interests.”
“I will not leave my estate in the coming Summer, or any Summer,” I say, “unless there is someone worthy of my devotion.”
“Am I not worthy of your devotion?” she asks, her tone bitterer than the wine.
“Are you to go hunting at Hemingworth’s estate?” I ask. “Is that the cause of your keen interest?”
“No,” she says, “but it should please me to visit with Lady Hemingworth while you are happily engaged in hunting. I…I want to see you happy, my love.”
“Then you can see to that happiness immediately,” I say, “and leave me be.”
She walks to the hearth, staring into the fire and sighing heavily. Her nose, in profile, is as a raptor’s beak. I am reminded of Dante’s Inferno, thinking of the Forest of the Suicides.
“And so you wish me away?” she asks. “Shall I visit our friends alone, then? What would they say? What would I say to pardon your stubborn absence?”
“Whatever excuse comes to mind,” I say. “Or no excuse at all. It means nothing to me whichever you deign to do.”
Her face hardens in the firelight.
“You wish me away while you linger here. No doubt so you can entertain your little harlot during my absence.”
She is close to tears now, which is a sign of anger rather than sorrow. Oh, but that is just one of many of her feminine wiles.
“My dear, you know I have tired of her as I have tired of all the others. Nor were their enjoinments to supplement in your affections or passions. No, I am a man of surfeited appetites, and so all is colourless and tasteless in my estimation, even as I condescend to animal pleasures with women of a fallen nature. It is no slight toward you, nor toward them. All life is Byronic languor to me now.”
“Oh, how I wish you would not say such things,” she says. She shakes her head, and her blonde locks, and then hurries to the hall. She pauses at the threshold. “You may not love me, but you could do much if only by pretending you do.”
I do not contradict her, for I wish for her hastened departure. And so it comes to pass that she returns to her guests down the hall, in the ballroom, and I am left to my solitude once again, reading as dutifully as before, which is to say, intermittently plagued by petty distractions. The Duchess is not incorrect. I do not love her. I do not love anything, including myself. Neither do I detest her, or myself. It is this reality that I detest. So long as it reigns indisputably over us then I will detest it. Alas, I cannot escape it— this waking nightmare that is tedium. So much means and wealth at my beck and call, yet nothing affords me true relief. Epicurean pleasures have dulled in their piquancy. I am as the Chinaman in his crowded opium den, requiring more and more of my sweet poppy fumes to deliver me from the dark reality I live until, at last, I surrender to its final plume of pleasure, passing away into a dreamful Oblivion, not unlike Endymion in Selene’s arms.
The pleasures provided by my privileged life have been Protean, with a plenitude of Nereids both innumerable and indulgent, but even the most virile tides must ebb, their froth dissipating upon the languid sands. Thus has it been and thus do I wish Desire herself, Aphrodite, would stand astride her seashell and beckon the waves to swell once more.
What am I but an aspirant to Protean powers? Usurper to that tyrannical demiurge who binds Man to his limited scope of gnostic iteration, heroically seeking to replace his imminence so as to manifest myriad transformations in measure apace of my dissatisfied sensibilities—to liberate human form from that gnostic devil and his abominable banalities enumerating monotonously this bland plane of existence, thereby instilling unto all the novelties and innovations wherefrom come invigoration—of caprice and genius to liven a dreary routine of flesh, Platonic expression and spirit overmastering flesh with a method to madness and madness unto form innumerable and manifold and ever revelatory.
Some self-proclaimed poet attested to the feeble doctrine that Greek mythopeia existed simultaneous with banal normality and that the observer might witness thereof if applying the proper advancement of insight. What a deluded fool! All is excrement and worms in this faded tableau of grotesque corporeal ontology. He attested, too, that all poetry and beauty and indeed Sublimity becomes commonplace where ingratitude dwells in aspect of the furrowing worm in the bruised fruit. Perhaps there is a bit of truth in it, but truly he was a man of limited means and vision, for my appetite outsizes all presence fare provided only insomuch as fare be meted in undue measure and insipid flavor.
How many such self-proclaimed poets have scoured the spheres as I have to seek such phantasia equal to jaded imagination? Perhaps if such people lived longer they would experience enough to understand the ineptitude of reality and, therefore, cease their pestilent evocations. Had I rosewater tears enough to swell and flood my eyes, I would not even then see what they render in their nascent consciousness as anything but effluvial nonsense.
I am reminded of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s need to celebrate Art, engage it, and ruin it as he brought it low to man’s mortal realm. Quite insightful for a sodomite. Then again, are we all not repressed in our need to live the passions our souls clamber toward in futility? I think of my wife, and all of the women upon whom I have sought invigoration; all of those puckering, parting lips which I have trespassed upon in lascivious ways never dared spoken thereof in polite society, let alone a Christian one. And by a Christian society I suggest the society of the Hypocrite.
Someone approaches from the hall. I know him by his rhythmic step. I see him in the reflection of the window, a tall shadow in the light of the hall. He steps forward and is carved into relief by the light of the hearth.
“Sir, there is an urgent matter needing your attention,” he says.
Sometimes I fancy Augustus as his namesake, Augustus Octavius; that is to say, stiffly obsessed with all of his moralistic prudishness and strict observances of decorum while I, a Nero, lounge beneath his sneering disapproval. Rome does not burn, least not in this cold heart, but I would gladly burn my entire estate to ashes if it would only stir some unexplored corner of my own bosom to beat once again in exultation, however brief and futile. Perhaps I am more Marc Antony, concerned with Cleopatra more so than actual power, and soon to fall upon my own sword.
How his eyes flash with silent fury, as a bull trapped behind a prison of stone, gelded and impotent in his rage.
“A guest has broken your mother’s antique vase,” he says, as if a judge sentencing a man to the gallows. “I believe you should address this issue personally.”
“I think it is of no concern to me,” I reply. “Why should it be?”
Augustus fidgets and snorts, reminding me of a bull confined to its pen, yet stomping impatiently about; angry at its prison.
“It belonged to your mother,” he repeats, “ and it dates to the Ming Dynasty. Sir, if not personally concerned, you should have a vested concern for the history it represents.”
It is my time to snort in contempt. “History is a long shadow bearing no tangibility upon me or my concerns,” I say. “I feel its imminence no better than the Present.”
“But sir!” he growls.
“Must you be so bullish, Augustus?” I say. “I have told you I have no interest in it, nor interest in anything else. Let all my antiques be shattered until they are dust drifting on the wind. It means nothing to me. All form is ephemeral, you thick-headed ox.”
Augustus’s broad nose wrinkles, the wide nostrils flaring. His tulip-shaped ears spasm beneath his crown of horns, and he bellows irritably. His hooves clop down the hall.
His insolent manner is ever emboldened by his aversion to my admittedly Hedonistic propensities. How it nettles him to be subservient to a man of my make and means and manners! Yet, I am no Mogul with his indulgent harem arrayed endlessly around me like pretty little satellites with which to while away the tedious, idle hours. True, I have enjoyed an orbit of Ladies and mistresses, but never for long. Reality itself impoverishes even the most precious of jewels in any crowned life. However pretty and picturesque a woman’s visage— and indeed vying with Dawn in splendid aspect—even so, she cannot contend against the Morphean imagination while impoverished as all such creatures are in thrall to this banal world to which and of which and from which we are born.
Resplendent and myriad must be the mold of Vulcan’s smithy or else it is as a thing of fleeting appeal and appeasement. Were I, thus, a poet, my transmutations might reward reality its unglimpsed marvels with keener credulity. But I am not, nor have I the capacity for such miracles. What wondrous wizardry is worked by wringing from empty air magnificent images and form, and what disappointment when what was wrought withers to pervasive void when the mind’s eye falters to sustain it, and the hands fail to grasp its intangibility to form it from formless flashes of insight. The illusion remains thus, a phantom on the periphery of existence; a wish without woven being.
That is not to say that I have never tried. Once upon an age I, too, was mesmerized by mysticism. When the flesh failed the lofty spheres of Sublimity, I sought elevation through spiritual means. The Dionysian Mysteries. The Sex Cults of Shaktism. Seeking a witch-doctor from the Amazon, I partook of the “soul vine”, a tea made from the leaves held sacred by his tribe. The visions inspired no awe, but only tantalized my curious consciousness more, ultimately disappointing me as the visions dissipated like so much ebbing froth, leaving me in the grotesque descent into la purga. I have partaken of such nectar of gods from all over this insipid world, and found them weak, waning, and wanting.
How tedious and tired this tome, and thus how true, for it is easily presumed that such tedious, tired prose must have been written by a tedious and tired scholar who was quite worldly, the world itself being tedious and tired, and so the truth herein recorded, contemplated, and bore out in all of its tired tedium must be truthful. And yet, it is a book of fancies, and seeming fantasies— a magic tome I read to enliven the tedious and tired world it purports to explicate in all of its minute machinery so as to engineer it anew.
And this magical tome must be true, for it is written with stern sense, and sterile feeling, and this world is so deprived of feeling at its core that this tome speaks to that truth mercilessly, unadorned, and without even slightest embellishment to elicit feeling or ease the digestion thereof. Compared to Ovid— so rife with poetically heightened feeling and being nought if not genius counseled by feeling and a paragon of truth— and this tedious tome champions itself with its bland tedium. Yet, how I long to subsume the one work with the other, which is to say, the one world with the other. Let this bland, sensible, tedious and tired cosmos be unseated by a phantasia of feeling long desired and long denied.
Yes, this tome must be true, for its magic incantations are so banal. Were I but more disciplined in my erudition I might achieve something worthwhile, but I must confess myself lax in all matters of edification and industry save for those which concern the flesh. Alas, as an overwrought intellect may dull the mind, so too does too much carnal enlightenment dull the lips and skin and loins. To think that I have followed Folly and all of her delicious vices, only to return to a regretful state not unlike Erasmus in the depths of despair at the end of his long ascetic life! How ironic to press the spectrum at one border and to arrive at the opposite threshold! It is the most cruel of paradoxes devised by Nature. And yet the fault lies with the inescapable paradigms of this accursed planet, formed as it was by crude hands in want of greater inspiration, or perhaps braver, bolder Willpower.
Desire, for my jaded tastes, is not Aphrodite in her plain human form, but an enchanting Echidne, her hypnotic tail swaying, scales glistening lustrously in and out of shadow and moonlight. Furtive horror and pleasure unified and manifest. Perverse as it may seem, I often wonder if only a gorgon’s figure and gaze should suffice to entice my desires once again, for they had proven in all other venues flaccid of purpose in these, my most jaded of times. What a terrible age this is. It is the Age of Ennui, layered as our ladies are layered in stiff artifices that render the victim incapable of breathing freely and so soon to swoon. They need only disrobe, peel away the layers until their silk shifts remain, thereby assuming the freedom of the bacchantes in their himations— a single layer to tantalize and to easily doff at a moment’s whim when passion should rule the hour and invite itself unto a life like a fairy godmother to transform the rags of existence into the satin of sensuality.
The grandfather clock chimes deeply, as a faerie gong, to proclaim the midnight hour, and yet it does not signal the end to the evening’s festivities. The musicians play as ever before, and the dancers fling their insipid laughter down the hall like a flock of birds to peck most obnoxiously at my brain. I am of a mind to make an appearance at last, and to recompense their jubilation with extravagant repudiation. Yet, before I may indulge this compulsion my eye alights upon a keenly interesting passage in the mystical tome which awakens my curiosity once again in its full luminosity.
Reading with renewed interest I find passages concerning a certain Minoan magus and the invocations employed to conform natural phenomena to unnatural configurations. The invocations are not, themselves, of particular potency; rather it is the act of reading certain script from a scroll that transforms in accordance to the reader’s whims. Any script suffices, given it was written using a certain ink extracted from a particular creature in the sea. This, I can only surmise, must be a cephalopod, for the passage asserts the need of both ink and the ability for such a creature to mutate its morphology at will. Having read extensively about various marine life, I know this likely alludes to the squid, even if the text seems to strangely hint at a being of human intellect willingly offering its protean ink to the magus. It hints at a few Greek words with which I am unfamiliar and, thus, I cannot fathom their meaning. Words such as “Yog Sothoth” and “Nyarlathotep” and “Cthulhu”. Indeed, they seem more in keeping with Egyptian words than Greek. But that is no matter. The Hellenes and the Egyptians had a rich history intertwined together. Why, it was only last year that I visited the recently discovered Temple of Bast on the island of Delos. I had sought sensual visions there, aided by a mushroom wine, but only found a bland Summer awaiting me.
The author also claims that the very words in this tome were recorded in the same ink and would, by their potent power, manipulate form and function as one pleases. This cannot be so or I would have observed such an influence hitherto and attributed it accordingly. Indeed, this seems literary grandstanding on the part of the author.
Time’s pendulum swings slowly as I read the author’s exultant self-indulgences, championing himself like some magus Machiavelli in need of a patron.
Suddenly feeling utterly irritated with the presumptuous author, I am ever more irritated when I hear Lord Grantchester approaching me once again, his arrhythmic footstep announcing his slow arrival like a graceless cur in attendance.
“I have need of your guidance, Duke,” he says, his voice a booming bass in the hollow barrel of his broad chest. “Lady Stonewall is acting most…unusually.”
“In what manner?” I say.
“She is very…forthright, sir,” he says, his voice gruff and echoing. “I would almost dare say improper, but I hold her in too high of esteem to denigrate her so heartlessly.”
I look up to see that Lord Grantchester is wringing his massive hands, his single eyebrow arched with distress over a single eye soon to glisten. His head hangs forward from his thick, knotted neck, both in dejection and to avoid brushing the ceiling. The club hanging from his leather belt is stained crimson, as if with lingonberry jam. To think such a killer of men could be afraid of an assertive woman! It amuses me, albeit mildly.
“Lady Stonewall is a married woman held in high esteem,” I say, “and so, by reputation— which is tantamount to actual character in a civilized society—cannot be anything other than what she most certainly happens to be.”
My assessment perplexes and shames the giant, one-eyed man wholly, the small brain within that massive head unable to divine my meaning.
“Yes,” he says at length. “Of course. Naturally so. I should think her thus always as she should be.”
Grantchester lopes apishly to stand before the hearth. The flames flicker and flare, throwing shades from his profile out onto the tiled floor and Persian rug, and I cannot help but fancy such shades of the many dead men clambering futilely in the underworld to rise and drag that fool down below with them. A competent general must navigate war as Ulysses did his ship between Scylla and Charybdis. This imbecile, however, plunged his ship into the whirlpool time and time again only to find himself on the golden shore of Calypso’s island, held in veneration and unconditional love by the British people. And yet, he is more Polyphemus in his idiocy than ever the wise and dastardly Ulysses.
“Marriage is a sacred bond,” he mutters to himself, his voice soft as wet gravel. “And I can ill afford a scandal now…”
Listening to his moral deliberations, I cannot help but think of Man and Monogamy and all of the multitudinous complications such dynamics bring. I have never truly been attached. Even when I was attached to the Duchess, I was ever unattached. Whether by one woman or by a harem of women, I am never attached. When engaged, I am never truly engage. “Engaged”, “attached”, “bound together”: these are presumed societal obligations…modalities…which, if not observed, enumerate minor nuisances in a modern life. Yet, how much simpler life would be without such artificial constrictions. True, they were enforced by necessity where wealth and heirs were concerned…but why should any of that matter to one such as myself? May I procreate a thousand little cherubic children—and should they all die from Need—it would be as meaningless to me as any church edict or moral lecture.
“And her husband…” Grantchester continues to mutter. “He is a fine man. As fine a man as any other in London. And a good patron. Yes. He has lent support to me on more than one occasion. But…he is old…closer to Heaven than to the coming year, as they sometimes say…what good is it to his wife to be saddled to the side, so to speak, because the wagon is rattling apart at its last timbers…”
What needless torments Man invents for himself. Astonishingly so, insomuch as the unimaginative herd is scandalized by such liberties of acquaintances and intimacies. Indeed, intimacy is not so intimate in my estimation. To rut between a heaving bosom is to be no nearer to that quickening heart than to the moon beyond the windowpane.
Grantchester turns to leave, then hesitates, his broad, hairy shoulders sagging despondently as if he is lost.
“Her scales scintillate like the stars,” he says. “They are the most appealing of her features, I think. Yet, her slitted eyes are beautiful too. She is the most darling creature I have ever known.”
This affection confessed, the cyclops hobbles down the hall, cracking the tiled floor as he passes.
Once again I look beyond the window, seeing the Corinthian columns in my garden gleam in the pale midsummer moonlight. Cherubim perch upon the capitals and the collapsed pediments. Vines grow up the marble trunks, seeking sunlight which will never come. The garden grows riot with hyacinths and cypresses. Had I Daedalus in my employ I should set him upon reality itself, rendering through his genius the world in a stranger, more mythic aspect of dimension and routine. The mystagogue of this tome— so conceited with his own delusions—is a charlatan, I so conclude.
I have never been one to let my passions carry me with wild chariots. Rather, Hippolytus lost control for having been overly strict with his own reins, and whipping his horses too vigorously. Despite my desire for desire, I have, in truth, ever been a man rehearsed in temperance. After all, it is ever a matter of time and place and intention, and so long as all are reconciled, even a Pope may lord modestly in a bordello without fear of overwrought passions— for such passions belong in a bordello, and thus are confined to time and place and intention. Wine may flow freely, and loins also, at a Bacchanal and should be estimated a success in moderation and propriety, for orgies are not equivalent to the routine hours devoted to other banal modalities, and, so, are of an accord with currencies exorbitant in other circumstances, but not in the circumstance whereof they are portioned. And why should such considerations of values not be made? Does not the soldier kill in times of war and refrain in times of peace? To slay another human being is considered abhorrent in schedule-addled London, whereas how we celebrate Lord Wellington for killing many Frenchmen in his war against Napoleon. There are many among the gentry who admire the French and Lord Wellington in turn, all while failing to acknowledge the contradiction of wartime prejudice and peacetime appreciation. Why, then, should bacchants be shunned for appropriating their pleasures when a proper circumstance is provided? It is just another among the infinite inanities complicating the waft and weave of life.
Someone lingers at the threshold.
“By the dark womb of Demeter!” I exclaim. “Have I any hope of peace this night?!”
My wife inhales sharply, then steps forth like Andromeda into the surging tides as the dragon looms.
“My love,” my wife says. “This will not do. The guest are absolutely despondent from your continued absence.”
I listen to the music echoing down the hall, and the idiotic clamour of voices from my wife’s guests, and in no measure diminished or diminishing in mirth or music. There is nothing wanting in their revelry except, perhaps, genuine joy. My presence would not change that.
“My dear,” I say with growing irritation, “they seem to carry on well without me. To the contrary, I am morose and would likely hinder festivities with my present disposition. Verily, I would determine it an affliction catching and would ruin your evening as a plague upon everyone’s morale.”
“Or the conviviality of your guests would catch in you,” she counters. “That is what sways you from joining us. You cannot enjoy anything anymore. You behave as if life were some duty you must observe begrudgingly, and it upsets me to no end.” She takes hold of my forearms with her clawed fingertips, attempting to wrest from my tome my attentions. Looking up at her, I see her feathered brow sadly furrowed and anxious. Her beak is sharp and tears each word from the tense air surrounding her.
“My dearest,” she says, “it would do my heart well to dance with you.”
Though her words postured from a stance of pleading, her tone— much as Augustus’s—exacts something contrary to import: a vexation bordering ire which she reserves solely for careless servants. But I will not yield in this battle of wills. My mind, and body, are rooted wholly in place. All else must change around me, in accordance to my will.
“Dearest,” I say with due frigidity, “if you should wish to dance with me, I will indulge you at the proper time. We shall dance beneath the sheets if you so desire it, but I will not waste precious oil by light of this argument. A great many more whales are hereby imperiled.”
Her countenance is ever lovely, especially when furious. My wife is a beauty like Scylla in the eviscerated furs of a dog-faced fidelity and faith. She glares at me for a time, not leaving immediately, her reflection glowering in the glow of my lamp and the fire-and-frost glass of the window. Rather, she stands by, tapping her taloned feet while her white feathers are ruffled roughly around her neck. Yet, she cannot tarry long or else risk neglecting her guests. So, with a frustrated flap of her wings, she returns down the hall, her tail feathers jutting out angrily above her shanks.
Prometheus is chained to the mountainside of Olympus, feeding his beaked torment as a slave his master while wallowing in what could be as he gazes toward the summit, so far away. That is the emblem of my suffering; of my woe. Reality chains me while I yet aspire to ascend to greater heights, and tedium, its torturer, wheels around again on easy wings for its timely feast. The hours! How dreadful they are when beset with the carrion birds of boredom.
It is a grotesque irony that we should strive toward Sublimity only to achieve futility in the realization of its dizzying heights— heights thereafter diminished by experience, not unlike the wish of possessing a fox in all of its wild beauty only to kill and mount it, and thereby transpose its vivacity into a lurid dead thing of lifeless inertia. It also reminds me of desiring a vestal nymphet whom inspires desire to propel us into wooing her virginal trust, and thus losing what was coveted all at once in the petal-strewn bed. To gain and to thereby lose— that is the dilemma of the Sublime. Pleasure and apathy. Exultation and disappointment. Love and disillusionment. Evanescent ecstacy. Fleeting fantasia. It is the beauty of the Asphodel; Hades drawing Persephone down into his darkened halls, thinking to beautify his dead world and only, by so doing, darkening the fair face of his beloved.
There was a time when I played my own Hephaestus, devising instruments of pleasure to employ upon women, and also pain. When the former lapsed in elicitation, such as were preferred by the Marquis de Sad, but now all such diversions pale; all the world bereft in its manifold diversities.
Having explored the full spectrum betwixt pleasure and pain, I have found all wanting. To mine more would be to torture a cadaver, or to deflower a whore. There is nothing new in any of it. This is an age of plenty that is paradoxically bereft of substance. A cornucopia of empty, shallow necessities presided over by our overlarge Queen and her inbred children. It is good her German bullock is dead, or else she would spread her legs and expel of her imbecilic brood upon the earth.
Do not mishear me. I have attempted to supply the cornucopia of my life with things of substance. There is no greater collection of divers oddities, rarities, and specialities to scandalize the common purveyour of perversities than herein assembled. And, yet, how so much bores me, the most especial of finds around the world recompensed with listless indifference.
Nor is my heart a sealed vault closed to the world. It is as easily accessed as my library— more so, in fact, for it is as a tired old museum freely admitting all, yet while crowded with many coveted things it proves to be of value to all except its curator, for I see nought except trinkets and antiques which are worthless in their static state. Better would it be to take cudgel to such dusty ceramics and make a vivaciously shocking scene of chaos over which the curator might at last exult in its differentiation, rummaging through the rubbish like newfound treasures. Thus will I shatter this world’s stifling confines and create from the disorder a divine bliss for myself entailing salvation for a world-weary curator of curiosities.
And who is this now, shuffling again into my sanctuary?
My sharp-beaked wife!
“Beloved,” she says. “Lady Blansworth wishes for us to attend a festival in Cornwall in the Spring. It will be a lovely affair. Her husband’s villa is one of the finest in all of England.”
“You may go on our behalf,” I say.
“Love,” she says, her chest heaving with great upset even while she struggles to retain a calm, measured voice, “it is my desire that you should accompany me. It would be such a delight to see the countryside together.”
“I am in no mood to leave the estate,” I say firmly, “certainly not so I might spend a month with Lady Blansworth and be subjected to the torment of her idiotic laughter. Moreover, you will enjoy Cornwall infinitely more were I not present to cast my gloomy shadow over the outing.”
The Duchess is silent for a few moments, and I see her reflection in the candle-brightened windowpane. Her eyes are wide with what appears to be anger, and pain, and I know she is, once again, to create drama where none should exist.
“You are no doubt infatuated with another crumpet!” she says, her voice shrill and near to squawking. “That is why you wish me to leave and you to stay!”
Her bosom heaves with the burden of her passion, up and down, as the pistons of a locomotive accelerating along its tracks.
“My dear,” I say, wearily, “you know I am not infatuated with anyone or anything anymore. It is all a bland tableau to me, from sunrise to sunset. Cornwall would be no different, and I would only ruin your pleasure as a consequence of being there with you. Express your regrets to Lady Blansworth…if you must. Yet, you must not express regrets on my behalf, for that would be an intolerable lie.”
She is inconsolable, weeping and squawking, her feathers ruffled wildly as she hoists her petticoats and dashes down the hall. Were she so passionate in the bedchamber, then perhaps my heart might spark with feeling for her anew.
If my wife has made a scene, I do not hear, nor does it intrude upon the festivities of her guests. Rather, they are evermore fervent in their inane laughter while the musicians devolve to strangely pastoral accompaniments for their Waltzes, such as would be concordant with a peasant’s bonfire revelry. Mad piping of flutes and scrambled stroking of strings. It pleases me no more or less than their previous attempts.
O! This tedious tome! Should Heracles committed himself to this labour he would never have achieved any of the rest, for he would have been forestalled permanently here, in these scribbled straits of insipidness. And yet, the alternative rears large and inescapable. As between Scylla and Charybdis, I am between a rock and a hard place, and thus must ford forward the arduous narrow channel before me. The novelties of existence wane. The methods of sensuality stagnate. The means of pleasure wallow. Nor could Elephantis— with all of her legendary expertise in regard to human congress—lecture me except to sleep with whatever elucidations were hers in the time of Antiquity. It is not the manner, but the means of congress that is wanting presently. So long as the medium remains the same, the method will be ever restricted, and thus insipid.
Restless beyond discipline, I sigh and rub my strained eyes. Pushing myself up from my chair, I walk to the hearth and stand before the fire. It is too hot for a fire, now, and so I extinguish the flames with a readied bucket of water. At last I fulfill the Duchess’s wish and condescend to venture down the hall toward the ballroom.
The breeze through the colonnaded hall is warm, slipping through my himation with a lover’s fondness. I pass Augustus in the hallway. He has engaged a maid, rigorously rutting upon her, the force of which shakes various vases and amphoras from their pedestals and shattering them upon the floor. The large bull-headed man does not mind their ruin, but is solely occupied with the nymph and her stooping figure; her wanton moans. He bends over her with his massive form, his bullock horns raking against the foliated canopy overarching the hall.
I can hear the sounds of pleasure rising in a delicious cacophony.
At last I arrive at the ballroom, finding a grove bathed in radiant moonlight. Satyrs rut upon eager nymphs while fawns blow upon lascivious flutes or strum licentious lyres. The moans of the nymphs and the growls of the satyrs compose a music complementary to that of the fawns. Nude figures arrayed around me, I recall my many visitations to the more forbidden parts of Amsterdam and Delhi. Figures writhe with pleasure, or collide with passionate impact, or wallow in sensual ecstacy, their flesh stained with spilt wine and spilt seed and a thousand lashes by tongue and tooth and engorging lips.
Lord Grantchester looms large among the glade, Cyclopean in size and attacking Lady Stonewall with his priapic excess while her coils envelop him, so rapturously engaged. Nightmarish and divine, it excites in me pleasure— for a moment— and then becomes a commonplace thing once again.
All of my wife’s guests are here— their attentions indivisible—but my wife is yet unaccounted among the Bacchanal. I do not know if I feel relief or regret at this discovery. Perhaps I am naught but a vessel of apathy.
And yet, a briny breeze teases me through the moonlit grove, away from the hedonistic congregation.
It is too late to continue my studies, for I feel the moon cresting over my thoughts. Conversely, I am not exhausted sufficiently to retire to bed. Thus, I choose to venture beyond the Dionysian flutists and outside, into the garden for a moonlit stroll and fresh air. There is dew upon the grass, gleaming like pearls in the moonlight. Where the shadows fall from the tall trees the dew is like the glinting winks of shades. Dew glistens upon the lips of wild flowers, too, the pink petals most suggestive. Through the hall of trees I come to a vast field, rolling in sinuous, sleepy waves downward, toward the vast ocean. The frothy waves whisper huskily as they throw themselves upon the sand, beating a lusty rhythm of desire and self-destruction.
I hear the shriek of a large bird, and a woman, and a shadow descends upon me, eclipsing the pale moon. My himation is rent away and my body lays vulnerable upon the white sand. The shadow mounts me with an insistent hunger, driving the plush of her loins astride my own and spreading her wings as if to herald the moon haloing her crested head. Her spine arches, her large breasts press outward, toward me, and her talons grip me, bleeding me as she beats a frenzied rhythm of carnality upon me, pelvis to pelvis— lips to stem, core to root. My wife, the Duchess, shrieks in both anger and pleasure and possession, her feathered head turned upward, mouth agape, eyes wide.
She screeches, flapping her wings furiously, her feathers ruffled from wingtip to shoulder and even unto the crested mantle of her head where her golden feathers are as a cowl over her squawking face. Her breasts— bare of feathers—hang large and heavy, nipples erect like cherries swollen near to burst. Curiously, my hands press against her swollen breasts and I feel my blood stir hotly. Desire wakes, if only for a moment, and as she tears my flesh with her beak and talons I exult in knowing once more the gratification of carnality conferred.
Yes! At long last! What I have missed for eons it seems! Ardor! Passion! Sublimity! Her talons tear at my chest while she spreads her wings, rocking to a hedonistic rhythm that awakens my heart like a locomotive’s cold engine aflame once more as it lurches upon its tracks! The quickening of pulse! The excitement of flesh! How it enlivens me while she plunges her beak into my surging heart. I see, now, her appetite, twin-beaked as it is, and it must be satisfied. Yes! I long to satisfy it, for in its terrible throes will I find passions rekindled! My love! My wife! We must exult in Sublimity, even unto a final breath. Morpheus and Thanatos are of the same lineage, root to stem. Cronos and Aphrodite likewise, as violence unto rapture! I welcome the transcendence of the flesh! I welcome the ardor of finality! Take your fill, my love, with both beaks digging deep! The metamorphosis becomes you! The phantasia becomes me…
Everything seemed out of season. The leaves of the Maple tree glowed like the flaring flecks of a somber fire on the street corner, its crown traced in the orange light of a lamppost. The brickwork of the nearby townhouse was half lit by that same light, or else lost in shadow, only a single window on the second floor etched apart by a candle’s glow. All other houses down either street were drowned in black night, neither porchlight or inner light refuting the tenebrous uniformity of the late hour.
It was said the Wizard put a spell on his neighbors, one and all, to urge them to bed early—even on weekends—so that he would never be disturbed during his midnight lucubrations. There was no traffic on the road, nor even foot traffic. Occasionally some local drunks would go wandering away from the local bars, but never would they wander this way, and all sober people shunned this road at night. The single rear light of her father’s old pickup truck had disappeared from sight a few moments before, heading home where her mother waited, weeping at the kitchen table.
The Wizard was a mysterious celebrity within the county. Everyone knew of him and spoke of him, but no one really knew him or spoke to him. His house sat at the corner of two streets and two worlds, seen by many and yet frequented by none. They said he was a kingmaker, and a king breaker. Between light and darkness, he existed. People hoped for, and dreaded, the call to his house.
Her mother had curled her red hair, and selected the green summer dress for her to wear— a slight slip of a dress that left her freckled shoulders bare, and was sheer down the flat of her chest, and hitched high with a hem at her freckled thighs, showcasing knobby knees that popped sometimes as she walked with that awkwardly bouncing stride of a fawn bounding dubiously through its first summery field. Her father had insisted on the makeup she wore—the red lipstick that made her slight buck-teeth more pronounced and the mascara that only ran down her freckled cheeks because of the tears she had shed during the drive over here. Why the Wizard wanted her, she did not know. Her eyes were too large, her cheeks too shallow, her chin too slight and her overbite too disastrous to be cute. She was not pretty, or even plain. As a child she was pretty, perhaps, but not now, fresh upon her fifteenth year.
She stared up at the townhouse looming over her. She stepped up on the first concrete step. The house intimidated her, as did everything that belonged to the wealthy and powerful. The strange L-shaped stairs led up to the front door aslant, and a lion statue lounged on the brickwork, at its crook. Its slumbrous brow was bathed in scant light from the lamppost. Its eyes were sleepy, and its mouth closed. The gleam of the light on its bronze mane fascinated her, briefly, as she passed it. It lionized the ascent with its presence.
She idolized Reba McEntire. As she took another step up she heard “Fancy” playing in her head. She was not wholly ignorant concerning men—homeschooled, but not ignorant. A boy at her church had grabbed her shallow breasts when she first began to blossom, and shortly ended blossoming, barely larger than he was. And her strange cousin, Mikey— whom her parents referred to as “slow” and “not right”—showed her his penis when she was eleven. He was seventeen at the time, but weighed twice as much as her father. The small, ugly thing between his legs was barely visible beneath his ponderous gut; like a mushroom poking out from under a white boulder covered in hairy black moss.
She took another step up, and the second run of steps angled perpendicular from the first, leading up to the black metal door with its lion-headed knocker. The glass was blackened by shadows. The opal moon shone at the back of the house. The front facade was shrouded with a veil of darkness where the lamppost’s sullen glow did not touch it.
The door opened silently. It did not creak or screech on its hinges, unlike the doors at her family’s old farmhouse. Yet, this house seemed older than her home; older than times her great-grandfather knew nothing of.
The door opened, but no one stood there at its dark threshold. She hesitated, naturally, and shivered in the warm, summery breeze. The inner vestibule was palled, but there was a soft light deeper within the house, radiating gently down a staircase and its elaborate rails. All else was darkness and obfuscated suggestion.
Knowing she had no choice, she entered the house and headed slowly toward the soft-lit staircase. The door closed behind her, silently and of its own accord. At the bottom of the inner stairs, on the lacquered wood of the landing, sat a cat. It was a large cat with a creamy white-and-brown patched coat and a black masked face. It had clear blue eyes which were oddly shaped like almonds, and, when paired with the strange down-curve of its lips and a face as flat as a wall, gave it the permanent expression of irritability and grumpiness. It waited until she stood before it, then turned about and walked up the stairs at a leisurely pace. She followed the cat, coming to the landing upstairs. The light down the stairs extinguished at once, and only a single light glowed on the second floor, down the hallway from an open door. All other doors were closed and dark. She walked down the hallway and came to the dimly illuminated room, its door open and waiting to admit her.
The Wizard sat at a table, reading a book scrawled with no human language upon it. He squinted down at the book, aglow in candlelight, and when she entered the cat leapt upon the table, sitting patiently beside the book while its face remained in a perpetual flat-faced frown. The Wizard did not glance up, but pointed to a long mirror standing in a corner of the murky room. The tall mirror was lit by a five-stick candelabrum.
“Undress,” he said. He said no more, but continued to read the mad spirals and cross-strokes nonsensically arrayed upon the splayed book.
She hesitated, then went to the mirror, thinking of her mother and father and siblings; of the farm and the letters from the county, and the bank notes, and the massive debt.
She hesitated again in front of the mirror. She stared at herself in the mirror; amidst the gloomy murk blurred by tears. Her curly red hair, her knobby knees and freckled shoulders; her mascara running down her cheeks. She was a child, really, and she was only old enough to realize that she was still a child. Taking a deep breath, and hating herself, she pulled the green summer dress up and off of her.
She did not take off her bra or her underwear. She had to look away from the shame in the mirror, drying her eyes and happening upon the jars that gleamed on the shelves lining the room, half-concealed in the burning candle dusk. There were skeletons both familiar and bizarre in those jars. Here a cat; there, a rat with a human skull. A bird’s skeleton with a long, reticulated neck and a dog’s head at the end of it. Eyeballs that stared at her, and a human heart that continued to beat, disembodied. In other jars were more innocuous things: flowers, grasses, liquids of various colors. Ash, flint, pebbles, roots. Yet, however banal, they all excited in her young heart a fear that made her tremble violently in the Wizard’s study.
The Wizard continued to read. She did not know if this was supposed to be part of a means of exciting torture upon her or if he had simply forgotten about her. He did not seem interested in her at all. Nor was he what she had expected. He was of no specific age— that is to say, he could have been in his thirties or his fifties. He had no beard, nor a robe, but wore khakis and a simple blue collar shirt. Brown loafers were upon his feet and his face was free of spectacles. His hair was black, frosted white at the temples. He resembled a doctor more than a fairytale Wizard.
She gazed again into the mirror. She was not a pretty girl; not even cute. She had callused hands from milking cows and pitching hay. She was bony from too much work and too little food. Whatever idle fat was supposed to hang on the breast and buttock had been burned away irreparably by daily chores on the farm. Her forearms were too boyish with muscle, as was her whole body. She knew no other life other than from hearsay from the other kids at her church. They went to public schools, and rarely talked to her because they lived very different lives. They lived on their phones, and the internet. Her parents could not afford a cellphone or the internet, nor satellite tv. They watched three channels on broadcast, and that was rarely more than an hour a day. Chores consumed everything, and a farm could not earn anyone a living anymore. It could feed a family, but lose itself on its own mortgage. Only corporate farms and hobby farms remained strong. And they were not real farmers. They were pretenders. Nowadays fake lives could earn more money than a genuine life ever could.
“We’re underwater on the mortgage,” her father had told her on the way here. “And he promised to help with all that. You just got to…got to put yourself out there.”
Like a cow, she thought bitterly. Put out to market.
Startling her, the Wizard shut the book suddenly, sighing irritably. He pushed his chair back and stood, turning around. Instinctively, she shrank from him, huddling in a corner where three stacks of books towered. Bumping into them, she fell them like dominoes, sprawling them out across the strange Persian rug on the floor.
“Sorry,” she said automatically.
“I said undress,” he said firmly.
She gawped, and then the tears came anew, flooding her face. Her heart hammered horribly between her shallow breasts, threatening to burst her lithe, boyish frame. She felt faint, and swooned, a heat in her head like a matchstick soon to ignite into an immolation of shame. He came forward and took her bra off impatiently, and her underwear while she wobbled on one leg and then the other. She did not fight him, swaying with the movement like a scarecrow being shaken by the seasonal winds. She closed her eyes, the tears burning along her sockets.
After he had taken her remaining raiments, he stepped away. She had anticipated fondling hands and hot breath and a great pain within and without. Instead, he turned about in seeming indifference. When she dared to open her eyes, she saw him laying a large elliptical bowl on the table, next to his book and his cat. It was very much the same shape as the standing mirror. Into this bowl he poured a silvery liquid from a strange jug that looked like a coiled conch. He waited a minute or so after pouring the syrupy liquid, then he closed his eyes and whispered a few words she could not understand. He passed his hands over the bowl several times. He had an Apple watch on his wrist. She glanced at the elliptical bowl where the silver liquid resided. It was as thin as a Judas coin.
So shallow, she thought.
“It may seem shallow,” the wizard said, as if reading her mind. “But it can still drown you.”
“We’re already drowning,” she whispered.
If he heard her, he did not seem to care.
“Stand in front of the mirror,” he commanded her. He stared intently into the bowl. “And uncross your arms. Stand completely still and do not move. It could be catastrophic if you disrupt your image within the Constancy.”
She did as she was told, dropping her arms to her sides and standing still in front of the mirror. She was skin and bones and freckles and buck-teeth and overbite. Only her red hair was truly pretty about her, and it burned like fire in the light from the candelabrum; burned like Maple leaves in Autumn. A willowy skeleton of a girl, her ribs etched softly beneath breasts that would have been nonexistent except for the small nipples dotting where breasts should have been swelling. Narrow hips and slender thighs.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She blinked in disbelief at the question, and turned her head to look at him.
“I told you not to move,” he chastised her absently. He was holding a white twig above the water, from which a chrysalis hung. “What do you want?”
“What does it cost?” she asked.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“What will you give me?” she asked, also knowing the thirst of want.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“Then I want everything,” she said without hesitation.
He nodded, almost with clinical disinterest, and dipped the chrysalis into the silver liquid, swirling it around slowly while the image in the mirror distorted and swirled, growing her breasts, widening her hips, and swelling her flat butt. She grew curvaceous in the flesh. The pain was excruciating, but she knew it was worth it. She stared at her new body in the mirror where such changes had been wrought, and she was transfixed. She had a new nose, fuller cheeks, pouty lips, and her chin was extended out so that her overbite disappeared. She still had her freckles, and her red hair, but the two complimented her new body. She was beautiful.
He warned her of various things she should not do, like reaping bad karma, or finding religion, or following a cult.
“You are your own goddess now,” he said. “And others will follow you. You will be your own religion and will trend for as long as you live in beauty.”
The cat rubbed against her ankle, looking up at her with its perpetual frown. She realized she had seen it somewhere before. She thought she could hear the clapping of hands at a distance, and fought the urge to take a bow.
The Wizard became disinterested in her once again, sitting down at his table and opening his large book again. Looking over his shoulder, she was surprised to realize she could understand the strange symbols on the pages. The @’s and the #’s were like symbols in a language for stargazing, and she could read them now. Her horoscope was written in their strange code, and she saw that it assured her ascendancy.
They nicknamed her the “Ginger Kardashian”. She was an Instagram model, social media influencer, and a makeup and fashion Youtuber. She built an empire out of her lips, breasts, and hips. She never worked at a farm again and moved out to LA where she bought a McMansion that dwarfed every house in her hometown, including the Wizard’s townhouse. She became a millionaire many times over and trended every week on every platform. Her fake life earned more money than a real one ever could, and though she was never happy, she pretended like she was, and often looked at her own posts online with a sense of awe. Her image had become a goddess. Her image had become a religion and had gained many followers around the world. But she also became a follower herself, envying the same goddess others envied and knowing she would never feel so happy as her shallow image on the other side of the looking-glass.
“Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.”— Henry Wadsworth Longsfellow
The winds fussed and fought over the fallen leaves, sweeping their clutter into piles and then scattering them anew like old maids quarreling with their broomsticks over the same dust in the same dirty kitchen. It was Autumn in the village of Kilne and cool winds blew often through its valley. Yet, Kilne was warm, as it always was as it sat in the tall, smoky shadow of the Mumbling Mountain. The lava floes beneath the earth kept it warm. They also kept the grass burnt brown at the mountain’s base and the trees coated in gray soot moss that coated all bark old enough to have a beard. The crooked crowns of the trees were bereft of their Summer coats. The shortened day slowly surrendered to night.
The blacksmith Blake— known to the people of Kilne as Black Blake— walked out of the furnace heat of the caves with a hankering for a mug of beer to drink and a leg of lamb to chew. He looked down the rolling field leading away to the thatch-capped, vale-village of Kilne. There he saw his small cottage where his wife Joanna awaited his return. He thought of his gap-toothed wife and frowned, then looked to the opposite end of the village where Marlowe’s Tavern awaited him. There, Olga, the tavern wench, had more than likely already filled his usual mug with the bar’s thickest, darkest brew—and had pushed her large bust up and out for his eager appraisal.
Blake’s eyes flitted between the two ends of the village, briefly, then settled on the Tavern, whereupon his long legs began their lecherously cheery gait in that direction, heedless of winds or of wife or of anything else that might have been agitated in this small part of the world. He ran a hand unmindfully through his black mane. A cloud of soot lifted from it and his bright red hair shown through like a flame to match the dusk. Hands black, he wiped them on his britches and ruminated, unsure whether he wanted to touch the wet mug first or Olga’s gold-freckled rump.
“Why not both?” he said, then laughed at his own knavish wisdom and whistled a roguish song as made his way down into the darkening valley.
Joanna held the iron frying pan over the little log stove, keeping Blake’s potatoes and beans warm as she waited in the little cottage. Every now and again she would look at the door, expecting it to burst open with a bang— for Blake never did anything unless dramatically— and to see her tall, handsome husband come sauntering in like a lord over his many-splendid lands. She hoped he would come sauntering in and not staggering in, which had often been his drunken manner of entrance lately, if he had the habit of coming home at all.
No! She told herself that Blake would not do that again, not after she pleaded with him yesterday with her eyes blurred by the rains of her heart. He would come home any moment, and he would want a hot meal after a long day forging in the Mumbling Mountain.
As she held the heavy pan above the stove with one hand she used her other hand to poke and prod the log in that iron-belly. Nearly everything in her home was made from iron, most of it fashioned and furnished by her father. He had built the cottage itself, too, and the tables and the chairs. Joanna missed her father— the diligent old man dead but last winter— and she regretted not having listened to his warnings about Blake. The only thing in the cottage that her father did not have a hand, or both hands, in the making of was the frying pan atop the stove. Blake had made that heavy, crudely dented instrument himself. And the only reason he had made it was to satisfy Kilne marriage custom.
And the only reason he had married Joanna was because she would not be wooed and won any other way.
Olga was brimming out of her top as her big lips puckered and popped on Blake’s bristly cheeks. Blake liked how her corset made her gold-flecked cleavage swell as if to explode from her bodice. He leaned back to take the third swig of his fourth beer, then leaned Olga back and kissed her so long and so hard that she herself became half-drunk from his liquor-heavy breath. He gave her ample rump a pinch as she sat in his ruttish lap. He was perched precariously atop a stool. She giggled and wrapped her arms around his head, pulling his face to her bulging bosom.
“Of’ Black Blake, I do love you furiously!” she said
“Aye,” he rejoined, muffled between her breasts. “And I love yer girlies here.”
There were few men in the tavern. Most of the men of Kilne were blacksmiths, and because they were blacksmiths they had hard work to do during the day. Having little more energy than to stop by for a hasty beer at Marlowe’s, they drank it quickly and then set off for home to collapse on their beds and drink from that dark, deep mug that is called Sleep.
But such habits were for men of diligent habit within the Mumbling Mountain, and Blake did not hammer metal with the same speed or dedication as the other men. He had energy in ample stock, having not squandered it in the daily pursuit of a living. He spent it how he saw fit. As a consequence, the wares he made were few and often needed reworking, which meant he made but little in recompense. Even now he was down to his last coin, a copper he had palmed from the old and senile widower, Boyle, who had worse sight sober than when drunk.
The heavy pan hurt Joanna’s hands, and her wrist and her arm and her shoulder. Not only heavy, the pan possessed a handle neither smooth nor grooved correctly for a hand to hold without cramping. A good grip could never be got on the ugly iron. Joanna’s father had looked upon the instrument and averted his eyes, shaking his head to rue all the things his naive daughter had not seen in the character and reputation of her husband. Such flaws and vices were evident in the pan, wrought as it was from indolence, incompetence, and unconcern.
Kilne marriage custom was founded on pragmatism, as were the Kilneesians themselves. The father of the intended bride gave the intended husband a core of iron ore to forge whatever thing he best thought befitted his betrothed and her standing in the household. Many men of Kilne forged practical items for the household, such as utensils and candle pans and lamp stalks, and these practical men were of a heart that such practical gifts did not demean or belittle their wives; rather, these utensils were forged with the utmost earnestness of skill and talent with which the blacksmiths’ years of forging had endowed to them, knowing the efforts well placed for the sake of their beloved wives.
Blake was not like any of those men. He had tasted the skin of too many women by the merits of his own charms. When the time came for his binding to Joanna he did not bother to forge something beautiful or practical, but forged a wretched pan to fulfill the ritual. And in the depths of his indolence he had fashioned a pan fit for neither the hardened hands of a troll or a giantess, let alone a young maiden like Joanna.
Upon their wedding night Joanna learned firsthand that Blake would treat her as he treated the creation of that pan; an afterthought, roughly handled, and only as a means to an ends that he himself was never sure he wanted, but attained out of impulse rather than pause and reflection.
“My lil’ rabbit,” he called her, and she was cut to the quick by that dubious title of endearment. For Joanna’s front two teeth were spaced apart like a rabbit’s and her cheeks were rounded as if full of chewing greens at all times.
And yet she bore all of these hardships in servile silence.
“You will rue fancying his face so much,” her father had said to her before his death.
“All I ever wanted was something pretty for myself,” she said to the empty cottage.
Marlowe stood behind his bar with a cloth in his hand, polishing the mugs and glasses he had gathered from around the tavern. His patrons were evanescent, buying a drink, drinking that drink, and then leaving with little more than a grunt goodbye. He surveyed his tavern’s interior now with a shrewd eye, seeing more shadows than drinkers. With the exception of a few men finishing their beers in the far corner, Blake and Olga were the only people animated the moody tavern with any life.
The ruttish couple made enough noise for a dozen people, though, and probably would have scared off a few potential patrons had there been more in the drinking den. Marlowe watched them warily. He always ignored Blake’s liberties with Olga so long as they were reciprocated— that is, if Blake paid his tab on time and in honest coin. Everyone in the village knew Olga, and they all knew how she fancied Black Blake. What they also knew— and what Blake himself did not know— was that Olga fancied just about any man with a wife waiting for him at home. It was her way. It was also Marlowe’s way, for the promiscuous barmaid fetched him more patrons for his pocket than his bitter beers ever could.
When Blake stepped out to use the moon-door, and Jon Rubburn came in through the sun-door, Marlowe expected trouble. Blake and Jon were men of the same mind, and the same appetites. Marlowe put down his mugs and rag. He fetched a quill, ink well, and parchment from under the bar. He was ready to tally damage. Dipping the quill, he waited for Blake to return.
And then Blake returned, greeted with the sight of Olga sitting in the lap of Jon Rubburn while Jon pawed her like a mountain cat besetting a sumptuous fish.
“What’s this here now?!” Blake demanded.
“We were just getting acquainted,” Jon said calmly, ignoring Blake’s wrathful expression.
“We were just acquainted last night,” Olga said, rather innocently for someone so experienced in the world.
“And we will acquaint ourselves again tonight, my dear,” Jon remarked with a laugh.
Blake’s face was ruddy as blood, and he blustered for a livid moment before he could force the words out of his beer-baffled mouth.
“Get yer’ smooth-hands off ‘er!” he roared.
As for Jon, he did not enjoy his hands being insulted. In a village like Kilne, where nearly everyone blacksmithed,“smooth-hands” was a pejorative paramount to having one’s own parentage questioned.
Marlowe braced himself behind his counter, the quill dripping black ink already. He was adamant about listing the damages and accrediting them meticulously to each individual responsible. He was a professional businessman, after all.
“Say yer sorry,” Jon said, “and make yer way home and I’ll let them words slip me mind.”
Jon pushed Olga up and off of him, then stood himself up from his stool to his full height. Much like Olga, the swells of his chest seemed ready to burst out from his shirt. He was sculpted of an agile granite that flexed, expanded, contracted, then expanded again. A bear might grapple with him and regret that boulder-bodied embrace.
Marlowe looked from Jon Rubburn to Blake Blackholme, and found a disproportion of size on one side. Now Blake was a tall man, like Jon, and had a nimble grace when sober. But Blake was not honed and toned and boned like Jon from work in the forge. If Blake was a Saddlebred showhorse, then Jon was a Clysdale workhorse.
So it was no surprise to Marlowe when Jon stood to face Blake that Blake did the only reasonable thing to remove himself from a situation where his doom was preordained while simultaneously not retreating home with his tail between his legs. He took the nearest mug of muddy beer he could find, swigged it to its dregs, and then proceeded to pass out onto the Tavern floor.
Jon, for his part, was very flabbergasted— he was not a smart man, truly— but soon he lost interest in Blake as Olga took him by his waist and ushered him upstairs to her bedroom.
Marlowe sighed in relief, put away his ink well and quill and parchment and then walked around the counter and dragged Black Blake outside. He would have thrown Blake outside, if only because it was traditional of tavern owners to do so, but his old back was in no shape for the effort. Much to his relief, there was no one to witness his shame in failing to fulfill his vocational expectations.
Often during the day—and in the eveningtime, or indeed anytime when her husband was gone while hour usurped hour in quiet solitude— Joanna would find herself overcome by the frets and the melancholies of her life. This was not good for her, and she knew it was not good for her, and so she exorcized these persistent demons by her only available means: cleaning the cottage. She cleaned and she wiped and she swept and she dusted, often the same area many times a day. She swept the wooden floor until her broom’s bristles were rough and frayed as a witch’s nose hairs. She polished the utensils and the iron stove until she could see her reflection in each inch of dull, dark iron. She dusted the white walls so much that their plaster finish thinned, revealing the ash-and-mud bricks just beneath the crinkly stucco veneer.
Joanna, herself, was nearly as worn to the bone as the walls by her wring-handed worrying and work.
Unlike Olga, Joanna was not buxom. Standing side to side to the big-busted barmaid, Joanna would have pleaded pity for her modest deficiencies. She was willowy and wan, winnowed each day by an ascetic diet and the pumice soap she made to wash her husband’s effects. She was dedicated to saving whatever was left of their diminishing stores for him, and consequently denied herself much in the Autumn months, and much more in the Winter months. She justified this lopsided allocation by telling herself that Blake worked in the mountain forges, and so earned what little money they had (meanwhile neglecting the fact that he also wasted what little money they had). Though she saw to their garden herself, and the emaciated livestock in their possession, she was very traditional in her view of the world— very religious in the Matharist manner— and was obedient and selfless toward her feckless husband, no matter how much he squandered of his meager earnings on mug and gamble and scheme.
When Blake awoke some minutes later, he found himself sprawled out on the grassy lawn beside the water trough for Marlowe’s horses. A long-faced mare stared at him curiously with dark eyes while a stallion high-stepped about in a strut that seemed to challenge the newcomer to a shin-kicking contest. Any other day Blake might have, in his pride, taken up the stallion’s challenge. As it were, he was not so sure he could stand long enough to take a kick to the shins, let alone stand on one leg to dole out what would be his due.
Cursing, Blake pulled himself up to his tottering height and, in a staggering daze, walked home. As he walked his inebriation wore away, bit by bit, foot by foot, and as it gave way to the stark cruelty of sobriety— with its encumbering thoughts of shame and vengeance—he grew angrier and angrier as he approached the cottage.
He hated that cottage. It was a baleful sight. He hated that his father-in-law built it. He hated it now as it sat calmly, awash in moonlight, silent as his father-in-law’s contempt. He hated how sturdy it was and how well-kept by his wife. He hated that he did not build it himself and he hated that it was, by rights of marriage, his cottage. It would be better belonging to some other man, just as he thought he would be better belonging to a grandstanding castle.
He kicked the door open and stomped inside, dropping himself down in a chair at the table. Joanna hurried to him with the pan of food, still steaming after having spent hours simmering atop the iron-belly stove. It had cooked to mush.
“This is what ya’ greet me with?!” he roared, standing to his full height. “Mushy beans and blanched spuds? It ain’t fit enough for the hog! Where’s the meat at, ye’ ungrateful woman?! Where’s the gravy and the sausage?!”
“We haven’t the coin for such things,” Joanna stammered. “You know we haven’t.”
“Do I not provide enough for ye’?” He swung his body around, almost as if in a violent pirouette, to gesture to the whole cottage. “Are ye’ sayin’ I ain’t workin’ hard enough? Well, ye’ royal highness, why don’t ye’ just walk yerself up to that Mountain and you beat on anvils all day and pull glowin’ metal from the flamin’ floes! Why’don’ya’ blacken yer face with soot and smoke and let yer’ cheeks get kissed by the sparking embers that burn like a wyrm’s fire! I’d bet ye’d want to have a nice meal waitin’ for yer return from that oven! I promise ye’, ye’ would!”
Joanna looked away, out the window and in the direction of the Tavern. The window was made of frosted glass— distorted as if by ice and fog— and she wondered if Winter would see them starving in their bones. She wondered, too, if that blurry view of that frost glass was how her drunkard husband saw the world when in his bottle.
She whimpered a plea. “Perhaps…perhaps if you did not drink so much…”
Blake grinned vengefully at her as he fell to lounging lazily upon the chair. He leaned back, legs spread expansively with his bad posture, and pierced her with a mercilessly appraising eye.
“Why does any man of the world drink so much?” He suddenly sat up, rigid with anger as he raised a fist. “Work and wife!” He slammed his fist down on the table, rattling the plate of beans and potatoes. “Hard work and a homely wife!”
Suddenly he shot up from the chair, grabbed her about the shoulders and ushered her roughly toward the drab bed in the corner. She went unresisting, but also unhappily, and fell upon the stiff mattress with her grandmother’s quilt beneath her. Blake swooped in atop her like a hawk upon a rabbit, slavering kisses on her face and neck and chest. Many of these wet maulings did he give, lost to his slapdash passions, until he abruptly stopped and looked at her. She lay rigid beneath him, yet trembling, nor in anticipation or passion, but for dread of him, her eyes clenched shut in horrid resignation and the tears letting out on her cheeks.
“What is the matter with ye’?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she whispered, meek as a mouse.
“Nothin’? And yet ye’ have about ye’ the look of a ghost. I’ll not have it, ye’ hear? Do ya’ want me or no?”
“I am…I feel…” She struggled for an excuse, but could not lie— she had not the art nor the acting for it in her soul— nor could she speak the truth: that her husband, even pretty, filled her with dread. As it so happened, she did not need to speak any, for her pale face spoke all.
Sickened, Blake stood up and, letting go a frustrated sigh, walked out of the cottage, slamming the door behind him.
Joanna wiped her cheeks dry with her callused hands, then went to look out the door. Her husband was gone, disappeared into the moonlit night. After dumping his mushy beans and spuds to the hog, she ventured out, too, into that starry gloom. She sought the small temple of Mathara that sat in the center of the village of Kilne.
She hurried past the many cottages of her neighbors, their warm-windowed eyes judging her as she went. She wished her cottage knew only the trivial griefs these cottages knew, for they might then judge her much less harshly. Though it shamed her to admit it, she was of half a mind that she would have rather been a widow than married to the notorious ne’er-do-well, Black Blake.
To a stone temple she came, its golden steepled dome shimmering in this dark hour. To the sliding barn-like door she came, and she pounded on its heavy oak with her small knotted fists. There followed a rattling within, and the door sliding open to reveal a huge hearth-fire— known as a “Heart-Fire” among Matharists— distantly inside. A voice called out to her.
“Joanna Blackholm, is it your hour of need?”
Joanna glanced behind herself, in the direction of her cottage, expecting to see Blake stomping and stumbling out between the cottages.
“My husband…Blake…” she said.
“A dark hour indeed, my child,” said the man within the temple. “Please, come in. All are welcomed within Mathara’s warm embrace.”
Blake did stomp and stumble his way between the cottages, and up toward the Mumbling Mountain. It was hard to say what was on his mind except, perhaps, a vague sense of impugned honor. He had a hopeful notion of forging a double-headed ax and returning to Marlowe’s to threaten Jon Rubburn with it, scaring him out of Kilne forever, and then reclaiming Olga’s bedroom favor for his own. He had another notion to simply lay down with his head cradled in the roots of a tree and fall asleep until some better day would come, with either wishing or wanting or dumb blind luck.
The truth was that Blake did not care for Olga very much herself; he had had her several times already in his wild youth, before her breasts had begun to sag and before his marriage to Joanna had begun; and the truth was that once Blake had slept in a woman’s bed it would quickly lose all its rakish comforts and pleasures, impoverishing any further visits afforded to him.
Black Blake’s problem, so far as he could acknowledge to himself, was that he did not know what he wanted in life. He knew only what he did not want in life, which was the life that he had. He looked up at the Mumbling Mountain and saw its dark shadow veined in orange forges.
“That, too, is something I do not want.”
The mountain range behind the Mumbling Mountain were known, collectively, as the Grumbles. Deep within their black rock bones were magma floes and natural smithy fires which the men of Kilne exploited for their forging. The Grumbles were also rich in ore deposits, so a blacksmith needed only dig a few yards from a smithy fire for his material when he required it. The blacksmiths had to be careful, however, for digging without proper forethought might lead to tunnel collapses. Preventing such collapses was the job of the Overseers, though those three men could have cared less if all of Kilne was buried beneath the Grumbles.
“What’s this ‘ere now?” remarked Daryld, the shortest and most senior Overseer. He saw Blake approaching the entrance to the Grumbles, and grinned a black chewmoss grin. “Has Black Blake returned to earn ‘is beer for the evenin’?”
“More like earn his drops of beer,” said Ganth, the second tallest Overseer. “He ain’t gonna’ get hisself more ‘n that for ‘is bent pieces of meh’al.”
The third Overseer, whom everyone called Onx, muttered something unintelligible, then laughed in a gravelly coughing sort of way. Onx was the only one to laugh, being the only one who could make out what he had said, and Onx could have not cared less. All three Overseers were of a troll’s rough and piggish features, but only Onx was an actual troll. His tusks were fat and broad as they jutted out of the corners of his lips, as if he had just eaten a cow and the only part not swallowed were the poor animal’s hooves. Speaking with such tusks was a fruitless endeavor, for the tusks stretched his mouth to utter uselessness, and yet he mumbled all the same. His broad and burly body had muscles stacked atop each other like rocks and were covered in hair that was like moss on stone, leaving only his hands and a small portion of his face— lips to eyes—bare. When he walked his huge feet left prints with every step, regardless of whether he was walking on dirt or rock. And Onx was considered a runt within the troll race.
“Just forgot mah gloves,” Blake lied. “Gonna’ go get ‘im ‘fore they disappear on me.”
“Why’d they go and disappear on one such as you?” Daryld said, spitting black chewmoss from his mouth. “Leastways with you they got themselves a long life ahead of ‘em. Ye’ ain’ never used them for much, have ye’?”
“I’d bed they’re softer ‘an the skin o’ that wife o’ yers girly rump,” said Ganth. “Though nothin’s so soft as yer hands.”
Onx grumbled something unintelligible again, and then laughed, and it sounded as if the rocks of the Grumbles were slip-sliding across each other.
Blake cursed Daryld and Ganth and even Onx (beneath his breath) and passed into the elaborate tunnels spiraling up and down the burning insides of the Mumbling Mountain.
“Every man has within him a demon that is part of him,” the priest told Joanna. “Some men have one and some men have many. To destroy such demons is to destroy the man, for these agents of evil are as much part of what makes a man himself as his flesh and his blood and his name.”
Joanna sat across from the priest of Mathara, a garish candle on the table between them. The candlelight made the priest’s hooded face a thing wizened by deep-wrinkled shadows.
“And a man may be ashamed of his demon,” the priest said, “but being ashamed is not enough to purge himself of his demon. He may only ever aspire to overmaster his demon’s mischief, with the proper guidance, until the demon is nothing more than a distant voice quickly silenced upon its urgent utterance.”
“I don’t think Blake is ashamed enough to do anything to silence his demon,” Joanna said sadly. “He doesn’t even seem to realize he does anything wrong.”
Within the shadows of the priest’s humble hood the golden scales of the dead dragon Gildread— set as a coronet across his clay-baked forehead— gleamed and flashed like a grin. Joanna did not like how the golden scales flashed at her.
“Purer souls may guide the wayward ones into the grace of Mathara,” he said. “A wife can only do so much for her husband, no matter how pure she may be. To exorcize a man’s demon’s requires the purity of a priest.” His eyes hardened upon her. “This is what arises from a life without Mass, child. He does not attend my sermons, and that is the root of the weed in his heart.”
“He will not listen to me,” Joanna said, staring at the dragonscale coronet. “I cannot force him to the temple every week, and I cannot persuade him. I haven’t the strength of arm or voice.”
“You do not attend my sermons, either,” the priest remarked. “Perhaps it is some demon of yours that prompts this visit tonight. Jealousy, perhaps? Womanly vanity?”
“I only want my husband to treat me well,” Joanna says, her eyes welling up.
The priest appraised her with unimpressed eyes. “The fires of Mathara shall cleanse all, sinners and innocent alike, until we are all as flighty ash to swirl upward into the upper spheres of Mathara’s kingdom. Keep this in mind come next Ash-Mourning. If you are not here, then I will know that you are not sincere in the salvation of your husband.”
The priest gestured toward the door, and so Joanna took her leave. She was eager to go, for she did not think she had received useful counsel and, moreover, she was weary of being chastised by men. As she walked toward the sliding door the priest walked after her, closing the door behind her.
In the sigh of air that escaped from that temple, and into the starry night, she caught the whiff of the priest’s Gildread gold coronet. It stank of putrefaction and ash, said to be the most singular stench in all the world. It reminded her of the legends of the Grumbles and of the Gildread family that lorded here:
Once upon a time a golden dragon lived among the Grumbles. Its name was Gildread and it was one of the largest dragons in the world. Most legends state that there were many an aspiring lord that took his army to their doom in the vain hope of killing the dragon and harvesting its golden scales. Only one lord succeeded in the dragon’s extermination. He was a petty lord, with but a weak claim to a stretch of wastes on the Northern side of the mountains. To the astonishment of many, he triumphed in slaying the dragon with nothing more than an army of ill-equipped peasants and a handful of mercenary wizards. Thereafter he took the title “Gildread” from the beast, becoming Lord Gildread, ancestor to the Lord Gildread presently indenturing the blacksmiths of Kilne in his mountains.
Since then the gold harvested from the dragon’s body has been known as “Gildread gold” and has been prized by the aristocracies and the priesthood, despite its enduring stench. It was said, among the peasantry, that Gildread gold was cursed and corrupted anyone it touched. Joanna’s father believed this true, but Joanna was not so sure. Sometimes she thought it merely attracted people who were already corrupted.
As Blake walked toward his forge he saw several blacksmiths sitting in a circle, a lamp between them as they shuffled and flipped and fanned cards. There was a small pile of dark copper coins next to the lamp, each coin dark as dragon droppings with soot.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Blake said, squatting down in the midst of them and eyeing the coins while thinking of all of the beer he might buy with them. “Is it a card game open to anyone?”
“Open to anyone with an open pocket, Blake,” replied Trenton, a man well-acquainted with Blake. “And so not to one such as you.”
There was a general grumble of agreement from the cardplayers, which Blake naturally took umbrage to.
“What’s this now?” he demanded with a sneer. “Me money not good enough for the likes of ye mighty lords?”
“No money’s good enough that is made of more promise than copper,” said Milden, who had been swindled by Blake before. “Show us yer coin and we’ll let ya’ wager it, otherwise be off with ye’.”
They all eyed him, then, waiting for him to produce the coins they knew he did not possess.
“What’s the matter, Black Blake?” the old man Gansel asked. “Lost yer coins between Olga’s tits again?”
Blake gave them all his most curdled snarl, then stood up to his gangly height and spat. “One o’ these days you’ll all wished you’d treated me with more respect.”
The other blacksmiths chuckled as they hunkered around their cards.
“Oh?” said Trenton. “What day is that, Black Blake?”
“The day I become a lord o’ these lands,” Blake snapped.
The cardplayers burst out into laughter, rattling so hard that soot fell from them in clouds. Blake’s ashen complexion reddened nearly as crimson as his hair, yet he could only stand there, stiff with anger and humiliation.
Trenton was the first man to regain his composure enough to speak.
“I donna’…I donna’ care if ye’ find another golden dragon like Lord Gildread did…and I donna’ care if the poor lizard is sufferin’ from the gout and a case of the shaky-bones! I donna’ care if ye’ find a whole army of fools and fool-wizards to help ye’ slay the beast! Ye’ ain’t gettin’ rich off nothin’ short of a miracle!”
“Ye’ just wait and witness,” Blake retorted. “I’mma’ be as rich as Lord Gildread someday, and when I am ye’ll be beggin’ to lick me boots clean for one o’ me gold coins and a curt How-do-ya-do?”
Milden just grinned ear to ear and shook his soot-skinned head. “Even if ye’ managed to get as rich as Gildread ye’d drink yourself to rags again within a week. Ye’ know it!”
Joanna walked home like a woman having just lost her newborn. She wrung her rough hands as if she held in it her own quickening heart. As she wept in the stelliferous gloom, a voice like dry leaves suddenly called to her.
“What troubles ye, child?”
She looked up from her frets and saw the widow, Brigid Emberson, sitting in a wicker chair, knitting a scarf. Her gnarled hands were like two large spiders wrangling each other with the needle and thread.
“My husband is truer to his vices than his virtues,” Joanna said.
“And what are his virtues?” the widow asked. It was too murky to know whether she was smirking or not.
“He is…” Joanna began to say, then fell silent. “He is a bonny man,” she said at last, miserably.
“And is he still a bonny man?”
Joanna began to cry. “Yes.”
“Then he is still true to his virtues,” the widow concluded, cackling.
“Must you be so cruel to me?”
The widow stopped knitting. She raised her good eye at Joanna, and its gaze was sharp and sparkling, like a polished needle piercing the dark. Her bad eye— milk-white and wandering— was looking toward the Grumbles. “Ye’ get what ye’ bargained for, me poor bunny.”
Tears streaming down her face, Joanna turned away and started toward her cottage.
“I didn’t give you leave, child!” the widow called after her. “It seems to me your problems is a disproportion in your husband’s making!”
“There is no good in talking,” Joanna sobbed.
“But there may be good in remembering.”
Joanna stopped walking and graced the old woman with a backward glance through her veil of tears.
“Come sit by an old woman,” the widow said, “and fetch her out of her wooling when the time’s right.”
What Joanna really wanted was her father. But since he was joined to the floes in the mountain— as all Kilne’s blacksmiths are when they have passed away— she came and sat down in the grass next to Brigid Emberson.
“Everyone in this village knows each other’s secrets,” the widow said. “It’s expected. Naturally they’d all know of me doing me husband in, even that idiot priest bundled up in his idiot robe. Naturally you’d know of it, despite your greenness. I don’t excuse it. I killed my husband with a bit of root and a lot of beans, and I’d make no claim otherwise in a trial by man or by gods. He was a mean bastard, he was. The only thing I regret was the mess he made when his idiot noggin fell into his bowl. And if anybody were to speak truer of it, they’d say he deserved a worse death. I still ain’ got sight back in my one eye, so hard did he knock it.”
She pointed with a taloned finger to her lazy, wandering eye with its empty gaze.
“Now, I’d also be lying if I said I never missed the cruel bastard. I do miss him at times. But do you know what I do at the times I miss him?”
Joanna gave a sheepish shake of her head.
“I strike me’self in the back of the head and then ask me’self, ‘Well now, my bunny, are you missing that?’” The old woman shrugged her shrunken shoulders, smiling toothlessly. “And of course I don’t miss it at all!”
“But I don’t want to…do away with my husband,” Joanna protested. “I love him.”
“You ain’t listening to the words between the words,” the widow chastised her. She shook her head and her white, thinning hair flitted briefly in the air, before settling down like ash flown from flames. “My husband would never of changed. The violence was in him, and always would be. Now I have my husband where I like him, trapped in me head where he can’t a hurt me…unless I let him.”
Brigid Emberson smiled to herself, then resumed her knitting with her gnarled hands.
Joanna felt sorry for the widow, and because she felt sorry for the widow she thanked her for her company and her “thoughtful words”. Then she left toward her cottage, feeling more disturbed than ever before.
“There has to be another way over this mountain,” she said to herself, wiping away her tears. “I just don’t have the map.”
The Mumbling Mountain’s fires never died, day or night, and so a group of blacksmiths were always working into the Witching Hour in the vain attempt to outstrip their debt to Lord Gildread. Blake walked by these desperate men with a supercilious sneer on his face.
“What good is it, boys?” he muttered. “Chains on two fronts. And none of ye’ can magic ‘em away, I’ll wager.”
At night the tunnels in Mumbling Mountain were as bright as they were during the day, which was like the soot that they spewed: pitch black. The only light breaching that vast labyrinthine interior was the orange glow of the natural forges and whatever lamps or candles the smiths brought about with them in their labors. This was why many of the blacksmiths waited until dusk to leave the caves, otherwise sunlight blinded them with its glaring stare. They also never left before dusk due to Lord Gildread’s stone-knuckled Overseers. The Overseers could be quite confrontational when a worker had the audacity to see to his family more than to his fire.
The tunnels were always dark and whatever light was afforded to them by the fires was diabolically orange and murky, transforming shadows and forms into otherworldly creatures.
Blake did not have a mind clear enough for smithing that night. Instead, he took up a pickax and found a cleft in a rock wall where iron ore glimmered through. Seeing it as a fortuitous opportunity to claim someone else’s ore for his own, Blake struck away at that jagged rent with half-spirited swings.
He picked at the rent for a while, cursing many a people he knew— Jon Rubburn for his big muscles, Olga for her big bosoms, Lord Gildread for his wealth and power over his life, and his wife, Joanna…for being gap-toothed and existing. One and all he considered part of a conspiracy to undermine him and his lofty dreams of being rich and having a harem of women to call his own. He even cursed himself, which was rare for Blake. He was naturally inclined to be so steeped in his own pigheaded pridefulness that he hardly ever reflected upon himself and his choices enough to rue their outcomes, or to learn a lesson. A mood most foul overcame him and it invited thoughts of mischief to his mind.
And thoughts of mischief always had a way of attracting others given to similar urges.
Joanna walked home with her head full of frets. She hated being overburdened with such thoughts. They pressed a weight upon her that left her enervated and inert. Arms hanging heavy by her sides, and head hanging more heavily, she distracted herself by opening an ear to the voices scuffling about inside the cottages surrounding her.
Joanna had lived in Kilne her whole life. She knew to whom each of these many voices belonged, having heard them since she was pushed and pulled bodily, and bloodily, into this world. From a nearby cottage she heard the voices of Kyle Burnes and his young wife arguing over the name of their impending child. Millia insisted that if the baby was a girl then she should be named after Millia’s mother, Margot. Kyle, being the Burnes heir, and so having the obstinance inherent in such a heritage, insisted that the baby be named after his grandfather, regardless of whether the baby be boy or girl.
Joanna felt sorry for any girl whose named was fated to be Hagar.
In Kilne, however, surnames mattered more than forenames. All of the ancestors of the men and women of Kilne came here uprooted from other places, where foreign names pervaded, and these fresh settlers wanted a new start by choosing new names in keeping with the fires of Mumbling Mountain and the tall peaks of the Grumbles, hoping to brand themselves with good future fortune for their families. There were Anvilles and Hammers and Blazewells and Firesides, Irons and Orrs and Craggs and Stones. Many were named Smiths, as was expected, and yet the families that claimed Smith as their own were as diverse in bloodlines as the blade of an executioner’s axe.
Joanna thought of her maiden name, Weldmoore, and wished she could reclaim it. Blake’s surname, Blackholme, was such an ominously prophetic name. It was as if Fate had warned her, as did her father, that Blake was not a man to marry.
Blake toiled in the infernal cave, picking away at the ore-embedded wall. As he worked, he cursed his life, never knowing nor caring how his life had cursed others.
Due to drink and carelessness and general ineptitude, Blake’s smithing abilities were meager at best, and atrocious at worst. Consequently, his home was the poorest in the village of Kilne because his debts to Lord Gildread were so high. The more ore he wasted with his absentminded tinkering, and the more such works were rejected, the higher his debts became. Blake’s own father had mocked him in his apprenticeship, saying that the ore looked better unclaimed in the cavern walls than it did after Blake had set upon it with hammer and anvil and fire. Nor did he squash that opinion in the years after his apprenticeship. This opinion prevailed, prospered, and multiplied, like termites in the heart of a tree, and Blake hated everyone but himself for it.
Blake could have been forgiven had he simply been incompetent. But he was also disreputable. He was not to be trusted. To the contrary, the people of Kilne knew well Blake’s drunkardly nature and eyed him as if a shadowy hand followed him, snatching goodness wherever he passed. Many were also jealous of him, for Black Blake was considered a very fair-looking man who had been lionized by the girls of Kilne when in the worshipful shamelessness of their teenaged youth. Many resented him for this, too, as he was well acquainted with many of the women in Kilne from those frothy years.
Yet, being what he was at that time, many of the wives belonging to those jealous and resentful husbands were also themselves resentful of Blake, having been wooed and won and discarded by him at one point or another. Many a buxom bosom in Kilne was a desk whereon Blake might nod off into Nostalgia, remembering his masterworks.
The only reason Blake had married Joanna— who was by all accounts a plain—was because she would not be swayed to bed without first being wed. Her chastity was as insurmountable as the Grumbles, and thus flavored her with a temptation that ensorcelled the young blackguard’s mind better than her looks ever could. Moreover, she was the only maiden in the village of Kilne that had never surrendered to Blake’s lascivious charms, and so he, ever brash and desperate of the futile conquest, surrendered himself to her for what was a pyrrhic victory on both sides of that wooing war.
“What a fool hunter ah was!” Blake growled as he chipped black rock from a nugget of ore. “That lil’ rabbit snared me and now ah’m stuck with her!”
Blake was wed and trapped by that compact, witnessed by the village and insured by the priest of Mathara and the laws established in the village by Lord Gildread. Worse, Joanna was wed and trapped, too, and so the naive girl was resigned to her gullible misjudgment. The difference was that Blake married her out of defered lust, whereas Joanna married him because she— a daughter of a very practical man and a simple life— fancied having something pretty for herself.
And Blake Blackholm was a pretty man. Whatever vices marred his character, every woman in Kilne agreed he was fair to look on when he kept his mouth shut.
Arriving home to her cottage, Joanna collapsed onto the hard-backed bed and covered her grief with her grandmother’s quilt. Crying beneath that quilt was like crying into her grandmother’s bosom. The quilt dwarfed Joanna. It was large, much like her grandmother was when Joanna was still a child. The old matriarch was a voluminous woman, accorded many pillowy curves in her happy, well-fed bulk. She would have been aghast to see her granddaughter now, a woman of skin and bones who often had to stitch her dress tighter lest it slip off her dwindling waist. Joanna could hear the gentle woman’s voice as she wept:
“How are ye’ goin’ to beget hale, bonny children with no baby fat of yer own?”
These thoughts, and more, were a tumult in her heart. Eventually— after much crying and regretting— Joanna was subdued by the warmth of the quilt and slipped into a dreamless sleep.
A flashing gleam caught Blake’s eye. He glanced over his shoulder and saw, in the firelight of the tunnels, what appeared to be smoothed glass entombed in ore. He blinked and looked again, and surely it was there. For the next hour Blake was as careful as he had ever been when handling a pickax. Slowly he chipped away at the rough rock until, at last, with callused hands and busted knuckles, he dislodged the glass anomaly among the iron ore.
It was a glass bottle.
Moreover, it was a glass battle filled to its cork with a golden amber liquid.
“Really good moonwater here,” he announced to himself. Then, suspicious that someone might see his find, he slipped the bottle behind his leather frock, securing it between his belt and his trousers. He then went to find a forge far enough away from the rest of the workers so that he might look at his find and determine what it was.
Crouching down in a corner of a cavern, he took out the bottle and stared at it in wonder. An orange flame gleamed on the bottle, like a shooting star sliding across the glass. It reminded Blake of Olga’s coquettish grin—and the grin of every woman he had ever bedded—and suddenly the only thought in his head was how warm a draught of that golden moonwater would be in the pit of his empty belly.
“Ah can take it,” he whispered. “Whatever the poison, ah ain’t no jelly-belly. Ah got me an iron gut.”
With one hand he grabbed the bottle by its long neck. The body of the bottle he pinned between his bony knees. With his free hand, he wrestled and twisted and pried the cork out. It was hard doing, and eventually he tired of it and so dared using both hands on the cork. It popped with such a sudden force that the bottle shot out between his knees and fell with a skittering clatter on the rocky ground. Fearing he had lost half the moonwater, he hurriedly scooped the bottle up with his frantic hands. He peered into the bottle’s mouth and saw the liquid sloshing around inside, grinning as he thought himself lucky for not having spilled any. When he upturned the bottle, however, and pressed its lips to his, he tasted nothing except a faint cold air coming from the dry lips of the bottle.
“What devilsomeness is this?” he cursed.
Raising the bottle to the other eye, he gazed into its amber depths again. The golden liquid sloshed about upside-down freely, but refusedto spill out of the unobstructed neck.
“Fool’s gold if ever I’ve seen it!” he cursed.
He brandished the bottle as if to throw it into the nearest flame, but was given pause when a glint on the lips of the bottle caught his eye. He looked at the lips of the bottle instead of looking through the lips. The glass lips were rimmed with an iron ring, both thin and shiny. Bringing it closer to the glow of some nearby flames he saw that it was inscribed with several tiny runes that he could not discern.
Fetching a pair of tongs, Blake gradually pried the sealing rim away from the bottle’s virgin lips. The ring fell away, and with it a thin lens of glass so clear and immaculate that it was invisible. He pinched the seal between two fingers and then pocketed it.
“A gift for me lil’ rabbit!” he said, grinning harshly. “Will be a great thing to see her tryin’ to put it on her ungrateful finger and failin’ at it.”
Then up came the bottle in Blake’s impatient hands. He kissed it with a lusty mouth and a quickened pulse. It burned like sunwater more than moonwater, gushing down his gullet and running like wildfire through the dim passages of his brain, setting it aglow with wonders unknown to the neglected ruins of his imagination.
“Well now,” he said, breathless. “That’s a fine fire in me head and belly!” He stoppered the bottle, doffed his apron, and rolled it around his newfound treasure. He suddenly looked around at the ore and the forge and the anvil and the hammer. Then he looked at his hands. “And what’s this? A fire in me hands, too! They’re itchin’ for somethin’ naughty of a different nature! Aw’right, boys. Be not idle!”
Daryld was standing with the other overseers at the mouth to the Mumbling Mountain. He was trying to be courteous to Onx while the troll explained to him the finer subtleties of troll courtship rituals and the joys of family life beneath the earth’s surface. Unfortunately, everything Onx said sounded like stones grinding in Daryld’s ears. He nodded. He smiled, as much as a man like Daryld could smile, and he rarely spat his chewmoss out, so as to be polite. But, at the end of it all, it was still just stones and rocks and tusk-on-tooth scraping.
It was no wonder, then, that when Daryld heard the shouts coming from inside the Mumbling Mountain he mistook them for the cries of men crushed beneath a rockslide or cave-collapse. A troll’s voice had that effect on people. But then Ganth went running into the forges, which Ganth would never have done had it been an actual cave-collapse, and so Daryld concluded that it must be a matter of interest rather than a matter of peril. Onx went thundering into the cave, too, and so Daryld knew he simply had to go in now or else be left standing outside alone, looking foolish. It was a matter of pride. He was, after all, the superior rank of the three.
“Does nobody round ‘ere have respect for rank?” he growled, spitting black chewmoss juice out.
Picking up his club— which he had carelessly laid leaning against a rock— he went running into the cave also, though he kept his distance from the excited troll. No one ever knew what a troll might do when excited, even a troll of inferior rank.
Blake wore neither his leather frock nor leather gloves, nor did he fear spark or flame or red-hot ore as he worked. The flames and the ore did as he desired, as did his hands, and he worked while the late-night blacksmiths remarked in astonishment at his miraculous skill.
“Magic,” Trenton gasped.
“Witchery,” Milden hissed.
“Devilry,” Gansel growled.
Yet, they all watched Blake work the ore, and all were full of awe and wonder and resentment as his uncannily deft hands moved the iron with his tongs and hammer in a perfect creative concert that molded and formed the ore as if it were as soft and malleable as clay.
“No good can come of this!” Trenton said.
“There’s a bargaining he’s made, to be sure!” Gansel said. “With dragon or warlock, I don’t know which.”
They could scarcely believe what they saw, even as they saw it. They called to others to bear witness to it: Black Blake, who in years past shirked forge and fire for fear of his own sweat’s salt, was now undoubtedly the greatest blacksmith among the whole of Kilne.
“Watch yer’selves, boys!” Blake said, pouring liquid metal into the icemelt. It hissed and sighed and he did not retreat from its dangerous steam. “Don’t go throwin’ yerselves into the floes for envy’s sake!”
“Envious of ye’, Black Blake?” Trenton said. He opened his mouth to laugh, but found there was no mirth or mockery in his soul to call upon.
“Ye’ should be envious ‘cause ah lay this ore down right,” Blake said, “just as ah laid down yer wives right and smoothed them all over with me hands and me big tool!”
Normally, Kilneesian men would not abide such flippant speech about their wives— especially since it was ribald and it was true— but there was something about Blake’s eyes, and his laughter, and the work he was doing, that stayed their injured honor.
The Overseers arrived at the large crowd gathered at Blake’s busy forge. Irritated by the lollygagging, they shouldered their way into the crowd of blacksmiths, gesturing brusquely for their departure; pushing and shoving and cussing.
“What’s the matter with ya’ ore-pourers?” Ganth demanded. “Get te yer forges ‘afore we snap out the whips!”
Daryld, feeling as if Ganth was presuming too much authority in the matter, yelled even louder. “This funny business about yellin’ has got to stop! Yer gonna’ bring the whole moun’ain down…”
His cry of outrage quickly puttered out into slack-jacked dismay.
“Where’d ye get that handsome bowl there?”
“Blake made it!” one of the lingering blacksmiths said, gawping afterwards as he heard his own words echo in the cave and could not, even himself, believe them.
“Ain’ possible!” Daryld snapped. “Not for Blake. He ain’t ever made a bowl that was round or a plate that was flat in ‘is life. Nor nothing less dented than me mother-in-law’s warthog forehead.”
Onx—his beady troll eyes squinting even tighter with the pain of hard-earned thought— rumbled in agreement. “Argh.”
But the three Overseers watched Blake work the iron; watched him beck the flame and bathe the cast in water to cool its molded shapes and solidify the figure sitting aside the rim of the bowl’s mouth, and soon their naysaying was stayed by the evidence of their eyes. So astounded were the Overseers that they did not protest as the other blacksmiths of Kilne gathered again around Blake to watch him ply his genius. The whole lot of them were as wide-eyed as bunnies mesmerized by a basilisk’s hypnotic stare.
“Black Blake’s got himself a black magic gift,” they all agreed. Nonetheless, they could not stop watching him work.
It was near to sunrise when Blake finished and bathed the piece one final time. He had spent just over a few hours on the matchless treasure. The other blacksmiths would later claim—their eyes agog with disbelief—that it was a ludicrously short period of time to create such a masterful piece of craftsmanship.
And a masterful piece it was. It was a small bowl, modestly proportioned for a single morning melon, but it was immaculately smoothed both inside and out of its gaping belly. This silvery smoothness was, in and of itself, enough to separate it in quality from all other bowls made in the history of Kilne, but what truly distinguished it to such respectful reverence was the figure that sprawled in the center of the bowl, her legs spread and nude as a piglet after a heavy rain. The female figure bore a remarkable semblance to Olga, only younger, and prettier, and with an expression more overcome, in her innocent manner, than Olga ever had been since surrendering her maidenhead many years ago.
Blake gave the bowl to the Overseers, and they, for their part, were so fixated on the finely-wrought piece of worksmanship that they neglected to inspect him on his way out of the Mountain. Unimpeded, Blake started his descent toward his cottage. Coiled safely in his apron, the bottle’s sunwater elixir sloshed about within the glass as if alive.
Joanna was awoken by a light. When she sat up and rubbed her eyes, the light was gone and the cottage was plunged in darkness. She stared into the impenetrable shadows for a few moments before she realized someone else was in the cottage.
“Who’s there?” she said, alarmed.
“Yer much-maligned husband,” Black Blake sneered.
Joanna was no less relieved than had it been a stranger. She opened her mouth to say something, but refrained. She listened to her husband stumble through the cottage, banging against the table as he went and cussing. Yet he did not cuss as severely as he normally might. He seemed…reserved.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Aye,” he said as he finally found the bed. He sat down, and Joanna squeezed against the wall, away from him. “What’s wrong is me life,” he said. “But I’ve an idea that things will be changin’ soon.”
He stood up and reached toward her. She flinched away, then realized he was not trying to touch her, but was grabbing the bed and pulling it away from the wall. He then reached over her and laid a bundle down in the widened space.
“Ne’er touch it,” he told her, “and donna’ ask me of it. Are ye’ goin’ to mind me in this?”
“Yes,” Joanna whimpered.
“Mind ye’ do, or ah’ll give ye’ even more gaps between yer teeth, my lil’ rabbit.”
These words uttered, Blake left the cottage.
Blake went to Marlowe’s Tavern…or attempted to. Halfway there he was suddenly overcome with the fatigue of his first miraculous day. With little concern for where he was, or who should mind, he fell to his knees next to a cottage and then slumped forward, fallen into a deathly sleep before his head hit the ground.
The sleep that took him was not so restful as the one that took his wife the night before, nor was it because all of Kilne busied itself around him throughout the daylight hours.
Blake dreamed. This was not unusual. Blake dreamed a lot, especially when in his drunken stupors. But this dream was different. There was no harem of women worshiping him bodily. In this strange dream he saw a fire. It was burning upon a hillside; tiny as a tick upon a dog’s head. Like a tick it soon swelled, gorging itself on the hill’s wildgrasses. It soon spread, scurrying quick as rodents across the land. There was no life where it went, and there were faces in the blazing ocean of it; leering, laughing faces with slit eyes and jagged teeth of flames. They ate whatever they touched, and when they met each other there was an explosion of lust, and thereafter they multiplied. Each face had a crown on its head, and each crown was a flame whose decree was destruction.
And then Blake saw this scorched land from afar, and farther still, as if viewing the inferno from the clouds, and then from the moon, and then the sun. The orb shrank smaller, even as it was consumed wholly by the flames and reduced to a burning shell.
When Blake thought he knew what was what, he then saw that the orb afire was encased in bone and muscle and skin and that blood ran through it, like rivers set alight with moonwater; and he saw then that it was his heart that the flames devoured so greedily. The flames enveloped it utterly, subsuming it inside outward. When he cried out, the flames ascended, rupturing forth from his throat and spewing upon the earth like dragon’s breath.
And when the flames had finished, the earth was just like his heart: burned to embers and blowing in the gulfs of space, lacking life and love and substance, floating aimlessly in the cosmic void whose yawning maw swallowed all unto insignificance.
Blake woke later to find himself in the Mumbling Mountain. He was preparing his kiln for the day’s work, and his mind was full of creative mischief.
Upon waking, Joanna found herself alone in her cottage. She glanced about the small interior, lit with sunlight through the frosted glass windows, and saw that it was orderly and clean. There were not even any motes dancing in the morning light. The air itself was clean, or as clean as it could be beneath the ash-flurrying Grumbles.
Not having any excuse not to, Joanna stood up, dressed herself appropriately— which, for a Kilneesian woman was drab and modest— and then joined the streams of Kilneesians flowing toward the Matharist Temple in the center of the village. It was time for Mass.
Joanna followed them as if in surrender to the eddies of their flow. Her mind was all awhirl as she was taken away. She knew she had become as gossip made flesh for her fellow citizens: Mrs. Blackholme attending Mass, with her blackguard husband beneath either the legs of a barstool or the legs of a barmaid. It did not matter, though—or so she told herself. The eyes of the crowd wryly watched her as she went with them to the temple, but her eyes were set on rescuing her husband from his own vices. She entered the temple and sat down at the wooden benches with the rest of the Kilneesians. The dark gloom of the temple, splashed waveringly with the orange glow of the Heart-Fire, distressed her. Shadows and fire— neither were to be trusted, she thought. Shadows were deceits made from truth, and fire was truth that burned and consumed. Neither were pleasant in overdue amount.
The priest stood before his flock and spoke at them— not to them, but at them. His sermon was a flavorless soup of moral lecture with chunks of historical lessons plopped in for solidity. As Joanna listened to the lecture she found herself dreading the priest. He was standing afore the Heart-Fire like an ominous figure, doubly robed in shadow and flame. His Gildread coronet flashed like a golden blade that was shifting hands beneath an assassin’s cloak. The words that dripped from his mouth scared her.
“Lord Gildread is good in all he has done,” the priest said, “as was his father before him, and his father’s father. The slaying of the golden dragon tamed this part of the world and made it a haven for all of those willing to prove their goodness and righteousness by the salt of their brows, the leather of their fingertips. Heed me: the sweat of thy brow is the testament to thy better nature. Do not succumb to idleness and sloth, for they are the damned things of perdition.”
Joanna looked away from the priest, her eyes wandering over the flock. Each face was familiar to her, yet alien now, transformed by shadow and by firelight.
“And be warned,” the priest continued, “that your actions in this life will affect your ascendency into the next life. For the flames of Mathara burn away what is profligate and sinful, leaving only what is good in one’s own heart. How much good is in your heart? This is what must be asked every day when you seek to serve Lord Gildread in his benevolent rule. If there is naught good in you, naught of you will persist into the next world…”
Joanna attempted to nanny her attention, but her thoughts strayed like naughty children in a dark forest. The priest’s sermon did nothing for her. Whatever flicker of faith she might have had in her youth had died with the last glowing embers on her father’s pyre.
Her father was a good man; a much better man than the one she chose for a husband. He had tried to convince her to recant her mistake, to divorce her husband and find herself a new, more deserving man. He reasoned that many women had done it, that it was very normal and common now, and that there was neither shame nor guilt in the dissolution of a loveless marriage. Hope, he told her, and joy and endless possibilities could be thereby suddenly reclaimed.
But Joanna was, like most Kilneesians, stubborn. She was also, in her own way, vindictive. It was a passive vindictiveness, but it prevailed alongside her stubbornness. However small and wormlike, it would never grant Blake what he most coveted from her: marital separation and the freedoms therein entailed. Moreover, she refused to separate from Blake because in such an arrangement Blake would have received the cottage her father built for them.
And that was an injustice she could not bear, even if it meant enduring a lifetime of injustices.
The young woman’s features were finely wrought upon the goblet’s stem as she flashed her coquettish smile. So, too, were her high breasts and cherry-nipples finely wrought. In fact, the whole piece was so finely wrought that any blacksmith worth his weight in ore would have thought it should break ere Blake had bathed it cold. But he bathed that bonny lass in the icemelt waters, and he beat the bowl and the foot with his hammer upon the anvil, and the figure hardened to form without hardening of feature, every soft detail preserved in uncanny relief.
“Impossible,” Daryld said as Black Blake handed the goblet to him. “It’s a deception of me mind on me eyes! It can be nothin’ else.”
Despite his disbelief, Daryld handled the goblet as a real thing and not a figment of his imagination. He carried it carefully out of the cave as if the air itself might somehow ruin it.
“Black Blake’s busy at it again,” grumbled Trenton. “Makin’ fools of us with his demonic powers.”
“I’ve half a mind to make ‘im mind,” said Milden, darkly. “Mind him with my mindin’, mind ye’.”
“Bold as brass, twice the ass,” said Gansel, puffing pensively on a cigar of soot moss. “Ye’ll never get at ‘im without gettin’ ye’self the more. He’s a golden gander now. No good will come to ye’ for it.”
“It’s golden goose,” Milden argued. “An’ the Overseers don’ like ‘im neither. What would it matter if he slipped into one of the floes?”
“Ye’d be slippin’ in, too,” Trenton warned, “if Blake had an accident. Gansel’s right. That’s Gildread’s golden gander. Or goose. Whatever. Might as well march ye’self to Gildread’s castle an’ take a squat on ‘is dinner table.”
“I overheard Daryld say Lord Gildread was mighty impressed,” Ganth said, smoking away at his cigar. “Gildread’s thinkin’ of invitin’ ‘im to the castle. Maybe he’ll get fool-drunk an’ squat on the table ‘imself…”
“Oh, that flares it!” Milden said. “I’mma’ gonna’ kill the bastard!”
“Let it go as it will,” Trenton said. “I am. I wouldn’t be doin’ nothin’ untoward…”
“What ye’ mean to say is ye’ ain’ got the piss in ye’…” Milden began.
“I got the piss in me,” Trenton snapped, “but I also got the sense to know when to step back and let a buck bleed himself good before I get near ‘is antlers. The arrow’s already in Blake’s heart. He just don’ know it.”
“Golden arrow,” Gansel agreed.
“That’s right,” Trenton said, “and if ye’ try to gut him right now yer gonna’ get ye’self gutted! Let ‘im earn the favor of our Lord and he’ll overstay ‘is welcome. That’s Blake’s way, sure enough.”
Joanna had never known her mother, except, perhaps, in knowing herself. Her mother had died bringing Joanna into the world. This guilt hung heavy upon her. Often Joanna wondered if she was destined to an unhappy life because of her deadly birth. Her father, contrarily, had said there was only one evil that had sealed her fate.
And that was in marrying Blake Blackholme.
Feeling that evil keenly, Joanna tried to find Blake. She thought to find him in town after Mass. This search, however, was soon abandoned when it proved as fruitless and futile as separating soil from cow pies. There were just too many beds, sheds, and steads where he could have spent the night. She never thought to find him working in the Mumbling Mountain; not that early in the morning. She knew him too well for that. Only a miracle, she would have said, could have propelled him toward the forges so early in the morning.
Thus, never finding him, Joanna was an upheaval of clashing thoughts and helpless desperation. Unable to bear it, she turned to the domestic chores to once again distract her head and busy her hands.
Arriving home, she found there was but little to do, having done it all the day before. But then she realized it was a perfect day for washing the laundry. So, she gathered up the dirty clothes and rags and linen and she put it all in her bucket and carried it out to the Ashen River. She was simply happy to have something to distract herself from her own unhappiness.
Kilneesian women all washed their soot-blackened clothes in the Ashen River. Its pumice-mingled water stripped stains. But neither man nor animal could drink from its gray-silt depths. A single gulp could “soil a child dead”, depending on the day and the weather. That was why the people of Kilne bought fresh water from elsewhere, trading for it at a high value. Most water near the Mumbling Mountains was not safe to drink. Even the rain, at times, burned hot as wax on uncovered skin. Even the icemelt was good for nothing but bathing iron and steel.
As Joanna walked to the Ashen River she found that she had not been alone in her chores today. There were other women there, washing their dirty laundry after Mourning-Mass while they traded dirty secrets. As they churned their clothes in the Ashen River— using long tongs so as to not damage their hands—Joanna listened nearby, astounded by their chatter.
“Sure as the sun in the sky and the mole on my thigh,” Janie Diggins said, “my Roderry was there to witness it. And ye’ know he never would indulge a fancy, ‘specially any buffing that wicked name, Black Blake.”
“Aye,” concurred Farah Coles. “I heard wind of it from me husband who came in with his underpants all twisted this mornin’. Sayin’ Blake had sold heart, home, or soul to some devil for powers beyond his merit. I would’na’ believed it if Sammy next door did’na’ swear the same.”
Maggie Spooner, the only unmarried maiden among them, scoffed. “Are they sure he didn’t steal the bowl?”
“Half the men in Kilne watched him make it,” replied Janie. “Unless it is a joke on the other half, and us women. It must be true.”
“I’d believe it a joke,” remarked Farah, flogging a wet apron with a spatula, “if my husband hadn’t the humor of an owlbear with its head on backwards.”
“And was it really an…an indecent woman?” asked disbelieving Maggie in a hushed tone.
“That part of the tale is the most steadfast with his character,” Janie said, ruefully. “If some god were to give Black Blake such powers to form ore as smooth as skin he’d never touch hammer to metal if not to have yet another girl in the bare air for his eyes and hands to pass over for a night.”
“Perhaps it was just a rare flare,” said Maggie. “One and done, they say about them.”
“I suppose we’ll come to hear of it,” Janie said. “They say the first ironwork hadn’t even cooled when he started on a second. Some sort of sister cup to the bowl. If I know me Black Blake, it’ll have another maiden in the bare air, but this time she’ll be encumbered with a bigger bust than she any right to.”
“It is a shame that Fortune should smile on him,” said Janie. “All our husbands return from the forges covered in soot, head to toe, and yet Blake is the only one black inside and out.”
“Ash-hearted is he,” agreed Farah. “Any flames he carries burns out ere long.”
Hitherto, none of the women working their tongs and tongues by the pumice-bedded water had noticed Joanna Blackholme standing, thunderstruck, but a few feet away. Shocked as she was, Joanna had the presence of mind, and the prudishness of character, to not be caught listening, uninvited, to a private conversation, regardless of its bearing on her own life and future. So she slowly stepped away, mindful of every fallen leaf, and made her way home to unburden herself of her unwashed laundry.
Blake had been working hard that morning, and had not eaten anything since the day before. His stomach attempted to match the Grumbles in its loud rumbling. He decided to take a break and go home for an hour to eat something. The Overseers made no protest.
“Let the bedeviled man have ‘is fill of food,” Daryld said. “Lord Gildread would have our skins if he died of an empty stomach.”
Walking downhill from the Mumbling Mountain, Blake kept his hand over his eyes to block out the baleful midday sun. His stomach was hungry and his head hurt. His chest burned a little, too, but it was somehow a reassuring burn.
“Need a bit of a bite,” he said to himself. “That’s all I’m hankerin’ for.”
But in his head he saw the bottle of amber liquid sloshing about as tantalizingly as a Southerlander woman half-clothed in silk and swaying her hourglass hips to a dance. If his brain could salivate like his tongue, it would have drowned itself in his skull.
“And maybe a drop of drink,” he added. “Jus to cool the natural fires of me heart.”
He hurried to the cottage with an eager, almost ghoulish gait.
“Look here, lil’ rabbit,” Blake said, holding the rune-rimmed ring to Joanna. “A present for my feckless, faithful filly.”
Much to his disappointment she took the ring and set it down on the table without a second glance, and nary a first.
“Blake, I’ve heard you are having luck in your ore-pouring. Is it true? Are you making your means with your mettle?”
He furrowed his brow as if a snake burrowed there. “What of it? Do ye’ doubt me? Then yer the same as the rest of the jealous fools hereabouts. Aye, they mocked me, didn’t they? Blackened my name, did me wrongs, and now look at ‘em! Jawing about me like the newly come wizard with a griffon on ‘is shoulder. They canna’ believe it, and yet here I stand, towerin’ above ‘em all and their pitiful pettiness and smallness and envy.”
“I meant nothing but joy,” Joanna said. “Astonishment, yes, but joy. You swell my prideful heart beyond temperance.”
His anger abated but briefly, until he glanced about the room for his lunch. “What ingratitude is this?” he said, dangerously quiet of voice. “What is this?”
“I could not find you,” Joanna said, her smile quickly fading.
“I sweat miracles in the hot, dark mountains,” he growled, “and ye’ laze about in shade of house with cool winds as yer handmaidens, and haven’t the decency of mind or of heart to spare a moment and cook me fill?”
“You wouldn’t have had it,” she argued, “as you never did yesterday. Beans or spuds, you’d have had none!”
“It seems I’ve work at home to do as well,” he said, ominously, “for the idleness of a woman is a mischievous thing not to be abided.”
Blake grasped Joanna by the wrist and raised his other hand, ready to let fall a thunderclap slap that would have laid her on the floor.
But there came a knock at the door.
The intrusion surprised Blake, taking him aback like the cracking of a branch in an otherwise silent woods. When his anger returned, it returned vengefully. Roaring, he sprinted toward the door as though to ram it down upon the oblivious visitor. Swinging it wide with a wrathful yank, he suddenly paused, eyes agog and his mouth chewing the air like a goat in a field of forget-me-lots abloom.
Standing in front of their house, in golden cape and cowl and vest, was the tall, looming coachman to the Lord and Master of the village of Kilne and the Mumbling Mountain and the Grumbles themselves: Lord Gildread of the Norland Kingdoms. Gildread’s own coach awaited beyond him, drawn by two thunderhooves as white as Joanna’s pale face.
“Blake Blackholme,” the coachman said, “your presence is demanded at Lord Gildread’s castle.” A gloved fist shot out from beneath the cape. Blake flinched, his hands raised feebly for mercy. The massive fist stopped within a flea’s hop of Blake’s face and parted open like a flower. Within the hand was a scroll bound in gold thread.
Blinking dumbfoundedly, Blake took the extended scroll and unfurled it. He read it once. Then he read it twice. Three times he read it before he turned about to face his wife with an expression of hateful joy.
“See ye’ here!” he exclaimed, brandishing the scroll above his wife’s head. “This is my summons to my fortune. Lord Gildread has already heard well of me and requests me to esteem him with me presence.”
“It is a demand, not a request,” said the coachman tersely.
“Just the same, just the same,” Blake said, feverishly gleeful. “Genius recognizes genius, and so I am called away for me Lord’s pleasure.”
In equal measure to Blake’s glee was Joanna’s terror. Nothing good came of a summons from Lord Gildread. It was a well known truth in Kilne.
“Naturally, Lord Gildread expects a gift to recompense his courteous invitation,” the coachman continued. “It would do you well to do well by him, Blake Blackholme.”
“Lord Gildread is of a mind mirroring me own,” Blake said, “and since the two of us mirror so well, I know just such the gift to appease his tastes. Let us stop by the forges along the way…”
Blake followed the coachman, closing the cottage door behind him with a victorious bang.
Alone now, Joanna listened with dread as the wheels of the coach clatter-clacked away and up the Mountain. It was all too overwhelming for her: the revelations of Blake’s newfound talents, his sudden violence, the interest of Lord Gildread, and the sudden departure of her husband before she had shelved these things neatly in her head.
So rattled was she that she fell to cleaning the cottage again in the attempt to return her mind to normalcy. She swept up dirt that was not there, and wiped off dust that only her eyes could see. She then rearranged the cottage’s table and chair; once, twice, three times. She polished the stones on the hearth and washed the pan that Blake had given her, cleaning it with the water they used for drinking.
Afterwards, Joanna sat down on the bed and wept. Loving memories came to her, embraced her and choked her. She remembered when Blake laid in the grass beneath the old oak tree; how he stared up at her with his daring green eyes.
“Lil’ rabbit, ye’ are all a’tremble…” he had said, his red hair flaring in the shade.
She loved nothing more than staring into his green eyes— when they were kindly, of course, or at worst, teasing— and playing in his hair. She would still love playing in his hair were he to let her. Why, she brooded, could he not simply lay still and be pretty? He would be a better man were he chiseled from marble and given emeralds for eyes, like a silent and staring statue in an orchard of appledews.
“Come and lay a while, love,” he had said, holding his long arms out to her.
Laying back, now, she stretched out upon the hard bed, letting her hands dangle in surrender down the sides. Moments bled and fled and a fly landed upon her forehead. Raising a hand to swat it away, her wrist struck something tucked between the corner of the bed and the corner of the cottage. It rang like a bell.
The fly departed and Joanna sat up to satisfy her curiosity. She found the swathed bundle that Blake had hidden there. She picked it up and unwound its blackened leather. Within the apron she discovered a bottle with a strange liquid inside. At first she mistook it for moonwater, and cursed her husband’s vices. But then she realized how much stronger was its glow than the pallor of moonwater, and so she thought it sunwater, which scared her ever the more. As the old Norland adage said, “Moonwater to sleep tight, sunwater to fight all night.”
Determined to confront Blake about it, Joanna took the bottle and set it on her spice rack on the wall. As she stepped away she was startled by a sudden brilliance within the bottle, like a fairy torch being lit above swamp waters.
And within that glow, with form and expression by shadow and bubble and light, was a fanged face grinning back at her.
Black Blake was taken in comfort, and in awe, to Lord Gildread’s castle in the boulder-dotted flatlands of Fidecia. Here, grass shoots were wispy and clumped in patches like the shedding hair of a mangy cat. Yet, the grass here was not withered and ever-brown or dead as it was near the Grumbles. Trees, too, stood here and there, starkly apart from one another and growing to healthy heights, their foliage full and fruitful.
Nearby, the stone-toothed river, Fangflow, glittered in the afternoon sun. Fangflow was like the drowned skeleton of the dragon Gildread with his hot blood all about him, for the waters would ofttimes steam and boil as if flames were ready to awaken from its long, rock-ridged gullet. Unlike the Ashen River, Fangflow ran clear and crystalline, the hot bubbles roiling up like clean glass beads before bursting upon the steam-breathing surface. The glittering water reminded Blake of how parched he was, and how hungry. He opened the coach’s door and leaned out, addressing the coachman as the coach swayed.
“Me good man!” he called. “Will Lord Gildread be feedin’ me this day?”
The coachman did not turn around, but kept his eyes ahead of the coach. “Lord Gildread will be feeding you and a legion of guests tonight.”
“That a fact?” Blake said, surprised. “And who be the gent’men that he’s feedin’?”
“Various lords of Gran Stone, the Southerlands, and other kingdoms.”
Goggle-eyed and gobsmacked, Blake simply said, “Oh,” and withdrew into the luxuriant confines of the coach. He closed the door and stared out the window at the passing scenery. For a moment he found that he had lost his severe appetite.
Joanna eyed the bottle with great horror. The face had gone, and with it Joanna’s wits.
“Tinder, then cinder, and none will hinder,” she said, blinking to the Matharist Prayer Refrain. Unable to endure the face in the liquid, she threw a cloth of linen atop it and then fled from the cottage. Her wits gone from her, she did not come to herself until she arrived at the Matharist Temple and was banging desperately upon the door.
The door slid open and the priest answered her gruffly.
“I am currently preoccupied, Mrs. Blackholme,” he said.
“My husband!” she exclaimed. “His demon in the bottle!”
The priest shook his head. He was not wearing his coronet, nor his priestly hood, and his bald head was wrinkled like a buzzard’s. “Oh, I’ve no doubt that Blake’s demon is the bottle. Everyone in town knows he is overly fond of beer and moonwater.”
“No, it is something worse!”
“My dear child,” the old man said, wearying. “I know not what your problem is. From what I have been hearing from the other men in the village, Blake has reformed. He is on a better path. One of hard work and grace. Mathara has answered your prayers.”
He tried to close the door, but Joanna defied him with a hand.
“Mrs. Blackholme!” he shouted. He took a deep breath, then, and tried to speak more levelly. “You will be happy to know, Mrs. Blackholme, that our good and gracious Lord Gildread has taken note of your husband and wishes to commend him.”
“Yes, his coachman came to our home, but the bottle…”
“His uncanny blessings,” the priest said, raising his voice over Joanna’s, “are not to be squandered, for that would be a greater sin than sheer idleness or a fondness of drink.”
“And if he drinks more than most, what of it? Do not be a nagging nanny goat, dear. It smacks of ingratitude.”
“I am currently engaged in a serious matter of another,” the priest continued, tersely. “Come back at another time and we will beseech Mathara to help Blake with his drinking problems.”
“But, Father, I…”
Joanna saw the woman standing next to the Heart-Fire, her voluptuous body more clothed in shadow than in clothes. Atop her forehead glistened the Matharist coronet. The freckles on her body were like flecks of fool’s gold in a stone.
“Thank you for time, Father,” she said, instinctively drawing back from the door. The priest closed the door shut. Joanna could hear him fumbling with chains and a lock and then heard him call out to the woman inside, with much more elation than she had ever heard in his voice during his sermon.
Finding no aid in dogma or its ambassadors, Joanna headed in the other direction, toward the home of that wily widow, Brigid Emberson.
Gildread Castle was relatively young, formed of newly hewn stone quarried from the defanged headspring of the Fangflow. A moat ringed it, and a small army kept it. Mercenary soldiers stood apace of each other by three spaces at every other stone of the castle. Each militant brow was helmeted with a row of golden scales to legitimize their grim function, and each was armed with sharp lances and solid shields to pursue that function. A single banner flew above the castle, and upon that banner was the castle’s crest: a Gildread coin.
The castle itself had been designed by a man whom some alleged was a wizard. It was a small castle, and yet yielded impossible space within its unimpressive exterior. Those who had visited it knew of its uncanny expansiveness, though few had ever seen its innermost sanctum. Therein, it was rumored, half a dragon’s worth of golden scales resided under lock and key…and trap and spear and spell and covetous eye.
Thus, despite being young, Gildread Castle was as grand a castle as those ten times its years in age.
The drawbridge was lowered—with an ogre’s groan, growl, and roar—and the coach rattled athwart the moat and into the castle. Within, Black Blake was disgorged from the coach and led by a servant to the inner fortress. He was then seated on an ornately scrolled bench in a wainscoted vestibule. He was told to wait.
As he waited Blake admired all of the refinery surrounding him: the golden trim decorating the mold casting of each adjoining wall, and the smooth wooden floors warmed with intricate rugs from the Southerlands; the golden candelabrum flickering their fiery halos upon every mahogany stand and table and drape, the tapestries on the wall, each depicting the rise of the Gildread lineage from nameless by-blow to the richest lords in the land. Blake also admired the buxom maids dusting and sweeping and tidying these luxurious furnishings. It seemed, in his estimation, that the mysterious Lord Gildread was a man of his own tastes, only with better means.
“I am home,” he said, overawed. His eyes could not rest, but flitted hither and thither between the curves of gold and the curves of the busy maids. His pupils, madly alight, were as black flies in a hot field newly trodden by cows. They could not rest on any one corner of decadence without immediately sweeping wayward to another, and then another.
Before Blake’s eyes could burst from his head, a manservant in rich attire befitting a lower lord fetched Blake and brought him from the vestibule to the main hall. From there they entered an open-roofed courtyard in the center of the castle, replete with a dragon fountain scaled in Gildread gold, and then reentered the castle again on the opposite side. By the time they came to the dining hall Blake’s jaw hung so loose and limp that he might as well have recently drank himself stupid and been kicked by a mule. The most neglected corner of the castle contained more wealth in its cobwebbed crannies than the whole village of Kilne.
Gildread gold was everywhere glinting and stinking. When a strong wind wound its way through that many-windowed edifice there rose with it the reek of rot from the dank, dark depths. Yet, strong though the odor be, Blake was more envious, for the stench meant wealth, and that was why, as they say, the wealthy always held their noses so high in the air: so as to not become overpowered by the odors of their pockets and purses.
Everywhere there were soldiers, thick as rats in a monk’s cheese cellar. Some were humans, and some were trolls. There may have been one or two that were something more exotic. Resurrected thralls, perhaps. Gremlins. Dwarves. An occasional ogre. Blake looked upon all of these dangerous creatures with his muscles stiffer and his spine straighter than usual.
And then came Lord Gildread himself.
Gildread was as self-possessed and proud as a cat with a mouse writhing in its mouth. He did not speak. His servants announced him as he stood across from Blake, statuesque in his own tall reputation, and toppled by his own short stature. Yet, his eyes challenged any and everyone as he stood in his orange vest laced in gold; purple pantaloons trimmed in gold.
A manservant held up the newest of Blake’s creations for his master to inspect and appraise. Lord Gildread took the goblet into his small hands and turned it over several times, passing his jaded eyes over the lips of the goblet, the sides, the naked woman swooning against the stem.
“It is a fine piece,” he remarked, returning it to his manservant and gesturing him to have it taken away. “Especially for having been made with the crudest of metals.”
Blake’s pride swelled, and with it his bravado. “If ye’ are in need of something made right, I’m your man!”
Lord Gildread regarded Blake with a slow, impassive eye. At length, he uttered “Indeed” and gestured to the long table that stretched the full length of the dining hall.
Before Blake could say anything else, he was ushered by a manservant to the table and seated. He might have complained of being seated so far afield of the head of the table, where Lord Gildread sat, but he might have also complained of a throbbing mouth ache if one of the soldiers cut out his tongue for speaking out of turn. So he sat quietly, awaiting whatever would be. Soon enough, his intrigue was piqued, satisfied, piqued again, and so on and so forth by competing degrees as the dining hall became peopled and that chatter rose to a waterfall’s rumble.
Silver plates came in on graceful girly fingertips, nor did the food conveyed thereon disappoint: venison steaks, pheasant breasts, simmery stews, and fresh fruit split like Blake’s aching heart. To live like Lord Gildread would be to preside over paradise itself. Surveying the splendor, Blake chastised himself for his prior standards in regard to paradise and their naive limits. He shunned those specters of fancy and joy previously private in his daydream-dizzy yesterdays. Now he could truly dream, the template adequately presented all around him in tangible plentitude.
If the make of the dream was spectacular, the man that made that dream was disappointing and misplaced among its lavish trappings.
Lord Gildread was a man of small stature, with a balding head and delicate hands. To think that such a small man came from the legendary lord that had slain the most fearsome beast of any earthly age filled Blake’s mind with resentful wonder. Mutinous thoughts screamed their outrage at Fortune’s favoritism. But he dared not speak them. So talk was sparse for Blake, as sparse as the food was plentiful, and Blake awaited Gildread’s words like a dog unknowing whether his master would reply in kind or in kicks.
Through the course of the meal, Blake was witness to his own speculation. Lord Gildread’s friends sat in helm of the table’s conversation, eating and talking and laughing and regarding Blake as some two-horned unicorn.
“Maybe he’s like one of those fire-weavers in the Southerlands,” said Lord Rimnel, a man who owned many of the Norlands mines. “The fire wizards.”
“The term is ‘pyromancer’,” said Lord Gildread, “and, no, I do not believe he is one of those charlatans. I have never witnessed a pyromancer doing such miraculous things with their flames. They just force flames to power their turnwheel vessels and, sometimes, make flowery explosions in the air for the entertainment of the Merchant Lords and their many ladies. This man is possessed of a genius.”
Lord Gildread paused and stared down at the plate that Blake had made, whereon a loaf of bread sat like a slug in buttery slime.
“I want to test the man’s capacities,” he said. He raised a hand and a servant arrived forthwith at his chair. “Make sure the coach is packed with silver blocks for his return trip. Should he prove himself possessed of a consistent genius in that medium, I shall graduate him to gold.”
Blake was pleased, and also terrified. “What do want me to make, milord?”
Lord Gildread ran his fingers over the finely wrought breasts of the ironwork woman.
“Whatever his inclination directs him to,” he said. “I believe he and I are men of similar tastes, so he is sure to please me regardless, so long as it is wrought this well.”
Lord Gildread spoke of Blake, but not to Blake, regarding his presence as a farmer does a cow grazing near to feet, unable to understand with its bovine intelligence. Nonetheless, Blake received the attention as esteem, however dubious, and kept the serving girls busy fetching wine for his bottomless glass.
The men continued to talk, of Valoria and its conquests, of Gran Stone and its princess being captured and taken away by a mysterious Black Knight.
“He had cried, ‘No more whimsy!’” remarked a Gran Stone nobleman. “And then hoisted her up onto his saddle and galloped away so quickly that none of the knights in the tourney could impede him!”
Much of the conversations were beyond Blake’s knowledge or understanding, and so washed over him like a foreign language.
The chatter ceased abruptly when Lord Gildread stood up with his arms held behind his back. His friends, his fellow lords, and his sycophants all watched him expectantly as children would a father in an illegible temper.
“Gold is merely one of many means to an end,” he announced. “Force is another. Religion is the third, and deception and promise are the twinned last. They overlap, of course, as do any trades worth their practice, and all four combined within the cauldron of a capable mind can harness spells to subjugate the very cosmos to the most petty whim and wile. What power have those presumptuous wizards of the world compared to me, a primary arbiter? The peasantry serve me. Wizards serve me. Knights, for all of their vows and pretensions, serve me also. Even kings serve me, however begrudgingly. A dragon of gold flew defiant of Man, once upon a time, casting his shadow over our superior race with wide wings: where were these knights and kings and wizards but cowering in that shadow? My grandfather saw that beast for what he was: a braggart to be brought low. Well, gentleman, the universe is a braggart, too, and I shall bring it low, in time.”
There were many polite applause and cheers and Blake, simple though he was in the practice of power, was of a possession of mind sufficient to know that he would very much prefer to be part of Gildread’s lofty dreams than be left in the shadow when such dreams took flight.
“And why shouldn’t I?” Lord Gildread continued. “It is feasible. Moreover, it is fate.” He raised an upturned hand in Blake’s direction. “Look here, upon this man. He is miraculous, isn’t he? Yet no more miraculous than the common miracle that frequents the world. Even a goat may be touched by genius and chew a hedgerow in likeness of the gods.”
Polite laughter rose like a flock of soft-winged birds from the throats of Gildread’s guests. So gentle was the laughter that even ill-tempered Blake did not feel offended by it. Rather, he felt jollier than before.
“And so, with so meager a mold and make, he has managed to become a lord of his trade as well. Could it not be that, in proportion, I, being his superior, should aspire toward that lofty goal and exult in its fruitioin?”
Lord Gildread suddenly glared at Blake, as if he took umbrage at Blake’s wine-induced smile of idiocy.
“Let me inform this blacksmith of something essential in this world. It matters little whether you are of a mediocre mind or middling talents or nameless, claimless, or shameless so long as you have but one skill. And that skill is in being able to manipulate the masses against their own good. Men with that particular knack need nothing else.”
“Like…like a shepherd culling a flock of sheep,” Blake said meekly in a moment of insight. “They do as he says, even as he steals their lambs.”
“Very much so,” concurred Lord Gildread, suddenly smiling. That smile frightened Blake more than the glare. “I am a shepherd of the stubborn imbeciles, and so I am a sheerer and a butcher and a salesman. But all of those roles depend on their following me willingly into slavery.”
“And if they try to escape your pastures?”
“Then that is what the wolves are for,” Lord Gildread laughed, gesturing to the mercenary soldiers lining the walls of the dining hall. “And they, of course, follow me as obediently as the sheep. So long as I throw a pound of mutton to them when their hungers bite at them. Every appetite I can provide for, if the chain is minded.”
“Why come to me, child?” the widow asked. “The priest is always willing to…counsel young women.”
“I saw a face in the bottle,” Joanna said. “A face of flame amid the sunwater. It appeared to me with a horrible grin that struck me to my soul with its wickedness.”
Brigid Emberson tilted her head to the side. It was almost as if she was trying to look at Joanna with her bad eye as it wandered this way and that, finally nestling up in the inner corner, near her nose. “A face of flame in a bottle?”
“I don’t know if it is a devil or a spirit or some forgotten god. I know only that it means to do great evils upon my husband. I went to the priest, but he would not listen to me.”
“Entertaining Olga again, is he?”
Joanna gawked. “I…I do not know who she was. Her habit of dress was not appropriate to devotions.”
The old widow cackled. “Oh, I am sure the priest was well-pleased by her dress and her ‘devotions’.”
Brigid Emberson looked away from Joanna and stared into the pot that hung in her hearth above the crackling fire. There were frog legs sticking out of its broth, and bird heads, and countless other things that Joanna would not have liked to see.
“Child, humor a batty woman and tell me what is it those rogues-in-robes have told you about the creation of the world. It’s history. It’s stories.”
Joanna frowned, trying to recall what the priest had said at Mass. “Mathara, the mother-goddess, flew through the All Ways and found it lonely and barren. Craving company, she birthed an egg and incubated it in her flaming Word. When it hatched, the world was born.”
The widow nodded, took a spoon and ladled a mouthful of hot broth between her lips. She smacked her lips, noisily, and then grabbed a jar of herbs sitting on the hearth’s ledge. Pinching the chopped grasses between finger and thumb, she sprinkled into the soup and then stirred the soup some more.
“Yes, that’s the gist of the thing. But it’s important to note other things of importance, too. With the flaming Word came light, and so sprites. All that Mathara did in the beginning created life, including her breath of destruction. Demons, genie, and imps were created from the fiery Word of Mathara, and so they were the manifestations of wild destruction.
“After the egg cooled, its burnt shell turned to stone, wherefrom trolls and ogres were born. This stone cracked and the whites of that cosmic egg became soft soil, so that trees grew from it, creating dryads and goblins and other things of the fertile earth. The fiery yolk of the egg contained Mathara’s truest children, dragons, many of which still sleep there, in the molten yolk of the earth.
“And then Man came, in time, though no one knows from what. Matharists like to believe Mathara fashioned us separately, specially, and so made us as her favorite children. I do not know. What I do know is that the egg cooled, and when it cooled the imps and demons sought salvation wherever they could.. Sometimes those fiery creatures breathed their flames into a man, and that man became Inspired, and did great deeds. More often was it, though, that such creatures were directly sought and harnessed. Such as how the lords of the Southerland Seas harness imps for the betterment of their cities.”
“Turnwheels,” Joanna said.
“Yes, my bunny. The turnwheel fleet of the Southerland lords. A fleet of ships independent of sails, cutting the waters with their wheel-rudders faster than any wind-blown sailboat. The pyromancers imprisoned imps in the iron bellies of those ships and fed the impfire through the ships. Yet, while they use such destructive creatures for trade and defense, they rightly fear their imps. Tell me, child, have you ever heard the story of the great Imp Pyre?”
In an impetuous moment of chummy daring, brought about by Blake’s copious guzzling of wine, he went up to Lord Gildread after dinner and shook his hands. As shocked as Lord Gildread was, and the rest of his guests, Blake was even more shocked. Lord Gildread’s hands were small and soft, like the hands of nobleborn girls. They were also quick and furtive as they withdrew from Blake’s.
It was a mistake to shake Gildread’s hands. Blake was quickly ushered out of the dining hall and taken to the coach. He was then driven home as the sun descended. Seeing the dusk’s flames on the Fangflow, he was reminded of that liquid fire that awaited him at home in his bottle. He was drunk already, but the thought of that amber sunwater spilling down his throat made him thirsty anew. Such a single-minded obsession had he with the thought of that fiery liquid that he forgot about his presumptuousness with Lord Gildread, and paid no mind to the bars of silver stacked in the seat across from him in the coach. The taproot of his attention dwelled singularly on the bottle awaiting him at home. Nothing else mattered.
“It happened countless centuries ago,” Brigid Emberson said. “The world as we know it was young, for Mathara’s breath had cooled upon the egg and Mathara herself had cocooned herself in flame, becoming our sun. The earth had grown new things. Plants. Animals. New primordial entities propagated upon the earth, prospering as winds blew, rains fell, and the oceans settled in their vast expanses.
“But the primordial creatures grew restless and hungered for mischief. There came a great wildfire invasion caused by imps who loved nothing so much as chaos and destruction. This was called the Imp Pyre.”
As Joanna listened she gazed into the flames of the widow’s hearth. She thought she saw figures dancing in that crackling glow.
“Eventually the Imp Pyre was quelled and conquered by Sylphs and Undines and the other air and water elementals. Defeated, the imps were forced into the mountains; into magma floes and into the dark recesses underground. They dared not go too deep, for fear of being eaten by the dragons still nestled within the fiery yolk of the earth. For dragons love to eat nothing so much as imps. Except, perhaps, virgin maidens.”
She stirred her soup some more, and slurped at it with her ladle. Her wandering eye stared at the contents of the soup while her good eye returned to Joanna.
“Later, after the rise of Man, Pyromancers sought the imps’ power for their spells and their machines. Imps are elementals, like all primordial spirits. Their power is limitless within certain circumstances and can be channeled if a wizard is willing to risk the perils of invoking the unpredictable creatures. It is said that imps were somehow used by the original Lord Gildread to destroy the golden dragon that dwelled in these mountains. It is also said that imps might still be found in the Grumbles, just as the skeletons and the weapons of Gildread’s army might still be found here. Of course, you will never find a golden scale belonging to that dragon, for Lord Gildread was quite adamant that a thorough search and accounting be made for that inventory.”
The old widow laughed, and it was like a murder of crows were taking flight.
Joanna realized she had not been breathing. With a sigh, she began again, her heart beating like a dwarf’s warhammer in her chest. “So you believe the face I saw in the bottle to be an imp?”
“It is possible,” the widow said. “The eldest among us remember that Lord Gildread baulked at no method to slay the golden dragon. And he had many pyromancers among his enlisted men. I would not be surprised if his great victory that claimed him so many blessings was achieved by cursed means.”
“Can I destroy it?” Joanna asked. “Pour it out? Throw it in the hearth-fire?”
“That is exactly what it wants, my bunny,” the widow warned. “To be freed. Were you to pour it out, it would catch fire and burn as it did of old. Grow. Breed. Consume the world again. All you may hope to do is keep it sealed. Or else find a pyromancer to bind it to him. Only they can control them.”
“But what could Blake be doing with it? Has he made a pact with it? Is that how he has bettered his blacksmithing?”
“I think you already know that answer, my bunny. But I should warn you A fire may warm you in winter,”— she gestured to the hearth— “and a fire can devour you to your bones. There is scarce compromise in a fire. It does as it wills. Imps are the same. All elementals are the same.”
“I do not know how to summon Undines,” Joanna said, sadly. “And I doubt any in the Ashen River would be on kindly terms with me or anyone else in our village. And I know of no pyromancer or hydromancer, and even if I did I would have nothing to induce such a man to help me. Shadows are in every direction, and the only light I can see is the flame of the imp to whom I am married…”
When Blake returned home, he stumbled out of the coach and staggered into the cottage like a man beaten senseless. The coach left and Blake found himself alone in his father-in-law’s home, staring into the dim emptiness of the interior like a man trying to remember his name. He walked to the dark hearth and kneeled down. He tried to start a fire with some flint.
“From luxury to squalor in the turn of an evenin’,” he growled. “Ain’ no doin’ with it.”
A flame caught among the kindling and he grinned at the flickering tongues. As he stood again, there came accompanying the blood rush to Blake’s head a thousand blinking images which so wholly overwhelmed his drunken mind that he swayed as if swirling in a whirlpool. That whirlpool promptly pulled him down to the floor with its undertow.
When Joanna arrived home she found her husband limp on the floor and mumbling as if in a dream. She hurried to him, bending over and helping him to a chair. Something stank like death in the cottage and it alarmed her.
“Blake, what is the matter?”
“I’m all overjoyed,” he said, his red head lolling. “Lord Gildread ‘as shown me favor, which was always me due. Here, a gift from ‘is lordship.”
He pressed something hot and smelly into Joanna’s hand. Opening her hand she found a ring made from small Gildread dragon scales. Shocked, she dropped it to the floor as if it was a spider ready to bite.
“Have ah care, woman,” he snapped. “Don’ abuse things given to ye’ so freely.”
“I do not want it,” she said. “It stinks of decay and death.”
Upon her refusal, Blake’s face darkened as if in the shadow of the Mumbling Mountain. “If ye’ donna’ take it, I’ll give it to another lassie with a lil’ more grat’tude in ‘er bosom.”
“Give it where it pleases you,” Joanna said, trembling, “but do not let it remain here. All Gildread gold is cursed. T’was since the day it was pulled from the carcass of that evil dragon.”
Blake simply grinned and then tottered upright, staggering to the bed and groping through his apron. Suddenly, he bolted straight up and turned around, his face twisted into a snarl.
“Where is it?!” he demanded.
Joanna flinched from him, throwing her hands up as he rushed at her with a fist raised.
“Where is me bottle?! I’ll not ask ye’ eh‘gin!”
Joanna pointed to the spice rack.
“Why’d she go an’ put it there where any ol’ thief could snatch it?” he slurred, his livid face relaxing into a lurid grin. “I warned ye’ not to be goin’ an’ touchin’ nothin’ that weren’t yers. An’ it’s not a spice, ya’ silly filly, ye’.”
Chuckling strangely to himself, Blake fumbled with the spice rack, trying to take the bottle down. His coordination was poor due to drink and so the spice rack fell with his clumsy efforts, crashing to the floor. Jars shattered and spices flew free in scattering heaps. The bottle was unharmed.
Blake nearly fell over trying to pick it up. When he swung himself upright again, he laughed triumphantly. Popping the cork out, he tipped his head back, upended the bottle, and drank so large a gulp that when he had finished swallowing there was but less than half of the bottle left. Corking the bottle again, he returned it to its place beneath the bed, swathed in his leather apron.
“Ye’ idiot woman!” he exclaimed. “Mind ye’ to never touch me things!”
Trembling, Joanna could only nod.
“Leave be,” he said, “or there’ll be tears to shed, I promise ye’.”
He then stooped and picked up the gold ring she had refused, then headed to the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
He paused at the door and swung himself around as if to fall, his face twisted with a queer leer. “To find me some gratitude. Bound to be ‘ereabouts somewhere.”
A week came and went like a crow; at times flying quickly here and there in search of carrion, and at times perching and pruning itself stubbornly for long durations, unmindful of the dread it inspired by lingering near a window.
The bottle was more than half emptied of its golden amber now. Blake spent much of his time either at the forge, shaping silver, or flaunting his Gildread coins where all might see and envy him. On the rare occasion that Blake visited home—between the intervals of manic creation and debauchery with any willing woman worthy of a second glance— he did so only so he might drink from the bottle that inspired him; nothing more. He treated Joanna as the guardian of the bottle and expected her to hold vigil over it. Simultaneously, he was suspicious that she might betray him, too. More than once he walloped her pitilessly, sending her sprawling on the floor.
The things that Blake forged were as obscene as they were beautiful. Sober minds they repulsed, even as they inspired awe with the skill needed in their creation. For decadent minds, such as those of Lord Gildread and his aristocratic acquaintances and sycophants, his perversities quickened their hearts and became as the embodiments of the truths that their lives celebrated. Nymphs and satyrs were combined in grotesque union; gods ravished virgin girls only recently blossomed to womanhood; beasts mounted in congress with women in horrible surrender. Certain figures upon an ash urn bore resemblance to several women in the village of Kilne, turning wives red with embarrassment and husbands red with rage.
Yet, Blake was untouchable, so highly held was he in Gildread’s esteem. It would have been less perilous to brave a dragon-guarded tower seeking a princess than to lay one unwanted finger on Gildread’s new curiosity.
Joanna’s was an unhappy situation. She could not destroy the bottle, nor could she hide it from Blake. When she attempted to hide it in the pig’s pin, he did not even ask where it went, but simply walked into that ramshackle perimeter and retrieved it, backhanding Joanna as he took it inside the cottage. He was drawn to the bottle, never needing to see its glow to find its succor. Joanna’s face was always swollen and dark, the bruises always overlapping and never disappearing before she was dealt another bruise to take the place of a fading lump on her face.
A week passed and Joanna went to Mourning-Mass, waiting until the sermon was over to the see the priest one more time. As she waited for him to wish the other Kilneesians a blessed day, her eyes went wandering in the flame-embattled darkness of that windowless temple. They alighted on a statue that Blake had wrought for the priest— a nubile priestess denuded of all except her Matharist coronet. Seeing that terrible statue was worse than seeing Olga standing promiscuously in the shadows. Disheartened, she nonetheless spoke to the priest of her husband’s behavior. She did not speak of the imp in the bottle, for she knew he would think her mad.
“Lord Gildread approves of his work,” the priest said, “so there is no harm in it. Indeed, rather there is great promise in his work. His is a miraculous transformation. If Mathara might only inspire your husband towards religious works then my temple would be the best adorned temple in the whole world.”
“But it is destroying his soul,” Joanna said. “He is killing himself, and he is killing me…”
“Your womanly resentment shames you,” he chastised her while his coronet flashed like a golden grin. “Envy. Pettiness. Jealousy. These vices are clearly written on your face.”
Her face still ached from the recent blows Blake had given her, and so it hurt ever the more as her face trembled with frustrated tears.
“If your husband hits you, then I say it is for the best. If he strikes you, it is his right and it is justified. He has reformed his life. He has become dedicated to Lord Gildread and to Matharist work principles. He is an outstanding example of Kilneesian work ethic and grace. Perhaps you should worry about your shortcomings and misdeeds as a wife. Perhaps you are the reason it has taken so long for your husband to find the Matharist light.”
The scolding stung sorely and Joanna left the temple in tears, weeping at her own powerlessness. Shuffling home with her head down, she knew not what to do. It seemed the world had gone mad, like a wasp-stung centaur, and the horse was now atop the man.
Daryld did not like the look of the caravan traveling up the foothills toward the Mumbling Mountain. There were too many bright colors in its procession; far too many for any Kilneesian who had grown up under dark gray skies, dark gray mountains, and dark gray moods.
Onx said something in the stone-grinder of his throat, and Daryld actually understood him.
“Pretty?” Daryld said. “They’re too garish even fer peacocks.”
“Lots of wealth there, though,” Ganth said. “Them be Southerlanders. Ye’ can smell the beaches on ‘em from here.”
“Damn salt-skins,” Daryld cursed. “What do they want?”
The caravan stopped and several men stepped forward, all scarfed in silk and carrying long spears with crescent blades. There were a few beautiful women staring from the tent on one wagon, their eyes dark and alluring. Even Daryld had to admit, salt-skin or not, there were a thousand undreamt delights in such eyes.
The most colorful man among the troupe stood forward and unwrapped his orange scarf. Beneath it, he was a handsome man with the same dark complexion and eyes of the women in his tent-wagon. He gestured to another man who was holding a decanter which Daryld knew, upon first sight, was of Black Blake’s make.
“The man is possessed of a genius who made this,” remarked the man in silks.
“A genius and a devil, too,” Daryld said. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is not important. Just know that I am a War Merchant from the Southerlands. I have traveled North to see for myself the metallurgist who created this wonder. I should like to purchase his services for a specific object, if Lord Gildread is willing to allow it.”
“Ye’ll have to speak to Lord Gildread ‘imself,” said Daryld as he and his two fellow Overseers stood stonelike at the mouth of the Mumbling Mountain. “But for now Black Blake’s not to be disturbed. Lord Gildread ‘as him workin’ ‘is silver bars, and that’s mindful work, mark you.”
“Indeed,” said the War Merchant, gesturing to another man among his caravan. This man brought the War Merchant a colorful silken pouch. The clinking of its contents told Daryld exactly what it was: silver coins. “Is there not a way I can seek his attentions, though? A means of compensating for time lost and time favored?”
He held the pouch of silver out to Daryld and Ganth and Onx, yet none of them stepped forward to claim it. They knew where their bread and stead came from, and that was Lord Gildread. No need to lose a bit of your height for silver.
“I’d advise ye’ to go see Lord Gildread about breachin’ the matter,” Daryld said. “That’s the only way yer goin’ to get what ye want.”
The War Merchant’s eyes darkened, but he relented. Coiling his scarf about his face again, he mounted his horse and gestured to his caravan of men with their bright orange and blue banners. They descended from the foothills and headed into Kilne.
“Damn sand-toed salt-skins,” Daryld cussed. “Can’t stand the look of ‘em.”
“All those bright colors,” Ganth growled. “Gives me a hea’ache.”
Onx grumbled something sadly; possibly about wanting colorful scarfs to bring home to his troll-wife.
“Ain’t no doin’ with them,” Daryld snapped. “Pretty pastels ain’t to be trusted. Never trust a man who don’ wear leather or wool or fur.”
“Silver was mighty temptin’, though,” Ganth said.
“True,” returned Daryld, “if ye’ can enjoy it without yer head.”
“But ye’ could just take it and run,” Ganth reasoned. “Maybe go live on the beach in the Southerlands for the rest of yer days. No winter down there, leastways. And all the gold you’d want, if ye’ were thinking of golden shores, I mean.”
“Don’t be daft,” the shorter man growled. “Do ye’ know the cost to live there? And I’m not talkin’ about havin’ to be ‘round ‘em salt-skins all the time, neither. Buyin’ a steak down there costs as much as a cow up ‘ere. You’d be robbed out of yer silver before the first day. Mark me.”
Onx again spoke, like he had stones grinding in his blocky mandibles.
“No, I don’ know what ‘em scarfs cost,” Daryld growled. “Get yer wife a wolf pellet. It’ll last longer.”
Again Onx spoke.
“Then get her a fox pellet!” Daryld said, wishing he had not grown to understand Onx over the course of the last week. “They’re pretty enough! Orange enough! Red enough, too, ‘specially if ye’ leave the blood on ‘em to stain.”
Onx sighed sadly again and absently scratched at his backside.
Ganth glanced down the forge-lit tunnel. “Should we go…you know…mind the smiths?”
The habitual scowl on Daryld’s face broke into a troubled grimace. “I think they ought to be gettin’ along just fine. No need to push ‘em too much. Ev’rything’s smooth as unicorn milk down there, I believe.”
“Right,” said Ganth.
Onx rumbled in agreement.
The Overseers stood outside the mouth of the cave and watched the sun go down. They did little else nowadays. Lately, they had been doing less and less patrols through the forges. The truth was that Blake was the only blacksmith about whom Lord Gildread was concerned, and Blake worked like a dwarf in a mine made of nothing but jewels: toiling endlessly with a strange gleam in his eyes. If the other blacksmiths did nothing, it did not matter. All that mattered was that Black Blake transformed Gildread’s stacks of silver bricks into exquisite, unparalleled treasures. Black Blake kept to this task without their admonishments, and so they felt redundant and had little else to do.
Yet, the Overseers were not at ease in their easy employment. They could not watch Black Blake work anymore. Even Onx shuddered at the sight. For as Black Blake smelted and poured and hammered his works, like a man possessed, his shadow loomed large and black on the cave walls all around him like some hellbent beast of mischief and malice. His red mane grew into greater disarray, flaring wildly atop his head. It glowed, too, with an orange luster, and so too did his pale skin. His temperament was volatile and to be in his presence was as to be in the presence of a wildfire, always fearful of which way the winds might blow.
Joanna’s anxiety was as a harpy perched upon her narrow shoulders, talons sinking deeply, beak at her ear, its worrisome voice shrieking wildly. She tried to shake it off, which distressed the raptor ever the more. Nor was it receptive to soothing caresses and feel-good little lies, but only shrieked more loudly as Joanna’s innate naivete provoked it.
So overcome with this harpy was Joanna that she stumbled to the cottage of the old widow, sobbing beneath the harpy’s weight and fell down in front of the old woman.
Brigid Emberson was sitting outside of her cottage, seemingly asleep in her wicker chair. Joanna begged the widow for wisdom in her trying times.
“You needn’t wisdom,” the old woman said, her eyes remaining closed. “Just a little will and wile.”
“The priest will not listen to me,” she whimpered.
“Is that so, my bunny?” the widow said, a wry smile at the corner of her lips.
“He does not care about Blake’s soul. He cares only of what he makes for Lord Gildread.”
Joanna clutched at her own bosom. “Is that all you have to say?”
“The Mathara priest is paid by Lord Gildread. All priests are paid by their lords, and so owe them fealty of purpose. You cannot trust them to say anything honest or useful. They are paid to keep peasants meek and obedient and diligent, with their heads down and their ears closed to those of us who know the truth.” The old woman chuckled quietly to herself. Her long, gnarled fingers were entwined over her belly. Her eyes remained closed. “Don’t you think it strange that the Matharist temples have doors like barns? Doors like those used to keep cows and horses and sheep within? It is their own little joke. The dragons of the new age have a sense of humor, my bunny.”
Joanna, being a simple person, did not wish to hear matters concerning politics, especially those that hinted at heresies.
“None of the other townspeople will talk to me,” she said. “They shun me. If I told them the danger that threatens Blake they would not believe me, or they would laugh and eagerly await it.”
“Seeing the marks of affection your husband has been so generous to give you,” the widow said, her eyes still closed, “I should tell you to eagerly await his comeuppance as well. But I know that foolish look in your eye. Indeed, I know it well. It was a look I had in me own eye for years and years until I caught a glimpse of it in a mirror, and saw how very like a ninny I appeared. You will continue to try to save him, and he will continue to beat you, and abuse you, until either he knocks your eye silly, like me dear old husband did mine, or you harden that look of yours; harden that look and that heart and that will to do that hard thing that needs doing.”
“You don’t know what you can do until you do it.” The old woman opened her eyes now, the one eye lolling aimlessly. “As you get older you’ll find that the biggest surprises are those you give yourself. Take my wandering eye, for instance. My husband knocked it useless in my head and so I killed him. And do you know what happened?”
“What?” Joanna asked through her tears.
“I got the Sight in it. And all because of me husband’s abuse of it and my killing him. That is a rich irony for you, isn’t it?” She shrugged. “Not that I can control its aim, mind you, which is a shame. Still, it’s better than a dead eye. Better than an abusive husband, too. I can see the Future and the Past. I can see what Is and what Isn’t and what Maybe Is, which is a crucial magic that many uppity wizards never grasp.”
Joanna was shocked out of her tears. “So you are a witch!”
The old woman gave her a slow, toothless grin. “My bunny, any woman with any sense is.”
Marlowe was cleaning the dirty mugs as fast as his old, callused hands could go. He knew something conspiratorial was afoot the moment the War Merchant came into his tavern and asked him if he knew Blake and when he might perchance visit for a drink. Marlowe was no fool. He did not doubt that the Overseers had told the swaggering silk-scarfed Southerlander to see Lord Gildread for an audience with Blake— as if Blake was not a prideful goat enough as it was—and so the War Merchant had come to Marlowe to bypass such etiquette for the sake of time. Overstepping his place a bit, Marlowe informed the Merchant that Blake would eventually arrive here to drink the ash out of his throat. The War Merchant needed only wait for him to arrive, which is what he and his silk-scarfed men did. When Blake had arrived, the War Merchant conducted business with him outside so that no one could hear of their transactions. But everyone heard it anyway, for Blake loudly proclaimed his fortune upon his entrance.
Black Blake was in the tavern now, and he was entertaining two Southerlander women who had come with the War Merchant’s caravan. They were gifts, Blake said; a gesture of good will in anticipation of a jewelry chest the War Merchant desired to be made. Marlowe was a simple man, but even his imagination went wild with conjecture as to what Blake would forge for such a request that warranted the lavish rewards that were given: two lovely dark-skinned concubines, two hundred silver pieces, a ruby the size of Blake’s throat bulge— which he playfully dropped into the cleavage of one of the bustiest of the two girls— and the promise of greater riches if Blake traveled South with the caravan and took up residence in the War Merchant’s seashore palace.
Marlowe knew that most of Kilne was unhappy about Blake’s miraculous turn of fortune, but none more so than the buxom barmaid, Olga. She was absolutely miserable. When she had seen Blake explode into the tavern—flanked by his two maple-skinned floozies as he boasted of his newly acquired wealth—Olga had taken one distraught look at the trio and then fled for shame. She had nowhere the beauty or bustline to compete with such exotic temptresses.
On the other hand, Marlowe was quite pleased, even if he had to deliver the beers himself in the absence of his barmaid. Black Blake was in such a divine mood that he bought the whole tavern two rounds of beer, and easily drank an equal round all by himself. Atop that, he ordered three legs of lamb, a large mutton loaf, five spicy sausages, and a grilled pork loin with mushrooms. Marlowe’s wife, Hilda, rushed in the kitchen all night to slaughter and butcher and cook food for Black Blake’s ravenous appetite.
It was strange, Marlowe reflected. Blake had always had a bit of an appetite, especially for such a layabout, but now that he was busy forging masterpieces and brokering deals with men from every corner of the world, the lecherous scoundrel ate as if he were pregnant with a farrow of piglets. Indeed, Marlowe had yet to meet another man with such a troll-like stomach. The only thing Blake hungered more for than food was the taste of the salt-skinned Southerlander women. He groped and fondled and licked and nibbled at their exposed skin like a starving dog toothlessly gumming a bone. Not that Marlowe did not feel his own mouth salivate for the curvaceous flesh exposed by those sheer-cut robes. Any man would have, and some women too.
“Gods above and below,” he said, “thank you that Hilda is slaving away single-minded in the kitchen.”
Walking in the starlit murk, Joanna did what she had never dared to do in the entirety of her life: she went to Marlowe’s Tarvern. Her father had always shunned that place, and Joanna herself had in turn shunned it, and in turn cursed it as she lost her husband to it. Of course, even she had to acknowledge that she had lost her husband long before his nightly visits to that den of devil’s drink. She had lost her husband, truly, before she had ever even met him.
She paused in front of the door, and glanced back at the village quietly drowsing in moonlight. She had expected to hear carousing and laughter and mirth coming from the tavern. Instead, it was morosely quiet. She opened the door and stepped inside. Looking around the poorly lit interior, Joanna instantly felt as misplaced as a lamb in a cave full of disgruntled bears. Never having been in a tavern before, she did not know what was the custom when looking for someone, nor if there was a custom. The faces that turned toward her were familiar and full of either disdain or pity. Everyone in Kilne knew everyone else, and so everyone knew the wife of Black Blake. She braved a few steps into the candle-dotted murk and stubbed her toe on a bench.
“Careful, Blackholme,” someone said.
“Forgive me,” she said, stepping around as gingerly as possible.
“Best be headin’ out,” the man said, curtly. “The show’s done and over with anyway’.”
Despite the warning, Joanna walked to the brightest part of the tavern: the bar. Once there, she stood in front of Marlowe as he cleaned his mugs. She asked him if he had seen her husband.
The big man looked at the young woman, seeing the bruises and knots on her face. He dropped his eyes down again at the mug he was cleaning. His flaring eyebrows had more hair on them than his balding pate.
“He left not too long ago,” he said, his tone glum as a plum in rum. “But I don’t think it best you be chasing after him this night. He is…preoccupied.”
“But it is a matter of his everlasting soul,” she said, her lips trembling and her eyes welling up.
Marlowe became uncomfortable. He had never been good at dealing with the crying of women. Hilda was not a crier. She was a smasher. So, Marlowe mumbled a few words and then fell to silence.
“Was he alone?” she asked.
Once again, Marlowe became uncomfortable. “No,” he said.
Joanna shook her head bitterly. She then dropped down on a stool at the bar, propping her elbows on the counter and resting her face in the palms of her hands.
“Father said I should have been practical,” she said, trying not to cry, “but all I wanted was something pretty for myself. My whole life I just wanted something pretty…”
Marlowe resumed wiping his mugs. He thought she was going to remain quiet, sobbing to herself for a while, but then she surprised him by suddenly sitting straight up with a sober look on her face.
“What makes a man settle down?” she asked. “What makes him contented in life?”
“Now that is something I can answer,” Marlowe said, “but only for myself. You see, I was a traveler in my younger days. Went everywhere, I did. From Gran Stone to the Southerlands, and as far out to the Wildfields as I dared. I was a man in want of road, come what may, and I wore my fair share of road down, let me tell you.”
“Why did you settle here, then?”
“Oh, several reasons,” Marlowe said, rubbing his sweaty pate absently with his mug cloth. “Mostly, though, I think I scattered my wild grasses all over the world and, after a while, it became tiresome to keep up with them. Wore myself ragged with play, so to speak, and then decided I needed to settle somewhere that didn’t have any of my shoots growing, so to speak. So here I am.”
“By shoots you mean…?”
“Sons,” he said, “and a couple of daughters. But mostly boys. I may not look like it now, but once upon a time I was a handsome wayfarer that earned himself lodgings with little more than a smile. Well…perhaps not half so handsome as Blake, but a willing worker with a strong back and a kind word. For a season, at least. And then I would set foot to the road again. I used to say, ‘If the child is talking it is time to be walking.’”
Joanna eye’s boggled and her face reddened with anger. “You are telling me to let Blake do as he pleases until he…until he…tires of it?”
Now outrage was an emotion Marlowe could deal with in a woman. He was used to it. It was an accustomed element. It was the air he breathed and the bedrock of his marriage.
“A man’s got to work out his demons on his own. Sometimes it takes a levee breaking before the river subsides. He’s got to deprive himself with his own indulgence. Surrender to gluttony to kill the appetite once and for all. A man’s wayward heart must be chained the same way. Let the beast run wild and hang himself a bit on his chain, then he gets more and more tamed.”
“But it could kill him,” she said.
“I doubt a bit of wine and women could kill Blake,” Marlowe said. “Sorry,” he added, when he saw Joanna’s heartbroken face.
“I am truly and utterly powerless, then,” she said. She stood up to go, eyes watering again as if to wash the counter with their excess.
“Now wait a moment, Mrs. Blackholme,” Marlowe said. “Let me tell you another secret that I sometimes forget to tell myself.” He set a mug down, and the cloth. He scratched the lobe of one ear, grinning like a beaten dog. “Yes, I wearied myself with my travelings. But that wasn’t the only rut that tripped me and brought me low along the wandering road. The biggest snare was that woman back there cleaning up her kitchen. Let me tell you something, and you best keep this at heart: I sometimes yearn to go a’roving— every other day, if I must be honest— but whenever I do I remind myself that Hilda would be shadowing me every step, and counting the steps so she could reckon them with equal knocks later. I am scared to death of that woman.”
His grin widened with true mirth— not in jest, but for the truth of what he had said.
“In fact, I’d rather face Death than face Hilda in her worst moods. She lets me have it, let me tell you. And the worst part of it is she doesn’t kill me when I’ve done wrong, though I sometimes wish she would! At least the animals she butchers are dead when she’s cutting them apart. Me, she just wacks off here and there with a word and a fist and tells me to quit my whining. And, well, I suppose you could say a beat dog will always love its master, and I love that fearsome little ogress of a woman.”
Blake was enjoying a night of exotic debauchery the likes of which he had never enjoyed, either in his youth or in his dreams. It tempted him with thoughts of going South and never returning. The War Merchant promised him an honored place among the Southerland lords. He also promised him more such earthly temptations that had been offered him this night. It was a dream come true; perhaps a greater dream come true than living in Gildread’s castle with all of his luxuries resplendent around him.
Yet, part of him insisted that the Southerlanders were untrustworthy. They were strange and foreign and they smelled funny. They enslaved imps in their turnwheels ships. They enslaved men and women and children. They would do the same to him, this raspy voice reasoned. They were deceivers. They were slavers. They would own him, body and soul.
No, Blake thought: he never would go South. He told himself he could not go South, even as the two Southerlander women spread their treasures for his goatish leisure. The Grumbles were his home. He would live here always, basking in the hot soot-shadows until the day he would be joined with its molten blood and awaken his brethren beneath the earth to run riot over the lands once more.
His appetite for flesh was redoubled with that wild thought, and Black Blake took each of the two concubines in turn, one until she had her fill, and then the other, and then returning to the first and subsequently the second. They were women trained in carnal pleasures, but even they found Blake’s endless appetite a trial between them. At length, they quivered and shook beneath the silken sheets and fell asleep, fatigued to bodily collapse.
Blake was unsatisfied. His appetite was beyond mortal measure, and thus bottomless. Discontented, he left the tent-wagon and headed home with a hurried step, his hankering now a flame that needed quelling, or perhaps stoking.
Joanna left the tavern and shuffled homeward, her mind a tumult. On the outskirts of Kilne, in the pale moonlight, she saw a caravan on the ridge of a foothill. It was strange to see a caravan this far North, and one so large, and one so near to her cottage. She paused, watching a figure climb out from a tent-wagon and descend the foothills. She recognized the goatish gait from the distance. It was her husband, Black Blake.
Blake had not bothered putting on his clothes. Heat raced through his blood like wildfire. Unashamed, he walked naked in the moonlight, pale body gleaming with sweat and lust and carnal indulgences.
Upon seeing the small figure accosting him, he grinned like a satyr.
“Why, my lil’ rabbit,” he said, “fancy a stroll in the moonlight?”
“Where is your decency, Blake?!” Joanna exclaimed. “Where is your shame?!”
“Ah left ‘em back in that tent,” he laughed, “alongside two of the most beautiful fillies I e’er rode in me life.”
“It is no good,” Joanna warned. “You making your wealth this way. What good is gold gotten from bedeviled hands? Everyone knows what horrible lords and ladies they are in the Southerlands. How they abuse their people…how they enslave them…”
“Mind your realm, woman,” he snapped. “The cookery and the food. You worry about what your hands make and I’ll worry about what my hands make.”
“But what of your soul, Blake? What good is gold compared to your everlasting soul?”
To this question Blake gave a frightening grin that made Joanna back away. “I’ll just buy me a new one, lil rabbit. Everything has a price, and right now I have the means.”
Joanna quivered, but stood defiant as Blake came toward her. She clenched her fists and tried to speak.
“You will not take my husband,” she said. “Let go of him or I will…”
Blake ignored her, stepping past her. He then paused for a moment, turning around. He slapped her rump playfully, then reached up and swatted her nose with a flick of his fingers that left her face smarting. With a laugh, he went to the cottage, leaving Joanna outside with blood trickling down a nostril.
Determined despite the blood, Joanna followed him inside the cottage where she found him drinking from his nearly-empty bottle. In his haste he spilled a few drops on the floor. He corked the bottle and returned it to the mantel of the hearth. He then crouched down, animal-like, and licked the fallen drops from the wood. Joanna watched him in horror, and he watched her horror in glee. There was an orange glow in his eyes, not unlike candle fire. He then stood up, blew a foul-smelling kiss to her, and loped like a ghoul from the cottage, heading up the slope toward the Mumbling Mountain, dressed in nothing but the feverish sweat that dewed his body.
Thence forward, Joanna never cried again.
When Daryld, Ganth, and Onx saw the pale phantom swaggering up the hillside with his purplish manhood jutting ahead of him like a dowsing rod, they laughed.
When they saw the orange flames in Blake’s eyes they fell silent and stepped aside.
After a few moments of disturbed silence, Onx spoke. His voice sounded like the most timorous tremor beneath river slate.
Daryld listened to the shaken troll and nodded. “Yer right at that, Onx,” he said. “Maybe changin’ our post would do us all some good.”
The next day the sun smouldered dimly behind a smothering fleece of clouds, like a molten glob of gold cooling cold. Bitter winds were beginning to blow down from the mountaintops. Winter would come soon. It intensified Joanna’s nervousness and dread. No good ever came of Winter this far North. It was as a mad king without mercy.
Lord Gildread’s coachman arrived at the cottage, seeking Blake. Joanna informed him that her husband had been gone since the night before. When the coachman inquired to his whereabouts, she pleaded ignorance, but supposed he was at the forges. The coachman left for the forges and Joanna cleaned the cottage, trying to exorcize her demons of anxiety. She was absentmindedly sweeping the floor when her broom brushed against something and sent it sliding and clattering against the wall. Joanna bent down and picked the curious object up. It was the ring that Blake had tried to give to her the first day he arrived home with the bottle.
Running a finger along the crude iron ring, she felt a certain chill emanating from its small circle. When she tried to put it on her finger she discovered that its hole was obstructed by a layer of frigid glass so thin it was invisible. She recalled that Blake had tried to give the ring to her the day of his transformation.
“Is this the key to it all?” she wondered.
There was only one person she knew of that could tell her. Her heart pounding with hope, Joanna took the ring forthwith to the widow witch, Brigid Emberson.
Blake’s most recent accomplishment was now being conveyed to Lord Gildread by his coach, held within Blake’s own sweaty hands. Lord Gildread had learned of the War Merchant’s presence in Kilne and had deduced the reason behind it. He wanted to see Blake straightaway, to secure Blake in his singular employment lest he be stolen away from him, and to offer Blake the hospitality of his castle.
Of course, Blake had to be bathed, first, and dressed properly. The gold-cowled coachman saw to these things, for he was a devoted fellow and did not flinch in fear of Blake’s orange gaze. Blake agreed to wear clothes, but only the minimal of attire: a breezy white tunic and black britches. By the time he had arrived at Castle Gildread, Blake’s tunic was soaked through with profuse sweat. The glow in his eyes was almost as red as the hair on his head.
When Lord Gildread beheld Blake he actually smiled. He did not seem surprised by Blake’s demonic countenance. Rather, it pleased him and he displayed his pleasure by ushering Blake in with his personal attentions. This was a welcome change and Blake felt a comradery with his Lord more than he had before. He felt safe with the man and the legend; he felt like this man could protect him from dragons if need be. Why Blake suddenly feared dragons, he did not know. He was simply grateful that he had a dragon of his own, so to speak.
Blake had presented his newest achievement to Lord Gildread proudly. It was a silver circle plate crowded with an array of dancing nubiles, none of whom were yet blossomed in their years, and at the center of their innocent dance was a ruttish satyr with a lecherous grin on his goatish face. It pleased Lord Gildread, who said as much, after which he invited Blake inside to feast and make merry with his rarest wines. As the day gave way to night, Lord Gildread led Blake into a lavish room of silk sheets and fluffy cushions filled with halcyon feathers. There, awaiting Blake, were three ladies Lord Gildread had acquired from a collector in the distant reaches of the Eosterlands. The three girls were pale eyed and green-skinned. They smelled of rainwater and mountain lakes.
“They do not know the ways of Men,” Lord Gildread said.
And, without another word, he stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him as Blake approached the wide-eyed nymphs, his britches slipping down his legs like shed snake-skin while his eyes flamed with volcanic desires.
The widow rolled her head about, letting her wandering eye look at the iron-ringed stopper. After a moment of head-rolling and ring-gazing, she pursed her lips in a hag-faced moue of surprise.
“Oh, my bunny, this is not glass. This is ice. An ice-and-iron conceit to trap an imp!”
“Truly?!” Joanna said.
“Aye. Created by the conjoint efforts of a pyromancer and a hydromancer. Perhaps many such wizards. There are runes on the iron, you see, and this ice was imbued with an everlasting cold. Dear me, were you to drop it in a molten floe it might yet freeze the whole vein and stop the heart of the Mumbling Mountain itself.”
“So they used it to imprison the imp,” Joanna reasoned, “but does that mean I might use it to free Blake?”
“Imprison him or kill him,” the widow said. “But I fear it may be too late to free him. I have seen him, you know. I have seen his eyes, and his soul. The imp is as much a part of him as himself now.”
“I will find a way…”
“This will not end happily if you fight it. Perhaps it would be best to give way to the winds. Move elsewhere. Start a new life without him. Marry again. Have children. Be happy.”
“But he is my husband,” Joanna said.
“Love, the willow bends with the winds. The oak falls.”
Joanna stood, her face hardening. “Then I shall have to aim for my husband as I come down.”
The War Merchant queried his concubines on the man known as Black Blake and what they had gleaned from their nocturnal encounters.
“He is insatiable,” the one said, swooning.
“He is an animal,” the other said, sighing.
“Good,” the War Merchant said, smiling. “Animals may be brought to heel, and so too may a man with desires.”
He left their tent and went to the head of the caravan.
“I believe we will be leaving at dawn,” he told his men. “And we will have company.”
“Yes, my lord,” they said in unison.
The War Merchant gazed upon the village of Kilne, with its Ashen Creek and ugly mountains, and pondered how such a barbarian place could produce a forging genius like Black Blake.
“It is a mystery,” he said. “And a miracle.”
Standing atop the foothill, he suddenly saw a woman walking through the village. Any other barbarian woman would have not have merited his notice, but he knew that look in her eyes by glance, however fleeting. It was the look that earned him his wealth. It was the look of war.
“It is too bad she is not a rich barbarian like Lord Gildread,” he remarked. “Or else I might be able to sell to her an army’s worth of spears and shields right now.”
Entering the cottage, Joanna’s eye caught a flash in the corner, and she looked to the mantel where Blake’s bottle sat. A burning glow radiated from that amber gold liquid. She saw again that grotesque face— like a twisted cherubim— leering back at her with its diabolic smirk.
She cursed it, then she acted. Sheathing her hand in her cooking mitt, she hurried across the room and took the bottle down. It fought her as she carried it, its remainder sloshing about with the force of a tidal wave and knocking her about as a man in his drink might his wife when his temper was fully fueled. It tried to tear itself away from her grasp, and it tried burning her with its flaming glow. But Joanna was a stubborn woman, and more importantly she had been hardened over the years by her marriage to Blake, so while she was meek to any eye catching her, she had a spine of iron that could not break. Just as importantly, she had an iron-bellied stove.
Yanking the little door open, she flung the bottle hard into the fireless pot belly. It shattered and then the stove’s belly flared to life. Before the imp could escape, she threw the ice-and-iron ring inside. She then shut the stove door. There came a horrible scream of vengeful rage followed by the great pounding of what sounded like fists against the iron flanks of the stove. Soon the pounding became desperate clawing, then a wail that was heard by the War Merchant and the smiths of the Grumbles, and even far away to the castle of Lord Gildread. The wail ended in a whimpering moan and a crackling, then a smoke-breathing silence.
Joanna—tired and heat-flashed—sank down into the chair beside the table and stared emptily at the stove, thinking, with disbelief, at what she had just done. And she thought of the stopper on the bottle, with its iron ring. She fetched it out of the stove, a cold mist drifting lazily out of that blackened iron belly. And she looked at the iron pan that sat atop the iron stove and she had an idea as to how to save her perfidious husband.
Blake stood bolt upright, as if struck by lightning. He roared and the three nymphs huddled together in fear, cowering away from him. Blake forgot about them— forgot about Lord Gildread and the castle and the decadent splendor surrounding him. Those who witnessed his flight from the castle claimed he loped like a hunched, hunted beast fleeing in the moonlight. His face was twisted into a snarl of pain and rage and his eyes burned as if forges were flaring within them and devils were tending the fires. He slavered and he growled. The only intelligible words anyone could discern were “Burn ‘er backside, I will!”
An unnatural speed possessed him, like fire on oil, and he arrived in Kilne within an hour, exploding into the cottage to find his small wife waiting for him.
“Father always warned me to be practical in life,” Joanna said as he neared her. “And I was, except in the one thing that mattered most—the choosing of my husband.”
“I’m goin’ to eat yer flesh and yer bones!” Black Blake barked in an inhuman voice. “There’ll be nothin’ left of yer meager banquet but ashes!”
Though Joanna was a willowy slip of a woman there was a stubborn strength in her, too; a strength as enduring as the mountains. It had seen her through her marriage hitherto, despite her husband’s negligence, vagaries, and unkindness. And now the soft clay of her heart gradually loosened and fell away until the iron ore core remained: knotted, bitter, and unmelting. Her willowy slip of a spine straightened and hardened; her whole being hardened, like smelted iron in an icemelt bath.
She swung the heavy pan and struck Blake across the cheek. He reeled and wheeled around like a drunken man caught by a whirlwind. When he presented his snarling face again, and raised a fist, she struck him again. He spun around once more like an incensed dog chasing its tail. He tried to right himself up, raising both fists this time as if to smash her like a troll competing with a rival. She struck him again, and again. Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek, Black Blake becoming Black-and-Blue Blake. She struck him in the stomach, and on his knees and elbows. She wacked him hard against his exposed genitals, making him double over, and then she whipped him on his behind like a child with the pan. For every misdeed and betrayal, she struck him. For every defiance of their wedding vows she took recompense.
Joanna may have been willowy of build, but her arms had a strength in them, as did her hands and her wrists, put there from years of cooking with that excessively heavy iron pan. She swung it as a knight would swing a battle ax, and gradually she chopped down the twisted tree that was her husband.
When he was sufficiently dizzied, and kneeling on the ground in near-defeat, she took the ice-and-iron ring and she shoved it into his mouth and down his throat. He tried to hack it up, but she struck him again, across the mouth with the flat of the pan, and sent the magical stopper down into the pit of his belly. He fell forward, hands and knees on the floor, gagged. Nor did she relent even then. She set to once more like a melee champion with a hornet in her helmet, smacking his back with the ugly pan. With each strike a gush of amber spewed from Blake’s mouth, spilling out, ounce by ounce, until the imp was dispossessed of its host and nothing remained of that perverse sunwater spirit but a wet stain upon the cottage floor.
And after she struck him once more, the orange flames extinguished in his gaze, and his green eyes shown true and handsome as they once did, though now crowded with puffy black knots that closed one eye and made the other squint in pain. He found his voice— his voice– and he wailed.
“Are ye daft, woman? Is the red tide upon ye? Why this fury?”
And she struck him again, across the jaw, sprawling him out like a knight knocked off his horse in a joust.
“Leave off, woman!” he cried, holding his arms up for protection, “‘afore ye’ kill meh!”
“Aw, you’ll be all right,” she said, striking him again. She gave him a few wore wacks with the crude frying pan and then let off.
She stood as tall as her short height could be and loomed over him— big and dark and fiery like the Mumbling Mountain with its inescapable shadow— and then she told him what amendment she desired to the compact of their marriage. She told him that he would bend himself to it lest she become a widow that very night.
“Ah promise ye,” he said, coiling in upon himself like a naked infant.
The tone of his answer lacked conviction, and so Joanna brandished the frying pan once again…
Marriage was Joanna’s revenge. She was as loving and devoted a wife as she ever was. Now, however, she exercised a love and devotion that were in equal measure to Blake’s foibles and infidelities. Tit for tat, he got away with nothing. Whenever she flipped his flapjacks with her iron pan, Blake flinched, and cowered, and never dared touch sunwater or moonwater nor beer again, lest he suffer an imprint of Joanna’s love across his humbled backside. She left his face alone, for she did so fancy him a pretty man and
After too many of these corrections, Blake faded a bit. He became docile and meek. His green eyes gleamed no more with their inherent knavishness, but were dim and dull. Perhaps he had taken one too many hits to the head. It had softened his head too much until his brains were like the beans and spuds she cooked for him. Nor did he ever complain of them again.
The people of Kilne all agreed that Blake’s sudden fire of inspiration had burnt him out. His genius, they said, had undone itself through its own unnatural rigors, and when it had undone itself it had undone part of him also. They said he was soft in his head, like a web-fingered idiot born of cradle-sharing parents. He was now quiet where he once was boisterous, timid where he was once boastful, full of lukewarm blood where he once was a surging magma spout of pride and lust.
Yet, though his mad genius had unmade him, he could now forge very serviceable ironware, and so his wife enjoyed a comfortable life, going so far as growing plump in the contentedness of her quiet, orderly cottage; plump enough for her grandmother to have been proud.
And if sometimes there could be heard the ringing thud of hard, flat iron slapping on a softening pumpkin, no one paid it any mind.
Naturally, the War Merchant was furious. He had expected Blake’s acceptance to move to the Southerlands. Moreover, he had expected his ornamental chest to be completed before his caravan returned to the Southerlands. Now Joanna had to explain to him that her husband had ben “spoilt in his head” by too much work. She returned to him the ruby and the silver coins he had paid him. As for the concubines, their services rendered were paid in the rendering of such services, for they said they would have done it for free had they been asked, for it was quite different lovemaking than they were used to. The War Merchant reddened at this slight.
Lord Gildread did not seem at all surprised by the outcome. He invited Blake once more to his castle. His wife accompanied the dullard to the castle, since his conversational skills had diminished, and, after a brief inspection, Lord Gildread bid the couple to be on their way.
But as Joanna was joining Blake in the coach, Lord Gildread summoned her to him.
“A genius one day and an imbecile the next,” he said to her. “I have no doubt the spirit that possessed him must have worn out its welcome. Such a shame.”
Joanna knew not what to say to that, but curtseyed— as her grandmother taught her to do— and thanked Lord Gildread for his patronage of her husband before his spoilage.
“Indeed,” he said.
He held out his hand, and she offered him hers, which he took and kissed very politely. But he did not let go of it. He smiled at her with what may have been humor, but which could have been a dark humor involving axes and chopping blocks.
“But do tell me, Mrs. Blackholme, if you ever happen to find that ice-and-iron stopper. You see, it belongs to me, as does everything that comes from the Grumbles. And, in truth, it belonged to me long before the Grumbles came into my possession. Everything here belongs to me. Everything and everyone. Your husband. You. I own it all, even if you should have pretenses otherwise.” He waited another moment, then kissed her hand once more. “Enjoy your simple life, Joanna, and your simple man.”
Lord Gildread released her hand and gestured for her departure. His eyes never left her, though, nor Blake. His eyes were like flames behind glass, and his mouth was wide, even in his thin-lipped smile. When he smiled his mouth widened even more and Joanna feared he might devour the world. Being in his presence was like being a maiden fettered to a post as the shadow of a dragon descended from above. She was glad to be returning to home, even if she knew she was not escaping his wide-winged shadow. No one in Kilne would.
As for Olga and her fancy for Blake— and, indeed, her fancy for all men with a woman waiting at home— she soon abandoned those errant ways. During her private visits to the Matharist priest she learned that all Matharist priests (and priestesses) are said to be married to that venerable dragon goddess, and to that goddess alone. Olga was immediately smitten by the old man. After all, what rivalry between herself and a mortal wife could compare as esteem like that of a rivalry between herself and a goddess? Naturally, the priest happily obliged Olga’s spiritual expression. Being a man who loved gold above all else, he adored the gold fleck-freckles on Olga’s bosom more than any man in Kilne could have.
And since it happened in the village of Kilne, everyone spoke about it, but none protested it. Some husbands and wives even envied them. They were a perfect match, for Olga loved gold, which the priest, being a priest, hoarded in ample amounts; and the priest loved gold, too, which Olga’s flecked bosom also hoarded in ample amounts.