War Paint

Margaret was glad that, at her age, she could still paint beauty into the world, even if the world had, year by year, taken her personal beauty away. Her husband departed, and her children preoccupied with their children, and their children’s children, she woke every morning with nothing on her mind but blank paper soon to be filled with whatever whimsy was demanded by her muse. This was half the fun: not knowing what would manifest from the end of her paintbrushes. She was as amazed as anyone by what she painted.
When Margaret was younger, and still desired making a name for herself in the Art World, it was frustrating. None of her work was unified by a single theme, and so most art galleries had little interest in displaying it, however masterful it may have been in its realization. What common thread could be found in the paintings of a fox, a still life bouquet of flowers, a meadow with a single apple tree, and a portrait of her niece’s youngest daughter? Nothing— nothing except that her muse demanded them and embargoed all other things until such demands were met.
Of course, Margaret sometimes attempted to plan out her paintings beforehand, and she would always fail at them. The paintings lived as they willed, unmindful of their creator and as vengeful to the taming whip as a wild lion newly caged. She simply accepted this, letting herself be the avatar desired, and was content in both the satisfaction of a deft execution and the serene calm that enveloped her while surrendering to her muse every morning.
Since her last remaining vanity was painting, Margaret equipped that vanity with the makeup that accentuated her talents. Watercolor, gouache, sometimes inks. She preferred water-based paints because they seemed more natural— more elemental to her fastidious muse. The watery colors were chaotic and would run at times like invading armies where they were not invited. They also presented minimal risks to her health and sanity, unlike oil paints which could have poisoned her and had her cutting her own ears off within a year. Her children already believed her too old and senile to be living alone; she did not want to provide them with further evidence for their case.
Nowadays her children rarely visited her. You would think their repeated concerns for her solitary life would culminate in a visitation every other week or so. But they hardly ever came, except for her eldest son, Damon, and that was because he was prime executor of the Will. He visited her twice a month in the attempt to convince his mother to forsake her happy, isolated independence for the crowded miseries of a nursing home. Though he masked himself with concern, the conceit was so counterfeit as to announce itself in shrill overtures. He desired only the house, which to most people would have been considered a mansion.
It was exactly that, too; a mansion in the middle of Vermont’s most pristine woods. Her late husband hated people and so aspired to avoid them wherever he could. The irony, of course, was that he tried very hard to people the house with as much as his seed would yield; with his wife’s assistance, naturally.
And now, born literally and metaphorically from those efforts, his many children were conspiring to take Margaret’s house from her, just as they were conspiring to take that selfsame house from each other.
Succinctly put, they wanted Margaret out of the way, just as she had wanted her husband out of the way when he was yet living. The difference was that she had worked in accordance to wisdom and married a wealthy, older businessman— some twenty years her senior—so that Time would serve her expediently as a trustworthy hitman. Time’s accomplices, Stress and Heart Disease, also served quite loyally.
Now, Time was demanding its payment from Margaret, too, while her children demanded— in subtle words of concern— their inheritance. How could she blame them their covetousness? They had inherited such selfish traits doubly on each side of their blood. Perhaps she would have been as transparent in her greed as they were if she had not been born, too, with the witch-like cunning that possessed her.
That is not to say she had not grown to regret her own behavior. She had been born a cold, distanced girl, and so she grew to be a curt, mostly indifferent mother. Her destiny was never one aligned to the nurturer’s calling; this she knew and embraced wholeheartedly. Any milk that flowed from her bosom had been scarce, if not soured.
Margaret had married her husband John because he was wealthy, and because with his wealth came the prospect of leisure to pursue her painting. Unfortunately, the cost of the wealth was his desire for heirs, and so she surrendered to his old-fashioned notions for the sake of her one passion. A nanny was employed to compensate for Margaret’s natural disinclination toward motherliness, and John had many mistresses, which pleased Margaret as much as her husband, for it spared her any intimate relationship with him after their five children were born. Margaret had always been asexual in her preferences. Their relationship was not even platonic, truly; it was merely an abiding business transaction. Their prenuptials explicitly embraced such a condition, and both had signed their names— and so their lives— to this arrangement without hesitation.
Sometimes Margaret wondered if the only things that perpetuated her life were her paintings and the frustration her continuity caused her impatient children. She lived to spite them and to beautify. She lived as she had always lived: selfishly. She had no illusions about her virtues. Were her virtues equaled in weight to their constancy then a small thumbtack could have held their combined weight up on a wall. Nor would it have mortified her if her virtues were overlooked among the wallpaper, or even a blankly white wall.
Her heart, succinctly put, was a withered leather sack emptied of any and all keepsakes, spacious in allowing solely her paints and brushes entrance. Her husband’s death had not bothered her anymore than her children’s obvious frustration at her longevity. She lived alone, and she lived happily. No memories harried her. No regrets weighed heavily on the leather sack, as if to make it burst. She was content.
And then, one morning, things changed.

It had been raining all week, and, according to the weatherman, would continue to rain. Margaret welcomed the rain. Its pervading presence announced the silence reigning in the house with a softly thrumming echolocation. Her muse welcomed the rain also, and its hypnosis. Who cared for sunlight with its peanut gallery of forest voices always chittering and chattering? She could paint light, if need be, and there were no distractions in the shade of a thunderhead. There was only the brushing hush of the rain as it veiled the house. There was only the silent water as it colored the paper with vivacious splashes of overlapping hues.
Then the phone rang.
Margaret was so startled she dropped her paintbrush, smearing an azurn cloud as the brush twirled out and away from her knotted fingers. Stooping, she fetched up the rebellious brush and set it on the easel, then thought on whether to answer the phone.
Part of her said that she should ignore it and simply focus on restoring the smeared cloud. Another part was mourning over the body of her murdered muse as it was hauled off to the tomb for a resurrection— scheduled at whatever time was its impish fancy. The phone’s petulant noise had killed it dead.
Without her muse to distract her, Margaret decided to answer the phone, if only to unleash hell upon the caller. She wiped her hands on her apron (splattered as it was with every color imaginable) and begrudgingly walked over to the antique dial phone resting on the antique rollerdesk. Twisting her face up toward her haughtiest eyebrow— the left one—she lifted the sleek black-and-brass receiver and pressed it to her dried-up peach slice of an ear.
“What do you want, Damon?”
“Hello, mom,” he said. the word “mom” was as uncomfortable coming out of his mouth as a wisdom tooth. “I was just calling to check on you…”
“I’m not dead yet,” Margaret retorted. “Until that hour arrives, leave me to my remaining hours of peace.”
“Hold on, now,” he said. “Since you brought that up, I have to ask you, mother, about the grand piano downstairs. You haven’t said where you want it to go.”
“The grand piano?”
“The one downstairs,” he said.
“I know which one,” she snapped. “It’s the only one in the house, after all.”
“Of course, mother,” he said.
Margaret loved that grand piano. She enjoyed sitting on its bench in the morning and setting her morning coffee on its hood and just ignoring it altogether while her conniving children dreamed in vain of selling its large mahogany bulk for a small fortune. Probably to pay for a new car, perhaps, or kitchen renovations. Denying them these petty dreams pleased her.
“I do not know what I will do with it,” she said. “For now I would not worry about it.”
“But mother…”
Margaret returned the phone to the stand, then stepped away. Her mind was still mourning her Lazarus muse when the phone startled her once more with its grinding gearbox-throated birdsong. She nearly jumped with surprise. Had her muse been a vampire this would have been the stake to the heart.
“Damn it all!” she cried.
Angry, Margaret wrenched the phone up from the stand as if she would fling it across the room. Instead, she slammed it into her ear.
“What, Damon?!”
“Mother, you need to get caller ID.”
It was her eldest daughter’s voice. Laura. Her tongue clucked with jaded sarcasm. Indeed, Laura was nothing but jaded sarcasm.
“If I had caller ID I would never pick up the phone for anyone,” Margaret said.
“That’s no way to talk, mother.” Laura’s pronunciation of “mother” was as frigid and disagreeable as a governess attempting Peter Pan’s domestication.
“What do you want, Laura? I am busy trying to live before I die.”
“How appropriate,” Laura said. “That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I was speaking to Damon earlier today and he seems to think that he is going to inherit the grand piano, which I knew could not possibly be true. I was the pianist in the family. I was the one that had musical inclinations.”
“Yes, but no musical talent,” her mother retorted.
There was a long silence from Laura’s end of the phone. It ticked like a bomb, though it may have just been Laura biting her nails. At length, she spoke.
“It would be a great travesty if you were to give such a beautiful instrument to that dolt. I would flaunt it in my living room, and play it at Christmas parties. Wouldn’t you like that, mother? To know your great-grandchildren are being cultivated on the holidays with a family heirloom?”
Since Laura’s sarcasm was infectious, Margaret asked how her great-grandchildren were doing, and she did so sarcastically.
“Henry has the Measles and is having a bad go of it,” she said. “Betty’s trying her best, but you know how Henry can be.”
No, Margaret did not know how Henry “could be”. She could not for the life of her remember what he looked like. Presumably he was boyish by look and bratty by nature. That is, if he were an honest heir to the family’s blood and not another cuckoo.
“And Susan’s off to boarding school,” she continued. “We couldn’t afford to send her to the school she wanted, but it is nonetheless an excellent school. Highly recommended in the Club for people wanting the best while balancing a budget.”
Margaret shook her head ruefully. “Knowing your side of the family you might be better off sending her to a nunnery.”
Again Laura clucked her tongue.
“If you knew her you would know that she is not like that,” Laura said.
“Oh yes, just as you were never like that.”
“It is always a delight to speak with you, mother. I do believe that it becomes even more pleasant with ever passing year.”
“Yes, I don’t doubt that you welcome each year as my last, just as you think every conversation with me will be the last. Well, don’t fret too much. I intend that this should actually be our last conversation.”
This time Margaret did slam the phone down.
And once again it rang.
“Laura, I gave you what you wanted…!” she said.
“So you gave her the grand piano?” It was Eric, her youngest son. “Mom, I can’t believe you…”
“I’ve given it to no one, Eric,” she snapped. “In fact, I am thinking of having myself buried in it. Why waste money on a coffin when the grand piano would serve just as well?”
“Mom, that’s silly. You need a proper coffin…”
“It would save more money for your inheritance, wouldn’t it?”
“Mom, I know a guy who wants a piano like that and he is willing to pay forty thousand dollars for it. That’s a lot of money.”
“No, Eric, it isn’t,” Margaret returned. “Your father would make that much money in a week sometimes.”
There was a long, defeated sigh from Eric’s end. “Dad was a stock-broker, mom. Of course it wasn’t much money. But I’m a teacher, and I’ll be lucky to make that much money in a year.”
“It is not my fault you chose public service over selfish practice,” Margaret said. “We paid for your education. You were the one to aim for the ditch when you had a golden brick road to follow.”
“Mom, this isn’t about me. It’s about Ashley’s care. We’re trying to hire a specialist to work with her.”
“Ashley?”
Margaret could not be bothered to remember the names, nor even the faces, of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They were as indistinguishable to her as a nest full of chirping, gaping throats. And each one a cuckoo, too.
“Ashley, my youngest grandchild,” Eric said. “She came with us last time we visited you.”
Margaret was surprised to find that she did remember the girl. She was a quiet, self-contained child with a meek face and shy, flighty eyes. The awkward girl was perfectly innocent in her reticence and self-consciousness. Upon first seeing the girl— Ashley, was it?— Margaret wondered briefly if perhaps the girl was a cuckoo planted into her dumb grandson’s house by a roaming salesman. Or perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness. She seemed meek enough to be one.
But the poor girl did have her father’s natural pout, worsened by a surprising overbite that neither Margaret nor her husband had to such a drastic degree. Ashley was also prone to freckles, her rounded cheeks bespeckled with them like stars on a night sky. Perhaps she was a changeling. Margaret knew her grandson and his wife had nothing to do with the child. That was why Eric was looking after the girl. Margaret could not fathom it. Having to birth children and raise them was a bother enough— having to raise the children your children birthed was the never-ending spiral staircase to madness.
Be that as it may, what remembered Ashley most to Margaret, though, was her quiet disappearance during the last family visit. It had been six months ago or so and Eric had not noticed— so busy was he inspecting and cataloguing the silverware in the house— but Margaret had, and she went looking for the curious girl. Margaret found Ashley in her painting studio upstairs, standing as if rooted in the center of the room.
Margaret was at first enraged, thinking the careless and homely girl might knock something over, or damage her finished paintings that were lined up along the walls. But then she noticed the gleaming light in the girl’s otherwise murky brown eyes. It was an exciting light; a light of magic and joy and appreciation.
“Do you like it, child?” she asked her great-granddaughter.
The child did not answer, and it was then that Margaret realized that the girl was not altogether there. Back in the old days they would have called her a dumb mute, or an idiot. Margaret did not know what they called them today. Even that asinine word “special” had become passe. Perhaps, she thought, they called them something as equally ridiculous.
So Margaret walked over to Ashley and gently took her by the arm and pointed out all of the things in the painting which had taken so many countless hours to paint. The field with an old castle in the background, collapsed to ruin by the onslaught of Time’s catapults of entropy. The Black Angus cows grazing between the mossy remnants. The crenelations on the remaining walls, like broken rows of teeth, and the castle’s bowels clogged with vines. A sky morose on the horizon, darkening with black clouds.
Looking at the painting anew, with the simple girl beside her, Margaret felt like that castle was her; her old constipated, rotting, derelict body. It was sad and beautiful simultaneously, and she allowed herself one tear of self-pity, but no more.
“Mom? Mom? Are you still there?”
Margaret shook herself from her woolgathering. “Of course I am still here,” she spat into the phone. “Not dead yet, no matter however much you might wish it.”
“Mom, don’t be like that,” Eric said with all of the feeling of a door mat.
“I’ll be however I like,” Margaret retorted. “And as of right now I will be hanging up the phone.”
As said, so done.
Margaret also unplugged the phone from the wall. Then she proceeded to her easel where she painted in supreme peace for a full two hours without interruption by blood or blotch or bladder.
Rain fell heavy on the house, cascading down the windowpanes in hydra-necked rivulets. The thrum of it put Margaret at ease while she painted. A certain serenity enveloped her so utterly that she sometimes forgot to breathe as she painted, her breath growing shallower and shallower until she nearly drowned in open air. Nor did the prospect of dying at her easel scare her; it was a peaceful prospect. The only death that might be superior would be in a blaze that took the mansion and all of its contents while her children stared on in horror, calculators in hand to reckon the total wealth lost.
Margaret had started painting when she was old enough to pick up a brush and splash some cheap watercolors across a page. Her young mind marveled at the colors. It was like there was the life-forming magic of nebulas in those haphazard collisions of color. Eventually, she had to develop an artist’s discipline of form and subject, rather than continuing the Jackson Pollock method of painting inherent in all children below the age of four. Yet, discipline was as pleasurable to her adolescent mind as the splashes of colors were to her toddler mind. Thus, a passion had been born in her: the passion of creating life, or at least, visions of life. Only in this way was she motherly.
Presently, her paintbrush was creating a wild moor, its verdant expanse bordered by whimsical trees and a seaside cliff. It looked like a very persuasive travel card from the Emerald Isle. Her muse always had an affinity toward the Celtic.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang, which irritated Margaret immensely. No one should have been visiting her today. The grocery boy was supposed to come on Sundays. Not today. Moreover, it was raining heavily, which meant the groceries would be wet and would need to be dried if they were to be properly salvaged at all.
Perhaps that was why the doorbell rang so urgently.
Margaret hurried downstairs, past the living room and dining hall and into the foyer. She opened the door, expecting the grocery boy— what was his name?— and instead found her eldest son, Damon, hurrying inside with his umbrella dripping water all over her floor.
“Its raining cats and dogs outside!” Damon remarked, laughing like an idiot. “Be careful, for they will chase each other about your head and leave wet pawprints on your temples.”
He took his fedora off and shook off his wet trenchcoat, hanging both of them on the coatrack. Of all of Margaret’s children, Damon most resembled her dead husband. Perhaps that was why she could stomach the sight of him the least.
“Mother, I wanted to apologize for being so rude with you on the phone,” he said. “I know I sometimes become pushy and it is very insensitive of me. I just want you to know that I am trying to do what’s best for everyone.”
Much like his father, Damon could also lie with a straight, serious face, or with a smile, or with a laugh. It served his father well in his business practices, but such a skill was wasted on Damon. He was “in-between jobs”.
“What would be best for everyone would be to leave me alone,” Margaret said. “When I am dead and gone you can fight amongst yourselves over the house. I do not want to be in the middle of your bickering while I am still standing. At least do me the courtesy of waiting until my corpse hits the floor.”
“A fight is exactly what I intend to avoid,” Damon said. “In fact, I will finish it before it starts.”
He began walking through the house without asking leave. It infuriated Margaret. This was still her house, whatever his intentions as executor of the Will. And she had half a mind to call the police on him for trespassing.
Damon arrived at the grand piano, which resided in the living room near the large recessed window. He then proceeded to inspect the piano in the most outlandish fashion. He plucked at the strings. He rubbed a finger along each square inch of mahogany. He tapped every single key, both white and black, and paused between keys to listen to its distinct note ring and then fade to silence. Margaret was fairly sure he had no idea what a finely tuned piano should sound like. He also kneeled down to inspect the legs of the piano, and its underbelly, and finally, after shaming himself beyond what Margaret could tolerate, he took a permanent marker from his pocket and wrote on the inside of the key cover his own name, the date, and the current time as per his wristwatch.
“How dare you!” Margaret yelled. “Out! Get out!”
She pushed at him, but he was a large man, much like her husband, and did not yield an inch of ground.
“Mother, please, if you do not stop this I will have to put you in a nursing home.” He then added, as an afterthought, “For your own good.”
“That is still my piano!” she said.
“And I am the eldest,” he said, “so it will of course go to me in…due time.”
He then left for the door, grabbing his umbrella and his hat.
“If Laura or Eric call, please inform them that the matter of the piano has been settled.” He opened the umbrella, then opened the door. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Take care, mother.”
He stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Margaret returned upstairs to paint, feeling rather furious. She entered a vicious sort of trance that held sway over her for countless hours. Possessed of her newfound passion, her every spiteful thought went from neuron to brush tip like a lightning strike. It was a murderous mood most foul and perpetrated itself with gashes of gouache all over the watercolor underpainting.
When she came to herself later—brush in hand and swaying with exhaustion— she was disturbed to find her moorland painting savagely deviated from its original image. The trees were aflame, the sky was black with smoke, and the moor itself was littered with corpses mangled within shattered armor. Mass pyres burned on the horizon and women wept over fallen husbands, sons, and brothers. Swarms of black flies crowded upon the banquet of death served so generously to them. Soldiers stood in the distance, looking distraught and dismayed at the destruction they had achieved, like dogs of war waking suddenly from a bout of rabies.
And standing in the center of it all, like a grandstanding ringleader grinning at applause only he could hear, was a tall figure in a blood-red cloak.
Margaret’s eyes lingered on that strange figure, and his eyes seemed to linger on hers. Something about him seemed to pop off the page. Perhaps it was merely his red cloak, which was a complementary color to the green field.
Enough, she thought. It was past time that she had something to eat. All of the painting and family drama had exhausted her. She was also feeling dizzy and faint.
Without further ado, she walked downstairs and made a simple salad for herself, sitting on the couch in the living room and watching a little television to distract herself from the grand piano and the painting upstairs. The television chatter blended with the sound of rain pattering on the house. Neither made distinct sense in her waywardly drifting attention, but both were welcome and comforting.
Accompanying her salad was a tall glass of merlot. She kept the bottle on the coffee table, within easy reach should she have need of a refill; which she had, and numerously. She was drinking her fourth glass when she fell asleep on the couch.

Sometimes Margaret peed the bed. Sometimes her bowels betrayed her. But there was little shame in these accidents because there was no one around to shame her. She simply bleached the sheets, washed her underwear, and found a large sheet of blank paper upon which to work her frustrations into fulsome fusillades of paint.
Unfortunately, the couch was not something so easily cleaned as bed sheets. Rather, it was leather, and she had no idea how to properly clean the smell of urine off of leather. So, when she woke later, in the middle of the night, she did the only things she could do: she took a shower, threw her dirty clothes in the laundry machine, put on a nightie, and scrubbed the leather with wet, soapy rags. Whether it would clean it sufficiently or not, she did not know.
When she was finished, Margaret went into her bedroom and cried, thinking about how much she hated the thought of a nursing home and how much she hated the thought of her children rejoicing in finally exiling her from her home.

***

So long as Margaret could see, and so long as Arthritis did not clutch her hand into a gargoyle’s stony claw, she could paint serenity and beauty into her decaying life. Thus, the next morning Margaret woke up and, without food or drink or even a bathroom break, she stood at her easel and painted for four hours straight; unblinking as if in a trance. What possessed her, she did not know, but when she was finished the paper was wet with a strange scene.
It was a royal court, presided over by a king robed in crepuscular velvets and crowned with stars. The people populating his court were humanoid, but not human. Their faces were more delicately featured, some being cartoonish in their long noses and slender chins. Their ears were tapered and long, like pointy aloe leaves. The men’s faces were narrow, and the women’s faces were shaped like acorns. All wore finery of a more anachronistic make, such as lavish gowns and trim-fitted pantaloons, frocks and tunics and petticoats, vests blooming with cravats and waistlines tightly wound with whalebone-and-lace corsets. Translucent wings, such as those belonging to dragonflies, sprouted from the backs of the men, and the women were paired with butterfly wings whose diaphanous colors shimmered.
Margaret was astounded by the breadth of the details and the sheer amount of dexterous work involved in the painting. Frankly, she amazed herself. She wondered if she was suffering dementia, and if so, she concluded it her best muse yet.
And then her eye alighted upon the most dominant figure in the scene, with the exception of the twilight-robed king. There was a tall, willowy man in a bright red suit standing near to the king’s throne. He was, perhaps, the most gaudily dressed gentleman in the room, and while he was certainly handsome, there was something about his eyes— as he peered over his shoulder at Margaret— that chilled her through to her old bones. Something whispered in her ear, Oleander, and she knew, at once, that Oleander was this creature’s name.
Startled, she glanced about herself. Blood throbbed in her head and she decided that it was time she had something to eat, lest she faint.

Margaret ate eggs benedict with a cup of plain milk, the latter of which was a rarity for her. It was raining outside again, though the sun sometimes shone its light through that hushing veil. As she finished her eggs, the doorbell rang. Thinking it might be the mailman, she went to answer it.
It was not the mailman.
It was her eldest daughter, Laura.
“Hello, mother,” Laura said, stepping in with her stilettos hammer-tapping the floor. She tossed her parasol to the floor, quite unmindfully. “I came to check on you today. Damon said you were in extreme duress yesterday.”
“You should be in extreme duress,” Margaret said, “wearing high-heels in this weather.”
“You still have your spirit, at least,” Laura said, puncturing the silence of the house with each piercing step. “God willing, mind and body will remain, too.”
She pretended to give the foyer an equal glance over— here and there— but soon arrived at her obvious purpose for the visitation: the grand piano in the living room. She walked around it, inspecting it casually, feigning disinterest before lifting the key cover and running a ringed finger along Damon’s name. She clucked her tongue and stomped her heel like a billiard ball striking another billiard ball, and another, and another.
“That selfish bastard,” she said. “He knew I wanted it. He knew I deserved it. He had never shown any interest in it until he found out what it was worth. I remember when we were children and he would mock me for playing it. He had no ear for good music.”
“None of you ever did,” her mother said.
Laura ignored her. She had a purse at her side— a black leather, diamond-studded gaudy thing— from which she fetched a tube of fingernail polish remover. She then proceeded to dab at Damon’s name and the date with the odorous little brush. While the acetone ate at the permanent marker, she stood by and waited. Then, using a handkerchief, she wiped away the ink, as well as some of the piano’s finish.
“Right as rain,” she remarked, folding the handkerchief and returning it to her purse.
“Nothing is as ‘right as rain’,” Margaret grumbled.
Laura then proceeded to take a turn about the lower level of the house, from the living room to the kitchen, to the utility room and the pantry and the dining room. It was mostly an open-floor plan on the first floor, and so each of her stiletto-steps echoed pointedly throughout the house. Margaret followed her, outraged and yet helpless.
Whereas Damon resembled his father, Laura resembled her mother. She differed, however, in that she was taller and younger, and thus vainer. This was why Margaret could suffer her presence even less than her other children’s. The very reason Margaret painted so much was so she could escape herself, and yet here was a walking, talking reminder of all of her former earthly vanities.
Returning to the living-room, Laura suddenly paused in her perambulation. The click of her stilettos stopped, ending with a cluck of her tongue that seemed louder than her punctuated walk.
“Why does it smell like pee in here?” she asked.
Livid with anger and shame, Margaret lied. “The cat peed on the couch.”
“I didn’t know you had a fondness for cats,” Laura replied, craning her neck to look for the errant beast.
“I don’t,” Margaret said, “which is why I had to rid myself of it.”
“I see,” was Laura’s stiff reply.
Laura gave the house one last sardonic look. “Well, mother, I suppose I should be going. Julio and I are set to take the grandchildren to the beach.”
“To the beach?” Margaret said. “But it is too cold for the beach.”
“Copacabana beach, mother,” Laura said, curtly. “We’re taking Julio’s company jet there this evening. Long trip, of course, but worth the eleven hour flight. Little Laura has been so looking forward to it. She can hardly wait.”
Margaret could only nod. She could not remember what “Little Laura” looked like. She supposed she looked like a little Laura, which was to say, a girl not unlike what Margaret herself resembled when still young; a happy, pretty, spoilt, naive little girl. Not so bent and embittered and soured to life as Margaret was now.
“Well, take care, mother,” Laura said, heading to the door. “Try not to fall down the stairs or anything. If Damon comes by again, tell him he can put his name wherever he likes. I have plenty of remover to wipe away any claim he might make.”
Laura left and Margaret fumed. The pettiness of her children, and the invasiveness of their visits, infuriated her. There was no end to it, except, perhaps, the end. And it was all so uncalled for. Laura was very wealthy; perhaps wealthier than Margaret had ever been. Her husband, Julio, was a derivatives market conquistador from South America. A bronzed man with an aquiline profile, he had a black ponytail and was built like a professional soccer player, even as he entered his mid-fifties. Margaret’s dead husband hated him, more for their similarities than their ethnic differences. And that was why Laura had married him. That, and his financial liquidity. The plain fact of the matter was that Laura could have bought any piano she wanted, but she wanted Margaret’s piano precisely because Damon wanted it, and Damon wanted it because Laura wanted it. At least Eric was honest about wishing to sell it, not that such honesty earned any appreciation from Margaret. An honest thief was still a thief.

Margaret returned upstairs to her studio. The next painting came spontaneously and without forethought or reflection. Margaret welcomed her muse and became its willing conduit. Like a bloodhound on the trail, she followed it with single-minded devotion. When she had finished, and woken from the magical mesmerism, she looked at her painting with a stranger’s eyes.
It was an outdoor scene where a king in a crepuscular robe and star-studded crown was walking through an apple orchard. Arrayed around him were many smaller fairies— perhaps sprites— all sitting in the boughs of the trees, or flitting through the air, or hiding under flowers and roots. Beside the king stood the same devilish dandy in his crimson cloak that smirked in Margaret’s other two paintings.
Oleander.
Lord Oleander, something told her.
In this painting he was much closer to the viewer, his features elaborated upon with greater scrutiny. Lord Oleander was a tall, willowy sort of dandy, with conceitedly long blonde curls. In that slender foppishness, however, was the cold, sharp promise of anger, like an unsheathed rapier with a flowery handguard to distract from its blade. He was the sort of blade which never sheathed itself but reluctantly, and then only to lower his target’s guard and trick them for a killing strike.
The devilish dandy was gesturing the king toward a ring of mushrooms in the center of the orchard. The king, who was a bent and sallow looking old fellow, nonetheless beamed with a genuine grandfatherly sort of smile. He could not see the kris dagger in the dandy’s other hand.
Margaret took a few steps back, then leaned forward, peering. She stepped forward again and leaned back, peering. No matter how she looked at the painting, she felt like she was painting someone else’s painting—not her own. Where did this painting come from? Where had it been hiding inside her all this time?
Letting the paper dry, Margaret walked to the studio window and looked outside. The massive Vermont pine trees were standing like soggy, shaggy green beasts wishing they could come in out of the incessant rain. Some perverse part of her wanted to see her spiteful children standing out in this rain, wanting to come in, just so she could deny them entry and watch the rain taunt them with its cold wetness.
“I am a bad mother,” she said to her ghostly reflection in the window. “I have always been a bad mother. That is why I have bad children.”
She walked downstairs, found the half-empty bottle of merlot, and carried it to bed.

***

The ringing of the bedroom phone woke Margaret from her drunken slumber in the middle of the night. It was Chris, her youngest son.
“Heya’, mom, I just wanted to give you a call,” he slurred into the phone.
“Chris, it is three in the morning.”
“It is? Aw well, it ain’t no biggie. How ya’ doin’, mom?”
“You’ve been drinking again,” Margaret said. It was not a question. She leaned over to put the phone back down on the stand, but the empty bottle of merlot fell to the floor, ringing and rolling. “Chris, you know the court will not like it if they find you’ve been drinking again.”
“Ain’t no big deal,” Chris slurred, blithely. There was a sound similar to a bullfrog’s throat engorging and croaking, ending with a wet smack of lips and a throaty sigh of satisfaction. “My parole officer doesn’t know where I am.”
“You get involved in another hit and run, Chris, and you’re on your own! I’m not paying to bail you out!”
“You didn’t pay last time,” he snorted. “You let me rot in jail.”
“I gave Mr. Setter the money and he took care of everything.”
“Mr. Setter? Oh yeah. The mute suit. Fucking stuck-up sonnabitch wouldn’t say a damn word to me.”
“That is because he is a lawyer who knows when to speak and when not to,” Margaret quipped. “Something you never learned, obviously.”
“You were always a cold ass, mom,” Chris said.
Behind him came a volley of voices and the distorted blast of music from static-eaten speakers. The occasional chinking of long-necked glass told Margaret all she needed to know. He was at a bar. Knowing Chris, she guessed it was in all likelihood a dive-bar.
“The boys and I are goin’ for a run later,” Chris said. “We’re going to pick up some girls. But don’t worry, mom. Sheridan’s driving. Or Joseph, maybe. Wait a second…” He shouted away from the phone. “Hey! Who’s driving?! Thomas? Fuck all, I might as well be driving…”
Margaret hung up the phone. She had no patience for drunkards, especially those who cost her money.

Margaret tossed and turned for the remainder of the night. When she got up in the morning she had a migraine that not even Columbian coffee could allay. Wanting to paint, but unable to concentrate, she took a long hot shower and then laid on the couch in the living room, listening to the rain continue its hushing thrum upon the rooftop.
Gradually, the trenchant pain in her head dissolved into a lax pool of numbness, and with it her consciousness. She slipped, gratefully, into a restful nap.
She was startled awake by what sounded like an intruder upstairs. Fearful for her life— whatever little of it remained to her— she stood up and walked to the kitchen, quietly taking a butcher knife from a drawer. Cautiously, she walked upstairs, her house slippers whispering to each other as she baby-stepped across the floor.
There was the sound of tearing paper, and of tearing tape, of what must have been her easel as its three legs were rattled into a new position while the intruder moved it. What was the intruder doing up there?
Upstairs now, Margaret sidled toward her studio door. Her nerves were electrified with anxiety and fear, and static electricity. The friction of the hall rug was building static in her furry pom-pom slippers. The hairs on her neck stood at attention. Scared to breathe, she craned her neck around the doorframe and peered into her study.
No one was there. She checked behind the door, and near her stacks of paintings against the wall. She even checked the window and found that it was fastened tightly against the elements, permitting no entry or exit. As she was turning from the window the phone rang in the bedroom, giving her a violent start. She jumped.
“Damn it all!” she gasped.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she walked to the master bedroom and answered the phone.
“Heya’, mom,” said a chippery girl’s voice without a care or wear in the world. “What’cha’ doing?”
“Angela?” Margaret said, unsure.
“Duh, mom,” Angela said, giggling. “Did you forget me?”
“No, I did not,” Margaret said. “It is hard to forget you when I am still getting bills for your credit cards. You know, I am seriously contemplating canceling your cards.”
Angela laughed nervously. “Oh, mom, you wouldn’t do that. You’d leave me stranded in the middle of France without any way to live or get by.”
“You could always find a job,” Margaret said. “Washing dishes. Cleaning rooms. Oh, but you never learned how to do anything for yourself, did you?”
Angela’s chippery voice flattened with gravitas. “Mom, I am taking care of myself just fine. I stay in cheap hostels and…”
Margaret cut her off. “Nothing is cheap in Paris. I have the bills to prove it.”
There was a long pause on Angela’s end. When she spoke again it was with a measured amount of optimism. “My novel is coming along. Jean believes it will do well in France. Maybe even the rest of Europe.”
If Margaret was a young woman again she would have rolled her eyes. Instead, one of her eyes simply twitched with frustration. “And what is this novel about again?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, mom. It’s about a young American woman living in France who falls in love with a mysterious man with a dark past.”
“How very…romantic,” Margaret remarked, the word as corrosive in her mouth as acid. It invoked Cherubim, and immediately shot them down from heaven.
“Jean has many literary contacts in Paris,” Angela said, heedless of her mother’s sarcasm. “Publishers, agents, critics. He says they are all interested in me.”
“Just make sure you don’t meet them in dark alleys after midnight,” Margaret said.
“Don’t make fun, mom,” Angela said.
“I’m not making fun,” Margaret replied, seriously. “I am speaking in earnest.”
Angela was the youngest of all of her children, born unexpectedly when Margaret should have been going through menopause. Margaret was not even certain Angela belonged to her husband. Had Margaret not been there herself for the delivery, she would have questioned whether Angela belonged to her, too. In her late twenties, the adventurous girl still acted like a teenager on Summer Break; all year long.
“Once my novel is published I will be able to pay my own bills,” Angela said. “Actually, I will be able to pay you back for all of the bills you have paid for me.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Margaret said.
“Stop making fun of me, mom,” Angela said. “I will be able to take care of myself. You’ll see.”
“Of course,” Margaret said.
“I mean, I know you won’t be around forever. I’ve got to get my shit together.” She dropped her voice again. “By the way, mom, what are you doing with the house? I mean, I don’t want to own it, but can’t there be a clause in the Will somewhere that says I can stay there whenever I want? I bet I could really write a lot if I set up a desk and computer in your old study.”
Margaret bit her tongue.
“By the way, mom, have you figured out what you’re going to do with that grand piano? Jean plays in a band and…”
Margaret slammed the phone down with a very satisfying bang.
Her fear, now, was completely replaced by fury. She went through the entire house, finding phones and unplugging them. This done, she went upstairs to paint.

Hours later, a painting sprawled across the heavy-weighted paper, centered on the crimson-cloaked dandy. He stood victorious in the court now, all of the crepuscular tapestries hanging from the walls replaced with blood red tapestries in likeness to himself. Lord Oleander. The throne was refurnished with carmine velvet and a new crown sat upon his head, its petals forged from a reddish-gold.
“What a horrid creature,” Margaret said, distastefully.
Everyone in the Elfin court— from lord to lady, peasant to soldier— bowed low to Lord Oleander, their faces twisted with disgust and fear and impotent rage. The crimson dandy basked in the bitter emotions of his subjects, a joyful smirk wrinkling his long, narrow face. In an upraised hand the kris blade glittered in the morning light, the head of the old king impaled through the eye for all to see.
Margaret heard the the front door open and close downstairs. Then came the heavy clomping of boots as the intruder walked through the lower floor. The tread sharpened as the intruder went from the rug-lined foyer to the tiled kitchen and then the wood-paneled living-room.
“Mother?”
The intruder’s voice was more curiosity than concern. His tread sharpened again as he came near the bathroom. There was a knocking at the door, which Margaret knew was open.
“Mother?”
The intruder headed upstairs.
“Mother, where are you?”
He came up to the landing, then spotted her through the open door.
“Mother, you really should answer me when I call to you,” Damon said. “I was afraid something might have happened to you.”
“Oh, really?” she retorted. “Is that why you took your time walking through the house? Make sure I’m good and dead before you find my body and have to call an ambulance?”
“Mother, this attitude of yours does not help anyone.”
“Were you in my house earlier today?” she demanded.
He looked at her all agog. “Of course not, mother. I have been at Mr. Setter’s office, adjusting the Will. Was someone in the house?”
“I…I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was just a squirrel in the attic.”
“Are you sure you are not hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”
“Oh, I hear more voices than I care to,” she said. “Especially right now.”
Damon ignored the quip and instead looked over his mother’s shoulder at the painting she was working on.
“What a horrific scene,” he observed, though his flat and impassive tone did not indicate that he was seeing anything that struck him as horrific. “Mother, I worry about your mental… stability. You shouldn’t be painting things like this.”
“I worry about your mental feasibility,” Margaret returned. “All your life I’ve worried about it. For you see, Damon, you are an idiot, and I do believe that had I been a more attentive mother I would have remedied your natural deficiencies to the best of my abilities. Which is to say, I would have sent you to a school for the handicapped.”
“Don’t be so rude, mother.”
“I’ll be however I’ll be,” she said. “I grow tired of my children telling me not to be as I am inclined.”
“It’s just that you have had, for some time now, a very twisted view of everything, mother…”
“My head’s on straighter than yours,” she rallied. “I see things as they are; not as I’d like them to be. I can see, for instance, that you’re looking forward to my death so much that you can’t see anything else, including how foolish you are in your transparency.”
“Mother…”
She pointed her paintbrush at him as if she were mugging him with a knife. “You are hurrying me to the grave, but I won’t go quickly. Eventually, yes, but in my own time.”
Damon stared at the paintbrush with an unimpressed frown.
“That’s not true, mother. I want you to live as long as you can. Many years more, in fact. And I want you to live them happily. That is why you need to go where a professional medical staff can look after you. Riverside Retirement Villa has an excellent rating with…”
“I am going to die in my own home,” she snapped. “If that means breaking my hip on the stairs and starving to death all alone, then so be it. But if you force me out and I die somewhere else I promise you that I will move back in here and haunt you forever. I promise you that, Damon.”
“Mother, no one wants to force you out…”
Margaret laughed; a bursting sort of abbreviated laugh that someone might make if they had been run through with a rapier upon hearing the particularly powerful punchline to a joke.
“I’ve never seen so many buzzards fighting over an animal still alive and out of reach. Is there not some roadkill down the street that can sate your appetite in the meantime?”
“Mother, you do your children a great disservice…”
“You are right,” she said. “I should have never had children. I should have had my lady bits cut out so you wouldn’t have to grow up to become…me. I’m tired of you. Leave now.”
“Mother.”
“Out, I said!”
Damon left, though not soon enough, and Margaret returned her attention to the painting she had been working on.
“Lord Oleander,” she said, staring at the crimson-cloaked dandy.
King Oleander, someone said.

That evening Margaret went to bed early. She could not sleep, and she cried. She did not cry maudlin tears, or even tears of self-pity; they were tears of frustration and anger. She had never in her whole life cried out of anger. It was a new experience.
“Might as well get that out of the way,” she said aloud, wiping wrathfully at the tears. “Before the end. There’s a first time for everything, even in a long life like mine.”
Margaret knew she had been selfish in her choice of husband. She had chosen him because she thought he would die early and allow her the financial freedom she desired. But instead of finding freedom she had found her children readily assuming his role as oppressor. They, in turn, thought that she was selfish in her sternness. Yet, they did not know what it was like to be married to their father. Love was not an essential factor of life, for her or for him, but he was needlessly cruel to her. Indeed, that she had so many children was confirmation of the way that he dictated how her life should be.
“I will cause a scene at my own funeral,” she vowed. “I will decompose quicker than usual and make the pallbearers flee from the stench. I will make a scene for the newspapers, and their articles shall hound my children forever more.”
Lightning flashed beyond the windows. A downpour began, hammering the mansion with its own angry tears.
Unable to sleep, Margaret climbed out of bed and went down to the kitchen. She poured a glass of water for herself and sipped from it absently while she returned upstairs. In the second storey hallway she saw her studio shrouded in shadow. A flash of lightning illuminated the easel. The tripod stood in the center of the room, like a ghoul, its shelf a jaw splattered with paint that looked like blood in the brief flashes of light.
She turned and looked at the master bedroom, and hated it. She hated the bed that sprawled there, insolent with its parted sheets. This, she thought, was the bed that begot her life. This was the marital bed, the conception bed, the deathbed. This was the hateful apparatus whereby her husband exercised his continual control over her.
Upset, she slammed the bedroom door shut and went into the study. Using the glass of water she had brought upstairs to drink, she worked in the epileptic luminescence of the thunderstorm, welcoming both the light and the shadows that fought over the embattled painting there.
The hours passed quickly. Midnight came and fled on fleet raven wings. Then came the witching hours and they were more riddled with thunder and lightning than anytime before. Once the creative seizure was over, she looked at the painting for the first time.
There were children impaled on pikes while parents mourned on bent knees. Babies were bashed across walls and thrown from windows like refuse onto the cobblestone walkways. Men and women were being skinned and bled dry, their blood flowing in runnels that converged on the royal robe of the new king. He sat in the center of it all, rejoicing on a throne of bone. He wore a vest of flayed skin and drank from a goblet brimming with the blood of innocents.
“King Oleander,” she said.
“Emperor Oleander,” said someone behind her.
She turned and staggered, clutching at her chest. Standing there, in the dim light of her study, was the crimson-cloaked dandy himself: Oleander. He was half-shrouded in shadow, and flickered into stark relief with every lightning flash through the window.
“I had not the luxury of time during my last visit to address you directly,” the tall fairy said. “I was so preoccupied with the Purification in my kingdom that I could scarcely afford my attentions being anywhere else. But I am encouraged to see that you, for your own sake, took to my dictation and have been allotting the appropriate amount of your time to the most important priorities of your life. Namely, recording my legendary ascension to the crown— and with it a new age unlike any other.”
Margaret could only stare in astonishment at this crimson gentleman. She feared she was suffering a stroke-induced hallucination. Any moment she feared a vesicle should burst in her brain.
“Granted, I should be offended that my glorious reign should be recorded by someone of your breeding and background,” the fairy continued to say, “but I am of a charitable character when Fate decides it so, and so I will gladly allow you the honor of being my chronicler.”
He paused, seemingly awaiting her reply. There came none and so he continued.
“You are overwhelmed by my presence. It is only natural. But I am afraid that this arrangement will soon come to an end. Rejoice in the service you have rendered me, for while I will live on, as recorded here, you will soon depart from your mortal coil. The whole of your life was for the making of this tribute to me.”
Margaret looked at the painting again, in the flashing luminescence stabbing through the window, and then at the crimson dandy with his habitual sneer.
“Allow me to paint you one final time,” she said suddenly, “so as to better capture your majesty.”
The malicious fairy’s face curdled into a vicious smile. “One final painting? You are dedicated, mortal. Very well. Yes. Yes, I suppose that it is enough of a reward for a lowly mortal to be the chronicler of my unequaled magnificence.” He turned to leave, but hesitated, speaking over his shoulder. “But do well by me in this, your last tribute, or else you will suffer.”
“I promise you that the execution will be perfect,” she said.
The next morning Margaret sketched for hours trying to force her willful muse to depict the Execution of Emperor Oleander. But to no avail. No matter how much she tried to enslave her muse to her dictation, the wild-willed wanton refused submission. The sketches were a disordered mess of smeared graphite and blurred erasures. When she attempted to paint the most successful among her failures she found no respite from her contentious muse. The paint bled and fled wherever it would, like a wounded beast, and she could not corral it into an orderly stillness. Had she been a more attentive mother with her children, all those many years ago, perhaps she would have learned the patience and authority to overmaster her own errant inner child. But she had not and now that spoilt brat would not bend or bow, defiant with every little artistic impulse.
Frustrated, Margaret walked downstairs to get away from her studio, and her muse. She turned on the television and flipped through a few channels, arriving at some absurd soap opera. Normally she abhorred drama, but this she watched with dawning enlightenment. The tone-deaf drama represented on-screen what was likely the kind of absurdist scene that would soon follow her own demise. Torrential arguments. Fish-eyed gawping outrage. Frigid shoulders and the soul-crushing gravity of disappointment. Theatrical tantrums. Histrionic fits. Pity parties to surfeit.
The prospect of such melodrama would have been wonderful if not for the fact that she would be too dead to relish it. A pyrrhic victory was all she had remaining for herself.
Margaret turned off the tv and plugged in a phone. She called Mr. Setter, the family lawyer. She informed him that she desired to review the Will.
“Of course, Margaret,” he said.
Mr. Setter had learned early on in their business relationship that Margaret preferred to be called by her given name rather than by her married name.
“I do not know what is in the Will,” Margaret confessed. “I’ve forgotten. Could you bring it here so I could read over it? I do not go out much these days.”
“Yes, I can arrange to have that done,” Mr. Setter said. “Do you wish for the Executor to be present also?”
“No. No, I will handle this myself.”
“Then I will send it over with my secretary this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Setter.”
The business call ended, Margaret unplugged the phone.

A few hours later, Mr. Setter’s secretary, Skyler, arrived with the folder containing the Will. She was a mousy-looking, bespectacled thing in a brown overcoat that was as plain as she was. Margaret envied Skyler insomuch as Skyler, when she aged, would have little to mourn as she became older. She had less for Time to steal, in other words— less beauty, less wealth, less vanities and pretensions. That was a comfort to be cherished in and of itself, she thought, for the homely among us.
Margaret read through the Will while sitting at the grand piano. There were few specifics in the Will regarding the actual estate. In fact, the overall Will seemed to be more of an afterthought than a genuine summation of Margaret’s overall material existence. And it seemed to have a defiant sort of vagueness to it, as if it was procrastinating in denial that the event that the document addressed, DEATH, would ever come to pass. It seemed to acknowledge the possibility in mere abstraction and without any serious concern of its inevitability or its repercussions.
Margaret frowned down at the document for some time, forcing her mind to accept what it represented: a glimpse into the future; the cold, dead-eyed stare of her own corpse as she was hauled off to be embalmed and buried. Skyler, meanwhile, stood aside with all of the calm, quiet patience ingrained in a a bookish woman who had been ignored all of her life.
Margaret laid the Will on the grand piano and then, after a moment’s hesitancy, fetched a pen and a pad of paper. For the next two hours she catalogued the possessions in the house and designated to whom each would be granted upon the time of Margaret’s death. It was no easy feat, especially since it confronted her not only with the starkness of her mortality, but the thought of her children rejoicing in these things they had coveted of her for so long.
When Margaret came to the thought of her paintings and what would become of them, she wrote that she wanted them to be buried with her. Then she remembered little Ashley— Ashley was her name, wasn’t it?— and how that mute girl would stare at the paintings as if they were magically entrancing her. Margaret scratched out her selfish post-mortem request and wrote down “To my great-granddaughter, Ashley Tess: ALL of my paintings”.
Margaret was resolved. She would not be an atheist pharaoh hoarding her most prized treasures for an afterlife she did not believe in. There was no better afterlife, in her sardonic modern view, than in the eyes of a mute who could say nothing and simply stare at her great-grandmother’s paintings. The girl could not speak ill of Margaret, even if she had wanted to. In truth, Margaret regretted not having spent more time with the child.
It was as Margaret was signing and dating the catalogue that Damon arrived. He looked momentarily stricken to see Mr. Setter’s secretary there, but soon overcame that fleeting sign of weakness and introduced himself with a big, deceitful smile.
“Hello,” he said, shaking her hand. “You must be Skyler. I believe I’ve seen you in Mr. Setter’s office. You are his personal assistant, yes?”
“Secretary,” Margaret said, enemy of all euphemisms.
Skyler would have scowled at Margaret, but a tall, handsome man was showing her attention; never mind that he was old enough to be her father.
“Yes, Mr. Tess, I am Mr. Setter’s personal assistant.”
Margaret chuckled. They ignored her.
“What brings you to my house?” Damon asked.
“It is my house…” Margaret began, but Skyler was too mesmerized by Damon to hear. He was handsome for an older gentleman.
“Mrs. Tess was just reviewing the Will,” Skyler said, making herself an eternal foe to Margaret.
“Oh really?” returned Damon. He looked at his mother in mock-surprise. “So you are finally treating it with the seriousness it deserves, mother?”
Margaret wanted to slap that ridiculous fedora off his head, along with his head. “I am just making sure that everyone gets their due.”
“Now, see, that’s the most sensible thing you have said since father passed away.”
Margaret looked to the heaven’s for patience, and found none. She pushed the notepad into Skyler’s hands. “Here, secretary. See that Mr. Setter gets that today. I am done with visitors. You can see each other out.”
She turned and walked toward the stairs.
“This is a happy coincidence,” Damon was saying to Skyler. “I have business with Mr. Setter later today. Maybe you and I can go out for dinner afterwards? My treat…”

The outrage Margaret felt focused her mind into the shackles necessary to chain and bend her muse to her will. She was angry— with herself and with Damon, and even with Skyler— for she realized, too late, what Damon would do. He would not let her have her last wishes as she wanted them. He would deny his mother her last dignity.
Her last dignity stolen, Margaret painted and painted; all evening she painted. Her muse finally surrendered to her rigors and she worked with the forethought and deliberation that she had lacked her entire artistic life. Even so, she knew it was killing her muse in the process. The sacrifice of freedom was too great and her muse started to wither, even as Margaret’s skill bloomed one final time.
When Margaret finished she stepped back and looked at the painting with tears of pride and of loss, for she knew it was the best and the last painting that she would ever make. Reconciling herself with fate, Margaret then walked through the house— her house— and looked over its contents. She tapped a few keys on the grand piano; not for spite or defiance, but because it was just nice to hear the keys ring in the dead silence of the home.
This done, Margaret felt extremely sleepy. She returned upstairs and laid down on the studio’s floor. Rain came again, calming in its pattering pall. Margaret listened to it with her eyes closed. She thought she heard someone in the room.
But I am the one and only Oleander! You cannot do this to me! I am your emperor! I am your god!
Margaret sighed contentedly.
Then she passed away.
***
A year later— after the burial and the distribution of the estate and its effects— there was an art gallery exhibition in New York for the Margaret Tess collection. Damon Tess secured the showing after spreading word about his mother’s mental breakdown and the subsequent paintings of strange, deranged worlds that visited her deteriorating mind while she dwelled in “misanthropic isolation”. Since Alzheimer’s was a very popular crusade among the New York intelligentsia, it proved to be an excellent marketing strategy. Damon had the potential of making millions from the auction on the following month.
The premiere was crowded. Many high-profile New Yorkers came. There were reporters, art critics, celebrities, and even a few local politicians. But while all of the self-important adults were chattering and clattering wine glasses, a little girl was walking from one painting to the next, unnoticed by the insular crowd gathered there.
She was strange, this girl, and very quiet. Had anyone engaged her they would have found her doe-eyed and mute. She stopped in front of the painting entitled “Dementia On Trial: Losing One’s Head”. The girl’s granduncle, Damon, boasted that it was the last painting his mother had completed before she was found dead in her studio. The tale of his grisly discovery had already been revisited multiple times by her granduncle, and was likely to be revisited many times more before the auction next month. But the girl did not care about such things. She had a mind only for the painting itself.
The painting depicted a crowd of strange-looking people who were gathered around a chopping block where a tall, slender fop had just been executed with an ax. There was no joy in the faces of the crowd as they looked on the decapitated corpse; only unabated anger that would live on for generations.
The little girl’s ear tingled suddenly. It caught the notes of piano keys tiptoing daintily in the air. Enamored, she followed the sound past the self-absorbed adults and out of the gallery room. Down a hallway she went, toward the storage area of the gallery. The hallway was dark and dusty. She passed a broom closet and a single-toilet bathroom. At the end of the hall opened to a large, spacious room that was murky except for a bright candle sitting on a grand piano in the center of the floor. Coming closer, the little girl recognized the piano. She did not recognize, however, the strange man sitting on the piano stool.
His ears were pointy and his head was narrow and he was very tall, gangly, and yet graceful with his long fingers. He wore a strange suit unlike the tuxedos flocking about in the gallery. It was the color of twilight, this suit, and had a flowery bloom at the neck. On his head was a simple crown of silver saplings uncoiling toward. He was the handsomest man the little girl had ever seen. And he had wings like a dragonfly’s.
The young man stopped playing the piano and turned to the little girl. There was something in his lap. He picked it up and gave it to her.
“The settling of debts, my little princess,” he said.
The little girl looked at the thing in her hands. The room fell to darkness, then, and when she looked up again the young man and the piano were gone. She left the room and went down the hallway. Turning back, she found that the room, too, was gone. She returned to the gallery.
“Ashley! Ashley, don’t stray!”
Ashley looked at her grandmother, then down at the thing in her hands. She returned to her grandparents with a slow, confused stride. They were standing next to her grandaunt Laura, though Laura did not seem pleased by their presence.
“Eric, I told you not to bring her,” Laura whispered harshly. “She will make a scene.”
“Oh, she is just looking at mom’s paintings,” Eric said, smiling nervously. “She always liked mom’s paintings. More than anybody else.”
“That tells you a lot, doesn’t it?” Laura mumbled to herself before taking a sip of wine.
Ashley’s grandmother scowled. “Says more about Margaret’s children than it does about her great-grandchildren.”
Laura rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue.
Ashley held out the thing the prince had given her.
“What’s this, honey?” Eric asked.
The little girl handed the notepad to her grandfather. Eric smiled and read the first page. At first his eyes skimmed the long list with a polite, albeit disinterested, gaze. Then his eyes widened, scouring each line in shocked disbelief. He saw the signature and the date at the bottom of the page and gawped. A moment later he shut his mouth and ground his jaw, as if chewing stiff leather.
“Laura,” he said, as evenly as possible, “you, Damon, and I have some things to talk about.” He slapped his palm with the notepad. “Many important things.”
“Surely, it can wait,” returned Laura, sighing. “Damon’s about to give another boring toast to mother.”
“Well, I don’t think things will be boring for long. In fact, I think war is on the way.”
Laura blew smoke lazily from her cigarette. “What are you talking about?”
“Theft,” he said, slapping the notepad again. “Shameless theft.”
His jaded sister rolled her eyes in disinterest. “Don’t make a scene, Eric. Mother wouldn’t have wanted it at her first official gallery showing.”
“To the contrary,” he said, “That is exactly what mother always wanted. A memorable scene for the newspapers to write about.”
Eric walked over to his brother— standing amidst his rapt audience as he spoke of how much he had agonized over his mother’s well-being— and slapped the glass out of his hand. He then slapped the fedora off of his head. When Damon opened his mouth to voice his outrage, Eric held up the notepad for all to see. The flush of fury in Damon’s cheeks abruptly drained to a sickly pallor. He looked like a dog about to be beaten by the newspaper. And he was.
“This is Margaret Tess’s last Will and Testament,” Eric said. “And it says that my brother here is a scheming thief trying to rob her great-granddaughter out of her rightful inheritance…”
As the journalists hurriedly jotted down notes, Eric began to read his mother’s last Will and Testament aloud for all to hear. It proved quite the scene and later only added to the mystique of the paintings. Art historians argue to this day that the family infighting only increased the value of the paintings, the scandal multiplying their worth manifold among collectors. After a lengthy court battle the paintings came to belong to Margaret’s mute great-granddaughter since she was, according to the Will, the only person who appreciated Margaret’s art while Margaret was alive. Ashley retained ownership of the paintings until her death many years later. No one currently knows where the paintings reside. Only Ashley knew, and she, of course, never told a soul.

Counterpane

That great vestal kingdom spread wide
with three circular walls around its castle
and vast, unsown fields on either side
untouched by each virtuous vassal.
A young princess lived there, in love and duty,
and was fated to be the queen of that land
once the world had given equal to her beauty
a man, in marriage, to take in hand.
But until that time, when she was ready,
her father remained lord over that realm,
keeping it safe, prosperous, and steady
until she was of age to assume the helm.
Her father’s castle had four tall towers
like the four posts of a curtained bed,
and the outer walls had held off many powers
that sought to conquer their curtained spread.

But there soon came a conqueror whose strength
was unmatched, his forces crafty and cruel,
and he deployed a small force, who, at length,
breached the first wall with ropes from a spool.
Once over, they opened the portcullis gate
and invited the wicked army past the defenses,
the king’s loyal army realizing all too late
what had happened— and lost their senses.
The second wall was buttressed with earthen mounds
heaped up like luxuriant pillows, and archers
stood guard from atop those vantage grounds,
yet it did not detour the invading marchers.
The invaders used gunpowder, sulphur, and fire
to blow a hole in the second chastity wall,
then charged in, shields raised high ere
the arrows could be released to kill them all.
The invaders climbed each bulwark mound
and slew the archers, (having outflanked them),
then turned their bloodlusting eyes around
to the final wall protecting the inner sanctum.
This wall was tall and crenelated at its stoop
and the defenders poured hot oil down below
to boil the invaders into canned soup;
yet the warlord would not heed the word “No.”

The siege came to a standstill, then, neither side
able to overcome the other’s forces,
but the warlord vowed he would not be denied
and ordered the trebuchets fitted with horses.
They launched the dead horses, like jeers,
and the rotten creatures spread a disease
like the black plague, thought gone for years,
but which spreads with rats and mice and fleas.
They stripped the outer walls of their stones
and used them, too, as salvoes cast
to strike the wall and break its bones
until it crumbled with each subsequent blast.
The wall fallen, in poured the horde,
killing all save the royal family members
whom they took before their warlord
while they stripped trees of their timbers.
For they created a platform of dread
crowned with a headsman’s chopping block
and, one by one, each royal lost their head
until the princess began her final walk.
The warlord looked upon that beauty
and he coveted her for his own,
so, he said he would marry her, as a duty
to legitimize his right to the throne.

The wedding was over rather quickly
and the warlord took her upstairs with a grin,
pushing her forward, and talking thickly
with drink and lust and the promise of more sin.
He stripped her dress with fumbling haste
and shoved her upon the bed with a laugh,
then began kissing her chest and her waist,
working his way up and down, fore and aft.
Nude in the fateful bedding hour,
she slipped out a small, hidden blade
and, with one slash, toppled his tyrant’s tower
at the base—unmanned, thus unmade—
then slipped the blade back in its sheath,
watching him bleed out, with pleasure.
At length, she masked herself in grief,
and dressed herself at her own leisure.
As for the blood dripping between her legs,
no one said anything, knowing of beddings,
and so she left, free, untainted by his dregs,
having avenged her family and their beheadings.

Ghillie Dhu

GHILLIE DHU

It was the first of Spring when lonely little Juliette began writing letters to herself and placing them under mossy rocks and in the rotten crowns of dead tree trunks and in the intermingling branches of the forest bordering her family’s farm. These letters were often simple of nature and pretty of hand. They said things like “Have a splendid day,” or “May the sun shine be bright in your heart, and the shade be cool on your head,” which was a popular saying in the village. She would even write, most indulgently, “Rainbows above and flowers below, grow nothing but love in all that you sow.” These messages this fair-haired girl wrote in whatever little spare time was afforded to her between chores, for the girl desperately longed for a playmate of her own.
And then, on the morning of March 32nd, while going to fetch these letters she wrote to herself (just after milking the cows and just before feeding the chickens), Juliette found that someone had taken her letters she had written and had replaced them with letters in a strange, scratchy hand. She was shocked, and delightedly so, but also confused, for in each answer there was but just one little riddle that, once woven together, meant so much more:
“Where the birch trees seem to lurch
and the owls pause in poise to perch,
come find me beneath the old oak tree,
for there you will see what games may be.”
Juliette knew of this old oak tree among the birches. It was but a five minute walk from where she presently stood. She started toward the spot at once, but then hesitated, thinking of all of the dreary chores she had left to do before breakfast and how angry her parents would be if she skirted them. Nonetheless, the desire for a playmate won out in her hopping heart and so she walked deeper into the forest, seeking the old oak tree among the white-skinned birches.
When she arrived at the oak tree she saw a little boy of her own size and age, but strange of feature. He had light green skin, like the leaves of saplings, and green hair with tendrils growing around his temples, gemmed with berries only birds may eat. A thin layer of pollen coated his hair and shoulders like dandruff. He wore leaves and moss around his waist. As she came closer she found that he smelled of a forest after a generous rainfall.
“Hello,” she said. She sneezed, then laughed. “My name is Juliette.” She did a little curtsy, lifting the frills of her dress. “What’s your name?”
The boy smiled, showing teeth bucked like a rabbit’s, and bowed.
“One name is as any name the same,
but Ghillie Dhu is the name I presently claim.”
“Ghillie Dhu?” Juliette said. “I like that name. May I call you Ghill?”
“My filly may what a silly sally do
for it is as lovely to say Ghill as Ghillie Dhu.”
Juliette thought on this for a moment, then smiled as it dawned on her that he had given her permission to call him what she wanted. He was all rhyme and mirth, she thought happily.
“I am nine years old. How old are you?”
Ghillie Dhu’s tawny fawn ears twitched, as if in amusement to hear such childish questions.
“As old as the forest and as constant as the hills,
young as Sunday’s rest and as wandering as the rills.”
“You look like you’re nine, too,” Juliette said, helpfully. “Do you like to play games?”
The young boy dressed in moss and leaves and poison berries smiled.
“Oh yes, I must confess
that I like best the games that test.”
Juliette’s rounded brow creased innocently and she put her fists on her hips, squinting one eye in confusion. “What kind of games do you like?”
“Like a squirrel whirling in a world of leaves
I play my games, whether it pleases or it grieves.”
Juliette did not want to understand the particulars of the statement, only that Ghillie Dhu wanted to play games, which was a sufficient enough reason to be overjoyed.
“Oh, I always wanted someone to play with!” she cried in glee. “All I have on the farm are cows and chickens and they are no fun at all!”
“Then a game we will play,” Ghillie Dhu said, “unto the darkening of the day,
come what may, whether you will or will it not to stay.”
He held up a letter in a hand mottled like a fawn’s hide. The letter looked just like the ones in Juliette’s hands.
“What’s that?” Juliette asked.
“The game at hand,” he said, “in my hand,
but yours at your command.”
“What’s a letter got to do with any game?”
Ghillie Dhu grinned, pointed at his own temple— wreathed in poison berries—and then in some wayward direction.
“As a church sermoned by a roguish unseelie elf, I’ve done gone and lost me’self.”
“Lost yourself? How can you lose yourself?”
The boy in moss and leaves and poisoned berries shook his head, scattering pollen in a gentle shower.
“That is neither here nor there, land nor sea nor air.”
“Fine,” Juliette huffed, becoming impatient. “What am I supposed to do with the letter, then?”
“If ye’ will be my friend tonight, then take this letter and set me right.”
He held the letter out to Juliette and she took it without hesitation. She was about to open it when the forest boy quickly snatched it away.
“Nay, bonnie lass, ye shall never read
this important letter of mine to mine, ye heed?”
Juliette frowned, flabbergasted, but, wanting so desperately to play this mysterious game, nodded after a moment of consideration. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t read it.” She took it carefully as he held it out to her this time.
The little forest boy grinned again, the rabbit whiskers on his cheeks fanning out. He nodded, shaking pollen everywhere in a cloud that made Juliette sneeze again.
“Gladdened to my heart, I am, that ye are game
for the game of all games, known by the Huntigowk name.”
The word struck Juliette as strange and unfamiliar, and ultimately as gibberish. But since she thought most old children’s games had gibberish names, it seemed a very appropriate name. Furthermore, she liked it, even if she didn’t know how to play or what the rules were. She asked about these, and Ghillie Dhu answered.
“Of rules, there be many, and yet none be at all,
as to how ye play, may well ask why hatchlings must fall.”
“That’s rather vague,” Juliette said. Yet, she just shrugged and was happy to have a game to play, and a playmate to play it with.
“Now ye must go to where the waters willn’t flow
and there ye will find me, whom ye yet know and don’t know.”
This said, a sudden breeze snaked its way through the trees and, upon touching the little boy, dissolved him to nothing more than leaves and moss and berries and pollen, all settled onto the forest floor as if they always had been thereon strewn.
“Where the waters won’t flow?” Juliette pondered aloud, then sneezed. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “But it isn’t Winter now. None of the creeks are frozen! Even the ponds move because of the wind.”
She looked down at the moss and its thick mane. A frog crawled across it, dark green and large. In its mouth was a mouse, still struggling while half-swallowed. With one final jerk of its head, the frog engulfed the mouse and sat contented.
“The bog!” Juliet exclaimed with sudden revelation. “That’s what he meant!”
The bog was a few miles away, yet Juliette walked the trek quickly, without a single thought of her farm or family falling behind her and the playful clutter of the forest. She had a playmate now, and a game, and she was devoted to these two things singlemindedly. She did not stop to ask the weeping washerwoman why she cried at the waterfall. Nor did she dare walk near that strange horse with its goggling eyes and wet mane. Nor did she aid the man of bones in finding his sharp teeth. She cared for little else except the game. She did not even care that it was nearly lunchtime when she finally arrived at the bog and saw her playmate knee-deep in the peat. Nor did she care that behind him arched a perfectly rounded hill that stretched from one side of the bog to the other, partially submerged in the peat and duckweed and lilypads like the corpulent belly of some dead bog giant.
The little boy in the bog said, “Who goes there with so little care?”
“You know me,” she said, smiling. “I am your Juliette.”
“What a dare for someone so fair to travel so far!
Or is it a snare that puts ye where ye are?”
“I saw no snared rabbits,” she said, blinking away her perplexity. “I have a letter for you.”
She walked to the edge of the peat, grabbed hold of a leaning elm with one hand, and outstretched the other to pass the letter to the boy in the bog. He took it and she pulled herself back upright again, and just in the nick of time, too, for the elm was upended from the fickle soil from which it grew and fell over into the bog with a sigh. She dropped the letters he had given her earlier and they, too, fell into the bog. The bog swallowed all.
“Oh fiddlesticks!” she said, and instantly slapped her hand to her moue of a mouth, lest her mother and father suddenly appear and flog her good for swearing.
“Those letters are of no material matter,” said the boy, watching the other letters sink,
“for the message of concern is in this, the latter.”
The boy in the bog unfolded and read the letter, nodded (dislodging a snail from his ear), then quickly folded the letter again.
Meanwhile Juliette looked at Ghillie Dhu for the first time with eyes unclouded by excitement or exhaustion. She saw that he was different. He was shorter and squatter, and fatter, too, like a frog, and bowlegged. His eyes bulged from their sockets as if engorged with putrid water, and he was darker of hair and of skin than he was near the oak tree. Much of his wet, slimy skin was now patched in morassy vegetation. He looked as young, but as he grinned his opossum teeth at her there ran wrinkles in his dark, moss-mottled skin. Around him was wrapped a clingy wet robe of lichen and toadstools. Snails and earthworms writhed in his hair. His tongue, so very long and pink, dangled from his impishly round face with its toady jowls. When he spoke his voice was guttural and resonant.
“Me dear sprightly elf, ” he said, “I must have plumb forgotten me self
for I was going by some other name on some other shelf.”
The little girl wiped her muddy hands on her frock and frills. “And what name would that be?”
“If it pleases, while in this swampy muck,
I shall be that age-old adage, Puck.”
“Puck?” Juliette said, trying not to stare at him. “As you say, Puck. I have two names, too. Juliet Fooley. What is next in our game?”
Puck Ghillie Dhu hobbled forward through the peat and handed the letter to Juliette Fooley. The bog did not slosh or ripple as his rotund body waded through it, but remained solidly flat and undisturbed beneath its heavy decay.
He handed the letter over to her and she took it, trying not to gag on his rotten stench.
“Go ye’ to where the crowned rivals joust
in the courtyard where they are out to oust.”
Juliette pondered this oblique riddle, then gasped when Puck abruptly sunk beneath the peat, the vegetation spreading thin across the bog as if he never was.
“Courtyard and crowns?” Juliette said, confused. “Am I to seek Arthur and his knights of Camelot, or some fairy knights in the company of Queen Mab?”
As if in answer to Juliette’s question there rose from amidst that thick layer of decaying vegetation a small skull, peeking through as if in a game of hide and go seek. In its hollow eye sockets there squirmed nightcrawlers entangled violently with one another. The fawn did not mind, for its days of minding were far behind it.
“The glade!” Juliette cried, as if struck with a giddy spell. “Where the bucks fight!”
Away she hurried at once, for the deer glade was very far and she had to make haste if she was to pass the bog and arrive there before suppertime. Unlike lunch and breakfast, Juliette did not forget supper, for she was sorely famished by now, as her stomach was eager to remind her. Yet, she told herself she need not worry about supper, for it would be always waiting for her, warm and welcoming upon the fireplace when she should return. And as for chores, well, it would do no harm to neglect the farm one day in a year. Her parents might flog her, but she thought it would be punishment received with little regret, especially after this delightful escapade.
Juliette sang to herself as she went. She felt like singing, for she was happy and because it distracted her from the hunger in her belly.
“A turn of the stick, a burn of the wick,
a spurn of the prick, and learn to be strict.”
She slowed her hasty pace and ceased her singing. A new scene opened within the woods. She saw a beautiful maiden whose lily-white arms cradled a rusted suit of armor. Within the armor a shriveled man lay, blind with love. In a field of flowers they sat, and the maiden sang to the armor, much more than to the man, and the man lay in both ecstacy and agony that he should be built of mortal stuff. Behind them there was heaped a flower-tangled pile of ancient armor leaning against one another, some bodied with bones and some with dust; all long since rusted.
Further along, where the forest motes danced in the beams of light, Juliet heard flutes piping and bells ringing and felt the sting of acorns thrown from above. Her eyes skittered from bole to bower to bough, spotting only flickers of diaphanous wings in infrequent sunlight.
“Nary a fairy was ever merry,” Juliette recited, then continued on.
The sun was nearer to the horizon as the trees parted to reveal the hoof-stomped glade. The wind breathed harder and colder, teasing her with its dreadful promises. Shadows stretched long and deepened while mists rose from their cold mouths. Dappled grass glistened as if gilded, then cooled dark in the gloaming’s gloom.
Like sheep the mists herded themselves around her, expecting feed. She kept to her heading and came to the clearing. Once there, in the glade, she saw her friend, Puck Ghillie Dhu. She called out to him and he turned, raking the overhanging branches with his antlers.
“Ye address me as a familiar while masked as a stranger,” he said,
“Present yourself, heart to hart, lest you seek danger.”
“I am ever your Juliette,” Juliette said, still somewhat winded from the long hike and the deep hunger. “I am playing a game with you, Puck Ghillie Dhu, and have brought this letter as you told me to.”
The boy walked toward her on hoofed legs like a deer’s, nor was he truly a boy now. Nearing her, his shadow showed how much he had grown since last they met, for it unfurled itself over her from his new height like a banner upon a turret. He was barrel-chested and had forearms as thick as a goat’s thigh. She handed him the letter and waited as he read it. She looked at him, and admired him, even if he scared her a little now with his size and his features.
Sharp antlers jutted out of his head, felted at the base and with sandy brown bone branching outward and upward. Big honey-locust thorns were tangled in his hair. He smelled heavily of animal sweat and dung and musk and wore about his waist a kilt of prickly weeds and nettles and barbs. On his fingertips were hawkish talons, crimson-stained, and his tail was that of a polecat, and his dark brown skin was ruffled and scarred with many fights. A curly tuft of hair dangled from his chin, nettles and catkins tangled in the tresses. Her eyes watered as she stood near him; her eyelids stung and swelled. Still, she had a playmate to play a game with, and that was all that mattered to her as the sun slunk away beneath the Western side of the forest. Now the sky was bleeding like a cut hide hung up next to a fireplace to dry. The red liquids ran fast, then blackened.
“I had forgotten me name,” he said, “and me birth claim,
but with this little dame I will make full on the promise of the game.”
He smiled, and his teeth were those of a wildcat’s.
“I don’t know if I can play much longer,” Juliette said, her stomach rumbling. “I am hungry.”
The boy—that was not a boy—just smiled. Juliette grew uneasy. His eyes were eyes as black as a stag’s, and as impassive.
“Can we finish playing tomorrow?”
“But ye have come nearly to the end,” he said,
“and never need worry beyond tomorrow’s bend.”
“Really?”
“As I am known as Pan, and Puck and Ghillie Dhu,
know ye now that I speak to ye true.”
He returned the letter to Juliette and Juliette stared down at it. There was a little cut on her hand now, made by one of his talons, dripping droplets as red as the sunset. He spoke with a voice hoarse and thick, not at all mellifluous as it was when she first met him.
“Where the earth yawns satisfied in its appetite
the womb welcomes all to sleep through endless night.”
Pan stretched down on all fours, then, and went galloping away, twisting upon himself and tearing himself apart unto a multitude of animals that fled and paid chase to one another, this way and that.
Juliette watched the animals disappear into the woods. She then rubbed her aching belly and found it hard to concentrate, or to even remember what the riddle was. Her eyes stung, her nose was red with sneezing, and she was sore all over; especially her feet. She had walked so long, today.
Just when she was about to turn back and head home— hungry and frustrated with herself— she saw something. It was a snake slithering along the glade. A young rabbit was in its mouth. The snake carried its prey toward a small cairn Juliette had not noticed before. It slid on its belly with all of the patience that a certain meal provided, then slunk beneath the stacked rock edifice.
“The cave,” Juliette said quietly.
It was that time that good children should be in bed and that bad children could be misled. Juliette started to feel drowsy. The fatigue of the day, and the hunger, and the game all settled upon her like many heavy quilts weighing her down and begging her to sleep. Yet, she pushed on, spurred by the excitement of the game and its nearing end. She told herself she could sleep afterward, perhaps even lingering in bed tomorrow morning and neglecting her chores again. After all, she had neglected her chores today and the world did not fall to ruin. What did it matter that the chickens were not fed or the cows went unmilked? She pressed on, deeper and deeper into the forest in search of the cave.
A terrible wind came from the East that was not a wind. Juliette heard it before she felt it, and so felt it in her heart and blood before she could feel it on her skin. It was a choral moan of lost souls. Icemelt quivered in her heart and flowed through her veins. She knew the sound of the Sluagh, for she had heard it the night her grandfather died. Her mother and father had fought it from taking her grandfather’s soul the only way they knew how: by closing the windows and doors to their home while the elderly man died in his bed. The Sluagh was a terrible thing to hear, and even worse to behold. As it slithered through the air, seeking Juliette in her quest for her newfound friend, she saw its multitude of spirits all openmouthed with moaning and pain. So many faces in a breeze— like a murder of crows tumbling over each other in a violent eddy. It encircled her for a whirl, as if in anticipation, and then, seeking dead or dying prey elsewhere, left her to her game.
The cave yawned wide before her, blacker than night above. He saw her long before she saw him. He was staring at her as she walked toward him, his hairy back to her and his neck twisted around backwards, like an owl’s. His yellow-lobed eyes burned wildly in the twilit darkness of the forest. The look on his face made her stop walking, halting her like a rabbit halts before the fox. She could not move, save for her eyes which darted up and down him like squirrels up and down a tree . An ursine mane of fur ran from his head to his tail. He was grinning, and the wolfish fangs gleamed between the retracting gums. The pelts and hides hanging around him stank, and many of them were hairless and pink and wet with scarlet. They had human faces that moaned wide and silently.
“I…I have a letter for you,” Juliette said.
He looked stretched, like a shadow at dusk, gangly and lithe, elm-limbed from joint to joint, and his gaunt stomach was riddled with trenches of ribs. Withered to waste by Winter he was, and yet he had a fierce power as he stood outside the cave, welcoming her within that darkened womb of the earth. He seemed to fill up the cave, its inner darkness, and then the outer darkness of the darkening sky.
With a clawed paw he took the letter from Juliette, glanced down at it as if he knew what it said before looking at it, and then returned it to Juliette. The cave seemed to expand and contract behind him, and Juliette quavered.
“What now?” she asked. “Is the game finished?”
His voice was a low growl, like a beast wanting blood.
“Down has come the life-giving sun,” he said,
“as the shadows darken and bleed and run
here to there, from horizon to horizon,
and so, yes, our little game is done.”
“It’s over?” Juliette said, surprised. “Who won?”
The beastly man stretched taller, looming high— as high as the night beyond the cave.
Juliette gasped. “So…you won?” she whispered, barely above her breath.
He grinned down at Juliette, showing his wolfish fangs and his burning eyes. He said nothing.
“Ghillie Dhu,” Juliette mumbled.
He said nothing, but loomed larger.
“Ghillie Dhu?” she asked, pleaded.
He said nothing, but loomed larger still.
“Ghill? Puck?”
He said nothing, but loomed larger and branched out all around her.
“Pan? Please.”
“Oh my dear foolish little one,” said the cave, “with each of those names I am done,
for now I am but Far Darrig, which all good children shun.”
“Far Darrig,” Juliette said. The name was familiar, though she could not remember from where or what. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’ve heard your name before. From a nursery rhyme, I think.”
He only grinned more widely, and loomed more largely.
“How did it go?” she asked aloud. She then remembered:
“‘Hey bonnie girl, which way is home?
(Red Man wants to skip along too)
Hey bonnie girl, why do you roam?
(Red Man wants to shadow you)
My bonnie girl, you know better
than to let the Red Man get his cape wetter
by dipping it in the ink of you,
so beware of Far Darrig and his letter.”
Far Darrig, she thought.
The Red Man.
Juliette turned and fled. He did not chase her. He did not have to. He was all around her. He was the forest and the earth and the cave and the swamp. He was the eyes in the darkness that watched her run, and the creatures that scattered before her. She was in his slowly yawning jaws all along. She was lost in the woods, and the woods was his gullet.
Clouds had stolen over the starry sky casually, like a hunter sure of his quarry, and now Juliette could not tell which way she had come. In the last wink of moonlight, she opened the letter and read what it said.
“Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.”
She collapsed on the ground, weeping.
His voice spoke all around her, in the rustle of leaves and the howl of wolves, and every other sound that haunts the wilderness.
“By the game ye have willingly bet
I shall have ye, my Juliette.”
“I want to go home,” she whimpered.
“Had you stayed you would not have strayed,” he said. “The unbridled wild is no place for a child.”
“Please let me go!” she moaned. “My parents will be worried.”
“Nay, vanish such thoughts from your foolish head
for even now a changeling sleeps in your bed.”
Juliette pulled at her hair desperately, weeping. “My parents will know the difference!”
“A difference, indeed, and one most welcome too,
for the changeling is a good child, unlike you.”
“I am not bad,” she said, trembling among the dead leaves. “I just wanted to play today! I wanted to play with a friend! I wanted to have fun in the woods, away from the village and the farm and everyone telling me what to do!”
“In the woods there is much fun to be had,
but by whom is the question, little girl gone bad.”
Far Darrig opened his mouth wide all around her. It was as a cave fanged with trees and tongued with a bog and as black and bottomless as the night sky. Juliette ran again, but it did no good. Wherever she ran, she ran toward the giant mouth. It was as inescapable as the wide, woeful wilderness and its ancient shadows were always eager for feast and for fun.
***
Juliette awoke in the woods. She sat up, shivering, and rubbed her eyes. Glancing around she saw through the trees that it was yet morning. The morning mists were a herd of sheep rummaging across the forest floor. Juliette stood up and saw that she was still dressed in her night gown. She must have went sleepwalking, she told herself, as she was apt to do from time to time.
“All a nightmare?” she said to herself.
The tittering of a bird unnerved her and so she quickly stood and returned to the path leading toward home…
…toward home and its endless chores and boredom and her desperate need for a playmate.
As she turned, however, her eyes alighted on a little figure in a red coat and cap hobbling away into the far-flung mists. It turned and watched her, waiting with a sharp grin on its wizened boy’s face. He gestured for her to follow.
She did not.

Braggart’s Bay

20190118_012542-1
“Edmund, you really do trust in people too much,” Tangleroot said, picking her sharp teeth with a fingernail. She had eaten a fish, as he had, earlier on the ship, and was attempting to hook a bit of fishbone out from behind her backmost teeth. Since they had been on a ship, and thus were surrounded by endless ocean, they had little choice in other fare, except hardtack and sun-dried tomatoes. “One of these days it will be your end. Indeed, I can think of the epithet for your tombstone now: ‘Here lies Edmund, Master’s Apprentice, who mastered all things except his own naivete.’”
Edmund sighed and lolled about with the tossing of the Maiden Innocence, which was such an old ship that it was neither maidenly or innocent. In fact, it was haggardly, and haglike, really, the wood of its deck and prow more like driftwood that had been assembled and improvised by the captain as he drifted along: raft first, then canoe, then pontoon, and, in time and with great patience and industry, a seaworthy schooner. How the lookout could settle himself, and his stomach, into the wobbly crow’s nest without raining the contents of his breakfast and lunch down below was an impenetrable mystery in and of itself. Edmund could feel his stomach bucking like a wild horse just upon glimpsing the pendulous mast
“I want to believe…in the goodness…of people,” Edmund said between mouthfuls of retching bile. He leaned over the larboard side, letting go of what little breakfast he had left. When he sat back down— sprawling out beneath his auburn robe—his face was pale, if not slightly greenish, though his human skin would never be so green as Tangleroot. The goblin regarded him with a shrug of her wispy, curlicue eyebrows.
“It earns you nothing but grief,” she said. “Everyone mocks you and you go about as foolish as ever. No one respects you.”
“It hurts no one else but my own ego,” Edmund said, cupping his head between his palms as if it might steady him against the dizzying waves of the sea. The sky was clear, and the ocean was relatively placid, and so he wondered how sickly he might have been in the throes of a tempest at sea.
“It hurts everyone,” Tangleroot said. “If the Master’s Apprentice is not respected, then nothing is respected in this world. And if they do not respect you now, they will not respect you when you become the Master.”
“Then I will give them reasons to respect me,” Edmund vowed, his face darkening momentarily. He half-rose, as if in a vengeance against those who had mocked him in Gran Stone, but then his stomach churned and his body turned seaward and he let go of his last bit of cargo, exhaling in exhaustion and slumping down, half-hanging over the railing of the ship..
“Perhaps if you destroyed a city or two,” Tangleroot said, dragging him back from the railing, “or even a kingdom, then, perhaps, they might respect you. Perhaps you could even bottle your anger inside yourself— funneling all the transgressions and mockeries and the rage thereof— and unleash it like hellfire upon a random city. It would be glorious.”
Edmund’s head lolled wearily, as did his eyes. He looked drunk, but he never drank anything but boiled water and goat milk, as per Master Avon’s counsel. “Glorious to a goblin, perhaps,” he said. “But I should like to court the favor of Man rather than estrange myself to my fellow people. I am one of them, after all.”
“You do not think as if you are one of them,” she said, finally plucking the bone free of her teeth and tossing it overboard. “That is why you are so naive.”

***

Edmund and Tangleroot sat in a rowboat. An oarsman rowed them out from the Maiden Innocence to Paradise Bay. It was an eye-opening vista.
When Master Avon told Edmund that the Apprentice would be needed at Paradise Bay, off the archipelago of the Southerlands, Edmund’s mind conjured vividly golden beaches and sparkling cerulean crystal waters spreading luxuriantly from horizon to horizon while beautiful Southerlander maidens frolicked in the surf, and in various degrees of undress.
But when Edmund and Tangleroot stepped down onto the rowboat and rowed toward Paradise Bay, Edmund’s fantasy decayed and blackened into that brackish swamp adjacent to the backwash of the sea. He should have known it was nothing like its name, for Master Avon said “Paradise Bay” with the same such contemptuous sneer that his bearded lips employed when speaking of braggadocios knights within any court overtaken with the conceits of its own “nobility”. Master Avon often said there was no more powerful illusion than a braggart’s pride, nor a deadlier monster; and none were more prideful than the world’s nobility.
Edmund also wondered why Master Avon insisted that they travel so far by land and sea to arrive in the archipelago. He and Tangleroot had to, firstly, ride horses Southward, then buy passage by boat across the South Seas, whereas Master Avon could have easily punctured and knitted with magical words a portal that opened directly upon the misnamed swampland. No protracted travel plans. No hardtack and fishbones. No three-week escapade of seasickness.
“Why did Master Avon not simply open a portal?” he groaned.
Tangleroot affixed an unsympathetic eye upon the Apprentice. “You could have easily opened a portal yourself,” she observed.
“Too dangerous,” Edmund said. “I am yet too unpracticed.”
“And so you must practice,” she concluded.
“It could unravel the All Ways if I foul it up,” he countered.
“Then you must not be reckless,” she said, “and you must not be cowardly, either. You have to take risks if you are going to grow your powers.”
Of course, even had Edmund opened a portal here the destination would have been just as disappointing. For Edmund it was as if he had expected a hero’s reward of gold and sapphires, but received instead sacks of rotten vegetables and runny refuse.
“We are going to Paradise Bay,” he had said on the ship, innocently, between upset stomachs. “Tell me, how beautiful is it this time of year?”
And the individual to whom Edmund spoke merely said, “As…ahem…beautiful as it always is. Never more, never less. The same.”
And, indeed, as Edmund turned away, smiling wanly in anticipation and illness, he caught a grimace, or a smirk, or a roll of the eyes from the person to whom he had formerly spoken to, and Edmund, being in such a mood, ignored these expressions, or else dismissed them as the visages of envy. What a fool he had been!
Tangleroot saw the disappointment in Edmund’s face and cackled.
“What did you expect?” she said. “Cadizian maidens, buxom and bronzed?”
Edmund muttered something about clear water and sunny shores.
“But there is a fine magic here,” Tangleroot said, her sharply-edged lips puckering upon the air. “Everywhere I can taste the magic of billions of plants and animals and insects, of Life, dissolving together. It is, like a goblin maiden: beautiful and powerful. At least, to those with any sense to see such worth.”
Edmund ignored her self-appraisals, and instead listened to the strokes of the oars upon the water. They became slower and more strained as they approached the island, the oarsman grunting now with each push and pull of the oar in and out of the thickening, darkening water. Edmund directed his mind elsewhere, if only to distract himself from his disappointment, and deduced that this marshy cove was dangerous— dangerous with magic and with life—confirming at least part of Tangleroot’s assertions. Paradise Bay was no paradise for human beings.
***

The rowboat rocked side to side as it drew up parallel with, and struck against, the dock. The dock was made of wood that seemed to sway with the waters. Drizzle fell incessantly, even now, either as a mist or as a heavy rain. It made everything slick and treacherous.

20190119_201148-1
As Edmund and Tangleroot climbed onto the dock, unsteadily, Edmund realized that the dock was the town. Every ramshackle home and house and hut extended out from this dock, held above water with long poles that dove deep into water and mud, barnacled and stained with floodwaters. So much did the dock, and by extension the town, sway that it was like living on a boat out at sea. Edmund’s stomach lurched and churned all over again, and he had to steady himself with a hand on Tangleroot’s shoulder. The area smelled of the briny sea, but also of stagnated bogs and dead fish. A vortex of odors spiraled within each nostril.
There were several ships chained to the dock, many of which were in equal shape to the Maiden Innocence. They were chained to large iron posts that also served as bulwarks for the dock against the restless sea. Edmund noticed large padlocks clipped to the chains, binding them in place. A group of big, burly men approached him, smelling like low tide. They looked a rough lot. Strong-armed, but bent-backed, tanned bronze, and prematurely balding. The men looked like sailors, in other words, and a few had chains around their necks. Hanging from these chains was a single iron key; a key that matched the locks on the dock.
“Who are you?” the foremost among the group demanded. He was the biggest man there, his snarling lips obscured with a black beard.
“I am the Master’s Apprentice,” Edmund said.
The foremost man glanced back at the other men behind him, dubiously, then shrugged. He forced a smile through his thick black beard.
“And here I was starting to believe we had wasted so much air and time praying to Mathara for a return of our property,” he said.
“Your property?” Edmund asked, confused.
“Our wives,” he said, as if Edmund was a deaf, mute imbecile. “And our children.  The name’s Tomwell. I am a Patriarch of Paradise Bay. I’ve lost six wives to the swamp, and I don’t know how many children. I don’t want to lose more. Don’t really feel like fetching another woman from around the world.”
“Aye!” the men behind him cheered, albeit bitterly.

20190118_215441-1
Edmund looked to Tangleroot imploringly. He whispered sideways. “Did Master Avon send me here to rescue their wives?”
“I suppose,” Tangleroot said, “but whether from the swamp or from them, I do not know.”
Tomwell came forward to shake Edmund’s hand and pat him on the back. He was bald on his pate, but covered in sweaty hair every inch of his exposed skin. He smiled incessantly, but there was something like unfriendly mockery in such a smile, as if purview to some demeaning joke concerning the Master’s Apprentice. His smile gleamed meanly, much like the iron key that hung around his thick neck.
“It seems the Master did not answer our prayers himself,” Tomwell said, still smiling, “but instead sent his understudy.”
“Master Avon answers no prayers,” Edmund said, knowing now, for certain, that the large man was mocking him. “He informed me that there are problems in this end of the world that need to be reconciled.” His tight brow broke with confusion. “He did not elaborate upon the nature of the problems. He told me only to go. You said your wives have been abducted into the swamp?”
“Yes,” Tomwell said, glancing back at the other seamen as they grinned among one another. “That is what has happened.”
“Do you have any notion who took them?”
“A wily lot, most likely,” Tomwell said, turning a wry eye toward the other seamen once again.
“I need to know more before I can proceed,” Edmund said uncertainly. “Are they of magical means, these abductors?”
“Keena was of magical means abed,” one of the seamen said, chuckling. Another seamen elbowed him in the gut and he fell to silence.
This whole situation seemed oblique— intentionally so—as if Edmund was the butt of someone’s joke. Again, he looked for guidance in this situation, which meant he inevitably looked to Tangleroot. The goblin girl stood at the edge of the dock. She had grown one of her long green fingers into a barbed hook and was dangling it into the sea, trying to catch a fish. Since she was preoccupied, Edmund sighed in hopeless ignorance. It was midday and the dock was balmy with the high noon sun. The stench of the dead vegetation and the briny sea exacerbated his lingering seasickness. He tried to say something, but then dry-heaved, running to the side of the dock and retching out to sea. Tangleroot withdrew her finger-hook just in time to avoid hooking the last bit of his breakfast.
Hunching over, with his hands on his knees, Edmund tried to catch his breath. The seamen laughed freely.
“First time out to sea, eh, boy?” Tomwell said with mock-friendliness. “Most of us went on our first sea voyage when we were but five, just like all trueborn seaman. And we never got sick from the sea’s lovely dance. Our mothers’ wombs were saltwater and always swirling. Our fathers made sure of that, nightly!”
“Aye!” the other men cheered.
“The Master must be mad to send you in his stead,” Tomwell said, scratching his beard with a hairy hand. “Perhaps he has great faith in your intellect.” He rolled his eyes. “Well, I may not be a Master Wizard, but I can tell you, boy, that you won’t last five minutes in that swamp. You would be a bog-wyrm’s lunch before you had a chance to say ‘Dinner is served’.”
Edmund took great umbrage at the sailor’s tone. A flickering flare of fury almost overtook him, but he refrained. Immolating the presumptuous man would not have been becoming of the Master’s Apprentice, nor did his stomach feel in harmony with his humor yet; least not in such a state that it would not hinder such a vengeful spell.
“Then perhaps you would do well to enlighten me to the dangers,” Edmund said. “So I may die from my foolishness rather than my ignorance.”
Tomwell folded his brawny arms across his broad chest. The chained key jingled as his arms enfolded it.
“I suppose I can do that much for you,” he said. “Come into my house and I will tell you all the many deaths that await your scrawny hide in the swamp.”
Edmund gave a curt nod and followed Tomwell into a nearby house. Like the other houses it was connected to the dock, and raised several feet in the air on long, thick posts. The house itself would have been impressive, especially for a humble sailor. It had two storeys, many windows, gutters for the copious rains, and its interior was allotted many amenities procured from all over the world. However, it was stained by rains and rising waters until green and black, mildewed inside and out, and the wainscoting was riddled with colonies of burrowing insects. Snakes inhabited the corners of the house—evidenced by their furtive tails— and birds perched on the windows; the porch, like the doors, were clustered with frogs and toads, lizards and snails, leeches and worms, and whatever other creature crunched underfoot, worshiping the unending drizzle. There were hundreds of different kinds of animals and insects in the house. Who knew how many other undiscovered creatures lurked in the swamp beyond?
Tomwell motioned to a chair at a table. Edmund sat here and Tangleroot, feeling mischievous, sat on his lap.
“Tangle, stop,” he pleaded.
She snorted and stood up, brushing him with her hip as she walked away. She went around the house, catching whatever she could and either playing with it or eating it or both. Tomwell pulled up a chair in front of Edmund, but watched Tangleroot. He seemed fascinated by her behavior, and wistful.
“Your green girl seems at home here,” he said, gruffly. “If only my other wives had been so…ready to change.”
“Tangleroot is a goblin,” Edmund said. “She does not change. She is as every goblin is. Swamps are their homes. They are swampkin.”
Tomwell grunted. “Well, maybe women and goblins need a proper blending. Then we could have pretty women with better appetites. And less complaints.”
“And yet the dangers of a swamp are numerous,” Edmund said. “Dangers legitimize complaints.”
Tomwell’s face darkened. “We keep our women safe here,” he growled. “They have no right to complain about anything, so long as they do as they’re told. A man’s house is his ship, too, of which he is captain, and like a ship if there is a mutiny then the mutineer walks the plank. Or, at the least, gets flogged and thrown in the cargo hold to think about what she’s done.”
Edmund kept a neutral expression— or as neutral as he could with seasickness. “Just tell me of the dangers here,” he said evenly. “The sooner I understand, the sooner I can employ my understanding to help the women and children to freedom.”
Tomwell leaned back in his chair, looking down his nose at Edmund, who was a foot or so shorter than the former. “I will tell you as well as I can,” he said. “It is not the first time I tried to educate a dead man.”
Tomwell explained to Edmund all that he knew about the swamp. In between listing the dangers, and how to avoid them, he also spoke about the amount of wealth he and the other men had invested in Paradise Bay, and how they could not leave, even if they wanted. It was as if he was defending himself and his fellow villagers from unspoken scrutiny. He even became boisterous at one point, raging about prying eyes and “meddlesome dramatists” who embellished the inherent dangers in the area. And, yet, with every other breath he contradicted himself outrightly, enumerating the lethality of the region with ten more species of vipers and a handful of maneating plants.
Meanwhile, Tangleroot continued pilfering the house of its insect and vermin population. The rains fell heavy against the rickety, insect-winnowed walls, like gods sputtering maledictions wetly against the hapless village. The winds were hot and moist when they charged in through the crannies and cracks of that house. When the rains and the winds finally subsided— toward the end of Tomwell’s lecture—the air remained balmy and thick and heavy, as if inhaling kettle steam into the lungs with every single breath.
“And that is as much as I can explain in an hour,” Tomwell concluded. “The truth is that you need a thousand hours to know anything, and even then you will die a fool’s death a thousand times ere you pass through a quarter of the swamp.
“Then I will not waste anymore of your time,” Edmund said, standing up abruptly. “Come, Tangle. We have work to do.”
Tangleroot had been climbing the interior wall, crouching upon it like the treefrogs that clung to it also. She proceeded down the wall immediately, following Edmund out the door. The other seamen stood out there, not at all trying to conceal that they had been eavesdropping on the conversation inside the house. Edmund slipped between their crowd deferentially. Contrarily, Tangleroot grew barbs out of every inch of her flesh and whatever arm or leg or fat flank did not afford her space was scratched as she passed. Several seamen flinched out of her way too late. They grumbled and growled and Tangleroot looked over her shoulder, blowing a kiss and grinning maliciously. Their clothes would need a needle’s mending.
The Apprentice and the goblin girl headed to the rear of the village, toward the dark swamp beyond. There were several poleboats tied to this area of the dock-village. They were not chained like the big ships, but were instead roped to a single post. Edmund untied the top rope and held onto it while Tangleroot climbed down into the boat. Unsteadily, Edmund climbed down himself, all while fighting the boat as it tried to drift toward the darkness of the swamp. Here, the trees did not crowd out the sun, yet only a few yards away the trees made a black-mouthed cave that yawned ominously.
“They despise you,” Tangleroot said. “They despise everyone, to be sure, including themselves. But, verily, they despise you the most.”
“I can see that,” Edmund said quietly.
“They despise you for being young, and for not being tied down in place with your fortunes. They despise you because they are not in your position.”
“And I pity them for their being in their positions,” Edmund lied.
“You are a terrible liar,” Tangleroot said.
The boat, now released, floated toward the swamp, and the swamp closed around them like the mouth of the world.
“Which is why I prefer to speak the truth,” he said. “This place scares me.”

***

The ground that rose and fell in and out of the water was dubious at best. It might sink you to your knees, or swallow you whole. Much of the land was but refuse floating ambiguously upon the water, such as what one might find within a cesspool. And that was because Paradise Bay was the outhouse of the world. The wastes of the sea floated their way here, circumscribing the globe to be pulled here and stagnate, as did the hopes and dreams of the world; all squandered by Man. The bay was fed by alluvial dark magic, and, it seemed to Edmund, such a place fed something else with its squalid excess. Perhaps it was magic harnessed and harvested by a subtle malignant force; subtle while amidst so much deception, fear, and the aggression of a whole swampland teeming with hostile factions of Life; creatures of every dangerous sort. It was a festering, gangrenous wound, invaded by teeming parasites and predators.
Edmund had brought no pole for the poleboat, but he would not have been good at using it anyway. Instead, he let magic steer the boat through that primordial darkness.

“Safety be the measure,
safety be our guide,
as we float along in pleasure;
avoid the danger on each side.”

The boat began to drift along the dark waters. The rhymes were not necessary for a spell to work, but the focus necessary for rhyming perfected the spell in Edmund’s head. That was how he had learned to use magic. It was like what his mother taught him to do when repairing garments and blankets— stitching two seams along a hemline in perfect singsong harmony. He had often spoke rhymes to himself when weaving clothes together. Rhymes helped to distract him from the mockeries and japes from the other squires in Gran Stone.
Shadows dwelled above and below, impenetrable with common sight like a moonless, starless night. But the enchanted boat drifted with purpose, eschewing the muddy banks of islands and the large trees and the perilous reefs that reached up from below like impish claws.
Edmund heard things splashing in the water, and something rocked the boat, as if striking it from below.
“I should probably weave a protection spell, too,” Edmund said as they floated along the swamp, between the trunks of trees that rose high like the pillars of the empyrean.

“Flames encircle our boat
to defend us as we pass—
form a sphere so we may float
unharmed in this dark morass.

A bubble of fire expanded from Edmund’s hands, encircling the Apprentice, Tangleroot, and the boat in a protective sphere of flame. It burned silently, and left those enclosed in it untouched by its heat. Yet, whatever was below the water’s surface floundered away, loudly bursting bubbles marking its retreat. The flaming sphere also lit their way through the dark inner depths of the swamp, the canopies of the trees above like a stygian shield that allowed no sunlight to penetrate its depths.

20190117_234006-1-1

The light scared away many creatures, but it also attracted many, too. Frogs leapt into the waters, and were eaten by mouths that opened and closed as quickly as the water in which they dove. Eyes shimmered with the glow of the light, then disappeared into the dark again. Small, beady eyes. Large, rounded eyes. All hungry, those eyes, and all watching the small boat pass.
“How could anyone pass here except by magic?” Edmund wondered aloud. “The kidnappers must be magical, or else they are sailors. They need be to navigate these dangerous waterways.”
“If there were kidnappers,” Tangleroot said.
Edmund turned toward her. “What do you mean?”
She flashed her wicked grin, each gleaming tooth a dagger. “I may not understand humans,” she said. “But I understand women.”
Edmund opened his mouth to expound upon the obvious contradiction in her statement, but was distracted by all of the animals revealed in the illumination of the flames.
Hairy little creatures, similar to rats and pigs, lazed in the water, floating along. Vines entwined the tall black swamp trees, many moving in suspiciously still air while some invited birds and frogs and such things into their nectar-sweet apertures only to close upon them, slowly dissolving them in their strangely veiled bell-jar bellies. Some looked like stockings and some like books. Nor were plants the only living creatures innocent in pretense of make but voracious and deadly in design. The bog-wyrms were here and there lurking, some small and disguised as mossy rocks, and others large as cows and appearing like floating isles in the deeper waters. Edmund eyed them nervously. Life roiled within the refuse of the lands and waters, and most of the teeming animals were inherently hostile. Life demanded that they be hostile so as to survive long enough to breed and perpetuate their misbegotten species.
Edmund looked upon his dangerous surroundings and deemed it no enigma why the men of Paradise Bay should be hard, bitter men. He could almost forgive them their resentments. What he could not forgive, however, was their insistence upon bringing women into this part of the world. Or, worse, children. Had he grown up here he would not have grown up much. The swamp’s dangers were innumerable and diverse. Gran Stone was home to its own share of predators, too—Edmund’s fellow squires who badgered and belittled him mercilessly when he once trained (and failed) to become a knight—yet he survived such straits without many scars, and intact, and now reflected upon his trifling sorrows in the fresh light of the swamp.
Or, as it so happened to be, the dank, stagnant gloom of the swamp, and its occasional will o’ the wisp.
Though the darkness of the canopies were absolute, rain trickled through, spitting down from above and burning up with a chorus of hisses upon Edmund’s fire sphere. It sounded as if a thousand snakes were jeering from the dark.
If surfaces were not black in the swamp, they were green and brown with very little variation between or besides. Things leapt out from that murk, burned away upon his orb of fire. Nasty things, wicked and hungry, or else territorial and intolerant of trespassers. Tangleroot seemed unimpressed by the hostile fauna and flora, but Edmund knew that he would have died a hundred different, terrifying deaths heretofore had he been a mere mortal stumbling through this boggy throat of the world without his powers to aid him, steeped in his own ignorance and naivete. Indeed, sometimes he felt his ignorance about the world was a large dung heap piled all about himself; only he could not see it, and everyone else could.
A bloom of fire here; a flare of incineration there. Tongue, tooth, claw, spike alike all were burnt to ashes upon touching Edmund’s bubble. Small creatures and large whined and roared in agony as their appetites and instincts cast them toward their deaths. Edmund watched the vicious creatures in horror, even so untouched.
“How could anyone survive this place?” he said. “It is a death trap in every direction.”
“Reminds me of home,” Tangleroot quipped. She lounged in the boat, watching the sparks flying off the fiery orb flash here and there, as if watching fireworks in leisure. “It is unlikely any of the children or women survived.” Her legs were crossed as she lay back, one foot kicking idly. “Then again, perhaps it is for the better that they die out here. I would not wish to return to such husbands as what await them. I’d rather marry a bog-wyrm.”
Edmund allotted himself no hope whatsoever in finding a single woman or child alive in that expanse of treachery and violence, nor even their bones for burial. Yet, he persisted through the swamp, lost and grim, going through that violent place if only for the sake of one person, however slim the chances of such a person being alive might have been..
Still, it prompted him to question Master Avon’s insistence that Edmund and Tangleroot take the longhand route rather than opening a portal. It wasted precious time, unless Master Avon thought this all some hopeless cause. Perhaps this really was an exercise in futility. Master Avon enjoyed such lessons. He said they built character, and helped a man stay humble. Yet, it seemed callus in Edmund’s estimation, which Master Avon was not, however much he preached about being reconciled to the cruelties of the cosmos.
To pass the time Edmund preoccupied himself with watching in overawed fascination the blood magic of Evolution. Evolution was one of the first subjects that Master Avon admonished Edmund to study and comprehend. Evolution was strong here, at the end of the world, as it had been at the beginning. It goaded itself unto more and more extreme incarnations, the creatures accelerating each other’s intergenerational changes. Human beings, having colonized this region for only a few generations, were unable to adapt at such a needful pace. Men might compensate their vulnerabilities with technology— with forts and weaponry and fire, as the men of Paradise Bay did—but nothing could hasten them to outstrip, nor even keep apace, with the vortical maelstrom of blood-churning, ebullient life. It was the boggy breeding pen of insects, animals, monsters, and wyrms. Life strove with itself incessantly, without rest and in constant war; with itself and with circumstance. What hope did Man have against such predations?
“I wonder why Master Avon sent me here,” Edmund said as a shadow leapt down from a tree and flared to ashes upon his flaming orb. “To rescue women and children? In all likelihood they are dead. Perhaps he wanted to teach a lesson to me. One of bitterness and hopelessness. Futility and violence. Another cynical confirmation of the cruelties of the universe. I do not know.” He sighed, peering into the horrors of the swamp as they fled or flocked towards them, churning up mud or splashing sluggish water. “This place is vile, loathsome, perilous and perfidious. It is the nasty shadow of the world.”
“As I said,” Tangleroot said, “it reminds me of home. The Unseelie Court.”
“If we do find survivors,” Edmund said, “we must do our best to protect them. And we must be amicable, Tangle. They wil have suffered enough here without your barbed tongue.”
Tangleroot stuck her long tongue out at Edmund. It was not near so long as her nose, but it did roll suggestively. “I think you are just jealous of my tongue,” she said. “You want it all to yourself.”
“I am being serious, Tangle,” he said. “If we do happen to find them we must care for them until we can return them safely to their husbands and fathers.”
Tangleroot’s tongue abruptly withdrew into her mouth. She gawped at Edmund in disbelief. “What makes you think they will wish to return home?”
It was Edmund’s turn to look perplexed. “What do you mean?”
Tangleroot shook her head ruefully. “This is what I mean, Edmund, when I tell you that you are naive. Think about this situation for a moment, and not obscured by what those men at the village have said. What would drive all of the women in a village to spirit away their children into the deadly bowels of this darksome, deadly abode?”
Edmund squinted his eyes, thinking through the situation for the first time. “Are you saying they fled from their husbands?”
Tangleroot smirked knowingly, her sharp lips curdling with amusement beneath her long, sharp nose. She sat up and grinned, gesturing all around the swamp. “Why else would they flee here?”
“It seems like something of a suicide pact to think of it that way,” Edmund said. His head hung heavy with sad, somber, weighty thoughts.
Tangleroot shrugged with disinterest. “Perhaps it is better than what awaits them at home.”
Edmund remembered, then, the heavy iron locks and chains that fastened the ships to the dock, and the keys to those ships which each sailor wore around his neck. It dawned on him that they did not fear solely the theft of their ships, but the flight of their wives and children. They did not fear other pirates— they feared the escape of their families. Tomwell and his fellow captains were men of iron will and iron chains, and they treated their families as an iron nail does the soft thread, pinning it down in place.

***

Many creatures died upon Edmund’s fiery bubble, but none more so rapidly or viciously as the bog-wyrms that squatted and floated and leapt within the swamp. They looked like large bullfrogs, some bigger than boars; all of them bloated as if ready to burst. Yet they were so fast, despite their rotundness. Their mouths, too, were huge and fanged, whereas their heads had no true necks to distinguish head from body and so their faces only seemed to emerge from their swollen bellies, splitting open to engulf whatever prey was happening by, including prey seemingly too large for that gaping gullet.
“Tomwell swore that bog-wyrms were the most dangerous creatures in the swamp,” Edmund said, looking away from another bog-wyrm leaping and burning to ashes upon the fiery sphere.
“He would know,” Tangleroot said lightly. “He has personally lost three sons to them.”

20190124_231252-1
Edmund shook his head, trying not to think about a child struggling to escape the mouth of a bog-wyrm. He paled and sat down, trembling. Tangleroot spun around in the boat so that they were back-to-back. She steadied him with her spine.
“After losing the first son, why would you remain here?” Edmund wondered aloud. “Why would you not leave and bring your family elsewhere? But he stayed, and so he has lost six wives and twice as many children.”
“Men can be stubborn,” Tangleroot said, picking her long, curved nose idly. “And selfish. Thoughtless, too, especially of the consequences of their actions. Just about every man can be one or the other. A few very bad men can be all three. And it seems to me that the men of Paradise Bay are possessed of all such qualities. I suppose if they had to go through the pangs of birth themselves they might give pause and reconsider their situation.”
The boat suddenly stopped drifting, having come to the end of its present watery path through the swamp. It settled parallel with a lip of spongy earth where moss grew thick, crowned with clusters of mushrooms. A path of luminescent lichen glowed through the darkness, like a path marked for the lost and wayward.
“I suppose we walk from here,” Edmund said. He stood up and, wobbling, stepped ashore. The bubble of fire grew larger, to continue to protect him, Tangleroot, and the boat. “We should see where land leads us.”
“To a trap, most likely,” Tangleroot said. Nonetheless, she stood up, stretching her arms above her head, arching her back, and pushing her breasts out prominently. Edmund looked away, as he always did, and she grinned mischievously. She had no true human breasts. She was a goblin, after all, and thus belonged to the Primordial Elements, for whom childbirth and its functions were neither needful or feasible. Yet, she liked to adorn her body with crude human curves because it disconcerted Edmund’s young teenage mind. She also liked to draw his attention away from her long, hooked nose and tapered ears.
“That lichen there is surely a ploy,” Tangleroot continued to say. “It would lead us to our deaths.”
“True,” Edmund said, “but that also means the women and children may have gone this way. We should follow it and see if…” He could not force himself to say it.
“If they are yet living,” Tangleroot said. “Fine, but I still believe they do not wish to be found. Men like Tomwell would clutch their bones like property, and I know I would not allow such a man any victory, however bitter it might be.”
They walked along the lichen path. The bubble of fire split in two: one staying with the boat and the other keeping in stride with Edmund and Tangleroot, lighting their way. The Apprentice could manage two fire orbs easily enough. Even as the Apprentice he had magic to spare— nearly the whole cosmos, if he needed it. Not that he wanted to use that much. Things would have fallen apart quickly if he tried to use that much of the All Ways at once. Edmund was always hesitant rather than brazen, which was one of the many reasons that Master Avon chose him as his one and only Apprentice.
More bog-wyrms came leaping from the shadows only to burn to cinders on Edmund’s fire spell. Large snakes, too, came slithering out to strike themselves headless against the sphere. Others dangled down from the trees, and weirder things kept at a distance. Some mimicked human speech, like parrots, only their voices were guttural and hissed at the edges of words, vibrating deeply upon thick vocal cords. It reminded him of the roars of the Chimera in the Westerlands. A leonine voice, he thought. Hearing the words made his skin crawl. He shivered and cringed. Tangleroot noticed and grinned devilishly.
“They are the sweet-nothings of the swamp, my dear,” she teased. “So long as you do not fall for the cat’s calls you will be fine.”
“Your swamp was not so dangerous as this one,” Edmund remarked.
Tangleroot shrugged. “Not all swamps are the same. You would do well to remember, though, that when you toured my swamp you were a prisoner under the protection of the Unseelie Court. Had you not had such protection you would have likely run afoul of a deadly bloat-brownie or a hag’s needle-and-spool.”
“All places are dangerous, I suppose,” Edmund conceded. “With or without a ruler to arbitrate life and death.”
“All swamps have rulers, too, my dear,” she said.
“Who rules this swamp, then?”
Tangleroot glanced about the swamp that closed in around them, screwing her lips up in consideration. “The chaos of Life, perhaps. But that is every swamp, methinks.” She folded her arms and puckered her lips and tossed her head left and right as if to ferment her thoughts. “We will see. Give it time. No monarch can ever abide for long someone who traipses so boldly in their land.”
Tangleroot fell to silence and pointed. Ahead of them, along the lichen path, they saw a young woman with a young girl, walking hand-in-hand. They were accompanied by several bog-wyrms, and seemed not only unharmed, but happy—happy until they saw the light from Edmund’s protection spell.
“Men!” the woman cried. She picked up the little girl and ran, fleeing along the lichen path.
“Wait!” Edmund called. “We are here to rescue you!”
The bog-wyrms came hopping toward Edmund and Tangleroot. In quick succession they leapt into the fire barrier and incinerated themselves. The creatures dead, the Apprentice and the goblin girl ran after the young woman and child. They found them farther up the lichen path. The woman had tripped over an exposed root and had fallen down. The little girl was crying and the woman was nearly hysterical.
“We will not go back!” she shrieked. “I would rather die!”
She drew a small knife and held it to her throat.
Edmund whispered a spell beneath his breath:

“Metal, have no mettle,
be not sharp along your blade,
but be as a petal
from a flower made.”

The knife transformed in a flash of light. A moment later the young woman was holding a bouquet of flowers athwart her throat. She gawped at them in disbelief. Edmund and Tangleroot approached slowly now, trying not to spook her. Edmund recalled the fire sphere until it was a small blazing orb in one hand.
“You are a wizard,” the woman said, clutching the sobbing girl to her chest. “Have our husbands paid you to come fetch us back?”
“No one pays me for anything,” Edmund said. “I am the Apprentice. I have come here to help you leave the swamp.”
The woman glanced around as if confused. She had brown hair and wore a dress that was white across the breast, but red on the sleeves and gown. Her right eye was black and knotted from what appeared to be a blow. Seeing this, Edmund remarked upon it.
“You are very lucky to have only a few bruises out here,” he said. “This swamp is deadly. And this little girl…it swells my heart to see a child alive despite all of the ferocious creatures here.”
“Some animals are worse than others,” the woman said, quietly.
Tangleroot cackled lightly, her hands her hips. “I do not doubt it,” she said. “That girl is yours, is she not?”
“I am her mother, yes,” the young woman said warily. “My name is Taliana. My daughter’s name is Alania.”
“Come with us so we may take you someplace safe,” Edmund said.
“No!” she cried. She rose to her feet, the girl in her arms. “I will not return to the village!”
Edmund saw the fear in her face, and heeded it.
“Then we can take you somewhere else,” he said. “On one of the ships when we leave.”
“They will not let me leave,” Taliana said, tears in her eyes, “and they will not let you leave. They do not want their secrets out traveling the world. They would not be able to catch any more women for Braggart’s Bay.”
“Braggart’s Bay?” he repeated.
“It is the name we have given to this terrible place,” Taliana said. “Those among us who have survived long enough to know it for what it is. Not a ‘Paradise’ for women, but a paradise for the sailors that have fooled us into coming here. They…they promised us so much…and it was all…lies…”
She began to sob, joining her tears with her child’s. Edmund glanced around, thinking. He did not know what to do. Tangleroot shrugged, her arms akimbo.
“It is as much as I figured,” she said, snickering. “‘Braggart’s Bay’, hm? That seems as apt as a name could be for this place.”
Shaking his head at Tangleroot’s flippancy, Edmund turned his attention to more dire matters.
“Taliana, are you the only survivors?” he asked. “Are there any others?”
Taliana stared at Edmund for a long time, judging the measure of the young man. He tried to reassure her.
“I promise I only want to help them,” he said.
She nodded timidly. “A few of us escaped here. We have a…a safe haven…along the Path…with the Priestess. She guided us here.”
“I saw the bog-wyrms guiding you, too,” Tangleroot said. “Care to explain that?”
“The bog-wyrms protect us,” Taliana said. “They serve the Priestess, and the Priestess serves Mathara.”
“Oh no,” Tangleroot sighed, “more Matharists.”
“Tangle, please,” Edmund said. “We need to prove to them that we are here to help them.”
“You are not believers?” Taliana asked. “It does not matter to me. I was not a believer, either, not since I was this one’s age.” She kissed her daughter upon the forehead. “But you will see. Mathara protects us. She is our Mother. She is the Mother of all Creation. And she lives here. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Follow me upon the Path and see.”
Taliana set her daughter down and, holding her hand, they followed the glowing lichen farther into the swamp. To see the mother and daughter follow that path so blindly, as the darkness reigned all around them, unnerved Edmund. He used his sphere of fire in his palm to light his own way, not trusting the darkness, the Path, nor the creatures undoubtedly beyond it.
“Please do not walk so far ahead,” he pleaded with her. “Stay back here so you can see where you are going.”
“I do not need to see where I am going,” Taliana said. “I have faith in the Path.”
“I do not like this at all,” Tangleroot remarked.
The air became heavier, hotter, and moister, as if near a hot spring. The ground became softer, spongier, and weirder to his footstep. The trees disappeared and darkness deepened all around them. Yet they followed the Path and, soon, they saw lights up ahead: gentle bluish white lights, such as the glow of jellyfish in the sea. These lights came from what appeared to be crystal rocks that grew out from the sides of the darkness that surrounded them. Upon seeing them, Edmund realized they were stalactite crystals of magical overgrowth; the concentrations of magic, like diamonds forming within deposits of coal. Taliana and her daughter had led them into a gigantic cave in the center of the swamp.
“It is a cave,” Edmund said.
“You would think so, wouldn’t you?” Tangleroot said.
Edmund frowned at her engimatic reply, but had no opportunity to press her on it. Instead, the other women and children came forth from the crystal-lit recesses in the cave. There were two dozen or so of them, and they seemed to come from all over the world. Some had blonde hair and pale skin; others were dark brown with orange hair, and some had cinnamon complexions with dark black hair. Regardless of their color of skin, or style of dress, they were all united in one feature: they were bruised and knotted along their faces and arms. One woman— very pale— wore her husband’s handprints around her neck where he had evidently throttled her in a fit of rage.

20190120_005346-1
But taking prominence among all of these women and children was a short, squat woman with short, white hair and spiteful eyes. She came forward as if to wallop Edmund with her cane.
“Who brought this man onto these holy grounds?” she demanded in a loud voice.
Alania shrank behind her mother, as did the other children gathered there. Taliana stepped forward, but gave a wary glance over her shoulder at Edmund.
“I…I found them lost in the swamp,” she lied. “I…thought we could help them…”
“Men are not allowed here,” the short woman said, her tone dripping venom. “We all know what evils they perpetrate.”
Tangleroot— being a goblin and, moreover, being herself—eyed the woman shrewdly. “You must be the Priestess,” she said. “I can tell by the way you talk, and how everybody here fears you.”
“They do not fear me,” the Priestess said, eyeing the goblin balefully. “They fear the men that beat them.” She turned her glowering eyes again upon Edmund, the latter of whom was nervously fidgeting in place. “And every man secretly wishes to abuse women. I can see it in this villain’s eyes. He wants to abuse all of us!”
Edmund felt his seasickness returning as his knees wobbled. This was as unfamiliar territory as the sea. He had never been accused of wanting to abuse women before. It made him feel sick to his stomach.
“I would never…never do that!” he exclaimed.
“All men of a certain age would,” the Priestess said, brandishing her cane above her head as if delivering a prophecy. “All men!”
“Not all men…” Edmund began.
“Silence!” the Priestess shouted. “Do not obfuscate the truth with lies!”
Tangleroot clucked her tongue flippantly.
“I wonder what you will do with the boys here when they are of a certain age,” she declared. “Cast them out to let the swamp have them?”
The boys among the women looked up at their mothers, and then to the Priestess. Their eyes were wide with fear.
“Of course not,” the Priestess said. “We are not barbarians.” She lowered her cane, as if realizing just then that it was quite barbaric to brain someone with a heavy wooden stick. “They will join Mathara where she resides, deeper within this cave, as will the girls when they come of age. They will not suffer or know sorrow. This, I know, for I have shepherded many such children before them. All of the children, in fact, that have been lost in the swamp have been led to the salvation that Mathara offers here. And their mothers will join them, too. They will live happily forever, united with Mathara. It is nearly time again for the Great Engendering.”
“How long have you been here?” Edmund asked.
“Since the founding of Braggart’s Bay,” she said, smiling coolly. “I was, in fact, the founder’s wife. The founder, my husband, was a slimy worm of a man named Richard Lickmoore. He was a wanted man in every kingdom. He had no choice but to retire to a place where no king could, or would, follow him. The kings must have concluded that it was punishment enough to live here than to die in their kingdom for his crimes, for they did not follow him here, though he fooled me into doing so.”
Her smooth face reddened lividly in that bluish light of the crystals.
“I have been here since the beginning and that is why I know the evils born in the minds of men. I chose to stay here, with my goddess, so that I may save all of the women and children who have been brought here as victims by men. Braggart’s Bay is only a small corner of the world, but it represents the whole world in all of its inglorious sins. Mathara has kept me alive, as she will everyone who has pledged herself whole-heartedly to the goddess.” She smiled, then, with supercilious victory spreading over her smooth face. “I have lived hundreds of years here, in her safekeeping. I have wanted for nought and needed nought, especially anything offered by men.”
“Hundreds of years in a cave?” Tangleroot scoffed. “No wonder you are insane. You probably hear your own echo and think your goddess is talking to you.”
The Priestess’s knowing smile did not falter. Instead, it broadened.
“You will see,” she said.
She walked to one of the glowing crystals jutting out from the side of the cave’s wall. Reaching a hand toward its faint blue luminescence, she touched it. The crystal faded briefly, then surged with a bright blue intensity. This glow enveloped the Priestess in a blinding light while the crystal rock hummed and pealed. When the light faded again, and the crystal silenced itself, the Priestess ran a hand through her hair, which was now long and golden where it had been short and white. Her skin radiated with a motherly glow.

20190123_232749-1-1
“Mathara is a mother too,” she said. “She understands our pain. Our suffering. And through her our children may escape suffering. They become one with Mathara, the All-Mother, for they are welcomed into her loving embrace. All women and children are.” She turned toward Edmund with a disdainful flick of her wrist. “But not you. Men are filth. Men are anathema. They are animals. They do not deserve to exist, and someday she will cleanse them with her fire.”
Edmund looked to Tangleroot yet again, unsure how to proceed.
“Just tell them who you are and why you are here, Ed,” Tangleroot said. “Do not mind her. The madness of magic is strong in her.”
Edmund turned again toward the women, and shrank from the numerous scowls affixed upon him.
“Allow me to explain why I am here,” he said. “I am the Apprentice. Master Avon sent me to Paradise…to Braggart’s Bay to do something. He did not tell me what. When I arrived the men in the village said that they had lost their…wives…” He did not use the original term Tomwell used, property, thinking it prudent not to, but outrage was what he received regardless; outrage and panic and even desperate sobs among the women.
A blonde woman, nearly as forthright in her tone and address as the Priestess, stepped forward. She wore a long green dress with green sleeves. Her left eye was black and swollen, like the knot of a tree.
“I would rather die than return to my husband,” she said, her eye sparking like fire within the contusion that ringed it. “Mathara will protect and preserve us. Our husbands will only beat us.”
“And treat us as slaves,” another woman said.
“And whip us when we do not work hard enough,” another woman said.
“And lie to us a thousand times over,” yet another woman said.
“We were promised servants of our own,” the blonde woman with green sleeves said. “We were to marry into nobility. Or so they said.”
“How very enlightened of you,” Tangleroot remarked.
The woman in green sleeves sneered. “He promised me a life of ease and idle hours, with servants waiting on my beck and call. I just wanted to be the one served instead of being the one that serves others. That blackguard lied to me.”
“I wanted no servants,” another woman said, her skin as white as snow. “I just wanted to leave my clan. They would not let me choose my husband, and I would have been little more than chattel if I had stayed.”
Tangleroot scoffed as mercilessly as before.
“So you were all foolish enough to believe a man’s word,” she retorted. “And now you are bitter about it.”
“We have a right to be,” the angry woman said. “We have been enslaved and abused and treated like breeding cattle!”
“Let us be honest about why you are really angry at men,” Tangleroot said. “You are angry because you were fooled by men, and fooled by foolish men—not wizards or kings or scholars—but by fools, and boastful fools at that, which invites us to speculate as to your own foolishness. There are women the world over fooled by fools, as there are men much the same, and there are a handful who see through such deceptions. And what do they do with such enlightenment? Well, they certainly are not fooled into a long journey to some place called ‘Paradise Bay’. They know better. You have no one to blame but yourselves.”
An eruption of arguments broke out between Tangleroot and the women. The children shrank back together, in a group, trembling like nervous dogs in a pack ready to bolt. Edmund knew how they felt. This was all too much to understand for a simple weaver who had only really known one woman his whole life. And his mother was not complicated in how she thought or what she believed, so he was not prepared for these issues.
Taliana approached him while the others shouted. She stared at the ground timidly and wrung her hands. She looked as if she would cry at any moment. Her daughter, Alania, clutched to her red and white dress.
“Are you okay?” he asked her, seeing that she was afraid.
She looked up at him, and her eyes sparkled with tears. She spoke softly, in a confidential whisper.
“I only wanted to say that I came here because I had no choice,” she said. “I…I never wanted servants. I would have been happy at home, with my mother and father. I miss them. But…I…I left home because the Duke’s son had a fancy for me. And not a gentle fancy. I had been warned by my mother that he had a cruel heart, delighting in plucking a bluejay’s feathers. My childhood friend was not so lucky to leave town as I was. She…she never looked the same after he took her to his castle for a night…”
“I understand,” Edmund said, grimly.
“I worked in different places afterwards, including the port city of Languid Tide. The Duke’s son had sent soldiers to find me. He would not be refused in anything, even if it meant moving heaven and earth. I feared for my life. And then I met Haron. He promised me little but what I wished. And what I wished was freedom. He said he was a captain, and that he could take me to a place called Paradise Bay. I believed him. I saw his ship, and knew nothing about ships, so I thought he must be telling the truth; that he would take me where I could live in contentment. And I was too foolish a girl to see through his lies. But I never had a bad heart, only…inexperience. And ignorance. I just wanted you to know.”
“I, too, am steeped in my own inexperience and ignorance,” Edmund said. “I know how you feel. It makes victims of us all.”
“You took a risk because you were desperate,” Edmund said. “Life makes people desperate, and so people take risks. Sometimes risks bear fruit. Sometimes they bear thorns. Judgment is neither my duty or inclination, and I try to avoid hypocrisy as much as I may..”
Taliana wiped away a tear. “I never wanted anything but freedom.”
Edmund nodded sympathetically. “It is what most women deserve,” he said.
While Taliana’s story disturbed him, something else nagged at Edmund’s mind. He could sense something warping the fabric of reality with its magic, like a millstone weighing upon the seams of the All Ways. Perhaps there really was a goddess dwelling here, drawing the blood magic of the morassy land into itself like a swallowing whirlpool. Perhaps she dwelled deeper in the cave, far in the depths where the light from the crystals and the lichen did not illuminate the Path— farther down where none of these women had ever yet dared to go.
“Silence!” the Priestess demanded loudly, raising her hands until the bickering subsided. This had effect on Tangleroot at all except to provoke her laughter, which, in turn provoked the Priestess’s anger.
“Mathara sleeps here,” she said. “Your petulance is unwelcome here. I will warn you now: Mathara protects us from all intruders, whether they be swamp beast or men or even goblins whose arrogance is dwarfed only by their blasphemous impudence.”
Tangleroot only laughed more loudly.
And then something roared deep within the cave. The women went to their children, clutching them to them and huddling together at the feet of the Priestess. The walls of the cave rumbled and shook as if the earth itself was given to violence and fury. The roar throbbed in Edmund’s brain and made the balmy air vibrate. Even Tangleroot heeded it, falling silent at once.
After a few moments of silence, the Priestess spoke in a very quiet, deliberate tone, her smile small and tight and spiteful.
“I warned you that you would displease Mathara,” she said, gloating. “Yet, she will spare you if you and this man leave our cave immediately, and never return.”
“There is something wrong with this place,” Edmund said. “The magic here…it is like the swamp: hungry, insidious, hostile.”
“Hostile to the Patriarchs,” the Priestess said. “Not to us.”
Edmund reached out with his mind along the woven tapestry of the All Ways. He could sense the waft and weave straining beneath a presence that was massive in physical form and magical heft. It was covetous of its realm, and malevolent toward him. He could sense its thoughts. It told him to leave. It reached out to him with its mind. It taunted him, but there was no mirth in its taunts; only hatefulness.
“The children,” he said, turning to Taliana. “Where do they go when they join Mathara?”
Taliana looked with uncertainty to the Priestess. The latter scowled, and looked toward the further recesses of the cave, where all light faded completely.
“I see,” Edmund said. He began to walk toward the dark recesses, and felt the cave rumble. The women and children cried out. The Priestess screamed and ran toward him, swinging her cane.
“You will not blaspheme this holy place!” she hissed.
Edmund met the stick with his sphere of fire, burning it to a stub in the Priestess’s hand. Dismayed, she gawped at him, briefly, but her incredulity curled into a vindictive snarl.
“You will not ruin this for us!” she vowed. “Mathara will not allow you to!”
By now Edmund had turned his attention away from the Priestess. He was thinking quickly, his heart and mind racing as he tried to conceive of a plan to take all of these women and children away from this place. He had seen something when he burned the Priestess’s cane; something horrific revealed in the flaring illumination. Tangleroot had seen it, too, and she also was stricken to silence by the implications. Nor would Edmund venture farther into that darkness. He valued his life too much.
“We have to leave this place,” he announced. “Quickly.”
“We do not want to go back to our husbands!” the woman in green sleeves said.
“Nor will I take you to them,” he said. “But we need to commandeer one of their ships and leave this island behind.”
“We cannot do that,” another woman said, trembling. “Only they have the keys to unchain their ships.”
“And we are not sailors,” another woman moaned.
“I will handle all of that, too,” he said. “But we must go. Now.”
“Listen to him,” Tangleroot said, grabbing a woman and a child by their wrists and dragging them behind her. “This place is death. Or worse. You must leave.”
“No!” screamed the Priestess, heading them off. “We will not leave! We are the Daughters of Mathara! She protects us! She will not abandon us and we will not abandon her! Nothing awaits us beyond her except men who wish to abuse us! Men who will bind us and control us and own us! And this one here,” she said, pointing an accusatory finger at Edmund, “is just another deceiver! I know him for what he is! He will sell half of you into slavery and keep the other half as his personal harem! All men are the same! They are…”
The Priestess fell to her knees, Tangleroot’s fist in her stomach.
“Tangle,” Edmund said, disapprovingly. “That was not necessary.”
“No,” she said, grinning like a shark, “but it was very satisfying.”
Edmund sighed, then turned to the other women. “You are all in danger,” he said. “We need to go. I give you my word that I will see you safe beyond Braggart’s Bay. I will take all of you wherever you wish to go so you can find a new life for yourselves. But you cannot stay here.”
“You cannot tell us where we may stay or not!” snapped the blonde woman with green sleeves. “We are not going to be told what to do by men anymore!”

20190121_224400-1
Edmund sighed. He said nothing. Instead, he raised his sphere of fire and tossed it toward the dark, inner recesses of the cave. It floated for a while, following the Path like a will o’ the wisp, buoyant on eddies of air and illuminating a large lake of water that resided toward the deeper parts of the cave. The women watched it, and when it came to a stop they gasped in horror. Bones lay in large heaps among the water, and clustered around those heaps were large, crystalline eggs. Within the eggs incubated bog-wyrms— large amphibians growing round and fat in their glowing blue ovoids. Yet, not all of them were fully realized in the magical transmutation. A few were still vestigially humanoid.
“By Mathara’s breasts!” cried the blonde woman in green sleeves. “What are they?”
“All of these women and children…” Taliana said, as if ready to faint. She shook her head and turned upon the Priestess, screaming. “Look at what you have done to them!”
“I have saved them,” the Priestess said, sneering and beating her chest as she kneeled. “Mathara has saved them. Now they know nothing about the evils of men. They feast on men. They are no longer victims. They are predators, and all men are their prey!”
Another roar shook the cave system, and the creatures within the eggs began to stir. Their eyes opened, flashing yellow and hungrily. They wiggled and writhed, clawing at the crystals that enveloped them.
“We have to leave!” Edmund shouted. He ushered the women and children along the Path, out of the cave. Tangleroot led them, having keen goblin sight. Edmund waited until all were in front of him. The Priestess laughed bitterly.
“I will not leave,” she said. “It is my duty to serve Mathara, and I am happy to serve her in this noble pursuit. So many I have saved! I regret nothing.”
Edmund tried to pull her to her feet, but she clawed at him.
“Go!” she shrieked. “It will not save you!”
“She is bloody daft!” Tangleroot called. “Leave her behind!”
Edmund ran behind the women and children. All around them the cave was shaking and rumbling; shrinking as if to collapse inward. He feared they would not escape in time. He urged them forward, faster, and wove a spell, breathlessly, to protect them.

“Funnel of air, gust of wind,
force this cave open, end to end.”

The winds swirled around them, but did not touch them, focusing instead upward against the roof of the cave, keeping it aloft so it would not fall down. Behind him, and moving with increasingly wakeful speed, came the bog-wyrms. Their squamous bodies hopped along like languid toads, then hastened, leaping farther and faster in their crowding entourage of gnashing teeth and scrambling claws.
The balmy air lessened, slightly, and Edmund could feel, if not see, a sudden widening of space all around them. They had exited the cave, though the bog-wyrms still pursued them. They came to the beginning of the Path. The poleboat was still encircled by the protection spell Edmund had woven around it. He unraveled the rest of it into his palm, alongside the air spell. Then came a more practical problem: the size of the boat.
“The boat is too small for all of us,” Tangleroot said, pointing out the obvious.
“I could make it larger,” Edmund said.
“But the water channels are not large enough for such a boat,” Tangleroot countered. “And the passages twist and turn too serpentinely. We would would run aground and become stuck.”
Edmund was wet with sweat— from the sprint and the stress he now felt— and Tangleroot took him by the shoulders and shook him.
“Edmund, my dear,” she said in a tone of measured patience, “you need to open a portal. It is the only way.”
“But I have only ever opened small portals before,” he said. “And over small distances. I…”
He became distracted by the boisterous approach of the bog-wyrms, all croaking and growling and hissing hatefully. It was not that he feared the bog-wyrms, but that he feared he might accidentally harm someone while wielding his power against the creatures. Opening a portal was to tear a hole through the All Ways and then send people through. If he lost his focus, for even an instant, the puncture wound might seal and entomb them all in a pocket of reality, or else all of reality might tear and come undone. Portals were some of the most dangerous spells to perform.
“No,” he said. “I am not ready.”
He heard the children crying and it discombobulated him with fretful indecision and panic. The horror of the fate that awaited them weighed upon him, especially as he knew that their deliverance all depended upon him. The pressure was too great. His mind was a tornado of doubt.
Tangleroot pinched his arm to wake him up. “To say ‘No’ now, Edmund, is to say ‘Yes’ to Death.”
He gawped at her only for an instant more, then shook his head.
“Okay,” he said. He held his arms up. “Everyone stand back!”
The women and children huddled together behind Tangleroot. To slow down the bog-wyrms, Tangleroot spread her hands and extended her long fingers into the morass, running them like ivy creeper that grabbed and snatched and entangled the horrible hunters.
In the meantime, Edmund took a deep breath and focused his mind on the waft and the weave of the All Ways, searching for the loose seams that could easily be undone and then mended behind them. Sensing a loose seam, he followed it with his mind. It would do, he thought. Now he needed to focus himself with a lilting rhyme at the exclusion of all other distractions.

“Unravel, seam, space within space,
and open the way from place to place.”

A fissure opened within the empty air, revealing a dimension woven with wondrous colors that undulated like restless fabric in the wind. Edmund grabbed hold of the fissure, as if it was not empty space, and stretched it, tearing the All Ways like a cheap piece of cloth until it was large enough for two people to walk through, side by side.
“Hurry,” he said. “Before I lose control.”
The women and children hurried to the portal, mother walking hand-in-hand with child. To their credit, most of them hesitated only briefly before plunging into that rift between spaces. They, too, knew that Death corralled them into the aperture. Last to enter was Tangleroot. She looked thinner now, having sacrificed much of her substance to hold off the bog-wyrms. She winked at Edmund and then entered. Edmund followed her, sealing the portal behind him.
The women and children hurried in the only direction they could move between the wavy pastel colors. Ahead of them was another portal, opening to daylight.
“Keep going,” the blonde with green sleeves said. She had assumed command since the departure of the Priestess, and Edmund was fine with that. He did not want to be in charge, to be honest. He only wanted to focus on keeping the passage open and safely isolated. The fraying of existence would be a markedly bad failure of his Apprenticeship.
They burst through the portal to find themselves on the dock of the village. Edmund was the last to leave the space between spaces and took a moment to seal the opening in the All Ways securely. When he turned around, however, he was faced with the livid scowls of the women of whom he had saved.
“You said you would free us!” the blonde in green sleeves said.
“We are leaving,” he said, “on one of those ships.” He pointed to the large ships that were chained to the thick posts.
There was a ruckus behind him. The men of the village had arrived. They, too, were scowling.
“No one is leaving,” Tomwell said. He gripped the chained key that dangled like a necklace upon his chest. “We have the keys, as it should be.”
“You abused these women,” Edmund said. “It was not right of you…you…savages.”
The men laughed amongst themselves. They had swords in their hands, and spears, and clubs.
“It matters little what you think, boy,” Tomwell said. “Let me give you another lesson, though I fear you will not live long enough to appreciate it. The Patriarchs must be respected, or else civilization collapses. Nothing else matters but Order. Without it, we are a doomed ship sinking into the sea.”
“There are different types of Order,” Edmund said. He raised a hand and one of the ships— the most seaworthy among them— drifted toward the dock. The men gasped to see it move, but Tomwell only snarled.
“We have the power in Paradise Bay,” he said. “No one leaves without our permission, and no one lives without our permission, either.”
The men behind him stepped forward, raising their weapons
“I do not need your keys,” Edmund said. “I have my own power.” He lifted his hands and he spoke words against their weapons:

“Handles serve the hand that grasps
while the blade bites so blood may drip,
but now, handles, bite like angry asps
aflame with venom upon the grip.”

The hiss of the handles sounded like a chorus of snakes and the men screamed, dropping their toxic weapons and clutching their burnt, blistered hands. The weapons continued to seep venom until steel melted and wood caught fire and burned to cinders. It was a potent venom, even in small droplets.
“Get on the rowboats,” Edmund said to the women, “and go to the ship with the mermaid on its prow. I shall free it shortly.”
The women climbed down into the boats, handing the children down to each other, and then began to row toward the ship. The men attempted a rally, but Edmund intensified the spell so that the venom in their hands seeped more profusely and burned more heatedly. The agony was too much for most, except for Tomwell. He rushed forward, balling his bleeding hands into fists and gritting his teeth within his black beard.
“I am going to crush your skull like a toad, boy!” he roared.
Edmund created a dome of air to block Tomwell’s approach and trap him within the vortex. The large man beat at the sphere futilely.
“You think you’re so clever, boy?” he growled. “Well, I’ve suffered greater burns from sailing rope! Put off these womanly charms of witches and hags and fight me like a man!”
Edmund turned his back on Tomwell, waiting for the women to arrive upon the ship. Tomwell mocked him and cursed him and spat. No one, truly, could swear like a sailor. When Edmund heard enough, he shrank the sphere, tightening the airflow around the big man. Tomwell was forced to sit down, hunched over, arms tucked in about his stomach. Yet, he persisted in his foul execrations.
When all of the women were aboard, Edmund and Tangleroot climbed into the last rowboat and rowed out to the ship. Climbing the rope ladder, they came aboard with the women and children. Edmund then turned his attention to the thick iron chain that held the ship fast.

“Iron, unbraid and relax your binding
until your loops loosen, links unwinding.”

The heavy iron chain trembled momentarily, then sagged as if made of jelly. The softening iron fell apart under its own weight and the ship was freed.
The women cheered, their eyes streaming with tears of joy. Edmund sighed in relief, happy he was able to save so many, even if he could not save all of the women and children that had suffered death, or worse, in Braggart’s Bay.

“Eddies of speed, firm and fast;
fill the sails without breaking the mast.”

A great breeze swelled the ship’s sails, puffing their white canvas out like the proud-puffing chest of a rooster. The ship moved among the waves, cutting through them until the sea leveled off to calmness and the ship was briskly on its way Northward. When he knew they were moving too quickly and were too far out to be overtaken, he released the spells that had held the men in check. He could see them, small at the distance, running along the docks and, naturally, trying to get to the rowboats to bring themselves to their ships. There were no rowboats left along the dock, all of them drifting out to sea after having been used and abandoned by the women as they took their children to this ship.
The women saw their former husbands standing along the dock, cursing and swearing and screaming in rage. The women cheered again.
And then there came a great roar that seemed to silence the sea itself.
“What was that?” Edmund whispered.
They all looked toward the thick clusters of trees deeper in the swamp. Thousands of birds took flight at the roar.
“It must be Mathara!” Taliana said, clutching her daughter to her. “She leaves her cave to punish us!”
“She was not within the cave,” Tangleroot said knowingly. “She is the cave.”
The trees bowed, broke, shattered, uprooted, and scattered, exploding outward as if a volcano had erupted. The soft, morassy land buckled and bucked, cratering open and spewing upward like a hemorrhaging wound, the detritus dissolving into airborne mush that churned among the roiling sea. And in the heart of that churning water was revealed a gigantic bog-dragon, its yellow eyes wide with fury and its gigantic mouth gaping as if to swallow the ship whole. It lurched forward, tearing the swampy inlet and bordering land asunder. The men on the dock tried to flee, but there was no place to flee to. The timbers of their village exploded with the passage of the creature, and all of them fell into the violent sea.
“It is a bog-dragon,” Tangleroot said. “I thought as much. It has been sleeping here for millennia, I would wager, collecting alluvium and creatures and growing an island around its nest. They are like toads. They hibernate for centuries and avoid the sunlight. Who knows how long it has been sleeping.”
The bog-dragon’s emergence had sent monstrous waves against the ship, tossing it to one side and dragging it farther away from the dragon, but at the cost of disconcerting the people aboard. Edmund struggled to his feet. His seasickness lurched within his empty stomach and he swayed as if to swoon. He shook his head and took a deep breath, bent over with his hands on his knees. When he had steadied himself, he looked again toward the gigantic beast that pursued them, chasing the ship out to sea.
“Tangle!” Edmund shouted. “Take the women indoors.”
“You have a plan?” she asked.
“Just more of the same,” he sighed. “But bigger, for a bigger problem.”
Tangleroot led the women into the captain’s quarters, scolding them to silence.
“He needs silence, you hens!”
Edmund turned his back to the bog-dragon and focused, instead, on the ship itself. He focused on nothing but the ship, and his spell.

“As a hollow sun, hot only at the outer rim,
become a corona to burn every intrusive limb!”

The spell was like a sunrise around the ship, enveloping it in a sphere of fire. It was much like the sphere he used to pass through the swamp, but a hundred times larger. The brightness blinded the giant beast and it howled in pain, its yellow eyes squinting balefully as it shook with fury. It attempted to rush toward the ship again, but flinched again from the light as Edmund intensified its luminosity, slashing like fulgent blades in a blinding array.

20190119_155752-1
But the dragon was not fully deterred. It opened its massive mouth, which was like a gaping puncture wound in the light of day, and from this mouth sprang a long tongue not unlike a frog’s. It shot toward the ship, striking the dome of fire that protected it. Where it struck, the dome bent, as if ready to cave. Edmund felt the impact against his magic, and bolstered the point of impact by drawing more magic towards it from the All Ways. The tongue retracted into the cavernous mouth, then shot forth again, striking a different area. The dragon was not stupid. It understood magic. It used magic, if only a crude magic. That was how it created its children, transmuting a human into a bog-wyrm within its womb.
The tongue lashed hatefully at the corona, denting its magical field more and more. Edmund knew his concentration was failing. Things were desperate now. He knew the corona would not last. He had to try something different; something risky.
The bog-dragon’s tongue withdrew, readying for a final strike. Edmund dropped the fiery dome, leaving the ship vulnerable. He then tugged upon the All Ways, splitting it at its seams until a fine rent was opened. The bog-dragon shot its tongue toward the ship and Edmund yanked on the seams, opening a gigantic portal in the spaces between. The dragon’s tongue entered the portal and Edmund wove the portal shut, severing the tongue before it could escape. Greenish-black blood gushed from the torn stump and the bog-dragon howled in pain, thrashing among the waves. While it was distracted, Edmund asserted the wind spell once again and the ship briskly hurried on its way, the bog-dragon disappearing, gradually, over the undulating horizon.
Tangleroot emerged from the captain’s quarters. She glanced around, then grinned.
“You used the portal spell again,” she said.
“Opening doors is important,” Edmund said, humbly, “and needful.”
“Risky, too,” she said. “But sometimes risks pay off.” She looked toward the cabin, all cautiously coming out of the cabin. “And sometimes they cost you.” She looked away from the women and children, turning her attention to the prow of the ship. She frowned, then squinted. She laughed.
“What is so funny?” Edmund asked.
She pointed to the wooden figure upon the prow. “It is not a mermaid, but a siren. How many men has she lured to their deaths?”
“How many women?” he wondered.

***

Gray clouds drifted like a school of whales on the Midland horizon. A thin veil of rain blurred the shadowy hills beneath them. In the far distance the towering slabs of Gran Stone were as a mountain rising among the foothills. The Apprentice and the goblin girl walked along its cobbled road, out toward the fields. Master Avon floated alongside them, sitting with his legs folded and his long white beard trailing beneath him, heedless in the dirt.
She grimaced as she bent over, hoeing the rows for the planting of seeds. She paused, righted herself upwards, hand to her spine while wincing— a woman with green sleeves now a menial, common laborer. When she saw Edmund approach she glowered.
“What have you here?” she demanded. “Have you not done enough?”
Her expression and her tone were brittle and bitter.
“I only wished to see how well you fare,” Edmund said meekly.
“And to reap our gratitude?” she said, snorting. “How should we be grateful that you delivered us from paradise once again into slavery?”
“It would have transformed you into something terrible,” he said.
“Silence!” she shrilled, throwing her hoe to the ground. “Now we are imprisoned by men again. Because of you! And you expect gratitude!”
“I just expected you to be happy,” Edmund said. “Or at least contented.”
“The privilege of your power blinds you,” she snapped.
Tangleroot laughed.
“If you dislike your new life and its toil then return to your goddess. I am sure you will make a lovely bog-wyrm. Or perhaps you should take up arms and become bandits, or conquer your own kingdom with your own slaves. Either way, you will be laboring for a harvest of some kind— whether for crops or blood or your own comeuppance. Such is life.” She grinned wickedly. “The only way out is to take up that hoe and and slit your wrists.”
“If women were in charge…” the woman with green sleeves began.
“Then we would have the same problems as before,” Tangleroot said. “Only more softly spoken decrees of war and execution. Nothing more.”
“We could have a balance,” the woman said, bitter tears flowing along the edges of her healing black eye. “We could have less work and more fairness.”
Again, Tangleroot laughed. “That’s just not how the world works. Ask the ants. Ask the bees. Ask the flowers and the trees. Power is what makes the world turn, and power is never about fairness. You would need an awfully powerful army to enforce such equality, and such an army would invalidate that premise of equality. And if you had such superb people, of either men or women, that they should take up shovel and scythe equally then another army would only conquer them, given time.”
“So what do you suggest, goblin?” the woman demanded.
“Marry a rich nobleman,” the goblin girl said with a wink, “or start conquering. Either way, blood needs to be spilled— by maidenheads or the heads of your enemies.”
Edmund turned to Master Avon, looking distraught.
“How long has this been going on?” he asked. “Master Avon, why did you send me to see to it only now? Why did you not go and change it long ago?”
“Because the women willfully chose,” he said. “I am too old to be patronizing to women. I let people live with the consequences of their actions. And, really, the Master is only needed when things threaten the All Ways.”
“Then why did you send me there?”
“Because you are in sore need of practice,” he said. “You mastered portals, did you not?”
“I am more familiar with them now,” Edmund said.
“And you are now familiar with bog-dragons and their habits, yes?”
“I suppose so,” Edmund said diffidently.
“Then it was worth it to send you.” Master Avon regarded the women coolly, especially the blonde that was arguing with Tangleroot. “And if you happened to save some humans in the exercise…so be it. Though whether you should have saved all of them is debatable.”
“I did not save all of them,” Edmund said. “The men died, and I fear the Priestess likely died, too. Sometimes I think that I did not want either side to survive. The men abused these women, and the Priestess took advantage of the women as well. Yet, I feel like I am somehow the villain in the story.”
Master Avon shrugged.
“There are no heroes or villains where humans are concerned,” he said. “Some men will abuse women for their ends, and some women will abuse women for their own ends. Not acknowledging either allows the abuse to continue. But abuse is part of the natural order of the All Ways. This is a world of victimizing victims. You do not need to concern yourself with details, only with the balance of the All Ways. It’s structural integrity is all that matters to you.” The Master started to float back toward Gran Stone, heading into the drizzle. The raindrops parted around him, almost apologetically. His voice reached Edmund across the broadening distance.
“Do not become distracted with the particulars,” he said. “Even the human particulars. You will never resolve their problems. Humans are defined by their problems, and even if you were remove all such problems they would find others, or else fail as a species. Problems are innate and problems are necessary. Let them have at it themselves.”
Edmund sighed, his shoulders slumping with defeat. Nothing felt like a victory for him. Ambivalence reigned supreme in the midday gloom.
Taliana approached Edmund, her hoe leaning on her shoulder. Taliana looked in earnest and Edmund feared she would berate him as well. Instead, she reached for his hand and clasped it firmly.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much, Apprentice. It is a good life, here. The work is hard, but fair. But it is my work, and it is my life.”
Edmund was too surprised to say anything at first. He sputtered. “Thank you, too,” he said.
Her eyes went wide with surprise. “Why do you thank me?” she said.
“For letting me feel like I could do someone some good,” he said.
Taliana smiled and then looked at the clouds as they neared. “This is a good place. The soil and the rains are generous. More importantly, I need not fear a Duke’s son here.” A troubled look crossed her face. “Do I?”
Edmund shrugged. “I do not believe so,” he said. “The aristocracy here is too arrogant to condescend to abuse commoners. It is considered…beneath them.”
Taliana pushed a strand of black hair behind her ear. “Good,” she said. “I would rather they not look at me at all.”
“You are under the Master’s protection also,” Edmund said. “So even if they did look at you, you would have little to fear, I think. You need only tell me or Tangleroot and we will handle it.”
She nodded pensively, staring out at the clouds. “It will rain soon.” She took hold of her hoe and began to work again. “This is good, too. It will loosen the soil and make it easier to till.”
Edmund said goodbye to Taliana and then headed toward Gran Stone. Unlike Master Avon, he let the drizzle fall upon his brow. It was refreshing.
Tangleroot left the furious blonde woman behind, joining Edmund.
“Not all of them are grateful,” Tangleroot said. “But if they do not like it here, they are free to leave, but they won’t because they are cowards and wish to blame others for their problems.”
“That is easy to say for a goblin girl,” Edmund remarked. “You have power. Many of these women have no such natural gifts.”
“They have pretty faces,” she said, crinkling her long nose. “That can amount to a lot.”
“It has its own hazards, too,” Edmund said.
“As does everything in life,” she countered.
Edmund let the argument fall to the wayside.
“I just wish I could have saved all of them,” Edmund said. “The Priestess and the women and the children that had been changed, and even Tomwell and the men.”
“Why?” Tangleroot said, crinkling her long nose in distaste. “The Priestess and the men were both two sides of a filthy gildread coin.”
“Yes, but I am not supposed to take sides when it comes to human life,” Edmund said. “I am the Apprentice. Someday I will be the Master and I must be impartial where…human complications exist.”
“Then be impartial,” she said, “except where it comes to your defense. You should always take your own side, Edmund. No one else is going to. They resent you too much.”
Edmund tried to let the regrets wash away from him in the rain, but they clung to him worse than morassy mud. Sometimes he wondered if he would ever be ready to become the Master. Sometimes he wondered if he should ever really want to.

20180921_010356-1

Edmund, The Apprentice

 

20180921_023751-1

Tangleroot, The Goblin Girl