Offal, the court fool, speaks:
“A lord marked a swineherd at his morn meal.
‘How came you by such uncouth manners, friend?’
The swineherd spoke while he ate to his fill.
‘Manners are not so hard to comprehend.
My hogs have manners, too, which oft contend
with the highest lord ruling in his land,
for though they lay in the filth they expend
it behooves them to not use a hoofed hand,
their snouts deep in what they don’t understand.”
“The lord, astride his horse, snorted disdain.
‘You would do better to learn from your lord.’
The swineherd swallowed and, without refrain,
laughed aloud, eyeing his lord’s long, sheathed, sword.
He said, ‘I have learned much from my swine horde.
Indeed, they are not afeared of the blade
for they are too happy among filth, lord,
to know the blade till its kiss has been made
across the throat and their life debts are paid.’
“The lord blinked, confused at such unconcern.
‘Had you sense you would not speak quite so free.’
The swineherd did not flinch, but took a turn
around his sty, watching his hogs till he
saw the sow roll in grime and gunk and glee.
He then said, ‘Had you sense you would know how
filth can come out of either end of me,
but I find truffles well as any sow,
which I gift to you, lord.’ He gave a bow.
“‘You bring me no truffles!’ the lord replied.
‘Indeed, I think you hoard them for yourself!’
The swineherd smirked from ear-to-ear, quite wide,
not unlike a mischievous bogle elf.
‘Go to my larder and look at each shelf.
I am deprived of truffles, and of care,
for I have not your manners or your wealth.’
The lord dismounted his horse, haughty his air,
and went to the cottage to look in there.
“Meanwhile the swineherd went to the lord’s horse
and fetched the lord’s blade from the bridle’s sheath.
He said, ‘Oft one must be careful, of course,
for swineherds among hogs may come to grief
wherefore fallen—however long or brief—
they may feed their lessers with the fumble
for hogs rush to claim what others bequeath,
even if unwitting be the stumble.’
The lord came out, then, with a gruff grumble.
“‘I found my truffles, knave!’ he growled aloud,
his arms cradling truffles like a farrow,
but afore he could say aught else, he bowed,
his neck split from a slash, clean and narrow.
Away fled his spirit, like a sparrow.
The swineherd fed the body to his swine
and buried the bones beneath a barrow.
‘Ill-mannered hogs may begrime when they dine,
but they may yet end a royal bloodline.'”
Twas a queen in long agone times
whose husband was an old king
who ruled many lands, many climes,
and bound her with a wedding ring.
He gifted her a gemmy crown
studded with jewels all aglow,
yet the queen did but frown and frown
for the grave sadness she did know.
‘My dear darling,’ the great king said,
‘what ails you, my lovely flower?’
She said, ‘It is a matter of my bed,
for it is in a short tower.’
‘How doth that ail you?’ the king said.
And she answered, ‘Such short towers
bring no pleasure to those abed
in the lonely, feverish hours.’
So the king had his servants build
for his queen a looming tower
made of riverstone, in a field,
and in this did she embower.
‘Tis a fine tower,’ she remarked,
‘and nice, at its own modest height.
But,’ she added with an eyebrow arced,
‘Tis not so tall as is aright.’
So the king had more stones piled up
and the tower grew taller still,
the turret lofty like the cup
of a giant toasting his swill.
‘It is of adequate size now,’
the queen said with a blushing smile.
She raised a coquettish eyebrow
and bethought a wonderful wile.
The old king smiled, too, like a naif.
‘I am pleased you are pleased, my love,
and glad it is high, and, so, safe,
for tis like a bough for a dove.’
Yet the tower was now too high
and the king too old to walk it,
the steps making him groan and sigh
as his bones ached in each socket.
‘Will you not rejoin me?’ he asked,
‘for I miss you in my own bed.’
The queen said, ‘No, love,’ her face masked
with a smile rare since she was wed.
‘Husband, I am pleased being high
among the stars and the moonlight,
for it pleases me as I lie
abed and dream through the long night.’
She added, ‘Nor lonely am I,
but have my bard sing a sweet song
to put me to sleep, up so high
atop his tower—all night long.’
The king let be, happy his queen
was pleased and no longer forlorn,
and she was pleased, indeed serene,
coming to court happy each morn.
Behold the great goblin maiden
with her sharp nose spiraling round,
her ears long and her head laden
with curly white hair to the ground.
Her laughter is not like a harp
and her voice is not sweet honey;
her skin is green, her teeth are sharp,
and her large yellow eyes runny.
She does not enjoy any fruit
nor the fragrance of perfumed oil,
her nose is like a long taproot
seeking worms beneath the dark soil.
She snacks on fat bugs like bonbons
and slumbers in a bed of withe,
awaiting the oncoming dawns
in a swamp swarming with her kith.
Although no knights seek her green hand,
they seek her when upon their quest
through the soggy, boggy upland
to pierce her hungry-hearted breast,
for she steals the false hearts of men
with her glamor, cunning, and guile,
plucking the crimson meat out when
enchanting their greed with each wile,
with each pile of gold and gemstones
mined from deep beneath the peat bog
where men shrink to leather-bagged bones
and phantoms swirl in the pale fog.
Yet, come knights, come kings, come all priests:
they shall fail, shall fall, are thus slain
and gutted, in turn, like dumb beasts
in this butcher maiden’s domain.
For what are her truest treasures
except the skulls of foolish men?
What are her keenest of pleasures
except hearts overripe with sin?
An Excerpt from a fantasy novel currently in progress.
CHAPTER V. Stones, Clouds, And Bogs
“Beware, Edmund. There is no stronger magic than the magic a wizard works upon himself. There is no stronger enchantment than self-delusion.”—Master Avon’s warning.
All poetry was fancywork. That was what Edmund thought (quite bitterly) as he walked across the heath in a general Eastward direction. He was staring down at the calfskin, reading the poem over and over again in the hope that he might come to understand it more clearly. Nothing came of this, however. He wondered, once again, if Master Avon was testing him, or having a lark at his expense. He had often been used for a laugh by the other squires. They told him at times that such-and-such maiden was asking about him. When he went to call on the maiden at her residence, the servants would fetch her, then return, telling him that he was not known at that residence. Edmund had fallen for this mischief more times than he cared to admit. Even when he knew he was being tricked, he could not convince himself not to seek out the maiden. Of course, the squires employed others to trick him as well. Even the knights had taken part in the chicanery, and laughed just as loudly as their squires when Edmund returned the next day, looking downcast and friendless.
The heath was vast. The night settled quickly, too, and the wind blew with a colder edge than in the Midlands. Edmund deduced from this that he was in the Northerlands. Thus, he was in the direction that the Black Knight took Princess Felicia, though Edmund doubted that Master Avon meant for him to rescue the Princess presently.
The sky darkened over distant mountains, and then overhead, and stars sparkled in the cloudless black dome. The night was moonless, however. There were shrubs aplenty along the heath, and pink-colored gorse, and occasionally larger trees that had managed to make a home of the vast solitude. It was beneath one such tree that Edmund decided to await the morning. He was not so cold to need a fire to be warm, but he did value its light. So, he conjured a fire and fed it some of the shrubs he gathered from the heath. Laying next to this fire, he fell asleep for a time.
He awoke late in the night. What woke him, he did not know. Not at first. Slowly sitting up, he looked out upon the heath. The stars were bright, but the starlight did not illuminate much of the heath. He did fancy he saw some of the gorse bushes trembling. The wind was still, yet the gorse shook anyway. He wondered why. He glanced about, then lay down closer to the fire. He was tired after a long, eventful day. He fell asleep.
It was a white night come the next morning. A thick fog blanketed the heath, reducing the sun to a white shadow in the clammy mist—more moon than sun—and sight was hindered. A ll things not within a stone’s toss were hidden. Edmund sat up and rubbed his eyes. The fire he had conjured in the night had extinguished. The cool air made him shudder, and not just because it chilled him. It seemed to cocoon around him covetously, as if it had been summoned from a witch’s cauldron. The sun was like a blind witch’s eye in the sky. Edmund feared he would see three witches approach him from out of the fog (for witches always worked wickedness in threes, as everyone knew).
Edmund stood up and stretched. Sleeping on the moor was no worse on him than sleeping on his mat at home. It had not been uncomfortable. What made him uncomfortable was the milky murk that swirled around him. He looked up at the pale sun and followed it Eastward, leaving the tree behind. As he walked, he peered at the calfskin in his hands and reread the poem. It did no good. No new meanings came to him. At length, he tucked the calfskin into the sleeve of his father’s tunic and walked with his eyes focused on the fog and the gorse.
At midmorning the fog parted, thinned, and then dissipated. Trees grew more frequent as he progressed across the heath. This did not comfort him as much as it should have. They were twisted willows with heavily-laden heads. Some seemed to swoon leftward or rightward, as if to fall, and some were bent doubly, as if groveling toward their own roots. The heath, too, changed. The gorse fell away, giving way to spidery grass and becoming soggier beneath Edmund’s shoes. Though the fog had parted, the sky was as much overcast as not. The mountains still seemed faraway and the smell of rotting vegetation grew. Edmund’s unease grew, too.
Edmund started to feel famished. He had not had anything to eat since the mushroom soup yesterday. Thus far he had not seen any animals except the occasional birds and mosquitoes, and a single heron flying overhead. It would not have mattered if there were deer and elks and sheep out here. Edmund had been raised as a weaver, not a hunter.
Still, his stomach would not listen to reason. It was empty and wished to be full. Having no other recourse, Edmund sat down on the grass and thought for a moment. Part of him wanted to tear open the All Ways, walk the path of the Betwixt, and return home. Obviously Master Avon had set him upon another trick quest. Much like with the books that proved to be less than crucial to his lessons, the poem must have been less than crucial to his quest.
Edmund’s stomach grumbled loudly. Such a loud complaint broached no debate. Knowing he needed to eat, Edmund spoke a spell, imagining the Betwixt and the threads on his mother’s loom. Shortly thereafter a cluster of mushrooms sprouted from the grass. However, he had been careful not to indulge the spell overmuch. The mushrooms were enough to feed him, and no more than that. They were also none of them poisonous. He then summoned another fire, gently roasting the mushrooms over the flame. He ate the mushrooms quickly, then stood up. It was as he stood up that he realized that there was a gigantic hairy hand outstretched toward him.
Edmund yelped, then leapt back. The hand remained where it was, straining toward him. The hand was as big as Edmund’s torso. The palm was peach-colored—not unlike Edmund’s own hand—but the hair on the knuckles and the back of the hand was thick and white. The arm to which the hand was connected was large and muscular and covered in white hair, also. It extended out from under a willow tree. The willow tree’s foliage bulged with the large figure beneath it. Edmund did not know what to make of the figure, for it was more concealed than revealed beneath the willow tree’s tresses.
Strangely, the figure could have easily emerged from the tree and overtaken Edmund, but it did not. In fact, the gigantic hand flinched back as a cloud parted above and sunlight speared through to lance at it.
“I mean no harm, surface dweller!” a voice boomed from under the willow tree. “I only need help!”
Edmund stayed warily away from the tree, but he did call out to the creature.
“How can I help you?” he asked, “and who are you?”
“Who am I?” the voice boomed. “I am Flint-Tusk.”
“What are you?”
The creature known as Flint-Tusk grumbled. “Have you no worldliness, surface dweller? Have you no etiquette? I am a troll!”
Edmund’s stomach turned to icy slush. He had heard of Trolls. They were, invariably, eaters of men. Though out of reach of the large hand, Edmund nonetheless took a few more steps back. He wanted to put the whole of the heath between them.
“Why should I help an eater of children?” Edmund said, turning away. “I must leave.”
Edmund paused, looking over his shoulder. The troll had withdrawn his hand back under the willow tree. His bearded face peered out from between the spindly tresses of the tree. He had sharp features in an apish face. His tusks jutted out of both corners of his mouth, vertically, near his cool-blue eyes. There was a white mane from the creature’s forehead, flowing back to either side of his bearded face. The beard and the mane were divided and bound into two tufts apiece by what appeared to be golden bracelets. Edmund wondered to whom the golden bracelets had belonged before the troll had taken them..
“I am at your mercy, young surface dweller,” Flint-Tusk said. His tusks scraped against his teeth as he spoke, and sparks flew like fireflies, occasionally landing on his beard and singing it black here and there in places. “I had trusted too much in the fog this morning to assure my safety. As you may or may not know, trolls cannot endure direct sunlight. I was returning to my cave in the mountains when the sky suddenly parted. I flung myself beneath this tree, and here I have remained.”
“You sought breakfast…?” Edmund said. The realization that he could have been eaten dawned on him. He grimaced with horror. “You tried to eat me?!”
The willow tree shook with the troll’s clumsy form. “No, no, no! Indeed, not! Had I wanted to eat you, I would have eaten you. But you were too measly a morsel. I instead ate the bear that was sniffing about your campfire as you slept. Indeed, I saved your life, surface dweller.”
Edmund was overwhelmed. He did not know whether to believe the troll or to run away while he could. He took another step back and felt something beneath his shoe that was not gorse or shrub or spidery grass. Looking down, he saw a bear’s paw under his shoe. It was only a bear’s paw. Nothing else remained.
“You ate the fur, too?” Edmund asked, feeling disoriented. The world tipped sideways slowly, but he put his hands on his knees and breathed.
“That is the best part,” Flint-Tusk said, “besides the fat and the bones.”
Edmund steadied himself, then stepped away from the bear paw. “So you saved my life?”
“Inadvertently,” Flint-Tusk said, his tusks sparking on each syllable. A spark caught on the willow, and then the willow caught fire. “Oh no,” the troll said. “My cover is burning.” He tried to pat out the flame, but his words sparked more flames upon the willow tree. “I do not mean to hurry you,” the troll said. “But if you could somehow save my life, I would be forever in your gratitude.”
Edmund watched the flames wind up the side the willow, even as the troll attempted to snuff them with his big hands. The flames did not seem to bother the troll, but he was certainly squeamish about the sunlight, saddling away from the side of the tree that was burning away. Before he could stop himself, Edmund focused on the intermittent clouds, the Betwixt, and his own worded will.
“Clouds, become mountainous in the sky—
converge, overcast, spread far and high.”
The brightening morning suddenly darkened with clouds that grew thick and vast overhead. Shadows pooled and deepened all around the heath until the morning had become crepuscular in its tones and tints and hues. The willow tree continued to burn around the troll, but he still cowered beneath its flames until nought was left of it but blackened branches over his furry white shoulders. Flint-Tusk held his large hands over his head as if awaiting a pitiful end. After a long moment of cringing, he looked up, through his splayed fingers, and saw the clouds hanging heavily overhead. He lowered his hands.
“Ah,” he said, “you have saved me, magical surface dweller. Thank you.”
Edmund nodded. “You saved my life, too. It was only right that I should return the favor.”
“Indeed,” the troll said. He stepped out from beneath the smoldering remains of the willow tree, his white hair tinged with smoke. He was massive—far larger than Grenneth, Gwenneth, Stanneth, and Alfreth, though he certainly reminded Edmund of them as he approached the Apprentice. “That is quite some power. We trolls can move mountains, but could never aspire to move mountains in the sky.”
Edmund marveled at the feat, too. It was the most extravagant feat he had thus far accomplished. He wondered what consequences would be wrought from it, and he feared them.
“I believe they spread far enough that you may return to your cave,” Edmund said, looking at the clouds and their road toward the mountains.
The troll nodded, his giant fists on his hips, arms akimbo. Edmund realized, then, that the troll was nude, and so he looked away, embarrassed. The troll did not seem embarrassed. Being nude was natural for a troll, it seemed.
“Well, come along,” the troll said, starting toward the mountains.
Edmund lingered behind.
“Come along with me,” Flint-Tusk said, tusks sparking as he spoke. “I have not yet returned to my cave.”
“Why must I go with you?” Edmund asked, alarmed.
“Because I do not trust mountains made of air,” Flint-Tusk said. “They do not stay still like mountains made of stone. They are not as trustworthy.”
Edmund looked from the troll to the distant mountains. He opened his mouth to protest, but realized that the troll had, in fact, saved his life. Thus, Edmund was honor-bound to make certain that the troll returned safely to his cave. After all, it was not as though Edmund was obligated to enter the cave; only to see that the troll entered safely. He followed the troll, but stayed beyond arm’s reach. They spoke as they walked.
“Have you never met a troll before?” Flint-Tusk asked.
“No,” Edmund said. “I have read of your kind before. In tales of heroes.”
“Surface dwelling heroes?” Flint-Tusk asked. His muscular large arms swung at his sides as he walked. He could have smashed a tower down with such arms. “We have been maligned by such heroes. Not all of us eat children.” He shrugged. “Only a handful.”
The troll shook his head ruefully.
“Grah!” he growled. “That really burns my beard! We are not all of us eaters of men!” To prove his point, Flint-Tusk’s gnashing teeth and tusks sparked a flame that caught on his beard. “Oh! There goes my beard again!”
The troll pinched his beard until the flames were wisps of smoke.
Edmund let the point rest. Instead, he tried to recall what he knew about trolls from the heroic tales and from what the Gran Stone knights had told the squires. Generally, they were big and strong and dumb. They ate women and children and babies. They had to be slain. Yet, Flint-Tusk seemed articulate and uninterested in Edmund as food. He was certainly big and strong. He had read somewhere that trolls were Elementals born from rocks. Flint-Tusk seemed born of rocks. The troll’s face was seemed to be made of h mountainous ridges forced outward, extruding in an apelike exaggeration. There was nothing soft of such a face, nor did the white mane render him cuddly such as it might have for a dog or cat. His tusks extended up from the bottom lip, past the upper lip, and its under-bite, and up past the shelved-brow with its beady, nearly blind eyes. The troll’s nubby nostrils were slits angled downward and inward toward the lips. All in all, Flint-Tusk was just what Edmund had always imagined a troll to look like, only he did not seem to act too much like a troll.
“What is your name, surface dweller?”
“Edmund,” Edmund said.
“‘Edmund’? That is a strong name. It sounds like…like…mound. Like…bed-mound. Yes, much like the mound of rocks we trolls sleep on. Your name makes me feel refreshed, Edmund. It makes me feel as if I am ready for a new night of hunting.”
“And where are you from, Edmund?”
“I am from Gran Stone.”
“Grand Stone, you say?” the troll said, mishearing him. “A fine name for a strong city! But I doubt it can compare to the glory of The Behemoth’s Backbone. And the sea surrounding it! The Behemoth’s Blood could drown the earth with its waters! If you could only see it! Wide and vast and red as virgin blood!”
“Is it real blood?”
The troll frowned over his shoulder at Edmund. “What?! No! Course not! There’s some kind of mineral there which reddens it. Also heals sick trolls, or so my mother claimed. We trolls are considered the children of the Behemoth, after all, along with giants and ogres and orcs, so it would only make sense that we could be healed if we bathed in the blood of our mother.”
Edmund remembered, then, that he had read or heard somewhere that trolls had been born of the great Behemoth; a colossal beast whose bones had been burned to stone by Mathara’s flames, and it was the body of the Behemoth that formed the land on which the World-Unfurled unfurled.
“What about goblins?” Edmund asked. “Are you related to goblins?”
Flint-Tusk’s white mane bristled at the question, his tusks sparking as his teeth.
“Trolls and goblins related? Those lichen-licking elven half-breeds?! No. No, we are not. Goblins are of the Unseelie Court. Us trolls are of the Behemoth’s blood…the Behemoth’s bloodline, I mean to say, not the sea, though there are some who think we may have come from the sea rather than from the actual Behemoth. Personally, I don’t know what to think. I don’t get up in the morning to ask big questions like that. I get up in the morning and want to eat something, so I eat something, or someone, then I go to take a nap, and so I nap.” He nodded at his own words, ratifying their wisdom. “Eating and sleeping. Yes, a simple life is always best.”
“I was wondering about goblins,” Edmund said. “They live in bogs, don’t they? Or swamps?”
“They do,” Flint-Tusk said. “The muck-sucking half-breeds.”
Edmund could see a swamp spreading to the East, beneath the mountains. The soil beneath his own shoes had become soggier. Trees grew haggardly up from the peat, like the broken, gnarled fingers of witches. Moss hung from their twisted branches.
“Perhaps…” Edmund said, “…perhaps I must meet with goblins to come to an understanding of something.”
Edmund stopped by the edge of the swamp, looking out over its expanse. The misty murk seemed to dissolve everything at the distance, from the mountains to the sky. Edmund wondered if even the sunlight could pierce the dimness of that teeming-cauldron of mist.
Flint-Tusk stood beside Edmund, looking out over the swamp. He was twice Edmund’s height, and tenfold his breadth.
“You might reconsider, lad. A skinny boy like you is but slim pickings for a troll like me, but those goblins will make a banquet of your skin and bones. Or at least season their broth with the skin of you. They are not picky.”
“I do not know what I am supposed to do,” Edmund said. “Master Avon sent me here, but I do not know why.”
“Master Avon?” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master of All Ways?”
“Yes,” Edmund said, not knowing whether it was good or bad that the troll should know him.
“So you must be his Apprentice,” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master has not had an Apprentice in a long time…not since Master Avon was Apprentice Avon.”
When Flint-Tusk saw Edmund’s look of astonishment, the troll chuckled. It sounded like stones grinding in the back of his throat.
“Yes, I know Master Avon. I became acquainted with him shortly after hatching from my stone egg. He knew my father—may the stones rest his bones—and he was always welcome in our cave.”
“Who was the Master then?” Edmund asked, curious.
“There was no Master then,” Flint-Tusk said. “There was a Mistress. Mistress Lorne.”
“Oh,” Edmund said. He was confused. “The tales never mention there being a Mistress.”
“There were several,” Flint-Tusk said, pinching another beard-flame to smoke. “Men and women both have been Masters of All Ways.”
“I know so little,” Edmund said, shaking his head at his own ignorance.
“Most mortals know even less,” the troll said. “Which is why I tell you not to go into the swamp. Goblins are not to be trusted. None in the Unseelie Court should be trusted. They are wily by nature.”
The troll glanced up at the clouds again, then hurried off toward the mountains. Edmund lingered a moment longer, staring out into the swamp. He then followed the troll.
“Trolls are of solid making,” the troll said as they continued their walk toward the mountains. “We are made of firm stuff, of stuff that is to be trusted. You can stand on stones. They are grounded, so to speak. Your peoples make homes of stones and things, and use them for protection. I cannot say I agree with doing this, but I must say that it signifies a certain trust of your people in stones. No such trust may be placed in goblins. They are made of swamp roots and muck and such. They are not solid, but changing, shifting, like peat. They are like the bog itself. At a glance it seems you can walk on it, but all at once you fall in and are swallowed up! That is how goblins are.”
This was a lengthy speech, and so there was a lot of fire wreathing Flint-Tusk’s apish face after he had finished. He snuffed the flames in his beard and mane, both of which, by now, were more black than white. Edmund, meanwhile, was thinking about goblins and what he had heard and read of them. They lived in swamps and bogs and stole and ate children, and they were not to be trusted—that was about all he knew. He wondered, however, if all of this was true or if this was another situation such as with trolls; that the legends vilified them for the sake of a good story and to glorify the heroes that defeated them. Then again, he thought, Flint-Tusk did not trust goblins. On the other hand, Edmund had heard that a lot of Elementals disliked one another inherently. It was similar to how Gran Stone and other Midland kingdoms disliked one another on principle.
“So,” the troll said. “When do you return to this Grand Stone of yours?”
“Gran Stone,” Edmund said. “It is called Gran Stone, meaning ‘old’ stone, or so my mother told me.”
“Old stone?” The troll laughed. It was like the sound of a boulder rolling down a mountainside. “You humans always use more words than you need, thinking it makes you more intelligent. Worse than elves in that respect—though not so vain. All stones are old stones. They are the bones of the earth. Might as well say ‘wooden tree’ or ‘wet lake’. We trolls know how to name things in proportion to the thing in question. Take my name, for example. Flint-Tusk. Such a name as that tells you all you need to know about me without wasting any air. By the Behemoth’s belly! There I’ve gone and set my beard ablaze again!”
True to his word—and true to his name—Flint-Tusk’s talking had set his beard ablaze again. He batted at the mischievous flames with his meaty fists and eventually smothered them out with such force as would pulverize mortal men into pixie dust. He then yanked at his beard, pulling it up to get a better look at it and the damage done. As bad luck would have it, he uprooted more hairs than were burned by the small wildfire along his jaw line.
“See?” he said. “This is why it is good to eat the pelt of a bear! It helps me grow my hair back again.” The troll sighed and it was like a wind through an echoing cave. “Remember this, Edmund, if you remember anything at all: you never know when what you say may catch like wildfire. Better, then, to make sure when you speak you are calm and true so what you say is calm and true.”
Edmund agreed, though his eyes wandered up the slopes of the mountains. When had the mountains become so large? He had been so preoccupied with other thoughts that he had failed to notice the drastic change in their distance. They loomed larger now—reaching up into the clouds Edmund had summoned—and they ran from West to East, ostensibly without end. They were grayish blue, but dark blue where the clouds drifted over them. Where the pinnacles and crags cut through the clouds it was like the fangs of a dragon biting through the fleece of a sheep. The summits reminded Edmund of Gran Stone, but covered in snow and ice. For a while Edmund feared that he would have to follow Flint-Tusk up the mountain. This fear proved misplaced, for the troll soon pointed out the mouth of a cave at the base of the mountain.
“That is the opening to my home,” Flint-Tusk said. “I would not trust any surface dweller with the knowledge of it—for I would fear for my clan’s safety—but you are Apprentice. I trust you as I would trust Master Avon.”
“Thank you,” Edmund said. “Speaking of trust, Flint-Tusk, why did Master Avon visit you when you were a…um…hatchling?”
“He was not Master Avon then,” Flint-Tusk said. “He was the Apprentice. And he has visited us many times since then.”
“Right,” Edmund said. “But why?”
“To speak to us about the rumblings,” the troll said. “To make sure they are brief and not frequent.”
“Rumblings? Of the mountain?” Edmund stared up at the mountain. It was beyond the scope of his experience for comparison. It blocked out the sky. “Is the mountain a volcano?”
“No,” said the troll. “It is the Behemoth’s Backbone, as I told you. And the Behemoth sleeps. Master Avon wishes that it not waken.”
Edmund was taken aback. “You mean it is the actual backbone of the Behemoth?”
“Of course,” Flint-Tusk said. “Did you not hear me when I say that we trolls name in proportion to the thing being named? We do not waste time or air on superfluities.”
“I see,” Edmund said, feeling quite nervous. “And, so, the Behemoth is sleeping? What would happen if it were to awaken?”
The troll threw up his hairy hands in a gesture of non-commitment. “I suppose the Behemoth would tear the All Ways asunder and everything would fall into chaos. It would be as it was before the Behemoth went to sleep.”
“And…” Edmund hesitated. “And Master Avon fears it will awaken?”
“Eventually it will,” the troll said with less gravitas than the truth warranted in Edmund’s estimation. “But I will not live so long that it would matter to me!”
He laughed again and it seemed that the whole mountains shook with his laughter. Edmund nearly told him to be quiet lest the Behemoth wake, but he was himself silenced by the sight of the other trolls huddling near the mouth of the cave.
“My family,” Flint-Tusk said. “My wife, my daughters, and my son.” He held up his fists in a gesture, knuckles to knuckles. The trolls did likewise, all smiling—or smiling as much as trolls might smile. They all had white manes and white beards like Flint-Tusk. “They are pleased. So am I.”
Flint-Tusk suddenly halted and turned to Edmund.
“Apprentice Edmund,” he said. “You have aided me in my time of need.” Edmund attempted to interject, but the troll would not allow him. “For what you have done, I should invite you into my clan’s cave tonight and feast with us. However, it is the time of the Great Grind. This is a volatile time for trolls—a violent time—and would certainly prove deadly for any outsiders.”
“This is all finely thread,” Edmund said. “You saved my life first. You owe me nothing. There is no need for tassels and lace.”
At this, Flint-Tusk scratched one of the tufts of his beard. “I was not entirely truthful, Apprentice Edmund. I ate the bear that would have eaten you. That much is true. But that was only after I noticed the bear. Before I noticed the bear, I noticed you. And I was seeking to devour you.”
Edmund felt the blood drain from his head down to his feet. He had no idea where his blood had gone.
“You were going to devour me?” Edmund asked.
The troll wrung his gigantic hands in discomforted penitence. “Yes. But only because I was very hungry. Normally I would not deign to eat such a hairless, fatless creature. Fur and fat and bones are what we trolls value in our meals.”
Edmund felt himself grow very queasy and nearly swooned. However, the thought that the troll might still eat him—especially if he were to faint—sobered him.
“I…I thank you for not eating me,” Edmund said.
“But you see,” Flint-Tusk said, “this is why I still owe you a debt. I did not save you from the bear. The bear saved you from me. And you have saved me from the sun. Therefore, I owe you a debt.” The troll knelt, then, on the soggy heath and pushed his fists together. “I, Flint-Tusk, vow to aid Apprentice Edmund in his time of need. So long as the mountains touch the sky, I am indebted to you.”
Edmund blinked rapidly, still trying to overcome the shock of knowing that this troll had nearly devoured him.
“I accept your vow,” he said.
The troll rose to his feet.
“Thank you, Apprentice Edmund. And when you see Master Avon, recall me to him. I know he will remember. He bandied me upon his knee once. I was his favorite among my parents’ hatchlings.”
The troll then went to the mouth of the cave, under cover of the clouds Edmund had provided. He rejoined his family with much celebration.
Edmund wondered if he had abetted someone who might eventually eat an innocent man, woman, or child. Then again, he knew Master Avon and Master Avon was not concerned with these trolls; only in the Behemoth. Edmund told himself he should, perhaps, concern himself with world-ending events, too.
And yet…what if the trolls ate children? What if they stole into a village at night and devoured every villager, young and old? It was a horrible thought, as was his own culpability in the potential scenario. Edmund’s mercy today may have doomed countless innocents tomorrow.
Edmund looked at the cave again. Flint-Tusk was with his wife and children. They embraced him as any human family might their own father. Relief faintly softened every hard-chiseled face. Notwithstanding their tusks, their fur, their apish faces, their strength, and their size, they were almost like any family in Gran Stone. Their nudity, too, ruined the resemblance, but that was negligible. Perhaps Edmund had done some good in the World-Unfurled. He did not know, but he hoped so.
The scale of the moon carp gleamed in Katashi’s palm, flashing like polished porcelain, or perhaps lacquered bone. He returned it to the pouch hidden beneath his breastplate. The bamboo breastplate was charred and scarred, haunted by the battle from which Katashi had forsaken his sworn service to the Tanaka clan. It had been a sardonic retreat into the woods. He fancied the idea of finding another clan to serve, such as in Kyoto, but halfway there abandoned the plan. Having no home, he made a home for himself here, in this valley beneath the howling mountains, and earning his life as a bandit with a dull blade and sharp threats.
The valley was an ideal place to stake the tearaway remainder of his life. Cutting through its wooded beauty was an important road that led to Kyoto and, so, was frequented by both riffraff and riches. There was a river that flowed like a sacred serpent nearby, replete with fish and frogs and such, and the woods was an assembly of the loveliest trees. Cedars, pines, maples, sakuras, dogwoods, plum, cherry trees. There were momiji trees with their leaves like a fan of sharp spear blades, and mountain ash, and the mighty oaks, their strange limbs frozen in kabuki dances. Katashi cherished trees, and the lovely landscape. He may not have adhered to Bushido now, but the appreciation of beauty still burned warmly in his breast long after all other things—like etiquette and Zen Buddhism—had extinguished. Sometimes, too, when the moon rode the clouds high like a princess in a palanquin, Katashi composed poetry in his head in celebration of the beauty of that hour. Sometimes the poetry visited him in the hot noon when he cooled himself in the shade of the woods, or drank water from the pools that spooled together from the waters of the mountains looming over that valley.
And yet, Katashi was not happy. He could be content, and even feel vacant of want, but such moments ebbed away as the flames and smoke rose again in his memories, reminding him of the Tanaka estate collapsing to ash. Whereas he used to meditate, now he could never sit still long enough to find inner peace. Rather, the memories assailed him on raven wings, like Tengu hellbent on mischief. In many ways, Katashi was a bitter man, and tasted much of bitter fruit. His life under the Tanaka clan had been a sweet fruit of privilege fed on the bitter duty of blood. This was why he had always enjoyed persimmons, whether ripe or unripened. The bitter and the sweet had their place. Green tea, too, was what he enjoyed, and the bitterer the better. It awakened his senses and concentrated his mind before battle. And after each battle in service to his lord, when he had often returned to the Tanaka estate, he was pleased to eat sweet rice and candies. He had taken pleasure in the indulgence of life in all of its diametric opposites.
Nowadays Katashi gathered and dried his own tea, and fished, and stole sacks of rice as he needed them during the Winter. He had few possessions, but they were enough to sustain him: his dull blade, a fishing spear, a tea cup, and a pot with which he cooked his fish, his rice, and brewed his tea.
And then came a day of yet greater change for the ronin. It had begun like all others. He rose, brewed tea, speared his breakfast in the river, cooked, ate, and then surveyed the valley road for passing spoils. He soon found them.
It was a group of monks, three in all, escorted by two samurai. The three monks surely had coins for their journey. The eldest monk looked especially old and presumptuous. The middle-aged monk looked chubby about his jowls and had a protuberant belly, meaning he ate well. The third monk was a young man; slender and almost feminine of feature. Surely, Katashi thought, these monks had coins.
Katashi then studied the two samurai closely, wondering which one he should dispatch first. Before he could come to a decision, however, a volley of roars rose and a group of bandits besieged the small group. They must have been new to the area, for Katashi had never seen them before. They wore bits of stolen armor here and there, used axes and kamas and secondhand blades. One used a fishing spear. Katashi watched grimly as the samurai were overwhelmed. He would have, at least, killed them honorably, not dishonorably ambush them with lackeys to assist. Face to face duels were his way. This, on the other hand, was a shameful display. Even so, one of the samurai managed to deflect the ambush and maim one of his attackers before he was cut down. He died with hatred etched on his face, and without a yelp of protest. Katashi would have felt honored to kill such a man, but the bandits did not indulge such thoughts. The moment the samurai fell the bandits fell upon him like dogs, arguing over who would claim his blade. There were five bandits in all, but the fifth was weeping on the ground, his lifeblood spilling out of his severed arm. The monks huddled together, but were untouched. Either they had nothing the bandits desired or the bandits feared hurting holy men.
Katashi never feared hurting holy men, nor killing them. They were often possessed of more wealth than their escorts.
At length, the four bandits had taken what they desired and fled into the forest. The fifth remained on the road, coiled like an infant and clutching the severed stump of his arm. The youngest monk attempted to tend to his wound, but the other two monks upbraided him.
“Let the dog die,” the eldest monk said. He wore a white robe and his eyes were hard, cold, and black like onyx. “Karma dictates his fate, and his fate will see him as a dog in the next life, or something worse.”
“But master…” the young monk said.
The other monk spoke up, his voice authoritative. “Do not question your better. You must remember how fortunate you are to have been taken upon this journey.” This monk wore a black robe and was of an age between the eldest and the youngest. “Let the dead lie, and let the dying follow suit.”
The youngest monk rose reluctantly and went from the bandit to the two dead samurai. The latter two had been stripped and bled freely from their fateful wounds upon the road.
“Do not touch the dead,” the black-robed monk commanded. “You will taint yourself with the corruption of death, and so doom us all. We must return to Kyoto and acquire another escort.”
“But the mountain…” the young monk protested.
“It will remain until we return,” the middle-aged monk said. “We must not dare the mountains unprotected. A hasty foot leads to a foolish fall. And youthful feet are hastiest of all.”
“But the demons will kill again,” the young monk said. “We have waited too long to protect the people of the village. Too many have died, and many more will die tonight.”
The two older monks reddened at the young monk’s words, scowls drawn on both men’s faces.
“We could not address this problem until now,” the middle-aged monk growled. “Lord Noteru had no Samurai to spare, as you know, and now we must report to him the deaths of two of his loyal men. He will not be pleased and will likely not be urgent in sparing more men in our mission.”
It was then that Katashi emerged from the shadows of the woods.
“The boy has bamboo for a spine,” he said, “or perhaps bamboo for his head.”
Katashi was pleased by the surprise on the monks’ faces. The two older monks stepped back as the imposing ronin approached. The young monk stood defiant. Katashi looked him up and down, grinning.
“Perhaps both, though he looks more a woman than the last I rutted upon.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk asked. “Did your gang not spill enough blood already?”
“I do not belong to them,” Katashi said, a grim smile upon his face. “If I did belong to them I would have cut them down rather than see them fight an outnumbered force so cowardly.”
“A murderer with principle!,” scoffed the middle-aged monk.
“What is a Samurai except that?” Katashi said. “Though also with a master, and since I have none, I am simply a ronin.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk demanded. “Our escort has been slain and stripped of all possessions. There is nothing we can offer you. We are holy men. We have no need of earthly possessions, and so no wealth to tempt your wickedness.”
Katashi laughed mirthlessly. “The thick robes of holy men have always concealed secret wealth, and secret wickedness. I ask only for wealth, however. Coins. Now.”
The two elder monks exchanged irritated glances, then disdainful glances toward the corpses of their guards. The eldest monk nodded to the middle-aged monk. The middle-aged monk withdrew a pouch from his robe. It jingled.
“You profane man,” the middle-aged monk complained. “It will buy you only your way into the next life as a worm.”
The monk handed the pouch of coins to Katashi.
“A peaceful, needful life,” Katashi said. He put the pouch within his breastplate, beside the pouch with the white koi scale. “Tilling the earth and helping a fisherman’s hook to feed his family. Much more needful a life than that of a monk, I should think.”
“You despicable blasphemer!” the middle-aged monk ejaculated. “You do not deserve that gold!”
“Or perhaps I could devise a need of you, after all,” Katashi said. He drew his katana. “My blade is dull and wants testing. Perhaps I should test its sharpness with a holy man’s neck.” His eyes went from one monk to the other. “But which one?” His eyes fell upon the eldest monk. “The oldest? His is sure to be tough enough to test a blade. His neck is so corded with age, like a tree’s trunk.” He looked at the middle-aged monk. “Or perhaps the fat one would be a better test of a blade. His neck is thickly swollen and surely as difficult to severe as a hog’s head from its body.”
The middle-aged monk backed away, as did the eldest monk.
Katashi turned toward the young monk. “Your neck is young and strong,” he said. “It might prove to be the best test of all. What do you say to that?”
“If you must test your sword,” the young monk said, “then please do so. But please do so after we have cleansed this mountain of corruption.”
Katashi was taken aback, but did not let on. “You care very much about this mountain,” he said.
“It is not just the mountain,” the young monk said. “It is a matter of the villages near here. This is crucial for saving lives and easing suffering.”
“The mountain must wait,” the eldest monk said.
This caused the youngest monk more upset than anything the ronin had said to him thus far. “But master! We must purify the mountain!”
“We cannot even defend ourselves against this wind-blown ruffian,” the middle-aged monk said, turning on the young monk. “How are we to defend ourselves against what we will face in the mountains?”
Katashi sheathed his blade, and laughed.
“Why would you not simply trust in the Buddha to see you safely to your destination? Why would you need armed warriors for escorts? Or is it that Buddha is a matter of your occupation rather than your belief?”
“We do believe in Buddha,” the middle-aged monk retorted testily. “But not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes behaves as if they believe.”
Katashi laughed again. “Very true. Just so, I believe in Buddha, and I carry a blade with me, for Buddha does nothing for us. He is too lost in the bliss of his own Satori to care for us or anyone except himself.”
The monks gasped. The middle-aged monk glowered and spoke with scorn.
“You are an endless well of blasphemies!” he snapped. “Your soul is lost! You will never break the cycle! Instead, you will descend into blood-madness and become an Oni!”
Katashi nodded gravely. “Perhaps I have descended and become an Oni already. I have killed hundreds, you know, and the Buddha never interfered on their behalf. Nor on my own. Rivers of blood have flowed and, in the center of it, like an unfeeling stone, the Buddha has slept, indifferent to the world.”
The two older monks exchanged looks again.
“It is time to depart,” the eldest monk said, folding his arms and turning away. “Come. Leave the wretch to his fate.”
“Do as you please,” Katashi said. “Your coin has bought you your way. Tread your path as you wish, but know the Buddha does not care.”
The two monks began to walk down the valley path. The youngest monk did not follow.
“I will not forsake the mountain,” the young monk said. “I will continue on alone.”
“It will be dark soon,” the elder monk said. “And you have no protection.”
“I have faith in the Buddha,” the young monk said. “I need nought else.”
Katashi should have laughed, and yet he did not. There was a steel-edged resolve in the young man’s tone that reminded Katashi of the battlefield. And while he may have dismissed the Samurai code and the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, he did not dismiss the courage of a man, especially combating that devil known as Circumstance.
“A fool, then,” the middle-aged monk said. “I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you in the hope that you will be reborn into a fairer realm. Farewell.”
The two monks went their way. The young monk went his way, through a torii gate and up a long-forsaken mountain path. Katashi, curious, followed the monk from within the woods. He was in want of diversion, and would find it.
It was not long before the sun set and the shadows stretched, darkened, and pooled as a lake in the valley. Despite the darkness of the woods, the monk did not falter, but continued up the mountain at the same determined pace as when there was still sunlight with which to see.
To Katashi’s surprise, there were lights along the path up the mountain— burning blue lights here and there among the trees and along the path. Voices whispered and murmured as the monk approached. Katashi heard them, too, coming from behind him, beside him, above him, below him. He was used to opponents of flesh and blood, not apparitions which a blade could not wound. Yet, he would not cower so long as the monk did not.
The monk pulled up his orange sleeves, exposing his hands. Within them he clutched prayer beads. As the burning blue flames encircled him, he bowed his head and raised his hands, entwined by the beads. Within the angry convergence of the blue light the monk prayed. The flames drew nearer, as if to engulf him, but he did not mind them, continuing with his prayer. The flames began to dwindle, and their voices became desperate. They cried and they wailed. They vowed revenge, and enumerated their sorrows. Nonetheless, the monk prayed, his voice a steady lullaby in the otherworldly light. By and by, they diminished, becoming so small that they were like fireflies among the trees, and then faraway stars, and then glinting embers. At last, the flames dissipated entirely, leaving only the monk on the path, and Katashi in the woods.
The monk turned and looked directly where Katashi concealed himself behind an ash tree. The ronin stepped forward
“Your blade will not always protect you,” the monk said. “Often it will harm you, even if it never spills one drop of your blood.”
Katashi stepped forward onto the mountain path. “What were those flames?”
“Onibi,” the monk said. “Lost spirits. The victims, I believe, of the evil that lurks atop these mountains.”
“Where did they go? Did you destroy them?”
“I sent them forth from their suffering,” the monk said. “I hope they find peace in the next life to come.”
Katashi snorted. “Doubtful. There is no peace in this life or any other. They go from one storm to another, and there is no refuge.”
The monk withdrew his hands and prayer beads into his sleeves, then crossed his arms. “Why do you shadow me?” he asked.
Katashi ignored the question. “I am surprised you could sense me. I am silent as a fox when I desire to be.”
“Your walk is not of the woods, however much you wish it to be. You are a man too much in disharmony with himself to ever be in harmony with the world.”
Katashi frowned. “You speak with high-hand when you wish. Were you born of a noble family?”
“No,” the monk said, continuing his uphill walk. “I was born of a humble fisherman.”
“And yet the Buddha was a prince,” Katashi said, following the monk with an easy gait. “He knew nothing of suffering, yet is supposed to somehow teach us how to overcome it. Not all of us have castles and kings to keep us sheltered from suffering.”
“You wish to antagonize me,” the monk said. “But you only succeed in revealing the extent of your own suffering.”
Katashi grinned mirthlessly. “I have not suffered more than most, except, perhaps, those whom I met and slew upon the battlefield.”
“You relish in death,” the monk said. He shook his bald head with pity. “Just so, I will pray for you, invoking the Buddha to guide your soul to its inmost peace.”
“There is no peace hidden there, either,” Katashi said, his tone harder now. “No more than there is peace in the inmost of a storm. Lightning crashes all around. The winds howl. The rains fall. The sky grows dark and the people tremble in their splintered homes. Life is dynamic. Only after death is peace attained, and even then it is not stillness, but decay as Life again eats away restlessly upon the ruined flesh.”
“You do not respect the Buddha’s teachings,” the monk said.
“Nor the teachers of those teachings,” Katashi said grimly. “If you only knew how many holy men I have slain, you would quiver in your robe.”
“Why have you not slain me?” the monk asked. “Why did you not slay my brothers? You could have easily done so.”
“I did not slay your brothers because they will return with more coins,” Katashi said. “And you…well, I did not slay you because I judged it more entertaining to witness your failure upon the mountains than to kill you outright. Or, perhaps, I may just test my dull blade on your neck after all.”
The flapping of large wings and the strange cawing laughter of a crow interrupted their conversation. They looked to the treetops and saw a winged shadow pass over the pale moon. Its laughter echoed within the woods; at one moment behind them and another moment ahead; to the left, then to the right. The creature’s laughter was as coarse as an old crone’s cackle.
At length, a branch shook overhead and creaked beneath the weight of the figure.
“What a pair to see!” the coarse-throated voice crackled. “A monk and a ronin. What fun to be had! I can scarcely decide what to do first! Should I eat the monk’s eyes and replace them with his prayer beads? Or should I remove the ronin’s genitals and place them in his mouth?”
Katashi unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward the shadowy figure. The dull blade gleamed white in the moonlight. His voice rang out in challenge.
“Come and face me first, you presumptuous creature! I will cut your grandstanding pride down as a sickle the sapling!”
The branch shook and a great gust of wind rushed downward with the winged figure that landed before them.
“Face me, mortal,” the creature said, “and we shall test how well that dull blade cuts.”
The winged creature wore a black robe and a black raven’s hat, like a priest, but had a long nose extending out from a red face. In one clawed hand it held a black-bladed katana; in the other it held a scroll such as would adorn a temple. Written upon it was the Lotus Sutra, but distorted. Perverse.
Katashi stepped forward as the Tengu grinned. The monk interceded.
“Tengu,” the monk said. He held up his hands with the prayer beads entwined. “You must not face him. You will not win. Tengu were the demons that taught the warrior arts to Man.”
“I can fight him,” Katashi said, “and I will.”
“You will die,” the monk said.
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” Katashi said.
“And a glorious feast, too,” the Tengu said, laughing like a crow. “As are all the feasts provided us by the pride of Man.”
The creature slipped its blasphemous scroll into its black robe and held the handle of his katana with both clawed hands. Katashi dropped his sword into a low stance. The moon disappeared behind a wayward cloud, plunging the mountainside into a sea of darkness. Blade crashed against blade, and the darkness was flecked with flashes of light. Three clangorous strikes sounded and then the moon reappeared. Katashi and the Tengu had switched places. The young monk stumbled back in surprise, the Tengu only a few paces away from him.
“Clever creature,” Katashi said, “to use the darkness against men. But you fail to understand. I am no mere man, for you face a demon also.”
“Your boasts are most unseemly,” the Tengu said. The laughter was gone from his coarse corvine voice. Now remained only dreadful menace. “Luck struck thrice for you, and so is gone. Now only your dull blade and your skill remain, and what paltry things to safeguard your life! It will tatter like the flimsy threads of a spider’s web.”
“So says the firefly,” Katashi said, readying his blade in the high position. The moon gleamed, reflecting off of his blade to illuminate more clearly the dark eyes near which the blade arced.
The two warriors faced each other silently for a long time, as if waiting for another cloud to blind the moon. When the cloud came, at last, like a raven’s wing, there came five shrieking strikes of blade on blade, and sparks that seemed to alight upon the leaves of trees and burn a moment before fading once again into the uniform darkness.
The moon emerged again, and with her emergence came a gasp from the monk. Katashi stood beside him, and so, too, did the Tengu. But the Tengu remained standing only because Katashi’s blade held him up. The Tengu’s blade dropped to the ground and the Tengu slumped backwards, toward his crumpling wings. The Tengu’s words were mingled with blood and pain.
“Bested by a lowly man. What a pitiful thing.”
“No,” Katashi said, withdrawing his blade and letting the creature collapse upon the ground. “Bested by a superior demon.”
The Tengu dissipated into a flurry of black feathers, all of which were subsumed into the shadows. Only the demon’s sword remained. Katashi stooped and picked it up. Surveying its black blade for a moment, he discarded his old, dull sword and claimed the new black blade in its place. He sheathed it and was pleased by the shriek of its blade in the scabbard.
“A demon’s blade befitting a demon,” he said.
“You may yet be a demon,” the monk said, reproachfully. “But I will thank you all the same.”
Katashi faced the monk with a sardonic frown on his face.
“If the Shogun wished to exterminate these demons,” Katashi remarked, “he should have sent an army, not three defenseless monks.”
“Bloodshed only feeds the demons,” the monk said. “You win only a temporary victory at best. This Tengu will return with the new moon, as will any you happen to slay this night. The portal to the realm of the Oni must be closed with an exorcism, otherwise neither the mountains nor the valley nor the villages will know peace.”
“When I kill someone,” Katashi said, “he remains dead.”
“A human, perhaps,” the monk said, “and perhaps not even then. Perhaps you have peopled this mountain yourself with the deaths you have sown upon previous battlefields. Perhaps you have a burden in all of these ill-begotten creatures and their insatiable bloodlust.”
It was Katashi’s turn to feel perturbation, yet it passed quickly. He had no time or patience for emotions that might disadvantage him on the battlefield. The monk continued up the mountain. Katashi followed.
It was a long hike, and the moon guided them. As the night progressed the howling of the mountain increased. It was a faraway whisper at first, but soon became as a wind just on the other side of the trees. The monk spoke suddenly.
“If you do not commit yourself to the Eightfold Path you will never reach Satori, but will continue in the cursed cycle of reincarnation.”
“It matters little to me,” Katashi said. “I do not care to be part of some divine realm. Does the tiger wish to be declawed and defanged? How happy could such a pathetic creature be?”
“If you persist in violence you may indeed become an Oni.”
Katashi shrugged. “I am worse than an Oni, little monk. Most men are. For we are shameful hypocrites. At least the Oni do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: blood-drinkers. They eat men without justifying it. They do not say, ‘I kill for my master,’ or ‘I wage war for the sake of peace.’ They kill and they enjoy it and they do not taint their tongues with falsehoods to ease their conscience.”
“And you enjoy killing?” the monk said.
“I enjoy surviving,” Katashi said. “And you must kill to survive.”
“It seems you enjoy little,” the monk said, “not living, and maybe not even surviving.” Katashi scoffed.
“And that is the hypocrisy of monks. They claim to live for peace and to avoid bloodshed, but all the while they must employ warriors to kill their foes on their behalf. Monks do not live more peacefully. They simply burden needful violence upon others, like a lord sending his peasants to the paddies to harvest and store the rice.”
The monk was thoughtful for a long moment, and then sighed. “You are not wrong,” he said. “The burdens of this world are often unloaded upon others. And we monks are as guilty.” He took a deep breath. “And, so, if you wish to leave my service, please leave. I will not burden you with the karma entailed in this task.”
“I am not in your service,” Katashi growled. “I am merely sharing the path for a time. I seek entertainment. Nothing else. Well, no, that is not true.” His hand went to the handle of his new sword. “This new blade pleases me. For that, I suppose I am grateful to you.”
“I would rather have died than led you to further bloodshed,” the monk said solemnly.
Katashi snorted. “How did such a one as you come to be a monk? Did the Buddha come to you in a dream?”
“How did you become a warrior?” the monk countered. “Did Hachiman put a sword in your hand and a blood-thirst in your belly?”
“I kill men,” Katashi said. “It is what I am good at, so I do it.”
“What of women and children?” the monk asked.
Katashi took the monk by the arm, halting them both. He looked at the monk directly, and in his gaze was a hardness that cut quick and sharp like a blade.
“If a youth dares to fight me, then he is a man in his own estimation, and I would not dishonor him by refusing his challenge. And I never harm women. Ever.” Katashi scowled. “You did not answer my question. How is it that you became a monk?”
The young monk said nothing. He put a finger to his lips, hushing any talk. In the howling wind of the mountains there was a strange sound of chattering—a creeping, crawling, chattering among the trees. Katashi peered at the shadow-swollen trees. Things uncoiled there; things with sharp claws and gnashing pincers and long segmented bodies.
Katashi drew his black blade as the long-bodied creatures came billowing through the darkness on their many legs. The nearest creature lunged for the monk, but the monk ensnared its pincer-snapping head with his prayer beads. With a quick prayer the beads glowed with white fire, radiating energy as the chattering centipede blazed and burned away to ash.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the monk said.
The other two demons undulated toward Katashi like long ribbons, their movements interweaving with one another so as to confuse and dismay their intended prey. But Katashi’s senses were sharp, splitting the shadows with which the demons concealed themselves. One lunged, and then the other, and with two slashes Katashi had split the giant centipedes in two, their bisected bodies writhing wildly upon the ground. In two subsequent motions he plunged his blade into one head and then the other, swiftly silencing their chattering once and for all.
The monk and the ronin continued up the mountain path.
“You did not answer my question,” Katashi said. “How did you come to be a monk? Was it in search of respite from agonies? Or was it to seek agonies through self-denial?”
“Life is hard and full of agonies,” the monk said. “That is the purpose of Buddha. To offer respite and refuge from the sorrows of Life.”
“What do you know of sorrows?” Katashi demanded. “Monks live apart. They are chosen as children, raised in monasteries, provided protection by the same warriors whose means of life they shun.”
“I was not always a monk,” the young monk said. “I was, for the longest time, an orphan.”
“Born from a bamboo stalk?” the ronin mocked.
“My father was a fisherman,” the monk said. “My family lived in a small fishing village on the coast. I do not remember my parents and siblings very well. They were drowned in a tsunami. I was found afterward, clinging to a bundle of bamboo that floated in the aftermath. I was found by a kabuki group, of all things. They made jokes about it, saying I floated into the Floating World. From then on I grew up in the kabuki theater. I learned how to perform and how to play music on the shamisen. I became a very popular kagema. I performed in the dress of a woman, and even played Amaterasu, and dared to think I could shine as brightly as the sun. Men hungered for me, and paid for me. They used me as they would a woman, and wealthy women paid for me as well, and I made money for my kabuki group. But I hated it. My life was suffering.”
“And so your precious Buddha saved you? Or did he visit you in the night? I have heard that monks enjoy kabuki, too, and hold private audiences when the world is silent except for the chirping of lonely crickets. They enjoy kagema as well.”
The young monk ignored him.
“I shuddered at the touch of men and women both. I wanted to run away, but felt guilt and shame at the thought of selfish flight. The kabuki players had rescued me as a child. I felt that I owed them my life.”
Something in Katashi’s posture shifted. It was not so rigid, even if it was as flint-to-flame ready.
“Why did you leave?” Katashi asked, his voice neither soft nor harsh.
“I was violently abused by one man. When I attempted to tell the others they told me to keep silent about it. The man was very wealthy, and was a noble. Thereafter I cut my hair and fled to the monastery. The monks refused to take me at first, knowing who I was. You are correct, ronin; the kabuki actors are paid to visit monks— some monks, but not all—and I had been very popular among the Zen masters. They hated the shame of my presence on their holy grounds, but I persisted. I invoked the sayings of the Buddha, and the Sutras I had learned while in the kabuki theater. Still, they refused me.”
Katashi may have sighed, or hissed. Something in his bearing shifted. The monk continued.
“Then one night I met an old monk while wandering the woods. He told me to speak his name to the monks. His name was Eiji. I spoke his name the next morning and the monks were astonished. They asked me where I had heard his name. I explained that I had learned the name of the man from the man himself. They immediately accepted me. Eiji, they said, had been the great exorcist in the monastery. He was respected even by the Shinto priestess of a local village for his ability to exorcize malevolent entities.”
“And now you exorcize demons,” Katashi said. “Where is this Shinto priestess? Could she not aid you in your quest to cleanse these mountains?”
The monk inhaled and exhaled. “She was slain but a week ago by an assault of demons in her village. Many holy men and women have been slain lately while trying to protect their villages against the demons.”
Katashi thought about all of the many nights he had spent in the woods, a mere raven’s flight distance, from this mountain. No mischief befell him. No malevolent spirits had stalked and attacked him. Why?
“What hope have you in standing against the source, then?” Katashi asked the monk. “It seems as foolish as a fish trying to hold back the river.”
“It may be foolishness,” the monk said. “But I refuse to stand aside and let more people die from inaction. The Shogun is too concerned with destroying the warlords plotting against him to concern himself with demons. And so long as men wage war the demons shall invade and feast and prosper in our lands.” The monk paused, turning to look Katashi in the eye. “So…you now know this to be a doomed endeavor. Do you wish to continue shadowing me?”
Katashi did not hesitate. “I am bored of stealing from peasants and holy men. I wish for more excitement, and more blades against which to test my mettle. Folly invites much diversion.”
They continued up the mountainside. Summer’s blooming abundance cluttered all around them. The slivers of moonlight led them onward and upward. The night was warm and balmy, the mountain forests thick with foliage and mystery. Long abandoned huts reared here and there, the dilapidated structures sinking into their own bamboo bones and haunted by unnatural fires in their dark depths. A temple, too, sat behind a torii gate. Eyes peered from within its cobwebbed shadows. Whatever kami were worshiped there had long given the temple over to more malignant entities.
“A man’s soul is like a woodblock,” the monk said. “Each life we live, reincarnated, is a print from that woodblock.”
“Another lecture, is it?” Katashi remarked.
“The Buddha helps us cut away the details,” the monk said, “removing the jutting imperfections used to stain the page until all that remains is a flat, smooth expanse until a pure whiteness remains, the impurities of this world slipping off of us, untouched by the ink.”
“I am rather fond of woodblock prints,” Katashi said. “Especially those of Mt. Fuji. Why should we not enjoy what imprints our lives and makes us who we are? Why would anyone not stain the page with the beauty of this world?”
“Why are you a ronin?” the monk countered. Before Katashi could answer, the monk spoke again. “Because this world is transient and fleeting. It is fickle. One day you have a place with a master, and then next day you are adrift after a great calamity. Not even the peaceful trees are spared. The seasons are restless and wait for no man, however painful the cold Winter winds are on his old bones.”
“Even so,” Katashi said, “I love this world. It has beauty. It has strength. Perhaps I will never reach Satori, but what of it? I would rather stay earthbound with the changing of the seasons swirling around me than elevate to a realm of sheer consciousness. The world is a fickle mistress, but she remains beautiful, whether a maiden or mother or old crone.”
The monk was silent for a long time. He stared at the beads entwining his hand. At length, he spoke.
“And that pouch you clutch within your armor? What is the meaning of it?”
Katashi bristled. “There are secrets dear to a man, and he would rather die than reveal them to anyone. Even to your precious Buddha.”
The silence between them opened around them and they leaned into it as they ascended. It did not comfort them, but it did not provoke them either, covering the soreness between them like a scar. Distantly they heard the howling of the mountain’s summit.
They continued to ascend the high path up the mountain.
There was a waterfall somewhere. Its rushing music swelled as they neared it. The land beneath their feet leveled for a time, and the forests opened wide, falling away to let the moonlight play vastly in the mist. Neither the ronin or the monk spoke. They heard the strumming of a koto mingled in with the waterfall’s cascade. Approaching, they saw the heavy breath of the crystalline cataract aglow with moonlight, and, within that heavy breath, the large figure of someone sitting upon a rock in the pool.
“It is a demon,” the monk whispered. “It will not let us pass.”
“We shall see,” Katashi said. “Wait here.” He approached the waterfall.
Strangely, the nearer he came to the waterfall, the less he heard of it, and the more the beautifully sad music of the koto echoed in his ears. At length, the music continued, but the figure leapt from the rock. Still shrouded in mist and shadow, it walked slowly forward. It grew taller as it approached, cradling the large koto in its long arms and still somehow plucking at the strings to haunt the mountains with its melody. Such long, unfolding arms. Such long, unfolding fingers.
A figure emerged at last, tall and imposing, her kimono black and her long hair white. Her face was like a grotesque Noh mask, only it was not carved of wood to frighten children. The sad, fang-cluttered smile was her own as well, as were the horns upon her crown and the glowing red eyes. Even now her long, blood-stained claws plucked and struck at the strings of the koto. She was a kijo: a mountain ogress.
Somewhere behind him Katashi heard the monk muttering incantations. The ronin hushed him with a wave of his hand. He then walked toward the tall creature, listening to her song as if it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When they came face to face he did not flinch, nor did he unsheathe his sword. Instead, he unsheathed himself, casting his sword, armor and the robe beneath aside. He stood boldly naked in the phantom-spun moonlight. The only things he wore were his scars and the pouch whose string hung from his neck, its singular content being the scale of the moon carp.
The kijo stared at Katashi, her red eyes glowing with hunger. She ceased playing her song and set down the koto. The koto was as long as Katashi was tall. Its board was made of bones and its strings made of sinews and tendons. The ogress gazed at him for a long moment, eyeing him up and down, her grotesque face full of hunger, and sadness.
The ogress raised a taloned hand high above her horned head. Katashi awaited its fell plunge, but when it plunged even he was startled by its boldness. Her hand went to the fold of her black kimono and peeled it away from her tall, angular body. She stood before him as naked as he dared stand before her, her breasts pendulous and her womanhood glistening. He did not flee, but stood fast before her as her long, bony arms embraced him. He embraced her in turn, and she pressed her fetid mouth against his own, tasting of blood and death; a familiar kiss he had tasted many times on the battlefield; a taste that thrilled and repulsed him, enlivening him and sickening him with that katana blade sharpness of contrast. Her fangs cut his lips sweetly.
Katashi sucked at her breasts while she pressed herself atop him vigorously. She kissed him many times, and with each kiss he recalled a blade or arrow or spear that kissed his skin, leaving a scar. He no longer felt repulsed, nor even thrilled. This was familiar; this was his life written in the characters of kisses and scars and terrors, all tracing the imminence of death. Even her grotesque face did not repulse him, nor was it truly ugly after a time. His whole life had been ugly and bloody, soaking battlefield after battlefield; enough blood to drown a dragon. But when the Tanaka clan fell, he saw the fruits of his efforts wither and decay on the shorn vine.
The monk ventured further up the mountain path, moving slowly beneath the cover of the trees. A wide berth he gave to the two lovers. To him it seemed their lovemaking was both sacrilegious and beautiful—grotesque and sincere. He was reminded of the many nights he had pleased men and women after his troupe’s kabuki plays. He never enjoyed any of these encounters, save one. And the pleasure of that encounter scared him, even now.
There had been an older woman that had often attended his plays. He had seen her in the audience, distinguished by her gaze, for she was transfixed upon him, her eyes as bright and hot as two toro lanterns. She paid only once for him, and even then seemed shy and embarrassed as he disrobed before her. Yet, once she had begun to touch him her passion kindled and she was as lively and ferocious as any woman half her age. But there was a tenderness to her, also, and genuine love in her lovemaking. She sought to please him as much as to enjoy him, and he found that he was genuinely affected by her care. Afterwards, when the sakura blossoms had been shaken fully from her desires, she lay within his arms, her forehead against his chest. She sang a song—an old folk song—and sounded almost as a child. The lines beneath her dark eyes had smoothed and she looked fresh and young though she was old enough to be his mother.
Even now her song haunted him.
“Cherry blossoms take flight
the stars of Obon night
like lovers’ eyes
awake in bed, though soon
to drift asleep
beneath the lantern moon
where dreams will keep
living on—ever on
after we part
at the coming of dawn
and the dimming of my heart.”
The monk came to the cresting crown of the mountain. A pagoda gleamed white in the moonlight, towering like a mountain unto itself. It was made of human bones. Perched atop its many eaves were Tengu, their black crow wings arched behind their backs. They cackled and cawed riotously. Down below, and standing on the pagoda’s various stories, were Yokai and Tengu. Worse of all, there were Oni. They were large, grim-faced ogres with sharp teeth and long claws. The monk knew that he had now come to the place of evil infection in the mountains and would need to exorcize the place of infection.
Looking about, he found a circle of oaks. There was a natural power here. He could sense it. It was powerful with benevolent kami. They would lend him their aid. He readied his incense burner, his kindling, his prayer beads, the Lotus Sutra, and his nerves. He began the purification ritual, chanting and rolling his prayer beads in amongst the incense smoke.
The monk went unnoticed for a time. Yet, he was soon spotted by a Tengu flitting about the skeletal pagoda. The Tengu squawked like a crow in alarm, pointing to the circle of oaks. Soon the Oni and other Yokai descended from the pagoda. They came in a languid tide at first, and then rushed on like a wave. The monk knew, then, that he had no time to complete the ritual. He knew he would soon die.
And then Katashi arrived, crashing into the beastly creatures like a divine wind. He drew his blade and slew a handful of the twisted creatures without ever clashing swords. He moved like water through a sieve, seemingly untouched by the horde. But the horde was numerous and boasted many formidable foes. His initial attack was effective, but the element of surprise was gone. The larger Oni gathered around him, even as the smaller Yokai attempted to slip past him only to be cut down. The Oni grinned and could have easily overpowered him, yet their pride did not allow it. One by one they faced him, and one by one he tested the black blade on their thick hide and horns and heads.
The moon reddened, like a basin of blood. All that was touched by its light was stained with a crimson glow. The mountains seemed drowned in blood. A strange castle could be seen in the night sky. It, too, was made of bones and sat in a lake of blood.
Katashi’s black blade dripped blood, and his ferocity was whetted by his bloodlust. He struck at the Oni and Tengu with such power that it forestalled them, even pressed them back. But Katashi could not truly defeat them, and soon suffered injuries. Slashes and lacerations bled him; the trenchant pains of war staggered him and belabored his breath. He felt so alive, though, and determined. He exulted in the battle.
But then the demons began to mock the ronin. They called to him by his name.
“I remember you, Katashi!” a two-headed Oni said. “You slew my brother and I upon the field! We did not expect to see you here!”
“Did I slay your courage as well as your bodies?” Katashi said. “Why did you never seek me when I was so close to you?”
“The Oni value your contributions to their armies!” the two-headed Oni said, grinning his canine fangs. “You have been a faithful servant of blood and carnage!”
As before, Katashi cut down the two brothers, though now he was more shaken than when he had dealt them their first deaths. For the first time in his life he paled and trembled. Another demon sprang forward: a one-eyed giant with a spear and gnashing fangs. Katashi tightened his hold on his sword, raising it upright beside his head. The blood oozed down the black blade. It was red like human blood; like the countless crimson ponds Katashi had spilled upon countless battlefields.
“Katashi!” the giant yelled in joy through his fangs. He laughed a deep, bellowing guffaw that shook the heavens. “So many warriors and generals!” The giant gestured to the expanse of demons. “And all because of you, Katashi! You have made the demon world strong! So strong! So numerous! So unstoppable!”
“I will cut you all down again!” Katashi vowed.
The giant laughed. “Cut me down and I will return! I return every night, Katashi! Every night since that night beneath the sakura tree! Remember? Remember me? The one whom they called the Spear-Tongued Giant? You challenged me for the honor of being Lord Tanaka’s personal guard! You slew me without mercy, though the duel was meant to be bloodless.”
“You drew blood first!” Katashi roared, slicing at the giant with his sword.
The giant deflected the strikes. “True! If only I drew enough to kill you! Then, perhaps, I would have been the one peopling the demon realm and be esteemed among the legion! But you won, running your sword through my eye and killing me!”
The giant laughed again, seemingly as joyful of his fate as if he had won the duel.
Katashi circled the giant. “I will run you through your other eye, fool!”
The giant swung his club and Katashi rolled beneath the knotted wood, rising to his feet with a slash of his sword splitting the giant’s eye. The giant roared, his bellowing voice staggering into lunatic laughter as he clutched his ruined eye.
“Katashi!!!” he laughed. “You have not changed!”
The giant swung his club blindly, his muscular arms whirling in a frenzy. Katashi retreated discreetly while the giant’s blind attacks struck the other Oni rushing past him to confront the intruders. Small and large Oni were flung away, broken and crushed by the giant’s club. The horde did not baulk, but laughed as if the carnage was the greatest merriment to be had. Eventually a Tengu swooped down and beheaded the giant with his blade, if only to cease his flailing, and the blinded giant’s head fell to the mist-glimmering grass, still laughing.
“I will be back, Katashi!” he vowed. “Upon the next moon I will eat your eyes and drink your blood and welcome you among your true brethren for all eternity!”
The Tengu that had slain the giant now flew toward Katashi. Katashi raised his crimson-cloyed blade with one hand. With the other hand he stealthily drew his tanto blade from its concealed sheath. As the Tengu swooped, Katashi threw his tanto, piercing the crow-demon’s chest. The creature collapsed to the ground, barreling over the smaller Yokai below in a tangle of limbs and feathers. Stepping through this cobbled road of mangled bodies was a horned Oni with red skin and a large scythe. He seemed in a good mood.
“What are you trying to be now, Katashi?” the Oni said. “A nio? Laughable! And where is your fellow guardian?” The Oni looked past Katashi, seeing the monk in the woods. “Ah! A monk? To think you would ally yourself with a monk! I will sully his soul with the filth of his own flesh!”
The Oni dashed toward the trees, his scythe raised for a bloody harvest. Katashi dashed after the Oni, slashing the demon’s leg. It was a feint, however, and the demon spun about, his scythe seeking Katashi’s neck. Katashi twisted sideways, throwing his left arm up against the crescent blade. The blade drank deeply and Katashi nearly fell. Instead, he rallied himself through the blinding pain with a flaming fury and swung his black blade with his one good arm, beheading the Oni at a single stroke.
The Oni’s body fell, and beside it Katashi sagged to one knee, clutching his sword. The wounded arm hung limply, bleeding from the shredded socket. He was pale and a clammy sweat drenched his forehead. His eyes blurred in and out of focus and he felt drowsy; so tired that he should sleep forever.
The horde of Oni gathered around. They did not rush. They pleased themselves by mocking the ronin and his . Their taunts roused Katashi. He glanced back at the monk, his figure wreathed in white fire as he continued his chants. In among the white fire he saw other figures: small and large, strangely shaped; some humanoid, others not nearly so. These figures clustered around the monk protectively, driving back the smaller Yokai that had slipped past Katashi. He realized, after a moment, that they were kami. Nature spirits. It was then, at this realization—when he knew that Nature itself was aspiring to protect the Buddhist monk—that Katashi could not surrender. If the land of Nihon would aid the monk, then Katashi felt that the monk was worthy of Katashi’s service, even if the Buddha wasn’t.
Grimacing, Katashi wobbled as he righted himself up to his feet.
“I will rest in my death,” he told himself. “But for now…I must test my blade.”
The exorcism continued in earnest, and the battle continued in desperation. The floating castle began to fade, as did the howling of the demonic winds. The crimson moon waned, bleeding out until it was pink, and then dull white. Katashi bled out, too, and paled as he weakened. Still did he swing his blade against the horde, even as he fell to his knees again and again. Blood flowed from one eye, and blood clouded the other eye. His whole being was fury and pain.
The Oni and Tengu realized what the whitening of the moon meant. They fled in fear, as if from the chittering of a hungry Shinchu. It was too late for them. The castle faded from the sky and the pagoda faded from the mountaintop. With the latter faded the cursed creatures that had inhabited its towering stories and eaves. Soon all that remained was the mountain, the moon, the monk, and a dying man. The young monk hurried to his side.
“I will perform the rites,” the monk said, kneeling beside Katashi. “You have served the Buddha well and should be rewarded.”
“I served…Nihon…” the ronin said. A burst of blood in his throat shook him. Dropping his sword, he withdrew the pouch beneath his shattered breastplate. Out of it he took the white koi scale and held it up to look at it with his remaining eye.
“Your secret,” the monk said, softly.
“Yes,” he said. “The joy of my life…a smiling face…reflected in the moon pond…” He coughed up more blood, his breathing labored. His face was white and his lips red, like a kabuki actor. “Her smile…she loved the koi…”
“She was your lover,” the monk said.
“And my master’s concubine,” Katashi said, his voice slowing. “She…loved the moon pond…the koi…she said…she was like the koi fish…gave me…gave me this porcelain scale from…her hairpin…”
“She cared for you very much,” the monk said.
“Yes…she would…play the koto for me…sometimes…before we made love…” His bloody brow furrowed with pain. “During the invasion…she killed the lord of the Tanaka clan…herself…and fled to the woods… I do not know…what happened to her…”
“I will pray that both of you are united in your next lives,” the monk said.
“I do not…wish for much,” Katashi said, grimacing as a laceration in his gut broke and bled freely. “Just…just a peaceful life…of isolation…silence…without violence… without…wrath…and with the…beauty of the seasons…all around…such as when…when I told her…she was my moon…”
Katashi’s final breath faded away. The monk prayed over the ronin, repeating the Lotus Sutra to bless his passing. When morning came, so, too, did the sun, and the mountain was bathed in purifying light. The Oni and Yokai were gone. The kami rejoiced in their silent, subtle way. The monk purified Katashi and buried him, marking his grave with a stone. He then descended the mountain path.
Where the monk passed he met with no demon or ghost. The mountain had been completely cleansed. When he came to the waterfall and its pool he did not see the kijo anymore. Rather, the place was serene and uninhabited. He glanced at it for a moment, then turned to leave. The gleam of white motion caught his eye and he turned to look at the pool again. Floating in the pool, serene and content, were two pale white kois. They gleamed with a porcelain luster as they floated up. They were so white that the carved edges of their scales were invisible in the sheen along their flanks.
A leaf fell from a maple tree—burning orange like a phoenix’s feather. The monk bowed and then left the kois to their reward.
The moon was a coin all aglow with gold
in the swirling clouds of that chilly night
and the crooked tree by that wooded road
was a hand clutching in vain at Fae light.
Mounted on a black horse with a black name
was that blackguard and killer, Bill O ’Keefe,
whose gallop brought fear to all men the same
and whose fat purse ate with a dragon ’s teeth.
Pistols and daggers and swords were his friends
that he kept keen to ply his devil ’s trade
and all other friends came to treacherous ends,
along that old road in graves freshly laid.
O ’Keefe wore black boots and a riding coat
and black hat with black plume in the brim,
and black mask, his black beard curled like a goat,
his cufflinks black at the end of each limb.
Scarce were pickings along that road of late
for words were swift as birds when winged with sins
and Bill wanted like a collection plate
in the famine months when a snowstorm spins.
Bill bit his lip until the skin broke and bled,
tasting iron in that October breeze
while the crowned owls stood watch, just overhead,
their hungry eyes spotting small prey with ease,
and he heard the gibbering marsh, the beasts
alike to him in the hunter ’s grand game,
stalking and eating their fill of such feasts
as Nature ordains, without thoughts of shame.
Was that a footstep? A giggle? Grunt? Squeal?
Bill did not know, his fluttering black eyes
like crows flapping at the scent of a meal:
carrion delights in a victim ’s cries.
Bill waited till the gallop neared the tree,
then he struck his horse to spur it to haste,
yet found a rider before him who did not flee —
a man in livery pale as bone paste.
Glowing like the moon above, the fellow
parted his lips in a smile, pearls agleam,
his hair golden, curly, his mien mellow
as if he was passing through a sweet dream.
Taken aback, Bill stared with mouth agape,
confused by the aristocrat ’s bearing
and that the man did not try to escape,
but stood as stone afore the storm, daring
with demeanor and command likewise steeped
in ancient kingdoms beyond petty Man
except in glimpses and dreams such as peeped
in the realm of Sleep, at a frugal span.
At length, Bill leveled pistol at the lord
and said, “Turn out your pockets and your purse
or I ’ll run you through with bullet and sword.
If you try any tricks, I ’ll do much worse. ”
The fair-haired lord dismounted gracefully
in one smooth motion, like a squirrel,
and said, “Indeed, I shall, and faithfully
as a green knight seeking to hew the burl. ”
The lord unstrung a pouch from his saddle
and offered it to the ne ’er-do-well thief,
unstringing the pouch, which clinked and rattled —
the only music which pleased Bill O ’Keefe.
Crooked tree above, crooked man below,
O ’Keefe snatched the pouch away with a swipe,
tantalized by the gleaming golden glow
of such coins so foreign in face and type.
The lord said, “Of all such you may have, sir,
being possessed thereby, and by this path. ”
Here the lord gestured. “Wherefore possessed, cur,
you shall reckon debts owed to greed and wrath. ”
Bill misliked such words and looked up with scorn
from the gold he had snared with his misdeed
only to find the lord gone, as if bourne
away with a wind, both rider and steed.
Uncanny things meant naught to Bill O ’Keefe
as long as gold jingled in his gloved hands,
so he laughed aloud, proud in the belief
that he was the best thief in all the lands.
Taking rein of his black horse once again,
he led the beast out from behind the oak
and climbed atop it, holding his gold like his sin
and struck up a gallop, but someone spoke:
“Damn you, Bill O ’Keefe, ” a hoarse voice whispered,
“damn your thieving heart and your greedy eyes! ”
The black horse startled and kicked at each word,
tumbling Bill off to lay him out lengthwise.
The horse bolted, spilling the pouch of gold
while like a kelpie frenzied with its thirst
along that moon-flooded, tree-cluttered road,
each coin rolling to a stop, now reversed,
no longer showing a face of features
foreign to human lands and human kin,
but a skull brimming with insect creatures
dining on the festering flesh within.
“Damn you, you dumb beast! ” Bill hollered so loud
that his wrathful voice spurred the spooked horse on
at a faster sprint than the dark allowed
till beast came to grief down the bluff beyond.
Not hearing the scream of the horse, Bill turned
again to the coins scattered here and there,
and crawled after them while the moonlight burned
on the gold, agleam in that chilly air.
To the nearest coin O ’Keefe crawled and knelt
like a sinner seeking within a church
deliverance from the sins he has dealt
in years past, wronging angels on their perch,
but Bill sought not forgiveness while kneeling —
rather, the gold mesmerized like a sidhe
afloat with rainbow wings unfurled, wheeling
around his now-hatless head, tauntingly.
Yet, as Bill reached for the coin nearest him
a hand grasped it first, out from neath the earth,
its bones white and gray, and so, too, the limb
that rose like a shoot from the leaf-strewn turf.
A head emerged, all rotten and gaping
from a withered jaw, hung aslant the face,
and the tongue lolled freely, as if aping
human speech, some soil sprinkling from that place.
“Bill O ’Keefe, ” it said at last. “You villain! ”
You slew me for six pence, and not one more!
And for that debt I shall be repaid when
I drag you low, beyond Hell ’s brimstone door! ”
Bill O ’ Keefe recoiled from the corpse, screaming out,
but not in terror —rather in great rage
for he would share coin with no brag-about
and tried to snatch it from that bony cage.
“What good was your life? ” Bill growled, “but a pence?
Count yourself lucky as been worth so much,
for you had no value, and less so sense,
to have been riding alone, late and such. ”
The corpse ’s jaw gawped so wide in dismay
that it swung off the hinge, gasping, “You brute! ”,
meanwhile Bill filched the coin and made his way
to other coins, nestled within a root.
Or it seemed a root, but when Bill neared it
a bony hand emerged, and then a skull
webbed with a bridal veil, each black socket
full of worms writhing in the hollow hull.
No tongue to speak, neither had she the need,
for Bill knew her as his own from years past
and said, “You had less wealth than you had breed,
which is why our marriage, dear, did not last. ”
A banshee shriek escaped those rotten teeth
and Bill only laughed, plucking back the coins
as she crescendoed in her wailing grief;
he said, “Swiftly taken, as were your loins. ”
Many were the coins, and many the dead!
Bill had a reunion earning his wealth,
each coin raising a victim from their bed
so O ’Keefe could appraise them and their health.
A nobleman here and a peasant there,
Bill was not prejudiced in his slayings,
and had he the chance, he would have had care
to kill dukes and bishops and popes and kings.
Alas, no such prey chanced his hunting grounds
which was why he took whatever he might,
buried all along that road, in their mounds,
not knowing what fool might intrigue his sight.
And there were, of course, those whom he despised,
whose disputes in bars had earned them his ire —
whom he killed, raping their wives while disguised
as a vicar to indulge his desire.
And those who were innocent, having done
nought to him or his own, nor another,
once sown in their graves, now sprouting as one
to crawl after him —him and no other.
“A sorry bunch of sour grapes you lot are, ”
Bill laughed, surrounded and yet still affixed
on the strange golden coins strewn here and far,
not concerned with the foul corpses betwixt.
“I did you each a favor, ” he said with a smile,
“for I saved you all from a cruel life
and the suffering it offers meanwhile,
so be thankful for the ol ’ Reaper ’s scythe. ”
Coin to coin he crawled like a supplicant,
nigh overtaken on perdition ’s road,
yet still his smile gleamed, and eye, without a hint
of fear about the victims he did goad.
A final coin, and a final sally —
“Alas, I must be on my way, ” he said,
rising to his feet with a fast rally,
“for I ’ve got gold in hand and dreams ahead,
and mustn ’t waste it on the likes of you. ”
He hobbled down the road, coins in his purse,
but turned about. “As the French say, ‘Adieu. ’
Awful to be dead, but it could be worse. ”
Shrieks of outrage followed him down the road,
but Bill was too keen on the coins to hear,
whistling lively, and smiling like a toad,
as he dreamed of rum, wine, whisky, and beer
and the other things he would soon enjoy,
like mutton, girls, and a life of pleasure
spent doing as he pleased, like a young boy
enthroned in privilege and in leisure.
Yet, dust to dust is the way of the world,
and a man ’s wealth, too, no matter how vast,
and all at once, while a sudden wind whirled,
the coins faded to coppery leaves fast.
O ’Keefe gazed at the purse, his eyes agog —
he blinked and rubbed them, but to no avail,
for all the coins were gone, like prince to frog,
maiden weeping by the end of the tale.
Only, Bill never wept: he swore and kicked,
vowing revenge on the strange foreign lord,
for Bill could see that he had been thus tricked
and wished the man ’s blood to slather his sword.
So wrathful was the blackguard in his loss,
that he saw not where he was then going,
stepping off the bluff where the moonlight gloss
shimmered pale like an icy stream flowing —
an icy stream, and a Stygian stream,
for it took Bill O ’Keefe straight down to Hell
where he woke to an inferno that teemed
with imps, demons, Satan, Lilith, and Bael.
And there was the strange lord that Bill had robbed
standing afore him, a smirk so profound
in its malevolence that other men would have sobbed
to see it spread, like an infernal hound.
“Face to face with your sins, you have now come, ”
said the stranger. “And coins have paid your way —
a princely sum, even in this kingdom,
but try to defend yourself, if you may. ”
“I offer no defense, ” Bill said, “except
the world itself, and its ways, which were made
without my counsel or consent, and kept
by tooth and claw and the patterns thus laid
by that harsh seamstress, Fate, a cruel witch
by whose hand all are designed and destined
to be king or peasant, down to a stitch —
so was I, bound by hem and trim and trend. ”
Bill O ’Keefe smirked, for he thought he had found
a defense most fateful, and a good ruse,
to protect his soul because all around
the throngs of Hell seemed very much confused.
“Just-so, ” the stranger said at last. “Forsooth,
we were banished for ingrained allegiance,
but the world, being so, and Fate and Truth,
does not expunge sins, despite your grievance,
for it is Fate who determines for all
and, just-so, you are predestined for Hell,
so regardless if you are a mere thrall,
her whim determines the end of your tale. ”
Bill argued, but the stranger would not hear.
“Like you, we are highwaymen in wait
and if by Fate you happen to pass near
we will take your soul, for that, too, is Fate. ”
“But that ’s not fair! ” Bill O ’Keefe cried aloud.
The whole of Hell resounded with laughter.
“Life ’s not fair, ” the Stranger said, “nor Death proud,
nor so fair or proud the Ever After. ”
And so the road the highwayman haunted
claimed him as he claimed many other souls —
he thought of the lives he took, and taunted,
as his soul was raked upon brimstone coals.
I rarely draw or paint like I used to. The truth is that I have been so disheartened lately that I rarely am inclined. But I forced myself to draw and paint yesterday in a spare sketchbook. Most days I am writing, but it did feel good to draw and paint once again.
From the gable the hanged man swayed,
weather-worn and his long coat frayed,
and, down below, the blacksmith laughed
to see crows as he plied his craft.
The sun went down, but the corpse stayed
while the blacksmith bettered his trade
until he heard hooves beating swift
neath the moon, in the midnight rift
of life and death, flesh and soul,
while the fog, thick, began to roll.
On pale horses there came a host
through the moonlight, each like a ghost
in fine Fae feature and attire,
of noble bearing, knight and squire.
“Hail,” said the blacksmith, “lord of streams,
lord of hills and of moonlit dreams.”
The Fae lord nodded, yet his eyes
went to the hanged man, and the flies
that buzzed about and swarmed around,
their song of joy a constant sound.
“You are as we,” remarked the lord,
pointing with his sharp silver sword.
“You have hunted and won, with skill,
as we have, in field, mount and hill.
But what worth is such common fare?
Wherefore this man dances in air?”
The blacksmith smiled shrewdly, and said
“Tell, first, the stories of each head
hanging from your fine-worked saddles,
for I wish e to hear such battles.”
The Fae lord gestured to a knight
and he dismounted, at child’s height,
taking down, then, an ogre’s head
from his lord’s saddle, splattered red,
and the head had tusks, sharp and long,
and its jaws were big, its chin strong,
but all lay lax in that dead face,
life gone from it, without a trace.
“I slew this monster near the bridge
that extends from stone ridge to ridge
for he preyed upon our kindred,
his hunger great, yet now ended.”
The knight returned the trophy, now,
and sought another, whose broad brow
was maned with marshy hair that hung
blackish green, and a limp pale tongue
between needle teeth, its long snout
like a horse, its horns curving out.
“Here is the pookah, a deadly mount
who haunted the swamp’s bracken fount,
dragging drunkards into the peat
and tearing them apart to eat.”
The third head was of an eagle,
but giant, golden, beak regal.
“And here, at last, is the griffin,”
said the lord, and, with a sniff, then,
told of how the foul fowl laid claim
to all his flocks and all his game,
and so the lord had set a trap,
baiting the beast till, with a snap,
he brought it down with an arrow
which pieced shrieking through the air so
that the beast fell at once, quite done,
though the quills still shone like the sun.
“My only regret,” said the lord,
as he sighed and sheathed his stained sword,
“is having only trophies three
whereas four would better please me
for my trophy hall has such space
that it would gain from one more face.
But enough of such things,” he said.
“Tell me how he came to be dead.”
The blacksmith grinned like a demon.
He said, “By his ill-spilt semen
upon that which was fairly mine—
my wife! So I showed him the line
between good and bad, life and death,
and the lecture cost him his breath.
As for my wife—she is chained
within my house, our vows profaned,
yet even now I work my bellows
to make right of this. Trust, fellows,
that this scarlet letter shall bleed
from another maiden, whose breed
is made of the finest points known,
and has iron in place of bone.”
The Fae lord looked at the maiden
which the blacksmith made, so laden
with spikes where her heart should have been,
more monstrous than any such kin
of ogre, griffin, or such ilk
nourished by wicked blood-laced milk.
“She is my wife,” the blacksmith said,
“as is that faithless girl whose head
and heart were won by Love’s deceit,
but my good wife shall drink replete,
for the faithless wife shall so slake
the steadfast wife, for her mistake,
and by merit of blood provide
from bed to bed, and bride to bride.”
He worked the hot, wrathful bellows,
the embers of orange-yellows
flaring like fitful flies of fire
or, perhaps, flecks of vain-desire.
He said, “To me her only worth
was insomuch as field to serf:
a thing to be plowed in such time
for hale harvest in proper clime.
But she harbored fancies bygone
with this rogue, whom I have high-drawn.
As if the heart should rule such things
when we know gold rules even kings,
and I have amassed a great hoard
through my flames, by horseshoe and sword.
Verily, I have grown steel plates
for whole armies, helms for pates,
and such great horns like a ram’s crown
that could blow ancient mountains down.
Should I not revenge myself
against fickle wife, lordly elf?”
The blacksmith grinned, very much pleased
and then laughed loudly, till he wheezed.
The Fae lord smiled, too, though grimly,
and then he hopped down, quite nimbly,
from his horse, silver sword in hand
and though short, his eyes held command
of all they gazed on, man or Fae,
his decrees none could disobey.
“I thank you,” he said, “for your truth,
and I thank you for more, forsooth,
as I longed to slay once more before
returning to my hillside door,
and here I have found at long last
a dragon whose flame hath cast
horrid shadows of deeds foul done
and deeds yet done beneath the sun.
Thus I have found my fourth trophy.”
And no sooner than lord quoth, he
struck head clean off the man’s shoulders
whereupon his banner-holders
fetched it up from the bloody lawn
(the mouth slack-jawed, as if to yawn)
and hung it on their lord’s horse
thereafter freeing bride, of course,
from her shackles, then cut down, too,
her lover from his gabled view.
The cock’s crow heralded first light,
so the Fae company took flight
and vanished as dew in the dawn—
like mist from fabled Avalon.