Tangleroot, Chapter V

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.”
“Wait! Wait!!!”
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.
“What?”
“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.”
“Thank you?”
“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.

Fair, Dark, And Trembling

Born beneath a weeping willow
where winds never dared to billow
the sisters three seemed blessed at first,
though, given time, seemed more so cursed
by the names given, and fortunes
dictated by the eldritch runes.
When they were born, the sisters three
filled their proud parents with such glee
as the angels in most high skies
in their exultant maker’s eyes.
Fair, Dark, and Trembling, the lasses
grew up apart from the masses
in the woods, by the little creek,
where the willow trees often speak.
Distinguished by their features
they were apt-named, comely creatures
without equal in that kingdom,
nay, nor the world in all its sum.
Fair was of hair gilded flaxen
that she seemed a purebred Saxon
and Nordic goddess, gold and pure,
graceful, nimble, her step so sure
that she danced on slippery rocks
as fleet-footed as the Fae fox.
Lovelier, there were none more so:
stars in her eyes, and skin aglow
that the sun seemed to pause apace
while beaming on her freckled face.
When she giggled others did feel
her sweetness, the dear daffodil
spreading her joy like many seeds
which none so wise dared deem as weeds,
sowing where there could be sown
a bliss by her presence alone.
Alas, a blessing may, too, curse,
and so it was, her fate adverse.
Catching the eye of the prince
so handsome and rich, therefore hence
entranced the two by the other
that neither would love another
their ensorcelled hearts demanded
prince and maiden become banded
despite his pledge to a neighbor
whose father promised the saber
should the pact not be held so true
by one side as the other, too.
Therefore though it flattered the pride
of both the parents and the bride
a war began soon after they
announced the coming joyous day.
First came the splendid celebration
joyous across the wide nation,
pomp aplenty, and holy vows
and banners, bugles, and crowns on brows,
then came the wars and the bloodshed,
the piling high of mingled dead
until, at length, the angry host
were driven from the far-off coast
and back to their lands in the East
like a cur, a brow-beaten beast.
Fair, and her husband, then rejoiced
while their people quietly voiced
anger and sorrow at the war,
calling Fair a worm-apple whore.
But the new rulers paid no mind
to the scowls and whispers, so blind
with Love they heard nothing at all
that should echo coarse through their hall.
Then came the bud of the next heir,
next liege, sure likewise to be Fair
and for a time the whispers stopped,
if only because the axe chopped
all talk short as the days went on,
bringing with them a bloody dawn
to peasant and noble in turn
and anyone not yet to learn.
Soon Fair swelled fertile in her womb
like the daffodil soon to bloom,
but with the pangs she wilted so wan
while her glow faded, on and on,
draining fast from her golden face
till a pallor assumed its place.
Like the most fleeting of flowers
her life did but last a few hours
before she died and left the earth
for the sake of a vain stillbirth.

Erstwhile, Dark saw what thus became
of girls gifted by name and fame,
and being wiser more than Fair,
Dark reveled in her raven hair.
Dark was pale like the Gaul or Goth,
like moonlit-powder of the moth,
and her black hair was a shadow
such as only witches may know
when looking into the deep pit
of their cauldron, cold and unlit.
She courted midnight with her art
to seek the most infernal heart,
for she had talents just as strong
as sister Fair had in her song
and, so, used her Black magic skills
to fly at night over the hills
on a stick woven of willow limbs,
following the sound of fell hymns
to a misty, covenant glade
where a coven of witches prayed.
Herein she found her kindred kind—
women awake and not so blind,
for Dark dreamed quite oft of a life
beholden to none, never wife
to any man, nor any god,
free as Lilith drifting abroad
to the basins of Babylon,
haunting bedrooms from dusk to dawn.
Whereas Fair was the favored child,
(beauty peerless and temper mild)
Dark would have been most pretty
had she been of some other three,
but be it as it may, Dark was
judged on the sisterly mark ‘twas
and could do no more to ever change
the scale set so by bloodline’s range.
Nor did this aggrieve Dark quite much
as the rules upon her, and such,
for she spoke not as daughters should,
instead shunning what some thought good,
like reading the Bible each day,
going to church to kneel and pray,
and fearing the wise midwife folk
of whom the preacher often spoke
unkindly, fearing their knowledge
would tempt his flock to thus pledge
to them instead of his theory
about Heaven and misery.
And so Dark became the black sheep
of the flock in the preacher’s keep,
for she so loathed hypocrisy
that she oft sought apostasy.
Gathered in the belladonna
she looked a fell Madonna
who had at beck and call the night
and all its shadows and moonlight.
Just so, she dared never conceive
that on this sacred Endor Eve
that Satan would come before her
with gifts to sway and implore her
to lay with him and so beget
a child the whole world would regret.
Enthroned in nocturnal power
in the glade’s shade-brimming bower,
Dark lay with that horn-crowned Satyr
amorous as any traitor.
The other witches watched within
the woods where they all grinned akin
to wolves, or buzzards, or weasels,
caterwauling, shrill as seagulls.
It was not long before spilled seed
beset, begat, began to breed,
the growth so fast, the pangs so great,
that Dark split apart, like a date,
screaming and bleeding at her sex
while the hags spoke, as if a hex
the hymnal blasphemies of old
to strengthen the child in the mold.
The child came forth as from the tomb,
expelled a corpse beset by doom
and so enraged was that great Foe
that he trammeled Dark in shadow,
then left her bloodied in the glade
where she died amidst daytime shade.
Dark unto dark did thereby pass,
all her clever thoughts now but grass.

Oh, but Trembling was lass so weak
that oftentimes she dared not speak
for fear of hurting her thin throat,
the lissome girl sad and remote.
She knew what came of her sistren
and prayed that they could, at last, ken,
the choices they made and each crime
for which they would burn for all time.
She had no voice, but she could pray,
and did so, often all the day,
a judge meanwhile masked in silence
pretending saintly compliance
as she laid baleful eyes elsewhere—
a basilisk’s cold, stony glare.
She thought on Dark and Fair, their ends,
and knew they died to make amends
for Dark’s pride, come before the fall,
and Fair’s vanity, that old thrall,
and vowed against the same mistake,
knowing herself of purer make.
Indeed, she grew as a daisy
from the deaths of those whose stay she
could not abide, nor then pity,
feeling only an enmity.
She thought herself a chosen soul
and pledged to serve all her life whole
to the God of the Holy Tome
while still cloistered at home.
Yet, she was ever quivering
as if in the cold, shivering
and did little, but wavering
ever in her room, quavering
like a hare hiding in its den
while the hawk circles round again.
Knowing she would never marry
and finding the world so scary
she joined a convent faraway
and pleased herself often to say
she would never fall prey to Man
nor the sins of the flesh, her plan
to die a virgin, bride of God—
a fate which kept her overawed.
But a foul star had overseen
the sisters three, its twinkling sheen
as that of a crone meaning ill
above the willow, and its Will.
The longships came and beached anon,
coming ashore with noonday sun
and laying siege till the walls fell
while the convent rang loud its bell.
Trembling knew not where to go
and a Viking struck her a blow
and clutched her roughly like a sack
of spoils to claim, returning back
to his ship, then upon the sea,
following a wind Northwesterly
and coming to a frigid land
whereat she was a serving-hand
and a bed-warmer for the Nord
who was her husband, and her lord.
Ever Trembling and cold, she wept
and in the night she never slept,
but prayed to her god that she may
go to Heaven, without delay,
but she never went, never died,
and knew she could never suicide
or else suffer the pits of Hell,
nor had she the courage to sail
away from that foreign soil
of heathen gods and tiresome toil.
A heathen son she bore in time
who was like that coldly clime,
having eyes like ice, hoarfrost hair,
and her own cool, judgmental stare.
Scornful of Trembling in the cold,
he said she was ugly and old
and foolish to pray to that which
was deaf, feckless, an inert lich.
Trembling tried to teach him her creed,
but like the dregs of an old mead
he poured it out from his spirit,
choosing never to revere it,
esteeming, instead, wise Odin
and thunderous Thor, beholden
to the ways of his father’s clan,
spurning that feeble, beaten man
she loved as her Lord and Savior
who would never be of the Aesir.
And so, unloved by lord and Lord,
Trembling trembled among the Nord
from fear, from chill, from yearning wants
of her creed, and the pagan taunts
till the day she was at last laid
into the earth, a tomb thus paid
by grueling years and countless woes
that packed together, like the snows.
Just as Fair was no longer fair
and Dark not dark, nor anywhere,
so, too, Trembling trembled no more
upon that icy, foreign shore.

Thus the sisters three came to end,
blessed with curses that could not mend,
all lovely in ways exceeding rare
like flowers plucked to perfume air,
born beneath the old willow tree
that wept evermore for the three
as they were bound, as like the withes
of willows, their Wyrd-woven lives
bending back to their cursed names
to satisfy Fate’s cruel games.

Shallow

Everything seemed out of season.  The leaves of the Maple tree glowed like the flaring flecks of a somber fire on the street corner, its crown traced in the orange light of a lamppost. The brickwork of the nearby townhouse was half lit by that same light, or else lost in shadow, only a single window on the second floor etched apart by a candle’s glow. All other houses down either street were drowned in black night, neither porchlight or inner light refuting the tenebrous uniformity of the late hour.
It was said the Wizard put a spell on his neighbors, one and all, to urge them to bed early—even on weekends—so that he would never be disturbed during his midnight lucubrations. There was no traffic on the road, nor even foot traffic. Occasionally some local drunks would go wandering away from the local bars, but never would they wander this way, and all sober people shunned this road at night. The single rear light of her father’s old pickup truck had disappeared from sight a few moments before, heading home where her mother waited, weeping at the kitchen table.
The Wizard was a mysterious celebrity within the county. Everyone knew of him and spoke of him, but no one really knew him or spoke to him. His house sat at the corner of two streets and two worlds, seen by many and yet frequented by none. They said he was a kingmaker, and a king breaker. Between light and darkness, he existed. People hoped for, and dreaded, the call to his house.
Her mother had curled her red hair, and selected the green summer dress for her to wear— a slight slip of a dress that left her freckled shoulders bare, and was sheer down the flat of her chest, and hitched high with a hem at her freckled thighs, showcasing knobby knees that popped sometimes as she walked with that awkwardly bouncing stride of a fawn bounding dubiously through its first summery field. Her father had insisted on the makeup she wore—the red lipstick that made her slight buck-teeth more pronounced and the mascara that only ran down her freckled cheeks because of the tears she had shed during the drive over here. Why the Wizard wanted her, she did not know. Her eyes were too large, her cheeks too shallow, her chin too slight and her overbite too disastrous to be cute. She was not pretty, or even plain. As a child she was pretty, perhaps, but not now, fresh upon her fifteenth year.
She stared up at the townhouse looming over her. She stepped up on the first concrete step. The house intimidated her, as did everything that belonged to the wealthy and powerful. The strange L-shaped stairs led up to the front door aslant, and a lion statue lounged on the brickwork, at its crook. Its slumbrous brow was bathed in scant light from the lamppost. Its eyes were sleepy, and its mouth closed. The gleam of the light on its bronze mane fascinated her, briefly, as she passed it. It lionized the ascent with its presence.
She idolized Reba McEntire. As she took another step up she heard “Fancy” playing in her head. She was not wholly ignorant concerning men—homeschooled, but not ignorant. A boy at her church had grabbed her shallow breasts when she first began to blossom, and shortly ended blossoming, barely larger than he was. And her strange cousin, Mikey— whom her parents referred to as “slow” and “not right”—showed her his penis when she was eleven. He was seventeen at the time, but weighed twice as much as her father. The small, ugly thing between his legs was barely visible beneath his ponderous gut; like a mushroom poking out from under a white boulder covered in hairy black moss.
She took another step up, and the second run of steps angled perpendicular from the first, leading up to the black metal door with its lion-headed knocker. The glass was blackened by shadows. The opal moon shone at the back of the house. The front facade was shrouded with a veil of darkness where the lamppost’s sullen glow did not touch it.
The door opened silently. It did not creak or screech on its hinges, unlike the doors at her family’s old farmhouse. Yet, this house seemed older than her home; older than times her great-grandfather knew nothing of.
The door opened, but no one stood there at its dark threshold. She hesitated, naturally, and shivered in the warm, summery breeze. The inner vestibule was palled, but there was a soft light deeper within the house, radiating gently down a staircase and its elaborate rails. All else was darkness and obfuscated suggestion.
Knowing she had no choice, she entered the house and headed slowly toward the soft-lit staircase. The door closed behind her, silently and of its own accord. At the bottom of the inner stairs, on the lacquered wood of the landing, sat a cat. It was a large cat with a creamy white-and-brown patched coat and a black masked face. It had clear blue eyes which were oddly shaped like almonds, and, when paired with the strange down-curve of its lips and a face as flat as a wall, gave it the permanent expression of irritability and grumpiness. It waited until she stood before it, then turned about and walked up the stairs at a leisurely pace. She followed the cat, coming to the landing upstairs. The light down the stairs extinguished at once, and only a single light glowed on the second floor, down the hallway from an open door. All other doors were closed and dark. She walked down the hallway and came to the dimly illuminated room, its door open and waiting to admit her.
The Wizard sat at a table, reading a book scrawled with no human language upon it. He squinted down at the book, aglow in candlelight, and when she entered the cat leapt upon the table, sitting patiently beside the book while its face remained in a perpetual flat-faced frown. The Wizard did not glance up, but pointed to a long mirror standing in a corner of the murky room. The tall mirror was lit by a five-stick candelabrum.
“Undress,” he said. He said no more, but continued to read the mad spirals and cross-strokes nonsensically arrayed upon the splayed book.
She hesitated, then went to the mirror, thinking of her mother and father and siblings; of the farm and the letters from the county, and the bank notes, and the massive debt.
She hesitated again in front of the mirror. She stared at herself in the mirror; amidst the gloomy murk blurred by tears. Her curly red hair, her knobby knees and freckled shoulders; her mascara running down her cheeks. She was a child, really, and she was only old enough to realize that she was still a child. Taking a deep breath, and hating herself, she pulled the green summer dress up and off of her.
She did not take off her bra or her underwear. She had to look away from the shame in the mirror, drying her eyes and happening upon the jars that gleamed on the shelves lining the room, half-concealed in the burning candle dusk. There were skeletons both familiar and bizarre in those jars. Here a cat; there, a rat with a human skull. A bird’s skeleton with a long, reticulated neck and a dog’s head at the end of it. Eyeballs that stared at her, and a human heart that continued to beat, disembodied. In other jars were more innocuous things: flowers, grasses, liquids of various colors. Ash, flint, pebbles, roots. Yet, however banal, they all excited in her young heart a fear that made her tremble violently in the Wizard’s study.
The Wizard continued to read. She did not know if this was supposed to be part of a means of exciting torture upon her or if he had simply forgotten about her. He did not seem interested in her at all. Nor was he what she had expected. He was of no specific age— that is to say, he could have been in his thirties or his fifties. He had no beard, nor a robe, but wore khakis and a simple blue collar shirt. Brown loafers were upon his feet and his face was free of spectacles. His hair was black, frosted white at the temples. He resembled a doctor more than a fairytale Wizard.
She gazed again into the mirror. She was not a pretty girl; not even cute. She had callused hands from milking cows and pitching hay. She was bony from too much work and too little food. Whatever idle fat was supposed to hang on the breast and buttock had been burned away irreparably by daily chores on the farm. Her forearms were too boyish with muscle, as was her whole body. She knew no other life other than from hearsay from the other kids at her church. They went to public schools, and rarely talked to her because they lived very different lives. They lived on their phones, and the internet. Her parents could not afford a cellphone or the internet, nor satellite tv. They watched three channels on broadcast, and that was rarely more than an hour a day. Chores consumed everything, and a farm could not earn anyone a living anymore. It could feed a family, but lose itself on its own mortgage. Only corporate farms and hobby farms remained strong. And they were not real farmers. They were pretenders. Nowadays fake lives could earn more money than a genuine life ever could.
“We’re underwater on the mortgage,” her father had told her on the way here. “And he promised to help with all that. You just got to…got to put yourself out there.”
Like a cow, she thought bitterly. Put out to market.
Startling her, the Wizard shut the book suddenly, sighing irritably. He pushed his chair back and stood, turning around. Instinctively, she shrank from him, huddling in a corner where three stacks of books towered. Bumping into them, she fell them like dominoes, sprawling them out across the strange Persian rug on the floor.
“Sorry,” she said automatically.
“I said undress,” he said firmly.
She gawped, and then the tears came anew, flooding her face. Her heart hammered horribly between her shallow breasts, threatening to burst her lithe, boyish frame. She felt faint, and swooned, a heat in her head like a matchstick soon to ignite into an immolation of shame. He came forward and took her bra off impatiently, and her underwear while she wobbled on one leg and then the other. She did not fight him, swaying with the movement like a scarecrow being shaken by the seasonal winds. She closed her eyes, the tears burning along her sockets.
After he had taken her remaining raiments, he stepped away. She had anticipated fondling hands and hot breath and a great pain within and without. Instead, he turned about in seeming indifference. When she dared to open her eyes, she saw him laying a large elliptical bowl on the table, next to his book and his cat. It was very much the same shape as the standing mirror. Into this bowl he poured a silvery liquid from a strange jug that looked like a coiled conch. He waited a minute or so after pouring the syrupy liquid, then he closed his eyes and whispered a few words she could not understand. He passed his hands over the bowl several times. He had an Apple watch on his wrist. She glanced at the elliptical bowl where the silver liquid resided. It was as thin as a Judas coin.
So shallow, she thought.
“It may seem shallow,” the wizard said, as if reading her mind. “But it can still drown you.”
“We’re already drowning,” she whispered.
If he heard her, he did not seem to care.
“Stand in front of the mirror,” he commanded her. He stared intently into the bowl. “And uncross your arms. Stand completely still and do not move. It could be catastrophic if you disrupt your image within the Constancy.”
She did as she was told, dropping her arms to her sides and standing still in front of the mirror. She was skin and bones and freckles and buck-teeth and overbite. Only her red hair was truly pretty about her, and it burned like fire in the light from the candelabrum; burned like Maple leaves in Autumn. A willowy skeleton of a girl, her ribs etched softly beneath breasts that would have been nonexistent except for the small nipples dotting where breasts should have been swelling. Narrow hips and slender thighs.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She blinked in disbelief at the question, and turned her head to look at him.
“I told you not to move,” he chastised her absently. He was holding a white twig above the water, from which a chrysalis hung. “What do you want?”
“What does it cost?” she asked.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“What will you give me?” she asked, also knowing the thirst of want.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“Then I want everything,” she said without hesitation.
He nodded, almost with clinical disinterest, and dipped the chrysalis into the silver liquid, swirling it around slowly while the image in the mirror distorted and swirled, growing her breasts, widening her hips, and swelling her flat butt. She grew curvaceous in the flesh. The pain was excruciating, but she knew it was worth it. She stared at her new body in the mirror where such changes had been wrought, and she was transfixed. She had a new nose, fuller cheeks, pouty lips, and her chin was extended out so that her overbite disappeared. She still had her freckles, and her red hair, but the two complimented her new body. She was beautiful.
He warned her of various things she should not do, like reaping bad karma, or finding religion, or following a cult.
“You are your own goddess now,” he said. “And others will follow you. You will be your own religion and will trend for as long as you live in beauty.”
The cat rubbed against her ankle, looking up at her with its perpetual frown. She realized she had seen it somewhere before. She thought she could hear the clapping of hands at a distance, and fought the urge to take a bow.
The Wizard became disinterested in her once again, sitting down at his table and opening his large book again. Looking over his shoulder, she was surprised to realize she could understand the strange symbols on the pages. The @’s and the #’s were like symbols in a language for stargazing, and she could read them now. Her horoscope was written in their strange code, and she saw that it assured her ascendancy.

***

They nicknamed her the “Ginger Kardashian”. She was an Instagram model, social media influencer, and a makeup and fashion Youtuber. She built an empire out of her lips, breasts, and hips. She never worked at a farm again and moved out to LA where she bought a McMansion that dwarfed every house in her hometown, including the Wizard’s townhouse. She became a millionaire many times over and trended every week on every platform. Her fake life earned more money than a real one ever could, and though she was never happy, she pretended like she was, and often looked at her own posts online with a sense of awe. Her image had become a goddess. Her image had become a religion and had gained many followers around the world. But she also became a follower herself, envying the same goddess others envied and knowing she would never feel so happy as her shallow image on the other side of the looking-glass.

Many-Memoried Moon

The horned moon glosses the barn’s roof
with a soft light, like dew upon a lawn,
and silent falls beastly snout and huddled hoof
in those long dreaming hours before the dawn.

Across harvested fields where hay bales lay
hunkered down and wound round unto golden rolls,
there are bonfires flaring, as on Beltane day
when flames flicker fulsome upon the knolls.

Ringed round each heat-hearted, tree-fed fire
there dance the antlered people of an old county
to celebrate with foot and voice and strumming lyre
the crops that have sprouted as Summer’s bounty.

With pagan heartbeats and ancestral bones
they twirl together to make the Midsummer merry,
and though there loom no great standing stones
they remember the isle that is yet kin to Faerie.

By the breastplate of Boudicca and Cuchulainn’s cloak,
by the crib of Fin M’Coul and Epona’s stride,
they remember while flames and shadow both soak
their faces like sunset on Avalon’s dark tide.

And when the druid moon retires, at last, to bed
at the hour of the cock’s intrepid crow,
they rise from sleep, each baptized head
still awash with the pulsating pagan glow.

And with them they bring the ancient ghosts
to their Sunday church mass, among the pews,
and sit them down like humblebrag hosts
to dehorn themselves of their moon-crowned views.

Spellbound

As a pagan priest in passionate prayer
I trace fingers upon your idolatrous curves,
teasing out primal magic anywhere
there is a naughty nexus of ley-line nerves.

Like a wizard performing a secret spell
I manifest my ritual upon your form—
motion and emotion collide and swell
with the summoning of this carnal storm.

I summon your demons by gently passing
my hands along your arched torso to hex
and exorcise that riotous lot amassing
at the hexagram of your hedonist sex.

It is to master elemental attunement,
like scrying upon waters to see what’s to come;
to be a druid seeking what an old rune meant
while knuckle bones are arrayed in a perfect sum.

Yet, I am the one irrevocably bound
and ensorcelled by your bewitching spells;
mesmerized by the heated, heathen sound
of a magic as old as males and females.

A Storm Without Thunder

A chapter from a supernatural romance I published under a pseudonym.  I am hoping it will be a hit among women who like supernatural romance novels from the heroine’s perspective.  Its characters and plot are based on many Native American myths, ranging from Iroquois to Navajo, but primarily based upon Ojibwe myths.

 

CHAPTER 15 A STORM WITHOUT THUNDER

A storm was brewing on the Western horizon. It darkened the evening prematurely, bringing twilight at an earlier hour.
The dogs were barking. I didn’t know what at. I saw them all facing the lake. It seemed odd because I had never known the dogs to bark at fish or turtles before. I knew of a crane that sometimes came sailing in near twilight, but the dogs never bothered it. Maybe the silly dogs were just barking at their own reflections.
I heard a heaving, roiling splash in the center of the lake. The dogs all yelped and I ran to the porch, looking out into the brooding murk to see the dogs fleeing back toward the house. Upon the lake I saw large waves crashing from end to end, as if a gigantic catfish had leapt and plunged. Harry appeared, then, and stood next to me, looking out at the lake.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“Something restless for nightfall,” he said.
He went into the shed, and down into the bunker. When he returned he had his black revolver. He opened the chamber and filled the empty slots with bullets.
The wind bellowed like a beast. The trees thrashed their limbs and quivered in excitement, like spectators in a coliseum eager for a gladiatorial match. Shadows shifted and pitched sideways into one another as the horizon blackened, forming mobs of darkness. Harry fetched a large studio spotlight and placed it on the porch, shining its piercing halo on the surface of the lake. I stood beside him, fearful of what might be revealed in that split luminescent wound of night.
The water tossed and churned within the lake. I caught blinking glimpses of something in the waves— something lined with triangular spikes— but it was too fast and too far away to discern. Yet, there was a rhythm and a musicality to the motions of the water. It was hypnotic. I found myself swaying ever so lightly to its pace. Even the dogs stopped barking, watching the thing in the water spin and billow. I heard a hissing not unlike the crackling hiss of lightning during a thunderstorm, and yet there was no rumble of thunder above. It made me feel scared and small and insignificant. Meaningless. My very heart seemed to doubt whether I was worth the work of keeping alive, palpitating with a faltering beat.
Rain began to fall. The sky was starless and moonless, concealed by fulgurous clouds that warred amongst one another. How dwarfed I felt beneath their crackling voices! Like an ant beneath the shadow of elephants.
Harry stepped down from the porch and began to walk toward the lake. At first I was so transfixed by my own feelings of futility that I could only stand by and watch him recede. But seeing him walking toward the churning waters compelled my body forward. I ran after him with a staggered stride, still shaking off my own insignificance beneath the storm. When I reached him, I grabbed him by the wrist.
“Don’t!” I said.
He looked at me as if half asleep and still dreaming. “The maelstrom calls to me,” he said. His eyes were blank of expression, lost far away from himself in some benighted realm. “The mouth that is the grotto. The whirlpool throat of the seas. I must go there.”
Fearing he might pull away, and thus be lost from me forever, I took a handful of his raven-black hair and yanked on it with all of my strength and weight, tugging his head down as I fell to the ground. A blaze of fury woke within the dark, empty hollows of his eyes.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Maddie?!” he demanded. The clouds crackled overhead, and he heard the swirling waters and felt the falling rain. The blaze of fury went out of his eyes, replaced by a determined scowl. “Quick,” he said. “Inside the house. Now.”
He helped me up and we rushed inside. Standing by the back porch door, we looked out at the spotlighted lake. Whatever swirled inside the water soon slowed in its whirlpool. The waters crashed for a while longer, but soon smashed themselves down flat and silent like armies destroying themselves to the last man. Hopeful, I dared to think that whatever dwelled in the water had gone, departed in disappointment back to whatever infernal world it had come from.
But I was wrong.
In one lurching heave, the water surged like a tidal wave crashing over the earth and splashing against the side of the cabin. A gigantic creature exploded out from the onrush of water. Its body was long— too long for the spotlight to adequately detail. Its eyes winced in the spotlight’s glare, its ears drawn back beneath long horns and its fangs bared like a tiger ready to strike. Its face was that of a tiger’s, too, or perhaps a panther’s, for it had the same broad black head and feline grimace as the biggest cats on earth. It was jet-black, like night taken to animal shape, and its scaly pelt glistened darkly with a water-dappled lividness that burned like obsidian. When it roared, whitewater foam erupted from its mouth and I felt myself taken away to oblivion by that raging-river bellow. Lightning flashed in its eyes.
Harry aimed the revolver and fired three times. I heard the bullets strike the creature and ricochet off its scaly skin.
“It’s no use,” he said, tossing the gun aside.
Harry picked me up bodily and rushed me upstairs in a manic sprint.
“There is no thunder,” he was saying. “Where have they gone?”
Setting me in one of the upstairs rooms, he told me to remain there and be quiet. He then took an animal skin from the wall— one I had not seen before, but which seemed frightfully familiar— and wrapped himself in its expansive black pelt.
“Harry,” I said, “no.”
He ran downstairs, heedless of my call. I followed him, pleading with him to stop. The pelt tightened around him as he stumbled toward the door. Reaching the porch, he fell to his knees and the skin spread over him like a swollen tarp. I could do nothing to stop the transformation.
Kneeling, Harry trembled and swayed. His body expanded, like a balloon filling with air. He did not stretch thin such as he had during his transformation into a wolf, but grew rotund and muscled in proportion to the pelt, his whole body broadening to a breadth that dwarfed his human form many times over, his back bulging with mass and power. I shrank away from him as I realized where he had gotten that skin.
Harry’s face extended outward into a fat maw and his head grew broad— as broad as his human shoulders— and fur matted his face. He groaned in pain, and his groan became a growl, and his growl became a roar. His ursine snout curdled with rage as he sprang forward on four paws, bounding toward the creature in the yard.
I rushed upstairs and went to a door that led to a second-storey balcony overlooking the lake. Rain fell heavy now and I stood in its downpour, trying to see the clash of beasts in the wayward luminescence of the overturned spotlight and the streaks of lightning. I could hear more than I could see, the hissing and the roaring becoming like a storm at sea. What I could see horrified me with its flashing glimpses. The black panther was not so large as the Great Bear, but it was long and much faster. The bulky form that belonged to Harry was slower, and was repeatedly tackled and grappled by that more agile creature. Its slender body outmaneuvered him. Its saber-toothed mouth bit into Harry’s heft. It gored his jiggling flanks with its long horns. It slashed him with its claws until I cried out in anguish at the wounds rent in Harry’s animal flesh.
There was no thunder. That was what Harry had said. It seemed insane to be thinking of that right now, but it was true. There was no thunder overhead; only rain and lightning and wind like a belligerent roar. What happened to the thunder? Where had it gone?
I felt helpless, and yet I needed to do something. I ran downstairs and emerged on the ruined back porch. I found the spotlight and lifted it up. Maybe I was a fool. Maybe I was suicidal. I did not know. What I did know for certain was that Harry was in the creature’s grip again and it was clamping its saber teeth into his thick neck, its clawed limbs twisted around his body. Harry bellowed in rage and pain. In my desperation I aimed the spotlight at the creature’s eyes, stabbing those pale deep-sea orbs with that sharp luminescence.
The creature tried to look away, even as it tried to snap Harry’s neck. But no matter which way it turned, I aimed the spotlight in its eyes like a marksman keen on his shot. The panther released Harry, to my great joy, and, to my great terror, came dashing toward me. I flashed the light in its eyes, but it did not deter it. Instead, it hissed more loudly and, jerking this way and that, came upon me faster. As it readied to pounce, however, I saw a group of figures dart in front of me and array themselves around me. Buster, Rebel, Yankee, Boomer, and Bunyan, ever in the lead, barked and snarled and growled at the hideous monster. It may have dwarfed them all, but it was bewildered by the noisy collection of small creatures that had flung themselves in front of me. It did not know what to make of them, or which to devour first.
The creature overcame its bewilderment and swiped at the dogs. Yankee and Rebel went tumbling over each other, yelping. Bunyan yapped and leapt only to be swatted away like a gnat. Boomer rushed to protect the leader and bit the creature’s forepaw. He was shaken off and flung into the ricks of logs near the shed. Only Buster remained and he became so wound up with excitement and terror that he sprang up at the panther, head-butting its jaw. The beast looked more surprised than injured. Buster claimed victory and ran around its flanks, taunting it with his barks. The denticulated tail found Buster, though, and sent him rolling, almost like an afterthought. The panther creature was focused once again upon me.
I fled inside the cabin. The panther lunged and I fell and spun backwards. Its gnashing teeth nearly caught my feet, but its shoulders were stayed by the doorway’s frame. The head nonetheless strained forward, reaching for me as I retreated further into the living room. I threw the spotlight at its head. It bounced off harmlessly. Looking frantically about the room, my eyes alighted on deer antlers that adorned the cabin’s walls. I ran toward them as the doorway collapsed inward and the outer wall gave way. The panther’s breath was upon me as I pulled the thorny antlers down. I dove behind the couch just as the panther’s mouth slammed into the wall where I formerly stood. Crying in fear, I wrestled with the antlers and raised them above me, like a porcupine readying its quills. The couch suddenly split apart and flew away, thrown by that saber-toothed mouth. Fear crippled my mind and frenetic instinct reigned. I swung the antlers at the panther, wildly raking its face as I struggled to my feet. Its hide shrugged off the blows, but one glancing strike hit his eye, gouging it in an eruption of blood.
Suddenly, the panther’s eyes widened in surprise, its head withdrawing from the living room and out into the night. The living room light bled outside, casting the figures of Harry and the panther as they circled each other. Harry had clutched the denticulated tail of the shimmery black beast, and was pulling him away from the cabin. The beast wheeled about, tackling Harry. They tumbled over each other in a ball of teeth and claws and fur and blood. The panther pinned Harry to the ground and clamped its jaws to Harry’s throat. Harry roared and his roar wavered to a human scream. I realized the panther was not trying to snap Harry’s neck, but was instead peeling Harry’s animal pelt from his human flesh. Where the pelt was stripped, the bulky ursine muscles withered to human proportions. The divide between man and animal hemorrhaged like a deep, arterial wound. I cried out, thinking him dying.
Then I heard coarse-throated laughter and saw a small shadow flit over the two clasped figures. The shadow alighted upon the panther’s forehead, jamming its sharp beak into that lunar-lobed sphere and pecking deep within the closing eyelid, prying the viscera from the socket like a spoon scooping grape jelly from a mason jar.
The panther screeched, relinquishing its death-grip upon Harry and rolling head over tail, flailing its claws. The bird, however, had already flown elsewhere, laughing wildly in voices of both a man and a raven.
Meanwhile, Harry nestled into his pelt once more, the blood becoming like a glue that bonded man and animal together.
The panther creature was still screeching and flailing when Harry charged, launching himself atop the beast and rolling it onto its back; clutching its throat in his jaws while his thick arms clasped its neck. The panther dug its claws into Harry’s rotund flanks, but Harry did not let go. The panther rolled and tumbled and flopped over like a cat with a broken back. It suddenly sprinted into the lake, both it and Harry disappearing into the churning black depths.
I ran out to the water’s edge, fearful of what I could not see. The dogs limped toward me, watching and whimpering as the waters heaved and tossed and boiled. It was as if a volcano were erupting just below the surface.
“A vicious beast.”
I was too scared to be startled by Corvus’s sudden appearance.
“The Water King, I mean,” he said. “Though Harry can be a vicious beast, too.”
The roiling thrash within the water subsided. The water settled, the rain making little circles upon its surface and hammering the waves down to an eerie calm. The monochrome night betrayed no color upon the water. The blackness of the lake was like the deathly stillness of the dark side of the moon.
“Harry?” I whispered, fearful of what might answer me.
The water bulged upward and surged forward. The dogs barked and I felt my heart leap; whether in fear or hope, I could not say. The water broke like a seed and I saw Harry’s snout emerge from the splitting shell. A dark piece of hide hung ragged in his ursine teeth.
Corvus, the dogs, and I all backed away from the lake, giving Harry space as he came ashore. He was still breathing heavily through his nose, and violence gleamed in his feral eyes, even as his bedraggled body trembled with fatigue.
“Come away,” Corvus said, leading me toward the cabin. “He cannot discern friend from foe.”
Harry had been exhausted by his fight with the panther, and he collapsed upon the ground, still clutching the victory pelt in his mouth. As I stood on the ruins of the porch, Corvus unfurled a strange blanket— taken from thin air—and rushed forward to drape it over Harry’s broad head. The blanket was rainbow colored and made of rough-spun thread. There were symbols in its weave, but I did not know what they meant.
“To soothe the beast’s blood,” Corvus said, “and to lull the animal dreams inside him.”
Harry did not stir. His deep, sonorous breath hushed the forest.
Corvus and I waited in the murk until dawn, watching Harry sleep. When the first light of sunrise touched him, Harry shriveled inside the pelt— like wood burning down to ash— and he once again became a man beneath the expansive black fur. We went to him, then, and Corvus took off the calming blanket. I was too concerned with Harry to see what Corvus did with the blanket, but it was gone by the time he helped me take Harry inside the house.
Harry clutched the panther’s skin in his hands.
“What…happened?” he asked. He hung unsteadily between us, his arms strung up heavily upon our shoulders as his stumbling feet slowly progressed. “Did…did he descend again?”
“Yes,” Corvus said.
Harry moaned like a wounded beast. When we set him upon his bed I saw the tears on his cheeks and how he trembled with sobs.
“Just lock me away,” he said. “Lock me…away…forever…until the stars devour themselves…and the sun should fall from the sky…”
“Not yet, my friend,” Corvus said, taking the panther’s pelt away from him. It glistened like alligator leather. “You have too much to do, yet.”