How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain With the Crooked One
There’s that old saying:
“Truth is costly, dearly bought.
Want it free? Ask a sot.”
Don’t you believe it. There’s no wisdom in wine, just as there’s no brevity in beer. And while I don’t accuse Da of malice aforethought, I wouldn’t have minded some–any!–aforethought in this case, being as times are harrowed enough, without you add magic in our midst.
In a fit of drunkenness, Da had slobbered out the sort of rumor our own local pubbies wouldn’t half heed, chin-drowned in gin as they were. But the Archabbot’s Pricksters from Winterbane, having hungry ears for this sort of thing, ate the rumor right up and followed him home. To me.
“And just who are these nice folks, Da?” I asked as he stumbled through my new-swept kitchen. The Pricksters who had trooped in after stood in a half circle. They blocked the door, thumbs in their belts, staring.
“My friends, Gordie!” he belched. “Best friends a man could have.”
If these were friends, I’d sooner have climbed out the back window than face his enemies. Poor drunken bastard. By this time of night, the whole world was his friend.
I curtsied with scant grace, and they smiled with scant lips, and Da fell to his cot. His beatific snores started midway between air and pillow. I looked again at the Pricksters. No question they were strangers to Feisty Wold, but anyone awake to the world would recognize them. They each wore a row of needles on their bandoliers, a set of shackles on their belts right hip and left, and there were silver bells and scarlet flowers broidered on their boots to protect them from Gentry mischief.
“Miss,” they said.
“Misters and Mistresses,” said I. “Care for a drink? We have milk straight from the udder, or the finest well-water in Feisty Wold.”
I did not let Da keep spirits under Mam’s roof–not if he wanted his clothes mended and his meals regular. Truth be told, he’d do near anything in her name. It was not her dying that had driven him to drink. It’d been her living that had kept him from it.
The head Prickster waved away my offer with a gauntleted hand. Her hair was scraped back under the bright red hat of captaincy, leaving large handsome ears and a strong neck exposed. She was a good-looking enough woman, but even under other circumstances, I’d’ve her disliked her on sight, for the pinch at her nose and cold glint in her squinted eyes.
She said, “Your honored father has been boasting of his only daughter.”
I never had that trick of arching just one eyebrow. Both shot up before my frown mastered them.
“Nothing much to boast of, as you see,” said I.
“Your unrivaled beauty?” suggested the Prickster woman.
“Pah,” was my reply, and several of the other Pricksters nodded in agreement. Not a lot of beauty here, just your average pretty, and only that by candlelight and a kindness of the eye.
“How about your, shall we say, quiet success with your cattle?”
“Annat’s the grandest milk cow in the Wold,” I retorted, bristling. “Wise and mild, as fertile as she’s fair. And Manu’s worth three of any other bull I’ve met. A sweetheart still, for all he’s kept his balls. Bought those cattle both myself from a farm at Quartz-Across-the-Water, with some money my mam left me.”
“Yes,” grunted the Prickster woman, “so we’ve heard. And just what was your mother, pray?”
“My mam?” I asked. “She…”
Had sung a thousand songs while washing dishes. Had woken me at night to watch stars falling. Had made us hot chocolate for sipping while the thunder gods drummed. Couldn’t sew a seam for damn, but could untangle any knot given her. Walked long hours on the shore, or under the leafy Valwode, which is now forbidden. Had sickened during the First Invasion and slowly faded through the Second. Said her last words in a whisper. Left her man a wreck and me in charge. Missed her every morning first thing as I woke.
“Was your mother Gentry?” the Prickster woman pressed.
“My mam?” I asked again, stupidly.
“Did she pass along her Gentry ways to the daughter of her blood?”
“She’s wasn’t a…”
“Where did you get the money for those cattle?”
“I told you, from…”
“Yes, your mother. And what a wealth she must have left you. Does her immortal Gentry magic flow through your veins?”
“Your uncanny talent’s hidden in your surname. Faircloth.”
“That’s Da’s name, for his Da was a tailor. Himself,” I indicated the treacherous snore-quaker on the cot, “was defty with a needle before the shakes got to his hands. Mam was an Oakhewn before she married him.”
The Prickster woman smiled and my little kitchen grew chill and dim. I’d’ve laid another log on the hearth if I dared.
“Ah, yes. Now we come to it, Miss Faircloth. Your honored father. This evening in Firshaw’s Pub, he boasted to one and all that as he loves his soul, his only daughter, comely as a summer cloud, clever as a cone spider, has fingers so lively she can spin straw into gold. What say you to that, unnatural girl?”
“I can’t spin to save my life,” I blustered. “Not nettle-flax nor cotton thread nor silk!”
“You’re lying,” said the Prickster woman, and drew a needle from her bandolier.
I knew what it was for. Three drops of blood, no more no less, to be kept in a small glass vial. Later tested by the Archabbot’s wizards. If they found my blood tasted of honey, if it sparkled in the dark, if it cured the sick or lame, if it caused a maid to fly when the moon was full, or bewitched a man into loving only me, I’d be doomed and dead and damned.
Of course, I knew my blood would do none of these things, but I fought the needle anyway. My blood was mine, and it belonged to me, and I belonged here, and if they took me away to Winterbane, who would care for my cows?
“Bind and blind you!” I shouted. “I’m no Gentry-babe, no changeling! I was born in Feisty Wold! Right here in this kitchen–right there on that hearth! Ask the neighbors! Ask the midwife, who is the old midwife’s daughter. Me, I don’t know a spindle from a spearhead! Let me go! Hex your hearts, you blackguards!”
I think I bit one of them. I hope it was the woman. I tried to wake Da with screaming, but he snored on, bubbles popping at the crease of his lips. In the end, I called to my cows, “Annat! Manu! To the woods! To the wild! Let no mortal milk you, nor yoke you, nor lead you to the ax! To the woods! Be you Gentry beasts, to graze forever in the Valwode–so long as you be safe!”
In retrospect, I realize that this was the wrong thing to have shouted. I shouldn’t have shouted at all, in fact. I ought to have been docile and indulgent. I ought to’ve exposed Da as the only sot in town who could light a fire with his farts alone. I ought to’ve paid them off, or batted my eyelashes or begged, or something.
But I didn’t.
So it was that the Pricksters of Avillius III, Archabbot of all monasteries in Leressa, our Kingdom Without A King, collared me, caged me, and carted me off in chains to the Holy See at Winterbane.
Don’t think I’m the only victim in Feisty Wold. The Archabbot’s Pricksters are everywhere, in numbers and urgency ever increasing since the Gentry Invasions began twenty years ago. You can meet them any time, smaller teams combing our island villages, or strolling in force around the greater towns and cities across the water on Leressa proper.
They’ll haul an old gray gramamma all the way to the Holy See just for sitting in a rocker and singing while she knits. It might be a spell, after all–a Gentry grass-trap that will open a hole in the ground for the unwary to fall through–or a Wispy luring like the one that bogged King Lorez on the swamp roads and drowned him dead. (Not that many grumbled over that. “Old Ironshod,” we called him, on account he liked to stomp on people’s throats.) You can guess how long gramamma survives in His Grace the Archabbot’s forgetting hole, down in the darkness without food or warmth.
Not long ago, the Pricksters bagged a young schoolteacher at Seafall just because he kept both a cat and a dog as pets (this being unnatural). Here you will get the best answer of cats can sense ghosts or not. He tested mortal on all counts. Cold iron didn’t scorch him. His blood dried brown. Starved just like a real man when fed on naught but nectar. Did that prove anything? No–the Pricksters got all muttery about changelings having better mortal glamours than their pureblood forebears, therefore harsher methods must be applied!
Out came the dunking stool, and there drowned a nice man. His poor dog and cat were driven off the cliff at Seafall and into the tides below.
I know we’re supposed to hate the Gentry for killing our king, for putting his daughter into a poisoned sleep for (they say) one hundred years, and enchanting his son to look like a bear. For the many thefts and murders that made up the First Gentry Invasion, we should despise them, ring our iron bells at dawn and at dusk to drive them out of range, never leave the house in summer but we primp ourselves in daisy chains, or wreaths of mistletoe in winter. For the horrors of the Second Invasion we should take right vengeance–for the wives and daughters and sisters who bore Gentry-babes as a result of passing through a fall of light, a strong wind, a field of wildflowers. For the appropriation of our wombs and the corruption of our children.
But some of us ask questions.
Why did the Gentry invade at all, when our people have always coexisted in a sort of scrap-now, make-up later, meet-you-again-at-market-maybe, rival siblings’ harmony, occasionally intermarrying, mostly ignoring each other? All easy enough to do, what with that Veil between our worlds, the Gentry keeping mostly to the wild Valwode, us mortals to our mills and tilled earth and stone cities. Why did they invade, why so viciously, and why in our retaliation did we turn against ourselves?
Some of us ask these questions. I’m not saying I’m one of them. I’m no troublemaker, but I always listened, especially to Mam as she washed dishes, and later when she did nothing but stare out the window and whisper to herself.
The closer my cage-on-wheels came to Winterbane, the more these questions weighed on me.
Let them be as locks upon my lips. Let me say nothing that will bring me further harm. Let Da at home wake with the world’s worst headache but with memory enough to milk Annat and let Manu to pasture. Gods or ghosts or Gentry. Any who will listen. Hear my plea.
Avillius III had rosy cheeks and lively light blue eyes. His white hair had all but receded, but the baldness suited him, made him seem sleek and streamlined, like a finch about to take flight. He was slight, his skin only faintly lined. His robes were modest blue wool with no gold crusting, and he played with his miter as though it were a toy. A young lady in the undyed cotton shift of the Novitiate sat on a stool near his knee. Her hair drew my eye, a russet thorn bush just barely beaten into submission, curling like a tail over her shoulder.
She looked at me, and I could see the fox in her eyes.
Changeling, I thought, Gentry-babe. Foxface. Skinslipper.
She looked at me with slotted yellow eyes that saw everything, even those things I’d hoped to keep hidden: the opal on my finger, the locket at my throat, the cow hair on my skirt. All the songs my mam had ever sung me fisted in my throat.
She smiled at me, and I could not help but smile back, though the Prickster guard at my elbow jostled me into a bow.
“Your Grace,” he said, “we picked this one up at Feisty Wold. Her own father claimed, out loud and in the public house, that she spins straw into gold. As you know, such gifts are a trait of Gentry royalty. Her mother was a woodcutter’s daughter, so she claims. But the Veil Queen sometimes glamours herself as common raff and lives a spell in the mortal world. Could be this girl is her get.”
I snorted, very quietly. Surely any Veil Queen worth her antler crown would’ve chosen better for herself than Da. Even when young and sober and ruby-lipped with charm, he can’t have been much of a prize.
I felt the foxgirl look at me again, but did not dare meet her yellow eyes.
“Good afternoon, young lady,” said the Archabbot in a kindly way. He leaned forward on his great, curvy chair, hands on knees. I swear his nostrils flared.
“Morning, Your Grace.”
I looked at his face and read nothing but concern. Was this the face of the monster who drowned a man for keeping a dog and a cat under the same roof? Was this the highest authority of the red-capped woman who had insulted my mother and dragged me in chains from Feisty Wold?
I reminded myself to take care, to beware–no matter how syrupy and convincing the Archabbot’s voice when he asked:
“Are you Gentry then, child? Do not fear confession; it is not your fault if you are. Are we to be blamed for the indiscretions of our parents? If indeed you have a talent for ore-making, why, you are still half-mortal, little spinner, and may use it for the good of mortal kind.”
“Your Grace.” My voice echoed in that vast glass-paned hall. “I have no gift but for calming the cow Annat so she’ll stand for milking. Or for leading the bull Manu ‘round a shadow on the ground he mistook for a snake. I’m a milkmaid, not a spinner, and my mam was a woodcutter’s daughter. She could whittle a face from a twig, but I did never see her vanish into the heart of a tree. We’re just plain folk. And Da’s a drunk fool, which is why he was tongue-wagging at Firshaw’s in the first place!”
The Archabbot nodded and sat back, idly stroking the foxgirl’s russet tail of hair. His eyes were lidded now, all that avid interest shuttered. Still with that curling smile, he asked the foxgirl, “Is she telling the truth, Candia?”
“That wench ain’t Gentry-born.” Her voice was rough and low, like a barmaid’s after decades of pipe smoke and gin. Her years could not have numbered more than twelve. Her voice was well at odds with her irregular, gawky features, her translucent skin. “There is something about her, though.” Her gaze flickered quickly to my ring, my locket, my narrowing eyes. With a shrug of her pointed shoulders, she finished, “She does look sly, don’t she? Shifty-eyed. Tricks up her sleeve. Up to just about anything. Your Grace, I’ve no doubt she could somehow manage to turn straw to gold if she wished!”
“I don’t wish it!” I flashed, angry at the lie. “Who would?”
The foxgirl, with a quick sharp grin, seemed about to reply when the Archabbot tweaked her tail. The motion was short but vehement. Tears stood out in her eyes from the sting.
The Archabbot’s hands bore no jewel but a thick colorless seal. Cold iron. I was not close enough to make out the mould, but I felt the violence in it, as if the ring had smashed across a hundred faces, as if the memory of shattered bones and broken teeth hovered all about it. I wondered if the foxgirl felt the threat of iron every time he touched her. Doubtless.
“I am satisfied that this woman is not Gentry-born,” the Archabbot announced. “Have I not had it on authority of the Abbacy’s own housetrained Gentry-babe?” This, stroking the head of the novice. “Therefore, I deem that Miss…”
“Gordie,” I said.
“…Gordenne Faircloth,” continued the Archabbot.
“Gordie Oakhewn.” But I only muttered it.
“…shall be retained at Winterbane as a…a guest…until the confusion surrounding her alleged talent is resolved. After all, it is obvious she has a splendid power, one that princes will covet and alchemists envy. And if her power is not a curse of the Gentry, it may prove to be a gift of the gods. Candia, will you show her to her…”
But the words fell unfinished from his mouth. The Archabbot bounded to his feet, looking at something past my shoulder. The roses on his cheeks spread until even the crest of his skull glowed. No longer did he seem kind and concerned. Angry as a salamander in a snowstorm, more like. I shrank back. There was no cover for me, no escape.
“Good afternoon, your grace,” said a voice behind me. I shrank from that too, for the sound sent sick ripples up and down my spine. I had no place left to go but inside myself and very still.
The Archabbot spat, “The Holy See does not recognize the petitions of pretenders!”
“I did not come to petition, Your Grace. I came to attain your little ore-maker here. My army has need of her services.”
I spun around then, hoping that the speaker–whoever he was–did not mean who I thought he meant. The tallest man I’d ever seen stared right down into my face. Me. He’d meant me.
“My dear, my fairest Gordenne Faircloth! I am your obedient servant. Allow me to make my bow!” He did, and the very jauntiness of the gesture mocked me. “Rumor has it you spin straw into gold.”
Whatever sauce I’d served to the Prickster woman had dried with my spit on the long ride to Winterbane. I could only shake my head, mute.
The man’s hair was like sunlight striking dew, his eyes so cold and bright and gray that they speared me where I stood. He laughed to see my look, casually swinging his red cloak off his shoulder to hand to his page.
The youth untangled the rich cloth and folded it over his arm. His movements were graceful though he was a gangly thing. His face tugged at me, familiar and strange. Red hair. Slotted eyes. A face too triangular to be completely human.
It all came clear.
The tall man and his cruel mouth faded from the forefront of my mind. Even the Archabbot’s fury slipped away. My ears filled with silence, a roar, a twinned heartbeat. All I saw were two Gentry-babes staring at each other with whole other worlds widening their yellow eyes. If I could imagine words to fit what flared between them, they would go like this:
“You are unhurt?”
“Yes, unhurt. You? Unhappy?”
“Not unhappy. But unwhole.”
“How you have changed!”
“How I have missed you!”
The lightning of their gazes sparked once, went dark. As if such shuttings off had been polished by practice. The foxgirl gave me a furtive look from under the bloody fringe of her lashes. I had only a dizzy countenance to show her. No time, however, to further unmuzzle this mystery, for the tall man grabbed my right elbow, and the Archabbot darted down his dais to grab my left.
“General,” said Avillius III, “our interrogations here have not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion. We must retain Miss Faircloth for further questioning, perhaps rehabilitation…”
The tall man smiled. “I myself heard your little vulpona bitch pronounce this maiden mortalborn. As she does not traffic with the dark spirits of the Valwode, Winterbane has no jurisdiction over her.”
“If Winterbane has none, Jadio has less so!”
“No, no jurisdiction,” laughed the tall man, “but an army at my back. Come, Miss Faircloth; my palace awaits you. Your Grace, I am your most humble…” He laughed again, and did not finish.
It was then I knew what I stood between. On my left, Avillius III, who, with his Pricksters and his parish priests, wanted total control over Leressa, secular as well as spiritual. On my right, the one man who stood in his way: the great General Jadio, Commander of the Kingless Armies, and Leressa’s unofficial liege lord.
My nose had swelled shut, my eyes burned, and my throat was parched.
Had I been crying, sobbing, begging General Jadio on bended knee for my freedom? No. Wouldn’t have done any good anyway. Jadio was a right monster, no mistake, and if you could prove that blood ran through his veins instead of bitter winter waters, I’d eat my own dairy stool.
What I had done was been shut up in a silo with enough straw to stuff a legion of scarecrows. From the itching in my arms and the tickle in my nose, I apprehended a heretofore unknown but deeply personal reaction to straw. In sufficient quantities, and given enough time, the straw might actually murder me.
Time was one thing I didn’t have.
If I didn’t spin all of this sneeze-making, hive-inducing stuff to gold by dawn–so declared my gold-haired, laughing captor–I’d be hung toe-first from an iron tree, pocked by stones and pecked by crows until I had no flesh left to pock or peck, and by which time, I’d heed neither foul wind nor fair, for, and I quote, “the dead feel no discomfort.”
Huddled in a hollow between mounds of the wretched straw, I stewed.
How are you supposed to spend your last hours? Praying? Cursing?
The first option was out. I was too mad to pray. Who did the gods think they were anyway, sticking people like Jadio and Avillius in charge, who were good for nothing but drowning dogs and mangling men and was that any good at all? It was the gods that killed my mam with a long, low fever that had sapped even her smile, the gods that drew the Pricksters to Feisty Wold, snatching me up and leaving my cows in the care of drunken folk like Da. A pox of itches on the gods. I’d rather be a heathen and worship the beauty of the Valwode, like the Gentry.
Curses it was.
So I bundled up a fistful of straw into two tight bunches perpendicular to each other and bound them tightly with thread torn from the hem of my skirt. I used another ravel of thread to differentiate the head from its cross-shaped body. Holding the poppet high with my left hand, I glared at it and growled:
“General Jadio, Commander of the Kingless Armies, I curse thee, that all thy wars will be unwon and all thy wenches as well. Oh, and,” I hastened to add, forgetting formality, “that, being as they are unwon, you lose all taste for war and wenching until you sicken and turn flaccid. And when you die, I hope it’s a querulous and undignified death. You jackass.”
I punched the little bundle with short, vicious jabs until the threads loosened and the whole thing burst apart. The straw fell. I gathered up a fresh fistful and fashioned another faceless poppet.
“Avillius III, Archabbot of Winterbane, I curse thee, that your shackled pet will bring thy order to ruin. That she will escape you, to rouse mortals and immortals alike under the banner of the red fox and win Leressa back for all free people. I curse thee to rot forgotten in thine own forgetting hole, and that after thy death, the word “Archabbot” is used only in stories to frighten uppity children.”
I kicked the poppet so hard it flew up over my head and was lost somewhere behind me. Wiped my nose. Went on. There was nothing else I could do.
I’d have spun gold from that straw if I could, spun until my fingers were raw, I was that scared. The creeping cold fear numbed even my screaming red skin. But Annat the cow might as soon have used that spinning wheel as I. I bent to work on another straw doll. Shook it and squeezed it until I felt the muscles standing out in my neck. Rage choked me, thickening my words.
“Prickster woman who dared blood me, who mocked my mother and took the word of a known sot as law, I curse thee to get lost in the Valwode without thy rowan-berry-broidered boots or silver bells, and to suffer what befalls thee there! That thou wilt be dragged before the Veil Queen herself for judgment and be shown such mercy as thou hast shown me.”
I spat on the poppet, wrenched off its head, and crushed it under my heel.
One more bundle. Just one more. Then I’d stop. I was tired, though outside the silo I was certain it was not yet dusk. Besides, if I kept on, I’d fray my only skirt past the decency required for burial. Not that Jadio had any plans to bury me, I’d been assured. Burn my remains, maybe. After they’d been displayed a goodly time.
“Da,” I said. I stopped. My eyes filled up. Blight this straw. If only I could sneeze, I’d feel better.
“What’s the point, Da? She died and left us, didn’t she? Any punishment after that would only pale. Poor bastard. Oh, Da. When your pickled innards finally burst to bloody spew, I hope you die with a smile on your face. That’s all.”
I laid the little effigy gently on the ground and covered it.
“Does it help?” asked a voice from the corner, near to where the spinning wheel stood.
My head snapped up too quickly, and that’s when the sneezes started. One–two–three–four–five–six–seven! So violent they knocked me backward into a pile of, that’s right, straw, which jostled another bigger pile into toppling all over me. Dust and critters and dry bits filled my nose and mouth until I flailed with panic. But a pair of hands locked around my wrists and pulled. I was heaved out from under the avalanche. Exhumed. Brushed off. Set down upon a stool. And smiled at.
Which is how I found myself face to face with the ugliest man I’d ever seen.
Now, I got nothing against ugliness. As I’ve said, I’m no Harvest Bride myself, to be tarted up in fruits and vines and paraded about the village on a pumpkin-piled wagon. General Jadio was pretty much the prettiest man I’d seen to date and right then I was in the mood to cheerfully set fire to his chiseled chin.
This man was an inch or two shorter than I and so thin as to be knobbly. His crooked shoulders were surmounted by a painful-looking hump, and his wrists stuck out from ragged sleeves. A mass of hair swirled around his head in unruly black tangles, framing a face irregular with scars. His mouth, well… Was smiling. In sympathy. And though some of his teeth were crooked, some too sharp and some completely missing, those he had kept seemed to glow in the dark.
Besides the teeth, it was his eyes gave him away, set at a slant so long and sly. The starry black of his stare left no room for white.
“You’re Gentry!” I stammered.
“Me? You just hexed four folks in effigy,” he said.
Red and sweaty and covered in rash as I was, maybe he wouldn’t notice that I blushed.
“Mam always told me hexes only work if you’ve a bit of the hexies with you,” I explained. “To put in the poppet, like? Fingernails or hair or a bit of their…. You know. Fluids. Plus, you must be magic to begin with. And I’m not.”
“Mortal to the bone,” he agreed, smiling. His smile sort of made his face disappear, the way certain smiles do. He had a good voice too. Not as smoky as the foxgirl’s, but greener and freer, like it had matured by sunlight. And if I was mortal to my bone, that is where his voice echoed, and I trembled there.
He plucked a poppet from his sleeve and dangled it. ‘Twas either Da or the Archabbot; I couldn’t tell, nor how he’d managed to unearth the thing without my noticing.
“What did your hexies do to deserve such censure?”
“Cads,” I snorted, “one and all. They took me from my cows and slandered me with lies and forgot to feed and water me. In a very few hours, one of them will kill me for not being the miracle maid he says I am. And that’s after he does whatever comes before the killing.”
“What does he say you are, miracle maid?”
“Spinner,” I told him, “ore-maker. Sent by the gods to the armies of Jadio to change all their straw to gold. Thus will the soldiers of the Kingless Army, richly clad and well-armed, march against the Gentry demons and purge Leressa of their foulness. Pah!” I spat, though I had nothing left to spit with. “Had I a hammer, a piece of flint and some steel, I’d break that spinning wheel to splinters and use it for kindling. This place would go up in a poof and me with it. I wasn’t born to hang.”
The little dark man laughed. A green flame erupted in the palm of his hand, shooting sparks so high I flinched. He blew lightly on the flames until they spiraled up to flirt with his fingertips.
“Say the word, lady. If truly thou wouldst have this death, it is in my power to give it thee.”
I, despite my morose boast, said nothing.
Laughing again, the little dark man urged the green flames to chase up his arm, his neck, his face, the crown of his head, where they raced in gleeful circles. By their weird light, the silo seemed a vast undersea trove, the mounds of straw gone verdigris as waterweeds, softly breathing.
“You do not desire the burning? All right, then. What do you wish?”
“To go home. To my cows.”
“The soldiers of Jadio will find you there and bring you back. Perhaps first they will slaughter your cows and make you feast upon their flesh, that you taste your own defiance. What do you really wish?”
“I don’t know!” I threw up my arms. “To make this go away?”
I meant everything that had occurred since Da’s ill-advised boast in Firshaw’s Pub, up to and including this current assignation, enchanting as it was. But he took it literally. He picked up a single piece of straw and tickled my nose with it.
“Where to? There will always be another cell, another spinning wheel…”
I batted the straw away. “Ah-choo!”
His turn to flinch.
“Oh!” I yelped. “Sorry. Mam taught me better! I know I’m not supposed to thank Gentry. She said it’s like a slap in the face to them–to you, I mean, your people–but she didn’t say why, and anyway, I forgot! Are you… Are you all right?”
He waved his hand. “It’s naught. Briefer than a sting. Like a Prickster’s needle, I’d wager.”
I pressed the pad of my thumb where three weeks ago in my own chilled kitchen my blood had welled. It was still a bit sore. I wondered suddenly what the Archabbot’s wizards might do with that tiny vial now that they knew I was no Gentry-babe. Destroy it? Drink it? Put it in a straw poppet and influence me from afar?
“What do you wish?” the little dark man asked for the third time. His voice was barely a whisper. I stomped my foot.
“Ack! Very well! I wish to change this mess into something that doesn’t make me sneeze.”
“Such as gold?”
“Such as gold.”
“I can do this thing.”
“Can you?” I eyed him, remembering what the Prickster had told the Archabbot about Gentry ore-makers. How only Gentry royalty had the golden touch. How my own mam must’ve been the Veil Queen herself, to have borne a child with such gifts as mine. And if I was not that child, who was he?
“Whyever would you want to?” I asked.
He shrugged. Shrugging could not have been a simple or painless gesture with those shoulders. It cost him something.
“Word reached me,” he said, “through regular but reliably suspicious channels, that you had something on your person I would find of value.”
I felt his gaze fall on my hand before I thought to cover it. As though kindled by his verdant flames, the opal began to burn green.
“This ring belonged to my mother!” I protested.
“It belonged to my mother before that,” he retorted.
“What use does a milkmaid have for such a bauble?”
“For keeping’s sake. For memory.”
“Do you know what the jewel is called?”
“Yes–the Eye of… The Queen’s Eye.”
“Did your mother tell you whence she had it?”
“She said it was a gift. From a friend.”
“Your mother was my mother’s friend. Mortalborn, ignorant and common as she was, she was kind when my mother needed kindness. Not once, but twice. Give me that jewel, and I will turn this straw to gold.”
“For friendship’s sake?”
He shrugged again. How he punished himself, this little crooked man, for no reason I could tell. He was a stranger to me. But if he missed his mother half as much as I missed mine, we were kin.
“Right.” I tugged my ring a bit to loosen it, breathing deeply. “Well. Mam didn’t hold much with worldly goods anyhow. Never owned a pair of shoes but she gave them away to the first beggar she crossed.”
“I know,” said the little crooked man. “And so my mother went shod one winter’s night, when the cold had nearly killed her.”
Hearing this, I tugged harder. The ring would not come free. I’d never tried to take it off before. Fact is, until the day I’d stood before Avillius III and his clever foxgirl, I’d mostly forgotten it was there. As with Mam’s locket, which I also wore, the ring had always seemed able to hide itself. I couldn’t remember it once getting in the way of chores like dishes or milking or scrubbing floors.
Now it burned. But it wouldn’t budge.
I almost wept with frustration, but the little crooked man took hold of my hand and I quieted right down. Just like Annat, I thought, when she is upset and I scratch behind her ears…
And then he bent his head and kissed the fiery opal. Kissed that part of my hand when fingers met knuckle. Kissed me a third time on my palm where I was most astonishingly sensitive. His tongue flicked out and loosened everything. Before I knew it, the ring was in his hand.
“You are bold. But you are innocent.” He looked at me. Had Mam bequeathed me jewels enough to deck all my fingers and toes, I’d have handed them over that instant.
He slipped the silver ring onto his thumb.
“What comes next, you may not see. Dream sweet, Miss Oakhewn,” said the little crooked man, and rubbed the opal once, as if for luck.
The stone responded with a sound like a thunderclap. A flash there came like a star falling, followed by a green-drenched darkness.
I know what that is, I had time to think, that’s the sound of a Gentry grass-trap.
He’s opened one up to swallow me down, and will I sleep now a hundred years the way they do in stories when mortals fall through grass-traps in the Valwode, and will a ring of mushrooms sprout up all around me, followed by a ring of fire, and will he be there to pull me out when at last I wake…
“Tar his limbs and boil his skin
Carve his skull for dipping in
Acid piss and stony stool
Wrack his eyeballs, rot his rule
All hail Jadio! Let him hang!
Long his rope and brief his reign.”
My rhymes were improving. With no one to talk to in this vast dusty room but myself, all standard imprecations swiftly palled.
I stomped around Jadio’s warehouse. Slogged, more like. Not an inch of floor to be seen under all that straw, and I was knee deep in it, not to mention hampered by satin skirts. I’d lost one pearl-studded slipper already while pretending one of those straw heaps was a recumbent Jadio (sleeping peacefully and off his guard) and subsequently kicking him to death. I did not mind the slipper’s loss, but I think I pulled a muscle in my enthusiasm.
It had been an eventful month. The Kingless Armies finally had their king. With the golden skeins he had found piled high in the silo the morning after he’d set me to spinning, General Jadio had bought himself Leressa’s crown and the Archabbot’s blessing with it. (Or the appearance of a blessing. Remembering the Archabbot’s sweating red pate, his furious grip on my elbow, I was not convinced.)
King Jadio decided not to take up residence where old King Lorez’s palace lay in ruins. Lirhu is a city of ghosts, a drowned city. They say one of the Deep Lords of the ocean destroyed it with a great wave after the First Invasion, when the Crown Prince was enchanted into bear-shape and his sister sent into a hundred-year sleep, and King Lorez lured by a Will-o’-Wispy off his road, bogged in a marsh, and drowned dead.
Whether the Deep Lord had sent the wave out of solidarity with his landed Gentry-kin or out of pique because Lorez, being dead, did not tithe to the tides at the usual time and place, no one knew.
No, Jadio was too canny to repeat Old Ironshod’s mistakes. He had built his grand house inland, in a very settled city, far from any wilderness, where even the river ran tame. There he brought me, across the wide waters and away from the island where I had been born, under full guard and in chains, but dressed up in such gowns and choked with such jewels that I was the envy of all who looked on me. Plenty did. Jadio liked a good parade.
I’d glared back at every crowd he set me against. My face froze into an expression of bitter unfriendliness. Before the Pricksters had invaded my cottage, I was perhaps a bit brusque by temperament, but I’d harbored goodwill to my neighbors, and smiled and sang, proud of being Mam’s daughter and wishing to do well by her name.
Now my name might have been Stonehewn, my heart was that cold. I wished that instead of eyes, I looked with mounted cannons on the world, to blast all gawping bystanders to the other side of the Veil.
But I wasn’t quite alone. They say beggars can’t be choosy, and as Jadio’s slave I was less than a beggar. But even they (whoever they are) would’ve blinked at my choice for friend. Indeed, he was the only friend I had at Jadio House–if a milkmaid might call a fox “friend” and keep her throat untorn.
Jadio’s young page Sebastian, twin to the Archabbot’s novice, sometimes came to my cell to slip me news of the outside. If he felt generous, he’d bring a bit of fruit, or bread and cheese, along with his gossip. Jadio insisted I sup on the rarest steaks and richest wines, but I had no stomach for these victuals.
“His Majesty’ll soon have you spin again,” Sebastian had told me at his last visit.
I’d been startled. “By rights last batch should’ve lasted him three lifetimes!”
Sebastian enjoyed riling me, friend or not. He grinned, sharp-toothed. He tapped out a tattoo with his strangely jointed fingers on the bars of my door. “I’ve met some ignorant peasants in my life, but you sure do take the dunce cap, my milksop maid. Don’t you know anything? His Majesty’s been selling off yon goldie skeins like he’s afeared they’ll fall to ash.”
My eyebrows sprang high. “If the Gentry ore were going to go bad, would it not have done so overnight? I thought those were the rules.”
Sebastian shrugged. He had bony elbows and skin so clear it was like looking into a pail of skimmed milk. His rusty hair smudged his forehead like a fringe of embers.
“Depends on your enchanter. Some Gentry tricks don’t last an hour. Some last a year. Some last the life of the enchanter. Hard to say.” His forehead scrunched. In so many ways he was still a child, but creased up like that, his expression went deep and devious.
“What’s that look for?” I asked. “Is there something else?”
He nodded. “Gossip goes you must be Gentry, no matter how loudly the Archabbot proclaims you gods-gifted. Folks want you quartered in the square and all your witchy bits exposed on the Four Tors. I never did see a dead witch in pieces. Promise I can watch while they kill you?”
“Bloody-brained child!” said I, approaching the bars and prying his tapping fingers free. “You’ve lived among soldiers too long. Even your sister Candia insists I’m mortal.”
He tweaked a lock of my ash brown hair, but I pulled away before he could kip a strand.
When young Sebastian grinned, the fox flashed out in his face. Oh, in a couple of years, give this pageboy a velvet suit and silver swordstick and let him loose upon the town. Won’t be a maid within miles not pining for those sharp white teeth to bite the plumpness of her thigh.
“What Candy says and Candy thinks are as different as cat’s purr from catamount’s hunting cough. She lies all the time, for spite or jest, and ‘specially when the Archabbot tugs her hair. She hates that, always has. Might even have lied for the sheer wanton pleasure of it. Never can tell. Not even me.”
“Do you lie as well as your sister, Sebastian?”
“His Majesty does not let me lie.” The foxboy showed me a thin ring of iron welded about his left wrist. I had one like it, but of gold. A braid of the gold thread I had ostensibly spun for him, to remind me of my place.
“Nor may I change my shape, nor pierce the Veil between worlds with my Gentry sight. He’ll have his cub to heel, he says.”
Sebastian’s yellow eyes with their thin vertical pupils warned me not to put my trust in him. That though he may like and pity me, he was treacherous by nature. And had been a prisoner longer.
“What do you think I am?” I asked him.
“I know what you are,” the foxboy answered with a gods-may-care shrug. “Fair warning, Gordie. You’ll be put to spinning soon.”
He’d been right. Not three days after that conversation, here I was. A warehouse stuffed with straw and my ears stuffed with dire death threats if I didn’t do something about it. Gold was wanted. Mounds of gold. Pounds of gold. Gold to rival a field of daffodils on a sunny day.
My lot hadn’t notably improved since the last time I’d been locked up with enough straw to make a giant’s mattress tick, though I was perhaps cleaner as I paced and sneezed, lavished with lavender soap as I was, my hair braided with ropes of pearls, half a pair of useless slippers on my feet. This time, the spinning wheel squatting in the middle of the warehouse was made of solid silver. None of it helped me. I was still going to die at dawn.
All I could do was invent couplets to curse my captor with.
“All hail Jadio: let him hang
Long his rope and brief his reign
Yank his innards, chop his head…”
A voice I had not heard in a whole month finished: “Grind his bones to make my bread!”
Unthinking, I laughed, spinning on my heel all the way around. Haste lost me my battle for balance. From a heap of satin and straw, I sat up again and craned for the voice–there he was! My hunch-backed goblin wreathed in smiles, straddling the spinning wheel’s stool, with his arms draped over the machine and his head resting on crossed wrists.
He, too, looked less raggedy than last time. Perhaps he had combed his hair once or twice in the days since I met him. My opal still flickered on his finger.
“You! How did you find me? I was afraid, when they took me from the island you wouldn’t–I mean, did you traipse all this way? The roads are so dangerous for Gentry…”
A torque of his crooked shoulders. I winced, but he did not.
“I did not take the roads. I took the Ways. Time is different in the Veil. It did not seem a month to me.”
I humphed. No better reply came to mind than: “I hope it felt a full year then, you flame-crowned bugaboo, for that’s how it did to me,” which would not have been at all prudent to speak aloud. He spun the silver wheel with a lazy finger.
“So,” he observed, “another room.”
“Ayup. Enough to cause typhoons in Leech. Also, I have new rashes.”
“Rashes in places no rash e’er ventured yet.”
“Ah, stick ‘em where they’ll do most good.”
We lapsed. He spun the empty wheel. I drew my knees up, wrapped my arms about them and thought of all the questions I did not dare ask. What were the Ways like? Did he walk them alone? Had he many friends in the Veil? Did he drink nectar with them in Gentry pubs, dance barefoot when the sweetness went to his head? Did any raucous movement jar his crooked back–or did his body only hurt him in the mortal realm? What had his life been like all this while I’d never known him, and what would it be when I was dead and gone?
He seemed to have been thinking along some of these same lines. Or at least the part about my corpse.
“What will happen to you tomorrow, milkmaid, if this straw is not spun to gold?”
I related Sebastian’s jolly vision of my witchy bits exposed on the Four Tors.
“Not,” I added, “that I have any witchy bits. Not real ones anyway.”
“Not a one,” he concurred, looking deeply at all of me with his thorn-black eyes. “Though what bits you have are better clad than last I saw them.”
“Yes,” said I, “a pretty shroud to wrap my pieces in.”
“Pearls do not suit you.”
“No–I prefer opals.”
“A healthy milkmaid needs no adornment.”
“Doesn’t mean we won’t prize a trinket if it comes our way.”
“What good are trinkets to you, lady? You’ll die tomorrow.”
“Maybe so, Mister,” I huffed, “but it’s rightly rude to mention it out loud like that.”
He scratched his nose. It was not so blade-thin as the foxboy’s, but it was harder, more imposing, with a definite downward hook like a gyrfalcon’s beak. Such a nose would look fine with a ring through the septum, like my good bull Manu had. A silver ring, I thought, to match the one on his finger, and when I wanted him to follow me–wherever–I’d need only slip a finger through it and tug a little.
My blush incinerated that train of thought when his eyes, which seemed to read words I did not speak aloud as written scrip upon my face, widened with surprise. The instant he laughed, green flames danced up from his hair and swirled about his skull.
“Come, milkmaid!” he cried, standing up not-quite-straight from his stool. “Do not be so melancholy, pray. Am I not here, merchant and laborer? Is this warehouse not our private marketplace? Your life is not yet forfeit. What have you to trade?”
I laughed at his ribbing but shook my head. “Not a thing that is my own, sir!”
“I have it from my usual source–“
“ –‘regular if reliably suspicious’?”
“–yes, of course–that you wear a fine ivory locket on a black ribbon ‘round your neck.”
The locket was hidden now beneath layers of silk. I clutched it through the cloth and shook my head.
“Mister, you can have any pearl that pleases you. You can have my braided hair with it! Take my gown, my slippers, see? Gifts from a king! But do not take my locket…”
“It belonged to your mother?” His voice was gentle.
“Aye.” I scowled at him. “And I suppose it belonged to your mother before her?”
“Aye,” he mocked me, glare for glare. You quite forgot he was an ugly creature while his shining eyes dissected you. “Your mam, may I remind you, never cared for worldly treasures.”
“Unlike yours?” I asked.
“My mother is made of treasure, though decidedly unworldly. Opal and ivory, silver and gold. If you ever meet her, you will understand.”
“If I die tomorrow, I’ll never meet her,” I growled.
“Just so.” His smile became a coax. Almost a wheedle. “Give over, milkmaid, and you’ll live another day in hope.”
“Who says I want to meet your mother?”
“Is the friend of your mam not your friend too? Have you so many friends in this world?”
There he had a point. Back at Feisty Wold, our neighbors had liked Mam well enough, but during the Invasions, as illness queered her and fever weakened her, they dropped out of her life. Sometimes one would leave a basket of jams or new baked bread at our doorstep, but not a one wished speech with a sick woman who only ever whispered, and never of safe or comfortable topics. The memory stung my eyes. My hands flew up to unknot the ribbon. That little ivory locket hung around my neck with the weight of a dead heart. I could almost feel it bleeding into my lap.
“I can’t!” I cried. “It’s stuck!”
Then he stood before me, his nearness calming my struggles. My hands fell to my sides. He seized my wrists, squeezed once, then inched his grasp upward, my arms the purchase his arms needed to attain any height above that of his chest. The crease of pain between his eyes deepened to agony. The hump on his back shuddered. The gesture I took for granted while combing hair or brushing teeth cost him ease of breath, grace, comfort of movement.
By the time his hands had gained my shoulders he was gasping. His head bent heavily before me and his whole body sagged, but his grip on me only tightened. I placed my hands lightly on either side of his ribcage, hoping to support him if he should collapse. His flames were utterly damped by the sweaty dark tangle of his hair, which smelled of sweetgrass and salt sea. A few strands of shining green twined with the black. I pressed a brief kiss to the crown of his head.
“Mister,” I told him, “take the locket quickly. You look pale and weary.”
He wheezed a laugh and loosed the knotted ribbon at my neck with a touch. The ivory locket fell into his palm. He pressed it hard against his heart.
“Let me,” I whispered. “Let me.”
He did not relinquish it, but allowed me the ribbon’s slack. I tied it around his neck, smoothing his wild hair down over the knot. He shivered.
“Are you very hurt?”
“No.” His voice was almost as gruff as the foxgirl’s. “Where did you learn to be kind?”
I shook my head and turned away. “You saved my life. Twice if we include tonight.”
“You paid that debt. Twice if we include tonight. You did not, do not have to–to…”
I wished he would not speak so, not in those tones, not brokenly. My heart was on the verge, if not of explosion than of collapse, hurtling to an inward oblivion, sucking down with it the very ground I stood on. For a moment I believed my bones were Gentry bones, hollow as a bird’s. I was that light. I missed the locket’s weight around my neck. I missed my mother.
Without turning back to him, I confessed, “There is no one here who cares for me. For me to care for. I feel like I’m dying. The parts of me that matter. If you save my life a thousand times it won’t mean anything unless I–unless I can still…feel something. Tenderness.”
“Yes,” he whispered. “That is it exactly.”
I covered my face with both hands, unwilling to sob in front of him.
“Put me out!” I begged. “Now! Please. Like you did before. I am so tired.”
This time his grass-trap was less like a thunder tunnel, all green flash and brash spectacle, and more like a hammock of spider silk and flower petal rocking, rocking, rocking me to slumber on a dozy summer evening. I swear I heard him singing lullabies all the way down.
Another month went by, much like the last: too much satin, too little hope, and only intermittent visits from my friend the foxboy to alleviate the tedium of despair.
It was early morning–not Sebastian’s usual hour for visiting–when I woke to footsteps outside my door. The king strode into my cell, his gold-braided crown bright upon his pale hair, his long red cloak sweeping the tiles of turquoise and lapis lazuli. He leaned one hip against my pillow, stroked a single fingernail down my face, and when I flinched fully awake, smiled.
“How do you feel, Miss Faircloth?”
Should I sit up? Cover myself with the blanket? Dare answer? It seemed safest to bob my chin. The dagger on his belt was very near my cheek. He was not looking at me, but at what the blanket did not cover. My shift was thin, made of silk. His cold eyes roved.
“My page is in regular contact with his twin at Winterbane. She apprises him of the Archabbot’s movements. Did you know?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t known, but I had guessed.
His hand, as if by accident, drifted from my face to my collarbone. Had I anything of value left, I’d’ve wagered it that he felt my pounding heart even in that lightest graze.
“Just this morning,” said the king, “Sebastian passed me the latest of his sister’s news. Avillius is conscripting an army of his own. He thinks to march on Jadio House, to wreck all I have assembled, and from the rubble rebuild a temple to his gods.” He leaned closer to me, studying my face intently. “But I am favored of the gods. They have turned their faces from him. They have sent me you.”
“Me?” This was no time for sudden movement. His palm pressed me hard into the mattress, very hot and very dry.
“You, Gordenne Faircloth. The Archabbot’s coffers are fat, but they are no match for the treasure troves of heaven. He cannot feed and clothe his army with prayer–especially when by his actions today he proves himself a heretic. His toy soldiers are of tin while mine are of gold.”
They are not toys, I wanted to scream. They are people! Not gold or tin but flesh. And if this war is let to rage, we shall all be crushed to dust between the inexorable convictions of crown and miter. You shall be king of a graveyard realm. The temples will stand empty with no one to worship in them, and the Archabbot will have only himself to pray to.
But I said nothing.
First of all, and obviously, Jadio was bent on this war. Lusted for it. Had done his damnedest to incite it, for all I could see. Secondly, I knew very well (for her brother had told me, not that he could be trusted to keep tail or tale straight) that half of what Candia gabbled were tales so wild only a consummate actor could hear them with a somber face. Thirdly, if Avillius were building an army, it wouldn’t be an army of tin weaklings as Jadio seemed to expect. Pricksters Avillius had already, and zealots. He would hire mercenaries, too, and not hesitate to use those Gentry or Gentry-babes who had fallen under his power, whether from greed or grief or some dark hold he had over them to swell his ranks. He was not the kindly man he appeared, no more than Jadio was as good as he was beautiful.
The king hauled me out of my thoughts and onto his lap, where he proceeded to crush me breathless.
“Therefore, Miss Faircloth. Gordenne.”
“Your Majesty?” I braced both hands against his chest, hoping to keep some distance, but he took it as an invitation for further intimacies. After swiping my mouth soundly with his tongue, mauling my ears and sucking at my neck, he pulled back and grasped my shoulders, shaking me. His fingernails drew blood.
“Therefore, my darling, today you’ll get to spinning. I have filled the ballroom at Jadio House with all the straw in Leressa. You are not to leave the room until your alchemy is performed. You are not to eat or drink or see a soul until that gold is mine. And when it is, Miss Faircloth,” he crushed me to him again, harder, letting me feel the power of his body and the weakness of my own, “when you give me that gold, I will give you my name, my throne and my seed. You shall be Queen of Leressa. The saint of our people. The mother of my child–and my wife.”
I opened my mouth to explain how I could not do what he asked, had never been able to do it, how I’d started out a nothing, and now was even less than that. But he dug his nails again into the gouge wounds he had made and shook me by the shoulders all over again.
“If you do not!” he whispered. “If you do not!”
I waited in the shadow of the spinning wheel. Dusk came, and midnight, and dawn again. He did not come. By the king’s orders I’d nothing to eat or drink, no blankets to cover me, no visitor to comfort me. Dusk, then midnight, dawn again. I cleared a small space on the floor and pressed my face to the cool tile, and slept. High morning. High noon. Late afternoon. Twilight. Night.
Perhaps a hundred years passed.
He held a flask of water to my lips. Quicksilver, crystal, icicle, liquid diamond. Just water. Followed by a blackberry. A raspberry. An almond. The tip of his finger dipped in honey. I sucked it eagerly.
“Milkmaid,” he said.
“Go away.” I pressed the hand that pressed my face, keeping him near. “I have nothing left to give you. And anyway, why should Jadio win? Keep your gold. Go back to the Ways. There’s a war coming. No one’s safe…”
“Hush.” He slipped a purple grape into my mouth. A green grape. A sliver of apple. His scars were livid against his frowning face.
“Milkmaid.” He sighed. “I can do nothing without a bargain. Even if I–but do you see? It doesn’t work without a bargain.”
I felt stronger now. I could sit up. Uncoil from the fetal curl. My legs screamed as I stretched them straight.
He’d been kneeling over me. Now he kept one knee bent beneath him and drew up the other to rest his chin on. This position seemed an easy one. The frown between his brows was not of pain but inquiry.
“I heard how you were… I could not come sooner. I was too deep within the Veil.” He smiled. His teeth glowed. “With the Deep Lords, even–in the Fathom Realms beneath the sea. Do I smell like fish?”
I sniffed. Green and sweet and sunlight. Maybe a little kelp as an afterthought. Nothing unpleasant. On an impulse, I leaned my nose against his neck and inhaled again. He moved his cheek against mine, and whispered with some shortness of breath:
“Milkmaid, have you nothing to offer me?”
I shook my head slightly so as not to disconnect from him.
“You are not to take my cows in trade! Gods know what you Gentry would do to them.”
It was he who drew away, laughing, and I almost whimpered at the loss.
“Much good they’ll do you where you’re going.”
“Eh,” I shrugged, pretending a coldness I did not feel. “Da has probably already sold them off for mead.”
“Perhaps he did,” my friend agreed. “Perhaps he sold them to a hunchbacked beggar whose worth seemed less than a beating, but who offered him, in exchange for the fair Annat and the dulcet Manu, a wineskin that would never empty.”
For that alone I would’ve whapped him, had he not tucked a wedge of cheese into my mouth. The finest cheese from the finest cow that ever lived. It was like being right there with her, in that homely barn, where I sang Mam’s songs for hours and Annat watched me with trustful eyes.
“You have my cows already.”
“So I can’t trade ‘em. Even if I wanted to. Which I don’t.”
I smoothed my silk dress. Three days worth of wrinkles smirked back at me.
“Time moves differently, you said, in the Veil?”
He nodded carefully, smiling with the very corners of his mouth.
“It does indeed.” He sounded almost hopeful.
“Well. That being so, would you take in trade a piece of my future? See,” I rushed to explain, “if he gets that gold, Jadio means me to wear his crown. Or a halo, I can’t tell. When that happens, you may have both with my blessing, and all the choirs of angels and sycophants with ‘em.”
“I do not want his crown,” the little crooked man growled. For all he had such a tortuous mangle to work with, he leapt to his feet far faster than I could on a spry day.
“You’re to wed him then?” he demanded, glaring down.
This needed correcting–and quickly.
“He’s to wed me, Mister, provided he deems this night’s dowry suitably vulgar. Oh, do get on going!” I begged him. “Let us speak no more of trade. Leave me with this tinderbox and caper on your merry way. For surely as straw makes me sneeze, I can withstand Jadio’s torments long enough to die of them, and then it will all be over. But if he marries me, I might live another three score, and that would be beyond bearing.”
He snorted. A single green flame leapt to his finger, dancing on the opal there. The light lengthened his face, estranged the angles from the hollows, smoothed his twists, twisted his mouth.
“I’ve a trade for your future.” His voice was very soft. “I’ll spin you a king’s ransom of gold tonight–in exchange for your firstborn child.”
“Jadio’s spawn?” I laughed balefully, remembering that hot dry hand on my neck. “Take him–and take his father too if you’ve a large enough sack.”
“You barter the flesh of your flesh too complacently.”
“No one cares about my flesh. It’s not even mine anymore. I’m not even me anymore.”
“Milkmaid.” He stared at me. It was strange to have to look up at him. How tall he seemed suddenly, with that green flame burning now upon his brow. “Some of my dearest friends are consummate deceivers, born to lie as glibly as they slip their skins for a fox’s fur. I was sure they were lying when they told me you were sillier than you seemed, soft in the head and witless as a babe. Now, I must believe them. To my sorrow.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Your flesh,” he murmured, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. “How can you say no one cares for it, when I would risk the wrath of two realms to spare it from harm?”
My heart too full to speak, my eyes too full to see, I lifted both my hands to him. When he grasped them by the wrists, I tugged gently, urging him back to the floor, and to me.
He fingered the ribbon of my bodice. Triple-knotted as it was, it fell apart at his touch. The sleeve of my shift sagged down my shoulder. Our eyes locked. There was a pearl button at his collar. A black pearl. I unhooked it. For the first time I noticed the richness of the black velvet suit he wore, its fantastic embroidery in ivory and silver, the braids and beads in his hair.
“Were you courting a Deep Lord’s daughter?” I asked. “Is that why you were in the Fathom Realms? Did the distant sound of my sneezes interrupt you mid-woo?”
The sound he made was maybe a “No,” more of a sigh, slightly a groan. Then I was kissing him, or he me, and we were both too busy happily undressing each other to do much talking, although when we did, it all came out sounding like poetry, even if I don’t remember a word of what we said.
Of my wedding three days later I will say nothing.
That brutal night of consummation, and all nights following until Jadio marched east with his armies to meet the Archabbot at the drowned city of Lirhu, I will consign to dust and neglect.
Though I would not have wished Jadio near me again but we had an impregnable wall spined in spikes between us, I did regret the loss of the pageboy Sebastian. Upon taking his leave, he told me with his usual feral insouciance, “I’ll probably not return, Gordie. You know that?”
I knew the look in his yellow eye–that of a fox in a trap, just before he chews off his paw to escape. Not long was that rusty iron bracelet for Sebastian’s wrist. Nor would too many months pass, I guessed, before King Jadio learned this cub would never again come to heel.
“Luck.” I clasped his arm. “Cunning. Speed. Whatever you need, may it await you at the crossroads.”
“Same to you, Your Majesty,” he said with a cheeky grin. (He had no other kind.) “If I can’t stick around to see you hacked apart and flung about, you may as well live a few years yet.”
I flicked the back of his russet head. “So young and yet so vile.”
“You’ll miss me.”
“More than I can say.”
“When he comes to claim his own, ask yourself, the One-Eyed Witch lives where?” I blinked. That was the name of an old children’s skip-rope rhyme. But Sebastian did not let me catch up with my thoughts. “Go to her. She’ll have a notion how you’re to go on.”
Gentry pronouncements are often cryptic, indefinite, misleading and vacuous–which makes them, amongst all oracular intimations, the most irritating. But just try to interrogate a fox when everything but his tail is already out the door.
In my neatest printing, I wrote, “The One-Eyed Witch Lives Where?” on a thin strip of parchment. When this was done, I whittled a locket out of ash, the way Mam had taught me, shut Sebastian’s advice up safe inside it, strung the locket with a ribbon, and wore it near my heart. It had not the heft of ivory, but it comforted me nonetheless.
After Jadio’s departure came nine months of gestation, the worst of which I endured alone.
I was face down in a chamber pot one morning when a messenger brought me news of the Archabbot’s victory at the Cliffs of Lir outside the drowned city. Heavy losses to both sides, after which Jadio’s soldiers retreated, regrouped, and launched several skirmishes that further decimated the Archabbot’s armies.
Some weeks later, another messenger came to shake me from my afternoon nap. The Archabbot had found the lost heir of Lirhu wandering the ruins of the city. The prince, dead King Lorez’s only son, was still enchanted in the form of a great black bear and wore a golden crown to prove it. This bear had challenged Jadio to hand-to-hand combat in the field for the right to rule Leressa.
Jadio had defeated, beheaded and skinned him, then drove the Archabbot’s armies out of Lirhu and into the Wayward Swamps.
In the turmoil of their retreat, the Holy Soldiers abandoned a most singular object: a glass coffin bearing the sleeping Princess of Leressa, whom no spell could wake. This too they had discovered in the ruins of the drowned city. Jadio claimed the princess as a prize of war but did not destroy her as he had her brother. He would have sent the coffin back with the bearskin (it was explained) but he feared some harm might befall it on the road.
The bearskin made me sick every time I saw it, so I avoided the great hall and took my meals in my rooms.
When at last the hour of the birth came upon me (and an early hour it was, sometime between midnight and the dusk before dawn), I bolted the door to my room and paced the carpet like a she-wolf.
I wanted no one. No chirurgerar with his bone saws and skully grin. No Prickster midwife with tainted needles and an iron key for me to suck that I might lock up the pain. I’d do this alone or die of it. Mam survived my bursting into this world, after all, screaming blood and glory. Mam survived fourteen years of me before she up and snipped her mortal coil from the shuttle of life.
“Mam!” I pressed my back hard against the bedpost. “Please. Let Jadio’s spawn be stillborn. Let him be grotesque. Let him be soup, so long as I don’t look on him and love him. I don’t want to love this child, Mam. Don’t let me love this child.”
After that I screamed a great deal. And once I fainted. I seem to remember waking to a voice telling me that this was not the sort of thing one could really sleep through, and for the sake of my cows, my house, my hope of the ever-after, would I please push?
If he hadn’t’ve called me Milkmaid in all that begging, I might’ve chosen to ignore him utterly. But he did, so I didn’t.
Some hours later the babe was born.
“Give her over, Mister!”
“That your rancor may cast her forth into yon hearth fire?”
“I did not know she would be yours! Come on! Give. She’ll need to feed.”
“Had I tits, Milkmaid, I’d never let her go.”
I smirked sweatily, winning the spat. His cradling arms slipped her onto my lap, where he had arranged clean sheets and blankets, a soft pillow for her to rest upon. She was a white little thing. White lashes, white lips, white eyes. Silent when she looked at me. No mistaking her for a mortal child. A Gentry-babe through and through.
“What’s your name?” I asked my daughter. She blinked up from her nursing, caught my eye, grinned. Gentry-babes are born with all their teeth.
The little crooked man laughed. “She’ll never tell.”
“Not even her mother?”
He laid hands on my belly and the bleeding stopped. Aches, throbs, stabbing pains, deep bruises–all vanished. Warmth spread through my body. He stroked my hair once before walking quickly to the hearth, turning his hunched back to me. I stared after him. Best, perhaps, he could not see the look on my face.
“That you are her mother does not matter,” he muttered. “There is war between our people. The Gentry have learned never to speak our names out loud. Not to anyone. Too much is at stake. Our lives. Our souls.”
“You have those, then?”
No answer. He crouched near the hearth, poking at the blinding green flames there. In my lap the baby choked.
“What’s wrong?” I yelped. I lifted her, tried to burp her. “Did I–I didn’t curse her, did I? When I was giving birth? And all those times before. Little one, my sweetest girl, I didn’t mean you! I meant Jadio’s son. Never you.”
My friend came to my side. “It isn’t that. It’s the milk. The more magic flowing through a Gentry-babe’s veins, the less able we are to suckle at a mortal’s breast.”
“Nay, sweet,” said he, “for do I not have the prize cow of cream-makers in my very barn?”
The panic clenching my heart eased. “She can drink cow milk?”
“She’ll suck it like nectar from Annat’s udder. It’s what we like best.”
“But–“ I stared at my baby’s still white face, the bead of milk trembling on her lip. I wiped it off quickly, for a rash of color spread from it across her skin, along with a feverish heat.
He touched one finger to her mouth. The rash vanished. “She must eat. She will die if she remains, Milkmaid. You owe me her life.”
“You said Jadio’s–“
“I said your firstborn.”
“You didn’t say ours.”
“Nay, but it mightn’t have been.”
“You!” I picked up the nearest pillow and threw it at his head. Another and again–until the bed was in disarray. “You swindler! You cheat! You seducer of innocent maidens!”
My arm was weak, but he did not duck my missiles. Pillows bounced from his fine black clothes. He stood very still.
“Take me with you!”
“You are wed to another.”
“As if Gentry cared for such mortal nonsense!”
He shrugged. By this I knew he cared.
“I was sent,” he said softly, “to fetch three things from the mortal realm. My quest is done. When I return to the Veil, the Ways will close behind me and I will breathe this cursed air no more. You cannot follow.”
“Why not?” I demanded. “You came to me. To help me. You took the Ways. I’ll take the roads. I’d chase you to the Valwode itself, Mister, no matter that it’s forbidden. Into the Fathom Realms even! Do you think I fear the drowning?”
He shook his head again, more slowly this time, as if it wearied him. Then he approached the bed and lifted up our daughter from my arms. She sighed deeply, whether content or dismayed no one but she could say. My tears fell onto his sleeve. When they touched him, they turned to diamonds. None of my doing, I’m sure.
As he made to leave, I grabbed the tail of his velvet jacket, fisted it hard as I could and yanked. I knew it could shred to smoke the instant he desired it. Velvet it remained.
Desperately I cried, “A bargain! I’ll bargain for the chance to win you. Both of you. It doesn’t work without a bargain, you said. Let me…”
Before I’d blinked, he’d turned back ‘round again, his free hand flush against my cheek. His fingers were cool, except for the silver ring, which burned.
“Gordie Oakhewn,” he said, “you have seven days to guess my true name. If on the seventh day you call it out loud, the Veil shall part for you, and I will pull you through into my household, where you might stay forever with the child, with me–as, as my–in whatever capacity you wish. This is our bargain. Do not break it.”
I pressed a frantic kiss to his palm. “Call you by name? But you said Gentry never–“
Gentry leave semblances of the children they steal. My semblance was a red-faced boy-brat who squalled like a typhoon and slurped my breasts dry. For two days he kept me awake all hours and scratched me with his hot red hands. On the third day he sickened and turned black. We buried him in the garden of Jadio House. A peach tree shaded his grave. I wondered if any lingering levin of Gentry magic would affect the taste of its fruit.
The chirurgerar assured me that sudden deaths were not uncommon among firstborns, that Jadio’s was a virile enough appetite to populate a dozen nurseries, that it was none of my fault. It was kind of him. His grin seemed less skully than sad. He left me with a soothing drought which I did not drink. I had packing to do. Maps to consult. Lists to make. Lists of every name I ever knew or could invent.
That night I recited to myself:
“There’s Aiken and Aimon and Anwar and Abe
Corbett and Conan and Gilbert and Gabe
There’s Berton and Birley and Harbin and Hal
Keegan and Keelan and Jamie and Sal
There’s Herrick and Hewett or whom you might please
So long as you love me, your name might be…”
“Sneeze?” asked the three-legged fox who had climbed through my casement window. “He’s not the one allergic to straw, Gordie. Remember?”
“Sebastian!” I scrambled up from my escritoire. “How do you do?–you’ve learned to skinslip!–no more iron bracelet?–what a handsome fox!–your poor hand!”
Next a vixen slid through the aperture, shuddering off her russet fur as she leapt to the floor to stand bright in her own bare skin. Her hair flamed loose about her shoulders. The only thing she wore was a heavy gray signet ring on her index finger. I’d seen it once before on the Archabbot’s own hand. There was a smear of rust upon it that I knew to be blood. Had she taken it off his dead body? Had she bitten it off his living one? Either thought made me grin.
She made a warding gesture. “Candy, Candy–call me Candy! Sweet as syrup, twice as randy. Hallo, Gordie. We’ve come to warn you.”
“Warn me? Of what?” Even before they began to answer, I folded my maps, buckled my boots, and fetched my quilted jacket with the deep red hood.
“Jadio is but a day’s march behind us,” Sebastian said. “But he’s sent a deathly rumor running before him. Claims you were a Gentry witch all along, who’d fuddled the Archabbot into thinking you were holy and glammed his own gray eyes the same. That you tricksied him into wedding and bedding you.”
“An honor I’d have sold my left ear to live without,” I growled.
Candy had strolled across the room to examine the empty cradle. She said over her shoulder, “Jadio claims you killed the babe you bore him, and mean to replace it with a changeling that will bring ruin to Leressa.”
“Really?” I looked from one twin to the other. “Wouldn’t that be a shame?”
Grins all around.
“Jadio claims,” Sebastian finished, “that he will see you hang ere the week’s out. That he will wed Princess Lissa of Lirhu by the light of your funeral pyre.”
This stayed my hands where they’d been strapping on my pack.
“Old Ironshod’s daughter?” I asked. “But she sleeps, doesn’t she? A hundred-year sleep. Poisoned by Gentry magic, same as what changed her brother to a bear. How did he manage to wake her?”
“He did not,” Candy said. Her blade-thin nose serrated at the bridge, as though she had smelled something foul. Her yellow eyes glowed in the dark. “But an heir of her blood will strengthen his claim to the crown.”
“Who will wake her?” I asked wildly. “We can’t let him… We must wake her!”
“Not you!” laughed Sebastian. “That’s for other folk to do, milksop, in some other tale. Don’t you know anything? As if you didn’t have the hardest part of your own ahead of you.” He paused and looked at me, yellow-eyed and mischievous. “Do you remember what I told you, before I left?”
I clutched the ashwood locket at my chest and rattled off through a suddenly dry thoat: “’The One-Eyed Witch lives where?’”
“That’s it. You ain’t milky as all that, if I say so my own self, Your Majesty.”
“Am too!” I ruffled his hair before he jerked away, baring his teeth not so much out of displeasure as habit.
Sebastian waved his one good arm like a conjurer. It had been the right hand, I’d noticed, that he’d managed to chew off, or chop off, or what. The left was still skinny as a branch, wiry as whipcord. He let me admire the brutal unevenness before explaining.
“Candy did it for me. With an ax. Good and clean. Licked it once to seal it. Then we escaped.” So proud he sounded, so nonchalant.
“Brave children. How many died chasing you?”
“Oh, one or two,” said Sebastian.
“…dozen!” coughed his twin.
“You should not be here,” I scolded. “Jadio will surely punish you if he finds you.”
“We’re fast, Your Majesty, and double sly,” returned Sebastian. “It is you who should escape, who have no real witchy ways to save you.”
Candy looked up from my escritoire, at my lists of names in long columns labeled: Common, Diminutive, Pet, Famous Mortal, Famous Gentry. She started snickering at something she saw written there.
I hesitated before asking, “I don’t suppose you know his name?”
“Whose?” both said at once, wary.
“Are you not his friends? Born liars, his two young foxfaces, his ‘regular but reliably suspicious informants.’ You have spied for him and lied for him and led him to my many cells. Will you not help me find him now?”
“We’ll never tell,” the twins said together. They puddled down in copper fur and clicking claws, black muzzles, twining tails, and rubbed against my legs, barking:
“It’s Ragnar! It’s Reynard!
It’s Stockley! It’s Sterne!
It’s Milford! It’s Misha!
It’s horny old Herne!”
They leapt out the window. I stopped just long enough to add those names to my list, then left Jadio House myself, under cover of night.
The old skip-rope chant called The One-Eyed Witch Lives Where? goes like this:
“Where does she live?
In her cottage of bone.
Where are the bones?
In a city of stone.
Where is the city?
At the edge of the sea.
Where the Deep Lord drownded
You and me.”
In other words, if I were interpreting the riddle aright, and if Sebastian hadn’t been flaunting his tail and canting my path astray, I had four days to get to the drowned city of Lirhu, find a one-eyed witch, and make her tell me the crooked man’s name.
The road was long. I was not as bold as I once had been.
Had not the squalling semblance left to replace my daughter dried my milk and the little crooked man stopped my bleeding after the birth, I’d never have lasted the first day. As it was, the worst I felt were twinges. And a nagging clench that nine months meant nothing if I failed now.
If mortal roads were not safe for Gentry in these dark days of civil strife, they were no more safe for a youngish woman on her own, be she ever so plainly dressed. On the first day I encountered soldiers. Jadio’s men–possibly sent ahead to the House to prepare it.
“Ain’t she a pearl?” one asked.
“Cute hood,” said another, flipping it off my hair.
“Where’s your basket of goodies for gramamma?”
A year ago, I’d’ve clouted them with a dishrag, or sniffed and stuck my nose in the air, or showed them the sharp side of my tongue. A year ago, this kind of behavior had got me clapped in chains and dragged to the Holy See at Winterbane. Instead I made my eyes wide and mild, slightly popped, with the whites showing all around. All gentleness, all complacency, all bovine. With the mightiest will in the world, I pretended I was my cow Annat.
The first soldier laughed, “Is that your name? Little Miss Moo?” and tried to tickle me. I backed away and pawed the dirt of the road with the scuff of my toe, and then galloped forward and rammed his stomach with the hardest part of my head. He went down with an oof and an oath. All his comrades laughed.
I reeled back, nostrils flaring–like my bull Manu on a cranky day when the flies are at full sting.
“Moo!” I bellowed, and bent my head again.
“Easy there, Bessie!” cried a square-faced man, catching the hem of my skirt to pull me off-balance. I staggered, spun ‘round and glared, huffing. The soldier had blunted hands and a beaten face, but his squinting eyes were kindly. Though he’d not been among those teasing me before, he seemed fully in charge now and he took my measure at a glance. His chin jerked in a slightest nod.
“She’s Gentry-touched,” he told the others. “Best not brush up too near her or the enchantment’s like to run off and addle you. How’d you like to show up to Jadio House chewing cud and sucking at each other’s teats? His Majesty’ll have us butchered for his wedding feast. Come on. Move along, men.”
The soldiers marched back the way I’d come. They gave wide berth to the one who’d tickled me and been rammed, as if waiting for him to grow horns and a tail and start a stampede at the first loud noise. The square-faced man sauntered after them, after giving me a shy salute and a wink.
As soon as they were out of sight, I ran.
On the second day, I hitched a ride with a vegetable seller as far as Seafall, where I scrounged for an unoccupied bit of mossy embankment beneath a bridge and slept there like a troll, shivering. From Seafall to the Cliffs of Lir was thirty miles, and I started at dawn on the third day, following the sea road south.
No one traveled to Lirhu regularly anymore since it was wave-wrecked by the Deep Lord. The road was in disrepair. There were signs that Jadio’s army and the Holy Soldiers had been through. Graves like raw wounds in the chalk. On the fourth day of my journey and the seventh day of my quest, I came to Lirhu by twilight.
This near the sea, a frantic, long-smothered homesickness burst upon me. The drumming of the breakers, that tang on my tongue, the whip of the wind. So long as I had time enough to drown myself before they took me back, I’d never live inland again.
Dry-mouthed and with cracking lips, I chanted my litany of names as I walked, punctuating the rhymes with every blood-blistered footstep.
“Jack Yap or Jessamee. Pudding or Poll. Gorefist the Goblin. Tonker the Troll. Dimlight the Dwarf King. The Faerie Fin-Shu. Azlin the Angel. The Wizard Samu.”
The ruins of Lirhu rose before me, white stone streaked with veins of rose quartz. Ragged battlements, perilous parapets, watchtowers and clock towers–all crumbling to rubble. Each blind, weed-wracked, ivy-grown window seemed a doorway into some lightless, airless, awful hole in reality. Wind howled through a shattered labyrinth of arches and pillars.
I glared about the city to fend off my fear of ghosts.
“What a racket! So the Deep Lord drowned you, stones and bones and all. The earth might have quaked and done the same. There are droughts and forest fires and plagues too, and all manner of horrid things in the world–without you add the Gentry into it. Do you hear the rest of us whinging?”
“I quite like the wind,” said the woman beside me. “I find the sound of futility soothing.”
She had materialized so naturally out of the twilight I could no more question her appearance than that of the first evening star. Her one eye, white, with no hint of iris or pupil, washed now and again with a pulse of gold, like the tide. Her skin glowed like antique ivory. Her hair was silver-gilt and fell about her like a mantle. The plainness of her robe, the long scars running down her face and her chest, these made her no less beautiful.
The Witch gestured for me to sit with her on a stone that may have once been a pedestal.
“I would invite you in for tea, but you might find the architecture of my cottage upsetting to your digestion.”
I sank with a grateful groan, letting my pack tumble to the ground. “No argument here, lady. I’ve had enough of walls for a lifetime.”
The Witch sat very near me, palms on knees, straight-backed and still as the lost statue she replaced might have been. We watched the fireflies blink about for a while. Then she sighed.
“You’ve come a long way, Gordie Oakhewn. Tell me what you’ve learned.”
So I recited the five hundred seven names I’d clobbered together on the journey, mortal and Gentry, royal, ridiculous, just plain bad. The Witch listened patiently while the ghosts of Drowned Lirhu did their best to shout me down.
When at last I gasped to a halt, the Witch shook her head. I’d known already I had failed. Had I guessed his name aright, he would have appeared himself, in rags or velvet or verdant flames, to part the Veil with one hand and draw me through with the other. Where I might see our daughter, and hear her laugh, and learn her name.
I bowed my head. Nine months for nothing, and a whole empty life ahead. For what? Maybe someone would hire me as a goose-girl or shepherdess. How far would I have to run to flee the shadow of Jadio’s gallows?
“Your mother was fond of stories,” said the Witch, breaking into my thoughts. “Are you?”
Elbows on knees, head hanging, I nodded. “Mam told the best.”
“She had the best from me.”
I snorted. Had Mam known every single Gentry exile stuck this side of the Veil? Sure would’ve explained her distress at the Invasions, being friendly with our sworn enemies and the killers of our king. Though not why I never’d seen even a one before that day at Winterbane.
“Long, long ago,” the Witch began, and my thoughts fell away with her words, “one full score and a year more, the Veil Queen set down her antler crown and ventured forth from the Valwode. No Gentry sovereign may evade this fate. It is laid on them to bear their heirs to mortal lovers, renewing the bonds between our people. Thus, she arrayed herself nobly and presented herself to Leressa’s king. Lorez the Ironshod was a widower with two children of his own. Prince Torvald, a boy of nine. Princess Lissa, two years younger. They mourned their mother’s passing and did not take well to their father’s new mistress.
“Truth be told, the Veil Queen did not overmuch concern herself with wooing the children. Lorez it was she wanted. Handsome, with a sharp black beard and teeth like a tiger’s. She gave herself to him and took pleasure in it. By and by she bore a child of that union.
“At first Lorez seemed pleased with both of them, but his people whispered, and his children complained, and soon he waxed wroth. One night he visited his mistress’s chambers, drunken and angry, a sprig of rowan on his tunic to protect him from enchantment. He rang a silver bell that froze the Veil Queen where she stood (had he not surprised her, such a tawdry spell would hardly have been effectual), then bound her with that iron against which she could do nothing.
“No bastard son, he declared, would threaten Torvald’s crown.
“While the Veil Queen looked on, Lorez snatched her baby from his cradle and dashed him to the floor. This would have killed a mortal babe, for it broke his back and cracked his skull and snapped his neck. But this boy was a Gentry prince, heir to the antler crown, and possessed of great magic. Nearer to a god you cannot come while breathing. He did not die. Lorez left both child and mother bleeding. Greatly weakened, for the Veil Queen could not remove her iron shackles on her own, she managed to flee with her broken child in a small coracle across the sea. She took shelter on an island, in the village of Feisty Wold.
“The village tailor’s young wife helped her. She struck the shackles from her wrists. Cleaned and bound the baby’s wounds as best she could. He had already begun to heal, too rapidly, before his bones could be reset. In gratitude for this good woman’s kindness, the Veil Queen removed one of her eyes and set it in a ring.
“Should any of my people see this ring,” she said, “they will know the wearer to be under my protection and do what they can to aid you.
“This debt of gratitude repaid, the Veil Queen returned to her people.
“Her curse was on Lorez. She called the Folk from their hollows and hidey-holes, from tree and bog and bedrock. The Will-o’-Wispies, the hobs and hobgoblins, the wolfmen, the crowgirls, the Women Who Wail. She called to her brother the Deep Lord in the Fathom Realms of the sea. Together they roused the Veil against Leressa. They drowned Lorez and demolished Lirhu. They trapped Torvald in the body of a beast–and rightly, for it fit the shape of his soul, and consigned Lissa to the long dark of dreaming, to match the darkness of her scheming. They sent warriors to grapple back mortal-worked lands for the wild, to seed Gentry children in the wombs of mortal women.
“Fiercely did the Gentry fight for their queen, but in one thing they would not yield. They would not put a monster on their throne. A hunchback boy to wear the antler crown? A scarred and crooked thing to be their king? Never. Yet while he lived, no one but he could ascend the throne. A few of the Queen’s bravest and brazenest subjects set upon the child–who was now just three years old. They tortured him almost unto death.
“Again the Veil Queen took her child and fled. She returned to Feisty Wold, hoping to find succor and friendship again. The tailor’s wife, Mava Oakhewn, welcomed her to her house. She whittled wooden toys for the boy in his convalescence. She set him to sleep in the same cradle as her own tiny daughter Gordie. Mava entreated the Veil Queen to stop the battle between their people. The Veil Queen refused.
“Your heart is hardened, Mava told her in despair.
“Then will I give it over to thy keeping, did the Veil Queen reply. I have no use for it now.
“So saying, she cut out her heart and strung it on a ribbon, disguised it as a bauble under Mava Oakhewn’s stewardship. For a third time she took her son and disappeared, to a place where neither Gentry nor mortal could find her. She raised her son in the ruins of that city which had ruined him.”
In the silence that followed, the wind shrieked.
She was his mother. I sat not a hand’s span from his mother. My own mam’s friend. Queen of all the Valwode and cause of the war. Just cause, if her story was to be trusted.
Did I trust anyone anymore?
Yes. One. And she was his mother.
“Now,” said the Witch, “this broken boy is full grown and of an age to rule. He is both wise and good, as puissant with power as ever his mother was. Still the Gentry cannot bear that he must wear their antler crown. The war rages between Gentry and mortalkind; the Valwode withers without its sovereign. But the Folk are stubborn.
“One year ago today did the Gentry Prince come before the queen. He knelt before her–he, to whom all worlds should bow!–and begged to give his life for his people, to make way for another heir. This the Veil Queen could not stomach. She bargained with him instead.
“Go you questing to the mortal realm, said the Veil Queen. Return only when you have my eye, my heart, and a child of our blood to sit upon the throne.”
The Witch subsided. My whole face was numb with revelation, but when she said, “The rest you know,” I leapt off our sitting stone.
“No!” I cried. “The rest I don’t! For I don’t know his name. Without his name, there’s no end for me. And no beginning neither! It’s all just another ghost story.”
The Witch rolled her one eye up to me. The long white oval pulsed with gold. When she spoke again, the subject was so changed I nearly kicked up a foot and popped her in the knee.
“Were children never cruel in your village, Gordie Oakhewn?”
“Aye,” I snapped. “All children can be cruel.”
“Did they never sing songs while clapping hands or jumping rope?”
I jerked my chin and began to pace. “Of course.” I did not say, “That’s how I found you, isn’t it?”
“Did you never join in their games?”
Turning to scowl at her I said, “Me? Mam would’ve clouted my backside with her dishrag, she heard me singing some of those naughty rhymes. Which you’d know if you’d really met her, Your Majesty.”
“But you listened,” the Witch continued. “You watched from your window. You stopped at the side of the road to hear their songs.”
“What did they sing?”
“What did they sing?”
“What. Did. They. Sing.”
With a rub of my face and a shrug, I rattled off a few of the old chants. “Shark in the Cellar. How the Fox Ate the Moon. Come and Cut the Cute Cat’s Head. The One-Eyed Witch Lives Where?” I gestured about extravagantly. “Here, apparently. Oh, and the companion song, about the Witch’s…” I stopped.
That gold eye glared.
“About the Witch’s Crooked Son.” My gorge rose too fast. That terrible song. In her last days of life, Mam had lain beside her open window whispering it, frail and sobbing, and I could do nothing to comfort her.
“Never! How could you ask it of me? His own mother?”
The Witch grasped my chin in her hand. I had never felt fingers so strong and fell. I, who’d been wife to boorish Jadio. Cold as the claws of the White One, they were, who rides your neck until you run off a cliff to escape her.
“You are not your mother’s daughter. You are craven. You do not deserve him.”
“Listen, you!” I bellowed, knocking her hand aside. “Twenty years the tots of Leressa have been singing that song. Cutting his soul into snippets and wounding him with every unwitting word. How could you–the Queen of the Valwode–you who know better–let his name be wrecked like that? Gentry never tell, he said–not even their own mothers. Is this why? Who let his secret name out? Who gave it like a golden ball into the hands of heedless children, until years of low games so dirtied and dented it you can hardly see the glistening? Twenty years of mockery. It must have been like a knife in his back every time some kiddie jumped rope.”
The Witch’s white shoulders seemed almost as hunched as her son’s. She whispered, “In the early days I trusted Lorez too dearly. I underestimated his knowledge of the Gentry. Too well did he understand our ways. The night he betrayed us, he called Torvald and Lissa into our room. Witness the Witch’s imprisonment, he said. The ruins of your baby brother on the floor. Do you see what your father does for you?
“Perhaps they were repulsed at the sight. Perhaps they were delighted. The faces they showed their father were pitiless as his own. Then Torvald made up that rhyme to sing while Lissa danced around the baby’s body. He had been silent until then. Stunned. That was when he began to scream. How they made him dance, rhyming him back his own name.”
The night air was wet and cool, but my skin baked so with anger that it might have been high summer. Shrugging off my quilted coat, I rummaged in my pack for the length of gold-braided rope I’d planned to sell off in pieces for food if my quest failed, or hang myself with if Jadio’s soldiers captured me.
My hands shook. Nevertheless, I stood, turned my back on the Witch, and began to skip.
Swoop, slap, thud. Swoop, slap, thud. The old rhythms entered me. My breath came faster. My heart began to drum.
“Rickedy-din, the Wicked One
Quick – let’s kill the Witch’s Son
Roast his hump until it’s done
How meet’s the meat of Ricadon!”
Tears slicked my face. My nose began to run. My throat tightened ‘til I could do no more than squeak. A few skips more and the rope tangled my legs. I stopped to extricate myself, puffing for breath.
It came to me then, doubled over, that I’d been a rhymer for nearly as long as I’d been a prisoner. True, my couplets had all been curses like the one Torvald and Lissa had laid upon the Witch’s Son. I’d never tried to compose a counter-curse to coax a shy thing from the Veil. Point was, rhymes meant something to the Gentry, where a song was life or death depending on which you followed through the bog. Rhymes could make a broken baby dance with pain, or a twisted mouth flash out with laughter in the dark. My golden rope glittered in the moonlight as I got my breath back. I began skipping again.
“Rickedy-din, the Kindly One
How I love the Witch’s Son
Woo him well until he’s won
My vows I’ll make to Ricadon.”
The ruins of Lirhu vanished. The Witch with one eye vanished (but a second before she did, I saw her smile). So did the night, and the chill, and my weariness. I could not breathe. My innards turned to soup and streamed out of holes in the soles of my feet. Then the world steadied. My body unjellied. I stood in a sunlit cow pasture–near enough the sea to smell it, though I did not know in which direction it lay.
My cow Annat grazed not far from me, her brown-dappled hide agleam. My heart jumped for joy in my chest.
“Annat, my love! You’re looking fat and happy!”
In a distant corner of the pasture, my good red bull Manu trotted back and forth, a tiny white figure clinging to his corded neck and giggling.
Now, I knew time moved differently in the Veil, that Gentry children did not develop as mortals did, but oh! I feared for her! She was so small, both her worlds so unsafe. I thought of my fox twins, and others like them. The war was not over–not by many a long mile and a longer year. King, Archabbot, Prickster, peasant, Gentry warrior, mortal soldier: our battles would rage ever bloodier before we knew an end. Such a tangle. Such a terror. If only the children were let to reach a reasonable age, perhaps together they might build a more reasonable world. But they had to survive it first!
“Be careful!” I shouted, “Manu, not so fast!” and set off at a run. Not two steps I’d taken before someone had caught the back of my skirt. People were always stopping me this way. I should start wearing trousers.
“Peace, Milkmaid! She won’t fall. We’ve taken to calling her the White Raven. If we don’t tie a thread to her ankle and tether her to something solid–like Manu–she’ll fly right up into the air and only come down again when she’s hungry.”
My body strained forward, not quite caught up to my ears.
“A child. Our child. Seven days old and stubborn as the sea.” He released my skirt abruptly. I splattered into the dirt as was my wont–charmingly, just shy of a cowpat. This was so reminiscent of the moment we’d first met, I laughed.
His long black eyes danced as he gazed down. His hair was wild as a thundercloud. Clad like a farmer but for the opal on his finger, the ivory at his throat, the green flame on his brow, he looked… healthy. His shoulders still hunched, his torso still torqued, but his brow was unfurrowed, free of pain. No farmer or fisherman, prince or soldier had ever been so fine and fey, so gladdening to my eyes. Wiping my face briefly with the hem of my skirt, I took my first true breath in what seemed like a lifetime.
“If our Raven can fly, Ricadon, she gets it from your side of the family. Me, I’m mortal to the bone–remember?”
“Not anymore, Gordie Oakhewn,” said my friend and lifted me from the ground.
Copyright 2013 C.S.E. Cooney