The Angel of the Grave: The Celestial Ways Saga: Book Zero
BECOME THE FIRE.
An intelligent little girl encounters a talented witch at the local fair and finds out that it’s all in the family.
Interconnected by dreams, two young orphans embark on the long path to find a bloody revenge.
A wealthy lady travels hundreds of miles to become a baroness; but when she consults a diviner, she finds out that she may be in way over her head.
Excerpt from The Fair Witch (Chapter One):
It was within a village, inside a stone house, in a closet-sized room, and on a little bed that there lay a little red-haired girl. Her name was Hilde Sontire. Since she had gone to bed, she’d managed to crumple almost the entirety of her favorite purple blanket in under her chin. She crept towards the edge of slumber, snuffling great gobs of snot, as she was still getting over the last of the winter colds. The starlight bathed her window, flowing through it in wide rays; she looked out of it through half-closed eyes. She was ruminating upon the previous day’s events, breathing as deeply as she could without becoming frustrated.
As she was finally on the verge of sleep, she heard the patter of light footsteps approaching her room. When they abruptly stopped, the door opened without the base consideration of a knock. She rolled over, and by the subdued light that shone in from the hall sconce, she could just make out the familiar outline of her sister, Anne. “Hilde! Are you awake …?!” the older girl whispered to her, but Hilde pretended not to hear her for several moments, her attitude being what it was.
When she didn’t hear the desired sound of her sister leaving, she was forced to roll back over on the pallet to face the window once again, clutching her raggedy blanket to her little chin. However, Anne also bore the indomitable will of the young, and she wasn’t going anywhere.
“Guess what …?! The caravan’s finally here.”
“Wah?!” was all that Hilde could manage to say in response. Anne prattled on regardless, “I said, the fair caravan’s finally here. Oh gods, it was so incredible last time. You don’t know, ‘cause you haven’t ever been. And the word from the other villages is that now it’s even better!”
Anne turned away from the door and removed the candle holder from the hall sconce, then cupped the flame with one small hand, so that it wouldn’t blow out when she strode in the room and set it down on a side table. Hilde rolled over to face her again. “Anne, go to bed. If the caravan just got here, the fair obviously hasn’t started yet,” she groaned.
“I know, I know. Just telling you, is all. There’s no need to get all ornery.” Anne hissed back at her. She perched on the edge of a children’s chair that Hilde still kept next to the side table, despite it being too small for her. When Hilde saw her sit, she loudly voiced her disgust with the situation, “Anne, just let me sleep … !!!” The older girl smiled at her warmly. “I will … in just a minute.” She stopped, and tried a different tack. “Listen, I just thought you’d want to know …”
Hilde sighed in a huff. “Well, now I do … so get out. Wait … when is it?”
“This pulgranak and lansulmes. But there’s gonna be some kind of a kick-off, a big feast for the workers on quintague.”
“Aaaand … you know all of this how?”
“I heard all about it from a friend of a friend. Well, okay … a friend of Beston’s. Wesley Strath. Neither one of them can shut up about it. Anyways, we might be going over to the fairgrounds tomorrow after school, to watch them set up. Do you wanna come with us …?” While Hilde was still very irritated, for some unknowable reason she found herself intrigued, answering, “Okay. Sure. Now go …”
“Super! Oh, Hilde … what fun we’ll have …!”
“We can talk about it tomorrow. Now please, Anne. Just leave me alone.”
And for probably the only time in their young lives, the older girl did. Anne gave her a mischievous little grin in the half-light, then closed the door behind herself. Hilde could hear the merciful sounds of her footsteps, as Anne began walking back down the hallway to her own room. Hilde settled onto her back and lay her left forearm over her forehead. Thoughts swirled in her head as she drifted off to sleep. The seasonal fairs that were held in the country of Mytrenes were infrequent bright spots in the dullness of the daily lives of its children. It was a major event when one came to the area. She couldn’t remember the last time that one had been to the nearby city of Laestane.
In truth, it’d been some four years previous, but she wouldn’t have remembered it, as she’d only been six years old then. But even so, rumors flooded her mind whenever she paused to think of it. The county fairs were supposedly always quite lavish. There were all kinds of roasted and seasoned foodstuffs, as well as various games. A variety of plays to see, and even contests of strength, for the grown men. But the only thing she cared about, at that particular moment, was going back to sleep.
It was just after daybreak the next day, and the village of Braundey was slowly waking. the two girls sleepily fumbled their way downstairs, and found their usual places at the dining room table. They were still yawning, but their father had already been up for hours. He was a gaunt man with a mop-like head of hair and a scruffy beard, named Simon. That day, he was dressed in a white button-down shirt, and a pair of dark brown pants; the uniform for his job as a buyer for a local merchant. Simon was avidly studying a printed scrip of the village’s latest news, with a look of absentminded concern on his lined face. He was also chewing on one of his wife’s sour-dough biscuits. It had doubtless already gone stale, as they quickly did; but he continued to munch on it regardless.
The children’s breakfasts weren’t terribly substantial. They had each received a few butter cookies, a bowl of porridge and half a fried egg, with some hot tea to wash it all down. Hilde stooped down from the table and put a small dish of food on the floor for their cat, stroking its fur for a moment, then returned to her own meal. The three of them dined for several moments in a near-silence, as the girls feared to disturb their father’s reading. Anne stirred at her porridge vapidly, trying to cool it down enough to be eaten. Several minutes later, when they had finished, and were clearing their almost clean plates, Anne whispered to Hilde, “So, are you ready to go?”
“I guess,” Hilde answered. Her tone was one of regret; her thoughts still dwelt upon the recent holiday season. It had been a joyous time of parties and cheer, then a heartwarming yule, and finally topped off with the new annum’s celebration. Yet winter’s snows had eventually melted away, and spring had sprung once again, so several minutes laterit was time to return to general school in the south-west sector of Laestane. They began to get up from the table, their tiny hands still splayed out upon it. Their father’s eyes happened to leave his scrip and fall upon them, and they both froze in place instantaneously.
Simon gulped down some water in an attempt to clear some of the masticated baked good from his mouth, then told them matter-of-factly, “It seems that the fair is coming to town again. They’ll probably be looking for some helpers.” As soon as he had finished, Anne immediately began to whine. “We know all about it, da. Beston already told meeee.” Simon frowned at them over the scrip, his glasses falling partway down the bridge of his nose. “You’re twelve now, Anne. Start acting like it. Either way, you kids should go and talk to Old Neffers.”
Anne wrinkled her nose at him. “Oh, no. That old man always smells funny. He must sleep in the pig pen with his stock.” The ends of Simon’s mouth turned so far down that they almost wrapped around his chin. “Now, now. There will be none of that talk. You two were still in your swaddlings when that “old man” became a master smith, a few years ago. And it’s his family what hosts the fair, believe it or not. So, regardless of what you two children think of him, after school you’re going to go and tell him that you’d be interested in doing some chores at the fairgrounds, and turning some coin.”
The girls got up and made to leave again, but they must have been a bit too slow going about it, because Simon suddenly rose from his chair, gesticulating with his big hands. “Now skedaddle, the both of you! OUT, OUT !!!” he yelled at them. Startled, Hilde jumped up and flew out the door like a seabird. Anne was a bit harder to frighten, but before long she had caught up with her sister, some way down one of the paths between the drab gray tents.
The village of Braundey was an out-of-the-way place where time itself seemed to pass slowly. It was surrounded by some sparse patches of foresting which partially concealed it from any casual passerby. Named after one of its founders, it clung almost shapelessly to the south-west corner of the city of Laestane like the barnacles that cluster on a reef. It was naught more than a disorganized cluster of flimsy huts, with some small stone houses and storage sheds, all of it randomly scattered over a couple of acres of uneven dirt. Its inhabitants had made some attempt in the recent past to construct a formal barrier, to effectively enclose its borders. The well-intentioned effort had only resulted in the kind of obstruction that their sizeable herd of goats would have been able to step over, had they been allowed to roam freely out of their pens.
If one were to take a walk through it, he or she would find all manner of familiar scents wafting on the breeze; there would be hay and horse, as well as manure and shorn grass. The sky above would be streaked with the black tendrils of wood smoke that rose from their hewn stone chimneys, to join the mist which often crept inland from the sea to hang over the city. Their winter had just recently ended, and the days had begun to dawn more clear and bright. The trees’ branches were still leafless, and resembled nothing so much as skeletal claws that seemed to clutch about the settlement protectively.
The two girls meandered together down one of the many crooked paths that ran through the village. Anne was the elder by two years and the taller of the two of them. She was dark-haired like their father, and as prim as he as well, always dressing in accordance with the current fashions. In sharp contrast, Hilde was the younger. She would have gladly walked about the village every day enshrouded in faded and dark clothing. She took after their mother physically, the result being a mere sliver of a girl with shining cascades of red hair, which fell all the way down her back to her waist. She was also the weaker child, but was gifted with an almost preternaturally high intelligence. And due to this fact, over time she had become an something of an introvert and a bookworm. While considered the baby of the family, she was also its black sheep. Somewhat incongruously, she was something of a tomboy as well, despite having these blossoming academic leanings.
Despite their being so very close in age, there was also an unspoken psychological disparity that complicated the relationship between the two girls. This was that Anne was considered by most of their peers to be as lovely as a rose, whereas the consensus was that Hilde was just a bit plainer. This fact had become the source of much jealousy for Hilde, though she also looked up to her sister. Anne had a strong sense of responsibility, though; and she always looked out for her younger sister as best she could, given that she had rather full social life and was involved in several extra-curricular activities.
The two girls had no problem crossing the aforementioned low stone wall; from there, they continued across a dewy field that marked the settlement’s very outskirts. They crossed that green expanse, then left the surrounding countryside altogether and headed along a concrete path, one of several which led over the canals that flowed into the city. As they went, they conversed quietly, only stopping briefly to flash a cluster of guardsmen at the gate on the city line their school passes.
The day was the same as any other, and Hilde was wearing a simple beige dress with a short sleeved undershirt. She had been forced to dress thus every day since she had begun to go to school as a toddler. Anne had already been accepted to the next grade level, and was now expected to wear a red cravat, a dark brown dress, and a long-sleeved, buttoned-down shirt instead. Hilde dragged her tiny feet a bit as they went, which was more than a bit ironic, as she was the only one in her family that experienced the slightest enjoyment of schoolwork, once she was fully engrossed in it. It was a predilection that her sister most definitely did not share.
On one side of the crumbling walkway was a great outdoor clock. They saw that they still had plenty of time before school, and decided to play a game, as they often did in their leisure time. First, Anne would casually point out a landmark as they walked, and then Hilde would have to tell her what it housed. They had been playing it for years, since they’d both been very small. Anne sidled up behind Hilde and pointed just over her right shoulder at one of the larger buildings off to one side of the street as they went.
“So tell me … what’s that one?!”
Hilde squinted at the featureless, columned edifice of the building and said, “That … is the Sector Records and Licensing Division building.” Anne smiled at her warmly. “Very good. One point for you.” They went on like that for about fifteen minutes. There were some good guesses and some incorrect ones, but Hilde managed to pull ahead in the long run. They reached the far side of the overpass and the relative security of the city walls, then turned down a side alley between two of the beige-painted, cement buildings.
Anne resumed a conversation they had begun days earlier. “So, about boys then. You have a shine on any of ‘em yet? It’s about that time, no …?” This was her favorite mode of teasing. Hilde looked up at her with disgust. “You act like you know all about it, Anne. You’re only a little bit older than me, remember …?” She had been cultivating that particular facial expression for years. It made an appearance every time the subject of her having any inclination towards the opposite sex was brought up. She didn’t have a boyfriend yet, which her sister well knew. Anne gave her a little shrug in return. “Yeeesss … while that’s true, these are the ‘important years.’ Well, that’s what ma always says. So … answer the question.”
“Okay, okay. Relax. Do you mean the boys in school or back at summer camp?”
“There barely were any boys at camp this year. Unless you consider …no, no.” Anne stared aimlessly off to their side and snickered under her breath. “He was definitely not boyfriend material, I’m afraid. Well, there must be someone at school at least …?”
“Hmm … I don’t know. Chris and Wesley aren’t too ugly, I guess …” Hilde tried to gauge Anne’s reaction, her green eyes narrowing in the sun. “Okay, I answered your question. Now, how about you?”
“Me?!” Anne smiled, her eyes wide in mock shock. “You know full well that Beston and me have been together for like, three months. I don’t need any other boys.” Hilde, who thought that Anne’s boyfriend was just about the homeliest person that she had ever had the misfortune to see, shook her head in mild repulsion and replied, “Suit yourself.” Anne faced ahead again, her dark bangs hanging in her eyes. Suddenly, they found themselves giggling together for next to no reason, and couldn’t stop for a minute or two.
When the fit had finally subsided, Anne said “So, are you getting excited for the fair yet …?” Hilde looked up at her again. “I suppose so.” Then, Anne took on this know-it-all air that she often got when she was privy to information. “I heard that they had a few accidental deaths in their troupe, and had to cancel a few cities. But they’re definitely coming here.” They saw that someone was approaching from the other end of the alleyway, walking in the shade.
“Well … look who it is,” Anne muttered under her breath. The shadows parted to reveal a boy who was around their own age. It was Anne’s boyfriend, Beston Radelyn. He was a thin boy with short brown hair, who dressed much in the same formal manner as Anne did. He lived within the confines of the city, but would usually walk out to meet the girls halfway, and then turn back around to walk them to school. Anne immediately ran over to meet him, leaving Hilde standing behind in the dust, struggling to keep up. Within moments, she was on the verge of tears. “Come on, Anne!” She whined, her face a mask of confusion. “You said we’d go together.”
It seemed as though the two young lovers were in a world of their own. They joined hands, and it almost looked for a moment as if they would kiss. Hilde made as if to look away, but before she could do so, the couple each lost their respective nerves, turned around and began walking back towards her. When Beston noticed Hilde standing there for the first time, he said “We are going together.” Anne strode around his side and bumped into his shoulder as she interjected, “She was talking to me, jackass.”
Anne beckoned to Hilde with a hand gesture, and they continued on. “Come on, keep up.” Beston looked down at the younger girl, smiling. “Ah, it’s the little one. Hilda, right …?” They took a right turn, and continued down the block once the alleyway ended. Around strangers, Beston straightened up and wore an expressionless mask. “It’s Hilde.” He looked from one of the sisters to the other, then back again. “She looks a little bit like you, Anne … I guess. But she’s much uglier.”
“Huh?!” Hilde felt herself start to blush and she stopped walking. “You … shut up, you !!!” She couldn’t think of anything better to say; her little hands balled into fists as she was consumed by an impotent rage. Anne gave Beston a hard look and said, “Now, that’s not very nice.” Then, she grabbed Hilde’s shoulder and whispered in her ear, “Come on, let’s go. We don’t want to miss the first day of the new semester. Wait … I know what would cheer you up! Why don’t we make a stop. You like art, right …?”
“Oh … yes.” Hilde started walking again, wiping her cheeks with her shirt sleeves. “But … we can’t skip class. Father will kill us if he finds out …!” Anne rolled her eyes. “He won’t. Because we’re not skipping. It’ll just be for a few minutes. There’s a new gallery over on the south side. One that’s open to the public.” The three of them went left and walked down another alley. The buildings in Laestane were all very uniform; in some areas of the city, man-made canals replaced the streets, and odd, boxy contraptions that resembled coaches but were pedaled manually by servants were as prevalent as the traditional horse-drawn carriages.
The building which housed the art gallery that Anne led them to was three stories tall, with tall columns and verandas. They went in the front entrance and were greeted by a gray-haired woman in a pink dress with a white collar. “Come on in, ladies and gentleman. Come in. There’s an important opening today.” The gallery walls were painted a darker beige than the outside of the building, and white scrollwork lined the sideboards and the outline of the ceiling. The three of them wandered about for a few minutes, marveling at the ornate dress of the artists and guests, and the vibrant colors of the works.
Hilde became distracted when she espied one man from across the room. He was tall, with a full head of curly brown hair, and a lean but tough-looking physique. He had a very bohemian sense of style, his short-sleeved tunic was open at the neck. He was talking animatedly to three other artists, while gesturing at one of the paintings every once in a while. She instinctively found him handsome, though she was too young to understand why. The older woman was passing by; she caught Hilde staring, and smiled at her warmly. “Oh yes. That’s Salague Maletto. He’s a major new talent in the art world. Unfortunately, he’s only going to be here for a few months. He’s on loan from his home town, Vostria. It’s in Optran.”
Hilde nodded in affirmation, as if any of that made sense to her; she was only ten years old, after all. The two sisters continued together down the aisle. Several beautiful paintings adorned the north wall, spaced a few feet apart from each other. They stopped at each in turn to pay their appreciation, saying little or nothing to each other, just marveling at the colors and shapes that the various works depicted. Beston said even less, being barely present. He had found a tray of refreshments on a nearby table and was devouring frosted crumpets, and ignoring the collected artworks altogether. But time had quickly flown by, and the next thing Hilde knew, Anne’s hand had fallen on her arm again, gripping it tightly. Soon she was whisked out of the double doors and back into the daylight.
A couple of hours later, she was sitting at one of the general school’s scarred wooden desks, trying to focus on her schoolwork as the thought patterns of a young girl stormed about in her head. She found herself bandying a freshly-sharpened pencil about from one tiny hand to the other. She brought the eraser end of it to her lips and chewed gently, but spat it out moments later, when its bitter taste found her tongue. It was all that she could do to keep from snapping the implement in half in disgust. She then distracted herself even further by looking off to her left out of the school library’s dusty windows, the spring sun’s rays shining in through them. She just sat there for a few moments, collecting her thoughts.
It was fourth period, and she was supposed to be doing some research for her upcoming botany class. She and some of her peers had been supposed to be studying for about twenty minutes by then. Before she could actually resume that activity, Anne and her obnoxious boyfriend arrived in study hall as well, their constant chatter certain to be distracting. Hilde actually spent most of her average school day attempting to avoid the two of them, but was often forced to witness their insipid interactions when walking to or from school. She was about to begin reading a relevant entry in an encyclopedia that nearly outweighed her, when she saw them out of the corner of her right eye. When they walked into the room, they sat together at a nearby desk, which happened to be built for two.
After a few minutes, Beston came over to the double desk that Hilde was sitting at and hung over her shoulder, running his finger down the page that she was reading. “Woah … I didn’t know there were so many kinds of flowers in the world.” Anne appeared over Hilde’s other shoulder and clucked at him chidingly. “There are so many kinds of life.” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and he sat down in the table’s other chair. He was apparently unconcerned for her, which was typical of their relationship. Left to stand, she walked over to the south wall’s book-cases in search of another volume. She took down a large picture book that contained diagrams of various flora, and brought it back to the desk. She clapped the dust from its cover, the motes hanging in the air around her as she coughed. As if he had been summoned, Wesley Wride came in the library’s western entrance, wearing a foolish grin as always. Beston caught his eye from across the room, and the other boy approached them to say hello; he bore a more reasonably sized book under his arm.
About twenty minutes later, the period ended. The botany instructor swept into the room and told them that they were to attend “laboratory.” Doing so involved going outside to plant various vegetable seeds in the soil of the building’s rear yard. The plants would sprout in the spring sunshine of the next few weeks. Turning soil with a rusty trowel was a task which involved a great deal more physical activity than Hilde was accustomed to; the whole production left her weary.
It turned out that there were no extracurricular activities that afternoon. So after school, Anne and Beston caught up with Hilde as she was coming down the stairs to the front courtyard. From there, the three of them headed for the fairgrounds, which weren’t very far from the school. It was almost dark out by the time the three of them finally arrived at their destination. It was a huge field, sparsely covered with dull white and green grass. Some of it was still rooted and some pulled out, clumps were scattered about, and single blades danced on the wind. It was acres in breadth, and was graced with a huge wooden stage, at the center of a series of ten tents. There were three each to its north and south, two to both the east and west. There were torches on stands embedded into the dirt, every twenty feet or so.
Near where the play audiences were apparently supposed to congregate, there was a large apparatus with a table-like section. It had a round pole in its center which rose up some fifteen feet in the air. The children walked past three very hardy men who were standing around it with their sleeves rolled up. They held heavy iron mauls. “My turn,” said one. He swung the tool in a long downward arc to smite a flat round surface in the center of the board as hard as he could. As they watched, a large metal bead flew up the pole’s center at top speed and hit a bell at the top, resulting in a deep clanging noise.
Looking around, Beston saw an old man working to pinion down a corner of one of the large tents. He was wearing torn, tawny overalls over a sleeveless, mostly unlaced white tunic, and was perspiring profusely. He raised a hammer over his head, the wisps of what hair still remained to him clinging to his dome-like forehead. The three children approached him cautiously as his tool met the heel of the spike several times with dull clangs, and it plunged several inches into the ground.
“Hey, Mr. Neffers …” Hilde began in a weak voice. But the man didn’t mind her at all, so she stopped speaking and began to study the ground. Anne gave her a sidelong look. “Louder. He probably has hearing problems …” So the second time, Hilde virtually yelled at him, “MISTER NEFFERS !!!” and he straightened and turned to look at them, with a sour look on his wrinkled face. “What do you want, girl?” Anne looked up at him and took over. “Well, dath … us curs were wondering if you had some chores we could do during the fair. We’re looking to turn some coin.” The old man gave the three of them a brief once-over, then acquiesced and began to gruffly detail which chores needed minding; how much they would be paid was a ridiculously miniscule amount.
“Alright then,” the old man summarized. “It’s agreed. The three of you can report to Malcolm Weston tomorrow. Off ya go now.” He gave them a curt nod and then trundled off, one strap of his overalls falling off of his shoulder. The whole exchange only took about ten minutes, so after that the three of them kicked around the fairgrounds, in the manner that children often do. They picked up random sticks, swung them about, played hide-and-seek briefly, and then sat in the grass and watched the various booths get set up. Before long, the sun had gone down over the rocky hills to the west. The shadows lengthened, and they heard the sounds of a dog barking close by.
And sure enough, as they turned a corner around one of the tents on their way home, they came face-to-face with one. It was a dangerous-looking mutt with mangy gray fur. The thing was big, almost half as tall as a man. Its features were more wolfen than canine, and its eyes quivered with what almost looked like human emotion. As the three of them approached, it set its muzzle low to the ground, bared its teeth and growled at them. It was a low and threatening sound that came from the very back of its throat. Beston stared at the creature with great misgivings. “Come on … let’s get you guys home,” he said, as a cloud passed over his brow. Turning around, he led them an alternate way back to the network of streets along the canals. It had been an unusually long and active day for Hilde. When she finally got home, she immediately went to her room, sank down onto her little bed and fell asleep with her clothes on.
But the next day, the three of them hurried back to the fairgrounds after school. It was far less fearsome in the broad daylight. There wasn’t a beast in sight, and their fear the night before seemed unfounded. The feast tent had been completely set up; they could see that it was more substantial than the others. Its olive green folds of aged canvas had been bunched up and then tied with strong twine, to form a sort of main entrance. They circled around to the other side, not quite sure exactly where to report for duty, and Beston lifted a heavy tarp that hung over the kitchen door on the north side.
He peered in; through the next doorway, he could see about a score of the village’s men-folk sitting at long trestle tables near the center of the long tent, which ran west to east. He was about to turn back to the girls, to tell them what he’d seen, when one plump and balding early feaster crept up to the doorway on his left hand side and drew the curtain back all the way. The man fixed Beston with a rather weak evil eye, but it was enough to send him leaping back from the curtain. The man followed him outside, yelling “You, boy !!! What are you doing looking in on us …?! Go about your own business, or what have you.” Beston gulped down hard, then answered him in a cracking voice, “We was just wondering what all the revelry was about, dath. Didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“You didn’t mean…” The man stopped mid-phrase and raised his left fist upright in a threatening manner. “Why, I should cuff you right in your little head for not minding your own damned business, I should.”
“We’re actually here on business, dath. We’re trying to find a guy named Malcolm.”
As he said this, another man came up behind the first. This one wore a palpable air of hostility like a cloak. He was neither tall nor short, standing about six feet in height. He had a hard face, well lined and grizzled. He wasn’t stocky, but looked wiry and strong; his hair was so blonde that it was almost translucent. He was chewing open-mouthed on a strand of wheat, no mean feat. “Well, you might have found him,” he told them in a gravelly voice.
“Hullo, dath. I’m Beston. This is my girlfriend Anne and her sister Hilde. Mr. Neffers sent us over here … we’re supposed to help out in the kitchen.”
“Oh really?” The dour man smiled at them grimly for the first time. “Well, let’s get you kids to work. There’s no shortage of that here at the fair. Come back at six second clock, and we’ll get you started.”
So, they returned later. There was an odd purple light emanating from within the tent, which turned out to be from cloth-covered lanterns. A full bar had been set up to the north of the trestle tables. The kitchen was in the east-most segment of the huge tent. They located Malcolm again, and the children were initially tasked to peel several mountains of potatoes. They also washed countless dishes, and then scrubbed pots and pans, for what seemed like an eternity, as the cooks busied themselves with their preparations.
By the time full night had fallen, all of the torches outside had been lit. The three children were nearly exhausted, their little bodies not good for much in the way of manual labor. They hadn’t been offered any food or drink yet. Malcolm came by the kitchen to inspect their progress around eight second clock, his work boots clacking on the floorboards that had been laid to tread on. He stopped in place and said, “Well, I expect Neffers will pay you, as well. After the banquet has been served, you three can eat if you like. Then, you can go and see if you can rouse the old shite-bird.”
“About what time will that be, dath …?” Anne piped up. She was shy only around the most morally questionable company.
“Well, you will be the servers, as well.” Malcolm eyed them. “You can leave at about nine … is that going to work for you …?”
Beston hastily answered for her, “Yes, dath. No problem at all.”
“Very good, then.” Malcolm said, and then stalked off to get himself another drink. The three children bade their time as the second score or so of men that were to run the fair all week-end began to fill the feast hall. Most of them sidled up to the make-shift bar; many had already tossed back shots of Harkleberry Hedge liquor, or downed several ales, and the party was just beginning. Malcolm walked into the kitchen and opened a cupboard there, pulling out a flask to pour the children tiny cups of fruit juice, which he summarily shoved in their faces.
After waiting in the doorframe for a couple of minutes for them to finish, he then all but shoved them into the hall, saying, “Come, boy. Help me bring this beast out to the table.” With that the two males went back to the ovens, while the girls nervously edged out into the hall; they were wary of the drunken workers. Several moments later, Malcolm and Beston made their careful way to the long dining table. They bore a huge pewter tray, with the biggest roast boar Hilde had ever seen on it. The thing was so big that it looked as if it must have eaten other pigs in life, rather than slops.
Setting it down, Malcolm said, “Well, boy. There’s the cutter. On that table there. Your friends can help you slice it.” Beston followed the line of the man’s gaze, but then frowned back at him, his eyebrows drawing into arches. “That blade is uneven. How are we supposed to use it …?!” The words escaped his mouth in a rush, he didn’t think before speaking. But sure enough, what he said was true. The blade was highly ill-fashioned, and was even encrusted with dirt in several places. It was as if it had been forged by a blind man, some parts rendered small and others large. Malcolm eyed the boy dubiously, as if unsure whether to raise his ire or not. “Listen, never you mind the worksmanship. It’s a blade, right …?! You cut with it. Now, if you curs want to get started, I’d like to eat sometime tonight.”
One of the workers was almost drooling, his eyes lit up, but Malcolm edged in front of him and shoved his light brown ceramic plate almost in Beston’s face. He and Anne each took an opposing handle, and they lifted the unwieldy thing up and over the roast hog; struggling to remain roughly parallel, and thus make even cuts. As odd as the thing looked, it was razor sharp; it went through the flesh of the beast as if it were butter. Soon it was well-sliced, and was ready to be served up on the earthenware plates, with sides of mashers and gravy. Hilde picked up a pair of tongs and began to make up a plate for Malcolm as the rest of the men thronged and jostled in line.
The feast was a dull affair, the men bragging the night away with mostly untrue stories of business ventures, exotic travels and women bedded. Once everyone was done eating, they retired to the makeshift bar, or a series of couches near the west end of the tent. A painted woman came in from the main entrance, to obvious looks of delight. The plunging neckline of her blouse caught stares, and she smiled carelessly. She spent the next several minutes floating from one man to the next around the bar, but tore free immediately if they grabbed at her. After a half an hour or so, Malcolm sat down on one of the couches and the prostitute fell into his lap, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to be there.
Hilde tried not to pay the guests any mind. The kitchen needed to be swept, so she picked up a broom and got to work. Yet, she couldn’t help but overhear when the woman loudly exclaimed, “There, now. What about your old lady …?!” in a teasing tone as she all but rocked on the man’s lap. Hilde stopped at her task and walked to the doorway, knocking over a water pail that was thankfully empty. She hardly noticed, hugging the broom to her chest as she watched the revelers get even more drunk. Malcolm’s eyes widened for the first time that evening as he studied the cleavage on display. “Well, the missus isn’t here, now is she?” Some of his mates began to shake their heads in disapproval, while others began to roar laughter; all summarily drowned their sorrows in their big ale tankards.
Hilde meekly brought a big tray of sweetbreads from the kitchen over to the main trestle table, and set it down. The painted woman had gotten up from Malcolm’s lap to get a drink, and her red mouth dropped open a bit when she saw Hilde. “Oh my dear gods, but you are a cutie pie.” She stared at the little girl with a look of beaming delight on her overly made-up face, and many pairs of male eyes followed hers, making Hilde the center of attention.
“Um … I know,” said Hilde. The woman’s smile slowly faded, and after several seconds, she composed herself enough to say, “Well. That’s kind of curt, to come out of the mouth of such a pretty girl. Now, where’s your mommy …? Tell me now, and be right quick about it.”
Hilde looked about evasively. “My mommy’s not here.”
The woman flexed her upside-down index finger at her in a beckoning gesture. “Come closer. What’s your name?”
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“Me either, but I do it all the time. So what is it?”
“Well hello, Hilde. I’m Gretchen.”
“Good to meet you … I guess.”
The men were doing little more than just drinking and silently watching the two of them talk. She was not used to this; even at home she often felt ignored. So she headed back to the kitchen, but as she went, one of the drunken men stopped her and said, “Where are you off to, young miss …? If you’re going to crash a party, be ready to drink some ale.” He proffered his mug in her direction, but most of its contents just sloshed out onto the hard-pack dirt of the floor. Hilde stepped back to avoid the splash just in time, turned in disgust and went to find out whether it was nine second clock yet.
The woman followed her into the kitchen. Anne and Beston had gotten off to somewhere, Hilde didn’t know where. She began to approach Hilde slowly, and the girl found herself backing up and half-stumbling towards the north doorway. Another smile appeared on the woman’s angular face, dwarfed by all of the rudimentary make-up. She held out one of her thin hands, its long fingers and nails splayed out, her palm upward, waiting for the girl to take it.
When Hilde found herself doing so, they walked through another darkened doorway that was in the tent’s northeast corner. Hilde got the impression that it was a makeshift storeroom, as there were many shadowed boxes and objects around, lining the canvas walls. A long sconce hollowed into one wall contained a lit torch stand, and by the half-light the woman stopped, just barely visible. She stared at Hilde intently, and the girl started taking shallow breaths in anticipation.
“What do you want …? I have to get back to my friends,” she managed to blurt out. The painted woman’s hands dropped down to the sash of her raggedy gray robe and she began to unknot it. Before Hilde could even begin to realize what was happening, she stood before the girl stark naked. Thankfully, the low light spared the girl from too complete a visual; yet even so, her mouth dropped open and she backed up a few paces.
“Like I said, um … miss, I have to be going. We have some more dishes to do and stuff …”
“Abscendran,” murmured the woman. It was almost too low for Hilde to hear. She pinched the skin of her forehead between her right thumb and index finger, and began to draw her hand down some invisible line at the center of her body, and to Hilde’s sheer horror, the skin drew open and then hung from her frame, like some form of suit. Beneath it was a red velvet dress; as the false shoulders fell away from the real ones beneath, Hilde saw that she was also wearing a black hooded robe. Not even the face itself had been real; the genuine one underneath was more harsh-looking, but rounded rather than jowly and angular around the chin and cheekbones.
Hilde’s mouth gaped as the suit of skin raised back up as if its own person, reformed into a whole and then walked back out to rejoin the party. It returned to Malcolm’s lap on the couches, as if nothing had changed, but the robed woman remained in the torch-lit side room. She stood grinning at Hilde, as if the two of them shared some form of private joke. “It’s nine. I’m leaving,” Hilde said as she turned and walked back towards the kitchen, unsteady on her feet. The men in the hall were achieving even greater heights of ribaldry and hilarity, as their opening night party wound its way towards twelve second clock. There were puddles of spilled beer and ale on the hard-pack floor, and many of them had mud-spattered boots and breech legs.
“So, Hilde …” The strange woman came up to her and whispered in her ear, as they stood by the doorframe back into the feasting room. “Would you like to see some more tricks …?”
About the author:
Richard Writhen is originally from New England, but has also lived in New York City. He was raised on a steady diet of eighties fantasy films, horror television and universal monster movies. After briefly attending college for music and video, he began his first online serial six years ago. Richard has since been e-published on several notable blogs and websites and is now also the author of three independently published novellas on Amazon: A Kicked Cur, A Host of Ills and The Hiss of the Blade. He has also recently completed his first novel, The Angel of the Grave.