Oh Bloody Period: Invictus Theatre’s Othello Lacks a Foundation in Language

Karissa Murrell Myers as Iago, Reginald Vaughn as Othello. Photo by Brian McConkey Photography

In their inaugural production of Othello, Invictus Theatre invites us to consider the themes of racism and sexism, both external and internalized, which they hasten to remind us are still relevant today. These elements seem slightly whitewashed, however, in a production that lacks a foundation for Shakespearean acting, creating disappointingly superficial performances.

[tl;dr: Invictus’ Othello is remarkably and sweepingly lacking in its understanding of language in general and verse performance in particular. Except for Callie Johnson’s Desdemona, no one seems to know what they are saying or why they are saying it, resulting in flat and insincere performances throughout. Fault must be placed with director Charles Askenaizer, who is the artistic director of Invictus, ostensibly founded to promote an understanding of language. Occasional forays into modern military culture do little to justify the design veneer and in no way compensate for the show’s fundamental lack of grounding in motivation, relationships, or the words. You can read my other reviews here.]

The production opens with a rapid-fire exchange between Iago and Rodrigo (Karissa Murrell Myers and Robert Vignisson, respectively), wherein gallons of nuance are glossed over in the evident desire to get the scene over with as quickly as possible. The show runs two hours and forty minutes, so the desire for rapidity is understandable. However I for one would prefer excessive cutting to delivering lines so quickly and shallowly as to render them meaningless. I found this especially disappointing given Invictus’ mission statement: to promote a better understanding of language.

Many theater companies debut with Shakespeare plays. They are free, they have built-in audiences, and they invite presumptions of artistic integrity. It is not uncommon, then, for these new companies to undertake verse plays without sufficient understanding of complex sentence structure, motivated meter, or even antitheses (one of the most frequently used and more rudimentary Shakespeare devices). Yet for a theater company that claims to specialize in these things, the almost universal lack of command over language seems an unbearable fault, and this fault finds its apex in the play’s leads.

Othello himself is often indicted for being less complex a character than Iago (though the opposite seems closer to the truth), and he therefore (I think) requires an actor of surpassing drive, nuance, commitment, and knowledge of the script to create a realistic and relatable Othello, or at least an Othello that you want to watch. Reginald Vaughn does not appear to bring these qualities to the role. Like most of the cast, he seems to recite lines while trying to forcibly emote over or under them. Vast swaths of nuance are missed, not for the sake of speed, but simply because they go unnoticed. Vaughn specifically demonstrates a common failing in inexperienced performers: he cannot pick up cues. Unable or unwilling to engage with what is being spoken to him, he does not “switch on” until his final cue word is spoken. He then takes a breath and starts reciting lines. Vaughn displays breath issues throughout, taking large shoulder breaths, not at the end of each line as some Shakespeareans like to do, but intermittently and without purpose, serving to highlight the impression of unmotivated recitation.

Murrell Myers’ Iago is a bit more attentive to cues, but offers little for her scene partners. Although she slows down after Act 1, Murrell Myers continues to play states of being rather than use the words. This was a common element in the cast, but while most of the actors chose to alternate volume in order to stress phrases (with very little alteration in pitch or duration, the other two key elements of vocal variety), Murrell Myers relies almost exclusively on tactics of deflection: verbally shrugging, sneering, and downplaying. This interpretation, an Iago who is constantly shrugging off involvement or interest with everyone and does little else, might carry some weight if the rest of the cast were passionately pressing her, but without such commitment or motivation, I just see a Brechtian gest that lacks purpose. Occasional forays into “I am evil” during the soliloquies, perhaps meant as representations of anger or resentment, offer little respite from an Iago that lacks both the emotional sincerity of contemporary acting and the linguistic power of classical performance.

Callie Johnson’s Desdemona deserves praise as the only performance in the show featuring motivation, comprehension, clarity, or commitment. While I normally rush to judge equity actors with a harsher lens, Johnson’s varied vocal qualities, verbally informed physicality, articulation, and text-based emoting provided welcome highlights to the show. Johnson’s Desdemona was unusually strong-willed, undermining her frequently submissive lines as sarcastic or combative, but a meek and Stepfordized Desdemona is a common interpretation that can always be seen elsewhere.

A brief mention of the set and costumes may be useful here. Invictus’ Othello is set in the ‘modern military’ motif so often seen in budget Shakespeares: most characters wear fatigues, and military storage cases are used to make up most of the set (Gary Nocco and Caleb Awe on costume design, Kevin Rolfs on set design). As a concept it’s a bit uninspired, but it is well executed and (for the most part) does not impede the story. In this sense, it is a fine choice for a company that wishes to focus on language and does not have the resources for lavish “period-appropriate” costuming. The military veneer does come into play on occasion though, and when it does, it serves only to impede. Most notably, occasional military-bro mannerisms (ie: bellowing) muddy already flat and un-articulated line deliveries in order to promote a well-worn Concept at the expense of the words.

This, ultimately, was what I took away from this production: a lack of concern for the words. It was almost universal among the cast, and responsibility must therefore be laid at the director’s feet.

It could well be that most of the cast members were simply incapable of utilizing verse; directors do not always have the options they wish they had when it comes to casting. But this play was directed by the artistic director of Invictus, Charles Askenaizer. This theater claims that its primary focus is to promote an understanding of language, and their artistic director was in charge of this show. Who else could we rely on to ensure that the performance was founded on the words? Who else could guarantee us that the actors would know what they were saying and why they were saying it?

Charles Askenaizer is an experienced artist: his bio states that he has been acting and directing in Chicago for seven years. He managed to secure an equity actor for this show. Promotional photos were done by the famous Brian McConkey. There is a full and fleshed-out design team. Invictus has press packets for their bloggers, they are well promoted, and press night was a full house. They give every impression of being a company that is, not wealthy perhaps, but well resourced and experienced. How such an ostensibly organized company, so seemingly experienced, with such a bold mission, could fall so short in the fundamental tenets of Shakespeare, and of acting generally, is beyond my comprehension. I ended my evening confused, disappointed, and more than a little frustrated.

HOW TO FIX IT: I usually try not to sell myself as an expert on anything, but I do spend a lot of time with verse, and there are a lot of fundamental errors with this production that I think could be resolved with some foresight and focus.

ONE: What Are You Saying and Why Are You Saying It? Invictus’ Othello seems to lack even the basics of how to speak a complex sentence: identifying the most important parts of each speech, then sentence, then clause, then identifying the supporting words and clauses and sentences, and how they compliment or contrast the main point of the speech. As alluded to above, Antithesis is a great introduction to how one can use one’s voice to accent and compliment major points: ‘It wasn’t hot, it was cold,’ ‘He was smiling, but he was sad,’ ‘This is no merry chase; it is my doom.’ When actors are familiar with how they can play with inflection and phrasing in this simple way, they can expand upon this to accent the myriad complimentary points in any speech while speaking on numerous subjects at once (a Shakespearean device called ‘stacking,’ handling numerous trains of thought at once). This is most easily done, however, after they learn to identify the main point (or thesis) of a speech or sentence. Put simply, actors have to know what they are saying. This is easy to ignore in contemporary plays, movies, and TV. We are expected to imitate contemporary speech, where people often affect insouciance and use tonal states-of-being to indicate emotions over or under what they are literally saying. Likewise, we are living in an age of two-second cuts, where editors combine a mash-soup of sounds into something coherent, so there is little demand on the actor to actually use their words as tools to effect their tactics in order to achieve their motivations. This all translates into Hands-in-Pockets Shakespeare, a shallow recitation where the actor seems like they might know what they’re saying, but nothing is being communicated to either the audience or the rest of the cast. Verse is not normal speech. Even Shakespeare’s prose is not structured the same way people spoke in his time (check out Patrick Tucker’s Secrets of Acting Shakespeare for examples). These characters are choosing to use unusual words, in an unusual manner, which means emphasizing more words than we do in our day-to-day, low-stakes (for the most part) lives.

TWO: Minting (Coining) Words. Continuing from the above: my old acting teacher once said “There is a difference between ‘Maybe we should go,’ and ‘Perhaps we should depart.'” Although these two sentences have the same literal meaning, the sounds produced by the words, as well as connotations specific to each word/s, produces a different effect on the listener. There’s actually an outstanding example of the effect sound can have on a speech in Othello, though it was sadly cut from this particular performance:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something, nothing:
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.”

Iago starts this speech with a lot of M’s, N’s, and other warm, soft, comforting sounds. Shortly after, however, a huge amount of S’s start showing up. At the end, the warm M’s and N’s return. Try whispering this speech to yourself, and you will quite possibly feel the warm comfort give way to serpentine insinuation, then recloak itself behind the warmth of false comfort. Treasures like this are strewn all throughout Shakespeare’s scripts, ripe for the plucking.

Likewise, consider the word “filches.” Not “plunders,” not “stealeth,” not “purloins,” but “filches.” What effect does that word have, compared to the others? How does your mouth and face move in order to speak the word? Why would Iago choose the word “filches,” as opposed to any of these other options?

This leads me right into:

THREE: Vocal Variation. Volume, Pitch, and Duration are the three primary tools by which we can alter the sounds we make and draw emphasis to certain words. In America, we tend to focus almost exclusively on Volume, with any changes in Pitch or Duration that occur during a shouting-match being largely coincidental. One or two voice lessons with this in mind should be enough to give any actor a solid foundation on these three tools of vocal variety (singing lessons, elocution lessons, or even voice coaching from a Shakespeare expert; any could work). For those without the time or money for voice lessons, I strongly recommend that you deliberately over-enunciate words during rehearsal (Malkovich acting). Take your time, and explore how the sounds of each syllable differ. Push this as much as your director will allow you. This will likely help with diction as well, something largely ignored in America’s contemporary “realistic” theater.

FOUR: Motivation and Spatial Awareness. Characters want things from other characters, but the actors playing those characters also want things. I don’t think it is possible for the actor playing Romeo to successfully seduce Juliet, because Juliet does not actually exist. I suspect most successful balcony scenes stem from the actors genuinely trying to impress each other, to give each other fun sounds and sensations to play with, and to otherwise actively engage the focus of the scene partner. When an actor is too much in-their-head instead of focused on what other people are doing, one of the two most common causes is a lack of engagement with scene partners (The other is not knowing their lines sufficiently). Trying to get something from the other people onstage necessarily means engaging with them instead of trying to play a state of being, to emote. So once you know what you’re saying, use those words to get what you want from your scene partners: make them laugh, make them smile, or just give them a sufficiently compelling impulse to motivate their next line. If you have the time and money for improv classes, they can be a priceless tool for learning how to engage with scene partners and react to the real world, to ‘get out of your head.’

FIVE: Know Your Lines. There were very few line-flubs in Invictus’ Othello, but there was a lot of empty recitation. There are many causes for this failing, but chief among them is not knowing your lines well enough. As many people (including myself) have recently whined, there is a largely American misapprehension that learning your lines late (or not at all) will make your performance more spontaneous. Stumbling and sputtering is technically spontaneous, I guess, but motivated spontaneity comes from knowing your lines so well that you can rattle them off without thinking (much like how we talk in real life). Many bad performances, specifically ‘in your head’ performances, stem from reading an invisible teleprompter in your own mind because you don’t know your lines well enough.

Although we sometimes learn a new trick or gain a new insight that fundamentally alters our performances, acting is for the most part a skill like any other, which improves gradually over time. The precepts above are not unique to me, and I’m sure many are familiar with them at least conversationally, but they are vital elements that I find lacking in many productions, especially Shakespeare productions. Prioritizing any or all of these, I think, will radically improve any verse performance, and most other performances as well.

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NaNoWriMo CH 5

Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Hey! Catching up to speed, almost.

STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT

CHAPTER 5

Kelle was bored.

It surprised even her. A trial for witchcraft aught to excite, but after breaking the legs of Ulvis and his witches, after the hours of torture that got their confessions out of them, a trial lacked excitement.

They were in the Great Hall again. Egille and her carpenters were busy at the Great Wheel, re-erecting the great platform she had so recently torn down. If not for that delay, Kelle figured they would already be out at the Wheel, tying Zia up and breaking his legs. Quicker would have been better: Zia was a friend of hers, more or less.

Ulvis Handler had been an odd duck. He and his two witches that scarcely left their dyer’s shop. Every two or three weeks, one of the two witches could be seen riding an ox slowly out of town, laden with wares for the big city. Two weeks later, she would return with some silver and a lighter ox. The next day, the other one would set out. Ulvis was seen next to never. Occasionally, when walking home from the pub some night, Kelle might chance to spy one of the three heading out to the Blue Wood to pick some substances, but it looked to her that they got most of what they needed from their trips to the city.

Zia often snuck out the Wood before daybreak as well. He was gathering ingredients too, so his were for Matron Marrow, who was an Elder if not a very respectable one. That was interesting. Four witches, all of them sneaking out to the Wood under darkness. Kelle wondered if that was important. No matter. If it was, the Faith would smell it out.

Matron Sybil was trying Zia today. It was a rare treat to have to Matrons of the Faith in a small provincial town, and with all the witchery at home and gossip of idolaters afar, Kelle counted them all lucky for it. Who knew what evil might have gone unspied and untried without them?

She tried to stretch her muscles as well as she could without anyone noticing. It was the third hour of the trial, already three hours too long by her guess, and her left leg was falling asleep like it always did. She was standing to the left of the dais, her mace in her belt, her buckler strapped to her left arm, and her new stone hammer slung across her back. The hammer had been given her just before the execution, but she had come to love it. She had practiced slinging it around each evening before bed, longing for some dangerous threat to invite it. Perhaps Ulvis’ ox was evil too. What had happened to the ox? One of the Elders had claimed it, no doubt. She hoped they kept a close eye on it, whoever had it now.

Standing to the right of the dais was Sara, the drunkard. Even by her standards, Sara had been remarkably pissed of late. Like Kelle, she had assisted in the torture and execution, and just had not been the same since. Normally a tall talker, ready to interrupted and outshout anyone, Sara had become very quiet. The lack of talking left freed up her mouth for drinking, Kelle supposed. Glancing over, Kelle saw that Sara did not have her knew knife in her belt. In fact, she was not even wearing her mace. Her eyes were bloody red, and frequently closing. No doubt sleeping off a drunk. Sara was an odd duck too, Kelle supposed. She did not get it. Luckily, her job did not require her to get anything.

The Hall was filled again. It made sense, she supposed. This trial was not as big a concern as the last, but Zia was a born and bred local, and better known than Ulvis Handler, though not especially loved. Matron Marrow was loved enough, but she was nowhere to be seen, oddly. You might think she would want to defend her apprentice, or make sure everyone knew she had nothing to do with his evil. Either way, being absent seemed a shade suspicious. Still, that was none of Kelle’s concern either.

Matron Sybil was still talking. She had been demanding the secrets of Healing from Zia: what plants had what properties, why certain roots and such had to be pulled at certain times, and how these differed from the demonic compounds found in the dyer’s shop. Zia was incredibly close-mouthed, insisting that ten years of study had taught him nothing of herbal properties, that all he ever did was follow Matron Marrow’s orders. They had spent a good hour running round that merry chase. The next hour was spent pressing him about his night in the graveyard. He had been more forthcoming there, but insisted he just had a yen to dig up a corpse. Then they went back to the issue of herbal properties. Now, they were again discussing the grave robbery.

“But I robbed no graves,” Zia insisted yet again.

Yet again, Matron Sybil pointed a thick, accusatory finger at him. “You dug up the corpse of Ulvis Handler!”

“And I put it right back!”

Several in the Hall stifled laughter. This was not the first time Zia had said this, and repetition of these ridiculous back-and-forth was robbing the event of its tension. Not for the first time, Sybil glanced at Kelle and her stone hammer. Zia was not a child, but he was still an apprentice, and it might go ill if he were tortured, especially in front of a crowd. The Matron was making every effort to intimidate a confession, but it was not working.

Matron Sybil was a jowly, compact woman. Her stole, today a red one, brushed lightly on the floor as she hobbled back and forth, but Kelle had long stopped worrying that she might trip over it. Zia, meanwhile, was bound to a small wooden chair by leather straps. A short, plain-faced young man, his round eyes and sloppy, greasy hair made him look a boy, though the was actually a sun or two older than Kelle herself. Stuck in that little chair with a prefect on either side of him, he looked especially childish, especially vulnerable. But here he was after three long, boring hours, still refusing to give in. It was frustrating.

The Matron rubbed at her square jaw a moment. “You say you know nothing of herbs or Healing, that for ten long years you have done nothing but follow Matron Marrow’s orders.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“And yet four nights past, you suddenly took it in your head to dig up the corpse of Ulvis Handler. From whence did this impulse originate? What did you want with him?”

“I told you,” Zia said, frustration adding the slightest spice of rudeness into his voice, “I thought he might have some purple on him. Purple’s extremely valuable.”

“And yet you do not call this grave robbing…”

“Well… he didn’t have any purples on him.”

“And how can we be sure of this? How do we know you did not simply pocket the purple before you were apprehended?”

This was a new line of questioning, and everyone in the Hall woke up. It seemed that, if Sybil could not convict him of witchcraft, she meant to sincerely condemn him for simple grave robbing. After all, as an Elder among Elders, Sybil might have claimed any vial of purple for herself.

Zia took a moment. “Well… Alma took me. She searched me.”

“Did she?” Sybil pointed to Sara, saying “Prefect, summon Alma here at once.”

Kelle swallowed a groan. Why could not she be the one to go on an errand and stretch her legs. For her part, Sara seemed to sleepwalk out of the Hall, barely aware of her actions. Not for the first time, Kelle wondered what these trials had done to her.

Sybil had ceased her questioning. Everyone was sitting in awkward, uncomfortable quiet as they waited. Except Kelle, who stood in awkward, uncomfortable silence. It seemed unfair that Zia was allowed to sit while she had to stand, but then Matron Sybil had to stand as well.

Alma arrived with Sara, looking as though she had been pulled out of bed, despite the late morning hour, insisting she had searched the apprentice quite thoroughly. Something about her words invited a small snicker from someone in the crowd, and this proved to be the last that Matron Sybil would endure. “Out,” she barked. “Prefects, clear the Hall.”

Kelle unslung her stone hammer and held it before her menacingly as the three of them ushered everyone out. She tried to hide her excitement behind a veneer of stoicism, but Sara looked positively terrified, of what who could say. Kelle caught her eye and offered a reassuring grin, but she responded only look of contempt.

The Hall was cleared in less than a minute. Kelle took a quick glance outside and saw half the village milling about, still staring at the Hall. “Clear off!” she bellowed. “About your business.” She closed the door and barred it.

Sara and Alma were both back at the dais. Someone would be expected to guard the door, and Kelle was not about to be stuck with more standing. “Alma, mind the door,” she said as she climbed up onto the dais.

“You are not my commander.”

“You’re not on duty, so you do as I command. Mind the door.”

Before Alma could respond, Sara hopped off the dais and nearly flew the door, where she stood staring at nothing. Alma settled to Zia’s left, Kelle to his right.

Zia’s ratty tunic, the only one she had ever seen him where, was soaked in sweat. Sweat had poured down from his head as well, coating his face in greasy miasma that made him look half-dead. She was sure he had not slept much in the recent days either. His teeth were remarkably white, though. Kelle wished she had a smaller hammer to knock them out. She briefly considered running to the smith to get one, but who knew what she might miss in the meantime.

Matron Sybil was staring him down. Even strapped to the chair, the small apprentice was at eye level with the stocky old woman. “Now,” she croaked, “are you more willing to speak truth to me, boy?”

“I told you everything already!”

Kelle took a step forward, hefting her stone hammer.

“I told you! I told you! I told you!”

Sybil stopped her with a gestured. “There is no need for that just yet, Prefect. Put it away.”

She sighed audibly as she slung the hammer back up across her back.

Sybil crept forward until her nose was almost touching his. Between her age and his imprisonment, Kelle wondered whose breath smelled worse. “You have nothing more to say?”

Still, Zia volunteered nothing.

Still staring Zia full in the face, she said “Prefect, ready your mace.”

Kelle lit up. She could it in her head, the sparks and pops of violence coiling like a viper. As her fingers settled around her mace’s handle, it seemed to transform into an extension of her arm. It was a part of her, and like the weapon, she was a tool built for a purpose. And like the weapon, she was only truly fulfilled when serving that purpose.

Sybil backed away, still staring at Zia. “Which do you prefer, boy? Your arms or your legs?”

Zia clenched his eyes shut.

“Would you rather I make the decision for you? I intend that two of your limbs be broken. Without your legs, you cannot walk to the Blue Wood, but then without your arms, you cannot gather roots for Marrow. It would seem that, either way, your work is done. Unless of course, perhaps we might break one of each. Then you could hop to the Blue Wood to clumsily yank roots whilst praying no wolves set upon you. Does that sound pleasant, boy?”

“I told you.” Zia was whimpering, and his tears mixed with the slimy sweat on his face. Kelle found herself unconsciously leaning in. She imagined herself as a wolf, teeth bared, readying to strike. All she needed was a single word from Sybil, and red purpose would be hers.

The Matron turned away and raised a hand as if to signal.

Then, a great banging was heard at the door.

“Let me in,” an old woman shouted. “Let me in, you savage fools!”

“Get rid of her,” Sybil growled.

No sooner had Alma unbarred the door, than a woman in black robes barged in. It was Matron Marrow, here at last. “What is the meaning of this madness?”

“Matron,” Sybil answered in a deceptively calm grumble. “It is good of you to join us, though the hour is quite late. Where have you been these last two days?”

“In the Wood,” Marrow snapped. “I am a tired old woman, and gathering roots takes time. I would send a younger one to do it, but some panicky, superstitious fools have stolen away my apprentice, so sadly I must do the labor myself.”

“Your apprentice is guilty of—“

“Spare the theatrics, Sybil, that boy is no more magical than a stump, and you know it.”

“Then perhaps you can enlighten us as to his motivations,” she growled. “What was your apprentice doing, digging up the corpse of Ulvis Handler?”

“I told him to do it, obviously.”

A smile grew on Sybil’s face, thin as paper but a mile wide. “Prefects, arrest Matron Marrow.”

“Give your swollen head a rest,” she shouted, easily shouldering away from Alma’s half-hearted grasp. She marched, weary but determined, down the aisle toward the dais. She was not a tall woman, but stood straight enough to look Sybil in the face. “If your fool head grows any greater, Sybil, it shall fall off your shoulders.”

“I am a Matron, Matron Marrow.”

“And so am I, what of it? If I spy a fool, I am duty bound to call her what she is.”

“And I am duty bound to arrest witches.”

Marrow laughed, long and loud. “You name that ignorant swamp boy a witch?”

“I name you a witch!” Sybil howled, “and you have here admitted as much. Whence came that tattoo on Ulvis’ breast, if not from magic?”

“You examined his corpse, after the boy had already put him back in the ground? It sounds to me you are a grave robber as well, Sybil.”

“You will call me Matron.”

“I will call you anything other than an idiot and expect thanks for it. Now what tattoo is this?”

“You know—“

“I know that you’re an idiot to try that boy for witchery, and here you are doing just that. Tell me of the tattoo.”

Kelle was rigid. Never in her life had she heard anyone speaking to Matron Sybil this way, nor any Matron. Perhaps Elders spoke in this way behind closed doors, and Sybil did not seem overly surprised by Marrow’s tartness. “It was a rusty red,” she answered, “graven in the shape of a woman’s face.”

“Any woman we know?”

“No foreigner, I expect.” She hesitated before saying, “It may have been one of those princesses from the city.”

“May have? Which one?”

“Cityers look the same, who can say?”

“Didn’t you say one of them was terribly pale?”

“Ay, and so was Handler’s flesh, him being dead. It was a tattoo in blood, Marrow, not a painting.”

Marrow had not response to that. “Then, you allege that my witless apprentice dug up Handler’s corpse in order to imprint his decaying breast with an outline of some foreign woman’s face? Has my apprentice even met these cityers?”

“He was not at the execution, true, but they did not leave right away. He could have spied them before their departure.”

Marrow seemed only satisfied with that. “So, Zia is guilty of digging up a man he probably never met, in order to ink a face he has never seen onto his dead breast, in blood, so that he might… what? Traffic with some devil?”

“Why else was he there?”

“For moon’s sake, Sybil.” She rolled her eyes. “I sent him there, more or less. I said in passing the man probably had some dye still on him that you vultures had not gotten, and what a shame it was to bury him with it. No doubt Zia meant to find some and please me. Call it grave robbing if you like, but there was nothing to rob I wager or you would already have killed him. You and the other Matrons have already made more profit off Handler’s corpse than Zia could hope to.”

Matron Sybil crossed her sturdy arms. That was a bad sign. For Zia, at least. For Kelle, it was cause for hope. “He has still broken our laws. He must be punished. Anything less than execution, and he will be a daily reminder that the law means nothing.” She was absently stroking her red stole as she spoke.

A cunning grin crossed Marrow’s face. “What about banishment? He’ll not remind anyone of anything then, no?”

Sybil glowered in suspicion. “Banishment? You would give up your apprentice like that? At your age? You will never train a new one in time.”

“You’re older than I am, Sybil,” she spat, “but never mind that. I have a use for Zia, and I think you might, as well.”

Marrow beckoned Sybil away to whisper and bicker at the pews. Kelle listened intently, but all she could figure was that she was not going to get to break any bones.

Soon enough, they parted, and Matron Sybil looked up at Zia. “I suppose the boy does look repentant. You are repentant, are you not?

Zia nodded furiously.

Matron Sybil rubbed her hands as though washing them. “So be it. Bring the boy to me this evening, and we will sort everything out.” She waved a dismissive hand to no one and everyone, then hobbled out the door.

Alma was already unstrapping Zia as Matron Marrow ascended the dais to grab him. Kelle was almost breathless. “But… but… but… he is a grave robber!” she insisted.

Marrow smiled a yellow smile and gestured at his face. “Look at him, Kelle, does he not look penitent. I’m sure he feels quite bad about what he did, don’t you Zia?”

Again, the seemingly mute apprentice nodded emphatically. Marrow led him by the hand like a small child, and they left the Hall. Sara was already gone. Alma offered a blank look before leaving as well.

Feeling bad was a remarkable trick, Kelle thought. You could do whatever you wanted, no matter how horrible, then just feel bad afterward. No punishment, and oftentimes no scolding. And if you felt bad long enough, then you yourself could decide your contrition was over; it was all up to you. Some folk seemed to feel bad for an awful long time, but it certainly beat execution or torture, she thought. She wished she had the knack for this feeling bad business, as the wiser folk did.

Minutes later, Kelle found herself standing outside the Great Hall. There were still a few folk standing around, but no one of consequence. Tilfer Bower was standing about, but he had been without work for many weeks and so had nowhere to go. A handful of children were running around as well, but even Alma had already vanished. It was almost noon. She wondered if Sara might be found at the tavern already.

Everyone was moving quickly from one place to another. They looked nervous, or angry, or something else Kelle did not especially care about.

The tavern was empty when she arrived, with the stools shoved under the tables. Bags was cleaning out mugs from the morning. There Sara was, at the bar, hunched over a large mug of ratberry. “What’s wrong?” Kelle asked, taking the stool next to her. Sara did not answer. “You been real quiet lately, Sara. What’s going on?”

“She was going to torture him.”

Bags gave Kelle a look, but she waved him off. “Torture who? You mean Zia?” Still nothing. “He’s a witch, right? Right?” Sara shrugged. “He dug up a body and try to make magic with it, right?” She nodded. “So… we had to get a confession, right? Right?” No answer. “I don’t understand you, Sara. The devil worshippers have to be stopped, yes? Yes?”

Sara did not answer.

“Are you going to be all right?”

Sarah shrugged. “Yes.”

“All right, then.” Kelle slapped the bar. “Maybe stop drinking ratberry at noon, huh? You’re circuiting the town tonight, right? Sober up before nightfall, huh?”

Kelle wandered over to the Great Wheel. She felt lit up by lightning, full of energy, with nowhere to point it. There was Egille and her carpenters, still putting up the platform they would not be using. She called out to them.

Egille wiped a brow with a broad arm, then wiped the arm on her leathers. “Is it done?”

“It’s done all right.” Kelle spat, away from them. “The boy’s being let off. They’re going to piss him out of the village or something. You just did all this for nothing.”

The carpenters stared, two burly men with heavy brows and sour dispositions. They were head and shoulders above Egille, but Egille was all muscle and no humor, and had ten years’ experience on the two of them put together. Her lack of humor was especially evident at the moment. “They’re lettin’ a grave robber go? And a witch, to boot? After what you lot did to Ulvis and them?”

“The Healer’s got something to do with it. She just nattered with Matron Sybil for a bit, and now he’s off clear.”

The carpenters all spat. “She the one who sent him out there to begin with?”

Kelle’s eyes lit up. “Yeah. Yeah, she is.”

Egille nodded, spat again, and looked up at the Great Wheel. “I think I’ll keep this thing up for bit this time.”

Kelle’s hand settled on her mace. “Good idea.”

NaNoWriMo, Stories

NaNoWriMo CH 4

Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Honestly, though, I still don’t anticipate much success. Guess I’ll see.

STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT

CHAPTER 4

Theserra was sick to death of mushrooms. It felt like she was eating someone’s nose, but with less flavor. Granted, Theserra had never eaten a nose, nor any other part of any animal, but she had been an imaginative girl and some of that whimsy remained in the woman. She was now growing concerned that this whimsy would translate into madness if they did not come across some more nourishing food in the near future.

Shienna and Donnard, meanwhile, were eating like royalty. Shienna had felled three pigs and a deer in the Blue Wood the afternoon of their departure, and had proven to be as skilled at curing meat as she was at killing it. The heretic life of a Eubarist was certainly an easy one, and as Theserra’s own nose played host to the salty scents of roasted and moistened salt pork, she understood why apostasy was so common among her people. But if one abandoned one’s faith at the first pang of hunger, then one’s faith had never counted for much, had it? Theserra’s mother had often said that it was not the great trials that showed our true faith, but rather the constant inconveniences we must endure while others lounged on indulgence. She could see her point. Only three days into their return trip, she was ready to risk the shadows for a lick of salt.

“I still say we should have stopped by Top Hill,” she said after five minutes of silence.

Donnard groaned and lay back on the downy turf. “For what? You want to investigate this secret cat worshipping cult?”

“I said nothing of a cult. Top Hill is right next to Sunderland. Why should they not—“

“What?” Shienna spat. “You think an entire town conspired to turn Handler into a werewolf against his will?”

“There are no werewolves!” Theserra shouted, standing. Her clenched fists mashed and ruined her spongy mushrooms, for which she was duly grateful. “You are talking about spiritualist nonsense. This is about land, plain and simple. We will not find the answers back at the capital.”

Shienna did not stand, but her seemingly relaxed pose was tense and ready to strike. “Aryam will have returned by now. Who knows what he is whispering into the little prince’s ear?”

“The prince is not going to declare war because one adviser suggests it.”

Donnard sat up again. “If you want to return to Top Hill, Theserra, You have my leave. We at least are headed home. That point is resolved.”

It was an old argument already, true. Theserra relaxed her fists and let her breakfast fall in between the short blades of grass that gave the Shallow Pass its name. A sympathetic glance from Shienna calmed the remainder of her fury. It galled them both that Donnard had been put in charge of them. He had little to no knowledge of the Provinces and was about as subtle as a thunder clap, but he was the son of the First Wizard Nacella, and Nacella was firm that her son would take orders from no one (except herself, of course). Perhaps he would prove his secret worth in time, but at present all he displayed was his remarkable ability to play the two acolytes against each other and affect insouciance whenever they caught onto his petty games.

Donnard’s head was round as a ball, his great ears sticking out like the handles of an amphora. Theserra fantasized, not for the first time, of grabbing those ears and shaking Donnard’s head until some sense fell loose. She let it lie, though, and turned her eyes to the southwest.

She could do it. She could just head off on her own and investigate Top Hill herself. They were all grasping in the dark anyway. Whoever had wanted Ulvis Handler dead had also managed to get to into his home well before they had arrived in Bluefield. There was nothing in his modest, provincial house to suggest he was guilty of sedition, of apostasy, nor anything as ridiculous as magic. Indeed, there was scarcely any evidence left that he was a dyer: just a handful of reds and yellows and a few thimble-sized bottles of precious blue, which she had swept into a small satchel in quick order. Theserra mused that this might all have been a plot to seize on some purple dyes, but of course she knew better. The relatively plain garb of the Faith, who were the government of Bluefield in all but name, showed that dye was a commodity producible but not affordable in the little town. This seemed radically unjust, but dye was a pointless vanity, so Theserra let it go.

Thinking on dyes made her consider the elaborate costumes they had worn in Bluefield, now bundled in a sack at Shienna’s feet. She had been wrong about those, and she admitted as much. She had been certain even backwater provincials would recognize gaudy, outdated wedding costumes upon sight, but everyone seemed convinced that they were highborn royals, and all ways had been open to them. Donnard had jested that they might call themselves gods and rule over the town in decadent luxury, which was exactly the sort of thing Donnard would love to do, but he called it a jest and they had ignored it. Back in her black and grays, with her rough spun vest, she felt much freer and more mobile. Let Shienna play her parts, Theserra preferred action.

“I’m going,” she decided, aloud. “I am returning to Top Hill.” There was something there, she was sure of it. Something in Top Hill had changed Ulvis Handler from a simple barrel maker to whatever he had become, whatever service he had undertaken for which dyer seemed a suitable facade.

Perhaps he had tried to become an alchemist. Alchemy was more magical nonsense, but most people were superstitious enough to be terrified by it. That alone would be enough to convince the local Faith to kill him horribly, but how such delusions might get him mixed up in whatever Aryam had planned for the nation was unclear.

It was all enormously frustrating. It made Theserra yearn to do something, and following Donnard around was not sufficing.

She took one step. Then she took another. After a second thought, she picked up her satchel and her shoulder bag, then took off at a brisk pace, lest she change her mind. Neither Shienna nor Donnard could be heard to say anything.

Strictly speaking, she was doing nothing wrong. The Wizards were more of a loose sorority of concerned specialists than a military organization. And no matter how regimented they were, Donnard had just given her his leave to go. But Theserra had spent her life obeying orders, and striking out on her own, even for something as simple as this, made her lightheaded.

She turned around and started walking backwards, looking at their makeshift camp as it grew smaller. She could still see them, she could still turn back. Despite all her life of discipline, though, she had her pride, and no force on the earth or in the sky could compel her to turn around and admit she was wrong. So she turned around and kept walking away.

She was not wrong. Back in Mooncrest, they would be three Wizards among dozens, scrambling about trying to undo whatever Aryam and his Visionaries were plotting. They wanted war with Farring, everyone knew that, no doubt to seize power from the Wizards during the chaos that war always brings. It was a war they could not hope to win, however. Farring’s armory was in another class from their own, as the demonstration in Bluefield had proved. Their reprisal could mean the end of the nation, or at least the end of the capital. And Montas without Mooncrest was no nation at all, just a smattering of provincial hamlets with no uniting government, no economy, not even a culture with which to bind them together. Even Faith could not be relied upon, as the encroaching cat worshippers in Top Hill showed. No, this was a conflict for the very soul of Montas.

Not that Theserra believed in souls. Even as a young woman, long before she joined the Wizards, Theserra had idolized Uthenna, called the Shadow Wizard. Most considered her a petty contrarian: when others sought to supplement granaries, she called for austerity. When they pushed for peace, she called for war. Theserra’s three stints of military service, all in the Eastern Border Disputes, had come after one of Uthenna’s speeches. “Appeasement is a weed,” she often said, “that will choke you if you let it grow.” When the Faithful pointed out that eight of the twelfth Angels always spoke for mercy, the Shadow was quick to answer that the other four spoke of justice, and they were still around despite being outnumbered. She was a warrior poet, and there had been none like her before or after. She had died from a chill and a cough ten years back. It still seemed criminal that such a powerful noblewoman should be felled by something so common, but justice was something made by women, not the sky or the earth.

Theserra was uncomfortable advocating peace. This was another border dispute, albeit with Farring this time, and the young warrior in her cried for blood. She had often asked herself if the Shadow would still insist that they die for their dignity, or if she would consider diplomacy in the face of doom. She knew the answer, though, and so tried not to dwell on it.

These thoughts ran over and over in her head, so that when the approaching sunset stirred her, she realized she had been wandering for several hours without focus. The Blue Wood lay again to the southeast toward her left, but memory told her Top Hill was hanging far to her right. She would not arrive tonight, nor the following night, and the chill in the darkening sky left her a bit unsure of how to proceed. It was slowly donning on her that she had never before been by herself outside of civilization. She had never even built a fire: Shienna had done this throughout their journey. As the full weight of her rashness settled on her shoulders, she considered creeping into the edges of the forest sleep, perhaps up in the branches of a tree.

As she pondered, her eye was drawn to the Wood, where a tiny flicker of red and orange could be seen not far into the trees. Was someone else there? It seemed fortuitous. Strangers were always dangerous, and Theserra had only her dagger with her, but she was still a Wizard and a battle-hardened warrior, two things unlikely to be found in the Provinces. She nodded, assuring herself, and headed for the trees.

It was well and truly night when at last she reached the edge of the Blue Wood, but even this far from Mooncrest, the night was still silvery bright. The moon was almost still full. Theserra knew from personal experience that even as far as eastern Farring, the moon was still more than half its fullness, and this made her wonder: what was east of the shores of Farring, and what strange things might one see beneath the blackness of an empty moon.

Nighttime was what gave the Blue Wood its name. The moon cast the leaves into shades of dark indigo, and their dead forebears covered the ground in an inky carpet that squished loudly like a mire where she trod. It was just as well. She did not want to sneak up on whoever had made camp within the Wood, lest they become too frightened to share the fire with her. She casually weaved her way through the black-barked trunks, her left hand resting on her belt just shy of her sheathed weapon. She did not anticipate danger, but neither was she a fool.

“Who’s there?” some idiot called out. Theserra wanted to put them at ease, but she also wanted to see who she was dealing with first. She stepped out from between the trees into a small clearing.

The first thing she happily noticed was that the wet blue leaves and been swept away from the fire, which was surrounded by a tight ring of stones. Satisfied that she would not soon burn, she looked upon the two people that had stood to face her. Closest to her, his leg blocking part of the fire, was a hulking man in a brown hooded cloak and ancient leathers, bearing a scythe that looked almost dainty in his huge, calloused hands. Theserra had seen and slain larger men, but not many. His face was in shadow, but she could just make out bright blue eyes and glowed with the open dullness of cows and cowherds. He looked tense and ready to move, but also slow and nervous. As expected, this was no fighter.

His companion on the other side of the fire was much smaller, though she looked deadlier. She was an old woman, draped in a great black cloak and robes. The fire made her ancient wrinkles and scars dance upon her face like devils as her sparkling blue eyes stared at Theserra. She appeared to be unarmed, but both of her hands were hidden within the folds of her cloak. Theserra knew that trick well, but still she kept her dagger in its sheath.

“Greetings, friends,” she began.

“No friends” the lummox countered, “we are your enemies.”

“Pie up, Rubald,” the old woman said. “Who are you? You’ve a foreign look, I think.”

This was not the first time Theserra had been told such. Provincials all tended to be squat, bandy legged, plump, or stooped. Those fair to look upon were rare treasures in small towns, and often treated as such for weal or woe. The lummox, called Rubald, was not doubt a rarity, assuming he was from Bluefield.

“I am from the city,” she offered. “I spied your fire from without the Wood, and came in hopes of sharing it.”

Rubald shook his head like a wolf with a bone. “No foreigners here.”

“She’s a stranger, not a foreigner, you lackwit.” The old woman was already settling back down, grabbing a leg of some meat Theserra did not recognize. “I am doomed to spend my life climbing ladders with broken rungs, and this great goon is the latest. He is called Rubald, as you know doubt heard. Who are you?”

“I am called Teresa” Theserra offered without hesitation. “You are from Bluefield, I wager?”

“I am, born and bred. This oaf was found in a riverbed, knocked cold when he was a year or two. No one can say where he’s from, not that many have wondered. I am a Matron, and you may call me such. Heel, Rubald, heel.”

Rubald turned to look at the Matron, not seeming to understand this command. When he spied her tearing into her meat, however, he saw there was no danger. He dropped his scythe carelessly onto a pile of soggy blue leaves and sat cross-legged upon the ground.

Theserra crept closer to the fire and sat, feeling at east, though she kept her left hand near her belt. “What business keeps you so late in the Wood, Matron?”

“Mine,” she answered with a full mouth. “If we are to wile the hours with questions, we’ll start with you. Are you here to see the execution?”

Ulvis Handler was four days dead by now, of course, but Theserra did not wish to give too much away. “An execution, you say?”

Rubald had taken up some meat, what looked to be a large set of ribs, and gnawed greedily upon it. “The boy, ay,” he said. “Her boy is set to die, we think.”

The Matron waved her hand dismissively. “Some boy, a village boy, not my boy. He was trafficking with evil spirits. The Faith will try him tomorrow and kill him thereafter, I shouldn’t doubt.”

Theserra almost let her surprise show. Had Ulvis Handler truly been guilty of witchcraft, or was this only a coincidence? Who was this boy, and what did he have to do with the dyer and his witches? “Evil spirits, out here in Bluefield? That sounds unusual.”

“Not as much as it once was. We killed a set of witches not five days ago, now this boy will follow them. Evil times, I fear. You’d do well to steer clear of Bluefield. Strangers are rare there, and I fear they won’t hold much with your foreign cast.”

“Perhaps I’ll head west,” she said, noncommittally.

The Matron gave a laugh that sounded like scoffing, again and again. “A worse idea. There actually are witches out west and south. I cannot say what your business is, city stranger, but I think your best business awaits you back home. Return to your big house in your big city, it is safer there.”

“Witches? You mean in Sunderland?”

“Oh, there too, but they’ve been creeping into Top Hill, not far from here. Cat worshipers. Sunderland is full of them, and now they’re invading Montas. Between Top Hill’s cats and Bluefield’s executions, this is a bad time to be the southwest.”

Theserra had never heard anything so absurd. Cat worship had been a part of Sunderland for a thousand years, but their idolatry had kept them mired in useless superstitions, falling well behind the five other nations. Sunderlanders did not even know how to forge steel before her mother’s mother’s time, long after the foolery of cat worship had given way to some vague corruption of the Great Wheel: a worship of the twelve angels under some other name, and without the Wheel itself to unite them. Theserra knew little of it, but there was little to know. Sunderland was slowly joining the other nations in the new era, and long past due. The idea that some magical threat could be brewing there was provincial nonsense.

Of course, Theserra said none of this, only nodded. “Perhaps I shall return home, then. If you are from Bluefield, though, what do you mean to do here in the Wood at night?”

The Matron’s stare was unblinking. She had cleaned her bone of its meat, and so tossed it into the flame. “I am a tired old woman. It is late, and the village is on the other side of the Wood. I’ll sleep now. You’ll have the second watch. Rubald, you take the first.”

Rubald grunted assent, still gnawing his ribs.

Theserra plumped her satchel to use as a pillow and lied down, so as to appear agreeable. “Is a watch needed, here in the provinces?”

The Matron was already lying down with her eyes closed, having balled up part of her robes to rest her head upon. “There are such things as wolves, you know.”

Wolves were found in the southern and western extremes of the Wood, virtually unknown in the north of it, but Theserra would not reveal such knowledge of the area. “Of course. Good night, Matron.” She received no answer.

Theserra closed her eyes, entirely unthreatened by the hulking Rubald still biting at his food. Her own stomach roiled and gurgled, but no meal had been offered. It was just as well, she was worried she might accept at this point. She would travel with these two into Bluefield and collect more supplies before heading to Top Hill. Besides, another execution was an opportunity to learn more about Ulvis Handler and whatever he had been doing for Aryam and the Visionaries.

She felt unanchored, being drawn about by circumstance, and unsure what to do next. It felt decisive, to follow this new information to Bluefield, but she knew she was just grasping at lots as they came up. She found herself wondering, yet again, if old Uthenna the Shadow Wizard would have played the investigator. Or would she have gone back to Mooncrest and spoken against Aryam? That sounded more likely. Likelier still, she would have joined Aryam against the Wizards’ wishes and started the doomed war with Farring.

Why was Theserra doing this? Why was she so frightened of this war? She had risked her life more times than she could remember, and had come close to losing it often. Was she getting too old to play the soldier? Why else be so cautious even here with these two provincials? Pride alone now kept her from turning back to the capital, empty handed, to Donnard’s smirk and Shienna’s sneer.

At some point, she had fallen asleep.

She knew this, because at some point, she found herself leaping to her feet with her dagger in hand.

Rubald had fallen asleep as well, and was now rolling about trying to grab his scythe. The Matron was stumbling to her feet and backing away from something.

There it was.

A wolf as standing at the edge of the clearing, paws apart, teeth exposed, slaver dripping from its mouth. It was an enormous beast, larger than any wolf Theserra had ever seen or heard described. It looked big enough to be ridden upon, if anyone were foolish enough to try it. Grey, black, and brown fur was found intermittently upon a mangy, mottled hide. The creature looked starved and sick, almost a walking corpse, yet deadly all the same.

The Matron had managed to edge behind Rubald. “Kill it, you fool,” she hissed, continuing to back away into the woods. The lummox had gotten his scythe in his hands, but seemed frozen in fear as the great wolf’s gaze moved from the Matron to him.

For Theserra, a crystallizing clarity settled on her mind. She was a fighter, and though this was a new foe for her, it was at last a single foe before her, ready to be struck. She moved forward, keeping the flames between her and the wolf. She kicked some sparks into the thing’s eyes, causing it to flinch, hoping this would drive the thing to leap at her, through the fire. Instead, it shook the sparks away and began edging around the fire to her left. She moved her dagger into her right hand, keeping her left forward to maneuver when the wolf lunged. The time was close. She was ready.

Then Rubald stepped forward and swung his scythe down like an ax, trying to bury it in the wolf’s head. He missed by a mile, and the enormous monster leapt at him.

Before Theserra could finish turning, the beast had tackled the great oaf and torn out his throat. The scythe lay between the wolf and herself. It had range, but she knew her dagger better. Taking a cue from the monster, she lunged.

The wolf spun toward her so fast it made her breath catch in her throat. As it snapped at her, she maneuvered her hand under its jaw and tried to push its head back, exposing its throat. The monster rolled and whirled away like a skilled combatant, raking with its claws as it did so to keep her away. She backed up, trying to kick some dirt at its face as she did, but it was futile. Sparks had accomplished nothing, and the wet soil scarcely lifted off the ground.

Again the wolf turned toward her. Both the scythe and Rubald’s corpse lay between them. Rubald was still spasming, trying to clutch at his throat in his final seconds, but he was a dead man all the same. She could not see the Matron anywhere in her periphery, so there was no help coming. She shifted her dagger back into her left hand and waited.

Impatient the wolf began to edge again, this time toward her vulnerable right side. As she moved to counter it, the scythe’s handle grew closer to her. Two seconds before she dared to crouch and grab it, the wolf lunged.

Theserra leapt to her right, dragging her dagger across as she went. She felt the beast’s jaws closing on her hand, just barely managing to pull away before she lost any fingers. The dagger sliced into the wolf’s mouth, and a ragged yelp sounded as it reoriented itself. The damage was superficial, however.

Her senses continued to heighten as her eyes flitted between the scythe, the fire, and the wolf’s hungry eyes. As her focus strengthened, she heard a buzzing sound under the crackle of the flames. Small insects, tiny flies or gnats of some kind, had already settled about the wolf’s wounded mouth and appeared to be drinking up its shallow wounds. The beast was unfazed by their presence, and Theserra felt a strange sense of respect well up for her adversary. Still, she felt certain now. This monster was great and powerful, but she was trained. It would not survive another attack.

As if in answer, the wolf leapt at her again. It was a great leap, fully two feet into the air. Theserra fell to a crouch and then leapt up at the wolf’s exposed underside. Ignoring the burning scratches that it raked into her arms, she again fixed her hand beneath its jaw, then thrust her dagger up into its throat, tearing savagely as she yanked the blade back out. Hot blood sprayed onto her face as she tried to move away. Her foot slipped on the wet blue leaves, twisting her ankle, that the enormous monster fell bodily on top of her.

At least one rib was cracked under the beast’s weight, but that was certainly better than dying. This close, the thing reeked like a corpse, though its body felt almost warmer than the fire. She rolled the horrid thing off of her and crawled away before standing. The buzzing was louder now. Dozens of the tiny reddish gnats were now flying about the wolf’s wounds.

Theserra knelt by Rubald’s corpse as she retrieved the scythe. She could not thank him; his clumsy intervention had cost him his own life and availed her nothing. Still, she could briefly mourn the poor fool’s death. The Matron was no doubt fleeing to Bluefield, but who was to say that other such giants were not stalking the Wood this night. Theserra was exhausted already after the brief fight, her stomach ached, her ribs were afire, her scratched arms burned and itched horribly, and her ears were ringing. Still, she could not stay here, especially when a helpless old woman could well be lost in the woods somewhere. She stood and said a silent goodbye to poor Rubald.

The buzzing had grown louder. Theserra looked again at her kill. There were now hundreds, hundreds of the little red gnats flying about the corpse. The wolf itself now looked strangely deflated, even sicklier than it had only a minute before. She stepped away as a dozen or so of the gnats flew over to Rubald’s corpse and crawled on his torn throat. It was only a few seconds, though, before they lost interest and returned to the wolf.

Theserra returned her dagger to its sheath. It was then she saw three of the buzzing red gnats were crawling about the scratches on her arms. She swept them away, then began to kick out the fire. Before the fire was out, however, she found ten more of the creatures crawling about her scratches. She swept them off. She began to consider leaving the fire and just going when she found even more of the things crawling all over her arms. She swept and swept, but they kept returning. One in particular was causing her arm to itch like mad. She looked to smash the thing with her hand, then realized in horror that the gnat was trying to burrow into her arm, through a scratch. She swatted furiously at it, crushing three of the tiny gnats. Each one left a red blot that looked too much like blood; far more blood than would fit inside so tiny a thing.

She looked again to the wolf, and her mouth fell open.

The red things were floating in a miasmic cloud above the wolf, which now looked well and truly deflated, like an enormous wolf skin someone had worn to frighten sheep. Theserra stood stock still, terrified that if she moved it would draw the cloud’s attention. As one, the gnats drew briefly up into the air, then launched themselves bodily at her.

Theserra swallowed a scream as she backed away, quickly slipping on a patch of wet blue leaves and falling to the ground. She was swatting like mad at her arms as she tried to stand, fumbling and stumbling and falling again and again. The things were all around her now, and her arms burned like devils as they bit into her flesh. They were burrowing into her arms. They are burrowing into me like a nest she thought madly as she began to scratch and tear open the flesh on her arms in hopes of getting them out.

She finally managed to get back onto her feet. She turned and ran, but immediately smacked into a black tree and fell back down. She had ripped open her arms, and they were bleeding copiously. In her madness, she thought she could hear the gnats screaming with glee as they flew into her blood and ate into her arms.

A desperate thought took her. She half crawled, half stumbled over to the campfire, balled her fists, took a great breath, and shoved her arms into the flames. She screamed. She had been burned before, but never like this. Her skin was dry in an instant, baked, cracked open, and through it all she could feel, she could feel the things screaming as well as they burned. Her head was ringing, ringing, ringing madly, and she was suddenly stricken by a bizarre sensation of guilty horror, as though she were watching an infant drown or a loved one die of illness, doing nothing.

It was this sensation, not the unbearable pain, that drew her arms out of the fire. She grabbed her head in her hands, half to keep it from bursting and half to tear it open, and again ran into the woods. She faired better this time, but the dense canopy kept the bright moonlight away, and it was only a minute or so before she again ran into a tree and fell, this time in darkness.

She was still scratching. She was still screaming. And still, the red things were burrowing into her. She could feel them, she could feel them crawling through her veins. She pulled her dagger and cut open a huge gash in her right arm. Dropping the blade on the ground, she then stuck her left fingers into her arm and began scooping out whatever she could find.

Then, at last, mercifully, she passed out.

When she awoke, time had lost all meaning, but she was calm at last. She glanced at her arms. The scratches, and the enormous wound, had been replaced with yellowish patches of skin. The red insects were all gone. She could no longer feel them crawling inside her. She tried to ask herself where they could have gone, but it was too difficult to hold onto the train of thought. She kept getting distracted, and soon the worry left her.

There was an old woman running through the woods, defenseless and alone. There were more wolves as well, though Theserra had proven that nothing was more dangerous than she.

She looked into the Wood, and the shadows of night seemed to retreat before her focus. Forgetting her dagger, forgetting the red things, forgetting Rubald and the fire and herself, Theserra set out deeper into the Blue Wood.

NaNoWriMo, Stories

NaNoWriMo CH 3

Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Honestly, though, I still don’t anticipate much success. Guess I’ll see.

STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT

CHAPTER 3

Her back was breaking over her shovel, but she took the time to glare at the apex of the Great Wheel, cresting above the roofs of the High Elders’ homes. She spat for them while she was at it. They were welcome to their enormous, six room, two-storied houses that surrounded the village circle. Why ever the elite of the elite would want to live next to the village circle, where the lackwits and the mud globbers collected like so much rainwater in a cistern was beyond her. One day, they would all revolt and bring their pitchforks and torches to the village circle and burn the Great Wheel down, and then decide to burn the decadent homes of their oppressors while they were at it. And oh look! There they all were, handily within reach.

Matron Marrow did not get along with the other Elders. Healing in a small town was a practice in contradictions. Broken bones, foaling, and births were all so common and immediate that most families were familiar with them and could handle them adequately on their own. This led to many seeing a Healer as an unnecessary extravagance, a parasite who peddled false wares to the unwary (meaning the poorest) and the vain (meaning the wealthiest). The poorest meanwhile, could not afford the obeisance paid for any service, and pride compelled many to refuse her charity, so the poor shunned her as well. The wealthy, the other Elders, saw Healing as up-jumped chicanery and sneered at her out of the corner of their mouths. Of course, whenever the wealthy had a cough or the gout they came to her all the same, but money and land and goods tended to ward off most such misfortunes. So Matron Marrow was shunned by the poor, the wealthy, and everyone in between.

But they came to her. When a mother broke her leg and no one else knew how to splint it, they came to the Healer. When a penniless wretch had been coughing his lungs out for two months, he came to the Healer. When a wealthy and promising young apprentice found her belly mysteriously swelling after visiting that lowborn shepherd’s boy a few moon’s past, they came to the Healer too. They skulked over in the dark, begged her service and her secrecy, and disappeared into their daily lives, pretending it never happened. But she remembered them all, shun her all they like.

“Shit on them,” she grumbled, then went back to digging. Her back seized up, forcing her to stop again. She hissed, planted the shovel into the dirt mound at a jaunty angle, and leaned against it as she steadied her breath. “Damned shit-bag of guts,” she said to no one. The human body was a tool used to toil one’s purpose in the world, and Matron Marrow often felt that she had been punted into the world ill-equipped. She was well past her sixtieth year now, but in truth her bones had started to fall apart just after thirty. True, most women her age would not even think to be handling a shovel, but then most people were lazy and stupid, so their habits counted for very little.

The small of her back felt like a fiery knife was being held against it by a nervous idiot, throbbing into her spine as the imaginary assailant huffed and stuttered. She wanted to lie down and let her back stretch out, but even in this cold she feared she might fall asleep. And even tonight, she feared that if she fell asleep, she might not wake up.

Matron Marrow hated poets. There was nothing romantic about death. A great warrior had visited Bluefield once, nigh on twenty years ago now. Young and tall, a beautiful man from a great city where men were judged for their beauty and birth rather than their ability to do anything useful. He had been grievously wounded in the gut by a fierce dragon he had slain, to hear him tell it. She knew the knife wound of a tavern brawl when she saw one, but he was young and bold and smiled so evilly at her that she kept her peace and burned the wound and sewed him up. He squealed so pitifully when she fired his cut, she asked him if he had been a pig boy before he was a warrior. He took that curtly, but well. That night, he squealed the same when she was astride him. At first she told him love should hurt if it is to mean anything, but as they lay together she realized his wound had been torn back open during their fun. So there was nothing for it but to fire the wound and sew him up and laugh at his squealing all over again.

The warrior died badly. The wound had festered, despite the fire. Before he went, he was half the size he had been, all his great muscle rotted off, his shining hair limp and sweaty, and his eyes hollow and afraid like a child. Toward the end, he tried to confess that he had been stabbed by a woman he tried to rob in Top Hill, but Marrow hushed him and asked him to tell her of the dragon he had slain. He smiled a sad, slim grin that scarcely recalled the evil smiles of before. He tried to cobble together a clever story, but whatever he was he was not a poet. He breathed his last while trying to find a good metaphor for the dragon’s size. She held his hands in hers as he grew still and changed from a man to an object.

Then, of course, he soiled himself, as all do when they die. Everyone knew this, but everyone tried to forget it. So she burned his clothes, swept his stolen money into her chest, and sold his piecemeal breastplate and piss-poor pauldrons to the smith. Marrow had been a romantic once upon a time, but even at forty she was a practical romantic.

She had lived a cautious life, but of course death would come for her in the end, and she feared it might be coming now. Some said the brightest candles burn the briefest, but a candle that burns long might always catch a moth or a sweet scent. Frankly, just burning longer was all the brightness Marrow needed. But caution was dead now, as dead as her back felt. Longing to stretch out on the ground, she instead hefted up her shovel and dove into the dirt once more.

“Matron!”

She stood straight as a rod in an instant, strangling out a yelp of pain as her back burned. Slowly, she twisted her neck to spy over her shoulder. There, standing on a small hill, framed against the great full moon behind him, was Zia, her apprentice.

“I’ve finished crushing all the herbs, Matron,” he said by way of explanation. “What are you doing in the graveyard?”

“Building a latrine; what does it look like I’m doing, boy?” Though quite past manhood by now, Marrow had been called Zia boy for ten years and had no intention of stopping anytime soon.

“It looks like you’re digging up the body of Ulvis Handler.”

Like most Bluefielders, and indeed like most people, Zia was charmingly stupid. Unlike most people, however, there were brief times when he was disarmingly cognizant of what was happening around him. Such moments were rare, but that only made them more difficult to handle when they arose.

“There was an error,” she ventured, “when he was buried. He had a vial of purple dye upon his person, and the Elders feel it ought to be salvaged before he rots.”

“Ohhh… but if the Elders insist, why are you doing it so well after nightfall?”

“Because I am still digging up the dead body of a werewolf, you cabbage-brained hump!” Marrow took a breath. That had been a very loud whisper, but she was reasonably certain it would not draw any curious eyes. “Since you are here, boy, help an old woman out and get digging.”

Zia’s eyes widened, and he ran his fingers through his greasy dark hair. “You… you want me to… to dig up a dead body?”

“Yes, boy. You are going to be a Healer one day, are you not? You should expect to see a dead body every now and again.”

“I hope to avoid seeing dead bodies, Matron.”

“And Ulvis Handler hoped to survive the day, but here we all are, and here we must endure our disappointments as they come. Except Ulvis, of course, he need not endure anything anymore. Except perhaps the embarrassment of disinterment, if that means anything, which I doubt heavily.”

“Yes. But…”

“You were two hours late this morning, and you think you will be forgiven for a few extra hours crushing hogroot? Now take this shovel, you turgid lackwit, and get to work.”

Marrow sighed contentedly as she stood to observe the labor. Her old teacher had always said it was better to work wisely than well. She had stolen the expression from a traveling jeweler, thus demonstrating her own wisdom as she shared it.

Marrow used this spare time to look about the village. The tavern could be heard far on the other side of the Great Wheel, but otherwise all was still. Unless Tilfer Bower stumbled by on one of his drunken wanderings, they were unlikely to be found out. Still, the more quickly this was done, the better. She began to rummage through her fading gray robes. They had been black, once upon a time, to represent the mysteries into which she delved for the good of her people. That was the story, at least. She suspected it was more likely that the better colors had all been claimed by more esteemed elders: green for farming, blue for crafting, red for justice, gold for the Faith of course. There were others, she was sure, but she would not dignify them with her memory. She had more pressing matters.

From her robes, she produced a bronze fob on a pendulum chain, a crow’s feather, a cat’s white paw, and a tiny vial of dark red liquid. She bound the feather and paw together with a piece of twine, then thought of the words she had to speak, running them over thrice in her mind to be sure.

Zia was still not done digging.

Matron Marrow began to tap her feet. “Youth is wasted on the young,” she grumbled, before snapping “Quicken your pace, boy. You want to sleep before daybreak, do you not?”

It was half an hour or so when Zia jerked away and dropped the shovel. “I felt… something.”

Of course. As a condemned heretic, Ulvis would not be buried in a case. Most likely, he was tossed into a sack and buried in what proved to be a thankfully shallow grave. Zia was hesitant to drag the sack from the earth, but some gentle coaxing and hitting convinced him to pull Ulvis’ remains out and set them on level and unmarked ground. With that, Marrow shoved him away and sprinkled the red liquid around the corpse in a circle.

“What are you doing, Matron?”

“Warding off evil spirits. Go to bed.” Not bothering to check if Zia obeyed, Marrow knelt slowly down and placed the cat’s paw and crow feather into Ulvis’ slack mouth, then shut the jaw as best she could. Her knees throbbing already, she took the bronze fob and placed it in her mouth, coating it liberally with saliva. As she pulled it out and dangled it precisely above the dead man’s heart, she admired the shine of it in the moonlight. She then began to stir the pendulum fob in a very subtle circle, widdershins, above the body.

“Fearless Ferion, who rests atop the nest of night, tear back the eternal shrouds and show your servant what she seeks. Let blood fear blood, and precious ore bid life bedew the sky. Fly!” She flung the fob into the air. Up and up it soared, disappearing into the shadowy night. She may have heard a thud sometime later, but was too intent watching the corpse.

As the seconds turned into minutes, she studied Ulvis’ bare chest, his sagging flesh now empty from torment and death. Dead bodies seemed lighter than the living bodies they had been mere minutes ago, Marrow often found. Often, the difference was slight, but Ulvis looked like a sack of hay that had been emptied out and thrown into a rainstorm. He was so covered with dying bruises, scratches, and cuts, it was impossible to tell what pains had been inflicted by the mercy of his inquisitors, and what may have arisen simply from the aches of his life and labors, or even what may have come from other, more secret works.

“Is something supposed to happen, Matron?”

She took in a long breath and let out an even longer sigh. “What is supposed to happen is that you are supposed to go to bed. You’ve got to get up before dawn to pick dragon mushrooms.”

“We haven’t needed dragon mushrooms for three years. We still have a basket in the north corner.”

“They’re too old. You’ve to got go pick new ones.”

“New ones to sit in the corner for three years?”

“Yes. If you’re not going to sleep you might as well go pick them now.”

“I’ve not great desire to be torn apart by wolves, Matron.”

“In that we differ.”

“What is that supposed to – What’s happening?”

Small, faint, dark dots were appearing on Ulvis’ chest, near his heart. They looked black in the gloom of night, but Marrow knew they were red. There seemed to be no pattern in them at first, but slowly more dots joined in, and at length a picture appeared. It was the likeness of a woman’s face, pale-seeming on Ulvis’ dead flesh, her fine features twisted in a wail of anguish.

“Who is that, Matron?”

Marrow creaked and groaned as she hobbled to her feet. “I have no idea. How thoroughly disappointing.” She dusted her hands and turned away. “Put him back in the ground and go to bed.”

“What about the purple dye, Matron?”

“Piss on it.”

“I… Matron? Should I—“

“No, not really. Just put him back in the ground and let’s get some sleep.”

She left him there and crept back toward the edge of northern edge of town. She passed the tavern, and sure enough Tilfer Bower was stumbling about in search of a ditch to pass out in. Luckily, he was stumbling in a northerly direction, unlikely to happen upon the graveyard. If he did, well, she could always let Zia hang and get herself a new apprentice. Perhaps she might even teach the new one how to be a Healer.

Who was this woman? Marrow had risked her life to spy upon that face and gained nothing from it. What else was there to do? She could not simply pick up and leave town without arousing suspicion, and thereby inviting a fate similar to Ulvis Handler’s. Perhaps she could invent an excuse, a need for some rare substance in the great city. Perhaps she could suggest that the evil humors the witches produced were infecting the town, and she required some mystical hobble-dee-bobble to cure it.

Yes. The idea had some merit. Mending bones and cuts, these were common work, but the higher mysteries of plague and even the common cough were unknown to anyone else in Bluefield. The thought of adventure breathed life into her ancient bones, and she felt herself gliding home.

Her eyes burned with weariness, but now that the plan was formulating, her limbs seemed to move with their own purpose. She swept her table clean as soon as she walked through the door, then began to rummage through her chest. Shadow dust would be needed. Some hogroot, of course, perhaps a little graveworm. This was a dangerous game she was concocting, and poisons would likely enter into it. Perhaps she might even brew up some of the evil humors the villagers feared so much. She wondered: could she stop a killer’s blade with a cloud of bloody smoke? So many unknowns, about to be tested.

Marrow pulled her head out of the chest. She stared at the wall.

There were many maps, diagrams, and formulae pasted on the walls of her hut, but the space above the chest was empty. As her absent gaze fell upon it, she felt that brief spark of wanderlust fizzle out. Her newfound energy drained away through a sieve. She was an old woman, not some daring adventurer. She could not even be sure of making it to Top Hill, let alone the great city. This was not a task for her, and there was no one else to undertake it.

She dumped everything back in the chest and closed it. Marrow sat down on her lumpy mattress, still staring at nothing.

Her old teacher had died fairly young, and Marrow became a Healer just before her thirtieth year. She still traveled into the Blue Wood herself in those days, and in the late spring a particularly dangerous wolf was menacing the Southern Edge. Rather than implore anyone for aid, she concocted a terrible poison and laced it with an odor like venison, to draw the beast to it. She crept into the woods late afternoon and set the bowl in a clearing, then shimmied up a tree to watch. She fell asleep waiting.

She awoke to a persistent whimper. Looking down, she saw a small fox whose hind legs had been caught and broken by a large trap, no doubt set to capture the infamous wolf. This little fox, gasping and dying, was dragging itself along the forest floor to reach Marrow’s poison. Panicking, in pain, alone, without any means of helping itself, the poor creature sought out comfort, not knowing the comfort it approached would grant it a gnawing and painful death. Marrow climbed down as fast as she could to scare the fox away, but it had no fear to show. By the time she reached it, the poor beast was already lapping away at her concoction.

As for the wolf, it disappeared one day, and no explanation was ever found.

Marrow felt similarly about her current situation, and by extension about the sum of her life. What had she done here in Bluefield that could not have been done by a husbander or a city dentist? And now, in this dire hour, what could she do but accept that she was a done old woman, with no real power over her world?

Unless.

Could it be done? No, it was unthinkable. Zia was young and eager to impress, but he could not be trusted with a grocery list as often as not. Still, if he should fail, what was the cost? She was an old woman, after all, like to die soon, and the only thing the village respected less than the Healer was the Healer’s apprentice.

It was there, it could be done. She would have to waste a little time telling him what to do, but it was there. He was not reliable per se, but she could trust him to the grave, as he even now demonstrated. She would trust him in this, even if the grave flew up to greet them.

Matron Marrow sat on her mattress, waiting for Zia to return. She was still sitting when she was awakened by a knocking at her door. Upon opening it, she found her apprentice in the grasp of Alma the prefect. It seemed that Sara, another prefect, was walking off a drunk and happened into the graveyard, where she found the boy meddling with a corpse. Zia was to be tried for grave robbing. Unfortunately, the scene soon drew Alma, who was sober, and able to observe the circle of blood on the ground, and the cat’s paw in the corpse’s mouth.

Zia was to be tried for witchcraft.

NaNoWriMo, Stories

The Hour of the Hobbit

My li’l Hobbit script is getting revived up at Kettle Moraine High School in Wisconsin. More little heroes playin’ little heroes!

Theater Stuff

NaNoWriMo CH2

Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Honestly, though, I still don’t anticipate much success. Guess I’ll see.

STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT

CHAPTER 2

Lored was sore, that was clear.

Not his arms, of course. As he hammered away on a pair of new scythes, the old man’s muscles looked as sturdy as ever. His mood, however, left much to be desired. He had a short, squinty, weathered head that was slowly being swallowed by his enormous white beard, which in turn was slowly being swallowed by his swelling shoulders. Barrel-trunked and bandy-legged, the years had shaped Lored into a creature perfectly fit for his job and nothing else. The sun had been up for just over an hour, and already the blue bandana across his brow was dripping into his eyes. Sometimes Eilee figured that was what made him squint all the time, but then Lored was a naturally suspicious and angry man, so perhaps not.

Lored took a half-step back and grunted, his usual signal. Eilee took the first scythe blade carefully in her heavy leather gauntlets and carried it over to the water trough, dunked it, then set it on the sheepskin to wipe it down with an old, crinkly cloth. It would be a bit yet before the second scythe blade was ready, and she fought the urge to sigh or yawn. Lored did not take kindly to unnecessary exhalations.

Even after four years, it rankled her at times, taking orders from a man. It was an outdated prejudice, she knew, and Lored had proven himself with over thirty years of reliable smithing, and Eilee was certainly not about to advertise her annoyance, but still. There were times, in her cups, when Sara and Neeve claimed that she would bewail her misfortune for hours at a time, but Sara liked to exaggerate and Neeve could not be trusted on anything outside stargazing.

There were certainly times, at the beginning of her apprenticeship, when Eilee would offer a condescending eye, and many of the questions she asked were more aimed toward Lored’s credibility than her own education, but the old Smithy made it plain soon enough that she could follow commands or follow the hot air out the door. So she swallowed her pride. It would not be long now before she herself would be the town’s smith. Lored was an old, frugal man, and would no doubt long for quiet and comfort soon enough.

Lored straightened his back. He took off his leather gauntlets and tucked them into the hempen belt that wrapped around the leather apron that comprised most of this clothing. He snorted. It was unusual for the old smith to stop in the middle of his work. Belatedly, she followed his gaze.

The smithy was a three-walled wooden hut with a steeple roof, the open end allowing the heat of the fires to easily escape. The opposite end led to a shack of middling size that featured two cots and a small table with three books on it. The books were Eilee’s; like most of the villagers, Lored could not read. In fact, Eilee spent half of her evenings at her parents’ home, who had no apprentice of their own. They were jewelers, hiring strangers to carry their goods to and from the nearby city, paying them so well and so frequently that none had ever thought to rob or cheat them. Eilee had it in her mind to become a goldsmith and improve their family fortune further, but of course there were no goldsmiths in town, and Eilee had no desire to move to the city, so Lored was a welcome compromise. The Rubier family were no Elders, but they had not suffered want in over five generations. Suffice it to say, she was familiar with the trappings of wealth.

It was not until she spied the two strangers outside the smithy, however, that Eilee truly understood what wealth was.

They were a man and a woman, the latter pale as milk with golden hair. Each wore a great silver crown in the shape of a rising sun, bedecked with rubies, sapphires, topazes, and gold ingots. It looked as though a passing god had flicked her jewel-encrusted fingers to dry them off, letting the riches land in a still pool of moonlight. Around the man’s neck was a thick silver chain with carbuncles woven into its links. They both wore long robes of some material that looked like silk, dyed a light blue with a lilac tint. It was not true purple, but even a lilac tint would cost a small fortune. The woman wore a black tunic beneath her robes, the man a blue jerkin and belt of gold medallions. Their trousers were gray, their boots black. The simplicity of their inner wear gave the impression of deliberate ostentation, of trying to display wealth beyond their means, but even that vain display was more than anyone in Bluefield had seen in their lives. Eilee wondered if this were a queen and her king come to call, though the man looked more richly dressed. Besides, royalty would have brought an entourage and guards with them. These two were alone.

Actually, not alone. Blinded by their finery, Eilee had not noticed little Zia the Healer’s apprentice, standing between and behind them. In his dun-colored tunic and green trousers, he looked like a servant’s servant next to these strangers. Just now, he was continually running his fingers through his greasy dark hair. Zia had been enamored of Eilee for a while now. He was an apprentice for a great Matron, but even this could not grant him the courage to make an overture to her, and she had no desire to make that endeavor any easier for him.

She wondered if Zia had brought them to the smith, or if he was just drawn by curiosity. Either way, he had dropped from their attention like rain off a tin roof.

The man spoke first, in a polite baritone. “Greetings, smith. We have come seeking a demonstration of your skills.”

Lored’s normally gruff demeanor seized and stiffened, and he raised his eyebrows in a disarming manner. “Good morning, m’lord,” he growled, which for Lored, was rather friendly. “I’m in the middle of finishing a scythe blade, if that’s demonstration enough for you.”

The man nodded to the pale woman before continuing, “I am afraid I have more exotic fair in mind. My companion will show you.”

From within her robes, the woman produced a small bar of steel not much longer than her hand. It was enough to forge two more scythes in a skilled smith’s hands, but more importantly, it had a brightness and a shimmer to it not seen in the cheap steel of provincial villages. “I imagine this is not enough for a sword,” she said. She looked around the room as she spoke.

“’fraid not, m’lady. I could make some shoes from it, or a scythe or two. I haven’t made a dirk in some time, but one of them could do.”

The man glanced over at the dry scythe blade. “I see you have a fresh… that is a scythe, is it not?”

“’tis, m’lord.”

The lord clapped his hands together. “Excellent. Make us one of those, and we shall… compare notes.”

“Aye, m’ord. Right away.”

Lored held out his hands and accepted the bar with a notable delicacy. Eilee had already donned her gauntlets and grabbed the tongs, but was disappointed to see that the smith planned to handle everything himself. He set the kettle in place and gently set the bar inside before it had a chance to heat up. He stood, watching. Silence followed.

Zia decided to make his presence known. “We were at the execution this morning.”

“Aye?” Lored’s glare made it clear to Zia what he thought of the apprentice’s comings and goings, which was little to none. He offered the foreigners a more deferential glance, but seemed loath to intrude on their business.

“A horrible fate,” the lord nodded, before adding, “but then, it seems he was a horrible man. He lived here for some time, yes?”

“Aye, m’lord. Born here, in truth. Then he took off some years back to live in Top Hill with that wife of his. I reckon she died before he returned. Dyer, he was. Learned it in Top Hill, I think.”

“A dyer? I cannot imagine there is much use for such here.”

“T’ain’t much use for jewelers neither, m’lord,” Lored said, jamming a peremptory thumb at Eilee. “That one’s parents been doin’ business with the city for generations, though. Reckon old Ulvis must’ve been doin’ the same.”

Zia interrupted, as was his wont. “I heard it was all a fake. I heard he was an alchemist, mixing unholy chemicals and such, just pretending to be a dyer.”

“Aye, and he rides a calf over the moon and dances in mushroom circles and turns little children into goblins.” Lored spat, in his own smithy, in Zia’s direction. “Only t’ain’t no goblins about, nor calves, nor mushrooms. What’s he doin’ with his evil mixtures, Zia? Where are they? Did they kill old Matron Yoolis?” He snorted. “Ulvis ain’t never mixed no potions or poisons. He was a dyer. Now he’s a dead dyer.”

The lord raised an admonitory finger. “Do you mean to say he was not a witch? He was falsely accused?”

Lored tensed, his bushy head drawing even further into his shoulders. “The Faith knows better than me on that, m’lord. All I say is he was a dyer. He dyed them stoles the Matrons wear. Perhap if he had dyed more for the Elders, they wouldn’t’ve condemned him to death.”

The lord chuckled lightly at this. Yet there was something in his smile, a sharpness, that made Eilee wonder how sincere his mirth was. “You think his guilt was determined by his generosity?”

“Not all that die are guilty,” he answered warily, “and not all that live are innocent.”

The lord’s smile grew thinner as he glanced at the pale woman. “Die and dye. How clever. A poet and a smith. How is the metal coming?”

Lored looked into the kettle. He kept staring as he said, “Eilee, get the fire going.”

The fire was quite hot enough, even if she had neglected it since the scythes came out. Eilee glared out the corner of her eyes as she inspected the kettle. There, sitting at its center, still perfectly solid and shimmering, was the steel bar. Eilee took down the bellows and got to work.

Without thinking, Lored started speaking to the pale woman. “Forgive me, m’lady, this may take some time. Perhaps you’d like to visit our tavern or speak to the Faith about Ulvis. Your scythe’ll be done before the hour’s up.”

The woman glanced at the man before answering, “Would the Faith know much about Ulvis?”

“Don’t know, m’lady, but they condemned him, they had him killed. Didn’t mean to be rude, m’lady. If Ulvis interests you, the Faith is where I’d go, but perhap you’d rather a more pleasant time. I hear there was a singer come through town a few days ago, could be he’s still at the tavern. Or not.”

The air seemed tense and uncomfortable for a space, but the lord broke this spell with another smile and another clap of the hands. “A singer sounds excellent. Come Shienna, let us explore the town.” He walked off without another word. The pale woman, Shienna, looked about the smithy again before following him off.

“The fire seemed hot enough to me,” Eilee insisted, still working the bellows.

“Aye, you’re not wrong.” Lored thrust his hand into his great white beard to rub at his hidden chin, as he sometimes did. “City steel must be harder stuff. Castle steel maybe.”

“Maybe it’s foreign!”

Eilee looked at Lored. Lored looked at Eilee. Together, they turned their heads to find that Zia was still there, still watching them.

“Maybe they’re from Jehinna. I hear there’s a lot of pale folks there.”

Eilee and Lored glanced at each other.

“And how ‘bout those clothes? They look like queens and kings, but here they are walking about by themselves. I heard in Jehinna the roads are paved with gold. Say Eilee,” he rambled on, his excitement mounting, “what did you think of those headdresses? Did you see all the gems?

Lored reached for the bellows, but Eilee nudged him away and continue to stir the flames. She glanced away from the kettle to see Lored actively looking for a way to ignore Zia.

“You really think Ulvis is innocent?”

Lored snorted again. He reached for the second scythe blade, but it had grown cool. “No, he’s guilty a’right, just not of what they killed him for.”

“What do you mean? What did he do?”

“He picked up something in Top Hill, maybe from them two witches he had with him. Reckon the Faith was happy to ignore it as long as he threw a stole their way every once in a while, but he must’ve said or done something and finally they wouldn’t tolerate him no more.”

Zia was shuffling forward a little each time he talked. They were now standing on opposite sides of Lored’s anvil, the anvil that would one day be Eilee’s. It irked her.

“What’d he pick up? Some sort of magic wand? An evil book or something?”

Lored looked about for a distraction. “How’re the flames comin’, Eilee?”

She only then noticed the torrent of sweat that had coated her face as it swept down to her jerkin. The fires were roaring. It had been hotter, once, the first time Lored left her unsupervised, but she had fed a lot more wood into the stove then. She put more in now. “It’s not melting.”

Lored grunted and shoved her out of the way, something he had not done in years. Eilee was about to object, but the shock on his face quelled her. “I ain’t never seen this,” he muttered to himself. “Sure looked like steel. Over-polished, maybe, but still steel.” He grabbed the bellows from her and began pumping furiously.

“What did Ulvis pick up in Top Hill?”

“A swat on the head!” Lored bellowed. “And that’s what you’ll get if you don’t bug off. Ain’t Matron Marrow got a use for you today, or do the Healer’s apprentices work on their own time?”

Zia shuffled his feet, shrinking into himself. He looked mournfully at Eilee. She looked back at the kettle. “Good bye, Zia.” She assumed he left, but no footsteps could be heard over the flames.

“More wood,” Lored grunted. Eilee fed more into the flames. Hotter and louder the flames became. Lored was as shiny as the steel bar, sweat coating him all over, and Eilee felt likely to collapse any moment, sure she had sweated off more than she had in her body. In her mounting delirium, she thought of the mythical dragons of the north, giant lizards with fire for breath, who melted the armor of mighty warriors that set out to slay them. When they ran out of fuel, Eilee stood staring into the flames and imagined the stove twisting into great metal jaws, a hungry dragon ready to devour them.

It was just over an hour when the two foreigners at last returned. There was a second woman with them, as richly dressed as the pale Shienna, but with a beat up leather satchel in her grasp. Both she and Shienna were looking about furtively, but the lord was smiling at ease when he approached. “Ah,” he offered, “is this my scythe, smith?”

Eilee was shivering. A few light breezes had played across her sweat-encrusted skin, driving chills through her. The fire had died, the week’s fuel was gone, and some of the new steel was now coating the bottom of their half-melted kettle, but gripped in Lored’s shaky hands was a shiny scythe blade. “Aye, m’lord.” He held the blade out to them.

“Excellent.” The lord nodded to Shienna as he took the blade. From her robes, Shienna produced a small bag that jingled merrily as she handed it over to Lored. He opened it at once, and his eyes grew wide. “This is all silver?”

“It is,” Shienna said. “Might we have one of your own scythes as well?”

“Of course, m’lady.” Lored nearly knocked Eilee over as he lurched to his own new blade and handed it over to the pale foreigner.

The new lady set her satchel at her feet, and they held Lored’s blade between them. The lord held the new blade up like a sword and struck it harshly against Lored’s blade. Lored’s blade bent under the pressure, and a deep cut was bitten into it. The new blade still looked pristine. The foreigners shared a glance, then reversed their practice. The new blade was struck with the slightly warped blade. The new blade did not bend, nor was any mark left.

Shienna grabbed the blades and dropped them. “This proves nothing we did not know already. I still say numbers are what determine a victory.”

The lord bent down and picked up the blades. He held out the bent blade in his left hand, then the new one in his right. “Yes. Numbers. But against this, even three of these is not enough.”

Shienna did not answer. He handed the blades to her, and she accepted them grudgingly.

Lored thrust his hand into his beard again. “You’re satisfied?”

The lord grinned again. “Some of us are.”

“Did you learn what you wanted about Ulvis, m’lord?”

He did not answer right away, but his words were casual and dismissive. “We visited the tavern, as you suggested. Lovely music, in a quaint sort of way.”

Lored shrugged. “I cannot vouch for the singer, m’lord. Thank you for the silver. Thank you heartily. Is there anything more I can get you?”

“You’ve done enough.” His words were friendly, but the three of them were already walking away, taking the satchel and the scythe blades with them. Lored was still rubbing his jaw as they left.

Eilee thought again of the metal dragon she saw in her delirium, and wondered if that was what the hells looked like. “Lored, sir.” She did not call him ‘sir’ very often. “Why do you think Ulvis was crucified?”

She had wanted to watch the execution, but Lored gruffly declared it was provincial nonsense, and insisted they stay and work, even though their workload was light for the week. ‘Provincial nonsense’ was an odd term he often employed. Lored was born and bred in Bluefield, and as far as she knew, he had never set foot outside the village limits. Even when the Blue Wood was open for hunting, Lored got his meat from others who bartered with him for arrow heads or horseshoes or knives. Eilee had been to Top Hill once as a little girl, and Zia had dragged her to the Southern Edge two or three times, trying to impress her with his tedious herb lore. She had even visited the great city not six years past when her father had heard his wares were being sold for ten times his own price. It was then she decided to become a goldsmith.

That a pure provincial would remark so often on ‘provincial nonsense’ was odd, but Lored had always considered himself more worldly and cunning than other Bluefielders. Perhaps he was. “Never mind his potions and poisons. Ulvis had a cat in his home, I’ll bet.” He dragged a battered old stool from a corner and collapsed onto it. “Top Hill’s just an hour from the border. The southern border. Sunderland’s full of cat worshipers, and a lot of folks say Top Hill is too. Why else would a dyer be so greedy with the local Faith? He hated the Great Wheel, I’d wager.”

Eilee did not know what to say. She had heard of cat worshipers of course. She had never seen a cat, but they sounded like small, unimpressive creatures. It was said they could suck your soul out of you while you slept. But during the day they were quite powerless. That anyone should fear such a beast, let alone worship it, seemed ridiculous to her. Yet being able to actually see and touch the object of your worship was perhaps helpful. Thinking of the Great Wheel in the village circle and the Twelve Angels that accompanied it, Eilee could sense some sympathy for those with a tangible god.

Lored grunted again. He was staring at the empty fuel bin. He might have been a second away from a sigh, but then he looked to the bag of silver in his fist. “Looks as though we’re out of work for the week,” he said. “Go on home.”

Eilee was still holding her arms and shivering as she passed the Great Wheel. It was nearing noon, and she wondered if a meal and a blanket might await her at her parents’ home. Casually, she looked about the village as she walked, hoping to spy a glint of sunlight on a silver crown, or the striking image of a lilac robe, but there was no sign of the foreign visitors anywhere.

Sara and Davad were standing atop a great scaffolding that had been erected in the village circle, along with two large beams. Eilee nodded to Sara with a faint grin, but Sara appeared not to be in a friendly mood. Standing next to a bloody corpse no doubt had such an effect on people, but Eilee was now possessed with dreams of food and warmth. The light breezes washed away her phantasms of metal dragons and devilish cats, and she smiled despite herself.

On the breeze was carried a single low, anguished moan. Eilee looked back over her shoulder at the hanging corpse, but did not break her stride.

NaNoWriMo, Stories

NaNoWriMo CH 1

Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Honestly, though, I still don’t anticipate much success. Guess I’ll see.

STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT

CHAPTER 1

Ulvis Handler was crucified on the Great Wheel in the village circle. His witches were there too, each hanging by bound wrists to a great beam that had been erected on either side of the Great Wheel. No one made much mention of the witches, however. For the past week, Ulvis had been all anyone spoke of. He had confessed to witchcraft himself. He was a werewolf, a murderer, a decadent, and even a cannibal. Never in Bluefield’s history had such a degenerate decided to set up shop and work his evil practices. It made things all the worse, all the more insulting to the townsfolk’s virtuous natures, that Ulvis was a natural born citizen of Bluefield. The witches, Anji and Gretel (no one knew their family names) were both strangers from Old Spokes, where Ulvis had spent five years as a dyer before returning to set up the shop he had run and lived in for over a decade. Talk was, the three had engaged in debauched orgies, and that their lust would transform them into savage wolves that terrorized the Blue Wood once a month. Sara, an oft-drunk prefect, was telling anyone who would listen that Ulvis confessed to own a cache of magical tools to transform people into toads, foods into poisons, and his many dyes into ghosts that would instill foul humors into innocent villagers. Sara liked to talk, though, so most of the village slept without fear of foul humors. Whatever his crimes, Ulvis could no longer speak of them. His tongue had been ripped out shortly after his confession.

Zia was standing near the back of the chattering crowd, having spent most of the early morning crushing herbs for Matron Marrow. He had been the Healer’s apprentice for almost a decade himself, but so far he remained little more than an errand boy. It seemed unjust, but he had a roof over his head and food in his belly, and Zia had never been one to cause a scene, so he continued to wait for the day Matron Marrow would begin to teach him the higher mysteries of medicine. Still, the frustrations were many. Zia had thought serving a Healer would bring him great esteem in the village. Proving himself good enough for an office typically held by wise and wellborn women seemed something to brag about, but instead the townsfolk found him alternately presumptuous and unmanly. His apprenticeship was seen as both uppity pride and shameful weakness, depending on the person and the day. Moreover, he spent so much time gathering plants in the Southern Edge of the Blue Wood or shuttered in the corner of Matron Marrow’s workshop, he was often the last to learn village news and the last to arrive at any gathering.

Even now, Zia suspected he would catch grief from the Matron for dawdling at the execution instead of crushing the herbs he had retrieved just after daybreak. Still, this was an historic event, and Zia knew he risked no more than a scold and a few harsh remarks the following day. Besides, if he wanted to be a Healer, he ought to observe some injuries. Life in Bluefield provided few practical educational opportunities, aside from yearly coughs and the occasional leg broken under a plow horse. Ulvis Hander and his witches represented an opportunity Zia might never have again.

Zia was not very tall, and he was old enough to assume he would not get much taller. Luckily, a great wooden scaffolding had been built before the Great Wheel, upon which stood three prefects and Matron Orled. The scaffolding was nearly as high as a man’s shoulders, but the Great Wheel stood three times as high as a man, so Ulvis was still hanging with plenty of room between himself and comfort. Not that he would ever know comfort again in his few remaining minutes.

At the foot of the scaffolding, far to the left, Zia spied three heads above the crowd. They were only a little taller than everyone else, but their heads were decked with elaborate silver headdresses he had never seen before. Clearly, in addition to the rest of the village, some very important people had shown up to watch Ulvis Handler die.

Ulvis was crucified, with his arms stretched at harsh angles and tied brutally tight to the spokes of the Great Wheel. In a small mercy of a sort, his ankles had been bound together beneath him. They too were bound with cruel tightness, but the security of his ankles allowed him to alleviate some of the pressure on his wrists. It also meant that most of the blood he lost would trickle neatly down to this feet and drip into the metal basin that rested just below his feet. Zia took a moment to note that neither of the witches had basins beneath their feet, and wondered what fate awaited them.

Matron Orled was among the wealthiest of Bluefield’s citizens, but Bluefield was still a humble village, nearly an hour from Great Peak. As such her robes were voluminous and well-tailored, but undyed except for her red stole. Zia briefly wondered if the Faith might help themselves to some of Ulvis’ dyes once the execution was complete. It was the right of the Elders in general to seize the property of any condemned person, but Zia of course knew nothing of the hierarchy of preferences that decided who seized what. There were other Matrons, of course, many held in high regard, and dye was a valuable thing.

Besides her robes, Matron Orled was also equipped with a gilded rod the length of her forearm, and an ancient leather book in her spare hand. The prefects, alternately, bore maces and bucklers. One of them, Kelle, bore a great stone hammer across her back as well. The Matron thrust the rod skyward, and silence fell upon the village circle like a calloused hand smothering a candle.

“Neighbors, hear me.” Her voice was like smoke, like mint, it pricked at your senses before it filled you like the warmth of a campfire on a winter’s night. “This sinner comes to pay contrition for evil crimes against the nation and our race. Within him come two strangers, traitors to our welcome, to pay contrition for evil crimes against the nation and our race.” A handful of villagers, scattered amidst the crowd, hissed at this.

Matron Orled lowered her rod, and a small murmur washed through the crowd. Slowly, she approached Ulvis and stood directly under him. She was not a tall woman, and even with the rod in her hand her reach extended only up to his chest. “Ulvis Handler,” she asked, “do you confirm that you have confessed and pled guilty to witchcraft, to transformation, to murder, to cannibalism, and to high debauchery?” She twisted her neck at what appeared to be a painful angle, looking straight up at him.

Ulvis Handler was an old man of middling height, still in the process of going to fat. A ring of light grey hair crowned his bloodhound face, his jowls quivering with the effort of keeping his head up. His meaty fists were red as beets, and his kettle belly could be clearly seen through the torn and soiled rags he wore, lacerated by switch, whip, and cane. Zia was unsure if his trousers had been brown or if they were merely encrusted with filth, but they too were ripped to shreds, displaying the blue veins that ran down his shins to his ruddy, almost blackened feet. The feet were large for a man his size, and the nails on the feet were long and jagged.

Zia thought he might see something in Ulvis’ eyes: guilt or innocence, pride or humility. All see saw was pain, the fluttering death of an old man’s fortitude, and what little remained of fear. Zia was surprised. A man facing death ought to be more terrified than that. The eyes themselves were small, dark, narrow, and unremarkable. His entire head wobbled a bit as with great effort he nodded. This done, his head collapsed down to loll at an odd angle, as if glancing to the witch at his right. He sagged a bit, perhaps to give his tortured ankles a brief respite. The ropes around his wrists creaked in protest.

Matron Orled moved with a most deliberate pace to the witch on his right. The Matron was an Elder and an old woman, but Zia knew showmanship when he saw it. Matron Marrow was not above a little performance herself when a villager came to her with an imagined ailment or even a difficult birth. Orled was drawing this out, no doubt wishing to concrete the message that any who dabble in such red arts would face a horrible end. Zia suspected that no such reminder was necessary.

The witches were closer to the ground, so Matron Orled could place her golden rod directly against the witch’s temple as she spoke. “Stranger Gretel, to you confirm that you have confessed and pleaded guilty to witchcraft?”

Gretel was older as well, though not as plump as Ulvis. Her sandy hair did little to hide numerous bald spots, the result either of disease or abuse, though they did somewhat obscure her bright blue eyes and large, broken nose, hanging over a lantern jaw. Her torn rags revealed bruises and rashes. Like Ulvis, her ankles were bound together tightly near the base of the beam upon which she hung.

Gretel still had her tongue. A hoarse, almost inhuman croak emerged from her white, cracked lips. “Aye.”

A grumble ran through the crowd.

“To transformation?”

She tried to lick her chapped lips, but there was no moisture there. “Aye.”

The crowd grew louder.

“To murder?”

“Aye.” Her voice grew no stronger, but the words were coming more easily. The same was true of the villlagers.

“To cannibalism?”

Aye.” The people were audibly shouting now: booing, hissing, calling for her death and the death of her comrades.

“To high debauchery?”

Gretel’s neck grew stiff, as though she were going to shake her head or shrug or even nod. Instead, she let out a final “Aye,” and collapsed, letting her wrists take her weight. The village was howling now.

Matron Orled against thrust her rod into the sky, and the very air was taken from the voice of the people. Slowly, ever so slowly, she made her way to the other witch, Anji. She placed her rod at Anji’s head and repeated the accusations.

“Stranger Anji, do you confirm that you have confessed and pleaded guilty to witchcraft?”

Anji was bones with white skin stretched over them. She was almost completely bald, with only a few random strands of black hair trailing down to her waist. Her sharp ribs could be seen through her rags, and her skinniness mad her elbows and knees look almost swollen. Even her hands and feet, despite the knots that bound them, were pallid as spoiled milk. Her face was hard to see from Zia’s vantage. Her chin was tucked into her chest, trying to hide from the audience. It wobbled slightly, but she did not answer.

“Stranger Anji,” the Matron persisted, “you are guilty of witchcraft, are you not?”

Intermittently, the villagers demanded her confession. They called her devil, monster, cannibal, all manner of insults, but never more than one person at a time. The seconds stretched, until Orled asked again.

“For the third time. Anji, are you not guilty of witchcraft?”

A terrible moan came from Ulvis. His head twisted again, as though someone were manipulating him through his spine like a poorly-built puppet. His moan was guttural and grating. A villager’s fist flew up. “There it is,” someone shouted, “the wolf’s howl!” This was greeted with more screams for blood, until the Matron again thrust her rod into the sky, creating silence.

A small sound, light as a feather, floated through the quiet. “Yes.”

Matron Orled returned her rod to the witch’s head. “And transformation?”

Her head wobbled again before, “Yes.”

“And murder?”

She hesitated. The tension was building again, but before anyone could speak, Anji threw her head back in a lurch and groaned “Yes! All of it, yes!”

Matron Orled faced out into the crowd. “Neighbors, in the sight of the Great Wheel, these sinners have confessed. They must now pay their contrition, to be whole again.”

As one, the village answered, “To be whole again!”

She nodded to the prefect, Kelle, and it began.

Kelle unslung the great stone hammer from her back and hefted it in her broad hands. Without hesitation, she strode over to Gretel, planted her feet, reared back, and swung the stone hammer into her shins. There was a great crack, and Gretel’s crackling voice exploded in a terrible scream. As one, the village threw up their hands and cheered.

Kelle was not finished, of course. Without even a pause to observe her work, she marched over to Ulvis, reared back, swung up, and shattered his legs. If Ulvis made a sound, it was drowned by the tumultuous celebrations of the villagers as he sagged so deeply in his restraints, Zia thought for certain he would snap free and fall to the ground like an overripe apple.

Again, immediately, Kelle methodically strode to the last witch and did her duty. This last, Kelle struck with such ferocity that the beam itself cracked under the weight of the onslaught. The cheers of the crowd were choked out with a collective gasp, but Anji’s wails were joined by Gretel’s as everyone waited to see if Gretel’s beam would break and fall. The seconds dragged by, and soon the village was comfortable celebrating again.

Kelle stood to the side as another prefect, Sara the drunkard, produced a small flensing knife from her belt. Zia wondered if Sara had been drinking that morning. Regardless, she was sure of foot and finger as she approached Ulvis and began flaying the skin from his thighs. Sara was a tall woman, and so could easily reach just below his groin to insert the knife and begin slowly tearing away strips of red flesh.

From the start, Ulvis had been a defeated and deflated man, but now he found reserves he did not know he had, threw back his head and let out an otherworldly scream that could be heard even above the cheering of the villagers. The scream became strangled, a small burst of blood flew out his mouth, and a sudden gasp of disgust near the front of the crowd told Zia that Ulvis had likely released his bowls from the pain. Yet Sara, the boasting braggart and tavern tall talker, continued like a lifeless object, slicing into the man’s legs and peeling away.

It was only a few minutes before he passed out from the pain. The witches continued to groan as Sara hesitated and looked to the Matron. Orled glanced up at Ulvis, and then nodded her head toward Davad, the last prefect. Davad drew back his mace and swung it into the flayed thighs, first left then right. The right leg broke under Davad’s swing, but still Ulvis did not stir. The prefect delivered a similar service to the stomachs of the witches, breaking them open and ending their suffering in short time.

They stared at Ulvis. His limp form contorted grotesquely as his belly pulled against his wrists. After what seemed a full minute, they could see the faintest motion, like a flag caressed by a gentle breeze, and Ulvis took in another breath.

Once more, Matron Orled thrust her golden rod into the air, but there was no noise to quell. “There shall he hang,” she said, “until his sins claim him. The strangers, Gretel and Anji, have paid their contrition and are now welcome into our love. Welcome Gretel.”

As one they answered, “Welcome Gretel!”

“Welcome Anji.”

As one they answered, “Welcome Anji!”

Zia anticipated a sermon, but perhaps he had just seen one.

Without further ceremony, Matron Orled hobbled to the stairway at the back of the scaffolding, nestled between Anji’s beam and the edge of the Great Wheel. As she walked, she handed off her rod and book to a white-clad apprentice in a squared cap, who had just appeared. She followed the Matron back down off the scaffolding and out of sight. Urf the Undertaker and his own apprentice Wend were already taking down the bodies of the witches, even as Sara and Davad took their positions at Ulvis’ feet.

As the crowd began to thin, Zia’s eyes were drawn to the Great Wheel. Its pristine whitewash was now spattered with blood from the crucifixion, yet no one seemed in a rush to clean it. No doubt an apprentice would be by later.

Zia watched the witches being wrapped up and carried away, and as his eyes followed them he caught sight of three beautifully dressed people he did not recognize. What he did recognize were the beautiful silver headdresses they wore, shaped into semi-circular disks that made it appear as though each was wearing a moonrise on their head, a moonrise bedashed with a fistful of sparkling jewels. These were the people he noticed at the foot of the scaffolding before the confessions.

All three were quite tall, and two of them had skin nearly as pale as Gretel’s. The two women appeared to be counseling the man, who nodded or disagreed as his fancy suited him. Clearly, these were strangers, if not outright foreigners.

Zia stared absently at the Great Wheel as he approached, trying to overhear what the foreigners were saying while pretending to observe Ulvis Handler from a better vantage point. As the crowd dispersed, their conversation became more obvious. They were speaking softly, but making no special attempt to hide their words.

“… not your strong point, my lord, but surely you understand that the difference between five thousand and fifteen thousand is a significant one. Yes?” The pale woman was glaring at the man, who did not respond to her sally.

The other woman broke in. “Perhaps a demonstration is in order, my lord. It’s a small town, but surely there is a smithy somewhere. They need hoes and rakes, if not arms and armor.”

The pale woman crossed her arms deliberately, almost as though part of a performance. “Demonstration or not, no weapon can defeat three times the numbers.”

The man held up a single, admonitory finger. “Such odds have been beaten before,” he countered.

“Once in a thousand years,” the pale woman scoffed. “Shall I relate those odds to you?”

The other woman’s demeanor relaxed noticeably. “If such is so, then a demonstration harms nothing.”

“She should depart at once. Who knows what is happening while we scratch about in this hovel?”

The pale man’s brow darkened at this. “He was here for ten years. We must look through his things before we go, before the local chiefs root through it and take the treasures for themselves.” He placed his head in his hands. “There is too much going on at once.”

The pale woman’s glare narrowed. “There are two things going on at once. Is that such a challenge?”

“Well it’s more than usual!” he spat. “I am a prince by birth. I am not made for this… thinking.”

The two women, so lately enemies, exchanged a mildly amused glance.

“Very well,” he decided. “We will find a smithy and have a demonstration. Theserra, you find his home and look through it. Try to be secretive if you can, but do not be afraid to play upon their fears.”

Theserra, the less pallid woman, had suddenly dropped her confidence. “Me? Shouldn’t I—“

“I want a skeptic with me for this demonstration,” he said.

The skeptic he spoke of, the pale woman, did not gloat or even grin. She nodded in receipt of their orders. “How long do you…”

She trailed off. It took several seconds for Zia to realize all three of the foreigners were staring straight at him. Belatedly, he further concluded that he must be staring right at them. He swallowed, audibly.

“Hi!” said Zia.

 

NaNoWriMo, Stories

Maggy’s Treasure

Mystery Card #4

The River was turning gold as Maggy meandered along the LaZell Bridge. The clouds above, the color of sun-drenched parchment, dotted the golden sky. Maggy’s bag was rattling and whumping behind her on two ancient wheels that had nearly worn away over time. The bag was a blotchy brown and grey, over-sized and lumpy, but it was hers, and she loved it almost as much as what was inside it.

Maggy was starting to huff and whump, herself. A large canvas painting was held in her right arm, tucked under her moist armpit and held in place by increasingly stiffening and tiring joints. The painting was of her father, a stern man in a blue tunic, pale face and paler eyes above a vibrant orange beard, his fierce stare somewhat diminished by a bright yellow pork pie hat. In truth, it was a likeness of a likeness. Maggy’s father had died of fever when she was two, and this was a copy of a portrait his good friend Matilda Savorre had made, only three days before he died.

They had called it a mysterious turn of events. In his youth, Tomas Vellenorn had been a beautiful man, but the demands of manhood had proven too great a burden for him. A few short years at a tannery had furrowed his brow, thinned his lips (necessitating the beard), and stooped his shoulders. Tomas and his handsome wife Eleanor had been of a height when they wed; Mama used to say how much she loved being able to kiss her beloved without having to stand on tiptoe or draw him down to her. Toward the end, when she had to dip her head to kiss him, she had become markedly less generous in her praises. Of course, they did not kiss much, during the two years that all three of them were walking the earth. Most everything Maggy knew of her parents had been learned from neighbors.

By the time Maggy was born, they had both strayed from their vows more than once. Gossips used to suggest that Maggy’s real father was the brawny baker’s son, Jean-Perlo, but Maggy’s slim figure and fiery hair proved them wrong. For better or worse, her father was Tomas Vellenorn, a tortured, beautiful, useless, dead man.

The sky was darkening to a glimmering bronze as the sun slowly dipped. Maggy took in the smell of aging bread from Gierne’s to the north, the rolls he was invariably unable to sell since the customers always preferred his croissants in the morning and his baguettes in the evening. Gierne kept baking his rolls, though; he said they were his favorite. The odor of his pet passion danced daintily along the river and floated over the bridge, mixing with the intoxicating vapor of the tiny arboretum from the northwest: peonies, lilies, and nasturtiums pirouetting around the old bread, giving it new life. The breeze was light, undemanding, yet it offered so much to those who crossed the LaZell Bridge.

It was an excellent mask for Maggy’s lumpy old bag. She called her bag Papa Tom, and it smelled like death. She had owned the bag for many years now, and the smell was fading, but without question anyone who knew Maggy knew that odor, and anyone who met her was soon introduced. Her Mama had demanded that she keep it out of the house, but any time Maggy left her home, Papa Tom came with her. It was as much a part of her as her Mama and her house.

When Maggy was halfway across the LaZell, she heard a clicking far behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, without a care, and saw a tall man in a black frock coat, absently looking toward her, not at her, as he casually crossed the bridge. His heels had been clicking, but he had adjusted his gait, and was now walking silently, a vague smile on his face, glancing everywhere but at Maggy, as he crossed.

Papa Tom skittered slightly, having rolled over a small stone. Maggy stopped to kick the stone lightly into the edge of the LaZell, where it nestled comfortably between the smooth flagstones of the bridge and the rock-and-mortar of the waist-high walls, at rest. Maggy offered a faint grin and continued on her way.

Another click sounded behind her, but Maggy did not bother to look. She knew who it was.

She was only four when Mama had first begun to warn her of strangers. They lived in a prosperous town, and many visited to cross the bridge, the admire their tiny arboretum, or even to attend Elaine’s painting studio, the largest and best provisioned in the area. Maggy always met new people when Mama took her to the market, which was often enough once her grandmother had become bedridden. Grandmama had been unbearable when she was well, and her rapid collapse had made her no more pleasant a conversationalist. When they were out of the house, Mama was a charming and diverse socialite. She was polite to the poor, engaging to the wealthy, and alternately warm and firm to the burgeoning bourgeoisie. She would show Maggy off in new dresses to endless praise, and as a child Maggy had grown accustomed to this celebration. When Grandmama died, though, and Maggy grew old enough to go out on her own, everything changed.

Mama was terrified that someone would take Maggy away. One time, a man in the market grabbed Maggy’s shoulder, and Mama accosted the man brutally until he fled. They never saw the man again. It was unusual for strangers to visit the market, but not unheard of; he must have been a stranger.

Maggy never understood, though, where this terror had come from. She sneaked out of the house many times, and Mama would chase her down, looking frazzled and causing a scene, and they would bellow at each other past nightfall. Finally, after two years of screaming and defiance and even the occasional cruel word, Mama relented and allowed Maggy to go out on her own, to learn painting visit the flowers and even to go to the market alone sometimes. But she always took Papa Tom with her.

A third click sounded, and Maggy stopped. She was nearly to the end of the LaZell, but still. It had to be done. She set her portrait against the waist-high wall of the bridge before leaning against it herself, glancing out at the river, and casually looking back over the flagstones. The strange man was much closer than he had been, despite his casual gait.

He was tall and thin. Though all in black and a bit morbid looking, he was attractive and well dressed. The silken half-cape over his suit made him look like a fashionable city-dweller, and his cocked hat gave the impression of an incorrigible rake. Maggy did not doubt she could have many adventures with such a fellow; that he would charm her, worship her, love her, and ultimately break her heart. It would inspire some beautiful art, yet it would be beautiful by itself as well. She sighed, very lightly, as she bent down and opened her bag.

Papa Tom was fastened by two separate threads that wound around two separate buttons, one black and one green, that looked the slightest bit like eyes on some bloated toad. When Maggy unwound the buttons and opened the flab that secured the overstuffed bag, it gave the distinct impression that the toad was opening its mouth to snare a fly. Maggy did not rummage in the bag, nor did she favor the stranger with another look. She leaned against the waist-high wall again, and looked out northwest toward the arboretum.

The clicking returned, this time constant. The strange man had stopped hiding his intent, whatever it was, and was now striding confidently toward her. He could be holding a pistol, or a flower, or a paintbrush she had dropped, or his outstretched hand. It did not matter.

The man was very close. He took a breath to speak. Maggy kicked at Papa Tom idly, and something clattered out of the overstuffed bag. She heard the man’s voice catch, and sense him glancing down at at the flagstones.

A long silence followed. Maggy and the stranger looked at each other. Words had evidently failed him. Maggy did not have much use for words these days.

The stranger turned and walked away. She would never learn what he wanted.

Maggy bent down and picked up the arm. It was only bone now, pocked with mossy green growths that may have once been flesh. Once upon a time she had held it fondly before placing it gently back into the bag. Now, she unceremoniously jammed it back in place and wound the bag shut. It gave the impression of a fat toad closing its jaws over a satisfying meal.

Maggy went home.

It was only just past sundown, but there was a good chance Mama would be sleeping. Maggy opened the front door slowly, spacing out the obnoxious creaks. Someday, they would oil those hinges. Still holding her portrait under her armpit, she waddled through the kitchen and into her cramped bedroom. Even though she rarely cooked, Mama insisted on keeping the stuffy upstairs room to herself, where Grandmama had lived and died. Maggy’s bedroom was larger, but it was filled with paintings.

Everywhere she looked, Tomas Vellenorn stared back at her, drawn and worn down, poorly attempting to look imperious. There were no imaginings of his beautiful youth, nor copies of his older work modeling for Matilda Savorre back before Maggy was born. There were attempts at different angles, and many different idle plays with color, but they were all the same man, staring out at her, trying above all to maintain his dignity.

Maggy set Papa Tom in the one free corner, then lay the new portrait against a stack of long dried twins. From under her tiny cot, she drew a sheaf of pasteboard and her charcoals. She sat on her cot, charcoal in hand, pasteboard in her lap, and looked at her father. Faintly, she could hear Mama snoring, as ages ago she could hear her grandmama’s moans.

Maggy turned her face away, down at the pasteboard. She began to sketch the outline of a tall man in black, beautiful and terrified, being drawn like a fly into a fat toad’s mouth. The toad looked very satisfied.

Stories

Line!

This is a Ramble. Read at your own risk.

Getting off-book is a problem for many actors.

There are many excuses, but the truth is I don’t actually hear that many excuses nowadays. A while back, Facebook saw a rise in popularity of “When you tell me you don’t have time, what you’re actually telling me is this is not a priority,” and since then the #1 excuse for anything on and offstage has fallen by the wayside. In its place, I see sheepish glances and nods; this is not ideal, but it is infinitely better than getting into an argument with someone over why they could not be bothered to do the one thing they absolutely, empirically must do to have a “good” show.

My old grad school acting teacher compared learning lines for actors to running sprints for running backs. If a running back says “I don’t feel like running sprints today,” there is a good chance they will not be a running back much longer.

But like I said, the age of making excuses seems to be waning, at least for now.

There are a lot of different methods for memorizing lines. Although I occasionally utilize mnemonic devices (“There’s a lot of Ts in this line; I’ll bet the next word is an T word”), mostly I just run my lines over and over and over again. I understand this is not meant to work for everyone, but I was using it even back in middle school. I cannot help expecting that those who claim that this technique does not work for them, simply don’t do it. I’m sure it’s faster for me than it is for others, but that’s because I have twenty years of practice doing it. When I started out, it was as laborious for me as for anyone.

Nowadays, I spend most of my time with community theater (or “storefront theater,” as it is known in Chicago). These theaters pay very little, and often they pay nothing. This has led to many actors saying, “If you want me to be memorized, then pay me.” And ya know, in a libertarian, marketplace sort of way, that’s a valid point to make. Such actors perhaps do not realize that their refusal to memorize lines is not merely an inconvenience and frustration for the director (and the stage manager). It is also, and much more importantly, an inhibition to their ability to rehearse, which necessarily damages the rehearsals and consequently performances of every actor with whom they share dialog, or even just stage time.

In the unlikely event that this is unclear, I’ll elaborate. If you are thinking of what your lines are, you are not thinking of your motivation. You are not thinking of what other actors onstage are doing. You are not paying attention to your environment. You’re not “present,” to use the touchy-feely-arty term. I think this is another way of saying that you are “too in your head,” running internal checks rather than focusing on your surroundings.

Most importantly, I want to join the ranks of those dispelling the myth that getting “too off-book,” or getting off-book “too early” will damage the spontaneity of a performance. I have directed actors who got off book early and lacked spontaneity. I have also, most definitely, worked with actors who got off book very late and lacked spontaneity: I can think of far more examples of the latter than the former. The actors I know that are most capable of spontaneity, also get their lines down early. I even work with actors who have a lot of improv experience, and still get their lines down early, and still display outstanding spontaneity.

No less an actor (slash-pop-star) than Bill Nighy remarked on this recently. You must know your lines so well that you can rattle them off without thinking. This, I think, is the best way to simulate natural speech: to rattle off words without expending your mental energies trying to figure out what those words are. Knowing your words this well also allows you to play around with them easily, which increases spontaneity.

When I direct a show, actors are expected to be off-book the second night we visit a scene. Nine times out of ten, this means our first stumble-through is off-book. This is particularly convenient for me as a director, since it means two of the most car-crashy portions of a rehearsal period occur at the same time, minimizing wasted rehearsals. Lately though, I have not had many wasted rehearsals, because most of the actors I work with are anxious to get their lines down. I suspect this is because they enjoy acting.

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can say they are acting if they are spending the majority of their time inside their own head, trying to remember their next line. Moreover, I cannot imagine how that could be a fun experience for anyone. I think some folks who call themselves actors really just want people to look at them; I think they want their friends to tell them (with a plausible veil of sincerity) how talented they are. Most of all, I think they want someone in a position of power to point at them and say “I want you,” for a particular show. Selfishness aside, this seems pretty neurotic to me. If the biggest rush you get is being cast in a show, then the lion’s share of your work still waits after that high is over.

I think one of the leads for my first directing gig in Milwaukee put it best. At a talkback after a show, she remarked that I had the cast get off-book unusually early (halfway through a five-week rehearsal process). This was an experienced and successful Milwaukee actor, who had also spent several years in New York. Despite the frustration of having to jump this hurdle earlier than she was used to, the actor remarked that this enabled her to connect with her cast-mates much earlier and more effectively, allowing her to experiment more. Her costar agreed with her shortly thereafter.

Anyway, I guess my point is that Off-Book is not a chore that the director imposes upon an actor. It’s not a power-play or a way to make their life easier. It is the primary (meaning both the most important and the first) preparation technique that allows sincere acting to occur: not only for that specific actor, but for every actor with whom they share the stage.

Goofs and Rambles, Random Stuff, Theater Stuff