Twelfth Night Photos: Night 2

Photos from our second performance of Twelfth Night are up! See more here!

All photos courtesy of iNDie Grant Productions.

Unrehearsed Shakespeare

Twelfth Night Photos: Night 1

Photos from our first performance of Twelfth Night are up! See more here!

All photos courtesy of iNDie Grant Productions.

Theater Stuff, Unrehearsed Shakespeare

Joan of Arc in January (and February)

January – February: Joan of Arc. Abaisses Theatre debuts with a world premier of Alexandra Renieri’s Joan of Arc at RhinoFest. I’ll be performing as Bishop Pierre Cauchon, the enormously corrupt judge.
Prop Theatre, 3502 N Elston Ave
Thursdays, January 25 through February 22.

Theater Stuff

2017: Year in Theater

It’s been a great year!

Random Stuff, Theater Stuff

Twelfth Night ’18

Twelfth Night rides again!

You can come see us this January 10th and 17th at the Atlantic Bar & Grill, 5062 N Lincoln Ave. $5 at the door.

Stick around for the announcement of our 2018 season immediately after each show!

“Oh Time! Thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.”

Theater Stuff, Unrehearsed Shakespeare

Self-revelations through Steampunk Christmas Carol

Tonight I learned something about myself through Steampunk Christmas Carol.

Scrooge likes to play with words. For the first four scenes, he turns people’s word-use back on them, either literalizing what they say or using their words in another fashion, presumably to amuse himself in his isolation. Similarly, young Ebenezer demonstrates verbal acuity by easily outwitting Mad Madam Fizzlewig and her trick questions.

But young Scrooge says to Clarity “Marley says he needs a partner. He said this to me.” And Clarity says “I need a partner, Ebenezer.” And young Scrooge says “I mean a business partner, you silly girl.” And Clarity says “I know what you mean, Ebenezer.”

So the one time in his life that Scrooge actually needed his verbal acuity, it wasn’t there for him.

That, more than anything, I think, is an example of unintentional autobiography in one of my plays.

Goofs and Rambles, Theater Stuff

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 dismissed as less complex than Iago (though the opposite may be 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. It is worth repeating, I think, that all of the above issues relate directly to spoken language, allegedly the point-of-focus for this theater company.

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, and 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. On the flip-side: Johnson’s Desdemona was unusually strong-willed, undermining her frequently submissive lines as sarcastic or combative, which I’m not entirely convinced is an improvement on the role. Still, it’s a new take, and 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?

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 clear 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 actually 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.

Reviews, Theater Stuff

Coriolanus Photos!

Unrehearsed Shakespeare closed our 2017 season with Coriolanus. Check out more photos here.

Theater Stuff, Unrehearsed Shakespeare

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