The Goblin Tree – Three

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Feed The Dragons

Song Suggestion: Music Box Ballad by Chris Parsons

XXX

Three

“Twice now I have heard of this Goblin Tree,” Bethany said to the cat as they left the haunted, lonely village beneath the forest’s shadow. “I wonder what it is.” Where she had come from, there were goblins, but they were nasty, spiteful creatures who had nothing at all to do with trees, unless it was to cut them down and burn them. They certainly liked to live under the ground, but it was in caves or swamps, not in forests, for they did not care for the beasts which lived in such places and poisoned the earth they touched with their foul evil.

The mare trotted on down the road, which soon began to narrow and the cat did not answer her; he was a cat and would speak only when he wished to.  Weeds grew up and the track was all but lost before they had gone far at all. “I’d say we took a wrong turning,” Bethany declared as they were slowed to a walk, “if there had been another way to take.”

“Once this was the main way,” the cat said, “and all who walked upon it found their way easily. But then darkness came to the heart of the wood and shadows crept out with sharp teeth and long claws. Things there are which would steal your soul and others that would trick you into their deathless and cursed realms so that you might forever be trapped, singing for their king. Now there are few who will chance to walk here and the road has nearly vanished.”

“My, but we should have gone another way,” Bethany said, breathless with sudden fear.

“Many will say just so when they find themselves on such a road,” said the cat and curled up with his tail across his nose.

They might have turned back, but Bethany let the mare carry on. Sometimes people will do such things out of pride or obstinance and that will lead them often to ruin. But Bethany, though frightened of the road enough that she could not bring herself to sing even one word, thought she might find the child again and help her to escape this terrible, lonely place. Sure enough, the day passed and, when the moon rose pale as milk and fat as a wheel of cheese, she began to hear a crying sound. She might have mistook it for a gull, but she knew that it wasn’t. Then, it might have been the wind, but Bethany knew better. At last, they saw a low, crumbling wall and upon it sat the girl. Beyond her lay the first path Bethany had seen leading away from the road.

“Why are you crying?” Bethany asked the child. She did not get down; this was a wicked land and many things might wander which could look like a child and be evil beneath their skin.

The girl looked up, dark eyes shining with her tears. “All I love is gone, ne’er to walk this way again. No matter how far I search, no matter where I roam, I cannot find what I am seeking, and I cannot find my way home. All I love is gone, ne’er again to be free. Down, down, down beneath the Goblin Tree.”

Bethany climbed down from the wagon. She lit a fire and gave the girl bread and cheese, but she did not put her in the wagon’s soft bed. Instead, she stood and said, “can you take me to the Goblin Tree?”

The girl stood and started down the path, which ran right into the dark forest. The cat followed, but the dog and mare did not. Bethany hoped they would be alright and that she would see them again, but she did not turn aside.

The way grew ever more narrow in the wood, which was dark and pressed close on either side, the trees leaning over, as if preparing to fall on them. In Bethany’s own land, there was a forest which, if it wanted, could get up and walk around. Bethany’s grandmother had always said that it was a fell place, full of malice and anger, for it was a sentient thing, not just trees growing in the earth. Bethany had always wanted to see it – from a distance, of course. Standing in this forest quenched her curiosity at once; the feeling that the trees were watching them, furious at their trespass, was horrible and she jumped at every sound. She could not imagine how much worse it might be if the trees could get up and move like tall, angry people.

A light ground mist swirled around their ankles and, ever so often, the moon peeked through the canopy. The forest was not silent; there was the sound of the wind in the trees and a rustling, as of small creatures moving about, following them. Bethany thought she heard voices whispering just below those natural sounds and she thought that one of them was calling her name.

“Don’t listen,” the cat said to her. “Stay upon the path.”

“Bethany.” Now it was definitely calling her name, though it was still soft, and she thought that she recognized the beloved voice of her grandmother.

“Don’t follow it,” the cat warned once more. “Go chasing phantoms in this forest and you’ll never be found again.”

If you know anything at all of cats, you know they will not offer their advice twice and, if one should do so, then your situation is precarious indeed. Bethany realized she’d already put one foot off the path and drew it back at once. She tore a bit of cloth off her skirt and stuffed it in her ears, so that she might not hear the voices calling out to her. Then on they went, following the girl along the path.

The girl stopped after many more minutes. Ahead of her was a clearing and, at its center, a there stood a great, black tree. Bethany at once wanted to turn around and run. The tree had not one leaf. Its bare, spidery branches traced a black and twisted web against the sky and the moon was caught in its net, as if wrapped in barbed wire.

There were lanterns hanging from the branches.Some silver, some coper. Simple and ornate, they dangled, unlit, strange decorations for this one lonely, hideous tree and they had an air of abandonment, their owners lost. “Well, I guess that we have found the beastly Goblin Tree,” Bethany said, dismayed.

The Goblin Tree – Two

All material contained here is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Support the Author

Song Suggestion: Melody Of Twilight by Derek Fiechter &Brandon Fiechter

XXX

Two

There was a young gypsy woman named Bethany driving down a wide road in the land of Aìreanshee. She was beautiful, with her long, black hair and bright green eyes, but she was also clever and that was far more valuable, she thought. Looks will fade, her grandmother had often advised her, but intelligence never does. Bethany was singing merrily as she went along, her strong, lovely voice rolling out over the long grass to her left and into the dark forest on her right. If there was any ear to hear her, it was not human and it did not come to see her on the road.

“Oh the day is long hours ahead of me

And the Road before me lies,

Who knows what adventures may meet me,

Before the eventide.

O’er the mountains I have wandered,

And further yet I must ride,

For it is Adventure I am seeking

And myself that I set out to find.

Down the unknown Road

In the shadows of the forest lie

Adventures untold and names not yet spoken,

And my heart has not yet been tried.”

Bethany looked over at the forest, which the road had run beside for many miles. “There are no villages to be seen,” she said, “yet this road does run true. Surely there are travelers which use it besides me.”

“There were, once,” her clever tomcat replied from beside her on the seat. “But that was before it grew so treacherous and became a home to wicked things. For there are those within the forest which would tear your beating heart out to feast upon it tenderly and those which might sing you down with enchanting voices to swim in sunlit pools so they might merrily drown you. Now all other travelers will walk for miles the long way ‘round, for they do not trust this way.”

“And so I feel lonlier still and wish I’d chosen another path,” Bethany said with a shiver, for her grandmother had told her many tales of such fey creatures when she was small and, sometimes, she still dreamed of wicked things.

“Many will say just so when they find themselves on such a road,” The cat replied and curled up with his tail across his nose. Bethany drove on, no longer singing, for thoughts of the dark forest and the fell things that haunted it had stolen her voice away.

Many hours later, the sun was westering and Bethany heard a new sound. First she thought it was the wind, which blew endlessly over the grass and forest, moaning to itself. Then she thought it might be an animal in the trees, perhaps looking for its kin. Then she knew it was a child crying and wondered if it was the same girl she’d tried to help the night before. She clicked her tongue to the mare and the horse quickened her pace until they came, at last, upon a village.

At first glance, it was only a smallish cluster of cottages and cobbled roads tucked back beneath the drooping, shadowed eaves of the forest. Closer inspection, though, revealed that the narrow streets were empty and grown up with weeds, the thatching on the roofs was gray and, in places, gone entirely, leaving great holes for the wind and rain to get in. Doors hung crooked, the un-shuttered windows were black, and no faces – friendly or otherwise – appeared to mark the arrival of the bright wagon.

There was a dry fountain in the center of the village and, upon the lichen spotted lip, sat the girl Bethany had seen the night before. “Hello again,” Bethany said without getting down; her grandmother had also told her tales of spirits with ill intent who could wear the faces of those you love and speak with their voices. “Why are you crying?”

The girl looked up, dark eyes shining with her grief. “All I love is gone, shadows gather on hearth and in home. I wander through the land, grieving and alone. Always I am seeking for any who may help, for those I knew have all been taken from me, down, down, down, beneath the Goblin Tree.”

And Bethany stepped down to comfort the girl, for she was certain, now, that she was only the same lonesome child she’d seen the night before. “Why not stay with me?” she asked. “I’ve plenty of food for both of us and room enough for you in my wagon.” But the girl would not say a single word more or acknowledge the offer. Bethany did not think she could have made such a choice, and so did not press the child.

She built a fire and gave the girl cheese and bread. Then Bethany tucked the girl into the bed in the wagon and sat beside the fire until it died. The cat was warm upon her lap and, despite the forest, she was comfortable enough. Soon, Bethany drifted off to sleep, though she had meant to stay awake and follow the girl if she tried to leave. The next morning, the girl was gone and though Bethany searched every cottage and called out to her, not a trace of the child was to be found.

 

The Goblin Tree – One

All material contained here is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Feed The Dragons

Song Suggestion: Ghost In The Mirror by Nox Arcana

XXX

One

There was, upon a distant road in the Silverlands, a wagon. It was painted over with twisting green vines and the mural on the side was of a silver door set into the trunk of a tree. This wagon was cozy, with a soft bed tucked into a very small loft, a little wood stove, and a chair, if one was in the mind to stop driving down the road and read.

This wagon was drawn by a most remarkable horse with a dapple gray coat, a mane and tail the color of sea foam, and a bright, many pointed star on her forehead. As she went along, her hooves clicking smartly, it seemed that she was shining. Through the grass beside the horse there bounded a wolfhound with a curling, rough, black coat and long, lean legs. Sometimes she would chase after a rabbit, but never did she kill them, for there was plenty that was good to eat in the wagon’s cupboards and she was only having fun chasing, for, just lately, she had been a very old hound to whom youth had been restored.

Driving the wagon was a young woman with deep black hair that fell down to her waist unbound and bright green eyes. Many might have called her beautiful, and she was, in her own way, though what others truly saw was the radiance of her heart. Beside her on the wagon’s seat, there sat a cat of uncomfortable size. No house cat, no pet to sit on window sills or laze upon the lap, this clever tom was as big as a medium sized dog and both claw and fang were larger than he’d need for mousing. There was a wildness about him that spoke of places where men would not want to live or wander in the dark. Yet he was no threat to the girl or her horse or the dog, for he called them friends. His coat was silvery charcoal with black spots and his jade colored eyes were gleaming with intelligence.

As they drove along, the young woman, whose name was Bethany, was singing, for she was in a glad sort of mood.

“Down the unknown Road,

In the shadows of the forest lie,

Adventures untold, names not yet spoken,

And my heart has not yet been tried.

I’ve come a rolling on the Road,

From lands beyond the door,

And the place that I called home.

I come seeking wander and forgotten lore.

Adventure called me forth to come and find it,

Round the bend or down the valley I must ride,

Because I have not yet found what I am seeking,

And my heart is still untried.”

Bethany paused in her singing. The air was soft and the sunlight fell in golden veils upon the dark face of the forest. It had been many a day since she’d seen a village or a farm, and though she had plenty to eat, she wondered at the empty miles; the wide road had carried her away from the Sea of Stars and the wide, silver door which had brought her to this strange land. There had been a few, small villages along the shore where the children had all run beside the wagon and everyone had admired the mare, the dog, and the cat. All she had met had been merry enough, though they had not been more or less than the simple folk of her homeland and no adventures waited in their quiet villages or neat fields. She’d thought she must leave them behind, for she’d not come from her home to settle for more of the same, no matter how kind or happy the people might be. Now, though, the landscape was empty, the forest loomed dark and deep and she was missing the merry voices of those she’d left behind.

“The forest looks unfriendly,” Bethany remarked to the cat. And many might have found it odd that she was speaking to a beast, but might have found it stranger still that he answered back.

“It is,” said he and Bethany didn’t find it odd at all because she was of gypsy blood and, in fair Inìsfail, from whence she came, gypsies knew a great many things that others did not. That all cats, be it lazy, fat, and master of the house or wild and hungry stalking unknown mountains, could talk when they wanted was only one of the many strange and eldritch things a gypsy could tell you, if they did so choose. “There are creatures there which would wear your skin like a coat and gnaw your bones to dust. There are those that would lure you into their pretty homes and murder you for your hair. And there are others still that would sing to you sweetly and send you to sleep for a hundred years in a nightmare they made you just because they are bored and do not care what should happen to your mortal soul. For that is the Elder Wood, The wood of Elysium of old, and many there are now which call it wicked and will not live or walk near to it.”

“And so this is a lonely sort of place,” Bethany said with a shiver. “And it makes me wish I’d chosen a different way.”

“Many will say just so, when they find themselves on such a road,” the cat replied and curled up with his tail across his nose.

Presently, Bethany heard a soft cry upon the wind. She no longer was singing; the grim forest, looming so close, had stolen her voice. At first, she thought it only a sea bird. Though they were many miles from the shore, she still heard them calling in their harsh voices and sometimes saw them wheeling in the distant sky to the East.

Soon, though, she thought it might be the wind howling low and mournful to itself, for it did seem to be blowing endlessly. Then, at last, she thought it was a child and though the sun was setting, she carried on a bit longer, searching for the source of the crying; she knew there ought not be a child in this lonely place, but she could not listen to the crying without making certain.

Soon enough, Bethany came to an old signpost worn smooth and nameless by wind and rain and sun. Beneath its crooked, gray post, there sat a girl weeping. She was small and had golden hair that fell down in long braids. “Hello, little one,” Bethany said without stepping down. Though she had not been raised among the gypsy tribes which wandered in merry bands all over the Blessed Lands, her grandmother had taught her their sense. Perhaps this was a child, lost and afraid in the wilds. But, perhaps it was something wholly else playing malicious tricks upon what few travelers might wander here.

The girl turned her face up and Bethany saw by the light of the rising moon that she was truly just a child. “All that I love has gone,” said the girl. “Taken away, ne’er again to be free. Down, down, down, they went, beneath the goblin tree.” And though she stopped crying and let Bethany feed her and tuck her into the wagon’s soft bed, the child would not say a single word more. When Bethany woke in the morning, the girl was gone and the cat could not tell her what or where the Goblin Tree might be. Or maybe he just wouldn’t; that’s the way cats are, only telling what they wish to, keeping the rest to themselves, and they do not care if anyone else likes it or not.

The Silver Door – Final

Mine. It is all mine. Do not steal my stuff. Ask permission.

Song Suggestion: Enchanted Realm by Nox Arcana

 

XXX

Six

It is the evening before a long journey which is a mixture of sad and exciting. It seemed to Bethany that she had never before seen the mountains. Their snow capped head shining beneath moon and stars or the long, shadowy wedge of the vale. Everything familiar was new, fresh, and beloved to an eye that might never see it again. The dogs barking in the village gave her pangs of homesickness, though she had not yet gone. The way that everything felt familiar and safe was something she cherished, for though she was excited to go, she was also ready to leave. She spent most of the evening sitting near to her grandmother’s grave and speaking to the old woman in hushed tones.

It was while she sat beside her fire, next to the old pit, which her grandmother had dug before Bethany – or even her father – had been born that there came upon the winding road a traveler. He was a young and handsome man from the west, carrying on his back a satchel full of canvas and paint. When he saw Bethany by the light of the fire, he was enchanted, for she made a lovely picture with her long, dark hair draped about her and her green eyes glinting. He came to her and she invited him to stay the night to rest; his journey had already been long and there was much further left to go. If Bethany did not ask him to stay and abandon the quest they had prepared for. The cat stayed quiet; he knew that, upon life’s path, everyone comes to crossroads. One way is no different than another, for both might lead to happiness. No-one can be happy with a choice they don’t make themselves, especially when it comes to adventures, for they are often long, exhausting, and full of terrible things.

The young man, whose name was Jacob, sat with Bethany and told her of all his travels. He was on his way to the city to sell his paintings and it was clear to her that he would not mind lingering by the gypsy wagon with Bethany for a while. Perhaps for a lifetime, if she willed it and as the cat had foretold. And she did consider it; he was charming and sweet and his stories fascinated her. Yet she did not wish to only hear stories. In her heart of hearts, she wanted some of her own to tell. And so, her mind fully made up and without doubt, she went inside the wagon to sleep while the tom cat at her dog kept watch outside.

Jacob could not sleep, for he felt – as many do when they reach such a place – that something had just passed him by. So he decided to leave a gift for the charming gypsy girl who told him she would be making her own journey when the sun rose. The young man had no small talent with brush and paint and he mixed the colors himself from seashells that washed up on the shore near his far away home and the bright flowers which grew upon the cliff sides. Blue and white and silver that glistened like starshine – and, indeed, radiated a bit of light, for it was mixed with moonsand – he brushed each one out over the faded wood until the mural was once more bright and fresh. He gave the roof a coat of rose and trimmed it with a lovely yellow. Vines were green again, as if fresh grown, and the seat of the wagon was the softest of sky blues. Soon, the old wagon looked as though it, like the horse, the dog, and the cat,  had shed all the long years between it and the day it had first been finished. Jacob was pleased with what he had done and hoped Bethany would remember him with a fond heart. He signed the mural in tiny, curling letters hoping that, one day, they might bring her to him again. Then, before the sun was more than a pale, pink blush in the eastern sky, he took to the road again.

When Bethany awoke, she stepped into the fresh gold of the morning sun. When she turned to face the wagon, she was very pleased indeed. The rich greens of the vines and blue and white of the flowers, stood in sharp relief around the silver door and the young man got his wish; whenever Bethany felt tired, unhappy, or was hurt upon her journey, she would turn to look at the wagon, remember the man with a soft heart, and trace his name with her finger until she felt better.

Singing gently one of her grandmother’s favorite songs, Bethany prepared to set out at last. She buried the fire pit in fresh earth and collected her skirts from the drying line. She fed Sage – now steel gray with a wide, straight back, and eyes that shone with fresh energy. She set the cat upon the high seat and helped the dog up beside him. She put the fresh cleaned harness upon the mare and latched the door into the wagon firmly. All was ready and Bethany took only a moment to stand, breathing in the air of home and looking at the familiar lines of mountain, tree, and village, before she climbed up onto the wagon seat, clucked her tongue to Sage, and away they rolled, onto the wide road.

Down in the valley,

Down in the vale,

All the bells are ringing,

Singing out to greet the day.

Bethany’s sweet voiced rolled out and the rich man heard it, looked to the horizon and saw the gypsy wagon on the road. Though she could not see it, the rich man who had once known a small bit of magic, in his younger days, bent a deep bow to her and sent a blessing on the wind to her, to be used when most she needed it.

The wainwright and the farmer, talking in the market, both turned to look at the wagon as it rolled through the village, the mare prancing prettily and the cat watching proudly from his place at Bethany’s side. Both made a deep bow to her and the wainwright called for her luck while the farmer blessed her road. Then Bethany was beyond the village, headed for the forest, where she had never gone before.

Down along the river,

And in the deeping dale,

All the children laughing,

Laughing at the falling of the veil.

 

Along we roll, along we follow,

The wide, gray road beneath us unfolds.

Places unknown ahead lie waiting,

And who knows what adventures yet remain untold?

 

Over distant mountains,

And deep within the folds,

We will follow the road away,

Away until in darkness I must hold.

 

Let none be sad to see me go,

Let none here mourn my passing,

For when the leaves are falling I will come again,

And make my home for everlasting.

So singing, Bethany, the cat, the dog, the horse, and the wagon passed beneath the eaves of the forest and onto ancient ways that most had long forgotten and which were kept clear only by a power that had long been forgotten by all but a few. She came upon a silver door set in the vast bole of a tree, which was wrapped with thick vines that were heavy with many white and blue blossoms. Here, Bethany stepped down and cast open the door. Beyond lay a long, silver shore with a cloudless sky above and a road that led away from a wide, blue sea, which glimmered as though there were stars caught under the water, into another forest. Bethany took the mare by the bridle and, without a backward glance, she stepped through the doorway, out of this story and into another.

XXX

 

Feed The Author

The Silver Door – Five

All content is copyrighted. No reproduction of this material is authorized without the written permission of the author.

Song Suggestion: Black Heart by BrunuhVille

 

XXX

Five

A fine set of wheels is all well and good, but there must be a horse to pull it and the horse Bethany’s grandmother had left her was so old that her coat had gone white. Her back sagged in the middle and she seemed always a step away from her last breath.

Bethany also had her grandmother’s old tom cat who was as clever as he was ancient. “I do not believe that old Sage will be able to do much pulling,” Bethany told him after the wheels for her wagon were fixed and it was sitting firmly on the earth instead of in it. “And it would be cruel to make her try.” Then she looked over at the faithful animal and felt a pang of guilt. “Neither can we leave her behind, for she cannot help her age and does not deserve to be abandoned.”

“Leave this with me,” the tom said. “Let us go and visit the village in the morning, for there is someone there that might answer this riddle for us.”

When morning came, Bethany got up and the cat said to her, “now listen. There is a rich man in the village and he has a secret that no-one has guessed but me. In his garden, behind a high wall and a locked gate, there is a natural fountain. And if someone drinks from it, be they bird or beast or man walking on two feet, they become at once as they were in their prime. So we are all going to go down to visit the man and dear Sage will once again be young and ready to pull us wherever you should please.”

“But how are we to convince him?” Bethany asked.

And the cat leapt upon her shoulder and whispered in her ear for a bit. “Just do as I say,” he said at last, “and everything will be well.”

Bethany arrived at the rich man’s house, which stood tall and strong behind a high wall. There, she found the man pacing before his gate, wringing hands, and muttering to himself. “Kind sir,” Bethany said, “You look distressed.”

The man looked up and, on seeing her, hope flooded his features; he’d known her grandmother, who had more than once offered him a wise word and it had often left him with more silver than he’d had before speaking to her. He was in need of wisdom now and something far more precious than silver did he stand to lose. 

“Three daughters I have,” he told her, “each one more fair than the last. I love them beyond all measure and wish only happiness for them. Of late, they have been courted and I ought to be glad, for these men – brothers, they claim to be – appear quite wealthy and dress like gentlemen. These three brothers have each asked for my daughters in marriage and my children seem full of joy at the prospect. I would allow it at once but for a sense of foreboding in my heart; as much as my girls seem to love them, I feel there is something treacherous about these men. So I have agreed to give each three tests, one every morning for three days in order to make certain they are as they claim. If they fail but once they must leave and not return. Twice, now, they have bested me and I ought to be glad they are such strong, capable men, but my worry has only grown. Now the first brother approaches and if I fail to undo him, he will take my youngest daughter away before the bells strike nine.”

“I can help you,” Bethany said, “for the warning you have felt is no fancy. These are not men who court your daughters. I must, though, ask something of you in order to thwart them.”

“Anything,” said the rich man, for his daughters were more precious to him than all the jewels in his coffers.

“Let my cat drink from the fountain in your garden. Then you will ask the first brother to prove himself by fighting my beast.”

The rich man was nervous; the first brother was quite strong and quick, but he had no other answer. So he opened the gate to the cat. The old tom went into the garden and drank from the fountain.

When the cat returned, his fur was gleaming charcoal, his spots the deepest black. His eyes near glowed with vitality and Bethany at once realized how large he really was, no house cat for chasing mice, but nearly as large as the dogs the shepherds set to guard their sheep. He grinned at her and his teeth were very long and very white.

Just then, the first brother appeared and went to the rich man. “Give me my final task,” he demanded. “I’m eager to be away with the fair Daphne.” And Bethany saw why the rich man was worried for his children, even before she had told him they were not what they pretended to be; there was indeed something dark and wicked about the man’s face that set her heart beating fast. She saw the youngest daughter watching from the window and thought it odd she looked so lovestruck; the man was handsome enough, but his words were full of contempt for the rich man and Bethany certainly would not have trusted one that spoke to her own parent with so little respect.

The rich man pointed to the cat. “Fight this tom and win and you will have her, no more argument. Lose, however, and you must leave at once, as we agreed.”

The young man laughed and leapt at the tom. The cat was no longer there, but sitting quietly in the street, for cats are always where they wish to be and never where they do not. Three times the man tried to lay hold and failed. Then, the tom leapt upon the man’s head and let loose his claws and teeth.

Even though the cat was much smaller than the man, he was heavy, strong, and knew well that even a giant will fall, if you know where to hit it. He bit the man on the ear and down he went to his knees, howling. The Cat let go of his ear and tore off the bewitched necklace the man wore – for cats can smell black magic a mile off – and there was no longer a man beneath his claws, but a hideous, fat ogre. The youngest daughter screamed and slammed her shutters. The ogre, so beaten, got up and ran away.

The rich man clapped his hands. “Oh, but I knew there was something not quite right. But look, here comes the next brother already. What should I do?”

Bethany pointed to her hound, dozing nearby. “Have him fight my dog. But first, let her drink from your fountain, for she is old and will need her strength.”

The rich man opened his gate for the hound. In she went and, when she returned, her coarse coat was black, as it had been in her youth, her long legs were lined with muscle, and her sharp jaw was full of wicked teeth. This was no ordinary hound and she did not come from Inisfail. She had been bred to fight cave wolves, which are three times the size of an ordinary wolf and far more cunning. She was tall, lean, fast, and nearly as smart as the cat, though, if she knew the speech of men, she kept it to herself.

The second brother arrived and sneered at the rich man. “Shall we have the third task or do you just want to hand over Alisha now, before one of us gets hurt?” And Bethany wondered how the second sister, watching from her window, could miss the cruel, murderous glint in his eye?

“Your third task is to fight this hound,” said the rich man. “Win and you will have my daughter. Lose and you will leave forever, as we agreed.”

The man laughed and leapt for the dog. But despite being bigger than a cave wolf, he had not their speed or cunning and it would not have mattered besides; the dog was the best of her kind. The nimble hound evaded him easily and dodged his next two attempts as well. Then she maneuvered behind him and, with the grace of every wolfhound that had come before her, leapt upon his back to knock him sprawling, took his throat in her jaws, and pinned him neatly on the ground. The cat sauntered in and plucked away a bewitched jewel that was bound to his ankle, beneath the edges of his boot. He was no longer a man, then, but an ogre who was even more hideous than his brother.

The middle daughter screamed and slammed her shutters. The hound released the ogre and he crept off, beaten soundly. “And my heart is that much lighter,” said the rich man as he clasped Bethany’s hands in his gladness. “But we’ve no time for celebration. I see the third brother coming now and to lose even one of my daughters to such evil would be like to losing them all.”

“Do not worry,” Bethany said. “Only let my mare into your garden to have a drink from the fountain. Then ask the third brother to ride her.”

“I have seen him break a wild stallion,” the man protested. “In the saddle he has no equal and the beasts bend to his will without fail.”

“Only trust me one more time,” Bethany insisted and she trusted the word of the cat so well at that point that she never once looked unsure of her words.

The rich man flung his gate open and the mare went limping in. When she came back, her limp was gone. Her coat was a shining, dapple gray and her dark eyes were full of mischief.

The third brother arrived. “Give me my third task,” he demanded. “I’ll have Rachel away and wed before the sun has set, I’ve already decided.” Bethany saw the eldest daughter watching from her window and wondered how she could miss his look of evil intent.

“Ride this horse,” the rich man bade him. “Tame her and you will have my daughter. Fail and you will leave forever, as we agreed.”

The man laughed and leapt upon the mare, who moved prettily under his guidance. “Your wild pony is very well mannered,” the man said, holding his hands up in triumph. The mare promptly bolted, unseating him as she jigged sideways so that he had to wrap his arms about her neck. He tried to find his seat again, but this was no gypsy cart horse or even one of their wild, fierce ponies, which will give a good horseman a challenge when they don’t feel like behaving. Like the cat and the dog, she’d come from beyond the silver door and was of a kind that, in that other land, was called the Aiosshee, the faery horse. None could ride them, if they did not wish it and they found it quite humorous to take a rider on a long bolt, usually through thorn ridden bracken and low hanging branches.

The mare twisted and turned with wicked glee, her eyes sparkling in such a way that it was clear she was enjoying herself now that she could leap and run again. She slammed her hostage against the walls and twisted so that he was always near to falling, then catching him and tossing him to the other side. Finally, she grew bored of the game and let him tumble to the cobbles. He tried to clamber to his feet and the mare swiftly kicked him, planting both feet in his chest and sending him tumbling to her friend, the cat. The cat pounced upon the man and saw a jewel upon his finger. The cat bit the finger off, ring and all. The man was no longer a man, but an ogre larger and more hideous than either of his brothers together. The eldest daughter screamed and slammed her shutters.

“Give me back my finger,” wailed the ogre. “I’ll cause no more mischief, I swear it!”

“Oh, but that would be cruel of me,” purred the cat.” To bind three such clever ogres from their nature would be a waste. I will give you back your finger and let you live besides, if you just swear to return to she who sent you and set your gifts against her.”

To this the ogre readily agreed; he and his brothers had been tricked by the witch into taking the jewels she offered and there is not an ogre alive that welcomes being a witch’s plaything or sent to such ordinary mischief as stealing young women from their fathers.

The cat gave the ogre his finger and the three brothers returned to the witch of the dells. All her days after she had to hide in her cottage and sneak out in darkest night to avoid the brothers, for ogre skin is wonderfully thick and most spells bounce right off. And that is why one should never trick an ogre; even if they fall for it, they will bear a grudge against you for all their lives and seek revenge tirelessly.

The rich man was so happy to see his daughters safe that he gave to Bethany three sacks of silver wheels. His daughters each presented her with one of their finest gowns and though Bethany did not know it then, they would save her in another time and place. So there. Now you know to never take a blessing for granted, even if it was not the one you might have chosen.

The rich man’s wife, no less thankful than the rest of her family, gave Bethany several ropes of jewels and five rings that glittered like stars, one sapphire, one ruby, one emerald, one amber, and one diamond, each one more precious and beautiful than the last. As Bethany sat beside her fire later, she knew she did not need to go anywhere to make her fortune, for she was now quite wealthy by anyone’s standards. But it was adventure she wanted, not riches, and this did nothing to deter her.

XXX

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