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Song Suggestion: Chapter 10 – Once Upon A Dream by Peter Gundry
When the golden light of a summer dawn came flooding into the vale, a girl named Bethany walked down to the village. Her cat rode upon her shoulder, though he was a large creature and heavy besides. He made not a sound and Bethany did not complain about his weight, for he was quite an old cat and she did not mind carrying him. Behind her came her ancient hound, and, when she turned to send the dog back to napping in the shade of their wagon, the cat shook his head. “Let her come; we are going to need her,” he said and Bethany did as he said, for if a cat decides to give you advice, you would do well to listen.
In the village, she found the wainwright in his barn and he was cursing so fiercely that her ears were soon burning. When the man noticed Bethany, he stopped blustering and apologized for his manners. “It’s these rats, you see,” he said. “They’ve gnawed the ropes and spoilt all the hay and soon, I believe, they’ll have the roof down on top of me.”
Here the cat set his claws deep into Bethany’s shoulder and though she was not a cat, she was still quite clever. “You are in luck,” she said with a smile. “I happen to have with me a first class ratter and hound that will end your rat problem, if you will but help me with my own troubles. My wagon has four broken wheels. I’ve no coin to pay for your services, but my cat and dog will clear your barn of all the rats, if you think it a fair trade.”
The wainwright knew a bargain when he heard it; if naught was done about the vermin he’d have nothing left, for they were no ordinary rats and seemed determined to destroy all his tools and materials and had set to work on his cottage as well. Four wagon wheels to save him from ruin was a welcome bit of luck.
“You’ve a deal,” he said, holding out his hand, for, in those parts, a handshake was better than a contract. “And if your beasts can clear my house as well, I’ll replace anything else that might be rotted; your wagon has been sitting quite a long time.”
Bethany shook the wainwright’s hand and, quick as thinking, the cat was off her shoulder and soon no rat was resting, for he was, indeed, a ratter of top caliber and his eyes were so sharp he could see an ant move a mile away. One by one, the gray tom sought them out and chased the fat, squealing beasts into the yard. There the hound was waiting and though she was old, she was not lazy or slow. She caught them and snapped their necks, bringing the creatures to Bethany where she sat and they lay around her in an ever growing pile.
Finally, the barn was clear, but the cat had not found what he was looking for; he knew these were no ordinary rodents and smelled the stink of dark witchcraft. He took to the house and, for a bit, the wainwright’s wife did squeal and screech until she saw how well the cat chased the pests out and opened every door and drawer to his clever claws. The dog waited patient at the door and each rat that fled the cat found her waiting. If her teeth were dull with age, not one of the invading beasts noticed, for she killed them before they even realized they had been captured.
Soon enough, the tom returned. In his jaws, he held a rat near as big as a small dog, grandfather to all those they had cleared away. This rat knew speech and was almost as clever as the cat that had caught him. He told the cat he had moved his nest into the wainwright’s barn and cottage by the desires of the witch of the plains, who bore the good man a grudge. The huge rat pleaded with the tom to spare him and the remainder of his nest, which the cat did on one condition. When he released it, Grandfather Rat ran as fast as he could from the wainwright’s land, never to return, intent on fulfilling the promise he had made to the cat.
All the rats were gone and never did another come to that place because cats are better at magic than people, which is why witches so often keep them. The witch of the plains, however, found herself soon suffering the need for a ratter herself, but, alas, she was allergic to cats and spent the rest of her days sneezing, usually when she was casting her biggest spells. Thus she never did any real harm to anyone ever again.
The wainwright was as good as his word and soon had the wagon sitting upon four new wheels with a new, strong floor of oak. As an extra gift – for he knew that without Bethany and her beasts, he’d have been lost – he gave her a new harness, good and strong, for her mare, though he did doubt the mare could hope to pull the wagon, no matter how well his wheels had been made.
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Song Suggestion: Dance With Dragons by BrunuhVille
It is easier to say you are going to go on an adventure than to go. Especially if you are a young girl with no coin, three ancient animals and a wagon that has been sitting so long that it is growing out of the earth like a tree. But, in the case of the girl called Bethany, who had never been further than the village in the vale, she was not wholly without usefulness and she was lucky enough to have a cat that spoke to her and was old enough to know its way about; a cat like that is better than coin because cleverness outweighs gold every time.
“It seems to me,” said Bethany, after she had decided that she would take adventure over a safe life,” that we have three problems. One is that the wagon is quite stuck. Two, the wheels are certainly rotten. And, three, our mare is quite on her last legs.”
“One problem at a time,” said the clever tom cat. “That’s the way to do it.” Bethany, who, despite her desire for adventure, was sensible, agreed. After all, the wheels would not matter if the wagon could not be unstuck and the mare’s state would not matter if the wheels were not replaced.
“Alright, well, if we are going to see the wagon unstuck, we will need help,” Bethany said. “If I had the coin, we might find another wagon, but I happen to be rather fond of this one.”
“And you would not find another of its caliber outside the gypsy lands in the west,” the cat told her. “What we need is a team of good, strong oxen.”
“The farmer over the hill has a team,” said Bethany. “They are massive. It is said that the farmer feeds them special corn. There is nothing they cannot unstick. But I’ve no more coin to pay him than I do to buy a new wagon.”
“Just leave that up to me,” said the cat with a knowing cat grin.
And so they went to bed and, the next morning, they set out for the farmer’s cottage. They were nearly there when they saw a circling cloud of crows over the farmer’s fields. They were swooping down and tearing at the young stalks of corn. Bethany could see that, soon, there would be none left at all.
As they approached the farmer’s home, Bethany could hear him lamenting in the barnyard. “They will ruin me, they will! They will eat every kernel! Oh what shall I do?”
Bethany walked up to him and, if the cat was clever, she was not far behind. She might not have been brought up in gypsy lands, but her grandmother had taught her a thing or two and one such thing happened to be the making of gypsy scarecrow.
A gypsy scarecrow is not like an ordinary scarecrow which stands about doing nothing all day and ceases to be useful not long after he is made. A coigealach – as the gypsies call it – is made of old straw and clothes, but that is where the similarities end because they also have a little bit of the old magic in them. No bird will ever try to make friends with them, and that is why, in the west, gypsies spend their springs making scarecrows and they will all be sold before the last stitch is sewn.
“I believe you are in luck,” said Bethany. “I can make you some scarecrows, if you will but help me with my problem in return. I’ve a wagon stuck deep in old earth and I’d like to get it out.”
The farmer knew who she was and was very glad to see her. “If you can get rid of those blasted birds,” he said, “I will pull your wagon out, that I promise.” He held his hand out and Bethany shook it and, in those parts, that was as good as a blood oath.
Bethany knew that to make coigealach right, she would need some time. “I am worried there will be nothing left to protect by the time I am done,” she told the cat as she set to work in the farmer’s barn.
“I’ll handle the birds, said the cat and sauntered out.
The cat was no ordinary feline. He was far older than Bethany knew and twice as crafty as his cousins which hunted in Dumhaile. In fact, he had come from somewhere else that was not Inìsfail and was something very similar to those wild and fierce beasts, but had also a mind for helping those who called him friend, which was how he had come to live with Bethan’s grandmother.
He was quite a hunter and he knew witchcraft when he saw it. So he set to hunting crows in the fields and they soon scattered, frightened, from the shadow which leapt upon them as they fed and dragged them down to the dirt. The cat went a stalking and a sniffing, looking for something particular, and soon enough he found it. Nesting in one of the farmer’s ordinary scarecrows was a crow so large that she looked like one of the kites the children liked to fly in the the city of Tia in the south.
The cat jumped onto the scarecrow and said to her. “If you do not go back to the witch that sent you, I will kill your flock child by child until there is none but you left.”
And Grandmother Crow looked up at him with her intelligent eyes and knew he told her true. “Already I have killed twenty,” said he. “And they lie broken on the earth. How many more do you think I might feast upon before the sun sets?”
“None, said Grandmother Crow, “for we will go quietly.” And she flew away with her flock behind her, back to the witch of the hills, who had sent her to torment the farmer, angry that they had been set upon a field guarded by such a beast as the cat. And all the rest of the witch’s days, there was a cloud of crows above her roof which ate all the corn she grew and made nests in her flue so that her cottage filled with black smoke every time she lit a fire.
In the barn, Bethany had finished half a dozen of her scarecrows and whispered to them the words her grandmother had taught her when she was a very small child. The coigealach were so lifelike they even startled the farmer, when he came to look, for they had a way of moving that made you think it was a living person standing there, even when you knew better. The farmer set them in the fields and never again did he lose a single kernel of corn to a bird.
The farmer kept his word and his team of oxen pulled her wagon free and, because he was so grateful, he gave to her four large wheels of cheese from his wife, a bushel of apples from his orchard, a tub of honey sweetened butter, and milk and cream from his dairy.
“That is one thing done,” said Bethany to the cat as they sat beside the fire that night. “Now we must think about the wheels, for all four are rotted and broken.”
“We will go down to the village,” said the cat. “There is a wainwright there who can free this wagon and set it rolling as it ought.”
“I haven’t anything to pay him,” Bethany told him.
The cat grinned a wicked cat grin that said he knew more than he was telling, but there. That is a cat for you. “Let me worry about that.
When someone asks me why I am spending soooo much time writing fantasy these days….
Now, I could tell you how terrible my life is, how I am worse off than anyone you know. I won’t because I’m not; there are small children in dog cages because they come from the wrong place being looked after by pedophiles. There are people opening fire on little kids, mothers, fathers for twisted, ugly reasons that don’t make sense to sane people. There is true evil walking this earth and I’ll tell you right now, sometimes, it’s wearing the faces of your neighbors. In relation, I’m not really that bad off. It sucks, I’m not going to lie about that, but it could be worse. I have people who faithfully pay me every week to walk their dogs, so I get to work outside some, and I do have a second job which may not pay much, but does allow me to stay home with my mother and care for her. And I have my readers, to whom I give my little stories and thrill when I get the notification that you like them.
I’m not here to try and convince you to cry for me. Nor am I going to go on about the past too much because I seriously don’t want to revisit it any more than I have to. I can’t afford the therapy. So let’s just call this tiny little bubble of reality I’m avoiding ‘shadows’ because that is what it really is made of. Maybe some of them contain things worth really being worried about or afraid of. And others are nothing but shadows on the wall that are scary because I haven’t seen the perfectly unthreatening object that is casting them.
Maybe I should explain that I am less miserable now than I was when I was married; back then I was desperately trying to figure out what was wrong with me while the person telling me how terrible and broken I was – and how lucky I was to have him – was cheating on me so often that he had more of a dating history after we were married than before. He never attempted to have a true relationship with me and told anyone he thought would sympathize that I was a monster. And I didn’t know any of it because I thought I was the broken one and didn’t go looking for what he was doing wrong. When I found out the result was… well. The person typing this now. A person that is caught between one life – the one I planned for both of us and had to walk away from – and whatever comes next. A person who decided losing everything was better than trying to continue on, smiling and pretending that she wasn’t cracking right down the middle while he went on looking for the woman that was his bigger, better deal.
I am ill equipped for the life I am leading; I was told education was unnecessary and ‘too expensive’. This has led to more bills than money because the only thing I have is my imagination, which I peddle to you fine people, a love for animals, and a mind that perpetually looks for the silver lining. I fall apart on a daily basis and spend most of it trying to stitch myself back together, like some sort of fairytale creature come to life – don’t be surprised if you find that story here one day soon. I tell myself that it will all be okay, that I have faith, while living in a world that seems to enjoy eating up the innocent and laughing at their suffering.
I do this because this is how it is. And we all have to find a way to stay sane or we will die. Not physically. But inside, where it counts. If your heart withers up and your hope turns sour, what do you really have left? So here I am. Fighting, because fighting is all I have left. And then someone says ‘Aren’t you sorry you left him? Aren’t you sorry you didn’t empty his bank accounts or wring him dry?’
And this is my reply.
‘No. Because that is how we become demons. That is how we become shadows of hatred and self absorbed lunacy. We believe that it is okay to commit a hateful act because we have been broken, beaten, and left on the side of the road to die. But hate is hate. And that is where your fabled Devil gets in. Through the cracks you let others make in you. Through the shadowed parts of your wicked smile as you serve what looks like revenge. There are those who laugh at me, who call me names behind my back, and I only look at those people and wonder how terrible must their own lives be that they need to step on someone who never did a thing to them. And I walk away because it isn’t worth turning into them or living those lives just to give them back their ugly words.’
‘I will not be like him. Twenty years of living a lie, of twisting up the hours of another person’s life, thieving away their precious moments, their maybes, and their could have beens. And for what? Money? Security? Just to win? There is no winner in that battle. There is no victor on that field. There is only the person in the filth of his betrayals dragging someone else down to drown there with him.’
So stop asking me. Stop wondering if I’m ready to admit I was wrong or regret that I didn’t burn everything he owned. No. No. And no again. I’m not sorry. You aren’t right. If this was your choice, then it was yours and I did not argue about wisdom; one’s life must be their own, decisions made and acted on by them as they see fit. But turning away and choosing not to fight for something that was never, in twenty, long years, truly mine, was my choice. Was it fair? No. But you don’t get out of something like that with fair. You get out and thank all the divine powers that be that you managed to keep some part of you that is still you. That you don’t feel the need to bathe in bleach to scour away all the ugly things that Even would require you to do. That is how it is. So stop asking.
And do not ask me how things are going thinking that I’m going to give in and decide your way is better. We were never alike. We never will be. I am me, I do what I feel is right and I don’t tell you to follow me. I spent my life bending to the will of someone else because I thought it was right. I spent my life trying to be a better daughter, better lover, better wife because I thought it was right. And I left because there was nothing to save, my heart was full of cold fury, and I wanted only to hurt him as much as he hurt me and there can be no relationship from that which is not full of poison and danger because I really am the type of person that, in losing what made me care, loses my desire to be nice or kind or gentle and will use a knife. Even if I cut myself open in the process. That is how it is. That it takes me years to lose love. That I can hold on to even a shred of light in an otherwise dark soul and find your angel wings when you thought you only had horns, is something I am quite fond of in myself. That there is not a cemetery in my backyard is testament to why you should let me remain so.
Even if it means I am not like you or him or anyone else you admire.
Even if it means that you think I’m a fool.
Because there is a darkness in me that, unleashed, would be more dangerous than even Devils can dream of in their wicked night terrors.
This is my life.
This is how it is.
Reposting in preparation for Bethany’s second story: The Goblin Tree
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Song Suggestion: Star by Break of Reality
There was an old gypsy on a particular mountainside, one that bore no name of honor and had not seen the horrors of any battle. It was just a mountainside well within the Blessed Lands and the gypsy liked it well enough. She had an old dog, an ancient cat, and a horse who was so old that her coat had turned a staring white. With the gypsy lived her granddaughter, a pretty child with long, curling black hair and a smile that had to be answered with a smile. Though they were polite, they stayed well off from others and did not try to mix with any, for they were each happy enough with the other’s company.
Once, the wagon had been painted, as all gypsy wagons are. Its central mural was of a large, silver, arched door surrounded by vines laden with blooms of blue and white. Time and weather had worn the paint away until all was naught but shadow, a ghost of the beauty that had once graced the wood.
Sometimes the girl, Bethany, would ask about the door, for gypsy wagons carry the tale of those who own them, like a book anyone might read, if they know how. Always, her grandmother said to her, “not yet, child, not yet.”
Bethany grew, as all children do, blossoming into a lovely young woman whose curling, black hair hung unbound to her waist and moved in the most becoming of ways when she danced, sometimes falling over her sharp, green eyes so that they glittered like hidden jewels from the shadows. Her grandmother, in balance, withered, as the old must do, until, at last, they stood exactly at the opposite ends of life. One was on the very cusp of adulthood, ready to start her true life, as the gypsy folk call it, and the other stood ready at the edge of death, waiting only for the Morrigan to speak her name and call her home.
“Come close,” she told her granddaughter one day when she found herself unable to rise from herbed. Bethany did as she was told. And the old gypsy whispered to her, at last, these words. “There is a door set into an ancient, living tree in the forest. It is high and wide and you might drive a wagon right through it. I will not tell you my story; it is ending and only a fool spends their last moments looking back. Just know that, when I was your age, I was not quite yet ready to settle down and bear children, for I did not yet know my own self. My grandmother lay dying on this very hillside and told me I had a choice, that I could stay here and live quietly or that I could go looking for adventure. This is what I will tell you, as once my own grandmother told me. Go and find the silver door, if you’ve the courage and the wish. Take the journey through. There you will find adventure and not a little wisdom, but danger there is too. I leave you all the clever beasts who have been my friends in life. Forsake them not and they will see you through, though I can not promise you will return if you choose to pass the door and leave the land of your birth.” The gypsy grasped her granddaughter’s hands. “No oath is laid upon you. Go, if you wish more from life than what you are given here. Stay if you like and that will be fine too. All the roads that lie before you are yours to choose. I’ve taught you all I can, given you what tools I deem useful, and there is no more left for me here. Do not weep, child, for a I go to my rest satisfied.” With that, the old woman closed her eyes and, within the hour, she died.
Bethany did cry a little, for she’d been fond of her grandmother and would miss the sound of her voice. She buried the gypsy within her rose garden, which was always her grandmother’s favorite place to sit and watch the bees, birds, and beasts go on about their lives. Then, Bethany set to deciding her own road over the bright, merry light of her fire.
The animals her grandmother left her were old, certainly. The dog’s muzzle was white, the cat did not often go chasing mice – though he always caught them when he did -, and the horse looked hard put to do more than nap all day in the sun and walked with a limp. Nor was the wagon in much shape to go anywhere. It had sat so long its rotted wheels had sunk deep into the hillside and it would take more than even a healthy horse to move it. Bethany had only once been further than the village and never to the dark forest on the horizon. Yet the spirit of the gypsy, a wild and rootless folk, lived within her, so she could not just dismiss the idea of it.
She stayed and muddled so long that the fire grew low and the bright, summer stars winked down at her like old friends. “If you’ve a need for advice, I’ve got some,” said a voice.
Bethany was only mildly surprised to realize it was the cat that had spoken; gypsies know that all cats can speak, when they’ve a mind to. “I’m not sure if it’s advice I’m needing or just courage,” Bethany replied, “but if you are offering, then I am listening.”
The cat looked up at her with eyes that shone like the first grass of spring. He was a large, heavy tom, almost as large as one of the hunting cats of Dumhaile, which stood near as large as medium sized dogs. His coat was deep silver, like twilight shadows, and, within it, there could be seen black spots, as though he had, indeed, descended from those wild, dangerous felines of the green land. And he said to her,” if you stay you will find a quiet life. It will not be exciting. You will not find danger or peril. You will live a perfectly ordinary existence with a man who will soon pass over the mountains from the west. You will bear him fine, strong children and he will love your beauty and your sparkling eyes. He will provide for you in daytime and lie happily with you at night, never straying or wishing he had chosen another. You will die satisfied that you did well enough for yourself, but for one thing. You will always question what would have happened, had you taken the door in the wood.”
Bethany did not question the cat; though they are not always right, cats are uncanny good at predicting the future. “And if I go?” she asked.
“There will be danger and peril aplenty,” the cat replied. It licked its paws and washed its whiskers before saying more. Then it gave Bethany a keen, sharp stare. “But. You will find that all adventures have that and though I cannot say you will survive to old age, you will live a very exciting life. Your only trouble will be knowing that there was the possibility of a life here that had not danger in it.”
Bethany frowned. “In both there is doubt, you say.”
“There is doubt in all life,” the cat replied. “All question, at times, what might have been. It is only a matter of which doubt you would rather have.”
“I do not mind children,” Bethany said quietly. “And to stay would be easier, for the wagon is well and truly planted. But Grandmother always said that inaction is easiest because it is lazy. Perhaps she did not mean me to remember it now, only when I did not do my chores, but now is when I am remembering it.”
“Ah, but there is no shame is a well lived life,” the cat pointed out to her. “And there is no inaction in raising children or keeping a man happy.”
“Only boredom,” Bethany said, realizing that she did not like the sound of that at all and not because she thought it a lesser life, but because her heart yearned to see what lay over the mountains, away from the village and the mountainside where every day was almost exactly like the last. Bethany was smart enough to see that, did she stay, she would not just wander. She would grow sour with her curiosity and resent all that held her from finding out. She would not mind the quiet if she had first seen the storm and might even, she thought, enjoy it. But to succumb to the silence without seeing what else there was felt like it would end in nothing but regret. Bethany smiled at the embers of her fire, for her mind was made up. “I suppose we had better go,” said she.
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Song Suggestion: Roads Untraveled by Linkin Park
In the Blessed Lands, where the goddess of all life is known as Danu, there is a rumor of a land beyond the sea. Not a meager island or even a smallish sort of continent, it stretches further even than Inìsfail and is twice as wide. Some say it is the place where all stories came from, before Inìsfail had even been risen from the waters of the ocean.
Legend says that, if you be able, you can take a ship west and cross the wide expanse, but you may sail for a year – or ten – and see only those lesser lands while never coming to the one you seek, for it cannot be found in the ordinary ways. But, if you were to step through the right doorway in the right place, you would find yourself upon silver shores far, far away from the Blessed Lands, over the Sea of Stars. Beyond the shining sand, will be a place called Aíreanshee, though that name is unknown to all but the great Guardians, keepers of all wisdom, the Seanachaidh, who will not speak of it to any that do not already know its name, and those who have been there. Seekers know it only as The Silverlands and dream of it often before they find it, if they ever do. Here, I tell you, is a land of heroes and villains where anyone can choose to be anything and dreams can be made real.
Here the gods wear different names and do not know any other, for they are only kin to Danu as all gods are kin to each other by dint of being gods. Here there are things unknown in other lands and that is as it should be, for there are things in other lands that are not known here. It is a land of adventure and one of suffering. This is not a the land of elves or dragons, though both have come here, but the land of men, who are so often stronger than they seem. Some who live here may be evil and others be of the purest soul and no one is ever bound to be one or the other, no matter how they might have started. This is the land of adventure, the land of hope, the land of possibility. And if you happen to come here, oh wanderer, count yourself among the truly lucky, for this is a land where fortunes may be won and true heroes may be forged, if you have the will for it, and even the most ordinary of humanity can become legendary.