A Spice in the Blood: Part V

autumn woodsIn the small dark hours, Celeste lay awake, listening. Something ranged up and down the hallway outside her door. She could hear its careful tread on the narrow carpet runner, a whisper of sound so subtle she would have dismissed it if it hadn’t been accompanied by a panting breath at the keyhole. She waited for the doorknob to turn, unsure if she had locked it, but the creature only lingered a moment. There was a soft bump against the door panel and a strange, deep sigh of satisfaction: mmmmaah.

She lay frozen beneath the comforter and thought wildly of wolves that prowled through sleeping households, smelling out those who were wakeful. Outside her window, the fog had thickened and crept against the glass with a kind of weightiness. It forced wisps of itself through the old casements where they dropped to the rug and stretched out in sinuous swathes. The tall posts of her bed rose from them like black trees, and she could almost believe the forest had grown up around her in the night like something from a fairy tale. The thing in the hall drifted away. She heard its claws clicking over the bare floorboards as it brushed close to the doors of the other suites, snuffling at each. She closed her eyes for just a moment, and it knit itself to her dreams, hunting her through the night forest until the sun rose.

***

Celeste slept the morning away in a fog of dissipating nightmare. The sun staggered higher, lancing in the window and painting hard, thick shadows on the rug. She crawled from beneath the comforter and tumbled herself into a hot bath, groggily aware of the clock’s disapproving face. She could not be late for her sitting with Mr. Dussault. At the thought of the artist, her mood deflated further, and she dragged herself from the bath to look at the time. Nearly one o’clock. She’d have to hurry.

The inn was silent when she descended the stairs, and the dining room was empty. A sudden clatter of cookware drew her to the kitchen.

“Oh, there you are, Miss Pennymaker. Did you sleep well?” Mrs. Corning, in the midst of setting out her saucepans and stockpots for the day’s dinner, flapped a flustered hand at the girl. “There are muffins in the bread box, and the kettle’s hot if you want to brew up a cup of tea. I’m afraid you missed Mr. Ridgeley. He was off early this morning with his cameras.”

Celeste smiled. “I’m surprised my mother didn’t grill him about them yesterday. She’s a serious amateur photographer and likes to think she knows everything about cameras.”

“Oh, no, dear, she couldn’t have, could she? Mr. Ridgeley arrived just after you and your mother went up the mountain, and he strapped on all his gizmos and went tramping off before she came back.”

“But, I thought -”

Mrs. Corning twitched aside a curtain and glared out the kitchen window. “There’s Jamie, finally. I swear, I don’t know where that boy gets to. He’s harder to find than hens’ teeth.” She glanced at Celeste. “I’ll put that tea in a thermos for you, and you can finish your muffin on the way. You don’t want to be late. That old painter is a devil about tardiness.”

The wind was in the forest, shaking the leaves from the trees in mad, parti-colored gusts. They skittered over the windshield, clawing to get in, and were caught up again and whirled away like flocks of dizzy birds. Celeste shrank against the tartan upholstery, cowed by the rowdiness of the wind and by Jamie’s air of barely suppressed fury. The boy gripped and twisted the steering wheel in his big angular hands until she thought she could hear it groaning.

“He actually ate dinner with you? Just sat right down at the same table and … and … talked to you?” He was incredulous. “I should have stayed until you went to your room.”

“It really wasn’t his fault, Jamie. Mrs. Corning arranged it, and Dex was a perfect gentleman. I don’t understand why you’re so upset. We talked a little about his photography,” she paused, thinking of the senseless lie Dex had told her about meeting her mother, “and he said that Mr. Dussault is anti-social and has antiquated views of art.” She shared the last bit with waspish pleasure, and regretted the words as soon as she uttered them. The look of outrage on Jamie’s face struck at her heart.

“The lying dog! Look, Celeste, you got to be careful around Ridgeley. He’s trouble.” He guided the station wagon around a curve in the logging road and stepped on the brake, fishtailing a bit in the loose shale. “Well, well, speak of the devil,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice.

Dex crouched in the ferns by the roadside, and Celeste would never have seen him. Jamie got out of the car, and Dex hesitated and stood. He was dressed for hiking with a light pack on his back, and perhaps his cameras were in it, for Celeste saw none hanging about him anywhere. He glanced at her, giving her a little wave of his fingers. She rolled down her window, and the wind rushed into the car, lifting her hair as though she were falling.

“You’re on Mr. Dussault’s property, Ridgeley. Again.” Jamie walked stiff-legged around the front of the car, his shoulders up and his head forward. Dex put out a hand, laughing.

“Okay, okay. Take it easy, James, I’m leaving.” He tipped a wink at Celeste.

“Yeah, you’re leaving, all right. Lou told me if I caught you again to give you something to help you remember your manners.”

The affability vanished from Dex’s face. “I don’t think you want to cause a disagreeable scene in front of Dussault’s … guest. I said I would leave. Run along like a good pup, and give the old man my best.”

Dex strolled past Jamie, his face tight, his lips drawn away from his teeth in a fierce smile that was more like a snarl. He bent at Celeste’s open window and inhaled deeply. She drew back, reminded of the way Dussault had raised the lock of her hair to his nose. “I apologize for any unpleasantness,” Dex said. “I look forward to seeing you tonight.”

“Get away from her,” Jamie shouted, starting forward. His rough voice rode over the wind, and an answer climbed out of the forest. Pure and quavering, a howl rose into the low clouds, and another joined it, and another. Dex jerked upright with a growl and turned to jog away down the logging road.

Celeste sat stiffly by the open window, her hair tangled with curled dogwood leaves, her breath caught and held. She had been alarmed, and then frightened, by the confrontation, but now that it was over, she felt something else. Excitement. Yes, that’s what it was. It had been exciting, the conflict and threat of violence, the inciting wind laden with the smells of the woods, the voices of the wolves that had made the hair rise on her arms and brought tears to her eyes. She had never heard such a sound before, a sound so freighted with time and meaning. She was a little ashamed of the feeling, the excitement, but it was seductive, too.

Jamie threw himself behind the wheel, grinning. His blood was up, too, she saw. He leaned across her to roll up her window, and she caught a scent from the back of his neck, sweet pine and the slightly smoky perfume of moss. She laughed, and he sat back and looked at her.

“Pretty good, huh?” he said, seeming to understand what she felt. “I could have thrashed him, no matter what he thinks. Geez, is that the time? Lou’s gonna be pissed.” He started the car, and they drove deeper into the tossing woods, to the hidden gate.

 

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood: Part IV

candlelight-dinner“Oh, Miss Pennymaker,” Mrs. Corning trilled from the dining room as Celeste passed by on her way to the stairs. “I hope you’ll take your meal in here tonight. I have another guest after all, and it would be so homey for the two of you to each have a dinner companion, don’t you think?”

“Of course,” Celeste said, pinning on a smile. She would have preferred a sandwich in her room, but Mrs. Corning was already bustling over the second place setting, and the guest to whom she had referred was rising from his seat to greet her. “My mother has gone, then?”

“Yes, dear. She left a note for you. I’ll bring it with your salad.” Mrs. Corning turned to the young man standing beside the table. “This is Mr. Ridgeley. He stays with us every year.” The innkeeper sniffed the air. “I think my biscuits are in danger. Please excuse me.”

Celeste watched her flit from the room, and when she turned back, Ridgeley was pulling out a chair for her. She sat with murmured thanks and fixed her eyes on her napkin, folded into a swan that sailed regally on the blue china plate.

“I’m sorry to be forced on you like this,” he said. “You must be tired after a day in Dussault’s studio.”

Celeste stared at him. “How do you know I was there, Mr. Ridgeley?”

He smiled. “Mrs. Corning likes to volunteer information. I didn’t pry, honestly. I arrived as your mother was leaving, and I thought she was a guest and asked if I would meet her at dinner. My name is Dex, by the way. Pleased to meet you, Miss Pennymaker.” He held out a tanned hand over the chrysanthemum centerpiece.

“I’m Celeste,” she said, taking it. His hand was warm and pleasantly hard despite its manicured appearance. Celeste’s father approved of work-toughened hands and healthy color, and she filed for later analysis the sensation of calm capability Dex’s hand expressed. “I guess I am a little tired, but I’m glad to meet you. With mother gone, I was afraid it would be lonely here.”

She found she was, indeed, glad to meet him. Dex proved charming as well as handsome, and kept up a lively conversation over Mrs. Corning’s pot roast and apple tart. Her mother’s note, glanced at and tucked into the back pocket of her jeans, lost a great deal of its sting under the balm of the young man’s attention.

“Do you know Mr. Dussault?” she asked. The room glowed with firelight and candles, more of Mrs. Corning’s sense of hominess, and the dark rubbed its indigo pelt against the windows. Celeste felt safe enough, in this snug atmosphere, to broach the subject of the artist. She needed some reassurance, or she felt she might not be able to return to the studio the next day.

“Not well, but I’ve met him several times.” Dex chewed his apple tart, obviously wrestling with some revelation. “To be honest, I don’t get on with him. The only times we’ve spoken, the exchanges have been … unfriendly. You see, I’m a photographer, and that alone is enough to earn his contempt. He’s very old school in his thoughts on art. I want to photograph the wolves that live around here, but they stick mostly to Dussault’s land. He owns an unbelievable amount of land, and he won’t let me on any of it. I’ve been trying for those photos since I was twenty. A few times, I’ve sneaked onto his property, but it’s almost worth my life if he catches me. I‘ve never known anyone so antisocial.”

“Why do you keep at it? I didn’t know until today that there were wolves in the woods here, but surely there are other places to find them. What’s so special about these?”

Dex’s open expression grew shadowed and secretive. “Oh, there’s nothing special about them, really. I guess I just don’t like to admit defeat.” He poured a little more coffee in their cups from the silver pot in its quilted cozy. “But tell me about sitting for a portrait. It sounds elegantly Bohemian.” His smile was back, warming his dark eyes. Celeste forgot the momentary lapse in his manner in her eagerness to tell someone about her fears.

“It’s not, it’s just boring. And weird, too, to have a strange man study you so closely for hours on end.” She wrung her linen napkin into a damp twist. Her lip trembled, and she looked down, shielding the glitter of tears. “I hate it,” she cried, “and he scares me. He’s like one of those wolves you want to photograph. A hungry one.”

She looked up at Dex, and although his gaze fixed on her with sympathetic attentiveness, she could have sworn he had been glancing at his watch a second before. He opened his eyes wide and gave a low whistle. “That’s an apt comparison, Celeste. That’s just what he’s like. But you don’t have to be afraid. I’ll look out for you.”

It was exactly what Celeste had wanted to hear, and yet she did not feel soothed. Somehow, the magic had gone out of the evening, and all she wanted was to go to bed. Dex’s words, the perfect words, had the tinny sound of cheap comfort, easily given and empty. It was a sound with which she was familiar. It had emanated from the note in her back pocket at the beginning of the meal – I know you won’t be babyish about staying alone … I have an important engagement … be a good girl and do as Mr. Dussault asks – and it seemed only fitting that she should have another serving of it with dessert.

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood: Part III

wolf-eyes-wallpaperHe sketched her seated, primly upright, in her jeans and sweater. “We won’t need your gown just yet, my dear,” he said. “I want to get a feel for the lines of the portrait first.”

The gown her mother had agonized over hung in its zippered bag from a hook on the back of the studio door, and Dussault never glanced inside at it. “What do you like to do with your free time, Celeste?” he asked.

“Well … I like to read,” she said, wondering what he had hoped to hear. She didn’t have any hobbies or strong interests of any kind, really. Hers was a world of fulfilling the expectations of others – of her parents, her teachers, and even those of the society mavens to whom her mother introduced her, each one chosen and cultivated for her sphere of influence.

“Admirable,” he murmured, and handed her a book of medieval French poetry. He sketched her curled up against the cushions, pretending to read its yellowed pages. His hands guided her limbs, adjusted the tilt of her head. She felt flustered at his touch, conscious of her vulnerability, and yet, there was a sense of power, too. She knew she was beautiful, a bald fact of physiology that had nothing to do with her. She wasn’t vain, but she had been taught that beauty was a kind of key to an as-yet-undiscovered palace of wonders, and she was aware of his interest.

For the rest of the afternoon, he moved her through poses and caught them in vigorous, sure strokes on a sketchpad he held on his knee. He sketched her lying back, an arm above her head. Sitting forward, her arms resting on her thighs, her gaze directed at him. With her back to him, the profile of her face captured like a tender moon over her shoulder. Silence filled up the studio, disturbed only by the shush of his charcoal on the paper. Celeste thought she could smell the friction of it, a scorched dust phantom that tickled her throat. There was something else, too – a tension that grew in the air around Dussault and stole outward until it had tightened around them both like one skin. This had a scent, as well. It smelled of heat and copper.

Dussault cast aside the sketchpad and stood. “That’s enough for today. It is best that you go. I am hungry.” He stalked from the room. Stunned, Celeste followed.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked.

“No.” He strode to the door and, opening it wide, filled his lungs with the evening bouquet of the forest. He spoke without looking at her. “Jamie will meet you at the gate. Be prompt tomorrow afternoon.”

Celeste shrugged into her jacket and crept past Dussault in the doorway. His hand shot out and grasped the nape of her neck, and she gave a little cry as he pulled her closer. His long, strong fingers wound through her hair and cradled the base of her skull, forcing her to look up at him. His eyes were hot galaxies of appetite, untroubled by sentiment. “Do not stray from the path, my dear,” he said. “It grows dark, and my woods are no place to become lost at night.” He took her trembling hand, and, as he had earlier that day, lifted it to his lips.

***

Jamie had lost his sullen air and greeted her at the woodland gate with a grin. He kept up a happy chatter of town gossip as he walked her to the waiting car and drove her back to the inn. Celeste made an effort at polite responses, but her customary tranquility was shattered. She wanted only to lock herself in her bedroom and cry into the rose toile comforter.

“Did you like Lou?” Jamie asked.

She hesitated, unable to speak a simple assent. “He’s scary.”

Jamie chuckled. “I guess he can be. You just have to get to know him better.” They pulled into the Buttertree’s neat lot, their headlights washing over a sleek black coupe parked in the shadows. Jamie’s smile turned to a scowl, and he swung in beside it, kicking up a little gravel that rattled against the coupe’s low-slung body.

“Is there another guest?” Celeste asked. The Buttertree had only four suites, and all had been empty when she and her mother had arrived. Mrs. Corning, the proprietor, had mourned the slow autumn season.

“Yeah. Dex Ridgeley. He shows up every year with his cameras, trying to get shots of the wolves up on the mountain. Been at for three years now, and nothing to show for it. Lou hates him. He’s a trespasser.” Jamie got out and skirted the wagon to open Celeste’s door. “He’s a creep, too. Steer clear of him.”

Celeste barely heard the warning. “Wolves? There are wolves in the woods?”

“Don’t worry. You’re safe on Lou’s land. I’ll see you tomorrow, two o’clock sharp.” Jamie gave her a distracted wave and loped away around the back of the inn. His sudden withdrawal left a chill in the air that had nothing to do with the October evening, and she went in to dinner feeling cold and abandoned.

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood: Part II

chaise in room“We’ll have to walk from here.” The boy from the inn, Jamie, cut the ignition on the wood-paneled station wagon and stared at Irene with faint hostility. They had driven into the fog and chill of the forest, up and up the old logging road, bouncing through the ruts and potholes as though riding a buckboard. The trees shouldered up to the road, shaggy conifers and oaks with mighty flexing boughs, old gods sniffing the possibility of sacrifice and leaning out to stroke the roof of the car.

“Walk? How far?” Irene stared into the shadows. Ferns as high as her waist waved their damp arms at her.

Jamie rolled from the car. “Not far. There’s a path. Lou … Mr. Dussault … he don’t like visitors. Says if they’re determined to see him, they can work for it.”

Irene and Celeste stepped out into the dripping cold, and Jamie dragged the garment bag with Celeste’s gown inside from the back seat. He slung it over his shoulder and set off into the woods. Celeste touched her mother’s arm and smiled.

“It’s okay, Mother.” She breathed in the fragrance of dying leaves and felt that little kick in her pulse. They followed Jamie to a gate of peeled logs, silver with age and weather, and on into a realm of bird rustlings and water patter. The path was not long, but it was long enough to allow the insular spell of the forest to reassert itself. When the lodge appeared, rising from an airy nest of fern and Solomon’s seal, it was easy to believe they had hiked to the undisturbed heart of creation.

The door of the low, rustic structure opened, and Louvell Dussault stood framed there. “Jamie,” he said, and his voice was deep and smooth. He stopped the boy in the doorway with a hand on his shoulder, the long fingers squeezing, swallowing the joint in an affectionate hug. Jamie hung his head and grinned.

“I brought them, Lou.” He turned his head and indicated Irene with a nod. “That’s Mrs. Pennymaker. She made me bring her.” The shy blue eyes slid to Celeste. “And that’s Miss Celeste, that you’re to paint. This here’s her gown.” He shook the garment bag.

“I’ll take that,” Dussault said. With the gown draped over his arm, he turned his attention to the women. “Mrs. Pennymaker, it was good of you to see your daughter to my door. She will be an honored guest. I’ll have to ask you to return to town with Jamie now. Celeste and I have a great deal of work ahead of us.”

Irene, who had put her foot on the first stone step to Dussault’s porch, took it off again. “I, well, I thought we would discuss the portrait, Mr. Dussault. And I could help Celeste with her poses. She’s never sat for an artist before, you know, and she might be nervous.”

Dussault’s gaze had found Celeste and fixed upon her. It never wavered as he dismissed her mother. “No. She won’t be nervous.” He held out a hand, and Celeste floated up the steps to accept it. “You may go home, Mrs. Pennymaker. I will send for you when the work is done. Jamie, please escort the lady back to the inn.”

He drew Celeste across the threshold, and the door closed. Irene stood as though spellbound, and then a tremor passed over her. She felt as though she might weep with grief, but she hadn’t the courage to open that door, to insist he give her daughter back. She didn’t understand what had happened, or what was still happening to her, and she looked up at Jamie in mute shock. The blue of his eyes was ringed with gold, she noticed. It was a feral combination, touched now with a hint of impersonal compassion.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. P.,” he said. “We’ll take good care of Celeste, and you’ll get a real beautiful portrait.” He came down off the porch and took her arm, gently, and led her back to the car.

***

Celeste drifted across the worn wool rugs scattered on the slate floor, her fingers caught firmly in Dussault’s. A fire arched its back and rubbed against the stones of the hearth, and the warmth of it fluttered over her skin. It smelled like untamed night. A drum beat inside her, speaking a dual language of danger and pleasure. She looked around the room, masculine and comfortable, and then up at Dussault. His eyes, in the trembling light, gleamed golden. He couldn’t be as old as her mother had said he was. He didn’t look any older than her father, a man still in his early forties.

“Are you really seventy years old?” she blurted.

Dussault laughed. “That and more, my dear. I am blessed with a strong constitution, a family trait. Welcome to my home.” He bowed over her hand, brushing a kiss across the knuckles before releasing her. “Would you like to see the studio? Or shall we have tea?”

“Oh, the studio, please. I’ve never known an artist before.” She blushed. “I’m glad Mother’s not here. It’s nice to have an adventure all to myself.”

“Do you like adventure?”

Perhaps it was Dussault’s strange accent that gave the words their sinister piquancy. Celeste felt an abyss of frightening possibility open around her, and she grew still. “I don’t know, Mr. Dussault. I mean, I haven’t really had one before.”

“No, of course you haven’t, child,” he said. “Who has, at seventeen? You must call me Lou. Come, I’ll show you where you’ll be sitting, frozen and grumpy, for long hours.” He smiled, and waved her before him into a lofty room where exposed beams formed a starburst interspersed with skylights. “Northern light, very good for my work. We will have a fire to take away the chill, I will sit here behind my easel, and you will sit here on this old thing.” He indicated a plump chaise in champagne velvet, the size of a Volkswagen. “Or recline, perhaps. We shall see.”

Celeste turned and found him very close. Her praise of the studio died in her throat. Dussault reached out and lifted a tress of her hair to his nose, sniffing delicately. His gaze mesmerized her, bold and wary at the same time.

“Orange blossom,” he purred. “Lovely. Shall we try a pose or two before Jamie comes to take you back to the inn?”

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood

misty-mountain-silhouettes“He says he won’t come to the house,” Randall Pennymaker fumed. “He says if we want the portrait, Celeste will have to go to him, alone. He won’t even estimate how long she’d have to stay.”

He stalked up and down the length of the Persian rug, and waved the notecard at his wife. It was stiff, expensive stationery, grey-flecked cream with a deckled edge kissed by gold leaf. The elegant heft of it infuriated Pennymaker, and he flung it down on the tea table.

“And just look at this fee! The man’s an arrogant lunatic, but he’s got balls, I’ll give him that. You’d think for that kind of swag he could come down off his mountain.” He dragged a hand through his hair and fixed a cold gaze on his wife, who had remained immersed in her novel throughout his tirade. “Will you put down that damn book?”

Irene Pennymaker looked up at her husband over the rims of her reading glasses. She studied the red face, not yet shading toward purple, and the salt and pepper hair that stood in spikes where he’d tugged at it. His tie was askew, and he’d rolled up his shirtsleeves so that the old tattoos were visible on his muscular forearms. He was working up to a good, old-fashioned ruckus, probably complete with smashed collectibles and blue language. She sighed and put aside her book, and took up the offending notecard.

She admired the penmanship. The firm handwriting was beautiful, if antiquated. The words, chosen for economy and clarity rather than civility, were curt to the point of disdain. The fee that appalled her husband caused no tremor of horror in Irene. She believed you got what you paid for in this world, and for her only child’s entrée into fashionable society, she was willing to pay quite a lot. Celeste was a beauty without pedigree, and never mind her daddy’s first-generation millions. A portrait by Louvell Dussault could provide the lustre of fine breeding where none existed.

“Take it easy, Randy,” she said. “He’s eccentric, but he’s the best. We’re lucky he accepted our commission. He’s getting old, you know.” She took a cigarette from a silver box on the table and lit it, drawing the smoke deep into her lungs and letting it curl from her nostrils. “Think of the parties Celeste will get into with a story of sitting for the master in his private studio. Christ, nobody gets invited there. The man’s a hermit.”

Pennymaker straightened his tie, unrolled his sleeves and fixed the gold links in his cuffs, and swung into his jacket.

“Well, I don’t have to like it. Greedy bastard. He’d better paint us a bloody Mona Lisa.” He strode toward the door, his final words flung over his shoulder. “Tell him Celeste will be there on Saturday.”

***

Luna Falls stood, quaint and melancholy, behind its picket fences and flame-colored maples under a grey press of clouds. The smoldering of autumn bonfires gave the town an aroma of quiet, pagan ferocity. Celeste Pennymaker sniffed the rough perfume through the slightly open window of her mother’s car and thought she detected in its smoky cloak a thread of something wilder. An amalgam of leaf and earth, October chill and stone, that wafted from the misty forest clamped about the town like a fist around a jewel. The smell stirred her in a way she couldn’t articulate. It thrummed a chord within her, and the wordless note shivered through her in a scary delicious cramp that felt like longing. Celeste put her forehead to the cold glass and looked up through the narrow opening into the ashen bales of cloud, and from there to the tops of the wild trees that lay smudged against them, a kingdom rolling black and powerful to the horizon. Somewhere in that wilderness was the man who would paint her. She shivered again, and her breath fogged the window.

On the corner of Main and Second, the Buttertree Inn squatted like an obese monarch, its petticoat of gingerbread-laden porches frothing out nearly to the roadway. The car slowed and turned beneath the inn’s wide trellised arch of spent roses, crunching gravel. The orange rose hips flared against the grey air.

“Isn’t this lovely,” exclaimed Irene Pennymaker. She parked and twisted around to look at her daughter in the back seat. Celeste’s perfect, placid face looked back with dreamy acquiescence, and Irene felt a twitch of annoyance at the girl’s lack of animation. “You don’t know how lucky you are, baby. Aren’t you excited?”

“Sure, Mother,” Celeste said, and, when Irene heaved a long-suffering sigh, “I am. Really.” She looked up at the inn where she would stay while she sat for the portrait. “It’s really nice.”

“Well, let’s get you checked in. We have to meet with Mr. Dussault in less than an hour.”

to be continued…

Monsters Old and New

witch's work tableThat birch bark scroll … and the finger bone whistle … very useful magical items, those. Well worth a thief’s efforts, don’t you think? You can see now why our banished prince was so eager to abscond with the materials of this tale. You seem surprised. Did you think the products of my workshop were merely stories? Oh, my friend, there is no such thing. A well-turned tale is always a thing of power. It lives. It acts upon the world you think of as real. Remember that.

Remember, too, that I warned you to be careful in the forest. Don’t wander too far from the Palace. My reach may extend into those woods, but I can’t be everywhere at once. I can’t always watch over you. My huntsmen tell me beasts are roaming, the likes of which have not been seen in many long years. Some are bloody enough, brutes out of nightmare. Fearful, but expected, yes? But there are others, sweetling, far more subtle. I wouldn’t gamble your life against such as they.

I think I have an illustration of the type, somewhere in this heap of hairy stuff. No, don’t touch it, lest you prick your finger on an old fang. I’ll have the monster up and lively soon enough for your perusal.

Off with you now. I’ll send for you, when the moon is full.

big_soap_wolfsbane

Red: Conclusion

frozen fallsTrees. Snow. Cold that insinuated itself under the skin, wound about the bones, like a starving cat. In the hour since they had left Tanis’s cottage, Fox felt he had trudged for days through a hostile, if beautiful, landscape of tortures. He could not feel his toes, and his breath had frozen into many-faceted pebbles of ice on the woolen muffler wrapped about his face. His legs, also numb, weighed as much as the hulking boulders he and Crowe passed as they jogged along the deer trail. When he fell to his knees in the blue-shaded snow, he was not aware that he had stopped moving, and he knelt swaying in a dream of perpetual flight, feeling the heat from his body’s core floating up out of the depths of his parka.

“Fox. Fox. Inspector!” Crowe’s face swam into view, concern and irritation mixing in an almost comical blend in the eyes above the frosty three-day beard. “Can you stand?”

“Yes, yes, just give me your hand.” Fox pulled himself to his feet. “I’m nearly frozen. I do hope you know where we’re going.” He thumped his arms and shoulders with gusto to break the ice in his blood.

“We’re going to meet the wolves. They’ll be along this trail, fanned out with their eyes peeled for deer. The river is near, too. Listen.”

Fox freed an ear from a hat flap. It was instantly savaged by the cold, but he heard the echoing roar of the river pitching over a steep descent, too swift and muscular to have frozen yet. Another sound, still distant, glossed his skin with a different kind of cold. The howl of a wolf, full-throated and deep, rose over the trees. It was a dead winter moon of sound, a harsh song of hunger sound, and soon others joined it. Crowe tilted his head and turned toward the chorus.

“That’s it, Inspector. Hear them?” He took Fox by the shoulder in an iron grip. “The killer you seek is out there. It won’t stray far from the wolves. We can take it, but there is danger here the like of which you’ve never faced. Are you for it?”

Fox thought of the lovely, stunned face of the murdered girl, and of brave Peter Moon on his lonely rounds, torn open like an envelope. He thought of Dr. Sang’s blithe dismissal of death beyond the wall, and the spirits of the dead seemed to rise before him and plead for vengeance. He was beyond his depth here. This was no ordinary murderer. There would be no justice as he knew it.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m with you.”

“Good man. Look to your weapon, and be ready to move along that ridge, there. I’ll circle round to meet you. The thing will come swiftly when I blow the whistle, but it can’t cross the river. We’ll use the water as a third man and catch it between us.” Crowe’s voice was calm and steady, but his eyes danced.

Fox nodded. “What of the wolves?”

“Don’t let them catch you, Inspector. Run for the river and be swift, like a good fox.” Crowe grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. “Are you ready?”

Before Fox could reply, Crowe lifted the whistle to his lips and blew. The finger bone emitted a haunting note, surprisingly full for such a slender instrument. It hovered over the forest, perfect and mellow in the stillness, and then a breeze sighed through the creaking boughs, carrying it away. The breeze fluttered over them, scintillating with snow dust, and it brought a faint voice. Gideon, it whispered. Gideon

“My God,” Fox said, “it knows your name.” But Crowe was gone, running low and fast under the snow-freighted trees, and Fox watched the darkness there swallow him. Wrapping his muffler tighter about his face, the Inspector set off at a trot to find the river.

***

He was within sight of the falls, the water bucking and plunging even as streamers of it froze to the rocks of the gorge, when they came for him. The hemlocks had thinned, and a dark army of oaks ran away in ranks before him. The wolves ghosted over the snow, flickering in and out of existence as they passed among the trees. They were silent. Fox ran before them, all his speed and strength employed, his hat, muffler, and parka, even his rifle, shed in his flight. He pumped his arms and sprinted, nearly parallel to the ground, for his life. The cold was a memory. His hair steamed with perspiration. The wolves pursued him at their leisure, their long, red grins the only color in his nightmare. He came to the edge of the ravine, flailing and skidding, and watched stones kicked up in his slide go sailing over the edge, tumbling through the icy spray of the falls, past the black tentacles of roots that had burst from the earth to hang over the glass heart of the river. His own heart thundered like the falls, and he knew he could go no further. He stumbled along the crumbling lip, his eyes on the ground in front of him. He still had his pistol, and he drew it from his belt with a shaking hand. He wondered where Crowe had got to.

The silence, when it came, was so profound it shocked him to a halt. It seemed to flower around him, expanding in the air, and time slowed. He looked up. The wolves stood or sat between the trees, attentive, tongues lolling. He saw movement from the corner of his eye and whirled toward it with the languor of a man in a dream. A child stood before him, a girl of perhaps twelve years, small for her age. She wore a scarlet cloak, the hood wide and loose over her dark hair. It was a rich garment. He could make out intricate patterns in its weave, threads of deeper red that told a story, if only he could focus on them. The cloak was fine, the finest work he’d seen, but its hem was ragged. The hem of the cloak filled him with loathing, and he came back to himself with a cry. The girl was naked beneath the red cloak, her skin as smooth and white as eternity, her newly budding breasts tipped with a wash of blue. He looked at her dainty bare feet, and at the blank serenity of her face. A curl of birch bark hung about her neck on a strand of root or vine, and the word written upon it was SNOW. She put a finger on it, setting it swinging, and the clouds let go a thick swan’s down of lazy flakes. They caught on his eyelashes and melted into tears.

“What do you want?” he croaked.

He would never know the answer. In a rush, Crowe was there, shouting at him. He made no sense of the words. He heard the sharp report of a rifle, a shrill scream like a shiver of bells. There was a scuffle. Crowe grasped his shoulder, and he heard him say I’m sorry, Fox, and then he was out over the drop where the freezing breath of the river rose up to claim him. He fell, his face to the sky. It was like lying on his back to look at the clouds. He saw a vivid swoop of red shoot through the falling snow above him. He saw the black banner of her hair, and her delicate white limbs stretching for the far bank, and the rage in her eyes as she looked back once, but she could not cross. Crowe must have torn the birch bark charm from her. It crashed through the slow air toward him, and then it was past him, lost in the silent roar of the water. The red cloak burst apart, even as the girl flew away in snow and shadow, and blood rained down on him as he plunged into the river, and the sudden bloom of ice seized him.

END