by Lone Primate
Text ©2006 Lone Primate; illustration ©2006 Cubist

Home -=- #7 -=- ANTHRO #7 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   Students, I will share with you now a cautionary tale, born of my early experience, when I was starting out as a practitioner just like you are today. In those days I was an acolyte at the School of Melchior. I had graduated from the basic courses, and moved on to much more advanced studies. At the time that my story takes place, I had achieved the fourth crafting. My master, who I will not name here—except to characterize him as a small bobcat of a man, in personality every bit as grey and drab as his pelt—had himself achieved the sixth. He was by then an older gentleman, and it was quite clear to all who knew him that seventh crafting was beyond his abilities. I was among the best of his students; having a natural affinity for the insubstantial arts, I had advanced quickly; some felt beyond my years. It was clear to me that my master was among them. The jealousy he felt for my abilities was thinly veiled behind the cold, businesslike demeanour with which he invariably greeted me.
   Though my master was my superior by two ranks, it was clear to me by then that in truth there was little left for him to teach me; at least, nothing I might find myself better suited to learn on my own. Consequently I was eager to set off into the world to make a place for myself, and announced my intentions as such to him. In his jealousy, he did his best to dissuade me; trying, by this, to hold back my career. But I would not be diverted from the course I had chosen. And so, reluctantly, he agreed to review the requests for practitioners that crossed his desk with an eye to finding a place for me.
   As the weeks passed, I naturally grew impatient with his procrastination, declaring my intentions to set out for myself—but not before voicing my discontent before the general student body. Not surprisingly, an opportunity presently revealed itself.
   My master called me into his study, inviting me to take a seat. He said, “I may have what you’re looking for. There is a village in the Fasian Kingdom looking for a practitioner. The duties are both magical and clerical; and your position furnishes you with a home, a stable, your upkeep, and a stipend of 300 guilders annually. Also, the use of two horses during your stay. Are you interested?”
   Naturally, I was eager to get started. But I was no fool. I wasn’t about to accept a pig in a poke just so that my master could be well rid of me. “What can you tell me about this village?” I asked him.
   He glanced at the letter. “The name of the village is Westvalley. It’s in the Borough of Taynes, and is currently under the tutelage of Lord Northerly. The people there speak our language; heavily accented of course—”
   “Language isn’t an issue,” I smiled. “I’ve mastered the Alltounge.”
   My jealous master glared at me across his desk, tufted ears back-folded in that way felines have. He contained himself again and continued. “You shouldn’t look to make your fortune there. But there ought to be lots of time for uninterrupted study. You might even take on a pupil or two; perhaps in the arts, perhaps just in reading…”
   “Perhaps,” I allowed. “Perhaps…”
   My master rose, lacing his fingers behind his back as he paced, his stub of a tail lashing until, by force of will, he tamed it. “The place is at the nexus of several kingdoms,” he told me. “In one kingdom one year, in another the next, and back again; on and on and on. No one gets rich there, but the harvests are fair, and at least no one starves. It seems they’re doing well enough to have petitioned Lord Northerly’s permission to seek and employ a practitioner, so presumably they can support one. As I recall, they’re not very rabbity; you’ll certainly stand out distinctively among them.” He turned to face me. “I ask again: are you interested?”
   I considered my prospects for a moment. It was not all that I’d hoped for, but it would suffice. “You may tell them that I am.”

   The journey to Westvalley took six days. Just me, a horse, and the cart filled with my belongings for most of the lonely journey. The valley in which the village was to be found was a broad, fertile floodplain, pressed against mountains whose summits were shrouded in mists, and whose bases blocked all exits. A virtual vagina of a community for any passing army; little wonder the place was always changing hands.
   Down the narrow cart road, I could see houses in the distance. A wooden archway had been built over the road; upon it were written the words, “Welcome to Westvalley”. As I passed under the arch, yeomen at work in the fields caught sight of me. They advanced towards me, cautiously at first, then with increasing speed and sureness. Men, women, and children gathered around me, waving their arms and shouting. That they lived at the crossroads of empire was immediately apparent; they did not closely resemble any avatar… a little bit of this, a little touch of that, a drop of the other; raccoon, wolf, mostly otter… the majority of them dressed in sackcloth, though a few were dressed more finely. Serfs, they belonged to everyone and to no one. Theirs was a small village no one, aside from its inhabitants, really cared much about. And why should anyone? These people had nothing; were nothing. If ever a people needed a wise and powerful friend and protector, it was the people of Westvalley. I knew that I would do well here, and that they would do well by me.
   One man in particular approached, wagging his long, skinny tail and doffing a hat fashioned of straw. “Welcome to Westvalley!”
   “Thank you,” I nodded. I glanced back at the arch. “I see someone here can read.”
   “That’d be me, sir. Tom Freshburrow, at your service, sir. Served two years in the army in my youth as a supply clerk. Picked up the learning that way.” He turned, and waved the others closer; with heads low, ears down, and tails drifting in uncertain, deferential wagging, they gathered to me. “You must have had a long, weary trip, sir,” he said. “Might I ride with you and show you where you’ll be staying?”
   I sized up Tom Freshburrow immediately. One of those people who’s a fast and clever talker and so takes himself to be a natural leader, and worse, is taken by others as such as well. Clearly Westvalley was too small a place to have real aldermen, but Tom and the more substantial of the village men could be said to have done an adequate job, at least from what I could see at the gates of the village. “Yes, I’d appreciate that,” I told him, and made room for him on the cart. He climbed up beside me, smelling of the fields, sweat, the earth, and other things rank and sundry. It was going to be an interesting stay.
   The house that I was brought to, that was ostensibly to be my home, stood near the centre of the village. It consisted of a paddock, surrounded by a stone fence; the house itself was also built of stone, fitted into place long ago, and no doubt by artisans more skillful than those who currently inhabited the village. It was, in short, their showpiece; empty but maintained in anticipation of any prestigious visitor. Tom opened the door for me, and stepping in behind me, made a show of patting his pads on the floor. “That’s a real wooden floor,” he told me, as though this were something new to me. Clearly, though, he meant to impress me with the fact that I was being given one of the better homes in the village, if not the best home.
   I ran my finger along the tabletop; it was spotless. Tom beamed. “We’ve looked after it well for you.”
   “I see that.” I moved slowly around the room, taking it in. I tried not to express my disdain. I forced my mind to other subjects. “How many people are there in the village?”
   “Three hundred and seventeen souls, as of this spring,” he told me. “Four passed on during the winter; nine born to take their places.”
   I nodded. “Tell me, Tom; what exactly are to be my duties hereabouts?”
   “Oh, light duties, sir, light duties. We understand that you’re in the process of bettering your skills; we don’t want to be too intrusive. We’re just glad that you—”
   “But what are my duties?”
“Well, sir… seeing that the crops are as full as they can be… seeing to the health of the village… influencing the weather… oh, and giving the benediction at ceremonies of importance to Those Who Provide. I’ve been doing it myself for some time now; not bad at it, though I say so myself,” he chuckled—in what I took was meant to be a self-deprecating manner—“but I daresay, not to the level that Those Who Provide really deserve; not to the level that you yourself can do it, sir.”
   I nodded. “That won’t be a problem.”
   “I’m pleased, sir. I suppose you’ll want to get settled in now. Can I help you with your belongings?”
   “No, they’re very expensive. I’ll see to them myself. Thank you.”
   “Alright, sir. Will there be anything else? Is there anything else we can provide you with?”
   I thought for a moment. There were, indeed, one or two things missing from my life… but some of my needs, the village could see to, and surely would. “We’ll wait and see,” I smiled.

   Lapines like myself do have our needs; we’re renowned for it. I’m sure I don’t need to expand on that. Not surprisingly, the single young women of the village looked upon me with some interest. As I settled in, I found that I rarely wanted for fresh baked goods, strong ale, and pleasant, if inane, company. Obviously none of them was suitable as a wife; not for a person of my standing and my prospects. But of course, there was no sense in being blatant about that. I accepted and enjoyed their company; make of that what you will.
   Unquestionably the most pleasing of them all was a young woman who stood out for so many reasons. She was not the racial melange of the other people of the village; a clean, canine line was evident throughout her form, even under all that cloth: vulpine or lupine. Pale grey, tipped with white, she was an ornament of silver cruelly dropped into this field of the coarsest rock. I first glimpsed her drawing water from a well. Later, at the first town meeting that I addressed; there she sat, in the audience, in the company of Tom Freshburrow. One morning when I saw her at work in the fields, I stopped one of the villagers, and inquired of him who this gorgeous young creature might be. “I often see her accompanying Tom Freshburrow,” I said. “Is she, perchance, his daughter?”
   The man laughed. “His daughter, sir? Heavens, no, sir. That’s his wife, Laura.”
   I was taken aback. “His wife? But she seems barely older than the children in the family… how could she possibly be their mother?”
   “Well, she’s not, you see, sir. She’s his second wife.”
   “And his first?”
   “His first wife, sir, Margaret, sir, well… lovely woman… but a few years back, she…” he cupped his paw to his muzzle, drew it away, blowing his breath into it. I nodded, understanding that she had passed away, but that it was ill to speak of it.
   The man himself nodded again in mutual understanding with me. “Laura he met two autumns past at the marketplace near the junction. She comes from beyond; clever thing, good talker, if you like that sort of thing in a woman. I suppose Tom does. Anyway, they were wed in the spring a little over a year ago.”
   I suppose myself enough of a man of the world to understand these things; however, this seemed to me a colossal waste. A young and intelligent girl like that, settled with a much older man, no prospects in life but to be the mother of another woman’s brood, and then left alone in the world when Tom departed it, her youth spent, her erstwhile charms dissipated. Clearly, Tom needed a wife, and his children needed a mother; however, an older and less attractive woman would surely have sufficed. It seemed to me this uppity little man was grasping well beyond his natural reach.
   And not just in that.
   I remember an afternoon, not long after I arrived, when a rider came in on a trail of dust with a letter for the village. He was approached by one of the villagers, a man I had come to know as Avery Blackspot. The rider and Avery conversed for a moment; then the rider handed Avery an envelope, turned his horse, and rode off in the direction from which he had come. I smiled, padding forward, but was surprised and irritated to see Avery cross the field in the direction of Tom Freshburrow. I did my best to conceal my anger as I approached them. Tom was already working his finger under the seal.
   “Here, here,” I smiled, striding up. “I’ll take that.”
   The villagers, curious as to the contents of the letter, had begun to gather around. Avery met my gaze with eyes that were bright, but cold. “That’s alright; Tom’s been handling official correspondence for us for years.” There was a general murmur of agreement, as was to be expected under the circumstances. But I needed to remind them that the circumstances had been changed, and of their own volition.
   “Yes, in the past. But I’m here now.”
   Tom paused, his finger at the edge of the seal, not yet having broken at. He suddenly seemed unsure whether or not to proceed.
   I pressed the case. “Why should poor old Tom have to reach all the way back to his army years, when you’re paying for an educated man to do this work now?” I smiled at them all.
   The world seemed to hold its breath. It was Tom himself who started it breathing again. He chuckled, slowly, painfully drawing his finger out from under the seal. Tail sinking, he handed a letter to me. “The man has a point,” he laughed, quietly. “After all, that is why we called him out here to the middle of nowhere, isn’t it?”
   “There’s a smart fellow,” I said. As I began to open the letter, I noticed Avery’s eyes still locked on mine. There was a dark storm of jealousy in them. I had seen it before, a hundred times in my career. I would deal with it as needs be; hopefully, I thought, it would not come to that.

   With the summer rains, I came to despise the place. In the central hall with its dirt floor, mud between everyone’s toes, we would gather in the evenings; the wind and rain lashed outside, nourishing the crops, while inside, we tried to keep dry and nourish our souls. There was singing, usually there was dancing; as often as not, the burden of entertaining the village fell to me. I don’t suppose I minded; not really. I would tell them stories of the places I’d been, the things that I’d seen, illustrated with the colorful phantasms I would pull from my own mind and out into the thin air before them. They had never seen the like.
   Forever my eye was drawn to poor Laura Freshburrow. How could it not be? Bolt of beauty in that sea of faces as colourless and unremarkable as the mud they all wore to the knee, and in some cases beyond… How I pitied her; laughing, singing, clapping amid these people of no background, putting the bravest face on what must have been the bleakest of despair. Truly, my heart ached on her behalf. After all, I, too, was required by diplomacy and decorum to disguise my real feelings.
   Always somewhere near the front on those evenings was to be found Avery Blackspot, his wife, their children… always enthusiastic, always watchful. Attentive. Awed. Surely it was genuine in his children, his spouse… but never in Avery himself. Always that spark, that essential excitement, was absent from his eyes. There was a deadness there a less discerning man would have missed. But not me. My bravest tricks, my most cunning conceits, passed before his unwelcoming eyes like floes of ice down a winter-clogged river. It was as though the weather that plagued me emanated from this man’s soul. And I learned to despise him as much as I hated the place itself. Maybe more. I could not fathom why at the time, but presently that would be made clear.
   Towards the end of the summer came the announcement that I’d been dreading, without even realizing I’d been dreading it. Before the crowd broke up for the night, Tom Freshburrow brought Laura before us, holding her hand and hugging her shoulder, the two of them smiling, tangling whiskers. “Please, friends, we have an announcement to make,” he begged. “Laura is carrying, at last!” Together, their paws went to her belly.
   Naturally, there was pandemonium, and the crowd did not break up that night; not until very early in the morning. I endured it as long as I could, before retiring in secret disgust to my cold, lonely, stone hovel. I sat in the darkness, shaking my head in my hands. The waste. The stupid, needless waste! Not only would the man die before her, leaving her alone against the world; now he promised to leave her with some litter she could not possibly support. That lovely, glowing, wonderful girl, saddled like some beast of burden forever. And by some puffed-up former army clerk, who had counted vegetables, and stocked shelves. It was clear to me that that pridefulness would be his downfall… and certainly hers.
   Perhaps it was not my place to undertake what I did. But I felt it was vital. And who but me could have undertaken it? In all righteousness, I would stand beneath the moonlight at the edge of Tom Freshburrow’s fields, my arms raised, my eyes closed, my mind focused in rapt attention as my mouth imparted the words that would bring him the needed epiphany…
   And while all around him, his neighbours prospered, the crops of the proud Tom Freshburrow began to fail.
   He sat in my kitchen, nursing a cup, pouring out the heart that humility had softened. Exorcising the pride that had crusted over through the years. “I confess that I don’t understand it, sir,” he told me. “It’s ungenerous, I know, but it’s a hard thing to see my neighbours doing so well, when my family has barely enough to eat, let alone to sell.”
   I contrived to seem perplexed, my chin in my hand, leaning across the table towards him. “It is vexing that the blessing I cast on the village is being confounded upon your lands. It was a general casting, for the good of the village.” I let my eyes drift up to his. “More than that, within the bounds of my duties, I fail to see what I could do.”
   He was quiet for a moment. He swallowed; he said, “Might you consent to a private commission?”
   I considered this. I said, finally, “So long as it did not conflict with or distract from my sworn duties, I can’t see what harm it would do.”
   A sigh of relief escaped him. “Thank you,” he breathed. “What would you consider to be fair compensation?” And so we discussed the terms. I played upon my years of experience, how much effort had gone into the acquiring of what I knew, the sleep that I would lose, the physical and mental drain that it all represented… I left him enough to live on, but not too largely. He ceded a few acres to me; he would work them as usual, as he always had, but the proceeds from whatever they yielded would be mine. Moreover, the land itself would be mine to dispose of as I saw fit.
   This was late in the summer, and if there were going to be a successful harvest, things would have to turn around soon. I knew in my heart that Tom Freshburrow would not have a successful harvest this year. His crops would fail, humbling him. Laura would see him for what he was, and wisely, move on. There was of course the issue of their child; if wisdom truly prevailed, Laura would simply leave the child with its father, and start her life anew. She was still young; this was feasible. Tom would be forced to find a woman of the appropriate age and character. And all would turn out for the best.
   And so it went. I would stand in the darkness of the night holding hands with the Freshburrows, casting charms upon their land, revitalizing it, invigorating its plants, rejuvenating its fertility, even as my eyes would cast down in pity on the all-too-fertile belly already swollen under Laura’s skirt. And then, days later, the same darkness would find me alone, damning the life out of Tom’s lands, and with it, the pride out of his heart. And again he would come to me. And again I would extract more from him.
   His neighbours grew alarmed for him, as people in small villages tend to, dependent upon one another’s good will for their very survival. But still he was too proud. Their charity was always politely declined. He still saw himself as a leader. Resentment fell on me. Nothing was said, but I could sense it; it was clear. My magic was failing one of their own. This was not how I planned things. I saw now that if I were going to salvage the situation, I would have to accelerate my plans. I would have to intrude a bit more directly, overtly, in the process that I had initiated.
   And so I had Tom and Laura to dinner. Nothing of business or the farm or the crops was spoken of during the repast; the wine had flowed, and begun to do its work, loosening tongues, opening minds, dislodging hearts from their sure moorings. I raised a glass before the window, watching the setting sun cast purple in its influence. “The last weeks of summer,” I mused. My eyes flicked from the glass to my guests. Their own eyes were cast down on their half-empty plates; neither of them spoke. I said, “The ordinary enchantments don’t seem to be working. It’s time sterner measures were taken. Tom, Laura, I want you to consider this very carefully,” I told them. Their eyes lifted to mine, and I had their attention. “Might either of you, however inadvertently, have offended against Those Who Provide?”
   They turned to one another, their eyes searching, beseeching, perhaps even questioning. Laura turned to me, her lake-water eyes fixed on mine and she shook her head slowly, not quite certainly… for who among us can truly say that he or she is certain never to have offended against Those to Whom We Owe All? For his part, Tom said, “I can’t think of anything either one of us might’ve done that might have offended Those Who Provide. But of course, that’s not really for me to say…”
   “It’s a wise man who recognizes that he does not know all,” I praised him. And in this I was sincere. Truly, he was learning his lesson in humility, however painfully. “Be that as it may… there are other possibilities.” I locked eyes with Tom, met him fiercely in the space between us. I said, “Tom, have you considered how Margaret might feel?”
   There was a gasp. They both stiffened, as though in mentioning her name I had evoked Tom’s dead wife and invited her to sit there among us.
   “We need to consider the possibility,” I told them, “that Margaret’s spirit may not be finished with you, Tom… though you are all too clearly finished with her.” My eyes stabbed at Laura, then at her heavy belly.
   Tom’s jaw fluttered; his tail writhed in agitation behind him. I admit that it gave me a cold satisfaction to be the one to suggest this to him. No one else would have dared. But of course, no one else there had the right. I had earned it through my devotion and discernment. The fact that he accepted it from me was demonstration of that fact. He turned to regard Laura. He took her hand. Turned to me. “What ought we to do?” he asked me, so softly that I barely heard him at all.
   “Make peace with Margaret, obviously.”
   Laura swallowed what was left of her wine.
   “How?” Tom uttered this with the air of a man inquiring into a death sentence.
   I sighed. Closed my eyes. Massaged my temples, rubbed the bridge of my muzzle. “All the magic in the world is not going to placate a soul in torment,” I advised them. “Until this is settled, I think it’s crucial that you… live apart from one another. Laura, have you somewhere you can stay?”
   She clapped her paw to her muzzle and began to cry. He clutched at her, soothing her, even as the tears filled his own eyes. Break away from the fool, I thought, break away now while you still can… how I wanted to say this to her for her own sake.
   He turned to me, sorrow and desperation breaking through his anger. “Are you sure there’s no other way?”
   “That’s barely the half of it,” I said. “We have much work ahead of us before we set the situation to rights.”
   And now he dared to challenge me, though he couched it in terms that seemed to put the lie to it. He said: “I can’t believe that Margaret would work against her own family! Starve her own children!”
   If he were determined to be stubborn and proud, I determined all the more stubbornly to humble him further. Now I deepened the hole. Casually I reached up, stroked my fingers along my long ear, as though I could hear something denied them. There was nothing unnatural in that assumption. “This is only speculation, mind you. There may yet prove to be other causes involved. But I believe we should proceed on this course, under the assumption that you offended against your dead wife, whose love for you must still be strong, and her anger at your betrayal all the deeper for it. Laura, I feel that you ought to move in with some single young woman who will be able to look after you as your pregnancy progresses. I think you should avoid one another. At least for the time being.”
   Tom sank to a sullen stoniness. “And how will we pay you?”
   And here I felt obliged to offer him a ray of hope. “We’ll worry about that in the future,” I told him. “Right now, the important thing is to get this settled, so that you can get at least one decent crop in before the cold weather comes.”
   Laura sobbed, “And when shall we—”
   “As soon as possible. Now. Think of a friend and stay with her tonight. The sooner the calming begins, the better.”
   They clutched at one another, swore their love, promised one another it would not be long. I rode with them, to see to it that they followed my advice. And when Tom was asleep, I damned his farm again.

   They would gather to watch me perform in the moonlight. I would speak the words that they were so sure were full of power, when in fact they meant nothing. The only words of power I spoke over Tom’s land were the ones that would turn him into the humble man he needed to be. They would not have understood this. But they would all be the better for it, it seemed to me. And Laura most of all, though she was perhaps the one person who never witnessed a single performance.
   The reduction of this arrogant man was proceeding briskly. I watched as his children were parceled off to various relatives; as he ceased to attend the evening gatherings where once his voice had commanded such attention and held such sway; as his wife, his pregnant wife, toiled at the menial tasks of the village among the single women, as though she were merely one of them, having fallen into sin… though, thankfully, she was not treated as such. Tom haunted his own house like the ghost he would become, as if already the fitting companion of the imaginary spirit I had conjured up to torment him in the form of a wronged wife; suspecting, as surely he did, that I would soon own his house, and that he would spend the rest of his days as my tenant, living and working on land that belonged to me, forfeiture of his own bad judgment—or rather, in reality, his overarching pride and self-aggrandizement.
   There was muttering against me, in the gullies and cornfields and dark shadows behind woodsheds. Why wasn’t I able to placate this ghost? For Margaret to resent Tom in death made no sense to them; he had stood by her to the end, they reminded one another; he had waited a decent amount of time before becoming involved again, before marrying Laura, and surely Margaret would not have wanted her children to suffer for lack of a motherly influence. She did not strike them as that sort of person. But in truth, I did not trouble myself too much with what they thought. They would accept it. In the end they would believe and understand what they were told to believe and understand, by those who knew better. This is a way of the world. I was doing them a service in reminding them of that. Simple creatures, I performed just enough small miracles to keep them in awe of me; just enough to maintain for myself the benefit of the doubt. The situation was nicely in control. And only one thing now remained.
   I would discuss with Laura her future.
   She was drawing water from the well, just as she was the first time I had laid eyes upon her. I gazed upon her as I drew closer; tail jutting from the sackcloth that now garbed her, pregnant belly in the way, nearly tipping her into the water as she struggled with the bucket. I reached out. Steadied her. Helped her to raise the bucket. Our eyes met. She looked away first, casting her eyes down to her feet. “Thank you,” she said, and moved away.
   “Laura,” I called softly.
   She hesitated. Stopped. Turned slowly, her cheek, her nose, her chin, her eye slowly coming into view over her shoulder, like the moon coming out from behind a cloud as her tumbledown chestnut mane gathered upon her other shoulder.
   “We haven’t spoken in a while,” I said, sauntering slowly up behind her. “I think we ought to.”
   “What about?”
   “What you intend to do now,” I said. “It must be obvious to you—it is to me and everyone else—that your relationship with Tom has deeply offended Margaret, and she has no intention of lifting her curse from him anytime soon. You can have no happy future with him. Laura… it was doomed from the start.”
   She sighed. Slowly and deeply. “We were happy. So very happy. Heaven alone knows how much I miss those children.” Looked up at me. “And what of this one?” she demanded of me, sloshing the bucket against her belly.
   Daringly, I reached out. Cupped her chin in my paw. “Laura, there are alternatives to all this. There are other ways of living. I’d like to discuss some of them with you.”
   Slowly, uncertainly, she turned her chin out of my palm… but not too far. Her eyes were settled warily on mine as she asked me, “… What do you mean?”
   “This is neither the place nor the time. I’d like you to come and share dinner with me this evening. Alone. The two of us. There are things for us to discuss. Things that I can help you with.”
   “I’m not sure…”
   “You don’t have to be sure of anything right now,” I told her. “Just come.”
   The struggle deep within her brought battle to her face; its lines formed and unformed, moving and conflicting, mirroring the torment of her soul, until at last, at long last, she said, “Alright. Just to talk. We’ll talk.”
   I smiled. “There is much to talk about.”
   Her feet shifted in the grass; she began to move. “Good day to you.”
   “I’ll see you this evening.”
   “Good day to you.”

   Ordinarily, my supper would have been supplied to me by one or another of the unattached young women of the village. On this night, I decided that to better illustrate the finer things in life available to Laura—were she to come to her senses and realize the limitations of her current circumstances—I would demonstrate some of the culinary skills I had acquired in my studies, apart from those of the insubstantial arts. In the market, I purchased the finest goose that I could find. I gathered the necessaries of my task, and on returning home, I set to work, creating what would surely be the finest feast of her life so far.
   Supper was prepared all in good time, and I awaited our appointed hour. It came and went without her appearing. The hours dragged on, with me growing more and more impatient with her foolishness. When the sun had set, I ate alone. A fine, fine meal; and yet such a bitter experience. Had I overestimated her? I hoped not; I didn’t believe so, but all evidence was to the contrary. What she worth the effort? Yes, I told myself, she is. At that point, I wasn’t quite sure what would get through to her. But clearly, stronger measures were indicated. For her own good, she had to be made to see that she could do better than this.
   If only… if only I had had the chance…
   It was well after dark when the knock came at my door. I dared to hope that it was her; ashamed, for some reason, to be seen coming to my house alone, and so arriving under cloak of darkness. And I was prepared to forgive her on that basis, even though the fine supper was long past ruined. But when I opened the door, it was not the vision of Laura Freshburrow with which I was greeted, but the person—the very, very unwelcome person—of Avery Blackspot.
   Naturally, I was civil, in spite of my disappointment. “What can I do for you, Avery?”
   “I’ve just come to tell you that Laura won’t be joining you for dinner this evening,” he said. His directness was appalling. This, coupled with my frustration, fairly set my blood to boil.
   “And why is that?” I asked, without even inquiring how he had come to know of our assignation in the first place.
   “She’s busy celebrating with her husband this evening,” he said.
   He nodded, easing past me, and stepping into my house. “That’s right. It seems that Tom’s crops have come in at last. As high as your eye. To look at it, you’d think it was some sort of miracle,” he said.
   All at once, I knew that Avery knew more about this sudden turn of events than he was letting on. “Well, that’s wonderful. All our hard work must have done the job. It would seem that Margaret has forgiven him at last. I’m very happy for them both.”
   “Are you, now?” he muttered darkly.
   “Of course I am! How dare you? What are you insinuating?” His arrogance was galling… I wondered if I ought to teach him some humility, and what might be the best way to go about doing it.
   He met my eyes for a moment. He quietly closed the door behind him. He said, “I know what you’ve been up to. Cursing Tom Freshburrow’s land, and then lifting the curse, charging him for doing nothing more than letting him have what nature sends him.”
   “And what do you intend on doing about it?” I laughed.
   Or rather, I would have. For suddenly, I found my mouth would not work at all. There was no force; no struggle at all about it. My lips, my tongue… they simply would not respond to the call to speech. It was as though I had taken it upon myself to attempt to speak by using the mouth of someone else; the results were the same. I brushed my fingers to my cheeks…
   He moved past me—me, the master of the house!—as though I were not there at all. And I felt my heels began to rise… yes, first my heels, and then my toes, lifting from the floor; the scramble-sounds of my claws scratching for purchase on the wood flooring, until at last, I had lifted wholly from the ground, and stood erect in the middle of the air. My body was at rest, completely relaxed, and I drifted backwards until I pressed gently, but firmly, against the wall. I wanted to fight against it. But my body was completely becalmed; not limp, simply unresponsive. It was as if, in the midst of all these outrages, I had not a care in the world. It seemed as though only my eyes were willing to respond, and they followed Avery as he stepped calmly up to my bookshelves. Silently, he surveyed my library; a tome seemed to catch his eye, and all at once, it liberated itself from its place and came to his open hand. It threw itself open like a wanton lover, spreading its legs, willing, begging. And as he gazed down upon it, its pages—its very letters—filled the room with a fantastic radiance. And this man… this simple yeoman farmer… cast his eyes upon my most arcane knowledge as though it were an old friend.
   Without looking up from the book, he spoke. “It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to your situation. I know what ambition is.” Then he did look up from the book as though he could see through the shelves, glimpsing something far away. “I understand that hunger.” He closed the book softly, almost reverently, squelching that room-filling radiance as though he had shuttered a window at sunset. He opened his paw and the book drifted back to its place on the shelf unbidden; a cow that knows its way back from the pasture. Even as I seethed in his clutches, I admired his mastery.
   He turned his head, and he regarded me. “These are simple people. They can’t help you achieve what you want. Why waste your time here?” His eyes narrowed, as though he saw himself reflected in my eyes and did not care for the dark things he saw there. “That you’ve been extorting from Tom is bad enough,” he lectured. “But worse than that, far worse than that, you’ve been using the memory of the mother of his children to divide him from his wife and to set yourself between them.”
   I wanted to tell him that the idea was preposterous and insulting to everyone involved; more indicative of the poison in his own soul than anyone else’s. But of course, I couldn’t.
   “I really believe it would be best for everyone,” he said, “if you left here. Tonight. Now. And never came back. What do you think?”
   I found I could speak, as if I’d been able to all along. “I think the people of the village would be surprised to learn what they’ve been harbouring in their midst all this time,” I said.
   Suddenly, I was a chicken. Wings, feathers, clucking, but in full possession of my comprehension. Flapping, shedding feathers, floating in the air as if the only flighted chicken in the world.
   Avery leaned in close now. “Tom’s yard is full of chickens. Would he notice a difference of one, give or take? I doubt it. He’d never know, of course, but I suppose anyone who did would find it ironic and somehow fitting that he would inevitably make a meal of the cock that tried to make him a cuckold.” At this he smiled, for the first time since arriving, as though unable to hide any longer his delight in himself.
   And I was myself again. Feet on the floor, hand at my throat, gasping. We stared at one another. I wondered who he was. Who could he be, having such power—he was easily 11th or 12th crafting; that was plain—and yet, nevertheless choosing to live this life, among these people? Obviously, he derived great pleasure from the ruse. Heaven knew what evils he had visited upon them to amuse himself; hardly surprising that they had sought the services of a practitioner to help them out. But as much as I wanted to save them, it was obvious that, faced with such an opponent, I was not yet equal to that task. “I’ll need some time to pack,” I snarled.
   I blinked, and when my eyes opened, the room was bare. “It’s already done,” he said. And sure enough, in the courtyard, my horse stood harnessed to my wagon, which was full. “After you,” he said, and we stepped out into the dewy grass in the moonlight.
   It was all clear now. Tom Freshburrow was Avery Blackspot’s—if that was his name—prized pet; favours lavished upon him from all directions, at the expense of all the others. And because I had dared attempt to set things right, I was now to be summarily banished.
   He held out a purse. “There should be enough in here to see you through to your next assignment,” he said, “if you shepherd it wisely.”
   “You’ve thought of everything,” I said. But it was really more of a question than a statement of fact. Clearly, there was much he had failed to consider.
   “I believe so,” he said.
   “Fine,” I said. Though it pained me to abandon these people to this tyrant, I mounted the cart. I had no choice.
   He could not resist adding insult to injury; his kind never can. As though he could read my mind and ferret my intentions—and I have every reason to suppose he could and did; what boundaries are there for such a monster—he said, “If you do decide to come back, at least do us the courtesy of bringing the dumplings.”
   I closed my mind, I closed my mouth; I started the horse forward down that long, dark, lonely road in the moonlight. And by myself, unnoticed, uncelebrated, but surely lamented, I left the valley behind me. I have always regretted that I could not defend those people. But at the time, there was absolutely nothing I could have done for them.
   And so I have worked and learned. I have achieved the eighth crafting, and I grow more powerful with each passing day. I have done much good, wrought much of value, and many would confess themselves to be in my debt. But never have I forgotten the simple, innocent people of Westvalley. Nor have I forgotten the stifled, wasted life of Laura Freshburrow. Everything I have done since that night I have done with an eye to returning there, and setting them free from a parasite they do not even sense in their fur. There will be a reckoning; this I promise you. And I will bring the dumplings.
   But we shall see who does the eating.

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