Friday, October 27, 2017

Year 2017 - "Haunted Mansion"

Dedicated to my friend, Cathie Duvall,
the true Queen of All Hallows Eve.

Sweet revenge always turns bitter eventually.”

I could hear Thaddeus calling for me, worry and desperation communicated in his voluble tone.  He was alone, standing outside the town hall in the middle of the street.  From where I was positioned, I could see him turning about in search as he hollered my name.  Something in my chest—a potent wave of concern for his feelings—moved me to respond quickly.  I reacted by shouting out to my husband.
“Thaddeus, I’m up here!  On the rooftop!”
His dark eyes flashed up to find me watching him, and I noticed a flustered sigh of relief cross his lips.  He motioned for me to climb down.  I took the easiest route to the ground, which consisted of leaping over a narrow alleyway onto the catwalk that ran along the fortress walls of Tarishe.  From there I descended an attached ladder beside the front gates of our village.  Thaddeus met me at the bottom rung.
“Catherine, you made me worry.  Why are you out here?  You should be inside where the fire can keep you warm; you’re going to catch your death of cold outside.”
I experienced a swell of appreciation for his concern.  Even though our marriage was closing in on its second month, it continued to affect me tenderly when Thaddeus fretted over my well-being.  It wasn’t something I was accustomed to, but I found it remarkably satisfying to have him express genuine care for me on a regular basis. 
“You’re smiling.”
I nodded in agreement with his observation, and my smile broadened.
“I take it you’re feeling better.”  It was a statement, although, his bushy eyebrows arched high enough to question me.
“A little,” I replied honestly.  My grandmother’s stubborn animosity toward our marriage would never let my heart rest easy. 
“She will come around,” Thaddeus said as if he could read my mind.  “Give her time.  She has no other choice but to accept our union; there’s no going back.  We’re family now.”
I nodded and smiled again, a grin that crept higher every second I considered the word family.  I thought about my curious visitor, Vallatrece, and the happy news she had given me.  I was with child—a boy.  But how could she know? 
My husband cocked his head a degree.  His thick brow-line pulled low with concentration as he tried to read my expression.
“What’s on your mind, Catherine?” he eventually asked.  I saw his eyes cast a wary glance up at the rooftop before landing on me again.  I wanted to tell him.  I wanted so badly to blurt out everything right there in the middle of the street.
“Nothing,” I muttered, turning to face the direction of home.  “I’m hungry.  Are you hungry?”  I didn’t wait for an answer but stepped forward towards our house.  Thaddeus followed me, kicking up dirt with his boots.
“It’s a bit early for supper,” he said.  The sun was still visible above the fortification walls. 
“But quite late for lunch,” I reminded him.
“Oh right.”  He seemed to remember that neither of us had eaten since our bowls of porridge and milk for breakfast.  “I’m sorry, Catherine, I must have lost track of time between that petty property dispute and the butcher’s grievances over his dwindling wood supply.  I might need to send a party out to collect logs specifically for his smoker.”
“It’s fine, Thaddeus, I know you’re a busy man.  People rely on your advice and leadership; I respect that.”
He seemed to fan his feathers at my words, straightening up beside me, actually raising his feet higher with each footstep rather than skimming the soles of his boots over the ground as we walked.  He looked to be as proud as a peacock.  I laughed, but he didn’t seem to take offense. 
We spent the remainder of the day at home, warmed by a crackling fire in the hearth and deer stew that filled our bellies.  As much as I wanted to tell Thaddeus about the strange happening that had taken place above our town hall, I refrained.  I wasn’t sure he would believe in a fairy godmother.  I wondered if he would react well to her news.

“I’d sooner be hunting worthless squirrels than killing myself with this back-breaking monotony.  At least there’d be the fun of a moving target.  We’ve been swinging at these dern trees all day and I ain’t yet had one swerve an inch to try and avoid my hatchet.”
I laughed at Dompier’s constant string of complaints.  He and I and about a dozen others who normally brought home meat for the villagers were spending the afternoon searching out and cutting down trees worthy of the butcher’s smoker.  There were no fruit trees in the forest, but we had managed to find an open area invaded by red alders.  Alder wood produced a smoke that added sweet flavor to most game meats. 
“I don’t know why you didn’t try and convince that man of yours to let half of us track down a good-sized moose for the smoke house.  We spotted three bulls on the west hills, you know.  It’s a waste not letting a soul go after ‘em.”
“Oh, Dompier, what does it matter?  Surely your gallant nature would have forced you to send your friends on the hunt while you volunteered to take their place at this back-breaking job.”  I was teasing the man; I knew better than to think he would be so gracious.
“In a rat’s eye,” he grumbled, confirming my theory.  My big friend swung his axe again and let it stay wedged in the slender trunk of an alder some twenty meters tall.  A few more swings and the tree would fall.  He stood up, rolling his spine straight, stretching out tired muscles.
“My turn,” I announced, reaching for the axe handle.  Dompier stepped aside and let me have at it.  His hands cupped around his mouth when he bellowed “timber” as the tree cracked.  The sound of collapse echoed for a great distance.
“You’ve a knack with sharp edges, Cat.  That you do.  Nicely done.”
I flashed him a grateful smile, obscured somewhat by a doubtful scoff.  “You did all the hard work, Dompier.  I just gave it a shove.”
The man made two fists as he raised both arms, flexing his thick biceps and grunting like an animal.  “Aye, that I did, woman!  That I did!”
I rolled my eyes in an exaggerated manner and tossed the axe at him, fully confident he would catch it by the handle.  He grabbed it out of the air one-handed. 
“Start chopping, you big show off,” I told him, doing my best to appear less amused than I truly was.  Locating a shorter hatchet fixed in the side of a tree, I prepared to section off the fallen log, but before I could begin, my friend asked a question.  His axe was resting on his shoulder.  It seemed he wanted a longer breather and would chat with me awhile to obtain one. 
“How’s married life been treating you so far?  Everything right as rain?”
“Yes,” I nodded affirmatively.  “Things are good.”
A gust of wind sent the chill of winter between my layers of clothing, so I pulled a wool poncho tighter around me, adjusting the hood to protect my ears.  Dompier observed my actions with interest. 
“You could have stayed home and hovered near the fires,” he said.  “Why didn’t you sit this one out?  The boys and I could’ve felled these trees ourselves.”
My eyes glanced up at a blue sky unmarred by a single cloud.  From the direction of Tarishe, smoke rose in white, billowy columns that expanded high up.  A hawk squawked from somewhere above.
“I don’t mind the cold.  It’s nice out here—outside the walls,” I admitted.  “Even in the middle of the woods, it’s less confining than home.  I feel like I can spread my wings out here.”
“Aye,” Dompier agreed with a single nod.  “Is that why you perch yourself on the rooftops?  You think those wings’ll let you fly off someday?”
I smiled vaguely at the imagery, partly wishing it were possible.  “Don’t be ridiculous, Dompier.  Besides, where would I go?”
“Now, Cat, I know it’s tempting to want more than what you got.  It’s natural to think there’s something better outside of here.  I think it too, sometimes, but then I say ‘don’t kid yourself; life is life.’  No matter where your feet are planted, it rains and the sun rises and the sun sets and day-by-day you grow up and you grow old.  It’s all the same, Cat, here or there.”
“I know.”
“You do?”  He looked at me with some skepticism.
“And you’re happy here.”
“I am.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yes, Dompier,” I said with a laugh, “I’m very sure.”
“Alrighty then.”  He seemed downright satisfied.  I shook my head with wonder, grinning at him.
“You worry too much for me.”
“And that’ll never change, Cat,” he declared with a wink.  “You can bank on it.”
I felt honored.  And I did bank on it—often.  Since our first hunt, I recalled a comfortable comradery between us.  He was a listener, ears always open and willing to hear me out.  I could tell him anything without fear of harsh criticism or judgment.  And his advice had never steered me wrong.  I was lucky to have such a true friend.
“I think I’m pregnant.” 
I wasn’t sure who between the two of us was more surprised by how I blurted out the news.  Reasonably, my husband should have been the first person with whom I shared this announcement, but I wanted reassurance that Thaddeus would react positively to learning he was to be a father.  Becoming a first-time parent meant his responsibilities would be greatly added upon.  It also meant that the nature of our relationship would be forced to adjust.  It meant a great many changes.
“You’re pregnant, eh?” Dompier repeated, somewhat dumfounded.  Then his brow arched vaguely.  “You’re certain?”
I nodded and shrugged at the same time.  “I’m reasonably certain.”
I watched the shock in his face bloom into enthusiasm.  Even though it wasn’t Thaddeus reacting to my news, Dompier’s exuberance was a relief.
“Well, congrats, Cat!  You’re gonna be a momma again; that’s great!  And Thaddeus, a pa!  I can’t believe he didn’t crow about this before he opened the gates this morning.”
“Uh…well….he doesn’t exactly know yet,” I said sheepishly.  “I wanted to tell him earlier, but…I’m not sure how.”
“How to tell him?  You just look him square in the eyes and say ‘Man up, hubby, because you’re about to be a papa!’”
I groaned and took a seat on the length of timber we were supposed to be sectioning into firewood.  “I’m not going to tell him like that.”
“So why announce it to me first?”
I shoved my hands in the front pouch of my poncho, delaying an answer.  “Because…I wanted someone to be happy for me, and I knew you would be.”
“Ah, Cat, Thaddeus’ll be happy; he’ll be ecstatic!”
“And I was kind of hoping for some advice on how best to break the news to him.  Good advice, that is.”
Dompier chortled, his whole form shaking with amusement.  “Alright, I can help you out there.  In fact, the best way to tell him is to not say a word.  Give him an obvious sign, and let him figure it out for himself—like my missus did with me when our little mouth-to-feed came along.”
He had my curiosity.  “What exactly did she do?”
Dompier scuttled over and—using his hatchet like a cane to help lower his weight—took a seat on the log beside me.  “She cooked up my favorite supper and set it out hot and tempting on the dinner table.  I was in good spirits anticipating a thick rib-steak in my belly, but for some odd reason she had gone and covered my plate with a napkin.  Scooting up to the table, I whipped off that piece of cloth to find not one morsel of food on my plate but a pair of the tiniest fur boots I’d ever seen.  It took me a minute or two to figure it out, that I was gonna be a pa—the proudest papa of one hefty, young son.”
“You’re a good father, Dompier.”
I watched his face flush at the compliment until he turned his head aside, feigning the need to cough. 
“Yeah, well….you’re welcome to borrow those little boots if you want.  I’m sure Thaddeus is a bright enough fellow, he’ll figure out what you’re telling him.  And don’t worry, Cat, I’m certain he’s no fool.  He’ll be happy for you—for himself, if I know the man.”
I was beginning to feel better.  “Thanks, Dompier.  You’re a good friend.  And yes, I would love to borrow those little boots.”
“Well then, they’re all yours.  In fact, consider ‘em a gift.”
“Thanks, Dompier.”
“You’re welcome.”  He gave my thigh a friendly pat before offering some additional advice.  “We’ve been friends for some time, Cat.  Good friends.  I know you—probably better than you know yourself.  I’ll always be here for you, don’t get me wrong, but you’re a married woman now.  I think it might be best to start confiding in that man of yours ahead of me.  You need to get in the habit of talking to him.  Thaddeus has a right to know if you’ve got concerns; he’s your husband.  There can be no secrets between you.  That’s how a good marriage needs to be.”
“No secrets,” I murmured, doubtful that complete and honest disclosure was entirely possible.  Apparently, this uncertainty came across in my voice.
“No secrets,” Dompier insisted.  He slumped down to meet me eye to eye, hovering in a slouched position to stare into my face with strong regard.  I failed to keep eye contact.  My big friend groaned a sound of disappointment.
“I’m not keeping secrets,” I snapped before he could accuse me.  “I just haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet, that’s all.”
“About the baby?”
“Yes.”  I rolled the word with a hint of delay.  Dompier didn’t miss a thing.
“What else?”
Hesitating, I frowned.
“What are you hiding, Cat?”
With a sigh of resignation, I spilled the beans.  “Apparently, I have a fairy godmother.  She’s the one who told me I was pregnant, although, I have no idea how she could possibly know such a thing unless she was simply guessing, or she actually is some sort of fairy godmother or a sorceress or something…”
“A sorceress?” Dompier cut in, his voice tight with concern.
My palms turned to the sky as I shrugged.  “I don’t know for certain, but this woman showed up out of nowhere and then disappeared in the blink of an eye.  It wasn’t normal.”
My big friend concentrated hard on me.  “When did this happen?  What did she say to you?”
“It was yesterday.  I was on the roof of the town hall, thinking, waiting for Thaddeus to get done with his meetings.  I was just sitting there when this tall, striking woman appeared.  I didn’t see where she came from.  She said she was my fairy godmother.  I know it sounds bizarre, but she didn’t do anything other than talk to me.”
Dompier was watching my expressions closely, his eyes tightening into dark slits.  He looked skeptical, angry, worried—all three mixed together.
“Are you certain she didn’t do something to you?  Think hard, Cat.”
I tried to recall every moment of our brief encounter.  “She touched my head,” I remembered aloud.  “I asked her why.  She said it was to learn things about me.”
“What sort of things?” Dompier growled.  I felt myself take offense to his tone.  He seemed upset with me, but I had done nothing wrong.
“I don’t know!” I barked.  “What the devil is there to learn about me anyway?  My life is the same dull, daily grind!  I do nothing extraordinary.  I’m no one special.”
My outburst was enough to make the big guy back off.  His features relaxed to a large degree, but I could tell his mind was tangled up in troubling thoughts. 
“Who do you think she is?” I asked, wondering if he had knowledge of this mysterious woman.  His behavior suggested he might, but he shook his head, offering no information.  I hazarded a guess of my own.
“What if she’s the sorceress who gave me this sword?”  My hand moved to rest on the weapon always strapped at my side.  “What if she came back to check on it?”
“It’s not her.” 
“She could have changed her appearance.” 
“It’s not her.”  The statement was growled with conviction, which to me seemed unfounded.  Standing abruptly, Dompier hefted his axe with both hands, ending our conversation.  “We best be getting this wood cut before the sun sets.”
He went to work, swinging his blade with powerful, hurried strokes.  I couldn’t help but think he was the one keeping secrets.

The sun had set.  The house smelled of sweet, musky alder wood.  I was sitting across from Thaddeus at the dinner table, watching him tear off pieces of fried bread before dipping them in his stew and shoving the sopped bits into his mouth.  He was clearly hungry, as was I, but the butterflies in my stomach were keeping me from digging into my meal as voraciously as my husband.  I took a sip of herbal tea and cleared my throat, knowing it would grab his attention.  His dark eyes darted right to me, and he smiled.
“This is delicious,” he said, his mouth partially full.  He swallowed and took a swig of water.  “I think the stew tastes even better the second day, don’t you?”  Scooping up a chunk of meat with a portion of flat bread, he leaned over his bowl and inserted the entirety into his mouth.  I forced a smile which he returned, his one cheek rounded like a stone.
Before he could make more small talk, I blurted out the memorized lines that for over an hour I had repeated in my head.  It was my intention to make Thaddeus aware of my condition without the aid of Dompier’s offered baby boots.  Having remained aloof and untalkative the whole time we were chopping the alder log into stackable firewood, my hunting friend had vanished as soon as a party of men and horses had arrived with a drawn wagon.  I decided right then to forgo the “boots for dinner” idea and came up with another way to let my husband know I was pregnant.  I had devised what I thought was a clever alternative.
“Thaddeus, there are some things I’ll be needing from my grandmother’s house.  I thought that perhaps you could go get them for me, since you prefer I keep my distance from her for the time being.”
I watched as curiosity adjusted the features on my husband’s face.  He put his bread down on his plate.  “I’d be happy to go get what you need, but I thought we already gathered up all of your possessions.”
“Not all of them,” I disagreed.  Again, I studied his face, wondering if he would recall the few items left behind in my old room.  He didn’t.
“What did we forget?” 
I hesitated with an answer, noting how his bushy eyebrows remained raised and patient.
“Oh…um….”  My heart was flitting faster than a hummingbird’s wings.  What was wrong with me?
“Catherine, are you alright?”
I nodded rapidly.
“Okay then,…what do you need from your grandmother’s house?”
“Just a couple of items.  Things I made, actually.  One I carved from a large cedar log.  It was months ago.  A couple of years ago.  I haven’t needed it…until now.”
My eyes were wide—I could feel them—watching my husband, begging him to figure it out.  He was thinking; the gears in his brain turning behind a crinkled forehead. 
“You could grab a couple of smaller blankets too.  I’m sure my grandmother won’t mind.  I mean, why would she have need of little blankets?  Right?”
“The creases on his forehead suddenly vanished.  Thaddeus zeroed in on me, his eyes as big as my own.  I was certain he had worked out what I was trying to tell him, but what would his reaction be?  I held my breath, my face expressionless.
“Are you…”  He seemed uncertain of what to ask.  Or, perhaps, if he should ask it.  “Catherine, are you….”  He pointed at my face before lowering his finger and aiming at my stomach.  “Are you….with child?”
“I think so.”  It felt like a confession.  It made me want to cry.  He wasn’t smiling.  And then suddenly he was.  A wide, glowing, beautiful, goofy smile. 
Relief washed through me like a cleansing rain.  Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes and I laughed.
“Catherine, this is wonderful!”
I laughed louder—giddily—thrilled to see he was happy.
“A baby!  I’m going to have a family!  We’re going to have a family!  This means I’m going to be a father!  A father!  Ha ha!”
In a flash, he was out of his chair and beside me, picking up my laughing form and twirling me around.  We hugged and we kissed.  Then we danced as he sang out in merriment, referencing Boy Blue and his bugle, Jack and Jill, Mary’s clingy little lamb, and other silly children’s rhymes. 
The evening transpired in blissful celebration. 
Life felt perfect. 

I was asleep when I heard the door close with some force behind it.  The thump woke me up.  A cold breeze sneaked in from outside and roused me to consciousness even faster.  When my eyes flickered open, Thaddeus was pacing the floor, all but biting his nails.  He was clearly upset about something. 
I sat up in bed and leaned against the headboard, wondering if he had spoken to my grandmother.  The conversation must have gone poorly.  I couldn’t understand why she found our happiness so unbearable.
“Thaddeus?” I said softly, acquiring his immediate attention.  His dark eyes darted to me, and for a long moment he seemed to look right through me.  His lips refused to smile.
“What’s wrong?” I finally asked, certain I knew the answer.
He turned to face me full on and straightened his spine until it was perfectly rigid.  His chin nudged up a degree as a frown indented each corner of his mouth.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”  He stood there, staring, demanding an explanation with his body language.  My clouded brain, still muddled by sleep, found his question vague.  Confusion twisted up my features.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked again with greater stress on each syllable.
“Tell you what?”  I was honestly puzzled until he spoke his next words.
“You believe you have a fairy godmother, do you?  A vile fairy godmother!”
I dropped my gaze.  Dompier—the rat.  He had denied me a chance to talk to my husband first.  It was a betrayal of friendship, something I had never suffered regarding him.  Why had he not held his tongue? 
“I don’t understand, Catherine; you didn’t mention one word of this to me.  Why? You should have informed me the moment this dreadful woman approached you!  This sorceress—this wicked creature—could very well be a serious threat to you and our unborn child!  What were you thinking keeping it a secret?”
“You have no proof she’s a threat,” I said before wondering, “do you?”  He ignored the question in favor of interrogating me.
“Have you any idea who she is?”
“Have you any idea why she came to you?”
I shook my head.
“None at all?”
“No, Thaddeus.  She said she was my fairy godmother—I know it sounds crazy.  I didn’t really believe her, but she said I could make a wish.”
“A wish?”
“Yes.  I told her I didn’t want to make a wish; I didn’t want anything from her.”
My husband breathed a weighty sound of relief.  Apparently, he found me to be wise in that regard.
“What else happened?”
“Nothing, really.  She touched me—my head—with her hands.  I didn’t feel anything.  Supposedly, it was to find out more about me.”
“She wanted to know more about you?”  This news seemed especially bothersome to my husband.  “Like what?”
I shrugged my uncertainty which earned a groaned a note of frustration.
“She said she could tell I was a strong woman.  That was it.  And then she left.  Vanished.”
I nodded to signify it was true.
“What did she look like?  What was she wearing?  What was she holding?”
“She wasn’t holding anything that I recall.  Her dress was tight and black and decorated with feathers and lace.  Even her hair and lips were black.  She was gorgeous,” I said recalling her flawless, chilling beauty.  And she wore a red jewel about her neck.  It glowed faintly.”
My husband pursed his lips, portraying a great deal of concern.
“Oh!” I exclaimed, recalling an important fact.  “She told me her name!  Right before vanishing, she whispered it to me.  Vallatrece.”
Thaddeus mouthed the name, thinking hard.  He didn’t appear to recognize it.  He looked at me again, carefully gauging my behavior and expressions.  “Have you ever come across this woman before?  Even in a dream.  Tell me the truth.”
“No.  Never.”
His shoulders drooped forward slightly, and he rubbed his forehead while giving my story serious thought.  At last he decided to hope for the best. 
“It could have been a chance encounter, I suppose.  The woman may have been traveling through the forest and noticed you on the rooftop in clear view.  Perhaps she approached you out of curiosity.”
“Let’s hope it’s nothing more than that.”  Then he added with a growl, “I swear to you, it will be the death of her if she shows up here again.”  I was shocked he would threaten the life of a stranger.
“Thaddeus, you don’t even know who the woman is!”
“She’s bad news; I can feel it in my bones!”
He was being unreasonable.  Overprotective.  Maybe because of the baby.  I refused to say more, and kept two facts to myself: first, that the mysterious Vallatrece had promised to return at some point, and second, that before her vanishing I had uttered a last-minute wish in the desperate hope of protecting my unborn child.
Thaddeus remained in a foul mood throughout our morning meal.  He insisted I stay within the walls of Tarishe (which was no big deal because I didn’t care to be in Dompier’s company anyway) but then he went on to bar me from the rooftops.  My face turned red with anger when he voiced these commands as if I were a child in need of admonishing, yet when I went to verbalize my objections, my tongue twisted up and my thinking stuttered, leaving me mute, unable to argue.  I felt like a kettle of boiling water with no spout to let off steam.  The most I could manage was a groan and a narrow glare which Thaddeus ignored by turning his back on me.  He left the house with a pot of porridge wrapped in insulating rags for Grandmother.  I was more than happy to see him go.
An hour later, he returned home empty-handed, making me wonder if he had mentioned a word of my pregnant condition to my grandmother.  At his insistence, I slipped on a poncho and accompanied him to the butcher’s shop where he lingered long enough to accept tokens of gratitude for the supply of alder wood he had lifted no finger to gather.  I followed him to three other residences, hearing out petty complaints and requests, before we ended up inside the large meeting room of our town hall.  I was directed to sit near a fireplace, along with three other women, where we were given a barrel of pine straw to weave into storage baskets. 
The chore was meant to keep me occupied. 
The women, meant to provide company. 
Both proved especially irritating. 
After a few curt replies to their attempts at small talk, I was ignored by my fellow basket-weavers who seemed happy enough to engage in persistent chatter with one another.  Their fingers showed signs of callouses, acquired over time from the frequent pricking of sharp, dry pine needles.  My hands were no less suited for the job, though the product of my efforts lacked the artistic appeal woven into the other ladies’ baskets.  I attempted a polite “thank you” when they paused to offer me crafty advice which went ignored.  Who cared about the pathetic rules of basket weaving?  My mind was caught up in an inexplicable mystery!
I had changed, and it bothered me.  Not like a subtle adaptation one would deem a nuisance, but vitally enough to eat at my gut.  Like a snake slithering out of its old, scaly skin, I had somehow shed my previous self—a person whom I feared was my better self.  How had this happened?  And so fast!  So drastically!
I recalled the years before our marriage very clear, the numerous occasions when Thaddeus and I had sparred with words, often provoking one another to shouting arguments.  The worst encounters had ended with us drawing blades.  I had not forgotten the previous Hallows Eve when I nearly slit the man’s throat!  That was less than a year prior!  Somehow or other, my world had upturned since then.  My own emotions seemed bent on cramming happiness down my throat while my mind, perhaps prone to madness, was insisting this was wrong.  Something was very wrong.  For me to endure insult and not protest—to fail to stand up for myself with words of reason—against the man whom I had outwitted hundreds of times in the past…
Something was terribly wrong. 
I felt an increase of guilt churn in my stomach, a reaction to my very thoughts.  They were causing me great anxiety.  I was a married woman now, the wife of a successful civic leader.  Soon I would be mothering a new, precious baby boy.  Who in their right minds fought against the kind of joy I felt at simply thinking about my enviable situation?  I was fortunate.  I was comfortable.  I was happy. 
And I hated it. 
Because it made no sense for my heart to be clinging to this overwhelming contentedness.  My feelings seemed genuine, yes, but how could they possibly be?  What was wrong with me?  No sane person went from loathing their rival to adoring him overnight. 
I glanced across the room at Thaddeus, seated at a long table within a group of shop keepers, and I contemplated him strongly.  My heart leaped in my chest at the mere sight of him.  I felt myself overcome.  The acts of kindness and sweet attention and gratifying moments of passion afforded me by this man since the day of our marriage were purely pleasing.  To be loved was a desirous affair!  It was the aim of every beating heart!  I nearly cast aside my concerns and allowed myself to be consumed by these agreeable sentiments except for one thing: I could not forget how stripped of power and dignity I had felt that very morning.  Thaddeus had essentially commanded me to sit and stay like a dog.  And I had heeded my master without so much as a growl!
This was not me.  No one stayed me.
I watched those at the table grow more intensely involved in the details of a trade agreement I cared nothing about.  Such business bartering was always selfishly motivated.  When it appeared that my husband’s attention was engrossed on a point of aggressive negotiation, I excused myself from the weaving party and slipped out the back door.  I turned down the alleyway and hurried to a crumbling chimney flue that was easy enough to climb.  Almost immediately, a fit of anxiety gripped at my chest, and I felt as if a war was being waged in my gut—a battle between my desire to protect what harmony existed in my marriage and the selfish want to reclaim an ounce of the independence I had lost.  This painful struggle nearly persuaded me to reconsider my childish act of defiance.  Why was I stupidly jeopardizing my marriage?  For what purpose?  To stand upon a rooftop in sheer rebellion?  Was I really that needy?  That proud? 
I could hear my husband’s command echoing in my mind—no kind persuasion, but a strict order to keep my feet on the ground.  I understood his cautious reasoning, and I didn’t doubt he was acting out of concern for my safety, but I was not some fragile, incapable, defenseless creature in need of a controlling overseer.  What irked me most was how my natural defenses had failed me.  And the only way I could see to restore my confidence was to prove I had not lost the courage and ability to make my own choices and carry them out.  Perhaps this act of defiance was childish, but it was remedial as well. 
After stepping off the chimney flue and onto the roof, I heard my name spoken by someone from behind.  At first, I thought it was my husband or someone he had arranged to catch me in the act of sneaking out.  Then I recognized the voice.  It was female.  Casual.  Glazed with a touch of humor.  Vallatrece.
I turned around to face my self-proclaimed fairy godmother.  Her black lips were smiling, reinforcing the amusement perceivable in her tone.  She eyed me up and down, giving no hint of approval or disappointment.  I was the first to speak, stating the obvious.
“You came back.”
Her smile slipped crookedly to one side.  “Yes.  I told you I would.”
“I know, but….why have you come back?”  I braced myself when she started toward me one leisurely step at a time.  I felt no fear—she made no threatening moves, nor had she led me to believe she meant any harm.  Nonetheless, knowing Thaddeus believed this woman to be bad news gave me pause to wonder.  When her sauntering form was nearly at arm’s length, I took a step reward, signifying that I wanted her to keep at a reasonable distance.  The raven sorceress didn’t hesitate to close the gap between us.  She continued flaunting her impish smile.  It made me nervous but not afraid. 
“I would prefer that you not touch me,” I said when her hand moved as if she intended to comb her long nails through my hair. 
“I’m afraid it can’t be helped,” she replied.  Her fingers passed close to my ear as they divided my straight lengths into sections and lifted the whole away from my face.  There was a brazenness to her smile for a moment.  She then released my hair, letting it fall onto my shoulders. 
I swallowed back a rise of anxiety, wondering if Thaddeus was right to fear her.
“I need you to come with me.”  Her fingers clamped onto my wrist, and I automatically tugged against her hold. 
“No, I can’t leave…”
“Nonsense.  Of course you can.”  She held fast to me and studied my face, watching as if my reaction was of interest to her. 
“My husband will be upset,” I argued, wanting very much to remove her fingers from my wrist.  Again, her grin thinned with humor.  Her dark eyes seemed to laugh as they peered directly into my own. 
“On the contrary.  I think he will be pleased to see you.”
Confusion tightened my stare when I noticed a rapid increase in the glow emanating from the red jewel hung about her neck.  My eyes dropped to look at it, watching the light swell and dim in an instant.  When my gaze shot up again, the smiling sorceress was outlined by a mass of pine trees.  I glanced to each side and discovered we were indeed situated inside a forest, no longer high up on a bare rooftop. 
“How in the world…?” I began to ask until a man’s voice sounded at my rear.  He uttered only one word.  A word that fell from his lips with grave emotion. 
I turned completely around to find myself staring at a half-clothed muscle of a man owning dark, wild hair that hung to his chin.  His eyes were wide and fixed on me.
“Duvalla?”  He repeated the word like a hopeful question.  I shook my head the slightest bit, uncertain what it was he wanted to know.  His critical gaze then jumped to the sorceress, Vallatrece.
“Why have you brought her here?” he asked.  His tone was both harsh and demanding.  I could tell my fairy godmother found his reaction humorous….as she did most things, it seemed. 
“I brought her so we could negotiate, of course.” 
The man growled his disapproval in his throat.  “We will not ally with you—there’s nothing to negotiate.  Just leave her alone.”
Vallatrece smirked at the angry man.  “You speak as though you hold the mantel of leadership over your pack.”  Her hands gestured toward each side of us, directing my attention to the trees where I spotted wolves, their watchful eyes gleaming out of the darkness.
“Werewolves!” I gasped, comprehending our situation.  We were surrounded.  My eyes shot up worriedly at the man.  “You’re a rotten werewolf!” 
I snatched my sword from its sheath and held it before me, ready to fight.  I couldn’t fathom what we were doing among these vile mongrels.  This woman had promised to protect my unborn child from them.  What was she thinking?  My empty hand moved instinctively to my abdomen as if it could shield my baby from harm. 
The sorceress let a trill of laughter escape her throat before gesturing that I should lower my sword.  Angry and baffled, I refused.  She spoke to the werewolf man while stepping close enough to touch my stomach with a patting hand.
“She’s afraid for the little one, Kresh.  You wouldn’t try to harm her innocent baby, now, would you?”
Upon hearing his name, I experienced a flicker of recognition.  Something stirred deep inside me as if I ought to know him.  But I didn’t.  The way his features cringed with emotional agony affected me a great deal.  I was distressed by his reaction for no reason I could fathom. 
“You’re with child?” he asked, looking straight at me.  The hurt in his face pained my heart.  I looked at Vallatrece, seeking answers.  She merely grinned, entertained by what I didn’t understand.
“I want to go home,” I told her in a quiet voice. 
“And where would home be?” she asked, arching her perfectly painted eyebrows.
“Stop tormenting her!” the werewolf growled.  He made a daring advance forward, behaving as if he meant to grab the enchantress and manhandle her into submission. 
Vallatrece didn’t so much as flinch.  The man stopped short of her—of me.  His strength of will seemed to deflate as if the very last drop had drained from his soul.  My heart ached seeing it, an empathetic reaction that confused me.
Kresh swatted his hand at the air, waving us off.  “Just go.  Take her back.”
“Oh, so you don’t want her anymore?” the sorceress asked.
Daggers flashed in the werewolf’s eyes.  “That’s not what I said, witch.  Don’t put words in my mouth.”
I was concerned by the conversation and unable to make sense of it.
“So you do want her, just not the child.  We can negotiate for the child…”
“What?” I squeaked.  My interruption didn’t stop her black lips from continuing.
“I have a new proposal for you.  In exchange for ending your curse, I no longer seek an alliance or your forces to join my own.  You can simply promise me the babe as soon as he’s born.”
I was stunned by her dreadful offer, and equally stunned when Kresh and I shouted the same word of refusal in unison.  “No!”  
I stared at him, my expression incredulous. 
“You leave her child alone!” he roared.  “Leave her alone!  I will not promise you anything!  Now get out of here!”
I was utterly confounded and could do nothing but glance helplessly between the witch and the werewolf.  Every sign of humor had vanished from the enchanter’s lips.  Her dark eyes flashed a glint of gold around the pupils as they narrowed.
“Fairy godmother, please,” I begged, “take me home.”
Kresh groaned a sound of disgust.  “That witch is no fairy godmother.”
“And you are not the true leader of these werefolk,” Vallatrece countered.  “You have neither the guts nor the wisdom to choose well for them.  It’s time I negotiate with your queen.”
I looked past her through the trees, half-expecting the infamous ebony wolf with the silver paw to emerge from the shadows, but that didn’t happen.  I sensed the collective attention of the werewolves turn to me as the sorceress placed her rounded fingers on my head, setting them on my hair like a crown.  From the corner of my eye, I saw the werewolf named Kresh start toward us until Vallatrece hissed at him.
“Don’t touch me, you fool, or you’ll be sorry.”
Just then, a sensation of weight seemed to lift from my mind as a swirl of images danced at the back of my eyes.  Lights, pictures, emotions all buzzed inside my brain—a commotion of memories attacking my recall.  Some I owned.  Others were unfamiliar.  Seconds passed as the chaos settled.  My eyes opened wide when my life became mine again.  I could perceive reality through clear, untainted senses. 
I was the queen of werefolk.
Looking at my mate, my true husband, I began to tear up.
“Duvalla?”  Kresh once again spoke my name like a hopeful question.  This time I understood what he wanted to know.  I nodded most assuredly that I was indeed myself.  He reached to touch my cheek, and I broke down.
“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry, Kresh.  I never meant for any of this to happen.”
His head fell forward as my words seemed to worsen his pain.  I hated myself.
“I was an idiot for taking a chance, for putting a thread of trust in that double-crossing gargoyle.  You were right; I should have listened to you.  Instead, I failed you.  I betrayed you.”  Tears rained from my eyes.  Kresh washed them away with his big fingers.  He spoke to me far more kindly than I deserved.
“No, Duvalla, no, not you.  You haven’t betrayed me.  You never would; I know that.  It’s the witch’s spell.  You’re under the influence of a curse; it’s not you.  You can’t be blamed for anything.”
“But this would never have happened if…”
He placed his thumb on my lips, stopping me from assuming the rightful blame.  “You took a chance.  You had to.  Things would have gone our way had Baron kept true to his word.”
“But he didn’t.  He betrayed his brother.”
“Yes.  And now Jovani has again betrayed us.”
My guilty, teary eyes dared to look into the face of my mate.  “What do you mean?  What has that bloodsucker done?”
Vallatrece piped in to answer the question, her magical hands still crowning my head.  “Jovani has only tried to protect you.  He spared the lives of your pack at great risk to his own family, and then he sought out the one solution to your mutual troubles.  You, werewolf, are the one who insists on betraying dear Jovani.”
I watched Kresh look up to glare past me, but the fingers pressing down on my head kept me from seeing the sorceress myself.  I imagined a wry smile on her lips.  
“Jovani is a wise leader.  A man of excellent reasoning,” she went on, “which, after the unfortunate yet inevitable disaster you barely survived, led him to a logical fact: the only way to destroy a master of sorcery is to find a mightier master of sorcery.  Consequently, your friend, Jovani, found me.” 
“He did no one any favors,” Kresh grumbled through gritted teeth.  I was starting to understand what had transpired in my absence.  I made a presumption from their earlier dialogue.
“You were brought here to help us…but for a price.”
“It’s hardly a pittance,” Vallatrece laughed.  She then exhaled an impatient sigh through her nose.  “This is most annoying—I can’t even look you in the eye.”  I felt the weight of her hands leave my head, and I objected at once, terrified of becoming the impostor, Catherine, again.  Kresh removed his warm touch from my face and stepped away.  I understood why, but the rejection was heartrending.  A near-sinister laugh trilled in the witch’s throat. 
“Hardly a pittance!” she repeated, keeping one hand on my head.  It allowed her to pivot and move into my view.  My mind remained unclouded.  I was thankful.  “It is a small thing I ask in exchange for your permanent liberation from a living hell that tortures both you and your pack.  What I offer is freedom for the werewolves as well as for Jovani and his clan.  What I ask amounts to almost nothing in comparison!”
“You want our allegiance,” I said, recalling what Kresh had sworn to deny her.
“What I want is strength in numbers.”
“What you want is to see us trade the persecution of one witch for that of another,” Kresh growled.  “We will not do your bidding.  You have those bloodsucking fools to do that.”
Vallatrece flickered a harsh, golden glare at my mate before turning softer eyes on me.  “Jovani spared your pack, Queen Duvalla, for your sake.  He told me that the Tarishe Witch demanded he exterminate every last werewolf or risk the death of his mate—the poor, wretched, disfigured Evadine.  But Jovani couldn’t bring himself to carry out that order, despite risking his true love’s very life!  He felt he owed you for the deception of his brother, Baron.  After all, it was Jovani who convinced you to put your faith in the gargoyle.  Consider his sacrifice.  If that is not the act of a genuine friend…”
“I am worse off for trusting him.  My mind is not my own; my will and emotions have been sordidly manipulated.  His so-called brother did this!”
“Your mutual enemy—the Tarishe Witch—did this.  Jovani and I offer you a sure escape, your deepest desire!  I will destroy the old woman who keeps you under her spell.”
“What if you can’t?  What if you fail?”
Vallatrece chuckled as if the idea were preposterous, yet I had seen confidence fail us before.”
“If that were to happen, you would be no worse off than you are now.”
It seemed she was right.
“Trust me.  I can erase your curse forever, leaving you free to return to your pack.  Jovani’s mate will reclaim her former beauty.  Neither of you will have anything left to fear.”
“Except whatever wicked curse you intend to inflict upon us.”  Vallatrece and I both looked at Kresh as he voiced his belief.  I could see he would not be convinced otherwise. 
“I could curse you this very instant, wolfhound.” 
Unafraid, Kresh thrust his face forward.  “You’re threatening me?  Yet you hope to convince us to join your forces and participate in some mysterious cause you refuse to divulge?  And you call me the fool…”
“Stop it,” I breathed, fearful of what a mad witch might do if amply provoked. 
“Vallatrece, why do you want our strength in numbers, as you say?  What can we possibly do for you that you can’t accomplish through sorcery?”
A grin that conveyed more eagerness than amusement crept across her face. 
“I want an army.  My own army.”
“An army.  For what purpose?”
“To fight for me, of course.”
“To fight whom?”
“Whomever I choose.”
I wondered at her enduring glow of excitement.  “Do you intend to start a war?”
Smiling like a huntress eyeing a twelve-point buck, she admitted the truth.  “Many wars, darling.  And I will win them all.”
I paused, stunned, allowing a moment for her outrageous goal to sink in.  “And Jovani agreed to this?  To joining you?”
“Naturally.   He grew sorely irritated when your werewolf husband refused to do likewise.”
“So if you have Jovani and his entire clan agreeing to fight in your wars, why not release his mate from her curse?  Let the vampires fortify your army.”
The sorceress tsked her disapproval of my suggestion.  “Queen Duvalla, how one-sided and terribly unfair!  You know very well that lifting Evadine’s curse would lift yours as well, allowing the wolves to gain tremendous benefit from the efforts and sacrifices of others.  No, no, no, you must see that nothing can be done until we come to a just and acceptable agreement.  And we will come to an agreement.  You know Jovani will resort to anything to save his mate.”
Kresh jumped in, snarling.  “That bloodsucker will fail if he tries to force our pack to fight for you.  He’s sadly mistaken if he thinks he can overpower us.”
Vallatrece gestured that Kresh might be right.  “Perhaps.  But the result would still be a bloody battle.  If you continue to deny Jovani his only desire, you might keep in mind that my allies reap the benefit of my personal protection.”
“Do not try to manipulate us, witch!”
Kresh had grown intolerant.  It seemed as if my zealous fairy godmother was about to strike, for her eyes flashed wide, and the two faced off directly in front of me.  I thought to put myself between them, hoping to be a voice of reason, when our attention was collectively seized by an unexpected announcement. 
“We volunteer.”
The three of us looked to the speaker.  He was a young man, a strong and handsome werewolf, who normally wore a thick coat of sienna fur.  He was stepping out of the trees, bare-chested, a hide wrapped about his waist.  Six other young werewolves of equal stature joined him.  They stood together, nodding in agreement when the young man repeated his message.
“We will enlist in your army in exchange for a permanent end to the curse that manipulates our queen.”
The enchantress nearly dropped her hand from my head, causing a cloud of confusion to kick up in my mind.  It evaporated as her fingers pressed down on my scalp.  Her lips pulled askew at a new distraction.
“Well, isn’t this interesting?” 
Kresh immediately forbade the young werewolves, addressing a few of them by name.  “No, Aiden, Malachi, you will not do this.  Tennyson, it is madness.”
I had to agree.  “You are all very brave to step forward, but the pack needs you here.  They need your strength here.”
“The pack needs its queen,” Aiden boldly argued, “and to have the huntress, Catherine, destroyed before she does any more damage.”
I was aggrieved by the truth of his words, reminded of the death and suffering I had brought on my own people.  Kresh squeezed my hand, seeing my pain.
“Not this way,” he told the young werewolf.
“Then how?” Aiden asked.  His urgent inquiry begged for an answer. 
Kresh repeated the same words with stronger emphasis.  “Not this way.”  He jerked his head toward the darkened forest, gesturing for the young wolves to return to the shadows.  “Go home.  Join the pack.” 
Aiden lowered his gaze and twisted partway around as if he would obey.  He stopped when the roan-haired werewolf beside him dared to speak his mind. 
“We swore to protect our queen.  We took an oath to do so.  It is our duty.”
“It is,” Kresh agreed.  “Malachi, you know we do what we can.”
“Then why not this?  We can do this, and it will save our queen.”
“No.  It puts you at risk which puts us at risk.  This witch would have us bound to her bidding, released from one curse to suffer another.  The consequences outweigh what might be gained here.”
The stubborn young man clearly disagreed.  He turned to Vallatrece and addressed her directly. 
“We are young and strong and able to fight.  Will you accept us as your warriors and let the rest of the pack go free?”
“No, Malachi!  Stand down!”  Kresh started toward the stubborn werewolf.  I imagined he meant to usher him away, but Vallatrece had another idea.  In the heart of the jewel worn about her neck, a dark form of light pulsed crimson.  I felt my head spin as the sorceress’ magic seemed to hiccup.  The sharp fingernails on her free hand made a flicking gesture that resulted in Kresh halting in his tracks.  Discovering he was physically unable to put another foot forward, he went to protest vocally.  His hands felt at his throat when, despite every effort to shout, no sound came out.
“What have you done?” I gasped.  “Release him!”
The sorceress flashed an irritated scowl at me and then pealed her hand from my head.  I panicked, wide-eyed and afraid.  A mental wall of fog poured in until the confusion was debilitating.  I glanced about, aware that things had transpired while I was consciously oblivious.  Werewolves were facing me, having emerged from the forest.  I was unsure as to when; ignorant of what was going on.
My fairy godmother spoke to one of them.  He nodded in response.  The one called Kresh kept still; he did nothing.  I could hear everything that was said, but it made little sense to me.
“Are there more willing to step forward?  I’ll admit you are an impressive collection, nevertheless, seven is so few.”
One by one, ten other strapping, young werewolves emerged from the shadows.  They took on human form, covering their nakedness with wraps of cloth and hide.
“That’s better.  And you all agree to the proposed terms?” Vallatrece asked.
There was a shared nod between them.
“You’re prepared to leave your pack behind?”
One wolf spoke for the rest.  “Our parents are dead.  Our siblings are either here among us or dead too.  That is why we volunteer.”
A saw a clever smirk take form on sable lips.  “Very well, I accept.”
One-by-one these seventeen werewolves held out their wrists to be scarred with an “X” that bled and then healed in an instant.  When the last soul was marked, my fairy godmother turned a victorious smile my way and announced, “It is done.”
“What is done?” I asked, expecting no clarifying answer.  And I got none.
I felt my arm secured in a tight grip, sharp nails pressing against my skin.  In the blink of an eye, every werewolf as well as the surrounding forest vanished.  I was standing on the roof of our town hall again, minus the silence I normally sought in this spot.  I could hear my name sounding from multiple directions at once.  A number of people were hollering for me.  Thaddeus’ voice carried loudly among them.  A jolt of anxiety moved me to rush to the ledge where I might see my husband below and reassure him I was fine.  My intent, however, was prevented by the enchantress who held fast to my wrist.  I looked back at her with an incredulous expression.  Why would she keep me from my husband?
“He’s worried about you,” she said, flashing an unfitting grin.  “That is good.”
I turned back to the front of the building and hollered in reply to the echo of my name.  It was eating at my stomach that my husband sounded especially concerned. 
“I’m here!  I’m up here!”
Vallatrece yanked on my arm, effectively pulling me to her.  I couldn’t understand the malicious satisfaction in her face.  I was convinced this creature was more wicked than any true fairy godmother could be. 
“Let go of me!” I demanded, tugging against her hold.  She responded with a single laugh.  My hand automatically moved to the hilt of my sword and hovered, hesitating.  Gold-flecked eyes stole a glance at the weapon I was threatening to unsheathe. 
“You would dare attack me?” she asked.
I agreed it was a futile notion and dropped my waiting hand.  “Please, let me go,” I begged. 
Her dark lips smirked.  “As you wish.” 
The sound of crumbling brick drew her attention toward the chimney.  Someone was climbing up, but no form could be seen past the rooftop yet.  Vallatrece narrowed her eyes and turned them on me.  “Let’s give him a good reason to worry for you.”
Her red jewel burned dark within, casting an enchantment that transformed her long, black sleeves into fur.  It covered her entire arm and hand.  Her nails grew long and slender like the claws of a werewolf.  They slid across my wrist, drawing blood.  I screamed out in pain.  Thaddeus called my name.  The sound of scrambling and crumbling brick carried from the chimney.  He had to be near the top.
The claws that had cut my wrist took a swipe across my chest before I could grasp that I was in serious danger.  Blood flowed from parallel gashes that penetrated layers of clothing and skin.  I could feel warmth and stickiness begin to travel down my front, saturating the fabric that hung open.  I sensed my body going into shock.  Reflex and training managed to draw my sword and brandish it for self-defense.  It sang a note of warning as I swung the blade in front of me, warding off danger.  The enchantress, who now appeared as a black werewolf, proved faster in her ability to duck my swings.  I was clawed once more, leaving multiple cuts across my cheek, spilling blood that ran warm along my neck.  The wolf bared its teeth at me as if grinning. 
“Why?” I asked, holding my sword like a shield.  I could fathom no reason for this vicious attack.
My head was spinning.  Blood loss and shock were making me faint. 
The sleek, black werewolf turned on its heels and ran across the rooftop, jumping over the alley below to catch the elevated wall that encompassed Tarishe.  I watched the creature slip over the top and disappear.  As I fell to my knees, blood seemed to pool everywhere.  My blood.  The thud of footfall approached, and Thaddeus caught my sinking form, exclaiming words of distress.  My lips made a feeble attempt to utter a sound, tasting blood in the process.  My eyesight blurred just before I blacked out. 

I awoke in an unfamiliar place with just enough light to appreciate an elegance in the vastness about me.  I was in a room both high and large, made from stone walls and an elevated ceiling that reached well above an open second floor.  From midway up, clear around, stood shelves stacked with books.  Thousands of books.  More than I had ever imagined the whole of published authors to have written.  A railing about chest high fenced in a narrow floor that ran along each wall of bookshelves, leaving a great, square hole in the center through which I was able to look from below. 
My gaze dropped to sweep across the lower room which was mainly a collection of fine furniture arranged in sociable clusters.  Every piece was cushioned in soft, ornate fabric, the legs and arms showing off intricately-carved details.  Tapestries hung on each wall while carpeting covered the entire floor. 
As I raised up enough to lean on my elbows, my eyes jumped to the only source of illumination—a fire maybe six feet from the bed.  A soft, feather bed was my support, as comfortable to sleep on as one might imagine a billowy cloud would be.  The fire burned inside a hearth formed from cut stones of massive proportion.  Secured above the mantel was a coat of arms bearing unusual symbols.  This curiosity should have kept my attention, but the glow of the fire I found more intriguing, for its flames were entirely blue.  The heart of it burned in altering shades of violet unlike any natural fire.
Slowly I sat up, uncertain of my condition.  I had a vague memory of being hurt, although, a full recollection of the actual injury evaded me.  I remembered blood.  My own, and lots of it.  A glance down at myself, my hands and arms, found no trace of bloodstains.  I recalled a cut.  Several.  And severe pain on my face.  My fingers automatically went to check.  There was no scarring.  No stitches.  My skin was smooth to the touch.  Perhaps it had been a dream.
An image of Vallatrece in her feathery, black gown slammed to the forefront of my mind.  I could see her black lips set in a sinister smile.  It was a harsh recollection, as if my subconscious demanded I not forget the unprovoked attack on me and how the smug enchantress had done it—transforming herself into an ebony werewolf and clawing through my veins.  I looked at my wrist but saw no trace of a gash.
“I healed your wounds,” a familiar voice informed me.
Glancing up, I observed a man emerge from the shadows—a trick of dim lighting, no doubt.  It was Thaddeus.  His dark curls were pulled away from a face which showed no readable expression. 
“How did you do it?” I asked, amazed by how fast and thoroughly my cuts had healed.  Unless it had not been so fast.  “How long have I been unconscious?  Where are we?”  My eyes darted about our elaborate surroundings. 
Having made his way to my bedside, Thaddeus dropped onto the edge of the mattress, facing me.  “You’ve been asleep for a couple of days.  You lost a lot of blood,” he explained, “but don’t worry, you and the baby are fine.”
I was certain of it; I felt fine.  His words were still a relief to hear.
“It would be wise for you to continue resting.  You’re safe here,” he assured me.  “Our little family is perfectly safe here.”
“I can’t believe what happened,” I said in a dour murmur.  Guilt drew my gaze downward, away from my husband’s scrutiny.  I was certain he blamed my foolish act of defiance for the savage attack.  “I’m sorry I climbed up on the roof…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Thaddeus cut in.  “They would have come after you no matter what.  It seems those wretched werewolves have grown bolder in their vengeful efforts.  I’m shocked they would turn on you.”
“Turn on me?”
“I uh….I meant turn at you…and attack without sufficient numbers.  I never thought a solitary wolf would take a turn at you.  That was too daring, too dangerous.  And I can’t believe the savage beast actually climbed the fortress walls!  All this time—we were never safe from them in Tarishe.  Never.”
I eyed my husband skeptically.  “My attacker wasn’t a werewolf, Thaddeus.  You do know that, right?”
“Of course it was a werewolf.  It was a black wolf—I saw the beast with my own eyes.  It caught you off guard; tore you up and then raced off, descending the walls before escaping into the forest.”
“It wasn’t a real werewolf.  It was the sorceress, the one who claimed to be my fairy godmother.  She came back.”
Thaddeus stared hard at me, staggered.  “The sorceress?”
“You didn’t see her transform?”
“No.  No, I did not.”  He looked angered by this news, and stewed over it for few moments. 
“Those vile mongrels have allied themselves with that witch!  If those demons think they’re going to gain anything from this other than another bloody curse…!”  I watched his flash of anger snuff out as if it were a leaping frog he grabbed by the neck and shoved back into his pocket.  
“In any case,” he grumbled, “it doesn’t matter.  All the more reason for us to remain here where we’re safe.”
“Where is here?” I asked again.
Here is my grandfather’s house.  The place is secluded, a forgotten sanctuary.  We won’t be found here, not by werewolves or witches or anyone.”
“Your grandfather’s house,” I repeated, glancing at the immensity of the room we occupied.  His words reminded me, “What about Grandmother?  Did you bring her here with us?”
“No.”  His answer was curt and unapologetic.  It shocked me.
“No?  Why not?  Who will look after her?  How far from Tarishe are we?”
“She’ll be fine, Catherine.  Dompier will see to her.”
“Why didn’t you just bring her here?  How hard could that have been?”
“My priority is to keep you and my child safe.”
“But she’s my grandmother!”
“Yes, I know but….she didn’t want to come.”
I was certain he was lying.  “She doesn’t even know we left the village, does she?”
Thaddeus pursed his lips, refusing to answer my question…which was answer enough in itself.
“Catherine, she’s in good hands.  Dompier will see to it that she’s safe and warm and well.  You can trust him.”
I knew that to be true—excepting secrets.  I would never trust my hunting friend with another secret.
“You should have brought her here,” I murmured.  Abandoning the woman who had essentially raised me felt cold and heartless.
“The wolves are after you, not her.  Having your grandmother here would put her in greater danger.  She’s safer in Tarishe.”
His logic irked me, but it seemed sound.  “Maybe you’re right,” I conceded.  There was nothing I could do about it anyway.
“I am right.”  Thaddeus inhaled deeply and then exhaled while rubbing his hands together.  It was a sign that our conversation was over.  “I’ll bring you some soup.  You must be hungry.”
I nodded to the affirmative.  Before he could walk away, I asked another question.  “Thaddeus, will you tell me more about your grandfather’s house while I eat?”
A reminiscent smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.  “I’d be happy to.”
The soup was an aromatic mix of herbs, mushrooms, and dumplings that tasted delicious.  Thaddeus brought me two bowls, which I finished while he shared old tales of a family mansion that sounded more and more haunted with every added detail.
“You’re telling me that your grandfather lived here for over one hundred years?”
“That’s right.  He roamed the halls of this house all his life, as did his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather and so on.”
I could feel skepticism crinkle up my nose while I tried to judge the sincerity of my husband’s claim.  Was he making up a tale to entertain me?  “One hundred years is a long time for someone to live,” I pointed out. 
“For some.  My ancestors, however, enjoyed healthy lifespans well past a century.”  Thaddeus laughed at my continued skepticism.  “Honest, Catherine, I’m not lying.  This house was owned by extended generations of family.  Technically, it still is, but my mother refuses to live here.”
“Your mother is alive?”  This was news to me; the woman didn’t live in Tarishe.  I had always assumed his parents were dead.  “You’ve never mentioned her before.” 
  Thaddeus looked at me for a long moment, silent and still as if he had slipped up.  I wondered if he and his mother didn’t get along.  At last he provided me with an answer.
“Yes, she is alive, but we are of different opinions on a number of things—like this house, for instance.  She would hate knowing I was here.  In fact, on the day we left this place, she forbade me to ever step foot in it again.  I was a child then.  Some terrible things happened inside these rooms.”
A look of anguish contorted my husband’s features before he turned his head toward the fire.  I wondered what sort of bad memories haunted him.  Curiosity ate at me, yet I didn’t want to force him to relive harsh trials through their retelling.  My eyes were drawn to the fire too as I contemplated what to say next.  The flames burned high, just as before, and just as unusual in their blue and violet glow.  I noticed for the first time something else peculiar.  There was no smoke.  No wood burning.  No ashes in the pit.  All I could see was a hearth filled with self-sustaining, warming, blue flames. 
“The fire,” I uttered with bewilderment.  “Thaddeus, the fire—there’s no wood.  No smoke.  How can that be?”
He turned to me, a slightly-humored smile meeting my puzzled gaze.  “There’s magic in this house, Catherine; there always has been.  People once believed this place to be haunted.  Such rumors kept curious visitors away for the most part—that and the fact that this house sits miles from any village.  Our haunted house was of little concern to the outside world.  My grandfather posed no threat to outsiders.  I’m not certain why that changed, but one day someone took an interest in him.  In us.  My grandfather had never ventured out; he never sought attention.  Nor had his sons or daughters or grandsons.  Life here was content—even for the young boy that I was.  I and my two older brothers played for hours on the grounds and inside the many rooms.  We had plenty of adventures.  Unfortunately, those who feared the rumors, those who believed these walls to be haunted, developed a hatred for us.  They called the house evil.  Gossip spread that it was possessed by unholy spirits, and we, apparently, were the vessels for those unholy devils.”
Thaddeus paused in his speaking.  His face was a tight, angry picture.  I could only imagine the awful images playing through his memory.  When he spoke again, his voice fell low and heavy. 
“They stole inside in the middle of the night while we were asleep.  I don’t recall how many there were.  Enough.  They killed my grandfather in his sleep, my aunt and uncle and two cousins and my oldest brother as well.  Then they slipped silently into my parents’ room and stuck a dagger through my father’s heart.  He must have made a sound because it roused my mother from sleep.  Her screams woke me and my other brother.  We ran to her room, but she had already dealt with the murderers.  None of the guilty made it out alive; my mother saw to it.  She wept bitterly over her losses.  We mourned for days—the three of us who survived.  When we left this house, we didn’t turn back.”
“She forbade you to,” I uttered.  “I’m so dreadfully sorry, Thaddeus.  I had no idea.  What a horrid nightmare.”
“It was,” he agreed.  Breathing in deeply, he forced a lighter mood.  “That was long ago in the distant past.  I don’t believe this place has seen a living soul since then.  My father and the others rest in peace out back in the family morgue.  All their belongings are still here, everything as it was.”
“You took the time to bury them.”
“Of course.”  Thaddeus shot a stern glance at me as if he thought I deemed him either incapable or heartless.  I didn’t.
“That must have been a very difficult chore for you.  For all three of you.”
A nod was his only reply.  I watched his fingers fidget with the edge of my blanket as his mind lapsed back to that awful day.
Curiosity made me dare a sensitive question.  I was certain there were no worse secrets than what he had already divulged.  “What happened to your mother and your older brother?” 
Thaddeus looked me in the eye, and a crooked grin pulled his lips askew.  His stare lingered for a few moments.  “My brother died over fourteen years ago.  A werewolf killed him.”
“How awful.  And what about your mother?”
“She moved to a small village where she wastes away her life brooding over her losses.  I had a great deal of compassion for her at one time, but I’m done now.”
My husband rose abruptly from the bed and proceeded to gather up my empty soup bowls.  I didn’t try to string the conversation along any further, even though my head was swimming with additional questions.  He had endured enough.
“You should get some rest,” he told me.  “It would be good for you and the baby.”
I laid my head on a velvety pillow and sank into its plumy softness.  Thaddeus pulled a blanket up to my chin.
“Sleep.  I’ll wake you when the sun rises.”
I reached to squeeze his hand.  “Thank you.”
“Yes, now sleep.”  Before he could cross the room, I called out to ask one more question.
“What really keeps the flames burning in that fireplace?”
My husband smiled cleverly with his answer.  “Gases.”
So, it wasn’t magic after all.

It was impossible to say how long I slept before my eyelids refused to remain closed.  I woke up in the same soft bed near the same blue fire that continued to burn high and smoke-free as it had earlier.  I felt well-rested and strong but hungry.  The soup had not lasted in my stomach. 
Ready to rise, I sat up in bed and glanced about for a visible sign of the hour.  There didn’t appear to be windows on either level of the house where I was, making it impossible to tell if it was morning or night.
“Thaddeus?” I called out tentatively.  Waiting, listening, I heard nothing; however, I imagined he was near.
I slipped out of bed and started toward the adjoining wall, wondering how far the blue firelight would illuminate my path. 
“Thaddeus?  Are you in here?”
I crossed the floor without difficulty, repeatedly glancing at the massive library that surrounded the upper portion of the room.  The carpet beneath my feet gave way like fleece, plusher than a moss-covered meadow.  When I spied a wooden door recessed in a partial foyer off the far-right wall, I headed for it, eager to find out what was on the other side.
I discovered it was a heavy door that creaked irritably on its hinges when pulled open.  At first, I saw nothing but blackness outside the room, and I dared not duck through the doorway.  Then a string of torches came to life along a stretch of corridor wall, and the same blue-violet flames danced in miniature on mounted torch stands.  They led straight ahead to a choice of three outlets. 
I ventured forward, eyeing tapestries of exquisite beauty that portrayed medieval scenes—dragons, castles, knights, wizards, and winged monsters too bulky to fly if such creatures were in fact real.  The carpet beneath my feet lost its plushness, transforming into a flat, threaded, red runner nearly as elaborate in design as the wall hangings.  A continued lack of windows made it feel like the dead of night. 
At the end of the corridor, I stopped to decide which way to turn.  To my right stood another closed door.  Straight ahead, a stairway disappeared into the dark unknown.  I wondered if perhaps it led to the library above the room from which I had come.  To my left stretched additional hallway that broke off into other rooms and corridors. 
I tried the handle on the door, curious to see if it was locked.  It wasn’t.  Pushing it partway open, enough to peek inside, I discovered what appeared to be an unusual storage room.  There were multiple shelves holding lidded canisters and jars, some labeled.  The unlabeled containers I could clearly see through.  A few caught my eye right off, namely a jar filled with dead moths and butterflies; one with the remains of bat wings; and another holding the dry skulls of some small type of rodent.  I quickly closed the door upon sight of a jar of spiders, not because of the creepiness of a collection of eight-legged crawlers, but because I swore a few of them moved.  My brain told me it couldn’t be so; spiders would surely be dead after years in a sealed jar.  I decided it was my imagination toying with me, though, I didn’t care to open the door and check.
Turning away from the door, I looked as far down the adjacent corridor as I could see, noticing nothing of interest to urge me in that direction.  My choice was made, and I grabbed one of the torch lights from off the wall before starting up the stairs.  It was a steep ascent that veered to the left, up and around like a corkscrew.  There was no carpeting to soften the cement steps, and not one tapestry decorated the walls.  With only a blue flame to light my way, I grew steadily anxious with every passing minute.  I nearly turned around, ready to escape the empty narrow spiral, when a sliver of actual daylight beckoned me to continue upward. 
The steps deposited me in another corridor, this one twice as wide as the one downstairs and boasting painted portraits evenly-spaced on both walls.  Each painting was of a dark-haired, broad-faced, thick-browed, smirking individual—the group of them unmistakably related.  I didn’t take time to closely examine the portraits because my greater attention was drawn to the splinter of daylight seeping from beneath a closed door at the end of the hallway.  I was certain this meant it was morning outside, and I wanted to look through a window and see the neighboring landscape for myself.
The door turned out to be another heavy structure of exquisite craftmanship.  I turned the knob carefully and uttered my husband’s name, just in case he was in the room enjoying the morning light.  When I peeked inside, the chamber was empty.  More peculiar was the fact that there were no windows anywhere to be seen.  What shone like daylight was in fact a golden glow emanating from a round, reflective, glass ball.  The sphere sat in a nest of what looked like metallic thorny brambles the color of mahogany.  What a curious light it was, ebbing and waning in intensity as if something breathed at the heart of it. 
With my eyes glued on the mysterious play of light, I entered the room and approached a long, oval table which held up the glowing orb.  I felt my gaze drawn to it, captured by a scene that played out void of sound.  I became more intrigued upon recognizing some of the characters as werewolves in their human form—the same ones I had been forced to confront with the enchantress, Vallatrece.  I observed the scene closely, trying to understand what sort of argument was taking place.  It was difficult without the aid of sound, but it appeared that the oldest werewolf—I recalled his name as Kresh—was standing his ground against the younger, male wolves who were amongst other persons visibly unique.  These others kept as still as statues, with skin as white and smooth as porcelain.  Their crimson eyes sent a shiver down my spine.  All of them were staring at the lone wolf, their faces hard and determined.  His words, desperate in delivery, seemed to have no sway on the hearers. 
Curious about how a glass ball could show me such things, I placed my fingers on the orb, meaning to pick it up and examine it.  There was an immediate reaction to my touch that erased the vision in a swirling shroud of graying mist.  Inside the ball, the mist turned black while shards of jagged light streaked mutely through the clouds inside.  It was like a miniature lightning storm in the dead of night with the exception of no heralding thunder.  I took a step back as the metallic, thorny brambles came to life and reached around the ball, slowly concealing it from my view.  It was a most peculiar sight to witness.
Having no desire to touch the thing again, my attention turned to the other items strewn about the table.  There was a large old book, thick with yellowed pages.  It lay open near the middle, coated in an accumulation of dust.  Hesitant to touch the pages, I blew a forceful exhale over the top—a foolish mistake that caused a cloud of fine particles to attack my sinuses.  Coughing and sneezing while waving my hands about to clear the air, I automatically reached for a square of cloth lying near the book.  The handkerchief—or so I thought it was—tugged away from my fingers until I let go, utterly surprised by a living piece of fabric.  The cloth then twisted itself, forming wing-like appendages at two corners that fell on the book and cleaned the pages, magically sweeping a new cloud of dust away from me.  When the job was complete, the square of fabric fell limp onto the table.  I stood there frozen and utterly amazed.
The words my husband had said earlier echoed in my mind: “People believed this place to be haunted.”  I could understand why.
While inspecting the pages of the old book, I realized the script was foreign to me.  I was certain I stood no chance of deciphering any of the unfamiliar letters, not that reading my own alphabet was an easy chore.  There were accompanying pictures, however, one on each page.  I scrutinized these drawings more closely.  The first was of a full moon the color of blood sitting low and large in the sky.  I recognized it as the Hallows Eve moon that always preceded the gathering of killer werewolves to the village of Tarishe.  The second drawing depicted a silver sword that owned the same type of hilt and the same thin, gold line down the center of the blade as my own sword.  It was the only weapon I knew to be deadly to werewolves.
“What is this I’m seeing?” my lips muttered aloud.
At that very moment, I was startled yet again when another item rose from the table and flew through the air toward me, stopping to hover directly before my eyes.  I flinched away, gasping, before recognizing it as a set of spectacles.  Apparently, it wanted me to look through them.  Cautiously, I moved my face close enough to see into the lenses.  I expected to view a stone wall, for that was exactly what the lenses were facing.  My jaw dropped when what I actually observed was the landscape on the outside of the building.  The magical, floating glasses were allowing me to see through walls!
I grabbed the spectacles out of the air and slipped them onto my face.  Reaching out, I approached the wall and touched its stone structure, running my fingers over a coarse texture that proved it was there.  My eyes, however, continued to observe things beyond the barrier—a forest of conifer trees outlined by an early hint of dawn.  There was a small yard below, just before the forest, made of field grass and purple wild flowers.  If I waited much longer, I would witness the autumn colors of a sunrise behind the trees.
I was feeling excited by my magical discoveries, wondering what they were for, to whom they once belonged, whether or not my husband was aware of these enchanted heirlooms.  Setting the glasses down on the table, I reached for another, a dried flower that seemed to do nothing at all for the entire time I held it.  Pinching at the stem with two fingers, I wiggled and waved the stiff flower, but nothing happened.  At last, I determined it was just a common, dried flower. 
My eyes glanced up at the open door when I heard my name called from a distance inside the house.  Replacing the spectacles on my face again, I looked in the direction of the sound and saw Thaddeus through two walls and a portion of flooring.  My husband was making his way up the spiral staircase.  He would reach my floor in a matter of seconds.  Again, he called out my name, so I took off the magic lenses and placed them where I had found them.  Then I went to circle the table, meaning to meet my husband at the top of the staircase. 
While skirting the room, I glanced over a number of intriguing items—things I hoped to investigate at another time.  One in particular was a sizeable jewel attached to a braided, silver chain.  It reminded me of the red jewel Vallatrece wore about her neck, except this one was dark indigo in color and dull; it lacked any inner glow.  My hand curved around it, to feel at the smooth surface, when my mind burst wide awake.  Every tender emotion I had felt for the man approaching from down the corridor withered to nothingness.  I heard him call again for the vile creature, Catherine.  The name—the identity forced upon my clouded mind—was a sick, twisted fraud.  I was not her.  I knew with perfect clarity who I was. 
Queen Duvalla. 
A werewolf. 
The wife of Kresh.
The Tarishe Curse had been dispelled.  A forgetful cloud no longer tricked my brain.  My hand continued to cup the blue jewel, and I realized that this was the magic that had freed my heart and mind.  I picked it up just as Thaddeus walked through the door.  Our eyes met, and I watched the smile on his face disappear when he comprehended the depth of hatred staring back at him.  His gaze jumped to the jewel in my hands, and we both watched how the stone pulsed, glowing a deep, dark indigo.  I could read a great deal of concern—even fear—in his features as his eyes locked onto mine.
“Put the necklace down,” he said as cautiously as if I were holding the tip of my sword to his throat.
I scowled, conveying fourteen years of pent-up anger, and then I slipped the chain around my neck.  “Come and make me, pigeon.”

Copyright 2017 Richelle E. Goodrich