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A fable of the OTHERSIDE

 

 

By Ashley Fox

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2015 Ashley Fox

 

Shakespir First Edition

Winter Solstice

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorised retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

 

 

 

For Rowan

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE: The Moon

 

CHAPTER TWO: The Knight of Swords

 

CHAPTER THREE: Death

 

CHAPTER FOUR: The Ace of Wands

 

CHAPTER FIVE: The Hanged Man

 

CHAPTER SIX: The Eight of Swords

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Ten of Wands

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: The Eight of Cups

 

CHAPTER NINE: The Queen of Cups

 

CHAPTER TEN: The Queen of Swords

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Ace of Pentacles

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: The Sun

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Temperance

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The Star

 

CHAPTER FIFTHTEEN: The Ten of Swords

 

Notes

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The Moon

 

 

Her soft skinned boots, although rising to her knees and so protecting her from the more virile nettles and grasses, did not dull the sensation of small stones, twigs and packed earth that lay beneath her feet.

Rather than be deterred she welcomed these intimacies, revelling in the crunch and pop, curling her toes into each step, then springing splay and up. In one hand she carried a yew stick, using it as a switch to thrash and whip through the shrubs and wild plants, causing brittle stems to break, casting the last of the summer seeds into the strong autumnal breeze.

Onwards, Mera meandered through the natural corridor, blackberry bushes forming high, twisting walls. A few fruit remained, dry and shrivelled, refusing to give up their safe harbour amongst the thorns. The harbour which had protected them from clever, prying beaks and eager purple stained fingers. There, somewhere in the rambling thicket, came a noise. She paused, poised still, breath caught. A scratching interrupted the susurrus of the wind , then a crashing, breaking rushing. For a moment she considered turning back, images of strange creatures cavorting in her mind. Hesitated. Llew would never let her live it down if she came back empty handed. Her resolve hardened, she stomped her foot, followed by the other. With a pounce and a pirouette she carried on her way. What fae could possibly harm her when she was so fey herself?

Just in case she renewed her thrashing with the switch, like the foolish, fearsome knights in the training yard. Llew thought he was so tough, so brave playing with the others, the silly beggars running round with no shirts on, waving sticks. If she wanted to play games she would simply run with the keep children. They had dogs as well. Big, smelly, slathering dogs, always ready with a wet tongue and snuffling nose.

With a start she realized the thorn corridor was at an end, and all thoughts of knights and sticks were wiped from her mind as the narrow vision of the corridor was thrown open. The trees of the King’s Wood bedecked with fiery leaves. Deep green of evergreens contrasting with bright reds, vibrant golds, crisp golden yellow, palest of green, deepest purple. Bark slick with resin framed by slim, silvery birch, peeling back to reveal its black core. Each colour forming blocks to merge and frame one another. Over the patchwork canopy loomed the sky, fat rain clouds heading to sea, charcoal grey and indigo. The setting sun brought out unknown colours, painting the sky a brilliant flaring orange, as if in dying the day had bled fiery ichors across the heavens.

The world seemed caught in the apex of its season. Autumn it declared with molten hues, spilling radiance with a last breath before the dream.

She stood in silence, for an unknown time, the wind moulding her deep green cloak against her back, russet skirts tugging about her knees, red curls flying as if seeking to merge with the burnt splendour.

Her mind still, absorbent, within her a heart an almost painful lifting, and the earth thrummed beneath her feet with every ponderous heartbeat. Life pulsing with her own blood.

Upon the wind a scent lingered, spicy and earthy. She let it pick her up, following the path into the woods… at the edge she hesitated, glancing back. Dark would descend soon. She must be quick.

She knew where the rowan copse lay, ‘twas not far. In her mind she was the heroine of a story, her destination clear. She must not veer off the path, or some snarling beast or pointy toothed goblin would soon gobble her up. If Llew thought she was afraid, well, she’d show him. She thought back to his gloating face, and her determination grew. She would have the best masque of everyone!

‘Twas Samhain night when spirits of the dead and capricious creatures, mayhap even the Utahan ,would be abroad. Later there would be feasting and dancing around bonfires, and all would wear masques crafted with nature’s gifts to tell them apart from waxen faced ghasts and hide the fire of their hearts. Llew had dared her to enter the woods to gather for hers, knowing as everyone knew that at sunset all such fey creatures and spirits would wonder forth, and that the woods and wild places were favourite haunts.

But she was not afraid, she told the butterflies in her stomach, not only would she enter the woods but she would fashion a masque of rowan leaves and berries, bound with ivy and mistletoe, all the better to see truly, invoking protection and wisdom. She wanted to see! To be seen.

Soon she reached the copse, the woodland opened up to reveal the strand of trees, clear space circling them. A wood within a wood, the berries bright beads of red in the gloom, the fanfare of leaves riotous in their gold and red glory, the ancient boles gnarled in repose. She circled widdershins round, gently spiralling to an opening, perfect for her size. She began to gather, casting her eye over the bounty, searching for the best leaves, perfect in their sequence, of all the varying colours. Slender fingers plucked up the round berries, like drops of blood, vibrant sprigs. Her perception narrowed, her awareness solely on her task, her pleasure grew with each perfect specimen collected. Deeper into the copse she ventured when, into her reverie, slowly sank the awareness of a voice. Soft and sibilant it seeped through the boughs, quiet and drifting, then louder. It was no language she recognized.

Her curiosity piqued, she rose from amidst the ferns and bracken. She felt no fear. Gently she glided forward, parting the underbrush. Lower branches sought to grace her hair and shoulders with caresses, seeming to coax her into the heart of the copse. Within she glimpsed a movement; something glowed softly in the gloom, light seemed perceptibly leeched from her surroundings, the shadows darker in the presence of a shifting pearlescent glow.

When only a single bower screened her from the heart she ceased her movement, hands resting against an ancient tree, surely the largest of them all. The scent of the bark surrounded her, reminiscent of the lingering spice earlier. Around this vast bole she peered. Beneath the spreading canopy lay a secret cavern composed of woven branches, a latticework holding the smouldering sky at bay and within stood a white stag; glowing like moonlight, every line a grace, antlers tall and forked and silver. His breath billowed mist, lambent eyes resting on the bent form of an old woman. She stooped, covered in dark wool, the hood of her cloak creating a shadowed recess in which her face was hidden. With a turn of her head she revealed a glimpse of her craggy, deeply lined countenance. One hand curled around a tall knobbled staff, it’s end firmly plunged into the loaming, the other emerged from within the voluminous folds of her clothing. Emerged with a crooked finger, beckoning.

For a moment her reality simply seemed to stop. The silence to press against her, all in stillness, in waiting. Should she answer the call or flee? Flee to the bonfires and press of humanity, flee to the safety of all she had ever known?

Her hand dropped from the bole and she stepped way from shelter, revealing herself in full. Her chin raised high she met that knowing gaze and walked forward. As she fully entered that twilight cavern the stag grandly paced, each hoof placed with a dainty precision, the muscles beneath that glowing hide rippling with each step. He stopped in front of her, bending his noble neck to snuffle at her face, her hair floating in his warm musk. Above, a full moon lay cupped by arching horns.

Enchanted by such beauty she dared raise her hand, slowly reaching up a grubby finger to alight upon his silken pelt. As her hand stroked surely down his neck there was a flash of amusement in those dark eyes, and, with a snort, he spun and antlered through the trees, his luminescence swallowed by the gloom.

A cackle split the night air, and the old woman looked upon her with merry eyes. “Come, child, will you no greet me?

Abashed, Mera stepped forward, presenting herself to the crone. Looking into her face she saw something that reminded her of her bond father. So thinking she thought it prudent to show respect, folding neatly into a curtsy.

Again that cackle, like wood splitting in the freezing snow, or the bark of a rook. “So the little spy does have manners, eh? And what, pray tell, is a wee lass like yeself doing wandering the woods on Samhain nact?”

Mera was aware of her precipitous position. Unconsciously she chewed her lower lip, thinking fast on what to say. She’d never seen this woman before, so she couldn’t know who she was. Could she just pretend to be some peasant girl, lost her way? Something about her heavy presence, the same thing that demanded respect, told her it would be pointless to lie. With a shuffle of her feet the words poured. “Lady, I had no intention of spying on you! How would I know you’d be here? See, I came to gather these leaves and berries for my masque, Llew, he said that girls aren’t brave, he dared me I wouldn’t come here tonight. So, see, I had to come, coz’ I am not scared, and I want to see them! Tonight I’m going to-”

“ Hush child, you do be babbling. Seem clear to me ye be truthful, and bold!”

Mera closed her mouth, pursuing the crones expression. She had not expected to be found amusing. Mostly grownups seemed annoyed by her presence, forever sending her on her way or scolding her. For simply being.

“ Let me see what ye have gathered girl, I’ll fashion a masque to leave all others gasping, that I will.” The crone slowly lowered herself onto a grassy hummock, with much sighing and grunting, patting a spot by her knee. Mera knelt and began to arrange her trove before them both. The crone quickly plucked up a few larger, supple boughs, twisting and weaving, then began to arrange the leaves and berries just so. Her were fingers surprisingly dextrous and nimble. In moments the masques’ outline was clearly formed, and fleshed out. “Girl, have ye a tie?”

She dug through her pockets, pulling out a leather thong. She removed a sticky honey drop with a bashful flick of her eyelashes, hastily wiping it off on her skirts before she placed it upon the crones knee.

“Green, eh? Not the best colour but it’ll do, aye, it’ll do.” She worked the thong into the weave, seeming already to know the measurements needed.

“What’s wrong with green? I like it, its my favourite colour, I thought it would work well.” Her tooth made a painful indent of the soft flesh of her lip.

“Don’t sulk, its unbecoming. As I said, green’ll do. Sometimes a colour can help focus intent, or denote meaning. Green is for healing, obviously, green, green things a growing, cures and potions. And poisons too…Do they teach you nuthin’ in that grand castle o’ yours? Lean forward.”

She obeyed, holding her unruly curls back from her eyes. “Of course they teach me, if I don’t run off that is. Yes, I know green is for healing, it’s why them healers wear green, right? It’s not hard. But then I thought rowan is really powerful, right? Isn’t that stronger than a colour? And isn’t letting me see truly like a healing? I mean, if I couldn’t see properly before, isn’t that like an ailment? And so, this is like a healing.”

She sat back on her heels, gazing through the masque, red and gold fringing her peripheral vision. The crone seemed enthroned by the vast tree, the roots rising up and curling round her, merging with her skirts. Some trick of the light revealing half her face softly, the other lost to shadows. Yet both dark eyes were clearly set on Meredith and the shadows could not hide the surprise fading into contemplation, dark knowledge and a shifting sense of hope. In that moment the crone appeared both far older, and far younger than Mera had imagined. The moment grew heavier, reaching out, new paths and possibilities stretching forth, all encompassed in that dark contemplative gaze. The crone turned her head, settling her deep hood, her face lost to darkness. A smile playing about her lined lips, she turned fully into the half light. “You have an interest in such things, eh, child? A keen mind too, when you’re not rambling on. Help me up, these bones need a warm fire to settle next to. And no doubt the dancing’s calling to young feet such as your own. Let us be way from this place, t’night tis for others to make merry in.”

The crone placed a gnarled hand upon her shoulder, huffing as Mera helped her to her feet. She planted her stick firmly in the ground with each step, so that they created a rhythm as they made their way through the darkling woods. Details and colour were absorbed into the gloom, forming strange shapes. Nothing extraordinary, merely transformed, made eerie by some alien quality. The shadows were pierced by subdued splashes of light, glowing fungus climbing trees like phosphorescent steps. Strangely they never once stumbled, never found a stray rock or root to trip blind feet. It was almost as if the woods themselves gently guided them out.

Mera had to admit that had she been alone she would probably have ran home, just in case some boggle was laying in wait. But walking beside the crone, stoic and calm, it was impossible to be afraid. In the dark the sounds of the night washed over her; animals settling, or rousing sleepy heads, ravens barking as they came to roost and told one another of their day, the sweet song of some night bird in the distance, the gentle passing of the wind, the burble of an unseen brook, and their own steady footsteps.

They came to the edge of the woods and ascended the rolling greens. She looked over her shoulder and saw the last remnants of the sun laying in thick bands of purple above the tree line, hints of green giving way to the deep velvet blue, and finally endless back, lit with the cold fire of the stars. The woods themselves were a solid wall of shadow, their tips moving as if the surface of some vast lake, faint glimmerings of dancing lights in the depths. For a moment the distant song of the night bird sounded like the sweet, haunting voice of a woman before being carried away into the night.

Again she entered the thorn corridor, the tall walls curving overhead to cut off such fantastical sights. Here the darkness was deep, almost palatable, the white stones gleaming against such nullity. . . For awhile they walked through the burgeoning dark, the quiet of evening now holding them in embrace. The moon rose higher overhead, beams framing the darkness rather than dispelling. Into this lull the crone’s voice dropped like a stone to a well. “ I would make ye an offer, child. It seems to me ye be of quick wit and a keen interest in the arts of herbal lore. It so happens that I do be knowing something o’ tha subject, and tha I’ve a firm hand. I’ve also an inkling ye need one of those. Firm but fair, mind ye. My offer would be t’ meet wit’ ye on occasion and share what I know.”

Mera looked askance at her. Firm? That didn’t sound very good. But then the crone had listened to her, had spoke to her like an actual person. And she did want to know, to understand.

“Why? Why would you want to?”

“Because I’m an old woman.”

***

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  • ISBN: 9781310789366
  • Author: Ashley Fox
  • Published: 2015-12-22 09:05:08
  • Words: 33193
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