Of Ashes & Tears

Every step I took along the meandering trail obscured the path behind without revealing what lay ahead. Gusts of wind tossed my hair about and swung the lantern in my hand. Its swaying glow did little to dispel the shroud of gloom cast by a moonless night as I made my way through the snow-covered underbrush.

“I can barely see,” I grumbled, mostly to myself.

On my shoulder, Pito, my familiar, peered into the shadows with oversized rodent eyes and seized on my uncertainty. “It’s too dark to be walking alone through the woods, Brynn. Let’s go home and come back in the morning.”

The little coward. “Quiet,” I hissed at him. The tiny squirrel recoiled out of sight and onto my nape. “I’m not letting ma die because I’m scared of the night.”

Minutes passed with only the crunch of icy twigs under my boots to punctuate their passage, until guilt got the better of me. “Are you pouting?”

“Why would I?” Pito said. “It’s not like you called me a coward.”

“I didn’t.”

“You thought it.”

I sighed. “Fine. I’m sorry. Happy?”

“I’d be much happier if you stopped for a moment and thought through what you’re doing,” Pito said, inching outwards along my shoulder until I could see him again in my peripheral vision. “Tywyll isn’t known for his charitable ways, how’re you planning to pay him for the elixir?”

Pito had me there, and knew it. When old man Aeron’s newborn son fell sick with the coughing fever two springs past, Tywyll demanded a gold sovereign for the few drops of elixir that brought the infant back from the brink. We had neither Aeron’s gold, nor his silks. “I’ll bring him firewood for as long as it takes to pay off the debt.”

Pito snorted. “Look around you, what need has Tywyll for firewood in the middle of the woods?”

“Then I’ll do anything he asks. I’ll sweep his hut. Fetch his water from the stream. I’ll cook his meals. Rub the bunions on his feet. Anything.”

“Your ma wouldn’t want that for you, Brynn,” Pito said. His gentle reprimand grated more for being the truth.

“Well, ma isn’t here, is she? She’s bedridden with black fever and if I don’t do something soon, I’ll lose her. Can you understand that?”

Pito didn’t answer. Instead, he shuffled his tiny feet over the fine hairs of my nape, sending shivers down my spine. His eyes had grown wider still, staring ahead with unconcealed apprehension. I followed his gaze to a column of milky blue smoke rising above the snow-clad canopy of silent poplars.

A hundred strides later, I shifted the lantern to my left hand, steeled myself, and knocked on Tywyll’s door; timidly at first, then with growing urgency. I took a step backwards when the door creaked open revealing a darkness like ink framing the grey outline of the magic peddler. Tywyll stank of ash and stale mead. My belly grumbled.

“Brynn.” Tywyll tilted his head, and looked past me at the winding path that led back to the village. “Your mother’s not with you?”

I pushed down on the rising bile. “Master Tywyll, ma’s ill. She’s hot to the touch, and covered in rubicund welts. She won’t eat or drink, and mumbles to herself in delirium when not passed out.”

My entreaty didn’t at all resemble what I had rehearsed in my head, and I blamed Pito for the divergence. Still, Tywyll’s eyes gleamed with understanding. He ushered me inside and latched the door behind.

A fire crackled in the hearth. I suspected Tywyll mixed in some herbs or aromatic weeds with the firewood, but rather than mask the heavy miasma of ash and spoilt brew, the spicy fragrance accentuated the stench.

Tywyll shuffled to the hearth and eased himself into a wooden chair polished to a high sheen with frequent use. “Ill, you say? Shame, that. Fetching woman in her day.”

He seemed lost in his memories until I cleared my throat. “A little elixir will see her right as rain, I’m sure.”

Tywyll regarded me with penetrating eyes, reflecting the shimmying flames in the hearth. “Great is the need for the elixir and precious little is the supply. What have you brought to trade? A family heirloom perhaps?”

I swallowed noisily, suddenly wishing I had followed Pito’s advice. “We don’t have much by way of heirlooms,” I stammered, and raised a hand to stave the brushoff blooming on Tywyll’s face, “but I’ll bring you three chickens, heavy with eggs.”

“Chickens? Eggs? Are you daft?” Tywyll bellowed, rising off his creaking chair.

“How about firewood? Bone dry oak or birch, every eventide, for three years?”

“I can get that myself,” Tywyll grumbled as he ushered me towards the door.

“Wait, Master Tywyll,” I pleaded as he reached around me to unbolt the door, and shoved me out. “Ma’s going to die without the elixir. I’ll give you anything. I’ll do anything, if you save her.”

“Brynn, don’t,” Pito squealed.

“Anything,” I insisted.

The door stopped in its arc short of sealing. Tywyll pushed his head through the gap with a calculating look in his eyes. “Surrender me your familiar.”

“My …,” I trailed off uncomprehending.

“That’s the price,” Tywyll said, “come back when you’re ready to trade, but don’t wait too long. The elixir will do your ma no good dead.”

I rushed the closing door, reaching it as Tywyll bolted it from inside.

“Ask for anything else, but I can’t part with Pito. Anything at all,” I said, pounding the door. “Please.”

No answer came.

Pito was there before I formed my first thought. He was the companion who soothed and entertained, educated and watched over the fatherless spawn of a toiling wench. I could no longer part with him than I could my soul; no matter how many times I threaten to feed him to an owl if he won’t shut up.

“I’m telling you Brynn, it’s a bad idea,” Pito said, pacing back and forth along my shoulder. “It takes natural talent, a long apprenticeship, and years honing your craft, not to mention a Guild badge to save your hide when you get caught.”

“You think everything I do is a bad idea,” I said, rubbing my hands and stomping my feet to keep from freezing. “Would you rather I handed you over instead?”

Pito pouted and stared at me with wounded accusatory eyes.

“Then what choice do I have?” I said, watching the horizon for the first telltales of the coming dawn. “If Tywyll won’t give me the elixir then I’ll have to steal it, and make amends later, once ma is restored to health. I might not be a member of the Guild of Thieves but I intend to do the best I can.”

It took several laps around the perimeter of Tywyll’s hut, before I found a window shutter whose latch I could pry open with a twig.

Inside, I heard Tywyll’s snoring before I found him slumped over on his chair in front of dying ambers in the hearth that cast a gloaming like spilt blood over the interior. An empty mead flagon hung precariously from his loosely curled fingertips.

The floorboards creaked with every step I took, a din amplified tenfold by the stillness of the hour. I tried to tiptoe, as if by will alone I could lighten my weight on the worn planks. Unsurprisingly, it made little difference.

“This is madness. You’ve gone insane,” Pito squealed in despair.

“Hush,” I whispered, even though no one could hear him but me.

The timber of Tywyll’s snoring changed, then ceased at the same moment the chair creaked under his shifting weight. If he but opened his eyes, he couldn’t have failed to see me.

I froze in place and held my breath until I grew lightheaded. Tywyll shifted again, turning towards the fire, away from me. I exhaled before I passed out.

As if disturbed by my respiration, the wooden flagon slipped from Tywyll’s fingers. It hit the floorboards with a muted thud that rung hollowly; echoing with every bounce. Abruptly, Tywyll groaned something incomprehensible and stirred irritably, before settling again. The torment of his slumber proved too taxing for Pito.

“We should get out of here before it’s too late,” Pito said. “Brynn, listen to me. If that brute wakes up and finds you here you’ll be branded and driven out of the village. How will this help your poor ma?”

My heart thumped in my chest, almost drowning Pito’s complaints. As was his custom, Pito had a point. Whatever possessed me to think I was capable of the theft suddenly seemed like the infantile notion it was. I had no idea where Tywyll kept the elixir or even what the elixir looked like. What hope had I to stumble across it in a hut crammed to its rafters with knickknacks, before Tywyll roused from his drunken stupor, to relieve his bladder if nothing else?

Yet retreating now meant giving up on ma. Letting her die.

Helpless tears welled in my eyes, and my sniffles had Pito almost crawling into my ear. “Quit it. It’s not the time to feel all sorry for yourself. You’ve got to get out of here the way you came, then we’ll figure out what to do next.”

I nodded needlessly and brushed the moisture from my cheeks. Bleary eyed and disoriented, I found myself turned around, uncertain which direction lay the window I climbed in through. I retreated to a dark recess to get my bearings when I heard it. A faint singsong moan, like a cur learning to howl.

“What was that?” I whispered under my breath.

“Who cares,” Pito snapped back, exasperated. “Please get us out of here.”

“Here it is again; did you hear that?”

I followed the sound deeper down a narrow corridor.

“There’s the window,” Pito screamed in my ear, pointing frantically through an open door. I took two steps towards it when I heard the moan again, coming from behind. I turned towards the sound.

“Where are you going?” Pito demanded.

I shushed him, and listened keenly. The moans came at random intervals, guiding me like breadcrumbs to a short narrow door that creaked when opened. Beyond lay a darkness more profound than any I’ve known. It was as if what lay beyond had been excised from our world, and consigned to another that knew no light. A world that stank like the firepits of Hades itself.

I ducked through and held onto the damp roughly-hewn stone wall for purchase as I probed with my foot the edges of a staircase.

As my eyes acclimated to the darkness, I let go of the wall and squinted ahead, intuiting my descent into the darkness by the growing proximity of the irregular moaning. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, my eyes watered and my throat burned with the reek of the pitch-dark basement.

“I can’t see a thing,” I whispered hoarsely to Pito. I sensed him shrugging in response. “What did you expect? A fire?”

“Good idea.”

I rummaged through the knapsack wrapped across my chest for the tinderbox.

“I was joking,” Pito stomped his feet with indignation. “Have you gone daft? You’re going to strike fire here? Now?”

“Would you rather I went back upstairs to light a candle from the hearth ambers?”

“No. I’d rather we left this accursed place, please.”

I let Pito equivocate all he wanted and unpacked my flint and length of steel by touch. Rummaging through the odds and ends in my knapsack, I found the waxy stub of a candle.

It took a few strikes to throw enough sparks into the tinderbox and careful blowing to nurture them into a nascent flame to light the candle. It took a while for the charred wick to catch on fire, and for the flame to stabilize in a little nub of molten wax.

As the darkness around me gave way to a murky gloom, a long-delayed moan drew me towards a recessed nook under the stairs and the jaundiced eyes of a monster.

The gaunt demon lay folded on itself. Heavy wrought iron chains and collar tethered it to the stone wall. I stood frozen, gaping in horror before Pito tugging painfully on my hair broke the spell. I yelped and retreated to a safe distance from the demon.

“Do you need any more convincing to get out of here?” Pito said, crossing his arms and tapping his feet in consternation. “Please, please, run away before it eats us both.”

Before I could respond, the demon stirred; its howling moan ear piercing this close to its source. It shifted and where the shackles touched its charcoal pruned skin it burned with a flameless fire, issuing little puffs of dark smoke, shedding ash, and delivering a malodorous punch to the guts.

I staggered backwards. Pito shrieked, exhorting caution too late. I tripped and fell, landing on my back and dropping the candle. The demon’s slit yellow and orange serpentine eyes regarded my misadventure unblinkingly.

The candle’s flame trembled and hissed on the damp stone. I rescued it before the moisture snuffed it out, and secured it to the edge of an opened crate with a couple of drops of molten wax.

I stared at the iron-bound demon with a mixture of irrepressible curiosity and abject terror.

However powerful the demon might have once been, shackled as it was, it only inspired pity. Every time it shifted its weight, however slightly, its skin came into contact with wrought iron that burned it without flames. It moaned pitifully, and its eyes moistened, even as the burnt skin that no longer touched iron began to heal. Only for the demon to shift in its shackles again, restarting the cycle.

Eventually, its lips parted and it spoke in the whooshing tones of a wind gust whispering through branches in the woods. “Help me.”

I looked at Pito and he responded with an emphatic shake of his little head.

Tentatively, I moved closer, traversing the estimated perimeter of its reach. Neither the shackles nor the collar showed any seams, latches, or pins. Which made sense. Only magic, and powerful one at that, could ensnare a demon. To hold one captive for Hades only knows how long was unheard of.

“Set me free.”

“I don’t know how,” I confessed haltingly, leaving unsaid my uncertainty about whether I would had I known how. Cunning and ruthlessness, demons preyed on the gullible and unwary; feasting on both flesh and soul.

“The prod resting by the wall, yonder, drive it through my heart.”

I shuffled back shaking my head in shock. “I didn’t come here to kill anyone. I only wanted the elixir to heal my ma, but I can’t find where Tywyll keeps it.”

The demon chortled, wheezing and gurgling. The accompanying involuntary movement of flesh against iron renewing its torments. It moaned and moisture brimmed in its eyes. A tear took shape and ran down its gaunt face–amber and viscous, like tree sap–and splashed its arm. Where it touched burnt skin, the damaged corium shimmered with light. In its wake, once charred skin shone in the candle’s nervous flame like polished mahogany. The reprieve proved fugacious, however, for as soon as iron touched remade skin, it burned anew.

“The elixir is your tears,” I mumbled in awe. It all made sense. The prod resting against the wall. The colored glass vials collecting dust in the crate. The demon in shackles in the basement. I had found what I came for after all.

Privy to my thoughts, Pito admonished. “Brynn, no.”

“It’s either that or ma dies,” I protested. “When to save her would do shackled monster no greater harm that Tywyll inflicted for longer than I’ve lived.”

“You’re better than that,” Pito said, stomping his tiny feet for emphasis. He knew where every muscle, nerve, and ligament lay and picked his footfalls to cause discomfort, and occasionally pain. “You’re comparing yourself to Tywyll?”

I drew a pale green glass vial from the crate and picked up the prod. It was cold to the touch and rough; its surface pocked with rust. One end had been beaten into a point covered in soot. When mere contact with the iron drew the demon’s tears, the point existed for another purpose only Tywyll knew.

“I’m nothing like Tywyll,” I snapped at Pito. “This is a demon. Would it fret before eating one of us?”

I closed on the chained demon, raised the prod, and froze. It didn’t cower away. Didn’t shift at all. Only its unblinking eyes moved, and its lips. “Kill me, please.”

I hesitated.

The demon leaned slowly towards me, with the predictable outcome. The moan that followed was deeper and longer, resonant like the lament of the forgotten. Tears welled in my eyes, as it did in its eyes, and I dropped the prod.

It fell to the stone with a loud clang like a bell tolled, and bounced a few times on the stone, chiming a different tune each time, before settling with a vibrating resonance that I was sure could raise the dead; let alone the merely inebriated.

“Hurry and dispatch me before he rouses.” The demon thrust its chest towards me, straining against its shackles, unheedful of its sizzling skin.

Hurried steps creaked on the floorboards above our heads, soon followed by Tywyll running down the stairs. I picked up the prod and moved to shield the demon.

“Move away from her,” Tywyll shrieked at me. “Move away now.”

Her? My head snapped back to the demon. I had no idea that demons came gendered. I had always assumed they were all demons, and that was that. Now that he said it, I saw her differently. The slenderness of her arms, the rounded softness of her chin, and the flaring width of her hips from a pinched, malnourished waist.

“Kill me. Now.”

“Don’t listen,” Tywyll crept closer, hands reaching out in entreaty. “She beguiles all. Witches them to do her bidding before turning on them and devouring their souls.”

I hesitated.

“Drop the bar and I’ll give you what you came for,” Tywyll offered.

“Don’t listen to him,” Pito said. “He’s evil. He’d never keep his word.”

“I don’t know what to do,” I said to Pito but the other two answered instead.

“Kill me. Set me free.”

“Leave her be.”

I shook my head. “I can’t let you torture her for tears to lord it over us with,” I told Tywyll. His eyes bulged with surprise. His secret was out. “She doesn’t deserve this. No one deserves this. Not even demons.”

Pito started shuffling anxiously on my shoulder. “You shouldn’t have shown him what you know. Now he’ll surely kill us both to protect his secret.”

Tywyll must have seen it in my downcast eyes, and my tightening grip on the prod. “Don’t be afraid. I’d never hurt you. I’m not a bad man. If this … evil can be the source of healing to good folks like your ma, what’s the harm? I know you look at her now and pity her, but it’s all an act she puts on to draw your pity. Why, just yesterday she snarled at me while I fed her and almost cost me an arm. Leave her be, Brynn, so that some good might come from her penance for all the hurt she’d caused.”

“I beg you, release me from this misery,” the demon pleaded and rattled her chains, straining her head against the collar.

Despite the copious acrid smoke that hung heavy in the air, and stung my eyes and throat, I inched closer to her, my instinct to offer comfort, without quite knowing how. Behind me, I could sense more than see Tywyll rushing me with unexpected agility.

“Leave her be, she’s mine.”

“She’s not yours. She’s not anyone’s. She’s her own self, and none other,” I screamed back, looking into the demon’s pleading eyes, and plunged the prod into her chest.

For a moment, time froze. The bar slid into her without resistance, and her eyes grew wider, though whether in pain or long sought release I couldn’t tell. Her lips stretched in a smile, exposing rows of sharp pointed teeth, through which a forked tongue flicked out to lick her lips.

“Move back,” she whispered urgently as every part of her began to burn.

“You fool,” Tywyll cried. “What have you done, you stupid, stupid girl.” He threw himself at me but stumbled and fell onto his face at the demon’s feet.

Between heartbeats, the demon’s entire body turned to ash leaving her shackles and collar to clang against the floor. Hurriedly, Tywell regained his feet and set to brushing the ash loose from his skin and his clothes, but the more he swept it, the more it smeared and clung to him, until it covered him from head to toe.

“No, no,” he mumbled repeatedly, growing shriller as he did.

Suddenly, every speck of ash erupted with a piercing blue-white light. I screwed my eyes shut and covered my ears with my hands against Tywyll’s screams, as a wave of bone-chilling cold washed over me.

I reopened my eyes to find Tywyll afire with spectral flames that burned without radiating heat nor shedding smoke. His pitiful cries soon turned to whimpers of torment that stopped only when his knees buckled, and he crumbled onto the stone.

In place of the tortured demon a vibrant fairy with onyx skin and delicate silver gossamer wings stood bathed in a swirling many-colored aura, regarding me through the same slit yellow and orange eyes.

“You’re a fairy?” I mumbled incoherently, dazed in her light. “Not a demon?”

“I’m both,” she smiled, her teeth pearlescent and human-like. “I merely ended one cycle of my life and started another. In time, my skin will wrinkle and thicken, additional teeth will grow, and talons will emerge, all to aid an ageing body survive the ravishes of its age, and when the cycle nears its end, I’ll retreat to the heart of the woods as had my kin for eons beyond count to die in a fire and be reborn from its ashes. Now that I’m free of this monster’s shackles.”

“Is he dead?” I asked of the twitching heap at her feet.

“Though he earned an ignominious end many times over with his cruelty and callousness, to take revenge on him now would taint me for a lifetime, tarnishing a promising new life with hate and guilt,” she said. “I’ll leave it to the people of your village to judge him. His fate is now in your hands. I set you free of him as much as you did me.”

I bowed my head as did Pito on my shoulder.

“Brynn of stout heart and tender mercies, I’m forever in your debt,” the fairy extended a hand towards me with an amulet hanging off a slender necklace like spider silk. “Take it, touch it to your mother’s lips and she’ll be made well. Keep it, and it’ll keep you. Press it when you’re pressed, and you’ll find me there, ready to repay your kindness in kind. Until then, cherish Pito and tend him well.”

On my shoulder, Pito’s eyes moistened with something like pride.

With a nod of her head, the fairy vanished in a wink, leaving behind rainbow sparkles in the air that soon fizzled out, plunging the basement back into darkness.

I spared the prostrate body of Tywyll a brief glance, before I ran out of there, back to the village.

There would have to be a reckoning when he’d have to account for his misdeeds. But that’s for another day, when my ma is mended and back on her feet.

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