>>>Scene One: Cherry Dryad's grove
“Good morning, Winter. I don't have much to say, but I said I would check in with you every morning and evening, so here I am. As always, I would love to hear your story, but I in no hurry. Though if I start heading back to my home in the west, it will be a lot harder to return you to your place in the lake.”
“Good morning, Rose. May I ask you some questions?”
“You can ask. I will give honest answers, but not necessarily meaningful ones.”
“You are very fond of word games.”
“I am. And talking to Fiddler encourages me.”
“Why does he call you, 'Your Grace?' Are you a noble?”
“It's a joke. I have spent a lot of time with kobolds, and because I speak their language better than they do, and because I am not one of them, they often call me, 'Duchess.' Fiddler pushes that a bit to address me as, 'Your Grace.'”
“And why do you call him, 'Scorpion?' He is not really some kind of monster, is he?”
“He's not a scorpion, anyway. It's another joke, but a darker one. It's a way of reminding him that, as much as I care about him, I have no illusions as to what he is.”
“I don't understand.”
“Do you know the story of the scorpion and the frog?”
“Ah. It goes like this: Once there was a scorpion that wanted to cross a river, and he asked a frog to carry him across on its back. The frog refused, saying that it was just an excuse to get the frog within reach of the scorpion's stinger. The scorpion insisted that the frog was being foolish, because if he stung the frog, they would BOTH die in the river. The frog thought about it, and agreed. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog anyway. The frog shouted out, 'Why?' and the scorpion replied, 'It is my nature. You knew what I was before you agreed to help me.”
“That is an awful story.”
“It is, isn't it?”
“But you say it to him with affection.”
“That's because he's MY scorpion.”
“I still do not understand.”
“Fiddler is a unicorn. He's dead, and his spirit is bound to a dagger that is made from his horn. He is limited by being dead, and he is trying very hard to be as good a person as can, but he is still, at base, a monster, and he still deals with the compulsions of his nature. So the name recognizes that I know all of that, and still have affection for him, but also reminds him that he needs to be on his best behavior all the time.”
“That is a very complex word game.”
“It is that.”
“Does the dagger belong to you?”
“No. I hope it will, some day. But at the moment it belongs to no one except Fiddler.”
“And he is not content with that?”
“Fiddler would very much rather the dagger belonged to me.”
“But you are not sure?”
“Fiddler will gain powers when he is bound to me that I want him to have, and the binding will give ME powers that I wouldn't mind having, but the idea of OWNING him makes me nervous.”
“Because he's a PERSON, and there's a wrongness to that.”
“Even when he desires it, and will be made stronger thereby?”
“Even when there are, for him, no drawbacks at all.”
“That is a paradox.”
“It is, isn't it? When I was young, my sister and her friends used to go out of their way to hear love stories, and they dragged me with them. And I realized that it really is a fine and noble thing to lay your heart on the table in front of another person and say, 'I belong to you, body and soul.' But I also realized something that my sister and her friends missed: If you are standing on the other side of the table, and you pick that heart up and say, 'Yes', THAT is an act of pure evil.”
“That is very much a paradox.”
“Maybe. But it's also true.”
“I don't understand.”
“There are problems with being owned; you lose freedom of action. But you also gain freedom from responsibility, and that is no small thing. There are advantages to owning, but doing so extracts a price against your soul.”
“Will you refuse to pay that price, if you have the opportunity to bind Fiddler?”
“No. I will pay it, however reluctantly.”
“Because it is best for him, and it is what he wants, and that is more important to me than what I want. No, that's not right. My desire to see him happy exceeds my desire to be happy. And in this case, well, I'll be pretty happy most of the time, anyway.”
“Thank you for answering, Rose. We will talk more in the evening.”
“Good day, Winter.”
>>>Scene Two: Cherry Dryad's grove
“Good evening, Winter.”
“Good evening, Rose.”
“Good evening, ladies!”
“You're quick to the mark tonight, Fid. Almost as if you were waiting in ambush,” Rose said.
“Maybe I was,” Fiddler responded. “Since you and the Lady Winter have been starting the party without me, I thought I would keep my eyes open and make sure I didn't miss anything.”
“But you missed the morning session, “ Rose said. “We talked about you.”
“Should I be worried?” Fiddler asked.
“You should always be worried,” Rose answered.
“Rose, I think you are making the sword giggle, “ Fiddler said.
“I regret nothing,” Rose replied.
“Lady Winter,” Fiddler said, “I would like to apologize on behalf of my friend, who I believe was raised by fish, and has no manners at all.”
“No apology is needed, Master Fiddler,” Winter said. “And I believe that you are telling the story wrong.”
“I have never... seldom... Oh, never mind, I'm almost certainly guilty, anyway,” Fiddler said. “And thank you for speaking to me, Lady Winter, I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“And I, yours, Master Fiddler,” Winter answered.
“And now that THAT is out of the way... I got a new magic tattoo, today,” Rose said.
“Is it likely to be as hard on you as the last one was?” Fiddler asked.
“I doubt it. It probably won't even follow me from shape to shape, but we'll see,” Rose said.
“And the why of it?” Fiddler asked.
“Aunt Cherry designed it. The ink contains some of my blood, and some blood, or sap, or what have you from a tree girl that is willing to talk to me. My tattoo is between my shoulder blades, and Amaranth is getting a similar one that is located so that when I sit at the base of her tree and lean against it, the tattoos will touch and form a link,” Rose said.
“Amaranth?” Fiddler asked.
“The tree girl,” Rose answered.
“That actually sounds kind of practical,” Fiddler said. “Given that it's magic.”
“The only drawback is that Cherry decided she could do a better job of the tattoo on Emma than on Dragon, so I will have to talk to Amaranth as Emma, with the attached time constraints. Nothing is perfect,” Rose said.
“Except me,” Fiddler said. “Well, I used to be. When I was alive.”
“Idiot,” Rose said.
“You made the sword giggle again,” Fiddler said.
“Someone did,” Rose said.
“So tomorrow?” Fiddler asked.
“We'll try, tomorrow,” Rose answered. “Auntie thinks the marks may have to heal a bit before they work.”
“Then perhaps I should tell my story tonight,” Winter said. “In the calm before the storm.”
“Hell, yes!” Fiddler said.
“Please,” Rose said.
“You seem to know something of my sisters, and of the day we parted company,” Winter said. “For we were sisters, created in the same act, by the same sire. We were collectively a magical item called 'The Panoply,' even though there were four of us and we were never physically attached to each other.”
“Panoply?” Fiddler asked. “Isn't that a soldier's arms and armor?”
“We were intended to be a collection of things that a wandering noble warrior needed,” Winter answered. “A sword, a horse, a hound, and a hawk. And servants; we could all take human shape, as needed, at least when we were together and functional.”
“Feel free to ignore Fiddler,” Rose said. “Tell the story as you see fit.”
“I have heard that the sword is made of dragon bone, but I would not know; I have no memory of being anything but Winter of the Panoply. I came into being with language, and a great knowledge of swordplay, and little else. Spring, the horse, remembered more. That was part of her funciton.”
“The horse was the source of memory?” Rose asked.
“She had the most, for one thing,” Winter answered. “There were five things in the original spell: A dragon bone sword, a large red hawk, an enormous yellow wolf, a well-trained horse, and a human woman. Spring said that she had been a young widow of talent and good pedigree, but with no prospects. She entered the ritual voluntarily, in return for some payment to her family; I think that is also part of why she remembered so much of her life before. I think she even remembers the name she was born with, though I am not sure.”
“She sold herself into the spell,” Rose said.
“Yes,” Winter answered. “She came out of the ritual with three forms: A horse, a human woman, and a centaur. She provided the humanity for the other three of us. She inherited some of the horse's knowledge of being a horse, but her humanity was utterly dominant.”
“I think I would enjoy meeting her,” Fiddler said.
“Remember the rules, Scorps,” Rose growled.
“Spoilsport,” Fiddler answered.
“Absolutely. Winter, my apologies for my idiot friend,” Rose said.
“You are both very strange,” Winter said.
“Stranger than that,” Rose answered. “Please, continue.”
“Summer, the wolf, also had three forms: A wolf, a human woman, and a wolf-human hybrid monster that walked on two legs and terrified everyone who encountered it. She had been born a wolf, but had no memory of anything that had taken place before the ritual.”
“And the hawk must have been Autumn,” Rose guessed.
“She was. She only had two forms, hawk and human. Her human form was the smallest of us. Spring and I were fairly normal, though she was a bit taller than I, and Summer was bigger than most men in her human form, and bigger still as a hybrid.”
“And you were either a sword or a woman,” Rose said.
“Yes, I only had the two forms, but because I was an object, and immortal, I gave immortality to my sisters. I could shift the shape of the sword as it was being drawn from the scabbard, and I could shift from sword to woman wearing any clothing in my wardrobe, or none at all.”
“And yet, on that last night, you all burned your clothing,” Rose said.
“My sisters burned their clothing. I burned my scabbard,” Winter replied.
“So that magic is lost to you?” Rose asked.
“There was no magic in the scabbard. I just needed to have a scabbard of some kind. A rag would have done,” Winter answered.
“But that still leaves the question of why you chose to be exiled to the bottom of the lake,” Rose said.
“We were tired of serving unworthy masters, and we were told, from the beginning that we MUST have a master, or we would lose the ability to shift shape, and become horse, hound, hawk, and sword,” Winter said. “I became dormant on the lake bottom, until you awakened me. We believed that the others would lose their human memories, and become simply animals. Immortal animals, as it happens, but still animals.”
“Do you think the other are still alive?” Fiddler asked.
“I am certain of it,” Winter replied. “I can feel their presence, off in the distance. “I think that if I were to choose a master it would summon them to me, even after all these years. That was a task that was given to me, from the beginning, if we ever found ourselves masterless.”
“THAT is interesting,” Rose said. “Are you likely to do that?”
“I have considered choosing YOU, Rose Dragon-marked” Winter said. “It is not something I consider lightly, and I do not know your wishes on the matter.”
“I have never felt a need for horse, hound, or hawk, but a dragon bone sword is hard to resist,” Rose said. “Do you think that your sisters would like to return to being part of the Panoply?”
“They would love to be sisters again, in the service of a good and just master,” Winter said. “We tried so many times to find one, and failed over and over again, which is why we gave up. It is not enough to BE a good master, Rose Dragon-marked. You must make certain that you never bequeath us to one who would make us miserable.”
“That does complicate things,” Rose said. “But at the rate I am going, I may end up being a full-fledged dragon, and that makes the matter of bequests a lot less urgent.”
“Perhaps,” Winter said.
“And I honestly don't know my own mind on the matter, yet,” Rose said. “In the meantime, I think that I'd like to hear more of the history of the Panoply, if you're willing to tell it.”
“I am, and I will,” Winter said. “Our first master, the one for whom the Panoply was made as a gift, was a GOOD man. He would have been horrified to know that Spring had sacrificed her humanity to be part of the magic. He tried very hard to always be on the right side of things, and was always faithful to his wife, and never used any of us for sex.”
“That's just WRONG,” Fiddler said.
“Manners, Fid,” Rose growled.
“Sorry, Winter,” Fiddler said. “I have been in exile a very long time. Please continue.”
Winter paused before she continued. “Our second master was the first one's son, and he was still a good man, but less than his father in at least one way: He did use the four of us for sex, and told us to not let his wife know.”
“Secrets are bad,” Fiddler said.
“Usually,” Rose said. “Not always. And it's WINTER's story, Fid.”
“”Yes, your Grace,” Fiddler said.
There was another pause, and then Winter said, “Our third master, the son of the second, never married. He felt no need; he had four slaves at his disposal. He even loaned us to his friends sometimes; we REALLY hated that. And then one day he staked us in a game of chance, and LOST.”
“I want to think things got better, but I doubt it,” Rose said.
“They did not. Over the years, we occasionally had a master who was ALMOST as good to us as the second had been, and sometimes we had masters who were worse than the third. Most were somewhere in between. But the bad ones were REALLY bad. There was one-- who had gotten possession through a game of chance that was almost certainly rigged-- realized that our injuries did not carry from one form to another, and that when we shifted back, we were fully healed...”
“Don't tell me...” Rose said.
“He took to beating us all regularly, and took particular pleasure in breaking Autumn's bones,” Winter said. “One day he told Summer, in human form, to take me, in sword form, to gather firewood. We went, and when we came back, she dropped the wood, and we cut off his head.”
“Because compulsions based on 'never' and 'always' doesn't hold,” Fiddler said.
“I did not know that,” Winter said. “But it certainly seems to have been true. That was the first time we had to find a new master. We got a taste of what would happen if we did not choose, and we did not like it. Spring was always our leader, but as the days went by she become more submissive and indecisive; Summer become more short tempered and violent, and Autumn lived in her hawk form, and spent most of her time soaring. She followed us, and always slept near our camp, but that was all we saw of her.”
“So you found a new master,” Rose said.
“We did,” Winter said. “I remained myself, and none of us lost the ability to shapeshift, but it was very hard. We never let it get that bad again, until the last time, and that was on purpose.”
“That must have been a very hard decision,” Rose said.
“It was. We talked about it whenever we were between masters, and sometimes when we had masters, too, when we had privacy. We all hated the idea of losing each other. Autumn didn't mind losing her humanity so much, otherwise; Summer did, she really liked being human. And Spring was terrified of the idea, because her humanity was so much of who she was. Summer and Autumn were intelligent animals who could assume human form, but Spring was a human who could turn into a horse. It was a big difference.”
“And you?” Rose asked.
“I am a sword who can think, and I have remained as such,” Winter said. “But I miss my sisters a great deal.”
“But you have the right to choose a new master in their absence?” Rose asked.
“It has always been my choice, before, though we always discussed it to some extent,” Winter said. “I was the one who made the offer, and we felt the bond form when the offer was accepted.”
“But only when you were already masterless,” Rose said.
“Yes. Our master could pass us to someone else at will, though it was the transfer of the sword, of me, that triggered the transfer,” Winter said.
“Interesting,” Rose said. “If it's not too much of an intrusion... What can a dragon bone sword DO?”
“You could have asked me that one, Rose,” Fiddler said.
“Then feel free to answer for me, Master Fiddler,” Winter said.
“Dragon bone is harder, stronger, and tougher than steel, and only weighs about a third as much. And as a sword, it probably has a volitional edge,” Fiddler said.
“Volitional edge?” Rose asked.
“My edge is as sharp as I wish it to be,” Winter answered. “As dull as the edge of a stick, or as sharp as an edge can be.”
“As sharp,” Fiddler offered, “As the sting of a perfect insult, or the dreams of a thousand bladesmiths.”
“I... will remember those, Master Fiddler,” Winter said. “I am a sword first and always, but I am human enough to recognize poetry when it is directed at me.”
“You have an admirer, Fid,” Rose said.
“I have many admirers, but most of them are more than 60 years old,” Fiddler said.
“And a hundred years from now, they will all be dead, and I will still be harassing you about them,” Rose said.
“And I will be happy about it,” Fiddler said.
“You are both very strange,” said Winter.
“Thank you,” said Rose.
“What she said,” said Fiddler.
“Sorry, Winter,” Rose said. “That was rude of us. Fiddler and I have been having these conversations every day for three years, and we are not used to having an audience.”
“I understand,” Winter said. “I think.”
“And thank you very much for trusting us with your story,” Rose said. “I have to admit that I understand why you chose to be exiled in the lake. Do you still want to go back to it?”
“I never WANTED to become dormant, Rose,” Winter said. “But it seemed to be the best choice.”
“And now?” Rose asked.
“And now there seem to be options, and I would like to investigate them,” Winter relplied.
“Good enough,” Rose said. “And on that note, I suppose I should try to get some sleep, and soldier through my nightly interview with the minotaur.”
“Well, then I will wish you both a good night,” Winter said.
“Good night and thank you again, Winter,” Rose said. “And good night to you as well, Fid.”
“Good night, Winter,” Fiddler said. “And thank you, once again, for finally speaking to me. And Rose... Good night, my Heart. Until the day.”
“Until the day, Fid,” Rose said.
>>>Scene Three: A meadow
“It would seem that you are still waiting,” the minotaur said.
“You could just ignore me,” Rose answered. “You seem to ignore my hostess.”
“The witch blocks me. She is an irritant, and I would drive her out if I could. Much like you.”
“Thank you. You are charming and your hospitality is without peer.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
“Well, I am having a fair amount of fun just irritating you, but I have a question or two I would love to have you answer as well.”
“Ask. I promise nothing.”
“You said that your concubines each produce a child every year. I know a bit about minotaurs, so I know most of the children are daughters. But you must have a son every year or two. What do you do with them?”
“I seem to have a son born every two or three years. There is no real pattern to it. I raise them to survive. I teach them to fight, and to hunt, and how to stay out of sight if necessary.”
“Generous of you. What do you do with them when they change, and become minotaurs?”
“I give them a choice. They can either have a sword, and a pack full of supplies that they will need in the wild, and go off to fend for themselves, or they can have the same sword, and a good suit of armor, and they can challenge me for my kingdom.”
“Which do they choose?”
“Most leave. A few challenge.”
“Do they ever come back?”
“They know that their exile is forever.”
“But they never come back to challenge?”
“Two have. They have died as well.”
“Did you accept their challenges, or just cut them down with arrows?”
“I fought them. I would not use arrows on one of my own kind.”
“Are you satisfied?”
“On that score. For now.”
“My turn, then. Do you have any idea when you will leave?”
“The time is getting close. I am waiting for one more thing, and I will have it soon, I think.”
“Make is at soon as possible.”
“It is out of my hands, but I will do what I can. And on that note... Once again, thanks for the information, and good night to you.”
End of Chapter Nineteen
Copyright 2018 by Paul Haynie
All rights reserved.