We reach the edge of the Forest of Woe by sunset, which is a terrible time to get anywhere in Lucitopia. It’s not dark enough to arrive unseen, but it won’t be light out long enough to put some real distance between you and whoever decides to start chasing you.
Late afternoon is good. I can work with a late afternoon arrival, but evening? Just terrible.
In Lucitopia, there aren’t gradual changes from one kind of scenery to another. When a forest ends, it ends. Just like on a map. We stay hidden in the line of trees.
“That must be Temperance’s cottage,” Dex whispers.
Laid out in front of us are the Fields of Plenty. Right on the edge of Woe and Plenty is a small, sturdy looking cottage. The wattle and daub walls are whitewashed, the shutters are a sensible black, and the thatched roof is full, but not overstuffed like in some fairy tales. A squat windmill churns the River of Tears, turning all that sorrow into labor, and around it pools a medium-sized pond with some very ordinary ducks floating on top.
“All of you wait here,” Torvold tells us. “I’ll go scout for bandits.”
He crouches down low and disappears into the waving field of some kind of grain. I’m not a farmer, but it waves, so I’m going to guess rye? Barley?
We see Torvold appear again next to one of the windows. He looks inside. He sneaks around to the front door. He lifts the latch and opens it.
And goes flying through the air.
He’s thrown twenty feet away from the cottage and lands flat on his back. He doesn’t get up. I know it has to be a spell, which are illusion, but I’m sprinting alongside Jackanet anyway. We both get to him at the same time. Jackanet throws himself down on his knees next to Torvold.
“Master! Are you injured?” he asks pleadingly.
Torvold doesn’t move.
“Torvold,” I say. Not a twitch. I crouch down next to him and put my hand on his chest. I can feel his heart beating and I don’t see any blood. But if he got hit with a spell why isn’t he screaming? “Torvold, wake up,” I say more sharply.
I see motion by the cottage door out of the corner of my eye, and without thinking, I turn and throw one of the blades from my bodice. I hit my mark perfectly, pinning her to the doorframe by her clothes.
Wait a second.
She’s absolutely gorgeous. Like, Beyonce gorgeous. She has dark skin, long curly black hair, killer bod, maybe in her early-twenties, and definitely not a bandit. The woman looks from her sleeve and back to me in surprise. It’s a white sleeve. I think I just threw a knife at Temperance. I grimace and get up.
“Excellent throw, Princess!” she says.
“I’m really sorry,” I say, already coming to her to pull out the blade. Tudie and Dex join us at jog, and Thunder trails behind them.
“You didn’t even nick me,” Temperance says, eyes still wide with surprise.
“I think that was more luck than anything else,” I say, tugging the blade out of the doorframe. “Sorry about your dress.”
“Not at all,” she replies cheerily. “I have more inside just like it.”
“Are you both done discussing your wardrobes?” Jackanet interrupts. We turn to see him gesture frantically to Torvold’s unconscious body.
I turn back to Temperance with a worried look on my face.
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” she says with a wave of her hand. “He got hit pretty hard, but he’ll sleep it off.”
“Does it hurt?” I ask.
“No,” she replies, grinning. “It feels wonderful.”
She narrows her eyes at me and then nods, as if she just figured something out.
She turns back to Torvold and mutters, “Who’s a big boy? We’re probably going to need that horse to help drag him inside unless we take the chainmail off first. Right! Who wants to undress him?”
Jackanet unbuckles Torvold’s mail and slides it off of him. When he picks it up to carry it into the cottage, Jackanet has to put his shoulder under it. Must weight forty or fifty pounds.
“That helped, but there is still a lot of fine young man here to carry,” Temperance says, in a very intemperate way, I might add. “Everyone! Choose a body part.”
I end up with a foot. Between the five of us, we manage to wrangle Torvold into the small, neat cottage and dump him on top of Temperance’s bed.
“We should probably take his boots off,” I say after I notice the coverlet with the lovely flower pattern on it. I reach for the boot nearest me, but Jackanet shoos me away.
“Off, off,” he mutters, still upset about seeing Torvold fly through the air like that. It was really scary. I’m still shaking a little, to be honest.
Temperance touches Jackanet on the shoulder. “He’ll be fine. He’s having wonderful dreams right now, I assure you,” she says.
There’s something about the way she talks that takes the worry and the irritation away. Even Jackanet, who does not warm to newcomers quickly, can’t help but give in and join us by the fire for some tea. She’s got cookies. I haven’t had sugar since I got here, which might explain my crystal-clear complexion, but right now I’m not worried about a break out.
After we’ve all dug into her butter cookies with jam and gone back for seconds, Temperance settles back stirring her chamomile tea and looking us over.
“Now may I ask why the young knight was peeking in my window?” she says good-naturedly.
“Oh, we’ve come to save you, dearie,” Tudie says, patting her knee.
Tudie goes on to explain who they are, and about Torvold’s quest. She leaves me mostly out of it, saying only that they encountered me in great need and now we travel together. While Fortitude soldiers on through the backstory, Temperance eyes me over the rim of her teacup, sizing me up. There’s no judgement in her, not in a mean way, but she is measuring me. Like a doctor checking my height, she seems to just want to know how much I’ve grown.
“So, you see, Temperance, it’s vitally important you come with Torvold, as he is the only one who can protect you,” Tudie finishes soundly.
“You think I’m Temperance?” the White Witch asks. She laughs warmly and shakes her head. “No, I’m not Temperance, although she was here a few weeks ago. She loves to stop in to lecture me every now and again, but she never stays long.”
“Who are you, then?” Jackanet blurts out.
The White Witch smiles at him. “You know me,” she says in that dulcet voice of hers. Jackanet’s face goes soft and he leans back, nodding a little.
“Yes, milady,” he whispers.
She stands, and I get a whiff of her perfume. Apples and vanilla, magnolia and spice, and something animal underneath that’s kind of gnarly, but I keep trying to get another whiff of it anyway.
“I’ll tend the horse,” she says. “You should all get some rest.”
I suddenly feel like I can’t keep my eyes open. I want to ask who she is, but I’m too busy falling asleep. I’ll ask tomorrow.
I wake to a muffled thump.
A slippery, acid feeling floods my stomach. I listen and hear other ears listening for mine. I know you’re wondering how ears can hear other ears listening, but just trust me. When there are no electrical appliances charging, no planes flying overhead, no neighbors of any kind for miles, and you are a hotter commodity than a mature IRA, you get really good at hearing the different kinds of dark. This dark has ears in it, and they are listening to see if mine are listening back.
Which they are. Which those ears probably know at this point.
It’s a race now. A stealthy, tiptoeing, sliding your daggers out slowly kind of race. I peel myself off the floor and pad over Dex’s sleeping body, then skootch around Tudie. I have to dart from there to get to the darkest shadow in the corner by the window without passing through the moonlight coming through it. When I get there, I turn and lean my back up against the wall.
I feel something tall and firm behind me, but it’s definitely not a wall. A big arm crosses my body and a warm hand cups my mouth. Lips press against my ear.
“Shh,” Torvold whispers. Instant shivers go down my spine, which is pressed right up against his chest.
I nod, and he lets go of my mouth, but that hand floats down to my shoulder and holds there, keeping my back flat against him so we both fit inside this shadow. His back is pressed to the wall and he cranes his head to the side to look out the window. I look out with him, sure he can feel my heart beating in my throat.
He tilts his head down until his lips touch my ear again. “There are four outside and one on the roof,” he whispers so softly that if he weren’t this close I couldn’t hear him.
I nod again and focus on the fireplace. The fire went out hours ago, but I can hear a faint scratching in there.
Tilting my head back so my lips can reach his ear I whisper, “He’s coming down the chimney.”
I slide one of my sleeve daggers out, point to my chest to indicate myself, and then I point to the fireplace.
Torvold leans slightly to the side so he can look me in the eye. He’s surprised for a moment, then he smiles. It’s a sly smile. I think I impressed him. It feels pretty good to have a monster-slaying badass like Torvold think I might be kind of a badass, too.
I’m supposed to be moving right now. I just indicated that the chimney was my post, and that’s where I should be headed, but instead I’m still leaning back against Torvold and I’m tilted to the side so I can stare up at him. He is mighty comfortable. And beautiful.
And that’s enough of that.
I slink out of our hiding place and dance over the sleeping bodies. I get to the fireplace and stand beside it. Torvold has already made it to the cottage door, and he’s looking across the room at me. I signal that I’m ready, and he yanks the door open and runs out with a mighty battle cry.
Everyone in the cottage wakes, and they all jump up. I wave frantically at everyone, finger to my lips, and then point at the fireplace so they know that someone is coming down it.
“It must be bandits outside!” I yell. “Come, lets to the windows!” I make a shooing motion with my hand to get them to go.
Jackanet understands what I’m doing. He starts corralling Tudie and Dex toward the other side of the cottage. “Ho! Torvold the Bold fights for our lives! Let us watch!” he yells like the stiffest high school kid with one line in the show.
I grimace. Jackanet grimaces back. We’ll never win any Oscars.
Old Saint Dick stuck up the chimney knows this is his cue to climb down, sneak up behind someone watching the show outside, take a hostage, and then the bandits would have us.
But this ain’t my first rodeo. I ready my dagger in one hand. I grab a copper pan off the mantel and hold it in the other, just to be sure.
I see a foot set down in the grate.
There’s something wrong with it. Actually, make that a couple of somethings. First of all, it doesn’t have a boot on it. Second, it’s got really long toenails. Third, it’s a putrid green-grey color.
A matching putrid hand snakes down and clasps the edge of the fireplace, and then a gaunt face appears. It has two bulbous, lidless eyes and no nose. Or rather, it had a nose once, but that must have rotted off because instead this guy just has those long holes like you see on a skull. Most of his lips are gone, too. But that’s not strange. That’s just another extra on The Walking Dead.
He pokes his head and shoulders out, now that he sees everyone looking out the windows with their backs to fireplace like a bunch of rubes, and I can see the side of his neck has slits on it. Like gills. They open and suck in air. I think he tasted me, because his head snaps around and he looks right at me. I immediately clunk him with the copper pan.
He makes this congested orca call, think Flipper but way more phlegm, and he lunges for me. I whack him again. He crawls a little closer to me. I give him another clang upside the head. He twitches, and yep, that does it for me. I whale on him a good six or seven times. Then I take a beat to readjust my grip. I choke the handle in both hands and I go to town on him like I’m chopping wood.
He doesn’t move. The rest of his body slithers down to fall on top of him as if his bones are made of rubber. Really stinky rubber. Should have dubbed him Jingle Smells. I whack him just one more time for good measure.
By now the rest of the gang are standing next to me with shocked looks on their faces—except for Jackanet. He knows I’ve got rage. We get a snoot full of hot garbage stench and pinch our noses closed. We all sound likes ducks when we talk.
“This is terrible,” Jackanet quacks, gesticulating wildly.
“I know. He’ll stink up Temperance’s cottage for weeks,” I quack, looking for the White Witch who is definitely not Temperance. Where is she?
“No, no, you don’t understand!” Jackanet stomps a foot. I giggle. He looks and sounds like a big baby. “That’s a drawl!” he quacks.
“A drawl?” I quack back. “What’s that?”
“Not a drawl,” Jackanet lets go of his nose momentarily, “a Thrall!” He pinches his nose closed again.
“Oh, well, I think I got some Thrall on my skirt,” I quack, pointing at a little spatter at the hem. I notice that the Thrall is not moving. “Do you think I killed him?” I ask Tudie anxiously. I’ve never killed anything even remotely human-shaped before.
“I hope so,” she quacks. “Put the poor thing out of his misery.”
“Don’t take your eyes off that one,” Jackanet quacks as he hustles to the door. “I’ve got to help Torvold!”
Jackanet throws himself out the cottage door, and Dex sighs mightily and follows him. “I’d better make sure he doesn’t get killed,” she quacks.
I know this is all very serious stuff, but it’s hard to feel grim when everyone is quacking.
I listen for the sounds of fighting outside, but all I can hear is Jackanet calling for his master. I look at Tudie.
“Should I be worried?” I quack at her.
Tudie shrugs. “Probably,” she quacks back.
A minute later I hear Torvold calling out in the distance. A few moments after that, I hear him run back into the yard. He’s scolding Jackanet.
“You mustn’t let her out here! Get back inside, Dex, please,” he says.
A moment later, Jackanet and Dex are pushed inside by Torvold. There are black splatters on his white linen shirt and his chest is heaving. That’s a lot of chest to heave, by the way. He comes directly to me.
“Are you injured?” he asks. His eyes are big and soft, though his voice is rough. “Did you touch it at all, or did you get it with just the blade of the dagger?”
“No,” I quack. I realize I’m still holding my nose. I am utterly ridiculous. I drop my hand. “I didn’t use my dagger, I used this.” I hold up the copper pan.
Torvold lets out a sigh and clasps my upper arm. For just a moment he drops his forehead to touch mine. Then he jerks away and goes to the rubbery heap of moldering scabs and fishy phlegm on the hearth. He raises Calx.
“I think it’s dead,” I interject, but he cuts its head off without pausing.
The Thrall bursts into flames. There’s a quick, agonized scream as it twitches and shrivels and turns to powdery white-grey ash faster than if it were made of tissue paper.
Torvold sighs with relief. “Now it’s dead,” he says, looking back up at me. “I’m so sorry. I never would have left you to face this alone if I knew it was a Thrall. I ran out, thinking they were men.” He combs a hand through his hair. “I should have watched them longer, but I…you woke and I...” he trails off. Looking at me.
Everyone is silent. I shrug. “All is well, Sir Torvold,” I say quietly. “I managed it.”
I look down at my pan and notice that the goo from the Thrall that was on it has burnt away as well. And so has the spatter on the hem of my dress. I look at Torvold’s shirt and notice that the black marks on it are actually burn holes. Even the stench is gone. It burned away.
I’ve lived in Lucitopia for nearly a year and I’ve never heard mention of a Thrall.
“Someone please explain what a Thrall is,” I say. “And tell me why I’ve never heard of one before.”
They share a look, like no one wants to have this conversation.
Dex is the first to speak up. “They are the Thrall of Asphodel,” she says. “They were people once, but to avoid death, they gave themselves to Asphodel. In exchange he changes them. He controls them completely and they cannot die by any agent of this land. Even their touch is poison.”
I nod in understanding, but I’m still wary.
“That explains why my pan was ineffectual, but they shriveled when touched by Calx. That also explains why Sir Torvold was so afeard when he realized he’d left me to deal with one on my own, unwarned as I am about their poisonous touch.” I try to meet every single one of their gazes, but they all look away from mine. “Yet methinks there is some other foul mischief you have not revealed.”
“You’ve been in your tower for a long time, dearie,” Tudie says, shifting from foot to foot. “And then all of a sudden you set out on this quest.” She stops and looks at Dex.
Dex starts over. “You haven’t seen your father in a while,” she says reasonably. “And there have been a lot of changes.”
They pause. “And?” I urge.
“You know your father had to leave the palace, don’t you?” Tudie says hesitantly.
“And there was that hag who drained him dry,” Dex adds.
“What happened to my father?” I demand. I know they’re talking about the king, and not my real dad, but they might as well be.
Before I came to Lucitopia a year ago I hadn’t seen my father in eight months. He used to be a big player in Hollywood, but he lost his job when the studio “restructured” (a.k.a. lost a boatload of money when a film turned into a billion-dollar flop) and they fired half of the mid-level executives. My dad lost his house. The woman he left my mother for—a little starlet who was gorgeous on the outside and a hag on the inside—took pretty much everything else he owned.
My dad’s not perfect. Scratch that. My dad is a horse’s ass, but he’s still my dad and I am worried about him. The doctors don’t measure his blood pressure in systolic over diastolic anymore, but in how many days away from a heart attack he is.
“If you have word of my father, you must tell me,” I say. I have to stop to swallow the lump in my throat. “I haven’t seen him in so long.” Why is it hard to say that? I must really miss him. I thought I never wanted to see him again, but I guess I do.
“There’s been rumor that the king has become a Thrall of Asphodel,” Jackanet admits sadly.
“Anything he might have told you,” Dex begins.
“Any quest he might have given you, is most likely the will of Asphodel,” Tudie finishes.
Torvold takes a step toward me, but he stops himself and says, “Don’t marry him.” His voice is husky and low. “Please, princess.”
Jackanet turns to Torvold. “Milord, if she could get close to Asphodel by accepting his proposal of marriage, she could be the only one—”
“It’s a trap!” Torvold thunders back at his squire.
“It most certainly is, but hear me out,” Jackanet pleads. Torvold pivots on his heel and walks out of the cottage toward the stables.
“Did you see her with the pan?” Jackanet yells after him, but it’s no use. Torvold will not listen.
I have to sit. I meander over to a chair and sink down into it. “I don’t know what to do,” I say quietly.
No one answers me.