Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part III

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the third part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One and Two. Updates every two days.

“You’re Lizzie’s girl, aren’t you? Shame. I thought you might be prettier.”

The woman seated on the bed looked like a rather comely scarecrow. She had high sunken cheeks that caved back toward her ears like gigantic dimples, skin as brown as leather, and gray hair streaked with white, tied in a bun at the back of her head. Her arms and legs were bound with swathes of coarse brown bandages, and her sun-worn form hung wrapped with patchwork rags. From her mantle hung a sackcloth hood…

Sewn, in fact, exactly like a scarecrow's.

It was the only thing that came to Anne's mind at that moment, apart from the fact that the room was incredibly pink, pinker than a dripping newborn pig. And white, but barely anything on the farm was white. Not even the cows. It was a strange feeling.

Oh, and the woman's eyes were green. Gentilberry green.

"You're... Aunt Mattie. Right?"

The old scarecrow woman quirked her lips back and made a noise. It was such a strange mannerism that Anne found herself genuinely distressed. Was she angry? Disappointed? Amused?

"I suppose I am," said the scarecrow woman at last, "although I'm not exactly your Aunt. We're from different planes, you and I. Necristo has a certain reputation where I'm from. When I heard he'd kidnapped me, well, I just had to come."

After a moment of thought, Anne nodded. She'd heard of stories like this from the priests in the All-Shrine; tales of other realms, where the stars were the same but different, and the threads of fate knotted and frayed and made strange shapes. She'd never really stopped to consider that she might have another Aunt Mattie out there.

"So that milksop magicker's name is Necristo? I'll be. Certainly a name, isn't it?"

Anne grinned nervously, hoping the Gentilberry twang would soften up her scarecrow relative. Aunt Mattie made the noise again, and this time Anne parsed it as somewhere between disgust and dismissal. She decided to stop using farmspeak.

"Necristo steals girls just like you and me from plane after plane," said Aunt Mattie, getting to her feet. There was a flash from her side, and Anne realized in shock that there were three knives hanging from her belt. One was black and thin as straw, straight with a wicked point. One was steel and bright as day, running wide in the center like a broad leaf. And the last one, the most evil-looking one, was a dull rusty red, running with barbs, scarred with nocks and pits like an arrow-marked tree. "He tells them stories. Of how he's only trying to pay off his debt from sorcerer school, of how all he really wants is someone to help him find his purpose."

It was just so different from the kitchen knives, or even Da's cleaver. Those knives were meant for sticking people. Anne felt sick at the sight of them.

"And then what happens?" she swallowed. "What does Necristo... what does he do to them?"

Aunt Mattie's eyes were hard as glass beads.

"I wouldn't know," she said. "All the ones I've asked, well, they can't talk about it. They can tell me how polite he was, or how sad and pathetic he looked, or how nice his house was. Some even tell me everything he said, on the first or second day. Every single word."

"But..."

"The instant I asked what he did to them, none of them could say a word. One lass nearly choked, she was trying so hard. I had to throw her in a creek."

"Sorcery," whispered Anne, and rubbed her arms for warmth. Her flesh felt like a cat's tongue.

Aunt Mattie nodded.

"You switch planes, don’t you?" asked Anne. "Can you take me with you? Can you help me escape?"

Aunt Mattie shook her head.

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm no sorcerer," she said. "I find the planesgates one by one, and then I use them. Rinse and repeat. I've spent the last two years just trying to find this room."

“But if you got in,” pressed Anne, “I’m sure you can get out. Right?”

“Planesgates don’t work that way,” said Aunt Mattie. “Not for non-sorcerers. There are cycles and epicycles, you see, realm-rotations, and there’s not two planographers in existence who can actually agree on what the schedule is. There’s a myriad different maps from a myriad different planes, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to find the door that just happens to go where you want to.”

“But the door leads out to Necristo’s corridor,” said Anne, pointing. “That one, I mean.” She saw that it was white now, which bothered her. She could have sworn it was pink.

“Of course it does,” said Aunt Mattie, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. “I came in through the window.”

The scarecrow woman walked over to the window and opened it. A flurry of frantic birdsong came from without, graced with the cranking of a desperate hurdy-gurdy and a high-pitched yodel. She shut the window.

“It’s closed now,” she said, lifting her eyebrow as if it were obvious. “No more realm-hopping through this hunk of glass.”

"How do you find the doors?” asked Anne.

"Favors, mostly," said Aunt Mattie. "You'll be surprised how many gatefinders are willing to break their backs for a silencing or two."

It felt like her neck had turned to ice. Anne took three steps back, then hit a pink chair and sank down into it. The armrests were soft as long wool, and sprinkled with bright silver dust.

"You kill people," said Anne.

"Heavens, child, no," snapped Aunt Mattie, with a wave of her bandaged hand. "Why would I want to do something so messy at this age? I am a woman, you know. Do I look like an assassin to you?"

She took the black stiletto and held it out in front of her, point first. Anne shied away.

"This is Soulstealer. He whom she kisses shall lose his heart's desire."

"That sounds dreadful," said Anne, hugging herself very tight.

"You'll be surprised," said Aunt Mattie, with a slight quirk of her gray eyebrow. "Some people just want to forget."

She returned Soulstealer to her belt and drew the second knife, the broad parrying dagger with the polished gleam.

"This is Woewarder. He whom she marks shall receive his greatest wish."

"That sounds... less dreadful," said Anne, placing her hands on her knees and leaning forwards. "Can I use that knife to wish myself out of here?"

"Only if you trade your eyes," said Aunt Mattie, without a hint of levity. "Woewarder's wounds never heal, incidentally."

"I changed my mind," said Anne. "It sounds very dreadful. If you could put that away, I'd be quite grateful."

"Well, I was going to, anyway," said Aunt Mattie primly. “You think I’m about to let you touch one of these? They weren’t easy to come by, just so you know. Not even for me.”

She drew the last knife, hooking it carefully out so that the barbs wouldn’t snag. Anne winced.

“No sheaths, Aunt Mattie?”

“I own these girls,” said Aunt Mattie, holding out the rusty scarred blade. “They wouldn’t even think of doing anything to me. Might as well be cotton as far as I’m concerned. This is Hearthunter. He whom she bites shall lose…”

“His heart?” Anne guessed.

“I was about to say his last resistance,” said Aunt Mattie, “but you’re more or less right, girl.”

“Well, steal my wife and call me a cuckold!” crowed Anne, more pleased than she had any right to be.

Aunt Mattie folded her arms.

“What?” asked Anne. “It’s a thing we say. On the farm.”

“I’m sure,” said Aunt Mattie, with the air of a long-suffering slice of seaweed. “Now, listen up. You’ve never even seen me, and when I saw you last, you were much smaller and even more annoying than you are now. Still, I have a favor to ask of you, and if you’ll indulge an old prune her wish, we might just get out of here alive.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call you a prune, Aunt Mattie,” said Anne smilingly. “More of a pickle, if you ask me.”

“And if you want to get out of the pickle,” said Aunt Mattie without skipping a beat, “you’ll listen to me.”

This sounded serious. Anne folded her hands in her skirt, leaned forwards, and tried to contain her smirk.

“I need you,” said Aunt Mattie slowly, “to take Necristo’s heart.”

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