The Possibilities of Poisons…
Lilith held the fine silver stem of the goblet between two fingers and sipped delicately. She glanced up at the sorcerer, seated at the end of the long, polished dining room table, following his gesture by placing the goblet back down and raising a napkin to her lips.
She surveyed the array of cutlery set before her with a sinking heart, glancing up with a frown to see which spoon the sorcerer choose to consume his broth.
He, in turn, saw her hesitation and shook his head sternly. Lilith sighed. If the soup had been cooked by any other but her, she might have been able to muster a little more enthusiasm. So while she now played at being a Lady—eating, drinking, and speaking like one—she still had to eat humble fare. At least she’d roasted a chicken to add to the ‘feast’, but Lilith was pretty fed-up with the taste of that, too. And besides, they were running out of fowl.
Lilith eyed the spoons as if they were a trap that would spring at any moment. Her fingers hovered above them as she selected then discarded her choices, finally settling on one that brought a nod of approval from the sorcerer.
She sipped at her broth, taking only tiny, elegant mouthfuls, thinking how stupid it was to eat in such a way. A true hunger needed slaking, not teasing with miniscule mouthfuls that never filled, and all the while the soup was left to cool into a gelatinous glop that was not fit to eat anyway…
Lilith sighed again. In the past weeks, she’d been shown how to eat without spillage, in accordance with the art of gentle good manners. Something Lilith didn’t quite understand yet.
Some of the affections of the elite had caused her to laugh outright, bringing stern rebuke. She’d been given new dresses and gowns, new gems to adorn herself. She’d been urged to cultivate good graces, to speak well, to converse in a witty—and to Lilith’s mind—somewhat vapid manner. To coax. To flatter. To confound. To seduce.
But nothing of magic.
Nothing at all. And nor would there ever be. No attempt had been made to hide the fact. She would not use magic; magic would use her. All the grand things foreseen for her and she was merely acting as his tool.
Lilith dabbed at her lips again and smothered a burp. She placed the napkin beside her and waited for the sorcerer to carve the chicken. She received her plate with a sullen eye and another bitter sigh. Clearly Ladies were expected to exist on air, if her serving was anything to go by. Again Lilith had to curb her appetite, biting neatly and daintily, when all the while what she really wanted was to sink her teeth into it, to give herself a proper-sized mouthful on which to chew.
‘The names of the Thanes of the Meda Isles?’
Lilith put down her fork. Here it came again—just when she had a chance to eat, however hampered by etiquette she felt herself to be—now she had to rally her thoughts to answer him, while trying not to commit a social error by spraying her food when she spoke. Lilith chewed frantically, resentful of the loss of any remaining enjoyment of her meal.
‘The Thane of Beth, Luis, Nion,’ Lilith said, then paused to think, drawing another frown. ‘Tinne, Coll, Muin, and the Thane of Muin also rules over Gort…’ Her words petered out. She looked at the sorcerer. ‘Well he thinks he does anyway,’ she said with a slight smile.
The sorcerer raised an eyebrow and Lilith charged on into the silence, her nervousness drowned out by the sound of her own voice. ‘But it’s pretty obvious isn’t it? You know, that you—’ Then she stopped, suddenly aware of how close she’d come to revealing herself. ‘That you are the rightful ruler of both Isles,’ Lilith concluded. She swallowed. ‘Oh, and the Thane of Peith…’
‘And the Isles of the Triple Goddess?’
‘Uath, Saille and Ruis,’ Lilith answered. Then, feeling quite sure of herself, she pressed on. ‘The Priestesses of the Virgin Goddess Achaiva live on the Isle of Uath. Those of the Mother and Queen, Urania, on the Isle of Saille. And Ruis and the Tomb Stones are home to the Priestesses of the Crone Goddess, Iachema.’
Lilith noticed Ibur’s reaction to the mention of the rocky Isles off the rugged coast of Ruis. He’d tried to mask it by pushing his plate aside and pulling out his pouch and pipe, but Lilith had seen it, a flicker of a frown, a setting of the jaw, the subtle signs of his response to the unwanted reminder, the stirrings of something long-buried in his mind.
‘And the Anghard King,’ he said. ‘What of him?’
‘The Stag King lives on the Isle of Duir. But the Isle of Fearne is his too. Well, all of them are really…’
‘I do not think the High Priestesses would agree with your summation.’
‘No. Not the Goddess Isles,’ Lilith quickly amended.
‘And we have spoken of his sons, the Princes…’
‘Yes,’ Lilith said. She didn’t look at him. Her resentment made her bold and she spoke up, saying. ‘Let me get the candied elecampane. It will aid your digestion.’
‘Yes. Why not.’
Lilith pushed back her chair and stood up. She smoothed her skirts and walked as he had taught her, although it felt ridiculously stilted and unnatural. She reached behind the bottles and decanters that stood on the sideboard for the tall jar that held the elecampane.
‘Oh!’ Lilith said. ‘There’s not much left.’ She assumed a carefully practised expression, making sure that she had it just right, before she turned to face him. Lilith held the jar up for him to see the few remaining pieces of candied root. She drew them out of the jar with a pair of long, silver tongs and arranged them neatly on a small plate.
Lilith placed the offering before him, stepping back to give a small, charming curtsy, her efforts rewarded by the sorcerer’s smile.
‘Let me make some more for you,’ Lilith said. ‘I’m sure I can do it. Let me, please…’
The sorcerer leant back in his chair, obviously pleased by her attentions. ‘Yes. It would be fitting for you to work upon your culinary skills.’
Lilith bit back her glee, instead adopting her second well-practised expression: a slight frown on her face, and a small shake of the head. ‘But I don’t think there’s anymore fresh root. I might have to gather some…’
‘See to it,’ Ibur said.
‘And I might just get a few other things, while I’m at it…’
The sorcerer waved a hand, dismissing her. ‘Your lessons are done this day.’
Lilith curtsied again, struggling all the while to keep the smile from her face. She’d put a fair bit of preparation into manoeuvring events towards this outcome: the rest of the candied root buried outside the kitchen, her stock in the herb room conveniently low…
She cleared the table quietly, making sure she didn’t disturb the sorcerer from his repose. Lilith left him, pipe in hand, his eyes closed as he exhaled thick grey smoke-rings into the air.
When she’d cleaned and tidied the kitchen, Lilith walked up to her room, and closing the door behind her, retrieved the flask from where she’d hidden it: wrapped in her ripped cloak behind the bed berth. She placed it in her pocket and then made her way outside.
The midday sun beat down. Not a cloud in sight. Lilith averted her gaze, bowing her head before the sun as she walked down the cobblestone path to the herb room. Insects zoomed around her, their tiny wings a blur as they harvested midsummer’s flowering abundance. The cockerel crowed as Lilith came into view, his remaining hens scattered under the low cover of a tree. They watched from their leafy sanctuary, clucking nervously as Lilith passed by.
Sooty lay deep in sleep in the shade near a stack of garden pots. Lilith took care not to wake him as she opened the herb room door and went inside.
This was the first real moment she’d had to herself in weeks. The sorcerer had kept her busy from dusk till dawn with her new ‘lessons’ and practising her cooking. No time for drinking from the flask. No time to think clearly, no time to ponder or plan. And then, at night, when she retired to her room, Sooty insisted on sleeping curled up on her feet. It didn’t feel right, drinking the Elemental’s liquid and then passing out in front of the kitten, for all intents and purpose dead to this world.
She’d tried to encourage Sooty to resume his nocturnal wanderings, but the little black kitten had grown increasingly clingy. Lilith had even kicked him out a few times, but then he’d scratched at the door and wheezed loudly enough to wake the house. His behaviour had grown so vexing sometimes she felt like hitting him. The urge shocked her. It wasn’t as if Sooty could help it, the separation and then the long search for her must have triggered his craving for constant affection. He just wouldn’t let her out of his sight.
And so she’d waited and waited for a safe time to drink from the flask and still knew no more of the Elemental’s message. No more of what the visions were supposed to mean to her. No more of how they could help her.
Pulling down her largest basket from the shelf, Lilith folded a few pieces of muslin cloth and placed them on the bottom. She packed the basket with jars and containers, her scythe and trowel. Retrieving her sun hat from the table, Lilith went back outside, tiptoeing past the sleeping cat. She walked quickly to the orchard, glancing behind her as she went, relieved to see no one was following.
Lilith stopped beneath the shade of a gnarled and twisted mulberry tree to pluck a few shrivelled berries from the branches. She spat the fruit aside with a grimace. She viewed the orchard’s array of poor and stunted trees, envisaging them laden with fruits and nuts and bemoaning their present wasted state.
If she were mistress of these lands, all would be different, the orchard pruned and in good order, the fields cut, the bails stacked high in the stables. But the sorcerer was consumed by his plans. The present held little interest for him. It was as Morgan had said: he was obsessed with the past and with the future he so craved.
Shielding her eyes from the sun, Lilith walked down into the damp watercourse that ran through the outer fields. The gully was lush and green with ferns and bracken. Lilith spied several thornapple plants, big and branching and covered with full, white flowers and spiky seedpods. She set to gathering them, making her way carefully, her feet sinking into the wet earth, her soft leather shoes filling with muddy water.
Placing her basket on the ground, Lilith took out her scythe, reaching through the leaves and branches to the pods, which she cut with quick flicks of her wrists. She held each one upside down as she dropped them into another jar, the sap oozing thick and white. Lilith wiped the scythe on the grass, then stood up and looked around her again, seeing the faded yellow, bell-shaped flowers of mandrake growing in a clump in a marshy patch beside an old, stone well.
Taking out her trowel, Lilith dug carefully around the leafy plant. Black soil, soft and moist, parted to reveal the man-shaped root. She put the trowel aside and used her fingers to gently work it out of the ground, tugging only at the last moment to release the smaller, hairy roots. It came up whole and undamaged. Well-pleased with her effort, Lilith dug up two more plants. She left several more growing nearby, taking care not to deplete the stock. She’d remember this spot and come back when she needed more.
Lilith wrapped the roots in a large square of muslin. She rearranged her basket, separating the mandrake, careful that it would not bruise. The green and feathery foliage of hemlock was next to draw her interest. The tall branches of the potent-smelling herb sprouted next to the old goat house, the dilapidated shack long since lost to the thorny rambling canes of blackberries.
Scythe in hand, she cut the hemlock’s hollow stems, separating the flowers from the branches and placing the foliage between two muslin layers. Lilith stopped to graze on the berries, and although they weren’t quite ripe, their sweetness made them irresistible and her fingers were soon stained red with their juices. She reached down lower to where she saw some plump and shiny black ones, deeper within the canes, popping them into her mouth, then spitting them out quickly as she realised her error.
Belladonna—deadly nightshade. A few wouldn’t kill her, but the poisonous berries worked as a sedative, procuring sleep or narcotic trances. She hadn’t expected them to taste so sweet. She had detected no hint of the bitterness that was said to accompany the most poisonous of plants.
Lilith pulled back the canes to look more closely. A sweet berry that procured sleep… She couldn’t think of another poison like it. All poisons, to her knowledge, were bitter—nature’s warning to the unwary. Lilith pulled a jar out of her basket and bent down to pluck the berries from the plant. She’d dry them later, slowly in the sun. She stood up and rearranged the jars in her basket, thinking about the herbs she had run low on, the necessary components for the sorcerer’s spells.
Lilith’s basket filled as she walked to and fro, her scythe rising and falling as she reaped her summer harvest: ten large leaves of dead man’s thimbles, a wrinkled rhizome of leopard’s bane, the hooded-blue flowers of aconite, and the dry-brown capsules of foetid henbane. She cut the blood-red poppies that grew in drifts and the yellow, flowering wort, tying the bundles with string and placing them with the rest of her finds.
She continued down the gully to where the crumbling remains of a chimney stood amid another sprawl of blackberries. Scattered stone slabs lay about on the ground, remnants of a long-abandoned dwelling, tall, seeding thistles growing in between them.
A post and rail fence stood some distance behind, the decaying wood overgrown by sweet briar, the pale pink flowers covered in bees. And growing in front of the rambling briar, with yellow, ray-like flowers wide to catch the sunlight, several tall elecampane plants. Scabwort, or horseheal. Lilith dug out five fleshy, aromatic roots. She kept them well separated from the mandrake; both had a bitter taste.
Lilith looked up at the sun. Her quick harvest had left her ample time. Then her gaze turned to the old chimney. She didn’t want to drink the Elemental’s liquid out in the open. She didn’t want to leave her body exposed to the elements and to the eyes of others.
Lilith pulled out her scythe. She cut enough of the blackberries to clear a way to the old hearth, and then she bent down to look at the dark space at the base of the chimney.
‘Olpirt,’ Lilith said and she held the light aloft.
She’d need to clean the area out a little, take out a few rocks, but a least she couldn’t see any spiders. She closed her hand and stilled her energy, and the glow of the light winked out.
Pulling out the rocks and debris, she made a makeshift broom with bracken fronds to sweep the space clean. Lilith piled fresh bracken inside the chimney space, making a nest of sorts in which to lay—a soft green bower. She tucked her basket behind the canes and crawled inside.
Lilith pulled the flask from the basket, the soft blue glow lighting up the stones around her.
She lay back, her heart beating rapidly, her skin cold with sweat.
She tried to prepare herself for the inevitable moment of surrender. Her stomach twisted in fear.
She unstoppered the flask and drank.
Dawn’s light crested the deck of the Goddess ship.
A chill wind swept in, sending goose-bumps racing across Esha’s naked skin, bare of robe or veil. Her heart hammered and her breath caught, her throat constricted. Panic hovered at the edges of her mind.
A blue-robed Priestess lifted up a silver chalice to Esha’s lips and she drank, feeling the warm, thick liquid flow down her throat.
Sweet voices swelled in song as Esha walked across the deck towards the beckoning Bride. A feeling of light-headed euphoria began to steal over her. The sorcerer’s potent amulet glowed warmly at her breast, the Priestesses’ elixir rushed in her veins. The robed figures of the assembled Priestesses seemed to move with a fluid grace, faces and forms blurring like charcoal drawings washed by the rain.
Esha stepped onto the raft to sit silently at the Bride’s side. Pulleys strained and winches tightened, and the vessel rose up and over the side of the ship, then descended slowly.
The vessel touched the water.
The ropes were withdrawn.
The waves sent the raft drifting.
Then thought slipped away on the undulating surface of the sea and Esha felt the dream begin…
A ripple of foamy white waves spreading out, speeding the raft towards the rocks.
And the Goddess sings:
‘To the Isle of the Alder
sails the Goddess Ship,
Maiden and the Virgin’s Bride.
To the red stones
sails the Goddess Ship,
and passage through the tides.’
The sea draws back and the red path calls.
The Maiden’s bare feet pad across the slippery surface, and the stones resonate to the distant sound of hooves. The King rides towards her.
Lust comes in a shocking surge. The amulet is afire. Flames race across her skin.
‘Come,’ says the Bride-Priestess, and her wispy veils part like fog as she beckons.
And the Goddess sings again:
‘Down the red path,
the old path, the once was wall,
come the Maiden and Achaiva’s Bride…’
And the hooves pound in her head. And her breath is a short, sharp pant.
They step onto the sand and the revellers sweep down like a wave, lifting her up and carrying her forth. Strange hands caress her. Soft lips bring warm intimacies and all-consuming desire.
To the long, dark tunnel between the willow’s twisted roots, deep down under the ground, to the dark and smoky cavern. Cold and silent.
Then she is alone, save for the three: Bride, Mother, and Crone.
‘Step into the water, Arabella. Step into the Virgin’s well, maiden of the house of Muin.’
A mossy edge and icy water. She sinks, struggles, screams, flounders for purchase…
Suspended, the liquid laps at her hips, bone-chilling depths below her questing toes. Floating in the Virgin’s well.
‘Step out, Achaiva’s Maiden.’
Then they are gone and she is swept up in the arms of those that adore, surrounded by eyes that burn with the fire of passion. Cradled in the arms of the dancers, enveloped by music, pipes, laughter and song.
The amulet’s throb matches her heart’s tempo and then melds with it. Her breath is shallow, her thighs moist.
Carried to the green bower, the old bower, the womb wood true, alone to await the Stag King’s desire, as the revellers return to the fire…
And the Goddess sings:
‘To the Isle of the Alder
sails the Goddess Ship,
Maiden and the Virgin’s Bride.’
‘To the green bower,
the old bower,
the womb wood true,
come the Maiden, and Achaiva’s Ride…’
An intense sting.
Instant return to dim, green shadows.
Then the pain recedes, bringing a muted awareness of the feel of soft furs beneath her naked body, and of the amulet that throbs at her breast…
The sting came again--intense--forcing her to consciousness.
Esha fought to raise her head, drugged and dazed, blinking groggily. She lay inside the greenwood bower, the living walls curving up around her, a diffused light piercing the intertwined branches.
A low, rumbling growl issued from the bower’s entrance. Esha struggled to focus.
An enormous black dog crouched in the opening, its eyes gleaming with a sinister light.
‘Pay attention, little sister!’ the dog snarled. ‘This is more important than you seem to realise!’ The words were guttural and strange, distorted by the throat that issued them. ‘Do they suspect anything?’
Esha shook her head, the action sending her head lolling. As her gaze became glazed, the dog snarled again.
‘Place your hand upon the beast’s head.’
The animal crept into the bower. Esha reached out a wavering hand. Skin and fur met.
The dog growled, satisfaction in its words. ‘You will conceive.’
Esha sank back down onto the pelts, her eyelids growing heavy once more.
‘Do not fail me…’
As the hunting horn sounded in the nearby glade, the Maiden quivered. The light between the bower’s interweaved branches turned golden, then dimmed and faded as day gave way to night.
She lay listening to the rising revelry, the roar of the bonfire, and the screams of the Sacred King as he bore down upon the Stag and reclaimed his crown with a savage thrust of the ritual blade. And the Maiden became the doe, expectant and eager. Crawling to the bower’s entrance, she looked out onto the roaring bonfire, the flames spitting high into the night sky.
The Stag King stood over the slaughtered beast, hacking the horns from its head. The High Priestesses moved towards him, swinging their knotted willow flails and chanting.
‘Womb of the Holt. Queen of the hive. Tomb of hope. Womb of the Holt. Queen of the hive. Tomb of hope…’
They herded him to the foot of an ancient alder that towered over the glade, and then lashed the bellowing King to the trunk, the knotted osier rope digging deeply into his wrists. The Stag King’s naked body gleamed with sweat, the droplets highlighting the confusion of brightly coloured tattoos that twisted and writhed in the flickering light. Long rivulets of blood dripped down from his bound wrists, staining his crown. As the King roared--a primeval sound of carnality--the Maiden slipped from the bower and began to walk towards him.
The full moon cast a silvery glow upon the revellers that danced in wild abandonment around the blaze and those that coupled in the fire’s warmth. From all around the Maiden could hear the sounds of pleasure, and she quickened in response. To her drugged eyes it seemed as if the dancers fused together to become one long snake that gripped its own tail in its mouth, completing a writhing circle. And within the blazing serpent’s coiled body, the flames leaped: long-limbed maidens, slender and naked, white-hot sirens of the inferno.
The Sacred King lifted his head, scenting the air. His body stiffened. ‘Mine!’ he snarled, his struggles growing frenzied.
Grey veils billowing, the Bride, the Mother, and the Crone drifted into view. As one they moved towards the Maiden, Mother and Crone coming to a halt, the Bride continuing on alone.
‘Drink, Achaiva’s Maiden,’ said the Bride. ‘Drink and prepare to receive my grace.’ Her frail hands held out a silver cup of a crimson red fluid. ‘Drink and rejoice in youthful innocence, in purity of ideals and spirit, and eagerness for days to come. Drink and prepare to enter Urania’s realm.’
The Maiden tilted back her head, the warm liquid flowed down her throat, the elixir fusing with the fire within her. The Bride retreated.
The Maiden stepped forward and the Mother moved to meet her.
‘Eat of my fruit, know my sublime face, strip back the veil and look upon existence, at the threads that flow from cradle to grave to cradle again. Accept my grace and know my gifts. Nurture and guide. Reap what you sow. Know the continuation of life.’
The Maiden walked towards the Crone, and the High Priestess of Iachema produced a small, obsidian dagger and held it forth for the Maiden to take.
‘Breathe, precious flower. Know life, fragile and joyful. Know that every thread must eventually sever, setting the soul adrift to seek a new path. All buds must flower, all flowers seed and whither, or else end in stagnation, an unchanging stasis opposing life. Accept change, precious flower, accept life and breathe.’
The Maiden’s hand clasped the dagger’s proffered hilt. The stone was cold in her hand. Her body knew no fear as she stood on tiptoes to slice through the King’s restraining bonds with one clean stroke.
The Stag King fell forward.
As he rose and strode towards her, the Maiden swayed, aware of nothing more than her body’s need and of the smell of him. His scent excited her. Her desire became a torturous urge so strong that she cried out as he seized her. Lifting her up, the King bore her to the greenwood bower.
As he lay her down and climbed astride her, the Maiden moaned and rose her body up to meet him. A moment of sharp and piercing pain was all that lay between them, then she began to move in an almost desperate frenzy, lust leaving her breathless and aching.
The King’s tawny hair swung around his face as he rode her. His brown eyes alive with his ardour, intent on the slaking of his needs, his primitive grunts sending hot surges through her. And as the Stag King thrust in heated release, filling her with the promise of new life, the Maiden’s body arched and she screamed her reply.
An unquenchable thirst. An ocean in which to drown. Fire to heat and then to burn. Lust that knew no restraint. A wild and passionate ride.
The King’s hands swept up and over her breasts, knocking the amulet out of its nest. Wrapping the length of chain around his hand, he pulled her up towards him. The warmth of his mouth upon her nipple sent her body arching again.
The chain broke.
The red-hot amulet rolled across the Maiden’s chest and onto the furs beneath them.
With the amulet’s release, the fog inside Esha’s mind cleared, her heated urges melted away, leaving cold, hard terror in its place.
She twisted from the Stag King’s grasp, scrabbling backwards to press herself against the bower wall. The amulet shattered beneath her, deep shards embedding in the flesh of her palm.
The King seized Esha’s ankle and pulled her back. His heated touch drew no response, his kisses no reply. In his urgency the Stag King ignored Esha’s terror, roaring loudly as he thrust her onto her knees and pushed himself inside.
His frenzied rutting forced her face across the floor. Bruising her. Tearing her. His weight pinning her to the ground. He roared, clasping her hips tightly, impaling her with his final release.
His fierce grip loosened. Esha crawled away, sobbing, terrified, her cries rising up again as she felt his hand grasp her leg once more.
‘Please. No…’ Esha pleaded.
The Stag King turned his head to look at her. Esha recoiled. His eyes were glazed and his gaze vacant. He swayed, and then grabbed at her leg again, forcing her over onto her knees once more. The frantic thrusting began again. As Esha struggled, he clasped her neck in a vice-like grip, choking her breath. His roars grew louder.
Esha twisted, struggling beneath him, fighting for breath, her movements growing weaker as the world around her went slowly dark…
Lilith screamed, flailing at the stone around her, gasping wildly, coughing, choking, then sucking in mouthfuls of air, the tears streaming down her cheeks.
She backed into a corner, her eyes staring about her in terror, still locked within the vision. She raised her hands to her neck, still feeling the King’s brutal grip around her throat.
Then Lilith breathed heavily, slowly becoming aware of where she was, of who she was. She sank back down and pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms around them, as she relived the rape in her mind.
Was Esha dead? Lilith couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be true. She sat in silence, stunned by the unexpected, feeling the tears trickling down her cheeks, letting them flow. But Esha couldn’t be dead. Lilith knew that there was more of the liquid left in the flask. She felt a surge of relief.
A strange scratching sounded outside the chimney, then a loud and incessant wheezing. Wiping her tears, Lilith pushed the basket away from the opening and Sooty strutted inside, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Lilith reached over to stroke him, needy for solace, but the little black kitten ducked away, intent on something that lay in a corner of the fronds.
A sudden realisation made Lilith push the kitten away. She reached for the flask, exclaiming in dismay as she saw that it lay on its side, shattered, no trace of the remaining liquid to be seen.
She had to get to the Elemental.
But how? Ibur had the key to the gate… She had to get it from the key ring, the one he always wore at his belt. But how was she to do that? Lilith frowned, frustrated by her dilemma.
If only she could sneak in when he was sleeping, preferably deeply, and not in his own chambers, guarded by the dreaded imp-infested door…
As a sudden thought surfaced in her mind, Lilith trembled. Oblivious to Sooty’s needling, she stood up.
Eyes wide, her mouth open in an expression of surprise, Lilith contemplated the many, and varied, possibilities of poisons…
Three Bitter Drops…
Lilith lifted the copper pan from the flames and onto the kitchen bench. The preserve smelt wonderful.
She hadn’t burnt it—not even a little bit. The black currents had given it a lovely dark colour. She glanced at the cook book, her long-ignored gift from Ibur. “If the jelly becomes firm when tested on a plate, it is done…”
Lilith dipped a spoon into the jar then poured the jelly onto a plate. She lifted it up and tipped the plate this way and that, satisfied with the jelly’s thickening consistency. She’d followed the recipe’s instructions, slowly and carefully, and she’d done it. Lilith felt a warm sensation of pride. Her cooking skills had definitely improved. And why not? If she could concoct tinctures and potions, why not things that were edible?
She lifted the pan with both hands and poured the jelly into three squat jars. Then she placed one jar in a larger bowl of water to cool. She walked to the door and opened it wide, the heat and humidity of the kitchen little freshened by the warm evening air. At this time, so close to midsummer and the shortest night, the sun would not set for hours yet. Lilith tried to quell her anxiety. She was desperate. She had to be to attempt what she was about to do…
Lilith didn’t even know if Ibur would deem to grace her with his presence tonight. Despite the fact that he expected her to anticipate his needs, the sorcerer’s ways were as unpredictable as his moods. Lilith walked into the kitchen and down the hall. She peered into the dining room, inspecting everything with a careful eye. She’d spent some time getting everything just right, agonising over the positioning of the cutlery.
The absinthe bottle stood next to Ibur’s place, a fine-stemmed goblet at hand. Lilith wiped the palms of her hands on her skirts and stilled her breath. She soothed her thoughts and walked back into the kitchen. The jelly had set nicely, despite the heat.
She picked up the jar and almost dropped it as she heard Sooty’s loud wheeze behind her. Lilith caught her breath and firmed her grip around the jar. She was too jittery; he’d notice. She had to calm down.
‘Ah,’ Ibur said as he strode into the kitchen. ‘Do I detect a sweet scent? Not bitter and charred? Food not shrivelled or congealed? My dear, what has come over you?’
Lilith turned to the sorcerer with a radiant smile, her eyes lit with a sparkle, a coquettish tone to her voice. ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘I have had such a lovely afternoon. I found some black currents. I’ve made a jelly to have with dinner.’ Lilith smiled at him again, breathless, glancing up through lowered lashes, as if awaiting his approval.
‘My, my, Lilith, haven’t you learnt your lessons well?’ Ibur said dryly. ‘Then lead the way, my Lady. Lead the way.’
Lilith kept the smile fixed on her face. Her hand shook as she walked down the hall and into the dining room, placing the jelly next to the plate of cold meats. As she served him, carefully arranging the slices of boiled meat on his plate and adding several large spoonfuls of jelly, Lilith talked to cover her nerves.
‘I found lots of elecampane, Ge…’ She cut the word off mid-sound. Lilith glanced swiftly at the sorcerer, but his thoughts appeared elsewhere. It was doubtful that he’d been listening to her in the first place. She placed the plate in front of him and stepped back.
Ibur’s attention returned; he looked at his plate and raised an eyebrow. ‘You may have been a trifle over-generous with the black currant jelly, Lilith. I find it a tad difficult to locate the presence of the meat.’
He looked up with a twisted smile. Lilith bobbed a swift curtsy.
‘And you?’ he said. ‘You are not joining me? What confidence in the cuisine is this,’ Ibur mocked, ‘that the Cook will not taste her own fare?’
‘Oh I tried lots when I was making it,’ Lilith said quickly. Then remembering her lessons, she lifted the toe of her slipper to tease the ground before her, coquettish again. ‘And I have to watch my figure.’ She stroked a hand over her waist, drawing his attention to her dress, deep blue velvet, the skirts wide and full, the bodice low and becoming, the stays laced tight.
The sorcerer snorted. ‘Your exaggerated efforts at flirtation are somewhat tawdry, Lilith, but I am sure they will be effective enough when the time comes. Now is not that time.’
Duly chastised and blushing further, Lilith retreated. She stood silently, inwardly seething. He never resisted an opportunity to humiliate her. He didn’t even bother to maintain the pretence anymore. No more charming, boyish ways, not now that he thought her to be totally under his control.
Lilith watched as he piled his fork high with meat and jelly then placed it in his mouth. It was hard to believe that she’d once felt awe for him. That she’d thought him powerful and handsome and charming.
‘Let me,’ Lilith said quickly as she stepped forward to pour the thick green absinthe into his goblet. She filled it to the brim.
He made no comment of her fare but emptied his plate clean of all that she had set before him. His fondness for all things sweet proving to be his weakness, for Lilith noticed that he’d consumed every trace of the jelly. She stepped forward to refill his glass once more, and at first he waved her away, then he relented.
When the sorcerer stood up, goblet in hand and made for his chair by the window, Lilith set to clearing the table. She resisted the urge to look at him, though the impulse grew stronger as she walked to and fro from the dining room to the kitchen and then wiped the long polished dining table. Lilith left him in his chair, pipe in hand.
As Lilith began on cleaning the dishes and putting the kitchen in order, Sooty strolled in through the open door and sat watching her. He followed her in and out of the pantry, and then as she walked stealthily down the hall to peer around the corner of the dining room door, with her breath held.
The sorcerer still sat in his chair, the embers of his pipe glowing. His eyes were closed.
Lilith tiptoed back to the kitchen. Sooty followed close behind. Lilith busied herself at the hearth, raking the embers and polishing the pots and skillets, her restless hands revealing her apprehension. Her tension mounted as time drew on. She worked until she could bear the suspense no longer, opening the door and walking silently down the hall.
She peered into the dining room. The sorcerer hadn’t moved. His eyes were closed, his features slack. His breast rose and fell peacefully. His pipe had slipped from his hand and onto the floor, the ash blackening the rug. Lilith tiptoed over. She held her breath, sure that the pounding of her heart would wake him.
Reaching out a trembling hand, she touched him lightly on the shoulder. The sorcerer didn’t stir. Lilith frowned. Had she given him too much? She’d erred on the side of caution; she may have even been a little heavy-handed… But it wasn’t enough to kill him, Lilith was sure—well quite sure anyway…
The key ring hung in plain sight on his belt, the gate key visible in amongst several smaller ones. Lilith bent down over the sorcerer’s sleeping form. She lifted up the ring, struggling to work the key free, her eyes darting to the sorcerer’s face, terrified that she would see his eyes open.
A final tug and the key was hers once more! Lilith wiped her sweaty hands on her skirts. A quick glance at the sorcerer to confirm that he hadn’t stirred, and then Lilith tiptoed from the room, closing the door softly behind her. Sooty sat in the hall, watching her with interest as Lilith emerged from the dining room, key in hand. He followed her into the kitchen and out into the night.
The moon was almost at it height, the light too bright for her liking. Lilith slipped into the velvety shadows of the ash grove and down the hidden path. She lifted up her skirts and ran to the elder bower, plunging into the familiar darkness, her feet pounding the path as she raced to the other side.
She paused to catch her breath as she reached the wall and the ivy-covered gate. Sooty rubbed against her legs, and Lilith bent down to give him a quick pat before straightening up and placing the key in the gate and turning it. The ivy flushed green, twining back from the gate, revealing the way.
Pushing the gate open, she ran into the woods, not slowing her pace until she had reached the ring of slender alder trees and the Elemental’s shimmering pool.
Lilith walked to the edge of the water. The pool swirled, the shimmering waters aglow with soft blue light. The Elemental rose up with fluid grace, his figure resolving amid the small waves and cascading waters, the transcendental perfection of his body and form startling and enchanting the eye.
The Aquis smiled, and Lilith felt the full warmth of his affection bestowed upon her.
‘He tricked me! I didn’t know what was happening, and now I’m trapped and bound by his spell and… and I spilt the last of it,’ she said in a rush. ‘I saw Esha… I need to know what happens! I need to see!’
The Aquis reached forth and took her hand, drawing her towards him. His cool, watery fingers stroked the length of her cheek.
‘Esha’s story does not end in the greenwood bower.’
Lilith nodded, heartened by the news. ‘I knew there had to be more!’
‘Three bitter drops,’ the Elemental said. ‘Three more times you must look. Then, and only then, will you understand what must be done.’
The Aquis cupped his hands and his waters rushed in to fill them. He held out the proffered liquid.
Lilith drew a deep breath, forcing down her fear. It felt as if everything had been racing towards this event, this conclusion.
She reached forward, her lips touching the Aquis’ fingertips.
The droplet flowed onto her tongue and the tight, grasping constriction, the panic and the pain—vanished.
The greenwood bower seemed strangely dark. She couldn’t see the Stag King. Esha reached a hand up to feel her throat, but strangely, no matter how crushing his grip had been, she felt no residual pain.
Esha crawled from the darkness of the bower towards a faint light. Emerging into a misty grove, she looked around her with a growing feeling of disquiet. All was silent. All still. No sign remained of either the fire or the revellers that had lain around it.
An arch now stood within the glade, formed by the intertwining branches of two enormous willows, a distant light shining between them.
And as Esha stood, looking at the grey, ephemeral world and at that distant light, she felt a strange tugging, an urge to be gone, to cast off the shackles that held her bound, to set adrift, seeking a new path, a new beginning…
Esha dropped to the mist-shrouded ground, her hands at her throat, gasping for the air she could no longer breathe, her frame as insubstantial as the world around her.
She remembered the iron savagery of the King’s clasp around her neck, and his ignorance of her death throes, but other memories were already slipping away from her, like strands of silk in the breeze.
The willow arch stood before her, beckoning Esha to enter, to put the past aside, to move on.
Loss pressed in, enveloping Esha’s soul. Years unlived and dreams unfulfilled, hopes without the promise of fruition, joys she would never feel, all lost to her now. Her pain solidified within her.
Esha recoiled from the arch. Her horror at leaving behind all that she had known, and all that had comprised her existence in this life, was too great. She clung to the illusive substance of her temporal identity. Esha turned away from the light.
She walked away, searching around her, seeing no life. And as her ghostly feet glided through the swirling grey mist, Esha’s mind crooned to her a soothing song, weaving a spell around her wounded heart--an ever-growing and protective cocoon.
Weighed down by sorrow, earth-bound with loss, Esha journeyed through Limbo, seeking sanctuary in the netherworld realm. The scenery before her altered, the grey, insubstantial trees giving way to rolling, grass-covered meadows over which a distant host of ghostly hunters could be seen, mounted upon wraith-like horses as they galloped silently across Limbo’s vast vista.
Esha followed a path that flowed over hill and dale, narrowing to a small, dirt track, barely wide enough to walk on. A slender stone bridge met the path, arching up over a wide chasm. As Esha glided across the grey stones, weaving melancholic melodies in her mind, she paid no heed to the crumbling stones that lay at the edge of the slender bridge, nor the gaping gaps within the structure. She stepped from the bridge and onto the rocky ledge ahead. A deep sigh left her wraith-like lips as Esha saw the opening in the rocky outcrop that rose up before her, three great stones and a dark passage between.
Swiftly and gratefully, Esha slipped inside.
Down, down into the earth she travelled, seeking sanctuary, a chance to heal her wounded mind…
Lilith surfaced with a savage gasp for air.
She lay beside the Seer’s pool, the taste of death on her lips, the cold, grey mist of Limbo shrouding her mind, leeching all faith. Her horror left her bare. The cold lingered in her bones. Her soul felt hardened, as ancient as a crone’s.
‘Three bitter drops,’ the Aquis said. ‘Two visions more.’
Lilith looked with dull eyes as the Elemental shed his human form, his glowing waters surging out against the mossy banks of the pool.
The liquid stilled, mirror smooth, blackness spread like a stain, creeping across the pool’s surface.
Lilith reached out a hand, dipping it into the water and the liquid rolled into the palm of her hand like a black, glittering gem.
She lifted up her hand, cupping it to her mouth, and drank the second drop.
She sat in darkness.
Lost within a realm of perpetual night and enveloped by grief.
Her long hair flowed over her slender shoulders, sweeping the ground; her wraith-like form trembling as she wept bitter tears. Trickling down her cheeks and onto the rocks below, they formed a spreading lake that crept across the cavern floor.
Reason had long since faded, leaving only an inner tarn of sorrow. Too soon. Too young. Too soon.
Immersed in her long lament, she paid no heed as her womb slowly swelled. The birth spasms struck her unawares, the cavern resonating with her cries, as she expelled her newborn infant from her cold womb and into the dark depths of her sorrow’s tears…
Lilith moaned, certainty forming, she opened her eyes and dipped her hand into the water. She raised it to her mouth and the third droplet fell like a tear on her tongue.
Into dark water, an ice-cold slap.
The liquid lapped at her tiny limbs, and the newborn opened her mouth and howled her distress.
A steady rain of teardrops fell from above, each salty splash causing a small wave to swell across the inky surface. The waves surged out, pushing at her, urging her into deeper waters. As the liquid slowly deepened, she sank beneath the surface, a circle of ripples marking her departure.
The cavern returned to the soft sound of Esha’s eternal lament.
Then the ripples shimmered. Smears of liquid colour swirled into startling existence upon the lake’s black surface.
Spiralling swiftly to form a whirlpool, the shimmering water cast its radiance across the drear darkness of Esha’s Tomb, and from within its miraculous depths, she resurfaced--coughing, fighting, spluttering.
Cradled in the whirlpool’s aqueous embrace, she was swept along, away from her lamenting mother.
She journeyed on, curled tightly, as if within the womb, ignorant of the wonder and mystery of her birth. The dark water of Esha’s tarn flowed into Limbo’s raging river, a chilly current that wound its watery path through the earth, the whirlpool spilling wondrous light onto the netherworld realm.
Through chasm and under rock. Over cliff and crevice. Through deep, silent pools where the limestone growths jutted up to meet the blackness far above, the river journeyed on. Past tapering stone islands, carved by the river’s passage, where the water rushed in white-crested agitation, the current skimmed the whirlpool around a corner and through a cleft in the rock.
Rushing upwards as a roar of icy water, the river swept her along, expelling her as surely as her mother’s womb, out of the land without time, and into the sun-lit world above…
And all the missing pieces fell into place.
Identity, meaning to Lilith’s forlorn existence. But any consolation she might have gained was swallowed by her grief, as sharp as a knife, twisting and turning within her. She felt again the horror of her mother’s death, the haunting sadness of her own birth. She sobbed but no tear fell from her eye. She wailed but no sound left her lips. She drew herself up, arms tight around her knees, her body shuddering with silent cries.
‘It was you and always you, Lilith,’ the Aquis said. ‘You are the heart, the catalyst, the means and the end.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I foresaw your coming as surely as I glimpsed my own imprisonment. Tricked and trapped, my essence was bound within the tower, on the day that Branwen White Crow left Gort and sailed to the Goddess Isles. She aided me, knowing that one day you would find the key and the flask.’
The Aquis touched her cheek, but this time Lilith pulled away. She wanted him to explain. Properly. No more fancy words.
‘Ibur uses my essence in his flawed attempts to scry,’ the Aquis said with a sneer. ‘He has seen visions of the return of the Branwen Witches to greatness, with a child of that line sitting upon the Stag King’s oaken throne. I encouraged his hopes with further visions, glimpses of the possibilities that lay ahead. I aided the sorcerer in his quest to ensure that Esha serve as Spring Maiden, begetting the King’s child, knowing that you, Lilith, would be their progeny. A single drop of my essence, encapsulated in a pendant, sealed with the sorcerer’s most potent spells, ensured your conception. And with it your eventual deliverance here, to Branwen Tower and to the truth that lies within the tower. To me.’
‘But then Ibur knows who I…’
‘The sorcerer has no awareness of your true heritage. He has no knowledge of the birth or deliverance of Esha’s baby. With his sister’s death, Ibur believed his plans to be thwarted.’
As the full import of the Elemental’s admission struck, Lilith stood up and faced him, her eyes narrowed. ‘You knew that my mother would die, and you helped him? Why did you make all this happen?’
‘Ibur chose his sister to serve as sacrifice for his goals. He foresaw her child on the throne, but, alas, not her death…’
‘But he used your essence to scry!’
‘I cannot alter the visions Lilith. I am a Seer…’
‘But you can choose what you show him, can’t you? Like you did with me.’ Lilith scowled. ‘You tricked him, like you tricked me, like you tricked us all…’
She shook her head, cursing herself for trusting the Elemental. ‘Then if he doesn’t know who I am, then why am I here? Why did he have me brought here?’
‘I drew his attention to your presence. A ragged orphan girl casting her first, uncontrolled spell. A seemingly malleable child, however strong her Gift. I revealed to him visions akin to his wishes. That you would serve him, bringing all his plans to fruition. Thus aided, his hand, and his hand only, would ensure the fall of the Anghard Kings and the ascent of the Branwen Witches to the oaken throne.’
‘What do you want?’
‘You are the reaper Lilith. And as you reap and sever, so shall you free.’
‘All this, just to free you? That’s it? That’s what this is all about?’
‘Through you I shall gain my future liberty. I will not deny that. Nor that I aided your conception and your deliverance. That, through me, your existence was ensured in this realm.’
Lilith remembered the whirlpool, cradling her carefully, aiding her journey to the world above. ‘I don’t know what to think, anymore,’ she said bitterly. ‘Just what are you expecting me to do? And why should I do it?’
‘Free yourself, Lilith,’ the Elemental said. ‘Free us all.’
Lilith sank down onto her haunches, her head in her hands.
‘You have been followed!’
Looking around with a start Lilith, saw two glowing eyes, shining from within the shadows pooled beneath the alders. She’d forgotten to close the gate! Then she recognised the shape for what it was: the little black kitten, sitting watching them, all but hidden in the darkness.
‘It’s alright,’ Lilith said. ‘He’s mine. I left the…’
‘The creature is his!’
‘No,’ Lilith said as she stood up. ‘Not Sooty. I met him on Muin, before I came here.’ She called Sooty’s name. The kitten didn’t respond. Lilith walked towards him, calling louder.
‘Quickly! If it is allowed to return to its master, all will be undone!’
But even as she said it, Lilith remembered Sooty, perched upon the poppet, his teeth piercing the muslin cloth. She thought again about how the little black kitten followed her everywhere, intently, watching her every move, as if he were stalking her, and then all the sorcerer’s uncanny insights into her intimate affairs…
Lilith stumbled into motion. She chased the kitten through the walled woods, through the darkness and the moonlight, near blinded by her tears.
She saw the open gate and the kitten racing towards it, and Lilith lunged, her fingers closing around his paw.
Sooty erupted into violence, his claws shredding her arms.
Then the kitten screamed.
Sooty’s small, furry form twisted, changed, swelling in her grasp, the black hound’s incisors suddenly snapping at Lilith’s hand. Midnight wings erupted from his back, flapping the air, and then he altered again, becoming a small, motley-grey imp who squirmed frantically in her grasp, shrieking obscenities at her.
Lilith tightened her grip. She tightened her heart. Sobbing wildly, she searched the ground for a weapon, her hand closing around a fallen branch.
Lilith swung it down.
Sobbing. Screaming. Wracked by the violence. Torn by grief. She kept hitting until Sooty’s pitiful cries petered out. Then Lilith sank down, shaking, weeping, and horrified by what she’d done.
She lifted the imp’s battered body into her arms and walked slowly through the woods to the ring of alders, feeling that she could bear no more.
Lilith brought the body to the edge of the pool.
‘Why did he have to do that, then?’ Her voice trembled. ‘He couldn’t leave me anything of my own? Can’t I trust anyone anymore?’
‘Give it to me.’
The Elemental reached eagerly for the body, grasping it tightly as Lilith placed it in his arms. The Aquis cast off its human form, returning to the pool in a mighty rush of turbulent water. A surge of crimson spread across the foamy surface, the waters churned and boiled, shreds of bloody pulp swirling through its midst.
Lilith looked away, unnerved by the carnage. When her gaze returned, the waters had cleared. A languid wave crested the shimmering blue pool, the Elemental’s face forming within it.
‘You know what you must do.’
‘It was you who drove them mad, wasn’t it?’
‘The spell that imprisoned me drove its maker mad and all those who followed.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Lilith said. ‘I think you did it. I think you made them all mad with your tricks and visions.’
The water in the pool stilled. The Elemental didn’t reappear.
The Joye of Cooking…
Flies swarmed in the hot and humid air, droning loudly, irritating Lilith with their flight.
An oppressive heat hung over the garden, the solstice sun blazed down from the midday sky. Lilith entered the henhouse and thrust an old ginger hen from her nest, ignoring her loud objections as she searched for eggs. She filled her basket with the cache, and then paused to wipe the sweat from her face and neck.
Lilith travelled back through the orchard, swatting at the flies, her eyes squinting as she glanced up at the sky and at the thick band of black clouds on the eastern horizon. Propping open the kitchen door in the hope of diverting a breeze, she went inside and swung back the cauldron from the flames. Lilith removed the muslin bags that hung inside it, her face flushed and sweat running down her neck.
When the sorcerer entered the kitchen, Lilith was carefully peeling and slicing roots and placing them in the cauldron. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, gauging his mood, her concern eased as she heard him whistling—a sure sign of his good humour. He didn’t suspect anything then. She’d slipped the key back onto his key ring on her return from the Elemental, fearful that her fumbling attempts would wake him.
‘Good. Good. It gladdens me to see you taking an interest in the culinary arts, however belated. Indeed, your cooking has improved considerably,’ he said. ‘For once, my sleep was undisturbed by poor digestion. Your dinner was so enjoyable that I found that I nodded off to sleep in my chair and did not awake until early this morning.’
Ibur looked around the kitchen then said, casually, ‘And where is your kitten, Lilith? I do not think that I have seen him today.’
Lilith didn’t blanch as she answered him in the same tone. ‘Oh, he’s around somewhere. He goes off on his own at odd times. I don’t mind him.’
The sorcerer’s silence unnerved her; Lilith looked up to see him watching her, steely-eyed.
‘I will be riding out this evening,’ Ibur informed her. ‘I have some unfinished business to attend to before we leave for Muin.’
‘You’re going away?’ Lilith couldn’t keep the despair from her voice. ‘But I’ve been cooking all morning! I have something special planned.’
Ibur smiled, and Lilith could see the smug satisfaction in his face.
‘It gladdens me that you have seen the error of your ways, Lilith. Your petty ill-humour in the past was most tiresome.’
The sorcerer nodded. ‘Yes, why not. I shall reward your improved behaviour and leave on the morrow. You may present your efforts to me, Lilith. We shall see what you have learnt of late.’
For a second, and a second only, Lilith faltered, the tip of her blade slicing her finger, and then her hands resumed their steady movements, cutting, then dropping, each piece of root into the sticky syrup that bubbled in the old copper pot.
The sorcerer left Lilith hard at work, her youthful face set in firm lines of concentration. Lilith lifted her basket onto the table and began to break the eggs over a bowl, her smooth actions halted as a shell cracked open to expel a wash of blood, and a foetus, huge-eyed and tiny-limbed, with a twisted thread still attaching it to its broken sac.
Lilith sank down onto a chair, her stomach churning. The thoughts that had plagued her since the Elemental’s revelations rose once more.
What manner of creature was she, born of a dead woman’s womb? What manner of creature was she, to even contemplate doing this? She felt light-headed, affected by a strange detachment, as if she viewed things from outside herself. She knew she should feel more fear, more anger, more something, but she just felt sick.
Standing up, she wiped the sweat from her face and neck with the hem of her skirts, then walked to the kitchen door and stood upon the doorsill and raised her skirts high, cooling herself.
She’d thought it all through. Over and over again. She’d seen how it could go wrong a thousand times, how she’d faced the ramifications.
But things were different now. Everything had changed. She wasn’t a pig-girl anymore, the lowliest of the low. She was the daughter of a King and the blood of both royal lines, Anghard and Branwen, ran through her veins. And fear no longer held any place in her plans.
Lilith returned to her cooking. She didn’t let herself think about anything but preparing the food, one ingredient at a time, a pinch of this into a bowl of that, a vial of this into a jug of that, and so it went, while the sweat ran off her in rivulets and her hair and dress clung to her and the kitchen hummed with the droning of flies.
Images came unbidden to her mind, fleeting worries; all these she pushed down. No room for error. No time to falter. When all was in readiness, Lilith walked outside into the verdant garden, shading her eyes from the blinding rays of the setting sun, as she looked out at the now-familiar scene. She went to the herb room and ran her fingers across the stone table and the jars and bundles arrayed carefully on the shelves. She opened a cabinet to breathe in the heady scent of drying herbs.
She gathered lilies from the garden, pure white and thickly scented. The evening light set everything ablaze, saturating the colours with a breathtaking intensity. Insects filled the air, their fine wings glowing. Clouds rolled across the sky, the forerunning wind sending dust and leaves into the air. Lilith closed her eyes and let the wind ruffle her hair and the beads of sweat cool on her skin. She could sense the tension—the power—of the approaching storm.
Returning to the house, Lilith arranged the lilies in a bowl on the centre of the dining room table, and then she set the places, the silver cutlery polished so that it gleamed. She positioned the absinthe bottle and the jug of wine, a dark rich burgundy—the sweetest she could find.
Then Lilith walked to and fro, down the long hall to the kitchen and back again, carrying the assorted dishes and plates of steaming food and placing them on the newly washed tablecloth.
She lifted lids, filling the room with wonderful aromas as she inspected each dish in turn. Garden vegetables she’d simmered in the pot then drizzled with honey and sweet berries. A mushroom broth served in the earthenware pot she’d prepared it in. She’d steeped the dried fungi in scalding water until they had grown swollen and fleshy once more, then cooked them with cream, butter, and finely chopped herbs. An idea she’d had from the minstrel.
There was a roasted chicken, the skin crisped to perfection. Lilith basted it in its own juices and stuffed it with berries, herbs, and breadcrumbs. A full jar of jelly by its side. She’d also prepared a big pot of stewed apples in a honey and berry sauce for dessert. Then, of course, there was the enormous plate of candied elecampane—Ibur’s favourite fancy.
Lilith removed her apron, satisfied with the array. She hurried upstairs to change her dress. Lilith took a moment to look around her room. She marked her memories in her mind and said her farewells. Come what may, things were going to change.
She walked into the corridor and down the black stone steps, each footfall leading her to her destiny, each footfall momentous. She entered the dining room, lighting the many candles with a fingertip and a softly murmured spell. She tidied her hair and straightened her skirts, the deep purple silk shimmering in the candle light.
When Lilith heard the sorcerer striding down the hall then saw him enter the room—his grey eyes alight with anger, his purpose seething inside him, investing his form with life and power—her smile faltered.
She looked at him and saw the familiarity of features that they shared. She recognised their kinship; the Branwen blood flowed through both their veins. She understood his driving need to return their house to its rightful place. And for a second Lilith felt an overwhelming compulsion to reveal all: to tell him of their kinship, to tell him of the Aquis’ many deceptions, to tell him that they’d both been tricked. That they could start afresh, with her not as his servant, but as his niece and heir. Then the urge died as quickly as it had arisen.
He’d taken everything from her. All hope. All love. All innocence. He’d terrorised her with his random cruelties. He’d toyed with her pain and fear. Lilith didn’t fool herself—servant or kin, she was his tool. She would know no freedom until the night was done.
Ibur surveyed the proffered fare. He seemed to be in an irritable mood for he scowled, waving the food away, pouring himself only a large goblet of wine, which he downed in one go.
‘My plans have changed. I journey tonight,’ he said.
‘Be still!’ He poured himself a second drink, gulping it back with quick swallows. ‘It is enough that I must suffer the failings of fools! That I am surrounded by ineptitude!’
Lilith thought quickly. Desperation made her press on. She smiled again, a little petulantly. ‘But I’ve been cooking all day. Won’t you try anything? Nothing at all?’
She held up the platter of candied roots. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘not even one?’
Anger briefly flared in the sorcerer’s eyes. He raised his hand as if he would strike her. Then he dropped it. ‘If it will stop your incessant nagging.’
He snatched several large pieces and popped them, one by one, into his mouth. Ibur chewed thoughtfully and reached for a few more pieces, washing them down with his goblet’s remains. He looked at his empty vessel, as if deciding whether to refresh it, finally placing it back on the table.
Lilith stared at him, the intensity of her dark eyes drawing the sorcerer’s notice.
Then the light of recognition struck his face and Ibur twisted with pain.
‘What have you done?’
Lilith was already running. She slammed the door behind her as she raced into the garden, and a second later the door exploded in a shower of splinters, sending her flying. A second fierce gust of roaring fire shot out from the shattered doorway, igniting everything before it.
Lilith felt the wall of heat engulf her, setting her hair and dress on fire. She beat the flames frantically, sobbing with terror. Then, with her skirts still smoking, Lilith staggered down the path to the toolshed. She crouched down beside it, the flames reflected in the darkness of her eyes.
How long would it take him to die? Had he eaten enough to kill him? Or would she have to finish off the job…
Lilith huddled by the toolshed, wide-eyed and shaking, transfixed by the fire and by the gaping hole that had been the kitchen door. The flames swept outwards, cutting an erratic path through the garden. She watched helplessly as they leapt onto the herb room roof, catching quickly with an almighty roar.
A low buzzing sounded in her ear and a gleaming black fly circled around her, coming to land on her hand. Lilith shook it off.
A noisome smell issued forth. A second fly appeared in the air, then a third, and then suddenly the sky grew thick and black with their frantic flight.
The ground beneath her shook. A crack appeared in the damp, dark earth.
A brittle claw emerged, gripping the edges to haul itself out.
As Lilith screamed and leapt to her feet, the flies swarmed into her open mouth. Choking and gagging she swiped at the insects that covered her face, creeping into her nose, her eyes, her ears.
A roar of wings sounded in the air above her. Then came an awful howling and shrieking that set her hackles rising. Lilith looked up, whimpering with terror as she saw the sorcerer’s creatures descend upon her.
Torn and tattered wings beat the air. Flies filled the hollow cavities of their skeletal and misshapen forms. Gaping jaws struck at her. Sharp fangs pierced her flesh. Talons ripped at her hair.
Lilith screamed again, flailing wildly. She fought her terror, channelling her fear. ‘Prt!’
Fire shot forth, a hideous winged creature incinerated in the brief surge of flame. Fine, black ash drifted to the ground.
Casting fire spells into the air, Lilith struggled to break free of the creatures that continued to fly at her. Her arms bloodied and torn, she struck at them, crushing the fallen beneath her boots. Yet to Lilith’s increasing dismay, the pieces of bone, claw, and wing continued to crawl across the ground towards her.
And then she understood. The creatures would not fall until their creator had taken his last breath.
Lilith fought her way through them, striking them aside, grinding her boots upon their mutated parts, the creatures biting and tearing at her face and arms, as she reached into the toolshed, her fingers feeling for a rough, wooden handle.
She gripped the handle tightly, swinging it around her, smashing brittle bones in its wake. She swung it again, the force sending her whirling around. Then with the flies buzzing in a swarm around her and a layer of twitching, crawling, heaving parts scattered on the ground, Lilith walked out into the burning garden.
The wind whirled around her. The sky grew black and heavy. The fire had surged outwards, the flames leaping the wall that encircled the woods, the skeletal trees combusting into a raging inferno. Flames reached high into the sky, whipped into frenzy by the shrieking wind. Branches fell, dropping with a thunderous noise. Embers and cinders glowed brightly, blown through the air by the rising storm, igniting the further recesses of the overgrown garden.
The sorcerer’s creatures harried her, dragging at her skirts and tangling in her hair, as Lilith gripped the axe handle firmly and walked down the cobblestone path to the kitchen.
Across the smouldering embers and earth, through the scorched and withered garden to the gaping hole in the kitchen wall where the sorcerer lay, his limbs splayed and his body gripped by seizures.
As Ibur saw Lilith creeping towards him, he pulled himself into a crouch. ‘Esha?’ he gasped.
His skin was as white as a corpse, his pupils huge, his hair clung to his sweat-soaked skin. His body convulsed and twisted as another long spasm wracked him. When it was over, he sank his head back down on the floor, and he groaned. ‘Atropos, all is undone.’
Lilith stepped into the light.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Not Esha.’
‘Viper at my breast!’ Ibur snarled feebly. ‘Is this how you repay me?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
Lilith swung the axe blade low.
And His Hand Shall Be in All that She Does…
Someone was screaming.
The sound reverberated through her head, it pounded in her heart, it roared through her veins. A red wash filled her vision as the axe rose and fell. Striking at flesh. At the floor. At the walls. Striking wildly. The axe swinging in wide arcs that notched the cold, black stone as the undulating shriek went on, and on, and on.
Slick and wet, the handle slipped from Lilith’s hand.
The axe dropped to the floor.
Lilith walked outside into the night and into the storm, and the heavens opened up, the rain lashing the smouldering black earth in a deafening torrent. With a strangled cry, she rent and tore at her clothes.
The clasp of the girdle unlocked with a click, the silver chain slithered to the ground.
Lilith stripped the torn clothes from her body, casting them aside. Then naked, she turned her face to the rain, her arms outstretched, washing away the wild heat and the blood that coated her skin.
A wail rose up inside her, a harrowing and desolate cry, the mournful sound swallowed by the storm. Her tears mixed with the rain that pounded the scorched earth, covering her with ashes and with soot.
Hollow-eyed, she limped back through the kitchen, the soles of her feet leaving a path across the blood-washed floor. She heard the rustling and slithering of the lintels’ guardians as she trod the black stone steps to her room. As Lilith closed the door, the room plunged into darkness.
No light appeared.
The rain drummed loudly on the roof. Lilith pressed her ear to the door, hearing movement from behind it. She hurried to the chest of drawers, pushing and shoving it until it stood in front of the door, then she went back for the cupboard. When all the furniture she could move had been stacked into a barricade, Lilith sat down, huddling her arms around her naked body while the rain tore down, lashing the land, cleansing it of the day.
She stared at the window, anxious for the first sweeping rays to vanquish the horrors of the night. She didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to feel.
All she desired, all she hoped for, was the new day.
The noise outside the bedroom door stilled. The moon pierced the clouds. Dark shapes flew outside the windows.
Lilith thought of the axe, lying where she had dropped it, and wished she had the sense to bring it with her. She sat rigidly, tensed, starting at the slightest noise, as the long night hours passed with maddening slowness.
As the sun rose, Lilith stood up and went to the windows, opening them wide. She shouldered and shoved each piece of furniture out of the way, brave now that the night had passed. She drew out her poorest dress and looked at herself in the mirror, fiddling with her burnt hair in an attempt to set it to rights. She gave up, wiped a smudge of soot from her face, and opened the door.
Lilith glanced up and down the corridor before leaving her room. Everything was quiet and still, but she could sense the eyes upon her, watching her every move. Lilith straightened and lifted up her chin, clothing herself in her new-found worth and title, knowing that she needed bravado now more than she ever had before. She could show no fear. She was the mistress of the house.
She growled at the creature on the lintel as she walked beneath it, her step proud and haughty. Then Lilith opened the kitchen door. She swayed, staggered to the hearth to steady herself, then she bent down and retched until nothing within her remained.
Lilith stood up. She rolled up her sleeves and rucked up her skirts and set to work.
As she mopped and scrubbed, sloshing buckets of dark water out onto the burnt garden, Lilith thought only of what her kitchen would look like when done. She brought the barrow up to the house and filled it with the severed pieces of the sorcerer’s remains, then wheeled it down to the incinerator.
The day felt fresh and new, the night’s storm easing the heat and oppression. Lilith filled the incinerator high with wood and set it ablaze with her spell, then watched the acrid smoke coil up into the sky. She walked slowly back through the garden, stopping to peer into the herb room.
Debris lay strewn across the floor, tuffs of burnt thatch and wood. One cabinet stood scorched and charred, the other lay on its side, brought down by a roof beam. Broken glass and earthenware had shattered beneath it. The Botanicum lay in a puddle of rain and soot. Lilith hurried over and picked it up. She wiped it carefully with her skirts, and then turned the pages, checking for damage.
The sorcerer strode over to a nearby shelf and retrieved a large leather-bound book. Pushing aside the dried plants, he placed it on the table and opened it.
Lilith’s face twisted. She clutched the book to her as the memory washed over her. Throat tight, she left the herb room. As she set off down the cobblestone path, Sooty stepped in beside her, his tail twitching and his eyes on the tiny birds that flittered between the shrubs, hedgerows, and trees…
Lilith stopped. She gritted her teeth and swallowed, pushing the memory down.
She walked on in faltering step, her eye inevitably drawn to the crooked black tower… The sorcerer performed magic. Breath held, she stood with one foot upon the kitchen step, her mouth open and her eyes wide, all else forgotten in that magical moment…
Lilith forced her gaze away. She walked on, heavy with regret for what never could have even been. She lamented the promise of the past, the innocence shed at each and every turn.
She stepped through the rubble and stones that lay scattered around the gaping hole in the wall and into the kitchen to resume her work, cleaning the black stone walls with a rag. She emptied out the hearth of cinders and soot, then scrubbed and polished, the firedogs gleaming with her efforts. Each pot and pan and skillet received a measure of her worth, the kettles and the cauldrons, the ladles, hooks and spoons. The crane and bellows did not escape her zealous eye, the first scrubbed with a stone, the second polished with beeswax until the leather was shiny and supple.
Then Lilith stood back and surveyed her kitchen with a smile. She placed kindling and wood in the hearth then lit it. She filled the biggest cauldron with water and arranged the kettle and pots on the hearthstones. She stacked on the wood, coaxing the fire into a roar. Then she stood patiently, feeding the fire, bringing the heat into the stones of the hearth, priming the oven.
When she judged the temperature right, Lilith lifted up a muslin bundle. Removing the sorcerer’s hand from its bloodstained folds, she placed it on the bread peel.
She’d taken care to squeeze it well, to remove as much of the blood as possible, just as the Botanicum had advised. Although she’d shortcut the process, skipping the part where it should have been placed in a jar with peppers. Although the summer sun blazed fiercely enough to dry the hand, Lilith had opted for the oven, stocking the firebox with dried vervain and ferns. She’d figured it would be quicker.
Lilith pushed the bread peel inside the oven, sliding the hand off, and then she lifted the door into place.
Assured that all was well, Lilith set off to discover her domain. She flung open the doors in the hallway, finding the library, the smell of old parchment sweeping over her as she entered the vast room. Shelves lined the walls, each level crammed full of books. Lilith experienced a moment’s awe—it would take a lifetime to read them. An enormous hearth was set into the far wall, a high-back chair seated before it and a table stacked with books. The scent of Ibur’s pipe smoke lingered in the air.
Lilith walked back into the hall and thrust open the front door, letting in the breeze to sweep away the past. She looked out down the length of the drive at the avenue of stately trees and at the sorcerer’s fields that spread out on either side. Not the sorcerer’s, Lilith reminded herself. Not any more.
Branwen Tower was hers now. The grounds, the fields—all of it. Lilith played with titles in her head, trying them on for size, discarding them in turn. A nagging voice told her that she couldn’t claim to be the sorceress of Branwen Tower. It wasn’t as if she knew much magic—yet.
The Lady Lilith.
As soon as she thought of it, Lilith loved it.
Not a pig-girl anymore, not a bearer of the slops, not a servant to wait upon the pleasures of those whom she despised.
The Lady Lilith, of Branwen Tower, for the hunting lodge had been in her family for generations. And she would never have to want for anything, ever again.
And now, as she continued her exploration, opening doors and windows, pulling dusty sheets from old and stately furniture, fingering the silverware and eyeing the plate, Lilith found her contentment swelling into happiness.
She peered into the rooms that lay on her own floor, something she’d always craved to do. The chambers were furnished, the beds made as if for visitors, but all lay beneath a thick layer of dust. The cupboard doors opened to the smell of camphor. Lilith pulled back drapes and flung open windows, letting in the wind and sun. She climbed the steps at the end of the hall to the attic, the space in turn divided into smaller rooms: a servant’s quarters and a storage area cluttered with chests and trunks.
A cursory glance into several trunks revealed clothes fit for nobility, all velvets, satins, and silks, but no sign of the gleaming jewels she’d seen in the vision of Esha’s room. No doubt Ibur had them hidden in his own chambers, sealed by the imp-infested door.
The thought brought Lilith back to matters at hand. She hurried her stride as she made her way back down the steps and into the kitchen. A bitter, charred smell confirmed her fears, and as she rushed to the oven and lifted off the door, a waft of black smoke enveloped her.
She pushed in the peel and withdrew it, looking with dismay at the sorcerer’s shrivelled hand, the long withered fingers singed and blackened at the tips. Muttering angrily, Lilith lifted it onto the table to cool. Well it was dry. She couldn’t see why it would affect the way it worked. It was just a little crisp…
Lilith pulled the stopper from a large jar, ducking away at the foul smell that issued from it. Taking an old pot from the sideboard, she dropped in the hand and a slab of beeswax then donned a pair of long leather gloves. Gagging at the stench, Lilith scooped out two handfuls of the rancid fat of the hanged man and added it to the pot.
A shimmer of golden wings, glimpsed out of the corner of her eye, made Lilith spin around.
A small golden moth hovered in the air before her, scaled wings fluttering. Lilith gave a sudden gasp as she recognised it as the figurine she’d stolen from the minstrel.
She pushed the pot further behind her. She tried to shoo the moth away but it evaded her swipes, fluttering over her shoulder. Lilith lifted up the pot and carried it back to the oven. She placed it inside and lifted the door back into place.
‘I know what you are,’ she said as she turned to face the moth. ‘I know he dropped you on purpose. He reckoned I’d pick you up. But you can tell him thanks for his offer of help, but I don’t need it any more. You can tell him that the mistress of Branwen Tower doesn’t give him permission to cross. I can look after myself now.’
The moth hovered for an instant and then it was gone, golden wings speeding it to the west to where the minstrel waited. Lilith watched until it faded from sight, another twinge twisting her. But things were different now, everything had changed. That path had never really been open to her. She couldn’t afford to trust anyone anymore.
Lilith dragged the bath in from the pantry and placed it in front of the fire. She lifted down the cauldron, struggled with it to the bath, and then tipped the scalding water inside. She followed it with the water from the kettles and pots, then refilled them all and put them back on the heat to boil.
When the bath was filled with steamy water, Lilith stripped, placing her shift to one side and throwing her soiled dress onto the fire. Then Lilith dipped a toe into the water and gently lowered herself in. She sighed with pleasure, sinking beneath the surface, immersing herself, washing herself clean.
She walked naked back upstairs, daring the sorcerer’s creatures with her boldness. She chose a dress she found in Esha’s room of soft cream silk, wondering all the while if her mother had ever worn it. The thought brought another surge of anguish, another mourning of all things lost to her. She walked down the stone steps with a regal air, her confidence faltering as she heard the sound of horses on the road to Branwen Tower.
Grasping her skirts in both hands, Lilith ran down the hall to the front door and peered outside, then sagged with relief as she saw the horses and carts trundling up the drive, loaded with the monthly Teind.
Lilith ran back down the hall and into the kitchen.
She stood in the ruined doorway, greeting the drivers with a proud expression. Lilith oversaw their efforts, her hands perched upon her hips and her lips pursed, marking their movements as the barrels were rolled into the cellar and the baskets and boxes stacked in the pantry. The men kept their eyes down as they completed their task, unloading everything in silence. As they walked back through the hole in the kitchen wall and into the charred garden, Lilith addressed them from the remains of the threshold.
‘The sorcerer wants a stonemason,’ she said in the most commanding voice she could muster. ‘And a carpenter.’
‘Yes, my Lady,’ the oldest of the men answered. He inclined his head respectfully.
The differential gesture emboldened Lilith. ‘The Lady Lilith. We also require more chickens,’ she said. Then as the idea struck her. ‘And a Cook. Someone of worth. Food and board will be covered, of course. And she shall have one day paid leave per fortnight, to attend to matters of her own.’ Her grand words surprised and delighted her. The sorcerer’s lessons had not been in vain.
‘Yes, my Lady,’ the lead man said. ‘I shall see to it.’
Lilith waited until the sound of the horses and carts had receded into the distance before relaxing her composure. She threw back her head and laughed, then ran outside, spooking the few remaining chickens who were scratching amongst the ashes. Lilith shooed them with wide arms and whooping calls, laughing again at their indignant squawks. Then she danced for joy. Thrilled to be alive. Thrilled to be free.
She set the table in the dining room with the finest silverware and plate, placing the vase of flowers that had escaped the evening blaze at its centre. Then Lilith sat down to feast upon the bounty of the Teind: eating the choicest morsels of meat and the long smoked sausages, dipping her fingers into the jars of stewed fruits, washing down all the delicacies with several goblets of the sorcerer’s best wine.
Lilith ate too much and drank too much, passing through sublime happiness to deep melancholia, before nodding off to sleep in her chair.
She awoke to darkness.
Lilith almost screamed, and then she caught herself.
‘Olpirt,’ she said, and the ball of light appeared in the air before her.
Her house, her room. With the light illuminating her way, Lilith pushed back her chair and walked back down the hall to the kitchen. She heard the sound of small, wheezy voices in the darkness around her. She heard the rustling and the slithering and the low-rumbling growls. Lilith walked on, refusing to show her unease.
A cold wind gusted through the hole in the black stone wall. Lilith lit all the candles in the kitchen and kept the light spell going, finding reassurance in the combined glow. The hearth fire had burnt down, the embers glowing softly. Lilith lifted off the oven door. She used the bread peel to withdraw the pot which she set upon the table. She folded a large piece of muslin several times and set it down next to it, then, taking up the tongs, she pulled the hand from the pot and laid it upon the wadded cloth.
She picked up the first piece of wick and worked it into the thick fat that coated the smallest finger, pressing and moulding it well into place. Then Lilith worked on each finger in turn until the hand was done. She inspected it from various angles, prodding it with the tongs, and then stood back, satisfied with the result.
She left the hand to cool and went to the open doorway. She yawned sleepily and lent against the broken doorway, watching as dawn flushed the sky with a brilliant burst of colour. When she returned, it was to see that the hand had set beautifully, the grease of the fat absorbed and sealed in by the wax. Lilith placed the hand in a velvet pouch and tied the drawstring to the belt of her dress.
She quelled the butterflies in her stomach and calmed her breath and climbed the steps, passing under the lintel carved into the likeness of a dragon, then up to the sorcerer’s yew-wood door.
The door heaved, moving and rippling, as the three imps appeared, swimming in and out of the swelling surface and gesturing obscenely.
‘Hello girlie. Who’s a pretty pussy then?’
Lilith untied the drawstring of her pouch. She lifted out the hand. It felt cool and smooth to the touch. An expectant thrill surged through her as she pointed the hand at the imp-infested door.
‘Destroy it!’ she said.
The Hand of Glory grew warm, and then a finger rose up, the blackened nail and wick extended towards the startled imps.
The wick ignited.
The door exploded with a deafening boom, hurtling Lilith back down the steps.
Thick dust choked the air.
Lilith sat up and rubbed her bruises. Then the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and her bladder weakened as she heard the sound of a slow and mocking clap.
A figure emerged from the haze of particles above her; the sorcerer’s lips twisted into a sneer.
Ibur clapped his hands in sardonic applause. ‘Well, well,’ he said, his voice as hollow as the grave. ‘Aren’t we the clever one?’
Lilith cringed. She waited for the spell that would end her life. Nothing happened. As Lilith looked again at the sorcerer’s pale and ghostly form, bloodied by the blows of her axe, comprehension dawned along with her slow and sure smile. ‘You can’t hurt me!’
‘Demon Child! You fed me mandrake?’
Lilith nodded. ‘I made the syrup good and sweet, just the way you like it,’ she said. ‘And I put lots of deadly nightshade in the wine and the food as well. Oh, and henbane and hemlock in the absinthe. I wanted to get it right. I put other poisonous herbs in the rest of the food, too, and some really toxic toadstools—but you wouldn’t eat any of that, and so it all went to waste.’
‘What manner of creature are you?’
‘I’m the creature that you made me,’ Lilith said.
The sorcerer swelled, looking as if he would gag on his own bile. But for all the force of the sorcerer’s wrath, Lilith noticed that his form was growing fainter. His imminent disappearance seemed to enrage him further, for Ibur launched into heated curses, spitting and snarling, the sound lost to her as his form dissipated into the air.
Lilith picked up the Hand of Glory and walked back up the steps.
She stepped over the rubble, swinging the hand around as something moved from under a pile of splinters. She caught a glimpse of a scrofulous grey head. Lilith smiled. ‘Raven,’ she said. The hand warmed within hers, her body tingled.
The imp changed into a jet black raven that launched itself into the air with a surprised caw.
‘I’m the Mistress now,’ Lilith said, as she swung the hand around in another arc. ‘And you’re going to serve me.’
She pointed the hand at the first thing that moved, and then the next, then when three ravens filled the space with their frantic flight, Lilith shooed them away with another sweep of her hand.
‘Go and circle around my tower, until I call you,’ she commanded.
The ravens swooped away, seeking the tower, and Lilith laughed again, heady with excitement, enjoying herself more than she’d ever thought she could.
Then with the Hand of Glory warm in hers, infused with power and paving the way before her, the Lady Lilith, Reaper, Seducer of Demigods and Slayer of Kings, lifted the hem of her skirts and stepped over the remains of the yew-wood door and into the sorcerer’s chambers…