The Holly and the Ivy

AuntieVerse Serial #4, 2016

Let me tell you a bedtime story, Dearest.

 

It was many years ago and much farther away than any person living can now remember, that a woman in red lost her only child. They lived together, once, in an ivory tower that cast the sun-drenched vales and misty vales in cool shadow. The child was taken in the night, as is often the case, even for one such witch as old as Auntie. She considered, much to her own delight, that the child had been feasted upon finally and that she would be in need of procuring a much more recently spawned companion—as this particular child was rather rapidly approaching its prime—but the furrows in the floor and windowsill and the ice that pooled and puddled in the cracks of the bedroom told her otherwise.

 

Her Dearest had not simply wandered to their doom, as was to be expected of any disobedient captive, but had been taken (and by someone who was not Auntie, the nerve). This breach in propriety and protocol was simply not done—not in Auntie's day, anyway—and it would certainly not be done now.

 

Auntie was being insulted and if there were one thing she simply could not abide (and let us be frank, there are few things that Auntie could abide to begin with), it was an open insult. No one would be stealing away what she'd already rightfully stolen.

 

Auntie prepared her red cloak and whispered instructions to her cat, her beloved shadow, and then marched out of her ivory tower and into the light of the bloated Hunter's Moon.

 

She was not surprised to see the old woman at the crossroads less than a mile from her tower gate. Indeed, the woman beckoned to her with a crook of a knotted, warty finger, and Auntie never thought twice about that. When she leaned from the leather saddle set atop a massive chicken and asked for bread and water, Auntie paused, looking over the blind, clucking mount, but even that did not startle her.

 

One did not see such archaic enchantment these days, though she was hardly one to pry into the business of an older witch, no matter out-of-fashion she appeared.

 

Instead, she made small talk, as politely and concisely as could be expected (given the circumstances surrounding her stolen servant), and asked for directions.

 

The answer was a cold wind that rattled brittle parchment and it stank of impending death and decay.

 

North.

 

She ought to have known.

 

The old woman said no more and Auntie gifted her a conjured meal as payment for her cooperation, but before she could leave the wood hag's company, she was presented with a pair of shining slippers.

 

Silver Shoes, designed to make the wearer swift as the wind, and much too small for her.

 

Auntie thanked the wood hag and ruffled the chicken's feathers, lips tugging into what ought to have been a smile of affection. She stepped onto the winding, wriggling Crooked Mile and disappeared into the forest.

 

-

 

It took no time at all before she found herself in the midst of the deep, dark wood. The stench of metal hit her tongue first, then slithered between her teeth and down her throat, long before she saw the men in the trees, wrapped in chain cocoons. Their stringy, matted hair swayed in the breeze, forming macabre fronds that brushed her exposed arms as she walked, one foot after another after another after another as quickly as she could to be clear of them. The blood that gathered at their gashed throats and slashed lips clung to the downy fur of her cloak, staining it black and crimson with the sap of their bodies.

 

The Weeping Forest.

 

Here marked the entrance of her sister's territory, the garden of her shaggy beast. The men twisted and turned, writhing helplessly in their timeless prisons. Their pitiful wails shook the otherwise empty treetops and Auntie dipped beneath the prodding of endless bony fingers. She had found the Orchards of the Damned at the heart of the forest, and it might serve her well to collect fruit while she could.

 

Ducking her head beyond the reach of plaintive, snatching fingers, Auntie stretched her hands high—up, up, up--and peeled at the pale skin of a struggling victim with a pointed, polished fingernail. She grimaced when the papery flesh fell away easily, clinging to her fingers like sheer webbing, and then scooped between the fragile ribs, drawing fruit from the Weeping Tree. She was in luck—it beat still—and she wrapped the fruit in the shed skin of its host. Avoiding his gaze and the thrashing of his arms, she stepped away.

 

She had to hurry.

 

The Crooked Mile bent and beckoned ahead of her, leading her beyond the Weeping Forest, to the shore of the Traitor's Sea and the stem of the mighty mountain range that rose to swallow the horizon like a plague.

 

-

 

Auntie stumbled upon the duel well before sunrise and quite by accident, really. The Crooked Mile, like any other highway, was well traveled, even if by the most peculiar of pilgrims. It ought not to have shocked her to see two soldiers, more boys than men, lifting themselves from the frost-draped grass and lunging heartily towards one another with rusted sabers. She stopped and stared a while, eyes tracing the torn uniforms, the way that their bodies lurched and jerked unnaturally with each thrust of the swords, until one boy ran the other through and they collapsed again. The murmur of the crowd grew and she saw the glitter of Crooked Coppers passed between the palms of other dead soldiers, who whispered in hushed tones their predictions for the next round.

 

A gruff voice to her side shook and shuddered with phlegm and the strain of the delayed inevitable. She acknowledged him briefly, some moldering lieutenant tired of playing the judge, and agreed with a hearty measure of reluctance. Her charms and deflections would have little effect on the revenants and she did not want to appear out of place by refusing to take part, though the regiment of dead men did not appear to mind her crimson cloak or cascades of blonde curls.

 

The boys rose again and Auntie could see the fragile sinew of one soldier stretch and strain, looking to be one or two strokes of a sword from snapping. If she had been a gambling woman, she would have had a mind to place a bet.

 

She raised a hand and counted paces--

 

The sound of a leather whip cracking shattered the night and a jagged shard of fear pierced her breast and brains.

 

It happened quickly, the flame and fright engulfing the raucous court of dead men, and Auntie found herself hiding behind a trembling tree that howled with laughter and pain as the beast rent and devoured his deserters. She watched and waited there, near a silent dead man in a blotched and bloody black uniform, and the two of them watched the hoofed creature tear his companions to ribbons, slashing and severing limb from stringy, weathered limb.

 

He stamped his hooves after some time, snorting and snuffling, his acrid breath a stinking cloud that whirled about his horned head.

 

Auntie watched.

 

Auntie waited.

 

When she was positive that he had stalked away, she emerged, shivering, and crawled through the chaos and destruction that he had wrought upon the troop of dead boys. Not a single one twitched, or made a move to rise—the flesh was as cold and rigid as was to be expected. She shook her head shamefully.

 

Such a grotesque waste of magic.

 

The surviving dead boy stumbled near her and pointed sorrowfully at his brothers. Auntie smiled sadly and nodded, then cradled his head in her hands. Before she kissed him goodnight, she asked about his uniform. The answer stung when she drank his breath from him, and slithered into her belly like a bad memory.

 

Perchta.

 

She made the promise and the dead boy smiled, even as the fading light left his eyes.

 

-

 

The Traitor's Sea was beautiful in the delicate strokes of the sunrise. Auntie had hoped she would never see the likes of it again, would never watch the snow and ash mingle in the soft pastels of early morning. The air stank here, of course, and the piles of soldiers that waited, writhing, for reanimation towered far above the witch in the red cloak, until she was certain that their numbers would cloud the sun with flies and filth and flesh.

 

These were the sprawling waves of the Traitor's Sea, miles and miles of dead men that failed in their duty to their mistress, Perchta, and her demonic general. She heard the lonely weeping of reassembled soldiers as they raked their companions back into place, doomed to an eternity of playing their fallen brothers' keepers. Auntie moved cautiously here, ducking behind and between and beneath the striving fingertips and struggling mouths of men who would gladly betray her for another taste of futile freedom.

 

No time.

 

There was no time!

 

Kneeling in the thick drifts of ash and snow, she saw it, on the horizon, surrounded by towers and turrets of mangled bodies that threatened to topple with each tease of the blinding wind. The harbor of the Traitor's Sea, with its emaciated gondolier.

 

Reaching him took little time, and bribing him with a Crooked Copper or twenty less so, as greed will very nearly strangle fear in a man with little to lose.

 

He steered slightly off course for a handful more, and deposited her upon the oily shore, among other women in soiled cloaks and spotty gowns. Seven ogresses greeted her there, though they were wise not to meet her eyes.

 

The burlap sacks that the haggard beasts carried were monstrous, stained brown and crimson and still struggling. One sister gave hers a healthy beating before turning cloudy eyes upon Auntie's form, averting her grimy gaze at the last possible moment so that the witch in red would not find offense. Though Auntie was curious, she saved that question for last, only to receive the most vague of directions to the fortress and a stubborn refusal for any more information (ogresses are notoriously unhelpful).

 

No, it would not be polite to inquire further and she did not have the time to press.

 

The ogresses bickered among one another, until Auntie began to have an idea. It struck her like a bolt of lightning and once she set upon, it was only natural that she carry it to its logical completion.

 

She reached into the recesses of that crimson cloak and drew forth the papery package of men's fruit. It throbbed weakly in her hands as she offered it to the ogresses in exchange for a favor and the warning that shone in her eyes was enough to ensure their discretion. After all, she told them, gesturing to the plumes of ash and smoke that curled from the mountain fortress and stretched across the gray sky like skinny fingers, if she failed then the Crematorium would hide their involvement. What could they have to lose?

 

Moments later, she was nestled inside of a bloated, bleeding sack, and the seven sisters were trudging along the Crooked Mile, into the heart of Winter.

 

-

 

The sisters left her with the other sacks a the base of the mountain of men that fed the Crematorium. Here Auntie would meet the same fate as those multitudes of dead boys that could not bring any more glory to Perchta or her army, and were fit only to burn in her name, never to rise again. Auntie also noted, with some amusement, that more than simple soldiers fed the infernal machine. She waited until the guards were distracted by the ogresses' loud demands for additional payment, well away from inner courtyard where she crept and then climbed and clambered over the ruined remains of seven ogres (husbands...brothers....no matter) among other mysterious victims in her rush to escape the flesh and fuel.

 

The walls of the castle were sturdy and straight, with nary a gap between each solid brick, save what the resilience of nature would chip away. This would be the tricky part, she had decided, and she would need more than a little assistance in the performance of it. A muttered lyric and a flickering hand signal, and the ivy that sneaked betwixt the stones twitched and trembled and twined itself in a thick spiral. Auntie looped a hand around one particularly strong stem and rose with the stalk, scrambling up and over the sill of a window before the ogresses could finish tossing the guards from the walls of the courtyard. She spared a second glance while snapping a twig of ivy into her palm for safe-keeping and moved on, feeling the urgency of time prickling beneath her skin like so many burrowing insects.

 

She wandered aimlessly through the corridors of the castle now, eyes tracing the walls for any change from the locked wooden doors or morbid, blood-curdling tapestries (silk-embroidered flayings, truly, Perchta?) The snow fell heavily now, blanketing any sound outside of the sullen fortress, but each step of Auntie's on the cobbles and crags of the castle floor echoed for eternity in the chill. She heard her Dearest's general, her Dearest's jailer, long before she saw him and he was ready for her. He was glowering in the dim light of the sickly seal fat candles that fluttered and flickered with every weak draft. The fur on his body whispered her certain death as he charged, head lowered, horns ready to mash her bones to dust.

 

She side-stepped easily the first time, though she would often look back upon this in her mind and scold herself for not remembering that the beast had hands. The hands were upon her forearms within moments of passing her, squeezing talons into bones and slicking her skin with her own sweet blood. How he howled in delight then, roaring and cackling and baring his fangs, and the chains across his back clinked and clacked in punctuation to each triumphant bleat. How Auntie screamed and struggled, and leaned forward to lock her perfect, porcelain teeth around the bulb of his hooked nose. She wrenched her neck and heard a crunch and felt the skin of her arms split terribly when he pulled the flesh of her face away from her mouth.

 

She spat the mouthful back upon his hooves and gave a wide bloody grin that touched her ears but not her eyes, a great mess of gore and madness.

 

The Krampus snuffled and scowled, and charged again, blinded by pain and rage. She met him face first this time, ducking beneath his horns and clutching her body to his great, hulking torso. The witch in red swung her legs around his thigh and tore and bit at any exposed flesh that she could reach. Though he drove forward and slammed the both of them into a lodge in his attempts to crush her, Auntie's weight and his confusion greatly slowed his momentum, and the witch swore and snarled when his great fists beat upon her back, shaking bone until it threatened to shatter.

 

That is, until the ivy sprouted.

 

How he screamed then.

 

How he trembled and tore at his back, striking and struggling when the ivy bloomed in his blood.

 

How he shook and shivered as it flowed from mouth, eyes, ears, slithering and stretching beneath his shag and skin.

 

How Auntie laughed.

 

It echoed through the halls, a wheezing whine in her chest, a gurgle of mirth and blood and maniacal pride. Even now, even here, men lie awake with Auntie's madness pounding in their bones, sprouting from their brains.

 

The witch in red stumbled away in a yawning pool of crimson and left the mess of a beast there in the halls, his brains and the glistening ivy pulsing across the lush silk of the tapestries.

 

-

 

Finding a single child in a maze of whining, whimpering orphans and urchins proved to be difficult in theory and nigh impossible in practice, especially with the added inconvenience of a shattered skeleton. When she sniffed out her Dearest (trapped, as the other children were, in a moldy, cramped cell), Auntie was nigh delirious, and she handed over the soiled, Silver Slippers with little instruction and no instinct. Dearest was gone as soon as the last words left her mouth.

 

No time.

 

Each step weighed the world, but she struggled down the stairway into the main hall with no further interruption. In a fit of hysterical spite, she smeared her blood upon the locks of each cell that she passed, drawing a flood of limping, starved children in her wake, who (to her delight) immediately took up the task of acting as the children Krampus collects are inclined to. Auntie leaned against a wall and watched the fires climb the parapets, listened as her ivy hissed and screamed and claimed life after life in the steeples and spires of the castle.

 

-

 

She waited for Perchta in the throne room for only a handful of moments before her sister burst through the doors, eyes glowering behind her broad leather mask, towering above Auntie in elegantly embroidered robes of white silk and fur, stained now with the blood of the murdered Kampus that she carried effortlessly in her arms. The whale teeth necklace on her elder sister's breast clinked with every step that she took as she paced the floor, seething at the sight of the witch in red.

 

Auntie spat a glob of glistening crimson upon the white fur rugs of the throne room. The heat of the fires had not yet touched the safety of this frozen sanctuary. The walls glistened in the sinking shift of the sun, casting the room orange and red, yet the chill remained, along with the bodies of frozen men and the frosty remnants of discarded puzzles and pleasures of long ago. Auntie had to stand, had to shake the chill from her broken bones, and she thought that she saw a glimmer of satisfaction in the inky black eyes behind Perchta's mask.

 

Her elder sister stalked to the throne and seated herself, making a show of sighing in relief. The witch in red suffered in silence for some time before she spoke, setting a hand upon her sister's pale flesh.

 

“It ends tonight.”

 

She saw her sister's eyes widen in the shadows of the mask as she spoke, as the doors to the throne room rattled and roared, as the ogresses and the flood of dead men and lost children rushed upon the icy floor.

 

“Come then.”

 

She heard the shuddering breath, saw the shoulders rise, felt her sister's hand tighten under her own.

 

No time.

 

Before Perchta could speak, the witch in red was upon her, forcing all of her might in her body behind the defeated form of the white witch. She gripped the back of her mask and pulled, wrenched, twisted, and tugged. Perchta screamed instead of speaking, and the wind crashed into the throne room, shaking the denizens of this northern wastelands and carrying them into the sky. Auntie tugged harder still, gripping fistfuls of brittle white hair and pulling until she heard flesh rip, felt blood freezing her fingertips, saw her sister's body go limp when Perchta's head came away in her arms.

 

She dropped Perchta's mask in the midst of the carnage and paraded herself from the throne room to a brilliantly shining minaret and its balcony. There, she balanced the crystalline crown between her palms and atop her head, and felt the chill of Winter stitch her wounds and the shiver of power dance along her spine. Auntie looked out to her far off ivory tower in the Summerland, to her home with her Dearest, and then settled upon her new kingdom, upon the mounds of ruined bodies and inky seas and wailing forest and dead men that would never rise again.

 

She felt a familiar prick in her cheeks and her grin, stained with dried blood and madness, glowed in the light of the winter moon.

 

-

 

Story time is over, Dearest.

Finish your cocoa and climb into bed.

Remember to add an extra coverlet, to stay warm.

Dream of a loyal demon and his love for his mistress.

Dream of a weeping forest of men and the red, beating fruit that you find there.

Dream of a blackened sky and blankets of ash and snow.

Dream of the dead boys' endless struggle and a sister's betrayal.

 

Sweet dreams, Dearest. Auntie loves you.

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