The Branch that Beareth Not, Part II

Wednesday February 11, 2004 @ 12:38 PM (UTC)

← Part I

Anthea ran from her room and down the long spiral stairs, praying there was something, anything, she could do to save the vineyards. Her bare feet pattered along the stone floors and came to a sudden halt in the atrium, where her parents stood, smiling at each other over the household shrine.

“Mama! Papa! You are back just in time! Did you not see as you came in, the fields are burning!” she grabbed a nearby urn, dumped the dried flower arrangement from it, and plunged it into the pool to fill it. Her parents turned to face her, still brimming with smiles as with a secret joy. “Are you mad?”

“Of course not, my dear. We are merely happy,” said her father.

“Happy?” she cried in disbelief, frozen to the tiles in her confusion. “Our fields are burning!”

“The fields are nothing,” her mother said dreamily, “a beacon we have lit to light our lord’s way and greet his coming.”

“You…lit?” she stared at their sooty faces, and murmured, “You are mad, both of you!” she rushed for the door, clutching the urn of water and shaking away a sob. She clumsily pushed at the wood and emerged into a maelstrom of smoke and wind.

On either side of the long road that wound up to the villa, the flames leapt, reaching across it occasionally as if the infernos were courting, exchanging caresses. The night sky was light with flame, and it was with horror that Anthea saw that her little nightmare could not be the whole. She turned in dread towards Thorns, and saw smoke and flame playing among the houses. Beyond Thorns, like a storm cloud billowing up out of nothing over the gulf, there was a great pale mass moving and shifting like a gargantuan maggot. Around it, in the dim flickering light, a host of smaller figures ranged, a tide of ants flowing around the walls of the city.

Anthea stared at the wrack of all she had known, the vines already beyond her feeble help, the city where she had laughed and danced foundering in the maw of destruction. There was a resounding crash back in the house, and she came to herself, dropping the useless urn and running for the atrium. She shut the great doors with a shudder, as if they could keep the horror out, and turned to see her parents standing over the rubble of their household shrine. Her mother was uncorking a venerable old bottle of wine, and her father drawing a knife.

“What are you doing? Papa! Mama! Grandpa made that wine, you said we were saving it! PAPA!” she cried, as her father made a long cut in his own forearm and poured his blood on the ruined altar. Her mother poured the rich wine to mix with the blood, and they murmured lowly. Anthea’s confusion and fear roiled and turned, and gave way to a stronger passion; rage. She seized the bottle from her mother’s hands and shoved her against the wall. “Tell me! What are you doing?”

Her mother’s eyes seemed to focus, her lips stopped mouthing words, and smiled instead. “A new life has come, my dear, the life beyond life. Our lord Mask of Winters has answered our prayers and come to Thorns. The glorious death has come to walk the lands of the living and spread its beauty over Creation.”

Anthea stepped back, staring at her mother. “You joined a death cult.”

Her mother nodded eagerly, “We came back not just to light this pyre of celebration, but to share our joy with you. The Deathlords have come, my dear! The squalid struggles of past life can subside into the quiet serenity of death.”

“No,” Anthea whispered.

Her father spoke for the first time, his brows drawn together over his once-sparkling eyes. “Mind your mother,” he growled.

“No!” she shouted, “what were we made for, if death is better than the life we were given? Why do you turn from what you are,” she thrust a hand at the ruined altar and its spreading libation, “and offer your life to the grave, where it does not belong?”

Her mother shook her head sadly, but her father glowered. “That’s enough out of you, young lady. Haven’t we always taken care of you? Don’t you know that we shall only do what is best for you? We are older and wiser, and you shall follow the course we have set. Come down with us to Thorns, and we will celebrate the coming of our lord.”

Anthea spit at the feet of her father and ran up the stairs. As she slumped against the bureau she had pushed before the door, she felt dizzy with disbelief at her own rebellion. But, she told her pounding heart and swirling head, she was right, and they were wrong. Whatever had led them to this dark path, it was wrong, and she would not blindly follow. She slowly drank off the last of her grandfather’s wine and set the bottle on the window sill, where it caught and bent the light of the burning fields and the sack of Thorns.

It had been a week since her door had last opened. She ate sparingly of the little grape vines, caught foul, sooty water with her bedside cup, and kneeled, still and prayerful, hoarding her strength. Her parents came and went, pleaded and threatened, and got no reply. For all I said I would not follow their path, she thought wryly, I will go to ‘glorious’ death soon enough.

“Anthea, my sweet,” crooned her mother at the door. “I need to talk to you.” she waited. “Anthea, perhaps we were wrong to try to force you to follow our lord. Faith must come from the heart, as ours does.” Anthea opened her eyes and stared curiously at the door. “I know, though you hid it, that you were not over-happy with our plans to arrange a marriage for you. But now that we are at even greater odds, perhaps you shall reconsider?”

Anthea’s heart leapt. Though she was willing to die rather than follow her parents’ new twisted whims, some life, somewhere, would be better than starving here. She stood carefully and leaned against the wall near the door. She cleared her throat and opened her dry lips. “Away from here?” she asked shakily.

“Away from here,” her mother agreed. “We received a formal offer just today from a lord whose lands lie to the East. Will you come down and look, at least?”

With difficulty, Anthea pushed the bureau out of the way, and was relieved to find her mother standing patiently, almost sheepishly without. Her mother supported her on her way downstairs, and gave her a good meal as they pored over the exquisitely calligraphed marriage contract. Anthea barely recognized the name, but it sounded familiar. Doubtless she had danced with him. He was only five and twenty, and his lands were extensive, and, it seemed, far away. She signed with a rising feeling of hope, and went back to her room to pack her things, her denuded grape vines in their pots, her best clothes. The bridegroom, her mother told her, was aware of all the upset in the lands around Thorns, and wished for haste. A carriage would arrive that very week.

Anthea and her parents held to a wary truce. She kept to her room so that she would not see their rites, or the shambling servants that brought messages up the dusty road from Thorns. It seemed like a month had passed when the promised carriage finally pulled into the courtyard and the horses stood stamping under her window. Her father stood back, giving a few gruff words of approval and even of gratitude, while her mother cried and carried on. Her trunks were put up behind the grand, old-fashioned carriage, and her mother, with another shower of proud sobs, laid a locked chest atop them.

“Your dowry,” she smiled through her handkerchief. Anthea smiled back politely, anxious to be away from these people who wore the faces, the dress, and even the manners of her parents, but who had prayed for the destruction and death of their city.

She mounted into the carriage without a backward glance, seating herself on the green velvet cushions and arranging the cornflower silk of her best dress. The dark-clad footman secured the trunks and inquired, “Shall I close the shutters, milady? There is a great deal of blowin’ ash on the roads.” She nodded, and he bowed and shut the door and the wooden shutters, so that she felt she was inside a slotted lantern with the wick unlit, the afternoon sunlight filtering in in strange patterns and lines. She lit the small lantern hanging within, and opened a book.

When she awoke, it was from a dream of cities, the sound of cobblestones still ringing in her ears. Of course they wouldn’t have gone through any cities, and she bent her ears to reassure herself that the sound had been imagined. Indeed, the sound of the horses’ hooves was an odd, soft thud, and the carriage rocked along softly, rather than shaking over paving stones. It did rock uncommonly much, though. Occasionally it lurched – perhaps just such a lurch had awakened her – and there was no light outside. How long had she slept?

She fumbled with the latch of the shutter in the door, and stared out into incomprehensible darkness. Pulling the lantern from its ring, she leaned out into the night, and saw, stretching away on all sides, a fetid, grey expanse of foothills marked here and there with sharp, dark crags. The road flowed along the lowest ground, a pallid ooze that looked horribly like formless flesh, soft and spongy under the horses’ feet. On either side, black, spiky shrubs grew from half-buried somethings or someones that writhed in pain as the roots struck deep into their flesh. A weak glow rose from the unwholesome ground, and among the cruel plants and thin, grey stems of grass, small shapes flittered like the pale ghosts on her eyes at waking. The sky was black and starless. As she gaped, a horseman flanking the carriage spurred forward. She saw his lipless smile open as if to speak, and threw herself back into the carriage, slamming the shutter to. She was in a Shadowland, riding into the heart of decay and death.

Part III


Wow, this is getting really good. I can normally seperate myself pretty well from stuff I read on the internet but i found myself actually a little freaked out when she woke up in a shadowland. Its kinda creepy.

Mwa ha ha ha ha! My Gothic Horror attempt is working, woooooorking! Sadly, I do not think she will ever actually run around a castle, fleeing from unseen spectres, in a white nightgown. I ain’t saying no COMPLETELY, I’m just sayin’ the white nightgown is unlikely.

Maybe I’ve found my calling. That would be kind of depressing. I actually thought when I was working on the next segment (which I’m not sure I’ll have time to get up today) in my head last night, “Wow, this is pretty good, if I do say so myself. What if the Abyssals guys try to hire me to do flavor text? Cuz, dude, I hate undead. But maybe that revulsion makes the writing better, and all the Abyssals guys hate undead/dead/gothy stuff.” Blessedly, I went to sleep around then.

Thankee for kind words, by the way.

My comment seems to be hiding… Oh, there’s part of it. I guess I’ll have to take my typing on faith. Anyhow, I happened to wander into faerye-land today and lo, I found an amazing story. I am bad at checking your site, but very addicted to this saga, so I might have to be faithful for a while.

Heh heh heh! Well, I will see if I can devote a little time to getting Part III out tomorrow.

Meanwhile, if you are desperate, you can read other tales of Exalted over in the Roleplaying Section (Golden, Exquisite Stillness of Jasmine Blossoms, Lihan Hawkhome). Or, of course, there are other stories in Read + Write. The Tower is the first part of my longest serial effort to date. Hope you are appeased by these offerings, for now. :)

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