Oh, what the heck…there’s a lot more to the story, but this is the longest coherent chunk (and no, this is as far as it goes, I don’t know what happens after this. The story never quite settled in my head as to where it wanted to go–it’s got elements of “Mr. Fox” and “Bluebeard” and a couple of the Robber-Bridegroom things in it, but it kept trying to twist around into a sorcerer’s apprentice thing, and I wasn’t sure where to take it after this.) Plus it’s the first appearance of the bird-golems, who later became the major part of my show, so it’s actually kinda timely….
(Backstory–our heroine, Rhea, has entered the woods at night on the way to her betrothed’s castle, and is lost, miserable, and mistrustful of the whole weird situation, as any sane person would be.)
Now, it’s all very well to cry in your room for any number of reasons, including the fact that sometimes you simply need a good cry, damnit. There is often a kind of miserable pleasure to it, like picking at a scab that’s not quite ready to come off.
And since a lot of the reasons for crying occur largely in your head—which is not to say that they’re not real—it actually helps a bit, because after five or ten minutes sobbing into a pillow, the world may not be any better, but at least you don’t feel quite so much like crying, and the red hollow under your breastbone is emptied out, and the world can be faced with a little more resolution. (And a red nose and itchy eyes, of course, but you can’t have everything.)
The problem with crying in the woods, by the side of a white road that leads somewhere terrible, is that the reason for crying isn’t mostly inside your head. You have a perfectly legitimate and pressing reason for crying, and it will still be there in five minutes, except that your throat will be raw and your eyes will itch, and you will still be stuck in the woods halfway to somewhere terrible.
Rhea’s throat was raw and her eyes itched, and she realized that she didn’t have a handkerchief. Her face was wet with tears and all the other unfortunate fluids that show up when you’ve had a really good cry, and the lack of a handkerchief seemed like a whole new reason to cry again.
She put her forehead on her knees and made a low, animal sound of misery.
She was feeling so wretched that it took several minutes before she realized something was touching her leg.
Rhea looked up.
There was a hedgehog sitting next to her, with one small paw pressed against her thigh.
She made the awkward gulping noise of someone trying to stop crying because something completely unexpected has just occurred.
The hedgehog saw that it had her attention and held up something in its paws.
It was a leaf.
She stared at the leaf. It was rather large and silvery, with a slight fuzziness to it.
The hedgehog bobbed its head and pushed the leaf towards her in an unmistakable gesture.
The smaller part of her brain had stopped crying and was saying No. No, no, no. This is crazy. This is not normal hedgehog behavior!
However, the larger part of her brain, the automatic part, that covered her mouth when she sneezed and said “Excuse me,” when she moved through a crowd, without ever thinking about it, felt that all such concerns were secondary, because she needed a handkerchief right now. Things were happening in her nose that needed to be stopped immediately.
She took the leaf and wiped her face, and blew her nose. It was a very soft, very absorbent leaf. The hedgehog obviously knew what it was doing.
“Thank you,” she said hoarsely.
The hedgehog nodded.
This is not normal.
It was quite an ordinary looking hedgehog. It was six or seven inches long, and prickly. Its face was small and pointed, with large dark eyes.
“Are you really a hedgehog?” she asked, gulping a bit. “Are you a fairy or under a spell or something?”
The hedgehog shook its head.
“No, you’re not a fairy, or no, you’re not a hedgehog?”
The anatomy of hedgehogs makes it nearly impossible for one to put its paws on its hips, but it managed a fair approximation.
Rhea tried again. “Are you really a hedgehog?”
“You’re not a fairy, or enchanted?”
It shook its head.
“Um.” The little voice in her head yelling about normal hedgehog behavior was starting to get very loud. “You seem very smart for a hedgehog.”
“I don’t suppose—and I realize this is completely insane—but you don’t talk, do you?”
For having such a small face, the hedgehog could manage quite a large look of disgust. Rhea found that she was rather relieved. Children’s stories aside, there would have been something quite horrible about a talking hedgehog.
She sighed, and rubbed a hand over her face. “I’m sorry. I’m…I have to go along the road. To the castle, you know.”
The hedgehog frowned. It waved its front paws across each other and shook its head in a clear warning.
“I know,” Rhea said. “I don’t want to go. I just don’t have any choice.” She could feel a sob lurking in her chest, and squelched it. It’s one thing to cry by yourself, and quite another to cry in front of a stranger, even if the stranger is only a hedgehog.
The hedgehog dropped to all fours and trundled up to the white road, where it stopped. The moonlight caught in its prickles as it gazed up the length of the road.
After a moment, it turned and came back. It sat up again, and held up its paws, like a child asking to be picked up.
“You want me to carry you?”
“Err—you want to come with me? To the castle?”
It nodded again.
“Oh. Um. Are you sure?”
It was starting to get impatient. A hedgehog hopping irritably on its hind legs is a tragic sight. Rhea reached down and lifted the animal cautiously in both hands.
The prickles were indeed prickly, but not sharp enough to break the skin. The hedgehog wriggled a bit, settled its spines like a woman arranging its skirts, and nodded to her.
“Are we ready to go, then? Um. Okay.”
She stepped back onto the white road.
It was still white, and it still glowed under the moon, and the cobbles were still as rounded as old skulls, and the leaves still washed like blood across the stones, but Rhea felt better. She was still going somewhere terrible, but she had a hedgehog, damnit.
It wasn’t that having a hedgehog was necessarily going to do any good—she couldn’t think of any stories where a wicked wizards had been brought low by hedgehogs, and anyway, she couldn’t even swear that Crevan was a wicked wizard to begin with—but it is somehow easier to face things when someone else is there. Courage still does most of the heavy lifting, but Pride gets its shoulders in there, too, just to keep you from embarrassing yourself in front of the other person.
Leaves crunched under her feet as she walked.
After about twenty minutes, her arms started to get tired.
“Do you suppose I could put you in a pocket?” she asked.
The hedgehog considered this, then nodded. Rhea opened the pocket in her skirt and slipped the hedgehog into it. There was a prickly shifting against her leg, and then the hedgehog got itself straightened out and poked its nose over the top.
They kept walking.
The trees began to close in again. The drifted leaves grew thicker, throwing dark tendrils across the road, and occasionally blowing and skittering in the wind. The blown leaves moved like living things, but the noise was dry and dead.
It was like walking through a crowd of mummified mice that stood up and danced behind your back.
The trees were thick enough now that the white road was more of a deep blue and black road, with occasional white spots, the color of an enormous mottled bruise.
They kept walking.
Then the trees stopped. Rhea saw the moonlight in a blue-white wall in front of her, and stepped nervously out into it. To her eyes, which had gotten used to the dark under the trees, the open road blazed like noon.
There was a kind of cleared corridor around the road, the trees pushed back a good fifty feet on either side. Grass grew along the verge, and weeds spread broad leaves over the ground, or lifted seedheads clear. It was not well-tended, and yet the plants seemed to be avoiding the white stones.
Over the road was an arch of black wrought iron.
Sitting on top of the arch was a bird.
The hedgehog shifted in her apron pocket, and made a mistrustful snorting noise.
Rhea reached down and brushed the prickles of its head with her fingers. “I don’t like this either,” she whispered. It huffed a bit, but settled.
The bird looked like a crow, or rather, it looked more like a crow than it looked like anything else. Its beak was serrated like a bread knife, and parts of its skin gleamed in the moonlight in a way that wasn’t quite normal for feathers.
When Rhea and her passenger were almost to the archway, the bird opened its eyes.
Rhea inhaled sharply. If she had not been being proud for the hedgehog, it might have been a yelp.
The crow had two round stones for eyes, tied around the middle with cord. The sound of its eyelids sliding over the lumps of cord was a dry scrape, like the sound of the leaves blowing over the road.
It turned its head, sharp and birdlike, and she saw that the strange gleam was from bare skin. The top of its head was bald and leathery, the color of old jerky, and there was pale stitching running from the edges that vanished under the feathers. The feathers themselves were grey and dull and leaked ragged bits of down.
The whole bird looked dead, except for the fact it was moving.
Then it spread its wings, and she gasped.
The wings were crow-like enough, where they beat the air, but down its neck, running the length of the body, was a Y-shaped panel of bare flesh, held together with rough cord.
It took a moment to recognize the shape. Rhea had helped her mother gut chickens before, but the usual way was to go in through the bottom, so that you had a bird you could stuff later. But the other way to do it, if you didn’t care how you were going to cook it afterwards, was to cut it open from the neck on down.
The bird had been dead. And somebody had cut it open, and put stone eyes in its head and sewn it back together and notched its beak and made it alive again.
She had a feeling she knew who that had been.
The bird-golem’s beak creaked open, like pinking shears, and a voice came out. From her pocket, the hedgehog hissed.
breathed the thing that wasn’t quite a crow.
That’s easy for it to say, said the voice inside her head sarcastically, possibly in hopes that she wouldn’t notice how badly her hands were shaking.
“Do you belong to Crevan?” she asked it, and was quite surprised at how strong her voice sounded. There was a hoarseness down in its depths, but it did not tremble.
The serrated beak creaked open.
it said again.
“You said that already,” she muttered. The bird-golem cocked its head, and then, very slowly, the eyelids slid down over the stone eyes again.
She wondered if it could fly at all.
“Be bold, be bold…” she said to herself. What kind of advice was that? Is advice from an animate thing made of cords and stones and dead crow to be trusted anyway?
The hedgehog shifted impatiently in her pocket. She squared her shoulders and walked through the arch.
The back of her neck prickled, almost expecting the bird-golem to strike at her, but nothing happened.
She was a dozen steps along, and she turned and looked back at the iron arch. The golem was hunched and dark and looked like nothing alive, as if the maker of the arch had included some irregular bit of decoration that hadn’t quite worked out.
They kept walking.
The wind died. It seemed along this stretch that neither wind nor rain had troubled the road for some time, because white dust puffed up with every step, and hung drifting in the air. When Rhea glanced over her shoulder, her footsteps seemed to smoke behind her.
She could see something in the distance. The hedgehog, who had tucked down into her pocket and seemed to be resting, shifted again, and the pointed face peered over the pocket’s edge again.
It was another arch. There were two more dark lumps on it, huddled together at one end, as if for warmth.
Two sets of cord-wrapped stones opened and watched Rhea’s approach. The hedgehog huffed its annoyance from her pocket.
The one on the left flapped its wings. It had the Y-shaped cut down its belly, but most of its head still had feathers on it. The serrated beak creaked open.
“Be bold…be bold…”
The second bird-golem had only one leg. The other ended in a stump wrapped with wire. The wire glittered in the moonlight, and made a thin metallic clink against the iron of the arch. The second bird opened its beak and breathed:
“…but not too bold…”
The hedgehog hissed.
Rhea found that in addition to being terrified and upset, she was now also rather annoyed. This was stupid. Be bold, but not too bold? Too bold about what? Where was she supposed to be bold? Some specifics would have been nice.
“That’s not very helpful,” she told them.
The bird-golems folded up their wings and lapsed back into stony silence.
She stalked under the arch and down the white road. When she kicked at the stones, the white dust roiled up nearly to her knees, and the hedgehog gave an indignant sneeze from her pocket.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “But if you’re going to go to all the trouble of setting up dead birds on the road to deliver messages, they should at least say something useful.”
The annoyance was helpful. It pushed back the fear, and made a clear space in her head where she could think. If she concentrated on the stupidity of re-animating a bird just so that it could deliver a message that didn’t make very much sense, she wasn’t thinking about what lay at the end of the white road.
She was so determinedly not thinking about the end of the road, in fact, that it came as a shock when she looked up and there it was.
The road swept up to a high black arch, and on the other side, it opened into a broad white courtyard. A fountain stood in the center, the water glittering so silver in the moonlight that it seemed like it should chime like coins when it fell into the basin. The house on the other side was a huge crouching darkness under the trees.
On the black iron arch, there were three birds. Two sat tightly together, their wings around each other.The third bird sat alone, on the other side of the arch, pointedly not looking at the other two.
Rhea felt her heart quailing at the sight of the dark house, but she shoved it back. She stomped up to the arch and glared at the golems.
The two on the left looked down at her. The third bird pointedly did not.
“Be bold…be bold…
But not too bold…”
whispered the birds on the left, and bent their heads down against each other’s stitched breasts as if in some terrible sorrow.
The third bird-golem had almost no feathers left, its body hard and waxy-looking in the moonlight. The wings looked like a net of wires with a few tattered primaries stuck in it.
Without looking at her, its beak creaked open, and it said,
“…or your heart’s blood shall run cold”
“Well, that rhymed at least,” Rhea snapped, “but it still isn’t very useful advice!”
The hedgehog was shaking a tiny fist at the bird and snorting angrily, which fed her courage. She put her hands on her hips. “Is that the best you’ve got?”
The bird-golem’s head snapped around suddenly, and it rocked forward. Rhea jerked back, as the golem crawled over the arch, using its wire wings like claws for purchase. The hedgehog hissed, but the creature ignored it, hanging from the metal of the arch and thrusting its beak towards her face.
She was less than a foot from the bird-golem’s face. She could see a fine hairy haze, like a dust bunny, lying over the whole thing, made of old bits of down and dust and grit.
The beak opened. Its tongue was a small dry nub like a blackened nut.
“…this…is a murderer’s…house…”
whispered the dead bird.
Rhea stumbled backward. Her foot turned on one of the round stones, and she sat down, hard. In her pocket, the hedgehog squeaked in alarm.
The thing to do at this point, she knew, the sane and sensible thing, would be to get up and turn around and run down the white road until she was home.
She didn’t, for a couple of reasons.
The first one was that nothing had actually changed. Peasants still didn’t disobey nobles, and if she came back to her family with a demented story about sewn-up dead birds with stone eyes talking…well, they might believe her, but then again, they might not. And she would have failed to turn up at the appointed time, and Lord Crevan did not seem like a particularly forgiving man.
The second reason was that the whole situation was just wrong.
It didn’t make any sense.
Crevan had gone to all the trouble of setting up a half-dozen bird-golems guarding the entrance to his house, and given them a bit of rhyming doggerel to memorize, presumably to warn off intruders. Certainly they would have been quite effective against traveling salesmen. But he’d invited her here—ordered her, if they were being honest—and it made no sense to invite her here, just to warn her off with his creepy dead birds.
Either he was mad, or stupid, or this was some kind of test.
Rhea was quite sure he wasn’t stupid. He had handled her father much too efficiently for that.
He didn’t strike her as mad, either. Young Brad, the wheelwright’s son, had been a bit of a fool and walked through a fairy ring one night, and when the fairies threw him back a week later (Rhea suspected they’d found him as boring as everyone else did) he was as mad as the mist and moonlight. He spent most of his time dancing very slowly in the middle of the road, and was generally harmless. Occasionally he’d take it in his head to put his pants on the pig, much to the annoyance of both his mother and the pig.
Lord Crevan was not mad, as she understood it. Pigs probably need not fear trousers in his presence.
That left the possibility that he was testing her.
Perhaps he was trying to see if she was brave.
“On the other hand,” she said to the hedgehog, “this could be a test to see if I’m sensible, since the sensible thing to do is probably to go home.”
What was the worst that could happen? If she turned and fled, maybe he wouldn’t marry her. That wouldn’t be so bad.
If you were a murderer, would you really guard your home with birds saying “Hi, I’m a murderer!” though? It seemed a little unsubtle. But would anyone believe you?
You probably could say “I’m a murderer!” and get just as many houseguests. People wouldn’t believe you’d admit a thing like that. Rhea didn’t quite believe it herself.
She sighed, and ran a hand through her hair. Up on the arch, the bird golem had resumed its post, stone eyes gazing into the distance.
“Do you think I should go on?” she asked the hedgehog, who had climbed out of her pocket to sit on her knee.
The hedgehog nodded, then shook its head, then lifted its front paws in the air and let them drop.
I don’t know why I’m second-guessing Crevan’s sanity—I’m sitting here talking to a hedgehog mime.
“You don’t know? The answer’s complicated?” she guessed.
“Should I go to the house?”
It shifted from foot to foot, and looked over its shoulder at the house. Then it nodded, although not with much enthusiasm.
“Is there some reason I shouldn’t go back?” she tried.
The hedgehog nodded violently, and rippled its quills with a shudder.
“Something bad will happen if I go back.” (More nodding.)
“But it won’t happen if I keep going.” (A shrug.)
“Will something bad happen if I go forward?” (Another shrug.)
Rhea rubbed her forehead. She was getting a serious headache. “Is whatever will happen if I go back worse than whatever will happen if I go forward?” (A definite nod.)
You do realize you’re listening to a hedgehog, her brain said. Just thought I’d mention that.
“How do you know this?” she asked
It tapped its nose and spread its paws.
“Too complicated a question, sorry.” This was worse than when the girls tried to tell the future by throwing pinecones in the fire and watching how they fizzled and popped. You couldn’t get much more than “yes” or “no” out of the pinecones—and even that required some imagination—but the questions were at least frivolous ones like “Will I marry a rich man?” not “Am I about to be horribly murdered?”
“Am I about to be horribly murdered?”
The hedgehog shrugged, but then reached out and put a gentle paw on the back of her hand. It looked at her solemnly. Its eyes were dark and kind, and held hers for a long moment.
Its sympathy was oddly steadying. Rhea squared her shoulders and nodded. “Okay. I can handle this.” She paused. “Are you sure you’re a hedgehog?”
It threw its paws in the air and huffed in evident disgust, before returning to the safety of her pocket.
She stood up and took a step forward, then stopped as if she’d run into an iron bar. A thought had occurred to her, and not a pleasant one. She held the pocket open and looked down at the hedgehog.
“If I did go back—is there something—on the road behind me?”
The hedgehog nodded.
The hedgehog made a kind of grabbing, swooping gesture with both paws in front of its chest. Rhea couldn’t quite make out what it was meant to show—there are limits to the expressiveness of hedgehog feet, particularly when they are on their backs in somebody’s pocket—but when the hedgehog then rolled into a tight ball, she got the gist well enough.
She let the pocket fall closed. She didn’t look over her shoulder, even though the skin between her shoulderblades was crawling. Looking over her shoulder could not possibly help matters.
She walked forward, under the arch. Overhead, the two bird-golems held each other tightly, and the third one stared off into the forest and clicked its dead claws against the iron.
She entered the courtyard of Lord Crevan’s house.