Author: L. E. Boxley
Content Warnings: death, murder, substance abuse, coercion, nudity, blood, mention of an orgy
Tarot Cards: The Devil, The Fool
The sun was high and hot the day the Fool left his village. The residents of the busy borough waved their farewells to the young man as he passed – at least, he assumed they did. Most of them, engaged in their work or errands, were making gestures of dismissal and waves of “good-riddance.” But the boy waved back earnestly at each acknowledgement, shouting well wishes to the many people who had known him from his birth. In his bright, embroidered tunic and fitted stockings, he looked less like the native working class and more like one of the visitors that came through the village to peruse their finely crafted papers and textiles. He carried a knapsack over his shoulder and wore a jaunty green cap of braided silk with a large red feather that bobbed as he walked. His little white dog, Frith, panted in the sunlight as she trotted along beside him, just as content as he. At the end of the dirt road he turned back to glance at the home he had left: the millinery (his late father’s greatest pride) and its apartments above. His mother and sister had long left their watch of him from the doorway, and the shop was shut – surely back to its typical bustling within.
By the evening of the following day, the Fool had finished nearly half of his provisions, pausing every hour or so for a picnic with Frith, or snacking while stopped to gaze at a particularly nice tree in the woods through which he strolled. It was warm along the path, sun dappled between thin, yellow-leaved trees, and he had slept quite comfortably the first night leaning against a large elm. He had seen no other travelers, neither east nor westbound, but nonetheless made friends of the trees and rocks and little creatures, singing ballads and folk songs for them as he danced westward.
“My song is the only weapon I shall need, Frith,” he shouted jovially, bending down to jape to the dog as he panted along. “Father always said – a kind traveler is greeted in kind!” He began to belt a new tune, and for nearly an hour the Fool did not notice the weather beginning to turn.
He slept that night shivering in his thigh-length tunic, curling his knees beneath the broad bell sleeves, Frith tucked close to his chest. They had finished the last of their bread.
A rumble of wagon wheels woke the Fool, whose head had slipped off of his knapsack and onto the cold ground in the night. Frith was standing rigid, with her ears erect toward the sound. The Fool stood with more effort than he was accustomed to, his joints stiff, and he craned his neck down the path. A painted carriage pulled by two horses was coming. The first travelers he had seen in his three day journey! He adjusted the skirts of his tunic and picked up Frith (despite her protest) then stood anxiously at the roadside as a carriage bounced toward him.
Atop the vehicle the Fool could see several figures – at least four people riding on the outside. One sat on a wheel guard, two stood on the driving platform, and one lay on the roof of the closed carriage. The latter was a young woman who lifted herself amid the chatter of the others and turned to look at the Fool. Her hair flowed from her head like a river, pooling in a golden pile where it fell upon the carriage roof, and her bare shoulders peeked from between thick, honey locks.
She smiled at the Fool, a broad, knowing grin, and then shouted, “Fine youth! What brings you to these woods?” The wagon slowed but did not stop as it approached, and other heads turned toward the Fool.
“Adventure!” he crowed back at her, searching blindly with his one free hand to gather his pack from the ground while keeping eye contact with the beauty. “Grand adventure,” he reiterated, stumbling alongside the carriage with a messy pile of his belongings clutched to his chest.
A man with dark brown skin wearing a green breacan sat on the wheel guard with a bottle, from which he drank a syrupy, amber brew.
“Saint’s Watch lies just over that hill.” He pointed a wide hand past the horses, then took a swig and rested the bottle upon his naked thigh where the breacan skirts were hiked to the joint of his hip. The Fool did not realize he was staring until he raised his eyes to meet the man’s, and was greeted with a smug wink. The Fool blushed.
As the wagon began to pass him, in spite of his pace, the beautiful woman told the Fool that they were traveling players and invited him to witness their next performance. He nodded eagerly and promised to catch up to them in the next town as he watched the back of the wagon wobble down the road to the west.
That night, the Fool had no dinner for himself, and only a piece of cheese for Frith. He decided that tomorrow, he would find the players and surely they would share a meal with him. He pretended that this thought could fill his grumbling stomach, and rested his head against his thin cloth bag. He would not admit he was tired of sleeping beneath trees. This was an adventure, after all – his first taste of freedom from the sheltered life in his father’s house, and it was meant to be cold and hard and hungry at times. His older sister, who made all of their finest merchandise, had always told him his hands were too soft for real work – that they were only good for reading and painting and playing dress up. And now here he was, sleeping under the stars – like a real seasoned traveler. The corners of his mouth turned up at this thought and he crossed his arms, then set to trying to doze as Frith snored under the crook of his elbow.
He could not tell if it had been hours or minutes when he woke abruptly to the smell of herbs and wood smoke somewhere in the black night. The scent of spices and tobacco and musk made his heart race. Frith woke, too, only when the Fool sat up to search the forest around him. He spotted a red glow a dozen yards away through thick trees and undergrowth and he stood, clumsily, still in a daze of sleep and hunger.
“Stay, Frith,” he tossed behind him, walking forward toward the glow.
The Fool stepped cautiously through a patch of high brush, ignoring the shrill barking behind him. He had removed his tights and cloth shoes to sleep, and wore only his tunic for warmth. Pushing past dense vegetation, he found himself in a clearing.
Before him blazed a fire near his own height, and around it swam the distorted figures of humans dancing. Green and black bottles stood on stones within the ring of eight or nine circling dancers, and he could now hear laughter echoing in the spacious gap in the trees. The Fool quickly recognized the people as the players themselves! The woman with the river of hair was naked, laughing, leaping, spinning with her great mane whirling. Most were in a state of undress, two wearing shifts, three wearing only head coverings. The Fool could feel the heat of the fire as he drew close to the dancers, who at last noticed him.
The long-haired woman shouted when she saw him: “You’ve come!”
The Fool, nervous, could not find his voice and only nodded his head.
She grinned, closing her eyes and throwing her head back as she held the hands of the two men beside her, golden locks flicking the backs of her knees.
“Drink!” said another player the Fool recognized – the man who had winked at him on the wagon. He was shirtless but still wore the wrapped breacan around his waist, now gathered casually into swags to expose the full length of his muscular legs.
“Yes, drink!” shouted another young woman, who briefly grasped the man by the waist before dragging him into a new dance.
But the Fool, his stomach in knots, did not attempt to pass the swirling company to get to the bottles beside the fire. He began to feel dizzy watching them, breathing the thick, pungent smoke. His vision swam.
“You must drink,” shouted a voice, more adamant, but further away this time. All at once the Fool seemed to snap awake, hearing a new sound. It was a small squealing sound to his right, and as he looked he found that indeed he was far from the roaring bonfire of the dancers. Instead he was tucked slightly behind the first row of trees outside of the clearing. The squealing sound was coming from a skinned rodent, crudely skewered on a wooden rod and roasting over orange embers on which small licks of flame rose and died at odd moments.
Before the fire, with their tremendous back to the dancers, crouched a being, round and hulking, in strange clothing. Heavy, black fabric shrouded their head and dragged the ground behind them, but their legs were unclothed and thick with curling fur, like that of a goat. The Fool was, strangely, unruffled by this, as if he had been communing with the squatting figure for a while already.
“You will not drink?” the being asked without looking up from the fire. The Fool stammered a simple denial.
“My people have offered you hospitality, yet you deny it.” The creature’s tone was thoughtful, but they spoke with a booming authority that made the Fool uneasy. He had no response. All was silent for a while but for the squealing of the meat, and the Fool turned his eyes toward the dancers again. He noticed for the first time, from this changed angle, that every one of them was bleeding from their feet. The crimson red flashed in the firelight as their soles rose and fell in dance.
“Can they not stop?” he asked in alarm, forgetting himself. His voice sounded abruptly among the silent trees.
“They can,” the being responded gruffly, poking at the coals. “They choose their pain, not I.”
The flame swelled as fat fell from a roasting rodent and the Fool’s stomach grumbled loudly. The large being finally raised their eyes to look at the boy.
“You cannot gain what you will not take,” they said, inspecting the boy with curiosity: he could see their tangled golden beard and broad, scowling brow while they faced him.“The dance did not please you,” they said quietly, turning their eyes from the Fool as though calculating something.
The Fool did not know what they meant. His mind was focused on the meat above the fire, wondering how to ask for a portion. But the being said nothing more and returned to shuffling the coals beneath the spit. The Fool looked back at the players, now roaring with laughter as two of them performed strange acrobatics on top of a tall stone beyond the fire. He noticed one of the observers break from the group, still bantering with another dancer, and walk to a spindle-legged table he had not noticed before. It was covered in cakes and fruit, and more bottles of wine. They put a cake into their mouth absently before turning back to the festivities. The Fool’s mouth watered, and his eyes shot once more to the being, who took no more notice of him. The dancers were busy with their games. If he crept quietly, he could place food in his pockets and dash back into the trees – bring an apple to Frith and get back to sleep with a full stomach.
But the Fool was not practiced in his stealth, and though he bent low to approach the table, the golden-haired woman saw the vivid threads of his tunic glittering in the light of the fire.
“So you will dance now!” she shouted and the Fool jumped, his hand dropping the cake he had picked up.
“I -” he turned to her as she sauntered in his direction, “I am only hungry.”
“Oh, you are not only hungry.” She grabbed both his hands and whirled around him. The Fool moved with her, but could only think of the grit of the earth grinding into her bleeding feet and winced at the feeling. “I can tell you’re thirsty, too,” she said, swinging her hair over her breast as she released his hands. Admittedly, the Fool had never seen such a beautiful woman so naked and as she reached over the table to pick up a small bunch of grapes, he admired the grace with which her body moved. She turned to him and placed a few of the purple droplets in his mouth with a tender hand. He chewed gratefully, bewildered.
She picked up more food and called out to the circle: “Himerus! Come and help me with our guest.” The man in the breacan turned his head and began to walk toward them.
“He was only hungry, Himerus, how foolish of us not to think of it.”
“Yes, Telete, let him eat,” he said, smiling toward the Fool and taking his shoulder in a strong hand. “Here – you will sit and be fed, and tell us of the adventures you seek.” He gestured to an impressive pile of fat cushions and blankets thrown beside their caravan and the Fool followed dumbly, still rolling the sweet juice of the grapes on his tongue. He sat awkwardly cross-legged on the downy blankets, which sank as though preparing to swallow him, and Telete came with armfuls of food to sit on a pillow beside him. She began to feed him and the man began to ask him questions. The Fool ate diplomatically at first, but soon found himself abandoned to gluttony, eating and eating all that Telete would place in his mouth. The warmth of Himerus’ body drew closer and closer to him as he ate, until the man’s bare thighs were touching his own while they talked. The Fool’s answers became shorter as he sank deeper into the cushions, and Telete began to sip from one of the black bottles.
The Fool shook his head, feeling drowsy: “I have – thank you for, um, food – I have a, Frith will be looking for me, I have to -”
“Dance with us,” Himerus interrupted. “You have eaten our food. Now will you not grace us with camaraderie? You’ll miss the show.” His voice pulled at the Fool, deep and dulcet.
The Fool’s mouth was dry and he could not think of a reason why he shouldn’t. Telete pulled him to his feet and tugged him close to her, laughing happily at his stumbling.
“This,” she said, toying with the collar of his tunic, “is exquisite. But you mustn’t dance in it. Let yourself feel the night upon your skin.” She said this slowing her words in a sing-song voice so that the Fool grinned, his eyes half open. He took the hem of his tunic and struggled to lift the extravagant cloth over his chest, until he felt Himerus’ hands atop his own, pulling the garment off in one fluid motion and tossing it to the pile of cushions. Telete and Himerus ran toward the fire, calling for the naked young man to follow them. He did so before stopping sharply before the turning wheel of dancers. The ring of upturned sand around the great blaze was dyed with trails of blood. In places it pooled in muddy trenches. The Fool stood, struck with a thought nagging at the back of his mind, and suddenly had the feeling he was being watched.
Along the tree line he recognized the figure of the tremendous being, gazing past the wild dancers to find the Fool. He met their eyes, glowing yellow-white underneath their dark hood, and the creature watched him for a long time, unmoving. He felt frozen with alertness, his heart speeding in his chest. Around him the dancers moved, players’ voices called to him, and still he stood rooted just before the blood-fouled sand. The creature hissed in words the Fool did not understand, their voice echoing over the clearing. The dancers stopped at once, and began to move in groups toward the caravan. Still the Fool stood fast. The being turned its head askance and blinked at the Fool, like an animal confounded, and then vanished.
Behind him the Fool heard new sounds, and found he could move his body again. He turned toward the sound behind him. In the pile of cushions and blankets, bodies writhed atop one another, contorting in more strange acrobatics, and many exclamations of new ecstasy arose from the mass of flesh and cloth. The sight frightened the Fool – not for the fornication, but because with each movement, their thighs and stomachs and necks drew back smeared with new blood. His feet began to move automatically, away, away from the grisly nest of groaning bodies.
Searching wildly, the Fool spotted a pool of white cloth beside a tree at the edge of the clearing. He ran to it and lifted it, finding it to be of fine, sturdy linen and pulled at the opening to slip it over himself. The fabric was cold against his skin, but not rough in texture, and the hem fell to his ankles. Behind him the noise became cacophonous and he did not turn back. The Fool slipped quietly back through the brush from whence he stumbled, mourning the loss of his beautiful tunic.
The Fool came-to quite alone in the dawn. The white shift was long for him, and he had pulled his arms and legs into it where he sat huddled beneath a tree. Another damn tree, he thought. He had been conscious, but his mind had left him for several hours. Now, snapping awake to the cold sunrise, he felt a sudden panic – Frith! Where was Frith? Where was their camp and his pack and the road? How far had he wandered? He began to weep, a rush of emotion suddenly releasing. He pushed to his feet, beginning to feel something unfamiliar to him. It was a little like the grief he had felt when his father passed – only it was a loss of self, such an unknowing as he had never had to face before. Between the sounds of his sobbing, he heard a noise behind him – a movement through the dry ground of the woods and he whirled to meet it.
It was Frith! She was sniffing the earth between the trees a few yards away. They locked eyes and he ran to her, weeping. She led him back to the road, and his pack, just as the sun lifted over the horizon. He held her and kissed her head in gratitude. The sky was clear, and there was no sign of the caravan or the strange being or any remnant of the night before. The Fool felt a little more like himself, though he was swimming in the white garment. He felt the pang of longing once again for his gold, green, and vermillion frock – the colors of his household.
“I have left home, Frith,” he said aloud after a long while of walking. It felt such an obvious thing to say, but he had not said it yet. The adventure he had found so far was not what he had imagined when he left. He hadn’t considered that leaving meant he could not bring tales of adventures to dinner with his mother and sister. That not only his surroundings, but he, himself would be changed irreversibly. He looked beyond his path and caught sight of the white mountains, now larger than he had ever seen them from his village, where before they were but distant dwarves.
“Out there, in the far snowy mountains,” his father would say, pointing to the white peaks reflecting the moonlight, “there is a man like me. He holds knowledge I could not dream of – goodness in his heart I could only strive for. We are not singular, my son, in this great world. Someday I will take you to see the truth of it.” The boy would bounce upon his down mattress and watch the tops of the mountains appear and disappear behind the window sill, his father chuckling in the chair at his bedside. He would tell the epic of Beowulf each night before bed, neither of them ever tiring of the tale.
The ground began to slant upward, sunlight still filtering through the trees, warm on his skin. He breathed deeply, releasing his despair a little and feeling the breeze ruffle his hair, listening to Frith’s panting beside him. But all at once, he found himself at the top of the short hill. Before him stretched a snow-laden tundra, flat and barren. The Fool could not guess how long this tundra went on, as it was shrouded with heavy fog.
A chill slithered down the Fool’s spine. The mountains he could see just a moment ago were now concealed completely. When he looked back, he could see the sunny forest and light, fluffy clouds in the blue sky. Frith growled. There was a path still – covered in black, muddy snow, the white disturbed by wagons and foot traffic. If he squinted, the Fool could see a dark shape standing in the fog ahead. It looked like a house, perhaps, on the Northern side of the path. Several times, the Fool turned his head between the two worlds, standing at the bizarre border between sun and ice. He looked at Frith, who was staring up at him. She let out a low bark.
“It’s magic, Frith,” the Fool said, perhaps more for his own benefit. “Adventure, remember?”
So they started onto the muddy path, his shoes quickly becoming caked with the freezing black muck. The building stayed hidden in the fog until he was very close to it. Smoke, the same color as the fog, rose in a thick cloud from a chimney atop the clay-tiled roof. Ornamented windows lined the second floor, and brick steps lead up to an archway which housed a brown door. No light shone from the strange building, save for a lantern that lit a sign hanging above the steps. It read: “The Waiting House.”
The boy took no time for indecision, the cold now soaking through every bone in his body. He clambered up the slippery steps and turned the door knob.
Dim light and warmth greeted him in a long hallway. The walls were lined with rows of hooks on each side, all heavy with dark coats. The light came from a room beyond this hall, to the left. Cautiously, the Fool closed the door and dropped his pack beside Frith at the threshold. He heard nothing, but smelled bread baking.
Frith followed behind the Fool with lowered ears, and they came to a doorway. The lit room was a dining hall with six long refectory tables: dark wood, with inviting benches worn by years of guests but clearly well-scrubbed. At the far end of the room stood an elderly woman in a red frock and apron, kneading dough on a table, on which two stumpy candles sat. He watched her from the corner for a moment, the low light flickering over her gnarled hands and face. The room was warm and inviting. The Fool glanced back down the hallway at the rows of thick coats. Working men must be lodging here and she is a caretaker, he thought as he turned his gaze back to the doorway.
Just feet from him, the woman in the red frock stood with her hands clasped. The boy jumped violently, his stomach plummeting in alarm.
“Do you seek lodging?” the matron asked in a buttery voice. Only now, he could see that she could only barely be called a matron: her skin was supple and her cheeks ruddy. The gnarled hands he had seen in the candle light were smooth as ivory. She reminded him of his mother.
“Please excuse me, I-” he tried to gather himself, his heart still racing, “I’m a traveler, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything of worth.”
She looked him up and down, and then gestured for him to wait and walked away, into another room. The Fool noticed now that a fire was lit in the hearth of the large room – had it been before? He was sure it had not.
“Frith,” he whispered, crouching, “we’ve found a magician! What would Mother say about that, do you think? Hm?” He scratched behind her ears and the dog, at last, seemed to relax.
The matron returned with a bowl of stew, thick and steaming, and pointed to a seat beside the fireplace. He hesitated a moment, thinking of the last meal he had been offered. But the fool was reminded of his father’s words – of the kindness he had heard he would find in the world, and of the stories of kind wizards taking in needy travelers. He sat and ate.
His mother had always been a skeptic of mystical arts – a pragmatist more concerned with the numbers of their business, while the Fool and his father told story after fantastical story in the attic every evening. His father wanted him to learn these stories, and also learn to write and to sketch and illustrate and dance if he liked, and never have to concern himself with hardships of money and women and work. When his father passed, the Fool was bereft in more ways than one. He found himself twenty years old and of no use to his sister and mother, who had run the business on their own for many years. He was underfoot. Sitting in the attic alone, he would watch the mountains at sunset. He would think of the man there, somewhere in those mountains. The one as wise and as kind as his father.
The Fool was staring fixedly into the fire when the matron approached, breaking his daze. He noticed a multitude of boots piled beside the fireplace.
“Many men live here,” said the Fool, filling his mouth with hearty potatoes and broth.
“Nay,” said the matron, “this is only a resting place for the weary and cold.”
“An inn, then.” The Fool wiped his chin with the back of his hand.
“Of sorts.” She unfolded a warm roll from a cream colored linen, and handed it to the boy with a slight smile. “I have decided you may lodge here for the night, at no cost. You look to be in need. Take a room at your leisure.”
The Fool declared his gratitude and then asked which rooms remained unoccupied, as he did not want to disturb the many guests in their rooms already.
“Any room,” she said absently. And as she turned from the boy, her feet began to shuffle against the ground and her back began to curve and her hands began to wither. As she walked from the warmth of the fire, she looked again like the crone that the Fool had seen kneading dough upon arrival. He looked away quickly, wide-eyed. The ways of magicians were strange. He said nothing, and in a moment the woman was gone from the room.
After his meal, he stood and stretched out his legs. Frith happily licked the bowl beside the table. He noticed that the room just beyond the dining hall was a library, and wandered into it with delight. Books lay open, and lanterns were lit, but still he encountered no other living soul. He fingered the spines of the books with curiosity. He did not know their languages.
Outside the window, something caught his eye through the arched window of the library. It was a tall man standing out in the snow. Through the fog it appeared that he wore pants, but his torso was bare and he wore a strange hat.
The room adjacent was the kitchen, which was also empty, and had a door to the rear of the house. The Fool hurried to open it and greet the stranger.
“Come in, sir! There is warmth and food,” the Fool shouted into the cold air. Frith came at the sound of the door’s unlatching and stood beside the Fool, still licking broth from her chops. She was alert but did not bark.
The man was too far away for the Fool to see him clearly, but seemed only to sway in the wind, and the Fool wondered if he was drunk or ill. The chill had immediately permeated the Fool’s linen shift, which made him think to look for an overcoat to throw around himself. A red mantle hung on a hook before the doorway, and the Fool snatched it down, pulling it around his shoulders as he walked down the stone steps to the snowy ground.
As he approached the man, he realized that it was not a hat he wore. Out of his golden hair sprouted long ears, like a goat’s, and large black horns that curled in toward one another. It was not a tall man. It was the being with the woolen legs he had met beside the fire.
He stopped, taken aback.
“Are you under an enchantment?” the Fool asked, perhaps too boldly. He was angry with the being, he realized, for the strange night in the woods. “The lady of the house possesses powerful magic. She could perhaps break this…” he waved his hand, scowling at the horns and ears, “…curse.”
The creature only stared up at the house, silent.
Behind him, the Fool heard the door slam, and Frith yelped as her hind legs narrowly escaped the gap. He whirled to look at the house, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the being.
From this perspective the Fool could see something new: a dark, uneven froth over the old windows. But as the Fool looked, a pattern emerged: rows of human faces. In every window of the house upstairs, faces peer down at him – men standing still as statues. Three stood in the library window from which he had peered out only moments ago, unmoving, mouths contorted in anguish. Through the window of the door from whence he had just stepped, he saw two more standing together, eye sockets gaping.
“The Waiting Witch is generous,” said the being beside the fool, turning its dark eyes toward the boy, “but her lodging does cost.”
The Fool looked back only once as he ran, Frith on his heels, and saw that the creature in the snow had vanished. The house stood silent. The chimney still smoked peacefully, as the Fool found the black path forward, following the barely-visible sight of the mountain peaks that grew taller with each step. He no longer felt the cold. He no longer hoped for kindness.
He did not know how long he ran, but his sides ached and his breath was ragged. To his relief, the snow began to give way to patches of grass on a steep slope. As suddenly as he had entered it, the Fool stepped out of the fog, at the base of a hill on a sturdy, green plain. A clear and steady road led between the parting buildings on either side. Horses grazed on the outskirts and he caught glimpses of people roaming the town square. But the sight that caught the Fool’s breath was the nearness of the mountains – for the town nestled at the very base of the first towering peak. He had made it.
There were many fantastical things to see – storefronts and stalls and goods the boy had never witnessed before. Part of him wanted to stop and gawk at them all, at every bauble and beautiful thing. But he was too weary, not only in body but in spirit.
For the first time in his young life, the boy took a stool at the counter of a tavern, as he had often read weary travelers would do. The men in the books also tended to order an ale, and that he did, too. He drank it quickly and it warmed the last of the cold in his body. He ordered another.
“What troubles you, boy?” asked a man sitting a few stools down.
“Adventure,” the Fool mumbled into his glass. He did not feel like talking at first, but after finishing his second ale, he found he had launched into a tirade on the woes of his childhood.
The man had moved to the seat beside him. He was of average height and wore a steel-colored jacket that looked like it had been expensive once but was poorly cared for, with a thin blue scarf draped across the back of his neck and hanging at his shirt front. He told the Fool he was a salesman, boarding in Saint’s Watch for a few months.
“Ah, death is a thief with no soul. I’m sorry about your father, boy,” he said when the tale had finished. The Fool felt the pang of loss again, not only for his father, but now for himself. He was lost. He had finally reached the base of the mountains – had reached the very face of his goal, and he did not know now what was true and what was hopeless. He and the man both stared blankly at the rows of bottles behind the bar.
“What if,” the man began, turning to the Fool, “what if I told you I could get you back to your home. Fast. Instantly, in fact – absolute instant travel. What would you say to that?”
“But what truly lies behind me?” The young Fool lamented, slurring his words a little. “What will I return to but an angry mother and sister and dull work making hats?”
“But what lies before you? At least behind you, you may be happy,” the man grunted, picking up his mug. “You may find peace in your home, after all you’ve faced here. You could go and learn to do what your father did. Be respected – grow into a good name, it sounds like. Fed and housed and clothed finely.” The man raised his eyebrows on this point and sipped his beer before continuing.
“Long ago I left that chance behind, following my fancy. And here I find myself old and wandering, still waiting upon my fortune. If I had not sold my soul, who could I have become?” He shook his head, his blue eyes looking somewhere into the distance.
The Fool looked, too – the perils of his journey playing before his eyes. What really waited in the mountains? What further horrors might he find? He had a sudden thought that had not occurred to him before – what if he failed? Fell dead, pointlessly wandering in the desolate peaks? How could he even be sure the man his father sought was out there at all?
He shuddered and turned to the salesman, “If what you say is true,” he said slowly, chewing the decision as he spoke, “if you can accomplish this feat of- of instant travel… what will it cost me?”
The man’s face brightened, “Nothing, my boy, nothing! Why only what you have gained on this journey itself. The white tunic and red cloak on your back. Only the things you will not need when you return to your good life.”
The Fool looked at him with furrowed brows, “How do you know of my tunic and cloak?”
The man leaned back and slapped a hand on his knee, saying jovially, “My boy, if you wish for safe passage I am glad to give it to you. But we must act quickly.” He finished his dark ale and stood. “There is a cavern behind the stables on the far West side of Saint’s Watch. I will be there as the sun sets. Will you meet me?”
He nodded and they said their goodbyes, though the boy still sat and nursed his ale for a long time.
As the sun began to dip, the Fool set out across town. Colossal and imposing, the mountains towered before him, reaching into the darkening heavens. He passed the stables, and the ground grew rocky. He could see the mouth of a cavern ahead of him. Frith had followed faithfully all this way, but as the cavern came into view, she stopped abruptly and began to growl.
“Frith, we’re going home,” he said without stopping. She only continued to bark, planting herself resolutely on the stoney spot on the foothill. The fool turned, his eyes flooding unexpectedly. “Then you stay! You go find adventure, Frith, but I’m going!” The barking stopped. Frith laid down with a quiet whimper and the fool blinked back hot tears, turning back to his final quest.
There stood the salesman in the opening of the cave, hands on his bulging waist, swinging back and forth as he watched the Fool approach. The Fool did not want to look at him. Deep shame burned behind his cheeks. He was afraid to die in these mountains, yet now that he had reached them, he was abandoning all possibilities – and his best friend. Still, he thought grimly, it would be better to live than to die looking for something that he now knew did not exist. As he pushed himself up over the last steep rock at the cave’s entrance, he looked up at the salesman and froze. Behind the man’s head, he caught a glimpse of something big hanging from the cave ceiling. In the foreground of many red stalactites hung a dark figure, covered in fur, with two curling horns framing two protruding ears. Its naked chest and belly were human, but its legs were familiar to the Fool, now – the unshorn legs of a giant goat. Upon its face was a twisted grimace. And there was something new – two black wings outstretched in a width greater than any wingspan the boy had seen on a bird or beast. The Fool knew now, looking at this being, this guardian from the woods, this seer of darkness and death, who they were.
“Ah, boy, you’ve barely made it,” broke in the salesman. “Quickly now, your robes, please. I need them for the spell.”
But the Fool kept eye contact with the Devil, whose grin grew as the boy stared. Why were they here? The Fool thought quickly, perhaps with more wisdom in his head than he had ever held before. Each time they had appeared, it was because the Fool had nearly met his end. And so here, in this cavern, what peril pursued him?
“Fool! I must do the spell now or you choose death for us both!” The salesman reached out with one hand in a rage, grabbing at the collar of the boy’s white robe and pulling him deeper into the dark cavern. “Give me the demon’s gifts! With these favors we can both be freed from these haunted lives!” he hollered, looking wildly at the disappearing sun.
The Fool only watched as the Devil’s arms dropped down, dangling just behind the salesman’s sweating bald head, which was red with anger. The man took a final struggling step backward, and stood directly underneath the grinning angel of death.
“What holds your eye, boy,” the salesman spat through gritted teeth. A mimicked grin began to spread over the Fool’s face, too, staring into the Devil’s great bloodshot eyes, as the salesman’s head slowly turned upward.
The salesman had only time to release a small squeaking gasp before the devil grasped his blue scarf, wrapping it around his pink neck and pulling hard and fast at either end. A long, jagged knife fell with a clatter from the salesman’s hand as he dropped to his knees, his neck twisted at a terrible angle. Then he fell flat, his cloak fluttering down to shroud his head and shoulders.
The Devil dropped from the ceiling, cloven hooves smacking the rock floor with a sharp echo.
“A fool, he thought,” they quipped. “It was his time, I’d say.”
The Fool did not know what to do other than stoop to bow, beginning to stutter his thanks to the Devil – beginning to pledge loyalty to the being who had saved him from his own cowardice.
“No, no,” said the Devil, “you will not serve me, boy.”
The Fool raised his head. “And why shouldn’t I?”
The massive demon turned to the corpse of the arrogant salesman. “You will become many things as your path winds through these mountains,” they said, “each one equally as important as the last.” They bent and yanked the blue scarf from the salesman’s neck. As they lifted it, the scarf writhed, coming to life as a slender, blue serpent. The devil reached their hand to the Fool’s arm, and the snake slithered across his body, wrapping itself delicately around the boy’s waist. The Fool looked steadily into the Devil’s eyes, understanding this gift – watching the reflection in the two black pits as the Devil grinned back at him.
“You will not serve me, boy. You will become me.”