Shotgun Sorceress by Lucy Snyder
The Warlock pulled off the highway onto a dirt road running between two cornfields.
“This should be it,” he said, glancing down at the magic compass he’d brought along.
“Karen, you got Riviera’s token?”
“Right here,” she replied, patting the small white beaded purse in her lap. She was wearing a long-sleeved sea-green silk gown and long strings of pearls; the outfit must have dated back to the 1930s, and it looked good on her.
We got out of the Land Rover. The ground was soft and damp, so I was glad I wasn’t in high heels. The weird calliope music of my familiar Pal’s flying spell was loud overhead. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and began to follow Mother Karen and The Warlock down a corn row.
Cooper nudged my backpack. “You could leave that in the car, you know.”
“If something happens, it’s not going to do me a lot of good if it’s locked in the car a mile away.”
“The Seelies are probably just going to make you check it at the door.”
I shrugged. “Checked at the door is still closer than locked in the car.”
We came to a clearing where a battered old scarecrow hung crucified on a couple of rake handles. A cloud of dust rose as Pal touched down, and Cooper spoke an ancient word to turn off his invisibility.
A tin cup had been tied to the straw fingers of the scarecrow’s left hand. When we got within ten feet of the scarecrow, my stone ocularis started to itch in my skull. I blinked through to the gemview that had shown me the invisible door in Karen’s back yard. I saw an odd double-image of the scarecrow and a set of bronze-reinforced oak doors big enough to admit an elephant.
Mother Karen dug the token — a small golden coin — out of her purse and stepped up to the scarecrow. She dropped it in the tin cup. The scarecrow shuddered, the tattered old black suit expanding as it filled with ogrish bone and muscle. The creature broke the rake handles like straws and leapt to the ground, glowering at us with coal-black eyes. It dumped the token out into a mottled, callused gray palm.
“Who seeks entry to our realm?” Its voice rolled like thunder.
Mother Karen stepped forward. “Karen Mercedes Sebastián, daughter of Magus Carlos Sebastián and Mistress Beatrice Brumecroft. And associates. We come at the invitation of Maga Riviera Jordan to dine with her at the tavern.”
He turned his baleful face toward me and pointed a long black claw at my ocularis. “We don’t like spies.”
“What? I’m not a spy.” My voice shook.
“Don’t try to be clever with that sight-stone, or someone will pluck it right out of your pretty head.”
I quickly blinked back to the gemview that showed the world simply as my flesh eye did. “Is this better?”
“It is acceptable.”
Still scowling, the scarecrow reached into the air where I had seen the bronze handles on the great oak doors. He pulled, and suddenly the doors were visible to the naked eye, swinging wide to reveal a twilight-dimmed forest lit by a huge harvest moon. A road of ancient silver coins sunk in the damp earth glittered before us. The evergreen trees swayed gently in a brush of night wind, and tiny glowing creatures flitted through the branches.
The air from the forest smelled of midnight’s denizens, deep dark earth and night-blooms headier than any liquor.
“Follow the silver path to the tavern,” the ogrish guardian ordered. “Stray from it at your own peril.”
“We better hold hands,” Cooper said. “Things can get pretty weird in Faery.”
We followed Mother Karen and the Warlock inside; Pal followed along behind us. The scarecrow shut the door after my familiar stepped onto the path, and almost instantly, the darkness seemed to solidify around us like a crush of unseen bodies just beyond arm’s reach, the breeze like soft cold fingers brushing across my shoulders and the nape of my neck. Cooper’s hand tightened around mine; I could tell he felt it, too.
“Girl …” a voice whispered.
I turned toward the sound, the will to simply not look somehow beyond me. A golden-haired young man stood in the trees, slender and pale, dressed only in a kilt of sheer material that left just enough to my imagination. I felt a dizzying, primal lust for him; he was everything I found physically sexy about Cooper amplified and intensified a dozen times over.
“Come here,” Golden-Hair said with a smile that made my legs turn to water. He knelt and plucked a dandelion and blew the feathery seeds at me. “I’ve got something to show you.”
Cooper’s hand was growing slick with sweat. I glanced at his face; he was turning red as he stared at Golden-Hair, looking equally embarrassed and angry. “Don’t listen to her,” he whispered, pulling me along.
“Don’t,” echoed Golden-Hair, suddenly appearing from behind a tree in front of us, his voice like windchimes. “Don’t just walk away … don’t you want to see what your man sees? Don’t you want to see what delightful things we could be doing, the three of us? All you have to do is take a little peek.”
“Don’t listen to it,” Pal warned inside my head. “It’s a trick. Stick to the path, no matter what.”
What are you seeing when you look at it? I asked Pal.
“I’d rather not say,” he replied.
Golden-Hair popped up in the wildflowers a few feet away from me, sitting cross-legged. “Boots? You wore nasty ol’ boots!” he cackled. “Who dressed you this morning, your father? He should have tied a bell around your neck, because you lumber like a dimwitted cow. I’ll bet your mother was some plow-pulling beast of burden your father turned into the shape of a woman after he couldn’t stop himself from rutting on her in the barn. I bet the Virtus Regnum cut her into steaks and ate her after they killed her.”
It paused, staring intently at the trails of smoke curling from my opera glove. My pulse was pounding in my head despite my attempt to breathe slowly and stay calm.
“Ooh, everyone hide, the cowgirl’s angry now! Stop chewing your cud and come over here! Show me who’s boss, Bossie. Come over and try to shut me up.”
For a long second, I thought about taking him up on his offer. My ocularis was itching like mad, but the scarecrow’s warning stopped me from blinking for a better look, stopped me from leaving the path. We weren’t here for me to get into a fight and endanger everyone else.
Golden-Hair kept after me, whispering seductions one moment and mockeries the next. I kept my gaze focused on the lost treasures imbedded in the path: ancient drachms of Hermaeus and Menander, shining argentus nummus, Ottoman akçe and Indian rupees, mottled Liberty dollars, plus dozens of exotic coins stamped with the pale faces of dead kings I’d never seen in any book.
Finally, the path ended at what at first looked like a vine-covered walls, but then I realized that the vines were the walls. The front door was a tall, thick oval mat of purple-flowered Clematis lianas hinged on living tendrils; it swung open with a swish of leaves and a creak of green wood, and we filed into the tavern, everyone looking relieved to be free of Golden-Hair.
I quickly realized that the entire tavern was built from still-living plants enchanted or artfully cultivated to form a functional architecture, although certainly not one that had much use for straight lines and 90-degree angles. The interior walls and floor were formed by smooth, densely woven strangler figs. Ivory-barked trees rose like support columns for the leafy ceiling high above us, and luminous bracket fungi growing on the trunks cast a soft golden light throughout the rooms and passageways. Redwood-sized tree stumps served as tables, and the woody figs rose from the floor to form trestle benches and stools.
The patrons seated at the nearby tables were dressed in antique finery from various eras; they scarcely gave us a second glance. Looking at them straight on, they appeared perfectly human; glimpsed from the corner of my flesh eye, some became large insects, creatures of twisted bone, or strange fungal conglomerations. It was just a little unnerving.
A tall, beautiful woman in a diaphanous Aegean-blue chiton stepped toward us. Maybe she floated; I couldn’t really see her feet. She was like a nymph straight out of Greek mythology: her glossy black hair was piled in ringlets atop her head, and her skin was sun-bronzed. Her eyes were the color of storm clouds rolling over the ocean. She glanced briefly at my backpack, but didn’t seem the least bit concerned about it.
“Please follow me,” she said, her voice a rush of sea breeze through a mountain olive grove. “Your party awaits.”
She led us through a winding passage to a room with an enormous tree-table. Riviera Jordan, dressed in a silver gown and shawl, sat on the opposite side of the table, flanked by six Governing Circle agents in crisp black tuxedos.
“Y’all have a seat,” Riviera said, rising from her strangler fig bench. “We have a lot to talk about.”
We took our places at the table. At each setting was a single white, highly-polished plate; there were no glasses, no cutlery, no napkins. I at first assumed the plate in front of me was porcelain before I saw the fine, concentric grain beneath the shine.
“Wood?” I asked Cooper.
“Probably,” he replied. “Or maybe some kind of gourd or tuber.”
Riviera was busy looking over some papers in her lap, so as quickly and surreptitiously as I could, I lifted my plate and licked the edge.
Instantly, I was standing on a wind-blown hill, rearing back to shake off the horrible jabbering prairie apes clinging to my shaggy fur, trumpeting my anger and frustration to the sky as one of them scurried between my front legs and jabbed a sharpened stick up between my ribs –
– I managed to stifle a gasp as I came out of the death memory.
“It’s wooly mammoth tusk,” I told Cooper. “Very old.”
“Oh. Wow.” He gazed down at his plate, looking impressed. “I’ll be careful with it.”
And then I nearly dropped my plate when it spoke to me: “Now really, it doesn’t really seem very useful to lick me before the food’s been served, does it?”
An amused elfin face was staring at me from the surface of the plate. I quickly set it back down on the table.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I was just trying to see what you were made of –”
“Rather nosy of you, don’t you think?”
“I’m very sorry. I wasn’t expecting sentient tableware.”
Plateface sighed dramatically and rolled its ivory eyes. “Apology accepted, I suppose. Beverage?”
“A drink? You know, something liquid that helps the food go down and prevents unsightly choking?”
“Oh. Uh. Water will be fine.”
Another eyeroll. “Boring, yet vague. Do you want it hot? Iced? Room temperature? Sparkling? Paris bottled? Detroit municipal? Dipped from a Mongolian horse trough and filtered through a wool sock?”
I frowned. “I’ll take Evian natural spring water, no ice, forty degrees Fahrenheit.”
There came a faint cracking noise from the table. A straight green tendril sprouted from the polished surface. It quickly formed a large bud that elongated and split open to unfurl a spiral of waxy lavender leaves that fused and rose up into a vaselike hollow flower. The remains of the bud shell thickened into a sturdy green calyx base supporting the flower, which quickly filled with a clear liquid.
“Your water, mademoiselle,” said Plateface. “And for your meal you’d like …?”
I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head; I suppose I was partly jonesing for more of what I’d had for breakfast and partly channeling my wish to escape: “A Monte Cristo.”
Plateface sighed. “Still very, very vague. Do you want the whole sandwich dipped in batter and fried, or just the bread? And what kind of cheese?”
“Just the bread … and Swiss. No, wait, gruyere.”
“Since you seem indecisive, I’ll give you both. And the usual assortment of condiments.”
Plateface vanished, leaving me staring at the shiny blank ivory.
The table cracked again as a woody sprout erupted beside the plate. In the space of a few seconds, it grew into a small bush that produced one large red bud and three smaller purplish buds. The buds flowered into pretty blossoms that quickly shriveled, overtaken by swelling fruits covered in thick, veined skins. The big red fruit expanded like a balloon, steam rising from its green veins, until it ruptured with a pop! and a hot, sugar-dusted Monte Cristo sandwich toppled out onto my plate. The other, smaller fruits dropped off the bush beside the sandwich and split open, revealing what looked like strawberry jam, honey mustard, and clotted cream. A small branch I hadn’t noticed fell off the bush and dropped beside the plate; it had a single long, serrated bladelike leaf at its tip, and I realized it was meant to serve as a dinner knife. A large, velvety leaf sprouted on the plant and fell beside the twig knife: a napkin.
I’d been so focused on Plateface and my lunch plants that I hadn’t been paying any attention to how the others were faring. Beside me, Cooper was pulling the purple skin off a huge berry of shrimp carbonara; he had red wine in his drinking flower. The Warlock had a T-bone and a baked potato, and Mother Karen’s plant was dropping perfect little cucumber and smoked salmon tea sandwiches onto her plate. Pal was already gnawing on a large joint of some roast beast. Across the table, Riviera Jordan’s plant was growing and shedding a variety of leaves and vegetables to fill her plate with salad; her bodyguards had gotten burgers and other sandwiches.
I nudged Cooper and pointed at the crispy bits of bacon scattered amongst the shrimp on his fettuccini noodles. “Aren’t you worried about getting a death vision off those?”
“No more than you are, I guess.”
He nodded at my sandwich. “That’s a Monte Cristo?”
I stared at it. “Oh, crap, I forgot. I only remembered it had cheese on it.”
He laughed. “It’s faery food … I wouldn’t worry about it.”
I cut my sandwich in half with the twig knife and blew on it to cool it a little. The bread was fluffy and moist under the crispy egg batter, and the inside was stuffed with cheese and turkey and shaved ham. I bit off a corner, expecting a kick of pain, but felt absolutely nothing. It certainly looked and tasted like meat, but I might as well have been eating a napkin for all the spiritual residue it contained.
We finished our meals in relative silence. When most of us were finished, a handsome young man in a kilt of ivy leaves shuffled into the room. Each of his eyes was covered with a bright red poppy blossom, and his face was frozen in a smile. He began to uproot the spent dinner plants onto the dirty plates and clear the table. His hands moved fluidly one moment, jerkily the next.
Mother Karen stifled a gasp when the young man took her plate; I gave her a quizzical look.
“It’s Rick Wisecroft,” she mouthed at me.
Her prodigal foster son? No wonder he’d left her house so abruptly. Clearly he’d crossed the wrong people. I watched him more closely as he gathered up my plate; he moved like a marionette, and I saw thin silver chains on his wrists.
Mother Karen was staring at Rick, her face flushed, tears welling in her eyes; clearly she wanted to do something to rescue him from his slavery, but she couldn’t do anything without risking her own freedom and probably ours as well. I felt myself getting angry again. Given our warm reception in the woods, I doubted that getting Rick as our busboy was any accident. The Seelies really seemed intent on provoking us. Part of me wondered how they’d cope with a little incendiary ectoplasm, but the rest of me considered Rick’s predicament and realized that was a bad, bad idea.
© Lucy Snyder 2010
Lucy A. Snyder is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels Spellbent and Shotgun Sorceress and the collections Sparks and Shadows, Chimeric Machines, and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger. Her writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Hellbound Hearts, Masques V, Doctor Who Short Trips: Destination Prague, Chiaroscuro, GUD, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. She was born in South Carolina but grew up in San Angelo, Texas. She currently lives in Worthington, Ohio with her husband and occasional co-author Gary A. Braunbeck.
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