His invitation came on the edges of a wind blowing in the opposite direction. Requesting my presence was merely a formality; I was powerless against his call. Halloween made me nervous enough, leaving Place de Plume was the last thing I wished to do when the sun set but I had no other choice.
Clarice prepared the upper floors of the mansion before they needed to be abandoned to the Sirens and their calls. Mr. Brown and Mrs. Walters placed precautionary items throughout the ground floor to combat the mischief and roguery expected that evening. Chef, as usual, wanted nothing to do with the discussion but her protestations floated unheard to the ground.
Dressed in a gown pulled from the back of my closet, I positioned three pieces of sage in each of the elemental points in the hallway, curtsied to the spirits who had already gathered and descended the stairway. At the front entrance, I affixed my best Merry Widow hat with the sharpest hatpins at my disposal. My trusted staff assembled for the last bits of encouragement I could impart. Parasol in hand, I quit the mansion before I lost the courage to do so. Since no car could make this journey, I set out on foot through throngs of costumed children running about as the last shards of sunlight sank into the horizon.
The sounds of the children’s levity vaporized into muted echoes the further I trekked. My boots clicked upon cobblestone until they met with packed clay that melted into mire; the air Surrounding me aged with each passing step.
I could feel his citadel before I saw it.
A stench of decaying flora wrapped like a liana around me. Flashes of lights blinked from the eyes of his watchers hidden in the thrush. For appearances, I held my head high but clutched my parasol tightly enough to blister my fingers as his edifice grew before me. Arrogant lichen clinging to its hostile host marred the slick stone of the donjon. The flicker of a thousand candles glowed from within the castle; he could not brook anything that hummed with electricity. Having never seen this estate with the sun upon it, I presumed its inky coloring was the shadows of those who protect it.
My feet sank deeper into the liquescent clay that threatened to swallow me whole when I finally arrived at the front entrance. The massive door opened slowly before my first knock fell upon it. His trusted butler, Roderick, bowed only his head as decrepitude had stripped him of his youthful flourish. Roderick and I held no love for each other but settled on a tolerance to our interaction. Were we to encounter each other more regularly, I imagine our dislike would take a physical form.
Roderick was an ugly human being; his spine curved in on itself and his features melted into the folds of his stained flesh. Hardened warts sprang from inconsistent places and his fingers resembled tubers gone to seed. He simultaneously had hair but was bald. However he was, at least, human and the last vestige of this world within these walls so you clung to his side as if your life depended on it, which it often did. We followed a crimson carpet, passing archaic homages to the grandiosity of my summoner’s glorified past; immense tapestries depicting grotesque scenes of carnage, gaudy suits of armor designed to maim others violently, sealed urns with questionable contents, mounted weapons possessing blades and spikes sharp enough to slice silk yet were the least dangerous items in the castle. This baroque gimcrack in these caliginous halls gave the impression of entering a demonic circus.
Roderick led me to the Grand Library, sublime in every way and my summoner’s favorite place to receive his callers, what with the kitchen just off the East end. Roderick bade me entrance, we had exchanged neither a word or kind expression between us and he simply walked away. I bolstered myself to lay eyes upon my host, it being over 3 decades since I had last done so. A claw covered in down extended past the arm of the imposing throne in which he sat; indicating for me to come forward. A large blaze dancing in the grate illuminated his hideous form. His remaining horn twisted in curls while a charred stub sat in the other’s place; both were anchored within the bister leather that pulled taut across his skull. His nose had receded even farther into his face, leaving two caverns for nostrils. His hooves – one hand and one foot – were pocked; the other foot, a piece of flesh that resembled a melted flipper, remained motionless; I prayed it was no longer ambulatory. He, as always, was dressed in resplendent finery. The style of his garments was centuries old yet had been recently crafted. In his usual opulent fashion, he donned a lush velvet coat whose tails reached the floor. His cravat matched a cerulean thread in his vest. A brilliant silk shirt boasted cuffs with lace so delicately woven it looked of spun sugar. The hem of his gold breeches sat perfectly at the bend of his legs, one of which was covered in coarse hair, the other protected in imbricated scales. His hideous yet imperial presence left you both awed and horrified.
I looked him directly in his clouded eyes, “Good evening Brandr.”
“Be seated, Naomi, we need not stand on ceremony given our long history.”
“To the contrary, I would say standing on ceremony is the last bit of civility we share,” but took my seat to his right and reached for a teacup that was not there. He smirked as I placed my seeking hands in my lap.
Surveying the scene in this pregnant pause, I saw that my situation was direr than I had anticipated. I had heard rumors of his mythomaniac version of our last encounter and it seemed he meant for me to answer for my perceived crimes. His walking stick rested to his left, my sole assurance that I might leave this mausoleum intact. I allowed myself a quick thought to the state of affairs at Place de Plume and was overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia that I might never see her again.
Brandr turned to me, “I have never taken to you.”
“You have made that abundantly clear.”
“Pondering you demise brings me moments of great comfort. Why is it I allow you to linger?”
“Perhaps because, like you, my “reality” is not so real in this sentient world. You need me to exist.”
“Your impudence is often your undoing.” Brandr growled.
“Point to me my prevarication?”
Brandr’s claw etched a small rift in his armrest, “Point to me where your veracity matters in this moment?”
The hoary grandfather clock from the hall ticked louder in the weighted silences; my hope was that each tick away was merely one of my days and not one of my years.
Brandr leaned forward, “Madame de Plume, you’ve assumed the burden of all the Rudat women who have come before you; a cross you seem happy to bear. Had you proved a more docile opponent, I might have found it in my heart to show you mercy. As it stands, you wear the Rudat willfulness as a badge of honor. How dare you presume that you – or any Rudat woman – is, in any way, on equal footing with me.”
The way my grandmother’s surname hissed on his tongue raised my ire.
“I wear anything bearing the Rudat name with honor.” I said as evenly as possible.
His webbed appendage flapped against the ornate rug upon which it rested just as his teeth extended past his upper lip; the pleasantries were over.
To demur at that moment would have sealed my fate so I forged on, “Clearly the same ichor courses through our veins; perhaps you would do well to respect such relations.”
Brandr leaned forward in his chair, considering his next move. There were, in fact, matters that needed settling between us and we should get on with resolving them, but his colossal ego was likely going to derail yet another meeting and what should be accomplished, wouldn’t be. The grandfather clock had just chimed the hour of Midnight when the image of Rémy standing outside the Library’s main window caught the corner of my eye. He looked perturbed, knowing Brandr had sealed the sashes and flues. In typical Rémy fashion, our eyes met briefly and he offered me a wink.
“As you insist on drawing out this evening, am I not to be offered tea?” I asked.
“You are doing your best to bring about a swift cessation to our proceedings with that impertinent tongue of yours, Naomi; you are not as charming as you think.”
A wail crept up from the floorboards; its escape was no accident, I was meant to hear the anguish. Brandr lifted his own teacup and sipped it pointedly.
I changed tactics, “Perhaps we could put the matter of my last visit to rest. I apologize for the loss of your servant but I think you know that as a Rudat woman, my first priority is to protect what’s ours… “
“Like your precious Sophie?” He purred, bending his mangled mouth into a smile.
I pushed the anger within me down, “Your business with me now is about the Western Tarn, I cannot give it to you and you may not take it.”
The fire flared and two sparks jumped into his eyes, dancing angrily as he sucked in more air to fuel them. “The tarn is mine!”
“It is no longer and, may I remind you, lost in the fairest of battles. The fault is yours for sacrificing it before you took your belongings from it.”
My confidence had overstepped, a mistake I make far too often. His walking stick was no longer visible; time was of the essence. Risking a more painful fate, I stood without permission. I took 2 steps to the door before changing my direction and walked briskly, counter clockwise, to my destination, a move that would temporarily slow his progress. When the fragile spell lifted, he redirected and leapt to the southern side of the room to increase his strength. As he poised himself to pounce in my direction, I swung my train in a figure eight, protecting the area in which I currently stood before he got there. Brandr, enraged, dropped to all fours and paced back and forth in front of me. He saw the translucent wall between us wavering and thrust forward trying to force its weakest points.
Just as my pluck was my downfall, Brandr’s was his hubris. Playing to this, I feigned a forlorn look to Rémy, still standing outside the window. Brandr, never able to walk away from a chance to relish in his victory, turned towards him and smiled smugly. Forfeiting my feeble wall of protection, I grasped the hatpin from my Merry Widow the moment Brandr turned his head and plunged it into his flipper with all my might. Brandr keened and reeled backwards hoping his full weight would dislodge the stake but I had dipped it in thistle water prior to my visit, he would remain in place for a while. He lunged towards me hooking his claw in the Aleçon lace on my bodice causing my blood to run cold. Using his own digit against him, I twisted so the weakest point on the knotting would catch on the sharpest edge of his talon and the lace mercifully gave way; I was to the door and out of range in a shot. Opening my parasol I had left by the door, I pierced the vial of hummingbird’s blood protected within its arms. I cringed as the spicy drops dotted my face and chest. Hastily, I proceeded through Brandr’s Hall of Vulgarity as the sabers and maces flung themselves before me. The suits of torture rattled but were incapable of hurting me now. The tapestries ripped from their wall mounts hoping to obfuscate my view of the egress. Roderick stood to the side; his inability to stop me not worth the show of trying.
I plunged through the small opening I was able to force from the castle’s main door. Rémy awaited me on the path back to town, hand extended; it was a nice gesture for him to escort me home given his not being held to corporeal shackles of physics.
“Brandr will double his efforts next time.” I said when my breath allowed me to speak; his name still stinging my tongue.
“He does each visit, why let it worry you?” Rémy replied, maddeningly calm.
“Is it not a matter of time before he wins?”
“This grudge is millenniums in the making, I should think you would all miss these tête-à-têtes were they to cease.”
“Rémy, I adore your confidence in me.”
“My darling Naomi, setting aside all our Victorian modesty for one moment, I would rather do battle with a demon from the 5th level of hell than a Rudat woman who has not been offered tea.”
Happy Halloween My Darlings