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The Wine of Lethe

I have an alter-ego in an on-going RPG who - among other things - runs a tavern. A growing body of fiction has developed from this character's interactions in his fictional, shared world, and I've found it refreshing to write pieces that must answer to nothing but the character, nothing but the sheer joy of telling a tale. Here is one from a late-night tavern encounter. The Wine of Lethe

She comes in late each night, battle-scars standing stark against her dark skin. Her name is Selvia, and I've never asked what she does or what company she associates with - if any. I suspect that her calling is much like that of my own crew -- and thus I know it is best not to ask. Besides, when they come into the Badger, they don't always come to talk business. Most come to forget the murder and bloodshed that is rife in the world.

Last night, she came to forget.

Her face was uncommonly grim. She's a proud woman, this Selvia, and she rarely carries herself with any sign of defeat. But you could see the burden of some loss in every line of her form as she approached the bar and asked for the strongest drink I had.

I've seen her drink. I knew not to bother with a glass. I handed her a bottle and let her try to drown whatever sorrows held her heavy heart.

Another came in and approached her. They spoke of what had to have been a job. A necessary killing - or at least one that was ordered. And Selvia, though she spoke little of the actual circumstances and gave no details away, made it clear that when she is given orders, she follows them.

No matter who that means she is asked to kill.

She went through two bottles of hard drink, as did her friend. I tried not to listen as they discussed in a circumspect fashion the incident that had leveled Selvia's mood to such a desperate state. When they left -- with a paladin of questionable intent hot on their heels -- the two women could barely stand.

I wanted to ask. But I knew better. And I had other customers.

She came in later, when the only other person -- beyond myself -- was a quiet woman intent on a hot meal before she made the final few steps of her journey home to her own bed.

Selvia -- still wobbling from her indulgences earlier -- asked again for the strongest I had. A glass this time. Even she didn't trust herself with a whole bottle -- and she probably knew at this point it would do little to dull the pain.

So I offered her the Wine of Lethe. This is not on the menu. It is not casually left in the cabinets under the bar. I keep the few bottles I have under lock and key. They are rare and precious, and what I have to go through to retrieve them is better left unsaid. I don't brew the drink myself - I've seen it done, long ago, and in this suspicious age, I know better than to dirty my hands with such a process. Better to use my memories to guide me to where a bottle might be hidden away after all these years.

But I digress. The wine is a vintage of no ordinary fruit. It is a product of magic - dark and complex. The bottle itself requires a rite to construct and more shadestone than is healthy for normal people to be around. And the fluid inside - murky, thick and with an oily sheen - is not something you drink for the taste.

The bouquet is like an abandoned field after harvest, when the last ears of corn rot on the stalks. It is like a late autumn forest, denuded of leaves, with all the bare branches whispering together under the lightless eye of the new moon. It smells of death, decay and emptiness -- and that is what it is. Lethe. Forgetting.

I explain it to her before pouring. I would never just thrust this on someone unawares. There is a moment in death - just after you've finished the messy part of dying with all the pain and delirium. In that moment before your spirits stands over your corpse in the Grey, there is a sudden sense of peace. All the pain leeches away and the limbs grow heavy. The lungs no longer crave air. The mind no longer races. This is not a release precisely, but you no longer care about the pain. You are heavy and numb and still.

That is the Wine of Lethe. It captures a taste of that moment. Just a taste -- it does not last.

But in her state, Selvia needed it.

I uncorked the bottle with its runed silver stopper. I poured the potent fluid -- black as old blood. And she drank.

I don't think she had believed me. When I picked her up off the floor, a little chill of death still clinging to her lips where they had kissed the glass, she murmured and fretted and asked for more.

More would likely kill her. I offered to show her the threshold, not push her over the edge.

I carried her to an upstairs room -- I won't let any harm come to those inside the Badger when I'm on shift, not if I can prevent it. I let her sleep it off.

She was gone once I woke for the day and braved the crushing light of afternoon to get to the tavern. I can only hope that little taste of the absence of pain helped soothe her restless heart.




The Truth in Their Eyes

Little known fact: I write fairy tales. Love reading them, too. My love of this genre started with an artbook my mother left behind when she moved away when I was in kindergarten. It was a collection of Arthur Rackham's works. Rackham's gorgeous illustrative art brought a number of fairy tales to life, as well as Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream, Wagner's Ring cycle, and Alice in Wonderland. The art book was all images, full-color, with a small caption on the back of each page that didn't explain the image so much as it tantalized. Beneath the caption was the book and author from whence the illustration came. I would sit for hours with this book, gazing at the images, telling myself stories about the actions and figures depicted there. When I grew older, I sought each of the books out and read them -- but of course, as these things go, few of the stories lived up to the dream-tales I had woven for myself throughout the years. Still, I owe my love of Shakespeare to this book as well as my discovery of Andrew Lang's extensive collections of fairy tales.

When I first tried my hand at writing tales,  naturally gravitated to fairy tales first. Myths, as well, because one of the other books left behind for me was D'Aulaires' illustrated Greek myths. I moved on to other things, aping the styles of writers I enjoyed reading, from Lovecraft to Bradbury, Asimov, Poe, Tolkien, McCaffrey, and the many other muses of my youth. I love horror and urban fantasy, but I also am drawn back to fairy tales every now and again (Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, & Neil Gaiman have all produced works to feed this passion). I have a whole book worth of these little tales kicking around. Sometimes light-hearted, but more often dark and moody, they always revolve around a lesson, as good fairy tales do. "The Truth in Their Eyes" is one of the darker ones, shared here:

The Truth in Their Eyes

Far away and over the sea, there is an island of people who have a strange and alarming custom.  Whenever a child is born among them, before it reaches the age of one, they heat up a poker and sear out its eyes.  This grisly process is accompanied by all manner of pomp and ceremony, and it is the fundamental rite of passage for the people of that place.  Needless to say, every single living person who inhabits this island is blind.  Yet the elders of the island avow that this willful handicap of their populace is preferable to the alternative, which is to suffer excruciating mental anguish as the result of a curse placed upon their entire race by a vengeful Faery maid.

As it is told at their ceremonies, just before the putting out of the eyes, a grand princess of Faerie had been sailing to meet her love when her ship was caught up in a storm.  Blown off course and tossed by the winds, the vessel was smashed on the rocks that ring the far side of the island.  That side of the island had long been the bane of passing ships.  But rather than erect a watchfire to warn sailors away, the islanders of that day allowed the ships to wreck so they could loot the remains.

It was a policy among the islanders to wait a night and a day before looting the wreckage of any beached ships. This, they felt, exonerated them from the deaths of any of the sailors. Very, very rarely one or two survivors would cling to life throughout the requisite night and day.  For these, there was a specially consecrated knife that would put an end to their misery.  For, while the religion of the islanders taught them that murder was wrong, their most recent theologians had developed conditions that excused certain opportunistic killing. Thus, as the blood poured out on the sand, the beachcombers would erect a pyre of driftwood and then, once the corpse was merrily burning, they were free to pick the goods from the wreck with a clear conscience.

But the Faery vessel changed things for them, for it was the source of the curse.

The first to see the proud white ship was a fisherman who often watched for vessels during the storms.  He stood on a high cliff over-looking the rocks, and as the storm rolled in, he saw the prow of the vessel gleaming like ivory in the evening light.  He had never seen a ship so tall and grand.  For a moment, he almost felt sorry that a thing of such beauty would soon be wrecked to splinters on the rocks below, but thoughts of that kind were quickly supplanted by dreams of what kind of treasure such a ship might bear in its glittering belly.

The wind dashed the ship upon the rocks sometime just before midnight.  Everyone in the town heard it, and every one of them rolled over and went back to sleep, visions of rich cloth and rare, fine spices sweetening their dreams.

Dawn came, and everyone listened to the morning breeze as it came off the beach.  No sounds came forth from the doomed vessel.  Still, the edicts said that they must wait a night and a day before they could safely loot and be exonerated from any obvious wrong-doing.  But they knew the sea to be a fickle mistress who would take just as easily as she gave.  The tide might shift, and then the chests of cloth and the casks of wine would be lost forever in the deep.

For the fisherman who had observed the ship when it was caught in the first grips of the storm, that flash of bone-white prow haunted him. The masts had gleamed with leaf-of-gold and the sails seemed spun from silver thread.  What riches were the waves carrying away even as he waited, breakfasting with his fellow islanders?

By noon, he could stand it no longer, and he was not alone.  All morning, he had spoken of the richness of what he had seen.  Every member of his audience had been enchanted by the images he painted of a treasure beyond their wildest dreams.  And so it was that a group of perhaps fifteen men trooped down to the rocky beach to gaze at the wreckage of the once-great ship.

As they rounded the hill, the first thing they saw was a thin curl of smoke.  This made them hurry, for if the vessel was burning, even more of the glorious treasures would be lost.  But, to their surprise, the ship – or what remained of it – was not ablaze.  Instead the smoke came from a fire of driftwood that had been set on the beach.  Beside this blaze huddled a figure in white, her fine gold hair spilling down to her waist.  When she saw the men, she jumped to her feet.  Waving her arms excitedly, she called in a language they did not understand, but seeing their looks soon changed to an accented version of the common tongue.

The men hesitated at the top of the beach.  They muttered among themselves, each looking to the other for some sign of guidance.  For it was obvious that this woman was nowhere near death.  True, her face was scratched and some blood was clotted near a bump on her head, but though the ship lay splintered around her, some miracle had protected her from all other harm.

The fisherman, who had dreamed all night of the riches that would be his, was the first to speak.  He smiled genially and strode down to where she had been drying out by the small fire.

“Greetings, lady,” he said in the sincerest of tones. “My companions and I live on the other side of this island, and we thought we heard some noise in the night.  We have traveled all morning to search for survivors.  Are you the only one?”

She wept at this and at first could not speak. But once the fit had passed, she nodded, saying, “Kind sirs, my ship was caught in a terrible storm.  The sails tore, the mast was split, and the wind threw us against the rocks.  Many of my brave sailors were washed into the sea as they struggled to keep us afloat.  Those who survived what the storm handed out sadly did not survive the rocks.  I alone escaped, and that with the help of my magic.  If only they had awakened me in the night, I may have averted the storm! But alas, I only awoke as we crashed against these harsh rocks.”

At this she began weeping bitterly again.  The fisherman glanced nervously at his companions.  Their own eyes widened at what they had heard.  They knew enough of magic to know it should be feared.

The fisherman turned back to the lady.  Tentatively, he spoke in the language of the islanders.  The lady looked up from her weeping, but her gaze was blank.  Just to be certain that she had no idea what he was saying, he insulted her and then attacked her parentage, smiling gently all the while.  She knit her brow and shook her head and motioned that she did not comprehend.  His smile widened, though he turned to his friends before the lady could see the glitter of greed in his eyes.

“What do you think?” he asked them.  “She has magic, but maybe enough to save her only once.”

“Too dangerous,” said one.

“We can’t do this,” said another.  “She’s not dead, not even near to it.”

A third looked down and shuffled his feet in the sand.  “This won’t be like the other ones,” he said.  “You know the rules. We can’t just murder her, and we can’t outright steal what’s left of her ship with her still breathing. ”

At this the fisherman frowned, but then the faery woman spoke, and he turned back to her, smiling with all the benevolence of the world.

“Could you use the common tongue?” she asked hesitantly, her own words thickly accented.  “I’m unfamiliar with the language of this place.”

“Certainly,” he said, stepping forward to take her arm.  “Now, you must tell me.  Who are you and where were you headed when you were caught up in that awful storm?”

“My name is Melissandra Orimunde and I am a princess of the Shining Host from across the Crystal Sea.  I was sailing with my dowry to meet my betrothed, Prince Ilhander who rules over the Islands of the Sun far to the West.”

Throughout all this, the fisherman nodded, lending support with a comforting arm. He kept his face a compassionate mask, but underneath it lay a calculated avarice more dangerous than the storm.

“Her dowry is here,” he called over to the others, using the tongue of the island.  They, torn by equal measures of guilt and greed, sat huddled around her campfire, uncertain what to do.  A few looked up, but they shrugged dejectedly.

“What does it matter?” one called. “She’s not dead.  I won’t risk punishment, not even for all this!”

Stroking her hair as she wept for her losses, the fisherman shot them a darkly triumphant look.

“She may not be dead,” he called, sounding just like he was discussing the weather.  “But she’s a witch, and she’s admitted it.  We can kill her for that without fear of sin. You know the laws demand death for a witch.”

There was a murmur from the others that made the princess look up from her grief.

“What is it you are discussing?” she asked, pale brows knitted together.

“You said you worked magic to save yourself from the storm?” he inquired, almost smug.

She nodded hesitantly, searching his eyes for his intent.  But all she saw was what he showed her, and this mask of compassion eased her growing fears.

“Could you show us some of this magic?  We’ve never seen faery magic before.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she sighed.  “It took so much to survive the wreck.  If I work my magic so soon after that I risk illness or even death.”

With a grin, he said, “That’s just what I wanted to hear.”

Before she could react, he seized a fistful of her golden hair and unsheathed his sharp little knife.  With an upward thrust he pierced her heart, and never once did the pretended benevolence leave his face.

Her eyes grew wide as a gout of blood erupted from her mouth.  His features twisting in disgust, he shoved her to the sand.

"Lying!” she gasped.  “Lying?  For what?”

He had already turned back to the others.

“She’s as good as dead,” he said, wiping blood from his face.  “Let’s start hauling these chests before the waves take them out.”

“For … that?” she muttered.  “My death for that?”

And her lifesblood pumped out onto the sand.

Pressing her hand against the wound, she sang a spell with failing breath. For a moment, she seemed to revive: bolt upright she sat, her face ablaze with inner light.  She fixed them in her burning gaze, and with a voice that vibrated the very air, she cried:

“Forsake your greed and petty lies and see the truth within your eyes!”

With this, she expired.  For a moment, all stood frozen on the beach, expecting lightning bolts or tremendous waves to wreak her vengeance on one and all.  When minutes passed and no vengeance came, they went back to the looting of her wrecked ship.  Afraid to touch her bloody corpse, they left her for the seagulls and the rising tide.

Although some were shaken by this final display, when days went by and nothing came, they dismissed it as a spell gone wrong.  After all, she herself had declared her magic spent from the crash and the storm. But the curse was both powerful and insidious, and it took some time for those afflicted with it to even notice its effects.

The first one was a respected matron of the town.  She had worked most of her adult life to help the needy and the poor.  Her altruism was a point of pride, and she never tired of reminding people how selfless she was.  Yet one day, as she presented a shiny bangle to a woman less fortunate than herself, she happened to catch sight of her reflection in the bronze.  She gasped at what she saw in her reflection’s eyes: instead of selfless devotion, there was gloating pride.  In that moment, she realized that all her life had been a lie.  There was no denying it: she gave, not out of benevolence, but because she felt superior to everyone else. At no other time did she feel more superior than when giving little trifles to those less fortunate than herself.

Her voice failed her. The bangle dropped to the sand. The poor woman looked at her in confusion, but she turned and fled without saying another word. Later, she was seen in her home, smashing every mirror.

After her, it was one of the elders of the town.  He was an upstanding man who set the moral standard for everyone else.  As a town elder, it was his responsibility to judge the members of the community who had committed grievous crimes.  That day, he, along with his fellow elders, had to cast judgment upon a man found cohabiting with another man.  Before the trial, the elder practiced his speech at his bedroom mirror.  He loathed homosexual behavior, and he intended to convince all the others to sentence the criminal to death.  Yet as he met his own fervent gaze in the depths of mirror, he saw something that made him stop cold.  There, clearly written within his eyes, was the self-same lust for another man. The forbidden desire that he was seeking to condemn was a desire he felt himself.

With a strangled cry he smashed the mirror and used its shards to put out his eyes.

On and on it went.  Mirrors were smashed. Whole families leapt to their deaths from the cliffs.  People went mad as their darkest secrets could no longer be denied but instead stared back at them whenever they gazed upon their own face.

With the island in chaos, a meeting was held.  They had tried outlawing mirrors, but this did not end the workings of the curse.  One young man had gazed deep into his lover’s eyes, but saw only his own reflected there. What he saw inspired him to strangle his infant son, drown his wife, and then kill himself.  After that, no one could even meet the gaze of another for fear of what they might learn of themselves.  They were a society stripped of the protection afforded by comfortable lies.

In the end, the choice was clear: all the people of the island chose blindness rather than run the risk of gazing at their own ugly truths.

--M. Belanger