Winner of the 2006 SFFWorld Short Story Contest
Since one of the remaining pleasures in my life is sleep, it was of great distress to me to be awoken by the sound of snapping twigs. Someone was blundering their way through the maze of forest pathways towards the cottage. Fearing the worst, I pulled my head out from under my wing, left my perch atop the shingled roof and glided downwards, in search of the poor fool.
It didn’t take long to find the young woman struggling through the brush, heading slowly and inexorably towards the cottage. I observed the usual look of desperation on her face. I quickly landed on a nearby branch and called out to her: “Flee! Your life is much better off the way it is now!”
The woman stopped and looked upwards, staring confusedly up at the trees. “Who said that?” she called out breathlessly. She looked to be eighteen or so, with plaited blonde hair and thick, pleated skirts.
“I did,” I said, flapping down and landing on a fallen log so that she could see me properly and hopefully get quickly over usual the “Oh look, a talking bird!” moment so she would have a chance to take in what I was trying to tell her. “For the sake of everything you hold dear, go back to where you come from and find some other means of resolving your problem!”
“A talking raven!” the young woman said excitedly, bending down close that she could indeed confirm my black-feathered and bird-like nature, if it wasn’t obvious enough already. She wasn’t going to be one of the more quick-witted petitioners that I had encountered.
“Crow,” I corrected. “And, please – shove off and go back home. If you go on any further, you’ll just get yourself in a worse mess than you’re currently in.”
“I had heard that a powerful sorceress resided here,” the woman said stubbornly. “And that she can help people.”
“Yes, but you don’t want this sorceress,” I hissed. “She’ll take whatever problem you have and make it worse. Helping? More like meddling and ruining! You’ll get something that you didn’t want, only you’ll find yourself wanting it and…”
“I’ve got no choice. I’ll pay your mistress whatever she wants,” the woman said. She had a stubborn set to her jaw, as though didn’t believe what I was saying. (Or want to believe it.) “And I’m not going back. Now take me to the sorceress at once!”
“Come this way,” I told the woman, my sympathy for her rapidly eroding. I’m not terribly partial to being ordered around by petitioners. “And when your mess is over, don’t say that I didn’t warn you!”
I flew on ahead of the woman, flitting between various branches and logs so she would, in her own slow-witted way, be able to follow me. Eventually we came to the Torgaine’s cottage and I flew in through an open window. “There’s another desperate lunatic outside, begging for your assistance,” I said.
To introduce my mistress properly, let me start with her appearance. She is a great, overweight sow of a woman, the sort of person who needs to sit on two chairs rather than one to be properly comfortable. I know little of her past. She’s mentioned (rather vaguely) a great society of mages, and it’s a wonder they haven’t arrested her yet for her flagrant abuses of magic.
To put this bluntly, my mistress enjoys meddling with people’s lives. Somehow, no matter which world we visit or which remote corner we dwell in, people will turn up, “petitioners”, desperately begging for the sort of solution that they think only magic can provide. And my mistress, when she can be bothered to rouse herself from her teas, desserts and her black, leather-bound tomes (that I suspect contain pornographic writings and pictures) will resolve the petitioner’s request in the way they want it the least.
I observed that the Torgaine was seated at the table, engaged in yet another of her tea sessions (I’ve given up counting how many of them she has each day), cutting up a cake decorated with orange peel and arranging some porcelain cups. When the door banged open, the Torgaine politely gave the petitioner a gruesome, many-chinned smile.
“I apologise if my servant failed at introductions,” the Torgaine said, pointing to a spare chair at the table. “I am the Torgaine of Ysengarth, and that moulting bundle of feathers over there is Phlogiston VI.”
The woman nodded, possibly wondering in all the worlds what a Torgaine was or where Ysengarth was. I don’t know either, and I’ve never been motivated to ask.
“I’m Lark,” the petitioner said, shyly. “Lark, daughter of Pied and Ingholt.” She walked over to the table and sat down, staring at the monstrous slice of overly sweet confectionery that the Torgaine had cut for her. Lark picked at it cautiously. “I’m so glad the tales are true,” she started to babble nervously, as though she were chatting with a shopkeeper. “I think it was my grandmother who told me about a sorceress who lived in these parts of the woods, who helped those in need…”
“Yes, yes,” the Torgaine said abruptly, brushing Lark’s comments. (In truth, we had only been here since last week.) “And your problem is…?”
“Oh,” Lark said, the look of desperation settling over her face once more. She looked down at the tablecloth and scratched at the embroidery. “I’m engaged to be married,” she said. “To Marston Miller, owner of the town mill.”
“As one might suspect, judging by his name,” the Torgaine said.
“He’s a grim and loveless man,” Lark went on, ignoring the Torgaine’s attempt to be witty. (At least, that’s what I think it was.) “He’s nearly twice my age. But I’m in love with Pak Hillheart. We’ve been dear friends since we were children, and he wants nothing more than to marry me too. But the elders – they won’t stand for it. They negotiate all the marriages for our town, as if we were fine breeding cows or the like!” Lark crushed up a flower-patterned serviette in her fist.
“And what sort of assets would Pak bring to your household, if you were married?” the Torgaine asked.
Lark looked confused. “He’s a shepherd. He looks after the herds for the most important families in the village.”
“Does he have a house?” the Torgaine insisted.
“Yes,” Lark said. “He’s poor but he’s got a sweet little house high up in the hills.”
The Torgaine drummed her fingers on the table.
“And have you seen it?”
“No,” Lark said, looking rather confused at the Torgaine’s questions. “Listen, I want a spell from you that will change the minds of the town elders, and make them agree to marry off me to Pak, rather than Marston.”
She watched in nervous silence as the Torgaine started on another slice of cake. “I can pay you,” Lark insisted. “I don’t have much, but whatever I’ve got, you can have it.”
“Go home,” the Torgaine said, after clearing her mouth of cake. (Despite my many grievances towards my mistress, she never speaks when her mouth is full.) “Once I’ve decided to do something, I’ll do it. And you’ll notice.”
Lark got up, still looking confused. “You’ll want payment? How will I notice what you’ve done? I thought you’d give me a charm or something…”
“Shoo,” the Torgaine said, making a motion with her hand that suggested that Lark was a pigeon out steal some of her precious baked delights. “It’s being taken care of.” I have never observed the Torgaine “doing magic”, as such. No sacrificial goats, chants or summoning diagrams. Things just happen around her, and not usually to the benefit of all involved.
Lark shook her head, none-the-wiser, and left the cottage. We listened as her footsteps receded into the distance.
“Right, got a job for you, Phlogiston,” the Torgaine said, removing her fountain pen and scrawling some notes on the back of a serviette. “I want you to go to Lark’s town and do a report for me.”
“Can I have some cake first?” I asked, despite myself. (It’s terrible when your bestial nature gets the better of you.)
I left on a tedious mission of reconnaissance, while the Torgaine committed further acts of gluttony within the cottage. Lark’s town (personally, I would have called it a village) was based around a ford in a river. As per the Torgaine’s instructions, I flapped around the village mill, visited a collapsing wooden shed in the hills, followed some people, observed some conversations and stole some sausages. I did this for a week, reciting my observations to the Torgaine each night, forced to recall everything in painful detail. On the seventh night, the Torgaine informed me that my services would not be required the next morning and it was with gratitude that I withdrew to the roof for slumber.
Unfortunately, I was woken up the next morning by the sounds of a yet another petitioner crashing their way up the path to the Torgaine’s cottage. This was a young man, brimming with anger. He had a shaggy head of hair badly in need of a cut, and bandied a shepherd’s crook about it as though it were an ancient and terrible sorceress-slaying weapon. If only that were so.
“Master Pak Hillheart,” I said, having recognised him from my reconnaissance and landed on a nearby branch.
“Aye, that’s me.” Pak said, pointing his crook accusingly at me. “I’m here to confront that witch who stole my love from me. You must be her demon familiar!”
(I found this a refreshing change from the “Oh look, a talking bird!” reaction that I usually got.)
“This way,” I said, guiding Pak to the Torgaine’s cottage.
Pak blinked upon entering.
The Torgaine was reclining in the sitting room, reading a newspaper in a script I couldn’t read myself. She put down the paper and took off her reading spectacles as Pak entered.
“Mr Hillheart,” she said. “I understand you have a problem?”
“And I do, you fat pig of a witch!” Pak shouted. “My Lark, my darling Lark – you’ve taken her from me! Today that she comes up to me, acting all different and cold, saying that she’s going to marry Marston Miller, because he can give her, oh, I forget the words she said, but they weren’t hers. And that look in her eyes – it wasn’t her. Not my Lark. All I know is that a week ago, she said that she was going to visit a sorceress in the forest, because of something that she remembered from her Grandma’s stories. And that she wouldn’t have hide nor hair of me following her. She said that she was going to get a spell cast that would change the mind of the elders. But when Lark came to me this morning, telling me that she was going to marry the miller, I knew that a spell had been cast on her instead! You take your magic off my Lark or I’ll smash your pig face in!”
“Marston Miller can give Lark ‘greater financial stability’,” the Torgaine pointed out. “You have a hovel, and lots of sheep. None of them yours. Your dwelling leaks, and it’s not a suitable place, in my opinion, to bring up children. If Lark marries Marston Miller, she’ll have a nice house, servants, and be able to afford a doctor. She’ll be respectable.”
I hid my head under my wing. This is the sort of thing the Torgaine usually does. She played with her reading glasses, chewing thoughtfully on the end of one of the arms, no doubt wishing it were cake. “You’re nearly twenty, Pak – why don’t you find a younger lad to take over your shepherding chores, and inquire about town for a more respectable employment? Ask Thurston or Kerrily. I think you’ll find they need some help out at the mill.”
I looked at Pak, hoping to see him snap with rage and lash out with his crook, but instead he had a quiet, listening expression on his face. It was the Torgaine’s magic, slowly setting into his brain, like grave rot seeping into a corpse. “I’ll think about your words, mistress,” was all he said. He smiled woodenly and then headed out the door.
The Torgaine allowed herself a self-satisfied smile.
I confronted her. I couldn’t stand it when she got that self-righteously smug look. “You’ve ruined their lives,” I said. “All you had to do was let the two get married, and now you’ve bollixed things up for everyone. It would have been up to Lark and Pak to see if their marriage worked out. But now Lark’s trapped in a loveless marriage while her true love works on around her and…”
“An excellent proximity for them to conduct an affair, or so I would think,” the Torgaine said, tapping a pile of scribbled papers to one side. “I’ve reviewed the mill productivity schedule and the staff rotations and especially looked at Marston Miller’s movements. He’s quite active in local politics and goes to the pub on a regular basis. Once they work out the timetable, Lark and Pak should be able to meet together for lover’s trysts on a regular basis.”
“And that was the best solution you could come up with?” I demanded.
The Torgaine shrugged, “Marston’s nearly fifty. And he’s got a weak heart, as I observed. Lark will be a widow in ten, fifteen years and in control of the mill, Pak will learn some common sense, and then they can get married, if they still want to.”
“People need to make mistakes to learn things,” I told her. “But now you’ve locked down their lives! Boxed them in!”
“Lark was quite prepared to change the minds of the elders, to get want she wanted,” the Torgaine said. “It was more efficient in the end, just to change hers and Pak’s.”
“Can we just leave before you make their village any worse?” I pleaded.
The Torgaine shrugged, “If you want, Phlogiston. But this is what helping people is all about. You might not agree with my decisions, but in the end, I think the outcomes are always satisfactory.” She leaned back in her chair, as if indicating that the matter was at end. “I’m going to make some shortbread this afternoon. I’ll leave some aside for you.”
I flew out the window. I didn’t want to be in her presence any longer. I thought of going to the village, and watching the Torgaine’s “arrangements” play out, but I didn’t have the stomach for that either. When people visit a sorceress and beg for magic, that’s what they want, but the Torgaine makes everything just more… ordinary. You never get what you expected. I thought of Lark’s look, and remembered a stupid young boy who had begged a sorceress to let him serve her, so he could learn of magic, only to wind up as an ineffectual crow for all of his good intentions.
As I flew high into the air, I saw another petitioner coming up the path. I flew down to warn him away from dealing with the Torgaine of Ysengarth.