(Reader discretion advised.)
By the time morning came the fairy tree was not only withered but rotten. The fallen leaves that had dried and then been wetted by the dew filled the whole place with the bay leaf smell. Otto thought it was rather inconsiderate of the fairy’s signal to make such a mess after only one brief conversation, but Kitty pointed out that it was easier for them to get at the roots, where the signal had said the weapon was buried.
Kitty’s father helped them to respectfully remove the dead tree and the layer of leaf litter. Carefully following the roots into the ground with slow digging, they found one root that extended further than the others, almost straight down. The other roots had in fact loosened the soil and made it easier to dig. Four feet down they finally found where the long root was tangled around an object. As expected it had a blade, which made it difficult to get it out of the roots and soil safely. The blade was of no expected kind however. It was curved, somewhat longer than a cubit, and it had handles at each end going straight back from the blade, like the handles of a two-man crosscut saw. When Dr. Kikkert saw it he was puzzled, and rubbed his head.
“Er, Kitty, I wonder if you would allow me to tell one more person about your fairy prince? I’ll need Professor Morhier’s help with this I believe.”
He pronounced the French surname uncertainly as he always did (like “more”, with a French “r”, and the rest rhymes with “areae”). Kitty and Otto hesitated. Prof. Angelus Morhier was their magic class teacher at Cancer Independent School, and he wasn’t exactly a friend of theirs. He was demanding, peremptory, dour, impossible to impress, and his mere presence made them feel small, ignorant, and weak. In a way he was the opposite of Dr. Kikkert, who, however competent and knowledgeable he was, always seemed like he needed your help. Kitty didn’t like to think of Prof. Morhier knowing about the fairy: she felt like that would make it belong to him rather than them. He would keep such a secret far better than any of them though, even than her own father. And she couldn’t simply forbid Dr. Kikkert from telling him.
And so it was Prof. Morhier that ventured next into the field, wearing tall, black boots and long, black gloves. He carried a smoke dispenser, a thing like a can or tankard wrapped in a cage, with a top tapered at an angle, and a small bellows beside the handle. With this he pumped clouds of thick smoke around himself into the grass, smoke of cedar, lavender, mayweed, cassia, and screwpine. Towards the middle of the field he pumped vigorously over a certain area, then beckoned Dr. Kikkert to come, who brought a case like a surgeon’s case and a peach wood board the size of a small table-top. Kitty and Otto heard a sharp tapping, and after what seemed a long time Otto was beckoned to come. He wished Kitty could go with them, but no more than three should enter the field, out of respect.
They had found and tranquillised the scorpion, and stapled it to the peach wood board by its tail and pincers, disturbingly like in posture to a crucifix. Otto was told how to hold and use the strange knife: to bring it down like a guillotine, and rock it left and right, cutting off the head, and then cutting the rest into smaller pieces to be eaten. He removed the sling from his cursed arm, and took hold of the plain yet plainly ancient handles. Even in a stupor and fastened to a board, the black guardian looked terrifying. Completely outstretched it was the length of his arm. He didn’t like the thought of how long it would take to eat the entire creature. He lifted the blade. It felt horrible to do this, to kill something so strong, significant, and passionate, like killing a faithful and cunning dog. It didn’t help his feelings that they had immobilised the powerful creature so thoroughly.
He brought the blade down hard. There was no flash or smoke, simply a dull thud and foul crushing sound. The long body and every long leg of the scorpion twitched. With blow after blow he cut it into pieces small enough that he could put each in his mouth without having to bite through anything. He was cutting a long time.
“Begin by eating the head,” Prof. Morhier instructed him. “Use your cursed hand, but do not touch the board.”
Otto took up the head and closed his teeth around it. A shudder went through him, and an unreasonable fear that the complicated mouth he felt on his tongue would bite him. The first crunch into it made him gag. He wondered if it would be easier to swallow it like a pill, then had a horrifying thought of one of the leg pieces moving in his stomach. The next bite was no easier; he only got somewhat used to holding back the constant pressure of nausea. It was making him sweat. At one point something slipped in his mouth, and he half-vomited, but kept his mouth shut, and swallowed it back. It was too bad that the scorpion couldn’t be roasted or put in some other food. He thought the curse leaving his arm might feel good, but it only felt weird, like his arm was swelling again, and full of warm needles.
He was to eat the end of the tail, the telson, last. They told him the poison had been magically denatured. He had another shudder as he crushed between his teeth the very thing that had injected the horrible venom and the curse into his body. He chewed it quickly and was relieved that this particular ordeal was over. Was it worth it to remove the curse? When he thought of what might have happened if he had touched Else with his cursed hand – yes, it was worth it all.
Taking the guardian’s place did not seem nearly as intimidating, no doubt because he did not know what he would have to do.
His father and Else laid out sleeping bags alongside his in the field. Prof. Morhier told them that they could all sleep, because Otto, being the fairy prince’s guardian, would awake if any enemy was approaching. They dared not hinder their view or movement with a tent, and so were grateful that rain or serious cold was unlikely at that time of summer. With friends on either side of him, and under his pillow the ancient blade that had killed the scorpion, Otto felt very safe. More than once he had spent the night outdoors, and fell asleep not long after exchanging quiet goodnights with his father and with Else. He looked into her quiet, bright eyes for a some moments before taking off his glasses.
But he awoke suddenly in the dark, and sat up, feeling a hot, creeping sensation. He groped for his glasses in a panic, and saw when he put them on that there was something at the end of the field: several dark, blood red lights advancing through the weeds. He seized the fairy’s blade from under his pillow, nearly cutting his finger in his haste, and the glaring luminescences dropped lower, like a threatened dog shrinking to the ground. Then a sound slid into Otto’s ear-holes, a voice thin as silk fibres drawn from a worm’s spinneret, soft as doves’ faeces, dull as a razor bathed in nitric acid. It said,
“In the night you are so strong, great one. But I will come under the furnace of the sky, and I will fill your great hands with the blood of your friends, shed by your fingers.”
Otto realised that Else and his father were also awake, but could not remember when Else had raised herself on her arm, or when his father had switched on their lamp. The voice had claimed the previous moments entirely to itself. He felt weak and feverish.
“Father, did you hear that? Did you hear what it said?”
“I did not hear it. Therefore, it must have been meant for Otto’s ears alone.”
“Yes it was,” Else said, “but I heard it too.”
Though sweat was getting in his eyes, Otto could tell that she was looking steadily at him. She filled his hand with hers.
With that small, still hand resting in his, the fear that it would be hurt, or worse, by his own thick, trembling fingers… a darkness filled him which the blackness of night around them could not equal.
And yet, with God above, Else holding one hand, and his father holding the other, he was even able to sleep again.
He did not take off his glasses when he lay back down.
Go here to read: The Pasture Watch – Part Five: The Furnace of the Sky
Go here to read: The Pasture Watch – Part Three: The Signal
Go here to read all posted so far of: The Kitty and Otto Stories
This is also cross-posted on the site for OOM: a fellowship for lovers of the strange things of our Maker.
(As I was finishing this part of the story, it came to my mind that this song in Hindi is connected to it in some subliminal way. If you think you might disagree, you could skip it. Here is a rough translation of the lyrics if you’re curious.)
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