Updated: Aug 3, 2022
The Law of Greeting bound me to him. The Law of Unravelling stole me away. But it was the Law of my own heart that set me now on this careening course toward fate and death and the barest glimmer of hope.
When I was a little girl my mother would cuddle me and my two brothers on her lap before the fire and tell us Wittentales — tales too fantastic and grisly for the mortal world. Tales of creatures who chewed children’s bones to dust and belched out nightmares. Tales of oaths pledged that ruined lives and of bargains made which brought fortune beyond imagining and of lovers and fathers and kings who knew not which they were making before fate forced them to dance to the terms set until their feet were bloody. She told tales of trickery so twisty and horrible that it spun the threads of man and changed the entire tapestry, nation falling upon nation, whole kingdoms swallowed in madness or sickness or storm.
When I became a woman, I no longer needed such stories, for despite all my attempts at practicality, I myself, became ensnared within such a tale. And as the weaver of the warp and weft of history brought together the tangled threads of this saga, she wove it with me at the core. Try as I might to buck the pattern, she had only woven my thread back in, and back in, and back in again until there was no untangling it from the course of fate.
I fled through the Wittenhame with my husband clutched to my chest and my heart in my throat. He was no lighter in my arms than a feather, though he was a full-grown man. I held him clutched to my chest, for he made an awkward burden despite his light weight, and even with Wittentree’s magic binding us, I was terrified of losing my grip on him.
Ashes fell around us like rain.
At first, I thought they were my imagination, but soon they floated down as thick as leaves falling from the trees in autumn, great black, fluttery ashes with soft filmy edges. And they coated my hair and my tongue and filled the air with the scent of smoke.
“Cataclysm,” Grosbeak muttered from where his severed head was tied at my belt, and it sounded as if he were arguing with himself. “But no, it cannot be. T’was to be succession, not the end of all things.”
I paused in a sudden clearing on the edge of the tor, my breath sawing through my lungs, my legs trembling as I turned first one way and then another, my long hair whipping into my face and obscuring my vision as I searched for pursuit. They would be just behind me. They would be on my heels.
I was breathless, heart racing, mind hot with fear. If only I could have just one sip of water to cool me. But though I searched the shadows, there was none following. The clearing was empty.
Though I had run for only minutes — fleeing the celebration of Coppertomb’s coronation, the festivities and drinking, the dancing and merry-making — there was no sound behind me. The faint screams and distant laughter had melted away, leaving nothing but the chirping of insects, and the soft fall of ash, and a loud ringing in my ears that was, perhaps, my own fear echoing back to me. It blurred and blinded my senses to such a degree that a figure rode out almost upon me before I saw him there.
He was a pale, pale Wittenbrand in a flowing white robe that folded in a fan across his torso. His white hair reached his waist and then fell further still, dry and hoary as it fluttered in the wind. It blew in a different direction than the ash fell, as if he were not subject to the laws of moving air or gravity, though it was peppered in grey and black and melting white from the blowing ashes.
He rode upon a bone horse so pale that it occasionally disappeared altogether and his hands were skeletal bones just as one of mine was. As I watched he flicked his white sword and a pale flame white ran up and down the edge of the blade.
I swallowed, looking up to his face. His cheeks were sunken and his eyes ghastly white pearls. They rolled as he regarded me, his mouth falling open and his tongue quivering there like a living slug.
There was a long moment of silence as we looked at each other and then Grosbeak screamed, terrible and ear-piercing.
I watched myself freeze as if I were watching someone else, as the figure reached to point a single digit toward me, and just as I was about to scream, too, I remembered something — Bluebeard, whispering poetry to me as he faded, his heart snatched away, his words only for me. I clung tightly to the memory and to the cry that wanted to escape me. He would take neither from me.
I closed my eyes and held my husband’s corpse tightly to my chest and thought about that moment and my roaring love for him.
I took a shuddering breath and then opened my eyes.
The white Wittenbrand was gone, and we had been transported to the doorstep of Bluebeard’s home. It stood there, bent and odd, squatting on grouse feet in amongst a group of other Wittenhame homes. Here, too, everything was abandoned, ashes falling so fast and silent that they created a blanket of white and grey and black.
Grosbeak’s scream cut off and I heard him gasp, panting with exertion.
“Death. Death has come for us. But how did we escape? What manner of monstrosity are you, Izolda, that you can turn back the avatar of death?”
“That couldn’t have been death,” I said, swallowing down the emotions churning within me. I felt oddly disturbed by the sight of that terrible Wittenbrand. I could not quite name the emotion seizing me and making my hands shake like leaves in the high wind. It was something that combined fear and horror, something that rolled despair and dread all into the mix leaving me sizzling and snapping like fat thrown into the fire. “Were it he, we would not still be here.”
In the distance, a horn sounded, biting into my ears and mind. I jumped. The sound seemed to come from every direction at once. It was long and soulful, eerie and spine-tingling, like the cry of an elk in the forest. It made my mouth dry with renewed fear, as if the sound alone had found and tapped a spring within me. My heart sped, blood pulsing in my ears.
Grosbeak responded with a moan of despair as I reached for Bluebeard’s door.
“The Wild Hunt, the Wild Hunt! Our doom falls upon us!”
“That’s very dramatic of you,” I said grimly as I tried to shuffle Bluebeard in my arms so I could open the door of his home. I’d forgotten about the magic that took you to the door of someone in the Wittenhame if you thought hard about what you loved about them. It had certainly been a boon to us. Bluebeard’s head lolled on my shoulder, both precious and terribly tragic. I pillowed it with one hand as one does with a newborn infant.
A good widow would bury her dead husband. I was not good, for I planned to carry him with me.
“Dramatic? I state only the truth, fool mortal girl, so plain as to be nearly gauche. The end has come. Our doom has come upon us. Saw you not the ashes of the sky burning up? Heard you not the horns of heaven?”
“I doubt that was the sky. There’s likely a forest fire nearby,” I said calmly. “And by the time it reaches us, we’ll be elsewhere.”
“Indeed,” he said with a bite, “For if you have any sense you’ll run. We’re about to be hunted by the Hounds of Heaven.”
“I thought the Wild Hunt took place in the Mists of Memory,” I said, trying to find logic in these prophecies of doom.
“That’s only the memory of it from another age, and ’tis bad enough! The real thing will harrow us to our bones. Did you not see Death himself on his pale horse?”
I paused as the door creaked open.
“That was Death?”
“Who did you think it was?” his voice was shrill with fear and drew up higher and higher with every word.
“I thought he was one of the Wittenbrand to whom I had not yet been introduced,” I replied smoothly. “There are a great many of you, each more bloodthirsty than the last, I find. But if it was Death, then perhaps we ought to find him again.”
“Find Death? Find him on purpose?” Grosbeak was practically squealing. “To what end? Do you think he will be swayed by compassion for your mortal bones as I am? He’s not so soft. He’s not tainted by an ungainly affection for a mortal. You’re too mad for this world, Izolda. You should have stayed with the other mortals and fought their Last Battle with them.”
I frowned. “Perhaps I fled from Death too quickly. If we’d followed him, could he take us to where Bluebeard has gone?”
I realized after a heartbeat that the keening sound I heard was Grosbeak. It finally dissolved into words.
“To the Barrow? Are you so lost to sense that you would die with your husband?”
I barked a laugh as I stepped through the door. “Isn’t that what the poem says? ‘Die with your lord?’”
“It meant with the Bramble King, obviously. And Coppertomb twisted it so that he could take your husband’s heart and offer it to the Barrow and watch him die alongside his lord while the great Lord Coppertomb was crowned the new Bramble King.” Grosbeak’s words almost tumbled together he was speaking so quickly. “Were you not paying attention? We can’t live it twice like a play we enjoyed. You have to sink into these things and soak them up or you’ll miss them entirely. Sometimes I despair that you have learned nothing from me.”
“You think I should have soaked up my husband’s death?” I couldn’t keep the censure from my voice. “Coppertomb reached within his chest and ripped out his beating heart.”
“And wasn’t it wonderful? Didn’t it give you a thrill? Lord Coppertomb — or maybe I should say, the new-crowned Bramble King — is a great master of drama and portents and I applaud his excellent ascension. We will be singing the tale of it for centuries to come.”
“I thought you said the sky was falling and we were all caught in a cataclysm?” I said wryly, still caught on the threshold just inside Bluebeard’s door as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I was afraid to enter. Afraid of what might greet me within. Would his friends and servants within reject me? Would the fire burn me up or the rooms shift and swallow me?
“I’ll admit,” Grosbeak said glibly, “a reign shadowed with such portents as Death walking amongst the living and the sky falling in ash is sure to be a short one.” He paused, considering, and the fear, in his voice was suddenly replaced by speculation and something that sounded very much like delight. “A short but entertaining one. Perhaps I will enjoy it after all.”
I gasped as my eyes finally adjusted to the darkness of Bluebeard’s home. There was no fire burning. I saw no cats or other creatures moving in the heights above. No raven. No folk. No smells of food or drink. The door swung closed behind me and slammed shut.
I gasped, feeling my way to the mantle. Hollowness rung in every corner of my husband’s home. It felt as though the heart of this house had been removed just as his physical heart had been, plucked away by an enemy. I choked on a swell of that swirling emotion I could not name.
“Ooof. Take a care! You are bumping me into furniture!”
I found the tinderbox and a candle one-handed and then sank to the ground, cradling Bluebeard on my lap so that I could work with the tinderbox to light the candle. It took four tries and even then my shaking hands barely managed it.
“Where is the fire?” I asked, my voice forlorn. I had hoped the fire could help to transport us to somewhere safer than this. But beyond that hope, his loss was even greater, for Bluebeard’s home felt dead without its blazing heart.
I looked down at my husband’s lovely face, flickering in the pale candlelight. Had I bargained for the wrong thing? Was I merely spinning out his torment by dragging his near-corpse everywhere with me? I’d heard once of a mother whose child had been snatched by fever. It had taken four men to hold her as they wrested the child’s body from her sobbing grasp. She could not bear to set his tiny form down.
“Dead, I’d wager,” Grosbeak’s words sliced into my thoughts. “Rotting now like the rest of this mausoleum, if fires can rot. It cannot live now that he is dead. Perhaps the same is true of you. After all, of what use are you in the Wittenhame when you are flesh and mortal bones without a single breath of magic to sustain you.”
“And yet, if these mortal bones did not carry you, you’d soon find the Wittenhame considerably less entertaining,” I reminded him.
I stood, carefully drawing Bluebeard up with me, and the candle also, so that I could scoop up the silver thread and needle and with great care, I carried my husband to the settee where once we caressed one another and set him upon the plush brocade.
He looked so vulnerable here, beautiful but broken, once-strong, now nothing but a wisp that was once a powerful man. I remembered yet how he came to me from the sea, how he strode over the water and divided out punishments upon his enemies. Now, he was vulnerable as a newborn lamb and cold as one stillborn.
The candle lit nothing more than a tiny pool around us, so that I felt as though I dwelt only in this small patch of lonely house. Perhaps, all that remained was this one settee with this single dead man lain across it. I hitched up my skirts and set his palm on my bare leg so that I could work with both hands. I must keep his flesh pressed to mine or he would flee this life entirely.
With care, I threaded the silver thread into the eye of the needle and then drew his shredded coat and shirt apart so I could see his ruined chest sagging inward where once a heart and rib were found. Nausea washed over me at the sight of his torn flesh and pale skin. I had to take a moment to look away and take deep breaths of stale air to compose myself. When I felt strong enough, I turned back and I drew in a shuddering breath at how very, very dead my beloved appeared.
“The view from here is ghastly. I’ll have you know that I am in no mind to help you when you abandon me to the flights of chance,” Grosbeak complained in a muffled voice. “You should consider that right now I can see nothing but your skirts and the cloth is not so fine as to require a close study.”
“I have to mend my husband’s rent breast. Is it too much to ask for a small dose of mercy from you?” I asked him.
“Indeed, it is, for I have none to spare, nor would I be of a mind to offer it to you. You bargained very badly just now and you are without beauty or living hand,” he said nastily as I gripped the needle between my thin skeletal fingers and carefully set it through my husband’s cooling flesh.
I watched his slitted eyes as I stitched, pulling flesh to flesh with each draw of my needle, bringing back together what was torn apart just as he had done for my back so long ago. I felt those scars from time to time when I bent or stretched. Bluebeard’s face, ever lovely, had taken on a bluish cast, the sacred color of the Wittenbrand, and I felt my chest seize as I watched him, the breath freezing within and becoming awkward and tight.
“I fear you fail to realize your predicament,” Grosbeak said and I could tell he was loving this, even with his face pressed into the hem of my skirt. “Let me reveal it to you. You are cast from the Court of the Wittenhame and into this dying house with your almost-corpse husband. He is spending your remaining days on this half-life of his with reckless abandon. The result of which will cost you dear and deny benefit to him. Unless you abandon him, you must drag him with you wherever you go for no gain but the possibility that he may someday serve a purpose once more.”
“I find I am very skilled in carrying about dead weight,” I murmured as I set the last stitch and tied a careful knot. The wound was bleeding still around the edges. That was not something that the truly dead did. “I have been practicing and practicing with you.”
I cut the thread with deft hands — even if one was entirely skeletal — and then lifted my husband up and into my arms again, gathering the up the candle, and marching to the nightingale stairs. They did not sing as I ascended. The house was truly dying with its lord.
If only that were enough to fulfill prophecy and snatch victory from Coppertomb’s hand. I huffed an ironic laugh but it was hollow and grim.
I was numb, I thought, above that mystery swell within. Numb to pain, numb to feeling, numb to thought. I stumbled along as if in a dream, hardly caring that I had seen Death face to face, or that some terrible horn had been sounded, or that the sky might be falling, or burning, or something about a cataclysm. I had set my feet and hands to a task and they carried me capably even as my heart and mind were locked to greater thought or feeling. They felt as inaccessible as my husband and just as lost to me as he was.
I had a list. I would follow it. That would have to be enough.
First, see to my husband’s care.
Second, gather help.
Third, form a plan to bring him back. I had all of him except his heart. In the Wittenbrand, in this wide land of magic and mystery where bodiless heads prattled on and on, and specters sat for years on your shoulder, neither eating nor drinking, couldn’t I find some way to restore my beloved missing only a single heart?
When I reached our bedroom at the top of the stairs, the bed had crumbled to dust, and the flowering vines desiccated. The window to another world was simply gone. In its place was nothing but tumbled stone in a heap. The spring and the warm bath were dry and cracked, the books on the shelves nothing but dust.
This time, I couldn’t escape the gasp that dashed from my lips.
“You’ll find no succor here!” Grosbeak said, delighted by my misery.
I swallowed, trying to work moisture back into my dry lips. Where could I go now? Even the few resources left to me were crumbling. How could I fight against Death himself and the new king of the the Wittenhame when I had not even that?
I set my jaw firmly. I was being impractical. I still had my husband — as much of him as there was. I still had my health and my mind. I could figure this out.
“Is this destruction only happening to us or to all the Wittenhame?” I asked my Wittenhame guide.
“That, my darling keeper, is the million crown question,” Grosbeak said gleefully. “For if it is only you, then you are on a clock, are you not? Mere hours perhaps before you lose any chance of defeating Death and somehow wresting your beloved prince from the grasp of hell. Already his magic crumbles around you, his personality — upon which both house and fire were built — fades and molders in a way that even the sea could not achieve when he languished in her embrace. But if … and wouldn’t this be golden? Or perhaps diamond? What is more valuable in this age?”
“Get to the point,” I hissed.
“If all of the Wittenhame is falling, then Coppertomb has lost with his win, and you have won with his loss, tearing down the roof of heaven with your ruination, and collapsing this world and everything in it with your downfall. It is a sleek blow to take your enemy down with you. I did not take you for the type to charge honorably to your own death, but I find it favors you. Perhaps, we can line you and Coppertomb up and let the masses cheer for which of you wears it better.”
“I was not me who wrought this, but my husband,” I said and my voice was strained with emotion, which was strange since I felt nothing but emptiness.
“Even so, to drag your enemies with you into death is a masterful move. Worthy of the greatest of princes.”
“Do you call him such when your camaraderie has faded into animosity?” I asked
“Burdened though I am with a bitterness heaped on me by the likes of your prince, still I am servant of the truth and bearer of the obvious,” he said sorrowfully.
“As am I,” a thready voice agreed, and I gasped in relief as the gargoyle on top of the mirror stirred himself.
“Can you help me, mirror?” I begged as it pulled a horrific face at me. “I need fresh clothing for both myself and the Arrow —useful, hard-wearing clothing for our journey — and a sling with which I might carry him skin to skin against me.”
The mirror coughed. “Skin to skin is it? How scandalous! I love it!”
“Please,” I begged, worried he’d give me nothing useful now. “We must chase after death and go down into the grave.”
The mirror laughed. “Usually, I would spit your wardrobe at you, but my power is weakening. Step through me and I will dress you, but come to me naked, for I have only one last gasp of magic within.”
Grosbeak laughed, a horrible, cackling laugh. “Yes, put on a show for the gargoyle, Izolda. It’s not like you have anything better to do.”
“I can’t run in these skirts, Grosbeak,” I said coolly. “Not while effectively carrying the Arrow.”
Carefully, I untied Grosbeak and turned his head to face away as he snickered.
“The virgin bride, undressing her husband for the first time.”
“I’ve seen him naked before,” I said acerbically. “I am no blushing bride.”
“Ah, but have you undressed him with your own hands?” He asked me as I quickly stripped my own things off. I left my small clothes on. The mirror would just have to leave them as they were.
I was a mess of blood and gore. It would have been nice to clean myself in the ever-warm pool, but with it gone, I would have to settle for fresh clothing. At least the worst of it was on my clothes, though it made for an awkward dance to undress while still remaining skin-to-skin with my husband.
“I’m his wife,” I told Grosbeak shortly. “His body is mine as much as his heart is, and I have just as much a right to tend it and care for it.”
“You miss my point quite intentionally, virgin Izolda.” Grosbeak chuckled grimly.
I found my cheeks growing hot as I began to strip my husband of clothing. It was awkward to undress him while keeping our bare flesh skin against skin but his clothing was ruined and torn. He needed better or he’d catch a chill. I laid a leg against the side of his torso as I wrestled his boots and trousers off. Even so, I was huffing with effort as I cast them aside.
There was no way to easily maintain this position while removing his shredded shirt and jacket. That would take great care to avoid injuring his ruined chest. There was only one way to manage it, and it was while straddling him. I felt grateful both that he was unconscious and could not see my disregard for his privacy over his health, and equally grateful that I’d had the foresight to turn Grosbeak around. I tried to keep my eyes to myself, and I mostly succeeded, but I could not keep them shut tight when, at last, I lifted him to carry him through the mirror.
He was beautiful in my arms despite his grisly wounds — the palms and side which never healed and the ragged tear I’d stitched together. Beautiful and far too pale. As blue as his holy color, as bloodless as a specter, as gloriously beautiful as a marble statue. I hoped I could find a way to breathe life back into his chest and keep his soul in this beautiful, ruined body.
I stumbled when an emotion returned to me — a deep, aching, sadness that swelled as the swell of the tide brings in the sea and washed over me with just as much kindness as the crashing waves of the vengeful ocean. And just like the hulls men sail out on the sea, so I was smashed to splinters beneath the rage of it.
I shook as I shifted him to my back as one would carry a large child, and bore him through the mirror, my spine straightening only in response to Grosbeak’s continued snickers. I would not give him the satisfaction of breaking now.
We emerged through the other side fully clothed and shod. I looked in the mirror and to my relief, Bluebeard was clothed from head to foot in his usual blue coat and shirt, trousers, and boots, but these were clean, warm, and dry, and his shirt and coat had been left unbuttoned. I, on the other hand, had been fitted in a backless jacket and shirt so that his bare torso was pressed directly to my back and a wide band of blue cloth had been slung under his bottom, around my waist, and then crossed over his back and down my shoulders to tie to itself, keeping him harnessed to me. My own feet were buckled into knee-high boots and my legs fitted with fine leather trousers, ready for trouble.
“Thank you, mirror,” I said and he winked but the wink was too much. The mirror cracked from side to side and the gargoyle above it froze in place, his mouth forever caught in a taunting twist.
“And now, Grosbeak,” I said with careful calm, “we will find your lantern pole and begin.”
“Begin what?” he huffed. “More dress up? More wasting time?”
“The beginning of the end,” I said.