by Melion Traverse
Father first awoke the topiaries the morning after Mother died. Shrubs wriggled loose from their dirt when he passed, dormant bushes burst free and scampered across the countryside. Thus it went for eighteen years. I lived my life knowing that Father could awaken plants, but I did not realize what I, his daughter, could awaken.
“Shea, I don’t suppose that you’ve seen the topiary out in the north garden, have you?” Father strode into the hall with a heavy limp dragging at his leg–souvenir of some old battle.
“The rearing stag? It was there yesterday morning,” I said.
“Yes, well, I am afraid that it has since taken a bit of an ambulatory turn.” He looked away before he added, “Would you see if you could possibly lure it back?”
“‘Lure it back’ nothing,” I muttered, remembering the day that a verdant pack of wolves slipped past the gatehouse and frolicked across the countryside. For two weeks my life became a constant begging of farmers requiring my assistance in rounding up the azaleas that feasted upon their sheep. I could just see the bards singing of my glorious encounter with the floral wolves.
“Let me get my sword and saddle Flame, and I will head right out,” I answered. My tone cut him deeply and I dropped my eyes.
As I went to gather my equipment, my father’s uneven tread echoed down the corridor as he limped away, probably to his study where he would rest his lamed leg and gaze out across a countryside that he once defended with sword and blood.
I shook my head and buckled on my armor and sword, both of which shone with disuse and frequent polishings. A knight should take her title and set forth into the world to relish her rank and test her valor – knights do not come home to play shire reeve for a lame-legged man who mourns his past glories and in his grief calls to life rampaging shrubbery.
The bitterness of the thought struck me, and I adjusted the girth strap with such force that Flame gave a “whuff” of indignation. I dreamt of many things as a girl, but not of this. And how could I have dreamt, even as I saddled my fidgeting horse, that I balanced on the edge of something far worse?
I tracked that leafy bit of venison into the forest. Not far beyond the trees, the topiary stag had encountered a flesh and blood rival guarding a harem of three does. Who knew that shrubs could get worked up over the rutting season? But when I found them, the two stags jerked and twisted with frantic strength, locked at the antlers. The real stag pressed the attack with a wrench of his head that brought all the muscles thick and straining beneath his flesh and I heard a clean crack from within the topiary. Leaves shivered as in a breeze, and the plant-stag collapsed to the ground with a thick and broken branch jutting from his neck. Waste of a splendid holly bush.
Snorting, the buck raised his head, and upon seeing me and Flame, made a thundering charge with antlers lowered and eyes smoldering fury. It may not ring of valor, but I knew what a rut-mad buck could do to a person, and I figured that if Fate gave me a death worth singing about, it would not involve a rampaging dinner entrée. I wheeled Flame about and sank spurs into him.
I have already admitted that I ran from a stag, I might as well admit that then I got lost. Not hopelessly, I should add, just turned about in a forest I had not explored in almost ten years. As I walked Flame and felt his breaths heavy and real against my legs, the deep shadows and unfamiliar glades beckoned to a skittish part of my mind. I glanced down at my spurs. Certainly I had put those to a worthy use: driving a warhorse away from a deer. Within those very woods, before I was even born, Father had expunged the redcaps from their haunts and the dragon-wolf from its den. Now I wandered among those same trees with my heart nearly choking my throat. Drawing my sword, I guided Flame onward.
Father sighed when I told him the fate of his topiary stag. “Well,” he said, “at least he died fighting.”
“He?” I responded. “For heaven sakes, it was a plant.”
“Yes,” he said in a wistful tone that stung right through my ribs, “but a noble plant. He deserved better than wasting from blight or drought.” I shook my head and left the room, relieved I had not told my father that his daughter lacked the nerve of a holly bush.
For two weeks I moped. No, I do not know a better word for it and I might as well be honest. A falcon clipped from a hydrangea escaped its aviary and fluttered awkwardly towards the forest. To my shame, rather than hunt the forest again, I told Father that I could not find the errant plant. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “if you set loose topiary rats in the garden, it might come back.” I left the room under his withering glare; he had liked the falcon even more than the stag.
Then one morning, Father summoned me into the southern garden. Expecting another floral misadventure, I arrived instead to find Father staring at a small pile of dingy feathers and moldering flesh. A person doesn’t know panic until she sees her father with a basket full of severed animal parts.
“Um, have we discovered a new hobby?”
“Do not be flippant,” he answered and although his voice came out reassuringly stern, his right eye twitched. “The groundskeeper found these. They are addressed to you.” Drawing closer, I saw that a strip of vellum encircled each limb – and each strip bore my name.
I gritted my teeth and chose the wing that looked freshest, removed the vellum and began to read.
“Sweet Lady,” I began to read in silence and then paused for a moment as I glanced from the precise script to the rancid mess piled in the basket. “O awakener of my soul! O rapturous damsel! O beauteous warrior whose gallant presence bestirs my listless heart! I pray of thee, come walk again through yonder woods! Let me but glimpse you again that my heart might be reminded of life! I shall await thee by moonlight or by sunshine! Until then, unto thee I give my pitiful but boundless love!”
Then I looked up and saw my father watching and flushed with relief that I had not read that thing aloud. I set the parchment down upon the pile of wings.
“Well?” my father asked.
“That one was a love letter – I think. Although I am pretty certain that you don’t usually tie them to severed bird wings.”
“More fleet of foot than the hare, would I run to you, on the wings of doves, would I call to you,” my father muttered and I thought his face went a rather unhealthy gray as he stared at the contents of the basket. “It’s from a sentimental poem from long ago. It was a popular piece that bards used to recite in honor of lovers and weddings.”
Wings. From doves. A whole rotting pile of them. My stomach gave a small twist of nausea and not merely because the wings emitted a certain odor. But Father’s pallor had drained from gray to white so that his eyes stood out dark and suddenly bright against his face.
“I should have known, of course,” he muttered and groped about behind him as though seeking a chair. I took his hand and led him towards a bench and he sat down as an unfamiliar vacancy came into his voice. “Yes, of course. He would still try, even now. How can it be? But why ask that? With me it is plants! With her? Why should not the scion exceed the parent?”
“Father?” I tried. “What happened?” Other than bird wings and stodgy poetry.
“Ah, Shea, I should not have brought you back here,” he said. “But I thought he was gone! I did not realize–. No, it does not matter what I realized. It has happened and now it must be faced or we shall all be ruined.” His voice broke towards the end and I don’t know why it horrified me so much, but I realized that my father was about to cry. I could handle him limping, I could handle him bitter, I could handle him apologetic, but I could not handle him crying. Not the man who had first shown me how to grip a sword, who had scolded me for the tears over a scraped knee or a fall from a horse, who had stood silent as we committed my mother to the dirt.
I knelt and put my arms around him and said the only thing I could think to say, “Whatever is wrong, we can fight it. Do you know who sent these … letters?”
“Yes, I think that I know,” he replied. “But he is no longer my fight. I have already fought him and that was not enough. He must hear it from you, that you will not have him.”
“All right, who is ‘him’? I’ll fight him on whatever ground he chooses,” I said, obtusely missing my father’s point.
“It is not a fight he wants,” my father continued, “it is your hand in marriage. He has already had his fight and from it, I earned this limp and he earned his death. But he still wants you.”
Unsure of what my father meant, I replied with a look that proclaimed both my confusion and my ignorance.
“Do you know of Lord Arcadius?” Father asked.
“I know only rumors,” I said. I did not like where this was going. They said Arcadius’ first wife still haunted his castle, that he had drowned his son in his bath, that he had taken off the head of his own warhorse for not biting hard enough and a number of things that a person likes to think others conjured up as bloody stories simply to let them feel good about themselves in comparison. But then, I didn’t know of too many other people with quite that infamous a list of rumors.
“While you were traveling as a squire,” my father explained as he gained back control over his voice, “Lord Arcadius took notice of you at a tournament. He sent a messenger to me asking your hand in marriage. On account of his reputation, I refused on your behalf. Bluntly, I told him to go to Hell.
“The baron did not take the refusal in healthy spirits. He arrived here within a couple of weeks with the threat that if I did not concede to the marriage, he would destroy the castle and the village. My own death I can face,” my father continued and here his eyes flashed with the bellicose pride I recalled from my childhood, “and I can face it like a warrior ought, but I could not face the idea of him destroying innocent people and trying to bind himself to you. So I challenged him in a fight to the death. Ah, that draws a surprised look from you. Did you think your old man has completely forgotten how to fight? Well, I had not forgotten. And when I met Lord Arcadius in combat, I drove him to the ground, but not before his sword tore through my mail and severed the muscles in my leg. For his wicked life, he could not be buried in consecrated ground, so we buried him where we fought. I did not realize then–” His voice faded again and I took hold of his hand.
“But he cannot be the one sending these messages,” I said in a voice that felt more ill than I intended. “If he’s dead, then it cannot be him.”
“My daughter, you do not understand. Do you think that only I can awaken that which sleeps? I awaken plants, which already live, but you can awaken people who are dead. It’s a false life, to be sure. They are shadows of life just as my topiaries are mimicries of natural counterparts, but they still exist. Was it arrogance or pity that kept me from thinking you might inherit a power more powerful than mine?”
I didn’t really care about that last question. I had another horrifying idea congealing in my brain: “Does this mean that whole cemeteries? That is, what about the family cemetery?” Mother. Lifeless yet alive. The idea brought vomit seething in my gullet, but somebody had to ask it and I wanted the answer before I collapsed into madness.
“No,” Father said. “They cannot awaken in consecrated ground. But I am glad to see that the idea sickens you. It would be a terrible temptation, this ability, and one that another person might use for foul purposes. But there it stands, the other day you must have ridden past the grave of Lord Arcadius and your sadness, or anger, or . . . your fear must have called to him and awoken him.”
“Fear,” I repeated and now my turn came to sound vacant, but Father smiled with an understanding sadness as he raised my chin so that our eyes met. “Do you think that I don’t know fear? That I have never fallen prey to the thoughts of unworth? I have been selfish in thinking that in winning your spurs, you would find contentment in returning here to chase wild topiaries. Forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you,” I said. “And I am sorry if I have led you to think I would rather be at some foppish tournament than helping my own father. But as for fighting enemies, I have found one at last and I will not back down.”
In response, Father offered the first confident smile since my return home the previous winter. Grasping my shoulder, he said, “Then let us see to our armor and our weapons. We will ride out straight away and show this baron that the knights of this castle do not shirk their duties.”
His words rang firmly enough, but in the time it took for him to equip himself, a warren of shrub rabbits burrowed under the castle walls and fled out across the countryside. Heading towards the crops, I shouldn’t wonder. Well, that would promise something for me to look forward to when I returned. If the rabbits ate the crops, would that be a form of cannibalism? It is a difficult thing to feel heroic when you realize that, should you survive, you’ll be wrangling floral abominations that evening.
But all thoughts of deviant topiaries dissolved like morning mist when the castle gates swung open and Father and I rode out. Astride his roan destrier with the reins loose and his back straight, I would never have guessed his lameness. For a moment, I returned to the little girl standing in awe of her warrior father as he rode to battle; and I remembered again that naïve wish that I might prove my worth and my valor to that keen-eyed man.
Thus we rode to the infamous glade where Father had buried the treacherous Lord Arcadius.
Few things prove more unlovely than realizing that a corpse has decided to take you a-courting–unless you happen to find that corpse sitting by his mound of upheaved grave dirt and caressing the still-dripping wings of a mangled dove. I do not consider myself a student of the romantic arts, but I am fairly certain that such a sight did not make many a maid swoon with love.
“Ah, she has returned! The warrioress of my humble dreams and visions!” called Lord Arcadius. “I have sent my love to you upon the wings of doves, and you have responded at last! But what is this? What bride brings her father to an elopement? It does rather defeat the purpose.”
Father looked even sicker than I felt as he held the reins so tightly that the spirited roan jerked his head.
“I am not here to elope with you,” I said. “I am here to tell you that I do not want any more dove wings. I do not wish to be your bride.”
The undead baron stood looking at me with the surprise of a dog that’s finally caught its own tail. For a moment, I nearly pitied him–in as far as I could pity a man who had lamed my father and sent me shredded bits of bird–but then he thoughtfully scratched at his face and peeled away a long strand of decaying skin. I thought, O lord. The vellum on the dove wings. My stomach made a heave as though all my organs wanted to rush from my mouth at once.
“So your father has poisoned you against me, has he? Not content to kill me, he has basely tarnished my name.” The corpse absently entwined the strip of flesh about his fingers like a fine strand of gossamer cloth.
“You tarnished your own name when you decorated your banquet hall with the flayed bodies of widows and beggars,” my father answered. “Who would want to marry into that?”
“’Twas artfully done,” Lord Arcadius responded in an imperial tone.
“How on earth could that be artful?” I said and the corpse nodded vigorously as though hopeful his taste in domestic matters might entice me away.
“Ah! It is a matter of arrangement, you see. Just the right balance of widows and beggars and offset by the lighting conditions, it’s very–”
“Never mind,” I interrupted. “Leave this forest!”
“But think of the joy that we might have! I have them all flayed and affixed to the walls, and you can awaken them back to life. We shall dine serenaded by the screams of the tormented. I can see this now: me pouring you a glass of wine, us laughing at some little piece of witty banter which nobody else understands, that old widow from on the corner shrieking upon the wall.”
“No!” I did not intend to shout, but I will be honest that my composure was beginning to fray. I did not like the whimsical tone in which he described those dinners or the amount of thought he had clearly invested in the macabre tableau. “I would not want anything to do with you while you were alive, and I find you even more revolting dead. Now leave this forest and be gone from our lives!”
“No.” The decrepit noble punctuated his denial by folding his arms across his chest. “I do not leave without you.”
“My daughter said–”
“Huh,” Lord Arcadius interrupted with a snort. “Your daughter only says this because you are right here. Had she come alone without your bitter counsel, she would have realized the depth of my love, and would have become my bride.”
“I would not marry you if it were decreed upon Gospel paper,” I rejoined. “Now ready your sword and defend yourself because I intend to send you to a sleep from which you will never awaken.” Really? I could not muster a more intimidating call to battle? It hurts my senses to recall it even now.
“Not with you, my dear,” the baron said as he drew his sword. “You I must marry alive.” He lunged forward with agility that no rotting person should possess and swung his sword towards my father. I hurled myself from off of my horse, hitting the maggot-riddled body with all of my weight and sending us both to the ground.
Judging by the blows Lord Arcadius rained down upon my armor, he had moved past the point of matrimony and onto the notion of homicide. I grasped the blade of his sword and held fast even as the edge sliced through the palm of my gauntlet and into my hand; he fought with a frenzied strength and I would rather risk my hand than let him free his blade which he angled towards my throat.
“Do you not realize that killing me is useless? You have but to wander past again, and I shall be free once more and I tell you now that I will not love you then.”
“Thank the Lord for that,” I gasped as I tried clubbing him with the pommel of my sword.
Lord Arcadius’ armor already rusty from the grave and hewn to pieces by his fight with my father, I struggled to bring my own blade into a position to deliver a final attack.
“Through his heart, Shea!” my father called. “Put your sword through his heart!”
The baron struggled to keep his chest guarded, but among the gaps in his armor, I saw another way. With a growl, I drove my sword into his armpit and jammed the point down with such force that the sword sunk to its hilt. I twisted the sword as my bloody grip on his blade grew tenuous. His eyes blazed like fire in caverns and he bared his teeth and strained towards me to set his jaws upon my throat. That finished it. The blade twisted again and those eyes widened for just a moment before the undead corpse of Lord Arcadius collapsed back unmoving.
I stood up, leaving the sword buried to the hilt, and turned to my father.
“Let me see your hand,” he ordered and began tearing the bottom hem of his shirt. “That’s all the way to the bone, Shea. Can you feel your fingers?” I shook my head. “Well,” he continued as he wrapped the cloth around my hand, “that might just be temporary.” For a moment, his eyes reflected the pity which I had recently developed towards him.
“It’s not my sword hand,” I replied. And because I did not want pity at the moment, I added before he could interrupt, “Father, I need you to go back to the castle and fetch the wolves–you know, the remaining ones that I gathered a couple months ago.”
“What about?” he looked meaningfully at the still corpse and let his question trail away.
“He won’t be getting up,” I said with a morbid grin. “I had my sword blessed at my knighting ceremony. Now please get the wolves because I am sure that they are hungry and I would like my sword back.”
“So commands my daughter, is that it?” Father answered, but he smiled as he grasped the pommel of the saddle and pulled himself onto the horse. “Well fought, Shea, well fought.” Then he put his heels into his horse and wheeled him back towards home.
Once the forest swallowed the clatter of tack and armor, I strode towards the moldering corpse and grasped the sword. Perhaps one day I could explain this to Father, but that afternoon, he would not understand. With a heave, I pulled the sword loose from the body. A moment passed and the glassy eyes blinked. Then Lord Arcadius sat up and looked at the gash beneath his arm and back up at me.
“Wh-where is your father?” he rasped.
“I have sent him away, but if you want out of here before he returns, I would suggest that we hurry,” I said as I swung back onto Flame and held out my uninjured hand to the corpse.
“You have changed your mind, then?”
“Yes. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’re still creepy as all hell, but I am not going to chase another blasted plant,” I said. “Besides, I have known enough of fear. I would like to have people run from me for a change.”
“Ah, that they will,” the baron laughed. “I have always loved fear, and I will show you how to wield it properly. It is an art, you know.”
“Speaking of art,” I replied as I spurred Flame to a gallop and Lord Arcadius held fast to my waist, “if you ever write another love letter to me again, I am putting this blade right back into your heart.”
“Very well,” he answered. “Now let us ride home. I think you will like the art that awaits you there.”
Flame carried us on through the forest–towards a castle where unburied corpses lined a banquet hall. Even widows and beggars crave vengeance, and my curse would provide that justice. I smiled at the fate I would unleash upon the baron whose fetid arms now clasped my waist. Lord Arcadius had nearly broken the proud warrior I knew as my father, and for that I would exact a price. Yes, I could awaken things far worse than plants.
Melion Traverse lives with one spouse, two dogs and an acceptable amount of chaos. Recently, Melion has also had work appear in Scarlet Leaf Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. Rarely does Melion refer to Melion’s self in the third person.