Merry Gentry series
To Darla Cook and Sherry Ganey, who keep so much running smoothly. Mary Schuermann, best mother-in-law in the world. To my writing group, The Alternate Historians: Deborah Milletello, Mark Sumner, Rett MacPherson, Marella Sands, Tom Drennan, and Sharon Shinn. Our tenth anniversary as a group with its current members is coming in 2006. It’s eighteen years from the group’s inception; in 2008, we will celebrate twenty years. Can you believe it? Party, party, party. Okay, our kind of party. No drinking, certainly no drugs, just us sitting around talking, eating Debbie’s amazing desserts, just us doing what we’ve done for a decade, being friends and helping each other succeed.
I DREAMT OF WARM FLESH AND COOKIES. THE SEX I UNDERSTOOD, but the cookies…Why cookies? Why not cake, or meat? But that’s what my subconscious chose as I dreamt. We were eating in the tiny kitchen of my Los Angeles apartment—an apartment I didn’t live in anymore, outside of dreams. The we were me, Princess Meredith—the only faerie royal ever born on American soil—and my royal guards, more than a dozen of them.
They moved around me with skin the color of darkest night, whitest snow, the pale of newborn leaves, the brown of leaves that have gone down to die on the forest floor, a rainbow of men moving nude around the kitchen.
The real apartment kitchen would have barely held three of us, but in the dream everyone walked through that narrow space between sink and stove and cabinets as if there were all the room in the world.
We were having cookies because we’d just had sex and it was hungry work, or something like that. The men moved around me graceful and perfectly nude. Several of the men were ones I’d never seen nude. They moved with skin the color of summer sunshine, the transparent white of crystals, colors I had no name for, for the colors did not exist outside of faerie. It should have been a good dream, but it wasn’t. I knew something was wrong, that feeling of unease that you get in dreams when you know that the happy sights are just a disguise, an illusion to hide the ugliness to come.
The plate of cookies was so innocent, so ordinary, but it bothered me. I tried to pay attention to the men, touching their bodies, holding them, but each of them in turn would pick up a cookie and take a bite, as if I weren’t there.
Galen with his pale, pale green skin and greener eyes bit into a cookie, and something squirted out the side. Something thick and dark. The dark liquid dripped down the edge of his kissable mouth and fell onto the white countertop. That single drop splattered and spread and was red, so red, so fresh. The cookies were bleeding.
I slapped it from Galen’s hand. I picked up the tray to keep the men from eating any more. The tray was full of blood. It dripped down the edges, poured over my hands. I dropped the tray, which shattered, and the men bent as if they would eat from the floor and the broken glass. I pushed them back, screaming, “No!”
Doyle looked up at me with his black eyes and said, “But it is all we have had to eat for so long.”
The dream changed, as dreams will. I stood in an open field with a ring of distant trees encircling it. Beyond the trees, hills rode up into the paleness of a moonlit winter’s night. Snow lay like a smooth blanket across the ground. I was standing ankle-deep in snow. I was wearing a loose sweeping gown as white as the snow. My arms were bare to the cold night. I should have been freezing, but I wasn’t. Dream, just a dream.
Then I noticed something in the center of the clearing. It was an animal, a small white animal, and I thought, That’s why I didn’t see it, for it was white, whiter than the snow. Whiter than my gown, than my skin, so white that it seemed to glow.
The animal raised its head, sniffing the air. It was a small pig, but its snout was longer, and its legs taller, than those of any pig I’d ever seen. Though it stood in the middle of the snowy field, there were no hoofprints in that smooth snow, no way for the piglet to have walked to the center of the field. As if the animal had simply appeared there.
I glanced at the circle of trees, for only a moment, and when I looked again at the piglet, it was bigger. A hundred pounds heavier, and taller than my knees. I didn’t look away again, but the pig just got bigger. I couldn’t see it happening, it was like trying to watch a flower bloom, but it was growing bigger. As tall at the shoulder as my waist, long and broad, and furry. I’d never seen a pig so fuzzy before, as if it had a thick winter coat. It looked positively pettable, that pelt. It raised that strangely long-snouted face toward me, and I saw tusks curving from its mouth, small tusks. The moment I saw them, gleaming ivory in the snow light, another whisper of unease washed through me.
I should leave this place, I thought. I turned to walk out through that ring of trees. A ring of trees that now looked entirely too even, too well planned, to be accidental.
A woman stood behind me, so close that when the wind blew through the dead trees her hooded cloak brushed against the hem of my gown. I formed my lips to say, Who? but never finished the word. She held out a hand that was wrinkled and colored with age, but it was a small, slender hand, still lovely, still full of a quiet strength. Not full of the remnants of youthful strength, but full of the strength that comes only with age. A strength born of knowledge accumulated, wisdom pondered over many a long winter’s night. Here was someone who held the knowledge of a lifetime—no, several lifetimes.
The crone, the hag, has been vilified as ugly and weak. But that is not what the true crone aspect of the Goddess is, and it was not what I saw. She smiled at me, and that smile held all the warmth you would ever need. It was a smile that held a thousand fireside chats, a hundred dozen questions asked and answered, endless lifetimes of knowledge collected and remembered. There was nothing she would not know, if only I could think of the questions to ask.
I took her hand, and the skin was so soft, soft the way a baby’s is. It was wrinkled, but smooth is not always best, and there is beauty in age that youth knows not.
I held the crone’s hand and felt safe, completely and utterly safe, as if nothing could ever disturb this sense of quiet peace. She smiled at me, the rest of her face lost in the shadow of her hood. She drew her hand out of mine, and I tried to hold on, but she shook her head and said, though her lips did not move, “You have work to do.”