Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Be Then What You Be

by Ann Hasseler De Carrasco


The day after Edwer Stucky's new wife disappeared a dog came to his house. It was a cute thing, tiny with white fluffy fur and a blue ribbon tied about its neck as if it were a present. Edwer fretted a bit over that as he did not need any neighbor's kind gesture for a wife's running off. It was an embarrassment, true, but not one for anyone's pity.

His three flaxen-haired daughters adored the fluffy little bundle and played with it all that first day. Myrtle gave it a bone and Tamela threw it a stick. Scamper, the youngest and shyest of the three, admired it from a distance in awe that such a pretty dog could own such very sharp teeth, which it showed her when the other two sisters weren't looking. Edwer let them play while he brooded about happy, simpler times.

Of course, the night was for his drink and loneliness but he set to a bottle of the fine brew he had hidden under his house and was snoring in bed by sunset‘s end. Awoken abruptly before dawn, he‘d had a bad dream of the fluffy dog talking to him in growling displeasure.

"What?" Flustered from his sleep, he jumped out of bed and there indeed was the dog yapping like it was chewing taffy, its mouth moving as words foreign to its canine muzzle snapped out.

"You idiot!" it growled. "I'm your wife. Look at me now. Your youngest daughter did this to me!"

"Beth? Is that you? Madness," he muttered and shook his head but the dog remained.

"That girl. She never liked me. Now I am cursed!"

"B-but what could a little half-pint like Scamper do to you?" he reasoned.

"Called me a bitch, she did."

"Oh," he exclaimed, eyes wide. His forehead furrowed. "What do you want of me?"

"Send her away," she barked. "When she has gone a distance the spell will be lifted. But she must not come back or I shall be what I am here before you. I'll ne'er warm your bed again and for that I'll rip her to shreds."

With daylight Scamper--who had said few words in her life and certainly never a bad one--was standing forlorn at the first fork in the path from her home. It seemed her father found it easier to think his wife's disappearance more her fault than his. Mumbling about talking dogs and nightmares, he'd packed her few things and sent her on her way. That was that.

It was far easier for her father to send her on her way than it was for her to choose that way, she realized, as she looked at the path‘s division. Right? Left? She thought to herself. Which? She sighed heavily and bit her lip as she assessed her choices.

The right path led deeper into the forest for the degree of darkness within increased almost immediately. The left eventually yielded to high grasses and sunlight. As she silently fretted the leaves upon the right path lifted and swirled, accompanied by a sharp scratching sound which formed into a voice.

"Princess, pretty princess come this way," it insisted as the left path's grass-concealed locus lifted their voices in opposition.

"Come this way, little scamp of a girl," their voices chirped and sizzled. "What need you of darkness when daylight loves your flaxen locks?"

Scamper thought for a moment. Both paths wooed her but she was no princess. She was a tiny girl and did indeed have flaxen hair. She made up her mind and stepped on the left path.

Almost immediately a large crane dropped from the canopied sky to land just before where the grass and sunlight met. It took Scamper several minutes to reach it and the bird seemed to be waiting for her. It patiently ruffled and cleaned its plumage under a tree's shadow until she stood before it.

She eyed the great crane warily and made to move around it while it merely watched her quietly, following her eyes as Scamper looked into its brown orbs. Having carefully edged around it, Scamper slowly turned back to the path. Two steps later, feathers ruffled loudly and a sharp beaked cry filled her ears.

"She fixed you good, that one," the bird squawked.

"H-Huh?" Scamper gulped and froze mid-stride.

"Your new mother," a low baritone voice explained.

Scamper turned around quickly and jumped backward. Before her stood a handsome brown-eyed man in very fine garb, finer than she had ever seen before, with shirt and britches of royal blue and golden thread embellishing wrists and collar. The sunlight played upon the golden thread as he stepped fully into the light.

"She's a changeling," he explained, lifting an elegantly booted foot onto a weatherworn rock. He leaned forward, resting his arms upon his bent knee. "That's how she did it. Fooled your father."

Scamper stood mute in front of him. A changeling? Well so that was how he would know her new mother, him being what he was, a changeling, too?

The stranger lifted his arms off his knee and straightened, placing his fists at his hips. "Rather ironic," he said as he assessed her, "with you being a witch and all."

Scamper fairly squeaked and stiffened in her spot. She shook her head in denial. This brought a hearty laugh from him.

"Oh, but you are," he told her. "That is the best part of her folly. She was always destined such comeuppance for her trickery."

"I-I-I'm n-not a w-w-witch." She closed her mouth abruptly, ashamed.

The stranger's eyebrows lifted as her face flushed. "Oh, I see," he observed. "Not well suited for incantation." He seemed bored as he looked at her. Then he smiled kindly, lifted his hand and pointed forward. "This way leads to your real mother's village just beyond where both paths meet again. There is the one who birthed her, your grandmother Maud. She is waiting for you even now as I speak."

"W-W-Why?" Scamper pushed out from her stiff lips.

"Why?" he echoed, looking at her strangely as a darkness entered his eyes. "Because your real mother was a fine woman." His face suddenly turned fierce. "And your new mother is not. She'll send away your sisters to princes who are toads and take all your father has to offer. She'll turn into fire and burn the rest to the ground. I've seen it before, many a time."

Abruptly he turned from her and stepped toward the forest. Scamper silently watched as his form shimmered between man and crane while the tree leaves rustled and their shadows flickered over him.

"Many a time and this is my penance for it," he called over his shoulder. "Truly, I care little what you do to her, just make it worthy of her transgressions. Go to Maud. She will know what is best." With these words, crane won over man and the bird took flight into the forest, leaving Scamper to set to the path with frantic determination.

Images of her father's home in flames and toads hopping about in her sisters' laps urged her to start skipping and then to run. When she could no longer run, she did not rest. She walked through the night and at dawn reached the town where the two paths converged once more. She found Maud's Tavern almost immediately for it stood, or rather leaned, as an old dilapidated shack at the first split on the main road.

The door burst open just as Scamper reached the bottom step and two huge men with swords and shiny black boots came flying out and nearly toppled her with their descent. Luckily, she ducked as they fell. She caught the acrid stench of old ale and thought of her father.

Quickly she hopped the remaining steps but stopped as a heavyset woman with frizzy gray hair and wild eyes filled the doorframe. "Be on your way and tell that king, that cur of a dog, he'll not be receiving any news from me. Let him bring his army, I'll turn them all to rats!" She spat upon the step to emphasize her warning.

The old hag rubbed her hands briskly together and cackled as she watched the men retreat. Then she rearranged her heavy bosoms and brushed off her apron. This action brought her eyes down to where Scamper stood gape-mouthed and wide-eyed.

"Well, what have we here?" Maud exclaimed as her head pulled backward in feigned surprise. Her now twinkling eyes peered down her nose at the girl.

"I...I‘m...S-S-Scamper," the girl croaked out, then hopped into a curtsy as an afterthought.

"So it is. And so you be," the tavern proprietress said, clapping her hands. Suddenly her spine stiffened as her chin jut forward. Old eyes narrowed as she scanned the street. She sniffed the air.

"The King is a crooked one. Killed his eldest brother and fears his younger. Ne'er you fear--Scamper is it?--ne'er you fear for the king shall not harm a hair upon your head, either. No granddaughter of mine shall bend to that heretic's designs!" She shouted the last part out to the street.

Scamper observed somberly how her wild grandmother turned her large body from left to right and how her old breasts which seemed to be a beat behind swung in opposite. Finally all settled down and Maud spat upon the step one last time with a humph after. Satisfied her point had been made, she opened the door and let her granddaughter pass before her into the shack.

It was dark and dusty within but travel-wearied Scamper did not mind. She rushed to the first bench and sat down upon it. Being a good hostess, the old hag set a loaf of bread upon the table. Scamper seized it and ripped it apart, stuffing large portions into her mouth.

"How'd you find me?" Maud asked, then groaned as she set her bones down into a chair at the table‘s end. Her breasts rested upon her knees as she leaned forward. "Seen a feathered foul, have you?"

Vigorously Scamper nodded. She chewed and then gulped. "L-l-like a p-p-prince," Scamper pushed out.

Maud's thin eyebrow arched.

"A prince?" she murmured. "Oh." She tilted her head to the left. "Oh that. Well that is because he is a prince."

Proud of her proven guess, Scamper gave Maud a bread crusted smile.

"Seems he's a prince never to be king." Maud stretched out her legs to the side of the table and groaned to send her aches away. She snorted and scratched under her armpits and moved her neck from side to side, which was accompanied by a distinct yet strange unhealthy creaking. Momentarily, she realized her granddaughter was patiently waiting for the tale.

"Oh, well," she explained. "He was third born and afforded all the luxury and with it deviltry of one removed from such responsibility. Deviltry allows strange bedfellows as it were, and that is inevitably how he came to know your new mother, Beth, long ago."

She reflected on this with distaste pursing her lips and wrinkling her nose. "They should have stayed away from this town. But then--" she stopped herself and lifted a weather-roughened hand tenderly to Scamper's cheek. "Fall festival was grand that year and your mother was lovely indeed. Her husband never cared nor deserved--ah! What does it matter?" she sighed. "What is done is done and now the prince is what he is."

Maud looked sly and a bit mischievous as she regarded her granddaughter. "So you know, the prince was not always a shadowed crane."

"R-r-really?'

"Of course not." Maud cackled softly to herself. "Give that to my daughter's temper. She did not know about Beth when she fell in love with him. She found out eventually and it broke her heart and, well, let's say she was most unhappy with the prince and he bears the plumage to prove it."

Confused, Scamper looked down at her tiny dirt-lined fingernails. She had never seen her mother's temper, ever. Her mother had been lovely and lovingly tender even as she lay dying in the shadows of her room.

"But you see that was her choice, you know. To use powerful words. And you too, have that gift."

"G-G-Gift?"

"Oh my," Maud breathed. "What will we do about that stammer?"

####

Maud let her granddaughter sleep until the sun was high in the sky the next day. Then she bade Scamper sit at the table and brought out a large weathered book. It fell upon the table with a thud and Scamper choked on the dust.

Just as the old hag sat down next to her offspring, the tavern door opened to almost admit a rotund, rather well-dressed man but almost was the key.

"Out!" Maud ordered. The man stood there a moment, dumbfounded, and Maud lifted her hand with fingers curled upwards. Tiny green lightening shot between her long claw-like nails. "Get out."

She cackled gleefully as the door abruptly shut. Then she pulled the book toward her.

"W-w-will I-I-I-"

"Do what I just did?" Maud finished. "Hmmm nope. Don't think so." She looked into her granddaughter's eyes, then lifted Scamper's tiny fingers and looked under her nails.

"No. Your power will be with words." Ever sharp Maud noticed her granddaughter's shoulders sag. "A bit of the problem for you now, I suppose. But nothing a good deal of growing can't cure. Maturity does its part to cure the ailments of the tongue. Oh, except for gossip - that is practically incurable."

With nibble fingers for their wrinkled age, her grandmother flipped through the pages and finally parted the book completely, smoothing down the two hills to the crease. "Here we are, dear," she breathed. "This is a very powerful spell. It reveals the true nature of both the caster and the castee--ha hoo! This will do the trick. Nothing like killing two birds with one stone."

"Wh-wha-what d-does it s-s-say?" Scamper asked softly. She leaned closer, her knees now on the bench and placed her elbows on the table, her chin on her interlaced fingers' knuckles.

"Do not look at me or into my eyes," Maud warned, "or the spell will come alive in you right here, right now. Close your eyes. Yes, that‘s good. Tut tut, none of that now. No peeking." When she was convinced Scamper would keep her eyes closed, Maud cleared her throat and read the spell aloud. It was a short spell, but four lines.

"S-S-Simple," Scamper said.

"The fewest words are often the most meaningfully placed. The trick is in speaking this spell with confidence, authority and conviction. Look Beth in the eye when you speak it. Let her not see a speck of fear in yours."

"D-d-did my m-m-mother--?"

"Use this spell on the prince? No," she chuckled at that, "No, a much gentler one, but a variation of sorts, I suppose, for her heart was still fond as much as it was vexed. Still the power comes from the same intent. This one is strong enough to fix Beth and her cohorts."

Scamper leaned farther over the table and toward the book and looked down at the ornate letters and gold paint upon them. She thought of the prince's golden thread and how the sunlight and shadows controlled his form. Maud laid her hand on the crown of her granddaughter's flaxen head and smoothed the silky hair with the palm of her hand.

"The prince is always in danger while his brother lives. And Beth has seen to it that their estrangement can never be mended. Even now she works on her next plan or you wouldn't be here. Banished from your home. Her hope, I'm sure, was for you to find the king's henchmen hiding in the deep forest."

"W-W-Why me?" Scamper stammered.

"Why not?" Maud answered. "You being who you are. And Beth's jealousy being what it is. She'd see you dead, without a tear or pinch of regret." Maud smiled slyly. "But you took the left path, didn't you?"

Her granddaughter nodded.

"Ah, that's my girl, my dear girl. And that is why my daughter was more clever than that simple changeling. She protects you even now, I think." Maud's eyes turned sad and she looked off toward the doorway. "It'll be a year come this autumn," she mused, "and yet she is here. I feel her as if she will come through that door for a quick visit. I swore to protect those she loved but I am old. That promise now falls to you."

Maud made her granddaughter repeat the spell fifty more times. When she was satisfied the girl knew the words, though her tongue never truly untied, she nodded with mild satisfaction and lifted stiffly from her chair.

"Oh these bones, these bones," she moaned to herself as she shuffled to the door and opened it. The sunlight filled the room, making Scamper squint.

"It's best you be on your way home, little one," her grandmother said. "Your sisters need you. As does your father." She turned away from the entrance and beaconed Scamper with her wrinkled hand. "Go through the deep forest this time, for there are friends there who will aid you. I have sent word. You should take the other path home."

"B-B-But the h-h-hench-hench--

"Oh, them? They are gone. Oh, me. I didn't tell you? Though the left path protected you, it is indeed enchanted. One night within is ten without. Those henchman came and went from this town before you saw the stars light the sky. You've been gone near a fortnight. But there's no telling when they'll be back or those others I kicked out of my fine establishment. I'm afraid we cannot waste anymore time."

####

Scamper's legs were sore from her earlier journey and as much as she wished to run, her feet refused and so she was resigned to walk briskly. Several hours upon the other path, the forest turned dark and thick. Her eyes darted to the shadows, looking for the crane, the prince, but he did not appear. However new friends sent by her grandmother did turn up along the path and illuminated her steps with their faerie magic.

One faerie girl with blue wings that glowed translucently in the dark buzzed just above Scamper's forehead and clapped her hands, delighted. "Maud's offspring. An honor to meet you," she spoke in a strong high-pitched voice for her size.

"N-n-nice t-to m-m-meet--" Scamper broke off embarrassed yet again.

"I seeee," the little faerie observed her. "When the mushroom glowed with Maud's request she spoke of such a trouble. Not to worry. I have a trick that will do."

The faerie girl swooped down with a joyful shout and buzzed close to Scamper's ear, tickling her lobe.

"S-s-stop t-t-that," Scamper giggled. "T-t-tickles."

"Stop walking you and hold still," the faerie ordered near her ear. Scamper obeyed and came to a halt. The faerie was fusing about her ear so, Scamper had to clench her hand to keep from scratching, or worse, swatting. "I'm going to sit in your ear, like this. You will get used to it soon."

Scamper grimaced and fidgeted. If she were a dog she would have set to the faerie like a dog scratching at a flea, it was so uncomfortable.

"Now speak," the faerie girl commanded. "Say something."

"W-Wh-What sh-sh-should I--" she stopped confused for the faerie was mimicking her almost exactly at the time the words left her lips.

"J-J-Just keep speaking," the faerie teased her.

"W-W-Why a-are you repeating everything I say?" Scamper asked, agitated. But then she clamped her hand over her mouth. "I spoke without a stutter!" she exclaimed behind her fingers.

"You did and you do," the faerie said sweetly. "Now Maud said you have a spell to practice. You are safe to say it here as it will not affect us woodland folk."

Scamper began to walk slowly then her pace increased as she repeated the spell over and over again, her heart lifting happily with her newfound voice. She completely forgot her earlier discomfort and welcomed the buzzing in her ear.

The sun was high when she reached her father's home and the house was bustling with activity for it seemed her sisters had suitors calling. Both table and canopy had been set up outside and her father had brought out his best brew which Myrtle was busy preparing to tap. Tamela was the first to see her and left the side of her suitor, a rather thin old fellow, and rushed to her youngest sibling.

"Sister!" she cried, hugging and rocking her fiercely. "We thought you lost!"

Myrtle quickly followed and cried happily at seeing her sister. "Where were you? I prayed every night--"

"Dear heavens," Edwer Stucky exclaimed from the doorway, his face flushed, his eye wide and somewhat fear filled. "Scamper you must go! My wife cannot be near--"

Beth came out with several loaves of fresh baked bread which she promptly dropped with a shriek upon seeing her young adversary. "Get away from me" she cried. "Oh, oh husband, look I am changing!"

Fur was already covering her arms and Edwer Stucky's hands came to the sides of his face in dismayed horror. He yelled to Scamper, "Leave at once. Take your witchery."

"I am not enchanting her," Scamper yelled back with her arms crossed stubbornly against her chest. "She does it for a living!"

"What nonsense," he fumed.

"Scamper your voice!" Myrtle exclaimed, amazed. "It is beautiful!"

"And she is a changeling," Scamper declared to them. She fixed the meanest look she could on her new mother. "Maud told me about Beth and the prince."

With mention of those names, Edwer Stucky's face grew somber, his forehead creased. His young wife brushed passed him and marched down the steps. She pushed away Scamper's fluttering sisters and stood before her.

"Prince?" she spat out, her face twisting with anger, her earlier accusation forgotten as the fur receded even as she bared her teeth. "The prince you say? Where is he?"

Scamper closed her mouth with stubborn resolve. Her new mother grasped her arms and shook her. "Out with it!"

"Say the spell," the faerie girl pleaded in her ear. "Say it!"

"What is this?" Beth asked as her eyebrows furrowed and nearly came together. Roughly she turned Scamper to the left and lifted her hair.

"Don't!" Scamper cried but Beth had found the faerie and lifted her up by fragile wings. She held it for a moment like an insect and studied it as the little faerie girl swung with her fists.

"The spell, Scamper," the faerie pleaded. "The--" but her words were muted as Beth placed her in a prison of cupped hands.

"Tell me where the prince hides or I will squash her," she threatened.

Scamper gulped as her face flushed. Her hands shot down to her sides and clenched into fists. Her knees shook. She opened her mouth but not to reveal the prince‘s location.

"Truth to t-t-tell," she forced out. "T-T-Truth t-t-to fr-free--"

"T-T-Tuh?" Beth mimicked then burst out in mean laughter. "My! We shall be here all day, me thinks. Out with it now or your friend dies." She lifted her cupped hands and lowly pushed them together.

"N-No!" Scamper cried pleading. Her courage left, replace with fear for her friend. But truly she should have had more confidence at least in faerie folk, for suddenly Beth squealed and opened her hands. Blood appeared just below her thumb where the faerie had bitten her.

Flying haphazardly in the air for her wing was wounded, the faerie reached out to Scamper. The girl lifted her hand and the faerie fell to her palm.

"I cannot reach your ear," she said apologetically. "Scamper, I'm sorry." With that she fainted.

"My, my, my! But what have you left me to do?" Beth hissed and sucked on her injured thumb. She pulled her hand down and smiled cruelly. "Burn your home down or perhaps become a viper and bite your sisters?"

Her sisters gasped and ran to their suitors to hide behind them. "Don't let her do it, Father!" Myrtle cried.

Beth's eyes narrowed to two slits and her mouth twisted. "He cannot stop me anymore than this little nothing. Your mother was a little nothing, too, I think. The resemblance is obvious. She would be proud."

The youngest daughter with flaxen hair stiffened where she stood. Scamper could not suffer threats against her sisters or cruel words like those against her mother. She had said the spell countless times in the forest, so many times over and over again that the words were not ones she had to fear. She knew them physically, she reasoned quickly to herself. The formation of them was at the tip of her tongue and tickling her mouth. She merely needed to open it, which she did.

Her eyes pierced into her new mother's defiant orbs and smug defiance yielded to fear as Scamper's voice never wavered or faltered. The sisters squeaked in shock as their suitors turned into a rat and a mule and Beth fell to the ground on all fours, a strangled cry erupting from her throat as she struggled against the magic.

Scamper had changed as well. Myrtle pointed to her. "Sister! Where did that gown come from?"

Scamper looked down to see a lovely blue dress of shimmering fabric and golden thread. A matching pouch hung from her waist. Carefully, she placed the wilted faerie within it.

"And there's a little crown upon your head!" Tamela told her.

Scamper reached up and felt, indeed, a fragile tiara encrusted with tiny jewels. Her eyes grew wide and she looked speechlessly at her siblings. But there was no time for explaining. Beth had made her final transformation into her true image. And she was not a fluffy white dog with a blue ribbon but a canine beast with long sharp fangs and claws.

She growled and snapped her teeth and lurched toward Scamper and the girl jumped back, casting a fearful look toward her father, begging for his aid, but she saw on his face an expression that chilled her to the bone.

"Father, do something!" Myrtle urged but Edwer Stucky made no move to help. His face was grim and filled with an old, once distant, now immediate resentment. He looked away.

The youngest sister backed away from the stalking beast, its steps measured and filled with evil intent. It favored its front paw where the faerie had bit it. Maybe it could not run, the young girl reasoned and prayed.

With a cry, Scamper turned and ran. She knew the beast was in pursuits behind her. Scamper imagined she could feel the beast's breath upon her neck as she raced down the path. The soreness of her legs was forgotten. Only the pounding of her heart filled her ears and her thoughts, and she feared it would burst from her chest.

Frantically she searched for the fork ahead, it seemed an eternity away. How long had she walked before she came upon it? She pushed forward.

"Kill you I will," the beast growled, but one lunge behind her.

Finally the fork came into view and she took the pathway to the right into the forest's quickly covering darkness. The beast skidded to a halt, then changed direction to pursue. Scamper saw the space between them lengthen and urged herself faster into a sprint, while calling to the faeries, to the woodland creatures, to protect her.

She saw a blur of white and heard a sharp beaked cry. Turning she lost her footing and fell to her knees. She looked over her shoulder just as the crane lighted on the ground. The beast did not slow but opened its jaws that snapped down upon the crane's left wing and the squawking cry of the crane mixed with its growl as canine fangs sunk deep.

Scamper opened her pouch and brought the faerie girl out. "Do s-s-something," Scamper pleaded to her. Upon Scamper's palm, the faerie weakly lifted to her feet as a terrible cry came from the crane. "P-Please!" Scamper begged.

The faerie tested her wings, then beat them fiercely and lifted to the air. A strong rousing cry came from her tiny body and instantaneously the forest was alive with little lights that quickly flew to the path and lit it, illuminating the crane and transforming it into the prince. Without hesitation he unsheathed his sword and plunged it into the canine monster.

Looking down at the beast, the prince withdrew his sword and cast it to the ground. The prince's left arm dangled injured at his side but he ignored the pain as he turned from the beast and went to Scamper. With his good arm he held her tightly and she cried upon his shoulder. Soft words he murmured to her until her weeping subsided.

"There, there," he said softly, his voice deep with emotion. "You were very brave, little one. Your mother would be proud."

Scamper sniffed, pulled away from him and looked into his brown eyes. "B-B-Beth s-s-said the same. B-B-But in a mean way."

"Beth's way was always mean," he told her. "She did not know your mother. She couldn't nor would she have understood her. Your mother was remarkable. Even her curse was secretly born out of love and protected me these years. But the time for hiding is over."

He stood and helped her to her feet. "I must leave these shadows and stand always as a man."

Understanding, Scamper said the words to the spell she had used before on the suitors and the beast.

"Truth to tell, truth to free, revealed for all to see, be then what you be."

As the spell ended, the faerie light dimmed. The man, the prince, her father remained.

THE END


© 2009 Ann Hasseler De Carrasco

Bio: Ann Hasseler De Carrasco is an old CG artist and a new writer. So far, her work has been featured at Reflection’s Edge. During daylight hours she freelances and has contributed to such projects as the Jimmy Neutron Movie and TV Series, as well as the Ant Bully Movie, and Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five.

E-mail: Ann Hasseler De Carrasco

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