Fiction: The Cage and the Road

Banner for Nine Laws: Allosexual Aromantic Fairy Tales. Image features a tree in the foreground, lanterns hanging from its branches, against a background of heavily-overgrown grey stone walls and archways leading into smaller courtyards. Vines and ivy cover the walls, archways and steps; an array of grasses grow around the bases of trees and walls. Text is set in a white, slightly-curving serif type; white curlicues matching the text, set in each corner, form a broken frame around the text.

Prudence Revered revels in her work as witch-hunter. (Well, census-taker.) What’s not to appreciate in travelling new roads, meeting new people and experiencing new freedoms–ones impossible as the demure once-wife to the Sorcerer Potentate? If she prefers to bed and befriend the witches she tracks down, well, she doubts the Citadel cares (much) about a minor official’s lack of interest in investigation and interrogation. The only clouds on her endless horizon are those ignorant souls who preach the rules that once caged her–the rules witches taught her to break.

She thought herself content wearing the Citadel’s uniform, but when a chance-met companion expects Prue to wage a moral war against unwed witches and provocatively-shaped trees, she fears that her new life isn’t different enough from what she thought to leave behind.

Mother told such stories. Their silken filaments clung to everything Prue knew herself to be, until she was less a person than an actor upon the stage, reciting the lines of a play so old that the audience mouthed the words along with her.

Contains: A cis, polyamorous, pansexual and quoiromantic census-taker enduring an unwanted companion en route to visit a witch; the aro-antagonistic mother of an aro-ace man who vanished after visiting said witch; and references to witch-antagonistic stereotypes from fairy tales … queered and played straight.

Setting: Nine Laws. While this piece references the protagonist of Before Crows’ Eyes, you don’t need to have read it. You should, however, first peruse the flash fiction piece Hunter.

Content Advisory: This story depicts a culture of misogyny, sex negativity, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, amatonormativity and allonormativity, including the presumption of one’s possessing a binary gender, experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, and marrying someone of the other binary gender. One of the characters uses the ableist term “delusional” to refer to a trans man and engages in “think of the children” rhetoric in response to sexually-suggestive displays. In addition, please expect sex references and depictions of the protagonist’s desire for sex. As in Hunter, this story contains a very casual reference to infertility and continues Prue’s unknowing misgendering of Luck Vaunted.

The antagonism depicted here specifically targets non-partnering, non-monogamous aromantics and sex workers in a setting where “romance” is all but synonymous with “marriage” and marriage is required to make sex acceptable.

Length: 3, 500 words.

Note: As I write the Nine Laws witches as a metaphor for queerness (and the Citadel as a metaphor for normative society), I’d argue that this piece may be read as about those aromantics who celebrate their aromanticism whilst clinging to normative beliefs like the primacy of love or sex negativity … cages we, as individuals and as a community, need to recognise and exit.

“I’m so glad that the gods sent you!” Retty exclaims, marching her way along the track heedless of ruts, weeds and fallen branches. “I haven’t slept for a week! How are ordinary folk to handle a witch when they take our young—and we so far from the towns and cities at that? I don’t suppose you’d know to whom I can file complaint that Steward North has abandoned the far-reaches…”

Prue, swallowing a yawn, trots her horse to catch up. “No, ma’am. I’m glad to help people where I can, but I doubt my usefulness in this … situation.”

Glad? The gods deserve a swift kick in the rear! All she did was flag down a man outside the village bakery to confirm the directions on Rain’s rough-sketched map. An innocent question overheard by a woman who believes the local witch behind her son’s absence, recognises the source of Prue’s uniform and exults at gaining a chance-met companion on her quest to face said witch. A woman named Reticence, understandably shortened to “Retty”.

How her neighbours must hark at the irony of by name and by nature!

Retty turns, staring up at Prue in wide-eyed shock. She believes Retty’s claims of worried sleeplessness: bruise-dark shadows ring her eyes and dry scales peel from her lips. “But you are Citadel! Surely you use your protective wards, your enchanted chains, the secret spells with which the sorcerers endowed you before sending you to hunt witches!”

Only obligate decorum keeps Prue from laughing. A minor official issued her papers, uniform, kit, purse and horse. Not the Sorcerer Potentate himself; he, thankfully, doesn’t deal with people as irrelevant and unimportant as his unluckily-barren once-wife. Just a frowning, curseborn Vaunted son with an obsessive interest in cataloguing every non-magical item given over to her against future claims of loss or damage.

The Citadel’s power lies in sorcery, but its rule still rests upon a foundation of mundane bureaucracy.

Instead, Prue forces an acknowledging nod. In her old life, she felt more confined by the wifely role of attentive conversationalist than by her weightiest gowns and tightest slippers. Remember, she tells herself, that tomorrow you’ll be free of her. Overbearing people are more easily endured on the road than inside the Citadel’s stifling halls and salons. No longer must she fear resuming her ornamental position at a powerful man’s arm. Retty is but a temporary horror, even if her indignant words are too common for Prue’s happiness.

“I have none, ma’am. Just a uniform and a logbook. I can only offer witness.”

If the Sorcerer Potentate thinks to find Luck Vaunted hiding amongst Northhold’s woodcutters, truffle hunters and potters, he’ll send sorcerer-born sons and their brothers to carry out the search. No, the truth is likely that a warden or advisor suggested using the unimportant to count and query the Ring’s witches … perhaps to show how far the Citadel’s fingers reach, perhaps on the off chance that Luck hides amongst them. Even a kitchen girl sent to beat bushes may stir up prey for a landholder’s bowmen, and if danger befalls her, what of it?

Prue wonders, though, why the Sorcerers Vaunted presume their luckborn daughter—even if only possibly—drawn to witches. Do they realise that a luckborn woman seeking to escape the Citadel will there find acceptance, rebellion and liberation?

Retty huffs. “What good are you, then, in dealing with a witch’s dangers?”

Tall and muscular, with a butcher’s knife thrust through her belt, some may consider Retty a scowling, dark-eyed heroine preparing to face the monstrous. Prue sees Mother. How can she feel otherwise, given that Retty’s high-necked, coffee-coloured dress and leather boots are also plain to the point of severity? No peeping petticoats, wide sleeves or playful trim; just a straight-cut dress with narrow cuffs, a draping wimple of tan linen covering hair, shoulders and bodice. Stern. Colourless. Boring. Try as she might, Prue can’t think of another modest-keeping woman who didn’t express herself through fabric, buttons or ribbons. Who so scorned the changing winds of fashionable dress in favour of unrelenting propriety … one in which lace and striped stockings tempt girls from the path of obedient dignity.

“None, ma’am. I apologise if I have suggested otherwise.” Prue hesitates, trying to relax her aching teeth and jaw. Just thinking of Mother puts her on edge! “Perhaps this may reassure you: I haven’t found witches to be more dangerous than anyone else. Or any reason to consider them such.”

Certainly not more dangerous than angry women armed with staves and knives…

Is that fair, though? Perhaps the witch did “take” Retty’s son for ill purpose, even though Prue doubts that Rain would have sent her this way if he made a career of preying on local villagers. While Retty’s speech edges upon slanderous generalisation, doesn’t she deserve some benefit of the doubt? An assumption of scared ignorance, not malice?

Prue pats her gelding on the withers, restraining the urge to sigh. Such a pity that she’s been cursed with Retty as companion! Out on the hills, the remorseless sun bakes already-yellowed grass; beneath the forest’s sheltering canopy, Prue enjoys a gentle, dappled light. Enough of a breeze stirs the branches to ward off most insects, and the track underfoot isn’t wet or slippery. A perfect day for a relaxed walk in the shade—and if their path crosses that of a creek, why not break to water her horse and bathe her feet? She can read a book, sketch the curtains of lichen hanging from the trees’ lower boughs, darn the hole in her other pair of trousers … exist, for a time, free of other people.

Such a childish yearning, she knows, but for what else can a luckborn woman—one who can’t comprehend courting and marriage but must navigate her new husband’s expectations—hope?

“I presume that you’re new to this work,” Retty says, slowing so that she walks by Prue’s left stirrup. Not a single strand of hair lies uncovered by her wimple, and Prue—her curls long having escaped her pins—feels like a grubby child. One covered in dust and horse-hair, awaiting the inevitable scolding due her carelessness. “Or you would know that witches do only as they like! Working their spells, ill-using their craft, luring children into the forest never to be seen again, bedding whomever they please whenever they please, and for money at that…”

Sheer incredulity overwhelms Prue’s umbrage: luring children?

She’s worked long enough to realise that absurd tales form about witches—and other queers, loners, strangers and outsiders—like a web about an orb spider. Bitter frosts? A plague of ladybugs? Slatternly girls in striped stockings? Runaways? Youths who speak back to their parents? Of course the witch must be the cause … not the season, the increased number of aphids and the historical inevitability of children finding their parents’ beliefs wanting.

Since leaving the Citadel, she’s realised one inflexible truth: people are loathe to acknowledge the complex causes of all they deem ill. Easier, by far, to blame the witch.

Even if such reluctance results in stories absent all logic and rationality.

“Five seasons, ma’am,” Prue says, working to both soften her jaw and swallow her anger. “I do know that most witches avoid being perceived as dangerous, fearing a visit from a sorcerer and his brothers. And that most complaints are minor or wildly untrue.”

Mother told such stories. Their silken filaments clung to everything Prue knew herself to be, until she was less a person than an actor upon the stage, reciting the lines of a play so old that the audience mouthed the words along with her.

Mother betrayed her stories only after happenstance sheared Prue’s entrapping threads.

Retty, halting, plants her staff in the earth and gestures to the left. “Untrue? What of this obscene horror, then? Look! Don’t you know that children travel this path!”

Where? The forest grows green and lush, studded with hanging vines and outcrops formed of a glassy rock that appear to pulse and shimmer under shadow. Whippy saplings curve around ancient, house-sized trunks, forming a soil-scented gallery of misshapen pillars. Ferns sprout wherever they may gain foothold, poking up through the blackberry brambles cloaking deeper gullies. A scarlet fungus shaped like curled fingers clings to bark; cream mushrooms fruit in the damp earth between and about twisted roots. Every so often an unseen bird warbles or chirps, breaking the gentle hum of droning insects and rustling leaves.

Sorcery once thrived here; its dying echoes vibrate through her bones.

Even the Citadel’s stone and glass may one day surrender to tree and fungi.

Prue reins in her horse, sighing. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t see—”

“There! Beside the shard!”

She can’t sight anything beyond the trees’ oddly-bulging shape—but a crow takes flight from a hanging branch, her horse shies to the side of the track, and suddenly those bulges become the graceful curves of one dryadic body pressed against another. Someone must have tied and trained the smaller trees, crafting twigs and boughs into limbs and vines into mane. One trunk rests against two trees bent over and woven together to create a remarkably human-looking rump and back … and Prue, despite her good manners and a skittish horse, giggles.

Some witches tend vegetable gardens and embroider cloaks.

Others, apparently, create sculptures from living trees.

“You laugh at this explicit obscenity?”

Suggestive if one knows to look, yes, but not lacking in artistry. How much time—or magic—did the witch take to guide the trees into growing that way? She knows Father spent years learning to shape fire so that the play of light and shadow formed scenes performed during the Citadel’s many festivals and entertainments. Such beauty awed her, for even her once-husband lacked such finesse in manipulating flame, but no audience could miss the smoke-tinged threat accompanying each display. The dark promise underpinning great craft.

This piece also delivers a message—just one of defiant pettiness.

“He advertises his immoral trade all through the forest! And once our youths have been with a witch, they’ll break oath for more … or worse, never wed at all. Girls become wild hussies, and lecherous boys enable them! And then where do they end up? Where?” Retty shakes her fist at the fornicating trees before resuming her stomping, staff-thumping march. “Even insists that he doesn’t want, won’t court and won’t marry, but he snuck off to the witch one time, I’m sure. Now he won’t have anything but a witch’s magic—and a queer, delusional witch at that! Now he’s ruined for any decent girl! So enchanted he won’t even come home! And nobody with the power to stop it will help!”

Prue grits her teeth, her face and head throbbing with unexpressed anger. The grey gelding, responding to her stiff hands, takes up a jerking, rein-tugging trot.

She isn’t a witch, but she’s just as queer, just as promiscuous, just as rebellious. A barren-cursed sorcerer’s daughter of no status rendered acceptable in her trousers and singledom by her uniform … even if she’s long considered her duty only the chance to meet and learn from like-minded people at her once-family’s expense. Nothing more than a mask concealing a woman who looks upon the Citadel’s rules and laws with a horrified shudder.

She should swallow her outrage, say something polite, smile.

Prue exhales, relaxing her seat and legs until her horse settles. Scared woman missing her son. Benefit of the doubt. Besides, doesn’t she well know this tale of indignation, blame and certitude? Retty and Mother are alike in ways beyond dress and speech. They dwell within a cage of fear: the lock formed of their confidence that all the world should join them, the key inconceivable. In want of safety and surety, they cower behind bars crafted from other people’s cruelty.

Retty’s neighbours likely found—or invented—reason to avoid accompanying her, but shouldn’t she who fears her son’s remaining unwed bring her husband? Perhaps he works, perhaps he sickens, perhaps he no longer breathes … or perhaps he doesn’t exist. For while Mother clings to outmoded rules of courtesy, Prue’s grandmother and great-aunts let slip the occasional tale of a defiant, rebellious girlhood now thankfully overcome. Doesn’t Retty’s rage, then, make the most sense if she never wed? If she raised her son alone in a community that gave her little but oppressive cruelty, a horror she can’t bear to see repeated? If her road to respect, in the wake of such shame, meant becoming such a paragon of moral virtue that she exchanges small enjoyments for finger-pointing criticisms?

Sometimes the people who should best understand are those who can’t survive the process of understanding.

“Are you ignoring me?”

A curt “yes” dances upon the tip of Prue’s tongue. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Well?”

“I don’t think it illegal to make or display sculptures within Steward North’s forests,” she says, wondering if anyone, anywhere, thought to issue such a ruling, “but you’ll have to make your own enquiries, ma’am. It is legal, within the Ring, to sell magic-enhanced goods and labour, and no provision excepts the sale of sex. That is what you are intimating, yes? Unless the witch commits crimes against someone’s person, uses magic to cheat customers of goods or services, casts illusion without provision and consent, uses magic to coerce or deceive, or sells false or misidentified goods or services, I don’t believe the regional warden will request that sorcerers investigate.”

Prue has too often delivered such speeches, although the previous utterance concerned an apothecary thinking himself threatened by a witch’s healing spells.

“That’s absurd!” Retty fists her free hand, her cheeks purpling. “What good are the wardens, never mind stewards and sorcerers, if their laws won’t protect decent folk against these perversions…”

Sorcerers, in Prue’s experience, concern themselves with power … and the ethical disagreements of the unlanded are as irrelevant as the concerns of log-walking ants. They’ve never been gods-blessed servants, bound by their Nine Laws and affiliation to the Citadel, who work magic for service and protection. They’re only self-interested men engrossed in magical and political pantomime, so why do people insist on viewing sorcerers as beholden to the ordinary?

“…and do they think of—” Retty, her brow scrunched into a magnificent scowl, jerks her arm towards a pair of trees growing on the edge of the track. “Look! Here’s more crass obscenity!”

This time, after a moment’s puzzled scrying, Prue sights a diamond-shaped hollow framed by raised lips of bark. A branch from the second tree lies across the trunk so that three spindly twigs and a leaf dip inside.

She sighs, patting her rattled horse’s neck. The first piece displays more detail, but she won’t refuse that sort of distraction should anyone offer. Preferably not with a tree, but if the twigs are clean and lacking in splinters, and she can find or make a comfortable patch of leaves to lie on, and the tree is willing … well, hasn’t she passed worse nights with human partners? Isn’t intercourse with sapient flora better than ruminating on today’s awfulness?

Excuse me?”

 “What…?”

Only then, thanks to the wide-open mouth distorting Retty’s round face, does Prue realise that she spoke her meanderings aloud.

“Is this, this … this what the Citadel thinks to send out?”

Her cheeks smoulder. How can she be so careless? Prudence Revered, luckborn daughter of the Ring’s second-oldest sorcerer family, has passed a great many hours listening to people talk politics, morality, family, sorcery, fashion and, in the case of her once-husband, the intricate strategies of card games. She knows how to smile, nod and ask questions suggestive of interest; she knows how to keep her impolite thoughts from marring her face. While the truism by name and by nature as understood in the Citadel doesn’t encompass her doings since her escape from wifehood, she recognises the value of thinking before speaking!

Even if she now owns friends, like Rain and Pigeon, with whom such talk isn’t an unforgivable deviance from virtue but a delight joyfully encouraged.

Even if…

Prue sucks in a shaking breath. Polite, always polite; what has this gotten her but exhausted endurance, the requisite witness to a woman’s venomous morality? Nor just one woman, at that; Prue’s casual adherence to duty funds her travelling life, but its uniform makes her an officer from the Citadel, a defender of the supposedly good and just. Even if sorcerers care little for the woes of the landless and powerless, they hold, promote and enforce laws in common. Rules scornful of her own life and experiences. Beliefs harmful to her lovers and friends.

If she can’t accept the Citadel’s ways, is its purse the only reason she accepts its uniform, its assumptions, its obligations?

Retty and Mother cower behind their locked doors. In her heart of hearts, Prue scorns both for their cowardice, but isn’t she just as craven? Hasn’t she fled one cage only to tolerate a roomier one? Perhaps one spends a lifetime darting in and out of the many cages fate assigns them. Or perhaps one spends a lifetime exiting one cage only to find themself entrapped inside a larger—inside cages nested inside cages, each in want of escape. Regardless, she too is trapped.

She and Mother are no different.

Prue can’t forget those words, whispered the morning she left the Citadel: revel in the freedoms of sex and love denied us here. Words too dangerous to speak before sorcerer fathers, brothers, husbands and sons; words offering a momentary glimpse of a woman who knew their world a cage. A woman Prue wishes she could have seen years earlier; a woman Prue loathes for her lifetime’s lie—the lie about which she twisted her own daughter. A woman whom Prue misses and yearns to free, but how does one release a bird who so obliges her enclosing bars?

Revel, revel in the hypocrisy … and Prue has.

No more.

She takes her gloves in her teeth, tugging her fingers free of the leather, before shoving both between the saddle and her thigh. She leaves her cap atop her head, hating its weight, while she works her coat’s row of brass buttons free from their holes. Prue will need to buy or make new clothes … and the thought of being able to choose her own things fills her with a surprising, unlooked-for joy. A cloak made from cloth of every colour? Knickerbockers and waistcoats? Striped stockings? Why not?

“…and I’ll be reporting—have you no shame?”

Her horse tugs at the bit, making more awkward Prue’s fight to free her arms, but finally she balls her coat—her journal and pencil protruding from its pocket—upon her lap.

The breeze feels delightfully cool through the linen of her undershirt.

Perhaps someone with time, generosity and patience will guide Retty towards exiting her cage. Such an act must benefit Retty and all about her … but that person won’t be Prue. She feels pulled taut because Retty summons the girl Prue once was and can’t forget. The girl who skulks within her own cage, accepting the cruelties dealt her; the girl who followed the requisite road to a marriage and husband she never honestly wanted. No, she has her own quest to undertake, for she won’t escape her own ghost until she permits her freedom from Retty, Mother and all others like them.

Prue removes her cap to run her bare hand through her curls, dislodging her remaining pins. “No. Shut up. I’m bored of your ranting.”

Retty draws a gasping breath, halting in the middle of the track. White-knuckled hands grip her staff, forming an odd contrast to her cheeks’ high colour. “I will be reporting such rudeness to the warden! Don’t think that I won’t!”

Why respond? Prue tosses aside her coat, logbook and cap, the keys to this cage’s weighty lock, before working her gloves over her hands. Only then, her hair blowing about her face, does she press her calves against her gelding’s flanks, permitting him his surging canter.

“You’re supposed to help me!” Retty shouts, breaking into a foot-pounding run after Prue and her horse. “You’re from the Citadel! You’re supposed to help!”

She grabs a hank of coarse mane and settles herself into a crouch low enough to avoid hanging branches, her eyes fixed upon the road ahead. The witch should be warned that to his house a monster comes—and Rain’s belief that Prue may offer assistance is likely no less for her lack of uniform. After that … she purses her lips, thinking that she now possesses friends and lovers enough that someone must offer her sanctuary until she decides upon the how of her next journey. Friends and lovers of a similar mind when it comes to rejecting the world’s cages.

Prue frowns, pondering. Must a witch have magic to become a witch?

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