For a hundred years, I am bound to a witch’s servitude. I’m not free to be in love. Will you accept this?
Thorn Bloodvine passes hir days trapped in a tower. Well, ze does if “trapped” encompasses “climbing out the window and down the beanstalk whenever the whim takes hir”. Magical wards and a wall of brambles surround hir prison, but neither prevents hir from tending hir garden … or the local youths from raiding hir strawberries. A fearsome witch does dwell within said tower, but hir magic is best suited to creating oversized vegetables. Quirks aside, Thorn laid hir truth at hir lover’s feet before they took to bed: ze cannot become Fortitude’s partner.
But when Fortitude speaks one simple word, Thorn’s carefully-ordered world falls apart. For it isn’t just a fairy story that prevents hir from becoming a woman’s happily-ever-after.
But no matter hir honest explanations, Thorn’s lovers come to expect something hir barren heart can’t feel and hir straightforward mind can’t mimic.
Contains: A non-binary, allo-aro autistic with a knack for growing strawberries; an aro-ace witch who dons an ill-fitting costume for the sake of her friend; neuroatypical ponderings on love and lovelessness; and a Rapunzel riff that sits uneasily with its lack of happily-ever-after.
Setting: Nine Laws but entirely stand-alone.
Content Advisory: This story references a background culture of cisnormativity, heteronormativity, amatonormativity and allonormativity, including the presumption of one’s possessing a binary gender, experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, and marrying or having long-term partnerships with someone of the other binary gender. It also includes an abundance of love mentions, examination of the expectation to love, and reflection upon the sex negativity concerning the word “lover” as an euphemism for “sexual partner”.
Please expect depictions of kissing, embracing and physical intimacy, along with non-explicit sex mentions and references to sexual interest.
Length: 3, 759 words.
Note: The a-spec community, in responding to the pressures upon us to conform to allonormativity and amatonormativity, sometimes falls into the trap of regarding allosexual and alloromantic desires as unnecessary, nonsensical or superfluous. Why seek out romantic relationships when one has friends? Why should anyone need sex as part of their relationship? Unless we are careful, we reflect back upon allos the same judgemental incredulity we’ve internalised as a normal way to regard an outgroup. The difference is that now the privileged are invalidated … plus, of course, a-specs who are allosexual and/or alloromantic. A-specs who experience what is in our safe space deemed incomprehensible, laughable or horrifying.
Because the a-spec community won’t always validate my experiences, desires and needs as an allosexual aromantic, I wanted a story where an allo-aro character can express hir happiness being contingent on finding someone with whom ze has a specific kind of sexual relationship and have that want accepted by a not-allosexual a-spec character–not belittled or dismissed.
Thorn Bloodvine drops the last potato into hir basket, brushing clods of damp earth from hir fingers. Only the omnipresent thrum of insects—bees, attracted by pots of pungent basil—reaches hir ears, but ze again cranes hir head to look above. The squat tower wears a crown of lichen-splotched slate and a robe of beanstalks, the leaves so thick that only slivers of granite peek through their green lushness. Coiling tendrils obscure most of the third-floor balcony from below, but the tortoiseshell cat perched upon the crumbling wall suggests hir lover yet slumbers: Dog only allows Thorn the grace of revealing his existence.
“Good,” ze whispers, turning to yank a dewy tuft of grass from hir bed of beets. The sun isn’t yet high enough that ze expects Fortitude to awaken, but caution is never unwarranted. While curious folks soon realise that ze tends the garden’s neat rows of lush crops and brown loam, amongst other chores concerning the tower and its grounds, Thorn doesn’t care to explain everything about hir life or hir abilities.
Like the vine coiled around hir ankles, throwing out bright yellow flowers that bloom for mere breaths before swelling into green-striped fruits—one pumpkin already as large as Thorn’s fist.
“Let go, you!” Ze grabs at the vine, flooding power into the tendrils weaving themselves about hir knee. “She mustn’t see this, so behave yourself!”
The vine withers and browns; Thorn pulls hirself free in a mess of crumbling leaves. Bloody pumpkins! Ze snatches up the basket, shaking hir head, and runs for the garden gate lest ze be caught again. Given the opportunity, any plant will feed upon hir magic, flourishing in hir presence as though ze is bright sunshine following great rain. Squashes, however, run amok given the slightest contact. As for beans … well, ze didn’t mean to live in a tower supporting a score of gargantuan beanstalks!
Better to pretend it a demonstration of a witch’s fearsome powers, even if only Thorn risks entanglement via enthusiastic vegetables.
Not that such magical displays keep out the villagers. Even the wall of blackberry brambles surrounding tower and garden—as thick as ze is tall, albeit not very—serves more as enticement than barrier, ending hir dream of keeping meat on Dog’s plate by marketing berries. Unlike birds and insects, eager youths resist the usual discouragements of chimes, scarecrows, companion herbs, dusting and netting. Some even bypass hir warding spells wrought of coloured threads and painted stakes!
Sure, ze shares the spoils from voracious growers like zucchini, a plant requiring only moderate weather and general apathy to feed an army. But hir tomatoes? The strawberries ze lets feed upon hir magic out-of-season, so their sweet, red flesh blesses hir tongue year-round? Gods below, can’t they cut some overgrown spinach instead of ravaging hir late-season sugar peas?
I was caught stealing from the witch’s garden, ze says when asked the reason for hir bondage, hoping the chance of a similar fate discourages the pea thieves.
So far, ze reckons this no more effective than the netting.
A short stretch of gravelled path divides garden from tower. A heavy door breaks the northern wall, but Thorn heads for the thickest beanstalk, growing in a bed edged by clumps of onions and chives. White flowers bloom as ze closes hir hand about the central stalk and, more hindered than helped by its coils, steps onto the iron staple hammered into the tower wall. Slender green spears thicken into ripe pods as ze climbs past the shuttered first floor window, moving from staple to vine and vine to staple. Hir power thrums through hir skin, permitting the leaves’ touch but delivering withering spikes to any offshoot snagging hir limbs or hair. After a year of such climbing, feeding and pruning, stalks of unnatural thickness and longevity twist their way up the wall, anchored by staples, brickwork and instinct.
A crumbling stone lip, mostly cloaked by leaves, surrounds the narrow balcony. Thorn heaves hirself and the basket over the stonework, startling hir wide-eyed cat. Pots and a wooden chair occupy the rest of the space—enough for a few strawberry plants, a turned-over tub for bathing and an early-morning cup of tea, sipped while ze watches dawn’s mist retreat over the fields.
“Sorry,” ze murmurs, scrambling to hir feet.
A rag rug hangs in the doorway between interior and balcony. Inside lies hir room, its rounded walls housing riotous clutter. Objects ordinary, like a four-poster bed with a clothes chest at its foot, and objects extraordinary, like a shelf of narrow boxes holding cotton skeins in hundreds of shades. Bundles of herbs dangle above the table where ze prepares hir meals; bolts of linen, wrapped in paper against dust, lean against the sideboard. Another metal tub, the inside stained red-purple after a dye experiment ventured in unexpected—and unrepeatable—directions, sits beside an armchair holding an empty scroll frame and a pillow in a polka-dot slip. A standing frame, positioned in the centre of the room beside a stool holding hir workbasket, displays hir tapestry in progress: short-and-long-stitches worked in variegated browns, soon to become tree trunks. Despite Thorn’s lavender-scented soaps and hir liking for mint tea, everything smells annoyingly of onion.
Ze knows ze dwells in a chaos of chipped mugs and worn furnishings. It is, however, hirs. A sanctuary from a world dangerous and unpredictable, where most days possess a rhythm around chores and work as regular as the sunrise. If ze knows where to find hir needles and passes most evenings with a cat-warmed lap, Thorn can claim security.
Even happiness, these last months.
Ze sets the basket on hir table, blinking as hir eyes adjust to dimness from sunlight, before crossing to the washbasin to scrub clean hir hands. If Fortitude agrees, they may have just enough time for another go in bed…
“You rise early, lover.”
Thorn startles, knocking hir bar of soap into the water.
“And you jump!” Fortitude raises her head, grinning. Sprawled naked across rucked sheets, the blacksmith is all strength and muscle: broad shoulders, wide hips, powerful thighs. Forearm calluses and scars, rough and raised, signal adventures with hammers, pincers and blades. Copper hair, seldom let down, falls into loose ropes over the small of Fortitude’s back and Thorn’s white sheets. Dark eyes dance above dimpled cheeks and cream skin quick to redness, but never has ze seen shyness touch those rosy lips.
Thorn yields to those craft-clever hands as readily as does glowing metal, all ordinary dignities abandoned along with hir undergarments.
“Didn’t I please you into deep sleep?” Fortitude sits, stretching her arms above her head before twisting her hair into a loose knot. “Crime! Were you too polite to mention my failure? Come, I’ll try again!”
Dog’s demand that ze fill his knocked-over water bowl—by batting at Thorn’s feet—seems too mundane an explanation for return utterance. “Yes—no, I mean, yes, of course you weren’t—ah, yes…? Yes!”
“You know I tease!” Fortitude, laughing, walks around the bathtub and past two crates—a bowed board placed between—holding papers and pencils. Her brown eyes rest upon Thorn’s face, her lips curved upwards. “But even if you don’t, I adore you. Although I hope you’ll forgo your more, ah, creative furnishings after we free you from this tower. Will you, my love? For me?”
She drapes her arm over Thorn’s shoulder, belly brushing rib, hand cupping breast, lip touching lip. Ze shivers, hir body stirring, before leaning into the kiss—the comforting, exciting, easing goodness of another’s touch. How simple will it be to melt into a woman’s embrace, to surrender to her closeness—a love outside the world’s expectations, yes, but scarce different in feeling from that concerning men and women? What if ze submits in pursuit of affection’s bewildering wonderment, passion’s joys told in story and song, a road to happily-ever-after? Contentment lurks in the salt taste of Fortitude’s lips, two new-spoken words and the stalk of a red geranium she now tucks behind Thorn’s ear, gifted by a blacksmith after she climbed magic-twisted beanstalks for a night spent in glorious nudity.
For a hundred years, ze said, back when Thorn only imagined how Fortitude’s skin must feel beneath hir fingertips, I am bound to this tower, bound to a witch’s servitude.
Love promises a lifetime’s indulgence, if ze only entwines hir vines about the staples of Fortitude’s world—their lives’ merging marked by a marriage band, a cottage, a bed with space enough for two. Why not, when here stands the marvel of a woman who even understands that ze isn’t one, expressing her desires in a way that doesn’t leave hir playacting at hir own genderlessness?
Why not … and Thorn’s stomach surges towards hir throat.
The northern window, facing pastures of tan cattle, reveals a black-clad figure striding along the hedgerow.
“She comes! Across the cow fields. The witch!”
Fortitude bolts for the bed as if fleeing a gaggle of sour-tongued sisters armed with normality’s judgemental scorn. No married lord caught in his stablemaster’s bed ever snatched up his floor-abandoned tunic and trousers with such freneticism! Nervousness makes Thorn drop hir stockings and weep over buttons, but Fortitude’s hands never quiver as she tucks underthings into her belt pouch and laces into her boots. By the time Thorn, hir heart a moth beating at its cage of bone, palms the now-rooting stem and reaches the hanging rug-door, even discriminating matrons may reckon Fortitude dressed tolerably for out-of-doors.
“Am I safe to go out this side?”
Dry-mouthed, Thorn nods. “Yes. If you wait by the shutters, she won’t see you as she enters. Then you can take the gate. Lock it after!”
Fortitude, her lips crooked into a half-smile, sweeps a bow. “Of course. I must leave, but I’ll return tomorrow.” She leans forwards, grasping Thorn’s smaller hands in her larger ones. Her hoarse voice softens. “I’ll free you. I’ll find a way. We’ll take a home somewhere far from here. Together. I’ll make you all the needles you’ll ever want and a door that always opens. You’ll be free and we can love. I promise.”
What does one say to such a valiant, heartfelt declaration?
“I know,” ze croaks. Fortitude’s slow kiss, her soft lips brushing Thorn’s earth-scented knuckles, brings tears to hir eyes. “Please go!” Ze gathers the rug with hir free hand, sunlight’s bright shaft leading the way outside. “She must be at the door—go, go!”
With agonising slowness, Fortitude raises her head, blows Thorn another kiss and darts onto the balcony. Dog hides behind two pots, only the tip of his twitching tail visible; Fortitude takes a running stride and leaps onto the tower wall. Leaves rustle and beans scatter as she descends, hand over hand down the beanstalk, to land with a thud atop an unlucky patch of purple-flowering chives.
Below, the click of a turning key precedes a second set of feet pattering up stone stairs.
Thorn lets the rug fall closed, hir fingers trembling about the geranium’s stem. Now what? Ze can’t let Fortitude embark upon a doomed quest for hir freedom, but that leaves one other solution—the sort of conversation that shatters relationships upon hate’s rocky reef. Why, oh gods, why? Ze sucks in a shuddering breath, unable to do anything more than fight hir tears and wait for the door set into hir tower room floor—a creaking hatch of studded wood and rusty hinges—to admit the witch.
“Did she make it out safely? With all the rushing and climbing, I worry she’ll turn an ankle. I would, although I don’t know why I’d be fleeing someone else’s bed…”
A lanky, cherry-haired woman in clunky boots, wide skirts and a faded-to-dark-grey cloak places a large basket on the floor before untying said cloak and hanging it from a hook Thorn more often uses for hanks of undyed cotton.
Ze slumps to the floor, a torrent pouring down hir cheeks as the moth inside hir ribs expands to a body-cramping, breath-stealing monster.
“Oh, no. Did she…?” Ember hurries over, her brow furrowed. Tall and delicate, with long eyelashes and high cheekbones of the sort Thorn’s sisters tried to emulate with cosmetics, to hir eye she never quite manages fearsome. Her velvet bodice, bone pendant and phial-adorned belt look more fanciful than threatening. Even boots burdened with an array of chains and buckles beneath a skull-embroidered cloak fail to reinforce illusion, for beneath the costume a middle-aged woman with crinkly umber skin and a halo of cloud-soft hair possesses readily-smiling lips. A woman, more comfortable in a patchwork apron and knitted shawl, who forever smells like cloves and favours pastry over potions. “She didn’t say she…?”
In other circumstances, the truth needs no embellishing: Ember Fireheart owns power enough to horrify those who don’t quail at bones and chains.
Magic is a poor tool for anything short of enforcing dominion.
Alas, lies seldom work better.
“L—loves?” Thorn nods, hir throat too tight for easy speech.
Ember sinks into a pool of black linen and clinking chains, leaning her head against Thorn’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she says, tugging a handkerchief from her bodice and pressing the scalloped cloth into hir hand. “I’m so sorry. I hoped, this time, this way, it would work out. I hoped…”
So did Thorn.
“She … she looked at me. Like she was building her world around me, her future, her everything…” Ze raises the handkerchief to catch an unfortunate glob of snot, shuddering. So simple a phrase! A look, ineffable and indefinable—yet capable of stripping Thorn of hir very self, leaving hir with naught to do but ghost someone else’s story or shatter the contentment ze thought they had wrought. “That’s worse than the words! I told her at the beginning that we can’t court, live together, wed … but no, no. All this didn’t keep her from falling in love! She’s making promises to someone trapped by a witch!”
For a hundred years, ze said to Fortitude in the wake of too many bed-venturing friendships shattering beneath the weight of caught feelings and blooming anticipations. I’ll risk a lover, but having a wife, sharing my life with you, is impossible. I’m not free to be in love. I can’t love you. Will you accept this?
Only after Fortitude’s agreement did Thorn give her the key to the blackberry gate.
Parts of hir tale aren’t falsehoods as much as the careful twisting of words. Ember, truly a witch, is first a friend willing to masquerade as villainess upon her visits. Thorn considers hirself beholden to a witch’s bidding—hirs—even if hir trips to local villages to buy thread and meet people don’t merit the word “escape”. Nor can ze become the partner Fortitude desires! The rest, though? Lies mimicking tales of dangerous women in the hope such threats prove a wall too steep for love to climb.
Few people accept hir word when ze says that ze cannot live beneath a shared roof.
Romance. Naught to Thorn but fanciful stories told to children so they learn to want the well-travelled path—a narrative at odds with the ways that people demanded hir relationships bow to communal and familial expectations, romance’s trappings becoming nothing more than surface pleasantries. Love feels no different: an ill-defined word used to pressure and obligate, one shoehorned into any circumstance but honoured above all despite—or because of—its vagueness. Together, they threaten any chance at intimacy, because ze needs a lover with a life and space remaining their own—a necessary sanctuary, at least for Thorn, from a loud world where other people’s needs are reckoned more vital than hirs.
Oh, ze knows hirself selfish! But no matter hir honest explanations, Thorn’s lovers come to expect something hir barren heart can’t feel and hir straightforward mind can’t mimic … and now even tales of a formidable witch garbed in black and wearing bone don’t dissuade them otherwise.
Mayhap hir relationships wouldn’t require deceit if ze knew a polite word for someone’s connecting with another for a sexual friendship, a word that—unlike “lover”—isn’t clad in romantic assumptions. A word making hir desires normal and ordinary. Can ze rightly condemn Fortitude for falling in love, two words used to mean the hope for a lifetime’s happy togetherness, when lover renders their sex less shameful? Coin seems to dirty such pursuits, to the point of offering insult, justifying scorn or devaluing labour, but isn’t the simplicity of a transactional approach cleaner than this tangle of invention?
A hundred tower-trapped years, betimes, seems a kinder curse.
“I wish,” Ember murmurs, squeezing Thorn’s hand, “that I could be that kind of woman for you. Someone who wants and doesn’t want.”
Thorn, struggling to halt hir sobs, shakes hir head. It’s kind of Ember to say as such, albeit in that absurd double-talk people do where voicing a wish for the impossible serves as polite commiseration, but ze knows it untrue. “No. You don’t have to lie. You don’t wish to be anyone’s bed-partner. You don’t look upon people that way—don’t even want to want to. You shouldn’t have to.”
Ember sighs, her face stiffening. “It would be less awful, I think, than to watch someone I love hurt. Wouldn’t it have to be?” She swallows. “I—this is all pointless, words chasing words and leading nowhere. I just wish I knew of some way to help. Something better than to say, again, that I’m sorry. Because it feels so useless.”
Thorn looks down at hir damp-kneed trousers, hating the terror provoked by that one powerful word. Ze knows Ember doesn’t love hir in any way suggestive of romance or partnership! Ze knows love encompasses a wealth of feelings that don’t always promise a life subordinate to its expectations! Fear grips hir muscles nonetheless, for even non-romantic love oft demands reciprocation. Love? How can Thorn parse the mystery of what ze feels or why if applying a word possessed of countless contexts? One may as well say that they like colour—which? Bright or dark? In what combinations? How does ze use a term cursed with myriad interpretations when ze too often misinterprets others? Or witnesses it used to paper over cruelties, rendering them justifiable in the name of that which purifies indecency?
This discomfort makes hir heartless or unkind—even cruel—to those who love and believe themselves owed love. While hir lips speak untruths about witches, towers and bondage without more than internal unease, that incomprehensible word dissolves into stuttering syllables whenever forced to hir tongue.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I’m grateful,” Thorn says slowly, “for your many kindnesses to me, and I’m glad that you’re my friend and let me be yours. And I feel … happy-sad…? That someone cares about my being happy … and I don’t want you as my lover. Your being you, someone with whom I can be honest, is more important. So much more.” Ze blows hir nose, afraid to meet Ember’s eyes. “And I … I thank the gods below that you like to bake pies, because I have so many pumpkins…”
Ember laughs and shifts her arm, tugging Thorn into a gingerbread-scented embrace.
“Is that enough? Even though it isn’t…?”
“You don’t have to feel as I do,” Ember says, her voice unaccountably solemn. “And I like that you’re precise in how you name your feelings. I know where I stand with you.” She laughs again. “Do you have pumpkins? I brought you coin from your sales, yesterday’s bread and my last pie, so I’ll take anything you have—and on the subject, will you send for me when the blackberries ripen? Everyone wants my berry tarts!”
Why can’t this be enough? A home of hir own, a friend who ferries Thorn’s tapestries to city vendors so ze needn’t be plagued by noise, more vegetables than any one person can eat, space enough to organise hir threads, a view over the valley? Here, ze possesses privacy, connection, understanding and peace. Ember even shares the pain of the world’s pressure to partner and wed, romantic love the shape granted highest value—and the strangeness bestowed upon them by others from their inability or unwillingness to oblige.
It isn’t, though, because Thorn’s fantasies of contentment include one thing more.
A lover who, knowing a romantic partnership outside of possibility, won’t delude herself that time turns green love’s fallow field. A lover who, like Thorn, doesn’t love or wish to be loved, but wants companionship in bed—even a bed-friendship, as long as they needn’t entwine their lives wholly about the other. A lover of a kind for whom Thorn has no simple word, a phantasm existent only in hir dreams.
Why must ze fixate on the vanishingly rare? Easier to be a princess in a tower, grateful for a suitor’s valiant rescue; easier to deem the wonders ze owns enough to reckon hir ending a happy one. Easier, as Ember said, to want hirself to desire outside hir nature than to sit with the helplessness of a problem without solution—but Thorn can’t make hirself keep house with Fortitude any more than Ember can make herself become anyone’s lover.
They possess only cruel honesty … and a life waiting to be lived after ze picks hirself up off the floor, washes hir face and puts the kettle on the hob.
Thorn looks down at the geranium flower, half a dozen white roots protruding from its stem. Fortitude sees two people stitching their lives together until their tapestry cannot be unpicked without cut threads and hole-riddled fabric, once-intact materials rent through separation. Perhaps Thorn can pretend away Fortitude’s hopes, but will ze overlook the disregard for hir claim that ze won’t be her partner? Can ze ignore Fortitude’s pretending away of Thorn’s clear wishes as unimportant?
Another dreadful conversation, then.
Another lover lost.
So be it.
Ze draws a shuddering breath, sets the flower on the floor and blows hir nose on the sodden handkerchief. “I picked you a basket this morning, but I’ll go down and get you pumpkins—and the barrow to take them home.” While Thorn owns no great skill in reading the meaning behind expressions, ze sees nothing in Ember’s crinkly eyes but kindness. “Thank you, always. Have you tried making a pie with beans? Or anything with beans…?”
This isn’t enough.
It is, though, all Thorn has … that and hope’s comforting lies.