Shrieking Mandrakes by Leigh Holland
Chapter One: The Sinner and the Savior
Blast. The cobblestone looks nice from up above it, but when you’re lying on it, it’s just a bunch of jagged little rocks. They don’t pierce as much as annoy me at the moment. Does it have to be so damned cold? It’s as if the stones suck up all the cold air and guard it like a precious treasure. If heat rises, why is Hell supposedly lower than this cobblestone? Ah, well, one must try to look on the bright side, I always say. I may be wounded, but at least I’m not lying naked, prone, and unconscious with my buttocks in the air. I am in full possession of my mental faculties, such as they are, and it appears the Llamhigyn Y Dwr intends to go back to its bog and leave me be. Of course, I’m awfully tired. I may be bleeding. I feel a bit nauseous and woozy. If I just lie here a bit perhaps I’ll start to feel better. The difficult part, I imagine, will be avoiding anyone noticing me while I rest here in front of this church for a couple of days.
Speaking of which, there’s the priest, sweeping the walk. Somehow, I think he’s going to notice me. Ouch, my head stings! Oh, no. Here he comes. I suppose I could turn into a large aardvark with rabbit ears. That would definitely scare away most human beings. But I don’t have enough energy left for such a feat.
The priest leaned closer to me, setting his broom aside. He was about five feet, eleven inches tall; with kind green eyes and dark hair. Kneeling next to me, he laid an index finger tentatively on my neck to feel for a pulse. His finger was warm. I couldn’t help it, I cooed.
“There, there, little bird,” he told me in Irish Gaelic, “I’ll take care of you.”
Here in Wales, it seemed they preferred pork and onions. I was happy to have not landed in France. There, I would most assuredly have been eaten. I briefly worried that he may eat me yet, as he raced back into the rectory. My worries proved unfounded when he returned with a warm blanket. Had I the capacity for human speech at the time, I would have praised the priest’s god.
It had been a long, hard journey hence, and my goal remained unaccomplished. Yet I knew that if I stubbornly tried to remain awake till I healed, I would recover my health far too slowly and thereby would my cause be lost forever. His strong yet cautious hands laid me with care upon his bed. He fashioned the woolen blanket into a nest shape, then swaddled me in another piece of warm cloth, laying me within the nest. Gently, he began washing and tending my wounds. Suddenly, I didn’t want to sleep. I feared his reaction to what would happen shortly after. I began squawking wildly in an effort to remain alert. Humming an old Irish tune, he soothed me. In spite of myself, I began slipping into unconsciousness.
Groggily, I awoke to the sound of a dumbfounded, startled priest. Feeling the pain course through my upper arm, I groaned. I wondered which form I had taken this time as I had slept off some of my injuries. Glancing down, I saw two long, human legs…make that three. A small brown cloth lay across my right hip. I positioned it to cover that “third leg”. I almost chuckled, but it hurt to smile. A pain was forming in my head, a sort of dull but persistent thudding behind my temples. Annoying.
“Pardon me, have you been listening to a word I’ve said?!” The irate and amazed priest demanded. Loudly. In broken Welsh.
I held up a halting hand. “Please, good man,” I asked in a small, whispering voice, “my head is aching all the more as you scream at me. Could you yell excitedly in a tiny whisper perhaps?” I looked about the room. There was a cask of something on the writing desk next to the quill and ink. Motioning to it, I asked, “That wouldn’t happen to be…”
He moved quickly to retrieve the flask of liquid. “That’s not for you.”
He stood still and ever so thankfully quiet as he gathered his thoughts and stared at me. I looked just past and around him at my reflection in the mirror. The glass was darkened and the room dimly lit; not at all like home where everything was bright, clear, and sparkly. I liked sparklies. A lot. I could make out much of my reflection. What a sight I was! No wonder he couldn’t stop making such a fuss. My skin was lovely and pale, as usual (it was hard not to just rub myself all over and make wild noises). I was tall, slender, and very male. My long mane of wavy black locks cascaded down my back and into my face. Brushing them out of the way, I saw that I had large, floppy, black furred bunny ears protruding from my head. My dark violet eyes held deeper mysteries for those who dared. No wonder he sounded so bloody loud when he screamed. I was so gorgeous, sometimes I scared myself.
“What are you?” he asked in a small voice. “Are you demon? Angel? Ghost?”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. This was exactly why I hated relying on humans for aid. “Look,” I replied, “I’m no demon. And I’m surely no angel. I might be a ghost, though.”
He seemed confused. Then he turned pale as a summer’s day cloud and jumped back, nearly tripping over his long robes.
“Oh,” I said, giggling in realization, “don’t worry about that. When I’m wounded or sleeping, my body parts often just change shape of their own accord. By the way, I wanted to thank you for tending to my wounds earlier today. You may not realize it, but you helped me a great deal. I owe you a great boon for that.”
I wanted to grab my words from the air before they reached his ears, but sadly, sound traveled faster than I did. I inwardly cursed myself for having said them. Now I was bound to repay my debt. Nothing was worse for my kind than having to actually come by something honestly. Honesty just wasn’t in our nature. Indeed, the more lies we told, the greater our powers grew. We gained our health and power back at an exaggerated rate when the lies were ridiculous and humans believed them anyway. The absolute best was when the humans started telling our stories as if they were true; as if they were their stories to begin with. Ah, the magic that could be tapped then! Maybe I’d get lucky and he wasn’t paying attention to anything I said.
“Really?” he asked. “What sorts of things can you do?”
Darn it. Now my head was really pounding. This wasn’t fun anymore. “Unfortunately, I’m in no state to do anything. My battle with the Llamhigyn Y Dwr didn’t end so well.”
“Never mind.” I replied, examining my wounds. He’d done an excellent job patching me up when I’d been a bird. Now the wounds were solely internal. But they needed more time to heal. I couldn’t waste my magic on doing parlor tricks for a priest. I needed to gather my strength. “Suffice it to say, I’m of no use to you while I’m still healing. Why, what is it you want of me?”
I bit my own tongue for having asked. It hurt. I whimpered and whined a bit into a nearby pillow.
“Are you alright?” he asked, careful not to move too close. I could smell his trepidation. I didn’t blame him. If the shoe were on the other foot, it probably wouldn’t fit. He’s stockier and has bigger feet than I do.
Sitting up, I smiled and answered, “Sure. I’m fine. Look, I don’t want to trouble you any further.” I felt a jolt of power return to me as I fibbed to him. “So, loan me some clothes, and I’ll be out of your way.”
He kept staring at my ears. I can’t be certain but I think they’d taken on a hooded asp sort of shape. They’re cheeky like that at times.
“What?!” I said, exasperated. “By Manogan, you’d think you’ve never seen ears before.”
Suddenly, wordlessly, the knave left the room and locked and barred the door. I glanced around the candlelit room. No windows. Blast it all! I was trapped, exactly where I wanted to be. Things were working out perfectly. I decided to relax on the priest’s comfy bed, and practice humming that tune of his. Catchy, that.
When I awoke the next day, there was a new candle burning on the plain wooden desk in the small, sparsely adorned room. A pile of clothing lay in the desk chair that sat facing me. Two things occurred to me as I dressed. One- he had been in here, watching me sleep, sitting in this very chair. This thought had a number of sub-thoughts associated with it, including but not limited to what was he thinking about as he stared at me, and the less popular my nuts are freezing. Two- thank Manogan; he left me attractive, decent fitting clothing. I was outfitted in a new black tunic, black leggings, a black leather belt, a deep forest green vest, and a pair of simple leather boots. Enjoying myself, I began flexing muscles and admiring my tight glutes.
“Yes, you’re a gorgeous man, aren’t you?” I said to my reflection.
“Don’t be daft.” he replied, rolling his eyes. I hated it when he answered me. He was such a spoil sport. No fun at parties whatsoever.
The door creaked open and I stepped a few paces back, standing to the far side of the room. The priest peaked in around the edge of the heavy wooden door. He gawked at me a few moments, and then entered the room, shutting the door behind him.
“I know what you are.” he told me from across the room.
He was keeping more than a safe distance from me. I frowned. “We’re really going to have to work on your interpersonal skills.” I told him from my side of the room. Sighing, I asked, “What is it you think I am now?”
He looked me up and down. Well, two could play that game. I looked him up and down, sizing him up as well. Tall, dark, and handsome. That about described us both, though I honestly think the overused phrase failed to describe my amazing looks adequately. If we were dating the same girl, she’d dump him for me. A bunny ear flopped forward onto my eye. It pulled itself back up into an upright, alert position on my head. Okay, maybe she wouldn’t dump him for me after all. He was stockier and stronger physically than I, this was true. He could probably take me down in a physical brawl, were I the sort to not cheat. At the moment, I was a bit short on magical power, so I decided it would be best to avoid any scuffles with holy men.
“Ha!” I exclaimed, “We wouldn’t be dating the same girl, because you’re a priest!”
His brow furrowed in confusion at my seemingly unconnected proclamation. Shaking his head, he said, “You’re supernatural. A Sidhe.”
I flashed a dazzling smile. “Worked that one out all by your lonesome, did you? I’m not a Sidhe, that’s as Irish as you are and not quite accurate, really. Now, look, speak Welsh. We are in Wales, you know, and both Manogan and your god are surely aware how badly you need the practice. I’m a Twyleth Teg.”
“You’re what the locals call a pwca.”
I strode over to him and extended my hand. He recoiled nervously. “Please,” he said, “stay back.”
I did as he asked, but insisted, “I mean you no harm.”
He calmed himself as I took a couple of steps back.
Then he told me, “My grandmother always talked about your kind, but I never believed her. I mean, I always thought the stories were just-”
“Blarney.” I finished for him.
“Yes.” he admitted. “But it seems you’re real enough.”
He very slowly and cautiously reached out a hand to touch my arm, to make certain I wasn’t just some figment of his addled imagination. I took the opportunity to grasp his hand in mine and greet him properly.
“It’s nice to meet you.” I said. “What’s your name?”
Once he realized I wasn’t going to turn into a hideous beast and devour him, he relaxed. He replied, “Muircheartach Mac Cuindess. It’s nice to meet you, too. I have so many questions-”
“Oh, no.” I remarked. “I think I’ll just have to call you Kieran.”
“But my name is-”
“A tad bit difficult for your Welsh parishioners to pronounce, and impossible to spell. Well, presuming any of them were literate.” I finished for him merrily. “You’ll always be Kieran McCandless to me.”
“My name is Muircheartach.” He insisted. He sat in the desk chair, and I sat at the edge of his bed. He asked, “What’s your name?”
My eyes lit up like a new day and I replied in my best evil dwarf voice, “You have three nights to guess my name. If you can’t, then I’ll be back for your baby, ladle in hand!”
“What on earth are you talking about?” he demanded. “I don’t have a baby.”
“Really, Kieran,” I answered, “Haven’t you ever heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin? I could tell it to you, if you like. It’s a true story, or so I’ve been told by the German prince who told it to me.”
“You’re not going to tell me your name, are you?”
“Of course not. Names have power, you know. I’m absolutely shocked at the way you mortals throw yours about so carelessly.” I told him. “Indeed, when mortals die, all you have are your names. The scavengers come and pick apart everything else you had. But your name- you’d have to be really unpopular for them to blatantly pick that apart once you’re no more. Your names can echo through eternity, in stories told of you.”
“If names are important because of stories told about them, why won’t you tell me your name?” he queried. “Don’t you want to be remembered forever?”
“Unlike you, I won’t die. Well, unless something supernatural like me surprises me and kills me.” I rubbed my sore arm, recalling the dreadful encounter with the Llamhigyn Y Dwr. It was still out there, waiting for another chance. I could feel it. “Even then, I’ll never die.” I explained. “I’m cursed, you see.”
He didn’t see. “What do you mean?”
My mood had turned serious and somber. I pouted, lying back on the bed, propped up by Kieran’s exquisite down pillows. “I have lived a number of lifetimes. My soul is caught up in a pattern; a cycle of reincarnation, from which there is no escape. And what’s worse, I remember things from them as if they were my own memories, as if they happened in this life.”
He considered my words. “I don’t believe in reincarnation.”
“Of course you don’t, silly. And you don’t believe in the old legends, such as me, either. You’re a Catholic priest.” I answered. “Really, Kieran, am I going to have to teach you who you are?” My smile faded, as I contemplated, “That’s the other part of the Tynghedau; the curse. Everyone else reincarnates, too, but I’m the only one who remembers anything.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you don’t want your name to live forever in stories told about you.” he said.
“I’m not going to tell you my name.” I stated simply, refusing to discuss the issue of my magical true name any further.
“Oh, no.” he remarked, shrugging. “I think I’ll just have to call you Riordan.”
I felt a tear come to my eye, but choked back my emotions. No one had ever given me a nickname before. Most people just called me “annoying bastard”. I agreed, “Riordan it is, then.”
Just when I thought we were bonding, Kieran remarked, “They say if you capture a Sidhe- I mean, a Twyleth Teg- that it will owe you three wishes.”
“That’s a genie.” I corrected him. “But even that’s not entirely true. Genies will kill you if they get the chance, and will make quick their escape. They don’t give a fig about mortal wishes. Why, do you want a genie?”
“Not really.” he said. “Three wishes would’ve been nice.”
“Ah, but at what risk?”
“Are you saying you’re risky?”
“You really don’t pay attention, do you?” I said. “No wonder you don’t believe in anything your grandma told you about. You have no idea what she said. You never listened! I’m saying trucking with genies to gain three wishes is very risky business.”
Kieran leaned forward, placing his elbow on his knee and his hand on his chin, deep in thought. Good. He was finally going to use that brain for something.
“I have to admit I’m irritated with you at the moment.” I informed him. “You treat me like I’m a thing you can control and demand things from. I have feelings, dreams, wishes of my own, you know.”
Immediately, he looked horrified and regretful. “I’m sorry, Riordan. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m just trying to figure out…” he paused, then appeared as if hope had fled from him, and put his head in his hands. “Oh, never mind.”
At this rate, he’d be setting me free in a matter of minutes. Then who would call me “Riordan”?
“Wimp.” I insulted him.
“What?” he looked up at me, surprised.
“I said, you’re a wimp. A totally impotent, powerless little man who is utterly incapable of taking charge of his life, much less accomplishing anything beyond what’s expected of him by others.”
Kieran pouted. His mouth was lovely when he pouted. I bet if he did that, any girl we both dated would dump me for him in an instant. Oh, wait. We already established he was a priest. I kept forgetting, in spite of the long black dress and white collar. On him, it looked more like a costume than a calling.
He replied, “You’re right.”
This was going to be more work than I previously imagined. I hated work. Blast it all. “Kieran, what are you trying to figure out? I may not be a genie, but maybe I can help in some way.”
Something suddenly occurred to him. His eyes grew wider and his eyebrows shot up. “I remember my granny said there were two types of Twyleth Teg. The good kind and the dark kind. Which kind are you?”
I put a finger to my chin thoughtfully. “Kieran, could you please scoot your chair just a bit to your left?”
He scooted over. Ah, that was better. I posed pensively and checked out my reflection in the mirror. Dark and brooding really worked for me in this form. Kieran looked behind himself. Seeing that I was preening over myself, he sighed heavily.
“If I said I was the dark kind, what would you do?”
“Not trust you.”
“And if I said I was the good kind?”
He realized his dilemma. “Still not trust you. But at least I’d feel more comfortable sleeping in the same house with you.”
“You know,” I stated, “the dark ones are not necessarily bad. They just use different methods to achieve their goals than the so-called good ones do.” I enjoyed the panicked expression on Kieran’s face for a moment, then laughed and said, “I’m the good kind, of course. I really had you going for a minute there, didn’t I?”
Kieran laughed nervously. “Yes, you sure did.” The word ‘naïve’ sprung to mind.
“Come on, then,” I insisted, “what’s troubling you?”
Kieran eyed me suspiciously. “How stupid do you think I am?”
I had a feeling he didn’t want an honest answer, so I didn’t give him one. “You’re not stupid at all.”
“You’re one of the dark sort.”
“How’d you figure it out?”
“Good never defends or excuses evil, it fights it.”
“Who said the dark ones were evil?” I asked. See, humans are stupid. “What makes you think the light ones are morally superior? If you ask me, we’re all bad when viewed through your narrow lens of morality.”
He nodded in agreement. His expression had turned entirely too serious and grim for my taste. “I’m keeping you here.” Kieran informed me.
“My, aren’t we judgmental?” The nerve. “You’re just afraid of me, afraid of anything different, or that challenges you and your worldview. After all, what have I ever done to make you believe I’m evil?”
“I’m keeping you here,” he explained, “until such time as I’m sure you’re not a danger to mankind.”
Offended, I bowed my head slightly. Who did he think he was? No mere mortal could force me to do anything I didn’t want to do. Who did he think he was dealing with? I realized with instant regret that I must’ve been subconsciously transforming again, because the expression on Kieran’s face was one of fear as he stood and backpedaled towards the door. In the mirror, I saw that my eyes had become deep red and cat-like, my skin had changed to a light violet shade that deepened the longer I was angry, and my ears were twisting and hardening into horns. I felt my teeth’s edges sharpening.
Jumping to my feet, I aimed to calm myself. “No!” I instructed my body, as I closed my eyes and began breathing deeply to relax.
When I opened my eyes again to gaze upon my reflection, I had returned to my previous form, floppy bunny ears and all. I smiled at myself, and then turned to face the shaken Kieran. For a long minute, neither of us spoke. We merely took in each other, trying to determine if the other were a threat. I decided he was mostly harmless. After all, he was wearing a dress.
“Kieran-” I began to say, but he merely left the room, locking me in once more.