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Peter S. Beagle [] was born in Manhattan on the same night that Billie Holiday was recording “Strange Fruit” and “Fine Mellow” just a few blocks away. Raised in the Bronx, Peter originally proclaimed he would be a writer when he was ten years old. Today he is acknowledged as an American fantasy icon, and to the delight of his millions of fans around the world is now publishing more than ever. He is the author of the beloved classic The Last Unicorn, as well as the novels A Fine and Private Place, The Innkeeper’s Song, and Tamsin. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, and is the recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. His most recent book is the collection Sleight of Hand.

I thought he had killed her.

Old people forget things, I know that—my father can’t ever remember where he set down his pen a minute ago—but if I forget, at the end of my life, every other thing that ever happened to me, I will still be clutched by the moment when I gazed down at my beautiful, beautiful, sweet-natured idiot sister and heard the whining laughter of Borbos, the witch-boy she loved, pattering in my head. I knew he had killed her.

Then I saw her breast rising and falling—so slowly!—and I saw her nostrils fluttering slightly with each breath, and I knew that he had only thrown her into the witch-sleep that mimics the last sleep closely enough to deceive Death Herself.

Borbos stepped from the shadows and laughed at me.

Now tell your father,” he said. “Go to him and tell him that Jashani will lie so until the sight of my face—and only my face—awakens her. And that face she will never see until he agrees that we two may wed. Is this message clear enough for your stone skull, Da’mas? Shall I repeat it, just to be sure?”

I rushed at him, but he put up a hand and the floor of my sister’s chamber seemed to turn to oiled water under my feet. I went over on my back, flailing foolishly at the innocent air, and Borbos laughed again. If shukris could laugh, they would sound like Borbos.

He was gone then, in that way he had of coming and going, which Jashani thought was so dashing and mysterious, but which seemed to me fit only for sneak thieves and housebreakers. I knelt there alone, staring helplessly at the person I loved most in the world, and whom I fully intended to strangle when—oh, it had to be when!—she woke up. With no words, no explanations, no apologies. She’d know.

In the ordinary way of things, she’s far brighter and wiser and simply better than I, Jashani. My tutors all disapproved and despaired of me early on, with good reason; but before she could walk, they seemed almost to expect my sister to perform her own branlewei coming-of-age ceremony, and prepare both the ritual sacrifice and the meal afterward. It would drive me wild with jealousy—especially when Father would demand to know, one more time, why I couldn’t be as studious and accomplished as Jashani—if she weren’t so ridiculously decent and kind that there’s not a thing you can do except love her. I sometimes go out into the barn and scream with frustration, to tell you the truth… and then she comes running to see if I’m hurt or ill. At twenty-one, she’s two and a half years older than I, and she has never once let Father beat me, even when the punishment was so richly deserved that I’d have beaten me if I were in his place.

And right then I’d have beaten her, if it weren’t breaking my heart to see her prisoned in sleep unless we let the witch-boy have her.

It is the one thing we ever quarrel about, Jashani’s taste in men. Let me but mention that this or that current suitor has a cruel mouth, and all Chun will hear her shouting at me that the poor boy can’t be blamed for a silly feature—and should I bring a friend by, just for the evening, who happens to describe the poor boy’s method of breaking horses…well, that will only make things worse. If I tell her that the whole town knows that the fellow serenading her in the grape arbor is the father of two children by a barmaid, and another baby by a farm girl, Jashani will fly at me, claiming that he was a naive victim of their seductive beguilements. Put her in a room with ninety-nine perfect choices and one heartless scoundrel, and she will choose the villain every time. This prediction may very well be the one thing Father and I ever agree on, come to consider.

But Borbos…

Unlike most of the boys and men Jashani ever brought home to try out at dinner, I had known Borbos all my life, and Father had known the family since his own youth. Borbos came from a long line of witches of one sort and another, most of them quite respectable, as witches go, and likely as embarrassed by Borbos as Father was by me. He’d grown up easily the handsomest young buck in Chun, straight and sleek, with long, angled eyes the color of river water, skin and hair the envy of every girl I knew, and an air about him to entwine hearts much less foolish than my sister’s. I could name names.

And with all that came a soul as perfectly pitiless as when we were all little and he was setting cats afire with a twiddle of two fingers, or withering someone’s fields or haystacks with a look, just for the fun of it. He took great care that none of our parents ever caught him at his play, so that it didn’t matter what I told them—and in the same way, even then, he made sure never to let Jashani see the truth of him. He knew what he wanted, even then, just as she never wanted to believe evil of anyone.

And here was the end of it: me standing by my poor, silly sister’s bed, begging her to wake up, over and over, though I knew she never would—not until Father and I…


Not ever.

If neither of us could stop it, I knew someone who would.

Father was away from home, making arrangements with vintners almost as far north as the Durli Hills and as far south as Kalagira, where the enchantresses live, to buy our grapes for their wine. He would be back when he was back, and meanwhile there was no way to reach him, nor any time to spare. The decision was mine to make, whatever he might think of it afterward. Of our two servants, Catuzan, the housekeeper, had finished her work and gone home, and Nanda, the cook, was at market. Apart from Jashani, I was alone in our big old house.

Except for Great-Grandmother.

I never knew her; neither had Jashani. Father had, in his youth, but he spoke of her very little, and that little only with the windows shuttered and the curtains drawn. When I asked hopefully whether Great-Grandmother had been a witch, his answer was a headshake and a definite no—but when Jashani said, “Was she a demon?” Father was silent for some while. Finally he said, “No, not really. Not exactly.” And that was all we ever got out of him about Great-Grandmother.

But I knew something Jashani didn’t know. Once, when I was small, I had overheard Father speaking with his brother Uskameldry, who was also in the wine grape trade, about a particular merchant in Coraic who had so successfully cornered the market in that area that no vintner would even look at our family’s grapes, whether red or black or blue. Uncle Uska had joked, loudly enough for me to hear at my play, that maybe they ought to go down to the cellar and wake up Great-Grandmother again. Father didn’t laugh, but hushed him so fast that the silence caught my ear as much as the talk before it.

Our cellar is deep and dark, and the great wine casks cast bulky shadows when you light a candle. Jashani and I and our friends used to try to scare each other when we played together there, but she and I knew the place too well ever to be really frightened. Now I stood on the stair, thinking crazily that Jashani and Great-Grandmother were both asleep, maybe if you woke one, you might rouse the other…something like that, anyway. So after a while, I lit one of the wrist-thick candles Father kept under the hinged top step, and I started down.

Our house is the oldest and largest on this side of the village. There have been alterations over the years—most of them while Mother was alive—but the cellar never changes. Why should it? There are always the casks, and the tables and racks along the walls, for Father’s filters and preservatives and other tools to test the grapes for perfect ripeness; and always the same comfortable smell of damp earth, the same boards stacked to one side, to walk on should the cellar flood, and the same shadows, familiar as bedtime toys. But there was no sign of anyone’s ancestor, and no place where one could possibly be hiding, not once you were standing on the earthen floor, peering into the shadows.

Then I saw the place that wasn’t a shadow, in the far right corner of the cellar, near the drainpipe. I don’t remember any of us noticing it as children—it would have been easy to miss, being only slightly darker than the rest of the floor—but when I walked warily over to it and tapped it with my foot, it felt denser and finer-packed than any other area. There were a couple of spades leaning against the wall further along. I took one and, feeling strangely hypnotized, started to dig.

The deeper I probed, the harder the digging got, and the more convinced I became that the earth had been deliberately pounded hard and tight, as though to hold something down. Not hard enough: whatever was here, it was coming up now. A kind of fever took hold of me, and I flung spadeful after spadeful aside, going at it like a rock-targ ripping out a poor badger’s den. I broke my nails, and I flung my sweated shirt away, and I dug.

I didn’t hear my father the first time, although he was shouting at me from the stair. “What are you doing?” I went on digging, and he bellowed loud enough to make the racks rattle, “Da’mas, what are you doing?”

I did not turn. I was braced for the jar of the spade on wood, or possibly metal—a coffin either way—but the sound that came up when I finally did hit something had me instantly throwing the instrument away and dropping down to half sit, half kneel on the edge of the oblong hole I’d worried out of the earth. Reaching, groping, my hand came up gripping a splintered bone.

Great-Grandmother! I flung myself face-down, clawing with both hands now, frantic, hysterical, not knowing what I was doing. Fingerbones…something that might have been a knee, an elbow…a skull—no, just the top of a skull…I don’t think I was quite sane when I heard the voice.

Grandson, stop…stop, before you really do addle my poor old bones. Stop!” It was a slow voice, with a cold, cold rustle in it: it sounded like the wind over loose stones.

I stopped. I sat up, and so did she.

Then Father—home early, due to some small war blocking his road—was beside me, as silent as I, but with an unfriendly hand gripping the back of my neck. Great-Grandmother wasn’t missing any bones, thank Dran and Tani, our household gods, who are twins. The skull wasn’t hers, nor the fingers, nor any of the other loose bones; she was definitely whole, sitting with her fleshless legs bent under her, from the knees, and her own skull clearing the top of my pit to study me out of yellowish-white empty eye sockets. She said, “The others are your Great-Aunt Keshwara. I was lonely.”

I looked at Father for the first time. He was sweating himself, pale and swaying. I realized that his hand on my neck was largely to keep me from trembling, and to hold himself upright. “You should not have done this,” he said. He was almost whispering. “Oh, you should never have done this.” Then, louder, as he let go of me, “Great-Grandmother.”

“Do not scold the boy, Rushak,” the stone rustle rebuked him. “It has been long and long since I saw anything but dirt, smelled anything but mold. The scent of fear tells me that I am back with my family. Sit up straight, young Da’mas. Look at me.”

I sat as properly as I could on the edge of a grave. Great-Grandmother peered closely at me, her own skull weaving slightly from side to side, like a snake’s head. She said, “Why have you awakened me?”

“He’s a fool,” Father said. “He made a mistake, he didn’t know….” Great-Grandmother looked at him, and he stopped talking. She repeated the question to me.

How I faced those eyeless, browless voids and spoke to those cold, slabby chaps, I can’t tell you—or myself—today. But I said my sister’s name—“Jashani”—and after that it got easier. I said, “Borbos, the witch-boy—he’s made her sleep, and she won’t wake up until we give in and say he can marry her. And she’d be better off dead.”

“What?” Father said. “How—”

Great-Grandmother interrupted, “Does she know that?”

“No,” I said. “But she will. She thinks he loves her, but he doesn’t love anybody.”

“He loves my money, right enough,” Father said bitterly. “He loves my house. He loves my business.”

The eye sockets never turned from me. I said, “She doesn’t know about these things…about men. She’s just good.”

“Witch-boy…” The rusty murmur was all but inaudible in the skeletal throat. “Ah…the Tresard family. The youngest.”

Father and I gaped at her, momentarily united by astonishment. Father asked, “How did you…?” Then he said, “You were already…” I thanked him silently for being the one to look a fool.

Great-Grandmother said simply—and, it might have been, a little smugly, “I listen. What else have I to do in that hole?” Then she said, “Well, I must see the girl. Show me.”

So my great-grandmother stepped out of her grave and followed my father and me upstairs, clattering with each step like an armload of dishes, yet held firmly together somehow by the recollection of muscles, the stark memory of tendons and sinews. Neither of us liked to get too close to her, which she seemed to understand, for she stayed well to the rear of our uncanny procession. Which was ridiculous, and I knew it then, and I was ashamed of it then as well. She was family, after all.

In Jashani’s chamber, Great-Grandmother stood looking down at the bed for a long time, without speaking. Finally she said softly, almost to herself, “Skilled…I never knew a Tresard with such…” She did not finish.

“Can you heal her?” The words burst out of me as though I hadn’t spoken in years, which was how I felt. “She’s never hurt a soul, she wouldn’t know how—she’s foolish and sweet, except she’s very smart, it’s just that she can’t imagine that anyone would ever wish her harm. Please, Great-Grandmother, make her wake up! I’ll do anything!”

I will be grateful to my dying day that Jashani couldn’t hear a word of all that nonsense.

Great-Grandmother didn’t take her empty eyes from my sister as I babbled on; nor did she seem to hear a word of the babble. I’m not sure how long she stood there by the bed, though I do recall that she reached out once to stroke Jashani’s hair very lightly, as though those cold, fleshless fingers were seeing, tasting…

Then she stepped back, so abruptly that some bones clicked against other bones, and she said, “I must have a body.”

Again Father and I stared stupidly at her. Great-Grandmother said impatiently, “Do you imagine that I can face your witch-boy like this? One of you—either one—must allow me the use of his body. Otherwise, don’t waste my time.” She glowered into each of our pale faces in turn, never losing or altering the dreadful grin of the long-dead.

Father took a long breath and opened his mouth to volunteer, but I beat him to it, actually stepping a bit forward to nudge him aside. I said, “What must I do?”

Great-Grandmother bent her head close, and I stared right into that eternal smile. “Nothing, boy. You need do nothing but stand so…just so…”

I cannot tell you what it was like. And if I could, I wouldn’t. You might ask Father, who’s a much better witness to the whole affair than I for all that, in a way, I was the whole affair. I do know from him that Great-Grandmother’s bones did not clatter untidily to the floor when her spirit—soul, essence, life-force, tyak (as people say in the south)—passed into me. According to Father, they simply vanished into the silver mist that poured and poured into me, as I stood there with my arms out, dumb as a dressmaker’s dummy. The one reasonably reliable report I can relay is that it wasn’t cold, as you might expect, but warm on my skin, and—of all things—almost sweet on my lips, though I kept my mouth tightly shut. Being invaded—no, let’s use the honest word, possessed—by your great-grandmother is bad enough, but to swallow her? And have it taste like apples, like fasteen, like cake? I didn’t think about it then, and I’m not thinking about it now. Then, all that mattered was my feeling of being crowded to the farthest side of my head, and hearing Great-Grandmother inside me saying, dryly but soothingly, “Well done, Da’mas—well done, indeed. Slowly, now…move slowly until you grow accustomed to my presence. I will not hurt you, I promise, and I will not stay long. Slowly…”

Sooner or later, when he judged our anguish greatest, Borbos would return to repeat his demand. Father and Great-Grandmother-in-me took it in turns to guard Jashani’s chamber through the rest of that day, the night, and all of the following day. When it was Father’s turn, Great-Grandmother would march my body out of the room and the house, down the carriageway, into our orchards and arbors; then back to scout the margins again, before finally allowing me to replace Father at that bedside where no quilt was ever rumpled, no pillow on the floor. In all of this I never lost myself in her. I always knew who I was, even when she was manipulating my mouth and the words that came out of it; even when she was lifting my hands or snapping my head too forcefully from side to side, apparently thrilled by the strength of the motion.

“He will be expecting resistance,” she pointed out to us, in my voice. “Nothing he cannot wipe away with a snap of his fingers, but enough to make you feel that you did the best you could for Jashani before you yielded her to him. Now put that thing down!” she lectured Father, who was carrying a sword that he knew would be useless against Borbos, but had clung to anyway, for pure comfort.

Father bristled. “How are we to fight him at all, even with you guiding Da’mas’s hand? Borbos could appear right now, that way he does, and what would you do? I’ll put this old sword away if you give me a spell, a charm, to replace it.” He was tired and sulky, and terribly, terribly frightened.

I heard my throat answer him calmly and remotely, “When your witch-boy turns up, all you will be required to do is to stand out of my way.” After that Great-Grandmother did not allow another word out of me for some considerable while.

Father had not done well from his first sight of Jashani apparently lifeless in her bed. The fact that she was breathing steadily, that her skin remained warm to the touch, and that she looked as innocently beautiful as ever, despite not having eaten or drunk for several days, cheered him not at all. He himself, on the other hand, seemed to be withering before my eyes: unsleeping, hardly speaking, hardly comprehending what was said to him. Now he put down his sword as commanded and sat motionless by Jashani’s bed, slumped forward with his hands clasped between his knees. A dog could not have been more constant, or more silent.

And still Borbos did not come to claim his triumph…did not come, and did not come, letting our grief and fear build to heights of nearly unbearable tension. Even Great-Grandmother seemed to feel it, pacing the house in my body, which she treated like her own tireless bones that needed no relief, though I urgently did. Surrounded by her ancient mind, nevertheless I could never truly read it, not as she could pick through my thoughts when she chose, at times amusing herself by embarrassing me. Yet she moved me strangely once when she said aloud, as we were crouched one night in the apple orchard, studying the carriageway, white in the moon, “I envy even your discomfiture. Bones cannot blush.”

“They never need to,” I said, after realizing that she was waiting for my response. “Sometimes I think I spend my whole life being mortified about one thing or another. Wake up, start apologizing for everything to everybody, just on the chance I’ve offended them.” Emboldened, I ventured further. “You might not think so, but I have had moments of wishing I were dead. I really have.”

Great-Grandmother was silent in my head for so long that I was afraid that I might have affronted her for a second time. Then she said, slowly and tonelessly, “You would not like it. I will find it hard to go back.” And there was something in the way she said those last words that made pins lick along my forearms.

“What will you do when Borbos comes?” I asked her. “Father says you’re not a witch, but he never would say exactly what you were. I don’t understand how you can deal with someone like Borbos if you’re not a witch.”

The reply came so swiftly and fiercely that I actually cringed away from it in my own skull. “I am your great-grandmother, boy. If that is not all you need to know, then you must make do as you can.” So saying, she rose and stalked us out of the orchard, back toward the house, with me dragged along disconsolately, half-certain that she might never bother talking to me again.

My favorite location in the house has—naturally enough—always been a place where I wasn’t ever supposed to be: astride a gable just narrow enough for me to pretend that I was riding a great black stallion to glory, or a sea-green mordroi dragon to adventure. I cannot count the number of times I was beaten, even by Mother, for risking my life up there, and I know very well how foolish it is to continue doing it whenever I get the chance. But this time it was Great-Grandmother taking the risk, not me, so it plainly wasn’t my fault; and, in any case, what could I have done about it?

So there you are, and there you have us in the night, Great-Grandmother and I, with the moon our only light, except for the window of Jashani’s chamber below and to my left, where Father kept his lonely vigil. I was certainly not about to speak until Great-Grandmother did; and for some while she sat in silence, seemingly content to scan the white road for a slim, swaggering figure who would almost surely not come for my sister that way. I ground my teeth at the thought.

Presently Great-Grandmother said quietly, almost dreamily, “I was not a good woman in my life. I was born with a certain gift for…mischief, let us say…and I sharpened it and honed it, until what I did with it became, if not as totally evil as Borbos Tresard’s deeds from his birth, still cruel and malicious enough that many have never forgiven me to this day. Do you know how I died, young Da’mas?”

“I don’t even know how you lived,” I answered her. “I don’t know anything about you.”

Great-Grandmother said, “Your mother killed me. She stabbed me, and I died. And she was right to do it.”

I could not take in what she had said. I felt the words as she spoke them, but they meant nothing. Great-Grandmother went on. “Like your sister, your mother had poor taste in men. She was young, I was old, why should she listen to me? If I am no witch, whatever it is that I am had grown strong with the years. I drove each of her suitors away, by one means or another. It was not hard—a little pointed misfortune and they cleared off quickly, all but the serious ones. I killed two of those, one in a storm, one in a cow pen.” A grainy chuckle. “Your mother was not at all pleased with me.”

“She knew what you were doing? She knew it was you?”

“Oh, yes, how not?” The chuckle again. “I was not trying to cover my tracks—I was much given to showing off in those days. But then your father came along, and I did what I could to indicate to your mother that she must choose this one. There was a man in her life already, you understand—most unsuitable, she would have regretted it in a month. The cow pen one, that was.” A sigh, somehow turning into a childish giggle, and ending in a grunt. “You would have thought she might be a little pleased this time.”

“Was that why she…?” I could not actually say it. I felt Great-Grandmother’s smile in my spine.

“Your mother was not a killer—merely mindless with anger for perhaps five seconds. A twitch to the left or right, and she would have missed…ah, well, it was a fate long overdue. I have never blamed her.”

It was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish my thoughts—even my memories—from hers. Now I remembered hearing Uncle Uska talking to Father about waking Great-Grandmother again, and being silenced immediately. I knew that she had heard them as well, listening underground in the dark, no soil dense enough to stop her ears.

I asked, “Have you ever come back before? To help the family, like now?”

The slow sigh echoed through our shared body. Great-Grandmother replied only, “I was always a fitful sleeper.” Abruptly she rose, balancing more easily on the gable than I ever did when I was captaining my body, and we went on with our patrol, watching for Borbos. And that was another night on which Borbos did not come.

When he did appear at last, he caught us—even Great-Grandmother, I think—completely by surprise. In the first place, he came by day, after all our wearying midnight rounds; in the second, he turned up not in Jashani’s chamber, nor in the yard or any of the fields where we had kept guard, but in the great kitchen, where old Nanda had reigned as long as I could remember. He was seated comfortably at her worn worktable, silky and dashing, charming her with tales of his journeys and exploits, while she toasted her special chamshi sandwiches for him. She usually needs a day’s notice and a good deal of begging before she’ll make chamshi for anybody.

He looked up when Great-Grandmother walked my body into the kitchen, greeting us first with, “Well, if it isn’t Thunderwit, my brother-to-be. How are those frozen brains keeping?” Then he stopped, peered closely at me, and began to smile in a different way. “I didn’t realize you had…company. Do we know each other, old lady?”

I could feel Great-Grandmother studying him out of my eyes, and it frightened me more than he did. She said, “I know your family. Even in the dirt I knew you when you were very young, and just as evil as you are now. Give me back my great-granddaughter and go your way.”

Borbos laughed. It was one of his best features, that warm, delightful chuckle. “And if I don’t? You will destroy me? Enchant me? Forgive me if I don’t find that likely. Try, and your Jashani slumbers decoratively for all eternity.” The laugh had broken glass in it the second time.

I ached to get my hands on him—useless as it would have been—but Great-Grandmother remained in control. All she said, quite quietly, was, “I want it understood that I did warn you.”

Whatever Borbos heard in her voice, he was up and out of his seat on the instant. No fiery whiplash, no crash of cold, magical thunder—only a scream from Nanda as the chair fell silently to ashes. She rushed out of the kitchen, calling for Father, while Borbos regarded us thoughtfully from where he leaned against the cookstove. He said, “Well, my goodness,” and twisted his fingers against each other in seeming anxiety. Then he said a word I didn’t catch, and every knife, fork, maul, spit, slicer, corer, scissors and bone saw in Nanda’s kitchen rose up out of her utensil drawers and came flying off the wall, straight for Great-Grandmother…straight for me…for us.

But Great-Grandmother put up my hand—exactly as Borbos himself had done when I charged him on first seeing Jashani spellbound—and everything flashing toward us halted in the air, hanging there like edged and pointed currants in a fruitcake. Then Great-Grandmother spoke—the words had edges, too; I could feel them cutting my mouth—and all Nanda’s implements backed politely into their accustomed places. Great-Grandmother said chidingly, “Really.”

But Borbos was gone, vanished as I had seen him do in Jashani’s chamber, his laughter still audible. I took the stairs two and three at a time, Great-Grandmother not wanting to chance my inexperienced body coming and going magically. Besides, we knew where he was going, and that he would be waiting for us there.

He was playing with Father. I don’t like thinking about that: Father lunging and swinging clumsily with his sword, crying hopelessly, desperate to come to grips with this taunting shadow that kept dissolving out of his reach, then instantly reappearing, almost close enough to touch and punish. And Jashani…Jashani so still, so still…

Borbos turned as we burst in, and a piece of the chamber ceiling fell straight down, bruising my left shoulder as Great-Grandmother sprang me out of the way. In her turn, she made my tongue say this, and my two hands do that, and Borbos was strangling in air, on the other side of the chamber, while my hands clenched on nothing and gripped and twisted, tighter and tighter…but he got a word out, in spite of me, and broke free to crouch by Jashani’s bed, panting like an animal.

There was no jauntiness about him now, no mocking gaiety. “You are no witch. I would know. What are you?”

I wanted to go over and comfort Father, hold him and make certain that he was unhurt, but Great-Grandmother had her own plans. She said, “I am a member of this family, and I have come to get my great-granddaughter back from you. Release her and I have no quarrel with you, no further interest at all. Do it now, Borbos Tresard.”

For answer, Borbos looked shyly down at the floor, shuffled his feet like an embarrassed schoolboy, and muttered something that might indeed have been an apology for bad behavior in the classroom. But at the first sound of it, Great-Grandmother leaped forward and dragged Father away from the bed, as the floor began to crack open down the middle and the bed to slide steadily toward the widening crevasse. Father cried out in horror. I wanted to scream; but Great-Grandmother pointed with the forefingers and ring fingers of both my hands at the opening, and what she shouted hurt my mouth. Took out a back tooth, too, though I didn’t notice at the time. I was too busy watching Borbos’s spell reverse itself, as the flying kitchenware had done. The hole in the floor closed up as quickly as it had opened, and Jashani’s bed slid back to where it had been, more or less, with her never once stirring. Father limped dazedly over to her and began to straighten her coverlet.

For a second time Borbos Tresard said, “Well, my goodness.” He shook his head slightly, whether in admiration or because he was trying to clear it, I can’t say. He said, “I do believe you are my master. Or mistress, as you will. But it won’t help, you know. She still will not wake to any spell, except to see my face, and my terms are what they always were—a welcome into the heart of this truly remarkable family. Nothing more, and nothing less.” He beamed joyously at us, and if I had never understood why so many women fell so helplessly in love with him, I surely came to understand it then. “How much longer can you stay in the poor ox, anyway, before you raddle him through like the death fever you are? Another day? A week? So much as a month? My face can wait, mother—but somehow I don’t believe you can. I really don’t believe so.”

The bedchamber was so quiet that I thought I heard not only my own heart beating but also Jashani’s, strong but so slow, and a skittery, too-rapid pulse that I first thought must be Father’s, before I understood that it belonged to Borbos. Great-Grandmother said musingly, “Patience is an overrated virtue.”

And then I also understood why so many people fear the dead.

I felt her leaving me. I can’t describe it any better than I’ve been able to say what it was like to have her in me. All I’m going to say about her departure is that it left me suddenly stumbling forward, as though a prop I was leaning on had been pulled away. But it wasn’t my body that felt abandoned, I know that. I think it was my spirit, but I can’t be sure.

Great-Grandmother stood there as I had first seen her. Lightning was flashing in her empty eye sockets, and the pitiless grin of her naked skull branded itself across my sight. With one great heron-stride of her naked shanks she was on Borbos, reaching out—reaching out…

I don’t want to tell about this.

She took his face. She reached out with her bones, and she took his face, and he screamed. There was no blood, nothing like that, but suddenly there was a shifting smudge, almost like smoke, where his face had been…and there it was, somehow pasted on her, merged with the bone, so that it looked real, not like a mask, even on the skull of a skeleton. Even with the lightning behind her borrowed eyes.

Borbos went on screaming, floundering blindly in the bedchamber, stumbling into walls and falling down, meowing and snuffling hideously; but Great-Grandmother clacked and clattered to Jashani’s bedside, and peered down at her for a long moment before she spoke. “Love,” she said softly. “Jashani. My heart, awaken. Awaken for me.” The voice was Borbos’s voice.

And Jashani opened her eyes and said his name.

Father was instantly there, holding her hands, stroking her face, crying with joy. I didn’t know what those easy words meant until then. Great-Grandmother turned away and walked across the room to Borbos. He must have sensed her standing before him, because he stopped making that terrible snuffling sound. She said, “Here. I only used it for a little,” and she gave him back his face.

I didn’t really see it happen. I was with my father and my sister, listening to her say my name.

When I felt Great-Grandmother’s fleshless hand on my shoulder, I kissed Jashani’s forehead and stood up. I looked over at Borbos, still crouched in a corner, his hands pressed tightly against his face, as though he were holding it on. Great-Grandmother touched Father’s shoulder with her other hand and said, impassively, “Take him home. Afterward.”

After you bury me again, she meant. She held onto my shoulder as we walked downstairs together, and I felt a strange tension in the cold clasp that made me more nervous than I already was. Would she simply lie down in her cellar grave waiting for me to spade the earth back over her and pat it down with the blade? I thought of those other bones I’d first seen in the grave, and I shivered, and her grip tightened just a bit.

We faced each other over the empty grave. I couldn’t read her expression any more than I ever could, but the lightning was no longer playing in her eye sockets. She said, “You are a good boy. Your company pleases me.”

I started to say, “If my company is the price of Jashani…I am ready.” I think my voice was not trembling very much, but I don’t know, because I never got the chance to finish. Both of our heads turned at a sudden scurry of footsteps, and we saw Borbos Tresard charging at us across the cellar. Head down, eyes white, flailing hands empty of weapons, nevertheless his entire outline was crackling with the fire-magic of utter, insane fury. He was howling as he came.

I automatically stepped into his way—too numb with fear to be afraid, if you can understand that—but Great-Grandmother put me aside and stood waiting, short but terrible, holding out her stick-thin arms. Like a child rushing to greet his mother coming home, Borbos Tresard leaped into those arms, and they closed around him. The impact caught Great-Grandmother off-balance; the two of them tumbled into the grave together, struggling as they fell. I heard bones go, but would not gamble they were hers.

I picked up a spade, uncertain what I meant to do with it, staring down at the tumult in the earth as though it were something happening a long way off, and long ago. Then Father was beside me with the other spade, frantically shoving everything—dirt and odd scraps of wood and twigs and even old wine corks from the cellar floor—into the grave, shoveling and kicking and pushing with his arms almost at the same time. By and by I recovered enough to assist him, and when the hole was filled we both jumped up and down on the pile, packing it all down as tightly as it would go. The risen surface wasn’t quite level with the floor when we were done, but it would settle in time.

I had to say it. I said, “He’s down there under our feet, still alive, choking on dirt, with her holding him fast forever. Keeping her company.” Father did not answer, but only leaned on his spade, with dirty sweat running out of his hair and down his cheek. I think that was the first time I noticed that he was an inch or so shorter than I. “I feel sorry for him. A little.”

“Not I,” Father said flatly. “I’d bury him deeper, if we had more earth.”

“Then you would be burying Great-Grandmother deeper, too,” I said.

“Yes.” Father’s face was paper-white, the skin looking thin with every kind of exhaustion. “Help me move these barrels.”

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