This will be the final excerpt for Bastien. To find the previous chapters, click on these: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three. If you want to read more, look for Bastien at Smashwords.com on Saturday, May 5. I will also post a link on my website. And without further ado, here is chapter four. Enjoy! =)
Louis leads the way through town. The village of Fauve is far removed from this place, yet I could easily call it home. Cobblestoned streets weave between buildings tall enough to have three rows of windows. No thatched roofs here, all are covered with sturdy shingles.
We walk at a brisk pace. There are still merchants about, finishing their final tasks of the day and closing their shops for the night. They are not welcoming of our presence, but as long as we don’t disturb them, the townsfolk are willing to tolerate us for the coin we always leave in our wake.
Louis leads us all the way to the edge of town, where the cobblestones level out into stomped dirt and the houses become smaller and older. Not far off is a Gypsy village. I can hear the drums and fiddles from here. This is as near civilization as the Gypsies are willing to come. Many still wander in the way of their people, but most have settled here, in wagons turned into shacks, built up into what might pass for an abode. Fires are lit in the distance, perhaps some sort of celebration. Of what, I don’t know. Then again, Gypsies don’t usually need a reason.
We stop before a shack consisting of four separate walls held together by rope and covered with oiled cloth. In front of the curtain which serves as a door sits a hunched woman in a cloak. An old barrel stands as her table, and on top of it is a deck of cards. Her hood is so large it covers her face. I see nothing of her except her hands, one smooth and young, the other gnarled and old.
“What is this, Louis?” I ask, unnerved by the sight of an old woman. “Have you suddenly developed a taste for the arcane?”
He laughs. “This is merely the…”
A single gnarled finger rises to point at my chest, and the air is suddenly too thick to breathe. The woman gathers her cards and places them face down on one edge of the barrel. They somehow hover nearly half over that edge without tipping over.
Adeline clutches my arm. “Bastien?” she says uncertainly. I can’t find my voice to reassure her.
“Is this part of the game?” Adrien asks.
“No,” Louis says. “Last time wasn’t… she didn’t…”
The hag slams her old hand on top of the barrel, demanding silence. With her young hand, she takes cards off the top of the deck and arranges them in a circle.
“Listen, we just want to enter,” Louis says.
The hag holds up a young finger in a staying gesture and indicates the spread with her old.
“What is she doing?” Adeline asks, half hiding behind me. Under normal circumstances I would laugh at her and extricate myself from her hold. At the moment, I am too unsettled to speak a single word. The hag pointed at me, she is looking at me. Whatever fortune she is about to divine is mine. I don’t want to see it. With everything in me I dread the first card being flipped. But for the life of me I cannot look away.
The smooth hand of youth reaches gracefully for the card farthest from her and flips it. The card says Wheel of Fortune and at its center is a golden wheel of the Zodiac, with star constellations clearly marked around it. It’s upside down.
“It would seem the odds are not in your favor,” Louis says. He sounds bored.
I dare not breathe as the withered hand reaches for the second card in the circle. Judgment. Also reversed. A set of scales tipped on one side mocks me from the makeshift table and as I am staring at it, the wheel in the first card breaks before my eyes. This is a hallucination. It must be. I am drunk, or perhaps it’s a trick of light and the wheel was never whole.
A lump forms in my throat and I cannot clear it. I choke on the next forced inhale as the third card is turned. The Hermit. Nothing more than a hooded figure, hunched the same way as this hag who presumes to know my destiny. And the scales of Justice tip the other way.
I can’t blink, or turn away. My companions are gone. I am alone in the night, the darkness drowning me in this magic. There is nothing but me, and the cards, and the hands turning them. My gaze is rapt on the next card to be turned over. The Moon. All the faces suddenly shift, moving now with a life of their own and, while the moon changes phases, the hunched figure of the hermit grows and tears at its cloak, revealing a monster underneath.
My heart races, aching in my chest, and I can hear my own breath wheeze in and out of me on a feral growl. The hag pauses with her smooth hand hovering over the fifth card. She waits as though for divine guidance, her hooded head cocking slightly to the side. She dips a slow nod and flips the card—Strength. A crimson rose blooms on it, its thorns long and needle sharp. The hag’s hand passes over the card a second time and the rose is gone. In its place stands a woman, naked as the day she was born, yet standing tall and straight, looking right at me with a challenge in her eyes. I will not yield, her eyes say, and it makes me feel weak. She makes me feel weak.
A whirlwind rises around me, so powerful I’m afraid it will lift me off my feet, and I don’t understand how the cards can be so still on that barrel, so steady, as if my future is already written in stone and it’s only my denial that tries to make me stray from the path set out before me. I fight it with all of my might. There is wilderness ahead, danger I can avoid if only I turn my feet around and go back the way I came.
The pull of destiny and my need to escape it tears me asunder, and in my mind I scream for the hag to turn the last card. Finish this—save me somehow.
She does, and everything stills once more. Breath leaves me, as desperate to escape as my own soul. The card is Death. The salvation I demanded stares at me from black holes in a bare skull. This card doesn’t move; doesn’t change. It is absolute.
The previous fervor of my heartbeat stops completely and I clutch my chest, the barrel, anything to regain some semblance of steadiness. As my heart lurches back to life, I tear my gaze away from my own demise and just catch a glint of obsidian in the hag’s eye through a hole in her hood. I find no sympathy there.
“Right,” Louis says. “This has been entertaining, but we’ve tarried long enough.” The hag turns to him as he reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a card of his own. Holding it up for the hag to see, he places it into the center of the barrel. Ten of Pentacles.
The hag straightens and becomes all business, pointing to each of us in turn before tapping the card on which ten silver coins glint merrily. The toll must be paid before we are allowed to pass. Each of us pays the coin she demands and only after she’s pocketed her due does she rise from her seat and pull aside the curtain door.
Louis grins. “After you,” he invites.
The women pair off with the men and enter arm in arm through the door. Adeline, who released me and took shelter in Adrien’s arms when the Death card was flipped, looks back at me before she disappears through the door. Only Louis and I are left. I hesitate before stepping through the veil. I try to catch the hag’s eye, but can no longer find it in the shadows of her hood. She is a statue, as still and uninterested as stone.
Having no other choice I step into the darkness of the shack…
… and emerge on the other side into blinding light. For a moment I can see nothing but bright colors swirling around me. I hear voices as delicate as bell chimes and music as sweet as honey mead. I am not in the Gypsy village anymore, nor any other place in existence. Before me is a dream, a fantasy given shape.
Behind me, Louis claps me on the shoulder. “My lords and ladies of the Fellowship of Depravity,” he says, “Welcome to the Faery court.”