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One Way Or The Other

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In a village there once lived a family that had seen a host of troubles in their days. The father was a soldier who had gone off for the king's war and hadn't come home again, and so life was very difficult for the widow he left behind. But she was a determined woman, and one with a heart of iron, and so she rolled up her sleeves and she set to work, to do her best by her older son and her younger daughter. And the people of the village knew her as Overland, for she often traveled far to the neighboring villages to sell her wares, but she always returned in time for supper at night.

For a year and a day this continued, and then one night, when the winter was at its bleakest, a creature rose up out of the darkness and barred her way. And she stopped, for she was a soldier's wife and she was not so easily frightened, but nor was she foolish, and she said:

"Who are you, who blocks my way?"

And the creature said:

"A traveller that begs a favor of you."

In the driving snow, Overland could not see what the thing's shape was, but it spoke with a voice like a man's, deep and rich, and she was suspicious, unsure of its promise. "What sort of favor?"

"Give me your child," said the creature, "and I will make you as rich as you are now poor."

Now, Overland could not say that this did not hold some appeal to her, for they had never been rich, even when her husband the king's soldier had been alive. But she was a mother and to her there was no greater treasure than her children, and she gathered herself to say No, but then the creature said:

"You don't need to answer right away. I'll come back in a week, and you may tell me then."

Then it melted back into the darkness of the snowy night, and Overland was left alone to return to her home and her waiting children. She told them her story, and assured them both that she would never wish to trade them away. But then her son, who was less like his father and more like her, clever and resourceful, shook his head and said:

"I'll go. If your creature keeps his word, then you'll both be taken care of, and I've never yet met a person I couldn't outwit."

His mother Overland was troubled by this, but she did have faith in her son and his cleverness, so she kissed his cheeks and his forehead and gave him her blessing. His clothes were washed and after a week came, there was a knock upon the door. When they opened it, there was a tall figure in the doorway, but it was so dark that neither of them could see its proper shape.

"What's your answer?" it asked, and Overland's son, who was named Jack, stepped forward, and he said:

"I'll go with you. You had better keep your side of the agreement."

The creature laughed, though it was an unpleasant grinding noise. "Then climb onto my back," he said, "and we will be on our way."

And so Jack climbed up onto the creature's back, and he found that it was covered with dense fur, gray as ash and mottled in strange patterns. It was soft under his fingers. Before he could consider this, though, the creature gathered itself and began to run, and the last thing Jack heard over the singing of the wind was the voice of his sister, calling after him.

For a long, long way they traveled, and eventually they reached a place where it seemed winter had not touched, where everything was green and lush. The creature underneath Jack looked to be some monstrous combination of different creatures: it had the ears of a rabbit, the broad body of a bear, and the long tail of a wolf. It carried Jack to a great tree and knocked upon the ground, and there opened a wide hole for them to drop through.

Inside there were flowers everywhere, of so many colors and shapes that they seemed to glow like jewels in the sunlight -- for there was still sunlight here, streaming in through many different places. Here Jack dismounted and looked around in wonder, for he had never seen such a place.

"This will now be your home," said the creature. "You will be my assistant in my work."

Jack did not much like the idea of working for a monster, but he thought of his mother and his sister, and he said, "I'll do whatever is necessary."

And what it turned out to be was collecting the flowers that grew in such vast quantities all around the creature's lair, and later bringing them to be gently crushed to release both their color and their scent. From this, he watched as the creature spun brilliant creations -- paintings with a vividness that would put life to shame, each painted upon the gentle curving sides of an eggshell.

That night he went to bed and was surprised to realize that he had not once thought of escaping. As he lay there in the darkness, contemplating his choices, he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. At once he sat up, for he was a soldier's son and he was not afraid, but he was reckless as well, and not above challenging what he could hear in the dark.

"Who's there?"

There was no answer for him except for approaching footsteps. Jack held himself tense, for while he had no intention of becoming a soldier like his father, he was also not helpless, and he did not intend to be easy prey. Before he could challenge again, though, lips touched his own. They were soft and warm and smelled like the rich earth, and he was so surprised that all he could do was gasp once before he was pushed down to his bed and gentle hands touched him until all he could do was cry out, shaking and stunned by how good hands and a mouth could feel.

Before he could reach out to hold onto his silent lover, though, the other was gone, and Jack fell at once into a dreamless sleep.

In the morning, the creature roused him from his sleep and set him again to work. He would answer sometimes if Jack spoke with him, though he was clipped at first, preoccupied with his work. Jack spent the whole day searching for any sign of someone else living in this great warren of flower-filled tunnels, but failed.

That night, though, as he tried to sleep (and realized, once again, that he had failed to plot his escape), his lover returned. Again he was kissed once upon the mouth, as tender as you please, and then that mouth moved down, so that he could do nothing more than gasp and open himself to it, shaking like a leaf caught in a storm.

Once again, though, he fell asleep before he could catch hold of the person sharing his bed, and woke to the beast calling to him.

Thus grew a pattern to Jack's life, and he would be lying if he said he didn't like it. There was something soothing about searching out the right flowers -- or finding something new to bring to the beast, whose bright green eyes would light up as if there were no greater present in the world. And though he was still stuffy, still reserved, he spoke more often whenever Jack spoke to him, and once or twice he even laughed, a deep booming noise that always brought an answering smile to Jack's lips.

By day they worked together, and at night, Jack was visited by his mysterious lover, and he thought that maybe -- maybe -- he was actually happy with this.

But that wasn't entirely true, either; he still missed his sister and his mother terribly, and he was frustrated by his inability to catch his lover. In time this began to affect his work, until finally the creature sighed and said to him:

"What troubles you now? You sigh more than a pining maiden."

And Jack frowned at this, but all he said was: "I miss my family. I don't know how long it's been, but I'm still worried for them. Is that so strange?"

The creature looked at him with bright green eyes, and he said: "If you want to visit, you may. But I warn you, don't let your mother speak to you alone, or it'll end badly for us both."

But Jack was so pleased by the idea of seeing his family that he hardly heard the warning. The next morning, he climbed upon the beast's back and they traveled, away from the spring country that Jack had become so familiar with, back to the winterlands of his birth. And instead of the small cottage he remembered, there stood a fine mansion, with white walls and a tiled roof, to which Jack could only stare at in surprise. But the beast smirked and said,

"I said I would make them as rich as you were poor, didn't I?" and then, more sternly, "Remember what I said. Don't let your mother speak to you alone, or it'll go badly for both of us."

But Jack was already running to the house, and the door opened and his sister was there, her beloved face alight as she cried his name. They embraced, and a moment later his mother appeared as well, and Jack could not remember ever being quite so happy in his life.

There was a feast that night to celebrate, and he told his mother and his sister that he was well-treated (but perhaps he didn't say quite how well-treated) and assured them that he had found something that made him content to spend his days. But he saw the troubled look in his mother Overland's eyes, and that night, after his sister was put to bed, she approached him. And for a moment he thought of the creature's warnings, but he loved his mother, and he could not see how her advice would ever lead him astray, so he allowed her to pull him aside, allowed her more probing questions about his captor (though strangely, he no longer thought of himself as a captive), and somewhere along the way he allowed a hint of his nighttime bedpartner to slip.

At this his mother's face grew stern and pale. "That cannot mean well," she said, "for there is no one else your suitor could be but the beast that holds you prisoner, and shapeshifting is the domain of the Nightmare King. You must break the spell he has over you, or he will steal your soul away. Bring a candle with you to bed, and when you hear his footsteps, light it and hold it aloft, for it is said that even a small light can banish the worst of darknesses."

And Jack, though he had some misgivings, agreed.

In a week's time the creature returned for him, and so Jack went off with him again, kissing first his mother and his sister farewell before he went.

And that night, he brought a candle to bed and palmed a match, and he listened with bated breath until he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. As a familiar weight sank upon his mattress, he sat up and struck the match to light the candle. And what he saw made his breath catch in his throat, for he knew those eyes, so vividly and wonderfully green, going dark now -- shadow-dark -- with realization and with betrayal. He knew he should look away, that he should blow out the candle and shroud them in the darkness again, but he couldn't look away, and he heard his lover say:

"You impatient fool. You stupid child! If you'd just waited out the rest of this year, then everything would have been fine! But I belong to the Nightmare King now, and nothing will please him more than gutting me."

"No," Jack said, and there was a pain in his chest and his throat, as if he could feel the cold of the Nightmare King's sword in his own flesh. "No, I won't let that happen! Please, tell me what I need to do!" And as he spoke he moved, and the flame winked out, leaving them in darkness.

"There is nothing you can do," his lover (his beloved?) said. "His castle is east of the sun and west of the moon, and there is no way that you can find it."

And then, though it was already dark, everything went darker still, and an instant later, Jack knew he was alone. A moment after that, he was sitting by the foot of the great tree where the entrance to the creature's warren was, but try as he might, he could not find the right sort of knock to let himself back in.

At first he raged at himself; he was not just a fool, but twice a fool, three times one! And then he grieved, for he knew in his heart that he had become quite fond of his companion, to the point where even its beastial face no longer gave him any pause. He thought to himself, and quite honestly, that he would not mind kissing that strange mouth, even if it was nothing that he had expected for himself before.

But he was the son of the woman Overland, and he was a determined and crafty man. So he began to walk, until he reached the baking dry summerlands, where the sun was hot instead of merely warm, and made him long a little for the land of his birth. There, he met a woman who wore a dress of brilliantly colored feathers, each shining like a jewel and perfectly fitted together. She was lovely, but Jack thought that his creature was lovelier still. And he said to her:

"Do you know the way to the Nightmare King's castle, which is east of the sun and west of the moon?"

And the woman looked at him and shook her head. "I do not," she said, "but perhaps my cousin in the autumnland knows, for he travels along the same lines as the Nightmare King, though the dreams he brings are sweet rather than terrible." And she gave him a feather from her dress, shining emerald green, and she said, "Take this with you, for luck."

Jack thanked her and went on his way, and eventually he reached the autumnlands, where the sun was not quite so hot, but everything felt sluggish, as if full to bursting with something he could not name. There, he met a small man who appeared to be made entirely of gold, shining like a living thing. All around him the land was fertile and heavy with lush fruits and round vegetables, and they were all lovely, but Jack thought that the warren of his creature was lovelier still. And he said to him:

"Do you know the way to the Nightmare King's castle, which is east of the sun and west of the moon?"

And the man looked at him and shook his head. And though he said nothing, he formed a shape out of swirling gold sand that resembled a tall man with a great beard, then gave Jack a small pouch of glittering golden sand. Jack accepted the present and went on his way.

In time, he finally found himself returned to the icy winterland of his birth, and there he came across a great bearded man, who sat carving beautiful things out of blocks of ice. They were lovely, but Jack thought that the creations his creature made were lovelier still. He said to him:

"Do you know the way to the Nightmare King's castle, which is east of the sun and west of the moon?"

And the bearded man looked at him and shook his head. "I do not," he said, "but perhaps the Wind knows, for it travels the whole of the world, both here and beyond. I will call it for you." And he put his fingers to his lips and whistled sharply, and the Wind came flowing down like a great wave. And Jack put his hand out so that the Wind moved through it, and he knew that yes, this would be how he found his way to the Nightmare King's castle. The bearded man gave him a shepherd's crook carved out of ice, and he said, "Take this with you, for luck."

Jack thanked him, and then let the Wind bear him up and carry him away. Over the wide, wide world they went, and he saw many villages passing below him, including his own -- but in time a great dark castle of ebony and jet appeared in the distance, and it was there that the Wind set him down and faded away. And Jack walked to the castle itself, listening to the whispers and murmurings of the dark strange creatures all around him. He sat himself down and pulled out the feather that the woman had given him, and it was so brilliant and lovely that it seemed to collect all the light in that cold strange place. It gave him some measure of cheer until a dark shadow fell over him.

And Jack looked up into the face of the Nightmare King himself.

"You there, boy," he said. "Will you give me that feather?"

And Jack felt his heart skip a beat, but gathered himself and said, "Only if you let me see the prisoner you have brought here in the past month. A great beast that you claimed for a prize."

The Nightmare King sneered, but he did agree and he held out his hand. Jack handed it over, and he was swallowed up by a shadow that left him in the hallway of a narrow dungeon. He searched and searched until he found his beast, lying still in the furthest cell. Jack fell to his knees and called out, over and over, but though he reached and though he shouted, he could not wake the beast. When morning came, pale and weak, another shadow swallowed him up and left him outside again.

So Jack took out the small pouch of golden sand and opened it, and it created a light of its own, soft and warm, and again all the shadows and fearful things looked to him.

And again the Nightmare King came.

"You there, boy. Will you give me that sand?"

"Only if you let me see the prisoner you have brought here in the past month. A great beast that you claimed for a prize."

But again, the beast did not wake at Jack's cries, and again, he was taken away from the prison with no luck. So he took out the staff, and to his amazement he found that it left bright white patterns of frost wherever it touched the earth, each so delicate and intricate that he thought that perhaps even the beast would be proud of him. It did not take long for the Nightmare King to come to him, as stern as always.

"You there, boy. Will you give me that staff?"

"Only if you let me see the prisoner you have brought here in the past month. A great beast that you claimed for a prize."

But this time, he found the beast was awake -- for the beast had heard the whisperings and rumors of the shadows, and he knew that a boy with clear bright eyes had come. Through the bars of the cage he reached out and touched Jack's hands, and there was both surprise and relief in his voice when he said, "Maybe there's something to this after all. Tomorrow he'll execute me, but if you made it here, then maybe there's a way we can both escape."

"There is," Jack said firmly. "I promise you, this time."

And he took the beast's hands in his and kissed them both before the shadows swallowed him up again. This time, he found himself alone in the strange marketplace, for all the shadows and fearlings had gathered inside the palace itself, eagerly anticipating the execution of the prisoner. But Jack followed them, and he watched as the Nightmare King clapped his bone-pale hands and the beast was dragged out, chained around the neck and all its limbs. He produced a scythe that was long and wickedly sharp, and his smile was more of a snarl as he lifted the blade high.

He said to the beast: "Are you afraid?"

And the beast laughed and said, "Of course I am not. It would take something far worse than you to frighten me."

At this the Nightmare King was furious, drawing himself up greater and taller, swallowing shadows to add to his mass. "And what would that be? You have lost to me; you are beaten! You must fear me now!"

"It's not something that you would ever understand," said the beast. "But I bet even that boy in the crowd there would. You there, boy! Do you think you could frighten me?"

And Jack stepped forward. He looked into the beast's eyes, and he thought about their arguments, their conversations, their laughing, their last conversation -- both in the darkness of the creature's warren and again in the prison.

"I think so," he said.

"I love you," he said.

And at that the Nightmare King let out a great shout as his scythe disappeared; he covered his face with his hands and he howled, and the shadows and fearlings howled with him, for love is a terrifying thing as much as it is a wonderful thing, and even the heart of the Nightmare King beats somewhere, far away from his body. There was a great rushing roar, so fierce that Jack had to cover his ears and close his eyes.

When it was done, though, and he could look again, he found that the darkness was gone: the Nightmare King and all of his shadows had vanished. Where he'd stood was a beautiful green feather, a small pouch of golden sand, and a marvelous frosted shepherd's crook. Jack went to these and gathered them up, then turned to face the creature.

And he saw the same thing that he had seen so long ago, flickering in the candle light -- a tall and proud thing, shaped like a man but not quite the same in face, still with a rabbit's long ears and now with a rabbit's powerful hind legs, but built like a soldier, built like someone who could face an army and come back unscathed.

But his eyes were the same, green and bright, and his smile, though Jack had never seen it before, was somehow quite familiar. He held out a hand, and Jack reached to take it without hesitation, for he had known that even the bestial form could not frighten him off, so of course this would be of no consequence to him, either.

"My name is Aster," he said. "Let's go home."

And Jack smiled and he nodded, and he climbed up onto Aster's back (for some things were not so very different), and away they went.

It is said that if you wander the springlands, especially at the time of its zenith, when the sun is at its gentle best and the nights are balmy and warm, you may hear the sound of voices laughing under the earth, from all over, and seek it as you may, you will never find its source.

But to hear them is a blessing in life and luck in love, so if you do, be sure to cherish it.