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You ever hear the story about the two brothers who loved a doll? She was white-faced and fragile, with bright red hair, hair as bright as a flame. The two brothers were big and ugly and stupid. But they were men, and she was only a doll, so you could say that all the advantages were on their side.
The brothers' names were Artag and Donner, and they were two adventurers of the northern race. Spending a winter hunting polar bears was nothing to them. In fact, they'd bored of hunting trips and had decided to come down out of the mountains, laden with the well-tanned pelts of silver mountain lions, which they planned to sell for enough money to go adventuring in lands where the snow fell only a few months out of the year, if at all, and where dancing-girls were deadlier than a starving pack of wolves, and trickier, too. Their great-uncle Matthias had been to the southern lands a good many years ago, and had come back a wealthy man.
"You don't go into the wilderness without a knife and a flint," he'd said. "Donít go too far into the southern lands without money. And remember most people are hungrier for money than you'll ever be for glory. There are stranger thing in the southern lands than there will ever be at home, because here is the place you were born. You know not to trust the Wendigo and the Manitou. In the south, you'll know nothing, and were I to warn you of everything dangerous, I would be wasting my breath. Although their great-uncle had told them about a great many things, those things had only served to whet their appetites. And so the brothers' great-uncle hadn't been able to warn them about the magic only to be found in the southern lands. And so Artag and Donner had traded their furs for money at the seventeenth placed they stopped, and from there they caught a river boat headed down the great river. They hired themselves on as guards, successfully defending the river boat from an attack by monstrous frogs whose tongues were large enough to snatch and drag the river boat from the middle of the river to the muddy shores, and whose skin was coated with a poison that turned to fatal smoke when the captain shot at them with his musket. The two brothers dove into the water and plunged their long, sharp knives into the frogs' throat sacs. After they had killed the frogs, they prized out the lenses of their eyes, as big as plates, and soldd them to the river boat captain, cautioning him to put the lenses in salted water, lest they dry and crack.
The riverboat was also attacked by savages riding leathery cats as big as mammoths. The cats leaped onto the river boat, which had been floating peacefully downstream that night, which was the night of Summer Solstice. The deck hands had been having a merry party rather than guarding against the dangers of the night. The cats landed on the deck with scarcely a sound, and both the cats and the savages began slaughtering the deckhands left and right. A panic arose, and only the two deckhands kept their heads, even though each of them had drunk more than any three other men. Artag leaped on the back of one cat; Donner spran up on the other. The two cats snarled as they saw their riders fall, with slit throats, into the river where the bothers had hurled. them. The cats tried to scrape the brothers off their backs. Then that failed, the two cats tried each to attack the brother riding the other's back, but the brothers tricked the cats, so the cats ended up attacking each other instead. The captain gave each of them a gold piece as a reward for saving his ship and his life several times during the journey. He also tried to buy the claw of the great cats, but the brothers insisted on keeping them. The claws, cut from the dead cats, looks savage and wild hanging from the ropes across their shoulders.
Finally, the two brothers had traveled all across the land, from the snowy northern lands to the steamy swamps near the ocean in the south. The two brothers departed the ship; the rest of the deckhands were sad to see them go, as the ship was headed back up the river, carrying a cargo of hard bread, glass beads, alcohol, and seed corn. But the brothers were determined to go to the great city of the south, Dis, and seek their further adventures there.
Artag wanted them to use their great strength to win contests of wrestling, but Donner wanted to try his hand at fishing for pearls in the shallow reef waters to the east of the city (he'd heard those who prey upon pearl-fishermen made more money off the trade than the pearl fishermen themselves, and he wanted to prey upon those rich predators himself). And so it was a week later, still arguing and bickering (and, by then, almost broke, as they'd spent the whole time drinking and whoring as well as knocking each other to the ground with sudden, unprovoked, great swings of their full fists), they had finally had their fill of the sins of the lowest city in the world (giant seawalls having been built to hold back the tides) and decided to try Fortune elsewhere. When the two brothers headed east into the swamps, Donner had one black eye, but Artag had two. They went east (had they gone west, they would have reached the land of the giant bulls, whose horns spread as wide as most wagon trails and whose hooves struck sparks from the land itself, so when the whole herd charged, the land turned to a wave of fire and smoke and charging bulls).
They had traveled east for many leagues but had not yet reached the stretch of coast where the pearl fishermen hunted for shining bits of beauty among the stones and the muck, when they happened upon a solitary cottage, almost lost under the green vines and wide, flat leaves that did more to dispel the heavy rain than the ragged roof. The two brothers, whose clothes were not only soaked through, but black with mildew and molder, eyed the hut with the practical, cruel eyes of twin mountain lions and nodded at each other with satisfaction.
Artag went right up to the front door and pounded on it with the hilt of his knife, while Donner crpt around the back. After a moment, the door was opened by an old woman, accompanied by a large, one-eyed owl. The owl screeched at Artag. Then its head swiveled around until it could follow Donner from where he crouched behind the hut. The old woman cackled. "Hiding behind the house, eh Sepulchrave? You, boy," she told Artag. "Call your brother. My owl tell me you're carrying Marmagon paws, two sets, and I've been keeping an eye out for those many a year. Rather Sepulchrave has, for I gave up my vision years ago, so many years ago. Looking for a good price on them, are you? Or do you have a particular need for Marmagon paws yourself?"
Artag bellowed for his brother, and soon all three were sitting at the old witch's (for that was what she was) table, drinking a foul-smelling tea soaked in good brandy.
"I'll give you eight pieces of gold for those claws, one gold piece a paw," the witch said.
Donner frowned while Artag's head spun, trying to take in all the wonderments stored inside the witch's hut. A golden ring inscribed with the symbols of the planets (and the center of which enclosed a depth of stars) hung over a cow's skull so large Artag had at first mistaken it for an armchair (the fact that it had been covered with cushions and doilies had only aided his confusion). Two small trees in crude clay pots and saucershad been pruned into the shapes of two fists, which each seemed to be striving to push the other from the narrow shelf they shared--a battle that would take years of slow, dumb, plant growth before it could even begin. A brass clock with tiny gears marked the time, but the rhythm sounded like the call of a whipporwhill, not the steady, patient ticking of a clock. Underneath the table, something shifted, brushing against Artag's boots. Moments later, a long, low lizard, as big as a dog, dragged its heavy tail out from under the table, where the witch's feet had been keeping it warm.
"Twelve," Donner said. "And not a copper less."
"Ten," the witch said. When Donner drew in breath to protest, she added, "Come on, boy. You know that's where we're heading. Two sods like you should be able to go back north and buy farms for half as much. Don't be so greedy."
Donner scoffed. "We're not looking for a few coppers to buy farms," he said. "We're looking for adventure. Adventure and women and money. In that order."
The witch cackled again (a life of smoking her long, carved pipe, which reached down past the dead lumps of her breasts to her sac-like waist had left her with no other choice when it came to laughter). "Well, well, well. Give me the paws and work for me for one year. I'll show you all the adventure hereabouts, and at the end of the year I'll give you something worth a lot more than ten or even twelve gold pieces."
"We want...that," Donner said. His thick, scarred finger jabbed toward a darkened corner that seemed to be holding back the harvest moon of autumn, for it was pale and white and tinged with the color of blood.
When Artag saw what his brother had pointed at, he quailed, he shook in his boots, he would have pissed himself had he drunk the drunken tea only an hour earlier.
"That?" The witch's eyes barely flicked over the corner and refused to look any further. "Oh, that's worth more than ten gold. It'll be a hard year if you pick that, because I'm going to get my money's worth out of you before I let her go."
"That," Donner repeated.
And so the two brothers found themselves in service o the witch, whose name was Xanta. She sent the brothers on dangerous journeys, each more dangerous than the last--one day, she sent them after flying lizard eggs; the next, she would send them into the great city of Dis at the mouth of the long river to assessinate a rival and to steal a leather flask full of the young woman's best perfume, which was said to be able to kill the truly righteous with a single whiff. They hunted strange, magic flesh for her, wild birds with wings made of stone, lizards who were poison unless they were soaked in spiced vinegar for eight months, and giant bugs that crusted a single tree, deep in the swamp, wingless and eyeless, but glowing a deep violet that illuminated the forest for miles around. She gave them each a tiny bowl of the stew she had made from such creatures, and the brothers doubled in strength and quickness, just from that little taste. (The rest of the stew she shared at a feast with an unknown and invisible monster who left tracks around the hut, tracks as big as the hut itself.)
She even sent them to hunt the hunters of pearl-fishers, which made Donner happy, and bade them return with a pearl, as tiny as a grain of millet, but colored a deep, blood red. The witch crushed the pearl and mixed up another of her stews, of which a tiny taste imbued the bothers with the ability to charm the giant lizards of the swamps (including the witch's lizard, Sourdust).
Artag was only too happy to be away from the witch's hut--it took him away from the gaze of the white thing in the corner.
It was a doll, a white porcelain doll with auburn hair and a pleasant, girlish smile. It was dressed in a plain blue and green patterned dress with white liace stockings and a white lace bonnet and delicate black boots with brass grommets and silk lacings. Of all the wonderous objects in the witch's hut, it was surely the most ordinary-looking. Nevertheless, when Artag felt it watching him, his guts turned to water.
At night, he would try to persuade his brother to change his mind. "Choose something else, Donner."
"Why? I want that." They would never refer to the doll as such; there was certainly noneed to do so, as they both knew exactly what was being discussed.
"That doll is our doom, brother," Artag would say.
"Don't be a fool," Donner would snap. "That doll is our fortune." An then Donner would wrestle Artag to the ground, and they would both wake up the next morning with deep bruises.
But Artag would whisper to himself later, "Fortune can mean the same things as doom."
At last, the end of the year arrived. The witch served them an enormous feast, not the slightest bit magical but delicious nonetheless. The owl sat on her shoulder and looked for her enemies with its blind eye, and the alligator Sourdust lounged under the table (he was bigger now) and begged for scraps.
"You have served me well for the year," the witch said. "Have you had your fill of adventures yet?"
"No." Donner emptied a pint of the witch's sharp beer down his throat.
Artag said nothing.
"And have you changed your mind about your reward?"
"No," Donner said.
"Yes," Artag said. "I would like to take the clock that tells the time of birds instead."
"Hm...." the witch said. "I cannot see what use you would make of it, but if you are agreed..."
"We are not," Donner snapped. "We'll have the doll, and that's the end of it."
"No!" Artag shouted. "You may be the elder of us by seven minutes, but you'll not choose the reward belonging to the both of us against my wishes!"
"Is that so?" Donner roared. He flung the table at Artag and lept at him, both hands outstretched. "The doll it is, or your death!"
"You're mad!" Artag was knocked over by the table. He kicked the table back toward his brother, shattering any number of precious things inside the hut, and rolled out of the way before his brother could reach him....rolled and rolled again. The slimy mud that passed for solid ground in the midst of the swamp squelched under his back. The witch's hut had vanished. So had the witch.
"Hold," Donner said. "What magic is this?"
The two brothers sat up. The witch's hut was gone, gone as if it had never existed. They sat in a clearing, surrounded by vines with flat, wide leaves, and the only sign that the pervious year had not been an illusions (or at least, not entirely so) was the presence of the doll, sitting with her dress in the mud.
Donner lept up and snatched the doll off the ground. "It's real," he said. "Not a dream..."
But his voice trailed off in bemusement as the doll changed between his hands, growing and stretching and shifting until it had become a woman.
She was small and delicate, with pale, almost translucent skin, and a turned-up nose. Not a single freckle or blemish marked her face, and her eyes were green, the green of the shining leaves in the swamp.
Her lace stockings and her dress were besmirched with thick swamp mud. She inhaled and wailed, "I'm filthy. Where am I? This is terrible! You," she lookd at Donner, who still held her by one arm. "You must take me back to civilization. Immediately."
Donner gaped at her. She stomped her foot, making her delicate, silk-laced boot sink deeper into the mud.
"Let's leave her here," Artag said.
"Don't be ridiculous," the woman shouted. "I wouldn't survive a night out here alone!"
Donner knelt in front of the woman. "My lady, we are but rough men. Forgive our manners. We rescued you from the witch Xanta, where you had bee enchanted as a doll, and now we will return you to your home, wherever that might be."
"Hmph," the woman said. "I don't remember anything like that. All I remember was that I'd been eating supper with my father, who is the Lord Mayor of Dis, when suddenly an old woman came into the room. My father stood so quickly he knocked over his chair and dropped his good silver knife on the floor. After that, I remember nothing."
"The Lord Mayor's daughter, huh?" Donner said. He stood up, not bothering to brush the mud from the knees of his trousers. "Climb on my back, lady. I will carry you back to Dis. My brother and I know the way well."
Artag had to lift the woman up so she could tuk her muddy boots into the pockets of Donner's coat and wrap her long, thin fingers around his neck.
The journey to Dis was a short one compared to the distance from the northern lands; nevertheless, they had spent two weeks already, traveling from the former location of the witch's hut, and had not yet reached the doll-woman's mighty home city. The reason for the length of the trip was the doll-woman herself. Some days, she would not allow the brothers to break camp in the morning (who had been accustomed to sleeping without tents, covered in their thick coats and wedged in the forks of trees, all the faster to travel). Some days she would drive them to the south, so she might be able to catch the ocean breezes; some days she forced them north, so she could pretend to feel chilled at night.
Donner minded not, as he shared the doll's bed at night and even sometimes during the day. Artag covered his ears and fled redfaced, with his heart locked away, into the swamps when this happened--he, who had shared many a woman with his borther, sometimes not bothering to let her get up first.
As they traveled, Artag became weaker, until he was only as strong and as quick as he had been before the brothers had come into the witch's service, and he would fall into coughing fits that scared coveys of birds into the air, spoiling bowshots and showering them all with a rain of shit. He would awake to find his lips smeared with blood.
Donner, on the other hand, seemed to blossom under the doll-woman's influence. Within a few days, his hair had become long and flowing (rather than tattered and matted with weeds), and his lips turned ruby-red, as if he were drinking the doll-woman's blood.
The doll-woman herself didn't change. Artag still had not learned her name, no even by means of the frenzied calls his brother made in the throes of their love-making.
Donner became suspicious of Artag's sickness. "You're only trying to slow us down!" "At this rate, we'll never reach Dis." "Hurry up! Aren't you thinking about the reward the Lord Mayor will give us?"
Artag accepted Donner's sarcasm in silence. At first, hehad protested the delays were because of the doll-woman; however, he was now too weak to put up much resistance when Donner flung him to the ground and pounded at him.
One morning, Artag heard his brother and the doll-woman making love, grunting and screeching so loudly they had attracted an alligator out of the swamp. It crept toward the tent Donner had made out of skins.
"Donner," Artag called from where he'd been sleeping in a tree. "Looks like you have a new lover. I have to say, I like the look of her better than the one you have now." He knew he was going to take a pounding for it, but his spirit had not yet been entirely crushed.
Just then, the doll-woman started screaming, screaming, screaming, as if some horror were happening already within the tent, the kind of horror that would make an alligator irrelevant, even had the brothers not had the talent to tame the lizards (or the strength to crush them). Her screaming cut off abruptly, as suddenly as though Donner had slit her throat. Artag slid out of the tree, and, skirting the alligator (a fairly young one who expressed more curiosity than anything else), knelt outside the crude tent, and raised the flap.
Donner's mouth was opened wide, and he was in the midst of swallowing the doll-woman's body. Her top half had disappeared up to the hips. Donner's jaw was unhinged, wide, and his throat, bulging.
"Donner!" Artag bellowed in fear, reached in, and grabbed the doll-woman's feet. As he did so, her skirt fell away, and Artag could see the place where her legs met: it was as smooth and uncreased as a doll's.
Her lets stretched, they stretched like the skin that lies across the steaming organ-meat when Artag and Donner would gut a deer. Her skin became pearlescent, then translucent as Artag backed out of the tent, her feet wrapped in his arms.
Donners eyes bulged, almost bursting from his skull, and tears ran down his face. With both hands, he tried to keep hold of the doll-woman, but it was impossible. She was too slippery with saliva and stomach acid.
With a sudden snap, the doll-woman slid out of Donner's throat, and Donner was left holding only her clothes. He stared stupidly at his brother for a moment, then collapsed, clutching his chest. Artag dropped the doll-woman and ran toward his borther. He held his borther as he died, his mouth opening and closing like a fish's. Donner died without saying another word.
Artag gently laid his brother in the scattered ruins of the tent, wrapping the raw skins around him and tying the package closed with the tent-ropes. Only then did he look back at the doll-woman's body. It was stretched, stretched as long and thin as a rope. She was naked and breastless, a thin whip of flesh, covered with bloody slime. In her hands, she grasped a bloody lump: Donner's heart.
Artag prized the heart from her cold fingers. As he did so, her form changed. She contracted and shrank until finally she had returned to her original form, that of a doll. Artag patiently unwrapped his brother, pulled out his knife, and returned his brother's heart back into his chest. He rewrapped his brother in the honest skins of the tent and threw his brother over his shoulders.
Everywhere he stopped to rest, the doll was already there, waiting for him. She had dressed herself again, and her hair was perfectly coiffed and clean. Artag ignored the doll and walked on. He was retracing his steps, waking steadily toward the location of the witch's hut.
He had another follower. The young alligator trailed Artag as closely as it could. It crawled through the muck all through the day and night, trying to keep close to Artag's scent.
Finally, Artag reached the clearing that had previously held the witch's hut. The hut was still nowhere to be found. Artag laid his brother's body (the trip had only taken a few days, but the weather was unbearable, and the stench quickly filled the air) on the ground where the front door had been. Artag walked up a few steps (his feet finding convenient roots and vines) and raised his fist to knock on the door.
But before he could knock, the witch opened the door. "What is it, boy? Don't like your adventure?"
Artag hit her full in the face and dragged her into the clearing by her hair. When he had her on the ground, he forced her to kneel down in the mud facing Donner's body. The owl shrieked and beat him across the shoulders, its claws raking his face. Ignoring it, he tilted the witch's head back and slit her throat, letting her bleed out across Donner's body.
When he was done, we went into the hut, where he found one of the witch's stews bubbling over the fire. He brought a bowl of it outside with him. Plunging his fist into the boiling stew, he shoved the stew down Donner's throat. Plucking seven feathers from the owl (after he had twisted its neck), he tied them into Donner's hair. Finally, he put a hat on Donner's head, a hat that he had seen inside the witch's hut, tall and black and shiny.
When the moon rose, so did Donner.
The two brothers lived (if life it could be called) in the witch's hut until the next winter, when the floods broke down the walls of Dis and destroyed that city. After that, Artag led Donner back to the northern lands. With him he brought a golden circle, now decorated with the web of a spider who spun steel that burned like acid and the only tear the doll-woman had ever shed, the one that Donner had found on her face when the old witch had died.
The doll-woman they sold to the Lord Mayor of the ruined Dis, who had need of lucky charms. All he had left was a magic candle, made from a dead man's hand?, that would light the way in darkness without casting any light itself. But with one look at the doll, he traded it away, for it reminded him of his lost daughter. He locked himself inside his ruined mansion, which had become a haunted place after the flood waters pulled away from the low city of Dis, and was never seen again.