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The Sorceress' House

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Year after year, they come to her house.

They come by night and by day, and in all seasons, through snow and storms and starlight. On foot and in cars, by train or by plane; and sometimes, memorably, by sea.

They come alone.

This one rides in on a white horse, his red cloak flaring behind him. On seeing the mansion, the knight reins the horse to a halt, his dark eyes widening in astonishment.

The peacocks strutting around the fountain and the rabbits near the trees lift their heads at his approach but there are no servants, no stable boys, no stewards in sight to greet him. Could this grand house be abandoned? It cannot be, he thinks, seeing the perfectly trimmed hedges and the neatly raked drive. This place belongs to someone.

The knight leaves the horse cropping contentedly at the green grass and ascends the steps to the house. He raises his mailed fist, ready to hammer at the door, but it swings silently open at his merest touch. After a moment, he enters.

This is her cue to glide down the staircase, smiling sweetly, the train of her black gown trailing behind her.

"My lady," he says smoothly, sweeping a deep bow, lowering his eyes as though stunned by her golden hair, her red mouth, her white teeth. "I pray you, forgive my intrusion." He licks his lips and tells the same story he has given to all the others: "I am travelling on a great quest, but I fear I have become lost in the forest. If I could beg of you some food, some water -"

"Of course you were," the lady says, looking sympathetic. "But look, it's too late for you to leave now - trust me, you'll never find the right path in the dark. Guess you'll just have to be my guest tonight."

"But my lady," he says, making a token effort at refusal. "I should be on my way..."

"No, really, it's too late for you to leave. Stay, I insist!" she says, clasping her hands together in earnest.

It was still light only moments ago, but when he looks over his shoulder he sees that she is right: the sun is sinking fast into the west and the light that falls through the high windows turns the marble floor to molten gold.

His acceptance taken for granted, the lady links her arm through his and leads him into the mansion. Their hips brush together as they walk; her scent reminds him of lilies. The maze of same-seeming corridors call to mind the paths through the deep and dark woods where he lost his way, each path indistinguishable from the next, but her steps never falter.

At last she stops by a heavy oak door which she unlocks with a bright brass key. "Dinner's at eight. Don't be late," she says, looking him up and down as though he's the meal, before she shuts the door behind him.

He finds himself in a suite of sumptuously appointed rooms with a view over the gravelled drive and lawns, and the carefully tended gardens beyond. He looks around the grounds, seeing the peacocks fanning their tails in the fading light and a small herd of spotted deer moving near the trees - but still no sign of any other man, woman, or child.

Turning away from the windows, he examines the rooms. The bedchamber furnishings are exquisite, though the style is as foreign to him as the strange artwork on the walls. One shelf is lined with books, though on closer examination these too are unfamiliar and even nonsensical: The Great Gatsby, The Bloody Chamber, Big Fish.

It is clear to him now that the house is enchanted. But the realisation does not alarm him, for the knight is cunning and clever and he has never been afraid of anything.

In the next room, there is a bathtub filled and waiting, so hot that steam rises from the water's surface. Ensorcelled or not, the water soothes his weary limbs.

He should not linger but he can stay here for a night at least, he thinks as he leans back in the tub. Time enough to gather his strength, rest his horse, and work his charms on the lady of the house. Sorceress she may be, but she is also a woman and he's certain that she will be much like the last - readily convinced by his silver tongue and handsome face, all too glad to take him to her bed before handing over some ready coin to speed him on his 'quest'.

After bathing, he looks for his travel-stained garments only to find they have disappeared. In their place is laid out a black-and-white outfit the likes of which he has never seen before. The clock by the door warns dinnertime is approaching so he shrugs and dresses himself as best as he can.

Once outside his rooms, the knight takes the only lit path through the maze of corridors, trusting that the enchanted lights will show him the way. They flare to life at his approach, illuminating a single pathway ahead, then are extinguished soon after he passes so that he could not retrace his steps if he tried.

The lights lead him to a pair of doors which open before he can touch them.

"You made it!" the lady says, rising from her seat to greet him. "Perfect timing."

A white cat jumps down from her lap and stalks away reproachfully, hissing at the knight as it passes. The lady pays it no mind, swaying towards him with her hands outstretched. The room is warm and inviting. A fire crackles in the hearth, and from elsewhere a melody plays from some unseen instrument, its strings plucked by invisible hands.

"Stand still a second, let me fix your bowtie," she says, reaching up to his neck.

She re-ties the strip of cloth as he watches, aware of how close their bodies are to touching, of the pleasing curve of her breasts beneath her blue silk dress and the lashes of her downcast eyes, the snowdrop diamonds at her ears.

"That tux really suits you, you know?" she says when she's done, resting her hands for a moment on his chest. "Now," she says, leading him towards the table. "It's time for dinner. Eat, my darling, and drink."

Does the knight recall the tales told of castles laid beneath enchantment? Does he remember what is said about accepting the gifts of a sorceress? Beware, all the songs and stories say, beware.

But it's been days since he had a good meal, weeks since he felt the softness of a pillow, and her smooth hands and sweet smiles promise that the feast laid out on the table is not the only thing that she wishes to offer.

"Save some room for dessert," she says, pouring him wine from a silver flagon. Their eyes meet over the glass. "I baked the cake myself."

Yes, I'll stay for a day, he thinks to himself as he raises the goblet, two at most. That will be enough, will be safe, but no more...

"To you, fair lady," he says, and brings the glass to his lips.

Then the first drop of wine touches the knight's tongue, and all thoughts of leaving vanish from his mind completely.

The next days pass in a haze of pleasure, all sunlight and wine and her silvery laugh.

They go out riding on her horses and afterwards lie on the grass; he lays his head in her lap as she sings, her voice high and pure. They take a boat onto the lake, he at the oars and she reclining beneath the shade of a parasol as she idly throws bread crusts to the ducks.

They walk through the woods, great black hounds pacing at their sides, and when the rain begins to fall take shelter beneath the arching branches of an oak. He unfastens his coat and wraps it around her; she tilts her face upwards, eyes fluttering closed as they kiss.

The golden days are interrupted only by the dark, long nights, and these too contain their own intoxicating pleasures. He makes love to her in her white bed, her golden hair spilling over the sheets and her red mouth opening in an 'oh' as he kisses the place between her thighs, before pulling her up into his lap so she sinks down onto him with her hot, tight heat. She clutches at his shoulders, lacquered nails digging into his skin as she urges him on with her wordless cries, riding him to his completion and her own.

"Oh, my love," she says afterwards, as she lies atop him, covering his mouth and neck and chest with soft, exhausted kisses. "My darling boy. My sweet boy."

So one day follows the next and the next, running into one another, beyond measure and count. He has never been more content.

The knight remembers, every now and again, that there was once a time before the mansion, before her white arms and her clear voice, that there must be a world beyond the forest. He remembers vaguely that there was a place that he wanted to go, a plan he had intended to follow, that there are stories told about enchanted castles.

Once, perhaps, he even had a name...

But these thoughts always seem to escape him before he can chase them to their conclusions, and it's not worth the effort to keep trying. So the days roll on.

Then he finds the hall of portraits.

It happens one evening as he readies himself for dinner, expert by now at fixing his own bowtie and straightening his tux. He's reaching for his cufflinks - a gift from the lady, jewels set in old gold engraved with their intertwined initials - when the white cat that always lurks around the lady's bedchamber leaps up onto the dresser.

The cat is the lady's favoured pet, but the creature has never liked him and he has scratches on his arms to prove it. He scowls at it. For a moment the cat simply stares back, green eyes unblinking. Then it suddenly snatches up a cufflink in its mouth before jumping down and slipping out the door.

Cursing and furious, the knight chases the cat down the hallway and around the corner, unthinkingly charging after it into an unlit, gloomy corridor. Within a few steps he slows his pace, stepping cautiously in the dark with one hand outstretched before him.

"Here, cat," the knight calls softly. He strains to hear the sound of paws padding, a cat mewing. "Here, girl."

After a moment his fingertips brush against some hard surface - cool, metal, a doorknob - and the door swings open.

Through the doorway, the knight sees a long and narrow hall that he has never seen before. With only a little hesitation, he steps inside, the cat forgotten for now. Both sides of the hall are lined with scores of portraits. He walks through slowly, looking left and then right, absorbing each picture in turn.

Most of the portraits are paint and canvas, but there are also tapestries, glazed clay pots, several mosaics, and two busts carved from marble. There is even an ancient sheet of painted rock that seems to have been chipped out whole from some cave or cliff-face.

Each one depicts a man - though perhaps it would be more accurate to state that each portrait had depicted a man, for all that he passes have been damaged or destroyed. Some have had their eyes cut out, their faces slashed through; others are spattered and smeared with paint or worse; one marble bust has been cracked straight down the middle with a pick-axe still embedded in its forehead.

With each step he takes, with each ruined portrait that he passes, the knight feels the enchantments of the last hours, days, months fall away from him like chains from a prisoner. He recalls his past, his plan, the stories that say beware...

How long as he lingered here, unheeding of the outside world, little more than the lady's toy? How powerful are her enchantments that they can make him forget even his own name?

He comes at last to the final portrait in the corridor and sees with dread, without surprise, that it shows himself. It is the only portrait in the entire gallery that remains untouched, but he knows it can only be a matter of time.

"You really shouldn't have come in here, darling," says the lady from behind him. "And you'd been doing so well until now, too."

He whirls and nearly stumbles. She merely smiles as she advances towards him, her high heels clicking on the wooden floor, her eyes lined with kohl, her clinging dress embroidered in a pattern recalling a predator's furs.

"Stay back," he cries, crossing himself frantically and wishing for his sword. "Stay back! In the name of god almighty, I abjure thee, demon!"

She tilts her head, hands on her hips, her mouth curved mockingly. "Really?" she repeats slowly. "That isn't a very nice thing to say. Not very nice at all. We both got what we needed out of this, didn't we? Isn't this exactly what you wanted?"

He drops to his knees and clasps his hands together as he begins to pray.

With his eyes firmly closed, the knight hears rather than sees her come to a stop before him. On hearing his prayer, she laughs softly and then tangles her fingers in his hair. As he feels her power wrap around him, he starts to scream.

When he opens his eyes again, some time later, he is no longer a knight. He is no longer even a man. He has fur the colour of rust, a twitching black nose, and a long brush of a tail that ends in white as though dipped in snow. His sharp little ears quiver softly as she strokes his head with a soft white hand.

The lady picks him up in her arms. "My darling boy," she says, pressing a kiss to his head with her red, red mouth. "My sweet boy."

She takes him outside and sets him down in the perfectly green grass. He twitches his nose and smells rabbits nearby. Elsewhere in the grounds, he dimly recalls, there are gaudy peacocks and spotted deer, white horses and black hounds.

"Go on now, darling," she says, already turning away. "Run along with the others."

The fox twitches its nose once more, before darting quickly away into the shadows beneath the trees.

The lady walks back into the mansion, humming softly to herself. The doors swing shut behind her.

By land and by sea, by night and by day - year after year, they come.