June 1, 2019

A Warm, Dark Place in the Earth

by Mackenzie Kincaid


“Only small, crawling things could easily wriggle their way into Gwyn’s den, like little children and beasts of the wood and tittering, discomfited birds with messages tied around their ankles.”

Gwyn the hedgewitch had her home in the ground.

It was a matter of comfort and practicality, because Gwyn had been a simple badger before she’d ever been a hedgewitch, but it also tended to put off visitors, which was just as Gwyn wished it. The hole that was the entrance looked much too small for any grown man to fit into, and that was just as well because Gwyn had had more than enough of grown men. She’d hardly be taking them on as clients, whether they could find their way to her door or no.

Only small, crawling things could easily wriggle their way into Gwyn’s den, like little children and beasts of the wood and tittering, discomfited birds with messages tied around their ankles. Gwyn preferred it to be so. Procuring the services of a hedgewitch, in Gwyn’s opinion, ought to be more difficult than walking up to a little cottage and rapping on the door.

Still, a grown man could crawl down the passage into the den, because the magic that had helped to dig the den in the first place allowed that. It was only that no man had ever tried, until one day, one of them did.

He called down first, which could have been thought polite, if the sound of his voice didn’t make something primal in Gwyn’s body bristle and hackle, didn’t make her shrink against the back wall of her own parlor, clicking her claws together for want of something to score with them.

The man called, “Hullo, the hedgewitch!”, and generally just made an awful racket, answering Gwyn’s silence with more noise.

He was cacophonous coming down the tunnel, too, but come down he did, even with mail and buckles jingling about him, his sword rattling in its scabbard, the toes of his boots scuffing the dirt as he shuffled in on hands and knees.

Gwyn watched as he spilled into her space in a jumble of limbs and dirt. He looked surprised to find himself on a rug, in a home as big as any human-built, tucked beneath the ground and between the roots of ancient trees, where it should not have been able to fit. He scrambled to his feet quickly and brushed the worst of the mess from himself. He even offered a courtly bow to the badger-woman lurking in the corner.

“Good day, my lady,” he said, as if he were addressing a beautiful courtier and not a badger the size of a small human, who walked about on her hind feet. “Are you the hedgewitch they call Gwyn?”

“I am she,” Gwyn admitted, reluctantly, for she had a wealth of experience with men — and men’s dogs — and none of it good. “What brings you to my house?”

“Just the same!” the man said, as if Gwyn had made a correct guess in some sort of amusing game. “Your house is the very matter. I wonder if I might commission you to build another.”

Gwyn squinted at him, for a badger’s eyes were never much good, accustomed to dark twilight spaces. “To build a house? Surely you have human craftsmen for such a thing. I’ve seen the structures they build: cottages, manors, and castles. All very grand.”

“Yes, but none so marvelous as this,” the knight said, and he waved his hand around as if to encompass the cozy, well-worn interior of Gwyn’s own home. He didn’t appear to be disparaging her efforts, though she found it unfathomable that he’d just claimed her humble sett was more grand than any castle. He had to be mad. “There are no men who build homes like this one, burrowed so into the ground. I’ve inquired, and human builders believe it to be a folly to dig a home right into the earth.”

“Men are ever terrified of being buried, in one way or the other,” Gwyn agreed. “And so why would a man want for a hole in the ground, if it is not one to be interred in?”

The knight’s face lit up, as if he’d been waiting for her to ask so that he might tell her the answer. “You see, I’ve been courting a lady who is rather particular about her living arrangements. She’s insisted she cannot possibly marry me if I ask that she live in a home above ground. She says she longs for the cool, sweet comfort of the earth, and who am I to refuse her anything that is her heart’s desire? Only, if we’re to live in such a place together, as man and wife, it would have to accommodate the both of us comfortably, and though I may live happily in a home beneath the ground, I hope to do it standing up. I made certain inquiries and heard of the tremendous craftsmanship of your own lovely home which I am told was built by your own hands. Well, claws. Should I say claws, is that proper? At any rate, I would like to contract you to build another home such as this, if you would agree to it.”

Gwyn made the sound that all badgers make when they feel a mixture of disdain and disbelief; it sounded something like a sneeze. “You do realize your intended is not a human woman,” she said at last when she’d decided that the keeping of another beast’s secrets was not her concern.

“No, no, she’s a bit of— well, she’s a fox, you see. Only she looks like a woman, and speaks as a woman, and feels like a woman, and so—”

“And so you still wish to make her a wife,” Gwyn concluded for him. “You men are fickle things. One day you pursue a fox with all your hounds, and the next you pursue her with all your heart.”

“I thought it rather romantic,” the knight said.

“You’re a knight; your lot think everything is romantic,” Gwyn answered. She watched him for a long moment and knew his ridiculous story to be true, because his eyes had the far-away cast of a creature in love. His hand kept resting against his armored belly, as if he were trying to hold all of his feelings inside.

Which was why Gwyn sighed, clacked her claws together, and said, “Where is this house to be built?” like an absolute fool.

* * *

The building of a burrow was not, as a rule, a terribly difficult thing for a badger. Gwyn’s claws could shape earth as easily as potters shaped clay, and her powerful shoulders and back could stand up to a long day’s labor, carving soil away and pushing it out in her wake with casual thrusts of her hind feet. Building a house a grown man could stand up in wasn’t too demanding a task for her either; magic could make small things large, fold and unfold the shape of a space, make an entryway bend itself to accommodate any guest while still sheltering a den from even the most persistent of dogs.

What it could not do, it seemed, was please a fox.

“It’s rather dark,” the fox-woman said, when her knight brought her by for a look at the construction. “It’s not as I would have dug it.”

Gwyn was still working on the rough shape of it then, using magic and slabs of stone and carefully rearranged tree roots to hold the walls in their places, until they could be shored up. She paused to shake the dirt from her back and did not care that some of it landed in the fox-woman’s jewel-encrusted bodice.

The fox-woman huffed and shook herself too, the way a sodden fox would, which was rather undignified in a dress. Some of her carefully coiled russet hair fell away from the hold of its pins. There was still dirt clinging to her from where she had crawled through the unfinished entry tunnel, and her shaking-off did nothing to dislodge it.

“Why did you not dig it yourself, then?” Gwyn asked, because foxes too were good at dens and burrows, hiding places in the dark.

“I’m hardly a laborer, am I?” the fox-woman said. She inspected the ends of her fingers, carefully groomed human nails where her claws should have been. There was still something foxy about her face, pointed nose and narrow mouth, eyes so light brown they were nearly gold, and there was certainly something canine in her manner, but her knight didn’t seem to notice or mind.

He gazed on her like she was the sun and moon together, even as she belittled his efforts and threw off his gentling touch from her elbow.

The fox-woman said, “It should be much larger and more opulent. I know you badgers have no taste to speak of, so I shall instruct you as to just how this house shall be built.”

She did instruct, at length, with diagrams carved into the rough earthen floor using the point of her would-be husband’s borrowed sword and detailed descriptions of just how everything should be. It was all within Gwyn’s capabilities, of course, but she doubted whether it was within the knight’s means.

“Imported stone and Roman plumbing,” Gwyn said, shaking her head, her disapproval shuddering in a ripple of muscles down her back. The knight had escorted his lady home — wherever that might be, perhaps a courtly palace or perhaps a tree stump — and then come back to the dig to confer with his builder on the new design. “Gold leafing and the tapping of hot springs. Magic can do much, sir knight, but I cannot conjure wealth for you from barren ground.”

“Money is no object,” the knight said, in the way of any beast whose larder had never gone empty. “It’s a small price to pay for my lady’s happiness.”

“Your lady is a fox,” Gwyn reminded him, “and has probably been happy enough before with a sparrow’s bones to chew upon and a dry hollow in which to sleep the night.”

“She has developed a taste for the finer things, since I brought her into my household,” the knight said, but it was more a fond musing than a realization. “Her gowns are only the finest, and she delights in the softness of mink.”

Gwyn snorted, which for a badger was a full-body event. “She’ll have torn mink apart with her own teeth, for all her delicacy. To set your eyes on a creature-wife is a foolish endeavor. You should abandon this folly and seek a human woman. This burrow-house will be the ruin of you.”

The knight’s smile thinned, and his countenance hardened. “That’s just what my father said,” he told her, and it was clearly not a pleasant remembrance.

Gwyn shrugged her wide shoulders, turning back to the wall that was now to be knocked out, according to the sharp-edged sketch on the floor. She set her claws into the damp earth and pulled. “You should heed him. He must know a thing or two about foxes.”

The knight said, “Yes, he keeps a collection of their hides,” and then he swept out, his foul mood following behind him.

* * *

The thing about having a tunnel for a front door was that it forced anyone who paid a visit to do so on hands and knees, worming along on their belly. For animals, it was a comfortable enough proposition; for men, it was a form of low subjugation. Any man who wished to enter first must lower himself to crawling like a beast.

Gwyn’s latest guest seemed to know it, too. He was already in a towering rage when he tumbled out of the tunnel and onto the floor. There were stones laid now, and they were heated by the hot springs that Gwyn had already tapped, but that did not make them comfortable for a man sprawled across them, ungainly like a fledgling bird, his round stomach doing nothing to cushion his fall.

“This is an outrage,” the gentleman said as he staggered to his feet, trying — and failing — to arrange his hair into something dignified. “I demand you cease this digging immediately, I will not stand for it!”

“Ah,” Gwyn said, and did not stop her digging, nor mind where she piled the dirt, even when it spilled across his finely polished boots. “You must be my client’s father, then.”

“I am not simply your client’s father, animal. I am the earl of these lands, and I order you to stop immediately!”

“Ah, yes, I recognize you now,” Gwyn said, and this time she did stop digging, turned around and squinted at him. “You look different when you’re not on horseback. One of your hounds tried to tear out my neck last winter, and your hunting party trampled my favorite watering hole into mud.”

These were the least of their crimes, but the earl was a guest, in a way, and Gwyn could only tolerate being a certain amount of rude.

“I do as I like,” the earl said, as if that were in itself answer enough. “I will have my way, and my son will not marry that wild woman, much less live in a hovel beneath the earth like an animal!”

“I’ve already told him to abandon this folly,” Gwyn said, with a wave of her ponderous claws. “But men don’t listen to beasts of the wood, even when they ought.”

“Oh, but they do,” the earl snarled. “That thrice-damned fox has my son’s ear bent and the rest of him wrapped right around her finger. He’ll not say no to anything she bids him do.”

“Perhaps she loves him,” Gwyn said, though she doubted it.

“Perhaps she seeks to bury him in his own house,” the earl rejoined, and Gwyn could admit that that did seem distinctly more likely. “You’re to halt construction immediately. My son’s inheritance this parcel may be, but I am not dead yet. A ‘manor house,’ my fool boy called this venture. By all the gods, I won’t have it.”

Gwyn said, “The money’s already spent, I’m afraid. All that’s left is my labor, which also is already paid, and which I will discharge, for I did give my word.”

The earl squinted back at her, perhaps in anger, or perhaps simply because it was dark down in that house-hole, the light-tunnels not yet dug, the braziers not yet installed into the unfinished walls.

The earl said, “This is not the end of the matter,” and wagged his finger in a way that to other humans may have looked threatening.

Gwyn, for her part, was not intimidated by anything without tooth and claw, so she turned back to her labor and did not see him out.

* * *

The fox-woman visited alone, the next time, when the house was nearly completed. Gwyn was just laying the finishing touches — carefully straightening the unnerving hide rug before the fireplace, and whisking away the last of the construction dust with a pristine new birch broom — when the fox-woman wandered in.

She was dressed more plainly this time in breeches and riding coat, fine kidskin gloves and knee-high boots, as if she’d ridden there on a horse, instead of being chased to ground by one. The idea made Gwyn shiver uncomfortably; she didn’t much like the idea of her own feet parting with the earth.

“My goodness, you’re a marvel,” the fox-woman said, when Gwyn had expected more criticism and even more extravagant demands. “You actually built all these ridiculous things I asked for. I took a wrong turn from the receiving room and had to walk through ten more rooms, each more beautiful than the last before I found you here. This place is truly a palace below the ground.”

“It is as you asked for,” Gwyn said, cautiously. “Is it not?”

“Well, yes, but I hadn’t expected to actually have it,” the fox-woman said. “You’re a bit mad, I think, building a thing like this for a man.”

“I build it for a man who builds it for you. Will you take him as your husband, then?”

“I hadn’t intended to,” the fox-woman said, and she ran her gloved fingers absently along the edge of the stout wooden mantel beam, as if checking for dust. “I meant to put him off, insisting on a burrow instead of a manor house. What kind of fool man would agree to such a thing? And even when he did, I never thought he’d find a builder to agree to it. And then he did, and I thought well, at very least I can bankrupt him and his father both with this foolishness. Do you know they cornered me on a hunt? I was run down to the bone and changing into a girl was all I could think to do to make them call their hounds away. I didn’t expect him to carry me home like I was some sort of damsel, naked and wrapped in his cloak. Everything else was a joke got out of hand, really.”

Gwyn raised her brows, the fur there bristling a little. Foxes loved a good joke, but they always took them too far, a kind of humor that cut more often than it entertained. “You’ve meant to reject him all this time then,” she said, and in spite of herself and the warnings she’d already given the knight, her heart clenched tight in sympathetic pain for him. He’d spent to his last penny to give his fox-woman the home she’d never truly desired.

“I had thought to,” the fox-woman said. “But he really is charming. He sincerely wants to live in a burrow with me. Even one that wasn’t as grand as this. And he hardly seems to mind, if I curl up in my fox-skin before the fire. Do you think they know what love is, humans? Do you think they’re capable of it?”

“I suppose they must be; perhaps this is the proof of it,” Gwyn said. She looked about the room and decided she was satisfied, her promise finally discharged. “You may tell your knight that his house is finished.”

She thought to leave at that, that perhaps she’d been a bit too sentimental that morning, when she’d packed her satchel and went off to work. But the fox-woman was still lingering at the unlit hearth, staring into the darkness of it as if imagining a future before it. And so Gwyn hesitated, silently cursed herself, then walked back to the heart of the home and opened up her satchel.

“Mugwort, and rosemary, and cedar,” she said, laying a string-tied bundle on the hearth. She followed it with a rock of salt, the size of her palm, and then a rough and lopsided loaf of bread, baked by her own hand. All the while the fox-woman only stared at her, incredulous and confused.

“To bless your home,” Gwyn explained gently, tapping her claws against the hearth once more before withdrawing. “And a wish that its inhabitants should never go hungry.”

The fox-woman blinked at Gwyn, then blinked also at the hearth-gifts, as if she’d never seen the like of either of them.

“I thank you,” she said at last, and Gwyn very quietly showed herself out.

* * *

The knight and his lady utterly left Gwyn’s mind, for a time. She had enough to catch up on, with all the weeks she’d poured into foolish burrow-building, even if it had substantially padded her purse. Her clients had found her home too often empty, and now came in droves to buy their tinctures and salves, to have their gardens blessed, their sewing needles spelled, the wards on their dens renewed for the season. There was never any shortage of work to be done, so Gwyn set her shoulders into each task until it was done, and when she came home she tended her plants, threw in their off-cuttings for the earthworms she was cultivating in the larder, and collapsed into sleep.

She thought no more of the knight and his fox-woman until another human came calling. This one found her in her garden, and he rode in so quickly and reined in his horse so late that he nearly trampled Gwyn’s fragile autumn crops.

“Hullo, the hedgewitch!” the man said merrily, leaping down from the back of his horse as if the animal were no more than a couch upon which he occasionally settled. Gwyn could not speak the language of horses, but she felt the white-rimmed eye of this one was quite eloquent, regardless. The man wore much finer clothing than the knight had worn, and they undoubtedly featured deeper pockets as well.

“I have it on good authority,” the man said, “that you are the clever creature behind the palatial underground estate owned by two of my very dear friends. I have come to hire you to undertake the building of another!”

“Another,” Gwyn said. The word should perhaps have been a question, or a prompting for further information, but it was neither. “Are you also courting a beast-wife?”

“Oh, heavens no, I already have a wife who is perfectly human, thank you very much,” the man said, with an affected, wheezing laugh as if the idea were absurd. The sound was like the braying honk of an irritated goose. “No, you see, this great subterranean manor house you built has only been seen at all by a select few, and everyone is dying for an invitation, but there are none to be had, as the lady of the house has been somewhat selective in her reception of house guests. Apparently, she, ah… bites. I am told.”

Gwyn was glad to hear it; if the fox-woman felt protective of her new den, that was as it should be, and Gwyn was happy for knight and fox both, truly. She only failed to see how it had somehow led yet another man to her door.

Oblivious to her wandering attention, the man went on: “They say she has deigned to allow the Queen herself inside, and none other, but rumors have already spread of the home’s opulence and beauty, and, well. We must have one.”

“You must have a burrow,” Gwyn repeated. She felt as if perhaps she’d stepped out of her own home that morning and into some other reality entirely, where men lived in holes in the ground and perhaps a frog sat upon the throne.

“Oh, we must, we absolutely must,” the man agreed, his head bobbling rapidly enough that it startled his horse into taking one alarmed step backward. “I was the first to find you, so naturally you shall have to build my home first, before all the others come ’round inquiring after their own burrow-houses. The earl’s wife is already talking about having one built as a sort of summer cottage, so we must get cracking. It’ll be the height of fashion by spring.”

Gwyn said, “I see.”

She turned to survey her own burrow opening: the roots curled around it, the moss like a living threshold, the fresh-painted door standing invitingly open, the dark tunnel leading down and down into the warm embrace of clean earth.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you,” she said, not at all regretfully, and retreated into the safety of the ground.

“Why-ever not?” the man spluttered, stooping down to peer after her into the darkness of the tunnel.

Gwyn said, “I only craft burrows for beasts, sir, and perhaps you’ll be kind enough to tell your fellows as much. Though, if any of them should happen to fall in love with a fox, I suppose I might hear them out. I grew rather fond of the last ones, by the end. Good day to you.”

Then she closed the door, gently but firmly, in his face. She had supper to make, and seedlings to tend, and had no time at all for the foolishness of men.

* * *


About the Author

Mackenzie Kincaid is a writer and artist; she lives in the American West with one black cat and a modest collection of bones. She is the author of The Writer’s Guide to Horses, a wordsmith’s manual to all things equine. Her short fiction appears in the anthologies Gunsmoke & Dragonfire and Tales From The Old Black Ambulance, and is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She can be found on the web at mackenziekincaid.com and on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr as @mackincaid.

Comments

2 thoughts on “A Warm, Dark Place in the Earth

  1. Wow. This was gorgeous. The characters were entertaining and surprisingly complex, and the world is somewhere I’d really like to live in.

  2. This is fantastic! Better than anything I’ve read in traditionally published mags for quite some time. The Hedgewitch feels like a real person, with understandable, nonhuman motivations. More!

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