"But do you believe in Ratch?"

"Mind the cakes, my darling. I'm no theologian."

Rylesie chose to interpret her mother in law's non-answer as a tacit agreement, and she was quite content with that. Though the threat of the poison glen and of Ratch had hung heavy over her entire childhood and those of all her fellow townspeople from time immemorial, Rylesie could not recall a time when she had believed in it. What she had believed in was a good way for parents to scare their children away from the sinkholes and craggy rocks of the poison glen, and it had worked brilliantly. Later, of course, she'd come to see the need to justify the breath-taking gulf between rich and poor of which everyone on their side of the mountain was so intimately aware from their youngest days. She had known it in her days of playing in the streets of town with the urchins from the gutter until her mother had forbidden their association. She had known it as an older child and a young woman while skipping along Grommerio's castle wall, overhearing the gaiety and music on the other side and dodging the tramps and beggars on her side. Of course she had known it while witnessing -- and experiencing -- the remarkable sway Phoarateo's achingly beautiful performances on his wonderhorn could have on their entire side of the mountain no matter how dire their straits, back when she was only a commoner in the crowd.

"Albeit a beautiful one," Phoarateo always insisted with that sheepish grin of his whenever she recalled those days. Though he always insisted he'd spotted her in the audience a time or two in his public recitals, any proof to that end had always been elusive.

By the time she'd been old enough to attend her future true love's recitals on her own, of course, Rylesie had not been known as just a commoner. Rather an especially beautiful one. From her first summer of eligibility, "the baker's daughter" inspired suitors from all over the mountain, some of whom had never even seen her. Tales of hair that would rival Rapunzel and breasts that could mould a champagne glass made their way to her bemused ear from lands she knew by name only. Rylesie herself had never been able to see just what had inspired her reputation, but she could not very well complain about the attention it garnered her from young men far and wide.

By the end of that summer, rumour had held that Rylesie's rare beauty had even reached the ear of the mountain's most eligible bachelor, perhaps through a cousin who worked in the castle kitchen. So the elites and commoners were perhaps shocked, but not surprised when Phoarateo fell in love with Rylesie in the winter of his twenty-first year and her nineteenth. An opportune invitation to the servants' ball provided for an introduction that led to an engagement in a matter of weeks. "Ain't happened in two, three hunnerd years, course it's gonna happen with that angel!" was a commonly held opinion in the pubs of town.

Not everyone considered Rylesie an angel, of course. Jealousy ran as deep and strong as any spring on the mountain, and for a time the constable had to hold court outside the bakery to ensure her family's safety. Inside the castle, some of the servants had to be cajoled rather heavily into respecting the master's betrothed, much less serving her. Rylesie, for her part, didn't care to be waited on anyway after a lifetime of attending to her own needs. There had, too, been many times when her opulent surroundings, clothing and company had felt like a gilded cage relative to the poor but free life she had known before. But for all that, the customary year of engagement had passed more agreeably than not. Despite separate living quarters and chaperoned visits with Phoarateo, their love had blossomed into an unstoppable force of passion. Their wedding, just two months before, had been a cause for celebration -- however begrudgingly among some young women -- all over their side of the mountain.

But that lovely August afternoon had been marred by one horrible incident.

Rylesie herself had not considered it horrible, and still did not think so two months later. But, as she had been reminded in no uncertain terms before her encounter with her husband that morning, Phoarateo most certainly did.

Madame Prue was an institution among the nobility of the mountain, from time immemorial. No one knew if it really was true that the last commoner to marry into Phoarateo's family had been two or three hundred years before as the drunkards on their barstools claimed. But if it were true, Madame Prue surely had been present at the wedding and advised the bride and groom on their likelihood of a happy fate. For longer than anyone now alive could recall, the spry hermit in her black cloak had put in an appearance to bless every wedding among the mountain's upper crust. None knew how old she was or where she lived or how she knew of impending nuptials, but there wasn't a wedding on record among the families in their social circle that she had failed to attend. Word had it that her blunt assessments of each couple's prospects were infallible.

Even the commoners knew about her, although like Ratch, her existence was debated. Rylesie had made the mistake of saying as much to her ladies in waiting on her wedding day, causing a round of shocked gasps among them. "Oh, no, my lady, she is most certainly real!" one had exclaimed.

"And you'd best hope she sees promise in your future with Phoarateo, too," another had said. "With his parents, she predicted a long and fruitful union and, well, look around you! With his aunt and her first husband from the other side of the mountain she said the outlook was grim, and he was lost at sea!"

"Been that way for generations too!" added the third.

"Listen," Rylesie had told them all, regarding each in turn. "Haven't I already overcome every precedent there is in being here at all?"

"Yes, of course, but --"

"But nothing!" she had insisted. "Superstition says I oughn't be here at all, and I am. I shan't let it scare me off now any more than I have before."

And she hadn't. But it was Rylesie alone who hadn't felt perturbed when the focus of attention in the temple had shifted from herself in her wedding gown to the elderly lady who materialized in the vestibule. Her only annoyance was the loss of all the adoration, which had at least led her to look over her shoulder to see Madame Prue swathed in her black cloak, just as the stories had already held.

"Madame Prue," Phoarateo had said from the altar. "Welcome."

"Confident, then, aren't we, my boy?" the old lady had said as she swept up the aisle to assess Rylesie. "So this is the lovely baker's daughter." Thrice around Rylesie, who had felt rather invaded by her close assessment but still not frightened. "Many a moon it's been since any fresh blood has been allowed in this rarefied circle. Ought to've been done rather more frequently, if you ask me. A wise choice, Phoarateo, and yet..."

Rylesie's sceptical eye had been met with horror in her betrothed's at that moment. "What do you see, Madame Prue? What do you mean 'and yet'?"

"And yet I see that in this lifetime, the happiest of moments are fleeting," she had replied. "Phoarateo, Rylesie, I am most afraid your marriage is destined to be both of those. Extremely happy and extremely brief."

Both had replied at once, Rylesie with "Oh, please!" and Phoarateo with "No, Madame Prue! Tell me how I can avoid that fate!"

"There is no avoiding fate, my dear," Madame Prue had replied. "I am sorry. Love is a gift, no matter how fleeting, and my advice is to enjoy that gift while you can. And may you fare better next time!" With that she'd swept off amidst gasps of horror in the pews, and Phoarateo had struggled to retain his composure, acutely aware that her final comment had been delivered squarely into his eyes.

There were tears in those eyes as he had turned back to Rylesie. "My darling..."

"Shall we continue?" the minister had asked. "No one would blame either of you if you should choose to call off the wedding, you know."

"Never!" Phoarateo had snapped. "I have a hearty belief in the saints and a healthy fear of Ratch, and I shall serve both like never before to preserve our love. I know Rylesie will do the same!"

"Shall you, dear?" the minister had asked Rylesie.

"Sir, a baker's daughter does not come to stand beside this man by being superstitious!" she had snapped. "I'm afraid of nothing!"

And the wedding had proceeded, albeit with rather less joy than it had begun with. From that day to this, Rylesie's scepticism of Madame Prue and the prophecy had not abated. But she had noticed a profound change in Phoarateo; his carefree outlook for the future had vanished in favour of a sense of piousness and duty. This had at least resulted in even greater expressions of fondness for Rylesie, but it had also led to feelings on her part of being put on a pedestal that she did not like at all. As each day of the ensuing two months had come and gone without their bond being torn asunder, she had grown a bit more optimistic that her husband would come to believe as she did that the prophecy was nonsense. But in this she had been disappointed.

Whatever her views of Ratch and other superstitions, Rylesie had always adored the All Saints' Eve party as a little girl and she adored it all the more as its hostess now. Having persuaded a servant to update her angel costume to her adult size, she basked in the bemused looks of the little witches, soldiers, rabbits, bears and all manner of oddities who filed into the room that evening. "Welcome, one and all!" she said with a smile again and again, taking special care to greet the children who looked deeply concerned. Though she'd never believed in Ratch, she recalled all too well how terrifying this night was to her friends who did believe. "Come join us for sweets and games! You know you're safe and sound here, don't you?"

"Y...yes, Mrs. Phoarateo," came a common response among the more frightened looking of the children.

Those who still looked unconvinced, she treated to a hug. Their adoring embraces had Rylesie herself feeling far more cheerful and relaxed by the time all the children and the accompanying mothers were safely ensconced in the brightly decorated hall. Many of the mothers were still casting a baleful eye at her, none more than Scarlie, the apprentice-blacksmith's wife who'd grown up a few years ahead of Rylesie in their street. "Still playing your own dress-up game so very well, I see," she grumbled while ushering her terrified-looking son in his bear costume into the hall. Rylesie, on seeing his tear-stained eyes, tried to embrace him, only for Scarlie to pull him away. "This is one male you won't trap, my friend!" she snapped.

Rylesie smiled through the stab of irritation and contented herself with the far warmer welcome she got from the children, and she was able to ignore the handful of dagger-eyes she got from the other jealous women as she swept through the crowd to join Faelene at the head of the table. "Thank you all for coming out tonight!" she said with a smile that was mostly unforced. "Who's ready for some cakes?"

A thunderous, heart-warming roar came up from every corner of the room.

"Well, so am I!" said Rylesie. "I love all your adorable costumes, and I hope we can have a lot of fun with all the games and songs we have in store. But I suppose you want to eat a little something first?"

Another cheer came up from the children, but Scarlie managed to make herself heard above them. "For heaven's sake, Rylesie, stop teasing them! It's not as though you're even really a noble, never mind the queen!"

"Scarlie!" scolded Faelene, "That is quite enough of that!"

"Quite enough of what?" piped up another of the women who had given Rylesie a dirty look on the way in. "It's bad enough we've had to watch this half-breed worm her way into your family, now you expect us to watch her taunt our children?"

"No one is taunting anyone!" Rylesie protested. "I was only trying to get the children's attention!"

"You've done a fine job of that, haven't you?" asked Scarlie, gesturing at her son, who was once again in tears. "Look at how happy he is to be here!"

Rylesie lost her temper. "You did that, Scarlie! You know it!"

"Excuse me?!" called out yet another mother. "Blaming his own mum now, are we? Just what do you know about children anyway, your highness?!"

"Ladies, please!" cried Faelene. "Enough! Don't you recall how comforting this event was to you when you were girls? Don't you want that for your own children?"

"Ain't about comfort, it's about protection!" snapped the mother who had just taken Rylesie to task. "From Ratch!" At the mention of his name, several of the children burst into tears. "And I don't know about you all, but I don't trust Missus Too-big-for-her-baker's-knickers to protect anyone! Specially not when we all know what Madame Prue had to say about her!"

"Now then --" Faelene began.

But Rylesie cut her off. "That is QUITE enough of that!" she snapped. "I know what some of you think of me, but you must know I want only the best for your children on this night, and I should have thought we could put our differences aside for their benefit! There is no need to terrify the children with you-know-who when, even if he is real, you all know he's never made his way in here!"

"I rather think he has, in the shape of Mrs. Phoarateo!" Scarlie declared.

Rylesie burst into tears of rage, and lunged at her former neighbour. "You bitch!" She reached for Scarlie's throat, but another woman pulled her back just in time. "What have I ever done to you besides try to comfort your son?!"

"It's what you did to capture Phoarateo's heart!" Scarlie shot back. "Just how did you get over the wall to suck his cock anyway?"

"Scarlie!" Faelene was now at Rylesie's shoulder as several of the other women struggled to hold the two apart. Most of the children were in tears. "I will not have you talking about my daughter in law in such vulgar terms, especially not in a room full of children!" She pointed at the door. "Out!"

"Don't bother, Mother," Rylesie said as her captors let her go. Smoothing out her frock, she took a deep breath and managed to keep an even voice as she said, "I shall be the one to leave. I see I shall never command some of your respect no matter how pure my intentions, or my love for Phoarateo, or his for me. I shan't put the children through any more of this!"

"Rylesie, no!" cried Faelene. But Rylesie didn't look back, nor did she register any more of her mother in law's objections, as she stormed out of the hall with her head held high, not even acknowledging any of the children's tearful gazes. She was scarcely aware of the admonishments -- both to stay and go -- from the other mothers as she burst out into the cold, desolate evening.

The village was nearly deserted, as it always was on All Saints' Eve. Rylesie took a bit of comfort in the sounds of her beloved's wonderhorn from the castle where all the men were holding court at the ceremony. But it was a bittersweet touch at best, for it left her wanting like never before to be at home in his arms, and there was no chance of that for hours yet. Returning to their chamber would not do, in any case, for she was certain Faelene was already sending a lady there to coax her back to the party. Nor was there any use in trying to make her way to Phoarateo, as a woman's presence at the ceremony was just as forbidden as interrupting his performance.

And so she wandered half-blind with her tears about the streets of the village, trying in vain to get control over herself and doing her best to elude the few foolhardy townspeople who were out to brave Ratch. In this she succeeded for the most part, but inevitably she failed to take note of Old Man Moirhynne as he was relieving himself behind the oak tree outside the pub. She heard the fool before she saw him: "Oi! Lady Rylesie, ain't it?!"

Rylesie froze in her tracks, and snapped to mortified attention as she made eye contact with the bum, who still had his cock hanging out of his pants. "Put that away," she said reflexively.

"Ain't you wantin' a real man, though?" he said with a salacious grin, taking the member in his hand and waving it about at her. "Why else would you of all folks be out on a night like this, and lookin' most ravaged at that?" Still holding himself, he broke into a run.

Rylesie snapped out of her stupor and, gathering up her skirts, she sprinted off. She was younger and more spry than he, but the disadvantage of high heels and a long gown kept his leering pursuit close on her heels. By the end of the street, she was barely out of arm's reach of him and there was no time to think of which route to take if she wished to outdistance him, or indeed if she even could. Instinctively she stuck to her path even as she burst off the gravel and into the dark meadow beyond.

To her immense relief, Moirhynne's next comment was a good deal farther behind her: "Oi! That goes to the poison glen! Don't be a fool, lass!"

"Ha!" Rylesie called triumphantly over her shoulder. Her sceptic's heart knew no fear of the poison glen, though she had always avoided it before out of habit, and she knew at least here she would be safe from her pursuer's groping. Sure enough, a look behind her revealed him standing dumbfounded on the edge of the road. Not trusting that his fear would hold him at bay forever, she continued at a sprint across the tall, dying grass. The bare trees ahead offered a chance at getting out of his sight once and for all, and as her panic subsided she became aware that the rolling meadow was really quite lovely. Most of all, she reasoned as at last she slowed her running, her very presence here on this of all nights ought to put an end to the silly superstitions once and for all. She'd be a hero now!

That thought was nearly enough for Rylesie to stop and take a triumphant look around the taboo glen that she had now conquered. But she wanted to make it to the trees first, and so she kept up her pace. She also kept her eyes glued to the cold promise of the branches, and so she never saw the dip in the ground that lay in her path. Not even after she had stepped into it and become suddenly aware that her foot wasn't finding any ground, for there wasn't time even to look down before she found herself flailing helplessly into the earth. She screamed, but no sound came out in the thin air that now enveloped her as she fell.

It was later said with great incredulity, in the pubs and alehouses all over the mountain, that Phoarateo and his parents had foolishly wasted precious hours that could have been spent searching for Rylesie. "What were they thinking anyhow, lettin' her alone out there on that of all nights?!" "Bunch of fools, didn't deserve that darlin' girl, that's for sure!" And this, often as not, from the same women who had heckled Rylesie from the day she'd come to prominence! Phoarateo himself was the first to admit his guilt to this end, although he would always contend -- quite correctly -- that he couldn't have hoped to find any volunteers to assist in a search on All Saints' Eve.

Be that as it may, Phoarateo never forgave himself any more than the townspeople did for what he did -- or rather did not do -- next. Upon arriving back in their chamber after the ceremony and finding Rylesie gone although the children's party was long over, he simply asked his mother where she was.

"I suspect she's off to stay with her family for the night," Faelene said after telling him of the unfortunate events of the party. "I shouldn't worry, son."

"Probably the best place for her to be tonight," Phoarateo concurred, recalling their quarrel earlier. "She truly doesn't appreciate the threat of Ratch, you know."

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