"Or perhaps she appreciates it too much because of your attitude towards such things, Phoarateo," Faelene said with the same look she had once given him when he wouldn't eat his vegetables. "Have you considered that you've been scaring her half to death with your piousness?"


"Go to bed, Phoarateo, and let us all have a talk about it when she comes back from the bakery, shall we?"

Only when the next morning was half gone with still no sign of Rylesie did they send a messenger to the bakery to inquire after her. The messenger returned within an hour, accompanied by her distraught father, Ormontine. "Am I to understand my daughter has gone missing from the safest home on the mountain?!" he demanded upon his arrival in the sitting room.

"Gone missing?" Phoarateo leapt up from his chair.

"We were certain she was with you?" added Faelene.

"Haven't seen her all week!" Ormontine flopped down in the nearest chair and buried his head in his hands. "It's all this nonsense about Ratch, that's what it is! Superstition makes you all so paranoid, and the gods only know where she's gone to escape it all!"

"That's hardly fair!" Phoarateo snapped.

"My daughter is missing and you want to argue about fair?!" Ormontine demanded.

"No, we do not!" said Grommerio. He stood up and rang for his men. "We'll organise a search party right away!"

Soon all the men in town, and a fair number of the women, were searching their side of the mountain for Rylesie. They searched the town, sent runners to the other villages, trawled the countryside, and a few brave souls even ventured into the poison glen. One of them discovered a ladies' shoe with a broken heel, and within the hour Faelene gave confirmation that the shoe was Rylesie's. By that time, a barroom snitch had reported Moirhynne to the authorities, and Phoarateo and Ormontine had the cold comfort of seeing him behind bars, but he was of no help in determining where Rylesie was now.

"I tell y'I don't know nothing!" Moirhynne wailed from the far corner of his cell, where he was cowering out of reach of Phoarateo's furious hands.

"You chased her into the poison glen!" Phoarateo raged. "On All Saints' Eve!"

"I wouldn'a had to chase her if she'd ha' just let me get t'her! Only wanted my bit of fun!"

"You bastard!" Phoarateo grabbed at the bars as if to tear them apart with his bare hands to get them on Moirhynne.

"Maybe so, but I dinna' hurt her! I dinna' see no Ratch neither!"

"But you didn't see her come out of the woods!" snapped Ormontine.

"No, but only 'cause I dinna' hang around after she was foolish enough to run out there! She's prolly off sleeping off her liquor somewhere! Hate me all you want, but it won' help ya find her!" With that he turned his smug face to the wall, and Phoarateo and Ormontine were left to seethe and wonder what to do next.

No one ever knew for certain, but it may have been during their interrogation that Rylesie woke up. Wake up, in any event, she did. It took a few moments to find her bearings and realize she was uninjured. Uninjured, but naked and bound at all four corners of the featherbed she'd been placed on. The room was well lit with torches, but chilly and windowless.

"What in heaven?! Or hell?" Rylesie wriggled both arms and legs, trying in vain to free herself from her restraints, the only fruits of her labour being that she realized how heavy her chains were as they rattled.

"We don't approve of that name for our abode," announced a female voice behind Rylesie. Presently a raven-haired woman in a blindingly bright red dress stepped into the room and stood at the foot of the bed. "Ratch prefers 'the seaport', if you must know."

"The seaport," Rylesie repeated, her heart flipping in terror at the mention of Ratch's name, but she kept her head about her long enough to avoid mentioning her lack of faith in the man. "What sort of joke is this? Even the most outlandish tales don't involve Ratch going out to sea!"

"He doesn't," explained the woman. "He merely coordinates the shipments, and determines when a specimen is ready to be sent away."

"A specimen?!" Once again Rylesie grappled at her restraints, and tried to will clothing to somehow materialise on her naked body. "I'll have you know I am the wife of Phoarateo, the most renowned musician on all the mountain. He and his family will never stand for whatever sick plans you might have for me!"

"You assume far too much about the power they wield, not to mention their relationship with Ratch."

"Relationship with Ratch?" Rylesie felt the first true stirrings of dread in her heart. "They have no relationship with Ratch!"

One does not grow as powerful as both Ratch and your father in law are without making a deal or two with men they despise. I think you shall see soon enough how very misplaced your faith is, Rylesie."

"How do you know my name?!"

"I didn't. Until you revealed who you were married to. We know of you down here, believe me. A bit of coin in the pocket of Madame Prue saw to that."

"That bitch!"

"Language, my dear! But I see from observing your body that is the least of your concerns for the moment." The mystery woman picked up a bell off a shelf by the door and rang it. "Ladies? Let's get to work!"

"Get to work?!" Rylesie could no longer hide the fear in her eyes. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"Best that you don't know, my dear," said the woman in red as two other women in black tunics appeared. "But since you are such a curious thing, Ratch likes his women primped and buffed just so before they go on the market."

"On the mmffkffff?!" The final word was garbled by the wad of felt the woman in red stuffed in Rylesie's mouth, just before one of the other two women began slathering hot wax all over her intimate curls. Rylesie's eyes grew wide as she realized what was to happen next, and she tensed her body and tried to scream, but only a muffled whinge got past the felt as the other young woman draped a rag over her triangle. She could only close her eyes and hope the pain would be fleeting.

It was, but it was also excruciating. Rylesie flailed about as best she could in her restraints, but she got no mercy from the three. "There's growth left to be removed, girls," she heard the leader say. "Do it again."

Phoarateo and Ormontine did not let up on their verbal attacks on Moirhynne until the constable finally had to ask them to leave. "This isn't going to help find her, gentlemen," he said. "He doesn't know where she is any more than you do."

"Too right," admitted Ormontine. "I'm off to join the search, it's all that will keep me from going mad."

"I'm coming with you," declared Phoarateo.

"No you're not!" snapped Ormontine. "It's your fault she's gone missing, and I don't care to have you in my company, sir! Why don't you go play your sad horn? It's really all a pretty boy like you was ever good for!" And he stormed off into the gloomy afternoon.

"Don't mind him, Phoarateo," said the constable. "Imagine how you'd feel if she were your daughter after all."

"But she's my true love!" Phoarateo exclaimed. "How can he think I'm any less desperate than he is?"

"None of the townspeople could ever imagine you desperate, I'm afraid," said the constable. "Perhaps being married to Rylesie has taught you that?"

"It would have had I not been too much a fool to listen," Phoarateo said. "I ought to go home and see what help I can be in the search."

A visit to the sitting room revealed that his mother was orchestrating a network of searching parties throughout the town and indeed most of the mountain. "There's not an acre left unaccounted for, my dear," she told him. "I think you ought to go get some rest."

Of course he could do nothing of the sort. Instead he climbed to the turret overlooking the town and gazed out upon the land where he could only hope his true love would be found unharmed soon. He knew not how long he stood there, or for how long his father was standing in the doorway behind him, yet somehow he was not surprised when Grommerio spoke.

"They'll find her, son,"

"How can you be sure?!" Phoarateo banged both fists on the window-frame. "You don't know where she is! It could be Ratch for all we know!"

"For all our fear of Ratch, there has never been a confirmed abduction in my lifetime. I rather doubt my own daughter in law would be the first."

"Why would he spare anyone on your behalf, Father?"

"Son, he and I...we've had to do business occasionally."

"WHAT?!" Phoarateo looked even more furious at his father than he had been at Moirhynne. "Father, how could you?!"

"You will understand someday when you fill my shoes. But never mind that, son. The point is, Ratch knows better than to hurt me that deeply."

"How can you say that?! He knows no feelings, no pity, no..."

"That's not quite right, son. He's evil, but he's got feelings. And you know you've got a unique gift for melting the hardest of hearts." With that he reached behind the door and presented Phoarateo with his wonderhorn.

"Father! Now is hardly the time!"

"On the contrary, son, now is exactly the time. If it is indeed Ratch who is responsible, there may be no better way to appeal to him."

"How?" Phoarateo demanded.

"I shall worry about that, my son. You supply the music."

And so, seeing no other course of action, Phoarateo did. For hours, deep into the night, he played out his heart and soul from the turret window. He played an endless sweetly mournful tune that melted the hearts of one and all who heard it. He moved the already emotional populace to tears, and even piqued the interest of the animals scrounging for their dinner in the late-autumn wilderness. He did not reach the ears of his beloved, who was by then enduring a garish makeover while still chained to her bed beneath the poison glen. But he did affect the guard at the gates of the cave, who thus was willing to meet with Grommerio when he emerged from the wilderness on his white horse.

"Late in the season for hay-fever, isn't it?" Grommerio asked as he stepped down from his horse.

"Yes, well, the dust out here can get to you when you're on duty all day long," the guard said, wiping away the tears that Phoarateo's distant song had inspired now that there was no point in denying their presence. "S'posing you'll want to talk to m'boss about the prisoner, then?"

"Wouldn't you, if you were in my shoes?" Grommerio knew he at least had this minion just where he wanted him, thanks to his son's horn.

"Reckon I would indeed," the guard admitted. "Tell you what, sir, I'm off in half an hour and I'll let him know you want to meet then. Say an hour from now at the Fife'n'Drum?"

"Still his favourite hideout, is it?" Grommerio noted with a chuckle; his last visit to that lowbrow pub had also been to meet Ratch, that time at the latter's insistence. "Very well, then. But," and at this he lay his hand on his sword hilt, "If he doesn't appear..."

"He will, sir!" The guard now looked as frightened as he was sad. "He knows better than to strike you where it hurts so badly!"

Grommerio turned to head for the rendez-vous, then paused and turned back around. "If that is so, my friend, why did he kidnap my daughter in law in the first place?"

"Tell you the truth, sir, I don't think he knew it was her. I'm still not sure he knows. The younger minions, they see a beautiful woman and they think they've hit the jackpot, they don't know what to look out for like I would've, or you."

Grommerio nodded, not entirely believing the story but satisfied that he would get no better answer.

Darkness had long since fallen when the appointed hour came, but Phoarateo's mournful song was still ringing out in every corner of the town when the plump barmaid arrived at Grommerio's table and told him he'd been summoned to the back chamber. He stood up and nodded his thanks, and followed her to the discreet door behind the ale tanks. She opened it and stood aside. "Begging your pardon, sir, but I can't stand to enter myself," she said.

"I don't blame you at all, madam," Grommerio reassured her. "Thank you." He stepped into the dimly lit room, pretending a fearlessness that was rather far from reality, and sat down at the lone table to await his adversary's first word.

"Your son can tug even at my heartstrings," it came after an uncomfortable pause.

"He does have a gift," Grommerio agreed. "Like his mother. It would be an awful shame if that gift died with him."

"I'd have to agree."

"You would?"

"Without such music, there might not be such an abundance of souls for me to steal, nor any temptation with which to steal them."

Grommerio laughed through his disgust. "I do not need to tell you what I think of such an attitude, of course."

"Nor do I care what you think. I suppose you are here to beg me to undo my minions' mistake."

"Then you know it is a mistake?"

"Naturally I do. For generations my very existence has been in doubt among so much of the populace. If your own son's sweetheart were to vanish, well, I'd lose my ambiguity, wouldn't I? And with it my greatest weapon against irresponsible, careless souls. Had I known it was her in any time, I'd have had her safe back in your castle before anyone was the wiser. Now, of course, it is too late for such niceties."

"But not too late for you to do the right thing for once in your godforsaken existence."

"Yes, and your kind words certainly move me to do that, Grommerio!"

"Do not expect me to believe you don't take anything but delight in my disgust, old friend!"

"Yes, of course I don't." A deep sigh seemed to fill the room with horrid-smelling hot smoke, but then he continued. "I am willing to make a deal. Will your son be brave enough to set down his horn and come collect his treasure himself?"

"I am sure he would have it no other way!"

"Very well, then, on one condition, he is welcome to retrieve her."

"And the one condition?"

"He shan't see her until he has her safe beyond the gates. She must walk behind him, and even the most fleeting glance at her will send her back into my clutches with no further chance of release."

Grommerio thought it over briefly. "One question. Why?"

"Because it's my playground and my bloody rules, your hineyness! Besides, I am curious as to the young man's faith. In his wife, in his god, in me."

"But how will he know that faith is justified if he can't be certain she's behind him?"

"My point exactly, Grommerio. He won't. But she will be there, provided he follows my order."

Grommerio anticipated, correctly, that Phoarateo would want to set out for the poison glen that very night. But he and Faelene used every ounce of resolve they had to dissuade him. "You will need to be rested and nourished for this mission, my son," he said firmly as they both stood over him in the sitting room.

"And you ought to gather your thoughts as well if you want to be clearheaded when you enter his lair," Faelene added. "And I don't need to tell you, you do want to be that way!"

"But...how do I know he isn't torturing her as we speak?!" Phoarateo demanded.

"I fear we know he is," Grommerio acknowledged. "But better one more night of that than an eternity thereof. I insist that you get a good night's sleep, my son. That's flat!"

"I've ordered up some bedtime tea for you," Faelene said. "And if I must, I'll order a guard to your chamber door until morning. Please don't make me do that, Phoarateo."

He looked back and forth between his parents. "As you wish. But when - when - I return with Rylesie, I hope you'll be willing to answer for any horrors she endures this night!"

"That is only fair," Grommerio agreed. "But I think she'll understand once she learns what you'll be going through. Now go get some sleep."

Rylesie, for her part, was at last allowed to sleep that night as well. But with a thin blanket thrown over her still-bound body in the dark, unfamiliar chamber, sleep did not come easy. Her now-barren womanhood was sore from its grooming ordeal, her legs and arms similarly prickly, her hair done up in an elaborate arrangement that she couldn't see, but which felt tight and uncomfortable, and the terror of just what was meant by "shipments" hung heavy in her mind. But her tortured body needed sleep, and it eventually came.

It came, but it proved as fleeting as the blanket that kept her naked body from the cold, and which was unceremoniously torn away by the two women who had shorn her so thoroughly the day before. She needed but a split-second to recognize them when she sprung awake. "What this time, then?" she snapped in fury and terror. "You've nothing else to shear me of, have you?!" At last she dared a glance down her body, and was greeted with the unwelcome view of her utterly bare vulva.

"It's time for your training," came the voice of the woman in red. "And then, your first encounter."

"Encounter?!" snapped Rylesie. "You have no right!"

"Oh, but I do," the woman in red replied, strolling into Rylesie's view followed by a burly man she didn't recognize, who leered shamelessly upon her utterly exposed and helpless body. "It's for your own good, really, Rylesie. Where you're going, it's best to be experienced."

"Experienced in what?!" Rylesie barely managed to blink back the tears -- she would never let them know how terrified she was.

"I think you know exactly what," said the woman in red, turning a bemused eye at the man. "Now, ladies? The oil."

"Oil?" But Rylesie knew just what that meant. She was not at all surprised to find both minions basting hot oil all over her body and then promptly rubbing it into every inch of her skin. She did her best not to betray any reaction when one of them rubbed the unwelcome treatment between her lips down below, but the unwelcome slick poke into her vagina could not be ignored completely.

"Hah, you like that, do you?" teased the woman in red as Rylesie's involuntary grunt rang out through the room. "Excellent attitude, my dear; there is plenty more of that on its way." Turning to the man, she said, "You may undress."

"Thanks so much," he grunted, and Rylesie was treated to the most unwelcome strip tease she could have imagined. As the other two women continued to rub the smelly oil into her skin and tweak her nipples and clitoris to prepare her, the man pulled off his tunic, shirt, undershirt, trousers and undergarments. Seeing no choice and not wishing to appear scared, Rylesie forced herself to watch as his hairy chest and flabby belly came into view, and at last his rigid cock. She swallowed hard and set her jaw as he took it in his hand and climbed onto the bed, and made to scoot up between her bound legs.

Just as Rylesie was resigned to being violated, the chamber door made a squeaky report and a male voice came from the doorway. "Unchain her."

"What?!" demanded the woman in red, fear in her eyes for the first time.

"But sir, it's my turn!" whinged the would-be rapist, though he did hold still.

"It is no man's turn with her," came the voice. "Unchain her! Now!"

Without another word, the woman in red drew a key out of the folds of her dress, and one by one she unlocked Rylesie's bindings while the man reluctantly stepped off the bed and put his clothes back on. Rylesie was not allowed that luxury, but she was allowed to step off the bed and out into the hallway behind the man who had interrupted the ritual, his back now turned to her.

"Come with me." It was all he said, and it was barely audible in the noisy hallway that rang out with screeches whose origin Rylesie could guess only too well, and the voice was distorted by the echo of the stone walls and the man's mask -- and yet she knew, somehow she knew.

"Phoarateo!" She called out his name with uninhibited joy despite her nakedness and lingering fear. But he gave no sign of having heard, though neither did he slow in his gait up the hallway. Her mild humiliation at being paraded naked through the bowels of the poison glen scarcely registered against the growing realisation that her true love had come to lead her back to civilisation! "Darling, I cannot wait to hear how you managed this!" she called out.

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