Ilu had a foolish father. Few but she would freely admit it.
While she split and stacked firewood, Loll warmed himself at the hearth, feeding the blaze only the wood shavings of his whittled creations. These carvings, one after another, lined the walls of their modest cottage, each a varied iteration of its predecessor. His earliest attempts resembled nothing more than a simple fish or crude beast, but Ilu had watched as each subsequent carving more closely mirrored its inspiration—her mother—so that the rows and rows of statuettes measured the gradient of Loll’s growing skill.
She might have enjoyed Loll’s carvings if they hadn’t robbed Ilu of any true recollection of her mother. She knew he chased something he would never catch; thus, Ilu knew him foolish. It was strictly in this respect that she defined herself against him.
Where he was foolish and vacant, Ilu became sensible and sturdily present.
Where he became hunched and taciturn, she made herself strong and quick to laugh.
It was a common day to see Ilu walk into the village to a lively reception. Firesmith, baker, potions master, cobbler—each and more would call to the merchant’s daughter by name, and Ilu would greet each in turn at length, so that even if it was an early day, she would not return home until dusk.
There was one above all others that Ilu admired, who, though timid, seemed to admire her in return. Bedo was the baker’s apprentice and errand boy, known to be quite skilled at the hunt, and it was with his fresh-caught rabbit or deer the baker’s meat pies were stuffed.
Ilu was still young—Bedo, too—but she hoped they would marry soon. He was fine in skill and sensibility and he was as properly plain to look at as Ilu could’ve wanted, with crooked eyes and a bent nose.
You see, Ilu revered all that was sensible. She had watched as her attractive father had become as lined and worn as any ruddy-faced seafarer—unhappier still—though villagers would still call him handsome, as he strained to recapture the beauty of his lost wife.
A visage of beauty, Ilu concluded young, made allowances for vacancy beneath, and it was upon this conclusion that Ilu decided, too, that she would not be like her parents. She would not be beautiful.
Despite her best intentions—some said because of them—Ilu was the greatest beauty the villagers, and every far-flung traveler who had passed through, had ever seen. They kept her beauty quiet, whispering of it only when her back was turned, for, they knew, Ilu simply didn’t hold with such nonsense.
If she were to ever think herself beautiful, it would be for her calloused hands, the heaving strength in her legs to heft piles of wood into neat stacks, the fine cut of her clothes due to her own skill with a needle. Bedo had the same beauty, and, above all, he had a kindness that showed always from his eyes, as if they were smiling.
Still, Bedo was timid, so a proposal remained an abstraction between them until he could find his footing. Ilu was in no rush, for while she longed to leave her vacant father behind her, she worried for him.
She did love Loll, after all.
Who would force him to look away from the wood block in his hands long enough to exercise is tired, old eyes? Who would be there to hear him murmur, “This is more your likeness, my sweet,” at every new statuette placed on the mantelpiece? Who would be there to share his stew? To make sure he remembered it over the fire, lest it burn?
It was her own private shame that, love him as she might, Ilu found herself waiting for Loll to join her mother at long last. Then, and only then, could she finally leave the old cottage behind, free of his absent attentions, and all would be where they truly belonged.
One afternoon, near dusk, Ilu returned to the cottage to find that she may not have to wait any longer on her father, for he was gone. Simply absent.
His chair at the hearth was still vacant when Ilu awoke the next morning, horse still gone from its stable. She waited until dusk of that evening to consider worrying for him; he had spent an evening away before for business in Town, but he had always had the presence enough to tell her, even if it was in the act of saddling their old workhorse in the very moment of departure.
Perhaps she had finally slipped his mind altogether.
By dusk of the second day, she knew his absence had a far more sinister root. If not simply for the fact he never spent this long away without sending word, Ilu finally noticed the change in his carvings.
Each rendition of her mother that lined the walls had gone from female to flora. Carved wooden roses stood unnaturally straight on spindly stems in place of each figure of Ilu’s mother. Dozens, hundreds even, and there was no question where they’d come from.
The Winter Rose, as it were, was the rumored calling card of the warlock down the old traveler’s road through the wood abutting the village. Rumored, for the warlock had never been seen. Rumored, because only deep magic could have kept all the rose bushes through the village and the wood alive through their coldest white winters. Blood red dollops against crisp snow was the kind of beauty Ilu could not abide—warlocks were such vain creatures, it was said—but as Ilu stared at the hundreds of roses crowding the cottage walls now, she found a certain truth in their beauty. A rumor, the warlock was no longer. She knew how to reclaim her foolish, foolish father.
She threw each rose but one into the hearth, packed her saddlebags with rations, donned her heaviest cloak, and rode alone into the night on the back of Bedo’s borrowed old mare.
Finding the warlock’s fortress proved easier than any could’ve guessed. All but Ilu, who understood at once that all she had to do was follow the roses.
They led her to what could only be called a fortress, the shock of green and red amid the winter-bare forest climbing its sides as ivy and roses. The drawbridge lay open, the inner gate unlocked, as though the warlock had expected her with due haste. She dismounted and led the mare inside under felt eyes.
Indeed, she had been expected.
As soon as he saw her, he knew he had chosen well. The felt eyes were his, the Warlock, and he watched as the girl strode into his cursed home. Her father sat whittling in the highest tower, unaware of the change, still at home in his mind’s eye. The Warlock considered the girl as she patted her mare’s flank with the comforting sensibility of strength and surety.
She did not know how very far she had to go.
It took Ilu no time to find what she came for. It started with the sound of metal scrape, scrape, scraping against wood. It ended in the tallest tower, up spiral after spiral of stairs, where she looked on her father from an open doorway as he continued to peel away flake of wood after flake of wood. His eyes found her with the mild, distant gaze she received at home, and she knew he hadn’t only forgotten her. He had finally forgotten himself. He looked back down and continued his whittling.
She considered, for a flash, forgetting him as well. She considered, finally, that she might be free of his vacant eyes. She might be happy.
“You could do so, if you wish,” said a voice from behind her, “but what would your dear Pedo think of you?”
To hide her start, she spun it into a shrug as she turned to face the owner of that low, rumbling voice.
It belonged to the warlock, a man. A man like no other. Beautiful and large, with deep tunnels for eyes.
“His name is Bedo.”
The warlock merely smiled at the correction and she understood that he had done it on purpose.
“And I,” he said, taking a step closer in the dark corridor so that the light from the open door slanted against half his beautiful face, “am Olend. I can save your father from himself, if you would wish it.” Olend took another step closer, a certain lilt to his voice suggesting his thought continued in some silent way.
“But only if we do something for you,” Ilu supplied, deftly cutting to the chase with a lightness she was loved for. She made it a question and accusation and judgement and opportunity all at once.
“Yes.” Olend didn’t even shift. Didn’t move to disagree or defend. “More specifically,” he said, as Loll held his wooden block against the light and murmured, “Close, my sweet,”, “I can save your father from himself, if you can save me.”
This, Ilu had not foreseen. “What—Why—How could you need saving?” She gestured at the walls around them, indicating his wealth, his strength, his everything.
“That I cannot say.” Olend changed only in that his voice tightened, restricted by some unseen force. He closed his eyes for a spell, and when he reopened them, his voice had regained its gauzy rumble. “But I think your being here will do it.”
“…Being here? But… My father, our cottage… What are you saying?”
“I am giving you a choice, Ilu.” She did not ask how he knew her name. He knew Bedo’s—he could likely know and do anything. “You may,” he inclined his head toward Loll, who was still carefully shaving the familiar curve of his late wife’s waist, “leave your father here. He will live as he has lived. He will not be aware of your absence, of my presence, indeed—of this place.” It was his turn to gesture at the walls around them. “Or… you both may stay—he, in this suspended state and you, in my company.”
Ilu surveyed her absent father. Here it was, her shame laid out for her, a decision she could make with none outside this room being any the wiser. Not even he would know, her father. She could leave him. Let him go as easily as he had let her go.
But she couldn’t.
She did love Loll, after all.
If she left and let herself forget him for even a slip of a moment, she may have well killed him herself.
“What do you want me to do, sire?” She bowed her head to the warlock, both to acquiesce and hide the shame that rewrote her face.
The warlock brightened and became even more beautifully large. “I will show you to your quarters where you may dress before joining me for dinner.” He flashed pristine teeth in a pleased sort of smile and spun on a dime before leading her down and away from her ever-whittling father, who made no indication that he’d noticed their departure.
After dressing from a wardrobe full of gowns that seemed eerily tailored to Ilu’s measurements—on top of their useless extravagance—she found her way through the labyrinthine corridors to the dining room as easily as if the walls had themselves taken her there.
The warlock stood and bowed deep as she sank into the chair that had pulled itself out for her. “You are exquisite,” he breathed, resuming his seat with eyes unflinchingly upon her.
Ilu made no response.
“Do you not find me handsome?” He held his arms out so that she might judge him.
Still, Ilu made no response.
Nor would she answer him any of the subsequent times he asked—dozens of times, weeks passing, while Ilu wandered no further than the fortress courtyard and its gate, passing many an hour in her father’s door, waiting for him to see her. She might have been able to carry him away with her—find their old workhorse and run back to their cottage together—but he would not be saved, and she would be forever damned for it. So, instead, she ate each meal with the warlock, and each time he asked, “Do you not find me handsome?” her silent response never faltered.
In between meals, the warlock spent his hours in his workshop, concocting spells, bending reality. Ilu wondered why he did not simply magick her to do what he wanted, but when she finally put the question to him, he replied with a shrewd echo of her own silence.
That evening at dinner, the warlock was more gilded than ever, a veritable peacock, and when he asked, “Do you not find me handsome?” Ilu found that she could sit on her silence no longer.
“Never,” she said as quietly as a thought. The warlock’s response was immediate.
“You will, you know.” While she had never faltered in her silence until now, he never faltered in his gaze. “They all do.”
“Then they all are fools.” Her voice had grown, and she met his gaze, fierce as an axe-blow. The warlock did not flinch. Did not even blink.
He was smiling.
The next morning, the warlock showed up for breakfast in trousers and a shirt the color of washed sand, his hair not curled and coifed but tied in a low tail. When he asked, “Do you not find me handsome?” Ilu answered in a halting voice before she could stop herself.
“No?” The warlock cocked an eyebrow, between amused and indignant.
“No.” Ilu spoke low and firm. “You design to impress me. I will not be impressed.”
“As you wish,” the warlock said, but a smirk flashed those pristine teeth anyway.
Each day after, the warlock found a new way to humble himself. His hair too silky? Let it become as straw. Too golden? A dishwater blonde would do just as well. He unveiled his fortress of magic, letting those evergreen roses and ivy fade into seasonal dormancy. Nose slightly to long and straight? Bend it. Eyes too measured and strong? Make them crooked. His largeness diminished, his voice quietened, and yet she refused his handsomeness every day.
One morning, once spring had finally thawed out and the ivy was budding of its own natural will, Ilu understood what he had been doing. As she sat opposite him for breakfast, she found herself looking upon the faultless visage of Bedo.
“Do you not find me handsome today, Ilu?”
“You may have painted on his face, but you are not handsome as he is,” said Ilu. Carving into her plate of sausage. “Have I saved you yet?” she asked, not for the first time since he mentioned it all those weeks ago.
The smirk that had look so misplaced on Bedo’s precious face now faded, and the warlock said, “No, m’lady. I am not saved. You must try harder. You must try anything.”
“And you cannot save yourself?”
“I wasn’t designed that way,” he said, before his voice broke and he clutched momentarily at his throat.
“Are you not a wizard? Can you not redesign yourself?”
To which Olend made no response.
The following morning, the Warlock dressed himself in his finest things, for they were his. He put on his old face, his beautiful one, and he went to face the cursed girl who refused to love him.
“Come with me,” he said, before Ilu could even fully enter the dining room for breakfast. She hesitated.
Olend made no response. He just led her up, up, up.
As they came to look in to the highest tower room, Loll was finishing his most exquisite carving yet. A bust of his lovely Lola. He held her face in his hands as though to kiss her. Not only was it his most accomplished work, he realized, it was everything he had ever been looking for. She looked as though at any moment she would blink those wooden eyes, call them into flesh, and they would wrinkle at their corners as she smiled on him. Only she did not, this perfect copy of his only love. She was but an echo… but those eyes. He had seen them of late. Where had that been? They crinkled pleasantly in the corners, just as he remembered, but he had never successfully made her eyes smile in wood. But he had seen them crinkle, flesh and blood… A memory stirred, breaking the blank pool of his mind into a ripple of light and color… Something moved behind him, just out his periphery. He turned.
Olend couldn’t have timed it more perfectly. As the door opened on Ilu’s foolish father, the man looked around. He saw her.
He saw her. He looked at her now. He met her eyes, his own crinkling at the corners, and his entire face broke into something that may have been laugh or sob. Ilu felt her face bending, her old shame swelling, cresting, and breaking, too.
Ilu looked at the warlock, perplexed. “I have saved you?”
The warlock had no smirk or smile or quirked eyebrow for her. “You have not,” he said.
“But my father?”
“You’ve saved him.”
“But, why? How?”
“It was simply a matter of giving him all that he needed to save himself. Leave. Go. You are both free of me,” he said, and when Olend smiled this time, it was a small, forceless gesture that could very well have been the beginning of something beautiful.