H. A. Byrd

Short Story 

The Daisy Chain

Scruffy grey grass and leftover scrub covered the hillside where the forest had been. Grimbaud’s greed had taken every one of the trees. Among the stumps grew daisies, and children of the serfs had come to gather them, and to search for morels.

The boy, half grown, squatted with his sisters on the ground still damp from snow. They’d collected plenty of flowers to flavor the summer’s pottage. They hadn’t had much luck with the morels. This was a sad thing, for children in their locale wanted mushrooms. Never having known the luxury of choosiness, they welcomed anything which would add interest to potato gruel. Their world was a terrible place. All who could sit upright worked the daylight away, day after day, living in squalor while the profits went to Grimbaud, who by tyranny and by sorcery had the entire countryside under his thumb. Although too young to know any other life, the children heard their parents whisper in bitter remorse during the watches of the night.

Nature has arranged the world in such a way that the oppressed live closer to the truth, as they are the ones who find joy in the smallest of things. The children had paused their labors as the sun came out between the clouds, and they’d gathered around the eldest’s sister’s knees to laugh and string together daisies stem-by-stem. The boy’s awkward hands made a mess of things, but his crumpled handiwork grew as long as what his siblings made because he was stubborn against defeat. Usually the little peasants only gossiped, but on this day the subject of their hopeless lives came up. They didn’t know much about life, but they knew they would always be too small to remedy the cause of their discomfort. Eadie, the unstable, the one with melancholia, remarked that little things could change their world too. The boy pulled the first blossom in his chain through a slit in the last stem, and as he did so, he had a thought about what he might do with this daisy necklace.

The woman’s age and illness and the brutishness of life had nearly finished her, yet she lay alone in her final hours because the strict demands of Grimbaud’s iron fist forced all her family to the fields. She no longer feared the promised journey before her, she only waited for the passage because she was tired, too tired to care. The boy pushed the door aside, allowing twilight to fill the house where she lay. She saw his shadowy form approaching, saw his face as he lit the candle, but there was no recognition, no surprise that he would miss his daily blackbread to give her this visit. He smiled at her, and brushed the hair from her forehead. He placed the wilting loop of daisies around her neck and sat to hold her veined and bony hand. With her other hand she reached to feel the flower necklace. She smiled.

The old woman lived another day because of the boy’s kindness, long enough to murmur something into the ear of the young witch Margaret who came to soothe her with a drink of dwale. Margaret’s eyes opened wide.
“Ranulf yet lives!” the girl repeated. The frail woman nodded, and then took her last breath.

Later that spring, Margaret and some elder members of her tradition laid out a magick circle in the nighttime woods and performed a ceremony of calling. They wore a design of daisy wheels upon their aprons, a protection to confound unwanted company. Hard work, it was, their summoning ritual. All the night through these women sweated, danced and conjured. And Ranulf came. He strode forth from the direction of the hazel thickets. And when he came, the women welcomed him, and fed him, and asked him to do away with Grimbaud. The man Grimbaud had dehumanized himself over the course of a full twoscore years, spiraling downward in decency until he was hated even by the kind-hearted. It was his life against the welfare of the populace.

Ranulf the hermit had long been presumed dead. Half a generation had grown old since he had last been seen in the village. Yet many of the elders owed their lives to Ranulf and his herbal vapors, salves, and potions. They feared his name and loved him all at once. The witches implored him, and he listened. With aster and wolfsbane he concocted a poison hashish so profoundly magickal that one bite would kill the man. He gave a block of this confection to the young maid who sold tarts of coney at the market and sent her to peddle it, among her other wares, in front of Grimbaud’s gate. She was there right in time to meet the man as he rode in from the hunt, just as arranged.

Only it wasn't Grimbaud who snatched the hashish away from the girl, laughing and ignoring her quiet protest, it was his companion, the house chamberlain. The two men rode on through the gate, haughty, arrogant, and busy with their idle talk. The chamberlain absentmindedly shoved the brick of herbal resins down into his purse before they alighted at the main door and disappeared within.

Four days later, Grimbaud and a handful of his cronies went down to the cowshed to inspect his new bulls. The man raised the countryside’s most vicious and tenacious dogs and his bulls never failed to be large and powerful. He owned the local bull ring and his name was known to every gambler on the continent. On this day he had three fine bulls in his stable, one a gigantic yellow with a broken horn. That animal looked mean. The chamberlain was one of those who accompanied Grimbaud that afternoon, and while they were observing the yellow bull, he got an idea. He pulled the forgotten hashish from his purse, and for the amusement of the others he broke bits from the block, chanting, “He loves, me he loves me not,” with each chunk of resins he threw to the bull, until he had tossed all of it forth. The men laughed as the bull ate up the herb.

A while later the bailiff called the men back into the barn, because the yellow bull foundered and drooled and threw itself against the stall. Rather than have any concern, the men laughed and placed bets about the creature’s outcome. The more the pathetic animal groaned and flailed, the harder the men laughed, patting one another on the backs and wiping their tears. At last Grimbaud fell into a fit of laughing so long and so hard that it took his breath away entirely. He died there on the cowshed floor, amongst the straw and the dung. There was more joy than sorrow upon the news of his demise. None mourned the passing of Grimbaud, who had lived only to enrich himself and who found joy in the suffering of others. Laid in his grave the man was of more use to the world, his remains improved the soil and eventually nurtured the daisies which grew upon the mound.

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