Party of Eight
His name was Iacto, for he was proud. And why shouldn’t he be? The cottage had been his home long before the others had arrived. He’d lived there for many years, alone and happy, until one day his wench of a landlady, fed up with his insufferable mess and his constant racket, evicted him without a word of warning. Lacking the decency to cast him out herself, she’d hired a strong woodsman with an enchanted double bit axe. The memory of the blade’s sharp bite still gave him a shudder.
Homeless and limping, Iacto roamed the woods, seeking shelter from the cold, until he met a band of seven others like himself. Their names were Ava, Ira, Ace, Gulli, Forni, Tristi, and Vana. Recognizing his invaluable worth, they invited him to join their ranks. Their company was tolerable, except for the grumbling over the bitter cold and the endless roaming. Until one day, exasperated with their incessant whining, Iacto told them of the cottage, the landlady, and the woodsman. This woodsman was savage and his axe formidable, but they were eight now and the promise of shelter was worth any risk. So Iacto led them to the cottage. Finding it unoccupied, swept clean, and put in order, they went in and lived there.
Now these eight were small in stature, but so was the cottage and they soon discovered the challenges of cohabitation. The dishes filled the sink and the firewood ran low and the beds were never made and the clothes were never washed and each knew only that the fault was not his own. This led to much backbiting and finger pointing and finger biting. Being eight strong, they did not fear the woodsman. However, being squatters, it was better not to draw any unwanted attention.
So to keep the house in order and to stop their noisy squabbling, they organized a chore calendar and each one, surprisingly, found a chore suited to his unique disposition:
Ira tended the fire (Who else kept it hot enough?), Tristi scrubbed the floors (Who else noticed all the scuffs?), Ace made the beds (Who else slept until noon?), Gulli did the cooking (Who else prepared a decent meal?), Ava set the table and cleaned up any leftovers (Who else gave him his fair share?), Vana washed the dishes (Who else made them shine properly?), and Forni did the laundry (Who else appreciated the caress of their underwear against his cheek?). Iacto “supervised.” After all, without him, none of them would even be here.
So for a time, the little cottage was at peace, as much as a home inhabited by eight unclean spirits can be at peace.
Then, one day, they saw a young woman walking through the snow, singing and carrying a basket of crimson apples.
“Oh good heaven!” they cried. “That child is so beautiful!”
“That child,” Iacto warned, “is the landlady.”
Then, Ira said, “Let’s beat her.”
While Gulli said, “Let’s eat her.”
Forni said, “She’s lovely.”
But Vana said, “She’s ugly.”
Ava said, “Take her basket.”
And Ace said, “Find a casket.”
Poor Tristi only sobbed.
“Fear not,” said Iacto, bravely taking charge, “I won’t be cast out again. She’s no threat, so long as she doesn’t summon the woodsman. Quick, hide yourselves!”
So they hid and Iacto changed form into an old peasant woman in ebony-black robes.
When the landlady entered the cottage, she was so shocked to see the old woman, she didn’t even notice the fourteen curious eyes peering out from the cupboards.
“Forgive me, my lady,” said the old woman. “Is this your little cottage?”
“Yes,” answered the landlady. “Though I only come here on Sundays and I’ll admit I’ve skipped a few lately.”
“Then, I owe you my life!” The woman fell on her knees, for dramatic effect. “I am but a poor, old widow. I was roaming the woods, cold and hungry, when I stumbled upon this cottage and decided to beg mercy from its owner. We, I have waited long, but now that you’ve come, consider my offer: If I keep house for you–cook, make beds, wash, sew, knit, and keep everything clean and orderly–then may we, I stay here?”
The old woman was honest and had kept the cottage well thus far, so the landlady agreed. She also promised to visit every Sunday with a basket full of apples to share. But before leaving, the landlady warned the old woman to be cautious, for an unclean spirit had once haunted this very cottage, and not long ago.
When the landlady had gone, Iacto changed back into his true form and his face shone with his own cleverness. The others grumbled at the idea of spending every Sunday morning hiding in the cupboards. But it was a small price for a home. So Iacto added “old woman impersonation” to the chore calendar and they drew straws to decide the rotation.
For many weeks after, the landlady came every Sunday to inspect the cottage and to sit with the old peasant woman, talking and eating apples.
Then, one Sunday, there was an unexpected knock on the cottage door. The landlady opened it and there stood the woodsman, his enchanted double bit axe gleaming like fresh snow in the sunlight. As it turned out, he had come to declare his love for the landlady and to ask if he may court her. She told him to prove his intentions by returning the next Sunday with a gift. If it pleased her, she would invite him back the next week. He swore to return with the perfect token of his undying affection, then went his way.
The landlady shut the door, blushing and sighing with delight, while the eight shuddered at the thought of seeing that terrible axe once a week. No good would come of this affair.
Ira, who was playing the old woman that day, had always hated the landlady and her apples. But now, things had gone too far. He grabbed an apple.
At the sight of the old peasant woman coming near, her demon hand reaching out of her ebony-black robes, clutching a crimson apple, the landlady’s skin went snow-white and her mouth dropped open. The old woman crammed her hand in up to the wrist, then withdrew it, empty. Voiceless, the child thrashed about and clawed at the apple-sized bulge in her throat, as seven horrid little creatures poked their curious faces out of the cupboards.
Then, her wide eyes froze and her body lay motionless on the cottage floor.
She was dead. But what to do with her? Gulli wanted to sauté her liver and lungs. Vana wanted to make her into a scarecrow for the garden. But Iacto said they’d best trick the woodsman into believing she was alive and well, or else risk the sting of his enchanted axe. Forni just so happened to have a magic glass case which shielded anyone within it from the effects of time. The fact that he’d built it especially for the landlady weeks earlier was unsettling, but then again, Forni had always been eccentric. So they put the body in the magic glass case and set it by the upstairs window.
The following Sunday, the woodsman spied his love awaiting him at the window and his heart leapt with joy. But it was the freeloading old peasant woman who answered the door.
“Fetch my lady,” commanded the woodsman. “I’ve brought her a lovely comb for her lovely hair.”
The woman answered, “My lord, she has instructed that you must call up to her and persuade her to come down. For one worthy of her hand, this will be an easy task.”
His love equal to any challenge, the woodsman stood under the window, pleading and wooing and making a fool of himself, but his beloved’s cold heart would not reward his devotion, not even with a glance.
His humiliation was most entertaining. So whenever his passion began to wane, the eight took turns changing into crows and flying out to whisper in his ears.
Forni made him burn with desire.
Ava drove him mad with jealousy.
Tristi crushed him with despair.
This continued for seven days and seven nights until, to end his torment, the woodsman fell upon his own axe and melted the snow with his blood.
That evening, the eight feasted on his liver and lungs. Next day, they hung his carcass in the garden to ward off travelers, while Iacto buried the enchanted double bit axe deep in the earth, for the glint of its blades still gave them a shudder. From then on, with no landlady or woodsman left to fear, the eight neglected their chores and the little cottage fell into disrepair so that its final condition was far worse than it had been when Iacto had lived there alone.
by Ryan Shane Lopez
- Ryan has had work published in Door Is A Jar and Obra Magazine. In May 2018, Ryan presented selections of his fantasy novella Borderlands at the children’s and young adult literature conference “In the Shadows” at University of British Columbia, Vancouver B. C.