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Short Story

Finishing Soates

By Matthew Dunn

Tarnold knew the performance was doomed when all his playwright’s tricks were exhausted.


Tarnold knew the performance was doomed when all his playwright’s tricks were exhausted. His players were lost to performance jitters. Perhaps the text was to blame, or the superstitions surrounding the performance of a dead scribe’s unfinished work, but each mummer had succumbed to one form of unprofessionalism or another.

Artlo, who played a character known only as the Philosopher, wouldn’t stop dying. Each time he pantomimed his last breath in the company of that kindred pair of macabre spirits known as the Lamb Lamb and the Wolf Wolf, he prolonged his death rattles to the point of absurdity. This time, Nenni had laughed so hard her Lamb’s mask fell off her face. It landed on the ground with a loud crack. Emile removed his Wolf’s mask. Its sharp, jagged edges were chafing his jowls to pulp. He winced in pain—Tarnold knew he was about to ask for the poultice again.

“Stop!” Tarnold said. He did not need to yell. The Mummers’ Round’s renowned acoustics ensured even the eaves-perchers, with their half-copper admission, could hear the softest sigh with clarity.

The old theater rested near the lord castellan’s hillfort and provided a nice glimpse of the dark forest. On banquet nights like tonight, nobles descended from the castellan’s manse to drunkenly take in the mummers’ theatrics. A displeased crowd of drunken nobles was worse than the humiliation of a failed play.

The actors released their poses and turned to face their chief dramatist.

Tarnold rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers and looked to the wings, where a mustachioed man, dressed in black finery, leaned against one of the story stones.

“Duarte,” Tarnold said to the well-dressed man. “Buy me as much time as you can.”

Duarte nodded in understanding. “I’ll hold the audience until I hear your sign.”

“Do not disturb us, even if Lady Erhyn herself shakes off her malaise and demands a preview. We are on the verge, Duarte. We must fall together to rise together!”

“Rise we shall, Tarnold. With the gust of life.” Duarte kissed the palm of his hand and placed it on the story stone for good luck. He disappeared from the stage and exited the theater. Silence pervaded while everyone waited on the sound of the heavy bolt sliding shut.

Once they were sealed within the Mummers’ Round’s walls, with the sun dipping closer to the evening, Tarnold unleashed his temper.

“Ask a Great City boy for water, and a Great City boy will bring you fire. There is to be one death, and one death alone, Artlo.” He turned to Nenni. “Stop laughing at Artlo’s nincompoopery, you daughter of Skaggorn. Shake off your provincial humors and exude the cold menace of death.” Finally, he pointed to Emile. “I can see your blood dribbling down your cheek. Dab your cheeks.”

“Please, let me fix some padding to the inside of this accursed wolf mask.”

“Project through the pain! Did Soates complain while writing her Kindred Fables on her deathbed? No. Be honored! One of her own heirlooms chafes your cheek.”

“This one doesn’t fit me,” Nenni said. She had picked her lamb mask up off the stage floor. “It keeps sliding off.”

“Then use straps!” Tarnold said, pulling off his own belt to throw it at Nenni’s feet.

Endless hours of rehearsals had done nothing to prepare the troupe for the performance of Soates’ final, unfinished story. Part of that, Tarnold had accepted as his own fault. As the chief dramatist of Alderburg’s greatest—and only—theater, the grim task of finishing her story fell to him.

Lambs in the Orchard was Soates’ final gush of madness. The very last of her spark is here, in our hands... and you all choose to desecrate her memory, picking at it for your own vanity and comfort. She spent her final moments coaxing truths from the impending nevermore. Had death not stilled her hand while writing this very scene, perhaps we would all have a far greater understanding of our own brief and tragic existence!”

The actors remained silent, chastened even, until Artlo cleared his throat and spoke up.

“With respect,” the gangly Demacian started. Tarnold knew Artlo meant the opposite, and rolled his eyes to show it. “Perhaps an unfinished work is simply not meant to be finished by another.”

Tarnold sensed an attack on his integrity. They had had this argument over and again. “Are you suggesting that this production is a work of sacrilege?”

“We seem unable to replicate the emotions of a master writing against time.”

“Are you mad? We are out of time!” Tarnold pointed to the dwindling rays of sunlight piercing the wooden walls of the theater. A chilly sensation swept through him.

“Perhaps, we perform the bits we know and leave the unfinished unperformed. Is that not a better way to honor Soates? You must acknowledge, Tarnold, this,” Artlo said, pointing around himself, “does not work!”

Artlo was right. They had failed to recreate the spark found in the prolific bard’s other fables. Their ailing patron, a Soates devotee, expected the impossible—an ending to an unfinished work. In desperation, Tarnold had authorized Duarte to travel to King Jarvan II’s Great City to the west, and hunt down the bard’s original masks. They were ancient and therefore costly.

Tarnold’s head slumped, his shoulders followed, and then he was on his back, struggling to breathe. His heart raced against the quickening hour.

“We have to cancel the performance.” He rubbed his forehead, trying to eke out some last shred of luck, but finding only sweat. “Worse, we’ll be forced to offer refunds.” He gasped out. “We already spent the gold!”

“It’s probably not a good time to mention that the lamb mask is broken.”

The color drained from Tarnold’s face. “What?

“When it fell off my face, it broke. It was an accident!” Nenni held the pieces of the mask in her hand. One of the wooden ears had snapped off. “I think I can strap it back together.”

“This is utterly majestic.” Tarnold almost laughed. “That’s what we spent the gold on. They were Soates’ original masks. They’re on loan!”

“She said it was an accident,” said Emile.

“Let me think.” Tarnold stood up to take in the theater. Its storied round had existed for centuries. The story stones were the foundation of the Mummers’ Round. The circle of towering flagstones had stood in the theater’s location long before anyone settled the Nockmirch. Over the years, wooden viewing platforms were erected to allow more a better view of the theatrics and rituals performed inside the round. Performers and singers notched the pillars with their sigils, leaving their mark upon hallowed grounds.

The theater had been home to Tarnold during many difficult times. Now, under his stewardship, it was the source of all his sorrows.

“A broken mask tells two stories,” said a voice from the middle balcony, reserved for the wealthiest nobles. Even in his loneliest moments, Tarnold dared not rest his head on those fine cushions. “Three, if you consider the tale of the LoR Non-Champion Non-Spell Indicator.png2 maskmaker... Alas, no one wishes to hear that story.”

“We agreed for no visitors during rehearsals!” Tarnold said to his performers.

“She’s been here all night,” Nenni said. “We thought she was with you.”

Had she? It was possible. Tarnold had battled insomnia for weeks. His attention snapped to the woman in the golden seats, which were reserved for the Lady Erhyn herself. Two summers ago, King Jarvan II’s LoR Non-Champion Non-Spell Indicator.png7 little heir had sat upon those velvet cushions to enjoy Tarnold’s rendition of The King of All Fishes. The boy had clapped loudest as the final curtain fell.

“Who are you?” Tarnold said. “Step into the light.”

The woman came forward, but the light illuminated little of her mystery. Her eyes were distant stars shining through mist. She wore a ghostly half-mask with a curious twirl of a twig sprouting off the top. Upon that sprig was a single dark leaf. Her elegant gait sang of nobility, and Tarnold finally recognized the crest on her gown.

It was their patron, recovered from her malaise.

“My lady Erhyn, I did not recognize you! Please forgive me.” Tarnold offered a respectable bow. “Tell me, what mask is this that graces your face? It is familiar yet beyond memory.”

“It is made of eldlock.” She spoke in a calm voice. Her words were clear, even as she whispered. “The stories tell that any wood removed from an eldlock will continue to blossom and flower in season with its mothertree, as long as it still stands. No distance may sever their bond.”

“It is exquisite, my lady.”

“I have interrupted,” Lady Erhyn said, gesturing to the actors. “Perhaps I could suggest a change.”

“Why, of course!” Tarnold fidgeted with his hands. He looked to the wings, and to the stage. The mummers were keeping their mouths shut, for once. “Advice from our favorite patron is always welcome.”

“All actors were masked in Soates’ day—perhaps all must don masks to channel the strange spirits she saw at death’s door, as she scribbled furiously into the night’s embrace.”

“I like that!” Artlo said. “Where is the casket of masks? There were others in that trunk,” he called as he vanished behind the stage.

“Now, wait, let’s talk this—”

Tarnold was silenced by the sight of the gaunt lady with the eldlock mask clasping her hands together. There was something off about their benefactor.

Before Tarnold could put his finger on it, Artlo returned onstage, dragging a trunk that was as long as he was tall. The name Q. W. Soates was engraved on its long side. Suddenly, it struck Tarnold how much the old trunk resembled a coffin.

Artlo lifted open the heavy trunk’s lid. “Smells like dead poets,” he said.

The man really has no taste, Tarnold thought.

A heavy creak of rusted hinges reverberated through the round like the howl of a starving dog. The other two actors craned their necks to peer inside.

“Before you choose,” the woman in the eldlock mask said. “Please heed these next words wisely. The hour is late, the show waits to play, and tonight can be truly memorable if all choose the mask that is right for them, for the spirits we become...”

“...Inhabit us,” Emile completed.

“The mummers’ tenet,” Nenni said.

“Whatever flavor of madness this is,” Artlo said, a grin spreading on his face, “I want to be a part of it. Come, Tarnold. Even you must agree that at this late stage, we must perform with the gust of life.”

“Intrepid,” the lady said.

Tarnold heard the hint of a strange smile on her face. He couldn’t remember... had the nobles’ balcony not been empty when Duarte left? The whole theater was empty... Lady Erhyn struck him as different now, too. She seemed gaunt and haunted. Perhaps the noble lady Erhyn hadn’t entirely shaken off her affliction. The evening chill was settling in.

“My lady, I am most pleased at your recovery. Perhaps I can fetch you a cloak?”

“Now, this is the mask to honor a forgotten poet,” Artlo said.

Lady Erhyn waved off Tarnold’s offer, turning to Artlo. “An ominous choice. The LoR Non-Champion Non-Spell Indicator.png7 Vulture picks at what remains, and when nothing is left... it flies on to perches far removed from here and waits for the next meal.”

“Pecking at Soates’ legacy sounds like a feast.” Artlo turned around and showed off his guise: a bone-white mask with a long, hooked beak. The gangly man resembled a carrion bird.

The gaunt lady approached the stage. She seemed so ancient, yet hale and graceful in her moves. Her skin did not look like flesh. It reminded Tarnold of plaster, after it had been set and smoothed. Her hair was the very night itself, radiating outward in a wavering embrace. He felt as if the breath were stabbed out of his lungs. How could he have ever mistaken the two?

“You’re not Lady Erhyn.”

The actors were oblivious to Tarnold’s epiphany. A chilling swoon descended upon his heart. Its beating pulsed loudly in his ears, nearly drowning out the actors’ words.

“Switch masks with me,” Nenni said to Emile. “Your soft skin can’t wear such a handsome mask. My skin’s weathered worse, I’ll reckon.”

“If you want to wear that agonizing thing...” Emile offered the wolf mask to his stage partner. “I mourn for your lovely cheekbones.”

The two slipped on their swapped masks.

The walls whispered as a gust of wind swept over the Mummers’ Round. Shutters clacked shut. Tarnold heard voices in that swift and swirling breeze.

Heartbeats, Lamb. Here,” a deep voice growled.

Tarnold looked for the source, but could only see his mummers. They seemed to have forgotten all about him. Then, in his left ear, sang another voice.

“Bits of light,

Dancing in the dark,

Playing on, playing on, playing on...”

The words flew through Tarnold with a jolt. On the stage, he saw Nenni and Emile, hand in hand, wearing each other’s masks. Then he saw the otherwordly words were coming from the actors’ mouths.

“Yes,” Emile said, shifting his voice up to a lilting and haunted falsetto. “I see my darlingest Wolf now.”

“Ahhh.” Nenni let out a relieved growl, her voice guttural and deep. “That feels better, little Lamb.” The actor dropped down on all fours, and stretched lower than a human should be able to. “Is it time to play chase?”

“When the veil lifts,

You shall claw and bite,

My arrow swift, and on to the next act we go.”

Tarnold crossed the round, keeping his eyes fixed on the gaunt lady. “What trickery is this? Please, leave us be!”

The woman turned to Tarnold. “I am not your patron,” she said.

Tarnold looked to his masked actors. “All of you, clear the stage. Go home. The performance is over.” He raised his voice, shouting toward the barred entrance. “Duarte!

“Tarnold...” The woman who was not Lady Erhyn turned and looked at him with the enormity of her vast, glimmering eyes. Even behind the eldlock mask, they shone with a light born of darkness. Their eerie sheen pulled Tarnold’s attention out of his body. Whoever this was, he knew her and did not; feared her and sought her. Running from her felt foolish, and reasonable. Without deciding to, he walked toward the stage.

“Take the masks off,” he said. “Now. This is madness... This play is cursed! Don’t you see? What if, in the conjuring, Soates did not happen to die while writing the play, the act of writing Lambs in the Orchard was itself what killed her... The narrative itself is a curse!”It was not the gaunt lady, Nenni’s wolf nor Emile’s lamb that replied. Artlo, or whatever spoke through Artlo, answered in a screeching voice. He spread his arms high and stood upon one leg, like a carrion bird.

“The author waits for my beak,” he said. The corners of his lips cracked and split open. “Soates is truly dead... as none remember her now as she once was.” Tears ran down Artlo’s stretched cheeks. The voice stilled Tarnold’s heart and stopped him in his stride. “Soates flies in my wake, soon lost and forgotten. Words on a page. A name on the wind. Shreds... nothing more.”

“Shreds of Soates is still Soates,” said the gaunt lady.

He ceased the performance...” Whatever spoke through poor Artlo didn’t care how much pain it caused the man’s body. The actor’s arm violently wrenched forward and stretched, its bony hand pointing an accusatory finger at Tarnold. “And he wears no mask...”

“You are so close to Soates,” the woman said to the dramatist. “Choose a mask, and see her final scene come alive.”

He thought about running from the Mummers’ Round. He pictured himself fleeing up to the lord castellan’s fort on the hill, or into town. What would he find in Lady Erhyn’s house? He looked to the gaunt woman. The sun had almost set. The evening cacophony of insects and night birds chirped out their greetings to the coming night. How many nights had he dreamt of Soates’ final moments, of the final scene...

“Everyone must wear a mask,” the woman said.

Mouth agape, Tarnold nodded in agreement with the woman in the eldlock mask, that dark leaf dancing in an unfelt breeze.

“If I must choose a mask, then I confess, I know the one I would select is not in that trunk, nor is it on the stage.” He felt life return to his limbs. His bones were stiff and unwieldy... but that was a temporary condition.

The gaunt woman smiled. “You wish to wear my mask? That is a most excellent decision, dear Tarnold, a man of creativity and curiosity. Come and remove it from my face.”

“I shall take your mask, and become you. May the spirits we become...”

“...Inhabit us deeply and truly,” she finished.

When Tarnold did, and placed the living eldlock mask on his face, he saw, finally, the true ending of Soates’ play. It was flawless and terrible, life-giving and breathtaking.

“Places, my friends and fellows,” he said. “Our tale waits for no one. Let us fall together to rise as one, and sing our harmonies with the gust of life.”

“One last gust,” replied Lamb, Wolf, and Vulture.

And together, they played.

Duarte had kept the news about Lady Erhyn hidden from Tarnold all day, even though the truth of her passing threatened to burst forth from his lips. Her malaise carried her off in kindred company before dawn, or so the new lady of House Erhyn had said. The news could break the morale of the entire troupe. Tarnold, he knew, would take it exceptionally hard.

But just as sorrow weighed down Duarte’s heart, there was a brightness, an exciting turn of good fortune beyond the tragedy. Lady Erhyn, on her deathbed, bade her estate to fund the Mummers’ Round, and Tarnold specifically, in perpetuity.

However, as the hour drew later, the inebriated nobles grew weary of the wait. Belligerent and insulted nobility often led to lashings, mockings, and worse: sanctions against future endeavors.

As Duarte was about to address the amassed watchers, daubed with ashes and charcoal in mourning of Lady Erhyn, he heard Tarnold’s signal to open the doors.

He rushed to the gate and removed the heavy deadbolt. The audience rushed in and stopped short as they found the actors posed upon a stage covered in wilted black-stemmed roses. Their buzzing anticipation was hushed by the macabre tableau. They quickly and quietly found their seats. Lady Erhyn’s seat of honor was the only empty spot in the house.

The actors held their strenuous positions while the noble audience waited for Soates’ long-lost and unfinished masterpiece to finally begin.

Duarte saw no sign of Tarnold. It was unusual for the dramatist to desert his cast on opening night—normally he would greet the audience before watching from the wings with a bottle of wine.

He turned to inspect the opening stance. Nenni and Emile were locked in a mortal embrace. Nenni, wearing the wolf mask, held an arrow that seemed to stick directly into Emile’s side. Emile’s hands were wrapped around Nenni’s throat.

Artlo, who was supposed to be playing a philosopher, now inexplicably wore a mask that resembled a dirge crow. He perched atop a prop tree, suspended over the other pair, his arms outstretched like great wings. Dead flowers hung from his arms like feathers.

They weren’t even breathing...

The audience stayed silent, eagerly awaiting action, but Duarte realized something was amiss. Backstage, Duarte checked the dramatist’s favorite perch. There was no bottle of wine, and no Tarnold, either.

Instead there was the last surviving copy of Lambs in the Orchard.

He thumbed to the last page. The story remained unfinished, but there was a new line written in Tarnold’s steady hand.

The end is not for those who wear no masks. She showed me, and it was beautiful.