As twilight deepens to indigo, the rain begins, further obscuring any signs of familiar landscape. She shakes her head, remembering the stories of lost travelers, and curses herself for a thousand kinds of fool. Find the ravine and head north, she mutters, you know the way, you have traveled it before. Ah, but it wasn’t dark and you weren’t injured then, a voice whispers in her ear. She turns toward the voice, but she is alone. She hears faint laughter at a distance, carried away on the wind.
Gods it’s cold, she groans, shivering and wrapping her cloak tightly around her. Her horse stumbles on the rocky terrain, sending a fresh lance of pain up left side; she inhales sharply, placing her hand over her wound. “Easy, girl,” she says, patting the mare’s neck, “just a bit farther now.” The wolf that followed her from the valley is nowhere in sight. Maybe he’s found shelter. Lucky bastard.
She begins to doze and is confronted with the images of battle days before. She watches her friends, her warriors, fall one by one, her ears wracked with the screams of the injured and her nostrils assailed with the stench of burning trees and flesh. She feels the sharp sting of a blade deep in her body; she screams and jolts awake, grabbing for her axe. Her breath in ragged gasps and her heart pounding, she screams once more and wipes absently at the tears that come. She slows her breath, closes her eyes briefly, and murmurs a quick prayer. She wonders how long she’s traveled and how her people have fared. Did anyone else survive? Is the forest still burning? Gazing upward, she sees Moon waning and Stars are fading. The rain has ceased, leaving in its wake an impenetrable mist.
“Hai,” she calls, pulling the reins taut. Shivering, she dismounts and rechecks her supplies, knowing there is little else but crumbs remaining. If I don’t find that damned pass soon, she tells herself, but doesn’t finish. Finding a small, dry spot amongst a copse of firs, she prepares to bed down and wait for Sun to emerge. Exhausted from hunger, injury, and travel, she fails to notice the symbols etched into the trees. Tomorrow, she tells herself, I’ll be at the pass tomorrow.
Daylight arrives in a swirl of grey fog and ice. Laughter fills the air, encircling her in its madness; mindless voices whisper of her failures, tormenting her. The ground beneath her is cold and unforgiving, the air above heavy and oppressive, pulling her down. With great effort she stands, cursing her surroundings, and frees her weapons. A sudden gale knocks her to her knees as a talon rips across her face, tearing it open.
“You are nebechel, behaimeh!” she cries. “You will not feast on me today!”
The wind howls its response, a great guttural roar. A fierce array of lightning pours across the sky, the voices in the mist now a chorus of murderous shrieks. Creatures all around her, tugging at her, clawing her; a hand catches in her hair, twisting, working its way to her throat. Blindly, she lashes out with her dagger, slicing flesh, feeling the grip loosen as blood oozes down her neck.
“You will not have me!” she screams, pulling her blade across her palm. As the blood begins to flow she calls to her gods, “Nah chead daoine, blood of naishan dene, bind these wretched beings and free me of this foul place!”
The wind erupts in a terrifying squall as a blackened wing appears, crashing against her, lifting her from the ground and tossing her as easily as a blade of grass. Struggling to rise, she is beset from all sides, claws pulling at her hair, her tunic, her weapons. She wipes the blood from her face, forcing herself to stand, calling out to her gods once more.
“Iyar, Ylva, hear me, deifilia, I beseech you!” She slices her palm again, forcing the blood to run from her hand. “Be gone, foul neshomeh,” she spits, “to Orcus, to Arawn, as one who walks with nah chead daoine, I command it!”
The sound of wailing reaches a fever pitch and then abruptly dies. All is still for but a moment. Breathing heavily, she wipes an arm across her face and lowers her blade. The ground begins to rumble as the shrieking begins once more. There is a sudden burst of blinding light and crash of thunder as the ground gives way beneath her feet and she is falling, falling…
Muffled voices fill the air, the words nonsensical, chant-like. Sudden loud music plays, and then retreats as the murmuring begins once more. A rush of wind caresses her prone form, the overbearing stench of burning flesh permeates her senses, and she opens her eyes to discover a world in chaos. Unable to move or speak, she watches, in horror, the unbridled slaughter of her people. Screams intermingle with maniacal laughter while large winged creatures circle overhead, blocking out the sun. Sudden warmth overwhelms her, and she finds herself covered, drowning in blood. She tries to scream, but is unable. Drowning, submerged beneath the dead, choking on the gore that fills her lungs. One last gasp, one last breath, and she is…
…upright at once, her heart racing, her breath rapid and irregular, her tunic clenched in her hands. She leans forward, attempting to slow her pulse and control her breathing, and forces her hands to relax. She feels the ground beneath her, hears the surge of a nearby spring; she finds herself at the bottom of a ravine, bloodied and shaken, but alive. She calls for her mare, certain the horse has died or run off, and is pleasantly surprised to find the beast has survived. “Well now, that was exciting, no?” she asks as she climbs on to the saddle.
Scanning her surroundings, she notices a fire in the distance. Tugging the reins, she guides her horse in the direction of the fire. As she draws closer, she comes upon a small cabin. The crackle of flames from the cooking fire warms her skin and the smell of roasting meat makes her belly ache. She pulls the horse to a stop, swinging a leg over the saddle to dismount, but the sound of a banging door makes her freeze. Whipping her head around, she sees her sister standing in the open doorway. She blinks, and the figure transforms into her mother.
She shakes her head, her vision hazy, her world a grey mist, and tumbles to the ground.
She shakes her head, her vision hazy, her world a grey mist, and tumbles to the ground.
“Ah, good morning, love,” quips a cheery voice. “You’ve been out for some time now. I’ve got fresh broth here for you and some tea. I’d give you a sip o’ the ale, but I’m not thinking you’ve the strength for that.”
She wakes to find herself in a strange room, dressed in strange clothing, her wounds tended to. The room is brightly lit from the sun radiating through the windows, a pot is simmering over the fire, and a petite, grey-haired woman is sitting beside her bed, stirring the contents of a wooden bowl. The woman glances at her, nods once, and leans forward to straighten the bedclothes.
“What is this place? Who are you?” she asks.
“You may call me Usha, my dear,” the woman responds. “You are not of the Ebba, no. Your clothing tells me your people are not foresters. And what may I call you?”
“Elita,” she replies.
“Elita,” the old woman responds, smiling. “A good name, a strong name. What of your people? None of your kind has crossed my path before.”
“I am Daciana, Eyolf of the nah chead daoine,” Elita replies.
“Ah yes, I have heard of your people,” Usha smiles, “old as the earth, strong as the sea. But I know of none other save the Aglaesa who travel this far north. Have you lost your way?”
Sighing heavily, Elita shakes her head. “Yes…no…I don’t know. I’ve traveled this way before, but nothing is familiar to me. What is this place?”
“It is my home, child,” Usha replies. “Would you like some broth? Yes? Careful now,” she continues as Elita sips greedily and begins to choke. Usha pats her on the back as the coughing subsides. “Better?” she asks.
Elita nods and requests more. “Only a little,” Usha says. “And slower this time. Can’t have you vomiting this up. This stuff is quite costly and it does one no good on the ground.” She leans forward, placing her hand under the younger woman’s chin, forcing their eyes to meet. She holds Elita’s gaze a few moments, nods, and mutters “Hmmph” before letting go.
“You are for certain a pitiable mess, child. Tell me, what brought you to my doorstep?”
“My horse,” Elita replies.
“Ah, this one still has her wits about her,” Usha laughs. She waits for Elita to finish her broth. She raises an eyebrow and points at the bowl. Elita shakes her head and asks for water. They sit in silence for a few moments, Usha watching her guest wipe her chin and rake her fingers through her hair. Elita takes a deep breath, holding it for a second, and lets it out while brushing a shaky hand across her lips. She grins tentatively at the older women and shrugs her shoulders.
“Forgive my impertinence, it was rude,” she says.
“Bah!” Usha exclaims. “At times a clever tongue is required. Let’s one know the other is thinking clearly,” she smiles. The room begins to darken as the sounds of an approaching storm reverberate throughout. Usha stands, places the bowl on a shelf above the fire, and crosses the room. She opens the door and watches as the rain pours out of the sky. She inhales deeply, taking pleasure in the scent of the water as it falls and the feel of the breeze against her face.
“Do you know what I love about the storms?’ she asks. Not waiting for an answer, she continues. “The feeling of beginning, of rebirth. All is washed clean, ready to start anew once the water stops. Cold, hot, matters little…when the Clouds recede and Sky returns, there is a promise of renewed hope.” She takes another deep breath, exhales loudly, and shuts the door. She places a small dark bottle and two drinking bowls on the hearth and resumes her place at Elita’s bedside.
“Time, while slowed but a little here, runs from us in haste. We shall drink together now and speak once you have rested more. Take this,” she says, pouring from the bottle and handing a bowl to Elita. “But slowly, now, or you will surely regret it.” They sit together as the light continues to fade from the room. Usha rises, lighting candles scattered about the hut.
“Usha,” Elita begins, tiredness stealing over her. “I thought…”she begins, barely containing a yawn.
“Later child, I promise,” Usha replies, leaning forward to kiss her brow. “Later, when your strength returns. Rest now.”