By now, you should now the drill. I’m late getting this up today, and I’ve still got writing to do, so I won’t be writing too much about this chapter (like I ever do that, anyway).
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Mendleson fell to his knees, nearly dropping Henrietta. His body wouldn’t let him go even one step farther. The ravine and the wraiths had defeated him. He had failed Henrietta. Another wraith would come, and this time, he could not stop it from taking what it wanted.
He laid Henrietta down in front of him and reached out to caress her face. Her cheeks were cold, even in the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” he whispered.
He pulled the sword out in case the wraiths chose to come after them while he rested. “Of course, if they don’t give me a chance to rest, I’ll hardly be able to swing it.
“I just wish I knew where the damned Oracle was,” he said. His voice echoed from the walls of the ravine.
When the echo died out, the only sound to answer was the bubbling of the stream. It soothed him, whispered him to sleep, whispered that everything would be all right.
But he knew it lied. It couldn’t be all right. Henrietta was going to die here, next to him, and he would be able to do little, if anything, to stop it, unless the wraiths gave him time to rest.
He allowed himself to lay on the ground, holding the sword to his chest, and closed his eyes. He decided he should take whatever time he could. A few minutes, an hour, the rest of the afternoon. “The Oracle can’t be much farther.”
“You could not be more correct,” said a woman’s voice from above him.
Mendleson opened his eyes and tried to sit up, but the sword had suddenly grown heavy, and it held him down.
A figure stood over him, shrouded in a dark cloak. Its head blocked the late afternoon sun, leaving the face in darkness. He struggled against the sword, but it would not budge. “Go away!” he shouted, thinking the figure a wraith. “Leave her alone!”
The figure knelt, changing the angle of the light and allowing a ray of it to reflect off the face inside the hood. A woman, not a wraith. “I thought you were bringing her to me. Is this not so?”
Mendleson stopped struggling. Even with the bit of light that illuminated her face, he still couldn’t get a good look at her. At times, the shadows made her seem about the age of Henrietta, but a slight shift of her head would cause her features to appear like they had seen many more winters than even Henrietta’s uncle. “You’re not a wraith,” he said.
She laughed. “I should say not. They cannot enter my land.”
“Then are you the Oracle?” he asked.
“Some call me so.”
“Then you knew we were coming?”
“I am no Seer, young man. I did not know you were coming until you crossed the boundary.”
“Can you help her?”
“It is within my ability,” she said.
Mendleson thought it a strange answer. He turned his head a bit, hoping to get a better look at her, but her face continued to shift its appearance. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“I do not know if I should. Does she even desire help?”
“Of course she wants help,” he said. He pushed at the sword again, but it still held him in place.
“There is no need to struggle,” she said. “I will not hurt you.”
“But you won’t help her.”
“Do not misconstrue my words young swordsman. I have not said that I will refuse help. I have only said that I am not sure if I should supply it. You struggle against the powers that rule this world. I must weigh what it will cost me if I interfere.”
Mendleson gave up his struggle against the sword. “Please.”
The woman smiled. “Much better. I will consider it. Put that hunk of iron away and come with me.”
The extra weight of the sword melted away, and he found he could move. He stood slowly. Every muscle shouted at him to stop, but he ignored the shouts and forced himself up from the ground. He slipped the sword back between his pack and his body.
The woman had already started up the ravine.
“What about Henrietta?” he asked.
“Bring her,” she said without turning around.
Silently, he cursed her. You could help.
She continued moving away from him, and he decided he’d better get on with it before he lost her. He bent down to pick up Henrietta, readying himself for the aches he knew he would feel.
But when he picked her up, she had lost all her weight. She encumbered him only as much as a large pillow might.
Witch. The word floated through his mind. Fear welled up within him.
He looked down at Henrietta’s pale face. He blocked off that well of fear and refused to allow it to take over. The Oracle was Henrietta’s only chance.
If she doesn’t help, he thought as he took his first step to follow the woman, I swear I will make her pay.
* * *
Mendleson carried the unnaturally light Henrietta inside the small, round, stone hut the witch called home. A bit of light streamed in through openings in the walls that he hesitated to call windows. It showed him only a single room, a fire pit in the center, a pallet against the wall for sleeping, and a table and two chairs hugging the opposite wall. Where the walls did not host pallet or table, shelves adorned them, and the shelves held jars and pots and tools that Mendleson could not name.
The witch pointed to the pallet. “Set her there.” Then she went to the wall and started searching through her jars.
Mendleson crossed the room with Henrietta, and then bent down and laid her gently on the bedding, which proved softer than it looked. He brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen across her face. He wanted to bend down and kiss her, touch his lips to hers.
How could this have happened?
He whispered to her. “Why did you try to leave last night? After…”
“After what?” the witch asked.
Mendleson turned to find her standing over him. “It’s not important,” he said.
“How can you know whether it’s important? What did you do to her that made her leave?”
Mendleson stood up and faced her. She had removed the hood, and for the first time, he saw her face clearly. Her skin was youthful, like he had thought, but her eyes shone ancient and black. Her head bore a tattoo of a tree instead of hair. A branch of that tree trailed down the side of her head and onto her ear where it circled the lobe. She wore an ornament on that lobe that appeared to be an obsidian raven, creating the illusion that a raven was sitting on the branch.
“Thank you,” she said, and then pushed him aside and bent down to minister to Henrietta.
“Why didn’t you just ask me to move?” he asked.
The witch ignored him. She dipped her fingers in a jar of something that looked a lot like mud to Mendleson, and then spread that mud on Henrietta’s face, her forehead, her eyelids, so that none of her skin remained visible.
“How does that…” he began.
“Quiet,” she said, waving her mud covered hand behind her.
Mendleson decided he didn’t need to know right at that moment. If the witch was going to help Henrietta, he’d do whatever she asked of him.
From behind her, he could see more of the tree tattoo. It had several branches, all bare of leaves, and the trunk ran down her neck. It reminded him of something he’d heard in a half-remembered child’s tale, but he couldn’t place it. He wondered if his exhaustion was playing tricks on his mind.
He moved across the room and pulled out one of the chairs from the table. The legs scraped loudly across the stone floor, and he looked up to see if the witch had reacted. If she had, he couldn’t tell. Her hands were moving slowly over Henrietta’s body, as if they were searching for something.
He let himself settle onto the chair, keeping an eye on the witch.
For all he could tell, she didn’t seem like she had any intentions of hurting them, but Mendleson had never heard anything good about witches, and Karl’s reluctance to send them to her only served to reinforce his wariness.
The witch began chanting in a low, deep voice that did not seem to match her speaking voice. It was slow, somber, and soothing. Mendleson felt his eyelids drooping.
He pushed off sleep as long as he could, but in the end, his exhaustion got the better of him and drew him down into an uncomfortable, fitful slumber.
* * *
At first, Henrietta wandered alone in a fog that hung thick and cold in the air. It clung to her skin like cobwebs. It reminded her of a dream she’d had, but could not place.
The ground was flat, almost barren. In hours of wandering, she had not come across a single landmark that she could use to mark her progress in her journey. The light hadn’t changed, either. She expected it should be near dusk, with the number of hours she had traveled, but the light was as even, filtered, and gray as when she first found herself in this place.
Something troubled her about that. She couldn’t remember arriving, or even where she had been just before. She felt something had happened, that she’d lost something, or nearly lost something, or someone. But her memory was just as hazy and empty as the foggy land she found herself in.
She probed at the haze, but nothing came to the fore. She needed a reminder, and she had nothing.
She continued to walk, in the hope that she would eventually find her way out of the fog. She resolved to keep walking until her legs gave out, until she needed to sleep, but after hours of wandering, she still wasn’t tired.
She put step after step behind her. While she walked, she tried to think of what brought her to this place, and could come up with nothing but shadows.
“Why did they come this time?” A voice intruded into the silence, one she thought sounded familiar. “And why were you outside, looking like you were leaving?”
She spun around, and couldn’t see anyone within her sight, just the gray fog in all directions. “Where are you?”
“Did they come because you were leaving, Henrietta?” the disembodied voice asked. “Or did you decide to go somewhere else? What hurts the most is that you left so soon after I thought we had finally understood each other.”
“Who are you?” she asked. “What do you mean?”
“No,” the voice said, as if it hadn’t heard her. “What hurts the most is that you’re hurt.”
“I’m not hurt!” she shouted. “Where are you?”
The voice did not answer her.
“Hello?” she asked. “Who are you?”
She waited, but did not receive any answers. The voice was gone, wherever it had come from, leaving her confused. Who are ‘they’? Who was speaking, and why did he think she was hurt?
She felt fear start to worm its way into her chest. “What’s happening to me? Where am I?” She hoped the voice might answer her, but after her voice faded, no other sounds broke the silence she had previously been used to.
After several minutes passed with no change, she decided to press on through the fog and hope she could come to an end of it. The crunch of her footsteps on the loose ground comforted her.
She wondered for quite a while where the voice might have come from, and if it would come again. She kept listening for it. She somehow trusted that voice. But when she had traveled for several more hours and had not heard the voice again, she began to think she had imagined it.
Just when she had convinced herself that she had imagined it, she heard the voice again, only this time in a whisper. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
Her heart skipped. She whirled around again, looking for the speaker. He seemed so close to her, but she saw nothing. “Where are you? Please, show yourself!”
Again, she waited, calling out every couple of minutes, hoping the owner of the voice would show himself. But the fog remained unbroken, and she remained alone. The more she thought about it, the voice had sounded sad.
“Just tell me where you are,” she said. “I can help you!”
She could only hear the beating of her heart. The voice was gone again.
She resumed walking.
Step after step, she walked toward the unchanging horizon that extended only a few yards around her.
Until a barren tree, its branches twisting through the mist, appeared in front of her. A leafless oak tree, she thought. Leafless and lifeless.
But it brought her hope. The creeping fear that she was wandering in circles subsided. A different unease filtered through her. Something about the tree made her wary.
She approached it slowly, eyes exploring it, looking for any sign of life, any sign of danger.
As she stepped in under the canopy of branches, the fog cleared away, its cobweb touch no longer fouling her. A raven squawked, and she looked up to see it standing on a branch near the trunk, looking down at her with beady black eyes.
“Who are you?” she asked it, but it only stared at her, apparently deeming its one warning squawk sufficient.
Choosing to ignore the raven for the moment, Henrietta looked about her and the tree, hoping to find evidence that this tree would lead her to others. But the tree appeared to live on an island in the fog. She could see no other trees beyond it.
From behind her, she thought she heard a woman singing softly. She spun around to meet this woman, but found only the tree and the raven. The song still sounded like it was coming from behind her. She spun again to find nothing but the fog.
“Show yourself,” she said. “I can hear your singing.”
The song continued, unbroken. It soothed her, and something else happened. She felt herself growing weary. Her legs ached with the effort from walking.
She thought it odd that only a minute earlier, she had felt no sign of fatigue.
“Who are you? The song is beautiful.” Henrietta waited again, but still did not receive an answer.
She turned to face the tree again. The trunk looked like a good place to rest. She went to it, set her back against the trunk, and settled to the ground.
Come back, Henrietta. She thought the words were in the song, but when she listened closer, she heard only a wordless song.
She looked up to the raven. Her eyelids had grown heavy from the moment she sat. She thought they tricked her. A woman sat on the branch the raven had previously occupied. She was bald, but for a tattoo.
She blinked, and saw the raven sitting there again.
Close your eyes.
Find your way.
More words. They reached out to her, called to her.
She fought to keep her eyes open and focused on the raven. She wanted to see if it would change again. She thought she should recognize the woman, but recognition evaded her.
The sky grew dark.
She could no longer keep her eyes open. She thought she saw the raven smile as she let them close.
Who are you that sings? Henrietta asked in thought. She could not make the words come out.
But it didn’t matter that the voice didn’t answer. Her mind emptied, and the wordless song pulled her down into a dreamless sleep.
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