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 Ashes of the Phoenix 
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Stablehand
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Post Ashes of the Phoenix
(OOC: Please talk to me first before posting)


Dark grey clouds gathered overhead, heavy with the promise of rain. Below, the sea mirrored the colour of the sky as it clashed with the cliffs, endless waves breaking themselves against the stone. Sea and stone had warred down the ages, though the cliffs fought a battle that they would ultimately lose. The waves would not give up, they would eternally break themselves against the land, wearing away at them slow inch by slow inch till nothing remained. The strength of the stone would whither away in time, though the cliffs appeared timeless now they would give in, tumbling away into the sea and carried far from where they once stood.

Seagulls flew high above, diving into the raging waters at every flash and sparkle that might betray the presence of fish. They called loudly to one another, intent on making themselves heard even over the grumble of the clouds and the clash of the warring waves. Some of them hung, almost motionless, in the sky, fools of birds that saw nothing more than the next meal. They didn't see the coming storm.

The raven sees. The raven knows. The raven remembers.

“I remember”.

On top of the cliffs a small forest clung precariously to the brown earth, their roots like gnarled fingers clinging to the soil. An old woman busied herself near a pile of small stones, picking up small sticks from nearby and placing them around the stones. What her purpose might be was difficult to know but she smiled to herself and muttered as if talking to another as she placed each stick. Her clothing was tattered, patched roughly time and time again by inexpert hands. Around her neck a black cord sat, though what hung from it was so withered and old it was impossible to tell. Long white hair, the colour of bleached bone, had been combed neatly and plaited down her back. Her eyes were covered with a strip of old cloth tied behind her head, though her blindness did not seem to bother her in her task.

Another figure sat further out, watching over the chaotic sea, eyes lost in the shadow cast by her hood. She sat hunched over, her appearance as aged as her companion’s. Her clothes were simple but old, they might once have been of good quality, all that was certain was that they had seen better days. Dirty strips of cloth covered all that might have been seen of her skin, except for her face which was covered by hood and mask. The mask was a simple and plain thing, an empty white face that any theatre troop in the land might use. Around her neck she wore a silver chain, a pair of rings set with a pale blue stone hung like tears, the only sign of wealth on either woman. She was the one who had spoken, though whether she spoke to her blind companion, to the gulls or to the sea was difficult to tell.

She remembered, she remembered so much, times when it had been so very different. “Perhaps, though, all these memories are lies, dreams that I once had”. It was so difficult at times to remember what was true and what was false. Sometimes she found herself wishing that it was all just a dream, a story that she had heard in her youth. But dreams required sleep and she didn’t do that anymore. Sleep had become like death, a creature that had once haunted her but had now forgotten her, left her to exist.

Not to live, but to simply exist.

“It wasn’t always this way, I’m sure that once it was different, I’m sure that once I was happy”. She knew what ‘happy’ was, felt sure that she had once experienced it, but it was difficult to grasp that memory, it slipped from her mental grasp and dashed away into the darkness of her mind. It didn’t want to be caught, burrowing itself deep inside her, hiding away with all the things she no longer wanted to remember.

Her companion looked up, smiling through crooked teeth. “I was happy, I know I was, when he was with me. My son. My precious, clever son. Oh, he used to make me so happy, so proud”. The blind woman broke off suddenly, frowning as her smile disappeared, “Where is he? Where’s my son? My precious, clever son, where is he? He’s lost, he’s…”

The masked woman looked away, uneasy and sickened by memories. ‘Your son was a murderer, a monster’, she thought to herself, unable to speak the words aloud.

“I remember now”, sorrow clouded the blind woman’s face. “He took him away, the angel took my son away. The angel gave him to me and the angel took him away. Did I do something wrong?”

“No my friend, you did nothing wrong”, she didn’t have the heart to tell her friend the truth of what had happened to her son. Even after all the time that had passed it was better for her to remain in her madness than know the truth. “Everything has its time, it is born and it dies, that is just the way things are. Just as it was with your son”.

The answer seemed to placate the blind woman and she went back to what she had been doing. The conversation was at an end but they would undoubtedly have it at least another dozen times before night fell. “Memories fall from your grasp so quickly my friend”, the masked woman whispered as she turned back to regard the churning sea. “I think perhaps that that is for the best”. Some things were best forgotten, her friend’s son was definitely in that category.

“I remember other places, other lands, other skies. Somehow though it always comes back to this, cliffs, stormy seas, a final step that was promised to me and yet it is one that I cannot take”, she sighed to herself, the mask not showing whatever emotion wracked the face beneath. “Perhaps it is cowardice on my part, perhaps it is not yet time. I think that it is cowardice though, a lack of strength in me. I fool myself at times that I cannot take that step because it would leave her behind, a blind woman left in a world that has no place for her. It would be cruel to do that, but I have been called cruel before, cruel and a great deal worse than that” The laughter that echoed from behind the mask was hollow and harsh, a bitter laugh that was aimed firmly at herself.

“Yes, they called me worse than cruel. Called me witch, called me mad, called me traitor. Even those who called me ally wished me ill, some even wished me death. And there were certainly those who thought that death was too good for the likes of me. They wanted to hear me scream and beg for mercy…but I have never done that. Too damned stubborn for that”.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Thu Jul 05, 2007 8:57 am
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She wasn’t sure how things had come to be as they were. She wasn’t even sure how her companion and herself had come to be in this land or who claimed it as their own. Still, no one seemed overly bothered about the two old women who lived in the forest. Occasionally she would spy people from the nearest village in the woods but they all gave her a wide berth, whispering behind their hands and running away at the sight of her. Sometimes the older children would dare one another to go to the Witches’ Wood, to prove their young bravery and daring. The nastier ones would throw sticks or stones at the old women, fleeing as soon as they had thrown them. One had caught the blind woman on her cheek, opening the flesh deeply and leaving a scar even after months of healing.

For the most part though the people left the old women alone, content to do them no harm so long as they brought no harm to the village. Now and then some of the village women would leave a loaf of bread or a flagon of watery mead as an offering to the ‘witches’, hoping for luck in their love lives or curses for their rivals. The old women neither cursed nor cast spells but they accepted the offerings anyway, there was a limit to what they could provide for themselves. And besides, there was no need to waste such things on the animals of the woods.

A light touch on her shoulder startled the masked woman from her thoughts. She looked up into the face of her blind companion. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised after all this time by how quietly you move”, she grumbled, annoyed at herself more than anything.

The blind woman patted her gently on the head and cackled to herself, “You may have your eyes but you don’t use your ears”.

“What do you want?”

“I’m going to brush your hair, you don’t take good care of yourself. Just like my son, you never look after yourself. He was just the same, always running this way and that without a thought to his well-being”. She paused in her rambling, “Where is he?” The masked woman saw the panic begin to appear in her friend’s face again. “Where is my-“

She cut into the blind woman’s question with one of her own, “You wanted to brush my hair?” She would endure just about anything to not have to hear about the lost son again.

The panic faded as her thoughts were drawn away from her long-gone child. “Yes, yes I did. You never look after yourself. That’s why you’re in this state, you know. If you had just taken care of yourself, mind and body, then you’d be so much better now, so pretty, so healthy. Not all bandaged and bound, not hiding behind that silly mask”. She knelt down and pulled down the hood that the masked woman wore. A long swath of black hair tumbled down from where it had been hidden and soon fell to the attentions of the blind woman’s comb.

“It doesn’t feel like it used to you know”.

“What do you mean?”

“Your hair, it used to feel so soft when I brushed it, almost like silk. Now it feels coarse, dry, different. Did it change?”

The masked woman nodded sadly, “It’s black now, black like ashes. Everything’s changed now, why shouldn’t it have changed too? Everything I knew is dead, or decayed to the point that I barely recognise it anymore”. The last days had been so confusing, so muddled. She remembered leaving the settlement, knowing with a terrible certainty that she had to move on, that something was coming for her. There was no way to avoid it, and so she had fled, run away from whatever had been chasing her, convincing herself that she was thinking of the people and not just herself.

That was where the memories grew confusing, a mishmash of half seen faces and snatches of words. There had been sickness and death, someone reaching out for her aid, someone calling to her by name. Terrible noises, screams where there should have been silence, confusion and pain…

Then fire, an angel whose wings burned and whose voice whispered in her mind…

Burning wings and arms that reached out for her…

A distance, a journey…

The fire burning…

Burning her…

And then the fire went out.

She came to from her memories with a start to find herself still sitting by the cliff-side, the blind woman working the comb through her hair. Her heart was racing from the memories, from the nameless terror that they always evoked in her. How she had found her blind companion in those first few days after the fire she could not say, where the memories should have been was simply a black hole in her mind. She only remembered blackness, black feathers, burning and a word – Hrafn – that she had taken for her name.

The masked woman, Hrafn, shook her head, disturbing the motion of the blind woman’s combing. She clucked her tongue disapprovingly at Hrafn, “Now you just sit still and stop squirming, how am I meant to get rid of the tangles if you keep moving?”

Hrafn didn’t answer her companion’s rhetorical question, her thoughts where elsewhere, where angels flew and feathers burned hot. “Do you sometimes think that we’ve gone on too long? That you and I were meant to have passed on long ago? I sometimes feel worn through, as if time has stretched me thin, as if I have lived longer than I should have”.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Thu Jul 05, 2007 9:17 am
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The blind woman rapped her on the back of her hand with the comb. Carved crudely from a piece of animal bone, the comb had been missing several of its teeth months. “You’re just feeling old and sorry for yourself, it happens to us all”.

“I don’t think so, I’ve been old, very old”, she looked down at her bound and bandaged hands, knowing that the skin beneath was blackened by a fire that she barely remembered. The flesh never healed, it just remained as it was, burned and ebon black. And sometimes she seemed to feel as though she were still burning in the angel’s wings, still being consumed by those fires that had long since gone out. She wished she could remember the truth of that time, had it truly been an angel or just a figment of her imagination? “No this feels different, as if I’ve missed my time, as if I should have died and gone on to whatever waits for me in the afterlife”.

The blind woman, who Hrafn had named Due, muttered something unheard beneath her breath and then spoke up. “I know what’s waiting for me. I was promised it, promised by the one who took my son. He promised me a place in the light, a place by his side. Yes a place in the middle where the light shone, not like the others, the bad ones, the heretics. They’re going to be cast into the shadows, out into the darkness to weep and cry where none shall hear them. But I’m going into the light, He promised me. He did. I remember it. The one who took my son promised me…where is my son?”

“He’s gone Due, my dear, gone and never to return. And I know he was your precious and I know you loved him like no other. But he’s not coming back”, Hrafn said tiredly. But she thought to herself, ‘Your monstrous, awful son, is never coming back and the world is a better place for that’. She believed that passionately, even if she saw the pain that his absence brought her friend. Better that Due lost her son and suffered than others lost everything because of her son.

“Has he gone into the light?”

“Yes, yes, that’s where he’s gone…into the light”.

Due smiled brightly, “Then everything’s well, he’s in the light, waiting for his mother. Such a good boy”.

The light. The fire. Hrafn’s thoughts were not on the possible location of Due’s son or his fate. “You know”, she said slowly, “I remember hearing tales of the phoenix, a bird of flame and fire, a creature of rebirth. When it reached the end of its life it would build itself a fire and cast itself into the flames, burning up and destroying itself. And in its dying flames a new phoenix egg would form and be warmed till the new bird broke free and rose from the flames of the old. But I wonder what would happen if the phoenix never built its pyre, what if it kept on living? Would its flames simply go out one day?”

“It sounds like a very silly bird to me”.

Hrafn didn’t react, didn’t even seem to hear the light-hearted words of her blind companion. “I wonder if we’re like that, like a pair of phoenixes that have gone on too long, that should have burned themselves up and left the world to a new generation. Perhaps that’s what happened to me”, she looked down again at her hands. “Perhaps I didn’t finish burning”.

Due stood up suddenly and headed towards where she had sat before, “You want a fire? I can build a fire”. She scrambled around by the stones, feeling for the twigs that she could not see. “We can build a nice, big fire, a real blaze to burn in”.

The masked woman moved deceptively fast, much quicker than her previously hunched posture would have given credit to. “No”, she said, grasping Due’s wrist and forcing her to drop the twigs. There was real iron in her voice, a hardness that belied her sad musings, a voice given to command and to expect obedience.

“That hurt”, Due said petulantly, rubbing her wrist.

“I’m sorry”, she said tiredly. She could hardly explain the fear that Due’s words had caused in her. The blind woman had always been drawn to fire and flames, it seemed to elicit a fierce joy in her, a feeling only matched by Hrafn’s own black terror at the same thing. The flames brought back the memories, the burning, the fear, the almost overwhelming sorrow. All her other memories seemed like stories told to her, but the memory of the angel with the burning wings was all too real, all too fearful.

The blind woman barely seemed to notice the apology, changing quickly as the winds from sorrow to joy. It was often her way, her emotions swinging wildly from one extreme to another. One moment she might weep for her lost son, the next she would laugh with joy over some remembered time. Often Hrafn would find her seemingly talking to some figure that only she could see, holding conversations with people who had long since sought their graves. Due smiled to herself as the masked woman watched and started to sing to herself:

” I sought Him whom my soul did love,
With tears I sought Him earnestly;
He bowed His ear down from above.
In vain I did not seek or cry.

My hungry soul He filled with good,
He in His bottle put my tears,
My smarting wounds washed in His blood,
And banished thence my doubts and fears.

What to my Saviour shall I give,
Who freely hath done this for me?
I'll serve Him here whilst I shall live
And love Him to eternity.”

That Due was mad, Hrafn had no doubt of, what worried her more was that she might be just as mad.


[OOC: Poem taken from ‘Here Follow Several Occasional Meditations’ by Anne Bradstreet.]

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Thu Jul 05, 2007 9:18 am
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Hrafn watched as her blind companion twirled and span, dancing in her own way, singing a hymn that came to her from times when her son was still with her. She watched the blind woman sadly, knowing that her friend did not really know what the words of the song were about or who they referred to. ‘There again, would it be any better if I told her? Would she really understand? I doubt it. It would probably only cause her greater confusion’.

She stopped, stock still, as the sound of nearby voices reached her. Though she couldn’t make out what was being said, Hrafn could at least recognise that the speakers were trying to be quiet and sneak up on the old women. She pressed herself into the shadows of one of the nearby trees, losing herself in the darkness as the interlopers came nearer. Due seemed oblivious to any possible danger, singing and dancing, her steps amazingly stable for one who was denied sight of the world.

The voices drew nearer and Hrafn squinted her eyes as she tried to make out who was coming their way. People rarely came this deep into the wood, preferring to take what they needed from the edges. The villagers were content to take their wood from the trees nearer their homes, leaving the wood to the so-called witches. There was no reason for travellers to use the woods as a shortcut, the only thing that they lead to was the cliffs, which were far too high to support any kind of port or smuggler’s den. “Who comes?” Hrafn whispered, “Who seeks us out?”

Figured appeared through the trees, clumsy and awkward but at least attempting to keep to the shadows. Lanky limbs and unbroken voices, the children of the village were being very daring it seemed, seeking to sneak up on the ‘witches’ themselves. Due’s singing had caught their attention, they made no move to see Hrafn and showed no sign that they had seen her.

“Look, a witch”, one of the children said, pointing at Due as she danced in the glade.

A younger boy hrumphed, “Doesn’t look very much like a witch to me. Looks like a mad woman and I’ve seen them before. Old Hettie our neighbour talks to herself and wears black, no one calls her a witch”.

“Shush, she’ll hear us and turn us into toads!”

The younger lad was not impressed, “I reckon not. I reckon I could walk right up to her and twist her nose and nuffin’ would happen to me. Mad old woman living in the woods, I’m not afraid of her”. Hrafn could just make out the speaker folding his arms across his puffed out chest, nose tilted skywards, not at all afraid. She could just imagine what sort of man he would grow up to be, she’d met his sort more than a few times in her life. Loud, coarse and obnoxious, he’d certainly annoy more than his fair share as he grew to manhood and probably afterwards too.

One of the other children crept forward, whispering like a conspirator, “My sis Maggy said that they was witches, said that she saw them casting all kinds of strange magicks under moonlight”.

“Ha, I don’t believe that any more than I believe she’d turn us into toads. She blind, she can’t even see us”.

“Maggy said so”, Maggy’s brother said defensively and more than a little loudly. He clamped his hands across his mouth as though trying to silence his words. When he spoke again his words were so soft that Hrafn had to strain to hear them. “Maggy said so. She said they was dancing and casting and calling out to evil powers. And looks that one’s dancing, bet she’s casting some kinda spell right now”.

“She’s a mad old woman, singing one of ‘em old church songs. Nuffin’ scary about that”.

“How do you know that it’s an old church song? Might be calling out to evil powers to do stuff”.

“Why would it be evil powers?”, the oldest of the group asked suddenly. “They might be good witches, you know ones that cure diseases and make sure that the crops are all good and all”.

Snorting derisively, the younger boy spat, “Everyone knows that you don’t get good witches. They’re evil, that’s what witches are and they do evil things. That’s why they have to live out here in the woods by themselves, rather than bein’ in the village. Because they’re evil”.

“I thought you said that they weren’t witches”, Maggy’s brother teased.

“They aren’t, that’s just a mad woman”, he replied angrily, annoyed at being caught out by one of his peers. “Look, I can prove it to you”, he scouted around the ground nearby and picked up a small fallen branch. “Bet I can knock her right on the head with this and nuffin’ bad will happen to me. No toads, no frogs, no kind of pond-scum at all”. He reached back his arm and prepared to throw the stick at Due.

That was quite enough, Hrafn couldn’t let the boy continue and risk hurting her blind companion. Perhaps in stopping him she could teach him a lesson too, teach him to have a bit of respect for his elders. There was no call for a young boy to go throwing things at people, especially someone like Due who had done him no harm. There was far too much of that in the world as it was, people harming one another for no good reason. But hadn’t that always been the way, one lot hurting another, injuring, taking, even killing. She’d understood all that kind of behaviour once, now she didn’t understand it at all, perhaps it was just another symptom of having lived too long for her own good.

Hrafn snatched up a small stone from by her feet and pressed it close between her hands. She didn’t like what she was about to do, though the villagers might consider the pair of old women witches she preferred to leave magic well alone. The masked woman shut her eyes and reached deep inside herself, deeper than where her happy memories hid, deeper than her memories of the last days, beyond the memories she didn’t want to face. Into the blackness of her soul, past even that, to the heart of her being, to the core of who and what she was, to where the fire burned hot within her and the secrets glowed white-hot in the crucible of her magic.

She drew the magic into her hands, shaped it with her will and whispered word, forced it into the stone. Opening her hands, the stone rose up, glowing faintly, it flew towards the child, knocking the stick from his hand just as he was about to throw it.

“By my will and by my word”, she whispered as the glow around the stone expanded. The nimbus of light formed itself into the shape of a pale, moaning visage, an eerie kenning echoing about the woods as it circled the children, their courage now turned to water, the bravest of them wishing that he were elsewhere. There faces were pale and their eyes had grown wide at the sight of the ‘ghost’.

“The witch”, one of them shrieked, “She’s going to turn us all to toads”. With cries and screams they took to their heels, determined not to slow from a run until they were safely within their mothers’ arms. It would be a while before any more impudent children decided to try their courage in the Witches’ Wood.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Thu Jul 05, 2007 9:18 am
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“Now was there any need for that?” Due said, turning unerringly towards the shadows where Hrafn had hidden despite her blindness. Her ability to ‘know’ the world around her without seeing it was uncanny, sometimes Hrafn feared that some portion of her younger life still existed within her. The madness of her blind companion had also twisted her memories, something that the masked woman was all too glad for. Sometimes though, just sometimes, there was a hint, a tiny spark that might suggest that some memory or power from that earlier time still existed. “They were only children, dear, sweet, little children like my son”.

“Troublemakers and hooligans more like”, Hrafn grumbled, irritable as she always was after using magic. Something within her seemed to be trying to get her attention, something that made her feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it held some secret but it was one that she was unwilling to face, another mark of her own cowardice it seemed.

She was a coward, she’d come to that conclusion long ago. Perhaps that was even why she was being punished so, burnt by the wings of the angel whose flames had gone out. It was a possibility that she often considered on the long dark nights as she watched Due sleep. How different might it all have been had she stood and faced her enemy long ago rather than fleeing? During the last nights, those times when her memories were still clear, she knew that she had fled from the settlement, that she had run away from all those that had depended on her. Why would she have run if she hadn’t been afraid of something?

Fear was a natural thing, she knew that, everyone tended to have something that they were afraid of at some point in their lives. Few acknowledged their fear though, it hardly helped the reputation of a mighty warlord to admit that he was afraid of spiders after all.

Hrafn turned her back on Due and stalked off to sit by the cliff-top once more. Her memories were fine…right up to those last few days before the fire and the burning. “I remember other days, even if those memories seem like stories told to another”, she muttered to herself, watching the endless crash of wave upon rock. “I remember names, places, people, events, years upon years, upon years of them. I remember wars and times of peace, births, deaths and weddings. There was a wedding once, I went there hooded and cloaked, leaving nothing but a blue rose that would never fade for the happy couple. I know that it happened to me and yet…it seems so vague, almost faint”.

“I remember demons and angels, human and Sidhe, elf and goblin, droben and elemental”. She leaned back against the trunk of a tree that had fallen down during the last winter storm. A shuddering breath ran through her body, harsh and ragged as it left her lips. “There was a journey, one that changed my life, but I did not start the journey with the others who travelled. No, I went in secret and by shadows, I kept myself to myself, trying to stop the journey, to prevent its end. But I was there at the end all the same, amid fire and blood I was there. I saw the book, I saw Them…” She closed her eyes at the memories, pushing them away as they struck at the very core of her.

“Why was it always fire? Why does it haunt me? Flames of gold and red and blue, they’ve followed me through the years. And yet when He promised me death it was by water”. Hrafn looked sideways at Due, watching the blind woman cautiously, “Fire was always your way, not mine”.

She pushed herself up to standing suddenly, walking with determination towards the edge of the cliff. The masked woman stopped at the very last moment, looking out over the grey and wind-tossed seas. Hrafn spoke through gritted teeth, spitting the words into the salt-laden skies, “I remember, I still remember, I always remember. I am the blackened raven and I remember. Why is that not enough? Why won’t You let this end? Is Your power truly gone? Do You not even have the strength left to give me what You promised?”

“I remember when demons had honour greater than those around them. I remember when giants fell to the attacks of mere gnats. I remember when a shadow destroyed a city and when madness gripped what was left. I remember the bones and the blood and the death”, if she had been able to cry she would have wept for all that had been lost. All that was dead and all that had never had the chance to live. “I remember when loyalty was repaid with a curse and when faith was met with a glimpse of the future that perhaps was best left unseen”.

A couple of stones gave way beneath her feet, the cliff-edge crumbling under her weight and falling to the hungry grasp of the sea below. Hrafn didn’t move though, she held her ground, even if that ground did not seem safe. She raised her hands to her face and removed the mask, though only the ocean saw what lay beneath. Not even Due knew why she covered her face.

“Is this how it was meant to be? If this all that is left?” Her questions were snatched from her lips by the wind, pulled out to the sea where they would never find an answer.

“Why won’t You let this end? Did You truly die and leave all Your promised unfulfilled? Is this, in the end, all just a trick? That was always Your way”, Hrafn hung her head and replaced the mask, it held itself to her face without any sign of string or hook. There would be no answer to her questions, why should there be? She had asked them a thousand times before and never been answered, never even seen a sign that the one she spoke to still lived. “Is this what it comes to? That the last one who speaks to You is the last one to truly believe in You?” She laughed bitterly. “Why won’t you let this end?”

“Because it is not yet time”, came the answer from another voice.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Mon Jul 09, 2007 4:30 am
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The voice that came from Due’s mouth was not her own, or at least it wasn’t the voice that Hrafn was used to hearing. It was harsher, stronger, it demanded attention, it burned with a fiery passion that had long since deserted the blind woman. “All promises are fulfilled in their time and this is not yet the time”. Though she had not turned from the cliff’s edge she sensed that the blind woman stood close behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled under the wrappings that covered her skin, the closeness unnerving Hrafn. “Are you really so eager for it to be at an end?”

Hrafn squeezed her eyes shut as if trying to block out the words that had been spoken through her blind companion. “You couldn’t stop me. I could fulfil the promise now if I wanted to, you couldn’t…there’s nothing to prevent it. There’s no power left in you, perhaps there was nothing to you before, maybe all your much vaunted ‘strength’ was nothing except what we imagined it to be”. More stones gave way beneath her footing, they skipped and scratched as they fell down from the heights, occasionally breaking off more to join them in their leap to the sea. No sound reached the masked woman when the stones hit the raging waters, it was all drowned out by the roar of the angry waves. The falling stones made it all seem so easy, so natural…

…and yet the same path was denied to her.

Due’s words, or rather the words of the one who seemed to speak through her, were cruel, mocking. “I don’t need to stop you, you stop yourself, witch. That’s always been the way with you, all that power and yet never the will to use it. You, and you alone, could have ended this years ago and yet you didn’t. What’s wrong witch? Afraid? You pretend that it’s because ‘your task is not yet completed’ but you and I know the truth don’t we?” The blind woman leaned even closer, her lips brushing against the edge of the mask that covered Hrafn’s face. Like a lover, like a conspirator, closer than close, the nearness of the old blind woman was almost suffocating. The words were soft as silk, a seduction in sound but married with a mocking bitterness all the same. It was the voice of a tormentor and a lover rolled into one, like twisted velvet that hide silver needles within its gentleness. “There’s no great task for you, there never was, but you clung to life all the same, grasping at it like a miser grasps his coins. You bemoaned and bewailed the lot given to you in life but you held it near you like a beloved all the same. Admit it, here, now, admit it, admit the real reason why you could never really let go of it”.

Hrafn shook her head violently, fearful of using her voice lest it betray her.

“Admit it witch, what’s there to fear? Only you and I are here, only we’ll ever know. Ah but that’s the truth of the matter isn’t it, you’ve never admitted it, not even to yourself. Not even in the secret places of your mind. You who always searched for truth hid behind your own lies all along.

The masked woman found her voice again, the words rushing out of her, a torrent that left her speechless, “I admit nothing. There was too much to do, I couldn’t leave it to another, I couldn’t trust any of them to carry on in my place”.

Due laughed, high and mocking, a sharpened blade scratching a mirror. The blind woman pressed one hand low against Hrafn’s back, just the gentlest of pressures. “Go on then, like you said I can’t stop you but neither will I condone you. I withhold my promise still and if that has no power over you then there’s nothing to stop you. It’s such a little thing after all, just a single step and then it’ll all be over. Surely a single step isn’t too much for you? You, who were so powerful, remember when you drained the monolith? Surely a single step would not task you overly if you were capable of that?”

“I never did that,” Hrafn shouted back, spitting her words with a violence that rarely gripped her. “That was lies, all lies”.

Whatever spirit or ghost held Due in its grasp laughed again, throwing back the blind woman’s head and howling it’s maddening laughter at the skies. “Oh so defensive, so angry even after all this time. My brother should have guarded you better, then I would never have had the chance to whisk you out from under his nose. He would have loved you had you only given him the chance”.

“He was a bastard who cared nothing for those around him”.

“Oh very truly spoken, he wore his pride like armour, but it did nothing to save those who pledged themselves to his service. Not like those who flocked to your side, eh?” The question was asked softly, slickly, a spill of oil on water, the voice lowering, softening. “Those who pledged themselves to you were so safe, weren’t they? So well protected…you were just as bad as him”. Due spat the last words out as if they tasted bad on her tongue. “Even this one”, the blind woman’s hands went to her own throat, caressing, touching, stroking. “A blind woman who trusted you, who thought you would stay by your word, even her you betrayed. Her, her son, her people, you betrayed them all. And why did you do it? For the same reason that you can’t take this one simple step and end it all”.

“No that’s not true”.

The blind woman pressed one hand against Hrafn’s spine once more. “Admit it then witch. Or would you prefer I ask you nicely?

“You don’t know the meaning of nice,” she answered defiantly.

“Oh but I do, I’ve been so nice to you so far”, Due took her hand from the masked woman’s spine, wrapping her arm around Hrafn’s waist instead, holding her close. Her voice dropped again to a seductive whisper, though the mocking shade never left it. “I have been so very nice witch. See, I even call you witch, when you and I both know that there are far worse things that you could be called. This ‘Hrafn’ is the least of them, I could call you ‘murderess’ couldn’t I? I could call you ‘sorceress’, I could even call you-“

“Enough,” Hrafn interrupted, “Enough”.

Due’s body released the masked woman and stepped away. “Then admit it, just to the two of us, the blind woman doesn’t count, she won’t remember any of this happening. Admit it, admit why you can’t end this”.

Hrafn turned slowly, stepping past her companion. “I can’t do it…I’m afraid”, her voice was ragged with emotion but no tears pricked at her eyes. It had been many a long year since she had last been able to cry. Her tears had all been spent long ago, on the dead that only she remembered now. “I’m afraid that I’m not worthy, that I’ve done too much, harmed too many. There’s blood on these hands,” She held her well bandaged hands up before her face as if she expected to see the blood there even now. “It’s there, it’s on my soul, I’m marked by the deaths of so many people. I had no right to condemn them as I did. And everything I tried to do as penance was not enough, not nearly enough, it just seemed to lead me further into sin not into grace”.

“You see that’s why I always liked you,” Due smiled wickedly, no sign of any sympathy upon her face. “You understood so well without even realising it. You put yourself through all this misery and suffering and for what? For nothing. Such a soul, such a prize, so wracked by guilt and despair, and all of it created by yourself. Oh yes, you were always one of my favourites, witch”.

The masked woman seemed to have been turned deaf, she didn’t react in the slightest to the mocking words. Her eyes were set elsewhere, her mind caught up in the past memories of her sins. “They are too great, too heavy to simply be put aside, to just be forgotten”. She blinked slowly, seeming to once again see the real world around her, but the veil of sadness and guilt did not leave her eyes. “How can I leave it this way? How can I even consider the endless sleep? I’ll find no peace there, it will reject me”.

The mocking spirit watched Hrafn closely through Due’s eyes, “There will come a time when it comes to an end, all things must. I will fulfil my promise then and only then witch, we made a deal, remember that. Hold to your side of the bargain and I’ll hold to mine, never fear that. I have honour - of a sort - after all”. Due walked back towards the masked woman, her steps somehow far more masculine than they were when the blind woman controlled her body. Blind though the body was she pushed back Hrafn’s hood and ran her fingers through her black hair, murmuring, “Black as night. Black as the raven. The raven, Hrafn, the burned bird…yes it makes its own kind of sense”. She rolled a length of the long black hair up in her fist, all gentleness switching to violence in the blink of an eye. Due lowered her fist, forcing the masked woman down till she knelt on the ground. “When I fulfil my promise, and it will be a time of my choosing, you will get your wish. You’ll find your peace one way or another. Either in the manner of your people…or in the manner of mine”, she grinned widely.

Suddenly all the strength went out of Due and when she spoke it was once again with her own voice. “What’s happening? Why am I here?”

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Thu Jul 12, 2007 9:51 am
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Stablehand
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Darkness, nothing but darkness. But there were stars, there should be stars, had they all been extinguished? Where were the constellations? She’d known them as well as her own face once, but now where were they? Where was the Sword? The Architect? The Fallen Angel? The Dragon’s Flame? Why couldn’t she see them? Why was it so dark? Where was the light of Soma and Numi?

Voices. Screams. Cries. But it should be silent, they were always silent. What was going on? Where was she?

Then flames, burning in the inky blackness. Flames of pure cobalt blue. Coming closer, reaching out to envelop her. A fear that stabbed her to the core. A terror like none she had ever known before. Hands flung up to protect and defend. The flames should not be there, coming closer, wings of fire swooping through the darkness. No, stay back.

No.

Leave me be. I don’t want this. Don’t come near me.

No. Implacable. The flames drawing nearer. Relentless.

It’s over, let it end.

It doesn’t end here. Not for you.

No, please, what are you doing? NO! A scream. From where? Her…her scream.

Flames burning, burning her. A pain like none she had ever experienced before. All darkness gone, fled before the sapphire fires. Held close in the fires, a burning embrace. Pain with the promise of salvation. Salvation that she did not want. Let her be damned. Let it be done with. Salvation was for those who deserved it. Don’t do this, I beg you.

A voice filled with unimaginable sorrow. I have to. You gave me life once, purpose, a sacrifice beyond gold or gems. Now I give those gifts back to you.

Please… It hurt so badly. Fires licking at her flesh. Flames blinding her with their brightness.

It has to be this way. Don’t cry for me. Flames burning low, flickering, dying. Darkness creeping in once again. Not total, not the void like before. There were stars, heavenly lanterns dancing in stately procession across the skies. Grass beneath her body. A cool breeze heavy with the scents of life. And burning, burnt flesh, seared body.

And there was pain, always pain.

The flames flickered one last time. And died. A whisper that could not be heard. I love you.


Hrafn came to with a start, shocked to wakefulness by the dream. She held herself tightly, bandaged hands holding fast to her waist, rocking slowly back and forth as the dream faded. The masked woman rarely slept but when she did the same dream always sought her out without fail. Her breath came in ragged gasps as the terror that the dream brought subsided. It was after all only a dream, it couldn’t hurt her, not any more, the original event had harmed her more than enough. But the fear was always there waiting for her once she woke up.

“If there are any Gods left, then thank Them that I don’t sleep often”, she muttered, getting to her feet. Hrafn stepped out of the ramshackle hut that she shared with Due. It had once belonged to an old hermit who had called the forest home, but he was long gone, whatever wisdom his solitude had given him vanished with him. When the women had first come across the place they had found little but his bones left, still laying on the pile of dried leaves and fur scraps that he had called his bed. Now he rested in the embrace of the earth nearby, a decent burial had been the only coin that they had been able to offer him in exchange for his home.

It had taken several hours before Due had calmed down after the unsettling events of the afternoon. Hours of whispered lies to assure her that nothing had happened, that she had just fallen asleep, that nothing unusual had occurred. What else could Hrafn tell her? That an old ‘friend’ had come to pay a visit and chosen the blind woman to act as his puppet? No, she couldn’t tell her that, it brought up too many questions that she was unwilling to answer. It was bad enough that any mention of children sparked Due off with talk of her son as it was, what other memories would be dredged up from the blind woman’s madness if Hrafn told her of their visitor?

Outside the hut everything was normal, nothing bore a sign of the earlier trouble. That was always the way of things though, momentous events might torture a soul but the world moved on regardless. What did the lands care if a peasant mourned for a dead parent or a lord celebrated the birth of his heir? The lands carried on, the sun rose and set, grass grew and flowers unfurled their petals, all unmoved by the actions of the races that always saw themselves as so important in the world. Slave or king, thrall or noble, freeman or baron, the lands carried on, not caring if they wept or danced or laughed.

Cicadas sang their way through the night in the long grass, filling the shadows with a soft song. In the distance she could just hear the endless crash of the waves upon the cliffs, the roar made quiet by distance. Dawn was still a couple of hours away, the horizon was still dark, not yet showing the gentle blush that would herald the arrival of the son. “Is it still called Intop? Do the people remember?”

Hrafn remembered, she always remembered, that was her curse. The memories might fade or blur with time but they were always there, constant companions. When sleep did creep up on her though only the memory of the angel with fiery wings haunted her though. The terror of the remembered flames would not leave her be, her heart still pounded with the fear. Even under her wrappings her flesh still seemed to burn, the pain unremitting though she had long since learned to bear it.

But beyond the fright, beyond the hurt, there was something else that troubled her from the dream; the sorrow. She had lost something, something precious and important, something that she would never be able to get back again. The angel had loved her, loved her so much that she had given up her fire and her life for Hrafn. The masked woman remembered how the flames had guttered and died, gone out forever just to save her. “Why did you do it? I didn’t deserve it, never deserved it”.

She looked out into the darkness, into shadows that would never be banished by the azure flames. “I love you”, she whispered to one who would never again hear her.

“I love you”.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Tue Jul 17, 2007 8:42 am
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Stablehand
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The sun rose inch by inch over the distant horizon, shy dawn blushing the sky a pale pink. Hrafn watched it, unable to sleep since the dream had let her slip from its grasp. It had been many years since she had last slept an entire night. Most evenings saw her watching the shadows silently, half afraid that they would move and reveal themselves to be something else. Sometimes though she caught herself wishing that they would prove themselves unnatural, at least then, at least if they were some part of him come to claim revenge…

She shuddered though the early morning’s chill did not truly touch her, shades of past torments and regrets were far more potent. “So many years, so many terrible acts, so many things left undone, words unspoken”. But at the time it had all seemed so different, there had only appeared to be one path that she could have taken, only one road left open to her. If she had her time again could she really have acted any other way? When she had stood in the cave, cold iron in hand, could she really not have struck the demon down? When the body had been laid before her could she have refused to do what they asked of her? When she had been asked to remain at the Sanctuary did she really have to leave? At the time the answers had been so obvious, indeed back then there didn’t appear to be a question to begin with. Now though, it all seemed so different, “The benefit of hindsight”.

They always said that the vision of hindsight was perfect, that only by looking back at the past were the answers clear and the paths laid out. She wasn’t sure she believed that though, not all the while at least. Looking back things became…well not clear at least. They didn’t have the crystal clarity that hindsight promised, they were softened by time and distance. She knew that the fall of the city had hurt her badly but now it was just another memory, the razor-edge of the pain dulled, the ache of loss just a memory and not a true feeling.

The city…

It had been so beautiful, a fae city born of dream with twisting spires and glistening stone, pennants of silk snapping in the wind. Like the forest’s edge it too had been placed high on the edge of a cliff so that the roar of the sea had been a constant song to its inhabitants. Its people had hailed from all manner of fae races, all living as one people within the city walls, looking to the castle for protection and safety. They had trusted her and paid for that trust with their lives.

“I let them down when first I returned from that demon-spawned quest”, Hrafn whispered to herself. She had returned and turned the hatred that she had felt against the city’s main gates. The gates had been build for defence against both the physical and the magical. Solid oak, banded with strong metal, they had stood against battering rams for many a war. On the gates themselves she had scribed several sets of protective runes, her own power strengthening them. Three sets for runes, each in a different tongue, one for each God that she had put her trust in. “And wasn’t that a mistake? Biggest mistake I could have made and yet I managed to make it three times. Thrice a fool and thrice damned”.

She picked up a length of stick and began to draw out the runes as she remembered them, as they had been before she had scratched one set out upon her return from the ill-fated quest. “One set for justice, one for all races, one for a promise forever unfulfilled,” Hrafn muttered beneath her breath. There were some who’d once called her wise, thinking that her long years were enough to grant her wisdom. How could she possibly be considered wise when she’d made so many mistakes? Yet weren’t people meant to learn from their mistakes? If that were true then the greatest fool in the land had been wiser than she had been, learning from her mistakes had never been her strong point.

“What are you doing out here already? I can barely feel the sun, are you watching to make sure that Intop rises? He always does, always has at least,” Due’s voice did not break the masked woman’s concentration, she continued to mark out runes that had not been seen for many a year. The blind woman stepped carefully towards her, missing the stones and roots that could have snared her. Due was special, that was for sure, no ordinary blind woman should have had such sure steps. “Do you think that Intop will fail to rise if you’re not there to greet him? You’re not that important my dear”.

“You know sleep is no sweet companion of mine”.

Due reached her and lowered herself gently to the ground, “Old bones aren’t meant for this kind of thing. Now what are you doing here?” She felt out before her, touching the stick that Hrafn was using as a stylus, following it down till she touch the scratched earth. “Writing something are you? Paper and ink is better for that, or stone and blood, that’s what they used to do”.

“Only in your home”.

The blind woman tutted and traced out the runes, “Hmmmm I know some of these. Old words, very old. This language, not used in many a year, words of the old spell-casters, the first if I’m not mistaken. The Sidhe, yes I know some of these words, words of theirs. This one’s a name”, she touched one of the marks on the ground, then moved swiftly to two others, “These ones too. Old names, old words. I don’t think there’s any power left in these ones, not the names at least. Angelique, Celan, Foret, old names, old words, old faiths. And there’s not one of these that you trust any more”.

Hrafn frowned and angrily scrubbed out the words, regretting that she had written them out at all. The blind woman knew too much, though she had forgotten more of her past than she remembered there were still some things that she knew. Things that Hrafn would rather Due didn’t know. “They’re just words, nothing more, they have no hold on me now. I gave them up and they gave me up, turned their backs on me”.

“Now isn’t that a silly thing, words can’t turn their backs on you”.

“That’s not what I meant”, the masked woman said sullenly.

“Then you should say what you mean, no point in saying things if you don’t mean it. Words can have power, you know that, I know that, these ones may have lost theirs but that doesn’t mean they always will. Have to be careful about words, don’t know what they might summon up”. The blind woman got back to her feet, discomfort crossing her face as old aches and pains made themselves known. She walked away muttering to herself about old words and old names, things half-remembered and half-glimpsed in her mind.

The ground before Hrafn was a mess of runes and scratched out lines, churned up earth bearing little resemblance to what she had written moments before. “Angelique, Celan, Foret, have you really lost all power? And what should it mean to me if you have? You did not help me before and I doubt you’d help me now even if you could”. She threw down the stick and got to her feet, feeling more than her fair share of twinges and troubles herself. Years did tend to leave their mark on a body one way or another. “You’re an old fool Hrafn and there’s no fool like an old one, or so they say. An old fool with old memories. Bah”, she walked away without a backward’s glance.

On the scratched ground the faintest of blue lights began to pulse gently.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Mon Jul 23, 2007 6:56 am
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Stablehand
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The two women worked together around the small fire-pit, scrapping away the ashes of the previous night, laying foundations of twig and brush. Neither noticed the slight breeze that started up, rustling the leaves of the nearby trees and bending the long grass. And why should they notice it? There was little out of the ordinary about a mere breeze save that it was more moderate than the winds that usually came in from the sea.

Hrafn busied herself with gathering water from a nearby stream. If the flowing waters had ever been named by the villagers or other travellers it was unknown to her. To the masked woman they were just the nearest source of clean water, a small stream that trickled and danced its way to the edge of the cliff. Where the stream met the cliff’s edge it formed a thin stream of waterfall, falling endlessly to join with the salty ocean waters below. Occasionally the falling waters would catch the sunlight at certain times of the day and be transformed into sparkling droplets against a backdrop of rainbow.

Sometimes a fancy would catch her when she visited the stream and would imagine it to be the river Recene that had once flowed to the north of the city that had been her home. Not that the stream bore any true resemblance to the river, it flowed much more slowly and carried much less water to the embrace of the sea. Still it was comforting to imagine it, to close her eyes and listen to the passage of the water, to pretend that the death and destruction had never happened.

“But you’re not the Recene”, she said quietly, “That’s all gone now”.

The fire was already lit by the time she returned, its tiny flames licking hungrily at the kindling that they had laid down earlier. She pit the pail of water down beside the fire-pit, warming her fingers briefly. A little heat leeched slowly through the wrappings that covered her hands, soaking into her damaged skin. “Three debts”, she muttered to herself, holding her covered hands before her. “Three payments, one that would tax my Art, one that would tax my body and one that would tax my soul. And yet none of them were as bad as this, what debt did I owe that cost me this?”

Due hurried out of the hermit’s dwelling, sure-footed though blind. She held a fire-blackened pot in one hand, a small sack of oats in the other. The blind woman was humming to herself, apparently completely content with her life, oblivious to any danger or trouble that might threaten her. Hrafn caught only snatches of the tune that her companion hummed, enough to remember where she had last heard it though.

A low hall of red stone…

A plain alter…

A form laying as though sleeping…


Hrafn shook her head irritably as if trying to throw the memory from her mind. She scowled and tried to change the flow of thoughts in her mind. “How is it that you can do that? I’ve seen other blind people before, they always used sticks to find their way or animals to act as their eyes. Yet you walk around here like you could see everything as plain as day”.

Due smiled shyly, “The angel shows me the way”.

“The angel?”

“Yes, the angel took my sight and my son but he-“

…She…

“-shows me the way”, Due finished her sentence without any sign that she had heard the other voice. Hrafn looked around, expecting to see another person had snuck up on them silently. But there was no one to be seen, just the hermit’s hut, the trees, the long grasses, the normal forest as it had always been. Had she just imagined the voice? Had her mind decided to start fooling her? Had it been no more than a trick of the wind? “He’s always with me, always watching over me, making sure that I find my way. Sometimes I think he speaks to me in my dreams, comforts me when I sleep, promises me… oh he promises me so many wonderful things. So many delights, so much light that it’s blinding”, the old blind woman giggled like a maiden in the spring of her youth.

…blind to the truth…

There it was again, she was sure of it, no trick, no deception of her senses, it was real. Someone was nearby, whispering words on the wind, so softly that Due couldn’t apparently hear them. The blind woman continued chattering about her angel and his so-called promises as Hrafn moved away from the fire-pit. She strained her ears, listening for any hint of another person in the area, for any more words on the wind.

…yes, you can hear…

“Who are you? Where are you? Show yourself, or do two old women frighten you?” But no one revealed themselves. Beneath her mask Hrafn frowned, she hated to feel as though someone was making a fool of her. It had always been a flaw of hers, to become tetchy, even angry, if people sought to make her appear the fool. She might call herself an old fool but for another to try and prove it? No that was just too much for her pride to bear.

…pride before a fall…

This was just too much! She stalked into the shadows of the trees, searching for the speaker, wanting someone to feel her anger. How dare some stranger come into the forest and trouble her? Hadn’t she suffered enough in all her long years? Hadn’t she had more than her fair share of criticism? Hadn’t she endured the attacks, physical and magical, of her enemies on countless occasions? Now, when she had finally found even the smallest measure of peace someone thought that it was amusing to play tricks and chastise her. It would not do, she would not have it, not here, not now, when she had already lost everything.

“Come out and show yourself now”.

…nothing to show…only an offer…words without form…a promise without deceit…

Hrafn froze on the spot, her mind jumping from one memory to another at the words of the hidden speaker. Was it really just a voice on the wind? There was a touch of familiarity about it, a sense that she had heard it before. She remembered a glade and a woman, she remembered two birds, one mundane, the other extraordinary. The masked woman shook her head, no, no it couldn’t be that, not now, not after all this time.

…it is time…you are not yet finished…give what was once offered…receive what you once had…

“And?” That couldn’t be all, it never was.

…bend the knee…cast out your pride…have faith…

The breeze dropped suddenly, disappearing as if it had never been, revealing itself as far from ordinary in nature. Hrafn seethed behind her mask, her anger and frustration almost palatable in the morning air. “Not again”. She spat into the long grass and carpets of bluebells nearby, wishing she could rid herself of the wind’s words so easily. “No, not again”.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Fri Jul 27, 2007 11:34 am
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She sat by the fire, staring into the flickering depths without really seeing the flames. The bowl of porridge that was her breakfast lay untouched in her lap, the drizzle of honey already attracting the earliest risers from the nearby wild hive of bees. Hrafn’s mind was elsewhere, replaying the words that the wind had whispered to her less than an hour beforehand. Even Due’s whitterings about her lost son couldn’t reach her, somehow none of that seemed important anymore. What did it matter if the blind woman mourned her monstrous son? There were worse things out there and at least Due’s son was dead and burned, the ashes of his pyre long gone.

“Give what was once offered, receive what you once had”, she muttered to herself, repeating what had been said to her. There was no puzzle in the words, no riddle to be solved, she knew what had been referred to. Knew it all too well.

Without a word Hrafn stood up, placing her bowl down so as not to spill its contents on the ground. It seemed like such a small thing to worry about but she knew the cost of spilling things. There had once been a bowl, a basin that had held all the sorrows and pains of a world and its people. But it had been too much to hold, no one container could carry such a heavy burden, there had been just too much suffering in the world. And so someone had had to find another way to stop those sorrows from spilling out into the world, someone named Darden, a godling who had drank deeply from that bowl. Darden who had smiled in delight at the joys of the world and who had wept for its sins. Darden who had sacrificed his sanity to protect the lands, not that many had thanked him for that

She walked away from the fire slowly at first, not really thinking about where she was headed. But some part of her knew where she was going, where she had to go. The masked woman walked faster, almost feeling as though she was not truly in control of her movements, not choosing her path but rather following a route that had been set out before her. After all how could she be willingly walking this path? She had sworn to herself that she would not, that she would never return, that what was hidden was best left that way. “But if I don’t do it there will be someone else. Some day, maybe years from now, someone, a human , an elf, perhaps even a selkie, will head this way, drawn to the forest, though they won’t understand why. They’ll come here and they’ll find it”. The thought filled her with fear, the cold terror forcing her to move faster, to run along the tracks and hunters’ paths.

Trees reached out with spindly branches, catching at her hair and clothes like the withered fingers of old beggars. Roots seemed to stretch out before her, deliberately trying to trip her up or bar her path. Was the forest itself trying to stop her? Did nature know something she did not? The thought did not help her state of mind, worry started to gnaw at her mind; what if she was already too late? What if while she had been hiding her name and face in the depths of the forest someone else had already been led to the hiding place?

The shadows grew long and the light more dappled as she forced her way further north. This part of the forest was older, its trees more gnarled, their branches reaching towards one another till almost all the light was blotted out. Little could grow on the forest floor in the darkness and thick leaf mold. Occasionally she would catch the briefest glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eyes as she ran. A bird fluttered to her right, nothing more than a shadow amongst darker shadows. A slither of scales betrayed the position of a snake near her feet but she ran on heedless.

Suddenly Hrafn skidded to a halt, breathing deeply behind the white mask that hid her face. All was quiet about her save for the sound of her own breathing and the thudding of her heart. The silence weighed heavily, so palatable that it almost felt as though she could grasp it in her hands and tear it in two. Despite her fears there was no one else nearby, no one had ventured this deeply into the woods for many years. The hunters and woodcutters from even the nearest villages had no need to come this far in, there was plenty of younger wood at the edges of the forest and better prey for their bows and traps.

She swallowed hard and forced her breathing to a slower rate, willing her heart to calm its frenzied beat. Hrafn took a single slow step forward and placed her hands gently on the rough bark of the tree before her. In truth it was two trees, their trunks twisted around one another till they seemed a single entity. The twisted trees appeared younger than the ones that they shared this portion of the forest with, as if someone had planted them many years after the others had already been established.

But the trees were not the only thing that was out of place in that area of the forest. There was something else, a pulse, an aura of power, not totally malevolent but not pure either. It was curious and alien to the forest, a metallic tang that seemed to grate on the nerves of the magically gifted.

With one hand on either tree’s trunk Hrafn reached deep inside herself, feeling for the power that she held. It wasn’t just a part of her, that magic, it was her, it was her soul, her blood, her flesh, her bones. The power was Hrafn and she was the power, there was no separation, no part of one that was not the other.

She leant forward till the brow of her mask touched both trees, “By my will and by my word”, she whispered. The masked woman forced the power to flow out of her, to soak deeply into the trees, gifting them with a movement that would not otherwise have been theirs. Slowly the trees began to part, untwisting themselves and undoing the passage of the years. The wood creaked and complained as they were compelled to move unnaturally, the power forcing the trees to move to Hrafn’s will. Branches and boughs that had long been entangled like lovers’ arms came free of one another, separating to reveal what the trees had been tasked with hiding.

As the twisted trees disentangled they exposed a tightly wrapped bundle that had been hidden at their base. Where the bases of the trees had met a gap at been formed, a hollow space where the bundle had laid for untold seasons. Hrafn knelt down and pulled out the package, seemingly in two minds about touching it. Part of her wanted to grasp it and hold it tightly to her breast, while another part never wanted to feel it again. She wanted it and yet she despised it, it had been a part of her for so very long and yet there had been so such suffering where it was concerned, so much trouble and death.

“Give what was once offered, receive what you once had”. It seemed like such a small thing to give, the bundle was only slightly larger than the span of a man’s hand, and no thicker than the length of a woman’s thumb. It was wrapped in two pieces of cloth, one a deep azure, one a burnt umber, where the two cloths met a tiny portion of what they protected could be seen. The glint of metal showed there, a blackened silver as if someone had tried to melt the precious metal in fire. Against the silver another metal rested, black as deepest night, crude and unpolished, a sharp barb seeming to grow from it.

Hrafn gave into temptation and pressed the bundle to her chest, holding it closely like a mother would hold her children. In her mind she seemed to hear a thousand voices, people that had long since passed to their graves or simply disappeared from her life. Dervit and Eiln and Ginaus, the boy that she should have loved like her own son, the woman from the farm, the Shadow within her skin. She heard them all, voices whispering from the vault of her memories, ‘…bend the knee…cast out your pride…have faith…’, echoing the words on the wind. If there had been tears within her left unwept she would have cried them then. So many voices, so much betrayal and treachery, so much left undone, unsaid, unforgiven. Each urged her on, whispering words of support, of comfort, of love, of scorn, of hatred, of fear. ‘This is your chance’, they seemed to say, ‘This is it, this is all you will ever have’.

Timeless eyes of lilac welled up out of her memories, staring at her very soul from deep within. A perfect face with perfect features framed by chocolate curls looked at her with scorn, ‘All you’ll ever have, more than you’ll ever deserve’.

Innocent eyes of smoky quartz replaced them, still timeless as the previous ones had been though. A young face watched her trustingly, his eyes hiding a love that he feared would be rejected, ‘All you’ll ever have, all you’ve ever wanted’.

“No”, she cried out, silencing the voices in her head, “No, enough, I beg you, enough. I know already what I must do”.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Mon Jul 30, 2007 7:22 am
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Hand in hand the women walked through the forest, Hrafn leading Due even with the blind woman’s uncanny ability to avoid the snarls and the unevenness that would have sent any other tumbling. Though there might be countless miles between the forest and the end of her journey Hrafn knew that she could not leave the blind woman behind. The two of them had gone through too much to abandon one another now. Not to mention that she could not trust Due to look after herself, she had the skills that was for sure but at times she forgot the present and lost herself in the past. A hazy and half-remembered past to be sure but the past all the same. How could Due look after herself if she still thought that she was in another place and another time?

The bundle that she had retrieved from the entwined trees was wrapped still in its protective coverings of blue and orange but now it was strapped at her waist. After all she had gone through the masked woman had no intention of losing it, especially not on the journey which lay ahead of her. It would simply not do to reach her goal only to find that her precious burden had been lost, dropped by the wayside through carelessness. She had done many foolish things in her time but that would rank as one of the worst if it ever happened.

They had been walking for some time, the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs had long faded to be replaced solely by the rustle of leaves and the creak of branches. The trees whose canopies they walked under were much younger than the ones that shrouded the hermit’s hut. Here and there Hrafn would spy a stump betraying the mark of a woodsman’s axe. Most were old though, moss covering the old wound or grasses sprouting up from between cracks in the wood. A few were younger, the inner flesh of the trunk still pale in the dappled sunshine, one even still wept sap, mourning for its lost life.

“Where are we going?” Due asked the question that she had already voiced several times in the last few hours. “I don’t understand, what’s happening? Where are we going?”

“Just a little journey, nothing to worry about my friend”. Hrafn tried to keep her voice even and calm, it would not help if the blind woman grew fearful or distrustful of her. There was far too much out in the world already to cause the two of them trouble without needing to worry about suspicion between them.

The blind woman frowned as if thinking, then she smiled suddenly as a thought occurred to her. “Are we going to see my son? My precious clever son, I haven’t seen him in so very long, not since the angel took him away from me. It had to happen but I miss him so much. Can we go and see him? I would like that very much”.

“Your son has gone”, Hrafn sighed in exasperation, “Just accept that. Your angel took him away and that’s the end of that. I can’t take you to see him even if I wanted to. Why must you always ask after him when you know that there is nothing that can be done to change things? If it were in my power…” She trailed off; if it were in her power what would she do? Bring back Due’s awful son? No, not that, never that. The world and its people were far better off without him, Due was far better off without him if the truth was known. Hrafn took a deep breath, organising her thought sbefore she spoke again. “You only hurt yourself by doing asking such things”.

“But everyone must hurt, it is part of life, indeed it is life. Only by hurting, by experiencing pain and suffering do we truly live”. Due’s face was lit with a beatific smile, a saintly calm easing her wrinkled features. The old woman was returning to a well-liked subject, one that she had preached many times in the dim and distant past. “What would life be like if we never experienced hurt and sorrow? A poor thing, a dim reflection of true life. Only through pain do we learn, only through suffering are we cleansed, only through the fire are we made pure again”.

Hrafn shuddered at the blind woman’s words, at her fanaticism, at the peace that shone through her features even as she spoke of such things. The blind woman didn’t remember, not everything at least, but still to hear her speak so…it was disturbing, some portion of her younger self still slept within her older form it seemed. The last thing that the masked woman wanted was for her companion to remember who and what she had once been. Due’s younger self would not understand what had happened, she would seek to go back to her old ways, her old faith. That couldn’t happen though, could not be allowed to happen, there was no angel waiting to hear Due’s prayers now.

“Prayers without answers, now there’s something that I can understand”, Hrafn muttered to herself. She hadn’t prayed to anyone in many ages, it was better that way, safer even, sometimes it was less dangerous if prayers weren’t answered. Even Gods didn’t do something for nothing.

In the distance ahead of them the trees thinned and gave way to fields of wheat, the stalks already ripening to a shining gold. “There we are my friend, we have reached the edge of the forest”, the masked woman said, changing the subject. Neither of them needed to let their minds dwell on Gods and prayers and angels, those were things of the past. If they were to be things of the future…well that remained to be seen. The more they spoke of such things though the more likely it was that Due would remember her past, or at least that was what Hrafn feared. She loved the blind old woman dearly and it was because of that love that she wished to keep her friend in the dark. No good would come of giving her light in the form of memories that she no longer needed.

The trees at the edge of the forest were little more than saplings, they had seen no more than a couple of summer seasons. If they were lucky they might one day reach the lofty heights of their brethren, but many generations of humans would live and die in the village before that was likely to happen. More than likely the saplings would be cut down before they reached so high, their fate was probably to warm some family through cold winter nights. That was the way of things though and nothing that she would move to stop.

In the fields that bordered the forest the people stopped in their work as the two women left the shadows of the forest. Hrafn could feel their stares upon her, not hostile but curious, intensely curious. After all they were the ‘witches’ of the forest, weren’t they? That was at least what the villagers were likely to think anyway. Still witches or no there were things that the two of them would need on the journey ahead of them and the village was the easiest place to get them.

“Come on my friend, time to meet our neighbours”.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:53 am
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Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
(OOC: Due to changes in the game's story-line since I last worked on this thread, this story is very much set in the past at that point where we were switching from Isonia, Darden and Foret to Barnabas, Leto and Angelique. As before please don't post before talking to me first.)

The people in the fields watched them for a few minutes as they made their way from the edge of the forest to a roughly worn track that cut between fields of ripening wheat. She could feel their eyes upon her, their unasked questions, their curiousity hung thickly in the air. Then one man far off to the right commented to his fellow, the distance making his words indistinct to hrafn. She heard his friend's answering laughter though, coarse but honest, no malevolence hidden within it. Then the men bent back to their task; witches might not leave the forest every day but the harvest still needed to be tended to if they were to eat through the winter.

Hrafn kept her eyes low, watching the path before her rather than studying the farmers in their fields. The path wasn't dangerous or uneven, no worse than those that she had walked in the forest and certainly much better than the bare track she had run along to find the twisted trees and their hidden treasure. No she kept her eyes down, uncertain and unsure of herself. How long had it been since she'd last walked amongst ordinary, decent people? Apart from the spiteful children the only person she'd met in recent memory was Due and the blind woman was far from ordinary. Could she remember what it was like? What were the social norms for people like this? Hard-working, honest folk might not appreciate her presence.

At the bottom of the path where the fields drifted into meadow an older man worked on repairing a stone wall in an attempt to mark the boundary between the two. His skin was brown as a nut and the lines on his face spoke more of one who smiled than frowned. As the two women approached his took off his cap and nodded a greeting, "Morning good-mothers and what a glorious morning it be”. He grinned brightly, revealing a mouthful of broad straight teeth, his brown eyes shining with a good humour.

“Good morning freeman”, Hrafn answered, judging him to be no man's slave or vassel. “A blessing be upon your village's harvest”, if they already thought her to be a witch there was no harm in playing the part, especially if they thought her benevolent. Voices from her past rose up in her memory, their laughter mocking at the term 'benevolent'; that she would be thought so stirred the ghosts in her mind. How often had she tried to do what was 'right' rather than what might help? She carried the guilt of too many spectres from her history to lie to herself on that one. It was always the difficult choice; to choose between what would help and what was right? And had she ever truly known what was 'right'? No she had only ever chosen the path of what she thought was right, the difference between that and the truth was too great to measure.

“Thank ye kindly good-mothers, we'll be needing this harvest when the snows draw in, the headman reckons it be a bitter winter coming. It's good that you came down from them woods when you did, would hate to think of two ladies like yourselves trying to stay out there when winter comes a-calling”. It was hard to think of winter when the day was so bright, but the farmer-folk always needed to think ahead. No matter what a soul hoped for the seasons turned and turned again without thought to man nor beast and while the autumn sun shone now it would not be too long before the weather turned cold and bitter. “Them woods'll sustain those that know how to use them through the good seasons but when the harsh winds start a-blowing it's the sensible soul that knows when to call it a day and find a warm hearth”.

The masked woman smiled at his bluntness, his honest words were refreshing. For her words had always been weapons, both to use and to defend herself against, but here was one who knew language for what it was, a way to communicate. “I'm sure this place has warm hearth a-plenty”, she smiled breifly and then turned serious, “But does it have a temple or a priest?”

“A temple? No, not fancy enough for one of those, need to go a long old way before you find that kind of thing. Now I'm not saying we don't do what's right, we say our prayers and keep to the straight and narrow.”

“And who hears your prayers?” Hrafn asked, her tone perhaps a touch harsh for the farmer looked at her strangely. Her heart skipped a beat in fear, though she wasn't sure why? What did it matter who these people kept their faith in? She wasn't there to convert them any more than Due was, whatever name he gave to their deity she would agree with. The masked woman had paid lip service to Gods before, it wouldn't hurt her to do the same again. But still the fear was there, a cold ghost that curled around her heart and squeezed with every beat.

The farmer shrugged and laughed lightly, dispelling her fear with the sound, “Truth be told I don't rightly know good-mother. We're just simple folk, dealing with gods and religion, that's for the high-and-mighties. We have a priest come down once a year to visit us, he leads a service or two, hears what we've done wrong and makes us right in the eyes of Gods, carries out any weddings so that it's all proper and above board but that's about it. God's just...well it's just God. There's a shrine just outside the village but its just to God. The priest could probably tell you God's name but he won't be by till spring”.

Hrafn nodded in agreement, understanding what he meant. For people like this what did it matter who they prayed to? Their lives were hard enough and ruled by the weather and the harvest, God was just a name, a figurehead in the background of their lives, important, without a doubt, but the details weren't. Like the self-styled king, baron or lord that ruled these lands, God was something too big and too powerful for these people to concern themselves with. They'd pay their dues but not get any further involved in it than that. Still, it made things awkward, she needed to get to a temple; Give what was once offered, receive what you once had and the offering could only be made in a temple...in one particular temple at that.

She sighed and shook the thoughts from her head, there were more immediate concerns,“What would the name of this village be? Though my friend and myself have lived in the woods for some time now we have not found any who would introduce themselves”.

“Ah that's the young 'uns for you, good-mother, no manners at all. Not like when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, in those days we knew how to treat with our elders. Still, it looks like it falls to me to welcome you to the village of Merrimead. We've nothing fancy here but I'm sure we can find somewhere that you can rest your heads for the winter months. But I warn you, we've no place for those that don't pull their weight”, he said with mock sternness, “Those that stay here need to earn their keep”.

“I thank you for your offer freeman but we don't intend to take up the hospitality of Merrimead for the winter. We have a journey ahead of us and need supplies and a horse or somesuch animal if any have one for sale or trade”. She had little of worth beyond the bundle secured at her belt and the two rings that hung from the cord about her neck. Hrafn doubted any farmer would have traded them for an animal anyway, why trade a useful creature for an old piece of jewellry? Pretty trinkets were a luxury and wouldn't feed a hungry mouth in mid-winter.

They would need an animal of some kind to make their journey to the temple, Due was an old woman for all her strangeness, she had not the energy nor the endurance to travel so far. She would find something to trade for, if not gems nor gold, perhaps some task she could perform or aid that she could give. After all these people thought her a witch, why not make use of the title?

He frowned, “Well I don't right like letting you ladies go out travelling the wide beyond on your own but but my ma always told me to mind my elders and betters so I'll keep a civil tongue in my head. Supplies we can certainly trade you for but a horse? Not here. Only horse we have are the old draft beasts and we'll need those soon enough for the harvest”. The weather-beaten man paused and pulled out a well worn pipe from a pouch at his waist. He didn't bother to light it, popping one end of it in his mouth and chewing it gently as if the mere action helped him think. “Hmmm seems to me there might be one alternative. Ingston by the southern end of the village has an old pony, stubby mountain creature that he brought from a passing trader a few years back. Might be he'd be willing to trade for it but I warn you it's a bad tempered thing, almost took the fingers off a boy a few years back”. He paused again, taking the pipe out of his mouth and inspecting it closely, “Course there is one problem with going to old Ingston”.

“And what would that be?”

A sudden shriek of pain cut the air and Hrafn started at the sound. The freeman didn't flinch, his eyes still on his inspection of the pipe, “That would be the problem”, he said.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Wed Oct 15, 2008 4:36 am
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Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
Hrafn tentatively pushed open the door to the farmer Ingston's home. The building was a solid, squat thing of rough hewn stone, neatly thatched and carefully fenced to seperate it from its neighbour; no different from the dozen others that made up the bulk of Merrimead. It looked as though it had grown up out of the ground rather than been built by mortal hands, the masked woman couldn't imagine it ever having looked new. A handful of different flowering plants had sprouted close to the building, seeming almost to press themselves close to the stone in adoration. An overgrown area of herbs bore silent witness to the fact that someone once had cared for the small, modest garden, but whoever that had been had not had the chance to care for it in some time. Brambles and weeds flourished everywhere, doing their best to choke out the original inhabitants of the plot. As she passed into the smoldering shadows of the building, Hrafn wondered if the keen gardener had been the first Mrs Ingston.

The freeman had explained the situation to her as they had made their way towards the Ingston home. The first Mrs Ingston, Charis, had been a woman of the village, she had grown up only three doors down from her future husband's family. As a child, as an adolescent and as a woman she had worked the fields alongside her fellows, she had helped with the spring sowing and the autumn harvesting. Charis had helped the other women of the village when the birthing time came upon them as her mother and her mother's mother had before her. A dependable woman, she'd neither gossiped nor indulged in unwholesome vices, when the priest would visit the village she'd be at every sermon and confession and see that the holy man wanted for nothing. Mrs Charis Ingston had been a good woman. Not a saint perhaps, but a hard-working member of her community who'd known her place and duties.

Not that that had saved her when the Sickness came.

Hrafn hadn't asked about the particulars of the illness that had struck down Charis Ingston and a full fifth of the rest of the village. The way the freeman had spoken, it seemed that he expected her to know what he meant, that it had been a major event and one that could not have been missed by anyone in the area. Not that it would have changed matters if she had known the details, the dead were dead, their bodies burned and their ashes buried far from the village to keep the living safe. Even if Hrafn had known the symptoms, even if she had had some inkling of what cures might have helped or even eased the suffering of those afflicted, the situation would still be the same. Nothing would bring back those that lay in the cold embrace of the earth.

Charis, for all her merits and morals, had been barren and though she had loved her husband dearly there had been no offspring. After the Sickness, with so many dead or weakened, there had been no time for grief or overly long periods of mourning. They had to bring life back to the village, there had to be a new generation to take over once the adults lay down the burdens of living. Matches had been made for convience rather than love, a harsh situation for any to find themselves, but the community had known their duty to one another. Farmer Ingston had found himself wed to a woman twelve years his junior, Molia, the third daughter of a family who had come to the village two generations before. Perhaps he had not loved her, but he had treated her well and with all the honour that a wife should be shown. For a man who did not easily show his emotions and who still keenly felt the loss of his dear wife Charis, it was the best he could manage.

In time their union of convience had born fruit and Molia Ingston had shyly glowed with expectant motherhood, Farmer Ingston beaming proudly though with not a little bemusement that often showed upon the faces of those who were to be fathers for the first time. They had created life together, perhaps not through love but through care, and that fragile life lay sleeping within his young wife's body. For close to eight months the usually gruff farmer had treated his young wife as though she were made of the finest glass, protecting and caring for her, seeing that she wanted for nothing, and panicking over the least sniffle or cough. If Molia had felt irritated by her husband's actions she had not shown it, bearing it all with a gentle grace and perhaps the slightest trace of embarassement that something so natural should make her the centre of his attention.

Then, only a day before Hrafn and Due had made their way to the village, Molia had gone into labour unexpectedly early. “I can't say I know rightly what's wrong, the mysteries of the birthing chamber are no place for a man,” the freeman had said, “But something's not right in there. Never heard such screams from woman nor beast 'afore. Not even when my own dear Presl gave birth to our youngest and that was a hard birthing. This is something else though, midwife doesn't seem to know what else to do for her. She's spent all her waking hours with the girl but the child won't come and the screams don't get any quieter. I fear Ingston will lose both of them and that's a hard thing for a man to suffer, especially after losing his Charis. He won't take another, mark my words, don't matter how much the headman presses him too, if Molia and the young 'un dies that'll be the end of it for him. If only there were someone who could help her out,” he had said, chewing on the end of his pipe and looking at the two women expectantly.

Well what else could she do? Though she had never been a healer, Hrafn had some knowledge of the path, had even attended a few birthing chambers in her past. She couldn't leave the poor girl to suffer and die, especially not when there was an innocent life at stake. Not that innocence was much of a protection against the ills of the world, but the unborn child had done her no wrong, who was she to judge it and comdemn it to death before it had had a chance to take it's first birth?

It hadn't always been that way though, she knew that with a heavy heart. How often had she been quick to judge and slow to forgive?

Within the Ingston home the air was hot and still, the shadows pressed closely to her, the darkness reminding the of times that she'd rather forget. A darkened room, a body laying still as death, shadows that moved with an obscene life of their own, touching, caressing, an air of expectancy and hatred. No, she shuddered, no, she couldn't go there, not now, not ever if she had her way, if she could burn that memory out she would, even if it had taken knoves and hot pokers she would have gladly submitted to their touch to be rid of it. But the past was a cage that could not be escaped from, it's lock was set within her heart and it's bars were strong about her mind.

Her eyes adjusted slowly to the darkened room, candles were a rare and precious thing to people who tended to wake and sleep in rhythm with the sun's risings and settings. A lonely pair of candles gave off a sickly yellow light but they seemed to be fighting a losing battle against the encrouching shadows. This would never do, how could she work if she couldn't even see what was happening? She reached deep within herself, to that secret core where she power lay sleeping. It roused at her touch, a sudden jolt of power that ran like lightning down her nerves and struck the length of her spine with a touch that was both pain and pleasure. The room slowly grew more bright, the very stones seeming to glow with a pure white light that elicted cries of shock and fear from the women in the room.

Three of the village women stood arranged around the simple bed, one of them wringing her hands with worry, unwept tears marking all their eyes. A fourth woman stood at the foot of the bed, dark circles around her eyes making her look far older than she probably was, a look of despair and hopelessness painting itself upon her face. The midwife had been pushed far beyond her knowledge of her craft, Hrafn could easily read upon her face that she was at her wits end, she had no more answers, no idea of how to help the woman or the unborn child who were within her care. “Who are you? What do you want?,” the midwife said, her voice shaking with exhaustion and fear, “This is no place for strangers.” Hrafn pushed down her hood silently, letting the women drink in the sight of her dry black hair and the blank white mask of her face. “A witch?,” the midwife whispered, her emotions torn between terror and a vague, formless hope.

“Some have called me that,” Hrafn acknowledged, “I mean the girl no harm, I only wish to see if I can help her.”

“She is neyond my skill,” the midwife said, her shoulders slumping as she could finally admit defeat. “I can do nothing more for her, please, by all that is holy, help her. Please.”

Hrafn moved closer to the bed, the midwife shuffling to one side to let her finally see young Molia. And young she certainly was, barely more than a child in her own right. Her hair was slicked to her head like a second skin, her face contorted in agony, eyes barely open and teeth gritted as she tried to hold back screams of unbearable pain. Molia's hands were twisted into fists, her knuckles pale as she gripped the bedclothes tightly enough to rip them. Blood stained the sheets about her waist, the scent of it rising hot and thick into the still air of the room, mingling with the sour smells of sweat, fear and pain.

She rolled her sleeves up, revealing her bandages hands, her covered flesh but if the women in the room were shocked by her appearance they were too tired and too numb to show it. Hrafn lay one hand gently on the swollen stomach of the pregnant woman, muttering soft words of comfort in an old language that none of those present would understand, “Utúlien, esta lisse' hin, utúlien, Molia voronda.” The young woman moaned and twisted, her skin cold and calmy, but under all that Hrafn could just sense the beat of her unborn child's heart though it seemed to slow even as she stood there. She drew herself up to her full height and beckoned the midwife to her side, “There is little time left, her strength and the child's are both failing, if I do not act both will not live to see tomorrow.” The midwife nodded her silent agreement, her shoulders shaking as the final acknowledgement of what she had suspected hit her. Hrafn spoke suickly, her voice cold enough to cut through the emotion, “Enough of that, there is no time for our frailities. Get these other women out of her, they will only hamper me.”

One of them women stopped wringing her hands at the masked woman's voice, fear and a touch of anger cutting through her grief, “You cannot force me to leave, I am the girl's mother, I must be here for her. I will not leave her, I will not -” Her voice broke into a flood of weeping.

“Get her out of her...now,” Hrafn commanded to the other two bystanders. They gathered up Molia's mother and fled, the power within Hrafn's voice ensuring that they did not question her. She turned her attention back to the widwife,“I will need some things; hearts-ease, summers-thorn, bramble weed, dae lasse, Water-dancer,” she rattled off a dozen or so herbs that came to mind as potentially helpful. “Get what you can, get it quickly, if you can get others to help you then so much the better. Time is against us.”

The midwife left in a flurry of skirts, her mind already working towards where she might get all the things that Hrafn had asked for. She had barely let the door close behind her before she could be heard calling for people to aid her, a rush of footsteps answering her shouts.

Hrafn smiled sadly at the half-conscious woman on the bed, “Now let's see what we can do for you child.” It had been a long while since she had last attended at a birth and that last time had been...unpleasant. Helping to bring a child into the world should have been a time of joy but that child or rather its father...no, not that, not now, she wouldn't think of the father, the mother or even the child, whatever had happened to them was in the past and was well out of her reach to alter. And considering how poorly she had faired in altering that lines behaviour, well perhaps the world would have been served better if she had kept herself to herself back then. If she hadn't exactly made things worse she most certainly hadn't made them any better.

Another birthing chamber came to mind, many, many years in the past and a gentle smile lit her face beneath the mask. Now that had been different, there had been sorrow true but the child of that birthing. Such a sweet trusting child, she could still conjure up his face from her memory, his eyes had been so old and so serious for one so young. “Where are you now young one? Do you still live? Do you prosper?” His mother had died in giving birth to him and so he had treated Hrafn as a mother and she...she had treated him poorly, she had not been able to show him the love and kindness that he deserved so much. She shook her head, so many regrets, “Wherever you are child, I hope you have love. I should have done better by you, you deserved better than a bitter old D'Ni.”

But that was past and there was nothing that she could do about it, no more than she could bring back to victims of the Sickness like Charis. No, all she could do was deal with the present and that was Molia and her unborn child.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Wed Oct 29, 2008 6:55 am
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Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
Hrafn collapsed against the plain white walls of the farm-house, her whole body seeming to ache with a wearniess that was bone-deep. She could almost believe that the very hairs on her head hurt from strain and tiredness. Every inch of her flesh seemed to have reached its limit and was taking excruciating pain in telling her so. Perhaps it was not the worst she had ever suffered - it would have a feel a good deal worse to be more painful than what she had gone through at Penthsford - but it was unpleasant enough. Well...perhaps not unpleasant, she was tired and washed out, drained more than she had in many a year, but no it was not totally unpleasant. She was tired for a cause and a good cause at that.

She had worked through the night, calling on reserves of strength and fragments of learning that she hadn't thought she still possessed. Beneath her bandages her tormented flesh had begged for rest, for a chance to recuperate as best it could but she had ignored its pleas. Nothing, not even the weakness of her own body, had been more important than trying to save the young lives that had been placed in her hands. “There was a time when I was stronger than this, ” Hrafn muttered to herself. “I remember when I could have done this simple task and not thought any more of it.” When had she got so old? So tired? Or was it all just another symptom of the injuries she still carried after her meeting with the angel with the burning wings?

Through the day she had stayed with Molia, trying to help her and ease the birth of her child, using all herblore and healing magics that she could muster together. Darkness had fallen and still she had not ceased in her labour, How could she rest when the young girl had been in such obvious distress? She could barely piece together the events of the last day or so, only bits and pieces of memory, flashes of images like crazed reflections in a broken mirror, screams, cries and weeping, they all ran together in a cacophony of sound and light. The memories wouldn't stay still, they ran here and there and eluded her grasp, frantic creatures that could not stay still long enough for her to identify them. But from somewhere she remembered clearly the time before dawn, when the sky had been at its darkest and it had seemed that though the sun, bright Intop, would never rise.

Sweat had run down her face beneath the mask, great drops of it like tears that fought their way into her eyes, stinging salt kisses. The bottom of her back had been transformed through the hours into a dull, red, pulsing pain that would not go away. Her shoulders felt as though great birds sat upon them, digging unnatural claws of metal deeply into the complaining muscles. Around her hands the bandages she wore were now stained with blood; here and there they almost appeared to be coming undone, the blackened and burnt skin beneath showing clearly.

Molia was in no better shape. Her face was twisted into a rictus of agony, her fingers crooked and bent, holding on so tightly to the bedclothes as if they were the only things keeping her alive, as if she were drowning and they were all that was keeping her a-float. The young woman's breaths came in fits and starts, pitiful sounds that could not help but pull on the heart-strings. Her face had been pale to the point of appearing bloodless and covered by a sheen of sweat that shimmered in the magic-born light that Hrafn had conjured.

The rest of world didn't exist any more. Nothing existed outside of the room, outside of the light. Only the two of them seemed real, only them and no one else. Sometimes the mid-wife would quietly tip-toe into the room to drop off fresh supplies or remove the unwanted but she seemed no more real than a ghost, a spectre of the outside world.

Despair and hope had warred throughout the hours, first one showing an advantage then the other.Whole hours passed and it seemed as though even saving Molia's life was akin to fighting a losing battle. Then moments would tick their passage and the scene would change, hope would blossom like a spring flower only to be dashed again when the tides of battle turned. Turn and turn again till she barely seemed to know one from the other, till death of the pair seemed like it might be blessed relief and life an ending to pray against. Perhaps madness touched her in those hours, she wasn't sure any more, wasn't sure of anything. Was she fighting to save the lives of her patients or usher them into the unending darkness of the grave?

But then the outside world had made its presence known once more, the faintest blush of light through the window as the first pale fingers of Intop pushed their way over the horizon.

A cry had rung out, almost a salute to the dawning of a new day.

A baby's cry.


“Not everything I do turns to ashes and betrayal,” Hrafn said smiling as her memories of the family within the farmhouse. The infant, for all his reluctance to put in an appearance, was making his presence known, when he wasn't suckling he was balling, “He has good lungs if nothing else.” The last time she had looked into the room, the newborn's proud father had been hovering about the bed with a look of complete bemusement, as if he could not believe that the little one was real, that he was alive, that he really was of his own blood. Molia had seemed pale and wan, awake at last but tired from her ordeal, but the babe at her breast had seemed to give her strength. The worst was over, now they could enjoy their lives. “Well perhaps not the worst, they still have to raise him, that's a trial and a half if ever there was one.”

Still they would have the chance to do so, something that would not have happened if she had not volunteered her services. Not that she had not been compensated for her troubles, Ingston had been more than happy to give her his pony and had promised any and all supplies that she and Due would need for their journey.

But that could all wait for now, now when she was too bone-tired to do more than sit with her back to the roughly built wall. A scarred black cat, its tail shorter than it should have been, sat down beside her and regarded the masked woman with a look of bored curiousity. “Now you look as out of place here as I do,” Hrafn said, returning the stare. The cat looked more like it should have been prowling the boards of a busy harbour than wandering the streets of a village like Merrimead. “Perhaps you are as much a wanderer as I have been.” She gently scratched the cat behind its ears as the animal gave off the impression that it was doing her a favour by allowing her to touch it.

The sun's rays soaked through her robes and bandages as she sat with the cat by her side. Funny really, how the caress of the light could bring her such peace. her life had been touched by so many fires and flames it might have seemed natural for her to shun the sunlight and cower in darkness. Even burnt and unhealing as she was, still Intop's seemingly affectionate kiss seemed like a divine blessing. “A divine blessing indeed, ” she laughed, a touch of bitterness corrupting what she had intended to be light, “Somehow I do not think so.”

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Wed Nov 05, 2008 12:22 pm
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Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
They had left Merrimead two days later, Due riding a stout mountain pony with piebald patterning, Hrafn walking by its side with the reins held loosely in her freshly bandaged hands. Ingston and the people of the village had been as good as their word, the pony had been given with their thanks and so ladden with supplies that at first Hrafn had been hard put to decide how Due would fit on the creature at all. It had only been when they were sorting out the supplies that the masked woman had truly seen the gaps within the village population that the Sickness had caused. Whatever had been the cause of the illness that had struck down so many of the village, including Charis Ingston, it had left its mark long after it had run its course. Children now did the work of adults, their innocence and childhood long worn away by the cares and responsibilities that they now carried. Greybeards and white-haired women who should have been taking their last years in peace had had to pick up the burdens that they had laid down in younger years. But the village would survive. The people had pulled together as a community and though they might struggle and have to make tough decisions in the present, the future of the village was secure.

Before the two women left the villagers told them what they knew of the surrounding lands, as little as it was. For the most part those who were born in Merrimead stayed in Merrimead, never travelling more than a day or two from its boundaries. They might visit the next village over once a year to trade skills or gossip but for the most part they had what they needed on their own lands and had little need to go beyond them. A priest would travel around the countryside and arrive at Meerimead once a year, absolving sins, conducting weddings, preaching of the right and wrong paths to take through life. The holy man would even take the time to visit the graves of those who had passed during the preceeding year and bless the souls of the departed. Tinkers would pass through now and then, selling trinkets and charms, bringing tales of the outside world that seemed as fantastic and strange as any story of dragons or unicorns told to the younglings. Once every few years a group of travelling players or a fair might show up on the boundaries of the village, a sure source of entertainment that would be remembered long after they had gone. To most of the people of Merrimead though, the village was their whole world, anything beyond it was vague myth and legend.

A few did go a little further though, gathering up what crops the village could spare and taking them to the nearest market town for sale. The coin they earned would be used to buy tools and grain, medicines and rarer goods. But they would bring back stories of the strange folk in the town and their odd ways, stories that would be relayed to the whole village when they returned. It was these few who spoke the most to Hrafn and Due, telling them the best way to travel to the market town, where they might find shelter and what tracks they should avoid.

None of them liked the idea of two old women travelling so far by themselves but Hrafn would not, could not be persuaded from her set course. She considered leaving Due with the good people of the village, knowing that she would be safe there but the blind woman would have none of it. “As if I'd let you wander off by yourself, ” Due said, “You may be older but I sometimes doubt your ability to look after yourself. You're always in such a hurry, rushing here, there and everywhere, never a thought to your own welfare. Honestly, you sometimes act as though you think the world would end if you weren't there to keep an eye on it. Well what you need is someone to keep an eye on you, not that I'm much good for that.” Due smiled wryly, one hand touching the cloth that covered her eyes. “But I know how to take care of someone, even someone as awkward and contrary as you. I swear my son is just the same, never a thought to his own good.”

Hrafn shuddered at the thought of being compared to Due's lost son, even the memory of that one was unpleasant. She shushed Due and continued along the dusty path that lead away from Merrimead, going over the information that she had been given by the good people of that place. From what they had said the path would take them through farming land and wilderness much like Merrimead and its environs for several days. The only place that they might see in that time would be another farming village, one by the name of Falsted. They had been given the name of the headman there who might be persuaded to help them further. Falsted had avoided the worst of the Sickness when it had come to the region by shutting themselves away from anyone and everyone who had come close. Even now with the dreadful illness gone the people there were still wary of strangers.

After Falsted the ground would grow steadily drier and more parched, fading eventually into dusty plains where only a few scratched out a bare living. If they could make it through that then they would in time enter green lands and woods again and the path would become a road, eventually leading them straight to the heart of a town named Millsbrook. If that place would be their destination the villagers could not say, but the people of the town would be better placed to help them find the temple that Hrafn knew she needed to reach. Without a thought her hand moved to her belt where the cloth wrapped bundle was still securely fastened to her belt. It would be good to be rid of it finally, but at the same time...

...it would be hard to give it up. it was hard even to admit that it still had such a hold on her after all the time that had passed. Was this how he had felt? The one who had first found the burden she now carried had found it hard to give up at the last. He had fought through flame, fire and storm to claim it but then at the very end of his quest, at the last possible moment when he had been so close to achieving everything that he had hoped for he hadn't been able to go through with it. Hrafn knew well enough what the adventurer would say if he had been with her now, that it had been outside of his control, that he had been unable to make the final, fateful choice, that in the end it had not been the solution to all the woes he had seen. Had it really been that though? Or had it simply been that in the end he couldn't bear to give it up? It was shackle, it was a curse, it was a prison of the soul...but it was also power, it was passion, it was a draw on the soul like nothing else ever experienced. It was a sweet addiction, bitter, painful, but at the same time it grew so close to the one that carried it till it almost felt like cutting off a limb to even want to be rid of it.

She knew how hard it was to give up. Hrafn still remembered how painful it had been, physically and mentally to take it, wrap it up in its bundle of cloth and hid it away within the bespelled trees. Tears and salt and blood had both dripped down her face and old remembered scars ached as she even thought about the act, about what it had cost her, about the suprememe act of will that it had been to simply walk away from its hiding place. Even now, walking along the path away from Merrimead so many years later, the bundle tied to her side, it still called to her, still whispered its promises, still begged her to take it up again, to wear it as she once had.

“No, not again, ” Hrafn muttered to herself, desperately casting about for something to take her mind off it, for something else to focus on. She looked this way and that, seeing nothing but farmland and the pony that Due sat so calmly on, totally oblivious to the troubled memories and temptations that stirred within the masked woman's mind. As Hrafn looked up though she spotted the smallest dot on the horizon, a black mote in the distance that moved so slowly towards them down the dusty path, so slow that it almost seemed to crawl. She relaxed slightly, there was something else, something that her mind could work at and so forget the past for a time. But still, another traveller upon the road? Just because it gave her a temporary escape from the memories that plagued her didn't meant that it boded well. The villagers had told her that travellers were rare and they certainly hadn't mentioned that they were expecting their priest. So who was this stranger? Who was it that travelled towards Merrimead even as the two women travelled away?

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Last edited by Hrafn on Wed Nov 12, 2008 5:52 am, edited 1 time in total.

Wed Nov 12, 2008 5:22 am
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Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
(OOC: double-post)

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Last edited by Hrafn on Wed Nov 19, 2008 5:48 am, edited 1 time in total.

Wed Nov 19, 2008 5:45 am
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Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
The dark spot on the horizon grew larger, slowly, oh so slowly crawling along the road towards Merrimead, its snail-like pace almost making Hrafn wonder if it was not aware that she watched it. Eventually its resolved itself, becoming no longer a meaningless shape but instead a horse-drawn wagon with a single man driving it and a dusty brown horse in the harness. As it drew ever closer the masked woman could make out more and more detail; the horse plodded stoicly along, focused solely on lifting up and putting down its hooves, not at all concerned with the land around it. Its mane and tail were loosely plaited and tied with ribbons in all manner of colours, reds, inigos, greens, though all of them had seen better days. This was no dashing young stallion, it patiently followed the road without a care for what was ahead or behind, it might as well have been pulling a plough. The driver seemed no better and no worse than his horse, his shoulders hunched down and his eyes focused on the patch of road just before him. In his hands he held the reins so loosely that Hrafn almost thought that the man might have fallen asleep, certainly if the horse had bolted suddenly the driver would have been hard put to grab them firmly enough to regain control. Like the ribbons in the horse's hair he wore clothes that looked like they had seen better days. A great long coat sat loosely about him, looking for all the world as if it had been made for a much larger man, while the hat on his head looked as though it had been bleached by long years in the sun. Both were covered in ribbons and patches of varicoloured cloth; silks, cotton, satins, linen, all sorts of fabric had gone into making the man's outlandish costume. He was no farmer and that was for certain.

The wagon trundled along, a sturdy thing that looked to have weathered the wrose that the natural and unnatural world could throw at it. For all that the paint was peeling and dulled, it was sturdily made and looked like it would survive fire, flood and thunderstorm without a chance of breaking. Within it chains rattled, glasses clinked and boxes thudded into one another.As the road towards them wove this way and that Hrafn could just make out the faded lettering on the side: “Gujero's Magnificant Goods”. In smaller letter below that it delcared for all the world to read that 'Gujero' carried only the most exotic and most miraclous of items, oils and spices from the known world and beyond, cures for all ills and pains, toys to delight the young and old, presents for sweethearts and wonderous potions that would fortell the furture. Additionally 'Gujero' claimed to be a master of various skills and tasks, boasting that he could repair what was broken and aid in all kinds of tasks and trials.

Hrafn smiled slightly as she read the list on the wagon, 'Gujero' was man of many and varied abilities if even a fraction of the boasting were true. “A salesman and a tinker,” she muttered to herself. Well it wasn't unusual for people to take up such professions, from what she had learnt from the people of Merrimead, 'Gujero' and his ilk were the most common of visitors to their village though even then they wouldn't expect to see them more than two or three times in a year's turning. She didn't doubt that he wouldn't find a warm welcome in the village, even in his faded finery he would still appear to be exotic and fabulous to the ordinary farming folk.

As the wagon drew nearer the wagon driver became aware that he was not alone on the dusty road, looking up breifly and then looking up again as he saw the two women and their pony. The change in his posture was almost instanteous, he straightened up and drew his head high, painting a wide and welcoming smile upon his face. He tugged on the reins till the horse lifted its head and managed a hair-hearted prance, though it soon returned to its usual plodding pace. “A salesman, a tinker and a showman,” Hrafn revised her opinion slightly, her smile cracking a little wider as the wagon driver puffed out his chest and held his head high giving the impression of a preening peacock who thought himself quite fine.

“Dear ladies upon the road, what a delight and a pleasure to meet such fair travellers,” he declared, outrageously as the wagon drew up before them. His horse snorted derisively in reply as if to give its opinion on its master's greeting, tossing its head contemptuously.

Mentally Hrafn marked the man further; saleman, tinker, showman and dreadful lier, there was no way that anyone in their right mind would call Due or herself 'fair', not unless they were as blind as her companion. Outwardly though she didn't comment on his description, instead answering his greeting with one of her own, “And a good day to you sir, I take it that you must be Gujero.”

The man pressed one hand to his heart dramatically, “Ah for my sins dear lady I am just that man, but not just Gujero, I am Gujero the Magnificent, the Amazing, the Incredible. I am a trader from the farest lands, I have travelled from one horizon to the other to gather only the most precious and unusual of commodities for my customers. I have spoken with the northern mountain-dwelling dwarves of Bergelmir and with the jungle goblin tribes of the far south. To the east I have travelled and traded wisdom with the Shugenja of Kamome herself. and to the west I have been also, discussing matters of honour and glory with the knights of St. Simister. Dear ladies, I can assure you, you will never meet a more honest or more well-travelled merchant than I.”

Nor, apparently, would she ever meet a less modest or humble one either, she thought to herself. He amused her though and so she played her part as the simple peasant woman, “Good sir, I am amazed and astounded, but pray tell me, what is such a worthy merchant as yourself as yourself doing upon these quiet back road? Surely a man of your stature would be welcome in every town and city?”

“It is true, dear lady, it is true. But a man of action and adventure such as myself grows tired of the grand and pampered living in the fine cities. Sometimes I yearn to visit the gentle peace of the countryside and the honest folk that inhabit it. Ah but I would trade every gold coin I own for the simple lives that you live out here.” Somehow Hrafn doubted that statement, but there again she doubted that this one had ever had that much gold to his name. As for the far travels that he boasted of...no, the trader had probably never gone further than the borders of the province, let alone talked with dwarves, goblins, shugenja or knights. But for him and for his customers he had to put on the act, he had to appear larger than life and bright with the colours of the exotic. He was a ray of light in their oridinary lives, a breath of the outside world that they would rarely see. “Perhaps such ladies as yourself could help me? Though I have travelled far and wide still my memory of these parts is cloudy, is this the road to Merrimead?”

“Indeed it is Master Gujero, you are no more than a few hours travel away. Perhaps in turn such a well-travelled merchant such as yourself could help my friend Due and myself?” Even if he hadn't been to the strange and exotic lands that he had claimed he would know more of the surrounding lands than the people of Merrimead.

“But of course dear lady, if it is within my power to aid you I shall.”

“My friend and I seek a temple, a very specific temple. Could you tell us if the town of Millsbrook has a temple of any size and who it might be dedicated to?” It was probably best if she didn't specify which temple she shought until she was sure who the landshereabouts belonged to.

Gujero, for all his supposed magnificance, frowned, “Matters of religion are not my strong point, faith has a tendancy to get in the way of business. There certainly as a temple in Millsbrook when last I passed that way, well if the truth be told it was barely more than a small building with a shrine but the townspeople called it a temple. Whether it is still there and who it might be to I couldn't say. The wars of the land rage this way and that, one day we are told we owe allegiance to one noble or god, a week later it may be another. I try to be flexible and pay lip service to any god who's followers pass my way".

Due perked up at his words, his lips setting themselves in a firm line of disapproval, “Blasphemer,” she spat, her hands tightening in the mane of the pony as her anger rose. “To speak so of the Lord, it is heresy. there is only one true God. To pay Him and the false ones lip service it is, it is-”

“Peace Due, peace, I am sure Gujero meant no harm by his words.” She walked round the side of the wagon, drawing Gujero with her. When she spoke again it was in a quieter voice, “I beg your pardon, good sir, my friend is strong in her faith, it is all she has since her son was taken from her.”

Gujero nodded solemnly, “I understand, I have seen such things happen before. Please accept my apologies, I should have been more careful of how I spoke.” He breathed deeply and straightened up, taking on the persona of the outrageous saleman once more, “But I have no been able to help you on your journey dear lady as you have helped me. Let me show you my wares at least, perhaps we can do a little business before we journey on our seperate ways.” Before Hrafn had a chance to speak he had leapt onto a narrow ledge to the back of the wagon and tugged on a catch at the top. The side of the wagon fell forward and the masked woman had to step quickly to the side to avoid it. The side of the wagon lay horizontal and now formed a small stage, revealling shelves containing all manner of boxes and vials and bags, the contents of wish she could only begin to imagine. “Step forward, dear lady, step forward and see the marvellous items that I have gathered for sale or trade.”

With an inward sigh Hrafn stepped onto the stage and peered at the shelves as Gujero rummaged amoung them. For all his very human flaws and faults, Gujero had certainly gathered quite a variety of objects, perhaps he had travelled further than Hrafn had given him credit for. There were the ususal ribbons and clothes, tools and seeds that she had expected a travelling tinker to own but there were stranger things too. Ornately carved boxes and glass bottles in shimmering colours sat on the shelves side by side with much more mundane objects.

The saleman turned back to her, “My lady, I mean no disrespect but I note that you wear a mask. I will not enquire as to why or what it hides but perhaps you might be interested in one that is more than the plain white thing that you wear. This I brought from a most talented forest tribe who live in the wild places of Kar'in'oni.” He held up a wooden mask, descorated with fine, delicate feathers in all shades of blue from the palest eggshell to the deepest blue of the sea. She shook her head a little more violently than she had intended, but before she had a chance to speak Gujero had already put the mask away and pulled out a vial no bigger than his finer, “The finest perfume of the mysterious Mirrorlands where ghosts roam as freely as oridinary folk?” Again she shook her head and again Gujero would not be disheartened. “A feather from the last pheonix?”

Hrafn almost choked as he spoke, offering the long golden feather to her. It had probably been no closer to a phoenix than the feathers of anoridnary raven but still...She held her hands out before her as if to ward off a weapon strike, “Please good sir, there is no need for this.”

“I am a saleman dear lady, I must have something that you would like, I have something for everything,” Gujero didn't seem to have noticed her distress, putting away the feather even as he drew out a small box. He opened the box carefully, revealling a fine, off-white dust that she shielded from any breeze with his hand. “This is made from the shed skin of a naga warrioress, a truly magnificant creature that I came across in the southern sands of Que-esha. She had need of supplies and I was more than happy to help in return for some of her recent moult. I swear to you I have traded this selfsame dust to the finest ladies of the western city of Mornholme, to the very wife of that city's worthy leader. It is said that this dust, when mixed with a little water and applied to the skin can make one appear years, if not decades youger.”

“I think I might need more than that to shed my years,” she said, false laughter slipped from her lips as she tried to shake the feelings that the phoenix feather had roused in her. It was clear though that Gujero wasn't going to give up on his sales pitch though, not until she had brought something from him. After a few more minutes of looking at the shelves and examining the goods that the trader brought out she finally agreed to pruchase a short length of pale yellow, almost golden cloth to replace that which Due wore to cover her eyes and thin metal bracelet that the merchant swore had been given to him by the child-ruler of Yisa. “And what will you take in return for these?”

Gujero smiled wolfishly, “Seven silver for the bracelet and another three for the cloth. Or if you would rather not spend coin I am always open to other offers.”

Hrafn frowned, the people of Merrimead had given them a few coins but she had no wish to use them until they got to Millsbrook, but she had other skills, ways of bartering that the merchant might appreciate. She stepped down from the wagon and walked a couple of steps from the road to where the wildflowers grew. Reaching down she picked up a handful and examined them closely, letting Gujero see that they were nothing special, no different to hundreds, if not, thousands that he had passed in his travels. Then she closed her eyes, reaching not to the flowers but instead deep within herself, to the place within her soul where the magic dwelt, to the white-hot flames that danced there trapped within her battered body. The magic thrilled to her mental touch, racing down the pathways that she opened to it, flowing like silver liquid through her body and mind, arching out to the flowers that she held. Power infused the flowers, rippling along their edges before diving deep within, changing before the merchant, who stared at them with bulging eyes. Where once she had held ordinary wildflowers now, she held delicate creations made of vibrant coloured glass, “Will these do for trade?”, she asked handing them to him.

“A sorceress!” Gujero exclaimed.

“Once, long ago, perhaps,” she said softly, “Now just an old woman on a journey. Will they do?”

The trader looked down at the glass flowers in his hands, “They will more than do, dear, dear lady. I do not know who you are or where you and your friend go or even your true purpose there but I do know that these will do. I can find many a buyer for these flowers when I next reach the cities. Flowers created with the arcane forces commanded by the sorceress of Merrimead,” he breathed the words, already preparing his sales pitch. No doubt those who heard him would think it as fantastic a tale as any of those attached to the rest of his merchandise. And as true.

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Wed Nov 19, 2008 5:47 am
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Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
Hrafn and Due parted company from Gujero with his cargo of the unusual and magnificent. The merchant made his way towards the village of Merrimead, certain that he would make a profit on the glass flowers when next he visited a town or city. The old women turned their faces back towards the road, knowing that their path lay away from the village and forest that had sheltered them from the outside world or so long. Due hummed quietly to herself, occasionally singing a word to two from some otherwise forgotten hymn, praising to a God who no longer heard her prayers. She refused to change the blindfold that covered her eyes till Hrafn promised to look away, a strange sort of modesty in one who had never been embarassed about her blindness.

The day passed without any further meetings upon the road, which was hardly a surprise from what the people of Merrimead had told them. They might easily have been the only people left alive in the world, slowly travelling along the dry road. There was little sign of any other recent travel save for where Gujero's horse and wagon had left a slight impression and what marks Hrafn or the pony left were soon erased behind them by the breeze. Twice Hrafn caught sight of small, wild rabbits nibbling at the roadside grasses but they panicked and fled long before the small party of travellers came close enough to present even slight danger. Once a great, ebony-winged raven circled overhead, cawing a greeting or perhaps a salutation, though whether it was for the women on the road below or to the shining orb of Intop above Hrafn could not tell.

An old memory stirred at the sight of the black bird silhouetted against the sky, a memory from when she had still been a child sitting at the feet pf her master. He had been sitting by a lantern, the light casting shadows against the plain white wall opposite them. The old man had held his hands before the light, twisting and shifting them till the shadow cast resembled a bird, a shadow raven that silently flitted across a plaster sky. She remembered his words as clearly as if he stood by her shoulder and spoke them even now.

"The raven is the oldest of birds by our reckoning, old and clear and oh-so-very cunning, a trickster and no mistake. But the raven, she wasn't always black of both feather and humour, no, not at all, once, in the first days, she shone brightly, putting even the peacock and the phoenix to shame. Once she was beautiful. Her feathers shone and gleamed more brightly than gold and were made of so many colours that even the rainbows could not count them or seek to match them. Oh yes, though she might be a dark and blackened creature now, once the raven was the most amazing of creatures.

"But the raven of those days was a proud creature and once she was even heard to boast that she thought herself more lovely than the Goddess, more clever than the God and more brilliant than Their Brother. Such pride is a sin, my little dove, never forget that, the Gods do not take lightly a mortal creature thinking themselves greater than They. The raven did not care, not when the owl and the mouse both came to warn her that her behaviour had angered the Gods, not even when the wolf and the lamb put aside their emnity to tell her to make her peace and plead for forgiveness. Instead the raven mocked them and took wing, crying to the heavens and to the earth that she was the finest of all creatures, that she had no equal.

"'No equal? But all must have an equal', the voice startled the raven from her flight for the branch where a dusty and plain bird sat and which she would have sworn was empty before. Its colour was unknown beneath the dirt that stuck to its feathers, its kind a mystery to the raven's eyes. 'If you have no equal then you can never find a mate, for a mating should be made of equals'.

"The raven nodded at the strange bird's words, a seed of doubt within her pride-filled mind, 'But where can one such as I find a true equal? The dragon has not my wisdom, the unicorn has not my grace, the griffon has not my beauty, no man, no beast, no bird can rival me. Shall I never find a mate who can be my equal?'

"'Each creature that you name is mortal, it has its span of years and dies in its time. What mortal creature could compare to you?' the other bird shamelessly flattered the proud raven. 'No, great Raven, no you must look beyond the mortal coil for your mate, you must seek the eternal, the unending, only there could you hope to find a mate worthy of your great beauty'.

"'The Gods? They are not my equal. See my shining feathers, how could any mere God compare?'

"'No look beyond Gods, They are not truly undying. What remains even when the Gods die?' And with that the dusty bird took flight to leave the foolish raven to ponder his words.

"Days passed and the raven still pondered, she looked this way and that, once she even tried to find the strange bird to question him further, but neither the birds of the air nor the beasts of the fields seemed to know where the he had gone. She even flew down the fishes and serpents that lived in the seas and oceans but they had not seen the dusty feathers of the other bird either. But as she perched and preened herself, admiring her reflection in the sea, the answer came to the raven. 'The ocean! Gods may come and Gods may go but the ocean remains. Perhaps the ocean can be my equal'. And so the raven flew over the ocean, and dived down deep into its waters. But the ocean was cold and did not return her embrace, its waves continued to pound and its waters swirled about the raven, chilling her to the core. 'No, the ocean cannot be my mate for it is cold and has no heart to love another'.

"Again days passed and the raven flew through the skies, ignoring the cries of its winged fellows to set aside its foolish quest and make its peace with the Gods. But the raven knew what it sought now and paid the other birds and beasts no attention. Instead it perched upon a great oak and looked across the lands, 'The earth is eternal, it may suffer as the Gods play their games but it endures. I know it has a heart for no matter how it suffers, still it brings forth crops for the living and a final home for the dead. The earth shall be my love and never shall I lack for an equal'. The raven flew over the far and wide lands, displaying its fine feathers and its most clever tricks. But the earth gave no sign of acknowledgment, the seasons passed across its face as it always had and the raven's beasuty went ignored. 'No, the earth cannot be my mate for it is blind and cannot see another'.

"The foolish raven flew to the highest mountain and wept that she would never find her equal or a mate to love her. But her tears never fell for they dried upon her feathers before they could fall to the unseeing earth, touched by the warm rays of the sun. The raven raised her head high and met the unwavering gaze of the sun above her. 'Oh bright sun, you have the eye to see me, you have the fiery heart to love me. Oh glorious sun, you shine as brightly as my feathers, you are as beautiful as me. You are my equal, you shall be my mate'. With a powerful beat of her wings she left the mountain behind, seeking only the blazing embrace of the sun above her. Higher and higher she climbed till the muscles in her chest and wings ached and the ever-burning orb of the sun was all she could see, 'I come, my love, my only love, my bright and shining equal'. She would not stop, clawing across the air, taking great gulpping breaths to take her ever closer to her goal. The heat of the sun reached out to her, touching her feathers, and where it touched sparks erupted, tiny flames sprang to life, hungrily spreading across the multi-coloured wonder of the raven. With a single cry of pain the raven reached its destination, its beak brushing the sun in a single chaste kiss before it fell to the far, far earth below.

"When the raven came to itself again it found itself a much changed bird for no creature of flesh was ever meant to reach so far. Its fine plummage was black as soot and never again would its once-fine colours grow. Even its beak, with which it has stolen its single kiss, was dark as coal, from tip to tail the raven was as black as the night. Never again would she boast of her beauty or her grace, never again would she be more than she appeared to be. The raven is not so prideful now I think".


Hrafn looked up at the raven above her as it circling and called out, remembering the story of her long-dead D'Ni. Had the raven really lost its terrible and dangerous pride? A pride that had angered the Gods Themselves? She had met a raven in her long-gone past, well a kind of raven anyway. That one had had feathers as black as night but she had hardly been a humble and modest creature. No, that one had had pride in abundance, perhaps some just never learnt their lessons the first time round?

The raven cawwed above her, loudly cutting through the otherwise peaceful countryside, somehow the sound wasn't right, it echoed strangely to the masked woman below. Suddenly the wind came up, blowing and bending the wild grasses and stripling trees that lined the poor road. The skirts of her robe flapped about her legs, almost seeming to try and drag the hood from her head and the bandages from her flesh. Due seemed no more aware of the sudden change in weather than she might be of some bright butterfly skimming before her sightless eyes. Still sat as comfortably upon the pony as she was able, Due sang her snatches of songs and hymns, caught up in memories of a temple and a religion that were as fragmented and cracked as the songs that she tried to sing.

Hymn and wind and raven's caw seemed to draw together, forming a strange whole from their disjointed parts. Rather than a senseless noise, Hrafn almost fancied that she could hear a single word, "Hlasta", it seemed to say, "Hlasta". The masked woman covered her ears with her hands, shutting out the sounds, real or imagined, and forced herself to walk onwards. Whatever spirit or strange fay magic might be happening she would not listen to it, she had a destination, she would not be turned from it, not by this, not by words from the past. One step after another she took, forcing herself to pick up each foot and place it down again, her eyes firmly on the road again. "Hlasta..."

The wind dropped as suddenly as it rose, the raven circled one last time above them and was gone, even Due grew silent, only mouthing the half-remembered words. When Hrafn took her hands aawy from her ears all she heard was a whisper, a pale echo, "...hlasta..."

Hlasta ...Listen.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Wed Nov 26, 2008 8:55 am
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Stablehand
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Joined: Sun Jul 01, 2007 3:43 pm
Posts: 20
Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
The miles seemed to crawl by, the countryside never changing around them, the road never changing before them. And always, always, Hrafn swore that hear could hear it, a voice quietly whispering in the wind, a voice shushing in the dancing leaves, a voice calling in the cries of the birds. Hlasta, hlasta, hlasta, barely heard but still there, murmuring, muttering, sighing, a demand, a plea, a command. Due seemed not to hear it at all, wrapped up in her own small world of the past, but Hrafn knew that the words were there, someone was trying to get her attention and she had no desire to listen. The hours dragged on and the voice continued its half-heard whisperings, even when the two women stopped for the night to make camp still the voice carried on. Hrafn didn't even pretend to sleep, instead she sat staring into darkness trying not to hear, willing herself to be deaf.

A fresh day dawned but it brought no relief, still the voice called on the very edge of hearing, still it pried and pleaded, trying to get the masked woman to listen. Finally, as the sun inched its way towards its zenith Hrafn could stand no more, "Shut up, enough, enough, why won't you just leave me alone?"

A voice tutted disapprovingly close behind her, "Some would say that you're just no fun anymore witch". Hrafn turned slowly, staring at Due as the blind woman spoke with a voice that was most certainly not her own. Her eyes narrowed behind the mask as she identified the voice as the same one that had spoken through her friend in the forest, the one that had spoken with her of lies and trust and fear.

"You again".

"Yes, me again", Due's mouth curled into a contemptuous smile as the spirit possessed her. "Some would say that you should have more rspect".

"The same people who would say I am no 'fun'?"

Due laughed, but the sound was masculine, mocking, it definitely had no place coming from the blind woman's mouth. "Oh whoever they are, they are wrong, you are still fun, witch, I do enjoy our little conversations. This is why I like you, you're not afraid of spitting my words back in my face, it's quite refreshing really. I do hope that you enjoy our little meetings as much as I do".

Hrafn ground her teeth in irritation; he was playing with her just as he had in the forest, just as he had before the flames and the burning. By the Art, if only she had known what she was getting into when she had first made a deal with the spirit, if only she were able to go back and stop herself from ever getting involved with him and his ilk. She had been so young back then, so young and so very idealistic, so sure that the world was divided into black and white, right and wrong, by the time she had seen the shades of grey it had already been far, far too late. "Was there something you wanted? Or do you enjoy possessing a old blind woman?"

Due's right hand was lifted to her blindfold, "Have you ever looked under here?"

"No", Hrafn spat, knowing that the spirit was playing with her, that he wouldn't tell her what he wanted until he was good and reaedy. How she hated to playing another's game, dancing to another's song. She had always been too headstrong, unwilling to follow any lead but her own, the spirit knew that all too well, he revelled in making her wait, in forcing her to play by his rules. There was nothing she could do though, nothing she could say that would changes the rules of his game, she could only follow along the path that he prepared for her. Perhaps it was his way of teaching her humility, though he was a funny one to act the teacher for that particular lesson. "No", she sighed again, "She is very shy about her blindness and I will not humilate her, if she wishes for help I will help her, if she does not I do not force my aid upon her simply because she cannot see".

"Cannot see? Oh how wrong you are my little witch. Your friend sees, just not like you, not with her eyes. She sees the world in another way, a different way, oh the glories she has seen, the wonders that others would never even guess at". For a moment Due's face was lit as brightly as it had been in her youth, all the passion and the devoution that had once been a central part of her life shone through. In that moment she was as beautiful as any angel but Hrafn shuddered at the sight. "But you already knew that didn't you, witch?"

The masked woman turned away, forcing her emotions under control, trying to choke back the fear that threatened to strangle her. "I know what she thinks she sees. But she's blind and nothing will ever change that, she will never truly see."

Due's smile faded to one of gentle amusement, "Never say never, my dear, you should know better than any that the miraclous can be possible...under the right conditions".

"Was there something you wanted?" She asked again, trying to steer the subject away from Due and her blindess. Hrafn had known Due in her youngest years, long before she had lost her sight...'lost' now there was a joke. Due hadn't lost her sight, she knew exactly what had happened to it and that perhaps was the most fearful thing of all. There had been no accident, no mistake, she had given up her sight, willingly and without regret, a sacrifice that Hrafn could not understand. "Are you really so bored that this is your idea of amusement?"

"Oh that hurts", the look on the blind woman's face was too over-played to be even vaguely mistaken for a real emotion. "Are we not friend, my little witch? Are we not old comrades? Can I not just want to spend some quality time with you? Wasn't it lack of attention that drove you from the bargains you made with my siblings? How could I bear to make the same mistake? Though your debts to me are paid, still there is a special bond between us and I am loathe to see that strained, let alone broken. Three debts you owed me, three debts you paid back to me, one of mercy, one of protection, one of charity. And that was as it should be, there should be no debts between friends such as you and I."

Hrafn kept her expression cold, "Just tell me what you want".

Due sighed and shook her head, the spirit chuckling through her, "I perhaps was wondering if you truly did still care for me. Is that so wrong?"

"Care for you?"

"Well yes, I pay you a little...social visit in your forest home and what do I get? Unpleasantness, abuse, I would almost be insulted by the way you welcomed me then. but my sibling makes contact with you, my sibling who hurt you, betrayed you, caused you pain beyond imagination and how do you act?" There was a touch of anger in the voice that came out of the blind woman's mouth, the words not so much spoken as spat. The voice mimicked the voice that Hrafn had heard within the forest, "Give what was once offered, receive what you once had. Is that all it takes to turn your head witch? Is that all my dear sibling has to say to get you dancing to her tune? After all I've given you, after all I've done for you, she beckons to you and you go running to her? And now I hear you're looking for a temple? Please don't tell me that after all your mistakes you're going to turn to religion again? That was foolish the first and the second times, a third time and I might have to give up on my good opinion of you altogether. And foolishness heaped upon idiocy, what are you doing with that?" Due's fingers pointed unwaveringly at the wrapped package that hung from Hrafn's belt.

Hrafn's hands dropped to her belt a little guiltily, "What I am doing with it is my own concern, not yours".

"Well, if nothing else I hope you're not going to make the same mistake as that silly paladin did. Now there was a man too foolish to come in out of the rain. There is and has only ever been one person who that belongs to". The anger had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, the mocking tone coloured the words that came out of Due's mouth once more.

"And I suppose that would be you?", Hrafn asked sarcastically.

The spirit laughed heartily, "Oh no, not me, my dear witch, it's most definitely not for me. Perhaps one day, you'll figure it out, then you'll be able to give it to the one it really belongs to. Now, will you answer my question? Are you really going to abandon me and rush off down the path my sibling has set for you?"

"That's none of your business".

"Oh but it is", the voice coming from Due turned cold, "I have invested too much time and effort into you witch, I have brought you to the very cusp of understanding and now you would leave me? You would dare to leave me? You think you can destroy the bond between us? It's not that easy witch, you can't turn your back on me, I won't allow it".

"What you allow or won't allow is none of my concern. I will do what I think is right".

"Listen to me".

"No", she said, her voice full of venom, "No I will not, I have had enough of you and your meddling, I have paid my debts, I owe you nothing. Nothing".

"Listen to-"

"I have said no once, must I say it again?"

"Listen-"

Her temper caught Hrafn, it lit a fire within her that she had not felt in many a year, it burned within her, coursing through her mind, making her feel more...alive. "No", she screamed, "No, I will not listen, I do not have to listen".

"Well good lady you don't have to listen if you don't want to, none can force you", another voice said, "But, begging your pardon, do you mind if the little ones listen?" Hrafn turned slowly towards to the new voice to see an old man, weather-beaten and wrinkled staring at her from the field that ran by the side of the road. When had the wilderness turned back into farming lands? She hadn't even noticed the change, so caught up in the conversation with the possessing spirit that she hadn't even spotted the small cluster of buildings that had to be the village of Falsted take their place on the horizon. The old man looked politely at her, a small gaggle of children arranged about his feet, their eyes wide at the strange masked woman who had shouted.

Hrafn felt her heart sink within her, the spirit had once again made her look a fool, "I...I...I am sorry, I did not mean to interrupt you. I fear that my companion and I have been travelling out in the sun for too long".

The old man grinned broadly, "That's quite alright and most understandable, the sun can have a funny old event on us when we get older. Please, come sit down with us and rest yourselves".

Hrafn nodded her thanks and turned to help Due off the pony. The blind woman was once again herself and as before she seemed totally unaware that the spirit had ever taken her flesh.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Wed Dec 10, 2008 5:53 am
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Joined: Sun Jul 01, 2007 3:43 pm
Posts: 20
Post Re: Ashes of the Phoenix
The two women made themselves comfortable on the ground, sharing their supplies with the old man and his young charges. None of the children looked to be more than five or six summers old and they stared with undisguised curiousity at the women. "You'll have to pardon their rudeness", the old man chuckled, "They don't see many folk from outside Falsted. Strangers are a sight to see and that's no mistake. We've never exactly been a spot to draw travellers in and since the Sickness the headman tends to discourage outsiders from coming to the village or staying too long if they do turn up. These little 'uns don't see many that they don't recognise, they don't know how to act about ladies such as yourselves", he said, winking.

Stares from the curious had never overly bothered Hrafn, she'd spent too many years of her long life being the outsider and the odd-one-out. Rarely had she ever visited a place where she was the normal one, she had always been the minority, even amongst her own people. Perhaps when she had been much younger it had concerned her, being rejected and unwanted because you were different was never an enjoyable experience and one that the young suffered more than others. As she had grown older though it had seemed less and less of a problem, she had built an armour of sorts about herself, a shield that protected her from the stares and whispers from those that considered themselves to be the normal majority. It hadn't stopped the stares whereever she had gone - and she had travelled much in her younger years - but it had meant that she stopped caring. What did it matter to her what others thought? If they muttered and gossiped about her behind her back it could not hurt her, she was secure within the fortress of her own mind. Perhaps it had made her seem cold and uncaring to those about her but at the time it had seemed to be the best solution.

"Now you young 'uns that's enough goggling at the nice ladies. Stop your staring 'afore the wind changes and leaves you all looking that way".

Hrafn smiled slightly as the children blinked rapidly and looked away, one even putting his hands up to his face to check if all was as it should be. She could not blame them for their curiousity, not living so far from another soul. Not to mention that Due and herself hardly made the most normal of sights, the blind woman with her cloth wrapped eyes and Hrafn with all hint of flesh covered and hidden from sight. She had already noticed how even the old man himself stole glances at her bandaged hands, biting his lower lip with seeming indecision about whether he should ask after her health or not. "It is no disease", she said at last, holding up her hands.

The old man sighed gratefully, "Thank ye mistress, I feared that you might be a leper or somesuch and this area has seen too much illness to cope with more. Falsted was spared the worst of it by the precautions we took but it has made us mighty wary of trusting those that might bring further illness to this land".

"There was an accident, a fire...and the wounds do not heal", it was easier to blame her hidden flesh on an ordinary fire rather than her hazy, painful memories of the burning angel. Even if she had told the truth how could any of them understood? The angel that had burned with flames of blue fire, the pain that had been done from love, the offer of salvation that had not been wanted. But...the flames, the burns, they were not the only reason she covered her flesh were they? An older memory crept forward into the light of her mind, a memory of another place, somewhere like Falsted and Merrimead that had suffered from sickness, a name that echoed in her thoughts: Penthsford.

The old man nodded grimly at her words, not knowing the distress in her thoughts, "Accidents do happen and it looks like you have suffered enough from yours. But what brings you to Falsted?"

"We are on our way to the town of Millsbrook", well the town would at least be their first destination, if Hrafn couldn't find what she needed there they would have to travel further. Her hand brushed without thought against the wrapped bundle at her waist; it would be good to finally make an end of it finally. No matter what the spirit thought, she would be rid of her burden, she would give it up to the temple as had always been intended. And then? Redemption? Salvation? Perhaps, but just being free of the responsibility for it would be enough...or at least that was what she tried to convince herself. "The people of Merrimead said that someone in Falsted might be able to give us better directions than they were able to.

"Millsbrook eh? Went there myself once or twice as a younger man, a much younger man to be truthful", the old man laughed heartily. "Well now, let me think, you want to stay on this road that's for sure, though the way gets tough in a week's travel or so. Lands dries out you see, there's a few wells here and there along the way marked by a stone with this symbol upon it", he drew a rune upon the ground. "Make sure to fill your waterbags when you see them, nothing worse than getting caught out in the open without water. And be sure to wrap up warm at night, it may seem hot during the day but it gets awfully cold at night from what I remember of my travels. It'll take you another week at least to make it through there, you might find a few living out there, though its not much of a life if you ask me, scratching at dry soil to try and get a crop to grow. It's a tough land but it breeds a tough people, or perhaps a stubborn people, anyone else would be sensible enough to get move on rather than try and farm that place. Once you get through it though you'll be back into farming land like this for a few days before you reach the Stalfordshire forest. The road grows through the forest but I wouldn't advise two women travelling by themselves to follow it, that place has been the haunt of bandits for more years than I can remember. Take my word for it ladies, go round the forest, keep to its eastern edge and it'll bring you safe to another road, that one will take you to Millsbrook without any danger".

It sounded an easy enough route to follow, though travelling through the dry lands might become difficult if they missed any of the wells. "Thank you for your directions".

One of the younger children stood up, stealing shy glances at the two women as she stumbled over to the old man and whispered something in his ear. "You must excuse me ladies but I have been reminded of my duties. It seems I promsied these little ones a story which i was just about to tell them when you happened by. Would you might if we carried on?"

Hrafn smiled behind her mask and nodded.

"Well now, where was I?" The old man feinted a look of confusion, "What story was it I was going to tell you?" The children called out suddenly, their voices and cries, a muddle of sound from which no words could be distinguished. Gesturing for them to calm down, the old man laughed again, "Ah yes now I remember, I was going to tell you the story of Afin the elf slayer, now wasn't it?"

"Listen to me then, young 'uns. Seems long ago in the village of Medoc, which is far, far, far away from here, there lived a brave young farmhand named Afin. Now Afin was a good man, he knew right from wrong and he always obeyed his elders. He did his work and was good friends with his neighbours and he loved, more than anything else in the world, a beautiful young milk-maid named Mala. Now one holy day, Mala and Afin were out walking in the forests near Medoc, they were enjoying each other's company and thought that they were the only people nearby. Further and further into the forest they walked until night fell and they found themselves too far within the forest's depths to make it out again. They both decided that rather than bump around in the dark and get too lost to find their way out again they would sleep within the forest and find their way home when the sun came up".

"So they lay down side by side and soon found themselves sound asleep. When Afin woke the moon was still shining down and dawn was many hours away from making an appearance. But instantly he knew that something was very wrong...Mala was missing. He looked left and he looked right, he looked all about the glade that they had stopped it and into the darkness of the trees, but no where was there a sign of Mala. Suddenly he heard a scream of fear from deeper within the forest and in his heart he knew it to be his beloved Mala. Grabbing a sturdy branch length to use a club he raced off into the darkness to save his lady love". The old man continued on with his tale, the children all staring at him, mouths open as he related the tale of Afin as he sought to save the milk-maid Mala from the terrible fairy-folk who had kidnapped her. Hrafn's attention waned though, the story, the names within it it itched at her memeory, somehow familiar and yet not quite. It was as though she looked at childhood friends grown suddenly to adulthood, there was something familiar about them and yet they were strangers. Had she perhaps know Afin, Mala or their fairy captors? Or had she known some other version of this tale? The second option rang true within her, yes she had heard this tale before, but it wasn't right, the brave Afin, the maiden in distress Mala, the terrible, cruel and wicked fairies. There was truth but there was falsehood in the story, but there was one thing that she was sure of:: Afin had never been a slayer of the fay folk.

She frowned behind her mask, trying desperately to grasp at the memories that wriggled and slipped from her touch. Whatever the true tale ahd been she no longer remembered and there seemed to be no point in interrupting not even as the story reached its terrible ending as Afin faced down the fairy queen and her troll protector. Hrafn sighed quietly and cast her discomfort at the story aside. What did it matter if the story was wrong? The young children enjoyed it and if even she did not remember it rightly then who would come forward to tell it truly? Even so, something about letting the false story carry on left her feeling distinctly unhappy.

_________________
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
~*~


Wed Dec 17, 2008 7:38 am
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