Helaine stumbled to a halt in the narrow midst of the way, shoulders laboured by her panting breath, a stream of urine running unheeded down her legs and puddling between her feet. Agathé kicked dirt over it in her mistress’s wake; the latter had disappeared when she looked up, diving eastward through the huts and into the verge of nettles and saplings pressed up to their walls. She stepped back for Edward, who preceded her, pressing down the boscage to allow the girl to follow without undue discomfort, but when he saw that Helaine’s trail headed down instead of across the lowering, fern-dressed slope, he abandoned nicety and leapt the fallen bole that she had already scrabbled over, running in pursuit of her.
A shred of her shift hung from the stub of a dead branch; he caught sight of the garment as he emerged onto the soft ground cleared in spate by the river snaking through Helaine’s estates, thick with summer-baked mud and flattened reeds. She crouched amongst them, midway between the poplars and the stream, and as he came on her he saw that she had turned to face the trees, her cracked white lips belching a rattling snarl while her broken nails worked at her throat, scratching back the skin as though determined to release something trapped behind it. Throwing down what he carried, he circled around her through the clattering reeds and dropped to press her to the stiff, caked ground, reaching with both arms to pin hers against her heaving sides. Even more dreadful was the sound that birthed inside her body, rumbling and chuckling at first like stone wheels upon a paved way, and then dragged up through a nauseous, whining scale until it sang like iron shrieking and sparking against itself, coursing through them both; her body shook beneath him with such duress that he relinquished her, fearing the effect of his weight. Helaine writhed as though beheaded in its absence, curled tightly, and rose onto her hands and knees, still screaming with the voice that turned his face from her and brought his fists against his ears. Three wrenching contractions of her chest sucked out the air from it, and as they lapsed, she fell, onto her face in the reeds, hands upturned beside her.
A drowsy roost of starlings was flushed suddenly from the poplars, clattering into the sky as one in a black ribbon shape against the dusk. They swooped in a great arc over the river bank and then plunged with the same terrible unison into the slack, lead-skinned water, the violence of their immersion cutting both air and liquid like a rasping flight of arrows, leaving no trace until their dark bodies, still hopelessly buoyant, began to bob slowly to the surface downstream, and were drawn away by the flow. As they did so, Helaine lifted her head from the silt, rolling over onto her back. Agathé struggled through the reeds toward them, dragging the cloak that Edward had abandoned.
“I saw two great places...” the witch whispered, her voice failing at first, gazing up at him as he lifted her hair from the blood on her neck and assured himself the wounds would not emperil her. “Ghost mountains, like the teeth of the world, and the honey forests... white cranes pass over the place of your birth, floating south, into the wind.” Though the price exacted began to awaken in the body that had suffered such rough service as a vehicle, in her eyes the surpassing joy of revelation replaced the black lustre of the unknown passenger. “You are the colour of the last snow before summer, where it lies about the lakes...” she told him, letting her head rest on the reeds. With a muddy hand she reached toward Agathé, who drew a thick fold of paper from her dress and handed it to her with a stick of waxy charcoal, its point tapered in readiness. Helaine pulled herself up onto one arm. “This devil told to me the names of others, older still, and of your land...” she added, scowling in discomfort as she committed them, slowly and laboriously, to the paper.
“You were ridden two days, and it would not let you drink.” he explained as he passed the skin of water to her, in anticipation of the thirst that rose like smoke inside her throat. “In my land there are shaitan who will not let you breathe.”
She gasped at the sweet taste of it in her fouled mouth, and let it run from her lips, lifting a strange, half-buried smile to his caution.
“I would trade it gladly.” Helaine sighed, closing her eyes. “Wisdom may ask whatever price it pleases."
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce