The morning was chilly, but the clear skies allowed the wan sun to warm them a bit as they sat in the open window. Outside, a light snow had dusted the ground overnight. It was early in the season, and the browned leaves hadn't even fallen from the trees.
Liria glanced down at her lap, where a gray furred head rested quietly. "It's about time we got some rest, huh?" she commented.
The large dog raised its head to look up at her. There was a depth of understanding in those amber eyes that was lacking in any other animal. Liria and Talia had been inseparable since they'd finally gotten the courage to let Devon know about her presence. The dark haired woman still wasn't too happy toting a stolen dog around, but at least she'd finally realized that Talia wasn't diseased.
"You're awake," a throaty voice spoke behind her.
Liria turned away from the window to see Madra standing in the open doorway. Whining with pleasure, Talia stood and padded toward the older woman. Setting a freshly filled pitcher of water on the nearby table, Madra carefully bent at the waist to pet the large animal.
The older woman paused, listening. "We'll have visitors today," she said, standing straight.
Although many years older than Devon, Madra stood just as tall. Age hadn't twisted her body as it did so many others. Madra remained slim and willowy in stature. She at times was afflicted with arthritic stiffness, but was yet a handsome and even distinguished presence.
Liria smiled. "I'll never know how you do that," she remarked.
"Oh, it isn't so difficult," Madra answered. "You arrived so late last night I thought you'd still be sleeping."
The smile slipped from her face. "I couldn't sleep after Devon left," she admitted, gazing out the window yet again. Facing the rear of Madra's home, it looked out over her extensive garden, the bulk of which had already succumbed to frost.
Moments later she felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "You're upset that she left you behind," Madra guessed correctly.
She felt the sting of tears and hated herself for her weakness. "What do you think she's doing in Glenyth?"
There was a brief pause, during which Liria fought the urge to turn and show her face to the older woman. "Well, it's the largest city in the area," Madra ventured. "Likely she'll be checking for any news of Rothschild's whereabouts."
Liria shook her head. "I just wish she would have let me know that."
"It bothers you that she excludes you from her plans."
Sighing, Liria said, "I know we haven't known each other for very long, but I wish Devon would be able to trust me a little more."
Madra chuckled, making Liria turn toward her in surprise. "Do you realize that Devon has shared more time with you than she has with any other person save her own father? She is remarkably closed for a woman, with countless acquaintances but few friends. She would have left you in the capable hands of one of them did she not have a personal care for your safety."
Liria tried masking the effect these words had on her, but was too warmed by them to keep the reaction from her features. "What if Rothschild comes while she's away?" she asked, chilled by the idea.
"You believe yourself incapable of protecting yourself?"
Liria stood, making Madra take a step to one side in order to let her pass. "I know you think that I'm like you," she began, "But I'm really not."
"No," Madra agreed, startling her. "You have the capability of becoming infinitely stronger."
Liria snorted in disbelief. She felt the cool wetness of Talia's nose bumping against her hand. The dog gazed up at her adoringly.
"Even this animal recognizes your abilities. She's a very special creature, a familiar created to serve a powerful master. Talia found you, Liria, and will choose no other. But I'm afraid your power will remain stagnate if you continue to deny it."
The tears were flowing before Madra finished. "But I'm so out of control," Liria whispered. "I've--people have died because of me."
Madra's face softened. "What we speak of is the Mother. She is Earth, She is Nature. With Nature, there is no control, only persuasion."
"You could be burned for saying such things," Liria said, aghast.
"Aye, many a truth-teller has been murdered by the ignorant. But all will answer for their actions in some way or another. It's the way of things. You must never ignore the truth in favor of conformity, or you'll be nothing."
"Devon wants you to teach me?"
Madra nodded. "Devon uses words like 'control' as well. But you're beyond such barbaric philosophies. I can merely point you in a particular direction. The journey is yours from there."
Liria took a deep breath to clear her thoughts. "How do you know Devon?" she asked.
"I served as midwife at her birth," Madra answered.
"Devon was born near here?"
Smiling, the other woman shook her head. "Just what has she told you about her past?"
"Next to nothing," Liria scowled.
"Then I leave it to Devon to explain. Now, why don't we break our fast?" Madra gestured toward the table.
Liria waited until after they had eaten to begin asking further questions of Madra. They walked along the wooden fence at the edge of her yard, waiting for the client she'd already sensed approaching several hours earlier. The snow crumbled easily underfoot, a tactile powder that made a pleasant crunching sound with each step. Liria loved the first snow of each year, it was so pure and clean.
"When you speak of divinity, you say it is female," Liria broached, feeling slightly ashamed at even raising the topic once again.
"And why should the power of creation not be?" Madra asked. "Is it not the female who births and cares for her young, who nurses the sick and ailing, and then comforts the dying? Women are present at each life-altering circumstance of human existence. It is more believable that this presence is female, and that far from observing upon high as does God, She is present in each and every aspect of this world. Do you not feel safer in knowing that than in trusting the words of a gray-haired priest who speaks only of sin and horror?"
Madra's words made sense to her deep down, but it was hard to stifle a lifetime of contradictory teachings. Liria felt strangely warm at her understanding, as though just by listening to Madra's words she was doing a grave disservice to God. Worse than that, perhaps she was damning herself. "This is hard for me," she said.
"I know a little something that will help," Madra said. "You should be strong enough to withstand it."
She looked as though she wanted to continue, but just then a woman appeared over the crest in the road. Three children of various ages trudged behind her, all red-cheeked from the chill. The youngest child remained cradled in the woman's arms, her flushed cheeks much too pronounced to simply be a symptom of the cold. She was fussy, sniffling pitifully in her mother's embrace. Her breath rattled uneasily in her chest.
Madra took one cursory glance at the child and said, "She'll need a compress to loosen the congestion."
Inside, Liria watched with fascination as Madra treated the young girl. None of the children showed any hint of fear toward the woman and her strange-smelling concoctions. Her maternal demeanor instantly put them at ease. She referred to each by name, never exhibiting any difficulty in recalling them individually.
The family left more than an hour later, Madra returning to the fire to brew something warm for the two of them to drink. The day was getting colder as it approached the noontide; the wind had shifted direction subtly. Liria guessed it would likely snow again soon.
"They weren't afraid to come and see you," Liria commented. She accepted the mug of tea Madra offered gratefully. They sat at the heavy table, Liria drinking and savoring the heat as it filled her body.
"And they should not," Madra concurred. "I've caused no harm to anyone in this village. But, I suppose that one day I may make a mistake, or be unable to help someone in need. At that point my life may become forfeit."
Liria shook her head. "It's unfair...to expect you to cure all ills."
Madra shrugged. "It is something I've expected. Tell me, was your mother a curing woman?"
"No," Liria answered, smiling. "She spent some time spinning. My father--I didn't know my father, he left to continue his studies before I was born. My mother was alone, and had to support the both of us on her own."
"You father was a member of the Church? What studies took him from you?"
"My mother never told me," Liria said. She put down her mug, feeling light-headed suddenly.
Madra's features swam before her gaze. Clutching the edge of the table, Liria fought to settle her trembling frame. "What's happening?" she asked, her voice slurred.
"Don't fight the effects, Liria, you'll only cause yourself needless pain," Madra urged.
"What--did you do?"
"You have to accept your own origins," Madra explained, now standing behind her. Blearily, Liria turned her head to match the older woman's progress but only served to make herself nauseous.
Madra continued, circling behind her. "You've built a wall in your mind to block the signs, but you shouldn't fear them. Until you recognize Her impact on your life, you'll never reach your potential. When you understand how She's protected you from the beginning, a raging flood of possibilities will burst free. Now you'll have to examine it for yourself."
Frozen with shock, Liria stared at Madra as the edges of her vision started fading. Her head throbbed with a sudden noise, and the horrible thought striking her mind at that moment was the realization that she was going blind again. She glanced down at the wooden mug sitting innocuously on the table in front of her. It was the last thing she saw before darkness overtook her completely.
Liria woke to an odd tickling sensation against her cheek. Moving her limbs to stretch, she felt the unmistakable texture of earth and grass beneath her. Confused, Liria opened her eyes.
Her immediate perception was correct. She saw a multitude of sun-tinted blades of grass rising above her line of sight. Liria frowned and pushed herself up on her elbows. Where had the snow disappeared to?
The snow became the least of her concern. Glancing around, she saw only thick clusters of trees blanketed by a hazy fog. Where she saw the sun managed to reach the ground, dispersing the fog and encouraging the growth of wild flowers. Liria took a deep breath. She knew exactly where she was.
Before she was able to process the change in location, Liria heard the sound of whispering nearby. There should be anyone out in these woods, she thought. She rose to her feet and moved toward the sounds, leaving the solace of her clearing and allowing the cold tendrils of fog to envelope her.
The woods had a strange way with noises. Some were simply swallowed, disappearing from the senses as though they never existed. Others grew to amazing strength, echoing through the trees until a person could no longer discern the source. It took Liria more time to find the people she's heard than she would have expected.
The whispering had turned into something else by the time she found them. Breathy sighs and faint moans were instantly familiar. Liria saw two people intwined in a tight embrace as they leaned against the smooth bark of a wide tree. The woman, her back to Liria, wore a tattered gray dress, her blonde hair loosened to fall past the waist.
Liria gasped, recognizing her. At the sound, the man pulled back and gazed at her in irritation. The woman turned, her cheeks flushed and lips swollen with pleasure. Upon seeing Liria, her blue eyes sharpened with displeasure.
"I told you to stay in the house, darling," she said.
Unable to catch her breath for many moments, Liria finally managed, "Mother?"
The older woman faced her fully, causing her partner to frown. "Don't argue with me. Go finish your chores."
Liria frowned, recognizing the script of a conversation that had taken place years before. She opened her mouth to respond when her mother started coughing harshly. Alarmed, Liria stepped forward. She knew there was little she could do to help, however, and could only wait for the fit to subside. When it passed, a thin line of blood trailed from one corner of her mouth to spatter against the light-colored dress.
Liria's face crumpled in fear and disgust at the sight. Her mother seemed oblivious to the outward sign of her illness. "What?" she asked. She watched her lover reel away from her, turning to hurry back toward town.
When her mother suddenly lost her balance, Liria rushed forward to catch her. The body in her arms was absurdly light, bones as brittle as a bird's. Another cough racked her thin frame.
"You can help me," her mother whispered, blood-flecked spittle gathering at her lips.
Liria shook her head helplessly. "No," she whispered. "I don't know how."
Her mother's gaze was steely, even in her weakened state. "You can," she repeated. Then, "I'll die."
A tear splashed her pale cheek, falling from Liria's face. "I can't do anything," she cried. "Don't lay this at my feet."
Her mother reached up with a trembling hand, brushing another tear from Liria's cheek. "You don't belong here," she said. "Promise me you'll leave when I'm gone."
In the next moment Liria was left staring at her own empty hands. They were covered in the blood that oozed from her wrists. The pain slashed a trail of warmth through her cold frame, the first heat that had entered her heart in over a month. But no, she thought, this couldn't happen again. She'd changed her mind the first time, had returned to the world again. Watching her life seeping out of those wounds to land on the earth below, Liria threw her head back and screamed in despair.
"I thought I'd find you here," a voice said.
Liria blinked, shaking her head in confusion. The blood was gone, as was her mother, both flown away with a swirl of fog. Glancing up, she saw Silas standing a few feet away.
"I'm in mourning, Silas," she said dejectedly.
He only grinned at her. "You don't have many options, Liria. Everyone knows what your mother was doing out here. Who do you think would have the daughter of a--"
She ran at him, screaming, before he could finish the words. As she did she felt something deep within herself, a tremendous pressure that begged to be released. But she stamped it down stubbornly. Her anger was enough to dissuade him for now. Silas disappeared as the fog swallowed him.
"What is this place?" Liria whispered. "I'm dreaming."
"Not exactly," a female voice responded.
Liria whirled to face a young woman about her age. Her hair flowed freely like a small girl's, and she wore a white dress so clean that it dazzled the eye. Strange amber eyes regarded Liria kindly.
"You are in a similar realm, however," the woman continued. "Dreams help us find ourselves as well."
"Who--" the woman was so familiar, though Liria could swear she'd never set eyes on her before. Something about the way she was looking at her... "Talia?" Liria whispered in disbelief. "You're human!"
Talia smiled. "This is merely the form your mind has chosen for me," she replied. "I'm not allowed to interfere, but I wanted to help you...to tell you not to fear these visions."
Liria frowned. "I'm reliving all of the worst experiences in my life," she said. "How can this be helping me? Madra said it was necessary."
Talia watched her silently, unwilling or unable to answer. Liria nodded, though she didn't entirely understand the restricted placed upon her friend. How had they been decided? What was the purpose of this experience?
The other woman's expression changed suddenly, pinched with concern. Liria heard the sounds of shouting behind her. "I can't stay," Talia said. "Be strong for what's to come."
"Wait!" Liria cried. "Please don't--"
But Talia was gone as another patch of fog swept over her. Liria took a step forward to follow, but was pulled back harshly when someone grabbed her by one elbow. Wheeling around, she was shocked to see the face that leaned close to hers.
"Did you think you could run forever?" the man asked, his dark eyes glittering. "We keep no secrets from God's eyes."
Rothschild yanked her forward, causing her to crash into him uncomfortably. He was too strong physically, and she was unable to pull away as he turned and began dragging her in the opposite direction. When they passed another block of fog and she saw where he was taking her, Liria instantly dug in her heels to stop them.
"No," she murmured, heart beating thickly in her throat.
She faced the crowd again, a ring of people virtually salivating over her capture. An older woman thrust her face foward and hissed, "You're going to burn!" She turned her head away as a glob of spit struck her neck.
The gallows was gone. In its place was something even more horrifying to her. Rothschild forced her toward the center of the crowd, both of them pelted with debris and spittle. They clambered up onto the pile of wood and tinder that would be her pyre, Liria slipping and catching her knee on a rough spot of bark.
Rothschild tied her tightly to the wooden post thrusting upward toward the sky. The rope wound viciously around her waist, her hands bound behind. As he returned to the ground, several men ran forward to fill their path with more wood. Liria closed her eyes at that point, refusing to hear either Rothschild's sermon or the satisfied calls of the crowd.
Then she was choking, fighting to breath as the smoke caressed her face. The heat pressed against her feet almost immediately. It was at this point that she broke down. "This never happened!" she shouted, her voice drowned out by the shouts below. "This can't be happening," she said in a quieter voice.
She tilted her head back, trying to catch a breath of clean air. The sky seemed to sparkle above her, its glorious blue color unmarred by the presence of clouds. It was a beautiful sight. The flames had reached her at last, licking her feet. Amazingly, she was numbed to it, feeling little of the pain other than a strangely comforting warmth. She continued to stare up at the sky as the fire destroyed her legs.
It didn't matter to her. She'd seen a pair of eyes open above her, in a shade of blue so crisp and cool that her torment felt distant. A face loomed in the sky above. A smile appeared on the familiar features, and she was instantly soothed. She was ready to follow. Liria closed her eyes peacefully.
"Liria, wake up. What the devil's been going on here, Madra?" a harsh voice cursed above her.
She was being shaken gently. A voice urged her out of the gloom. Liria opened her eyes, blinded for an instant by the bright light of morning. But she easily picked out Devon's features hovering above her. She smiled.
Devon leaned back, sighing in relief. Over her shoulder, Liria saw Madra peering at them curiously. Her heart froze for an instant. With a burst of anger, she leapt from the bed she'd been laid upon.
"She poisoned me!" she accused.
Surprised, Devon turned to cast a sharp look toward the older woman. Madra shrugged. "It was merely hensbane," she said.
"You gave her hensbane?" Devon said in disbelief. "I brought her here for your help, not her funeral!" she snapped.
"What's hensbane?" Liria asked.
"It's meant to be used by experienced mystics," Devon explained, her voice still angry. "It can be lethal."
Madra shook her head. "I knew she was strong enough," she said stubbornly.
Shaking her head, Devon strode across the room toward the open door. "I still haven't tended to my horse," she said. She pointed a stern finger toward Madra. "Don't slip her anything while I'm gone."
Liria sat back down on the bed, her head spinning. She hadn't fully recovered from the effects of the drug. Madra came close, touching her forehead with a gentle hand. "I knew you were strong enough," she repeated.
"I saw Her," Liria whispered. "She looked like--" her eyes strayed toward the open doorway, though which Devon had just exited. "I know where my path lies. Well, the start of it, anyway."
Madra smiled. "Power lies in acceptance, not control. Do you understand?"
Liria bit her lip. "I'm not sure."
Sighing, the older woman hugged her quickly. "You will. Now sleep."
Allowing the woman to tuck her back into bed, Liria paused when she heard the faint sound of an animal whining. She sat up to see Talia crouched beside the bed. The dog started when she saw her gazing down, her tail immediately beginning to wag. Liria reached down and patted her friend on the head. She felt comfortable enough then to sleep.
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