The old woman had lived there for a very long time. When she was still a young she had followed her heart, and the wind, and discovered the small, sheltered meadow a few miles from the foot of the big mountain. There was a small village close enough to walk to in less than a day, but far enough away that she wouldn’t be bothered—too often. Occasionally a villager would turn up with some minor ailment or the other. She had some healing skills and wisdom in the old ways, and they would pay her with salted beef, or a half-dozen eggs, or if she was particularly lucky, a chicken or two.
Weird. The word had hung over her like a thundercloud for weeks. At first—all those years ago—she had sheltered in a flimsy lean-to made of woven willow boughs near the creek, trusting weather and weird for her safety and comfort. She had spent more than one night cowering from terrific storms and incredible winds that swept down off the mountain. In a shallow hole, covered with leaves and earth, a grave to keep her safe, saving nothing but an old black-handled knife and what clothes she could wrap around herself. But she always arose alive, cold and hungry, but unharmed. Weird.
Before winter of that first year came, she was called to the village to help with a birthing. It was a hard birth, and the power she drew on to bring the baby alive and kicking into the world exhausted her. But the young boy lived, as did the mother. The father was so grateful he built her the tiny one-room shack she had lived in the rest of her days. Weird.
The stranger had come through last autumn. He had passed not far from her house, a pair of mules hitched to a peddler’s wagon, traveling in silence. She felt him coming when the sun was still low in the morning sky, and by noon she had walked out to meet him as he rode past. He said nothing, merely looked at her. His glance had sent prickles up the back of her neck, and she had shivered in the noonday sun. She did not try even to speak to him, only strode as quickly back to her cabin as her old bones would move, shuttering the single window and staring into the shadows. Listening to the world move, and seeing what creaked. It was something her own grandmother had taught her, when both she and the world seemed young.
Why now? There had once been a time when she could conjure fire with little more than a snap of her fingers and a wisp of her own red hair. Now her hair was as gray as the morning fog, and she could kindle a flame far more easily with flint and tinder. The powers she had once aspired to as a young girl, had even commanded for a time, had long since faded behind the passing years.
Weird. Her weird. She believed now that she hadn’t come to this place by accident or convenience. She had been drawn here, driven here by powers that she still didn’t understand, though her quest for their wisdom had occupied her entire life.
But why now? She was too old, she knew. Her instinct told her that she would not see the coming winter. The stranger had driven his wagon up to the mountain, had somehow taken it up narrow precipitous trails, had created his aerie to pursue his blasphemous aims.
Blasphemy. It was not an accusation she was accustomed to making. She was not entirely comfortable with making it, but it fit. She could think of no more fitting word.
She knew what he had done because of one of the few powers left to her. A small bowl—the same bowl she ate her stew from, scoured clean with sand from the creek, dusted with a sprig of sage, filled with water and sprinkled with a dash of salt. The watery shadows had shown her all she needed to see. She had seen the violet lightning flicker across the mountainside, closed her mind in horror from the things that appeared in the quivering light. Great gouges of earth and stone were ripped from the mountainside, and her scrying could not penetrate the cave that was left gaping in the rough earth—the cave that the stranger vanished into when the lightning finally flickered its last. But she had seen enough. She could feel the wind. She could hear the earth creak in a way that was not right.
The things had come down from the mountain early that morning, but were caught by the sunrise and had gone to earth. She knew she could no longer make the day-long trek to town—she hadn’t been that way in a long time. There was no way she could outrun them. But there might be one other thing she could do. The reason she had been guided here so many years ago. Her weird.
She spent the day renewing an old ward that encompassed the tiny cabin, a ward she had created many long seasons ago, and hoped she would never need. With the old knife that her grandmother had given her, she retraced the line, carefully moving small stones and pulling out the occasional weed or tuft of grass until she had a single, unbroken circle. She hummed an old song to herself the whole time, a tune that reminded her of a deep river squeezing through a narrow gorge. A song that closed out the world except for the few square inches just before her eyes.
As the sun began to slip behind the western mountain, she released her few chickens, boiled her last egg, and finished her last bit of cheese. There was one thing only that she could think might make a difference, and she would need her strength. She washed the last bite of cheese down with cold water from the creek.
Her bowl was once again cleaned, dusted, filled and salted. This time she cast herself outward, not open and receptive, but focused and questing. There was one…there was one out there. Somewhere. She concentrated all she knew and all she suspected into a tiny burning kernel of knowing, reached out and touched him…
They arose from the earth with growls of hunger as the sun fell into darkness. It didn’t take long before they reached the cabin. The first one struck the invisible circle in the darkness—that final circle the old witch had invested with the last scraps of her power. It screamed, more in surprise than pain, and disappeared in a flare of green, miasmatic flame. The second one made it across with only a scream of anger and a flare of dark greenish light. That was all the power she had, and as the circle collapsed they swarmed into the darkened cabin.
The old woman’s bones were stripped clean while they were still warm.
Far out in the darkness a lone man suddenly twitched in his sleep and abruptly sat up, his hand automatically reaching for the unusual double-barreled pistol beside him. His horse nickered at his sudden movement and he spoke softly, reassuringly, to silence it. His fire had died down, glowing like a single red eye in the night.
He had been wandering the land for a long time, following only the wind, and he had nothing to show for it. But now…he didn’t know how he knew, but he knew. He tossed another piece of wood on his small campfire and leaned back against the saddle, slouching into a not particularly comfortable position beneath his blanket. He knew which way to go now, and he would need some sleep. It would be an early morning, and he had miles to go before he slept again.
©2007 Alan Peschke