This is a story adapted from "Illusion of Memory", a Valkyrie Profile-based interactive writing group. In addition with providing the community some Valkyrie Profile fiction, I hope that this may attract some attention to the writing group as well.
-- Irwin Kwan
"The Ritual of Purification"
Voice of an angered man. "You're the witch! You're the..."
Woman yelling. "Things will turn out right in the end!"
Sound of a hand slapping a cheek.
Sobbing woman. "I'm... I'm such a fool."
Voice of a solemn man. "I'm a fool too."
Teenage girl. "You miss her, don't you?"
Woman's voice, on the verge of tears. "Can you look me in the eyes and tell me that it'll be okay if you never see me again?"
The outskirts of the small idyllic farming village were empty of activity. In this already barren town, the fields lay untilled, the ground to hard to cut. The refuse of dried, yellowed stalks of corn and wheat were beaten down for acres and acres. Where there were no shrunken, pale stalks, there was only hard dried land, land so tough that no life could grow.
Only close to the centre of town, a simple path through the village around a small mountain stream, did you see people. In the centre of the town, on a roughly constructed pile of stones on a gentle hill, was a wooden stick.
Stephane stared intently at the shaft, standing almost six feet tall. There were three others like it. The man, tall, dark-haired, and standing with only a little bit of a slouch in his back, kept his gaze on these simple poles, much like the rest of Coriander village - all seventy of them - did.
There was a drum, beating evenly, echoing its thundering bass across the valley and the forests, intimidating enough to scare the dead away. Stephane turned his head toward the group coming up the village path, all wearing black, all wearing long robes, and holding wooden and silver crosses across their breasts. Behind them were four pairs of young men wearing white robes with black trim. In between each of these men , held by their arms, were figures dressed in an off-white colour: three women and a young girl. These were the ones that would take the holy trials.
Stephane moved his gaze toward the second woman in the row, lowering his eyes so he cold focus his gaze on her. She was approximately forty years old now, and her brown hair was laced with the first traces of grey. She moved with confidence, keeping her head up defiantly, her dark hair loose and floating gently as the wind played with it, her brown eyes staring forward, prepared and determined to face her test without any sort of fear.
Stephane stared for a moment longer. Her gaze turned and caught his, and he was fixated by her piercing brown eyes. Piercing, because they looked at him, as if they peered through them, directly into his heart, and directly into the workings of his soul. But yet, even as she stared at him, her eyes were soft, compassionate, warm. One could even say loving.
Stephane stared back, unable to close his heart to the situation anymore, and, faced with the sight of her eyes, he felt the memories trickle back into his head. He wanted to shut his eyes and cry, but he could not. He did not want to close them, or else he would miss something. When the woman turned her gaze away, he felt his exterior harden again, and he took a deep, sharp breath of the cold mountain air, feeling the sudden rush sober his mind.
The dark-robed ensemble stepped up around the wooden posts in the centre of the square and stopped before advancing onto the hill. The white-robed men behind them led their escort in front of a wooden post. Stephane felt his eyes waver slightly, and his muscles began to tense. His heart began to beat a little bit faster, and he felt himself holding his breath. It was actually happening. He watched the woman. Isabelle, his darling. The truth would be seen now... everything would be turned to right...
The young men led the person they were escorting to stand onto the rocks, and then silently procured thick ropes. They proceeded to tie the woman to the wooden shaft, preparing her for the ritual of purification.
For some reason, Stephane knew that she would never be the same after this... and that he would never be the same either.
He stared at her. She was ready to take the trial that would be placed before her. Ready to withstand the forces against her in God's name. Stephane lowered his head, but he found that he could not do so. Her eyes, dark and enveloping, were looking directly into his clear, sky-blue ones. He held in a gasp of breath, but could not keep it inside, and he gasped. Isabelle...! The name rang out to him, clear as the call of a herald's bugle, as if it was the first time he had heard it in months. Isabelle! The rush of exhilaration flooded his mind as if a spell had suddenly been lifted.
Isabelle! His dear, lovely wife! What was he doing over here... standing here and watching? He had a role to take part in. And as the ceremony commenced, Stephane let out a shout, and his legs moved, flying through the air like a feather shed from a bird up in the high skies...
~ *** ~~ *** ~
Autumn in Coriander Village, some time ago.
Stephane bounced his daughter Colette on his knee. She giggled at his antics, and then twisted a little bit so the next bounce would direct her to the floor. Her legs moved under her and she stepped on the ground, bracing her knees to absorb the shock. Her long blonde hair flew through the air, fluttering in spidery strands before settling down.
"Where are you going now, /petite/ Colette?" asked Stephane, keeping an arm close to Colette so that she would not accidentally fall. The six-year old girl was starting to become quite independent despite her youth. This was a good sign, in a way: it proved that she was going to be as adventurous as her father and her mother. However, it also meant that she would also face a time of rebellion: defying her parents. But Stephane laughed at this thought. He was like that. Isabelle was like that as well. If they were prepared for it, would that make it any easier?
"I'm going to Armand's," Colette said. "What's so funny?"
"No, nothing... I'm just thinkin'. About you, when you grow up."
Colette thrust out her chest and sucked in her breath in an attempt to look big. "I will not grow up! I'll be a kid forever!" With those words, she scurried out of the front door, hopping the last two steps, blonde hair flying behind her like a cape.
Stephane's smile faded as he acquired a serious frame of mind again. There was work to be done... he had to go back to cutting more of his corn from the fields. For some reason, despite the drought, he and Isabelle had managed to do quite well for harvest. Although this was by no means anything close to what they would get in a mediocre year, the fact that they had anything growing in the first place meant that they would be able to eat and feed themselves, a fact that many others could not rely on. He wondered idly why he was lucky this time around: why he, Isabelle, and Colette would be able to eat, even meagerly, when other would not be able to eat at all. But he did not gloat or regret the fact. He was simply lucky. Perhaps his field was wetter than everyone else's. The last two years had saw a decent harvest. Most of the grain they ended up giving away to others of the village so they they would be able to eat. It was harsh times in Coriander Village... so harsh in fact, that people were even selling their own children to the Slave Trades in Villnore because it was a two-fold victory: they would have money to buy food, and they wold have one less mouth to feed. Theoretically, their children would also be better as a slave than even here in Coriander Village, but Stephane didn't know anything about how slaves were treated.
The front door steps creaked and a woman reaching her middle years stared at him through the doorframe. Her hair was thick and wavy, coloured a dark, deep brown. Her eyes were brown and although she was developing wrinkles at the base of them at her age, she still looked vibrant and youthful. of course, he was biased. Isabelle wiped her forehead and then walked inside, slumping down at the table. She placed her head down, then glanced up again at Stephane after a minute. "I'll make supper now... you should go out and start collecting the stalks."
Stephane nodded at her and then went outside to complete the chores that Isabelle started. The woman was utterly fearless, he reasoned. She did every kind of work, even if it was considered a man's job. As a result, he was sometimes teased for it by the other men, but he was easily a hit with the ladies because he was quite able to cook, clean, and sew: occupations traditionally considered to be a woman's job. He hefted the scythe and then began to mow down the stalks of maize that remained standing.
Jessica, Colette's friend, was wide-eyed at the barn full of grain. She moved her fingers through the rough stalks in awe, looking at the grains. It would take time to make the grain ready for eating but they still had time before the cold season settled in. "You're so lucky to have this much! Our family has barely anything." She glanced over at Colette. The young blonde-haired girl had a wide smile on her face, unable to feel anything but pride for her parents.
"Both /maman/ and /papa/ are great farmers," she said. "I help them, too. We have a lot of things to do but it's good that it turns out in the end."
Jessica sat on the ground, twirling her fingers in her long brown ponytail. "My mom says that... and don't tell anyone. Can I tell you a secret?"
Colette assumed a suspicious glance and then giggled. "Of course you can Jessica. She reached for Jessica's hand and then pulled her into the corner of the barn, out of earshot of the entrance.
Jessica leaned forward toward Colette. "My mom says that... that your mom uses magic to grow the grain. And that she hates everyone else in town, so she made sure that they didn't have any grain to grow."
Colette cupped a hand over her mouth, her eyes widening.
"It's true, I heard her."
Colette shook her head so furiously that the blonde hair formed a halo around her. "/Maman/ is not a witch! I don't think she's a mean person at all. You know /ma maman/ too, Jessica."
Jessica nodded. "Yes, she's nice to me so I don't know where my mom is coming from, but that's what she says. I don't want anything to happen."
"My daddy wants to give a lot of the grain to the town so he can help them out." Colette stepped out of the shadows, and then peered out of the barn toward the farmhouse. "I thought I heard something..."
"I didn't hear anything..."
"Oh! I was right. /Ma maman/ is calling. Jessica, want to stay for supper? I think we're going to have a small feast because we had such a good harvest! There'll be fruits and meat and everything!"
Jessica's eyes lit up and her lips broke into a wide smile. "Okay! Thanks, Colette! You're so nice to me."
Colette went back with Jessica, and they had a good meal of bread and light meat. Meat at this time was a delicacy, but it was their personal celebration to a relatively good harvest when most people couldn't get anything to sprout.
"I really don't want to deal with some people in town," Isabelle counted the metal coins on the table, pushing them into a pouch.
Stephane shrugged from where he was cleaning some dirty rags in the wash basin. "I don't see what the big deal is, Isabelle. You don't need to talk with them. We just need to get some tools from the store. Ronwald doesn't really pay attention to who it is who walks inside... just if their money's good."
Isabelle glance down at the table. "There are other people who tend to be there often too, it's not just him. It's a stressful time for everyone," she added. "We're so busy. Everyone else is twiddling their thumbs, wondering if tomorrow'll actually come, or if they'll waste away."
"We've been lucky."
Isabelle nodded, slowly. "That's right. And a lot of people that we know aren't." The drought was continuing this year, and most of the farmers in Coriander Village could barely scrape up food for themselves, let alone their beasts and families. There had been a shortage of cattle in the village because they were being slaughtered for their meat. They were lucky: they still had a dairy cow left that was doing relatively well.
Stephane hung up a cloth to dry and withdrew the utensils from the basin. "We can take care of only so many people..."
"I know. I wasn't complaining... just observing, really. I know that we can't support the town. We had a fortunate harvest, the rest of them didn't."
"I'm not adverse to helping out, though. This isn't anything dramatic, but the fact that we can feed ourselves, and more sort of says something." Stephane glanced outside of the window at the healthy wheat and corn stalks. "I'm going to take down the rest of the good crop. Will you go to town and get some tools?"
Isabelle nodded. "I can do that." She swept the coins into a small cloth bag and tied it to her waist, shaking it to adjust the slack on the pouch. She put on a cap over her ears and then left the house.
About ten minutes later, after sharpening the scythe, Stephan began to work. He had managed to get a decent portion of the crop cut when he heard a voice cry out for him. It was difficult to hear between the beating of the pulse in his head, but he could make it out to be Warren, his neighbour from a few fields away. Passing through toward town, perhaps. Stephane glanced up when he was sure that it was his name being called out.
"...phane, Stephane! How do you do, neighbour?"
"I am quite fine," Stephane replied courteously, his head nodding toward the tanned, rugged man.
Warren removed his straw hat and then wiped at his brow. "I see that you're reaping a strong harvest this year." He motioned toward the long sheaves that Stephane left lying on the ground.
The man nodded slowly at Warren. "We're fortunate..." He propped his scythe up. "Corn grows well in drier conditions, so we've stuck almost solely to it in this dry season."
"It's strange that you can get anything to grow at all, when the rest of the farmers have also tried corn, and have come up with nothing." Warren had a bit of an edge to his voice as he scanned Stephane's farmland.
Stephane straightened his back. "We're fortunate," he repeated. "Lucky to have the food that we've worked for. We can feed ourselves and help out the rest of the village as well."
"Your wife... she works a lot on your fields as well. She doesn't move the rocks from the field. She doesn't fill in the earthen pits..."
Stephane stared, and waited for Warren to continue. He glanced over the man's shoulder and saw a few more farmers approaching on him. They were all familiar faces: Thomas, Johannes, Ludvig. He was more surprised to see some women: Ludvig's wife Anna, her sister Lisa, and a third woman named Olivia, Jessica's mother. The women wore crosses around their necks, and some of the men, he realised sarcastically, also wore pewter crosses as talismans. He wondered what the convergence was about. Warren waited until the others were behind him before he continued. Stephane darted his eyes among the group, suspiciously eyeing them carefully. "Okay. What's up here?"
"I can sense it..." Olivia started, swinging her long, black straight hair out of her face.
Johannes spread his large shoulders. "Your wife Isabelle visited us a few years back... after that, for two seasons, we weren't able to grow anything. She took the rocks from our field and cleared them... yet, you seem to have many rocks on your own."
Stephane grit his teeth. "What are you saying about Isabelle?" he started, a hand moving his scythe closer to his body.
Johannes crossed his arms, his tanned bare arms rippling. "Isabelle visited us too... she took a lock of Mary's hair, and since then..."
"Mary had her hair cut by Isabelle," Stephane interrupted. He glanced around at the crowd. He had never thought of Isabelle as any sort of outcast, and her reluctance to go to the store today stood out in his mind. Her tendency to want to do man's work ostracised her from some of the wives, who followed a tradition of cooking and cleaning, and her strong will was more than the men could take from a women. He was beginning to get the hints here. "Look. If what you're going to say is that my wife is in league with the Devil... you're wrong." He waved his hand animatedly, cutting the air with it. "Wrong! My wife is not a witch! I have not seen her practice any magic. You have no proof that she practices magic! You only speak against her because she is a little bit unique, and a little bit boisterous..."
"She ploughs your fields, and bewitches you to cook and clean for her. She talks about the old gods and wields a sword." Ludvig grumbled.
Olivia tilted her head sideways. "Your child... she shows the signs, too. Too bawdy, too aggressive. Too active and outgoing." The woman narrowed her eyes at Stephane, studying him. "Do you ever wonder... what happened to your first child?"
Stephane lowered his scythe. The action was casual but threatening at the same time, because he could now swing it and catch them all in its blade. He began to turn back to his work. "Don't bring Chantelle into this... let her rest."
The long-haired woman lowered her head, but kept her pupils focussed on him from beneath half-closed eyelids. "I see you still don't know..."
Thomas flicked Stephane a sympathetic gaze, stepping between Olivia and the farmer. "I'm sorry, Stephane..." he started, letting out a sigh. "We don't mean to be so offensive to you. We've gotten carried away."
Oh, very much so, Stephane thought. At least Thomas was being civil, as always, about the entire dealing.
Thomas continued to talk, his voice soft and gentle. "My friend and neighbour... we come only to warn you about Isabelle's wicked deeds. If you stay with her for any longer, then she will grasp a hold of you, fully. She speaks too much blasphemy... knows too many rituals. She will make Colette disappear. She will make you disappear. We want you to avoid the Devil's Eye... to waive off the Dark Mass and its temptations. Evil takes many forms, and the face of beauty is one of them. I know Isabelle... and her soul is vulnerable, like any of ours is."
Stephane found it slightly flattering that some other people still thought of Isabelle as beautiful. It was strange because Thomas used to chase her when she was young. The two used to be very good childhood friends until something happened in the forest, that fateful day. Stephane wasn't there: he only knew that the two of them returned from the forests, beaten and bruised, Thomas nearly at his death, Isabelle the stronger of the two, supporting him. They said that they were jumped by wildcats. Back then, Stephane hadn't really had reason to doubt them, but now, noticing Thomas' reference to her, he began to wonder.
"Do you understand, Stephane...? Protect yourself, and be careful... for yourself, and for Colette." He offered a silver cross to Stephane, but Stephane only stared at it, and Thomas withdrew it, putting it back into his shirt wordlessly. Thomas nodded to Stephane and then bowed shallowly toward him. The others in the group awkwardly followed suit.
Stephane watched as they turned and walked away. He finished his job outside: gathering the corn after they left, and when Isabelle returned from town, she seemed oblivious to any activity outside. The topic had come up a few times before, and Isabelle had been quite good at convincing him that she was not truly a witch. When he tried to bring it up today, Isabelle kissed him gently, and then held him tightly, her breath coming up short, her voice becoming tight with worry rather than fear, saying, "I wouldn't ever have made Chantelle disappear, /mon cher/ Stephane... never, ever... she died... swept away in the icy streams when she was playing in the forest. What Olivia tells you is lies." Then, she would smile and add, "The others are jealous of you. Just because I'm outgoing and I have my own mind."
And Stephane believed her, because her omniscient eyes didn't flicker one bit when she said this, because her voice was even and unyielding, revealing no sign of nervousness or guilt.
Autumn in Coriander Village, some time ago.
Discussion about Isabelle's witchcraft didn't cease to come up. Isabelle either seemed oblivious to the hushed whispers, the subtle finger-pointing, and the rude questions, or she managed not to care. Olivia was still up to her mystical tricks, which led Stephane to wonder why she wasn't labeled as a witch herself.
Colette wasn't oblivious to the surroundings either. She was well-aware of the bad-mouthing that her mother received. However, as no one actually blamed the child for anything, her friends, more concerned with having fun than with social and political conflicts, continued to interact with her. However, as the winter started to settle in, fewer and fewer kids came over to play with Colette. It wasn't only due to the cold weather making traveling difficult, but the fact that no one felt comfortable with their children inside the house of a known witch.
"I'm bored /papa/," Colette complained one day as she stared out of the window, pressing her face against the glass to see what sort of marks she could leave with her nose.v
Stephane let out a breath. The warning bells went off in his head: a bored child in the house was never a good thing. "Are Bradley and Michel available? Do they want to play?"
Colette shook her head with a very deliberate motion. "Nuh-uh."
"He's out now."
"How about Mary?"
"Mary's mommy doesn't let me play with Mary anymore. She says that I'm a witch and that I'll teach Mary bad things." Colette turned around and gave her best imitation of an adult shrug. "I don't know any magic. I don't see what's so scary about me."
"I don't either," Stephane grumbled under his breath. Aloud he said, "I'll have to play with you then sometime. We can go out hiking in the mountains."
Colette was immediately up on her legs. "Chantelle goes hiking up in the mountains."
It was always a bit of a mystery why mention of Chantelle bothered him so much. Maybe it was because Colette talked about her sister as if she were still alive, despite the fact that Chantelle had died when Colette was only a few months old. Or maybe it was because Isabelle told her stories about Chantelle. She dealt with the death much better than he had. She was a little more spiritual than he was, and that probably helped her lay the girl's soul to rest.
Stephane and Colette went together through the mountains, gazing at the red and yellow leaves. Colette awed at the sights, absorbing them each for a full ten seconds before moving onto the next sight. She was very vivid and jumped around a lot, hugging trees, playing in leaves, and generally enjoying the world she lived in.
That evening, Colette once again succumbed to boredom because none of her friends were willing to visit, and she didn't want to see anyone because she was afraid of mean parents. Colette idly managed to entertain herself with charcoal sticks and wooden plates until she fell asleep.
Stephane asked after Colette had been put to bed. "Why don't you do anything in response to the villagers, Isabelle, /ma belle/? The villagers don't do anything to you directly, but they're cruel, and it's affecting you. I can see it in your eyes."
Isabelle gave Stephane a smile. Her smile was always gentle, but also a little bit omnipresent: it seemed as she could see everything in the world, and smiled at some invisible knowledge that only she knew of. Her eyes, though, were large and sloped just enough to give a little bit of a content, though sorrowful look to them. The signs that no one else except for Stephane could notice were there: the slight wrinkles beneath the eyes, the way that the eyelids flipped over the cornea, the tenseness of her cheeks. "Everything is all right," she said endearingly. "I've... noticed their actions but I can do my best to ignore them."
Stephane widened his eyes at her. "Ignore them...?"
She nodded, her smile fading. "Yes. What they speak should not be fed by us. If I say anything or do anything... it only proves them right, doesn't it? If I wave an arm at them, they'll think I'm damning them with a curse from the devil." She wrung out the cleaning rag and leaned against the wash basin. "If you do too much... they'll label you as a witch too."
It made sense, thought Stephane. But still, he could not bear to see such discrimination, especially in front of his face like this. Colette was beginning to notice, and spent time with Isabelle, asking her questions about magic and witchcraft. Usually, Isabelle would tell her stories about her visit to Flenceburg when Stephane and herself still traveled, and told Colette of the wonders there.
It wasn't quite "witchcraft". What the magicians practiced over at Flenceburg was magic. Witchcraft was seen as a malicious power, exercised almost solely by will. In other words, if you thought ill of another person and something happened, it was witchcraft.
When Stephane didn't say anything, Isabelle continued. "Their accusations will either pass, or they will try to act on it. If they act on it, then we must defend ourselves, and so we are justified to do so. But..." -and her gaze now went to the ground, her eyes turning slightly sorrowful- "until then, I do not wish to harm any of them. Let them act as they wish... it doesn't bother me."
Stephane took a breath and then nodded. He would disagree: that it hurt himself and Colette. "It bothers me, though. And Colette sees it... some of her friends aren't allowed to play with her because they think that you're witching her and it might rub off on them."
Isabelle scoffed and began to clean the tabletop. "I've heard. How narrow-minded of them. Does their religion of crosses teach them to be this way?"
"See? It's comments like that that probably get them suspicious..."
Isabelle glanced up at him. Her eyes were serious now: piercing and directed. "Oh, Stephane... you know as well as I do that there's so much more out there than what that religion believes. The undead and the beasts of unknown creation. Is it coincidence that, just as this religion is getting popular, waging its holy wars, burning its witches, that the living dead spawns from the graves and dragons rise from the depths of the earth to torment us?"
"You're giving away so much," Isabelle said. "We're almost richer than the Elder with this grain at our hands. We never had this kind of luxury when we were adventuring together."
Stephane didn't respond to Isabelle immediately as he filled a burlap sack with the chaffed wheat. After he got the bag to stay open, he spoke without looking up from his work. "It's to make amends... sort of. For a few things that we did."
Isabelle let out a musical laugh. "So much of it was done in mischief.
Stephane glanced up at her and grinned. "/Oui/. I know. But you can't help but to feel bad, especially since we weren't kids then anymore. Hiding Olivia's clothes when she was at the bathing spring was something that teenagers did, not adults like us."
"We were like, twenty-something," Isabelle replied, breaking stalks off of the wheat. "And we did know Olivia for a long time."
"The Elder doesn't really like us either. So I thought that this gift to the town would soften his heart. I often think he's sort of behind all of this witch stuff, even though he doesn't ever mention it. He's a really devoted man. He has a chapel to God inside his house..."
"It's just because he thinks we're a bunch of pagans. When you travel as much as we have, you just can't help but to think there's more than one religion. This 'God' concept is sort of boring, don't you think? One God over all? Whatever happened to the old legends of battle-maidens and gods of war and wisdom, fighting giants with deadly hammers and exploring realms of fire and ice?" She let out a sigh. "Those kinds of legends are filled with what people nowadays pine for. They want to be heroes and live in a beautiful world. They want to think that the people who are up there running their lives are actually like them. Why? Because if the gods are like man, that means it's not so bad living as man.... right?" Isabelle shrugged. "Why did the old religion die out anyway? It's so romantic."
"People stopped believing in them... I guess..."
"I mean. Come on. Wouldn't you love to be carried to heaven by beautiful women dressed in shining armour and wearing flimsy skirts?" Isabelle nudged Stephane with her elbow. "Hmm....?"
Stephane reached an arm out and caressed Isabelle's shoulder. "Oh. Only if they all looked like you. I don't think this skirt's flimsy enough, though." He let his hand rest of her leg.
Isabelle slapped his hand away, but she gripped it and rubbed it, placing it on her leg again. "Naughty thoughts, hmm? /Mon cher/, we're supposed to be working."
Olivia kept a close eye on Stephane when he finally emerged from his house. His strong built frame walked up the path to his house. He knocked on the door and then waited at one side, his dark features obscured by the shadow of the porch.
She wanted to witness them another time. To fuel her determination. Her dress was starting to itch from the tall grasses and she was having a hard time staying still, although she mustered her discipline to keep from moving. There was a sharp piece of dried grass sticking into her arm and her thigh, but if she moved, then it would reveal her position.
Isabelle stepped out of the door, looking radiant, as usual. Isabelle and her beautiful looks. Even her husband Thomas was still enraptured by this Isabelle. She was an adventuer in the past, strong, serene, and independent. Isabelle was Thomas' friend before that when they grew up in this quiet village.
But while Thomas yearned for adventure... Stephane went out and got it. And he did it at Isabelle's side.
Olivia couldn't help but to feel slightly jealous. Jealous of Isabelle, for having great looks and such a noble sprit. For attracting her husband's attentions, and keeping them for almost all of thirty years. She was jealous of Stephane, for being brave and unafraid of the world, for having a strong sense of spirit. And she envied little Colette, the girl who seemed to have everything she could ever dream of, most importantly, two loving parents with food and shelter.
Her own daughter Jessica would not be so well-fed and spoiled. She was afraid of the influence that Colette had on Jessica: making her a little more rebellious, a little less likely to listen to her parents, a little more likely to question. She had to make it clear to her children that there were only one set of rules, and that set was created by her and Thomas.
The feast would be at the Village Centre to celebrate the harvest, although with the way things were going, Olivia found it difficult to celebrate anything. She wondered if the rest of the town would be able to celebrate anything either.
The little girl Colette stepped out last, dressed in a livery of pink and red. The poor girl, Olivia thought. She will be sold... like their first. If Isabelle had not come here so many years ago -almost twenty one years now- then perhaps some of the things that people here have grown used to would not have come to pass.
Olivia thought back to some of the village women who had followed Isabelle's example and sold their daughters to Villnore, but later said they died of illness or went missing. Platina's mother, Laia. Lucian's mother, selling their little daughter.
Stephane got into a wagon that was loaded with grain. It was not a large amount by any means: every farmer on the block would pull in at least that cartful on a good season, so it could be sold to Villnore. But no, Stephane's load was the excess that he had managed to harvest despite the drought. He would be taking it to town... perhaps to give away. Maybe to sell.
In any case, she found that they were simply too fortunate... too lucky. Her eyes strayed to Isabelle. Her obvious charm, the way she wore her alien talismans over her neck, the way she taught Colette how to make bracelets of long, golden hair...
There was no mistaking.
Autumn in Coriander Village, some time ago.
Stephane placed five sacks of grain in the middle of the circle, hefting the one by one on his shoulders. It was his gift to the town.
The Festival of Harvest was a rather moody festival this year. When Stephane announced his donation to the town, there were whisperings among other townspeople. But the Elder, knowing better than to squander a generous gift, stood on the dais in the middle of the Village Square. He wore green robes (for fertility, which was a rather ironic symbol) and his beard covered his entire mouth such that it appeared that the hair itself made sounds. "Thank you, farmer Stephane for this great gift to us. We are grateful to you to help us in the time of hardship and need."
Stephane smiled and bowed toward the Elder. "It is my pleasure to share what I've sown from the ground..."
"Planted with magic," muttered a person in the crowd.
Stephane ignored the comment. "... with those who are not as fortunate. We thank God for..."
"More like the devil," the same voice said.
Stephane, beginning to feel the tinges of annoyance creep up on him, began to rush his speech. "... for the harvest that I have sown and that I can share with my fellow townsmen, and I hope that he will see it fit to bless them with plentiful harvests in the future." Stephane let out his last sentence in a breath, not wanting to keep the townspeople waiting, and feeling very irritated at the way he and his family were being persecuted. He left the dais in an obvious huff and went to Isabelle's side.
She wrapped an arm casually around his waist and leaned her head on his shoulder. "Stephane, /mon cher/... don't let them get to you."
"They think we're in league with the devil. That this harvest is the devil's work." Stephane's disappointment was evident. He glanced up at the dais again, where the Elder was talking about the tough times, and rambling about how God would help them through. He noticed that, a number of times, the Elder moved his hands over the grain, asking God to offer his divine protection over the grain; telling God to keep this grain safe from the influence of the devil; begging God to have mercy on them as they ate this grain. Although most of the gazes were up toward the Elder, Stephane felt the occasional glance of contempt toward him.
So much for selling any grain... no one would buy this "cursed grain" from him. Besides, if he tried to sell anything, the other villagers would vilify him as greedy.
Isabelle expertly flicked her needle and thread in and out through the fabric she was working on, glancing down at a drawing she made on a slate. "This cloth is absolutely wonderful. We must get more of it from the traders who go into Crell Monferaigne," she said, projecting her voice to Stephane.
Stephane shrugged, glancing at her work. She was making a scarf and a hood for formal occasions. "It's hard to get that cloth nowadays... it's very expensive."
Isabelle didn't glance up. "I want to one day make a matching coat... don't you think that would be nice? A whole set of winter garb for Colette. The navy blue is positively royal, and this is very good wool."
"I don't think we can afford it..."
"/Nigaud/. We have a lot of grain in a starving village. We could sell some of it to the town. We need something to do this winter. Without any cloth I won't be able to sew."
Stephane picked up a knife from the sword rack sitting next to the wall and began to play with it, absently twirling it with his wrists. "I'm going to give some wheat to the innkeeper..."
"Giving? Always giving away!" Isabelle lifted her dark eyes. "We've given quite a bit, don't you think? For a starving village who gets free food from a lucky family, they're sure unappreciative, don't you think?"
"Well..." Stephane started. "I don't want to get into conflict any more than you do. Imagine what everyone would say if we decided to sell our grain for money. Especially with the reputation that you have now."
Isabelle put down her needle and cloth. "My reputation, hmm?" She let her voice hang in the air for a moment. "Though maybe it'll avoid conflict if we don't sell grain... you'd think that they'd thank us better. As it is, I think that those of them who are mean to us shouldn't get anything at all."
Stephane gave Isabelle a sidelong glance. "Well, things aren't fair, are they? I just don't want them to raze our house, or hurt us..."
Isabelle rolled her eyes and went back to her sewing. "They'll curse our grain and claim that I magicked the ground and used devil's magic to grow wheat, but of course, they'll eat it nonetheless."
"I'll not be responsible for starving this town to death."
"Is that truly your responsibility?"
Stephane paused. His knife went to rest on the table. "Well... as a good citizen, it is. Don't you think?"
Isabelle snorted. "But who needs those other people? They're useless to us..."
Stephane lifted an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?" He rarely heard any sort of bitterness out of Isabelle.
She muttered something below her breath. Then she rose her voice so she could be heard. "They're not nice... that's what I meant. I think we should just sell it and get some extra money. Maybe we can send Colette to school in the city. It's not our job to pamper the other people in town."
"No! That's ridiculous. I'm going to help these people... we're better than that to be selfish and cunning." Stephane motioned to the sacks leaning against the wall. "Those will go to the town because we certainly won't be able to eat it all ourselves, and I will not have us getting rich at the expense of other's suffering. Imagine what they say about us already. They'll only say more."
Isabelle stared at Stephane for a moment, thinking of challenging him. Only a woman of her caliber would think of responding to Stephane, challenging his authority. But she kept her tongue and simply shrugged, shaking her head, letting him know her disagreement with the situation. Her eyes pierced his, as if she could read him like a book. Stephane shrank back for a moment, feeling a little dazed, but then recovered quickly enough and stood up to load the sacks into his cart.
Isabelle took a long lock of her own dark hair, interleaved with the shining gold hair of Colette's. The young child, bright-eyed, lips pursed into a little bit of an "o", watched as the shimmering strands were woven by Isabelle's long, graceful fingers into soft, silky loops. She finished tying the loops together and then held up the bracelet to the sunlight, where the rays played on the mix of the dark and the light.
Colette reached up for the bracelet. "Thank you, /maman/," she said. She wondered why /sa maman/ wanted to cut some of her long hair, but seeing the end result, a simple craft such as this made by loving hands, made her forget any questions she may have had.
Isabelle wrapped the other bracelet around her own wrist and held it for Colette to see. "We each have one. It's to remind us of each other."
Her daughter gave her a winning smile and then gave her mother's knees a hug.
"/Petite enfant/, are you going to play with the kids now?" Isabelle asked in her soft voice.
Colette glanced down the road. "They kids don't really play with me as much anymore. Jessica says that her mommy calls me the Devil's Child. She now sneaks out of her mommy's house to play with us. Armand doesn't come out anymore. I haven't seen him." She took a deep breath. "Why do they call you the Devil, /maman/?"
Isabelle's smile didn't fade from her face. She reached out with her hand and then stroked Colette's hair, bringing it around her head, and resting her fingertips on the child's chin. "Jessica's mom doesn't like me, so she says bad things about me. She calls me the Devil because she thinks I am not doing anything good, even though I do nothing wrong. They are envious of us... they think we are a threat to them. They hate us."
"Why do they hate you?"
Isabelle's smile softened, and her eyes went distant. "They think me too loud, too outspoken. They think that I damn them with magic spells." He words were slow and measured, but spoken without any lack of confidence on her part. Her eyes then went to Colette, whose blue eyes stared back at her mother. "They think that I am responsible for some bad trends in this village, as well..."
"What trends?" Colette asked.
"They think I sold Chantelle to the slave traders."
Colette stared at Isabelle, her face wrinkling in confusion. "How is that so?"
"I think it's because Chantelle ran away with a slave trader. They mistook it as..." Isabelle lowered her head and let out a breath. "I won't ever sell you away," she whispered, leading Colette to her lap by tugging on her small hands. "Never."
"I love you, mommy." Colette replied, wrapping her arms around the woman's waist. "Don't worry about Chantelle."
Her omniscient appearance then crumbled and one could see the wrinkles and fine lines developing underneath her eyes. She caressed her daughter's cheek. "I love Chantelle very much. I love you very much too, Colette, /petite enfant/. Please play safe. Go. Your friends are waiting for you..."
The young girl released her grip on her mother and then stepped backwards, but the thought of play overtook her train of thought and she waved at her mother before disappearing outside of the door.
On the way to town, she saw Jessica's mother. She was a narrow waif of a woman, tall, slender, with dark, straight hair that was starting to lose its lustre. She was going to avoid her, since, after all, she didn't like her mother, but the woman called out her name.
"Colette! Colette! Jessica, Colette's coming down the road!" She then came toward Colette at a slight jog, which appeared to be a difficult task given the thickness of her forest-green robes. "Colette, how are you doing?"
"Fine," Colette replied, sounding curt but putting enough cheer into her voice not to offend the woman.
She nodded. "Jessica's coming down the stairs to meet you." Jessica's mother was going to turn, but then the woman stopped abruptly and stared at Colette so intently that Colette found herself shrinking under the woman's harsh look. "What's that on your wrist?" the woman snapped.
Colette clasped a hand on her wrist, hiding the ribbon of hair from the woman's greedy eyes. "A bracelet," said the girl meekly.
Jessica's mother knelt down and grabbed Colette's wrist, yanking it into her sight so quickly that the girl let out a cry of brief pain. "This is made of hair." Her dark eyes went to Colette's. "Who made this? Who gave it to you?"
Colette's lip trembled. Jessica's mother held her wrist too tightly, and it was beginning to hurt. She tried to pull her hand out, but resistance only made Jessica's mom strengthen her grip. She felt tears swelling in her eyes.
"/Ma... ma maman/..." Colette peeped. A tear trickled down her face, causing some of her long, silky-blonde hair to cling to her cheek.
"Your /maman/...! That witch!" Jessica's mother threw away Colette's wrist as if it were a piece of dung and then stood, brushing her dress off. "Did you know, Colette, that hair is a symbol of power...? That, if you possess people's hair, that means that you hold a certain power over them? Your mother knows this, and so she collects hair from people in order to control them! You didn't know this, did you, Colette? Your mother is a witch! She is trying to spread upon you the curse by cutting her hair and keeping it close to you, and by trimming your hair and giving it to you. Colette. Come with me. You should not stay around Isabelle anymore. She's a bad influence." She grabbed Colette's wrist and began to lead her toward the house.
"You're the witch!" Colette cried back, feeling tears corm at the corner of her eyes. "You're mean to /ma maman/! Go away!" She tried to wrench her hand away but failed, letting out a pathetic cry.
A child's cry from the laneway cut short Jessica's mother's frenzied rant. "Mom...?"
Olivia pulled Colette to her side and shifted her arm from the girl's wrist to around her shoulder. "Jessica, go back inside. Colette's going to come over to our house for a while and stay for supper. Won't you, Colette?"
Colette felt her mouth quivering, trying to protest, but she could not speak and only nodded in the face of her eager, smiling friend.v
Autumn in Coriander Village, some time ago.
Stephane couldn't handle it anymore. He was at town, dropping off bags of wheat and barley off at the local pub when he heard a comment, obviously directed toward him, about his wife. He traced the direction of the voice carefully with his eyes, and they landed on Evans the tradesman, who bartered goods for a living.
"No good witch killed all of the trade in decent goods. All Villnore wants are slaves and prostitutes. Everyone here sells their girls to Villnore... what a pathetic village. I wish that Isabelle would just sell herself, and then we'd lose a load of a problem right then and there."
Stephane pounced on him. He stepped over to Evan's table in a swift instant, planting both hands on the table, and immediately launched his barrage. "Evans! Why do you say that about my wife and what makes you think you have the right to speak so dastardly about her?"
It was the loud sound of two palms slamming into the wooden boards that surprised Evans first. He leaned backwards suddenly, trying to keep as much distance between him and Stephane as possible while sitting at a bench. The three other men at the table fell silent.
The silence didn't suit Stephane very well. "Answer me!" he snarled.
Evans let out a shaky breath and then sat up straight again, gripping the metal stein in his hands. "I... I only heard from Jacob." He motioned toward the large man at the table with a double chin, wearing a straw hat. "He said that... that Isabelle was a witch... that she was starting the droughts, selling her daughters, forcing the other townspeople to sell their little girls..."
Stephane let out the air inside his lungs, only realising now that he was holding his breath. He folded his hands into fists. "She did not sell her children! Chantelle died. She /died/." His voice was constricted and it was difficult to hear the man speak between his clenched teeth.
Evans lifted both his arms in a surrendering motion. "Look, pal. I'm just saying what I've heard. Jacob said that Isabelle started the trend of selling girls because she sold Chantelle to the traders! And that she did magic to make sure the everyone else had a poor harvest, and that she'd grow rich. Olivia's brother just came to town a minute ago and said that Isabelle was prepared to enchant Colette so she would appear to have magic powers and so fetch a higher price from the Villnore traders, and..."
The darkness over Stephane's features cleared, and he leaned back. "Colette's going to be sold?"
"That's what Olivia's brother said... you don't second-guess the words of a man in black."
"Olivia's brother... works for Villnore...?"
Evan's confidence rose at Stephane's sudden instability. He straightened himself in his chair and then adjusted his clothes casually. "Oh yeah. Ever heard of Fasthands?" When Stephane didn't respond, he placed his hands behind his head. "Only one of the swiftest brawlers in all of Villnore. Someone you don't want to piss off. They don't look alike... he has a stick for a sister... but when you look closely you'll realise that their faces are similar."
Stephane nodded slowly. He then turned around and made a brisk walk toward the door of the Inn, but before he was fully outside he was already moving at a brisk run.
It was dark when he arrived back at his farmhouse. He could barely make out the shapes with his weak lantern, but he could see a horse-drawn cart parked in the laneway. A figure wearing black clothes, about Isabelle's height, was standing on the steps leading up to the front door. A little girl beside the dark figure was clear, though, even in the dim porch lights: she was Colette. Isabelle nodded once, and then placed a hand on the person's shoulder.
Stephane was about to break into a run toward the three when a gentle, yet restraining touch on his arm kept him back. He glanced behind him and saw Olivia, seemingly appearing from nowhere, wearing a hunter-green dress that was barely visible in the darkness. He shook her arm free and was about to move forward but he saw the uncertainty in Olivia's eyes, and despite the woman's usual, strong self, there was a hint of fear in her eyes. He wasn't sure where the fear was directed: it was too dark to see clearly.
Olivia's words were stuttered, which was very unusual, Stephane absently noted. She was a very good speaker. "D-o, do you see? Your wife is selling y-your daughter to the... V-Villnore Slave Traders."
Stephane whirled on the spot. "Your brother, no less!" he hissed. Despite himself, he found himself gripping Olivia by the shoulders, nearly lifting her off of the ground by her dress. "It's not Isabelle's fault! You're the witch... you're the...!"
Surprise crossed Olivia's features as Stephane acted aggressively toward her. She recovered quickly, shouting, "Look around you... she has tricked us all. Given you a plentiful harvest, so the rest of us may suffer. But despite all of that, she goes off... sells your first daughter Chantelle... and gives Coriander a new idea... the idea of selling young girls to Villnore! Now, she's selling your second daughter, in front of your eyes, and you turn a blind eye to it? Stephane! If you keep siding with her, you'll burn with her. Open your eyes! Look at what she's done to you! Look!" Olivia struggled in Stephane's grip, feeling the cloth on her dress start to tear under the stress.
Stephane turned a head over his shoulder, and then put Olivia down, but she lost her balance and collapsed backwards, falling on her rear. Stephane broke off into a run as the cart, with Colette sitting in the back, turned around the fencepost, trotting away. The farmer pumped his legs and his arms harder, increasing the length of his stride, feeling the cool air hit his sweaty forehead. "Colette...! Colette!" He moved his legs faster, and clenched his jaw. He felt his heart pump harder than before, the stitch developing in his side, the legs slowly starting to feel heavier and heavier. But he didn't cease, and kept on running after the single horse drawing its cart with the most precious cargo on board.
Colette watched from the back of the cart as it moved farther out of Stephane's reach. His breath was starting to become raspy and his throat was sore. And then Colette lifted her arm up, fingers pointing loosely toward the sky, giving him a statuesque wave.
Stephane stumbled at that point, his legs too tired to hold him up, and he fell forward. He extended his arms in front of him to break the fall and felt the stones and twigs dig into his hands, felt his face hit the ground, felt the strike of hard path on his knees and hip. And besides the sound of his heartbeat and his raspy breathing, he only heard the gallop of a horse on dirt road, and the rhythmic squeak of large wagon wheels spinning.
He lay on the ground, silently cursing himself and his emotional state, for letting his anger come before the safety of his daughter. He cursed himself for not believing Olivia. He felt his breath enter his lungs, and he coughed weakly, trying to expel the film that was collecting in his throat. But his arms were like flab, and his legs like lead. "Colette..." he croaked, rolling over slowly, putting himself on all fours, and then climbing up to a standing position.
He trotted weakly back to his farmhouse. While the run took only a few minutes, the walk back seemed to last hours. He could see the lights from the porch clearly as he walked back, but they didn't ever seem to come closer, no matter how many tired steps he took. Heavy boot over heavy boot didn't seem to bring him closer to relief... however possible relief was.
When he finally arrived at the house, he could hear frenzied screaming inside the house. He recognized Isabelle's voice, loud and tearful. He heard Olivia's voice, raspy and harsh with collected rage. He hit the front door with a straight arm and walked in. The two women standing in the middle of the room, gesturing madly at each other, stopped. Neither of them thought to offer him anything to drink or any place to sit. They only stared at him, perhaps waiting for him to speak.
"I... how could you do it...?" Stephane's voice was quiet and measured from the frenzied run.
Olivia spoke first. "Because she's done it before."
Isabelle threw eyes of fire at Olivia, causing the woman to shrink back a step, then placed her clairvoyant gaze on Stephane, speaking with an icy tone. "I didn't sell her. I'm protecting her. She will be safer with-"
Olivia cut Isabelle off, whirling on the accused witch. "She will NOT be!" she shouted. "You've sold her to a life of slavery and prostitution! You've doomed your daughter to slavery again. Did you witch Stephane so you could create girls to sell for your own personal profit? All girls, and no sons for him to carry on his name... teaching them, in the meantime, to be witches themselves..."
"You stole Colette's bracelet! How do I know you do not intend to witch us with it?"
"You made it for her. A token of your magic. A way to teach her the tricks of the Devil." Olivia ground her heel into the floor, keeping her eyes on Isabelle. "Your tricks end now, demonspawn."
Isabelle turned to Stephane, and her eyes turned endearing. "/Mon cher/ Stephane. You must listen to me... I didn't sell Colette to just any traders. I gave her to Chantelle..."
Stephane lifted a hand to his temple. "No... speak not her name... let her rest." Stephane mumbled. He lifted his eyes toward Isabelle, feeling the tears eat at his eyes. "You don't have any right to speak Chantelle's name! I loved... Chantelle. And you sold her to slavery! I loved Colette... and you sold her to slavery!"
"Chantelle was never sold! I never sold Chantelle! She..."
"No! There's no reason I should believe you anymore!" Stephane stamped his foot on the ground. "No reason! Colette was the only child I had left! And you took her from me, like you were some sort of goddess! How could you, Isabelle! How could you do it?"
"It will turn out right in the end!"
Nothing predicted what had suddenly gotten into Stephane's mind. With a sob-wrenched breath, he stepped forward and whirled his right arm around, catching Isabelle with the back of his hand. The woman's head snapped to the side and she spun before collapsing on the ground in a heap. She groggily picked herself up from the ground, a pile of hair and cloth, placing a hand on her cheek.
Stephane's lips trembled, and he stared at his palms, the blood pounding in his eyes. "Oh my god.. what have I done..." Both women were staring at him: Isabelle with a strong sense of defiance, Olivia displaying an expression of surprise, but this turned into a wry smile, as if this somehow amused her. He shook his head and then walked briskly from the main room with heavy steps, rushing into his room and slamming the door loudly behind him.
The grown man collapsed beside his bed, folding his arms up on the mattress, and thrusting his head into the sheets, the tears unrestrained, the sobs breaking loose from his heart. Everything went through his mind, and it was such a frightening shock. He wasn't sure what really stood out most amidst the confusion in his head. He was so stupid to let this all happen. He was blind to Isabelle's deception. He had lost Chantelle and Colette to her. He was powerless to do anything about it. He had lashed out and struck Isabelle when he had never struck any of his friends or lovers ever in his life. Stephane didn't want to be mad at Isabelle. He felt horrible at having done such a thing, no matter how much she may have deserved it.
No matter how much Isabelle bled for her sins, her blood wouldn't bring Colette back to him.
Autumn in Coriander Village, some time ago.
When Stephane woke up the next morning, he was not surprised to see that Isabelle was nowhere to be found. He went on with his morning routine, absently aware as he was making oatmeal that he would have much more than necessary, as he had rationed food for three for the winter.
When he arrived at Coriander Village, all he heard were stories of Isabelle and her dramatic "arrest", and the concrete proof that was now provided that proved that she was a witch. When he entered the town, the farmers greeted him warmly, some even congratulating him on being able to resist Isabelle and her charms. His instant fame was almost addictive. One even said that he was brave to be able to subdue the witch.
Stephane wasn't quite sure that was something to be proud of. When he passed the man he lowered his eyes and breathed a sigh.
He truly felt bad for what he did. No matter what she did, he was not in the habit of hitting people, especially not his wife. Even though the others think that she deserved it, there was something that went against all common decency in him yesterday night. He wanted to see her now, to take her and to kiss her on the top of the head and apologize for what he did to her. Not for getting mad at her selling Colette, but for striking her. Would the Elder let him see her? He didn't know where she was being kept.
He stood at the door of the Elder's, and lifted a hand to knock. He rehearsed the speech in his head: why he wanted to see Isabelle, what he wanted to say to her as an apology. But he couldn't get the thoughts together. He was immobile when the door opened without any action on his part, and the Elder stared at him quizzically, before Stephane muttered something of an excuse and then walked down the steps and toward the small bar and inn that made up the entire social area of the farming village. He sat at a table alone and ordered a strong, dark, malted ale. The place was relatively quiet, as the poor harvest left everyone poor and unable to visit, although a few traders from here or there sat at the occasional table. Once in a while, the waitress, a young teenage girl (he was surprised that she had not been sold to the Villnore traders; but then, perhaps she was a slave herself), came around the tables doing her rounds. She was quite pretty, Stephane absently thought: thick, dark hair that bounced around her shoulders; thick, dark eyelashes; rosy lips that made her face pleasing to the eye. She looked very much like Isabelle did in her youth. When he had met Isabelle, they were teenagers, and she was very beautiful. For her to notice him out of all boys in the room was a great honour, and when they ended up running around in the woods picking berries and chasing animals in the evening, he felt himself the luckiest boy in the world.
The girl came around to his table, her tray in hand, and she placed it under her arm. "I heard about you and how you resisted Isabelle," she said in a gushing voice. "That's so noble of you."
Stephane turned an eye up toward her. The first thing that went through his head was the question of why a young girl like that would try to make a pass on him, of all people, as if he were suddenly single and eligible.
When she received no response she continued to talk. "My older sister was sold to slavery too. I couldn't believe my mother at having done such a thing. I hated her for doing it. She was never nice to me either and I bet she was going to sell me, too. I heard rumours. A man outside said that I would fetch a really good price. So I ran away."
Obviously she didn't run very far if she only ended up at the village pub, Stephane thought. "You're not very far from Coriander Village," he stated.
"I'm from a smaller farming community a little west of here," she said. "I work here and live on my own, but the landlord is having a tough season. I hope that with Isabelle gone things will brighten up." She gave Stephane a cheery smile, shrugging her shoulders up and holding her wooden tray against her breast.
Stephane found himself not liking this girl. She had no right to talk about Isabelle like that: she didn't know who she was and was in no position to judge his wife. "You're not concerned that you'll be sold eventually?"
The girl's bright expression faded, and her eyes went downcast. "I'm... I am," she confessed. "I... hope that... that things'll work out. If... I'm wondering if..."
A favour. Stephane sipped from his mug, finding that the drink had suddenly become a little sour. She was going to ask him for a favour.
"... if maybe I can come visit you some time."
Stephane found himself replying, his voice sounding like stones inside a grain sieve, "Fine." He couldn't bring himself to be so rude as to say no, but he didn't want to be known as taking in lost kids, either.
"Oh! Thank you! If my mother comes to get me, you'll be able to detect her as a witch and protect me!" The girl then reached forward with a slender hand toward Stephane's arm, but he shrunk away from her grip. The action reaffirmed his presumption that she was some sort of hussy trying to make a move on a suddenly-influential old man. He realised that the arrest of Isabelle didn't quell the fear of magic and the devil in Coriander Village at all, but instead stimulated it: Isabelle's capture became proof that there were witches in their midst, and that anyone could be in league with the devil. And this girl was afraid of whoever else might be witching around: certainly, in her case, being sold to Villnore.
His common sense told him that this girl could be a witch, too, but he did not truly believe this. As it was, he wasn't sure he believed that Isabelle was a witch, despite all of the evidence pointing to the contrary.
If she actually came to visit, he would suddenly have another child in his house. She appeared about Chantelle's age when she was sold off... he didn't actually see the selling of Chantelle, and for the longest time believed that she had died in the icy streams east of the village, in the foothills. But Olivia had told him otherwise. It was common belief, and he had been fighting this belief for months, that Isabelle and the departure of Chantelle had started up the trading of girls to Villnore slavers. Although this girl looked like Isabelle, her manner reminded him more of Chantelle, who was outgoing and expressive in a cheerful way. Chantelle always acted first and thought later, and appeared to feel absolutely no shame. This would also be the first time a child was around him without Isabelle there to help him through. She was a natural with kids: her soft voice, her gentle touch, and her strong manner made her motherly and authoritarian at the same time. Even though children adored her, they also respected her and obeyed her.
He felt himself missing Isabelle. He wished that she was here to share the ale he was drinking. She was very good company, as she seemed to bring up the topics that he had been thinking about at the exact right time. If something was bothering him that he needed to talk about it, whether consciously or not, she would bring up that topic and they would talk it out. Her ability to read people was amazing.
Oh, it was difficult _not_ to fall in love with Isabelle.
Stephane buried his head into his hands, and sat there motionless while a young teenage girl glanced at him from across the room as she passed from one table from another.
Stephane was actually surprised to see the girl on his porch that evening. She had managed to find her way to his place, in the dark, when, supposedly, the witches were out. His eyes widened at the sight of her, with her heavy backpack pulled over her shoulder, her dark hair bouncing around her shoulders, thick lips curling up into a smile at the sight of him.
"Your porch lantern wasn't lit," she said. "I was afraid that you weren't going to be home."
"It's late," Stephane remarked, gazing at the dark skies. The waxing moon was represented with only a crescent in the sky.
"I'm sorry. I work late."
"And you walked here?"
"I'm afraid of the witches in town. Like Laia and Olivia..."
Stephane had heard her name briefly mentioned before. She was going to sell her daughter, but she had disappeared in the middle of the night along with another child. Two nights later, they found a cairn in the middle of the Valley of Weeping Lilies. Stories ran rampart that day. Some said that Platina must have inhaled the poison, but others believed that Lucian had killed Platina that night and ran away. That was over three years ago. Now that Isabelle had been accused of witchcraft, others began to discuss the possibility that Laia had cast a curse on Platina that killed her because she ran away from the slave traders. Olivia was a new one. He had not heard of her being accused, but perhaps because she was found with Isabelle, stories began to fly about her suspicious manner and her uncanny ability to detect magic. Stephane asked, "Why?"
"Laia is close to the village Elder, who has a tight reign over Bartholemew the innkeeper. If she sees it fit she could have Bartholemew sell me for money because she doesn't like teenage girls. Olivia's just... scary. She looks at you like she's going to have you for supper."
Stephane wasn't going to judge Laia prematurely, but his faded memory recalled Platina and Chantelle growing up together. Chantelle was a few years Platina's senior, but Leia had never seemed to approve of their friendship. Laia had not approved of Platina's friendship with Lucian, either. He felt a cool breeze of autumn air blow on his bare arms. Winter was approaching.
"Can I come in?" the girl finally asked.
Stephane found himself mumbling something of an apology and stepping aside. Remembering his manners as a host he took the girl's bag from her and placed it in the corner, and led her toward the hearth where a small fire was burning. The fire used to be larger and warmer a few days ago, but now he had an entire house with no one to sleep inside. The extra firewood seemed to be a waste, but it also caused the walls to dance with eerie shadows.
The waitress sat down eagerly and wrapped her cloak around herself. "Thank you Stephane. It's a relief to know that there's still kindness in this world after everything that's happening."
"You're welcome," Stephane replied, collecting himself and trying his best to temporarily forget his own problems. He found this girl to be a nuisance. He wanted to mourn some more by himself, but now that she was present he had no right to cry in front of the guest. "Would you like anything to drink?"
"Maybe just warm water...?" she asked hesitantly.
"Sure." Stephane reached for the clay mugs on the shelf beside the hearth and poured water from the kettle inside the fireplace, handing the mug to the girl. He realised that he did not know her name, and spent a moment scanning his memory, trying to recall if she had introduced herself to him, and what her name was if she had. He had never noticed her until today, although she must have been in Coriander for at least a few months. He flopped down on the couch beside her. "Did you ever introduce yourself...?"
She faced him, her eyes widening, and then she broke into a wide toothy smile. "Oh! I'm Kimberly. Nice to meet you Stephane."
Stephane nodded to her. She had her legs on the couch and she was sitting on them, her cloak wrapped around her body tightly. Had he walked in without knowing the situation it would have appeared that she had lived in this house all of her life.
"How did you and Isabelle meet?"
Stephane swallowed too much boiling tea and tried his best not to contort his face as the hot water burned flowing down his throat. He rolled his tongue on the roof of his mouth, feeling the skin peeling. He coughed to hide his discomfort. "I... we grew up together, somewhere around here."
Kimberly didn't respond, and simply stared at him with her large brown eyes, waiting for more.
"We met when we were about nine or ten, I think. She was a really rough kid actually. Mistaken for a boy a lot when she was young because she played with the boys, swinging around wooden swords and chasing them through the village. It's hard to believe that now when you look at her."
"She's a very feminine woman," said Kimberly. "She has that thick dark hair and those alluring eyelashes. She's very slender and thin. That's very rare for a woman who marries a farmer."
"You know her...?"
She lifted a hand to her shirt, gripping something underneath it. Stephane noticed a silver chain was around her neck. "I have to bring her food in the cell behind the Elder's house. They say that because I'm a woman I can't be seduced by her charms."
Stephane felt his heart accelerate slightly. She knew Isabelle. The logic somewhat eluded him: why send an impressionable young girl to Isabelle? If she was the witch they thought she was, then Isabelle would probably have the ability to trick the girl and set herself free. But then again, the Elder might trust Kimberly, or not think much of Isabelle's ability. She knew where she was being held, which meant he could see her at any time.
"Tell me more about you two."
Stephane found himself opening up to the girl now, with a bit of regret that he was actually opening up to use her as an outlet to Isabelle. "We were friends through our teenage years when our sense of adventure got the best of us, and we left our village for grander prospects. For a long time, we went traveling as rangers: people who try to make money by doing odd jobs that others won't. We weren't really fighters, and mercenary work is tough work and not very respected. We actually managed to join a guild that helped find us work, so we were able to do jobs. However, these jobs ranged from monster-hunting to cleaning people's houses. Still, Isabelle and I were together throughout this time, even though we occasionally joined forces with other rangers to do tough missions.
"When we were at a shortage of work then we went treasure hunting... yeah, so it's called. We went through deep forests and old ruins looking for things to take. We never really did find anything good. But it was a way to pass the time and make the most of ourselves."
"I suppose it was fun, too. You two must've had so much time alone." There was a bit of a sly smile on Kimberly's face, but yet her eyes held wonder at the story.
"Saucy girl," Stephane teased back unconsciously. "Should I stop telling my story?"
Kimberly's eyes went wide and she shook her head, huddling herself in her cloak.
"We often explored things... as I told you. In that time... i think we traveled about five years... we managed to become very skilled fighters and trackers and so forth. We traveled for a very long time outside of Coriander Village, even going as far as Flenceburg. However, we were on our way around Artolia when Isabelle started to complain of feeling sick and dizzy. We pressed on for a while but it was clear what was happening."
"She was pregnant," Kimberly filled in perceptively.
"Yes. Since we were on the way we decided to stop in Coriander Village so she could give birth. The villagers at tha time were very nice to us and gave us a room and food and everything. by the time we had our first child... we named her Chantelle... we liked it so much that we decided to stay. We started up a farm and lived our a quiet but happy existence. We still traveled once in a while but it was never too far or too rigourous when we had Chantelle in tow. We would go hiking or swimming or row boats in the mountain rivers. Chantelle was very good at these sorts of things too: she was a very graceful, beautiful huntress, with dark tresses of hair, and sly, knowing eyes like her mother. Chantelle was very energetic and would never take no for an answer."
"She sounds like a very active girl. I wish I would have had a chance to travel like you did, My life has been so dull. It feels like I've just lived in town, lived in town, work, work, work, for my whole life. I've never been anywhere except between my parent's farm and Coriander Village. I don't know how to fight or anything like that. Not even swimming."
"Then we'll have to take you some time," Stephane said.
The farmer hadn't realised that he used the plural pronoun. "I, I mean." He turned his gaze toward the pictures hung over the fireplace. "There isn't any more we."
Kimberly followed Stephane's gaze, her eyes landing on charcoal artwork, framed with expensive wooden frames. It was a picture of Stephane and Isabelle, when they were much younger. Isabelle was sitting on the ground wearing traveling leathers, and Stephane knelt behind her staring at the viewer from over Isabelle's shoulder, cupping her face in his hands. "You... miss her, don't you?"
There was a pause. The fire crackled as something seemed to run through Stephane's mind. The man stared at the red flames for a long time. He finally said, "No."
"Because she sold both my daughters."
Kimberly fell silent. Her mouth dropped open, but in light of the contained fury that crossed over Stephane's features, she closed her mouth again. She felt a chill run over her body and she cuddled her cloak closer to her body. She continued to stare at the old adventurer, tracing his features as they were outlined by the fire: the lines of his face, wrinkled under the eyes and around the mouth; the blue eyes looking glazed over, the hands with the fingers interlaced, elbows resting on his knees. His head was lowered slightly, back arched, staring at the small fire that barely kept the farmhouse warm.
Suddenly Stephane stood up and walked back to his bedroom in the corner of the house hidden behind a thin paper screen. Kimberly stared and followed him until he was out of her gaze, and even after that she stared at the screen for a moment, wondering if the man was going to be all right. But as much as she wanted to she dared not try to comfort him. It was not only that she did not feel that she knew him well enough, but the harshness in his voice and the coldness in his eyes made her not want to get close to him. He had the image of... was it a killer? Not quite. It was more like a torturer. Not someone who went out to torture others. He tortured only himself.
Autumn in Coriander Village, some time ago.
The sun was not out when he snapped awake, his dream suddenly leaving his mind as the shadows of his room met his eyes. Stephane could hear only the howling of the wind between a few wayward cracks between the house's planks, and the occasional brush of the wind over the grasses and stalks of his field.
There was no breathing on the mattress beside him. There was no shifting of sheets on the bed across the room from him. The sounds were subtle and barely noticeable in regular times. Only now that they were gone, and gone forever, did Stephane realise that they had become a part of his everyday life. He lifted his left hand high toward the ceiling, craning his head up, studying the back of his hand. On this hand he shed Isabelle's blood. On this hand he acted with authority he should not have ever had. Stephane swung his legs off of the bed. The air brushed lightly on his legs but he ignored it, even as his back and arms started to prick up with goosebumps. He reached for his trousers and tunic, changing quietly in the dark. The farmer grabbed his thick sweater, a lantern, and cloak on the way out. Kimberly slept on the couch, turning fitfully a few times as he passed her. She mumbled something in her sleep that he couldn't understand.
The sun wasn't up when he started toward Coriander Village. Only the slit of the moon lit the night, and although he carried his lantern with him, he decided to hold it instead of lighting it. Using the path, written into his memory from constant use, the ex-adventurer walked toward the few glowing torches and lanterns that were pricks of light, twinkling in the early morning mist.
The town was silent, as expected. Not even the dogs were out at this hour. Stephane entered the centre of the tiny, poor village, and then stepped around a large house that was close to the border of the town, its back facing the mountains and the Weeping Lily Valley. The Elder's house has a spectacular view of the rocky mountains and the narrow valley that was one of the few direct paths toward the east of the continent.
His eyes were drawn toward the mountains that seemed to glow blue with spiritual energy. He walked slowly and quietly, almost reverently in nature's view.
Behind the Elder's house was a large yard. A stable for the horses and the cows that he owned. One corner had a large barn. The other corner, closest to the forest, had a small shed. Stephane hopped the short fence and then dashed across the turf quietly, hoping that any stirrings of the animals he would cause would be dismissed as nervousness.
Stephane found her on the floor, huddled in the corner of the cell. The shed only had three walls. The door was a set of iron bars that faced the dark forest. He noticed that the security wasn't exactly tight around Isabelle, but reasoned that Coriander Village rarely held any prisoners and that they would likely punish her soon.
"Isabelle," he whispered. When she did not respond, he hissed again, louder.
The woman stirred. She turned her head up and looked. Her arms were wrapped inside her shirt. She looked frail and very undernourished. But she recognized the face immediately and then crawled toward the edge of the cell, gripping the bars with her fists. Her eyes were the same: all-knowing, as if nothing could hide from her.
Stephane wondered if she saw right through him. "Isabelle..."
"You... came for me," she whispered. Her hand fumbled between the bars, reaching out toward her husband. Stephane took it. It was cold between his fingers. He massaged them gently, putting warmth back into her.
He noticed a cut on her cheek where he struck her. It had been poorly cleaned since he hit her. It would probably not scar or leave any sort of mark, but the imprint was already made in his mind. "I'm sorry... /ma belle/ Isabelle..."
"It's okay, /mon cher/ Stephane... I forgive you. If..."
"I'm sorry for hitting you," Stephane added, cutting her off. "I wish I never did it."
Isabelle's dark eyes fell on Stephane. "This is all a misunderstanding... if you hear me out, you'll learn the truth... I didn't sell her to the traders..."
"I..." Stephane stared at her. There was so many lies.. about Colette, about Chantelle. About her life and skills. "Lying about Chantelle... how the townspeople were talking about you. You cut a bracelet out of her hair and made one for yourself, and one for her. You were angry that I was giving away so much food. That we didn't have enough money. And then I find you... talking with the traders."
"I can explain... oh, Stephane. I can explain it."
The sun was beginning to come up. The sky began to glow a pale yellow, piercing through the thick cloud cover above. "Will it be another set of lies?"
"I'll tell the truth. I promise you..."
"I can't trust you."
Isabelle closed her eyes and then lowered her head, her hand still in Stephane's, her voice turning desperate and rushed. "Chantelle didn't die. She was never sold. She ran away from us to be with Liam. Colette will be okay... because I sold her to Chantelle for safekeeping."
Stephane's face lit up in surprise. "Chantelle's... alive? And so Colette's okay?" He spoke, perhaps too loudly, and perhaps too soon, as the surprise quickly faded. He shook his head. Her story... it was too farfetched! If Chantelle ran away... then why didn't she just tell him? Why did she hide everything from him? Or was this just another lie?
"Colette... she was going to be sold."
"Who was selling her?"
Isabelle's face paled visibly, although it was quite thin as it was. "Olivia..."
Stephane shook his head again. "It can't be. This is... just another one of your stories," he said. "Even if Chantelle's alive... why didn't she... doesn't... I thought I dealt with the old ghosts already. And then I hear that she's a slave... and then I hear... I don't know what to believe anymore." He placed his forehead in his hand. "It's too farfetched. I can't believe you. Can you look me in the eyes and tell me the truth?"
"Can you look me in the eyes and tell me that it'll be okay if you never see me again?"
Stephane reached for Isabelle's other hand and began to rub warmth into it. He held it as close to his chest as possible. "You're avoiding the question..."
"I know," she replied dejectedly. She glanced up at Stephane, with her steady, calm gaze. "Chantelle ran away... and I sold Colette to Chantelle..." Isabelle's voice cracked and her eyes curled down, the moisture gathering on her eyelashes. "But... but that still makes me an evil person, because... because even though Colette will be safe with Chantelle... I still sold her for money.... and... even though Chantelle's alive, and knows where we are, I never told you... and so you haven't seen her for five years and yet... yet...." Isabelle struck her head against the iron bars once and then collapsed, sliding to her knees, letting out a wail of pain. She felt her hand slip out of Stephane's grip. She relaxed her body as her face wrinkled in sadness, the tears flowing down her cheeks and chin.
Stephane only watched. He started to feel pity for this woman... for making so many mistakes in such a short period of time. He knelt beside her and watched her cry, unable to offer and support to her other than reaching a hand forward to grip hers. Her grip tightened on his immediately as she continued to weep. He was unable to cry, having shed most of his tears, and now steeling himself against whatever worse may come.
"Can you ever forgive me...?" Isabelle's voice was choked and hollow, her eyes clouded over, no longer able to see everything. She looked transparent, sitting there in the corner against the bars, her composure totally destroyed in front of her husband.
Stephane's answer was calm and unemotional. "I don't know."
"I'm... I'm such a fool." The accused witch gripped onto Stephane's hand as if nothing else existed. She tried to wipe her eyes with his fingertips, but he withdrew his hand from between the bars.
"I'm a fool too," Stephane replied, standing up, feeling the sun on his back. He glanced down the shallow slope toward the town. People were beginning to wake up and move around, and it would be of no good to have him caught around here. He stepped back from Isabelle, his heart torn, but yet hardened.
The woman drew her knees up to her chest and looked up at Stephane as he turned his back and began to walk away. "I... I love them," she called after him. "Our children... /gentile/ Chantelle... /petite enfant/ Colette." He didn't turn to listen. Isabelle tried to shout something else, but her throat was tight and it came out only as a croak. "I... love you too, /mon cher/ Stephane... I... love you..."
Kimberly woke up after a fitful sleep. Her eyes fell on an unfamiliar ceiling, the red and white beams from the rising sun placing patches of light and dark on the walls. The hearth was only a small smoldering of ashes now, barely glowing. She felt cold. Kimberly tucked her cloak around her, realising that she had slept in her clothes, and slept only with her cloak without a blanket. She had fallen asleep on Stephane's couch. She blinked away the light streaming in from the windows in front of her, placing her head back on the pillow. She wasn't sure what to think of Stephane now. He seemed like a rather friendly person on a good day. But certainly the past few days weren't good to him, and staring into his eyes seemed to reveal some sort of a wild animal in him: someone prone to striking at any moment. She wasn't scared... she refused to think that she was scared - after all, there was much worse to be afraid of - but she was not confident staying at Stephane's, especially since he had really not invited her over for the night.
The house was cold. Her bare feet touching the wooden planks proved that fact and she immediately reached for her woolen socks and her heavy leather boots so she could walk back to town to be in time for work. She also needed to feed Isabelle today. She glanced toward the screen, where she guessed Stephane's room hid, and wondered if he was still sleeping. She couldn't hear anything in the house, and was tempted to go check on him. In the end she decided to leave him be. She reached for her bag and changed her clothes on the couch, careful to keep the cloak around her not out of modesty, but because the air was too cool to expose skin to. If Stephane was in fact sleeping, he didn't hear her exit because no one reacted to her leaving his house.
As Kimberly walked back to town, she idly wondered if it was in fact Stephane who was the witch, and not Isabelle. After all, to be a witch one had to condemn another person, and Stephane was quick to condemn Isabelle and her behaviour. What better way to drag someone to their deaths than to have them executed for witchcraft? But if that had been in fact true then why hadn't many more people fell? Stephane was often the target of jokes and accusations in the town: she heard this kind of news in the local inn. It wasn't until recently that his reputation picked up for finally leaving Isabelle. But he was miserable... maybe because he had now lost both of his daughters, and his wife, and so he was finally alone in the world.
Kimberly walked straight along the road, absently staring at the blue streaks that were lighting the horizon. The sun was warm on her face and neck and cast a pale glow on Coriander village. Maybe she would be able to do an ounce of good in this world. Maybe she could be Stephane's friend and save him from his misery. Maybe she could...
Her thoughts stopped there. She spotted a gopher hole and avoided it, and began to wonder if gophers knew where they were digging their holes, because sometimes, they dug them just in the right places for people to trip.
The teenage girl arrived at the back of the inn, dropping her bag off in the storeroom, and then announced her morning arrival. The innkeeper Bartholemew greeted her duly from the stove, lacking any real cheer in his voice. He never seemed extremely happy or upset to see her. To him, Kimberly wagered that she just "existed" and did her job, and so that was fine enough for him. "I'm going to go feed Isabelle..."
"Carry your cross and don't listen to anything she says," Bartholemew warned, not taking his eyes off of his potatoes and meat.
Kimberly nodded, gathering some of yesterday's bread and some fruit that was bruised and unserveable in the Inn. She was essentially feeding the woman the stuff that they wouldn't ever give to customers. Edible food, no doubt, but still a step below normal people, and a small step above the dogs whom they gave bones to behind the door. She was surprised to see Stephane pass her in the town square as she exited. She cried out to him but he didn't hear her because he was moving much too quickly. She stared after him for a moment, but then continued on her way, back around the Elder's house, along the fence, toward a small shed in the corner.
Kimberly was taken aback by the sight. Isabelle looked in worse shape than usual. She was slung against the iron bars, her face and cheeks puffy and red. The serving girl had to compose herself before she stepped up to the bars, kneeling down, staring into the eyes of the witch. Isabelle opened them slowly. They were tired and foggy, and full of moisture.
Kimberly placed her plate of food on the ground, within easy reach of Isabelle. She usually didn't leave the plate, but if Isabelle was crying then it would be rude to interrupt her. She stayed for a moment. The woman looked so human at this moment of her suffering: so unlike the heartless witch she was made out to be.
Isabelle realised that the girl did not leave yet, and managed to mumble a word. "If you... know him..."
Kimberly perked up, and then her wide eyes were looking into Isabelle's bloodshot ones. She moved her head closer to the bars to hear what she had to say, momentarily forgetting that this woman supposedly had the powers to kill people with a word and destroy fields with a gesture of a hand.
"... please... please take care of him."
But the woman's eyes shut again and she lay slack against the iron bars.
Kimberly reached a hand up toward Isabelle's brown hair, which had grown to be ragged without any maintenance. If it was brushed regularly, it would be soft and silky. She was probably very beautiful in her youth... with adventurous spirit and spark. At that moment she felt tremendous sympathy for Isabelle. "I will," she said. "I will."
Stephane was angry all over again. He stormed into the Elder's house, but then stormed back out right after. He stomped all over town and was generally unsociable for the sake of having people notice he was in a horrible mood.
Isabelle had lied to him for so many years. So many! His daughters were still alive! He wasn't sure what to do now. He wanted to believe her. He truly wanted to be able to forgive her for everything she had done... for even if Isabelle's decisions were bad, her intentions were good. Her heart was always filled with some sort of sense of greater good, able to see one step above the mere "here and now".
As if she could set up a meeting like that... selling Colette to Chantelle. As if it could be orchestrated that way. But... maybe Olivia... could Olivia... and Laia... and.... all those other woman truly be selling girls as slaves too?
How many girls since Chantelle were also swept away in creeks, or mysteriously lost in the woods, or wasted away to disease?
"Stephane!" It was Olivia's voice, crisp, and almost scolding. "You're not well. Shall I walk you home?"
"I'm fine." He started to head down the path back to his farmhouse.
"Allow me to walk with you."
Olivia ignored his brash manner, speeding up her pace to match his. "The execution will occur in a few days from now. We found another... another who openly condemned a neighbour's field. She was also caught lying about her children. She sold them as well, without her husband's permission."
Stephane stopped in the middle of the road. "You should /never/ have permission to sell children!" he roared at her.
Olivia tilted her head and placed a hand on her chest innocently. "My, my... what temper. No, of course we shouldn't."
He continued to walk, his steps heavy and uncurteous.
"God is slowly purifying this village. We will have to get rid of all the dirty women and the magicked girls... and then we'll be looked upon favourably again, and receive rain again. It was with your help that..."
"I didn't help do anything," Stephane shouted without stopping. He sped up his pace.
Olivia increased her pace again so that she was nearly running. "Of course you did. We're going to have a feast tonight to celebrate the capture of the witch. I want you to come. We'll also be discussing the plans for the upcoming purification..."
Stephane broke into a ran at that point, and Olivia could no longer keep up with him. She slowed to a stop and let him go, watching as he receded into the distance toward his house.
The man stepped into his house and then threw himself on his bed, placing his arm over his eyes. His mind was numb now. Too much had happened in the past few days... too much.
Stephane wasn't sure now. He didn't want to think about it anymore. He wanted to just curl up and let things go back to how they used to be.
He couldn't get the images out of his mind. The feelings of then... hearing of Chantelle's death, trying to forget the pain of knowing... the sudden realisation... and the hesitation...
~ *** ~~ *** ~
Could he look her in the eyes... and tell her that he never wanted to see her again?
He saw the torch, the flame topping the oil-soaked rag, flying up in the dusk skies, crying its fury to god. Stephane moved. His legs thrust forward and down. He pushed past a person. He pushed past another person, moving his legs to the side. Gasps and curses rang through the crowd as they turned to see the figure dash past the last person, and onto the centre circle that was sealed off for the ritual. He punched one of the white-robed attendants in the face, throwing him aside as he ran up the small slope.
He had thought he was alone. But was he truly alone?
"/Ma belle/ Isabelle!!!"
The woman lifted her head. Her eyes met his, and they locked. And as he stared into them, he cried, a voice defiant, crushing the fate laid out before him. "I want to see you again!"
The flame fell.
The ground flew beneath his feet, the small tufts of grass unnoticed by his toes, the rocks a blur. The gasps from the audience were secondary to his mind. He couldn't hear anything.
He heard his name cried, once. A voice, resplendent, echoing through his mind, like the awe-inspiring choir of a thousand angels calling for him to carry him to heaven. Isabelle's mouth was open, her face reaching out for him, her eyes wide, staring up toward the sky.
A feather fell, a radiant multicoloured prism, reflecting light in a myriad of colours, hitting her eyes. It was a single feather, but yet seemed to shine with the light of one hundred suns, bathing her in radiant light of every colour, yet containing none.
The flame rose.
Stephane leapt forward onto the dais, reaching out, but the fire shot up in front of his face and his arm. He cried out and stumbled back, falling onto his rear as he watched the straw kindling catch, watching the ragged clothes catch, watching the flesh of his beloved embrace the fire, feeding it, absorbing the heat and the warmth, turning into black ash.
Stephane heard cries of pain. Three shouts in unison echoing their pinnacle of human existence, reverberating in the skies. He heard no cry from Isabelle.
Smoke rose into the air, four towering pillars merging into one as the wood was consumed into the flame. A smell of flesh, sickening, diffused over the crowds, floating in the air, awaiting the capture of spirits above.
Stephane felt the warm air blow into his body, drying his tears instantly. He could only stare as the smooth, pale skin was turned slowly brown, then into black, her pain frozen on her face until the fire turned that too into a blackened husk. He didn't know how long it took. He crawled forward as the fire died, his breath in shortened gasps, his eyes tracing the charred remains. There was barely a human there. Only a mass that seemed attached to a tall black post. Moments before, she was before him, breathing, living...
... and now she was not even here at all.
Stephane fell onto his knees. The sight made him sick. The smell made him nauseous. But the feeling in the mind made his head throb in pain. He felt tears come. They flowed down his face, washing off ash and soot. He stared into his hands, covered in black... from the wood and the smoke... and perhaps, with some of Isabelle's flesh. He shook his head. "I... oh... oh...." He shut his eyes, conjuring up her memory, trying to link his memory of her with the burned shell that was before him, still red with subdued heat. He opened his eyes. Nothing had changed.
He was now truly alone. He shouted to the skies... one cry like so many others that were echoed for centuries throughout time. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry! Isabelle! No! Come back! Isabelle!!! /Ma belle!!/ Isabelle!!!!!"
No one responded to his cry.
* * * *
She slumped over, feeling the ropes burn through. The pain was still fresh in her memory. The legs, the arms, the face, the body. The intense heat. The inability to escape.
Watching as Stephane ran toward her, shouting her name.
There was pain. Lots of pain. She tried to hold on to whatever solid it was she was gripping onto, but she felt her grip slip, her fingers twitching with heat and fire, and she fell into the darkness. She tilted her head back, closing her eyes, feeling the black envelop her, feeling the thrill of free-falling.
Her fall stopped.
Isabelle looked up into a face. The face was solemn, with cool, sky-blue eyes the centrepoint of the pale skin and perfect complexion. Isabelle was lying in this woman's arms, her dingy off-white robes partially charred.
"Your soul has been weighed, human." It wasn't a cold voice, or warm, or comforting; simply a sound that resounded in the blackness. Her vivid eyes reflected the pale face of her charge. "If you wish, you may follow the path... and come with me."
Isabelle stared into the blue eyes, piercing, all-encompassing. She wasn't sure what the chill feeling she felt was. Fear? It wasn't that she felt afraid of this woman who was now holding her in her arms. The arms beneath her were not rough or harsh, they were simply there. She looked down at her hands, then reached one of them up toward her face. "What... what happened to me? Who are you?" As she asked the questions, she realised one of the emotions was a sense of exhaustion, so much so that she would not be able to turn out of the woman's arms even if she wanted to.
There was a flicker in her eyes, and two silver eyebrows contracted almost imperceptibly. "I am the Chooser of the Slain - a valkyrie. You, human, have just died." Her voice softened, became almost gentle. "I determine the fate of human souls after their death; yours has been found worthy. If you wish, you may accompany me. Your strength has earned a place for you in the hall of the All-Father, Odin."
"So you mean that..." Isabelle looked around her, as if she could look back on the world around her, but realised that she was only enveloped in total darkness. "... that..." Isabelle lowered her eyes and blinked. "I see." She wasn't sure what she felt now. Was it a sense of joy at the realisation? She was tempted to hug this woman in blue steel armour, but she wasn't sure if she would be so receiving. "I'll come." Her voice was clearer now, crisp with confidence. Even though she didn't know the All-Father, or what his hall would be like, she spoke truthfully. It was the final realm, in a way... a world unexplored by mere mortals.
"Come, then." The valkyrie lifted Isabelle to her feet as if she were a feather, her voice once more expressionless. "Let us go."
Isabelle hesitated at first to step down, thinking that she would continue to fall through the black nothingness, but to her surprise, there was something solid beneath her feet. She could only stare at the woman. This... valkyrie. She was indeed beautiful. Isabelle let a smile out, wiping at her eyes, which she felt were beginning to mist over. "Thank... you," she said slowly. She watched the woman as she walked somewhere, toward wherever "out" of the darkness was. Isabelle hugged herself, wrapping the remnants of her tattered robe around her.
Even though she was dead, she felt very much alive. And even though she was dead, she could not help but to think of the living that she had left behind.
(By Irwin Kwan, 2001)