Harvey’s eyes widened as he watched the wanderer writhing on the ground. “Issa, I fear there has been a mistake, that this vial did not contain what your wanderer believed it would contain, and he has unintentionally brought an end to the second life you have granted him.”
“He is not dying, and he is not my wanderer,” Isabella answered sharply. “He is only coughing and spewing at his tincture as an infant does. A grown man should be ashamed to act so.”
“You answer his misery with such cruelty,” Harvey scowled at her, holding his own body tight, against the traveler’s pain. Isabella might have advised him once again to block the traveler out in order to protect himself, but she doubted he would listen, and besides, she was angry with him for keeping them there so long and knew she was only bound to get angrier still if she continued trying to reason with him, as he added, “The mothers would scold you for your lack of compassion.”
“Scold me?” she sniped, getting to her feet. “We have broken our Mdonyatra. I came here with you. I helped you take care of his this man. We tended his wounds together. Harvey, you said you were just going to look through his belongings, and we would go back to our homes where our Mdrai undoubtedly wait to discover where we have been, but instead you are on your knees, nurturing this outsider, against our doctrines, and now…” Her breath caught in her chest. Now she could not find words for the confusion building inside her, but perhaps there were some things she would never be able to admit to anyone, not even to Harvey Frank, and certainly not when he looked at her as though she were more foreign to him than the stranger that lie on the ground between them. “Now I shall go and take my scolding for the trouble compassion has brought me,” she said, turning on her heel, but she only made it a few steps before her hand was on her lips, rubbing once more at the stain of what she had done. She had brought the man back from death, and Harvey would thank her by accusing her of cruelty while the one she saved wasted the very breath she had given him on wailing. “He is your wanderer now,” she trembled, furious and frightened, allowing her feet to carry her off against the hesitation that weighed heavily upon her. “I have given more than enough… to both of you.”
Isabella ran toward the tunnel, expecting Harvey to try to stop her, to force her back if necessary, insisting the wanderer needed her, insisting that he needed her—or at the very least to ask why she had concealed herself, even though he kept her enveloped in his protection. If he had, she might have told him the truth, begged him to help her make sense of what had happened, to help clear her head so she could think straight, but as she hurried into the tunnel, blackness engulfing her, the traveler’s gasping began to subside, falling off into quiet sobs, and she heard Harvey whispering, “It is all right, Wanderer. I shall stay until you no longer need me.”
The man whimpered, “Oh, damn, it burns. Phileas, you bastard, what have you done to me.”
Isabella gritted her teeth, only making it as far as the first branch in the path before stopping to lean against the wall, pressing her palms into her wet eyes, the wanderer’s pleading too much to bear, even though she had no idea what his odd words meant or why it should matter so much to her. As Harvey answered, “I am here. I shall stay. Do not worry,” Isabella hurried down the wrong path, one of many such paths meant to lead stray wanderers to their deaths. No one would look for her there, and though she knew the way was dangerous, she had to rid herself of the anguish stirring inside her before she made her way back home. So she sat against the wall, her knees tucking into her chest as she loosed a quiet curse, heaving silent cries, grateful for her ability to hide herself so completely, grateful to be alone, and yet startled by the terrible thought that she had always been alone, even while her empathy allowed her to sense so much of those around her.
“What have I done?” she whispered into the darkness.
“What have I done?” her own voice replied from the depths in mocking.
She had broken her Mdonyatra, but worse than knowing she had broken her sacred vow was the idea that her vow had not been so sacred after all. Everyone is alone, she thought, great tears filling her hands, the truth of the wanderer’s solitude haunting her, even now.
When she first felt him lingering at the base of their mountain, Isabella had been intrigued by the cause she found within him. This stranger was strong-willed, knowing exactly what he had to do and having every intention of doing it, never mind what perils might befall him along the way. Isabella had never felt such purpose within anyone, but then for thousands of years the mountain had protected her people from those who lived in the outside world. Their lives were simple. The seers received the veils of Fate, the empaths knew the reasons of the soul, the nurturers helped to bring about balance, sustaining the others in their times of need, and the augurs did their best to make sense of it all and guide them with wisdom. The people who lived there in that mountain were never so fierce or wild as this wanderer seemed, and when she felt it in him, something inside her longed to go his way, darting off in flight, unrestrained, battling the elements for her own cause, so great it consumed her. But Isabella knew her place. She may have quietly wished this elf would succeed, so she could understand what it was he sought from them, and it had been clear from the beginning that finding her people was the wanderer’s only hope, he was so full of desperation, so it was natural she was curious to know why, but she was bound to honor her Mdonyatra. As an aspirant she would one day guide her people in the ways of Fate, and as Fate’s steward, she had always upheld their doctrines. Despite what she felt of this elf, who intruded on their peace, the wanderer was easily set aside when it was obvious her people struggled with his presence and his determination to reach their home.
But in the shadow of his death, she had lost her way. In his death, this man’s inexplicable will became even clearer to her than before. It was as though he was tethered to this world, to his purpose here, singularly focused, his soul bound to this lonesome life of waiting, of searching for something he feared he would never find. The moment she felt him hanging on at the edge of himself, Isabella had been consumed by pity for this stranger, whose spirit remained vehement as ever, steadfast in his cause, though his body was broken and his time on this earth was through. She had never felt pity for anyone, there was no need for such sentiments in their home. It was difficult, now, not to be ashamed of herself for allowing her own emotions to lead her so far astray, but at the same time, it was impossible not to question everything she had known, having witnessed the truth as this man lived it even beyond this life.
The mothers had taught them that everyone lived and died and lived again, in turn. In the prophecies in the Hall of Records, each soul who had ever entered the world could be traced bt their Mdrai, who could see within the veils the pathways connecting whom one had been before to whom one would become in life after life. Yet Harvey had sensed that the wanderer would not live again. Even when he believed the man would bring misfortune to their people, he had sought to rescue him, because he could not allow him to die in this way, so completely. Isabella did not know if the wanderer would never be reborn, but as he lay there, his body lifeless, she had felt the irrepressible force of his soul grasping for any way back, to do whatever it was he had come there to do, to know whatever it was he had sought their people in order to know, and she had breathed life into him, to save him… not from death, she thought. He did not fear death. Nor from Fate. She was not certain Fate had set him on this journey, though she believed Harvey when he said Fate guided him there. In truth, she did not know why she had done it, except that she had felt the overwhelming urge to save him from an eternity of waiting alone.
“Does everyone beyond this mountain have such a purpose that he would deny death?” she whispered, shivering on the cold ground, the damp, frozen must of the tunnel burning at her lungs.
This time, the tunnel did not reply.
Now that such doubts had crept in and taken hold, who would save her from herself, she thought, rubbing her hands briskly over her arms, shuddering with guilt. The only thing she could say with absolute certainty was that she deserved much worse than a scolding from the mothers for the things she had done.