The rain was like a numbness that fell through the air, Isabella thought, standing in the door of her hut, watching the dark figures of children across the causeway, chasing each other from puddle to puddle, shrieking with laughter. The day had yielded to night while she waited, expecting to be summoned by the mothers at any moment, and all the while the rains fell, washing the air of feeling, leaving it deprived of anything, save for the gleeful cries of the children. Ordinarily the evenings were still, a time for the restful meditations their people learned as infants, to be practiced until death, necessary to maintain a balance of being, especially for the empaths, but as the night deepened and no one came to collect the younglings, or to quiet their laughter, it proved the rain itself was meditation enough for most. Not for Isabella. Joy burst through the bantering splitter of droplets in revelatory waves, all concern over the elf, who presently slept off his own death in the entrance to their home, washed away. The wanderer had caused this.
No, Isabella thought, taking in a deep breath, heaving the words in a desperate sigh, “I caused this.” The life she saved had brought terror to their mountain one day and jubilation the next. Harvey was right. “He is changing everything,” she whispered, turning to go inside, but stopping short as she caught sight of her friend making his slow way up the rain-soaked path. “At last.”
There had not been a chance for the two of them to speak since she left him back in the cavern with the wanderer the previous night. Before morning’s end, the whole mountain had assembled to hear the decision of the Mdrai concerning their visitor. Smiling, patient as ever, the Mardraim told their people exactly what Isabella had expected to hear—they would not interfere in the wanderer’s endeavors, and if the elf found their home, despite the many protections afforded them by the mountain, they had to assume the act was divinely inspired, though they received no prophecy foretelling his arrival. He did not mention Harvey’s suspicions that the man sought information about an ancient foretelling of Fate or that his grandson claimed to sense Fate guiding the traveler to them, but she supposed the Mdrai had decided it best not to give their people any more reasons to fear the outsider, as he intruded on their peaceful lives, forcing them to shield themselves with perpetual rains. When the meeting was finished and the crowds parted ways, Isabella’s father led the other Mdrai back to the chamber of Fate, where he could more easily keep track of the wanderer’s movements, however the Mardraim did not go with them, instead, nodding to Harvey, leading him off in the direction of their family’s small village, before Isabella had the chance to catch his eye through the crowds.
If Harvey was going to tell their leader what happened, Isabella knew she needed to be there, to accept responsibility for saving the elf. Weaving her way through the parade of people returning to their homes and their work after the assembly, she followed along behind her friend and his grandfather until they reached the small grass-thatched hovel where the Mardaraim lived. As the elderly man opened the door and stepped inside, Harvey happened to look back and find Isabella there, coming up the path not far behind them. She lent him an insecure smile, ready to do her duty by their laws, but he only glared back at her in warning, shaking his head, and held up a hand to stay her. If she had known how long she would wait, guilt and misery gnawing at her conscience, she would not have stopped in the street, as her friend pointed in silence for her to go back up the road toward her own village. It was clear he did not want her there, and though Isabella knew she should own her part in what happened, as the people passed them by, giving them strange looks for their silent exchange, the childish, insecure urge to continue hiding in the dark won out over her sense of obligation. She felt worse for it now, having turned and headed off, leaving Harvey to speak for both of them. The decision had tormented her for hours, but not enough to change her mind.
As he came up the rode, Harvey’s careful gait was a tell-tale sign of what happened to him while she waited, avoiding her own punishment. Isabella went inside, head hanging low between her shoulders, leaving the door open for him, clenching her teeth as she lit the lantern in the window, watching her friend’s ginger steps as he crossed the muddy yard toward her hut, until he reached the door. She poured the water from the pot she’d left simmering over the fire, into the cup of leaves and seeds, already ground down to a powder. She had expected to need the potion herself, but now Harvey needed it.
“You should not have sent me away,” she said, pushing the cup into his hands, as he came inside and took the only chair at her table. His clothes were drenched, the wounds on his back seeping blood through the linen shirt that clung to his form, violent red explosions, streaked and dripping accusingly.
“I had to,” he groaned, as she moved her belongings out of the way, and went to the cupboard for a towel and blanket. “I should not have taken you with me to save the wanderer. I should never have done this to you.”
“Drink, Harvey,” she whispered scornfully, running the towel over his smooth head, wiping the wet away. He should not have gone to save the wanderer himself, but she would not say this, not when he was in such pain. “Let me see how bad it is this time.”
Harvey gulped the tonic down in two swallows, set the cup aside, and leaned forward against the table, resting his forehead on the fleshy crook of his elbow. “It is not so terrible. A few welts.”
“More than a few welts,” she answered, tugging his shirt up around his ears to assess the damage, both of them wincing in unison. On his back she counted sixteen lashes in all, twelve of them scars from their childhood, each of which she knew by heart because she had many to match. Four were fresh though, painfully swollen, two bleeding where the the fall of the whip cut too deep.
Tears filled her eyes as she went to prepare the salve that would heal him in short order, whispering, “I should have gone with you to talk with them. Those two marks should be mine to bear.” He did not argue. Perhaps he knew she spoke the truth, she thought, as she set the bowl on the table beside him, took a large glob of ointment onto her finger and began coating his wounds. She could already see Harvey’s tissue mending as she covered the cuts loosely with gauze, but when she pushed the blanket toward him and started to pull his wet shirt over his head, to hang in the door to dry, he stopped her, taking her hand, looking up at her with that same warning gaze he had that afternoon, outside his grandfather’s hut.
“What is wrong?” she asked, taking the cup and bowl from the table and placing them beside the wash basin, leaning with her palms to each side of the porcelain bowl, looking down at her reflection in the water as he sat up and pulled down his shirt.
“You spent the night in the forbidden tunnels,” Harvey answered, quietly. She squeezed her eyes shut a moment before turning her face toward him, gripping the edges of the washstand, knowing her time had come. “The mothers have asked me to bring you to them.”
Isabella swallowed, gave a solemn nod, and went to retrieve her yellow tunic while Harvey put out the lantern. “Did they tell you what the monster is they keep up there?” she asked, a trembling in her voice as she pulled on her cape, lifting the hood as she met him at the door. She had felt the ominous presence right next to her in the darkness, speaking in her ear, telling her to kill the wanderer, whispering words from her dream as though it had been the fabric of her nightmare itself. Even now she could feel the darkness against her right arm, clinging to her like a shadow, waiting for her to fall asleep. The thought of it caused her to shiver. “Harvey?”
Her friend smiled gravely, opening the door, leading the way outside, answering only, “Let us go now, to the mothers. They will tell you what you need to know.”
The two of them made their way in silence, turning up the road at the end of her garden path, heading toward the cloister where the mothers lived in seclusion, the trek made longer by the rains and the uncomfortable mien with which Harvey carried himself in their silence. Isabella was certain he knew more than he would say. She did not know when he returned from tending the wanderer that day, but he went with the Mardraim as soon as the assembly was called to a close, and the gashes on his back from the mothers’ whip had been fresh. Surely it had not taken so long to tell them what happened with the wanderer, but it was clear Harvey was unwilling to tell her what he knew, and Isabella was unwilling to press. It was not until they reached the outskirts of the gardens, where the younglings took their lessons, that he finally spoke again.
“You felt compelled to save him, just as I felt, Issa,” Harvey said quietly. “Omdra Asan felt it as well.”
“My Omdra did not act on those feelings. I know what I did was wrong, Harvey. The elf’s soul belongs to Fate, not to the physical world.”
“Yet Fate did not take him, as it should,” he answered, shrugging slightly as they started across the well-manicured grounds, taking the shortest path to the stone-hewn hermitage. “Issa, I have been warning our Mardraim that the elf cannot be allowed to reach us since I first felt him flying toward us days ago. We all felt his purpose to varying degrees, our people were frightened by this outsider and the determination within him, but though I too tried to calm them, I knew the elf’s purpose went against the will of Fate. Yet when he was dying…” He shook his head. “The need save him was so strong in me that reason was set aside. He would not live again, I was certain of it, and I made you go with me to help, though our Mdonyatra forbids us to interfere in the way of Fate, and I would never ask you to break your vows, not even for me.”
“I made my choice. The mothers taught us—”
Harvey swore, cutting her short, shoving his glasses up his nose impatiently. “Issa, I cannot pretend to understand what Fate is doing or why, but I do know that while I sense Fate guiding the wanderer to us, it is not Fate’s will at work here, but something else entirely. This morning, before I left him, I told the wanderer to go. I know he understood me, but I also know he will not stop until he finds his way to us. Even death could not stop him.”
“Did you tell the Mdrai this?”
“The Felimi as well,” he nodded, then laughed low, adding, “but who are we to determine the will of Fate?”
“We both know you might be the greatest empath this mountain has ever known. Who are they to insist what goes on between you and Fate is impossible, simply because they have never experienced it themselves?”
He smiled painfully, his wounds still too fresh. “They are the mothers, Issa, but my pride is not why I’m telling you this.”
Instead of answering, Harvey looked up as they neared the alcove entrance to the home of the Felimi. Whatever else he might have said on the matter was left a mystery as the youngest of the mothers, only nine years of age, yet as poised and wise as those born before her, came out from the shadows, beckoning them forth. “We will talk later. Just remember what I said,” he whispered, and Isabella gave an anxious nod as they continued on their path.
“Come, Daughter,” the mother smiled, holding out both hands in greeting, as the two drew near. Her gentle, oriental beauty was strangely marred by pale blue, sightless eyes that gazed off into the distance. “Your mothers have many questions for you, Young Isabella, but it is good you tended to Young Harvey’s wounds first.” She said this as if the gashes on his back were caused by some accident.
“I am sorry to have kept you waiting, my Felo,” Isabella replied, kneeling down so the little mother might run her hands over her face. This was a customary greeting, so the Felimi could recognize the changing visage of their children, as the wise ones were born blind to the world, a mark of the wisdom reborn into the world with them at each incarnation.
“I can imagine by the sternness of your brow that you are not so very sorry,” the mother chuckled quietly, in a childish voice, pressing smooth alabaster fingers over Isabella’s eyes, down her nose and across her cheeks, as usual, before taking her right hand from under her cape, turning it over in her palm, and squeezing it gently, as though she expected to find some answers secreted away there. “But we shall keep that tiny mistruth to ourselves. Come, my children.”
Harvey at her side, Isabella followed nervously as the youngest mother led the way inside the hermitage carved into the mountain, through the arched, red-stained doorway, down a long, musty hall of stone, lined by candles lit only for the benefit of their visitors. Whatever the thing was residing in the forbidden passages, the youngest mother seemed to know it had touched her, Isabella thought, rubbing at her arm, frowning at Harvey as he eyed her warily. She shook her head, scowling at him, and it was not until he looked away with a grimacing shrug that she pulled the crushed thistle from her pocket, turning it over in her fingers, careful to guard it from her friend’s view. All day her thoughts had been drawn to the flower. It seemed impossible that any of the things that happened in her nightmare could be real, yet her aspirants robe had been torn by something and the purple thistle her father found tangled in the threads was just like those that grow in the fallow fields she ran through while trying to escape the wanderer in her dream. And she could not shake the feeling that someone other than Harvey was at her side, waiting to be acknowledged, waiting for her to return to dreaming. Though she was not looking forward to the punishment that would undoubtedly be made worse for her failure to come to the mothers willingly, the counsel of her Felimi could not come soon enough, she thought, tucking the thistle back inside her pocket, hurrying to keep pace with the small girl, hastening down the corridor.
At the end of the hall, they came to the atrium of archways, with walls polished so smooth the light of the single candle suspended at its center filled the room with warmth, reflecting all around them, causing the vaulted lapis ceiling to glisten like galaxies across the night sky. The chamber where judgments were sought and rendered was off to their right, but the entrance was dark, and Harvey took Isabella’s arm and led her instead to an arch on their left, as a flame sparked to life there and the little mother headed toward it, her purposeful steps filling the atrium. They soon found themselves entering a dining room, its walls ornately carved with patterns of orchids and cobra lilies, thyme and meadowsweet. The plain wooden table at the center of the room was set for a simple meal, a pot of soup steaming there, the two older mothers already seated at either end, waiting. Isabella had expected the whip. The idea of dinner was not much better.
“Come, daughter, and take a meal with your mothers,” the eldest mother said, motioning for Isabella to greet her. The woman had recently marked her 172nd birthday, which was not terribly old for a wise one, but very old for the Children of Danguin. Of the three mothers, she had lived the most lifetimes, having been born again to the world 53 times in all, which was exactly how ancient she looked to Isabella. Her thin white hair flowed down to her waist like strands of gossamer. Her tan, weathered skin rippled with wrinkles. Her eyelids drooped down over her eyes so heavily it was rumored they had grown shut. But she was spry for one of so many years, and her mind, having witnessed century upon century of lifetimes past, was sharp as ever, and she was able to recall a great deal from her previous lives, though no mother could possibly remember all of the countless days she had lived.
“Thank you, Felo,” Isabella said, kneeling beside her to dispense with customs, while the youngest mother took her seat and began filling bowls for the others, only fumbling over those meant for Isabella and Harvey, as it was very unusual for the mothers to accept guests.
“Why do you continue to occlude us, my daughter?” said the last of the mothers, who was seated at the opposite end of the table. She was middle-aged and quite beautiful, with dark skin like Harvey, though she bore no tattoos because, like all mothers, she belonged to no clan, but rather to everyone. Her beauty was such that if she had not been born a mother, many men would have prized her to bear them children, but the Felimi had not birthed younglings of their own since they first came to the mountain. Their many lifetimes were spent in the service of their people, as teachers of the Ftdonya, the Mdonyatra, and the lessons of Fahmat, as advisers to the Mdrai on matters of Fate, and as judges, rendering verdicts on violations of their laws and delivering necessary discipline. They were the first mothers, the very first of the Children of Danguin, and all who lived within the mountain could be traced from their first incarnations there. Though everyone lived again, only the Felimi remembered the past, and for this reason, the wise ones were sacred beings.
“I am frightened, Felo,” Isabella admitted quietly, now kneeling between the middle mother and Harvey, who had taken the chair next to her, across from the youngest mother, and was already eating his soup. “I do not know what others will feel in me if I let go my occlusion,” she added as the mother ran soft fingers across her face. The woman smelled sweet like almond flowers.
The youngest mother gave a quiet laugh, saying, “We have made the rains fall to protect the empaths, as the Mdrai asked, and here in our home only those present can feel anything of you. Our children are safe. You have seen them yourself, playing as they have never played before.” At this, Harvey smiled, but Isabella got up from the ground, watching the little girl crane her neck, leaning her head low over her bowl, carefully sipping at a spoonful of hot broth.
She could not help wondering how the mother knew she watched the children playing when the rains shielded them and Isabella had remained in occlusion all day, but she did not ask, instead taking her seat as the middle mother said, “Perhaps you worry what you might feel? You have been through a great ordeal, but there is no need to be frightened here, Young Isabella. You should eat. The soup will warm you.”
The thought of food only made the sickening feeling in her stomach worse. It was best to get straight to the point,she thought, pushing her bowl away. “Harvey would not tell me what the monster is up in the forbidden tunnels,” Isabella said quietly. All three of the mothers looked up from their bowls turning sightless eyes toward her, as she held up her right arm, though she knew the only person there who could truly see it was Harvey, who looked rather concerned as she continued, “I think it still has hold of me. I don’t know what to do, my Felimi. Please, what is the evil creature that protects the entrance to our home?”
“Oh, Daughter, it is not evil, not a monster, as you say,” the eldest mother answered, shaking her head sadly. “The darkness is Moag, nothingness, the void to which all things must return in due time, just as Om is the spark from which all things become. Moag was here, feeding on Fate, long before we brought our children to live here.”
“Feeding on Fate?” Isabella asked, shuddering as she spoke. “Why would you allow such a thing to stay here, just to protect us?”
“You misunderstand. We have no choice,” the youngest mother said in a solemn voice, hardly befitting one so young.
“When we first came to live in this mountain, we misunderstood as well. We used every bit of Fahmat, attempting to banish the darkness that oppresses our home,” the middle mother began, only to have the eldest wave her hand dismissively, adding, “We could no more remove Moag from this mountain than we could remove Fate itself, my daughter.”
“The two are one,” the childlike mother nodded. “Moag does not protect us any more than Fate protects us.”
“But Fate…” Isabella said, stopping short as Harvey raised a brow, much like her father would have done, if he had been there to hear her speak to the mothers with such insolence.
The elderly mother smiled gently, shifting in her seat, searching for the words that might explain, searching for a memory from long ago. “Both Om and Moag are indifferent to us, Young Isabella,” she said after a time. “When we came here, we did the only thing we could in declaring the tunnels forbidden. We placed a few extra magical traps where we could, to help save some souls to be returned to Fate, for those who were foolish enough to venture down the wrong path paths, and our lives continued on as it always does. We did not know much, but we knew Moag is not evil.”
“It certainly seemed evil to me while I was up there. Why come to this mountain? Why not anywhere else? How could you allow us to live in a place with something so terrible?”
The three mothers turned each to the next, as though they could see each other searching for answer. It was the youngest mother, who finally broke the silence. “It is not terrible. It is simply a part of life. All things begin and all things end, my daughter. In truth, we do not remember why we came here, only why we stay.”
“In part, we remain to be close to Fate, but more importantly, we stay in order to protect our children, to protect you, from a world far worse than Moag, a world that is truly evil,” the middle mother nodded. “A world the wanderer brings to our doorstep.”
Isabella had no intention of talking about the wanderer now. As far as she was concerned, he was the last thing they should be worried about. “Why did you not tell us what was up there?” she asked, not even hesitating as Harvey sat up straight in his chair, clearing his throat loudly. “I have never been so afraid of anything. I ran, but I could not find my way even though I was certain of it. I had to use forbidden Fahmat to escape.”
“And this is why you are here, Daughter,” the youngest mother said, her graven voice startling, stopping Isabella before she could say anything more.
“No person, not even one of our children, has ever survived an encounter with Moag,” the middle mother spoke with a dangerous hush. “You are not supposed to be here. You are no longer supposed to be at all.”
“What do you mean, my Felo?” Isabella whispered, clutching her arm under the table. A part of her thought she knew exactly what the mother meant. A part of her had known the truth all along.
For a long while there was silence, punctuated by the sound of Harvey sipping his soup, sniffing occasionally, as if to remind Isabella he was there, as if to remind her of the things he told her as they walked through the gardens where their Felimi had taught them so much, yet so little. When the eldest mother finally spoke, Isabella knew the truth was something their mothers had intentionally hidden from their people. “In the tongue of his people, the dragon calls Moag, Cathtar, the snake who eats his own tale, but last night, he told your father that before he was trapped in this mountain, he heard it called by another name. To the fairies it is known as Enaiddifwr, the Eater of Souls. They were the first to encounter Moag, long ago, in a far-away land, long before I came into this world in any form.”
“My father spoke to the dragon?” Isabella said, turning to Harvey, who watched her carefully, a woeful look in his eyes as he nodded.
“To ask if there was anything to be done to save you,” the middle mother answered, “but of course, that was impossible. They spoke for many hours.”
“When we first brought our children to this mountain, we found that we could not explore the darkest paths,” the eldest mother continued low. “All light was quickly extinguished. All Fahmat was exhausted. We wrongly believed the tunnels to be enchanted with some sort of magic we did not yet know, cast upon this place to contain the beast that guards the prophecies handed down by Fate as punishment for his crimes against our kind. We considered Moag our protector. In our lack of understanding, we simply avoided the darkest paths, allowing the myriad of tunnels to serve the purpose of guarding us from the perils of the outside world. Time passed, our family grew, Fate began to dwindle. Fewer augurs were born, fewer seers as well, but it was not until my 17th life that we were forced to accept just how dangerous the dark could be.
“A youngling, an inquisitive boy named Eri, liked exploration a bit too much for his own good, as most children do, however, though the tunnels were forbidden, like you and Young Harvey, Eri tended to stray from what was right. He was bright and showed great promise as an augur and empath, so much promise that he might have one day been Mdrai, except he could not resist the urge to see for himself what guarded the many tunnels riddling our home. One evening, shortly after his dinner, Eri concealed himself and set off to see how far he could go inside one of the tunnels where Moag flows free before he found one of the traps our children had been warned were there. Some of the children later said the boy was coerced, while others claimed the idea was his own, either way, it is certain they did not understand the dangers of wandering astray from the paths we know to be safe, the ways we have taught each of our children to walk since your feet first felt the wildness of the world beneath them. In truth, we Felimi ourselves had forgotten that the darkness was not simply a magic cast by us long ago as protection, and like everyone else, we avoided it, as the Ftdonya requires.
“At first no one noticed Eri missing, but the moment he wandered into Moag, I knew. I felt him there, just as I felt your presence last night. At the time, only one other mother was in the world with me, one you have not known before, one of those who has been lost to us these ages. She felt Moag as well, and through Moag, we sensed the boy’s terror as he suffered the unfurling of his soul.”
“Unfurling?” Isabella hissed, tucking her hands under the table so no one would see them trembling.
“It is true. As Moag led him further and further away from his home, away from any help we might have given him, the boy was being devoured,” the mother smiled. “At once, we told the Mardraim, who gathered the Mdrai, their aspirants and the boy’s family to determine what would be done. It was decided the Mardraim and the boy’s father along with my sister Felo would go into the tunnel after Young Eri, while I went to the dragon to demand answers, hoping he would recall what the magic was, that we might stop it. But when the beast told me the truth of what Moag was, when he told me there was nothing to be done to save the boy, I was devastated. In entering Moag, he said the boy had inadvertently set about his own demise, the ultimate end of his existence. Eri would, over the course of many hours, cease to exist altogether. By the time dragon explained what would happen to those who entered the blackness, I was too late to stop the others from the same undoing. Not one of them returned.”
“Young Isabella,” the youngest mother smiled, laying her tiny hand atop Isabella’s forearm squeezing it tight as she continued calmly, even pleasantly, “You must understand that Moag does not just kill its victims, like some evil creature of this world.”
“No one survives,” the middle mother said, her face stern, though her voice was gentle. “Those who enter Moag do not just die, their bodies interred in the darkness. Their souls cease to exist, never returning to Fate, never returning to this world.”
“Last night, we three felt when your terror when Moag began your undoing. You should not have been able to use Ikath hfilar to bring yourself home,” the eldest said, holding her hands up, as if to motion for peace from the others. The middle-aged mother leaned back in her chair, picking up her glass and taking a drink, while the youngest mother let go of Isabella’s arm, shaking her head. “We know you are frightened, my daughter. We know you must be struggling to make sense of your endeavor. As are we. Your occlusion makes it difficult for us to understand exactly what happened to you up there, and we must know what happened. Allow our empathy and nurturing to help you through this.”
Isabella swallowed, looking at each of the mothers in turn before turning to Harvey, who whispered, “You must, Issa.”
“You could sense me… my death… through the Moag,” Isabella answered the mothers, tears filling her eyes. She tried to fight them back, but before she could quite get herself under control, her head fell into her hands, and she sobbed, worry, fear, exhaustion, and a strange sort of relief washing over her, making her ears burn, as she let go her occlusion at last and cried, as a child might, while her mothers waited patiently for the discomposure to pass, Harvey looking on helplessly.
After several minutes, she wiped the wet from her eyes, sniffed back her misery and began, pleadingly, “I made sure not to go very far down the wrong path, only far enough that I knew Harvey would not see me there. I was so ashamed of having broken my oath, so furious with Harvey because he would not just leave the wanderer be and let Fate determine what to do with him. It was foolish of me not to return home immediately, to tell the Mdrai what we had done. I don’t know why I decided to sleep there in the dark. I don’t know why I did it.” She shivered, remembering the sound of her own voice ringing back at her through the blackness even before she fell asleep, knowing it was Moag pulling her further in, so that it might consume her.
“Moag had already begun its perfect work on you,” the elderly mother said. “Tell us, now, exactly as it happened, Young Isabella.”
“It spoke in echoes,” she whispered. “The Moag spoke to me.”
Dutifully, Isabella began recounting the tale of her encounter with Moag to Harvey and the Felimi, intent on telling them everything she remembered from the time she entered the tunnel until she used the magic of the gods to manage her escape, pausing only when one of them stopped her to ask questions, finding importance in obscure details, like which side she slept on and how quickly she fell asleep or whether the wanderer was clothed exactly as he had been when she and Harvey found him, or if he was wearing something different. She had not gotten very far into her nightmare, when her arm suddenly seared with a pain so intense, she knocked her chair to the ground as she jumped from her seat, crying out in agony.
The young mother and Harvey both hurried to her aid, her friend shouting as he ran around the table, “What happened, Issa? What is wrong?”
“It burns! Please, help me! It burns,” Isabella cried.
“The wanderer,” the elderly mother said, face turned toward the the ceiling, as though she could see straight through the whole of the mountain, up to where the wanderer was presently taking a wrong turn into the dark.
“No! Go back!” Isabella screamed, clawing at her forearm as Harvey pulled her to the ground, shouting at her to stop, forcing her arms apart in a panic.
“Moag is awake,” the middle mother answered Harvey’s questioning look, as the youngest took Isabella’s hand, squeezing repeatedly at each of her fingers, working her way up her wrist. “It seems it was not finished with her, as we suspected. I feel her… She is up there.”
“Her hand has taken the chill of death,” the youngest whispered.
“The wanderer,” the eldest mother repeated. “It is just like with the boy Eri, just like with Young Isabella. Now he wanders in his sleep.”
“You have to help her,” Harvey demanded, sitting on the floor behind Isabella, leaning her back against his chest, pressing a hand against her forehead, holding her tight as she moaned.
But the young mother shook her head. “I do not know that there is anything we can do for her. Perhaps we should move her to my quarters, they are the closest, and we can try to make her comfortable there, but Young Harvey, you must go now to find the Mdrai, find Zo Asan and bring him here at once.”
“I will not leaving her!” Harvey answered, hugging Isabella close, pressing his lips against her cheek, whispering, “What can I do, Issa? Tell me how to help you.” But as her back arched, bending awkwardly, Isabella’s hand clenched around the young mother’s tiny fingers, her face contorting into a noiseless scream. The sound of the wise one’s fragile bones being crushed cut through the austere silence that followed, her pale eyes widening in terror as she wrenched at Isabella’s hand, trying to free herself, but her grip was like a snare. “Do something! Moag is killing her!” Harvey shouted at the others.
The middle mother rose to her feet and came to stand over them. The woman spoke, but her words were lost to the ringing of a bell piercing the center of Isabella’s brain as the room began to dim and swell, or perhaps it was Isabella falling away into a light brighter than any she had ever seen, a light that was peaceful, soothing, where all of her pain became nothing, but it could not be so easily forgotten. She had harmed the little mother, who sat on the ground, clutching her mangled hand to her chest. Isabella looked to the Eldest mother, hoping she would know what to do, but she was still transfixed by the ceiling, her mouth agape, an indigo shadow curling like a wisp of smoke from the tip of her tongue, reaching up to the stones overhead. Confused why no one did anything, Isabella looked down at Harvey, whose arms were wrapped around her limp body, tears streaming down his cheeks as he rocked her like a child. This was a strange thing to see, she thought, turning around again, expecting to find the wanderer standing there beside her, just to her right, where he had spent the day waiting for her to sleep. Instead she found the middle mother, watching her curiously with piercing green eyes, as though she was truly seeing her daughter for the very first time.
“My Felo?” Isabella whispered in a voice that echoed but did not carry. The woman did not appear to hear her, as she raised her hand slowly, fingers outstretched as though to touch Isabella’s face, but just when she expected to feel the gentle caress of her mother’s touch, the smell of almond flower on her skin, the woman snatched at the air, her dark hand reaching right through the light, right through Isabella herself, before pulling back an empty fist.
“Am I dead?” Isabella asked, but even as she spoke the words, a horrible fear crept in through the peace that had surrounded her, and though she should have been frightened, this was a fear not at all her own.
“Lost,” a man’s voice answered, dripping with a pitch blackness she knew far too well, for it had chased her across the fields and forced her to drown the wanderer in her dream.
The next thing Isabella knew, she was gasping in Harvey’s arms, choking on stale air that tasted of death, coughing painfully, shoving him away as she flailed, forcing herself up to her feet, turning around in a full circle to find the one who spoke, before falling to her hands and knees, to catch her breath.
“Issa!” Harvey cried, hurrying to her side, pulling her up to face him as she panted. “I thought I had lost you!”
“Harvey, do not… Harvey…” was all she could manage to say between tremendous breaths. Her mouth was parched. Every cell felt as though they had been turned to the dust of the earth. She tried to swallow, running her calloused tongue over the roof of her mouth, but it was abrasive and gritty, and she began to choke once more, coughing several times, before bringing up a mass of salty, bloody sputum filled with fine sand-like particles that crunched between her teeth. “He survived,” she whispered as the middle mother held a glass of water to her lips, forcing her to drink. “The wanderer lives.”