Shadows and light played across the ground at Noel’s feet as he wound his way through the grove, the sweet, heady scent of the abundant almond blooms causing his chest to ache as he stared down at his fingers, squeezing them tight then letting them go. She lingered there, a warmth in the palm of his hand, undisturbed, at ease now, though she was not always, and he wondered how long she would remain this time, still not knowing where they had taken her, if she had survived, or if he was commingling with the shade of her ghost, or some remnant of the darkness the two shared. Her cry still haunted him at night, and he often found himself wandering restlessly in this strange place, trying not to recall what he felt when he breathed the life back into her, as though this might mean it had not happened, all the while holding her hand. The woman was just one peculiarity he found in the mountain after all, he thought, stopping to look up through the burgeoning branches at the clear blue, anomalous sky, buried deep within the heart of the earth, holding up the wind and sleet, the fierce cold of the glaciers, the millions of tonnes of stone and that impenetrable darkness, as though they were all nothing more than a thought.
Rosy light spilled in from nowhere, filling her head, causing it to throb. Wincing, Isabella raised her arm to block it out, grateful to find she had an arm, though it took her a moment to recall why.
Fingers prickling with numbness, she opened her eyes, half expecting to find the stranger there beside her, lying on the floor, locked in a room in the cloister, but she was alone in her hut— very much alive.
Frowning, she stretched her arm, bending and flexing it. The rot of Moag’s touch was healed. She would not have known she was ever injured except for the strange sensation in her fingertips and a dull pain that radiated up past her elbow as she rotated her wrist. Her legs trembled with weakness as she shifted them under her blanket. She tensed her muscles, twisting against the deep ache in her back and hips. She must have been lying there for several days, she thought, her heart pounding with a heavy cadence against her breast.
The last thing she remembered, she was crawling across the ground toward the door, fighting Moag for one final glimpse of the man for whom the tides of Fate had turned.
She could not feel him. Noel.
The scent of hot panpago drifted in through the window, and she took in a deep breath, forcing a smile against the malaise growing in her belly as her mother came inside, toting a steaming kettle. “You are awake,” the woman stated, smiling as well, though she looked away quickly, turning her back as she set the pot on the table. “I was just coming to feed you before I saw to my chores. We did not expect you to wake for several days more. You are not quite whole yet.”
No. She was almost empty, the void inside her aching with longing.
“The sweet smell woke me.” Her voice croaked out of her. She swallowed against a dry knot in her throat, her feet fidgeting against the blanket, wishing to run.
“I should have made it sooner,” her mother chuckled, as she removed two plain wooden bowls and spoons from the cupboard, setting them on the table, careful not to meet Isabella’s eyes. “When you were small, your father chided me each time I made panpago for you. He believed the almond nectar it would ruin your temperament.”
“Perhaps he was right,” Isabella offered, looking to the empty hook where her Omdet Filim normally hung, as her mother busied herself ladling out the honeyed porridge, pretending this was normal. Though she could see the woman’s tension in her movements, in the way bowed her head as she made precise folds in the linen napkins, in the unsettled rising of her chest as she set them neatly on a reed tray borrowed from the birthing house, she could not feel her mother at all. In fact, she could sense nothing beyond the emptiness, her own shame, and the itching in her bones to hurry to the Mdrai for answers to the questions that mounted as she lay there trying to squeeze the numbness from her fingers, her body moving restlessly against her bedroll, as though it no longer belonged to her. She should be dead. How had she survived? Did her mother know what happened to her, or was she only there as a nurturer? Had their people been told the truth of what lurked in the forbidden tunnels, feeding on Fate, waiting to devour them? Had the Mardraim killed the wanderer after all?
No. Noel lives. Though she could not feel him, of that much she was certain. It was clear her empathy was being carefully controlled by the Mdrai.
“Do you wish to sit?” her mother asked, placing the bowls and a carafe of water on the tray before taking it up, her knuckles growing pale from holding on tight to the handles as she crossed the room.
Isabella clenched her stomach, gritting her teeth against the soreness, rolled onto her side and pushed herself upright. But as she opened her eyes and tried to steady herself, a wave of exhaustion swept over her and a shadow threatened the room. “No! No, please!” she cried out, falling backwards against her pillow, pulling her blanket up over her face.
“Hush now, Issa. You are simply too weak,” her mother hissed, pulling the blanket away. She sat on her knees beside her. The gloom surrounded her head, obscuring her eyes and nose, so that all Isabella could see of her mother’s face was her lips as she spoke in a gentle tone. “It is all right, my child. You must regain your strength now. It will likely be many days before you begin to feel yourself again.”
As she spoke, the tenderness that came naturally to her soothed Isabella some and the pulsing in her head began to clear. Still dim, but growing brighter, her mother’s face swam above her, blurry around the edges, like a distant memory, but Isabella was certain she could see the telling hint of untruth in her eyes, along with her mother’s own measure of shame. She knew. The Mdrai had told her enough she was frightened. “Moag,” Isabella shuddered, taking her soft hand to her chest, pressing it hard against her heart as it raced. “The eater of souls will come for me again!”
“No, now it is all right,” her mother repeated gently, shaking her head. “I will fetch the Mardraim for you. He wished to be informed when you woke.”
“Aftime, please, do not leave me alone. Please!”
“I do not want to die alone in the dark!”
Even as she uttered the words, she knew how backwards they sounded. The very idea that she should fear death or solitude or even the darkness of Moag was clothed in proud vanity altogether foreign to their people. These were dangerous words that ran counter to all of the teachings of the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya, insulting every patient hour spent at the mothers’ knees, denying the sacredness of the twelve mantras.
She shuddered at her own desperation.
“You are very ill, my child, but I promise you will not die today,” her mother answered her firmly, stroking Isabella’s forehead, the smile on her tender lips betrayed by the look of concern that filled her eyes. “I will stay with you until I am needed at the birthing house. The Mardraim will surely come to check on you this evening. He has come every evening since your father brought you to me for your care.” The shade that still surrounded her mother’s face deepened slightly as she sighed through her nose, pursing her lips before adding, “You are much improved from that day. It is important you take what time you need, Issa.”
By now it was clear Moag had not come for her there in her tiny hut, to finish the job it started. Isabella was not writhing on the ground in agony, screaming against the torture she had taken upon herself. Her face flushed at the foolishness of her own desperation. Had she survived Moag only to become a pathetic shadow herself, a grown woman afraid of the dark, whose own mother could no longer understand her? The tears spilled down her cheeks as she closed her eyes.
The first time in her life she felt such recklessness, it came as a raw yearning that raced wildly up the face of the mountain, landing hard upon the summit. She had admired the wanderer’s spirit then, but now she thought surely the moment she felt it in him, his wildness had infected her. In anguish for his plight, she breathed the life back into his body. Uncertain how to hide what she had done, the taste of his lifeblood still on her lips, she sought the isolation of the forbidden tunnels. She told bold lies to her father about where she had spent the night, justifying her insolence to herself even as she did so. Desperation had her crawling toward the door at the mothers’ cloister, not to survive, not even to attempt to stop the wanderer from coming, but to make certain this man, Noel, whom she protected with her own breath, knew exactly who had given her life, who had sacrificed herself to Moag for his sake, for the sake of the knowledge he so desperately sought.
Clinging to this world to the very end, she fought to carve out her own purpose in those last moments, even as Fate washed away her former destiny, with the sweeping tides of change.
Before the day the wanderer landed in the depths of the gorge, she never would have imagined feelings like this were possible.
“How long have I been here?”
“Nine mornings,” her mother answered quietly, wiping her tears away with one of the plain linens she had so carefully folded. “Though I know I should not be, I am glad you are here with me. Eat before your panpago gets cold. You will regain your strength, my daughter. You must.” Holding her by the hand and shoulder, she helped Isabella to sit, propping her pillow up against a stool behind her, before placing one of the bowls in her lap. With Isabella settled, she picked up her own bowl and closed her eyes, silently mouthing the first mantra before taking a bite.
For a long while, Isabella watched her eating.
As was customary while taking a meal, neither spoke. This, they were taught, allowed the sanctity of the mountain song to play between them, in harmony with their meditations. Isabella had felt the warmth of the mountain’s vibrations answering her mantras every morning in her childhood and in countless lifetimes past, but there was no solace to be found in such traditions for her today. In the distance, the river laughed past moss-laden stone, stirring up eddies, babbling over low falls, the same as it had always done, yet it languished within the emptiness inside her, unable to occupy the space where it had once run with unyielding current. A goldcrest called down with a chirruping whistle from the highest branches of a nearby larch, unaware of Isabella’s suffering, unconcerned that so much had changed, unsuspecting that even its own song was altered, now echoing within the hollow space within her as a cry of warning. The rains had stopped, and a gentle breeze carried the snow-touched floral whispers in from the almond grove, perfuming the air, sweet as ever, yet the powerful fragrance could not breach the solemnity of her soul. She should have been meditating on her gratitude for her meal, for the compassion of her mother, or at least for this renewed chance at life, however it came about that she found herself there, living, when she was certain she had been lost forever, but her mind turned again and again to Noel as she rubbed the tips of her fingers against her thumb. The wanderer’s desperation was born of purpose so fixedly imperative to him that it somehow shifted the very continuity of Fate. He had changed the very course of her existence, drawing her out so that she would become the thin thread by which his purpose was fulfilled, and in the unraveling of the life-force within her, Isabella’s own purpose had been cut loose.
All that remained was a frayed remnant of herself, adrift on the river of Fate, unbound, stripped naked of the fabric of her design.
To be doomed to live a thousand lifetimes spent unfurling in the treacherous blackness of Moag would have been a happier prospect.
Unable to stomach her panpago, she leaned her head back and stared up at the thatched roof, until her mother finished eating and took her bowl, returning it to the tray. Her mother must have misunderstood her silent gaze as a desire to talk. In answer, the woman whispered only, “As I told your father, I do not wish to know anymore than I already know.”
Isabella nodded. She could not blame her. It was likely difficult to remain there with her, nurturing her back to health from a sickness that grew rampant within the very root of her being. To do so knowingly, in violation of their tenets, was more than should be asked of anyone, yet she took the task upon herself, even in her shame at her daughter’s fate, because a nurturer must nurture, even to those who had been saved and condemned, all at once, forced to live a life outside of the loving flow Fate’s merciful grace… Forced to wander.
The woman poured her a glass of water and helped her to drink, allowing the silence to linger between them. She dampened a cloth to wash Isabella’s face, then took up a brush and tenderly worked the tangles from her hair. When she was finished, she carried their bowls away, scraping them into the basket for the garden, rinsing them in the wash basin, drying them and putting them away in the cupboard, her simple, orderly life still affixed there in a world where no desolate blackness festered inside of her, screaming to be let out, to feed.
What had she become?
When she was finished, the woman quietly sat down at Isabella’s side once again and whispered as she took her hand, “You will remain here until you are well enough to be up and about. The Mardraim believes you will always require concealment, to protect you as much as to protect everyone else. For now, you must concentrate on growing strong enough to carefully guard your empathy, my sweet Isabella. Your life will never be what it was before.” She paused at length before adding, “It will be only what you make of it.”
Her heart felt like it bulged in her chest as she thought of Harvey. He felt far too much already to ever be forced to know the burden of her emptiness. She had to protect him. Wondering what this would mean for their friendship, she covered her eyes, but in her darkness, a violence swelled within her, becoming a wave that came crashing over her, bearing upon its crest a small fragment of a memory—a memory far crueler than understanding that for her Fate no longer had a plan.
Harvey had come for her.
Locked up in that room in the mothers’ cloister, she clawed her way across the floor to the door, wishing for death with each inch closer she came, hoping an end to her terror would come soon, but not before Noel saw her, not until the elf looked her in the eye and knew what he had done to her, because she deserved at least that much. Harvey came through the door. She saw only the tail of his robes, and she remembered thinking he must have felt her struggling, that he had come to help her secure a brief moment of dignity in the face of her sacrifice, before she was gone forever. He picked up her dying body from the ground and ran with her, up the corridor, to the atrium where the Mdrai and Felimi argued, down a path that led straight to the bowels of Moag, where he lay her down at the precipice between the life she had been destined to live, that was no more, and the nothingness she would inevitably become. Even in her death, she felt the wanderer there, speeding toward her, tugging at the thread of her guiding his way.
Then Harvey pressed his lips against hers.
Her body tightened, her chest seizing so she could not take a breath.
She could not stop him.
He pressed his lips against hers, and in a blink the tail of his robes flourished, then disappeared, into the blackness of Moag.
A savage force rose within her.
At last, unable to hold off any longer, she gasped a heaving breath, the air that filled her lungs spreading like poison through her, blistering her insides.
She was alive, more alive than she had ever been before, this visceral sting coursing through her evidence of the emaciated existence she had unknowingly suffered for countless lifetimes before Moag ripped apart her fragile spirit, protected from the truth of the world by ages of practice of their tenets, leaving her alone, a vessel in need of filling, compelled to feel everything, even the gentlest of whispers, as an assault on what little remained of her. She was alive, while Harvey was nothing more than a memory.
A smile that knew too much.
An impatient push at the bridge of his glasses.
The voice that said her name so many times a day, the sound of it had become intricately woven with the fibers of her soul, making her better than she had ever known.
She had survived Moag only because Harvey had taken her place, pressing his lips against hers, a precious, excruciating goodbye.
When at last she let go that baneful air, the wail that loosed her lips was so deep that her body shook against the ground, just as it had done under the treachery of Moag. The gasping sobs that wrenched at her weakened form tore at what was left of her embattled spirit, each shudder the spasm of a second death. But this time there was no end to the pain to look forward to, no hope of release from her despair, no desperate opportunity for gratification to be seized in those final moments, only life left absent of meaning, absent her greatest friend.
Harvey had taken her place in that peaceful realm of nightmares where nothingness at least promised rest.
“Find the Mardraim,” Isabella quavered through gritted teeth. “Bring him to me.”
“You wanted me to stay,” her mother whispered, eyes wide, hands trembling.