A Mind Broken
Isabella sighed at the familiar cold of iron crossbars under her hand as she pushed open the door, stepping out of the sun, into the dimly lit, smoke-filled pub, the chorus of laughter that met her temporarily drowning out the wail of Adam and the Ants on the radio. “She said— Sh-she said,” her blood-brother grinned mightily, holding out his hands to hush the others, “She said, ‘Touch ‘em again, and you may be forced to take me home with you tonight, Foote.’ Well, of course, what else could be done but to see if the threat was serious, so I reached out, and ever so delicately—” He stopped, catching sight of Isabella across the room.
“Aaah-haha, and here he is now!” He sprung from his seat. “Hero of the new age, arrived at last! Come! Drink! Celebrate your, er… victory? Is that what we’re calling it?” Commiseration and mirth filled his warm eyes as Phileas hurried over and took her by the shoulders, grinning wide as he gave her a sympathetic shake, then clapping her hard on the back in a brief, drunken hug before leading her the rest of the way to their table. “Can’t decide if you’re more fool or arse this time out,” he added, with a poignant look.
“Arse, definitely,” Wells nodded up at her. His hands were clasped easily behind his neck as he leaned back, balanced on the hind legs of his chair, one foot plunked up on the seat beside him, a pretty blond bird perched neatly on his other knee, adjusting her top to show more cleavage while he wasn’t looking, not that he had properly looked in the first place. “Fools are convinced they stand a chance in hell. Arses know they are done for and push onward and forward anyway. Don’t say you weren’t warned what would happen,” he added, serious tone falling away into chuckles.
“What the hell were you thinking, arguing with the Seat in front of the entire assembly?” Murphy grinned, holding a lager to a newly blackened eye. Isabella vaguely wondered what happened this time, as he raised another glass and took a gulping swig, downing half the pint in one swallow.
“You’ve really gone and done it this time, that’s for certain,” Phileas sighed, offering Isabella his chair, nodding to Wells, who patted his latest conquest on her tail, sending her flitting away so the group could speak privately. Wells kicked the spare seat over to Phileas, who caught it with ease, turning it around with its back to the table and slinging his leg over in one swift motion. “Well, have a sit then. Let’s figure how to get you out of this cock-up.”
But Isabella did not want out. She just wanted a last drink with her friends before heading off on her own, determined to find the answers they all needed, or to die trying, she supposed. Swallowing the dry lump in her throat, she raised her finger at the barkeep for the usual and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Noel Loveridge stared back.
Isabella woke shuddering, gasping for air, quavering hands wiping at the tears that stung her eyes and poured down her cheeks—tears that were not her own. The cruel stain of the wanderer’s blood lingered familiar on her tongue, the taste of it still fresh as the day she brought him back to life. “Schripat. Echteri amu schripat,” she hissed, bitterly, the words falling as easily from her lips as a thirteenth mantra— the only mantra that mattered now that she no longer walked the path of Om.
Frustrated, she held up her healed arm to examine it. Since her rescue from Moag, her father had been administering her a potent fairy elixir he recreated from the remnants of the one the elf brought with him from the outside world—a recipe that had long been safeguarded by the winged Itri of the otherworld. The only thing it had not managed to cure was the perpetual numbness that dulled her fingertips and the beat of her heart longing to return to Moag, longing for the completion that had been denied her by Noel Loveridge. By now she was certain the Mardraim was right in his assumptions. Caught up in the wanderer’s wake the moment she saved him, her sacrifice became necessary for the elf to find his way safely through Moag, but she was never meant to survive.
Still, here she lay, raw and exposed.
“Forsaken,” she whispered to Om, pushing her blanket aside, forcing her body up against the throbbing in her muscles and bones, fighting the weariness that still clung to her brain as she sat. Hatred for Ohamet combined with her dizzying haze, bringing salt to her mouth, but she swallowed it down, hugging her knees into her chest, turning her face to rest her cheek, breathing slowly against the tumult that rose inside her. Moag had changed her, shown her too much—far too much, she thought, shaking her head, desperate to let go of the building animosity, if only for a moment, to reclaim what she might of the peace she had once possessed, even if she would never fully regain her old life. That was all she could do, she reasoned—try to continue, as normal as possible, and hope… for anything. But hope seemed long lost to her.
She looked around her tiny hut, wondering if she was strong enough to make it to the wash basin by herself, or if she should wait for her mother to help her. The shutters were still closed tight, as the Mardraim left them the previous evening, which meant the woman had not come to check on her yet that morning, but she would surely bring breakfast soon. The only light in the room filtered in through the crack at the bottom of the door, casting a long, solemn shade over the place. She was just imagining the deepening gray was what was left of her soul, spilled out from her in search of an end, when a shadow shifted across the floor. Expecting it must be her mother at last, she brushed matted, tear-soaked hair away from her face and tried to smile.
Muted light dazzled her eyes as the door opened. The sound of rain pattering against the earth offered her a breath’s peace that quickly faded as Harvey stepped across the threshold, wiping the wet from his head. “You need air and light,” he sighed, upon finding her awake, sitting alone in the gloom, holding her hand to her face to shield her eyes.
“Air and light,” she whispered hoarsely. These were the exact opposite of what she wanted. She was not supposed to be here. Harvey was not supposed to be here either, she thought, watching as he started around the room, pushing open the shutters. The Mothers required him to keep watch on the wanderer, to learn what he could of the elves, a curious request, as far as Isabella was concerned, considering Harvey Frank was lost to Moag.
She gritted her teeth.
“You are stronger today?” he asked.
“Mm. How do you feel?”
She shook her head, looking past him, out the nearest window through the tree outside, watching the leaves as the rain struck, causing them to dance wildly. The sight brought on a vague happiness that resided long ago, in some distant land, in a world that had never belonged to her, yet somehow felt like home. “You should not be here, Harvey,” she said, certain the happiness belonged to Noel Loveridge, anger bubbling up inside her again at the intrusion. “You are supposed to be with the elf.”
The Mardraim had promised to keep her deeply enveloped, for the protection of everyone, including Isabella herself. The rain should have washed from the air all energy of Om. She should not have any sense of the wanderer, or anyone else, yet he was there, waiting in the shadows like a haunting that wandered the southern forest, reminding her almost chidingly of the terrible things she had done and the darkness that still longed for them both.
Harvey stood only a few feet away, staring out the window as well, looking as grim as she felt. She tried cutting through the interference of the rain, to gain some sense of her friend, but he was deeply occluded, and she could feel the protection of the Mdrai surrounding her, holding her fast and close, as promised. This was for the best, she thought, shifting anxiously on her reed mat. The last thing she wanted was for Harvey to know her depth of emptiness. He had been through enough, she thought, recalling the flash of his Omdet Filim disappearing into the void as she lay dying on the cold, hard ground of the tunnel in the cloister. But if she was enveloped, how had she sensed the elf?
“The wanderer is not going anywhere,” Harvey said, turning toward her, and for a moment Isabella wondered if he was answering her question, but then she remembered she had brought the elf up first. “The mothers allowed me the day to be with you. They are concerned for your wellbeing.” The shadows that fell across his face hardened the miserable lines of his brow. “So am I.”
Discovering Harvey was alive felt like the distant cloud of a dream, though it happened only yesterday. Every memory prior to that was disjointed and out of place, as though her life up to that point was something she had witnessed as an outsider. All of her thoughts and feelings belonged to some stranger called Isabella Asan, former daughter of the Children of Danguin, once dutiful Omdrella to her father, and truest friend to Harvey Frank, up until the very moment she died calling after him, hoping to stop him from entering the blackness to save her. It was strange, then, that the memory of the littlest mother turning to leave her in that cold cell of a room, lying on a mouldering reed mat floor, waiting to be devoured by Moag, was so clear. Despite what Harvey said, Isabella was perfectly aware the Felimi were not concerned with her wellbeing.
“Come. Let me see you,” she said, her arm trembling as she held it out to him.
Harvey started toward her, but as he came closer, a swell of grief wrung the air out of the room, each step he took twisting at her soul, drawing another memory into sharper focus. She had not just seen Harvey entering Moag. In the great black chasm, she sped toward him as he stood, arms outstretched in painless release, his soul, an indigo shade commingling with the deepening darkness that surrounded them, spiraling away into nonexistence, at once becoming nothing and everything, ceasing, never having been, never to be, yet becoming all, for all of time. Just like her—or most of her. And in the span of a heartbeat she was upon him, the two of them tumbling out into the tunnel where Felimi and Mdrai waited.
Isabella cried out, clutching at her eyes and ears as the light in the room brightened a thousand fold, blinding her, searing the image of Harvey’s destruction in her mind. The sound of his breath, as he knelt at her side, pierced through every fiber of her being, filling her brain with the maddening shriek of eagles.
“No! No!” she cried, as Harvey pulled her hands from her face where she could feel the sting of the claw marks her fingers left behind already beginning to ooze with blood.
“Issa, stop!” Harvey said, taking hold of her wrists, shaking her angrily. “Issa, please!”
As though on command, the light dimmed and the piercing cries faded like the resonance of a bell, until there was nothing left but the sound of rain and Harvey’s quickened breath. His hands, holding tightly to her arms, were hotter than she remembered, somehow heavier than before—definitely alive and well, and not surrendered for all eternity to the Eater of Souls. But his weary eyes were filled with a somberness she had never known in them before, along with a certain passion that did not belong within their mountain.
Isabella swallowed, unable to help but wonder if this was Moag, looking out at her, calculating the distance between them, so it might finish what it started.
As she trembled, Harvey shook her again, for good measure, then let her go, whispering, “I will tend your cuts.”
Isabella nodded, and he stood, growling as he got to his feet. He hurried to the cupboard and brought back a bowl of ointment, already made, and squatted down beside her, speaking softly as he wiped the salve over the shallow scratches on her cheeks, “You will take morning meal, then we will get you cleaned up, and we can sit outside for a time. The rain will end soon, but the air is cool and fresh. It will help.”
“I cannot go outside, Harvey,” she answered, watching him curiously, wondering if he saw some stranger in her as well, some flashing remnant of the wanderer clinging to the edges of her, perhaps, or the shadow of Moag, wondering how he had broken free.
“You cannot stay locked up in here forever.” He lent her a weary smile, his brow still raised, eyes filled with concern over what he had just witnessed. “What would you like to eat? I cannot promise it will be good as what your mother would make, but I am here all day and will do my best for you.”
“I am not hungry, Harvey,” Isabella said, suddenly ashamed of herself for her outburst.
He set the bowl aside, his scowl returning. “You plan to starve yourself, since the Mardraim would not take you back to Moag?”
“I do not plan to do anything, and I do not see how you can, after all that has happened.”
“All that has happened? Issa, all I am asking is that you eat,” he implored, getting to his feet.
“Then I will eat whatever you make,” she sighed as she lay back against her pillow, knowing she would not, but hoping to appease him all the same.
Rolling his eyes, Harvey held out his hand to her. This was her old Harvey, she thought as he gave his hand an insistent shake, his voice deepening as he spoke, “Take my hand, and get up from this floor, Issa. I will help you to the table. You will eat.”
“Take my hand now,” he smiled painfully, the smile not much different than the one she had seen every day growing up in the mountain, except that there was nothing to restrain it anymore, no rules, no boundaries, no mantras or lashes. “Do it for me, if not for yourself.”
Certain he would not give in, Isabella took his hand, allowing him to pull her up from the ground, but as she stood, she let go and took her time crossing the room with unsteady gait, leaning on Harvey for support as necessary, to keep her upright when she faltered. With each step she winced, the grain of the floor buzzing with a surreal, anomalous hum against her feet. When they reached the table again, Harvey held her by the arms, lowering her gently into the chair where the cold wood pricked against the backs of her thighs through her gown.
The last time they had been at the table together, Isabella thought as Harvey headed once more for the cupboard, he was the one sitting in the chair while she nursed the lacerations on his back, carved out by the mothers’ whip. That was why the ointment was already made, she thought, looking back at the bowl left by her bed mat. The Felimi had given him four lashes, but she could not remember why, or why she had not been beaten as well, when she was certain she deserved it. Though the memory was not clear, she easily recalled her guilt as Harvey bled.
It was disconcerting that her memories kept slipping away, ebbing and flowing as though they rode an unpredictable tide. As Harvey returned to the table with a bowl of fresh ghain, fig and pine nuts, she bit the inside of her cheek and tried to force another smile, but she was beginning to worry. She watched him cutting the figs into quarters, wishing desperately to set her worries aside, to be grateful they were both there for that moment, for whatever reason, even with everything they had been through. Harvey must have felt as out of sorts than she did, she reasoned, and of course it was fitting that he was better at hiding it, always stronger, always more capable, and after all, her mind was clearly not all present. Neither of them needed to talk of Moag or to think on the certainty of their departure from this life or the circumstances of their salvation, if indeed they had been saved and were not some strange phantoms themselves, loitering where they no longer belonged.
“I asked if you want ginger tea or water,” Harvey said, eyes heavy upon her as he finished preparing the figs and moved the bowl in front of her.
“I—” she began, but the look in his eyes caught her off guard, stopping her short. Were his eyes not different? They had always known the deepest parts of her, but they looked at her now as a stranger would, with such questions. She quickly glanced around the room, to make certain no one else was hidden there, listening in, and when she was certain they were quite alone, Isabella whispered, “Who are you, Harvey?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you remember?”
“Remember what, Issa?” Harvey knelt down at her side again, resting a hand on her arm, as he watched her seriously.
His fingers felt like lead weights against her flesh, so she pulled her arm away, careful not to allow her voice to carry as she replied, “What happened in Moag, Harvey?” He must know how much he had changed. He must feel it.
“Issa, I told you yesterday, I remember nothing,” he answered, raising the backs of his fingers to her cheek for a moment before letting them fall, to sweep the hair from her neck, leaving his weighty hand to rest on her collar. She shrugged it away, knowing her Harvey would never act this way. This was not Harvey. This was Moag, she thought as he continued, looking dejected as he let the offending hand clutch the edge of the table, “They say I was hardly there for more than a moment before Ohamet brought me out again.”
“You were there forever, Harvey,” she insisted. “I saw the light of your soul siphoned from your body by the darkness. I saw you unfurled into the nothingness of Moag. You must remember something!”
For a long moment, he watched her, the silence growing up between them, spreading roots and sending up shoots until it was a mighty forest separating them, and Harvey looked quite afraid as tears filled his eyes. “You cannot speak this way, Issa,” he whispered so quietly, so tenderly, so not like himself. “You did not see this. Please, you cannot speak this way anymore.”
“I did see it, though,” she practically shouted, then raised her trembling hands to her mouth, ducking her shoulders as she laughed, crouching to regain some control, only to whisper, “You cannot tell me what I did or did not see because you are not you, and I am not me, so do not look at me now like you are Harvey Frank, when you were only looking at me like you are not a moment ago.”
Harvey swallowed, grief skewing his face as he raised a hand to cup her cheek, but stopping a few inches away, shaking his head, allowing his arm to fall limp by his side as he sighed. “Issa, I am myself. I am not dead, and you could not have seen my death, no matter what you believe you saw,” he insisted, a marked sympathy in his voice. In truth, he looked at her like her her mind was broken beyond repair, and for a moment she wondered if it was. After all, they all looked at her this way—the Mardraim, her Omdra, even her gentle, patient aftima. She had not lost her mind though; she simply knew too much for one mind to grasp, just as she told them. This was why she had to go back to Moag.
But before she could tell Harvey this, he continued softly, carefully, “While I was within Moag, you were in the tunnel with the Felimi and Mdrai.” The tears that filled his eyes finally overflowed, and his voice wavered. “When Ohamet brought me out again, you were still there, lying on the ground, exactly where I left you. You were dead, Issa, not me, and the wanderer brought you back to life, just as you brought him back.”
“That is what happened after, but I was there in Moag with you as well. Harvey! You have to believe me! I saw you there!” she rejoined, undeterred by the wet streams that now ran freely down his cheeks. “You must have seen or heard something. Think hard! Maybe you know why we are here. Can you tell me what I am supposed to do? I do not remember why I was brought back. All I remember is that the wanderer lives! Schripat. Echteri amu schripat. Echteri amu schripat.”
Isabella took up his hands, pulled them into her lap, squeezing them with what little strength she could muster. They were so different, so much denser. How could he not realize? “Time has changed,” she hissed. “It is not moment by moment anymore, but everything happening at once. A second lasts an eternity. A thousand years is no more than a minute. The wanderer relived all of his past in Moag, terrible memories of his father, such passions you and I have never known in the safety our mountain, until now. I see them in your eyes. I know you see them in mine as well.” He briefly looked away, and she saw his jaw pulse. “His memories were so large, Harvey, I could barely comprehend them, full of time and distance and every sensation you can imagine, yet his experience of them was incredibly brief. You must have seen something! Please, just tell me, so I can understand. If you fear the Felimi, do not worry! I will tell no one. No one would listen to me anyway.”
Harvey shook his head, tears still freely falling, staining his shirt. For a long while he said nothing, but only rubbed his thumbs across the backs of her hands, causing her skin to rise up in angry welts. When he finally spoke, it was with such tenderness she could barely fathom. “Did the wanderer come again, to speak with you after I left yesterday? He was told to stay away from you. The Mardraim will not have him around you without escort, and the Felimi will not accept him wandering unaccompanied in our home. Ohamet is still dangerous, Issa. You must know that.”
“He is no more dangerous than you or I.”
“I will change everything, and so will you,” Isabella demanded, her voice harsh now, cold. “I was there, in Moag, Harvey. I saw you stretched out into nothing until you were everything! One day, the strangers inside us will meet! They will collide and come crashing out of the darkness! They will have no choice!” But with every word she spoke, her heart stormed harder in her chest, as though it were a fist beating against the door back to Moag, and with each beat the bile rose in her throat as her certainty dwindled, and she was forced to think hard to recall even the words she had just spoken, as the memories drifted in and out, out of time.
Swiftly as though washed away by rise and fall of the waters of the wellspring of Fate, the thought of Harvey as anything more than the man before her, her greatest friend, was gone. In fact, all she could remember of him now was him as he stood there, tears filling his eyes that looked on her with such regret and remorse and tenderness, as though he had lost her and did not know where to turn to find her. Isabella could not even recall what she knew of the wanderer, though it was not as though her memories had been entirely erased, there were just holes in her mind where her thoughts used to be, gaping holes filled with a nothingness, as vast as Moag itself.
As for Moag, all she recalled was the horrendous black that surrounded her. There was so much darkness there, so much it seemed impossible that it could be contained by a hundred of their mountains, let alone one. Yet a grain of it, no bigger than a grain of salt, was enough to swallow up the whole of the universe.
Harvey watched her carefully, pity marking his brow as Isabella’s excitement fell, until he was looking on her with a knowing sympathy that made her insides burn. “Issa…” he whispered, shaking his head again.
Why could she not remember? The idea was just there, a moment before, she knew, but even the moment itself seemed stricken from her head as her throat tightened, and it became hard to breathe, as she tried to reconcile now with the last thing she remembered—the taste of Noel Loveridge’s blood in her mouth, and the look in his eyes as he caught sight of himself reflected in the mirror behind the barkeeper, who nodded understanding as he turned to pour Noel his drink. “You cannot be here,” she hissed insecurely, shuddering as she tried to hold onto even that simple thought, though she knew it was not her own. “Harvey, you… You…” Her heart thundered so fast she thought it was bound to explode. Her whole body shook with fear and a tremendous cold that touched every cell of her.
“Issa, I am here, and so are you,” Harvey quietly spoke as he stood, still holding onto her hands. “I do not know what, if anything, happened to me in Moag, but I am at peace this moment knowing I am here with you, now, and I want, more than anything, for you to find peace again, here with me.”
The words stirred the remnant of something deep in her soul, but she could not think past the gaping hole in her mind to know why, so she nodded, even though the fear that engulfed her caused her teeth to chatter painfully. What if she was insane? What if every thought and feeling she had was a lie, and everyone would always look at her like Harvey did now? What if she was still stuck in Moag, and none of this was real? Not the fear. Not the sense she was losing her mind. Not the empty space that sat just behind her forehead, almost palpable, like a lump of void she might simply cut out if she could only find a blade sharp enough. “I-I am sorry, Harvey,” she stammered, the violent burn of self-doubt creeping over her flesh as she began to weep openly.
“It is all right, Issa,” he reassured her, lifting her chin as it fell. “It is all right now. You must try not to talk this way anymore. You must try to carry on as though none of this happened. You must try to regain what you can of your life. It will be difficult, but you must try, or you will never be allowed your freedom, and I need you now, more than I have ever needed you. Will you try for me?”
Frightened, she nodded as he smiled, squeezing her fingers gently before letting them go. “Now you must eat something. You are under-nourished and dehydrated.” He nudged her bowl toward her. “I will make you ginger tea. Will that do?”
“Ginger tea,” she hissed, her voice weak as Harvey turned away and took up the kettle, the idea that she truly must be mad causing her to question even such an insignificant decision. At least she still had the wanderer, she thought, her gaze returning to the window as she rubbed at the numbness in her fingertips.
It had stopped raining. The leaves were still, the air clean, the sky just beginning to brighten as the clouds dissipated. In the distance, she felt only the wanderer, just entering the tunnels that led to the outside world, back to his friends, back to his home, to places and people Isabella, too, had known on some strange plane it seemed she could only access in the fleeting moments when clarity came. Noel would not leave now, she knew, though he desperately wanted to fly away to his home that very moment. He had too much left to do, too much to learn, and he had yet to find the answers he sought, answers he had sworn by his very lifeblood to find. But one day soon, she was certain, he would slip away into the darkness, never to return.
Unless she was insane, her mind broken beyond repair.
“Curious,” she whispered. “Where are you going then?”
“I am not going anywhere, Issa,” Harvey answered softly, returning to her side after having put on the kettle, bending down to press his lips to the top of her head. She had forgotten he was there. “I am right here. I will always be right here.”