A curse spreads among the people; 'blight' ravages the land. (Old Draft.)
|When Gregor and his cabal claimed the monastery on the hill, we welcomed them. When he declared that the blight, which blackened the woods and stripped the trees bare, was nothing to worry about, we believed him. When it consumed our crops and destroyed our livestock, we accepted his promises of aid. When he begged our trust and promised that he would aid us in any way we could, we trusted him.
That is what good men do.
Merrick, a member of our personal guard, walked into the empty great hall. "Milady, you are needed in the healing chamber."
I shuddered. "Very well."
He bowed and disappeared through the archway. I stepped down from my place beside the throne of my husband, Duke Drensen, and walked down the lonely red carpet into the corridor. I kept my eyes down out there, for each of the empty flower sconces appeared to bleed, like an open wound. Though I did not see it, I felt the chill as I passed the first one.
It had been a Verdant bloom, the one presented me when young Duke Drensen proposed: gorgeous with its violet leaves and deep, glistening green velvet petals. It showed a faint withering around the edge of the leaves, as if begging me to heal it. I could feel it calling me in pain, so I reached, with my fingers and spirit. As my power brushed its aura, blackness swept over it. In an instant, it had turned black, charred from within. When I pulled back, the movement shattered it. Only charcoal dust remained of it, the emblem of the blight that devoured our world.
My gift of healing had turned to poison.
Since then, every plant, flower, vine or tree I touched vanished in a cloud of blackness. Despite the deep, damp chill in the air, my husband's castle smelled clean and dry as an acre of marble—even mustiness died. The world screamed for me to do something, but nothing was the best I could do.
I shook my head in disgust. You worry too much. This is why nobody tells you anything, I told myself. It is not flowers that call you now, and the blight doesn't touch them. The thought did not soothe me, and I had to drag myself toward my dread, down lantern-lit halls, with dark tile and gray stone walls.
The darkness of the halls contrasted sharply with the polished, white stone of the healing chamber, seamless and edgeless. Even the corners were beveled. Etched in the stone at shoulder level, symbols of power and life adorned the otherwise perfect whiteness of the room. I could feel them pulse with life, like the pink light of dawn warming my shoulders, though I had never learned to tap into them. I did not need to, as the endless sunshine of the source of life never left me.
In the center, on the table, a young girl lay, clutching her stomach, a disgusted look on her face.
"Becca! What seems to be the matter?"
I nodded. Gregor's conjuration of food left much to be desired. "You have been eating the sorcerer's food?"
She grimaced, and nodded. "There's nothing in it. Can you help me?"
I nodded. "Everybody gets better." One thing I could rely on; saying it made me feel better. Even Merrick, when he had been frozen almost solid; they said he was already gone. That gave me the confidence to trust my talent. I reached out, to brush her shoulder.
The flame about her shoulders flared as I neared, and we joined, for a moment. "Mm! That's good. I've never felt so full, not since last harvest!"
I nodded and smiled. "Well, off with you, then. This is for sick people!" I slapped her on the shoulder, and she scooted off and away.
Kissla, my oldest friend and washerwoman, appeared behind me. "Milady has, maybe, another patient." A twinge of sadness cut through me, to hear her tone of voice, so full of caution, almost scared. Her daring had been almost legendary, once; greater even than Drensen's.
I looked back, to see that she carried my son, Carl, in her arms like a load of laundry. Kissla still did not look me in the eye. That was old news, and it unnerved me to see my son so still. "Well, do bring him in."
"Yes, milady." Kissla carried him by me. I reached for him as they passed me.
He did not even let me touch him. As I reached for him, he squirmed to life, and wriggled out of his tunic, like it was too big. His hair crackled with the tiny lightning that followed everywhere, and today even his shoes crackled as he ran out: he must be unusually excited about something. I was left holding his shirt. A flash of horror ran through me as I saw the black dust- a heavy coating of soot - on the inside of his shirt. The blight is taking my son? Impossible. It must be that he was playing in the garden. Still not making eye contact, Kissla and I shared an awkward moment, until I chose to break the silence.
I handed her the shirt. "I guess this is ready for you."
As she reached up for it, I spied the handle of one of the family's daggers in her shirt. With a note in her voice that, I hoped, was mockery, she said, "Then, maybe, I will wash it for you." As she did, she bowed far too deep, even for our assumed roles.
Any other day I would have worried about my poor friend, the once-wild adventurer who now felt she needed a dagger to collect clothes inside a thousand year old fortress. Right then, I had to convince myself that my son was not about to dissolve into dust like the gardens and the forests, while meanwhile, taking steps to save his life.
I knew I had to follow Carl. Surely, time remained. Carl had great power; together we would be strong enough. If your mind isn't playing tricks on you, which it is. Finding Carl, a tiny speck of lightning, in this gigantic castle would not be easy. I felt a terrible need to sound the alarm, to set the palace garrison to look for him, then I remembered the fire on his shoes. One spark would be enough to incapacitate the best men-at-arms. One did not send brave soldiers against a sorcerer, not even a seven-year old.
In the moment of planning, I had given my little stormcloud more than enough time to lose himself in the twists and turns of our home. I followed, down one corridor and up another, fretting all the while.
Bare minutes into my search, I happened upon the figure of Gregor. My bones grew cold as I looked at that pale, limp, bald man sagging against his staff. I liked him even less than the image of the black embroidered dragon that covered his chocolate brown robes. Something about him represented the blight.
"What are you doing in my home?"
"As always, searching for a way to fight this devil blight," he said, with a trace of double meaning I could not trace.
"Unsuccessfully, as always." I looked around for places that my boy could hide.
"Much as your own attempts." He wheezed, and pulled himself up on the staff. "I trust your people received the food we sent you?"
I blushed at my hinted accusations, and tried to hold the lantern steady. I did not want this man to know my fears. "We are in your debt." I had to give credit where due.
He waved the statement away. "Make no mention. It is, as they say, what good men do." He coughed and cleared his throat.
Too much of my worry came out in my voice. "If you'll excuse me, I have to find my son."
"The little lord of the manor: I trust he is well?"
"He is. I am but a worried mother."
"Guard him well, then, for much relies on him. But take note, your son is no delicate flower."
My stomach lurched. How much does he know? "I trust you can show yourself out."
"Indeed." He coughed again, and shifted on his feet. "That much, I still can do."
I proceeded onward, deeper into the shadows of our castle. I probed room after room, looking for all the places a little boy could hide. It was hard enough to find a little lightning boy in a maze like this when he wanted to be found. I told myself that I had to keep going, no matter what might be nagging in the back of my mind. I told myself that still, there would be hope, that that day, I would have my first and only victory against the blight.
I happened on Merrick. "My friend, Carl has gotten away from me. He is needed. Can you help me find him?"
Merrick bit his lip and looked away; Kissla's habit was catching. "Yes, milady."
"Be careful. Don't enlist the other guards, and use your best judgment: he's spooked. Just see if he'll wait in some room near the healing chamber." I shuddered at the thought of the bull that had cornered Carl, the year before: lightning is dangerous. If stone could burn, we might have even greater trouble. "Or find some way of sending word where he is."
"Yes, yes of course, milady. I shall see to it."
His assurances rang hollow, but I had better graces than to question his honor.
I searched into the night before despair gripped me and forced me to sit down. I had searched every little cupboard and nook, beneath every bed. I had even checked the locks on Drensen's arsenal. As I sat down and calmed myself, a notion appeared in my head. My Carl was the product of a long line of generals, wise far beyond his seven years. He knew his mother well. Carl would be hiding in the one place I would refuse to look, the site of my greatest horror: the withered ashes of my garden.
Every step on the way to my son felt wrong. I forced myself to go anyhow. "I will be there for you." My voice echoed in the shadowy, hollow corridor.
I stepped outside, into the garden. Rows of spotless white porcelain pots, thick as barrels and waist high, full of black, rich potting soil. There must have been one hundred dead, empty pots, each one an aching wound in my heart. I walked to my son, who stood in the center, by the dust-covered, marble picnic table. Since the blight, nobody wanted to be here.
"You came. I knew you would."
"I had to. You're my son."
Seven years old, but he stood proudly, like he faced some great giant warrior come to slay him. "I brought you here so you would see. You can't help me."
My throat tightened in agreement, but I forced my voice out. "Of course I can."
"No. The Hunger burns. You can't feed the Hunger. You'll only make it more eager."
I walked up to him, around the flower pot. His eyes burned with white light, and his hair crackled with electricity. It popped and crackled as I stroked it, but he survived.
"You see? You're still here. You're not like my flowers."
"That's what the bad man said. He's lying. We're just weeds; we're killing the garden."
He was referring to dreams he had been having, nightmares about dragons coming to kill the town. As if the blight weren't terrifying enough. "That's nice, my little stormcloud." I took his hand in mine, laughing as his tiny lightning tickled my fingers.
"I'm big enough to tell the difference between dreaming and seeing."
"I'm sure you think so. It's going to be okay. We'll deal with your little cold first."
I set him on the table in the healing chamber. "I know it's scary, but relax, okay?"
He sat on his shaking hands, and willed the fire in his eyes to dim. "I'll be brave."
I nodded, and smiled. I closed my eyes for an instant, to contact the source. I breathed deep, calling it into me. It was life and beauty, the rose of dawn, the spring wind in the pine forest, the abundance of a waterfall. To feel that was to want to share it, bring it into the world.
So I did. I released it into the room, sprayed the life force all about. Carl resisted, at first, his pale skin rejecting my gift. Soon, though, something inside recognized it and began to absorb it.
For one brief, delicious instant, Carl and I connected to the source. He sprung to life, the color returned to his cheeks, and I could see the blue of his eyes.
The next instant, I felt something else. Old, empty and hungry, like a dry well that drains away all moisture. I felt its tendrils reaching into me, pulling the breath from my lungs. Voices screamed, and crackling, and the smell of the wake of lightning, then, merciful blackness.
Continue the story "Section 2: Long Dark Paths"