Another day, another chapter! If you're new to the site, I'm doing 12 Days of Giving of my latest novel, FATED TO DIE. Please refer to the past two posts for previous chapters.
Hope the holidays are keeping you merry!
Pinterest page for story https://www.pinterest.com/taragallina/fated-to-die/
The fog doesn't squash me. Eventually, I feel the ground under my feet, and my own weight on my legs. Was I traveling and does this mean I've arrived?
Time has passed, though I don't know how much. Minutes? An hour? It feels longer, but I've too much fear in me to know for sure.
I haven't moved, afraid of what will happen if I do. Now that I'm on my feet, perhaps I should. Before I do, I listen for sounds of another person or my whereabouts. The woods?
Nothing. Now I'm becoming irritated. What kind of big, bad death-bearer greets her Messenger—slave—like this?
Out of curiosity, I raise my hand. It penetrates the mist as easily as if I were walking through fog. Even though I have no idea which direction I'm facing or how far I was dragged from the bridge, I step forward.
Hmph. I do it again and am about to run when something squeezes my arm. The touch is solid, nothing like the chilling embrace of fog before. To my surprise, a male’s black-sleeved arm stretches through the mist, his gloved hand clutching me tight.
"Excuse me, sir?" I try to jerk my arm free. "You're hurting me."
The person hidden within the mist doesn't release me or even soften his grip.
"Hello?" I turn toward him, lessening the strain on my arm. "Can you not hear me, or do you want to hurt me?" For a moment, I consider he might be helping me—freeing me from the fog.
When he doesn't respond, I take measures into my own hands and try to pry his fingers from my arm. When that doesn't work, I flatten my hand and chop at his wrist to break his hold.
The arm yanks back into the fog, and a groan sounds—a human groan that's too deep to be female.
Confusion drowns my fear. Who did I just hurt, and if the person is human, should I run or confront them? It may be a brave soul from the village here to help.
Before I can make up my mind, the person's arm reappears through the mist, hooks my waist, and tugs me to him.
My head snaps back, and my body crushes against a tall, hard figure barely visible in the haze.
"Who-Who are you?" I ask, slight of breath. His build and height are similar to Tristin's and other boys in the village. Does that mean he's around their age—my age? I peer up at him, trying to study his face through the mist with no luck.
His head tilts down as if he's doing the same to me. A moment later, he releases his hold and jumps back as if I burned him—or perhaps, he realized his inappropriate handling of me.
The fog hugs his body like a protective barrier, obscuring everything about him from my view except for his darker clothing where the fog has a muddier tint. He lifts his hand and points to my skirt.
The sheer material is wrinkled, and the hem is snagged, folded up by my knee. Quickly, I smooth it down so that it hangs nicely over the satin underlay. Long curls hang over my shoulders. At some point, I must have lost my braid. I sweep my hair back and straighten, trying not to appear afraid.
Again, I ask, "Who are you?"
Silent, he holds out his hand for me to take.
I step back.
His head tilts at a sharp angle the way Father's does when the twins disobey him. He snaps his hand out again. His message clear—take it or else.
Still, I don't. I can't. "Who are you?" My voice cracks a little.
His chest expands with what appears to be a deep breath. "Why do you purposefully defy the rules?"
Oh, my. I didn't expect his voice to be so eloquent given his tall, ominous presence. It's young sounding too, not haggard like Father's, confirming my suspicion about his age.
"Now you choose to be quiet?" he remarks.
I open my mouth to answer, but another question comes out. "Is that always around you?" I gesture to the fog and reach for the cloud around his arm. My fingers pass through moist haze, and I touch his sleeve.
He jerks his arm away. "Are you not afraid?"
I shiver and draw back my hand. "Yes. I am. I suppose. I'm trembling a little. But I'm curious too. I didn't expect you. I expected her."
"My mother doesn't greet Messengers. I’m in charge until she summons for them."
"She has a son?" I gasp. "How?"
He tilts his head in that sharp way again.
"I mean no disrespect, I'm just confused. No one speaks of your existence or of the Washer Woman having a son. I didn't know it was possible." Is it, or is this a form of trickery by the curse? We know so little about what happens to Messengers since no maiden has ever returned home to tell their tale.
He inhales another chest-expanding breath. "Shall I remind you of the rules?"
"You're angry with me." I take another step back.
"And you are out of chances. Understand the next rule you break will have a consequence beyond my control."
I try my hardest to recall the rules Mother told me when I was thirteen. At the time, the fear of the Washer Woman overwhelmed my brain, leaving little room for the rules. Mother and I rarely spoke of the curse after that day, and then she died….
"Um … I might need a refresher course—if you don't mind," I say. Razor sharp pain shoots up my spine as if I've been hit with an ax blade. My knees buckle, and I crumble to the ground.
"I warned you," the boy says, moving closer to me.
The burner sensation grows stronger, like hot needles digging into my skin. My muscles clench and my back arches with the pain. I force myself into a ball, hoping to ease the burn in my spine and murmur, "Help. Please. Help me."
"Try to breathe through the pain. It should be gone in a moment."
I work to slow my breathing. The burning starts to fade. When it's gone, my body goes limp with a relieved exhale. Sweat coats my skin and my muscles twitch with fatigue, as if I'd carried buckets of water from the river to the barn all day.
"You monster," I mutter when I'm strong enough to speak. "What kind of gentlemen leaves a maiden to writhe in pain without helping her?"
He offers his mist-covered hand to me.
"Now you want to help me?" I swat him away. "Forget it. I'll help myself."
Rolling onto my side, I slowly push up to my feet, one hand going to my back for support. I shoot him a hate-filled glare. "Did you do that to me?"
"You did it to yourself. You broke a rule." His tone is calm, void of emotion.
Anger must charge my brain because a memory of the rules Mother stated breaks through. Once the Washer Woman sets the rules, you dare not break them or risk becoming her slave until the next Summer Solstice.
"Only the Washer Woman can set the rules," I state. "Since I haven't seen her yet, I haven't broken any."
"I don't know what you think this is, but it is no game. The rules were set by the curse. You abide by those rules or suffer the consequences. If one is broken to me the consequence is pain. If one is broken to my mother the consequence is far worse."
Only one girl has ever survived after being enslaved under the river. She was found in the woods on the following Summer Solstice. Slime covered her green-tinted skin, and a white film coated her eyes. She kept whimpering the same thing, "Dark, lonely, free of sins."
The village apothecary said she wouldn't survive very long. Still, the Council was determined to get answers from her. Though weak, she was able to say she'd broke the rule of looking at the Washer Woman. She said the woman appeared beautiful at first, with a slender build and long dark hair, but up close, black fish scales covered her skin. She had serpents for hair, eyes as silver as lightning, and her mouth was a black hole, ready to devour the souls of those Fated to Die. She made no mention of the Washer Woman's son.
The reality of what I am to face hits me so hard my legs shudder and grow weak. I need to be strong and survive for my family. One step at a time if necessary until I make it home to them.
Perhaps all the mockery and exclusion from the villagers was so I can face this and come out on the other side alive.
I push back my shoulders and lift my chin. "Lead the way."
At first, he doesn't respond, and I sense he might be shocked by my change of behavior. "Much better." He nods and then gestures to his left. The fog parts, revealing dark woods. An orange glow lingers around the trees. The sun has set? I've been in this fog for longer than I imagined.
With cautious steps, I exit the haze. A path appears in the woods.
"Follow it to the end," the boy says, standing close behind me.
I do as I’m told, surveying the area as I go for anything familiar. The ground turns mushy. Mud swallows my satin slippers and the coats the hem of the white dress. Moisture thickens the air and dampens my skin.
The orange glow fades from the woods, turning everything to night. Silver illuminates the path as if the moon is showing me the way. When I glance up to see if it is, the woods are lost in a sea of black. No stars twinkle above and no moon. It doesn't make sense, especially since the ground still shimmers with silver light.
The path grows longer with each step as a new portion brightens the darkness ahead. I scan the area for the lights of the village, hoping to get a sense of how far we are in the woods. Nothing appears.
The boy stays close behind me, his steps so quiet I peek over my shoulder to see if he's still there. He is, of course.
"Are you always covered in fog?" I ask, tired of the silence, tired of walking, tired period.
"Why are you covered in it now then?"
"When we are out, I am cloaked. When we are in, you are."
My steps falter. "What do you mean I'm cloaked? Not like you, I hope. My skin will shrivel and prune in all that mist."
I shuffle onward and try not to stutter when I ask, "You said 'when we are in' I'm cloaked. Where is in? The river?"
"You will soon find out."
I stop and stare up at his hazy face. "Is that part negotiable?"
His shoulders hitch and he makes a small throaty sound. I can't tell if he's in pain or laughing at me.
He straightens as if collecting himself. "You should not be speaking. Rules are rules."
"Can you at least tell me how they work? How many questions can I ask before—"
"—you're writhing in fiery pain again? Keep talking and you will find out for yourself."
I step back with a sharp gasp. "You are a cruel monster."
He stiffens. Even the mist stops swirling. "I am no monster. I am the Keeper of the Messenger. Nothing more, nothing less. I speak in truths and warnings, and I warn you again—too many questions will result in pain."
"Help me then," I plead.
He hesitates like he's considering it. The mist resumes its dance around him. I take it as a good sign, until he says, "Only speak when spoken to."
Argh! "Why are you so difficult?"
"Me?" He sounds aghast. The mist freezes and his posture turns stiff again. "You are the difficult one. Now walk." He points down the trail.
Shaking with anger, I stand there for a moment before turning and stomping off.
I keep a fast pace down the trail, my jaw locked tight to keep from going off. The darkness lightens enough for me to see woods ahead and what looks like a cottage. It's nestled between two huge tree trunks, as if they're holding it together. The thatched roof slants at an odd angle. A crooked wooden door marks the entrance. As with the path, silver light showers the cottage like shimmering mist. As we draw closer, the wooden boards on the exterior show wear and tear in holes large enough for a small varmint to fit through.
I cross my arms around myself. "What is this?"
My throat tightens. "I can't live in that." It's not even stable. The roof could cave in and crush me. The holes in the framing are hazards too, easy access for hungry animals and poisonous snakes.
"Were you expecting a palace?" His tone is mocking. "You are a slave Messenger for the Washer Woman. From this day forth, you will only get what you deserve."
Deserve? "What does that mean?"
"You will suffer greatly unless you learn to comply. I cannot make this clearer than I have already."
It's not in my nature to comply. It never has. Even now, questions fill my head and my lips twitch with the need to ask them. I shouldn't be here. I don't know how this happened.
"Go on." He gestures to the cottage door. "See your new home and let more of this reality sink in. Perhaps that will help you learn to keep quiet by the time you see her."
I swallow and harden myself against the fear and anxiety plowing through me like a storm. If ever there is a time I need to use my ability to appear indifferent and strong, it's now.
The inside of the cabin is as decrepit as the outside. Grit chafes under my slippers as I cross the wood floors to stand in the middle of the tiny room. A crumbling stone fireplace covers one wall, a torn chair and footstool nearby. Beside it, a round table holds a gold-embossed book. For a moment, it appears to glimmer.
Across from the fireplace is a small table with two chairs. Is he to dine with me?
"Where do I cook? Sleep?"
"Save your questions. I will tell you everything you need to know." The mist around him seems thinner, like it's fading.
"Will I get to see you now?" Do I want to see his true form? What if he is frightening like his mother?
"Silence," he hisses, his voice louder in the enclosed space.
I cringe, even as my breathing grows hot and fast. "You don't have to be rude."
"With you it seems I must be many things, a babysitter above all."
My bottom lip drops. "I do not need a babysitter."
The pain hits me at once. I arch, feeling as if my back has broken, and collapse onto the floor. I land hard with a smack, but it is nothing compared to the burn slicing through my spine. Tears leak from my eyes with each whimper and moan.
"Make it stop. Please, make it stop." I don't know if I'm saying or thinking the words.
A cold hand touches my forehead. The pain moves up my body toward my head like it's being drawn there. Stars dance behind my eyes as throbbing fills my brain. Then it's gone.
Weakened, I lie on the floor and wait to regain my strength. I can't do more than blink my eyes half open.
Each time I do, it looks like the boy and the mist are vibrating. Did he just moan in pain?
A few moments later, a hand slides behind my shoulders, helping me to sit up and then to my feet.
"Thank you," I utter and sway with a dizzy spell.
He steadies me. "Weakening yourself before meeting my mother will not help you. You need to be strong to face her, and, above all things, remember the rules."
My lips twitch with the need to ask questions, to know more. But how am I to get answers when I can't speak?
Argh! I stomp, releasing an ounce of frustration.
He glances at my foot. "It appears making no sound is impossible for you."
I fold my arms and mash my teeth together.
"Most Messengers are too afraid to react at all," he says, a hint of amusement in his voice. "But you are not the average Messenger, are you?" Bending, he brings his face closer to mine. "The girl with two different colored eyes will ultimately be her demise."
It's as if he's murmuring the words to himself.
With his face so close, I strain to see his features through the mist. Everything is a blur, except for his eyes that flash with silver light.
I flinch away, frightened. Those aren't the eyes of a human.
"Finally, she's afraid." He straightens slowly, his posture stiff. The mist stops swirling.
"Why are you angry?" It's out before I can't stop it. "I would think you'd be happy I'm finally afraid."
His shoulders, chest, and entire upper body puff out with a loud breath. "The time for learning is over. Now the real work begins. Pay attention to the rules, I will not say them again. Do not speak unless I ask you a direct question. Do not try to run away or leave this home unless I am with you. Do not dare look at my mother tomorrow when you meet her at dusk. Do not ask her questions, ever. Do not speak to anyone when you deliver the clothing of those Fated to Die. Do not try to contact your family or friends in any way. And when my mist fades, do not dare look at my face."
So he is a monster under that mist. My heart hammers. I don't know I've backed away from him until I bump into the small table with chairs. Furniture clangs and scrapes the wood floors. I straighten the pieces back to the way they were, the word sorry on the tip of my tongue.
"That's enough for today. For now, you must rest." He waves toward the back wall of the cottage. "You will find all you need in there." A door appears.
I gasp and stumble into the table again. The same clanging and scraping sounds. I don't straighten the furniture, my gaze stuck on the new door in the room. "Where did that come from?"
Instead of answering, he turns to leave.
"Wait!" I stumble after him.
He stops at the front door and gestures to a strange plant on a shelf I hadn't noticed when we came in. Fat yellowish-green leaves are striped with red veins that appear to be flowing. I’m not sure if it’s beautiful or creepy.
"Anything you do will get back to me." He pets the top leaves of the plant like you would a beloved animal. To me, he says, "Obey the rules, and you will be rewarded."
"Like being set free?" It just comes out. I slap a hand over my mouth and tense, praying pain doesn't slice through me.
The boy makes a disapproving sound and turns away from me. "Sleep."