Your nightly reading has arrived! This chapter gets to me everytime a read it. Waterworks galore. Read it and weep ... or cringe ... or laugh--if you're into that kind of thing.
Outside the cottage, Dacian takes my arm by the crook of my elbow and leads me through the woods.
I keep my head lowered and my eyes on the dark ground. We follow a narrow path. The glow of dusk turns the shrubbery we pass to a vibrant green. The beauty of the woods at sunset and sunrise used to take my breath away. Now, I fear I'll never view them in the same way.
The further we walk, the quicker my heart beats. With each step, my muscles wind tighter and the hold I have on my nerves slips.
As if Dacian feels my tension, he says, "Remember who you are doing this for. Your family. Your freedom. Do as she says without question. Follow the rules, and all will go well."
Like a mantra, I repeat the rules in my head.
Do not look at her.
Do not speak.
Follow her instruction.
Do not run away in fear.
The last one I add myself.
Sloshing sounds ahead. Is the river that close? Tremors jolt through me.
Dacian leans toward my ear. His breath flutters my hair. His hands slide up and down my forearms, warming the chill from my skin. "I must leave you now, but I won't be far away. I'll rejoin you as soon as you're on the path of deliverance."
"The path of the one Fated to Die," Dacian explains. "The clothing will lead you where you need to go."
We stop at the edge of the woods. Moss-covered rocks and pebbles meet my slippered-feet. I can't see the river, but I know it's only steps away by the mineral scent in the air and the sound of the moving current.
More sloshing sounds. It's loud, close. Is it her, washing the clothes, or wading to me? I shiver. Blessed Ones, watch over me.
"Be brave," Dacian says. His hand slips from my arms, and his steps crunch the ground as he walks away.
I cling to his words. Be brave. Mother used to say I was brave. Could she have known this would be my fate, or was she just complimenting me the way she often did? Regardless, the memory offers a sense of peace. I hold onto it, imagining her by my side. "Come closer," a female says.
Her voice is mature with a regal air, nothing like the monstrous sound I expected to hear. The urge to see what she looks like builds inside me. I bow my head lower.
It's darker now. I can barely see in front of me. My slippers sink into mushy dirt and the hem of my white dress darkens with the mud. At the edge of the river, I stop and wait for more instructions.
The water looks as black as night. It ripples in my direction, and my mind conjures a different color, blood red.
A putrid scent taints the air. My stomach pitches and I fight the urge to gag.
I lift my hand to cover my nose before realizing my action and forcing it back to my side. Please don't let me have broken a rule.
My eyes and throat burn. Breathing becomes painful. Each inhale draws bile up my throat.
The water swills and ripples in my direction. Dizziness joins my churning stomach. It's a struggle to stay upright. How much longer before I pass out or get sick?
The air grows frigid and thick as if it's turning to ice. My body quivers with such force I fear my bones will shatter. More swilling. Are those flecks of snow floating on the surface? I want to hug myself, to curl up in a ball in the mud and try to get warm. How is it so cold?
I draw in a sharp breath. It's like inhaling frost. A new scent fills the air, a floral one I recognize. Mother taught me about all the flowers in the gardens. The fragrance is strong and sweet. It belongs to hyacinths. The flower is used in the village when burying the dead.
The air grows warmer, and my muscles relax from their shivering state.
"Reach out your hand, child," the Washer Woman says, agony ringing in her tone. "Take the garment and deliver it to its owner. Do as you are told and you shall be free come the seventh day."
Squeezing my eyes closed, I lift a shaky arm and reach for the garment, even though I want nothing to do with it.
Wet material touches my hand. I almost jerk away and have to force my fingers to grip the clothing. What is it? A dress? Shirt? Pants? Is it bloody? Am I touching blood?
I fight a shriek and keep my arm extended, not wanting the garment close to me. The material suddenly tugs, lurching me to the side. It jerks again, whirling me toward the woods, I think. I stumble and risk opening my eyes a tiny bit. Fear has me slamming them shut. Will it count as breaking a rule? I didn't see anything.
The garment draws me forward until crunching sounds under my shoes. I'm in the woods. Does that mean I can look where I’m going?
When I stumble again, almost going down, I decide it's safe to stare at my feet. I should be far enough away from the river, from her.
The garment pulls me forward so fast I can barely keep up. Where's Dacian? He said he wouldn't be far. I want to look for him, to cry out his name. I'm unsure of what to do next, of what I can or can't do. The rules for this part haven't been said, and I’m scared. What if the garment takes me to someone I know? Someone I care about? What if it takes me to my house? Will I be able to deliver the it then?
Absolutely not. If it is between me becoming a slave or someone I love dying, I will break every rule necessary to keep them safe.
"Slow down," Dacian calls out from behind me.
"You can. You're strong and brave. Calm yourself. Take control." His calm, confident tone grounds me like an anchor.
I draw in a breath and another, easing the bounding of my heart. My steps slow and the garment begins guiding me rather than wrenching me along.
"See?" Dacian says, drawing closer. "By controlling your emotions, your fears, you control the task."
"I wish I could look where I’m going."
"You can." He appears at my side, mist swirling his boots.
Right. Outside he's cloaked. Inside he's not. I lift my head and focus on the trees, not the garment in my hand. Seeing what it is, whose it could be, will make this harder. Like a cut or bruise that doesn't hurt that much until you glimpse how bad it is and the pain is suddenly worse.
The woods are dark. I can barely see where the clothing is leading me. Is it glinting? My gaze darts there before I can stop it. No! Copper light outlines a blouse. The victim is a woman.
The night of my mother's claiming breaks free in my mind. The heartache of her loss. The fear and regret. I shove it back, knowing I can't do this with that nightmare circling my thoughts.
Doing what I do best, I harden myself against my emotions and imagine I’m made of stone. For once, the nickname Stone Beauty will serve me well.
"How are you doing?" Dacian asks, making me aware of our faster pace.
Oh no. I focus on slowing my breathing and therefore slowing my steps. "I'm fine."
I glance at him with a double take. I'd forgotten about the mist.
Tall, dark, and swift, he moves through the woods like a creature of the night, graceful and agile as if he can see in the dark.
Maybe he can.
I stumble out of the trees and onto the bridge that leads to the village. I knew I'd end up here, but seeing it makes it that more real.
Fear chills my skin. I shudder.
The garment tugs me toward the quiet village. The only sound comes from the patter of my slippers on the cobblestone. The street lamps burn low, giving the village a haunted look. All the windows on all the tightly packed homes are closed, as if that will keep the curse out. It won't. I know because my arm aches from being extended, and although my steps have grown sloppy, the blouse hasn't eased one bit. It has a destination and won't stop until it's with its owner. Victim.
The garment swings right and drags me forward for a few blocks. I've never seen the village so empty of life, but then I've never visited it during the week she comes. I'd only heard about how families lock themselves inside their homes, too afraid to go outside.
My arm jerks to the right again. Four blocks this time.
"I'm tired, Dacian," I whisper.
Immediately, I feel bad. Someone is about to die, and I'm complaining about being tired.
"It's almost done. You're doing quite well. If you keep it up, things should go smoothly."
Before I can ask what he means, the blouse veers left and stops in front of a blue door. There’s only one royal blue door in town, and I know who waits on the other side.
I try to step back, but my feet feel glued to the front step.
"No." I shake my head. "I can't do this."
I glance behind me to see if Dacian is still here. He is.
"I know her."
He shushes me. "You are not to speak. Not even to me. Not in this moment."
His tone is urgent in a way that frightens me more.
I stare at the door, the brass knocker at my eye level, unsure of what to do. The rules didn't cover this part.
"Open." The voice that called to me at the ceremony slithers through the air.
The doorknob twists on its own.
A male inside shouts, "Don't open it." His deep voice grates with horror.
The door cracks open.
"I'll always love you." Mrs. Potterfield say over her shoulder, her voice the sweetest sound. The scent of sugar wafts from her reminding me of the bakery she owns.
It's the only shop in town that allows me to enter despite my anomalies. Mrs. Potterfield adored my mother and therefore adores me. She knows my sisters favorite treat, raspberry buns, and that I get two for them during the last week of every month.
Her sad blue eyes meet mine, the crinkles around them deepening. Her round cheeks, no longer puffed with a smile, sag with a frown.
My heart clenches. No! Not her! Not the kindest woman in the village. I won't do it. Tears flood my eyes as I try to jerk my arm away. To move my legs. Nothing works. The shirt is like a magnet pointed at its match, and I’m not strong enough to stop it.
"It's all right, dear." Mrs. Potterfield steps toward the garment. "It's not your fault." She lifts a shaky hand.
"No!" Her husband lurches forward and embraces his little round wife. "She's all I have left. Please, don't take her from me."
His plea sends me over the edge, that and the forgiveness in her eyes.
A scream wrenches from me as I use all my strength to throw myself backward. Nothing. I don't even budge.
"No!" I sob, hating myself, hating my weakness, hating this horrid curse. "Please no." I don't know who I’m crying to. The Blessed Ones. The curse. Dacian, hoping he can help me save her.
My knees shake. I wish they'd give out. No matter how hard I try to push away, to move my arm, to turn around, nothing works.
I twist my head, the only part of me able to move, and search for Dacian, desperate for his help. He's gone. Where? Why?
"It'll be all right, my love." Mrs. Potterfield's voice jerks my head back to her. She cups her husband's cheek and kisses him. "This is how it has to be. For now. We'll meet again someday." She glances at the stars and manages a small smile.
I don't miss the deep swallow in her throat.
Mr. Potterfield shakes his head, tears sliding down his red cheeks. "If you go, I'll follow you. I can't live without you. I won't."
More sobs rip from me, choking my throat and stealing my breath. Is this how Father reacted the night Mother was taken? Is this how he felt? Helpless. Powerless. No wonder he never recovered from her loss.
If ever I wanted to destroy the Washer Woman, it's now. If I had an ax, I’d swing at her the next time we meet. I’d slice her in half and not even blink. I hate her. I hate Princess Bretta for what she did. I hate the Mystic. I hate them all!
Fingernails dig into my palm as I tighten the hold I have on the shirt. If I don’t let go, maybe she'll live. Again, I try to wrench myself down the step, away from the door, from sweet Mrs. Potterfield.
Without breaking eye contact with her husband, Mrs. Potterfield reaches for the blouse. He doesn't seem to notice she's doing it, too busy planting kisses on her cheeks, and forehead.
I open my mouth to warn him, but no sound comes out, like my vocal chords are frozen now too.
Her fingers touch the copper glinting shirt and she disappears. There's no sound. No coppery dust. No whoosh of air. Nothing, as if she and the shirt were never here.
Her husband stays bent over, kissing the air before realizing his wife is gone from his arms. His gaze slides to me. Aguish flashes in his eyes, then his skin reddens as rage sets over his face.
I stumble back, surprised I can move.
"You!" He points at me as he stalks down the step. "I will never forgive you. Never!"
I flinch and trip, falling onto my tailbone. "I'm s-sorry," I cry. "I didn't want her to die. I loved her. I never would have—"
"Silence!" Dacian appears in a whirl of mist.
Mr. Potterfield jumps back into his house, his features wide with fear. He slams his door.
A second later, pain stabs my skin like a thousand shards of ice. I scream and collapse onto the cobblestone road.
"I told you not to speak," Dacian scolds. He shoves his hands under my back and knees.
The pain grows stronger, like the shards of ice are penetrating my bones. My muscles clamp tighter. My blood burns like it's freezing in my veins. Violent tremors wrack my body.
A whimper escapes my chattering teeth.
Help me. Help me.
"Hang on." Dacian's voice breaks through the haze of pain. "We're almost there."
The coldness reaches my head, tightening around it like an icy crown.
Too much. It's too much.