This is going to be one of those stories that will take a bit to tell. So what we have today is the first installment. There is more ahead.
In the Cottage
She hadn’t waited till morning, instead she left in the night long after the house had fallen to slumber. In the wee hours before dawn she had never thought the woods could be so dark and empty, empty of everything but her labored breathing and the thump of her feet as she ran the path that would take her through the woods.
She was lost, lost and alone. She had never come this far into the woods. But the legends said she would find them, deep in the woods where her steps were unknown. So far all she had found were trees and more trees. Their skeletal branches scratched against the star-lit sky as her feet crunched the late winter snow.
Jardan pulled her coat tight against her body, though it did little to stop the chill air. The leather envelope she had stowed inside had slipped down. She caught it before it fell out the bottom of her coat and to the ground. She secured it and set out once more.
A fool’s errand, the marker of the black skull only existed in local legend but she had tried everything else. She was desperate. She was alone. She had acquired the tribute at a high price, her mother would have said too high a price. But she paid it, what’s done is done.
Her mother had paid a price once. The ring with a square cut diamond surrounded by three emeralds had been the most expensive piece of jewelry she owned. Jardan had seen it in pictures, from the time before she was born. Her mother wouldn’t talk about it, changed the subject whenever she brought it up. After a while she didn’t ask, though the pictures nagged at her. She had taken the story to her grave.
She jumped nearly out of her skin when the shadow stepped out of a moonbeam through the trees. It was a black mass outlined in the moon’s light, stuck in the middle of her forest path. And it didn’t look like it would move at her approach. It shambled toward her but stopped at the edge of the moon’s light.
“Good ‘morrow.” The voice scratched the air like a chill north wind.
Jardan’s breath caught in her throat. Lady Shelton’s cane bit into the forest dirt with a loud thunk, as she edged closer.
“What’s this? No words for an old woman lost in the woods in the middle of the night?” Thunk of the cane, then scrape, scrape as her feet brushed the ground. “Besides it’s late. You should be home, tucked in your bed.”
“Yeah…” She didn’t know what to say. The woman inched closer, inched closer. She stepped from the path, into the first line of trees. “Maybe another time.”
She thought she had been out of reach, kept a distance from the woman on the path, but the next thunk came from her shoulder as the cane had stretched out and caught her.
The old woman swung again and connected with the base of Jardan’s skull. The force of the blow knocked her to the ground. The next strike hit her in the abdomen and knocked the wind from her lungs.
“Ignoring an old woman and running from your duties,” Lady Shelton said. “I’ll have none of it.”
She grabbed the collar of Jardan’s tunic and drug her back through the woods, back the way she had come. “Your father will not be pleased, not pleased one bit.”
Jardan went limp, resistance would be met with an even tighter grip, nails dug deeper into her skin. A lesson from her mother, another opportunity would come. After a time, Lady Shelton released her grip, though she pressed her to lead the way through the forest. The woman’s cane smacked her shoulder’s to guide their path. Under the grey light of dawn, they had found their way home again.
“Just in time,” Lady Shelton said. “Your father will be expecting his breakfast.” With that, she shoved Jardan toward the wood pile and then continued through the front door of the cottage.
She tripped over some loose branches and caught herself on the stacked wood. Jardan picked herself up and dusted herself off. In the process she felt the package still in her coat, reassured that it had gone unnoticed by the old woman.
As much as she wanted to run again, she could feel Lady Shelton’s eyes on her. The woman watched her through the cottage window. It was a fight, the urge to look back at her, the urge to curse at her from the wood pile. It would be another offense that Jardan would pay for later. Lady Shelton exacted the tolls with precision.
She had set the armload of wood beside the pot belly stove in the kitchen. Though it wasn’t large, just big enough for a couple cook pots, it was the heat for the small cottage. With practiced ease she had lit a fire and placed a pot of water on the top next to an old iron skillet. Four eggs to the pot of water to boil as the water heated for her father’s coffee, jerked meat with potatoes in the skillet; she prepared the same breakfast in the winter months, at least until the root vegetables were gone.
No sounds came from her father’s room, though she knew he would awaken. The smell of breakfast pulled him from his bed in the morning. He would stumble to the table in his underclothes and tap a knife against his plate in anticipation.
Lady Shelton would remain in her room until later. But her presence filled the air of the cottage anyway. She had an energy about her that grew stronger, the further Jardan’s father slipped away. Her father had become little more than a child, at least in mind.
She cracked and peeled the eggs while the water soaked the coffee grounds. Her father finally stumbled from his room and crawled along the floor. His movements slow and methodic, deep thought to move a hand and then a leg, and then a hand again, but still he made his way to the table and climbed up into his seat. She set the plate in front of him and then sat down across from him with a plate of her own. He stabbed at an egg with his knife, intent to chop it to bits before he turned to the next one. Through it all he didn’t acknowledge her, never looked at her.
Jardan pushed a few potatoes around her plate as she watched her father. Lady Shelton cleared her throat from behind her. Jardan’s father turned his attention from the eggs to her, a smile tore at his lips. She glided to the chair to the side of Jardan and her father.
In the light of day, the woman had changed. Though Jardan still felt the effects of the night’s run and subsequent return to the cottage, not a trace of the night could be seen on Lady Shelton. Flushed with life, her face had a glow. In the day’s light her hair smoothed to a softer, lighter blond. The gray that Jardan saw the night before was gone as well as the age in her voice.
“Good morning,” Lady Shelton said. “No, don’t get up. I have no desire for breakfast this morning.” She placed an icy cold hand on Jardan’s wrist. The skin where the woman had touched Jardan still puckered in goose flesh when she pulled her hand away.
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