Saturday, January 17, 2009

Evil Old Edwina

Copyright 2009 by Laura Beegle

The old woman stood on the tree-covered hill beneath a grey and turbulent sky. The clouds boiled above, reminders of the torrential rains of the previous few days and threatening to deluge the earth further.

In the distance, she could hear children laughing and a smile tugged at her mouth that she resolutely forced into a frown. This was no time for fun. She had been sent to collect the children for the evening meal and to give them a stern talking-to for wandering so far from home. After being trapped inside for days, their young, nimble legs had carried them further into the woods than they were allowed to go.

Edwina knew the spot where they were playing, having discovered it herself as a child. As she crested the rocky outcropping, she saw the valley, just as she remembered it. There was a clearing in the trees where the underbrush gave way to jumbled rock, and the river that ran through the village fell in a heavy waterfall.

She called to the children in her strongest voice, but they did not hear her. The rush of the waterfall was too close to their ears, and their hearts too eager to play. Edwina pulled in a breath to shout again, but she heard a noise that made her pause. Lower than the water's rush, lower even than thunder, a rumble was barely audible. As she listened, it grew louder and more insistent.

Something clicked in Edwina and her eyes widened with terror, even as her body had begun moving down beside the rocky slope towards the children. She screamed warnings at the children, waving her arms, and pelted towards them like a banshee. The noise was louder now and the children looked up the hill towards it, and towards her. They screamed in fear and began running towards her, but it was too late.

The water came rushing over the waterfall, and through the trees beside it, an angry brown flood of chaos. It knocked rocks and debris before it, filling the valley beside the river with astonishing speed. The children screamed and struggled against the flood as it came up to their knees in seconds. They formed a human chain, grasping on to one another and crying. They made it no more than ten steps toward safety before the water was at their waist and they could no longer fight the water's pull. Edwina screamed and reached out for them as they were swept into the liquid turmoil and out of sight.

The roar of the water filled her ears and she stared at where the children had been, unable to move. Gone, she thought, just gone. She looked down at her outstretched arm and her wrinkled old hand. Too slow, she thought. The water was inching its way up the hillside and began soaking through her boots. Briefly, she considered letting the water take her away, too.

Another snap and Edwina thought belatedly of the village. They were upstream from here. She pulled up her skirts and ran as fast as she could back towards the village. The sky continued to roll in varying shades of grey and another crash of thunder spurred her on. Her lungs burned and her legs felt weak as she broke through the final line of trees.

What she saw worked its way through her stunned brain and slowly broke her heart. The fields and hills sloped toward where the village used to be. The outlines of the larger buildings could be seen only as obstacles in the water's path, like so many pebbles in a giant's stream. The smaller building were completely gone, adding flotsam to the rushing water.

Her entire village was gone. Her home, her loved ones, everyone and everything she knew had been wiped out in an instant and she stood powerless to stop it. Edwina's steps slowed as the point of hurrying was lost. She finally stopped, just outside the water's reach as a crushing feeling pushed onto her heart and she sank to her knees. A lonely howl of agony welled up inside her, as if pushed out by the force pressing on her heart. She looked at the angry grey clouds and let it go.

Edwina had no idea how long she sat there sobbing, staring at the water and the sky. Eventually, she became aware of a soft presence beside her. The air took on a silent, soft texture, like a lambskin. The rain seemed to abate, evaporating before it could touch the aura surrounding the figure and Edwina.

The figure leaned down to whisper in Edwina's ear. The air seemed to warm as he did so. "You could have prevented this, you know," he said, matter-of-factly. Anguish clutched at Edwina's heart and chest again. Before she could look up, another soft presence appeared on her right.

"Fenrick, stop it," the new presence said. "There's no point in rehashing the past." Fenrick stood upright again and glared at the newcomer, stamping his goat foot in annoyance.

"No point?" he grated. "No point? I will have my due, Adras."

Edwina's head was spinning. She looked towards Fenrick and said, "prevented how?"

Adras placed her hand on Edwina's shoulder. "There's nothing to be done, my dear, it's in the past. Let me help you move on and discover your new fate." Edwina looked up. The goddess' face was perfect, pale, smiling, but not sympathetic.

"It's always fate with you," said Fenrick, "isn't it? The goddess of the future and of fate, but somehow you forget that there's a choice and leap right to fate."

"And why not?" Adras demanded. "They never take control of their lives, they never ask what's to be done now to change the future." Adras looked at the muddy river where the village used to be and looked hurt. "They only ever want to know what their future will be."

Fenrick cocked his head to one side. "Then why fight my offer to Edwina to change this fate?"

Adras' head snapped towards Fenrick. "Because dealing with the future means accepting the here and now. You would have her looking back when she needs to be here."

"I would change this fate in a heartbeat," said Edwina, staring out at nothing.

Adras threw up her hands in disgust. "Fine, your future is yours, but don't say I didn't warn you." She vanished in a flicker of annoyed light.

Fenrick smiled at Edwina. "Now, this tragedy could have been prevented if you had honored me on my holiday four days ago."

Edwina frowned. "That was when the rains started," she said.

Fenrick laughed bitterly. "Wasn't it, though! But, did anyone think that old Fenrick was tired of being ignored?" He paced back and forth on his goat legs. "The god of wine and water. Wine and water! Everyone loves to celebrate the wine, but I there's more to me than your silly intoxication! You die without water and yet, who honors it? Who thanks me for it?" He stopped pacing and looked at the ruined village. "Well, it can be dangerous, too."

"Please," said Edwina softly and humbly, "please, Fenrick, how can I honor you?"

Fenrick considered Edwina carefully. She was not the best supplicant he could ask for, but he didn't doubt her sincerity. "Your life," he said. "Your life in exchange for the countless years of insults to my holiday and insults to me!"

"For the whole village?" asked Edwina carefully. She was old enough to know that deals made with gods were a delicate affair.

Fenrick nodded impatiently, "yes, you for the whole village-"

"Done," said Edwina.

"Ah, but there's more," said Fenrick, smiling now. "Seamus. I want Seamus, too."

Edwina paused. Seamus was the only billy goat the village had. Without him, there would be no kids born in the spring, and without kids, there would be no goat milk for the children of the village. Without the goats milk, the children might not have enough nourishment to survive the next winter.

"What's a whole village worth, Edwina," taunted Fenrick. "It's just a few children. And besides, you don't know that they'll die without the milk. You do know they'll die if you refuse my offer, carried off in rushing brown water, like so many others of your village."

Edwina closed her eyes against the fresh tears welling up and nodded. "Done. Me and Seamus and a proper sacrifice on the hill, all in exchange for the village, the whole village, not destroyed by flood this year."

Fenrick smiled and crossed his hairy arms on his chest. "Done." Edwina relaxed slightly and uttered a half-sob, half-sigh.

Fenrick closed his eyes and concentrated. He put one hand on Edwina's head and walked around her slowly, chanting just out of hearing's range. She stood still and waited. The air around her warmed and built in pressure. Finally, she felt the bubble around her pop and everything went black. Fenrick's voice from far away said, "remember, you and Seamus, on the hill, tonight. Don't disappoint me."

Edwina found herself sitting outside her family's hut. Her hands were holding a fishing net that she must have been repairing. She looked up at the cloudless sky then down at the village around her. Joy welled up inside her and she had never been so grateful to be alive. But before she could blink, the image of water carrying the children downstream threatened to crush her again.

She set her mouth in a firm line and put down her work. She knew what she had to do. She stood up and went inside to get a water skin, and a skin of precious wine. Edwina's grown daughter looked up from cooking as she entered. "Finished the net already, Edma?"

Edwina scowled and grunted. She fetched the skins, checking that her dagger was on her hip. She reached into an elaborately carved wooden box and pulled out a bundle wrapped in oilskin. She placed the water, wine, and bundle into a leather sack and picked up her wide-brimmed hat from its hook on the wall. They would have no use for her hat once she was gone, and she wanted to be ready for a journey in the after-life.

Edwina's daughter saw this last motion and asked, "are you going somewhere, Edma?"

"None of your business, child," growled Edwina.

Misha sighed, "I'm a grown woman, now, Edma, not a child."

Edwina grunted. "You'll always be a child to me." She walked out the door and said, "don't wait up."

Edwina longed to say goodbye to her only daughter, to tell her how much she meant to her, and how proud she was. But doing so would only raise suspicion, and there was too much at stake here to make that kind of mistake.

There was not a cloud in the sky, but the wind was brisk and cold as the sun retreated for the horizon. Edwina quickly closed the distance between her family's hut and the barn. She got a rope and put it around Seamus' neck. She was leading him away from the barn when Barthas, the goat-keeper, called after her.

"Edwina," he called, "where are you going with Seamus? It'll be dark soon."

"Got a sickness," she lied. "He needs to eat some golden-flower from up on the hill, more than I can carry." Barthas frowned. She tried to make her voice reassuring. "Don't worry, young man, we'll be back soon enough." She turned and walked towards the hill with Seamus in tow. She hoped that Barthas didn't try to stop her; there was no way she could win that contest. But, fate smiled on Edwina that day and Barthas only shrugged before going into the barn.

The hill was steeper than it had been when Edwina was a child, and longer, too. By the time she reached the top, the sun had almost disappeared below the horizon. The wind had picked up and Seamus began to bleat in protest. Edwina tugged him harder until they were fully inside the stone circle. She pushed impatiently on his rear end and Seamus sat down on the chilly ground.

Edwina unpacked her bag and unwrapped the oilskin. From it she pulled a beautiful silver goblet with gold patterns. She held it with reverence as she proffered it to the sky and asked for a blessing upon it. Walking the edge of the circle, Edwina began to murmur the chant of old. Pressure built around Seamus and Edwina, pushing out the wind.

Still chanting, Edwina mixed water and wine in the goblet. She held the goblet aloft and gave thanks to Fenrick with more sincerity than she had ever had before. She drank from the goblet and then held Seamus' head, pouring some down his throat. He shook his head and coughed.

Unseen on the hill behind her, Misha and Barthas were calling to her as they climbed.

Edwina put down the goblet and stopped her chanting. The pressure in the circle had blocked out the increasing winds and muffled the crash of thunder. "Please, Fenrick," she said, "it's almost done." She lifted Seamus' head and put her dagger to his throat. A flash of blade, a gush of crimson and the first sacrifice was given. The thunder lessened but the pressure in the circle increased. Edwina took the dagger in both hands and placed the tip near her heart.

Misha and Barthas began running up the hill. They yelled at her, begged her to stop, but their voices were lost in the wind.

Edwina looked up at the sky. "For you, Fenrick, and for my village." She plunged the dagger into her heart and fell backwards with a stifled scream. The pressure of the circle let loose as Fenrick appeared and sighed. Edwina's sight grew dark and she heard him say, "your village is safe, brave Edwina." Then she heard no more.

The wind and thunder died away completely as Misha and Barthas reached the top of the hill. They looked around in horror and Misha rushed to her mother's side while Barthas checked on Seamus.

"Dead," pronounced Barthas, shaking his head sadly. A heart-wrenching wail from Misha told him the fate of Edwina was the same. Barthas hung his head, saying a short prayer for the dead and went to Misha's side.

It was senseless, they all said when the events of that evening were told to the village. Senseless and stupid. That crazy old crone not only doomed herself, but the children of the village as well. The year passed and there were no kids, and no goats milk. The next winter, three of the children died. They were mourned and Edwina cursed with the same breath. The children could have survived, if it hadn't been for evil old Edwina.

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