Ventus – Day 6 of 135

So he had to go on. Somehow he felt reassured by this. He stood up to continue.

A little star bobbed within the blackness ahead of him. He stared at it, biting his lip and remembering stories of spirit lights that led travellers off cliffs. But such lights were supposed to be green, or white, and to flicker and dodge about in swampy country. This light was amber, and swayed just as a lantern would if someone were walking with it.

He raised his own light and shouted, “Hallo!” The sound echoed flatly away.

The little light paused, then bobbed up and down. He started toward it, along the path. Maybe someone had found Emmy, and was returning with her. The thought sped him up; his heart was in his throat.

It was a lantern, and it was an ordinary person carrying it. But… Jordan had expected a man, a woodsman or even Allegri, but this was a woman stepping delicately over mossed logs and bent reeds. Not Emmy. And alone.

She raised her light again, and he recognized her. He had seen her at the doorway of the manor kitchen, asking for water. She must have accompanied Turcaret here in his steam wagon. When he’d seen her this morning she had been dressed in a long gown, but now she wore buckskin pants like a man, a dark shirt, and a cape thrown over her shoulders. She stood in stout muddied boots, too, and had some kind of belt around her hips, from which several leather pouches hung. Her glossy black hair was drawn tightly back, only one or two careless strands falling past her dark, arched brows. Her eyes gleamed in the lamplight.

“What a happy meeting,” she said. Her voice was melodic, and strong; she seemed to taste each syllable as she spoke it, weighing how it might best be pitched. “What are you doing so far from town?”

“Looking for my sister. She… she came this way.” He felt suspicious suddenly, wary of admitting Emmy’s vulnerability. “Have you seen her?”

“No…” She tasted the word as if it had some special savor. “But then I have only just ventured onto this trail. Perhaps she went by earlier?”

“Not long ago.” He heard himself groan faintly, knowing he must have missed Emmy somewhere in the dark. “Please,” he said, “can you help me? I’m scared for her. I can’t find her. She should have been… back there.” He looked around at the curtains of black. “Maybe I missed her.”

“All right.” She came up to him, and her fingers lightly touched his shoulder as she walked past. He found himself turning as if she held him tightly. They began to pick their way back along the trail.

“I’ve seen you up at the mansion,” she said. “You’re the lad who outwitted the stone mother, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Jordan Mason.”

“Yes.” She was smiling now, as if delighted. “It’s fortunate I met you just now, Jordan. It saves me a lot of time.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to talk to some of Castor’s people. On my own, you know?”

Jordan thought about it. She didn’t trust Castor? “Is that why you were out at the church?”

“Yes.” She shot him a dazzling smile. She was, he noticed, notably taller than he.

His lantern guttered and finally went out. “Shit,” he said, shaking it. “Excuse me.”

“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?” she asked, chiding.

“No, ma’am. I’m afraid of what’s in it.”

“I see.” He heard, rather than saw, her smile in the sound of the words.

The lady appeared to be thinking. She glanced about herself, then said firmly, “I heard voices a ways back. Was your sister going to meet someone?”

“No…” But what if she had met Allegri, or someone else coming from the priest’s house? “Where did you hear the voices?”

“This way.” She held the lantern high, and walked back the way she’d come. He followed, hopeful that they would meet Emmy coming back from the priest’s house.

The lady paused at a fork in the path. The way to the priest’s was on the right, Jordan knew. The left way led deeper into the forest. She stepped onto the left-ward way.

“Wait!” He hurried forward. “She wouldn’t have gone this way. It doesn’t lead anywhere.”

“But one of the voices I heard was that of a girl,” said the lady, frowning. “And they came from down this way.” She stood hipshot, radiating impatience. “You are keeping me from my own errands, young man. I need not help you at all, you know.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” He followed her onto the lesser of the two paths.

This way was half-overgrown; the lady seemed to have no trouble seeing the path ahead of them, but to Jordan every way quickly came to look the same. He glanced behind them, and saw only a thatchwork of tree trunks and ferns, framed in black.

“Are you sure this is where you heard the voices coming from?” he asked after a few minutes.

“Of course. Look, there’s a footprint.” She lowered the lamp for him to see. Jordan peered at the ground where she pointed, but he couldn’t see anything.

“I don’t see-”

“Are you questioning me?” said the lady. “You are keeping me from my duties. What will Castor and Turcaret say about my lateness?”

“You mustn’t tell them!”

“Well, then, stop dawdling.”

Jordan was silent for a while, but his heart was sinking. Could Emmy have run afoul of a bandit, or worse, a morph? Who else would be out in this blackness?

“What were you doing out here alone, ma’am?” he asked boldly. “Were you visiting the priests?”

“Yes, of course,” she replied promptly. They continued on over the uneven ground, until the thickets and trunks surrounded them tightly, and there was no longer any indication of a path underfoot.

The lady had one foot on a fallen log, about to step over it, when Jordan said, “Stop.”

“What?” She stepped up and balanced precariously on the mossy log.

“This is crazy. She can’t have come this way. Sound plays tricks in the forest. Maybe the sound came from somewhere else.”

“Maybe.” She sounded doubtful.

“We need to go back and get help,” he said. “I’ll roust my work gang. There’s no need for you to worry yourself, ma’am. You have your own business to attend to.”

“True.” She started to step down from the log, but slipped. Jordan saw the lantern fly in an arc, then complete darkness fell around them.

“Damn!” He heard the lady groping about for the lantern.

Jordan put his hands out and hesitantly edged in the direction of the sounds. The darkness was total. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

“I’m fine. But I can’t find the lantern.”

Now that he was completely drowned in darkness, Jordan realized Emmy could never have come this far. It was impossible to take two steps in any direction without encountering a wall of uncertainty more solid than any tree trunk.

“Hmmf. Well, that’s that,” said the lady. “I can’t find it. Give me your hand.” He reached out tentatively, felt her warm fingers entwine his own.

“Come. This way.”

“What are you doing?”

“We were headed uphill. I’m just going to go down. I’m sure we’ll find the path again.”

“Begging your pardon, but we should stay right here. You’re not supposed to keep walking if you’re lost in the-”

“We’re not lost!” Her voice expressed outraged anger. “And I am not going to miss my appointments tonight!”

“But-”

“Come.” She tugged, and though his every instinct was to remain still, Jordan followed so as not to lose contact. Slowly, they walked hand in hand over the uneven path.

Jordan was completely blind, and was sure he would blunder into a tree at any moment, but the lady’s pull was steady. Jordan fought within himself and craned his neck up, looking for small swaths of starlight overhead instead of straining to make out the logs and stones underfoot. He tried to feel his way. And she did seem to know where she was going, for she did not stumble at all.

It seemed so strange, placing his feet by faith, seeing only the occasional star, and feeling acutely the touch of this stranger’s hand. It was at once intimate and solitary. He cleared his throat and said, “What’s your name?”

“I am the lady Calandria May. Turcaret was my travelling companion, but I am not in his employ.”

“Oh.” So she might be Castor’s equal; Jordan felt uncomfortable to be holding her hand. She was his superior, so she could take his, but he could never have touched her so first.

“Careful.” She stepped him over another fallen log. He hadn’t felt or heard her hit it, but then he was concentrating on staring up. He didn’t remember this log from a few minutes ago, and his footing was much rougher now. Round stones rolled under his shoes and long drooling fronds of grass wet his thighs. He smelled the metallic tang of moist earth, mixed with many green and fetid odors.

The strip of starlight was disappearing. He kicked himself for not looking up when he’d first come this way, to judge now where they were. They were not on the path. “We’re not on the path,” he said.

“Yes we are,” she said in the same calm, even tone with which she had pronounced her name. Jordan stumbled over a root; her hand pulled him leftward, then back, and he felt tall brambles tug by. By instinct he had looked forward, and his free hand was out to ward him. When he looked up again, the stars were gone.

He craned his neck to try to see behind him–futile, naturally. His mouth was open to protest that they really were off the path, but her grip tightened, and she pulled him ahead with renewed speed. His warding hand brushed something slick–a tree trunk, he realized even as he snatched his hand back with a gasp.

“Steadily now, Jordan,” she said.

“But–”

“Come now,” she said. He heard gentle humor in her tone. “We are on the path. After all, we haven’t hit any trees, have we?”

It really wasn’t his place to question a lady. Her hand was his only lifeline, she his only recourse here. But how could she see in the dark? Was she a Wind? The thought nearly made him break his contact. She sensed something, and gave a reassuring squeeze.

“How can you see in the dark?” he blurted.

“I am as human as you,” she said.

How was he going to find Emmy now? “We should stop and wait here for morning,” he insisted.

She let go of his hand.

Jordan shouted in surprise.

The lady’s voice issued from very nearby. “You may wait here, if you’d like,” she said crossly. “I am going on back to the manor, and a warm fire and good companionship. You can sit here in the damp and stew in your own fears, or you can come with me. Which is it to be?”

Then silence. He couldn’t hear her moving away, couldn’t hear her breathing or moving at all. The silence stretched uncomfortably; Jordan could hear his own breath rasping, and the sounds of crickets, wind in the treetops. Nothing else. Had she left him?

“Please,” he said.

Her fingers twined in those of his outstretched hand. Her touch, in the dark, made him remember last night, when a dark-haired woman had come to stand over him in his half-sleep, and laid her hand on his brow.

“Come,” she said.

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