Some people spend their lives seeking the fountain of eternal youth, searching for immortality, but in the end they find the dusty pages of their lives scribbled away in dabbler's ink and set aside like so many brooding journals and letters of lost lovers. It is comforting, I suppose, that life and death aren't as grand as all those epic bard's tales of heroism and love.
I was the youngest daughter of a cabinet maker then. Those were the wonderful sunlit days of my youth.
Looking over my grandfather's farm again, it seems almost yesterday that I was sitting at the edge of the orchard. The cows chewed their cud and slapped their tails against their flat buttocks to the soft music of the birds in the trees and the giggling brook that bordered the small field of watermelons. Hot winds and dark brooding clouds had settled over the Alterac mountains. I could feel their wet breath bristling through the hairs on the back of my neck.
Work had been scarce for my father. With a war threatening all the lands of Lordaeron very few people had much use for cabinets; still, he was a resourceful man to the end and could ply his trade as a carpenter. He found odd jobs repairing the wheels of carts, patching broken bits of wall and fence at the farm, and offering his services to the small villages that dotted our mountainous countryside. Even in time of war, people still needed to eat—my grandfather had no trouble selling our snapvine crops and we had plenty of grain in the mills.
In all, we were left relatively untouched by the war in our rocky wayside farm tucked away in the vales of the mountains. Strangely parched autumn winds also brought bereaved refugees from the war torn lands. I wonder if my eyes glistened with wonder at their stories of great heroes and horrible battles, there are some things I cannot recall any longer.
Still, we saw our fair share of the destruction and misery wreaked by the wars. Stranger still was the fall of Lordaeron.
We did not receive news of that strange event in the usual way—refugees forged our tentative link to the outside world as they fled the war—but instead its absence told the tale. An early winter had come to the fields and soon the passes of the mountains would have been filled with impassable snow. None had fallen yet, no snowy caps even on the highest peaks, but without explanation the trickle turned to flood of refugees had stopped.
The doom of Lordaeron echoed in the silence from every peak, every rock, every fruit bearing tree. The hush that had fallen over the land was impenetrable and I found it unbearable. Our neighbors shut up their houses and vanished almost overnight. A week went by with no contact from the outside world, white dapples of snow began to appear in the passes, chilly breezes cut through the fields, killed the colorful autumnsong blossoms, and brought down freezing rain, sticky mud, and brilliant forked lightning.
Many of the snapvine melons rotted in the fields before my grandfather and what farmhands he had left brought them into the barn. Ordinarily more of them would have sold; leaving less in the fields and in storage, but weeks went by as the tides of the abnormal winter crashed down around us, with no visitors to buy the stocks. The dreary rain and overcast days blanketed the family in a foul mood that did not subside, thus I hid in my room when I was not about chores or tending the animals.
Soon my father forbade me to venture into the woods alone after one of the farmhands thought he saw ghosts rambling through the gusty trees in the dark of night. The mournful howls of starving wolves could be heard on moonless nights during those final days, warbling in the bleak like a dirge sang an unknown tongue. Mother would sit before the fire for hours in listless silence refusing to speak to anyone; and father would bark sharp orders at the farmhands. More and more vanished every few days—my grandfather's farm suffered a slow but obvious winnowing.
It was at the beginning of true winter we received our first visitors since the sudden quiet from the north. A family of three came to our doorstep, with them was a ragged wagon and a weary worn oxen whose bloodshot eyes told a tale of a journey of a thousand painful steps. The couple stood aside and spoke in hushed tones with my father and mother while I drew close to the wagon to get a better peek at the remaining occupant: a boy about my age.
He had glassy blue eyes and dirty blonde hair, hollow cheeks, and a hungry mouth. His lidded eyes flashed open when I poked my head into the wagon. Not wanting to disturb him I tried to withdraw, but quicker than an adder his hand flashed out and caught my wrist with amazing strength. I stammered an apology but did not try to free myself. He released my hand.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. His voice cracked with dryness. "I haven't had much company in many days."
He had been swaddled in a rough blanket and winced each time he moved. I could see then that his eyes were sunken and the shadows beneath them had become almost like bruises; the poor boy had not slept in days. So, while my parents prattled with his, I took him from the wagon in my farmhand strengthened arms and bore him into the house. I put him in my bed because there was nowhere else and stole quietly into the kitchen for some warmed water and a bucket.
He was quiet and polite when I took the ratty blanket—I replaced it with one of my own—and bore it in silence when I undressed him and carefully washed his flesh; I tried to do this with as much propriety as possible, with the same discerning motions as my grandmother had washed my brothers when they were too weak to do so themselves. The boy was weak as a kitten and pliable to my touch, he did not complain when I peeled clothing from his body to wash his flesh, and fell asleep directly after I had finished. It was nice to see someone else enjoy my pillows as much as I had.
I could not escape from how beautiful he seemed asleep in my bed and having rarely been with boys my age in much time, I pondered a hope that we could keep him at the farm for a while.
"His name is Alerec," my mother said from the doorway. I turned to look at her, embarrassed by my thoughts. Her silhouetted figure held no judgment for me in posture or gaze and the fluttering of my heart subsided. "Your father is going out with his parents to fix one of their wagons—its wheel broke up the road. They'll probably be with us a few days."
My mother retired to bed early and bid me no advice on treating Alerec; she had become addled of late, and often didn't take notice of the world but for strange moments of lucidity.
So, I took up a quiet vigil over the sick boy. Alerec was lovely in his illness. Blonde tresses askance the sheets, his bare breast rising and falling beneath the blanket, how I longed for his eyelids to flutter open so that I could see those blue eyes again the way I saw them earlier that day.
"Are you awake?" asked Alerec. I didn't know if he could see me in the darkness. In the black of night I couldn't see all the way to my own closet. Yet his eyes unerringly found me where I sat across the room.
"I'm watching over you," I said.
Alerec's eyes were luminous in the darkness, his breathing shallow, but his voice was inviting and I found myself wanting. Quietly, I slipped my clothing to the floor, took up a rag, dampened it with cold water, and joined him in the bed. Hushing him to silence, I applied the rag to his sweaty forehead and closed my eyes to his hot breath on my bare skin.
I awoke to the gentle croon of my mother's voice as she drew me out of my bed. Groggy and half-asleep she dressed me in my shift the way she did when I was a wee chickling, but I had little energy to resist, nor desire in my slumbersome state.
After the short waking ritual I returned to my bed and put my hand gently on the boy sleeping there. His flesh was cold to my touch; Alerec had died during the night.
I did not weep, though it was bitter in my heart, when we sewed the funeralcloth about his body, nor did I shed tears when we laid him gently in the driest area of the barn. The grief of it felt too close to me, like a hand grasping my throat, while I did not weep—I could not speak. And felt thankful that my neither mother nor grandfather asked it of me. They permitted me my silent mourning as we interred his body with the hay until he could be buried properly.
That evening I grew ill with a fever and father had not returned from his journey with Alerec's parents. My grandfather and my mother had a mumbled discussion by the fire while I sipped chilled whortleberry tea in the kitchen. From their urgent and hushed voices I could tell that grandfather wanted to go looking for my father, my mother wanted him to stay at the farm; in the end they agreed that grandfather would wait till morning to mount an expedition.
When I finally found sleep I was wracked by nightmares; and all the tears I had not shed during the day came forth in a deluge. I wept bitterly and beat my pillow savagely. Spent and exhausted, my body and mind finally succumbed to sleep.
I did not wake until late afternoon the next day. My mother dabbed my forehead with a cold, damp cloth and brought berry tea and medicine. She said my grandfather had left in search of my father at first light. I had awoken into the last fluid rays of sunlight remaining in the day. My mother did not say it, but I knew from her voice that she expected that my grandfather—like my father—would not return.
My sleep was fitful for the next two days. Awoken to my mother's voice to drink tea and medicine and then drift away again into the netherworld of my nightmares and the softness of my pillow beneath my head.
I do not know for how long I slept, or if my soul languished in the barrens of the Twisting Nether for whatever eternity that bellé morte held me in its grasp; but I do remember awakening. I awoke as if from a deep slumber, my last memories of the window aside my bed and the last crimson rays of the setting sun caressing my weeping mother's hollow cheeks.
The farm is much how I remember it. The buildings have remained the same, though now ramshackle and rundown with nobody to repair the damage from wind and rain. The steadhold still stands, with its two windows facing east into the rising sun. The front door has long fallen off when the hinges rotted through. From where I stand now, if it were an ordinary day, I would be able to see my mother sewing in her rocking chair in front of the fire within. My grandfather would be in the fields with the farmhands collecting snapvine melons to sell. All the smells of autumn hang in the air; and I have only the phantoms of my memory to counsel me.
My bones creak as I walk into the barn, Alerec's corpse is where we left him. Sewn into his funeralclothes: he rests silently, waiting for me. I tear open a bit of the cloth and remove one of his finger bones; his body has long since dissolved to a skeleton. I place the knucklebone in my pouch and move on. There will be time to remember later.
I know that the farm has a deep well, one that my grandfather himself dug all the way down into an aquifer. It would never run dry, a curiously common problem here in the mountains with the snow and rain. Many other farmsteads had failed because they could not adequately supply themselves with water.
I wonder what Alerec would think of me now as I make my way across the fallow snapvine melon field, now overgrown with all manner of vines, weeds, and myriad berries—I am surprised to see a few melons amongst the rugged foliage. I didn't know him very well, only a few of his words and his body during that day and night so long ago. Returning here brings back many of those memories, but I find them bland and without emotion.
The wellhead is built stone-upon-stone in a circle around the bore that reaches into the earth and down to fresh water. The hood that kept errant leaves and evaporating sun from reaching the surface of the water has long rotted away but I remember it almost as if it were yesterday. When I used to come here every morning to turn the lever and bring the bucket up from the icy depths.
Looking down into the glistening water I wonder again what Alerec would think of me now. My clothing is as ragged as his, my skin even paler than his disease ridden flesh, my eyes have dried and my body shriveled. Though he now is a skeleton himself when he lived surely he would not have wanted one such that I am now. And here I am waiting at the edge of the well, at my old family farm, prepared to bring the curse granted both of us unto untold thousands.
A philter of great toxicity waits patiently for release inside my pouches. I was bidden here by our Dark Lady to spread the same plague that took my life to the small villages of this valley. Once the aquifer is poisoned, all who drink from it will fall ill, and succumb to the same plague that killed both Alerec and I. And they too will be granted either the silent serenity of death, or the waking memory of undying rebirth.
I look down into the shimmering water below. Blue moonlight glistens back; glassy blue, like irises flashing beneath eyelashes.
I didn't ask this of death.
Someone else can poison the well.