From Cursive To Curses-Part XXIII
Rafe cursed under his breath. Aledia, Wilhelm, and Jacob watched from a distance as Rafe approached the small village. How had he gotten roped into this? He didn’t want to condemn anyone to the darkness. This was too much.
The village was quiet and not a soul was in sight. The apples hung dimly from the trees around him. The sun nearly touched the horizon. Soon the valley would be glowing with the precious treasure. He paused and looked at one of the trees. He could take another apple and no one would be the wiser. Would it still collect the light if plucked?
Someone cleared their throat. Rafe looked from the tree and blushed. The elderly man smiled and looked Rafe over.
“You look none too worse for wear, lad. Did you find what you sought?” he asked.
Rafe nodded and blinked. The elderly man was not running.
“We did. Now we have to find the old ferryman. Did you see anyone come through beside us?”
The elderly man looked to the left and the right. His eyes settled back to Rafe.
“Can’t say that I have. You say ‘us’ like there are more of you. Where are your companions? Did you leave them in the dark depths?”
“No! They are taking a break further back,” Rafe said and waved his hands.
“Ah… I see. You came back to take another apple. One was not enough for your greedy hands?” the elderly man asked.
He tapped his cane on the lush grass. The sun’s final rays hit the horizon. Glittering and glimmering, the valley sparkled to life.
“How…how did you? No, I wasn’t going to…” Rafe stuttered. The light of the apples did nothing to conceal the blush that burned down his neck. “We needed it… I don’t have it.”
The elderly man sniffed.
“I bet you did, lad. Did you get a good price for it? Since you are coming back alive, I would hope so.”
“I think so?” Rafe said, his voice lifting in question.
“You think so? Wouldn’t you know so? Did you not sell the apple?” The man asked again. “Or did you eat it?”
Rafe stumbled back a few steps.
“No! No, I didn’t eat it. That was exactly what you said we should do. I was definitely there to trade the apple.”
The old man sniffed the air and chuckled. After a moment, his eyes narrowed and he started forward. Each step silent under his steps and the thump of his cane.
“Where are you going? You haven’t answered me!” Rafe demanded.
The old man kept his pace, ignoring Rafe. The boy buzzed about him like a fly. He was clearly too afraid to stop him but did his best to delay his walk towards the clearing. He could smell them, shining as they hid in the nearby bushes. After a few more steps he stopped. The wind brushed past the old man and he grinned.
“For those who went to hell and back, hiding from an old man is beneath you. Don’t you think?” he called out.
Rafe stood silent as he watched his companions stand from behind their cover. He had failed as a spy. The simple questions the old man posed ended up allowing himself to become exposed. Rafe rubbed the back of his neck. The burn of shame and embarrassment hot against his hand.
“Ah, here are the three. The three that stink of death’s curse. Was it worth it then?” he asked.
Jacob was the first to step forward. His eyes were hard on the old man.
“Yes, we have found our father. He’s trapped and we know how to free him. The price paid was well worth the risk.”
The old man chuckled as Rafe stepped up.
“Answer my question. Have you seen anyone come this way before?”
“Come, come, boy. All good things in time. You cannot rush the sun and you cannot rush my answers,” the old man huffed. He turned back to Jacob. “Have you found the way to solve your own curse? Seems like you are only adding to it.”
“We have our theories. Rafe’s questions have a point. We have to return the old ferryman to his post to save their father,” Aledia explained.
A childlike giggle ran out through the trees. The apples bounced as the wind brushed through the trees. The small laughter sounded like chiming bells. The forest sparkled as if a secret was held within its tangled branches and roots.
“My dear, you are much too cruel,” the old man called out and laughter filled the woods again.
“Who is that?” Rafe asked quietly.
He shuffled towards his friends and away from the old man. The old man laughed, and a tree leaned down towards him. It shifted and warped as it pulled its roots from the earth. The roots snapped and the earth sprayed as it fought to keep the tree in its grips. The wood groaned and twisted further.
Aledia’s jaw dropped, and she grabbed Wilhelm’s sleeve, who stared transfixed. Rafe ran and Jacob snagged his arm.
“Hold, Rafe. Just a moment,” Jacob whispered in awe.
The old man stood as the tree shifted once more. With a deafening snap, the tree shook off its leaves. A giggle chimed and a woman stood in its place. Her skin and face were bark. She wore the golden apple skins in a dress that flowed like liquid sunshine. Leaves rippled and made her hair. It covered her eyes. The wind kissed the dress and ran its fingers through her hair.
The tree woman smiled. The smile was tight-lipped and made out of wood.
“So,” her breathy voice sighed. “You are so sure of everything?”
The woman moved forward leaving the old man behind her. The dress whispered across the grass as she moved towards Jacob.
“I . . . I never . . . said that,” Jacob said, “Who are you?”
Rafe pulled from Jacob’s grip and scurried behind Wilhelm. His heart hammered against his ribs. The woman smelled of shifting flowers and fruits. Each scent flowing into the next. Her body creaked and swallowed the air around her like a void. It made his head spin. How could Jacob stand so close and not feel the need to run?
The woman’s smile grew wider.
“You do not care who I am, eldest son of Grimm. You care only what role I play in this game,” she chided. “I adore games, you see. Each of you mortals scurrying around for your own means. Once I tangle the threads, you all play my game,” she laughed.
“What is your game?” Jacob asked with an arched brow.
Jacob refused to take a step back as she laughed again. His knees felt weak as he stood before this creature. The urge to run pulled at his back, at his feet, his soul. Still, he remained planted into the spot. Rooted as she had been moments ago.
“What is your game?” he asked again and ran a hand through his curly hair.
She furrowed her brows and lifted a hand to her hair. The twigs of her fingers tangled for a moment and she gave a satisfied smile.
“Why, my dear, you are my game. You and your family. Everyone you come in contact with are my game pieces. I merely move the fates and you dance exactly the way I want you to. Such amusement!”
She looked past Jacob to the three stunned companions.
“You managed to surprise me. The princess and the messenger were unexpected. I wonder how they will fair by the end. Will they assist or hinder your efforts,” she hummed.
She turned and moved back towards the old man. Wilhelm shook Aledia off and stood beside Jacob.
“Wait. We are your game? Speak plainly,” Wilhelm growled.
The creature stopped and looked towards the boys. One was thin in stature and covered by tanned muscles. One a scholar and the other farmer.
“Brains and Brawn. Such beautiful opposites. You stand together, two pieces moving as one. To stop your curse,” she sighed. Her breathy voice carried as if it were the wind itself. “The curse I put on your family.” she smiled.
“Y-you did this? Why?” Aledia whispered.
Rafe tugged on her hand begging her to stay silent.
“Why it’s all part of the game. What amusing pieces you all are. I wonder how you will break it,” she said as she walked; each step slower than the last.
She moved past the man towards the scarred earth. The dirt and grass moved past her as if welcoming her return. Jacob surged forward to stop her.
“You have not answered anything. What game? What is happening? You have only mocked us!” he spat. Anger pooled within him.
“Indeed. Riddles of riddles. My mere presence being introduced at this stage will leave you puzzled. How will you solve this, scholar? Who am I? I am nowhere but everywhere? I watch but I am never seen. I deal you only what you deserve. You dance my song from birth to death. You cannot escape my grasp,” she hummed.
The ground accepted her as she stepped back within the disturbed earth. The sky cracked with vicious lightning. Her limbs warped and in a flash of light, a beautiful tree stood silent in her place. The wind danced through its branches. A breathy laugh faded into the night.
Featured Photo by ID 12019 via Pixabay. Altered by Lindsey Gruden.