Five tattered and agitated cats rubbed five tattered sides against the door of a tiny seaside cabin. The frigid wind blowing off the Valenfaer Ocean was insulting to the temperament of the smallest kitten — an orange dappled tabby — and she hissed her frustration. Normally, she could have easily slipped under the hide-covered door, but today the invisible barrier that kept her from her mistress’ domain was inexplicably solid.
A woman’s sobs spilled from the cabin and four of the cats surrendered their vigil, darting away into the gathering gloom. The little tabby refused to abandon her post and, with hackles raised, crouched courageously next to the wall.
A shroud of death enveloped the cabin and inside the last fire faerie danced the last blazing pirouette as the hearth smoldered to closing. A desperately ill woman lay on a bed in the center of the room. Her voice was muffled, smothered under mounds of blankets. “When the wind is in the east, ’tis good for neither man nor beast.” Had Bracie known, she would have been horrified at the ragged state of her kittens; but Bracie was dying and beyond the realm of catly concerns.
The cats were the only living things to which she was attached. Her contact with other people had always been seasonal and understandably limited due to the remoteness of her cabin — a good day’s wagon ride from the village of Shireton, on the northwestern coast of Cherisk. This season’s pilgrimage of anxious villagers — eager for the weather reader’s news of the coming year and the portents for their crops — had never materialized. The locals had shunned her, in spite of their confidence in her weather reading abilities. Bracie understood the isolation; death was an evil that was contagious and, in the rudimentary language of all small villages, was never a particular thief.
Bracie had survived the previous winter well enough, ending it with a quarter of her supply of salted meat intact — no small feat for those poor souls who were unfortunate enough to inhabit the remote regions of Dargon. With spring had come the anticipation of her annual trip to Shireton for the Melrin festival; Bracie’s favorite festival, symbolizing birth in the cycle of life. The focus of Shireton’s Melrin festival was the wheel of the year. The rise and fall of the seasons governed life in this part of Makdiar. The land sustained them; what couldn’t be hunted or gathered had to be grown on the tiny parcels of land allotted by the local lord. The wheel of the year included Bracie’s weather predictions for the future. Only the weather reader, and her knowledge of the signs, stood between the villagers and the devastation of a ruined crop.
Bracie had left for Shireton excited to be on her way and anxious as always to be, at least temporarily, in the company of more than trees and sea birds. Leaving the cabin, she had knelt down to examine a black and brown woolly worm — whose wide brown stripe foretold of a harsh winter — when a brief jolt of fire clenched her chest. The suddenness of the assault had been numbing and had caused her vision to cloud and the tips of her fingers to burn. Fortunately, the discomfort had quickly faded and Bracie had dismissed the incident.
Throughout the rest of the journey, Bracie had noticed all the usual weather signs. The plain of grass that marked her halfway point to the village was waist high, bearing the same tidings as the woolly worm. The yellowed moss hanging on the eastern side of the ash and the flies tormenting her naked arms forewarned her of a sudden afternoon shower, giving her plenty of time to take temporary shelter. These were all observations that came without conscious thought for Bracie, just as a swordsman knows naturally when to thrust and when to block. Unfortunately, Bracie had never developed the ability to interpret her own inner voice and the secrets of immortality had been foolishly ignored. The voice of Makdiar dominated Bracie’s heart.
Upon her return from the Melrin Festival, Bracie noticed that her skin had begun to hang on her bones and that twin circles of death darkened her eyes. By Yuli, she had known she would not survive the year.
The wind battered against the walls of the cabin and Bracie’s body trembled, struggling against the invading darkness. She was no longer able to rise from her bed and she knew that death was near. Bracie struggled to turn onto her side, believing that any movement was better than stillness. Lying still frightened her. The dying embers of her fire, whose smoke had begun to blow back down upon itself, frightened her as well, but she hadn’t the strength to rise and stoke it. She muttered, “Smoke curls downward, bad weather is on the way.” Her uncontrollable babbling frightened her most of all and as these last muttered words slid over her cracked lips, her back stiffened. Suddenly, a bright blue spark exploded inside her head and the ping of separation — which was quite distinct — propelled her from her body. Bracie floated, climbing like a bird on the wing up to the smoke-hole at the top of her cabin. Just before spir aling out of the hole and into the night, Bracie caught a glimpse her body lying on the bed, her chest slowly rising and falling with each breath.
In an instant, she began to thrash around in nothing, in what felt like the space between space. Her pain was gone, as well as all other sensations except those of speed and — even though her mind rejected the notion — the feeling of growing backwards. Suddenly she was plummeting through warm sunshine and air, hurtling downwards at a trio of figures below her: a young girl, an old man and an even older woman. She realized she would hit the child a moment before the collision. With bone-jarring force, Bracie slammed into the girl and looked out through her own seven year-old eyes.
Bracie’s father whispered softly, “Go on now lass, show some of those manners your ma taught ya,” and he eased her forward with a huge hand placed squarely on her back. He addressed the old woman kneeling at her feet, “She’s a good girl, Alia. Always was a wanderer, but a good girl.”
Alia was northern Dargon’s most respected weather reader and she had recently petitioned the villagers for a fosterling, having not borne a child of her own to carry on the weather lore. The villagers had been somewhat reluctant but their reliance on the weather reader was strong. The thing that Bracie had feared for an entire year had finally occurred. Her father had decided to foster her to Alia.
Bracie knew nothing about the old woman who lived by the sea and had never before seen anyone whose face was so marred with wrinkles. Bracie was prepared to hate her, but Alia’s smile was infectious.
“Is that right, young’n? You’ve taken a liking to Mother Makdiar, eh?” Alia asked, looking directly into the young girl’s eyes.
Upon closer inspection, Bracie decided that Alia was cute, in an old mother sort of way and she gave one quick nod, “Aye, I suppose.” Bracie’s small hand reached out instinctively and slipped into Alia’s gnarled fist. “Can you teach me about the faeries who live in the forest? Before Ma died, she used to tell me there weren’t no such thing, but I am nae sure.” Bracie’s face brightened as a torrent of words began to spill from her mouth, “Ya know, I saw night weeds,” Bracie continued as she bobbed her head rapidly. Deep in the forest, it was. They were all tramped down and blood red; squashed like. It was the faeries dancing on ‘em made ‘em that way and you know what they say about that. Faeries dance when the weather is fair.” She smiled then, a bright beam of pride. “So, I reckon we’ll be having some good weather, eh?”
Bracie was a beautiful child, with hair the color of harvest wheat and eager eyes that were the same color as the dark fertile land. Whatever reservations the old weather reader had, soon evaporated and she stood slowly, addressing Bracie’s father, “Thank you, Zar. I know this is not easy for you.” Alia flashed Bracie a quick, reassuring smile, “And yes, you’re right, she’ll make an excellent weather reader”.
With a blink of her third eye, Bracie separated from the memory and was transported to another, later time. Taking stock of her surroundings, Bracie quickly decided that she was in the forest. It was night-time and judging by the full moon at its zenith, it was the midway point of Cahleyna’s rule. She knew immediately that she was not alone. Upon the tail of that thought came the whispered evidence of someone close by, as if imagining it had brought it somehow into reality. The voices were coming from the opposite side of a huge grandfather oak and she willed herself to stillness as the voices grew louder. Bracie recognized the steady cadence of Alia’s ritual voice and her mind automatically picked up the rhythm, “Squirrels gather’n nuts in a hurry?”
The reply was immediate, “Causes snow to gather in a flurry.”
“When an ox scratches his ear?”
“A rain shower is near.” It was then that Bracie recognized her own voice.
“When he thumps his side with an angry tail?”
“Look out for thunder, lightning and hail.”
Bracie’s spirit was irresistibly drawn to the two corporeal beings and she witnessed their exchange like a thief spying on an unwary soul.
“Very good lass. Now the vow.”
Bracie’s speech grew loud and solemn, “Goddess Cahleyna, to thee I pledge,” she lifted her face to the brilliance of the moon. “As our forebears did, so do I now and so shall my children do after me. This I vow forevermore.” With perfect precision Bracie continued, “Grant me the power to stand mighty as the tree, old as the land, strong as the sea. Reaching to the sky, to the moons and to Kisil-Doon.”
Alia continued the consecration, “Great Goddess, take this maiden’s unspoiled hands, these lips, these eyes. Guide them in your ways, empower them with your honor.”
Again, Bracie picked up the steady beat, “In return I pledge to you my children and their children to come. Never shall I allow the rule of Cahleyna to be broken.”
“Grant her the roots of eternity. Cleanse her with the waters of life and bind her, now and forever, to Mother Makdiar who sustains us,” Alia chanted, concluding the ritual of knowing.
Now it was Firil and the wind wailed. The brave little tabby defied the veil of death and slithered inside the cabin. Moments later, the physical contact of the cat rubbing against her face forced Bracie into the present and served as a siren calling her spirit back to the flesh.
With a massive intake of breath that convulsed her body, Bracie jerked upwards into a sitting position. The kitten was flung aside and scampered over to crouch in the corner, staring at her mistress with huge eyes.
The ritual of knowing still rang in Bracie’s ears and she felt Alia’s presence in the cabin as she had not since the old weather reader had died, twelve years past. Alia had given Bracie everything: her home, all of her possessions, all of her knowledge. In exchange, Bracie had promised to carry on the weather lore.
Under Alia’s tutelage, Bracie had become known as a gentle, yet powerful reader who took little in exchange for the knowledge that she gave. Slowly the locals had learned to trust Bracie as they had trusted Alia and with each new season had lined up at her door, eager for news of the changes to come.
She had cared for them for many years, helping to predict the best time to harvest, saving them from harsh winters and warning them of dry summers to come. All those years, Bracie had thought she was fulfilling her promise to Alia, but she knew now with a frightening certainty that she had done no such thing. She would die today or tomorrow and there would be no one to take up her craft.
Alia’s last words to Bracie rang silently in her mind, “There are lines all about us lass, lines that join every living thing; you are the knot that binds one to another.”
A sudden, vivid image flashed across the field of her mind; the land spread out below her in all its glory with tiny lines glowing beneath its skin, radiating in all directions, flowing through everything.
Suddenly, a tingling in the pit of Bracie’s stomach jolted her back to awareness. She scrambled frantically, shoving the covers from her body and her gut clenched at what she saw. The ghost of a transparent green rope wound its way from the dirt floor of her cabin, through her body and out again. The point where the rope exited her body was the vibrant green of intrinsic life, but as it grew further from her, it changed rapidly to a lifeless brown, until it reached its dead black end. The rope had no anchor, the circle was broken. Everything that she had ever been, all of her passion, all of her knowledge, all of her love of the weather lore ceased to exist at the end of that inch-thick rope.
The rope began to shrink, the blackened end approaching her body and Bracie knew the most abject of horrors. The weather lore was the cord that bound her to the natural world. When it died …
Bracie’s last mortal thought was that the wind had shifted and now blew from the south. Fair weather was on the way. How pleased her orange dappled tabby would be.