The day it all changed. My life.
Things would always change, yet change had always avoided me. I had lived the life of my ancestors just as they had done, and had been accepted and trusted just as they had done. I lived in peace. I offered voice to opinions when asked. Provided counsel when needed. Remained silent when necessary, which was often. Considered a good person by many. A guru by others. A term that never felt suited me, yet I accepted the respect with which it was given.
The people of my village would change. New life. New loves. New problems. Seasons would change. New crops. New warmth. New snow. I remained ever reliable and constant.
Then one man…
That day the weather had been particularly terrible. Strong winds and heavy falls. The shingles on my roof struggled against their bonds with musical sounds of clinking, accentuating this was the whistling and whooshing notes of the wind in the trees, and bushes with a deep rumbling felt more than seen, in the distance. Even so, it was not enough to drown the heavy panting and pounding feet of an approaching presence. Even as I heard their approach, I anticipated the pounding on the door as I braced myself for the cold air without.
As if blown in on the wind itself, a figure drenched in wet, drowned hair in curling tendrils wrapped around their face, was flung onto the floor as I held the door against the wind. As I re-bolted the locks against the tempest, I listened carefully to the heavy breathing of the human puddle behind me. Whomever it was, struggled to get up on limbs too weak to support their own weight.
“Let’s get you to the fire.” I lifted them from the floor and helped them across the room to the home-made wooden stool that had been a gift from an elder villager some years before. I was able to determine with some certainty that the current occupant was a young lady, although the hair covered face made it hard to know just who it was. Her robes were not only soaked through, but torn and somewhat tattered. Her arms showed signs of bruising and scratches.
“Sit there a moment my dear. I’ll fetch something warm.” Her breathing was still hard and deep as she hung her head forward, yet seemed to be drawn to the warmth of the fire. After a moment to satisfy my concern, I withdrew to fetch blankets and robes. Along the way, I placed a pot of water onto the burning stove. A warm drink would help warm her heart.
Upon returning, I noticed that her breathing had subsided, and she sat a little straighter. I placed the robes and blankets next to her. Then I turned to removing the hair from her face.
“I will make you a warm bean-powder. While I’m gone, you should change out of these wet clothes. I have a few robes for you here, plus blankets to dry your hair.”
She nodded slowly as I pulled hair away from her eyes, and that is when I recognised her. Cassinda. I felt my breath every so slightly pause. The shock I felt within was vexing, such that my composure almost crumbled. She had been the first to vanish. I had heard the stories and tales of wild accusations. Many had sought me out to seek counsel as one by one, the young men and women of the village had either vanished or left, not to be seen again.
I rose after letting the last curl of hair fall from my fingers, letting her haggard face bask in the warmth of the hearth. My composure was challenged a second time when I considered the state of her appearance. Sunken cheeks, eyes as if hidden in pits, with lips covered in sores and almost hanging from her face, and skin blackened like that of a coal digger.
I retired to the room where I cooked my evening meals. The water was warm and not yet bubbling. I took a clean mug and poured some sweet-smelling bean-powder within. Then mixed the warmed water with a stirring stick. All the while I listened and could hear young Cassinda as she changed her robes, with small grunts of discomfort and pain. I continued to stir until the sounds of ruffled clothing ceased. I tapped the stirring stick twice, more to let her know I was done, and there was no further noise from her.
With a cautious scouting glance, I returned to her side with the warm concoction which she took gingerly. Her robes were discarded on the floor and a slow puddle seeped around them. She sat huddled in the borrowed robes, a towel wrapped around her head, looking in the flickering flames. She looked broken. Exhausted.
I drew up a second stool, one of my own construction, much the inferior of the one upon which Cassinda sat but sturdy enough to support me. I looked into the fire, while paying attention to her movements from the edges of my sight. Her movements were measured, slow, almost thoughtful. There was a sense that she was trying to think of something to say.
For a very long time, we both just sat there, feeling the warmth of the fire, as she sipped her brew. Then at last, with a long drawn sigh, she lowered the mug from her lips, looked down into her lap.
“Thank you.” Her voice was soft, almost a whisper. It sounded shy, perhaps embarrassed. She nervously bit her bottom lip.
“You are welcome.” I kept my voice low and calm. I felt the urge to ask her for her tale, but experience was stronger and I let silence again settle between us. She sat there, still and silent, for several breaths. Then her body ever so slightly shifted.
“Can I stay here tonight?” She did not look at me yet I could almost see the pleading look in her eyes. She was scared and lost.
“Of course. I’ll prepare a space in front of the hearth here. You may have the cot if you prefer.”
“No. I like the fire.” She smiled just slightly. “It’s comforting.” She raised her face to look at me for the first time. “Thank you.” There was just a faint echo of the Cassinda I had known from before her disappearance. A mere shadow of the spirit she had once known.
We both sat there looking into the fire until she had finished her bean-powder brew. The wind outside playing tones now foreboding. The clinking of the shingles now a chaotic staccato and tapping. The distant deep rumbling now more menacing.
With that, everything changed. My life was not to ever be as it was. This was the last day I could claim innocence over what was happening in the village. For tomorrow I was to learn too much. For tomorrow I was to learn about the Silver Tongue.