Good morning, Readers! I’m back (by request and demand) with another installment of Stella and Griffin’s story (which really needs a title, doesn’t it? I’ll work on that). In case you missed it, their last adventure was in A Little Encouragement. Catch up if you need to! This bit is actually going to be a two-part installment…and I will post the second part soon as I can. For now, enjoy!
Must Be Magic
It was a little after midday when we rode into the small village of Willow Down. Stella claimed she’d been there once before, with her father. I didn’t ask what the occasion had been. It was a tiny settlement, barely able to claim the title of village. The people there were mostly woodsmen. The town did have one claim to notoriety however. Because of its location deep in the woods, it was a haven for healers and those who wanted to study the natural arts, as well as those few believers who practiced “magic.”
“Magic?” Stella asked, her eyes wide. Bart nodded so vigorously I thought he might topple off his horse. I rolled my eyes, but neither of them were paying attention.
“Yes, Miss Stella,” said Bart, clearly loving her astonishment. “It’s said that Willow Down is the home of the most powerful witch in the kingdom.”
“Is that who we’re going to see?”
Bart looked at me, caught sight of my glare and swallowed. “Well, I think…”
“If you thought more, you would talk less,” I interrupted crossly. Stella frowned and I ignored her. “We’re not going to see any so-called witch. Willow Down is in the middle of the forest where the Taken have been roaming. If anyone knows anything about them, it’s going to be the villagers. We’re going to see what we can find out.”
“There’s no need to be rude,” Stella snapped at me.
“It’s no trouble, Miss Stella,” Bart mumbled, but she waved him off.
“Yes it is! There’s absolutely no need for his belittling you like that!”
“I’m really not…”
“He’s always rude to you! Why do you even…”
“Quiet!” I hissed at her, cutting her off mid-tirade. She gave me a murderous look but I shook my head, indicating the village we had just entered. Everything was eerily silent. There was no sound, no movement to be seen anywhere. A feeling of dread pooled in my stomach. I glanced at Bart, wondering if he felt it too. The familiarity. We had seen towns like this before, in the North. “Stella, stay close,” I ordered. For once she listened without question.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, riding up beside me, her voice barely a whisper and nearly lost under the soft clop-clop of the horses’ hooves on the soft earth. “Where is everyone? What’s happened?”
I scanned the small timber houses lining the road on either side of us. Curtains in open windows flapped forlornly in the breeze, doors stood open. Abandoned fires smoldered and gave off faint wisps of smoke and everywhere tasks lay half-finished. Laundry sat still soaking in a large cauldron, an ax sat embedded in a partially split chunk of wood and a broom made of brush lay fallen on a front step still in need of sweeping.
“It’s like they disappeared in the middle of their daily chores,” whispered Stella. I shared a glance with Bart again and could see his thoughts were running along the same lines as mine.
“The Soul-Eater has been here,” I said.
Stella gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “And taken everyone?” Her eyes strayed to a small cloth doll laying in the front yard of a small cottage. Tears welled up in the corner of her eyes. My heart sank.
“Looks that way,” I said softly, hoping she wouldn’t break down. She didn’t, but surreptitiously wiped her eyes when she thought I wasn’t looking.
I slid down from my saddle. “We might as well search the village in case there were any left behind,” I said. “And pick up some provisions.” Stella looked sharply at me. “They don’t need these things anymore,” I said, sensing her thoughts. “Even if they come back, they won’t begrudge us some food and supplies, I am certain.” She held my gaze for a while, then nodded and joined me on the ground. Bart walked up behind us, leading his horse and the mule. “Stay with Bart,” I told Stella, then strode off before she could protest.
I don’t know why I was even looking for survivors. I had seen more than one town like this in the North, when fighting the Soul-Eater in Fellforough. Entire towns, three times the size of this one completely emptied and abandoned, the people disappearing in the middle of all kinds of daily tasks. Men, women and children – no one was spared.
I had just come upon what looked to be the village center when I heard Bart’s shout and Stella’s scream. Heart in my mouth I turned and raced back the way I had come, drawing my sword as I went. It wouldn’t do much good against the Soul-Eater itself, but it could cut through its minions well enough. I rounded a corner around the house where Bart and Stella has gone and skidded to a stop. Stella was standing with her hand over her heart, a smile on her face. Bart was bent over laughing as well. My brief fear melted into anger.
“What were you thinking, screaming like that?” I demanded. The smile slid quickly from Stella’s face and Bart straightened immediately. “I thought you were being run through, with all the commotion were you making.”
Bart opened his mouth to speak but Stella beat him to it. She stepped forward, but instead of her usual shrewish remark she put a hand placidly on my arm. “We were startled, that was all. We rounded the corner and frightened some chickens that were wondering around. They flew up at my face and I screamed. I’m sorry to have worried you.”
Her eyes were open wide and beseeching me to calm down, but my heart thundered on in my chest. I jerked away. “Next time, try to keep your head. This isn’t a pleasure trip. The danger is real.”
Her eyes flashed and the look on her face became cool and distant. “Forgive me,” she said. “It won’t happen again.” Then she turned on her heel and walked off.
I turned to Bart, who was looking at me shame-faced. “Sorry, Master Griffin. I should have called out that all was well.” I took a deep breath and shook my head, my anger receding.
“Just try to be a little more aware, will you? She doesn’t realize the full extent of the danger we’re in.”
“Do you?” a voice crackled behind us and and I whirled around, sword at the ready. A small, wizened old woman stood there, watching us with dark, ancient looking eyes. A shiver passed over me involuntarily. “Well, do you?” the woman repeated. She was dressed in robes of mottled brown and green, making her blend in with the forest around her. My eyes narrowed.
“Who are you?” I asked, not lowering my sword. From the corner of my eye, I saw that Bart’s hand rested at the knife in his belt.
The old woman waved a hand. “Bah! Put down those weapons, boys, I’m not an agent of the dark one.”
“Why should we trust you?” I asked, still not lowering my sword.
The old woman grinned, making even more wrinkles on her already well lined face. “Ha! Perhaps you would be wise not to. But I mean no harm, and I can give you the answers you seek.”
I held my stance, still studying her when Stella walked back around the corner of the house, chickens in her wake. “Bart, what are you…” She stopped suddenly when she caught sight of the old woman, me with my sword raised and Bart with his hand on his knife. “What’s going on?” I tensed.
“Ah,” said the old woman, her voice crackling again. “Here is the one who screams like a wildcat when threatened.” Stella blushed, and the old woman straightened. Her tone became businesslike and orderly. “Come. Put those blasted weapons away and follow me. I will make some tea and tell you what you want to know.” She beckoned us and turned away.
“Wait,” Stella called, walking forward. I lowered my sword and caught her by the arm. She jerked out of my grasp. “Wait! Who are you?”
The old woman stopped and slowly turned around. She smiled, revealing crooked teeth under a long pointed nose. “I am Horatia. Come with me now.”