It was an immense darkness that stirred in the canyon's depths. A deep, terrifying blackness that numbed the nerves and tugged at the heart. During the day, the chasm was nothing but air. Just rock peppered with the collapsed pillars of some ancient, once mighty structure. But now, during the last rays of twilight, it was already blacker than night. No stars twinkled in its expanse. No moon shone.
Anna gazed nervously down into that chasm from the narrow ledge on the cliff-side. A strong wind raced through the canyon and whipped at her clothes. She clung to the holds more tightly, squeezing her satchel between herself and the rock. Loose gravel spilled over the edge and vanished silently into the abyss. The ledge she was standing on was no wider than her forearm. She teetered and wondered what spirits might lurk down there and what pity they might have for those who fell.
But she breathed, inhaling a long, sharp breath of the night's cool air and drew up her gaze. Across the chasm, on the other side of the canyon, was beyond what any plains folk could dream. Trees, flush with greens, bent and whistled in the wind. Wide, healthy leaves swayed on their branches and the sound of water—sweet, nourishing water—painfully crisp and clean in the final rays of sunlight, spilled over the edge from rivulets and streams.
She licked her lips. In the cool darkness, you could almost taste it. She fantasized about what it would be like to have so much water it could spill endlessly into an abyss yet never run dry. You could nurse every child. You could water every field.
You could even use it to bathe.
She shimmied a little further along the ledge and dug her fingers into a crumbling spot on the cliff-side. The dry rock scraped at her skin, but it was too coarse and calloused to cut. She closed her fist on the thorns of a buried vine and pulled it from the rock. Prickly, white pustules grew along its length. Earlier, in the village, Anna had overheard a woman speaking about her husband. It stung when he peed. The woman had tried everything, felt helpless, felt weak. Carefully, Anna plucked two buds from the vine. Their bitter, dry paste was exactly what he'd need.
A strong gust of wind jostled her, and she braced her knee against a small outcrop. Far down the length of the canyon, the sun continued to fall. The wind raged louder than her thoughts and the darkness in the bed of the canyon rumbled. She closed her eyes and listened.
Here, she was not an herbalist. Not a plains woman. Not a daughter.
Here, she was alone.
She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and found they had fallen back down into the depths of the chasm. In her dreams, she was always falling. Faster and faster, but never hitting bottom.
Perhaps that was oblivion.
But now she had to go. Any longer and it would be too late to return. She'd be stuck here all night without food or heat, and when the desert sun would rise in the morning, she would not have the water to endure it. She plucked a few more handfuls of pustules and poured them into her weathered bag.
Carefully, she retraced her steps across the ledge. The moon rose. She scaled the rock and hoisted herself back onto the vast expanse of the Arid Plains. The flat, empty desert was nothing but thistles and brittle bush in every direction. No trees grew there, just the looming, lifeless hoodoos. The stars twinkled above the mountains far to the north. She quickly retreated from the vulnerable open area into a dry gorge, the hollow companion to the river flowing from the other side. The dead riverbed would take her all the way home.
Her village lay ahead, near the nexus of the dried, expansive river delta. Pillars of black smoke rose from the faraway huts. Anna shivered, and thought about the warmth of her own fire as she hurried her pace. Each village needed to fend for itself in the plains. They were too far from each other for visits to be anything more than a seasonal event. The news that arrived to them was no more than gossip, and the world beyond their arid expanse was the stage of many myths, folk tales, and legends.
Even from within the gorge, she could see the tops of the mountains to the north. Twice a year, on the hottest days, the white tips of those mountains would crack and cry, and fresh water would spill down the rock and coat the desert in a cool, thin film. Green and brown grasses would erupt from the rock, and for six days their normally lifeless homeland would teem with birds, bugs, foxes, and other animals big and small. Smoke carrying the scents of delicious meats would sweep from village to village, the people taken with revelry, peace, and love. Children would be made everywhere, between everyone.
It spilled but they called it rain, for it came from above.
Anna's tongue stuck to the dry roof of her mouth. She took out her water-skin and drank sparingly as she pressed on towards home. The first rain of the year had fallen many moons ago now; its deposits in the ground were nearly spent. Villagers toiled day and night on the tracts that would pool the second rain, but it had not yet come. If it didn't, they had toiled for nothing. Every bead of sweat lost in their labour was a drop that could have nursed a child.
One of the thorny pustules pricked her hip through the bag. She wondered if the husband would care; care to feel better in a life that was so full of suffering anyway. If his wife would not stare at the measly tincture in her hand and wonder why Anna has given it, when all anyone had asked for was something else.
When will the second rain fall?
Stories were told of what happened to villages who could no longer grapple with the cruelty of the land. Farmers turned to bandits; sickles sharpened into blades. Debts perverted into bondage and slavery. Maybe all would flee west, roam and hunt the herds like the nomads who once lived there. Or maybe the Empire would finally come, tame the land, and put its people to work on their many projects. No one goes hungry in the Empire, or so she'd heard.
Those thoughts reminded her too much of her own past. She put them away, along with the thinning water skin.
She peeked up over the lip of the gorge, where her and her father's hut stood in silence. No smoke rose from its roof. No family stirred within.
Beyond it, the stars twinkled menacingly.
And among them, glowed the ever-watching moon.
Her stomach tightened. She tossed the bag over the edge of the gorge and climbed the ancient roots out of the riverbed. A few villagers scouring for coal waved. She threw them a weak smile, which carried her past her own wilting gardens and to the opening of her home.
Inside was dark and sad and cold. Ash littered the ground, as she hadn't swept. Pages were strewn in a welter. The darkness was laden with to-dos. Moonlight streamed through the cracks in the mud walls.
"The fire," croaked an old voice in the darkness.
Her shoulders felt heavy. "Of course."
"I'm wet," he said.
She dropped her bag on the floor and crouched by his bedside. Dry roots crinkled underneath him. She packed more sand beneath his shoulders as he grumbled and moaned.
"You were out," he said.
Her lips pressed together tightly. She spread the sand atop his chest in silence. When she was finished, she grabbed her flint and knelt before the hearth. Moonlight shone down through the smoke hole in the ceiling.
"Be alone all you'd like," he said. The moon reached its peak in the sky. "That is, if you have nothing else to do."
She steadied her hand, which was shaking, and carefully lit the hearth. The spark ignited the dwindling pile of coal and stone. The plume of warmth baked her sagging expression. She ran her fingers through her dusty hair.
"Cold," her father moaned, tossing in his bed.
Anna poured in the extra coal from her bag, but it was not enough. All that remained was the hard-found pustules. Enough to grant that husband a week of freedom from his suffering, but their paste was also quite flammable.
"I cannot teach when it's cold..." he groaned.
What use did the dead have for teas and tinctures?
She poured them into the fire. Her hard work popped and crackled.
YOU ARE READING
The Witch and The DeadFantasy
On the Arid Plains, villages live and die by the rains. Only an Oracle can predict them, but Anna's father is ill. The role falls to her but, when she looks up to the skies, she sees nothing but stars. So when a demon that feeds on guilt is drawn to...