White Funeral, part five
**Part five! All comments welcome... Enjoy.**
They say that her little boat was carried very gently by the sea, the way a true Queen's should. The door swings open seemingly of its own accord, for there is no one standing behind it. Still, I only hesitate for a second before stepping inside, finally out of the bitter wind, though the cold still lingers in my marrow. Calixto closes the door behind us as we walk deeper into the little cottage. It is split into three different areas, not really rooms, but still separated into kitchen, living space, bedroom. We're standing in the living space right now, with a fire blazing brightly in the stone hearth, a wooden rocking chair sitting empty beside it. In fact, everything about this cottage is empty. The bed. The little couch. The chairs around the kitchen table, the stone-cold oven, the pristine sink.
"Who do you think lives here?" I whisper to Calixto.
"Someone strange," he replies. His voice sounds thin and fragile, and when I look at his face I see that his skin has the pallor of death.
"Sit down," I instruct him, pointing to the bed.
"What?" he croaks, but I push him toward it until he obeys. "When whoever it is gets back, I don't think they'll be pleased to find that we've made ourselves at home."
"Well, I think they'd be more upset if they found you dead on their doorstep," I quip. "Take off your coat; let me get a better look at your side."
Calixto nods and I help him pull off his velvet coat. I toss mine aside as well and kneel down as Calixto carefully releases his side, letting me take a good look at it. I very gently pull away the cloth and do my best to steel my nerves even as my hands quiver. The wound is just as bad as I thought, but maybe worse, and I can't see the bullet. There is no way Calixto can wait much longer for a real doctor.
I hand him the wadded-up sleeve, already completely stained a deep red with his blood. "Just keep applying pressure," I say, trying to be confident, even though I have no clue what I'm doing.
"Elsa," Calixto begins, but the door flies open with a bang. I brace myself for the wind's howling crescendo, for the cold to pierce me again. But instead, I only feel a faint breeze, and the sound that blusters into the cottage is... beautiful.
It almost makes me dizzy to hear it, melodic and perfect, a hint of mourning in its clear, ringing song. I feel as though if I close my eyes, I would start to soar on the cool air, up over the throbbing sea...
But a figure steps through the door, hooded in black. The door closes, but the song hangs in the air for another moment before fading away. My heart aches for it, wonders why it has stopped.
The figure throws off their black cloak, and I snap out of my daze. It's a woman, neither young nor old, wearing a simple grey dress. Her hair is tied back, and over it she wears a black cloth, wrapped loosely around her head, as widows often do. Somehow, she does not seem surprised to see us.
"Oh," she says. her voice sounds very real, very mundane. Something about it makes me remember the immediate circumstances, the danger that Calixto is in.
"Madam," I say, and curtsey politely. "I'm sorry we just sort of barged in here, we thought you were inside, and the door just opened--"
She waves a hand. "Oh, yes," she says. "Don't worry about it. I've been meaning to fix the hinges, but... Oh! Your friend!" she cries, noticing Calixto lying on the bed. "Here, here. What's happened?"
"He was shot." I state those three words as clamly as I can.
She bites her lip. She has white teeth, a pretty rosebud mouth, smooth features. Her dark eyes shine.
Who is she, I wonder?
They say that her funeral boat was undisturbed by waves or storms, the way a true Queen's should. I watch as our hostess snatches up clean bandage cloth from a drawer and swiftly begins to dress Calixto's wound. Her hands are quick and she seems to know what she's doing. She looks up for a moment and says, "Third shelf, five jars from the left. Get it down, and start boiling some water."
I obey, fetching the jar full of some kind of ground-up roots and leaves, and then I fill a pot from the sink. It's one of those where you have to pump to make the water come out, and it takes a lot before I can get any water to come, since it's probably freezing in the pipes. The woman comes to my rescue and finishes filling the pot, then hurriedly hangs it over the roaring fire.
"Excuse me," I say, unable to contain the question any longer. "Who are you?"
She smiles kindly at me. "I am the occupant of this little house. My name is Bronach. Yours?"
"Elsa," I say, studying her. Somehow her name does not quite fit.
"Lovely," Bronach replies. "And your friend?" She looks over her shoulder toward the bedroom, and so do I.
"Calixto." He opens his eyes at the mention of his name, but in a moment he's closed them again, succumbing to exhaustion.
Bronach's expression turns serious. She lowers her voice. "I can do a little for him. When the water boils, I'll make him some medicine. It'll ease the pain, and the bandage will slow the bleeding, but he needs help. Once the medicine starts to work, you should be able to get him back home, and have a doctor fix him up."
"But we can't," I explain, running a hand through my hair. "There are soldiers in the Capitol, with the man who shot him. If we go back, they'll catch us for sure, and then they'll have Calixto's head. I... I can't let that happen."
Bronach nods. "Of course not."
The water starts to boil and she takes it away, starts to mix up some medicine from the crushed leaves and roots in the jar. I hear her take it to Calixto, make him sit up and drink it. But I stand still by the fire, staring into the flames and thinking that we are trapped.
I feel a gentle touch on my shoulder. Bronach. "Elsa," she says softly, "I have an idea. Maybe you could... go home by a different way."
"How?" I ask. "There is no other way back to the Capitol. Maybe if we kept riding we'd find a forest, or another city, but that could take days. Wth the cold and the shape he's in, I don't think we would make it."
"What if..." Bronach stares into the fire, and I into her face. I wonder why she lives here all alone. How does she get her food? Why would she choose such harsh solitude? And why does she wear the widow's veil? She is not very young, but she does seem too young to have already buried a husband. What kind of life has she had?
Her voice breaks through my thoughts.
"What if... What if you went by sea?" She looks up and meets my eyes. I let our gazes lock for a long moment, my light eyes swallowed by her dark ones that shine in a way that is almost unearthly.
"How would we do that?" I ask.
Bronach pulls on her cloak and throws my coat to me, and then she leads me outside. Around the other side f her house, there is a pair of wooden doors in the ground, slightly raised.
"An emergency shelter," she explains. "In case of any extreme weather. But I keep things down there, too."
"Like...?" I am not exactly sure where she's going with this.
"Like a boat," she says, and pulls open one of the doors. I pull open the other, finding it surprisingly light yet sturdy. Bronach descends a ladder with ease, seemingly unfazed by the deep darkness below. Hesitantly, I follow and finally feel dirt under my feet. Down here, it is even colder and smells of earth. I think of a tomb, and it makes me shiver all the more. I hear the whsiper of a match being struck, and then Bronach is lighting a rusty lantern. As she holds the light aloft, I gasp.
Before us sits a little wooden boat, only a few feet longer than me, the sides just higher than my knees. But it's a boat. Two oars lie on the dirt floor next to it, just waiting for someone to use them. I run a hand along the side of the boat, feeling how rough and splintery it is. It seems like it used to have a layer of paint that's been stripped away by salt and time.
"You sail this?" I ask.
Bronach shrugs. "Not so much anymore. I know how to, though."
"I kind of know how," I say. Living by the sea, almost everyone knows how to use an oar. "But I don't know if I can get us there. The sea will be strong in this wind, and Bronach, I still don't know. I think... I think we'll need you to come with us."
Her face darkens. It looks almot ghostly in the lantern's light, throwing a net of shadows over her features. "Come with you?"
"Please, Bronach!" I beg, taking her hand. It's warm despite the fact that mine are already frozen again. "Please. You've done so much already, but I need your help. Calixto needs it. There is no way I'll be able to get us back alone. Please."
She doesn't repond, just stares at me, her eyes tinged with pain.
"Listen, just help me sail us there, and then you can go back. You don't even have to get out of the boat. Just.... please."
There is a long silence between us, with only the wind making a sound, beating on the wooden doors up above ground.
"Very well, then, Elsa," she says, and there is something in her voice that I can't place.
They say that her death voyage lasted twelve days, the way a true Queen's should. Together, Bronach and I have dragged the boat up the ladder and out of the emergency shelter. Now we ready Calixto for the journey, forcing him to drink more of the herbal medicine, helping him into his coat. Bronach hands me a pair of black gloves. "So your hands won't get too stiff to hold onto the oars," she says. I slip them on and hold onto Calixto's arm as we follow Bronach out of the house.
When he sees the boat, Calixto's eyes widen. "Where did you get that?' he asks.
"It's Bronach's. We're going home in it," I say.
"Are you sure, Elsa?" There is a warning note in his hoarse voice. "Even if we don't come riding through the Capitol, people will be looking for us."
"And what about Firafel?" It takes me a minute to realize that he's talking about the roan.
Bronach speaks up. "I'll take care of your horse until you come get it," she says.
I turn to her. "How do we get this into the water?" I look out at the edge of the cliff, feeling my empty stomach flop. I hope she has a plan.
"This way," she says. She drags the boat by a rope knotted to the bow, somehow doing this gracefully. Calixto and I follow her to the edge of the cliff, where she pushes aside a clump of tall, half-frozen thorn bushes to reveal a narrow path that winds down the cliffside to the sea.
Calixto and I look at each other, then forge ahead.
the longer we go on, the more Calixto has to lean on me, even though I can tell he's trying not to. By the time we reach the bottom, he's so pale and clammy that I'm afraid he might faint. "Calixto...?"
He nods his head and manages to say, "I'm fine. I'm fine."
I turn toward the sea and feel its misty spray settle on my skin. I can taste the salt, and my heart seems to beat in time to the waves against the rock.
"Elsa." Bronach motions for me to help her lower the boat into the water, which I do. She hands the rope to me and carefully climbs a few feet down off our slippery ledge of rock into the tiny wooden boat. Seeing it against the limitless expanse of the sea makes me feel small, lost, and afraid. Perhaps this is foolish. We are like pebbles trying to set sail in a washtub.
Calixto takes my hand. As if he can read my thoughts he gives it a reassuring squeeze, and then with Bronach's encouraging words from below, I help him climb into the boat. Bronach makes him sit in the front, curled up tightly against the relentless cold. Then she takes and oar, hands me the other-- and we are off, each stroke of the paddle taking us closer and closer to the Capitol.
Time passes. We are almost there, and my arms are sore and stiff beyond exhaustion, but we are almost there. Calixto is hovering somewhere between waking and sleep now, I can sense it even though I can't see his face. His hat has blown away, lost in the waves, and the medicine is wearing off fast. Every so often he groans, as the pain comes back.
"Calixto!" I shout, over the throb and the slosh of the sea and wind, my hair flying windly around my head and into my mouth. "Calixto!" I can't let him fall asleep. I can't.
"There, look!" Bronach stops rowing for a moment and points at the Capitol, coming into view beside up. The cliffs have curved down to the point where here, there is just sand and the docks where ships come to rest after long days of fishing and carrying goods. Out in the distance, there is the beach with its grassy bluffs. the very same ones from which I watched the funeral all those years ago.
"That's it!" I say. "Pull into the docks!"
I pour all my energy, all that is left inside me into getting us to the docks. Bronach hurriedly ties up the boat and steadies it for me as I get Calixto to his feet. he can hardly stand, but I pull him out of the boat and onto the wooden planks of the empty dock.
Relief floods me. We are almost there! We made it this far, I know we can make it to help and safety.
But then I hear Bronach cry out, and I turn to the right in time to see soldiers come running out from where they'd been hiding among the fishing ships. Their boots thud heavily on the planks, and with each of their steps I feel as though my knees will give out from beneath me. I can almost feel myself falling, but Calixto's weight on my shoulder, the feeling of him leaning on me, stays me.
The soldiers stop in front of us, and from among them emerges their leader, the man who first shot Calixto. I hear a click that means his gun is loaded, and then I'm staring down the metal barrel, my body frozen with fear.
"Give him up," the man commands. His voice is even, calm, but I sense an underlying hatred that is bordering on insanity. "Or I shoot you all right here."