Cecilia and the Bansídhe
I'm so bogged down in confusion on the plot for A Steampunk Tale that I'm taking a break from writing it to work on plotting and backstory and drawing maps, and figuring out how everything in the story world works. I should have known this would happen. I guess I'm not a seat-of-the-pants-er. :)
The creature couldn't speak. But it seemed to be able to see her.
Cecilia tightened the spectacle goggles she had stolen from the lab and held her breath as the bansídhe padded across the rain-soaked sand. When its toes touched the ring of stones, it stopped as if waiting for something.
"Who are you?" Cecilia's voice was unaffected by what the scientists had done, and came through bold and clear over the sound of water.
The bansídhe did not speak. It beckoned to her to pass the ring.
Behind her, across the ankle-deep river, the wendigo emerged from the dripping trees. It hissed like a bucket full of snakes. Even without eyes, it watched her. There was nowhere to go. No one could outrun a wendigo.
What did the bansídhe want with her? Cecilia took a reluctant step towards the creature. Its face was hidden by its long black hair, but she felt that it smiled as she drew nearer. And it remained silent. No dark lament, nor deadly song. Yet didn't its very presence herald the death of travelers?
The wendigo splashed into the river like a bear.
What choice did she have? She didn't want to be torn apart by the ravening monster behind her.
Cecilia stepped over the stones, her numb feet stiff as stumps in her sodden boots. Her breath came ragged as she waited for her fate.
A horrible howl cracked and split the air like a bolt of summer lightning. Stars burst in her head. She clutched her ears, terrified. How awful for the last sound one hears to be this!
The wendigo splashed and clattered over round river stones. Cecilia chanced a glance back, and saw it clamber up the riverbank, back into the forest.
The bansídhe's long hair stirred with the breeze and revealed her tranquil, silent face. The voice wasn't hers at all.
The howls dwindled into the distance as the monster fled.
Cecilia's heartbeat thundered in her covered ears. She lifted her hands away tentatively. "Who are you?" she asked again, not expecting an answer.
"I am called River." The low voice blended with the rush of the water, soft like the single note of a forest bird. "I am the guardian of this part of the wilderness. What is your name, human child?"
"Cecilia Caraway." Bansídhe had names? Cecilia clasped her hands behind her back and studied the creature's pale but lovely face. She was translucent. Even her ghostly white robes only shaded the scenery behind her. It was like glimpsing the world through a piece of tracing paper held over a window, or through frosted glass. A few paces behind the bansídhe, she noticed the dark opening of a door, the entrance to a tiny round house made of river stones. The bansídhe's shelter. She wondered how it stayed standing when it was built on sand. "I thought you were going to hurt me. Why didn't you answer?"
The bansídhe's dark eyes were kind. "I cannot speak unless you enter my home." She touched the ring of stones with her bare foot.
"But you can still sing."
Cecilia wanted to ask why she was like that, but felt it wouldn't be polite. She was invisible, barely more than a specter herself, thanks to North Star and his wretched experiments. She shivered at the memory.
The question slipped out anyway.
"Ah." River almost smiled for a moment. "Bansídhe are empowered by the Creator. We guard the wilderness. We build the stone rings, the lines the monsters cannot pass, and for such a strong enchantment the price is our words. A price we gladly pay to stop the monsters that roam this place. If you need shelter, our homes are yours." She straightened with obvious pride. "And, in his wisdom, he gave us this gift. My song is death to revenants like the one that sought you. When I was young, we lived in peace here, watching the passage of the seasons and welcoming our friends of other kindreds. But evil tainted your kind, and darkened not only you, but also the fae, and us." Her voice broke. "The land itself longs for its remaking. We, who used to celebrate, are still here. Now we mourn, and the ones we once called friends fear us. Everything is broken."
Overwhelmed by the intensity of the bansídhe woman's speech, Cecilia dropped her gaze. She'd never heard anything like this before. She didn't know what to say. The truth in the words rang her like the bell in the clock tower, the one she had run off to see the day she'd been kidnapped.
Her voice quieter, River added, after a moment, "But not all is lost." She almost seemed to be speaking to herself. The wind stirred her hair around her face, and Cecilia thought that it was whispering to her. But that was crazy, wasn't it?
The bansídhe sighed, and her kind look returned. "Would you like to come inside?"
Cecilia nodded. Where else could she go? She'd come miles from North Star's laboratory, but it might be hundreds more to the nearest town. She hoped River would teach her how to survive in the wilderness. If she kept going on her own, she was sunk.
The cedar bark still covered the table and the chairs, and the frame of the tiny bed. The coals of a fire glowed red on the hearth. Oh, the warmth! Cecilia sat down in a chair and drew off her boots and clammy stockings. Even the sandy floor felt warm.
The fire popped and flickered a little. Cecilia noticed a stone pot, sitting squat like a frog amid the coals. Did bansídhe need to eat?
River picked up a tongs from the table and lifted the lid from the pot. The steam smelled savory, like salmon. She stirred it with the ladle.
Cecilia's stomach growled. She blushed.
"You are hungry?" River's voice was still kind. She picked up a round wooden bowl from the rough-hewn table.
"Yes, thank you." Cecilia hadn't eaten anything except huckleberries since she'd escaped. The bears liked them as much as she did. For once, being invisible had been helpful.
The bansídhe scooped the odd stew into one bowl, and then another for herself. They ate quietly. The warmth and the food made Cecilia drowsy.
When she nearly nodded off into her second bowl, River lifted her from the chair and laid her gently in the single bed.
Cecilia wakened enough to protest. "But where will you. . ."
"I don't need to sleep," said River. She lifted a spider-spin cloak from its hook by the door. "I must go out tonight."
Before Cecilia fell asleep, she heard River, standing near the door, praying. The garbled words subsided into a dream.