Fractal Myth

THE SEVEN RAVENS

Chapter 8

[Michelle Whitehead ©2006]

Inside, the cabin was just a single, bare room, with a rough-hewn wooden table in the centre and an open fireplace built into one wall. There were no windows. Except for the chimney, the only opening was the door through which they entered. Cate didn't have time to explore, though. The first thing Maisie had noticed was that the wood box outside the door was empty. Even now she was grumbling about inconsiderate people who didn't care about anyone but themselves.

"I don't know what this world is coming too," she complained, as she bustled around lighting the lanterns she had pulled from the wagon. "Robin and I have been stopping here for twenty years, and this woodbox has always been full. People use what they need, and then they refill it for the next person who needs it. At least, that's what should happen. Always has before. I just don't understand how people can be so rude. It's not just here, either. Everywhere we've been lately, it's been the same. People just don't care about each other any more."

Cate wasn't sure what to say. However, this was one situation where she knew what to do. Picking up the small axe that was hanging behind the door, she asked Maisie to lend her one of the lanterns.

"Do you know how to use that thing?" Maisie asked doubtfully. "I'd get it myself, but I'm not as light on my feet as I once was. I don't trust myself clambering around in the dark anymore. If you're not comfortable, though, don't worry about it. We can have a cold supper, and refill the wood box in the morning when we can see what we're doing."

For once it was Cate's turn to laugh. "I told you. My father's the forester and woodcutter for three villages. I think he put one of these things in my hand before I could walk!" Showing off now, Cate spun the axe in a circle over her head, just as Arlys had taught her. It was slightly heavier than the little axe he had made for her, but she had already checked that the blade was sharp and the handle fixed firmly.

"Look at you!" Maisie exclaimed. "A real expert. All right... all right. You don't need to cut your head off to prove it to me. A few tidy logs will be more than sufficient!"

Cate grinned and grabbed a lantern. "Be right back," she said, and vanished into the darkness.

"Be careful!" Maisie yelled after her, shaking her head. Robin raised his head from his feedbag, wondering what all the fuss was about. Maisie patted him absentmindedly as she stared into the darkness, lost in her own thoughts. After a few minutes Robin snorted and returned to feeding. "Who asked for your opinion?" Maisie growled fondly, slapping him on the neck. Then she bent awkwardly and began gathering an armful of twigs for kindling.

"Hey! I'll do that," Cate called, as she emerged from the darkness, dragging a large branch behind her. It took all her strength and both hands to move it, so she had hung the lantern on one of the sub-branches and slung the axe through her belt. "I saw this as we were driving in. It must have fallen across the path and someone just pushed it to one side. There's enough here for us tonight, and we can fix up the woodbox in the morning.

Maisie straightened slowly, grimacing with the effort. "You're a treasure!" she smiled. "You've convinced me. I'll leave the fire to you and get on with fixing us some dinner... unless you're an expert at that too?"

Cate ducked her head. "It's my Mumma who's the brilliant cook. She's tried to teach me, but I'd much rather be out with Dadda in the forest. I've got a loaf of her bread, though. You're welcome to share it."

Maisie shook her head. "I have a feeling you'll be needing that. It will keep fresh better if it's not cut. There's plenty of food in the wagon, and I'm a good cook, even if I do say so myself." She reached into the wagon and pulled out a lumpy sack and a waterskin. "That's everything I need. When the fire's ready, the stew will be ready to go on it."

"Right!" Cate spat on her hands, as she'd seen her father do. Then she unhooked the axe from her belt, positioned herself correctly, and swung. The axe bit deep into the wood with a satisfying 'thwunk'. Soon, the clearing rang with the sound as Cate shaped the long, thick branch into useful sized logs.

Less than twenty minutes later, a neat stack of wood waited beside the cabin door, with a loose pile of kindling twigs arranged next to it. Cate scrunched a selection of dry grass and bark into a ball, and placed it in the grate of the fireplace, surrounding it with a tent of thin sticks, then looked around for some way to light it. Noticing that Maisie had placed a jar of tapers on the mantelpiece, Cate carefully lit one from the lamp and transferred the flame to the fireplace. The first two times she tried it, the dry grass fizzled but refused to catch. Biting her lip in frustration, Cate tried again. This time, the fuzzy edge of bark flamed into life, and before long, Cate had a little fire burning merrily. She patiently fed increasingly larger sticks into it until the flame was strong enough for her to add one of the logs she had cut. It was awkard trying to position the log exactly where she wanted it, and just when she thought she'd got it right, she dropped it!

Maisie hadn't said a word during the whole performance. Now she was tempted, but she held her tongue, hoping for Cate's sake that the fire had not been completely extinguished. As the pair of them watched, a tiny flame crept out from behind the log and began licking along its edges. Another joined it, and another, until the whole log was ablaze. Maisie cheered as Cate danced a jig of proud success.

"Well done! You're a useful girl to have around. I reckon you can travel with me and Robin whenever you want! Now, swing that iron hook into place so I can hang this pot over it, and let's get dinner cooking."

Cate did as she was asked, and soon they were sitting, warming themselves before the fire, and enjoying the good smells that came steaming up from the stew. In the far distance, a wolf howled, causing Cate to shudder. A few years ago a man had staggered into her village, all his clothes torn to shreds. He claimed that his horse had been eaten by wolves and that he had only escaped by the slimmest chance. He had left as soon as he found someone willing to sell him another horse, swearing that he never wanted to go near another forest in his life! Arlys had laughed at that. After all, the forest stretched forever in every direction. So long as you didn't stray too far from home you would always be safe. That was what he had told Cate when she began having nightmares about the wolves. The thought had consoled Cate at the time, but now here she was, far from home, and from the sound of it there were wolves all around.

"Aren't you worried about Robin?" she asked, shivering as another howl shattered the silence.

"Robin's in no danger from those wolves," Maisie answered. "If there's anything out there to threaten us, it walks on two legs."

Cate looked confused.

"Bandits," Maisie explained. "They've been known to attack travellers sleeping here, especially ones with a well-loaded wagon."

"But..."

"There's no need to worry. No bandit is going to come within a stone's throw of Mad Maisie. Madness is catching, dontcha know?"

Cate laughed, thinking this was another of Maisie's constant jokes, but Maisie remained silent, staring into the fire. A thousand questions fluttered through Cate's mind, but just as she was deciding which was the least offensive, Maisie turned away from the fire and the opportunity was gone.

"Stew's ready," Maisie announced cheerfully, as though her moment of introspection had never occurred. "Hope you're hungry. I know I am!"

"I'm starving!" Cate agreed.

"I'll bet you are! I did try and wake you for some lunch, but you were dead to the world. I almost couldn't get you to wake up for the sunset."

"I'm glad you did, though." Cate felt as though the memory of that sunset would be with her forever. Even now when she closed her eyes, she felt like she was swimming in a glowing radiance of colour.

Maisie handed Cate a tin bowl, filled to the brim with stew. She nodded to the spoons on the table. "Dig in." Cate didn't wait for a second invitation. The stew was delicious, thick and rich, flavoured with a subtle blend of herbs.

While they were eating, Maisie kept up a constant stream of jokes and stories. Cate laughed appreciatively, truly enjoying herself, but at the same time she suspected that Maisie was trying to keep her entertained in order to avoid being asked awkward questions. It was becoming quite obvious that there was more to her new friend than met the eye. For instance, Cate noticed that although Maisie seemed to be eating voraciously, and the food in her bowl was rapidly disappearing, very little of it actually made it into Maisie's mouth. Cate was perplexed. Where was the food going? Even more puzzling was the question of how such a large, energetic woman could exist on so little. Peering surreptitiously through her eyelashes, Cate examined Maisie's costume. It was as bright and clean as when she first saw it, the vivid embroidery unmarked by even the slightest stain of spilt stew. Suddenly, Cate realised Maisie was peering back at her.

"Hurry up, slowcoach! You can spend all day tomorrow staring at my clothes while we're travelling." She laughed at Cate's momentary embarrassment, then continued quietly. "Right now, you need to be finishing your dinner and getting ready for bed! I'm just going outside to check on Robin. I won't be long." The table groaned as she placed her hands on it and heaved herself to her feet, but Cate wondered how much of this was a display for her benefit. She shrugged. If Maisie thought it important to present herself as a crazy old fat lady, that was her business. As far as Cate was concerned, Maisie was wonderful. She had shown the young girl nothing but kindness, and the least Cate could do was respect her privacy.

Shoveling the last spoonful of stew into her mouth, Cate quickly rinsed and dried her bowl and stacked it with Maisie's. Then she made her way to the bedroll Maisie had laid out for her near the fire. She stripped to her underclothes, folding her leather trousers and woollen shirt into a neat package to use as a pillow. As she was arranging everything to her liking, Cate noticed a strange blue light shining through a crack in the wall. Wondering what it might be and worried about Maisie, outside all alone, Cate crept closer and pressed her face against the rough boards. A thick layer of cloud shut out all light from the moon or stars, but Cate could easily see Maisie's silhouette, outlined against a sphere of glowing blue. Maisie's arms were raised in front of her, her hands twining around each other in a series of intricately graceful gestures as the blue sphere danced between her fingertips. Cate held her breath as Maisie spun quickly in a circle, but she was intent on her ritual and did not realise anyone was watching. After singing softly to herself for several minutes, she flicked her fingers in an explosive movement that vaporized the sphere, sending a shower of blue sparks spiralling out to settle in a ring around the cabin.

Watching in amazement, Cate felt a sense of peace and security descend over her like a blanket. The eerie howling of the wolves seemed further away and almost friendly. A chorus of frogs and crickets could be heard now, chirping their own accompaniment to the music of the night, while in the trees beyond the clearing, a pair of owls began hooting softly to each other. Outside the door, Maisie was talking quietly to Robin. The large horse rubbed his nose affectionately against her arm and whickered. Peering through the crack in the cabin wall, Cate felt as though she were intruding on a private moment. She was anxious that Maisie should not suspect her of spying on her, so she seated herself near the fire, with her back to the wall, and began combing her fingers through her hair. Of all the things she had left behind when she packed for her journey, the thing she regretted most was her hairbrush. She couldn't believe she had forgotten such a simple item. Still, she could do a reasonable job with her fingers, and with her hair tucked under her cap it was unlikely to get too knotted. The door opened quietly behind her and Maisie entered, holding a slender white box in one hand.

"Here," she said, sinking down to sit beside Cate and placing the box in the child's lap. "A present. I think you'll be needing it."

Cate looked up at her in astonishment. It seemed there was no limit to Maisie's generosity. Her first thought was to return the gift unopened, for she had nothing to give in return, and the item in her lap looked valuable. In fact, she had never seen anything so fine. The same flowers and insects which were embroidered over Maisie's skirt and shawl had been delicately painted as a decoration on the surface of the box. Its surface was uncarved, smooth but not glossy. If anything, it looked like it had been polished by the touch of many hands.

"It's old," Maisie said. "I don't know how old. It was given to me when I was very young, and now I want to give it to you." She ran one finger over the painted surface. "It's carved from the bone of a huge fish," she explained. "Open it."

Cate studied the box for a few moments, working out the secret of the clasp. There was a fingernail-sized depression half way along one edge. She pressed gently, and the box sprang open. Inside, two slim handles of the same yellow-white bone nestled on a layer of thick velvet. One was carved and painted with flowers, and the other with a design of elaborate spider webs. Maisie lifted that one carefully from its setting and showed Cate another clasp, disguised by the delicate carving. When she pressed it, a thin, pointed, wicked-looking blade slid from inside the bone handle.

"You never know," Maisie said. "I've always kept it razor sharp, and it has never failed me when I've needed it. But it's the other one I think you'll have the most use for."

After Maisie showed her how to slide the knife back into its handle, Cate replaced it in the box and lifted its partner. Both handles were identical and perfectly balanced. They felt natural in her hand, as though whichever one she was holding instantly became a part of her. Studying the second handle, Cate found the same mechanism hidden amongst its carved foliage. She pressed it, then burst out laughing. The second bone handle contained the very thing she had been wishing for. It was a silver comb.

Maisie took the comb from her hand and began smoothing the tangles from her hair, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for her to do. The feeling reminded Cate of her mother, and she stared into the coals, blinking back tears. Maisie noticed, and started to sing, a sweet, dreamy ballad about waiting for true love by the banks of a stream, with weeping willows swaying in the breeze. Listening to the words, Cate began to relax, carried away by the romantic tune and her enjoyment of the physical sensation.

"If I were a cat, I'd be purring!" She commented, luxuriously stretching her arms towards the fire.

Maisie's laugh was a rich throaty purr in itself. She worked confidently, seperating Cate's thick hair into strands and gently teasing out the knots that had formed in the unruly curls. Then, as the fire sank into a bed of glowing coals, she taught Cate how to plait her hair into a long braid, which she called a fishbone. It started in the middle of Cate's brow and hugged close to her skull, finishing in a tail at the nape of her neck. Although she was used to having her hair unconfined, Cate was amazed at how good it felt, tied back so tightly that her skin stretched taut over her cheekbones.

"Now you can tuck the tail under your cap and hold it with a few of these pins," Maisie recommended, showing Cate a secret compartment in the back of the comb's handle, just large enough to hold a number of tiny, bent wire hairpins.

Cate wished she could think of some way to show her gratitude, both for the gift, and for the time Maisie had taken to help her forget the homesickness lurking in the back of her mind. She offered to take her turn doing Maisie's hair, but Maisie quickly brushed the offer aside.

"Not much that can be done with this woolly mop," she stated, running her fingers through her short-cropped curls. "Low maintenance. That's what I like! Besides, it's time we were asleep. There's a long way to go tomorrow." Her tone was business-like and left no room for argument.

Cate nodded and crawled over to her bedroll, wondering how she was ever going to repay Maisie for all her kindness. She couldn't think of anything magnificent enough. After all, if it wasn't for Maisie, she would still be sitting by the road, waiting to be caught and dragged back to the village.

"Thank you." Maisie's voice was soft in the darkness and Cate wasn't sure she had heard correctly. Then Maisie reached out her large hand and patted Cate's leg. "Thank you, Cate. It's been a long time since I've had someone to talk to, and an even longer time since I have had such a peaceful, pleasant evening. You've made me feel like a girl again. I was always good with my hands, and my friends all clamoured for me to do their hair. That was thirty years ago, and I haven't seen any of them since. You have no idea how special tonight has been for me. For the first time in years I haven't felt like an exhibit in a freak show. I'm only sorry that I can't take you all the way to your destination."

Embarrassed, Cate reached down and slid her hand into Maisie's. The elaborate thank you speech she had been planning had vanished without a trace. She squeezed Maisie's hand, trying to transmit all her love and gratitude through the contact. When she released her grip, her fingers were tingling. Maisie patted her leg once more, to show she understood.

"Goodnight dear," the older woman whispered. "Sweet dreams." Then, with a tired groan, she shifted onto her side, turning her back to the fireplace. A few minutes later her deep, regular breathing suggested to Cate that she was asleep.

For a few minutes Cate lay with her eyes open, watching the soft flicker of the occasional flame reflecting off the walls, thinking about how far she had come that day. She already felt decades older than the young girl who had packed a loaf of bread, a jug of water and a stool into her bag in the middle of the night. As she drifted off to sleep, her last thought was of her parents, waiting anxiously for her return, and of her brothers, somewhere ahead of her, lost in the great unknown.

The Seven Ravens:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
~ Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

The Original Fairytale by The Brothers Grimm

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