It was far into the twilight when the walls of the stronghold and its high eastern baileys came into view, like a clip over the forest canopy, hazy and ghostly in the dark. As Ashes raced through the wood, all of her snagging and scratching as she fought the low branches and underbrush of the wild, her heart pounded, and her nerves racked about her. The Magician had given her a great vision—a horrible vision! She had scant time to consider, to mull upon it as she had escaped from the chaos of his world, but though time had been declared short she still had to know; she knew she must find a way to confirm whether the horrors that the Dark Illusionist had shown her were true, or merely nightmares to haunt her.
Into the early night, muddied from earth and her long journey of the Cathedral, tired beyond sleep, she reached the curtain wall, and with luck and a quick dash she ducked beneath the eyes of the watchmen and slipped down into the small brook, and on her belly she scooted under the crook of rock, that she had done many times as a girl. She thanked the goodness of her keen memory.
Her feet were also good to her in the pitch darkness, as she made her way swiftly, quietly to the servants quarter, and in pants and a heaving breast she pounded on Nana’s door.
“Nana!” she cried, “Nana! NANA!”
With surprising speed Nana upon the other side flipped the lock and pulled the latch, dressed in her nightgown with a taper held in her hand sending forth warming glow, her face lined heavily with contours from her many moons without notable sleep, and with extended arm shaking she reached and looked to Ashes in astonishment.
“Ashes! Oh, thank Àrinklìa! Oh, thanks to the Four Points! O’Great Lady, she returns to me!” and in a collapsing grasp Nana took Ashes into her arms, weeping. Within the moments embrace the wizened woman did a sweep of the stoop and swept Ashes inside, closing the door sharply, the taper laying upon the walk, blown out. Ashes allowed her needs to be tended to, as the unnumbered days within the Dark Magician’s hand had left her bruised, weathered, and malnourished. It was a great feeling of relief and safety within Nana’s care. The two took comfort in their reuniting, and after time, both sitting in front of the low fire of the hearth Ashes told Nana her tale, through many passing hours. And when she had at last finished, Nana set the kettle upon the grate, the embers popping in quick spark, her eyes in golden, thoughtful smolder.
“That’s quite the story,” said Nana, after several minutes of silence, “one of the best stories I’ve heard in…quite a long time.”
“Nana,” spoke Ashes, in a hush, “do you think that it is true. Do you think, that I’ve been shown – shown – ”
“The future?” piped Nana, “Well, I should think so!”
The old woman heaved herself to her feet, cracking her back as she swept her foot over the cold floor, brushing the dust, a habit of her many years of housekeeping. In a heavy right foot she sauntered to the window, peering through the shutters.
Ashes pulled the pelt close around her, her body narrowing, tucked in chill. “Nana, is someone out there?”
Nana snapped the clasp. “No. Though one can never be to careful.”
“I can’t believe this, what am I suppose to do.” said Ashes, eyes cast downward, disheartened. She looked worriedly up at her caretaker, whom she considered her compass, “I don’t even really understand what I saw! Just – obsidian shapes! Sleek bodies as of metal! Like insects that bore armor.” Her last statement was hushed. Her vision, the vision given, it had frightened her. She turned away, gazing into the hearth, hugging the pelt tightly to her shoulders.
“Believe now, doubt later.” said Nana, then suddenly turning she added, “Or, we do both.”
Ashes looked to her, brows pinched.
There was a quiet that held for a time, as Nana stood, rolling her pendant that hung about her neck between her callous fingers. Ashes felt a sense of dread come from the old woman, as if Nana was suddenly wishing she had never spoke. She wondered if she should recant her question, but, eventually Nana spoke again.
“There is someone,” Nana breathed, bending laboriously to her knees before Ashes, “someone within these very walls who could have answers. Answers of all the kind we need.”
“Who?” breathed Ashes, still in confusion.
Nana’s eyes grew thick lidded, her face sinking in a wane of loss, pain, and long, locked away memory. Their bodies, nearly hidden in the shadow of the room, the embers illuminating but small tokens of their faces as the wind blew in gust, knocking the shutters, the two women sat opposite within the so dim light, gazing upon each other, passing speech that needed no words to be heard. In a still shiver Ashes hushed a name she both loved and feared, and longed for.
“Jacquelyn.” she said. “My sister.”
Sunken, Nana nodded, as Ashes slowly took to her feet, stiff with a trance like stare, eyes wide, the pelt dropping from her shoulders, as heat rushed to her face in a flush of emotions. She stood slack in silence, her eyes simply gazing into the floor.
Nana dabbed her brow, “You and I have both long known, that no sickness resides within Jacquelyn, just the sorrow of a father’s rejection, and wrath.”
“My father declared Jacquelyn mad just to be rid of her.” said Ashes in a breathy whisper, the uncovering of truth sending tears streaming down her face, her voice rising. “Because she is different! Because she is like me!”
“No, Ashes!” Nana snapped breathily, as in rise she reached out and clutched onto Ashes’ shoulders, her exhausted body trembling under her hands as she began to weep freely. “Though what you say is true, no! You must understand, your sister’s strange gifts grew in swiftly, powerfully! She had talent and old magic about her that was beyond me, all of my years! She was setting fires, flocks of sparrows would suddenly appear about the castle! She moved objects. She was beyond hiding!”
“So what then!” Ashes cried, wrenching backward and away from Nana’s grip, her heart at a loss at what was boring over her. “So you let him take her! You let him chain her and hide her away! She went mad with loneliness! It was loneliness – heartache and anguish that took her, not sickness! She was beautiful and strong, and he broke her! It was the cage that made her mind shrivel and die! My sister!”
She dropped, tripping over an upturned rug and collapsing backward, colliding with and knocking the table forward as it fell to it’s side behind her, and as her back hit hard against the wooden tabletop she wept, wrapping her arms around her belly with pale legs lying flat and straight out from her, gripping her sides. Her heart, had broken, and she clutched herself in her little remaining strength, hating herself for what she had allowed to happen…for what she had not done. Nana knelt next to her, cradling Ashes in her unexpected grief.
“Do not blame yourself. You are blaming yourself, do not. Do not blame yourself, Ashes! You were too young, just a baby when your sister was taken. There was nothing anyone could have done, without penalty of death.” Nana clutched Ashes to her, as her weeping increased. “He is your father. That bond of blood is strong, intoxicating, even corrupting of the senses. It clouds hell’s bite, when the snout is of one we are bonded to. Hush, child, hush.”
She wept but awhile longer, then in held lip, Ashes pushed herself kindly away, wiping the tears from her face.
“You kept me hidden.” said Ashes, sniffling, “You prepared me, unknowingly you had prepared me, for when the magic would come to me, so I would know how to hide it.”
“Yes.” Nana breathed, “Yes.”
Ashes took Nana in embrace, and they held to each other, as they had always done. The dawn had begun to break, as the soft light began to make the shadowiness that once was slink back into the corners, and the coals in the hearth now smoked weakly. Ashes helped Nana rise, and as they grasped hold of each other’s arms, gazing into one another’s eyes, Ashes took a breath.
“You are right. Jacquelyn will know. I must go to her.”
Nana gripped her, “Go under the guise of visitation. Do not show your feelings, Ashes. If there is anything amiss, your father will sniff it out. I have been telling your father that you had gone on errand with Normund these few days, keeping suspicion at bay. Your whereabouts up til now are all but unknown save Normund and I. To ask to see your sister upon arriving home after many days travel would be unsuspecting. I know you are tired, but now is the time; Jacquelyn’s gift of sight could be paramount to the mystery of the Magician’s Vision. This need is immediate, we must act!”
Ashes swallowed, her breast burning in so many things. Her heartbeat like a war drum. But she knew Nana to be right. If she was to see Jacquelyn, it would have to be soon. She needed her father’s permission, because none saw Jacquelyn without escort, save him. She would have to face her father, under the lie of a daughter’s affection. Her pulse quickened.
For she now knew what she had always felt in her heart. That her father was a monster.