Chapter 3: Lost Faith, Lost Minds
~ In the village ~
Mihaela ventured downstairs after she was fully satisfied that her room was in proper order for the night. It had long passed eleven, and sleep was calling to her. Even more insistent than that, though, was the urge to find out more about the town.
She padded down the stairs in the fur slippers her brother, always a handy person, had made for her on her birthday. Her mother had, of course, brought forth a storm when she had learned her eldest son, the next man of the household, had been doing something as unmanly as stitching. Every time Mihaela wore them now she not only remembered her brother, tall and jovial and divine, but was also given a flash of bitter happiness to recall how abysmally outraged her mother had been. Try as Mihaela did to suppress it, it was always the foremost feeling.
She reached the bottom of the stairs and followed voices towards the parlor, where a tiny fire was crackling in the stone fireplace. The heady warmth enveloped Mihaela like a blanket and the smell of fresh pine permeated the room. She saw a middle-aged woman first. The woman was sitting on a rocking chair with her hands crossed tightly together in her lap, staring blankly off into the distance. She seemed to not register a single thing about her, and Mihaela had the urge to shout just to see if the woman would hear. Beside the fireplace crouched the old woman who had shown Mihaela to her room. Her hands were outstretched to feel the heat of the dancing flames play across her skin, and the red glare of the fire restored some luster to the dull gray parlor of her skin. Upon seeing her Mihaela immediately grew weary, but the call of the fire was too strong to ignore.
She tucked her cross into her dress just to be safe.
“Don’t just stand there, girl. Come in,” the old woman barked, sensing her presence.
Mihaela took a tense step forward and stood awkwardly in the doorway. Finally, “Well, this is cozy.”
The old woman cackled, and Mihaela felt the hair at the nape of her neck prickle as she recalled the way the woman had laughed earlier.
“Is that what they call humor where yew come from?” she derisively scoffed.
Mihaela ignored the insult. Turning her attentions to the other woman, Mihaela dipped her head politely. “I don’t believe we have had the pleasure of meeting. I am Countess Mihaela of Limerick.”
The woman didn’t seem to hear her but continued to peer into the flames. Mihaela stared at her as she waited for the woman to respond, or at least give some acknowledgment of her presence.
“Pray tell, what is wrong with her?” Mihaela finally inquired of the old woman.
“Nuthin’ yew need be concerning yerself with, now,” the old woman insisted with a mumble that, nonetheless, relayed a stubborn tone. Yet another thing Mihaela wasn’t used to being met with- defiance. She wondered how often the people in this town had met nobility and almost laughed when she considered what would have happened had the old woman taken that tone with her mother.
Throwing all thoughts of her mother aside, Mihaela cast a chariest look on the pair before crossing to stand before the haunted, yet admittedly attractive, woman. When Mihaela got close enough to see the woman’s eyes she was shocked by how brokenly empty they were. They fell as flat onto Mihaela as a lover’s whispered lies. Their shallow graves were devoid of any light- it had long been replaced by an inky darkness that drove all else from them. If eyes were truly the windows to the soul then the woman’s had long fled.
“Hello, miss?” Mihaela breathed gently as she knelt down beside the woman. Slowly, she reached out to place her palm against the ladies forehead, wondering if the woman had been stricken by some sort of fever.
The lady finally reacted, reeling back as the hand came into sight.
“No!” she screamed, and Mihaela flinched back at the abrupt noise, falling back on her hands with a tiny gasp. Finally the woman, her face now ghostly pale as though it was a spirit that sat before Mihaela, noticed her.
“Who are you?” the woman demanded furiously as she stood up.
“I’m- I’m- I’m...”
“This is Countess Mihaela, a visitor to the town,” the old woman pacified the other quickly. Mihaela couldn’t ignore the odd emphasis that had been placed on the word visitor and wondered about it.
“Is that so?” the woman asked, somewhat pacified.
Mihaela stood up, brushing off her robe as she rose. “Yes, I arrived with my parents to visit the lord of these lands, but I am afraid the pass is blocked.”
“You know nothing of fear, and evidently none of manners, either. Is it your habit to so casually touch people?” the woman demanded.
“I’m quite sorry, I was just concerned-
Mihaela tried to apologize to the woman but she was cut off with the wave of a hand. She blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to see if she truly was awake. The kind of treatment she was receiving was not at all what she was used to, sheltered and privileged as she was.
“I don’t need to hear it. Please, just don’t do it again. You scared me...” the woman tiredly murmured before slowly sinking back into her rocking chair. Not a moment passed before she returned to staring blankly across the room. Mihaela licked her lips nervously at such oscillating behavior .
“Don’t mind her, she’s just been under a lot of pressure lately,” the old woman comforted as she went up to Mihaela and pulled her away from the strange woman. “Best to leave her be.”
Mihaela allowed herself to be led away by the old woman, too distracted by the perplexing nature of the village to bother protesting. “I don’t understand anything that’s going on here.”
Mihaela shook her head slowly, her hands wandering up to grasp her cross.
“Yew will come to.”
“What does that mean? All I’m met with are abstruse statements and strange declarations that I am somehow expected to understand,” Mihaela’s hand left her cross to hold her spinning head as the world around her began to whirl. “I wish we had never come here. I never wanted to leave my home in the first place; fleeing to mountains just because there is a war reeks too much of cowardice, which I cannot abide. We were perfectly safe in our castle! Yet here we are, and there is something that tells me that coming here was a mistake.”
“What is it that tells yew that yew should have never come?” the old woman probed with a strange inflection.
Mihaela released a frustrated breath of pent up air. “You, this town, the woman downstairs... everything is indicative of something sinister. When sails are full it is because the wind blows, and when the mien of everyone in the village is so peculiar that is when one knows there is a larger, more ominous force at play. I don’t feel God here, not like I usually do.”
Mihaela chewed her lip as the duo went a little further up the stairs in silence. They had gone only a few steps when the old woman abruptly turned to face Mihaela. “I was wondering if- if ye would tell me somethin’ of yer God.”
She made the request in a conspiratorial whisper, glancing almost nervously about her as she spoke. Mihaela raised her eyebrows skeptically, wondering at the sudden turn in conversation.
“You want me to tell me about what you claim is a dead God?”
“I understand the concept of this God, even if he doesn’t want us to. Your God, he is rumored to be omniscient. He just doesn’t exist here.”
Mihaela tilted her head to the side, considering.
“It would be my deepest pleasure to share with you what I know,” Mihaela finally said, and she was every bit sincere. As a Christian it was her duty to spread the word of God to everyone in His kingdom. The old woman had made a sincere request, and Mihaela felt it would be remiss to deny her.
She led the woman to her room and began to tell her of God. The woman listened for only a moment before interrupting, not even allowing Mihaela to get through the first few verses of Genesis.
“So he created everything?”
Mihaela wondered at how one person could be so spiritually deprived. “Yes, that is correct.”
“Even the light?” the woman asked as she leaned closer.
“Yes, on the fourth day.”
The old woman gazed at Mihaela with open appraisal. “And what of monsters?”
Mihaela’s brows came together in puzzlement as she tilted her head. “Whatever do you mean? Do you mean to say Satan?”
“Is that your word for them?”
“Um, I- I suppose they are interchangeable, yes.”
“So what does it mean if there’s a place where the light never reaches?”
“If such a place exists then I’ve yet to hear of it,” Mihaela said with a charming smile.
“Yer going to the castle. Yew’ll see that such a place does. That castle is a place where the sun never shines.”
“That’s not possible,” Mihaela told the old woman sternly as she rose from where she had been seated on the bed. She mentally chided herself for allowing herself to be alone with the old woman once again.
The woman continued on as if Mihaela had said nothing. “God doesn’t tread in the valley, but monsters- they do.”
“Monsters aren’t real!” Mihaela fiercely insisted, well past exasperated by the woman’s irrational behavior. She knew something was wrong with the village, but that did not mean that she was willing to put any stock into such fanciful tales.
“Yew’d best work on yer prayers before yew go to that place. And hide yer cross. If rumors are right then he won’t like it. If that cross be truth and not a myth as I believed, then that means it really could be a way out.”
“I’ve no idea what you mean and no longer any interest. Please leave. I’m afraid I’m too weary to continue talking.”
The words Mihaela spoke were only a partial lie. She really was tired; she was tired of trying to decode the old woman’s crazed ramblings. Why she would try to say Mihaela needed to hide her cross baffled her. What she meant when going on about sunshine and monsters was even more of a mystery. In the end she could only berate herself for ever listening to such sacrilegious drivel.
The old woman eagerly nodded. “Yes, ye’d best rest up while yew can. Yew have a tryin’ time ahead of you. Good night.”
Mihaela watched the woman as she retreated, surprised that the people in the village were able to acquire decent manners, after all.