Chapter Story – Part Three
Dancing light emanated from the open hatch of the pot belly stove and illuminated Morgan’s body. Every few seconds the body twitched, or seemed to, though I told myself it was the fire’s flickering light, nothing more. I hugged my legs closer, afraid he’d grab my ankle and that damn milky worm would get me.
What was that thing? I shuddered and pressed my spine harder against the solid wood door, not bothered with the cold that permeated from outside. Better to freeze than be close to the dead man on my floor.
I stared at Morgan, if it even was Morgan, maybe just a vessel for whatever had possessed him. Nausea flipped my stomach, and I thought I would vomit. I swallowed down what threatened to escape, a film of acid tainted my mouth.
The hands of the wall clock laggard in their journey, each tick seemingly minutes unto its own. I waited and watched. This time my waiting wasn’t for Sebastian. I waited for finality, that dead was dead.
I jerked awake. Panic surged my limbs and my mind. How could I have fallen asleep? Was there a worm inside me? I frantically searched my body, feeling for a hole, a passageway for the worm to enter.
My finger stopped at my belly button. Could the worm enter there? I pressed my belly button with my fingers and then my abdomen. I felt normal. I must be okay. I had to be.
Something scraped on the floor. I jolted backward, banging my head against the door. A sharp pain spider-veined out from the center of my head, but I remained quiet and unmoving. Was it the body? Had it moved?
A weak amber light glowed from within the stove, seen through the partially opened vents, but it was too weak to break the darkness. Several hours had passed for it to burn that low. I sucked air, afraid to let it out, to make even the tiniest of sounds. My eyes strained to see, to make out an outline of Morgan’s body, of anything . . . but I saw nothing.
I tentatively crawled toward where the body rested and patted the dusty wooden floorboards with my hand.
Nothing. The body was gone.
I scrambled to the table and lit the candelabra’s three candles. I snapped my eyes to the floor where the body had been. The floor was empty, even the regular film of dust on the floorboards looked undisturbed, except where I had patted the floor, as if he had never laid there.
I swiveled my head round the kitchen, terrified with each turn to see him standing with bared teeth, but each turned revealed nothing other than the walls and my few meager belongings. I used the candelabra’s light to search the rest of the small house, the pantry and the tiny bedroom.
But he wasn’t to be found. I was alone.
How could this be? Had I imagined everything? I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Still nothing. I know what I saw. What I smelled. My stomach roiled at the memory and bile snuck upward. I slapped my hand over my mouth and swallowed. What was I to do?
The only thing to do, I heard my mama’s raspy voice in my head. A vision of her looking stern with her weathered, tanned hands cinched at her waist flashed in my mind. She was right. What would I do if I’d just woken and wasn’t frightened from my wits?
I’d stoke the fire to remove the chill.
I stuffed several medium pieces of wood into the pot belly stove and coaxed the fire to blaze. Warmth filled the small kitchen, mingling with the candle’s light, and eased the chill from my bones. My mind, on the other hand, rumbled with questions and fears.
I settled into one of the wooden chairs that decorated the outer edge of the table. The window, from where I sat, held no picture of the outside world, only a reflection of me and my fire. There was also no evidence of a white worm breaking through the glass.
I pressed my bottom lip in between my index finger and thumb and stared at the window trying to see what wasn’t visible. Had the worm been real? I squeezed my eyes shut to see the worm again, to see its specifics.
Maybe I had imagined it, established a horrendous lie in my mind. Was I so prone to imagination that I no longer could tell the true from the false? I pinched the bridge of my nose and lowered my head. The night obviously had stolen my mind, served it to the wind for dinner.
Just then a stout gust of wind drove against the house’s walls. The timber creaked under pressure. For a moment I thought the walls would collapse, and then the wind settled into its normal buffeting.
I shivered, glad to be inside; especially, now that I knew not where the body had gone, or the worm. Either one could be outside right now, lurking, waiting for me to venture out. That’s if they’re even real, I reminded myself.
But something deep inside me said they were. Very real. Mama was adamant about trusting the hairs on the back of one’s neck. There’s always truth in what can’t be seen, especially when you feel it in the core of your being, she used to say. This was one of those moments, as sure as Mama was dead and buried.
What did it all mean though? Sebastian alive. The traveler with the bent lip. I shook my head and ran a hand through my hair and removed several long golden strands that weaved between my fingers. I wadded the stray strands together and threw them in the stove.
And why would I travel to Houlybroch Den? The journey was long and difficult and not meant for a woman. The Iden resided between here and Houlybroch, and a woman traveling alone, even if well trained with a sword like myself, rarely survived. The Iden were a strange, cruel people, and they didn’t take to women outside their own.
And ever since Sebastian had died my appetite had left me, leaving me picking at morsels of food without want. I was practically skin and bones, could barely hold my blade a foot above the dirt. To travel that distance would be arduous in the best of health, but now . . .
My thoughts stopped short, suddenly stung with what it had said, “Sebastian is alive.”
Was that possible? I saw him slip from my grasp—his hair, sandy waves, submerged beneath the icy water, his eyes panicked. The tip of his fingers were like fluttering fish fins against my fingertips, as he desperately clawed his way back to me but never made it close enough. The grey waters took him, drew him under.
I wanted to join him then, but no matter how much my mind told me to fall forward and follow him into the darkening waters, my body remained immobile, stuck to the embankment, my hand reached out, as if frozen myself.
Sebastian alive. The possibility of it pulsated warmth down my neck to my bosom, across my belly to my toes. Could it be true?
How did he survive? Why hadn’t he come home? And where had he been all this time?
I rubbed my brow and stood to warm the kettle on the hot stove, craving a cup of tea, something to hold in my hands, something real. More wind jarred the house, as if a greater force was trying to tell me something.
Should I go to Houlybroch Den? I looked to the ceiling and walls and listened. Destiny stirred the night and a sudden truth of what needed to be done gripped my soul.
With steaming cup in hand, I returned to the table, sat, and sipped. What if going to Houlybroch was a trap, a way to take my land, my home? What if that white worm followed me, found me asleep, and ate its way into my brain?
What if the smokey worm was the Kambra? I’d never heard of such stories, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t shape shift.
What if whatever it was, was worse than the Kambra? I shuddered. That seemed impossible to imagine. The Kambra were one of the worst creatures the world had ever seen. For them to walk this earth again was a problem all creatures would share, and my land and person would be of little consequence.
Then the truth that gripped my soul only moments ago formed a clear message—none of that matters, travel you must.
I stared at the shadowy liquid in my cup, the feeling of surety winding its way through my body until the reality of what I needed to do saturated my entire being. If there was a chance Sebastian lived, I needed to seek him out. Find him.
At first light, I would leave. Whatever danger awaited be damned.