Washer Woman (The Baen Nighe)

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The blade is not mine.

Or it was not. I have taken it so now it is mine as much as my worn shoes, battered hat and thread-bare coat, which I draw more tightly over my prize as I creep beyond the edge of town.

Never have I held something so fine, encrusted with gems, hilt and sheath. A blade the length of my hand, of a silver that casts back the moonlight as I pause to admire it.

A horse whinnies from back beyond the last lamp lining the road out of town. Ahead of me the cobbles turn to ruts along the hillside that wander into the woods.

I do not want to enter the woods, no more than I want to face my pursuers. The trees are black in the night. They reach for me as I shuffle closer. I know dawn will come soon. The faintest touch of silver would banish the demons. But I dare not linger and risk meeting the owner of the blade.

I could not hope to explain my hunger. He would only ask why I had not taken the bread instead. I cannot puzzle out an answer even for myself. I had entered the inn with no money, only a hope for some pity. Instead, I endured glares from the start. My filthy shirt, once clean and white, was enough to earn their reproach. I might once have felt the same…before I was starving.

I saw the bread on the nearest table, the steam nearly tickled my nose. I reached for the loaf even as my eyes alighted on the blade lying beside it. Such a precious thing with which to slice bread.

Rather than the heat of the crust beneath my palm, I felt the studded handle. Then I fled. Amidst angry shouts, I fled like a thief.

My fingers close about the sheath now. I am a thief. No matter the reason. But the bread would have tasted so good. At least the proof of my crime would hide safe in my belly.

I hear the horse again and the yowl of a dog, but fortune is with me. Even as the first wet leaves brush my skin, I can see a sliver of light along the horizon. My heart beats more freely as I make for the stream. Birdsong quiets the buzzing of night insects. I can almost hear the gurgle of water. Then I see it tumbling over flat stones. I could cross it with a few quick hops, barely wetting my shoes. But I will follow it downstream instead, after I rinse the sweat and fear from my neck.

I take only one more step. I see her before I can take another. she stands, bent over in the stream. She does not see me.

How swiftly my new-found sense of peace flies away. I cannot be seen. This washer woman could sing a song of a lone traveler through the woods.

I sink back into the brush, staring at the shift that covers her crooked back. she is old. Her hair falls in white sheets over her shoulders and hides the curve of her face.

I must sneak away. I am no brute to harm an old woman.

Her work is harsh for she beats at the cloth on the stone, oblivious of my presence. She plunges it into the flow, shaking it about like a dog with its teeth on a rabbit’s neck. She draws it out, heavy with water, and holds it up to inspect.

The sleeves of her shift slide down in a wet bunch around her arms as she holds them aloft. They are strong and firm. Not bony as I would think. And now that she stands upright in the stream, the curve of her back appears natural and even youthful.

I do not know what other garments lay in the basket perched on the stone beside her, but she has done a fine job with the shirt she holds. Much like my own rag, but a brilliant white. Perhaps the one I wear now was once as white, but it has been ages since I had another to replace it.

The washer woman is not as satisfied with her work as I am. I see her shake her white locks in distaste before she plunges the cloth again.

I glance down at my own shabby garments. What will she think of me if she sees me? How many times would she want to dunk me into the water before she felt sure that I was clean?

But she cannot see me. She works diligently. She has no attention to spare for me. I can slip away easily…yet I have not done so. I stand here still watching her work. She scrubs at the cloth for a long time under the rushing water. She moves with a grace that hardly befits her mundane task.

I am moving now, but not into the brush that would hide her from my view. Instead I advance on the stream. The shirt she draws out is so exceedingly bright it hurts my eyes in the new-morning light.

Still she shakes her head. I can see no flaw in her work. I nearly say so before I stop myself from calling out. Now she turns the shirt in her hands to inspect the front.

I stop. She stands a mere ten yards away, calf deep in the stream. Now I see the spot she works so hard to remove. The front of this shirt is not so clean.

A broad swath of red blooms on the breast and runs down to trickle into the water from the hem. My eyes go wide at the sight. It runs in thick rivulets, undiluted by the wash of the stream. It is as if the shirt bleeds itself even now.

A cry escapes my lips unbidden. I think perhaps she has sliced her hand on a sharp stone. My brain needs some explanation. But the horror of it is too clear to me even now, just before she turns at the sound of my cry.

What do I expect to see? I cannot fathom. An old crone? a beautiful, young maid? Anything but this. Anything but the fiend that holds me locked in place with its gaze.

I do not trust the proof of my own eyes, for the flesh of her face appears to hang limp from her skull, caked with rot. a pigish nose leaks mucous from one gaping nostril. But it is the glare from those sockets of dead black that freeze me. They suck away all the light and relief that morning had given me.

I believe the washer woman smiles at me now. I can only imagine the hellish look is a grin. Her ragged lips part to reveal one crooked, yellow fang. she beckons to me as she holds out the bloody shirt for me to take.

I recoil from her groping. she is only inches from me. How did I get so close? I did not feel the water seeping into my shoes before now. But the cold of it wakes me.

I know that I am running. I can barely feel the branches slapping and cutting slashes across my face. I stumble on a root and there is blood in my eyes. I drag myself from the ground, unsure how I lost my feet. I thought that once I fled I would be spared her gaze but it has eaten its way into the back of my eyes.

An unfamiliar weight drags at my belt as I run. Only now do I remember the dagger. I might have used it on the woman. But what can earthly steel do to the likes of that? I pull the blade from my belt anyway, feeling the hilt, slick in my sweaty palm.

She is behind me now. I know this. I do not need to look, only run. Run and do not ever stop. I see nothing before me, as if the daylight is truly gone from the woods and I am trapped in the dark again. But I do not care about that anymore. I do not fear it. Only her.

Something heavy knocks me to the earth, takes the wind out of my lungs. I look up from where I lay and see open sky above me. The trees have broken apart to form a clearing. I lie prone at its edge, thick blades of grass poking at the back of my neck. A face appears above me, and a massive hand. It clutches at the folds of my collar and drags me to my feet.

They stand in a bunch before me. Three men. One with his fist at my throat. One as large and ugly as the first with a pair of horses in tow. The third, a squat man with an exceedingly fleshy face. This man holds the reins of a finer horse and a black dog snarls at his heel. I know his face well. I have been fleeing from it all night.

Our eyes are locked, his and mine. Then he sees the blade in my hand. A smile forms on his lips and it fills me with a new dread.

“That belongs to me.” His words come out quiet and cold.

I can only nod.

He glares at me still, taking his time. His dog wants to rush forward and tear at me, but the man holds it back. He advances on me slowly and takes the blade before it falls from my limp hand. He studies it carefully, ensuring that his property is unharmed. He slides it free of the sheath and tests the edge on his thumb.

I cannot move. I cannot speak. I cannot turn my eyes away though I know the hideous washer woman is bearing down on us all even now.

“Why did you take it?” The man speaks as if he does not much care what my answer will be.

I give him one anyway. With what little voice remains to me, I respond.

“I was hungry, starving.” Even to me the thin excuse seems paltry. It brings a chuckle to his fleshy face.

“Hungry? You cannot eat this. If you were hungry you might have taken my bread.” He casts his eyes about and takes in the trees surrounding us. “I would not have followed you all the way out here just for bread.”

Again I can do nothing but nod.

“Are you still hungry?”

I hardly notice the dull ache in my gut. It seems a tiny thing compared with these men who stand before me, and the thing that stalks us from behind.

“If you are still hungry I can fill your belly for you.” He slides his blade forward and lets it slip beneath my coat. His expression does not change.

The keen steel parts the worn cloth of my shirt, parts the flesh beneath, glides between my ribs and fills me with a terrible heat.

His expression does not change. He pulls his prize free and wipes it clean on my coat before his man lets me fall to the earth. My legs do nothing for me. My eyes already see only a dim version of the world around me. I cannot cry out for the blood welling up in my throat. If I could then I would. For now I know she will have me.

The last of the light fades from my vision and still I cannot scream. I have no voice, no ears, no eyes. Yet I know that she has me, like a dog with its teeth on a rabbit’s neck. She wonders how much effort it will take to wash me clean. I wonder too.

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