While Caewen struggled to free herself, the half-alive, half-dead woman leaned closer and narrowed her line of sight, staring hard and direct. The noise of Dapplegrim angrily stomping and yelling was growing faint. Caewen realised that the woods all around her had visibly dimmed too, as if she was now looking at the world through a carved-out hollow of dark glass that suffocated light and sound. The only other bright thing left was the woman who grasped Caewen’s wrist.
When the woman spoke, she did so with two voices superimposed, one atop the other. “Stop your wriggling.” One voice was young and pleasant. The other was harsh, dead-sounding and echoing.
Caewen stopped moving. Her muscles obeyed, as her mind reeled and balked.
“I want to get a look at you. There are those who are talking about you. Paying attention to you. Some of them say they’ve a claim on you even, since the goings-on at the tower of the snow and the apples, they say. Others are very keen to claim you for their nation, whether their claim is rightful or not. I want to have a look at you and see for myself.”
“I’ve no part in any nation,” Caewen said. She tried to twist free but found she could barely move. Frustrated, she added, more sullen, “Unless my little home village is a nation.”
The two voices chimed together, in synchronicity. “No mortal nation. The secret nations. The other nations that lie behind the mortal seeming of the world and are more true and more elemental in their being.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” She found that she was now slowly regaining a little control over her arms and tried to pull away again. Her heat was racing. Sweat was beading on her lips and gathering on her brow. A strong feeling of fear was running up and down her throat with each breath.
“None of that now.” A frown crossed the woman’s face. “I confess I find you wanting. Nothing like what I expected, given the gossip. But perhaps there is more to you than seems? A test is needed.”
The woodland faded still more, until the world became a blank greyness, so that it seemed as if the living earth had died and turned to ash around them. As soon as the colour was gone, the woman let go and said, “Follow.”
Caewen’s wrist hurt as if it had been burned. There were red marks where the fingers had been. She rubbed at it. “Do I have a choice?”
The woman who was half-dead and half-alive turned and walked into the blank grey. Caewen held her wrist closer to her chest. She was managing to get a little bit past her initial fear and shock now. Her thoughts were regrouping. Was her wrist hurt? She stretched it. No. The joint was mostly uninjured, although maybe the skin would blister. She looked over her shoulder, desperately hoping she would see Dapplegrim and knowing that she would not. She couldn’t just wander off after some strange entity in the woods, or, wherever it was they were now. She looked around at the impenetrable grey. It wasn’t a fog, she realised. It was an absence. There was nothing here, just emptiness.
She didn’t put a foot forward, but instead said, “I am Caewen of Drossel Village. I give you my name freely and without obligation except for the oldest of trades. I ask your name.”
The woman stopped as if someone had given her a blow on the back of the neck. When she turned around her eyes had a swamp-flame glow of a snarl in them. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have demanded her name like that. Unless the half-dead woman wanted to break the oldest of the old laws, she would have to answer honestly. Caewen’s time spent with the ice-demon wriggling around inside her skull and thoughts had left all sorts of knowledge behind. Little scraps and bits. Old laws. Old bargains. Small but useful.
“Very well,” said the woman, coolly. “You ask who I am? I am the first of the three, who are one, who are many. I am the blighting, and I am the laying to waste. I am the end of all things, as all things must end. I am the falling to ruin, and the decay, and the rot, and the undoing of all that is and will ever be. I am the first of the three and I am swift as time, and twice as relentless.”
Caewen could barely form words. Finally, she said, “You want me to believe you’re the spirit of death?”
The half-dead woman laughed with two voices. “No. We are not so diffuse, nor so potent, nor so impotent, nor so world-spanning. No. The three who are one who are many are bound to the Hill of the Art. We who are one and three dwell together there, and reign there. We do not stretch our dominion beyond what is allotted to us.”
“Right,” said Caewen. “So, a sort of local spirit of death then?” She folded her arms. “What happens if I refuse to go with you?”
“I will leave you here, in the void where the howling apparitions roam. Past that, I do not know.” A shrug. “Whatever befalls you.”
Some choice. At least if she went with the half-dead woman, there might be a chance for escape later. There was no way to tell if the implacable expression she was looking at was impatient, but Caewen suspected she had to make a decision quickly, all the same. “Very well then,” she said, though she couldn’t quite keep a wisp of anger from her voice. “I will go with you for now.”
A smile formed in return, strange in the way it spread across the living and dead flesh of the face. “If I choose to take you, you will ‘go with me’ in whatever way pleases me, for however long pleases me. Little creature, you have nothing to say in the matter.” She turned away then and proceeded on her way into the blank greyness.
It was only as Caewen took a few hurried steps to catch up that she realised that the half-dead woman had not given her name after all. A shudder. That wasn’t good. Either the spirit was too broken to care about the old laws of the earth, or too powerful to bother with them. That sort of power was the power of a god. Maybe a minor sort of god, but a god nonetheless. One way or the other, this was not encouraging.
They might have walked for moments, or hours, or days. The passage of time did not seem to quite feel real in the thin and pallid gloom. However long it was, at last the woman came to a stop and indicated with a hand, “Here. Your test is here.”
Colours grew in snaking lines, forming trees and branches, leaves and then spreading under their feet, forming into the dirt and humus of the forest floor. As the colours grew in form and solidity, the apparition of the half-dead woman faded in measure, until only a tracery of her image was left, and then nothing.
When the world fully resolved itself, Caewen found herself on a wooded and evening-shallowed slope. The air felt the same degree of coolness as before, and she noticed crows roosting in trees above. They seemed to be watching her. There was no sign of the road that she and Dapplegrim had been on, but she did seem to be standing in the same woodland. As best as she could tell, anyway. How deep into the woods, how distant from the road and Dapplegrim, she could not tell.
Immediately in front of her was a shambling near-ruin of a cottage. The daub of the walls was crumbling. The thatch was rotted to the point of smelling like silage, fermented and faintly alcoholic in tone. Nothing seemed to stir nearby. There was no sign of anyone alive. Caewen looked around, peering into the distant woods. All she could see were trees, ranking themselves away in rows until they became dim brown bars half-hidden by their own foliage and the scattered understory. She called out, “Dapple!”, three times, loudly, but heard nothing. By the third yell, she was feeling alone, afraid and resigned. The half-dead woman wanted her to go into the cottage. There was probably little for it, but to go along with things and see where they led. “Stupid uncanny spirits. Stupid weird powers. Stupid eldritch things.” With a sigh she decided that muttering angrily at the ethereal was not going to do her any good. There was no point in delaying what must come.