Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Foretelling

(March 2006)

"I'm not sure I can do it," he said.

"Yes, you can," answered the ancient wise woman.  "I have foreseen it."  She hacked and coughed and spit on the fire, then poked at the coals with a stick.  Her bare feet were caked with dirt, the nails split and torn.  She wiggled her filthy toes near the flame.  The young man looked at her with barely concealed loathing.

"What have you seen, exactly?" he demanded.

She dropped her stick and put her hands up to her grimy face.  Closing her eyes and pressing her hands together, she tilted her chin to the sky and whispered as though she were reading quietly aloud.  The young man shifted impatiently, tired of sitting on the hard ground with this crazy, supposedly wise woman.

Finally, the old woman opened her eyes and dropped her hands to her lap.  "I have seen you, glorious in gleaming armor with the mark of an eagle's talon, skewering the great bull with a long, ancient blade."  Her eyes flashed, and the young man trembled in spite of himself.  "You will be the one to do this thing," she said in an ominous tone.  "The gods have determined it before your birth."

They were silent for a moment, the only sounds the cheerful crackling of the fire and the distant rustle of nocturnal creatures in the woods around them.

"Well," said the young man at last, and he got up to leave.  The old woman picked up a chunk of the roast pheasant he had brought for her and began chewing enthusiastically on it.  The young man picked up his helmet and bowed stiffly, then took his leave, riding his horse off into the night without saying another word.

After several moments, when the sound of his hoof beats could no longer be heard ringing up the trail, a young woman emerged from the nearby trees.  Her long hair hung like a ghostly pale sheet, but her eyes were as brown as the earth.

"What did you tell him, Nana?" she asked, looking off down the path he had taken.

The old woman spit out a bone and coughed.  "The same thing I told the last seven idiots."

"Oh," said the young girl.  "What happened to them?"

The old woman shrugged.  "Eh, one fell in the river, two were killed by highwaymen, another died of consumption..." she chuckled.  Then, seeing the deflated expression on her granddaughter's face, she grew more serious.  "Oh, don't worry.  Come here and sit by an old woman."

The girl did as she was told.  "Why do you tell them that they will succeed when you know they will not?" she asked.

"Ah, yes, that is important.  You will need to understand this if you are to take my place some day, child, so listen carefully."  She handed over a piece of pheasant.  "I tell them that they will succeed, because that is what they have come to hear.  It's what they need to hear.  Their purpose is to quest.  I give them the courage to continue on."

"To their deaths," said the girl, nibbling at the bird.  She stared into the fire glumly, her shoulders slumped.

"Well, now," said the old woman.  "No one can really know that for sure.  Although it is true that I can see when they are likely to fail.  But what good to set them on another path?  They would just as like fail at that as well." She laughed heartily and stretched.  "What's all this worry about anyway?  I've never seen you so taken."

"I liked him," the girl said simply.  "He was different from the others."

"Ah, well," said the old woman, grinning broadly.  "You do have the family spark, don't you?  Yes, he was different.  And I shouldn't worry about him, if I were you.  Not a bit."

The girl brightened and looked at her grandmother curiously.  "Why not?" she asked.

"Because, unlike the other fools who've come traipsing up here for solace and have gone marching off confidently to their dooms, that one did not believe a word I said to him.  There's hope for him."

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