I rode my horse through the wood. With me was the magical bag that the Enchantress had given me, all its articles intact, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking of the doll I had found lying next to the bag. She had no face, no features, was merely a blob of felt and a bit of yarn. Very primitive. I’d stuffed her in the sack along with the other items. Frankly, my energy was low, and I’d begun to tire of the entire journey, life, all of it. These phases hit me once in a while, and unlike my cheerful little Katy who runs beside me and wags her tail, I have another travel companion. This black dog walks silently, menacingly, and lies close to me, almost too close, when I sleep. I feel suffocated by its attentions. Katy had long returned to my home in Kansas, missing her bed and her biscuits, so I travel on with this other dog, also familiar, but not welcome.
As I enter a clearing, I see a woman standing under a tree. She is young, slightly dirty, and has wild hair. She gestures to me, and I slow.
“A ride to the village, Mistress?”
I can smell her unwashed body and I’m sure I look uncertain.
“If you take me, Mistress, I’ll tell you something you want to know. I’ve the gift, y’know.”
Sighing inwardly at what is likely a lie, I nonetheless allow her to climb aboard behind me, noting with distaste the dirt and sores on her hands as she clasps them around my waist. We ride on. I do not speak. My companion tries to draw me out, but my answers—short, terse, unfriendly—silence her. Still we ride, and I glance down to see the large black dog running at my side. I wish for a moment that I could ride off a cliff, fall into nothingness, part ways with the black dog once and for all. I feel an emptiness; a void, deep within my chest. Suddenly, I feel cold steel at my throat.
“I can accommodate you, Mistress,” the girl says, “if that is truly what you wish.”
My astonishment at both turns—her perception of my thoughts and her immediate threat to my life—is great. I feel the blood running through my veins, my pulse throbbing at the base of my neck, just near the edge of the keen blade, which nicks me as my horse jumps over a log. I feel the hot breath of the girl, and expect her hand to reach for my bag, to snatch away all the magical gifts I had been given. I look to the dog. Its teeth are bared, breath ragged. I think of…nothing. I surrender to my fate, leaning back into the girl, allowing my hands to fall free of the reins. Tears course down my cheeks, and I sob, openly.
“It is as I thought, my dear,” the girl said, only now her voice was cracked and rusty, that of a crone. I twisted in my saddle, feeling the blade yet again. “Ye don’t even know who ye’re fighting, do you?” She reaches for the reins, urges my horse to a halt, and slides off. I see that she has changed. Before me stands a crone, all angles and wrinkles, almost toothless. I lie across the horse’s neck, limply watching her for signs of her next move.
“Life is tricksy, my dear. So are ye, and I, and all of Her creation. I thought to bring ye back to the fight, make ye see what ye hold dear, close to the heart. But instead, ye surrendered yourself—an unusual choice, but an honorable one. There is much to learn in surrender, mistress. I shall not take ye this day, it is not your time to go downriver. Instead, I shall leave you with this blade, and this wisdom: It is important to know just who it is you’re fighting. Is it outside ye, or are ye fighting that one that looks out the mirror at ye?” She handed me the blade, turned, and walked into the forest.
I hardly knew what to do. I placed the blade inside my belt, mounted my horse, and rode on. In the distance, I saw the dog, running parallel, but so far from me he was a mere shadow.
by Karen Roberts