Willow stood in the middle of a meadow populated by wildflowers, a clear sky above and the sun streaming brightly down around her. But it was cold and she shivered beneath her thin layers, layers that were fine in her small village and her family’s dwelling with a warm fire burning in the hearth. She searched the meadow and saw sign of Poppy; she was alone. The meadow was surrounded on all sides by trees that grew thicker and darker beyond the edge of the meadow, creating a forest of shadows and foreboding. In the distance, Willow heard thunder rumbling and knew she needed to find shelter. She pushed her shoulders back and held her head high, hoping she looked far more bold and brave than she felt for anyone who might be watching her. Because she could sense that someone was. Though she saw no one, she felt an eerie, almost threatening presence and she forced herself to move toward the trees so that she could have some cover both from the storm and from the lurking presence.
She had no sooner begun crossing the meadow when darkness blotted out the sun and the wildflowers withered to bare yellowed stalks. Darkness cloaked her and she heard a beating of wings above her. Willow ran, not daring to look behind or above her, but keeping her eyes on the trees. But no matter how fast she ran or how much ground she seemed to cover, the forest never got closer. The beating of wings seemed to chase her, closing in on her so that she could almost feel the feathers brush the back of her neck. As she ran, she saw a single black feather drift through the air in front of her, freezing her in her tracks. The feather landed on the toe of her boot and she noted as she leaned down to pick it up that the meadow seemed suddenly silent. Except that it was no longer a meadow. And there were no longer any trees around her. Only blackness, and the occasional flutter of feathers somewhere behind her.
She held her hands out in front of her and began moving slowly in the direction she was facing. Moments later her hands hit rock, cold damp rock that seemed to form a wall, at least as near as she could tell by running her hands along it as she moved. Behind her the feathers seemed to be rustling more quickly, more intensely, as if the creature were preparing to take flight. Willow turned around but could make no form out in the darkness that surrounded her. Now she sensed breath near to her and she knew that whatever it was, the creature was beside her. Before she could move or defend herself, something with razor-sharp claws ripped through her shoulder and she screamed—
“What? What is it?” Poppy roused from the nap that she’d fallen into seemingly disoriented and frightened.
“It’s me. I’m okay. Just a dream,” Willow said.
“Must have been one wild dream,” Poppy replied.
“Yeah. I don’t remember much except the scream,” Willow lied, pulling her blanket tighter around her shoulders. Without thinking, she rubbed the shoulder that the creature clawed open in her dream and her breath came in short, shallow bursts.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it,” Poppy said.
“It’s getting late,” Willow said. “We should get moving if we’re going to get to the Bridge of the Angels in time.”
Poppy sat a few moments longer her eyes locked on Willow’s. They both knew that Willow wasn’t being completely honest about her dream, but Poppy decided not to pursue it. At least not right at that moment. Instead, she turned toward gathering her things, taking time to pull out a heavier shirt and then carefully repack her books, with the one they were reading resting on the top.
“Ready?” Poppy asked.
“As can be,” Willow replied.
The two started off toward, their walking gaits in synch as they left the grove of trees and picked their way through the tall grasses of the field ahead of them. The grasses swayed with the breeze and carried the smell of distant fires toward them and the Willow noticed that the ground felt a little softer the further they traveled. A good sign that they were approaching the River of Fates with its rushing currents and that lore said often flooded a wide area on either side of the river. They would travel North along the river for several miles before finally arriving at the bridge. Already the sun was slipping behind the edge of the horizon and behind them along the path. With the sinking sun, the chill in the air seemed thicker and Willow looped her arm through Poppy’s and the two huddled together as they walked. The building darkness reminded her that she hadn’t brought extra matches and hoped that the ones she had would suffice for this first night, both to light a torch to guide their steps along the path, but also so that they could get a fire going once they stopped for the night. She wondered when that would be because she had no idea what to expect from Judah, how much time he would require of them and whether they should stop and camp near the bridge or try to get further into the highlands.
As if reading her thoughts, Poppy looked at her and said, “Is it too light to light a torch do you think?”
Willow looked at her friend and then up at the sky. Already the dusk was settling around them and she found herself squinting to see ahead of her. Of course, she was still more concerned about whether the tales of the angels of darkness and related lore were true or simply stories woven together by the Elders and handed down over the years. Still, she decided she would rather be safe and foolish (in the event it were all just folklore) than bold and in danger.
“Have you got matches?” she asked.
Poppy held up a box. “I’ve got four more boxes,” she said, patting her rucksack.
“I’m glad you brought extra,” Willow said. “I’ve only got the one. In too much of a hurry I suppose.”
“Has anyone from your village ever met Judah?” Poppy asked.
“I don’t believe so,” said Willow. “I’ve never heard talk of it.”
“It would be pretty big talk,” Poppy agreed.
“What do you think he’ll say about what we’re doing?”
Poppy shrugged. “Hard to say, you know? He didn’t try to dissuade you last night when you talked to him.”
“Not really,” Willow agreed. “Except for that mention of great risk and the defeating of the angels of darkness.”
“You don’t believe in all of that, do you,” Poppy asked.
This time, Willow shrugged. She’d never really given it much thought, but since speaking with Judah last night, she’d been giving it a lot more thought. And then there was her dream this afternoon. She’d never had so vivid a dream before, and certainly nothing quit so frightening. “I guess I’m not so sure as I once was what to think,” Willow admitted.
Poppy seemed to ponder this. “Let us see what it is that Judah has to say. Perhaps he can say for sure once we are standing before him.”
The two paused and lit the torch they’d woven while walking and surveyed the land around them. They could hear the whispers of the wind and the gurgling and thrashing of the river against the rocks and the shore, as if the two were having a lengthy conversation. Willow wondered what the wind and river would discuss if they really could talk. Would they know of the things she believe to be only the folklore of her village? Would they know of things like destiny and passion. Her reverie was interrupted by Poppy’s voice, a tremor on the wind as she pointed up ahead. The Bridge of the Angels.
Willow shivered and huddled closer to Poppy from the anticipation as much as from the chill.
The Bridge of the Angels
The two stood and looked up at the bridge, wondering. With the burning of their torch in the darkness, Judah would know they had arrived, but still, they stood a little longer by the river. Willow turned her ear to the rushing water, again wondering if there were any words or warnings it would offer if it could. Her mother had once told her that there were some in their village who had a special gift where nature was concerned; that they could hear things others could not and claimed that the trees and the sky and the things around them whispered and chattered about the goings on of things that few were privy to. Things that happened in times past and things that happened in far away lands. Because her mother shared these things with her, Willow contemplated them more seriously than other of the lore she had heard growing up.
“Are you ready?” Willow said.
“As can be,” Poppy replied.
Together they made their way up the embankment and around to where the bridge met the path. Willow took a deep breath and stepped as boldly as she dared onto the bridge. She wasn’t sure what she expected, maybe that their very presence here would cause the bridge to tremble and then crumble, stranding them on this side of the River of Fates forever, stuck with the destiny the Elders had assigned each of them during the Ceremony of the Fates. As they approached the middle of the bridge, Willow saw a lone, stooped over figure, a shadow in the moonlight that provided him an eerie glow between the moon and the river’s reflection. He had long hair that waved and tangled in the breeze and his back was to them. In on hand he held what looked to be a walking stick that was as tall as he and with his other hand he traced a pattern along the rail of the bridge. Willow wondered what he traced and if it held any significance. She glanced over at Poppy, curious as to her friend’s thoughts as she took in the figure of Judah ahead of them. When they were still several feet away, he turned and faced them and his face was lit with the flickering glow of their torch that created shadows that danced across his wizened face. Both girls froze under his gaze.
“Ah, you arrive,” he said and his voice was as soft as a cat’s purr and low as a bullfrog’s. “I will speak with each of you individually, starting with Poppy teller of tales and keeper of truth.”
Poppy looked at Willow, her brown eyes wide and curious, then she smiled and squeezed Willow’s hand and moved toward where Judah waited for her just past the center of the bridge. As she neared him, he extended a hand to her and she took it without hesitation. “Walk with me, my child,” Judah said to her, and the two headed down the other side of the bridge and into the shadows, leaving Willow standing on the bridge with the torch and her thoughts.
(Day 2 word count: 1881)