The Village

That Which Wills Thee [Chapter 15]

“You haven’t seen anything peculiar in these parts?” Bryna asked.

“Apart from a pair of women with their children wandering about the woods aimlessly?” The first hunter asked, straight-faced.

Jane was up on the horse with the two children, holding them close. Following the hunters, they marched through the woods, over old trodden snow.

“Any strange lights?” The old woman asked again.

The hunter shook his head. “Nothing o’ that sort. And at least one of us is somewhat awake during the night to keep the fire goin’. I’m amazed at ya’ both being able to make it out in this cold without furs and kindling.”

“It’s amazing what you might go through for the lives of little ones.”

“I’d rather mine be safe at home,” The man snorted. “We’re almost there.”


The village was only an hour or so on foot from the point where the women had run across the hunters. They met the road proper not far from the sight of the wooden structures of civilization. There were few tracks marking in the old snow of the path, but among the buildings, the marching of boots had dirtied the lot of it. The brief moments of clear skies those past couple of days then had then turned the remainder to slush and puddles of mud.

Jane looked about, then shook James away from her chest, his arms wrapped around her waist under her outer coverings. “We’re here,” she said tiredly. “We can get warm, and get some food in us.”

The little boy sat up and rubbed his eyes. He cast his gaze to the sky and blinked into the sun, hoping that the glow would disappear. “Where?”

“The village your papa always visits.”

“He here?”

Jane shook her head and rubbed at the little boy’s hair, shielding his eyes from the sun. “He should be coming this way sooner or later, after his leg gets all better. Remember?”

“How long?”

“That’s not something I could know. But he will be back, back with Lewis. For now… I could go for some meat.”

Bryna took up the reins of the horse and led them along. “Those men said there is an inn up this way,” she said, finger pointed along the road. “Let’s hope that nobody else had the idea of taking an extended journey through the worst of winter.”

The innkeeper was a woman slightly older than Jane. “William O’Malley?” she repeated when asked. “Certainly, he’s stayed here a couple times this year while coming by for supplies. He was building a homestead out there in the woods. How’s he holding up?”

“As well as God allows.”

The room was cramped with only two beds, both only wide enough for a single person, but at the very least the children didn’t require much space to begin with. The room and board were paid out for a week using the little bit of coin that Jane had taken from their home. The weight of the old stocking holding the coins had dwindled those past few months as William had bought supplies for working the land. With the stay, it was left nearly empty.

The women and the children bathed in a basin beside the warmth of the room’s hearth and took in the dried meats and steaming potatoes and warmed ale that they had purchased to finally fill their stomachs.

“What if it takes longer than a week for them to get back to us?” Jane asked, watching as James played with his little sister, crawling around between the beds.

“We may just have to be on the move again…”

“No.” The mother insisted, shaking her head. “I can’t go through that again. Perhaps… I can somehow get word to my father to finance our stay. Although… that’s the same journey out to Manchester and back.”

“Jane,” Bryna sighed, attempting to talk sense into the woman. “We’re here in a safe place. We pushed through the worst. At the very least, it doesn’t look like snow for the time being. The sun has been out. Surely if we can follow one light, we can follow another. If it comes to it, we may just have to head back home and deal with the ruins- seal up the wall and the ceiling.”

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The Treads

That Which Wills Thee [Chapter 14]

The footsteps in the snow led them away from the path they had been following. Jane kept looking back behind them at the road and the line of cleared trees, watching as it disappeared.

“Who could be out here in such weather?” Jane asked.

Bryna slowed her tread to answer. “Hunters, most likely. Animals grow their thickest coats out in the winter, making the finest furs for skinning… tanning.”

“Skinning and tanning,” Jane mumbled back.

“The animals mus’ be cold without their hair,” James spoke up, hanging off his mother’s back.

The old woman smiled at him. “Yes, of course…”

Jane pursed her lips and avoided the explanation. “I hope… they are friendly, at least.”

Bryna nodded thoughtfully. “They wouldn’t be able to turn down helping two women and two children, out here in the cold and looking like ragamuffins.”

Jane hiked the little boy a bit higher on her back and focused back to the treads in the snow. They continued to march along, stomachs growling and legs aching and cheeks burning in the cold. The clouds above began to clear, exposing the sun and causing the old snow to glare in their eyes.

Despite the bright light, James managed to fall asleep. Jane heard the boy’s soft breathing in her ear and felt his head on her shoulder.

“Bryna,” she spoke up softly.

“Huh?”

“That… thing.”

“What thing?”

“The light… the wisp.”

“What about it?”

“It’s supposed to… lead travelers away from their path.”

Bryna sniffed in thought. “Right. Some say they be the spirits of those who lost themselves on their way.”

“Then did someone…?”

“You’re tryin’ ta’ make sense of folktales, Jane.”

“We both saw it… the light, at least. How can you say such a thing is just a tale? And one that led us tracks like these? I’m a believer in the Lord, but this… is something… new.”

“Sometimes seeing is believing.”

The tracks suddenly stopped and diverged into a large area where the snow was disturbed with marks and scuffs moving about in all directions. Among the two sets of boot prints, Bryna spotted a series of u-shaped impressions.

“A horse?” The old woman posed, looking at where the tracks had come from.

“If they had a horse as well, they might have encountered the light, the same as us, and had it scared off.”

“Poor, dumb creatures,” Bryna sighed. “We must keep moving.”

The tracks seemed to fade as they continued, the old snow melting away in the sun of the day. Jane had long since lost the direction they were heading, and the sun began to creep father beyond the trees. Her hope began to fade as well, but she didn’t dare speak of her feelings to the old woman. The weight of the boy on her back sapped her strength little by little, but James seemed to be content in his continued sleep. His cold hands had long since fallen off her collar, and it was only her interlocked hands against his hips holding him up at her back.

The heat of the day began to fade, and with it, the last bits of her strength. “I… can’t keep this up, Bryna. We need to stop. James,” she said, shaking the boy. “You must walk for a while. I can no longer…”

James flopped around on her back, head rolling off her shoulder. She hurriedly crouched and laid him back against a tree before jostling at him. The boy’s face and forehead were red from the rays of the sun and reflections off the old snow. He was still breathing, but could barely open his eyes.

“Mama?”

“I’m here,” Jane said, swallowing hard, “Bryna, do you have any water left? Any crumbs in your bag?”

“I’m sorry, Jane.”

“Smoke…” The little boy mumbled.

“Smoke?” Jane echoed. She turned her nose to the air, and without mistake, she could sense it too. “Bryna, is that a campfire?”

“Perhaps.”

Jane picked up the boy and held him close to her chest. He was cold all over. With her last bit of strength, she returned to her feet and closed her eyes, allowing her other senses to seek out the fire.

James held limply to his mother’s chest. She felt his hands attempting to make purchase, but there was no strength behind his movements. “We’ll get you warm soon.”

Somewhere, deep within the wood there, Jane could hear the sounds of people, something she had not heard in what seemed like a while. It was the voices of men. Her feet crunched the snow and cracked the twigs and tore at the old, soggy leaves. Her strength was fading, but that didn’t matter. Bryna was not far behind, but struggling to keep up. The voices stopped.

Jane held at attention. For that moment, she wondered if the voices were just her imagination, playing cruel tricks. She stopped, hoping to hear them again. The sun above them threatened to hide back beyond the clouds, sapping what little warmth it offered them.

The old woman stopped as well. Jane glanced back at her. The silence was interrupted by a call. “Is someone there?”

Something swelled in Jane’s heart. “I’m-“ she croaked, a heaviness in her throat. “Yes, we’re… we’re lost… my little boy… he’s freezing to death!”

The footsteps approached. The first man stepped out, someone burly and wide, dressed in furs, and with thick hair of his own covering his face. He glanced back to another man, his partner, in a similar state of dress. “Come now,” he gestured to Jane. “We’ve got a fire going.”

Jane held James tight those last few meters. The men’s camp was little more than a clearing of snow, with a hissing fire and a length of sticks leaned against one of the larger trees. A tarnished kettle sat upon the rocks at the edge of the fire, melting snow for drinking water.

“Sit, warm yourself up however you need,” The first man said, glancing between the women and the two children between the both of them. “How long have ya’ been out here? And why?”

Bryna shook her head. She glanced around for any sign of the road. Instead, she noticed the horse, staring and sniffing indifferently. “This- how do you have this damn animal?”

The second man licked at his lips and clapped his hands in recognition. “We came across this fellow, all dressed fur ridin’, running around out here. We wondered if he had escaped, or ran off from someone on the road. Take it he’s yours?”

Bryna nodded her head. She took one last look at the animal before focusing back on Jane and the two children, one of which was still in her grasp. The mother had the boy on her lap before the fire, rubbing at his chest and hands with her own. “Food? Do you have any food?”

The first man dug through his pack and retrieved a satchel of hard crackers. Jane took up the broken-off section in her hands and crumbled it further, pushing it into James’ mouth. “Eat, eat. It’s warm, here, too.”

Bryna checked on Marie, still bundled in her arms and fumbling restlessly under the wrapping. “Our home caught fire… them men were off in Manchester… and we decided that Blackburn was our best option to wait it out until they got back.”

“We’re from those parts,” the first man said back. “You’re still pretty far south. Can’t blame you, the roads are rubbish.”

James nibbled on the cracker, allowing his saliva to wet it down before swallowing. He felt his mother’s warmth on one side, and the heat of the fire by the other. Opening his eyes a slight amount, he saw his mother’s face, her own eyes moist eyes looking into his. The light above was bright, but his heavy blinking revealed to him that it was not the sun. The greenish light faltered and faded, eventually disappearing from his view. He reached his hand up in the air to grab for it, but it was too late.

Jane grabbed at the boy’s outstretched hands, rubbing her warmth into his cold fingers. “We’ll be in the village soon enough. You’ll take us there, won’t you?”

“Seeing as how something has scared off all the game, we best return,” the first man said.

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The Call

That Which Wills Thee [Chapter 13]

Jane knelt down in front of James and petted the backs of her hands against his cheeks. The skin was red and cold. The little boy looked about at the surroundings, refusing to even turn in his mother’s direction.

“James,” she spoke up, grabbing up his hands in hers. He finally looked her in the eyes. “You remember what Lewis said.”

“What Lewis said…”

“That light… the Will of the Wisp…”

“You see it too, mama?”

“I see it, just as you do. Remember when you saw it before? Back in the summer? And your father asked Lewis about it?”

“I don’t ’member…” James pouted and shrugged.

“That thing… it takes people off the path, he said, leads them to dangerous, bad places, and leaves them. The path we’re on is the way to the village. We just have to follow it and we’ll get there, very soon.”

“I heard my name,” James said, the words from his mother not making contact.

Jane sighed and glanced back to Bryna, holding the little girl. The old woman shook her head in disbelief.

“James,” Jane cried, taking up the boy in her arms. “I want you to trust me. Listen to what I say. No matter what you see or hear, you need to keep along with us. I know this hasn’t been easy. But… we will get there. We’ll get warm, get to eat some proper food. Then we’ll just sit tight while we wait for your father and Lewis to get back. Promise me, you won’t think or worry about that thing, right?”

James pouted but allowed himself the comfort of wrapping his arms around his mother’s shoulders.

“James, you will listen?”

“Yes, mama.”

Jane wrapped her arm around the boy’s legs and picked him up, holding him tight as they began once again walking beside the road.

There was no sign, yet, of the village or any activity along the road. Their combined fatigue forced them to settle down for yet another night in the cold darkness. The wood scavenged from around the area was enough for a slightly bigger fire, but they were at the last of their food. They shared among the four of them a sole potato and the scraps of hardtack, and barely a word was exchanged.

The women fell asleep around the fire, huddling under the damp blankets, hoping for the morning to come soon once again. James, however, couldn’t help but stay alert, staring at the glow of the fire.

James.

James.

He heard his name again. The fire was suddenly dying down, and he realized he must have fallen asleep for a brief time. He rubbed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he saw the makeshift camp bathed in the familiar glow.

Being careful not to disturb his mother or Bryna, he shifted out from under the blanket. It wasn’t as cold as he imagined it being. He stared up through the bare tree’s boughs, through the needles of the evergreens, and to the clouds still stifling the sky. The glow caught his eye, having drifted off away from the camp. He couldn’t help but follow.

The old, crystalline snow crunched under his feet. The land ahead was almost as clear as day, bathed in the mysterious, yet comforting light. He walked for minutes, leaving the camp and his mother and sister and the neighbor behind, watching the darting and wavering light above, leading him forward.

It wasn’t long before the cold quiet of the night was interrupted. It was his name again, then the same utterance from a different mouth- neither the same as the call he had heard before. It was his mother and Bryna. He looked back in the direction he came, or at least where he thought he had been before. It was hopelessly dark, the only light remaining in the way forward.

The unnatural depressions in the ground caught his eyes, prints not made by any animal. The feet that made them were large, going back and forth at regular intervals, and there were two sets of them. The crunching of old snow called him back.

Jane grabbed up the little boy in her arms, sobbing and stroking his hair. The light above wavered. Bryna caught up next, holding a fussy Marie. “Why… are you doing this? Wandering off? I told you… I told you…” his mother sobbed, her knees soaking up the cold moisture and filth from the ground below.

James simply pointed at the footprints. The old woman stepped up, examining the marks and their stride.

“Jane, someone’s been by here. A couple of blokes, by the looks of it. They’re fresh too.”

Jane took the boy’s head and tucked it toward her chest. The sobs caught in her nose and throat. She swallowed them and looked up to the canopies of the trees above. The light was present, but not the one she expected. Piercing through the clouds was the moon, full and bright, shining upon them.

“It’s not so cold tonight,” she mumbled, her voice still heavy.

Bryna took the extra blanket off her back and draped it over Jane and her boy. “It’s best that we rest, still, so when day comes we may have our strength. But we have something we can follow in the morning.”

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