Beware torches in the night, my son, Mama always said. A light in the darkness can be many things, few of them good. A messenger bearing a terrible message. An army. A mob. Or, most terrible of all, a nymph of the lands below. Powerful, she is, but she will carry you off to her dusky bower.
Mama would grasp me hard by the shoulders, then, fingers digging into my flesh and muscles. Do not follow her, my son! Look away! Look away lest her light drive you mad!
I heeded my mother’s words. When the messenger came to us carrying word of my father’s death — a man I barely remembered — I hid in the crawlspace among the salted pork and rounds of cheese; and so Mama wept alone. When the army came to steal our pigs and goats and chickens, we hid together in the field, holding hands, buried in mud and straw; we were spared, though we were hungry that winter. When the mob came for her, convinced that her ill luck and grief had spread to the village and turned the milk and bloodied the eggs, I hid amid the tall grasses and flowers of the field. Mama was older by then, and too slow, and though I could not see, I could hear.
I heard everything.
When they had gone, I crawled from my hiding space. I wove a wreath of flowers and set it upon her ashes. I gathered the single remaining side of pork and round of cheese and my tattered cloak and, my heart a torch in my chest, made my slow way through the night, across fields and forests, to the ancient crossroads.
These were old paths, little used now and far older than the church which now ruled the land.
I spread my cloak on the ground, set out the pork and cheese, and waited. I waited all through the night, slept through the next day, and awoke to wait through the second night. I slept again in the warmth of day, arm curled beneath my head for a pillow, and awoke with the setting of the sun on the third night.
I sat and waited while frogs sang around me and owls soared silently overhead, hunting.
Only then, in the deepest hour of darkness, did the nymph come to me. Grey mist floated around her like a gown. Her flesh was as pale as bone, her hair whiter still. In her hand she carried a torch that burned with a cold light, harsh and piercing.
I looked away quickly, but I still felt as though icy worms were crawling along the inside of my skull.
The nymph gracefully knelt, mist pooling around her. She released the torch to sample the pork and ham, the light floating beside her head. “I will hear your plea.”
My answer was quick and certain. “They took my mother’s life. I will take theirs.”
Silence settled around us. The wind slipped through the trees, dancing with the dryads.
The nymph tilted her head. “You will not. Their lives are not yours to take. That has already been decided, and was decided long before you were born.”
Bitterness flared and twisted in my heart. “Then there is to be no justice for my mother.”
The nymph nibbled delicately at the cheese. “I said you could not take their lives. I said nothing of their minds.”
“How?” I asked, but even as I spoke my gaze slipped from her to the torch, its light sharp and cutting. I looked away, but not quickly enough; shadows scuttled behind my eyes.
“Just so,” she said. “There is a price for this gift, however.”
“Do not agree until you have heard all that I have to say. I wander the roads of the mortal and immortal realms with my Mistress and her hounds and my many sisters. My bower in the lands below is beautiful: forever dusk, the sky red and orange and yellow. The fruits there are sweet, the trees tall and black. Yet I am lonely. You will join me there. You will know no peace in the Fields of Asphodel, never drink from the River of Forgetting, never see your mother again. You will stay with me, forever. Do you understand?”
Frogs sang around us, and owls soared silently overhead, hunting. I thought of my mother and how we held hands while we hid in the field, covered in mud and straw. And I thought of all I had not seen when the mob came for her, but heard so clearly, and the wreath that now lay on her ashes.
“I understand. And my answer is yes.”
“Then take up my torch. You have this night. Return here by dawn, or I and my sisters will find you.”
With that, the nymph faded away, a soft grey mist carried off by the wind.
I stood and wrapped my hand around the stave of the torch. It was cold and prickly to the touch, like needles sticking into my flesh. I turned from the crossroads, from my cloak and the pork and the cheese, and made my way across fields and forests to the village.
I called forth my mother’s murderers by name. One by one, they left their homes and ventured out into the night. One by one, they looked upon the torch and began to scream. Some ripped at their clothes, some at their hair and teeth; others clawed out their own eyes, or turned on one another, shrieking and biting.
A few refused to come forth. They remained inside, locked behind their doors, thinking that would keep them safe.
It did not.
As dawn stained the sky red, I left the village of the mad and made my way across fields and through forests to the ancient crossroads. There I found the nymph, her flesh as pale as bone, her hair whiter still, clothed in a gown of soft grey mist.
She smiled when she saw me and took the torch from my hand. And I realized then that my flesh, too, was pale as bone and my hair was whiter still.
And the nymph led me away to her dusky bower in the lands below.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. Her poetry, short fiction, and essays have been published in a wide variety of venues, and a complete list can be found on EHS.]