At the Well of Seething Grove by Christian Riley [fantasy]

At the Well of Seething Grove by Christian Riley

“What are you doing here, child?” said the crone from atop her mule. The woman approached an old well, the stones of which rose from the barren ground like shattered bone driven through flesh. “This place is not safe. You should go home.”

The small girl looked up, her eyes full and blue.

“Didn’t you hear me? Go away, child.”

“I was brought here,” replied the girl.

“Is that so…? By whom?” It was a rhetorical question, with an obvious answer. The People of the Valley were the only ones who lived anywhere near the well. They farmed the rich soils below the hill, had done so for thousands of years. Disciplined by land and sky, they had even begun to write their knowledge onto sheets of bark, using a mixture of blood and charred bones. At this, the old woman remembered, lifting her brow.

“My mother brought me here last night,” said the child, her voice betraying an explosion of emotion. “She was washing clothes in the Mantic River, and then a white rose floated by. She thought it to be a sign. She used to call me her white rose, because of my white hair. And whenever I cried, she said my eyes were a river that poured sadness onto the heart of the land…  She brought me here last night.”

The old woman lifted her brow. “Did she now?” she said, slowly climbing off the mule. “And did your mother ever tell you why this place is called Seething Grove, child?”

The girl looked to the ground, silent.

“Long ago,” began the woman, “there came a man from your village. He wore the skin of a goat on his back, and carried a pole made from rock-wood—hard as stone. They called him Fey, which, in the language of old, means sadness of heart. So, this man, he lost his family from the raiders of the north. He had gone insane, waking every night in a sweat of anger, dreams of losing his wife and children over and over again. And he burned with the desire for revenge… But he was just a single man. What could one man do, eh?”

The girl lifted her head, meeting the woman’s wrinkled face.

“Hate is a powerful thing, child. Hate, if used properly, can cripple the soul of an entire army. This was what Fey had known. It was what he had counted on…when he came to this hill. He hid within the grove of hemlocks that once surrounded this very well, knowing that soon enough, they would pass, as they always have, forever and ever—the Sins of a Thousand Brothers. Are you listening to me, child?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m listening to you.”

“Good.” The woman walked over to the girl and leaned against the well. “You have seen these men?”

“No, ma’am. We hide in the room underneath our house when they come. But they killed my father last year. And my oldest brother. We never have much stuff, so they don’t stay in our house very long.”

“Hmm…” replied the woman, looking away. “Fey spied from the trees, and when the raiders came, he hated them. He set his eyes on each man, imagined their bodies crumpled onto the ground, poisoned from the water they drank here. And in his mind, the Sins of a Thousand Brothers became nothing more than an army of writhing death, the pangs of their demise resounding madly, like horns calling to a flock of ravens. Dinner time, you see?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The old woman stepped away from the well and looked out upon the dead trees that surrounded the hill. Stumps of decayed wood, rotted earth, and anemic-looking shrubbery peppered the sullen land. “But they found him, child. They found Fey—along with his hate, hiding in the low-hanging branches of the green hemlocks. They have excellent smell, you know? Them, and their four-legged beasts of war.”

“Their creatures slaughtered a drove of sheep last year,” said the girl. “Near the Valley of Thorns. Even the herder was killed.”

Ignoring the girl, the old woman fixed her eyes on the stump of a tree. “When they captured him,” she continued, “the Sins of a Thousand Brothers recognized the burning inside the heart of Fey. They saw it in his eyes. And they laughed at him… He was cleaved into a hundred pieces, child. They hung the bits of that man into the hemlocks, then sat quietly, listening to the drops of blood strike the ground. Many of these warriors even fell into a slumber, allayed as they were by this grisly concert. But of Fey’s heart—the warriors threw it down into the well. And each year, as they come over this pass to raid your village down below, the Sins of a Thousand Brothers always stop at this well to quench their thirst with what they now call the Water of Hate.”

“I think I’ve heard of him,” replied the girl, shifting her stance. “I think I’ve heard of this man, Fey.”

“So now we have this,” continued the woman, her arms raised in a gesture to the surrounding land. “A dead grove, spoiled of life. Spoiled from hate. Nothing ever grows here anymore, child. And that is why they call it Seething Grove.” The woman suddenly turned toward the girl. “They’ll kill you! You know that, child? They’ll butcher you, like they did Fey. They’ll make pieces out of your soft body and feed them to their beasts of war.”

“My mother brought me here last night,” repeated the girl, her voice sharp with fear.

“So you said,” replied the woman. Slowly, she walked toward the girl. “What is your name, child?”

“Myra, ma’am. Myra Leavenspeak.”

“Myra Leavenspeak,” replied the woman. “Let me ask you this, Myra. Why did your mother bring you here?”

“She saw a sign, in the river with the rose. She said that it was her rose, which is me, and that I would be swept down a current of sadness. Then she just grabbed me, and brought me here. But before she left, she kissed me and told me to be brave. She told me not to cry—even though I did, I couldn’t help it—and that the ‘Old Witch’ would soon come.”

The old woman lifted her brow once more.

“Is that you?” added the girl. “Are you the Old Witch?”

“It takes a strong heart to give up a child, wouldn’t you say, Myra Leavenspeak?”

The girl dropped her eyes back to the ground, in silence.

“A strong heart indeed. Or a wicked one!”

“My mother isn’t wicked!”

“No. I suppose she isn’t.”

Then the old woman turned, and walked back to her mule. She grabbed a leather satchel from the saddle, untied a crusted string of knots, and then carefully pulled out a glass cylinder filled with black liquid. “Would you like to know what is more powerful than hate, child?” she said, ambling back to the girl.

“Yes, ma’am.”

After drawing a sharp fingernail over the cylinder’s wax seal, the woman paused, her gaze lingering on Myra. “Love,” she replied plaintively. Then, slowly, she poured the black liquid into the well.

“What is that?” asked Myra.

“What is love?” replied the woman.

“No. What is that?” asked the girl, pointing to the black liquid.

“Oh, this… The hemlock tree is a harmless, shade-bearing sentient from which many creatures often take shelter. Even hide in. But its cousin, the hemlock plant, is anything but harmless. If ingested, a person will most certainly die a quick and painful death.”

“Why are you poisoning the well?” asked Myra. “Don’t you mean to drink from it?”

The old woman laughed. “Oh, child. I haven’t sipped from this well in over a thousand years.”

Myra blinked her eyes. “Why are you here, then?” she said, watching the old woman walk away.

“I can see you have much to learn, Myra Leavenspeak.” The woman slowly climbed up onto the mule, adjusted her seat, then lowered a hand toward the girl. “I’ve come for you, child. At long last, they’ve given me my apprentice.”

Myra stared at the woman for a long moment as a cold breeze suddenly swept over the hill, sending her white hair into a flurry of motion.

“Come on, then,” said the woman. “It’s time to go. The Sins of a Thousand Brothers will be here soon.”

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