A slow current of warm and damp air brushed his face and Erosoi, wishing for nothing but the cold, thought he felt his lips swell. He thirsted and he sweat, the salty perspiration seeping into the thousands of shallow wounds across his back. Struggling elbows twitched and an indemnifying pain, as if Glewlwyd himself took Erosoi’s head in his iron grip, ricocheted through his skull. He gritted his teeth and filled his lungs with the dank air; despite the irascible and contemptuous pain he impelled across his flesh, Erosoi, the man of action, the man who would unstuck himself, exhaled with all the force he could marshal and sculled his contracted body forward.
His shoulders squeezed past the obstruction and he fell, face first, with a thud against a hard ground. He spat the dirt from his mouth and wiggled his way forward and before he returned to a crawling position, turned over on his back and felt the space around him. Nothing. Nothing save the air that is, warmer and wetter.
“You’ve come.” A soft voice.
“I am Erosoi, Slayer of Torc. Nudens, Chieftain of the Muir, told me I was to come here.”
The young voice snubbed his proclamation. “When the seventh summer turns east and south becomes the third spring, the eighth wood will twice save the second fire.”
A small white flame flickered, outlining her face in subtle stokes of light and shadow.
“Is this the riddle?”
“It is not.” The flame-turned-red reshaped the young maiden’s face into that of middle-aged woman, bathed in a congealed-blood red. “Such is the Declaration of Bees written in the stone. Now for your path.” She showed him white twigs—one about the length of a middle finger, two that of a thumb—and tossed them to the ground. “There is your sign.”
Erosoi leaned forward. “My sign? What is it?” The longer stick lay vertical; the other two crossed the longer in a straight line just off center. “The sign of what?”
“It is called the Sign of Breath.”
“What does it mean?”
“Aspiration pronounces solemnity until voice is given to the pointer. Whence is the utterer’s judgment betokened and the sign stained?” She reverted into the darkness.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“To your riddle.” A sharp cackle and then a face, a smiling face pressed into a murky bone colored light cast by a black flame, a face now long and wrinkled, void of eye and tooth, a centipede crawling in and out of dark and matted hair. “Your path and passage.”
“Whence is the utterer’s judgment betokened and the sign stained!?”
Words fumbled and a rush of refreshing air brushed his left side, dropping a whisper in his ear. “Um…In revenge?”
The black candlelight doubled in size and washed the thicket in bone light. And there she sat, nude, thick hair climbing over and around itself on the floor like burls and half exposed ancient roots. Behind her, piles of split bone picked clean. And though she struggled, she managed to rise, back-bent, groping. He grabbed the dagger and the young girl’s voice returned: “Why would you do that do me?” She stepped forward, her outstretched arms, slightly bent at the elbow, wrists limp, open for embrace.
He waved the dagger. “Did I answer correctly?”
“What did I do to you?” the little girl asked. Her head snapped in rough directions, her arms and legs jerking at the most irregular angles.
The mother repeated the question in the same absent, almost preoccupied, tone.
Erosoi extended his arm. Retreated, backed into and struck his head against the thorny arched ceiling.
Arms lowered, she crooked her head to the side, her wide black and glassy eyes baring Erosoi’s convexed fear. Cracking and shattering behind him. She cackled or howled or something. She inched forward, repeating “your path and passage your path and passage” and put her cold hands on his arm.