Shadowdancer

by gwendolyn_flight


Shadowdancer
Chapter One

MULDER DRAGGED HIS crippled body desperately through the darkness and the wind and the rain that pelted him. His hands were torn and bleeding from pine needles and thorns and sharp stones. Still, his fingers dug into the road, seeking purchase as he hauled himself a few more painful inches, stripping more flesh from elbows already raw and oozing. His breath came in ragged gasps; he cried out again and again for help, but through the thunder and relentless deluge, his voice came as a weak and pathetic whimper.

'Who's there to hear me, anyway?' he thought forlornly. Yet for the sake of his father, he cried out, hurling his shouts against the tempest as he dragged himself with piteous determination through the miserable night.

A blast of lightning, a cobalt flare bright enough to penetrate the tangled canopy of leaves and branches, tore open the sky. For one instant, Mulder saw the narrow road stretching before him, and the trees on either side that loomed like mighty soldiers of an era before the Age of Man. 'Help me,' he begged them. 'Help my father! Don't let him die! If only I had legs to run for help!'

Darkness closed in again. Thunder ruptured the heavens, and a wind ripped through the forest. At first, in that rasping rustle, he thought the trees had answered his prayer and torn themselves from their roots, that they would sweep him up from the mud and, awakened from an ancient hibernation, march to his father's aid. But that was only fever, or a moment's wild dream. Neither spirits nor gods answered men so easily. Save for the deafening crashes and the rain and his useless cries, the forest kept its silence.

He couldn't stop a gush of tears. He didn't know how much time his father had, how fast the venom in his veins would work. If only Mulder had legs to run! The village of Shandasti was not too far for a man with legs. Or Lord Skinner's keep; his soldiers might help.

But Mulder's legs were worthless. Filled with despair and self-loathing, he pounded his fist against the road, splashing mud in his face and eyes. Without his father, he would be alone in the world. Completely alone. He shouted again with a force that left his throat raw. 'Help me, help!' But not a soul traveled the forest road on such a night as this, and if any gods rode the wind, they offered him no solace.

For his father's sake, he swallowed his fear and his despair and struggled on his belly toward the village, eating the mud that filled his mouth, wiping rain from his face, with only the lightning to show him the road.

Half a man, that's all he was. Not even that; barely a man at all. The hatred welled up within him like a bitter gall, hatred for himself, for his useless legs and for his tears, for all his weakness. His father would die, and he would be to blame. His father would die, and he would be left alone, and it would be his fault.

On the verge of exhaustion, he used that hatred like a whip to lash himself onward. Weeping, he dragged his body another inch, clinging to the barest shred of hope while a small part of him prayed. 'If father dies, let me die, too, here, exposed in the storm.'

In heaven, they would be together again, and his father would take care of him forever.

"Look what we have here," a deep voice said suddenly out of the night. "Quite a worm we've found wriggling in the mud."

Mulder looked up just as a bright flash tore open the night and stung his eyes. For an instant, fear gripped his heart, but that emotion yielded suddenly to wild hope as a pair of riders splashed cautiously out of the darkness.

After-images of the lightning dazzled his vision, and he wiped a hand over his eyes. A huge white horse stopped so close that its hooves spattered him with mud. Raising up on his elbows, he stared in wonder at the leather breast strap so richly studded with gold and silver, at the elegantly worked bridle that tinkled with bells and precious glimmering jewels. With an impatient snort, the horse shook its streaming mane, then lowered its head to investigate him, its questing muzzle warm in the pouring rain.

He saw the horse's rider perched high on a soft, beautifully woven cloth-of-gold riding pad. Just as suddenly, he perceived the eerie glow that surrounded her and lent gleam to the gems and luster to the metals on her tack. A warm, wondrous pool of light spread on the ground around her. Mulder felt it like a gentle wave on his skin.

Her hair shone with the same golden light, and it spilled over her shoulders in wispy curls. Her eyes, though, were black, full of a darkness so deep it shamed the night. There was no color in her cheeks, but her lips were redder than blood. They turned upward in a strange smile. One hand parted the folds of her cloak and fluttered to her throat, while her ivory breasts strained against the white silk of her gown. Upon that tender flesh, a ruby hung on a thin chain. It seemed to Mulder that the jewel burned with an inner fire and throbbed with something not unlike hunger.

Mulder caught his breath, unable to move or speak. He had seen few women in his life, and none at all like this one. His heart sprang out of him; he loved her at once. Yet he feared her, too, for he knew her name. In all of Ispor there could only be one such woman.

He gazed upon the Witch of Shanalane.

When she spoke, her voice was a velvet caress: "He looks more like a hunted fox to me. Get down and see what this is. If it really is a boy, then it's either mute or afraid of us." The red lips parted in a smile, revealing small, perfect ivory thorns. "We won't harm you, little fox," she said, but her words didn't reassure Mulder.

A dry rumbling answered the Witch. "I still think it's a worm."

Mulder recoiled as a tall, whippet-thin demon with eyes like ice rode out of the Witch's shadow on the largest, blackest mare he had ever seen. Lightning glistened on the creature's breastplate and greaves, which were made of black leather and fitted with rings of burnished bronze. As the demon swung down to the ground, Mulder saw the immense sword belted over one hip and the helm bound with a leather strap to his other. A dark, woolen cloak tumbled over the demon's shoulders as he bent low, grasped Mulder's arm, and tried to jerk him to his feet.

Mulder gave a sharp cry of pain as his shoulder nearly separated from its socket, and another as the demon, reacting in surprise, dropped him. The muddy road rushed up to meet him as he fell helplessly.

"He's lame," the demon commented without emotion, looking down upon Mulder, who struggled up onto one bruised elbow. A grim smirk lifted the corners of the demon's thin mouth. "A poor night for a walk, anyway."

"Enough," the Witch protested.

The Witch of Shanalane turned her dark-eyed gaze fully upon Mulder, and he froze, unable to look away. A shiver passed through him. His father, the storm, the forest, his anguish, all other thoughts suddenly dissolved. Only those eyes, of all else in the world, held any meaning for him.

'She's drinking my life,' he thought through a strange, blissful haze. His vision blurred, his senses swam, and he felt himself becoming tenuous and thin. 'Let her. I give it willingly.'

But then she let him go-- if, indeed, it had not all been his imagination. He shook his head and wiped rain from his eyes.

"We heard your wails even over the storm," she said. Her voice sounded sweeter, richer than the bells that jingled on her bridle. "Are you lost, boy?"

His face burned suddenly with shame: he had forgotten his father.

"My father is dying," he stammered, wishing with all his soul that he could stand on his feet to speak to this lady. Plainly, she didn't deserve her reputation. The aura that surrounded her was surely the golden light of goodness. Here was no thing of evil. He beheld no witch, but a goddess.

Mulder swallowed hard and continued, the words rushing from him. "He went to gather logs from the woodpile at dinnertime, and a serpent bit his hand. He barely made it back to the cabin before collapsing. I touched his skin-- it was so cold! I had to try to get help, but as you can see, I can only crawl. Then, this storm came up so fast!" Mulder's voice broke as he choked back a sob. "He may be dead by now, but please, my father is all I've got in the world!"

Under her steadfast, curiously innocent gaze, he felt like a bug pinned in the mud, like the worm for which the demon had taken him. Again, unwanted tears sprang to his eyes, and he hung his head.

"The soldiers will be coming," the demon said in his rasping, unconcerned voice.

The Witch's words came like shards of ice that froze the air. "The soldiers are my worry."

The demon said no more, but raised a glowstick to the cigarette dangling from between his thin lips, and sucked in a drought of smoke, staring at Mulder from pale, impassive eyes.

The Witch put a finger to her lips, considering. Her brow furrowed ever so slightly in a way that did not mar her beauty. "Put him over your horse," she said at last to the demon. "We'll see if his father is alive or dead."

Mulder looked up, unfamiliar hope sparking a light in his hazel eyes. "Thank you," he said gravely, well aware that not many travelers would have stopped even had he found others in this raging storm.

Before he could say another word, the breath rushed from him as the demon seized the rope belt around his waist and jerked him from the mud. Mulder flushed with anger, feeling as if he'd been cut in two, as the demon heaved him roughly over the back of the mare's withers, raining embers onto his bare neck. The demon used no riding pad, but rode bareback. A sweaty froth coated the mare's hide, unpleasant and foaming hot against his skin.

Mulder bit his tongue to keep from crying out or protesting. He'd found help for his father. Only that mattered. For his father's sake he kept silent. A wrong word and they might shove him back in the mud, and then where would he find help?

The Witch of Shanalane addressed him: "Do you live down this road, boy?"

Mulder started to snap. She didn't appear to be any older than him, and he was no boy. But then he mastered himself. His anger would be of no help to him here. From his awkward position, he did his best to look up. "Yes, that way. Just off the road you'll see a narrow path. My father is William, the town woodcutter, and we live in the deepwoods."

A burst of lightning illuminated the forest, and the wind suddenly bent the trees until timbers cracked and splintered. Mulder stared, wide-eyed, as he suddenly realized why the demon's cigarette had not gone out and was still singing him with ashes. "The rain!" he cried in bemused wonderment. "It's not touching us!"

The Witch smiled as she waited for the demon to swing onto his horse and guide his mount up beside her. Mulder found himself nose to knee with this strange girl, and her scent swam intoxicatingly in his nostrils. "Of course not," she laughed. "It's my storm. It's supposed to slow my enemies, not ruin my garments. Come, my Fox, hold tight. We'll waste no time reaching your guardian."

He didn't get a chance to answer or to protest the nickname. 'Boy' was bad enough, but 'Fox!' The demon's huge mount lunged forward, bouncing him painfully on the demon's knee. Again, the breath rushed out of him with a whoosh; starry lights burst dizzyingly in his vision, and tears burned his eyes.

Still, he felt good. Soon, he would be at his father's side again. He hadn't failed; this time he had won a victory over his crippled, useless body, and his heart swelled with pride.

They raced with bone-jarring speed. Mud splashed up toward his face, never quite touching him. The storm smashed the forest, beat the branches of the trees until they hung thick with water. Yet no drop of rain dampened his skin.

The wind was a different matter. It stung his flesh and ruffled his hair. He tried to look ahead, but he couldn't bear its force directly in his eyes. It filled his ears with a terrible rushing roar as it whipped past.

The horse's motion made breathing difficult. Mulder bounced helplessly, held in place only by the demon's huge right hand, which pressed into the small of his back. Mulder's lungs burned until he feared he would pass out. Instead, he choked and gasped for what little air he could draw, and bit his lip against any sound or outcry.

From the corner of his eye he glimpsed the Lady. Far ahead, she glowed like a wild torch in the darkness. Her hair streamed, and her cloak flowed behind her. At a bend in the road, her horse slipped in the treacherous muck, nearly unseating her, but she recovered easily, and her unexpected laughter drifted back to him like the memory of a childhood he had never known.

Never in his eighteen years had Mulder met anyone like her, and he knew in that instant that he loved her with all his heart. He couldn't explain his passion, and he wondered if it might be the result of some strange magis. But he knew it with certainty.

Caught up in his thoughts, he almost missed the boulder and the old tree that marked the path to his cottage. The Witch of Shanalane sped past them. Only the strange radiance that surrounded her gave Mulder any warning as, for just an instant, his landmarks stood illuminated against the gloom.

"Wait!" he cried. "To the right! Take the path!"

The Witch seemed not even to slow. She jerked on her jeweled reins and wheeled her steed in an impossible circle. Into the thicket, she briefly disappeared. Then, her light could be seen winking between the trunks and the branches and the leaves. Nothing restrained her speed.

Mulder marveled at her courage. The woods were thick along the seldom-used path. A low limb would certainly sweep her from the mare's back. Didn't she care?

The demon's hand pressed him down with greater force as they, too, turned onto the path. The world spun crazily for a moment, and Mulder thought the black mare had slipped. He sucked in a breath and braced himself, digging his fingers into the cigarette smoking man's knee. The demon only chuckled dryly as he crouched low over Mulder, bringing his knife-sharp face close to the horse's lashing mane as they plunged into the woods.

The forest closed around them, but the canopy of leaves seemed less dense than Mulder remembered. There were no limbs to menace them, no roots to trip them. He knew the path well; his father had often carried him along the narrow trail to the road where they would meet and chat with travelers. But now the way was clear. The trees seemed to bend away, to part for them.

Just ahead stood the cottage. Firelight trickled through the cracks of worn shutters and through the partially open door. The Lady had arrived before them. Her mount waited untethered, breathing heavily, stained with foam. Her shadow moved within the cottage.

The demon jerked his own horse to a halt, flung his leg over Mulder's head, and jumped down. He hauled the boy down and tossed him over one shoulder. Mulder protested indignantly, feeling rather like a piece of luggage, but the demon ignored him, kicking the door open wider with the toe of his boot; he glanced around disdainfully at the meager furnishings, and nodded a silent self-confirmation before he deposited his squirming burden on a stool that stood beside a rickety table.

In the darkest corner of the cottage, a figure sprawled on the only bed. The Witch stood over it. Mulder noticed immediately that her strange glow was gone.

"Father?" he whispered, afraid that he might already be dead. "Father?"

Shut up," the Witch ordered, furrowing her unlined brow. "He's very weak. We're almost too late."

William struggled up onto one elbow. Clumps of graying hair clung to his sweat-drenched face. His moist brown eyes gleamed as he looked past the Witch and spied Mulder. "Child, my child," he managed thickly. "I feared the storm had claimed you." He clutched suddenly at the Witch's sleeve and pulled her thin frame closer. "Take care of my boy, please! He needs someone, I beg you!"

The Witch gently pushed William back on the bed. "Hush. You'll care for him yourself." She tore away the sleeve of the old man's tunic and lifted his arm to better see the puncture marks of the serpent's sting, two tiny wounds just above his right wrist. Abruptly, she called to her demonic companion. "Get a better fire going in that hearth. I need warmth and light, and these few candles aren't enough." She gestured at the two sticks on the mantle with their pathetic flames. "Then bring my smaller riding bag. You know which one."

The demon obeyed at once, working with a laconic economy of motion. Without a word, he gathered logs from a basket that sat near the door, thrust them into the hearth, and began to prod and stir the coals.

The Witch unlaced her cloak and started to cast it aside. Then, noticing Mulder on his stool, she changed her mind. "You're shivering," she observed, draping the expensive garment over him. "Don't worry, my foxling," she whispered. "The old man will live. The bite is a bad one, but the venom hasn't yet reached his heart."

Mulder only nodded. He was back in his familiar cottage, the one-room world which made up most of his existence, and he had found help for William. Although rainwater dripped from his flattened hair and ran into his eyes, and mud slicked his clothes and skin, he found comfort in these surroundings and security in the presence of this Lady who had stolen his heart.

He watched her move, dimly aware when flames began to crackle in the fireplace and the room began to warm. The Witch tied back her hair and never glanced his way as she worked. He couldn't see what she did, but she put her mouth to William's arm several times and kissed his wound. She made a poultice of water and hot ash, and she stripped bandages from the sheet beneath William's body. Sometimes her hands seemed to glow, but Mulder was unsure if that was magic or just the firelight on her ivory skin.

The cancer man returned with her riding bag. In the brighter firelight, Mulder saw he was no demon at all, and he sullenly chided himself for his fear. Beyond a doubt, though, this cigarette smoking man was dangerous, possibly the most dangerous man he's ever met. Though he was thinner than William, who bulged with muscle from his woodcutting, he possessed a lean, swift grace, and most closely resembled a wolf. His garments, kilt and breastplate, greaves and arm braces, all glimmered with studs and rings of copper and bronze. The short, embroidered sleeves of a black linen tunic showed from under his armor. And that huge bronze sword still hung sheathed at his right hip.

He had seemed a demon in the storm, with lightning glimmering on all that metal. Mulder had never seen such armor before. Nor had he ever encountered a man he would have called evil. He surreptitiously studied the cancer man's face. The features were like those of a wolf, maybe past his prime but grizzled and honed and still deadly. His mouth was a thin cut above the chin, and his brows seemed to crag over deep-set eyes that glittered like splinters of blue ice. His hair was close-cropped and streaked with silver at each temple, and a day's worth of stubble colored his cheeks.

The Witch took the bag from his hand, opened it, and extracted a small wooden figurine. From a sheath at her belt she withdrew a small dagger and began to carve. The firelight rippled on the sharp copper blade as she worked, and Mulder leaned forward on the table to see better. But she turned, blocking his view, and quickly finished. She looked from the doll to William, then touched it to his forehead and heart. With two quick motions, she stabbed the figurine's right arm, kissed its new wound, and cast it into the fire.

The old man never made a sound. His eyes stayed closed in apparent sleep.

Mulder sagged against the wall, sure at last that his father would be alright. The Witch had said so, and he had watched her work some charm.

'I love her,' he thought again. He didn't understand, but he knew it without a doubt. Everything about her fascinated him. She was new and exciting, and she made his world seem new as well. The cottage felt warmer, the furniture looked more elegant. The very wood grain in the old walls seemed sharper and more vivid. He inhaled the air, and it tasted like the rarest essence. The snapping crackle of the flames made a music. The fire shimmered.

Her shadow! It danced upon the walls and the ceiling, going where it would, spinning and leaping whenever she moved, flitting around the cottage like an independent soul. The shadow glid delicately and with a strange quality, a kind of magical dance-for-two that only he seemed to witness. The Lady's every gesture embodied grace as she went about her healings, but her motions were brusque and purposeful.

Her shadow, though, was a piece of enchantment, blackness without darkness. One with the Witch, yet free, it elongated all her movements, drew them out and transformed them into pavanes and arabesques.

Mulder looked for his own shadow. It made barely a stain on the far wall, huddled on a low shadow-stool in a corner, all crouched down and formless. It didn't move, it didn't dance. It just sat there, two useless shadow-legs thrust out at funny angles.

Even his shadow was crippled.

A moan rose from the bed. Mulder glanced apprehensively towards William, but his father made no other sound. The Witch stood motionless at the bedside. Mulder swallowed. "Is he . . .?"

"Just sleeping," she answered, turning slowly to face him. She wore an expression of weariness as she drew herself erect. "He should awaken later in the day, and he'll be hungry. Feed him that broth," she concluded, gesturing loosely towards the hearth.

Mulder glanced at the fireplace. A kettle hung on an iron hook near the fire, and a rich aroma filled the cabin. He hadn't even noticed the lean warrior prepare it. He'd been too involved in watching the Witch and her shadow, too wrapped up in his own thoughts.

Near William's bed, a bowl of water sat on the floor. The Witch had used it to mix the poultice for his wound. Now she bent to pick it up, but as her fingers brushed the earthen rim, she froze. For a moment, she stood unmoving. Then her brow furrowed. She stooped closer and peered with keen interest at something in the water.

As if struck a blow, she suddenly recoiled. All color drained from her face. Her mouth opened slackly, and her eyes widened. Carefully, she picked up the bowl, cradling it in both hands, and stared into it again.

Mulder knew there was only water in the bowl. He didn't understand. What could she see in a bowl of water?

The vessel slipped through her fingers, and the thin pottery shattered. Water splattered the floor and the hem of her fine gown. The Witch didn't care. She whirled toward Mulder. With an effort, she composed her features into a semblance of calm. Slowly, she drew a long breath and knelt to meet him eye to eye.

"Do you know, my Fox, why you cannot walk?"

Mulder dropped his head, avoiding her inquisitive gaze. He looked, instead, at her shadow as it stretched across the floor, up the far wall, and back over the ceiling like a tenuous preening creature. He could talk to her shadow, if not to this girl-Witch.

"My father said I was born this way." He swallowed hard again and trembled at the uneasy sense of familiarity brought by her nearness. Yet the shadow on the wall encouraged him to speak, nodding its head as the flames danced in the hearth. "I never knew my mother. She died giving birth to me. That's when father moved us out here and became the wood cutter. He never talks about before. We've been each others' only company ever since." Despite himself, a tiny smile creased his lips. "I can't do much to help around here, but I listen to his complaints and his stories, and we talk a lot."

The Witch of Shanalane touched his knee. It startled him, seeing the unfelt touch, and he jerked, bumping his head on the wall. He couldn't avoid her gaze any longer. Her eyes burned into him, searing him, illuminating all his secrets. Was it her power, or was it his own fear? He didn't know, but he couldn't look away.

"Are you happy?" she asked, an odd, intent look in her eyes.

Mulder stammered and blinked back the sudden tears that threatened to overflow his eyes. "I can't walk," he answered slowly. He tore his gaze away at last and sought her shadow. It flickered in time to the crackling fire, moving over the old rough wood with an eerie grace. "I can't dance."

A torrent of works burst from him, and his eyes flooded with tears. "I want to dance," he cried bitterly. "Like your shadow. Like the fire. Like the trees in the wind and the stars through the sky. Father dances sometimes, and the villagers in Shandisti dance when the harvest comes in. The animals, the birds, the grass and flowers-- they all dance, they're all alive with motion." He pounded his fists against his unfeeling limbs, flooded with self-hatred. "But not me! Not Mulder!"

The outburst drained him. He sagged back against the wall and slipped sideways off his stool to the floor. He beat his legs once more, but weakly, ashamed of his tears and his infirmity, painfully aware of the beautiful girl before him and of his own unworthiness.

The door opened. The cancer man stepped around its edge, sucking on a slim cigarette. "We ought to leave." He spare a glance toward William's bed. "We've stayed too long already."

The Witch waved her hand, and the cancer man nodded, falling silent. Leaning close, she took Mulder's face between her fingers and turned him toward her, forcing him to meet her eyes once more. He couldn't bear them, especially after his display. Yet she gripped his chin and compelled him to look.

"My poor Fox," she whispered. "I saw your pain. I saw it in the water where the past and future sometimes reveal themselves to me. I see it now in your aura, which glimmers with misery." She released him, and her hand settled on his chest, just over his heart. "I saw your fate in that bowl of water, my Fox." Her face came next to his, and the warmth of her hand spread all through him. "You'll walk, yes, and you'll dance. You'll dance the world away."

An arcane glittering like the flashes of tiny lightning bolts filled the cobalt depths of her eyes. Mulder's tears surged forth once more, in an uncontrollable welling of pure emotion, the droplets completely beyond conscious thought. He became a child again, a weeping baby in need of succor, muddy and filth-splattered. He slid further down, his back against the wall, until he almost lay on the floor. The Witch watched him; her impartial stare only made him cry more.

"I-- I love you," he confessed through his sobs. With a boldness born of shame, he reached up to touch her face, longing to brush his fingers over the milky paleness of her cheek. She was just beyond his reach, though, and he trembled as he drew his arm back. His tears continued, blurring his vision. "I don't understand, I don't know how, but I love you." He turned his face to the floor and covered it with one hand. "Help me," he muttered.

"I'll help you," the Witch answered, pulling his hand from his face. "I'll help you to walk, and you'll dance as no man has ever danced." She rose and went to the door. The cancer man was no longer there. She called for him, and he appeared instantly, always just within reach.

"Carry our foxling out into the rain," Mulder heard her whisper. "Strip away his rags and let the downpour cleanse him. Make him fit to look upon our god."

The cancer man's cold blue eyes widened minutely, the first sign of true emotion he'd shown thus far, and he cocked one eyebrow coldly. "Skinner's troops know our direction," he reminded her.

Again, the Witch stopped him with a curt gesture, a vixen snapping orders to the grizzled old wolf. "This is too important," she snapped. "The storm will slow them, and if anyone finds us before I finish, you'll deal with them. Now do as I tell you. Then wait by the horses and keep a sharp watch. Go!"

The cancer man smiled thinly, picking up Mulder with his usual disdain. "Stop your whining," he said calmly as he carried him through the door. "It solves nothing."

The shock of the rain and wind did what the cancer man's threat could not. Mulder had become used to the cottage's warmth. The cold stung him, raising gooseflesh on his bare arms. He hugged himself and barely protested when the cancer man dropped him on the ground, seized the back of his tunic, and ripped it free in one swift motion. He opened his mouth to cry out at the shock of the water on his bare skin, but no sound came.

The lean warrior loomed over him, and Mulder realized the demon was as soaked and miserable as he. Raindrops pearled down his face, streamed from his lashes and chin, causing him to blink repeatedly. "Do you want to shed that breech cloth, or did you need persuasion?"

Sullenly, Mulder unwound the breech cloth from his loins. He folded it self-consciously, watching as the dark warrior went to the Witch's horse, reached into another bag that was somehow bound to her riding pad, and lifted out a bundle of black velvet. The cancer man's face seemed frozen in lofty disdain as he bore the burden back toward Mulder, slowly unwrapping it.

Mulder caught his breath. The velvet came free, exposing a strange wooden idol. Thick copper nails had been driven into it, perhaps a hundred, at all different angles. Mulder could discern no detailed features for the spikes that pierced its face and head. The gods of Ispor were many, but Mulder, who knew little of gods, had never seen its like. Its countenance sent a shiver up his spine.

The cancer man set the idol on the ground and shot a glance toward the cottage. The door stood open, but all he could see was the Witch's shadow bent over that of the small table. It seemed to be writing something. He looked again at the weird god-figure and the copper spikes that impaled it, and dragged himself back a pace. The cancer man's vaguely amused gaze stopped him, and he sat up, trembling. The rain chilled his bare flesh, but he hugged himself as much against his fear as for warmth.

The Witch appeared in the doorway, the glow from the fireplace lending her a soft aura as she hesitated on the threshold. Silhouetted in such light, it proved impossible to see her face, but Mulder felt her gaze fix on him.

She slammed her hand angrily on the door jamb. "You fool!" she shouted. "Not in the mud!" She disappeared inside again, only to return with the stool on which Mulder had sat. "Use this."

The cancer man retrieved the idol from the mud without even a trace of apology, as the Witch placed the stool near Mulder's feet. Snatching up the scrap of Mulder's tunic, he casually wiped the idol clean before positioning it carefully on the stool. That done, he went back to the bag on the Witch's white mare to extract from it a mallet and a new copper nail. Under the Witch's watchful eye, he set these down on the stool with the same lack of care and turned away.

The Witch opened her arms wide as if to embrace the storm. No longer did she hold the rain at bay with her magic. It drenched her, and her hair hung in thick ropes, and water rilled down her face and breasts and into her gown. She had not even donned her cloak. Her sodden garments clung to every rich curve of her young body.

As she approached the idol, her lips moved in a soundless prayer or incantation. Giving no thought to her fine gown, she knelt in the mud. One hand reached out to grasp the mallet, and her voice rose a bit until Mulder could hear her words. They made no sense to him. She lifted her other hand in the air, and he saw that she clutched something.

A sudden flash of lightning revealed the piece of white cloth she gripped, perhaps a strip torn from William's bedding. He remembered her shadow writing over his table. What had she scrawled on that scrap?

A powerful bolt ripped a jagged blue tear in the sky. Thunder boomed and echoed. A terrible shriek followed, chilling Mulder to the marrow of his bones, and he gave a little cry, too, out of startled fright. The Witch had made that sound. She threw back her head and howled again. The sky answered with more lightning and more thunder.

Suddenly, setting the mallet down and turning away from the idol, she glared at Mulder. Her eyes were two small heavens filled with their own wild tempests. They reflected the lightning flash as she came toward him. Mulder stared, fascinated and terrified, and he began to shake with an uncontrollable trembling.

"You will walk," she said fiercely. "And you'll dance." The wind set her soaked garments to snapping, and the wet, tangled ropes of her hair blew back from her head and writhed like snakes in the gale. "How you'll dance!" she cried.

Terrified, Mulder looked from her to the idol, to the lightning crackling overhead, and back to the Witch. For an instant she was a monster, a horrible creature crouched over him, ready to devour. She was evil-- a witch. All the villagers, all the people in the countryside, knew and feared her. She summoned storms.

Lightning exploded again, shattering the night. For a brief moment, a thousand shadows of the Witch stretched across the world, shadows that danced ephemerally before the returning waves of darkness washed them away.

Even so, he loved her. He did, with all his young heart. She had saved his father, and now she was saying that he would walk. She could make him walk! Witch or not, evil or not, he had to love her.

He felt his fear subsumed by a great excitement, and he met her potent gaze. "I want to!" he shouted over the thunder. "Make me walk! Do you have that much power?"

Her eyes burned. She leaned forward on all fours, her hands sinking into the mud on either side of him. "My god does," she answered darkly. She pointed back the to the idol with a long, ivory finger that dripped with muck and slime. "He has all power."

The heavens fractured. Fiery lightning raced in all directions, turning the night into a cobalt lacework. Thunder rolled until the earth itself shook, and the trees bowed to the ground under a fearsome wind.

The Witch brought her face close to hi, and in the flashes of lightning, Mulder saw nothing human. He screamed inwardly, but his fear was once again overwhelmed by his fascination. He loved her! Still, he recoiled from her until he lay flat on his back in the mud.

"He demands nothing of you," she said. Her warm breath caressed his lips, and the strange wild smell of her filled his senses as she stretched practically on top of him. "Only of me does he ask anything. The price is mine to pay." Her lips brushed ever so subtly against his. "At least for now."

Mulder could retreat no further. His breaths came in short gasps. His senses roiled in confusion. For all his fear-- and he could no longer deny he feared her-- he desired her deeply! Her body pressed down upon him, hot and wonderful and frightening. He bit his lip and clenched his fingers in the soft mud.

"You will walk," she repeated, the words hissing between her perfect teeth, "and you will dance, and in time you, too, will pay a price." She pulled one hand from the mud and smeared it over his chest like a fine ointment. Her cold fingers drew small, teasing circles around his nipples and moved upward toward his throat. "But what is the value of a whole body, my Fox?" she asked. "What would it be worth to be a complete man?" She hesitated as if expecting a response, but before he could speak she set a finger to his lips. "Shhh, no need, when we both know the answer."

Whatever she was, whatever the villagers thought her, she knew his dearest dream. "Make me walk!" he uttered breathlessly, doubting her even as he wished fervently to believe. "I want to dance!"

"I will," she promised. She held up the strip of cloth in her hand. It was wet and muddy, but as she unrolled it, he could see strange writing. "This is my prayer," she said. "You will be healed and made whole." Her hand clamped down on his right leg. Mulder could not feel her strength, but when she let go, his flesh showed livid white marks. "Have faith in my god, Fox! Believe in him!"

"I will!" Mulder shouted hoarsely.

She scrambled on her knees to her idol and picked up the mallet. Crumpling her prayer in one hand, she pressed it to the wooden body of her god. Next, she picked up the sharp copper spike, set it in place against the cloth, and drew back to drive it home.

The mallet struck, and the sky erupted. Thunder drowned out the sound of the impact as the nail ripped through the cloth and deep into the idol. Again, the Witch struck, and again the heavens cried with thunder. A third time she struck, and Mulder covered his ears.

The cancer man appeared beside her suddenly with a small bit of burning wood from the fireplace. He cupped one hand around the flame to protect it from the storm as he knelt and passed it to the Witch. She looked over her shoulder at Mulder, then touched the brand to the edge of the cloth. Though it was soaked, it began to burn. The smoke rose even through the thick rain. Then it flared with phosphorescent intensity, and all the nails in the idol's body began to gleam in the red heat.

The cloth quickly seared away. Not even an ash remained to fall on the stool. Still, the nails shone with heat-glow, and the air smelled of burning.

The Witch cast her small brand aside, and the flame dies before it hit the ground. She rose, drawing her dagger from her belt. Standing over her idol, the image of her holy god, she set the razor edge to her wrist. The blade rippled with wild color as lightning lit the darkness. The thunder that followed covered any sound she made as she drew it through her flesh.

Blood splashed on the idol's head and streamed down among the nails, mingling with the ceaseless rain, staining the wood. Mulder caught his breath, suddenly terrified, not knowing how deeply she had cut. The free flow of scarlet liquid made him gasp again. She said nothing, though, just stared at the heavens and held her arm rigid while the blood pumped.

Abruptly, Mulder felt the power of her god upon him. The idol's eyeless face regarded him with a cold passion. He stared back, looking for a gaze he could meet, then clapped a hand to his mouth in disbelieving horror and a desperate awe. Its chest began to heave as if it drew breath; wooden limbs stirred ever so slightly and seemed to pulse with tension.

He was only imagining it, he tried to tell himself, for once not wanting to believe. The lightning and the thunder, the fire, and the Witch's blood-letting all contrived to play this trick on his mind.

But no, he knew the truth, could feel it on the back of his tongue, cloying his dry throat. The thing exuded a fearsome, unimaginable life, and he was the object of its unnatural attention. He sat up slowly, supporting himself on his hands, unable to look away from the idol.

With a screeching wail, a new wind ripped through the forest. From deep in the woods came the crashing of huge old trunks as their branches snapped and shattered and they struck the earth. It sounded like the end of the world. Over it all, Mulder heard a groaning and a wrenching that made him look up. A corner of the cottage roof reared against the night, bucked and writhed like a tortured animal, then blew away with the gale. A section of the west wall sprang outward, and another piece of the roof collapsed.

Mulder threw himself sideways on his elbows, twisting his body as he screamed. "Father!"

The Witch stood over him. Her hair lashed wildly behind her, and her ruined gown whipped and beat in the wind. Her voice stung. "Rise, Fox!" she shouted, shaking her fists. "Save your father. Get up and run to him!"

Mulder dragged himself through the mud, tears streaming, mingling with the rain that rilled down his face. "I can't!" he cried hoarsely, despairingly. "Father!"

"Father!" she mocked him. Then she kicked him repeatedly, until he rolled away from her and found himself again at the wooden feet of her cruel god. She positioned herself between him and the cottage, and the cancer man took a position at her back. "Get up, Fox!" she demanded. "My god has placed his hand upon you. Save your father, but I won't let you crawl to him. Get up! Walk!"

The wind swelled to greater fury. Even the Witch leaned into it to stand at all. Mulder stared at his home as yet another portion of the wall caved outward and another piece of roof tumbled down. He opened his mouth, but no sound came, so great was his horror.

He stared at the Witch. He loved her! How could she do this, save his father only to let him die? She had been beautiful before when she worked her bedside mercies. But now, muddied and soaking and angry, she seemed hellish, and he knew that the villagers were right in their fears, and that he was a fool to love her.

"Get up!" It was the very voice of the storm coming from her. She shook her fist at him, and lightning crackled across the sky.

He looked at the idol with its many copper spikes, sure that it breathed now. It pulsed with horrid vitality, swelled and contracted. The nails stirred like quills. The thing watched him and bent its will upon him with a dreadful force.

"I can't!" he answered both the Witch and her god. "Help me!" He rose as high as he could on his hands, but she refused to let him crawl. Her sandaled foot pushed him back. Yet his father was still inside, and their home was crashing down. He had to save his father!

He roared out his fear and anger, and as he did, he pulled one knee under himself, the first movement his legs had ever known.

"Help yourself, Foxling!" the Witch cried with fierce urging. "Help yourself, and help your father. But hurry! How long will the rest of the roof hold? How much time? Get up! Run!"

Ever so shakily, Mulder rose, barely aware of his miracle. His father filled his thoughts. He took a lurching step, then his second. The Witch stood before him, and he pushed her aside, all his attention on the cottage door and the firelight beyond it. Cancerman moved out of his way.

"That's it!" The Witch shouted gleefully. "Walk! Run! Dance! All you've wanted is yours now. Save your father. That's your task tonight!" She laughed, and the sound of it rolled even over the thunder. "But there's another task to come. I've seen your fate!" She laughed again. "Hurry, Fox! Hurry to your task!"

He reached the door. One hand grabbed the edge of it, and he jerked away in pain, a gasp parting his lips. A long splinter protruded from his right palm. He wrenched it out, grimacing at the welling of blood as he cast the splinter down.

The foot of his father's bed was all he could see from the door, so he focused on that. Every step was a torturous effort. He balanced precariously on one leg, then the other. He had never learned to walk. How he managed it now, he didn't know. Maybe it was the god. But then, the god could have made it easier! Mulder had to think through every movement, and there was little time.

The wind raged around him, pushing him back, as it blew through the shattered sections. He glanced upward. The remains of the roof hung dangerously over his head.

Mulder fell suddenly, tripping in the debris that had been his home. Agony shot up his left arm. He raised it before his eyes, numbed by the sight of more of his blood.

The roof made a menacing noise. A thick beam dipped toward his father. Mulder forgot his wound and dragged himself quickly across the ruined floor, using his elbows as he always had. The Witch wasn't there to stop him. But when he reached the bedside, he clutched the rough wooden frame with all his strength and hauled himself once more to his feet.

He couldn't deny that the Witch had kept her promise-- or that her god had kept it for her. He could stand. He could walk. But there was no time to ponder why or how. He pulled his unconscious father up and slipped his arms around the old man's chest. He took his first step backward.

And fell again. He kept his grip on his father, though, and they tumbled from the bed to the floor. Once more, Mulder struggled to his feet, bent over uncertainly, and seized his father by the wrists.

The room swam in circles as he straightened and began to drag his father through the rubble. Twice more he fell, the simple skill of moving backward eluding him. Each time, though, he rose faster and with greater surety. Through the door and into the storm he hauled the old man, falling yet again in the slippery mud.

He screamed in frustration. With a grinding roar, the remains of the roof collapsed. The walls followed, crashing down in a thick cloud of dust that the rain swiftly smothered. The only home he had ever known lay in ruins. A numbness filled him. He stared at the broken pile of timbers that had been a cottage, and at his father, who slept the undisturbed sleep of a child.

He looked for the Witch, but she was gone. So was the cancer man, as was the idol. The little stool stood crookedly, alone in the cold rain, one of its three legs sunk deeper in the mud than the others.

He looked slowly down at his own legs, so straight and perfect and strong, and his heart leapt. He could walk! He was whole! Suddenly, the cottage seemed a small price to pay for such a gift.

The Witch had said there would be a price. He drew a deep breath, unable to resist the grin that turned up the corners of his mouth. 'What would you give?' she had asked him. What would you give? he asked himself.

He took a few hesitant steps, then flung up his arms and crowed, grinning into the rain. The cottage was, indeed, a small price. Father could build a better home, and they could both have beds. This time, Mulder could help!

The storm grew weaker, and the rain slowed to a drizzle. But the wind rose again, strong as ever, and the night wailed with its power. Mulder, still new to the subtleties of balance, turned into it and was blown over into the muck. He rose on his elbows at his father's side.

The wind blew through the forest, and the sound of its rush through the leaves, through the grass, took form in his ears and spoke to him in the Witch's voice. He shot a wild look around, searching for her, but she was not there. Only her words remained on the wind.

'Dance, my Foxling,' the wind said to him. 'To walk, you must dance. Every night you must dance, or never walk again. Dance, Fox, dance as no on has ever danced. Dance the world away. Dance, dance, dance . . .'

The wind laughed and laughed, then fell suddenly and dissipated. The leaves rustled weakly as it faded away. For a moment, silence ruled. The rain ended. The barest hint of lightning flickered far away in the heavens. In the distance, the thunder gave a last rattle and died.

Mulder rolled over, his face close to his father's. The old man looked serene, his eyes gently closed. No trouble or worry creased his brow. He slept as if still in his bed, oblivious to the mud beneath him and to the destruction of his home.

Mulder brushed his lips against his father's cheek and climbed to his feet. He had to think about shelter. His father couldn't be left in the chill all night. He looked around, wondering what to do.

Then, the words of the wind echoed in his head. 'Dance,' it said.

He didn't know how.

Experimentally, he lifted one foot, pointed the toe, and tapped it on the ground. 'There should be music,' he thought. But there was none. The leaves rasped suddenly as a fresh wind stirred with new gentleness through the branches. That was music of a sort, Mulder reasoned.

He drew back his foot, threw out his arms, and began a tentative turn, following it with another.

'I can dance,' he whispered softly to himself. 'I can dance!'

The trees swayed with him, keeping time like great metronomes, and the wind rose again, but subtly, and it sounded ever so much like faraway laughter.



 

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to gwendolyn_flight