The Keeper had been waiting years for this message to come.
She woke with a start from a deep slumber filled with warm and quixotic dreams lulling her mind into dormancy. She sat upright on the feather mattress, long red curls tumbling down her back. Mint-green eyes roamed the darkened room. She knew in her gut what had woken her. It wished to have her conscious for this meeting.
She closed her eyes and willed her breathing to slow, concentrating all her energy into the message she was about to receive. She drew invisible walls around herself to shield against distracting wisps of thought. Her skin tingled as if tiny sparks of lightning coursed through her body. She felt she was being watched, like something was staring her down from all four corners of the bed chamber at once. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
“What is it? Is there another visitor coming tonight?” she asked the darkness, wondering what could be so urgent that she need be awakened at such a late hour.
The voice that answered her did not come from the room as she would have expected. Instead, it manifested as dulcifying whispers echoing in the recesses of her mind. The intimacy of the contact startled her. She had not been expecting it to speak at all. She had only heard the magic once before, back when she was first made Keeper. She had thought then that the magic sounded timeworn, as if it were a creature of flesh and blood rather than a powerful force of nature. It was like an ancient person, draped in cobwebs and dust, struggling to form words with a mouth long unused. The result was a feeble and reedy voice that lacked any true substance. It was neither male nor female, but a combination of the two. The magic had no sex. It simply was.
All other times it communicated, the information was instilled through emotions and pictures within her body and mind. It did not seem fond of using a spoken language. This night, however, something had changed. The magic had decided that what she must know was important enough for its fragile use of speech.
No, the voice answered ponderously. The effort it took to speak that single word seemed enormous. The next visitor is not for another week, yet. It is the next Keeper. She has been found. The wispy echoes reverberated through her mind as if they were in a large, empty room, dancing in their enclosure before fading into silence.
She sighed with a contented smile. She couldn’t help feeling a measure of relief. She had enjoyed her stay but could never quite forget her life from before. Her heart sometimes ached for the home she had departed, that which held her two lordly sons and roguish daughter. She found herself longing to hear their laughter and hold them in her arms, but she had long since abandoned that delicate wish. That part of her life was gone forever, left behind when she was banished by her obstinate husband. Until she saw her duty concluded, she had no hope of reuniting with her forsaken children.
Not weeks after her eviction, she had wandered in the direction of the Hollow. Maggie had been convinced their meeting with the previous inhabitant was a fortuitous coincidence. That had not been the case, as he had explained meticulously. It was then the lady learned it was she who was destined to replace him as caretaker of the Hollow.
Since then, she had tended this secluded, enchanting place. She no longer had a husband or any children to call her own. This small cottage had been a charming surrogate, the magic providing for all her needs, and she adored the cats. They were the greatest companions save her amiable cook.
“Who is it? Can you tell me who is coming?”
The soft voice struggled to speak again in response. You already know her, Keeper: Hair as red as the sunset with eyes blue like the lapis stone. Your blood runs through her veins. She is from your own womb, Keeper.
Was that amusement she sensed in those echoes? She shook her head, heart hammering in her chest. Was she really the next Keeper? She did not want this life for her daughter, no matter how comfortable. She was to become a lady and live carefree within the estate, not a slave to the world and the magic that balanced it. A soft rustling outside the room caught her attention, and a squat, aging woman eased open the door.
“Milady, have you had nightmares?”
Doe-brown eyes fixed nervously on her mistress in the four-poster bed. The lady shook her head and smiled to reassure the cook, her brief revulsion forgotten.
“No, my friend. No nightmares. I have just been told that a new Keeper has been found.”
The cook gasped, a hand rising to cover her mouth. “Already? I thought it would take longer than this, milady. This means that once the new one has mastered your teachings, we’ll have to leave this place.”
Her voice betrayed the dread she felt at the thought of being cast from their current place of comfort. The lady smiled and stood, finding a thin shawl and wrapping it around her shoulders. She crossed the small room in three long strides and took the woman’s shaking hands in her own, caressing them with her thumbs.
“Do not fear for our future, my friend. I am glad a new Keeper has been found so soon. I feel as if a great weight has been lifted from me. I do enjoy this place, truly, but I wish to live in peace now. You are my dearest friend and confidant. I have already asked too much in insisting you accompany me here. You have been one of the greatest gifts to me, Maggie, but I cannot ask you to follow me any longer.”
The older woman shook her head with pursed lips. “I will never abandon you, milady. I go where you lead. If we are to leave this place and strike out on our own, then I will be there with you. Goodness knows you’ll need me. I don’t think you can cook yourself a proper meal!”
The lady laughed and gathered the other in a tight hug. “Perhaps you are right. What would I do without you?”
“Hmm?” She pulled away, peering at the cook with a raised eyebrow.
“Have you been told who is to succeed you? Do you know this person?”
The smile the lady gave was bitter, the night’s shadows masking the sudden tears welling in her large eyes. “Yes, I know her well. As do you.”