Once upon a time, in a corner of a splintery shack, a cat judged its owner.
With the disdain of a barrister and the haughtiness of an heiress, the cat sauntered away from its measly dinner. The cat’s owner, an old elf woman, could do nothing to convince the cat of her innocence. The cat left, most likely never to return, looking for his mice entrees elsewhere.
And in this these woods, the Tainted woods, the air was thick, oily, smoky soot sticking to clothes and faces, and stiff air wrapped around souls, giving greasy kisses. She had grown used the place, distinguished its nooks and discerned the crannies, wearing an invisible tether that did not stretch outside her home too far. She spent her days in resigned silence, but it was not always so. Her named was Rohanna, although if you asked her, she couldn’t say. Rendered mute, she could no longer speak.
Long ago, she had not been so old, and indeed was quite beautiful. Her looks were attractive if not bordering on average, but her real sugar was in her honeyed voice. Though she had followed the druidic order, she had never really been interested in the natural qualities of channeling nature’s forces. Her talents lie elsewhere. She had a way with words that charmed the gruffest of dwarfs and cajoled dour draenei to smile. She could lather a room with her bubbly personality, her frothy conversation, and amazing tales that won hearts and followers. One of these suitors, a strong druid in his own right, if not a bit dour himself, was so charmed by her wit, he forgot all promises, and asked her to marry him, and she happily said yes without hesitation. Here was a man with whom she could create new stories.
On the day of their wedding, as he bent to kiss her, a blue undead mage appeared behind the priest, hissing a curse, “Tarnishiaxum Dullardum Ennuix!” Unknowingly, Rohanna had stolen the love of this mage. The mage cursed her, and hexed them both with a terrible, terrible spell: “As long as you both shall live, your words will become lies. Your tongues will cut and you will never find spoken happiness. If you laugh truthfully, all is lost.” There was no way to break this hex, no antidote or enchantment. Bewildered, but still very much in love, Rohanna and her new husband smiled shakily, though a grey shade had been drawn on their bright future.
Quick as a blink the mage vanished, but her curse was slow and rotting. Rohanna and her husband gave each other a few happy years of love and laughter. They explored the lands and the seas, fought foes, and shared their days and nights. They settled in the Tainted Woods because they believed that the land would change, that prosperity and grace would reign, that they could affect the world. With their small sheep herd and fishing, they crafted a simple living. But hard work and fulfilling their duties took their toll; and, moreover, the endless wars depleted their spirits. The wars never stopped. One cause would be won, and another would grow in its place, a weed choking out the roses, or fungi amongst the flowers. They worked ever harder to pay the king their fair share of taxes for the privilege of living in a safe land, but their hard work seemed to be always for someone else, someone else’s dreams, and soon their own dreams were neglected. But, if it hadn’t been for the curse, perhaps they would have at least found some joy from each other. This was not to be.
The curse slowly took hold, and over time, their stories grew stale. When he told her some funny story, she would interrupt him, having heard it before. She had heard them all so many times, and her stories lost their sparkle. Her sweet tongue become a cleave, so cutting and sharp, that if their sheep could have spoken (in a language understood by elves anyway), they would have complained of her boring old stories, bleating that every word she said was a command, a chore, and a nag. The donkey had to put his head in the straw whenever she came to feed him, his big ears more sensitive than the other animals. Her husband could stand no more: the poor man flew away one night, his ears bloodied and ringing from her blaring horn of a mouth.
The curse fully blossomed. Every time she grumbled, her tongue stiffened. If she complained, she got a toothache. Whining and simpering, with no audience save the animals and cat, every cantankerous phrase cost her more. Soon her voice was brittle and dry, as melodious as a crow chewing on a dried leaf. She could not speak, and had no one to talk to anyway. All of her stories and charm turned to dry ashes.
She lived her days near her shack, never venturing too far out from her threshold. She swept it every day, this way three times to the south, and three times to the north. She took one step east, and two steps west. She walked as far as she needed to visit the mailbox (never any post), and nod to the quiet man on the docks. He seldom nodded back. The cold air in the Tainted Forest was chilled as a dead man’s smile. Rohanna, the once beautiful Rohanna, grew colder by the day.
One deep green night, she heard a flumph on her doorstep. It sounded heavy, padded, and immovable. Cradling the tiny candle and putting on her warmest robe (a wedding gift from her husband, all those years ago), she timidly went to see what, or who, landed by her door. She opened the latch a hair, at the ready to slam it in case it was a thief.
On her doorjamb lie a poisoned bear from the forest, which was curious because they usually stayed deep in the woods, far from the little cabins by the docks, and even though the sheep pen provided tempting food, few townsfolk kept vigilant guard. The bears never came this close.
The poor creature: its pelt was ripped open, and she thought she spied a wriggle of maggots in the festering wounds. Its eyes were glued shut with green goopy gunk, and there was fresh scarlet blood in its two front paws. She wasn’t sure what to do. She knew there were diseased animals in the forest, horrible things cursed to roam the woods in sickness, not in health. “Shut the door! Shut the door!” Her mind cried, but two things prevented her: she wouldn’t be able to sweep her porch if it died there, and also, she was an elf. Her affinity for living beings had not completely left her spirit yet, it was tied to her soul. The affinity would depart only when she did.
Bending down, the tentatively touched the bear’s head, and it seemed he had a tiny bit of life in him; he scooted in the door, toward the hearth. She prepared some stale bread and milk, and fed him the mush in baby-sized spoonfuls. His wounds needed cleaning, so she used her mother’s poultice recipe, tending to the wounds as best she could, despite his growls and snaps. She lost her fear. His injuries were worse than the bears from the woods; he had small scorch marks, and what looked like necrotic frostbite marks on his paws. Exhausted, she fell asleep next to him.
That was the first night.
Before she woke in the morning, the bear raised his head, and slowly rose to all fours. Lumbering toward the door, he left without glancing back, lolloping toward the woods.
When she went to sweep her porch on the doorstep were cherries from the woods. These were rare and magical, ones she had never ventured to pick from the fearsome green treants in the woods. There were demons, too, she’d be warned, demons with blood-poisoning axes, and soul-eating appetites. But these cherries, oh these cherries! If she had known how delicious they were, she may have braved the forest’s dangers. Warmth spread down her throat.
Rohanna went about her tedious business, but worried about the bear all day. Was he all right? If he came back…if he came back she wished she had a voice to ask him. She wanted to know more, too. She would ask him what had happened to him, how he got hurt, but silly woman, she thought, he’s a bear, and cannot speak. She swept to the east, wished, swept to the west, said a prayer, and out of habit, put food out for the cat.
At the same green hour of the night, instead of a flumph, she heard a muffled pounding. The bear lumbered in with more strength, some of his wounds seeming healed, but he was still in poor shape. He sniffed around the cabin a bit, almost politely, as if he didn’t want to overstep his bounds. Rohanna stirred the bubbling pot of fresh fish stew, serving up some for them both. He ate his fill, and then by the fire, they enjoyed the warmth together. She glad her own voice was stripped away. She didn’t want to say the wrong thing, have some nails or thorns spill from her mouth. For the first time in years, she felt inexplicably hopeful. Her poisonous tongue would not harm him. She scratched his scabby but mending ears, and shared some of the cherries with him, too.
That was the second night.
When she woke the next day, the bear was gone. The cat’s food bowl was empty, and the porch dirtied with an odd blue dust mixed with some drops of red-brown blood. She swept it all away, and stopped. She looked down at her threshold. Should she step back inside, safe, or go look for him, in the dangerous woods? The fisherman by the docks kept his back to her. The cat was nowhere to be seen, and the trail of blood and dust led to the woods. Swallowing her fear, she kept her broom in her hands and walked toward the dark edge of the woods. Noxious chartreuse gasses leaked from under toadstools. A sound, like a heartbeat pulsing out blood, thumped quietly from unknown area. She walked away from the house, from the village, and did not see the fisherman turn and look at her, his lips blue and cracked.
The chants and moans of the wind either warned her, or beckoned her further, she could not tell. The thorny broken limbs of fallen trees made the path dodgy, and the trail of blood droplets ceased. The sounds of the village were gone. The forest grumbled, screeched. A hare screamed. Losing her nerve, she ran back to the safety of her hearth, ashamed of herself.
Night had long closed down on her small home when the bear shouldered his way in. That third night the bear came again, stronger, snuffling up to her, enchanting her. Without words or a voice, she felt as comfortable with him as she had ever felt. She remembered what it was like to just be. His wounds were near healed, his fur smelling cleaner, and his eyes brighter. He was still a bear from the Tainted Woods, and would never fully recover from the poison of the woods, but she had helped him considerably. Again, she was grateful her voice was gone so she wouldn’t jinx this happiness.
But that morning, as she went out her door to sweep, he came crashing in to her threshold. He had a fresh wound on his throat. She was maddened that she couldn’t ask him what had happened, nor could he tell her. He bumped and pushed her out the door, and with surprising speed ran into the dark woods. She followed, without hesitation, no matter the danger. Tripping over what appeared to be a small log, she lost her footing, and slid into the foul mud. It was no log, but an arm.
The fisherman from the village stood, curved as a question mark, gazing at her with hate, and the disguise fell away to reveal the blue undead mage who had cursed her so many years ago. The dismembered arm was hers, but in the other held a crooked switch of a wand, with a baby’s skull and monkey fingers and tails. The mage shook the wand at her, rattling the bones, clacking her bony fingers against the staff.
The bear fell, helpless. He had lost much blood.
“Believe your eyes, Rohanna. I have never stopped stalking you. He loved me, he did. I know he did. When I saw him running away that night, I changed him into this foul beast. The demons did the rest.”
Rohanna held the bear in her arms, pinching the skin on his neck together to stave the bleeding. She wanted to dispel the curse, kill the mage, say words that would make her disappear, or die again. The jealous dead created more than mischief on the living; they burned tenacious, staining, shadows. He was just one man, thought Rohanna, when this mage could have conjured any soul to be her minion.
“You almost laughed truth, dear Rohanna, and broke the spell. Before you did, I wanted to give you a choice. You may save this shaggy, smelly foul bear beast of a man here with your voice, but your forfeit your own life. Or, keep silent, live, and he dies. You may say three words.”
Rohanna kissed the bear on his muzzle. The choice was hers. She owed him nothing, really. No allegiance or vow. She could remain silent, and live: three words for his life, and her death. But she remembered how she had used her words to hurt him, and there was a debt to be paid.
She said the only three words she should say, in a feathery-soft voice, “I am sorry.”
Rohanna fell dead. The force of the mage’s spell cast back upon herself, bowing to the laws of retribution, for evil magic begets thrice its power, and splintered and fractured her into a soulless corpse. But Rohanna's words, her sacrifice, saved the bear. He transformed to his strong form, and for a moment, before Rohanna’s wisp form was lost to roam the in-between place for eternity, he used his own strong healing magic, and restored her back to life. From then until the end of their days, they held onto each other with all their strength, rooted and bound. And spoke (mostly) good things to each other, for even sweet words need a little sour to balance the flavor.
The cat never did come back.