The Question and the Answer
The cave was dark and so cold that the woman could see her breath coming out in tiny, moist clouds. She could hear water dripping from the ceiling, and she put her hand to one of the stone walls, the other one on her distended belly. It had been nearly five days since she’d left her tiny home in the village, and she just had to know what had happened to her beloved sister. The war had not yet come North, but Annika had gone to collect water from the well at the top of the hill and not returned. When she’d heard that there was an oracle, hidden in the mountains, Mara had leaped at the chance to speak to her, to try and figure out where her sister had gone.
Annika was all she had left, and she was desperate for answers, especially since the baby was due to come any day now. She would need all the help that she could get, and the cottage felt empty and cold without her sister’s sunshine and warmth to fill it. Bitterness bloomed in her mouth, as cold and unforgiving as iron. Had her flighty sister become besotted with a man from the village and eloped? Gone into the woods that surrounded the well, in search of stories and myths? And in the middle of winter, of all times. If she wasn’t so worried, she was certain that she would cause her sister some serious bodily harm.
It wasn’t unlike her sister to get distracted, but she’d never been gone this long before. Soon Mara was cursing the cold, her swollen feet, the itch of her chilled skin, the sweat that dripped down her forehead and froze like tiny diamonds on her cheeks, and the dark. The wretched suffocation of it all. Why hadn’t it occurred to her to bring some candles and flint? But then, she’d been in such a hurry after learning of the oracle that all she’d packed was two thick winter cloaks, as much food as she could carry, some water from the well, and the blanket she’d begun to knit a few months before.
Mara stumbled, and winced when she caught herself on the rough path, skinning her palms and knees.
“Hello?” She called, more out of desperation than anything else. “Is anyone here? I was told that there was an oracle who lived in these caves… Please, I need answers!”
For a few moments, only the sound of her own voice echoed in the air around her, hovering like a gentle spirit just over her head, and strangely, she was comforted by the sound; it made her feel less alone.
A bright flare of light exploded a few feet in front of Mara, and she cried out, blinded after so long of traveling in the cold, barren black.
“Who’s there?” She asked, her words slightly muffled behind her hands. “Please, I mean you no harm, I just… I don’t know what to do.”
“If it is answers you seek, I can give them,” A voice, neither male or female, soon joined the sound of her words, monotone and calm. “But I warn you that you may not enjoy the results of your questions. Do you choose to continue, even with this warning?”
Though her heart was in her throat, and she could feel her pulse everywhere, even under the cold that permeated the caverns, she nodded, still dazzled by the light. She couldn’t afford to turn back, she’d spent so long trying to find this… thing. She owed it to Annika to finish this, even as her soul dreaded the answers. She wasn’t sure why, but she was afraid.
The hooded creature seemed to hover above her, a white wraith that had blood-red eyes and a jeweled, glittering headdress, and upon closer inspection, she saw that jewels were embedded in the creature’s skin, all of varying sizes and colors, glinting slightly in the candlelight.
“Yes,” She answered, and with a swish of its cloak, it began to lead her deeper into the caves. Torches were tucked in homemade sconces, blue-green light giving the hallways a sinister, otherworldly glow.
“You should know that all answers, big or small, come with a price. Have you anything to trade?”
“I have some food, and some water… And a little bit of food.”
“You set out for answers and expect them without payment?” The creature rumbled, sounding affronted for the first time.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Mara retorted, feeling her cheeks heat with embarrassment. “I… I’m sorry.”
“No matter. We will figure something out.”
At last, the cavern widened into a series of rooms, and the creature led her to the first room, sparsely furnished with a roughly formed wooden table, two threadbare, moth-eaten chairs, a small wood-burning stove, and a small bookshelf, bordered by two glass cabinets. One seemed to be for provisions, the others distinct magical objects. Mara was trying to shove down her fear. The creature had made no move to hurt her yet, and besides, it was she who had sought this meeting.
She had to know what had happened to Annika, or she couldn’t return home.
“Please, sit down,” The creature invited, and when Mara did, she found a blanket draped over her shoulders. The oracle got to making tea, the motions of it so unnervingly human that it set Mara’s teeth on edge.
“What would you like to ask? I sense that your heart is heavy, and not just because of your incoming bundle of joy,” It quipped, and it laughed for the first time, the sound like nails on a chalkboard. Mara smiled weakly, trying not to wince when the kettle roared that it was done. The oracle poured her tea, waiting patiently, and Mara could sense its eyes on her, brimming over with curiosity.
“My sister… I don’t know what happened to her,” Mara began, taking the teacup that was placed in front of her and taking a cautious sip. “And I was told that you could provide answers.”
“For a price.”
“Yes, for a price.”
“Well, let us discuss the matter of payment and then I will give you the answer that you long for.”