Nora gazed down at the sweet face of her first grandchild and blinked back tears. She wanted nothing more than to spend the day with her daughter-in-law and this precious baby, but she knew it wasn’t possible. She traced the features of the baby’s face and handed her back to her mother.
“I would stay…” she began, then shrugged. Everyone knew she couldn’t, but that didn’t stop the guilt.
“It is well, mother.” Her son’s wife held the baby to her breast and smiled tiredly. “You will be welcome this evening.”
Nora gazed down at the young mother and her new child and sighed. Already she could feel the compulsion, her feet turning toward the forest despite her will.
“I will return as soon as I am able.”
She left the cottage, drawn forward at such a rate that she barely had time to collect her shawl on the way. It was early in summer and the air under the forest branches would feel cold to her old bones.
When this had started she had been only a young girl with simple hopes and dreams. She had wanted very little, just a good man to love and babes to fill their home with laughter and noise.
Then the geas had come and even those simple dreams had been set aside for many years. It wasn’t until she had met Tomas, the woodcutter, that she had married, and then only because he was so often in the forest. She had borne him only the one child, Soren, before Tomas lost his life and she was left to raise the babe on her own.
She had tried to take Soren with her into the forest each day, but the geas had prevented even that. Her son had to be handed off to another, to spend his days running wild with the village children. She did all she could to be a mother to him during the evening hours, but it was never enough. Now she would miss her granddaughter’s life in the same way. Would this never end?
She arrived at her destination without conscious thought. There was the stump, so hard and unyielding to her aged backside. After the many years of her service, she thought it might have reshaped itself to her form, but it was just as it had been when this had started, never changing even while she grew old.
She settled herself on the spot chosen for her and waited. Some days there were many travelers, others only one or two. The worst were the days when she sat waiting, alone with nothing but her thoughts, and no one came. She had tried to bring handwork to occupy her long, endless hours, but anything she tried to carry would be lost on the path, never to be seen again. In the same way, she was prevented from bringing food or water, making her days long indeed.
Forced to sit in the shade of the trees, unable to move far from her station, forbidden to occupy herself, and separated from her family day after day, Nora often wondered what she had done to earn such punishment. The wise women and elders of the village had no answers. It was just the way of things. The geas took whom it chose and its form differed for each person. There was one man who spent his days chopping the same tree, a tree that never fell no matter how long he chopped.
At least Nora was expected to do little but sit here, day after day. She was free to dream and make up stories and songs, and so that is what she did. Today she thought of nothing but her own newborn granddaughter, praying for her deliverance from the geas. Not all villagers were taken, neither Soren nor his wife, Sasha, were free. As Soren grew, Nora had tried to get him to leave the village, to travel far beyond this land, hoping he would escape. He had loved Sasha from early childhood and he would not leave her and she would not leave her parents, so he had stayed. The geas passed him over, to Nora’s relief, and he was free to choose his own work and life. If only the geas would not take his daughter, Nora would be able to end her days in happiness.
She heard the tramp of approaching footsteps and wrapped her shawl around her, waiting.
A young man rounded the bend and saw her sitting there. He approached with a cheery wave. His face was open and honest and, after all of these years, Nora knew how this encounter would go. The knowledge of what would befall the morose or disdainful ones used to haunt her. She had grown inured to it over the years, but she still hoped for the honest, cheerful adventurers.
“Greetings, old woman, what do you here in the forest alone? There are wild beasts about, you could be devoured.”
The words had changed little over the years. In the beginning, the adventurers referred to her as fair maiden, then mother, and now finally, old woman, but the rest of the speech never altered. No matter how the encounter went, the greeting was the same, only the tone differed.
“I travel to visit my family, but grew weary. Can you spare a crust of bread and sip of wine for a poor woman alone?” After so many years, the words spoke themselves.
She knew even before he acted that this boy, a tousle-haired youth with a cheerful smile and rather large nose, would give her whatever he had. Indeed, he immediately swung his backpack from his shoulder and rooted around inside. He pulled out a small loaf of bread and a wineskin.
“I do not have much, but you are welcome to what little I carry.”
He offered her the bread and she took exactly half, no more, no less. She also drank exactly half of his offered wine. No matter how many travelers came, she would never get full, never lose her wits from the wine.
She held the remnants of his food and wine and asked him the pivotal question.
“I am so hungry, young sir. May I keep these for my travels?”
This was where so many of the encounters went wrong. The geas insisted on full generosity. If the young man refused, she would have no choice. Thankfully, this young man was either wise or kind enough to give the right response.
“I am pleased to give them to you, for I see that you are in greater need than I,” he said with a genuine smile.
“You are kind, stranger. Now let me repay your kindness. You have been deceived, the treasure you seek is not to the north. There is nothing there for you but death and despair. You must turn to the east to find your prize.” She pointed to the correct path and smiled as the young man thanked her and started on his way again.
She never knew what happened to them further down the road, but at least she knew she had helped this one.
Time passed and another traveler arrived. He was surly and glowered at her and she knew before she even asked, what his answer would be.
“Greetings, old woman, what do you here in the forest alone? There are wild beasts about, you could be devoured.” The words were the same as always, but this man delivered it as if he hoped the beasts would arrive soon, as if he would enjoy seeing her violent death.
Despite knowing the answer before she spoke, the geas forced her to ask, “I travel to visit my family, but grew weary. Can you spare a crust of bread and sip of wine for a poor woman alone?”
The man laughed harshly, “What little I have is not enough for my needs. I can not help you.”
He sneered at her as he followed the main path, to the north, never noticing the smaller track to the east. Nora knew the man would never been seen again.
Two more impatient, unwise travelers refused her request and took the path to the north. Finally, in the late afternoon, as the sun drifted toward the horizon, she heard one more step on the forest floor.
She straightened on her stump, gathering her shawl around herself. This time she was met with a rare sight. Most of her visitors were young men, out to seek their fortune, but this was a woman. She was young and tattered and there was something about her eyes that was haunted.
“Greetings, old woman, what do you here in the forest alone? There are wild beasts about, you could be devoured.” The words were the same, but the concern in the woman’s eyes spoke of hard-gained knowledge of the dangers that could befall a woman alone.
Nora always found the rare woman the hardest to answer. She wanted so desperately to invite the young woman to her own hearth, to feed and comfort her, to dissuade her from her quest. But the geas would not free her, no matter what her desire.
“I travel to visit my family, but grew weary. Can you spare a crust of bread and sip of wine for a poor woman alone?” She held her breath, hoping the woman would give the correct response.
The traveler paused, obviously torn, but finally sighed and pulled the items from her backpack.
“I am pleased to give them to you, for I see that you are in greater need than I,” she said, her voice soft with compassion.
Nora forced herself to eat the food and drink the wine even while noticing the half-starved look on the other woman’s face. Finally, the meal was done and she asked her question.
“I am so hungry, young miss. May I keep these for my travels?”
The woman paused for a long time and Nora prayed she would make the correct response. When she finally spoke, her voice was low.
“It sorrows me to refuse you, grandmother,” she said, regret heavy in her voice, “but I have no more and the way is long. Your need is great, but mine is greater.”
Nora felt chilled as she returned the remnants of her meal. She tried to speak, but the geas kept her silent. She tried to gesture, but her hands were frozen in her lap. She caught the woman’s gaze and tried to warn her with every ounce of her soul, but the woman just gathered her things and headed down the road, to the north.
Nora stared after the young woman and her soul cried out as it never had before. Maybe it was the birth of her first grandchild and the thought that one day the child would grow up and be forced into an adventure or role of her own. Maybe it was the accumulated weight of all of the souls she hadn’t been able to save. Maybe she was just tired and wanted it to be over. She would never know, but somewhere, deep inside, she found the will she needed.
“Wait!” she called out and the woman paused, startled.
Nora threw aside her shawl and hurried after the other woman. “Do not go that way. You will find nothing of value, just death and destruction.” For the first time in decades, Nora found her voice in the daylight hours and the words she spoke weren’t forced on her by a geas or any outside force.
The young woman looked back at her, confused. “What do you say, grandmother?” Then, as if waking from a dream, she shook her head and looked down the road and back at Nora. “I don’t understand. How?” She stopped speaking and shook her head again.
Nora approached her and put a hand on her elbow, gently steering her away from the fork in the road. “You do not have to choose either path, miss, but please, do not continue to the north. Whatever you find there will be evil and you deserve better. You should not perish because you wanted to care for yourself as well as others. If you had given me all you had, I would have sent you to the east, to the reward chosen for you. I tell you now, you can choose for yourself. It is the gift I most wish for you, the freedom to choose.”
“Grandmother, what am I to do? I did not choose to leave my home and embark on this adventure. I felt a pull that I could not deny, but that is gone now. You say that death lies in one direction and great reward in another, but I just want to go home.”
“Then go home,” Nora said, her eyes and voice soft. “You choose your own path, or no path at all, for as long as you can. The greatest reward you can receive is the freedom to choose.”
The young woman studied her for a long time and then embraced her and Nora wasn’t sure whose tears fell on her wrinkled cheek, her own or the young adventurer’s. Finally, the other woman pulled back and gathered herself.
“I shall go home,” she said, her voice firm but emotional. “Thank you, grandmother.”
Nora’s smile was a bit wobbly, but she stood and watched as the young woman did what no other adventurer had done in the entirety of Nora’s service to the geas, she turned and went her own way.
When the young woman had rounded the bend in the road and was lost to view, Nora turned and did the same, returning to her home and family, the shawl and geas left discarded on the forest path, never to be reclaimed.