The young woman found herself surrounded by a darkness so black that she could see nothing. In fact, it was so dark that she scarcely believed her eyes were even open. Within this utterly shadowed world, she felt herself being carried helplessly along upon waves that endlessly rose and fell around her. All the while she struggled with weary limbs to keep from going under. Her rapid, desperate breaths and her thrashing limbs were the only sounds that echoed out into the nothingness that engulfed her.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning parted the shadows illuminating the world around her with flashes of bluish-white light. Like the gnarled and twisted branches of a tree, the lightning struck out across the night sky, and then, only seconds later, its thundering shook the heavens with an angry rumble that could be felt deep within the innermost parts of her terrified soul.
In that instance, as the world was filled with light and deafening sound, she caught sight of the sea that surrounded her. She saw the waves as they seemed to swell and coil across the surface of the black water like a huge side-winding serpent. Within these dark swells, there moved what looked like far darker shadows, and these seemed to drive the whole of the deep forward like a marching army going to war.
The light vanished as quickly as it had come, and how she longed for its return. Though the lightning was frightful in its power, it was much better than the empty blackness that stretched out around and under her. The utter vastness and darkness of the sea was far more terrifying to her than even the most furious claps of thunder. In truth, she longed for the shadows of her nightmare to once more be parted by yet another burst of lightning.
She was not forced to wait long, for again the lightning danced across the ominous clouds shedding dazzling light upon the sea. In this second illumination of the world, she beheld before her a black form rising up out the water like a massive, glistening pillar.
The waves about her crashed into the rising shape with such force that she was sure it would be toppled, but it stood firm. After yet another flashing of light, it was clear that the form was a great, black tower standing in the midst of the angry sea. The storm’s thick, dark clouds seemed to slowly swirl around the tower’s crown.
Within the next explosion of lightning, she beheld a lone figure standing upon the lofty tower’s ramparts. The person was clothed in a long, thickly-layered cloak of black, and its folds fluttered about in the storm’s angry gale. The cloak’s deep hood completely shrouded the person’s face with dark shadows.
Then, as often happens within dreams, she found herself standing next to the cloaked figure, but still she could not see within the shadows of the hood. With a sudden great gust, the wind tore back the figure’s black hood revealing a seductively beautiful woman. Her long, black hair streamed out and whipped about in the storm.
The woman’s smooth skin was pasty-white and colorless, but her beauty also contained a kind of darkness. Her lips and eyelids were black in color, and her teeth were white and cat-like. As for her eyes, they were devoid of all whiteness looking much like two black, shimmering pools of midnight.
“Behold the gray-witch.” A deep and strange voice whispered behind her from some unknown location.
The witch seemed to be aware of neither the voice nor the angry tempest that raged around her, for she stood undaunted. Calmly poised on the tower’s edge, she held a small bundle out in her pale, thin hands. Carefully, she unfolded the sable colored cloth exposing a tiny baby that had been hidden within.
The child was beautiful and completely different from the woman who held her, for she was full of color. She had large sparkling eyes, which were the color of the blue-green sea, and her skin had in it a rich, golden hue. The baby’s small head was crowned with curling locks of hair, which were a colorful mix of gold and auburn.
The woman gently held the bundled child out over the parapet and the precipice below where the waves crashed with what seemed like even greater anger. It was as though they knew what evil was afoot and meant to stop it. Giving no heed to the swells, she whispered in a low voice that could not be heard over the roar of the sea. And then, with a cold, heartless expression upon her thin, pale face, the woman dropped the bundled child.
Flinging out her tiny, golden arms as she fell, the baby gasped taking in her first breath, and then letting out a loud angry cry, she vanished into the darkness below.
The young woman awoke with a start throwing her arms out at her sides as if to catch herself. Quickly sitting up, she glanced about with glazed eyes hoping to see her desert home and no trace of water or wave. Her hopes were answered. There was the small campfire that was now only glowing embers. The living coals cast their faint light upon the nearby rocks and stones of the craggy slopes where she had made her camp. All around slept her flock, and behind her, she could feel and hear the rhythmic snoring of her old donkey, Dawdle. The donkey lay on her side, and her round belly was like a great fury pillow against which the shepherdess could recline.
In the cold night breeze, she could smell the blooming cactus, and she could hear the sad song of the Weepingwaste. This rocky land was her home, and never had she been more thankful of this than she was then.
She looked upward remembering suddenly the angry storm that had swirled above but found only the clear desert sky full of bright stars. Instead of lightning streaking across the dome of heaven, she saw overhead only the outstretched branches of the old gnarled tree under which she slept.
Realizing that it had all been a terrible nightmare, she sighed with a shudder and stoked the fire with a stick of kindling. Gazing deeply into the fiery cinders, she thought about her dream.
As she sat deep in thought, the campfire’s glow gave her young face a reddish hue, and its newly kindled flames glinted like gold in her eyes. However, her skin had in it no red tint, but it was, instead, pale and utterly colorless. Neither was there a color of gold in her eyes, but even her gaze was as gray as the smoke that rose up from her fire. Her lips were a slightly darker gray as well as the inward parts of her mouth, nose, and eyes. Her mingled, dull-gray hair dangled down in dry, lifeless locks from under her rust-colored turban. The threadbare head-wrapping covered the greater part of her delicate ears, but what could be seen was as gray as the rest of her.
In truth, her total lack of color had the effect of making her appear as though she were very ill, and if she lay completely still, perhaps even dead. Darker gray circles were around her eyes, and her cheeks seemed brushed with the same hue.
The young woman’s sickly appearance had nearly cost her life, for a shepherd name Jocund had passed by in the cold of the desert’s night and, hearing a baby’s cry, found her naked in the warm sands of the Weepingwaste. Jocund had looked upon her and, thinking she was on the edge of death, he had a mind to let exposure finish her. However, the tiny baby’s angry wail turned again the heart of the young shepherd, and he took her up in his arms and delivered her to an old slave-woman who cared for her. The aged woman named her Livid because of her color and her disposition, for though she was a good child, she had much anger bound up within her young heart.
When Livid was around eight years of age, Jocund had gained several flocks of his own and a large house. He had also married and, by that time, had two daughters only slightly younger than the gray-maiden. He thought to have her in his house as a chambermaid and playmate for his daughters; however, they were very spoiled and unkind. More often than not, they treated her hurtfully and called her “the gray-wench.”
After Livid gave them a terrible thrashing, it became quite clear to Jocund that her angry temperament was better suited for the life of a lone shepherdess. He was not angry with her, for he knew well his daughters, but Livid’s unhappiness was a hurt to his heart. Desiring a better situation for her, he sent her out with a flock to grow up even as he himself had.
All this was her past, however, Livid’s thoughts were not on her childhood or her finding, but instead she could not stop thinking of the nightmare that had so suddenly awakened her. Her slender face grimaced as her mind lingered on the night-vision.
She had often dreamt of the huge black waves and had often felt as though she were being swallowed by the shadowy depths. How she feared the water! Yet, of all her nightmares, she had never seen the great dark tower, nor had she beheld the woman in black.
“Who is the pale woman, and what of the child with golden skin? Why did the woman so cruelly let fall such a beautiful baby?” There were many unanswered questions, but one troubled her most of all: “Is that cruel woman my mother? Are we not both colorless?”
Bitterness stirred in her heart as she thought on all these things, for she had always desired to know her parentage, but now the thought made her tremble with anger. It suddenly seemed easier to Livid when before there were no questions at all, but only that terrible, convulsing sea that ever desired to swallow her.
She lay back again, with an annoyed slump, against the fury, round belly of the donkey. Dawdle gave no sign that she noticed the abrupt contact but simply went on with her soft, rhythmic snoring.
Gazing up at the stars above, Livid inhaled deeply and then held her breath inside for a moment. Seconds later, she let the air burst forth from her lungs and out of her mouth in a fountain of vapor that disappeared into the cold, desert night. As she watched the cloud of her breath fade from sight, her mind went again to the child. She had been the first comforting sight in the whole of all Livid’s dreams though she knew not why. The baby had such a look of peace on her tiny, innocent face that Livid felt almost envious.
Tugging on the leather strap that hung about her neck, Livid pulled a small wooden flute to her dark-gray lips and began to play. The notes she played formed a lonely tune that harmonized with the mournful song that lingered on the breeze. Thus their sad beautiful melody floated out into the empty, desert dunes beyond. The sheep’s ears twitched, for they found comfort in the pipe playing of their beloved shepherdess.
Her flock was now her family. She watched over them with great vigilance, and unlike some of her master’s other shepherds, she had never lost even one single lamb. To reward her for her diligent care, her master had given her the donkey.
Dawdle made Livid’s job all the easier, for she was also watchful braying when she saw a predator, and even stomping a few to death. She had once even kicked a desert-lion in his mouth thus keeping him from eating any of the sheep.
After playing the tune for a short time, she finally let the flute fall so that it once more dangled about her neck. She pulled her rusty-red cloak up under her chin, and then after glancing around at her flock one last time to make sure they were all safe, she slowly closed her eyes drifting again into sleep, but this time her slumber was undisturbed, for she did not dream.
The sun painted the eastern sky in shades of violet and crimson as the dawn drew near. Though it had not fully risen, the gray-maiden was already about her daily habits. She stood in a high place twirling her sling silently and watching all the land below. She was hunting for her food as she did every morning, for Livid had learned how to survive in the harshest land of Riven. Many times a cruel landscape requires ruthless means, which in this case consisted of killing her breakfast.
Her gray eyes scanned all the rocks and crevasses with the skill of a huntress. Then suddenly, she caught a glimpse of a rock-hare hopping cautiously out from under the shadows of a crevice. Only a second later and she let fly the stone in her sling. It buzzed through the air and struck the hare in the head killing the poor animal instantly. Thus it was not long before she was back at her camp and, having roasted the hare with a side dish of sweet-cactus, ate the last few bites with little remorse.
She reasoned that the hare ate the same plants her sheep needed for nourishment. With it gone, her flock would have just that much more to survive upon. The desert is a brutal land, and it often imprints upon its inhabitants a certain callousness of heart that some might find hard to understand.
After her small breakfast, she and her flock were on the move again. They meandered their way through the canyons and over the ridges of the Red Mountains. These mountains were also called the Western-tor, for it was they which formed the western boarder of the Sea of Fire. Though they were only slightly less desolate than the great waste of the open desert, these rugged mountains were the only home Livid had ever known. They were to her even as the back of her own thin, delicate hand.
Though their home was indeed desolate, desert-sheep are hardier than other breeds in that they will eat almost any green thing. Also, their wool is finer, softer, and cooler than other sheep’s fleeces, and so it is highly prized. Jocund, Livid’s master, owned many flocks and employed over one hundred shepherds. Each shepherd kept watch over some fifty sheep, and for this reason Jocund was, most certainly, the wealthiest man living among the Red Mountains.
When the full heat of midday settled on the land, Livid guided her flock into the shadowed vale of a deep canyon. Within the canyon there was more vegetation, and the air was somewhat cooler. However, there was one other purpose for venturing into that particular gorge, for there was a well of water in that place, and so Livid led her flocks there to give them drink.
Though this was a joyful thing to the sheep, it was an utter terror to the young shepherdess. As soon as Livid drew near to the canyon where the basin of water was to be found, she felt an empty ache in her stomach as if she were hungry even though she was not. This always happened when she came near to the canyon, and as soon as she felt that sensation, a dread fell upon her making all her person to shudder, for she knew by that feeling that she was close by to the well of water.
Turning the corner in the canyon, the cavernous reservoir came into her sight. The gray-maiden approached with trembling hands, for she was truly and deathly afraid of its dark, gaping mouth.
The well was really more of a pit where rains had collected many years ago when it last fell in the Red Mountains. The hole was pitch dark inside, and the bottom had never been fathomed. For this reason also, Livid was terrified. After all, she lived in a land that had not seen any measurable amount of rain the whole of her life; add to this fact her dreadful nightmares of an endless black sea, and it could be easy to understand her apprehension. Water was a bewildering and awful mystery to her mind.
Livid let down the leather bucket into the well’s mouth by a long, camelhair rope, and all the while she never once looked into its depths. She had found years ago, that she could better tolerate the task of watering her flock if she kept her eyes from looking into the blackness of the well. She had become quite adept at feeling for the cord with her hands, and drawing up the water-skin as she stayed her eyes on the narrow, clear blue sky above the canyon’s walls.
Livid had, that day, nearly filled the long, watering trough when she suddenly heard a strange sound echoing up from deep within the well. Thus with a startle, she quickly and unintentionally glanced down into the depths of the pit. As soon as her gaze fell upon the well’s dark opening, her body froze with fear. She could not move! Her eyes, unblinking, were held captive by the black depths of the reservoir. Her breath quickened, and she felt as though her heart would explode. With great laborious breaths and a trembling soul, she tried to back away but simply could not.
Suddenly, from behind, Livid felt someone grab the sash that was around her waist. Then, very slowly, they began to pull her away from the yawning mouth of the well. After a few paces, she was finally able to divert her gray eyes from the cavernous pit.
Livid, with baited breath, turned to see who it was that had helped her escape the fearful sight which had so petrified her. To her glad surprise, it was old Dawdle, her truest friend and ally who had given her aid.
She scratched the rusty-brown donkey behind her ears while giving her praise. “You are my greatest friend, Dawdle!” Livid cried as she hugged the donkey’s furry neck.
Livid sat on a large, smooth stone some distance from the well while Dawdle and the sheep drank. Though the donkey had helped her away from the black pit, she was still trembling. She swallowed hard the lump of terror that had lodged itself in her throat and gripped her staff leaning her head against it as she waited. She felt as though she might vomit but managed in the end to hold down her breakfast.
She must have fallen into an exhausted stupor with her head against her staff, for in the next moment she realized someone was standing in front of her. Livid opened her eyes sleepily and was startled by the face of a small lamb.
The lamb bleated as if to say, “We’re done drinking. Let’s get going!”
“All right, here we go.” Livid said with a quivering voice.
Without looking back at the well, the gray-maiden gathered her things and roused the donkey who had taken advantage of the waiting period and caught a short nap.
“Come on Dawdle, time to move on.”
The old donkey only snorted and closed her eyes again. Dawdle was always grumpy when first she woke.
Livid gladly led the flock away from the well, and as they turned a corner in the canyon, she breathed a sigh of relief. She would not again need to water the flock until about the same time three days hence, for they were truly hardy creatures and gleaned much of their need from the plants that they eat. She needn’t drink at all, for she could find what water she needed in the cactus of the craggy slopes.
No, Livid hadn’t look back toward the well that day as she left, for she longed to keep it from her sight. However, if she had turned and gazed once more at the gaping mouth of the reservoir, she would have seen the source of the strange noise that had caused her to hastfully look down into the well’s depths, for just as she walked away, a figure crept silently out from the pit’s opening.
The strange being was wrapped in tattered rags and crouching down like a hunting lion, it lingered in the shadows. Though no eyes could be seen, it was clear by the turning of its shrouded head that its gaze was trained upon the departing gray-maiden. A black, jagged blade was gripped in its mummy-like hand.