Natalie pretended not to notice when Cecily returned to school the next day, looking even more drawn than before. Cecily did not want her pity and no words could make her feel better, so Natalie left it alone although pain stabbed her heart at the hollow look in Cecily’s eyes.
“Here,” Natalie said instead, handing Cecily the notes Nathan Reynell had given her the day before. “I’m surprised the notes aren’t sprinkled with little red hearts.”
She wanted to tease her, to pretend that things were normal, and she was rewarded with a slight blush rising on Cecily’s cheeks.
“Thanks,” she said, grabbing the papers quickly.
“Do you like him?” Natalie asked.
Cecily glared at Natalie and Natalie was glad to see some fire burning in there. “He’s just a friend.”
Natalie chuckled. “I’m sure. But I think he wants more.”
Cecily shook her head at Natalie with a small smile gracing her lips. “I don’t know.”
Natalie wondered if Cecily had gone blind – had she not seen the way Nathan looked at her?
Natalie thought it a lovely thing to think of, Cecily in love and being loved. In the midst of everything that was going on at the moment, Natalie needed lovely thoughts. They kept her going through classes and when she sat with Cecily during lunch and breaks. Cecily barely ate.
“The Homecoming dance is on Friday,” said Cecily instead of eating her lunch, looking at one of the huge banners hanging over the cafeteria. Balloons hung from the banner and glitter had been sprayed everywhere.
“Still not going,” said Natalie. She felt no more like going now than the last time she and Cecily had discussed the dance – quite possibly, she felt even less like going.
“I am,” said Cecily, studying her sandwich with great interest.
Natalie was startled by Cecily’s sudden admission. “Huh?”
“Nathan asked me and I said yes,” Cecily said. “I just—I want to go to a high school dance before—and he’s sweet, he really is.”
She seemed a bit nervous, as though Natalie would not approve of her going. She could not be farther from what Natalie was feeling – it was simply wonderful.
Natalie smiled widely. “That’s great!”
Cecily smiled shyly. “You really think so?”
“Yes,” Natalie nodded. “I’m sure you’ll have a great time together. And then you’ll have to tell me everything afterwards.”
Cecily chuckled and her tired eyes twinkled. “Perhaps not.”
“Oh, you cheat,” said Natalie, laughing.
They both needed the laughs. There had not been many in the last few weeks and Natalie doubted there would be all that many more in the months to come. All the more reason to treasure the moments.
That night, the ghost writer reappeared in Natalie’s dream. The memories that had been just out of her grasp came back to her: the figure, the warm sand between her toes, the three women and the beautiful stone they had found. It was all as clear in her mind, as if it had happened but a moment ago.
Natalie expected the hooded figure standing behind her when she turned. She remembered the voice, neither male nor female, barely even human.
“Thank you,” Natalie said.
She was thankful. Being back meant she would receive more clues for finding the stone – the Nebula Medeor – and that brought her closer to healing Cecily. Saving Cecily.
“If you wish to heal your friend, you need to find the stone.”
Natalie cocked her head to the side. “I understood as much. But where can I find it? The pieces? I was at the library but it didn’t say. One of the pages was missing.”
The figure did not respond. Its voice was calm and steady. “The stone has great power.”
Natalie felt agitation grow at the lack of answer. The figure would only answer what it felt like – it had been that way since it had first made Natalie write, ‘You are powerful.’
“Then why haven’t you collected it?” Natalie asked. The figure before her seemed most powerful – this was the second time Natalie had been brought here and the figure had controlled her arm enough to write complete sentences – so why would it not want the powers of such a stone?
“I have no use of it,” said the figure. “I don’t walk your earth.”
“Then why do you want to help me? Was this what you meant by worthy?” Natalie asked. She had more questions – what was the figure then, if it did not walk the earth, and why had not someone else already taken the stone if it was so powerful? – but she refrained from asking. She would not get the answers she wanted anyway.
“Yes, you are worthy now,” the figure said. “Worthy and able to get the pieces.”
“Good,” Natalie said. “So where are they?”
“Let us start by continuing our journey,” said the figure.
Natalie wanted to scream, ‘no, I don’t want to continue our journey, I want to know where the pieces are’, but she did not. It would have no effect anyway; the figure seemed to be deaf except when Natalie asked the right questions. Frustrated, Natalie squeezed her eyes shut as the brilliant light of the sun engulfed her.
When the light faded, Natalie was back in the same village she had been in once before. Like the last time, no one seemed able to see her though many passed by. A man even walked straight through her.
Birds twittered happily as they flew across the blue skies. The sun’s position suggested it was late afternoon and there were villagers everywhere. The hut where the sisters lived was the busiest.
The youngest girl – Sandrine – leaned through the doorway and called to the long line of people standing outside. The one at the very front of the line, an old woman with a crooked back and a heavy limp, made her way into the sisters’ home. Sandrine closed the door behind them.
Floating forward, Natalie did not fight as she was taken into the hut.
It was as dingy inside as Natalie would have imagined; the floor was merely dirt stomped together through years and years of walking, and there were three beds made of hay.
“Come,” said the youngest sister, motioning for the old lady to come rest atop a large slab of stone. It was not entirely unlike the Stone of Sitis in her grandmother’s Mithridates.
The two older sisters stood on the other side of the large stone.
“Lay down,” Sandrine instructed the lady and then Sandrine helped her because the old woman had trouble bending her body.
Sandrine backed away.
The round stone they had found, the Nebula Medeor, was still whole and shining beautifully in the oldest sister’s hand. She held it out towards the woman, who looked only a bit worried. She craned her neck as much as her hurting body would allow, to see what was going on.
It was not much to see, at first. The sisters did not speak, nor did they move. They simply stood in a triangle around the old woman, the oldest sister reaching out her hands towards the center, the stone laying calmly in her hands.
Then, the stone began to shimmer. Natalie glanced around and frowned briefly, wondering if the hut had become darker since she had entered. The glow of the stone now seemed to be the only source of light.
“Oh,” the woman sighed. Her eyelids slid close and the lines on her face evened out as she relaxed.
Natalie watched, taking everything in with great hunger. She imagined herself in the oldest sister’s place and Cecily in place of the old woman. She could see Cecily laying there, calmly trusting in Natalie, her dark hair spilling down both sides of the uneven stone bed. Cecily would have her eyes closed; she would not crane her neck to see what was going on. She would know Natalie was doing everything she could to save her.
There was a flash and the room exploded in light. It could have lasted for a millisecond, or perhaps for hours; Natalie could not tell. They were amidst the stars all of a sudden, galaxies passing them by and breathtaking beauty leaving them wanting more. Everything moved around them, and when Natalie saw the look on the old woman’s face, it was pure bliss.
She saw Cecily there, the dark shadows of illness washed away as though they had never been there at all. She saw the same smile grace Cecily’s lips.
Then the light was gone and the hut returned to normal, the sounds of the world outside once more making their way through the walls and light spilling in here and there.
Sandrine and her sisters all panted, as though they had just stopped running from something. Natalie realized she had not been paying attention to what they had been doing while the lights had played around them – was it important?
“Heavens all mighty,” said the old woman, tentatively flexing her wrists and sitting up. “I cannot believe it.”
She looked up at the three young women, who smiled back at her. They looked pleased.
“Believe it,” said the middle sister.
The old lady stood, treading gently over the floor. The look on her face was a mixture of amazement and uncertainty – would this truly last?
“You three are sent by God,” said the old lady. She took them each by hand, bowing her head to them, and then she exited the hut.
The sisters looked at each other. Natalie noted that they all looked rather pale. What did the healing take out of them? It did not matter to Natalie – she would do it for Cecily no matter the cost – but she was still curious.
“It is too much,” said the middle sister. “I cannot keep doing this – can you not feel the strain?”
The eldest sister nodded gravely. “I can. I have little energy left.”
“If not quit completely,” the middle sister said, “then we should not do as much.”
“But there are people needing our help!” said Sandrine. “Have you seen the line outside our door? They ask for us in villages miles away!”
“It is better for a few to have our help, rather than none,” the eldest sister said. Her voice and eyes were stern as she gazed at her younger sister. “The stone is not only for good.”
“How can you say that?” asked Sandrine. “After all it has done, how can you claim it is not good?”
“Look upon your sister!” said the eldest sister. “Do you think she seems well?”
Natalie and Sandrine both turned their heads to look at the middle sister. Natalie had to agree with the eldest sister: the girl looked pale and her eyes looked dull. A light sheen of perspiration gleamed on her forehead.
“Perhaps she is getting sick,” Sandrine said, shrugging. “This stone heals, it does not harm.”
The eldest sister placed her hands upon her hips. “How do you know?”
“Have you seen the miracles it has worked?” asked Sandrine, exasperated. She threw her hands into the air. “Never you mind. Tell those people to leave. Say that we are tired; tell them we will not heal them today. Tell them to return tomorrow, if they can manage to walk all the way here then.”
Her anger was obvious and when she finished her rant, Sandrine stormed out of the hut. The two remaining sisters glanced at each other. Perhaps they had been having the same argument before; Natalie did not know and could not quite read the looks shared between the sisters.
The scene began to fade like it had the last time. The edges became blurry and everything turned white for a while – Natalie could not tell how long – but she was not returned to sleep’s blissful imaginative dreams. Instead, she stood back in the desert.
She turned to face the figure, whom she knew would be standing behind her. She wished there was a face to look at, eyes to search, but there was still nothing.
“What’s the point of seeing all this? I mean, it’s nice but—why?”
The figure was standing rather closer to her this time. Natalie could see the fine patterns woven into the fabric with golden thread.
“The point is for you to see the Nebula’s history,” said the figure.
Natalie felt as frustrated as Sandrine had been just a moment ago. She wanted to yell at the irritating figure before her – she did not care about the stone’s history, she cared about the stone’s present. She wanted to know where it was now.
“It is important for you to see what the stone can do,” the figure said. “The qualities it holds and even the things that might scare you.”
“What do you mean, scare me?” Natalie asked.
The figure did not answer her; it merely said, “Are you willing to find it?”
Natalie did not hesitate. “I want to find the stone.”
She was set in her decision – she did not care how much it drained her, she would use the stone to heal Cecily, if she could only find the pieces. Besides, she was only healing one person where the sisters had been healing many every day – it could not possibly be as hard on Natalie as it had been on them.
“Good,” the figure said evenly. “I had hoped you would still want to continue.”
“But I don’t know where to go or what to look for,” Natalie said. “How many pieces are there?”
“You will find out.”
Natalie rather felt like strangling the figure. Why could it not ever directly reply to her questions? She fired off more:
“Where are they? Why’s it broken?”
The figure stood still before her. Perhaps it was contemplating her questions, though Natalie had no hopes for it to answer anything but the things the figure wished to tell her.
Natalie’s toes dug into the sand. There was a small, beautiful flower standing just next to her, thorny and pale from the harsh sunlight. Pale pink lines ran through the leaves, like a fine net. Natalie studied it as she waited for the figure’s response.
She heard the figure take a breath – which meant it actually breathed, something of which Natalie had not been sure – and then came the answer.
“The first piece is right here.”
Everything became black for only just a second, and Natalie awoke with her breath caught in her throat – and sand between her toes.
Readers of The Winter Legacy: Heritage - Chapter Eleven: