You take a step forward and this place looks awfully familiar. You have been here before. You're traveling in circles again. But how can you travel in circles if you've only walked a straight line?
It's these blasted trees, you decide after a moment, glancing around annoyed. They all look the same after a while. Your guide sits back on its haunches and fixes you with a smug grin. The same way it did ten minutes ago.
Where to? you repeat. The question is ignored. Again. Instead, the other begins to daintily wash its paws, tail twitching contently. You sigh and take this for another rest stop. But then—this is the repeat. You should take a seat, take in the forest, and decide that your guide is unlike any cat you have ever seen. But you've already done that; it wasn't even that long ago.
Your mind is fuzzy as you attempt to think this over. If it's been done before, why do it again? You think you got this far last time around. You are determined to get farther. Ever fiber of your being tells you to sit down and admire the trees. It is the simple, easy, sane thing to do, of course. You get as far as seeing your guide is not quite a cat, not quite something else before wondering, why am I here?
Your hand is grasping the sword hilt at your side before your mind can even acknowledge the threat. Instinct. It's protected you before. But what is there to defend against now? The not-quite-cat is strange, certainly, but hardly something you would call threatening. The trees? Laughter dances among your confusion, but the laughter is not your own.
Suddenly, you decide to take action. Hand on hilt, you stride quickly past the not-quite-cat, determined to get past the block, the repeat, the cliché. Then, a bright light blinds you and you bring a hand up to shield your eyes. After the first shock, your eyes adjust and you lower the hand slowly, warily.
A young woman in a sundress sits on a porch, surrounded by a small, shady clearing; it's still brighter than the forest. There is nothing spectacular about her as she flips through a clothing magazine; it's easy to forget her and the white-picketed-fence house in the beauty of the glade. You glance back at her as she begins to speak.
You are quicker that most, she says, flipping idly through her magazine. Then she finally glances up and her eyes are friendly as she fixes her straw hat with one hand.
It was you? you ask, attempting to collect your thoughts. You caused the loop?
She nods, smiling cheerfully.
But why? you ask, more confused than ever. She seems to mean no harm.
To project this place, she replies.
You feel foolish standing there with your sword, embarrassed by the fact that you felt threatened by the kind, young woman. Now you remember exactly why you came; she is the one you came to see. You take your hand off the sword and scratch the back of your head sheepishly.
May I come in? you ask finally. She smiles and gives a slight nod, leaning down to offer her hand to her not-quite-cat. He runs up her arm to perch primly on her shoulder. Catawere, you say slowly. The word comes to you suddenly. The keeper's guardian. The one who keeps her safe.
You reach down and jiggle the lock on the gate. It slides open easily, well oiled and slick. You walk up the path slowly, taking the time to take see where she had toiled hours away. Her garden shows the time she spent, gloriously in bloom and lawn well kept. Hours, days, and months worth of work. Time spent with only her catawere for company; she has had no human contact in years.
For someone who had become a hermit deep in the woods for about five years, she looks relatively normal. Or as normal as anyone else, at least. As she bustles about the kitchen, you take the time to study her. The civilized back home call her a witch. They told you she captured the senses of young men and she is completely impossible to resist, but you get none of that sense as you watch her.
Curiosity is the only element apparent to you. The idea that this woman—a woman that was not that different from you—spent years alone: no welcoming smiles in the morning, no casual touching, and without sharing private jokes. She has lived without everything that has kept you sane in every day of your life.
How did you do it? you ask finally. How did you last this long?
She pauses in mind motion, becoming impossibly still. Then, suddenly, she resumes her task with no response. Right as you come to the conclusion she isn't going to answer you, her reply comes. She turns slightly, but doesn't look at you. Sometimes… I think I didn't. Looking at you now is one of those times.
You seem perfectly sane, you offer, shrugging. She glances back, amused.
I wasn't aware we were questioning my sanity. She sits down next to you at the table, a little closer than comfort.
You shrug noncommittally and try not to look uncomfortable. You shift backwards to gain some distance in what you hope is a subtle way. She places your tea in front of you and moves away slightly, taking the hint.
I don't mean to make this awkward, she says, stirring her tea idly. It's just been so long since I've seen anyone.
You can't, she replies, smiling in a slightly patronizing way. You are darling, though. I chose to be here and I have no regrets with my decision.
You sit in silence for a few minutes and quietly sip your tea, content to take in the beauty of the surrounding nature. It's a peaceful relief after your long journey. The tea is your favorite and comforting while the cup is solid and made for everyday use.
What will you do now? you ask finally, swirling your tea and watching it slosh against the side of the cup. Now that you're free.
I'll never be free of my responsibility, she replies. She scratches the catawere and it leans against her, purring. Maybe I'll stay. With my task finished, there's nothing to keep me from or tempt me back to the city.
What if I asked you to come? you ask. The thought of her alone here any longer seems unbearable. Come with me.
The label- she begins.
It doesn't mean anything to me, you tell her. I know you. I know what you have gone through.
I don't need your pity, she snaps, turning away. It's even more painful.
I don't mean to make things more difficult for you, you say slowly. If staying here makes you happy, I'll stay too.
Why did they have to choose you? she wonders out loud. She gets up and wanders into a back room, leaving you and the catawere at the table. The guardian gives you a reproachful look, and you stare after her, wary that you've offended her in some way, but not sorry for it.
She strolls back into the room, shoes silent against the scrubbed, hardwood floor. In her hands is a small chest no bigger than her two palms. She places it gently on the table and steps back, taking your empty cup.
You hate her in that moment. In that one gesture she has stopped any protests you might have had. The chest represents everything that binds you to your task—your promise. You tell her it's not fair, but she doesn't respond. You stand and crowd her against the sink.
They need you, she says, edging away. I am free. You are giving me the ability to make my own decisions from now on. That box was my chain. Now it's yours.
You stand still for a moment, considering every other path.
Take responsibility for your promise, she says when she sees you wavering. I did. Now I'm finished. No task is forever.
You touch your sword gently. Mine is. The response is bitter in your mouth. Your first regret of the situation charge to you to fix. You walk to the table and pick up the small chest, cradling it between your hands. You tuck it into your pack for safekeeping, unable to meet her eyes. Thanks for the tea, you say idly—as if you hadn't just gone through heaven and hell to simply reach her dwelling.
She walks you to the door and you both pause at the doorstep. She touches your cheek gently, forcing up your eyes. Her gaze is unbearably kind, forcing you to turn away again and step out the door. You walk down the path and through the gate pausing only when you reach the trees at the edge of the clearing.
You look back to see her standing at the top of the porch of the small house, surrounded by her picturesque garden. She straightens her straw hat and sits back in her chair, picking her magazine back up. The catawere perches on the railing of the awning and begins to clean itself. You give a soft laugh and shake your head. Turning, you take a deep breath and step into the shade of the surrounding forest, walking until the small house, woman, and her guardian are swallowed by the darkness.
A/N: rewritten and posted October 29, 2007