It was cold outside, far colder than it had been earlier in the night. The moons showed it to be around four o'clock. Lutont gently closed the door behind them, hugged his coat closer, and took a couple steps away from his house. “So how long have you had these headaches?” he asked Johannes.
Johannes sighed, wondering absently whether Lutont had seen physical signs of his headaches, or whether he had ascertained this through more supernatural means. “For a day or two, only. Not before I've been to Dunweig – and I've started seeing things as well.” He frowned, looking off to the side thoughtfully.
“Hm…” Lutont silently stared into the snow for a while. After a long time, he spoke. “See the hovel over on the crest of that hill, the one without any smoke coming from the chimney?” Johannes nodded. “Go talk to Mineasia. Be gentle; she has seen a lot.”
Johannes nodded seriously, and yawned, noticing again how early it was. “Thank you. I shall do so.” Turning, he started off to trudge towards the hut, silent and thoughtful.
The hovel looked more and more run down the closer Johannes came to it. It was round and only eight feet wide, most likely smaller on the inside, especially since the left half of the low roof was partially caved in. There had once been a shutter in one of the walls, but it had long since been packed with mud and straw. As Johannes approached, he saw that the door was warped at an angle, such that a large gap at the top let cold air in. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and realized it was a rat digging deeper into a garbage heap by the side of the hut, under what had once been the window.
When Johannes knocked on the door, it shook so hard that he thought it might fall off its hinges. He heard a shuffling of feet inside, and then the door opened wide. A woman stepped out into the doorway, and stood quietly, frowning and looking Johannes in the eye. Her age was difficult to determine. She had a pained look, with fine wrinkles moving down from the sides of her mouth and eyes, yet most of her skin was smooth and youthful. The ragged state of her long hair contrasted with its fine and uniform dark-brown color. An accident finally gave away her age, when the ratty blanket held close against the cold slipped open at the top, and Johannes saw flesh too smooth and firm to belong to any woman past her mid-twenties. When she saw where Johannes was looking, she pulled the blanket closer, but said nothing.
Johannes looked away, clearing his throat uncomfortably. “Lutont said I should go speak to you… something to do with the headaches I've just started having. Perhaps to do with the fact that I've started seeing things…” He shook his head. “I don't know.”
Her voice was clear and beautiful, and when she spoke, Johannes realized her face was not unattractive either, despite its strangeness. Perhaps if she were to smile… “Lutont said that?” Her frown deepened, and she spent the next few seconds looking Johannes up and down, examining every part of him in a way that made him very uncomfortable. Her eyes finally settled on his lips. “Why should I care about your headaches, over everyone else's?” Beautiful. If her speech was any indication, she could sing with the best of them at the School of Music in Duerstadt.
Johannes shivered, pausing before he spoke. “To be honest, madam, I do not know, not knowing you beyond that Lutont said I should speak with you. I would venture a guess that it has something to do with the fact that since I've been in Dunweig, I've seen visions, and the headaches started along with the visions.”
“What do I know of visions?” She looked past Johannes, to where Lutont was still standing in the distance. “Very well. Come in.” Johannes followed her inside, and she closed the door. It had no latch or bar, but the bottom scratched against the ground, forcing it to stay closed.
The woman struck flint to steel and lit a candle in a small cup on the wall, so Johannes could see the cramped space where she lived. The collapsed roof sunk low, making the room was only half as large as it should have been. The three foot high cubby formed by the roof was stuffed with blankets and clothing, with a pot and two large jars crammed into one side. The other half of the room was taken up largely by a pile of straw, presumably used as a mattress, and a stove that contained a few charred sticks but no flame. Various objects hung from the wall on hooks, but most of the hooks were empty. The hovel was cold, warmed only by its occupant, and it smelled pleasantly of her.
The woman sat on the straw and crossed her legs, forcing Johannes to realize that she was wearing nothing under the blanket. A brief smile crossed her face, but it was soon gone. “I am no expert on visions,” she said. “Tell me about your headaches.”
Johannes shook his head, looking downwards. “I'm not sure how much there is to say, save that they've been coming, with seemingly no reason, since I have first started having these visions. I don't know how to work with this, yet, and since I arrived in Dunweig, so much confusing has been going on…” He shook his head. “Why would Lutont send me to you?”
“He's told you about our village?” Johannes nodded. “Then he sent you here to torture me.”
Johannes looked up in shock. “To torture you? Why would he do that?”
“I don't know, but why else would he send you to me? I can feel your pain. I know what is building up inside you right at this moment. It will be worse than the last one.”
Johannes shook his head. “Maybe he thought you could help. If you can't help, and I'm paining you, then I should leave, and spare you this trouble.”
“No, stay,” she said, a bit too anxiously, reaching out her hand and letting the blanket slip below her breasts. When she realized what she'd done, she quickly pulled it back up and calmed herself. “Your pain is bearable right now.” For the first time since Johannes had seen her, she formed a full smile, revealing the beauty he'd suspected was hidden by her frown. “And your pleasure is keeping it balanced.”
“I really should leave.” Johannes shivered heavily, starting to stand, blinking his eyes while trying to clear his head. “I don't know why he sent me here.”
“No, wait,” she said, standing with him. “Maybe I can help. Lutont told you about the heightening, didn't he, when we strain our powers to redouble their effects? I can feel your pleasure and pain. Heightened,” she said, lowering her musical voice to a whisper, “I can cause it.”
“He didn't tell me about the heightening, no, but I don't know that I should linger.” He twitched nervously, looking away. “Are such headaches common amongst those developing their powers here?”
“No one develops powers here; they appear at birth. I imagine I felt my mother's labor pains the day I was born, and her collapse into death on my first night in the world.”
Johannes shuddered. “I see. Perhaps I should return to Lutont and ask him what he hoped to accomplish by sending me to you.” He shook his head. “I will not burden you with my pain further.”
“Please stay. You're not a burden; your pain is many minutes away. I can help you, I'm sure of it.”
“How can you help, then?”
She visibly relaxed, releasing the tension which was flushing her cheeks. “Like I said, when heightened, I can cause pleasure or pain. I can make your headache go away.” With that, she let her blanket fall slowly, this time with no chance of it being an accident, until her breasts were uncovered to the aureolae, and Johannes could clearly see the effects of the cold.
Johannes looked away, flushed. “How does one heighten their power?”
She sighed quietly. “It's difficult to explain. It works a lot like straining a muscle. You make yourself stronger for a time, knowing that you will soon be exhausted.”
“I see. I should go…” He backed off slowly, reaching towards the door.
“No, please stay. I'll help you.” Johannes felt a mild pain in his head. If the woman's prediction held true, a lot more was to come.
Johannes massaged his forehead, shaking his head, hesitating. “Why should it even matter to you? You don't know me, and I'll be gone shortly. I shouldn't burden you with the effort.”
“There is a lot more pain in the world than pleasure. Do you know how many times I have fallen, or sickened, or broken a bone or died, or slowly and torturously rotted away to nothing, even in this minuscule village? I live in filth, discomfort and cold, just to block some of it out. And how many times do you suppose a man has dared touch me, the witch who knows his pain? Name another woman who could feel her own father suffer for months from a collapsing chest before he finally died.” Johannes winced in pain, and so did she. “How many times has a man made love to me, compared to all that!”
Johannes shook his head, shivering, wincing slightly. “I am not staying, and cannot stay. I regret that you remain unmarried here, but you should not look to me for aid. I shouldn't…”
“Have you no compassion? I heard people talking. They say you've been traveling a long time. How long has it been since you've had a woman?” A piercing pain kept Johannes from answering. It increased in potency until Johannes was on the floor and the woman was on her knees, crawling towards him. “Please, let me help you,” she said, holding his arms and leaning over him, the blanket now completely gone. Hot tears dripped onto his face.
“I… haven't…” Johannes shuddered in pain, clutching at his head, squirming on the floor. “Let me go, please…”
“Then help me! The pain is too great. You have to help me overwhelm it!”
Johannes struggled to his feet, gasping, and sending her rolling across the floor. “I shouldn't. I must go.” He pushed against the door, trying to open it, but failing. Inordinately weakened by the effort, he collapsed against the door, and passed out.
His dream or vision, whichever it was, was vivid and disturbing. The pain in his head became a pain in his chest. He lay on a hard bed, barely able to breathe for what seemed an eternity. When he finally recovered, he was only able to relax for a minute. Then his body spasmed and the pain in his chest doubled. He felt lungs seize up, trying to suck in air as if through a long straw.
Then he was lying on the floor, on a soft mat, and in a different room, but the pain was still there, and although he could breathe again, he felt like he couldn't, and each breath required an act of intense will. He lay there in pain for hours, with no one around to help him, and no one to call for help. He knew that even if every villager in Osander River Village could see him and every one of them held the cure, they would turn their backs and walk away.
Finally, he shuddered in an agony more intense than any he had ever experienced, and his heart stopped, and his lungs froze, and he lay unmoving for minutes before he died.
Then his heart started, and he could breathe normally, and he cried with the voice of a ten-year-old girl over the death of his father and the pain they had been made to suffer, and the tears that ran down on to his folded hands were the same as those that had fallen on his face.
When Johannes opened his eyes, he was looking at the naked back of the woman, who sat hunched over on the straw bed, her ribs and spine accented through her skin. She wept quietly, not making any sign that she knew he was awake. Her blanket was draped over him to keep him warm.
Johannes pulled himself to his feet and draped the blanket over Mindolpha's bare back. “I'm sorry.” His voice was strained.
“I've died a dozen times,” she said softly through her tears. “Your pain is nothing to me.”
He massaged his forehead heavily. “I experienced your father's death. I know what it is you go through.” He sighed heavily. “I'll leave now.”
“My father?” she said as he opened the door. “No. Go away.”
“What did she say?” Lutont asked, when Johannes returned to his house.
“She tried to seduce me. She said she might be able to help with the pain, but…” He shook his head. “I don't know why you sent me there.”
“Wait, stop. You say _Mineasia_ tried to _seduce_ you?”
“Yes. She said there was too much pain that she suffered already, and she didn't have any pleasure to balance it out.” Johannes shook his head. “She needs a husband, and it's not something I can do.”
“A husband? Wait, you didn't ask for Mineasia by name did you? _Mindolpha_ is more than any man can handle, or should ever have to. I hope she didn't cause you too much trouble.”
Johannes shook his head embarrassedly. “I didn't ask for her by name, no. I only saw one person, so…” He shrugged softly. “I should head back to speak with Mineasia, shouldn't I?”
“If you are still willing.”
He nodded. “I shall go, then.”
When Johannes knocked at the door of Mindolpha's hovel, he said, “It was Mineasia I was supposed to speak to.”
Mindolpha opened the door, still completely naked and covered in goose bumps, and with a look that said that was the last thing she cared about. Streams of drying tears sparkled on her face in the moonlight. “What do you want with her? I told you to go away.”
Johannes looked down. “All I know is that Lutont believed I should speak to her. But I didn't see anybody else here…” He shook his head in confusion.
Mindolpha stepped out into the snow, barefoot, grabbed Johannes' head between her hands, and kissed him forcefully on the lips, pushing her body against his, and making the awkward, uncomfortable gesture last far longer than it had to. “No, nothing,” she said when they'd separated. “I'm incapable of pleasure.” She turned her back on him and walked inside, leaving the door open.
Mindolpha reached a hand under the sunken part of the roof, and shook a blanket. “Mineasia… Mineasia…” The blankets squirmed, and parted, but Johannes couldn't see past Mindolpha's body. “Don't trust this man,” she said, “but you can find out what he wants.” Mindolpha moved out of the way, and stood by the wall, while the blankets continued to squirm around. Blankets and articles of clothing spread themselves out into the room, and when they were sufficiently dispersed, a five-year-old girl climbed out of the pile. She was the skinniest little girl Johannes had ever seen, with a wild mess of curly yellow hair, and gaunt features totally lacking in baby fat, although somehow she did not look sickly or malnourished. “Don't be rude. Put something on,” Mindolpha said when the girl came out, although she herself was wearing nothing. The girl pulled on a shirt which reached to her feet, and looked at Johannes.
Johannes closed the door behind him and crouched to his knees, looking at Mineasia, shaking his head in wonder. “Lutont said I should talk with you, Mineasia, about some headaches I've been having.”
Mineasia looked back at Johannes for a few seconds, then said, “They're not headaches.”
“What are they, then?”
She put a warm hand on his forehead. “They're headaches, but not that kind. They're visions.”
He nodded. “I had figured they were connected. Is there anything you can do to help?”
“They hurt, don't they?” She looked at Mindolpha, who turned her head away. “Everyone who comes to me wants to hurt my mother.”
“I don't want to hurt your mother, Mineasia.” He shook his head. “All I know is that I'm supposed to talk to you.”
“You already hurt her. I heard you. I can't help but I know why you're sick.”
“Why did I get the visions? I didn't mean to hurt her… I didn't know she'd feel my pain when I came.” Johannes sighed heavily.
“You have something in your head,” she moved her hand around and touched a particular spot on the left side of Johannes' hairline, “here.” She traced a spiral out from that point. “It's too fast. You'll get sicker if you don't see Uyithlyaw.”
“The fortune-teller,” Mindolpha said.
“Thank you, Mineasia. I'll see Uyithlyaw when I can. I'm sorry to have hurt your mother.” He shook his head.
“Now leave,” Mindolpha said. “I don't want to see you again.”
Johannes nodded and left.
“Better luck this time?” Lutont asked.
“Mineasia said I should see Uyithlyaw, or else I'd get sicker. Something going too fast in my head.” Johannes shook his head slowly. “And apparently Mindolpha never wants to see me again.” He chuckled softly.
“I can see why,” said Lutont. “Mineasia knows the cause of illness, so everyone who is sick goes to her. Mindolpha could not have hoped for a worse companion than her daughter. You saw her father's death. Can you imagine how much worse it would have been if she'd known years in advance about his weakening heart?”
Johannes sighed heavily. “It's a sad thing, then. Should I find Uyithlyaw now?”
“That is up to you. I'll tell you how to get to her, but it will be out of your way. She lives in the forest, about thirty miles northeast of here, in the barony of Marchhanbar. It's not easy to get there without a guide, and it will be hard to find one if the snow keeps up.”
“Who would serve as a guide, around here?”
“Hard to say. Mindolpha would be happy for an excuse to leave, but she is probably out of the question. There are some dunderheads like Tonnel Fleminton who might go, but I wouldn't trust him to lead me along a main highway if I already knew the way myself. Brollen knows how to get everywhere, but he's recovering from a broken leg. I don't know. Leave a note with Harran the innkeeper and suggest some sort of payment. You might get someone.”
“I'll see what I can do.” He sighed. “Thank you for your help, Lutont.”
“You can repay me by keeping news of this village from spreading.”
“You can trust me with that, on my honor.” Johannes bowed.
“We might as well stay awake now. In an hour or so the villagers will be here with Rielicca, if they have to drag her out of bed.
That was one fast turn. The whole thing took place over the course of one day (8/26), over email and IM.