Erryn looked down at the merchant, unable to look away from the twisted hands and wrinkled face, sunken sockets filled with rheumy eyes, an expression that seemed at once so familiar and somehow foreign at the same time. A few wisps of grey hair slipped out from beneath the raggedy shawl she wrapped around her head. As thin as she appeared, Erryn thought she might simply blow away in the wind gusting through the Bracken Market.
How much for my hair? she asked. One hand gripped the long red tail she had tied before coming down to the market. The other remained stuffed into the pocket of her traveling dress, now worn and faded, crusted with dirt from the journey. She gripped the locket she held within the pocket so tightly that she knew its imprint would linger on her palm.
Instead of answering, the old crone tottered around to the front of the table. Erryn could practically hear bones creaking. One leathery hand stretched up toward her hair. Erryn suppressed a shudder when that hand brushed against her neck. Dry and scaly, she imagined flesh flaking off where she touched her.
Lovely, the woman whispered. Her voice wafted on the wind before blowing away on the wind.
How much? If what Erryn heard about the crones was true, she should have enough, but barely. She pulled away from the woman and forced herself to face her. Standing opposite her, Erryn smelled decay. Death.
What is it that you request? The crone turned away, creaking back to the other side of the table to take a seat on a weathered stump.
Erryn hesitated. For as long as she had considered coming to the Bracken Market, she had never hesitated. Now that she finally forced herself to come, now that she stood before one of the crones, her mouth felt thick, as if her tongue did not want to work.
She squeezed the locket in her hand again. Pain and the memories of Larand finally gave her the strength she needed, if not the courage. Erryn pulled the locket from her pocket and let it dangle from the woven golden band before the crones milky eyes.
Can you bring him back? Each word felt forced, but now that she held out the locket, she had to continue. Now that the offer was made, she would not stop.
The crone took the locket in bony fingers and then sucked in a soft breath of air. Her body seemed to tremble. She leaned forward, practically falling across the table, as she strained to see the locket. How long has he been gone? she asked. One finger caressed the front of the locket.
Erryn resisted the urge to jerk back, fearing the crone might smear the drawing. The picture was all she had left of Larand, the only thing, other than her memories, of his face. Yet, pulling away meant interrupting the bargain. The one warning she knew to heed was to avoid interrupting the bargain.
N-not g-gone, Erryn stammered. Almost dead. The Wasting. Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered what he had looked like just before she had left to make the long trek to the market. The way his skin had sunken, pulling tight across his bones, flesh drying and leaving him nearly a husk of the hearty and hale man he once had been.
The crone flicked her eyes at Erryn and then back to the locket. How long have you traveled?
The crone released the locket. It hung limply from Erryns hand.
Two months. You do not even know if he still lives.
He lives, Erryn said, trying as she did every day to convince herself.
The crone let out a slow raspy breath that smelled fetid and dry. And if he does not? If I take the bargain to find him gone, and you only offer your hair?
Erryn swallowed. She didnt dare move. She let the locket dangle where it caught the light from the overcast sky. Please, she begged, I have traveled far. The market is
The crone cackled, cutting her off. I know what the market is. Her voice seemed suddenly stronger. She pushed back from the table and sat back on her stump. For your hair, I can give you a lovers draught. Find a different man of your choosing. Perhaps a luck charm. But two months of uncertainty? She shook her head. Bones and dry skin strained against the sudden motion. I will not take on that risk, not even for hair so lovely as yours.
I dont want another man, Erryn said.
The crone cackled again. Better a new man than a wasted one. She twisted her head strangely and peered up at Erryn. That is the offer.
Erryn shifted on her feet, looking at the crone.
When she didnt answer fast enough, the crone waved a hand at her. The bargain was broken. Erryn had failed.
She turned and started away, feeling the weight of hopelessness come over her. With Larand wasting, she had done all that she could to carry on, to run the farm as he would. The children had helped, but they were too young and Larand too proud to let them. The crones of the Bracken Market were her last hope, the one place she promised him she would never go, a place where bargains could cheat even death, but a place where bargains rarely tilted in your favor. The crones had a way of stealing the bargain. Erryn had prepared herself for that, knowing that she would do nearly anything to return Larand to her.
Something grabbed at her wrist and she turned. The crone held onto her with surprising strength. Cloudy eyes stared at her and she pulled Erryn back to the table.
I did not say I would not bargain, the crone said.
Erryn shook her head. I dont have anything else to offer. Just my hair.
And yet there exists a problem with your position. The crones voice cracked as she spoke. Your offer is strong, she said, motioning toward Erryns hair, but you do not know if your man still lives. That places me at risk.
Erryn felt her heart hammer. The crone still held onto her wrist, as if forcing her in place, forcing a bargain. What do you suggest?
The crones mouth turned in a smile that revealed yellowed and rotting teeth. Dry fetid breath pushed out the next words. For such a trade as you suggest, the risk must be equal or I cannot trade.
I dont understand. Erryn knew the bargains made by the crones often went one sided. She had prepared for that, knowing that she had to open strong with her offer. From what she heard, hair such as hers should have been a strong offer.
You last saw him two months ago, the crone asked. Erryn nodded. I will take two years for each.
Two years? Erryn asked, feeling confused.
Of your life.
Erryn swallowed, her throat was suddenly dry. Two years to bring back Larand? What were two years of her life to have him for the remainder? Two years to have him there for the children? Two years for his health?
She nodded. I accept.
The crone took her hand with those bony fingers and squeezed. Erryn felt a surge, a sense of weakness swirling about her, and a pulsing energy pass from the crone.
Wait Erryn started, suddenly realizing that she had forgotten something.
The crones eyes, suddenly more clear, looked at her.
For each what?
The crone smiled. For each day that he was dead, of course.
Erryn shook her head, counting the days she had been gone. The Wasting had already progressed far when she had left, but Larand still lived then. But she didnt know if he still lived. What if he had died only days after she had left? How many years would be taken from her?
Erryn tried to pull back but the crone held her in a tight grip. I dont accept. I refuse the bargain.
The crones eyes softened and she stood straighter. Fingers no longer felt so bony as they gripped Erryns wrist. But the bargain has been struck. Your man has been returned. The crone tilted her head, the wisps of hair now darkening and filling in beneath the shawl pulled over her head. Wrinkles faded from her face.
But I didnt know
The crone frowned. You accepted the terms. You should not be too upset. The price was not so bad.
Erryn swallowed again. Her throat felt parched, dry. The skin on her arms felt taught where the crone gripped her. She blinked. How many? she asked. How many years?
He was gone but a fortnight, the crone answered. A reasonable bargain to be sure.
Erryn felt her legs give way and she sunk to the ground. Dust settled up around her, coating her dress and legs. Nearly thirty years bargained away. Larand would return but she would not have that time to spend with him.
At least you kept your hair! the crone cackled.
Erryn looked up, but she was gone, hurrying down between the tables of the Bracken Market, her back growing ever straighter, her steps moving ever more quickly, until she disappeared.
The return journey took much longer than two months. Erryn had not the energy she once had and each day she travelled less and less far. By the time she finally reached home, she had been gone nearly a year. In that year, she had lost nearly thirty.
Her bones ached as she walked, and her back had already started to gain the curve of age. The one time she had seen her reflection, she had nearly fainted. A face wrinkled and pale, hair already thinning, stared back at her. Not her face, at least not the one Larand would remember.
The crone had not told her which years she had bargained; it should not surprise Erryn that she lost the remainder of her youth.
When she finally reached their home, it was early evening. The sun shimmered in the sky, drifting toward the horizon. Erryn shifted the shawl she now used to cover her thinning hair, and paused outside the door, listening before knocking. Inside, she heard the children laughing as they wrestled. Her heart skipped a beat when she heard them, filling with joy. It nearly stopped when she heard the deep familiar sound of his voice, again so strong and full of life, so different than it had been when she last saw him. The smell of roasted meat and a burning fire drifted through an open window, a smell that nearly made her throw the door open to announce her return.
But Erryn reached for the door, hesitating. Would they even welcome her now? Gone a year, she had changed so much as to be practically unrecognizable. At least Larand was safe, the Wasting reversed.
She considered turning back, returning to the market. Given enough time, she thought she could learn the secrets of the crones, make a bargain for youth, and then return home, restored as the woman who had left. But how long would that take? How many more years would be lost?
No, she could not risk taking such time, not after what she had already lost. What remained she needed to spend with Larand, with her family, if they would take her back. That was the price of the bargain, a price she would honor. There could be no more cheating.
Erryn rested her head on the door, and, finally, she knocked.