The Traveling Death Mask by Francesca Quarto
"Aunty's dead, I tell ye! She took ta sittin' up 'n fell off 'n 'er bed. Silly ol' witch!" he was shouting to me.
I stopped by Healer Charlotte's cottage to see to her needs. As a Healer myself, in my Lord's employ, I had to be certain this was not the beginning of another red scourge among the peasants on his lands.
The door was flung wide by the wild-eyed nephew and I determined the truth of his statement.
Martin, Charlotte's nephew, was in a near fit with anger and what looked like a touch of remorse. I'm guessing, anger, because his elderly relative, had inconveniently passed out of this realm and remorse, because he had wasted precious time caring for the old biddy and she died before he could uncover her secrets.
Her story was thusly told me by Martin, after I calmed his head with a cup of strong ale from the local tavern.
Charlotte had earned great renown in her seventy and six years, as a healer of extraordinary talent. Her village of Locknear Cove, had dozens of folk wandering its lanes, who owed the old woman their fair health.
When there was a tooth to be pulled, a baby to be birthed, or a scourge, ravishing the country round them, Charlotte always had a cure, or method to safeguard all.
Her nephew, Martin, wanted to take her place as Healer and earn the same fine fees that kept Charlotte and him, her only kin, living comfortably in the small cottage.
When she finally succumbed to the heavy hand of Father Time, Martin stayed by her wizened head, waiting for her to reveal her secret healing methods to him. He tended her day and night for nearly a fortnight. According to his tale, he even prayed to the gods, old and new, to bring her round enough to speak her secrets..
"I did all her necessaries for the ol' hag 'n even fed 'er like a babe! She only looked me in t'eye en smiled in 'er evil way."
I remonstrated against such strong words in describing the kindly old woman.
"She had devoted her long life to others," I protested to his bleary eyed face.
He was not to be swayed from his twisted anger at her death. Into his second mug of the stiff brew, he shared a family tale about Charlotte, one that traced her Healer's gifts to her own great-grandmother.
"Er name were Midge. She were famous round 'ere, fer 'avin' ta power ta look death in ta face, and scare 'im away like mornin' does ta moon shadows. Charlotte sed Midge 'ad a fearsome face ta behold. Wit eyes, dark as pitch, a great nose like a huntin' hawk, 'er face, creased like a dried mud bog. Even 'er 'air were ugly, lookin' all wild, an stuck out like twigs from a squirrel's nest! She scared the children from 'er path wit a look o' dem black eyes."
I listened attentively as I could, though I found the man dreary as company and the day was going dark.
"Listen ta me when I tell ye dis tale. Charlotte, me blood kin, were hidin' a "Travelin' Death Mask", give her by dat witch grandmutter! It were made from ta face o' a powerful witch what died near hundred- year ago.
Ta Travelin' Mask were passed down en outright stole, by lots 'o other witches what know 'bout it. It held all dat ancient witch's powers, en' after Charlotte got it from Midge, It give 'er ta power ta heal, and she did lots 'o profit from it, I can tell ye! When she went ta attend one 'o the village folk, she'd wrap ta mask inside 'er shawl, afore she took 'erself off. I seen it only the single time, when I followed 'er down ta Widow Morley's, as she were dyin'. She opened 'er shawl an put somethin' on 'er face. When she turned to where I hid meself, I seen ta face o' ta witch, Midge, just as Aunt told it ta me."
It was now full dark outside the scruffy tavern. I became anxious to return to the safety of the Lord's Manor and a warm bowl of stew from the kitchens. I couldn't dissuade the bumpkin that no such thing existed as a Traveling Death Mask with powerful properties to heal the sick or dying. I payed the barkeep for one more ale for the grieving nephew and took myself off.
Down the road a long time later, my wagon being pulled by a single bay horse, I spied some sort of movement at the side of the lonely road. The horse became nervous, whinnying and snorting, his flaring nostrils making long vapors appear in the chilled air of the night.
I halted the beast in the traces, not wanting to proceed until I could identify what manner of night walker was about. That's when I heard a raspy woman's voice, halloing me from beside the road ahead.
"If ye be fearful o' me, know I'm only en old woman, returnin' from a dear friend's bedside, I am. No need ta be afeared o' me."
I snapped the reigns slightly, to rouse the bay to her task and she stepped smartly forward toward the stranger. She continued to snort as if smelling something foul riding the breezes.
"Good evening, Mother. I would offer a ride to your door, but my direction is forward, while yours, behind."
"Ach, no worries. I'd be delighted fer yer company, en can make me bed in any direction of me choosen."
With that, she leapt up as spry as a ten year old girl, snagging her long black dress into a bunch with her gnarled fingers, settling down beside me.
While the night was indeed very dark, there was a sliver of a moon and I strained my eyes to peer over from time to time at my new companion as we moved on. For all her garrulous greeting, she had become very quiet. I waited for a cloud to pass across the tiny strip of moon to catch a glimpse of the crone.
I clearly saw a beak of a nose, wiry hair bushed out around a long, narrow face. She must have felt my look as she turned slowly in my direction. She wore a sly look around her mouth and her eyes were two pieces of obsidian, cold and hard.
"So, here we sit, me lookin' at a fit, young man, whilst I be in need o' jest sech. I know ye been wit that daft nephew o' Charlotte's en he tellin' tales bout a Travelin' Death Mask he were. What ye need ta know is only this."
And so the old hag explained the workings of the Traveling Death Mask, explaining it was worn for good, but only after taking the life spirit from a living being. Who ever donned the hideous thing was able to suck off the life force of others in tiny amounts, leaving them weak, but alive. These were given to the ill, so they could be cured of any malady.
I was relieved to know no one died under the power of the Mask, because I now understood, I was to be its next victim. I knew I couldn't escape as the woman's power was already drawing upon the life surging through my body. She became very rigid as she watched my body go limp.
I must have become unconscious, for when I roused myself, I lay supine upon the bench seat, the horse, grazing among the weeds beside the road. The sun was beginning to rise with determination and it would soon be full day.
I whipped the horse to gain its cooperation and moved forward toward the Lord's Manor. When I arrived at the front entry I was handled roughly and told , "Get yer ugly face offin' ' is Lordship's property! Yer kind ain't welcome 'ere"
I ran back to the cart and it and the horse were gone to the stables. When I arrived to fetch my rig, I happened to pass the water trough for the beasts. Looking down I saw the face of the Traveling Death Mask.
My mind was undone and to this day, I am searching out the old hag who now wears my face and lives in my youthful body. I do some healing from time to time during my search of the villages and towns. I keep body and soul together with the pittance I can charge. But it matters little. After all, this is not my body. This is not my soul as long as I wear the Mask I must keep moving.