The voice brought me to a stop.
“I know it’s you.”
I turned and forced my way through a hedgerow, dragging the sled behind me. I passed into a small field, the back of which was defined by a tall log wall. In front of it, perched atop a wide tree stump, was a rough-hewn house of sorts.
I approached the structure with caution, my hatchet in hand, as I left the sled behind. I walked around the house, saw a tall ladder made of stripped trees, and realized there were no doors or windows I could see. The ladder vanished into the side of the house.
Once I’d circled the building, I came to a stop in front of the ladder.
“Will you speak?” the inhabitant asked.
I cleared my throat as best I could and still could only muster a weak and broken “Yes.”
“Oh,” she whispered through the wall. “You’ve the right pitch, but you’re too young. You’re not my Duncan.”
“But I know you, Patience Blood,” I stated, my voice gaining strength. “Though I’ve not seen you in far too long.”
My beautiful cousin laughed from within her prison. “Oh, you’ve my Duncan’s way with words, though.”
“How do I free you?” I asked, stepping closer to the structure.
“It’s a wicked fairy tale, my dear cousin,” she sighed. “Only my Duncan can free me, and I’ve no idea where he is or if he is even alive.”
My throat tightened. “I would try if you would let me.”
“No,” she replied, her voice firm. “Beyond the wall to the right lay the corpses of two other Duncans. They are burned beyond recognition, for this place is protected by fire. I am trapped here, unable to die.”
“Who did this?”
Patience laughed. “Oh, dear cousin, who do you think would do such a thing? Especially to someone precious to you?”
“Aye, that she is, and she is the one who did this.” For the first time, a tinge of anger entered my cousin’s voice. “Find her here, my dear heart, and you will free me from this prison. Will you do that?”
“That and more,” I answered. “Is there naught else I can do?”
“You could sit a spell,” she whispered. “I’ve not heard your voice for far too long.”
I sat down beneath the house, and we talked of days long past and the dead we’d left behind.