She’d told the truth about the net. When he pulled up with his legs there was a moment of resistance, then the ropes broke easily as the strands of a spiderweb.
Gingerly, careful not to disturb his impaled right hand, he pulled himself into a seated position. Then after a few minutes of pained effort, he removed his hand from the spike.
There he sat, cradling the wounded right hand in his left.
His first thought was to leave. Get far away from the witch, leave this all behind, and forget the whole wretched, humiliating experience. He got up and took a few steps with the intention of leaving and never coming back.
But he saw the river.
It had only been a quiet slipping sound in his ear for many weeks, but now it unfolded before him as a flowing ribbon of shining fluid, disappearing off into the horizon in both directions.
“What are you,” the witch had asked him, “but another stream flowing out to die at last in the ocean?”
He stared out over the river for a long moment.
Reflected light lilted along the lines of the current, glistening like a dying god’s tears. Waterfowl glided with grace across the surface or hobbled clumsily on the shore. Reeds waved placid in the calm evening breeze.
“No,” he whispered at last. No, he couldn’t leave.
He had to know the meaning of what had been done to him. Why he’d been hurt so much.
And in spite of himself… he cared a little about that witch.
Either because he’d extricated himself from the net or because he hadn’t slept at all the night before, he passed the night in restful sleep the likes of which he hadn’t known since he was a child.
When he woke up with the dawn, he wished he knew where the witch lived. She couldn’t be far off, but he didn’t even know which direction to look. It would have been easier if he could go to her instead of waiting for her to come to him. As it was, thought followed thought and doubt followed doubt in his mind.
What would he say?
What would she say?
What was the point of talking to her?
Did he honestly expect to learn anything he didn’t already know?
Why not lie in wait somewhere and get his revenge for all she’d done?
Thought chased thought with a rapidity that nearly made time itself stand still. But, of course, time never fully comes to a stop, and after what seemed like a thousand and one years, she appeared, emerging from the line of trees.
“I see you’ve left your spot behind, pet,” she said pleasantly.
“That’s right, mistress,” he said.
“That’s going to make it difficult for me to collect your tears today, you know.” She examined her goblet with an amused air, adding, “So why did you remain here? Even now that you know there’s nothing holding you.”
“I don’t think you’re really all that surprised, mistress.”
“I’ll be the judge of what surprises me. In all my three hundred and seventeen years, not one man has remained willingly. Why did you?”
“I had to know why you did all this to me.”
“Why, because you stayed, pet. Why else?”
“No, I meant why you trapped me in the first place.”
“I assumed you would have figured it out by now,” she said, whirling the cup absently as she gazed over the river. “Or do you really need everything spelled out to you? I thought you were cleverer than that, pet.”
“I know you do it because it lets you hold back time’s effect on you — to dam up the river, if you like. But why me, mistress? Why me?”
“I already told you once. It’s because you stayed.”
And why had he stayed? When he could have been free at any moment, could have been free as soon as he’d tried, could have had his ordinary life back whenever he wished — and still could have all of that. The question gnawed at his heart, and by the inquisitive look on her face he knew the witch was wondering the same thing.
“I had to stay… because I love you. You torment me and you humiliate me and you make every moment of my life agony. But I love you.”
“What a sweet little speech. Here, take the cup,” she said, handing the goblet to him. “If you really love me so much maybe you’ll fill it up on your own and we won’t have to worry about the spike.”
He frowned. “I can’t cry on command, you know.”
“Oh, I know that, my love,” she said. “And if you really love me so much, I have a little something you can cry about.”
She sidled close to him, her so dark eyes calling softly to his. She wrapped her frail arms around him as he enfolded her slender form in his.
“Kiss me, pet,” she said.
And he kissed her parched lips.
Then as quickly as she’d approached, she backed a few feet away, resuming her cold air. “If you would like to help me, beyond the sacrifice of tears, there is… one thing you could do.”
His veins froze. The hand in which he held the cup trembled, so that he had to support it with both of them. The sun itself disappeared behind a cloud, as if unwilling to witness the conversation taking place on the green earth.
“The tears are quite sufficient to sustain my life and youth, as you well know. But I have to collect them daily, and I have to find new sources of tears several times a year.”
With ragged breath, he forced out the words, “S-sounds like a hassle, mistress.”
“Oh, it is. But there is another way. A way that would preserve me like this, forever.”
“Oh yes, pet. Forever and always. But there’s just one thing about the kind of sacrifice I have in mind.”
“That’s right, pet. It requires a willing victim.”
Very soon the cup was filled with tears.