The traveler was weary from her journey, and the midday sun, while not harsh, was still relentless, brightening the road she traveled, but heating beyond her ability to bear it.
A break in the trees looked welcoming; branches swayed in a natural breezeway, and she almost sobbed to see it. In matters of survival, even small, mean comforts seemed a luxury.
As she looked around for a place to sit, the sound of water flowing over rocks reached her, and as soon as she heard it, she made her way toward it, her thirst taking precedence over her need to sit.
Hoping against hope she was alone, perhaps she’d be able to take a cool dip as well, if the current was not too strong.
The river was wide, but not very deep from where she stood.
Birdcalls trilled randomly, breaking the quiet, but not the peace of the surroundings.
In spite of her needs, she paused to admire the river’s beauty.
Its flow was steady, the surface of it clear in the high sun, the ripples and waves fracturing the reflected sun into shards of bright gold and butterscotch.
Dragonflies droned and hovered over the low grasses that grew on the banks.
A heron stalked the river’s edge on the opposite bank, treading, peering, treading, before it snatched a nice sized fish.
It worked the meal down, and spread its great wings, taking to graceful flight.
In the moment, she’d forgotten her tiredness and thirst.
“Tranquil, and brutal, but it is the way of things, is it not?”
She jumped at the sound of the unexpected voice behind her, and turned to see a woman, stunningly beautiful, in a long green gown the color of new spring leaves, her wheat blond hair in an elegant spill across her shoulders, and her eyes reflecting the clear tranquility of the river, changing colors along with the changing light.
“I’m sorry, traveler. It was not my intent to frighten you.”
“Who are you? I have no money.”
“I am Soyala, and it is well you have no money, for I don’t require any.”
The traveler saw that the woman carried no weapon, at least not visibly, but she was not yet ready to let her guard down.
“What do you want, then?”
“To share the beauty of the moment with you; again, it was not my intent to disturb you, but to have remained silent when you saw me would have bred more suspicion, yes?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Then I will speak no further, sister.”
Soyala wandered to the water’s edge, and stopped beside the woman, and looked out at the river.
The silence between them grew comfortable, and the woman cast surreptitious glances over at Soyala.
“Do you live near here?”
Soyala turned to her and smiled.
“I live in here.”
“You live in the woods?”
“We live in each other.”
The woman took a step back. “You’re a witch, then?”
“Some would call it that. Some would say fae, some sprite, but I’m none of those things. I’m flesh and blood, no different from a dray horse in that respect; made of bones, blood, and organs, and all that makes us human.
“I am those things, and more.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It is not for instant comprehension, and of no ultimate consequence. You wanted to swim, and drink, and rest, and I have disturbed you.
“I will go.”
“How did you know that?”
“I too have traveled far, therefore I know a woman’s needs.
“I will go.”
“No. No, please don’t.”
“You fear men? Creatures?”
Soyala laughed. “Yes, one is much like the other, but men are cannier, and sometimes more ferocious. I will stay if you like.”
The woman wondered at Soyala’s words, but decided it was a matter best not pursued.
Soyala walked away, sat down on a rock, looked out at the river some more.
The woman doffed her dirty dress, and slipped into the water.
Soyala watched her from the shore.
The traveler was a good swimmer, confident, but not foolhardy. She kept her strokes broad and her speed low, enjoying the feel of pure water cleansing her beneath the skin, eroding her weariness not just of traveling, but also of life, healing the bruises of a beaten spirit, piecing together a broken heart.
Her salted tears dripped into the pure water, and changed them forever, but not at all.
When she came out of the river, her dress had changed from white to sky blue, and it was clean, smelling of mountain flowers. There was also a basket of fruit, bread, cheese, and a skin of water.
The traveler looked at Soyala, a question forming, and then smiled, knowing she would get no answer she would understand.
“Help me with the dress?”
The traveler smoothed the gown into her curves, loving the feel of the strange fabric against her skin.
“Will you be able to finish your journey now?”
The traveler looked back at the road, checked the sun which was past its zenith, the afternoon shadows imperceptibly lengthened.
“Yes, Soyala, I will. Thank you.”
“Then you are indeed welcome, traveler. Come. I will walk you to the road.”
“That won’t be necessary. You’ve done enough.”
Soyala took the traveler’s hand.
“We can never have enough kindness.”
The path was shading over, and the birds still trilled at random, and the sun still shone bright, but the traveler was reliving the strange encounter in her mind, pondering the meaning of Soyala’s enigmatic presence.
It is not for instant comprehension, and of no ultimate consequence.
“But it’s far more important than you know, Soyala. Far more important than you know.”
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.