She didn’t know how long she’d been running, and now she was in unfamiliar territory. Her body was sore, and her feet full of small cuts and scratches, but it was worth it.
She barely escaped.
The slavers were cruel men with strange markings, sharp piercings, and thick, hard, callused hands that often held thick, heavy chains, and whips laced with things that cut flesh to shreds.
The screams and cries of those victims kept the human chattel shaking and crying through the night, to drift off to restless sleep with nightmares until dawn, only to be awakened by raucous laughter, coarse words, hard boots, and grabbing hands.
Being scrubbed like dirty pots, worked and beaten like mules, and passed around like back-alley dice resulted in three things: embracing the life, going insane, or dying.
Escaping, as she’d done, was perhaps the deadliest option, because as far as she knew, she was the only one who had, and was still alive; others had tried, and their deaths, in public for all to see, reached new depths of torture and brutality.
These were men without souls, hewn on the anvils of hell, and tempered in its fires.
She didn’t know if they’d ever stop looking; she only knew she couldn’t stop running.
The sun was low, but the moon was already rising, not willing to wait its turn, when she found a path, wide and smooth, flat, and flanked by high, ancient trees with arced branches that threw long, deep blue shadows at her feet, as if laying down cloaks for her to cross puddles.
Someone did that for her once, but she couldn’t remember his face.
The wind began to pick up speed, and in her tattered clothing, between the chill of the coming night and the horrors of her dreams, she’d be shivering again.
I will have to make the best of it; I’m too tired go on.
An opening in the tree line caught her attention, and if it had been dark she would have missed it, and wound up sleeping by the roadside, easy pickings for man or beast.
She said a silent prayer of thanks to whatever god was listening, and went inside, bathed in the last weak rays of sunlight.
Almost immediately, after her eyes adjusted, she saw a place where she could shelter on the lee side of some rocks where she could take shelter against the wind, and keep out of view from hunters, if she didn’t cry out in her sleep.
Excited, and eager to rest, she half-ran, half-stumbled to where the rock above her jutted out above the one below, and she almost sobbed in relief when she realized she would fit in the space between them.
Like a coffin, almost. Dark and hard, but safe.
A breeze gusted through, and she heard a splash, a leaping fish perhaps, and realized she was close to water, though she’d missed seeing it at first.
The night will be colder, but there’s nothing to be done for it.
Folding her arms across her breasts, though there was no one around to be modest for, she examined the space again to see how she might best lie down, when she saw a small light in the distance, coming through the trees.
She felt the urge to flee flash through her, but her muscles were unresponsive.
If it’s the slavers come, I’ll take my own life first.
Yet something about the light was strange; it was steady, neither brightening nor dimming in its intensity.
The wind doesn’t seem to affect it.
The light was also low to the ground, not raised high as a torch would be, nor was it moving especially fast.
Curious now, she watched its approach; someone seemed to be carrying it; she caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a green fabric, the color of sunlight through leaves in high summer, and a brief flash of honey gold hair.
A sprite. A witch. I fled from slavers to die in this copse.
The sun was gone now.
The girl shrank back against the rocks.
She realized she was breathing too quickly, and pursed her lips, willing herself to stop.
By the nimbus of light, she could somewhat see the woman’s features; they were distinct, but not sharp, not yet.
Soon, whoever it was would see her, if they couldn’t already.
As she turned to climb up into the space, she slipped, fell and hit her head, crying out, as whoever was carrying the light came upon her, outlining her sobbing shadow with a corona of amber-gold light.
She gave herself up for lost.
“Kill me then. Get it over with.”
Night clouds drifted apart, and a waning gibbous moon suffused the clearing with a brighter, softer light.
They could see each other clearly now, and when the light the woman was carrying went out, the girl could see there was no lantern or torch.
The light was around her hand!
“Don’t be startled, friend. I mean you no harm. My name is Soyala. What is yours?”
The girl, still processing what she’d just witnessed, was hesitant.
The woman stepped back. “I promise not to hurt you.”
They stayed like that for a moment, and the girl rolled over, stood to her feet, and took stock of the woman: she was beautiful, regal, but for wanting a crown.
She wore a gown, not seeming to fit the surrounding, but more for a noblewoman. It was green, with gold piping, and her hair was artfully coiffed, and unbound. She had no weapon, but that meant nothing to the girl. If this woman could put light around her hand, she could put a weapon in it too, but she would’ve done that by now if she was going to do anything.
Almost imperceptibly, the girl felt herself begin to relax a bit.
“Will you tell me your name?”
“It’s…it’s…my name….is Brielle.”
“Brielle,” the woman smiled at her. “It has the sound of melody, of wedding bells. It’s a beautiful name.”
“What would you have me do to ease your mind?”
Before she knew what she was going to say, the words were out.
“Hold me? Please? Please, before I drift away.” She stumbled toward Soyala, her arms outstretched.
Soyala embraced her, reignited the light from her hand, and put it around both their bodies,
Brielle clung to her as if she were the last floating piece of a sunken ship, and her wails and sobs rang across the river, the tolling of funeral bells over the epicedium.
Brielle woke to find herself still in the clearing of the thicket, but covered with a thick blanket, swaddled almost, and warmed by a fire Soyala had made.
Craning her neck, she could see the woman, sitting on the rocks alone, a cushion of her own beneath her, staring calmly at the wheeling stars, the climbing moon, and the rolling river.
Something in Brielle knew what happened.
“How much did you see?”
Soyala didn’t look at her: “Almost all of it; the pain was too much, so I stopped.”
“I’m sorry if it…if …my memories…my dreams…they hurt you.”
“It’s not you who should apologize. Your anguish was great, and deep within you. I thought I could take some it from you but…”
Brielle put the covers aside, and clambered up to sit beside Soyala, and saw her eyes were brimming.
“The horrors you’ve seen…the brutality of men…” She shook her head at the images.
Brielle took her hand, and interlaced their fingers.
“And yet, Soyala, I’m here. I’m here because of you. I can go on.
And they sat, looking at the moon floating on the river’s surface, the ripples and eddies dancing tarantellas across its reflection, and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Brielle woke to find herself nestled into the space again, and swaddled in the blanket.
The day was overcast, the clouds still gleaning the moisture needed for rain, but for now, the ground was dry, if chilled.
A slow moving fog rambled down the slow moving river, sending fragile tendrils onto the banks, and over the grass, dissipating before the heat of another small fire, and her clothes were clean, and no longer torn.
The smell of roasting rabbit meat was in the air, and she found herself salivating.
“Good morning, Brielle.”
“And to you, Soyala.”
“Come, we have meat, bread, and water.”
“But how did…?”
“Do I want to know?”
“If you really want to know, then I will really tell you. But does it really matter?”
“No. No, it doesn’t.”
They ate in companionable silence.
“Where will you go?”
“Best if I sail. Sail far, where they won’t find me.”
“How do you know?”
“Do I want to know?”
“Come,” Soyala said, taking Brielle’s hand. “I will walk with you to the road.”
As they rounded the opening in the trees, Brielle saw a sleek, strong horse cropping grass at the entrance.
She shrank back in horror, her hand over her mouth. “They’re here!”
Soyala shushed her. “They are not, Brielle. Quiet yourself. The horse is yours.”
“Mine?” She walked up to the horse, who stopped eating and watched her approach.
“Where did he come from?”
“He is my gift to you, to speed you on your journey, to get away from them.”
“But he’s unsaddled.”
“He won’t go with you over the sea. Take him to the pier, and he’ll return to his home from there.”
Brielle gave Soyala another long hug, one that felt lighter, still with a pang of melancholy, but lighter.
Soyala closed her mind to keep away the girl’s memories, and when they finally let each other go, they were crying.
“Be safe, Brielle”
“If we meet again, we will celebrate, yes?”
Soyala kissed her forehead: “Farewell, my friend.”
Brielle gave her hand a light squeeze. “My Soyala.”
She mounted the horse, which endured her clumsiness, and let her adjust.
“What’s his name?”
“For as long as your journey lasts, whatever you like.”
Brielle told herself she wouldn’t look back, but she did, and what she saw made her turn the horse around and start riding back.
Soyala’s hands were over her face, and her shoulders were shaking.
As she got closer, she called, but Soyala didn’t seem to hear her; Brielle saw her slowly fade from view.
She brought the horse up short, shaking her head in wonder.
Who are you…?
She had too many questions now; the answers would have to wait.
“Come, Hatik, let us go.”
She’d named the horse after her loathsome captor, and as he trotted through the rain, she gave voice to her thoughts.
One day, Hatik, I will ride you as I ride this horse, not to be set free when I am done, but until you die.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015