I first saw her on the path that snakes through Akk Forest. You know the place, I’m sure. You know of its dark foliage. Those mighty, spindly trees that yawn for the heavens, as if to snuff out their lights. And they do manage to snuff it out, it seems, as you walk down that path. The canopy covers overhead and you cannot tell whether the sky is grey or blue. The light you see by comes from nowhere, it seems. And you rarely can see more than a dozen metres ahead. When you delve into the deep paths of the forest, of course, you cannot see even that far. It is a maddening place. A place in which I would not have willingly walked. Though now, as I think on it, I cannot remember why I was there.
I was nearing the midpoint, I think. I’m sure I was lost. It would be hard to say that anyone could have known where they were going if they found themselves in Akk Forest. The trail was not straight, but windy like a child had drawn it. I walked without thinking – I believe the most dangerous aura of the Forest is the manner in which it snuffs thought. I walked without seeing the trees and rocks. I walked without hearing the sounds of birds.
I rounded a bend and saw her.
As I place that word on the paper I shudder. Her is not a good word. Her is a word that can be attached to nearly anything feminine. But this particular her seemed to demand her own pronoun. It is was nearly like calling God he. True, I can think of no other pronoun for either, but there ought to be another.
Even so, I saw her. And everything changed.
She seemed to envelop the forest, though quite small and slight. She was robed in a many-coloured garment, the likes of which I had never seen before. Her face was open and radiant, though dark. Her large liquid eyes stared into my soul and drank it in an instant. She stood in the centre of the path and seemed to be a part of it. An earthy, natural wisdom shone out from her entire being as she stood there, completely confident of her place.
And as she stood she brought the surroundings into focus, all the while drawing them to point at herself. I suddenly heard the birds singing in the foliage. I suddenly saw the trees as mighty and ancient, instead of weary and cruel. And I suddenly saw light trickle down from the heavens and fall upon her, bathing her.
I fell to the ground. For the truth crashed in on me. She was no mere mortal. What was she? Nymph? Muse? Dryad? Benevolent tribal deity?
You may laugh, of course, and rebuke me for idle fancy. But she was a nymph and I am willing to swear it. Her form and aura put her many places above humankind. Her perfect placing in the wood could not have been achieved by any mortal. She was a muse. A tribal goddess, who, though desperately kind-hearted, was too pure and glorious to look upon such a vulgar stablehand as myself. And so I give no apology for falling to my face. I am no craven, but I know when I have met one who is high above me. I fell on my face and waited.
She stayed where she was, I sensed, though I did not look up at her again. And how I longed to look! The nubile goddess had planted enough reverence in me to turn away, but in drinking of my soul she had captured my idiot heart. I burned inside and longer to rise and take a blasphemous look. I entertained damned thoughts of her passing me by while deigning to allow the hem of her robe to touch me.
And yet, she did not move. I felt her there. And I waited.
I ought never to have ventured so deep into the Akk Wold. My people have clung to the ancient stories of the dangerous magi and goblins that dwell there. A grown man would have had enough sense to avoid it, let alone a farm girl like myself. And yet I found myself there, tracing the winding path through the darkness.
I was not at peace. The densely-packed trees seemed to reach out at me as I stole down the narrow path. From time to time they tore at my clothes, spoiling and tearing them. My hair was unkempt, tangled in the angry branches I passed. I should not have been there.
The wood seemed alive. Of course, it was alive, but I mean something more than the simple life that flows through plants and trees. It was alive in the same way an angry dog is alive. It was malevolent. It was cruel and spiteful. It hungered. It hated. I was frightened.
I tried to walk faster. A root seemed to jump out and catch me underfoot. I fell and bruised my shin and tore my skirt. I rose as quick as I could and continued on, fear and despair pricking me forward. I ran flailing and blind, tears filling my eyes and streaming down my cheeks. I could sense something behind me, breathing threats down my neck. The path narrowed, the trees reached in. I was undone.
I turned a bend and stopped short, for I saw a man.
No. Not a man. A Man.
What was behind me? I had forgotten. Were the trees reaching to grasp me? I did not know. Was the forest alive with malevolence and violence? Probably not. For before me stood a Man such as I had never seen before.
He was a mage, I was sure. I was sure of this even though I had never seen a mage before. Indeed, I would have staked my life on his being a high mage. One of the lofty sorcerers who possess the hidden knowledge of the air and heaven. His stature was great and his face shone with intellect and the signs of deep truths that only the high-born are permitted to possess. He was fearsome.
And yet I sensed deep benevolence in his face, in his eyes. The kind of benevolence that would be willing to do anything to bring good to people – even if it meant hurting them. He stood in the path, a shining beacon that softened the harsh wood. Indeed, upon seeing him I no longer feared the wood. I feared the Man, of course, but the wood dared not draw near to me any longer. It softened and was alive in the manner of any other wood. I heard birds sing shrilly in the trees. I felt a cool breeze on my face. I received peace from Akk.
But the mage terrified me, despite his obvious benevolence. Benevolent or no, he was a high mage and a farm girl like me possesses no right to gaze upon one such as he. And so I fell to my face.
I could sense his mighty presence. He stayed in his place. I prayed hard that he would continue on his way and pass me by. And at the same time I prayed that he would tarry and, if all the gods in all the worlds were kind, touch my head as he went. It was a foolish prayer, of course. For how could I expect a high mage to corrupt his pure hand by allowing it to brush my tainted head?
And so I waited.
She did not move. The fact burned my soul. It tormented me. If only she would pass and let me live! If only she would burn me up in her holy fervor! If only she would do anything but remain where she was! My knees ached and my back was sore. I lay there, prostrate, for hours I think. The burning in my soul grew and I suddenly realized that I was planning to raise my eyes and gaze upon her again. I commanded them to go down, be humble! But they would not. And so I lifted my head, ever so slowly, and gazed. And gasped.
The mage stayed where he was. Did he desire to torment me? Was it his will to torture my soul? How fully did the Man consume me! I wanted him to leave. Yet, with all my heart, I wanted him to stay. If he left, I would at least have peace again. But at the price of the bit of soul I knew he would take with him. If he stayed…I did not know. What manner of witchcraft had he placed on me? My soul demanded another glance at the mage, though I knew it was not right. For hours, I think, I pushed the scandalous desire down. But it grew and grew, and my will was not strong. As slow as I could, I lifted my head and saw the mage again. And I gasped.
We stared at each other – bowing before one another. For nearly a quarter of an hour we stayed that way, each paying more homage to the other than we had paid to any created thing before. What did this mean?
In unison we shifted. In unison we went from kneeling to sitting. We saw each other a little clearer. Each appeared glorious still in each other’s eyes. But a little dirty, too. A little smaller. A little more like ourself. From sitting we stood. And we drew near to each other and our smiles grew while our fears faded. In unison we put our hands together. And we walked, in a third way, down the path through the beautiful Akk. Each a superior equal to the other. Stable hand and farm girl. Mage and Nymph.
Welcome home, Ruth.