Arthina pushed her blond hair behind her head and smiled to the crowd at her feet. The populace at her feet waited for her to speak to them, while each face looked at her long braided hair, her purple dress and her white skin. In the light, her skin was the clouds and her eyes the sky above.
"You may get up," she spoke. None of the crowd moved. They continued to stare at her.
"Oh, get up," she said as her face and neck grew red. Her dress ran up to her shoulders, where it joined a half-robe that covered her shoulders and back. The collar shone in an array of purples, like the last rays of the sun, or the last colors of fall on the trees. The collar trimmed the dress below, which was knitted with a clear fabric over the purples and blues to make it glisten in the sun. Any movement she made sent a blinding stream of light to her observers, causing their paralysis.
A new face, the church Matriarch, entered the stage, speaking slowly and deliberately. "You have all gathered to witness Arthina, daughter of Drilk, rise to her rightful position as Deacon and successor to her mother. We leave this afternoon to go to our Holy Ruins and carry out her ceremony; I know you all will attend." The old woman spoke softly, yet her voice carried through all of the crowd.
As the crowd dissipated, Arthina worked her way down from the platform. Placing her hand out, she let men and women alike take and kiss her hand, while looking out into the sky. Her mind drifted to thoughts of flying high above, soaring with the birds through great expanses. The air came across her feathers like water beneath a boat, gliding so smoothly. From here, she could see everything from vast, plowed fields, to the small wooden huts and houses below, then out to a forest beyond. She watched as a woman, her mother, was killed in the forest. She saw a little girl, herself many years ago, ask her father why her mother had to leave them. The little girl then asked why her servant's could not bring her mother back for her.
"Hello?" said a voice to Arthina. Her daydream shattered, she looked at a small boy. Dirt encrusted his face, eyes and hands. His clothes were tattered, and he was covered with bruises and scars. The boy looked into her blue eyes and smiled. The boy's face lit up as she turned to face him; his smile reached into the sky above. His breeches had holes, and patches to cover these holes, and then new holes. Arthina took a step back and checked her stomach, but then slowly reached out to take his hand.
"Yes? What can I do for you?" She wanted to run and wash her hands. His palm rubbed grains of sand and dirt into her hand and his nails were encrusted with dried blood and dirt, and he reeked of pigs, goats and other smells she could not identify. She looked at his head, and again, had to force her legs and stomach to keep from running. The boy's hair was matted down and entangled with straw, grease and oils and smelled of rotten grass and straw.
The young boy touched her hand, then ran off in the direction he had come. He darted about, yelling and humming tunes. A single ebony raven flew overhead as the boy withdrew from sight. His smile stayed on his face until he vanished behind a stable in the distance. She was sure she could still see his face and his smile behind the stable, but then her thoughts drifted back to herself.
She wanted to run into her home and never come back out. Her hands felt dirty and trembled when she looked at them. She could not get the smell of the boy from her mind, and she feared it had stained her clothes. She wanted to know how people could be so revolting; where were their pretty clothes? Why did they not clean themselves?
As a servant came toward Arthina, she quickly brushed a single tear away. Never had anyone seen her cry, nor would she let them. She didn't cry, she was above such an act. She focused her mind on a picture of herself in the Deacon's robes and in her own room and smiled. The young lad and all the world behind fled from her mind as she built herself the Deacon and walls around her home. She was home and safe, the outside world was just a dream.
Arthina hurried up to her room, where her servants' waited. Her clothing had been placed in a polished wooden trunk, and her servant's scoured the room for anything else of value. She watched the servants like ants, each one completing a task while working towards a greater good. These ants never asked questions, nor paused in their daily tasks. She smiled as each one passed by her side, making sure to keep out of their way. She did not want to slow them down, nor did she wish for them to drop any of her belongings. The servants gathered everything from a turquoise hair barrette to a silver and emerald colored mirror.
Glancing into the mirror on her wall, she noticed her hair had partially un-braided itself in the outside world. She frowned and reached to place it where it belonged, but was not able. She glanced to find one of her servants to help her, but one already headed in her direction.
"Just a moment, my lady. I'll fix your hair for you. You just sit down on this chair." The woman, about the age of Arthina's father, pulled a chair next to the mirror. Arthina sat down and waited for her hair to be braided. She watched as each milky gold strand was placed into a braid. Her hair, when straight, flowed down to her shoulders. Even in her room, with just light from a window, her hair illuminated like the full moon in the night's sky. She sighed and looked at her hands, to make sure her nails met her approval and that her hands were white and smelled sweet. She reached over to a table and pulled a jar of perfume to her, gently caressing her neck and hands with its spray. The mist of flower pedals and sweet herbs filled her hair and lungs. She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes and letting the fragrance take her thoughts to her mother.
From above, she could see her small town and the various buildings. On the outskirts where the town joined the forest, she let her wings glide her down to a grassy mound with a stone marker. The gray stone felt rough to her touch as she traced the words that named her mother. Flowers danced on the mound and filled her head with their fragrance. She touched one of the flower petals, rich with moisture and life, and placed the petal on the granite stone. Arthina winged her way into the air and back to her room where her body and mind awaited.
* * *
Outside, a small caravan of horses and wagons awaited the travelers. The first wagon was pulled by two white mares, each decorated with a blue and purple headpiece, and each had a blue blanket with the sign of the church embroidered into the blanket. The Matriarch would ride in this wagon, as would Arthina. Arthina carefully made her way to the first wagon, trying to avoid any mud or dirt in her path. When she reached the wagon, her servants helped her up into the seat by the wagon driver. The Matriarch sat with her various holy relics behind them, covered from the sun by a white and blue cloth that spanned the wagon. As she stepped up, she saw her father waving to her from a wagon behind her. His face beamed and he glowed with life; she smiled to him and raised her hand to wave to him in return.
"I will see you tonight, daughter!" He yelled just above the clatter of the horses and men who wandered about. Much of her village and the surrounding countryside had come to watch her final ceremony, carried out in the traditional manner amongst the ancient ruins of their church. A stream of visitors, many on foot and some on horses, mules and donkeys waited patiently behind the first wagon. Her wagon would lead the way. She would lead the way.
* * *
The trees bent slightly in the wind and a few leaves fell to the ground silently. The breeze came from the north, as voiceless as the leaves falling through the air. On each blade of grass trickled a drop of dew, making their way slowly down to the ground to leave a silent footprint. The sun dimmed behind thin, wispy ice clouds that had formed early in this season. Shadows edged their way up the blades of grass and up the bark of each tree. The road lay inset in scattered trees, but was as a tightly woven bed of vines, foliage and shadows.
The train of horses, wagons and people wound their way down the muddy path. Children kicked their feet, causing the mud to fly up into the air. Many of the women walked aside the road to keep their feet out of the mud. The mud sunk only a few inches, however, so the wagons and carts pulled easily. When a horse or a mule decided to stop, it was urged on with a swift kick.
Slowly, a line of men, each on horse, came up behind the religious precession. Then more men, each on horse, came and stopped the lead wagon. Each man wore dark leather armor, with swords and bows and daggers, and a rival religious symbol ingrained in their armor. The symbol was like the town's, with a cross of blue inside a small oval. These men, however, carried a symbol that had a red oval instead of blue, and on the top of the oval sat a crow with his crimson eyes turned toward the viewer.
The men began to kill each and every man, women and child in the line. The Matriarch pulled herself from her wagon and held her arms up to the sky, but she had a sword placed through her chest. Arthina's father ran towards her wagon, but received an arrow in the face for his trouble. Arthina scrambled out of the wagon and screamed, only to have a sword run through her stomach by the nearest horseman. Arthina fell, her face buried in the mud, and was trampled by the horseman. When the horseman had finished, they burned the church Matriarch's robe and rode off in the two directions they had come. They took nothing from the wagons or carts.
* * *
Arthina awoke to find herself bleeding from deep gashes in her body. Using her left hand she pulled one fistful of mud at a time as she crawled towards her father. Every nail broke on her left hand and dirt and fibers worked their way underneath her other nails. Her angelic-white hair pulled loose and dragged in the mud behind her. Pieces of grass and plants wedged and tangled her hair and dampness permeated her body. Salty, wet blood ran from her nose and down inside her throat. She began to cry, tears of blood from one eye, salt and water from the other. She nudged her father, but his body felt stiff and cold. Crusty blood covered his neck and head and the ground he rested on. Arthina placed her head next to her father and closed her mind to the world.
* * *
The sky was dark blue and clouds spread out below and above. Each cloud soared by in millions of tiny water droplets; each droplet pelted then rebounded off her head and body. Arthina felt her body perched over the back of a horse, with one of her hands latched to the mane. The white mane brushed her face with soft, fur-like hair. Far below her the land scrolled by, as she moved at a rapid pace through the sky. Even the birds flew far below her now, and she held her breath. The tops of the puffy clouds reached out to her like giant hands, trying to snatch her life away. "I am dead," she thought. "It is so beautiful here." Her sight dimmed and fled, leaving her in a dark void once again. For a few moments she could hear the whistling of wind as it sped past her ears and body; this soon vanished into silence.
* * *
Blackness stirred in her mind, forming distant gray and white images. Everything was bright and distorted, and Arthina closed her eyes again. It hurt to twitch any part of her body; it hurt to think about moving. She tried to remember where she was, but she could not place any image into her head. Memories of what happened to her worked their way into her mind. Images scattered in her head - her father had fallen, dead. The church Matriarch had been killed inches away from her. Men on horses tried to kill her. She remembered flying through clouds, above the birds and vast forests. She remembered her mother's death and her funeral, from when she was a child. All the images couldn't be placed into order and she felt like crying, but pain flared up in her head.
Wake. Wake! A voice rang out, and Arthina instantly opened her eyes. It took several moments for her eyes to adjust, but she was able to look around. She lay under a oak tree, tall and green and healthy. The branches reached out above her like a blanket to keep her warm and protected. Green grass stretched out below her body and under the trees and forest. Each blade was tall and slender, and bent under her weight giving her support. The grass around her had collected dew from the night and glistened from each droplet, yet she had stayed perfectly dry. Startled, she remembered the smell and taste of blood. Blood had been flowing from her stomach and her head. She frantically looked for blood on her body, but found none. No longer in her purple dress and cape, Arthina found herself in a blue overcoat and breeches.
She wanted to ask where she was, but she saw no one nearby. Only a single white mare stood off in the distance. The difference between this horse and all she had seen previously, however, was that she had -- wings. Pure white covered the mare like a blanket, with no single spot or blemish, and a white mane and tail. Its eyes flickered a purple, a purple like Arthina had never seen. The dress she had once believed to be the ultimate in colors was surpassed by this creature's eyes like a single puffy cloud to a cyclone. The eyes, each with a black pupil, met her eyes with equal interest. The pair of eyes seemed to be scanning Arthina's mind for any important information, like her father would scan through so many books.
Her wings stretched out by her sides, with something between feathers and white hair covering them. Her extremities looked as soft and smooth as pure, white silk. Arthina had seen horses before, enough to believe they smelled and were dumb. This one, however, looked to be neither. If anything, it smelled much of the flowers and sweet incense that belonged to Arthina's perfume. The mare ruffled its wings and pawed at the ground, bringing Arthina's attention to the mare's face.
You live now. I have saved your life. Arthina blinked, and twisted around. The voice had been so loud, yet still, only the mare stood nearby. It stamped the ground again, bringing Arthina's attention to the creature's face.
Stop looking around. You will find no one here but me. Please follow me. The mare looked at Arthina, then turned away and waited. Arthina placed her feet under herself and stood up. It hurt, but not as much as she thought it would. She slowly walked up behind the mare and followed. Arthina looked at the trees and the forest, which spread out over hills and into the horizon. The only noise she could hear was her feet crunching the grass and the birds squabbling in the sky. A feeble wind pushed at her tangled hair and bowed the grass tops slightly. She didn't know where to go or who to run to. No roads, houses or people could be seen. Arthina called out for her father, then for her mother; no response to her cry's came. A tear worked its way down from her right eye, but she didn't wipe it away. She followed the mare.
After some time, the forest opened up into a small clearing. A small stream meandered around one side of the clearing and worked its way back into the forest. The sun looked down onto the clearing, but seemed much more distant than Arthina had ever seen it. Inside the clearing lay something Arthina had never seen. Several dozen more creatures that matched the mare, but organized into groups. Some of them preened each others mane's and tail's, while other groups bent down and chewed on green grass that was placed in patches. Some of the creatures worked to move things about, carrying buckets and items with their mouth's. Squares of the earth had been worked to provide sustenance - several types of grain and grass that Arthina had never seen before. Trees had been placed in giant squares, and in one, a roof of grass, mud and tree branches had been constructed. Each structure looked very primitive - yet had a atheistic look that Arthina couldn't identify. She continued to look at the structures, while several more of the winged horses gathered around her.
Each of the creatures looked similar, but none seemed to have the eyes of the mare. Most of them had eyes between blue and purple, much like Arthina's. Several of them stamped at the ground, while looking at the mare. Arthina watched as they stared at each other, but made no sound. After a few moments, the others backed away and let the mare enter with Arthina.
You will serve us. You will clean, move things and bring us food. You will toil for us. The mare was looking at Arthina, and Arthina set her mouth and her feet in place.
"No, I will not!"
There is no way home. You have no home anymore. Your father is dead, your town has been destroyed. Where could you go? You will not survive outside of our home. You serve us now.
Arthina looked down to her feet and then back to the mare. She started to say no to the mare again, then caught the scent of her own perfume. She remembered her mother's grave and how she visited it often. Arthina remembered how her father had died while trying to reach her; he would never have a grave. Arthina bowed her head and nodded yes.
Good. We need our water hole dredged out. Do this. The mare looked at Arthina, then over towards the creek.
"Dredged? I don't understand."
Dig It out. Now.
Arthina went and found that the hole had been filled in over time with mud, sticks and rocks. She worked only with her hands, because she had no tools. One rock at a time, one hand full of mud at a time she cleaned out the hole. When she finished, all her energy was exhausted. Her hair was matted with mud and had turned brown. Her skin was dirty and she had mud encrusted under her nails and her clothes were wet and dirty. The mare told her she could rest for the night, but she had not done a satisfactory job. She would have to do it again, until she got it right.
Arthina fell under a tree on the outskirts of town. The sun, growing ever distant, sunk behind the trees in the distance. Rays of light pierced through the trees, creating shadows and ghosts. Blackness moved about the forest, ingesting trees and rocks, while a wind came with the last rays and caused Arthina to shudder and twitch. Curled up under the protection of an old oak tree, she shivered herself to sleep. Dreams of birds and clouds filled her mind, but she only watched them from the ground. She could not fly with them anymore.
After refusing to eat dried grain that was offered to her, she dug out the water hole again. When she finished, she was soaked and dirty. Frigid water ran off her arms and clothes, pulling the life from her body. Her hands were discolored blue underneath a film of red and brown skin, and her legs were also blue and numb. She tried to warm them by rubbing them with her arms and hands. She wanted to shiver, but she was too cold.
Satisfactory. Now, we have things to be moved. The mare looked into her soul, and Arthina met the mare's gaze. Arthina peered back into the mare's soul, searching her for any trace of evil. The mare quickly turned and trotted away, kicking up mud and grass behind her. Arthina wanted, even needed, to find evil in the mare; she could not.
Arthina spent the remainder of the day moving brush and tree limbs from one place to another. The creatures had her move it to one place, then changed their minds, and had her move it to another. By the end of the day, Arthina collapsed while hauling a load of brush. She was left under the pile of snags and branches by the creatures, but later made her way to her oak tree and slept. Blood oozed its way down her face, neck and hands. Her legs had long, red welts forming from the brush. Her nails were battered and blood trickled from under and around her nails, and one of her fingers had swollen to twice its normal size. Her stomach protested her sleep, but she had nothing to fill it with. Before she fell into a deep sleep, her last thoughts were hopes of some grain the next morning.
Arthina tried to get up in the morning, but found she could not move. Each muscle protested movement, as if they had decided they did not have to obey. Attempting to rise, she lost her breath and vomited into her lap and clothes. After walking for a few moments, she felt better. A small portion of grain made her feel just a little bit better, along with some clean, clear water.
This morning, the mare had given her the task of cleaning one square of the civilization. Arthina backed away when she smelled her task; the smell of waste. She had to remove piles of horse waste and deposit them in a new location. Flies and bugs hovered around the ellipsoids, as a stench clung to the air and to Arthina. She looked at the green and brown fibers of the waste and her body twitched and contorted.
"Please, no, don't make me do this. Please?" Arthina pleaded with the mare, but the mare stepped closer and invaded her mind. Inside the blackness, Arthina found every star and constellation that she had ever learned. Stars, heavens, planets; these all clustered and moved in circles and arcs within the blackness. Arthina could see her father and the grave that marked her mother. A few leaves, golden brown, scattered across the grave. A smooth shadow started from the head of the stone and enveloped the marker and the leaves until only the moon could be seen. It started large and white, but soon had reduced itself to just a sliver. Then, it vanished, and Arthina closed her mind to the space she had delved into.
The mare stamped once with its hoof, and Arthina walked back to the piles of dung. She started to move the piles to their new locations, ignoring the fact that she had to use her hands. Swatting at the occasional fly, stayed and kept to her task. Soon, she had moved all that she could. She cleaned her hands on her breaches, and sighed. Flies buzzed around at the dirt that had worked its way over her. She caught one in her hand and was about to smash it, but stopped. Through her cupped hands, she watched the fly as it captured and reflected the light through its tiny black and gray wings. The fly looked to be built out of stained glass, with sharp little colors and angles that caught the sun like a church. The fly beat its wings, and soared into the air. Arthina's head trailed the fly up into the sky, but then wandered to a muddled bird's nest that rested at the top of a nearby oak.
Arthina looked into the center of the squares and noticed a gathering of the horse creatures. She saw many more than she could recall, and moved in to see what they were doing. They had formed an arc, one that swept enough space to fill a whole square. She worked her way around and she saw a small winged foal on higher ground. Its eyes glanced around from one onlooker to the next, and its tail twitched around through the air. Several larger creatures, including the mare, surrounded the small one. Arthina had traveled through mountains and seen snow, but she had never seen anything as white and rich as the snow until now. The small foal caught Arthina in its gaze and moved towards her until it stood only a few paces away.
"Hello?" Arthina hoped the small creature would answer her. She smiled, looking at its pretty hair and mane. It smelled better than any of her old perfumes, more like the gardens of flowers she had visited. She could feel the vast gardens of blue, red and yellow roses. Grass paths wound their way from one row of climbing vines to the next row of daisies and irises. The foals eyes met hers and she doubled her smile, hoping that the small creature would like her.
Yes? What can I do for you? Arthina stood admiring the coat on the foal and couldn't respond. Her smile faded when the creature changed, and edged itself away from Arthina, looking in different directions. Arthina looked down and perceived herself, as she stood before the foal. Her hands dirty and scratched, her nails broken and battered, with crimson and black patches of blood dried. Her clothes had ripped and torn, her breeches had holes and her overcoat had stained brown and green. She smelled like waste and dirt, and her hair was tangled with mud and straw.
An ebony raven glided overhead and Arthina's mind swirled into darkness. She watched as a young boy touched her hand, then ran off in the direction he had come. He darted about, yelling and humming tunes he had learned. His smile stayed on his face until he vanished behind a stable in the distance. She was sure she could still see his face and his smile behind the stable. Arthina looked at the crowd before her feet; the town's people that she had known. The blackness vanished from her mind as the raven circled and glided away, and Arthina looked at the herd of creatures around the young foal. She closed her eyes and let her knees fall to the damp earth, as the raven descended to an old, stone grave marker at the edge of the clearing.
back to the Short Story Page.Unfolding the Heart and Mind, 26 March 1998