The tears blinded, yet she stumbled on. Cold stones and empty, jagged branches tore at soft legs, arms, skirt, blouse. The shawl pulled vainly around her upper body, trying to hide, conceal, forget what happened even as she delved deeper into the woods. Yet as the sun rose, its Eastern blood-red rays gleamed too bright. They too vividly reminded, forcing her to remember the cruel torture of that morning…
His hands creeping upon her shoulders, her neck, brushing back a lock of hair even as she trembled, sickened. When she fought, he fought back. She fought back harder and won, though at a terrible price. Because she won not only the battle, but the war. She killed a man within his own house.
It wasn't her fault, none of it, she tried to scream inside her mind. Forced marriages were no longer to be allowed by the Swician tribe. Her people were beyond that. But her father may as well have been a brute McKendrian, for that's all he cared for. Marrying and getting her off his hands. Marrying her to that drunken, chauvinistic monster suspected of killing his last two wives who mysteriously disappeared.
Now he would trouble no one anymore. Still, she was not safe. She would never be safe. When her father found out, he would submit her under his oppressive thumb, tormenting physically, emotionally, mentally—
She stopped short, nearly toppling over the rocky edge into the ravine. Deep below, the river raged, creeping cool, clear, pure white fingers over smooth, white stones. Her eyes crawled from the river up the rocky sides of the chasm. White moon blossoms grew from their crevices at intervals, reaching towards her with small, white, innocent fingers.
She closed her eyes, and the images were there. Her father locking her in a small, dark hole dug just for her. She'd lain for countless days without food or drink, moaning, crying, pleading for his loving arms around her. Until he broke her and she admitted in a mechanically defeated voice:
"I am the worthless reason my mother died. I have no right, no choice. You are right and I am wrong, father, I have only been a burden to you. I will marry Mr. Thomas, as you see best."
She had to promise it. She could not bear facing the hole ever again. That deep, dark, hopelessly endless abyss stifling the pure, clean air, constricting both lungs and hopeful heart. But now, it was inevitable. Her father would find her. He always did. She would be forced into that black place and somehow knew she would not come out again.
She opened her eyes, unable to bear the darkness anymore. Looking down, another sort of ravine stretched, a long but not dark hole. Not dark at all. Beautiful, purely white, glittering waters. Glistening, white flowers reaching tiny petals like children welcoming in an embrace. She smiled. She loved children. She always wanted children. She always wanted someone to love her, to reach out to her just like those little, flower children did now.
She rocked gently on the edge of the rock, closing her eyes, holding out her arms, the wind sliding through her fur as if she was a blossom woven in a field of wildflowers. Though frigid, its calm, tender fingers seemed to almost hug, caress her, pull her forward. The tiny white blossoms called to her, those sweet little flowers whose voices she could almost hear singing her name:
She inched one foot just a little bit closer to that fresh air, that freedom, those voices who adored her, loved her. She took in a deep breath, almost wishing she could drown herself in that precious air.
She stumbled and suddenly snapped her eyes open, staring at the ravine, at the raging, lethal rapids. Seeing them for one moment as the true danger they were, she hesitated. She glanced from swirling, gushing waters to the yet sparkling flowers. Their friendly glitter dimmed a bit.
"ELEXA! ELEXA JANELLE!"
Terror seized as the distant call loomed. Suddenly, as she closed her eyes, his enraged face leered in the darkness. NO! She must keep them open. She could not submerge herself in that blackness anymore.
Her eyes focused upon the rapids then the childish flowers. A tear slid down her cheek. It wouldn't be such a terrible way to die. It was almost beautiful, poetic even, much more poetic than the death looming closer with her father's voice. Yet the longer she stood there, the less so it seemed. Because deep within her, she wanted to live. She wanted to live and be whole and be loved and live the simple, pure life she always desired. Which she wanted most—to live freely or to die and avoid the risk of such an impossibility—she was not certain in that did not want to die, not like that, not in the hole, suffocated by the tainted air, drowned by the darkness…
"Do it," a voice eased gently.
She froze. The voice's presence gripped with an instant iciness like frozen fingers. It touched her shoulders both eerily yet in a strangely comforting way.
"Do what?" she breathed.
"Jump," not meanly, almost sympathizing, "I won't blame you. I understand how you feel. I once stood in the same fear you stand in now."
"Who…who are you?" she asked, uncertain whether to feel fear, excitement, wonder, whether to feel anything at all. The voice's cool touch almost held a numbing power over those emotions even as she tried to feel them.
"I am a nameless spirit. Nameless because I have forgotten my name. But you…you still have a name, haven't you?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"What is it? What is your name?"
"Elexa. Elexa Janelle."
"Elexa Janelle." The words were like honey on his tongue, silk in her fingers, a gentle flute in her ears. Her name, spoken like…like someone might speak the name of one they cared about…
"I know, Elexa," he soothed. "I too was born to a father and mother who hated me, loathed me. It was a daughter they wanted, to sell to the merchant who promised them great riches if they bore a daughter whom he could wed. But I was born. And I was despised. And I was called 'boy' and 'pig' and other things. If I ever knew my name, I forgot it at a young age.
"Then, at sixteen, just like you, I was married to a woman who beat me, abused me with her strength and magic both, and she too threw me in a ditch. I too called it 'the hole,' where only darkness and dampness and sickness and creeping creatures sharing teeth and claws lurked.
"One day, she left me in there, slammed the door as always, and then, she just forgot. Just forgot me. There still in that hole my body rots. It took me six days to die without food or drink. By the fifth day, the bugs and other unknown creatures already began to eat away at my flesh, but by that time, I was too weak to cry out. I cried for four days anyways, and no one heard, no one cared. And so I could only sit, ravaged by pain, tormented by hunger even as I was eaten alive, as the stale, cramped nothingness robbed me of my last breath.
"So you see, I know. And I would've gladly faced this ravine, the free, beautiful air, the lovely flowers. A much nobler death it seems, much nobler indeed. And so, you see, I won't blame you if you jump..."
"Spirit," she sobbed softly, trembling as his cold fingers gently rubbed her shoulders, "I am sorry for what happened to you, and I thank you for trying to comfort me, but...I don't want to die. I want to live. But he—"
"ELEXA!" He called then, dreadfully close.
"If you want to live," the spirit whispered in her ear, his voice seriously gripping, "if you really want to live, then jump."
"What?" she whispered.
"There you are, you scum!"
She turned long enough to see her father's raging eyes. She hardly saw his huge, thundering frame—only those eyes—and she jumped.
She didn't even scream. Just held her arms out wide, letting the air fill her, almost drown her lungs. A beautiful way to die. Noble. Just as the spirit said.
The water drew nearer and nearer, the seconds seeming to slow down just so she could see the beauty of the pure, crystal water for a few moments more.
Then, just as she reached the surface—
She took in a sharp breath as the icy hands gripped her, freezing her immobilized in air. In the next moment, they sped plummeting over the water's surface. The swiftness and his icy touch together nearly knocked the breath from her once more, but as suddenly as he swooped her up, they stopped. Stopped so abruptly she didn't even realize til some moments later when she apprehended herself standing upon a rocky shore beside the rapids, still deep in the ravine beneath a safely overhanging cliff.
She realized the spirit's hands on her shoulders, steadying, upholding her shaken, swaying body.
"Why did you save me?" she breathed, reaching up instinctively to touch the hand though she felt only iciness. No flesh, no bone, not even the vapor substance she often pictured spirits being made of.
"I wanted to give you what I wanted, what I never got the chance to have," he said. "A chance to live. And so I have given you that."
"Thank you." The words seemed too insignificant, yet they were the only words she knew to say.
"You are welcome." His grasp slipped from her shoulders.
"Wait!" She turned, reaching out then recoiling as her hand plunged into iciness. She stood breathing deep, quick breaths, forming puffs of cloud right where she knew he was. She could not see him, but she felt him, and something made her look away from that empty yet not empty space.
"What?" His iciness crept behind her once more, the hands again on her shoulders. "I've saved your life; what else do you want of me?"
"I want…" Even as she breathed the words, they seemed insane. Insane, but desperate and therefore true.
"I want you to stay with me."
"Stay with you? I am not a person, I do not stay in any one place, am not bound to this earth as you are. What would you have that I could offer?"
"Perhaps…perhaps the companionship we both long for," she ventured.
"Companionship," he mused over the word, silent a long time.
"Companionship," he said at last, "No. More than that. I could make you great, you know. I could make your name known by everyone in Swicia, in McKendria, in the entirety of Bienvinette. You would be beloved by many, known by all. Would you like that?"
"Yes," she breathed.
"And you really think I would stay here, do all of that for you?" Cold fingers crept up and down her arms in a frosty caress.
"What can I do that will make you stay? What must I do so you don't leave me?" She trembled with the inevitable threat of falling apart should he threaten to remove his icy yet somehow alluring hands. She shivered too with a fearful exhilaration of the unknown if his touch remained.
"Only one thing." His cool, sweet breath quickened her own breath and her heart. She reeled dizzily though he grasped yet more tightly, ice boring deep into her skin as he held her firm and aloft. The sun crept past its Eastern borders, dancing directly over them yet offering no heat, as if it too was clenched in his frigid grasp. It shone full and white, encouraging those cold hands, encouraging her to heed them.
"What thing?" she asked.
He answered in a voice echoing both an eerie yet undeniable irrevocableness: