The next morning I opened my eyes and there was a stack of clothes in front of my face. Not only that, there was a wooden comb, a small silver mirror and a velvet bag. I sat up and opened it. It contained three silver throwing stars. I dug through the pile of clothes. Fine leather. A skirt slit high so I could have full range of motion. Boots. I tore off my rags and put it all on, excited beyond all measure, and started combing my hair, propping the mirror in the crook of a tree and relishing my reflection. A branch cracked behind me and I startled, dropping the comb. I spun around.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how long I’ve been here?” the stranger said, his white hair soft in the early light, his eyes shadowed and amber, darker than usual. I swallowed, unsure of his tone.
“How long have you been there?” I asked.
“Thank you…Master,” I said awkwardly, then bowed lightly in the manner of our kind as he had taught me. He waved his hand and looked away.
“Shall we get started?” I offered, packing up my things.
“Nothing today,” he looked distractedly toward the mountains, towards Akoum. I noticed he was only wearing his white undershirt and not his tunic nor leathers. I felt stronger than ever, and somehow, much older.
“Master,” I said, “You are leaving soon. I can feel it. Will you not teach me today?”
“Do not call me Master today,” he said.
“Is that an order?” I replied.
“And you refuse to train me today?”
“Well then, miscreant, follow me.”
So the sixth day we were not master and apprentice. The sixth day, we returned to my village. I showed him Aklua’s and my secret waterfall, and how to hang and swing from the strongest vines. We climbed to the tops of the fruit trees and ate something other than blood for the first time all week. I stood at the door of my family’s hut, he looked into my eyes for the first time that day, and then we burned it, throwing lotus blossoms into the fire. I cooked seedcakes, and we caught fish and then I cooked those too, wrapped in tea leaves. I showed him how to weave vines into nets like a true man of my tribe, and I mended a tear in his cloak. He balked when I asked if I might braid his hair.
“Just do not.”
“You must give me a better reason than that.” There was a very long silence before he replied.
“I do not like my ears.”
“They are too small.”
“Small ears in my village signified very great men,” I lied.
“They also stick out.”
“For All Damnation, braid—braid away, then!” he said in exasperation. When it was done I showed him the results in the mirror he’d given me.
“Ridiculous.” He turned his head to see both sides.
“Lovely,” I said, and kissed him.
Several hours later we lay in the same place, in a makeshift lookout tower in one of the tallest trees around my old village. It had been hastily constructed to deter the raids that were becoming more and more aggressive. The sun was setting and shone down onto the reed floor and warmed our cool skins.
I propped myself up on one elbow. In the warm light, he almost looked like a regular man…just a very pale one, a little tired, well-built but no longer in his youth, and vulnerable.
“You never told me why you were in Bala Ged,” I said.
“I was looking for someone. Something.” He waved his hand vaguely, staring out at the sunset.
“Did you find it?”
“No.” Again he looked away to the mountains. I hesitated. Then, unable to restrain myself, I blurted my question.
“Why were you there, when…Worgon…” I stumbled over the words, faltered, remembering. He replied with silence, and finally, a tired sigh.
“Isoldreyn. I have been to Zendikar off and on for…I can’t even recall how long. One loses hope.” He rubbed his temple with his long, pale fingers. “There is no point in this telling,” he said softly.
Impulsively I reached out and put my hand over his. He stared at my hand for a long time, like it was foreign to him, or an opponent to be assessed. Finally a lazy grin spread across his features. He raised an eyebrow at me.
“I was passing through that day. I had stopped for water...at a pool surrounded by crystals and hanging gardens. I believe you know this place.” I was silent, in shock. The crystal cavern was where my tribe’s rituals took place, and represented a union between God and mortal, and were incredibly sacred. He ignored my reaction.
“I had just killed a man,” he continued. “Not to feed. An old vendetta. I needed to wash up. I came across this ‘secret’ pool, which is not too hard to find for someone of my—of our—kind, given our superior sense of smell.” I tried to say something but he shook his head and put his finger to my lips. “You asked,” he glowered.
“I crawled through those bloody small holes, tearing my cloak in the process, and finally when I’m inside the cavern and dying for a drink, what do I see at the other edge of the pool, but a human girl, doing some kind of awful thing with pig intestine and bat guano. She’s completely naked, of course. Why not?” Now he gave me an evil grin, and winked, removing his finger from my lips.
“You saw my sacred ritual,” I stammered.
“Didn’t look very sacred to me,” he returned. I moved to strike him but he caught my wrist easily, his fingers like iron. His eyes glittered. “Why don’t you finish the story? After all, you were there,” he chuckled. My cheeks burned.
“I…went swimming in the sacred pool,” I said finally.
“Good. Yes you did. You got very wet,” he said, and deftly caught my other wrist in the same hand when I tried to slap him again. “Please, continue,” he smirked. I sighed.
“I threw the sacred tablet into the pool over and over again so I could dive after it,” I said, remembering the loveliness of the clear water, the drowned crystals at the bottom. “It was so beautiful. Even more so under the water than above,” I looked at him. “You would like it.”
“I sang. Then I danced.” I could barely look at him, but he tilted his head back, closed his eyes as if in a reverie of remembrance, and then started laughing. I grimaced.
“The ritual is so long!” I burst out. “It is supposed to take all morning, but I was done reading the sacred tablet in half an hour and had already done the incantations,” I explained, to no avail. He rolled over onto his back, freeing my wrists, draped his arm across his face, and laughed harder.
“It was the dancing,” he said. “Is that part of your tribe’s illustrious history?”
“No—I made it up as I went along!”
“And the song?”
“It was my mother’s,” I said softly. “She used to sing it in the mornings, while she bathed in the river. She didn’t know I was awake. I was very small. And I’d follow her down and hide in the ferns…then run back ahead of her and climb back into my bed. Her voice was just so lovely…I loved listening…she was so full of joy, especially when she sang the funny songs she made up…”
My stranger’s mirth had died, and he sat up. He lifted a hand toward me but I flinched. I tried to look at him but could not. My eyes betrayed me. I looked away into the painful burning light of the sunset.
The little crickets sing
They carry you my ring
You must put it on
Hurry, put it on!
The little crickets dance
They jump into our pants
We must not keep them on
Hurry, take them off!
The little crickets laugh
And watch us from above
We must tend our love
And never scare it off!
“Keep those memories close,” the stranger said, softer than I’d ever heard him speak. Then he handed me one of his handkerchiefs. It was so out of place, so gratuitously luxurious with its ornate lace border and its blinding whiteness, that I suddenly giggled.
“Isoldreyn,” he began, without raising his eyes. “As I said. One loses hope. When you are like me…a traveler, a rogue, with no true home left to which you can retreat and find warmth and comfort…you learn quickly that solitude is unending. The burdens grow heavier, but you are never less alone. You become dire, stuffed full of your own rotten, accumulated ‘wisdom.’” He glanced up at me.
“I watched you impose your will on your tribe’s sacred place. You were joy, and freedom, and passion incarnate,” he said softly. “I felt that way once, as a very young boy.”
We looked at one another. I nodded. I understood.
“You were near when the village was attacked,” I said.
“Near, but not close enough.”
“It is forgiven,” I said. “You need not have even come for me.”
“I wanted to,” he said. I could see the blood red peaks of Akoum and the deep purple clouds of the twilight in his eyes. I picked up his handkerchief and let it float down on top of his head.
“I lied about the ears when I braided your hair,” I admitted. He laughed a real laugh, light and merry, ripping the kerchief off his face and tossing it to the floor.
“I know. For I am no great man, and certainly not touched by god.” He took my face in his hands. I could feel his pulse through the cool skin of his palms.
On the seventh day, we sacked a Ghet stronghold. We also resumed our Master-Apprentice formalities. It was an unspoken agreement; this would make parting the easier.
“You will need a seat here from which to rule your clan, and I will help you secure that today. My last act before I depart,” he said, scrupulously combing his hair as he did not look at me. That had been at dawn. I recalled the way the sun had lit his profile in his vain routine while I waited.
It was an easy thing to take the fortress.