This short story is dedicated to Loris
This is me. I am more powerful than anything. Faster. Stronger. More alive. Yet I can play dead. I take whatever shape you give me. I am the Ęlwha, Nature’s shapeshifter, Nature’s power. I provide others with a nourishing source, a source for travel as well.
But as with all else, favours come with a price. Sacrifices must be made, to keep my spirit going. And I choose who and when. The spirits of the lost feed my own, in return for the deeds I have once done for them. They are my souls, and mine to bring back, or take... forever.
One last warning: do not, not EVER, underestimate me. To do so would be a regrettable mistake.
Part I - Leana
The forest is still. Not a breeze is to be felt. There is no birdsong. All is silent. There is no deer, no squirrel, no insect to be seen. The mossy ground muffles the sound of my light footsteps, letting me pass unheard. Unafraid. Unnoticed.
My light blue gaze flickers from tree to tree, branch to branch. The early morning sunlight filters its way through the leaves, dappling the trees with a pale, milky gold. The foliage is so thick it blocks the sky from my view. I snake my way through the thick trunks that surround me, almost menacing.
I can still remember it, years ago. The forest. My thoughts as we stepped in, enveloping ourselves in the nature. It used to be lively. And I used to think it a beautiful, peaceful place where no harm could be done. A safe place to take refuge. From authority, from people. From our own kind. Humans. Naturally I was wrong.
Being thrown out of civilisation and into the unknown wilderness with your best friend is never easy. Even without the best friend it's a hard and cruel thing to go through. And all that for a simple mistake. The simple yet so complicated ways of nature. Of a human's nature. Hierarchy is the key, or so I think. You have the powerful, all mighty, at the top of the ladder. Under that rung is the power. Those with slightly less power than the king, but with land. The nobles. And then, at the foot of the ladder, the weak, helpless, and powerless. The puppies chained to a wall of death. Those with no voice, no insight, no power. Those like us.
Now I am not part of the ladder. No, not anymore. And neither is he. We had been classified as unknown, undetectable, dangerous and untrustworthy. In other words, I am an outcast. Doomed to die without a grave, with no tombstone, no coffin afterwards. He has met his fate already. And yet still the location of his being remains a mystery to me.
As I take a left through the trees, I spot the first movement. Frothy and fast, the water glides over the stones that lie hidden at the bottom of the Ęlwha River. Lethal, yet silent. No sound arises from the dark blue water, littered with rocks poking out of the surface here and there, breaking the steady gliding movement of the water.
Sitting down on the riverbed, I dangle my bare feet into the water, watching them sway in the rhythmic pulse of the river. It is alive. Breathing. I can feel its force. But I can not hear it. No- can not isn't the right term. No. I don't want to hear it. I don't want to listen to the running water, swift as the breeze, yet powerful as thunder. A burst of energy surging through the wilderness.
And yet as I look out, brushing my dark bangs out of my eyes, I can see his face clear as the sky on a cloudless day. His silver eyes boring into mine, bright and fierce, wise and bold, that wolfish stare. Yet also fear. I can still hear him screaming my name, sandy hair clinging to his face. It is the only sound I can hear. Now everything seems silent, save for his voice, that beautiful voice that was to me everything I held on to. "Leana!" He shrieks.
I watched, helpless, as the river engulfed him. Some extraordinary yet powerful, dark, and unseen force bound me, held me back as the Ęlwha bore him away from me. Yet he was strong, I told myself. He could make it... He could, couldn't he? He was stronger, after all, stronger than me. And yet...
As I sit here, digging my fingernails into the muddy grass around me, I chew on my lower lip, the memories coming back. It haunts me. My blue eyes scan the river's surface, as if searching for him again. As if I was waiting to see those silver eyes, still lit up with life, resurface. But of course they don't. He is long gone. Three days it has been, and I miss him already. It was like my heart had torn into half.
He was all I ever had, since the long winter, a terrible period of five months where the lands of Nienr were covered with a glittering white blanket of snow, beautiful yet deadly, just like the Ęlwha. And just like the river, It had taken lives. The souls of my parents had been one of the first to go. At least they hadn't been stabbed to death like the rest of Jackal's family. But the winter was terrible. The cold, famine, and disease kills as suddenly as if nature had just snapped her fingers, and poof- just like that, one person stilled and never moved again, their skin turning alabaster by the minute, the rosy in their cheeks fading, the light in their eyes being snuffed out like a candle flame in the wind.
I sigh and look at my feet again, their pink outline blurred by the rushing water. I just hoped his soul had found a good place, that it wasn't lost in the hellfires of death... And yet, even three days after me seeing him being dragged under, it still hadn't sunk in properly, hadn't pierced my heart yet, not truly, so that I could still cling onto that last feeling of hope.
Whenever I think of him, I feel like I am dangling from a precipice, suspended in the air by only a thin rope, a rope that tears a bit more every day. And somehow I know that if I hold on too long, it will break, and I would be sending myself into an everlasting darkness, with no light to see, no one to talk to, no shoulder to cry onto, no comforting words, just those from my own lips to try to make myself stay sane, but I'd wither soon enough, of grief and despair and loneliness, and the world would fade....
I shake the thought off as it sends an involuntary shiver down my spine. "I will not lose hope," I say out loud. "I won't. I can't." I see my vision blur over, and feel the familiar wetness on my cheek as a tear rolls down from my eyelashes.
And then it begins to rain. I find shelter in the trees, the lowest I can find, and huddle up underneath a willow, not caring what happens. As lightning flashes overhead, I can see the storm clouds through the willow wands. Great masses of ashen grey and black rolling across the heavens, giving them a menacing aura. The thunder booms again, and again his scream sounds in my head, as the roiling water sucked him under, that sound that rang in my ears long after he had disappeared... "LEANA! Leana..."
As I huddle against the bark of the willow, I hug my knees to my chest and think, if my body doesn't survive, know that my spirit will never give up hope. “Jackal... Where are you?”
Then I cry myself to sleep.
Part II - Jackal
I can't breathe. All I see is that swirling, dark water, menacing. The cold is agonising. My lungs feel as if they're about to burst. I think of Leana, how desperate she had been to take my hand and pull me out of the river's deadly embrace. And yet somehow she couldn't. Something held her back. But what? I still hear my name, the scream tearing itself from my friend’s lips, how desperate and torn it had sounded.
And here I lie, unmoving, worn down to the bone, beaten, but still alive. The River Goddess has been forgiving. But there is no guarantee she will be it again.
As I lie face down on the pebbly beach where I have been stranded on, I think of Leana. Where is she? Is she still alive? Stupid, I think to myself. Stupid. How could you even think she were dead, Jackal? I shake my head violently to try to get the thought out.
Weakly I push myself up into a sitting position. My head throbs- my throat feels clogged up, my skin slimy and wet. “LEANA!” I want to shout, but my body doesn’t obey- I have no energy to do anything but sit, slumped, head hung, my sandy hair plastered to the sides of my face.
I cough and regurgitate river muck. Looking at it makes me sick, and I don’t dare myself to touch the black, swirling water of the Ęlwha. So there’ll be not cleaning up for me right now. Where are you, Leana?
She must be worried sick... I think with regret. Angrily I punch the pebbles, grazing my skin in the process. Tiny beads of startlingly red blood appear on my skin, but I ignore it. “This is all my fault,” I mutter, frustrated. “I shouldn’t have been so stupid.” Little did I know the same feeling of guilt was engulfing her....
But she would hold on, wouldn’t she? She had confidence in me- after all, I was the one who had kept us surviving through the winter... I had been the one, hadn’t I? Or was that just luck? Sheer luck? If it was, then it was clearly running out. At the worst it had run out already.
I lie back down, rolling on my back as I do so. I gaze glassy- eyed at the fast darkening sky, wishing I was back home, where I belonged. But then I mutter, “Stop being so unrealistic, Jackal. Stupid. You have no home.”
I blink and feel a tear roll down my temple, and I try not to break down. Stay strong.