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Wednesday 5 August 2020

Steps of Hope

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

     Artis was fair, even among the fay. Beneath a crown braided with ribbons the colour of a summer sky, her curls were as pale and golden as the sun and drifted like silk on the breeze. The skin they caressed was as pure as milk, the cheeks they framed were as pink as a rose, and the eyes they shaded were as rich as forget-me-nots.
    But for all the shepherdess's beauty, she was not as vibrant as once she'd been.
    Across those rolling hills, silver streams and sparse, sun-bathed trees, her eyes stared numb for miles, and she stood atop that old, drystone wall like a figure of forgotten porcelain. She barely moved but for the breeze tugging at her skirts, and her attention remained fixed to the horizon, searching, as it always was, for sight of her lost lover.
    It had been years - not too many, by the mind of the sun, but more enough to change her - since she'd seen Arlen chase off after the stray lamb. She'd given it little thought at the time; sheep wandered, sometimes too far, and their enchanted fleeces would be a dangerous prize among mortals. Strays were worth chasing down.
    But he hadn't come back.
    She couldn't remember when concern had set in, nor when concern had changed to panic, and panic into a lifeless patience. But loss had never gripped her, not truly. Every day, she stared and wandered, peering into the distance for sight of his return.
    That summer's day was no different.
    Artis stepped off of the wall, startling her adoring sheep, and drifted out into the endless hills, wandering blindly while her flock trotted and bounced along beside her. There was little hidden from the sun between her and the horizon, just scattered fluffs of snow-white sheep speckling the hills, while the rich scent of grazing, rustle of leaves and lazy trill of songbirds tinted the air a dozen different colours.
    But she didn't notice them. Nor the faintest music on the breeze, nor the grass beneath her feet, nor the weight of another shepherd's eyes watching her from a rock on the streamside.
    But Silvius often watched her; the shepherd's stare was nothing new. It was so mundane, in fact, that she'd never noticed it at all. All Artis knew of Silvius was his magnificent skill with his pipes. He played for the fay, leading their céilí by melody while she led them by step. But that was all she noticed of him.
    Though she never heard it, he would sigh wistfully into the breeze whenever she passed by, and the tunes he played upon his pipe fell deeper into melancholy. And in those melodies, drifting on the air, she heard only the sounds of her heartbreak until her feet carried her out of its reach.

    For all her wandering, there was only one place Artis would stop while her flock spread out to graze, and it was in the shade of that hilltop rowan that her arms lifted and wrapped about herself in comfort. But her eyes never stopped searching. From here, the last place she'd seen her beloved, she continued to watch the horizon.
    Hours would pass before she moved again - but this time a curious bleat drew her from her cloud of thought, and she watched as one lamb wandered away from the rest, enraptured by something in the distance.
    Her heart shuddered as her eyes followed it, and her stare sharpened to that of a hawk's. But whatever had captured the lamb's attention remained silent and unseen. It was a mystery.
    And so the flicker of hope that she'd nursed and encased inside her heart exploded immediately into a searing fire.
    She ran the moment the lamb did, her bare feet glancing over grass while the creature's little hooves thudded their way ahead, moving faster than any lamb should - so fast, it fell out of sight in moments.
    But Artis ran on and on, the raging of her heart and the hope firing her muscles carrying her even past the point of exhaustion, and like a wind she covered several hills with Arlen growing clearer and clearer in her mind. Her eyes were wider than they'd ever been, and they saw the least they had in years. A smile even graced her lips.
    She had no idea how far she'd run, but she would run as far as she had to, as far as her feet could carry her, and then she'd run farther still.
    The same curious bleat rose suddenly from up ahead, clearer and louder this time, and she threw herself after it, tripping over herself while her smile grew wider and tears prickled her eyes, until she reached the top of the hill. There, the wind whipped past her ears, tangling her hair and pulling at the ribbons in her braids while her breath burned in her chest, but her eyes didn't stop scouring the area.
    Buttercups and grazing sheep dotted the slope that rolled away below, and her gaze tumbled after it to the stream winding around its base, and, finally, the figure sitting upon a rock at its side.
    The water glittered brighter through her tears.
    Until the wind died away, and the sound of pipes drifted towards her in the lull.
    Silvius's sorrowful melodies, steeped in shades of grey and lilac, smothered her flame back into a meek and sputtering flicker, and renewed in a moment the power of her heartbreak. The forlorn melodies, anguish and hope intertwined...his music brought to mind Arlen, only Arlen, and the vaguest wisp of a direction, like the dust drifting from an old and overgrown trail.
    Dust that settled every time she tried to take just one step out towards it, concealing the path once more.
    Then, as the last grain settled, a sudden certainty came crashing in: she would never find him. It was a certainty she turned away from, numb, any time it caught her eye. Because to give up hope was to give up on him. And to give up on him... Her heart wouldn't let her.
    Her eyes, filled with the tears of a loss she refused to acknowledge, turned up towards the beaming sun, and she embraced the ache of the music. In spite of that certainty, she began to dance.
    Her attention fell to the soles of her feet, to the feel of the grass, the small stones, and the roots beneath them, and she threw herself into it while other shepherds and shepherdesses arrived over the hills from all directions, called by the sun, drawn by the pipes, and moved by her steps.
    For all the love Silvius poured into his music while he watched her dance, the melodies only scorched her heart.
    And she would keep waiting in spite of it.

This story was written for Istaaire, who owns all the characters and their histories.
This story is not to be copied without both my permission, and Istaaire's.
Words copyright © Kim Wedlock.


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