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Thursday 15 September 2022


Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

     A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words. - Unknown

    The forest was haunted. Ghostly wisps of smoke rose from the husks of trees, themselves reaching out like the fingers of the dead, while the stinging miasma of charred wood and sap soured the air. Smouldering cracks still burned in the trees like doorways into Hell itself. The woods were dead, the forest was lost, and the sun above had forgotten it.
    But the spirit that haunted that clouded wasteland had not been born of it. Small, pale, smudged with soot, the bedraggled girl was displaced, just as lost and abandoned as her surroundings.
    She remained there alone for some time, wishing, crying and muttering, until, hours, weeks or years later, a twig finally broke beneath another's foot.


     The bear ambled along between the trees, snuffling and pawing through the ash in hunt of new growth. He found nothing, but wasn't discouraged; the hunt was as good as the victory. So on he trundled, on he sniffed, nudging the ash aside at any worthwhile scent to help the eventual regrowth along - until a small, wheezing sound caught his attention ahead.
    His huge, shaggy body stopped mid-stride, and sharp, sunburst eyes scanned the distance. His nose needn't have twitched; he found her quickly enough: the young woman kneeling among the roots of a charred ancient, so covered in soot and ash herself that her scent was almost completely lost in the surroundings.
    But she had spotted him just as quickly, and stared back now in anger. In pain. But she made no move at all to run.
    The bear grunted and watched her a little longer, searching for her injury. Perhaps it was her leg, and that was why she didn't flee. But her legs appeared to be fine. Perhaps her head, then. But she didn't seem dizzy. Maybe her chest. But her sobbing was regular.
    The bear grunted and stood on its hind legs, sniffing the air and looking closer, working out the pieces of this puzzle, unsure to some degree if she was even truly there. But she was. She had to be. Her injuries were too bold. Not on the outside, perhaps, but they were certainly there.
    With a grunt, the bear dropped back to his paws and began to approach. And now, the girl panicked. Shuffling backwards deeper into the roots, she grasped at the earth and threw everything she could find towards him.
    The bear yelped and flinched back, but the charred sticks disintegrated before they could reach him. And even had they, neither they nor the rocks could have truly harmed his hide. And so, warily, he pressed on through the short-lived assault until he reached her. And still, she fled nowhere.
    Curiously, he sniffed the hand that clutched her knee to her chest as she curled up tighter into a ball, then along her arm, her shoulder, to her head. She smelled just like the woods. All the way through.
    The bear snorted. That was strange. Animals that spent their whole lives in the woods always smelled like more than just 'forest'. They had identity of their own. But somehow, this one didn't.
    But she really was there.
    Puzzled, he sniffed further, but she didn't react. She stayed as still as stone despite his warm breath gusting over her, even when his nose touched her skin. It was only when he licked her cheek that he was sure he wasn't dreaming.
    Slowly, her head turned until one amazed eye peered over her arm towards him. Then, as he sniffed that eye, her clutch on herself loosened, her arm rose, and her shaking hand rested both daring and gentle upon his head.
    For a long moment, the forest's silence intensified as the pair looked deep into one another's faces, each sure they were reading the other's soul.
    The bear was the first to turn away.
    The smallest noise of desperation peeped from the girl's throat despite her fear, but while the bear had turned, he hadn't left. His great weight flopped down onto the ground beside her, and his breathing began immediately to deepen.
    And the girl, after a moment of surprise, crawled around and lay down against him.

    The world had darkened when she woke to a tugging on her blackened dress, and despite her fright, one quiet look from the bear as he dropped the hem from his mouth calmed her spirit.
    She watched him turn and walk a few leisurely steps away, then throw an expectant look back toward her. She understood quickly enough.
    The girl followed him on through the endless forest, navigating one tree at a time. She watched his footing over the tangled roots, repeated his steps around the widest trunks, and waited while he stopped to dig with his immense paws. She was sure he wouldn't find anything in the ash, but he repeatedly proved her wrong. Berries, roots and even mushrooms were uncovered and shared, and when night fell and a chill invaded the skeletal forest, the bear curled up around her to keep her warm.


     After a week, they were inseparable. The girl had grown calm in Bear's comfort, and felt safest when he was around. Whenever she felt lost, or the world felt like it was closing in on her, Bear would grunt and nuzzle her, and whenever he seemed to be the same, she would grunt and nuzzle him.
    The forest, too, had changed with their wandering; the ash lay behind them, and ahead only the darkness of leafy crowns. The trees here lived and thrived, fruit was plenty, and other creatures could be heard going about their lives all around them. Breeze moved warm, water trickled cool, the sun shone golden and the moon, when it took over, glittered the purest silver.
    Bear had shown her so much beauty and comfort, and she could feel her soul shining. And side by side, they continued to take the forest one tree at a time.

    One morning she sat at the lake's edge, playing with the stones in the glittering water while Bear fished in the river beside her, when a soft splash sounded up ahead.
    She looked up from the tumblestones, and dropped one with a plop as she watched the pure-white swan settle on the surface. But Bear had reacted faster. She realised she'd felt his caution even before she'd heard the noise.
    Her guard rose in response, a wary discomfort threading through her bones that felt familiar in ways she chose not to look at. But even as he reached her side and rose up onto his hind legs to get a better look, the swan was undeterred. Instead, her speckled face turned the girl's way, and her black eyes pierced her own. As graceful as she seemed, floating serene upon the water, there was a blatant power within her. Speed, strength, challenge.
    But, as the pair stared at one another, the girl began to recognise something else within that already familiar presence. Something safe.
    And so, it seemed, did Bear. With a grunt of approval, he dropped back to his paws and sat at her side, making no form of threat to the swan. His closeness seemed to be more to reassure her than to defend her.
    Even so, the girl inched away as the swan drew near, and further again when she straightened her slender, snow-white body and flapped her great wings. But she came no nearer as she settled. There remained a distance, and where Bear had sniffed and licked and nuzzled her, the swan merely bowed her head.
    A smile stretched across the girl's face, and she reached out to touch its brilliant feathers. But the swan pulled away sharply, raising its wings in warning, and while the girl saddened, the swan collected herself and bowed her head again.
    A thought then flickered through the girl's mind. Returning her hand to her knee, she sat taller and bowed her head herself.
    Bear grunted with satisfaction, then rose and returned to his fishing.
    The girl sat at the edge of the water with the swan just out of arm's reach for some time, watching one another and bowing their heads, until the swan finally turned on the water and took off. It was some time before the girl realised the swan hadn't fed or preened or anything else while she'd been there on that lake.


     Weeks became months, and Bear didn't lead anymore, though he was always near at hand. The pair of them merely walked, following one another willingly, wandering together, navigating the forest one tree at a time.
    The swan returned occasionally, honking to her from the water and flapping her wings, while she honked and flapped her arms in response. Sometimes Swan would even lead the girl through mires while Bear navigated his own trees, and when she left, Bear moved them on back through the forest, grunting and sniffing, and she would grunt and sniff along with him.
    And the forest, she discovered, had changed again. It was a place of both light and dark, shadow and sun, knot and hole, and could be a treacherous place if navigated too fast. There were so many trees, some so much bigger than the last, with roots so tangled and wild that she could get no help in moving over them, so she and Bear had no choice but to go their separate ways for a while. But they always rejoined later on, once they'd navigated their own paths through.
    But one day, the world went much darker than usual, and she found a tree she could not pass alone.

    In the middle of the night, a restless dream carried her off, dragging her from Bear's side and luring her out into the black, knotted wilds. Her feet stumbled through stream and root, hands cut on rock and branch, eyes blind to the world. And when they finally opened and her senses trickled back to her, terror sank its claws in.
    All around her shadows shrieked, noises flickered, wind grasped and branches whistled. Spinning where she stood, her heart shuddering in her throat, she searched desperately through the dark, but found herself staring at the same black surface with every turn. The same, impassable wall.
    The same, impassable tree.
    Everywhere she turned, the colossal trunk faced her; no matter how fast she moved, it beat her. It cornered her, trapped her, stood always in front of her.
    So she resolved in a fit to run backwards. As long as the tree was in front of her, it couldn't also be behind her. Then she could escape it.
    But everything was overgrown here. She tripped immediately, then again, and again; everything grasped at her. And what if she'd chosen the wrong backwards? She might escape it, but end up somewhere worse. Every glance looked right, every glance looked wrong - and every glance, always, was filled again by that tree.
    And, she realised with crashing despair, now she was entirely alone.
    Paralytic fear tremored its way through her bones, even as a tiny voice rose up inside her and cried out promise. But she heard it, as small as it was. She could do this. Bear and Swan had done and taught enough. She wouldn't lean on them again. She didn't need to. She was too strong for that.
    Determination swelled, and she seized it before that wretched fear could crash in on another wave. She chose a direction, and ran.
    Then chose another.
    Then another.
    Then the fear caught up with her, leaping upon her like an excited beast, stealing upon her hasty indecision.
    'What if I'd been close already, and just ran further away?'
    Its words rang like bells.
    'What if I'm on the right path now, but doubt has turned me around?'
    'What if I am already miles away, with no hope at all?'
    'What if I've travelled three days in one night?!'
    She shook her head and steadied herself, ignoring the fact that her hand rested even now against that inescapable tree.
    "No," she told herself, "of course not." She knew that was absurd. And she knew she could find her way back, without help. She could do this. "Just stop. Breathe, and it will come more easily. Move slowly, like Bear. Be focused, like Swan. Slow. Focus. Slow. Focus. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe."
    But even while she chanted this, her mind was already paralysed.
    A flap of wings nearby threw her heart into her throat. She spun, but it was not Swan. The caw was too malicious a chuckle.
    Then leaves rustled behind her and she spun again, but it wasn't Bear's footsteps. Just another crow, wrenching things from the undergrowth.
    Tears filled her eyes, resentment filled her heart, and her self-disgust tasted sour on her tongue.
    "I don't need them!" She bellowed into the dark. "I can do this on my own! It's one tree! One tree! I won't be a burden again!"
    And so she ran on, backwards, sideways, forwards, hit the tree and ran backwards again. She tripped, she fell, she climbed back to her feet. On and on she ran; over and over she fell.
    Then the tree itself came after her.
    Roots rose and seized her ankle, dragging her to the ground at the foot of the tree. She thrashed and cried and tore at the wood, sure she was being pulled under, but she couldn't rip herself free. Panic had twisted her foot in the knot.
    Then, the tree went up in flames.
    "No, no, no, no!" Her fingernails tore at the root, at her skin, she pulled at her leg and moved her foot in the knot. But she couldn't do it. She should have been able to, just turn her foot and crawl free. But her body wouldn't let her. The simple process couldn't break through her panic.
    More flapping came from behind her, and the malicious caws grew louder, as if the crows had shape-shifted into giant, vicious beasts.
    She screamed as they drew nearer, and felt her body tightening into a helpless little ball. She closed her eyes and dragged her hands through the dirt, throwing everything she could find. But small twigs and leaves didn't deter them for a moment. She could hear them advance. The flaps, the rustles, the--
    She shrieked again as one of the crow-beasts tugged at her dress, and managed with her free leg to kick out. Her foot struck something, hard and strong. It barely gave beneath her effort.
    The terror she felt consuming her in that moment was familiar, and dragged with it pains and injuries she'd tried hard these past months to forget. Now, they swelled tenfold, and all grasp on her senses collapsed.
    The crow-beast grunted, growled and tugged again, this time at her collar, and through the noise of her mind, she found a shape lacing through. A comforting shape, freckled with the colour of the sun...
    Her eyes tore open to find Bear standing over her, tugging her collar and pulling her out of the roots, and Swan staring off beyond the tree, gaze pinned to something in the distance, honking intermittently.
    "The way back..."
    Adrenaline flooded her. She relaxed her ankle and turned her foot just as Bear gave one final tug, and scrambled back to her feet as he pushed her towards Swan. Together, they stormed past the tree, Swan at the lead and Bear pushing her forwards, until the ancient was left blazing behind them. It didn't take long before other trees caught the flame. There was nothing that could stop it.
    The girl couldn't help looking back. Even once the glow had faded, she stared towards that bleak, dark spot until Bear made a firm swipe at her ankle. She barely missed the root.
    The forest ahead soon began to brighten, and as the breath left her exhausted lungs, the ground beneath her felt stable and familiar once again. The sun broke through the trees ahead, the trunks around them were manageable, and fruit hung from the boughs. Here, Swan brought them to a stop at last, and Bear panted in exhaustion as the girl dropped to her knees. But as they both looked down at her, searching her for injury, she met their eyes with tears and apologised from the very bottom of her heart.
    But for all her bleeding words, Bear merely grunted, and Swan merely honked. And she knew, from the steadiness of their eyes and the warmth of their souls, the extent of the disappointment in their hearts.
    She smiled despite the tears streaming down her cheeks, and rose back to her feet. "I'm sorry. I know. If there's anything you've taught me, it's that strength isn't struggling alone."
    With a grunt, Bear bowed his head, and Swan touched her beak to her skin. And she embraced the both of them with a tearful smile. "One tree at a time..."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Monday 8 August 2022


Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

     It was an entity of its own; a colossal, infernal force screaming its way up from the centre of her soul, roaring louder with every rattle of the shackles and brush of the cold bars. It breathed. It lived. It destroyed. Its very pulse was like thunder, its aura like decay. The iron ceiling collapsed, though it didn't fall. The ground split open, though it didn't crack. The sky blackened, though the sun shone on.
    And inside, she was aflame.

    The aurochs' fingers wrapped tighter around the bars. For the moment, there were no eyes to see her tremble, nor to watch her thrash inside her lifelong cage, screaming and raging while desperation sank its claws deeper into her heart. The bars were rusting; her hands and horns were already stained red. But for all her wild force, they didn't give way. The iron was still too strong - or she was growing weak.
    She grit her teeth tighter; her jaw already ached.
    Her mind unhinged that little bit more.
    Wide-eyed and tear-streaked, she shook the bars even harder and slammed her horns against them, as though she honestly believed that this time they might finally break. But they didn't. Of course they didn't. And she felt the pressure build even higher in that blinding disappointment.
    She was going to explode. She could feel it, as yet more of the world crumbled away around her. Something was going to rip itself free, and she had no control over it at all. It was already eroding her, and its strength was overwhelming. As stifling as fire wind. The urgency it forged was almost tangible, grasping her firmly by the throat and squeezing until she could barely gasp through the tears.
    'Out. Out. Out...'
    It was all her mind could offer. She had to get out. She had to escape. She couldn't stay here, not with this hunting her. She wanted. She needed. But the doom that straddled her shoulders, poking her eyes and tugging at her lips like wretched little gremlins, was paralysing. Her thoughts didn't move, they just looped back and tangled within themselves while she fought and wore herself down. Over and over and over they knotted, for days, maybe weeks, offering nothing and subduing only when her master returned from his work - but in that numbness, everything else of her died along with it.
    It never stopped. And she doubted she had the strength to last it out. Her freedom was still too far out of reach; the entity would win before then. She was sure it would win. And she'd begun to wonder if it might not be easier to just...let it. Give in. Stop fighting and rest, at last...
    She was so tired...
    In that faltering moment, the relentless pounding in her skull finally took over, and her tears stopped as she released the bars and slumped against the cold metal, glad for the relief. A cool breeze swept through her shadowed cage, tugging her long, knotted mane over her eyes. She breathed deep of it, smelling phantoms; the trees and the grass she could barely remember and wanted, despite her growing defeat, to know again.
    Hysterics, peace, hysterics. This was how it went. It was a cycle of minutes. But as frantic and helpless as the hysterics were, it was the peaceful moments she feared the most. Because it was then that the entity began to whisper through the roar.
    And so she sat there, heavy and defeated, listening to those whispers, too tired to do anything else. And just like every time before, whatever corner of her mind still worked took this moment of calm to snatch at ideas, to grasp and rationalise any and every option to give her as many routes as possible, laying obscene beside ordinary until they all took on the same shape and cast the same shadow. Until every idea belonged. Until every idea was reasonable.
    Hysteria had warped everything into a world of black and white. Wants and Needs became blurred, and no option was good or bad; they were either conceived, or not. And with that freedom of open thought came a silence that deafened and split an abyss open beneath her. It was only ever then that the entity showed itself, writhing in the thick, black depths.
    She stared into that abyss increasingly often. She'd become familiar with it; she listened to it and agreed with it. Took comfort from it.
    But it hadn't pulled her in. And neither had she pushed herself away.
    The release it offered, the rest...she knew it wasn't the right path, but it had been conceived, it had been rationalised, and now it remained. One path, of many. One option, of many.
    She inched that little bit closer to it now, curious as it whispered its white noise through the breeze, like a discordant lullaby. Her hand reached through the bars towards it, fingers swirling through the empty space while she wondered if that suddenly gentle entity might just reach back.
    Then, with another crack of thunder, the world jolted.
    A deafening roar shook her bones and ripped a scream from her throat. Her hand snatched back to cover her ears, but it was futile. The roar came from within her, and its fury was devastating.
    And...familiar...immensely... A sound, she realised, she'd been hearing all along...
    Her guard dropped and the power immediately swelled again - but from everywhere but that abyss. And the roar followed, from everywhere but that abyss.
    Then, dazed, in that chilling, peaceful place in the centre of her mind, understanding tolled.
    The grip around her throat. The urgency. The desperation...
    That strength, and that abyss...they were not One. They were battling within her. And her life was the prize.
    The overwhelming power was her own. It yearned to carry her to freedom, and the Wild itself called to her upon its untameable roar.
    But the whispers, the darkness, the strangling aura of decay...they yearned to rule her, and to end her. They were not her own. Not in any lasting way. They could never have been. They were something else. A poison. An infection. One more thing she had to fight.
    Yet the two argued in harmony. Without focus, they appeared as one. How easy it would be to misunderstand them, to hear the inescapable lure of the whispers boomed in the roaring voice, to see the urgency of her power's desire to envelop her and flee from it instead, to feel the very strength of her blazing soul and attribute it to the abyss itself...
    It would be her biggest mistake.
    The aurochs' furious tears hadn't returned. The clarity was there, and this time, her eyes were open.
    She pulled herself away from the bars and sat, centred within her cage, breathing deep.
    Hold on. Wait. Find patience. Don't look into the black, and contain that screaming, blazing power. She'd kept it under control for this long, and she was so nearly there.
    Everything felt out of her hands - but her survival was not.
    She had a choice.
    And that choice hinged fully on the difference between Want and Need.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Wednesday 6 July 2022


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

    Lightning ripped the void-black sky. Hail thundered. Fate's frozen spears pierced the sea, deafening, shredding the dark, roiling waters while the crashing waves fought amongst themselves like wolves, stirred up by the Serpent.
    The sun already hung dead in the sky.
    On the trembling cliff between endless winter and total ruin, she stood, drenched and paralysed, staring out over the seething ocean and the patiently gathering storm. Her heart was consumed by what she knew was coming. Consumed by the Inevitable. Consumed by the Inescapable. All else, however vital, was lost.
    Thunder pummelled her, the war drum of giants. Her muscles were too frozen to flinch. An eagle screamed in the distance.
    She'd seen the storm coming; it had been forming since the Beginning. She'd hoped it would dissipate, that it might never reach her...but that had been a fool's hope. A blind hope. She understood that now, as she watched it gather its final crackling threads of strength beneath its shackles in the distance. She understood it sorely. And in that understanding's wake, paralysis set only deeper. An immense sense of destruction rooted her raw, bare feet to the shuddering ground, a sense of complete and utter extinction. It was the certainty that everything she knew, and every plan she'd laid, was going to burst into a raging inferno from which she could never rebuild.
    Wind whipped and lashed her skin. Panic closed her throat and seized her lungs. The ice within her muscles and heart grew thicker. An incoherent screaming filled her mind while her tongue lay still and numb.
    And hail continued to fall. Stinging, freezing, cutting hail.
    The screaming moved into her bones before she could make any sense of it, so loud that they trembled inside her skin, shaking themselves to dust. And then, while she stared, inert, useless, desperate despite her leaden feet for any kind of escape, the storm finally broke free.
    Everything within and around her flashed white as a godly crash filled the air; lightning rushed across the sky, waves launched themselves against the cliff, and gales thrashed ice harder and sharper into her face.
    The earth itself sank into the sea.
    And she watched it all happen, mute and motionless, while the voice screamed on in her bones.
    'Stop it, somehow! Push it back!'
    Dread squeezed a whimper from her throat as the water lashed around her ankles.
    'Sabotage it! Somehow! Trick it!'
    The water rushed around her knees.
    'Kill it! End it!'
    It crashed around her waist.
    But it had already stolen the ground.
    Her wide stare twitched up towards the jet-black heavens as the water flooded through her lips, and she watched the stars vanish from the sky.
    ' I do...?'
    The world turned, the water twisted, swirling and raging around her. It took a long, disconnected moment before she discovered her body fighting.
     Futile or not, instinct moved her like a puppet; choking and struggling against the waves, her body battled both to return her head above water and plant her feet back on the ground, in spite of the exhaustion already crushing her. But she fought on anyway, alarm dragging her mind back to herself, thrashing against the indifferent storm, the force of nature, the force of Fate, a thing with neither malice nor intent yet that would steal absolutely everything away from her anyway.
    And it was already beginning.
    The violent churning of the water shredded her dress from her body. The hail and breakers cut her face whenever she surfaced. The thunder ripped her muscles from her bones, disarming and dissolving her struggle. The current drank away her lifeblood. The lightning smothered her breath.
    Her raging mind was clouded and disconnected when adrenaline fully took over, empowering her body and mind, hazy but allied against the threat to her world, screaming back in the face of it with absolute conviction. But it could only last so long, and Fate's movement was stronger. While she wore down, the waves, the wind, the thunder and hail grew only more violent.
    Steam rose from the furious waters around her.
    Questions half-formed in her mind as the water boiled, blinding her with their power, and though their answers didn't exist, the wind howled them anyway. And through the chaos, fragments of images and sensations began flashing by - familiarity; distraction. But though some part of her relished them and another searched them in desperation, there was nothing at all in those pictures of the Past. No solution; no solace. There was no order, no plan, no understanding, not while everything crumbled. And now, she realised, her mind was barely her own. Fragments of Self were being torn away. Everything that had made sense, or seemed sure, was breaking apart inside her.
    The water closed over her head again and again, more often now, higher, and invaded her lungs with increasingly mistimed gasps. Then she didn't surface at all.
    Air was out of reach. Ground was out of reach. And the black sky far above, the heavens now suddenly aflame, covered a world she would never see again.
    And, as she sank into the sudden stillness, silence set in.
    ...There was no more screaming...
    Clarity, or insanity. One or the other. Or both, or neither.
    But everything was falling into some kind of place.
    She watched the surface drift away with wide, stunned eyes.
    What if...she let go? What if she stopped fighting and let the water take over? Would she sink? Or would she float?
    Would she be carried into what she dreaded, into the Inevitable, into the Inescapable, with some kind of composure? Some kind of control? Would a clearer head even yield opportunity? Perhaps even advantage?
    What if she gave up stubbornness and gave into the uncontrollable?
    What lay on the other side?

    Her veins ignited.

    Air seared her lungs as she broke the surface, gasping, gulping, hacking and choking, numb to the cold, to the heat, to the pain as she flailed for equilibrium; to anything but the single need to breathe. And then, while her heart lurched and mind spun, she forced her legs to stop kicking, forced her eyes to close, and forced herself to relax. In the brutal grip of the waves, she abandoned her fight, abandoned instinct, and allowed the motion to carry her away.
    It felt wrong to let the waves crash over her head, to avoid flinching against the lightning, to listen to the thunder rather than shrink from it and let the hail pummel her face. But it was her only choice. To give in and let the worst happen would yield a stronger future. A stronger self.
    A storm was beyond control. It couldn't be stopped. It couldn't be harnessed. It could only be survived.
    It could only be survived.

With breath, hail numbs;
With belief, hail dies.
Strength of aurochs, suffuse me.
With guidance of bear,
With guise of doe,
I am born of the bones of ruin.
I am born of the bones of Fate.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Sunday 5 June 2022


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

     Thick, high walls protected the little house within from the biting, hilltop wind. The minuscule windows were shuttered and draped against the horrors of the world beyond, and the sturdy door locked tight against danger.
    It was a small bubble of safety in a terrifying world, impenetrable and unshakable by the darkest forces beyond. And the girl inside - beautiful, happy, with only the youngest growth of antlers sprouting through her thick, dark hair - was never bored despite the isolation. She cooked and baked, sewed and repaired, cleaned and painted, and when her chores were done and her master satisfied, she spent her free time left in peace, reading and creating, brightening her safe little world in a way she could control. She slept well; warm, safe and dry, and when she rose the next morning, all began again. Her world was predictable, her life steady. Always familiar, always stable. Forever unchanging.
    For a decade, the world aged gracefully around her, and she, preserved and protected, didn't age a day.
    But then, despite the walls, the curtains, the door, something did change.
    The old clay digger that lived nearby could no longer continue his trade, and with rising living costs, the girl was tasked by her reluctant master to dig the clay herself and deliver it to the potter in town.
    The idea of leaving the walls and stepping out into the wider world filled her with terror, but it excited her too. And so, with much worry, much preparation, and many warnings of safety from her master, she took a deep breath, left the walls, descended the hill, and gathered what she could before rigidly following the road towards town. Her eyes were wide along the way, and every twist and turn made her hesitate, sure she'd managed to get herself lost, would take too long and get home to a telling off for lingering in the dangerous world.
    But she hadn't gotten lost, and arrived in town while the sun was still high. There, she delivered the clay, turned around, and immediately followed the road back home, doing precisely as she'd been instructed. And she was glad to; the sights, sounds and smells were overwhelming, and she all but ran back to the high-walled hill, scared and exhausted. And yet, when she finally managed to get to sleep after her master's worried questions, her dreams were alight with new skies, walls and faces.
    Then, the next day, after hurrying through her chores, she dug and delivered clay again. And this time, the experience rejuvenated her.
    She grew efficient over time, both digging and travelling, and came to look forward to the fresh air and cheerful townspeople. She even began to take detours, leaving the road on the way back and daring to walk instead through the forest, following whim or butterfly. She didn't go far at first, but with every passing day she grew braver, and explored deeper and deeper between the trees. She discovered owl holes in tree trunks, stumps covered in orange toadstools, old carved stones half-eaten by roots, a clearing carpeted in spongy, comfy-looking moss, and a small, clear stream that giggled and gurgled as it cascaded over smooth pebbles. The world, she was learning, was beautiful.
    On one fair weather day, warm and clear, she warily followed a bear cub through the trees and onwards to the stream, where she watched it play on its own further down-water, swiping at the little fish that swam in a panic around it.
    Its grumbling joy was quickly infectious.
    Peering around again for its mother and finding still no sign, the girl nudged aside the elk-sedge that grew along the banks, stepped into the water herself and began playing among the tiny fish, sending them darting around in alarm as if she was a bear herself. When she stilled to better catch one, however, a gasp blustered from her lungs. As the surface settled, she found the rippling image of a huge-horned woman staring back at her from beneath the water, a sad, painful look twisting her face.
    The girl froze, blinked, then slowly bent down closer. An aurochs?
    The sorrowful woman moved as she watched her, and raised her hand towards the surface. And the girl found her own hand moving slowly to meet it.
    The contact was solid, but she didn't notice it. In that instant she was overwhelmed instead by information; images, words and emotions bombarded her mind like a hailstorm - images, words and emotions all playing as if from her own perspective. Even the brief but intense flash of hatred and disgust aimed entirely at her felt as though it had originated from her own heart.
    'It did. All of'
    She recoiled, deaf to her own shriek, and threw herself backwards, kicking the water, bank and elk-sedge away from her as she scrambled to find sense. But none came.
    So she ran home instead, heedless of the bear cub that stood up and watched her from the water, grunting and whining in concern. She had already descended into a dense fog of wretched, debilitating confusion.

     Thick, high walls hid the little house within from the bright, shining sun. The minuscule windows were shuttered and draped against the fascinations of the world beyond, and the sturdy door locked tight against freedom.
    It was a prison in a colourful world, impenetrable and unshakable by the brightest forces beyond. And the girl inside - scared, weak, with only the youngest growth of antlers sprouting through her knotted, dark hair - was broken. She barely slept, so cold, terrified and confused, and when she rose the next morning to tend to her chores, the cycle began again. Her world was predictable, her life steady. Always familiar, always stable. Forever unchanging.
    But now she saw the truth in it: the bars around her home, the careful watch she was subjected to, the permissions she had to ask and obscene questions she had to answer. She no longer read, no longer created. The world had become a numb haze while she sat obediently, eyes wide and haunted. Her voice silent.
    She saw now. She saw everything. And that shock, that fear, trampled her like a furious herd of horses. How many times had it paralysed her? How many times had she resolved to give up, lock herself in and stay within that simple, predictable world? It would be easier. It took less work, and the hurt that would come from it was familiar. Safer, in a way. And she certainly didn't have the strength to fight it.
    And yet, every day that she trudged, numb-hearted, to deliver the clay to the potter, she couldn't help but be drawn back to the forest. She fled to it now, though she was too scared to look back into the water, and tried to breathe away the shakes with lungfuls of fresh, woodland air. And when the sun betrayed her and twilight moved in, the silent, trembling girl reluctantly returned home.
    The shakes plagued her for weeks. She barely ate, barely slept, and became hyper-aware in her exhaustion, noting every word and movement her master made, flinching at every interaction. She heard and saw all of it for what it truly was: absolute control. Absolute control, over her.
    But even though, in some strange way, she feared the forest almost as much as home - that she might learn something more that would become the final strike her fragile world could take before its rubble was ground to sand - she fled back there again the next day. And the next. And the next. Until one day, sitting absently beside her stream, listening to its comforting gurgles, her gaze wandered and landed upon the prophetic water for the first time in a month.
    Her body moved on its own.
    Pushing aside the elk-sedge, she crawled over and peered down through the glittering surface, coming face-to-face with the aurochs woman again. She was already staring back, as if she'd been waiting for her, and carried no less sad a twist in her brow than she had the first time. But there was something else there this time, the girl realised. Something softer.
    The aurochs reached towards her again, and the girl's fingertips hesitantly met hers through the water.
    There was no information this time. Instead, the reflection shifted, and the girl looked down now at her own face. Only then did she realise the resemblance between herself and the woman. And as she marvelled at that, she watched the stumpy antlers on her head grow into the broad, plated antlers of an elk.
    Then the image of the aurochs was back, standing beside her, resting her hand upon the girl's shoulder. And she felt it.
    The smallest gasp leapt from her throat as she spun to her left and found the woman suddenly standing beside her, as solid and real and dry as herself, her huge horns as light as a feather upon her head. And now, she was smiling.
    "Keep going," the aurochs said, her voice as strong as her horns were threatening. "I'm here. I'll save us both. Just buy me time."
    "B-buy you time?" The girl stuttered, her own voice small and unused. But she knew, somehow, exactly what the woman wanted.
    Her eyes must have betrayed her growing horror, because the aurochs moved and knelt down in front of her, squeezing her shoulder while the girl's shakes grew worse beneath her hand. Her smile was sadder now, but unwavering. "I am so sorry, little elk. But you can do this." Then she wrapped her arms around her and faded away, melting into the girl.
    Or the girl melted into her.
    "And," her voice echoed, "I love you, dearly. And I will thank you for all this one day."
    Then the little elk girl was left alone, blinking into the trees, heart racing beneath her ribs, thundering in her ears. And her blood surged with such strength that tears of fury sprang into her eyes.
    For the first time in her life, she felt whole. The fear was still there - greater now, fighting to overwhelm her all over again - but she could do this. She had to do it. The aurochs was taking care of something, and she would protect the horned woman while she did. And, though the fear was incomprehensible, she knew that only in facing it, walking into the storm as it tore her skin apart, could it be finally conquered. And she wasn't alone. She never had been.
    When her hard, stony eyes eventually sank back to the water, the only image she saw was her own true reflection, crowned now with full, powerful antlers.
    She raised a hand, damp with wild water, and fingered the velvet tines as she turned and wandered thoughtfully back home, where she was duly and quietly expected.

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Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock