The hard rain had stopped, but the mist lingered.
Peony checked her basket as she rushed through the damp ferns. Everything was there, just as it was when she set out this morning: food and drink, a blanket if necessary. Enough to sustain her for this trek. Cool water droplets fell from the branches and streaked her face. It was soon to be dusk, and she hadn’t been late for 12 years.
The years had not been unkind since the arrangement, but neither had they been pleasant. With Alain’s sacrifice, they had expected more, much more, than stable days and peaceful nights. They dreamt of a better way of life for their villages, a fruitful future, but received just enough to survive and be ignored. Still, the fighting stayed out of the valley, and they always had food in their bellies, so how could they complain?
The fighting. Gods. She hadn’t offered a moment of thought to the endless fighting for what felt like forever, but the emperor’s war still lingered just beyond their borders. Men slaying each other for the right to fly a flag with a symbol on it, blood flowing in steady torrents like so many rivers in the spring. Peony’s family never knew anything about the symbols or the men who sent others to die in their stead.
Yet Alain did. Despite his kind eyes and large hands, his gentle touch, and beautiful voice, Alain knew all too well about these men and their fighting. He lived among them, albeit briefly, and knew that such poisonous violence needed to be kept at bay, rebuked, and blockaded from their valley. He knew who to turn to. He knew what to do. She missed him as a sparrow longs for the sky.
Peony was ripped from her thoughts as her foot caught a root and she twisted a thicket. Her basket’s contents spilled out, rolling through the wet leaves. She lay there, cursing herself for getting lost in thought.
“Oy, who’s there?”
A male voice echoed out, bass-toned and menacing, sending a sharp jolt to her heart. Everyone in the village would be in their homes hours ago – they knew the arrangement – so this might be a-
“A member of the emperor’s army is addressing ye! Who is out there?”
She gathered what she could, her hands groping around in the rain-soaked foliage, and tried to stand. A searing pain ran up her left leg, emanating from her now-swollen ankle. It was as if her blood were on fire, leaving a trail of white-hot pain. Her knees buckled and she toppled again. Through the silence that followed, she heard footsteps coming toward her.
She pushed herself up, gritted her teeth, and began limping.
The sounds of the forest began to fade away during her disjointed, lame sprint to their Meeting Place. Gone were the drips from the branches above, the rustling of a breeze, even her own labored breathing was second to the crashing footfalls of the soldier in pursuit. She ignored the small saplings that lashed at her, ignored the throbbing that felt like a wolf was gnawing on her leg. She began to run in earnest.
The last of the sun disappeared over the ridge, and the forest became a darkened mess of divots and barricades. It had never set on her before during her annual travels, but now her stomach lurched; She was late, she was LATE.
Peony barely recognized where she was, the excruciating pain clouding her thoughts, but her memories dictated her course. The first several times she made this pilgrimage her eyes had been so full of tears she’d practically been blind, but she completed her task each time, and on time. It felt like the only thing in her life she could control back then, but now even that felt as though it’d been ripped away from her.
“The more ye run, the angrier I get!” bellowed the voice behind her.
It was hard for her to focus beyond anything but the pain setting her lower half on fire, but still she ran. She couldn’t feel her feet, but it seemed as though each footfall found purchase onto solid ground, bereft of wet leaves or fallen branches. That was not the case for her pursuer, who she heard curse with every gopher hole, muddy patch, or jutting branch.
Soon enough, even in the dead of night under a cloudy sky, she felt she was back on a familiar path. And then a new noise began to make itself known, ever so quiet at first, but soon echoing through the forest itself, of trees groaning like they were caught in a windstorm. Leaves rustled, but on the ground instead of from up high. Her steps were steadier on impossibly firm ground.
The clouds began to part, moonlight flooding the treetops and shining in streaks through the canopy of foliage. To her astonishment, the forest floor undulated, creating a clearer path for her – rocks and dead stumps shifted harmlessly away, low hanging branches lifted higher, and puddles of muck subsumed quickly into the ground.
Her mind reeled as the forest flexed and shifted around her, but then a gloved hand gripped her tightly, sinking its fingers into her flesh. It jerked her shoulder cruelly, slapping her basket away into the darkness.
“Now what do we have here?”
Although she couldn’t make him out, the soldier’s words sounded like he was sneering. He pulled her closer, his hot breath in her face.
“Well now, what do we have here,” he said, his voice oily. “Who knew the valley had such pretty presents for us?”
Peony struggled against his vice-like grip, but he wrenched her down to the ground, pressing hard on her ankle. The full throbbing ache returned tenfold. He tightened his grip and squeezed his other hand onto the back of her hair, roughly winding it around his gloved hand.
“Once I heard ye in the brush…well, I couldn’t have ye head back to your village to tell ‘em there was a soldier in the valley, could I?”
The noise was unlike anything she had heard in her life, and that was saying something. It resembled a noise she’d heard years ago, a crack so loud that she couldn’t tell if it was a thunderclap or her heart breaking. That was back when she kissed him for the last time, when the earth itself flexed and buckled and heaved and tore itself apart with tremulous viny fingers and snatched him away from her lips and her life.
The soldier didn’t have time to look up. His bones snapped as a fist of root and brush gripped him and yanked. The leaves swirled around his open mouth, stuffing his throat and blocking his nose as a gurgling shriek desperately rose, but then he was silent as he was slowly pulled down through the muck and the ferns. The last thing she could make out of him was the wild whites of his eyes sinking out of sight.
Peony turned, unsure if time was slurring around her or if her movements were sluggish, and she was face to face with a hulking shape that blotted out the moon.
His voice was the sound of an avalanche, uprooting trees and grinding landscapes to powder.
“Another suitor? Have I been gone so long?”
Peony drew close to the mound of earth given form, its mossy smell both comforted her and made the pit in her stomach ache - her mind was flooded with memories of Alain’s warm embrace that she would never truly experience again.
“Never,” she laughed softly, “You are mine and I am yours. That will never change.”
An enormous arm made of a fallen tree and tendrils of vines rose from the ground, and a finger of lichen brushed her cheek. “I missed you. I worried when you were late.”
She glanced back at the crumpled pile of armor and meat, “My deterrent has been dealt with, and now we are reunited.” She was quiet for a moment, and then her chin dropped. “My basket…I lost what little I had brought.”
The monstrous hand slowly moved away from her face and turned upward. Soon a large daffodil sprouted and bloomed in the palm. It filled with a sweet-smelling golden liquid, and it was offered to the woman.
“You are here, that is all that matters.”
In the quiet of the night, in the solitude of the forest, the two lovers shared a drink and their companionship. It had been a long, long year.
Special thanks to Ian Mondrick for his editorial assistance.