Copyright © 2003 by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
Do you have fear in your heart? Is it of me? Then you are wise, and I am not far behind you. Run child. Dart into the shadows. There . . . In the farthest corner of the field. See the crevice? Will you fit there in the darkness? Or maybe behind the twisted boughs of those great dark trees? You can try.
Shall we play at games? Hiding and seeking-till I grow weary of the hunt. A round of tag where you are frozen by my touch, with no one left to set you free? Prepare yourself; I have set the count. Only you and I are left at play.
Can you see before you as you flee me? Dodging. Running. Scurrying away. I see before me dark and angry shadows in deep relief against a cold and moonlit sky. I do not see you. My mouth wets. The scent of fear a trail behind you. I can taste it. It is nectar-the chilled and salty smell of anxious sweat mingles with the faintest scent of mildew from damp discarded leaves. The smell of Death. Despair. Decay.
Run child. Let me hear you. Crush the twig beneath your feet. Struggle to silence the frantic panting of traitorous lungs. Teeth barely clattering. You are struggling. Your body would betray you. Can you fight both it-and me?
Enough, child! This is no longer quaint! Prepare-I Descend.
AAaauuGGhh!!! Filia woke, drenched in sweat, screaming.
She remembered nothing but a wicked whisper, just beyond the edges of the slab that was her resting place. Tucked beneath the shadow of leaning boulders, she was not seen and made no rustling on a cold and empty rock. And still she would get no more rest this night.
She sat up, head down and clutching her knees, waiting for the dawn to catch up with her. She would sit and watch the deep orange sky turn blue, and then trek on with only the sun and sorrow as companions, hoping to leave the whisperer behind.
The day was not so cold and distant as the night, and the path was no more difficult than ran through any unkempt meadow where she had grown up playing. But empty was this wilderness, with no sign of common creatures, and silent as if nature held its breath. Shadows lengthened as Filia kept a barely-less-than-frantic travel pace.
Do you tremble? Child. Is there healthy fear beneath your skin? Then twitch and shudder. I cannot hear you. So then-Hear me. My breath is heavy in your ears. Rasping on the remnants of your nerves. Feel my exhalation: Cold. Chilling. Creeping up-Covering you. Snap! I care to crack the twig you carefully missed. Run, child. For I am not far behind you.
Where do you race to? A haven? A door to lock behind you? Would you hide beneath the cozy goose-feather bed? In the cellar? Right there is yet another door to lock. But what about the window . . . or the chimney? Shall I pretend that they do block me? In the spirit of the race, of course. This is a weary game we play. Perhaps I'll make it moot. I'll catch you quick-and savor instead the frantic pounding of your heart. After all-you cannot hide from me. Run, child, forever. I will be here when you tire. Following the echo of your fear. Run, child. This Hound has been bred for hunt. Perhaps I shall call out-to reassure you, for I am not far behind. AaRRooAArrOO!!!
. . . OOO!!!! The echoing sound leaned heavy on Filia, making her question the separation of the whisperer's world and the one she now traveled.
Lifting her head from the hard-packed dirt her body had given out over, Filia wiped both sleep and random pebbles from her eye. This little, unplanned nap reinforced her fears-her muscles and her mind were much too close to rebellion. She must have true rest. It would be impossible to win against the whisperer, if she fought her body, too.
Rinsing her face in the biting cold water of the stream she had collapsed beside, Filia reached for all she had inside-rebellion, anger, pain . . . loneliness-anything to force her body on, for energy was gone. She would have to stop; she had to eat. She had to think of where it was she ran toward. Was there a sanctuary she could finally reach? There must be, or all of this truly was the whisperer's game.
Filia reached into the pouch that was her Choice Fatherís parting gift. It was forever marked with his dying blood-touched with his true essence-and it contained both mystery and meaning for the remainder of her life. In it were three things-an embroidered, child's blanket, a crystal carving, and a letter.
Of the three, the letter was a puzzle. She could not read the words, written as they were in a language she had never even seen. The contents of its pages stayed a riddle.
And so, of the other two, it was the carving she reached for now. This was the one that most intrigued her, that so fine a crystal had been carved, and to such a form. In the palm of her hand, no taller than her longest finger, stood a fully detailed bird flying from a fire. The bird had a warmth of its own, a fire-a feeling of spirit. Its head and wings were raised, either defying the flames or delighting in them. One could not say which, though Filia thought it both.
This is how she thought of Custos, proud and defiant, burning with the energy of how he lived his life. Filia longed to wake up and see around her the walls of their room, knowing that Custos would be safe outside guarding her sleep or to see him looking over her, his weathered face leaning against his walking staff.
But no. Custos was dead, his dying breath had saved her life and he was gone. There would be no late night talks of war, or silent dinners under the disapproving eyes of the village gossips. He would not raise his head and tell her the secrets of her letter. And now, no longer was the nighttime safe, or even the day. Filia was alone, with no one left to care.
Her thoughts of food forgotten, Filia sat mesmerized by the crystal and fatigue. Hot, angry tears streamed down her face. That particular battle her body won. As she cried out for the comfort and security she had seen die with Custos, burning, crystal tears covered her curled up body. What was left for one twice-orphaned in a world that did not care?
Do you jest? Has my prey gone mad with fear? Run, child, Run. I truly am not far behind you. And yet you sit. Do you think to hide beneath my nose? Curling up and thinking yourself gone? It does not work, child. Show that you are worthy of the hunt! Do not presume I have in me those seeds-Mercy and Compassion. I am bred for hunt, and you are prey.
And yet you sit. Do not react. Cannot even raise your eyes. You have turned me sour on this hunt. You are not worthy of the chase. And yet I anger. This was a good pursuit! Eager sport. For this you would die quickly. But flout the rules of conduct in this game-Presume the right to end the match, Unfinished-And I'll deal harshly with your soul. That is not how the game is played.
I shall stalk, as is my role. Slow circles. Going wide, at first. Drawing tighter. I shall savor anticipation of what comes last. You curl in-Clutch tighter. Dreading what I savor.
Ah! You have not totally withdrawn. Whiffs of fear do permeate the air. I feast upon it. It is like a bitter chocolate to my mouth. Can you hear me circle around? Know you when I'll pounce? This is the object of the hunt. And I've been patient. One more time, child-Run. Flee. Try to get away. Or not. You have been broken and this is no longer fun.
Welcome me-or not-I Descend! AAAHHH!!!
Filia huddled in her crystal shell, coldly distanced from reality. Surrounded by the blessed relief of silence the weary girl curled herself tight beneath her protection. The world could wait.
And so! The victim is the victor. I cannot reach you where you've hidden. And I've been fooled. But do not think of resting easy in your hole. I think I will be patient a while more. I'll keep your company, perhaps to resume the hunt, for I am wrong. You are worthy, and you are not safe for long. You will run, child. For you are wise and I am never far behind you.
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