The wanderer comes to a shallow stream running between two tree-covered rises, and kneels at one damp bank to refill his water skins. His cloak hangs ragged down over his back into the dirt as he leans forward and plunges the first skin into the cold water.
The wanderer jerks his head up suddenly, and looks about around the embankments from beneath his hood. The only obvious sources of noise over the trickle of the brook are birdcalls and the buzzing of insects.
He stares up into the bushes at the top of the small hill across the stream. Without looking, he pushes the cork back into the top of the water skin, slings it back over his shoulder and straightens up. He hops across the brook, feet sinking into the soft mud on the far side, and proceeds to push his way through the thick undergrowth towards the hill’s summit.
He reaches the top of the hill, strikingly wrought with shadows, and creeps forward through the vegetation. His eyes narrow as he peers through the dense leaves ahead, and spots a clearing atop the knoll.
The canopy from the colossal forest extends out over the clearing, circling it, so that a single, wide beam of strong sunlight spears through. It strikes the stone dais at the center of the cairn at an angle. The light filters down through the bushes and straight into the wanderers’ lined face, forcing him to tighten his eyes.
Rising above him is a circle of imposing stones, each twice the wanderer’s height and half as wide, jutting awkwardly out like broken teeth from the overgrown floor of the clearing. Vines and moss cover each one almost completely, and the wanderer knows this archaic place of ritual is ancient. He moves forward, gently pushing aside the branches that bar his way. The weather lines etched into the corners of his eyes deepen, embossed against the tanned skin of his face, as he squints into the sunlight that bathes the broad stone dais in the center of the circle.
The wanderer halts abruptly, spying a small creature illuminated on the center stone. It is directly ahead; it is facing away from him and perches on the edge in a crouch. The wanderer’s hand automatically drops to the hilt of his sword, gripping the handle tightly, but not drawing.
The creature’s hair sparkles, giving its silhouette an otherworldly glimmer. The wanderer can clearly see waves of dark hair flowing down along its back. Yet, with the glaring sun in his eyes, the wanderer can tell no more. Suspicious, he takes a step forward.
A twig snaps.
The white noise of birdcalls and insects stops abruptly and the creature whips its head around at the intrusion. The creature’s thick, raven hair flows like water, and a pair of wide eyes glint from its black mask of shadows. The lose strands of hair around the creature’s face give it a sunlit corona. The wanderer curses the sound and the darkness across the creature’s face. He calls out, warily.
The creature bolts. The wanderer catches a flash of milky skin as the creature nimbly flees the light, bounding across the dais and out of sight. The wanderer dashes forward, out of the bushes and up the mound, fully into the light. It warms him, and he shades his face with his free hand as he gazes down at the lichen-stained stones on the other side of the circle. There is something on the stone dais, but with the sunlight in his face, he cannot tell what.
With the glare in his eyes, the depth of the shadows is palpable. He can barely see the small form in the gloom next to a leaning, mossy hulk. It is watching him, half-hidden behind a standing stone, curious. He sees the tiny flash of light reflected from its wide eyes. He moves to step forward again, and the elfin figure tenses.
“Please, don’t be afraid.” he calls out, softly.
The creature does not reply.
He reaches out a hand, beckoning, and the creature scrabbles around the stone. The wanderer runs down after it. He grasps the stone and throws himself around it, just in time to see the lithe figure disappear through a small bush at the base of another pillar, twenty feet away. He gives chase around the circle of stones, around almost to the opposite side.
“Do not be afraid! I am lost, and I need help!”
The wanderer swings around a stone on the far side of the cairn, leaping another bush, and staggers to a halt at the base of the mound. From atop the dais, the small creature looks down at him. The sunlight catches its face from the side, revealing the petite features of a young woman. Her dainty mouth is drawn into an apprehensive line. Her hair cascades down her back in a dark waterfall, and frames her face as she stares at the wanderer. Through her thick locks, poke a pair of tiny pointed ears.
He steps forward, raising one hand passively.
“Please,” he soothes, “I am looking for help. I mean you no harm.”
The beautiful young creature looks across at him fearfully; tension knots her willowy limbs as she pads lightly away from the wanderer, across the dais.
The wanderer cautiously walks up into the light, to the center stone, slowly and calmly. The small woman inches back in her crouch, guiding herself with her hands. Her eyes remain locked on the darkness of his hood. Noticing this, the wanderer pushes it back so she can see the beard growth on his cheeks, and the dark hair knotted back from his forehead.
“Please…I need help. I can pay,” he murmurs, reaching the dais. The woman is small, but not disproportionate, and the wanderer assumes she is of a diminutive race. He can see her eyes clearly now, and they are large, dark and fearful. Unconsciously, she tilts her head down, giving them a luminous, alluring quality.
The warmth of the late evening sun bathes the wanderer, relaxing him. The woman skitters back, hopping down off the dais, until she is once again in shadow. She does not flee.
“Here…” the wanderer whispers. He reaches back, under
his cloak, and then draws out a dazzling red gem, the size of a grape.
Tiny facets cover the spherical ruby, and the wanderer holds it out towards
the woman, willing her silently to take it.
She glances up at the wanderer with trepidation.
“It’s okay.” He says, unblinking, and takes another step forward.
She watches, unsure, and then in her crouched crawl comes forward, up and onto the center stone, with sensual ease and poise. The wanderer merely stands in the glorious sunlight, peaceful and warm, holding the ruby out over the dais. She tentatively reaches for the gem. Instinct seems to get the better of her, and she pulls back at the last minute, intently eyeing him.
“It is no trick, please, take it.”
She gracefully darts the last few feet across the center stone, and snatches the gem from his hand. She backs deftly off the dais with her prize, and the wanderer gives her an honest, close-lipped smile that creases the crows-feet at the corners of his eyes.
She smiles nervously back, mouth pursed, her delicate cheeks dimpling.
The wanderer walks forward, around the center stone, and she backs down the rough slope quickly. He raises his hands passively and sits on the ancient altar. Some of it crumbles as his leg brushes it, and his scabbard scrapes loudly against the stone. He pays it no heed, keeping eye contact with the woman in the shadows. She covers the ruby in a tiny fist, holding it tightly, and watches him with less timidity than before.
The wanderer produces, from inside his cloak again, an exquisitely cut sapphire. The sunlight, coming from the side, hits the gem in a magnificent cobalt nova, sparkling ghostly blue reflections across the cairn.
She gasps and smiles broadly at him. After a moments hesitation she creeps forward. The wanderer smiles serenely back, and reclines on the wide stone altar on which he sits. He props himself up on one elbow, legs bent over the edge. The heat of the sun on his back is so soothing, and the splendor of this tiny, raven-haired woman is captivating. He simply watches her face as she approaches the new gem with fascination.
The sunlight catches her elegant angular cheekbones as she easily slides up beside him on the stone altar, knocking the object off. It lands in the grass at the altar’s base with a moist thud.
He turns his head to face her.
The small, beautiful woman reaches out and places her pale white hand around his fingers holding the gemstone, and softly takes it from his grasp. The wanderer leans back more. She is so close now, and she smells fresh, like summer. She flicks her head gaily to look into his eyes, only a foot or two away. He feels her eyes wash over him and his own grow heavy. Her smile is radiant, lips pressed together so they pout. The light makes her defined cheeks glow under her eyes, and the wanderer feels more at ease than he has in many long years of travel.
He sighs heavily.
Through sparkling motes of refracted sunlight that cloud his vision, he sees her leaning over him. She is gorgeous, sensual and attentive. The last golden shaft of light gives her a glowing halo as she smiles down at him. She reaches up to delicately brush loose strands of hair back from his face.
Dreamily, he watches her tiny mouth.
The wanderer thinks he could lie here for millennia searching her countenance for the single imperfection that would mark her as mortal, and never find it.
He sighs again, through the haze of warmth and light, and spies a tiny spot on the side of her mouth, below her bottom lip. Her dark eyes rove intensely across his face, looking at him in adoration, her hands caressing his face as he lies passively before her.
The wanderer stares at the dark spot. It is a vivacious red, like the ruby.
Just like the ruby.
He is so calm now that his limbs feel like they might weigh a ton, and his eyelids droop steadily. A blissful rest is coming, and the wanderer welcomes it gladly. He has walked so many miles and come so far, a respite now could only ease the rest of the journey.
The wanderer stares at the spot on her lip. It glistens.
The vision above him leans over, the gentle, ceaseless caress soothing him as she beams her enchanting smile. Her full lips part to reveal a row of wicked, barbed teeth set within her razor grin.
The wanderer realizes the spot glistens because it is blood, and closes his eyes with a final, contented breath.