As soon as her foot hit the soft earth of the forest floor, as soon as the branches stretched out over her head closing her in, the calm seeped into her body. It spread slowly, like a drop of dye in a bucket of fresh water. She was home. Her family’s house had never been peaceful or safe. No, her home had always been in the trees — the small grove she would run to behind her house when she was little and her parents were yelling and throwing the few possessions they still had. Her younger sister would retreat to her own room, crying. For a while, Sh’ra had tried to comfort Tish'ri but she did know how. She had always refused to come outside.
“We aren’t supposed to go out there! It’s dangerous.”
She would hide in her closet instead. There were few clothes and plenty of space. Sh’ra would close the door on her and then sneak out through the empty kitchens. After sprinting down the hill, she would wade through the shallow stream marking the edge of their property, and scramble up the embankment on the opposite side. As she entered the trees, she would be able to breath deep once again. The scent of the pine needles and the feel of them beneath her bare feet would release the knot of tension in her throat and chest. She would run. She would climb. She would sit beneath the towering fir. Nestled up against its trunk, she would sleep until the cold night are woke her, or her father came for her.
This place felt like that and here too she felt the tension dissipating. She walked further in, toward the tree she had seen towering over the rest. She found it and sat down, leaning back against it. She breathed, taking in the mixture of earth and bark and nettle. She shut her eyes as the tear came again. She screamed and kicked and beat on the tree, comforted by the knowledge she do no real damage.
“This is my place, when I am a child,” a woman’s melodic voice spoke.
Sh’ra’s eyes shot open wide, searching for the source. There before her, arrayed in robes of earthen greens and reds, stood the goddess Lo’rah.
“Why are you here child? Why do you strike my tree so mercilessly?”
“I… I’m sorry. I failed goddess. You gave me the stone and… I failed.”
A quizzical look spread over Lo’rah’s face. She sat on the earth next Sh’ra, picked up a leaf, examined it, and set it down. She picked up another.
“At what did you fail?”
“At everything! Shin is… he is gone. I don’t even know where my father is. And now, I cannot use the stone. Something is blocking me.”
“What blocks you?”
“I… I’m afraid. Za’reth said it could kill me, that I could get lost in it, forever wandering. Why didn’t you tell me it could kill me?”
“Did you ask?”
“I have to ask? You gave me a stone that could kill me and its my fault that I didn’t ask?”
Lo’rah smiled, but did not reply. She turned her head to look out into the forest. Sh’ra followed her gaze. The trees spread out in every direction blocking the rest of the world from view.
“Why do you fear death, Sh’ra?”
“Am I not supposed to fear it? Doesn’t everyone?” She paused, and the memories tumbled in. “I was there goddess. I saw him die. He was alive and then he was gone. Teth too. Even the assassin. Where did they go?”
Lo’rah shut her eyes and inhaled deeply, holding the breath before letting it go.
“Can you not feel them? Are they not here with you still?”
Sh’ra was not sure what she had been hoping for from the goddess, but it was something more than this. She slumped back against the tree.
“I don’t see them. I can’t feel them. So even if they are here, what difference does it make?”
Lo’rah slid herself closer and wrapped an arm around Sh’ra.
“There is little I can tell you that will help. Mortals will ever see death as the great enemy, the veil behind which lies nothing, or everything. But perhaps this will be helpful to you now: those who are lost to the stone — they do not suffer. And it is not accurate to say they were lost to it, as if it took them. Better to say they chose it. Their lives were not stolen. Their connection to their bodies was not accidentally or forcefully cut. They chose their fate. They went willingly, and they do not regret the choice.”
“They chose that? They chose… death?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“Why? Why would anyone choose that?”
“I cannot answer as to their reasons — they are too varied and numerous. I can only tell you mine: to save those I love.”
Sh’ra sat up, twisting to see Lo’rah’s face.
“You? You were not always… the goddess?”
“I am the goddess Lo’rah. I have always been and I will always be.”
“But you just said…”
“Yes. Let me finish. I am the goddess and I am baby born to a mother, a daughter, a young girl laughing with her father, and a woman who bears the stone, who chooses to give up her life. I am her, but not here — in another place and time.”
Seeing the expression on Sh’ra’s face, the goddess laughed. “It is not so easy to explain and you do not have the time right now to understand. You will. But now, Za’reth approaches and I must leave you.”
Lo’rah stood, offering her hand to Sh’ra. They walked into the forest a short distance before the goddess stopped.
“This is where I leave you.”
Sh’ra’s thoughts were a mess, but she managed to blurt out the question that had been circling in her head.
“If you are in the past, are you also in the future?”
“Ah, so you do understand.”
Then she walked away, disappearing quickly into the trees.
Za’reth did not speak as they made their way back to the horses — not until they were mounted and on the road again.
“I know this is difficult for you Sh’ra. You are learning an ancient power with no one to guide you except an old man who knows nothing but what he has read from forgotten books. Perhaps, I pushed you too far, too quickly.”
It was an awkward apology. Sh’ra could tell it was hard for him, and that he did not actually believe he had done anything wrong. He was trying to be sensitive though, and that counted for something.
“I am sorry too. I should not have lost my temper. And I should not have thrown the stone at you. That was childish. I will take it back now. I do not fear it any longer.”
He placed a hand over the pocket on his shirt. “No. No, I am going to hold it for now, until your training with Lu’rik is complete.”
Anger flared in her stomach. She managed to suppress it. Through gritted teeth, she spoke.
“Will I not need it for my training?”
“Perhaps. I will entrust it to Lu’rik. She will decide.”
“You trust her with the stone?”
He looked at her, his gaze questioning.
“Well, I doubt she will hurl it at me and run away crying.”
He said it with a smirk and she could tell it was meant to be friendly jab, but it hit hard. He did not trust her. He thought she was childish. She had not done much to prove him wrong wither. Clenching her jaw, the stared straight ahead. They rode the rest of the day in silence. As the sun set, she saw the huts and tents of the Horn clan coming into view.