A Dream Without Meaning
Nighttime had fallen on Asgard, one of the nine realms of the cosmos, and most of its people had fallen into a slumber ever since the vast expanse above the realm had completely turned from a fine blue to a very dark black. The only thing breaking the darkness was the faint light of a thousand stars, dotted across the sky and dazzling those who took the time to behold them and appreciate their beauty. The mere stillness of it all was enough to reflect the peace and prosperity that the people of this realm had enjoyed for years, ever since their beloved king, the mighty Odin, had won the great war against the barbaric Frost Giants of Jotunheim by enacting a seal to prevent them from leaving their own realm. However, unbeknownst to almost everyone in Asgard, one of their fellow citizens – despite her unfavorable circumstances – would eventually prove to be a great heroine for the realm in her own right.
She was asleep. Of that, she was certain. Whether she would dream or not, it did not matter. She was only content with letting her body rest after a hard day's work. Even in her current state of reduced consciousness, a small smile slowly spread itself across her lips, almost as if in the back of her mind she wanted to make her ease known – though she was alone – before surrendering herself completely. The last thing she remembered before doing so was the feel of the warm embers behind her, giving her the heat she often enjoyed against her back before the fire completely died down.
The next thing she knew, she felt as though she was lying not on a makeshift mattress, but on something that almost enfolded her in its embrace without completely covering her like a blanket. Sweet, earthy scents were caught by her sense of smell, her sense of touch felt the soft breeze of a wave of wind that was neither warm nor cool, and her ears picked up the faint sound of birds chirping a morning song. Feeling the inevitable, instinctive need to know where she was, she opened her eyes with as much effort as opening a slab of stone with her hands, and beheld a sight completely different from that she saw before.
She found herself lying on the greenest and most comfortable grass she had ever seen and felt, spreading for miles in all directions around her, like a sea of green. In the distance, she could see a chain of mountains, some dotted with trees at the base. Above her she saw the widespread blue of the sky, with very few clouds to be seen. Wanting to look around even more, she raised herself into a sitting position and hugged her knees to her chest, seeing now that she was wearing a plain, unadorned, white dress with long sleeves and a skirt reaching down to her ankles. She wore no shoes; instead her bare feet touched the ground beneath her, which was surprisingly soft and comforting. Her long hair, which she usually kept in a braid, was now loose and letting the mild wind get hold of it.
She looked to the right and saw a large, beautiful palace made of white marble stone, a solitary building standing in what seemed to otherwise be only wilderness, and looking to be a strong, formidable fortress as well as a serene place to live. She wondered who could live there if not the mighty Odin and his family – though they lived in a much more massive palace made of gold rather than marble – when curiosity aroused her to look the other way.
More green and mountains were what she saw, stretching as if to the horizon, when something else caught her eye. She looked up and saw, to her almost childlike delight, three magnificent looking butterflies. They were each a different color from the other: pink, purple, and blue. There wings were etched with black, but she could almost swear she saw tiny jewels etched into them as well. And wherever they flew, a short sparkling trail with the respective coloring of each followed all of them.
Getting the idea that they might be wanting her to follow them, she slowly stood up, and saw them fly slowly away from her. She followed her initial feelings and walked behind them, eager to know where they might lead her. She followed them down a sloping hill where a field of wildflowers bearing all sorts of colors greeted her. One white flower she saw beneath her was so exquisite she couldn't resist the temptation to pick it and put it in her hair. When she then saw that the butterflies were getting ahead of her, she ran through the flowers until she was right behind them again.
She followed them for what seemed a long time, yet short as well, through a forest of trees, each of which bore green leaves as well as a few pink and white blossoms. She then passed through another green field, wondering as she did so many times already what these enchanting creatures could possibly be leading her to, when she came upon perhaps the most beautiful horse she'd ever seen.
It was a mare, she could tell, with a pristine white coat and a mane and tail of the same color. It's large, brown eyes laid on hers, and she immediately felt almost mesmerized as she strode over to the horse, her hand slowly reaching out to touch her. When at last she was right in front of her, and she laid her hand on the horse's muzzle, she didn't shy away as she would have expected of a wild horse. Instead, she greeted the gentle touch, and in return rested her muzzle over her shoulder, allowing her to stroke her tender yet strong neck. She then took a step back and planted a kiss on the horse's face before giving it a scratch.
Then, almost as if she were invited as well as once again being curious, she walked over to the horse's side, grabbed onto her mane, and jumped up across her back. She lifted her leg over and made sure she was in a good position, but before she could urge the horse forward, she seemed to know exactly what she wanted, as she walked forward without waiting for a command. Her rider couldn't help but smile.
Before long, she was trotting, then cantering, and then galloping through the beautiful land of green, leaning forward with her hands gripping the horse's mane, and her knees locked into her sides to keep from falling. She found that she couldn't think of a time when she was happier and felt so free from the labor she was often plagued with. As she heard her horse's hooves thunder into the ground beneath her, and felt her long, silvery mane whip occasionally against her face, she came to believe that if she rode any faster, they would probably take off flying, and she wouldn't be surprised.
She was surprised, though, when she eventually saw and soon came upon an end to the previously endless green field. From what she could see judging by how far the opposite end was from the one she was on and by the sound of rushing water that seemed to be coming from below, it appeared to be a chasm with a large river at the bottom. Feeling the need to see for herself, she jumped down from the horse and then slowly and cautiously walked over to the edge. What immediately greeted her was an almost nausea-inducing drop from where she stood to the large, flowing river.
She turned around and headed back toward the horse, wanting to get away from the sight she'd just seen, when suddenly, just as she was about to touch her, the mare reared on her hind legs and let out a frightened neigh. She instantly backed away, startled at how this friendly and tame horse could suddenly turn on her in such a wild and sporadic way. But once she did, one of her feet touched empty air rather than the ground. Before she could do anything to catch herself, she turned around and, as if in slow motion, began plummeting to the river at the bottom of the chasm. She didn't scream. She only quickly put her arms in front of her face and shut her eyes, awaiting her imminent demise, but it never came.
Instead, the next time she opened her eyes, she found herself lying on what felt like hard ground, and saw nothing around her but black. She was now even more startled than she was before, and she quickly sat up, wanting desperately to know where she was despite seeing nothing but darkness. Still, she would find out where she was, and her first clue came to her when she turned fully around. She saw in the distance what looked to be three triangular windows in a row on both the left and right, all letting in dim light, but bright enough for her to see. She also saw what she believed to be the three butterflies from before, but the colorful trails they left were not as bright. Even so, she pulled herself up to her feet and, without hesitation, walked forward.
As she did, she began to have the ominous feeling that something unsettling was about to happen. It grew little by little with every step she took, as if every step was an additional stone in the building of her inner tension and her pounding heart was the hammer. She wanted to be prepared, but she still stepped back and put her arms up in fright once she reached the pool of light below one of the windows, and a giant wall of brilliant red flames flew up where the windows were. In a state of near panic, she looked around for the butterflies, and once she saw what she believed to be their colors, she immediately gathered her skirt in her hands and ran down the dark hallway, not knowing where they would lead her but deciding that any place was better than here.
She followed them as fast as her legs could carry her, running down hallways, passing corridors, and darting past corners in an attempt to make sure she didn't lose them. Everywhere she went, every location she encountered, was ablaze with the consuming fire she feared would take her in its hot, burning hold. Sometimes it almost seemed as if they were lashing out at her, causing dark brown spots to form on her white dress. The marble floor that once felt cold against her bare feet felt increasingly warmer, and though she followed the butterflies every step of the way, she began to despair of ever finding a way out of this burning building.
After getting past another corner, the number of which she long since lost count, her eyes widened and her heart threatened to beat out of her chest, for a massive wall of fire awaited her in front of what she believed to be a way out. But there was nowhere else for her to go, and she could feel the heat of the fire behind her as it threatened to entrap her. Suddenly, she remembered when her dress was damaged. She gently, then firmly, touched the spots where it had been burned, and felt no reaction. She then remembered further how she felt nothing when the flames licked her dress, and she wondered wildly if she would be able to pass through that wall of fire unharmed.
Still, she'd managed to make it this far, and the butterflies hadn't led her to harm before. Going against her instincts and instead gritting her teeth and tightening her hands into fists, she took a deep breath, and ran as fast as she could toward the fire before closing her eyes and leaping through it. She then tumbled down what felt like a flight of marble stairs, but still felt no pain as she descended. She soon found herself on her back, her stomach heaving, and her eyes still closed, not wishing to know what dreaded sort of fate awaited her after that near terrifying ordeal.
Even so, she forced herself to open her eyes to behold what appeared to be a great hall, devoid of its former glory she believed it must have once had. The only light illuminating the hall came from the wall of fire she'd just leaped through. There was no fire in the room itself, but it looked as though it had already passed through and consumed the entire scene before finally dying out. The marble was now dark gray and cracked, the banners hanging from the upstairs railing and from the ceiling were black, torn, and full of holes, and a sea of ashes covered nearly every inch of the floor. She wondered if she could see any sight anymore bleak and dark than the one before her, when she saw what appeared to be two bodies lying on the far side of the hall.
She quickly got back on her feet and hurried over to them, her heart beating in both fear and anxiety for what she would find. She then got down on her knees, and from what she initially saw, they all seemed charred and damaged beyond any possible healing. Still, she felt the irrepressible need to know who they once were. She slowly reached both her hands out and, though she hesitated at first, quickly rolled both of them onto their backs, and was immediately shocked at what she saw.
Though she couldn't see either of their faces clearly, through the seriously burned skin and even bits of bone here and there, she could make out that one was a man and the other a woman. She could also tell by their clothes that they were nobles, for despite the fact that they were torn, blackened, and burned, they still had bits of gold sprinkled in small places across them.
Almost as if out of nowhere, her heart leaped to her throat, and tears as hot as the flames that she'd somehow conquered formed in the back of her eyes, desperate to be released. Though she didn't know why she felt this way, since she could not tell who they were, she let them flow, as if they somehow might bring them back to life. But they didn't, and that only made her cry even harder. Even then, she couldn't help but wonder why. Was it because she was merely mourning their loss? The fact that she was beholding not one, but two dead bodies for the first time in her memory? Or could she have actually known them at one point despite not being able to tell who they were?
Not knowing the answers to any of these questions caused even more tears to descend down her cheeks and blur her vision. Would she ever escape this pit of despair? She feared she never would. But a faint, single hope in her heart encouraged her to look up, and she saw once again the three butterflies above her. Willing to do anything to get out of this dungeon of misery, she slowly stood up, and forced herself to move forward. She took no more than four steps before turning back and looking at the badly charred bodies, but she took a deep breath and turned back around.
She walked four more steps, but this time, instead of stopping willingly, she took a step back in fright for perhaps the third time in recent memory once she saw a pair of large, red eyes more menacing than any she'd ever seen flash at her. But instead of stepping on solid ground, she again tripped once her foot found nothing to step on. Though she tried to grab onto the slab of remaining marble, she found herself slowly falling into an abyss of nothingness.
But as she was falling, she thought she could see another pair of eyes at the top, much more different from the ones she saw before. These looked much softer, as well as frightened, as if for her, and green mixed with gray rather than red. She also believed she could see a single hand reaching out for her. Although she was already falling with little to no hope for rescue, she desperately reached out her own hand. But the two never touched. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out, no matter how hard she tried. She was only left with refreshed sorrow as she turned around to face the deep darkness of the void.
When she opened her eyes again, her eyes widened as she found herself in a much different location than before. She was not lying down on something, nor was she standing, or even on solid ground. Instead, she was enveloped ever so gently in the deep, otherworldly experience of being underwater. All around her she saw nothing but endless blue, and it appeared as though she was the only living being there. She saw no fish or other living creatures, or even a floor underneath. But she did see what appeared to be sun rays dancing before her eyes, inevitably encouraging her to look upward. To her great, rekindled happiness, she saw the surface of this new, strange world, the sun shining through it. Though she didn't see the butterflies, she reasoned that they might be above the surface, waiting for her.
But despite her best efforts, she still could not reach the surface, which now felt even further away than before. Her slowly changing vision eventually caused her to see only red and none of the blue that she previously saw, making her desperate to reach the surface, but to no avail. Instead, she then felt a slight something in the back of her throat, something that seemed to be causing it to close. Fearing she was going to lose consciousness, she gave every ounce of strength she had in her. But all that she had done proved to be in vain as she put her hands to her throat and closed her eyes, wishing that someone, or something, would take her out of this torment before she lost the will to live.
That was when her eyes flashed open, and she found herself staring up at the ceiling of a room, and that she was no longer in the dreadful underwater world of red. She swallowed in nervousness, wondering where she could possibly be now. But as she slowly looked around, she saw that she was rather in the most familiar of places. A wooden table stood at its usual spot in the room, with a chair sitting next to it. As she turned onto her left side, she realized that she was lying on a well-known, straw-filled mattress. Turning back over onto her right side, she saw the most recognizable part of the room. The fireplace, with its previous fire long since dead, stood right in front of her, some of its black cinders spilling out of the hearth, and the chimney behind it allowing the echo of the wind outside to enter into her presence. A poignant, haunting reminder of what she had to endure only recently.
She then felt her forehead, which apparently had once been covered with sweat, and then, in even more concern, she felt for her throat. To her relief, which she immediately released with a heavy sigh, it was still open, allowing her to breathe. All that she'd previously experienced was a dream. Well, at least it started out as one before slowly turning into a nightmare. Still, it felt so real, like she was actually there, like she could still feel the soft grass beneath her feet and the flames lash out at her, even now. And even more strange, it haunted her deeply, as if, as if she'd been in all three of those locations before. The grounds beside the grand, marble palace, the inside of the palace as it was burning, that underwater world, even those pairs of eyes that had stared at her. All of them felt faintly familiar. But how could she possibly think them familiar if she had no memory to speak of?
She wondered wildly what kind of dream this was, how it could make her feel so disturbed, when she noticed beyond one of the two windows that the day had started without waiting for her. That was when her heart began to race in nervousness, and she quickly got up as fast as she could, without bothering to stretch for she didn't even have time for that. All she knew was that she would likely get in trouble for waking up later than usual, though she knew her mistress wouldn't take her wild journey of a dream for an excuse.
She hastily hurried over to the cupboard that stood on the side of the room opposite of her, and took out a silver, medium-sized bowl. After which she took it to the water pump, which was, thankfully, right near the cupboard, and pumped water into the bowl. She then let it down on the table. But before she washed her face, she allowed the water to still, to reflect that familiar image of herself as a final act of assurance she wasn't dreaming. She saw her white shift, which she slept in, and her hair was unkempt and out of order, though she would fix that later. But the two parts of her reflection which stood out the most, were her cheeks, and what was on them.
Lifting one of her fingers to her right cheek, she touched it only for a moment before drawing it back, and saw the black soot covering its tip, the powder for which she was named. She had no real name of her own. At least, none that she knew of. Here, she was known only for what she slept in. Here, she was known as Aska: ashes.