Lily of the Valley
She woke up alone, and when she opened her eyes, it did not make much difference. Everything was dark. It took some time for her to become accustomed to total darkness, which made her focus on her own body. Her stomach ached, as did her joints. Somehow the word that would best define her state would be crushed. She could feel that her hair and her dress were soaked and her feet were bare. She seemed to have slept for centuries. Her strength, however, gradually returned to her, as well as strange words that seemed to fly like birds inside her mind, verses of some song that was unknown to her, and yet there it was.
Her first impulse was to feel the soil on which she lay. Her hands slid over the smooth, damp stones that served her as unworthy rest, large, jagged stones, some even slightly pointed. Nervous, she sought to expand her knowledge of her surroundings, but wherever she touched she felt the same soil, the same stones, all strangely similar in size and texture. Gradually, she realized that they were not only moist but rather wet; and that the liquid that covered them was pretty slimy, almost gooey. She brought her hands to her nose and felt her face contract into a grimace as she smelled the terrible odor they exhaled. She agonized as she realized that she had nowhere to clean them, and this agony made her even more aware of the claustrophobic condition she was in.
Her breath quickened, making her realize that the air she was sucking was warm, thin, and somewhat putrid itself. She stretched out her arms trying to touch something that could give her any information about the space around her, each movement cost her enormous will power and was badly executed. But around her there was nothing above the ground. She then dragged herself to one side, desperately touching the uneven ground. After a few unsteady movements, her trembling hands finally felt something. Compulsively touching around they eventually could feel some rough stems lined up: bones. The girl startled at them and recoiled, swallowing a scream. She tried to stand slowly, ignoring her body’s protests.
There was a noise. A powerful noise, yet somehow muffled. The girl could feel vibrations around her, even as she could not understand exactly what was vibrating. She stood with her arms outstretched and took a few steps, still feeling nothing. After the noise there was silence again, but she noticed that the environment was not really silent. There was a low, soft, steady, muffled sound that never stopped. It was like the wind, but it did not sound quite like wind. Sometimes it seemed to even bubble. While she was still paying attention to her new realization, there was another noise, this time stronger and longer.
Everything around her vibrated again, in fact, everything trembled. The earthquake increased slowly, until everything around her shook. The girl was thrown to the floor with a thud and groaned in pain, searching for something she could stand on. The place continued to rock, and this time she was thrown to the other side for at least ten feet. This time she hit against something hard: long, smooth, thick stalagmites in which she sought to embrace while the earthquake asserted, increasingly violent. It was then that she realized that this could not be exactly an earthquake, it was actually shaking.
She spent little time thinking about this realization, because another discovery terrified her, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She was not hugging a stalagmite.
She was hugging a tooth.
Her lips parted to a scream, but it was a rather short cry: barely had she started and there was another bang and a violent bump that took her to the opposite side of the monstrous mouth she was in. Her body cut through the dense pitch and her head hit another of those huge teeth. It can not be said that her vision darkened more than it already was, but she lost consciousness, entering even deeper darkness.
There was a small, slow, soft sound that gradually intensified. When it became an unbearable buzz, she opened her eyes – they were flooded by a terribly blinding light – feeling her chest ache. She awoke with a desperate cough, searching with all her might to expel the water that drowned her lungs. She did not know how much time had passed, maybe hours or even days. The new agony still did not allow her to feel relieved that she had somehow escaped from the interior of the monstrous and unknown creature in which she had been. She lifted her back and turned to see the water as she spat on the soft, wet sand on which she lay, and now her pale hands were clawed. As the coughing subsided, she could smell the sea air, hear the sound of waves rolling, and mourn the salty palate in her mouth. A rather rough hand touched her shoulder, and she turned with a fright to see who was there.
In front of her was a bearded man with curly black hair, both with a strange green glow; a serious face furrowed by expression marks. He took his arm back and was now staring at her, kneeling on the sand, wearing only a kind of skirt made of a strange fabric that the girl did not know: it seemed to be a mesh of dark, shiny scales. His tanned skin covered well-developed muscles; on his fingers there were many rings with blue agate, tourmaline and sapphire stones whose intense solar reflections made the girl squeeze her eyes. There was something strange about the figure, even though she could not identify what, no matter how much she observed it. Maybe it was the way he stood still, which did not look natural. Maybe it was his piercing eyes, or even the silence he kept. Maybe it was the symmetry of his face, which made him look almost non-human. His mere presence emitted a certain disturbance and discomfort that the girl did not remember having felt before.
‘How do you feel?’ said the voice, deep, grave and intense as a sentence. His expression remained impassive as his lips moved.
‘I...’ She coughed a little more. ‘I don’t know. Weird. Pain.’ Her own voice sounded very strange and coherently joining words seemed harder than it should be.
‘Less pain than before, I hope. You’re lucky to be alive.’
‘Who are you?’ She felt bad for interrupting him abruptly, yet she could not help it.
‘I’m Nael,’ he said, frowning.
‘Nael like... Nael of the Seas?’ She had never seen anyone with that mythological name.
’Nael of the Seas. The Nael of the Seas.’
‘What do you mean, “The Nael of the Seas”?’
‘The Lord of the Tides. You certainly have heard of me.’
The girl grimaced as though her intelligence had been severely debased.
‘Is this some kind of joke? Who are you?’
There was silence as the man just stared at her seriously, his hair fluttering in the sea wind. A small smile curved his lips for a brief moment.
’That’s not the important question anyway. The important question is: who are you?’
The question pierced her like an arrow. She realized that no matter how she searched her mind, she could not find any information about herself. She tried and tried, but felt as if she were walking down a hall and opening successive doors that always showed empty rooms. Her face twitched. Nervously, she touched her forehead with her right hand. She felt a wave of despair take over.
‘Calm down, Lily. It’s all right.’
Lily, she thought. Lily, that is my name. That’s it. I am Lily. The man’s words actually soothed her, making her breathing normalize. She looked at him again, and he was now holding out a small round object. When she caught it, she could see a mirrored face. The silver surface reflected a young, delicate and candid face, with a dismayed expression illuminated by sunlight. Her naive eyes were as green as emeralds, her hair a very pale blond. Lily closed her parted lips, seeking in each feature for something that would give her clues about who she was, but except for the recognition of her own figure, little came to mind.
‘Many things have happened, Lily. I understand you do not remember much now. You banged your head a few times. At least I managed to save you from your doom.’
’What was... What was that thing?’
’A very ancient thing. Infinitely older than you, and even I. Older than this beach.’ The man’s eyes traveled through the air and returned to the girl. ’The Great Serpent was long gone. Some said that it had already died, others that it had never existed. Only one thing is certain: its reappearance is a bad omen. In fact, a very bad omen. You had luck. If it had not already sated itself with your traveling companions, by now you would have been inside its stomach, not its mouth, at the bottom of the ocean.’
‘Traveling companions? Explain me everything. I just can’t remember anything.’
The man sighed and then smiled tenderly.
‘Excuse me. You really did not want to marry that lord, did you?’
‘I will never marry Lord Fallas! I prefer death,’ she heard herself say, unable to make sense out of any of it. Then she remained silent, confused. Gradually, however, she regained part of her memory, as if a veil were being pierced in some expanding points, revealing some images, first blurred, then sharper and sharper.
‘That’s why you ran away. I’m afraid you’re probably not running that risk any longer. Fallas must be dead, like most of his compatriots.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He must have died in the invasion, Lily. The Reds must have killed him.’
‘That is impossible. Rhye is impregnable.’
‘It was, before. Not any longer. They got in.’
‘It’s impossible. It can’t be true. Everything you say is a lie. “Nael”? Spare me. I bet the Reds took a good and well-deserved spanking, that’s right.’
‘Lily.’ He stared at her calmly, and she stopped talking.
Lily felt her stomach wrap. She remembered her last fight with her father. Both had come to Rhye to protect themselves from these enemies, their father, as Duke of the Valley, would help the king, his brother-in-law, commanding some detachments in the defense of the capital in case of siege. As soon as they arrived he announced that he had arranged her marriage to Lord Fallas, Marquis of Sanneran; a man a few years older than she who had tried to woo her for years in vain. After so many failed attempts she had given up trying to convince her and now he was on another path: he would have convinced the old Duke that, besides being the best party, they had to get married quickly because of the war and all the politics in which their families were involved. Lily had imagined he would use such tricks, but she could not believe her father had given him credit.
One evening they heatedly discussed the matter, ending with an ultimatum: she was to be married in a maximum of a month, even if she had to be tied. Revolted, Lily spat on the floor and told her father she would run away forever. Her father had not believed the threat – which, admittedly, had been done a few times before for a variety of reasons – and did not bring the conversation forward. The girl remembered his expression at the end of the night: a mixture of sadness, disappointment, and resigned impatience. An image that, in spite of everything, always affected her. It was the last time he had seen him. Despite all that, a few days later she still had embarked on a ship that wanted to cross the ocean to the west, with no big plans for the future, but with a generous amount of gold in her purse. It seemed like centuries had passed.
‘Where are we? How did I get here? How did that snake catch me? My father, where is my father? Is he alright?’
‘Calm down, these are many questions. I’m afraid I do not have answers for all of them. The ship you boarded on to Heldaron months ago--’
’Months ago? How much time has passed?’
‘By the gods. It’s not possible. And how do you even know all this?’
‘The ocean tells me everything that goes on between the waves of these seven seas. As for the rest, what happens on land... Well, I have my friends.’
‘So you’re telling me you’re really Nael of the Seas.’ She wasn’t really convinced. ‘Whatever. What happened to the ship?’
‘Your ship was attacked by the serpent, who devoured a good part of your companions and took others, including yourself, as souvenir. You would be the last meal the attack would yield. And then I intervened.’
There was a pause as he stared at her in silence. The frown seemed to express concern. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, someone approached.
‘Hello, Vussya. Just in time,’ said the man without taking his eyes off Lily; he seemed to have noticed.
‘So this is the girl,’ said the stranger, smiling. He was a tall, thin man with short brown hair, a goatee, and a light, kindly expression. He wore a snow-white robe. ‘I thought she were older.’
‘If she was, she might not have been so audacious.’
As they spoke, Lily flexed her fingers and watched them. She realized that not only them, but other joints that once ached seemed to hurt much less. The man in front of her seemed to notice her discovery.
‘Do not get over excited, I’ve been able to relieve your pain for some time, but you still need specific care. I’m afraid you will not be able to walk for a few days. We need you to move fast, though.’ When he finished speaking, he turned and stared at Vussya as if he were communicating with his gaze.
Vussya smiled and approached Lily almost sliding across the sand. He bent down and touched her forehead with his right forefinger, and she stiffened suspiciously.
‘Have no fear. This way you will reach the city in a jump.’ Lily felt a ripple through her body and a shiver down her spine. Everything seemed lighter. Then Nael held out his hand, and there was a small leather pouch in it.
‘Take this to Fjerb, and to him alone. I’m sorry.’
‘What are you sorry for? I don’t understand. Can someone explain to me what’s going on here?’
‘Lily, I wish I could explain you with all the details, but the truth is there is no time. You must deliver this message as soon as possible.’
‘Can I at least know what is it about?’
‘On the right time.’
Lily snorted and picked up the little bag, placing it inside a small pocket of her dress. Only then did she notice how shredded it was; little remained of the elegant piece with which she had left Port of Rhye.
‘How do I get to Rhye? I do not even know where I am. I think I recognize this beach. I’m in the north, am not I?’ said she, seeing the deserted beach around her as dark clouds were approaching in the sky.
‘That’s right,’ Vussya said. ‘Follow the south wind, and you will soon see the Lady of the West. Be careful, there is a storm coming.’
‘And how will I do that?’
‘Have you flown before?’
Lily just stared at him irritably.
‘As I thought. Very well. Rise.’
For a moment she did not understand. She continued to stare at the man as if she were the victim of some kind of prank. Slowly, however, she stood up, not taking her eyes off him, confused.
‘You do feel your body, do not you? So. You need to get light. Lighter. Remember this. And climbing, you need to climb. Maybe you think you’re going to do something stupid, but you will not. You’ve never done this before, but now you can do it. You’re going to have to believe me. Let’s go. Rise.’
For a moment Lily did nothing, waiting for him to say something else, to make things clearer. When she realized that new words would not come, she forced herself with her arms and legs. She clenched her fists tightly, tiptoed. Nothing happened.
‘That’s not it. It’s not about your body, but about your mind. It’s not about brute force. See yourself first rising in your mind, and then you will find yourself really rising up here. It’s already there, with you. It just needs to be figured out. Let’s go. Rise.’
Then somehow she understood. She felt something in her mind that she could not remember ever feeling, as if she had discovered a new way of thinking. She concentrated, not knowing exactly how, but found a way. It was like finding some kind of leverage, and she could feel herself slowly mentally pulling it. Soon she could feel her body stop touching the sand beneath her. In a short time she was levitating, farther and farther away from the beach floor. She smiled as she enjoyed the new sensation, although she understood very little of what was happening.
‘Thank you, I guess, Nael and Vussya... For everything... And for whatever this is!’
‘No need to thank us, Lily. Fly to Rhye. Deliver the message to Fjerb, and this will be the best way to thank us. I don’t wish to ruin your joy, but stay alert. Weird and terrible things are coming. Things that had not happened in a long time.’
With that she rose up until both of them looked like miniatures beneath her. She could still see when Nael headed for the sea, then disappeared between the waves, and Vussya rose from the ground, too, but in the opposite direction, fading into the clouds. It was then that she realized that she did not know how to follow the south wind and the clouds were rising in the sky – the higher she climbed, the denser she felt the moisture of the air that touched her skin. Before she despaired, however, she saw some mountains in the distance. By now her memory had already revealed something about the environment in which she was, so that she could recognize them almost instantly; then she already knew exactly what direction to take.
She stopped rising and began to cut clouds in the sky in that direction, feeling the wind flutter her hair and her dress as she passed the miniature world beneath her. Though she had never done anything like it, her body had somehow become accustomed to the new gift, as if it had done so ever since it had been born. She had never been afraid of heights and had always admired the birds for their art. She seemed to be dreaming as she stretched out her arms, floating in the air, gliding as the strong wind cut through her face. After a while she began to hear some thunder, first in the distance, and then closer and closer. Soon she could see the flashing lights, and, as usual, no actual lightning. She did not seem to care, her attention turned completely to the castles, towns, small towns, forests and lakes she saw beneath her.
After long minutes she could see the city of Rhye, first only a gray spot, then a heap of pointed towers surrounded by a clear wall; her heart warmed in spite of the cold wind that enveloped her. Tenderness gave way to fear, though. She felt a bad feeling grow in her chest as she approached. The feeling only got worse when she spotted a mass of crows flying in circles beneath her, over the city and its surroundings.
At that moment there was a great thunder near her, accompanied by a great light. The shock was so great that it made the girl deconcentrate, losing the stability of the flight and falling rapidly.
Agonizing with the buzz in her ear, she tried to regain her balance. Everything turned in her sight, so that she could barely discern what the sky was and what the earth was. She tried not to get lost in this mess, concentrating on trying to find the path of her new skill in her mind. In this quest she had moderate success: gradually she was able to resume the way, but by that time her falling speed was already high and the most that she could do was to alleviate her fall. After a few moments battling gravity, Lily landed with a thud on the green, living grass that surrounded Rhye.