He left because he had to. He had been there too long. His welcome was long worn-out. Everyone thought him strange. And the miller’s daughter had accused him when her belly had begun to swell.
But mostly he was leaving because the Wolves were coming.
He tried, in vain, to warn the entire village. He told them of the howls he heard the night that they came to the settlement he was raised in, of the torn pieces of the bodies of people he’d known all his life strewn about like so many autumn leaves. He told them that the Wolves hadn’t eaten anything. They just killed. He tried to save them, tried to get them to see that the Wolves would be coming for their village. He tried so hard.
And they would not listen. Some laughed, like the milkmaids or the good-for-nothing men who sat at the tavern and drank away their meager laborer’s wages. But most just could not believe. Even the kind widow who took him in had just shaken her head and asked him to bring wood for the fire pit.
Perhaps they had no desire to accept the idea. Or was there something darker that clouded their minds? The why of the matter was not important. He did what he could for them, and now he had to leave.
He told the widow of his intent and she understood. She insisted that she launder his ragged clothes before he left. She even tied a small bindle of dried meat for him and cleaned his bedroll. When he gathered his things to leave she wished him well.
He begged her then, begged her to go with him, flee this place and the bloody fate that he knew would overtake her if she stayed. She just smiled and said “This is my place. I have never left, I will never leave.”
He sighed, hugged her, said farewell and struck out. He took the south road out of the village until it turned east, and then he walked off the road and into the meadows with the afternoon sun warming his right side.
As dusk was drawing near he saw a river, and just beyond an expanse of birch woods. He made it to the water’s edge with just enough light to find a ford, wade across, and cut some wood for a fire with his fathers old hatchet. Once the fire was going he made his bed and sat on top of it while chewing some meat. He looked up and the moon was nearly full in a cloudless sky. Tomorrow he could bathe, maybe even whittle a short spear and catch a fish or two before finding a path through the woods southward.
He’d been headed south for a long time now, away form his home, away from the Wolves. At least things would be warmer there, what with winter coming closer every day. He yawned. Weariness was now upon him, and he covered himself without dousing the fire, waiting for sleep. The dreams would wake him, of course, but what could be done about that?
He was running. The light was moving to and fro in front of him, and the voice urging him onward kept calling his name. How did it know his name? What was that light? Everything else was so dark, but the light, the light knew his name. The dark shapes seemed to reach for him but the light was keeping him safe. He could see when the arms grabbed for him and the light showed the way out of their grasp. The light kept calling, they were almost there.
And then he heard the howls. The Wolves were behind him.
He tried to run faster but the arms had him now. The light was fading, the voice was shouting but he couldn’t hear, and he knew they were coming for him. The howls drew closer. He screamed.
He woke up making a hoarse noise in his throat. He was trying to shout in his sleep. He sat up, heart racing, and tried to shake the dream from his head.
And then he heard the howls again. And yet he was in the waking world.
He rose quickly and stomped on the few flames left of his fire. Then he stood completely still and listened, breathing hard. The howls came from the north. The village, no doubt. What could he do? His dreams couldn’t help them now. But he might still have time to make an escape. By the light of a near full moon he gathered his things and started into the woods as quickly as he could manage.
The going was slow, but moving through trees, branches, and logs in near total darkness was the only option he had. After just a short time he was tiring from the sheer effort it took to make his way. He struggled onward. The river would slow the Wolves but he had to find a path soon or they would be upon him.
He trotted through a small clearing when his left boot struck something and he went face first straight down to the soft, leafy ground. Panting, he lay where he had fallen, not quite knowing what had happened. The pain in his toes snapped him out of his brief stupor. He tripped. That’s what happened. As he glanced instinctively at his feet he saw it, both the heavy branch that had stumbled him, and the strange soft glow right next to it.
He got on all fours. Crawling to the glow he could see the faint light going in and out as if a candle were flickering out. As he got closer he saw that the glow was not really next to the branch but under it, and then he detected it moving just slightly. He sidled up to the branch and brought his head right over the glow. He gasped. A tiny, tearful voice let out a distressed plea.
It was, apparently, a she. If her long flowery hair, grass weave dress and natural curves weren’t a dead giveaway, then her feminine voice was. The glow emanating from her body seemed brilliant one second, only to lower in intensity the next. Her skin was as green as a field of maize. Only her top half was visible as her legs were beneath the branch.
He was too stunned to move as he heard her sobs. Then he heard her speak again.
The substance of her message finally hit him and he carefully lifted the branch off the ground. The little body wriggled and then streaked up through the trees out of sight. He looked up to where the light had gone but he could see nothing. He stared a while before dropping the branch and standing up, wincing a little at his tender toes. He looked around, hearing the Wolves again, and started to move once more.
As soon as he moved it was upon him.
The strange glow was now grabbing his face and he felt strange pecks on his nose, as if he was being… kissed? And then the light left his face and it was hovering right in front of him saying things he strained himself to comprehend.
“Oh thank you thank you thank you I have been waiting for you but then I went to sleep and the branch fell and I could not move no sir and then you came and were my hero and saved me and now I need to save you so you have to follow me right now so the old man can see you oh by the way you are Keegan are you not?”
The light laughed, a sound like shards of glass clinking together.
“Oh sorry I forgot you human types do not talk like us no sir I will have to make sure you understand what I say yes yes my name is Lia and thank you for your help but now I must help you.”
She flew a little closer, looking him in the eye. “You are Keegan yes yes?
“Um, yes that’s-”
“Good yes yes you follow me now.”
The light darted off again, this time stopping a short distance away. Keegan didn‘t move. The light then sailed back to him just as fast as before.
“Why do you not follow me stupid beast you are the Keegan man you have to come away with me the Wolves are prowling yes yes and the old man needs you so come follow me or die die die!!!
“You’re one of the Spirits?” Keegan said.
The little light appeared to wring her hands. “Yes yes yes yes yes yes I am Lia of the Vale and I am here for you Keegan man yes yes so come now we must hurry!”
Lia flew off once more and waited. Keegan shrugged and began to follow the glowing trail of the Spirit, still hearing the howls behind him. There was no choice. He had to trust this tiny, impatient creature.
Like so many times before, the dreams were coming to life. There he was, wide awake, dodging tree branches, the light calling to him, even the howls of the Wolves. But the howls grew more distant over time. The arms of the trees didn’t grab him. He never lost sight of the light at all. Keegan’s dreams came true often, but sometimes the dreams would differ somewhat from what happened in the waking world.
As the first rays of sunlight started to illuminate the forest the woods began to thin out, and the morning sky could be seen through the treetop canopy. Keegan was sleepy, hungry, and his toes were still quite sore. He called out to Lia.
“May we rest now? I can’t go much longer like this.”
Lia floated back to him. “Yes yes the Wolves are far away now we can rest I am very very very tired so I will sleep in here.”
“Do Spirits need to sleep?” Keegan asked.
Lia glared at him as if he were daft and then descended gracefully into the tied end of his bindle, and almost immediately raced out again.
“There are dead things in there I will not sleep with dry dead things no sir I will sleep here.”
She then flew straight into one end of the bedroll slung across Keegan’s back and crawled inside. He sighed, and muttered “I guess she gets the bed.”
He lowered the bedroll off his back and dropped his bindle and hatchet. Laying down on the lumpy forest floor and pulling his bindle under his head, he closed his eyes. He never seemed to get enough sleep, his dreams saw to that.
He adjusted the dried meat inside the pack and suddenly he thought of the widow who had given him the only food he now had. She would be dead now. All the others in the village too. He forced the thoughts from his mind before the tears came as he brought his line of sight to the bedroll and the strange being that lay somewhere therein.
Lia. Her name was Lia, and she was one of the Spirits. Keegan had never seen one before, but it was obvious. After all, how many floating, glowing, obnoxious entities could there be that weren’t Spirits?
She had said she was taking him to an old man. And he couldn’t remember well, but he thought she said something about waiting for him in the woods. As sleep began to take him he thought of the questions he must ask this temperamental being when he woke up.
The fox pounced on top of him, licking his face playfully. Keegan laughed and wrestled the good-natured beast onto the tall grass beside him. With a yip and a snap of jaws, the fox snatched his sleeve and tugged away. “Stop that!” Keegan said with a smile. As if commanded, the fox released him and sat facing his left side. The creature had it’s mouth open, panting, as if it had a smile on it’s face.
Suddenly a feminine voice spoke to him. “Digger does not like many people, and obeys even fewer. Perhaps you…”
Something was poking his face and making lots of noise. As he lay on his back with his head upright, Keegan opened his eyes to see Lia balanced on his chin, aiming a kick at his nose, and yelling “Wake up wake up wake up!” She was looking quite frustrated. Keegan also saw that the light of day downplayed her translucent glow.
Her leg shot out and connected with his nostril, and he tilted his head a little at the discomfort. Losing her footing, Lia tumbled off of Keegan’s head and onto the bindle next to his left ear.
“oooooohhh stupid man beast will not wake up no sir then wakes and shakes and knocks me over and you Keegan man are not worth the trouble no sir no sir no sir!!!”
Keegan, still trying to rouse himself, turned his head to Lia. She was fuming, and her hair was mussed. He smiled at her.
“Sorry ‘bout that. I didn‘t mean for that-”
“Yes yes,” she interrupted, “I know you did not try to shake me off of you but if you knock me over again I will get upset you do not want that no sir now lets go Keegan man the old man is waiting for you so now we must go.”
Keegan sat up then, and Lia rose from the bindle to his eye level. Her arms were folded and she still looked testy.
“Come on come on we have to go now” she said. Keegan just sat there.
“Hold on,” he said, “I need some answers first.”
Sighing in exasperation, Lia floated down to his lap and paced up and down Keegan’s left leg. Then she looked him in the eye and said “You are very very very annoying.”
Keegan laughed a little, not because it was funny, but because it was true. She was starting to grate on his nerves as well.
“I don’t mean to annoy you Lia,” he said, “but I must ask some questions. Is that alright with you?”
Lia shrugged. “Ask your questions man beast I do not think I can help you with answers no sir and yet I will try to help as best I can.”
“Thank you Lia. Now then, how do you know my name?”
She inclined her head and paused. Finally she said “The old man said it.”
“Who is this old man?” Keegan asked.
“The old man.”
Keegan scratched his head. “Huh?”
Lia stamped her foot. “The old man is the old man!!!”
Keegan grimaced. This was going to be difficult. He tried a different line of questioning.
“Did you tell me last night that you were waiting for me?”
“Yes yes yes yes.”
“How did you know where I’d be?”
“The old man told me to find you.”
“Uh, alright. Umm… How does the old man know all these things?”
Lia threw her tiny arms in the air. “I do not know these things Keegan man!!! I only came to meet someone called Keegan because the old man wanted me to show you the way or else you would be gone and I am so confused yes yes and now my head begins to hurt from all the questions please please please no more questions!”
This wasn’t helping, and now Keegan was beginning to feel a bit guilty. The Spirit was obviously not liking this at all.
“I’m sorry Lia. I didn’t want to give you a headache. I’ll stop now.”
Lia looked up at Keegan with what he could have sworn was the saddest pout he had ever seen.
“No sir no sir I am sorry truly very sorry Keegan man it’s just that questions are hard yes yes very very very hard for me I cannot say good things to questions asked of me I just I just I just…”
She broke down then, holding her head in her hands and weeping. The sight hit Keegan harder that he would have figured. Here this small lady had done so much to help him and he had hurt her little feelings. He felt like a real louse.
“There there,” he said as he extended his finger to pat her back. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
Lia looked up at Keegan’s finger. She grabbed it and used it to wipe the moisture from her face. “I know I know I am fine because I know you are a good man beast yes yes and you will not try to hurt me no sir.” She then wrapped her arms around his finger and sighed. “MMMMMMM I like you Keegan man!”
Keegan almost recoiled from this sudden revelation, but Lia then let go and flew up to eye level once again saying “Now we must go so get up sleepy and get your things ready because the old man is waiting for us yes yes so up up up!!!
Within minutes Keegan was walking at a leisurly pace with Lia floating through the air in front of him leading the way. He ate most of the dried meat as he walked. The sun was shaded by the wood but there was more than enough light to see for a long distance. With his toes still sore he had no intention of trying to match the previous nights grueling effort. As a consequence, Lia pestered him to move faster once in awhile, but not too often. She also chided him on his carnivorous ways, but other than that the afternoon was uneventful until Lia stopped suddenly and shrieked ”I remember now yes yes yes yes!!!”
Keegan stopped and stared at the Spirit. Lia flew up to him and said “I remember… That… That you have dreams yes yes and that dreams are important and that you would help me grow and that you were… You were… The essence? No sir no sir that you were the essential yes yes that is it I am sure!”
Keegan tried to absorb all the words Lia has said but the part that stuck with him was what she said about his dreams. The only people who ever knew about them were his father and sister, and, well… They couldn’t say anything to anyone. Not anymore.
“What could my dreams matter to someone else? What could someone…”
He stopped speaking. He knew. He knew even before Lia flew up to his left ear and whispered, confirming his suspicions.
“The old man thinks you know about the Wolves.”