Authors: Jacqueline Marshall
"Time to wake up, Aliandra! Get dressed quick, then come saddle your steed. I got breakfast packed and we can eat on the way. It's frosty out, so wrap up warm" whispered Grandma.
Aliandra's dazed turquoise eyes peeped over the covers and she lifted her chin to blow out a frosty cloud of breath. "Sure 'nough. I'm gittin' up now" she grumbled. Ali rolled out of bed, then in the dark pulled on her old jeans and cinched the baggy waist tight. Her western shirt hung long over her jeans as she buttoned it up. Finally she shoved her feet into her battered western riding boots. As she flicked her bed covers up over her pillow, she slung on her heavy coat and grabbed her hat, with her 'kerchief resting inside, from the end of her bed. Ali carefully closed her door and quietly crept down the stairs.
Grandma had lit a lamp and was busy saddling up her own steed, Ace. As Ali heaved her saddle from the fencepost of the saddling yard she gave a short low whistle and her steed trotted to her. Saddling up Smudge took a few minutes because all the preparation and brushing had been done the night before by her pa, ready for their pre-dawn exit. Her leggy gelding took the bit in his mouth easily as she bridled him. Grandma passed over her saddlebags and she attached them. Grandma passed Ali a pair of old riding gloves.
"Your ma wants you to use her gloves for the ride" said grandma as she pressed the gloves in to her hands.
"Grandma, d'ya want a leg up?" asked Aliandra.
"I'd appreciate it this morning with my old bones, child" replied grandma.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm tall, might as well use it" said Aliandra with a chuckle.
"Ali, all your life folks of these parts have been mighty backward and small minded. They ain't like plenty of others that you will be meeting soon enough. This is one of the few places that short, dark and round is their idea of beauty; just so the men can display their wealth through their fattened up families. While that is unfortunate for you now to be tall, fair and thin in this town; you will not feel out of place for much longer. Just be patient a little longer, in no time you will be among other immortals at their college with folks of all shapes and sizes."
"I guess I am still gittin' used to the idea of being an immortal 'n' all. My life has changed so much in the past few days since you showed me the college letter and forms. It was real hard sayin' goodbye since I don't know when I might see my family next. It'll be nice to be somewhere that I ain't seen as hideous".
"We tried to shelter you from the worst of it by home schooling you. The tribal people we are riding to meet are taller and slimmer. They might have clothes that will fit you better. As islander-born, you are a tribal woman. Our people are taller than the folks of Eureka but we do tend to be plump and dark skinned like them. Occasionally fair throw-backs, like yourself, happen and they are freely accepted in our island tribes; so our people could tell me of the keening. The important thing is your family loves you. You're only fifteen and will be going to better places soon enough to find your niche in the world. You will soon find this outpost casino town of Eureka is a backward place that is mostly irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things. Here is an extra scarf to keep the cold out. OK, ready to head out?"
Ali wound the thick scarf around her neck a few times then bent and cupped her hands together to fit her grandma's foot and lift her into her saddle. Ali then vaulted onto her own steed, quickly found the stirrups and pulled on the gloves. The woman and girl wheeled around and kicked their steeds on to canter down the dusty road together.
As the sun flared pink over the desert plain, dark creatures were seen to scuttle back into their holes out of the light. Grandma and Ali pulled up to a trot as they left the road and headed north toward the mountain range pass. The frost crackled as their steeds stepped over the frozen tufted grass. The women's eyes were vigilant as they looked for stray multipeds that had not returned to their deep burrows. When the sun was fully risen the women halted.
"Breakfast?" asked grandma
"Yep. Sounds good. We're lucky it wasn't cloudy or the multipeds might still be out. I reckon they're the ugliest critters to ever creep about." Ali scowled.
"If it wasn't for the multipeds we might have more tourists in these parts but I reckon they keep all the land speculators away. Those big ol' hairy arachnids are probably the only reason the tribal people native to this realm have not been driven off their land. It has happened in so many other places before now. Besides, us outpost folk like to brag how brave and tough we are. It wouldn't be a wild west if there weren't any serious challenges" she laughed. "Your ma packed some biscuits and juice so we can keep riding along as we eat since our steeds are still fresh."
Grandma passed Ali over biscuits and a flask. They ate and drank in companionable silence while their steeds walked on. When breakfast was finished they packed away the flasks in the saddlebags and pushed their steeds into a steady canter. At regular intervals they slowed the pace to a walk to rest their steeds. When to sun was high they stopped to water their steeds, stretch their legs and eat lunch.
"We need to push hard to make it through the mountain pass before the multipeds strike out at sunset. I sent a message to the main native lodge, so they are expecting us."
"Do the tribal folk know why we are headin' through their land?"
"Yes, just the chiefs and elders and only what they need to know. That you are a nymph and when you are in your keening period, they must keep their men away from us. I will stay with you and the elders will be able to bring us more supplies if we need it. Elder males can stand guard too because they will not be affected by your keening scent. We have set up in the mining ghost town of Peyton. The town was built into solid rock that they blasted into the side of the mountain. Even after ten years the fortifications are still solid and will keep you safe while you are keening."
"I have no idea what I am now. I ain't even heard of nymphs a'fore. Why would people I have never met go to so much trouble for me?"
"You will meet some folks who can explain nymphs to you. I just know as a nymph you are an immortal. Some people will respect you just for that. A new female immortal in the tribal realm has become a rarity. That generates interest among the unmarried tribal males. When you enter the immortal college I have been warned that, as you are mortal-born, you will be on the lowest rung of the ladder in their hierarchy. In that case, you will earn respect and carve out your own niche since you are not born into wealth or status. You have a life of real hard work ahead so appreciate the kindnesses while you can."
"Yes ma'am. Grandma, what is the keening going to be like?" asked Ali anxiously.
"Very painful. It depends on the nymph as to how long it will last, so we will not know until after your first keening what to expect. Your focus, breathing techniques and anything that will help you deal with the pain will help some. Since you choose not to mate so young you will have to dig deep and find a way to deal with the pain."
The two riders had remounted within thirty minutes of stopping for lunch. As the mountain range loomed closer, puffs of smoke were visible rising from the ridge against the clear blue sky. Grandma slowed to point out the mountain pass.
"Nearly there, we made good time. It looks like our hosts have spotted us, they may send out a greeting party to us. If they do there is no need to panic, just stick close to me. I have known many of the elders from before you were born. We'll be among friends."
"I ain't worried Grandma. This trip has been planned with military precision, even if it has been short notice."
"I like to be prepared. We are on time, the sun is about to start setting." hurried grandma.
As they neared the mountain pass, a group of over two hundred braves rode out to greet them with chiefs lined up at the front of the riders. As the riders drew closer grandma slowed and signaled Ali to stop. Grandma rode forward and, as the riders stopped within fifty meters, three chiefs continued their approach until they were in front of grandma. The chiefs spoke to grandma in their language and she replied. Theirs words were lifted by the wind and Ali only caught the occasional incomprehensible word. After ten minutes of conversation, grandma signaled Ali forward. Ali rode alongside grandma and waited.
The middle chief spoke. "We, the people, welcome Aliandra to our lands and our homes. We have arranged a ceremony to welcome you into our tribe when we reach our lodges. As your great-mother before you, you will be accepted as an honorary member of our tribe."
"That's a great honor. I thank you kindly" replied Ali solemnly.
The chiefs wheeled their steeds around and as they rode toward the braves a path was formed through the middle of the riders. Ali and grandma followed the chiefs through the centre of the riders at a trot. The braves did their best to glimpse Ali on her way through. Ali felt all the attention aimed at her like a giant spotlight; she tried not to squirm in embarrassment but finally drew her hat lower over her eyes and focused her gaze between her steeds ears. The ride though the pass slowed to a walk and was led by the chiefs, Ali and grandma followed and were surrounded by braves who seemed to act as a guard of honor. As dusk set in hundreds of torches were lit and held high to light their way. Within twenty minutes of riding Ali could smell the pine trees at the end of the pass. Her steed's hooves soon sunk in the soft ground and she had to nudge him on so he wouldn't stop to eat the grass.
The vast group approached a forest encampment. When the group finally stopped the guard of honor quickly dismounted. A brave approached Ali and took her by her waist and lifted her down. As the steeds were led away he whispered
"No need to be nervous, we are all friends here. Name's Donny."
Ali looked at the big muscular dark-haired man and a look of stunned recognition crossed her face. "I've seen you! You work at the door of the Main Street Casino."
Oh man, ain't you big. It's a might peculiar bein' surrounded by these big dudes. They're making me feel small and dainty.
"Yep, security." he smiled
"I ain't really afraid or anything. It is just that I ain't used to being the focus of so much attention. It's a bit overwhelming."
"Not every day we get an immortal inducted into our tribe. The boys are just curious. Speaking of curious, this is Kitch."
A young man sidled up and gave Ali a big smile "Howdy ma'am" he said with a nod. "I reckon Donny, Trak and I are going to be your guides around the lodges until you head out again. Are you signing up for the immortal college?"
"How do you know 'bout that?"
"I am into my fifth year at the college, so I might see you there. Donny and Trak are older, so they graduated already."
"You are telling me you fellas are immortals?"
"How many immortals are there here?" she asked weakly.
"Shucks! Plenty. I lost count. Plenty more are coming in special, to meet you and attend the ceremony."
"Kitch, I reckon if you keep talking the girl is going to have heart palpitations soon. Best not to ask too many questions if it is going to make you more anxious. Don't worry, you will breeze through it." remarked Donny.
"I only found out a few days ago that I was a nymph for sure. I think my folks suspected 'cause I look so different and all. What kind of immortals are you fellas?"
"Donny is River God in our realms, Trak is the Hunting God and I am working on being the Mountain God." said Kitch
"Why do you work in town if you are a God?" Ali asked Donny
"We like to keep an eye on what is happening in local towns just to make sure things stay peaceful with our neighbors."
"Donny also likes the mortal ladies and the ladies like Donny. He's my hero." grinned Kitch. "Any questions you got, just ask us, 'n' if we don't know we can find someone who will."
"On the college forms it said something 'bout a spirit animal. How do I know which animal is mine?"
"Easy, go somewhere near your main element and wait. Your animal will approach you and you will recognize it when it imprints on you."
"How do I know my element?"
"You are water" said Donny
"I didn't know that. How can you tell?" quizzed Ali
"I am water and I recognized you. So you need to head over to the river, swim and wait until your animal shows up."
"Yep. The moon is bright enough to see well enough."
"I don't know how to swim. I was raised in a desert. No water holes."
"Swimming comes naturally to water nymphs. You can probably breathe underwater too. Let's go."
"Don't worry. The air element is mine and the first time I jumped off a mountain and flew it was a total buzz" said Kitch.
"Kitch, I am mortal-born. I don't know how strong I am yet. I have been away from my element except for a quick flannel wash or a cold drink. Eureka always had water restrictions, so people's yards are just dust. You're tribal gods and I'm a low-born nymph, there's a big difference."
At Kitch's sardonic look Ali responded "OK, fine! I'll suck it up and stop complaining. Lead the way."
The three walked down the winding paths through the forest until it led them to a wide river.
"You can swim easily in this area, it is more of a pond. There are plenty of beavers in this area and there are dams close on either side of this piece of river. Kitch and I will stand guard until you call out and give us the all clear. Don't worry, if you get in trouble we will pull you out. When you are comfortable, we will leave you in privacy to swim. There are guards patrolling along the river and in the forest to keep out intruders. No-one will bother you."
"Thankyou" said Ali in trepidation.
"Come on Kitch. Let the girl unwind" said Donny.
The men headed back into the forest. Thick lines of trees and bushes lined the riverbank providing complete privacy. Ali looked down at her baggy clothes on her thin frame. First the boots came off. then the belt and jeans. Her hat got thrown onto the pile and her 'kerchief around her neck was loosened and tossed into the hat. She felt covered in dust and sweat from head to toe. Ali undid her long braid as she approached the river bank and dipped her toes in.
So far so good
. Along the bank a log had fallen into the water. Ali tiptoed along the log and sat. She slipped her legs into the water.
That feels amazing!
She unbuttoned her shirt and slipped it off. She draped it on the log and slipped into the water just wearing her underwear. The water was up to her chest and she ducked under the water to wet her hair.
Heaven! I will just try to swim first. Baby steps.
Ali splashed around a little and dived under the water. Her skin felt smoother and moved more easily through the water the longer she swam. She decided the underwear had to go and she dumped it, sopping wet, on the log. She was increasingly streamline through the water, kicking, twisting and turning.
Yes, this is my element. It feels so natural.
Without thinking about it Ali dove deep and took a breathe. She choked on the water. Quickly she rose to the surface coughing and spluttering.
Still getting the hang of it. What did I do wrong? Fish have gills, so maybe I don't breathe in with my lungs.
Ali paddled around in the water and gave the problem some thought.
I will hold my breathe and see how long I can stay under.
Ali went under and minutes later she resurfaced.
Over five minutes. Longer than a mortal but not long enough for a nymph. My skin has changed in the water so maybe I need to soak some more and let my body adjust. I will just keep practising.
"It's all good fellas! Thank you kindly" Ali called out.
"Come back to camp when you get hungry" Kitch called back.
"Will do" responded Ali.
Hours later Ali found she could stay under water more than fifteen minutes without the need to breathe in air. She felt around for gills and found none. As she swam underwater she breathed out a continuous stream of bubbles.
My skin is absorbing oxygen from the water. I don't need to breathe in air now.
As Ali surfaced she heard the drone of buzzing overhead and ducked back under the water. Ali's eyes had adapted to the dimness of the water so she decided to explore until her animal showed up.
In the hours that followed, no animal approached her.
I'm definitely not going in until my animal shows up!
Ali swam to the shore and lifted herself onto the log. The air had become loud with buzzing. Ali felt a light touch on her hand. She lifted her hand to find a large green dragonfly had landed on her. She lifted her hand but the dragonfly stayed put. A burst of energy flowed through her from the dragonfly and imprinted on her. Several more dragonflies landed gently on her arms.
The dragonfly? That wasn't expected. I guess they are connected closely with water.
As more dragonflies landed on her she felt an overwhelming peace descend on her. Through the dragonflies she felt connected to air, earth and water. Soon the riverbank was swarming with thousands of dragonflies all wanting to touch her and claim her.
I guess I will have to learn more about dragonflies. I can feel their essence and energy. They are so beautiful.
Ali eventually redressed and lay down on the grass while her dragonflies hovered and watched over her as she slept.