“Emergence never happens all at once. It is a slow stepping into the expanded capacity of your next self. You may need practice at releasing in those places you’ve grown accustomed to bracing which, like a tight swaddle, was comforting in its limits. But when the time to remain hidden comes to its natural end, you must begin to inhabit your new dimensionality. Breathe into the fullness of your gaining altitude and consider that what presents itself as fear may actually be exhilaration. As your future approaches you, worry less how it may receive you and say a prayer instead for your becoming approachable.”
The sounds of battle seemed to fade as my ears were filled with the roaring static of his presence. The imposing figure stood about seven feet tall, hidden beneath a midnight cloak, one hand held out toward me, palm up, beckoning.
I slowed mid-stride and came to an abrupt halt, suddenly aware that this was the messenger I’d been looking for - or who, perhaps, had been looking for me. I wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was that I had come to the place I needed to be, and that meeting this entity here was no coincidence.
The figure nodded toward me, and momentarily, I forgot to breathe. His cobweb-skinned face was hidden beneath his hood, but the glowing blue orbs of his eyes flashed dangerously in the darkness. “Come with me,” he said, and his voice was distant thunder.
It took me a moment to comprehend it. His back was turned now and he was already walking away, trusting that I would follow him to our unknown destination; but my feet did not move. The only thing that brought me back to attention was a stray arrow whizzing past my left shoulder. It skidded over a fallen log, then disappeared into the mossy carpet of the earth.
Suddenly recalling where I was and what I was doing, I let out an overdue exhale and hastened after the hooded figure.
He was limping, but even so, keeping up with his enormous strides was difficult. I caught up only because he stumbled, and instinctively, I hastened to his side to lend my support.
The moment the spider silk skin of his hand gripped my shoulder, I regretted it; though not because his touch was unpleasant by any means. I regretted it because his flesh felt as cool and comforting at the bare earth in an open field, kissed by summer starlight and the night’s first hint of dew. Instantly, the memory drew me away from the woodland battle, and while the comfort of that detachment was tempting, I had to keep my mind on the task at hand.
I did so by taking a tentative glance upward at my injured companion, catching just a glimpse of his glowing blue eyes behind the hem of his cloak as we walked. He stumbled once more, then, and while he had me for support, it felt as though he were reluctant to place his full weight on my shoulder. He would likely have crushed me if he had. But even so, I was a Valkyrie. I was strong, and it was my duty to help the injured, just as it was to guide the souls of the slain. And it was clear by now that until I addressed my companion’s wound, we weren’t going to make it very far - at least, not in good time.
I grabbed the Moss Man’s hand, catching him off-guard, and as he turned to face me in what I could only assume to be surprise, I told him simply: “Wait. Sit.”
“We must press on,” he insisted, but he dared not move his hand from under mine. “You are needed - urgently. I risked my life to summon you from the battle.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied, now tugging his hand gently as I sat down beside a half-rotted stump, motioning for him to rest upon it “Sit,” I demanded. And he did.
The Moss Man pulled the hem of his robe up to the edge of the wound on his calf. It looked as through a spear had run itself entirely through the thick of his muscle - or what would have been his muscle, if his flesh had not been made of moss and lichen.
A cold clear liquid seeped from the torn spider silk skin, and it glowed faintly blue like the orbs of his eyes. It was mountain spring water, crystal pure.
I almost wanted to say something to him about it, to remark on the beautiful nature his body was so perfectly composed of. But I took a deep breath instead, reluctant, for a moment, to touch his earthy flesh - it stirred in me many deep memories which clouded my mind with their vividness - and began to cry soft, healing tears into the open wound.
The Moss Man did not flinch as my tears rolled into the edges of his torn flesh, closing the gaps in the ripped moss and lichens as they worked their ancient magic. His spider web skin pulled together over the moss-flesh and as the last tears fell from my face, the wound was finally healed.
His leg now restored, the Moss Man let out a single sigh and looked as though he were about to stand again, but something stopped him. He looked down at me instead, then took my chin in his massive hand and tilted my face toward his, still hidden but for his luminous eyes beneath the hood of his cloak.
“What do you think of that makes it so easy to cry like that, Valkyrie?” he asked. His voice was soft, though the question certainly bold.
I looked up at him, suddenly breathless again. “Each Valkyrie cries for her own reasons,” I managed.
The Moss Man nodded. “I know,” he said, letting go of my face as he stood, then offering his hand to help me rise, as well. “But I want to know why you cry.”
We kept walking toward our destination as I thought of a way to answer my companion’s question. Though healed, he still rested a hand on my shoulder while we moved through the forest.
“I don’t know why I cry,” I finally admitted. “I just do.”
The Moss Man let out a short “Hm” and I knew he was dissatisfied with the answer, though understanding of my furtiveness. He wasn’t about to pry. But after a pause of silence between us, I added, “I cannot cry for myself, you know - I only do it to heal the injured and the fallen.”
The Moss Man’s hand gripped my shoulder just slightly tighter as I told him so. “When was the last time you did cry - for yourself, that is?”
We were coming upon a clearing now, and I knew this was our destination. A taller row of trees ringed the edge of the grassy knoll, and it was hard to see beyond their massive trunks, but I could still sense a powerful presence there, waiting for us. There was an air of urgency laying thick like fog over the surrounding forest, but I quickly answered, “I can’t recall. I’ve not had a reason to.”
And again, the Moss Man’s only response was to grip my shoulder just slightly tighter.
As we came to the very edge of the clearing, he held me at a stop and placed himself before me. “Stay silent,” he warned. “We are about to meet Melee.”
A feeling of unease settled over me, but I pressed on behind the Moss Man, careful not to tread on his robes. The static of my companion’s presence, powerful enough to steal my breath away before, now seemed to bristle, as if shielded with needles of broken glass, and I sensed that he was on-edge, ready to defend us at any moment if the need should arise.
His defenses were piqued, but only I could sense it. His walk did no change, his breath did not falter. He strode with admirable confidence. I followed suit.
We walked, single-file, through a break between two towering trees at the edge of the clearing, and stepped into the grassy knoll.
A large flat stone lay like a table in the center, and standing beside it was a figure with the body of a well-dressed countryman in an English hunting suit, perfectly tailored to fit his lithe build, with a black-furred hunting hound as his side. In the figure’s hand was an ebony walking stick with a silver hound’s head handle, and upon his breast, an array of war medals and tokens of honor were prominently pinned.
This was obviously a man of class. But where a distinguished gentleman’s proud face ought to be, was, instead, the glassy-eyed countenance of an old hunting trophy - the decapitated head of a taxidermy ibex, to be exact, and I felt a knot begin to grow in the pit of my stomach, wondering if this unusual entity even had a head beneath the stuffed armature of the old mount to begin with.
Melee wore on his belt an array of silver-capped talismans, fashioned from what appeared at first to be animal teeth, claws, and horns. But as the Moss Man came closer to the ibex-headed figure, I sensed that these were not hunting trophies at all. Instead, I realized, these were bits and pieces - bones and nails and hair - from fallen warriors’ remains.
I glanced up at Melee’s immortalized face, and, with a start, swore that I saw the ibex blink…