For three days Enoch trudged through the woods, stopping seldom, and using the glow of his armor to light the way, because even what might be considered “daylight hours” were so dark was this place.
When forced to stop due to exhaustion, Enoch was nervous about building a fire, even if he could bank it in such a way as to prevent any of the local trees from catching. It also seemed wrong to him, to use the discarded limbs that littered the forest floor.
Then, on the second night, a friendly and talkative tree suggested that using fallen wood was not only all right with the forest folk, but a service to them, as they were unable of their own accord, to remove the accumulated detritus of years.
Raytch hunted the woods, killed and carried small animals, and Enoch would, using his amazing sword, cut each into two pieces, one for cooking, and one for Raytch to eat raw, as was his wont.
It was near midnight of the third day in the forest that the last tree bent aside to allow Enoch to pass. The open meadow into which they debauched was clear of people or obvious animals. The moon shone high above, and in the near distance Enoch could see a stream, and it was toward that he headed, by moon and starlight, to drink and to camp until daylight.
So exhausted he was, after the long traverse through the forest, that he forgot a lesson learned not so long ago, and neither he nor Raytch stood watch.
Enoch awoke to the sound of someone singing, and the smell of some kind of stew. Had he not been, by now, a rather seasoned traveler, he would have opened his eyes, smiling, to greet the sweet voice, and sweeter still aroma of food.
Instead, he cursed himself for forgetting to set watch, and with his eyes still closed, and his breathing held as steady as he could manage, he reached for his sword. But the blade wasn’t there.
“You looked like you might roll over on it,” came the sweet voice. “I moved it over by that tree.”
There was nothing for it. Enoch opened his eyes, and sat up, expecting nothing less that another spear at his throat, despite the calming voice that had called out to him.
His jaw dropped. It was 7. He could scarce believe his eyes.
“Raytch!” He called, but his avian friend was not there. Enoch’s eyes snapped to the fire, and the woman who cooked in a large pot. He sniffed the air. Yes, there was meat in the stew. Could it be… No, he shook his head. Sweet 7 could not have killed and cooked his friend.
Still, gaining his feet, and walking closer to the woman, he could but wonder.
“Have—“ he fumbled. “Have you seen my—“
She smiled, and her smile was like a second dawn. “Raytch? He is out hunting. He does not care over much for cooked food, it seems.”
This was true, Enoch knew, but how could he be sure she wasn’t lying.
But why, he wondered, would this woman—one he loved above all others—lie to him?
Why not, a voice in his head answered. Your love for her does not insure her love for you, silly fool. He inched closer to the pot, wanting—and not wanting—to look in to see the kind of meat he might see.
Just as he was about to peer in, he felt the familiar feel of feet alighting on his shoulder.
“Ah,” said Raytch. “Up at last.”
“I am very glad to see you,” said Enoch, rather uncharacteristically.
The bird did his near blush thing, and nodded, as he often did, “I uh… I am glad to see you as well, Sar Enoch.” He stared at his friend in his customary one-eyed way, and said, “what are the chances, do you think, that your favorite woman in the world—“
“None of that,” warned Enoch. “No need to say things like—“
“—do not be so shy, my friend,” said the bird. “She already knows of your feelings for her.”
“Well, we had to talk about something while you whiled away the morning snoring like a wood cutter.”
“What… what did you tell her?” Embarrassment spread across Enoch’s face.
“Only the truth, I trust,” said the lovely 7. “Only the truth.” She smiled sweetly at Enoch. “Are you hungry, or should I dump my poor cooking into the stream?”
And Enoch knew then just how hungry he was. The small game Raytch had provided over the last few days was enough to keep him going, but never enough to satisfy. “Please,” he said to 7, do not throw away what you have cooked. It smells heavenly.”
“I warrant it will not poison you, if you have had that thought. But I must warn you, that which you think is meat, is not. Only things which grow in the earth are in this stew, for I will not take the life of a living creature, and only take from the wood with the wood’s permission.”
At this Enoch gaped. The food smelled rich with meat, and his mouth watered to taste it, but he was at once touched by the gentleness of this woman.
She produced a bowl carved from wood—from whence he could not tell—and ladled it full of aromatic stew. She handed him the steaming bowl, and a spoon, also of wood, and bade him good appetite.
He wanted to question her. To ask how she had found him, and if, in fact, she had found him, or had only happened upon himself and Raytch, but the smell of the food over took him, and he lost his ability to speak.
He sat where he stood, careful not to spill a drop, and ate greedily.
By the time he had eaten his fill of the stew—how did she make it taste like it had meat in it?—The fire was out, and the fire pit swept clean. The cook pot and utensils were nowhere to be seen—yet another mystery, and a blanket had been spread on the ground.
7 was seated upon it, sewing something, and looking away from Enoch, as though overcome with shyness.
She looked up at Enoch, and smiled, then. “Come sit with me,” she invited, looking less shy of a sudden.
Raytch cleared his throat. “I believe I have some scouting to do. I shall be gone, I would guess, at least two hours.” And, in a flurry of red feathers, he was gone.
“How do you come to be here,” he asked his beloved 7, as he sat beside her on the blanket.
“I am always here,” she replied demurely.
“Here?” He asked, surprised. “Always here?”
She shook her head, and laughed, not at him, but, it seemed, to celebrate his innocence. “no, Sar Enoch, you misunderstand me. I am always where you are.” Her smile was dazzling. “Well, almost always. I was late when you were captured by bad King Allyear’s men, but I was not far behind, and would have helped you effect escape, had you not done so, so readily yourself. You are quite the clever lad.”
“Not so much,” Enoch said. “Lucky, perhaps, but little more than that. And I choose my friends well. Sar Raytch has been a good friend, and true, even when I turned my back on him in the house of the Devil’s man.”
She gazed into the sky, seeming to look for shapes in the clouds, “you did not turn your back on your friend, I do not believe you would ever do so, of your own accord.”
“More important than your past adventures, though, is what lies ahead of you.”
Enoch nodded. He felt himself somehow closer to that elusive horizon. Closer to the end of his quest.
“I do not know how far I have come, or even if I’ve come no distance at all. I cannot tell. I think I have been on the road forever, but it may have only been a week or two. My mind is confused by all of this.”
She only nodded, but followed his every word with her radiant face kind and attentive.
“My good sense, for I was born with at least a smattering of it, tells me that I can never reach the horizon. It is something forever out of reach. There is no quick route, no way to send someone ahead to tie it to a tree, or nail it down, for while I have seen magic, and even have my amazing sword and my miraculous armor to prove that magic does indeed exist, I cannot believe there is magic enough in the world to prove my way to a place which forever evades me.”
“Have you ever wondered if it is, in fact, the destination which is important in your journey?”
“I have,” Enoch admitted. “But if not for the actual road, if not for following the horizon west, would I have ever met you?”
She smiled sweetly, at that. “Perhaps you would.”
“How,” he wanted to know. “How could I have met a beautiful wood sprite had I not gotten to that special place in the wood, so long ago?”
“Perhaps you would have met me elsewhere.”
Enoch chuckled at that.
“Had it not been for that accursed shadow with a raspy voice, I would never have set foot on this path. While the shadow is evil, and a personage I would like to deal with on a permanent basis one day, if not for him, how could I be sitting here with you?”
Her smile both mystified, and… almost, enraged him. So complacent she seemed, and yet so knowing of things beyond his reach.
“And what am I to you?” She asked him, her voice sweet as the trickle of cool water in a stream, “that you should be so happy to have met me again?”
Enoch gulped down his embarrassment, and fear. “It is you I love,” he said after a long pause. He lowered his eyes, afraid to see derision he hers, afraid to hear her laugh at him, but she neither laughed or looked askance.
“What if I told you that you could have met me at Goodhope?”
“Why, I would think you are being cruel. For if you had been at Goodhope, why would I have ever left?”
“I do not believe your leaving had anything to do with me, Sar Enoch. I believe your leaving had to do with you.”
“You puzzle me. How can that be? And tell me why you would say you had been in Goodhope? How could I have ever missed you there?”
“Perhaps your life was heading in a different direction as a tower guard. You had no reason to want more than you had, your life was complete, was it not?”
Enoch sighed. “It was, this is true, however in the world could I have missed you if you had lived there?”
“Because—if I lived there—you would not have been looking for me.”
That thought caused Enoch to feel coldness, and no little sadness.
Enoch swallowed hard. A question was forcing itself from him, one he feared to ask, and feared even more to hear the answer.
“7,” he started, but she held up her hand.
“I am not 7. There is no such person.”
And that shook Enoch to his very soul.
“But,” he protested, “I see you. I am looking at you even now. I am speaking with you, and you with me.”
She laughed, but it was a kindly laugh. “Yes, yes and yes. That is all true, but what is wrong is that 7 is not my name. In truth, I have never heard of a person with such a name, and if I had been born with it, I would have likely slapped my father and demanded he rename me.”
This made Enoch smile. “What then is… how are you called?”
“I am Elsyn.”
“Elsyn of the wood sprites,” Enoch announced.
“No, dear Enoch”—and at being called ‘dear’ his face flushed. “I am Elsyn of Goodhope, for indeed, I did live there when you did.”
“This is not possible,” he cried. “You are too lovely, by far, to be ignored, to go unseen, I would have seen you.”
“No, Enoch. You would not. You did not. You saw only what you expected to see, and I was not of that ilk.”
“I cannot believe it. But I am distracted. My question is more vital to me than anything else,” he started.
“You want to know if I care for you as much as you seem to care for me.”
“I… I uh…” Enoch could not believe his ears. “Yes,” he stammered. “Yes, that is precisely what I mean.”
She smiled at him them, but the smile was a sad one. “No, Enoch. I do not. I cannot, for I hardly know you. In truth, you hardly know me, as well.”
Crestfallen, Enoch worked to keep the sob out of his voice, how could this be, he wondered. “I had hoped… I had wanted…”
“I know, dear Enoch. Do not misunderstand me. I do not dislike you, not at all. I find you strong, and brave, and very handsome, but I do not really know you yet, and you have no idea who it is that I really am. You didn’t even know that I served you drinks at the tavern you would visit every night. You never truly saw me.”
“But I… Of course I did! I—“
“—now, now, Enoch. Be careful what you say, for it will form a part of my opinion of you. Tell me true, did you in fact notice me at the tavern?”
Enoch felt a hard lump in his throat. This was the worst day of his life. “I… I must have.”
“Did you?” She prompted, again.
He wanted with all his being to convince her he had seen her then, and loved her even then, of only from afar, but he knew it was not true. Finally, he admitted it. “No.” And then he did sob, and loudly.
“Well,” said Elsyn, “that is a very good thing.”
“What?” Enoch was astounded to hear her say it. How could that be good? What woman wants to think she was ever ignored? What man, for that matter?
“Truth is a good start, dear Enoch. For I do find you most attractive, and I hope that we can get to know each other. And,” her smile was radiant again, “who knows? Perhaps something will come of it.”
She stood, and he followed suit. She took both of his hands in hers, “but now I must leave you, for you do not need me now.”
“But I do,” he cried. “With every fiber of my soul!”
“No, dear Enoch. That is ‘want’ you feel, not ‘need’. Beside, you still have one more task to complete before you can return home.”
“Home? Home to Goodhope? How can I go there? I am disgraced.”
Her smile was wry. “That is true. You will never be a tower guard again, but I think you will not be a field laborer either. I think that new doors will open to you when you return to Goodhope, and to me.”
“Return?” He asked, joy a flutter in his heart, “to you?”
She smiled her delightful smile, and nodded. “To me. Perhaps, to me. Who knows if who you will meet in the last part of your quest? Perhaps someone who will erase your memory of me.”
“No, never, my Elsyn, my sweet.”
“Perhaps not, Enoch. But now I must go back.”
“Go back? By yourself? It is too dangerous!” He protested.
“Not at all,” she said. “For you have made the road safe in your journey. I could walk unmolested the whole way, but that is not how I shall return.”
“What?” He asked, and felt foolish for it.
“Goodbye, my sweet,” she said, and she was gone, and Enoch’s hands were empty. It was as though she had never been there. But for his full belly, and the sweet smell of her, gone just this moment, he might have believed her only a vision.
He landed heavily on his backside, and put his head in his hands. She was really gone, but she had been there, and she had promised—hadn’t she promised?—she would see him again if he returned to Goodhope.
No! She didn’t say if, but rather when. When he returned.
He was now more than ever, ready to finish his quest, but he knew not how to do it.
Go west, he told himself. Go toward the horizon.
He called for Raytch, and the bird came immediately to him, landing upon his shoulder.
“West,” he told his friend. “We must hurry, as I am in love.”