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He’s been here before, he’s sure of it.
His gentle feet take him forward along the half obscured pathway like muscle memory, as if they know it, have travelled it, and are sure of it even if the whole memories aren’t quite there for the rest of him.
It’s been [[some time]] since his reawakening and he’s still exploring the huge expanse of his biome, where it mixes into arid at the south with grasses drying and wildflowers being replaced by pastel succulents and vicious cacti, over the fresh water’s meandering streams and rushing, stony rivers that wind through the meadows, and up to the redwoods and towering pines at the edges of the ancient forests before they wind up into the snowy mountains. It seems near endless.
His boundary’s limits are imprecise, nebulous and gradual, an unclear expanse of prairie land around the [[remnant]] at centre point, past which his energy steadily weakens. That is his territory, his home, and though he has no attachment to that particular patch of field except the imperceptible thread that ties his soul there, he will forever protect the marker at the middle with his life, returning without fail.
But he hadn’t always been bound, and the rest of the continent awaits him. A [[tree line]] approaches.
Although [[some time->ch1:witw]] feels at once like just days, but also like years.
Days since perhaps the worst night of his life - although the details of it are just beyond him, the feeling of the gritty dirt scraping his knees as he knelt, the cooling, sticky liquid on his hands that he pressed to a cooling body, the blurriness in his eyes that tickled down his cheeks each time he blinked, and the raw, gaping hollow in his chest that made breathing through sorrow-filled lungs burn like he’d swallowed a cigarette? It seems like just yesterday, the sensations fresh and as strong as ever. He can’t imagine those ever quite leaving him.
But years since a morning some time after - as he tottered onto four feet with eyes turned black with grief, tied his mane up mechanically as he always did, wrapped his bandana without a thought, scraped the red from his pristine white fur. The thin petals of his flowers, which had perhaps grown from the same seeds he’d planted on the grave, quivered and curled in exhaustion and despair, but he stood and bowed and then managed to walk away.
Being transformed cost him a lot. Memories, experiences, and any dregs of happiness he had left. But one thing remained clear as day despite sometimes wishing it hadn’t.
The hand-carved wooden cross, a [[remnant->ch1:witw]] of his nightmares come to life, worn slightly with rain but eternal under the light of the rising sun, with a beaded necklace wound around the neck and the iron rosary hanging central, with a small tangle of prairie flowers growing at its base, red, pink, and yellow. He hadn’t noticed them grow around him as he mourned, hadn’t felt the delicate petals reach past his scarred nose. How long had he stared at them without seeing them, lost in his head?
Every time he visits he loses himself, but he can’t help it, couldn’t stay away if he tried. If only - he would give - <i>anything</i> -
A home is an odd concept to him, and he can’t quite bring an image to mind of what one should look like. A house, sure. Or [[a ranch]], or the second floor of a shop in a town. But more familiar is a canvas tent propped up on canes, set beneath a tree for shelter from a pelting rainfall, or beneath an ocean of stars on clear nights. A bedroll, thinning with use, never particularly comfortable, but reliable and rolled to fit perfectly on the saddle.
There are glimpses as he walks as if he’s catching flakes of memories in the corner of his eyes, but they swirl away like smoke on the breeze if he turns to look at them. His paws lead him along a dirt trail where the grass has parted to avoid the feet of humans and horses and wildlife, and his hips remember the relaxing sway of [[canter]] from the saddle, his half-lidded eyes remember being watching from under the brim of a hat. As the path forks off toward a bare patch of ground, he instinctively knows it’s a good place to camp during summer, might’ve even slept there himself a lifetime ago.
He doesn’t take that branch and instead continues up the winding path. Autumn has settled into the Americas with sharp gusts of wind, a chill in the water of the streams that the sun is unable to warm, and the colours of fire. Ahead of him, the high horizon is the dark greens of looming coniferous trees with their thin peaks swaying between clouds, but lower down are the oaks, maples, and aspens showing their yellows and reds of this season.
As he breaks the tree line, the flowers on his rump [[wither away]] and his hair falls long and loose from its ties.
The true American dream, it seemed. A nice wooden house on a big plot of land, sturdy fences and a gateway with a skull mounted upon it. Sheep, cattle, maybe pigs and goats. Chickens of course, so there’s eggs for breakfast, because you’ll have a wife and son to provide for.
But of course it so rarely happened. Who would give an outlaw [[a ranch->tree line]]? How long would they stay before getting restless with such a simple, comfortable life? They all miss the thrill after a while.The rhythmic beats of four hooves against the hard ground is like music made to lull him into tranquility. The long ears flopping with each stride, free and relaxed, the long but tidied mane flowing in iridescent waves, and the occasional snort and snuffle and blow. Against his knee he can feel the barrel of a rifle and beneath his shin is strapped a repeater, on his belt his pistols are holstered, and saddle bags behind him carry the rest of his supplies.
His horse’s name he can’t recall, and the colour of its coat seems to change with the weather. A filly, he’s sure, sweet in nature between the moments of unyielding stubbornness. He was always most fond of fiery mares.
Along these paths they could [[canter->tree line]] for hours without seeing another soul.There’s something about forests that he’d always found unsettling, he thinks, because the feeling of eyes on his back and his hackles raised as he enters is horribly familiar. Perhaps it’s how the trunks erupt from the ground at such an odd pattern that there’s always one blocking his view even as he moves, or that they hide secrets both under their winding, protruding roots as well as way above his head in their patchwork canopy, and he can never have [[his eyes]] on both.
There are beasts in the woodlands because they know they can hide, have been doing it for centuries. The bears with their dark brown coats blend in with the dirt and rock, digging at the earth for buried treats until something walks too close and so they turn and roar. The uneven terrain where uprooted trees and landslides have caused paths to be inaccessible and created dark caves that lure the unsuspecting. And worst yet, camps of humans banded together like packs of hyenas, lighting up their campfires because there’s no chance of the smoke being visible past the treetops, cackling and jeering, malicious like no cougar could ever be.
But none of that can hurt him now, in this ethereal form that slips through the long grasses without brushing them aside, wouldn’t even notice a bullet aimed straight at his heart. Does he even have a [[heart]] now? The scar across his nose that he’d always taken such pride in, it’s just a tattoo now, stiff when he scrunches his face but it will no longer itch or ache, just a memento carried into the grave and out the other side.
So he [[walks on]], to map out the golden forest.
As a teenager, wide eyed and ignorant, new to the life of fitting all his worldly possessions in one bag and rarely staying in place for more than a week and not eating if he hadn’t caught or foraged for it, the best companion he could imagine having was his horse.
It wasn’t precisely his, and he was exceedingly lucky to have come across it. He’d been tucked (cowering) behind a tree as a robbery took place on the path just up ahead, three men with bandanas over their noses and guns held threateningly against a smart looking gentleman who had no business riding alone. Ten minutes later, the man had no need for his horse, and it hadn’t run away from the gunshots, and so the kid mounted and trotted off as if his hands weren’t shaking around the reins.
But the horse served him well for a good few years to come. He would watch his ears as they flicked back and forth, catching on the imperceptible snapping of twigs where a doe walked warily, on the low growling of a predator far off, on the welcoming splashes of a stream to the east. He would watch [[his eyes->wither away]] as they dozed contentedly in a meadow, focused intently on a commotion nearby, shot open suddenly with whites at the corners to alert him. He’d long since lost count of the wolf packs that gelding had helped him avoid.No. His [[heart->wither away]] is laying in pieces amongst royal catchfly beneath a rusting necklace.Despite his latent reservations about the dark depths of the forests of this country, this one, in this season, seems warm and inviting. The fiery hues of the red, orange, and yellow leaves are more akin to a steady campfire on a cool evening than a worrisome wildfire, and the way they decorate the canopy above in irregular patterns is like mixed paint creating a masterpiece. They float down from their branches like a wedding celebration, dancing in the air and twisting and turning in the breeze, before [[landing]] softly upon the damp ground beside their relations to create a vibrant blanket.
Also in the air are bugs and insects, lit up by the sun rays that drift down from above, their tiny wings sparkling like [[mica]]. The forest is ripe and abundant at this time of year with fallen fruits awaiting passers by, seeds dropping at the slightest touches, weathered trees giving their last breaths before they lay dormant for winter. One wide trunk has a flicker of movement across its bark, but as the esk wanders closer it erupts out into a thousand butterflies, their dull grey-brown wings opening to display the bright honey and white upper sides as they reveal themselves and fill the air.
He picks up his pace and follows the swarm for a little ways, the group moving like a fluttering flag on the wind, like a murmuration of starlings. As they rise up and flit out of view, his attention is then caught by a [[tangle]] of twigs and string hanging above his head. A dreamcatcher, woven by hand and hung for an unknown reason - there’s no settlements nearby, no noise of human intervention, just this mysterious relic of a past resident.
There is, however, the musical sound of a dribbling stream further [[ahead]].
At each step of the esk’s paws, three-toed feet [[landing->walks on]] carefully down on the forest floor, the leaves crackle and crunch. His strides are horse-like in each gait and the rhythm immediately brings to mind strong hooves beating upon hard packed roads; the clops and clacks of shod, well groomed horses pulling stagecoaches through towns, the duller thuds of a work horse pulling half its weight across its owners fields, the steady trot of a fit riding horse travelling across America wherever he steered it.Gold brings back a lot of memories, wisps of shining gems and jewelleries accompanied by bright smiles and awed blue eyes. The most recent is tainted with sorrow, but it still lingers: two delicate hands reverently holding a pistol, the rich chestnut wood of the grip gleaming and well polished, the gold metal barrel and embellishments etched with perfect, intricate florals, and glistening in the low lighting like [[mica->walks on]].
“Where did you find this?” she had asked.
“A crashed stagecoach just up north,” he’d answered, “well hidden in a lockbox. I thought you’d like it.”
It saved his life for a short while, but it didn’t save hers.Once, a dreamcatcher hung from a saddle. The tack was old and well used, dark mahogany in colour but worn in places leaving paler scars, and against it and the horse’s plain coat, the ornament had stood out. It was handmade by himself many years ago, when he was barely passed boyhood but ventured out on his own - he’d found a scene similar to this one, maybe this exact one but he couldn’t recall the details, where talismans swung in their places tied to the branches of trees along a hidden pathway.
He daren’t take any of them - there’s magic in this country he daren’t mess with, and without knowing their origin he wouldn’t even touch a finger to a single one - but they were beautiful and simply made, and so he collected a supple willow branch that he could wind into a circle, and a [[tangle->walks on]] of spare rope. He had to separate the thick rope into tiny, thin strips, but it was then easy to loop it through and around the frame again and again, tying a spider web, the holes slightly uneven but charmingly bespoke.
Over the next days of travel, he collected feathers and small stones; simple brown plumage from sparrows and unremarkable grey pebbles smoothed by the river, and beautiful striped blue jay and spotted wren quills and shining, geode-like rock chips from a mountainside. They were all painstakingly tied into place until it was a perfect rendition.
It was a gift for a queen, and she kept it close until the end.The esk is joined by a dragonfly as he breaks through the red rose hip bushes and knot of thorny [[blackberries]], its iridescent blue and purple body so small but glittering in the light, visible against the golden atmosphere. Its wings beat ferociously and it moves at a speed he can barely make out, darting back and forth over the water. It draws the spirit’s eye to another dreamcatcher as it deftly dodges its web, this one hung on an overreaching branch, made from shed antlers and fine white thread with strings of tiny pebbles dangling below and chiming against each other. The euphony harmonises with the trickling water and [[enthrals]] the esk for a moment.
The surface carries many fallen leaves which give it the odd appearance of a fiery sea as the current pulls them downstream, and the bright swirling colours eventually bring the spirit back to the present. The ground is still coated with them too, but thinner on a track alongside the creek to expose the dusty, dirt ground and the rabbit [[paw]] and cloven deer prints embossed in it. He takes that route, his long legs carrying him easily around the naturally haphazard growth of trees that lean in his way, strong paws allowing him to leap as needed.
He takes to the water when a fallen tree completely obscures the path, its thick branches making it impassable but for squirrels and smaller, agile birds. The long fur at his ankles is drawn forward and sways underwater like ribbons of kelp, and the ends of his loose mane and tail are quickly soaked. It doesn’t bother him and he walks on, stepping between schools of tiny, silvery fish, as he follows the [[meandering]] stream wherever it leads him.His paws remember plucking [[blackberries->ahead]] from their stems, filling a cloth to be tucked away for eating later. A generous handful of meadowsweet would work well as a medicine, and willow bark or poppies for pain. The fruit from a prickly pear would need the spines pulled off but taste lovely. The tops of wild carrots were easily identified and dug up. Currents and gooseberries in abundance, he could fill his jacket pocket with pawpaws, and he could often pinch an apple or pear from an orchard as he passed in the low light of the evening.
There were flowers and herbs too that he still recognises on sight. Chamomile and dandelion, bushes of lavender, thyme and oregano in clumps amongst the grasses. Wild mint was his favourite in tea, and many herbs made meat and stew less bland. He was a good cook out of necessity.Long fingers on piano keys in a saloon so late that the sun is almost rising, the drunks have cleared out and the bartender gone out back in the quiet for his cigarette break. They’ll take any moment they can together. A high pitched laugh and low chuckle as they faux fight over the small stool, and then another pair of hands adding rough lower notes to the melody. A sweet murmur, compliments dropped like kisses, ankles crossing beneath the grand instrument. She takes over and picks up a fast, joyful tempo, and then it smoothes out and turns romantic. A subtle smile on his face, soft eyes as he gazes at her, [[enthralled->ahead]].Four small [[paws->ahead]] are splashed with cool mist where they perch on a sturdy rock at the stream’s edge, the white socks pristine from treading through the water. A tiny tongue laps up a quick drink on their way, orange-brown nose twitching, ever alert. Foxes are brave creatures, or perhaps a little too bold; he can remember sharing a campsite and watering hole with them in the past and having to shoo them away from his belongings, and they’d stand between the legs of a towering whitetail stag with no worries.
He wishes sometimes it was so easy to be fearless, careless.Double-click this passage to edit it.