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I was stuck at the crossroads, between life and life. Dusty blue-grey sands shimmered dark and silvery beneath my feet. It was what you might call an out-of-body experience: I needed my body back and I was fresh out of luck. Gotten one step too careless, I guess. Perils of the Eternal Lost Hero type, going round in circles in the realms of time and space, drifting from place to place, life to life – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I watched the dust particularly, dry as its proverbial namesake, cold as the grave. It drifted on the lazy half-wind that blew along the ways here. There were sea shells in among it, colourful and somehow alive – a curious reminder of something, perhaps, for someone smarter than me. I kicked at the dust and sand in frustration, and it made a sound like the roar of the waves that weren’t at this particular crossroads. (I liked the sea-shore ones better I decided, for some reason.) The roar was followed by a sharp intake of breath, and a deep drawn-out sigh.
I looked up, and almost wished I hadn’t. If you’ve ever heard an angel sigh, you’d understand. Or maybe you wouldn’t. I don’t know if she actually was an angel, I’ve never got up the courage to ask. Silly, really, when you came to think of it, to spend my lives fighting impossible odds, taking on no-hope quests, refusing rewards that my conscience couldn’t accept, refusing work that would have paid a lot better – and I couldn’t bring myself to ask. Oh, sigh if you want. It’s not so easy. Sometimes when I’m alive I’m not so aware. And the in between times don’t come along that often. They take some getting used to. And I’ve only run across her there a precious few times in I don’t know how long. And she always looks at me like that, like she’s sad to see me here, but like that we’ll never quite be equals somehow, that I can’t approach her on her level. It takes the wind out of your sails, and the confidence out of a man who maybe by now ought to know better.
What she saw, I don’t know. What I saw was almost beyond description. Even here, she always left me spinning for a loop, butterflies fluttering out my chest, throat suddenly dry and not just with desert dust, all my limbs somehow light and floaty and numb. I’d give anything just to tell her how I feel about her – if only I knew myself. I just stood, staring dumb, fumbling for words.
‘Sir knight,’ she said, coolly, inclining her head. ‘Are you lost?’
Sir knight? I looked down at myself, hoping for a clue. Couldn’t she recognise me? Didn’t she know me? ‘I …’ I couldn’t speak. I tried again. ‘I s-seem to find myself between bodies, my lady.’
She looked at me like I’d said something indescribably tasteless. Or maybe it was just my imagination. Then the look that had crossed her face drifted away into inscrutability. ‘Well, try not to let it faze you. You hero types are too hard on yourselves. I could tell you stories –’ she stopped, and bit off the words as if they tasted painful to say. ‘I know a knight – I knew a knight – I … there is one I know who has never grasped that lesson, and several others, much as I’ve tried to explain it to him.’ She frowned.
Then she looked at me with a startlingly piercing gaze. ‘How came it that you find yourself betwixt and between like this. It seems to me that you have been here a long time.’
‘Someone seemed to recognise me, I guess.’ My memory was vague. I seemed to see dry desert sands stretching far away in shimmering gold, a smile that would have made a sphinx storm off in a huff into the Valley of the Giant Litter-Boxes, a whiff off a dry perfume like the scent of the twilight dusk—
‘I see,’ she said.
I hadn’t realised she’d been holding out her hand. By the look of it, neither had she.
She blushed, deep as the rose. Her eyes seemed to sparkle a moment. ‘I’m sorry, I hadn’t ought to have – forgive me …’
‘Of course,’ I said, without thinking.
‘I … I should let you get back to your quest,’ she said, her voice suddenly dry and husky, yet moistened with the breath of unexpressed tears. ‘Can I help you on your way?’
She waved a hand, and the winds shifted, blowing through hot and warm and dry in mixed profusion from a desert gate. There was the smell of fig trees and flowers, and rich golden sunshine drifting through in beams.
‘Thank you,’ I managed.
She turned to go. ‘You’re most welcome,’ she said, looking away.
It couldn’t end like this. Another lifetime, short or long – a score of lifetimes maybe – between now and again. I wanted to say, Please wait. Don’t go. I …
And where one of the beams of golden sunshine fell, a green plant grew, rising rapidly out of the dust, watered by who knew what spring, and bloomed. And for a brief shining moment, there was a rose. ‘Wait – please,’ said a voice which must have been mine, though it sounded so far off.
I picked the rose as gently as numb fingers would allow, and gave it to her.
She took it between thumb and forefinger and held it up to her nose.
It was my turn to blush, as I turned and fumbled awkwardly towards the gate into the desert light.
‘Until next time,’ said a voice, high and light, and almost girlish. It was hard to see through the dazzle of newfound sun and the closing of the doorway back through to the crossroads, but I like to think I saw – a smile?
Then the memory faded, along with all the memories of such times – until next time.
Next time what? I asked myself, as I looked down at my hands as if to see them in colour seemed strange. I blinked, and the sensation was gone. Why did I feel so cold? Why did I seemed faced with questions that I was sure I’d remember the answer to any moment, but which for now seemed to elude me?
Who was I? What was my name? Why was I here? And what was this strange feeling in my chest that I couldn’t even begin to describe?
And my vision began to clear. Words seemed to float about around my head. Something about the Jewels of Amroth – or something …
And yet … even as I saw the figure coming towards me, hair black as ebony, eyes like distant pools – glimmering inscrutably with the promise of hidden depths and unknown secrets – and a smile that would rattle a sphinx’s vaunted composure, still somewhere in the depths of haunted memory the echo of not so much words, as a feeling: Until next time …Published in