She looks breathtaking. Her hair could be any length here; grow longer, shorter, change colour – anything – but she seems to have forgotten it. Rat-tailed locks fly out, sweat-soaked and tangled as she pursues relentless training.
In ignoring her appearance and focussing only on skills and equipment, Elanor has become something ethereal, heading towards divine. She’s a scowling, pouting warrior goddess, demon, nymph, maybe all of those.
Dust devil: that’s it – Elanor moves like one, twisting, dancing – but spinning in any direction she chooses. A terrifying mystery in so many ways, Elanor is turning herself into something beyond my comprehension. Whatever she’s preparing to face involves combat of the purest form: more extreme than anything I know.
She’s turned the arena floor into an enemy itself. It rises and falls, making waves of stone or treacherous pits. The ivy, usually feeble trails of passive leaves, mixes with flailing coils of murderous bramble strangling and scything, of slashing thorns, whips and clubs. Dust rises, the air a miasma of earthy odours and choking musks.
If this female Achilles wakes from her dream here and re-enters the human world, what will she have become? There is no place there for such physical prowess. Super heroes are made in legend or fiction – not in physical form: not in reality.
Or … she is exceptional and amazes me … could she do what is, has to be, impossible?
No, this must be something else and nothing to do with the human world. In a breath, the arena and all else fall still, calm, silent: a shocking tranquillity. Elanor’s wild beauty and grace turn ugly, contempt and hatred radiating as she marches towards me. From these I get a hint, a clue, of her intention. Oh really, Elanor, are you wanting to go down that path: fight those battles?
“I’m ready,” she announces, arriving before me, voice calm and level – not even slightly out of breath. Her hair is dry and flighty now, twitching in slight breezes. One doesn’t question such impossible changes here: this is generally regarded by humans as an impossible place.
In these old and long-abandoned ruins are halls, temples, palaces, turrets and – especially for Elanor – armouries. She could have chosen absolutely any weapon and fighting style or system from unarmed to laser guns or anything she could imagine. She’s certainly surprising in her choices.
Ambidextrous through determined training, she carries her wicker and hide shield on either arm. Diamond-shaped and designed also for offence, the shield’s sharp ends can deliver crippling wounds. Elanor’s main armament is a simple spear-shaft tipped with split antler points. These long blades detach inside an enemy: she carries spares on her belt. A stout antler club with curved spike, resembling a pick or ice-axe, serves as a secondary weapon. Her forearms, shins, body and head are protected in leather, topped with boar tusks stitched flat, row upon row.
Elanor’s strong, light and fast: she’s chosen her arms to match – for this place is not about equipment but internal and external symmetry.
“Ready for what?” I ask, “What are you doing? How can I help?”
She stares at me. I love the way this woman allows her intensity to blaze out. Elanor’s gaze could overwhelm and terrify almost anything, though it can’t affect me – like fire is not dangerous when it has nothing to hurt.
She nods. “That’s what I want – what you have. I can’t wake from this dream until I have it. Me waking up will be my death. She – I – the me I am when awake – can’t cope with my crap life.”
“Yes,” I reply, “you can gain what I have but few achieve it alone.” Closing my eyes for a moment, I add, “You have no idea what pleasure it would give me to help you.”
She snorts. “Actually, I do … I think I do. I haven’t completely wasted my time here.” She pauses, an intense blankness of concentration. The light is so perfect I can see each tiny hair of down adorning skin, every detail of her eyes. Looking back at me Elanor’s irises are reminiscent of a time I lay down in Stonehenge and looked up into infinity as if through a giant pupil. She breaks the memory, asking, “How did you get that: what you have – the way things can’t hurt you?”
“Oh, they can but only if I allow them.”
“If you let your guard down?”
“The opposite: if I put a guard up. You’ll understand that very soon, I think.”
She shakes her head. “But how did you get to it?”
“Easy, I went looking for it and took someone I trusted as a guide.”
“Just what I thought. You saw me out there in the arena. I can start looking for it but can’t get very far before it’s all too complicated. Help me.” She sighs and leans on her spear. “You know what … what I am when I’m awake? I can see myself more clearly from here, as if I’m not so involved.”
I sigh. “We all get into terrible messes as humans. It’s how we learn so much.”
“In my case it will be a short-lived mess. Listen: that is my first life there … there in the waking world … my first time being a human. I don’t want it to be cut short and don’t want to waste it.” She straightens up and winks at me. “So … ready?”
I check my armour and weapons; bronze helmet, scale breast and back, solid greaves and vambraces, short spear and dagger. Quick jerks free creases in the leather padding between skin and metal. “Yes, but you’re not ready. Don’t worry though. This is never a straight road.”
Elanor sighs, her outline softening. “It’s the hardest ever … for me. I was telling you what I am when I’m awake. What do you know about me?”
“When I look into your mind I don’t delve into the personal, sensitive or secret.”
“Lucky you. I think I’m about to lose control and kill myself. Whether I live or die is the only choice I have left. No … when I die and how much longer I can take that life is all I have left.” Eyes closing, she presses her forehead on the flat of her spear point. “School is so bad my feet slow down and stop on the way there. I have to force myself on. It feels like going to hell. It’s the same going home: I can’t stand it there; it’s all shouting and anger and spite. There’s not even any privacy in my room. My mum and dad walk in and out, and my sisters, when they like. Mike, my brother, is the only one who knocks. Everyone’s always checking their money to see if I’ve stolen any – and it’s not always me that does it but I get the blame. I do drugs, different ones, whatever’s available. I could pay for them doing favours and posing for photos … I just know that’s going to happen soon. Drugs and booze and being bullied and hated and not trusted and treated like shite … and then I drink more: I’m killing myself.”
“Stop there,” I interrupt. “What you are doing is treating yourself, relieving the pain for a time. Fair enough it will kill you, but look – you are at least able to see things need to change.”
She stiffens, tense, poised and ready for violence. “Meaningless shit. Don’t gobshite me. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Anyway, you say I’m not ready?” Elanor gestures into the arena with a point of her shield. “After all that? You’re just like all the rest: piss right off. I’ll do this myself and see it through. Fuck you!”
From confident to fierce in such a short time? She’s terrified. I take the edge of her shield. “Calm down, Elanor. Ready? No, no one ever is, but you started this journey a long time ago. This is only another step you’re taking. You’ll succeed because you aren’t trying to hide or run away. You’ve chosen confrontation – war – and you’re the best warrior I’ve ever seen. Now stop scorching me by spitting sparks and let’s go.”
She studies me through narrowed eyes, her mouth in that tight moue of doubt. I tug her shield and begin walking into the arena. “Come on, Boadicea, you said something clever there,” I say, leading her, “You thought I was doubting or criticising you and said I’m just like all the rest. Who are the rest?”
“Every, fucking, one: and stop pulling me.”
“Let’s go this way,” I say, pointing to the crumbling and creeper-suffocated walls.
“What, why? I thought…” Elanor can hardly stamp impressively in soft leather sandals but it doesn’t stop her trying.
“For a change, a laugh.”
“Screw you, this is serious not some stupid game,” she snarls.
“I’m taking it very seriously, just not in the way you think. Come on.” The foliage and shrubs are too thick to clear with my spear so I drag it behind and bull my way through. Behind me, crashing, tearing at tangling twigs, and swearing, comes Elanor. I emerge through bushes onto a verdant promontory, rocky and sparsely wooded. Strange, instead of sea there is flat grassland to an uninterrupted horizon.
“Stop, stop!” calls Elanor. “I’ve been here; it’s another world and everything is weird.” Brushing herself down she hands me something. “Here, have some leaves. I don’t need all this lot in my hair.” She studies our surroundings. “Yes, I know this place. Don’t do anything except if I tell you to.”
I open my mouth to reply but she says, “I didn’t tell you to talk.” I can’t see anything to worry about, but Elanor points. “There, that hole which looks like a fox made it. I’ll go first. We need to get out of here as soon as possible.” She kneels and pushes her spear ahead, squeezing herself into a space much to small and wriggling until even her feet disappear, sending clumps of soil and an old snail shell skittering out.
Well, here goes. Not wanting to do her any damage, I strap my spear to an ankle and wriggle myself in. This is far too tight. If I was awake and human I would be crushed and unable to breathe. I’m squirming after a pair of sandals and along this earthen tunnel hardly wide enough for my head, let alone the rest of me.
After an age Elanor moves with more vigour and exits the tunnel. A dull white light washes in. “Oh shit,” she says, her voice echoing, “this doesn’t look good. Sorry, this is the wrong … what the fuck is that?”
I’m struggling out after her but, with surprising strength, Elanor squats down, hooks an arm under mine, and hauls me out and up. “That,” she says, the teeth of her helmet rattling as she nods towards a huge black ball in this vast cavern, “looks, like trouble.”
“The spikes? Oh yes.”
“All of it.”
I scan around. “Check our surroundings.” This place is roughly domed rock and the base a shallow uneven bowl with stones and loose soil: not the worst place for combat. The thing in the centre of the floor is trying to look big, dangerous and threatening – like a giant iron sea-urchin. “Let’s take a closer look,” I say, stepping forwards, “This is very interesting.”
“Can’t you hear it?” Elanor asks. I turn. She’s rested both spear and shield against her legs. Hands pressed over ears, she shouts, “Screaming: it’s screaming.”
Rocks crump and clack together as I kick my way through, skirting areas of soil looking too loose and soft for fast movement. Closer, the sphere seems to be made of heavy barbed wire, hot and slightly smoking. Thick spikes penetrate the already lethal surface and clearly mean to stop me approaching less than spear length. Faint but searing fumes rise from strands and barbs, rippling the air: the whole thing pulses unevenly. I have never seen anything so threatening yet defensive. What weakness does it conceal? What is it protecting?
“Come here,” I call to Elanor, but she’s cowed and crouching, still covering her ears. There’s something I’m not perceiving. Maybe it’s noise crushing her – the screaming she mentioned. Wondering if she can’t hear me, I beckon but she shouts, “I can’t handle this; I’m too weak.”
Ah, yes, I’ve experienced that belief on my own quests. This monster is severely threatened by Elanor’s presence and using every possible tactic to cripple her resolve. There’s an easy solution, but not obvious. I call back, “You’re fine. You can deal with this.” I poke the thing with my spear, hoping the bronze tip doesn’t melt. Smoke roars out; the monster’s surface shrinks back. I’m ready for that and push in until the beast is forced to roll away. Black fire bursts from within it, racing through me; savage metal spikes stab and slash, but to no effect. “Sorry,” I say, “whatever you are in there, you’re not my problem and can’t touch me. I’ve met your sort, before – and there’s nothing left in me to hurt.”
As I anticipated, this leads to a vicious attack: which fails. A further escalation, surrounding me in scorching wire and barbs, also leaves me unscathed. The third attack, accompanied with screeches of desperation and panic, ends in the monstrosity spitting noxious and corrosive fluid before retreating. Failing to cow me, the creature turns on Elanor.
For all its cunning in attack and defence, the thing is slow and clumsy; I’m able to outmanoeuvre it and get between them. Speaking loud enough for both to hear, I say to the lumbering mass, “You’re wasting your time. She’s about to become invulnerable. You can’t destroy Elanor – only hurt the madness you plant in her when she’s awake. Yes, I can see you all in there. Pressing this attack will cause more pain and torment than you dare face: you’ll be facing yourselves.”
It won’t listen. I turn and kneel beside Elanor who’s curled foetus-like among rock, dust and stone.
“Leave me alone: I can’t do this!” she shrieks.
The boars’ teeth over her shoulders feel lumpy and hard as I haul her up and round to face me. “Elanor, listen: you need to trust me.”
“I do, I do,” she cries, head thrown back and tears glistening in the smudges on her face, “but I’m too weak, too fucking stupid, too useless to fight that thing – look at it!”
“Then attack it right now.” My whole bodyweight and athletic skill go into hurling Elanor towards the abomination – her combined tormentors.
With a howl of desperate fury gouging my ears like talons, she surges forward and lunges at the monster. Barbed wire glows red, yellow and blinding white.
She’s hurled back, spinning, cartwheeling through the air. Crashing down, a mass of flailing limbs, she scrabbles for her spear clattering among boulders. Stepping between her and the enemy again, using myself as a shield, I watch tendrils of black smoke curl from Elanor like worms and snakes.
A blister runs the length of her left forearm, though the swollen flesh is shattered as if frozen. She’s lost one side of her nose, raw septum exposed. Tears turn to vapour or form frost crystals against her skin. “It’s too powerful. It hurts too much,” she screams at me.
“Too powerful for what? Look at it. It would have killed you if it could. It can’t: fight it.”
“But I’m burned and frozen.”
“That means it’s losing. Attack!”
“Fine then,” she hisses, and in one fluid movement leaps up and over me, despite patches of brittle skin cracking and spinning down. The ferocity of her assault opens a mighty gash in the monster’s front, a mass of black fire and lava seething within. Elanor screams, battered and staggering back. Howling and whimpering as I catch her: she’s beyond words. Half her right hand has fallen away, a crack extending to the elbow. Bones gleam where teeth, gums and jaw are exposed. One eye must have boiled and left a mess on the other cheek. She’s missing several toes, one foot a flapping charred mess. Much of her armour, now smashed and burned, hangs in bloody and bubbling tatters.
Before I can make a full assessment, she surges from me, discarding the smoking remains of her shield, and lurches toward the burning monster, antler pick in both hands. Her whole body will be consumed. I watch in awe: Elanor’s far beyond mortal beauty now.
She’s in the centre, slashing and stabbing, her yelling rising in pitch, reverberating though everything, shaking even me. She shrieks, “I’m a failure, always will be. I’m a coward, a liar. I should be more like … anyone but me. I’m a thief, a cheat. I can’t be trusted. I’m scrawny, ugly, stupid and lazy. I don’t care about anyone but myself.”
“Is that what it’s screaming at you?” I shout.
She spins. “What it has always screamed at me.” There are holes blasted and burned from chest to spine; I can see through her to fire on the other side. A shoulder, a thigh and most of her pelvis are missing. She whirls away, slashing again. “A cheap slag no one wants to fuck.”
“Oh, I don’t know … maybe if they had their eyes closed,” I reply.
The last of her body turns to flickering twists of dust but she’s still in full combat. Her tormentor, with nothing left to hurt, retreats humiliated and powerless, boiling like lava, with only itself to consume in a frenzied fury of loathing and malice.
Elanor stands as if shocked beyond disbelief. She’s transparent, cleansed of all her tortures: unsustainably pure for a moment. How much of that perfection can she remember … hold on to … before waking life fills her with more of its demons?
Turning to face me, at last Elanor relaxes and connects totally.
So we, like two galaxies, collide, passing through each other, spinning, mingling, forgetting which of us is which: silent, gentle, massive. “With their eyes closed? You bastard,” she says, laughing … laughing: she’s done it.
“I see you,” I say, “and now you see all of me, everything I know and all anyone has ever shared with me. We’re all just as much a mess as you, every one of us the same glorious disaster of ignorance and confusion. Every person is what we would be if battered and moulded by what they’ve been through. However, do tell me what’s left of you after all that. How … what do you feel now?”
“Just … me: the real Elanor. The crap I was told to think was me is burned away. I can’t believe that behind it all I was like this and couldn’t be hurt. I’m a fucking brilliant person – not what I was always told. Love me: adore me.” She’s laughing and crying, dancing. I’m watching perfect happiness. “No wonder you acted as if this was a joke or something.” Elanor pauses, joining sensations and ideas while staring at the hideous creation. “Poor thing, it’s thousands of years old and wants just to die but it can’t. I could only let it kill the bit that was in me. It’s one gigantic scream made of so many voices … and I’m so small … I don’t know how to help. That scream is everyone, every person ever. It sounds like Hell would.” She bites a lip for a moment, frowns, and asks, “Is it Hell?”
“If you want to look at it that way, Hell is part of being human,” I say, “At least it was for me. Well, it still is; there’s always a bit of that scream in all of us whatever we do to quell it. When we hear it we try to help each other … or make it worse.”
Still deep in thought, she whispers, “There’s something behind it … energy or something … that comes from the place words don’t work so it must be the truth or part of it … or…” Stars, gas and dust swirl together as she reforms her body. “Energy,” she repeats, “it’s what we are. It’s the energy that can make cruelty and kindness and excitement and hate and…” She grabs my neck. “I have to go back … to wake up.”
“To help Mhairhie?”
“To help me, idiot. I could try to help Mhairhie, but maybe she was helping me. Maybe…” She grins. “Angels can look … complicated, isn’t it?”
“If you wake up you’ll forget nearly all of this and dismiss it as a dream.”
“I’ll remember the bit about finding someone I can trust and getting help. Think, my life will get better. I could be like I am now. I really believe … I know I could do it. Anyway,” she adds, “you’re coming too.”
I’m stunned for a moment. “What?”
“I want you when I’m awake as well as in my dreams.”
A groan erupts from somewhere inside me.“Me … human again? But I’ll forget everything too. There just isn’t room for a whole person in those tiny brains. Humans need their ignorance or there’s no point in being one.” I sigh. “It’s like a lobotomy.”
“Crap: we’ll just have to learn it all again, another journey for us. Come on.” She pauses, frowns and touches my hand. “You … you don’t have to come.”
“And let you loose on an unprotected world? I’d never forgive myself. Elanor the warrior-mystic-divine … really, this could be quite entertaining.”
“Oh, but how do we get it to work? How would you fit into my world, my time … like an incomer who just moved to the area or what?”
“We’ll wake up with a new present, a new past, as we always do. Human life is just another dream, remember?”
©Gary Bonn, 2021