It began with a whisper, barely audible, which echoed just at the edge of my perception. It seemed to be a part of my dream, though as the voice became louder and clearer, I forgot my dream entirely. It drew my slowly out of sleep with the same smoothness as the morning sun.
I blinked. I woke feeling rested, but disoriented. My body felt like it was morning, but my eyes told me it was the dead of night. I rose onto my knees in bed to peer out of the window. The stars shone done from a cloudless sky. The moon hung high overhead. A sense of emptiness filled the air. Sleep still held everyone in the house, and in the village.
The whisper sounded louder now. I could recognize the word. It spoke my name. It had the plaintive insistence of someone in need. It reminded me of the time my sister got her ankle stick in the crook of a fallen branch while we walked through the woods. She wasn’t hurt, but she’d been young enough that she couldn’t figure out how to dislodge it herself. I still remember the way she sounded when she called out to me.
Someone was calling to me. Someone who needed me. The whisper wasn’t out loud, though. It echoed inside my skull, bouncing around with my own thoughts. I didn’t like that. It wasn’t right, having someone else inside my brain. People couldn’t do that. Only entities could do that, and entities meant danger.
I need your help, Gaede.
My help? I got out of bed to stand next to the window. I had a sense that the voice came from the south, toward the pond. I rested my hand on the windowsill. An odd longing rippled through me, left in the wake of the whispers in my mind. I wanted to go to her. I wanted to help, even though I knew the voice could only mean danger.
Helping people was my thing. If I saw someone struggling to carry a heavy burden, I took some of the weight for them. If my mother needed help cleaning the house or cooking, I did what needed to be done, even if my father reprimanded me for doing “women’s work.” If I saw someone hurt, I went to them to lend what aid I could. I didn’t like to see people in pain.
Gaede. Help me, Gaede.
I put on my trousers and a heavier shirt than the one I wear to bed. The floorboards creaked under my feet, making me wince. I hoped nobody in the house would hear and come to explore what I was doing up out of bed at this hour. Lying doesn’t come naturally to me. I would have to tell them I’d heard a voice. That would not turn out well for me.
I tiptoed out into the common space. I picked my boots up from where they sat on the shelves next to the door, not wishing to put them on in the house, where their clunk would echo upon the wooden floor. The hinges on the front door squeaked as I opened it, and I froze, heart pounding.
Gaede? I feel you. Are you coming?
I heard nothing within the house, though I worried about whether the voice might have covered it up. Trembling, I shut the door behind me, and slipped my feet into my boots. The night air was cool, but not cold. I should perhaps have grabbed a jacket, but now it was too late. I couldn’t risk slipping in and out of the house again. My mother did not sleep heavily, like my father and sister. One wrong move and she would awaken.
I knew the path to the pond. Somehow, I knew
that’s where the voice came from. There was a hint of an image hiding beneath it, too dark and vague to know its meaning as surely as I did. Yet I knew nonetheless. Whoever called to me waited there, down the path and through the woods and in the pond.
My nerves were still tense enough that my fingers and hands trembled. I had ventured outside of my realm of comfort and experience. I was not one of the village boys who liked to take risks. They spoke of sneaking out from their parent’s homes, of playing pranks on the farmers or meeting up in secret to share stolen cups of their parents’ spirits. I frowned at them when they spoke of those things.
I was a good boy. Those were the words my mother used, to praise me. Perhaps I should have felt a bit silly, thinking of myself in those terms, but it was my personal truth. I liked being good, and I wanted to be good. The heroes in the stories my grandmother told me were good, after all. I wanted to be like them.
Gaede. Come faster, Gaede.
I quickened my pace. The moon, though it had waned past half-full, gave just enough light that I could be sure of my footing. The voice drew me forth. For the first time, someone other than my mother was asking for my help. That meant something to me, though I wouldn’t have admitted it out loud. I often felt more like I was getting in the way than actually helping.
I would try to help carry something with my father, only to discover it was too heavy for me. I freed my sister’s ankle from where she got it stuck in the woods, but when I pulled it free, I scraped the skin from the top of her foot, and she ran home crying to our mother. I tried to help up an old man who fell, walking down the street, only for him to yell at me that he could help himself.
I want your help, Gaede. Come to me.
I was in the forest, now, where the road narrowed to a path. The only people who came down to the pond were fishermen. It was not a good place for swimming, though that didn’t stop some of the boys from the village. It was too muddy. Algae and lilypads covered its surface. There was little reason to go there, and so no road led to it.
If you help me, Gaede, I’ll help you, too.
My pace had become a jog, without me realizing it. I knew that, if I kept it up, I would be out of breath by the time I reached the pond. I did not possess the seemingly infinite stamina of other boys my age. The boughs and leaves of the trees hid the moon and stars, too, darkening the path and making my pace one of danger.
None of that mattered to me, in the moment. The voice soothed those worries and built upon other things inside me. I felt desires well up that I had never addressed or even thought about. I wanted to help people. I wanted to save people. I didn’t even know what people might need saving from, but I knew that I wanted to be the one who did it.
I reached the edge of the pond. The lights of the night sky shone down on it with a silver grace. I, however, lost what little grace I had. I hunched over, hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. I was so lost in my own fatigue that I didn’t realize that the voice had come from outside of my head, this time. It still echoed inside me in a disconcerting way, but I had heard it. With my ears.
I looked up, huffing, and there she was, staring at me with a placid gaze that was a complete counter to my own demeanor. She had the face of a beautiful woman, with skin the color of glazed porcelain. In the moonlight, she seemed to glow with a silvery light. Her hair, white as her flesh, spread out among the algae and lily pads, swirling amongst them like serpents.
“Gaede. You came to me.”
I had no breath to answer, so I nodded.
One of her hands slipped forth from the water, extending toward me like a coach driver ready to take a lady’s hand and help her descend to the ground. “Come closer, Gaede.”
I wanted to, in that moment, but something deep inside me screamed a warning. I resisted. I didn’t swim in this water. It was filthy, and full of leeches. I took a deep, shuddering breath. With my lungs full, I asked a question that I didn’t want to ask. “What do you need of me?”
“I need little from you,” she said. She slid forward in the water. I couldn’t make out the rest of her form, but she didn’t seem to make the motions of a swimming person. “Only an agreement.”
The warning within me tried to shout out again, but the silent peace of the night, disturbed only by the chirps of frogs and insects, pressed down upon it, stifling and suffocating it. I knew that entities were dangerous. I knew the dangers of listening to them, and agreeing to their words.
Yet her face did not frighten me. My grandmother said entities were frightening beings, who wanted to do nothing but evil to us, under the guise of aid. The lady in the pond, though, was beautiful. Her eyes shone white in the night like her own little rings of starlight. Her hand, held up above the water, looked soft and fragile.
“What sort of agreement?”
“I want to share my power with you,” she said. Her white lips stretched into a smile. It did not reach her eyes. Perhaps it was meant to comfort me, but it only set me more on edge.
“Why would you want to do that?” I asked, despite myself. I should have fled. I shouldn’t have gone out there in the first place. “You said you needed my help.”
“I do,” she insisted. Her hand remained unnaturally still, suspended above the water, still waiting for me to accept it. “My power is not one I can use by myself. I must share it with others, in order to impact the world.”
“The world?” I asked. I felt stupid and slow, as though I had just woken from a deep slumber. I felt the fatigue of my run and the fact that I’d woken up in the middle of the night. My bones felt heavy beneath my muscles. “What do you want to do to the world?”
“I want to make it good,” she said. “There is too much evil in it. I want to remove it.”
Whatever I had expected her to say, it was not that. I stared at her for longer than she should have accepted. If she’d been human, she would have asked me what was wrong, or moved from her implacable stillness. Instead, she simply watched me process her words, giving no comment to my slowness.
“You want to… remove evil?”
“Yes,” she said. It may have been a trick of the light, but I swore that her eyes widened, expanding to take up more of her face. “I want to be a force for good. I just can’t do it alone. I need help.”
“You need… me?” I asked. “Why me? My father is stronger. The other boys in the village are stronger.”
“They are not good, like you!” she said. She drew closer in the water. It rippled in her wake. Her hair wove among the lily pads like tendrils. “You have so much goodness in you that I can taste it.”
I took a step forward. My toes met the edge of the water. “Is that why you called to me?” I asked. My voice cracked, weakened by the thought that someone might want me. That she might actually need me. “Because you think I’m good?”
“You are good,” she said. “You are good, and together, we can be great. You just have to make an agreement with me. A pact.”
I swallowed. “What sort of agreement?”
“To destroy evil,” she said. Her fingers waved, beckoning me. “That’s all. It is a simple request.”
To destroy evil? I’d wanted to be good my entire life. I’d wanted to be helpful. The thought of destroying anything pained me, but it tempted me, too. How could anyone argue at my goodness — at my worth — if I destroyed the evils which plagued the land? How could my father say I was weak, if I stood strong against the darkness?
“That is all you wish of me?” I asked. “You promise?”
“You have my word, and my pact,” she said. “You need only take my hand, and we can go forth together to destroy the evils I see in the world.”
I paused again, watching her. She was supremely patient. In a way, that was the eeriest part about her. When I did move again, it was to remove my boots. They were my only pair, and I didn’t wish to ruin them by stepping into the pond water with them still on my feet.
The water, colder by far than the air, caused my whole body to clench tight. It felt like winter, not the water of a cool spring night. I began to shiver immediately. The mud squished up between my toes, and I stumbled, nearly falling entirely beneath the surface. I caught myself, and looked up. She still floated there in front of me, hand held out, frozen but for her hair, which drifted in the small waves formed by my entry.
I reached out, shivering from anxiety as much as from the cold. My hand met with her palm. She moved, then, fast as a snake. Her fingers tightened around mine in an iron-hard grip. I gasped.
“Do you agree?” she demanded. Her face drew close to mine. I felt no breath from her lips as she spoke. “Will you abide by the terms of my pact?”
“We will destroy evil?” I asked, my teeth chattering.
“Yes,” she said. Her voice no longer came as a whisper, but with a strong, clean ring that pierced through the sounds of the night. “Together, we will destroy evil.”
“Then I agree.”
Light burst forth from her, brighter than the sun, but silvery and white like the moon, or like her flesh. I closed my eyes, covering them with my free hand, but the light shone right through my skin, revealing the shadows of my bones even through my eyelids. I may have screamed. I can’t recall. In that moment, all I could think of was the light.
When it cleared, she was gone, but in the hand that had held hers was a new weight. I blinked, trying to regain my vision. I held the object above the water, confounded. It was a sword, made of something white and gleaming, just like her skin. The edges of the blade caught the moonlight. It seemed to bead up there, almost like drops of water.
I climbed out of the pond. The sword in my hand made me even less graceful than I had been on my entrance. All thoughts of the cold were forgotten, though. I barely felt it as I wiped the mud from my feet on the grasses growing at the water’s edge. I slipped my boots back on and, sword held awkwardly in my hand, began my exhausted trudge back to my house, mind still numbed by what had happened.