The next morning, Deborah arose early to do the household laundry. She made her way to the stream as Malina had done. Never having washed clothes in a stream before, she hoped that Theuli’s instructions would prove useful.
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As Theuli had warned her, it was hard work. She soaked the clothes, rubbed them with a soap bar which felt slightly caustic, and worked the dirt out on one of the smooth stones she had seen the Elf-woman use before.
Theuli didn’t like the idea of Deborah’s going off alone, especially not after Malina’s encounter with the Imp. But afterwards, the need for caution seemed unwarranted, so she allowed Deborah to begin the washing alone. Ever cautious, though, Theuli had said that she would join Deborah before too long, using the pretense that the Human girl would need help carrying the wet clothes back to the house.
Deborah paused as Malina had done, to rest her tired back and shoulders, and to take in the beautiful scene around her; the quiet, crystal-clear stream, the lazy willows, the quiet hiss of the wind in the trees, the grassy banks of the stream, dotted with beds of herbs and wildflowers . . . she found herself wishing that she could somehow take this benign tranquility inside herself, and-
But such thoughts were ridiculous, unattainable, and tormenting to dwell upon. Turning her attention back to the task at hand, she soon found herself working automatically, lost in various rhythms, the irrhythmic sounds of nature, like the sounds of the breeze and the stream, working as counterpoint against the steady, periodic sloshing of laundry being soaped, dipped, scrubbed, wrung, soaped, dipped, scrubbed, wrung . . .
As she worked, she smiled to herself, suddenly. ‘Well, now I’ve seen everyone in their naked pelt, as my grandmother used to call being naked; or making embarrassing noises on the . . . what did Theuli say her mother used to call it . . . oh, yes! the thundermug.’ She almost laughed out loud at this apt but rude description of the commode. She found herself shaking her head, inwardly, amazed that one could get used to such things in so short a period. The women took turns doing the bathing, their rotation depending entirely on juggling other chores and duties. They would then finish by bathing each other . . .
It was a labour they all seemed to greatly enjoy; it brought all of them closer together, inviting harmless curiosity in some cases, forced more difficult curiosities to be dealt with. The first time Deborah had bathed Pran, something she had only been allowed to do, once the act of bathing others had become well-established as part of her routine, she’d had a difficult time not to stare. His body was solid, lithe, hard muscle, sharply defined, with not an ounce of extra fat anywhere. And he had so many scars!
Like a child, as she bathed him, she asked him about his various battle-marks. With a patient smile, as though giving her a tour of the map of his life, he had shown her most of them, telling her enthralling, amazing stories in the meantime, of how they’d been acquired.
The following day, Theuli had told her, as the two women prepared a meal in the kitchen, that Deborah was not to believe all that Pran had told her regarding his war-wounds.
‘He was,’ the Elf woman confided with a smile, ‘having a little fun at your expense. Most of those injuries he got working on the farm.’
Deborah had to smile; to her surprise, instead of feeling miffed, she felt closer to Pran, for his having had it on with her
‘Funny,’ she thought to herself, ‘that the men will wash the children, but will only wash the women in special cases, as Pran will with Theuli sometimes, at the end of a long day, when she’s really tired.’ She asked Theuli about this, and had received a thoughtful shrug in response.
‘I’d never really thought about it,’ the Elf woman told her. ‘But there is . . . a sort of unspoken taboo, I guess you might say. It is odd, though, when you think about it; that one can so easily accept a woman, any woman, giving a man his bath. But when the rôles are reversed, it seems to completely change the connotation . . .’
Deborah found herself agreeing for the most part, thinking it was a matter more of instinct than of . . . well . . . anything else-
The word instinct seemed to touch her in an almost piquant physical manner, and she shuddered, feeling an almost sexual thrill . . . as though she had been touched . . . though in some indefinable, oblique manner . . .
No, it was some sort of illusion! No one had actually physically touched her. But she found herself looking around, certain for no discernible reason that she was being watched, or that she had sensed . . . what? No, she had heard something . . . a sort of melody that sounded like the light breeze, as though they were one and the same. Pulling the wet clothes from the water, she set them on a flat rock so they wouldn’t wash away in the current. Then, gingerly crossing the stream, bare feet uncertain on the smooth boulders, coolish water lapping at her ankles, she began making her way towards the alluring sound or music, which affected her like staring at an impossible object composed entirely of light; an indefinable and emotionally breathtaking manifestation which only barely bordered on being comprehensible to her senses.
As she gained the far bank, there was a rustle as of fabric, and some nearby bushes were disturbed, but she saw nothing. The music was getting louder now. Or was it music? The harder she tried to listen, the more, yet less distinct the sound became. Finally, her way was barred by a hedge. Trying to move silently, she pushed her way through this, and stopped in wonder. The hedge formed a wide circle, perhaps fifty feet across. In the center, a group of small women, about the same height as Malina . . . yet very different . . . were dancing to the strange music, which seemed to be all around them. There were dozens of them, similar in dress and appearance. They were slight, lithe and graceful, and bathed in an eldritch presence that was either light or music, or both.
Deborah tried to straighten up a little, when a twig broke beneath her foot. The dancers stopped, in as perfect unison as when they had been dancing. For a heart-stopping moment, she was afraid the dancers would attack her or flee. Instead, one of them approached her.
‘You must help us finish the Dance,’ the small woman said in annoyance. ‘You have broken the Circle.’
‘But I do not know the dance,’ Deborah replied.
‘Have you not heard the music?’ the dancer asked her.
There was something odd in the timbre of the way the dancer said the word music that carried with it something elusive and alarming, but Deborah nodded, mutely.
‘Then you will know the Dance. But you are unlike us,’ she said, appraising Deborah in an unsettling way. ‘You must do it at the center of the Circle, else the Balance will be lost.’
Almost with a volition not her own, Deborah did as she was told, stepping into the center of the circle. At once, the dancers began moving together in perfect unison once more, as though she wasn’t there at all.
‘I know this,’ she thought, wondering how “knowing” such a thing was possible, for the dance and the music and the light, she soon discovered, were one and the same thing.
Something is going to happen! The thought was frightening, yet exhilarating. She felt herself . . . sort of expanding . . . though that wasn’t really the right word for the strange sensation rising within her. Paradoxically, she felt herself being drawn deeper and deeper into the dance, and into the light. Suddenly, at one end of the hedge, she saw a tunnel open through the dense brush, down which leaves were falling, as though the mouth of the tunnel ran straight down into the ground, rather than parallel to it. The source of the warm light was moving towards them from somewhere beyond the end of the tunnel . . .
Something is going to-
Something crashed into her, even as the light enveloped the dancers, and she was pulled roughly from the circle, half-dragged through the hedge. What- ?
It was Theuli, watching Deborah with horror.
The hedge was gone, as was the light.
‘Where did they go? Where are the dancers?’
‘Deborah!’ Theuli shouted into her confusion, ‘Look at me.’ Deborah found herself somehow locked into the Elf-woman’s gaze, unable to look away. After a moment, however, Theuli relaxed, seemingly satisfied with what she saw.
‘That was foolish! What possessed you to join in the Circle?’
Feeling baffled and ashamed, Deborah said, ‘I don’t know. I heard the music, and followed it here. When I got here, I interrupted the dance, and one of the dancers told me that I had to join them, so I did.’
Theuli breathed a shuddering sigh. ‘You were only moments away from being lost to us.’
Deborah’s look was a study in guilty incomprehension.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Then learn!’ said Theuli intently. ‘Those dancers were Sprites, engaged in the Dance of Life. You almost . . . how can I say it? They were in the midst of a rite called the Joining.’
Deborah stared, still waiting for an explanation that made sense to her.
‘You do not understand,’ said Theuli, ‘but harken; you were almost lost, even to yourself. Come, let us finish the washing and return to the house. Malina and my husband should be returning soon.’