It was a scent in the air, blowing in off the hayfields hidden behind the trees. It was the harmony of birdsong and insect chatter, all chorusing together. It was the way the wind brushed her skin; in all the years she’d been gone, in all the places she had traveled, she had never felt a breeze like the ones here.
And now she was back. Almost. The main road had taken her as close as it could. The last leg would take her down the narrow path that appeared now, branching away into the woods.
She touched the reins. Her horse stopped. A thought grew from some crack in the darkest corners of her mind: it wasn’t too late. She could turn around and ride away. No one needed to know how close she had come to returning home. No one needed to know she wasn’t just one of the nameless missing.
A soft laugh broke loose from somewhere deep inside, a sound that she knew to be frantic and desperate and a truer window to the state of her soul than she would have admitted to anyone but her own self. She should feel like a hero. That was what everyone had said. The comrades-in-arms whose lives she had saved. The commander who had presented her with the ornate and beautiful sword that hung, even now, from the scabbard at her left hip. Even the king when he had offered her a place at his side.
Perhaps she should have accepted it. Perhaps her polite refusal, born of the lurking, rotting feeling that she did not, could not belong in such circles, was not so based in reality as she had made herself believe. It could hardly have made her feel any more alien and uncomfortable than she did now, standing here at the edge of what should have been the most familiar place in all the worlds.
She hadn’t felt this way through all the long journey back. Not as the small group of those she had traveled with split off in ones and twos and threes as they each reached their own homes. Not as the mountains shrank into the distances and the hills grew softer and greener and ever more gentle. Not even as some of the others had, in the quiet and thoughtful moments that gathered around their campfire in the dark, wondered if they would recognize the places they returned to, and if those places in turn would recognize them.
They weren’t the sort of questions that had wanted answers.
She had been grateful, in her own quiet arrogance, that these were not the thoughts that plagued her own mind when it was meant to be at rest. Perhaps she had just been better than her companions at avoiding the silence that allowed them to grow. Until now.
And so, here she was. Caught alone with the things that prowled in the darkest, emptiest corners of her own soul. Listening as they whispered, reminding her that all could never be just as it was.
Her horse whickered and shifted his weight from leg to leg. Impatient. She reached down and patted his neck, offering this poor substitute for a stall and good hay to buy a few more moments to indulge her own fears. He accepted the bribe.
It was strange. She couldn’t say what it was she was afraid of. It wasn’t that she didn’t know; would that it were so easy. Would that she couldn’t tell that the answer was there, buried carefully and hidden away with all the other things she couldn’t bring herself to examine—like why she had been so quick to leave in the first place.
A thirst for adventure. That was the most flattering way to explain it. The most acceptable, to herself, to her family, to those she met along the way. And yet it would have been just as accurate, or even more so, to use a different phrase instead. A fear of the mundane.
She snorted, despite herself. A sudden sound, startling both to her and her horse; he grunted and threw his head up high, tossing his mane and taking a few steps further down the path. She touched the reins again and whispered soothing words to buy herself a few minutes more.
For all the good it would do.
She cursed, once, a single word hissed under her breath. Temptation welled up in her chest, urging her to keep to the main road, to travel on and bow to the deceptive simplicity of that choice. All she had to do was touch her heels to her horse’s sides. She didn’t know what would happen after that. She didn’t know, and that was the allure.
Strange, that she could say the same of what would happen if instead she turned her horse’s head down that familiar, narrow road. Strange how much easier it was to face the untouched and unfamiliar than it was to return to what might have changed. Strange how she had thought, until that moment, that she had known what courage was.
So she waited. She breathed. She felt the beating of her heart and the thrumming of the world. And when her horse next pawed the ground in his grumpy, fitful way, she made her choice.