So say the legends. There are stories - passed down from mother to daughter - of her grace, her wisdom, the knowledge of ages past that she carries, and the terrible burden it places upon her. She must endure forever, forever alone in a changing world. She can visit the world of mortals only briefly, and only once a year, and she cannot linger to make friends, enjoy the summer sunshine, or bathe in the clear waters of the great lake that lies between the forest and the mountains. She has a few hours to find a suitable mortal man and deliver her priceless gift, that all may be well in our land for another year. For she is the bearer of the sacred chalice, she is the giver, the bringer, the saviour. The essence of Life, according to the legends, is contained in a magical elixir from the Otherworld. She must allow a sip of that elixir to pass the lips of one mortal man on midsummer's night, every year, and that man will lead our people for the next twelve months with vigour, strength and intelligence. Without leadership we will fall into chaos, fight amongst ourselves, and ultimately perish like so many tribes in ages past. We see the ruins of their settlements sometimes when we hunt far from home; they are desolate and accursed places.
There are further stories - passed down from father to son - of her incredible beauty. The curve of her breast, the fullness of her lips, the pale perfection of her moon-lit skin. She is a creature like no other; it is sin for any but the Chosen to look upon her, and if any man is unfortunate enough to do so he will weaken and sicken and ache and pine helplessly for her, until his dying day. Which will not be long in coming. For hers is a beauty not of this world, and not for mortal men to admire or to understand. For the Chosen, it is different; he alone can look into her eyes and catch a glimpse of the secrets hidden there; hints at what she knows, things she has seen. Every father dreams that his son will be that chosen one. Every father's son dreams of being that chosen one. All is well.
Or, at least, it was until this year. This year things didn't quite go according to plan.
I was wandering, restless and sleepless, at the edge of the forest. Night is often the best time for my thoughts; I need to be surrounded by stillness and peace in order to free my mind and work my own modest magic; not with elixirs or herbs or mystery but with words. Simple, solid words; made by men, spoken by men, but sometimes heard by the very spirits that dwell within us. I am a poet. Not a great poet, but nevertheless my epic tales and humorous limericks serve to keep the folks entertained in the long winter evenings. I am a reasonably accomplished orator; I recount the old stories as well as anyone, and in me and others like me the history of our people is kept alive.
At this time of the year there isn't all that much call for poetry. People work all the long days, gathering food and repairing dwellings and making clothes to keep us all warm and safe and alive during the long winter, when my services will be called upon far more. Thus, I do most of my creative work at this time of the year, opening myself to the influence of strange muses that occasionally venture out from their homes in the trees, the clouds, the still deep waters of the lake and the summer flowers that bloom along the shore. The muses provide our people with music, dance, even dreams, and when the mood takes them they inspire me to string a few words together and make a rhyme, a stanza, even a story.
So. I was out, wandering, waiting for inspiration to strike. In fact I had been doing so for many days and nights; I sometimes retreat from the settlement for weeks when I'm working on something big. This year however I was short of ideas, and had been venturing farther than usual from home. So involved I was with my work that I wasn't exactly sure how long I'd been away. I didn't know what day it was. I had no idea I'd missed the feasting and the celebrations; that tonight was midsummer's night.
I should have noticed that things were different that night. That there were fewer animals than usual drinking at the lakeside, no dark hunting birds wheeling silently in the clear sky, no wolves calling or fish jumping out in the still waters of the lake. I should have realised what night it was, and returned to the village even for a few hours. I, more than anyone, should have been aware of the legends and paid heed to the warnings that I myself had delivered to my audiences more than once. But, fool that I am, I simply wandered, enjoying the solitude, blissful in my ignorance.
The first sounds I heard didn't really bother me. You expect to hear sounds at night, at the edge of a forest. If it had been completely silent I would have been more concerned. However something about these sounds shook me from my reverie and caught my attention. I turned instinctively towards them, wondering what kind of animal was their cause. I saw nothing... or almost nothing. Perhaps I caught just the tiniest glimpse of a human form, disappearing amongst the trees, not so far away from me at all. I was intrigued; perhaps I was already spellbound, certainly I was not thinking straight. For I decided to investigate, to follow. Perhaps I had no choice.
I saw her again a few minutes later. There was no doubt this time that she was human in form, but I still hadn't realised who she was. If I had done, I would of course have left the area immediately. Of course I would. Yet I didn't. I saw her for a brief moment in profile, silhouetted in moonlight with the lake behind her. It was the most beautiful sight I had even set eyes on; it took my breath away. I couldn't move. She obviously wasn't aware of me, but she vanished again behind another tree, moving towards the village.
Maybe you'd think she'd have been more careful. Not that I think it's fair to judge her. She had other things on her mind. Other problems, as I was soon to discover.
It turns out that Mother Nature, in all of her bountiful wisdom, had made a small mistake when creating our magical beauty. This became evident when, no more than a minute after I had seen her and was still trying to comprehend who or what she was, that I heard what could only be the sound of a sneeze. A female sneeze, soft and feminine but wet, and followed by a little sniff. There was no one else around, of that I was sure. It could only have come from her.
I was even more intrigued; almost mesmerised. I moved, slowly, quietly, in the direction of that sneeze. It didn't take me long to find her. The poor creature was sitting down at the base of a tree, surrounded by blooming flowers, holding a delicate lace handkerchief to her nose, far too distracted to notice my approach. As I watched she pressed the handkerchief to her face firmly, her head half buried in her hands, as if trying to press the impending sneezes back inside her. She wasn't equal to the task. She raised her head as if calling to the heavens or the moon herself for aid, but none was forthcoming. Moments later she sneezed wetly, paused, then sneezed again. She dabbed gently at her eyes, then was suddenly overcome with a fit of rapid nasal explosions. I counted, unable to look away; she reached the magic number of seven, wiped her nose frantically, then succumbed once more. Eight sneezes, nine sneezes, ten eleven and twelve sneezes close together. Pause. She began to breathe in short gasps, waving her hands frantically as if to clear the air before her of something, then her thirteenth sneeze erupted, visibly shaking her and ending in a long, drawn out sigh. Trembling, she raised herself to her feet and tried to move on, stumbling half blindly through the blooming flowers as she did so. I could see a small cloud of pollen fly up from them as she disturbed them, and this was soon accompanied by another volley from her; a torrential rain of helpless, relentless sneezes. They started small, at regular intervals about two or three seconds apart. After a dozen or so they became stronger, more desperate and with longer gaps between them. She stopped and leaned against a tree, supporting her slender, trembling body. Gasping once again she dropped the handkerchief, and when she began sneezing again she tried to muffle the sound in her hands, her head bobbing forward repeatedly; sometimes the whole of her upper body bending over with the force that she was powerless to control. I lost count sometime around this point; I had never seen anything like this before.
Eventually, she gained some measure of composure. Sniffing loudly she began to move once again, seemingly blindly in the general direction of the settlement. Frequently she used the back of her hand to wipe at her eyes and nose, sometimes she stumbled against trees or undergrowth. Incredibly she still had some measure of grace; bizarre and uncontrolled as it was, I couldn't help but notice the shapely curve of her legs and bare feet beneath the thin, filmy garments she wore. The purpose of her movement; the determination in that small body was undeniable. I followed at a distance, pausing only to pick up the handkerchief she had forgotten.
Eventually, perhaps by luck or perhaps something else, she reached the main path that led out of the forest. By this time she seemed to have regained some of her composure. She paused, taking stock, and then smoothed her hair and clothing. She didn't see me; didn't think to look back.
As she stepped out from the cover of the trees and towards the clearing, she seemed to shimmer a little and become pale, almost transparent. If I hadn't been watching already I probably wouldn't even have seen her. I was clumsy and ungainly by comparison, but years of wandering at night had at least taught me how to move fairly quietly, and I moved along the edge of the forest, tracking her movements as she crossed the space at an angle, apparently heading for a hut at one side of the village. Absently I tried to recall who lived there. I guess by now at least some part of my mind had realised who she was, but I wasn't really thinking about it. All I wanted was to feast my eyes upon her.
She ducked behind a building, and suddenly I couldn't see her any more. I cannot describe the sudden feeling of loss; the tangible pain that shot through my heart at her absence. I felt weak and dizzy. I had to get her back. Heedless of the danger of discovery I broke into a half run, not bothering to conceal my presence any longer. I headed straight for the point at which I had last seen her, reached the hut, and turned the corner. Then I stopped. There she was, no more than ten feet before me. She was facing me, yet seemed oblivious to my presence. She was waving her hand in front of her face; her eyes were closed, her beautiful face was scrunched up and she was breathing in tiny little gasps. Realising what was about to happen my heart began to pound; if she started another sneezing fit here she'd wake up the whole village. Everyone would come out of their homes and see her. It would be chaos; we'd be ruined. The end of the world would be upon us. There were no legends that spoke of this happening.
I did the only think I could think of. I stepped forward with her lace handkerchief still in my hand, and pressed it firmly to her face. She was startled but I steadied her with my free arm. I felt her tense, she pressed her body against mine, and buried her face, already covered by the handkerchief, in my shoulder. Thus supported she stifled a sneeze, and another, and another. Each one caused a tiny involuntary shudder to pass through her as her body tried to fight the incessant tickles inside her nose. She would tense, stifle a sneeze against me, relax momentarily and take a silent half-breath, then the process repeated. Each time I felt the warmth of her desperate form press against me I felt a little rush of pleasure; we must have been standing there for about ten minutes as this continued, until I was reeling from a heady excess of sheer joy. Some of her sneezes were completely silent, sometimes desperate little sounds escaped, a few times she followed them with half-suppressed involuntary moans. She, poor thing, was exhausted yet somehow she didn't seem unhappy. Once or twice she opened her teary eyes, looked at me for a moment and smiled with gratitude, perhaps even something before, before closing them once more in preparation for another sneeze.
Eventually, the sneezes subsided. We stood there, clinging to each other, for several minutes afterwards. We were both shaking. Somehow I think she was able to draw strength from me, and she regained her poise. She raised her finger to her lips, indicating that we should be quiet. I felt that was a little unnecessary by this point, but smiled and nodded. She took my hand and led me away from the village, back towards the forest. I had no idea why, but I was in no state to do anything but follow.
When we reached the shelter of the trees she did an extraordinary thing. She put one arm around my waist, stood on tiptoes and kissed me. It was a full, wet kiss on the lips, lingering with the passion of a fire that must have burned inside of her since time began. This time it was I who nearly fell, and she supported me as best she could. After a moment though a warmth began to flow through me, and I felt the strength of ten men begin to stir my body. At the same time it was as if a great fog had lifted from my mind, and I became aware not only who she was, but of a great many other things I had never stopped to consider before. Ideas for future poems began to arrange themselves in one part of my head, while in others I considered everything from this season's harvest to designs for a new fishing boat, to the best ways to heat the forge we would need to make weapons to ward off predators in winter.
Then I realised what had happened. Her kiss was not just a kiss; she had fulfilled her purpose for this year. The sweet elixir I had tasted on her tongue was something more precious and magical than I could ever have imagined. I; poet, wanderer at night, and saviour of beautiful women stricken by hay fever, had been chosen to lead my people this year. More by accident than by design, perhaps, but the deed was done now and I would make the best of it.
I suppose she had no choice, really. I wouldn't exactly have been anyone's first choice for leader; I wasn't the strongest or the fastest or the wisest of men, nor was I the hardest worker. Yet, leader I was, and so would I remain until next year.
As I realised all of this, I also became aware that she was becoming a little preoccupied, a little distressed once again. She was rubbing frantically at her beautiful nose, now reddened and streaming. Firmly I took a hold of her and led her quickly away, through the trees, back towards the lake. About halfway there the first violent sneeze shook her; by the time we reached the shore I had to carry her as her delicate body was wracked by repeated sneezes. She lay helpless in my arms as I carried her along the side of the lake, not really sure where else to go, but realising that she needed to be somewhere away from the flowers. Eventually, after sneezing perhaps fifty times in my arms, she subsided once again. Once we had travelled a fair distance she recovered quickly, and was soon able to stand once again.
She spoke quickly, as if impatient to get the words out. She explained that this had never happened before; that somehow she had developed this violent allergy recently and was powerless to do anything about it. That perhaps she would find a way, in her mysterious life away from our world, beyond normal existence as I understood it, to effect a cure. But if not, she would surely seek me out again next year. Provided I ruled well, and wisely of course. She thanked me for my assistance, and said she had one further thing to ask of me. It was something she'd never had chance to ask of anyone before. I, of course, promised her anything she wanted.
She reached out a hand and touched my face. To begin with I thought it was a gesture of affection, then I realised she was brushing pollen from my cheeks that must have lodged there during our progress through the forest. Then she slowly removed her clothing, carefully keeping the pollen between her fingers. Finally she knelt, took my hand, pulled me down to the ground beside her, and smiled happily. She put her fingers to her face, and breathed deeply. Her body began to tremble, and gently she guided my hand to the place between her legs, which was already warm and wet. She may have been immortal, but seemed wonderfully human. She kissed me once again, and began to undress me even as her eyelids fluttered and her nose began to wrinkle.
"I am the bearer of the elixir of life. Be gentle, but drink deep" she whispered, as she lay back, closed her eyes and began to sneeze. I sighed in ecstasy, and obeyed her command. As the dawn broke we lay together; one night of passion would have to last us both a whole year.We made it a night to remember.