If he closed his eyes he could still see it, the valley where he’d first laid eyes on her. Her long hair was the color of a dove’s body, her eyes the brightest green he had ever seen. Banon was only seventeen when he met his sweetheart and he imagined she was three years younger than him. The day had been warm, much more than was usual for the early spring and so he decided to take advantage of it. Their small village was surrounded on three sides by lush forest, so dark and deep that if one did not know it well enough they could become lost and never heard from again. Banon knew the forest like he lived there and often times, he felt like he did. It was easier to be among the animals and plants than it was to be at home any given day. Too many siblings and not enough room left him always searching for a place where his space was limitless. This forest was as close as it would ever get.
Were he out hunting or even trying to burn or some energy or powerful emotion, he would have shifted into some form of jungle cat or wild dog. Banon had been born a shifter, the first sign that his mother had not been faithful to the only man he’d ever known as his father. Had anyone else known what it was he could do, shame would have been brought to his parents and despite their shortcomings, he loved them too much to do that to them. So from the day he realized his gift, his tenth birthday and on from then, Banon kept his ability a secret.
Walking through the familiar trees down a path only he knew, he swept a hand out to run over the greenery he passed. Stepping over a fallen tree, he bent to take up one of the many thick branches and sticks that littered the forest floor, using it as a walking stick. There was no rush today and so he stayed in his human form, unruly blonde hair falling a little over his blue eyes and sticking out in odd angles. He didn’t care what he looked like, never really had. If his looks cost him the opportunity for marriage, then so be it. What man really needed a woman anyway, especially when one had a sanctuary such as this?
There was a spot in the forest that was easily missed, lined with trees that had trunks as thick as a full grown man. Beyond them was a steep drop off and a valley with nothing but open sky for acres. This valley was Banon’s chosen destination today. All he had to do was take a right at the twisted oak and then keep going forward from there on in. His boots crunched over stale and fallen pine needles, cutting through freshly made spider webs with his paces. Each time he did this and realized it, Banon would offer a soft apology before moving on. He’d turned himself into a spider once for the sole purpose of seeing what kind of process went into making such intricate webs. When he found it was not easy and then had his web swept away by one of his sisters as she cleaned, he felt much more empathetic toward the tiny creatures.
Reaching the line of trees he sought, Banon passed the thick trunks and stood on the crest of the drop off. Paradise lay before him, rich in brilliant greens of every shade, dappled with wild flowers of red, yellow and purple. If he came out early enough there would sometimes be deer there, lazing in the early morning sun with their young and drinking from the stream that ran directly down its middle. There were no animals today, but there certainly was a creature at the water’s edge, opposite the side he was on. This creature was a girl and even from so far away, Banon could tell that she was in distress. He moved forward, walking stick still in hand to head in the maiden’s direction.
“Pardon me, my lady,” he said as he approached. Her head lifted so quickly that her snow white hair flew about her face, partially hiding the wild green of her eyes. Banon raised a hand and took a step back. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Mankoi naa lle sinome?”
Banon blinked and looked at the young girl queerly. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Kela! Mankoi lle irma?!” She was more than a little agitated, possibly because Banon had startled her but the stunned and somewhat helpless expression he now wore made her narrow her eyes and calm slightly. “You. Are. Understanding. Yes?”
She spoke words that he could understand and Banon smiled slightly. “Yes! Yes, I understand you much better now.” For whatever reason, this response drew a hiss from her and she shrank away from him, pulling into herself a little. Banon held out a hand, put off by her behaviour but not wanting her to leave. “No, wait. It’s all right, I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Your stream,” Banon confirmed, anything to get her to stay. This was the first time he had ever seen anyone out here and he was curious as to where this girl came from. Certainly not his village, he would have seen her before. Pointing to himself he said, “Banon.”
“Banon,” she repeated slowly, pointing at him. When he nodded, she pointed at herself. “Ninque.”
“Ninque.” Banon smiled at her. “Beautiful name.” This compliment did nothing to warm her to him and he realized this. To further prove that he meant her no harm, he sat at the edge of the stream and looked down into the slowly running waters. Ninque watched him with a furrowed brow, eventually copying him. “I come here a lot,” Banon told her. “It’s peaceful here, almost as if it has been forgotten by time and people. Left alone and perfect.”
Maybe it was the way Banon spoke or the gentle honesty in his voice that had Ninque lower her defenses. The scowl slowly faded though there was still something guarded in the green of her eyes. They seemed to stare right through him, searching the shadows of his insides for any information she could use. “You come from…” Not knowing what word to use, she pointed into the forest in the direction of Banon’s village.
“Yes,” he answered with a smile. “My village is that way.” He picked a dandelion and ran a finger over the thin velvety petals. “Where do you come from, Ninque?” She moved her hand in a slightly jerky motion, pointing behind Banon. “You come from the forest?” Instead of answering, she raked her hair from her face and looked down at the stream. “You shouldn’t be out here alone,” he told her after a time. “There are hunters and…” Ninque raised her head at the mention of hunters and looked wildly around. “No, no!” Banon was quick to reassure. “No hunters right now. Just me. Just Banon.”
“That’s right.” She looked young but there was an old wisdom in her gaze, something that said she had seen far more than he could ever guess. Her body was small and delicate, fingers thin and tiny. She looked almost breakable and dangerous in the pureness of her beauty and Banon found himself feeling like he needed to protect her. From who and what was unclear, but he wouldn’t deny the strange feelings. He watched her reach down into the stream and dip her fingers into the water, smiling slightly when she saw goose flesh appear on her arm. “Is it cold?”
Ninque looked up and nodded, smiling for the first time, small as it was. “Cold.”
“You know, the people in my village say that these woods house old ghosts.” Ninque looked up and at Banon with curiosity. “Do you know what I’m saying? Ghosts?” She smiled again and lifted her hands to flutter her wet fingers in the air and Banon laughed. “Yes, like that. Ghosts.”
“I’ve heard some say they’re evil ghosts, some say they’re good.” He looked around, having a hard time believing a place as beautiful as this could have anything sinister lurking in the shadows. When he returned his gaze to Ninque, he was surprised to see her watching him.
“You come…many times.” Banon wasn’t sure how to reply because it sounded more like a statement than a question, yet he had never seen her there before. “You come as animal. Bird. Wolf. Last time…” She trailed off and lifted an arm, going through the motions of cleaning herself like a cat.
Banon grinned. “Yes.” The last time he’d been here he’d left the village under the disguise of a common house cat. In the valley here he’d rolled in the grass, lazed in the sun and chased bugs. ‘But how did you know that?”
“Ah,” she teased. “You have secret. Ninque have secret, too. Muina.”
“Muina,” Banon repeated, and Ninque smiled, pleased. “What language are you speaking, I wonder.” If she was meant to reply, he certainly didn’t get one. She was too enchanted by the water that separated them and Banon was too entranced by her to really care if he got a reply or not. She blinked often and seemed to move each time the breeze drifted around them. He was reminded of petals on the wind when her hair swayed and a thought struck. “What is your secret, Ninque?” She only looked at him, those green eyes deep and revealing nothing but more mystery. “Are you one of the ghosts?” This drew a smile from her and she reached across the water for him. Banon extended his hand to touch the velvet fingers of hers, and she pulled him to his feet and across the stream, almost landing him in it.
Were it not for the child-like manner she possessed, it would have sounded like a command to a dog. None the less, Banon followed as he was pulled back toward the forest, but closer to a part he was unfamiliar with. Just at the edge where the trees met the valley was a spectacular bush of snow white roses. He’d never seen this before, yet it was so large he wondered how it was possible. “Muina,” Ninque said proudly.
Banon blinked and looked at her with obvious confusion. “Roses? This is your secret?” Again, his answer was the mysterious silence. He let go of her hand and took a few steps closer to the bush. Carefully taking the head of one of largest roses in between his fingers, Banon bent and closed his eyes as he breathed in the fresh scent and rubbed his thumb over the paper thin velvet of the petals. It reminded him of the bath salts his sisters used sometimes. “You must be the keeper of these beauties. That must be your secret.” Turning to give her a smile, he found himself to be alone. “Ninque?”
The entire valley was empty, save himself. Where could she have disappeared to? “Ninque?” he tried again, a little bit louder this time. She couldn’t have gone into the woods, he would have noticed. At a loss, his attention returned to the rose bush before him. Why had she brought him here and then disappeared? He recalled the feel of her hand in his and how soft it had been. Almost like the petals of the…roses. Banon blinked and looked around once more. These roses were whiter than any he’d seen before, pure by definition. And the leaves that decorated their thorny stems were almost the same green as…but no. That couldn’t be possible. Could it? He’d said himself that there were tales of ghosts in these woods but he didn’t actually believe them.
Ninque never did reappear that day, or any other time Banon came to the valley. In fact, the next time he came the rose bush was gone completely. He only knew she’d been there by the single white rose that would be waiting for him on the banks of the stream.