“Couldn’t we do this somewhere else?” whispered Donlon nervously.
“Why? Are you afraid the scarecrow will give us away?” Keris snickered under his breath. “This place is perfect.”
Donlon licked his lips and tried to swallow but his throat was too dry. He looked up at the Avatar’s face again, so perfectly human and lifelike and yet somehow unlike him and Keris. It sat stoically on its throne, silent and still, in exactly the same way it had for as long as anybody could remember. But Donlon couldn’t help but wait for it to move, to twitch or shift its weight. Crouching at its side, trying to squeeze into its insufficient shadow, he was only a few inches from its exquisitely detailed hand. Even in the dim moonlight, every conceivable detail could be seen; freckles, hair, pores, you could even imagine that this Avatar had a bad habit of biting his nails. And yet, despite the perfect reproduction of every human imperfection, it never seemed an image of an ordinary man. As Donlon’s gaze moved up the Avatar’s arm to its shoulder, earnestly searching for any telltale mistake that would assure him the thing was only an artifice, he remembered the first time he had seen an Avatar.
* * *
He was a child of seven and his family had ridden three days to visit relatives in Ehllay. The center of Ehllay had shifted over the centuries and its Avatar was now atop an overgrown hill that was rarely visited. Donlon’s father, Dotah, made a hobby of visiting Avatars, marking their locations on a hand-drawn map and sketching their portraits in a notebook. After lunch one day, Dotah stood over Donlon, pushed a daypack onto his shoulders, and said they were going on an adventure.
New Bishop was a tight cluster of homes and markets, but Ehllay was a sprawl of ancient ruins that spread out for hundreds of miles. Scattered throughout were several small communities like the one his uncle lived in. Despite the fact that some were separated by as many as fifty miles, each village was still called Ehllay, as if they considered themselves distant descendants of the ancient metropolis. Donlon still had vague memories of sweeping stone ramparts, gigantic, glistening towers that stood beside gutted shadows of themselves, and the wasteland of Holly Hole Crater, a haunted vale of sulpher, smoke and skulls that would tell their dreadful tales if you had the courage to ask.
The walk through the ruined city was long and full of pleasant side-trips. Dotah played hide and seek with his son and filled his mind with legends of Ehllay in its former glory, sobering tales of its judgment and the trials of its resettlement. Every so often, they would find some other wanderer, usually a treasure hunter or an historian, and ask how to reach the Ehllay Avatar. Invariably, they pointed west.
By the time the sun was low and orange, they could smell salt on the air and hear the cries of seagulls. A narrow gravel path led up a steep hill covered in brambles that often encroached on the aging and poorly maintained stairs. Donlon raced ahead of his father, climbing the wide steps in tireless leaps.
At the top, the brambles opened onto a long, narrow alley of red clover. Donlon could hear a low, rhythmic rumbling. He looked back at his father who was slowly laboring up the path. “That’s the ocean you hear; her endless caress of the coast.” Unable to wait for his father, Donlon raced up the alley toward the sun that was starting to sink into the sea. Still twenty yards from the cliff, he suddenly noticed that he was not alone. Squinting into the setting sun he saw the sharp silhouette of a woman, sitting in a low, delicate chair. She was peacefully watching the sunset and Donlon came up short, hoping that he hadn’t disturbed her. There wasn’t much room between the hedges but Donlon was anxious to see the crashing waves, so he quietly slipped beside her to the edge of the cliff.
Standing at the precipice, he kept glancing at her from the corner of his eye, but he was too shy to introduce himself. Wave after wave crashed on the rocks below and the sun sank lower and lower. After counting several sets of twenty-seven waves, the highest he could count at the time, his curiosity got the better of his courtesy and he turned suddenly announcing, “My name is Donlon. What’s your na…”
There was only a minute or so where the last rays of that day’s light fell upon her face but the image caught in Donlon’s mind like a fish hook. The woman’s features looked slightly younger than his mother but her eyes were immeasurably older. She stared full-faced into the setting sun wearing a slight smile. Her hands folded casually in her lap and a necklace of some kind was concealed within them. A long braid of thick, black hair lay heavily upon her right shoulder and one bare foot was folded up beneath her and hidden under the simple white dress that she wore. At first glance, everything about her was kindness and gentleness, but otherwise unremarkable.
Looking at her, waiting to be acknowledged, his eye caught a faint glimmer on her forehead. Twinkling in the sunset shades of roses and rubies was a tiny diamond set into the very skin of her brow. For a moment he was simply amused by the unusual decoration until he recognized the gem as a Star of Rachel.
Suddenly, he seemed to perceive a second woman, overlaying the first. Her kindness was mingled with tenacious strength and her gentleness seemed supported by the kind of confidence he was used to seeing in his grandfather. Though her eyes never glanced in his direction, Donlon was certain that she was somehow gazing at him intently and he felt a powerful urge to tell her that he’d lied about feeding the horse, that he’d squashed a frog with a rock this morning, and that he had called his younger brother a sow.
As all of this rushed through Donlon’s mind he staggered back toward the edge of the cliff. From what felt like another world, he felt his father grasping his sleeve as he said, “Easy now. Don’t go off the edge.” Donlon looked up at his father with searching eyes, unable to give voice to the dozens of questions he had. “She watches over Ehllay, Donlon. This whole valley is under her protection.” Donlon continued to stare at Dotah, unable to make sense of what he’d been told. “It’s not like before son. She’s one of our elder sisters. You have nothing to fear from her.” Dotah gestured and nodded and Donlon looked back at the woman, the Avatar of Ehllay. To Donlon, it seemed again to be an ordinary woman, gazing silently over the darkening waves.
* * *
Unlike that peaceful looking woman, the Avatar of New Bishop was an image of a man, and notably older in its appearance. Not that it appeared aged or weak in any way, but the wrinkles around its eyes and the graying hair above its ears led Donlon to guess its ‘age’ to be about 50. It sat stiffly, formally upon a heavy stone chair, peering tirelessly across the valley that held New Bishop between its grass-covered slopes. Overall, the Avatar of New Bishop was more impressive but much less likeable than its counterpart in Ehllay.
“C’mon Keris. Let’s get up into the trees and do this. We’re out in the open here.”
“Quiet!” Keris snapped. “Just shut up and hit him hard. Besides, we can’t move now, he’ll see us.”
Glancing up over the armrest of the Avatar’s throne, Donlon spotted a horse coming up the road. Above the dull clop-clop of hooves was a high-pitched, rhythmic jangling from a pair of saddlebags. The man atop the horse was a rancher from Wrenright who had spent the previous week in New Bishop selling cattle. Keris was the son of a butcher and if he was right, there were hundreds and hundreds of aggies in the man’s bags. Regardless of the treasure he carried, he rode up the hill slowly, calmly, singing under his breath, while Keris pulled his scarf up over his face.
“Keris! This is stupid. Anyone could see us here!”
“Who Donlon!?” Keris’ voice was sharp with spite. “There’s nobody here but him and us! Now stop talking and get ready. He’s almost here.” Keris turned back to the road with a frustrated sigh and dug his toes into the turf for better traction.
Donlon ground his teeth together, as much in anger as in anxiety, and he glanced tensely between the approaching rider, his crouching accomplice and the quiet Avatar above him. His grip repeatedly tightened and slacked on the staff in his hands as he tried to steel his nerves. Forcing himself to focus he rose up on his toes, coiled, and sought to press every inch of his body into the Avatar’s shadow.
A tense eternity passed as Donlon listened to the horse getting closer and closer. Unwilling to risk another peek, he twisted his head this way and that trying to hear what he couldn’t see. When he could finally hear the horse snorting between hoof beats he drew in a deep breath and held it. As he did, Keris’s hand came to rest softly on his shoulder. Donlon nodded to indicate that he was ready, but when he turned to face his partner he saw that Keris had both hands on the ground, preparing to sprint.
A frigid lightning bolt raced up Donlon’s spine and the hair on his arms stood on end. The hand on his shoulder grew steadily heavier, and hotter, but Donlon was unable to move. His throat slammed shut like the door of a tomb and every muscle in his body made a vain and painful attempt to run, flail or fall.
Just as the rancher came alongside the Avatar’s dais, Donlon’s legs become his own and he leaped forward to escape the mysterious grip. He rolled to his back in midair, desperate to see the Avatar, and expected to find a great flaming sword raised above its head. At the same time he screamed, “He touched me!”
Donlon’s flying body crashed onto the road with a dusty thud where the rancher’s horse, a few bare feet away, reared up with a frightened whinny. Keris, as surprised by Donlon’s outburst as the rancher, and still hidden in shadow, saw that the moment was lost and immediately slipped behind the Avatar and away into the night. Donlon scrambled backward across the road on his back staring up at the Avatar. The rancher quickly regained control of his horse and rode quickly off toward Wrenright leaving Donlon alone and sweating.
Slowly regaining his breath, Donlon stared intently at the Avatar, looking for any indication that it had changed its posture, shifted its weight or batted an eye. Laying in the road, propped up on his elbows, an intense fear of moving fought with an equally intense urge to run away, but as the minutes passed and the Avatar remained as still as stone, the terror passed.
When he finally convinced himself that he had imagined the hand upon his shoulder, he got up and beat the dust from his pants. Shaking his head, wryly laughing at his own foolishness he reached up to brush the grass from his shoulder when he noticed four distinct fingerprints burned into the leather of his coat.