Elissa was physically exhausted and mentally drained by the time she found herself stumbling back up the passage to the entrance of the cavern she’d been exploring. Countless hours had passed since she’d first stated talking to Earthmother, as she’d came to start calling the strange nature spirit, and they’d covered so many topics her mind couldn’t track them all, causing one to blur into another and then into yet another.
Earthmother seemed to randomly swap topics as they chatted, sometimes asking about places halfway across the kingdom, sometimes asking about places which were dead and gone for hundreds or thousands of years, and then sometimes asking or talking about people and places that Elissa had no idea who, when, or even when they might be in reference to.
The only constant subject of mutual interest that Elissa could discuss with Earthmother was Stone. His birth. His growth. The seething annoyance which Earthmother felt at the fleshlings around him as they slowly regarded him more and more as a destructive freak, than one of their own. In Earthmother’s opinion, fleshlings were stupid – asked for Nature’s Milk to nurture a newborn, and then treat the child as if it was his fault for being built too strong to interact with most of the normal fleshling’s toys!
Stone had been raised on the essence of the mountains themselves; of course he was going to break puny wooden sticks! Does not a horse break a twig, when it steps upon it? Putting wooden handles into tools such as hoes or shovels, and then telling Stone to go use them, was just asking for him to break them – especially as a child which was still uncertain of its own strength!
Of all the things that Earthmother had ranted and seemed annoyed over, the treatment of Stone seemed foremost in her thoughts, and she willingly shared – even drilled – her thoughts on the subject into Elissa before finally letting her go. Stone’s growth. His bulging, unnatural strength. His isolation and ostracization from all the others.
And as Earthmother continued to rant, Elissa came to three conclusions.
First, Earthmother, even as odd as she was, being an elder spirit of nature, loved Stone as her own child. Raised on her “milk”, nurtured and shaped by her essence, the spirit truly regarded Stone as if he was her actual offspring – and she was irked at all the people who lived nearby. Elissa wasn’t certain what price that annoyance might pay out in the future, but she was certain that she certainly didn’t want to live anywhere nearby, nor have any shops or businesses close to Earthmother’s domain. Sooner or later, there was going to be hell to pay, and Elissa didn’t want to get caught up in it just because the people were idiots, and had mistreated a child special to an elder spirit.
Second, the more Earthmother came to talk about Stone, the more Elissa came to realize he might not be as stupid as she – and everyone else apparently – had assumed. Isolated from human contact due to his size and strength, Stone was pushed aside and ignored nearly constantly – unless there was a need for him to lift, pull, or break something. He truly had been treated like a horse in many ways!
The conclusion Elissa finally came to was that Stone wasn’t retarded; he was socially retarded. No experience with talking with others. No knowledge of the social dos and don’ts on which society is casually built. Stone was told over and over and over not to move, not to break things, to be careful, to wait to the side. He’d been pushed away all his life and simply told to sit and do nothing, and with the blood of the mountains flowing through his body, he could do just that, without giving in to the natural fidgets and hyperactivity which most children would be subjected to, when exposed to such abject boredom.
Stone wasn’t stupid. He just didn’t have the slightest clue how to talk to people, or react to people, and his main method of interaction which he’d been raised and taught, was just to just sit, do nothing, and wait for someone else to tell him what to do and to give him another job to keep him busy, until he finished it again and then went back to doing nothing.
‘Honestly,’ Elissa admitted to herself, ‘I can see why Earthmother is so irked at Stone’s family and his neighbors. If a child of mine was treated like that, I’d probably want to thump them all in the head too! Unfortunately for them,’ Elissa half shivered, ‘I don’t think I’d spank them a fraction as hard as Earthmother will.’
Yawning, Elissa half stumbled as she finally emerged from the dark tunnel Earthmother had deposited her in after their “little chat”. Back in the central chamber once again of the cavern, a warm glow of fire flicked and danced shadows erratically across the walls, as rain was pouring once again outside the small opening to the forest. Blanketed in thick dark storm clouds, it was impossible to see any sign of the sky, but the darkness outside told Elissa that it was now deep night once again – Earthmother had kept her all day long!
“’Lissa back,” came Stone’s deep, rumbling voice, as he slowly stood up from the blazing campfire and walked in her direction. Skin glistening damp, Stone dripped water from his soaked pants, as he lumberously closed the distance between them, holding out a skewer with some small animal roasted deep brown upon it. “Eat,” Stone grunted, holding the skewer out towards Elissa.
“Is… Is that rat?” Eying the animal with a weary eye, Elissa took the skewer from Stone and then took a small bite anyway. The elixir she’d taken might reduce the amount she needed to eat, but it didn’t eliminate her need for food altogether. Earthmother had given her one single drop of Nature’s Milk, in the whole time Elissa had been trapped with her, and she’d missed both lunch and supper, and she was famished!
“Squirrel,” Stone assured Elissa, shaking his massive head from side to side slowly, as he stood statue-like before her; waiting, unmoving.
“Well, it’s good,” Elissa admitted, between bites, “whatever it is.”
Nodding slightly, Stone’s lips twisted up in a slight smile and he gave a massive thumb’s up before turning and heading back towards the fire.
“Stop right there, mister,” Elissa commanded, stifling back a half yawn as she was eating. “You’re soaked to the bone. You need to get out of those wet clothes before you catch pneumonia or something!”
Stone stopped, turned, and raised one eyebrow in her direction. “Stone not get sick,” he tried to reassure her. “Stone strong!”
“Doesn’t matter how strong you are,” Elissa insisted, pointing the squirrel skewer at Stone. “You still need to get out of those clothes and let them dry.” Taking another few bites, Elissa tossed what remained of the squirrel over to Stone, where he caught it deftly.
Purposefully striding over while Stone blinked and stared at the skewer several times in confusion, Elissa reached down and unfastened the massive belt which helped hold up his plain cotton pants. Even tired as she was, she had to giggle slightly as she started unbuttoning the pants and pulling them down. Never in her wildest dreams would she ever imagine that she’d be the one stripping the man who won her in the Festival of Chance!
“Step on out of them,” Elissa commanded, trying not to pay any attention to how little the loin cloth, which was now the only article of clothing Stone was still wearing, covered so very little of him. ‘Can you even call that a loin cloth?’, Elissa asked herself, feeling her skin grow flush and warm again, even if the alabaster white kept her skin from showing any sign of blushing. ‘It doesn’t seem like it’s any larger than a small washcloth draped precariously across his lap!’
Without saying a word, Stone slowly stepped out of the pants and then took a slow step back. Before Elissa released what he was doing next, Stone calmly reached down and unhooked the string on the side of the loin cloth and held it out to Elissa. “Them off,” Stone assured her simply.
Elissa blinked several times, and then slowly rubbed her eyes to make certain she wasn’t seeing things, before her knees gave out and she slumped exhausted to the ground. Staring straight ahead at the python hanging so nonchalantly no more than an arm’s reach from her face, Elissa couldn’t help but half tremble – and not from the mid night air, nor the cold dampness of the rain. ‘Now I see why they call him Horse,’ she thought dejectedly to herself, trembling slightly as she couldn’t help but think that she was supposed to eventually become his lover. His mate. Somehow.
Seemingly oblivious to where Elissa’s gaze was locked, Stone casually dropped the loin cloth atop his other wet clothes, and then sat down cross-legged in front of Elissa. With his back to the campfire, the shadows danced lazily around him, making him appear even larger than he already was.
Except for the soft crackle of the wood burning and the rain pouring down outside, the cavern was filled in silence as both Elissa and Stone sat and simply stared at each, neither being the first to speak.