While the boy’s back was turned, the trees dragged themselves across the forest floor. Only a few feet, but it was enough to throw the novice explorer off his trail. Luckily for him, a young harturia was nearby, and she had long been waiting for her chance to shine.
“Excuse me,” Yosona started, emerging from the trees, “Are you lost? Do you need any help?” She knew the answer to both of these questions, but she asked them anyway. He looked at her with one wide, dark eye. A strand of twisty, chestnut hair covered the other. She had never before seen a human who looked so… clean. “Sorry, I’m, uh, Yosona. I-”
The young man took one look at her and ran in the opposite direction, screaming.
Yumia, another harturia, approached him and calmed him down. Of course, he allowed her to point him in the right direction, and thanked her profusely for doing so. Then he walked off into the distance, and Yumia vanished behind a tree-trunk, as forest-spirits often can.
Yosona managed to hold it for a moment, but the forest was deadly quiet now, and that only made her thoughts louder. Too loud to ignore.
She only noticed the tears once she had to wipe them away. Her skin was rough, rugged, and bumpy in all the wrong places. When she tugged at her hair it came out easily, in grey clumps. She fell back against a tree trunk, which slumped to soften her fall, catching her in a wooden embrace. Wrapping her arms around it, Yosona cried her heart out. Where her tears fell, white lilies sprouted.
So she remained for some time.
Eyes shut, hands locked around each other, breathing slowing down to a steady pace. One step away from the realm of dreams. Guided by her heartbeat - thud, thud, thud...
The thudding was coming towards her; not her heartbeat, but the beat of a drum. A deep voice bellowed, “Hum, dee-dum-dum. Hum, dee-dum-dum. Ha! Dee-dum-da. Horra! Dee-dum-dorra. Hum, dee-dum-dum…” and so it continued.
Yosona rose to her feet. The short, stout creature wielding the drum marched on. When he came closer, she noticed his eyes were closed. The drum was strapped to his shoulders, bouncing against his bulging belly. He brought down one heavy drumstick, lifted the other, brought down that one, and lifted the other. A tattered skirt covered tree-stump legs. Most of his body was covered in generous helpings of mud - the dark green kind - and it was so similar to his skin colour that it was hard to distinguish how much of him was filthy and how much clean. Yosona’s overall impression was one of utter repulsion.
He marched right past her before coming to an abrupt stop. Yosona took a step back as he turned his head in her direction, eyes still closed. She fumbled for her tongue, “W-who are-”
“BOO!” he bellowed, opening his eyes and slamming both drumsticks down. Yosona was so surprised that for a moment the forest itself disappeared and was replaced by towering structures - in other words, she entered the spirit realm. She would’ve stayed there, too, if the creature hadn’t started laughing his croaky laugh, pointing at her.
“That’s not funny, you know.” she said, rosy-faced.
“My apologies, young harturia. I thought you needed cheering-up.” She noticed his eyes were mismatched - different sizes and colours, each a shade of green. Those eyes, the clothes, the drum, and especially the mud... it all made sense now.
“You’re a mud-hermit, aren’t you? Is there another mud-storm on the way?”
“Another one! Of course not,” the mud-hermit pinched his bulbous nose, “this forest smells bad enough already.”
“What would you know? You roll around in mud all day. It’s…” she looked him over again and lost the heart to say it, “it’s, well, unclean.”
“You mean it’s filthy.”
“I’m sorry, I-”
“It’s quite all right.” the mud-hermit said, “Truth be told, I’m glad to have met you. I’m lost in these woods, and a beautiful harturia to guide me is exactly what I need.”
It was the first time anyone had asked Yosona to lead them out of the woods. Even if that someone was a mud-hermit. But one word in his request had snagged in her mind.
“If you want a beautiful harturia to guide you out of the forest…” she sighed, “you’ll have to ask one of my sisters.”
“I met them on the way. I found them quite dull, and a dull companion is the last thing you want on a trek through the woods.”
Yosona stared at him, and he met her gaze readily. “I-I’ll lead the way.”
They set off. Yosona looked over her shoulder occasionally to make sure the mud-hermit wasn’t a figment of her imagination. Usually she found the sounds of the forest - the whistling, chittering, howling, speaking, and whining - fascinating; today, her mind was in other realms. She blurted the words out with no thought behind them, “I wasn’t always this ugly, you know.” The mud-hermit only raised his hairless eyebrows. “I was beautiful, once. And then I got this scar,” she pointed at a curve of pink, just under her eye, “and, well-” she sighed, “that ruined everything.”
“First, my skin became rugged and rough. Second, warts sprung up all over my face. And third, well, my hair went…” she lifted up a strand for him to see. Grey and thin. Like a spider’s web. She watched the mud-hermit, and he sighed when he caught her looking.
“I didn’t even notice. I thought you were quite fair, even for a harturia.”
Yosona smiled, “You really think so?.”
“It’s true,” the mud-hermit grinned, showing large, yellow teeth, “I must say, your hair is wonderfully dark.” She opened her mouth to refute this ridiculous statement, but before she could say a word, the mud-hermit beat his drum twice, “We must keep moving.”
Only a short while later, a scream pierced through the forest and stopped them dead in their tracks. “Help! Somebody, please!”
Yosona exchanged a glance with the mud-hermit, who shook his head. “We don’t have time for this.”
“So we just leave him?”
“We have to keep moving.”
Another scream. Yosona stood still for a moment, but she had already made up her mind, “You stay right here,” she said, sprinting into the woods. Trees jumped out of her way as they saw her coming, their leaves shaking like tambourines, forming a crescendo that lasted until she arrived at a clearing. She could hear the man’s screams nearby, but she couldn’t quite locate him…
“Yosona, look out!” the mud-hermit pushed her out of the way as something massive came spiralling down from the sky. It descended on them like a snake, strong jaws snapping shut just before it reached the ground. It was what the harturia lovingly called a mousetrap - a carnivorous plant capable of capturing the echoes of any sound, and then replicating them perfectly.
The mud-hermit wiped his forehead, “Wooh, that was dreadfully close. Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Yosona said, as the mousetrap slithered back to its cocoon, “That was silly of me.”
“An understandable mistake. May I remark how pleasant your face is? Nothing like a wart upon it.”
“Just because I’m silly doesn’t give you the right to be,” Yosona said, reaching up to touch her face. But before she could, the mud-hermit beat upon his drum.
“We must keep moving,” he said, and Yosona agreed.
This time they managed to get further before they were interrupted again. Yumia stepped out from behind a tree-trunk and spotted the two of them, raising her eyebrows and flicking her shiny hair.
“Yosona? Are you leading this good mud-hermit out of the forest?”
“Yes. I am”
It had been a long time since she had spoken to Yumia face to face. They had even been friends a long time ago, though this was a memory neither of them could recount to you in much detail.
“That’s… great.” Yumia said, taking a step closer. Yosona resisted the urge to cringe backwards. Yumia was taller than her, carried herself with grace, and had a face that made human men drool, and their wives jealous. “Sister, it’s been some time since we talked.”
“Yes. It has.”
“All the forest-spirits will be gathered by the First Tree during the full-moon tomorrow night. I know you don’t care for these things, but would you like to join us?”
Yosona crossed her arms. All those times Yumia had seen her balling her eyes out, all those times Yumia had stolen her job, her duty. And now this?
No. I hate you. I hate all of you. Is what she wanted to say, but the mud-hermit was watching her. His level gaze calmed her until she was ashamed of her anger. So she hung her head and muttered:
“Okay. I’ll be there.”
Yumia grinned, placing her palm on Yosona’s forehead. The traditional harturia greeting and farewell. Yosona did the same, and the two of them closed their eyes. “Good to see you, Yosona.” Yumia said, before disappearing behind a tree-trunk. Yosona watched her go with eyes that were somehow excited, shocked, and admiring at the same time.
As they continued on their way, the mud-hermit asked her, “What do you think of that Yumia?”
“I…” a few minutes ago the answer would have been obvious, but now it was anything but, “I think I like her. I think maybe I misjudged her.”
“Maybe you did. I’d say the two of you have the fairest skin of any harturia I’ve met.”
“What is it with you and obsessing over my appearance?” Yosona asked.
The mud-hermit smiled, “Hurry. We must make the final part of our journey.” He took a sharp right and began walking in the wrong direction. Before Yosona could comment on this, he said, “I think I know the way from here. There’s something I want to show you. To say thank you.”
Yosona followed, intrigued.
“How much longer?”
“Patience. We are almost there.”
The sun was making its descent from the sky, and the woods only became darker with every step they took. Once it was dark enough, the forest glowed with bluish light, and Yosona knew exactly where they were. The lake, which carried some of the most magical water in the lands. Fish broke the surface of the water, causing ripples that diffused quickly. Otherwise, the water was still.
“Why are we here?”
The mud-hermit chuckled, pointing at the water, “See for yourself. Look, and look closely.”
Yosona peered into the water, then at the mud-hermit, then back at the water. There was nothing special about it. Only her reflection… her reflection!
Her skin was smooth and fair, without warts or blemishes. Her hair was dark and flowing, flipped lazily over her shoulder. But the greatest change was in her eyes - alert, active and full of life. She smiled, and as she smiled her reflection only became more beautiful, and as she laughed it became more beautiful still. She ran her hands over her face to check if this was all an illusion, but instead of warts and bumps and scars, she found only tears. Tears of joy.
“What did you do? How did you fix me?” she asked between hiccups, hugging the mud-hermit, who chuckled.
“Nothing at all. As a harturia, you have more power than you know. Sometimes that power, positive or negative, can manifest in strange ways. After you received your scar, you started on an exceedingly negative line of thought. I only had to push it out, and replace it with the positive.”
Yosona laughed, carrying the mud-hermit on her shoulders, letting him place his drum on her head. They rang out a chorus that made those creatures that could flap their wings, and others swish their tails, and to this day, the bond between the young harturia and the wise mud-hermit remains unbreakable.