“I stopped sleeping a long time ago.”
The traveler stared at the huddled form in front of her. The blue eyed man seemed to be nothing more than a skeleton, covered in mud and soaking from the pouring rain. He made no move to find shelter. His once-proud wings slumped, their golden feathers covered in brown mud. The ordinary observer would hardly have noticed that they were there. This was no human. This was a celestia.
“Why?” asked the traveler, concerned.
“Nothing you need to know.”
“You have nothing to lose by telling me.”
“You have something to lose by knowing.”
“Come now, I’m sure it’s not that bad.” The traveler sat down on the edge of the road, facing her newfound companion. “We all have hard times now and then. I can understand.”
“No one could understand this.” The man turned his blue eyes to the ground, letting his white hair fall over his face. Raindrops splashed down from the angry clouds.
“You’ll never know until you tell someone.”
“You don’t want to share my pain.”
“You need someone to do it.”
“I’m not worth that.”
“Everyone’s worth something.”
“Everyone except for me.”
“Even you deserve sleep.”
“I deserve nothing.”
“Tell me. You may find more worth than you know.”
“I doubt it.”
“Try it. Tell me why you stopped sleeping.”
A moments pause ensued as the man seemed to consider this, eyes still downcast. Finally, he spoke.
“Every time I close my eyes, I see it again.”
“The moment I failed.”
The traveler waited. She knew there was more to the story than that. They sat for a moment in silence. “Failed what?” she finally asked.
“I failed to protect her.” A tear escaped the man as the memory overtook him. “She depended on me… I made a promise! I promised I would protect her! And I failed…” He clenched his teeth. “She was so kind, so gentle. And now she’s gone. She’s gone because I failed.” His fist slammed against the ground, sending mud flying into the air.
“What happened?” asked the traveler, compassion evident in her voice.
“We were traveling,” began her companion, “she was going home. We had to go through a thick forest. The path was very narrow, and it was dark.” A heavy sob choked him for a moment, and the traveler waited for him to continue. “We were about to stop for the night…” He sobbed again. “But we were attacked. There were so many, I couldn’t fight them all... One of them took her away, while I was trying to fight the others. My dear Anna... He took her into the forest. She was trying to get away, I saw her, but he was too strong. She called out for me, and then I never saw her again. If only I had been ready, if only I had been stronger, if only I had gone after the leader right away… she might still be with me. But she’s gone. She’s gone because I failed.” He became silent once again, tears joining the rain that flowed freely down his face. They sat for a long time like this, silent as the grave.
Rivulets of dark water ran silently across the dirt path. The rain fell harder, like great drops of sadness. Lightning lit the sky above the trees, the silvery-blue bolts etching their way across the heavens and reflecting in the water below. Thunder followed. It seemed like all the elements conspired to deny this man even the smallest amount of comfort.
“So that’s why you don’t sleep.”
“Yes.” He seemed to be trying to say something more, to put some indescribable anguish into words. The traveler gave him time. “Sleep is nothing but more pain. If I close my eyes, I see… that moment again. I see the tears running down her face. I…I hear her call my name; the anguish in her voice… She needed me. I failed her.” He looked up at the traveler, his eyes pleading that she understand. “I failed! Anna was the only one that ever understood what it meant to protect something, and now she's gone because I failed to protect her! I failed... She was the only one who ever cared, the only one that ever meant something. And I failed. I deserve this. I deserve to be miserable day after day, I deserve to search the forests endlessly, I deserve to never sleep again! I deserve to die!”
“You did all you could. Shouldn't that count for something?”
They sat silently for a time. It was clear that the man was contemplating this. Rain poured down unceasingly, rolling off of the traveler's green poncho before continuing their descent.
“Perhaps you did save her life. Maybe she's waiting for you to come and find her.”
The silence was again unbroken. She noted that the celestia wore a tattered white tunic crossed with a dark red belt and black pants that tucked neatly into mud splattered boots. Fairly normal attire for one of the angel-like beings that roamed the world. She knew that none of them had an easy life, despite their beauty. In fact, it was their beauty that gave them so much hardship. They were hunted for their golden wings, and for their usefulness as airborne spies. The robbers that ambushed this one had probably been after him instead of his friend, though it would do no good to tell him that. He might already know.
“Maybe...” he stammered, “Maybe... There is hope after all.” She heard longing in his voice, like a candle had been lit within his soul. “Just maybe... she's waiting for me.” A smile flickered across his face for a second. Tears still flowed from his eyes, but now there was a glimmer of life within him that had been so far away only moments ago.
He moved to stand. His golden wings spread out slightly, catching the light that made it through the gray clouds. They instantly seemed to blaze like fire, denying the rain. Every ray of sunlight was magnified a thousand times as it touched the feathers. There were no words to describe the sight. It seemed as though time itself stopped to look.
“Thank you, Rela.” The celestia word for traveler. He needed to search for words for only a second this time. “You have given me hope again.” With that, the celestia, seeming more and more like an angel by the second, leaped into the air and flew up into the clouds.
“Rela? Huh.” The woman smiled. “As good a name as any, I suppose. Better than some I've had.” She took one last long look at the clouds, and moved on.