The leaves fluttered back, lifted by a sharp breeze. The man lying beneath the tree should have noticed the wind for the day had been stiflingly still, but he was lost in contemplation of the reflections in the motionless pool.
Behind him, silver sandals touched the pebbly ground, soundlessly. Silently, she slipped behind the tree. Silence was as much her gift as riding the wind, and far more acceptable, but it was best if she went unnoticed. The leaves rustled again briefly as she climbed above the recumbent man. One leaf trembled and fell, disturbing the clear mirror of the lake.
The man started and reached for the offending leaf, but it was beyond his reach. Instead, he sighed.
She made no sound, but she sighed, too. She knew him, of course, for he had come to her village many months ago. Whenever he disappeared for a few hours, she would leap aboard the wind when no one was looking and find him. The wind always knew where to go.
She knew why he sighed. Renée, the village beauty played with him as she played with all the other men. He was only a minstrel and poor of gold, and Renée dreamed of a rich husband. Still, his voice was like gold and his face handsome, so she kept him to keep her beaus jealous.
Poor Michel, for his heart was well and truly taken. He had no armor when she pouted her full red lips or flounced her golden curls at him.
Venetia could see what Renée did to him and her eyes bled silent tears. Though no one knew. No one noticed Venetia for she was as odd as she was silent. Who could care what she saw or what she thought?
Michel pulled a flute from his bag and Venetia smiled. She loved when he played the flute. His harp playing was inspired and he had a voice like nectar. Even so, when he played the flute, Venetia could hear the wind, feel it fresh on her face. The wind was her friend and her escape, and she loved it when Michel brought it to life with his breath.
The wind liked it, too, for, as he played, it danced lazily around the tree, toying with the leaves and blowing about Venetia's long white-blonde hair. Venetia laughed soundlessly, but the wind heard and danced faster.
Suddenly, the music stopped. The wind slipped away. Venetia stared down to find him, standing, staring up at her. Her dark brown eyes widened like those of a startled deer, and she slid clumsily out of the tree.
"Don't go," said Michel. "I didn't mean to frighten you. Really, please stay."
Venetia stopped, torn, but no one had ever asked her to stay. No one cared what she did. She turned and knelt in the grass beneath the tree.
"I know you," he said. "You are the silent one, the one that cannot speak. I've seen you before."
She shrugged. He had heard of her, of course, even if he had never noticed her.
He smiled. "You always listen when I play. I don't know why you always sit in the shadows, but I know that when I'm playing, I can look and you'll be there. Today, suddenly I felt that if I just looked for you, you would be here as well. And you are."
She studied him intently. He had noticed her. The villagers no longer paid any attention to her comings and goings, treating her like the shadows she tried so hard to stay in. But he had noticed.
"Why do you like the flute so much? I play the harp and sing much better, but it is the flute you like."
She nodded and opened her mouth to tell him how it made her think of the wind, but no sound came from her mouth. Such was her curse. She bowed her head.
"Would you like to play it?"
She lifted her head, eyes shining with hope. He offered her the wood and silver staff, and she took it with shaking hands. Could she make a sound?
She put her lips to the silver and breathed out a sigh of delight. The flute answered back with a clear silver note. Her fingers found places on the flute of their own accord, and she closed her eyes as her own music floated about her. The song was exquisite, one of love and longing, of imprisonment and fleeting freedom, of being trapped with a curse and freed with a gift. She felt it as much as heard it, felt the wind course through her and touch the flute with magic.
The wind reacted with ecstatic joy, whipping eagerly around her in a frenzy of excitement, pulling her silvery hair about her head like a halo, pulling down leaves from the tree and streaming them through her silver locks.
And he listened, astonished. This music was what he dreamed of when he became a minstrel. He could close his eyes and feel the wind blowing through him. He could know how it felt to be caught in a web of silence, unloved, unaccepted and unnoticed. He could know, in his mind, how it felt to ride the wind and taste the joy and freedom that could not be found at home. He could feel what it was to love with no hope of ever knowing love in return. Loneliness beyond anything he had ever known set up a throbbing rhythm in his veins, a loneliness only salved with hopeless dreams and breezy escapes.
He opened his eyes as the song ended, as the flood of perfect music whispered to a close, and looked at her as if for the first time. "Can you play it again?" he asked in an awed whisper, and reached inside his bag for his other flute. "Can you teach me to feel what you feel when you play?"
She looked at him, tears shimmering in her huge eyes. Wordlessly, she put the flute to her mouth. The music whistled through the flute effortlessly and she closed her eyes, lost in the magic she had created.
Then she heard him play. His flute was lower, singing the song of the stormcloud in counterpoint to her poignant keening. He could not lead, for he had never felt it as she did, but he followed and filled in the emptiness of her music with deep notes of promise. Her flute sang of dreams unfulfilled, and his answered with sighs of solace. She sang of hopeless thirsts and was answered with oceans of wonder.
The wind was desperate with excitement. It whistled about them tirelessly, a frenetic harmony that accented the climbing music. It tugged at them and he felt himself creep forward so that he knelt closer to her.
Suddenly, the crescendo was upon them. He felt the music flow forth as he had never known it before in answer to her tragic song. She answered with a hope she had never before felt, and the music rose like the cry of the wind in the hurricane.
Then it was over. His flute fell unnoticed to the ground, and her own slipped down from her lips. For a moment, he stared at her intensely.
And he was kissing her, his fingers thrust deep in her silver hair as he pressed his lips with desperate hunger against hers. The intensity of her song was echoed in the passion of her lips as she buried her own fingers in his hair and lost herself in him.
For a moment. He may be caught up in her music, but she was no one when all was said and done. She thrust herself to her feet and, with a leap, let the wind carry her away, the flute still clutched in her fingers.
Behind her, Michel fumbled for his flute and stared at the spot where Venetia had been just moments before. Did he dream her? He closed his eyes and heard her song in his ears, felt her touch on his mouth. She was no dream. She was magic. He had to find her again.
Venetia rode the wind for an hour, her mind whirling like a twister, before she decided what she must do. It could not be wrong to want one night of promise, of fulfillment, even if his dreams were of someone else. One night of magic and music and she would pay him back with what he dreamed of. She could do so.
The wind took her high to the summit of the dark mountain, to a spot she had never seen or known of.
The wind always knew where to go.
Her feet landed silently among the rocks, and she followed the whispered promptings of the wind to find what she searched for. She found it, studied it in the dwindling light before she dropped it down her blouse, feeling it, cold and sharp, against her skin. She didn't mind.
Every treasure had its price, and she would gladly pay the piper for his services.
The moon had risen when her feet touched the dust of her village. The saloon was boisterous, but the streets were quiet, empty. Silently, she slipped through the familiar shadows and stood beneath the window of the room he rented. The hostel was empty but for the one guest so no one would know of her plan but Michel. A breath of wind carried her up to his casement and she slipped inside breathlessly.
She stood, silhouetted against the moonlit window, afraid to move closer. Would he spurn her now or would he let her have just one night of wonder? She stood, unsure, when hands gently grasped her arms and lips descended onto hers. The flute fell unnoticed from her hands and, when her clothes followed, she noticed it even less.
The wind streamed about them, wrapping her long hair around them both as they knelt on his pallet. Their clothes and his blankets danced around them as they moved toward a physical crescendo, that, when it came, brought a sound, a perfect note, to Venetia's throat.
When it was over, he cradled her against him, his lips caressing her face, her hair. She laid against him, feeling the loneliness disappear for the first time. If this was all she had, then still she was satisfied. But it wasn't. Twice more that night their bodies sang together accompanied by the frenetic passion of the wind.
In the morning, as the sun first caressed the window, Venetia slipped silently from the pallet. She longed to stroke his hair and face as she had in the night, but she feared he would reject her if he woke and saw who she was, who had come to him in the night. She wrapped her clothes around her, and her fingers found the discarded stone, a rough ruby the size of her fist. It was uncut but worth a rich man's future. She laid it on the pillow next to him. Now, he could have Renée as he wished, her gift in return for his. She found his flute on the floor as well. She should leave it, but she needed it as a token of him, of this night.
Her hand felt at her stomach. She prayed that this night would give her a companion that could ride upon the wind as she did and look at her with his eyes.
The wind prayed, too, for she felt it lift her hair about her head. Softly, she bent a last time, placed her lips against his forehead, and, as he stirred, leapt upon the wind.
She heard him behind her as she swept away: "Venetia!" She knew then he had known who had come to him in the night . . .
The village knew Venetia no more. No more did it know Michel.
Instead, a minstrel wanders the land, his flute singing a poignant song of longing and loss, of being trapped and free, of dreaming of what one can never have . . . or never again.
His harp he left behind, unnoticed, and no word has passed his lips since he called to the lover who floated away. Even so, he is never at a loss for gold as his flute sings a song of such feeling that the coldest hearts are won over. It matters not to him; he once discarded a king's ransom, tossed with scorn at the skirts of a heartless beauty.
His footsteps follow the wind, his ears straining for the music he can sometimes catch, the light trilling of one who has, at least once, known happiness.
He is certain she will find him.
The wind always knows where to go.