Solara walks east.
Dust blows past, the wind trying to pull every drop of water from her body. She draws her scarf over her mouth, pushes her sunglasses higher to sheild her eyes, and walks with the wind at her back.
Eli's blade is heavy against her shoulder. She feels the weight of it shift with each step, with the motion of her body. It's comfortable, like a part of her, like it belongs there.
When she has to draw it to fight, it doesn't feel quite so much like a part of her, but it fits her hand and it does what she needs it to do.
When she cleans and hones it, the ring of the stone on the metal is like the Eli's music flowing into her head through the earpieces. Sometimes she thinks she almost hears words in the slide of the blade, but never quite.
Solara walks east for twenty-five years. She never hears voices, but she never stops listening, just in case.
When she left the island, she told the archivist that she was going home. She thought she was.
It's the same road she drove down with Eli bleeding beside her, and even though it takes much longer on foot she recognizes the landmarks, and the picked-over shells of Carnegie's trucks. It shouldn't be long from there, even walking. A day's walk should bring her to the town, or at most two.
The town is gone.
She can see the traces of where it used to be, dark streaks of ash on the ground. She stares at the slight dip in the ground where the men used to ration out the water, and she imagines how it must have gone--fire, abandonment, and then everything slowly swallowed by the dust. She realizes that she's standing where Eli did when he held off Carnegie's men, when she chose to follow him.
She wonders if anyone lived, or if all of the people--her people, even if she couldn't stay--are lying around her, buried in a few inches of dust and sand.
She goes off the path long enough to visit the springs, to wash her hands and her face, fill her canteens, drink deep from the sweet cold water, and say some of Eli's words. She matches their cadence to the fall of the water, echoing off the stone.
Then she faces east and walks again.
Solara walks east for twenty-five years, through the great burned-dry center of the world.
She uses Eli's blade to defend herself, and the defenseless, when she finds them. She takes nothing from anyone, either in payment or hospitality, except water, shelter, and food.
And as she goes, she tells Eli's stories.
When she left the island, they had still printed only one copy of the book. Even if there had been a copy for her to carry with her, she couldn't read it. There was no time for her to learn; there were so many stories for the archivists to record as Eli told them, and he had so little time.
Solara had sat at the table through all of the time Eli had had to speak. She listened to every word, as closely as she could, trying to burn them into her memory with the sheer force of her will.
She didn't manage that, but she tells the stories as clearly as she can remember. She's sure that she's preserving their spirit, even if the bodies she puts them in aren't quite what Eli's book would dictate.
She thinks--she's almost sure--that she's keeping the faith.
She has been walking for ten years the first time someone recognizes her. It had never occured to her that she might become a story too, one that could travel ahead of herself.
"A woman who walks east, and carries a blade, and has stories of wonders." The owner of the town walks around her in a slow circle, and she fights the old impulse telling her to bow her head. "That's what they say you are."
She says nothing.
"Tell me a story, woman."
The men with power always want Eli's stories, and she knows she tells them well. Afterward, in the rooms, she tells the women and children her own story, and stories of the things she's seen while she walks. They're not full of wonders, but they mean something, too.
Solara walks for twenty-five years, and then she reaches the sea.
She breathes in the scent of salt and looks out over the water. She unwinds her scarf and wraps it around her sunglasses and Eli's blade, leaving them on the sand and covering them with the rest of her clothing before she walks into the waves, letting the water swirl around her and carry the dust away.
The next morning, she watches the sun rise above the sea, casting a line of light from the horizon to where her feet dig into the shore.
Then she turns and begins walking west again.
It's so different, walking back.
She's walking through her own words, the stories she left behind her. But they grew wild when her back was turned, rising up like seeds in a carefully tended plot of clean soil.
At first they're nearly the same as what she said, where it hasn't been so very long since she told them. But the farther she walks, the more different they've become.
Even the ones she didn't tell to be remembered have lived, and they've changed. Her own life is told back to her, but now it's about a woman she doesn't recognize. No; a half-dozen women she doesn't recognize. A warrior touched by God in her cradle, a blessed creature sent to guard the helpless, a trickster who dazzled rich men with tales and then stole their wealth away.
They tell stories of Eli, too, just as bewildering and scattered and wrong, though she can trace the roots in them back to her own words. She can see where they came from, but not how they turned into what they are, except from wandering on impulses like dust on the wind.
She is told that she was Eli's lover, Eli's daughter, Eli reincarnated. She is called a liar and a temptress, a saint and a murderess, a prophet and a whore.
Every time she thinks of refuting them, of saying no, that isn't right, of telling all of the sets of stories over again, the words catch and die in her throat. She isn't sure if it's simply that there's no more use in trying to stop the words than there would be in trying to stop the wind, or if silence is coming down to her from somewhere else. She has never heard voices, but perhaps that's the point.
Eli's message from God was a voice, and he told the story. Perhaps her message is silence, and she is to let the stories run wild.
Solara walks west for twenty-five years, leaving words behind her like thorns over the path.
When she reaches the sea again, she smiles, and lays down Eli's blade.