I saw her hair first, drifting like golden seaweed in the current. Dread clutched at my throat and threatened to choke me. I hardly dared to look at her face, but I knew I must.
She was alive. A feeble lift of her head alerted me and I moved with relief. I reached into the water to grasp her white dress, dragging her up the steep slope of the river bank, where she lay, gasping on the ground.
A movement behind me made me look up.
“What have we here?” It was my Leader. He knelt beside us. “Who are you, child? Are you all right?”
Her only answer was to take another shuddering breath.
“Can we help you home?” I asked her. “Bring you back to your people?”
The girl’s head came up sharply. “No. I belong to no one.”
“Well then,” Leader studied her, “we will carry you to our camp.” He did not wait for protest, but lifted her, striding down river. It was an hour walk. I did not envy Leader his burden.
“What is your name? Where do you come from?” They seemed like innocent enough questions to me, but her face paled even more, until I thought she might faint.
We walked on, and the forest deepened, the noises of wildlife surrounding us. The girl did not offer to walk. It seemed to take all her strength just to hold up her head.
We reached camp and he set her on the pile of leafy branches that formed my bed. She fell instantly asleep. It was odd to have a woman in this camp that had only known a man and boy.
“What shall we call her?” I wondered.
Leader was amused. “Is she a stray puppy that we can name her?”
I flushed, but pressed on. “I will call her Angel.” As soon as the words were out, I regretted it, for Leader threw back his head and guffawed.
But it was true. She had looked like a river angel, with her white dress and golden hair swirling in the river’s current. Even now she looked angelic, asleep with the setting sun casting pink rays on her cheek.
We woke her for a few sips of hot soup, and then I settled awkwardly on a makeshift bed. When morning came, I half-expected her to be gone, like a dream in the night. But she was sitting up, looking decidedly rumpled and less angel-like.
The sound of footsteps in the woods brought me to my feet to grab porridge for the water Leader was sure to be bringing. The noise had a much different effect on Angel. She nearly cried out, and pulled back sharply. Her relief was palpable when she saw it was only Leader.
I gave her a questioning look before going about my morning duties. Leader sent us to the stream to wash, while he stirred breakfast.
I knelt on the grassy bank and plunged my hands and face into the coldness, waking myself thoroughly. When I shook the water from my eyes, Angel was letting her fingers drift in the current. A tear slipped down her cheek.
She caught me watching and thrust her hands into the water, then rubbed at the dirt stains on her dress. She kept her head away as she worked, but I could see the tremble of her shoulders.
I looked at her, not wanting her to hurt. Wishing I could help. “Will you tell me your story?”
She must have found the trust she searched for in my eyes. “I was disowned by my people because I chose to no longer follow their traditions. I found a new path to walk.” Her head came up with a quiet gaze. “I found truth.”
I did not understand. I could feel something significant there, waiting for me to realize it. I let her continue.
“They called me unclean.” She looked away, toward the faint outline of foothills, far in the north. “They dressed me in white, and forced me to stand on the cliff, in the very middle of the waterfall.” A hint of panic widened her eyes at the memory. “If I lost balance and fell, then I was cursed—wanted as an offering to the gods.”
Her eyes found mine again. “But the True God needed me. He brought me to you. To tell you of Him.”
I nodded. So it was true. She was a messenger from heaven.
She was an angel.
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