Fantasy · Fiction · Novel · Serial

Chapter 26: A Shadow

Bragi sat her down in the rocking chair with the willowbark tea as soon as she came home. While she drank, Gem stood beside the rocker, tall, straight, and with a giddy expression on his face. And a heart rate too rapid to be explained by his leisurely activity.

“Gem and I are courting, Da. I gave him my blessing in the okra.”

Bragi chuckled. “The okra?” From his rolling chair, he looked up at Gem. “You couldn’t find a more romantic spot to ask my daughter to court than the okra?”

Gem grimaced. “I’m sorry, Sir. I was too eager.”

After supper, they walked as Tanuvia had hoped she someday might with Gem.

“Should we hold hands?” she asked, uncertain as they started out.

“I don’t see why not. I’ve often held your hand, and you’ve often taken mine. Would you like to?”

“I think it would be nice. It seems like courting.”

“Then we hold hands.” He grasped her hand, and they ambled from the yard.

As Gem had predicted, the moon shone. I followed nearly as silently as an owl, keeping hidden among the trees along the lane, fluttering, hopping, gliding from branch to branch, a shadow, blacker than the night.

The young suitors stopped in a spot along the road where overhanging trees receded. During the day, the patch was sunny and hot but now, at night, there was a breeze, and the moon shone down as if lighting the sky just for them. Gem’s black hair was limned in silver as he stood facing the young woman, small enough to disappear in his shadow. Without enhanced vision, I would have wondered to whom he was speaking in the dark.

“Gem, are we to be honest now? About everything?”

“I want to be. I suppose you mean those things you asked about before. About girls?”

“Not just that. I want more between us than divulgences.”

“I want that, too. I’ve dreamed about this. If I’m honest, there are things I have to tell you, but I can’t do it all at once. You asked me to be patient. Will you be patient with me?”

“If it’s your intention to be honest, then I can.”

“Let’s walk again, and I’ll try.”

He took her hand, and they passed back into the filtered shadows of the trees. “Remember I told your da about a war in the north?”

“I remember.”

I remembered, too, a war that didn’t exist.

“Well, it’s a quiet war, and it’s been going on a long time though no one does anything about it, except my sister tried, and then my mother. They might still be fighting. I’m not sure because Aetref and I had to leave.”

“Because Maven left Aetref?”

“She went to a battle we couldn’t fight, so we had no choice but to go home to Shepton, the town where I grew up. Aetref and I lived there until he couldn’t stand it anymore. You see, Maven left him for good as far as we know. She walked out on him, said they couldn’t have a life together if she was always afraid for him and their children. He was torn apart, and everything in the house reminded him of Maven until he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. He was in torment. Still is. Sometimes he calls her name out in his sleep.”

“I’m sorry for him.”

“He gets by but not well. He’d rather play his lute, but the boat pays a lot more, and we need the coin.”

“I don’t understand, Gem. It looked like you had very little in your house. Where does all the coin go?”

“That’s hard to explain.”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, it’s that war. No one down here knows, but there’s a race of women in the north called Calderans…”

“I’ve heard of them.”

“Ai, but you don’t know what they’re like. They’ve occupied the north, terrorizing Goodfolk for generations, and done it so powerfully, so quietly, no one has risen up to stop them. My mother tried once, the time my father was taken, but she had me and Maven at home, and had to come back to raise us. She never saw Da again, and we grew up without him.”

“The Calderans took him?”

“Right from the yard. Mam thought he was taken to Asfadel, but couldn’t be sure.”

“That’s a city?”

“A Calderan capital.”

“Gem, why did they take him?”

“Because that’s how they survive. It’s why they’re in the Commonweal. They’re parasites, Curly, without any menfolk of their own.”

They walked a little while in silence, then Tanuvia stopped and covered her mouth. Her voice came muffled from under her hand. “I don’t feel good, Gem.”

“Sick to your stomach?”

She nodded carefully.

“Was it something I said?”

She nodded again.

“Why don’t you sit down on the ground here and take some quiet breaths? The queasiness may pass.”

They sat, listened to the wind soughing through the trees, to the locusts and night birds. If she deduced the same thing I had, that Gem’s father was used as breeding stock for the Calderans, small wonder she was sick. How they did it, I didn’t know. Just that they did was sufficiently horrific.

“Feeling better?”

“I am, but I’d like to walk back now.”

She took his hand, accepting his assistance to her feet. “Curly,” he began as they started walking back. “I don’t want our courtship to always be about dreadful things. If I could, I’d never tell you about the north. Would it be so bad if you simply knew something terrible happened without knowing what it was?”

“And you can’t tell me swiftly and be done?”

“I might, but not easily.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, it’s…it’s like when you come to the barn door. You know for a fact there’s nothing to fear, yet you run. Only, for me, I might not be able to run.”

“Would it be so bad if I was with you?”

“It might be worse, Curly.”

“Alright. I think I understand how it is although I don’t know why. And if you’d rather not talk about this ever again, I’ll consider it told and in the past. Would that work?”

“It might. For a long time, it might.”

“Oh, Gem, what is this terrible thing? I’m more frightened by this, I think, than anything that’s happened.”

“Curly, maybe I’ve made a mistake! I’m not a whole man.”

“This isn’t your fault. I knew something was wrong the first time I saw you. It was in your eyes. Back then, I thought I could heal you, then Grantham…well, you know. Now, I’m afraid I’m not strong enough. What kind of suitors are we, Gem, both of us hurt?”

“I truly don’t know.” He averted his eyes toward the woods. “Maybe I was selfish to think we could be together.”

Tanuvia stopped walking and urged him back around. “If you are, then I am, too, Gem. Selfish to ask a man like you for your patience.”

“Selfish?” Gem leaned his head back with a laugh of disbelief. While Gem talked, they walked again.  “You’re not selfish, Curly.  When you saw our house, Aetref and I living with hardly a crumb between us, you showed up on our porch with baskets of food and wouldn’t take a coin.  Remember?  For two years, all alone, you’ve done every chore on the farm, in the house, and taken care of your invalid father, too.  When you were in greatest need, you wouldn’t let me speak of courtship because you refused to burden me.  I’ve never known a woman as generous and loving.  You’re not selfish to want a life, and goddess is drawn to man, seeking god.  That’s only natural and good.  The question is whether I’m that man.”

That was my question, too.  Gem’s past was dark.  They reached the house and stopped outside the open front door. Facing each other, they touched palms in a gesture both innocent and intimate.

Looking down, Gem spoke. “Thank you for our walk. Are you feeling better now?”

“I am. Will you come in for tea?”

“I should go to the loft and let you rest. Would you like to walk again tomorrow night?”

“I would, and I don’t mind if we talk about things. Maybe that’s just something we need to clear first before moving on.”

“We can do it that way if you like. Whatever you need, whatever you want.”

“Alright, Gem. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Curly.”

They dropped their hands, and Gem walked in the moonlight across the yard toward the barn while Tanuvia stood in the doorway, watching him go before retreating into the house. She pumped water, took the pail to her room to wash, and locked the shutters on her window. After I flew into her room, she shut the door and locked it, too. Then she blew out her candle, undressed, and washed in the dark while she wept, mingling her tears with the streaming water of her washcloth.

I hunched on the footrail, miserable that my main character could not find happiness. Why do you weep?

“Because of those things Gem told me. I’m afraid he was one of them.”

One of them?

“Taken. Like his father.”

She’d deduced what I hadn’t. Either her deduction was folly, a quirk of her imagination, or her powers of intuition were superior to my formidable, computational capacity. I hated to think it was the latter, but it was possible.

Tanuvia, don’t leap to the worst conclusion. Maybe you should brew a cup of chamomile. It will help you sleep.

“Sleep? I haven’t slept since the night it happened. You know that.”

The room was shut tight against light, but she was visible in IR. Cloth whispered over her flesh as she dried herself with a towel.

But it is getting better, little by little. You can do it, Tanuvia. You’ve overcome so much already. I believe you will find happiness.

“What of Gem? What if he really was a victim of those women? If Gem isn’t whole and if I can’t help him, how can we be happy?”

After all these days washing in the dark, Tanuvia was adept at feeling her way around her bedroom. She draped her towel across the back of a chair, found her bed, and lay sprawled on her back in the stuffy darkness.

You’re leaping again, Tanuvia, and, you won’t want to hear this now, but maybe Gem isn’t the right one for you.

“Muninn, I won’t listen to that, not ever again. Don’t say it. I love Gem, and I’ve agreed to try to overcome my fear. I already knew Gem was hurt. If he needs my help, I’m going to help him, so don’t speak against him.”

And if you can’t? If either one of you can’t commit to a consortship? Would you throw your life away on him?

“It wouldn’t be throwing my life away!” She sat up in the dark though I knew she could not see me, black against black in her room. “Please, don’t speak against Gem. If you’re my friend, and I think you are, you’ll help us find a way to be together, not tear us apart.”

Even if it may hurt you, my Tanuvia?

“Abandoning Gem would mean I’d never find happiness. I know this in more ways than I can explain. As wise as you are, you can’t know all a woman’s heart. This courtship is as it must be, and it’ll go on.”

I cawed low and mournfully, and Tanuvia lay back on the bed. To me, she was a color-coded, multi-limbed graphic of graduated heat zones, crimson at her heart, her loins, and in a region of her lower brain. Though she used higher brain functions to articulate and share her thoughts, she was an animal, a beast, and her feelings came from a primitive past of mating and bonding with a male for survival.

Against urges that primeval and essential, reason was useless and argument hopeless. If I persisted, I’d only rouse her instincts to protect the man she’d chosen as her mate.

I won’t speak against him as your partner, Tanuvia, but I won’t be silenced if you’re being hurt.

“I want your advice, Muninn. I only expect it toward my future together with Gem, not apart.”

She still looked like an animal in IR. The zones of her brain controlling speech were barely pink, and her hindbrain was in control of her thoughts.

Bragi had tried to explain with his talk of generations and immortality, but if I hadn’t persisted in collecting this story and knowing Tanuvia as I did, if her special circumstances had not induced me to view her in IR in the dark, I would not have known goddess was a product of the Goodfolk’s evolutionary past.

Tanuvia, please open the door before you fall asleep.

She’d been drifting, the scarlet zones shrinking until she was more blue than yellow and more yellow than red. Colors shifted in her brain as I roused her, and she groaned.

“I’m coming.”

Padding on bare feet, she stood behind the door, hiding. I flew out, and she tapped the door soundly behind me and locked the latch. Gone were the days when that door was open most of the time, the days when she patted around the house in her naked and natural state, pink and lithe as a house faë, to pump her water and take her bath. If it was only modesty locking her in that stuffy, hot room, it would not have grieved me so deeply, but it was fear. She did not tell me as often, but she didn’t have to; she still saw his face in the window.

Continue Reading, Chapter 27: Partners

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