A Rose to Ashes
When Shadows Fall
Location: Haradar Village, D'hassa March, Cymeria
Timeline: September 3550
In the mountains of D’Hassa was a village, resting easily in the crook of two joined peaks. From a distance, it was a low dip, as though two hands were joined together, curving downward from the arms and joined at the fingers. Travellers would have found an assortment of surprisingly well put-together buildings of fat bricks, carved from rock and clay, their windows shuttered to banish the cold. Much in the way of oil-fat was burned there in the darker months. Daylight was becoming less of a commodity; it afforded warmth and illumination, so the village was often a hive of activity, the winter’s supplies increasingly stocked so as to prepare for the long winter.
The mountains were laden heavily with their snowy mantle, scraps of green rapidly having disappeared with the coming dark. The ice of the lake was still unsafe for treading, and so the edges were pock-marked where the villagers had struck it with spears, testing it for sturdiness. Here and there, holes were carved from where they had fished. Sheep and goats were herded in little clusters. There was much to do -- repairs to the stone structures, to clothing, to the roads, before it was much too late.
Toward the evening, when light was fading, smoke could be seen spiralling from the stacks as dung and wood fires were lit. They were made less pungent with herbs, although not all visitors thought so. Wood was used so very sparingly, for it had to last.
In one dwelling, through the shutters, the glow of fire and lamplight could be seen, a narrow finger of brightness. Within, there was the crackle and hiss of a fire, the scent of spiced soup, bubbling away in a cauldron that hung from a hook above the flames, housed in the fireplace. The room once had a promise of liveliness and brightness, but it had succumbed to a heavy numbness. There were wall hangings, furs and pelts upon the floor, and mats of woven rush, but they did little to afford the room any brightness. A weighty sadness overwhelmed even the most striking hues.
Ragged breathing could be heard in the silence, surpassing the soft breaths of the room’s other occupant. There were two altogether, one being the very image of life, while the other was of a life fading. There were a few notes played on a cittern, but they were dull, without vigour.
“You are good to stay with me so,” the bedridden woman said softly. Her once-brilliant eyes of honey lacked the luster they once held. Her inky hair no longer had its blue-black sheen, now spread about her like a lank halo of darkness. While her oval face trended toward the lean side, her cheekbones now jutted cruelly, sharp crags above her sunken cheeks. Her skin was pale, draped over bone. She lay beneath a pile of furs and woollen blankets, the lightest that were available, to give her warmth without being so heavy. They would be heavy all the same, for she barely had the strength of a new-born lamb.
“Hush. Save your strength,” he daughter chided her, propping her cittern carefully against the corner of the wall. She was seated beside her in a wickerwork chair, and fussily tugged the blankets further up, tucking them beneath the other’s chin. The comparison was stark indeed; they were only similar in facial structure, but her mother was the very image of the waking dead. The other difference was in the bright blue of her eyes, the sky reflected in a wintry lake.
The passing months had been hard enough, but there was also the knowledge of what she was. Not altogether long after the Gathering’s events, Vashti had, slowly and gently, explained what Renestrae was, confessed that she knew of her daughter’s affinity with wind and rain, that her ageing would surely slow. She would be noticed. She would not be allowed to stay indefinitely in Haradar, where the others would take notice. They would know what she was, and they would kill her. She would have to leave, and soon, before the snows truly blanketed the lands.
She had seen so much, at the Gathering. The events haunted her still, the things that were said, the folk she had met. She saw kindness, bravery, generosity, all of which belied what she knew. She had found the elders’ stories that depicted Chimera and their allies as villainous, and she no longer found the listening tolerable.
The Chimera were not terrible. If they were so, then was she? No, she was not. Her heart was not wicked, as they were told the hearts of Chimera were. The sons should not have been punished by the sins of the father. She had been witness to the contrary. So it was that her education had crept along, and Vashti made efforts to turn her daughter’s mind, to compel her to consider other perspectives.
Renestrae’s heart was still not entirely convinced, but over the scant days of her return to Haradar, she was slowly coming to accept that she was Cymry. The ones who had shown courage and compassion in their actions, they had ferried her to acceptance.
“Something ails you,” Vashti whispered.
Her daughter would not meet her gaze. Instead she smoothed out one of the furs, rose gracefully, and crossed the room businesslike to the fire. A wooden spoon rested on a plate of copper, droplets of liquid clinging to its rounded, scooped end. She used it to stir the contents of the pot, before returning it to the plate. She stood there for a moment, as though lost in her thoughts, and eventually made her way back to the chair. Her hands sat in her lap, one atop the other, her gaze conjuring up some errant memory before her.
She had been taught to value honesty, frankness, to speak plainly than to drench her words in nectar, clouding their meaning.
“I was...looking over your personal effects, as you had asked,” she said softly, without looking at Vashti, instead looking to the woman’s hand, exposed and laid atop the assorted covers. “There was a letter, addressed to my father.”
She allowed a pause to hang between them, to see if Vashti would answer. The other woman would not meet her gaze, her lips pressed tightly, as if they would fly apart and spill her secrets.
“He was in the Cymerian High Guard,” continued Renestrae, even-toned, although her voice quivered. “There was so much, in those words, by your hand. I refrained from reading it all. I have great affection for you, A’ma. I would not betray your trust by knowing what I am not to be privy to, but I would ask the truth of you.”
It was the old word for “mother”; there was just the slightest pause in the other woman’s breathing, before she exhaled heavily. Her eyes closed, if only for a moment, as though she were gathering herself.
“It is...most difficult,” she whispered presently. Her features were contorting softly with grief. “I can no longer deceive you, my love. So many times you have asked me…” Her voice trailed away to but a breath. She continued, “My persistent blackbird-- I cannot look you in the eyes any longer, and hold this in my heart. He should know he has a daughter.”
“Yes, he should,” Renestrae agreed, holding her fragile hand in both of her own. “He should have your letter. He should know you loved him, all of these years. You never took another.”
“I did not,” she said, as the blanket pile lifted and fell with her sigh. Her eyelashes fluttered weakly as she met Renestrae’s own so very different eyes, so blue, so unlike her own. “You...have his eyes, in a way,” she added, her lips barely curving with a ghostly smile. “Yours are brighter, yes. The silver flecks-- they were there, against mountain-blue.” Her head lolled away against the pillow, level again, so that she stared at the ceiling. “My Lorcan. He was not Lorcan at first, no. He was Ruari, and was Ruari for a while.”
The younger woman listened intently, now drawn into the tale, the truth. Her heart began a thump-thump in her ribcage.
“He was Ruari because...he was a bard, first,” Vashti murmured, her eyes misty with memory. “A visitor. His heart was of kindness. I had never known such a voice as his, never had I known such beauty until our voices were raised in song together -- not until you, my sweet raven-hair. So well did our voices join that we penned a song together, and I kept one half, and he knew the other. He hid something, yes, but...we were pulled to one another, as the tide calls the moon. We fell in love -- not the frail love of stories, but something more. He would come and go, and always he would promise to return to me, and always, he would. I spent those days waiting, foolish thing that I was.”
Renestrae’s own love of tales was built into her very being, but it was Vashti who schooled her, who had taught her that the passage of the story was important. To interrupt was to dam a river. She kept her silence, instead moving her fingers soothingly over the back of her mother’s hand.
“Ah, my heart -- he knew it well. But, yes, there were secrets, secrets of depth and dark.” Her eyes glistened with unspilled tears, swelling in great droplets at the corners of her eye. They tumbled over the hard lines of her face, leaving their little trails along her face, falling and soaking into her onyx hair. “His name was not Ruari. It was Lorcan up Gwenchellian, and he was there following whispers of those who opposed the Chimera. He was a bard, but also an observer, an agent of the High Lord, serving in the High Guard.”
She would remember that name. She would swear it to her heart, to her soul. Lorcan up Gwenchellian. It was true, then -- her father, a member of the High Guard! Renestrae kept her breaths long and slow, compelling her heart into calm. She would not break, for she would surely cause further upset to her mother. She was angry with her for not having told her the truth, yes, but she was overwhelmed with sympathy for Vashti.
“His master had summoned him home, for there were rumours of the Lord’s own in our midst, wandering through the villages. We had other visitors, so they did not immediately suspect him. So artful he was, so poised, they could not imagine him to deceive us so. I knew, though. I was furious. I would not tell the others of his...his betrayal, but I had never known such fury in my life as I did then.” She sighed, again, weighty and full of regret. “I should not have held my temper so. I thought he would return to me. He came to me many times, and it was always no.”
She tipped her head towards her daughter, who was struggling to contain her own tears.
“Do not weep, love. I cry a little, yes, but I have long since shed my tears for him. He hid a great secret from me, but it took courage for him to tell it. I was cruel to that gift of trust. I could have seen him lashed to shreds, but he told me all the same. I wounded him so, and there was no time left to him, and he went away. He took the other half of the song with him.”
Her daughter leaned forward instead, tenderly brushing her mother’s tears away with the flat of her thumb. Leaving her hand resting against the gaunt cheek, she planted a kiss atop the worn forehead, once smooth and even.
“I weep for what might have been, A’ma. I weep for the pain that should not have been.”
“If that had not been, you would not be as you are,” Vashti said, reaching up with her own trembling hand to rest it against Renestrae’s cheek. It was there but for a few moments, before weakness overcame her, and she allowed it to fall back against the covers. “I cannot change what has happened, my love, but I can ensure that my mistake will not condemn you. My life will pass, soon-- and do not deny it. Death is as much a part of our souls as life.”
The younger woman took her mother’s hand in her own again, and brought it up to her cheek, tilting her head briefly to kiss the back of it. She kept it there, her fingers tightening with fear and grief.
“I would ask you not to leave me, but...I cannot. It is beyond my hands, I--” She took in a wavering breath. “I will find him. I will take your words to him.”
“Your journey will be that, and more, my heart,” Vashti said. “You must learn to rein in your gifts -- the way you speak to the wind, even when you do not know so. You must be among those who accept you in your entirety. Haradar will not tolerate you once the people know the truth.”
Overwhelmed with worry, fear, and affection for her mother, Renestrae lowered herself so that she could hug her, but so very gently, for fear of crushing her. Small though she was, Vashti was of a similar stature, and weakened. She listened to the other’s heart, so faint, when it had once been strong.
“You showed me how to coax my cittern into singing,” she whispered, to the distant, sickly drum of the other’s dying heart. “You showed me snow-cats and great birds. You taught me to know the music in a bow-string’s thrum. What will I do when you are gone?”
Vashti rested her tired hand against her daughter’s silken hair, drawing it lovingly and repetitively across the inky tresses.
“You will be all that you are, my sweet. You will survive. You will live a good, long life.”
They were but a few words, but they inspired the tears to come freely.
She would live but two more days.
After the pyre had burned away, and Vashti’s ashes gathered in a sealed copper pot, Renestrae would leave. She had prepared all that she would take with her -- her mother’s letter and ashes, keepsakes, bow, cittern, and what other things she would need for the journey -- and left once the others had gone to their slumber. Busying herself in the evening, she had swept out the home, cleansed it with incense, and prepared it for whomever would come next. She left a short, plain letter for the others stating that she would not return, and did not disclose why.
At the village’s edge, she paused in the saddle to look over her shoulder, her breath misting about her mouth in little puffs. It was the last time she would look upon Haradar. She turned away, and followed the mountain path to the west.
It was time to find the other half of the song.