Blessing to go

I know Gabrielle’s handwriting. I know when she’s tired, her writing slopes upwards. I know when she’s anxious, her pen presses a little deeper into the paper. I can see when the unevenness of her letters means something is amiss. I know when she is brief, there is danger.

***

The summer had been light and beautiful. The time spent at Lord Frederick’s hunting lodge meant days to explore at the fastest pace she could manage on shaky knees, while others went hunting. It meant new forests to explore, and Vitória had even found the lake he had mentioned on a solitary ramble, the waters cool and soothing. Even travelling back to the Barrens was not so terrible as anticipated, though that owed more to the pleasing company of her companion than the improvement of the place, or of those who resided there.

It was the first time Vitória had felt on holiday, or at ease. Even the slow pace was starting to become agreeable, and when Frederick returned from the front line troops he would find her, share stories and tales that banished any thought of feeling lonely, in pain, or left behind.

***

The letter weighs heavy in my fingers, a thing apart from me. I am caught in the stillness for a moment, as if a great storm builds around me yet I am the calm eye at the centre. This feels unnatural, and there is a part of me that wonders where is the immediate action?

***

“Vitória?”

Her head turns from the letter at the gentle tapping on her open door, left ajar when she had been given her letter. The smile that should appear whenever she sees Fred is missing.

“I’ve just got back, you’ll never believe what–” Frederick pauses, before she can part her lips to explain. Is her stillness that unnatural? “Are you well?”

It takes a moment before she can speak the words that will banish the lightness of the summer, her throat thick, as if ash-filled. “The Mournwold has fallen. The armies are pushed back to Tassato… I have to go home.”

***

You understand. There’s nothing needs saying but of course you understand. It’s only when I can pass you the letter from Gabrielle that I am finally swept up in the storm, and my belongings are packed as swiftly as I can. My legs protest at this sudden change, and soon there are tears in my eyes. I tell myself it is from the pain, but I know my own lies.

We all are called to duty. It’s only after I am on the road an hour before I realise I asked for your blessing before I left.

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A Favour Given

I’m leaning on Serena heavily, my knees are fiery fury at my having walked too much, but I’m eager to pass the present into your hands. Serena had mentioned it was your birthday; in truth you’d have been given the gift regardless, it’s just a nice cover.

“It’s for when you need a bit of Courage.”

The minute the gift box is out of my hands I am afraid; it catches me off balance, as I gracefully slide (though fall is more correct) into the seat offered. I laugh, turn to make a joke to Serena with the expected easygoing smile, for it covers how exposed, how vulnerable I suddenly feel. What is wrong with me?

I don’t understand where this comes from. The design and colours were correct– I had verified the heraldry with the Civil Service personally. Gold snake, on green and white. I’m not exactly a master weaver such as the Dawnish are famed for– but the needlework was some of my best, I had worked for days on it. I don’t think this is nerves about the gift being subpar…

And I had studied so hard! Every book I could find on hearth magic, on the Dawnish and their favours, on symbolism and girding with them, and what they mean– this is, I suppose, my interpretation of your hearth magic, though in some ways (and in one particular way) it is my hearth magic, too, woven and embroidered into a favour. I can’t stop the tension building.

Why am I afraid?

Where did we begin?

Warning for Find-Out-In-Play headspace.


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There has been a shift in my perception, so subtle and so unobtrusive that I am unaware of its happening, of when it began and how it proceeds more and more with time.

I try to think back, map out and chart our interactions, our passings, our conversations. Such slight things. So small, unobtrusive, that now I look back in wonder: where and how and why and when?

When did we meet? I don’t rightly know, cannot remember a moment where we were formally introduced. I remember I played you, in the performance you commissioned for Wassail, when you were grieving, when you had a story to tell about your love now lost. I played your role in the tale: the Dawnish lover, the surviving lover. I didn’t even know you. I didn’t understand the depth of love, then, but I still cried for your loss, after removing the mask.

I think the first time I sought you out, was to ask you, afterwards, if you had liked the play, whether we had succeeded in fulfilling the commission. You didn’t really meet my eyes. It was a short conversation, awkward, and you left soon after. You were a patron, I did not take offence.

When did you learn my name? Was it for myself, or was I just another Barossa, therefore a name worth knowing. Did we pass each other in Anvil for a while afterwards, were there glances, did we say hello?

I remember… though I don’t like to think of it, I remember the time spent in the Barrens. I remember the flashes of knives, and the searing of brands; I remember the torture and the slavery and the fighting for freedom– and I don’t think I even really knew you then, but, you came with the others to save me. And I even now don’t know why you did it, whether to right the wrongs of your brethren, or whether you came to help Serena free me, or you did it because it was the right thing to do. But it couldn’t be for me, myself.

Afterwards, I should have thanked you. I don’t think I did. But I was in shock, I was ungrateful and scared and hurting. I should have thanked you.

I think, from this moment, we were aware of each other. I knew little of you. I knew your name, and that you were a friend of Serena’s.

There’s a brief, vague memory of you and your sister, your fearful, trembling sister; I remember trying to help, trying to calm Eleanor’s soul and ease her fears with an anointing. I remembered the same fear, that twice-instilled fear, still shake from it even now — of course I would help her. Did you ask me to help? Did I ask to help?

I learned that you were a priest of Loyalty, sometime after this; I thought of you as a rival, and I was jealous. Such a stupid thing — Gabrielle, then Robbie, mentioning talking to you about issues of Loyalty, as if I hadn’t always been the family’s priest, that my life’s work, that all my ambition in life –to always be theirs, and support them, and remind and reinforce our family’s loyalty– was for naught because they were going elsewhere with their problems. That hurt, stung bitterly. I felt as nothing, not good enough. I didn’t know then, as I do now; now I only have gratitude that they had such as you to go to.

I remember, the second time I met your sister, and could still see the fear in her. And I bit my lip, and I hid my own fear, and I tried to be as gentle as I could in discussing it with her, with you standing at her side. I hated myself so much during that conversation, as one faced with one’s own hypocrisy. I think… I think I helped her. She seemed to confront… something, in those discussions.

Then, we were discussing theology. Were we colleagues, by this point? There’s no chance that I impressed with my mighty verbose skills. But, you didn’t dismiss my questions, my hypotheticals, you actually listened and heard what I was trying to say. And you didn’t make me feel like a failure, or a fool, for my brain working along lines that not everyone understands.

I didn’t know what to say, the next day, when you were suddenly before me, and giving me a pendant. Beyond the fog of a Winterskin tonic, I was so doubting of my merit that when I learned it was a favour– for the thought that anyone would ever value me to bestow anything like that– I don’t remember what I said. I really hope I thanked you. I turned to Gabrielle then, and asked what it meant. She reassured, she smiled; I think she was stunned too. Was this when we became friends?

But I survived, that battle. Broken, yes, in agony at each step, yes — but I was alive. I think, then — I think, then, for the first time in how long? Ever?–I think then, I felt hope. It was faint, it was suppressed, but it was there. You helped carry me back to camp. I grabbed at my chest, only reassured that your favour was still there protecting me. Gosh, but then Sylvia was dead and I was in shock and the tonic made me numb, and you found me another priest to Testimony her soul, because I couldn’t move. I had forgotten this.

I was not used to such kindness, unbribed. I think it was then, I began to make an account of your kindnesses, and the tally was long.

In each stitch, in every bead that I thread onto my needle, in each curve of embroidery and each twist of thread, I am tallying every change in our relationship. Then the favour –when did it become a favour?– is finished and I am placing it in its box, and tying the ribbon around it, and placing it into my travel sack. And I’m still wondering, when and how and why and when.

I don’t know what we are now. But I want to find out.

 

Preferences, not Desires

I can taste butterscotch, as danger approaches.

I turn half a step, look over my shoulder back to where friends should be, and am faced with the hulking mass of an ogre separating me from the spread out Foxes. Jotun handlers on each side urge it forward, flanking it in a three-versus-one.

I do not like my odds. I would prefer better odds.

Robbie should be at my back; I cannot hear his footsteps or his eager war-cries. We had pressed forward together, but now I have lost him and cannot turn my eyes from danger to search, or to warn him. Are there allies around I can shout to? I cannot tell. The ogre lets out a great bellow, as the warriors that flank it press forward. It is impossible for me to do anything but stand here and fight.

I feel the lack of emotions more acutely now.

Slowly, despite the best guard I can maintain, I am pushed back, first a few feet. Then more. I do not like this. Somewhere inside me, or behind me, there is an emotive briar screaming, trying to push emotions forward as if I could gain strength from them to fight back. She would rather die feeling–feeling pride, and love, and fear. The Jotun to the right manages to catch my knee, steel biting into muscle. They know they have hobbled me; I could not escape now.

This is where I die. I would prefer to not die.

I do not know at which point it happens. Whether the caged briar escaped, whether the desire to live broke free of the taste of butterscotch and the deadening of emotions. But like a flash it is over; one of the handlers I cut down, an ogre stands confused as his weapon is hewn from his hands by my spear. And I am screaming my loudest at the figure suddenly in my eye line behind the danger.

GABRIEL! HELP ME.

I would prefer to live.

***

Five

“Gabriel.”

It’s the only word I can say, in the look that passes between us, there is so much more.

Please, let me participate.
Let me do this.
This is the banner that I lost.
They wrenched it from my hands.

Don’t leave me behind.
Don’t let me sit and watch as the family tries to right my wrongs.
Right wrongs done to me.

Let me stand with you.
Let me fight.
Let me have your back, and let me remember what it is to know you have mine.

Tell me that I’m worthy to fight the Jotun for Catia’s banner.
Don’t pass me over because I’m not a warrior, I have the heart for this.
Let me bleed beside you.

Win or Fail, let me be counted for something.
When I leave this world, let this be something I did, fearlessly, and be proud of myself for.

And then, you nod, and beckon me forward, one of five to stand against the Jotun champions. And a weight is lifted from my soul, that I might be worthy to bear the Barossa name.