"I shall come again tomorrow, my flower." Another kiss on her lips before she heard the noisy clinking, coins mingling with raindrops in her outstretched hand. A cold wind tugged at her raven-black hair, carrying the stinging smell of fire and battle. It was already weeks since she had smelled anything else.
Reya looked at his retreating back as he crossed the foggy field to return to the camp. He was already her fourth soldier that day. Infantry, Lord Darrog's division; killed four enemies; his first time in a war. He could not be twenty yet. He had shown her a black stone hung around his neck which he never took off: a charm from the witches of Darkwood, very precious; cost his mother both their goats but at least it would see him safe through every battle. Was he afraid? No, he said, even though Reya knew that he was, for otherwise he would never have come to her. No, he said, everything for the Empire! Everything for the King! Everything for Baraine to become a strong and powerful nation!
Out here, his words sounded dead. No heroics in the deep cold of Dabendock. No victory beneath the cruel shadows of the Darkwood trees. No passing-bells, no finely embroidered palls, just mass graves under the heavy mist and the hard eyes of waiting crows. She knew what fate awaited him. Many others had stroked her face like he had done, promising to come back. They did not know that she could feel them tremble.
He was gone now. Icy raindrops with a whisper of the coming winter kissed her face and ran down it in little rivulets. Every day, she would stand there, waiting for she knew not what, watching the circling crows over the newest battlefields. She had long since forgotten what she was waiting for. She had long since learnt to stop hoping. Hope never came cheap in a border town in the midst of someone else's war. For a while, she closed her eyes. But the pain was still there. Even the golden rays of the setting sun battling their way past thick rain clouds could not chase it away. Nothing would.
Sighing, she wrapped her black shawl tighter around herself and walked back towards the inn. She did not want to be out alone in the dark when the ghosts were around, especially not near the forest. Anyway, there might be more customers waiting for her.
It was dark by the time she arrived; night always fell with a crash in the north, as the Barainian veterans liked to say. Light spilled from the wide-open door like a tipped-over keg of beer, trickling through grimy windows and running along the street towards her. She stamped her feet twice before entering so no ghosts would follow inside. One could never know whether the mirrors and prayer-beads and charms by the door would be enough to keep them out – high time the innkeeper asked the village spellman to put another blessing around the building!
"Sita is still coughing," Justice told her as soon as Reya entered, dripping from the rain. The inn was full of noise, scarred veteran soldiers polishing their swords, idealistic youths proclaiming the greatness of Baraine, and the usual visitors from the village laughing and bragging and drinking their beer.
"Did you give her something?"
Justice nodded. "Someone is looking for you," she added.
"Who? Where?" She remembered too many men who had said they would find her again, too many who had made promises they knew she knew they would never keep. She did not believe that it could be one of them. She had long since stopped believing.
"Table in the corner," the slave said, before she continued sweeping, loose strands of hair escaping from her kerchief and covering her pointed ears as though they were a shame. Well, here, they were.
Reya felt Justice watch her as she moved past the tables, snatches of conversation crossing here and there around her. "…stuck me sword innes throat, and fin'ly was he defeated!" – "Carack's dead. Carock's next, and after that, all our ways lie open! The kingdoms of elves and fairies and cherans will all fall and…" – "…you can war as much as you like; I've won battles for Baraine and I know this is leading us only to ruin…" – "…and then the bund reached the highest tower and was about to attack the princess when…"
His face was hidden in the shadow of a hood. Raindrops glistened on his black travelling cloak. A shepherd's staff was leaning against the table in the corner. This was the man.
He was old; probably a traveller from somewhere or other, passing through the border town. She could not stand them if they were old. They paid less too. Maybe she should go away – never mind if she received the scolding of her life the next day for not doing her work. For today, she just had enough.
Suddenly, he looked up.
Deep, dark, unfathomable eyes so full of love and sadness. A light seemed to be burning in those knowing eyes, flames of power and might. He looked her up and down, like so many had done before. But his look was different. She was not used to this kind of look, from those mysterious, ageless, burning eyes. Like the sun rising from the mist at the end of the long rainy season. Like the first blossoms in springtime adorning the fields. Like the ancient Elvish songs Justice would sing to Sita at the end of the day, stroking a hand over her face, full of a love that came only from distant memories and days Reya had long run away from. Like another pair of eyes that she could remember from so long ago.
She felt suddenly afraid; she could not even understand why or of what. She had never felt like this before.
Slowly, he stood up. She hardly took in the heavy scrape of the chair against the cold stone floor. It was as though all else had disappeared, as though only she and the old man were left in the world. He took a step towards her. There were tears in his eyes, but a smile had spread itself across his features, bright as the stars in the night sky competing against the dark. And before she knew it, he had drawn her into a close embrace, and embrace like no other she had received for a long time. "I have found you," his whispered. "At last I have found you." And she did not know why, but she found she had tears in her eyes as well.
Only when he let her go did Reya notice again that she was in the inn full of raucous men and foreign soldiers, that her daughter was sick and that she was just another girl who sold herself for a living, not worth being looked at as the old man had done.
"Who are you?" she asked. "What do you want?"
He looked at her. She quickly looked away; it hurt to watch his eyes, it was like looking at the sun too long on a hot summer's day. "I am your father," he said, in a voice that made her feel strangely free and powerless. Like thunder and waterfalls and the roar of a lion; like a cool breeze and a fresh, flowing spring and the bleat of a lamb. "I have come to look for you, and to bring you home."
She sank into the nearest chair. Her legs were trembling too much by now.
"I know you can remember, even though it was so long ago."
"Yes. Yes, I... I remember." Running around and playing, laughing without a care in the world, as Sita never would be able to. A field full of flowers, the sun shining. Strong hands waiting for her, lifting her up, swinging her in the air; someone laughing with her, taking her by the hand, leading her through the world and showing her all the little wonders and miracles. Watching over her in sunshine and in rain, giving her whatever she needed. Leading her on the right paths through the dangerous mountains of her home. Even in the night and the dark, ghosts howling in the shadows, she was never afraid. For why should she be, with her father by her side?
But she had left all that behind. Why should she go on listening to an over-protective parent when she could decide well enough what to do with her own life? Why should she spend all her life following rules when breaking them was so much more fun? And now here she was, broken and ashamed and waiting for escape from a prison she had built for herself.
"Why have you come?" she asked. "I left you, I cursed you, I did everything you told me not to do. I do not deserve anything!"
"I know," he said. But his look did not change.
"My job here… it's…"
"I chose this for myself."
"I know. I am not forcing you to come with me. You chose to do a thing you knew would bring you ruin, now I give you the choice to return to me and make it undone. Only if you wish it."
"I can't believe it!" She stood up. "I can't believe it. No one would accept a daughter like me! There must be some kind of punishment!"
"There is none. The only punishment is the one you choose for yourself."
She could not understand anything anymore. Nothing made sense. She turned away and, ignoring the drunken men whistling after her, rushed through the inn and into the courtyard at the back.
Outside, the icy wind dried her tears and bit her cheeks. No one would hear her sobbing there. It was carried away with the dry leaves and the faint eerie howling of distant ghosts that pierced her to the bone. But what pierced her even more was that strange love, that strange power in those eyes…
Only faint, flickering candlelight lit up her room, the only sound Sita's uneven breathing from under the patched old blanket. As Reya sat down by the bedside, it hit her that she did not deserve this daughter at all. Sita did not have an easy life. She never would have. Reya realised, suddenly, that she didn't want her daughter to suffer the same fate as herself. That she wanted to protect her child as much as she could from all the harm and wrong, from all the wars and battles and evils of the world.
How would she feel, if ever the day came when Sita stepped her foot down and insisted on recklessly living against everything she had been taught? Would she also be able to forgive her daughter, if she spent all her dowry, had affairs with untrustworthy men and threw herself away, only to become unexpectedly pregnant and be left alone with a child she had no idea how to take care of? Would she be able to forgive her daughter if she ruined herself, kept herself imprisoned in guilt and pride, too strong-willed and too afraid to return home?
Smoke circled from the deep craters made by Barainian catapults, black and heavy. Reya drew her veil over her nose and mouth, her eyes watering from the stench of burnt flesh, blood and death. Beside her, Justice was digging through the pockets of a Carackan soldier – so mutilated by his wounds that Reya couldn't bear to look at him – as though it was an everyday affair. Dead bodies lay scattered all across the battlefield, some of them already visited by black crows that cawed evilly and sent shivers down Reya's spine. Lonesome shields and banners waved forlornly in the wind, signs of the royal houses these men had died for, royal houses that would send another batch of warriors when the first was gone, not caring for the lives being thrown away.
"Time to go back," Justice said, glancing towards the early morning sun.
Mist was rising from all around, like spirits leaving the earth and going back to the heavens where they had come from. Reya straightened her veil, trying to breathe calmly. The clouds towards the north were slowly moving away, something they rarely did. She almost thought she could see the distant mountains of Begunda, far away, the place where she had first come from.
Of course, then, it had seemed like a big adventure. She had travelled with her father before, down their mountain and to the city to sell some farm products at the market, or up the surrounding mountains to enjoy the view, once even down to the sea, where they watched all the boats bobbing on peaceful blue waves and her father had told her the tale of how humans first came from the eastern islands and great cities far away that now lay in ruin. None of those travels had brought her anywhere near the excitement she later found when she was on her own. Suddenly she was surrounded by more things than she had money for: beautiful clothes and fancy shoes, food and wine and feasts that lasted throughout the night, and men who couldn't keep their eyes off her.
At first she thought that was the perfect life for her, a life of fun and freedom where she could do whatever she liked, with no one interfering. But then suddenly, everything disappeared and she could see the world as it really was: only an ugly skeleton behind the mask of freedom, only chains pretending to be jewels. As soon as she was pregnant with Sita, they all went away and Reya was left alone. She was no longer pretty enough. She no longer had her dowry; it had all been spent on fancy clothes that no longer fit. She could no longer pay the expensive inns and had to make do with the run-down shabby ones in the side-streets, those visited by witches who cackled and threatened her. And then the day came when she had no money at all, a new-born to look after, a heavy heart, and no way to get food except by agreeing to the innkeeper's offer…
"My lady," Justice said, and Reya remembered that the slave was right, they must go back now, or they would both be in trouble. No one should know that they came to loot the bodies like other village women did; it would look like they didn't receive enough pay from the innkeeper.
"What have you found?" she asked Justice as they made their way back. She determinedly looked ahead to the west, not wanting to see once more the sun on the mountain tops because it brought too many memories to her that might have been sweet if she had left in another way, but as it was were too bitter to swallow.
Justice silently dropped a pile of things into her hand. The usual: some coins (a few Carackan, some Barainian and even a few Dabendockan Goldstars), a few rings, some other pieces of jewellery, and an amulet. Reya stared very hard at the amulet, because she knew exactly where it came from. His mother had paid two goats for it; now here it was, useless, because it had failed to protect him. She wished she could fling it aside onto the ground where it belonged, useless craft of the foul, lying witches, but she knew that Justice would be able to trade it for some meat, which was currently going scarce, so she said nothing but handed everything back to the elf.
They walked in silence, as they always did. Silence, their best friend and worst enemy. Heavy mists muffled everything in those parts; it stifled but it also hid. No one need ever know what had happened in her past. No one need ever ask. No one need ever care. When she first arrived, she had already fallen as low as she was now. No one need ever know how high her dowry had been before she spent it. No one need ever know what it was she left behind.
And Justice? What were her thoughts? What was her past? She knew better than to ask. They lived on each other's silence, both not wanting to give anything away about their past, both keeping their secrets deeply hidden. They respected each other's privacy; Justice never spoke about Reya's work, and Reya never asked Justice about her life as a slave. And they were happy that way.
But maybe, speaking to someone else may have made it lighter. Maybe the pain wouldn't be as heavy if she shared it with someone else. Maybe Justice was feeling pain as well; everyone knew how heavily the elves were persecuted and how terribly mistreated. Maybe, if they spoke about their past, they could hold on to one another and help one another to live through each day, to survive, to go on even though there was no longer anything to live for.
But they walked in silence, as they always did, surrounded by the cold and silent mist.
It was the first time that she realised what she was doing. The thought gave her such a shock that she immediately burst into tears.
"What is it? Have I hurt you?" he asked.
Reya could only shake her head. She turned away, suddenly deeply ashamed. She burrowed herself under the blanket and closed her eyes, as though by doing so she would awake from the bad dream she had thrown herself into. The tears just wouldn't stop flowing. What had she done? What had she been doing these past ten years? And why?
She felt him get up from the bed, heard him reach for his breeches, heard the clink of his belt. Then she heard the clatter of the coins on the bedside table. She waited to hear the creak of the door, waited for him to leave so that she could be miserable on her own. Maybe part of her believed that if he left the room, her heart would feel lighter. But it didn't.
As soon as he was gone she got up and opened the window. But even the cold air couldn't make her feel any less dirty, any less disgusted with herself. She felt like something was sitting on her chest, making it hard for her to breathe. She realised it was guilt. Tears burned her cheeks.
Outside, the smoke-tainted wind rustled in the trees. She remembered evenings of sunlight washing through her windows, painting her little room in the brightest of colours, while the wind played in the trees by the house, and downstairs her father, whistling or humming softly to himself, to the mountains, or to the sheep as he herded them into the stable for the night. Days of quiet innocence that she had never valued enough. She had only wanted more and more, further and further down the slope, until she reached the bottom, the lowest of low plains of Dabendock, shrouded by mist and by shame at what she had done.
Reya shuddered as she remembered the many hands that had touched her, the many eyes that had failed to see herself but only saw what they wanted to see. She shivered as she remembered that it was she who had let them touch her, she who showed those eyes what they wanted to see but hid away her true self.
It was too late, she told herself. It was too late and she would never be able to go back. Nothing would ever change her again. No one could forgive her. No one could love her again – and with that she meant truly love her, not like the men did who came and went and never remembered her after. She wanted to simply belong again, not wander and hunger and search and wait for she-knew-not-what. Or maybe she knew, but was afraid of mentioning it, like a wish that would never be fulfilled if whispered aloud.
It was too late.
But then she remembered the hands that had held her, accepted her, called her back. She remembered the eyes that had seen through all the barriers she had created around herself, that had looked at her with love and warmth and forgiveness. Could it have been true? Could it truly have happened? Her father – was he truly here, in this building, waiting for an answer from her?