He came with the summer. She looked out the window and knew it was him, slowly walking up the path. And dread filled the pit of her stomach, for now he would see the child with the golden locks of the West, and the child with the dark hair of the North, and the child with the long eye-lashes of the South, and the child of the East not yet born.
He came up the path, and she stood by the door, and his smile lit his face as he saw her – just as it had done, so long ago intheir previous life, though it seemed they both had aged ten years in four. Then he stopped as he saw them file out the door: Carnelian with the golden locks of the West, Rose with the dark hair of the North, Sorrow with the long eye-lashes of the South, and he saw Ruby was with child. He stopped, and her world stood still.
He stopped and stared, and her heart raced within her, and fear gripped her insides till she thought she would scream. For what felt like hours he stood and he stared.
Then with something like a sigh Carnelian approached, and his smile returned as he embraced one by one each child as though it were his. And he took her in his arms and she burst into tears, for she knew he still loved her the same.
All day she waited, for a question, a word, for him to acknowledge that something was wrong, that something had been broken since the day that he left. But all day he spoke lightly, of the weather, of her garden, of the harvest, and he played with her children, helped her wash the dishes, as though nothing had changed – but everything had changed. So she waited for the night, when they would be alone.
That night they faced each other in silence, neither knowing how to voice the horrors of what they had gone through, neither daring to wake the ghosts of those four years that filled the space between them.
Then Carnelian spoke, his voice tinged with pain: Every day I fought to stay alive for you. Every day I fought to stay true to you. Four years I have loved no other. Yet now I return, and...
Anger flared and Ruby said, Are you accusing me? Every day I fought to stay alive for you. Every day I fought to stay true to you. Every day I fought to believe you would return. Four years I have loved no other. Yet while you were away, one after the other took me by force, against my will. Know this: my heart has been ever faithful to you, though war has destroyed my vow.
Compassion filled his eyes then, and he took her hand, and they sat there in silence until he said, Let us go, then, to the Ceremony Hill, let us speak our vows like on our wedding day, and let us begin again.
So they went hand-in-hand to the Holy Hill, and at midnight knelt there, face-to-face. And she cried as Carnelian spoke again the vow from long ago: I promise you I will be true. I promise you, as long as there is breath in my body, I will be yours, and you will be mine. I promise you, no matter what lies in store, I will be true to you, my wife.
But when her turn came, she could not speak – she opened her mouth, but could only weep. Too much had happened, too much had gone wrong. It is all right, Carnelian said, drawing her into his arms. Take your time. We can wait. Hour after hour they spent kneeling there, as she fought all the sadness and fear in her chest, as she remembered their wedding in a different age, the golden borders on the tent of the king, the tousled beard of the soldier from the North, the smell of burning fields as the pillagers came, the hunger that drove her to the merchant's bed.
And as the dawn broke over the hill, she looked into his eyes, and saw love there. And fighting all doubt and fear she said, as the tears ran down her face: I promise you I will be true. I promise you, as long as there is breath in my body, I will be yours, and you will be mine. I promise you, no matter what lies in store, I will be true to you, my husband. And he held her close, and together they wept, for pain and for joy, for the stain of four years that could not be undone – but they could begin again.
And when her child was born, they named her Grace – for, she said, true love remains, and heals all shame and brokenness.