Dedicated to my friend, Cathie Duvall,
the true Queen of All Hallows Eve.
“A red-cape game of retribution is dangerous
when a fresh bull with bigger horns waits in the shadows.”
The room was dark. My head felt tender, like a wooden club had had its way with me and left my skull badly bruised. A fur cover was draped over my body keeping me warm. Its coarse texture sparked a vague sense of recognition, yet I couldn’t place the blanket anywhere in my memory. I tried to think where the pelt had come from, but the more I strained to remember, the more I realized there was little I could recall about anything, including my present whereabouts and how I had come to be in a dark and unfamiliar room.
The smell of a warming fire pervaded the air, though it had burned too low to keep the tip of my nose from experiencing a chill. Its light reached from beyond the foot of my bed, leaving the majority of the room cloaked in darkness. I stirred, but my head screamed at me for making the effort. The pain forced a groan of agony from my lips to which someone responded.
“Catherine? Are you awake?”
His voice was hushed but distinctly concerned. Uncertain of the man’s identity, I said nothing. The air fell silent again, and I assumed he was listening for a sound of movement from me. I, likewise, waited for a clue as to who he was. I dared to cast my eyes about, searching for his silhouette in the darkness, but all I could make out were articles of furniture. None of them I recognized, although, the details were hardly discernible.
A shift in position had my head swimming in circles like a whirlpool within my skull. A wave of pain accompanied an unpleasant onset of vertigo. I put a hand to my temple, wanting to stop the spinning, and groaned aloud.
“Catherine,” the man repeated. I heard the legs of a chair scrape against the floor as he stood up.
The minimal light of the fire was blocked out when his head appeared above me—a large shadow with a dark mane. He was not a small man. I squinted to make out his features, and flinched when he reached for me. Again I groaned, regretting the sudden move that made my head throb in multiple places. His hand fell gently on my forehead as if he meant to stop my brain from swirling. Oddly, it seemed to work.
“How do you feel?” he asked. I perceived genuine concern.
“Not well,” I answered honestly. “What happened to me?”
Despite his shadowed countenance, I noticed him grimace at the mental imagery evidently conjured up by my question. “You don’t remember falling?”
“Well….you did. You hit your head pretty hard.” His fingers wiped softly at my forehead before he removed them.
I considered his words for a moment. It certainly explained the throbbing.
“How did I fall?” I wanted more information—about everything.
“I uh….I’m not sure,” he declared with a heavy sigh. His eyes flickered to the far side of the room for a second, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was telling me the truth. What I wondered with greater interest was who this man was.
“I don’t remember anything about it,” I cautiously confessed.
His expression conveyed pity towards me, and he stroked my cheek, a gesture that put his big hand against my nose. “Are you cold?” he asked.
“Yes, a little.” I was stalling. Or perhaps it was a test to see what he would do. I wanted to trust this person, but he was a perfect stranger to my foggy mind.
I watched him turn and cross the floor noiselessly. His silhouette bent over and collected two logs of wood which he placed inside a stove that complained in a creaky moan when the front cover opened and closed. The man returned to my bedside and watched me watch him. We seemed to share the same uncertainty. I was the one to finally kill the silence.
“Who are you?” I asked. It was a straightforward question that would undoubtedly reveal all he needed to know about the seriousness of my condition.
“You don’t remember?” He scrutinized my face, squinting. There was no hint of hurt feelings in his features. Maybe concern. What I identified primarily was apprehension as he waited with a tight expression for me to answer.
I tried to place his dark eyes, thick eyebrows, and full lips but failed. No flash from the past divulged any shared experiences. No emotional response moved me. Nothing.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
The man exhaled loudly. “It’s alright. You suffered serious head trauma. Some memory loss was to be expected.”
I wondered who had told him that. But what I wanted to know most was to whom I was exposing my vulnerability.
“Who are you?” I asked again.
I watched his face contort, shifting through a range of solemn expressions. A touch of relief seemed to soften his face before it creased again conveying sympathy, concern, and then a great deal of anxiety. He tried futilely to smile through it all.
“Tell me who you are,” I finally demanded. His hesitancy was draining my hopes of trusting him. When his eyes glossed over with pure pity, I instantly loathed the look.
“I am your husband,” he professed, reaching to caress my face as if meaning to soften the blow of his words. My gaze scrunched tight with skepticism, and my head shifted, attempting to escape his touch. The action brought a hammer down on my skull—at least that’s what the pain felt like. Nausea ripped through my stomach in concert with the pain. I wanted to vomit.
“You really shouldn’t move,” the man—my husband—told me. “You’re not well.”
I’m married to a genius, I thought to myself. The hostility behind my sarcasm shocked me. Was the feeling real? And why so strong?
I grabbed my head and belly at the same time and, despite knowing the agony it would cause me, I rolled in a swift lurch to where my chin could extend over the side of the bed. There, I emptied the liquid contents of my stomach. For a few moments I was caught up in dry heaves, feeling every contraction of my abdominal muscles pound with equal ferocity inside my head. My eyes went blind as a greater darkness seemed to cave in on my brain. I heard the man—my husband—groan with disgust.
I woke as disoriented as the first time but with some recognition of my surroundings, especially the spicy smell of wood burning in a stove beyond the foot of my bed. I glanced about in the dark with just my eyes, afraid to move my head. No one was visible. Groggy and unable to form a clear thought about anything in particular, including myself, I paused in hope that something in the dimness would light a memory. I recalled only three things distinctly, all recent: The horrible headache when I moved. A man who claimed to be my husband. Liquid vomit; I had thrown up. Other than that, nothing was certain.
I breathed in deeply, partly searching for the smell of sickness. There was none. The man—my husband—must have cleaned up the mess. Maybe he did care for me. The fact that I felt no endearing emotions toward him—no internal warmth or inherent recognition—made me uneasy. No sentiment tied itself to the thought of him. Not even one hazy memory fought to break through to my conscious awareness. He said he was my husband. My husband. This person I felt no flicker of emotion toward.
No, that wasn’t true.
I had felt something toward him in an involuntarily response before hurling the contents of my stomach onto the floor. I had felt animosity. And to it, I had reacted sarcastically. It had been automatic, thus making it real. If this man was actually my husband, I doubted I was happy about it.
I listened in the quiet for his presence, for a sound of movement or breathing, but heard nothing aside from the soft popping of burning wood. I inhaled the spicy smell and experienced a sense of contentment. It too was a genuine emotion conceived internally. For the love of me, however, I could not recall any past occasions spent beside a warming fire. My brain barred every attempt to force an unwilling memory.
Too awake to go back to sleep, I amassed the courage to roll onto my side and perhaps sit up entirely. It all depended on the pain. I turned my cheek toward the pillow first without any unbearable effects, and so my body followed suit. My head throbbed, but not enough to keep my elbow from pushing against the mattress in an attempt to sit up. It was a stupid move. My brain suffered an agonizing jolt, and the room spun, making my stomach reel as if it were churning acid into vinegar. The awful nausea to follow forced me into a full sitting position where I began to vomit air between my legs onto the floor. My stomach was empty and complained fiercely about the fact.
I heard a door creak, followed by a momentary gust of cold air that actually felt wonderful. My abdomen seemed to relax in order to appreciate the cool reprieve.
It was the voice of that man—my husband. He sounded worried.
“Catherine, why are you up? What are you doing?”
He was suddenly seated beside me, one hand taking hold of my arm while the other flattened against my forehead, apparently feeling for fever. His touch was cold from being outside. It felt good.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“I went to see your grandmother,” he replied without the slightest hesitation. I believed him even though I couldn’t picture a face to attach to the woman.
“Is she okay?” I asked, concerned as to why he would pay her a visit in the middle of the night—I assumed it to be around the midnight hour by the quiet darkness.
“She’s worried about you,” he said before changing the subject. “You should lie down, Catherine.” He attempted to steer me toward my pillow, but I fought him by tensing every muscle in my body.
“No,” I refused. “I might throw up again.”
He seemed to agree that my plan to puke on the floor rather than on the bed was preferable—not that my stomach could produce anything but rancid air in its present condition. It took him a moment before he jumped to his feet and retrieved a clay pot for me, meant to collect any forthcoming vomit. I felt annoyed that he had failed to supply me with a bowl long before now. The word “pathetic” came to mind, and I wondered if he had proven to be an annoyance to me in our joined past. Or was I simply an overly critical person?
I held the clay pot to my chest, slumping over it, and asked a string of questions.
“Where am I?”
“You’re home,” the man said, sounding like I had just asked him something bizarre.
“It’s not as if anything is familiar to me,” I snapped. He immediately adopted a tone of apology.
“Of course not, Catherine. I’m sorry.”
I felt bad for my momentary loss of temper. Why did this man whose name I couldn’t even recall seem to try my patience? I wanted to know how to address him, but he hadn’t yet mentioned his name. I felt like an idiot for my inability to recall it, and so I continued to avoid the subject, hoping the answer might naturally come to light.
“What’s outside these walls?” I asked.
He pointed toward a closed window. “Our village.”
I waited for more, but it didn’t come. “Does our village have a name?”
“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly. Again I waited, but he remained silent. My eyes traveled sideways to find him regarding me with a dissecting gaze.
“What is it?” I finally asked, experiencing a great deal of exasperation.
“Oh, right. Tarishe. We live in Tarishe. We have for many years. I oversee all civic affairs here.”
It was the first bit of information he had volunteered without me asking for it. I hoped he would divulge more, but his tongue halted again.
“What do I do here in Tarishe?” I asked. The question made me anxious. I feared the answer would be as unpleasant to hear as finding out I was married to this man who possessed the power to vex me without trying.
“You?” He seemed shocked by the question. Perhaps he believed I recalled more about myself than I did. I looked down into the bowl on my lap. My neck drooped, and I felt a sickening pain at that simple gesture. It was better not to move at all.
I waited with anticipation, hoping the man—my husband—would speak. A wave of gratitude washed through me when he volunteered a wealth of information about myself, more than he had about anything else thus far. I was not disappointed by the things he shared.
“Catherine, you are a huntress—one of the best in Tarishe. You have provided meat for our village without fail for years. Dompier normally chooses you above all others to join his hunting party. He brags of your skill with a sword, a spear, a bow—any weapon placed in your hands. Of course, your silver sword has always been your weapon of choice. Especially when it comes to protecting the village from werewolves.”
“Yes,” he nodded, watching me closely. “Do you remember the werewolves?”
My brow pulled taut trying to force an image of myself brandishing a silver sword against wolverine beasts. I could picture nothing; it hurt to think. I asked another obvious question.
“Who is Dompier?”
“Dompier? Why he’s one of your closest friends. He calls you Cat. You allow few others to call you by that nickname.”
“Do I allow you to call me by that nickname?” I asked. It was the next logical question.
The man—my husband—stammered a reply. I did not believe his answer. “Well, uh…yes. Yes, of course. I mean you are, after all, my wife.”
I saw an opportunity and took it. “And do I have a nickname for you? Or do I just call you husband?”
“Um….no. You have always used my given name—Thaddeus.”
I exhaled a sigh of relief at having learned his name without the awkwardness of a direct request. Thaddeus. I repeated it numerous times in my head to the point of discouragement. The name failed to conjure up any memories. My spirit sank even lower, suffering the weight of disappointment and fear. What if my past never came back to me? What if I never recalled what made my family and friends dear to me? What if I failed to remember the skills that made me a valuable huntress and protector of my village? What would I do then?
I was surprised by a splash of droplets in the clay bowl below my face. I understood they were tears. I was crying. This truth upset me, and I wiped my cheeks dry. My gut told me I was not a sniveling, weepy sort of creature.
“Are you hungry? Or thirsty? Would you like some water?”
Thaddeus rose from the edge of the bed to fetch the things he offered. I remained hunched over my bowl, afraid to move for fear my head would scream at me again. I was hungry but at the same time nauseous, doubting any food would stay down for long. A few moments later, a thin piece of jerky and a cup of water appeared under my nose. I took the jerky without looking up, thankful for a food item I could simply savor without swallowing. The jerky tasted divine to my tongue, and I assumed my body was craving salt.
“You should drink some water too,” Thaddeus said after a few silent minutes of watching me suck salt off the stick of meat. I knew he was right, but I didn’t dare kink my neck to where I could sip from a cup.
“Let me help you,” he volunteered. I felt his hand land gently on the back of my neck with no adverse effects. The cup was brought to my lips, but my entire form had slumped too far forward to drink. I pushed the cup away, more interested in the salted jerky anyway.
“I’m fine,” I muttered.
“You need water,” he insisted, and then attempted to press my shoulder as if he could make me sit up straight. I reacted defensively. It felt entirely normal to do so.
My eyes narrowed as they shot up, warning him to comply with my wishes. The move caused a shooting pain to travel up my spine before exploding like fireworks in my head. I dropped the jerky onto the floor and hugged the clay bowl, heaving up another supply of rancid air.
I heard myself whimper “make it stop” as blindness stole my sight and then my consciousness.
Voices, low and conversing, reached my ear, and I wondered if they were the cause of my wakening. The room continued to abide in darkness, but only because heavy curtains denied the morning a way inside. The outer edges of a window within my view were painted soft gray-blue where daylight attempted to penetrate the drapes. Due to the faint amount of filtered light, I could see more detail in items of furniture positioned nearby.
A chest of three drawers stood tall with sculpted edges, each drawer possessing a wrought-iron handle. A single shelf supported a short stack of books and a pile of loosely-rolled parchments. These scrolls were prevented from rolling off the ledge by a black inkwell lacking a quill. Beneath the shelf, articles of clothing hung on antler hooks—a shirt, vest, jacket, and belt. There was more, but my attention swung to the highness of a ceiling planked by wooden rafters. The room felt bigger now that night no longer concealed the space existing overhead.
My ears perked up when I heard my own name mentioned by voices serving as background noise until now. I strained to hear, able to comprehend only fragments of the whispered conversation.
“She awakens more often……”
“…….almost healed…….hard to kill.”
To kill? My heart palpitated. Were they talking about me?
“….had me worried….”
“Filthy mongrels…….tough to eliminate….”
I sighed with relief at the word mongrels, assuming mutts were the object of hatred. Had dogs caused my head injury?
“……told her little.……”
“She remembers nothing?”
“No, no, nothing.”
“It may not last…..”
“It might…..given time.”
“It is too risky.”
Risky? What was risky? What were they talking about?
“I will go ahead and…”
“No! She’s my wife; I’ll handle it my way!”
It was a loud and clear outburst by Thaddeus. But what exactly did he want to handle? And to whom was he speaking? A doctor? It seemed logical my husband was conversing with a medical practitioner, discussing my care. I stirred in bed, wanting to sit up and speak to the man myself. When I rolled onto my side, my head throbbed but with less pain than before. I felt certain my injuries were healing.
“Doctor?” I called out in a weak and raspy voice. I managed to maneuver into a sitting position without excessive pain. My head suffered what felt like internal pressure; however, it was less crippling than the throbbing I had endured in the night. My stomach rolled with a minor wave of nausea, mostly hungry.
“Doctor?” I cried out again, afraid Thaddeus might show him to the door before I had a chance to ask any questions about my condition. I was surprised when my husband was at once standing before me. A smaller form crept slowly out of the shadows behind him. I waited for the person to come into focus under the minimal lighting available.
“You’re awake,” an elderly voice observed.
I saw an old woman plagued by a curvature of the spine. With a wooden cane in hand, she stood comfortably close to Thaddeus. She eyed me strongly.
“You’re not a doctor,” I presumed. I looked to my husband, expecting an introduction, but he denied me the courtesy. My eyes flickered back to the elderly character who continued to regard me through tight eyes. I couldn’t think who this frail creature was or if I had ever seen her before. Despite a mix of emotions nipping at my heart, no specific sentiment grabbed hold.
“You honestly don’t remember me,” the woman decided without asking. I felt a sharp prick of shame in the pit of my stomach.
“I’m sorry, no.” Then I recalled where Thaddeus had been in the night. “Are you……are you my grandmother?”
“I am.” A smile tugged awry on the old woman’s face. I failed to see any compassion in a smirk that made me both wary and untrusting. She did not appear to be a concerned grandparent.
Then Thaddeus turned to her and began discussing me as if I were no longer in the room; they said the oddest things.
“I think we should wait. She’s almost healed and I see no threat of...” Thaddeus stopped short before adding, “I like things as they are—no memory of werewolves or vampires or anything else.”
“Vampires?” I breathed incredulously. Whoa…..was I somehow involved with vampires? Had they caused my injury?
The old woman shook her head slowly, disagreeing with something of which I was uncertain. “It is better to give her some memories…”
Some? Not just some—all! I wanted all my memories!
“No!” my would-be husband barked. He seemed adamant that I remain in the dark.
“Yes!” I argued aloud. My outburst went completely ignored.
The man wagged his finger in my general direction. “Do not touch her. I will do here as I see fit.”
As he saw fit? The audacity!
“Bonds must be rebuilt, Thaddeus. There are those she must love and those she must not.”
“I am well aware of that, and I can do it for her.”
A skeptical grin thinned the old woman’s lips. “That stubborn creature will never believe what you say. She needs to have memories and emotions deeply ingrained. She will only believe what she feels internally.”
I was confused. Ingrained memories? But where were my actual, real memories?
“You would force her to feel the things you want.”
“As it was before. She must hate our common enemy.”
“Your enemy, not mine. I’m tired of this petty game. I no longer wish to be a part of it.”
The old woman nearly stood up straight, her mouth gaping as wide as her eyes. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m done with this tiresome existence. I want to move on. With her.”
“With her?” Those wide eyes flashed an intense hatred at me. I felt myself cringe.
“Yes, with her. You gave her to me.”
“And you fought me tooth and nail! You were dead set against marrying this creature.”
Thaddeus shrugged indifferently. “Well……I’ve changed my mind.”
“Since the wedding. She is now my wife, and I am her husband. I want a life; a life of my own. Something more than contending with those troublesome werewolves. I want a peaceful existence with my wife.”
“Ha! Those mongrels will never leave you in peace. They will forever seek her out. Peace does not exist with her! She allows no peace, no happiness, for anyone!”
Thaddeus regarded the angry woman, and for a moment he appeared to feel sorry for her. “You could be happy if you wanted, if you would cease mourning the past. My brother is dead; he has been for over fourteen years. You should leave him be. Bury him and get on with life.”
“He was my life! That vicious, hateful mongrel took him from me!” A bony finger pointed down at me as if suggesting I were the mongrel. Their conversation was making less sense as it progressed.
“He was not your only son, you know. Or have you forgotten?”
“I know, I know. Which is why her memories must be carefully restored. I do it to protect us, Thaddeus. To protect you. I will not lose you to her as well.”
Thaddeus was unconvinced. “I want a life, and I will have one—with her. She is no longer one of theirs, nor is she your charge. She is mine. She will love me and remain with me and we will build a pleasant existence together.”
“Is that what you think? You forget what happens on All Hallows Eve.”
“I am well aware of what happens on that cursed night, but it is only once a year.”
“She will turn on you—mark my words!”
“I will see to it that she doesn’t.”
“Ha! You are neither powerful enough nor brave enough to prevent it.”
“Stop provoking me, mother! I am more capable than you know!”
My brain was drowning in confusion and anxiety as well as suffering an increasing pressure headache. Thaddeus had called my grandmother his mother. Clearly, these people—these peculiar characters—did not have my best interests at heart. In fact, they seemed bent on securing their own selfish desires at my expense. The need to escape in order to preserve whatever was left of my actual identity prompted me to find my feet. While they were bickering between themselves, I managed a few side steps before the room began to spin and the floor rose to meet my tumbling form. The fall gained me the undivided attention of the pair.
My self-professed husband jumped to my aid, grasping both of my arms with the intention of helping me to stand. I wouldn’t allow it, determined to fight my way free of him and the old woman if necessary. Focused on reaching the door, which unfortunately stood on the opposite end of the room, I was convinced my escape into the village outside would enable me to cross paths with a compassionate soul willing to help a woman in distress. My strength, however, failed me. I lacked the muscle to put up a physical fight, proving more of a nuisance than anything to the man holding me down. Despite my weakened condition, I continued to struggle for my freedom, unwilling to give in to the shady intentions of two oddballs whom I feared were more my captors than the family they claimed to be. I was scolded and told to calm myself.
“It’s alright, Catherine,” the man lied. “No one is going to harm you.”
“You’re right about that,” I snarled, kicking low.
I was prepared to sweep his feet out from under him when by brain lost its ability to communicate movement to the rest of my body. Try as I might, I could not move any of my limbs and remained on the floor, paralyzed. I was instantly afraid. Thaddeus looked to be momentarily confused by my stiffness, but then his face wilted into a scowl as he turned to his mother and understood. Her skeletal claw hung in the air, aimed at me.
“I had the situation under control,” Thaddeus insisted, folding his arms across his chest in a huff.
“Something must be done about her,” the old woman declared, keeping her claw outstretched toward me. I realized it was by her power I was being held fast and immovable. Even my tongue had been denied mobility or else I would have pled for my life.
Thaddeus made a face, conveying his perturbation at unwanted advice. The man groaned as if he felt coerced to submit to his mother’s will.
“Oh, alright,” he finally ceded.
I gawked at him wide-eyed, unable to beg for mercy. That’s when he told his mother in a tone attempting authority, “You will restore her memories as they were—nothing more.” I felt a mild sense of relief before he slyly added, “No wait. Endear her to me.”
I awoke in the dark, warm under a thick quilted blanket. There was no light to see by which suggested the hour was around midnight. I could smell a slight odor of perspiration which automatically turned my nose to myself, realizing in the process that my clothes were missing. I was sleeping in the nude, something I never did.
Trying hard to remember disrobing the evening before—trying harder to remember anything about the day prior—I sensed substantial warmth originating from a source next to me. Close to me. Too close. It was this warmth, combined with the unfamiliar bodily smell, that made me aware I was in bed with someone. Panic seized my heart, making it jump as if it would escape my chest. I was horrified. Not by the circumstance in which I found myself but by my inability to recall what had brought me to it. Where exactly was I? In the darkness, it was impossible to tell.
As quietly as feasible, I rolled onto my side, away from the unknown body providing me heat. I meant to slip out from beneath the covers and search the floor blindly for a discarded garment, but a hand reached out to stroke my arm, causing me to tense up and freeze. The touch was gentle and affectionate. I heard a man whisper at my back.
“Are you awake, Catherine?”
I recognized the voice. It brought with it a flood of memories, the most recent involving me standing under a full snow moon in a luxurious white dress. It was a scene from my wedding. Thaddeus had said “I do” —for me as well, I recalled. But that was the end of my memories regarding the wedding. I remembered nothing after the actual ceremony.
I rolled onto my back again, feeling somewhat relieved I was where I was supposed to be.
“Is this your house?” I asked, unfamiliar with the bed and the prominent musky smell.
“Yes,” Thaddeus answered, continuing to stroke my bare arm. “But you must think of it as your house too, now that we’re married.”
“Married,” I breathed uneasily. My mind was trying very hard to wrap itself around the idea. I knew it was so, for I could recall the monotone murmur of the pastor who had performed the ceremony while Thaddeus stood fancily dressed at my side. But how had I gotten from the red bulrush meadow to lying here naked in bed? My body trembled at the touch of my husband’s hand on my bare shoulder. He held on.
“Are you okay, Catherine? Is something wrong?”
I confessed to him, “I…I don’t remember last night.”
“You don’t?” He sounded surprised.
I felt him move closer as he leaned over and found my mouth with his lips. He kissed me once softly, his long curls brushing against my face. I didn’t fight him, although, the hostility that had existed between us over the years came rushing to mind. At the moment, however, I felt no ounce of bitterness toward the man, regardless of our past. It was as if our vows had magically erased those years of resentment.
Thaddeus pulled his lips away but remained with his nose near mine. I could barely see him studying my expression in the darkness.
“Are you telling me you don’t remember kissing me like this….among other things?”
I felt a rush of heat to my cheeks, but I had to admit the truth. “I remember the wedding ceremony…….and then waking up here just now. That’s all.”
Thaddeus let out a light laugh as his hand went to brush the hair from my forehead. He was touching me, intimately close to me, and I didn’t seem to mind. My head told me I should mind terribly, but I didn’t.
“I’m not entirely surprised you don’t remember,” he smiled. “I should never have encouraged you to drink a toast to our new life together.”
I pulled my eyebrows low. “I don’t normally drink.” I exhaled a note of personal disgrace. “At least not anymore.” I had sworn off alcohol after blacking out on occasion—twice having found myself pregnant without any clue as to the identity of the father.
“I can understand now why you don’t drink,” Thaddeus said, still grinning. “You don’t hold your liquor well at all. Please don’t feel bad; it’s my fault you gave in and drank a glass….actually a few glasses,” he informed me. “But it is tradition to toast the bride and groom. I didn’t want us to appear rude.” His hand landed on my cheek, warming it substantially. “I hope you can forgive me for insisting you partake.”
“So I was drunk?” I asked, deeply concerned about my behavior in such a state.
“You were a perfect lady,” Thaddeus assured me. “That is, until I got you home alone. Too bad you don’t recall that part.”
I wasn’t sure what to think or what to feel. My mind seemed unable to wrap itself around what Thaddeus was saying. I couldn’t imagine giving myself to him willingly. But then again we were married, and I had been stinking drunk, apparently. Strangely, the aversion I once felt toward him had vanished. It no longer seemed to affect me.
Thaddeus leaned in and kissed me on the lips again. Internally, I wrestled to anchor myself to an emotion that made sense, but my strongest feeling was pure contentment. It was a foreign although pleasant state of being. As his kisses grew more passionate, my body naturally became aroused. He was my husband I kept thinking, repeating the words like a line to be memorized. He was my husband now. It was a simple fact I could wrap my brain around. And so I let my body and Thaddeus have their way, afterwards falling asleep in the man’s arms.
Sunlight stirred me awake. I was alone in bed where I recalled everything from the night before. Rising up to my elbows, still naked under the covers, I looked around for Thaddeus. The room was empty. My stomach growled and rolled, upset and hungry. My muscles ached and my head felt heavy, as if I had been asleep for days. I assumed I had slept in, far past my normal time. I hardly ever rose late in the day living with my grandmother; she wouldn’t allow it. The thought of her made me wonder how she had fared her first night alone.
Spying a shirt draped on an antler hook beneath a shelf of books, I grabbed it and slipped the garment over my head. It reached down to half the length of my thighs while the arms were at least a hand’s span too long. I bunched up the sleeves and rolled the cuffs while scanning the one-room house. My interest landed on a wall of cupboards on the other side of the floor, set back behind a table and chairs.
I crossed the room and checked every cupboard for something edible, discovering next to nothing appetizing. There was a container of lard, a small canister of salt, a bag of dried beans, bottles of ground sage and other green herbs, an empty basket with only bread crumbs, packages of cured jerky, and a pumpkin so rotten it looked like a sunken head. I took a chunk of jerky and began sucking on it, relishing the salt. A search through the only chest of drawers in the room provided me something short-sleeved and decent to wear. It also revealed the hiding place of my silver sword which I at once reclaimed.
Finding a ceramic jug of water, I poured a portion of it into a basin and washed my hands and face. I wet my hair enough to comb through the long strands before braiding them into one long rope that naturally rested across my shoulder. Then, cinching a belt around my waist, looping it through the sheath for my sword, I stuffed another hunk of jerky into my pocket and headed outside.
The sun was visible in its entirety above the walls of Tarishe, which meant the coldest hours of the day had already past. Nonetheless, the season itself was determined to deny the land much warmth. I ran my fingers around both ears, tucking away any short, stray hairs, and then headed off in the direction of the butcher’s shop in hopes of finding a better meal and something warm to drink. I could smell meat cooking in a smoker, and my stomach reacted by grumbling, hungry enough to be nauseated. When I rounded the apothecary’s place onto the busiest stretch of road in the village, I spied a group of huntsmen gathered directly in my path. Their voices were loud and merry, the conversation rich with laughter.
The group noticed me in my approach. One powerful voice called out above the others, greeting me.
“Alas! Look who’s up and about! It must be a sign, Cat. Or should I say….Mrs. Thaddeus?”
I pulled a face at my good friend’s teasing. “It’s still Cat to you,” I told him, stepping up close enough to receive a strong hand on my shoulder. “What sort of sign are you looking for now, Dompier?”
“Ohhhh,” he sang in a lilt, “just a sign that you’re right as rain again.”
My brow crumpled its concern—a look that caused an eyebrow to arch on Dompier’s hairy face.
“What’s wrong, Cat?” He seemed to eye me warily.
“You saw me drunk last night,” I murmured, assuming that was his reason for seeking a sign I was well again. Dompier flickered a glance at all the other huntsmen who instantly reclaimed their bright mood. My big friend squeezed my shoulder and shook me playfully.
“Sorry to tell you this, Cat, but there ain’t one here who could answer that question honestly, seeing how we were all drunk as skunks ourselves!”
There was a loud round of guffaws that actually made me feel better about having forgotten the greater part of my wedding night.
Dompier threw his arm around my neck. “We were just talking about heading up toward the hills to search for elk. How about it, Cat? You want to join in the hunt today?”
My heart leapt at the chance. My stomach, however, reminded me it was emptier than a hollow log.
“Yes,” I started to say when a happy chorus of huntsmen drowned me out. It warmed my heart to feel their acceptance. I dared to finish my sentence. “But I have to get something to eat first. I’m ravished.”
“Easy as pie to fix.”
My hairy friend steered me away from the others and into the nearby butcher’s shop where a tasty cut of smoked pork was pressed into a circle of bread and then handed to me along with a jug of warm cider. The butcher tossed me an apple and a friendly wink on the way out. Dompier settled up with the man as I went to rejoin the hunting party, but my steps slowed when I noticed our village leader—my new husband—among them. I was concerned he meant to spoil my plans. Of course, he had a right to object to me leaving, seeing how the next few days were technically considered our honeymoon.
My first instinct was to insist I have my way, but that stubborn determination dissolved like froth when I suffered an overwhelming need for peaceful interaction between us. Trying to make sense of what was a terribly foreign reaction to this man, I reasoned that any success in our marriage would only be hindered by a selfish argument.
“Catherine.” Thaddeus neither smiled nor frowned as he sized me up. “I didn’t expect to see you out.”
I wasn’t sure why he would say such a thing. Hardly ever in my life had I remained cooped up inside any dwelling.
“I was hungry,” I told him. “There’s very little food in your cupboards.”
“In our cupboards,” he corrected.
“Our cupboards,” I repeated quietly.
He nodded, admitting what I said was true. “I’ll have to remedy that.”
“Well…I’m good for now.” I held up the smoked pork sandwich from which I had taken a few bites.
There was an awkward moment of silence where I thought for certain Thaddeus would try to steer me back to his house—our house. It was a huge relief when Dompier threw his bulky arm around my neck again and announced his intention to take me elk hunting with the others.
“We’ll take good care of her,” he assured my husband. “We won’t let the new missus out of our sight.”
Thaddeus seemed to grapple with the decision. I wanted to stretch out my neck and announce that I was joining the hunt whether he liked it or not, that it was my job to supply the village with game, that I wasn’t suddenly incapable of choosing my daily activities because I was married, but I couldn’t seem to get my tongue to pronounce the words. My brain and my mouth seemed unable to communicate, as if they were making use of opposing languages.
“I…I want to…” were the only words I could manage to stutter. Again, I felt a formidable need to maintain a peaceful rapport between us. I tried to console myself with the thought that plenty of future hunts would be mine.
“Ah, let her come along, Thaddeus.” Dompier gave me a strong sideways hug. “We could use her sword. And you know she’ll be yours through the whole night.”
There were a few wry smiles flashed at the remark, but no one dared snicker in my presence. Despite my unusual passivity toward Thaddeus, I still had no qualms about putting my fellow huntsmen in their places. On their butts if necessary.
“I’d prefer you didn’t go far,” Thaddeus finally said, ceding to the will of the majority.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief and then immediately hated myself for acting as if my actions hinged on his ruling. Thaddeus leaned in to kiss me, his lips shifting at the last minute to land on my cheek rather than my mouth. I wondered if he too was battling conflicting emotions because of this marriage.
Dompier pulled me along while the rest of our party gathered up gear, preparing to leave. I hurriedly devoured the food in my hands and felt a renewal of energy course through me. Dompier insisted that I slip into a leather jacket and a fur hat, voicing how it would be his tail if I caught my death of cold. He grinned with humor at the sight of me, but wisely said nothing.
Thaddeus was standing at the gate when we arrived, waiting to let us out. Dompier gave him a single nod, and the gate was opened just enough for our party to file out in pairs. My hulky friend and I were the last to leave, catching a final order from our village leader.
“Be back before sunset.”
I met my husband’s anxious gaze, but neither of us exchanged a word. When the gate locked shut behind me, I experienced a wave of exhilarated relief.
“How about we head towards the river?” Dompier said, a twinkle of adventure in his eyes. I felt the same free excitement course through my veins.
“I’ll follow you anywhere,” I grinned.
We hunted as a group all afternoon, tracking fresh hoofmarks from the riverbank, but we failed to come across any elk. Luckily, a wild boar surprised us by making the mistake of accosting our head hunters at charging speed. These men took the animal down with spears and then cut open its belly, wrapping up the meat in hide cloths. Dompier and I strayed from the butchering site and ducked through a thicket of trees to head for a shallow ditch that bordered a small, open meadow. This dip in the woods was a favorite spot for bucks to hunker down and keep out of sight. We crossed the meadow together, remaining under cover of shade just inside the tree line.
I flickered a glance at my tracking partner, wondering what he meant. “Nothing,” I answered, shaking my head.
“Don’t lie to me, Cat. You’re at my tail when normally you’d be up here in front, eager to be the first to spot a pair of antlers. Something’s wrong.”
I grinned askew at how well Dompier could read me after years of camaraderie. “I just….I feel like something’s off in my head,” I confessed.
Dompier slowed his progress and looked hard at me. “How so?”
“I’m not sure why or how exactly, but it feels like I’ve lost my edge when it comes to Thaddeus. I’m having a hard time standing up to him, and you know I’ve never had difficulty standing up to that man….or anyone else for that matter. Except for my grandmother,” I wisely added, “but that’s different. She raised me; I owe her enormous respect. It would be wrong to oppose her.”
Dompier spit out a single chuckle. “I did notice you held back speaking your mind this afternoon.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed, grateful he had noticed. “And you know I’ve never been tongue tied around Thaddeus before. I’ve always voiced my thoughts, but for some unfathomable reason I feel hesitant now. And oddly—very oddly—I’m not experiencing the same sense of repugnance toward him. None at all, in fact. How could such strong feelings simply die overnight?”
“Well…” Dompier breathed, thinking. “Tell me what your feelings are now.” I looked at my big friend, honestly scared to voice the truth. His expression urged me to confess.
“I feel…” I shook my head, hardly believing what I was about to say. “I feel comfortable and….I don’t know…..content, I guess. I feel like our marriage vows were somehow a truce declared between us, and I feel desperate to keep the peace. But at the same time, I fear that I’ve lost myself, as if my will and my drive and the strength of character I’ve always possessed has been compromised.”
“Strength of character doesn’t mean you have to battle everyone who tries to get close to you, Cat.”
“I know that.”
“Do you? ‘Cause you’ve been fighting people all your life. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you get close to a man, and it’s only on account of your grandmother insisting on it.”
“It’s not a requirement to have a man in my life,” I said with undue defensiveness.
“No, it’s not. But if you ask me, I think you want it. And I think you’re happy to finally have one who means to stick around. And I think there’s a part of you afraid of screwing this up—even if it is Thaddeus.”
I scoffed at his theory. “What kind of nonsense are you talking about?”
“Look, Cat, there ain’t none of us who don’t want someone to love and care for us and provide that warm body we can curl up to in bed. Heaven knows I’m thankful for the affections of my own missus. Maybe you never expected to have such things—until now. Maybe the subconscious part of your head is trying to protect this relationship by making you bite your tongue around your new husband. I think your heart knows what it wants, Cat, and it’s trying to keep your marriage from being spoiled by that ‘strong character’ of yours.”
I sighed uncertainly and voiced perhaps my greatest fear. “I don’t want this marriage to change me.”
“Well it’s dern well gonna do just that. Aye, it already has! And, although you seem reluctant to admit it, I think deep down you want this to work out, even if it means softening up your nature a bit.”
I locked my jaw defiantly and looked to the treetops, squinting at nothing. Was he right? Was this involuntary submissiveness simply a manifestation of my deeper desire for a successful marriage?
“It’s okay to let your guard down and love someone, Cat. It’s okay to be happy.”
I didn’t reply to Dompier’s advice, but I let it ruminate in the back of my mind. As luck would have it, we spotted antlers—a six-point buck—sticking up from the ditch ahead. I crouched low and overtook my partner, coming to the drop from within our cover of trees. There was more than one buck. All three were fast on their hooves when we were spotted, but my arrow was swift and accurate.
Dompier celebrated out loud, communicating to the others our success in acquiring additional meat. He then helped me skin the animal.
We followed a red horizon home, making it to the front gate of Tarishe before the sun fully set. The earthy scent of fire and smoke was strong, rising from pits within the village. It always grew darker inside the walls of Tarishe sooner than in the forest outside, thus the need for fires and fixed torches. Thaddeus was present to greet us upon our return, smiling at our haul of fresh meat. He made his same ignoble speech to those who were gathered, managing to pat himself on the back for conscientious leadership that made fruitful hunts possible, providing plenty of meat for his beloved villagers.
“That’s your noble husband,” Dompier murmured cynically as he threw his sack of venison in a cart provided by those hands who would take over. “Good thing we give the man plenty to take credit for, huh?”
I groaned under my breath. The self-importance Thaddeus assumed from his authority wasn’t his most favorable trait, but it was a fault everyone had grown accustomed to.
After we were thanked by numerous individuals, receiving enough pats on the back to be assured our hard work wasn’t overlooked, the meat was carted off to be cut and processed. I meandered over to the nearest fire pit to steal some warmth for my cold hands when an unusually strong sense of inner calm washed over me. It slipped in with the shadow of a presence which I promptly comprehended as Thaddeus standing beside me. The oddly pleasant reaction to him made me think of Dompier’s words. I could not recall a time I had ever felt agreeable emotions toward this man, and therefore I began to wonder if it wasn’t in truth my subconscious yearning for a gratifying relationship despite our disagreeable past. The idea of no more loneliness was appealing.
I looked up at my husband and wished it were possible to read his thoughts. I used to feel certain of his opinion of me; it seemed obvious the way we quarreled. But he had asked my hand in marriage—or my grandmother had asked it for him. Had his feelings changed? I was stunned by the potency of hope that encouraged me.
“Are you ready to go home, Catherine?” he asked. “It’s warm inside the house. I kept a fire going for you.”
I continued looking at him, unsure how to respond. “Thanks,” I managed to say and then glanced in the direction of his house—our house.
“Well, you are my wife. And I know you don’t like the cold.”
I’m his wife, I thought to myself. He had said the words as if that simple fact made it necessary to be both thoughtful and kind. As if having gained a wife or husband meant having also gained her or his concerns, and hence the need to consider the person’s needs, wants, and preferences as strongly as one’s own. It struck me as a perfect description of what marriage ought to be. An agreeable notion that had not entered into my petty way of viewing matrimony. I would have assumed it to be above Thaddeus’ egotistical mindset as well.
“Catherine?” he said again, watching me regard him with a quizzical expression. “Are you ready to go home?”
I nodded, which made him smile.
There was little said on our walk home. I followed Thaddeus along a torch lit path. He looked back at me numerous times, perhaps wondering what weighed so heavily on my mind. Why was I unwilling to accept the peace my emotions seemed determined to inflict upon me? Why was I fighting the idea of solidarity? Did I want to be alone? No. No, I didn’t.
Years of strengthening my independence, perhaps believing on some level that my fate was to be forever solitary, had made me a strong and capable woman. I feared change. But did marriage demand a drastic change in my nature? No. Why should it? Strength of character wasn’t a flaw or an enemy to marital happiness. Yet I feared becoming a different person—a vulnerable, reliant, weaker person. Dompier had insisted change had already occurred in me to some degree. I did in fact feel susceptible emotionally around Thaddeus and yet without a total loss of myself. Is this what love did to people? Disarmed them with lures of peace and happiness? But if peace and happiness and companionship were indeed to be the outcome, why fight it?
I swallowed back my unsettling emotions and looked up to meet the eyes of my husband. He stood aside, holding the door open, waiting for me to enter his…no…our house. I could feel heat escaping from the room. In order to prevent undoing Thaddeus’ efforts to warm up the place, I hurried inside where my feet paused just past the threshold. The one-room space was dimly aglow, illuminated by a handful of thick candles arranged on the table top and at the foot of a large bath basin. Steam rose from the tub, suggesting a hot bath had been prepared. The house smelled less of musk and more of bread and simmering stew and a hint of lilac. The table was set for two, no fancy dishes, but a protective tablecloth had been spread beneath the tableware.
“You….you made dinner?” The question came out in an incredulous manner. Thaddeus took no offense.
“And I had water heated for a bath. I thought you might like to clean up after hiking through the forest all afternoon.”
“That’s…..very thoughtful,” I said because it was true.
Thaddeus gestured towards both the steaming stew on the table and the steaming bathtub. “You can start wherever you’d like.”
My eyes flickered back and forth and back again. Perhaps he thought I was incapable of making a decision, because he pulled out a chair and asked me, “Are you hungry?” I nodded that I was. I had eaten nothing since lunch, having been too involved in the hunt to remember the apple stored in my pack. Thaddeus began to help me out of the borrowed leather jacket and hat. I unbuckled the belt about my waist, releasing the silver sword in its sheath at my side. All of the items were placed on a wicker basket near the door.
I stood there feeling awkward in his shirt, which covered me like a tent without the belt keeping it snug against my waist. My appearance must have sparked something in his memory.
“Oh, I put your clothing in the bottom drawer over there.” He pointed across the room where the bed rested in a corner with a chest of drawers beside it. “I gathered up some things from your grandmother’s.” He then pointed to the opposite end of the room. “And there is plenty of food in the cupboards now; you shouldn’t have to go out in search of something to eat. Not that you can’t go out, of course, because you can go out if you want to. Within the village, I mean. Not outside the gates—not without an escort. It’s the law, you know.”
I wanted to laugh at the nervous way Thaddeus fumbled with his words. Once again, I experienced the strongest endearing sentiments toward him. Dompier’s words echoed in my head: “It’s okay to love someone. It’s okay to be happy.”
Right at that moment I was keenly aware of how happy I felt.
My day had been a pleasant one spent hunting—a favorite pastime. I had come home to a warm dinner, a warm bath, a warm room—attentive gestures presented to me by this man to whom I was married. He apparently longed for the same consideration and companionship in marriage as I did.
It was okay for me to have this. It was okay for me…for us…to be happy.
A sense of true contentment swelled in my chest, and I allowed myself to succumb to it. Being a wife would change me. It would. But if it meant gaining this sweet happiness, it seemed a desirable change.
My husband placed his hands on the back of the chair which he had pulled out from the table. He stood still, patiently waiting for me. I took the seat and thanked him for all the preparing and stocking of shelves while I had been away. He seemed greatly pleased by my spoken appreciation, which made me feel strangely satisfied, and so we smiled at one another.
From that point on, it was as if the contrary chapters from our past—the entirety of our previous existence—simply evaporated, mingling inseparably with the steam warming our one-room house.
For weeks I lived the newlywed dream. Having abandoned myself to this marital charge, I experienced joy unlike anything I could recall. Life seemed intent on making up for the many years of hardship and loneliness I had endured. Thaddeus was good to me, and I reciprocated by being affectionately grateful. I continued to hunt with Dompier and the other huntsmen but assumed daily household chores as well. It wasn’t much different than the arrangement I had kept at my grandmother’s house.
One of my first undertakings was to introduce a more pleasant scent in our house than the musk and sweat odor which had initially greeted my nose. Thaddeus didn’t seem to mind the herb and wildflower bouquets brought in; he never once complained about the fragrance. He too seemed changed for the better by our marriage. Even Dompier voiced his observations, pointing out how our village leader put more physical effort into carrying out his duties, actually lending a helping hand rather than piling tasks onto the shoulders of others. And he was taking the personal concerns of villagers more to heart. The weary and indifferent demeanor Thaddeus had worn for ages had shifted gears. He was now busily involved, showing energy and purpose. Only one person behaved as if she were vexed by our newfound happiness. This surprising fact bothered me deeply.
I spent a part of every week visiting my grandmother, concerned about her adjusting to my absence. But in each and every visit, she either remained quiet as a mouse or confronted me with incessant complaints. Thaddeus volunteered to accompany me to her house on one particular day where we received a less than cheerful reception—not unusual. It seemed no matter how hard we tried, there was no lifting Grandmother’s spirits. She grumbled throughout the entire visit, informing me that I had neglected her by not coming over the previous day. She moaned about the coldness of the night due to no fire in her hearth. She murmured that her meals had been cold and dry. After doing my best to tidy up the place while Thaddeus lit a fire, I promised to return with a bowl of hot stew and toast. I felt awful when my husband insisted it was time we leave.
Guilt ate at my heart as we walked away from the mud-patched hut where my grandmother had appeared more shriveled up than ever. I was about to announce my intention to devote more time to her care when my husband exhaled a loud and irritated grumble.
“Of all the nerve.”
“She’s lonely,” I said, believing the old woman had failed to anticipate the solitude of a quiet house.
“Thaddeus.” I pronounced his name in a mildly scolding manner.
“You are not going back there,” he announced decisively. “She’s purposefully trying to make you miserable. She can’t stand that I….I mean that we are finally happy.”
“Thaddeus!” I said, more shocked than scolding this time. “She is the woman responsible for putting us together. You should be thanking her for our happiness.”
“Thanking her?” he repeated with a sound of scoffing. “Fine. I will thank her by seeing to her selfish needs while you stay home and see to mine.”
“Thaddeus, she’s my grandmother. I should be the one…”
“No,” he spoke over my objection. “She will only gripe and complain and make you feel guilty. I will not have it.”
For a brief moment, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and I burned to announce that if I desired to visit my grandmother, I would do just that. No amount of barking “I will not have it” was going to stop me. But the spark of defensiveness diffused as quickly as it had roused my ire.
“I’m not going to avoid my grandmother,” I said. It was a kinder compromise to what I had been thinking, amounting to nearly the same thing.
Thaddeus stopped walking so he could see into my eyes. I wondered why the sadness in his stare. Then he forced a somewhat pitiable smile.
“I will let you know when it’s a good time to visit her again,” he said. “I think she just needs to readjust, and it will be easier if you’re not there. I swear I will take good care of her; do not worry.”
“Alright,” I ceded. And so, for more than a week I stayed away from my grandmother’s place. I asked about her every day and was informed she was well but still nursing a sour disposition—a fact that grieved me.
One late morning, I made up my mind to go see for myself. Thaddeus had already headed out to her place with a covered bowl of porridge and some fresh milk. He said he would offer his help before heading to the town hall. I was prepared to contend with him if we happened to pass one another in the street. I would let him know that my grandmother’s mood couldn’t be expected to improve if she believed I no longer cared enough to stop by on occasion.
When I reached her door, a murmur of conversation carried from inside. I paused, assuming it was my husband speaking, so my ears strained to listen. If it was him, that would determine to some extent how I made my entrance.
“Why is it not enough?” a man asked with the same complaining drop in his voice Thaddeus occasionally used. “If fourteen years of retribution hasn’t satisfied your need for justice, then perhaps there is none to be found! You’re wasting your life and mine. Nothing is going to change the past.”
“I will not see her rewarded.” It was the low grumbling of my grandmother to which Thaddeus contended loudly.
“It is my reward! My happiness! Can’t you accept that I’m the one who is happy?”
“She does not deserve to share in it, nor does she deserve you.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Did my grandmother think I didn’t deserve to be happy? I put my ear to the door, thinking the conversation might make more sense amplified.
“I don’t care what you think she deserves. The fact is, I deserve her. It’s the least you can give me for going along with this pointless charade for so long.”
“How dare you…”
“I have done all you asked, including marrying against my wishes. And now that I see some joy can be had in the arrangement, you want to take it away! No! No, you will not. I want this.”
“I can’t stomach it.”
“Too bad. You should have thought about that before you pushed us together. You will not undo this.”
“It is pretend, Thaddeus, all of it is imagined. You would waste your years on something that will never be real?”
“Why not? You have. Besides, imagined happiness is still happiness. I am content.”
“You disappoint me.”
“Well…..then nothing’s really changed.”
“Don’t interfere in my life. And don’t expect us to come around until you accept the arrangement you encouraged.”
“Bah, get out! Get out!”
The expression on Thaddeus’ face was as shocked as my own when he stepped outside and saw me standing at the door. He looked as white as the snow moon on our wedding night. I didn’t doubt my countenance appeared equally as pallid.
“C…Catherine?” I watched a dozen concerns dab sweat on his brow as he stared at me. “W…what are you doing here?” he finally asked.
I needed to know if what I had overheard was true. “She doesn’t want me to be happy?”
Thaddeus tried to swivel me about, meaning to walk me away from the house, but I refused to budge.
“Did I hear her correctly? I don’t deserve to be happy?” I asked again.
I waited for an answer, mouth open, lips slightly trembling. Thaddeus was thinking hard behind dark, worried eyes. Either he didn’t know what to say or he hadn’t the courage to say it.
“She hates me,” I breathed, assuming so by his hesitation.
“Catherine, wait…..you misunderstand.”
I looked up at my husband, pleading for an explanation that would negate the words I had clearly heard spoken by my grandmother. I wanted to be accused of taking remarks out of context.
“She’s just upset,” he finally sighed. “Living alone has proven to be harder than she anticipated. She’s upset that you’re gone, and grasping at any insane notion to get you back.”
“She said I shouldn’t be rewarded with happiness,” I mumbled again, hurt by the words. Hurt by the fact that my own grandmother had said them.
“Because she’s not happy herself; therefore, we shouldn’t be happy either. It’s selfish and warped, I know. But she’s old and….and her reasoning has clearly been affected by age.”
“It never was before,” I argued. “Grandmother has always possessed a perfectly sound mind.”
“But our marriage has altered her life in a drastic way, and in turn it has had a drastic effect on her emotional and mental state.”
“She called it pretend,” I recalled, “and you…..you agreed with her. You said imagined happiness was still happiness. What does that mean?”
“It means I am very happy.”
“Or pretending to be,” I worried.
“No, Catherine, I am genuinely happy with my life. With you. This is true for the first time in ages.”
“Then our marriage is pretend? Is that what she meant? Did we not legally wed?”
“We did,” Thaddeus assured me. “You were there; you heard the priest declare us man and wife.”
“Then why did she use the word ‘pretend’?”
“Because the woman is old and bitter and selfish and she would say anything to ruin what we have.”
He watched my eyes grow wide as if I were insulted for my grandmother.
“I’m sorry, Catherine, but it’s true. The old woman has turned cruel. She was lashing out and making ridiculous claims because she wants to find a way to undo what’s been done. She wants you to leave me and move back in with her, but that’s not going to happen. We are happy, Catherine. We deserve this—both of us. And that embittered spinster is just going to have to find some way to accept it or wither away in solitary misery.”
I didn’t know what to say. My heart was bruised and yet it was being tugged in two directions—feeling deep hurt and deep sympathy at the same time. Thaddeus took me by the hand while his palm fell warm against my cheek. He looked at me sorrowfully.
“I wish you hadn’t come here. It’s best if you stay away.”
I glanced at the wooden door on my grandmother’s little hut. “I don’t want her to think I’ve abandoned her.”
“You didn’t, Catherine. She abandoned us.”
I shook my head, unwilling to believe it. “Maybe if I go talk to her…”
Thaddeus pursed his lips and wagged his head. “No. She has hurt you enough.”
“She didn’t know I was out here listening.”
“That woman is in a cruel state of mind and will repeat the same crazy, hurtful things to your face. I’m sorry, Catherine.”
My heart wilted like a lily touched by the frost. Thaddeus caressed my shoulders. “I will assign a nursemaid to see to your grandmother’s needs. She will want for nothing except our company. And I’m sure she will earn that back in time.”
I didn’t resist when he tugged on my arm, urging me away from the wooden hut I had called home for years. Sadness and confusion were my companions all afternoon, along with Thaddeus who insisted I accompany him to the town hall. I understood he was concerned that I might sneak off and try to make amends with my grandmother. Maybe I would have. It was a trial not to.
While Thaddeus grew more deeply involved in a heated property dispute, I took advantage of the opportunity to retreat to a quiet, isolated spot, allowing me a chance to think. I was still technically at city hall, only on the rooftop nestled against a warm, crumbling chimney. It was a place of solace I often visited when wrestling with my emotions. The disturbing conversation I had overheard wouldn’t cease replaying in my head, especially certain confusing remarks. I was fretting over my grandmother’s condition because, despite her hurtful words, I cared for her. It was hard to understand her unkindness.
I was deep in this turmoil of thought when it struck me that I was no longer alone on the roof. I sensed another presence, or more accurately inhaled the most intoxicating floral and spice perfume that caused my eyes to dart up and off to my side. I was on my feet in a flash, approached by the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
Her countenance was arrayed in black, from the long, straight, shimmering hair that flowed over her shoulders; to the exotic, hip-hugging gown that appeared to be garnished with crow-feather lace; to the claw-like, painted nails extending from every finger. Her skin glowed as pale as cream and as blemish free, while her eyes seemed to fade from prominently chocolate to nearly golden and then back again. I watched her dark lips thin out, forming an impish smile. The one item of color she wore dangled from her neck—a sizeable red jewel that reflected sunlight from dozens of cut angles.
“Who are you?” I asked uneasily. The glint in her eyes as she sized me up was disturbing. My fingers molded to the hilt of my silver sword, feeling it vanish beneath my touch. I was both shocked and afraid when I saw the sword appear in this woman’s hands. She turned it over, examining the blade with interest. When she looked up at me, the weapon was back at my side. My hand pressed the sword to my thigh as if that would prevent it from disappearing again.
“Who are you?” I repeated.
The enchantress sauntered up to me with a shameless sway in her hips. I stood my ground, assuming I would be hard pressed to flee even if I wanted to. The gold in her chocolate eyes gleamed as she squinted, staring hard at me.
“So you’re the one,” she said, seeming neither impressed nor disappointed.
“I’m the one?” I expected an explanation. She apparently did not feel obligated to provide any.
Her sharp nails reached to comb through my hair, but I avoided her touch. She smirked with amusement, dimpling her creamy skin.
“Do I know you?” I asked, hoping a different approach might prompt a reply.
“No.” It was something at least. She came back at me with a riddle. “The better question is, do you know you?” She smiled, showing a row of perfect teeth.
As I dodged another attempt to touch the hair on my head, her smile faded and I was once again under her scrutiny. I felt as if my worth were being assessed, as if she meant to stamp a price on my forehead. During this time, I judged her as well, gauging three things with some amount of confidence. First, she was some sort of sorceress. Second, she knew things about me; this put me at a disadvantage. Third, there was a reason for her appearing before me whilst I was alone. I decided to attack this third truth.
“Why have you come here? What do you want?”
These were questions she apparently deemed worthy of answers. Either that or she had finished evaluating me by appearances.
“I’m here to see you. What I want is to know what you want.”
“What I want?”
“Why yes. I am here to grant your wish!”
The sorceress twirled her hand in the air, flittering her fingers like the wings of a dove. A red rose appeared out of nowhere, which she took with her thumb and forefinger. In an elegant move, she brought the rose beneath my nose. I smelled a fragrance that suggested the flower was indeed real, but the rose turned to glittery stardust and slowly rained onto the rooftop where all evidence of it vanished.
I furrowed my brow and looked worriedly at the lady magician. “Who are you?”
Her head inclined and for a brief moment she glanced skyward as if thinking over the question. “Why, I’m your fairy godmother!” she decided, stretching out her arms in a showy pose. I doubted there was any truth to the lie.
“You’re not a fairy,” I pointed out, gesturing to her tallness and lack of wings.
“Nor am I your godmother!” The woman grinned as if thrilled to play along with my game of observation. “But I am capable of granting your wish, and that is the most vital requirement to being a fairy godmother, is it not?”
“I…I don’t know,” I said, both confused and curious.
“I see. Well, if you will not accept me as a fairy godmother, then what will you accept me as?”
“What do you mean?”
“What would you call me?”
“Oh…um…” My eyebrows knit together as I considered the question. It was a ridiculous question. How could I be expected to pin a name on a complete stranger?
“I don’t know,” I breathed.
She frowned her disappointment, and I felt a sense of disgrace wash over me.
“I should have known better than to expect an ounce of creativity from you,” she grumbled lowly. “After all, you’re still here.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
She curled her upper lip in a snide way that told me I would be denied any clarification. All at once the woman stood up tall and straight. The red jewel worn about her neck began to darken inwardly as her behavior turned severe.
“Hold perfectly still.”
“So you don’t die.”
I froze, more afraid of the warning than of what this enchantress planned to do. She peered into my eyes and I felt as if she were seeing past them into a secret place that required a magic key to enter. Her expression grew intense, signifying an exertion of great mental concentration. She then reached for my head where her hands landed, encircled like a crown.
At her touch, I felt an actual sensation of weight lift from my mind, weight I had not perceived as hindering my mental faculties before this point. Images began to swirl behind my eyes as if a million lightening bugs had been released inside my brain, each carrying a scene that somehow related to me. It was a jumble of senseless memories competing for recognition. I was certain some belonged to me. Others seemed detached, like shared memories from an alter ego. As moments passed, the mental chaos settled, and I could envision clearly everything in its proper place.
I was me again. The real me. Duvalla, Queen of Werefolk.
Reality was suddenly potent.
“You lifted the curse,” I breathed with astonishment. My heart was racing, incredulous and immeasurably grateful. I went to place a hand on my liberator’s arm when a painful shock forced my fingers back.
“I warned you to be still,” she hissed. “Never touch me.”
Her censure did nothing to dampen the joy I felt at being free from a witch’s curse that had blinded my mind for a great many wasted years. I felt alive again! Empowered!
I wanted the hands on my head to fall away, but I dared not move. “Is it almost done?” I asked, feeling a pang of guilt for my impatience. The woman remained silent and focused.
I closed my eyes, unnerved by how she stared into my eyes, seeing something more than their brown color. A long moment passed before I heard her utter an answer to my question.
“No.” The word was entangled in frustration and disappointment. Her fingers remained formed as a crown on my head.
“What do you mean, no? I can feel the curse gone. I remember everything about my true identity. I can transform again—look!”
Despite legitimate concern that it might be a bad idea to show this magical being I was in fact a werewolf, I held my hands between us where they could be seen warping into a pair of black, hairy paws. Neither paw was silver—another sign that the curse was surely gone. Fur sprouted along my forearms but stopped short of my elbows. When a heartbreaking confession hit my ears, my hands returned to human form.
“I cannot permanently erase this curse. All I can do is put myself between you and it while my powers flow through your mind. Once I lift my hands, you will return to the ignorant creature you were.”
Sorrow and anger mingled in my heart. “Why torment me this way? Who sent you to do this?”
“I came to learn about your curse. You know who sent me. I am not done here, werewolf; I will return.”
She had pricked my heart, made it bleed with hope that Kresh was alive. But before I could ask about him, the crown made from her fingers was lifted off my head. That one move brought back the heavy, mental chains that kept me imprisoned in the darkness of my own mind. I blinked my eyelids and looked around, uncertain as to what had happened.
“What did you do?” I asked in a trembling voice. The lapse of time in my memory was frightening.
“I have done nothing.”
“Why did you put your hands on my head?”
“To learn things about you.” This caused me concern, and I wondered if by touch she was able to read minds.
“What have you learned?” I held my breath, anxious for a reply.
“That you are a strong woman.”
Her words made me exhale my relief.
“I must go now.”
I nodded, not at all disappointed to see her leave.
“But first, I would like to know if you’ve decided upon a wish?”
“Yes. That is what fairy godmother’s do; we grant wishes. Tell me, what is your wish?”
I crinkled my nose, wondering if this woman was toying with me.
“Your wish,” she insisted.
“I don’t have one,” I decided, “but thank you for the offer.”
“So you are content with your life as it is?”
“There’s nothing you would change?”
I thought of my grandmother for a brief second. “No.”
“You’re certain you are happy with things as they are?”
I nodded. “Yes, I am.”
The sorceress—my fairy godmother—made a humming sound in her throat. She contemplated me through scrunched eyes that twinkled with gold. Her lips pulled mischievously askew.
“Then I suppose I shouldn’t tell you that your world is about to change.”
I swallowed hard before asking, knowing she was waiting for me to inquire, “What do you mean? What is going to change?”
Her hand moved in an unthreatening and graceful manner, falling flat against my abdomen. I felt her powers warm me internally. The tiniest movement, like a butterfly, tickled my stomach.
“A baby changes everything.”
I felt numb before a swell of joy washed over me. “A baby? Are you sure?”
“Oh yes. He’s a lively, healthy one.”
“He? A boy?” I placed a hand on my stomach when my self-appointed fairy godmother removed hers. Tears formed in my cheeks as I thought of my late son Nehemiah who had been buried only months ago. This was his brother. Then my thoughts turned to my first child, Natasha, who had been ravaged by werewolves like Nehemiah. I feared losing another baby to those beasts. All at once I had a desperate wish.
She smiled broad; I could see she was pleased I had accepted her title. “Yes?”
“I changed my mind. I do have a wish.”
“Ahhh, tell me.”
“I wish for this baby to be kept safe from werewolves. I don’t want his fate to be the same as that of his older siblings.”
“Are you certain about this?”
I nodded desperately. “Yes, I’m certain. Please, if you can do anything to protect him…”
She took my arm and held my wrist upwards. With a claw-like fingernail, she scratched an X into my skin. The wound bled before glowing in concert with the scarlet jewel worn around her neck. Then the gashes healed as if they had never been.
“It is done.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
The sorceress turned and walked a few steps from me before twisting her torso to look back. A grin as impish as the one she had worn upon arriving continued to thin her dark lips.
“I must go, but I will return.”
“What if I need you before then? What if the werewolves come around?”
Her black eyebrows arched at the question and she extended a simple answer. “Say my name and I will appear.”
“What is your name?”
Her beautiful form vanished as she whispered the magic word. “Vallatrece.”
Copyright 2016 Richelle E. Goodrich
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