Author: paper0wl PM
A Karsite Sunpriestess meets a Herald under highly unusual circumstances. But there is more to this woman than just her Black Robes.Rated: Fiction T - English - Chapters: 11 - Words: 46,578 - Reviews: 36 - Favs: 18 - Follows: 31 - Updated: 02-12-13 - Published: 02-21-12 - id: 7858948
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
When Lillian entered the room, closing the door behind her, the first thing he saw was the blank expression on her face. It was not a blank, impassive look, more like something had happened that she couldn't comprehend – or didn't want to. There was a stunned quality to her eyes that made him realize that whatever was wrong – and something most definitely was – she hadn't fully processed it yet. She stared at him, not really seeing him, too caught up in this latest event causing her so much trouble coping.
She met his worried gaze, and suddenly her whole appearance transformed. Her shoulders slumped forward and her body shook with suppressed emotion. The stunned look was replaced by something far more gut-wrenching: despair. Grim, bleak, hopeless despair. The expression seemed to clash with everything he knew about Lillian. She was always so vibrant, so full of life. She believed wholeheartedly in her God, despite everything taking place in Karse; she believed He was granting His children free will, letting them make their own mistakes, in the hope that they would learn and grow. Malachi had seen her weary and tired, but never had he seen any hint of this devastating despair. It was so out of place on Lillian, especially considering how happy she had been, just this morning.
"Lee," he said, volumes of concern and caring in his voice. "What's wrong?"
His question brought her attention back to the here and now. He watched as she tried to pull herself together, but the despair would not release her. "Nothing, nothing," she lied, no longer meeting his eyes. "I just . . ." Her voice trailed off as her eyes unfocused again. She shook her head. "It's nothing. I think I just need to bathe. I don't feel very clean right now."
He knew her words were hiding a world of pain and uncertainty, but he didn't know how to break through and help her. He wasn't even sure if she would let him. This morning seemed so impossibly long ago. "If you're sure." He left his sentence hanging, making it into a question, an attempt to reach out to her without being demanding. She didn't take his opening. She gave him a quick nod, so brief it was almost rude, and fled into her bathing chamber.
He saw the beginnings of tears in the priestess's eyes as she passed him, but he did nothing. He just watched her close the door, standing there awkwardly, not wanting to intrude, but wanting to help. Or at least try to. He turned away, about to head back to his room, when he heard the sound of running water. He walked over to the wall separating him from Lillian, and rested his forehead against its surface. He raised his hand and laid it flat against the wall, fingers outstretched.
He sighed and pushed away from the wall. He wished he knew what he could do to help her. Perhaps she just needed time to sort through her problems alone. The bath was just an excuse to give herself time. The fact that the water was not going into the bathtub and instead was coming from the strange spigot contrivance was an attempt to get herself some privacy; the constantly falling water would disguise any sounds she made. He wished he knew how to reach out to her. Darvin hovered awkwardly in the back of his mind, but the Companion had no answers for him. Malachi sat down on a chair and slumped. He felt like a failure.
He didn't know how long he had been sitting there when his bleak thoughts were interrupted by the sound of muffled thuds emanating from the bathing room.
It sounded as if Lillian was pounding her fists against the walls in frustration.
He wished he could do the same. The thuds faded, soon replaced by other muffled sounds. Malachi realized she was crying. The powerful Sunpriestess was sobbing out her despair to a background of falling water. Even through the concealing distortion of the water he could hear her misery. He hesitated for a fraction of a second as his mind and heart warred. His heart won.
Malachi stood up and went over to the door. Again he hesitated, and again his heart decided for him. He knocked gently on the door. No response. He realized she probably couldn't hear the gentle knocking. Fearful she might rebuff his help if he knocked more forcefully, he eased the door open a crack. Her pained sobs became clearer. That sound distressed him, but also decided him. He slipped cautiously into the room.
The first thing he noticed was the light – or rather the lack thereof. None of her globes of light were emitting more than the faintest glimmer. She must not have wanted the room's usual brightness to bother her. He ached with sympathy for her, wishing he could offer more than a shoulder to cry on. The sounds of water and heart-rending pain were coming from the curtained off corner of the room. He headed in that direction. "Lee?" he called softly. His only answer was the falling of water and the despair of a woman he considered a friend. "Lee?" he called again, this time slightly louder.
Now he heard splashes as she moved. "Go away! Leave me alone," she shouted – or tried to. It might have been intended as a shout, but her voice broke and the anguish spilled into her words. It came out as a strangled cry.
Everything he knew, everything he had been taught, everything he had learned in his twenty five years told him to leave. It was these same things that had urged him not to enter, told him to give her space to deal with her own problems. Everything he had learned in his time with the priestess, however, screamed that something was wrong, really, really wrong, and she needed his help. Instinct told him to listen to his heart, but knowledge and experience said such instinct could lead him astray. Everything that had happened recently had showed him that Lillian rarely respected his expectations; she ran counter to everything he had ever imagined.
With all that in mind he stepped forward and pushed back the curtain. Through the dim light and the water he met her eyes. She narrowed her eyes and shoved him back. Tried to – he caught her wrists and stepped barefoot over the raised edge onto the wet tiles. She angrily tried to free her arms, but he held fast as she fought.
The anger that sustained her soon drained out of her and the tears returned to her eyes.
Now he released her, but instead of pulling away, Lillian stepped forward and reached for him. Malachi wrapped his arms around her wet form and held her close as she buried her face in his shirt and wept. He suspected his grip was the only thing keeping her on her feet, so he lowered himself to sit down on the wet tiled floor. He pulled her down with him, and she curled up next to him, still crying her heart out. Then he did the only thing left for him to do, he held her, wordlessly giving her comfort and support as she wept in anguish.
The water was still coming down from the spigot, but he ignored it. He held her as she depleted the seemingly endless reservoir of tears. This was an intimacy different from the kind they had shared last night. This was Lillian, the formidable Black Robe Sunpriestess, utterly helpless and absolutely vulnerable. This was her soul, lay bare for him to see.
How long they sat there, he could not say. Long enough for his clothing to become completely soaked through. Long enough for the hot water to run out and leave them in a cold rain. Long enough for the cold and the damp to make him uncomfortable and her shiver.
Long enough for her tears to run dry.
When that finally happened he shook her gently. "Hey, Lee. I don't think either one of us really wants to get up, but sitting here, wet and cold, is only going to make us both sick."
She looked up at him with red, swollen eyes and blinked. "Oh, I got you all wet, Kai. I'm sorry."
He smiled gently. "I think I got myself all wet. If I recall correctly, you tried to get me to leave. I was the stubborn one who didn't listen and walked into the water with my clothes on."
Lillian bit her lip. "I'm sorry." Then she added hesitantly, "For what it's worth, I'm – I'm glad you didn't listen to me. I was the one being stubborn; you were just trying to help. Thank you." The pain was still there in her eyes, but it was no longer an all-encompassing despair.
"You are forgiven, my dear, and most welcome," he replied lightly. "Now, about the cold water."
A slight smile played at the corners of her mouth. "I can't do anything about the wet, but I change the temperature," she offered.
She nodded. "It is a simple matter. I heat water all the time." As she spoke, he could feel the water falling out of the spigot get warmer.
"I must say, that is a neat trick. How do you do that?"
"It is just an application of fire – " she broke off. She didn't glance guiltily at him, so she hadn't broken off to avoid upsetting him. Perhaps it had to do with whatever had sent her into such despair.
"Want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?" she asked guiltily.
"Whatever it was that turned you into a human rainstorm."
"No." He looked at her, and she flushed. "I – yes, actually. Which you already knew, of course."
He smiled at her. "Just making sure you knew it too."
"It – they – " she faltered. Lillian breathed deeply and tried again. "There's going to be another Cleansing," she blurted, rising panic making the words come too fast.
Malachi stiffened. A Cleansing. He remembered the last Cleansing too well. He forced his muscles to relax before responding. "You've dealt with Cleansings before," he reminded the Sunpriestess beside him, willing away the haunting memory of the flames.
"Yes, but – this time it is my niece."
Shock made him stiffen again. After all this time, he still didn't know much about her family. That first day she had told him that she had given up her familial ties when she entered the priesthood. She hadn't really mentioned them much after that. He knew it was more than that, however. He knew that she hadn't been allowed to see her family since she had been brought to the Cloisters as a child. Still, she had authority now, and had for several years now, almost as long as he had his Whites. It made sense that she would want to keep tabs on her family, to make sure they were all right. If she was willing to break Sunpriest doctrine and rescue children from the flames, he doubted she had any qualms about bending the rules to check up on her family.
"Dear gods," he whispered. "How – what – when?" he managed, to stunned to know which question to ask first – or coherently.
"Anna is ten," Lillian replied softly. "The ceremony is scheduled to occur in two days time. Which means you'll be leaving in a few days."
"What? Leaving? Why?" Now he was really confused. What did a new Cleansing have to do with him leaving? He wasn't quite fully healed yet, but it was just his ribs and fingers left, the broken bones that only time would finish healing. They didn't trouble him, but that was because Lee's magic was acting as a cast, holding the healing bones immobile. They were probably almost healed by now, but he hadn't been ready to leave. Lee still represented an intriguing paradox and, more importantly, she was his friend. And, after last night, he had hoped she might become more.
Lillian looked up at him, pleading in her eyes. "I want you to take her back to Valdemar." He gaped at her. "Please," she begged. "I know you would look out for her. I – I need to know she's safe. I can't protect her. I can't protect my family. I can only get her out of Karse. But you – you could protect her, keep her safe. Please?" she begged again through her tears.
She looked so helpless, so desperate – and so beautiful. He didn't have the heart to refuse such a request. Lillian had saved his life, how could he not in turn protect her family? Especially a child, one for whom the Sunpriests had bestowed a sentence of death. He could feel Darvin's complete agreement. "Of course I'll do my best to take of her," he told her and he could feel some of the tension drain from her slim form. "Just make sure to explain to her that we white-clad northerners aren't demons, okay?" he joked to conceal his unhappiness.
He didn't want to leave – to leave her. When he left, she would be all alone, all alone among the monsters who had no difficulty condemning innocent children to horrible deaths. She had survived for this long quite well, it was true, but the time had left its scars.
She was just an expert at hiding them.
His heart bled for her. He could barely imagine what she had been through, but he knew most of it would have broken a lesser person. Malachi wanted so much to protect Lillian. It was ironic really – a Herald wanting to protect a Black Robe Sunpriest – but that was how it was. And he knew that as much as he wanted to protect her, there was nothing he could do. It was an inescapable fact that as long as she stayed in Karse, she would continue doing exactly what she had been doing – saving the innocents who would die without her – regardless of the danger posed to her.
And she would not leave. As he would have to.
He could not stay. Even if Darvin would let him remain, even if he could avoid the danger of the close proximity to so many Sunpriests, he could not stay in Karse. He would not stay.
Duty called him. He served Valdemar. He could not do that from here. He could justify his stay so far – broken ribs needed time to heal. But he could not justify it for much longer. As much as he didn't want to admit it yet, he was nearly healed. And therefore he could not lag here anymore. At least this way was better than just leaving. Now he had to leave – he had a solid reason. He could feel less as if he were abandoning Lillian to face the horrors of Karse alone.
He could – if only he could convince himself of that. His head might understand the need to leave, but his heart still raged at him, still berated him for even considering leaving this woman alone in the harshness of this country. She was strong, yes, but what she was forced to deal with was like acid wearing away at her defenses.
Eventually it might break her.
Eventually she could slip, and that would be fatal in her position.
"You never told me anything about your family," he said to distract himself.
"Probably because I never really got a chance to know them." He could hear the pain in her voice. "I was only six when I left. I – I – I don't – really – remember them much. Just – fragments – that I managed to hold onto. Most of what I actually know I – I learned from merchants and traders." Her voice cracked. She was trembling again, curled up tight against him.
"Tell me about them," he coaxed gently when it became apparent she wasn't going to continue.
"I was the youngest – of seven children. My mother suffered three miscarriages after me. She was pregnant when I was taken. She died in childbirth. I – I always felt that she couldn't bear the thought of having another child taken by the priests. My father was caught in a flood four years back. He was with my youngest brother, Kelvin, at the time. Neither survived. Two of my sisters fell to fever before they could marry. Garrick, Adeline, and Jasper are still in Clifton. They each married and have thirteen kids between them."
"Which one . . . ?" he asked.
"Anna is the third child of my eldest brother, Garrick. She's been here a year and a half now." She swallowed. "Once I realized she was my niece, I've been an eye on her. I can't make it obvious, of course, but I tried to look out for her. Fat lot of good I was at that." She was shaking horribly now, trying and failing to stifle her sobs.
He put his arms around her tightly, trying to hold her together, trying to keep her from falling apart. "You did everything you could. You're doing everything you can. You're getting her out of here, out of Karse. She'll be safer in Valdemar. She won't have to live in fear of the Sunpriests, won't have to grow up and fear for her children. You're giving her that. You're giving them all that, all the ones you've saved, all the ones you will save." He kissed her forehead.
"It never seems like enough," she sobbed. "Never enough. I can't save them all."
"No one can," he whispered quietly. "We can't, and we work with the support of our people. All we can do is save the ones we can, and pray for those we can't."
As tears softly rolled down his cheeks the silence stretched, broken only by the sounds of her heart-wrenching sobs and the splashes made by the falling water. Malachi didn't quite know if he was crying for her or for all the ones that couldn't be saved. Perhaps it was for both.
His tears stopped long before hers, but he let the heartsore priestess cry herself out again.
"You will make yourself sick if you keep this up," he teased her gently. She gazed up at him forlornly with blotchy, bloodshot eyes through her wet, bedraggled hair. She looked so hopeless he almost started crying again.
"I don't know what's wrong with me," she whispered hoarsely, "I never cry."
"Maybe because you've never had a shoulder to cry on before," he replied lightly. Lightly because he knew the truth of his words – she had never shared enough of herself with anyone to leave her heart and soul this exposed. She couldn't, not with her furtive activities.
And was it arrogant of him to suspect some of her sorrow stemmed from her impending separation with the only real friend she ever had? She had never been this open to anyone before, and he doubted she ever would be again.
"I suppose you're right," she responded quietly. "I've never had the luxury to dwell on these things before. But being able to, having someone to cry to who will comfort you – it's cathartic. Thank you. For being here, for me. It means more to me than you could know." Her smile, though weak, was sincere, and the hopelessness was gone from her eyes.
"It's not like I had anywhere else to be," he joked. "I am still stuck here after all." Malachi made a show of looking at his surroundings. "I've been in worse prisons, around here especially."
"What? No, you're not a pri – " she began, horrified.
He put a finger on her lips to cut her off. "I know that. It was a joke. I was trying to cheer you up, but since that obviously didn't work, I'll just have to try something else."
He crooked his fingers, gave what he thought was an evil smile, and knew there was a sly gleam in his eyes.
Lillian became apprehensive.
She convulsed on the slick tiles as he tickled her mercilessly. She struggled to evade his wriggling fingers as he laughed with her. His sodden garments weighed him down and slowed his movements, but they also protected him from being tickled in turn. She was laughing too hard to escape. He had the upper hand in this battle.
Only when neither one of them could breathe did he relent, and they collapsed on the wet floor trying to catch their breath.
"All cured?" he asked breathlessly.
"Yes," she panted. "Absolutely."
They lay there in silence for a few minutes, listening to the calming sound of the falling water as their breathing became more even. Finally, Lillian broke the silence.
"I will miss you, Malachi. As I mentioned last night, I don't get many friends, and you are probably my truest friend. I'm glad I had the opportunity to get to know you."
"Same. I think even that unfortunate incident was worth the past moon, even if we did get off to a bad start." He chuckled.
"Well, that was simple enough to remedy. A few minutes chatting with me and you were more confused anything else." She smiled at the memory.
"A few jokes and a really complicated explanation later, I was still confused, but I understood you were a sneaky little thing, skulking about in your Black Robes rescuing people on the sly. Even poor, confused Heralds struggling to grasp why he had been saved by the evil Sunpriestess."
"Oh, yes. The evil Sunpriestess, torturing the poor, battered Herald she keeps trapped in her closet by confusing the hell out of him."
"So that's what you were doing? I always suspected you were being deliberately perplexing. That was your diabolical master plan all along. Keep me baffled and off-balance, so you could seduce the poor, virtuous Herald."
She giggled. He liked to hear her giggle – it sounded so cute.
"So you are confused, battered, virtuous, and very, very poor."
"Huh? Oh. Certainly seems that way, doesn't it?" He laughed.
She nodded as her eyes twinkled. Her expression turned serious and he waited for her to give voice to her thoughts.
"You will take care of Anna, won't you?" she eventually asked, with an edge of uncertainty in her tone.
"I promised, didn't I? And Darvin will help as well. We'll keep her safe, I promise."
"I knew you would, but – " She sighed. "I worry too much, don't I?"
"No." He shook his head. "In your position, you have a great deal to worry about. It is only right to worry about how best to protect your niece."
"But I don't have to worry about that anymore, do I? Because you'll take care of her." She paused for a moment. Her lips slowly stretched into a smile. "Besides, I have something far more important to worry about for now."
"And what's that?" he asked confused.
"How to make the most of our last few days of course." Enlightenment dawned as she leaned over to kiss him. "Starting with how to get you out of that wet clothing."