It was warm now. The air was warm; the sunlight was warm. Her skin was surrounded by warmth and softness. She licked her lips; her mouth was a little dry and her lips a little greasy. It was so blissfully warm. Her eyes were flooded with bright light as her eyelids slowly parted and it made her squint. Where am I? She shifted one foot slightly and it rested against soft, warm pebbles. She blinked a couple of times and tried to look around. Everything was out of focus and overly bright. She twisted a little and now felt pebbles rattle softly against her side. Am I in Heaven? She tried to remember what had happened, but her mind was too drowsy to tell her any coherent story.
"Am I dead?" she whispered hoarsely.
"Not at all. Though you were quite close."
Arielle slowly turned to the gentle voice until a human like figure swam in her vision. The voice sounded familiar, but her mind couldn't attach a face to it. She licked her lips again.
"I put a bit of grease on your lips. They were horribly blistered when you came."
The bard blinked a few times, hovering between 'thank you' and 'where am I and who are you?'. She remembered the pain of those blisters. She remembered the cold and exhaustion and agony that they carried. She remembered the inexplicable strain of pushing herself and pulling that horse to make it to Florence before...
"Eden!" Arielle cried out, jumping up so suddenly that it almost caught the old woman off guard.
"Hush, child. Lay back down now." the woman said, gently pushing Arielle back down against the large pillow.
"Where's Eden?" Arielle asked clumsily, her tongue sometimes sticking in her mouth, "Where is she? Is she-"
"Hush... Eden is alive. She's sleeping in the next room."
Arielle searched the woman's eyes for any hint of a lie, but found none and only then did she relax with a deep sigh. She listened to the older woman bustling about the room; the sound of her rattling skirt and apron seemed such a pleasant sound. It wasn't a hospital filled with cries of agony, it wasn't the wilderness filled with cries of terror.
"Drink some of this tea. You must be parched." she heard the woman say and slowly turned her head.
The woman propped Arielle up and held her as she took a few sips and sighed. When the cup was empty, she gently let Arielle back down.
"It's not too bright for you? I can close the curtains if you'd like."
The bard shook her head slowly and turned her head to the large window. A sharp winter sunlight lit up the day and she could see the city below, hugging the banks of the Arno with tall columns of smoke marking where people were living and working. It seemed small and far away and so meaningless from where Arielle lay now. What would any of this mean to me if I hadn't found help in time?...
"It's not snowing."
"Today's the first time the sun has come out in weeks. A good time to be awake." the woman said with a smile.
"How long have I been sleeping?" Arielle asked after a moment.
"Two days and like a rock. You didn't even wake when I undressed you."
"Mhm." the older woman nodded, "Not that I'm surprised. You both were on death's doorstep when you found me. There are some things that only sleep can heal."
The bard tried hard to remember those lost two days, but came up with only darkness. Her battered body relished the warm and comfortable safety she was in now, but a part of her realized the immense house of questions she had found herself in. The fact that she had no idea what state Eden was in only made that realization worse.
"What are these?" the bard asked, pulling out a small, cloth bag full of what felt like warm, little stones.
"Ah, my little secret." the woman said, weighing the bag in her hand, "Cherry stones warmed in the fire. I tried everything to keep you warm."
"I'd like to thank you for all you've done. You're very kind." Arielle said slowly, smoothing out the blanket with her hands, "As soon as we have enough strength, we'll be on our way."
"On your way? What a preposterous idea! I think you should stay."
"Why can't we leave?"
"Why would you want to?"
"Are we prisoners of some sort?" Arielle blurted out, fighting a slight trembling in her voice.
The older woman burst into hearty laughter and put her hands on her hips.
"Dear child, this is Eden's home! Why on earth would you feel the need to race out of here or that I'm some kind of captor?!"
"What?... This is Eden's... home?"
"She didn't tell you?" the woman asked in surprise, "Eden grew up here. This is her family home. Her home."
Arielle took a few moments to register the new meaning of her surroundings. Though she never asked, Arielle had somehow assumed that Eden's home didn't exist anymore; the warrior never mentioned it. But suddenly Arielle found herself in the De Santi family home with a woman who obviously knew Eden and was happy to have them there. Did you want to come here to die?
"Can I see Eden?"
"Well," the woman said slowly, "I can't say I praise the idea. Nevertheless I fear you'll go anyway as soon as my back is turned so might as well go now when I can at least be of a little use. I was once told that I make an excellent crutch."
"If I'm to lean on you then I could at least ask you your name."
"Good heavens, I haven't introduced myself?! Where is my mind going in my old years?" the woman exclaimed and took a breath, "I'm Elizabeth. I've lived and worked in this house since Eden was a baby."
"I'm Arielle. It's a pleasure, though I wish we could have met in nicer circumstances."
"Life is what it is." Elizabeth said softly and stretched out her arm, "Off to Eden we go then."
Despite the sun and white walls, the bard couldn't help but feel a gloom hanging in the room Eden was sleeping in. She felt it as she crossed the room, she felt it hovering over Eden's head. When she looked at the warrior's face, she wanted to say that it wasn't Eden at all; the warrior looked like a young woman whom life had never favored. Her skin was dry and pale, her hair unkempt, her lips cracked. Arielle feared that if she opened the window, the breeze would blow Eden away like brittle, ancient paper. Is that you, my dearest friend? Are you holding on? Are you holding on for me? She reached out to stroke her cheek and the touch of her skin brought her a little calm and she lingered. And then she quickly drew her hand back and turned to see Elizabeth observing her quietly.
"Is she well?" the bard asked hurriedly.
"As well as can be." the woman answered calmly, "She was hanging on by a thin thread when you got here. It's only been a couple of days, but she doesn't seem to be getting worse."
"Why does her breath rattle like that?" Arielle asked, wincing at the sound.
"She's battered more on the inside than we can see. I've done all I could, now it's her turn to fight." Elizabeth said, carefully watching tiny shadows pass over the bard's face, "But if she's held on for this long, I would say there's a fair chance. I know it's difficult, but let's take it day by day."
The next few days moved by very slowly for the bard. When she wasn't sitting by Eden's side, she took short walks around the house, sometimes alone and other times with Elizabeth. She would help Elizabeth with the cooking and cleaning and even told a few tales, but preferred to listen to Elizabeth's long stories about the history of the city, the house, herself. The older woman's voice was soft and comforting and the bard wondered for the first time what her voice sounded like to those who listened to her tales. She even asked if Elizabeth was a bard to which she heard 'somewhat'.
"Take this cloak." Elizabeth offered when the bard offered to accompany her into the city.
"I have my own, thank you."
"I know, but it's not made of Florentine cloth. This is the finest wool you will ever wear."
"I'm not interested in finery."
"Also the warmest." the old woman added with a small smile.
Arielle felt a light blush reach her cheeks as she turned her gaze to the ground.
"Thank you." she whispered.
The sun seemed to have driven everyone out of their homes in celebration. Every street and corner was alive with merchants and people of all sorts. Weavers selling fine Florentine linens dyed extravagant colors lined the banks of the Arno. The shores were littered with bales of wool and cotton, waiting to be washed in the river waters. Small piers creaked under the weight of goods being unloaded from a few flat-bottomed boats. Along the bridge, jewelry makers held out shiny trinkets and complemented passing ladies while woodworkers showed off fine pieces of furniture. Drapers hung expensive silks in their windows and merchants trading in candles, paper, and feathers invited passersby into their shops. Further on towards the center of the city, fishmongers, hunters, and farmers yelled out the prices of their latest spoils of nature while bundled women bustled around with baskets hung from their plump arms and young men ran up and down the street with fowl over their shoulders. Cooked food vendors stood in the billowing steam of their dishes, fanning savory smells towards undecided buyers. Behind them bakers baked the day's bread, butchers hacked away pieces of fresh meat with ugly cleavers. The street then opened into a plaza where money lenders sat at tables covered in green felt. Priests and monks walked by silently, isolated from the world within their dark, heavy hoods. On the corners, tailors mended clothes, hunched over inside their tiny shops and barbers cut hair and shaved beards near the light streaming through their large windows. In the center of he plaza stood the town crier shouting out the latest news- a hanging was scheduled and the Christians had fought off the infidel Turks in some obscure town in the Levant that the Florentines had never heard of. Dogs ran barking across the pavement stones and little children came running right after them, filling the crisp air with their joyful squealing.
They stopped at a stand that seemed to be about to break in half under the weight of a large pile of turnips and a few other vegetables that looked like they were there by mistake.
"Ah, just what I needed." Elizabeth said with a smile.
"Turnips?" Arielle asked.
The merchant's head shot up with surprise as if she had just told him she was bearing his child. He then turned to look at Elizabeth, shook his head, and packed the turnips into her basket.
"There isn't all that much to choose from here in the winter. But add a little pigeon and I'll make a delicious pie." Elizabeth explained and handed the vendor the last couple of small onions and potatoes, "They've frozen, haven't they?"
"Was cold, ma'am." the vendor mumbled and eyed her like he was waiting for a fight.
"That's all right, I happen to like sweet potatoes."
The vendor relaxed and continued filling her basket.
"Is there anything you're in the mood for, dear?"
Arielle chewed her lower lip for a while. She wasn't hungry, but she was already more than tired. She wanted to see more of the city and its people. Wonderful smells filled the cold air and sunlight reflected off the marble walls of brilliant buildings announcing that she had found herself in a city that had pride to rival Venice and had no intention of hiding it. She wanted to see everything, but her muscles began to twitch and shake under her weight; she wanted to go home.
"Just one thing," the bard said slowly with a small smile on her face, "a handful of dried apricots."
Arielle thought she'd jump out of her chair and run across the room the first time she saw Eden walking by herself. There were so many mornings and evenings spent feeding the warrior and tending to her wounds. Naturally, Eden wanted none of it, constantly scowling and making things difficult, forcing herself to sit though it brought excruciating pain or taking a spoon in her trembling hands to prove she could feed herself. Yet sometimes, late in the evening or on a random morning, Eden would look at Arielle with kindness and apology and whisper a thank you that somehow made all the hardship seem so much lighter.
Of course Eden wasn't supposed to be up yet. But the day Elizabeth unwisely sent for a healer who told Eden she might not ever walk again was the day the bard knew Eden would be up and about faster than anyone would ever predict.
"I'll go see to that stew." Elizabeth said softly and rose, offering her chair to Eden who took it, "Glad to see you up and about, my dear."
The bard poured the both of them some tea as Elizabeth shuffled to the kitchen.
"I see you're on your feet just like you shouldn't be." Arielle said, handing the warrior her cup.
"As usual." the warrior replied, setting her crutch against the wall.
Arielle watched Eden take a few sips of tea and wince as she leaned back a little in the chair. Eden's sharp, blue eyes met hers as she slowly put the cup back down.
"Yes, I'm a little tired and yes, it hurts a little, but I'm fine. Please don't fuss about it."
"Yes, you're right, it was only a mountain that came down on you. And you almost died... again... I really am overreacting." the bard replied theatrically, waving her hand in the air.
"I just don't..." Eden began to growl and then took a deep breath, "I just don't want you to worry. I'm here. I'll be fine."
"Let's pretend for the moment that I believe you. But if you get to be the irritated warrior, then I get to be the doting bard."
"This is a no win situation for me, isn't it?"
"You always were a fast learner."
Eden snorted and shook her head and they sat in silence for a while. Dust danced in a sole ray of sun pouring through the window and the room began to slowly fill with the aroma of a brewing stew. It made Eden's mouth water and made Arielle think of home.
"Why didn't you tell me this is your home?" the bard asked.
"There wasn't time."
"I didn't think it important."
"So which one was it?"
"What difference does it make?" Eden deflected with a scowl, "It's a home, who cares?"
"I do. It's your home, Eden, and I care about anything dealing with you." Arielle replied gently, never taking her gaze off the irritated warrior, "And what about Elizabeth?"
"There wasn't time." Eden repeated, scuffing her better foot against the floor, "I didn't even know if she was still alive."
The bard watched Eden try to burn holes into the floor with her eyes. Arielle looked at the warrior's tense face and wondered what other secrets she held. Yet instead of prodding further, she sighed and put a small sack on the table near the warrior. Eden turned to look at the sack and then at the bard.
"Dried apricots. I remember you like them."
Eden looked back at the sack and said nothing for a time. There was a strange expression on her face as if she was having a deep conversation with herself. After a while, she smiled lightly, carefully picked up the sack, and looked at the bard.
"Walk with me?"
They donned thick, wool cloaks and slowly made their way down the gentler side of the hill and turned towards the riverbank. Eden finally stopped and sat beneath a huge, gnarly oak that seemed to be fiercely clinging to its spot along the Arno. Eden visibly relaxed as the pain throughout her body subsided. Arielle waited patiently, watching the warrior from the corner of her eye.
"I can't remember how long I've been away..." Eden started quietly after a while, "Elizabeth hasn't seemed to change at all and I feel like I've been gone for a lifetime..."
"I think anyone would if they went through what you went through."
Eden nodded very lightly and fell silent for a short while again. To Arielle it seemed like the warrior was trying to solve some complex problem in her head, as if she was trying to figure out where she was and how she got there and where she was supposed to go from there. And it seemed rather ironic to her that when Eden found herself at home, she seemed more lost than ever.
"You see that small building there? Off to the side?" Eden asked, pointing her finger towards the city, "That was the armorer we would listen to with Lawrence... I loved the sound of that hammer hitting the metal on the anvil. I would wonder if I asked nicely enough that maybe the armorer would be able to hammer me into something sturdy and solid, unafraid of taking any blow... I wanted to be strong and unbreakable..."
"Even metals break."
"True. I was a foolish child then. It took many years for me to see that some things can't be put back together by force."
Eden glanced at Arielle for a moment and noticed the sparkle in her eyes. The bard handed her an apricot and turned back to the rooftops of Florence.
"Over there lived a very old apothecary who would hand out dried apples in the winter to the children. Which was a little funny because next door there was a tailor who would run out of his shop, shouting at us and threatening us with a broom."
"What a nice man."
"Yes, well, we had a tendency of walking in and touching the fabrics with our dirty, apple-covered hands."
Arielle laughed softly and saw a small smile appear on Eden's face.
"Those sound like nice memories." the bard said.
"Yes... I didn't think I'd ever come back here..."
Eden grew closed and solemn again, the fleeting moment of happiness gone as fast as it had appeared. The bard reached over and took Eden's hand in her own and held it firmly.
"I'm not surprised, no one in your shoes would." she said softly as Eden turned to look at her, "There were times where even I thought that home was just a distant memory and I haven't seen a fraction of what you have. But the important thing is that you're here now. We both are."
"I know you're right..."
"A lot has happened. One step at a time. We both need a little more time."
Eden smiled lightly and nodded. She rested as comfortably as she could against the oak and the bard shifted closer, resting her head on Eden's shoulder. And that moment, in that place, seemed perfect to the both of them so they just let it be and watched the river flow by in front of them with whatever it wanted to bring that day. Later, when they were making their way back, Arielle thought about how she could have called the morning the first really good one in a long time when Eden stopped in front of the door.
"I never thanked you," Eden said, leaning on her crutch, "for bringing me here... and saving my life. I'm in your debt."
"I don't know how many times I'd have to save your life to have you in my debt. But let's not try to find out." the bard replied with a wide smile.
"You wouldn't strike me as someone interested in St. Augustine's confessions."
"I'm sorry." Arielle said startled, turning towards Elizabeth, "Eden is still sleeping and I assumed you were out and the door was ajar so I-"
"My dear, this is a library, not a necromancer's liar, whatever are you apologizing for?" the older woman chuckled, "Just please don't tell the bishop about the Manichaean texts, he'd probably burn me at the stake for them."
Arielle smiled sheepishly and after a few moments turned back to the numerous high shelves.
"This is quite a collection you have here."
"Yes... I read them. All of them."
The bard blinked a few times and looked back at the shelves in wonder. There were all kinds of works: ones bound in cracked leather, others bound in leather that still smelled strongly and was soft to the touch. Some pages looked like they'd crumble beneath awkward fingertips, some were uneven and stuck out of the covers that held them. A few works were bound by simple string and still others were rolled up like ancient scrolls. Despite their constitution, they all beckoned equally loudly in the bard's head. There were promises of adventures, tales of ladies and knights, memoirs of dreams and nightmares. Treatises on sicknesses and sins sat alongside poems of love and passion that any priest would have thrown immediately to the flames. Different versions of the holy scriptures and books of saints and apostles lay opposite tales of mythical beasts and gods of ancient Greece and Rome. It was all like a different world, a world of medicine and science as well as faith and miracles. It was a place where she could both explore and know what she already knew and not be judged for it. It was intoxicating almost.
"Forgive me, but how is that at all possible?"
"Eden truly told you nothing. Sit my dear," Elizabeth sighed and motioned to one of the large chairs in the middle of the library, "I am a sage."
"You're a sage?"
"Why, do I not look the part?" Elizabeth asked, feigning offense.
"No, that's not what I meant... I don't think I've ever met a sage before... I didn't even think they were real."
"Well it isn't exactly something that we like to advertise in the streets, my dear. And even if we did, I doubt anyone would believe us."
"Us? There are more of you?"
"Somewhere in the world, surely. Yet from what I know it seems that I'm the only one as far as I can see."
"What... What is it like?" Arielle finally asked after a few moments of silence, "I mean, it must be wonderful knowing all this."
"You would think so, wouldn't you?" Elizabeth said quietly.
"You mean it isn't?"
Elizabeth sighed heavily and leaned back in her chair and observed the bard for a moment.
"Sometimes it is. It's both magical and frightening to be born with the knowledge that other children are still waiting to have passed down to them by their parents. I'm a walking vessel, carrying both the knowledge of my forefathers and yours and everyone else's." Elizabeth explained, "Histories I already know, new discoveries and ideas I learn very quickly. I have a memory the size of the heavens and one that doesn't forget a single detail. And if this great knowledge wasn't enough, time passes more slowly to me than others, almost as if I was closer to being a book than a human being."
Here Elizabeth's warm tone turned heavier and sad. It was at times like these, Arielle noticed, that she could almost see how old Elizabeth really was.
"But sometimes this gift is an unforgiving curse. Mankind constantly pushes forward in the pursuit of knowledge. But with great knowledge comes great sorrow. People are much quicker to judge and revolt than to listen and reflect on themselves. We are rash creatures; we're eager to throw away our knowledge just as soon as we obtain it."
"But why?" Arielle interrupted, "Isn't the point of gaining knowledge to make use of it? I didn't learn that a fire is hot just so I could stick my hand in it anyway."
"In theory, you're right. But there are other things that come into play that make up a person just as much as the mind. Greed, hunger for power, selfishness... I know that the fire is hot, but what if I could learn to control it? And so I put my hand into the fire and burn... In the end, most are more willing to make a stupid mistake than to listen to someone telling them they will make one. As sages, we are doomed to watch mankind repeat the same mistakes over and over again."
A slap to the face echoed in Arielle's ears and she turned away to look at one of the many bookshelves. After all this time, have I truly learned anything at all? Would I make the same mistakes again? It bothered her more than she would care to admit and she shook her head. She turned back to see the sage watching her very carefully. There was something almost holy and slightly unnerving in the older woman's gray eyes. They were so light compared to Eden's, yet they seemed like two deep wells, gathering all the wisdom the world had ever seen.
"Why did you tell me all this?" Arielle asked.
"I assumed you'd either ask or find out sooner or later, being who you are."
"And who am I?" Arielle asked, straightening in her chair.
"My dear, there really is no reason to fear me. You aren't the first person of Eden's kind whom I've met. And they all lived to tell the tale, I promise." the sage said with a smile.
"The ones called guardians in the lost, ancient writings of the first believers of God."
Arielle wished more than anything that Eden would walk through the door at that moment and make the conversation go away. She now began to understand some of the uneasiness Eden felt in talking about what she was in front of others she didn't know well. Arielle almost felt like her clothes had been torn from her body in one motion and she sat there naked for Elizabeth to simply judge.
"How did you know?"
"All of Eden's relationships were with those of her kind. The meaningful relationships, that is."
The bard didn't know whether to feel even more exposed or to take comfort in how special she must have been to Eden, yet Elizabeth could see the bard relax a little.
"But you didn't come here for sad and heavy stories from an ancient mummy." the sage said brightly and rose from her chair towards the shelves, "The funny thing is that despite all I remember, I'm still surprised that I can recall where all these books are... Ah, here we are, the Sibylline Oracles and the works of Sappho. Both works I think you'll enjoy a great deal."
The house seemed different than she remembered it though she didn't know exactly how or why. But then again, Eden didn't trust her memories. There were definitely more books than before, yet everything else seemed the same, almost as if the house had frozen in time. The house itself was a strange thing; it looked rather small from the front, but some talented mason had built the back of it sloping down along with the hill and so it was actually peculiarly large. The cellar was also much larger than necessary though Eden never saw it to be full or used for anything other than holding some vegetables and wines. It was the only house Eden had ever seen that centered around a library instead of a dining room and she wondered if that was a sad testament that now people spent more time eating than reading.
Secretly Eden admired the older woman. She lived outside of town, by herself without even a dog to either keep her company or warn her of potential bandits. Elizabeth kept to herself yet all those her knew her a little, liked her and would lend her a helping hand when needed. The sage also knew how to choose her friends strategically; she made sure to keep good ties between herself and the priest, mason, healer, local merchants, and town crier. It was Elizabeth who had taught Eden the value of a well placed person who had even the smallest feeling of debt. A shiny apple given to a ferry boy might mean hearing a certain piece of news first; remembering the butcher's wife's birthday might mean a prime slice of meat the next day. But what Eden learned as a tool in learning secrets and plans, Elizabeth did genuinely, never bestowing anything on anyone she didn't like or care for. That was one of the many differences between herself and the sage.
Eden shifted in the large chair when her leg began to slightly throb. As the days dragged on, her leg grew stronger, but it was still a nuisance at times. The warrior looked at the few shelves holding different types of trinkets. There were small, wooden and rock carvings, different types of jewelry, a dried bouquet of wildflowers, and a wooden box that had so many folded letters that they were sticking out from beneath the lid. Presents from the sage's friends, no doubt, as Elizabeth hardly traveled anywhere.
"You could have written. Sent word that you were safe and well."
Eden turned to see Elizabeth sit down quietly next to her. It always unnerved the warrior how the sage could somehow walk into the very center of even a crowded room and yet no one ever seemed to notice her until Elizabeth wanted it. Eden sighed slowly as the older woman smoothed out the lap of her dress.
"I could have," Eden admitted slowly, "but I don't think I was either safe or well."
"I assumed as much... It only made me worry more."
"I didn't mean to worry you. I just thought it was better that way."
"I doubted the rumors would reach your doorstep. If you didn't hear the stories of what I did then you wouldn't have to be ashamed. If you didn't hear of my death then you didn't need to shed wasted tears."
"Well I have to say that you have a particularly peculiar way of understanding love. Is that something they teach in the desert lands?"
"Love?" Eden repeated, turning to Elizabeth with an expression as if she had been burned.
"Yes, my dear." the sage replied calmly, "I do love you, Eden, as if you were my own daughter. And worry is a natural consequence of such love. Your silence didn't deaden my worry nor my desire to see you happy and well."
Eden continued to stare at the sage while Elizabeth looked out through the window and once again smoothed out her dress. The sound of her fingertips running over the linen seemed to almost grate the very air and sounded particularly loud in her ears.
"I didn't... I wasn't... I didn't expect you to even remember me." Eden stuttered, turning her own gaze out the window.
"Well if you were just a dream, then I could share your expectations," Elizabeth chuckled lightly, "but I don't think you were some wild vision my mind concocted up in the middle of the night."
"I bet you sometimes wish I was."
"Ah, you drove me to frustration and tears many times, but not always for the same reasons and I cared for you all the same."
Eden hummed quietly in response. She watched tiny bits of dust float through a large ray of sun cutting through the window. They were so very small, pushed and pulled in random directions with any gust of air, but they seemed completely content with their fate. No strings attached, no bridges to burn, no allegiances, no family. Freedom and solitude in their purest forms.
"Tell me... Tell me of what mother was like... I can barely see her face anymore, no matter how hard I try to remember."
"Come with me dear." Elizabeth said after a while.
Eden followed her to the library and they stopped in front of one of the several paintings that hung on the walls. Elizabeth took a deep breath and turned the landscape painting around to show a portrait of a tall, young lady on the back.
"That is your mother." Elizabeth said softly, "I had it commissioned a long time ago. I thought it would cheer her up. She left soon after it was finished."
"I never saw this..."
The sage turned to see Eden staring at the painting in something between shock and wonder. Elizabeth quickly learned even when Eden was a child that there were few instances where the guardian was rendered speechless.
"She was a fine woman." Elizabeth said, turning her gaze back to the portrait, "She was delicate and carried herself with grace. She took great pleasure in needlework which is something you definitely didn't inherit. But she could also be stubborn and fierce... She would get this fire in her eyes. It was like seeing lightning flashing against the calm, dark sky... She was probably the only person who could convince your father to change his mind and he was the most stubborn man I ever met. Here I have no doubt that you are your mother's daughter."
"She looks sad..."
"She looks a lot like you."
They heard the door creak open and Elizabeth quietly turned the picture back over and then faced Eden.
"Our little secret for now." she whispered in Eden's ear.
Elizabeth walked towards the door and left Eden behind to compose herself.
"My dear, it seems that this house is getting too small for us all." Elizabeth said with a smile.
"I'm sorry, am I interrupting? I can come back later." Arielle said in a fluster and began to turn to leave.
"Not at all! A poor joke on my part, my dear."
"Are you sure? I really can just-"
"Arielle, of course! Are you looking for something in particular?"
"I... I enjoyed Sappho's poems... Do you have anything similar?"
Elizabeth smiled and led the bard to a shelf with other ancient Greek and Roman works. As the bard browsed with intense curiosity, Elizabeth moved to the back of the library to find Eden sitting in a chair, staring at the landscape painting with such intensity that she was almost sure that Eden could actually see the portrait on the other side. Elizabeth quietly sat down beside her and smoothed out her apron.
"You know dear," Elizabeth said quietly, turning towards Eden, "that bard there, she is a special one."
"Hm?" Eden said, turning to the sage as if she was just pulled from a dream, "Ah yes, she catches everyone's heart through her stories."
"You know that's not what I mean." she said more slowly.
The sage saw that flash of fire that she knew so well streak across the warrior's eyes. The muscles around her jaw tightened, her back straightened. Elizabeth remained quiet and simply waited, knowing fully well that you can't pull a frightened cat out of its hiding place by force.
"Yes, well, she's a good friend..." Eden said slowly.
"You always were a very guarded one, my dear." Elizabeth replied as she reached out and placed her hand on the warrior's forearm.
"I always had good reason."
The old woman only nodded sadly.
"But you can't hide forever, my dear." she continued as the warrior stared ahead of her, "I see... a difference in you around her. A light. A light that sets your face aglow when she looks at you. A light that dances in the far corners of your eyes when you look at her. A light you once had in you... before Nicollo and Lucretia died..."
Eden scowled, turned her head, and looked at the ground.
"There's no reason to dwell on the past." she finally said quietly, curling her right hand in and out of a fist.
"But we're talking about the present and future, aren't we?"
Eden sighed loudly and leaned back, still flexing her hand, feeling smaller than the chair she sat in.
"I can't... I... this... it's not..." Eden struggled, her voice cracking.
"What are you so afraid of, dear?"
"Everything." she answered, looking up. "I am one of the greatest fears of the Christian realm... Half of the world wants me killed and the other half wants to do the killing."
Eden turned her gaze to Arielle who was wandering among the shelves, completely oblivious to the conversation taking place across the room. She watched the bard continue to scan the books in the library in complete fascination. Eden smiled faintly and shook her head and turned back to Elizabeth who was watching her with patient, knowing eyes. Eden always wondered how such gentle eyes could make her feel so uncomfortable. In those eyes, Eden felt entirely naked and helpless.
"She doesn't deserve this kind of life. I put her in danger."
"Eden, you act like like she is a glass vile. You act like you are afraid you'll break her."
Elizabeth watched the warrior flex the muscles in her jaw slowly, staring so hard into the ground that Elizabeth half expected the stone to actually crack.
"Oh dear..." she sighed and shook her head slowly, "Are you truly that blind?"
"Tell me, who am I? What could I ever offer?" Eden asked, her tone suddenly turning as sharp as her gaze, "I'm surrounded by pain and suffering that seem to have no end. What should I give her, hm? A demon tied in pretty string? An army of shapeshifters? Or maybe I could compose a ballad made of the whispers of the shadows and wails of the grieving?"
"Oh, dear, now that really does fall short of the truth." Elizabeth admonished lightly, "You have one of the greatest gifts in the world to give, one that even this old bag of bones has very rarely seen."
"I do things that voices in my head demand of me?"
"No, this." Elizabeth answered and pointed to her heart.
"Oh." she said, after a few moments of silence and dropped her gaze, "That's just foolish sentimentality."
"Really?" Elizabeth asked with an amused chuckle, "So every time you risk your life for her, it's just foolish sentimentality? If any other person did the same things you did, you would envy that person with a vengeance."
Eden sighed heavily. She suddenly felt very tired and the thoughts in her head swam around violently like in a whirlpool.
"Eden, the things you say are true. I'm sure that if Arielle settled down and found a husband that her life would probably be safer. Though definitely more monotonous. But did you ever ask her what she wants? Or what's more important, did you listen to her answer?"
"Elizabeth, this is no life for anyone."
"Ah, but it is one for you, right? Because you deserve it, of course."
"You know I do."
"No, I don't. Life doesn't revolve around the notion of what is and isn't deserved. If it did, everything would make sense and everyone would be content. Life simply is. We don't deserve anything that we come across, neither good or bad. There is nothing we are entitled to." she explained and leaned in closer and Eden had the impression that the gray eyes would swallow her whole. "Yet we do meet bad and good things here. The bad we have to fight with. The good we have to hold on to. We do both with all our strength."
Eden knotted her brows and Elizabeth knew that expression all too well.
"Stop fighting so much. Stop having to know everything. It's time to put down your sword, little one."
"Oh, you may be a swift and fearsome warrior now, but I still see that young Eden, a proud, intelligent, loyal, and kind-hearted girl. That girl never died, she's just covered in all that armor."
"You don't know-"
"What you've done? What you've seen and been? My dear, I am a sage, I know hundreds of lifetimes before you. I've seen and known more than any other human being ever would. Do you really think that anything that you have done in this life would shock me compared to the collective evil potential of all of mankind? Go ahead and explain to me how you are the greatest evil that ever lived."
Eden glared at her from underneath her brows and grated her teeth, but said nothing.
"Then finally find it in your heart to forgive yourself and let yourself be happy." Elizabeth said in a softer, almost pleading tone, "Even God can't forgive you if you won't."
Eden looked down at her hands and wished she had something to busy them with. Finally she focused on twisting the leather tie on her tunic around her finger. Elizabeth sighed heavily and leaned back in her chair. The sage wanted to laugh; all her years had taught her that there was no real point in getting involved since hardly anyone ever listened. It was much more difficult when it concerned people she cared about. She sighed again and covered her eyes with one hand. She had said her piece and now simply waited for a headache to come along.
"She is special."
Elizabeth turned to look at Eden with near disbelief. The warrior was still playing with the leather tie and a long silence ensued making the sage think that she might have misheard.
"I know, dear, I know." Elizabeth said softly and paused for a few moments, watching the leather tie slip from the warrior's hands, "Of all I know, there are two things I know for certain. We can be fairly judged by God alone and there is no greater power on this earth than love."
"Love... is... I don't know-"
"Oh, you do know dear, you do."
Eden turned to look at the sage in a brief moment of helplessness. There was a deep sense of anguish in her eyes and voice and it almost broke the sage's heart. Arielle's voice floated through the room and in an instant Eden was guarded again, her gaze turned back to the floor, the muscles in her jaw flexing. Elizabeth's chance was gone and she knew it. The time for words was over so she reached out and rested her hand on Eden's forearm, feeling the tense muscles move as the warrior made a fist.
"Bless you dear child." she said, leaning over and kissing Eden on the top of the head.
Elizabeth peered into Arielle's room to find the bard standing there, her back to her, staring out the window. At first glance, the sage realized, Arielle looked like any other well off daughter should- delicate and quiet. But after a while, something else began to seep to the surface. There was a strength in her back, a rigidness in her legs, a hardness in her hands. Arielle slowly turned her head at the sound of Elizabeth entering and the older woman noticed the same duality in her green eyes. They were gentle, yet held a spark of decision that almost dared to be challenged. For a moment Elizabeth wondered what it would be like to be the bard's enemy. There was a fierce yet sad knowing in those emerald eyes; a solemn surrender to what seemed to be a wisdom that far surpassed the bard's own mind and years. Elizabeth could almost hear the echoes of that ancient knowledge that so many still couldn't understand. They were very heavy echoes; a weight she knew all too well.
"How have you been?"
"I'm well, thank you."
"It was quite a feat, making it here as you did," Elizabeth continued, slowly taking a few steps towards the bard, "all the while not knowing if Eden would even live through it... But she did and true to her nature, she'd like us all to carry on like nothing ever happened... But something did happen. And I'd like to know how you are if you are looking for someone to listen."
A somewhat awkward silence settled over them as Arielle looked at Elizabeth as if she was torn between disbelief, suspicion, and relief. Memories of all the times that she had begged her mother or father to listen to her flooded the bard's mind. She pleaded and sobbed, swearing on all the saints that wasn't being difficult or rebellious, but she simply wanted her own thoughts to be heard. That was until the day her mother finally snapped that the only listening that should ever take place is her towards her husband. It was then that Arielle realized that her mother, the woman she revered and admired most, simply didn't know anything more than the life of a proper wife. And Arielle suddenly became very alone.
It was only after meeting Eden, did that loneliness begin to fade away, replaced by a safe place where she could be herself, think her own thoughts, and dare to dream. But there were still days when she didn't know which was worse- being empty or being whole.
"It sometimes..." Arielle hesitated, folding her arms and grabbing the sides of her shirt in her fists as she turned back to the window, "It sometimes scares me... how much she's become a part of my life... that I sometimes think there is no life without her..."
"That is a powerful feeling."
"But it can't be that one person becomes your entire world... That's not right... Am I... Am I obessesed? Crazy maybe?"
"No..." Elizabeth answered slowly, "though it must seem so at times... Think of God, for example. They say God should be one's entire life. You should eat, breathe, sleep, think, and love only God. Some do, some don't. And some do and then, for whatever reason, stop. Yet life continues; life never ceases no matter what is going on around it... Eden is not your entire world and never will be. Neither will God or money or power or anything else of this world... God created the earth and heavens, but mankind created structure. We are not like water, we need a shape, a form to everything; we need a center. The king is the center of the kingdom, God the center of the universe, and people or dreams the center of our lives. We need something to revolve around, just like the sun and moon revolve around us... I don't know what would happen to the sun and moon if the earth was no longer... Would they continue to revolve? Perhaps not. But I highly doubt they would suddenly cease to exist altogether."
"I'm not a heavenly body." Arielle said after a moment, "I'm a human being and I don't want to simply exist... I don't think that that was what we were created for."
"That's true; life isn't existence... but then again death isn't either."
Arielle turned to her with a scowl on her face and drew a breath.
"It's easy to say that it's better to die when you lose something dear to you." Elizabeth said first, "It's easy to throw your life away when you have no idea the potential and the change that it holds. We become so enveloped in our own misery and loss that we no longer notice anyone else's. And just perhaps there lies the power for us to comfort, to help, perhaps even save. In the end, several people lose only because we decided that our own loss was the greatest of all."
Arielle let out a sigh and her shoulders slumped as she began to worry her lower lip. She looked back out the window, staring at the horizon in silence for so long that Elizabeth began to turn to leave.
"You're a better person than I am..." the bard finally whispered.
"No..." Elizabeth answered with a faint chuckle, "I'm just wise... I know the rationale and I say the words, but I hardly am able to live them... That is the frustratingly passive life of a sage..."
"Thank you." Arielle said, reaching out and taking Elizabeth's wrist gently, "You've given me a lot to think about."
"Oh, if I had a gold coin for every time I hear that." the older woman laughed softly and turned them both back to kitchen, "Come, my dear, I'm starving."
The rain had made it a lazy day. Arielle had spent a few hours reading the Gospel according to Thomas out loud to Eden as the warrior checked her weapons and armor. Eden and Arielle made a fine stew while Elizabeth baked a fresh loaf of bread which they ate in quiet conversation. They later sat next to the fireplace and listened to Arielle's funny, exciting tales. Elizabeth laughed at the image of Eden covered in dandelion seeds and held her breath when she heard of Arielle falling along with a rope bridge. A few times Eden noticed the sage turn and look at her with a strange look in her eyes as if she knew something the warrior didn't. Several stories later, Arielle took a sip of cider and shivered.
"Your stories are wonderful, but I think it's time we all go to sleep." Elizabeth said, rising slowly from her chair, "There will be time for more stories tomorrow."
They said their goodnights and Arielle followed Eden into her room to take an extra blanket. She enveloped herself in it and looked out the window.
"Have I ever told you that I like the sound of rain?"
"So do I." Eden said quietly, standing behind the bard.
There was a pull there so strong that Arielle unconsciously leaned back a little and rested against the warrior's chest.
"I liked to listen to it tap against my window and run down the stone walls. It always sounded so beautifully fragile and at the same time so sad." Arielle said, her voice growing quieter with each word and she shivered again.
"Are you still cold?"
Arielle said nothing, her eyes still peering into the darkness as if she could actually see the rain falling outside. The sounds reminded her of her childhood, of stories of knights in bright armor, princesses locked in towers, and slain dragons. It reminded her of childish dreams and mature ideas. It reminded her of laughter. It reminded her of utter loneliness.
"Put your arms around me." the bard whispered.
Eden was puzzled, but wrapped her arms around the bard and held her tight. Arielle felt Eden's warm breath travel down her face and neck and she took a deep breath, drawing that warmth into her lungs. She didn't believe in magical potions or powders or superstitious rituals, but she did believe that there was something within Eden that was transcendental. She could feel it in the bond that drew her in no matter where Eden was. She could sense it in the strange calm, but powerful energy that emenated from the warrior when the bard was close; it was sometimes so powerful it tickled her skin. It made her wonder at times- if that unknown force ever left, would Eden still love her? How much of their bond was outside of their world and how much was truly between them?
"Let's lie among the dandelions." Arielle said quietly, turning around in Eden's arms.
"You'll have to wait until the next summer." Eden replied softly.
"No..." Arielle whispered, putting a hand over the warrior's heart, "they're here..."
"I... I don't think..."
Arielle saw the hesitation in Eden's eyes and wondered where it came from. But Eden knew. She felt the bard slightly pressing up against her, she heard the strange tone she had barely ever heard the bard use before, she could see Arielle's pulse quicken.
"I didn't think... this could possibly... I wasn't expecting it... not here, not you..." Eden whispered, "You don't know what you're getting into... You don't know this life... You don't know me-"
"That is your age old argument, my love. The truth is I want to know you." Arielle said, stilling Eden's lips with her finger, "I want to know all of you."
Arielle hadn't really intended on going as far as they did or being as strangely forward as she was. Yet she felt warm and safe; she could hardly remember the last time she felt them both at once and it was intoxicating now. With each piece of clothing that she slowly peeled off, she left a soft kiss on the warrior's skin. Once, Eden stopped her, holding her by both wrists and looking at her with something betweeen anger and uncertainty. Arielle waited, trying to find the questions Eden didn't know how to ask. And then Eden let out a long, slow breath and slowly put her wrists down and copied the bard's motions. Her hands trembled at every tie and she swallowed hard when they were all undone, stopping again as if she didn't know what she was to do next.
"I'm not made of glass," the bard whispered, pulling Eden in closer, "Love me."
Eden smiled slightly and let out a long breath.
Something slowly changed in Eden and her moves and touches were more confident. Arielle was somewhat relieved as she soon realized she didn't really know what to do; proper ladies never spoke of such things until a marriage had been arranged. Panic shot through her mind for a moment- she wasn't getting married and Eden wasn't a man; this had every dark, tangible mark of a sin. But those thoughts broke apart under Eden's firm, gentle touch and kisses. Arielle felt like she was being enveloped in armor and silk at the same time and, unable to process all of what was happening, she just let go. Eden would ask every so often if everything was fine and the bard would nod, observing her closely, desperately trying to learn and copy Eden's movements. Yet where Eden seemed to be driven by some muse, Arielle was awkward and fumbled about sometimes, casting Eden a concerned glance. But the warrior was more patient than she would have ever expected. And soon the bard forgot her inhibitions in a flood of sensations she could hardly name or control. She was afraid and thrilled at the same time, shocked and focused. It was like swimmming in a lightning bolt, she thought.
As they later lay there in silence, Eden stroked Arielle's cheek very gently, watching the bard fall asleep. And when the bard awoke some time later, she saw Eden watching her with a tense, pensive gaze.
"What's wrong?" the bard whispered.
She watched Eden's jaw flex and felt the warrior's muscles begin to tense. Arielle shifted a little closer. Eden looked down at her own fumbling hands.
"Did I do something wrong?"
Eden's head snapped up so quickly that it startled the bard.
"No." she whispered, "No, you did nothing wrong."
"Then what is it?"
"It's..." Eden tried to force out, looking back at her hands, "Do you... Are you... Are you... fine?"
"Am I fine?" the bard repeated and then she saw that rare slight hint of sadness show itself in Eden's eyes, "Oh... Oh, no, Eden... How could you think like that? How could you ever think such a thing?"
"I'm sorry... I'm probably being stupid... It's just-"
"I'm not offended. I'm not disgusted." Arielle interrupted, watching Eden's gaze slowly meet hers, "I'm happy... I feel so light and calm... It's hard for even me to explain."
Eden watched her for a while until the bard finally pulled Eden closer and crushed her lips against the warrior's. Eden felt their warm skin brush against each other, soft and delicate. Eden could taste the bard's lips, hear her breath escape her mouth and travel down the warrior's neck. The smell of dried lavender and fresh linen filled her nostrils as that pulsating energy in her arm throbbed right below the skin. It was real. It was all so real that even Eden's doubt had a hard time telling her that was all in passing, a lucid dream, a cloaked disaster. It wasn't easy or simple or anything she could even try to explain, but it was hers. So for that moment, she took her fear and she let it go.
"What do you feel?" Arielle whispered as she tucked a raven strand of hair behind Eden's ear.
"Whatever God ever asked of me," Eden whispered slowly, "He has repaid me a hundredfold."
Eden looked up to see the bard's eyes sparkle madly and a single tear finally spill down her cheek.
"That's not fair," Arielle said in a shaky whisper, "I'm supposed to be the bard."
"Last time I saw you, you were entire valleys away," Xena whispered to Gabrielle, "Now I can almost touch you with my fingertips."
"I told you not to worry, my love. Everything is as it should be. We will all find our way in the end."
"Do you think so? I sometimes wonder..."
"I know you do. You wouldn't be yourself if you didn't doubt."
"Such understanding coming from an angel? Did you get into Heaven's scrolls and change all the rules?"
"No," Gabrielle chuckled, "But this angel is very much in love with you so I guess you can call her a little bias."
"Good." Xena replied, "Heaven would be unbearable otherwise."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thank you all for sticking with this story and for your reviews, they really keep me going! I hope you enjoyed this chapter and Eden and Arielle's well deserved moment of calm :)