PRE-A/N: Um, so, lots of people wanted an update to this story, and I couldn't really think of too much, except to do the same one from the others' points of view.
Disclaimer: not mine.
-Felsong: I made up Arles, cuz I looked and looked, but I couldn't find the Count's name anywhere.
I had been outside all day when I heard Julen calling me in. She hardly ever did that in warm weather, so I was surprised enough to go. Her face looked white, like milk before the cream has been scraped off. She grabbed me by the hand and dragged me back to the castle, going too fast and not slowing down when I asked her to.
Julen brought me to the tower room that Father did all his business from. He was facing out the high window and didn't seem to know I'd come in. Bran was in there, too. He was sitting at the table, on a cushion. He had his arms folded on the top of the table, and his head buried in his folded arms. He was shaking, and now I was worried. Bran was always smiling, and now he wasn't.
"Milord?" Julen rasped. "I brought Meliara."
"Thank you, Julen," Father said flatly. "If you would go compile a list of names that I need to send word to about Renisia? And make sure Keighli(1) is well taken care of until she's healed."
"Yes, milord," she said, dropping a curtsey and leaving the tree of us alone.
For a long time Father said nothing, and I went to sit next to Braneric. When my brother looked up at me, I saw the tears. That made me scared. Why was Bran crying?
"Meliara, I've just gotten a letter," Father said, getting my attention. "It's very bad news."
"What's wrong, Papa?" I asked. "Why is Bran crying?"
"Because..." Father had to stop and clear his throat. "Because your mother... she's gone now."
I was confused. I knew she was gone. I'd cried when she left last week. Where they just now noticing that she wasn't here? "Papa," I squeaked out, "she's been gone. You were there when we waved her off."
"No, Mel," Bran cut in, his voice sloppy and thick. "Mama's dead. She's not comin' home anymore."
I didn't understand. The old mouser in the kitchen died last winter. One of Papa's best hunting dogs had died. My uncle in Sles Adran(2) had died, but people I knew didn't die. Bran was just playing a joke. I looked up at Papa to make him yell at Bran for lying and being mean.
But Papa didn't do anything.
"No," I shook my head.
"I'm sorry, Meliara," Father said. "I wish there had been a more gentle way to tell you. I wish it had not happened at all. If only she hadn't- But it's too late now."
"No!" I shouted, refusing to believe it. "No, no, no!"
I bolted from the room, down the long, spinning stairs, getting a little dizzy.
"Mel!" Bran called after me.
I ignored him, continuing to run. I was crying before I had a thought to cry. My heart was pounding, making me run faster, even though I had no idea where I was going. I broke through the doors and made a straight line for the trees where I had only just recently been dragged from. I wanted to lose myself in the forest.
The Hill Folk were playing a song I had never heard before. It was low and dragging, the higher notes coming only every once in a while. I stopped only a few strides into the forest. This song only made everything worse. This song told me that they knew what had happened to my mother and that it wasn't a lie. If the Hill Folk knew it was true, then it was true, because they could always tell when someone was dealing falsely, and they never lied.
I sank down to the ground, bawling my eyes out. It took me a long time to notice the willowy, elegant movements of shadows breaking away from the rest of the patterned darkness in the forest. The Hill Folk moved toward me, surrounded and gathered me up with them, and led me to their clearing. The dances in mourning of Mama had already begun when I was ushered into the circle. I refused to join in. Joining them would make her death more real.
I must have stayed there in the mountains of Tlanth for days, but I hardly noticed the light coming and fading. I watched the Hill Folk dance, and I ate what they provided, not realizing that I was hungry until the next meal was given to me.
I went home the day that Mama came home in the back of a wagon, all laid out with a sheet over her. I watched as the wagon rolled through the streets of the village and eventually came to a stop in front of the castle. At first my feet felt like roots, stuck in the ground and not letting me move. Then I was running again, full tilt toward the bed of the wagon, screaming for my mother. (3)
It was the blacksmith's wife that finally caught me just before I jumped up into the bed and pulled the sheet off of the body. She towed me away from the wagon and into the castle, then deposited me in the arms of her sister-in-law. Julen wrapped those arms around me to keep me from fighting my way back outside. She took me to my room, where I eventually cried myself out for the time being, and fell asleep.
After dark, I was woken up by quite a commotion down stairs. It sounded like someone had arrived at the gate, but nobody ever came to Tlanth.
The wild thought that somehow Mama was really alive, and all of the last few days had been a bad dream, propelled me out of my room and down the stairs. On the landing just above the main hall I could hear Father talking to someone in the parlor. I even heard a woman answer back, which was enough to make me think I was right. I had gotten half way to the open doorway of the front parlor when I was able to see inside. The faint light of the Fire Sticks showed me a woman who was not my mother, and a pale-haired boy who was about Bran's age. Had this been any other time, I would have gone in and gawked at their fine clothing, and asked them a hundred questions, but not then. At that moment, all I could think was, 'That is not my mother.'
I spun right around and charged back to my room, flinging the tapestry out of my way as I barreled in. I launched myself onto my mattress, sobbing, again. Even after Julen came in and held me, tried to calm me down, even after I heard the candle-change from second blue to third white, then on to first white, I couldn't stop. It wasn't until deep into second white that I finally fell asleep in Julen's arms.
I woke up again at second gold. I looked around and saw that Julen was gone. She had laid out my one black dress for me. The last time I'd worn it was this past winter when Mama had gotten a letter that her older brother had died overseas. I hadn't understood why I'd needed to wear it at the time, hadn't understood what it was like to lose someone I loved like Mama losing her brother. Now I knew.
I put the dress on, mainly because I didn't have the energy to pick something out for myself, but I refused to go downstairs. Going down stairs would mean that I was alright. It meant knowing that Mama really was dead, that I was going to go to the lighting of the pyre, and I was too stubborn to let my last hope fade just yet.
It didn't take very long for someone to be sent up for me. I was just starting to listen to the morning sounds coming from the room next door, wondering who was over there, when the first taps came on the tapestry-door to my room. I set my jaw and ignored them. More tapping came.
"Mel?" Braneric called inside. "Come on, Mel, we have to go down now."
"No!" I shouted, my voice sounding rusty. "I'm not going! I won't! If I don't say g'bye, she has to come back!"
"Mel," I heard him sigh, then barged into my room without invitation.
I buried my face into my pillow so that I wouldn't have to talk to him. I hoped he would go away and leave me alone. I hoped he would stay so that I wouldn't be alone. I hoped that this wasn't really happening at all.
"Mel," Bran repeated, sitting down on my bed next to me. "You have to go. If you don't say g'bye to Mama now, you won't get the chance. All the time we have left to send her off is today. She would want to say 'bye to you. She'd want that chance. We gotta go; you gotta come with me."
I fought the truth for another few minutes, as long as I could. In the end, I had to admit that I wanted the chance to say goodbye. If I didn't go now, I was going to regret it. At eight years old, I knew that much already. So I sat up from my pillow and looked my big brother in the eye.
"Fine, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
He tried to smile and barely made his mouth twitch. He stood up and offered me his hand, which I took, and he hauled me up behind him.
"Do you think you can brush your hair before we go down?" he asked me.
I scowled at him, but ran my fingers through the reddish, shoulder length mess. It was down, which was unusual for me. Mama and Julen always had me put it in braids and tie it back so that it would stay neat. Mama always wished that I'd let my hair grow out, but I always said that it was easier to keep it short, citing that her own long hair always got in the way whenever I tried to take her out into the mountains with me. I sighed and dropped my chin to my chest, remembering Mama's wish that I grow my hair out. In a snap, I decided that I would grow it long, just like hers.
"What was that?" Bran asked.
"I'm going to grow my hair out like Mama had it," I said resolutely. "Starting today."
"Fine, but let's get downstairs before Papa has to come get us," he frowned. He was much more worried about Papa than I was. I hardly knew the man, I had no idea what his moods were, but Bran seemed to know.
We went out dutifully, though the closer I got to the bottom of the stairs, the closer I got to the door, the road, the meadow where the big fort of logs and sticks held up the body that used to be my mother, the more I started breaking apart inside. I wished I'd stayed in my room. At least in there I had been starting to dry out. Out here, I was going to cry again, I knew it. I was already crying.
Bran led me to a spot in the circle of townsfolk and castle servants next to Julen and her daughter, my best human friend, Oria. He wrapped his arms around my chest and pulled me back against him. I think he needed to hug me as much as I needed the hug, so I reached up and held onto his arms.
Our father was standing off to the side of us, and neither wanted to call attention to us being the last ones to arrive. I looked further around the circle and found that I knew almost all of the faces there, every Tlanthi resident I knew by name. There were only two here I didn't know. It was the woman and the boy from last night. They were dressed in better clothing, and more jewels than anyone at home had seen in years and years. I wondered what they were doing here.
"Bran," I whispered up. "Who's that over there?"
He glanced over, then back down at me. "That's just one of Mama's friends."
I was confused for a moment before I realized that he had been talking about the woman. I had meant the boy. He must have been her son, I figured. I wondered why we had never seen them before now.
Julen must have caught me glancing at the pair of well-dressed guest, because she poked me on the shoulder while the priests intoned the last rights, and whipered down at me, "Don't stare, Meliara. It's not a polite thing to do, and it shows a poor raising. Besides, we're here for your mother."
'Did she think I forgot that?' I wondered as I jerked my attention back to the pyre. How could I? And I hadn't been staring. I just wanted to look anyplace but at the spot where the torches had been set. Where the fires were starting to eat their way to the center from opposite ends.
I remembered how my mother smelled: like flowers and the wind on the first day of spring. She never smelled like smoke, and I was afraid that that was the only smell I would think of when I remembered her from now on. I shut my eyes and tried to concentrate on what I remembered.
Mama was beautiful. She played the harp; her fingers would move across the strings like fish playing tag in the brook, and the music plinked along, sometimes floated along, all through the house. Her arms were stronger than they looked, but never hard when they held me, almost as if I was held by the branches of a tree that was there to catch me when I fell, but that I could ignore once I was resting on them. Her favorite color was a blue halfway between a sapphire and an ekirth. I remembered that because she told me once when I found a necklace with both of those jewels in it on her vanity, before she'd had to sell it to help pay the king's taxes. Her favorite food was roasted duck with some kind of fruit dressing that we had to stop making a year ago because we couldn't afford the ingredients anymore. She loved me, and Bran, and Father, and hated someone called Courtiers.
I had opened my eyes sometime during the memories and couldn't help gazing on as the flames covered the entire pyre, and mother's body was lost behind the wall of hot orange. I was hiccupping and my nose was runny. I tried to snuffle it, but the smoke got in my nose and made it run more. I glared at the fire, wishing that it would just go out and let me have my Mama back.
A memory was jogged, sudden and unexpected. It had happened just a few weeks ago, before Mama had left on her trip. We had been in the kitchen, helping with the feast for the harvest festival. Something that had a lot of drippings had caught on fire, and Mama had started saying something over and over, and the flames went out. Later, she taught me the poem so that if something like that happened while she was gone I could stop it. We had practiced on a small candle that she lit and relit with a Fire Stick until I got it right.
I started saying the poem over and over, and waved my fingers at the fire that was eating my mother, just the way she'd taught me how to do. She'd promised to teach me more when she got back, and I wanted her to have the chance. Maybe, I thought, maybe if I can put the fire out, Mama will see how good I am, and she'll have to come back and teach me more, just like she promised.
The big fire took a long time to start guttering, but after a while the flames shrank down, just like with the grease fire, and just like with the candle I had practiced on. I heard the sounds of the other people in the circle, but I didn't let it distract me. I kept on repeating the poem that my mother taught me until Father noticed what I was doing, came over, and slapped my hand away.
"Meliara! What were you doing!?!" he shouted at me. I could see the fire behind him growing back into the monster that I had almost killed.
"M-m-mama did that wu-once to put out a g-grease fire in the ku-kit-t-tchen!" I shouted back. "I wa-want-t-ted to make this fire go away, too. J-just like she mu-made that one go away!"
Papa knelt down on one knee and looked me squarely in the eye. His big hands grabbing hold of my shoulders. "You must never try to do that again," he said, "do you understand me? Never! And nothing else of the same kind. I'll not have them take you away from me, too!"
I took a big gulp of air, struggling to breathe. He didn't understand what I had been trying to do. He wouldn't understand! He didn't think that she could back, like I did. And if he didn't believe, then I had to let her go. If Father didn't believe that she could come back, maybe she couldn't.
With no more fight left in me anymore, I nodded my head. Regardless, he shook me so hard, just once, that it made my head wobble back and forth on my neck. "Promise me, Meliara," he demanded. "Promise me that you will never do anything like that again."
I believed what he wanted! Why couldn't he just leave me alone!?
"I p-p-romise," I sobbed.
He continued to kneel there for a long moment. He stood up and walked away without another word to anyone. He turned his back on my mother. When he had gotten several long strides away, I couldn't stand being in front of everyone anymore, so I turned around in the opposite direction and bolted for the tree-line at the edge of the meadow and disappeared into the forest. I didn't hear anyone behind me, and I was glad. I didn't want any of them following me, not even Bran.
Unfortunately, I couldn't hide from the Hill Folk. They came whether I wanted them to or not, drifting out of the shadows. They took me back to the circle I had spent the last few days in. The music they played for Mama had never stopped all this while, and I had a feeling that it would go on for a few days more. That night I danced with them. That night I mourned, instead of just grieved. I had finally accepted in my promise to Papa that my mother was not coming back. For awhile I hated him for making me promise, for making me let her go. But still I danced, and I wept, and I raged, and eventually, I fell asleep, and dreamed that my mother smiled as she played the music that the stars themselves danced to. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
POST-A/N: Well? Was it everything you were hoping for? Any suggestions for future chapters- along the same lines or not- are welcome.
In CCD, Sherwood wrote that one of the stable girls on the luggage wagon that was traveling with Ranisia wasn't quite as dead as Galdran's men thought she was, and somehow managed to get back to tell the Count that it was murder.
Also in CCD, it said that Ranisia's living relatives moved to Sles Adran after her wedding to Count Astiar.
I don't know why Mel's mom's body would be brought back like this, but for my purposes, it was.