Notes: This started out as a stand-alone fic, but about halfway through I realized it was the third and final part of "A Garden of Our Own," so I reworked it to fit with the first two stories. I already used "Rosemary" as a chapter title in another fic, but it just fits so perfectly for this that I had to reuse it. And "Song" is my favorite Christina Rossetti poem of all time. (Also please note that the previous two parts have been edited somewhat since their original posting, "Winter of Discontent" in particular.) 3/29/2008: EDIT FOR SCENE BREAKS
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree.
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
- Christina Rossetti, "Song"
It is spring when she finally returns to Caer Pelyn, and there are wrinkles on her face and silver in her hair, and the ache in her heart cuts more deeply than the ache within her bones. The path to the village is wet and green; birdsong fills the air, as does the clean scent of rain and grass and flowers blooming. The sun peers down through the gaps in the trees, parting the morning mists that trail about her as she climbs on, alone.
She is surprised, for her memories of the area consist primarily of shadow and craggy rock. She is surprised, too, that she even remembers the way, still, even now, so many years later -- something so trivial and insignificant, when there is so much else she has already forgotten.
It is late in the afternoon when she reaches the village entrance, and there she is greeted by a tall, gangly old man with faded, peppery red hair and a delightfully mischievous grin.
"Eirika! You're here! We were worried you'd gotten lost."
For a moment she hesitates.
"Ewan?" she asks, tentatively.
"That's right!" Ewan beams, and Eirika is struck by how much has changed, how much has remained the same. "Saleh went out to collect some herbs, or so he said, but I suspect he's actually looking for you. Come on, you must be tired from that trek. Amelia's got some good stuff cooking for dinner."
It is true that she is tired. She feels faint and ill from the height, and she is worn out from a week of hiking up slowly from the base of the mountain, step by step, breath after breath. She does not have the vigor she once did. And so despite her pride, she gratefully accepts the arm Ewan offers her, and leans slightly on him for support as they make their way through the village. An old woman, after all, thinks Eirika, has no more use for pride.
The village does not seem much larger or smaller than she recalls it being; the population, it seems, has remained mostly constant. Ewan, as if reading her mind, says, "Most of the younger generation leave the mountain when they're old enough to strike out on their own. Restless, or dissatisfied with life here. Want to see the world and all." He gestures wildly with wide, capable hands. "I can understand, of course. I was the same, when I was their age."
After a brief pause, he adds, "Most, but not all. Some of them stay behind, whether out of duty or because of the comfort of familiarity. And a few of those who leave eventually come back."
"Like you?" says Eirika.
"Like me," Ewan replies, grinning.
"It's strange, hearing you talk like an old man," Eirika says then, a slight smile playing about her lips, and Ewan laughs and laughs.
"According to Saleh, I haven't matured a bit! -- And probably never will. But I'm glad to hear that someone thinks differently!"
"No, no," she says, smile growing wider. "You'll always be a boy at heart."
Ewan winks, and a laugh escapes her mouth.
"Now that's the Eirika I remember!" exclaims Ewan, his voice muffled slightly as he ducks down and disappears through the door of the house they have just arrived at.
As she follows him inside, Eirika tries to remember the last time she laughed, and isn't sure what to think when she realizes that she cannot.
Later that evening they sit around the low table, still waiting for Saleh to return. The food is simple and plain, but filling.
"You know," says Eirika. "I almost didn't recognize the way up here. It's become so green and lovely."
Ewan snorts. "You just happened to get here at the right time. It's spring, now, but you'll see soon enough -- spring passes quickly in these parts."
"But it's true that it's not the same as it used to be," says Amelia, with a look of warning at Ewan, for she has perhaps sensed Eirika's mild discomfort at his words. "Every year we've been here the trees and the plants just seem to grow thicker, more lush."
"Ever since the world was changed, and the shadows departed the land..." Ewan replies in a tone that Eirika cannot tell is sincere or teasing.
But before Amelia can shoot back a retort, the door opens, and Eirika looks up to see Saleh standing there, perhaps a litle aged, perhaps a little wiser, but hardly changed at all from the man she had known, so many years ago.
"Lady Eirika," he says, solemn as ever, and inclines his head. "Welcome back."
In that moment, something within her is released, and she presses her hands to her face.
The irises in their garden had bloomed the day he passed away. She remembered this because they had been his favorite flowers, and hers, and it had seemed to her unfair that he should go without having a chance to see them in full blossom, one last time.
She had known the day was coming months before it happened, though he had said nothing, and she had said nothing either. They had always known, but always she had refused to let it hang over them, like some shadowy cloud. They had been through darkness and gloom enough already. They deserved their happiness.
And happiness they had had, years and years of happiness. And such happiness. They had grown old together, and watched their children enter adulthood, and their children's children come into the world.
But in the weeks after his passing, all that seemed but a distant dream. In a single moment her joy had turned to bitterness, the world turned dull and colorless, and she found no peace in the hours and the days. When her father had died, years ago, and when their dear friend Lyon had been lost to them forever, she had thought herself beyond all grief. She had remade herself into a strong woman, a woman with no time for tears, a woman dedicated heart and soul to her brother the king, and to the country they had rebuilt and toiled tirelessly for, and ruled together.
And so it was that she found that she had forgotten the taste of tears. In her place the heavens wept, and petals scattered in the wind and on the ground, and she locked up their garden and buried the key deep within the earth. And when, after the funeral, she rode away from the villa that had been their home for so many years to return to her brother's side, she did not once look back.
Just as Ewan warns, spring in the mountains soon passes. The creek dries to a mere trickle, and with it the surrounding flora turns withered and brown. The mornings and nights remain gray and cool, but during the day the sun beats down mercilessly upon the land.
In their own garden, where they grow the fruits and vegetables that sustain them throughout the year, Amelia, her daughter, and Eirika toil, kneeling side by side in the crumbling soil, pulling out the yellowed weeds. Saleh and Ewan have been studying the properties of a newly discovered shrub species by the creek, but stop back by the village every now and then to bring the women much-needed water and pore over thick, heavy tomes in the relative cool of the house.
They work together in companionable silence, the young mother and the old soldier and the former queen, sweat pouring down their faces and their backs. Sometimes one or the other speaks, but more often they remain quiet and wordless. Once or twice Amelia's daughter breaks into song, and after a few lines Amelia joins her. Eirika does not know the words or tunes, but listens to their voices, joined in the stillness of the air.
At sundown, Amelia's daughter leaves to see to her husband and baby, and Amelia and Eirika are left alone. They watch together as the sun sinks below the horizon, coloring the land in red.
"You know, I always really admired you, Eirika," says Amelia.
Eirika laughs lightly in response. "Goodness, I had no idea."
"Yeah. Most of the other recruits were men -- boys, really. I was one of the only female foot soldiers in the entire army, and the wyvern riders were of course all men, not like the Frelian pegasus knights. There was General Selena, of course, everyone knew about her, but she was a mage, and the way people looked at me sometimes I think I must have been the only female lanceman ever to exist! And I was so weak then, weakest and slowest of all the recruits -- but look at me now!" Amelia laughs and holds out her hand. Eirika takes it, and is almost envious, but not surprised, to find her grip still firm. The other woman's diminutive figure belies a wiry strength that has not diminished with age, and her movements are even now filled with an easy grace.
"But before I met you," continues Amelia, "I never knew a woman could be so refined and elegant -- I mean, a princess! So kind and so compassionate, and yet so deadly with a weapon."
"What about Queen Ismaire of Jehanna?"
"Oh, but of course! But she was a grown woman, and queen of a kingdom of mercenaries, and you were just a few years older than me, yet already leading your own troops into battle. Really, you don't know how much I worshipped you." Amelia grins, embarrassed at the memory despite all the years that have passed, and the fact that they are now both old and gray.
Eirika smiles softly. "I was so young then, and so inexperienced. I barely had any idea what I was doing. If it weren't for --" She breaks off, letting her sentence dangle unfinished as she gazes off into the distance. "I must confess, I always envied you and Ewan as well. To have had the courage to go traveling around the world by yourselves at your age, to see all that life held, experiencing all kinds of different things..."
"We were all young then," Amelia says. "Sure, we saw a lot, and got to help a lot of people, but we did a lot of stupid things and got into a lot of trouble, too. You know what Ewan's like." She laughs. "It all worked out in the end, though, didn't it?"
"I suppose it did," says Eirika. They had vanquished the Demon King at the last, she and her brother, leading their little army to victory without any losses. No losses, save for the countless innocents who had fallen along the way, and for their father, dead almost a year by then, and Lyon... Poor, gentle Lyon.
"But Eirika," says Amelia then, almost shyly. "If you had wanted to see the world -- I mean, I know you and your brother were busy with rebuilding -- but surely, once things had settled down a bit, you could have taken the time to travel around for a while."
"I..." Eirika begins, then stops. "No, you're right. I suppose I could have. But I suppose it just never really occurred to me... Because by then, I had already made my choice."
"Oh," whispers Amelia.
"I have no regrets," says Eirika. "It was the only choice; I could not have been happy had I made any other. I would have wondered, regretting, for the rest of my life, and I did not want to live a life of regrets."
But if she does not regret, what sorrow it is that she feels now, she cannot say.
They had lived a life of impossibilities. It was impossible that they should have fallen in love, impossible that war should have come to their peaceful land, that Grado should have invaded, that the castle should have fallen, impossible that he should have survived that dreadful injury, that long ago summer night, and impossible that they should have won, in the end, against a Demon King made impossibly real from darkness and lore.
Five years after the terrible quake of Grado, after the sudden influx of refugees escaping the devastation, and when Renais had finally returned to some semblance of stability, though not yet to its former glory, she and her brother had reinstated an old yearly midsummer's festival, to celebrate the sun and the height of summer, and to commemorate the Grado invasion, now an event of distant memory, but still deeply entrenched in the hearts of the people.
That first year, their children had been not yet four, and the streets had been thick with the scent of sweet jasmines from Jehanna, a wedding gift from King Joshua and his fair queen years ago, blooming in small white clumps like little stars dotting the evening. And they had watched, smiling, over the little twins, as Sir Kyle's young son led them in a children's game of monsters and knights and princesses.
But in the end, the festivities had been marred: she had seen him wincing in the shadows when he thought no one looking, hand brushing against the old injury, that grotesque scar that lay hidden beneath his clothes. And she had taken him and the children aside then, and insisted that they retire early.
"Cormag wrote to me once, before he disappeared, about the man who gave me this. He told me that Valter had gone insane after wielding a cursed lance, a dark weapon that thirsted for blood and drove men mad," he said, later that night. "Perhaps this wound, too, is cursed."
"Don't speak of such things," she had said, glad that the children were sound asleep, and could not overhear. "We'll have a healer look at it tomorrow morning."
"It's probably nothing. I strained it, perhaps, earlier today."
"Yes, perhaps," she'd agreed, though in their hearts they both knew better.
She had thought then of that night, that long ago night, that terrible, nightmarish scene from the past. Soldiers swarming everywhere, fires blazing, her father trapped with the last of his men within the throne room. The madman upon his mad beast, and his vicious, crazed laughter...
The warm breeze upon her face as they galloped away into the night, leaving everything far, far behind.
In the fall, a group of traveling merchants from Carcino passes through the village. The leader of the group comes yearly and is well known to Saleh, who has been head of the village ever since his grandmother passed away; even so, he allows them to stay only after receiving a promise that they will soon leave.
"Rest assured, Saleh, we'll be departing soon enough -- winter's coming, and if we stay too long we'll find ourselves caught right in the middle of a snowstorm up here in these mountains!" says the merchant. "And of course we couldn't possibly impose on you good folks all the way until next spring!"
The merchant laughs. His jolliness is forced, but there is no denying that he is a perceptive man. He greets both Ewan and Amelia like old friends, but when he comes upon Eirika sitting quietly in the corner, he glances shrewdly at her and says, "Oh? And who is this? I don't recall seeing you around."
"She is an old friend of mine, whom I met during my travels as a young man," says Saleh. "She has just recently suffered a great loss, and decided to remove herself from the outside world and stay here for some time to ease her sorrows. I would ask that you not trouble her."
"Oh?" repeats the merchant, still suspicious. But he does not question them further. "I see. You have my understanding, Mistress. Excuse me."
Eirika is glad for Saleh's intrusion, glad for his consideration, and that no one can intrude upon her grief with false condolences. She is glad that she is stripped of all identity, here in this place -- no longer the former queen of Renais, but a mere widow.
Harvest has passed, and there is little left for Eirika to do. Everyone is making preparations for the coming winter, and she helps where she can, but more often than not she finds herself sitting idly outside, gazing at nothing in particular. She misses the changing of colors and sense of gay festivity that autumn once heralded for her. Here in the mountains there are only pine and dead, bare snags, and a sense that all time has stilled for her alone, while she watches life pass by before her eyes.
Saleh comes to keep her company sometimes, when he is not busy with Ewan and their studies, or with his duties as the village head. He had loved her once, she knows. Though perhaps love is too strong a word, when they had been barely more than strangers, in the end. He and she had been from different worlds, even more distant and alien than a knight and his lady -- he occupied with his beloved student and the little dragon girl, and she with the war and her brother and Lyon and Seth...
Even so, in the few times they had spoken together, she had sensed his growing regard for her, and she could not deny that she too had found herself fascinated by his wise, quiet ways. She wonders, idly, sometimes, if things might have been different. In another time, another place --
But those days are long past now. She gave away all her love long ago, and she knows that the care he shows her now is but a shadow and a memory of past affections.
The first evening of the merchants' stay, Saleh comes to her as she watches the lengthening shadows of dusk. For some time they sit together, unspeaking. But then Eirika says, remembering, "Whatever happened to Ewan's sister? Tethys and Gerik and their band? Amelia mentioned that the merchants used to hire them as guides and guards while passing by these parts."
His silence does not surprise her, for moreso than anyone else she has ever known, Saleh is a man who considers his words carefully before he speaks. But when speak he does at last, his words are most unexpected.
"They died many years ago."
It is a great shock to her, though it should not be. Somehow, she has always assumed they would retire, and live out their lives in peace. She realizes now that they could not have, could never have, for their work was so much a part of them that they could hardly have given it up, lest they lose their very sense of self. And no mercenary expects to die of old age, not even those of the caliber of the famed Desert Tiger.
And yet she cannot help but ask, "How?"
"A mission gone awry. They went down together, fighting. Gerik and Tethys and Marisa. Only one of their band survived, and escaped here to find me, but despite all our aid, he succumbed to his injuries a week later."
Though Saleh speaks in his usual calm, quiet manner, Eirika senses more emotion in his voice now than she has ever before. She has, after all, spent a lifetime listening to words unsaid.
"I never realized," she says, even knowing that nothing she says will change reality. "Ewan..." She trails off, and neither of them speak again for some time.
"Why does it hurt so much to love?" she murmurs at last, more to herself than to her companion.
"Because we are human," he replies, "and even the most solitary of us long for connection, however shallow, however transient. Ever we search outside, seeking for something, someone, never even knowing what it is we seek for. We forget that we must look inwards, for only within ourselves can we find the truth."
"I will not say that time heals all wounds," he adds, a moment later. "Even now Ewan mourns his lost sister, and I still mourn my friend. But..." He hesitates. "Life goes on. We live."
"Life goes on," she repeats softly, but it does not hurt any less.
It had been autumn when they wed, and autumn when their children were born.
Though theirs had been a simple wedding compared to the lavish ceremony Innes and L'Arachel would hold years later, there had been dancing and singing and food and wine and laughter, and merry chrysanthemums trailing from her bouquet. The knights had made countless rowdy jokes in teasing when they thought she was not listening, and even her brother had been surprised at how dearly the people loved them, when all they had been expecting was gossip and disapproval.
"You see?" she had told her new husband when they were left to their privacy at last, that night. "Everything went just fine."
He'd winced, perhaps from the alcohol, or perhaps at the memory of some of the dirtier jokes he had been forced to endure, and she had laughed, shrugging off her chrysanthemum-patterned outer robes with a slight, secret smile.
Her pregnancy some years later was a difficult one, and though he said nothing, she could see how he fretted. He had become more and more overprotective of her than he had been in years, until at last, feeling crowded, she had insisted that he stop. Years of obeying the orders of his lieges had been perhaps too deeply ingrained in him, for he had done as she asked, though his concern clearly still remained.
After a long, painful labor, she had given birth at last to a pair of twins, a boy and girl, much like she and her brother themselves.
I am happy, she remembered thinking then, as her husband sat at her side, gazing down with awkward joy at their newborn children. I am the happiest person in the world.
The merchants leave. Winter arrives at long last, harsh and bitter. The days are cold, and the nights even colder, and the villagers spend their time mostly indoors. Despite the stores of food they have laid aside throughout the year, supplies are meager, and some nights they go hungry.
Those nights, they sit together around the fireplace and tell stories. Ewan tells outrageous tales of his and Amelia's youthful exploits, filling the house with laughter. Sometimes, when he is in a more thoughtful mood, he waxes poetic, remembering greener days and haunting landscapes. Amelia talks of the kindnesses they have seen, and the injustices they have seen, and the little things in life: her daughter's first words, the merchant who saw his wife and son but once a year, the Frelian fisherman and his single-minded dedication to his elderly mother.
Saleh says little, though sometimes Ewan persuades him to share from his vast store of knowledge. On those rare occasions, he speaks of dragons and princesses, of ancient civilizations bright and glorious, of their decline and fall, of old dark creatures wondrous and terrifying, and of the brave men and women who fought for humanity. They are old, familiar stories by now to Ewan and Amelia, and yet they devour them greedily, listening raptly to his words. Eirika too finds herself mesmerized, her dormant imagination roused by these half-forgotten tales.
She is the only one who never speaks. She has no stories to tell, she thinks, or perhaps she is simply not ready to share them yet. But she listens long into the night, and forgets the hunger gnawing at her stomach and the cold battering at her very bones, and is surprised when she realizes how low the fire has burned.
It seems to her incredible that this should be so.
"How do you all manage to survive like this?" she asks Saleh one day. "Year after year after year."
To her surprise, he grants her a rare smile.
"The stories sustain us," he answers simply, quietly. "The stories, and the memories."
The night he proposed to her it had been snowing, and within the warm comfort of the room she had asked, "Do you remember? The first time we ever met?"
In the firelight the lines of his face had been softened, and his normally stern, reserved expression glowed with quiet but effusive joy. "You were but a little girl, then."
"Yes," she said, leaning against his shoulder, her fingers entwined with his. "And you just newly promoted."
"I remember. It was not yet the solstice, and I was nervous, but so proud, and excited to have such happy news to report back to my family."
"You? Nervous?" She turned to him, smiling. "Tell me, then. Were you nervous as well just now, when you proposed to me?"
"Nervous? I was near shaking in my boots."
"Did you think I would reject you?"
"Yes," he replied, seriously. "I had turned you away and been cold to you, hoping that in time you would forget me, and that we would once more be but lord and liege, and nothing more."
"I could never forget you, Seth."
"I know," he murmured. "I know. But I had other doubts as well. For I am but a knight, and too old for you..."
"Too old! I am a grown woman, and you are not ten years my senior."
"I can see that you have given much thought to this."
"But of course. In my spare hours I think of nothing but you, you know."
She saw that she had finally embarrassed him too much to continue, and laughed, reaching out playfully with one hand to trace the line of his jaw. But still she could not resist one final question. "Would you have ever changed your mind on your own, had my brother not changed it for you?"
"King Ephraim did no such thing," he said, clearly still flustered. "He merely thought to make it clear to me that, well, if we were to... if I was to... That he would not disapprove."
She smiled. "You mean instead of ordering you outright to propose to me, he hinted very strongly at it. I see he is finally beginning to learn the art of subtlety! Though I imagine he must have been tired of watching us dance awkwardly around each other all the time. It can't have been easy, trying to work in that kind of atmosphere."
Even he could not help but smile at that, and for some time they sat together in an easy silence.
"I told you once," she said softly then, "that it was on the night the castle fell, when I first forgot my place and my duty... But the truth is, I cared for you long before that night, but never knew it until then."
She did not tell him that she remembered still that solemn boy, hardly a young man, so many years past -- that gallant gesture, and the first of the winter roses.
It was some time before he replied. "I cared for you first as King Fado's daughter and the princess to whom my life was dedicated in service. But I cannot say when it was that my feelings turned to something more... I know only that once I started, I could not stop, as improper as I knew it to be. I never forgot my duty, it is true... But neither could I forget you, Eirika."
And she knew that was as close to an answer, a confession, that she would ever get from him. And the way he had spoken her name at last, without title or rank, filled her with such joy that she could not speak, until at last she whispered, "Seth..."
She wrapped her arms about his neck, and as he held her close to him, their lips met, and they were both of them filled with a warmth that even the howling wind outside could never destroy.
The snows thaw, replaced by warm rains, and the sun peeks out from behind the gray clouds, and spring comes once more to Caer Pelyn. Birdsong fills the air, and the world is wet and green.
There are no shadows here, but the memory of them: rising and falling like the tide.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain.
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
I love Seth/Eirika beyond words (they're one of my main "ships" of the game), but Saleh/Eirika intrigues me. Their supports are really nonromantic, so reading their shared ending surprised me, and made me really wonder. As it is, I don't think the scenario laid out in this fic series is all that unlikely. Seth will almost certainly predecease Eirika for various possible reasons, and I'd like to think she would choose to move on. Not necessarily "with another man", of course, but the Saleh/Eirika relationship has a very unique dynamic to me that is not really your stereotypical "romance." Nor even the master/student thing I have seen some people writing. But yeah, basically, there's a reason I labeled this fic "drama/angst" and not "romance/angst" or something similar -- the only real romance in all three parts is Cormag/Tana, and the various established relationships like Eirika/Seth and L'Arachel/Innes.
As for the implied Ewan/Amelia, I generally don't have much preference between this pairing and the apparently more popular Franz/Amelia, but for the purposes of this fic series it has to be Ewan/Amelia, because as I see it, the two pairings are embodiments of completely different ideals. So to speak. And I needed Ewan/Amelia in this fic to further emphasize various themes that wouldn't work with Ewan alone.
Finally, I suppose this is the place to say that though I tried to keep game dialogue to a minimum, I did reference and incorporate bits and pieces of the script and support conversations (credit goes to the people who compiled the files on GameFAQs), particularly in "The Winter of Our Discontent".
(Whoohoo, FINALLY done with this. I CAN TOO FINISH WHAT I START.)