Spoilers: Kurik. The Sapphire Rose.
Characters: Aslade, Kurik and a rather impish child-goddess by the name of Aphrael.
Mandatory Disclaimer: David Eddings owns these characters. I just dusted the three of them off and played with them for a bit.
Dear God. Not like this!
Dying on some God-forsaken knightly quest because I was too damn proud to admit that my age has slowed my reflexes.
I am not the man I once was.
I had seen an opening, and then I had attacked Adus. Our fight had been brutal and short as the ape man had gone crazy . His war axe had been swinging toward my head, when I had reflexively drawn my shield over my head to protect myself from that killing blow. Somehow, Adus managed to turn his swing into another direction and I knew that there was no way I could prevent it from landing.
His blade bit deeply into my chest, and I knew that it was a killing blow.
The end result is why my lifeblood is spilling out onto the floor while Adus is busy chewing up his troops. I suppose that it's a strategic victory, one dead on our side, and fifteen of Adus's troops dead due to Adus.
Pardon me while I don't laugh.
Of all the stubborn, stupid things to do. I would have rebuked Sparhawk or his brother knights for doing what I had just done.
"Are you trying to get yourself killed?" I would have lambasted anyone stupid enough to attack Adus single-handedly and live.
I am afraid that I'm going to have to disappoint Sparhawk. He's not going to be able to criticize me for this as my death is going to take precedence over his verbal commendation.
But, I didn't expect that my death would be this soon. I had always believed that there would be more gray in my hair, more aches in my joints that I would blame on the weather, and there would have been so many more mornings waking up next to my plump wife.
"Spar..hawk?" I whisper my lord's name, wanting to speak with him one last time.
Even now, my sight grows dim. I can hear Kalten screaming and I feel Adus kick me as though I am a cur on the streets. Sparhawk enraged is not a pretty spectacle, so I am fortunately spared that sight. From what I can hear, he is completely berserk and is killing everyone he can. So, my Lord isn't in the mood to hear my last words of wisdom.
I guess that is a good thing, because I am still not sure what I was going to say.
Would I warn him that without me, he would lack his voice of common sense? Or would I remind him that no matter how hard one tries, Death comes to us all. The secret, my Lord, is to take life's little joys and cherish them.
No. I would tell him that no matter how often the two of us have witnessed it, Death does not come quickly for its prey; instead, it toys with its victims, far longer than I thought it would.
I would have asked him for a final, merciful blow.
Even now, the fleeting seconds of my life are stretching into painful hours while I feel my blood filling my lungs, stealing my breath away. Feebly, I try to cough, trying to clear the thick liquid from my lungs, still refusing to believe that I am dying.
I managed to stand, and I shake out my chain mace. I have a hand pressed against my chest, trying to stop the bleeding, but I know that it's too late. It does not stop me, for I have to protect Sparhawk, as I have promised his father and my father all those many years ago.
If I could breathe, I would laugh at the irony of drowning on dry land.
"As.. lade?" My lips move, but I hear no sound except the faltering beat of my heart.
My love, my wife. Forgive me for dying.
I hear a scream, almost a shriek of grief, and I know that my youngest son knows that I am dying.
My God, forgive me for being ashamed of my son.
The Elene God does not answer me, for he is strict and pure, and I have broken his holy commandment to love only one woman. Even in my days of my youth, I was not an adherent to all the facets of the Elene religion, and as I have gotten older, I have move further and further away from his faith.
But now, as I die in this filthy temple raised to honor an obscene god, I beg the Elene God to forgive me my pride, for so cavalierly spurning my youngest son. How my son had tried to hide his uncontrollable tears when I had last acknowledged him. It was only then that I knew that Talen had desperately wanted my approval.
My God, let my son understand that I was never truly ashamed of him, but only that I was ashamed to admit that much like the aristocrats I had always mocked, I, too, have feet of clay. Let my son forgive the pride of an old, foolish man.
While the Elene God remains remote and silent to my dying prayers, nevertheless, I am answered, by a Goddess who is weeping sorrowfully. There is the smell of grass, and I know that Flute will not let me die alone.
I walk toward her, and I feel myself fall. Flute prevents me from falling, and she helps me to the temple floor, which suddenly smells of dirt and grass. The Stryic child-goddess cradles me in her arms, and her tears fall on my face like a spring rain.
Watch them for me, Flute.
I beg her to watch over my charges; those foolish Knights who lack basic common sense, Aslade, Elys… and my sons. All five sons of whom I am unbelievably proud.
I fight to breath, while the child-goddess holds me. Her appearance is beginning to change, becoming more strange and glorious than a mere man like myself can sanely perceive. For she is a Goddess, and at last, she is revealing herself to me. Her glory fills my eyes, and I am no longer aware of the mortal world.
I will watch them for you, and I will cradle them in my love, much as you cradled Flute in your arms. Don't fight this, Kurik. To everything there is a time and purpose, and this is your time.
The final veil is being lifted from my eyes, and unexpectedly, I remember another young Styric girl who had given me the same advice. An ugly suspicion dawns my mind, and I am no longer angry about dying. Instead, I am unbelievably irate with this deity.
Does the Pandion Order truly understand what a manipulative little minx this Goddess truly is?
Aphrael! IT WAS YOU! In the stable! At the dock! In the market place!
You're going to yell at me, aren't you, Kurik? I thought you loved me.
Flute's unearthly face is full of mock tears and I find my righteous anger weakening. She's only a little girl…
Who's been interfering with my life for as long as I can remember. The worse part is that Flute had decided to make me forget those encounters. Until now, while I am dying, I summon the memories of a young Styric girl that had appeared to me throughout my life. The dark hair, the ageless eyes, the kisses….
What right did you have? Why did you do this to me!
My last conscious thought is full of rage.
You've been manipulating since the day I was born!
The passing from the mortal realm to Heaven is strange. I have often heard others speak of the 'voyage' where one travels to the celestial realm. But, no one mentioned that you would be riding your horse and that the brisk wind would be cold and biting.
I am riding point guard as is my norm, and my Lord Sparhawk is next to me. For some reason, Sparhawk and the others ride with their faces strangely wooden and I am unable to talk to them. I am mute, trapped in a silent body, and my unasked questions scream inside of me. My horse plods along a long, ascending trail and I wonder… are we all dead? Are we all taking this final journey together?
It is not fitting that with this final journey we do not have the consolation of speech.
We stop at a large gnarled tree and I dismount. I help Flute descend from Sephrenia's horse. Like another little girl I once knew, Ehlana, Flute likes to make speeches every chance she gets. One is a queen while the other is a goddess, so I suppose that it is understandable. Her lips move, but I don't hear.
I am drawn to my saddlebag, and I pull out a small steel box. Driven by a strange compulsion, I open the box and Flute continues to talk.
And yet, I hear nothing.
I let the alien force take over my body for it knows my role in this event far better than I do, until at last, Sparhawk throws the Blue-Rose into the sea. I return to my horse and I mount, feeling unbelievably weary.
The never-ending silence grows and grows until I turn to face my companions. It is then, that I realize that I am alone, in a gray world where the sun is hidden behind layers and layers of clouds.
Panic threatens to overwhelm me, and I dismount shakily from my horse to see where my companion's trail and mine diverged. There is no trail, and when I turn again, I find that my horse has disappeared and I am utterly alone.
The light is fading, and soon it will be eternally dark.
I continue to walk in the fading light, hoping that I will find a bent blade of grass, a scuffed rock, something, anything, no matter how minute to let me know the way I am to walk. Purposely, I stop to tear a strip from the earth, the soil black against the grass. I walk two steps and I turn to find that my marker has disappeared.
As the night falls, I continue to walk until I blinded by the utter absence of light. I stumble and fall.
It is then that I give up, and accept my inexorable doom.
I hear the birds first, chirping like mad. I smell grass and flowers, and the unmistakable sound of sheep fills the air.
A cold, wet nose decides to investigate my face. I try vainly to ignore it, even as the nose continues to sniff and explore my face.
I'm dead, and I'm not sure exactly where I am. The Elene heaven is full of clouds and harps.
No where in the Bible of the Elene God is there a cold, wet nose mentioned?
I might have slept through numerous sermons in my life, but I don't believe Dolmant or Vanion had mentioned anything about cold and wet noses. I am lying on my side, on the warm ground, nestled between two large objects that are made of feathers.
The sun is warm against my face… and instead of harps….
I hear PIPES.
A all too familiar set of pipes. She knew I was awake, as she blew a welcoming trill. The baaing of lambs is becoming louder and louder, and I close my eyes together tightly.
No. She couldn't have pilfered me from my God. This isn't my Heaven.
There's been a mistake!
I had overheard a conversation between Sephrenia and Flute one day while I had been making camp and I knew that there were RULES. It had been a vastly reassuring thought to a simple man like me, to realize that even Gods and Goddesses had rules to follow and that they couldn't break them.
"I want them all!" Flute had demanded. "They love me, after all. They just fear their God. I want them and they love me, not him! I want to know why I can't have them."
"There are rules about this sort of thing. You know that far better than I do," Sephrenia had reminded Flute.
Flute had sulked and pouted while Sephrenia had sighed. I had made the mistake of laughing, and then Flute had flung herself into my arms and she had covered my faces with her kisses.
"You do love me, don't you, Kurik?"
It was her answer to every disagreement – the need to be reassured that we still loved her.
Now the cold, wet nose has decided to move away from my face. No, now it was sniffing in an area about which a little Child-Goddess shouldn't know. Then the sheep decided to investigate me and a few ewes decide to sleep on my face.
"All right!" I roared as I sat up, trying to escape from the sheep herd and the snow white hound. The sheep made a bleating sound as … my wings… began to attack them. "You win!"
I was clothed in a white silken robe, and I had wings that were easily three meters tall which threw me off balance every time I turned around. They dragged on the ground unless I specifically concentrated on them. There was even a halo that floated above my head, and I was the only person dressed like this in all of Aphrael's heaven.
The final straw was the harp lessons.
Aphrael had asked her brother Sestra to give me harp lessons for the next millennia or so. I had been telling Aphrael that I wasn't going to take any music lessons, and instead I wanted answers, immediately, when she had blown a trill and I had found myself with a harp in my hand, sitting next to Sestra. The first lesson had found me spitting nails, as the empty-headed God had given me a complete history of the harp.
All forty five centuries of it.
My hands had begun itching for my wide leather belt during my lesson, as I knew a child-goddess that needed it firmly applied to her rear. But I didn't have my belt any longer; instead, I was wearing white, silk robes.
I thanked Setra for his time, rather curtly, I admit, but I am not a knight, versed in poetry and flowery words, capable of hiding my meaning behind empty phrases. I was predicting that Aphrael and I were heading toward a fight which would horrify her Styric followers. The Styrics had made no pretense at hiding their disapproval of the grim Elene who was in their midst of their peaceful afterlife.
Blame Aphrael, I felt like telling them.
"Aphrael!" I roared, deciding that my hands would have to make do instead. No doubt Aphrael's followers would be scandalized to watch me turn her over my knee and spank her, but she was going entirely too far. Honestly, I wasn't expecting Aphrael to appear as she had ignored my summons several times already.
Aphrael unpredictably appeared, and her rosebud lips were pouted in disapproval. She even stamped her little right foot at me, which caused most of her followers to glare at me. A few of the braver ones shook their fists at me.
"Why so formal, Kurik? You don't need to call me Aphrael, you can call me Flute. You used to let me fall asleep in your lap. I loved falling asleep in your lap, as you were always so careful not to wake me." Aphrael giggled.
"I also remember that you told Sparhawk that you wanted a little girl as they smelled nice. If you had asked me then, I could have given Aslade a girl without dealing with the morning sickness. I could still do it, if you want!"
My mind shuddered at the thought of Aslade having an immaculate conception. If the two of us ever met up in the afterlife, I would never hear the end of THAT. I clamped down on that train of thought because I have purposely avoided thinking of Aslade and the others for I fear the emotional maelstrom that will be unleashed.
In my years as a squire, first to Sparhawk's father and then to Sparhawk, I have learned to suffocate my emotions and fears. I need to understand why I am here, and only then will I allow myself to grieve and mourn the life I have lost.
"She could fall asleep… and have a nice dream… about you two… in the hayloft, and then… in a few months…" Aphrael prattled on and on in the single-mindedness of a child. "I know she would like that!"
My face is crimson, as Aphrael evidently knew that Aslade and I had a special fondness for our hayloft. There are no secrets between a man and God, even if the mischievous girl wasn't my God.
"Enough! I'm not asking you as Aslade would be upset. I'm also not calling you Flute because I always thought Flute was a nice sweet girl. But now that I know what a manipulative Goddess you really are. I'm…"
Aphrael the calculating, controlling, scheming little minx began to cry as I yelled at her. Even her multi-colored rainbow sky clouded over, the sheep began to weep and then the rain began to fall. Which made me even more infuriated, as do you have any idea what wet wings smell like and how heavy they are once they become water-logged?
Plus the reek of wet wool!
"I know what you Elenes think heaven is like, so that's why I gave you wings. Do you have… any idea how hard it was for me to get them right? I had to go to the Elene God, and…" Aphrael continued to bawl. "Setras says… that you don't have any… aptitude for music…. And I thought there wasn't anything you couldn't do… I thought we could play duets!"
"I can't dance, either, so don't sign me up for that class, either," I growled.
Aphrael continued to cry, and finally, I lost my temper. I shook my fist at her and I told her bluntly to cut the theatrics.
"Enough. You know that I love you, so can we just talk?"
The sun came out quickly, the lambs stopped bawling and the rain stopped in mid-drop without more ado. My wings dried out, and I found Aphrael bussing my face with her kisses that burned my blood like holy fire.
"I knew you'd come around, though death appears to have made you a little crankier than normal. It's impossible to stay mad at me!" The little girl crowed in delight.
"Be nice," I informed her. "I'm seriously upset with you. Why am I here?"
"How about you fly someplace private so we can talk. I really worked very hard on your wings," the child-goddess advised me. "Don't you want to try them out? You can hold me while you fly, if you like."
After nearly getting myself killed, again, during our abortive takeoff, I advised Aphrael that she had to remove my wings.
"They're for show, Aphrael. You can't fly with them. The wing span is wrong, and…." I began explaining to her in detail why her wings wouldn't work. "They're not meant to carry a man's weight."
"You're too practical, Kurik. That's why I need you." Aphrael admitted. "I'll get rid of the wings."
"And the halo," I reminded her.
"I really like the affect," Aphrael said with a mock pout. "Are you sure? It makes you look rather saintly."
"The halo definitely has to go, also. If you can find my real clothes again, I'd appreciate it."
"I'll need a few kisses before I start looking for them. You're still angry with me."
Aphrael gave me back my clothes, after I had given her a few kisses. Though in the interest of accuracy, I did have to remind her that my steel cuffs that I always wore on my wrists were missing.
"I know you don't like iron or steel, but I want them. My father gave them to me when I started working for Sparhawk's father," I informed her. "Now, Aphrael, no more tricks. These look like my clothes, but… are they the right size? I don't want any more of your pranks."
I held out my clothes to her, and I gave her the look I always given my sons when I suspected that they were being less than truthful. The child-goddess flushed in embarrassment at being found out.
"Oh, bother," Aphrael sighed, as she wiggled her fingers. "You take all the fun out of being a goddess, Kurik."
"We all have our little faults, Flute."
Using Sparhawk's pet name for her seemed to please the little minx, as she shrieked in delight. There were more kisses exchanged, and before long I found myself flying.
"You're much calmer about this than Sparhawk and Sephrenia are." Flute admitted as the two of us floated in the multi-colored sky above her island.
"I'm not afraid of heights. I don't think Sparhawk or Sephrenia have ever climbed the rigging on a ship and that usually knocks the fear right out of you. Where are we going, Flute?"
"I've got something I need to do It's going to rain in Demos, and I'm going to change the weather. But, I want to let you know… I spoke with Aslade."
I floundered then, and Flute grabbed my hand.
"Relax, Kurik. She needed to know, and she needed time to grieve. It would unbelievably cruel to see Sparhawk and the knights on the farm, and for her to realize that you're not with them. She would have been shattered, Kurik, and she would always be ashamed that Sparhawk and her boys had seen her collapse like that."
"How… is … she?" I asked, fearing that question would release the emotions that I barely held in check.
"She's upset, and grieving, but Aslade's determined to make you proud of her. She is going to have Talen and his mother live on the farm with her."
I sank like a stone with that little bombshell after I ripped my hand away from hers. The ground approached at a dizzying rate, and I didn't care.
"SHE KNEW ABOUT THEM?" I screamed.
"Oh, bother!" Aphrael wiggled her fingers at me, and I found myself floating almost twenty feet off the ground.
But I didn't notice, as I was weeping uncontrollably. Aslade had known of my mistress and our child, and I grieved for the pain and sorrow I had given my wife. I was always betraying her, first with my uncontrollable wander-lust, then with my affair with Elys and now with my death, which was the ultimate unfaithfulness.
Forgive me, Aslade.
"Now, yes, Aslade knew all about you and Elys, and you better keep your mouth shut right now. I need to concentrate on the weather. If you interrupt me, I might stir up a hurricane at your funeral tomorrow." Flute informed me brusquely.
I ignored Flute, and she gave me a penetrating look. Her face softened suddenly, and she kissed me.
"Aslade never hated you for what happened. She's a very wise and loving woman."
"I don't want to talk about it." My voice is gruff with emotion.
"Kurik. Your affair with Elys was destined as the fifth son of Kurik, squire to Sparhawk, had a significant role to play. We would have failed without Talen and his skills."
"Is that supposed to make everything alright? I'm sorry, Aslade, I had a long time affair with a woman because, well, our son was destined to help save the universe? I trampled our marriage vows repeatedly, every time I was in Cimmura, and you're telling me that Aslade doesn't hate me? I hate myself for breaking them…"
"Kurik. You keep asking me why you're here. I haven't been answering you because…"
"You're a Stryic goddess who invented the word cryptic." My voice is full of the anger that I have been trying to suppress.
"Kurik! Be nice! The reason why you're here, is because…" The little girl bit her lip, and looked nervous.
I have been married long enough to know that whenever a woman looks that nervous it's for two reasons. Either she's pregnant, and not sure how you're going to react, or else… she knows that what she is about to tell you is going to get you very, very angry. As I doubt that I have gotten Flute pregnant, I have a sinking feeling in my gut.
"Oh dear God! What did you do?"
"I borrowed you, from the Elene God. I told him that I needed you to wrap up a few odds and ends and that I would return you when I was done." Flute admitted softly. "He was really busy when I was talking to him and I think just wanted me to stop bothering him. He sort of waved his hands at me and told me to return you to him when I was done."
"You're never going to be done with me, are you?"
"No, because I love you, and you're mine!"
I was here because Aphrael had bamboozled the Elene God into promising my eternal servitude to Aphrael. I had been traded like a piece of beef by the God of my childhood just because Aphrael had been harassing him and he wanted her to shut up.
I wonder what Dolmant would say about this?
I know Sparhawk would laugh. Pretty soon they'll die and when they have the big get-together at the Pearly Gates – they'll question where I am.
Which is worse? Everyone will think I've gone to Hell or… everyone knowing the truth.
"I knew you'd be angry! I wanted to show you my heaven, and …." Aphrael began sniffling uncontrollably. "It's not like your God would let you visit!"
"Put me down on the ground."
My voice was rock steady, but inside, I was a maelstrom of emotional confusion and floating above the ground was not the time and place to be having my looming breakdown. I looked at the countryside, and I picked a spot.
"Next to that elm tree. Please. Aphrael. Down on the ground, now. "
The child-goddess gave me a dark eyed look full of unfathomable sorrow.
"Are you … sure? I could put you down back over there…." Aphrael pointed to a spot on the distant horizon. "Do you really want to be put down here?"
The two of us gently floated to the ground, and I decided to sit underneath the tree. It was a tall tree, shady and there was enough of a breeze to cool my temper. It was on a hill, overlooking a familiar looking farm…
My heart froze when I saw five people walking up to the tree. One was an attractive woman, curvy and voluptuously plump with silver in her hair and she wore a dress of deepest black. The other four were boys, young men really, tall as young trees, with coarse black hair and recognizable features and they were carrying pick axes and shovels.
"No… not this… please…." I whispered. "How much pain can one man handle?"
I couldn't leave, instead, I watched my family walked closer and closer to the tree, until at last, Aslade and my boys were standing underneath the elm tree.
"Khalad. You're going to need to make sure your father's final resting spot is suitable. I'll leave you boys to handle it," Aslade ordered. "Get it done today, because he'll be home tomorrow."
"What spot would you like?" Khalad asked.
"There," my wife decided, pointing to the spot where I was sitting. "Your father always liked that particular spot as he said that there was a breeze. When the two of us were first married, we used to sit there, and talk about the future. I'll want to put a bench here, and that way I can sit next to your father during the hot summer nights and hope for a light wind."
"I'm going to lie down as I haven't really been sleeping. You boys will have to get your own lunch."
Aslade then walked briskly back to our farm house and I ran after her, shouting her name. She entered the house, and I tried to follow her but some force stopped me. I slammed my hand against the barrier, repeatedly while I continued to scream her name. For a moment, I thought she heard me, as she stopped walking and turned to face me. Then Aslade shook her head, and she walked away from the door.
"She can't hear you, Kurik," Aphrael advised me.
"Leave me alone, you've done more than enough. Why are you preventing me from entering my house?" I growled.
"It's not me," the dark haired goddess said. "It's your Elene God. Dolmant blessed your house one day, right after you and Aslade were married. Aslade had asked him, and well, Dolmant will move mountains to have some of Aslade's plum jam. Dolmant is an extremely devout man, and he was a bit over zealous in his blessing as he was imagining the jam."
Dimly, I remembered the day Dolmant had 'smudged ' my house, filling it with the scent of burning sweet grass, lavender and sage combined with the smell of the juniper wreath. I had joked with Dolmant that it seemed an almost a pagan ritual, what with the blessing of the door occurring after Aslade and I had swept salt over the doorway.
"The sage and the juniper are used to banish spirits, Kurik. You can't pass through the door or the windows as the oak is still holding the ritual. Oak remembers, not like a willow or a beech."
"He did the windows, also... but we had to replace the window frame in the dining room," I remembered.
I walked around my house, and Aphrael followed me closely. The dining room window was open just enough for me to enter, and I placed my hand carefully through the window. It entered easily, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, something was going my way.
"Aphrael, go take your divine self elsewhere," I ordered. "When I see Aslade, I don't want you nearby."
"Kurik, she won't be able to hear you. You'll just get more upset."
"Aphrael, then you need to do some of your magic so she can hear me." My voice brooked no contradiction. "You have obliterated the nature order of my life in a fit of uncaring whimsy, and in the process, you have given me more emotional pain than one man can handle. I am not a knight, and able to withstand trauma upon trauma without it affecting me."
"But.. but… I just wanted to show you my heaven!" The goddess began to weep again. "You didn't mind when I showed off my island, you said it was pretty, and my heaven is…."
"Whatever the reason, you have ripped my heart open, Aphrael. Apparently, your divinity doesn't allow you to understand how much it hurt me to see my family digging my grave site. Leave me alone! Find someone else to see your multi-colored clouds and white dog, as this experience is breaking my heart."
That said and done, I sank down to the ground, and I started to weep uncontrollably, my deep grief at last unleashed. The dark haired child-goddess hugged me, and she wept also. In time, my deep grief was eased though I knew that it would color my after-life forever.
Flute was sitting in my lap, and she was resting her head against my shoulder. For now, I was trying to prepare myself for facing Aslade. I wasn't looking forward to the encounter as she wouldn't be able to heard me or sense my presence.
"Kurik?" Her soft voice asked.
"I still love you," I assured her which unfortunately was true. The reason I was furious with the little girl was because I loved her.
"No, I wanted to let you know that… I'm really sorry," Flute admitted.
"It's OK. A divinity like yourself can't be expected to understand everything," I teased. "You're too busy making rainbow clouds, and wings that don't work."
"You're right. I've been … tampering… with your life."
I wasn't surprised when she kissed me several times after confessing to that bit of news. The two of us were still emotionally raw from the wounds we had both inflicted on each other and she was fearful of hurting me anew.
"I know. It was ten years ago, but I can still remember how I felt. Sparhawk had been exiled and then nearly killed in that godforsaken hell of Rendor, the Pandions order banished to their to their chapter house, and then… I destroyed my vow to Aslade."
Carefully, I kissed the whimsical, terrible deity in my lap.
"I was ashamed of myself. I had broken promises to so many people, my father, Sparhawk and his father, that shattering my marriage was the final straw. I couldn't help myself; Elys was barely more than a child and like a spring morning. I tried to fight it, but I was drawn to her, like a moth to a flame. When that period in my life was over, I wanted to die rather than face Aslade."
"I know, Kurik."
The dark haired goddess snuggled closer to me.
"But you stopped me. I remember I was almost to Demos when you caught up with me, and that silly lamb of yours that was caught on that rock, afraid to go up or down, but willing to stay perched on that rock until she starved to death."
"I thought it was a good metaphor for your life," giggled Flute.
"I know, and I remember your last words to me, that everything happens for a reason, and that sometimes, we're so blinded by our fear and emotions that we can't see beyond the moment to the greater good."
Flute pushed herself away from me, and she gave me a dirty look. "I don't think I said it quite like that. That sounds… one of Vanion's sermons."
"Then you waved your fingers, and I somehow forgot about our encounter, until I died. But I carried your message in my heart all these years. When I finally saw Aslade again, I vowed that I would never willingly hurt her, and… now I've left without even a final goodbye."
Carefully, I began stroking Flute's hair and she cuddled closer to me.
"So, since you've stolen my soul, appropriated my afterlife and high jacked my heaven, I am requesting a boon from you, Flute. Let me say goodbye to my Aslade."
Flute nodded her head. "Aslade will be asleep in an hour or so, and then you can go upstairs and lie next to her. You can talk to her, and she'll believe that she's dreaming."
"But… this is highly irregular because I'm only supposed to answer prayer requests in Stryic. You'll need to take lessons," she giggled. "I think Herkas or Romalic might be willing to tutor you."
"You're keeping me, aren't you?" I teased.
"Forever and ever, you're mine! Besides, I need your help. In a few months, I'll need someone to keep an eye on the shop while I'm being born. It's usually a little distracting the first months I'm reincarnated, so… usually I get a member of my family to take care of things. But, you and I are going to be family in twenty or so years, so I think there won't be a problem."
"What?" I questioned.
Aphrael was on a roll, and she ignored me as she continued to discuss her upcoming wedding.
"I think you're going to be the nicest father-in-law that I have ever had, well, besides being the only father-in-law that I ever had, because I can talk to you and you don't mind scolding me when I've been bad."
"Try wicked, young lady. Which son of mine are you marrying? I hope Aslade doesn't mind serving mutton at the wedding feast."
"Sparhawk and Ehlana will take care of the wedding costs, and I'll have trained Talen to eat it by then. I mean Aslade trained you to eat your squash…"
"SPARHAWK? Talen?" I sputtered.
"Talen. He's such a nice boy, just like his father, and his mothers."
"Mothers." Flute stressed. "Now why don't we sit here and I can tell you what you're going to have to do while I'm away."
"Wake up! She's asleep, Kurik!"
I woke with a start, and I shook my head. It had been a rough several … days… weeks.. whatever… since I died, and when Flute had started droning about how I would have to hand color each butterfly while she was away, I had fallen asleep.
"Let me look at you, I did some magic while you were sleeping, and I want to make sure I put everything back where it's suppose to be. Stand up now!"
"What did you do to me? She's going to recognize me, right?"
"Take a look. Kurik. Don't you trust me?"
I gave her a long flat look, and tried not to mention recent events. The little goddess pouted, and pulled a mirror out from somewhere. I stared into the eyes of a familiar looking stranger and I realized that the stranger was me.
When I was… eighteen.
"My hair! It's black!" I exclaimed. "And the scar…"
I pulled my vest up, and the long scar I had gotten from Adus was gone.
"Kurik! Time's a wasting!"
Flute was wrong as Aslade was awake and brushing her long hair that was only slightly touched with silver. She always brushed her hair before she went to bed, a hundred strokes, and I could tell that she was counting carefully.
When I was alive, I would sneak up behind her, and mess up her hair. My wife would threaten me with her silver brush, and she would have to restart her count. I stood behind my wife while she brushed her hair, and I gazed at her reflection in the mirror. She looked exhausted and care-worn, and I carefully put my hands on her shoulders.
"Aslade? I'm here, I promised you that I would say goodbye before I left." I whispered that softly, not expecting a response, but still hoping.
My touch seemed to startle her, and she dropped her hair brush.
"Kurik?" Her voice was full of unshed tears. "Dear God, this is the third time today that I thought I heard you. Bad enough that I thought I saw you sitting underneath the elm tree, but … now I'm hearing you."
Our hands touched as she reached for her hairbrush and I saw her hand begin to tremble. Carefully, she placed the silver brush on her cabinet.
"Kurik. Tomorrow's the day you're coming home. I'll do my best, I promise you." Aslade vowed.
"I know you will," I assured her.
Aslade crawled into our big bed, and I held her while she wept herself to sleep.
The two of us were lying in our hayloft and I began kissing the side of her neck. There was a spot just behind her right ear that made Aslade wild and I felt her body shudder in delight when I began attacking it.
"Kurik!" She exclaimed even as one of my hands starting untying the laces on her bodice.
"Promise me, Aslade. You've been after the boys and making sure there aren't any thistles in the hay." I whispered. "I'll be quite upset if a thistle suddenly should attach itself to a delicate part of my anatomy."
I slid my hand further into her bodice and I cupped her left breast, enjoying the feel of it in my hand. There is nothing like a plump woman's breasts to attract my interest, and Aslade's breasts never failed to excite me. The swell, the curve…. I was tempted to cut the laces on her bodice off because one of the laces had become tangled into a knot of epic proportions.
Let's see… where's my dagger?
"Who else could it be?" I growled.
I stopped kissing her and I removed my hand from its pleasurable jail in order that I could turn her face to look at me.
"Have you been entertaining other people in our hayloft, Aslade?" I asked gruffly. "You'll need to tell me their names. I'll give them a haunting they won't forget."
"Kurik," my wife exclaimed. "You're…"
"I am, but I wouldn't leave you without saying goodbye."
We began kissing each other hungrily, and it was wonderful to have the sexual stamina of a young man again.
I know that Aslade was quite happy with my endurance.
"It's almost morning, Kurik," Aslade informed me. "And soon I'll wake up from this dream and my life will be empty."
Our fast and furious love making had lasted for most of the night, but as the dawn drew closer and closer, I had slowed the pace down considerably. I concentrated on teasing her with just my lips and fingers, wanting to feel Aslade quiver and tremble against me while we talked.
"You'll probably sleep most of the day away, Aslade."
"I'm a farmer's wife," her voice trembled slightly, and I kissed her tears away. "And we never sleep the day away. There's always something that needs to be done. I have people arriving today, important people, and I need to make sure that everything is perfect. I don't want you to be embarrassed by a dusty fireplace."
"Nothing you could do would ever embarrass me."
I tugged her body closer to mine, and I kissed her hard.
"Promise me something, Aslade."
"That you'll always know that I love you. I always have, and I always will. I would do anything not to hurt you."
"Kurik, I'm taking Talen and his mother into our house," Aslade stated softly. "It's time for all your sons to know each other."
I started to weep, regretting my betrayal and Aslade began stroking my hair.
"Silly, silly Kurik. I've always known about her and Talen."
Her voice was soft and affectionate.
"I'm so sorry, Aslade…"
"It's water under the bridge," she whispered. "You're leaving me soon… aren't you? You can't stay…Kurik… love me... love me enough so I can remember this during all those long lonely nights before I join you."
"Aslade, I may not be able to join you in the Elene God's heaven," I confessed slowly, not wanting to admit this final, ultimate betrayal.
"Kurik! You haven't gone to Hell, have you?" Aslade gasped.
"The Pandion order prays to a Styric Goddess for assistance. That's what their magic truly is, prayers to a Stryic Goddess. Apparently the Pandion's Goddess has shanghaied me from the Elene God's heaven. She told the Elene God that she needed me for a little bit, and she's not planning on giving me back. "
"Another woman has fallen under your sway?" questioned Aslade in a very soft voice. "How can I possibly compete with a Goddess that loves you, Kurik? Bad enough Elys is beautiful but a goddess?"
"No… no… she's a little girl, Aslade. She looks upon me as her father," I explained. "She has given me permission to scold her."
"What's her name? This goddess who loves my Kurik? Is she a jealous goddess?"
I thought long and deep before I answered that question, as truthfully Aphrael was a very jealous goddess. We were only supposed to love her.
There was a sharp, discordant sound of pipes, a foot stomp and a plaintive, "KURIK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!"
"Aphrael…" I admitted.
"Then I will turn away from the Elene God, and pray to Aphrael that we will meet again in her heaven," Aslade decided. "That little Stryic girl… the one that came to tell me…"
"That's Aphrael…" I then pulled Aslade closer to me, and gruffly commented, "Time's awasting, Aslade. The sun is rising soon and we have to get out of the hayloft before the cock crows."
Aslade pulled me close against her and we hungrily began to kiss.
I woke to the sound of Aphrael singing. It was a plaintive, grieving melody but unexpectedly, there was a change in the key, as though the sun came out, and peace, solace and hope began to permeate the melody.
When she stopped singing, she nodded her head happily.
"That's done," she said. "Now Kurik, time's awasting. I have butterflies that need to be painted. Grab a paintbrush."
The child-goddess crawled into my lap, gently holding a butterfly in her open hand. She had a paintbrush and she began to paint the butterfly's wing.
"You see, each wing needs to be perfectly balanced, else they won't be able to fly straight," Aphrael explained. "So each wing has to be carefully painted, Kurik."