Well, this is it, folks. I admit I've been sitting on this chapter a few days because I'm not sure I like it. I hope I didn't go overboard... I just wanted to make sure all my loose ends were tied up. I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading. And, for those of you who have taken the time to review, I can't thank you enough :)
Everything heals, eventually, if you give it enough time. Conveniently, time is something I have an inexhaustible supply of.
Rebuilding the flora was simple enough, thanks to the sisters. Their magic can coax even the most stubborn flower to bloom. And the drive to do so had come seemingly naturally to them. They had not needed to be asked... and they appeared to enjoy the work.
I had returned from my mission of delivering that child back to his parents, sore and exhausted and fit to do nothing but curl around my Christine and sleep. The last thing I wanted to do was decide what to do with all the people left behind in the palace.
They had looked so lost as I left... it was overwhelming. I knew I had thrown their entire world into disarray, and I did have the capacity to feel at least a minute amount of remorse over it. Contrary to popular opinion, I am not completely sociopathic—at least, not anymore—and I felt I owed it to them to, at the very least, point them in a general direction before leaving them to their own devices.
How arrogant I had been! How presumptuous! I actually had images of people huddled in burned out caves, starving to death. What a fool! That I believed, but for a moment, that these creatures who had endured millennia would not possess the skills for simple survival. The Erlking may have led and oppressed them, but he was no nursemaid to the helpless. And, indeed, the women possess powers no human—besides myself—can control. My ignorance then astounds me, even still, and I do not know whether to laugh or cry at the memory.
When had returned, the men were already hard at work hauling away dead trees and fallen limbs. I saw a few with axes, salvaging uncharred pieces for firewood. A few hollered orders to the others, leaders forged from necessity.
The women were, perhaps, more impressive, as they turned over handfuls of blackened ground and brought it back to life. I do not believe I had ever seen them so gentle, so focused. I had been vaguely aware that this side of them had existed... I had just never witnessed it before, and certainly not in any concerted effort. The genuine grief the displayed over a bunch of dead weeds and the tenderness they took in reviving them might have been moving, had I given enough energy to dwell on it.
I have an incomplete memory of what happened next. I think some people spoke to me, and I hope my answers were coherent. My attention was primarily focused on finding Christine. I felt the warm glow of her soul—stronger now that she loved me—but I was not content until I had her beside me. I never am. Perhaps that makes me pathetic... weak. But I sensed a mild distress in her that eased when I put my arms around her, so I believe her feelings echo my own.
And so we slept. And, when we woke, we rebuilt.
Establishing a society took considerably more effort on my part. Some days I still wonder why that is. They managed to put an entire ecosystem to rights but could not stop squabbling long enough to arrange any functioning community.
And, further, I still wonder why we would consider any of that my problem at all. I had Christine and had more or less forgotten why we came back in the first place, so I was more than content to take her with me to some deserted island somewhere and never be bothered again.
It certainly would not have been the first time I had left a community to fend for itself. I had never felt guilty about it before, and if I am to be honest, I really did not feel guilty about it this time either. I was gruff with those who asked my advice. Told more than a few people where I thought they could stuff their opinions, sneered at the problems they brought to me. Altogether, I made it very clear how their neediness disgusted me. And yet they were relentless. It was, I believe, the first time my presence has been truly desired... even depended upon. Is it possible to be both flattered and repulsed? I cannot pinpoint my emotion in this, but I believe it lied somewhere between the two.
For a time, I was certain Christine would appeal on their behalf, even though I never let her out of my sight so I am certain no one approached her about it. She is compassionate that way. However she had been in an odd sort of mood, disinterested in contradicting and allowing me to take the lead in most matters.
It was bizarre, but not unwelcome—perhaps it was because she was in such an unfamiliar world.
To me, that seemed like all the more reason to leave. I surely would not wish my angel to be uncomfortable for any time.
So as soon as I felt recovered enough to embark on a journey with no specific destination, we packed a small bag of provisions and headed out.
And that is when our plans abruptly changed.
"I don't recognize that guy," Christine had said as we approached the border. Two sisters were fawning over a young man dressed in hunting attire. One was stroking his ears while the other cooed and felt the bicep he was clearly flexing.
Christine was observant; I did not recognize the man either... but I did recognize the look on his face. Glazed eyes, besotted countenance... that was the look of enchantment. It did not take long for it to occur to me what those women were trying to do.
"Come no further," I had commanded, mildly surprised to see that they obeyed immediately. "Ladies, I believe you can find something better to do with your time." They pouted but departed without protest. Without their presence, the man's eyes unclouded and he looked understandably disoriented. I told him a herd of elk had just passed by, heading in the opposite direction and that was enough to send him on his way.
I had mused to Christine afterward. "Last time I stopped one of the Erlking's daughters from luring someone here, I had him torn to bits by wolves." She tensed, so I did not elaborate. I had been a child, my heart was in the right place; I have no regrets. "Having the final authority here certainly makes it... simpler."
She had been tentative in asking, but Christine had quietly made it known that she would not reject the idea of staying in the palace, at least until some order was established. The logic was there... for whatever reason, they listened to me even when they disregarded each other. I could keep the inhabitants of the palace in line and, at the same time, protect them from outsiders.
My sense of duty is... underdeveloped. But Christine's is strong, and her soul warms mine. I had deprived these people of protection and leadership... and Christine believed that I might be the one to restore both to them.
And so we stayed.
For a time, I had insisted. But then we never left. A different kind of bond is formed through rebuilding. The palace became home, the men and women became neighbors.
Of course, it has been necessary, on occasion, for me to go out on... well... business... for lack of better word. Nothing as sordid as the sort of business I once engaged in; just ensuring that my people are as safe and comfortable as possible. This and that, nothing more.
At one point, I would have been grateful for the variance in routine. Now, I only count the minutes until I can return. Christine has begun to tease me... calling me a 'homebody'.
The closer Christine and I are in our relationship, the more relaxed the bond becomes, and it allows us much more freedom now. When it is required, I can be gone for days at a time before the pain comes upon me. The bond is satisfied; it knows I would not let anything keep me from her for long.
Christine, strange as it seems, has still shown no real interest in leaving the palace. I would take her anywhere, you see, if she desired it. Or even let her go, though the thought destroys me. I have determined to no longer be the sort of man who keeps a stranglehold over her life. And the bond would ensure I never lost her.
Yet, she says she is content where she is, and I am pleased at this, so I do not bring it up.
It is for the best, I believe. Time passes differently, here. People age differently and seasons change seemingly at whim. Time, therefore, tends to blur as one day bleeds into the next. Perhaps it would distress her to leave only to discover that everyone she knew is either dead or geriatric.
I remember a particular occasion when she wondered aloud about the Chagny fellow. After heated argument (and a more heated reconciliation), I ventured out of the forest to seek him out. I visited him on what I can only assume would be his death bed. A woman sat beside him, patting his hand and speaking gently. I sang to her and she smiled. She called me 'young man'.
Five children, sixteen grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. And a also wife who, after sixty-one years of marriage, still held his hand every night and told him about her day.
She never asked for specifics, but when Christine awoke the next morning, I could tell her with all certainty that Raoul Chagny was quite well, indeed.
That was a few years ago. I think. I will have a better idea when I venture out again this afternoon.
Speaking of which... it is nearly time for me to go.
It does not please me to leave Christine for any amount of time, but I have a very special mission today. My old friend, the siren, is leaving.
She and Christine quickly developed a close—if a bit odd—kinship. As you can imagine, companionship can be a tricky thing when verbal communication has an opiate effect. Christine attempted to teach her to read and write, but she attacked it with the enthusiasm of one attending one's own execution. The siren is a beauty, a musician, a hypnotist—a scholar, she is not. For the most part, they made use of some rudimentary hand gestures, but Christine did the majority of the talking.
Telling stories, more specifically.
Christine knows a great many stories, it would seem. A remnant of time spent with her father, I believe, as well as her love of books. She told my siren friend all sorts of tales from every era.
Including one interesting one about beautiful maidens with voices so enchanting that a man had to tie himself to the mast of a ship to avoid being captivated by them.
Of course, I had always dismissed it as a tale and nothing more. However my good friend was utterly convinced. So much so that she pleaded that I allow her a journey in search of these beings.
Likely nothing with come of it... but very little surprises me these days, and if there is a chance that creatures exist who might understand her uniqueness, I would not dream of denying her that.
And yet, while the emotion is somewhat unfamiliar to me, I believe that I will... miss her. Yes, that is what it must be. I must remember to ask Christine later. She knows about these things.
I would ask her now, of course. But she is home with our son.
Ah, children. And unexpected joy. I never thought I would be that sort of man... and yet I find family life most agreeable.
When we finally did decide to stay and lead the people here, the first rule I had instituted was that no more children would be taken. In fact, no outsider shall come into the palace without my express permission.
It did not take long, then, for the sisters to begin to complain.
"It is too quiet!"
I ignored them.
"You are cruel!"
"What shall we do without the little ones to play with?"
I told them I did not care.
"We must have children... the forest seems dead without them!"
I had... begrudgingly agreed. But still I refused to let them start raiding campsites.
"We cannot lure them here and you will not let us leave to find them! Whatever shall we do?"
In a fit of exasperation, I helpfully pointed out that there are men in the palace, and women in the palace, and perhaps they might find a solution, themselves.
Apparently, that blessing was all they required. The men here smile more often.
Initially Christine and I worried what the potential 'baby boom' might do to our little community. It is said that one in every two hundred men are descended from Genghis Khan, no? It stands to reason that allowing the unrestrained breeding of potentially immortal half-elves might not have been the most responsible command decision, on my part.
And yet, when the time came, it turned out to be less of an issue than it could have been. For a small one to be born here is a rare thing. Precious few of the sisters have thrived with motherhood. Of course a certain redhead comes to mind, as she has borne four of her own small ones and still takes in any stragglers who come her way. The others, though...
Well, these elves do not form the same kind of familial attachments that humans do. They are playful... childlike, in some ways... and rarely have the inclination to persevere once the novelty has worn off. The fact that the novelties are living creatures as well as flesh and blood relation is irrelevant.
Take, for example, that spirited little dancer over there by the river. Do you see her? I am sure I have mentioned her before. She is a prime example. A mere twelve minutes into motherhood, when she spotted her chosen consort dancing in the meadow with another, she flitted away... leaving the infant still squalling in the grass.
I took him home, and that is how my son Samson came to be. If the girl even remembers that he was once hers, she has never indicated it.
Christine welcomed Samson with open arms and much gratitude. She, too, had caught the 'baby bug' once the first few children were born, and it was with heavy hearts that we decided not to have children of our own. Christine and I cannot die, because we are bound to each other... yet there was no such guarantee with any offspring of ours. Perhaps all might be well within the forest, but should the child ever choose to leave, he would surely grow old and die eventually It nearly crushed Christine, but even she would not risk the agony of knowing that we would bury every child we brought into the world.
He is a beautiful boy, my Samson. All the children here are. They are bright and pixieish, but with ears that are slightly more rounded and temperaments that are slightly more gentle. The energy and playfulness of their mothers tempered by the more compassionate spirits of their human halves. They love nature and beauty and excitement.
Today will be my boy's first trip outside the palace. He has expressed an inquisitiveness about the world outside the forest, and as he approaches adulthood (a fact he reminds me of incessantly) I have deemed him old enough to begin accompanying me on these outings.
You see, children are not permitted to leave. I have decreed it, and I shall not break my own law. We stand too much to lose should their mischievousness run unrestrained. They remain here where they belong, protected and disciplined, until they can care for themselves.
Perhaps my rules may seem heavy-handed, but elves are tricky creatures, and one must be absolutely explicit with them, lest they twist your words. Never has anyone here disobeyed my command outright. I have never raised a hand—or even my voice—toward these people, and yet my words are heeded unquestioningly.
However, they are masterful in obeying the letter of the law and not the spirit. All those cautionary tales you hear about... about people making wishes to magical creatures and then enduring unexpected consequences... and for to no comprehensible end? Yes, those are my people.
Say a woman wishes to be attractive and suddenly finds herself turned, literally, magnetic. And you want to say, 'Who gains from this? What was the point?' and the truth is: no one and there is no point. Just one of the Erlking's children amusing herself by toying with lesser beings.
It is ridiculous and frustrating and naturally you can understand my specificity and forgive my inflexibility.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, children. Troublemakers, but innocent ones. We are very protective of them.
Our other son, Silas, came to us only three nights ago. His mother fell in love with an elf from another realm and wished to run away with him. As I spoke to her, I commented on the male at the palace boundary and the toddler he had perched on his shoulders.
"You are no prisoner. If you wish to leave, I will grant you my permission. However, the small one must remain."
Was it cruel to separate a mother and child? Perhaps... and yet I cannot find myself to regret it. If it had been truly important, she would have resisted. Yet, when I told her I would not allow her toddler to leave the palace, she placed him at my feet and returned to her lover, never once looking back.
The child, too, was indifferent to any perceived abandonment. Occasionally I wonder if this situation was not new to him. I knelt down beside him and he took my hand.
"What are you called, little one?" I asked him.
"Silas, my father," he answered. The unprompted title was as alarming as it was endearing, as was his follow up question, "Do I meet my new mother, now?"
After a brief (and useless) investigation to find a human father who would claim him, I took him home to meet his new mother. Simple as that—we have ourselves another son.
It is for Silas that Christine has decided to remain in the forest, today. Her absence pains me, but as I left I heard her sweet voice singing a lullaby—she is so contented here that my selfishness shames me—and I would not beg for her company.
Samson was pleased as any. For some inexplicable reason, the boy likes me... and absorbs my attention with joy. I have promised that, once we see our friend safely to the sea-port, I will take him for a bit of sightseeing. Perhaps Christine would enjoy some chocolates. A toy for Silas might be in order as well. I want him to like me, too.
We never did find a concrete end to Christine and my potential immortality which, if you remember, was the quest that led us back to the palace in the first place.
When the Erlking was destroyed, all his knowledge of bonds and soul sharing perished with him. All we had gleaned from him was what we already knew... that our souls were tied and as long as one of us lived, so would the other. Theoretically, that means if we were both to die at the same time, that would be that. However, we have found ourselves uninterested in exploring that option. Perhaps, someday. But, for now, we rather like the idea of living.
And—I cannot speak for Christine, of course—but I have found that I also rather enjoy carrying a piece of my angel around close to my heart.
And one certainly cannot deny the romanticism, there. After all... how many people can truly mean the words 'Happily Ever After'?