Memory is a strange thing.
Sometimes memories are crystal clear and bright as the noon sun on a summer's day. These are the memories that are etched on our minds eternally for us to re-live as easily as closing our eyes. They are always special moments in our lives, whether they seemed to be that at the time or we realised afterwards.
The moment when I discovered the truth about Alanna is like that. A memory that is burned into my conscious and I will never forget. Of course, many things about that night were strange, surprising and extraordinary – many of them more so than uncovering the masquerade of my future squire – but still that moment stands out in my mind as clearly as the day it happened.
I think up until that moment when the Ysandir tore her clothes from her body, I had never truly seen any woman naked, except, perhaps, my mother when I was small. I had, after all, spent the previous seven years living day in day out only with men. Even as a squire, I had little time for courting the affections of the women at court. I was torn between a thousand emotions. Shock was the last thing on my mind as we stood in that eternal moment, looking at one another. There was something intensely fascinating about what I saw. Alanna was still young – as was I – and she had not yet grown into a true woman, but the echoes of that body I would come to know so intimately were there. Sometimes I wonder if that was when I first loved her. There have been so few times since when I have seen my champion, my first love, in such a place of vulnerability.
Of course, in battle there is rarely time to stop and stare and take such things and so the memory fades away to shadows as I toss her my tunic and fight on.
There are other memories of her though. Many of them are just as bright and brilliant as that day – a stolen exchange in a healer's tent, that first dress I saw her wear and the night she stole softly into my room and shared my bed for the first time. That night is a sweet and happy memory, and oddly, another where I remember her letting down her guard. What strength it must have taken her to whisper softly those words "I'm scared". There was something so much more beautiful about that night than any I spent with Delia of Eldorne and, dare I say it, more passion than I have ever found with Thayet. The gods know I love my wife dearly, but she could never be Alanna.
There are so many more memories that I could not name them all, and of course, some that I would not want to. Just because a memory is burned sharp and clear onto your conscious does not mean it is a happy one.
Perhaps the clearest of them all is that moment when she rejected me. Not when she did so publicly, but the first time, in private. Even in those simple words of "I need to think about it", I think I knew that I'd lost her. I couldn't have admitted that then, even to myself. It shames me now to think of how I acted afterwards – as though by assuming she had said yes, she would eventually make that a reality. No matter how the years pass, I cannot forget those months in the desert and regret them, because I loved her and I lost her. Still, life has been good to me, and brought me a wife and children whom I cannot ever regret, even for the sake of a lost love.
Memory is a strange thing.
It plays with reality and distorts what we think we know. Memory teases us with the possibilities of what might have been or what might have happened. It tempts us to regret our choices, to wish ourselves another life which, in reality, would have been no better and no worse than that which we live now. Different, yes, but still filled with equal measures of tears and joy.
Do I wish I had married Alanna?
I don't know.
Sometimes in the dark of the night, her voice calls to me out of the ghost of a memory, one that for many years I could not place until I asked her. It was one of those evenings when we were alone together, both long since married. Alanna was still nursing a child, Alienne, I think, and watched her. I cannot be sure if it is strange or natural that the only times I have known Alanna to be truly vulnerable is when she is truly feminine and it is in those moments that have loved her most, and still do.
She told me of the night in soft tones, not wanting to wake her now sleeping baby. I had only a few times before remembered the place between life and death. Not even the Chamber of the Ordeal brought me back to that moment when I was suspended on the edge of eternity. Alanna's voice, however, has always had the power to take me to places no one else could - in the glow of the dying fire, she spoke the words I had heard in my dreams. It was then that I knew that it was truly her voice I had heard calling me back from the Black God.
I watched her, transfixed by the expression in her eyes that told me more than her words. Even when she had finished speaking, I could not look away from her. Mithros and the Goddess know I love my wife as dearly as Alanna loves her husband, but then…
… then all that was forgot.
For the first time in a decade, I dared to steal across the room to sit beside her. She watched me, saying so many things, but none of them with words. Next to her, I could hear her even the sound of her breath and that of Alienne, curled in her arms.
After an eternity, I dared to break through the enchantment. I hardly spoke above a whisper. "You know I have always loved you, Alanna."
"As I have loved you," she answered, her tones as soft as mine. And she smiled. I had not seen that smile in years, but I knew it so well.
I brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead. The sensation in my fingers as they touched her skin was almost like burning.
She turned away from me. "Jon, I love you. I will always love you. But I made my choice." Her eyes fell on her daughter and she ran a hand gently over Alienne's soft, downy hair.
I sighed and leaned back against the seat. "Would it have worked, if things had been different?"
Alanna looked back at me and shrugged slightly. "What is the point in wondering? We can't change anything now."
I nodded slowly. This time it was I who looked at Alienne. "No. But that doesn't mean the ghosts of the choices we might have made don't haunt me."
Alanna reached out, placing her hand gently on top of mine. This time the sensation was not burning, but instead a soft tingle which brought peace. "I know."
That was all she needed to say.
And like all the others, there that memory fades. Shadows creep in and it merges with others to become the few things I have left of my first love.
She is gone and there are no more what ifs now.