This is the final chapter of my little story. Thank you to my awesome beta, Mr. Bigg, and to my friends and fans who encouraged me to write the story.
The violence toward a woman in the story is not acceptable on any level. Unfortunately, so many of our sisters have suffered in a similar manner; we've lost too many to ignore.
Standing outside the woods, I contemplated the path that led me here.
Behind me, the road I had chosen laid in ruins. My husband, a sadistic, selfish man, slept in front of the dying fire, his pillow of ashes cradling his head. When he woke, he would be surly and angry, anxious for food and someone to curse. My absence would fuel his discontent, and lead him to the pub, if I were lucky. He'd have no memory of the prior violence, nor the fear that kept him from it.
Before me laid the woods. The path was dappled with sunlight and shadow, bluebells and bracken lining the way. I looked into the depths of the forest and felt a thrill of fearful excitement rush through me. Would the silken voice beckon me today? Would the voice become embodied? Would I meet the savior I had dreamt of for so long? I wanted to run to the woods, dashing through the wild hyacinth, searching for the voice, for the kind words that waited there.
Yet, I couldn't move. The remembrance of the incautious dream that had pushed me down the aisle and into the arms of a man who held me without regard tethered me in place against the unreasonable hope that pulled me forward. I glanced behind me once more, considering, weighing, taking stock of where I was before I moved. The path behind me was fraught with pain, heartbreak, humiliation and loneliness. There was no joy, no hope, no love or possibility of love to draw me back. It was wreckage, time wasted nursing a dead root that would never bloom again.
I shifted my gaze back to the woods. What lay before me could hold the same pain and betrayal as the path behind. What kept me from entering the woods to find deception and abuse? I had pinned my longing on two sentences spoken in shadowed obscurity, knowing nothing more than the voice that may or may not wait for me. Perhaps he was a monster, summoned by my heedless plucking of the plant; perhaps he was fair folk, come to drag me below the ground to dance to death. Perhaps he was nothing at all. Perhaps I had conjured the voice, a needful dream made real only in my mind.
I looked to the left, considering the way around the woods so many had taken. A safe road, a worn road. No beauty or enchantment, simply a means to town, utilitarian and staid. It had never tempted me; no, it was not my way. I peered again into the woods.
In the dappled gloom stood a man, watching me. His pale skin stood stark against the shadows, though his eyes seemed to burn like fire. I turned full to him, intrigued, bewitched. He was motionless, still, though his mouth seemed to curve in a slow smile. My heart pounded with excitement and hope pushed my feet forward into the forest.
The stillness of the air around me drew me back to myself. There was no sound of life beneath the rot and leaves of the forest floor, the birds did not sing in the trees. The air was still pleasant and cool, but all life seemed somehow vacant. Before me, the man stood, unwavering and still. Breath rushed through my lungs, leaving me panting.
The ceiling of branches and leaves left me in shade, except for the few pools of sunlight that made its way through the overhang. Where the sunlight touched the hyacinth, they burned like an icy blue flame, lighting the path as I walked toward him. My pace slowed as his face came more sharply in view. He wasn't smiling, he was grimacing, frowning in pain as if the effort to stand unmoving tormented him. Instinctually, I wanted to reach out and touch him, comfort him. But I had no idea who he was, or why he was here in my woods.
"Are you hurt, lass?" His voice was hoarse, strained, but still infused with the honey glow I remembered. His words made no sense; was I not walking straight and true?
"I am well, sir, but I am no lass," I said in a breathless whisper. "My husband is yonder up the path –" Turning my body, I motioned up the path without taking my eyes from his.
"That man is no husband," the stranger growled, and I took a step back in fright.
"Do you know my man?"
"Aye, I know him," he spat, the words like fire on his tongue. "And 'man' is not an apt description of him." He broke my gaze, and looked at his feet. "Begging your pardon, lass, er, I mean, missus."
"There is no foul," I replied, baffled my his odd behavior and my own curiosity. "Are you away to greet him?"
"No," he said, once again looking up into my eyes. Though the answer should have put me off, made me run to market or back to the house, it had the opposite effect. I stayed planted where I stood, unable to look away or move. "I came to see you, to ensure you were well and unharmed."
"Again, sir, I am well," I replied, confused. The honesty of his query was plain in his eyes. His expression beseeched more response from me, but I could not fathom what he needed. "I'm unsure of your meaning."
"Once again, I must beg your pardon," he said softly, "A constant from me, I fear." He added this as an aside to himself, breaking our gaze and looking down. "I've overstepped my bounds, I know. But truly, I was afraid for you last night."
"Last night?" I had not seen him last night. I had seen no one, save my drunken husband… Slowly, realization blossomed in my thoughts. Not seen. Heard. "Was that you?"
"I meant only to frighten him, missus, to stop his… attack on you," he said, his gaze leveled directly into mine. "I have no right to come between man and woman, I know, but I would not stand by to witness his violence. Forgive me, please."
As he spoke, my heart began to race. Had he heard the explosive rage that had erupted from my husband? Had this beautiful stranger watched me as my husband debased me? My cheeks burned with embarrassment and shame, and I turned away from him, my hand flying over my mouth.
"No, no! I've embarrassed you, no," he crooned as his hand reached my shoulder. The icy touch sent a shiver of fire down my spine, jolting through me with fiery excitement. I gasped. He misinterpreted my intentions, and dropped his hand. "Please, dear lady, please don't go."
I turned around to look at him. His eyes were downcast though open, and he held his hands clenched beneath his nose as if praying. His body was tense; he struggled with an inner battle.
I should have been affronted by his words, outraged by his touch. But I had lived my life by should haves, staying where I was not wanted, hoping where I was not loved. His look of hopelessness and fear struck pity in my heart, and breathed life into the love that had been long dead within me. How could one so beautiful, so kind be allowed to worry over someone such as me? "I don't know your name."
His hands dropped minutely, freeing his mouth to move. "My name is Liam." He still clutched his hands before him, as if the silent prayer he made would be broken by movement or words. He spoke to my heart with his stillness, and in that moment, I wanted nothing more in this world or the next than to put his heart at ease.
"Liam," I said, moving a step closer. "I am well. Your kindness is… welcomed." His eyes shot to mine, and the tension left him. He smiled, and blossoms of joy opened throughout my body. Color became richer, the air more sweet. I smiled in return. "I'm the one who should beg your pardon, for causing such anxiety in you."
He smiled more broadly, the full height of his beauty taking hold. Immediately, I was dizzy and faint, swimming in the light and airy release of joy. He reached forward to right my balance. "Steady, there, lass."
He lowered me to the ground, softly bending near me. The smell of his hair and breath were unparalleled; so much like a man and yet sweet and musky. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. A soft stroke of air filled with his scent brushed over me and I opened my eyes. He was no longer over me as I'd hoped, in fact, I could not see him at all. "Liam?" I asked, rising. My heart sank; he was gone. Despair suffocated the breathy wells of joy that had filled me only moments earlier. "Liam?" I called again, more softly this time, sure of his absence. I knew in an instant that I was a silly, ridiculous woman who lived in fantasy, dangerously close to the edge of madness. I had wanted him so badly, wanted his kindnesses to be genuine, wanted his touch, his embrace, his kiss… My head drooped, my hands raised to my face and I began to sob. I fell back among the bluebells, the color an empty reminder of my sorrow.
"Don't cry," he said, smoothing my hair away from my face. "Please don't cry. It pains me to see you sad."
"You're not real," I sobbed, refusing to sit up. I knew I imagined it all, dreamt him up out of loneliness and need. "If I sit up, a- a- and look for you, you won't…" Anguish took my voice, and the tears continued to flow.
"Sweet lady," he cooed. "By all things holy, I swear to you I am as real as you. But I'm weak, and you, you are beautiful." I pulled upright, and looked to his face. He seemed real; his eyes watched me with a look I could never imagine. I raised my hand to touch his face. He held utterly still, waiting for the contact of my skin against his. As my fingertips lightly brushed his cheek, he closed his eyes and brought his hand over mine. The cool burn of his skin disarmed me. I leaned into his touch, wanting, hoping for more, when his eyes slowly opened.
"I find myself wanting what I should not," he whispered, "things that may never be. Your touch," his hand pulled mine from his cheek, but did not release it, "Your embrace, your love. All these things I desire, were you free to give." His unoccupied hand rose to wipe my tears, gently stroking my face. "Were I free to give you mine in return."
"Are you, too, bespoken?" I could barely utter the words. The soft caress of his hand had already stolen my heart. I feared his answer, afraid my heart would break.
"No, lass, no. No one claims my heart, save the woman before me now." My heart leapt and thudded heavily in my chest, a smile broke across my face. "But I am not truly a man, not truly worthy of such a prize as you."
I had no words, no voice, no way to thank or refute him. I sat in the flowers staring into his night colored eyes. I searched his face, trying to memorize each line, each facet, every expression. If this were my own delusion, I wanted to have these details to conjure this man again. If he were indeed real, I never wanted to close my eyes.
His mouth was generous as he smiled back at me. His teeth were white and perfect. The dark circles beneath his eyes seemed to fade as he smiled, though his cheeks did not warm his pale skin. He seemed altogether pleased and comfortable with my examination of his face, leveling his gaze directly to my eyes. "Liam," I sighed, painting my memory with his name.
"You have me at a disadvantage, dear one," he said, softly, still holding my hand. I tilted my head to the side in question. "You know my name, but yours remains a mystery."
"Siobhan," I breathed, unable to raise my voice to audible
"Ah, God's grace. Of course," he cooed. "How could it be anything else." It was not a question, but more of a statement, something he thought he should have known. "Siobhan."
"Yes?" I felt mildly drugged, as if the aroma of his closeness had intoxicated me. He chuckled gently, and the wild little bird of joy fluttered inside me again.
"I think it's time for you to go home," he said softly and stood, still holding my hand. His free hand reached out for me, and there was no response needed other than to slip my hand in his. He tugged just once, and I was on my feet. "I am always here for you, as long as you will see me. I promise, I won't hurt you."
"Yes," I said numbly, unable to look away or blink. He raised my hands to his lips, and kissed the back of each. "Until next time, God's grace." A soft breeze stirred, and he was gone.
I wandered back to the house, and absentmindedly set the basket on the table as I bent to sit. Liam, I thought turning the name over and over in my mind. I rested my head on the heel of my hand, and let myself dream of Liam. Each detail of his face returned to me now, his kind and generous mouth, the dark of his eyes, the pale fire of hair that crowned him. Liam.
My head swam with the beauty of the memory, all made sweeter by the remembrance of his words. I find myself wanting your touch, your embrace, your love. He wanted me. Oh, how long had I dreamt of this? He would never know how much I wanted, I needed someone to want me, all of me. The countless nights I'd lain awake, empty and dying inside with need gnawing at my body, all the pain and sorrow of rejection and disdain; his simple words held so much promise.
I imagined myself kissing his beautiful mouth, letting my tongue taste his smooth skin. My body flushed with the images that danced in my head: his body naked, above mine, begging for my touch. I felt the warm tears run down my face and over my hand. The dream was so real and yet so far from today… I put my head down on the table and allowed my dream to drift.
I was wretched awake by a snarl and fierce yanking of my hair. "What are you good for, huh? Nothing! Sleeping the day away!" His hands twisted around my hair, jerking and tearing it from my head. "I'll show you."
He threw my head forward, releasing my hair. My head thumped against the table top, forcing stars before my eyes. "Get up," he growled. I couldn't think; my head hurt from the roots of my hair to the knot on my brow. I tried to move my splayed fingers to soothe the aching spots. "I said, GET UP!"
My bodice tore as he pulled me up by the shoulders. The table flipped away from me, flinging the spices, plates and flowers to the floor with a crash. In this desperate moment when my life was truly at risk, my mind seemed to catch a thought it could not release: my bluebells. The seven stems of blooms laid broken and battered on the floor, bits of glass poking through the wet stalks. His hands wrenched me forward and back, skin twisting against skin, chafing and bruising my neck. He tossed me from side to side like a rag doll. My eyes were filled with the dying flowers, my thoughts consumed with the needless violence that had ruined them forever.
In that moment, in that grief, I became unhinged. I kicked backward, connecting with his shin. He stumbled away, falling against the sink, momentary surprise replaced by instant, unrestrained fury. In desperation, I ran to the door, flinging it wide. I meant to scream; I intended to scream. But the sheer effort of my futile attempts to escape swallowed my voice, and only a slight whimper escaped. "Liam!" My voice would never travel, he would never hear me. I was doomed, doomed to die at the hands of this maniacal madman, never to see the kind angel with the generous mouth again. "Lia–"
He grabbed the back of my dress and jerked me off my feet. "Whore! Where is your lover now? Whore! Who is he?" I fell into a crumpled pile before the fireplace, dirt and ash rising in a cloud around me. My head rang against the hearth stone, and the warm trickle of blood ran down my neck. My shaking hand rose to touch the oozing wet spot at my nape, but never quite connected. The slap across my face resonated in the hateful house and I stilled, stunned, unable to breathe, move, run. Tears spilled silently down my face.
"You will regret this, Siobhan." He straightened to his full heighth, looking around the room. "By God, you will regret this. But not for long. No not for long at all." His low monologue was delivered through clenched teeth and bitter intent. He paced back to the kitchen, and threw open the drawer. The silver clattered to the floor as the wood splintered against the far wall. He stooped, picking up a butcher knife from the heap. His eyes shone with drink and rage. "Now you'll find out what it's like to be sorry," he hissed, punctuating each phrase with a step toward me, "Won't you… you fat… ugly… cow."
In that moment, I knew my life would end. My head was bleeding profusely, and though I tried to rise, there was no strength in my legs or arms to set me standing. My stomach heaved with fright, and my hands shook with terror. He kept coming closer, slowly, taking pleasure in the fear as he came to kill me.
"No one will find you… No one would look. I'm all there is… and I… want… you…" he paused a moment, then dove at me, the knife raised high to plunge. "Dead!"
My hand flew to the poker at my right, pulling it defensively before me. As he pitched forward to stab at me, the poker connected with his chest, his own weight punching the iron into his heart. A strangulated growl escaped his throat as his downward fall continued to propel him into the spear, skewering him before me. I closed my eyes as the knife descended into my chest, gashing and ripping my flesh.
In the angry moments that tore my life from me, a loud bang joined the cacophony. I opened my eyes, looking past the hilt of the knife protruding from my chest, past the squirming, grunting body atop me to see my angel, my Liam, framed in the open doorway. He was like a god, pale and fierce against the blue night behind him, and though my life was in ruins, I felt strangely at peace. I smiled, my man gurgled, and Liam's face broke into a masque of horror.
"Siobhan!" It was a prayer, so soft and far away. He looked so sad. I didn't want him to be sad.
He was at my side, tearing the dying man away from me. "You're here," I whispered, satisfied and content, even in the face of my own death.
Liam's face was intense. The bruises beneath his eyes were black, exceeded only by the absence of light and color in his eyes. "Siobhan, stay still. Close your eyes."
"Yes, my love." It would be easy, closing my eyes. I was so tired.
The room shuttered with activity. I couldn't see. My eyelids were so heavy. Something growled. A wet sucking sounded in the air. My eyes fluttered open. Liam was bent over my man. I was tired. I was so cold.
The sound of a sack of potatoes thrown to the ground woke me. I strained to open my eyes. Liam was bending over me. His hand was on the knife. His eyes weren't dark. They were red. "You're here," I breathed. I couldn't think. He was here. That was good. I was so cold. I was dying.
"Siobhan," he said, bending close to my ear. "This is the last time I will beg your forgiveness. Join me now, my love. The pain is but a moment's sadness. Forgive me." With a gushing tear, he pulled the knife from my chest. I gasped deep in pain. "Forgive me," he whispered again, then leaned to the open, bleeding wound. For a moment, I felt razors burrowing into my chest, warming me. The warmth grew, and I became aware of the discomfort, no, the pain, the searing burning in my chest, the agony of being burned alive, scorched from the inside out.
My life of torment was ending, burning away to ash. I wished it away, pushed it away, glad to see it go. I burned on, hope slowly replacing the pain, love replacing the sorrow. When at last my new eyes opened, my pale angel awaited and sighed, "By God's grace, I am here for you always, as long as you will have me."
"By God's grace, I wish this day would never end," I replied. And by God's grace, I got my wish forever.
A/N: I hope you liked my little story, and that you'll leave me a note to say what you liked. Thank you for reading!