Chapter Thirteen: The Hourglass Inside
I find it ironic that this should be the 13th chapter, since it is probably the most depressing one in the story. Just a warning for all those about to read: this part deals with some very difficult themes. I can't say exactly what for fear of spoilers, but if you are at all sensitive, proceed with caution. Hopefully there's some good stuff in here too, and I promise that it can only get better from here. Thanks for reading, and my deepest gratitude - as always - to those who grace my story with a review!
Months passed by in good time, and many changes occurred in Gran Soren, but they did not touch Julien and I. We lived in our own world, separate from the troubles of those in power. We rented a cottage down in the worker's field, and we lived there in happiness, working the land side by side. I wondered sometimes whether a man as proud and fierce as my Julien could ever truly be content with the life of a simple farmer, but he offered no complaint. Indeed, he seemed more at ease. The tension was gone from his face and body, his expressions were now relaxed and amused rather than watchful or wary. He laughed and smiled often.
As for me, I was experiencing difficulty in keeping up with the rapid changes to my body. My stomach swelled with the new life inside. It became steadily harder for me to do the work I was accustomed to, and I found myself inconvenienced with sickness and strange appetites. I fear that sometimes, my discomfort showed through in mild bursts of temper. Julien never said a word against me during those times, and I was always ashamed of myself afterwards.
Perhaps I had better take a moment and impart to you some word of the shifting politics of Gransys at this time. It is not directly important to my own tale, but it has its impact on the world nevertheless.
Following the showing of support that the Arisen received by Gran Soren's citizenry, Maximilian had no choice but to release him. Do to otherwise would have meant a complete revolt, something which - considering the ruin of the city - could ill be afforded.
A court was convened in the old church, and the Duke was marched by force down to attend. Evidence was given and considered by the wisest in the land. This proceeding lasted for many days, and the mood was highly strained on both sides. Fights broke out in the street between those loyal to the old regime, and those who believed in the Arisen. Julien wished to stand for his friend on the podium, but Ser Gats himself argued against it, on the logic that Julien's word may in fact do him more harm than good.
The eventual verdict was this: that the Duke was to be removed from office and exiled to his northern mansions, there to remain under stringent guard until the end of his days - which, quite honestly would not be far off. He had aged ten years times ten, it seemed, since the Dragon's defeat.
The Arisen was pressed to accept the now-available title of Duke and ruler of the land, but he declined. He meant to travel, it seemed, to the frontier lands, and from there to the north, where he hoped to provide some assistance to the beleaguered folk of that war-torn country.
The land was thus left leaderless. Ser Max and Aldous between them shared in the basic duties of command, while a replacement was urgently sought. Many vied for the position, but there was no one who had the legitimacy to rule. I wondered if perhaps Julien might seize his chance and assert himself, but he remained quietly in the background.
Now that I have laid down the bones of past affairs, I can return to my own story. Truly I may say that the recounting of it brings me no pleasure. It is painful in the extreme to remember - and yet … it did happen.
In the third month since our return to Gran Soren, I began to have disturbing dreams. Primarily they were filled with nameless terrors too many to count, but sometimes they would take on a definite form. One night, I was particularly horrified to dream of the bones of Salomet climbing from the sundered earth to seize upon me and bear me to the ground, tearing viciously at my clothes and hair. I screamed and screamed, and woke to find Julien clutching me to his breast in an agony of helpless concern.
It was then that I told him, in between gasping breaths, the full story of my past. His face grew increasingly darker throughout, and by the end he looked positively livid. He struck his clenched fist upon our coverlet and said, "By the Maker's breath, if that cursed man still lived, there would be no power in this world or the next to save him from me." His voice was soft and deadly, and never before had I seen such murderous fury upon a human face. In that moment, I felt almost frightened of this passionate man. Although I knew that his rage was not directed towards me, it was still the burning hatred of the volcano's fire, which scorches all in its path - innocent and guilty alike.
I caught his hand and said, with a note of hysterical pleading in my voice, "Julien, walk with me."
"Now?" he asked, his anger diluted somewhat with surprise.
"Yes, yes … now. I want to get out of here. The air is so close … so heavy. I feel that I shall suffocate if I stay inside a moment longer."
"Then let us waste no time, my love," he said. Sweeping me up in his arms, he walked barefoot out our back door and into the moonlit field. The wheat grass parted silently in front of us in a stiff wind. The night was very clear and bright, and I shivered - not from cold, but from some sudden premonition of evil.
I tilted my head back to rest on Julien's shoulder and stared up into the void of darkness above, punctured by tiny points of light. The moon was quite full. As I gazed at it, a wisp of cloud passed swiftly across the face. At the same moment, some hunting beast in the night made a kill, and the shriek of its prey rang out loud and clear. A shadow fell over my heart. I was reminded then of lines from a poem that I had heard as a child. I spoke them aloud in a hushed voice: "A sigh, a cry, an endless sound rises from the gloom; and cold death flies on silent wings to drag you to your tomb."
Julien looked down at me with his lips quirked in a half-smile and quoted back,
"The silent watchman in the dead of night
Protecting us from fury and from fright
He lingers there awhile until the light
Of morning crests the hill and fades away
In graying shadows at the end of day
And starry children all come out to play."
"Are you my silent watchman?" I asked. My words were teasing, but my tone was solemn and serious.
"Of course, my imaginative Sophie," he replied with a jaunty grin. "And soon I shall have a starry child to protect as well." His smile faded, and he said, "Do you trust me to watch over you, my Sophie - you and the little one?"
"Have you any doubt of that?" was my rejoinder.
He did not answer me. Turning, he carried me back inside.
The next morning, I felt that my half-fearful state of the previous night had been naught more than the silly imaginings of a fanciful girl-child. I said so to Julien, and my high-handed tone must have amused him, for he chucked and pinched my cheek, much as if I actually was a child.
"What does my lady desire for her breakfast this morning?" he inquired. "I shall run up and fetch it fresh from the market."
"Really, ought we do indulge like that?" I asked anxiously. "The money …"
Julien waved a dismissive hand. "I will not have my wife go wanting."
The word had slipped out so carelessly that I almost didn't notice it. When I did, I felt rather light-headed. Julien saw my eyes open wide, and stammered nervously, "Sophie, I … pay no mind …"
I smiled weakly at him. "I am weak with hunger," I said. "A warm, sweet plum bun would settle my stomach, I think."
Relief flooded Julien's eyes, and he fairly leapt from our bed. "I shall fetch one immediately!"
After he was gone, I dressed lazily, my thoughts as flurried as a pack of springtime birds. Had he really referred to me as 'my wife'? Had he spoken in jest, or was he serious? I was confused and distressed by my confusion. We had not spoken of anything as definitive as marriage. We had been content - at least, I had been content - to live in the moment, secure in our love for each other.
But, now that the subject had been broached, I felt almost as if some sacred inner sanctum of our relationship had been violated. That was absurd, of course. I loved Julien, and no other. I loved him wholly and with all my heart. I never imagined that I would stop loving him. So why then did that one word - wife - have the power to make me feel faint and sick?
Could it be, I thought suddenly and with a flash of nausea, that my entire heart was not devoted to Julien? Could it be that I was still tied to my past, and to that dark mage whose very name made my heart race with terror and excitement. Salomet was vile. I detested him with all my soul. And yet I could not stop dreaming of him. I could not shake him from my thoughts. My dream of the previous night had been horrible, but there were others that left me trembling and damp with sweat when I awoke; dreams of his large hands upon my body and his deep voice shaking me to the core. These dreams disgusted me, and yet there was an element of fascination there that could not be denied. For the bald truth was that I had been Salomet's lover, and my body would not allow me to forget it no matter how much my mind might try.
With this realization, I felt a wave of remorse and self-revulsion. Julien deserved better than I. I was a girl of disreputable past and uncertain future. Hot tears welled in my eyes. I brushed them away, but more came to take their place, and soon I was sobbing uncontrollably into my pillow. What right had I to share a good man's bed when I had given myself freely to someone such as Salomet? What right had I to be loved, when I had been the target of such lust?
"Oh, Maker," I whispered, "if you love me, help me now. Send some guiding light to instruct me in the proper path. I cannot do this alone."
A child's voice split the air in a wild scream, eerily respondent to my pleas for divine counsel. I rushed forth from the house and stopped dead upon the threshold in shock and horror. A young boy, who I thought I recognized as the blacksmith's son, had fallen from a rooftop and was lying with twisted limbs and blood gushing from a wound in his forehead. The pain of a child is no easy sight at any time, but it was double agony for me that that I had a young life of my own to look forward to.
Before I knew what I was doing, I had stumbled to the boy's side and was pressing my hands desperately against his face, muttering the words that would bring healing magic forth to cure those dreadful injuries and make whole again the young flesh.
But instead of soothing softness, I felt a black pit open up in my stomach. I realized then that I had not attempted to use magic since that fateful day when I had spent every last drop of my mystical energy to save Julien's life.
I tried to cease the spell, but the damage was already done. Raw power flowed through me with the force of a river flooding. And indeed there was a flood - of blood, not water, blood from deep inside me that was coursing out onto the grass as I shuddered and wailed in pain, writhing in the wheat.
Dimly, I felt pounding footsteps shaking the ground beneath me. The next moment, Julien was picking me up and cradling me close. I could hear his frantic cries of, "Sophie! Sophie, speak to me!" And then, "Fetch a healer, for the Maker's love! Hurry!"
I tried to open my mouth and reassure him that I was still alive, but a particularly violent tremor ran through my body, and I bit down on my tongue with enough force to tear the skin and send a thin stream of blood from my mouth as well. I grabbed Julien's hand and held on to it as though it were a lifeline thrown to a drowning woman. All the while, he spoke to me in a broken voice, telling me that all would be well and that the healer was coming. I fainted still in his arms, and did not wake fully again for many days.
During that time, I was very ill. I hardly knew what was going on around me. I remember nothing of those evil days, and Julien has been hesitant to mention it. Therefore, I shall let him take over the retelling, so that you may have a clear picture of the miserable state I was in.
I have never felt more like a man gone mad than during the three days that my Sophie hovered between life and death. I did not sleep or eat or leave her side even for a moment. I held her hand as she tossed in a fevered dream, and spoke to her until my voice was cracked and hoarse. In her sickness, she called out for her mother, and for me, and sometimes for the bastard sorcerer Salomet. I had to restrain myself when I heard his name upon her lips, for it kindled a terrible ire in my soul, which, if I had allowed to smolder, might have spurred me to acts which I would have deeply regretted once I returned to sanity.
The healer did what she could, and was patient and kind with me, for which I am ever in her debt. A lesser woman would have washed her hands of such a distraught man. I gave her no peace, endlessly demanding when Sophie would be well again, and what she was doing to help her.
Several people attempted to visit and express their well-wishes for Sophie's recovery, but I would allow no one in for fear that it would somehow cause her condition to worsen. By the end of the third day, I was at my wit's end, when I passed into a fitful sleep and woke abruptly to see my darling watching me with weary but alert eyes. I stared back, fearful lest this be a part of my dream.
"Water," she whispered in a voice like the breath from a grave.
I ran to fetch it for her and held it to her lips as she took a single sip. Still I stared in silence, waiting.
"What has happened?" she whispered. It seemed she was not yet strong enough to speak clearly.
"You have been seriously ill," I replied, trying to keep from my tone the immense strain that I had been under. I failed completely - my voice cracked half-way through and tears came to my eyes.
"I remember nothing," she said, and the words struck a chill of disbelieving horror into my heart. Surely she did not mean that her memory had once again failed her … surely she had not forgotten me!
She smiled a ghostly little smile at the expression on my face and said, "Silly boy, I didn't mean that. I do not remember these last days. They are dark to me. I recall the young lad who was hurt, and I went to help him, and then …" Her face twisted in a spasm of pain.
"Do not stress yourself," I urged her, holding her hand gently in both of mine. "You are only now beginning to recover. I think …" I paused, unsure of how best to proceed. "I think, Sophie, that it would be better if you did not attempt to use magic in the future. The healer said it was so. She said that the natural channels for magic in your body have been overrun, and that any further usage of it could result in another illness - or even your death. So please …"
Sophie nodded. "I understand, Julien. Fear not." She smiled again. "My poor Julien. How worried you must have been! I really am no end of trouble to you, am I?"
"I am just glad to have you still with me," I said weakly, pressing her hand against my cheek.
"Us," she corrected.
I gazed at her blindly.
"You mean 'us', don't you?" she pressed, her smile faltering a little. "I and the child. How silly, of course you did. Forgive me, Julien, I am not yet in control of myself."
My heart was beating so hard that I thought it was sure to burst. In my exultation to see my angel awake again, I had momentarily forgotten …
How could I tell her?
"Julien?" She had noticed my stricken look. "What is it …"
"Sophie … I am sorry …" I could not get the words out. It felt as though a stone was stuck in my throat, blocking all sounds. I choked a little and repeated, "I am so sorry."
"Tell me what happened, Julien!" she demanded fiercely. Her eyes glimmered with alarm.
I began unsteadily, "When you collapsed … you were bleeding terribly. I called for a healer, and … she did all she could … but the child did not survive."