Acrid smoke stung his nostrils. It clung to the singed clothing of the woman in his arms, and as he walked, shreds of the gown fell away, like scorched leaves. He tried to make as little contact with her body as he could because he knew every touch hurt, and he never wanted to bring her pain.
Her burns were horrific, and he couldn't bear to look at them. If Bella was a human woman, she would die, likely after lingering for days in unspeakable agony. But she wasn't human, and he thanked God for that as he picked his way carefully down the path to the sea. She whimpered softly at the bumps and jolts, sounds torn involuntarily between the lips she pinched tightly together.
In his other hand, Edward carried a small, locked chest which he had taken from the pile of things the servants had managed to drag from the burning house. The most important object they could have saved, though they had no way of knowing that. The loyal men and women had thought only of trying to save as much of their master's wealth as they could.
Edward reached the shore and laid Bella down on the sand near the waterline, brushing a lock of hair away from her pain-filled eyes. It hurt so much to look into those dark, sweet eyes and see the agony she could not conceal. He would so gladly have borne it for her if he could. That he could not do, but there was one thing he could do, something he should have done a long time ago. A wrong he could finally set right.
He unlocked the chest and took out her pelt. The dark, silky fur felt warm and heavy in his hands, like a living thing. He held onto it for just a moment, because letting it go - letting her go - was the most difficult thing he'd ever done. But she was a selkie, and she belonged in the sea. It would always be her first love, part of her very soul. She could live on land, yes, and be happy there, but part of her would always yearn for the cool depths of the sea. He heard it in her voice when she described the kelp forests, the mysterious coral caves, and trenches so deep no one had ever seen the bottom. It was her home, her kingdom, the place she truly belonged. He had stolen her away, captured her, chained her to the land. Later, he had had won her heart, but it did not erase the enormity of what he had done in severing her from half of her very nature.
Edward lifted Bella's limp hand from the sand and pressed the pelt into it, using his own fingers to close hers around it.
"I'm giving it back to you," he said, in case a verbal announcement was necessary. A small gust of wind tickled the hairs on the back of his neck.
He had kept his promise.
Bella sobbed, and an agonized cry tore from her throat. "No ..."
"Put it on, my love. You must heal. I cannot bear your pain." Once she transformed, her wounds would instantly heal and she would be whole again. Free as nature and God intended.
"I know," he said. He rubbed a hand over his face and found it wet with tears. "I know. I love you too much to watch you suffer. Put it on, love. Put it on and be free."
With another shuddering sob, she laid it aside, dropping it into the sand, though she had to be desperate to escape the pain. He picked it up and put it back in her hand.
"Bella, I'm begging you, please." Bearing the pain from her burns surely couldn't be as bad as watching her suffer like this. She might delay it for a moment, but the magic of her kind could not be denied. Now that her pelt had been returned to her, they would be separated for seven years. He wouldn't be able to see her, she had once said, even if she stood right in front of him. He had never been able to endure the thought of being parted from her for so long, but he had promised on the day they met he would free her - a promise bound by her magic.
He would let her go now. He must. For the pain of the separation couldn't be as bad as watching her suffer like this.
Bella gave a small shiver and then pulled on the pelt. She seemed to disappear inside the small fur as she slipped into it. In a blink, a small, dark brown seal lay inside Bella's clothes. She wiggled to try to escape them. Edward helped her. So graceful in the water, but awkward on land.
He picked her up and carried her down to the water, wading in until it was up to his hips. He gently lowered her down into the waves. Her huge, dark eyes - Bella's eyes, even in this form - surveyed him with sorrow.
"Go," he told her. "Where you belong. I love you, Bella. Remember that, I pray. Remember that my heart belongs to you. You are taking it with you."
She dove beneath the water and came back up a few feet away. A terrible, anguished cry came from her.
"I love you. Go. Be happy."
He watched the water after her head sank below the waves. He stood there until his legs were numb from the cold of the sea. Finally, he turned away and headed for the house, the still-burning ruins of Cullen Hall, and the ashes of his heart.
Edward opened his eyes. His heart hammered, though it still ached from the remembered pain of his dream. A pain that had felt so real ...
It was real.
He was looking at the woman from his dream. No - his memories, she had said. Memories of another life.
Bella was a selkie.
He remembered only vaguely the tales his mother had whispered to him when she tucked him into bed at night. Strictly speaking, she shouldn't have been filling her son's head with superstitious "nonsense" about fairies and dragons and the fae-folk of the sea, but she remembered these tales from her own childhood - told to her by her mother who had probably learned them from her mother in the same way. And the love for magical stories was more powerful than her faith's prohibition.
They were beautiful, immortal, creatures pure of heart. They saved sailors from drowning and gave to the poor the gold they found on the bottom of the sea. They were made to love the lonely, his mother said, summoned by shedding seven tears into the sea.
That's how I broke the spell, Edward remembered. He had wept while he spoke to the waves, hoping his Bella could hear him and she had risen from the water to take him into her arms ...
Beside him, Bella stirred in her sleep. Her hand crept across the mattress, seeking him. She touched his arm and relaxed, snuggling back down into the quilt with a small sigh of contentment. He wondered what she dreamt. His eyes traced the lines of her face, the thick braid of sable-dark hair curled over her shoulder.
She was a selkie.
It was strange how easily he accepted it. Edward felt like he ought to be objecting that it couldn't be true, that such creatures were only a myth, a tale told to children as they were being tucked into bed by their smiling mothers. But instead, it felt like the last link had been clicked into place, and now everything she had been telling him made sense.
She'd been telling him the truth. He hadn't doubted her - not exactly - but he hadn't been able to fully accept it. It was why she had been so slow and cautious in revealing it to him in small doses, to allow his mind time to absorb it.
He felt selfish in waking her but he couldn't wait. He pressed his lips to hers and her eyes fluttered open. "Edward?"
"Aye, your Edward," he said.
She studied his face and an expression of joy mingled with relief swept over her features. "You ...?"
"You're a selkie." It seemed like the simplest way of communicating to her all he had uncovered within himself. Worlds were contained in that small sentence, a whole lifetime of memories.
He heard her take a small, sharp breath. "Yes, I am."
"And I ... came back."
Tears filled her large, dark eyes. She nodded.
"It's all so ... It seems like a miracle."
"Love is a miracle." Bella reached up to cup Edward's cheek. "That you came back to me is inevitable. Immutable. Our hearts are joined by a bond unbreakable by death itself. You will always be mine, and I will always be yours."
"For a thousand years," he said.
"And a thousand more."
"I'm sorry. If I was difficult. I didn't understand what was happening, why I was having these thoughts and dreams."
"How could you not be confused? Nothing in your life had prepared you for this."
"May I see it?" he asked.
Bella didn't have to ask what he meant. She lifted the corner of their feather tick and withdrew it from its hiding place. The pelt was sleek and shining even in the dim light of the moon which seeped through the crevices of their shutters. She laid it on the bed, and Edward reached a hand toward it, but drew back at the last instant, afraid to touch it and seal something with magic he did not intend.
"Go on," she said. "Take it. It's yours."
"No." He drew away, alarmed. "Bella, I couldn't do that to you again, severing you from half of yourself. I want you to keep it. Keep your freedom and your ability to change into your other form."
She shook her head. "I cannot do that. In every lifetime, I must seal our union. It's part of the enchantment, Edward."
"What happens if we don't?"
"We'll always feel there is something missing. We will be together, but not fully bonded. Our hearts will recognize the absence, and ache for that fuller union."
"It seems I am always doomed to cause you pain." Edward drew her into his arms and laid his chin on top of her head. "In every lifetime, you will lose part of yourself, and then you have to suffer the pains of my old age and death, and then waiting to find me again."
"It's the price I pay for loving a mortal," Bella said. "But it's a price I gladly pay to be with you. Because of it, I can spend many lifetimes with you, and experience the joy of falling in love with you all over again."
He thought back to that life he'd once lived. It no longer seemed like a strange dream, but like a house in which he'd once lived, seeing the ghostly outlines where pictures had hung and cabinets had stood. He wished he could remember more of it. His children ... He could remember Elizabeth's solemn eyes - Little Elizabeth, they'd called her to distinguish her from her cousin of the same name - and Mary's dark curls. He could see the flash of his son's smile, but everything else was concealed as though shrouded deep within a mist.
"Our children ..." Edward began.
"They built a strong and lasting legacy," Bella said. "You would be so proud of them. Ward is the one who insisted I come to the colonies as a woman of means. He even sent some of our old things."
"The books!" Edward blinked. "Those belonged to us." He had a sudden clear memory of a crate being delivered from the bookbinder. The servants pried off the lid to reveal books inside, wrapped carefully in cloth and padded with straw. Each book had his ducal crest stamped on the cover.
Bella nodded. "They did. You had a very large library at the Dower House. It was Little Elizabeth's joy."
He saw a flash of her face, but that was all. Edward shook his head, trying to clear it. "I can't remember the children, no matter how hard I try. Will those memories come back?"
"They may. I cannot say. You'll not remember everything. That's not the way the human mind works. And every lifetime, you'll remember less of those which came before it. It's like a cup of wine when more is poured within. Some of it overflows and spills away as the new memories replace it."
"Might we go back there someday?" Maybe that would stir his memories.
She smiled, a little wistfully. "Perhaps. But the generations will march along, as they should. Our time there has passed, as it should. It may be you can't remember them because you're not supposed to. We are no longer part of their world, except as silent marble sepulchures in the chapel."
He frowned, a little disturbed that he would lose such important parts of his life. Of all the things he should remember, his children should rank the highest. Bella took Edward's chin in her hand and turned him back to face her.
"Trust that you will remember what you should." Bella's voice was gentle. "Everything will happen as it should, Edward."
"I want to remember it all. Every moment of our life together. It seems wrong that should be taken from me."
"But only to make room for more joyful moments."
"My brother ... He was my brother before?"
She nodded. "We are greatly blessed. It is not often that souls linger to be reborn together this way."
"Why would Emmett come back? He is not bound to a selkie."
"All souls come back. It is what we selkies believe."
"Will he remember?"
"Sometimes, in dreams, or in a sharp moment where something seems oddly familiar but he cannot explain why. But your memories will be clearer because you are soulbound."
"You said souls can linger. Where? In heaven?"
"Something like that. They can choose to stay and rest. Some souls -" She stopped for a moment. "Some people did not learn the lessons they needed to in this life. Those with cruelty and hate in their hearts go to the Cold Place until they can recover from whatever sickness beset them, until they can shed those dark stains."
Edward had been raised from birth to see that her views as blasphemous. Heaven and hell were eternal, he had been taught, and hell was a place of fiery torment, not cold. But here he was, and he could no longer deny he had once lived. He had seen with his own eyes things that could not be explained by what he had learned since birth. The world, he had discovered, was far wider than his little colony's teachings would have him believe.
She caressed his cheek. "Sleep now, Edward. You need time to think on these things. We have a whole lifetime to explore. But for now, you need your rest. You don't want to fall asleep in Meeting and get a rap on the head, do you?" Her eyes twinkled in the low light.
Edward grinned. After the last Meeting, she had asked him about the pole one of the deacons carried. At one end was a knob, and at the other end was a feather. Men who fell asleep in Meeting could get a prod with the knob or a knock on the head, while women would be tickled with the feather. Edward had only seen it employed a couple of times, mostly used on Strangers who were required to attend Meeting, but weren't believers.
"But before you go back to your dreams, I need you to do something." She picked up the fur and held it out to him. "Take it. I need you to take it."
"I don't want to sever you from part of your being." He searched her her eyes, trying to think of a way to make her understand. "It is a loss for you; you cannot deny that. You will always miss it, always yearn to be part of the sea again."
"This is more important than that. I need to belong to you utterly. I am giving myself into your keeping. Take care of it."
It was an enormous responsibility to ensure the pelt was safe. Out of her hands, it was as fragile as any other fur to damage or destruction, and losing it would tie her to the earth forever, an incalculable loss of half of her very self.
For a moment, Edward doubted he was equal to the task, but he reached out and grasped the fur. His hands tingled when he touched it, warm and soft and supple, the same dark brown as her hair. A soft breeze swirled through the room, sealing their bond with magic, a magic he no longer feared.
"Forever," Bella whispered.
"Forever." Edward kissed her and tasted salt on her lips. He drew back to see a tear on her cheek, though she smiled at him, and love shined bright in her eyes. He traced the line of her cheekbone with the tips of his fingers and then down the side of her throat. He wished there was a way to express how much he cherished the gift she had given him, but from the look in her eyes, he thought she understood.
The tedium of Sunday Meeting was interrupted when Lauren Mallory stood to confess to the congregation as Edward had demanded after Tisquantum's funeral, but instead of a tearful, resentful expression of one forced into the position unwillingly, Lauren's face was alight with the same peaceful smile that Alice wore.
Bella glanced over where Edward sat on the other side of the room and saw a flash of guilt in his eyes. He hadn't intended to follow through on his threat to report her to the elders, knowing the seriousness and humiliation involved in such a charge. But it seemed Lauren had taken it to heart, and she seemed glad to do it, as though she were truly unburdening her conscience.
Lauren's voice was clear in the chilly air of the Meeting House. The only sounds were the rustles of clothing and the creak of the backless wooden benches as people surreptitiously shifted to ease aching muscles.
"I confess to the sin of gossip - spreading a tale I knew was a lie even as I spoke it. But more importantly, I confess to the sin of having a spiteful heart. I have wronged many of you because of my jealousy, fear, and selfishness. For these sins, I humbly beg forgiveness of God and of my brethren. I am truly remorseful and I will continue to try to make amends to those I have wronged both in deed and spirit."
After she had finished, one of the elders rose. "You are forgiven, child, and restored to the brotherly communion of this church."
Alice, who had taken a seat next to her, gave her a quick hug when Lauren sat down and took Lauren's hand in her own to show she bore her no ill-will. There were some confused glances among the congregation. Was Alice still in shame or not? She didn't have the appearance of a woman who felt ashamed, and there was a group of girls who gathered around her, apparently unafraid of any bad reputation rubbing off on them.
Those same girls took a table with Alice at the tavern during the a midday break, gathered closely around her as they talked in low, earnest tones. Edward shrugged when he saw them and surveyed the room to try to locate Carlisle and Esme. They spotted his father in conversation with James over near the fireplace. Esme was seated at a table with a mug of beer and plate of stew. She eyed the two men with curiosity as she picked at her bread, but looked up and smiled as Edward and Bella took a seat.
Bella held Emmett on her lap, and Rose sat beside them, her little head barely able to see over the edge of the table. The little ones were occupied with eating dried fruit and nuts from a small bag Bella had brought, and seemed to be quite entertained with digging around to see what they would discover within. Both children were well-behaved, earning Bella approving looks from the mothers in the tavern. There had been some speculation about how the children would far under her care, Bella knew. Being an outsider, people wondered if Bella would be an over-indulgent parent, and no one knew if Rose had been raised properly before she came to the colony. They could not know, of course, that the children's good behavior was the result of Bella being able to communicate with them, as opposed to stern discipline.
"Do you know what that is about?" Edward asked Esme, nodding toward Carlisle, who was still engrossed in his conversation with James.
Bella took a large piece of the "rye and Indian" bread from the basket. It was made from a mixture of rye and cornmeal, which made it a little less dense than using rye flour alone, but cheaper than expensive wheat flour. There was no butter or jam on the table, so Bella ate it dry and tried to pretend she was enjoying it too much to bother with the stew. The stew smelled bad to her, as though it had been left in the pot far too long, but none of the humans seemed to notice the slightly rancid aroma. But then, they were used to eating food that had gone a little off.
Esme shook her head. "No, James said only he had an important matter to discuss."
"I suppose we shall find out shortly," Bella said. Carlisle had clapped James on the shoulder and now was headed toward their table, a broad smile on his face.
He seated himself and accepted the food and beer the barmaid brought over. "James has made an offer for Alice."
"Another of Standish's men," Edward said, a hint of disdain in his voice.
"More than that. He's Standish's right hand. He may take command someday." Carlisle nodded his thanks to Esme as she brought him a plate of stew.
"May God preserve us from that possibility," Edward muttered. "I know enough of his character to say I don't believe they would suit."
Carlisle waved a hand. "The boy is young, and yes, a mite foolish as young men are, but he has potential."
Financial potential, perhaps, Bella thought, but not much hope for his personality to change.
"It is at least worthy of consideration."
Edward looked like a drowning man searching for any floating debris to grasp. Carlisle glanced up at him and paused with a piece of bread halfway to his mouth. He rubbed his chin with his free hand and gave a small sigh. "They'll learn to get along. Most spouses do."
Bella looked over at James, who sipped his beer as he stood by the fire. He was staring at Alice, who had her head bowed in prayer, her hands joined with the other girls. A small smile played around James's lips, but his eyes were hard and cold, glittering like snake scales in the firelight.
"You promised me a year," Edward said.
"I did, and I'll hold to it. But it may be I can convince you to see the value in this offer ..." Carlisle left the sentence dangling and tore off a piece of the bread to soak in the stew.
"Father, I fear he has a cruel heart and he would treat her unkindly."
Carlisle frowned. "Why say you that? James said Bradford is in support of the idea of him offering for Alice. I don't think he would support it if he felt James would abuse his wife."
"I saw the way he treated Sam's people, and -"
Carlisle waved a hand. "Those were savages."
Edward quoted, "And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
Carlisle looked a bit unsettled. "What makes you believe he would treat an English woman as he treated a savage?"
"Father, if I had seen James treat a dog in that manner, I still would not wish my sister's care to be in his hands."
They looked up as the tavern door opened and glanced at one another in surprise when they saw Jasper standing on the threshold. Jasper had continued to avoid mingling during the Meeting break, and always disappeared as soon as it was over. He attended Meeting as required, but he kept to himself. He was still living in that tumbledown shack on the edge of the marsh, supporting himself by harvesting furs from his traps.
He nodded to Carlisle and Edward, but headed across the room to Alice's table. Bella held her breath as Alice looked up to see him standing there. She told herself that if it seemed Alice was hurt or upset by Jasper's presence, she would make him leave, even if she had to drag the man out. Alice was finally finding some equilibrium and Bella would not let him upset that.
But instead of wincing or weeping at the sight of him, Alice smiled. It was the same smile she gave to her acquaintances in town, pleasant and friendly, but nothing more.
He stepped over to the table by her side. Bella's preternatural ears picked up their conversation from across the room. Beside her, Edward strained to hear, and kept glancing at Bella to get insight from her reactions, but she had nothing to report.
"May I speak with you?" Jasper's voice was low. He held his had in his hands in front of him, unconsciously twisting the brim between them.
"Of course." Alice stood. She followed Jasper over to the window under the shadowy recesses of the upstairs hallway. The shutters had been closed against the chill air, but daylight filtered through the cracks and cast bands of light over their features.
"Are ... are you well?" Jasper asked. He rotated the hat in his hands, still twisting the brim.
"I am very well. Better than I have ever been."
"That is good. Good." Jasper bit his lip. "Alice, I need to ask your forgiveness."
Alice nodded. "And I give it, most willingly."
Jasper hadn't been expecting that. He blinked and shuffled his feet. "I ... I wronged you."
"All that is past now," Alice said. "Go in peace, Jasper." She turned to walk back to the table, but he stepped forward.
"I was a coward. I know that you weren't ... And even if you had been, it shouldn't have ... I shouldn't have reacted as I did. I worried more about my neighbors' opinion of my marriage than I did about my betrothed and what she was going through."
"You were afraid." Alice's smile had come back. "Once you learn to rid yourself of that fear, everything will change for you, Jasper."
"I wish ... I wish things could go back to the way they were between us."
Alice shook her head. "I don't believe that's best for either of us right now, Jasper."
"She's shaking her head," Carlisle muttered. "Do you think she's declining his offer to reconcile?"
"If she is, it is her right," Edward said. "He shamed her before the entire community by rejecting her as he did. She would be justified in dunking his head in that beer barrel over there, in my opinion."
"That is not Alice's way," Esme murmured. "Especially not now."
"No, especially not now." Something for Alice had changed, though what that was, none of them was really sure.
"Alice, is there any way ...?" Jasper's voice held an edge of desperation.
"I do not have the gift of prophecy," Alice said. "I do not know the direction God will lead us, so I cannot say."
Edward turned his head to catch Bella's attention. She gave him a tiny shake of the head. Edward turned back to his plate with a small sigh.
Jasper shuffled his feet. "I'm sorry. I know that isn't enough, but I want you to know that I regret what I did and how much I hurt you."
"I know." Alice nodded. "But the problem with hurtful words and actions is that regret does not undo them."
Jasper's hand clenched on the brim of his hat. "Can I make amends in some way? Is there anything I can do?"
"That is a question only you can answer. I forgive you, Jasper. You have nothing to prove to me. Go in peace." Alice gave him one last smile and then returned to the table. She resumed talking with the girls seated there as though nothing had happened. Jasper lingered for a moment and then made his way out of the tavern, his step slow and heavy.
"Ah, well, I was never entirely convinced of his suitability," Carlisle said as he tore off another piece of bread, but his tone was gruff with disappointment.
"She loved him," Esme said softly.
Carlisle stopped chewing for a moment. He wiped his lips with a napkin after he swallowed. "I know. I want her to be happy, and I want her to have a good marriage. 'Tis what every father wants for his daughter. Love ... Well, love is not always the best basis for a strong marriage. Young hearts sometimes find themselves yearning toward the wrong things. Young Jasper has much to learn if he's to become the man he could be."
Jasper looked back at Alice when he reached the door. Sadness gleamed in his eyes. But he turned away and chill wind swirled through the room as he closed the door behind him.
- If Edward had accused Lauren of gossip, she would have had to confess, or face punishment until she did. The usual punishment for a minor crime such as this was being locked in the stocks. The stocks were two boards with holes cut out of them. They clamped around a person's legs. They would sit on a low stool with their ankles trapped in place by the stocks. It wasn't particularly physically uncomfortable - the punishment was the social shame. The person's neighbors would laugh at them to see them in such a state, and sometimes, young boys might dare to throw something at them like dung or rotten vegetables, knowing the person in the stocks couldn't do anything about it. Once the person finally confessed, they would be forgiven and restored to the church.