Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Darahir and Shalenn

   In a world of love and loss, it is a tragic truth and paradox that the two should cross so often, and an inexplicable inevitability that one should be pursued so eagerly despite the knowledge that the other will certainly follow, whether the first is successful or not. No matter one's race or disposition, blind hope and willing ignorance both fuelled and empowered them all.
   Because the joy that one could win in the lull between the two was worth every ounce of conceivable misery.

   It was in a coastal town in the luminous borders of Ygalis that Shalenn first snared Darahir's attention. Even at twelve years old, she was as beautiful as the golden rays of sunlight burning away the rain clouds, or the colours of a waterfall scattered under moonlight. Boys fell at her feet before they even understood the kind of spell she had them under, and girls detested her for it.
   Darahir, however, adored her. When her chores took her out into town, she chose her route by the best way to glimpse her, but ran away whenever Shalenn happened to be close, and when she was tied up in her alchemical studies, her attention still managed to wander its way out from her father's workshop, down the street, across the branching streams and through the magistrate's window, where the girl with sprays of elderflowers woven into her braids sat at a desk, practising her lettering. She spent hours imagining how she might finally speak to her, what she might say and how she might say it, and when that chance came, she ran away again.
   With every spring, Shalenn grew more radiant, and where boys grew bolder in their pursuit of her, and girls more hateful, Darahir grew only weaker. It wasn't helped by the fact that Shalenn rebuffed all new acquaintances - but she wasn't surprised by it. The magistrate's daughter wouldn't lower herself to the company of lechers and opportunists, not with her family's wealth and influence draping over her as she stepped so gracefully into marrying age. She was a higher breed.
   But Darahir knew that she needed only twenty seconds of bravery to prove she was different, to prove that it wasn't contacts or benefits she sought to befriend, but her.
   Bravery that, for reasons she couldn't fathom through the rapid beat of her heart, dragged a great amount of terror along with it. Every time she entertained the idea, she felt as thought she needed twenty more just to summon it. And Shalenn deserved more than a cursescript or decoction to feign it.

   For better or worse, the matter was thrown far out of Darahir's hands when she was out in the White Marshes one autumn evening, gathering salts for the cobbler's tonic.
   A shriek like the ripping of worlds shook the mists, and she abandoned her panning to run straight towards the terror, pulling a strip of parchment and ink box from her jacket as she went. She was already scrawling incantations before the second shriek tore through, and threw the crumpled sheet into the face of coalescing wraith as the helpless scream rose behind her. Seizing the woman's wrist, she dragged her away before any more could wake, and when she at last turned towards her on the safety of the road, Darahir's heart lurched and leapt up into her throat as though she'd been kicked in the gut by a horse.
   Pale, shaking, terrified, Shalenn stared back at her with eyes as wide and silver as the moon. 'Darahir' was all she said, breathed in a whisper, but that alone squeezed her heart higher. And then, with something far warmer than gratitude burning in her eyes, she kissed her.
   Surprise gripped Darahir before she could react. She recoiled instead, in shock, and in fear. And before she could make any sense of the moment, Shalenn had fled. Her sobs drifted back through the night while she stood alone in the dark, trapped in the grip of incomprehension, and the horror that chased it away.
   Weeks passed before she saw her again, at the door to Shalenn's own home, but her effort to apologise, having spent hours every day obsessing over her choice of words, were met cold.
"It doesn't warrant explanation," Shalenn had told her primly. "Thank you for coming by. Was there anything else?"
   "No," she'd replied with a defeated furrow, "nothing else..."
   The door had been closed on her.
   And Darahir became consumed. Consumed by the insult she'd paid her, by the look in her eyes when she'd kissed her, by the taste of her lips when they'd parted. Shalenn had spurned all others, but her...
   Darahir returned to her again a week later, and again a week after that, and the week after that, bringing her elderflower perfumes and sprays, and inks for her work. And each of her visits, and each of her gifts, were met just as glacially as the first.
   But Shalenn continued to open the door, even though she knew it was her, and that was enough to lure her back time and again.
   And then, in fate's truest fashion, war crashed against their shores.
   The alchemist's craft of poisons, blade oils, bombs and cursescripts were required for the effort, and Darahir was both obliged and proud to serve. But the thought of leaving Shalenn, her insult only just beginning to thaw, filled her with a dread so deep that it invaded her very existence. And so it was that an idea came to her in her dreams.
   An echostone, an obsidian shard with which one could be summoned to another's side. With it, Shalenn could call her when her temper soothed and her insult softened, whether she was one or one hundred miles away. With it, she would not forget her. With it, she would win her, in her own time.
   Obsidian wasn't rare in Ygalis, if one knew where to look, and an alchemist always did. It took three days to create the cursescript and sear it into the glass, and she left it with a note and a spray of elderflowers on her doorstep. She didn't wait for her to answer her knock.

   The campaign lasted for two and a half years, and she battled through it all with an unwavering hope in her heart. Even when the war was lost, and Ygrona absorbed Ygalis into its own rule.
   Darahir returned to her afterwards, but the coast had ravaged, and the town taken. Ygrona's banners snapped in the breeze where Ygalis's colours had been what felt like only yesterday.
   Shalenn's home, too, had been taken by another, a rich foreign family who'd taken the rule of the town. A young family recognised her, one with a profession still valuable to keep around, and told her she'd been among those to flee just before the occupation, and had taken little with her.
   "Did she take a black, glassy stone?" She'd asked, feeling her heart rise as high as it had when Shalenn had looked her in the eye in the marshes. It fluttered when they nodded. They knew because the looters had been vocal in their irritation that she hadn't left it behind with the rest of the magistrate's riches.
   Darahir spent years searching for her, but could find her nowhere. None had seen her - though none had been looking - but she had no doubt that they'd remember if they had.
   And while she still held hope in her heart, exhaustion inevitably set in. She settled down, expanded her craft, and waited for her. She came into the service of nobles and generals, and she earned her coin and titles. And she waited for her. She turned aside courtly suiters and the sons of dukes and counts. And she waited for her.
   And all the while, the ache in her heart grew deeper.
   By her middle years, the nights seemed to stretch longer, winters grew colder, and sicknesses came more often and sank with deeper hooks. As she lay in her bed one morning, decoctions on the table beside her to chase out a fever, she felt a strange stirring in her heart, heard a phantom voice whisper beside her ear, and felt the warmth of breath brushing across her skin.
   Her hope surged, adrenaline fired, breath choked in her throat. She lay there, listening to Shalenn's voice, while the world slipped away around her.
   In the same moment, in a bedroom back in a coastal town in Ygalis, the echostone tumbled from a limp hand and shattered across the floor.

© Kim Wedlock


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