katzpawz - 2/5/2011 3:37 AM ET
Lovely story and beautifully written. More Please!!
| It didn’t go wrong until the third time.
Which just made the earth-shattering perfection of the first two times even more heartbreaking. The beginning was just as beautiful as the others, bright with the promise of forever.
The ending will be different this time, I think. Given the chance to start over, we could get it right; I am sure of it. I trust the purity and the goodness of what we had. Why shouldn’t fate give us another try?
She is my light, my life, my love. For her, I would give anything.
James Arford was my first identity. I was born in late November in the year of 1412, a bastard child of a faceless wealthy nobleman. My mother, the daughter of a blacksmith, was only fifteen at the time, too young to raise a child. She married soon after, a straw-haired farmer’s son, and left me behind with her father.
Being the apprentice of a blacksmith was tiresome. Charles Arford, my grandfather, was a patient, kind man, but I had too much energy to learn much from him, and never really acquired a knack for the smithy. I spent more time slaying imaginary dragons with hot pokers than crafting horseshoes.
By the time I was thirteen, I was eager to see the world, to find adventure beyond the suffocating scope of our village. My grandfather tried to dissuade me, but his words went unheeded; I left to find where my world ended and I began.
There wasn’t much work for a homeless teenage boy in town, especially one without a father. In desperation, I even sought out the local blacksmith, but he already had an apprentice who, unfortunately, appeared to enjoy the work. With nowhere else to stay, I curled up along the brick of the side of the building; I could feel the heat of the forge seep through my clothes.
After three weeks had passed, I had eaten through my food supply and used up all of the coins my grandfather had given me. Hungry but still determined, I resorted to stealing. Small things at first—a handful of grapes, slices of bread, sometimes cheese. Then, after I had managed these small feats, I grew cocky. Instead of hiding and making sure the coast was clear, I strolled by carts and swept items into my pockets without breaking my stride. Bakery items became a frequent target for such trips; I ate them by the side of the smithy, licking the sticky residue off my fingers.
I still looked for work, but my efforts seemed futile. As time wore on and rejections mounted, I began to feel anger burning inside of me. Stealing became less of a necessity and more of my personal revenge. Eventually, I stopped looking for a job altogether. I knew I would have to find somewhere else to go, or else return to my grandfather, but I couldn’t bring myself to swallow my pride. It caught in my throat, pushing me forward through cold nights and the condescending eyes that cut right through me.
It was a few months later that I was caught. I had had many close calls before—vendors shouting out after me, mostly—but I had always managed to elude them by slipping into a crowd. This time was different.
My fingers had just closed around a croissant when I felt a bruising grip lock around my wrist. I was pulled to a quick halt before the ruddy face of a very large man. His lips were curled back over his teeth, his eyes beady points. As the shock wore off, feeling returned to my limbs, and I gasped at the burning pain in my wrist.
The man squeezed harder. “Stealing from me, eh?” he said. His voice was the rumble of a boulder, gaining momentum to crush me.
Tears filled my eyes, and I tried to yank my wrist away, but it only made matters worse. His grizzled beard shook as he yanked me forward, never releasing his hold. He half-dragged me along like that for one mile, two, I lost count. All I could think about was the pain, the agony of the bones crunching in my wrist.
We arrived at a place I never thought I would be welcome. The castle was smaller than I thought it would be, somehow, the few knights and guards I glimpsed less impressive. We didn’t have far to go once inside, however, as the man pulled me before a huge door and rapped on it with his meaty fist.
There was a pause, then the doors creaked open. A great hall stood before us, draped with ornate, hand-sewn tapestries of bloody battles. They were so disturbingly lifelike that I thought I saw one of them move. At the end of the hall was a man with long dark hair and cool grey eyes. I couldn’t help the impulsive shiver that swept through me.
As I was pulled, resisting, forward, the man’s eyes locked on mine. His chin, resting on heavily ringed fingers, dipped down as he seemed to appraise me.
“Well, what have we here?” His voice was soft, but carried a chilling threat of menace that the vendor’s did not.
The man still holding me pushed me roughly forward, sending me sprawling before the man with grey eyes. “Thief, Magistrate,” he spat. “Caught the imp trying to steal from my wares.”
I could feel my throat close. The Magistrate? I had heard stories, whispers of this man. They said he had a heart of stone, and eyes to match.
The Magistrate’s lips quirked, his marble face otherwise expressionless. “Tsk, tsk.” His voice was the same dry whisper. “Thievery is a very serious crime, young man. What is your name?”
“James,” I said. I wanted to close my eyes, to be home near the comforting heat of the forge.
There was a pause. “A bastard? Interesting.” The Magistrate steeped his fingers, peering at me closely. “You have the mark of noble blood—your hair, and your eyes…” I resisted the urge to shield my face. “Ah well.” A sigh, then the Magistrate flicked a glance at the doors. “Take his hand.”
I didn’t immediately register what he said as I searched for whom he was speaking to. There, by the entrance, were two guards I had not noticed before. They advanced now, steps in sync, towards me. My hand? What…
The air whooshed from my lungs. No, no, no. I stumbled backward one step, then two, and collided with something solid. The vendor, his horrible teeth bared, now in a sort of twisted grin. My mouth tasted of bile as I pushed away and ran for the door at the back of the room, the farthest I could get from the advancing guards.
It was the worst and the best five minutes of my first lifetime. For it was as the guards caught me, swords drawn, that I caught my first glimpse of her. She was shorter than I was, but still gawky for a girl. As she peeked out at me from behind a tapestry, her eyes wide with horror, I felt a brief, strange sense of freedom, even as my arm was forcibly extended and a sword raised.
Her dark eyes were the last things I saw before my world dissolved.
The first thing I noticed upon waking up was a hand shaking me, hard. This awareness was followed closely by my uncontrollable shaking from the cold and an excruciating pain in my right wrist that made me double over.
My arm felt wrong, so wrong… Dimly, I noticed the person had stopped shaking me. Someone was crying, loud, out of control sobs—it took me a moment to realize the sound was coming from my own mouth.
I was lifted from the ground into strong arms. The person’s face was blurry: a curtain of dark hair, a jutting nose, pale green eyes that looked so old…
The next time I came to, I felt immensely better. The blaze in my arm had died down, and I felt a warm heaviness spreading through me. I avoided looking at my right arm, afraid of what I might see. The slice of the blade and its bite into my skin flashed through my head.
I got up quickly, too quickly. Instinctively, I reached out with my hands to steady myself, and my right arm met air. As soon as my dizziness subsided, I took a deep breath and raised my arm to look at it.
I bit down on my lip to keep from crying out. The…stump—for there was no other word for it—was wrapped in a clean bandage. Still trying to flex invisible fingers, I felt along the end of the bandage. There was nothing there.
Looking at it objectively, it reminded me of a slab of metal at the smithy. A bit of recognition, maybe, but mostly foreign and useless until it was finished. But I was, and always would be, incomplete.
The room that I woke up in was, I discovered later, deep underground. I was exploring the spartan setting when the man returned.
I spun around, startled. He stood before me, a small smile on his face. “Yes,” I said slowly. “Thank you.” Was he a noble? It was hard to tell. His long hair was pulled back in a braid, not like any courtier I had ever seen.
He nodded. “I am Eiren. You are welcome here for as long as you like.”
I hid my stump behind me, suddenly ashamed. “Why are you helping me?”
His pale eyes were sincere. “There are practices in the castle that I do not approve of. I am sorry for your loss.”
His words somehow made me think of the girl, hiding in the tapestry. What had she thought? Did she hide because she enjoyed watching such punishments? But no, I didn’t think so—her expression had been too distressed.
“James,” I said. “My name is James.”
Another smile. “Well, James, how would you like to help me? It’s a small job, and I’m afraid the pay won’t be much, but I can still give you a place to stay.”
All of the disapproving, holier-than-thou faces that had rejected me before time after time ran together. Did it matter if this man were a noble? He had already shown me more kindness than any other man I had known, excepting my grandfather.
“I would like that very much.” Never mind that I had no idea what he did. There was something now besides pride in my throat.
Eiren extended a hand. “May I?”
I hesitated, pulling my arm further behind me. Then, at Eiren’s look of patient understanding, I relented and offered it up to him. His hands were rough, calloused, as they unraveled the bandage. I felt a twinge of resentment.
The skin under the bandage looked yellow, slightly raised at the end of my arm, but also healthy. Like I had been healing for days, instead of just hours. Had I been out that long? I didn’t think so.
Before I could ask, Eiren wrapped his hand over the end of my arm. It was a shock; his hand felt cool against my skin, but also made it ache, like an oversensitive bruise. Then, the coolness of his hand seemed to chase away the heat in mine, and the pain went away as quickly as it had come. I looked at Eiren, surprised, but found his brows furrowed in concentration, his eyes closed. I felt a sudden chill as I realized what he was doing.
His hand released my arm, and I was unsurprised to find the skin perfect, healthy as though I still had a hand attached. “So, you are… a mage, then?” I had heard of them, of course. Most of them were trouble. Men corrupted by power, razing through villages and towns with merely their strength of mind.
Eiren appeared grave, as though he knew what I was thinking. I hoped he didn’t. “It is unfortunate that I should be grouped in such a…diverse category, but yes. I am the healer of this castle.”
“So they have someone to clean up after all the appendages they choose to chop off.” I couldn’t help the bitterness that crept up in my voice.
Eiren’s smile was sad. “Oh no, they forbid any interference with any of their… extracurricular activities. I am meant to be an instrument for the truly deserving, those true of blood and name.” It was strange to hear sarcasm mar his tone. His eyes were suddenly bright. “Which is why I ask for your help, James. I want to help more people, ones with actual injuries, not just a cold, or an ingrown toenail.”
“Uh… how exactly could I be of any help? I don’t really know much about—“
“Magic isn’t the point. I can show you how to set bones, staunch blood flow, restore a man’s breath. Anything you can do to help…”
Well, it wasn’t exactly heroic work, but it was still a job. I reached out to clasp his hand with my own. “Tell me what to do.”
Work for Eiren turned out to be more satisfying than anything I ever could have imagined. He taught me much, and instilled in me something my grandfather had never been able to: patience.
I learned to use my left hand to help the people of the villages. I required assistance to set bones, but other than that, I worked well on my own. Eiren stopped coming with me on these trips, and I became known as a Healer, rather than the Healer’s apprentice. I avoided places I had been before, though I did go to visit my grandfather once or twice. It surprised me to see how old he was getting; he had turned over the smithy to his apprentice, a boy I had grown up with.
I didn’t visit the castle again until I was seventeen. It happened one night, late in August. I woke to Eiren’s hand shaking me.
“It’s the princess, James. Get dressed and meet me up at the castle entrance.”
I got up groggily, stumbling through clothes and up the basement steps. I felt Eiren’s firm grip on my arm before I saw him.
“Listen,” he muttered. “I’m going to ask you to stay in the room with me for this Healing, but I need you to promise me something.”
I still felt disoriented in the darkness. “Hmm?” was my intelligent reply.
“You’ve never seen me perform serious magic before. I need you to promise that you will not attempt anything you see. Anything you try could be extremely dangerous, and could very well kill you and others in the process.”
“I can’t do—“
“It doesn’t matter,” Eiren cut me off. “Just promise me. Magic needs to be handled with very strict rules. Do you ever wonder why most of the mages out there are corrupted, evil men bent on the world’s destruction? It is because they have been careless, fools that have allowed their magic to take control of them. Magic can never, never be used for personal gain. I will not allow others to take on the burden that I have been born with. Do you understand?”
I didn’t, not really, but I nodded anyway. We were at a royal chamber, and there were many people crowded around the entrance. Eiren cut through them without a second glance, and I followed behind him. The crowd parted, many of them turning to leave. They knew it was forbidden to stay during a Healing.
Three people surrounded the the princess in her canopied bed against the wall. The heavily draped couple was presumably the princess’ parents, the king and queen, though I did not recognize them. A shock went through me as I glanced at the third figure, standing a respectful distance from the other two. I could only see her profile, but somehow I knew. The girl from behind the tapestry, with the watchful eyes.
“Your Majesties,” Eiren said, bowing low. I followed suit. “If you would please allow us to help your daughter…?” I sucked in a breath at the dismissal, but the couple seemed too distraught to care, and left the room after kissing the princess’ sweat-slicked forehead.
The girl was staring straight at me, and I knew she remembered. She looked different than she had before. The same wide, inky eyes, but her expression had grown closed, somehow. Guarded. Her ebony hair was plaited down her back in a shadowy imitation of the princess’ own fair curls, from which I assumed she must be one of the princess’ ladies-in-waiting.
“Excuse me.” Eiren’s voice broke our stare. “If you would please allow us…?”
The girl bowed her head and left as well, leaving just Eiren, the sick girl in the bed, and myself.
“Alright,” Eiren said, and we both moved to opposite ends of the bed. “Her parents said she collapsed this evening, complaining of fatigue. It was only tonight that she fell unconscious, and they were unable to wake her. I’m going to try to reach her, and I’m going to need you to talk to her and make sure there isn’t any source of physical stress.”
I’m not sure how much time passed. I felt ridiculous, talking to a girl whose first name I didn’t even know. Eiren remained motionless, his hands braced on either side of her face. Every once in a while he would whisper something, some words that I couldn’t quite catch. Hours must have passed, and the girl seemed the same. Motionless, her skin waxy and gleaming with sweat from the heavy blankets draped over her.
And then, something happened. I don’t even know how to describe it adequately. I was sure we were going to fail; the girl looked so close to death. I felt helpless, so helpless. Then, Eiren’s eyes snapped open, his green eyes blazing. He said a word, a string of syllables that sounded almost song-like, and, just as his lips had framed the last of the strange utterance, the girl burst up from the sheets, eyes wild as she gasped for air.
“Water,” she croaked.
The Queen was in tears, crushing her lips to the small girl’s cheek, fingers, eyelids, smoothing back her hair. The King patted Eiren on the back again and again and thanked him profusely.
I hung back, anxious at the smothering of happiness and attention.
“Mel,” the princess said suddenly. Her voice was quiet, but still a hush fell over the room. “Where’s Mel?”
The inky-eyed girl flowed back into the room, sparing a quick smile for me before taking the princess’ hand in her own. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, Your Majesty.” Her voice was deep, almost musical.
“Come,” Eiren said, his hand on my shoulder. “It’s time for us to go.”
I nodded and turned to leave, brushing past the people hovering by the door. They were murmuring to each other, laying blame for the princess’s mysterious illness on every conspiratorial cause imaginable.
Just as Eiren and I passed the entrance hall, a familiar voice called out behind us.
“Wait! Please, wait!” I turned immediately, my breath catching. Some of her hair had come free, flagging out behind her. Eiren squeezed my shoulder briefly and left the room to give us some privacy. Why did I suddenly feel so nervous?
She was a bit out of breath as she rushed down the last step. “I wanted to thank you,” she said, her eyes directly on mine. “You saved my best friend.” I started to protest, but she cut me off. “I know your friend was the one who got the credit, but I really think you being there helped, and I… I wanted to thank you,” she said again.
I hoped my face wasn’t turning red. “Well, um, you’re welcome. Mel, is it?”
She smiled. “Melanie. I’m one of the princess’s ladies.”
I smiled back; I couldn’t help it, even though my palms were sweating and my pulse was racing. “It’s nice to meet you… again.”
I saw her eyes flick quickly down to my right arm, hidden by my long sleeves. “How is it?” she asked, her voice low. “I wanted to help you that night, but I had to wait until nightfall to sneak out and find Eiren…”
“Wait. It was you who found—” I had never thought to ask how he had found me.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help more,” she said. “It was awful, what they did to you.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly. “What you did… I don’t know if I can ever repay that. Eiren taking me in has changed my life.”
Her eyes were mysterious. “You have changed your life, James.”
I stared. “How do you know my name?”
“Well, I’ve checked in with Eiren a few times… to make sure you’re alright.”
Eiren had known? Of course he had. Why did I feel betrayed? “Oh,” I said.
She reached out, placing her hand on my arm. “James, I—“
“Lady Melanie? The princess is asking for you.” A guard stood at the top of the banister, his face vacant. Flashes of the two guards years ago flashed through my head, but I shoved the memory away.
“Will I see you again?” I whispered. I felt desperate suddenly, needed something to hold on to.
Her smile was radiant. “I hope so.” She squeezed my arm briefly, then hurried up the steps.
“What was that back there?” I asked as soon as Eiren and I were back in our home.
Eiren didn’t turn. “What? Melanie?”
“No, I mean that word… you just said it, and the princess woke up, completely healthy. What was it? Why don’t you use it on everyone? Why—“
“Enough questions.” Eiren’s face was tired, his eyes old. “I can’t use it on everyone because everyone is different. That word was her name.”
“No one called her that, they all called her—“
“Not her birth name, James. Her true name, the name that describes her nature, her life force. It can only be derived through means of power, either through a mage or a soul mate.”
“So when you had your hands on her head—“
“I was seeking her true name, yes.” Eiren sighed and rubbed his temples. “Not a particularly pleasant experience.” His laugh was rough.
“So why were you worried that I might try to use that for myself?” I asked, thinking of his warning. “I don’t have any magical abilities.”
“That may be true. However, the power of true names is not magic in the sense that only mages can harness it. There have been many who have tried… different approaches. Trying to make themselves invulnerable from death, or living multiple lives, the like.”
“How can any of those things be possible?”
Eiren rubbed his hand across his jaw, smoothing over the stubble again and again. It was a long time before he answered. “James, how old do you think I am?”
What an odd question. “I don’t know… thirty, maybe? Thirty-two?” Though his eyes sometimes looked as ancient as the earth itself, his face was mostly unlined and his hair, still braided, was purely dark, unmarred by white streaks.
Eiren’s laugh was slow, bitter. “This body is thirty-four.”
His wording threw me off. “Body? Why—“
“Because it is not the first I have inhabited.”
I felt cold. “What are you saying?”
“What I am saying,” Eiren said through clenched teeth, “is that I have lived nine and a half lifetimes, James.”
When I didn’t say anything, he continued, his voice flat. “Mages are born with the unique knowledge of their true names, which they carry on with them through the centuries. Do you understand? I can’t die.”
And he looked like he wanted to. “Do you know,” Eiren continued, “how many men have dashed themselves upon the rocks in search of their own true names? Searching, searching, just to find some way to prolong their miserable lives. Do they not see that living over and over twists your mind past the brink of insanity?”
“So there is no way for you to be killed, then?”
Eiren’s eyes were suddenly sharp. “Considering it for yourself, boy?”
I backpedaled quickly. “No, of course not—“
“Think you there are no consequences? Just years of endless glory and adventure?”
“Yes, there is one way to end our lives. But who would attempt to destroy an all-powerful mage?” I was frozen, afraid to provoke Eiren any farther. He sighed and rubbed his face again. “It lies in our first bodies, our first forms. Any who attempt to prolong their lives accompanied by the knowledge of their previous lives must preserve their original form. Embalming, whatever it takes, as long as the remains are intact. Burn them, and you harm the soul within, prevent it from reincarnating.”
“Eiren, I didn’t mean to offend you,” I said. This topic was clearly disturbing him.
He smiled, touching my head briefly. “It is I who should apologize. These are my troubles, not yours. Go on and get some rest.”
I did as he said, but, tired as I was, I couldn’t seem to clear the frightening allure of his words from my head.
I made excuses to visit the castle as much as possible, in hopes that I might catch a glimpse of Melanie, no matter how fleeting. On these rare occasions, we never got the chance to do anything but exchange quick, secret glances.
The first time we snuck out to meet each other was several months after the princess had fallen ill. She pressed a folded piece of paper into my hand in passing without so much as a glance in my direction. Two words: Garden midnight.
I still felt shy and awkward around her, but my curiosity seemed to lend me the courage I needed to ask her questions. Where was she from? How had she befriended the princess? How did she know Eiren? She asked questions as well, mostly about what it was like to be a Healer in the villages. I am not ashamed to say that I may have exaggerated my role slightly.
These meetings continued whenever we could both get away. A slight nod or shaking of the head in passing, and I would know whether to sneak out that night. Not that I was fooling Eiren—he was aware, I was sure of it, though he never said anything. She always brought a candle and set it by the side of the fountain, illuminating our wavering reflections. We twined our fingers and let them drag through the water, scraping our knuckles over the surface.
Our first kiss was late in November, right before we both parted in the early hours of the morning. She pressed her lips to mine, her hair brushing against my face. When she pulled back, she was smiling, her depthless eyes bright.
Sometimes, the forbidden words spoken by Eiren would pop into my mind, unbidden: soul mates. I could no longer perform my work with a clear head; my every thought was focused on her. We were meant to be together, of that I was certain. She had seen me at my worst, and accepted me for what I was: incomplete.
We had fourteen glorious months of secret meetings before we were found out.
At first, I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that one day, Melanie was nowhere to be found. I was disappointed, but not anxious. Occasionally, the princess would go on an outing that lasted several days, accompanied by Melanie and a group of guards. These separations were painful, but not unbearable.
My disappointment quickly changed to dread, however, when I spotted the princess the next day, strolling through the entrance hall, another girl at her side. A girl who was not Melanie. Where could she be? Was she ill? A thousand awful possibilities played out in my head, each more unthinkable than the last.
Eiren hadn’t heard anything. Not a problem of health, then. I grew increasingly agitated, pacing up and down the room, every once in a while letting out a moan of frustration. Eiren at last forced me to down a cup of spicy tea. With the tea’s help, I was swiftly overcome by the shadows of sleep, haunted by images of Melanie slipping further and further away.
“James…” Something soft touched my face. “Wake up, you have to wake up…”
Her voice could bring me back from anywhere. “Melanie?” I said, my voice laced with sleep.
My eyes began to adjust to the darkness as I sat up, pulling her to me. “Where were you?” I murmured against her hair. “I couldn’t find you anywhere, and—“
“Listen—none of that matters now.” She pulled back, and I could make out her eyes, branding into mine. “You’ve got to get away from here.”
“We were seen,” she said, voice urgent. “The other night. An off-duty guard saw us together and reported it to the Magistrate.” She was wearing the same clothes as she had the last night I had seen her. Her hair was unbound for the first time since I had met her, curling at her waist. “You need to get away,” she said again. She was crying.
“Shhh,” I said, brushing her cheeks with my thumb. “It’ll be alright. I’m sure if I just talk to your parents—”
“You can’t! I am royal property. Us being together is forbidden. The man who reported us didn’t see your face; he only saw your one hand. But the Magistrate—”
“He’ll know,” I whispered. Those calculating grey eyes saw too much. I could imagine all too well his ringed hand waving up at unseen guards, the expressionless face saying, ‘Take his life.’
“The princess has granted me pardon.” She seemed to be staring past me. “I can’t come with you.”
My chest clenched. “They wouldn’t find us, we could make it…”
But she was shaking her head. “We would never be safe. The royal family does not take well to betrayal. If we were together, we would be putting anyone who sheltered us in danger.”
“No, Mel,” I said. “I can’t—” My words were smothered as she crushed her lips to mine, and I pulled her closer. This kiss was different—urgent, sad, yet somehow still sweet. All was quiet around us, the rest of the world ages away.
I heard it then. It was soft, just barely discernible, a melody so familiar I was surprised I had never pieced it together before. We pulled away at the same time, and her face was awestruck. “Did you hear that?”
Her simple question snapped everything into place. How we could be together. It can only be derived through means of power, either through a mage or a soul mate. I touched her hair in wonder. “Mel, do you trust me?”
“No one knows about this place except me,” she said.
I shivered. “This room just makes me uneasy.” The cruel battle tapestries, the vacant chair belonging to the Magistrate. My screams seemed to echo off the walls. Melanie had told me before about the secret passageway behind the tapestry; it was the reason why she had been there that day, unable to move without giving herself away.
Taking a deep breath, I nodded and followed her through the hidden entrance. It was dark, but perfect for what we needed. We spread out layers of blankets on the floor, then lay down, pulling one of the blankets over us. “All you need to do is repeat what you heard before,” I said, grasping her hand in mind. “My true name. Just as I’ll be saying yours.”
“And then we’ll be together,” she whispered.
I smiled, kissing her hand. “And then we’ll be together.”
We repeated them, again and again, until they seemed one word, melded together by our two separate voices. There was a brief sense of dizziness, and then we were floating.
Our third life dawned during the beginning of the twenty-first century. To the world, we were Kyle Hayes and Sarah Bryndal; to each other, we were James and Mel. We knew something that the world did not, something that made every second together infinitely precious.
I was a doctor, using the lessons and skills Eiren had taught me as well as modern methods to heal those in need—this time with two hands instead of one. She was an elementary school teacher, loved the idea of children though she refused any for herself.
Neither of us saw it coming. Mel was twenty-four, young, healthy…and then she wasn’t. Breast cancer. I had read about it, diagnosed it, and yet never even considered it a possibility.
We knew leaving now would be the best way. Before she was in pain, before she lost her hair, her dignity…I gripped her hands, so small and cold in mine. And we whispered, not loud enough for the nurses to hear, the words we had repeated twice now.
Nothing happened. We tried again, and again. No dizziness, no sensation whatsoever.
I could tell she was upset, but she reassured me that we would try again later. I knew that nothing would change.
Leaving was hard, the unfamiliar uncertainty of what would happen to the both of us suffocating. But I knew where I had to go.
The journey was long, back to my first birthplace. Things were different now; grocery stores in place of food stands, great office buildings and factories replacing smithies and castles. But I knew I would find him there. I had thought a lot about Eiren over the years. Would he still be the same man I had known?
I found him in a used bookstore not far from where the castle used to be. He looked different, of course, but the eyes were the same. Eiren recognized me before I him; his face was sad as he watched me. It was strange to see him with short hair—it made him look older, somehow, though physically he was about the same age as me, I would guess. He motioned for me to follow him, leading me through crowded streets and up through a four-story apartment.
“I can’t help you” was the first thing he said. I didn’t question how he knew.
“I don’t understand.” What had gone wrong? And why now? Somehow, I couldn’t accept that Eiren, my teacher, my protector, my savior, could not fix this.
“The castle burned down just a while ago, after your second incarnation. The connection was severed after your remains burned with it; your journey is over, James.”
Remains… the bodies we had left behind? Mel and I had never thought to come back and check that they were still there, still safe. And just like that, the small amount of hope I had kept alive sputtered out. This was the end. It was over.
Eiren’s face was hard; his new face looked suddenly dangerous, a sharp contrast to the kind one I had known. “Why didn’t I help you? Why didn’t I preserve your remains, make sure you were able to skip through lives without hindrance?”
I was silent; it was just dawning on me how quickly I would lose everything. “Why didn’t you listen to me? You promised me, James, you promised. Never to use magic for personal gain, or manipulate the power of soul mates for your own use. So the fault lies with you, my friend. You and no one else.” His eyes burned. “I loved you like a brother. I hope you and Melanie are happy with what you’ve condemned yourselves to after death.”
And just like that, my brother turned away from me.
I leaned forward, wrapped her hand in mine. “Shh, Mel, I’m here.”
Her face had aged ten years in my absence, her hair thin, plastered to her head with sweat. “What did he say?”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll be okay.”
She blinked rapidly and looked away, towards the window. “Forever wasn’t long enough,” she said, almost to herself.
“No,” I agreed. “Not nearly.” We stayed still like that, watching the sunset.
“What’s going to happen next?”
I grasped her hand tighter. “What’s supposed to happen.”
The ending would be different this time—different, but not too different. We would be together, I knew. Her voice could bring me back from anywhere.
We tracked the sun together as it disappeared completely beneath the skyline.
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