In the beginning, I thought he loved me as I loved myself. That lie is the reason I now lay garlanded in perpetual darkness.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
Erik slept on top of a not-very-wide bed as sunlight fell onto his face. His eyes wanted to slide open on their own, yet consciousness was slow in coming, and once it did, he awoke, bolting upright and gasping for breath. Half-blinded by light, he noted his own nakedness.
For a moment he stared unseeing, wondering where he was, then wiped cold sweat from his forehead when he remembered nothing. He had no memory of ever entering this room, of going to sleep, or . . . or even of who he was. Slowly he calmed his breathing.
The bed rustled and Erik blinked. A long, cream-colored leg rested at the foot of the bed as a pair of pink hands rolled white stockings up the exposed flesh. The woman the limb and the hands belonged to was otherwise naked, her golden hair glowing in the morning light. Everything else faded but her; nothing else seemed more important in that instant.
“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Erik said.
“That was not very ordinal, Erik. You can do better.” Blue eyes rose to meet his own, shivering joy into his bones. She talked in a dismissive tone, but the fire in her eyes spoke of delight. “I was hoping to make breakfast before you awoke, but now you’re out of luck.”
“But it’s true,” he said, “you are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“You and that silver tongue of yours.” The woman shook her and returned to the task of getting dressed.
What’s her name? Erik’s expression soured. He sensed the knowledge floating just outside of his grasp. Spots shimmered in front of his eyes when he reached for it, then he fell back onto the bed, struggling to breathe, drifting within an ocean of never-ending black.
Hanna. Louder. HANNA!
Erik jerked back into consciousness, ears ringing with a mental tone. Hanna loomed above him, lips moving without sound, eyes frantic. He rose a hand to touch her wet cheek and sensed her heart racing through her skin.
“Erik. . . . Erik!” Hanna’s voice finally reached him as if it came from a great distance, desperate and pleading.
“Hanna,” he breathed, happy at putting a name to the enchanting face
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he laughed. His hand fell from Hanna’s face to circle her pink nipple, pinching, squeezing. His breath caught in his throat at the softness of her flesh. Hot blood pumped into his chest, legs and. . . .
Hanna’s elbow slammed down onto Erik’s stomach, driving all air from his lungs. He gasped, and his eyes watered.
“You think scaring me is funny? Do you?” Hanna rained blow after blow down upon Erik. “Answer me!”
Erik groaned and wrapped Hanna in arms, holding still against his chest. Pain flared where her elbows had landed. “Stop it, Hanna.”
“Release me!” She struggled to break free, but could not pry herself from his grasp.
“I will,” Erik promised in between fits of wheezing laughter. The whole situation just seemed so ridiculous. “Right after you—”
Erik flung Hanna aside as if she had turned into a bag of vipers and pressed his hand to his shoulder. His fingers came away dripping with scarlet fluid. He stared at them incredulously.
“Your head’s hard as a stone.” Hanna wiped the blood from her lips. “But I’ll train you to listen, one way or another.”
“You bit me!”
“And I would do it again.”
Erik regarded Hanna with a queer expression frozen on his face. She rolled off the bed, and a donned a blue dress embroidered with golden flowers. There was something sensual about watching her put on clothes; every inch of covered flesh became more forbidden, enticing the imagination.
“Do you mean to spend the whole morning peering at me like a pervert?” Hanna ran her hands down the side of her dress and raised an eyebrow at him, glancing at his manhood.
Erik’s face burned as blood rushed to his face. He scrambled off the bed and searched for his clothes, finding them scattered around the little room. Morning brightened the bedchamber’s only window decorated with brocaded curtains; the sun was well up, round and radiant. He rubbed a sore spot on his stomach after putting on a green coat elegant enough to be worn by a wealthy merchant.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Hanna inquired, a slight note of worry coloring her voice.
For an instant, a vague sense of trepidation coursed through Erik and he felt there was something important he should be doing, if only he could remember what. His insides knotted. His hands closed into fists. What happened to my memory? I was doing something. I. . . .
“Erik!” Hanna shouted.
Erik blinked and sent Hanna a flirtatious smile. He felt like a pretender. “I’m fine,” he lied.
“Are you sure? You. . . . I don’t know.”
He nodded and turned from her searching gaze. “Now what?”
“Now? You go home,” Hanna replied.
Angry with himself for his lack of memories, Erik ran a finger along his mustache and avoided Hanna’s eye. He strode to the window and peered outside. Behind a curving wheat field, a twenty-meter tall stockade jutted out of the ground, made of large, worn logs. None of it stirred even the hint of remembrance; he was sure he had never seen this place before. He turned back to Hanna and said, “And where is that exactly? Home?”
Hanna studied him for a long moment, then smirked. “Do you want me to show you?”
“Could you?” Erik pushed down on the thrill spiking through him. “That would be wonderful.”
“I’m not sure what game you’re playing today, but okay let’s play.” Hanna took Erik’s hand and all but bounced towards the bedroom door. Invigorated and bubbling with enthusiasm, she led him through the small but tidy house.
Outside, Erik dropped Hanna’s hand and took in his surroundings. Hanna’s home sat at the edge of a small village, encircled by a stockade with evenly placed watchtowers; between the houses and stockade stood the curving wheat field he had seen earlier. Beyond the wall, an ancient forest of redwoods stretched in every direction just past a handful of farms and hedge-bordered fields.
“This way.” Hanna clasped at Erik’s hand, pulling him along a narrow path, leading towards the heart of the village. “And please stop walking with your mouth open. Wolfville is nothing to be amazed about.”
Erik closed his mouth, but he did not stop taking in his surroundings. High-peaked, thatch-roofed homes rose around him, decorated in red and blue banners. Every piece of available land that surrounded them was cultivated with crops, except for the pathway they walked. A group of small children swarmed around them a few minutes later, chased by playful dogs. Hanna yelled at the youngsters, bringing an end to their game of tag.
“I don’t care if today is the Renewal,” she told him after they ran off, “that’s no reason for them to be causing this much noise this early in the morning.”
The Renewal? Great, something else I don’t know.
Erik plodded on beside Hanna, not raising any of the questions that prodded his mind. Then he noticed the glances from the neighbors; goodwives with aprons tied around their middles stood at windows and in doorways, faces twisted in displeasure as if the sight of them together was an affront to their eyes. In contrast to the women, the husbands sent him knowing grins and laughed until chastised by their wives.
“Why are they looking at us like that?” Erik asked, perplexed and hating it. The hostility prickled his skin, raising the hairs on his arms.
Hanna’s lips curled into an almost smile. “Jealousy? Fear? Who knows?” She pointed at a large house in the distance. “That one is yours.”
Erik did not understand what she meant by that but thought he should. He followed her finger and shouted, “Race you!” He bolted forward, eager to get away from the stares.
“Wait!” Hanna gathered her skirts high in her hands and chased after him, ignoring the growing murmurs of the goodwives at the exposure of stockinged legs.
Erik pulled ahead of her, his long legs blurring as he ran, filling him with a sense of sweetness that bordered on pain. After a few dozen meters, he jolted to a stop and laughed at the sight of Hanna racing towards him. She barreled into him, and he stepped back, reeling.
“One of these days,” she gasped, “I swear I’ll beat that smile right off you face, Erik Ito! Just you wait!”
“Don’t be a sore loser,” Erik grinned. He pulled Hanna into his arms and kissed her, sliding his tongue inside her moist mouth. Her fingers intertwined at the back of his head and she melted into his arms. He pulled back and asked, “Are you coming inside?”
Hanna peered up at him, her blue eyes brittle with an emotion he was unable to name. She pressed her palms against his chest and pushed him away. “Go home to your wife, Erik,” she whispered, voice pulsing with heartache. Then she left, walking back the way she came.
Erik watched Hanna leave, uncomprehending. My wife? I have a wife? He could almost picture a face, but as he focused on it, the image faded and left behind a name in its place: Dara. My wife’s name is Dara? It left right, but there was a sense of wrongness to it.
He turned towards his supposed home, not knowing what else to do. Where other homes were only one or two stories tall, his was three and made of plastered brick, sharing more in common with a nobleman’s manor than a villager’s dwelling. Broad shutters were thrown back from the house, revealing a large window, and a pink, youthful face peeked out at him. He waved.
The front door swung open moments later, and the same woman stepped outside. She wore a black dress and white wimple on her head, which only seemed to add to the allure of her symmetric facial features.
“Are you my wife?” Erik questioned her.
“Are you trying to get me murdered?” The woman’s eyes flared in panic, and her small hands pressed down against her black dress. She laughed nervously and glanced behind her to make sure no one had overheard. “I’m your maid, one of the many women you employ. I know my place.”
“What’s your name?”
“Have you been drinking again?” Her young face flashed with irritation, and she tugged him into the house. “I’m Kendra. Come on, you’re late for breakfast.”
In the front hall, the stone floor was polished to a bright gleam, but Erik did not have time to notice much more than that before Kendra hurried him into a large dining room where every piece of furniture looked like it just had been cleaned. Bright mirrors and exquisite paintings hung on the walls, illuminated by the soft glow of lamplight.
A thin woman with green eyes and long flowing black hair sat at the head of the table. Dara. It had to be her, who else it possibly be? Her eyes held an air of brooking little nonsense, even so, she was dazzling to behold. The sight of her made Erik’s mouth dry and his palms damp.
My wife, he thought and found himself smiling.
“Look who I found wandering outside like a vagabond,” Kendra declared to the room, drawing the attention of all eyes.
“Da!” squealed a young girl—the chamber’s only other occupant—who could be no older than eight. She leaped from her seat and charged towards Erik. “Da!”
The little girl flew at Erik with her arms open wide. She looked ethereal, her dirty blonde hair swaying back and forth while her emerald eyes glowed with a power that stole his breath. She was a chartreuse rose growing in the middle of a salt mine. Something that should not be yet was.
“Elina,” Erik muttered as melancholy swelled within him. Before Elina’s arms could wrap around his waist, he lifted her off of her feet and swung her around in a circle. “Elina,” he laughed, joy overcoming his sadness.
Elina rubbed her nose when Erik set her back on the ground. “Pa, you smell foul.”
“Elina!” Dara reprimanded.
Kendra laughed behind her hands and Erik sniffed himself, looking from face to face. He realized that Elina was right. He stank like stale man sweat and another odor he could not quite place. A look from Dara stilled Kendra’s laughter in its tracks.
“What?” Elina turned to Dara, her small face contorted in confusion.
“You never tell your father he stinks,” Dara said. “This is something you must never do.”
“Even when he does?”
“Especially when he does.” Dara nodded her head.
Looking aggrieved, Elina wrinkled her nose and grudgingly said, “I’m sorry, Da, I didn’t mean it. Not really. You smell like flowers.” She gave him a quick hug then backed away.
Erik did not know whether he should laugh or cry. He opened his mouth but closed it again when he caught sight of a nearby mirror. Where he expected to see his reflection, a blue-eyed man with a blond topknot stood, banging on the other side of the mirror with his fists. The man seemed to be screaming, but all Erik heard was the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears.