The greater the intellect, the more one is alone.
“Da. . . . What’s wrong?”
Erik turned away from the mirror. “What color are my eyes?” He asked. Every one of his heart palpitations reverberated like a beaten gong, making his voice sound harsh to his ears.
“They’re. . . .” Elina paused hesitantly. “They’re green like mine.”
Erik glanced at the mirror. His reflection gazed back at him, making him second guess what he had just witnessed. If not for the fact that the blue-eyed man’s face tickled a part of his brain, Erik would have been sure he imagined it. But it did, and he was now left with a feeling of vertigo as if everything around him was spiraling out of control. What’s going on?
Elina tugged at Erik’s hand, leading him towards the table. “Da, come eat.”
Dara rose from her seat as they approached and lifted herself onto her tiptoes to kiss him lightly on the lips. It was an act devoid of any passion, but it made Erik’s breath quicken all the same. The brief contact shrouded him in the warm comfort of ritual.
“You’re right,” Dara told Elina, “he does smell—”
“Pretty,” Elina added helpfully.
Dara guided Erik into her former seat at the head of the table. “Yes. . . . Very pretty.” Her eyes narrowed for a brief moment then she turned towards Kendra who still loomed beside the door. “Kendra, my husband will be taking a bath after breakfast.”
“Yes, Mistress, I’ll have one readied,” Kendra replied in a grave tone, but Erik could see a twinkle in her eye. She curtsied and walked out of the room, pulling the door shut firmly behind herself.
Erik took the opportunity to take another sniff of himself. The odor of days-old sweat and hints of Hanna’s scent rose to meet his nose. “I don’t smell that bad,” he grumbled.
“Of course not, dear. You smell like flowers. This we’ve already established,” Dara murmured, taking a seat across from her daughter. Elina covered her mouth and giggled.
Erik looked from Elina’s grin back to Dara’s bland expression. “You two conspire against me.” He smiled, letting them know that his comment was meant in jest.
“We do,” Dara agreed, “but only ever to your benefit.” She gestured to the untouched plate laying in front of Erik. “Now eat up, you have a big day ahead.”
He stared down at the fried eggs on his plate, picking up a silver fork. “I do?” He asked.
“Da, did you forgot? Today’s the Renewal. You promised we’d go.” Elina glared at her father with incredulous eyes.
Erik drew a deep breath and shoveled eggs into his mouth, giving himself time to think. His lack of memories was starting to become annoying. He exchanged a look with Dara. His wife shrugged. This time, she was not going to clean up his mess.
“No, I didn’t forget,” he said after swallowing the food in his mouth. I don’t want my own daughter to think I’m a fool. How can I ask this question without sounding like a complete idiot? “Explain to me the nature of the Renewal?” Prefect, he thought with sarcasm.
Elina’s back went stiff, and she stared straight ahead as if being quizzed by a strict tutor. “The Renewal is the day the Jain monks come to renew Wolfville’s wardstones. It only happens once every five years.” She glanced at Erik from the corner of her eyes then quickly looked away. “Unlike some places, Wolfville isn’t wealthy enough to afford a Jain chapter house, so a visit by the monks is always a cause for celebration.”
Dara turned to Erik expectedly while Elina neither blinked nor relaxed. They were both waiting for him to speak, he realized. “Very good,” he nodded. Elina’s face lit up like a torch in a darkened room, and she appeared ready to dance the jig. Erik bit his lip to stop from laughing.
Looking around the table, he felt something close to bliss. The simple everyday interactions he was having with his family was filled with wonder. His lack of memories made it all new again. He wanted to freeze this instant in time and make it last forever. A part of himself whispered it would not last. That repetition would blind him to the majesty hidden within these quiet moments.
The smile slipped from Erik’s face. He wanted to deny the voice, but he knew it spoke the truth. He would forget, maybe not right away, but after enough time had passed, he would lose sight of what really mattered. That realization saddened him.
“What’s wrong, Da?” Elina inquired.
Erik tragically scrubbed his hand through his hair. “We are cursed as a species. We never realize what we have until it’s too late. Until it’s taken from us.” He reached out and took Elina’s hand in his left and Dara’s in his right. “I appreciate you. I want you to know that you three complete me.” He paused, three?
Dara stood from her seat. “I think it’s time for your bath.”
“I haven’t finished eating yet,” he protested.
“You’re frightening your daughter.”
The look on Elina made Erik want to grimace. He dropped his gaze from her forced smile and stood while reluctantly letting go of her hand. He followed Dara out of the room in silence.
“I didn’t mean to scare her,” Erik told Dara as she led down the hallway.
“Your problem, Erik, is that you feel too much or at least you pretend to.”
Erik yanked Dara to a stop. “What do you mean by that,” he growled. “I wasn’t pretending in there. You two mean the world to me. I don’t know much, but I know that.”
Dara calmly gazed at the hand that gripped her arm. She seemed unbothered by Erik’s displeasure. He suddenly wondered if anything he did could make her show emotion.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, releasing her arm.
“Do you want to beat me, Erik?”
“Are you sure?” Dara transformed before Erik, changing from a calm and reserved lady into a seductive temptress in a blink of an eye. She reached out and ran her long nails along Erik’s skin. “You could tie me up and bend me over your knee.” Her voice smoldered with seemingly barely controlled passion.
Her words sparked no desire within Erik’s loins. Instead, he felt as if ice water flowed through his veins. If not for her eyes, Dara’s metamorphosis would have been flawless, but they remained the same. It was as if she had put on a mask and her real self could still be seen through the holes in the facade.
“Stop,” Erik shouted, and she did. Like quicksilver she once again morphed before him, returning to her ordinal form. “You don’t ever have to pretend to be other than you are. Not with me. I love you for you.” He gently caressed her face.
Dara laughed with a joy that never touched her eyes. “Is this the part where I swoon?” Erik’s look only served to increase the level of her laughter. “What a pair we make, a spider and a fox. How long will we last I wonder?”
“Until the end of time when all the lights have gone out in the night sky. Until nothing is left but darkness.”
“There you go being overly poetic again,” Dara sighed. She turned away and continued her walk down the hallway. “Let’s get you bathed and who knows maybe when you don’t reek like another woman’s vagina your words will have more of an effect on me.”
Erik stumbled almost tripping over his legs, but Dara did not stop. He caught himself against the wall and hurried after her. Moments later, she led him into a green tiled bathroom on the first floor that had window-seats with cupboards beneath and a ceiling decorated with blue and red phoenixes on a white background. The stone bath was attached to the wall and was supplied by two large copper taps, one for hot water and one for cold. In another small room, directly behind the bathroom, a charcoal- fired stove heated the water for the first tap.
Kendra stood dropping orange peels into the steaming washing water, which was already filled with sage, marjoram, chamomile, and rosemary. Finished, she approached Erik and wordlessly began to undress him while Dara watched from behind her long eyelashes.
“What are you doing?” Erik grabbed her hand. “I can do that by myself.”
Kendra took a step back, apparently surprised. “Since when?” She gripped her hands and sent Dara a confused look before clearing her face of all expression. “Did I do something wrong?”
“That will be all, Kendra,” Dara admonished. “Elina is still in the dining room, make sure she hasn’t gotten into any mischief.”
“Yes, Mistress,” Kendra curtsied and rushed out of the room with her eyes downcast.
For an instant, Erik thought she almost looked heartbroken. He shook his head violently, how could what I said hurt her? He was not a child; he did not need anyone to undress him.
The sound of Dara clicking her tongue on the roof of her mouth drew Erik’s attention. He gave her a sour look, then dropped his coat onto the floor. “Don’t give me that look. I did nothing wrong.”
“Of course not, husband. You are infallible,” she said.
When Erik stepped into the water, Dara place a long board, draped with a white cloth and covered with shaving supplies, across the bath. Erik glanced at the gleaming blade that sat right next to a bar of soap on top of the board. He swallowed suddenly nervous.
She lathered shaving cream onto his face and picked up the blade. “Kendra is the most loyal person in our employment. She has earned whatever privilege you’ve given her.”
“I—” Erick began, then stopped as Dara yanked his head back and placed the blade to his neck. He stared up at the roof as if the secrets of life lay hidden with its decoration. Not one of them said a word. She slowly ran the straight razor up his neck, giving him the closest shave possible without cutting through his flesh. He did his best not to tremble.
“I don’t know what type of game you’re playing today, and I really don’t care. If you ever treat Kendra like that again, you and I will have words, husband. Very strong words. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” he grunted as the blade nicked him.
“Good.” Dara cleaned the straight razor with a cloth and placed it back on board. “Now hurry up. Elina and I will meet you at the front hall.” Erik gave a little jump as Dara started for the door and released a breath before it fully closed behind her.
Are all women insane? He pushed the thought away and got back to the business of getting clean.
A half an hour later, clothed in a green coat that managed to match both of his wife and daughter’s dresses, Erik strode down the street with his family. Elina clung to his and Dara’s hand, swinging back and forth, bursting into giggles every time her feet left the ground. Erik raised his chin and for a moment he thought he saw a woman with blonde hair duck back behind a building at the sight of him, but he could not be sure. There were too many people on the streets, all of them hurrying in the same direction.
“Enough,” Dara said, bringing an end to Elina’s fun.
A path cleared for Erik and his family without them having to push as they drew nearer to the center of the village. The throngs of people they passed on their way grew larger, and they were all dressed in their Sunday best. Ahead Erik could see the top of a two-story tall obelisk jutting out from ground.
At the front of the crowd, guards with rusted swords and in mismatched armor stood in a line, blocking the path forward and creating enough space for the three Jain monks that waited beside the rune covered obelisk to do their work. The monks wore gray robes made out of wool and all three of their scalps were shaved, leaving a ring of hair wrapping around their heads. Their faces were animated by a strange sameness similar to what plagued those born with mental disabilities. The first monk wore a white cloth over his mouth; the second monk held a walking staff, and the third monk had a strip of linen wrapped around his head, covering his eyes.
“Did you know that Jain monks take a vow of nonviolence?” Elina asked. “They won’t even kill an insect. Not even a fly. Isn’t gross, Da? Them just sitting there covered in flies and not doing anything about it.” She looked like she was picturing it. “I hate flies!”
Erik smiled down at her. “You don’t say.”
“It’s true!” Elina dropped her parent’s hands and began ticking off points on her small fingers. “And they live in triads. Three men with one name. . . . Or is it three men with one brain? I can’t remember which one it is. Anyway, since the day their order was founded no one has ever been to their main monastery. Nobody even knows where it is.”
“Who told you all this?”
“Ma did. She says it’s important I know things other than how to lay on my back. I don’t get what she meant by that. What’s so wrong with laying on my back? Should I lay on my front?” She tugged at Erik’s hand and whispered loudly, “Da, do you know what she meant by that?”
Erik did not answer. He glanced at Dara, and she rose her eyebrow.
“Da, look it’s Sir Ebbi, Sir Carl, and Sir Fritz.” Elina dropped Erik’s hand to point at the wagon train making its way down the main street, directly across where they stood. Each one of the Lightbenders she noted with her delicate finger sat upon their own wagon with a different beast chained in the back or dragged from behind the cart.
A young four-tusked mammoth stumbled behind Ebbi’s wagon, at only half the size of the wagon, it could be no more than a few months old. In the back of the second wagon, a wounded dire wolf pup, thinned by starvation and separated from its two front legs, lay chained.
“Ma, what’s that?” Elina exclaimed.
Caged in the back of the third wagon sat a monster with a body shaped like an ox, a head with two antlers, and a face dominated by dragon-like features. Partially covered in blue scales, it drew the eyes of the crowd. Even injured as it was, it gazed back at them proudly. Its thick white eyelashes and a grandfatherly looking beard gave it an air of nobility.
“A qilin,” Dara replied. “They’re wickedly clever creatures who tend to live alone and mate once every ten years. I’m surprised they were able to capture it alive. There are some who claim that qilins are the creatures who instigate the beast swarms. But that is only a rumor. What do we say about rumors?”
Elina looked up at her mother. “T-that. . . . only one tenth of what they claim should be believed?”
“Are you asking or are you telling me?”
“Telling!” Elina proclaimed.
The crowd cheered as the wagon train rode into the village center. Guards quickly rushed to unlatch the four-tusked mammoth from the back of Ebbi’s cart, carefully dragging the wounded beast next to the wardstone and chaining it to a giant stone post. Then they moved to the other wagons, doing the same thing.
The monk raised his staff into the air and quiet soon descended upon the waiting throng. “The price has been paid. The bargain has been struck,” he shouted, sending the gathering into a frenzy.
Before anyone had a chance to quiet down, dreadful words of harrowing power spewed from the monk’s mouth; incomprehensible and unpronounceable they twisted the minds of all who heard them. None more than Erik’s. He stumbled back, trying to steady the world that seemed to spin around him, but it was like grasping at smoke. Colors slipped past him until they all whirled into a rainbow.
While the monk with the staff spoke in the strange tongue, his two brothers made bizarre hand signs as they circled clockwise around the wardstone, shifting towards the stone posts. Their hands flashed and flickered in the air like a fish swimming upstream, somehow managing to be both fast and slow.
Suddenly the Lightbenders standing beside the chained monsters dealt the creatures death blows. Almost everyone watched in shock, too frightened to speak, as the inscribed runes that covered the surface of the stone obelisks suddenly glowed with power, drawing the animals’ blood into the air. Like long ribbons on the wind the life fluid danced around the wardstone, moving in tune with the monks hand signs until they sank into the surface of the wardstone.
Erik stood stiffly as the world stilled its mad dance. The warm air whipped past, bringing with it the scent of blood, stale sweat, the tang of fresh meat and the stink of fear. The obelisk seemed to pulse and throb before him, eager for more death. For a second it almost appeared to be breathing. Erik shook his head. How could a piece of stone be alive? The very idea was laughable. But he did not feel like laughing.