Song of an Untamed Land

by Seth Mullins

Excerpt

Chapter One: No Way Home

Song of an Untamed Land
Author: Seth Mullins
Publisher: Infinity Publishing
    (February, 2005)
Paperback: 490 pages
Price: $21.95 US
ISBN: 0741424177

A tall and imposing figure eyed the narrow ravine below. There, in a grove sparsely populated with aspens, strange folk were loitering. Repugnance made Enofor shake his head. These men squandered no opportunities to disturb the beasts of his forest. They’d built a raucous fire, one much larger than they needed for cooking. They made no effort to moderate the volume of their voices. Any buck would detect their reek of tobacco, liquor and city air from a mile away. Enofor surveyed the paths the men had forced, and he asked himself this: were they deliberately trying to get themselves lost? Ignoring the forest’s natural routes, they’d opted instead to contest with briar and chaparral; and the way they hacked and stamped those trails made the wild man furious.

Why had these men penetrated so deep into his country, when they obviously weren’t accustomed to life in the wild?

The elder six were wearing wide-brimmed hats and heavy shirts topped with fur jackets or vests and red or black bandannas around their necks. They sat oiling and polishing their guns, kicking their boots up to warm their toes whilst muttering complaints about how long meal preparations were taking. Their repose contrasted sharply with the way the seventh and youngest lad limped, in obvious pain, on bare feet. He looked as if he’d run away from home without bothering to dress fully or even eat for the three days previous. Only some dirty gray overalls and an off-white woolen shirt covered his beanpole frame. He was doing the mastiff’s share of the chores: fetching water and setting it to boil, stirring the contents of the other two black pots that rested on a bed of coals, and simultaneously constructing lean-tos with wood he’d gathered himself. ‘That one didn’t join the others by choice,’ Enofor concluded, ‘or I am a white-tailed doe.’

The wilderness dweller stretched out with his thoughts, seeking one of his woodland Spirit Familiars. Squirrel was manifest within all his namesake creatures and yet, somehow, he existed beyond them as well. His presence was always a comfort and a balm for Enofor, but now the man had no time to indulge in pleasurable communion; he had a task to accomplish. Who were these people? What needs drove them? Squirrels utilized a complex gestalt of images and scents to delve into human thought forms. Their communications could provide Enofor with some insight — and indeed, in a moment the man received his answer. A volatile cocktail of guilt and fear — and pride and empty bravado, also — motivated these strangers. Enofor decided to take advantage of these weaknesses in order to save their captive.

“And already Brieran complains about how many ‘strays’ I bring home,” he thought; and he chuckled.

He emerged from his concealment and strolled down the gentle slope. As he moved, his senses drank in the autumn colors: vibrant yellows, oranges and reds. They never ceased to thrill him. Seasonal changes made his being, his very blood, sing in response to their ancient and abiding rhythms.

The six ruffians were all armed, but Enofor knew that he would still intimidate them. His auburn hair fell in two thick braids halfway down his back. He was dressed in Smokawan fashion: brown buckskin shirt and leggings tapered with fringe at the sleeves and thighs and trimmed with weasel hair. A poncho of tightly woven willow shoots covered his head and thick brown moccasins protected his feet. Enofor took a moment to scatter some twigs and dirt through his thick beard to complement his newly adopted persona — that of a slightly deranged (and therefore easily deceived) woodsman. Then he emerged within the travelers’ line of sight.

One of the men noticed him, cried out, and the whole camp was instantly alert and hostile. The one to point Enofor out lifted his rifle and cocked it.

“Identify yourself, old man! Come no closer ‘til you do — and show us you’re unarmed, too.”

Enofor complied by emptying the barrel of his own rifle and dropping it onto the ground three feet in front of him. He deliberately employed the awkward verbal gait of a hermit accustomed to only talking to himself. “I am Manwate!” he said. “I killed a great moose not far from here! If you help me carry him there’ll be enough for us all to feast on!”

All this was true. He’d just slain the very Cunning Grandfather of Smokawan legend in a rocky ravine to the south. Enofor had planned to donate the meat to his wilderness companions who were about to face an arduous winter; but now the moose would have to be bartered.

“So those were the shots we heard.” The tall one was speaking now. His face was raw-boned and angular; his nose sharp and cheeks sunken. A sour expression seemed to have permanently molded his countenance. “Maybe you’ll just show us where his carcass is, and we’ll take it for ourselves,” he said.

Exacerbating his stumbling dialect, Enofor strove to create the impression that his reason had grown feeble. He made his eyes look dim, opaque, and slightly out of focus.

“I suppose you could,” he said. “’But it’s bad luck to steal from a Magi. Cunning Grandfather is my kindred spirit. Hoodwink me, and he’ll rise up and dash away!” Enofor made a quick sweeping motion with one arm; the extravagant gesture seemed to throw him off balance. “Never would you set eyes on him again!”

While he carried on this charade, part of his mind groped for all his slim knowledge of the new settlers, to whose lineage these men belonged. Their forefathers — like Enofor’s own — had fled the tyrannical Kingdom of Churan, bequeathing upon their children a legacy of struggle upon dusty plains and untamed wilderness. They were notoriously superstitious. Strangers to their own inner power, they perceived uncanny and menacing forces at work in the world at large. Considering the implications of this tendency, Enofor decided that his gambit was worth risking. ‘But if I demonstrate real power too soon,’ he thought, ‘they may simply kill me in their hysteria.’ So he stepped forward with a look of naiveté , as if he believed his alleged wizardry would protect him.

“How much for your boy?” he asked. “He is for sale, isn’t he?”

They held their guns poised, but the young men looked thoughtful; and they issued no more threats. Perhaps they weren’t even aware of it, but Enofor knew that they’d already relinquished their power and displaced control over this situation. He guessed that at least three of them were blood-related — probably brothers. The tallest and eldest, the one whose elongated face reminded Enofor of a weasel, presumed to speak for the group of them .

“He’s for the Smokawa,” he said. “We’ll only trade with someone who won’t be talkin’to any settlers. His kin owed us a blood debt, but he’s liable to tell people otherwise.”

Enofor cast a surreptitious glance over to where the young lad was still tending the pots. He was lanky in a manner peculiar to young adolescence, limbs and torso stretched before they’d had a chance to fill out. His face was rounded and boyish, and his pale skin was peppered with russet freckles. He was bereft of dignity, naked of defenses. Every fear he’d ever nurtured seemed to have been fulfilled. ‘ How did they break his spirit so?’ Enofor wondered. Was the lad listening to this exchange? Could he even nurture any hope that his lot might improve after he was ‘sold’?

Enofor breathed the aromas from the cooking. Rabbit stew, with an unwonted amount of broth, filled the two black pots. This was skimpy fare for six hearty thugs. They would be easy to bait.

“I ain’t bothered ’bout your vendetta!” Enofor told the lanky man, his voice rising shrilly. “Why d’ye think I live out here? ‘Cause there’s no law. But it sure is work, and a young, strong body would be much help. So tell me: is he strong? Can he lift and haul, plow, pull, dig, hammer and fetch?”

The leader ignored Enofor’s eccentricities and kept his voice diplomatic. “He’s an able-bodied boy,” he said. “This animal you spoke of — he was really Cunning Grandfather?”

‘So they do have some knowledge of the Smokawa,’ Enofor considered. ‘They’re smarter than I gave them credit for. Smart enough to realize that I know too much already. So— they’ll follow the lunatic old man, and kill him once he’s led them to the meat.’

“Come see for yourself,” he urged them. “One look and you’ll know; he can be no other.” Then Enofor turned and began retracing his steps up the hill. He was certain that curiosity would entice the others to follow.

After a quick debate the gang decided that three should go investigate, bringing the captive along, and the other three would stay and guard the camp. The young one was pulled away from his work just when it was nearly completed and forced to scramble up the rock-strewn slope in his bare feet. Enofor sensed his woodland friends scattering before the ponderous footfall of these clumsy men who punished the very ground as they moved. The wilderness dweller took a shortcut through a gully filled with a thousand purple, oval flowers of lupine. They’d been granted longevity, thanks to his wife’s care and her healing touch. Enofor soon regretted his decision, however, when the ruffians mangled the beautiful grove. They were all squinting and eyeing the lines of trees on either side as if expecting an ambush. Their captive, however, exhibited no such trepidation; fear and hope both seemed to have lost their meaning in his rattled consciousness.

Surmounting another hill, this one topped with bristlecone pine, Enofor stretched out with his percipience and called to his brethren. Squirrel could always be relied upon for sound advice, but it was to Crow that Enofor entrusted his life. With the remaining portion of his awareness the man located the bush where he’d hidden the giant carcass of the moose. It’d taken him an hour to haul it this far from the lower ravine. Fishing through the bramble, Enofor grabbed the beast’s hind legs and dragged him into view. Witnessing its tremendous bulk, its three-foot tall rack, and the sublime dignity of its face in death, the city-folk gasped.

“It truly is him,” one of them muttered.

“So it is,” Enofor answered, remembering to affect his voice with a touch of dementia. They had to be caught off their guard at the crucial moment. “Tell the Smokawa you killed him yourself. Your fame will spread throughout all of the wilder land.”

“That it will,” the weasel-faced leader said. Resolute despite his fear, he cocked his rifle and placed its sights in front of his right eye. “There’ll be no one to say otherwise, either.”

Enofor had to admit he was surprised. He hadn’t expected this malicious kid, barely grown to manhood, to overcome his trepidation. ‘He’s got the reflexes of an accomplished killer,’ he concluded. ‘He’s become so accustomed to it that the act no longer needs meditating.’

The wild man stretched his arms out in a gesture of supplication. Instant clamor erupted amongst the leaves overhead, as if the trees were being battered by hail. Twenty crows, in tightly closed formation, bounded towards the forest floor. The man wielding the gun waved it frantically to ward them off . His shock bordered on hysteria. Eight of the squawking black birds alighted upon Enofor’s outstretched arms as if this was the most enticing perch in all of the wood. The wild man stood there, arms decked with living minarets, and allowed his visage to assume an aspect of unbridled fury.

“A Sorcerer! Kill him Darrow!” yelled one of the ruffians. But Darrow’s gun had already dropped from his insensate grip. Enofor’s laughter was as demented as a hyena’s, and the sound of it sent the three young men bound ing down the hill in such a panic that they slid and rolled halfway to its foot. Within a heartbeat they were on their feet again, sprinting through the brush and foliage. Gradually the forest swallowed their cries. Then the crows departed, with Enofor’s gratitude alive within their minds, and the big man was left alone with the former captive. Apparently feeling too weary for caution, the lad was openly staring at him.

“I bet you could use a good meal, now,” Enofor said. “It looks like they’ve been starving you.”

The young one, closed though he was, evinced shock at the change in the man’s voice. A light of comprehension visited his demeanor: he understood the ploy. Hope and despair were warring within him now, but all he said was: “They fed me some.”

“Just enough scraps to keep you alive and sellable, I’ll wager,” Enofor said. “Well now, I urge you to join me. My lady will have a sumptuous diner laid out for us. What is your name, so I may introduce you?”

The lad’s voice was as hollow as a scraped gourd. “Eden Bander,” he said.

“I am Enofor.” The man offered a slight bow, right hand closed over his left fist. “You are welcome in my home — though you do not belong to me, whatever you may have thought of our bargain.”

Eden merely stared back, exhibiting little understanding. Despite what Enofor had said, he did seem to regard himself as a piece of property that had just been bought. ‘Healing this lad may well sap our strength,’ Enofor thought, sensing impending weariness. ‘And who knows if we’ll succeed, or if he’ll resent us for it?”

“Well, come then,” he urged Eden. Then he noticed the lad’s eyes lingering on the moose carcass.

“Aye, my lady will be disappointed in me for losing him,” Enofor said. “We usually have a veritable tribe to support: our three sons, as well as many a wayward Smokawa friend during the winter months. But such was the bargain: his meat for you. It’s a pity this noble animal would meet such an end.

“But come!” he repeated. “Though your captors proved untrustworthy, I would still honor my promise. They will forget their fear before too long, and return. I dare not hope for a second miracle today!”

“How did you do that?” Eden asked.

His curiosity offered Enofor a glimpse of his spirit as it existed naturally, innocent of injury or bitterness. Speaking to that place of openness, Enofor said: “Many of the animals and even some of the trees are allied with me. We look out for each other. I have... learned their speech, after a fashion, and we trust each other. It is a gift with which the Guardians have invested me.”

This was a lot to laden his new friend with so abruptly, but honesty was a compulsion with Enofor. When he saw that no more questions were forthcoming — and Eden had withdrawn once more inside his dour shell — Enofor turned towards home. Dusk was settling, but he never needed light to guide him through this familiar wood. The rutted dirt paths led him and Eden to his cabin within an hour. The log structure was nestled within the shadows. On the opposite side of a fence of spruce trees a vast lake resided, preternaturally quiet and still, reflecting the silver moon.

Enofor brought Eden up to the round oaken door of his house and then led him inside to a long hall. Sprigs of chamomile, garlic and holly hung along the walls. The only other decorations were the six green candles set on a heavy oaken table. A woman had just finished lighting the last of them. She was s lim and diminutive, barely rising to Enofor’s broad chest. Her long brown hair was fair to look upon, as the shaggy branches of a cypress tree could be considered beautiful in their wildness. She seemed to have dark eyes — Eden couldn’t be certain in the dim light — and the lad felt like a rabbit being regarded by a hungry eagle. He was naked before her, as she assessed his condition in a glance.

Turning to Enofor, she said: “He looks terrible. You should leave this to me.” Her voice, too, was hard; but like a gale wind is hard though it bears no malice.

“He is famished,” Enofor said.

“He shouldn’t even be standing. Offer him Jin’s room, and get him into bed. Don’t cover him, though; I’ll attend to him.”

She gazed at Eden again, and her eyes softened. “I am Brieran,” she said. “Please forgive my curtness. Injury to the flesh and spirit angers me.”

Then she withdrew to an adjoining room.

Her pronouncements made Eden realize, for the first time in days, the full extent of his fatigue. His head throbbed, registering messages of pain from the rest of his body, and he longed to lie down. He found himself slumped into the cradle of Enofor’s strong arms, being steered down the hall and up a flight of winding wooden stairs. Feeling grateful, he made a feeble attempt to cooperate.

“We have three sons,” Enofor was saying, “but they are gone now on an urgent errand. We’re offering you the room that belongs to our youngest.”

Then Eden was led to a bed made of thick interwoven reeds and covered with a feather mattress and a patchwork quilt. He would’ve languished there eagerly. More effort was being required of him, though. Brieran was asking him to undress, and Enofor offered assistance. The air was a stinging chill on Eden’s skin, but Brieran forbid him to go under the covers. Enofor withdrew.

“Rest well, Eden,” he said. “Tomorrow is a new day.”

Brieran seemed not to notice her husband’s departure; she was intent upon the work at hand. First she applied a pulp to Eden’s bruised legs. It smelled of cab bage, but was rough as crumpled bark. Then she placed a steaming cup into his hands and ordered him to drink. While Eden consumed the bitter contents, Brieran left to retrieve another poultice. This she applied to the lad’s forehead. It felt like wet clay.

“You’ll have to try and sleep like that,” she said, relieving him of the empty cup. “I’ve a feeling you’ll sleep through anything tonight, though. Young bodies mend quickly. Relax, and empty your mind of questions and purposes. You are fortunate. May you rest in Junamere’s embrace tonight.”

As she spoke that name — Junamere — the name of a country that’d vanished before he’d even been born, Eden’s mind plunged into memories of his last conversation — the last conversation he would ever have — with hi s older brother. Grief and acceptance had been waging a terrible battle within Jas Bander; Eden could recall the set of his jaw, a piece of chiseled granite. Desperate to lighten his brother’s mood, Eden had mentioned Jas’ fiancée. “I think Ma would’ve liked Lucilde.”

Then Jas had laughed, and for a moment his inner conflict had been forgotten. “Each one of em’s as stubborn as the other,” he’d allowed. “Lucilde only ever admits to her faults when she wants me to own up to some even bigger ones. Don’t you remember in school, our history lessons where we learned about Junamere? They both should’ve been born there, where they make women like them into queens.”

Perhaps, wherever the spirit of Eden’s mother had journeyed to, she could have her day to be queen. Maybe Jas, too, had gone on to a better place. These notions eased Eden’s mind as he slipped into unconsciousness.

After Brieran left the room and secured the door behind her, she saw her husband hovering a few feet away. He’d obviously endured a trial of patience, staying out of her way for that long.

“You could have healed him with much less effort than that,” he whispered. “Why do you withhold yourself?”

“His psyche is fragile,” Brieran said “It would be too much of a shock, were he to feel my healing hands right now. Better to let time and homespun remedies do their work.” She sighed, letting her voice carry some of her frustration. “His body responds well, but I cannot succor his spirit. A vulnerable child dwells within him, but behind a hard wall.”

“He longs for what you offer him,” Enofor assured her. “In the end, that longing will win past any resistance.”

Alarmed by the sound of angry voices that he couldn’t locate, Eden arose in his familiar room. The farmhouse lay a few miles outside of Brinstead Common. The light of the half moon shone directly through the window, and when Eden’s eyes adjusted he noticed that his brother was no longer in the loft. Jas must be involved in the mysterious altercation. A peculiar illumination cast upon the window glass caught Eden’s eye. He scrambled up to the windowsill and peered out.

A lantern was swaying on the lowest branch of the spruce tree that leaned beside the house. Eden’s Pa and brother were down below, their backs turned to him. T he lantern light flickered, making the other human shadows twitch like demonic shapes. The Gelts were there, leering and laughing, anxious for blood. An agonizing distance lay between Eden and this conflict that was stewing to a boil. “Turn your merciful face towards us, dear Goddess!” he cried.

Then his eyes opened wide, though his body was too weak and feverish to rise. His mind felt like a gutted pumpkin. He was not in the loft; his homestead did not exist; it was burned down. Eden had hoped to escape into the world of dreams, but even there he found nightmares laying in wait.

For two full days he remained in bed. Brieran often visited him, treating him to more pungent teas and discomforting balms. Enofor’s wife was often hard and terse, yet there were moments when her hard demeanor would lighten and laughter would break free, effervescent and childlike. Eden could see now, in the light of day, how dark her complexion was — almost a chestnut hue. He couldn’t guess how old the woman was; her gray-green eyes seemed to have borne witness to a long age of the world. ‘Her youngest son’s a couple years older than me,’ he reasoned, ‘so Brieran must be at least as old as my Ma would’ve been.’ Had she lived.

Eden had to admit that his native vigor was returning. The end of his second day in this strange sanctuary found him restless and impatient. But while his body yearned for challenge and exertion, his spirit quailed. He wasn’t ready to commit the atrocities of his recent life to the realm of real memory.

Enofor left his wife alone with her work, but he would often inquire about Eden’s progress.

“Have you spoken much with him?”

“Very little,” Brieran admitted. “Mostly he asks me to explain my cures, and why such-and-such is necessary.”

“And he expresses no need to be on his way?” Enofor persisted. “Perhaps he has no place to go then. Is it not strange that he has never mentioned his family? I fear that the men who drove his out here have orphaned him. They were a spiteful lot.”

“Best if he remains here then,” Brieran said. “He’ll find no wholeness or surcease in the world without.”

Enofor retired early that night, but his wife was restless. She sought solace in the Moon Garden she tended, which sprawled along the closer shore of the lake. There, robust yellow petals of primrose, coaxed into unusually long life spans by the songs of Brieran, spread out in profusion. These we r e complemented well by the gentle pink flowers of thyme and the tall bluebells. Each of these flowers was rumored to be a favorite haunt of the Hidden People; this was a nickname colloquial folk used when they unwittingly referred to the Guardians. Briera n had to chuckle, considering how her garden satisfied her own esthetic sensibilities as well as the common superstitions. But she knew that people were trite to presume that the Guardians could cherish any one form of life over another.

She spent her every evening out here, basking in the slowly unfolding thoughts of her floral companions. She would do so until winter drove their spirits into hiding once again.

Tonight she’d brought dark bananas — a nostalgic reminder of her people from the jungles of Shi-Inte — and brown sugar. She smeared a mixture of the two on an aspen that grew alongside her garden, hoping to entice sphinx moths to come and keep her company. Within minutes, several of them covered the splotch on the tree’s white bark. Brieran sang to them and then sang to her flowers. Then she gasped, forgetting her lilting strain, when she noticed one of her little friends floundering on the ground. It was trying to fly, but the movement more closely resembled an attempt to burrow its head under the ground. Then, after a misstep, it was on its back, little arms flailing. What ailed it?

Tenderly, Brieran scooped the moth into one palm and covered it with her other. Briefly she could feel the flow, the source of both her own life and that of the little creature. This sensation delighted her, and she laughed.

“Mine are the hands of second chances, little one!” she said. She opened her hands, and the moth bounded away with as much vigor as if it were a newborn. Brieran could sense its happiness, the way it reveled in its restored sense of strength. Then she straightened, startled, when she noticed that the young lad, Eden, was watching her.

He stood by the head of her long shadow, looking distinctly uneasy. Once again he wore the clothes he’d traveled in with the ruffians. Brieran smirked, considering everything that the lad might’ve witnessed. “You are one of the new settlers,” she said, “and thus you’re bound to think I carry on like a madwoman. Well, join me nonetheless. Make the acquaintance of my garden.”

Eden obeyed slowly. He took three cautious steps in her direction, and then froze again. “That moth was gonna die,” he said.

Brieran pursed her lips and nodded, taking a moment to reconsider her relationship with the lad. “You saw that. Yes, it is true; I offered him an alternative to dying, and he accepted it.”

“How?” A touch of wonder mingled with the trained suspicion in his voice.

“Hmm... how do I relate to you an experience that I feel so deeply and yet can never explain?” Brieran mused. “You could never understand unless you felt it for yourself, and yet you would never follow the Way unless you had some inkling of where it would take you. “She decided to give him some of the bare truth, without adornment. Even if he didn’t comprehend, it seemed the best way to honor his spirit. “There really is nothing miraculous about healing — well, no more than there are miracles in all of life. These are quite natural human potentials, though rarely developed. Those of us who learn to access our power will express it in a way that is uniquely suited to us. You see, I have always favored my tactile senses; physical touch is my most intimate reality, so that has become my expression. I have a healing touch.”

“Is that what Enofor’s talking about, when he rambles on about the Guardians?” Eden asked. He knew he was stalling. He hardly paid attention to what the woman said, because her responses didn’t pertain to the question that he really wanted to ask but lacked the courage to.

“Yes, our empowerment comes from the Guardians,” Brieran said. “But the Guardians dwell within us, as well as without.” Shyly, she smiled. “I don’t mean to speak in riddles.”

Eden wrung his hands. “I didn’t mean to snoop around or nothin’,” he managed at last, “but I noticed that you had a string harp in your room.”

‘How the lad’s mind darts about!’ Brieran marveled. ‘Is he unfocused because of his illness, and all that time spent asleep? No — it must be the dangers my husband and I represent to him. Our lives touch upon things he’s conditioned to fear, and yet he can’t reconcile that fear alongside all the kindness we’ve showed him.’

“Music is Haighin’s madness,” Eden added, after she let the silence linger too long.

“Listen to me!” Brieran strode towards him, and Eden braced himself as if for an assault.

“I know where it is you come from, what was instilled in you,” the woman said. “Despite what you have been taught, there is no evil in song. Yes, I am a music maker — just like the old heretics you were probably forced to read about in school. And yes, there have been minstrels in times passed who’ve incited the commoners to revolt, or who seduced young people to run away from home and join the harpists and fiddlers in the wilderness for nights o f drunken madness. That does not mean that we all behave this way. I am sure now you will think that this is why my husband and I are out here alone, existing as hermits — because we don’t want people to know how we live. This is not far from the truth, though it is hardly the whole of it.”

Eden seemed consumed by an inner conflict and he only half-heard the woman.

“I saw my Pa get in a brawl years ago,” he said. “The other fellow got his shirt torn in the fight, and we could all see a red spot in the hollow of his shoulder where he’d used to rest a fiddle. People called that mark the Kiss of Haighin. Folks were yellin’ and hurlin’ stones, trying to drive the fellow away. He was never heard from again, leastwise not in Brinstead Common.”

“Were you close to your Pa?” Brieran prompted him.

Eden shrugged. “Jas was his favorite son. He never had to work for Pa’s attention the way I did.”

Brieran wondered if the lad realized how much he’d already revealed to her. “And your Ma?”

“Fever took her life when I was real young. I don’t remember her all that much.”

“And yet people have often remarked about how much you resemble her,” Brieran said. She leveled her sharp eyes upon Eden and saw that he was daunted. Good — she needed his full attention now. “And your Pa sometimes blamed you for her death.”

Eden shook as if startled by a gunshot. His mouth tightened and his hands clenched. He looked ready to lash out, though Brieran knew she was in no real danger. She drew closer and grasped his shoulders.

“Illness is oftentimes unconquerable here in the New World,” she whispered. “Our climate is hostile, poverty is prevalent, and food is often scarce. The loss of those whom nature claims is too great a burden to place on any person’s shoulders, least of all on a youth of only sixteen.”

Eden withdrew. Tears were welling in his eyes now. “There’s no way you could know that!” he accused her. “How could you know?”

Brieran did not answer. In reality she glimpsed only fragments of the lad’s inner life, hardly enough to create a cohesive picture. To give herself the space to plunge deeper — and to let him assimilate what he’d already heard — she left Eden alone with his pain and confusion for a moment. She was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly he composed himself, however.

“Look,” he said, “if you and Enofor are trying to trap me or something... well, it’s no worse than the way my life’s already been heading.”

Brieran decided that it was time to address the needs that lay beneath his words — and this outer show of belligerence.

“You may come to know the Guardians yourself, someday,” she said. “When your eyes are opened, then nothing that I’m saying now will seem so mysterious anymore. But don’t concern yourself with that right now. You are important to my husband, and to me, just as you are. What can we do to earn your trust?”

Her simple plea reached him, and his ire began to dissolve. ‘He feels uncomfortable’, Brieran guessed, ‘when he tries to sustain his anger.’

“I was wondering,” Eden began tentatively, “what are you and Enofor planning to do with me?”

Brieran laughed, a sound as crisp as morning birds. “Do with you?” she asked. “Well, I’d promised myself that I’d see you healed, and I’ve accomplished that much. What are you going to do with yourself, now?” Even in the darkness, she noticed him flinch. “It’s much easier to worry about your fate being in our hands, isn’t it?”

Eden let each of his words drop like bricks. “I uh can work real hard. I’ve always been like that. I don’t complain much, and I don’t think I’d get in the way.”

Pleased to see the progress he was making, Brieran widened her smile.

“What I mean is, umm... could I maybe stay with you?”

“Is that what you’d like?” the woman asked.

“Yes, ma’am, it is.”

“We feel the same, my husband and I,” she told him. “Stay as long as you wish to. Our sons are gone, and this big, lonely house craves company.”

Then she decided to cast out one last little hook. “While you’re here, of course, you would have an opportunity to learn our ways. I can assure you, Eden, there is no more worthwhile journey to make.”

For several minutes Eden stood in silence. He couldn’t understand much of what she’d told him, nor explain away the things that he’d witnessed. His gaze drifted from the moths to the flowers; and once, even to the firmament of the stars. A light akin to a child’s hope was dancing in his eyes. Perhaps a small part of Brieran’s message had taken hold, painting pictures in his mind that shone much brighter than all the other horrors — and allowing him a small reprieve from his myriad fears. When he gathered himself to face the woman again, though, his confusion was still obvious.

Brieran addressed his unspoken conflict. “That was not a condition placed upon our hospitality,” she said, “just an offer.”

“Thanks.” Eden mumbled. He didn’t know whether he was expressing gratitude for the opportunity, or the proffered way out of it.


Copyright © 2005 by Seth Mullins

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