Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rosemary, Chapter 9

Letha struggled through the dense woods all day, watching the way the light fell upon a tangled spray of bramble, or looking up to see an owl spread its wings, lift itself silently into the air and away. She followed after it.
In the afternoon, she came to a small brook. It had run itself a deep channel through the soft loam of the woods, and the banks were iced and slippery. Ice rimmed the edges of the water, but the center ran too swift to freeze.
Letha drank from the water, her hands numb with the cold. Looking up, she saw a doe standing across the bank. The doe stood, poised to leap. She looked at Letha with her ancient, animal eyes. Then she was gone, with a leap of slender limbs. Letha heard the crunch of  her hooves in the still air.
Picking up her bundle, Letha made her way downstream, following the doe. When night fell, she again burrowed into a great fall of leaves, in a place where a rotten tree had fallen, pulling its roots out into the air, leaving a great pit in the ground.
That night Cederic did not come to her even in dreams.
In the morning, she saw that the clouds had come and covered over the sky. She walked all day in the whirling snow, slipping and falling in the leaves. Her fingernails were blackened, her lips blue. All the time she kept to the brook, the music of its falling water keeping her company.
By the third day, hunger and cold were making her weak. Many times Letha had to stop and lean against the side of a beech or oak to catch her breath. Many times she stumbled to her knees in the snow and had to pull herself painfully up, rearrange her bundle and then step forward again, this time more cautiously.
She began to see things with her waking eyes. She saw black feathers come falling down like snow. She saw great, golden birds wing their silently way through the trees. The ground moved beneath her like the sea and strange creatures moved under the leaves, their smooth backs lifting out for just a moment before slipping down into the earth. She saw living flames far off in the distance, half glimpsed between the trees.
As night began to fall, she saw lights ahead, warm light that fell in long streaks like spilled paint against the snow. She thought she dreamed that as well, but as she drew closer, she could smell wood smoke and onions and sage.
When she got to the clearing, she saw a cottage with a round roof, light pouring out of the windows. The door opened and Letha saw the figure of a woman, the light streaming around her, leaving her face in shadow.
“You’ve come a long way,” the woman said, her voice kind.
When Letha woke the next morning, the first thing she knew was that she was warm and this caused her to weep, though she did not know why at first. Then she remembered and gave a sudden howl of grief, the sickness of everything she had lost settling back into her bones.
Letha lay on a low bed by a fire place. A woman sat on a stool before the fire, tending the food the cooked in a small, three legged pot. She was a woman in the fullness of her years, her face held wisdom and beauty both, and they tempered each other. She wore a dress of fine, gray wool with a low, scooped neck  which showed the neckline of her white shift underneath.

The cottage was filled with more sunlight than could possibly filter through the small windows. It had only one room and a floor of packed dirt, swept very clean. The walls were made of straw thatch just the same as the roof and everything smelled like a field in August, when the threshing is done in the barns.

The only thing in that space was a great loom, as large as a chicken shed and rising all the way to the roof, where the top roll was secured to a beam. It was fitted for weaving with so many colors it made Letha’s head hurt to look. A vivid pattern was emerging up from the bottom roll, like a picture half painted.
“Here, child,” said the woman, pouring some of the pottage into an earthen bowl.
She helped Letha to sit up. Her smile caused the skin at the corners of her eyes to wrinkle up pleasingly. The woman had an expressive, tender mouth. Her eyes were the pale blue of a summer sky, thickly lashed, her hair the gold color of the hay that bound her walls.
“Now,” she said, comfortably, when Letha had finished eating. “We must be introduced. I am Alona."
When Letha opened her mouth to speak, her grief rose up instead and all she could do was cry. For a day, she passed in and out of sleep, sometimes waking to hear the whisper of the shuttle as it passed through the warp or the soft sound of Alona humming to herself.
Letha’s dreams were full of sunlight and when she woke, she saw sunlight still. Falling through the beams of light, all the dust turned to gold. Her tears turned the light into rainbow prisms, the light shimmered and danced, broke apart.
In the evening, Alona came back to the fire, stirred it up, brought fresh logs from outside and laid them on.
“I can help you,” offered Letha, shyly, when she saw the woman begin to prepare the meal, adding water to the pot, and barley and beans.
“You shouldn't walk on your feet yet. But when you are better, I will welcome your help.”
She sliced bacon into the pot, to flavor the base, and green onions. She glanced at Letha, her eyes kind.
“I don't know your story or your name yet. But you're welcome to stay in my house.”
“Thank you. My name is Letha and I cannot stay long.”
“I will not keep you when you wish to go."
The house was a very quiet place, and warm all through it, even in the midst of winter. Letha’s chores were light, when her feet had healed. Once a day she took a bucket of water, sprinkled it over the floor and then swept it with a stiff broom. She swept the loose dirt and bits of finely woven yarn out onto the stone of the front step. Looking up, she could see the evening sky above the trees, a deep and lucid blue.
Each day the tapestry took greater shape, a mysterious world rising up in color from the bottom roll. Each evening it was rolled down, so that Alona could reach the shuttle and continue the weave.
When the tapestry was done, Alona busied herself freeing her work from the harness. When Letha opened the door to sweep her pile out, she saw the distant shapes of birds against the sky. Alona came and stood beside the girl.
“My friends come,” she said, her eyes alight. “They come for the finished work."
Letha looked at her in wonder. Alona put her arm around her waist.
The birds came flying close over the tops of the trees, five swans, far larger than any birds Letha had ever seen. The span of each of their wings was wider than Letha was tall. Their plumage shone pure gold, their beaks obsidian black.
They alighted upon the snow of the front yard with a sound like wind. Alona went down from the step to greet them. They stood almost as tall as she. They bowed to her when she came to them, the last of the light reflected in their liquid eyes.
They held in their beaks thickly looped threads of many colors. Alona went walking amid the swans in the dusk, taking from each the loop of thread. She hung the coils of threads over her arms until it seemed she wore sleeves of glorious, tasseled colours.
She bent before the largest swan and whispered to his ear. Then she came slowly back to the step. The great birds spread their wings, raced across the yard and lifted themselves up into the air with such grace it almost hurt Letha to see. Then they were gone and the sun had set. The front yard was full of shadow and the tossed drifts of snow.
The next day Alona fixed the yarn to her loom, humming.
Though that house was full of peace, whatever Letha did, tears were never far from her eyes. As her feet healed and her strength returned, the pain inside her only increased. The peaceful silence of the house was like an open chamber in which her thoughts echoed out.
She remembered her life in the tower: the long afternoons when she sat in the library, the sun falling on the parchment, trimming the quill with her own little knife, the sun warm on her hands, the ink horn waiting.

But most of all, and most painfully, she remembered her husband. She remembered his face, the spare plane of his cheek, the line of his firm, straight mouth. She remembered the gray of his eyes, how they lit up sometimes when he grinned. She remembered his hands as he handed her the pewter plate, how the steam had risen up to her face, with the spicy smell of the food.
In the night, while she lay bundled in the bearskin before Alona’s fire, her body remembered all those lessons that had been the cause of the candles lit in the chapel. She could not understand why even now her body felt like a restless sea, reaching for the shore but always falling back, empty, only to reach again.
Her bundle of animals skins remained at the foot of her bed during the day, but she carried always the iron keys at her waist, fastened to a belt she had woven from discarded yarn. No matter how warm the cottage, or how hot the fire, the iron of the keys stayed cold.
One evening, when the new tapestry was well underway, Alone sat down before the fire, accepted her bowl of stew from Letha and then looked at the girl’s face, where the tracks of new tears shone in the firelight.
“I had hoped that my house would heal your heart in time, but I see now that whatever it is you carry will not be so easily quieted. My dear, tell me why you cry."
“I betrayed the man I loved,” replied Letha, the words tearing out of her. Saying it out loud came as a great and unexpected relief to her. “I disobeyed him. I brought his whole house down. I did the one thing he told me never to do.”
Letha told her the whole story. At some parts, she cried so heavily she could hardly speak. When she was done speaking, she put her head in her hands and sobbed.
“I know your husband,” said Alona.
Letha looked up in shock, her face white.
“He came to me once, long ago, when he was seeking something out, though I have not seen him now for many years. It surprises me, that he never revealed himself to you. He is magician of great skill and power, and long schooled in an ancient college of his order. He is adept at shape changing. He could wear the shape of many animals, if he wished, and did so, often.”
Letha sat stunned, unable to move. She remembered the stag that had stood in the forest that evening, long ago as she had gathered wood, the flash of white as he had leapt away, saw again the white glowing on Cederic’s color and cuffs in the dim light as he beckoned to her through the dusk.
“I have his things!” she cried suddenly, turning to the bed and loosening the bundle and displaying the skins and feathers.
“Yes, those are his relics. It’s good that you kept them, for he’ll want them back again. It would be difficult for him to make them anew, for he wove himself into them.”
“Where is he now?” cried Letha. “Where can I find him?”
The woman bent forward and put her arm around the girl's shoulders. “I don’t know where he is, I can’t see that far. He must be caught somewhere, that much is certain, or else he would have come long ago to put his house in order. But I know someone that may know, and I will send you to him when the swans return.”
“Who?” asked Letha, hope lighting up her face.
“I will send you to Sol Invictus; to the house of the sun.”
“Who?” the girl repeated, her head spinning.
“Have you never heard of him, how he rides his fiery chariot over the earth, bringing the day?”
“I never heard that story,” breathed Letha.
“It’s no story,” smiled Alona. “He’s flesh and blood, though a god.”

Letha sat quietly, trying to take everything in. Alone waited patiently beside her, the firelight burnishing her golden hair.

"Why would you help me, after what I did?" Letha asked finally, her thoughts taking her back, as always, to her guilt.
“Perhaps you see me as someone who is faultless,” answered Alona quietly. “Someone who would judge another’s mistakes. But I am as mortal as you and have made my fair share of errors, some of them terrible.”
“Besides, to my mind,” she continued, “Cederic shares some blame in this. If he had been truthful with you from the beginning, this would never have happened.”
Letha thought of Cederic, how he had once sat in that house, just as she was now. “What did you speak of, when he visited?" Letha asked, looking up.
“He wanted knowledge, of course; magicians are slaves to knowledge,” answered Alona. “They are forever pursuing more, some for power, and some for its own sake. They can never have just the one answer to a question. They search until they have twenty such answers, if they can find them.”
Letha smiled, the first on her face in a long time, clasped her knees and looked into the fire.
“What answer did you have, that he wanted?”
“He wanted to know the way to the great estates of the sky.”
“Did he go there?” breathed Letha.
“He flew there as a grey gander, with the swans. And that is the way you too shall go.”
“As a grey goose?” asked Letha, her mouth dropping open.
Alona smiled. “No, I don’t have that skill. My friends will carry you up. You are light.”
Letha could hardly sleep that night, as she lay with her arms around the deerskin. After that, the days passed slowly. It frightened her, to wonder who was strong enough to keep Cederic hostage, now that she knew what he was.

The day came when the tapestry was finished, and taken down from the loom. Letha helped Alona with this, careful with the strings. When it was free from the loom, they rolled it up in burlap.

They sat down together at the doorstep, to wait for the swans. Alona took Letha's hand in her own.
“Letha, let me tell you one more thing, before you go," the older woman said. "I have watched how you weep, and I worry. You must forgive yourself. If you don't, you won't be able to accept Cederic's. And that would be a great pity, and a trap for your heart. Cederic made as great a mistake as you, leaving you without the truth. He may know a great many things, and have many things in play, but his arrogance blinded him to his own household.”
Letha shook her head wildly, tears were streaming down her face. “No, no. It doesn’t matter. All I had to do was obey, and I did not. It was simple, what I had to do and even then I failed.”
“Well, the sooner you find him then,” said Alona. “And when you do, clout him over the head once for me. Though I suspect, by the time you find him, he will have learned his lesson.”
Letha looked up at her, her eyes wide and glistening.
“Remember now,” repeated Alona.
A little smile chased over Letha’s face.
“Also,” continued Alona, “my heart tells me that at the end of your journey you will need the thing that began it. You must keep the rosemary close by you.”
“I'll remember,” whispered Letha.
When the swans came that evening, Letha stood anxious, her bundle in her arms.
“My friends, I have a favor to ask of you,” said Alona, when she had taken their spun silk. “This is the wife of Cederic, and she seeks him out, for he is missing and his house has fallen. She must go to Sol Invictus. Will you carry her there?”
“We will carry Cederic’s wife, and gladly,” said the largest swan, to Letha’s great astonishment. His voice was deep and warm. “We’ve long owed him a favor. I will carry her myself.”
Letha came down in the yard, her steps hesitant.
“Here,” said Alona. She took a long, woven rope of threads from her pocket. “I made this for you.” The rope was long, silken and made of many colors. With it, she tied Letha’s bundle comfortably to her back.
“Do something for me,” whispered Alona, when she tied the final knot.
“Anything,” said Letha simply.
“Tell Sol Invictus… that I think of him."

"I will," Letha assured her, her voice full of wonder.
Alona returned to the door of the cottage. Behind her, the light from the cottage streamed out, leaving her face in shadow.