Okay, I didn’t ask either of the questions I should’ve. Those were too easy. Tell me about the book. Or who is my father. Those seemed trivial all of a sudden. Instead I reached out and took her hand, which she had not expected. She flinched, as if she had not meant to every touch me, and a minute later she confirmed the hypothesis.
The tears she shed came heavier and harder than either of us expected and for a long time she just wept. I wanted to take her in my arms and console her. Yes she had abandoned me, but who was I to judge. I did not live her life.
“Why?” I asked when the sobs had subsided. She sat as far from me as she could without releasing my hand. There was a strength there, and a desperation. I saw it in her eyes, that certainty that if she let go of my hand that one of us would surely drown. For truth, I knew it would be her.
“We had lived a good life, your father and I. I was young when we fell in love, no more than fifteen summers. Then they came.”
Her face grew hard and she stiffened her spine a little.
“The Hand of the One True God.”
“They came and took what they wanted, beat my father to death, did worse to my mother and sisters.” Her voice was cold in that telling and her grip grew painful.
“Your father and I had been out with three others, hunting mushrooms of all things. The weather had been perfect and the thought of some unsupervised time with my friends had been too alluring.”
There was guilt there, for sure. Guilt and anger deep enough to open a well. One I was all too familiar with.
“We five,” she said when she recovered her voice. “We knew the woods and valleys better than any of the Hand ruffians. I killed my first man that summer.” Her hand trembled when she said that, but I could not tell if from rage, fear, or satisfaction.
“Within a month we had a price on our heads. Two of our number were caught and hung, but others had begun to rally to our call. By the next month the bishop who had set it upon herself to pacify our island had been found murdered in her bed. Before reinforcements could arrive, we had stolen a ship, crewed mainly with refugees, and set about plundering any who dealt squarely with those animals.”
There was a fever in her eyes at the telling and I could feel her excitement.
“We were terrors of the coastal islands, plundering and wreaking havoc on trade, but only against those who dealt with the Hand. For the others we returned ill gotten gains, helped rebuild villages that had been burned.
By the time we were five years into our bloody trade, we heard rumor of an expedition lead by the university at Skyfell. We had it on good authority that Skyfell had cut a deal with the Hand to explore one of the most ancient of cities.
She pulled out a parchment scroll and set it on the ground by my side. “Two of the escort ships abandoned them when they saw our colors,” she said, ignoring the scroll as if it didn’t exist. “The third engaged us and to our surprise we lost two ships.” Her eyes held sorrow more than anger. “We lost four hundred in those two ships, dedicated men and women.” She paused for a bit, lost in history before returning to her tale.
“The university lost a dozen wizards of various levels that day, only two lived to return to their books, carrying with them the tales of having survived our depredation.”
Now she stood, loosing my hand and pacing. “One of those betrayed us to Jared, the fiend. But it was a mixed blessing. Before the storms came that season, we had lost two more ships. With our last two, your father hit upon a plan that I was against, but he could be very persuasive.” She was wistful for a moment and I am not ashamed to say that her love for my father bolstered my spirits.
“We had learned of the Tranquil Valley, and of a secret way within. That way has long been guarded by those in the monastery in which I now resid. It is with their grace that I am alive today. It is with their grace that we entered the valley at the behest of their prophecy.”
And there it was. I think I may have grunted and rolled my eyes because she paused and glanced at me, one of the most terrifying looks I had ever received in my life. Seriously, it was worse than that look Liz gives me when I’m being exceptionally stupid.
I shrugged. “I grow tired of prophecies,” and I recited several that seemed to be aimed at me and after the third her smile returned. By the last, she shook her head in wonder.
“I did not realize I had placed such a burden upon you.”
“It is what it is,” I said, standing to shake the blood back into my legs. “I am a cleric who calls upon a pantheon of gods. I have fought demons and many monsters in this world on my final quest.”
Her demeanor grew troubled but I held my hand up to forestall any apology or justification.
“I have put my own feet upon this path, mother.” The word felt strange in my mouth, but pleasant at the same time. “I know what I do is near impossible, but how could I do less?”
Her trepidation turned to pride in that moment and she stepped forward to hug me.
It didn’t have the full affect I would’ve liked, not with the plate mail between us, and the whole missing arm thing. While the contact was brief, it may very well have been the most important of my life.
She stepped back, grasping me by my upper arms and appraised me.
“Your father never returned. Go to him, find him and the book he took into the white. Find him and tell him that my love for him burns to this day.”
And with that I knew we were done. Our small visit bequeathed as a boon by those who had taken her in had run its course.
“Do not forget me,” she whispered into my ear as she placed a kiss upon my cheek. Then she stepped away, one hand lingering on my shoulder before she turned and climbed the stair back to the balcony
I stood there, watching, lost and helpless.
She glanced back once, raising a pale hand to say goodbye, then she walked through the archway and out of my life forever.
I picked up the scroll case and put it into one of the many pockets in my cloak.
And that’s how I discovered just how tricky my mother was. In a inner pocket was a small box that had not been there before.
I did not acknowledge it but returned to the top of the temple and those that I loved.