“What happened?” she asked, leaning against him.
“It–you are quite strong,” Tolly said, still slightly breathless. “Stronger than you look. But the Other has no idea what we’d actually consider an insult.”
“You were yelling about how we men dared make decisions without you,” Mattan added.
“Yes, I can see that,” An said, pulling away slightly. She looked around the room. “Mattan, Jasin, Tolly. Even Daved, I suppose. All men. I hadn’t thought about that.”
“I could get Belinda,” Jasin said quickly.
An waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter to me. And if it annoys the Other, all the better.” She looked at Jasin. “Will you . . . will you speak for me, Jasin? Argue on my behalf?” she said.
“If that’s what you want, sis.”
“You want Jasin to speak for you, not Mattan?” Tolly asked, looking at her keenly.
She looked from one to the other, quickly. “I’m sorry, Mattan, but, yes.” She took a deep breath. “I know you’ll do your best, anyway, Mattan, but if you two disagree, I want everyone to listen to Jasin.”
“That’s a big responsibility you’re laying on me, sis,” Jasin said. “I’ll try to be worthy of it.”
“Then that is settled,” Daved said. “For now, An, I’m afraid you must sleep.”
An woke on the couch in Daved’s woods. She tried to sit up, but found that her hands and feet were bound, and she was unable to move.
“Is this it, then?” she asked. It had been two, no make that three days that she had spent mostly asleep, just waking for a brief period in the morning and evening. The Other had stolen a large portion of even those times awake.
She looked at Jelana and Mattan seated a few feet beyond her couch.
“I’m glad you’re yourself again,” she said to Jelana.
Jelana’s form wavered as she spoke. “I’m getting there. An, we are here for you. Remember that, hold on to it. It probably won’t feel like it.”
An’s face changed, as she started pulling against her bonds. “You’re going to kill us, aren’t you? Just like you promised. But I doubt you have the heart for it, water-girl. If I die, your precious An dies as well.”
Jelana put her hand on Mattan’s shoulder, as he started to stand up, and he sank back down into his seat wordlessly.
“I promise you this,” Jelana said firmly. “I promise both of you this. The Other will not leave this clearing alive.” She held her hands out in front of her, and they froze into ice with a crackle, as she added in an ice-cold voice. “Whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes,” An’s voice mocked. “I see you’re not coming near me, . Too afraid I’ll liquefy you again?”
Jelana laughed merrily, as her hands returned to normal. “Here? In Daved’s woods? Don’t you know what that means?” She indicated the trees around them. “If you try to harm me here, I’ll just flow right back into my pond, my waterfall. You’ll have to do better than that as a threat.”
“Oh, I’m just getting started. You should never have given me this power. I will harm all of you.” She looked at Mattan, as Jelana again put her hand on his shoulder. “Especially you. Or perhaps I’ll just let you watch as your precious Anilyne destroys all around you.” Her face pulled up in the mocking rictus of a smile. “‘Anilyne is so beautiful,'” she said in a parody of his voice. “You never called me beautiful. And I looked far better than she does. You liar. You never even looked at me. You didn’t care if I lived or died, as long as you could do your work.”
“An,” Mattan began.
“No, Mattan,” Jelana said, still holding her hand on his shoulder.
“Who are you?” Jelana asked instead.
“Don’t you know?” An laughed. “No, you were sleeping when I was last here, weren’t you? I thought he was crazy, coming out here to talk to the waterfall, to the pond, but he was really talking to you, wasn’t he? And you never answered him. You didn’t know that, did you? I let him slip through my fingers. Shouldn’t have. I knew he was rich. But not how rich. I would have been willing to put up with a little craziness for that. But I went after you instead,” she said to Mattan.
“You hate him, don’t you?” Jelana said.
“I hate all of you! Mattan, Jasin, Tolly. Every single one. What right do you have to be happy? At least I kept her from being happy. And that wasn’t easy, either. She is so easy to please. Probably why she chose you.” An threw another venomous glance at Mattan. He stirred uneasily, but didn’t try to say anything. Jelana’s hand squeezed his shoulder.
“No? You aren’t going to be drawn in?” She smiled, viciously, then her face changed to one of bewilderment. “Mattan?” she said, her voice An’s again. “Jelana?” she pulled against her bonds. “Help me! What’s happening?” Her voice shook. “It hurts!”
“No, Mattan,” Jelana said, as Mattan jumped up. “Not yet.” She grabbed his arm.
“But that’s An!” he said, trying to pull away from her grip. Her hand on his arm turned to water and surrounded it. He stopped pulling. “But that’s Anilyne,” he repeated, more quietly.
“Is it?” Jelana said. “Even if it is, she’s just being used as bait.”
An’s face changed back again, as she laughed. “You’ve got that right, water-girl,” An’s voice said. “It hurts you to see her like this, doesn’t it, Mattan? I’ll see to it that she hurts you worse.”
“Why?” Jelana asked calmly, her hand on Mattan’s shoulder as he sat down again.
“What does it matter to you, water-girl? I was talking to Mattan. And you keeping him from talking doesn’t keep him from hearing.”
Jelana’s eyes flicked to the side, then all her attention was on An again.
An twisted to see what Jelana had looked at. Jasin was walking out of the woods at the edge of the clearing, his back stiff, to where Jelana and Mattan sat. He did not look at An.
“You shouldn’t have come out, brother dear,” An called out. “Don’t think you can escape, either. I will do everything I can against you, as well.”
Jasin stumbled slightly as he continued walking, but he gave no other sign that he had heard her.
“Tolly says ‘Valeesa’,” he told Mattan.
“‘Valeesa’?” Mattan frowned. Then his face clouded. “Yes. Valeesa.” He buried his face in his hands. “After all these years.”
“Valeesa?” Jelana said, looking around at all three of them. “Who in the world is Valeesa?”
“I’m just the messenger,” Jasin said, turning to go.
“Don’t think you’re going to get out of this that easily,” An said. “You fool. Staying loyal to her no matter what I said or did to you. I would have dropped you long ago. You had the seeds of greatness in you, and threw them away, modeling yourself after a little man. Staying with a plain woman with no higher thought than running a restaurant. Giving everything you could have been to stay with a plain, unambitious woman. And two brawling brats. They’ll turn out just like her.”
“I hope so,” Jasin said, quietly.
“Jasin,” Jelana warned.
“I’m all right,” Jasin said. “I won’t go near her, but there are still a few people I love she hasn’t insulted yet.”
“You’re boyish good looks won’t last forever, brother dear. And then where will you be? It’ll be too late to go after any greatness.”
“‘Boyish good looks’?” Jasin said, taken aback.
“But now you always be a little man. Just like Tolly. You could have been great. But you’re nothing.”
Jasin shrugged, and continued walking on.
An said, in a tiny, broken voice, “Jasin, it’s not true.”
“An?” he turned and took two steps toward her. “Is that you?”
“Watch out, Jasin,” Jelana warned.
“An isn’t here anymore, brother-dear,” An’s voice said mockingly. Then waves of expression crossed her face. “Help me! Jasin! Mattan! It hurts!”
“Not quite yet,” Jelana said to the two men as they both started toward An.
“You won’t win,” An’s mocking voice said. “I am Valeesa. I am alive. An isn’t here anymore.”
“You are stronger than her, An,” Jelana said. “You must fight her.”
“Must she? No. She is gone.” Another wave passed over her face.
“You can do it, An,” Jelana said.
An started rocking back and forth. “It hurts,” she moaned. “Get her away from me.” “There is no An here!” she shouted.
“A moment more,” Jelana said, restraining both men. “Almost.”
An screamed, somehow managing to do it in both voices. “No!” they screamed. “Get out of her restraints. “Mattan! Jasin! Help me!”
“Now!” Jelana said, releasing them.
“Anilyne!” Mattan said, grabbing her shoulders. “I’m here.”
Jasin took both of her hands. “Don’t give up, sis!” he said.
“Left arm!” she shouted. “No! Don’t listen to her! An is gone!”
Mattan looked perplexed, but released her shoulders and put his hands on her left arm.
“Don’t listen to her! An is gone!” “Lower!” An shouted.
Mattan grabbed her forearm, just above the wrist. He pulled away, grimacing, then grabbed it again, firmer. “Here!” he shouted. “Here!”
Two unicorns stepped out of the woods, and touched their horns to where Mattan indicated.
An began wordlessly screaming.
Pain. There was pain. There had always been, and only been pain. She was floating on a sea of fire. Nothing else was there. No, there was someone else floating on the sea with her. Two someones. No names. She did not know names. Not even her own. What were names? Were they important? One someone moved closer, supporting her. The other someone shriveled up, burned away to nothing.
Gradually the pain lessened. She heard her own voice stop screaming, and break down into sobbing. A comforting arm was around her shoulders. Her right hand was loosened–had it been bound? She heard voices booming around her, not understanding what they said. The pain lessened again, went away entirely. The world steadied and stilled.
She woke slowly, a buzzy feeling in her brain. She looked up, and saw Mattan looking down at her, concerned. “Hello,” she said, with a slow smile.
“Hello, yourself,” he said, smiling back. “How are you feeling?”
She thought about it for a long while. “Fuzzy,” she said at last. “It feels nice.” She gave a long stretch.
“That’s . . . good,” he said, with a glance off to the side. “Now, can you tell me, what is my name?”
“Don’t you know it? You’re Mattan, of course,” she said, putting her hand up to his face. “I never noticed before how blue your eyebrows are. How did I never see that?”
“It’s not usually that noticeable,” he said, absently, catching her hand and holding it. “Now, what’s your name?”
“Valeesa,” she said promptly, continuing on as Mattan’s face froze. “No, that wasn’t it. That was the Other’s. She’s gone now. Funny, I didn’t know her name until Jasin said it. I don’t think she knew her name, either. She’s gone now. There’s just a big hole in my head. What if I fall into it.” She paused, looking up into his face earnestly. “Something is wrong, isn’t it? Did I fall in?”
“She’s babbling, Mattan,” came Jelana’s amused voice from off to the side. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying. Ask her again.”
“I do so know what I’m saying,” An said stubbornly.
“All right,” Mattan said. “What is your name.”
“An Smyth,” she said. “So there.” She stuck out her tongue in Jelana’s general direction.
She looked that way, and saw, lying next to where Jelana was sitting, Jasin lying there asleep on a couch similar to hers. He looked pale, his red-brown hair standing out starkly in contrast to his skin.
“Jasin!” she said, sitting up suddenly. She swung her feet around, off the edge of the couch. “Whoa,” she said putting her hands up to the side of her head, and swaying back and forth.
“Easy there,” Mattan said, sitting down next to her, putting his arms around her shoulders in support. “Don’t try to stand up.”
“Now you tell me.” An leaned against him.
“Relax, An,” Jelana said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“What’s wrong with Jasin?” An asked, still leaning on Mattan’s arm, closing her eyes as the clearing spun around her.
“Nothing’s wrong with Jasin,” Jelana said, matter-of-factly. “He’s just sleeping. He might be a bit ‘fuzzy’ as you say when he wakes up, but he’s really better off than you are at the moment. He shouldn’t have a hole in his head, for one thing.” Jelana looked at Mattan. “Satisfied?”
“For the moment,” Mattan said. “How are you feeling now, Anilyne?”
“Still fuzzy,” An said. “But it’s not nearly as pleasant. Don’t leave me.”
“I wasn’t planning to,” Mattan said. “Would you be willing to lie back down again?”
She considered it. “Yes,” she said after a long moment. “If you promise me that Jasin’s all right.”
“Jasin is fine,” Jelana told her. “This I promise you.”
“He took some of the pain for you, Anilyne,” Mattan said. “He insisted that he carry at least half of it, when he learned how much it would probably hurt you.”
“You mean it would have hurt worse without him?” An said, as she lay back down again. “Poor Jasin.”
“No, as I understand it, it wouldn’t have hurt worse,” Mattan said, exchanging another glance with Jelana. “It might even have hurt less without him. But it definitely would have hurt for far longer.”
“That would have been bad,” An agreed.
“Anilyne,” Mattan said, taking her hand. “I would have done it instead of Jasin if they let me.”
“It had to be a blood relative,” Jelana said. “As it was, the two of them nearly came to blows about it, until we got that through their heads.” She smiled at An. “Jasin will wake up on his own in a bit. You’d still be asleep, too, but someone wanted to make sure who would answer when you woke up.”
“And I said, ‘Valeesa’,” An said, then giggled. “Poor Mattan. No wonder he looked so horrified.”
“Are you fully satisfied now?” Jelana asked Mattan.
“I doubt that Valeesa would be that concerned about Jasin,” Mattan conceded. “But still, that hole in her head she’d talking about, that can’t be good . . .”
“I wouldn’t mind, really,” An said earnestly, “but I’m just afraid I’ll fall in.”
“What does that even mean?” Mattan asked plaintively.
Jelana laughed. “Don’t worry, An, we’ll watch over you, and keep you from falling in. We do want you to stay here until you’re no longer fuzzy, right? Keep lying there and relax.”
An got a stubborn look on her face. “You aren’t going to make me sleep again, are you?” she said. “I don’t want you to make me sleep again.”
“Not if you don’t want to,” Jelana said, with another laugh. “Just lie there until you no longer feel fuzzy. I’m going to go a little bit away with Mattan, but we’ll still be able to see you, and just call out, and we’ll be right back. Do you understand?”
“It’s all right,” An said, with a slight wave of her hand. “Daved is here, I can feel him.”
Jelana nodded, and walked with Mattan off to the side.
“Can she really feel Daved?” Mattan asked.
“Who knows? She’s always been able to feel something here, more than most people can. But that doesn’t matter right now.”
“Will she be all right?” Mattan asked. “She’s sounding so . . . out of it.”
“Not nearly as out of it as that other day,” Jelana said. “But she’s still waking up. And the Other has been in her head for a very long time. Years. Remember that. She’ll seem more like herself once the fuzziness wears off. But still, we can do nothing for her other problem, and she’ll remember that as she wakes up more.”
“I know.” For a moment, Mattan gazed grimly off into the distance. “But at least she’ll be herself for whatever time she has left, won’t she? Not Valeesa. Though I don’t like the sound of that hole in her head.”
Jelana shook her head. “Valeesa was much closer to being able to take her over than any of us knew.” She sighed. “Though we should have been able to see that by what happened when we tried Daved’s plan. The fact that An fought her of for so long, years, wore her out. In a bizarre way, the other problems helped her to remain herself. But still, Valeesa was growing continuously behind the scenes.” Jelana shook her head again. “I just wish that we could have found her sooner. I knew that there was something evil around An, something that wasn’t An herself, but none of us could find it.”
“And I turned away from her, rejected her, when I knew that wasn’t really Anilyne,” Mattan said, bitterly. “Valeesa was right, you know.” His voice shook. “If I hadn’t driven her off, I would have been able to draw off the magic . . . shards before the got so embedded and enmeshed. An could still have had a long life ahead of her.”
“That’s enough, Mattan,” Jelana said, sternly. “Might-have-been won’t change what is. She just needs–”
“Greetings!” Tolly’s cheerful rumble interrupted them.
“Brother dear!” Jelana said, turning to him. “I’m afraid we’d forgotten about you.”
“That’s what I figured,” he admitted. “So, when I saw that things were back under control, I went back to town and brought Belinda. I figured she’d be wanted right about now.”
“That . . . was a good idea, Tolly,” Mattan said.
“I do come up with them once in a while,” Tolly said blandly.
“Oh, of course,” Mattan said, distractedly. “But where is she?”
“Belinda? I sent her right in to see Jasin, since the two of you were over here. I came over here, just in case there was any magic going on there that I might disrupt.
“Not at the moment,” Jelana said. “Just letting everyone wake up on their own.”
Belinda sat next to her husband, and watched him sleep. “Did it work?” she asked An.
“I think so. That’s what they told me,” An said putting her hand up to her forehead. “I’m still a bit muddle-headed, though.” She took a deep breath. “It is so odd, having my head entirely to myself, now.” Her voice wobbled, as she added, “However long that is.”
Belinda looked over at her, then stood up and gave her a hug. “We’ll stand by you, An, no matter what happens. You know that.”
Jelana came over.
“Is Jasin all right?” Belinda asked her.
“Perfectly fine,” Jelana said. “He should wake on his own soon.”
“Or I could try something else,” Belinda said, smiling coyly. She bend over Jasin, and kissed him full on the lips.
For a moment, there was no reaction, then Jasin jumped and pushed her away. Then his eyes opened, and after a moment came back into focus, and he said, “Belinda!” and pulled her back to him for another kiss.
“Of course, you idiot,” Belinda said, laughing, after a long moment. “Who else would be kissing you?”
“But you weren’t supposed to be here,” Jasin said. “I distinctly remember leaving you home.” He frowned, in sudden confusion. “Didn’t I?”
“Tolly brought me,” she said. “How are you feeling, love? I hear you’ve been acting heroic without me?”
“I’d have done the same for you,” he told her earnestly.
“I wish I knew that before I had our girls,” she told him, tartly.
“Oh, Belinda!” he said, suddenly stricken.
“Hush, love,” she said to him. “I was only teasing you.” She looked over at Jelana. “Are you sure he’s all right?”
“Just fine,” Jelana said. “Perhaps a little fuzzy at the moment is all. More literal than usual.”
“Fuzzy. That’s a good word,” Jasin said, looking up at the sky.
“An said . . .”
“An?” Jasin sat up. “An? There you are. Are you all right?”
“They tell me I am,” she said. “I feel empty.”
“Let me see your arm,” he said.
“Your left one. The one you insisted Mattan grab, that the unicorns hit.”
“Oh.” She lifted the arm and looked at it. There was an angry red blotch where the unicorns had touched it, but the skin was smooth and unbroken.
“Does it hurt?” he asked, lightly touching the blotch with his finger.
“Not anymore,” she said, shaking her head.
After a moment, he turned her arm over, and looked at the outside of it. He frowned as he looked at it, seeing a cluster of small of old white scars on the back of her arm, almost exactly across from the red spot.
“Sis, do you remember when you go these?”
“No,” An said vaguely.
“It was when we were bringing back the unicorns. You came stumbling out of the back of the Molarath Cave, and fell on these thorn bushes, remember?”
“That’s right,” An said. “I couldn’t breathe for a moment, and fell.” She looked at the old scars for a long moment. “I was really scraped up for a long while. Those took forever to heal.”
“I remember. Mom eventually got the doctor to give you some high strength antibiotic which cleared it up.”
“Was that it? I remember Mom giving me the Star-stone on my birthday, and it cleared up a few days later.”
“Let me see,” Jelana said, taking An’s arm She ran her hands down the arm, her hands turning briefly to water, and surrounding the arm. “How could I not have seen this?” she murmured. “All those years, it should have been obvious.” She looked in An’s eyes. “I’m sorry An. We should have been able to get her out of you years ago.”
“You were looking in my head,” An said. “Are you sure she’s gone now? I don’t want to worry about her coming back.”
“We’ll keep watching, An,” Jelana said. “But yes, she is gone. You won’t have to face that again.”
She paused for a moment, and stared off unto space. Then she looked back at them. “The unicorns have dispatched a party to that cave to see if they can find that thorn-bush. If it’s full of the same type of malevolent poison that infected An, they will burn it out so she won’t be able to infect anyone else.”
An sat up straighter. “Is that fair? Do we have to totally kill Valeesa? Wouldn’t just guarding the bush be enough?”
“No,” Mattan said, as he sat down by An. “No, that wasn’t really Valeesa. Or, at most, only a part of her. The real Valeesa was an accomplished musician, singer. She always loved having a bit of color around her, whether a flower, or a bit of ribbon. But, did any of that come through, Anilyne?”
An shook her head.
“No,” Mattan said. “She chose to preserve hatred and petty spite.” He sighed. “She found one of the few spots within ten miles of our town that still had a bit of residual magic clinging to it, and somehow figured out how to enter the bush.” He shook his head. “Valeesa died one hundred and fifty years ago, An. I found her and brought her body back to town myself.” After a moment, he half laughed. “In my wagon, of course. I didn’t carry her back in my arms all those miles.”
An gave a small laugh as well, then said, “Thank you.” She leaned back and closed her eyes, then opened them again. “One hundred and fifty years ago? That’s what you meant when you told me that something bad happened then?”
Mattan looked at the ground again. “It took me a long time to convince myself that it wasn’t really my fault that she died . . . that she killed herself. Of course, we didn’t know she had tried such an . . . odd form of immortality. I wonder if becoming a thorn-bush was what she was really going for, or if the magic backfired somehow.” He took a deep breath. “But, anyway, everyone reminded me that she wasn’t quite right long before she came to town. We had some visitors from other towns where she had lived who confirmed it. Me turning her down did not cause that.” He took another deep breath. “Nor was I the first person she had chased that way. But, still, she would not take a hint!”
Everyone sat for a long moment in silence.
Then Jasin said in a tone of high dudgeon, “But An was just twenty years old when we were bringing back the unicorns. She was just a kid!”
An laughed. “I seem to remember both of us thinking we were pretty grown up at the time, little brother. What was your point?”
Jasin continued, “That . . . I mean, Valeesa said that she came into An because Mattan looked at her. What right did a 600 year old man have looking at a twenty year old girl?”
An laughed again. “What of it? It was another fifteen years before he actually attempted anything. I was old enough by then to know my own mind.”
“Valeesa lies,” Mattan said sternly. “She always has.” Then he sighed. “Yes, I looked at Anilyne. I thought at most, then, that she was someone worth getting to know. Which I’m sure all of you agree. But still, I fully expected that after all of you finished your adventure, however it turned out, you would return home again, and I would never see her. I didn’t even think you’d be coming back time and again, and eventually settle here, Jasin, and that Anilyne would frequently come to visit you.” He sighed. “And even if I knew that, I thought you all would have forgotten me. So many people do.”
“But still,” Jasin insisted, “the next day you went out and cut your hair.”
“Did I?” Mattan said, blushing a little. “And you remember that after twenty years?” He ran his hand through his short blue hair. “And even if I did, what of it?”
“You only cut your hair when you’re thinking of courting someone.”
“What?” An said. “Is that so? How interesting. I never knew that.” She thought for a moment. “But it does explain a few things.”
“How did–I never told anyone that,” Mattan said, frowning at Jasin. “And I wonder how Jasin figured it out.”
“Tolly told me.”
“Huh. I never told Tolly, either.” Mattan sighed. “And why would the subject even come up? I see that I’m going to have to have a long talk with Tolly once this is all over.” He looked around. “Where is Tolly, anyway?”
“Down by the pond, reading,” Jelana said. “I don’t think he wanted to intrude.”
“Never known that to stop him before,” Mattan muttered.
“Well, he’s married now,” An said. “Maybe Glorina’s teaching him some manners.”
Belinda took advantage of a pause in the conversation to say, “Jasin, love, let’s go back home now. I left Tethara in charge during lunch rush. We’d best get back and see what a mess she’s made of things.”
“Tethara?” Jasin said, absently. “She’s the best manager we have, after you of course. She’ll no doubt do fine.”
“Says the accountant,” Belinda said with a laugh. “No doubt you might be right. But I’d like to get back and check. And you need your rest, without so many people about.” She put up a hand to stop him from speaking. “And no, I won’t need your help in the restaurant, or bar. Nor do you need to go to the office, remember? Just rest.”
“And do nothing? Talk to no one?” Jasin said in mock horror. “I might explode!”
“You’ll survive,” his wife said ruthlessly. “Just for one day, love. One afternoon. I expect that by tomorrow you’ll be ready to fix everything for everyone again.”
“I’ll come,” Jasin said, as he got up. They walked out of the clearing, hand in hand.
“Good, now they’re out of the way,” Jelana said. “Now about you two.” She put her hands on her hips, and looked at them critically.
“Don’t make me sleep again,” An said. “I’ve had more than enough of that these past few days.”
“Not if you don’t want us to,” Jelana said, looking at her with a smile. “Did you hear that, Daved? An, how do you feel?”
“A bit better, I think. Not as fuzzy. At least, when we talking.” She put her hands up to the side of her forehead. “Still got that hole in my head, though. Makes me dizzy.”
Jelana nodded. “I think we can do something about that, if you’ll lie back down and relax again for a while.”
“But don’t put me to sleep.”
“I already said we wouldn’t,” Jelana said. “There’s no need for that.” She looked over at Mattan. “Now, what about you?”
“Me?” Mattan said. “What about me?”
“Your hair is so blue at the moment, it practically glows,” Jelana informed him. “Not to mention standing on end. I expect all that extra magic that’s been floating around here today is putting you on edge, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. Yes. I suppose so,” Mattan said. “I’ll survive, though. Go make something. Do something. Gather material for the organ.”
“Daved says he can drain it off of you if you want.” She looked at him. “Otherwise, you and Tolly might as well go home. An’ll just need to rest for a couple of hours more. No need for you to stay here.”
“No,” Mattan said, firmly. “I don’t want to leave Anilyne here alone.”
“But I wouldn’t be alone,” An said. “Jelana and Daved are here.”
“But you can’t see Daved at the moment.”
“Can’t you feel him?” She patted the couch she was lying on. “You can feel magic.”
“No,” he said. “I can’t feel him.” He paused. “Do you want me to leave, Anilyne?”
“No . . .” she said. “But I’d be fine, really. And if I’m just going to watch you sleep . . .”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jelana said. “No matter what happens, I’ll sit with you.”
“I’ll stay,” Mattan said. He went over to the couch Jasin had recently vacated. “And getting rid of the magic will no doubt feel good.” He smiled at An. “Then maybe you and I can talk?”
“We haven’t been?” An said.
“Relax, An,” Jelana said. “Daved can help you better that way.” She looked over at Mattan. “Now, as for you, do you have any objection to being made to sleep?”
“No, not really, though I don’t want to leave Anilyne alone.”
“She won’t be. Daved’s here, I’m here, and if necessary, we can call Tolly over.”
“Wouldn’t that make the magic working impossible?”
“You forget. Neither Daved nor I do magic.” She laughed at his doubting expression. “Really, it’s not magic. Tolly can’t shut it down.” She shook her head. “He doesn’t understand it either.” She laughed again. “Perhaps someday I’ll have someone explain the theory of it to you. You might actually be able to understand it more than the rest of us.”
An smiled at Mattan. “You’ve watched me while I slept, now I can watch you while you sleep.” She took a deep breath. “And now I’ve no fear of being alone.”
He lay back and relaxed, as the couch adjusted to his body. Jelana leaned over, and put her hand on his forehead. He closed his eyes, and . . . he slept.
He awoke some time later. The sun had gone down until it was below the treetops, rather than just bast the zenith, where it had been when Jasin and Belinda had left.
He lay there for a couple of minutes, blinking into the blue sky. Then he realized that An was laying beside him, sound asleep, her head on his shoulder. He looked around at the woods. “This isn’t funny, you know,” he said. “I don’t appreciate your jokes.” He left his arm around her, though.
After a bit, An raised her head and looked at him. “Oh, hi, Mattan,” she said and laid her head back down.”
After another moment, she sat up and looked around. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Weren’t you over there?” She looked around the clearing again. “Or I was over there . . . ”
“Someone’s idea of a joke, I’m afraid,” Mattan said, darkly.
She looked around at the woods. “His or hers do you think?”
“Does it matter?”
An continued, “They did trick me, though. I told them I didn’t want to be made to sleep again.”
Mattan said, “I don’t think they needed to. Remember Jelana kept saying it didn’t matter? We could all tell that you were still exhausted.”
Mattan sat up beside her. She looked him over. “Your hair is completely brown now,” she reported. “Even your eyebrows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with brow eyebrows.”
He ran his hand through his hair self-consciously, then looked down at the back of his hands. “I must say, Daved is nothing if not thorough.” He took An’s hand, and placed his other hand on her shoulder. “If I may,” he said, and closed his eyes.
“What is the verdict?” she said, after a pause.
“You’ve been thoroughly drained as well,” he said. “But, I’m afraid . . .”
“The . . . growth is unchanged?” she said. She sighed. “I was afraid of that.”
“I’m sorry, Anilyne,” he said, still holding on to her hand. She didn’t try to pull away.
“At least we’re friends again,” An said, looking down and away from him.
He sat still for a long moment, then said, “Is friendship truly what you wish, Anilyne?”
“First Daved then you. What I wish?” She still looked away. “It sure beats not being friends,” An said.
“Well, yes,” Mattan said. “But friendship or not friendship aren’t the only two options.”
She sat very still for a long moment. Then she suddenly looked around the woods. “A little privacy here, if you don’t mind,” she said. After a moment, she smiled a little and said, “That’s better.”
“Is Daved gone?” asked Mattan.
“No, he can’t really leave, you know,” An said. “But he is studiously paying attention somewhere else. Rather sheepishly, too. I think we’ll be all right for a while.” She paused. “Mattan,” she began, then was still again.
Mattan waited, then, when she really didn’t say anything else, he let go of her hand, and moved a little bit away from her. “Is friendship really what you want, An?” he said again, gently.
“Anilyne,” she said suddenly, looking up at him for a moment.
“I want you to call me Anilyne.” She looked at him for another moment, then dropped her eyes again.
He smiled at that. “‘Anilyne’, then,” he said. “Thank you.” He waited a moment. “It really is a lovely name.”
She gave a half choked laugh, then grew serious again. “Say what you really mean, Mattan,” she said, still looking down.
He considered. “If you will look at me.”
She hesitated a moment, then raised her eyes toward him.
“Anilyne, would you . . .” he began then looked closely at her face. “I’m sorry, An,” he said, instead. “You’ve been through too much already recently. I shouldn’t press the issue.”
She gave him a light punch in the shoulder. “Mattan! Just say it! If you haven’t noticed, I’m the one who brought the subject up to begin with.” But she looked down and away again.
“Well, if you’re sure,” he said, dubiously. “Anilyne, would you be willing to marry me?”
Her eyes flicked up at his face for an instant, then looked back down again. “Mattan . . .” she said, then paused, and began again. “Mattan, I’d be glad to marry you.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “Anilyne, Anilyne,” he said. “I can’t accept that.”
“What!” An looked him full in the face. “After all that?”
“Anilyne . . . is this truly what you wish?”
“You asked that before,” An said. “Please . . . Mattan.”
“An, what’s wrong? You’re shaking like a leaf.”
“I’m just scared.”
“Terrified is more like it,” Mattan said. “Am I really that frightening, Anilyne?”
“No, no, of course not, Mattan,” she said.
“What is it then?” There was starting to be an edge to Mattan’s voice. “Anilyne.”
“I’m afraid,” she whispered. “Mattan, I’m so close to being happy. Please, bad things happen when I’m happy.”
“Oh.” He looked at her for a long time as he considered. “Valeesa is gone now, Anilyne. You don’t have to be afraid to be happy any more.”
An stilled as she thought for a moment. “It was her. It was her all along.” She choked on a sob, as she turned to face Mattan at last. “Mattan . . . ”
He took her in his arms, and held her as she sobbed on his shoulder. “Hush, Anilyne,” he said, soothingly. “It’s all right. I should have remembered. You hide it so well, that I kept forgetting.” He continued to holder her, saying soothing words as she continued crying.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mattan,” An said at last, pulling away from him. “There I went again. I don’t know what you must think of me.”
“Do you want to know what I think?”
“You’ve been facing this . . . everything . . . alone for far too long.”
“Not entirely alone, no. And Jelana and Daved are indeed strong allies. But Jasin, and the rest of us, we would have been here for you much sooner, if we’d known. Jasin’s been worried sick about you. You didn’t need to face this alone.”
“Mattan?” She was looking down again.
“Don’t leave me. I want to feel your arms around me. Funny, I’ve never needed anyone like that.”
Mattan squeezed her shoulders, and held her even closer. Then, “You are very tense. Let me rub your shoulders a bit,” he said, as he pulled away from her. She closed her eyes and sighed.
“Anilyne?” he said after a bit.
“You don’t have to look at me. You don’t have to move at all if you don’t want to. But I want to know, what is it you want. What do you wish?”
“What do I wish?” An repeated. “You’re as bad as Daved. What do I wish?” She sighed. “I wish I had forty more years.”
He gave her shoulders a squeeze.
She continued, “No one is guaranteed any life at all, I know. I could get hit by a truck tomorrow. But still . . . the possibility of more time is gone.” She paused for a long time. “Not that I want immortality. I don’t wish for that. I’ve seen what it’s done to Tolly, to Jelana, even to you.”
“I thought I was handling things pretty well,” Mattan said. He paused. “What about Daved?”
“What about Daved? He’s so obviously not human, even his puppet. I don’t think he counts.”
After a moment, Mattan said, “What else do you wish?”
She continued slowly, “We used to have such fun conversations . . . before. Remember them? Talking about everything, about nothing, all hours into the night? Laughing? Remember?”
“I remember,” Mattan said. “I could scarcely keep up with you, you’d go off on such marvelous tangents.”
“I wish we could have those again. I . . . everything is just so dismal recently.”
“We’ve come close, Anilyne. But pretty near every time I’ve seen you this trip, you’ve been exhausted, or actively under attack. You will get your strength back up. Things will look better then.”
“Will I ever really get my strength back?”
“I’ve been talking to Jelana, while you were sleeping before. Valeesa stole so much of your energy. And has been doing so for a long time. She just started so gradually, you never noticed. With her gone, things should go easier.”
“Is that so?” An thought for a while. “Jelana said something similar to me.”
After a bit, Mattan asked, “Anything else, Anilyne?”
“Anything else?” She gave a little laugh. “Sun, moon, and stars, and all the glittering array, of course. Why settle for anything less?”
Mattan stopped rubbing her shoulders and came and sat next to her again.
She remained quiet for another long pause, then began speaking so low, that even Mattan could scarcely hear her.
“When I was a kid, I always thought I would have children. Several of them. I had their names picked out and everything. Of course, their names changed every year. I thought . . . but that doesn’t matter. Now, I’m a bit too old, even in the best of circumstances. I don’t . . . I was eight when Dad died. Jasin was younger. And Thrandri never even knew her father. I wouldn’t want to do that to any child. Even if I left them with the best of fathers.”
Mattan had gone completely still. “Oh, Anilyne.”
She continued, as if she hadn’t heard. “But now, it’s impossible, anyway. Any child . . . it would be torn apart in the womb. Probably before we even knew it was there.”
“Oh, Anilyne,” Mattan said, putting his arm around her shoulders again. “I never even thought about children.” Before his eyes rose the image of a little girl, looking much as An must have looked, with her red-brown hair, laughing. In a flash, it was gone, and he found himself mourning something it had never occurred to him to want.
“It’s all right,” An said, her voice closer to normal. “It’s all right, Mattan. Really. I knew I wasn’t likely to have children even before . . . I don’t know why I even brought it up. It’s all right.” She sighed. “I had my work, and it was satisfying. And I have other things to do now that I’ve given it up.”
“Why did you give it up? I thought you loved it.”
“I did. I do. But I’ve had so many other things I’ve wanted to do when I had time. And time is running out. My history notes, organize them, write them out. Maybe I can work with Grandma. I so seldom see enough of her.” She sighed again. “There’s another wish for you. But Mom and Grandma reconciling seems less likely than forty years. Or even immortality.”
Mattan frowned. “Why is that?”
An laughed. “You know Mom doesn’t believe in magic. Never has. Even with it coming back the way it has been doing.”
Mattan shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense to me. Especially when she held the Star-Stone.”
“Me either. But that’s the way it is. But she considers Grandma to be an imposter, taking over when Grandma must have died up in the Te-ar Mountains. Nothing Grandma says or does will change her mind.” She laughed. “Well, considering Grandma’s apparent age, she’s not even a good imposter, is she?” An shook her head again. “I could see Mom’s point when she was growing up. Magic was rare, just something out of all the old stories, not something nearly every day like it is now, here. But Grandma knew better.”
“And you’ve been working, for years, trying to bring the magic back.”
“It was coming back anyway. Nothing could stop it. I was just trying to help make sure people were ready for it, and would use it wisely. Still not sure that I succeeded. Of course, I sort of fell into it. Literally.” She gave a small bitter laugh. “And now it’s killing me. That’s gratitude for you.”
“Anilyne . . .” he said, hugging her. “Anilyne.”
“And even when I try telling her, she won’t believe me. She’ll probably believe I’m dying, but not that magic had anything to do to it. She’ll probably try dragging me to doctors again, which would be worse than worthless. One reason I put off telling her so long in the first place.”
Mattan continued holding her. She grabbed his hand and kissed it. He froze, then bent slightly and kissed her hair.
“Do you still want to marry me?” An asked. “Knowing how messed up I am?”
“Indeed, I more strongly regret wasting those five years.”
“Fifteen, but who’s counting?”
“Fifteen?” he drew back and looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Forget that I said anything.”
“No, Anilyne.” He continued looking at her. “I will not.”
“Might-have-beens don’t matter, Mattan. We have to deal with what is.”
“Anilyne, what does fifteen years mean to you?”
“All right, if you insist.” She gave a large sigh. “Fifteen years ago is when I finally decided that you must only be interested in friendship, no matter what I might think of the matter. I had some thought before that, on occasion. But that’s when I gave up on you.” She shook her head. “And then, from time to time afterwards, you’d do something wonderful for me, and I’d hope for a bit, then you’d go back to just being my friend.”
He stared at her, aghast. “I was waiting for you to grow up.”
“For fifteen years? That was ten years too long. Did you really expect me to wait for you that long?”
“Wait? No. Once I realized you would keep coming back to town frequently, I expected you to come up to me one year with stars in your eyes, and introduce me to some worthy young man, saying you were going to marry him. And I’d smile, and dance at your wedding.
She looked up at him sharply. “Dance, with a breaking heart? Mattan, has that happened to you before?”
He smiled, ruefully. “Often, I’m afraid. Some girl I’d known from birth, and strongly considered courting, coming to see her for a couple of years, would show up with a young man, usually one I’d also known from birth, a really good kid, and tell me she was going to marry him. What could I do, but give my blessing.”
“What . . . what could you do indeed?” An threw back her head and laughed long and hard. “You poor, poor, love-struck fool! All these years, and you still never realized.”
“No doubt I’m a fool,” Mattan said stiffly. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But would you mind telling me what makes me a fool this time?”
“All those years, all those girls, and it never once occurred to you to say, ‘He’s a great guy, but how about taking me instead?” She laughed again. “Poor, poor Mattan. And poor, poor girls.”
Mattan looked at her. “What do you mean? They all married. And happily, too. Though, now that I think about it, not necessarily to the man they brought to me. But I’m convinced that most of them were happy.”
An nodded. “Probably so. But still, I’m surprised that some mother, aunt, or grandmother didn’t take one of those sweet young things aside and warn her, ‘This one doesn’t understand subtlety. Try hitting him on the head with a rock.'”
Mattan stiffened, then relaxed and laughed himself. “So, are you saying that all of them were trying to make me jealous?”
“A big rock,” An said, then answer, “Probably not jealousy so much, as trying to hurry you along. Not everyone would be willing to wait fifteen years for you to decide they were sufficiently grown up.” She laughed a little. “So, that’s something to thank Valeesa for. If she hadn’t been frightening away all the decent guys, I might have tried the same myself.” She shook her head, “Or tried a more direct approach. If I hadn’t been afraid to be happy.”
“Anilyne, I never knew.” His voice was thoughtful. “I never even thought about that possibility.”
“Of course not. Why should you?”
“But not everyone did that. Some wanted nothing to do with me. Some thanked me kindly, and went on with their lives. And some went off to the big cities to seek their fortune. I wonder what became of those.”
“You never checked up on them?”
“On occasion. But it was hard to find anyone in the city at that time who didn’t want to be found. They could have gone anywhere.” He shook his head again, laughing ruefully. “It hardly matters now, though, does it?”
An leaned up against him. “Now it’s your turn.”
“My turn for what?”
“I told you what I wanted, what I wished. Now it’s your turn.” She smiled at him. “I can rub your shoulders while you think, if you’d like.”
“That won’t be necessary. I’d rather have you beside me.” He paused. “I’d rather wish this seat had a back, though.”
The couch subtly changed shape, gaining a back and arms for them to rest on. “Thank you, Daved,” Mattan said loudly.
“Yes, thank you,” An said, just as loudly. “But we still would like our privacy.” Then she added quietly, “That is odd. He usually doesn’t work where anyone can see him.”
“But we already know he does this sort of thing.”
“Doesn’t matter. He always walk into a place, doesn’t he, not just pop his puppet in where there are already people, that sort of thing. Whenever I arrive, the couch is already here for me. And he moved the other one while we slept. Which I still think was a nasty trick by the way,” she said loudly. “But anyway, where were we?”
“About to lean back and relax.”
“That’s right. You were going to tell me what you want.” She smiled encouragingly at him.
“We’ve talked about so many things over the years. Surely I must have told you about all that.”
“All right, all right. What do I want?” He thought for a moment. “One thing I want, that I really want, is to help you to be happy. For as long as possible.”
“Mattan!” An punched him in the shoulder. “I mean, what do you want for myself.”
“That was for myself.” He shook his head fondly. “All right. Let me think.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. “One thing,” he said, slowly, “One thing I would like, would be to create something . . . magnificent. Something beautiful.”
“Haven’t you already?” An asked. “That pipe organ. Tolly’s chairs. Probably a hundred other things I don’t know about.”
“Yes, I suppose. But those things are in the past. I want to do something better. And Tolly’s chairs weren’t magnificent, they’re too small and ordinary. Though I could do better.” He gestured with his hand, like he was going to grab a pencil. Then he leaned back and laughed. “He doesn’t need those chairs anymore, though, does he? Now that his leg is fixed, he can get by with normal chairs.”
“He still uses them, though. They’re so comfortable.”
“And that he hates to throw things away when they still have use in them. And he paid enough for those chairs. But I won’t make any more cabinets for him. Not unless I have an idea how to make them better.”
“What else?” An asked, after things were silent again for a while.
“That’s not enough?” He thought again. “There’s what we all want. To live . . . and die . . . in a normal life. It grows tiresome watching those we love age and die, while we stay more or less the same. And it also grows tiresome to be always overlooked and forgotten.” He sigh. “Though you never did. And it does make things easier sometimes.”
After a bit, he continued, “I also would like . . . I’ve so seldom travelled, but still, maybe some day. But it’s quite possible that by the time I’m ready to, I’ll suddenly discover that my range will have closed in, and I won’t even be able to leave town.” He looked around. “Though it’s quite a nice town.”
“We could travel together.”
Mattan shot a glance at her. “If you’re strong enough. I would like that.”
He thought again. An still leaned against him.
“I had a family once. Brother, two sisters. Once I left home, I never looked back. Never knew what became of them. Cousins as well. I’d like to know what happened to them. Do they have any descendents? Did they suffer at all because I left? I hope not.”
She took his hand. “You didn’t have much choice but to leave, Mattan. But we could look for them. Grandma might know a bit about it. She lived for so long in the Te-ar mountains.”
“Maybe,” Mattan said.
They sat for some time in silence, then An said, “So, Mattan, are we engaged or not.”
“Anilyne, look at me,” he said. She turned her eyes up at him. “Do you really wish to be?”
“That’s better,” he said. “Anilyne, will you marry me?”
“Yes, gladly. In a minute.”
He smiled. “And now that I know you are you,” he said gently, then bent his head and pressed his lips against hers. After a little bit, she pulled her head back, and raised her eyebrow at him. He couldn’t read her expression. Then she shook her head slightly, and with an odd smile, pulled his head back toward hers, and kissed him. He gave a start of surprise, but she kept a hold of him. When she finally released him, she laughed at his astonished expression.
“Six hundred years old,” she choked out, “and he don’t know nothing!”
“Indeed, I see I have a lot to learn,” Mattan said, and leaned over to kiss her again.
Off by the pond, Jelana sat, watching the waterfall. She was leaning against one of the tree trunks, idly running her fingers though the dirt around her, watching as drops of water came off her fingers, ran though the dirt, and joined her hand again.
“Good, good,” she said aloud. “But there’s no need for you to be so smug. If we had managed this better in the first place, the children need not have gone through all this. . . . Yes, I know they didn’t know about us, about you until far later, especially An. . . . No, I don’t think we’ll tell them. . . . We could still be wrong, you know, and then they’ll be horribly disappointed. . . . Let them figure it out by themselves. . . . Only if they start thinking she’s cured, instead of just a reprieve. . . . Yes, it’ll probably triple her lifespan. Maybe even longer. . . . No, if we tell them now, they’ll only begin worrying what the other’s motivation really was, and it’ll put space between them. . . . Yes, humans can really be that foolish sometimes. Are you going to come out, or must I keep conversing with the air? . . . I know I could easily slip down into the pool, and we’d talk faster. . . . I’ll hold you to that. . . . We’d best hurry them along, then. What would you suggest?” She cocked her head, then turned around and looked behind her, and laughed. “Yes, that would do it. But save his book, though. He’d kill me if one of his books got ruined. . . . No, not really. . . . For one thing, nothing can really harm me, remember?” She suddenly shivered, and her hands turned to ice. “Though some things can be quite . . . unpleasant.” Her hands changed back, and she laughed again. “Oh, go ahead. They’re going to have to stop saying you have no sense of humor soon.”
She watched as Tolly slept, precariously balanced on some tree roots next to the water. The book he had been reading was resting on his chest. As she watched, a root under his leg sank back down into the ground, and he slowly started rolling toward the pond. In the meantime, a branch appeared beneath the book, keeping it from rolling.
Tolly landed on his hands and knees in the water, with a sudden yell.
Jelana walked over to where he was, and looked at him calmly.
He stood and scowled at her, water dripping from his arms and trousers. “You!” he bellowed at her. “You did this!”
Jelana opened her eyes wide, innocently. “Me? How could I have done anything? I was just sitting here.”
He rather stiffly walk back to shore. “All right it was him,” he said, nodding to the woods. “But it was your idea.”
“Would I suggest something like that, brother dear?”
He took a couple of steps toward her, then started laughing. “All right, you win, you got me. Whichever of you it was.” He waggled a finger at her. “But don’t think I’ll forget. I’ll get even with you.”
“I’m counting on it, brother dear.” She reached up and kissed him on the cheek.
Tolly reached out to get the book, then looked down at his wet sleeves. “Would you mind getting that for me?”
“I can do better than that.” She grabbed both his arms, and her hands turned to water, totally covering his wet sleeves. After a moment, it condensed back into her hands again, leaving his shirt totally dry.
“Is that something new?”
“Not really,” Jelana said. “But there seldom is a real need for it.” She gave his hands a squeeze, then let go of them.
“Do you think you could dry my pants as well?” Tolly asked.
“What on earth for?” Jelana said.
“What on earth for indeed,” Tolly said, with a sigh, as he picked up his book.
Mattan looked up from kissing An once again, as a loud shout echoed through the woods.
“Tolly,” he said. “I’d forgotten about him.”
“Did I know he was here? I don’t think I saw him any of the times I was awake.”
“Well, let’s go see what happened,” Mattan said. “He’s our ride home. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m rather surprised he hasn’t interrupted us before now, impatient to get home. Or that Glorina hasn’t called looking for him.”
“We should get going anyway. I’m starting to feel a little hungry.”
He looked down at her with a smile. “Are you? Good. You’re right, we should get back. We have plans to make.
“So, do you think that they’ll be ready to leave soon?” Tolly asked, then turned to face Mattan and An emerging from the woods. “Oh, there you are.” He peered down at An’s face. “How are you feeling, child?”
An blushed. “Oh, much better,” she tried to say casually.
Tolly noticed the blush, and that they were holding hands. “So, that’s the way of it now? Can’t say that I’m overly surprised. All joy to you, children.”
Jelana danced up to them, and took their other hands. “I’m so happy for you. And so is Daved. I just wish we could have figured this out sooner.”
“Give Daved our thanks,” Mattan said. “For everything. And you, too.” He looked around. “I was rather hoping we’d see Daved.”
“He hears you,” Jelana said. “We’ll both come and visit you soon. Right now, though, he says he’s tired. He’s not used to using so much energy in such a short time period.
Mattan looked at her quizzically. “Right,” he said, finally.
Tolly cleared his throat. “So, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to head back now. It’s starting to think about getting dark, and it’s probably way past suppertime.
An laughed, and they followed Tolly back to his car.
Jelana watched them go, then felt Daved stepping up behind her. “Oh, now you show up. They’re gone.”
“I know.” He reached his hand out and touched her hair. “Shall we dance?”
“There is much joy now,” Jelana agreed. “But didn’t you say you were tired?”
Daved’s puppet smiled. “Yes. Very. Being weary is a new experience. You give me many new experiences. Let us dance, then I shall sleep well.”
She smiled up at him, stepped forward, and took his hands. “Let’s dance,” she said.