Chapter 2. The Joining Ceremony
Alastine had never really been fond of joining ceremonies and the spring ritual was the worst in her opinion. They were always held during the first month after awakening, usually on the last day of March. These particular ceremonies tended to include couples that were so unbearably in love that they woke from hibernation desperate for their mate. Many of these ceremonies included poetry readings or hymns written by the betrothed couples and performed aloud as if to prove the depth of their connection. At least that was how it felt to Alastine whenever she bore witness to such pageantry. She had never been in love so she had no basis for comparison but such public declaration of adoration left her feeling a bit uncomfortable, as if such an obvious show of affection bore a hint of artificiality. Caleb and Lilliya were certainly an exception, but they had been attached for so long that their pairing had grown into a comfortable state where the palpable desire of early courtship was well in the past.
Summer events were held at midnight on mid-summer’s eve. Even Alastine had to admit the hundreds of little torches hanging from the surrounding trees and lighting the two separate paths that merged into one upon ceremonial platform was magical. The fall ritual was easily her favorite, however. There was always a bounty of warm, seasonally spiced food and drink consumed around a bonfire in the late afternoon after the rituals were complete. No sentimental declarations of love and longing, just a joyful party filled with happiness and excitement. She had always been curious about winter rituals. They were typically reserved for the rare folk who were paired after their childbearing years had passed or for those who had lost a life mate. The town of Glyn still practiced hibernation so Alastine had no opportunity to attend a winter event. She hoped to do so at some point in the future.
Because a Glyn spring was usually the wettest time of year Caleb and Lilliya’s joining ceremony would be held, as was customary, at high noon when the sun was strongest. Still, it always seemed to Alastine that everything from the ground to the wooden chairs to the floral arrangements on the tables either dripped with water or at least felt damp. Today was not different and she chided herself for accepting Keelia’s invitation.
“You have to come!” Keelia had insisted. “If you’re not there Mother will be scouting the gathering for potential matches for me all afternoon. I just don’t want to be bothered by it all.”
It was a few months earlier just before the village of Glyn went into the earth for hibernation. That day the girls were fishing for stones in a shallow brook that ran beside Alastine’s home. Alastine always marveled at Keelia’s transformation during her visits to the Arden’s. Without fail she would arrive impeccably dressed with her shining black hair tightly tied up in elaborate braids and adorned with tiny white fresh flowers. Otto Amenty would typically spend a few minutes chatting with Blair or Kirc before kissing the top of Keelia’s head and asking her to be agreeable. Keelia always crossed her eyes and made a face at her father’s back and Blair, if present, would frown disapprovingly. But Keelia’s mischievous grin always made Blair laugh and as soon as Otto was gone she’d help Keelia loosen the tight knots in her perfect hair. If Lyonesse was afoot they would be sure to play at least one of her made up games, usually starring Keelia as some damsel in distress to which Lyonesse had to rescue sometimes, but not always, with Alastine’s help. She loved Keelia and the feeling was more than mutual.
Keelia would then tramp off to Alastine’s room to change into some of her spare clothes. They were about the same size and she found Alastine’s wardrobe far more comfortable. Though her middle sister Rhianni was a talented clothier who made the all the Amenty girls’ clothes, Keelia grew to hate the dresses that her mother Irri insisted she all wear at all times.
“Don’t you want to be attached to someone?” Alastine asked as Keelia inspected a few of the stones they had pulled from the brook. Keelia had a particular knack for putting together seemingly mismatched stones and creating something unique and eye-catching. Even at the relatively young age of thirteen she was sought for it by some of their region’s most notable women. Like all of her talents Keelia shrugged off this ability nonchalantly. Alastine knew it was because her craftsmanship was something her mother always touted. Above all else Keelia hated being one of her mother’s bragging rights.
She squinted at an amber colored rock she fished out of the stream. “Why would I care about being attached?”
“It’s all Mairenn Easterwind and Saba Tyske talk about.”
“Ugh, Mairenn Easterwind! Why are you friendly with her?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? She’s very nice.”
“Yes, yes, that’s all I ever hear of her. How sweet and nice she is. Don’t you get tired of it?”
“Well, she actually is sweet. And nice.”
“Eh, I don’t like her.”
“Is it because she’s so pretty?” Alastine asked teasingly. She knew it wouldn’t bother Keelia much. As pretty as she was Mairenn was no rival for her best friend.
“Mairenn Easterwind pretty?” Keelia looked perplexed. “I find her looks so boring, so predictably obvious. She’s like a daisy, pretty enough but oh so dull. You are so much more interesting to look at, with your wild hair, freckles and startling light blue eyes.” She laughed heartily, “I’m sure Sawyer Carr would agree with me.”
“What are you talking about?” Alastine asked, clearly flustered.
“I always see the two of you talking. He seems to seek you out.”
“Only to ask about you. He’s fascinated with you.”
“No, no, he likes you Alastine, I’m sure of it. I can sense these things.”
“If he likes me it’s as a sister. He doesn’t think I’m anything special, certainly not like you.”
“Sawyer and Marienn would make a suitable match.”
“Keelia, they’re cousins!”
“You’re right, I forgot about that.” She paused thoughtfully. “I guess that would explain their boring predictability.”
Alastine was silent for a moment. Sawyer was a good friend and though she had reservations she couldn’t stop herself from arguing his merits to her oblivious best friend.
“Sawyer’s a good potential mate. He’s from a very respectable family, is the most accomplished boy in our year and there’s talk of him being asked to enroll in the Village Councilor apprenticeship program after secondary school. If so, he’d be one of the youngest ever. He’ll make some lucky girl very happy one day. I’m pretty sure he hopes that girl is you.”
“Really?” Keelia looked over at Alastine and scratched her neck thoughtfully. Her loosened hair tumbled around her face making her eyes look alarmingly green against the black of her hair and milk white complexion. Alastine was reminded of a feral cat her mother fed occasionally, sleek and beautiful but wild and full of mystery all the same. Alastine felt a twinge of unease.
“Well, if it comes to that I suppose he’ll do.” She turned her back to Alastine and plunged her hands into back into the cold water. “Now let’s try to find another amber stone.”
Even though she had suggested it, Alastine was bothered by the thought of Keelia and Sawyer paired. She knew she was being foolish. They were both the best of their year in terms of attractiveness and abilities so it was only natural that the two begin spending time together. Still, Alastine didn’t think Keelia was right for Sawyer. If asked to put her concerns into words she was certain she wouldn’t be able to. All she had was a vague feeling of dread she whenever she imagined the two of them together. Perhaps she was just jealous. Something about the two of them together left a heavy feeling in her chest. They had become her two closest friends and she suspected that once a pair, she would no longer be needed by either of them. That thought made her feel terribly lonely.
Everything went wrong the day of the spring joining ceremony. The Arden’s Healing Center was overrun with field hands from the community farm complaining of abdominal pain. Though not serious, the trigger was a batch of ale left in the sun too long, Alastine spent most of the morning collecting pine sap for one of Kirc’s soothing tonics. Many of the afflicted were supposed to attend or participate in the join ceremony. Most would now be spending the afternoon recovering in the Healing Ward. Seating arrangements, staff to manage the event, and even the celebratory dinner were thrown into disarray.
To add to the chaos, Sawyer’s middle brother Sheridan unexpectedly returned from his travels through the Magi Realm. Keelia’s mother was sent into a near panic trying to find Sheridan an appropriate role in the ceremony in such short notice. Keelia was left in charge of Amenty household for the morning and could not meet Alastine that morning as they had planned. Alastine hated dressing herself for these types of events and Keelia had promised not only to lend one of her own dresses but help Alastine with her hair arrangement.
Left to her own devices and running late Alastine was forced to make her own choices. She selected a plain ivory blouse with a square collar and a narrow bodice that ended in a row of tiny sage green roses that hid a series of hooks for a detachable skirt. Alastine hastily pulled on cream leggings and folded the matching skirt under arm. The soft, layered skirt was made of lovely flowing fabric that made her appear as if she were floating when she walked. She had no real costume shoes to speak of so she hastily put on a pair of brown leather sandals realizing that once the skirt was attached they were likely to go unseen. She had no time to bathe so she undid her hair from her tight braid and let it hang loose and flowing around her shoulders. Blair insisted she wear a headband fashioned to match the rose boarder of her dress. Alastine hated it but it kept her unruly hair off her face as she rode her own horse Timba down the muddy lane to Specca Valley Meadow where all Glyn ceremonies and festivals were held.
The horse master at the meadow stables glanced at her leggings, folded skirt and sandal clad feet with amusement as she hastily dismounted. Quickly she ducked behind her horse to attach her skirt. Thankfully, she had made it to Specca Valley unnoticed and without much mud splashing onto her clothes. There was a tiny spot on the bottom hem of the skirt but she was certain it would go unnoticed.
“I’ve never seen someone of your age ride so well.”
Alastine was struggling with one of the back hooks and jumped at the sound of an unfamiliar male voice. She turned, peeked out from behind Timba and noticed a young man leaning against the stall watching her.
“I’ve been riding since I was four.” She shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s Timba, he’s a good horse.”
He nodded solemnly and walked up beside her placing one hand on the horses’ neck. Though he looked familiar Alastine couldn’t place him.
“He’s a beauty.”
Alastine nodded back, unsure of what to say next.
The young man peered down at her. “Where is your family? It’s unusual for a young lady to escort herself to a joining ceremony.”
“They’re coming later. My parents are both Healers, it’s been a busy morning.”
“So I’ve been hearing. Do you need help with that?” he asked gesturing towards the back hooks of her skirt.
“No, I can reach them.” She twisted around to fasten the last portion of her skirt to the bodice. She turned back to face him while smoothing the front of her dress. The seam disappeared under the rose border and her feet were well hidden beneath the hem of the skirt.
“Do I look presentable?” Alastine surprised herself with the question. She didn’t know this young man but her arrival had been so rushed she didn’t have time to feel self-conscious.
He studied her seriously and nodded in approval. “You look very pretty.”
“My hair isn’t a mess?”
He smiled, “It’s a little windblown but very becoming.”
The wide smile lit up his face and Alastine suddenly realized that he was very handsome. He was older than she was and had to be at least twenty years of age. He had straight blond hair that was tied back neatly in a leather ponytail, clear blue eyes and an easy, confident grin. She didn’t recognize him. He noticed Alastine studying him and he broke into laughter.
“You don’t know who I am do you? I’m not surprised. It was about five years ago when I was home last and you were only about seven or eight.”
“We know each other?”
“A bit. I’m Sheridan Carr. We met at an assembly years ago. You were with you father, just coming back from the Catis hinterlands.”
Alastine had gone to many village gatherings with her father. While she wasn’t much interested in the business of running a town she enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the townspeople coming together. It was usually so quiet where she lived with her family. Kirc and Blair had chosen a remote spot for their home because they needed the Healing Center to have access to a hot spring. Alastine loved the tranquility of the area, nestled in the foothills of a low mountain range, but she often grew restless and lonely. She had an active imagination the strength of her daydreaming sometimes startled her.
“I don’t think I remember.” She answered slowly.
“You don’t? Well, that’s not surprising. You were very excited. It was your first time going through a Passage. You couldn’t stop talking about it.”
Alastine drew in a breath as a memory surfaced. She did remember Sheridan. He had guided the Arden’s through the Passage back to Glyn.
“Wait, you helped us get back from Catis?”
He smiled, “That’s right. I was supposed to return to Magi immediately but ended up staying for the assembly. It was so nice to see everyone again that I didn’t rush back.”
“And this is your first time back to Glyn since then?”
“Why did you come back? For your brother’s joining ceremony?”
“Well I definitely wanted to be here to see Caleb and Lilliya joined but we’re not always allowed to leave to attend family events. I guess it’s lucky that there are some strange happenings around Glyn. I was able to persuade my superiors to let me come back to check everything out. Maybe help if I can.”
“With the Border Guards?”
“Among other things.” He paused. “So, you know about the other realms?”
“I’ve been to the Catis hinterlands. I was in Magi once too when I was very young. I don’t remember much it, though. I’d love to see more!”
“I’m surprised. The travel can be hard. I think most girls your age would rather stay where its comfortable and pretty like Glyn.”
“I just don’t understand the orbits.” Alastine continued, ignoring his presumption. “It’s so difficult to know when another realm is near. That is probably why I’ve only been out of Sylvian twice.”
“Twice more than most I can assure you. The Elders are the only ones who really understand the orbits. Those are closely guarded secrets.”
Alastine nodded impatiently but before she could ask any more questions a series of soft bells chimed signaling that the start of the ceremony was drawing near.
“I’d better go. After all the trouble I went through with the Border Guards to get here it would be a shame if I missed it, yes?”
Alastine couldn’t help but let out a small giggle. “Mrs. Amenty would also be very upset. She had to juggle quite a bit to have you participate in Caleb’s ritual, on top of everything else that happened this morning.”
“Believe me I know. Promise me a dance later?”
“Uh, sure, I guess so.” Alastine was taken aback by the suggestion. Surely she would make a spectacle of herself dancing with someone so much older and so good looking. She could only imagine what her friends would say!
Sheridan chuckled. “That was probably the least enthusiastic response I’ve ever gotten.”
Alastine blushed and before she could reply Sheridan winked and strode off. It was then she noticed that his eyes were the exact same shade as Sawyer’s. That had to be the basis for her surprising ease around him. He reminded her of one of her closest friends.
“I’ll never understand my foolish cousin.”
The joining ceremony was over and Alastine was eyeing the bounty table when Marienn Easterwind materialized beside her. She was watching Sawyer’s every move with a slight frown on her face. Sawyer was following Keelia dutifully, holding her plate in one hand while clearing a chair for her sit with the other. Alastine had avoided the two of them since the conclusion of the ceremony. Following Marienn’s gaze she had to admit that Sawyer did indeed look somewhat silly, or overly eager at the very least. Though Keelia was at Sawyer’s side she certainly didn’t seem interested in his company. As he was talking to her Keelia leaned slightly away from him while scanning the opposite side of the pavilion. Did she even know what he was saying? Alastine felt a sharp pang of embarrassment for Sawyer and turned back towards the food.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s blinded by a pretty face, always has been. He’ll do Keelia’s bidding I’m sure. That anyone can see.”
Alastine knew this was true and she was surprised at the pang in her chest that resulted. She tried to ignore the feeling and kept her voice neutral as she responded to Marienn. “Would that be so bad?”
“Oh, Alastine I’m sorry! I keep forgetting you and Keelia are so close. You’re nothing alike.”
Alastine raised her eyebrows slightly. Marienn’s hand rose to her mouth but she didn’t elaborate further. Alastine turned her attention back to the food.
“It’s just that she can be so… hard to deal with at times,” Marienn paused, searching for as additional words. “You of all people must know that.”
Alastine wasn’t blind to Keelia’s faults but if truth were to be told she sometimes secretly enjoyed Keelia’s needling of Marienn. Ever since she had known her Marienn Easterwind had seemed so perfect, so secure in herself and her role in their world. She came from an old, established Glyn family that had deep roots in the community. Marienn always did what was expected of her, always said the right thing, and was always dressed appropriately for every occasion. Having felt something of an outsider most of her life, Marienn wasn’t someone with whom Alastine could easily relate. If she weren’t a genuinely nice person Alastine would most certainly find her annoying, perhaps not to the extent Keelia did but annoying nonetheless.
Alastine would be surprised to learn that her feeling like an outsider was primarily self imposed. Most of Glyn knew Alastine through interactions with her at her families Healing Ward and she was very well thought of. Somehow, Alastine failed to see this and instead choose to keep herself at arms length from most. Similarly Keelia’s beauty made her a bit of an outsider, even within her own family. Though she was the youngest in a family known for it’s beautiful females it was already clear that Keelia would grow to be unrivaled. Keelia refused to play the ornamental and inspirational role old her mother had perfected and her older sisters readily accepted. Girls their own age were intimidated by Keelia and even older, established women who actively sought her talents didn’t know what to make of her. She had no respect for authority and possessed a startling directness and candor that many found surprising and not all together pleasant.
Together, however, Alastine and Keelia made a well-balanced pair. For some inexplicable reason Alastine had never been overwhelmed by Keelia’s beauty and large personality. She knew these were simply masks Keelia used to hide her resentment at feeling isolated. She hated to be called out only for her beauty and often wondered why no one ever asked what she thought of things the way they did of Alastine.
“People like you Alastine, they don’t like me.”
“Of course they like you Keelia! Everyone wants to be your friend.”
“Only because my mother holds the best social events in the Sylvian Realm. They have to be nice to me or they won’t get an invitation Or they are nice to me because they’re afraid I’ll steal their potential match.” Keelia shook her head with disgust. “As if I’d ever be interested in the silly boys of Glyn. People are nice to you because your well liked. I’m not.”
There was some truth to this statement but Alastine was one of the few who genuinely appreciated Keelia’s humor, intelligence and talent. She knew her parents, and certainly her sister Lyonesse felt similarly. Keelia loved the entire Arden family but her strongest attachment was clearly to Alastine. In her she finally found a trusted confident, someone with whom she could be herself and not have to put on the performance that seemed expected from everyone else.
Marienn Easterwind was a completely different being — gentle, kind, predictable and content. Though Alastine had never admitted it out loud, also a touch self-satisfied. It was this quality that Keelia despised most and likely the true source of her antagonism.
“I know Keelia likes to tease but don’t let her get to you. She doesn’t mean anything by it and just looking for a reaction.” The latter part of her statement was true but the former was not. She hoped Marienn didn’t know the difference.
Marienn shook her head ever so slightly. “I think you may be to trusting for your own good.”
Across the pavilion Keelia had been biding her time with Sawyer. Once Marienn had gone she rushed to Alastine’s side.
“You have to help me!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Sawyer! He likes you, please distract him for me.”
“I can’t talk now but I’ll tell you later.” Her cheeks were flushed and she was very excited. “I have to go!” she rushed off into the darkness beyond the pavilion where her sisters Rhianni and identical twins Crisson and Glorianna were surrounding Lilliya. Alastine was startled. She had never seen Keelia so flustered.
“Was that Keelia?”
Alastine turned to find Sawyer looking off in the direction in which Keelia had departed. She felt a wave of pity wash over her.
“Yes, I think she needed to speak with Lilliya about something. The parting bouquets maybe…” Alastine’s voice trailed off.
“Do you think she’s having a good time?” Sawyer looked at her hopefully.
Alastine wasn’t sure how to respond. She desperately wanted to reassure him but at the same time didn’t want to give him any false hope. In truth, she didn’t know if Keelia was having a good time.
“Oh, I haven’t really seen much of her.”
“Yea, where were you? We were both looking for you.”
“I’ve been waiting for my family to arrive. Still no sign of them, they must have their hands full at the Healing Ward.”
“Well, don’t worry. If they don’t arrive I’ll ride home with you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous I’m perfectly capable of getting myself home.”
“I know that!” Sawyer exclaimed, somewhat exasperatedly. “It’s just that there may be dangerous animals lurking about. You shouldn’t go alone.”
Alastine found it amusing that Sawyer thought he’d be greater protection than the regiment of Border Guards and Sprites that were patrolling the wilderness. She forced herself to suppress a giggle. He was concerned for her and that felt nice.
“Oh, thanks Sawyer I hadn’t even thought about that. You’re probably right, it would be a good idea to have an escort home.”
The musicians had begun to play their wind instruments and couples around them were rising to dance. Sawyer looked over her appraisingly.
“That’s a nice dress. How come you don’t wear dresses more often?”
“They get in the way when riding and I have pretty far to come for school.”
“Keelia always wears the prettiest dresses,” Sawyer said. “She lives just as far from the schoolhouse as you.”
“Yes, but she rides to school in a carriage.”
“Did you know she makes her own dresses?”
“No, really?” Alastine didn’t think she hid the sarcasm in her voice but Sawyer prattled on relentlessly.
“She always wears the most interesting colors doesn’t she? So dark and shimmering. Nothing like the other girls in our year.”
“Yes, Keelia’s dresses are beautiful.” She failed to correct him that Keelia’s sister Rhianni was the one responsible for her beautiful clothing. Why shatter the illusion of perfection?
Around them people were swarming to the dancing area. Many of their friends from school were gathering together and several waved over at them.
“Should we dance?” Sawyer looked at her curiously.
Alastine shrugged, “Why not?”
To this day Alastine doesn’t remember what they talked about during that first dance together, only that them being together felt so easy and comfortable. They took part in several dances and swung from partner to partner but always seemed to end up with each other. Alastine had been to many joining ceremonies in the past but this was the first she actually enjoyed. It was due to Sawyer, that she knew, and she couldn’t help but feel she was setting herself up for a disappointment. Sawyer thought of her as a friend and Keelia was the one he wanted. Even Marienn could see that.
As the evening was winding down Sawyer and Alastine broke from the dancing and headed off to fetch some drinks.
“You’re such a good dancer!” he exclaimed. “How come I never see you at village concerts? You should come. I could use the practice.”
Alastine laughed. “I’m not one for concerts but if you’re ever in need of a dance partner let me know. I’d be happy to help.”
“There’s one next week.” Against her better judgment Alastine felt herself beginning to hope. “And maybe you could bring Keelia?”
Alastine kept the smile fixed to her face. “Sure, Keelia will love it.”
“Great, it’s going to be so much fun…”
Something over Alastine’s shoulder caught Sawyer’s eye. He stiffened noticeably, squinted and frowned. Curious, Alastine turned and immediately pinpointed the source of his distress. Keelia was standing in a refreshment gazebo under a flickering candle chandelier. Her dark hair was loose and she had discarded her shawl revealing the sleeveless, v-neck style of her dress. Alastine couldn’t believe how much older she looked in the soft light of the chandelier and in her mind’s eye she could almost see Keelia as a stunning grown woman. At that particular moment, however, she was just an exceptionally pretty young girl talking animatedly with someone. The recipient of her rapt attention was blocked from view. Curious, Alastine wandered slowly in Keelia’s direction and in her distraction didn’t notice Sawyer trailing behind. Just as Alastine got close enough to call out to her the crowd cleared. Alastine and Sawyer were left with an unobstructed view of Keelia gazing up with an expression of undisguised adoration at Sheridan Carr.