Chapter 3. Water Nymph
Almost four years after Caleb and Lilliya’s joining ceremony Alastine and Sawyer were a potential match and one of Glyn’s most popular young couples. Keelia and Sheridan certainly generated much more talk and excitement but Alastine and Sawyer were seen as a solid, well suited and likable pair.
Alastine had never been so happy. Once Sawyer became her potential she could finally admit to herself that she had been falling for him for a long time. This she never told him, fearing it would give him to much power over her. A nagging doubt that her feelings for him were stronger than his for her was always present. His frequent professions of love did little to allay her fears. Alastine’s insecurity was a character flaw that was exacerbated by her relationship with Sawyer. It was an acceptable price for a match so true and something she felt she could learn to manage.
The one thing that did mar her happiness with Sawyer was that soon after they began spending time together Alastine fell sickly. It wasn’t a constant illness that kept her bedridden but more of an insidious lack of energy that left her fatigued and often unable to eat or sleep regularly. This illness waxed and waned but it was concerning enough for Blair to pull Alastine out of school and begin her formal apprenticeship a little early. Other than not being able to see Sawyer everyday Alastine was happy to leave it behind. Her lessons all but bored her that last year and she was eager to put her healing skills to practical use.
But her illness troubled both her parents. Her mother even got Enid Leese involved to help identify the problem. Alastine hated the prodding and poking, the intrusive questions, and the constant observation of her mother’s mentor. For some time it almost seemed as if Enid was obsessed with her. In the end none of it really mattered though. Like Blair she could only identify an inexplicable “sapping” disorder who’s cause remained unknown.
For the most part the illness didn’t bother Alastine. She just slept a little more than a young woman of seventeen probably should and experienced headaches rather frequently. These could be quite debilitating and were sometimes strong enough to keep her bedridden for days. Thankfully headaches of that great intensity weren’t that all that frequent. Kirc developed an herbal tea to help Alastine fight her fatigue. It didn’t completely cure her sleepiness but did provide a boost when needed. The only remedy for her headaches was a lot of rest in a cool dark room.
If Alastine were truly honest with herself she would acknowledge the other issue that slightly tainted her happiness with Sawyer. In some ways she felt she rather shamelessly stole him from another potential match, Saba Tyske.
For as long she had known him Sawyer had been taken quite completely by Keelia. Keelia was less enamored with Sawyer but over time Alastine suspected she would have accepted his admiration and likely returned his affections. Sheridan’s return, however, dashed all of Sawyer’s chances with the girl of his dreams. Granted Keelia was only thirteen to Sheridan’s twenty but he was a handsome, charismatic and well traveled rogue that presented a challenge for the town beauty accustomed to easily attaining whatever she wanted.
Sheridan had plenty of attention from the ladies of Glyn upon his return and he didn’t pay much attention to the pretty young girl with an obvious crush. At least, not at first but Keelia was not to be deterred. She made a truce with Marienn and slowly began spending more time with Easterwind / Carr clan. Initially she intimated that this overture of friendship was indirectly related to Sawyer, which delighted him of course, but over time it became obvious to all involved that Keelia’s true interest lay in Sheridan.
One might think that Marienn would have been disgusted by the obvious manipulation but Keelia could be quite persuasive when it suited her needs. Marienn was no match for Keelia’s charms and in the end she helped Keelia secure her place by Sheridan’s side. Almost as an act of contrition Marienn worked relentlessly to ensure Sawyer had an alternative potential match in Saba Tyske. Saba was a poor substitute for Keelia but she did mold herself into a doppelgänger for Marienn, both in appearance and manner, who was in Sawyer’s opinion the very essence of what a suitable life partner should be, after Keelia of course. Who was Saba really? Alastine had no idea. But she certainly knew exactly how to dress and behave in order to capture Sawyer’s damaged heart, all under the helpful eyes of Marienn and Keelia.
Alastine had watched all this unfold during their fifteenth year with a growing sense of disgust. Though Keelia never confided her designs in Alastine it was quite obvious to her what was happening. She wasn’t sure who she was more upset with – Keelia for being so calculating, Marienn for being so complicit, or Sawyer for being so stupid. None of her friends really came out looking well and Alastine felt herself pulling away from their circle a little at a time.
From Alastine’s perspective only Saba was being genuine. She obviously cared for Sawyer and was only doing what she thought she needed to do to win his heart. Sheridan gradual acceptance of Keelia was much more of a mystery. He eventually grew more open to Keelia’s affections but never seemed as dazzled by her as anyone else would have been in his position, his younger brother in particular. Granted Sheridan was older and more experienced but Keelia’s beauty grew exponentially with age and he never seemed any more affected by her than he was at their first introduction. This she knew troubled Keelia and it filled her heart with a surprising warmth for Sheridan. It was comforting to know someone beyond herself had some resistance to Keelia’s charms. It made her feel a little less lonely somehow.
Like Saba Alastine also had long standing feelings for Sawyer. She had just refused to play the games that seemed necessary to snare him into a potential match situation. Though she never discussed it openly she knew Keelia was aware of her feelings. It was telling to Alastine that Keelia never once invited her to the many trips she took to the Carr residence. She suspected that Keelia knew Sawyer had affection for her and any encouragement could risk upsetting Marienn’s plans for Sawyer and Saba. For her part Alastine never pursued it, hoping that Sawyer would somehow figure it out on is own. He never did.
Her eventual pairing with Sawyer began with a lot of help and, oddly enough, a freak storm. Alastine had been deep in the forest late one summer afternoon digging for mushrooms. Keelia was supposed to join her but she had a riding accident and suffered a mild sprain to her ankle. Alastine felt it just as well. Even though Keelia seemed more genuine when spending time at the Arden’s, Alastine knew the subject would inevitably turn to Sheridan and all the wonderful happenings at the Carr residence. Listening to Keelia’s planning for the future always left Alastine feeling lonely and a little resentful.
That afternoon the air was steamy and unstable. Alastine had worn long loose pants and a long sleeved white shirt to protect her skin from the leaves and brambles as she trampled through the woods. She was covered in needles and twigs by the time she kneeled on the ground to dig. Sweat poured off her forehead and she realized her face must be streaked with mud from all the times she bushed her sticky hair off her face.
When the fat grey clouds rolled in Alastine gathered up the mushrooms in her basket and took shelter against a large oak tree. She didn’t fear the thunder and lightening when it came. The canopy of the forest would protect her and the cool rain that fell in between the leaves felt wonderful on her upturned face. The drumming of the rain and periodic booming thunder drowned out all thought and Alastine lost herself in the power of nature moving through the landscape. Within minutes her clothes were soaked through and her hair dripping wet. She laughed, imagining the frightful sight of her, as she stood up and kicked off her shoes. Her clothes were so drenched it was a bit of a struggle to get out of them. She hung her outer layer of clothes on a tree limb to wash off the mud. Wearing just her underclothes she climbed out from under the tree and let the pounding rain rinse her hair and body. She felt cleansed, reinvigorated.
The path she had followed through the woods had morphed into a quick moving shallow stream and the cool water felt wonderful as it worked it way through her bare feet. In that moment she had an irresistible urge to run and without a second thought she took off down the path from which she came. She felt herself becoming one with the storm, with the wind at her back and propelling her forward. Her feet danced above ground as water rushed all around them. The pouring rain made the surrounding forest seem to disappear in a haze of green and brown she flew forward feeling free and wonderful.
She barely remembered coming to the cliff edge before she threw herself off and dove into the clear waters of Kristall Lake she knew lay just below. For just a split second she was suspended from her world, away from its challenges and petty torments. No thought of Keelia or Sawyer, just a wonderful feeling of being untethered and free. When she landed the crash of the cool water was so refreshing that when she burst through the surface the force of her joyous laughter surprised her. The storm past as quickly as it had come, only slight soft drizzle remained as she floated on her back thinking about nothing except how lovely the water felt. Little sparkles of light seemed to surround her. A few stray sunbeams escaped from behind the clouds reflecting the moisture in the air and casting a dream-like quality over the afternoon.
After a few minutes of floating lazily Alastine remembered the mushrooms. The thought reluctantly pulled her from the water. A precipitous drop in air temperature and not enough time to acclimate left Alastine feeling strangely cold and shivering in her undergarments. She had just begun to consider the trek back to her clothes when a twig snapped loudly behind her. She whipped around to find Sawyer, Jordy Hoffstra and Tigin Oake staring at her with their mouths agape. It was then Alastine realized how scantily she was dressed and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
“Here Alastine take this.” Sheridan materialized behind her holding a shirt. “I had an extra in my satchel. Its dry.”
Alastine pulled on the shirt hastily and tied her soaking hair up into a knot. Sheridan had put himself between Alastine and the rest of the group. His back was to her and Alastine was grateful for the tiny bit of privacy afforded by his broad athletic frame.
“Come on guys give her a minute.” Sheridan chided. “You’ve all been to swimming holes, stop behaving like you’ve never seen a girl before.”
“Uh, yea,” Sawyer coughed. “Why don’t you guys go make sure the horses are tied securely? Alastine, I have a blanket if you need one.”
“Yes, please.” Alastine said gratefully. “I don’t know why but I am so cold. I can’t seem to get warm.”
Sawyer retrieved his blanket while the others went to check in on the horses. Alastine happily wrapped the blanked around her with only her feet remaining exposed. They stood smiling awkwardly at each other while trying to ignore the whispers and snickering of the departing boys.
“I can only imagine what they are talking about,” Alastine said. “I didn’t think anyone would be here. Otherwise I never would have…” Embarrassed, her voice trailed off.
“You don’t have to apologize. We have seen girls bathing before.”
“I know but in their undergarments?”
“Well, when you think about it it’s not that different from bathing clothes.”
“No, I guess not.”
Alastine shifted and looked anywhere but at Sawyer. She couldn’t help but feel foolish.
“What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“I was collecting mushrooms for my mother. We’re having dinner guests and she needed them for a meal she’s preparing.”
A loud clap of thunder rumbled directly overhead. Clearly startled, both Alastine and Sheridan jumped then started laughing at their identical reactions.
Before either had a chance to comment Tigin burst into the clearing. “The horses have taken off. We’re going to go after them!”
“We can’t leave Alastine alone out here…”
“Of course you can,” Alastine interrupted. “I’m fine here by myself.”
“Don’t leave, just stay here a minute.” Sawyer left with Tigin presumably to confer with Sheridan and Jordy.
Alastine wandered to the edge of the wood and smiled to herself. Sawyer had always loved to rescue a damsel in distress. Alastine remembered the time Keelia slipped on a loose rock during an afternoon hike during one of their nature lessons. She wasn’t hurt but the tumble tore a gash in her forearm that bled quite steadily. Sawyer gallantly tore off one of his own shirt sleeves to bind Keelia’s wound. He also insisted that he take Keelia to Enid Leese for additional care. Alastine could have easily done it herself, and without the attendant fanfare, but Sawyer just looked so sure of his purpose that she felt it wrong to deny him his shining moment. Afterwards Keelia berated Alastine for leaving her with Sawyer but Alastine just laughed while secretly envious of her friend who was simply unable to recognize when good fortune smiled down upon her.
Unlike Keelia, Alastine had always longed for Sawyer’s undivided attention. She decided to let him think her in need of help knowing full well what his response would be. This was the first time she had seen him in weeks and she selfishly wanted to be alone with him. This act of distress did make her pause, though. Was she really that different from Saba and her rather bizarre and transparent transformation into a Marienn-like creature? The thought bothered her more than she cared to admit. So much so that she almost left without saying goodbye. In the end she stayed, however. The desire to be with Sawyer was simply to hard to resist.
Alastine turned her attention to the missing horses. She had known Sawyer’s filly Evergreen since her birth a few years ago. She was an easygoing horse but the poor thing was probably spooked by the thunder. Alastine peered into the dank woods and let her mind wander. The calls of Sawyer and Sheridan faded to the background and she instead focused on the singsong of the birds and the cool breeze rippling through the trees. There was nothing to be afraid of, the storm had cleared the air and left it feeling crisp and fresh. She imagined calling to Evergreen to notice the gentle sound of the water dripping from the leaves, feel the soft cushion of the damp spongy forest floor and urged her to drink from the pools of water standing among the tiny valleys of the rocks. Alastine felt the comfort of the forest, and hoped Evergreen could as well.
A rustling to her left had Alastine smiling in anticipation. Sawyer would have his plan for her rescue and, for once, she would be the sole recipient of his grand designs. She relished the thought. But when she turned towards the footpath that lead away from the lake she was greeted by the large, calm eyes of Evergreen.
“No, no Ever,” Alastine whispered. “You have to go. Shoo! Run away!” Alastine gestured toward the wood but Evergreen just whinnied and tried to nuzzle her arm.
“Please, you’re going to ruin everything silly horse. I know you don’t understand but I want Sawyer to walk me home so I can get as much time with him as possible.”
No response from Evergreen. She looked quite content by Alastine’s side. Alastine, however, was growing anxious. This was her first opportunity to be alone with Sawyer and it was about to be ruined by a horse she had somehow managed to summon. If she had summoned her could she also drive her away? The thought crossed Alastine’s mind and she immediately seized upon the sound of the departed storm. The wind picked up around them and the thicket began to rustle noisily. The air about Alastine grew warmer and felt charged. The hair on her arms began to rise and Evergreen began to shuffle nervously. Alastine could feel her body grow warmer, as the strength of her imagination started to take over. What was happening? Why was she suddenly dripping with sweat? Alastine cast aside her extra clothing, she felt like she was burning up. Did she have a fever? Was she dreaming? Was this some kind of symptom of her sapping disorder? Alastine felt fear growing in the pit of her stomach as her reality seemed to wobble before her eyes. Without warning a flash of lightning struck the ground right in front of her. Evergreen neighed in terror and took off back into the into the forest. Somewhere nearby a tree trunk was cracking loudly.
“Thanks Ever.” Alastine mumbled softly just before she fainted and crashed face first into the mud.
Alastine woke to the sound of tinkling glasses and murmured voices. She was back in her bedroom in the soft golden light of falling dusk. As she rolled onto her side she became aware of a dull ache in the back of her head. What had happened?
Sawyer was sitting in the corner of her room watching her with a small frown on his face as he rocked back and fourth in her favorite reading chair. Though he had visited her home a number of times before was Sawyer’s first time in her bedroom. Him being there was strangely uncomfortable and she fought the urge to hide her face behind her pillows.
“What are you doing here?”
“My parents and Sheridan are downstairs. My mother insisted we use our carriage to bring you back. You were knocked out. Don’t you remember?”
Alastine dug through her memory trying to recall something, anything, about earlier that afternoon. They were in the woods by Kristall Lake, Evergreen was there, something fell…What else?
“A tree was struck by lightening close to where you were standing. You may have been hit by a falling a limb but your mother couldn’t find any bumps or bruises. I think she’s worried it could have been a fainting spell from your sapping illness.”
“I’ve never fainted from that before.”
“That’s what she said. Probably why she called for Enid Leese.”
“Enid’s here? Is there anyone else downstairs?”
“My parents and Sheridan, Professor Quinn and some couple from the Tesseria Realm. I didn’t recognize them. I think they said they were from the village of Adda.”
Alastine nodded and struggled to sit upright.
“My parents guardians, they’re visiting for a bit.”
“Your parents guardians? What do you mean?”
“Both my parents were orphaned at a young age.” Alastine paused as she noticed Sawyer’s deepening frown. “I know it’s highly unusual but their families were lost in during a failed Passage with Aldean. They were the youngest so they came to the other side first. No one else followed.”
“How old were they?”
“Five or six I think.”
“They were all alone in Aldean? How did they survive?”
“There was a Border Patrol that picked them up on the other side. One of the Guards brought them home with him waited until the group was found. He and his wife are downstairs now. Johe and Lam.”
“So their parents were never seen again?”
“No one from that Passage was ever seen again.”
“Why haven’t I heard about this?”
Alastine shrugged. “It’s the only time a group permanently disappeared without at trace. Other accidents are usually folks landing in a time or place they didn’t expect, and even that is highly unusual. I think Johe, and my parents, assumed the group would turn up eventually. Part of me thinks they still do.”
“Wow, no wonder why traveling through a Passage is so discouraged.”
“I know. My parents will only do it to help their Healing Practice. Which is too bad because I love to see other realms.”
“You do? I’ve never been to another. My parents say once I’m and adult I can leave as I see fit. Sheridan’s been plenty of times. He’s never had any trouble.”
“Like I said most have no issue at all. I only know of a few other incidents, all involving the Wanderers. They are always trying to find shortcuts through the Border Lands. The Wanderers think they understand the orbits better than the Border Guards and refuse to wait to be escorted. Most of the time it’s fine. My parents were very unlucky.”
“So you don’t know your kin?”
“No, it’s just the four of us. The rest were lost.”
“What do you mean? How could their entire family be lost?”
“You don’t know?”
“Both my parents were born into a Wanderer clans. They migrate between realms as a group.”
Sawyer sat back in the rocking chair with a stunned expression.
“I had no idea!”
“Well, they don’t really talk about it much. I guess it’s not surprising that you don’t know.”
“But your parents seem so normal!”
“As opposed to what?”
Sawyer stammered. “Wanderers have strange customs.”
“I had no idea you knew some Wanderers.”
“Well, I don’t but I’ve heard some strange things.”
“Wanders are really no different from the Nomads of Magi. But instead of moving with the seasons within their realm, Wanders cross into others.”
“Well, the Nomads, they aren’t exactly conventional either are they?”
“I guess not.” Alastine sighed and closed her eyes. She was tired all of a sudden. A very awkward silence followed.
“You know, my father has always been in awe of your family.” Sawyer began, trying to steer the conversation onto safer ground. “Now I think I understand why.”
“We’re just an ordinary family. A very small family granted but ordinary in every other way.”
“Yes, but your family history is,” Sawyer paused. “Unusual… Tragic… And both your parents are powerful Healers. I think my father really admires how they’ve carved out their own existence here.”
“What choice did they have? Wither away? Go to ground?” Again, Alastine sighed. She was exhausted.
A knock at the door brought some welcome relief. Alastine sat up straighter and Sawyer rose from the rocking chair.
“Come in,” Alastine called.
Sheridan strode in and nodded at Alastine before turning to his brother. “Come on, we’re leaving.”
“Yes, we are seriously intruding on your dinner.”
“You are definitely not.” Alastine said, with a yawn. “My parents are always open to visitors, particularly those who don’t need Healing. It’s so remote out here and little opportunity for entertainment.”
Sheridan turned to Alastine. “They may be happy for the visitors but I doubt you are. You look very tired. You really should rest.”
“I’m all right. Thank you for your help today. Both of you.”
“What else could we do? Leave you facedown in the mud in your undergarments?”
Alastine felt herself flush. How ridiculous she must have looked. “I’m so sorry for that. I’m still hazy about what happened.”
“You don’t have to apologize for an illness you can’t control. Your parents told us about the sapping illness. They seem to think that was behind it all. I’m just glad we were there to find you.” Sheridan looked beyond Alastine to the large window beside her bed.
“It really is beautiful here. I’m sorry I don’t come to the wilds more often.”
“Keelia’s family also lives outside the village. It’s pretty there as well.”
“Yes, but they aren’t nestled in the foothills like you are. I could very happily live out here.”
Alastine smiled despite her exhaustion. “My father would be thrilled to hear it. I’m pretty sure he thinks he’s stuck here with too many females.”
Sheridan smiled back. “How could there ever be too many females?”
“Arden females,” Sawyer chimed in from behind his brother. “They’re a different sort all together.”
Sheridan turned and threw his brother an odd look that Alastine couldn’t decipher. She didn’t know what to make of Sawyer’s comment. Was it a compliment? Was it some veiled insult based on her recently disclosed Wanderer origins? She honestly didn’t know. Sawyer kept glancing between Sheridan and Alastine, with a tentative smile on his face.
“Well, I’m just glad you’re okay Alastine.” Sheridan said finally. “We really should let you get your rest.”
“Thanks.” Alastine nodded and gave Sheridan a small smile to which he returned. It always surprised and disarmed her, the natural warmth that radiated off Sheridan. It wasn’t hard to see why Keelia was so taken with him. He had a ready smile and natural ease with people. It wasn’t lost on Alastine that he was also ridiculously handsome. She couldn’t imagine a potential match with someone like Sheridan. It would be so easy to feel inadequate and undeserving around someone like him. Alastine was much more comfortable with the thought of a nice looking boy, kind-hearted and not too flashy. Someone more like her, someone like Sawyer. She wasn’t even sure why she was even thinking about Sheridan. Self-assured and charismatic men like Sheridan never glanced in her direction. They were all reserved for the likes of Keelia and her family of ravishing beauties. Sheridan was a good match for her beautiful friend and was glad to find that she genuinely liked him.
Sheridan nodded and tapped his younger brother on the shoulder, “Come on, lets go.”
Sawyer held back for a moment after Sheridan left.
“I’m sorry if I sounded foolish earlier. It’s just that I’ve realized today that you’re nothing like I thought you were. It’s kind of strange, I don’t feel like I know at all.”
Alastine shrugged nonchalantly. “You know me as well as anyone I suppose.”
“But what if I wanted to know you better?”
“I’m sure we’ll run into each other again soon enough.”
“When? Now that you’re out of school we don’t see each other everyday.”
“No, we don’t.”
“What if I came by to see you tomorrow?”
“Well, I’d like to make sure you’re really feeling better.” He paused. “But I guess I’d also just like to see you again. Is that okay?”
Alastine nodded slowly as she wondered what this would mean for Saba. She hadn’t planned for this to happen yet here he was, with her, finally. She wasn’t about to deny him. And why should she? It was just an afternoon together. Surely it didn’t mean much of anything.
“Okay,” Alastine answered carefully. “I’ll be here.”