Chapter 4. Awakenings
“Sawyer stop, there’s someone coming.” Whenever Sawyer kissed her Alastine lost all track of time and place. Tonight was no exception and they were in a very inopportune spot.
“You’re hearing things,” Sawyer answered as he nuzzled his face into her neck while keeping her wrapped in his arms.
“No, I’m not.” Gently she pushed him away. “I mean it, stop. This is making me uncomfortable.”
He took a step back, ran his fingers through his hair and grinned at her sheepishly. “I’m sorry, you have that effect on me. I can’t help myself.”
Alastine laughed, he looked so contrite. “You know I don’t mind, just not here.” She lowered her voice, “Too many folk milling about.”
As if in response to Alastine’s warning Sheridan sauntered into the barn whistling to himself. “Hello kids.”
Alastine turned her back to Sheridan to hide the blush that crept up her neck. Sawyer grinned down at her and called a greeting over to his brother.
By this time she and Sawyer had been potential mates for a few years and Sheridan had grown very accustomed to Alastine’s almost constant presence. Admittedly, it hadn’t always been this way. Alastine and Sawyer’s beginning had been awkward and the relationship progressed in fits and starts. Having known each other since they were quite young made their blossoming romance feel strange at times. They enjoyed each other’s company immensely, sometimes talking for hours just the two them, but neither really understood how to manage the romantic gestures that went along with being a couple.
Sawyer had all but admitted that their first kiss left little impression on him. Alastine would have been humiliated if she hadn’t felt similarly. Not that it was bad necessarily but after all the time she spent imagining it, the kiss hadn’t lived up to her expectations. She supposed she should have been relieved when Sawyer rather causally mentioned this but the admission did sting a bit. As did his obvious lack of consideration for her feelings. Didn’t he realize that kind of comment could have been perceived as hurtful? Alastine knew he hadn’t meant to be cruel but she was still taken aback by his lack of sensitivity. Luckily, they grew more accustomed to each other over time and the self consciousness they each felt about being romantically involved eventually subsided all together.
The fire that now accompanied most of their interactions was slow to build. After the first few tentative kisses they avoided physical contact almost entirely for a while and instead focused on doing activities together. Alastine had always known she liked Sawyer but during this time she realized just how similar they were. They both loved to ride and sought sanctuary in the quiet of the woods. Though they liked many of the same books they often took very different interpretations of them, leading to some lively discussions they both thoroughly enjoyed. Surprisingly, they also found they were both quite content just being around each other, sometimes saying not much at all, just happy to be sharing the same space. During this time all that passed between them were a few chaste kisses and even those left them each feeling somewhat foolish.
After they had been together for a few months they decided to go on a long ride to neighboring Tallyneck. The journey would take most of the day and they would spend the evening at Sawyer’s aunt’s home in Lower Tallyneck. Along the way they practiced some of the maneuvers they had used when competing in riding festivals. Alastine was careful not to display her full riding prowess. She had always been the stronger rider and she remembered Sawyer was sensitive whenever she bested him. Given their still fledgling relationship she was careful not to do anything that could disrupt their developing bond.
When they finally arrived to Sawyer’s aunt’s home late in the afternoon the house was empty with a note tacked to the front door. His aunt had to go to Upper Tallyneck unexpectedly but would be back later that same evening.
The sun was setting as they unpacked their gear and got the horses settled. The home was a lovely two story stone cottage with three large front windows, a red painted front door and a sloped copper roof. In Alastine’s opinion, however, the best feature of the little house was the bathing room below the ground floor. Curious after Sawyer mentioned it earlier in the day, Alastine wandered down to the cool dark room while Sawyer watered the horses. Alastine lit the small hearth fire and slowly inspected the room. There was a marble floor that ended in a shallow pool of water on the opposite wall of the hearth. The walls surrounding the bathing area were covered with smooth colored rocks. A gently falling cascade of fresh water supplied the running bath from a pipe in the upper corner of the wall. Alastine cried out with delight, kicked off her riding boots and jacket and happily submerged herself under the clear falling water, clothes in all.
Who knows how long she would have stayed in the water if Sawyer hand’t interrupted. Alastine was startled when Sawyer gently pushed her out of the way and claimed the waterfall for his own. Her feigned indignation turned into a massive water fight that ended with the two of them dripping wet by the hearth fire and laughing hysterically like two small children. In that joyful moment, Sawyer leaned in and kissed her. Alastine didn’t have time to feel self conscious or worry about why it felt so awkward between them. She gave herself over to the moment and just allowed herself to enjoy the feel of his lips on hers and the comforting warmth of his body. For years to come Alastine would remember that kiss as the best of her life.
From that moment on they eagerly sought out physical contact with each other. Alastine sometimes felt surprised by her growing attraction to Sawyer. This new element, the physical component to their relationship, was so unexpected and so powerful. Did all young women ache for their potentials as she did? Somehow she didn’t think so. For all of her plotting Keelia never once hinted at a physical bond with Sheridan anywhere near intense as the one she now shared with Sawyer. She felt physically ill being when separated from him for more than a few days. So much so that hibernation, when it came that first year together, was a bit of relief. Alastine needed a break from the constant longing that threatened her good sense every time she was alone with Sawyer. Rising from hibernation the next spring she felt restored, and much more in balance than she had just a few months earlier when she settled in to sleep. As much as she loved him part of her knew her attachment to Sawyer wasn’t totally healthy.
This new resolve fizzled as soon as she first saw Sawyer again. They both had changed during their three months apart. Etman typically reach their peak physical maturity around their eighteenth year and both Sawyer and Alastine emerged from hibernation as physically mature adults. The changes in Sawyer were notable. His face grew leaner and lost any remainder of boyish charm. In its place was a handsome, albeit somewhat serious looking, young man. He sprouted up a few inches, his shoulders broadened and his overall frame became more muscular but still lean. Alastine took one look at these changes and force of the attraction hit her in the gut. It was far worse then before hibernation.
Apparently Sawyer had a similar reaction to the changes in Alastine. He waited until they were alone the first night of their reunion before pulling her into his arms and kissing her deeply and roughly, as if he couldn’t get close enough to her.
“I can’t stay away from you.” He had confessed not long after they had awoken and were again spending all their free time together.
“I know, I can’t either.”
“Imagine if only one of us felt that way? It would be torture.”
“Yes, it would.”
When they were together all it took was a minor brushing of their hands for the spark to ignite. Alastine grew increasingly worried that their bodies were getting the better of them. Sooner or later they would reach the point of no return and would have no choice but to initiate a joining ceremony to avoid humiliating themselves and their families. She wasn’t ready for that level of responsibility and felt they needed to slow things down for a bit. At least that’s what she told herself when alone. The minute Sawyer appeared, however, any sense dissolved and all she could think about was when they would be alone again. Just as she was thinking at that exact moment, in the middle of the Spring Awakening Ceremony amidst their friends and family.
“Sheridan, what’s happening out here?” Sawyer asked.
“They’re getting ready to light the bonfire and crown Keelia Queen of the Spring Awakening,” He laughed heartily. “You know who she hates that, the crown always seems to mess up her hair. Should be fun to watch.”
Alastine smiled to herself as she began to pour the spiced tea and hot apple cider into jugs. A light breeze carried the delicious smell of apples and spices out into the night air attracting a very large crowd. Alastine loved being in Specca Valley during the Spring Awakening. The mood was always festive and energetic, with folk happy and craving community after three months at rest. Tonight was no exception and falling dusk illuminated the landscape in a pale pink glow. It was magical.
She looked through the open barn window just above the beverage preparation table and she could see the bonfire come to life. A cheer went up as part of the crowd gathered towards the center for some needed warmth. Some folk hadn’t fully acclimated yet and were still a little fragile after hibernation.
“You need a hand?” Sheridan turned to her clenching a piece of straw between his teeth. His teeth were impossibly white and straight.
“No, I think I’m OK.”
“No, you’re not. You haven’t gotten half of these jugs filled and Keelia’s big debut is just a few minutes away. You know how upset she’ll be if everyone is getting their drinks instead of being out by the fire admiring her.”
Alastine laughed, “I guess you’re right. Join in.”
“I’m going to check in with Father on the planting schedule. Assignments begin in a few days and you know folks will be asking about their duties tonight.” Sawyer said.
“OK, I’ll see you later.” Alastine answered.
Sawyer kissed her cheek and went off in search of Tristan Carr. Sheridan and Alastine worked together comfortably as Marienn, Tigin and Jordy came in to help serve the beverages to the growing crowd outside.
“You know I’m surprised I’ve never seen you among the Spring Queens.” Sheridan said.
“Me? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s always Keelia’s family. They are the beauties of Glyn.”
“Sure but they aren’t the only ones.”
“I’m going to be Spring Awakening Queen someday!” Lyonesse shouted from somewhere behind Alastine.
Sheridan laughed as he and Alastine turned to find Lyonesse sitting on a haystack in the corner of the barn with a cat. She was dressed like a butterfly.
“I can’t believe you weren’t crowned this year,” Sheridan said. “I never did see a prettier butterfly in my life.”
“Thank you Sheridan Carr,” Lyonesse nodded primly. “I must agree.”
Alastine shook her head with a smile on her face, “That’s vain Lyonesse.”
“Why is it vain if it’s true?”
“Because you shouldn’t be so concerned with your appearance.”
“I’m not concerned, I’m just agreeing with Sheridan. Have you ever seen a prettier butterfly?”
“Well, I know I haven’t.”
Keelia said as she entered the barn. Sheridan whistled low and Alastine realized that over hibernation Keelia’s beauty had also fully matured and had reached staggering heights. Despite the cool air Keelia had on an off the shoulder, dark purple satin dress that was fitted through her waist and flared loosely to the floor. The design displayed her admirably blossomed figure. Her black hair as held back over one ear with a white rose and her ears, neck, wrists, and fingers were adorned with one of her own silver jewelry designs fashioned to look like filigree violets. Her feet were hidden beneath the folds of her dress but Alastine knew she wore simple, flat shoes that were dyed to match her dress. At nearly eighteen Keelia was tall for a woman, just a few inches shorter than Sheridan, and she held herself with a proud bearing. Alastine herself felt an odd pang of attraction to Keelia, so beguiling had she become.
“Keelia!” Lyonesse shouted as she jumped off her haystack and hurled herself in Keelia’s arms. “Thank you for the butterfly dress. I love it!”
Keelia laughed as she swung Lyonesse around in a circle. “I knew you would. And it looks so much better on you than it did on me.”
“That’s what Sheridan said.”
“Oh he did, did he?” Keelia turned to Sheridan and cocked an eyebrow. Alastine could tell she was trying hard not to laugh.
“Actually what I said was I had never seen a prettier butterfly. And I meant it.”
“Oh and I agree,” Keelia said as she put Lyonesse on the ground. “In fact, would you like to come to the podium with me?”
Lyonesse’s eyes went wide with excitement. “Really, can I?”
“I don’t see why not. I always hated going up there by myself.” Keelia turned to Alastine.
“As long as Alastine thinks it’s OK.”
“Oh, Alastine can I? Please, please, please?”
“Of course you can.”
Sheridan clapped as Lyonesse shouted in delight. Minutes later, Caleb Carr came in to escort Keelia and Lyonesse to the podium for the Annual Awakening Blessing. Enid Leese would open the festival with a few words of thanks and Keelia would follow with a song. This being her fourth year in a row as Spring Queen Keelia was practically a veteran and not at all intimidated by the task at hand.
Alastine watched as her closest friend took the stage with her sister happily skipping along side her. Out by the fire she spied Sawyer talking with his father. He caught her glance and grinned back at her and waved. Her parents were milling about the crowd anticipating Lyonesse’s debut with Keelia. Sheridan stayed by her side to help dole out the remaining drinks, chattering and laughing loudly with the townsfolk who stopped by to pick up a jug.
After a mad final scramble to get the last of the waiting folk served Keelia and Lyonesse began to sing. Their voices merged in perfect harmony and the crowd slowly joined in, hesitant to interrupt the sweet union of their voices. Sudden tears sprang to her eyes as Alastine realized how happy she was. She felt foolish by the sudden rush of emotion. Sheridan must have noticed but Alastine was grateful that he pretended not to. He helped her put out the remaining beverages so that anyone else needing a beverage could help themselves. Once finished, they walked out of the barn together to join their friends. Sawyer pulled her into a hug and he smelt of sweet cider and grass. Alastine knew she was very young and had a long life ahead of her, but she didn’t know how it could get much better than it was right then in that perfect moment.
“How long are you planning on staying here?”
Alastine and Keelia were sitting on the wooden stands behind the schoolhouse watching the boys of their year choose among the newly arrived stags. Training for the equestrian games at the Realm-wide Summer Festival would begin in a few weeks and Glyn was eager to defend its championship title. Alastine longed to participate in the games but she knew that females participating at her age was frowned upon. She supposed now that she was nearing joining age she should learn to be more domestic in her habits but the traditional roles of Glyn women bored her. While most of the girls she knew dreamt about their Joining Ceremony, Alastine lately found her mind wandering to the borders of Glyn. She knew that she and Sawyer were considered the most likely of their year to be mated at the first possible occasion — any time after their 18th birthday — but Alastine knew it wouldn’t happen that soon. Sawyer had a very well defined plan as to how his future would unfold. In his mind, joining with Alastine couldn’t happen until he was securely among Glyn’s Councilors. The delay was perfectly fine with Alastine. She was happy with their current situation and in no rush to become life mates with all that entailed.
Keelia, however, was in a rush. Sheridan was one of the leading Border Guards and lately his responsibilities have been bringing him more and more to distant lands. Alastine longed to ask him what prompted these trips but she knew it wasn’t her place. Though she and Sawyer spent a lot of time with Keelia and Sheridan she couldn’t say she knew him all that well. From time to time she had caught him studying her and Sawyer with a slight frown on his face. She wasn’t sure why but she was certain he didn’t approve of her attachment to his younger brother. Like Alastine herself perhaps he didn’t find her a good enough match.
“You don’t need to stay with me. I told Sawyer I’d wait and I’m fine here with our other classmates if you want to go see Sheridan.”
Keelia sighed and pulled herself off the bench. “He can’t see me until later tonight. If I go home I’ll just sit and stew. No, I’m better off here with you.”
“Stew over what?”
“His leaving tonight for one.”
“He’s gone on plenty of journey’s before. Why is this one different?”
Keelia paced back and forth in front of Alastine muttering to herself. She seemed lost in thought and Alastine wondered if she even heard her question. Alastine’s gaze wandered over to the corral. Sawyer was watching them and he smiled and waved as Alastine caught his eye. She waved back.
Keelia caught the greeting and threw up her hands in exasperation.
“Ugh! I don’t expect you to understand. You are in the perfect potential match situation.”
“What are you talking about? You and Sheridan have been together longer than Sawyer and I.”
“Yes, but Sawyer loves you.”
“Yes, and Sheridan loves you.”
Keelia pressed her lips together and shook her head. “It’s not the same thing Alastine. Maybe he loved me once, but now… I don’t know. Now his interest seems to be dimming.”
“Keelia that’s crazy. There isn’t a man in Glyn who wouldn’t want you for a mate.” Including Sawyer, she thought unexpectedly and then winced in pain at the notion. She hated herself for being so insecure. Sawyer professed his love for her on a daily basis. Why wasn’t that enough of a reassurance?
“I know but Sheridan is different.” Keelia had continued without noticing her friend’s distress, much to Alastine’s relief. She had no desire to discuss her insecurities with Glyn’s most confident individual. She knew Keelia would tell her she was being foolish.
“I don’t know how to describe it. He isn’t overwhelmed by me, if that makes any sense. I’m not used to dealing with his type of indifference.”
“Sheridan isn’t indifferent to you!” Alastine chided. “He’s very affectionate. Anyone can see he cares for you.”
“Yes, cares but he isn’t easily persuaded by my desires.”
“You mean he doesn’t do what you tell him to do.”
Keelia glared at Alastine but said nothing. It was true, Sheridan was not blinded by
Keelia’s charms and maintained his individuality despite the constant attentions of the realm’s most sought after female. It was one of the reasons Alastine thought he was perfect for her.
“Is that so terrible?” Alastine continued.
“No but with anyone else I’d easily get what I want. As soon as I wanted it! I’m going to be eighteen soon and he has yet to mention our being joined.”
Alastine didn’t know why she was surprised. Keelia always had grand designs for her Joining Ceremony. It didn’t help matters that her twin older sisters, Glorianna and Crisson, had been joined at eighteen while Rhianni had had multiple offers at the same age, all of them refused. Keelia had only wanted one proposal, and so far it had yet to come. It was no wonder why she feeling frustrated. All her life she had been granted every wish as soon as it was conceived, and now the one thing she truly longed for eluded her.
A panicked shout from one of the boys caught their attention and both turned towards the corral to get a better look.
There were a few times in Alastine’s life when she felt removed from the events happening around her. On these rare occasions it was as if she were no longer associated with her physical form and could dispassionately observe unfolding events from a birds’ eye view. Perhaps that was why Alastine sat rooted to the bench as Keelia jumped up and ran towards the corral gate where Professor Quinn was standing. The horses were running in circles around the boys who had clustered tightly together in the middle of the corral. Professor Quinn was shouting something, desperately trying to get the horses attention as he pried opened the gate. The horses continued their wild run uninterrupted. The frenzied pounding of their hooves against the ground pushed dust high into the air until the boys were nearly obscured from view. Alastine felt her attention drawn to the forest that stretched out for miles behind the corral, it seemed oddly dark and ominous.
“There’s something in the woods.” With the words spoken aloud Alastine’s awareness crashed back into her body. She was surprised about how loud everything sounded, with the smell of fear so palpable in the air. A crowd was gathering on the far side of the corral with Professor Quinn and Keelia, trying desperately to attract the horses attention to get them out of the gate. The gate opened directly into the wood and Alastine knew the horses wouldn’t go in that direction. Shouts were coming from within the circle, someone – Sawyer? — sounded in pain.
At this point Alastine was sitting alone in the stands on one side of the dust cloud. She felt her body move, the ever thickening dust cloud blocking her actions from view. In three steps she bounded down the wooden stand and leapt to the side of the corral directly across from the gate. She had only a few seconds to act before the stampede came around again. The dust was in her throat and her eyes. She couldn’t see, she could barely breathe but she could feel the ground tremble as the horses approached. She closed her eyes, willed herself to be calm and then ripped the top plank off the corral fence. The loud snap captured the lead horses’ attention and he raced toward this new exit that led away from the forest but directly towards where Alastine now stood. It all happened so quickly that Alastine barely got to the second plank before the pack of panicked horses descended. They were so close she could smell their breath and feel their bodies thundering past. She willed herself not to scream as she waited for the collision that would surely send her into the ground indefinitely. The world around her grew dim and muffled. This must be how it happens, she thought to herself as she slipped away into blissful nothingness.
Someone was shaking her. She felt sluggish like she was underwater. Sounds around her were still dampened but she was almost certain someone was shouting at her. Professor Quinn? Alastine’s eyes felt heavy and they refused to open. Her limbs were rubber. What was happening?
With great effort Alastine managed to grab hold of the arms shaking her and pried open her eyes. She sitting on the ground clutching a broken plank in her hands. Quinn was on his knees shouting something into her face. All around them a horse trodden path led away from the corral and towards the center of town. What happened? How had she avoided being trampled?
Alastine could hear thundering hoves off in the distance, moving rapidly away from the school and beyond the reach of the forest. She struggled to stand upright as Professor Quinn pulled her up with him. His shouting continued, saying something that sounded like “Are you hurt?” over and over again. Past his shoulder Alastine could see the two groups, one still in the corral and the other by the opened, unused gate. They were all silent and were staring in her direction. Sawyer broke from the group in the corral and began to run towards her. Quinn, still shouting, desperately tried to pry the plank from Alastine’s grip. She was so confused, unsure if any of this was actually happening. How had she gotten there? Was she hurt? She honestly didn’t know. Alastine dropped the plank and buried her face in her hands and began to shake uncontrollably.