Chapter 5. Out There
The furor from Alastine’s near escape from the stampede died down within a few days. Enid and Blair poured over every inch of Alastine’s body looking for any sign of physical damage to no avail. Alastine sank into a state of shock after the incident, unable to speak to anyone or react to any external stimuli. Sawyer and Quinn had brought her home to her parents Healing Ward and even Sawyer was unable to provoke a response. She sat mute, staring blankly at the wall in front of her. He left that evening terrified that something was terribly wrong with Alastine. The following day she started to recover but had no memory of the incident. When Kirc filled her in on the details she was incredulous. She hadn’t even remembered sitting with Keelia at the corral. The afternoon was a complete blank.
Some of the town Elders had begun to speculate that Alastine must have been spared serious injury for some higher purpose. It was their duty, they claimed, to guide her towards this purpose. Kirc stopped this talk almost immediately. Alastine was a Healer, he had said, that was her calling. Blair also adamantly argued that other than being very lucky there was nothing extraordinary about her escape from harm. The Elders persisted and wanted Alastine to commune with some of the Mystics of the realm. Quinn argued with the Elders on the Arden’s’ behalf and persuaded them to let Alastine’s parents decide what was in the best interest of their daughter. After several days of debate they begrudgingly accepted the recommendation and left Alastine to her parents. Only Sawyer remained troubled, however, and though he tried to hide it Alastine felt his discomfort.
The sapping illness returned with a vengeance. Alastine became plagued with severe headaches and found herself sleeping a lot for relief. When she woke earlier in the day she found Sawyer visiting with her mother in the kitchen. After blindly stumbling into the bright room, and nearly crashing directly into Sawyer, he caught her in his arms and suggested that he read to her for a while under the shade of the Arden’s back patio. He knew from the conversation with Blair that Alastine was still highly sensitive to bright light. She agreed and sat with him silently, missing their easy connection but being to drained to attempt to ignite it. Every so often she caught him looking at her as he lifted his eyes from the book, as if he were trying to solve some riddle. She grew annoyed at his constant scrutiny and eventually asked him to leave, claiming she needed more rest. He left her with a kiss on the forehead and Alastine could feel the distance between them.
Alastine had been reading alone in her room when she dozed off later the afternoon. She woke from her nap with a start, feeling somehow that she must have screamed out loud but the house around her was quiet. Her heart was pounding and her fits clenched into tight balls. She opened her hands slowly and stared down at the little half moon indentations in her palms. Her fingernails had embedded themselves so deeply that she had drawn blood in a few places. She had been dreaming, but could not remember what about. Since the incident at the corral her mind had been so muddled that her inability to regain her balance was beginning to become very upsetting.
Alastine found her thoughts drifting to an incident with Sawyer a few weeks before the stampede. On that particular evening she had begged him to go out on a moonlight ride to the portion of Specca Valley Meadow that surrounded Wandering Creek. He was reluctant, Evergreen was easily spooked in the dark and the evening was overcast, but Alastine’s persistence wore down his reluctance. They set out after dinner at the Carr residence.
Initially the ride had been wonderful. They were in good spirits having spent the earlier part of the day with Caleb and Lilliya. Caleb was a Town Sentry who had been working with Border Guards monitoring the animals of the realm. He and Sheridan had just returned unexpectedly from a stay in Upper Tallyneck. Lilliya was thrilled and celebrated by hosting a dinner for the entire Carr family and at their home. Alastine and Keelia were included by default. She had overheard Lilliya telling Caleb that they were already part of the family and the thought filled Alastine with a quiet sense of joy and contentment.
After dinner Alastine and Sawyer set out on the ride to the meadows. Evergreen was nervous so they started out slowly to let her get her bearings in the dim light. Timba was used to Alastine’s penchant for evening rides so he trotted along happily. Sawyer was unusually talkative and Alastine was content to listen to his plans for the future. The future had always been very clear in Sawyer’s mind, as he so often told Alastine. Once he completed secondary school he would go off to Horvath to being his two year apprenticeship. When he returned to Glyn he would need some time to establish himself in town governance, probably another one to two years he expected. He and Alastine would be formally joined once his seat was fixed and then they would begin a family. Alastine listened to these plans with a sense of awe, both at their level of thought and detail and her inclusion within them.
“How are you so sure this is what you want?” She asked suddenly. She was envious at the level of certainty he held. Except for her love for him she had never felt so certain about anything.
“What do you mean?” Sawyer seemed genuinely surprised by the question.
“Well, we’ve never lived outside of Glyn and you’ve never even been outside the Sylvian Realm. I’m sure other places have different things to offer. How do you know this is the path you want to follow?”
“Of course it’s the path I want to follow. Everyone has a role to play in our world. This is mine.”
Alastine found herself strangely envious of his certainty. The life he envisioned for himself was so clearly defined in his mind. Sawyer knew exactly how his life would unfold, that had been evident to Alastine for as long as she had known him. In stark contrast Alastine really hadn’t put much effort into planning her future. Certainly she could be a Healer but that was more her parents doing than her own. Her relationship with Sawyer was such a surprise that before him she hadn’t really even considered what her life would be like as a joined pair. It all seemed so abstract, unreachable.
The one thing she did think about quite a bit was the world beyond Glyn and the Sylvian Realm. Alastine felt strongly that she needed to gain experience in the wider world before her true destiny would reveal itself. Any future plans she made before this would just be short sighted and childish, and based on a simple and narrowly defined provincial life. A life that she was beginning to suspect may not be for her, being somehow too constraining.
Keelia was similar to Sawyer in that she also had a meticulously detailed plan of her future and held onto it with absolute conviction. She had repeatedly stated that she knew her station in life was Glyn with her large extended family, Sheridan by her side and their eventual children. Keelia barely ever spoke of the other realms, certainly never claimed a desire to travel to them. Was Alastine abnormal with her secret longing for an escape? Sometimes she thought so. Particularly when she had nothing to escape from or to, beyond the strange allure of far away places. Particularly when she would be leaving many precious things behind — her home, her family, and most of all Sawyer. Maybe he would come with her?
“What if you and I left the Sylvian Realm together? Went off for a few years to explore?”
“Just to learn more about the world beyond our realm.”
“Is there something wrong with this realm? I thought you loved it here.”
“Of course I do. This is home. But what you’ve described, well, I guess it just sounds an awful lot like your father’s life.”
“Just as you’re studying to be a Healer like you parents. It’s a wonderful choice actually. A Healer is a great companion to a Councilor. Imagine the good we could do together.”
“But what if I don’t want to be a Healer?” Alastine blurted out. The comment surprised her, it was the first time she had ever really considered it. What else would she be if not a Healer?
“Well, that could even be better. It would give you ample time to care for our home, manage our community interactions and eventually raise our children.”
Alastine felt the conversation veering into uncomfortable territory. Sawyer was describing the ideal narrative of his life, as defined solely by him, and including her as if it were a given. When has she made such decisions? They had never really ever talked about any of it except in an abstract, more hypothetical way.
All of a sudden Alastine felt the weight of conflicting emotions descend upon her. In many ways, Alastine longed for the very same future that Sawyer was describing. She loved him, she truly did. She was certain of very little else in her life beyond her absolute adoration of Sawyer. But why then did the thought of being mated to him make her feel trapped, almost as if she couldn’t breathe? Had she never really believed they would actually be joined? If her future didn’t include Sawyer what did it include? Mostly to distract herself from the growing sense of panic she blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“What if I wanted to join the Guard?”
Sawyer stared at her for a second and then burst out laughing. “The Border Guards? What a thought!”
“Why is that funny?” Alastine was surprised to find herself a little angry. “I’m the best rider in town, I’d make an excellent Scout.”
“You would,” Sawyer nodded in agreement. “But you know as well as I do almost no females ever join the Guard. It’s simply not their place. Too dangerous and they are away from home too long.”
The horses had stopped. They had reached Wandering Creek and were bent over for a drink. Alastine climbed down from Timba and stood beside him patting his neck as he drank from the stream. She was confused about her own reaction to Sawyer’s future vision. Where had the resistance come from? And why did she ever bring up the preposterous plan of joining the Border Guards? It was a foolish notion, devoid of any real forethought. No wonder Sawyer had laughed at her.
Sawyer climbed off Evergreen and came up behind her. He didn’t say anything for a few minutes and the two stood silently beside the horses listening to the creek gently flow by.
“No, no. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I guess I don’t understand why all this needs to be settled right now.”
“It doesn’t but I know that I want. I’ve always known what I want. Don’t you?”
“That’s really hard for me to say. I’ve never lived outside Glyn.”
“Why should that matter?”
Alastine couldn’t answer. She always felt there must be something more to life than what she knew. The problem was she had such sheltered existence growing up in Glyn, a community proud of its relative isolation from the broader world, she couldn’t really imagine what that could be. It was a feeling, just a feeling. Sawyer would laugh at her if she admitted basing her future on a slight glimmer of some ill defined notion. So rather than sound foolish she instead choose to remain silent. She felt like crying and didn’t really understand why.
“Never mind, I’m just being foolish.”
Sawyer considered her carefully, and Alastine realized he had no idea what was happening. He appeared uncomfortable and unsure of himself. Alastine knew she should reassure him but for some reason she held back.
“Don’t worry,” he said finally “We have plenty of time to sort it all out.”
“Right.” A great sense of relief washed over Alastine. I wasn’t like they had to decide on their future tomorrow.
“Please just be happy. All I really want is for you to be happy.”
“I am happy.” Alastine answered but even as the words left her she knew she was lying, or at the very least not admitting to the whole truth. But what truth was that? She honestly didn’t know.
Birds chirping just outside her window broke Alastine from her reverie. Why had that memory surfaced? Something was lurking at the back of her mind but Alastine could not grab hold of it. The more she tried to capture the thought, the more elusive it became. Even her dreams were murky, troubled. She was struck with the realization that something must be terribly wrong with her. Who in their right mind would hesitate to become a permanent part of Sawyer’s life? She had loved him for so long now, and this love only grew stronger every day. Why then, when she was so close to achieving all she thought she wanted, did she feel an inexplicable urge to run away? Her mind must be diseased, it was the only rational explanation. Maybe the horses sensed it and veered away from her to avoid contact. No mystery as to why she emerged from the stampede unscathed. Animals could sense an oddity like herself. Even they knew well enough to stay away.
Alastine entered her home to an unusually darkened front hallway and the sound of raised voices coming from the kitchen. The bunch of agrimony her mother had requested she gather was staining her hands purple. The herb was troublesome and only bloomed at night. She had difficulty finding it this evening and wandered further into the woods than she had expected. She wanted to fetch some lemon juice from the kitchen to help wash the purple dye from her hands but hesitated just outside the kitchen door. She recognized Enid Leese’s voice, shrill and loud, among her parents more hushed tones. From what little that Alastine could hear this visit was not going particularly well.
“Alastine!” An excited whisper drifted out of the darkness. “Come here!”
Gently placing the bundle of herbs onto the floor Alastine wandered over to the back hallway to find Lyonesse crouched in the shadows behind the staircase.
“What are you doing out of bed,” Alastine asked as she reached to light the wall candle sconces. “Mama will be angry if she catches you.”
“Leave it, leave it!” Lyonesse said. “If they find us here we won’t be able to listen.”
“The grownups! In there!” Lyonesse was gesturing wildly to the kitchen,
“Why do you want to listen to what the grownups are saying? You usually don’t care.”
“Enid and Quinn came over with Sheridan a few minutes ago. He’s hurt, all banged up and bloody.”
“Sheridan Carr? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Lyonesse said. “Enid yelled at me to get upstairs while Mama and Papa took Sheridan to the family sick room. Once they got him cleaned up they all went into the kitchen. They were yelling for a while but now it’s more quiet.”
“Sheridan’s in the family sick room? Not the Healing Ward?”
Lyonesse nodded, bug eyed. “Enid ordered Mama to put him in there. She wants Papa to keep a very close eye on him.”
“Have you seen Sheridan?”
“I peeked in right after they went into the kitchen. He’s asleep with bandages all over one side. Even on his face. I think a bear did it!”
“A bear? Don’t be silly, you know…”
The sound of footsteps interrupted their conversation. Lyonesse yelped and scampered quickly back upstairs. Alastine was moving back towards her pile of agrimony on the floor when the kitchen door swung open and her mother appeared. She stopped short at the sight of her daughter.
“Oh Alastine, when did you get back?”
“Oh, did you ah…” Blair paused and glanced over her shoulder back into the kitchen. “Did you know Enid and Quinn came by?”
“Really?” Alastine feigned innocence. “Why are they here so late?”
Blair took the agrimony from her daughter and leaned in to give her a quick peck on the cheek. “Here I’ll take that. Now I don’t want to alarm you but I guess you should know that Sheridan Carr had an accident. He’s resting upstairs now.”
“Upstairs? In the family quarters?”
Blair nodded. In the kitchen Quinn, Kirc and Enid were still talking, their hushed voices little more than a murmur.
“What kind of accident?”
“He slipped and fell down an embankment in the woods by Shemlyk cave over in
Horvath. He’s pretty cut up but it looks much worse than it is. He’ll be back on his feet in a few days.”
Alastine looked past her mother into the empty kitchen. The back door had just closed.
“Where are they all going?”
“They went to talk to the Carr’s, to let them know what happened and that Sheridan will be here for a few days.” Blair brought the agrimony to the kitchen and placed it onto a shelf. Alastine followed her.
“What about the poultice you prepared this morning? Is it ready?” Blair asked.
“It should be. It’s in the ice box.”
“Get it to Sheridan as soon as it’s done. His shoulder has a deep gouge. Be sure to cover it completely.”
“Lyonesse thinks it was a bear.” Alastine mentioned.
“When did you see Lyonesse?”
“She said she heard yelling peeked down here to see what was going on.”
“Of course she did,” Blair sighed.
“So was it?”
“A bear?” Blair laughed shortly. “Hardly.”
Alastine retrieved her poultice from the ice box and placed it on the kitchen counter. Blair leaned over to inspect Alastine’s handiwork.
“Nice job,” She commented while poking through the poultice. “Why don’t you go ahead and take it to Sheridan? His wound is very inflamed and he may have a fever.”
“Mama, Sheridan didn’t fall down the ravine did he? He’s an accomplished woodsman, the best in Glyn. I can’t remember him ever suffering an accident.”
“Oh, we all have accidents sooner or later.” Blair muttered absently, “But no, that’s not exactly what happened.” She paused. “There was an animal involved. It was behaving oddly. Actually, the whole incident was odd.”
Blair turned away from Alastine and wandered toward the window at the rear of the kitchen.
“Mama? What do you mean by odd? What happened”
Blair held up one hand, her back still to Alastine. “Please… For now just see to Sheridan.”
There were two sick beds on the second floor of the Arden’s home reserved for the most serious of injuries. Alastine could count on one hand the number of times actual patients stayed there. For the most part, the family used the extra beds for overnight guests. An expansive landing separated these patient quarters from the private bedrooms of the Arden family. As she climbed the stairs to the second floor Alastine could hear Lyonesse recounting a healing myth to herself as she tried to sleep. Alastine smiled, her sister was so excitable that sometimes she had to calm herself down through reciting her favorite stories. Blair had remained below in the kitchen preparing breads and freshly squeezed orange juice for the morning.
Sheridan’s room was dimly lit by the glow from a low burning hearth fire. He was asleep on his back with his head propped up by two pillows. His hair was so slick with sweat it clung to his dirty pale face. Bandages were wrapped around his torso, rising up from his lower waist to his right shoulder. His right cheek was also covered. Blood had seeped through near his collarbone. The most worrisome, however, was his labored breathing that rattled with each exhalation.
Something called to Alastine from the still darkness of the night. She put her tray on a little wooden stand beside the bed and went to the window. A cool evening breeze gently lifted the lace curtains and the few loose strands of hair that framed her face. Alastine placed both of her hands on the windowsill and glanced back to be sure Sheridan was asleep. She closed her eyes and imagined the path of the crisp air as it drifted down from the mountains, gaining speed across Glyn’s grassy meadows, and swirling about the Arden’s home. Behind her Sheridan coughed a few times but did not stir. The breeze grew in strength, shooting past Alastine and in from under the billowing curtains. The fired leapt, making the shadows of the room seem to come alive behind dancing firelight. The air felt clean and cool and moved easily about the room, gently lifting whatever wasn’t secured down. Sheridan’s breathing steadied alongside the flow of the air and the rattling of his lungs all but stopped. The breeze died and the fire simmered low once again. Alastine closed her eyes and dropped her head against the windowsill. She could feel a throbbing headache coming on.
“My shoulder hurts,” Sheridan groaned quietly. He was struggling to sit upright, his face red from the strain of effort.
“I have a poultice for you. It should help.” Alastine hastily scooped up her supplies and sat on the bed beside Sheridan. “Please just lean back and relax. This won’t take long.”
Sheridan closed his eyes and leaned back on the bed. Alastine saw where Blair had cut up his shirt in order to easily clean and bind the wound. Alastine peeled back an edge of the bandage and felt herself let out a gasp of surprise.
“It’s bad, I know.”
“No, no, it’s not the worst injury I’ve seen.” Alastine said. “It’s just I’ve never seen anything like it.” She squinted in the dim light to get a better look and had to stifle a giggle. It almost did look like a bear attack.
“Something funny?” Sheridan asked sharply.
“No, no,” Alastine stammered. “It’s just Lyonesse thought you were attacked by a bear. She was so sure of it and the wound does look like an animal of some sort. Sorry, it made me giggle for some reason. It’s not funny.”
“It’s fine,” Sheridan sighed. “But you know as well as I do that there are no bears in Horvath. They left with the Sprites eons ago, when the Etman became to numerous. There are a few in the wilds though.”
“So it wasn’t an animal?”
“It was an animal but I didn’t get a good look at it, it all happened so fast. A wolf maybe?”
“I don’t know,” Alastine said doubtfully as she stared as the gashes on his body. “If it was a wolf it was an unusually large one.”
“Well, good, you can add unusually large wolf wrestling to my many feats of strength.”
Sheridan yelped a little as Alastine removed more of the bandages.
“It’s just the blood is dried in places. The bandages are sticking to the wounds.”
Alastine nodded as she slowly and gently removed any remaining pieces. Sheridan let out a deep breath as she gently applied the poultice.
“Is that okay?”
“Yes, that feels so much better,” He closed his eyes. “Thank you.”
Alastine nodded and more loosely applied fresh bandage over the poultice. She moved slowly, not wanting to cause him any more discomfort. Sheridan settled back in bed while she worked. His breathing evened and she suspected he fell asleep.
Alastine gathered the he bloodied garments she placed them in a bucket at the end of the bed. She turned back towards Sheridan touched his forehead. He was a very warm.
“You are very gentle,” Sheridan murmured with his eyes still closed. “And kind. Sawyer doesn’t deserve you.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because he isn’t kind.” Sheridan mumbled. “Look what he did to poor Saba.”
“What do you mean? What did he do to Saba?”
Sheridan murmured something, his voice low and incomprehensible. Alastine fought the urge to shake him awake, so curious about his comment. But he was groggy, incoherent even. After a few minutes his mumbling stopped all together and he drifted off to sleep.
Alastine leaned in closer and stared into his face. He really was very handsome. Beautiful even. She felt a surprising compulsion to brush her lips against his, at once full of sudden envy for Keelia. The urge made her realize how well suited Keelia and Sheridan were for each other, each of them so able to provoke longing and temptation in the opposite sex. Quite a balance of power. It was this balance that Keelia grappled with from time to time, to used was she to the upper hand in any relationship. With Sheridan she had found her equal match.
Sheridan opened his eyes and looked vaguely surprised at her intense gaze.
“What are you doing?” He asked sleepily, a groggy half smile on his face. “Are you going to kiss me?”
Alastine’s hand flew to her mouth and was about to respond when she realized he had already fallen back into a deep sleep.
“Sheridan,” she whispered, desperate to know more about Saba. At least that is what she thought she wanted to know. But the question that tumbled out of her mouth was one of an entirely different sort. “What did this to you? What is really out there?”
Sheridan’s mouth fell open and he began to lightly snore. A creaking on the stairs alerted Alastine to an impending visitor. She stood up quickly and pulled a sheet over Sheridan. Blair opened the door with a glass of water and a cold compress.
“The poultice is applied and he’s asleep. I think he has a fever though. He’s pretty hot and is mumbling nonsense.”
“Thank you Alastine I’ll take it from here.”
Alastine nodded and silently and quickly left Sheridan under the careful supervision of her mother.