Chapter 31: SACRIFICE
Rose chose not to attend the reunion. Instead, she retired early without supper. She was not yet ready to face Elder and this way, Rose could avoid the questions that she was sure would come.
Her body ached with fatigue, and her brain was so weary that it resisted every attempt at reasonable thought, and yet sleep continued to elude her. This could have been due to the loud, bizarrely cheerful Ferrish music and bawdy laughter coming from the great hall, but it was not. Rose’s insomnia was driven by a myriad of conflicting thoughts that infiltrated her consciousness and wrestled for dominance like sparring gladiators. Which will be the victor? Which will be slain?
Finally, she dozed, only to be jolted awake a few hours later, roused by the screech of a snow owl returning replete from its hunt in the early hours of the morning.
At first, Rose thought she was dreaming. The walls of her room glinted with dappled, coloured lights. Flickers of pale green, pink, yellow, blue and violet danced on the ceiling, across the walls and over her bedcovers. Slipping from her bed, Rose moved quickly to the window. The dark purple sky was awash with blinking clouds of painted light, streamers, arcs, rippling curtains and shooting rays that filled the night with colour.
A figure caught her attention. The slender woman, tall and statuesque, strolled along the shoreline of Knucker Bay. As Rose watched, the woman stepped out onto a rocky outcrop and lingered, gazing out towards the horizon. A burst of yellow light erupted from the flashing clouds, glimmering intensely. It was as if the night had pulled back its curtain and stolen an illicit glimpse of the morning sun.
Elder turned and looked back towards the castle as if she could sense Rose’s eyes upon her.
Grabbing her robe and boots Rose was out of the castle in seconds. She raced towards the Bay, her heart pounding and her breath burning her throat as she sucked in the bitterly cold air. Frost collected on her lashes, weighing them down and blurring her vision. She ran on, rubbing her eyes and squinting as she searched the horizon for Elder’s slender frame.
What can Elder be doing here at this hour, all alone in the darkness? Rose’s breath caught in her throat. She knows... Damn Lord Dux. Now she understood why Elder had come here. Rose could not have been more certain if the words had been written in the sky.
As Rose neared the shoreline, her pace slowed as she watched the old woman teetering precariously on the edge of the rocky islet, now separated from the shore by the incoming tide. Elder’s face was tilted upwards as she gazed at the restless sky, churning and iridescent with spattered colour.
The tide had turned. Waves pounded against the rocks, spray flew skywards, veiling their bodies in a fine salty mist. Rose waited silently, intent on catching her breath before announcing her presence, but she had no need. Elder knew she was there.
“The lights of the northern hemisphere... wondrous aren’t they?” Elder’s lilt was melancholy. “They’re called Illucescente Aquilonem, which means ‘dawn of the north’. Legend has it that its presence is a harbinger of war. It would be difficult to dismiss its significance at this time, all things considered.”
Elder attempted to stand, she swayed, unsteady on her feet. Grasping tightly to her staff, she turned to meet Rose’s gaze with clouded, weary eyes.
“If you are here to stop me, Rose, you are too late,” Elder shivered. Feebly, she attempted to pull her cloak about her. “I’ve taken wolfsbane, enough to kill a whole pack of Rougarou. You could not help me now, even if I wished it.”
Tears sprang to Rose’s eyes. She fell to her knees on the shore, the waves soaking her robe. Yet the bite of the freezing water was nothing, compared to the grief that pierced her heart.
“Why? - We… could… have found… another… way…” Rose struggled to contain her sobs. “You are my family… I… need… you.”
“My dear Rose.” Struggling to raise her words over the hissing ocean, Elder staggered forwards, dropping onto a large flat-topped rock where she reclined, smiling as she looked into Rose’s eyes. “Soon, there will be no discerning where I finish, and you begin. We will be as one; your strength will grow beyond all imagination. Everything will be as Lord Eldwyn intended, just as he planned for you to have this.”
Elder fought to take a breath and then, summoning all of her strength, she swung her staff above her head, bringing it crashing down. It’s knotted, carved head smashed against the rocks releasing the vermarine crystal set into its hilt. Lifting the pulsating emerald orb from the ground, Elder tossed it towards Rose where it fell with a soft crunch at her feet.
“Lord Eldwyn left that for me when I was just a few weeks old, days later he and all of the Whytes, including my mother and father, had gone forever. When I was older, I was told that the stone was a gift from my parents. It became a source of great comfort to me then because, in spite of my abandonment, it allowed me to believe that my parents had loved me. Why else would they bequeath me such a precious gift? Now I know... it was a gift meant only for you Rose of the Whyte.”
Rose took the pulsating crystal into her hand. Its glow intensified, lighting her face, illuminating the tracks of her tears, flickering silver, then green - silver - green - silver...
“Rose?” Elder’s voice was tinged with panic, her eyes staring vacantly into the darkness. “Rose, I can no longer see your face. The night blackens around me, its stars snuffed out; its moon no longer casts its shadows. Rose, I have lived for over one hundred lifetimes, I have seen countless lives born into this world, and I have watched those same lives shrivel and die. Death is an old acquaintance of mine and yet, I am afraid...”
Dropping the shining orb to the ground Rose strode out into the waves, pressing on as each surge knocked her backwards, her wet robes clinging to her small frame and dragging her down. Grasping the rocks, she hauled herself up beside the old woman, embracing her, Elder’s head resting lightly on her shoulder, like that of a sleeping child.
“I’m here Elder… I’m here,” said Rose. “I will not desert you, I will never …”
“You and I,” Elder’s body relaxed in Rose’s arms. She spoke breathlessly, “together, we will make a formidable opponent. This was the only way. Now you will earn your ryte of passage Rose of the Whyte. Take care of our people…”
“I will,” Rose said, “I swear... all of them.”
Elder let out a soft sigh as her body shuddered. Through misty eyes, Rose watched as Elder’s chest heaved one final time and then finally stilled. She was alone, lost in a void, the world silent, but for the endless crashing of the waves and a faint, distant buzzing.
Rose looked down at the frail old woman wrapped in her arms. Elder’s body had taken on a strange throbbing glow, and now Rose could feel vibrations as she held her, growing stronger and shaking her grip. Unnerved, she lowered Elder gently onto the boulder and backed away as the humming grew increasingly louder, becoming almost unbearable.
The glowing radiance emanating from Elder’s body intensified, blinding her. Rose squeezed her eyes tightly closed and covered her ears, just as the whole world exploded.
Elder’s body soared into the air, rising on a torrent of energy, its force flinging Rose back against the rocks. A thousand fiery ribbons of light streamed out from Elders body and the clamour of a million hornets stung Rose’s ears. Her screams were swallowed up, engulfed by the swirling maelstrom.
Elders body burst into light, releasing a pulse of energy that flew through the air like a lightning bolt. It flung Rose backwards, carrying her across the waves, over the frozen shore and beyond, burying her deep in the snow where she lay, engulfed in frosty silence.
* * *
“Rose… Rose, are you alright?” Hurriedly, Ash brushed the snow from her face and pulled her to him. “Rose... Please be okay… please be okay…”
Her moan drew a long sigh from his body, followed by an incongruous snigger.
“Hey Rose, you had me going then…” He forced a grin. “Promise you’ll never do that again eh?”
Her eyes flickered open.
“Rose, are you okay?” Ash brushed a tendril of hair from her eyes, “if you are okay, can you please tell me what just happened?”
Rose stared blankly past him and towards the empty shoreline. Elder? She attempted to rise.
“Hold on now, take it steady,” said Ash, “let me help you.”
“I must go; I’ve got to ch...” Rose grasped Ash’s arm.
“Okay, okay, just lean on me and steer me where you want to go,” Ash pulled Rose to her feet.
They stumbled back along the bay. Elder’s body was nowhere to be seen, though her robe remained, buoyed along by each lapping wave it travelled slowly up the tide line.
A few feet ahead of them, Elder’s green gemstone gleamed in the frost-covered sand.
“Is that?” Ash said.
“The last piece of the incantatio,” Rose retrieved the glowing crystal, clutching it to her chest. “Eldwyn concealed it within a green mineral to disguise its presence. He had everything all worked out…”
Rose turned to look at him, her eyes brimming.
“Rose?” Tilting her chin gently with his fingers, his eyes met hers. “Everything is going to be alright now. You’ve found the last piece of the puzzle. Isn’t that what all this has been about?”
Rose caught the tremble in his voice as he spoke to her, she felt his breath on her skin and saw a familiar emotion laid bare his eyes. I remember that look so well, and the way it feels... Rose slipped her hand into his.
“You’re smiling,” he said, confused.
“You look weird,”
“I feel weird - Kiss me, Ash,”
He hesitated. “Now you are acting weird.”
“I know,” she said, “So... join me?”
“Rose, what’s happened to you?”
“I’ve grown a thousand years Ash, and I remember things, glorious things. I just want to see if I’ve remembered correctly that’s all.”
She moved forward. “Now kiss me.”
Tentatively he pulled her to him, brushing his lips lightly against her forehead. She lifted her face to his.
“No… I mean really kiss me.”
“But Rose, we can’t…”
“We could both be gone tomorrow along with everyone else, nothing left of any of us but floating wisps of vapour. Of course, if you don’t want to kiss me…”
Ash brought his lips down onto hers as the Aurora intensified, its lights dancing around them, filling the sky with bursts of crimson, yellow and blue.
The vermarine crystal glowed, pulsating between them as the world condensed and held only them. Their lips combined for what seemed an eternity until it ended, suddenly, in one yawning, breathless gasp.
“Was that?” Ash flushed.
“Exactly as I remembered.”
“And what else do you remember Rose?”
“A life I’ve never lived, people I’ve never known and a world that no longer exists. All of them crammed into my head like a library full of picture books.”
Rose turned to look out over the bay, its waters speckled with dappled hues, reflections of the kaleidoscope of colour shimmering in the night sky. Her eyes fell on the spot where Elder had given her life.
“No one could have loved their people more than she had,” Rose watched as Elders robe was pushed steadily along the shore by the relentless rhythm of the tide. “She gave her life so that I would have the power to save our people, but she passed on so much more than just her potens. Ash, you have no idea. We have so much to live for... so much to lose.”
Ash unlatched his cloak, wrapping it around her shoulders where he let his arm linger as they watched the reflection of the northern lights dance upon the ocean.
“Then we must win,” His lips brushed her hair. “I wouldn’t bet against us...”
“How very touching,” El-on-ah’s words startled them both. She stood behind them on a mound of sand and snow, arm outstretched, poised to strike. “Step away from her Ash.”
“That is not going to happen El-on-ah.” Ash turned and stepped forward, shielding Rose with his body. “You’ll have to go through me first.”
“One descent spell will do for the both of you when you are standing so close together, you must know that Ash. However, I would prefer not to despatch another innocent. So, step aside please Ash.”
“Do as she asks Ash,” said Rose, attempting to move out from behind him. She would not have him die for her.
“Oh no, you don’t...” Ash grabbed her, forcing her back under his protection. “El-on-ah, think about it. If you take Rose and leave me, what do you imagine my next move will be?”
“Well if you put it that way... Interficio,"
A stream of crimson light leapt from El-on-ah’s ring and shot towards them.