Chapter 28: The Promise
"Bring salve for her wounds,” Archer directed, examining Ava’s hands. Stubborn, stubborn woman.
Another tear slowly slipped above the rim of her eye and rolled delicately down her face. Ava was overcome with exhaustion and sorrow, despite the magnificence of Menetoy’s splendid beauty. The air was crisp and lightly scented by the abundance of elpece and heather growing wild across the plain, their fragrance carried by a gentle breeze. The blue skies and birds’ songs escaped her notice. She tried to focus her eyes on the majestic mountains cascading up into a wisp of clouds flickering whimsically above her head. Colors and sounds she had never seen or heard before burst forth with glad tidings of life in abundance. For the first time in her life, she felt the glorious warmth of sunlight. Yet all of her attention was demanded by the pain in her heart making each breath a struggle. Before surrendering to the unconsciousness that would overtake her, she found Archer’s eyes again. “He needs you.”
Stranth gasped at the sight of his mother fainting in Archer’s arms. Archer placed a securing hand on his shoulder. When he looked back at Archer’s face, he saw a confident, purposeful peace in those familiar steel blue eyes. He believed his mother was in the best of hands and took courage.
“Strong and steady,” Archer admonished him. “All will be well.”
Quickly, Archer whisked Ava to the carriage and instructed all to follow. Stranth mounted his steed, but as everyone departed, he lingered. His forlorn eyes gazed back through the Great Wall of Fire. His mind’s eye pictured the terrain that his brother now traversed, which he himself had crossed only moments before. Yet, somehow it seemed a lifetime had flown by in an instant. He had never been out of Onar’s company for more than a moment since the child had been born. It was a terrifying agony, a perplexing separation.
Disoriented, Stranth swallowed hard at the lump forming in his throat as he whispered a promise. “I will come for you, brother. Be safe.”
He wanted desperately to lunge back through the flames at that very instant to pursue his younger sibling and drag him through the Wall, if necessary. The futility of the gesture and its certain death prevented him, for now. His mother would need him for the next day or two. Surely, King Agathos would graciously commission him to return with haste. He turned and galloped off to join the others.
However, Stranth’s frustration and concern grew over the course of more days than he expected. His mother remained unconscious for more than a week, despite the healing powers of the Menetan physicians. They were convinced that the problem was not in her body, but in her spirit. The heart can be much slower to heal, they had informed him. His mother’s heart had always been strong according to his perspective and he began to wonder if the problem were a matter of her will. Could she be choosing not to face a world without her son in it? But she had two sons, and the elder needed her as much as the younger! Stranth sat by her side, holding her hand, willing her to awake. Yet, the days passed.
Archer spent almost as many hours with Ava as Stranth, but he had debriefings and duties demanding a significant amount of his attention as well. Nell was there too and after a few days began to insist that Stranth take a break and some refreshment while she sat in his stead. He was never gone long, however, for fear his mother would wake up when he was not there. He wanted to be the first face she saw.
Stranth’s wish was finally granted after nearly a fortnight. He had just returned with Archer who had been assisting him with preparations of the palatial suite where his mother and he would reside. It was a beautiful, airy apartment within the palace walls; its vast balcony facing west framed a spectacular view of the lush valley hemmed by regal mountain peaks. Nell was stammering aloud through a book of verses she had gleaned from the library. Embarrassed, she quickly closed the book upon their entrance. Ava stirred, drawing both Stranth and Archer near.
Taking his mother’s hand, Stranth whispered close to her face. “Ma? Please wake up.” He noticed a tear rolling down the side of her face and gently wiped it away with his finger. “Mother, please.” He buried his head in her neck and sighed. Then he felt her other bandaged hand resting on the back of his head. Raising his head to search her face, her eyes fluttered open and settled on his face. A faint smiled curled on both their lips. Sighs of relief rolled around the room.
In the days that followed, Ava’s progress was slow. Though lucid, she lacked the desire to converse or be up and about and kept to her bed most of the time. Stranth was deeply concerned, but he grew impatient. The King had condescended to make a visit to their quarters once they were settled in. His gracious manners were encouraging and inspiring. He came with a small entourage that included Archer, but Agathos stayed only briefly. Stranth was highly gratified when he heard the king tell his mother that he had found a spirit of excellence in both of her sons and looked forward with great hopes and expectations to see their services employed by his court if they were of a mind to do so. Such an invitation was the highest honor in the land, and Stranth was eager to begin immediately. However, the king’s invitation rested on the full recovery of Ava’s spirits.
This visit provoked Ava to exert herself more; but the king would make the final determination when she would be ready to see her son authorized to return to the Shadows in search of Onar. In the meantime, Stranth could avail himself to a great deal of training while he waited for his mother’s restoration.
Stranth applied himself with great energy to the training exercises in fencing, marksmanship, and survival skills. The employment was quite beneficial in the management of his frustration level with his mother’s slow progress. Whatever happened to her mind over matter philosophy? Entertaining such thoughts produced guilt. He found an understanding and forgiving ear in Archer, who counseled him to be patient. What other choice did he seem to have? Each day that went by, his brother was getting further and further away. The trail was getting colder and colder. He found himself traveling at dusk to view the Great Wall each evening as if drawn there by some magnetic force. Each evening he renewed his promise to Onar with steely determination before he turned to go.
“I will come for you, brother.”
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