Make Not Your Thoughts Your Prisons
Althea felt Galen’s breathing slow and deepen beside her and knew he was asleep – just as she had pretended to be. She knew that she could not fall back into dreams, for she was not longer safe even there. She didn’t know how in the name of heaven she was going to be able to manage this. How could she ever sleep again? How will she survive without it? How would she protect herself? How could she stop a force she didn’t have the faintest concept or understanding of?
When she felt Galen start to rouse, she closed her eyes hard to keep up the illusion that she had gone quietly back to sleep. He turned to her to see her lying on her side. He knew, though, that she was fully awake. The rise and fall of her chest were not the kind in sleeping. He decided not to call her out on it. Instead he started to make enough motion and noise that she could justify her show of waking.
When Althea felt that she could turn to him, she began to do so and realized her body had completely stiffened. She let out a small whimper in pain that immediately drew Galen back to her. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” Galen reached out to touch her, then drew back his hands thinking better of it.
“I don’t know,” she said in a concerned voice. “I can hardly move. I can’t...I can’t even turn my neck.”
“Ok, I’m going to help you to sitting. Is that ok?”
Althea was confused by the question at first. Then she thought how she must appear in his eyes. His confusion and timid apprehension towards her were completely understandable given her story she told and whatever last night must have seemed to him. The thought of it weighed on her heart with heaviness as her mind flashed to the two of them walking as one up the hill, even more when she remembered him holding her. While she accepted and appreciated his considerate soul, she still found an ache in herself.
Althea replied with an affirming noise as she tried her best to do as much on her own as she could. Galen reached behind her and brought her upright to sitting as his arms circled behind her to support her neck and her back. As she was brought to barely sitting, the pain she was feeling from the toxicity in her muscles brought tears to her eyes. She didn’t know what had happened, and they were supposed to set out soon. She felt incredibly defeated and sorrowful, and even more so when Galen started to pull away from her once she had become securely upright.
Almost as though they moved on their own, her arms reached around him and clung to him tightly, bringing him back into her. She no longer wanted to bear the burden of her sorrows alone. She now truly realized that he had wanted to help, she wanted him to help, and she didn’t want to be the solitary sentry against the darkness anymore.
Galen returned her embrace as he felt her stiff body start to tremble, which seemed to cause her more pain as she could feel and hear her start to softly cry. He closed his eyes. He wanted to savor every part of this moment despite how awful doing so would seem. He wanted to focus on the feel of her arms and the smell of her hair. He was so proud of her strength, for it takes a strong person to accept help and show vulnerability.
“I don’t know what’s wrong. I can’t travel like this. I honestly cannot move my neck, and my back...”
Galen brought his hand up to the top of her head still in their embrace. He ran his hand down the length of her hair to stroke her reassuringly and comfortingly. But to his surprise, she stiffened at the affectionate motion and began to breathe fast and shallow. He pulled back still holding onto her shoulders to see her and what was wrong. Her eyes were distant and glazed over, and her trembling started to increase. He thought maybe she might be having some kind of fit.
The sound of his caring voice reached deep into her distress and pulled her into focus. Her eyes cleared as she saw him before her. She looked at him like she was seeing at him for the first time. She let out a deep and controlled breath, almost as if the devil himself was leaving her body at her command. She wanted to apologize for frightening him yet again, but she couldn’t find words in her to speak.
But Galen could see clearly in her eyes the remorse she was feeling. He leaned into her slowly, or at least it seemed slowly to Althea. His face became closer to hers, and she could almost sense the sensation of his aura against her cheeks. His eyes were soft and alluring, and he looked deep into hers as well. She wasn’t sure if she wanted his lips on hers, but she wasn’t sure that she didn’t either. His face was so close to hers that she almost couldn’t bear the thought they wouldn’t kiss.
But instead Galen was moving in to use his strong arms to support her back and neck again to lower her back to lie flat. “I think,” he said quietly faltering. He was surprised in himself that he had been so close, had smelled the floral scent on her skin and the warmth near her lips and hadn’t kissed her. “I think that maybe lying down is better now. Don’t strain yourself to sit.”
She couldn’t see it in his eyes, but the restraint with which he had held himself at bay was agonizing. He had twice held his angel in his arms, and every time he had to let her go had been like giving away part of himself. But he would not harm a flower by selfish plucking it just because he desired it lest it wither and die. Even if all he could do is admire it from afar, that at least would be better than life without it.
She lay flat on the ground beneath him obediently. This was no time for false shows of strength. Right now, the only way to get better was to not rush her body healing whatever this affliction was.
“Wait here,” Galen said to her, and she laughed slightly. He hadn’t meant it to be funny, but when he paused and thought about it, he laughed too. He slowly walked towards the large Oak tree at the edge of their plateaued hill. She admired his slow, graceful walk. It was different now that it usually had been. Wasn’t it?
Galen sat for a while against the tree and started to hum quietly. What she could hear from her position was the same kind of relaxing melody that reminded one of light rain against the leaves on trees. The kind of sound that lulls all securely and peacefully when heard. She could feel herself relax more at the sound, not even fully aware that she wasn’t already relaxed on the ground. As she released the tension she had unwittingly carried, her muscles sent spasms throughout her body, and she muffled a tortured sound.
After a few moments of his stillness and song, Althea saw a black crow descend from the upper branches of the tree down to his hand that rested against his raised knee. This was the first time that she saw the powers of a Leporem with her own eyes. She had heard stories, but it was exhilarating to see. How she wished she could have such a power too. She was always fond of birds and the children’s stories of princesses and their creature friends. She started to giggle to herself at the thought, but stopped so she wouldn’t spook the crow.
She watched for some time as he seemed to “talk” to his new companion. Then the crow flew up into the tree as Galen stood and walked over to Althea. He knelt beside her and put his hand on her shoulder reassuringly. “I’ve got an idea that might help, but we don’t have the means by which to do it. I need to go down the hill to get some things, and maybe even find some more food so we don’t deplete what’s in our packs. The crow there is going to watch out for me; he can fly high and spot the things we need and danger if it’s near.”
“What’s his name?” Althea asked playfully.
Galen smiled at himself trying to remain serious and focused, but failing. “His name is ’Wait here, and don’t hurt yourself,’” he joked back. “I promise I won’t be gone long, and you’ll be safe here.”
“Yes, sir,” Althea replied keeping in the lightened mood she tried give off. And as Galen turned to walk away on his mission, he couldn’t help but look back at her warmly. He knew she was suffering, he knew that she was in pain, and he knew she was being haunted in her sleep. Yet, through it all, she wanted to do her best to put him at ease and make him smile. He had never experienced that kind of selflessness and consideration given to towards him. She had truly become his angel.
And nothing would convince him otherwise.
Althea laid on the ground beneath her feeling the patches of grass until the sun rose almost directly above her. She was bathed in the subtle rays of the sun that was warming the still cool air of morning. With the comfort it brought, she succumbed to light sleep.
When she opened her eyes, she saw Galen had returned. She was relieved to see him safe, and she was grateful for her uneventful sleep without dreams. When she saw the position in the sun, she realized she hadn’t slept long at all. Her body started to shake dully in protest at waking too soon and began to feel miserable again.
Galen was building a fire in the center of the hill. It wasn’t a huge fire, and he was able to procure enough dried wood that it didn’t smoke too much. Even if it did attract the attention of the Immortuos, they wouldn’t be able to will their yet dead bodies up the steepness of this hill. However, even the fact that they would notice this fire was unlikely at this time of day. Althea also noticed other supplies he had laid in a pile beside the tree and medium sized, flat river stones he was placing onto the tiny fire.
When he was finished with his work, he walked over to her. “I’ve put some stones in the fire to heat them. I’m going to take them out and put them on your back. The heat should help relieve the stiffness in your muscles.”
Althea looked at him impressed. She usually used heat for muscle aches as well, but she usually used her Magic released through her hands or towels warmed in hot water. This seem much for efficient as stones held heat longer. “I think that’s a great idea. Thank you!”
Galen turned from her towards the smile with the cheesiest smile on his face so proud of himself and giddy over her approval. He felt like a child being given candy, and he didn’t care how silly that seemed. He began to remove the stone from the fire with wide, flat pieces of wood and placed them on half of a hollowed-ouy log he found. He walked over to Althea to put the stones on once they had cooled slightly, and started to panic and flush at what he realized he would need to ask next.
“Um, Althea,” he faltered feeling like a bumbling moron. “Uh...”
She looked up at him seeing the blood in his face and tried not to smile at how adorable he looked to her. The focus to keep from showing that she noticed and potentially hurt his feelings or embarrass him more was incredibly difficult. “What do you need?” she offered to help him along.
“This will probably be most effective if, uh...” he looked at the ground beside her not daring to look in her eyes as he asked, “if the stones were on your skin. The heat will not be as effective through clothes...on you...I mean cloth. The cloth on your clothes.”
“Oh, yes,” she said as she struggled to get herself upright. “That makes sense.” She somehow managed to get herself upright on her own as Galen just watched in dumb shock that she was so willing to do as he had requested. Althea tried gingerly to remove her top to do as she was asked, but she started to cry out in pain that shot from her neck to all parts of her body.
Galen immediately put down the log with the stones and put his hands on her shoulders to steady her. The sound of her pain hurt him deeply, as if her pain were his. Perhaps it was even worse as it injured his heart. He looked at her, their faces close again until Althea asked quietly, “Do you think you could help me with this?” Galen’s face felt on fire as he would like nothing more. With all his heart, he wanted …
“Ok,” he started with the fastenings of her top to loosen the ties, “you tell me if anything hurts or if this is too fast.”
His voice gave Althea goosebumps. “I will. I’m sure it will be fine.” She felt her heart beat harder at the touch of his fingers loosening her clothing. She felt even more ignited as she felt him lift away her top. The breeze was cool and tickled her bare skin making Althea fully realize her exposure to this man. Only a small part of her felt vulnerable and defenseless, but the larger part of her didn’t care.
“Go ahead and lie on your stomach. Do you need me to bring a pack to rest your head on?” His voice was like the warming air dancing inside of her. She felt relaxed. She felt safe. She almost forgot that his voice was asking a question and not simply delightful sound in her ears. She nodded her head in affirmation, and he rose to grab her piles of clothing and the blanket from her pack to rest her head on.
She lowered herself slowly and carefully onto her stomach and rested her head on the softer pile he brought. She was completely bare on her back except for the cloth wrapping around her breasts as before. This time, Galen took a longer look at her as he had been frustrated that he hadn’t earlier. Her skin was so smooth and fair that he thought it shamed satin. He could only imagine how soft it must.
He laid his hands on her skin as tenderly as he could. He expected her to flinch at his touch, but she didn’t. This even surprised her, but the touch of another caring human was so incredibly comforting, that she even relaxed more.
“May I?” he asked after putting his hands on her shoulders. “I promise I’ll be gentle.”
“Ok,” she barely whispered.
Galen started to apply pressure to her back. Her muscles felt strung as tightly as bowstring. He wished he knew exactly why, though he had theories. More than that, he hoped that he was able to help with his ideas.
The touch of his hands and the slow, methodical massaging made Althea happy. And she realized then that she hadn’t felt happy for too long of a time. She was happy to not be alone, and she was happy that she was with him specifically. He was a virtuous soul filled with pure and natural good. Fate sent them together, and she fully felt the blessing.
Galen slowly increased the pressure against her resistant muscles until she started to let out noises in pain. “Ok, that’s enough. I’m sorry. I’ll put the stones on now. They should be cool enough.” He picked one up with his hands and held it there for a while to make sure. The heat was strong, but it didn’t burn after prolonged touch, so it should be ok. “Just let me know if this is too hot or gets too hot.”
He laid the stones on the larger muscle clusters along her back and on the parts of her that felt most tensed and knotted. The heat felt so good that Althea let out a large, audible sigh that made Galen beam.
When he completed placing all of the heated stones, he lay down flat on his stomach beside her and looked at her. She smiled to see him do this. He looked so ridiculous purposefully pressing his face into the dirt to look funny that she laughed. “Just let those sit a while. I borrowed your bow when I went out. I got us a couple rabbits. I’ll cook those up while I still have a fire.”
Althea smiled in response and said, “Thank you, Galen. Thank you for taking care of me.”
Galen responded as he started to stand, “My Lady, it is my genuine pleasure.”
Time passed as Galen took care of the food and Althea soaked in the heat and focused her energy on healing herself. When the rabbits were cooked, he came over and checked the stones. “These aren’t warm anymore. Should I put them back on?”
“Thank you, but no,” she responded as she started to sit up. “I think it’s best if I start to move around. Then we’ll see.” Althea moved her arms underneath her and pushed off slowly. She was glad to note that her stiffness had diminished and that she was able to move her neck. “Oh yes,” she exclaimed as she reached for her top, “this already feels so much better. You have Healer instincts, Galen.”
“Well,” he laughed at himself, “I’m no Healer, but I have a few good ideas.” He was both glad and sad that she was able to put her top back on without assistance. He liked doing things for her, and he was ready to fully admit to himself that he liked it best when he had the chance to be close to her and touch her. Part of his mind chastised his impulses for being rash and impetuous as he had only known her for a few days, but another part of his mind felt like he would be a fool not to feel this way towards the most wondrous person he had yet known in his life. It only made sense.
As she went to sit beside him near the fire. Galen stoked it absently as he watched her movements. “You know,” he started, “I’ve been thinking. I think I know why you woke up this way.”
Althea looked at him intrigued.
“I had a friend back in my own village years ago. His father, he used to berate him really awfully. Made him feel like a continuous disappointment. I always hated to hear when his dad would go off on him. Well, after some time, his dad passed. But even with his dad was gone, he still felt like a disappointment. He could only hear those words and thoughts so often and for so long before that outlook became a part of how even saw himself. Sometimes, he would come up to me before our work in the field rubbing his neck or his shoulders. When I’d ask what was wrong, he would just say he didn’t sleep well. Then it became more and more frequent, and he admitted to me that he was thinking about his dad. He’d have nightmares of him. And we both thought it out, and he was carrying the weight so heavy in his mind that his body followed.”
Althea looked down to the ground not wanting to face the thought of her nightmares. Even the site of the fire before her pushed the memories to the front of her mind. But before she could tense herself in her memories of it, Galen reached out his hand and placed it on hers.
“I’ve found that the weight of oppression is felt in more than just your head. I know you had nightmares last night, and I know you’re suffering.”
Althea looked down again pathetically, “I guess you’re going to say don’t let it get to me? Don’t let the bad stuff win? Don’t you think I’ve tried? It’s not as simple as casting away a stone from your shoe.”
Galen edged closer to her as he sensed her growing agitation, “No, I wasn’t going to say that at all. I was only hoping that, with this thought, you might find some comfort in the fact that you aren’t...I don’t know.” He stopped. He wanted to find the perfect words, words that would truly express what he was thinking. He was coming up short, and he was frustrated that here, when it mattered most, he couldn’t find the natural comfort in his speech. But he kept trying. “This...this is a part of who you are now. Maybe only for now, or maybe for the rest of your life. It’s the worst thing, I think, that you can continue to be harmed by someone who never deserved you and your goodness.”
Althea saw him flounder, like there was some great revelation he just couldn’t quite grasp but that he was desperately trying to find. And he was. He wanted to pull the answers from heaven and hand it to her as a gift, but it was illusive.
“Althea, I don’t have the answers. But if it were up to me, I’d tear the world apart to find it.”
Althea blushed as these were the most passionate and affectionate words he had ever spoken towards her. She blushed not so much at his show of affection, intentional or not, but at the fact that she enjoyed it so much. How was she not shying away? Given everything that had happened, wasn’t she just asking for more trouble? Maybe not, she thought; maybe not with him.
Galen gave up trying to find the right words, and settled on his words. “I guess all I’m saying is that it makes sense. It’s not because you’re weak. You’re the strongest person I’ve known. I guess...just don’t blame yourself. This isn’t you. This isn’t because you’re not strong enough.”
Althea still looked down at the ground in shame. How could she not think that? How, given all she experienced in that dream, if it was even a dream, and all that she heard that it ALL wasn’t her fault.
“Do you want to talk about it?”