“The first thing you have to understand, Detective, is that Anya…” Alisa began.
“I’m sorry, who?” I interrupted her, wanting to clarify it was the same woman.
She looked at me strangely and said, “Anya, Natalya’s mother?” and I knew I was right.
“Unfortunately, we were not introduced. By the time I’d met Natalya, her mother had already been led off and killed, and she never told me her name.” I responded, and felt like a cad as I watched tears fill up the older woman’s eyes. “Damn.” I swore softly. “I thought that you already knew about that. My apologies and my condolences.” Looking around, I spotted a handkerchief and passed it to Alisa, who took it gratefully and dabbed at her eyes until she stopped crying.
“It’s all right, Detective. I knew in my mind that she must not be alive, but you’ll have to forgive an old woman’s foolish hope for wanting her heart to be correct.” After blowing her nose, she sniffed a few times but then looked up slowly at me. “But, you did say that Natalya is alive?”
“Yes ma’am, safe and sound back in Aerendor.” I was grateful that I was able to bring a joyful smile to her lips.
Tossing back her head, she fiercely said, “Praise be to our ancestors and to the Gods!” Lowering her head, she closed her eyes and whispered prayers for a few minutes whilst I just sat there, waiting for her to be finished. As much as I wanted answers, they could wait for now. When she was done, she opened her eyes and stared at me with a reverence that I found slightly uncomfortable. “For saving my niece, Detective, I cannot thank you enough. Whatever you want from me, you can have.”
“All I want is the truth, Madam Alisa; anything else would be incidental to the case that I’m working.” I reassured her. My quick glance around the wagon when I had first entered showed me a very sparse cabin, and even if I was feeling mercenary there was nothing in here to take or that I would want. The truth –and potentially the ending of these murders- was all I was after. “So, why don’t you start from the beginning, if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all, Detective.” She got comfortable in her chair, arranging her skirt around her so she could sit more at ease. “So, as I’m sure you could deduce, Anya is my younger sister, by 15 Cycles. Not to speak ill of the dead, but she was what our parents called a ‘happy accident’; both of them were much older, and not really wanting another child after my brother and myself were born. He was 5 Cycles older than me, but he died in a hunting accident when I was just a child.” She held up a hand before I could speak. “It’s quite all right, Detective, it was a very long time ago. No need to offer me your sympathy.” Her smile at the end took away any sting her words might have given.
Changing tactics, I instead said, “Was it harder for your parents to care for her?”
Madam Alisa nodded. “Indeed. By the time she was 8 Cycles old, both of our parents had passed on, and I was her primary caregiver. Not that she made it easy; Anya was always going out of her way to test boundaries and push limits with me. She…resented me being responsible for her, and she let me know at every opportunity that she hated how our mother and father had died and left her with me.” Here, she sniffed a few times but didn’t give in to tears, instead just using the handkerchief to once more dab at her eyes until the urge had passed.
Frowning, I interjected. “I thought that respect for the dead was a central tenet of the Ronan faith.”
Smiling sadly, the older woman nodded her head. “That is correct, Detective. Anya was not the easiest person to be around, but what else could I do? She is…I’m sorry, was my sister. I tried discipline, I tried talking to her, but nothing seemed to get through. And then came the day we stopped into a small Elven village. My sister had only celebrated her 18th Name-day just a few days before that.” She gave a bittersweet smile, and I knew where this was heading. “Even though the rest of the caravan expressed their disappointment and regret, I wasn’t too surprised when she decided to stay in the Elven village, to ‘get some perspective’ on her life, as she said. I didn’t know that’s what they were calling it nowadays,” she snorted, and it was all I could do not to laugh. “Her leaving, however, was part of an ancient tradition.”
“Otkrytiye is what we call it, Detective Jonas, ‘The Discovery’ a period of a Ronan’s life around the time they are considered an adult, where they leave the safety of the caravan to discover how life works on the outside. Almost all Ronan return after that one or two Cycle period, because they realize that the outside world has already judged us and found us wanting; only the safety of family can shield you from those harsh misunderstandings.” There was pain in the older woman’s eyes, and I realized that by doing this, not only did the Ronan elders give their youth some time to spread their wings but it also helped reinforce that only the caravan would truly welcome them. I was sure that Alisa’s story was the same as most Ronan here today.
Continuing her story, the older woman went on. “When we stopped back by that same village a Cycle later, she wouldn’t even come out to visit us. She sent her…I don’t even think he was her boyfriend or partner, just her lover…anyway, out to tell us that she was indisposed.”
“And that didn’t strike you as odd?” I asked.
Alisa snorted again. “If you had met her back then, you would have known that Anya did her best to do things like that, just to see if she could hurt me for being dumb enough to care about her. May her soul rest in peace,” the last was added almost as an afterthought. “So, after spending a day trading with the Elves, we packed up and continued on our travels. We wouldn’t be back by for another Cycle.”
Hazarding a guess, I said, “And this was when she wanted to come back to the caravan.”
“You are correct, Detective. The same young Elf, who was now much surlier than he had been a Cycle ago, came to our caravan and asked for me by name, saying that he would escort me to Anya. I was dreading that she was either deathly ill, or maybe even had passed on with no one to do the proper burial rites. It was a relief and terror to see her lying in bed, cradling a small baby as she breastfed it.”
Pausing so she could take a drink from her waterskin, the older woman then went on. “Apparently, she and her lover had had a spat, possibly because they came from different worlds, possibly because he was much older than she was, possibly because whilst she was carrying his child he had been dallying with other maidens that shown him the slightest bit of interest. Who can say?” she finished drolly. “All I knew was that the young Elven man had asked Anya to leave his village as soon as her caravan came back through, and that’s what she wanted to do. It’s funny,” she mused out loud. “But I never learned his name, and Anya never told me. I have no idea if Natalya even knows who her father is. That’s sad, I think. Every child should know who their parents are. Don’t you agree, Detective?” she asked, as if I was a typical half-Orc resulting from rape. Since I didn’t trust myself to speak, I simply nodded my agreement.
“Anyway, Anya was mortified to think how the rest of the caravan would mock and belittle her for leaving for 2 Cycles and coming back with a ‘bastard’ as she so delicately put it. Never mind the fact that we Ronan don’t care about any of that –love is love, whether it is official and has a title or is just between two people for a moment in time- and that a lot of the youth that leave on their Otkrytiye come back with offspring. It is how we keep new blood constantly being introduced to our community; otherwise, we would stagnate and inbreed and nobody wants that.” Thinking of a lot of the Old Blood in Aerendor, and the less said about some of them the better, I couldn’t help but concur that the Ronan had the right idea.
“But, she begged and pleaded with me to help her hide the fact that she had a newborn. I had never heard my sister ask me for anything in her life, since usually she just demanded things from me. You can understand why I did what I did, right Detective?” Alisa didn’t wait for a response from me, just went on with her story. “So, I drew on what little my cousin had let slip when I was younger –and spying on her- and I…well, that is to say, I…”
“Hold up a second,” I stopped her before she could finish. “Was Madam Darya your cousin, then?”
The older woman paused. “Why, yes she is. Her mother and mine were sisters –Darya was in the middle- along with the youngest, their brother Ivo. He is the father of Ivana. It’s so nice to know that at least one half-Orc was brought into this world through love and not through violence.” It was getting harder and harder to not correct her assumptions about me and my childhood, but Madam Alisa prattled on completely unaware of how annoyed she was making me. “When she and my sister were children, before our parents passed away, they had a blood bonding ritual done, making Anya and Ivana half-sisters, not cousins.”
Taking another drink from her waterskin (to be fair, she was doing a lot of talking), Alisa continued. “Anyways, when my cousin was just starting off telling fortunes, she accidentally let slip once when she thought she was alone how one of us –even if not possessing the Gift- could call down a curse, saying it had been done quite a few years ago. And so…”
“You cursed the caravan, apart from you and Anya, to not be able to see Natalya.” I finished for her, aghast at what I was hearing. They had doomed this little girl to be shut off from her kin, all because of some spoiled young woman’s vanity. “Can you break the curse?”
Now she started to cry again, standing up and pacing before the lone large window in her wagon, instinctively making sure the curtains were still drawn tight. “I don’t know! I didn’t even know if the curse would work, since after I did it I fell sick for a week or so. When I came to, I was in Anya’s wagon along with her daughter. When Darya came to check on me, she didn’t acknowledge the little baby at all. That’s when I knew that it had worked. Only Darya would be able to tell me if there was a way to break the curse, and now she’s…”
A small sound, like a large wasp flying close by, rang out and I watched as Alisa clutched the curtains before slumping down, pulling them off the rod as she collapsed to the floor. A single hole right where her heart was told me all I needed to know. Unlike in a lot of the plays and coppertales, the older woman had no time to say some speech or impart some wisdom before expiring; instead, she gasped for breath a couple of times and then was still, blood still pumping out of the wound and soaking her clothes. Twice in one day I had watched an older Ronan woman die right before my eyes, and it was just as horrible the second time around.
“Jonas!” I heard Dorf bellow for me. “We got trouble!” Trying to stay as low to the ground as I could, I opened the wagon door and went outside, looking for my partner.