“I told you I don’t want to do this.” Tarra sat stubbornly in her ceremonial robes with her arms crossed over her chest.
Chilcoat resignedly stood dressed in his robes. “I don’t want you to do it either, but Caran insisted that you preside. It meant a lot to her.”
Most of the village attended to show respect to him but a couple of the old women grumbled about the young witch “…having him all to herself now.”
At the chimney stone, the cold ashes of Caran’s pyre sat on a small cloth near the cliff’s edge. Chilcoat approached with his children in hand. He knelt slowly, pressed his hand firmly on the ashes, and transferred them to his chest. He nodded to his children to do the same. Chara understood the tribute she was expected to perform and did her best to mimic her father, but Chilton was too young, simply grabbing a handful of ashes and letting them fall back to the cloth. His father tried to guide his hand, but he was confused and embarrassed that he wasn’t doing as expected. He began rubbing his eyes with tears made worse by the smudge of ash.
Tarra drew her head up and marched confidently across the garden with her ceremonial robe flowing boldly. She knelt next to the boy and comforted him until he stopped sobbing. She then pressed her hand into the ash and defiantly made the mournful tribute on her chest. The handprint seemed almost to caress her breast as she stood and faced the crowd of expectant villagers. “Caran was a dear friend of mine. I know some of you say I have plotted to take her place, but I am Chilcoat’s friend, nothing more. We have grown together as a family over the years and now we grow apart. Caran was a good woman and I’ll not have your wicked tongues spoil it for her. She loved me and she trusted me. I did what I could to save her, but Vau has left this dust and released her to join her family in Yod. I pray that she finds comfort in their blessing.”
Tarra chanted a short song of summer that had been one of Caran’s favorites. It was a bright cheerful tune that didn’t seem to fit the somber mood but created a fitting release as she bent over to grab the cloth and fling it open off the edge of the plateau. The contents tumbled down the face of the cliff flowing in a cloud that wafted on the evening breeze sweeping up the face of the mountain.
Tarra walked gracefully through the crowd with her arms held open to exaggerate the fluttering wings of her ceremonial robe and expose the dusty handprint of mourning tribute. The crowd parted and let her pass as she made her way to stand in front of Chilcoat. “You’ve taken me in the bonding ceremony, yet I’m not your wife. I’ve grown to love you and your family, but I am, like you, alone now that Caran has left us. I’ll join in the bonding ceremony this year at the gathering and I’ll find a mate who fits my needs.”
Chilcoat sat resolute. He had spent all of the tears he could over the past few days and felt only emptiness as he watched the angel spread her wings and fly away from him across the garden. Caran’s words haunted his thoughts. “Now, you alone are destined to bear this burden to its end.”
One of the throng called out, “Are we going to the gathering?”
Chilcoat looked somberly over the cliff where the ashes drifted as he rearranged his cloak to shield himself from the sun. He couldn’t help but feel disgust with a god that would take his wife so easily and not even allow him to mourn respectfully as he pulled his cloak over his chest covering the dusty handprint. “I’ve watched the signs of the season and it’s not yet time to concern ourselves with the gathering. I’ll consider your thoughts at the morning council.”
He gathered his children and returned to his shop. It was a lonely place. Charona and Lannon had also decided that they too would move into one of the abandoned apartments. The children moped around their bedroom and Chilcoat tinkered with minor repairs on some gardening tools. Occasionally friends and neighbors would stop by and leave gifts of food and flowers. The place is beginning to look like a garden. I wonder if Tarra can use any of them.
Even in his misery, he couldn’t help but think of Tarra. I don’t want to see her ever again. I don’t want to see her angelic form floating in and out of his life. She didn’t mix the herbs correctly for Caran. She should have saved her, not killed her.
He wondered if Tarra would really find a mate and finally be out of his life. The pickings are slim and it wouldn’t be good for her to marry too close to her kin. I hope I don’t have to interfere again, but I can’t let her do something she’ll regret.
Tarra entered the shop and went directly to greet the children. She had brought a map of the garden with little people carved from pieces of wood. She spread the cloth on the floor of their room and made up a game of tag that they could play with the little characters running around the overlapping garden paths. She contrived some simple rules and the children were happy for the distraction. They wanted to show it to their friends and quickly gathered it up and ran out the door. She followed them to the door cautioning them not to lose any of the pieces as they scampered up the nearest stairway.
Chilcoat tried to be sociable. “Do you want any of these flowers? Maybe you can use them for something,”
“No, they’re mostly just tea and garnish.”
“Well, at least take some of this food. It’ll spoil before we can eat it all.”
She looked deeply into his eyes for some sign of relief. There was none. He was still hurting too deeply to find comfort in her presence. She took the package she had tucked under her arm and placed it on the shop bench while she ate a piece of overly ripe fruit. “How long until the seasons change?”
Chilcoat looked up from his work. “The signs are not yet aligned.”
“What are we going to do when it does?”
“I don’t know. Nothing I guess. I don’t think we’re ready to go to the coast village this year. It would be too much of a hardship, and I don’t think this place will get as cold as the lake, so we should be OK here.”
“What about the gathering? How will we form new bonds?”
“I guess we can do a small ceremony here. It won’t be as good as the real thing, but we can have some games and maybe work out some new relationships. I know you want to move on, and that’s good. I’m glad you feel you want to—grow.” He paused hoping that he hadn’t already said something he would regret. “Next year we’ll prepare early and be sure we’re ready to carry the news of this place back to the clans. Maybe you can wait another year. I know it’s a lot to ask but I don’t want to see you paired with someone who isn’t right for you.”
“And you know who’s right for me? You’re an ass!” She picked up her package and headed for the door.
He grabbed her by the shoulders. “You shouldn’t talk to me like that. It’ll give the others a bad impression.”
“Others? Who? You and I have something. I’m not sure what it is, but I have the right to tell you you’re an ass when you’re an ass.”
He looked into her eyes but saw only the pain that he felt so deeply. He loved her like a precious jewel: too valuable to let go, but too costly to keep. “Well—at least don’t do it in public.”
“Deal... I have something to show you.” She un-wrapped the bundle she had brought.
“Oh, let me guess—you have one of your sticks, and you want me to hike to the ends of the earth.”
“See, I told you we have something. You know me so well. Yes, here is the winter village.” She spread the medicine cloth flat on the workbench. “See, this is the guide stick for the kasis vine I need and it fits right in here.” She positioned the stick protruding from the sunburst. “See, this is the path leading north out of the coast village.”
“Please—how important is this weed? That’s over a month’s journey each way, and now we don’t really need it. Besides, it doesn’t work anyway. You didn’t—save her.” He flashed at the recognition that Caran was gone.
“No—I couldn’t. I did only what I know to do. I have no cure for Hea’s wrath. I can only take the pain for a short while. We don’t need it right now, but we might if someone else falls ill. I just wanted you to know. It’s a need that we have.” She quickly bundled the stick into the cloth and headed for the door.
“I’ll keep it in mind and—thank you for the game for the kids.”
She paused for a moment looking at his cheerless form then stepped out into the afternoon glare pulling her cape into place as she headed home. It was odd to think of the stark apartment as home, but it was beginning to feel that way to her. It offered comfort she had never felt living with her family.
The mess she had left on the table making the game was still there untouched. The medicine bag was still lying open near the door. Her bed was still unmade from the day before, and her ceremonial robe lay crumpled in the corner with her dirty laundry.
Sitting at the table in her living room, she started to clean up the mess. The broad blade of her kitchen knife lay with a pile of wood shavings left from her carving job. She still had two partially completed people pieces from the game. Each was a chubby little barrel onto which she had started carving a head and legs, but each had an imperfection of dark wood where a bud sprout had been. She set them aside, standing them on their incomplete feet, and swept the shavings into a basket for kindling.
The tabletop mocked her with its interlocking circle design. It had served well as the inspiration for her game but now it seemed frivolous to have such a showy trinket. She wondered why the Tornas’ had such a thing and why their relatives hadn’t claimed it.
It’s exceptional workmanship, she thought, much better than old Mr. Tornas was capable of, and it really makes no sense that he would have spent his last days creating something so dedicated to the citadel’s gardens. I’ll ask around to see if anyone else has discovered such a thing. She placed the two little figurines on the table and chased them around the paths following the rules she had contrived for the children.