Forever Never/The Dawn of Illusion
by Cheryl Pennington
copyright all content
The world smolders, their hearts bleed as their flesh wounds heal. How to move forward? What do they believe in and who do they trust? One step, one moment, one breath at a time is all that takes them into an uncertain future……
When they finished cleaning up and had a bit of food, Ella was more comfortable. The rain, although still steady, had fallen into a rhythmic beating onto the roof, and each fell asleep, lulled away from the nightmare into dreamless sleep. All too soon little Saol began her song of angry impatience again as she hungered for her Mother’s warmth and nourishment. Naofa dipped her finger in the soothing tea, hoping it would appease the infant. Her tiny lips latched onto it and sucked greedily, making faint grunting noises; but it was not enough and she would not be satisfied. Naofa held her next to her own heart, hoping it did not feel her grief, and softly hummed the melodies her mother had sung to her while the child was still safely within her womb. She looked down into Saol’s face, scrunched in anger as she worked herself into another long cry, uncertain what to feed an infant without its mother’s suckle.
Ella stirred at the sound of Saol’s crying and pushed herself up onto her elbows. She was strengthened after the tea, food and rest and could actually sit upright without as much pain. She reached her arms out for the infant but the Sorceress hesitated.
“Please, let me help,” whispered Ella. Naofa sensed the sorrow in her voice, but her resolve was certain. “I can help with the child. At least let me try.” Ella looked up at Naofa with dark eyes that pulled the Sorceress into her pain instantly. She needed Saol as much as the child needed her; and Naofa gratefully surrendered her care to Laoch’s companion. Saol’s crying didn’t seem to bother her as the Huntress stroked her velvety cheek, wiping away the tears she shed, cooing to her softly. Then Ella dropped the cloth of her tattered tunic to expose a smooth, supple breast; and to the Sorceress’s amazement, she raised the child to her nipple where Saol quickly attached her mouth and began sucking hungrily. Ella winced slightly but kept her there, allowing the infant to find comfort, even if she did not get the full nourishment she needed in those first moments. It would be awhile before she produced enough milk to fully satisfy her hunger, but they supplemented the feedings with herbal teas. Ella was faithful in her efforts and eventually the milk flowed easily.
Naofa knew Ella saw the opportunity as a way to ease the pain of loss she had suffered, although they had never talked about Loach’s companion carrying and losing their child. None of them talked about much as they kept busy with rebuilding and healing their wounds, both within and without. Eolas seemed satisfied with the arrangement and was content to cuddle his daughter when he was not busy working or walking up to the hilltop to kneel beside the place where Eagna slept. There he wept and sang his song of sorrow again and again. How she wished he would stop! Yet she did not have the heart to stop his mourning, thus pushing her own pain deeply within the well of her heart where she didn’t have to look at it. The inhabitants of Domhan had never suffered such a loss, creating a raw wound that would not heal easily.
The rains came and went without end for many cycles, slowing their progress until it finally stopped. Once the heavens ceased to mourn and the sun smiled down on their faces again, Eolas, Laoch, and Naofa labored tirelessly, rising long before dawn and not closing their eyes until after the sun threw long shadows across the charred hills. Eventually they removed all outward evidence of the nightmare which had destroyed Eolas’ home, the images of which were burned onto their memories as surely as the black lines across his lands. Eolas forbade them to rebuild his home as it had been. He said he wanted only a simple building with bare necessities, so intent was he to leave and make the journey to Foirfeachta. They had received no word from The Garden and neither was Eagna’s lake of visions was giving them any answers. The Hunter knew something must be wrong there.
Naofa prayed to the Creators to receive the souls of Eagna and Ella’s unborn child back into the Realm where they could be healed. How long must they wait before returning to a new life in the world of humanity? She wondered. And Damanta. The Sorceress couldn’t bear to think of As’me’s soul trapped alone and desolate within the depths of dark emptiness that was Artine’s creation. Instead, she focused on the burden of rebuilding their lives, one heavy enough to bear on its own.
With no word from Foirfeachta, the survivors wondered about their friends and felt that surely if something had happened to M’na there would have been a very tangible shift in her world. Still, they were too overwhelmed with their own burdens to do much about their concerns, for change assaulted them at every turn. The torrential rains were a blessing that smothered the hungry flames consuming the land; and as soon as the blaze was reduced to smoldering ash, the storms ceased. The very air around them had changed, however; and the clear, calm breezes had grown crisp and reeked of soot. Naofa shivered as the unsympathetic chill raked its bitter fingers through her hair. She knew they would all need extra skins for warmth if things remained this way-or worsened. The chill seemed to grow stronger with each passing cycle. Food was scarce; and even the Sorceress succumbed to eating the flesh of animals to keep her strength up. And so the cycles passed. Animals, though now scarce, must be killed for food and warmth; and the hunt was no longer a thing of ceremony but of brutal necessity. Still they said their prayers of thanks…
In spite of Eolas’ protests to keep his new home simple and unadorned, Noafa knew he would change his mind when Saol began to grow; and she vowed to keep the child’s Mother alive in spirit for her daughter. Each morning since the Devastation she sifted through the rubble for remnants-bits of Eagna that she could slip into place as sweet reminders of her beauty and wisdom. Already she had recovered a couple of her friend’s herb boxes, a stone jar she used to store oil for ceremony, and a few precious stones that were among Eagna’s favorites. She painstakingly carved holes above the door and tucked the stones into them, silently blessing them with Eternity’s Love, a love she still had not given up on. She feared Eolas might be angry with her but he said nothing. When the sunlight shone again, bright rays fell over them, sending tiny colored lights to dance across the wood slats of the porch. Eolas reached up to run his fingers over the face of each stone, casting faint shadows over the bright images, shadows that danced over the rainbow lights. Naofa thought she caught a ghost of a smile cross his face; but when he quickly withdrew his hand and walked away, she decided it was merely a trick of the shadow and light. Soon, they were ready to move on.
“Laoch, Ella and I, with the infant, will make the journey to Foirfeachta,” Eolas announced one foggy morning. “I am worried that we have heard nothing from Fireann and M’na.” He stared out into the shifting veils of mist as if seeing something no one else could. “If only Eagna were here to visit the lake of visions. If only….” he broke in mid sentence and Naofa couldn’t bring herself to look at him, his voice pierced by pain. He gasped for air and she knew he wept again. She knew he wept often, although rarely in their presence. In so many ways they had been close companions, yet in many others it was only just now becoming clear how very different they were from each other. Eolas cleared his throat and turned to face the Sorceress. “I feel something is very wrong in the heart of Domhan. We need to know what has become of M’na, Fireann and the children.” He feigned confident optimism. “As soon as we know they have fared well, we will journey on to Juntos. Ella is very worried about La Palabra and her sisters of Espera.” Eolas looked at his hands and shook his head. “She has been so devastated by all of this.”
Eolas looked back over his shoulder to where Ella sat in a newly made rocking chair, cuddling the infant, oblivious to anything but her needs. He smiled wanly and whispered, nodding in their direction. “That Saol needs her now is a blessing-for both of them.” The Hunter looked away, feeling ashamed that another was caring for the child of his most beloved, and yet his heart was thankful for the help that he so desperately needed.
Naofa felt a surge of fury, biting her lip but wanting to ask, ‘And what of Laoch? Has anyone thought of his anguish and loss, his first born child sacrificed to the rage of darkness?’ Instead she simply nodded and touched Eolas’ hand, squeezing it gently, unable to add to his pain.
“You have to go then. We will get everything ready tonight. I must make my own journey now. I left my friends at the caves hastily and need to know what they have suffered and, if possible, to try and help them in whatever ways that I can.” The Sorceress was feeling her old inquisitive, impatient impulses returning and she was compelled to find out how the Cave Dwellers stood up to Damanta’s attack. Deep within Naofa hoped the creature had been too wounded to continue her rampage. But the endless ring of dark tendrils rising in the skies around them chided her for such a hopeful thought. Still she consoled herself, knowing they at least had the caves to retreat to if they had sensed the danger and went into them quickly enough. Another thought crept into her head and its voice chilled her bones worse than the winds stinging her face. ‘What if they are somehow trapped deep inside the caves?’
Within a few cycles they were all ready. Naofa chose a bright morning to depart from the others, with the sun offering warmth and the winds having fallen off; and after they ate breakfast, she gathered her things, preparing herself for farewells. She hoped the males would be alright and felt somehow between their own places of grief they would be able to comfort one another. As she rolled the extra skins the males provided and bound them with leather strips, she watched Ella holding Eagna’s newly born child. The Sorceress wondered how things would work out once Eolas stepped away from his grief and desired a greater role in his daughter’s life. And how could Laoch continue to share a companion with a temporary family as she continued to bond so closely with Eolas’ child. So many questions fought for audience in her mind; but in that moment she was grateful that the raven-haired Huntress was willing to be a substitute mother to her dearest friend’s most prized possession.
How quickly things had changed! How foolish she had been to worry over the birth of Laoch’s child, so quickly accepting the vision Artine provided of some abomination that would destroy its mother and father. And now…she was ridden with guilt and remorse. Naofa slung her pack across her back, ready to say her goodbyes. She walked over to where Ella sat feeding the infant and leaned down to plant a kiss on Saol’s soft head. Her heart leapt when the scent of lavender wafted into her nostrils. Ella had made oils from what remained of Eagna’s herbs and bathed the child in them. A single tear dropped onto Saol’s cheek, making her jump and shiver. Naofa giggled, hoping Eagna must somehow be watching. When she looked up her eyes met Ella’s in a moment of pure connection, the space between them electric. Both females felt extreme gratitude in that moment but for vastly different reasons. But the source of their feelings was the same. For love of Saol.
The Sorceress brushed back a strand of hair that had fallen across Ella’s face, so much swelling within that she wished to share with her newest friend. She tried to speak, to offer words of sympathy, regret and appreciation; but as her lips parted Ella gently pressed a finger to Naofa’s lips. “Down the path we will speak of things which have gone and others that still may come. In this moment it must be enough for you to know that I forgive you.” Ella glanced down, stroked the downy head of Eagna’s daughter, and looked back at Naofa, her eyes glistening with tears. “Love is greater than all of these things.”
Naofa’s heart skipped a beat and her brow furrowed, her mind filling with questions. What did the Huntress know of her own heart? What was she forgiving? Should she speak of things which never happened but in dreams? Ella turned to look at her Warrior, busily tying bundles of food for their journey, filled with the same love she had for him since the moment they first met. When she looked back at Naofa, the stoic Sorceress’s gray eyes brimmed with tears of her own. “Thank you for saving my life,” Ella said, wrapping her fingers around Naofa’s hand.
Naofa squeezed Ella’s hand and whispered, “It is I who should thank you for saving my life.” Her hand slipped down to rest on Saol’s blanket. “It cost you dearly.” Ella nodded and turned her attention once more to the infant in her arms. Saol was busily trying to thrust a small fist into her mouth, forever wanting something to suck on. Naofa stood up, picked up her bow and arrow-a gift from the Warrior and Hunter-and turned to the males. Eolas held Naofa close for a long moment, allowing his tears to fall freely onto her shoulder; and she embraced him as she had not done since that night, her own tears finally spilling over. They had more in common than she thought.
“I promise not to be away too long,” she promised. “I must return soon to check on our precious new female.” She smiled in the direction of Ella and Saol. Eolas nodded. Naofa took a deep breath and turned to face Loach. She felt suddenly conspicuous in Ella’s presence, so did not embrace the Warrior. Instead she held out her hand to grasp his and he took it gently but firmly, then pulled it to his lips, kissing it gently, but keeping his eyes locked onto those gray pools that comforted, encouraged and held him up to his highest self. In that moment he seemed not to see anyone else. In those few seconds they shared a passing of great sorrow between them. It felt as though they had lost something awfully precious. ‘But how can we lose something we never had?’, thought Naofa.
Eolas and Laoch lamented the loss of the horses that were brought from Juntos, for they would have made traveling so much easier for her; but as they watched the sleek white cat glide gracefully across the blackened landscape, they were reminded of how special the Sorceress was. What a lovely sight the contrast of light against dark made, even in the face of its madness. The stark, fluid movement of her body as it drifted over the black expanse of charred land was almost beautiful. Soon the white cat became a mere dot on the horizon, so they returned to the business at hand, completely unaware of the new miracle that was emerging from the devastation.
“Look what has become of this land, of M’na’s world,” murmured Eolas. The once dense forest looked like a huge mouth full of jagged black teeth. If it weren’t so tragic, the picture might have been comical, but neither laughed and there were not enough tears to be shed for what had happened to Inion’s world in the blink of an eye. Blink. Both males blinked and squinted as they saw another white dot on the horizon, this one moving towards them from out of the charred forest. Laoch’s jaw dropped as the dot grew larger, moving slowly through the tangle of singed stumps and fallen logs, and finally emerging into the open field where it seemed to suddenly be racing towards them. Before long they were able to make out the shape of a very large horse, but not just any horse. This animal was fully white, although its hide bore the signs of a long journey through mud and ash. But who drove it onward? It seemed to be arriving without a rider.
As the animal neared Eolas and Laoch, their question was answered in lines of the form that clung to its back. Both males clapped a hand to their chests and with the other clutched each other by the shoulder. “Ah’main!” they shouted in unison. Though limp and obviously suffering, there was no mistaking the dark skin, the curls floating around his head. This was the son of M’na and Fireann. Ignoring the fear that rose from their gut, they sprinted across the field to meet the new arrivals. Laoch put out his hand to slow the horse and it obeyed instinctively.
“This animal cannot be wild, but it didn’t come from Juntos. There is no such white horse there.” Laoch could see how badly injured and exhausted the young one was, barely able to hold his head up. The child peered at them through swollen lids, his lips cracked and nearly blue. A drop of spittle fell from his mouth when he tied to speak. Nothing but a squeak came out, like a baby bird begging for food.
Joy and relief flooded Amhain’s soul as he slipped from the beast’s back, the excited faces of the Warrior and Hunter fading into a painful blur as he lost consciousness. Laoch caught his slender body and carried him back to where the fire crackled. “Do you think he came all this way alone?” Eolas muttered. “This is not a good sign.” He and Laoch exchanged worried looks, but busied themselves with the business of cleaning the child and warming him up. With the nights now so cold along with the heavy rains, they wondered that he was still alive. M’na’s child was pale, shivering and dirty.
“His parents would be horrified to see this,” stated Eolas flatly, his voice tinged with bitter helplessness. But how had the child managed to come all this way alone? “We can ask questions later, but now we must see that he recovers to tell such tales.” Both of them breathed a sigh of relief that at least this member of the Garden Family had managed to stay alive.