|Promises: Chapter Six
||[May. 17th, 2007|06:46 am]
Two Authors, One Mind
New to the story? Headers are here. Or start at the beginning.
The midwife laid a hand lightly on Paine's thigh. "There, that's done." She turned around, discreetly busying herself at the water basin while Paine sat up and put her robe back on, tying the sash around her waist. She remained seated on the bed, and the midwife joined her, sitting down in the chair at her bedside. The midwife was a kindly sort named Irini, perhaps ten years older than Paine but with the air of a wise and loving grandmother. Paine found her presence comforting, but she remained aware that the midwife was still a near-stranger. She'd hoped to have two months to get to know the other woman, but circumstances had intervened, and in the end they'd only been introduced once before the night of Polarok's birth.
"So." Irini moved slightly forward in the chair. "The bleeding has stopped."
"Yes. Over a week ago now."
Irini leaned back with a nod. "I'm not surprised. It was a fairly easy birth, as these things go. How did it compare to your others?"
"They were far more difficult. I was in labor for almost a full day with Jarl, and then of course the twins were a marathon session. This time was much quicker." Paine cast her eyes down to her lap and felt her mouth twist. Perhaps that was ironic. A cruel irony, if so.
"That sometimes happens, when the child comes early," Irini told her. "Smaller babies usually lead to easier labor." Paine nodded but could say no more, clasping her hands together, not looking up. Irini gave her a minute, then continued. "So, you seem to be almost completely healed, physically. I don't see any signs of tearing or scarring, so no need to worry about infection. You might want to keep taking it easy for a little while, but I'd say there's no reason you can't get back normal activities. More exercise would even be good for you, get your muscles to their usual tone. Do you have any questions?"
Paine raised her gaze a little. "I'm still producing some milk. When will that stop?"
Irini tapped a finger on the arm of her chair. "Shouldn't last too much longer. There is already less, I hope? If it's too uncomfortable, there are some herbs I can give you to help stop the lactation. Otherwise, it's not something to worry about. Anything else?"
Shaking her head, Paine looked out the window.
"Are you sure?"
Silence filled the room for a long moment. Then Irini sighed. "I know, my dear. There is nothing on this earth more difficult than losing a child, especially a newborn babe."
"I just want it to be over," Paine said through clenched teeth. "I don't want to be like this anymore." She crossed her arms over her chest and hugged herself tightly. "When will it be over?"
Irini rested a hand on her shoulder. "My dear girl, it will never be over. You will always be Polarok's mother, you will always love and miss her, and no amount of time can change that. The sharp edge of your grief will dull, I can promise you that. But it will never be gone. Some day, ten years from now, you may see a ten-year-old girl with her mother, and for whatever reason -- a trick of the light, a sound, a smell -- she'll make you think of your own daughter, and for the rest of the day you will be inconsolable. But that day will pass, just as these days will pass, and you'll be able to live your life. You will."
Something in Irini's voice caused Paine to look up, and she saw more in the midwife's eyes than just compassion. She covered the other woman's hand with her own. "Did yours die in childbirth, too?" she asked.
Irini flicked her eyes downward for just a second. "Sin," she said softly. "He was only three days old."
Paine swallowed hard, and squeezed the hand she held. "I'm sorry."
Irini nodded in acknowledgement. The women held hands for another moment, sharing their grief, and then Irini backed away, her professional demeanor returning. "So you didn't ask the question that many women ask at this stage in the healing process, but I'll answer it anyway. If you would like to resume normal sexual relations, you may. Normally I'd tell you to wait another week or two, but given how quickly you healed, it's definitely safe."
"There's a reason I didn't ask," Paine snapped back without thinking.
The midwife tipped her head sideways and peered at Paine, who fought to hold back a blush as she remembered her visit to Nooj the night before. Had she been caught in the lie? Irini was unsettlingly silent for what felt like a few minutes.
"Well," she said at last. "Yours would not be the first marriage torn apart by the death of a child." Paine opened her mouth to correct the error, then thought better of it. "But I think it's a shame." She leaned forward again, but her expression was firmer this time, less the compassionate mother and more the disciplinarian. "I don't pretend to understand what was happening with the meyvn and his illness, or whatever connection there is between that and Polarok's death. But you do no one any good by punishing him for it. Not him, not you, not her. Remember, he's going through much the same pain that you are. You need each other right now. Make this tragedy an opportunity to come together, not an excuse to pull away."
Paine stood up swiftly and turned away from Irini, her stomach churning with conflicting emotions. But when she spoke, her voice was cold and hard. "I think you should go."
She heard the chair creak as the other woman stood. "As you wish. Send for me if you need my assistance." She walked out of the room, and Paine did not move for a long time.
Jarl pulled the coverlet over his legs and disposed himself to sleep. He was tired after a long day of walking up every staircase in the Castle from its base to its peak and counting the steps as he went. Only a day since his cousins had left, and he was already bored. Sometimes he wished his family was as large as theirs. It would be good to have a brother or even a sister nearer his own age to keep him company. Back at home, there were some others his age to play with but here... no one. Restlessly, he tossed the covers aside and waved his legs in the air. There was not enough to do. And with his parents still acting so oddly, he was worried. He was used to his father talking to him like an adult. When Nooj kissed him or petted his head, it just didn't feel right. And his mother was active and straightforward at home. She didn't sit around wrapped up in shawls and stare into space all the time. He understood why she was sad, but understanding didn't make it easier to deal with.
The boy catapulted off the bed and went to the window. He was not permitted to have the window open widely at night for fear he might sleep-walk and fall into the sea below. With a sudden rebellious movement, he shoved the panes aside and leaned out to watch the waves lap against the walls of the Castle. Could he go see Uncle Gippal down the hall? No, he decided, that would look like he was afraid to be by himself. He was a big boy now and needed to act like one.
He curled up on the wide windowsill and tried to think of something to do to get his parents back to normal. Maybe if he got sick, they would worry about him and forget about the baby. He imagined them bustling around his bed and wishing they had paid him more attention when it would have done some good. It was a strangely satisfying image. After awhile, his eyelids drooped and he drifted into a sleep which was only broken when he grew cold and, shame-facedly, closed the window and crept back to his bed.
Paine did not go to Nooj that night, but after she put the twins to bed the next evening, she found herself roaming the corridors in his half of the Castle. At first she went around in restless circles, avoiding his hallway, telling herself she would head to the courtyard for some air, but in the end she ended up outside of his rooms, staring at the heavy wooden door.
A dim light shone underneath the door, and she thought she could hear the turning of pages. For long minutes she argued with herself. Did she have any business being here, taking everything he offered and leaving herself closed off in return? She wasn't even sure he would let her in the room. Nooj was a proud man, and he had submitted to her completely at their last encounter, then been rejected; she was sure he didn't remember that morning with any fondness. He might feel used, and she wouldn't blame him if he did. Was she wasting her time?
In the end, there was only one way to know. She knocked on the door.
Pain shaped his every move. Pain shadowed and illuminated his path, driving him like a goaded bull through the maze of his thoughts. Pain, varying its blows from the heavy bludgeon wielded with indifferent brutality to the subtle stiletto stroke to the vitals delivered with smirking malice, assaulted him without pause, as inevitable as the night.
For many years, Nooj had known that continuous extreme pain was not possible. The receptors grew weary or the body simply refused to respond after a prolonged time. He could remember lying on a battlefield or maybe it was a hospital bed -- he had been too far gone to identify his surroundings -- and feeling the mysterious intoxication of pain. After a while, he had become frozen in an amber of agony and the sublimation of the pain transformed it into a different sensation altogether, a sort of occult experience to which the common descriptions no longer applied. He had moved out of his body and into a chrysalis of understanding where he saw with astonishing clarity what had happened, was happening, and would most likely happen. Divorced from reality as he usually understood it, he drifted powerless on the winds of acceptance. After a long period of pain, both the body and the mind stopped fighting and surrendered to the torture, hunting for the comforting arms of Death.
He had expected this same phenomenon to occur during his mental torment. The agony of being exiled from the world of Paine was so great that he was certain he would soon be released from that in a like manner to his experiences with physical duress. It was not so. He woke each morning with the same sharp knife in his chest, the same flaying of his emotional skin. It never grew less, and he wondered how much longer he could remain sane under torture which did not ease.
He had managed to come to terms with the facts of his punishment, and during the day he could hold himself as he always had, stern and proud, aloof from the pitying glances of the other inhabitants of the Castle. But in the night - ah, then when he was alone with only his reflection for companionship, it became more difficult. He longed for the presence of Paine. Sometimes, he could catch the trace of her fragrance and almost cried aloud in his loneliness. The concept of endless nights without her was not bearable and so he tried to turn his mind away from it and not think.
He braced himself for yet another night of this, knowing that sleep might come only after fatigue had claimed its due. Or it might not come at all. He opened a book which he would pretend to read in case anyone noticed the light under his door. He had grown adroit at turning pages without engaging the marks on them, letting the letters and words serve as screens for his dark lonely musings, the crackle of the paper partially obscuring his soft moans.
A whisper of sound at the door drew his attention from the endless loop of his thoughts. It was probably one of the servants checking on the security of the Castle. They did regular rounds all through the night. No, it was a definite tap. Could something have happened which needed his involvement? Reluctantly, he dragged himself to his feet; surely if it was a matter of importance, the knock would have been more emphatic. Still, it was something to divert him from another night of aimless brooding. Any disruption was welcome. If he could be of use, however small, it was better than reliving the events which had brought him to this pass. Leaning heavily upon his cane, he made his way to the barred door.
For a few minutes, there had been nothing but silence. Then she'd heard the tell-tale sounds of a chair scraping back, followed by heavy, uneven footsteps and the clicking of the metal cane against the stone floor. She listened as he drew slowly closer. After the noises stopped, more time passed before the latch lifted and the door opened. Nooj stood before her, illuminated only by the dim light of his desk lamp. He had taken his hair down, and it fell in gentle waves to his waist, still slightly damp from washing. White strands were beginning to show among the dark, and his face was drawn, shadowed, lined; his clothes still hung a bit loose on his frame. With a jolt, Paine recognized this last as an after-effect from his possession by the Shadow. Between her own grief and her efforts to avoid him, she hadn't even noticed his incomplete recovery. She was surprised by how much that bothered her.
He said nothing and would not meet her eyes; instead he looked at a point just to the side of her head, in the air over her shoulder, gaze unfocused. She would have to make the first move. "I'm sorry I left the way I did the other night," she said. "I wasn't ready to face the consequences of spending the night with you, and I guess I'm still not. And I can't promise that it won't happen again."
"Then why have you come?" he asked, not moving.
She spread her hands in supplication. "Because I couldn't stay away."
He stood, still as stone, his face blank. She took his silence as her answer and turned away, walking down the corridor toward the courtyard. Perhaps she'd go get that air after all. She supposed it was easier this--
Paine turned again. He had taken several steps into the hallway, and he reached out with his right hand. She closed the distance to him and took it.
He pulled her into the room, and she kicked the door closed behind her. Then she launched herself into his arms, mouth on his, hands buried in his thick hair, and spoke his name against his lips. "Nooj. Make love to me."
"I can't," he whispered back. "I mustn't, it's too soon, I'll hurt you--"
With an effort of will, Paine pulled her head back. "You won't," she said, already short of breath. "The midwife, she was here, she said that I'm completely healed and it's fine. Please. Nooj. I need-- ooooh!" He crushed her to him, and then there was no more room for words as his mouth took hers completely.
When he lifted his head, he saw her surrounded by an aura so intense his eyes glimmered. Her beauty stunned him, and only the shifting weight of her body against his convinced him he was not dreaming at his desk. "Oh, my love, I've missed you so much and I want you more than..." -- he almost said 'life itself' but a fugitive remnant of good sense guarded his tongue --"...you will ever know. Are you sure? About the midwife? We've been here before and waited longer."
She gazed into his dark eyes and raised two fingers to his lips. "Shh," she murmured. "Trust me." Shifting her hand to his left cheek, she pressed her mouth against the right, tracing the line of his jaw with kisses, then the side of his neck, the hollow of his throat. She unbuttoned his shirt and slipped her arms beneath the fabric. Her fingernails traveled lightly over his backbone, and her left hand dropped down cup his buttock and hold him securely to her.
He was aware that his arousal must be obvious to her and that she must feel the urgent pounding of his heart in her ear. Dizzy with her nearness, he made no further protests and led her to the narrow bed, pausing only to snap off the lamp on his desk. Under her robe she wore nothing, for which he was thankful. His own garments seemed to have become far too numerous and tight as he struggled to rid himself of the encumbrances. When they at last lay flesh against flesh, burning against one another, he carefully stroked the softness between her legs, and the slickness he found reassured him that her passion was at a pitch equal to his own.
With a gasp, she arched into his hand. She pressed closer against the delicate touch, wanting even more. Then he moved his hands to her shoulders and gripped them lightly as he maneuvered into place over her. She adjusted herself so as to lie directly beneath him, his hair cascading over them both to shelter them from the rest of the world. Her eyes met his, wide with wonder and crackling with passion, and she remembered everything she had forced herself to forget. This, this was the place of safety and comfort she had been missing for so long. She lifted her hands to his bare chest and ran her palms up and down the warm muscles, sliding smoothly over the scars she knew so well. Her hands came to rest on his hips, and she guided him into position.
Nooj watched the face of his lover closely, alert to any expression of pain which might appear in her eyes. He permitted her to set the pace and degree of his penetration, suppressing his urge to plunge fiercely into her welcoming warmth. As he sank lower, he was surprised to feel her thighs grip his waist and her soft heels press against his buttocks. With a gasp, he reached his goal and they lay interlocked, wrapped in the windings of his hair. For a long time, they lay without moving, rejoicing in the oneness they had always cherished. He had become her and she him. The little panting breaths which blew against his ear were a symphony to him as he nibbled at the length of her neck and let his weight fully descend on her body. She clung to him as though never to let him go again, and the horrors of the recent past dissolved in the potent elixir of their union.
When he felt her stir toward him, he shifted back and began the gentle rocking movement which they had found most satisfying during similar times after the births of the other children. He looked into her eyes and saw that she remembered those times as well as he.
"Beloved," he moaned.
"Nooj," she whispered, sinking into his gaze. "Oh Nooj." She rocked with him, felt every inch of him, and pulled him deeper every time he pushed inside. Nothing was left in the universe but their two bodies, intertwined. The cold grief at her core melted under the heat of his touch. Here, in his arms, beneath his weight, she could be whole again; she could forget, if only for a little while. One hand uncurled from his shoulder to bury itself in his hair, and she pulled his head to hers. Their lips met in a kiss that started out slow and gentle as she explored every corner of his mouth; then she shifted her hips to move him more quickly, and the kiss changed to match the motions of their joining. His tongue plunged into her mouth, tearing a groan from her throat; soon she broke away and tipped her head back with a cry of pleasure, calling his name again, his moans increasing in intensity as she rose to her peak. Then everything dissolved as she fell over the edge, her whole body convulsing with the relief of her release.
He felt her quiver into her orgasm and let himself follow her. They had often climaxed together but this time seemed special. They clung to one another, crying out in simultaneous ecstasy, consumed by the glory of becoming one. Again and again he surged against her, emptying his seed into her belly. When they lay exhausted at last, oiled by the sweat of their bodies, still joined and at peace with one another, it was as if they had been freshly created for just this moment.
"Paine," he whispered. "I love you so much." Feeling her fingers over his lips, he took each one separately and kissed it in turn, inhaling the fragrance of their combined scents. Things were as they should be and he dreamed that they might remain so. The slightly salty tang of her shoulder reminded him of the nights on the boat, so long ago. Was this the beginning of their rediscovery of one another? Could this be the gift for which he so longed?
Her hand slid from his mouth to rest along his jaw, and she cradled his head in the hollow of her shoulder. Every muscle had gone limp, her body perfectly relaxed and content for the first time in what felt like an age. Wrapped in his limbs and his long thick hair, she could feel sleep coming to claim her. She pressed her hand against his cheek and, already half dreaming, responded in words almost too soft for him to hear.
"I love you, too."
And then she was gone, eyes closed, breathing deep and even, as she fell into a deep, peaceful slumber.
Had she really said it? It was so softly spoken; had he imagined it out of his hope and need? She still loved him in spite of everything? She still loved him. With infinite delicacy, he folded her to him and brushed light kisses on her closed lids.
Too exhilarated to sleep immediately, he filled his eyes with her beauty. Her belly was still slightly swollen from her pregnancy, and the silvery tracery of stretch marks was clearly defined in the raking moonlight. His finger did not quite touch the skin as he followed the raised pattern which lay like lace across the rounded shape of her body, the persistent token of all she had given him. He remembered with a faint smile the discussion which had preceded the start of their family, how she had insisted that bearing a child to continue his proud lineage would be no interruption to her life. How valiantly she had lied that day.
He bent over to brush the marks on her belly, his lips tenderly wandering across the velvety skin. Her devotion and generosity humbled him. If she would give him another chance he would ... What would he do? Could he so radically transform himself and convince her he had done so? Would she ever trust him again? With a whispered moan, he stroked the soft curve of her hip and wished himself to be a better man.
Once again, Paine woke first, before the sunrise. For a few moments she lay still, allowing herself to luxuriate in Nooj -- his arms, his scent, his presence. She glanced up to his peaceful, sleeping face and wondered if she could slip out of his embrace without disturbing him. But the thought hadn't even finished crossing her mind before his eyes opened. He looked down at her with equal parts adoration and fear, his metal hand finding and stroking her cheek, and something wrenched in her chest. Then the image of Polarok superimposed itself on his features, and the cold fingers of grief and anger snaked back around her heart and squeezed tight.
She closed her eyes and turned away, and then she pulled away, standing up and putting on her robe before she could change her mind. Without a word she walked to the door, then paused, her hands on the doorframe. She could feel his gaze burning into her back, and against her better judgment she turned around.
He looked so lost and desolate, almost shrunken, lying alone in the bed, that she almost cracked. How could she leave him like this? But she just shook her head. "I'm sorry," she murmured. And then she slipped out of the door and into the hallway.
He had expected nothing else, really. That she had trusted herself to sleep so long in his arms was a triumph of sorts. If this was how their life must be, he could bear it. Just to have her close to him, in his embrace when she chose to favor him, would be enough. It was more than he deserved, more than he had any right to expect. His fault had robbed her of her child; how could he even think that she might find it possible to forgive him? He closed his eyes, unable to bear the sight of the room without Paine any longer. A bleak acceptance of his fate pressed against his chest where her hand had been, pressing almost hard enough to stop his breathing.
The hour before sunrise was often the pleasantest time on Kilika Island, after the heat of the previous day had dissipated and when a cool morning breeze blew in off the ocean. But the air was stagnant today, and Paine could already feel the humidity pressing down on her. She stood in the courtyard, her hands braced on the low wall that surrounded the space, and stared out at the sky as it lightened in the east, pinks and oranges spreading from the horizon and into the clouds.
Paine tried to recall the peace she had felt, lying spent beneath the weight of Nooj's body, falling asleep in the cradle of his arms, waking up safe and content in his bed. But the harder she tried to grasp it, the further it slipped away, leaving her only with the hollowness of grief. Once again the image of her infant daughter's face rose in her mind, mouth slack and eyes forever closed -- she would never even know what color they were. Tears started to rise in the back of her throat, but she forced them away. She was so sick of crying.
Clenching her arms across her chest, she began to pace. Why had she sought out Nooj? Any number of reasons came to mind, but right now they all felt like excuses. She had accused him of living a lie, but were her actions any better? Was she lying to him by holding out hope of reconciliation? Or was the cold, hard facade she presented during the day the lie?
She looked up into the sky, scanned the fading stars, and discovered no answers, there or within. So she sank down on the stone wall and turned back to the rising sun. The warm rays bathed her face, and even with the promise of more oppressive heat to come, Paine found their touch calming. There was an solution, somewhere. There must be some way to unravel this knot of love and trust and lies. And with enough time, she would find it.
Filled with a sudden sense of purpose, she rose and made her way back to her rooms, hands pressed deep in the pockets of her robe, lost in thought as she walked the corridors of the Castle, her footsteps echoing off the stone walls.