by Helen Garraway.
Autocrit Challenge April 2020.
The voice swirled in the wind; penitent, persuasive, pleading. The hint of despair was new though and penetrated her defences. Yes, she wanted him to suffer, as she had suffered, but forever? Could she hold on to her anger and her resentment, leaving him alone and abandoned?
Yes, she thought, snorting derisively as she stared out to sea. He didn’t deserve or want her regard or her opinion. He had made that clear many years ago.
So why was he still calling?
A tumult of emotions tumbled through her: hate, fear, sadness, but most of all, a sense of betrayal and loss, even after all these years. To have that which you longed for, which would complete you, dangled in front of your nose and then snatched away without recourse. That was unforgivable.
She had spent twenty years mourning what she couldn’t have, and still, he called; tormenting her. Stiffening her resolve, she pressed her hands over her ears. She couldn’t hear him. La-la-la-la la, she had more important things to do. Like‒like what? She groaned. Bethany Fraser, get a grip, get over him, Do what you’re good at, focus on the sea.
She calmed her agitated nerves, running through the focussing charm her mother had taught her. As her pulse slowed, she sunk her awareness into the silvery waves lapping the cove below.
The velvety water caressed her skin; a soothing sensation as she descended, calming her jangled thoughts. Silence surrounded her. Fronds of frothy green seaweed danced in the current, small silver fish darting between, bright flashes in the sun-dappled waters. She reached the sandy bottom and sat cross-legged, running her fingers through the fine sand; her sea-foam hair rising around her like white curly tentacles.
Memories of what it should be like intruded, and she stiffened. The joyous burbling of the little fishes, the foghorn call of the hermit crab which guarded the bay, the lament of the tiny shrimp scrabbling in the sand searching for their mum. It was like being deaf, cut off from the life beneath the waves. There was no magic; she couldn’t experience the wonders like she used to, with him. Each time she visited was a reminder of what she’d lost.
Twenty years of living a lie while she hid down by the coast, pretending to be a sea-maid, calming the waters and protecting the fishermen from inclement weather, guiding them to the best fishing grounds. She was supposed to have been partnered for life. Half of a whole that would protect their part of the land and the sea. For the good of their world, unseen but noticed. All gone to waste.
Snapping back into her body, she turned away from the water, frustrated. She was only half alive, only using a fraction of her skills, of her power, because of him! An uncomfortable thought intruded: he had called again, desperation in his voice, and she hadn’t replied, not once.
When she stomped into the village, a crowd of children were clamouring around a man dressed in patched robes with a cloth cap on his head. Skirting the group, she smiled at the excited voices and happy faces.
They settled on the grass as the man whipped his cap off, revealing grey hair cut tight to his head, and he patted his hands down in front of him. “I can’t talk over you lot, so calm down you gaggle of clacking gulls.”
The kids giggled and quieted down. One spoke up, “We want the Tower story, how he broke his nose!”
The travelling minstrel spread his hands out. “Again? There are other stories you know.”
Boys and girls bounced and shouted, and the minstrel shook his head. “I dunno why you like that tale so much; the ending is no so happy.”
“Give us a happy ending then. You’re telling the story,” a young boy piped up.
The minstrel caught Bethany’s eye and grinned. “I’m jus’ telling you the story I didn’t make it up.”
“But yer could give it a happy ending.”
“That I canna for the end hasn’t happened yet, laddie.”
“Well, I’ll tell you the story, and you tell me.” The minstrel looked at Bethany and gestured to the grass. “Sit, Missy.”
Bethany rolled her eyes, but she was snared, and she sat.
The minstrel raised his hands in front of him. “There was once a handsome Tower, strong and true. He grew out of the grey stone local to the area. A slender tower with a conical hat he pulled down from the clouds to protect him from the rain and the wind. Once complete, he gazed around him and was satisfied.
“But as time passed, he became bored and lonely. For no one visited him, and he was unable to leave his Tower. One day he was busy warming the ground with the suns rays, preparing the soil for the farmer’s seeds when he saw a beautiful young girl walking along the headland to his Tower.
“She walked around his Tower, a frown on her brow. Her white hair, just like Mistress Fraser’s here, clouded around her face in the breeze he had been encouraging. She smiled up at him and said: ‘You need a step.’
‘A step?’ he repeated in surprise.
‘Yes, to welcome your visitors.’
‘What visitors?’ he asked.
‘Those who will come and visit us,’ she said, ‘and a light to greet them.’
“And then she moved in with him for she was the mage who was destined to partner him. All Towers have a mage to help them, to work hand in hand, to protect the land and the sea.” The minstrel peered around the children. “And that’s what they did, together. They protected the people and soothed the weather and encouraged the crops to grow…” The minstrel’s voice faded as memories took over.
Bethany hugged her knees as his face rose before her. The elegant planes of his face once so precious and loved. The copper burnishes of sun gleamed hair, tousled and soft under her fingers. They had worked well together, well-matched, and she knew she had bloomed as he had enhanced her magic with his, and she had enhanced his.
She relived the sensation of power rippling down her arms and into the soil. The embrace of the storm as the charged air made her hair stand on end. They had stood at the top of the Tower and absorbed the sensations together, as one.
The minstrel’s voice deepened, and Bethany shivered, flicking a glance around her with a start. “Until the day the Tower saw the young mage being feted by the local youths from the village, for she was beautiful, you know.” The minstrel winked at Bethany. “They brought her flowers to thank her for her help during a recent storm.
“Well, the Tower was jealous, and he said things he ought not to have. He said he didn’t need her; he could manage fine on his own. He said he had never invited her to his Tower, and she should leave before he threw her out.” The children gasped in horror.
Nodding the minstrel continued. “Indeed, the Tower would not listen to the mage; no matter what she said he had an answer, and finally, reluctantly, she left. Though she had a parting shot, she said with tears running down her cheeks: ‘You don’t know what you have until its gone, and then it’s too late.’
“The Tower regretted his words straight away, but what is said, is difficult to unsay, and he had his pride. He had no idea where she went so he couldn’t send a message, and of course, he couldn’t leave, for he is the Tower.
“Her words haunted him, and one day his anger overwhelmed him, and he slammed his fist against the wall, and a crack ran up to the roof and the light on top.” The minstrel paused for effect. “The light shattered, and people say he broke his nose because the glass gleamed red as blood on the roof, reflecting the red glow of the dawn.”
The children digested the story in silence.
“When will the lady return?” a small urchin asked from the front row.
The minstrel gave her a gentle smile. “No one knows; the Tower has been silent for twenty years or more.”
“But you said he couldn’t leave,” the boy said.
“He is still there, but he doesn’t answer the farmers call. The land lies fallow, the crops fail, and the Tower is silent. So now you know, think carefully, before you cast something away with careless words; it might mean more to you than you realise.”
“But what happened to the lady?”
“She was never seen again.”
The small girl at the front sighed as she rubbed her grubby face. “You should make her come back; he is sorry, and he misses her.”
“I wish I could, my dear. I wish I could. And see, I said it was a sad story, what about something happier, what about the tale of the flower seller. Mistress Fraser will give us some flowers, and you can take them home.”
Bethany forced her face into a smile as she rose. She waved her hand, sending a small breeze to the apple trees, and the breeze returned with armfuls of blossom which descended around the children like snowflakes. The children squealed trying to catch them.
“You should go to the tower Mistress Fraser, you could be his mage,” the little girl said with a shaky smile. “You would be happy then too.” And she dashed back to collect the flowers.
Bethany froze as the minstrel stopped beside her. “He grieves, you know.”
“Aye, even Towers make mistakes. They don’t have to last a lifetime.”
“Some mistakes can’t be forgiven; even if he is a stubborn, pig-headed Tower.” Bethany gritted her teeth against saying more. She had already said too much.
“You met him, Missy?”
“Once, a long time ago.”
“You must be one o’ the last; no one’s seen him since. I think the laddie came into his senses, mebbe realised what he’d done. He went silent after that.”
“Sulking you mean?”
“Probably for a while, but he withdrew completely. He’s no supporting the land anymore. The crops are failing. The creeks silting up. It’s like he no longer cares.”
“He has to care. He has no choice, that’s his purpose.”
“Aye, Missy, but he’s not supposed to be on his own. ’tis a heavy burden for one. The land is suffering, as are the people. I think mebbe he’s suffered enough. He needs his mage.” The minstrel bobbed his head and turned back to the children now clasping handfuls of sweet-smelling blossoms. The minstrel’s voice lightened with joy. “Look at you all; what a pretty picture you make.”
Bethany glared after him. What about her? Hadn’t she suffered enough? Why would she go back and let him reject her again? She scowled and even more irritated, thumped her way home.
Arriving in her tiny cottage, she paused in the hallway and stared at herself in the mirror. Masses of white hair clouded around her elfin face. She rubbed her pointed chin with some defiance. She wasn’t stubborn, he was. Sea green eyes glared back at her cynically, and she huffed and went to make dinner.
That night she tossed and turned, unable to sleep. The minstrel’s words repeating over and over in her head. Had he been suffering? Her chest tightened at the thought. If he had, her mind argued, it was his own fault. She hadn’t made him suffer; he brought the situation on himself. He had forced her to leave. She hadn’t gone by choice, so why was his distress now her fault?
Two days passed, and she threw her hands up in disgust. The note of despair in his voice tugged at her heartstrings, and she couldn’t ignore him any longer. She rubbed her gritty eyes and shrugged. It wouldn’t hurt to visit, to talk some sense into his stubborn head. He shouldn’t be neglecting the people or the land. He was a Tower.
Packing a small bag, she slung it over her shoulder. A glance around the cottage had her pausing at the door. Had she imprinted so little of herself on her home, that she would not miss it, nor it miss her? Raising her chin, she left, disturbed by the thought.
The sea growled as she trudged. The stormy waves reflected the heavy clouds above. The light, fluffy clouds Bethany maintained over her home had given way to roiling grey thunderheads as the miles passed. Droplets of moisture clung to her clothes and hair.
As she walked, questions spun in her mind, miring her in regret for the lost years. Why? She didn’t understand why, and she wasn’t sure he would he tell her, no matter how sad he was.
If the weather were any indication, she wouldn’t be finding him in a good mood. Maybe she ought to delay and come another day when he was in a better frame of mind.
A splatter of light rain had her dashing down the lane to the next village, where she knew there was an inn. She ducked under the lintel, though she wasn’t tall and uncovered her hair as she shed her shawl.
What little conversation there was died as she shook out her wet scarves. She paused, looking around and realising everyone was watching her she strode up to the bar. “Goodness, that rain squall came up suddenly,” she said with a smile.
“Arrr,” the man behind the bar said.
“A cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss, while I wait for the storm to blow over.”
“Best make yerself comfortable,” a small man at the other end of the bar said. “It ain’t stopped raining for months.”
Bethany frowned. “Why not? Haven’t you spoken to the Tower?” She turned, resting her back against the bar as the rest of the men laughed.
“Where you from, Missy?” An older man, his face creased and weathered, peered at her as he smoked his pipe. “Waste o’ time talking to him. He don’t answer. He never comes out. We tried pounding on the doors, enough to wake the dead, but he wouldn’t respond.”
“That’s not like him. How long has the Tower been silent?”
“Years. The young’ens got in once, and they said they scared themselves something silly. Cold and Deserted it was. They said ‘is voice moaned on wind mournful like, but they never sees him. No one has. No one hears him anymore, either.”
Bethany hitched herself on a stool. “How long has it been raining?”
The men exchanged glances. “Nigh on three months, on and off. Happens every year.”
“But what about your crops? Your pastures?”
The small man at the bar shrugged. “Why d’yer think we’re in here? No point being out there.”
Bethany smiled her thanks as the barman placed a mug of tea before her. She took a careful sip, relaxing at the rising aroma. “How much further is it to the Tower?”
“Why? Was yer planning on visiting, Missy?”
“Yes, I think someone needs to tell him to grow up.”
A crack of thunder rumbled overhead, and the men looked up at the ceiling in concern.
“Now Missy, don’t you go riling him more; this weather is bad enough as it is.”
Bethany grinned. “It can’t get much worse. I suppose he could send hail down on us though what would be the point? After all, the rain is not your fault, is it? Or did you do something to upset him?”
“Nay Missy, we ain’t seen him. Like we said, he won’t speak to no one.”
“I see.” Bethany sipped her tea.
The man leaned forward, tapping his pipe against his nose. “Yer know ‘im do yer?”
Bethany met his rheumy eyes. “Once.”
“Think you can talk him out of his temper?”
“Maybe,” she said, waggling her hand.
There was a low-voiced discussion before the man sat up again and waved his pipe at her. “I’ll take yer.”
Bethany raised her eyebrows. “To the Tower?”
“Yes. If you can stop this cursed rain. It would be better for all.”
“What if I can’t?”
“As you said, it can’t get much worse.” Another rumble of thunder echoed overhead. “I’m Tom. I’ll take yer tomorrow. Yer gonna get wet.”
“I won’t melt.”
“I might,” the man grumbled as he put his coat on. He nodded to the other men and left.
Bethany smiled at the barman. “Is there a room I could use for the night?”
“Arr.” The man placed a key beside her tea.
Bethany grinned and slid off the stall. She placed a coin on the bar and found her way to her room and dropping her bag on the bed, she opened the window. Chill rain drove against the building, chips of ice clicked against the stone walls making her flinch back, and she slammed the window shut. The glass blurred as rain and sleet ran down the pane as the night closed in.
It rained all night; it never stopped. When Bethany rose the next morning, the air was chill and clammy, and she shivered as she dressed. She descended the stairs and was sat eating her breakfast of hot porridge when Tom blew in on a gust of damp wind.
“It’s not improved,” he said as he shook his coat out.
“No, somehow I think it will take a bit to get through his self-pity. He seems well-entrenched,” Bethany said as she finished her tea. She stood and wrapped herself in her shawl. She patted the man’s cheek and led the way out of the inn.
What would have taken her at least three days to walk, took less than a day in the wagon. They weren’t carrying a load, so the horse made reasonable time, even in the atrocious conditions.
Dreary fields appeared in the hazy mist, grey and sodden. Bethany was glad she wasn’t walking; the sludgy roads would have been a slog. As it was, her skirts clung to her legs, her hair was plastered to her head, and her mood grew sourer as the horse struggled on. Until they finally got stuck in a boggy patch of the road that had just given up attempting to be anything else.
Bethany glared around her. “This is ridiculous,” she shouted at the sky, and the sky growled back. “Right,” she said, hitching her skirts and clambering down to the mud, casting her senses out, searching.
“Whatcha doing, Missy?” Tom asked.
“Drying the road out,” she murmured, her attention focused on drawing the water out of the bog. She collected the moisture in a fat, spongey cloud and sent it on its merry way with a vicious grin.
Tom stared around him and stamped the hard dirt. His wagon was embedded in the ground, sunk into compacted gloopy mud half-way up the wheels. A splatter of rain hit his face and made him flinch. “Not much point, I’d say,” he said and began unharnessing his horse.
Bethany scowled. “You’re right.” She twisted her hand and wrenched it into her stomach and then flared her palm out, fingers spread wide, and the rain stuttered and slowed to a drizzle before stopping. The clouds hovered, waiting. “I can hold it off for an hour, everywhere is saturated.”
Tom eyed her warily and then glanced at his wagon. “Well, Missy, we’ll have to ride him, unless you can lift the wagon out.”
“Not on my own.”
“Thought not,” he said and boosted her on the horse.
It was late afternoon by the time they arrived at the Tower. Though with the lowering skies and the growling thunderstorm overhead it was difficult to tell what time of day it was.
Bethany slid down and stared at the mournful grey building. Lit by flashes of lightning, it looked like it was weeping, with rain running in torrents down the stone walls.
“Is that how you want to be remembered? Crying like a baby?” she yelled into the storm.
A flash of lightning split the sky.
“Leaving the land to suffer and crops failing in this ridiculous deluge?”
“You call that conciliatory, Missy? He’s mourning that’s what he’s doing.”
Bethany nearly laughed out loud at Tom’s horrified expression. A deep rumble belied his words, and he turned his horse and rode off, making his escape.
Another grumbling vibration echoed across the headland, and Bethany shook out her shawl and pushed her wet hair off her face. She squelched around the Tower, inspecting the stone. He had been neglecting it. Patting the wall in sympathy, she tutted as she walked.
A soft smile spread over her face as she reached the step. She sat on it and waited. The rain eased and then stopped. The clouds smoothed out and began to lighten. A gentle breeze stirred, caressing her face, teasing her snowy white curls, but they were too sodden to respond.
“It’s you.” He sounded surprised, and then doubt crept it. “No, it’s not. I dream of you so often I think I see you, tumbling down the steps, racing down to the lake, standing on the headland, watching the sea. But you won’t answer, you won’t come.”
“Why should I? You rejected me, threw me out, said you didn’t need me.”
“Such regret, I’ve never felt such pain. I was young, crass, didn’t understand what it meant, but I do now.” He fell silent, brooding and the clouds began to roil above her.
“And so you’re drowning everyone else in your sorrow? You didn’t learn much.”
“You’ve been away so long. I hurt you, and I am sorry, please forgive me. I miss you every day; it’s like part of me is missing. I turn around, and you’re not there. I am incomplete, and I can’t concentrate. I can’t focus; I keep searching for you.” A low rumble capped his words.
“I heard you’ve been sulking, having temper tantrums. It doesn’t sound like you learnt much.”
“I was angry. At me, not you, at my stupidity,” he said, in a rush. The breeze swirled in agitation.
“Was that when you cracked your wall? During your petulant phase?”
He hesitated. “You heard about that?”
“Oh yes, you made history, stories are still told about you, even now, you’re famous‒the Tower who punched the wall and broke his nose.” Bethany sensed the embarrassment percolating through the stone.
“I was an idiot. I see that now. What I did was unforgivable. I don’t blame you for leaving. But you went so far away. I couldn’t reach you to apologise to ask for your forgiveness.”
“You know they say you were jealous. Accuse me of flirting with the boys. They say your behaviour is my fault. That you grieve for your lost love. I suppose if that were true, it might be understandable, but you weren’t jealous, were you?”
The voice was silent.
“I couldn’t figure out why. You changed overnight. From the man I thought I would spend my life with to a stone-faced brute who cared for no-one but himself.” The silence stretched, and she launched herself off the step. “I don’t want an apology. I want an explanation.”
The air turned chill, and a smattering of hail bounced off the ground.
“Enough with the weather. Your tantrums don’t work anymore. You have responsibilities, which I understand you have been shirking. You are a Tower. You chose to be a Tower. You can’t just change your mind.”
He said it was his fault. He admitted it freely. He said he wanted to apologise. For what, that was the question.
She stood, hands-on-hips and stared at the grey stone. Seeing the cracks and the weeds growing between the mortar. She moved nearer to caress the wall. She softened her voice, “How could you neglect yourself so badly? Why? You got what you wanted.”
“No, I didn’t. I never meant for you to leave. I thought I was losing myself. You were taking over. I couldn’t see where you ended, and I began. I thought I wanted to be free, that I didn’t need you.” The voice trailed away in misery. “I was wrong.”
“But that’s love, isn’t it? Being so attuned to another that you become one?”
“I know that now.”
“And you threw what we had away?” Bethany’s insides ripped apart in anguish.
“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t understand, didn’t realise what we had. I said some terrible things, and then I couldn’t unsay them.”
“And were you free?”
“No,” he whispered. “You had bound me tight, and I’ll never be free. I miss you, I’ve been calling, but you don’t reply.”
Her throat tightened at the anguish in his voice. “You do realise it goes both ways? Love isn’t a one-way street.”
“I know, I am so sorry, Bethany. I never meant to hurt you, but people make mistakes, Towers make mistakes. Everyone deserves a second chance, don’t they? Even a decrepit, repentant Tower?” His voice wavered, and he materialised beside her. His beautiful face ravaged and lined, his once burnished hair tangled and matted.
She let her breath out in a whoosh. He had apologised, an abject apology truth be told, and her heart fluttered. Raising a tentative hand, she caressed his face, tracing the new lines engraved on his skin.
“Kieran, you idiot, what have you done to yourself?”
“Nothing, I’ve done nothing.” His voice was as deep and as rich as she remembered. The syllables curled around her, and she shivered.
“So I see. It doesn’t suit you.”
A hesitant smile curved his sensual lips, and she sighed. “You need someone to keep you in order. You’re useless on your own.”
“I know,” he admitted meekly, his smile stretching to reach his multi-hued eyes; the colour of the land and the sea and the sky all swirled into one.
Bethany leaned back and gazed up the length of the grey Tower above her. “Second chance, huh?” she said as she sat on the step. He sat beside her and gently took her hand in his. The warmth from his palm crept up her arm and spread through her like a balmy summer’s morning, and the twisted knot of hurt and betrayal unraveled as she relaxed against him.
A pudgy cloud sidled up to the Tower and apologetically began to rain. Kieran eyed the cloud and then the woman who completed him. He raised an eyebrow, a resigned gleam in his eye, and he shooed it over the sea.
The sun peeked out from behind the dispersing clouds. A single tentative ray traced a path to where they sat, and Bethany lifted her face to its gentle caress and smiled.
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