Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part XVIII

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the eighteenth part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen and Seventeen. Updates every two days, barring minor mishaps.

They decided, after a great deal of deliberation, not to take the ship back home. Necristo planted it by the shore and let it turn into a mangrove tree, planks twisting and warping into tangled roots and long, spear-like pods. The swan on its prow flapped once, twice, then burst into full color and flew off into the night.

It was a marvel, really, but no matter how much Anne tried she just couldn’t feel very happy about it. She could feel his gaze on the side of her head.

“There’s no stars,” she said, as if that settled anything. “I don’t like it.”

But it was true. The sky was a clear black, far too dark to be natural. It was like Necristo had run out of celestial blue. The moon shone out like a dove in tar.

Necristo snapped his fingers, and one by one, the stars came alive.

“Alright,” said Anne. “I like that.”

They were brighter than anything she had ever seen. Cold hard points like diamonds, twinkling through the spears and boughs of the mangrove tree. She glanced over at Necristo, then, seized by a sudden impulse, took his hand.

“Miss Gentilberry,” said Necristo, clearly shocked.

“It’s payment,” grinned Anne. “For the boat ride. And the stars, I suppose.”

Necristo swallowed, then nodded. He still seemed distressed about the owl. About Aunt Mattie, although there was no way he could know. That she could ever let him know.

“Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t let go.”

“Oh, I will,” said Anne. “Just not yet.”

Necristo scraped one shoe across the sand in a small circle, then the other. The sand melted into iridescent soulstuff, and as they sank, Anne felt it filling her shoes like cold tongue.

“Is this all going to vanish?” she said, looking at the island as they sank, at the last glowing embers of the gray fire. “When I’m not here to see it?”

“I can keep it here, if you want,” said Necristo. “For the memories.”

But Anne shook her head, thinking of the future. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might be sad to leave this world of wonders.

She closed her eyes as the soulstuff went past her nose, filling her world with light, laying bare the corners of her mind. It was only when she was almost entirely submerged that she realized something.

Why was he doing this, anyway? He didn’t need this to take them hom-

#####

She opened her eyes. She was in her bed, on the farm. The birds were singing, the cows were lowing, and the morning sun was high in the sky. The smell of bacon filled the air.

“No!” she cried, springing out of bed and throwing the sheets aside. “No, no, no! Necristo, you idiot!”

“Who’s Necristo? Is he that sorcerer who took our Mattie, too? Him again?”

“Oh, Ma!” gasped Anne, before dissolving into tears. She curled against her mother’s shoulder and stayed there. The plain gray shawl tickled her cheek, and she could feel Ma’s collarbone against her chin, but to Anne, it felt softer than anywhere else in the world.

“None of that, dear,” said Lizzie Gentilberry, blue eyes soft. She looked pale and haggard, but there was a radiance in her face that spoke of infinite relief. “I’m just glad you’re back. Da, look. Our Anne is home.”

Simon Gentilberry tripped, leaned a callused hand against the doorframe, and stared at his daughter. He looked as if he had seen a ghost, or even a god. His massive shoulders shook.

“I…”

At last he forced his gray brows into a frown, rubbed the back of his head, and grumbled:

“Did he treat you well, then? The sorcerer bastard?”

“Oh, so not even a hello, then, Da,” hiccoughed Anne, lifting her head to stare balefully at her father. “He did treat me very well, just so you know.”

“Simon,” said Lizzie. “Dear.”

Fearsome eyebrows gnarled, wild beard bristling, Simon Gentilberry stormed over to his daughter’s bed. He lifted his great hand, tougher than leather, each nail thicker and yellower than a slice of butter -

And swept Anne off the bed, one-armed, into a gruff embrace.

“Figures,” sniffed Anne miserably, feet clean off the ground. “You can’t even use both hands.”

“Why, I don’t recall raising you with such a sharp tongue, little Miss.”

“Why, Da,” laughed Anne, voice rough with half-remembered tears, “it was you that learned me it.”

“Language,” said Lizzie. “Simon, put your daughter down. You have some explaining to do, young lady.”

Simon dumped his daughter on the bed, then ruffled her hair. Anne stuck her tongue out at him and sat up, the inklings of a smile playing around the corners of her mouth. Then the smile died.

She took a deep, shuddering breath.

“Ma, Da, I’m sorry, but I need to go back.”

She looked at the two people she loved most in the world, drinking them in with her eyes, like she would never see them again. They seemed so old all of a sudden. Da’s face was twisted in undisguised agony, but Ma… Ma was calm. Her eyes were as clear as sapphires, and her thin cheeks were still as the prongs of a silver fork.

She looked like Aunt Mattie.

“How will you get there?” asked Ma. “And will you ever come home?”

Anne searched in her pocket for Aunt Mattie’s seal of summoning, found tiny Hearthunter, then touched the small square of parchment.

No. It wasn’t the right time or the right place, and besides, it probably wouldn’t work. She needed another way.

She closed her eyes, willing a solution. She found it.

There was something in her, a tug in her chest and a lightness in her head, turning as if by magic to a thrill in her fingers. Not the power of Creation. That was only in Necristo’s world. Here, back home, the air was dead and dull, like a broken lute with only one string.

No. It was a call. The call of worlds beyond this world.

“Will you let me explain?”

“You’d better, girl,” said Da fiercely, “or I’m going over there and giving that sorcerer a piece of my mind. Matt was always too soft.”

Ma nodded.

So Anne told them everything, starting from the very beginning. Da swore softly when she spoke about their Aunt Mattie, and when she got to the other one Ma turned as white as the sheets. But neither of them made a sound when she talked about Necristo. When she finished, there was silence in the bedroom for two whole minutes.

“I’m not about to stop you,” said Ma slowly. “You’re a grown woman, and you can make your own decisions. But if you never come back, Anne… if you never come back…”

“You’ll break us,” said Da finally, his shoulders slumped. “You’ll break us all.”

He put his head in his hands. Anne lifted one hand as if to reach out, stared at her shaking fingers, then dropped it. Ma took her hand and squeezed it tightly, her blue eyes serene and unutterably sad.

“Do you love him?” asked Da suddenly.

Anne looked across at Ma, looked down at her skirt, swallowed to try and keep her color down, then, at last, squeaked:

“No.”

“She loves him,” said Ma, heaving a deep-felt sigh. “Isn’t that wonderful, Da? Our Anne, in love with the man who stole our Mattie.”

“I’m not… He’s not…”

Simon Gentilberry slammed his entire bulk on the bed, and the frame groaned and creaked with his coming. He stared straight into his daughter’s eyes, who blanched, then returned the stare shakily.

“Listen to me, Anne. You know that I’m as much a Gentilberry as anyone else on this farm - your mother and I are first cousins, which is as close as you can get without eating your godforsaken bride. Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t care when your Aunt Mattie was taken, or that I had a single night’s sleep with you gone.”

“I know, Da,” said Anne quietly, reaching out her free hand and slipping it in his, so that she had one hand in each of her parents’. “I know.”

“I know how our family works,” said Simon. “I know we like to keep things in the clan.”

“We’re as stuffy as an unwashed sty sometimes,” said Lizzie. “Aren’t we, dear?”

“Your Ma said it better than I can. And I was going to tell you about our magic this year, but it seems the other Mattie beat me to it. Worse than birds, you women are. That said…”

Anne blinked.

“That said,” repeated Simon.

He swallowed, then leaned in close. Lizzie let go of Anne’s other hand, allowing her husband to clasp them both in his.

“Your Uncle Matt was the greatest brother a man could ever wish for. Before she was taken, we were best friends. After she was taken, we were closer than twins. But after he left to find her, and came back with nothing but his pitchfork and old Patches’ collar…”

His eyes were wet. He tried to speak, then shook his head.

“He was never the same,” said Lizzie softly. “He’s never been the same. If you don’t go back, Anne, and it becomes the greatest regret of your life, you’ll be half a person for the rest of your days. Maybe less. I don’t want that, and neither does your father.”

Anne squeezed her father’s fingers as tight as she could. He looked up, red-eyed, and said gruffly:

“So, how are you going to get to the old bastard’s house, anyway?”

“Language!” said Lizzie.

Anne got off the bed. It felt like she had to, for some reason, to prompt herself to action. To make her feel like she was about to do something grand. She looked at her parents, both seated on the bed, both hanging on her every breath and expression. It was a strange and adult feeling.

“I need to talk to Uncle Matt,” she said.

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