Post-apocalyptic paranormal romantic fantasy
This part of the ride was pleasant enough. He was on their own land, the afternoon sun was warm despite the time of year, and, although the route was narrow and twisted, his horse was surefooted and he could relax, riding with a loose rein. His thoughts, as always when he rode this way, were of his brother. They had been together since the womb, sharing everything, rarely apart for more than a few hours. Their sudden and total separation still tore at him like an open wound, unable to heal. How many times had he ridden this route now, since that time almost five years ago, that he’d come alone to grieve, the loss fresh in his soul?
His destination then had been the rock formation on the very boundary of their lands. It had been a special place to the pair of them, him and his brother, a secret place, somewhere they’d come to escape, to adventure, to explore. Somewhere they’d toyed with challenge, excitement and danger. It had been the natural place for him to try and make sense of his loss.
That time, she’d been there too. Grieving like he was, and hoping in a way that he couldn’t, caught in uncertainty. They had met there again over the next months. Not often, for it wasn’t easy for either of them to get away unnoticed and the consequences of being followed were unthinkable. And then, once, she hadn’t been there. It had become much harder for her, in her condition and she was near her time so he hadn’t been altogether surprised.
Still he’d gone back again as they’d agreed, knowing that this could happen. He’d seen a figure moving near the rocks and his heart had leapt with anticipation. He’d thought it was her, cloaked and hooded, until the figure heard his arrival and turned towards him, pushing back her hood. Then he’d seen the loss and sadness in her eyes and known the girl he had expected to meet was dead. He’d slid from his horse and sunk to the ground, burying his head in his hands at this fresh loss.
The girl waited until he was ready to look up. She was sitting with her back to a rock, hunched over, as though she was sheltering something in her arms. It looked like a bundle of clothes, rags even, and then it made a small sound.
“The child?” he asked hoarsely, barely able to breathe with the additional grief she’d brought him. She nodded.
“Show me!” he commanded.
Why, he didn’t know. What interest could he have in this bastard? The girl flipped back the blanket by the baby’s face and he took one look and fell head over heels in love. Not like the love he’d had for his brother, nor for the girl who was this child’s mother, or any of the women who had formed part of his life. This was an overwhelming love, a consuming desire to protect the child, to be there for her in whatever she needed. Instinctively he reached out and took her, cradling her to his body, crooning to her. Somehow, she soothed the pain in his soul. He could see her mother in her, and such a look of his brother. When he found the words, he said as much to the girl.
“Of course,” she said. “She looks like her parents.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why have you brought her to me?”
She shrugged, turning away slightly. “I thought you had a right to see her.”
“And now what? You just take her back and I never see her again?” His pain and sorrow made his voice bitter.
“Not back. I can’t go back. What you do is up to you.” Her voice was dead, devoid of feeling.
“Not back? Why? What happened?”
“I heard things. I’m neither heir nor spare so no one pays me any attention. They – one of my uncles, I think – were going to get rid of her and the baby, that’s what I heard them say. I told her and she made me promise to keep her child safe. She wasn’t well by then, already. She died soon after the baby was born. I was ready. I took the child and came here.”
“I’ll take care of you,” he promised. What made him say that? What could he possibly do?
“It’s okay,” she said. “We made plans. I had some help. We’ll be fine.”
“Where will you go? I can’t take you onto our lands, you wouldn’t be any safer there. But one of the Sanctuary Houses? Or House St Peter? I could help you get there.”
She shook her head and gestured at the baby. “She is the heir. These lands are hers, her place, in her blood. She should be raised on them. I won’t take her somewhere else.”
“If they want to kill her, you’re not safe. Let me take you somewhere else.”
“No.” She was adamant. She indicated back down the trail on her side of the rocks. “There’s a hut down there, a couple of miles or less. It’s hidden, difficult to reach, and it’s warm and dry. We’ll be safe there.”
“It’s hardly what you’re used to. It won’t be easy, not with a small child too,” he protested.
“We don’t live as richly as you,” she said disparagingly. “And I’ve been helping raise my siblings for years now.”
He could see she wouldn’t give in, so he stood up, the child still in his arms. “Very well, then,” he said. “But at least let me escort you there now.”
She rode his horse and once she was mounted, reluctantly he passed the baby back to her. “Does she have a name?” he asked.
“Not yet,” the girl said.
He sighed. “Her mother wanted to call her Leonie.”
The girl nodded. “I know. But I thought you should have a say.”
He was touched, and rested his head against the horse’s neck to hide the tears that sprang to his eyes. Eventually, he looked up. “Call her Leonie,” he said and then silently led the horse down the track.
He needed directions to find the hut which reassured him and he was relieved to find it dry and reasonably well equipped. There was a cradle for the baby, already housing a small soft toy, worn with age. The girl saw his eyes drift to it. “That was hers,” she said. “I thought Leonie should have something from her mother. He’s called Taylor.”
Eventually, reluctantly, he left them there.
He’d been back many times since then. To start with he’d constantly tried to get her to move somewhere safer, but she’d been insistent and so he’d given up. She did have other help, besides him. He’d met her conspirator, early on and, of course, they’d recognised each other despite the ancient enmity between their families.
The first time, they’d watched each other warily, all but circling and baring their teeth at each other like a pair of wolves. The girl had snarled at them to behave and passed the baby between them. They had managed at least to accept their common ground in love of the child. Gradually, they had learnt to work together. Silently to start with, at opposite sides of whatever area they were in, simply doing whatever the girl had ordered. Then more closely together, communicating as the job needed, sharing tools, helping each other. Eventually, they had become friends, understanding that what they had in common was far greater than their historic differences. In a way, the other helper had come to fill some of the hollow left by the loss of his brother.
Today was the child’s fourth birthday and, as he crossed the rocks and descended into the alien territory, his thoughts turned from his brother to her. He couldn’t help but smile as he thought of her. She had grown into a happy, active child, healthy if too thin. Full of mischief which was to be expected given her parents, and smart as anything. Bilingual, too. She spoke the common language with him, but with her aunt she spoke the ancient patois of her lands. In his saddlebag was his birthday gift for her, a new edition of her favourite book. He’d read it to her so many times, but this time he hoped she would read it to him.
She met him as he rode through the woods that surrounded the hut, dropping off a low tree branch to stand beside the track, Taylor clutched in one hand. She was never without Taylor. He chided her gently for not taking enough care to hide from potential strangers, but he was smiling at her all the time.
“I could see it was you, from ages away,” she told him. “I can always tell who it is.”
He lifted her up to ride the rest of the way perched in front on him on his saddle, Taylor balanced in front of her.
“It’s my birthday,” she said to him proudly. “My first real birthday. The one that doesn’t happen every year.”
The other two were waiting for them at the hut and greeted him with pleasure. It was a small celebration but a happy one. The book from him, a new outfit made by her aunt, with the scraps made into something for Taylor, a jigsaw from his friend. And a birthday tea with chocolate cake, a special treat in in this household. He stayed until the child was asleep in bed, exhausted with pleasure, Taylor, still resplendent in his new clothes, tucked in beside her.
“You’re an amazing mother to her,” he said to the girl as he returned to the main room.
“It’ll be your birthday soon,” his friend told the girl. “Twenty one. We should do something to celebrate.”
She smiled slightly. “Maybe,” she said. “But it’s a couple of months yet. There’s time to think.”
They did manage something special in the end, working together, including Leonie wherever they could. The girl loved it. Afterwards, that always brought him some comfort.
Thursday Midday – Early June
How often will I have to do this? How often can I even do this before it breaks me?
Perry groaned and buried his head into the pillow, trying desperately to recapture those fuzzy moments on the edge of waking. Those warm, happy moments of forgetfulness before the memories of the last few days hit him. Before his mind was swamped with thoughts of Leonie sacrificing everything to save others, of her almost lifeless body as he brought her home, of earlier this morning when they’d had to stop supporting her.
I won’t think about it. I won’t. Just the happy times, I’ll think of the good times.
“Sit up,” said Lord Gabriel. “I know you’re awake. You have to face this, not run away from it.”
Gabriel’s voice reached somewhere below Perry’s conscious mind and obedience came without thinking. He sat up. “Andrew was here,” he said slowly.
“I took over from him. I have a confession to make to you. Under the circumstances, I think it needs to be before tomorrow,” Gabriel replied with a slight smile.
Perry stared at him, frowning and puzzled. “Okay then,” he said, relieved at the distraction from his own issues.
“Not yet. You need to eat first,” said Gabriel, nodding towards where food was set out on a nearby surface. “Many years of experience have taught me never to confess to someone with low blood sugar.”
Despite the circumstances, that brought a slight laugh to Perry, and he moved to comply. As he ate, he kept glancing at Leonie’s body on the other side of the bed.
“She’s not been alone. Never alone,” Gabriel told him. “And my confession is for her, too, even if she won’t hear it.”
“I can’t keep secrets from her,” Perry confessed.
“I know. And this isn’t secret, not now. Although I’d rather my behaviour didn’t become public knowledge. At least, no more than it already is.”
Intrigued despite himself, Perry finished eating.
Gabriel took a deep breath and started. “For the last seven or eight months, I’ve been having visions and dreams again.”
Fear rose through Perry’s chest. “Did you know that what happened at House Eastern was going to happen?”
“Not exactly. Not until that morning. All I knew was that something was going to happen and that it would be soon. And I knew that it would have consequences that would change the world – for the better if I took the right actions, for the worse if not. And those actions included pushing you and Leonie together.” He hesitated and then continued. “I knew that Leonie would die and I expected that you would too.”
“I wanted to. When I think of a world without Leonie in it, then I want to.”
“I can understand that. Doing what I knew I had to do became harder and harder as I came to know her better.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I might… We could… I should…” Perry couldn’t take it in. Gabriel had known what was coming? Had set them up? Had caused the pain Perry was now feeling?
“I didn’t make it happen,” Gabriel said, very softly. “I’m not defending myself. I am responsible for what I did and its consequences. I am deeply sorry for the hurt and pain it has caused. But I had to do what I was called to do, and act for the greater good.”
Dimly, somewhere deep inside himself, Perry started to think about what Gabriel had known and faced for the last few months. “You’ve suffered this,” he said slowly as each thought bubbled to the surface. “You’ve lived with the responsibility for her death and mine for months. That’s why you didn’t tell me. It’s better not to know.” He looked up at Gabriel. “How?” he asked. “How in the name of… How on… How do you deal with the pain? How do I deal with the pain? The fear?”
Gabriel shook his head. “I can’t answer that, other than with prayer and with time. I will be here, whatever you need. So will Andrew and any number of others.”
“Who else knows then?” Perry asked.
“About the visions and my actions? Only Benjamin and Eleanor, though others may suspect.”
“Not Andrew. He has obediently done what he has been told to do, whilst arguing to defend and protect you at every opportunity. He realised I was pushing you together; he doesn’t know why. He’s been a good friend to you. To you both.”
“Knew nothing. Less even than you.”
Perry was quiet for a time as he took everything in. “How does what happened benefit the world? What happens next? And why did Leonie have to pay the price?” he asked eventually.
“I don’t know the answers to any of those. My vision tells me that this route leads to a more peaceful, united and prosperous world. I still don’t know how we get there, just that the key moment is past. If I’d done nothing, it would have led to wars and famines, trouble on the scale of the Devastation times. As for Leonie, perhaps the answer is because she could? Can you think of anyone else who could have done what she managed? I know I couldn’t have done it.”
“Would you have told me had she not…” He gestured again at the bed, unable to complete his sentence.
“Yes, I would. Just not yet. Under the circumstances I felt you should know before tomorrow.”
“I would have chosen to have these past weeks and months. Even knowing what was to happen I’d have chosen to have them rather than not to. So would she. However it started, what’s between me and Leonie is real.”
Gabriel nodded. “I know. I found that a comfort.” He paused. “Can you forgive me?”
Perry stared at him blankly, his mind unable to process what he was being asked. “It helps to understand why,” he said in the end. “I want to. I do forgive you, I just… I just… I’m afraid I’ll struggle. On the bad days.”
“Then we will work at it together, and we will pray.”
They continued to sit quietly together, both watching the bed. The rest of the day floated past Perry; he simply sat or ate or slept as others directed, his whole focus on what would happen the following morning.
“Just me,” Perry said. “Just me and her here. No one else.” He glanced down at the bed beside which they were all standing.
“No,” said Benjamin firmly. “That’s not going to happen. Gabriel and Eleanor will wait on the far side of the room. Andrew and I will be right here.”
Perry narrowed his eyes, looking at Benjamin, taking a breath for his retort, not caring about the consequences. Then Andrew touched his arm and spoke, just to him. “It’s not just about what you want, Perry. We all understand you want to be alone with her. It’s about what could happen and what’s best all round. No one will interfere with what you’re going to do. I’ll see to that.”
Perry swivelled round, turning his stare on Andrew, sighed and nodded, his shoulders slumping. “Okay, then.”