My first memory is of my own tiny hands swallowed in anothers, pounding on the taut hide of a drum as flickers of magicka danced around us. Warm arms around me, the roughness of my teacher's burlap collar tickling my neck, murmuring encouragement as the flickers of light grew stronger.
I remember my fists thrumming from the power of the drum's calls as his belly-laugh made bass, Nordic rhymes echoing with the scent of tobacco and mead. The wind whistled through straw-stuffed holes, delicious thrills of cold shocking me when they would find us, warmed quickly again by the blazing fire.
"Gabby," my teacher would chuckle, capturing my hands again as I would flail gleefully. "Not so fast 'er, cub. Remember words, too, eh?"
I would giggle and concentrate, teeth sinking into my lip as the spell blossomed and bloomed again. When I began to yawn and whine he would laugh again, raising a bristly brow and hoisting me over his shoulder. 'He wouldn't have crossed the room,' mum told me, 'before you'd be sound asleep in his arms.'
A light spell. The first spell I ever learned, with the guidance of my first teacher.
Falrung Spark-Eater, my family’s dearest friend in the hovels of old High Rock. A bear of a man, gold-maned with a wide grin and hair he would always let me braid. With a lap enough for both my sister and I, we would sit together, Anya rocking and cooing to her corn dollie while mum, papa and Falrung would talk into the night. On the coldest of nights we would stay together there until dawn, abandoning our hay beds for the warmth of the fire. Even without my bed or blanket mum's gentle whispers and papa's hand in my hair was enough to send me to sleep.
"Gabriel. Wake up, sweet."
"Mmmf." I grumbled, curling into a tight ball and shrugging away the hand on my shoulder. "’Still sleepy."
"Your father is here."
"Papa?" I blinked, untangling myself from the blanket. Anya yawned, mum sighed and smiled. I rubbed at my sleep-crusted eyes, soothing away the sting of a restless night. "Maman, ‘m tired."
"You had bad dreams again, Gabby?" Mum tutted, smoothing a cool hand over my brow. "Maybe papa can help next time. Come on, then. Anya?" Mum moved past me, giving my sister's ruffled hair a playful tug. "Up, girls, don't keep him waiting."
Our bare feet padded across the dirt floor, the door bursting open just as we met it. Anya jumped into papa's arms as I watched, blinking at the potions in his arms before moving to him and clawing at his tunic. "Up! Me too, papa!"
"You, too." Pa grinned, hair snow spotted and cheeks ruddy as he hoisted me up in his other arm. His smile was always bright, and I remember how smooth his cheeks were compared to Falrung's. He smelled of something dusty and chemical, like tombs and old flowers, his wiry hands capturing my sister's and mine to give a gentle squeeze. I went wide-eyed at the curl of rope over his shoulder, reaching for the basket and potions it held.
"Stop it, Gabby." My sister reproached, her lips in a pout as she leaned to my father's cheek for a kiss. We competed fiercely for our father's attention in the little time he was home - I still nursed a bruise on my arm from our last little fight. I leaned in, too, kissing his other cheek and reaching again for the dangling basket.
"My, such love I get." Papa chuckled, sliding us off and turning to mum, moving the tempting potions from my little hands again. "From the chapel – I made a few extra. Sell them in the market."
Mum only nodded, glancing up and down my father with a strange twist of a frown. "Of course. Get dressed, Anya." My sister raced off, grabbing her clogs for the trip into the busy cobble roads of town. I stepped forward, moving to my father's leg and pressing close, smiling to myself as he rubbed my hair.
Mum watched as Anya dressed then turned to us, her arms crossed, hair loose and dangling inky black around her shoulders. Her eyes cast onto me, then papa, chin raised. "Is Spark-Eater coming by tonight?"
"Yes. When we get back from the chapel."
My neck bristled, because something didn't feel right - there was no warmness between them, no laughter. Mum's laugh had become harder and crackly, like snow crunching underfoot, since Falrung taught me how to cast that flickering light spell. I tapped the same nervous beat with my fingers, shielding my fears in the rough warmth of papa's leg until his hand gently moved me away. "You get dressed too. I don't have long."
I obeyed, grabbing my own clothes and changing quickly, trying to ignore the niggling sense that something was wrong. Anya skipped ahead of me, moving to mum's side and taking the basket of spools and buttons by the door as mum shouldered the potions. She and Anya went to town to do odd jobs, helping the seamstress or laundress, finding coin where they could. I worked with papa.
To me she smiled, lowering her head to give me a gentle kiss on my brow. "Goodbye, chérie. Listen and learn well."
I waved goodbye as mum and Anya left, papa gazing after her with a snow-fall quiet sigh until he reached for my hand. I took his and frowned as I followed him down the street, a feeling worse than itchy clothes wriggling in my stomach. I fretted, whining quietly until papa glanced down at me, his warm hand tightening as the wind blew our footsteps away. "What is it?"
With a shock, I realized, and jumped with clenched fists . "You forgot. You, to kiss maman goodbye today, you forgot." I whimpered, gazing up at him and biting my lip at his strange, broken smile.
"It's alright, sweet." He murmured, leading me on to the stone steps of the chapel. "I'll give her an extra one tonight."
"Tonight." I frowned. "Is Falrung gonna be home?"
"Falrung? Yes, he'll be coming. With his stories." Papa grinned then, truly grinned, reaching down to gather me and pressing his shoulder against the great chapel door. "And you'll pour the mead, won't you?"
I giggled, wriggling until I could close my arms around him and play with the feathery wisps of hair at the back of his neck. "Yes!"
"And make it sweeter for us. Good girl." He kissed my brow, shadows falling around us as the chapel door fell shut. I never did find there comfort as papa did. The echoing halls, the imposing altar and cold, unfeeling glass eyes gazing down from the stained windows. The one place of wealth in our village of the poor and sick. Papa told me the chapel had come first, dedicated to Stendarr and his mercy, and the people had come here seeking him.
It bothered me, even then. If they came for mercy from Stendarr, why was it papa who worked so hard? Why couldn’t I have him to myself?
Papa led me downstairs. This place had once been the catacombs, but now many of the stone slabs had patients atop them. There was nowhere else for them to sleep, the other beds long filled.
Our footsteps seemed terribly loud in here, making me cling all the tighter to papa’s hand. There were more today, weren’t there? Maman was still teaching me how to count – I’d get excited and trip up over my numbers – but I could tell there were many more. Still papa only smiled down at me, giving me a ruffle of my hair. “Ready, Gabby?”
The sharp, musky smells of astringent and Jehenna’s sheep made me crinkle my nose by my father's side, watching as he took a skein of clean wool and poured a potion in. Papa sighed as he wrung the excess clean – contents back in the bottle, not a drop wasted - and smoothed away ratty blankets from a frail patient's back. The man's shoulders lay bare, sharp and liver-spotted, raw and blistered. He gave a cry when papa pressed the medicine against his back, hand down on the cloth and glowing with the pale white-gold of healing magic.
"Rest, friend. You’re safe here."
"Whe-where?" The old man croaked, trying to turn, but only managing to helplessly flop his head on the thin cloth.
"The Chapel of Stendarr. His mercy be upon you."
"Jacques." A smile bared his near toothless gums, the remaining teeth black. "Old friend. Always taking care of me." He coughed, chest heaving, eyes bulging out of his head as my father clapped him on the back. "Eugh. And your little girl." His eyes crinkled, the hand reaching for my cheek. I drew away, but father's hand on my back stilled me. "So good – so good to see."
"No more talking, George." Papa gently reprimanded. "You need to rest. Say goodbye, Gabby."
I swallowed, staring at the old man as he fell back, his breath drawn as though through grit. "Bye."
Many of papa's patients were the same – old or sickly, beggars and outcasts who came here seeking Stendarr’s healing mercy, unable to find it anywhere else. I stood solemnly by his side as he administered healing to them all, handing him linens and potions, trying not to show my impatience until we were done at last. Papa caught my fidgeting fingers in his warm hand, chuckling quietly as he led me from the catacombs to the hidden room he called his hideaway, hidden behind the paneling of an empty shelf.
‘Once,’ he told me, ‘This room was full of treasures. Gifts people gave in gratitude to Stendarr. The chapel used them to build that beautiful altar upstairs. Now it has our treasures instead.’ I loved that story, loved knowing now that papa kept his treasures in there, treasures I could touch and play with and learn. The panel creaked open to release air cool and musty, glasses shimmering eerily on teetering shelves and herbs hanging in braids from the ceiling to dry over a paper scattered desk.
"Here we are." Papa smiled, dragging over a tiny stool Falrung had made for me and patting it. "Come on."
I licked my lips, sliding my fingers over the cool curves of carved wood, bears roaring and deer dancing, before clambering on. Papa wound his arm around me, brandishing a pretty yellow-petaled plant and tickling my cheek with it. "Now, what's this one, and what's it for?"
I grinned, grabbing it in my little hands, caressing the dried buds and smelling it before squeaking. "Genet! It’s for, for making you pee!"
"That’s right." Papa smiled wryly as he wrapped the plant in parchment. "Genet, or broom, stimulates urine production. Or makes you go pee," he teased. Another flower branched beneath his fingers, bristled and near cracking from months of careful drying. Purple, slipper-shaped buds, leaves reaching to papa's lap. "And this?"
"Um." I bit my lip, fidgeting.
"What's your favorite drink?" He asked, petting the plant.
"Oh! Um. Milk - Milkwort." I nodded solemnly as papa reached for another stem, our game continuing.
This was the treasure papa shared with me – his craft, and his time. To me it was a game, precious time I could spend with my father not divided with mum or Anya or ailing patients. The echoing sounds of the catacombs followed us – the footsteps of the other healers or the chapel’s priest, moans and whimpers from the sick, but otherwise it felt like our own little world.
In between letting me guess, he’d work. Every part of it fascinated me – how he’d separate tiny slivers from slivers, seeds from pods. How he’d crush and powder and mix and make something completely new, every time. We stayed well into evening as papa worked on his potions and taught me names before washing his hands and scooping me up again.
"Come on, flower. Time to go home."
I yawned, nestling in the crook of his arm, listening to the sounds of him cleaning up. The wind outside had fallen to a gentle whisper, snowflakes drifting down and landing in papa's hair. I ran my fingers through his curls, snowflakes melting before I could catch them. Papa's hand played idly at the back of my neck as the winds lulled until a blast of warmth and woodsmoke greeted us.
"Jacques!" I snapped awake at the sound of Falrung's voice, giggling as I was trapped between them as they hugged. "And the 'lil cub. How's my bear-girl doing?"
I bared my teeth, growling. "I’m a bear! Bear-girl! Rgggrr!"
"By Ysmir, don't scare me like that!" He raised his hands, eyes wide in feigned shock. "Can the bear-girl use her big paws to pour our drinks while maman bear stokes the fire?"
"Yes!" I scampered down from papa's arms, grabbing the jug of mead and kneeling carefully over Falrung and papa's tankards. Both were the most precious things we owned, brought from Skyrim and cast polished brass with dragons twisting as a handle. I’d made the mistake of tasting it once – it didn’t taste nearly as good as it smelled – but I loved getting to pour it for them, my own little job. Falrung’s thick, hairy hands wrapped around the drinks, giving one to papa.
"Cheers, eh?" Falrung grinned, glancing at papa with a sweet warmth, one that made me tingle, made me think of happy maman. So now she would be happy, too – but she wasn’t. She stayed by the fire, didn’t even go over to give papa a hug.
Papa smiled back, shrugging off his coat and settling in his chair, taking a quiet Anya in his lap as their tankards clinked. "Cheers."
I remember little else of that night - settling into Falrung's lap, his hairy arms cradling me and his chest becoming my pillow. Hearing the raucous jokes - Falrung Skin-Beater, papa called him with a snicker - before maman scolded and hushed them. A hand playing with my hair, maman whispering something about me having problems sleeping and papa brushing it away. The smell of mead, the stark absence of maman’s laugh and then dark, warm silence.
I roused slowly, curling on myself and nuzzling against Falrung's chest in a vain search for warmth. The silence was strange to me - no snores, no sounds of maman cleaning up or Anya rousing. Only her whisper, her hand gentle on my back. "Gabriel, chérie, wake up.”
I grunted fitfully, twisting to try and share Falrung's warmth, but unable to find it. Blinking sleep sand from my eyes I moved my hands, pressing against him, listening for the comforting thump-thump of the drum in his chest I couldn't hear. Mum's hands wound around my waist, pulling me away.
"Falrung." I whined, twisting in mum's arms, confused and filled with belly-deep dread at the sudden, shocking silence and coldness of the world. "Wake up. Wake up."
"No, dear." Mum soothed, turning me away, nestling my head in the crook of her neck and petting my hair as I fretted. She held on tight, too tight even as I squirmed, as though more for her own comfort than mine. A tightness to her voice, making that dread go higher, hot and sick in my throat. "Shhh."
I caught Anya out of the corner of my eye, staring at papa, and grimaced in jealousy. A fierce wiggle and I was out of mum's arms and racing to her, my gaze moving from papa sleeping, to her, to papa again. I frowned, still childishly determined. "Papa. Papa, wake up, now, g'morning. Time t’wake up!"
Anya stared, eyes glassy at papa, her hand over his. I moved my hand, too, feeling a shiver at how cold his skin was. Her voice too felt strange, hollow and hurt. "He won’t wake up, Gabby. He’s dead."
"Dead?" I echoed before mum spoke, sharply reproaching her and gathering me up, taking Anya's hand. Everything was too quiet, our home strangely empty. Our pots, those tankards I’d filled, even our corn dollies all suddenly gone – only papa and Falrung on their chairs, slumped in a facsimile of sleep and so very, terribly quiet.
"No!" I wrestled her with all my tiny might, confused, suddenly terrified by all this change, all this wrong. "You forgot! Papa!" Papa didn't kiss her. Is she mad? I poured the mead all wrong, all wrong, it's all wrong. Mum hurried us outside where strange men in dark clothes waited.
I knew these men. They were from the chapel – papa made special potions just for them, to push away sickness that claimed the rest of us. When someone in the catacombs or out here in our cluster of hovels got too sick, too quiet, they came. Swept everything up and burned it all away.
"Dead this morning, ma'am?"
"Y-yes. I don't know how." Maman was crying. Why was she crying? She never cried, never let her pretty face scrunch up like this. "Jacques, my husband, he works – worked - with the ill."
"Then Stendarr will give him a warm blessing." One of the men looked at us, eyes sweeping over Anya and mum before settling on me, his lips pursed. "Do you have... somewhere to stay? To take the children? I'm sure the chapel - "
"Family,” Mum cut off, her arm almost unbearably tight around me. "I have family who will help us. But thank you."
Murmurs as they passed by - consolations, regrets, the only word I truly understood was sorry. I whimpered. Sorry. Sorry. I poured the mead. Bad mead. Bad me. The door blew open in a gust of wind and I caught a cruel, final glimpse of papa's face and shrieked for him, reaching out over her shoulder.
A final whisper from one of the men, carried on the wind – poor girl.
Not a girl. Bear. Bear-girl. I whimpered, cried, pounded my fists against maman’s shoulders until I exhausted myself to sniffles and whimpers. It was a long, silent walk to the town, to the stables where more strange people awaited us. Where in hushed whispers and secretive glances a man swept maman into a hug, a papa-hug, and ushered us all into a carriage.
My last memory of my father, my true childhood home, is this. The sparse pines high and proud against a grey sky through the window of the carriage, the wind-whistle and smell of horse hair and oil, the pounding of hooves and the strange shrinking of all I'd ever known into a pinpoint of snow white and sleep black.
"So this is your youngest."
I jerked awake at the feel of a hand on my cheek, smooth and cool – making me think of papa, at first, but the face was wrong, all wrong. The hand brushed down the curve of my jaw, features – a neat goatee, dark eyes, a small smile swimming into view.
"She looks like you, chérie Abelle." He leaned in close, eyes narrowed, frowning in thought. "I will take good care of you, ma petite."
Papa. I squirmed away and shuddered at the feel of mum's nails running through my hair. I want papa, papa takes care of me. Not you. It's wrong, all wrong. Papa forgot. I did it wrong. Fear and hysteria bubbled in me, clawing up my throat until I wailed. Maman cooed, Anya pinching my leg and telling me to hush. The strange man, with his clean beard and watery eyes, backed away.
"You all must be hungry and tired. Have a meal and rooms readied for them, Trudeau." Another man, the horse-man in green nodded as a wiry boy took the carriage away. I began to cry louder, wriggling in maman’s grasp because it was wrong, we had to take the horsie and go back and get papa and Falrung, get rid of what Anya had called dead.
"Shh, Gabby. Look. Look, mon chou." I quieted to a whimper at the sound of maman's voice, a soothing murmur as we followed the strange man who had hugged her. "Look how pretty your new home is."
I followed her finger and gaped, my eyes going wide. It was as though from a storybook, spires silhouetted against grey slate, green roofs snow-dusted and white-washed beams stretching wide. But home is home, home is... I whimpered again, nuzzling maman - the only steady, unchanged thing, it seemed - and whispered.
"I poured the mead. I did it wrong."
"No. No, sweet, no." Mum's face twisted, eyes dark and fogged in grief. "You did nothing. It's all better, now."
In my childish mind, the only connection I could make between my papa and Falrung's death was that I poured the mead that night. That it was all somehow my fault. Anya didn’t cry like I did - she was stone-faced, hated and aspired to in her seemingly mystical nine year old courage. When maman left us she stayed by me, quiet as we ate strange foods with richness that made my mouth water and tummy curdle. As women smelling of powders fussed over us, bathing us in hot water and dragging brushes through our tangled hair. As maman, ghostly and beautiful in a silk chemise, kissed us goodnight and left in the arms of the strange bearded man.
It was only when we were nestled in a new room, separated in twin beds on either side that she spoke. Murmuring, crossing the wide room to my bed and rubbing my back as I cried.
"It wasn't you."
I snorted, lifting my head from the warm dampness where I'd sobbed into my pillow. Anya hoisted herself over the side and up, her hair - soft, caramel brown like papa's - falling from its bindings.
She nuzzled beside me, pursing her lips and solemnly taking my hands in her own. She gazed at them, brow wrinkled in thought, before moving to kiss my cheek.
"Maman says everybody dies. Like flowers in winter. S'okay." She whispered. "Don't be scared. I'll protect you."
Though not moments ago I had hated her for being so quiet and strong when so much had changed, the sisterhood that made us by default despise each other also made us inextricably intertwined. I cuddled against her, crying softly until slumber overtook us both.
I dreamed of Falrung, and papa sinking under a suffocating winter coat of snow. I dreamed of the strange new man with his clean, waxed beard ripping up flowers. I dreamed of the mead turning green as I poured it, reeking of venom.
When my father and my dearest friend, my two teachers, died, I blamed myself for it. I did for many years after.
I was six years old.