For an eternity, there is nothing but pain for Gala. She thrashes and screams as the wyrsa tear at her flesh. Bitter, vicious satisfaction rushes through her as she gets in a lucky strike to one of the wyrsa's skulls, killing it instantly. Then the pack is upon her and she is dragged down, and cannot rise again, not even to her knees.
She can see, vaguely, through her dimming eyes, Tylendel, screaming and falling to his knees. Vanyel is next to him, stretched out unconscious on the ground, pale as death. Her limbs dim; she cannot feel anything anymore but that wretched, awful pain. She's too far gone to even scream, but her eyes remain open and Tylendel screaming is all she can see.
"Oh, brother of my heart." she thinks in tones of purest regret, her vision fading away to total blackness. Death isn't nearly as terrifying the second time around.
She opens her eyes a timeless moment later, and attempts to stand. For a moment, she flails gracelessly, caught between pushing herself up on four legs, and standing on two. A boisterous laugh greets her at this, the parting of the ways.
It's bright, but not blindingly so, and even if it were, she thinks to herself, it's not as though she has physical eyes to see anything in this place.
Awful, rending remorse is trying to take hold between her ribs, seizing her unmercifully, and she's grateful that it's difficult to feel anything but peace strongly in this place.
"Lisbeth!" she's being pressed into a familiar, broad chest as she's hugged tightly.
"Aleks, you beast! Put me down!" she demands, feet dangling and hands uselessly waving as her always-friend swings her around in glee. He does, then sets his hands on his hips and glowers at her in mock-anger.
"You got yourself killed again?" he says, failing utterly to impress on her the strength of his anger. He eyes her, not her reflection of her physical form, but her soul. "You didn't live very long in this lifetime. I'm quite a bit older than you now."
She swats at him half-heartedly. The regret is swarming up her throat and gripping her tightly; it's difficult to breathe. Well, not breathe, but the equivalent.
"I..." she chokes: her eyes are filling with tears. "I shouldn't have repudiated him, Aleks. I repudiated him, and I died, and he's probably dead now, too."
His arms are around her again, gentle and grounding for the sheer weight of him.
"He's not dead, sweetling." he says, "But he isn't well, either. His lifemate is grounding him, but since Vanyel's in a bad way, too..." he trails off, leaving no doubt as to the severity of the situation. Gala...Lisbeth...she blinks, wavering in mind and physical representation between her two lives, realizing that she can sense what's going on in the physical realm.
"Oh, 'Lendel." she sighs, and a fresh batch of tears spring to her eyes. Aleks squeezes her comfortingly again.
"I have to go back." she decides, and it isn't even a decision, it's a fact. Gala belongs with Tylendel, and she was horribly, utterly wrong to have left him in the first place. So wrong to have hurt him when he was bleeding out already. Wrong to have assumed that he was coping with the death of his mind-linked twin. Wrong to have left him in spirit before she ever spat out the condemning words and severed the bond between Companion and Herald.
Gala was wrong, and it's bitter in her mouth in a way nothing as been before. She's young, she knows. It's not quite cast up to her by the other spirits as they rest in the Bright Havens, but it's always been clear. Gala is young and inexperienced, and by the standards of those who reincarnate between half-remembering Companions and fresh-minded Heralds, she is little more than a child; perhaps a young teen at most.
Gala knows that by human adult standards she's young, too. Between her two lives, she's only lived thirty-five years, and in her untimely wisdom, she finally understands that she has to think before she acts, before she throws out grandiose proclamations, before she reacts to situations with extreme prejudice.
Before she repudiates her bondmate who had broken under the strain of experiencing the murder of his twin in the first person.
Aleks looks concerned.
"You should rest for a time." he says, and Gala looks up at him, sees his soul and his age and weariness and utter belief in the rightness of his words and knows (she hopes) that he is wrong.
"I can't." she says, slumping against him. "I was wrong. I made a mistake; a big one. We mishandled the situation, all of us, but me especially. I was tired of his grief, so I ignored it. I wasn't mature enough to help him through it. I abandoned him, and then I cut him off when he was so mind-sick with grief he wasn't even totally aware of his actions. I did that, Aleks."
Aleks stands up, taking her with him, and seizes her hands almost painfully. "Which is why you need to rest." His words aren't urgent, but they ring with sincerity and for a moment she's almost persuaded. The Bright Havens are beautiful, they are the quintessence of peace, and Lisbeth - she is Lisbeth now - aches to let half an eternity pass while she heals from this second lifetime of hers.
Instead, she shakes her head and steps away from him. It's getting brighter, now that she's decided, and Aleks looks sorrowful.
"I can't let you out-age me, can I?" she says, her mirth and mischief which had been the defining characteristics of her life as Lisbeth are at the fore, bolstered by Gala's whimsy and wit.
"What path are you taking?" Aleks asks, almost invisible as the light nearly obscures his sturdy form.
"I'm going back as a Companion again." she responds, wit and whimsy and mirth and mischief all sharpening into diamond-hard determination.
"I'm going to Choose him again, and I'm going to make up for Gala's mistakes." she says, knowing that time has passed: knowing that it's been months and Tylendel still lies in a bed, screaming and catatonic by turns.
She isn't Lisbeth or Gala anymore; she isn't much of anyone right now. She has a foot in the Havens, and she's already being drawn into life. This, this half-bit of life, this not knowing who she'll be when she wakes up, being licked into dryness by her proud mother, this, this is more frightening than death. In a way, it's like a death. Gala and Lisbeth are gone, now.
She's...cold. It's so cold. She tries to blink, but something is sticking her eyelids together. Feebly, her muscles twitch. Feeling is starting to happen - she's aware of her hooves and her short, stubby tail, and a rough warmth is scraping up and down her sides. Vaguely, she's a bit frantic for a lot of things. Everything feels odd, like she should be bigger and smaller at the same time. She feels like she should be able to run and jump, and she also feels like she should be floating and confined. It's odd, but familiar. She's felt like this before, she knows, although not precisely the same.
Her eyes open. A grinning face appears next to a white, equine one. Crystalline blue eyes and human brown ones stare at her side by side.
"Heyla, little one!" the human greets her. "Let's get you up so you can have a meal, hmm?"
She manages to get her forelegs under her, and the human hefts her hindquarters up so she can stand, swaying and uncertain on her nobbly, newborn legs.
.:Just a few steps and you can get a drink:. her mother's voice washes over her soothingly. Her mother has swung sideways so she barely has to move at all to get her nose under her dam's side. A few fumbling missteps and rich, sweet milk is pouring down her throat. It's not possible to feel embarassed about this. The parts of her which were Lisbeth and Gala would have balked, but the new person she is is young, hungry, cold, and very happy to be standing in a warm stall, blanket tossed over her withers, being nudged by her mother and the helpful Trainee in gray.
.:Ayin:. her mother says, .:Do you like it?:. Ayin flicks her stubby little tail and tries to formulate a response. Words are beyond her at this stage, but her baby mind recognizes the query, understands the concept, and it pleases her. Her mother nudges her again.
.:Welcome to the world, dearest.:. her mother says as the newly named foal tucks her legs underneath her and collapses to the straw, utterly exhausted.
In her mind as she drifts off is a hazy remembrance of a face. She can't remember his name, but she knows he's important. The idea of "someday," and a promise are diamond-hard in her heart.
Someday. Together. It's a vow.
Ayin drifts off to sleep, content, her mother standing over her protectively.
The days drift together, and Ayin grows quickly from babyish, long-legged and awkward into lean, long-legged grace . She has a group of close friends in her age range, and a hundred elders who are always available for support, advice, and companionship.
But they all look askance at her when they think she's not looking.
Since she was a new foal, Ayin had chattered about her Chosen-to-be, and it hadn't taken long before someone recognized the blurry, vague face she had been innocently projecting.
Tylendel. They all knew his name, and most of them felt a deep shame whenever he was brought up.
Ayin felt it, too. Her last life was hazy in her recollection. She couldn't remember her name, but she recognized many people and Companions she'd known, which always struck her as odd. It seemed, somewhere in her mind, that she knew it was exceedingly rare for anyone to come back as a Companion so soon after their previous death as a Companion, and she thought she understood a little of why.
They'd all grieved for her, when she was pulled down by a pack of wyrsa. She doesn't remember that, either, except in nightmares which fade soon after waking, but she remembers enough to clumsily bound up to Dalin when she's a month old and brings up the last conversation she'd had with him, when she was Gala.
The shock was obvious. Dalin recoils, dances a half dozen feet away, then sidles back up, his mindvoice a bare whisper.
.:Gala?:. he asks in shock, and Ayin shudders down the length of herself as though reacting to a fly bite.
.:I think so. Once?:. she says hesitantly, and Dalin skitters away again before returning and nosing her.
.:That is so odd, but Gala, it's good to see you again!:.
.:Ayin.:. she corrects him, her current self coming back to the foreground and Gala's life fading away sharply. .:And it's nice to meet you.:.
.:This is the oddest thing I've ever heard of.:. he proclaims, and indeed that seems to be the opinion of most of the Companions.
Nevertheless, she gets on well with most everyone, and the few left over are either too baffled by her return to be comfortable with it, or are still aching from their friend's death. Ayin adapts, accepts it as part of what was, and waits for the day when Tylendel's face solidifies in her mind and becomes an itching, burning urge to move, to search, to Choose.
That day finally comes when Ayin is five, which is eight years younger than the average age a Companion Chooses.
.:Are you sure?:. Narine asks, nearly hovering in her anxiety. Ayin's mother takes her daughter's idiosyncracies in remarkable stride for someone who was one of Ayin's agemates and friends when she was Gala, but she does tend to translate her slight unease with the situation into extreme mothering. Privately, Ayin hopes her mother gets with foal again, and soon, so she'll let Ayin live without her dam hovering over her at all hours.
.:Mother. I'm sure.:. she says in fond exasperation, biting back the urge to add, .:Get the kink out of your tail; it's a Choosing, not Kirball.:. but knows that this direct reference to Gala and Narine having been avid Kirball players - a dangerous wargame - in Gala's youth to not be the best course of action.
.:And Tylendel, sweetling?:. Narine goes on fretfully, .:He's...he's...broken, now. I know we all are a little complicit in his state, but it's not your job to fix it just because...:.
"Because you were Gala.", Ayin knows what her mother was going to say, and if she were capable of it, she would roll her eyes like a human.
.:He's mine. I Choose him. Now if you'll excuse me,:. Ayin sidles out the door of the barn, tacked up in her finest gear, .:I have a bondmate to go find:. And she trots emphatically towards the main gates.
Once she's clear of Haven's bustling crowds, Ayin flings herself in a full gallop, the likes of which is barely possible even in the full length of Companions' Field. The road is clear, straight, and she can sense that Tylendel is far away. She thinks, but isn't sure, that he's in Hawkbrother territory.
Gala's memories, almost free of Gala's remorse and nostalgia and grief, bubble up in her mind until she can clearly remember her Tylendel's face. She's grateful that she has the buffer of the Bright Havens and another lifetime to dull the emotion, because as it is, she nearly stumbles when she recalls his face at the moment Gala had repudiated him.
.:I'm coming, dearheart.:. she sends down what would have been their bond, were she still Gala, and redoubles her efforts. It's four weeks to the nearest Vale by normal Companion speeds; Ayin wants to make it in three.
Not quite exhausted - Ayin had made herself take the prior three days slow and easy despite the Call intensifying the last few weeks - Ayin trots through the Pelagirs.
He's near! It rings through her mind and reverberates with confidence in her heart. Although she's in no mood to be conciliatory or agreeable when she's this near to her goal, she stops when a tall Hawkbrother steps out from behind a tree and blocks the path.
"Peace, sister." he says, hands upturned and free of weapons. "Is there urgent news from Valdemar?" he inquires. After a pause, Ayin deliberately shakes her head. His face goes blanker and more cautious.
"You aren't here to Choose one of us...?" he asks carefully, his disapproval of the notion clear. Ayin shakes her head again and sends an image of Tylendel as he had been in his youth. It's unfamiliar to the scout; his brow furrows for a moment.
"Lady, we have no one near who...ah. The one who was called Tylendel?" he looks surprised, and almost indignant. "Lady, he was with one of you once, and they left him." he looks unamused and draws himself up into a loose, ready stance. "Merely seeing his lifemate's Companion is pain for him."
Ayin hangs her head, broadcasts shame and sorrow to the scout, and he steps aside.
"Very well, Lady." he murmurs, and vanishes into the underbrush without a displaced leaf or the crack of a stick to mark his passage.
Ayin continues to follow the Call, wondering how much Tylendel has changed. Gala's shame courses through her, makes her want to wilt and flee, but Ayin's determination and love for her Chosen is stronger and brighter. By the time she reaches the edge of the Vale, a half a candlemark later, the scout reappears on the edge of a small group. Savil and Vanyel are there, both with blank, calm expressions. They've clearly been briefed by the scout. Ayin slows to a walk as she approaches them and sees Tylendel standing off to one side, Vanyel and the foliage having shielded him from view until she drew nearer.
She's buoyed up by a sudden wave of mixed emotions. In some ways, Gala is still angry at him, and although Ayin is younger than Gala, her soul is older, and so she accepts the childish resentment, accepts the grief, the untimely wisdom granted by her past self's choices, and allows them to be the background to her joy.
Tylendel is before her, and she sees why the scout was confused by the image she sent. This Tylendel is visibly older. His nose has been broken at least once, his features have sharpened and become more defined, and his hair is stark white. Ayin is afraid to guess if his hair turned white from grief or handling Node energy, but she sets that aside as well.
Vanyel looks as though he wants to step between Ayin and his lifemate, but he sets his jaw and remains where he is. Tylendel has been frozen since Ayin could see him. His shoulders are hunched, as though against a heavy blow, and his eyes are determinedly downcast.
Ayin stops in front of him and waits patiently. She doesn't try to speak, doesn't shift to gain his attention. She waits, hope and pain caught in her heart.
It's not a well known fact to Heralds, but all Companions know that it's possible for someone to reject being Chosen. It's agony, but a Companion can make themselves walk away, letting the fledgling bond wither into nothingness. Tylendel of all people has that right.
She waits, and her hope nearly fades, for several long minutes pass before he slowly raises his head.
"Why?" he asks harshly, not yet meeting her eyes. Ayin doesn't hesitate.
.:Gala made a mistake.:. she tells him, and his breath goes ragged and his shoulders begin to shake. Ayin is broadcasting; everyone in the clearing can hear her. Everyone needs to know, she thinks, that Gala was wrong.
.:She was young and prone to histrionics.:. she goes on, .:She wasn't willing to face her own guilt and felt betrayed by your actions, even though she took no steps to help you heal. All Companions bear her guilt; she should not have repudiated you, and she should not have let you bleed out your rationality in the wake of your brother's death.:.
Ayin feels a little like a coward as she purposefully omits the fact that she was Gala. She salves her conscience a little, though, with the reminder that reincarnation is a well guarded secret of the spirit realm, and that she isn't Gala anymore, although she bears her memories and shares in her remorse.
Tylendel is weeping in earnest now, and Ayin aches with the need to comfort him, but she stands where she is. Until Tylendel chooses to accept her, she has no right; she is the cause of those tears in both this lifetime and her last.
Finally, another eternity of waiting later, Tylendel raises his eyes and meets Ayin's. Her breath catches with the relief of seeing his face again.
.:I Choose you.:. she says formally, then throws the script to the wind. .:Once you were promised forever, and it was betrayed, but I will never leave you. You'll never be alone again, Tylendel. I Choose you.:.
Tylendel takes two quick steps towards her and throws his arms around her neck, shaking them with the force of his sobs. Ayin closes her tearless eyes, feeling as though he weeps for the both of them and sighs.