When They Called Her Home
By Jana Denardo
Author’s Note: Written for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge: A Title And Two Lines. The title and the opening and closing lines were chosen from the offered prompts.
Deep inside the twisting wood, there is a house, in a gully. Some might say the house would have been better at the lip of the ravine instead of down near the river. Her grandmother’s magic kept it safe from flooding. Aeleres pressed a hand to her chest, trying to stop the pain blossoming there. The rain and the birds called her home, each drop, each song a message only a witch like her could hear. Aeleres's grandmother was sick. Come home! Come home!
However, she had been studying at the Royal Academy too many miles away, even by the standards witches and wizards traveled by. Translocation had limitations. As she rested up in a bucolic way station, Aeleres felt her grandmother slip away, leaving a tatter in her soul's cloth. By the time she had enough energy built up to slip through to the gully's lip, two days had passed.
Aeleres knew her grandmother hadn't been utterly alone when her time came. Aeleres's mother lived an easy translocation away at the mouth of the river in the sprawling resort town tucked between the marshes this forest gave way to and the sea beyond. Her mother, Wenna, ever the dutiful daughter, would have ensured the funeral rites had been seen to. The logical, cold part of Aeleres wondered if her mother felt free from the burden of caring for - and being emotionally beaten up - by their family's contentious matriarch. Grandmother had been a tough, difficult woman. Woe to the person who didn't let her have her own way. Yet Aeleres loved her in spite of them constantly butting heads.
The tableau, shadowed by the emerald crowns of the forest, seemed diminished by the loss of its mistress. The large home seemed to sag a bit on its foundation as if in mourning. The yard that sprawled down to the riverbed still looked well kempt. Aeleres let her mind spin back decades to the shoe-less days racing through the grass, her silly cat at her heels until they splashed down into the shallow river, water cold and delightful.
Resting against a thick oak tree, she drank in a deep breath perfumed with loam and spring flowers. As much as running around the house had been fun, it was the deep forest that held the most special place in her heart. Aeleres had spent so much of her childhood, playing here. She could climb quick and nimble as a squirrel, always on the look out for dragons. One day she and the Robb twins had found one, no bigger than a fox. The young dragonling had played with them for years. Even now she made a trip to visit with Aeleres once a year. It wouldn't surprise her if Yevlia showed up at Grandmother's house.
Her first magicks were worked in these woods singing honey bees to complacency so she could work her little hands in to steal some of the comb. Aeleres shut her eyes, still able to taste the thick sweetness and feel the wax warm against her tongue, softening to release its treasure. Here in the dappled sunlight, acorns dropping in the autumnal breeze she had shared her first kiss with Ashwin Robb. As far as first kisses went, it was the best you could hope for but it only cemented Ashwin's suspicions he preferred kissing men. As for Aeleres, men were just as lovely as women.
Her feet found the well worn path from her childhood and carried her home. She rapped on the front door before letting herself in. Her heart clenched again when no smells of cooking greeted her nose. Whatever Grandmother's faults had been, her constant cooking wasn't among them.
"In here," her mother called.
Aeleres went past bags and boxes of her grandmother's things to find her mother in the kitchen. A kettle steamed softly on the cast iron stove. Her mother expected her to want tea. Mother knew best. Kissing her mother's cheek, Aeleres tossed more wood into the stove to bring the water up to a rolling boil and nosed about to find the tin of tea leaves. While she waited on the tea, she sat at the kitchen table with her mother.
In front of them were tea pots, glass dishes and other ornaments and cups Aeleres has never seen. She picked up a glass candy dish of pressed glass in swirls of dark blues and purples.
"It's beautiful. Where did this come from?" She set it down, gesturing to the table full of items. "Where did any of it come from?"
"In the cabinets." Her mother nodded with her chin. "She was keeping it for good. Never saw her bring it out, not for company, not for holidays. Was she waiting for? Royals?"
Aeleres snorted. "What are you going to do with it all?"
"Keep some. You can pick from it too. Your cousins might want some. Otherwise it can for sale and charity at seaside." Mother sighed, running her finger along the fluted edge of a glass fruit bowl. "I love glass but, Aeleres, never keep things for good. Make every day a holiday."
Aeleres stood and poured the tea. She set the pot on the table. The sugar bowl was already there. "What about the house, Mom?"
"I wanted to talk to you about it."
Sitting again, Aeleres swallowed past a tight throat. "I think I'd like to stay here for a while."
Her mother blinked slowly then smiled. "I was hoping you'd want the house but you do so much work for the royals."
She waved her off. "Half the time they're just a few miles from here summering at the ocean. I can do just as much good here as I can there. If I want to go back and use the Academy's library, I can find someone to watch the house for a while."
Her mother heaved a deep sigh. "That is such a weight off."
Aeleres sipped her tea, too aware her hand shook, nearly sloshing tea onto the piles of kitchen things on the table. Her great grandmother originally had the house built while pregnant with Aeleres's grandmother. The house had stood here in the gully for a century and a year. The thought of it leaving the family made her push herself through translocation after translocation trying to get to the homestead one last time in case her mother wanted to sell it.
"We have to discuss the last ritual," Mom said. Aeleres barely nodded, not wanting to think about it, no matter how necessary it might be.
Before they could breech that delicate topic, someone entered the house. A middle-aged woman, probably a few years younger than Aeleres strode into the kitchen with a ‘Hello, Wenna that died on her lips when she saw Aeleres. She gave Aeleres a quizzical look.
Aeleres returned it. She was lovely with long black hair untouched by frost. She had strong hands that showed her age a bit in their rough skin. Coal black eyes sparkled. No, not coal. That was a dull stone. Obsidian, dark, unknowable and shining. Intelligence lurked behind those eyes, intriguing Aeleres.
“Aeleres, this is Marike, your grandmother’s nurse.”
Smiling, Aeleres stuck out her hand. “Nice to me you.”
“Your grandmother told me a lot about you.”
Aeleres couldn’t contain her smile. “Really?”
“She was quite proud of you.”
Really? Aeleres thought, seeing as she’d only heard criticism on each and every choice she’d made. If she said grass was green, Grandmother would argue. “Thank you for that.” She wanted to ask Marike why she was here but couldn’t figure out a nice way to do that.
“I really liked your grandmother so I told Wenna I’d be happy to help you pack up here. I know how hard a task that can be.” Marike’s soft smile was more comforting than a hundred tender words.
Even in her numb mourning state, Marike’s beauty wasn’t lost on Aeleres. She wanted to know more, to spend time with this woman. Having her here helping satisfied that deep, surprising need. “Thank you but don’t you have other patients.”
Marike shook her head. “I do private nursing, one patient at a time so I’m at your disposal.”
“I’m looking forward to getting to know you,” Aeleres said. “Just tell me where to start.”
“Why don’t you and Marike start emptying the curio cabinet,” her mother said.
Aeleres nodded, stepping into the dining room. She stared at the large glass-fronted cabinet. She’s forgotten Grandmother collected bells. There was nothing Aeleres wanted to collect less. “We have our work cut out for us.”
“I can’t argue that.” Marike smiled again and Aeleres’s burden lifted. She never imagined a homecoming like this.
In the week Aeleres, Marike and Wenna spent organizing her grandmother’s cluttered house, taking time to sort out the items that could be given to charity, sold or kept as heirlooms. Marike came every day, trading stories and histories with Aeleres. It might be the wrong timing but Aeleres swore she saw a spark in Marike, a connection between them that was deeper than mere friendship.
“Aeleres, bring me that box on the dining room table,” her mother called from outside.
Marike helped Aeleres lug it out. Her mother sat where the stump of the pine tree that had stood in front of the house for much of Aeleres’s life. A small bonfire consumed it. The women placed the box next to the two empty chairs at Wenna’s side.
Wenna opened it, nodding. “Crumple the papers up and toss them in.” She nodded to the fire.
“Are you sure?” Aeleres asked.
“It’s a box of receipts from butchers and grocers dating back to before even I was born.” Her mother grinned.
Aeleres snorted, sitting down, Marike taking the other chair. Before Aeleres could start wadding up paper, her mother handed her an engraved box. Her heart caught. This was the moment she was dreading. Her gaze slid sideways to Marike wondering if she should ask her to go.
“Mom, are you sure?” she asked and Marike gave her a curious look.
“My magic has never been as strong as yours and I’m already old myself. It should be yours.”
Aeleres stared into the box. Her grandmother’s heart-stone rested on the blue velvet lining, like an egg of tourmaline.
“What is it?” Marike asked.
“Crystallized magic. It’s what’s left after a witch or wizard is cremated. It’s meant to be passed on to a family member, to add to their own magic.” Aeleres stroked its surface feeling the power thrumming under its warm surface. She proffered it to her mother one last time. Wenna should have it. She was next in line.
Shaking her head, her mother lifted the stone out, pressing it against Aeleres’s chest. Aeleres cupped it, opening her defenses. The stone melted into her, loosening her muscles, sending tendrils of magic throughout her.
Her mother kissed her cheek. “Use it well.” She stood. “I have some packing to do in the library. You two can handle this.”
“Thank you for letting me see this.” Marike nodded to the empty box.
“You’re welcome. You’re my friend. I wanted you to share in it. It’s usually done with more ritual and people but we’re a bit isolated here.” Aeleres waved a hand to the woods.
“I appreciate it all the same.” Marike tossed a handful of papers on the fire. “Let me repay it by taking you to my favorite place out at the beach when we’re done here.”
Aeleres felt her nerves sing and it wasn’t all from the heart-stone's magic. “I’d love that.”
Marike took Aeleres’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Excellent.”
Aeleres squeezed back. The bonfire danced in front of them. The smoke was blue and grey and smelled like a promise.