Either unbothered by Ingrid’s sour expression or oblivious to it, Lilly threw her arms around her. “I thought for certain you’d be home in Northport by now!” she told Ingrid, delighted. “You were so adamant that you wanted to return there!”
“I’m still that adamant, but unfortunately I’m surrounded by people who don’t have my best interests at heart.” Ingrid’s voice was dry.
Hearing that, Golde smacked her solidly on the back in what I assume was intended to be a friendly gesture and gave her a big, full-throated laugh. “Why should we put you first? You think enough about yourself for all of us combined!”
Lilly chuckled at that, too—which made Ingrid look even more sour—and then released her, stepping back and putting a tender hand to Ingrid’s face. “I imagine you’d like a lovely warm bath and some pampering after your long journey.”
Ingrid didn’t lean into Lilly’s hand. At all. “Actually, I’d like you to resurrect my horrible wife so we can be on our way as soon as possible.”
“Yes,” Golde added, pulling aside her tunic again to show us her sickening wound. It was starting to thaw and run old blood and fluids. “Let’s do that first, shall we? I wouldn’t want to fill your pretty cathedral with the stench of death and rotting corpses!” Then, as if she wasn’t a rotting corpse herself, she laughed again.
Something tightened about Lilly’s face momentarily and she glanced at Golde. It was gone in an instant. “Of course,” she said, her voice as sweet and lyrical as ever. “Please, come in. I’ll have the acolytes attend to your horses.”
Lilly led us up the stairs and towards the main building, her thin dress swishing at her ankles.
As we approached the door, it became quite clear that Ingrid wasn’t planning on introducing me to Lilly at all—or even acknowledging my presence, really. It seemed a little rude. A little gingerly because of the foul mood she was in, I tugged on her tunic. “Are you pretending I don’t exist?”
I meant it as a genuine question, but Ingrid gave me a scalding look as if I’d cheeked her. It didn’t last long. With a sigh that exaggerated the enormity of what I’d clearly requested of her, she stopped in place and held her arm out towards me. “Lilly,” she said tiredly, “this is Orla. The gods have seen fit to saddle me with another stray when all I want to do is go home.”
Lilly found that very entertaining. “Perhaps you shouldn’t be so good at helping people, then!” she told her, laughing prettily. She turned her eyes vaguely in my direction and wasn’t surprised at all that there was no one to see there. Smiling politely, she said to the air near me. “Welcome, Orla! I’m sorry I didn’t meet you in time to bring you back to life myself.”
It stung a little to be reminded of that. To know that I’d missed my chance to return home to my wonderful husband and my wonderful girls was unthinkably painful. “Thank you,” I said quietly, wishing it weren’t true. “I wish that, too.”
Ingrid didn’t relay that message. Instead, she just gave me a curious look as we continued inside the cathedral.
Cathedrals as I had known them were mostly uniform in layout; dizzyingly high ceilings with rows and rows of pews, an altar up the front and a choir recess at the back. Some of them—the larger ones in the capital—had ten-foot high stained-glass windows depicting holy stories and were filled with hundred-year old paintings and sculptures. Such places not only looked beautiful, they sounded beautiful.
I could close my eyes and remember standing at the front of the choir recess with my arms outstretched and my face upturned, my voice filling the whole hall with song and echoing in beautiful harmony off the marble walls—
—at least, until my sister stole all my solos from me. When I wasn’t stuck in a duet with her (at times I wondered if the priest cast us together in an attempt to force us to get along) I was relegated to the back of the choir recess, where I could see none of the beauty around me, and where I could only hear my sisters voice filling the Cathedral as mine should have been.
My jaw set on edge, I followed the three of them inside.
Somewhat fortuitously, this ‘cathedral’ had little I recognised within. It had the same high ceilings and there was an altar on one side of it, but that’s where the similarities ended. Instead of wooden pews, or choir recesses, or paintings, it was simply filled with plants as if the whole building had been reclaimed by nature a hundred years ago.
Unlike the gardens outside, the gardens inside didn’t look kept. They looked wild and free, with opportunistic plants taking root in every available crevice. Leafy ferns sprouted from between the flagstones, and creepers climbed up the white marble walls and every surface underfoot was covered in a soft layer of moss. Filtered sunlight streamed down in shafts from a ring of open windows under the dome, and in the centre of the cathedral, growing higher and wider than I’d ever seen one before, a colossal weeping willow threw long, rope-like branches down all the way to the floor. They brushed the stones, their golden leaves twinkling in the sunlight.
The altar itself was past the tree. It was a circle of grass with a looming statue over it—a beautiful plump woman very heavy with child. In one hand she was holding a sprig of flowers, and the other was tenderly curled around her full stomach. She had a gentle expression that was full of peace, and her eyes were turned down upon the grass at her feet. They were bare, just like Lilly’s were. Her dress was like Lilly’s, too—she even had Lilly’s crown of flowers. The main difference I could see between them was that it seemed quite clear to me, as a woman who’d had children myself, that Lilly had never been with child. At her age, I would have ordinarily expected her to already have several children. She must be a maiden priestess, I thought, my suspicions about her confirmed.
As we approached the altar, the other three needed to brush willow branches out of their path and step through wild roses that were trying their best to grow onto the grass at the statue’s feet.
Lilly was a little frustrated by them. “Go on!” she said, gently but firmly pushing their scrambling branches off the grass with her bare ankle. “Roses love blood,” she told us, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. “I can hardly keep them off the altar after a busy season!”
“Perhaps I should lie there for a bit then?” Golde suggested, lowering herself to the grass in the centre of the circle with practised ease. “Wouldn’t want to deprive them of a good meal!”
Lilly shook her head, leaning over to wash her hands under a tiny fountain behind the altar. “I don’t want them getting big heads. They’re too spoilt anyway.”
Spoilt? I looked down at them; I couldn’t imagine what a spoilt rose looked like, but the ones at my feet looked perfectly ordinary to me. Ingrid and I shared a look, and her expression nearly made me laugh.
Hands washed, Lilly returned to the altar and stepped onto the grass at the statue’s feet. As she did, a shaft of sunlight fell dramatically across them, cutting air and lifting vivid colours out of the grass, the roses and Lilly’s skin and dress. Interestingly, Golde’s body remained the same ashen grey.
Lilly elegantly knelt down at the base of the statue and, carefully so as not to pull any of Golde’s hair and braids, lifted Golde’s head from the grass and rested it on her knees. She took a long, slow breath and then closed her eyes.
This is it, I thought, drawn out of my melancholy. This is where I witness a miracle.
I should have been more worried about the fact that a heathen was about to perform it (although Lilly seemed slightly less heretic than Golde and Ingrid, I thought) but I was too excited about what it may be like to be particularly bothered. I imagined it would be very dramatic; after all, when God descends to grant a boon upon us, surely it would be some sort of great feat? I watched, eyes trained on the scene at the altar, waiting for the skies to open up, or the ground to crack, or something equally theatrical.
For a little while, nothing happened at all. I could hear the birds outside and the gentle trickle of running water from the fountain behind the altar. Then, after I’d finished looking around me for the evidence of the great feat I felt sure was coming, I noticed that when I rested my eyes on Lilly that she was almost too bright to look at. The sunlight had intensified, and as it fell on her blonde hair and fair skin, the reflection was so strong she almost looked as if she were glowing. I didn’t have skin and shouldn’t have been able to feel the sunlight, but I could: the light was as warm as summer’s day.
The grass responded to it, too. I watched it twist and grow towards the sun; I watched the rambling roses reach towards Golde’s body with their long arms. When my eyes fell on Golde’s skin, I realised it was changing.
It started from the crown of her head: the sickly ash grey faded, flushing pink with blood. Her lips brightened. Then her nose, and the beds of her eyes. It spread down from there—her neck, her chest. Her bare arms and finally, her fingertips.
The sunlight over them had grown so bright as to make it difficult to see exactly what was happening, but I thought I saw Lilly lean over Golde’s head and reached a glowing arm down Golde’s body towards where the gaping wound was.
As soon as Lilly placed her palm over it, Golde’s body seized. In a struggling movement she reached towards her own chest, clawing at it as if trying to get inside it, her muscles tightening and her jaw clenching and her eyes jamming shut in pain and then finally she arched back, her eyes snapped open. She froze there for a moment, perfectly still. Then, if she’d been underwater for eternity, she threw her mouth wide open and drew a loud, desperate, gulping breath of air. Still staring upward vacantly like a grounded fish, she took another, and then another. As she breathed, as the air moved in and out of her mouth, limb by limb, muscle by muscle, her body slowly relaxed. As her hands fell away from her chest and rested once again in the grass, white clouds rolled overhead outside and obscured the sun.
By the time Golde lay peacefully on Lilly’s knees again, most of the sunlight had gone and we were in the cool interior of a quiet green cathedral once more. The statue looked over us, tranquil and calm.
It wasn’t until Golde sat up and checked her stomach—now whole once more—that it really struck me what I’d witnessed: I’d watched a very dead person returned to life right in front of me.
It was a lot to process. It had been done so casually; with no fanfare, no citizens crying and falling to their knees to thank God and renew their faith. Once upon a time I might have done such a thing myself, but I felt no desire to do it now.
All I could think of was that someone who had died, had been given another chance to live out their whole life with the people they loved. And that person wasn’t me.
While I was lost in thought, Golde finished inspecting herself. “Thanks, Lilly!” she said, and then turned towards the statue and gave it a big old hearty slap on the thigh as a sailor might do to a wench he fancied. The statue rocked. “Thanks, Eostre!”
Lilly looked a little unnerved by the rocking. “Perhaps you should go and—”
“—find an offering for Eostre, I know, I know,” Golde said. “I think it’s a red and orange day today!” she declared before she shot off like a cannonball out of the cathedral and towards the gardens.
The other two were silent for a moment as Lilly’s smile slowly faded. “She had better make an exceptionally beautiful bouquet,” she said onimously. “Eostre has once again gifted her with years more life than she would otherwise have.”
Ingrid gave Lilly an inquiring look. There was suspicion in it. “And for that, we are grateful.”
“I hope she will always be this generous,” There was a note of—something in her tone. Her soft voice and sweet expression didn’t suggest it was a threat, but…
Ingrid was watching her carefully. “As do I.”
Lilly stood, brushing off her dress in an elegant movement. Then, as if nothing had passed between them, she padded over to Ingrid with light feet and took her arm. “I am grateful that she brings you back home so often,” she said, and then began to lead a reluctant but compliant Ingrid out of the cathedral. “Shall we take some fresh air and sunlight while I have baths drawn for you both?”
Ingrid didn’t look much like she thought herself in a position to say no—as she shouldn’t, I figured, Lilly had just resurrected her friend—so she let Lilly escort her out the door. I followed, pulled by my chains.
The gardens around the cathedral were vast and colourful, and I was grateful to Lilly that she’d escorted Ingrid out here so I could tag along and admire the flowers. It had been so long since I’d seen spring blossoms; the trees around my farm had always blossomed and filled my house with the honeyed scent of winter’s end. I couldn’t smell them anymore, of course, but the memories were pleasant.
This cathedral, for all it wasn’t really a proper cathedral, certainly had its own beauty. My priest may even have liked it: he always said God was just as much in the tiny wildflowers as the huge, vast sky above.
Lilly clearly shared my love of flowers. As she and Ingrid strode arm in arm through the gardens, the fingertips of her free hand trailed across them, absently feeling the soft petals as she chatted. “It’s so lovely to be alone with you again.”
Ingrid glanced over her shoulder at me as I tagged along behind them. “Fortunately, we’re not alone.”
Lilly looked surprised for a moment, and then realised what Ingrid meant. “Oh!” she said. “Orla! How rude of me to forget.” When she looked over her shoulder somewhat toward me, there was a polite and friendly smile on her face. I didn’t miss the disappointment in her voice, though. It was audible when she spoke to Ingrid again, as well. “You must stay longer this time.”
Despite how generous a host Lilly was being, I could see on Ingrid’s face she was going to refuse. “As much as I simply adore being around your precious flowers and their great clouds of pollen, I’m afraid we’ll be heading off first thing tomorrow,” she said. “Orla needs to get revenge on her sister so she can pass and I can finally return home.”
Lilly looked disappointed. “Surely her revenge can wait just one more extra day?”
“As I keep having to repeat: I want to go home.”
Lilly ignored the impatience in Ingrid’s voice. “Just one extra day, though?” Something occurred to her, and her eyes lit up as she turned to Ingrid. “Perhaps we could have a moonlight banquet tonight? You used to love those!”
Ingrid was as stiff as a board. “’Used to’, yes. Many years ago,” she said neutrally. “We’ll leave first thing tomorrow, so a simple dinner and an early bedtime works best for us both.”
I could almost feel the ache of Lilly’s disappointment as I watched her face fall. “Will nothing keep you here?” She turned her big green eyes on Ingrid.
Ingrid met them with firm resolve. “Not anymore, Lilly.”
Lilly shrank like a wilting violet at that, but said no more. The two of them finished their leisurely tour of the gardens in silence.
Once we were back inside the cathedral, we found Golde using her towering height to cover the statue of Eostre in red and yellow daisy chains. She excitedly presented her handiwork to us. “What do you think?” she asked, looking quite pleased with herself. “I bet Eostre doesn’t get to wear her offerings too often!”
Lilly looked somewhat unimpressed. “You’re supposed to place the bouquet at her feet.”
Golde considered that, but after a few moments she shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, now I’ve placed it on her person, and I’m sure she appreciates the extra effort. I would, if someone were leaving an offering for me.” Not giving Lilly any space to disapprove further, she stepped away from the altar and came to meet the rest of us under the big willow. “Now, I believe you said something about a bath?”
Lilly already looked rather subdued after her conversation with Ingrid; she didn’t even try to push her point. Instead, she very reluctantly released Ingrid’s arm. “In the guest chambers,” she said. “My acolytes will have drawn a bath for either of you in adjoining rooms.”
Ingrid and Golde were already halfway out the door when Lilly called after them, “I’ll arrange dinner for you and serve it as soon as the sun sets! It’s going to be such a beautiful evening, we can all sit out in the garden and…” The door shut, leaving Lilly alone. “And…”
Her shoulders slumped. Quietly, to herself, she finished, “And perhaps you’ll decide you still like moonlight banquets again, after all.”
I had no time to dwell on Lilly, though, because my chains tugged me through the cathedral wall and outside into the afternoon and the gardens at the rear of the huge domed building.
Out here, there were a number of smaller domed buildings—all just as enveloped in plants and greenery as the cathedral—but I wasn’t able to admire them because I was pulled quickly inside where I supposed the guest quarters were. Inside, the top of the dome was uncovered, allowing sunlight to stream down into the centre of the large, open room. The only shelter seemed to be around the edges which left me worrying about what manner of furniture would spoil if it rained.
There was no threat of rain now, though, and in the centre of the marble floor a large copper bathtub spilt hot steam into the shards of sunlight above it. There were some flowers floating on the water, too—I imagined it must smell wonderful.
One of the acolytes, a beautiful young maiden just like Lilly, was just showing herself out after ushering Ingrid and Golde inside.
Before she left, however, she paused at the door and looked rather sheepish. “I’m sorry to have to say this, but if you wish a separate bath for yourself, Golde, the Priestess had another bath drawn for you in the chambers beside this one.” From how she delivered the news, it was clear the response she expected Golde would give her.
Golde waved her away. “Thank you, good lady,” she said, grinning and patting her thick thighs. “But Ingrid doesn’t take up much space in my lap.”
The maiden priestess was not at all as shocked as I expected her to be by such inappropriateness. In fact, it seemed that was the response she’d been expecting. She smiled warmly, nodded, and left.
Once she was gone, Golde went over to inspect the bath, inhaling deeply of the steam over it. “Lilies!” she declared, giving Ingrid a wide, cheeky grin. “Your favourite!”
Ingrid shot her a hard look as she begun to get ready for the bath.
Ignoring it, Golde turned to unabashedly watch Ingrid undress. “You should wear one of those dresses Lilly and the other ladies are wearing,” she suggested. “I bet they suited you.” Her eyes were twinkling.
Ingrid finished undressing and marched up to Golde, roughly stripping her clothes off her the way one might untack a draught horse. Golde seemed to enjoy it; too much for Ingrid’s liking. “If you like those robes so much, I’ll dress you in one,” she grumbled. With Golde’s huge and stocky body revealed, I couldn’t imagine how someone so enormous and muscular would look in one of those dainty dresses. Ingrid’s slight body, on the other hand, looked rather suited to them. Naked beside one another, the two of them looked not unlike I’d normally expect a man and a woman to look together—except for the fact they weren’t a man and a woman.
“You can dress me up in one of those little dresses if you like,” Golde told Ingrid, curling her huge hands around the curves of Ingrid’s rear. “Although I’d much rather you didn’t dress me in anything just now…”
I balked. Did these women have no discipline and no shame? “Must you both do this right now?” I found myself asking them. “This is clearly a place of nature, and you two are very much acting against it at this moment.”
Ingrid froze for a moment, and then turned her head and made direct eye contact with me. Up until that point she’d been very much resisting Golde, but as soon as I spoke, a very determined expression came over her face. Holding eye contact with me, she reached up and grabbed a handful of Golde’s breasts.
Golde, who could obviously not have guessed what had happened between Ingrid and I, was pleasantly surprised by Ingrid’s change of heart. Lifting the smaller woman clean off the ground and guiding Ingrid’s legs to wrap around her enormous tree-trunk body, she stepped into the steaming bath.
Giving me one last angry look, Ingrid turned her head and kissed Golde in such passionate defiance of me that I’m sure I made the most awful face.
Well, I wasn’t going to be forced to witness this depravity again. These two would just have to enjoy each other without me present.
Fortunately, my chains reached far enough away from Ingrid that I was able to pass through the wall and back out into the courtyard. I had thought to go back to the gardens if I could, but my tether only let me as far as the stairs. So, it was there I sat and tried to admire the distant gardens and not think about all the indulgent acts of lust Ingrid and Golde were no doubt committing at that moment.
It was not so bad outside. The courtyard was circular like most everything around us, with several other buildings like ours clustered around a garden bed. In the centre was an apple tree—in full blossom, of course—surrounded by rings of brightly coloured flowers. Beautiful acolytes passed me periodically, carrying food and various things towards the main gardens and chatting to each other. I admired their delicate robes and gentle faces, and imagined it must be quite a pleasant life to live here; I wondered if it might have been something I could have chosen for myself, had I not fallen in love so young.
I spent a little while imagining what that must be like before I came to my senses; was I really considering forsaking my God for pretty robes and pretty gardens?
No sooner had I realised that I was, I remembered the oh-so casual miracle this ‘Eostre’ goddess had granted today. No one had batted an eyelid; it was an ordinary, everyday event. It must happen all the time. With some bitterness, I reflected on the fact that my god had never done anything like that for us. I’d died of pneumonia with a loving husband and two little girls begging for me to stay with them, and here I was, watching a giant mountain berserker woman with no respect for life get raised from the dead by Eostre as if it was a weekly occurrence.
Why haven’t my god done that for me?
It was a slippery, dangerous thought. I felt like I was teetering on the edge of a precipice, terrified at any moment that I would fall.
I swiftly pushed that thought aside, feeling as if a deadly cancer had taken root in my heart. God doesn’t have to prove himself to me! I told myself firmly, trying to laugh over the fact I’d thought he did. It was difficult to manage.
While I was having my minor crisis of faith, I noticed a figure through the branches of the apple tree. She was sitting on the stairs opposite me on the other side of the courtyard. Craning my neck a little, I realised it was Lilly.
She sat for a little while watching the guest residence, a deep furrow in her ivory brow. While I was watching her, she stood determinedly, set her jaw, and began to stride towards the guest quarters as if she were on a mission. I jumped up in panic—“No! Don’t go in!” I tried to warn her—but she passed completely through me and continued as if I’d said nothing at all to her.
When she reached the door, though, she paused. Palm on the door handle, she stood in place, staring at the wooden door just in front of her nose. Her pink lips were set in a thin line, but there was hesitation on her face. She didn’t want to open the door.
It was in that moment that I realised I needn’t have tried to warn Lilly about what Ingrid and Golde were doing, because it was clear she already knew. Just as I, she also clearly didn’t approve.
Of course she doesn’t, I thought to myself with some satisfaction at not being the only person who didn’t approve of Ingrid and Golde. She was a woman of God… or a woman of a god, anyway. Ingrid and Golde were not performing godly acts.
Lilly didn’t appear to share my disgust, however; that made me somewhat uncomfortable. I was even more uncomfortable when, even though she clearly knew the acts that were taking place within, instead of opening the door and rightfully demanding they stop desecrating the cathedral, Lilly simply turned her head and lay an ear against the wood.
While I was frowning at her, we both heard Ingrid crying out in what seemed like rather exaggerated pleasure—which I’m sure was supposed to be for my benefit.
My nose wrinkled, but Lilly’s didn’t. Not at all. Instead, her lips parted and her cheeks flushed. It was not the reaction of someone who was repulsed by the sound of two women who were at each other.
I stood a little straighter, taking a step away from her as I digested that.
Lilly was warmed by the sound of Ingrid at pleasure? I was beginning to understand just how Lilly had managed to avoid being with child. But—surely not Lilly, she was— Well, surely a carnal act that couldn’t possibly result in new life couldn’t be blessed by this Eostre goddess of hers? And it wasn’t as if she could have been forsaken for whatever lust she indulged in, because this very afternoon she’d channelled a miracle.
It was complete madness to me that their gods seemed to turn a blind eye to this behaviour. Did the gods up north have no standards at all?
Unaware of my disapproval, Lilly had continued to listen to the sounds from within. It was only when Golde said something that I most certainly could not repeat that she snapped out of whatever lustful trance she was in and seemed to come to her senses. She listened for a little longer, brow wavering and bottom lip quivering, and then jammed her eyes shut for a moment and stood away from the door. For just a moment I thought she might interrupt them anyway—I could see she had the desire to do so—but for whatever reason she didn’t.
She just let her shoulders slump, a deeply bitter expression falling upon her otherwise beautiful face, and then she left them.
I watched her go, not at all able to pretend to myself I didn’t understand what was going on.
I was still stewing over what I’d seen when an acolyte arrived at our door to escort us to dinner. I had expected to end up in some sort of dining hall, but just as Lilly had suggested, the acolyte led us out past the cathedral into the gardens.
The sun was setting behind us, throwing a beautiful pink light across the garden. Crickets chirped.
Despite the beautiful surroundings, the further we reached into the gardens, the more Ingrid shrank. “I told her I didn’t want dinner outside. She of all people knows what the pollen does to me.”
Golde had a thick arm around her. “You may be very small and descended from a bunch of cowardly imperialists,” she told Ingrid sagely, “but you’re a tough little thing, you can weather a bit of pollen. Let’s just eat it to thank her for raising me. You can manage that. Lilly is nice.”
Ingrid looked on the verge of gagging, but didn’t bother protesting further as they were led onto a great stretch of manicured grass under the boughs of great oak tree. The branches were lit from underneath by a series of crackling torches, and from above by that glorious pink in the sky. The flickering light was terribly atmospheric.
As Lilly had mentioned to Ingrid earlier, she’d set up an evening picnic on the grass. All the food had been lovingly laid out on brightly-coloured blankets covered in floral tapestry, and Lilly had arranged herself just as beautifully behind it all. Looking delighted at our arrival, she fanned out her arms to all the food. “Welcome! Come eat!” Interestingly, none of her bitterness from earlier was visible.
To compensate for that, however, Ingrid had clearly taken it upon herself to be bitter enough for all of them. “How generous,” she said with suspicious cheer as she sat, “you decided to consider how disagreeable pollen is to me and have us eat amongst the worst of it!”
Lilly laughed pleasantly. “Oh, please!” she said, selecting one of the trays and holding it towards Ingrid. “You find everything and everyone disagreeable. If I were to take that into account we’d never eat together anywhere!”
“Sounds perfect,” Ingrid muttered under her breath.
Golde gave Ingrid a good-natured shove. “Cheer up, Grumpy!” she said, reaching all the way across to the tray and just grabbing a fistful of items from it in a way I imagined was rather rude.
From Lilly’s expression, I gathered it was exactly that. She tried to make light of it anyway. “At least your friend has an appetite!”
Ingrid looked unmoved. “My wife.”
Lilly’s bright smile faltered. “Of course,” she agreed, forcing that cheerfulness again. “Your wife.”
The fact Golde’s mouth was half full didn’t stop her from speaking. “Don’t worry about Ingrid, she’s just jealous,” she said, giving me a glorious view of half-chewed food inside her mouth with every word. “She can’t cook at all.” She flinched a little as Ingrid whacked her.
It turned out that Lilly was quite the entertainer—not that I’d really expected otherwise of her. She had so many stories about travellers coming to the cathedral and so much gossip about the gardeners and who had fallen out with who, that it didn’t matter that I had no idea who they were speaking about.
Not that I had anything particular against Golde and her chatter, but I did think Lilly was somewhat more interesting company. I had been enjoying her story about settlers from the west (“The imperialists!” Golde had corrected her, eyes fiery as she spoke of them) trying to force entry to the cathedral only to find their horses threw them and that thick living vines had grown immediately across all the doorways, but Golde clearly didn’t share my enjoyment. She didn’t say as much, but Ingrid noticed, and took it as an excellent excuse to try and weasel out of remaining in Lilly’s company any longer. “Well, that’s enough food, I think,” she declared, sounding the most cheerful she had all evening. “Now, if you don’t mind, Lilly, I’m going to enjoy a full night’s sleep in one of your glorious beds.”
The bright smile fell off Lilly’s face immediately. “But you haven’t even had desert!”
“More for the acolytes to polish off for us, then,” Ingrid pushed herself to stand. “We’ll be off first thing in the morning to assist Orla with passing, so I suppose this is goodbye. Thank you again for helping my wife, as much as the stupid git probably deserves to stay dead for once.”
I would have been rather insulted by that, but Golde just laughed as she stood, too. “Yes, thank you, good lady,” she said and reached a hand out towards Lilly.
Lilly shook it a little awkwardly, but wasn’t ready to let Ingrid leave so very quickly. “Please, Ingrid,” she said as Ingrid tried to sneak away during the handshake. “I do exactly as you say and raise your friend—” She paused, looking uncomfortable. “Sorry, your wife, every time you bring her here. The least you can do is keep me company for a little while…”
I looked at Ingrid, inclined to agree with Lilly. Having a wonderful dinner with her and listening to her entertaining chatter didn’t seem to be a particularly unfair deal, and I wanted to hear the end of her story.
Ingrid saw my expression. “Don’t you dare think you get to have an opinion about this.”
I scoffed. Should I not have one? “Listening to Lilly’s stories is very much more enjoyable than listening to what I’m sure you and Golde will force me to endure tonight.”
Lilly seemed a little confused for a moment by Ingrid, then she laughed a little nervously. “Oh,” she said. “You were talking to Orla.”
Ingrid nodded once. “We need to take her south as quickly as possible, so I’m afraid we can’t stay longer. It’s important we help her pass.”
I didn’t believe for a single moment that she cared at all about helping me. “I’ve been dead for years, you can eat a little longer,” I pointed out, and then had a thought. “Perhaps you can stay an extra day after all?” An extra day would give me more time to decide what sort of punishment my sister deserved for stealing my lovely husband.
Ingrid gave me a very hard look, and for a moment I thought she might… smite me, or whatever necromancers could do to ghosts. She didn’t though, because Golde distracted her by putting a hand on her shoulder. “I’m going to go wait in bed,” she said, and then stretched out her arms so they crackled like popping corn. “Come, my love.”
Ingrid looked very much inclined to do exactly that, but Lilly put a heavy hand on her arm. “Please, Ingrid. I see you so rarely these days. Surely you can spend a little while more with me, for old time’s sake?” She turned those big doe eyes on her.
I watched Ingrid’s expression waver between firm resolve and reluctant resignation. When she spoke, it was the resignation I could hear. That, and bitter resentment. “Only for desert, and only because you raised my wife again.”
Golde and Ingrid shared what looked like a very meaningful look. Golde looked as if she might stay as well, but after looking upon Ingrid and Lilly, decided better of it and bounded back down the hill towards the residences.
Lilly herself was absolutely delighted by Ingrid’s turnabout. Her face lit up as brightly as the moon rising behind her. “Oh, I’m so glad! It’s just so nice to have you back!” she said, that joy bubbling back into her voice again.
I watched Ingrid’s expression harden as she lowered herself back into the grass beside Lilly to be doted on and fawned over by her.
Without Golde present—and because she probably forgot I was there—Lilly warmed so much more to Ingrid. Ignoring how Ingrid recoiled from her, she shuffled closer and absent-mindedly touched various parts of Ingrid as she spoke. It started with just an innocuous hand on her forearm, but progressed through tenderly stroking hair from her face, all the way to selecting various tiny pasties from her platter to actively feed Ingrid.
Ingrid clearly felt like a caged animal, and as Lilly monologued about something or rather and tried to feed Ingrid food she obviously very much disliked, Ingrid suddenly snapped and roughly pushed her arm away. “Alright,” she said, standing very abruptly. It was such an odd contrast to how gently and warmly Lilly had been treating her. “This is too much!”
Lilly stood, too. “Too much?” she asked, clearly aghast about Ingrid’s change of heart. She tried to make light of it anyway, I think to ease the growing tension. “Don’t tell me I’m being too nice to you!” She smiled brightly in jest.
“You are,” Ingrid said coldly, returning no such smile. “And you know exactly what you’re doing.”
“’What I’m doing?’”
“Yes,” Ingrid told her harshly. “’I’ll raise your ‘friend’, but you have to let me batt my eyelashes at you, and force you to eat food you don’t like, and do things you don’t want to do, and touch you, and—‘”
“I don’t see anything I’m doing is unfair!” Lilly interrupted her. “I do your bidding and raise Golde every time you ask, why shouldn’t I be allowed to spend time with someone who was such a big part of my life as thanks?”
“Because that part is over, Lilly!” Ingrid told her, throwing her arms out. “It’s over! It’s been over for ten years!”
Ingrid may as well have physically struck Lilly for how she recoiled. “That doesn’t mean we have to act as if we never knew each other!”
“The way you act, it’s as if you haven’t realised that we’re no longer together!” Ingrid told her, batting a hand away as Lilly reached for her. “We’re not together any more, Lilly!”
Lilly looked on the verge of tears. “We’ve been ‘not together’ before,” she reasoned, “and then we’ve reunited again, so many times. And I know the last argument was a truly bad one, I do know that. But we’re so perfect together—even you said that. You are night and I am day, and together we’re a full cycle of the sun. I know we have a lot to repair, but I believe we can repair ‘us’ together.”
Ingrid’s long sigh expelled every bit of air she had in her lungs. “Lilly. I married Golde. I’m happily married to Golde and have been that way for many years.”
“’Happily married’?” Lilly repeated. “Really? But you degrade her so, and I understand why: she’s not at all your intellectual equal. And she’s not day to your night—I’m not even sure what she is. Is she even human?” Lilly asked, and then shook that thought away. “Anyway, I just don’t see how someone like thatcould be a more suitable wife for you than I could be, or be as good for you as I was.”
Ingrid looked a hundred years older in an instant. “Because you don’t want to see, Lilly.”
Rather that respond to that accusation, Lilly just shook her head. “You know what I think?” Lilly said, and then volunteered her thoughts without waiting for Ingrid to answer. “I think you married her to spite me”
Ingrid balked. From her expression, I could see that was clearly not the reason Ingrid had married Golde.
Before she could speak, Lilly silenced her. “If you come back to me one final time, Ingrid, I won’t even speak of this,” she waved her hands in vague disapproval at Ingrid’s dark clothes, “or your dalliance with the simple-minded barbarian again. Eostre would have you back, I’m sure of it, she’ll forgive you transgressing against life and welcome you back to serve her, back as a priestess of life.” Lilly’s eyes lit up as she spoke. “And there’s so much life about you, Ingrid. So much life, and so much determination to live. Every time I look at you, I remember the acolyte with the pink cheeks and fiery eyes who would stand toe-to-toe with the old priestess and tell her exactly what she thought of her. You brought passion and devotion to our cathedral, and you brought such happiness to me.” She took Ingrid’s hands in hers. “You don’t belong out in the frozen wastelands dragging scores of tortured spirits after you while you lay with barbarians. You belong here, surrounded by light and warmth and in the arms of someone who truly loves you with all her heart.”
Ingrid watched her as she spoke, her icy expression melting a little. Lilly had begun to cry; silent tears rolling down her cheeks as she desperately held Ingrid’s hands. She squeezed them again. “I love you, Ingrid,” she said quietly. “I love you so much. Come back to me at last.”
Ingrid’s eyes softened, but she didn’t look away from Lilly. It took her a great deal of effort to manage it, but for the first time, I heard gentle words from her mouth. “I’m sorry, Lilly,” she said softly. “But I don’t love you.”
At that, fresh tears pushed down Lilly’s cheeks. “You do,” she tried to argue, struggling to speak. “You do. I saw how you used to look at me, how you used to touch me. And you chose someone who’d die all the time so you’d need to come back to visit me…”
Ingrid shook her head. “I think perhaps it’s time Golde started being more careful so I no longer need to return.”
That sent Lilly into sobs, and she threw herself into Ingrid’s arms. Ingrid reluctantly let her, hugging her loosely around the waist as she openly sobbed into Ingrid’s tunic. Lilly could hardly speak. “Don’t say that!” she begged Ingrid. “Please don’t say that!”
After a few moments, Ingrid peeled Lilly from her and held her at arm’s length. “It’s true, Lilly. I loved you once,” she said. “But all this,” she gestured disdainfully at the gardens around us, “was never really my path, which means you can’t be my path. It took me a long time to truly see I needed to leave the cathedral, and to grieve the beautiful life I thought I’d have here. But I’ve done that,” she said. “And now it’s your turn.”
For a moment, Lilly clung to Ingrid, terrified for her to continue.
“Let me go, Lilly. Lay ‘us’ to rest, or it will torment you for the rest of your life.”
It was the softness in Ingrid’s voice as much as what she said that caused Lilly to cry again; and with patience I could see did not come easily to Ingrid, she waited for Lilly’s tears to reside.
Eventually, they did, and Lilly wiped her eyes on her slender wrists. “Perhaps I’ll end up as one of your tormented spirits and I can be with you even when I’m dead,” she said, and then laughed miserably.
That struck me deep into my core. I felt an uncomfortable weight where my stomach had once been.
Ingrid and Lilly regarded each other for a moment—two lovers who shared a past but not a future; two people whose paths had diverged forever.
“Goodbye, Lilly,” Ingrid said with chilling finality. “I pray you’ll find happiness again.”
With that, Ingrid turned and walked away.
Dragged behind her, I could only manage a brief glance over my shoulder at Lilly: she stood in the midst of artfully strewn blankets, preciously chosen and lovingly decorated food that was mostly uneaten, looking as hopelessly lost as a ship adrift at sea.
I hoped she would be alright. I hoped she would find happiness, too.
Back in the room, Golde hadn’t gone to bed as advised. Instead, she was still fully dressed and leaning on the windowsill, watching the stars above. She stood up as Ingrid entered, concern apparent on her painted face.
Ingrid didn’t say anything, she just walked slowly into Golde’s arms and rested her head against Golde’s broad chest. Golde gave her a long, crushing hug, resting her cheek atop Ingrid’s black hair.
It was some time before Ingrid spoke. “I think you’re going to have to be careful from now on.”
In Golde’s eyes, I could see she understood why. “Alright.”
After another long stretch of silence, Ingrid glanced towards me. “I hope your sister doesn’t put up a fight. I can’t risk Golde’s life right now.”
I thought about Astrid—her slight body, her infuriatingly delicate and pretty face that my father had fawned over and people couldn’t help but love (if only they knew what she was really like!). She couldn’t hurt a fly. My husband probably wouldn’t put up a fight either—he was a farmer, not a fighter.
Now that the prospect of revenge was so close, the thought of an enormous mountain woman barrelling into our little house and towering over them both made me terribly uncomfortable. There was no way Golde was in danger. “My sister won’t fight back. Neither of them will.”
Ingrid nodded once. “Good,” she said, relieved. I wasn’t.
They put themselves to bed—fortunately with no loud and gratuitous love-making tonight—and I sat at the window where Golde had been and watched the southern horizon.
I’d be home soon, and I was no closer to deciding how to deal with my sister for stealing my husband and my life. I didn’t have long to decide.