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Vember's Memories in Pictures

Lirriel's picture

Vember unrolls a piece of hide, smoothed and supple, with pictographs painstakingly embroidered into the surface. She runs her calloused fingers over each one as she shares the story they represent; halting at first, but quickly gaining confidence as long-held memories tumble forth…



Mother was born to a family of the Old Ways from the Northern Headlands, rebellious and starry-eyed. A whim of fate put her in Father’s path. They eloped and I was born, surrounded by city lights and walls.

“This garden isn’t enough,” she would say to me as we mimicked the birds’ songs. “Perhaps we’ll see if Father will take us on a trip to the Blackwald this summer, or we can arrange a visit to meet your cousins in the Headlands. Won’t that be fun?”

We never did. Father was a busy man, running one of the few successful banks in our country as it withdrew from the world. After his youthful post-education wanderings, he was content to stay in the city.

“The Wall is the right course,” he’d say, puffing his pipe. “There is nothing out there Gilneas needs, and nothing we need outside this city and the Cathedral’s Light.” He would look at Mother.

“Yes, dear,” she would say, smiling.

I was perhaps eight years old when I realized that it was a different smile than the one that she wore when we hunted for rabbit nests in the garden. When Father would say those words, Mother’s smile froze, and her dark eyes didn’t sparkle.

I don’t know that he ever noticed. I think that, more than the walls and noise and lights, killed her in the end. I know, it sounds dramatic. She wanted him to really see her for who she was, as when they had met, young and carefree. He was so afraid of losing her that he put her in a cage, where she suffocated.

It took me even longer to realize that I was in the same trap.

**********



Mother was sick for over two years. Father tried every city doctor, every priest. He donated quite a bit to research, though of course the hospital’s resources were quite limited due to our isolation.

He never tried a harvest witch, scoffing at superstition and calling them farmers and veterinarians, not true doctors. He never took her to see her family—and I later learned, never informed them of her condition, though I know she asked him to write them.

Even then, he was afraid they would steal her back from him. She thought they were still angry for her abandonment of the Old Ways, that this was her just punishment.

At the funeral, well-dressed old women tutted. “She told me she held on for the girl’s sake,” one grandmotherly lady said when she thought I couldn’t hear.

“Well, the aunt can properly manage her instruction,” her equally elderly companion said. “Fallen quite behind with all of this, poor thing. They would need the aunt anyway; it’s not as if her mother had been part of Society.”

“It’s still too bad,” the first said. “She may not have gone through the Seasons herself as a girl, but it’s such a bonding time for mothers and daughters; they could have learned together.”

“The aunt will manage, and perhaps with less trouble,” the second woman said. Their wealthy husbands came to collect them then, smoke and brandy wafting with them from their long, solemn conversations with Father.

Everyone was speaking to him; it was important to be remembered as someone who had expressed personal sympathies to a man in his position, while Father sought out certain people who had come to pay their respects to our family.

A nurse from the hospital walked up to me, smiling sympathetically. “It’ll be all right, honey,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t seem that way now. We’re all together in the Light, after all.” It was an offensively bright day, the sun beating down on Aderic’s Repose, light glinting off shining marble monuments and coach mirrors.

I felt cold and quite disconnected.

Mr. H- came next, smiling down at me; I had yet to reach my final growth spurt that in the next year would put me to equal his height. “We’ll get through this, Miss Vember,” he said, taking my hand. He was always quite familiar with me, given our families histories. “I do understand; my father’s loss still weighs heavy some days, but it does get easier as time goes on. I shall always be available to you, and your father, of course.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, keeping my eyes down.

“You know you can call me by name,” he reminded me.

I shook my head and pulled my hand away. He frowned, and was about to say something but Father called to him just then, leaving me relieved. I didn’t want another insistent debate about the propriety of calling a man ten years my senior and now Father’s partner by his first name. I was still a child of fifteen, after all.

I went to our coach to wait on Father; I simply couldn’t talk to anyone else, and even the wind was too still, the arrangements of flowers preemptively dead, to bring me any comfort. I fell asleep waiting, and it was quite late by the time Father joined me, the sun’s glow orange and slanted now as it silhouetted the king’s mountains. He scolded me for hiding from the important people, for not standing alongside her grave with him, while our driver pretended not to listen.

**********



Auntie was firm and thorough in her instruction. My straight hair made her despair at times, but we finally figured out how to force it to hold a curl without resorting to attachments or wigs. I did enjoy the gowns, hairstyles, cosmetics—but my favorite part was the dancing. Find a song fast enough, and competent partners, and it felt almost like flying, I thought then.

I was sixteen, it was Spring, and the summer balls were beginning. I spent time with other girls my age, as we awkwardly interacted with boys who were just as naïve as we were. Those were my favorite parties, over the times Mr. H- found time to act as my escort, looking over the glittering festivities with his jaded adult eyes. I never had the chance to dance with anyone else, nor talk to many others, when he came along, so I tried to encourage Auntie—my ever-present chaperone—to arrange events or accept invitations for times I knew Mr. H- couldn’t attend. I didn’t need his hovering escort. So Mr. H- was not there the night I met Roland.

He kept appearing among the dance circles, smiling at me with perfect teeth, his eyes a bright blue. His hair was blond and thick, worn a bit longer than was the fashion at the time. It contrasted his clothes, perfectly on point with the latest fashion, and made of expensive materials. Auntie kept a sharp eye as he came to my small group of friends, all of us giggling behind our fans.

“I’m Roland,” he said, bowing low as his lips just barely brushed the back of my hand.

My cheeks were warm and my mouth would not stop grinning. “Vember,” I introduced myself. Auntie tutted behind me, so I amended it to a proper greeting, with my last name. The damage had been done, though, and Roland grinned. “Might I walk with you, Miss Vember? The dancing’s done, and the night air quite cooling.”

I accepted his arm while my friends whispered and laughed to each other, grinning at me. Auntie sighed and followed at a discreet distance as he and I walked and talked.

He was twenty, which was older than the boys but not so old as Mr. H-. Roland was vague on his family’s business, on his youthful wanderings before taking on any responsibility—or so I assumed, from what little he said, turning the conversation away from details and onto myself, which distracted me well. As the evening wore on and it came time to leave, he asked to see me again.

“Time flew by, I feel there’s so much more to say,” he smiled. “Might I call?”

I passed him my card, delighting in Auntie’s tooth grinding behind me. As we reached our coach, she scolded me. “He’s not of a proper family, dear. And there are rumors…”

“Oh, he’s perfectly nice, Auntie,” I replied. “If he’s untoward, I shall send him off.” I thought I knew what such things meant. I was young, and trusting.

Roland was polite, suave, attentive. His visits came during respectable hours, with Auntie in attendance, of course. After a couple weeks, he slipped me a note, asking about times to call when she would not be hovering—and I sent a note back the next time, giving him the information. It was improper, but perfectly safe; I was falling in love with him, and he with me, and we were quite responsible enough.

He kissed me in Mother’s garden, under her willow tree as the afternoon sun played through the branches. If his hands wandered, I didn’t mind as much as I should, feeling bold and warm and quite enjoying the taste of his mouth and the caresses over my frame.

He would call formally, under her watchful eyes, and then return later—or arrive earlier—so we would be alone. We talked less—what else was there to say?—and kissed often, as he quietly urged me to allow more. “My dark northern beauty,” he called me, despite my laughing protests that I was from the city.

I did give in, finally, my own body aching to feel more of him pressed against me. On a day when I knew Father was off to Duskhaven and Auntie busy with her own matters, we joined together. Roland’s hands and mouth teased me, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. He filled me, moaning in pleasure while I quivered and waited for anything more.

His hands brushed back my damp, dark hair and he smiled down at me. “I knew being with you would be good,” he said, kissing my forehead. “We’ll have to do this again, my exotic flower.”

We did, three other times over the next few weeks, when we could sneak away from my ever-watchful Auntie. I was over the moon in joy, feeling that he must want to propose to me now that we had been so intimate. Surely, once I had more experience and we were no longer hiding our swiftly completed trysts, that intimacy would only grow more pleasurable.

I was so certain, that when I told him I was pregnant, I didn’t think that his suddenly pale face, shaking hands, and sweating to be any more than excitement and joy. “I shall see you tomorrow,” I said. “We can speak to my father—he doesn’t need to know all of it, of course.”

“Of course,” Roland said. His lips merely brushed my cheek as he took his leave. I was a little disappointed he hadn’t seemed happier, but it was rather big news.

I never did see him again.

**********



Auntie moved in with Father, so he wouldn’t be alone—not that he was home often enough to notice his sister’s presence. He had railed and ranted at the news of my pregnancy, but quickly calmed down and did what he could to salvage things.

Mr. H- married me in a swiftly devised ceremony. He had escorted me to so many balls and parties, that it was quite easy to get Society to believe that he was the father of my baby, not the rake I had often flirted “harmlessly” with. Rumor had it that Roland had run off with a dance hall girl and put out to sea, like other young people trying to escape our closed-off country. It took a few weeks for me to stop crying.

Our wedding night consisted of a perfunctory performance in the marital bed; I was left even less fulfilled than I had ever been with Roland, and Mr. H- immediately rolled away, turning his back. “I always expected to wed you,” he said. “I just never thought anyone else would have had you first.” He got up to have a drink at the sidebar. I went into the washroom to clean myself, leaning against a wall with my hands pressed to my stomach for a long time. When I returned, Mr. H- was asleep, thankfully.

He shared my bed a few more times, until my abdomen’s distension became too noticeable and my discomfort too much. He often returned from evening outings quite late, and eventually, the scent of homemade perfume and smears of lipsticks worn by dancing girls came home with him.

When I tried to speak with Auntie about these things, she merely harrumphed. “Can you truly blame him? He expected to marry into our family, of course, but not because you ruined yourself with some cad. Wait until the baby’s born, dear, and your figure returns. Your husband will stay in your bed then, I’m sure.”

Melody Rose was born on a stormy night, a few weeks earlier than expected, just a few days after my seventeenth birthday. It was a long, difficult labor. She was fine, if small and fragile, but the doctors and priest fret over me. I vaguely recall them trying to explain what was wrong, and I muttered “do as you must” before I slipped into unconsciousness.

I dreamt I flew over the kingdom, wind ruffling my feathers and the entire world before me in a dizzying array of colors and sounds and smells.

When I woke, my husband tightly informed me that Melody Rose would be the only child we would have. “I wanted sons, of my blood,” he said. “Joining our houses truly. But you’ve managed to thwart that, haven’t you?”

“Would you rather raise her yourself?” I asked, pulling my baby to my breast. She was soft and smelled sweet. “They had no choice to save me.”

He frowned, but said no more. I focused on my Melly, and not on the scar on my lower abdomen.

I continued to focus on Melly; anything else seemed dull and not worthwhile. I seemed to be forgetting things, though.

“Why did you leave the lights on?” Mr. H- would demand when he came upstairs in the evening. In the middle of the day, when coming home for lunch, he would rail at me for leaving lights on during sunny hours.

I forgot to lock the doors and windows, which could allow any robbers or other trash into the yard and house, how could I be so careless? Didn’t I care about keeping the baby safe?

The housekeeper began double-checking me, after enough of these conversations, and I was glad of it, as I could no longer recall myself if I had or had not done some things. During the day, in my garden, I was fine, mostly; I told Melly the names of flowers and whistled like the birds, as Mother had done for me. Inside the house, early in the mornings and in the evenings, I could barely recall my actions.

I didn’t realize what was happening until the end. Until the morning I woke to see Mr. H- standing over Melly’s cradle. I normally woke to her fussing for breakfast, but as I sat up, I saw his hand inside the crib and she was silent …

I screamed and launched myself at him, clawing at his arm and face, trying to push him away from the little form, covered with a pillow and utterly unmoving. He shouted and grabbed my wrists, throwing me to the floor.

The housekeeper burst in, still sleepy, but eyes-widening as she took in the scene. “Call the guards!” Mr. H- ordered. “She’s gone mad, she’s hurt the baby!”

I screamed denials and launched myself at him again. The housekeeper fled, returning with men who drug me off my husband. He sobbed and told them he had waked to see me smothering our child, after weeks spent in a resentful post-partum haze.

I fought. I screamed. I looked quite like the crazy woman he claimed, I must admit. My only baby was dead—and I was blamed.

Father was shattered. He retired, giving full control of his business holdings to Mr. H-. He sent word through Auntie that he regretted Mother’s “wild blood” in me, that it had led to this. He would let my husband handle this as he must; Father washed his hands of all of it, too old and heartbroken to deal with me any longer. Auntie was cold as she relayed his words, from across the room with a doctor and a guard present. She left with no personal word or emotion.

Mr. H- kept it quiet in the papers, and while it was certainly whispered and discussed, it was with a sympathetic tone for his loss. He had only tried to do the right thing, of course.

Which included keeping me out of prison, and instead sending me to an asylum to be treated and cared for. After all, it was mental illness after birthing, combined with my mother’s bloodline, that had triggered such tragedy.

He came to see me as they prepared the coach to take me from my city cell to the hospital. “You’ll be kept there until you’re well, my dear,” Mr. H- said. “In the meanwhile, I will manage the banks, the properties…I have all I wanted, really. Except you, perhaps, but there will be new opportunities in the future. And that rake, nor anyone else, will sully you further.”

“You killed her,” I hissed. “You should be hung.”

He shook his head. “You’re misremembering again, Vember. YOU killed your daughter, the source of your shame, and you can’t face it.” He doffed his hat. “Good-bye, my dear.”

I was drug to the carriage, the windows barred, the inside padded. I was in a jacket that contorted my arms and restricted every motion. I leaned my face against the bars and felt the wind, knowing it would be a long time before I knew its caress again.

**********



I don’t like remembering this time.

My room was tiny, the bed a narrow, uncomfortable cot. People screamed and shouted and gibbered in other rooms. The harmless ones sat staring and sometimes drooling in chairs in the common room.

A doctor came to speak with me, about my baby, my mother, Roland, Mr. H-, my father. He would frown as he listened, and look at his notes. “Do you think perhaps your resentment of your husband catching all of your misremembered mistakes led you to attacking him?” the doctor asked, as we spoke about my memory failings.

“No. I didn’t care about that—I didn’t care about anything, really, except Melly…”

“Why did you smother her?”

“I didn’t! It was him!”

He would sigh then, and we would start over. He didn’t believe me. No one did.

Through the narrow windows I watched the seasons change, in a slow, creeping manner. The activities were limited, there was no real entertainment, the reading was restricted. Talking to anyone else was…difficult. Some of them were compulsive liars, others manipulative. Some couldn’t remember anything day to day, or even hour to hour. Many were old and had been lost to senility with no one else to care for them. I helped where I could, out of anything better to do; I was one of the mild, trustworthy ones, comparatively, though the orderlies still watched me—one far too closely for comfort.

I sometimes agreed with the doctor, that I must have been as crazy as the other inmates, that I really had killed my own sweet baby in a fit of depressive insanity and shame, that my memory was twisted and wrong. At first, those times were rare. I knew what had happened. I knew I hadn’t been forgetting anything, and I knew I did not smother Melly.

As time crept by, I began to wonder. I doubted. I wept in the doctor’s office and asked if I truly could have done such a thing as he patted me and called it a breakthrough.

One day the attentive orderly came to my room. I scrunched up in the corner, certain this was the day his sneering comments and touches would turn to more. Instead he glowered. “You have visitors. So come on, straighten up now.”

I blinked. He waited, grousing under his breath. I unfolded and followed, reluctantly, to the small front parlor. I had been bathed that morning, luckily, so my hair was soft and clean. My tunic was likewise fresh.

A man and woman waited in the parlor; she gasped on seeing me. The man’s hand clenched briefly. “Thank you,” he said to the orderly. “You may go.”

“I need to watch over—“

“Go,” the man repeated, voice low and growly. The orderly hesitated, and then left, the door clanging behind him. I flinched at the sound.

The man softened immediately, looking me over. “You’re Vember,” he said. He added another name, but it took me a moment to recall it had been my maiden name. “You’re Skye’s daughter.”

Skye. Mother. Who hunted for rabbit nests and sang with the birds and knew the name of every plant she met. Mother, who had suffocated in the walls and noise of the city. Tears stung my eyes and I nodded.

“She was my sister,” the man said, gently. “I was young when she left us. We heard nothing, for so long…I finally went to the city, to learn why her letters stopped. Your father wouldn’t speak to me—his sister finally did, gossipy old h—“

“Kris,” the woman said sharply, giving him a reproachful look. She turned to me. “I’m Dahlia Marlon; I’m your mother’s cousin. This is Kristoffer. We’ve come to take you home, dear.”

I started, backing to the wall. “N-no…I can’t go back, I’m…I’m not w-well…”

“Home with us, Vember,” Kris said, holding a hand out to me. “Not to the city. You never have to go back there again. We want to take you to our family, in the North Headlands.”

My back pressed to the wall. “M-my husband—“

“Has no say,” Dahlia sniffed. “Far as we’re concerned. We can worry about getting you a proper divorce once you’re well. You won’t do that here, that’s for certain, not if you haven’t in over two years.”

“Two…years?” I stared. They gave me the date; it was closer to two and a half since my Melly had died. I was twenty, and had never noticed.

“Vember,” Kris said, softly. “Do you want to go with us?”

I stared. They had the same dark hair as myself and Mother, though Dahlia’s had a bit of red tinge to the highlights. They were dark-eyed and coppery-skinned. He was tall and lean, she was shorter and a bit more round, but there was a similarity in build and face that showed how they belonged together.

They smelled of wildflowers and sheep and open, windy skies. I reached my hand out to take Kris’ offered palm.

“Yes.”

**********



There was arguing with the doctor, but in the end, I left with my relatives. They took me home.

The village the Marlon family lived near was very different from the city lights and society I had known. Everyone knew one another, and half of them were related somehow, even if distantly. Shepherds and farmers haggled over prices at open air market, while millers and brewers argued in a single, tiny tavern. There was a chapel for the Light, and the harvest witches worked alongside the priest to tend the spiritual needs of the people, as well as any healing needed.

My grandparents fussed over me; I hadn’t even known they were alive, and couldn’t recall their proper names at first. I was given a loft to sleep in, on a mattress stuffed with fresh hay, the pillow with duck feathers. The covers were from wool spun on their farm, sheared off their own sheep.

It was the best night’s sleep I’d had in years; perhaps ever.

For the longest time, I jumped at every little noise, and double-checked myself whenever I took an action. Grandfather took to quizzing me, asking me to recount my steps without allowing me to check again. “You’ve got a fine memory, Vember,” he said gently. “Whether it’s history or news or what you did this morning; you’re doing all right, honey.”

That simple assurance helped a great deal.

They treated me gently for months, though I was expected to work. The softness I had gained during my pregnancy had never gone away, and years of idleness in the asylum hadn’t helped. Taking care of the animals and working in the garden, I quickly lost the flabby weight, regaining my naturally leaner form and earning muscles along the way. I ate food I’d grown myself, learning how to cook and clean and other basic chores I’d always had servants for, in the city.

They asked about Mother; I told them about her illness, and asking Father to write. Kris was furious, striking the table with his fists. Grandfather simply smoked his pipe and stared out the window. “Where does she lie?” Grandmother asked.

“At Aderic’s Repose, where most people in the city are buried,” I said. “In the family crypt, of course.”

Grandfather snorted then, pulling on his hat as he stood. “She belongs here, really, but nothing to do about that now.” He sighed. “I shouldn’t have been so harsh on her…”

“Don’t start that again,” Grandmother said evenly. It was a familiar conversation between them. “She made her own choices—and her husband made his, and nothing can change what’s been; it’ll all be one in the Light, in the end. We can only move forward.” She looked at me and smiled. “Vember’s here, now, and that’s what matters.”

I eventually became confident enough to attend festivals, and the ceremonies the harvest witches performed to honor the Old Ways and maintain the balance of the land, allowing enough crops and healthy animals to feed our tiny, isolated nation. My family believed in the Light’s grace but also adhered to the Old Ways, Grandmother a respected healer. She took me with her when she went to birth animals and people, heal the sick or injured, give comfort to the dying.

We sat with Rufton Leyman as he died, his grandson Andric thanking us for easing the old man’s passage after a long illness. “I feel…I’m sad he’s gone, of course, but…”

“Relief,” I said. “I know. My mother was sick a long time; while I grieved her loss, knowing she didn’t hurt anymore helped, just a little.”

He smiled at me. He had a shock of red hair, and his pale, freckled skin was perpetually sunburnt due to his fieldwork. “Thank you, again. It was nice finally meeting you, by the way. Been hearing good things.”

“I wish it had been under better circumstances,” I said. “But thank you, and I hope when we do meet again, things will be better for you.”

He smiled, and tipped an imaginary hat. I wondered who had been saying what about me, and asked Grandmother. She chuckled.

“Your apprenticeship has gained some notice, and you’ve your own natural skills as a healer. You’re also quiet, which is a rare trait in a Marlon, so folks notice that, too.” We both laughed.

It was true though; being among the fields and woods, swimming in clear streams and running alongside the highland winds had opened up a part of me I hadn’t know was there. Grandmother showed me how to coax a seed to sprout, how to heal a wound or cleanse an illness, soothe an animal’s spirit. Kris knew form changes, and showed me so I might travel or hunt faster. I learned all the things Mother had been meant to learn and had rebelled against, things our family had known for centuries. I felt rooted, while at the same time finally feeling free to move and be myself.

I did see Andric again, at a festival a month later. We spoke long into the night—I didn’t want to dance. Certain memories still hurt too much. Andric understood, listening intently, and sharing a few of his own vulnerabilities. We went to our own lives the next day, but the memory of our discussion was a good one.

We met again weeks later, in the village, and ended up chatting far later than either of us meant to. I called on him a few days later, and we walked and talked for hours, enjoying the summer day and each other’s company.

The relationship moved slowly, carefully, but in the end, I was spending far more time at Andric’s than at my grandparents’ home. He was the first man who took the time to see to my body’s desires before his own, and I shared more with him because of it.

I woke up one morning, his chest pressed to my back, arm around me. The birds were singing outside, the sun shone, and I realized, as I slipped away to begin breakfast, that I was happy.

I almost dropped the frying pan. I couldn’t remember feeling like this; not since my childhood, at least. There was no pressure, no artifice, no manipulation. Just simply being, allowed to exist as I needed. It was perfect, and I woke Andric just to tell him so, and we laughed.


It couldn’t last, of course; we all know what happened to Gilneas. “The Starlight Slasher” was a media name for the worgen attacks that eventually became so frequent that no one could deny their existence. I survived my encounter with a beast. Andric did not. We never did marry; there were legal issues I needed to deal with, and besides, it never seemed…necessary. We just were, and then he was gone.

My family was scattered by the Curse and the Cataclysm, and then by the Forsaken invasion. Of the survivors who reached Darnassus, I’ve not found the other Marlons again, and precious few from our little village. The Northern Headlands saw some of the most vicious fighting between Gilneans and Forsaken; I don’t think the town physically exists anymore.

I never sought out Father, or Auntie, or my husband. That part of my life is over, and I’d rather keep the book closed on it. They abandoned me, and so I abandon their memories to whatever the Light has in store for them.

I have the memories of my time with my true family, and with Andric, and they strengthen me going forward—perhaps I shall tell those stories more fully another time. The rest, I shall give to the Wickerman, to burn and be lifted from my heart as I make my new home and friendships among the Shrouded Dawn and our allies, and continue the Marlon tradition in Duskwood, and beyond.

The world is a much wider, wilder place than I knew as a child. We did, in fact, need what was beyond the Wall—and more importantly, the world needs us, too.

I spring into the air, my dreams becoming real as the wind skips through my feathers and the world spreads below me. I add my own birdsong to the chorus, and am free.

The hide is rolled up and placed into a tube to await Hallow’s End.