The promised rain never came. Overnight, the clouds had fled, leaving our pale sun to carry the sky’s weight. It did the best it could, and was still too bright for my post-wine eyes. The blue itself was searing, setting fire to the inside of my head. The covers were still shaped for two, and I couldn’t take the smile from my face, even though I was now alone. Eleran had a bed of her own, of course, and we all had goodbyes to make; not just to each other, but to the things, places and objects that made up our lives. I’d always bounced between the various philosophies of identity – whether it’s the people we’re surrounded by and our relationships that make us who we are, or if it’s the stuff we bury our lives under – that make us who we are. I’d a fair appreciation for the things of life, those items that were always there, even when the people left, that had no feelings of their own. They’re a structure, a shape, some of kind of mould or armour we build. Whether we’re the presence left when they’re taken away, or the shape formed by the void between them, well, that’s the sort of question that leads me into a bottle of wine, and out the other side. The places that we’ve been are part of the pathway to who we are, so re-treading our time here together made sense to me.
This chalet was a keystone for all of us. It’s almost the first thing I can remember, after clawing through the soft soil. I reached up for the world of air and light, felt the sharp snapping of roots being left behind, and felt hands reaching for mine, pulling me up the rest of the way, blinking into the face of that pale sun. All around me my brothers and sisters were pushing their way to the surface as well, all of us bound together by the shettling, and now released into a new life. The blur of kindly faces, distorted voices welcoming us, bundling us in blankets – that fierce sensation of softness, where before only compacted dirt had held us so tightly that our lungs had not drawn breath – shocking lightness of sensation, almost overwhelming. I have flashes of the journey out of the allforest, curled up with seven similarly blanketed forms, huddled for that intense sense of pressing weight we’d so recently been freed from. I can remember the flurry of shapes, which must have been the branches and leaves of trees along the road, a blurred span of green and blue. Hours and moments of sleep and wakefulness, golden hair, a broad hand pressing me down in the back of the automotive as I reached for the window, deep voices, soothing, like the murmurs of the earth.
And then coming to in this bed, the heavy blanket like swaddling, comforting beyond reason. As it was now. These were all morning thoughts, a babble of the mind reawakening, and adjusting to the real world again. I folded the blanket back, as I would if I were to sneak out for my not-so-secret night jaunts. All this time, they’d known me better than I’d thought; of course they had. I’d been foolish to think otherwise. In stretching and gazing out of the window, I weighed the span of our time together – some forty-two years of amity and love. A good length. A happy time, of growth and learning, of trivial and crucial events that bound us ever tighter together. And now apart, at last.
I’d risen late it seemed – already the chalet was filled with activity. I took advantage of the temporarily free bathroom, content with the smell of breakfast and the hungover groans and laughter that drifted through the wooden halls. Clean, and fresher in the head I laid out my favourite suit. I’d carefully folded it before making my way here, and it had survived the trip surprisingly well. Given that it had been buried inside my rucksack as I’d hitchhiked half the distance from Brisingham, before abandoning the roads and taking to the rougher woodland paths, it was only severely creased. Five days of walking through the dells and around the meres that dotted the landscape between the city I lived and worked in, and this beautiful lake of ours. I should probably have caught a lift with one of the others sooner, instead of brooding alone for that time. I’d scared Calia’s tears out of Miqual when I’d appeared at the side of the road, flagging down his automotive. He’d picked up Tesh and Tereis from the observatory, where they spent their time star gazing, or some such pursuit. I wasn’t as interested in looking up as I was in looking into our glorious green world. Hence the hiking. I shook the suit out as best I could. I should have taken it into the bathroom, and allowed the steam to work its magic. Oh well, I’d never been the best dressed of us – that was a title reserved for Aer and his clotheshorse frame, though rivalled by Miqual’s capacity for allowing any garment to hang perfectly. But enough of them. I looked quite dapper, I thought. We’d be shedding all of our clothes at nightfall anyway, plus we had the journey north to content with, but at least I’d look good and sharp for breakfast.
The kitchen was in shocking disarray. Someone had let Aer do the cooking, and every surface was covered in a fine layer of flour and spattered with hard-to-identify droplets of something that must be related to food. He was somehow sparkling clean amidst the devastation he’d wrought, and he turned at my entrance.
“Take a seat Jenn, we have toast, of three varieties, porridge, coffee, I’m no longer sure what this is, but it began as an omelette, also tea… And there’s juice, plus bacons and fruit tarts.”
“Talens blessing be on you, Aer,” I took a seat at the table, shuffling up next to Rumala, who clutched a mug of coffee like it held salvation, “I’ll take a little of everything, except the coffee – I’d like a lot of that.”
Aer turned back to his grand chaos, pouring me a huge drink. Tesh snatched it from his hand as he stumbled into the kitchen, draining it in one, despite the heat.
“You look…” I teased, “like you drank the very last of the wine last night.”
“I have little to no recollection of that, but some idiot let me sleep in an armchair, and now I can’t feel my collarbones,” he grumbled, thrusting his mug back under the caffeiniere until it did his bidding.
“That was supposed to be mine,” I pointed out, and received a scowl and a full mug. “Thank you Tesh. Where’s Tereis?”
“Oh, he went for a run with Maina. Which is inconceivable, and actually makes me feel sick. But they’re back now. He’s packing up the stuff from our room.”
I’d sorted most of my possessions back in Brisingham. My apartment was pretty well packed and ready to go. I’d left nothing here when I moved to the city, though I knew some of the others had kept their hoards of toys, books and clothes near the lake where they belonged. By nightfall, all we owned should be at the archives. Anything we left behind would be available to whoever took our place. It wasn’t that we expected to reclaim them, but the archiving was a deep-rooted part of shettling: the reconciliation and encapsulation of a life together, to be stored together – a closeness that reflected how we’d lived. I’d given much to charity and neighbours, keeping only a few boxes of personal treasures and photographs. For all that I’d enjoyed gathering a house of stuff, at the end I’d found that little of it represented who I’d become; I suppose I was not the shape formed by the things after all.
“We’ll be stopping off in Brisingham for a few hours later, Jenn. Will that be time enough for you to take care of everything?” asked Rumala, through a mouthful of what I guessed was once an omelette.
“Should be fine. It’s all stacked in the hall, ready to go.”
“I wish you’d moved in with me and Aer,” she said, surprising me.
“Of course,” chimed in Aer, “we were all in the city together, and yet apart. I regret not inviting you in. It’s what we should have done.”
“Ah, but you’d have hated me climbing out your bedroom window every night,” I said, spurring a round of laughter. Rumala gave me a hug, and Aer gave me a plate piled high with the produce of his war with the kitchen. “But thank you both.”
“Everything else is in the automotives,” said Miqual, appearing in the doorway. “Everyone else has either archived or brought their stuff with them. Should be an easy drop off. Maina registered us last month and they opened a new case for us. I’ve taken up about half of it with pictures of you lot.”
“That painting of me and Eleran you did is sitting in my hall, nicely wrapped in three of my shirts,” I said, “it’s one of my favourites.”
“At least the collection will be together again,” he replied, accepting a mountainous sandwich from Aer.
“We’re just about ready then,” said Rumala, with a sigh, “though I suppose we’ll have to clear up this mess first.”
Aer took her pointed stare with an innocent glee, denying all responsibility.
It didn’t take that long to clear up. By the time we had, Tereis and Maina had finished their packing, and a small pile of cartons sat on the veranda. Eleran locked the chalet’s front door, and tucked the key under the cushion of the love seat to its left.
“Alright then,” she said, turning to face us, “I have loved you all, for all of our time. Let’s do this together.”
Miqual produced a camera, and we all crowded onto the veranda, our backs to the lake, facing our childhood home, and squeezed into one final snapshot of us all together. Our circle, united, soon to be broken.
The Vaunted weren’t just arrogant bastards, they were liars. They’d murdered half their species in the quest for immortality in the mental plane, yet not content with just killing their