We travelled far the first few days, not saying much beyond what needed to be said. The weather was fine and the wolves ran happily. I wasn’t sure where Navaari was leading us and I didn’t much care. Broken and sad I sat on the sled as counterbalance and swayed with its odd rhythm as though I were caught in a far away dance with a ghost who never really existed. It wasn’t hard to withdraw especially as Navaari was also quiet and brooding. I let time pass by without notice and enjoyed the subtle changes that spring was bringing to the world. Eventually, Navaari let me know that we were headed northwards near Chjelahn. There would be less thaw and more snow as well as better weather in the area. We would end up at the enclave situated close to the North Range Mountains where An’jast’a was staying there, helping her youngest daughter who was in the late stages of a difficult pregnancy.
I wasn’t sure how she would feel about Navaari bringing me along but I kept my mouth shut. According to him I was family and if anyone had anything to say about it they would be dealing with him. He wasn’t in the mood for big discussions and I didn’t want to argue with him so I said nothing and did as he instructed. I was happy not to have to think about anything or make major decisions. It was nice to have instructions and guidance that were clear and concise. It was a long trek by sled especially as we deviated often so he could show me places of interest as well as instruct me along the way. We fell into a routine which did us both good. The hours became days and the days shifted into weeks. Time passed easily which surprised me a little.
I soon discovered that if I had thought I had learned a lot from my time on Hjal under Navaari’s tutelage before it was nothing compared to now. He seemed hell bent on teaching me everything he knew as though jamming my head full of knowledge about tracking and hunting skills would chase away the demons we both knew lay in waiting for the right moment to pop out. I was grateful for the distractions and mostly by the time we were done for the day, had put up the shelter or made it one already existing I was flat out too exhausted to do more than eat and sleep.
When I had last been on Hjal for a long period of time, after I had recovered from my brush with death after Endor, Navaari had taken me trekking to teach me Jhal’kai skills but we had never gone too far from the home enclave. Now as we travelled northwards through parts of the planet I had never been to before I understood more and more why the Dantassi had chosen this world to colonize all those years ago. It was extraordinary.
I marvelled in sights I had never seen before, tracked creatures I had only ever heard tales of or read about and learned a great deal about myself but still we did not discuss the one thing we really needed to, Thrawn. I had never known Navaari to hold a grudge or be so angry at any one person for so long but it wasn’t as if I was in any fit shape to talk to him or council him about any of what had happened. So we danced carefully around the subject and tried very hard not to bring Thrawn up at all.
I carried the terrible grief around like a too heavy pack. It weighed me down and made me melancholy. The memory of Thrawn’s death mixed with the knowledge that he was actually alive and well was strangely difficult to process. I felt betrayed and relieved all at the same time. I was furious at being left out of his plans, feeling as though he not trusted me to keep his terrible secrets but underneath it all I grudgingly understood that he had done exactly what he had promised he would do. He had taken all my advice, my dreams and visions of the future and he had managed to cheat his own death very cleverly. I tried not to let this thought worm its way into my anger but it did.
Navaari allowed me my space. I know he worried that I might do something crazy but I had learned that lesson a long time ago even if he did not think this was the case. So that he would not fret I kept my feelings to myself, working through the now unjustified sorrow to try and come to terms with reality. It was a slow and difficult inner journey. Still, as was the way of most things, the passage of time made the anger less sharp and one night nearly two months after we had left the enclave the damn of pent up emotions finally broke.
We were staying at one of the many permanent hunting lodges that had been built across the planet’s main trade and track routes. These were small, rustic buildings with the basic amenities such as hot and cold running water, heat, a place to shower, sleep and cook if needed. All Dantassi who tracked, hunted or even just traversed the planet knew where to find these shelters. Navaari, who had learned from past experience, knew how far I was willing to go without at least being able to shower and had planned the trip accordingly.
We stayed longer at this one because we had been caught by an unexpected spring storm which had been too vicious to try and set up a temporary shelter so he had driven hard to reach this place and I had been grateful for it. For four days straight the blizzard raged about us and with each passing moment I had felt the pressure of words and emotions bubble upwards until the damn finally burst.
I woke up crying and had been unable to stop the flow of tears or sadness, which seemed to pour out of me like bitter poison. I had been dreaming, oddly enough, about Lord Vader as well as my birth mother but I couldn’t quite recall what the dream had been about, just that it had been very sad. Not wanting to wake Navaari, I wrapped myself up in my warm coat and snuck out to sit by the entrance. He found me there sobbing uncontrollably. I thought when he opened the door he would yell at me for buggering off but instead he just joined me and held me tightly until the tears stopped then he motioned for me to come inside and get out of the wind and blowing snows. He made tea and poured me a cup knowing that now the topic we had both kept so close to our chests was now open for discussion.
We talked for a long time. In the end it was good to get all the feelings out into the open and discover that I wasn’t quite as furious as I had been. Mostly I was just incredibly sad but even that emotion was shifting into something else as the grief I had felt for the death of a man who wasn’t really dead at all receded slowly.
I had been given plenty of time to think about all that had happened to me eventually coming to the conclusion that the universe hated me just a little. Navaari only laughed when I told him this, reminding me of all the good things that had graced my life. It was hard to be self indulgent and melancholy for long around Navaari. He had a way of disarming self pity that was effortless.
“I’m not very good at this relationship thing.” I said crossly, “I seem to incite men to do crazy things.”
“Love does that Kycsi’i not you.” He replied. “And you are a remarkably wilful creature which can be quite confusing to men.”
“Love!” I snorted ignoring his other comment completely because I couldn’t refute the statement at all.
“You do not agree?”
I had only made a face because he was right.
He watched the play of emotions across my face. “Do you truly no longer love him? Is it really your wish that you go your separate ways now?” He asked, concerned.
“No and no.” I grumbled, “The stupid thing is I do love him. I love him so much it seems impossible. I spent so much of the time we had together terrified that I would lose him and then suddenly I did. The worst thing that could happen happened. I dreamed it, then I lived through it and now I don’t know what to do because none of it was real.”
“It was very real.” Navaari countered. “Do not ever think it wasn’t. You believed him to be dead and you grieved. You saw his corpse, you returned it to Csilla and you sat through the funeral. That is about as real as it can get. Nothing can undo what you experienced and you will carry this for your entire life and should anyone ever ask you about it, question it, you will be able to tell them this truthfully.
“But?” I asked because there had been a “but” at the end of Navaari’s words.
“But he is not dead.” He replied simply as if this explained every single mystery in the world.
“So what? Are you saying I shouldn’t be angry with him? But you were furious with him…you were…”
He held up his hand for peace and I complied. “I was and I still am. He treated you with great disrespect. He is your Ta’kasta’cariad, he knows you so he should have known better than that. He acted without taking into consideration your emotional attachment or the fact that your species is not as well schooled in suppressing deeply anchored feelings. I told him to wait, to allow you some time to get used to the idea first but he said it would not matter, either way you would probably feel the same. You would be angry and resentful and no amount of softening the blow would change this. Perhaps he was right. You can be incredibly stubborn when you set your mind to a thing.” He stopped to drink his tea and then continued, “My own feelings in this matter are irrational because my attachment to you is irrational and I would not be having this any other way. Simply put, he hurt you and that angered me. But I wonder how much deeper and irreparable your grief would be if he had not managed to plan this elaborate scheme and survive.”
I watched the contents of my cup for a really long time then said, “I don’t really know why he went to all that bother.” There was petulance in my words which made me sound surly and childish mostly because I knew Navaari had hit the mark dead on.
He made a noise of disbelief. “Pshh, of course you do, he loves you more than he ever wants to admit, he found a clever way to avoid death to be with you because he made you the promise that he would listen and honour your wishes for him to, how did you put it, take care of himself? He is not a man to break his word easily. I do not like how he dealt with you in his plans, his lack of empathy for your grief is astounding, but his reasoning was pure and simple. He had to choose which world he wished to be in. He had to decide what it was he was willing to give up and leave behind. In the end even if we are not liking his methods, he chose you over everything else. I know you would have eventually found a way to move beyond losing your mate but I am grateful you do not have to. Now you must find a way to forgive him his lack of communication skills with you in this matter and try to remember that he acted out of love as well as self preservation.”
When he put it like that I wasn’t sure why I was angry at Thrawn anymore but I wasn’t quite ready to forgive him yet either.
“How much further until we reach An’jast’a?” I asked after a long silence.
“A week, maybe two. Depends on the weather. Why are you tired of me?” He asked with a teasing grin.
I made a face. “No, but I really, really want a very long, hot bath.” While I was deeply grateful that the small hunting lodges we managed to find along the way had some semblance of warm water and showers nothing compared to soaking in a bathtub full of really hot bubbly water.
Navaari shook his head. “Too soft and spoiled you are.” He teased.
Maybe he was right but I didn’t care. “Well it’s good that you love me anyway.” I told him as I got up to go to bed, kissing him on the cheek before I turned in. “Thank you.”
“For what?” He asked in surprise.
“For everything but mostly for letting me be with you and listening.”
Navaari just nodded and smiled then shooed me off to bed as though I were a six year old. The next day we made a significant dent in the journey to the nearest enclave and somehow I felt lighter and more free than I had in a very long time.
We arrived at the enclave a week later just in time to celebrate the birth of An’jast’a grandchildren, twins, which was something of a rare occurrence among the Dantassi. It was cause for a great celebration so for a time I forgot about all my worries and small problems to celebrate new life. An’jast’a had come out early to help care for her daughter because the pregnancy had been a difficult one and everyone was very concerned for both the mother and the children. I was relieved to hear the birth had gone better than expected but the unexpected wash of memories it brought back made me melancholy. If anyone noticed they didn’t say anything and I hoped they would just put it down to me being an irrational human.
On the third day I was introduced to An’jast’a’s daughter E’mirji, her husband and their babies. For a moment I knew a terrible pang of sadness at the loss of my own child but I covered it up and it passed quickly so that when I was offered one of the twins to hold it was an honour I accepted happily. The tiny being seemed content cradled in my arms and I was more than willing to oblige him, rocking him gently humming some long forgotten lullaby. While I had no connection by family or birth to An’jast’a or her daughter I felt welcome just the same. Her bonding to Navaari had not given him any familial rights to her children or their children but the legalities of it all didn’t seem to matter. Family was family and love was love and for the first time since I had left Thrawn standing alone in Navaari’s kitchen I missed him. The ache of that emotion surprised me.
Oddly enough it was An’jast’a who ended up being the one I poured my heart out to. She found me late one night sitting in a quiet corner of the living room of the guest quarters we shared crying softly. I had always assumed that Thrawn would have told Navaari and An’jast’a about the miscarriage but that was not the case and when the words came tumbling out of my mouth in a messy jumble she just did what all mothers do, she held me and gave me comfort.
Slowly, with just the right questions, she drew out the whole story of what had happened between Thrawn and myself from the time I learned I was pregnant until the moment I left the enclave with Navaari. From the look on her face, while Navaari might have explained some of it he had not told her everything and she was none too happy about how Thrawn had behaved. It felt good to talk about it with someone who wasn’t directly involved and when I was done talking she made tea and gave me some advice of her own which I listened to carefully and took to heart.
“I am sorry about your child.” She said after a lengthy silence had passed. “Had I know I would have been more careful….”
I stopped her quickly, “No, it’s fine, I’m fine really. I love seeing the twins, they’re beautiful. I am so grateful you let me be a part of all of this. You’ve all made me feel so welcome, so loved and such a part of the family that I can’t even begin to express how good that has been for me. She had a hard pregnancy but she made it through just fine and now she has two beautiful babies. It gives me hope which I suppose is silly but....” I shrugged not finishing my sentence because what I wanted to say seemed now beyond my reach.
“Hope is never silly, dear, and you have overcome far too much to give up on what it is you know you have.”
I looked at her in puzzled at first and then in wonder as the reality of it all hit me. I nodded that I got it, that I understood what she was trying to tell me without actually voicing it out loud. It all came down to a single action and for the first time ever I put it into words, “He cheated death to be with me.” I said quietly.
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, child, he did.”
And suddenly I knew who I wanted to be with and where I wanted to be and neither of those where here.
We stayed for a month helping out where we could and I enjoyed the time I had with the babies as well as getting to know An’jast’a’s daughter but I grew restless and it did not go unnoticed.
One evening, while we were eating, An’jast’a told Navaari he had to take me home, “It’s time for you to go back and I’ll not be here for much longer now, E’mi is doing fine and soon enough I’ll be underfoot. Besides, she has many here who want to help out including her husband’s mother.” She looked at me. “You’re done with your ghosts now aren’t you?”
“Take her home before it’s too late.” She said to Navaari and with that the matter was closed. The next day we packed, said our goodbyes and headed back.
The return journey took a lot less time because we didn’t deviate from the straight line or stop as often on the way. It was early summer. Or what passed for summer on Hjal at any rate which meant long days and very short nights. Even though it was nearly midnight when we returned it was still mostly light. The sky had taken on that strange eerie half light quality of early summer colouring the world in dusky shadows. The snow was crunchy from thawing during the day’s warmth and then re freezing as the temperatures sank down to the freezing mark after the sun had sunk low in the sky. In a couple more weeks there were be no more snow on the low lying grounds and for a very short time much of the tundra around the enclave would be filled with all manner of wildflowers and vegetation. If we had waited any longer to return we would not have been able to use the sled and as it was we could only travel late in the evening when the temperature cooled the snow enough so it wasn’t too mushy. We were lucky and the weather held so that in just three weeks we crossed the threshold of the enclave and we were home. We had been gone just over four months but it felt more like four years.
I helped Navaari clear the sled and get the wolves settled in their respective stalls in the large barn like building. They were shedding their winter coats which made them look scruffy since they scratched and great patches of fur fell away to reveal a soft, lighter summer coat. It would be my job to comb them so that most of the winter fur could be saved, spun and used for clothing. The wolves’ fur was surprisingly soft once it had been washed, carded and spun. Once I had housed and fed the wolves Navaari told me I could go and that he would see to the rest of the work. He knew I was dying to shower and find Thrawn not that I had said anything but he knew me well enough by now that words were not needed. It was a reunion I looked forward to but this feeling was mixed with great trepidation.
I made my way across the large quad to the main entrance and found myself oddly nervous. I knew it was quiet because it was so late but it felt deserted and strange to be back after so long under the open sky. I opened the door to Navaari’s flat and knew instantly no one else was there. There wasn’t anything unusual about that, Thrawn was a part of the enclave and summer was the time for many projects and meetings, repairs and new building. He was probably off somewhere helping out.
I stripped off my heavy gear and hung it up then went straight to the ‘fresher to strip out of the clothes I had been wearing for several days, wrinkling my nose in disgust at myself. Navaari was right I was soft but it made me smile. I rejoiced in the kiss of the hot water on my skin as I stood under the shower. I felt as though I were washing away the past not just sweat and grime as I scrubbed my skin clean so hard it turned pink. I relished the process of turning myself from scruffy, unwashed tracker into a clean girl again but it took a while. I was deeply grateful that the enclave had an unlimited supply of hot water.
It was only when I had finished my shower and returned to my bedroom wrapped up in a large towel, did I realise that not only was Thrawn not at home but all traces of him were gone. The bedroom was clean and devoid of anything he had ever owned. For a moment I stood looking to see if he had left anything behind but there was nothing. I shouldn’t have been surprised after what I had said to him the day I had left with Navaari but I was. My heart sunk. Just for a second I shut my eyes tightly, squeezing away the unwanted tears that had suddenly found themselves there.
We had taken too long to return and I guessed he had decided that he had waited for me long enough. I couldn’t really blame him given the circumstances, after all I would not have wanted to stay with someone who had told me they no longer wanted me around, but it was still a shock. I wasn’t certain what was worse, the grief I had felt with the news of his death or the emptiness I felt now. We never seemed to catch a break. For a moment I let the reality sink in and then, because there was nothing else I could do, I picked out some clean clothes and got dressed. I had let him go and it was foolish of me to expect him to wait for me to find my way back even though part of me had hoped he would.
With a deep sigh I went to the kitchen and set the water to boil. Halfway through making tea I realised, to my annoyance, that I’d left my pack on the floor near the main kennels. So before Navaari could find it and give me a lecture on leaving my stuff lying around I slipped on a pair of shoes and headed back across the main quad to the barn to find my pack right where I had dumped it. I looked around for Navaari to let him know that the tea was brewing but he was already gone. Instead, to my surprise, I found that one of the young wolf pups had managed to escape the holding pen and was trying to dig his way into the feed store.
“You little bugger!” I told him off as I dropped my pack to pick him up. He struggled and wriggled, half snarling, half licking my face. I knew he wasn’t really a threat in spite all the growling because he was too small and he was wagging his tail. For a moment I forgot about everything as I cuddled the little animal, burying my face deep into his still soft puppy fur. I was so lost in thought I didn’t hear Kerrjan walk in to stand near me.
“Here you are.” He said causing me to nearly jump out of my skin, giving the puppy I held a big enough fright that he nipped at me with sharp teeth. “Huh, I see you’ve met our newest escape artist.”
“He was trying to get into the food. He got out of his pen, I think.” I explained as I soothed the animal wriggling in my arms into more or less staying still for a few seconds.
“He’s a pest.” Kerrjan said tartly. “Always getting into things he shouldn’t. Can’t keep him locked up, he always finds a way to escape. Good that you found him when you did or he’d have wrecked havoc trying to get at the feed bin.”
I smiled and gave the pup in my arms a kiss. I felt a strangely powerful sense of kinship with the small animal in my arms but for the life of me I could never have explained why. “He’s adorable.” I said.
“Hrmph,” Kerrjan snorted studying me for a moment. “You are the first person I’ve seen that he allows to hold him like that. Usually he goes for anyone that comes near him with a surprising amount savagery for one so small. He was the runt of Gisch’s litter. He’s around seven weeks old now though he looks younger and he’s into everything. I didn’t think he’d make it because he was too small, too sickly when he was born but your Ta’kasta’cariad had a hand in keeping him alive. Turns out the pup survived against the odds and even thrived although he’s still under weight and too small for his age. It was suggested you might like to train him.”
“Oh?” I said careful not liking the way my heart skipped a beat at the mention of Thrawn.
“He felt, when you returned, that you might be needing something to keep you occupied. Now I see he was right. The whelp has taken to you.”
I sighed and put the puppy down where it sat strangely quiet at my feet as if to prove Kerrjan right. “Keep me occupied?” I asked.
“Looking after something has a way of taking a person’s mind off their troubles, I suppose, and this one will definitely keep you busy if you want to train him right.”
I frowned. “I thought you said we couldn’t make pets of the wolves, they are too wild.”
“Since when have you ever listened to anything anyone says about such matters?” Kerrjan retorted. “And even I am mistaken on occasion. It seems you won’t be getting rid of him any time soon. He’s been trained for indoors but he’s still young and he has quite the mind of his own, you’ll have to keep an eye on him.”
I was a little confused at the direction this surreal conversation had taken but the pup had laid his chin across my foot and stared up at me as if to say ‘you are mine so don’t even dare think about saying no’. “An’jast’a won’t be happy to have him in her house.” I remarked with a frown.
Kerrjan just gave me a look and shrugged. “Oh I don’t think she’ll be too concerned as other living arrangements have been made for you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked a little alarmed.
“I’m not the one to be putting this question to.” He replied, “He is.” And he gestured with his head to the figure standing silhouetted in the doorway.
“Wait, what?” I began but Kerrjan just flapped his hand impatiently at me.
“Turn the lights out when you leave and either take the whelp with you or make sure his kennel is well secured. As I said he’s good at getting out.” He turned to go but paused and then said, “And for goodness sake keep the yelling down to a minimum and try not to kill each other, you have both put this enclave through more than enough nonsense as it is and to be perfectly honest about it we’ve all had enough drama from the pair of you to last us a life time.” And before I could even think to reply he was gone.