“Falling In Love Slowly”
A short story by Lizl Bennefeld
When life became unbearable and those with “witch” talents were branded unacceptable by the local religionists, Tharal, the one who founded our family, crossed the western border into a more hospitable country, leading a string of horses fit for the army’s elite, seeking a new life. How he acquired those horses, we were never told.
Tharal traveled as far as the foothills on the northern border of his adopted country, where he entered into a partnership with Dalen, a local farmer, to breed a new strain of horses for speed and endurance that would far surpass the best stock ever seen in those parts. While they did not achieve their goal, the resulting breed was good and much sought after. More successful were the offspring of the union between Tharal and Dalen’s daughter, Eilis. Among their descendants was my father, Karlin. To him and my mother Maia, I owe the love and security of my early life. My name is Althaia.
Thanks to foreign blood, I’m tall and thin even in my sixth decade, and although my hair has turned from black to grey, my eyes are still sharp and my fingers are nimble. Growing up on a farm near the village of Ravendale, helping in the kitchen garden and fields, tending the horses and cattle, and, my own peculiar domain since the age of seven years, the herb gardens, provided me with a wide range of interests and skills. I was named Althaia after one of Dalen’s sisters, in the hope, no doubt, that I would also become a healer. I don’t know what they would have done if I’d shown no promise in the calling. Changed my name?
One doesn’t expect to fall in love for the first time at the age of forty-four. Life has settled down, by then, into a comfortable routine, with only the expected daily trials and challenges to cope with. The life of a healer and herbalist, teaching at a university, is taxing enough to consume at least thirty-six hours out of every twenty-four hour day. Love? Wedded life? No, thank you! No time available! Althaia, daughter of Karlin and Maia, is no fool. When there is no room on the schedule for one more activity, it cannot even be considered.
Even so, common sense and well established routines not withstanding, Alain and I were wedded, and as we approach our fifteenth anniversary, it seems as though we’ve been together forever. It would appear that there’s always time for love, no matter what else must be neglected or postponed. And, the daily trials aren’t as difficult to cope with, when there is someone at home with whom to share them when the day is done.
During my youth, Alain’s path crossed mine a number of times. As far south as our farm was of Ravendale, his family’s farm was to the north. Alain loved to build things: storage sheds, stables, mills, bridges, whatever was needed. He thought out his projects beforehand, and planned and sketched until his drawings matched his own visions of what should be.
He and I knew of each other since early childhood, but it wasn’t until our early twenties that we actually spoke more than a “good day” to each other. The summer before my twenty-second birthday, having finished a good portion of my training as a healer, I was sent with one of my teachers to a border area near the coast where there had been some trouble with pirates coming ashore to loot and burn smaller, undefended villages. A coward by nature, I had not looked forward to this assignment with any measure of anticipation. I could deliver a child or help a new foal into the world, set a broken arm or leg, or concoct a brew to bring down fevers, but the thought of digging an arrow out of a leg or stanching the flow of blood from a sword wound distressed me. When we reached our destination, a crew was busy erecting a new bridge across the stream that flowed past the village. And there was Alain, sketches in hand, calling out directions to the workers.
I suppose I should say that I was immediately attracted to him, but I wasn’t. Alain is an ordinary sort of fellow. We’re of a height, but he tends to stocky, where I’m thin, and his hair is a washed-out brown, while mine was black. Today, my hair is stark silver, but his is still a light brown. His round face and pale blue eyes are tense, always concentrated on whatever task is at hand.
Yes, that fascinated me! The intensity of his concentration! He and I talked after the evening meal about my training and his bridge-building. In later years, other conversations were always lacking by comparison. I never before had been listened to by anyone like Alain listened to me. In turn, in explaining the processes of planning and building, Alain drew me into his own excitement at the process of creation. I was totally absorbed. But, the next morning we were summoned to a neighboring village to treat a child with a high fever (why do children eat everything they’re specifically told not to eat?), and Alain and his crew were gone by the time were turned.
We next met ten years later, when Alain was hired to remodel the stables for the new university in Baveas, the capitol. He hadn’t changed—still intense and meticulous. While he was there, news arrived that his parents had died in a fire that destroyed the family’s house. We spent a whole night sitting beneath a tree near the stables, talking about our families and what they’d meant to us. He left the next morning for Ravendale. I later heard that Alain’s younger brothers took over management of the farm.
I didn’t see Alain again for over twelve years. Perhaps remembering our last meeting, he volunteered to bring me the news of my father’s death. I wish that I’d been there. I’d been out with a border patrol, two years before, when my mother died. Over the years, my visits home had been less and less frequent. It’s funny. We imagine that our parents will be there for us forever, and suddenly they’re gone, and we’re the oldest generation. For the next few year, Alain’s work kept him in the vicinity of Baveas, where I had begun teaching courses in herbal medicine at the university, and we spent more and more time together. He was the only man outside of my profession who really heard me when I spoke, listened behind my words and answered my heart as well as my head. Perhaps it was living together through the loss of our parents, crying on one another’s shoulder and knowing the grief was both understood and shared, that finally cemented the bond that had begun to form so many years ago.
Alain is a good man. I love him dearly, and I find that our love continues to grow and deepen with the passing months and years. We have made a new, a fuller life with each other, here. Someone to share the joys, the secret smiles, the burden of the losses and the exhilaration of each day’s achievements. I could regret the lost years, the years spent alone before we discovered our love for each other, but that space apart shaped who Alain is today, and I love him as he is.
Copyright © 1996, by Elizabeth W. Bennefeld. All rights reserved.
Note: Riffing off both Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar and Andre Norton’s Witch World stories.