‘All right, Pol. Don’t be too long now.’
I hurried on down to the far end of Annath to the somewhat blocky cottage Geran had built for him and his bride. Geran was a conscientious builder who wanted the things he constructed to last, so there were hints of ‘fortress’ about his cottage. I knocked at the stout door.
Ildera, blonde and lovely, opened it. ‘Aunt Pol,’ she greeted me. I glanced around quickly to make sure she was alone. ‘Is there something the matter?’ she asked.
‘We’ve got a problem, Ildera,’ I told her.
‘Alara’s mind has slipped.’
‘If s not dangerous – yet: She’s not raving or anything, but she’s erased the memory of Darral’s death from her mind. This afternoon she told me that she was expecting him home for supper.’
‘Oh, Aunt Pol!’ Ildera’s eyes had gone wide. ‘What can we do?’
‘We lie to her, Ildera. I conjured up a story about a business trip on the spur of the moment – just to get her past suppertime – and now we’re stuck with it, I’m afraid. Tell Geran about it when he comes home. We’ll all have to tell Alara the same story. I said that Darral caught a ride with some wagoners and that he’s going to Erat to drum up some more business. I came here to make sure that we’d all be telling her the same story.’
‘We’re going to have to tell her the truth eventually, Aunt Pol.’
‘I’m not so sure about that, Ildera. Darral’s business trip might have to be protracted.’
‘Can’t you – ?’ Ildera made a vaguely mysterious gesture intended to suggest sorcery. The knowledge that I was ‘talented’ had been a part of Ildera’s indoctrination in our little family, and as is usually the case, she grossly overestimated the kinds of things I could do with that talent.
‘I don’t think so, Ildera. The mind’s a very complicated piece of machinery. If you fix one part of it, you might damage another part beyond repair. I love Alara too much to start experimenting on her. There are some combinations of herbs that’ll keep her calm and happy. I’ll rely on those until I can come up with a safe alternative.’
‘Whatever you think best, Aunt Pol.’ Ildera laughed a bit ruefully. ‘The Gods know that I wouldn’t be very good at it. I can’t even dig a splinter out of my own finger.’ Then her expression grew serious. ‘You do realize that this means that we’ll have to isolate her from the rest of the village, don’t you? One wrong word could destroy her sanity for good.’
‘I’ll work on that,’ I promised her. Tell Geran about this, and tell him that I’ll take care of it. I don’t want him sticking his nose into it. That wrong word you mentioned could come from him just as easily as from some village gossip.’
‘I don’t think he’ll cause you any problems there, Aunt Pol. He’s so busy examining every inch of the south face of the quarry for the flaw that caused that rock-slide that he can’t even think about anything else.’
‘As long as it keeps him out of the way. Oh, my father sent word that he’ll be visiting us again soon. If he stops here before he comes on up to our house, tell him about Alara’s condition and how we’re dealing with it. Warn him that I’ll rip out his beard if he interferes.’
‘Well, part of it, anyway. I’d better get on back home. One of us is going to have to stay with Alara almost constantly from now on.’
Father arrived two days later, but I didn’t want to talk with him in front of Alara. ‘Get out of here, father!’ I ordered. ‘I’m busy. Go talk with Geran and Ildera. They’ll tell you what’s happening.’ I pointed at the door. ‘Out!’ I commanded.
Father, of course, totally misunderstood. He assumed that my outburst was the result of my ongoing grief, and he was wrong. I had something much more important to deal with.
Later that day I sent for Ildera, and she sat with her mother-in-law while I took father out to the edge of the forest so that we could talk.
‘She’s completely insane?’ Father sighed when I told him about Alara’s condition.
‘I didn’t say that, Old Wolf. All I said was that she’s blocked out the fact that she’s a widow.’
‘That sounds fairly insane to me, Pol.’
‘You really don’t know what you’re talking about, father. Insanity’s rarely total. Alara’s illness is limited to one fact. Aside from that, she’s perfectly all right.’
‘Your definition of “all right” is worlds apart from mine, Pol. How long do you plan to let this go on?’
‘As long as it takes, father. I won’t destroy Alara just to satisfy some picky little concept of reality. She’s a bit lonesome for her husband, but that’s as far as her misery goes. I’ll keep her happy for the rest of her life, if I have to.’
He shrugged. ‘You’re the expert, Pol.’
‘I’m glad you noticed that. What are you up to at the moment?’
‘I’m marking time, Pol, just like everybody else. The whole universe is holding its breath waiting for Ildera to start to bulge.’
“That’s a crude way to put it.’
‘I’m a crude sort of fellow.’
‘You know, I’ve noticed that myself.’
After father went back to the Vale, Ildera and I let it be generally known in Annath that Alara was ‘under the weather’ and needed absolute peace and quiet – ‘her recent bereavement, you understand’. The ladies of Annath all nodded sagely, pretending to understand, and so there weren’t any visitors to our house on the north end of town. We made sure that Alara never left the house unaccompanied, and Geran’s new wife demonstrated a surprising agility at changing the subject whenever someone encountered her and her mother-in-law in the village streets. She could cut off the word ‘condolences’ almost before it left anyone’s lips. Protecting Alara’s tenuous grip on sanity became our major occupation, and we grew better and better at it. Ildera, however, had another job to see to, and I occasionally fretted about her failure to get on with it. She continued to aid me in caring for Alara, and her waistline stayed trim and girlish.
In 5351, Javelin paid father a visit in the Vale to report that Asharak the Murgo had vanished, despite the best efforts of Drasnian intelligence to keep him under surveillance. As it turned out, of course, Asharak had evaded those who’d been assigned the job of following him at least once already. He’d come to the vicinity of Annath not too long after the wedding of Geran and Ildera to tamper with the geology of the south face of the stone quarry.