Father immediately went to Tol Honeth and virtually disassembled the city trying to find traces of Chamdar, and when that failed, he expanded his search to the rest of Tolnedra. That futile search kept him very busy for the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, back in Annath, Ildera and I took turns keeping watch over Alara, calling on Geran to fill in for us when we were both exhausted. The ‘tonic’ Alara took twice a day kept her just a little vague about the passage of time, and my recently found skill at implanting some memories and erasing others made it all the easier for us to control her perception of time. That was the key to keeping Alara tranquil. As long as she didn’t know how long Darral’s ‘business trip’ was really taking, she stayed happy. I even went so far as to ‘dusty-up’ the house a few times – usually while she was asleep or down at the other end of town visiting Ildera – so that we could spend a week cleaning house. We cleaned house four times during the autumn of 5353, but Alara only remembered the last time. House-cleaning is tedious and repetitious anyway, so the memory of having done it isn’t the sort of memory one clings to very hard.
I’m sure that there are some self-righteous people who’ll read this and be outraged by my ongoing deception of Alara. These are the sort of people who secretly delight in causing pain ‘for her own good’. It wouldn’t really pay people like that to take me to task for my way of dealing with Alara’s insanity. I might just decide that it’d be good for them if their heads were on backward.
Another Erastide came and went, and Annath, as usual, was cut off from the rest of the world by the heavy winter snows. Our little family celebration of the holiday was subdued. By now, the villagers all knew that Alara was ‘a little strange’, and they good-heartedly respected our need to keep her more or less in seclusion. They weren’t indifferent, though, and any time Ildera or I were out and about, they’d ask how our Alara was doing. The best we could give them was, ‘about the same’, and they’d sigh and nod mournfully. Villagers the world over can be nosey, but their curiosity grows out of a genuine concern for their neighbors.
It was obvious to me by now that Alara would never really get better. Her condition was permanent There wasn’t any cure, but my combination of herbs and ‘tampering’ kept her moderately serene and sometimes even a little happy. Under the circumstances, it was the best I could manage.
Then, when the spring thaw of 5354 was melting off the snow and the local streams were all running bank full, Ildera came up the muddy street of Annath early one morning with a radiant smile on her face. ‘I think I’m pregnant, Aunt Pol,’ she announced.
‘It’s about time,’ I noted.
She looked just a little hurt, but then I laughed and threw my arms about her. ‘I’m only teasing, Ildera,’ I told her, holding her very close. ‘I’m so happy for you.’
‘I’m sort of pleased about it myself,’ she said. ‘Now, what should I do to put a stop to all the throwing up every morning?’
‘Eat something, dear.’
‘You said what?’
‘Put something to eat on the table beside the bed before you go to sleep. When you wake up in the morning, eat it before you get out of bed.’
‘Would that work?’
‘It always has. Trust me, Ildera. This is one aspect of medicine that I’m very good at. I’ve had lots of practice.’ I looked appraisingly at her tummy. ‘You don’t show yet.’
She made a rueful little face. ‘There goes my girlish figure, I guess. None of my dresses are going to fit, though.’
‘I’ll sew you up some nice smocks, Ildera.’
‘Should we tell Alara?’ she asked, glancing at her mother-in-law’s bedroom door.
‘Let me think about that a bit first.’ Then I laid my hand on her still-girlish belly and sent a gently probing thought into her. ‘Three weeks,’ I said.
Three weeks what? Please, Aunt Pol, don’t be cryptic.’
‘You’ve been pregnant for three weeks.’
‘Oh. It must have been that last blizzard then.’
‘I didn’t exactly follow that, dear.’
‘Well it was snowing very hard outside, and there wasn’t really anything else to do that afternoon.’ She gave me an arch little smile. ‘Should I go on, Aunt Pol?’ she asked me.
This time, I was the one who blushed. ‘No, Ildera,’ I said. ‘I sort of get the picture.’
‘I thought that maybe you might be curious – from a professional point of view. Are you absolutely sure you don’t want all the details, Aunt Pol?’
‘Ildera! You stop that immediately!’ My face was actually flaming by now.
Her laughter was silvery. ‘Got you that time, didn’t I, Aunt Pol?’ she said. What an adorable girl she was! I absolutely loved her.
That night I sent my thought out to the twins down in the Vale. ‘Have you any idea at all of where my father is?’ asked them.
‘He was in Tolnedra the last time we talked with him, Pol,’ Belkira replied. ‘He’s moving around a lot, so he’s a little hard to keep track of.’
‘I need to get a message to him,’ I told them. “There are some unfriendly ears out there, though, so I don’t want to get too specific.’
‘If it’s urgent, we’ll come up there, and then you can go looking for him,’ Beltira offered.
‘No, it’s not that urgent – not yet, anyway. It’s just that something’s going on here that takes a certain fairly predictable amount of time.’ I thought that was nice and cryptic. ‘Have you found anything new and exciting in the Mrin lately?’
‘Nothing recently,’ Belkira replied. ‘Everything seems to be frozen.’
‘It’s springtime now, Uncle,’ I told him. ‘Have you ever noticed how spring always seems to thaw things out?’ I was fairly sure that the twins would catch the meaning I’d hidden in that seemingly casual observation.
‘Why yes,’ Beltira agreed, ‘now that you mention it, we’ve noticed the same thing ourselves. How far along is spring where you are?’
‘About three weeks, uncle. The snow’s starting to melt, and the wildflowers should come peeping through before too long.’
I was fairly sure that if some Grolim happened to be listening, he’d be just fascinated by my weather report.