by Joan Stephens
The Golden One, He who was born at the beginning of time and will live to the end of time, stood irresolutely next to his bed, his face a study of indecision. Suddenly, he paced away, his movements catlike and graceful. Then he whirled around, his midnight blue cloak swirling around his boot tops. Tilting his head back as if he could find the answer there, he stared up at the chamber ceiling. What should he do? Receiving no answer from the gray inanimate stone, he returned to the bed and stared down at the battered and broken body of the beautiful woman lying still as death in the middle of the oversized bed. She looked like a broken doll lying there, and her beauty shone through the massive injuries she had received when her plane had crashed into his valley. Again he paced away, dropped his head, his hair falling forwards to hide his face. She would die--of that he was sure. The primitive medical care available in his valley would be unable to save her. He could heal her he knew, but should he heal someone who didn’t know the consequences? Selfishly, he wanted to, then he would no longer be alone. A moan from the bed brought him back to her side, and he dropped to his knees, taking her by the shoulders to keep her still.
“Shhh. Be still. You’re badly injured,” he whispered softly, hoping he wouldn’t frighten her.
“Going . . . to . . . die?” she asked through painfully swollen lips. Gently he lifted her head for a swallow of cool water.
“Yes,” he answered truthfully.
Weakly she shook her head. “No . . . not done . . . yet.” The effort to speak was almost too much for her and she subsided, barely breathing,
“I can heal you,” he offered, “but there are serious consequences.”
“What?” she breathed.
“You will become immortal.”
“Im . . . mortal?” She attempted to chuckle and fainted from the pain.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he patiently waited for her to wake, if she would. With all his heart, he hoped that she would. He could do nothing until she awoke. At last she became restless and opened her eyes. Through pain-filled eyes she gazed at him, but he doubted if she could see him clearly. Still, he quickly averted his head. “Do you want me to heal you?” he asked again.
“Yes. Please,” she barely managed. Subsiding, she seemed to shrink into the pillows becoming even paler if that was possible.
“Are you sure?” He pressed for assurance that she knew what she was agreeing to.
“Yes. I . . . can’t take . . . much more pain,” she panted, grimacing from the agony that lanced through her with every word.
“Very well. One taste of my blood will heal you.” He didn’t remember how he knew this, but he knew with a certainty that it was so. Vaguely, he recalled someone cautioning him to be very careful when he used his blood to heal, to be certain that it was the correct thing to do. He had never used this ability before but something about this woman called to him, and he knew he would do all he could to save her. He pricked his forefinger and touched the drop of blood that accumulated there to her lips. “Lick your lips,” he gently ordered.
Her moist, pink tongue eased out and ran over her lips, drawing the healing blood into her mouth. “That’s . . . blood,” she commented, making a face.
“Yes, my blood.” Part of him was ecstatic that he would no longer be alone while another part was railing at him for condemning her to the endless life he lived.
With a soul-deep sigh, she relaxed into a deep, restorative sleep. Whatever was in his blood that kept him healthy and immortal was beginning its work on her, changing her blood to match his, healing her body.
For three days he cared for her, rousing her occasionally for a drink of water. He watched with fascination as the cuts and bruises healed themselves and could only guess at the healing going on inside of her. Her color improved until she glowed with returning health.
Slowly she awoke, feeling better than she had for years. The constant nagging pain from an arthritic knee was gone, and she felt refreshed and rejuvenated. That was odd because the last thing she remembered was the excruciating pain she felt when her plane slammed into that impossibly huge tree. Maybe she was dead. That would explain her feeling of well-being. But no, she could feel the beat of her heart and hear the soughing of the wind outside. By some miracle she was alive.
About to take a deep breath, she became aware that her hand was in the gentle grasp of another hand. The sound of rustling clothes and the soft touch of someone arranging a blanket and sheet around her interrupted her musings. Cautiously, she partially opened one eye and immediately closed it. She couldn’t have seen what she just saw. She must be dreaming. There was no one like that in the world. Unaware that she was conscious, the man--for that’s what he was regardless of how he looked--sat on the edge of the bed, his head bowed, apparently waiting for her to awake. His mass of golden hair had fallen forward, partially hiding his face.
She opened one eye again and realized with a start that his hand was furred and clawed. Slowly he raised his head, and her eyes met the most astonishing blue eyes she had ever seen. There were intelligence, humor, compassion, wisdom, and a deep sadness in those eyes, and the eyes reassured her that despite his strange appearance he would not harm her. His face was a unique combination of lion and man. There was a broad deeply furrowed forehead, a flat catlike muzzle, eyebrows that slanted up into his hairline, the impossible blue eyes, and his cheeks and chin were lightly covered with soft short whiskers. All together it was a pleasant combination and after a few minutes’ scrutiny she concluded that it was a decidedly beautiful face.
But she couldn’t keep her eyes from widening and she gulped an “oh” followed after a beat with a faint “hello.”
Releasing her hand, he pulled back and solemnly gazed at her. Maybe he didn’t speak English. Maybe he didn’t speak at all: his mouth was strangely shaped with a cleft upper lip like a cat. Tentatively she smiled. “Do you speak . . . ?” He nodded. “English?” He nodded again. “Oh, good,” she replied, relieved that she would be able to communicate with him. She had no idea where she was, but obviously this person had cared for her, bringing her back from the brink of death. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Vincent,” his voice rumbled from the depths of his chest like silk on gravel. “And you?”
The gentleness of his voice wrapped around her heart, giving her a feeling of total safety. She answered, “Catherine. Catherine Chandler.” Trying to sit up, she discovered to her dismay that she was naked underneath the blankets. Had this . . . man undressed her? It was an embarrassing thought. She snatched the covers tightly around her neck as she leaned back against the headboard.
Hesitantly, he took the hand she held out to him. The soft fur on the back of his hand tickled her fingers, and she wondered what he was and why he was. But those questions could be asked later. For now, there was one supreme question that needed to be answered. “Shouldn’t I be dead?”
“Yes, but I healed you,” he replied. Catherine wondered at the pride tinged with regret that she heard in his voice.
“You healed me,” she stated in disbelief. “How? I imagine the medical facilities here are practically nonexistent.”
He chuckled, “That is true.”
“Then how? Are you a doctor?”
He shook his head. “No.” He sat back, appraising her, then decided she was strong enough to know the truth. But before he could tell her, she asked the question that he had hoped never to hear.
“When will I be able to go home?”
“Not for some time,” he answered, sidestepping the issue, hoping to divert her from the truth.
“Winter comes early at these altitudes,” he explained. Waving at the surrounding peaks, he explained, “We are snowbound for three-fourths of the year with ten to fifteen feet of snow in the passes.”
“You have winter here in the valley?”
“No,” he smiled. “We have two seasons: tal and xotal: summer and not summer.”
“How can that be?”
“I have no idea but it is so.”
Tenaciously, she returned to the subject that was uppermost in her mind. “Then when can I go home?”
She was persistent he could see. He would have to tell her the painful truth and she would hate him for it. “You can never go back, Catherine.”
“You would keep me here against my will?!” Suddenly, her sense of safety fled, leaving her feeling exposed and betrayed. Hurriedly, fumbling with the blankets to stay covered, she scuttled away to the other side of the bed, realizing as she did just how foolish it was. Where could she go?
“No! Never! I would not do that!” he exclaimed, jerking back, equally as shocked that she would think that of him. He glared at her in indignation as a feeling of resentment washed through him, then reason returned as he realized that she was the outsider here and was lost in a strangeness that was none of her doing. She watched the anger fade to be replaced by compassion. His eyes pleaded for her forgiveness. Tentatively, she smiled at him and eased back to her original place in the bed. He smiled back, breathing a silent sigh of relief.
“Then why can’t I go back?” she asked, confused.
He answered her with another question, “Do you remember your first days here?”
Tilting her head, she said, “Vaguely.”
“Do you remember that I told you that if I healed you, you would become immortal?”
She stared at him, trying to keep the amusement she felt from showing on her face. Finally, almost laughing, she said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Soberly, he shook his head. “No.”
“You’re telling me that because you healed me . . . How?”
“With a drop of my blood.”
Incredulously, she continued, “With a drop of blood, you healed me and made me immortal?” She looked at him as if he was crazy.
Elegantly, he rose to his feet and searched through several chests scattered around the chamber until he found what he was looking for. Pulling a silver handled mirror from the chest, he returned and handed it to her. “Look,” he commanded. Standing over her, he watched closely as she peered into the mirror, turning her head this way and that, running a hand through her hair.
She saw what she had always seen: a fifty-year-old woman with grey in her hair, wrinkles, and lines about her eyes and mouth.
“What do you see?” he demanded.
Frustrated, he shook his head. “Open your eyes, Catherine. Look past the expectations and the memories. See yourself as you really are now, as I see you.”
Peering intently into the mirror, the years fell away, revealing the woman she had been twenty years ago. Her eyes sparkled with rosy health, flashing like green emeralds; her hair was glossy and soft, returned to its original golden brown; and her face was as smooth and wrinkle free as a baby’s. She ran her fingers wonderingly through her hair and over her unlined face. “How is this possible?”
“You don‘t know much about anything, do you?” she asked sarcastically, hiding her renewed fear behind a facade of scorn. This couldn’t be; his appearance could be explained as a genetic mutation, for instance. But people don’t live forever, do they? Why was he doing this, toying with her? What could be his motive? The only reason she could see for his actions was that he was crazy. Still, he seemed so . . . reasonable, not at all like a crazy person. “I don’t believe you. Somehow you’re making me see this.”
With startling speed and a murmured apology, he grabbed her hand and cut her palm with a sharp claw, scaring the wits out of her. Fruitlessly, she tried to pull her hand free from his tight grasp. “What are you doing?” she gasped.
“I’m sorry, Catherine,” he said, “But I can only show you that what I said was the truth.” He pointed to her hand. “Look.”
Amazed, she watched the blood cease to flow and the wound begin to seal. “That can’t be,” she breathed.
“But it is so.”
“How?” Her pragmatic mind was going around in circles, trying to make sense of what she had just witnessed.
“I don’t know,” he replied, exasperated. “I wish I did. I don’t even know if it is part of my nature or if it is due to the immortality.”
Now that she knew he would not intentionally harm her, her natural curiosity prompted her to ask,
“How did you become the way you are?”
“I’ve always assumed that I was born this way.”
“Are there others like you?” The thought that there could be others like him was a little scary.
“Not that I am aware of . . . I am the only one.” She caught a glimmer of the barrenness of his life in his eyes before he turned his head away.
“And the . . .” Here she chuckled a little bit; she couldn’t help it, “. . . the immortality?”
Pulling a chair up beside the bed, he settled his long frame into it, gazing gravely at her over his steepled fingers. She was to discover that this was a favorite position of his whenever he was involved in a serious discussion, and to him this was a very serious discussion. “My people have a legend that at the beginning of time--when I was born--my mother bathed me in the Fire of Life and that gave me the immortality that I bear now.”
“That’s some legend . . . and you believe it?” The look she bestowed on him told him that she wondered how a man of such seeming intelligence and knowledge could believe that.
A slight smile illumined his face. “It’s as good an explanation as any,” he answered.
Shrugging one shoulder, she decided it was best to humor him and agreed. “Do you know how long you have been here?”
Again, he replied, “I don’t know. It seems I have been here forever.”
“Do you know the date and what year it is?”
This time he smiled fully as he answered, “The year is 2007, sometime around February or March, I believe.”
She nodded in agreement.
“The beginning of winter,” he added, “here. There will be snow in the passes soon.”
Her entire being seemed to wilt. “Then I can’t go home?”
“Catherine,” he said patiently, emphasizing every word, “you . . . can . . . never . . . go . . . home. How would you explain your youthful appearance and the fact that you never age?”
“Never to see my friends or home?” Her voice quivered with tears and grief.
“I’m sorry, but I did warn you.”
“Yeah,” she flung at him, “when I was dazed and confused with pain and didn’t know what I was agreeing to.” She knew it wasn’t his fault, but right now she didn’t care, she wanted to be unreasonable and, by god, unreasonable was what she was going to be. She watched in amazement as, with the agility of a large cat, he leapt to his feet.
Agitated, he paced away from her as he had when she first lay in his bed more dead than alive. How was it possible that this slip of a woman could upset him so easily? Swinging around to face her, he held his hands out to her in supplication. “But you said that you weren’t finished yet when I asked you if you wanted to live.”
“Yes, and when I asked you if you wanted me to heal you, you agreed.”
“I did.” She remembered agreeing to that. “But I didn’t think it would really happen.”
“But it did.” Turning his head away from her, he sighed deeply as if he was in great pain. “I’m sorry, Catherine, it is a curse more than a gift.”
“A curse?” Everyone she knew would give their eyeteeth for a chance to live forever.
“Yes.” He swung back to face her, his eyes filled with remembered loneliness and pain. “Imagine living century after century, watching your friends die one after another, coming to realize that their lives were as short as those of fireflies, but you . . . you would go on forever . . . always alone. And after awhile to be looked upon as a god, separating you from mortal men even more and there is nothing . . . nothing . . . you can do to change it.”
“I never thought of that.” Her heart went out to him as his words brought home the utter disaster of living forever. Then she turned cold as she realized if what he said was true her destiny would be a mirror image of his.
A welcome disturbance at the chamber door brought an end to their disquieting conversation. Vincent turned to greet an older man as he limped into the room. “Cobix?”
“My lord,” bowing, the patriarch greeted him. “It is a lovely morning.”
“Is it? I haven’t been out yet.” Turning to the young woman, his lord said, “Catherine, this is my chamberlain, Cobix, my good right hand.”
Bowing to his master’s guest, Cobix intoned, “My lady.”
Catherine clapped her hands delightedly, for the moment diverted from the momentous change in her life. She had never been treated like royalty. As a judge she had earned the respect of her contemporaries, but she had never been honored with a bow before. She found that she enjoyed it, and she turned her dazzling smile on the aged chamberlain who couldn’t keep from returning the smile. “I’m glad to meet you, Cobix,“ she said, extending her hand.
Cobix looked to his master who nodded slightly. Then the old man took the proffered hand and gravely shook it. “Welcome, Lady Catherine. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
An ambiguous look passed between Catherine and Vincent, who settled a large, furred hand on the elderly man’s shoulder. “What is it you wish to see me about, old friend?”
“The last supply train has arrived. They barely made it; the snows have begun.”
“A little early, is it not?” his lord questioned.
“Quite early, lord,” he agreed. “They say the snow is already up to a man’s waist.”
“Give the men my thanks and extra wages and rations. And make sure they have a hearty breakfast.”
Agreeing, the old gentleman inclined his head. “I wondered if my lord would care to inspect the inventory?”
“Were they able to bring more books?” Vincent asked, eagerly.
“Yes, I believe one poor llama is loaded down with them.”
Vincent laughed happily. “Then I think I will,” he answered, reasoning this would give Catherine time to think over all that had happened to her. “In the valley as customary?” he inquired of his old friend.
Cobix verified his lord’s assumption. “Yes, lord, in my house.”
Turning to Catherine, Vincent issued an invitation, “We will finish our discussion over dinner, Catherine?”
She agreed instantly. Over dinner she could learn more about this strange man and his surroundings. “Yes, thank you. I need some time to myself; I have some serious thinking to do.”
Vincent and Cobix bowed and as he turned to leave, Vincent stated, “I will see you at dinner, then.”
Her eyes followed the two men as they crossed the room. Vincent, towering over the older, smaller man, leaned slightly toward Cobix, giving the elderly chamberlain his full attention. Vincent really was the most graceful of men she thought. Her breath caught, when in the sunlight that streamed through the open side of the chamber, he turned to her. The sunlight highlighted the gold of his hair and he seemed to glow in the sunshine. He was beautiful. The two men disappeared into the sunlight. A long-banked spark ignited and filled her heart with a warmth she had waited a lifetime for. The restlessness was gone. The warmth spread, filling all the lonely, empty places in her. Was this unique man what she had searched for all her life? Confused and a little afraid, she fell back on the bed. She had so much to think about. I need time to myself, she thought. Bless his heart that was why he had left with Cobix.
For several minutes she kept her mind empty and free-floating, just existing. Then she roused herself and began to consider her situation. What was it about this strange man that made her almost believe him? It would be obvious to the densest mind in the world that he believed what he had told her: he believed he was immortal. As far as delusions went, this one was a doozy. She was afraid, but not of him. He was not dangerous in and of himself, but his delusion could prove dangerous to both of them. What she really feared was that he could be right. Then she would be as delusional. And if this was no delusion, what then? Everything that had happened to her since she entered that strange purple fog had bordered on the fantastic. Maybe this was one of her dreams and right now she was asleep in her own bed, in her own apartment, trying to wake up. Well, dream or not, it was time to confront this situation head on. She pushed the fear and worry to the back of her mind, and
glancing around the room, she took stock of her surroundings. She was in a large chamber carved out of the mountainside, open on one side to the valley below. Opposite the open wall was a set of huge, graven double doors made of a dark wood that glowed faintly in the morning sunlight that streamed in from the valley side of the chamber. Those graven images reminded her of the towering, freestanding warriors she had photographed at Tula. Brightly colored tapestries, almost but not quite gaudy, covered the walls. Scattered around the room were several carved chests whose figures reflected those carved on the doors. Among the chests, against the north wall, were a desk and chair, and two lounge chairs sat in the middle of the room. Carpets of fantastic designs and colors were strewn randomly on the stoney floor. Bunched, heavy dark draperies hung at each end of the opening ready to be pulled to enclose the room. The bed she was lying in was pushed up against the south wall between two chests. Unlit candles were scattered everywhere, waiting to shed their soft, golden light into the night. An open brazier glowed softly near the desk, keeping the cool early winter air at bay.
She threw back the blanket and climbed out of bed. Wrapping a blanket around her bare body, she wandered around the chamber, looking into the chests to see if there was anything she could wear. The chests were full to bursting with blankets, sheets, towels, even a large number of books, everything but what she needed. Pulling the blanket more tightly around her, she edged close to the lip of the ledge--she had never been overly fond of heights–and gazed out over the valley below. It was a typical alpine valley with lots of open grassland and thickets of small trees. Scattered among the open meadows were several gigantic trees that looked like they might be redwoods. She shuddered with remembered horror when she noticed the huge tree that she had crashed into. Barely able to make out the gleam of metal, she found the remains of her plane. Her final resting place could very well have been under that immense tree if not for Vincent. Continuing with her perusal of the valley, she made out three small enclaves of small houses with large gardens nearby. In the center of the valley was a small pyramid, and at the far end of the valley, sunlight glinted off the rippling waves of a small lake. Two narrow rivers flowed into and out of the lake then under the rim of the valley wall. It was a peaceful and rustic scene, pleasing to the eye.
A quiet knock and a soft, “My lady? May I come in?” broke into her reverie.
On turning to face her visitor, she discovered a young native girl standing diffidently just inside the open double doors. She was pretty in a subdued way with almond-shaped eyes, raven-black hair that streamed down her back, and a soft, olive complexion. Dressed in a brightly colored voluminous skirt, white peasant blouse, and shawl tied around her waist, she reminded Catherine of the gypsies she had seen in New York. “Of course, come in,” she gestured.
“Thank you,” the young woman said, inclining her head. “The Golden One desired that I bring clothing for you.” Carefully she deposited them on a nearby chest.
“Thank you. . . . What’s your name?” Catherine inquired kindly.
“Sona, my lady.” The girl’s face lit up with a friendly smile. “If there is anything you need, please let me know.”
Catherine couldn’t help but smile back at her. “I most certainly will. Thank you, Sona.” She moved to examine the clothing. They were like the simple clothing that Sona wore: skirts, blouses, shawls, and soft leather boots. She had even included nightgowns, petticoats and underpants. “These are wonderful. They’re so beautiful,” Catherine exclaimed.
Nodding her head once, Sona said, “I’m pleased that you like them. I will leave you now so you can dress unless you need my assistance.”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.” With a sudden thought, Catherine asked, “Oh, may I have some fresh water to drink?”
“Would my lady care for some wine or goat’s milk?”
“Um, I think water will do for now. Thank you.”
“I’ll bring it right away,” Sona replied as the heavy double doors closed behind her.
Catherine quickly donned the fresh clothing, surprised that they fit so well. Someone had a good eye for sizes. Slipping on the boots, she prowled through the books she found in one of the chests, looking for something interesting to read. There was a wealth of old classics as well as many contemporary authors. She decided on an old favorite, ‘Jane Eyre,’ and settled in the lounge chair to read.
Sona returned with the water and very thoughtfully had included some cheese and fruit on the tray. Setting up a small table beside Catherine’s chair, she then left with a demure smile. Suddenly, Catherine was starved, her stomach rumbling with hunger. Eagerly she ate all that was there, then turned back to her reading. But her mind kept drifting to what she had been told and how a simple desire to fulfill a lifelong dream had brought her to this time and place. She thought back to the beginning of her trip. . . .
Flying above the New York skyline, Catherine wobbled her plane wings in farewell to the city of her birth and took a south by southwestern heading. Tierra del Fuego was to be her final destination with several stops along the way. She was living a long-standing desire to see the native ruins in Middle and South America, and she planned to visit as many as possible.
For twenty years she had labored in the legal field: first in the District Attorney’s Office, winning more than her share of convictions; next in private practice as a defense lawyer; then for the last eight years as a District Court Judge. She was known to be fair and evenhanded with the wealthy and the poor alike. She could neither be bought nor persuaded that the accused was a victim of circumstances.
On her forty-ninth birthday, she treated herself to flying lessons in preparation for the sabbatical that she was to begin when she turned fifty. Once she had learned to fly, she reveled in the freedom of the skies and most weekends would find her aloft, soaring with the birds. Her gift to herself for her fiftieth birthday was a Piper Seneca V two-engine airplane.
Her friend, one-time boss, and happy tormenter, Joe Maxwell, wasn’t happy with her decision to take a whole year off. Especially when he heard what she was going to fly around South America in a little dinky plane, as he put it. “Think of all the things that could go wrong,” he warned on the day she told him about her plans. He had had a free hour from the DA’s office where he was the current District Attorney and had called her to see if she could have lunch with him.
Seated at a window table in Joe’s favorite greasy spoon, she said, “Joe, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I’ll be all right.”
“But there’s all those mountains and what about landing fields, fuel and stuff like that?”
Well, it looked like she was going to have explain patiently and in laymen’s terms–she knew how Joe could go off the deep end when he worried about something–if she wanted to keep him from worrying himself sick while she was gone. “The airplane is a two-engine plane and can fly as high 25,000 feet. The highest peak in the Andes is the Aconcagua at 22,834 feet. So even if I flew over the Andes, I would have plenty of airspace. I have all the latest equipment: G.P.S., transponders, deicers, everything I need.” He shook his head; still worried about her. “Besides,” she continued, “I’ll be flying to the west of the Andes until I get to Tierra del Fuego. There the mountains are only about 7,000 or lower: a piece of cake.”
Still unconvinced and she doubted if she would ever convince him of her safety, he grumbled, “Yeah, well . . . ok. But what about the fuel?”
“Joe,” she resumed patiently, “I know where the airports are and where to get fuel. I’ve been planning this trip for over a year. I’ve learned Spanish and have my entire trip planned.” Digging into her voluminous purse, she pulled out a map and, moving plates and glasses out of the way, spread it on the table.
“Oh yeah, where’s your first stop?” Joe leaned over the map, seeing a lot Xs connected by lines scattered over the countries displayed there.
“Mexico City,” she answered, pointing to a certain spot on the map. “There are a lot of ruins within a few hours drive of the city. I’ve rented a small house with a housekeeper and chauffeur.”
“Going tourist class, huh?” He couldn’t resist giving her a dig about her wealth, knowing she would take it in the spirit intended.
“Shoot, Joe, if you got it spend it, I say.” Leaning back in her chair, she grinned at him, not taking offence at his gentle ribbing.
He returned the grin. Money to Cathy was to spend, not to hoard or flaunt. “How long will you be there?”
“I figure about two to three months will give me plenty of time to see what I want to see. My schedule is fairly flexible.” She pointed out all the ruins around the city. “Then a month or two visiting Veracruz, Puebla, and Oaxaca.” As she mentioned the towns, she drew his attention to several of the Xs on the map. “Then to the Yucatan to see the Mayan and Toltec ruins there.” Pulling another map from her purse, she showed him all the ruined cities in the Yucatan.
“Whoa. That’s a busy schedule, Cathy. Aren’t you going to take any time for fun and relaxation?”
“I thought I’d take a break in Cancun. It’s the height of the summer season then, and I plan on going snorkeling and swimming for a while. Just laze around and relax.”
“Good. What’s next?”
“Belize, Guatemala, Honduras then I want to see the Panama Canal. From there to Quito, Lima, and Cuzco. The high point of my trip will be to see Machu Picchu.”
“That’s one place I’ve always wanted to see,” Joe commented with a heart felt sigh.
“Well,” she drawled, “I’ve got the room. Pack up Gina and the kids and join me.”
“Wish I could, Radcliffe, but I’ve got responsibilities.”
“Like I don’t?” she shot back, pretending to be insulted. Then leaning forward and pointing a finger at him, she said, “Sometimes, Joe, you’ve just got to say the heck with it and do it.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“Yup.” She grinned at him, daring him to come along.
A shake of his head let her know that as much as he would like to he was unable to at this time. “So far you’ve accounted for about six to seven months,” he pointed out. “Where next?”
“After Machu Picchu it’s on to Santiago, Chile and the Inca ruins there. Joe, did you know the last island off the tip of South America is called Islas de los Estados: Staten Island. I’ll be flying from Staten Island, NY to Staten Island, Tierra del Fuego. How about that?” She chuckled in amazement.
Chuckling with her, he realized that she had really planned this trip down to the last detail.
She continued, “Then it’s up the east coast to Buenos Aires and Rio for the Mardi Gras if I plan it right. If I miss it, it will give me something to do for my next vacation. Over Brazil to Colombia, Mexico, Texas, and then home.” With a ‘so there’ look, she sat back in her chair, daring him to find fault with her plans.
He couldn’t, so he just cautioned her, “That’s some trip, kiddo. I hope you can pull it off without any trouble.”
“I’ll be fine. I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself.”
“You’ll be armed?” The question was more of a demand.
“Yes, Joe,” she answered with enduring resignation, understanding his zealous regard for her safety. It reminded her of her father, and she knew it came from Joe’s love for her. Patting him affectionately on the arm, she continued, coyly, “I love it when you worry about me. Just don’t tell Gina, huh? She might get jealous.”
“Of you? Not a chance, Radcliffe.” He still liked to tease her even if she was a District Court judge. “She’s expecting us for dinner.” He remembered how Cathy had brought Gina back from San Francisco to testify at a trial they were prosecuting and how things had just taken off from there. “By the way, are you coming for the twin’s birthday?”
“You bet. Sixteen is a very important milestone in one’s life.”
“Now don’t go overboard and buy them something really expensive. They’ve got all that they need.”
“Come on, Joe, I’m their godmother. I’ve got the right to spoil them. After all, I won’t see them for a year.” She flashed her famous scintillating grin at him.
He grinned back. “I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to, could I?”
“Ok, ok,’ he said, throwing his hands up in defeat, “Spoil them all you want, but if they cause me any trouble, I’m coming after you,” he growled.
“Oooo, big bad scary man,” she laughed then took a drink of her coffee. She would miss this man more than any of her other friends. He had been a good and true friend. Often, she had wondered why she had never fallen in love with him. He was bright, good-looking and pleasant to be with, but something kept her from having a serious relationship with any man in her acquaintance.
“When are you leaving?” Joe asked, taking a bite out of his hamburger. Then with a napkin he wiped away the juice that dribbled down his chin.
“On my birthday.”
“What’s so special about leaving on your birthday?”
“If I leave on my birthday and return on the following birthday then you know when to expect me,” she explained patiently.
Gina and Joe had thrown a sabbatical/birthday party for her the night before she left, causing her to leave later then she had planned. So, here she was finally on her way to the biggest adventure of her life. She left the New York skyline behind her as she flew south to Mexico City, her first stop.
Filing her flight plan with the La Guardia air controllers, she enjoyed the scenery of her native land. It was beautiful with its green forests, blue lakes and winding rivers. Small villages and towns, large cities and metropolises were randomly scattered on the terrain, connected by ribbons of concrete and asphalt. She debated with herself as to whether she should lay over at Nashville and soak in the country music atmosphere or whether she should continue on farther to Montgomery. Her desire to start her long vacation eventually won out, and she flew into Montgomery Regional Airport around four in the afternoon. If it hadn’t been for the late departure from NYC she would have considered flying on to Mexico that day, but she didn’t want to chance flying over the Gulf of Mexico during the night. She found a cozy hotel near the airport and called Joe as she had promised to let him know that she had arrived safely in Alabama. Tired, she retired early and slept the sleep of the innocent and unwary. This adventure would turn out to be far more venturesome than she had anticipated.
Early the next morning after a big breakfast, enough to last her until she made Mexico City, she was winging her way toward Mexico. The blue of the Gulf entranced her, but the flat expanse of sea water soon became tiresome, and she was so glad that she’d had a CD player installed by the factory. Popping in the latest Enya CD, she turned west by southwest and arrived in Mexico City early in the afternoon
A confident knock roused her from her recollections. Chagrined, she realized that the sun had almost set, that she had spent the entire afternoon reminiscing. “Come in,” she called as she rose from the chair.
Easily swinging the doors open, a resplendent Vincent strode in. He had put aside his dark blue cloak and wore only a creamy white, linen shirt--the sleeves gathered at the wrist--opened halfway down his chest, revealing a profusion of golden blond hair; pants of forest green cotton closely hugged his body; and ankle-high, soft suede boots. He was magnificent, and he was charmingly unaware of the image he projected. The look he bent on her was delightfully approving. “How lovely you look,” he complimented her as she twirled around.
Laughing gaily, she agreed, saying, “It’s the clothing, Vincent. They are so colorful and what beautiful material. The colors almost glow.”
“Our weavers here are incomparable. But you, Catherine, make the colors shine even brighter.”
“Thank you, kind sir.” She dropped a small curtsy.
Bowing, he took her hand. “May I lead you to dinner?” he offered, gallant as a Victorian gentleman.
His heart flipped in his chest when she smiled at him and eagerly followed him from the room. “Has Sona taken good care of you?” he asked.
“Oh yes, I couldn’t ask for better.” Catherine’s interest was captured by the long stone corridor they were traversing. Every five feet or so there was an elaborate torch burning brightly. Several doors as large as those in her room–she thought of it as hers now–were set in the walls of the hallway. From the space between them, she decided that they were as big as hers or larger. She noticed the presence of two burly, strong looking men posted to each door. “Guards, Vincent?” she asked.
He looked down at her quizzical, beaming face and, giving his head a shake, said, “Someone must open the doors.” They laughed together.
“But you do it so easily.”
“I am stronger that most men.” In silence they strolled on for a few minutes, then he spoke, “You are free . . . here, to come and go as you wish.”
Crestfallen, he looked away. “If you wish . . . but I would advise against it.”
“Because I’m immortal?” she asked, still unable to completely believe him.
“I don’t know if I quite believe you.”
“You do not believe your own eyes, then,” he asked, puzzled.
“Well . . . yes, but there could be another explanation.”
“And what would that be?”
“You used some fast healing ointment?”
“When did I have time to do that?” he wondered.
Throwing her hands up in exasperation, she retorted, “I don’t know, but this whole affair goes against everything I’ve been taught.”
“But ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Catherine, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”
“Why am I not surprised that you know Shakespeare?” she asked with a wry smile.
“Ah, but Shakespeare knew everything,” he said gravely with a hint of mischief sparkling in his eyes.
The doormen, as Catherine thought of them, sprang forward to open the doors as the couple approached but Vincent waved them away and effortlessly pulled them open. He was showing off but was delighted to be able to do so. He ushered her into a small, cozy room that was filled almost to capacity with a dining table and two chairs. The table was covered with a gaily colored tablecloth. Placed on opposite sides of the table were two place settings of heavy clay dinnerware, probably made by craftsmen who lived in the valley. A large candelabra surrounded by fragrant, tropical flowers sat in the middle of the table. “How lovely,” she murmured as Vincent seated her at the table. Each plate was filled with various kinds of fruit, vegetables and cheese with a slice of crusty, oven-browned thick bread lying to the side.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m a vegetarian,” he explained.
“I rarely eat meat myself,” she confided. Taking a bite of the cheese with a morsel of bread, she remarked delightedly, “This is delicious.”
All through dinner they spoke of their lives, she more than he, as she had led a fuller life, and he was vastly curious about her world. She told him of her privileged life as the daughter of a wealthy corporate lawyer. With tears in her eyes, she commented on how much she missed her father.
“If I could, I would send you home,” he said, distressed by her unhappiness.
It surprised him when she asked, “You wish me gone, then?” And he saw a glimmer of pain in her lovely green eyes. He sensed that she was beginning to care for him. But so soon? He wondered if it was the curse of his blood binding her to him. He hoped not. When he examined his own heart, he found her essence there giving him a tranquility he had not known in a very long time. But would she truly forgive him for sentencing her to an unending existence? He couldn’t even call it a life. It all depended on her strength of character, and from what he knew of her, she seemed to be a very strong woman.
“No, Catherine, never! It’s just that you did not choose this life.”
“No, but it chose me.” She reached across the table to touch his hand. “Thank you for caring.”
He ducked his head, hiding the pleased but embarrassed look that crossed his face. “Tell me more of your life, Catherine.”
Continuing, she told him about joining the District Attorney’s office and the basic reason behind her decision. One night after leaving a particularly stuffy and boring reception, she had been attacked and left for dead in Central Park–she had to explain to Vincent about the Park, which he thought sounded like a beautiful place–only to be found by a passing couple who called the police and ambulance and thereby saved her life. That incidence had solidified her dissatisfaction with her job in her father’s law office, and she had applied for a position with the DA.
She told him about her rise from ADA to DDA, then as a defense attorney and, at long last, being appointed a District Court judge.
Then she invited him to tell her about himself. Once again he told her that he remembered no other place but this mountain and this valley and no other life than the one he led. His people simply called it The Golden One’s Domain. He described the valley and its people, agreeing to take her there the next day. Leaning forward with his arms crossed before him on the table, he asked, “Would you care to have your wine here or in your room? Or . . . ?” He left the question open.
Unable to resist the opportunity to find out anything she could about this man, she finished the question, “. . . In your chamber?”
He glowed with pleasure, delighted that she had accepted his unspoken offer. Taking her hand, he guided her to her feet then tucked her hand under his arm and led her to an entrance, just beyond hers at the end of the hallway. After swinging open the huge double doors, he handed her into a chamber twice as large as hers, but it was not what she expected. As her eyes swept the room, she noted that every surface was bristling with books and the memorabilia of a long life: geodes; graven images of gods, animals, and men; ancient pottery, whole or in pieces; oil-wick pottery lamps as old as he was; brilliantly illuminated codices; handmade pottery and vases given to him by his people. Other than that his room was downright spartan. There were the obligatory tapestries to keep the cold from seeping from the stone walls. Carpets used for the same purpose were thickly scattered on the stone floor, but they were old and heavily traveled and had lost much of their color. As his room was so much larger than hers, two large braziers glowed in two corners, giving the chamber a pleasant but not stifling warmth. His desk was piled high with parchment scrolls: some unrolled that were kept open by stone or wood statues sitting on the edges. And the ubiquitous chests filled every available space along the three walls of the chamber. To her left was the open wall facing on the valley with midnight blue drapes hanging on either side of the aperture. Open now to the night, they would close when the nights became cooler as the valley slipped further into winter.
He directed her to a pair of large comfortable looking chairs, facing the panorama of the night stretched out before them. Near his desk was a hutch that held several bottles of colorful fluids and from one of the bottles he poured two glasses half full of a dark ruby red liquid. Returning, he handed one glass to her as he settled into the chair beside her. “Now, tell me how you came to be flying over my valley?”
Arranging herself comfortably in the well padded, substantial chair by facing him and pulling her legs up under her, she began, “Well, it all started when I was about ten years old. My mother had died.”
He made a small soothing remark, which she acknowledged with a sad smile.
“And I needed something to take my mind off my grief; so, I immersed myself in the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures. Something about their fascination with death appealed to me. To my childish mind at the time, it seemed that they were in a constant fight with death. As I grew older, I realized that they weren’t fighting death, but were trying to appease it. By that time it was no longer an obsession but a hobby, and I have wanted to visit the various cities and religious sites ever since. I bought a plane and learned to fly. . . .”
She told him of her flight to Mexico City and of the delightful young couple–Ruben and Inez--who had taken care of her every need, of visiting the ruins of Teotihuacán, the ancient capital of a very old race that was gone hundreds of years before the Aztecs arrived in the valley; of climbing the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, defying her fear of heights, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl; walking the Avenue of the Dead. With graphic words, she told him of her tour of Tula, the capital of the Toltecs. How she climbed the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, and took picture after picture of the freestanding colossal warriors guarding all the temples. She told him of the painted wall of serpents called the Coatepantli behind the pyramid and of the two Chacmool–reclining figures of the rain god that stood in the central area in front of the pyramid.
Stretching his long legs out in front of him, Vincent leaned back, resting his head against the high back of his chair, and closing his eyes, he immersed himself in her words, watching the pictures roll by like a movie on the back of his eyelids. Such was his imagination that the pictures she painted with her words were as vivid to him as if he had seen them himself.
She continued her narrative with her trip to Cholula. She sketched a scene of the colonial city built on the site and spoke of the Great Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the largest single structure in the New World at 181 feet in height and covering 25 acres. Letting her words wash over and through him, he could picture her clearly climbing to the top of the pyramid and entering the beautiful old church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios that had been built there in colonial times. He could see her standing in the doorway of the church, and through her words, he had a panoramic view of the old and the new city. The sun glinting off the tops of the 49 domes of the Royal Chapel was almost like a galaxy of suns shining in a sea of green vegetation.
She spent the next two weeks prowling the ruins of Tenochtítlan in and around Mexico City proper, of Tlacopán, and of Texcoco. He learned from her that the city of Tenochtítlan was the leading member of a triple alliance with the little kingdom of Tlacopán and Texcoco. Vincent floated with her down the canals of Xochilco, marveling at the beautiful flowers grown there in floating gardens, and wonders of wonders even had dinner with her on one of the floating restaurants that plied the waters. He visualized the round pyramid of Cuicuilco from her description of its stunning beauty and engineering. Wherever she looked, she saw signs of Aztec ruins and life.
Spending the rest of her time viewing the ruins in and around Mexico City, she didn’t get to see half of them. There were so many small places she wanted to go to, but if she was going to see the ruins in the states of Puebla, Veracruz, and Oaxaca, she would have to leave them unseen. She said goodbye to Ruben and Inez, thanking them for taking such good care of her, boarded her plane and flew to Puebla.
She painted vivid pictures of the strangely beautiful Olmec ruins of Chalcatzingo, San Miguel Amico and Oxtitlan. The Olmec where reputed to be the oldest civilization in Mezzoamerica, and the signs of their influence were evident in the cultures that followed them such as in the Mixtec-Zapotec civilization. Close to Puebla were the ruins of Dainzu and Cerro de las Mesas that were attributed to the Zapotec alone.
From Puebla she flew to Veracruz to tour Tres Zapotes, another Olmec ruin where the first huge carved stone head was found. These heads were eight to nine feet in height and weighed twenty to forty tons. He was so caught up in her words that he stood with her next to one of the stone heads while a friendly tourist took their picture. Great numbers of the huge stone heads were scattered throughout the ruins of San Lorenzo, Laguna de los Cerros, and in La Venta with its massive stone altars and stelae.
Near to the city Oaxaca was the Olmec ruin of San Jorge Nogote and the Mixtec-Zapotec ruins of Mitla, considered one of the architectural wonders of ancient Mexico, and Monte Alban, which was famous for the Temple of the Dancers. Then it was on to Tuxtla Gutierres and the Padre Piedra and Xoc ruins also attributed to the Olmecs.
Stopping to stretch her legs--she’d sat on them too long--she glanced over at his reclining form. Never had she been awarded such a look of complete enthrallment from anyone as she saw on his unique, golden face. Slowly opening an eye, he requested, “Go on, please. Your words are painting such beautiful pictures in my mind.”
“My legs have gone asleep. Let me move around a bit.” She explained as she hobbled about on pins and needles while the feeling flooded back into her legs and feet. “That will teach me to sit on my feet,” she groused.
Through lidded eyes Vincent watched her hop from one foot to another, heedless of the silly sight she presented as she oohed and aahed until all sensation had returned. That she could do this after all the eventful things she had learned today showed to him how resilient she was. “Did you take dancing lessons to learn how to do that?” he asked, amused.
“As a matter of fact, I did,” she replied saucily, dropping a deep dramatic curtsy. Seating herself again--only not on her legs this time--she considered his relaxed figure and picked up her story with her arrival in the Yucatan. She pictured for him the many archaeological sites she was able to see. Chichén Itza was by far the most famous with its Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, Temple of Warriors, and the Court of 1000 Columns that had the memoirs of the associated Orders of the Jaguars and Eagles carved into the stone pylons. She continued with Palenque, the portal to the underworld; Tikal, where she stood on the highest pyramid in the Americas and roamed through the Lost World Temple; then on to the lavish murals of Bonampak; Labná, where the first structure she saw on approaching the city was the Great Mayan Arch; Sayíl in Guatemala, the greatest of all Mayan cities; Cuello in Belize, the oldest excavated Mayan settlement; Uxmal with its Temple of Magicians and nunnery; Copan, one of the largest Mayan cities, located in Honduras; Tulúm with the Temple of the Descending God, House of the Cenoté, and the Temples of the Wind and of the Sea. All these places and many more she described to him in such living detail that he followed her through ruin after ruin marveling at the complexity of design and engineering.
She described her two-week stay in Cancún, snorkeling in the clear blue water and sunning in the bright tropical sun. Hearing a new word–snorkeling–piqued his interest and he asked her to explain it to him.
Suddenly they were struck by a glaring ray of sunlight as the sun topped over the eastern rim of the valley. She had talked almost nonstop all night, and she could feel it now that she had ceased talking: her throat was dry and a trifle hoarse. Vincent reacted as if he had committed a terrible social blunder, apologizing profusely. Hastily he guided her back to her room and told her no one would bother her until she woke up. Bidding her good rest, he returned to his room.
As she tumbled into sleep, she thought, Darn! He was supposed to take me to the valley today. Oh well, tomorrow is another day. That was the last thought she had for ten hours.
Impatiently, he worked through the day ruling his tiny province, waiting for her to wake up. He had asked Sona to inform him as soon as Catherine had awakened, and at last, the welcome news arrived: she was awake. He came to her immediately and, finding that she was already dressed, directed Sona to bring an early dinner to his chamber. Then he and Catherine went back to his room where he seated her in the same chair she sat in the previous night. “Will you tell me more of your trip?” he asked, excited as a small boy.
She nodded. She could understand how starved he was for news of the outside world. He was a sponge for knowledge, and she would tell him all she could remember.
“After dinner, of course. I feel that you are hungry.” His eyes seemed to pierce into the very heart of her, and she had no doubt that he did know she was hungry.
“I’m starved,” she laughed. “It must be the altitude; I am constantly hungry and have no trouble going to sleep.”
“No, Catherine, it is your body reacting to the changes in it. I can feel the changes taking place in you, and the energy it takes must be replaced.”
She turned away from him, trying to keep her fear and confusion from him.
Moving to stand behind her, he gently rested his hands on her shoulders. “I know you are afraid,” he said, hesitantly. He sensed her need to talk about what had happened.
She glanced at the fearsome hand lying so lightly on her shoulder. Rubbing her cheek against the soft fur on the back, she sought what comfort she could find. “It’s not only the fear; I understand that. It’s that old bogeyman known as the unknown. This has never happened to me before. Or to anyone I know.”
You know me, he thought. But I am still a stranger to you. I will help you all I can.
“I don’t know what it will do to me . . . how I’ll handle it . . . if I’ll change.”
“It has been a shock, I know.” Gently he rubbed her tense shoulders, easing her with his care and concern. She would have to find her own strength to face this enormous change in her life path.
Laughing ruefully, she agreed, “I’ve always assumed that I would grow old--gracefully, I hope–and that I would . . .” Here she gusted a sigh. “. . . someday die. That I would see my mother again. That I would be able to tell her all the things I couldn’t as a child. Now it seems that I never will.”
Without warning, she realized that she believed him: totally, completely. But when had she decided that he was being truthful with her? She hadn’t awakened this morning with the sudden conviction that he was right. It had been a gradual process until now she accepted him at his word.
His heart beat frantically as he listened to what she was saying. If she accepted this, then maybe she would be content to stay with him and not miss her world too much. Oh, he wanted her to be glad to stay, not because she had to.
While he was thinking about her staying, she had other thoughts on her mind. She voiced one of those thoughts. “God, Vincent,” she grabbed his hands and pulled him in front of her, “nothing lasts forever. Not even the universe.”
“I know that. What I don’t know is how long our forever will be. I’m sorry,” he whispered, unable to look at her.
“Oh, don’t be,” she cried, touching his cheek tenderly. “I don’t blame you. You did what you thought best. I blame myself; I wasn’t ready to die yet. I was weak.” She dropped her eyes unwilling to let him see the shame she felt in her eyes.
He disagreed completely. Capturing her troubled emerald green eyes with his intense blue ones, he exclaimed, “No, Catherine! It takes greater courage to live. It is much easier to give up and die. Believe me, I know.”
He paced away from her and stood looking out at the sun sinking behind the rim of the valley. “Over the years I have had many, many moments when I wanted to give up. It would be so easy just to die and leave the everlasting struggle to someone else, but then I thought that would be the coward’s way out and I am no coward. Nor are you, Catherine. I can feel it in you. You will take all life has to offer and do your best until you are unable to do any more.” He turned back to her and bent his piercing gaze on her again. “I know you, Catherine. You are a fighter.”
Nodding in agreement, she shivered. His words had a powerful effect on her. “Yes, I guess you’re right.” With relief, she heard a timid knock on the door and Sona’s voice requesting permission to enter. She’d had enough of serious discussions for now; she needed some light conversation as a distraction from the strange twist her life had taken.
Vincent opened the doors and Sona came in with a loaded tray followed by another young woman, who curtsied and smiled at Catherine, then set her tray of plates and cups on the table Vincent had prepared and hurriedly left, followed shortly by Sona.
As they dined, Catherine continued her tale. “Are you interested in the Panama Canals,” she inquired as he took a bite of fruit. Unable to make an intelligible answer, he nodded. Once again he lost himself in her words and stood beside her by the railing of the excursion boat she took through the locks. He was interested in the engineering of the canals, and she described them as best she could. Then he flew with her from Panama City to Quito and on to Lima, which Catherine planned to make her central headquarters for visiting the dead cities of the ancient peoples that lived there. Together in his imagination they flew over the Nazca Lines as she described them. They visited: Moche, an ancient ceremonial site named after the people that built it; Ruinas de Chanchan, a city built by the oldest civilization in South America called the Chimú; Cayamarca, an Incan ruin; the 26 massive pyramids of Tucume which were rumored to contain a huge fortune in gold; the great Pyramid of Pachacamac built by the Ichimay culture, south of Lima; and so many more that she couldn’t remember all their names;
The glow of the happiness she felt reliving and relating all these special events and places to him suddenly changed into a frown of distress. “Oh Vincent, all my pictures and notebooks were destroyed in the plane crash. If only I had them, I could tell you so much more and show you what they actually looked like.”
“It’s a shame that you lost them in the crash, but your words have let me see more than I have ever seen before. Catherine, I am truly blessed that you have come to me. You have so much knowledge of the outside world.” Grinning smugly, he said, “You can be my Scheherazade, storyteller extraordinaire.”
“Oh, so that’s how I pay for my keep,” she quipped.
“No, Catherine,” he suddenly became serious, “just your presence is payment enough.”
Blushing down to the roots of her hair, obviously very flustered, she hurriedly picked up the thread of her story.
From Lima she flew to Cuzco, where she described the stupendous ramparts--behind the city--built of stones that were 20 feet high and weighed several tons. She stayed several days in the Machu Picchu Ruinas Hotel to give her the opportunity to fully explore the site. Taking Vincent with her through her words, she took him of the long scenic walk up the Inka Trail to the ruins. Then she showed him the gorgeous view from the site itself and the mystery and wonder of the ruins. Together they wondered at the amazing talents of these people who had built such a lovely city on top of a high mountain. The engineering in itself was amazing. In his mind’s eye they took the train back to Cuzco, one more experience that Catherine related to him.
Vincent slowly became aware of the silence and raised his eyes questioningly to hers. The emerald green of her eyes had darkened with remembered pain. Sitting up abruptly, he asked, “What is it, Catherine?”
“Nothing really. The next day I flew over Machu Picchu for an aerial view then flew toward Lake Titicaca to see the ruins of Tiahuanaco. I never made it to the lake.” Twisting her hands together in her lap, she drew her shoulders in as if she could deny what came next. “As I turned the plane to head in that direction, from somewhere–it seemed all around me–I heard chanting. Suddenly I was engulfed in a thick purple fog and none of my instruments were working: the G.P.S. was out, I couldn’t get my bearings; the altimeter wasn’t registering; the radio wasn’t working; the compass was swinging wildly in all directions. I was flying completely blind, knowing there were high mountains all around me. All of a sudden, the fog cleared and I’m headed straight for this mountain. I pull up sharply . . . I’m flying just feet above the side of the mountain. I hit the peak a glancing blow and tip over into the valley behind it. I can’t control the plane . . . it heads down straight into a bunch of trees, through them, and into the largest tree I have seen. As I black out, I remember my friend Joe’s words, ‘But there’s all those mountains . . . ’”
Moving quickly, he scooped her into his arms, sat down in her chair, and held her shaking body in his lap, pulling her close against his body. He gently clasped her head against his chest, giving her the comfort of his heartbeat and reminding her that she was alive, that there was nothing to fear. “It’s all right, Catherine. You are safe now; no one will ever hurt you here.” She clung to him as a child clings to its mother when faced with the unknown.
She shook her head; she had to purge her soul of all the pain and fear of that crash by telling him what had happened. “Some survival instinct woke me almost instantly. I knew I had to get out of there before the plane blew up. I . . . but I couldn’t move. Every time I moved the agony was so great that I passed out. I don’t know how I did it, but I found myself lying on the ground about fifty yards away when the plane blew. I laid there for what seemed like hours, knowing that my life was leaking away second by second. I knew I was severely hurt; every breath was like a hot poker going through me. I was dying on this unknown mountain and no one would ever find me.” The quiet tears that she had been crying broke forth into sobs of desperation and hopelessness. She gripped his shirt so tightly that she grabbed handfuls of his chest hair, causing him to gasp in pain, but it was a pain that he gladly bore to give her the comfort she needed.
He murmured soft, soothing words into her ear, feeling the slow return of her normal composure. “Better now?” he asked, tenderly.
“Oh yes, much better,” she answered as she burrowed back into his embrace. After a few minutes of quiet reflection, she began again, “I was saying goodbye to all my friends back home when I heard the murmur of voices coming near me. I was too relieved to be afraid. When they picked me up, I’m sure I screamed as I passed out. Then I woke up in a bed and you are sitting beside me, holding my hand.”
“Ah Catherine, I wish I could have spared you all this,” Vincent said, holding her even tighter against his breast. “I don’t ever want you to hurt again.”
Misty-eyed, she smiled up at him, “I guess if what you say is the truth, I won’t.”
“You will not die but you can feel pain. I would spare you any pain, Catherine,” he vowed, burying his face in her hair.
Reaching up, she took his face in her hands and pulled his lips down to hers. “Thank you, Vincent. I know you mean every word you have said. And I wish the same for you.” Then she kissed him.
He pulled back to stare at her lovely mouth now quirked into a captivating smile. He looked as stunned as she felt but she didn’t care; she wanted to kiss him again. Paralyzed, he didn’t know what to do or what to say. Taking matters into her own hands, she wound her fingers through his hair and caressed the back of his neck, making him shiver violently. Slowly she increased the pressure on his neck, bringing his lips back to hers.
Vincent couldn’t believe what was happening. This beautiful, vibrant woman was actually enjoying being held by him and kissing him. He shifted his position, bringing her to sit more comfortably in his lap. While he was doing that, she was busily kissing him, evoking feelings he had never allowed himself to feel. Unable to breathe from the passion that was rising in him, Vincent broke off the kiss. Instead of moving away from him, she sighed contentedly and snuggled even deeper into his embrace.
Finally, he found his voice. “You kissed me.” He could not believe that he had felt her lips on his.
“Yes, I did,” she answered, breathlessly. “Did it bother you? You seemed to like it, but I won’t do it again if you don’t want me to.”
“Oh no, it didn’t bother me. It’s just that I’ve never been kissed before.”
“You haven’t?” How, in all God’s green earth, had he lived so long without someone kissing him. He was profoundly kissable, and she was going to prove it to him again. She raised her face to his. Looking him square in the eyes, she implored, “Kiss me, Vincent.”
He gulped once or twice then carefully lowered his lips to hers. This was his kiss and she let him determine the depth and the length of this learning experience. She intended that there would be many more.
At last, he pulled away. His eyes were troubled with thoughts he had resolutely banished to the back of his mind, and she could see that he needed time to reconcile what had happened this night. For several long moments they sat with arms wrapped around each other, quietly content. He took a deep breath, needing to change the course of the evening. He asked, “Remember when I told you, you were dying? . . . You said ‘no not done yet.’ What did you mean by that? What did you leave unfinished?”
Noncommittally, she shrugged, “My life, I guess.” Silent for a few minutes, she continued, “All my life I’ve searched for something, and the older I got the more restless I became. I think that’s one of the main reasons I took this trip.”
He nodded, understanding that feeling. “It’s a disconcerting feeling, is it not?” At her look of surprise, he continued, ruefully, “Yes, I have had that same feeling. Wanting, waiting for something . . . someone. An uncomfortable feeling.”
“Like an itch you can’t quite reach.” She suddenly grinned at him and his breath caught at how her smile lit up the room.
“Exactly,” he agreed, laughing delightedly. How enchanting she was and how dark his life had been before her coming. Already she had brightened his life as no one ever had. He wondered at the warm glow that was smoldering in his heart. Was this the something that he had waited for all his life? Was this woman the someone he had waited for all these long, lonely years? And what was the connection he sensed that was growing stronger, day after day, between her heart and his. When he concentrated on it, he could almost see a thin, silver chain connecting their two hearts together. For the first time, he felt his life was complete.
He sensed that she was growing sleepy. Once again they had sat up late into the night talking. It was close to midnight. Valiantly, she tried to smother a yawn but was unsuccessful. “You are tired, Catherine. It is time for you to be in bed.”
“No, Vincent, I don’t want to leave yet. I love being right where I am.” She wiggled firmly into his arms and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Catherine, we have all the time in the world to get to know each other,” he reminded her.
Leaning back in his arms, she grinned at him, “I guess you’re right. I am tired but will you take me to the valley tomorrow or today whichever is the case.”
Immensely pleased, he agreed and escorted her back to her room. As he turned to go after saying goodnight, she caught hold of his sleeve. “Vincent, wait.” She placed her arms around his neck and teased, “Don’t I get a goodnight kiss?”
How could he explain to her what that simple request did to him? Did he want to kiss her? Oh, if she only knew how much he desired her lips. He had never allowed himself to think of kissing or holding anyone as he had held her tonight. It was simply unthinkable. “Oh, Catherine,” he moaned as tears filled his eyes. He swept her into a kiss that left them both shaking and breathless. “Good night, Catherine.” He spun on his heels and marched away. He needed time to examine the feelings that she had aroused in him and he needed solitude to do that.
Leaning weakly against the closed doors, Catherine thought with an inward smile, What have I done? I had no idea that I would rouse such feelings in him. Or in myself. Oh Vincent, what do we do now? Quickly undressing, she fell into bed, falling instantly asleep to dream dreams of a mighty leonine knight that rescued her from a burning castle and a fate worse than death.
Vincent was thoroughly mystified. When he had contemplated healing her and thereby granting her immortality, he had never looked beyond that and into the future. He had never thought of Catherine being anything but a dear friend, and that they would spend their years together in a deep, platonic friendship. He had completely discounted the fact that she was a beautiful, spirited woman who would someday want more than a mere friend. Having had no experience with romantic love but what he had read in his books, he was astounded to find that he didn’t want a mere friendship either. He had discounted the fact that his heart could betray him. He craved her kisses, her touch, and even though he had seen her body when he had cared for her, he discovered that he wanted to gaze upon that sweet body, endlessly, to intimately know and touch each and every curve and valley of her and to claim it as his own. Catherine didn’t know it but she had roused a sleeping tiger and he was hungry. Walking to the open end of his chamber, he leaned with one hand above him on the stone arch, and gazed blankly into the predawn darkness, seeing nothing but Catherine’s lovely, smiling face. He let out a frustrated sigh as his mind flitted from one thought to another. Obviously, she liked him, respected him, enjoyed being with him but could she ever love such a one as he? She was a woman of the world and must have had many lovers. She was so beautiful he was sure that she had her pick of any of the men in her life. That she was unmarried or unattached–she had never mentioned anyone except Joe and he was married–was a mystery to him. Surely, more than one man had pursued her. She had mentioned that she had searched for something or someone all her life. Could it be that he was what she was looking for? Impossible! He was nothing but what he was: part man/part beast. She deserved so much more than what he could give her, and he had condemned her to a life that would be confined to this valley and to his side. But if he hadn’t, she would be lying in a grave beneath the great tree her plane crashed into, and he would be alone once again. Flinging his head back, he let out an anguished groan unable to accept the joy and despair he felt in knowing that she lay asleep in her chamber just down the hall. He was beyond redemption and he didn’t care. He would take what crumbs she gave him and thank the gods for her. Even if she came to hate him for what he had done, he would love her through all eternity and beyond. With that revelation, he fell into bed and was instantly asleep.
“Catherine, this is Tilna, our best teacher,” Vincent introduced her to the small but determined looking woman surrounded by happy, smiling children.
“My lady,” Tilna said as she took the hand proffered to her. Evidently Cobix had spread the word about Catherine’s strange custom of extending her hand to all she met. “Would you care to inspect the school?” the tiny woman asked. Following Tilna into the two-room schoolhouse that was attached to the southeast side of the pyramid she had seen from her chamber, Catherine was reminded of a schoolhouse she had seen in a movie. One room had a blackboard along the back wall, a large desk in front of it which she thought would dwarf the tiny teacher, and eight benches arranged in rows of four, facing the desk. An old laboratory, circa 1935, occupied one half of the second room while the other half was filled on all three sides from floor to ceiling with books of all kinds: encyclopedias, school texts, histories, biographies, and classics of every available author. She was impressed with the knowledge stored in those books.
“What do you teach, Tilna?” There was something very strange going on here. Limited to Vincent’s residence, she hadn’t noticed it until now but everyone she met spoke English. She would ask Vincent about it when they returned to his dwelling.
“Reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, and science,” Tilna answered.
“You teach all this by yourself?” Catherine asked, amazed.
“Oh no, my lady, we have specialists who teach the various disciplines. My lord teaches reading although he calls it ‘literature.’”
Laughing lightly, Catherine turned to an increasingly uncomfortable lord of the valley. “I’ll bet you don’t have any trouble with discipline,” she teased.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” he conceded to the laughing eyes of a playful imp. How was he ever to get through this day if she kept that up? He wanted to take her back to his room right now and kiss her until she was senseless. But of course he wouldn’t. “Come,” he said brusquely as he took her hand. Enjoying herself immensely, she never heard the gruffness in his words.
Vincent felt an insistent tug on his tunic. Looking down, he met shy, brown eyes, imploring him to stop. He knelt on one knee to be at eye level with the little dimple-cheeked angel of three who was gazing so seriously at him. “What is it, Anah?” he asked.
Lisping her rehearsed speech–the children had chosen her to make their request; they knew he was unable to resist a plea from her–she uttered her petition, “Will you wead to us, lowd?”
He scooped her into his arms, trying very hard but not succeeding in keeping the smile off his face, and paced to the library, followed by a troop of children. “Do you have a favorite?” Nodding, she pointed a grubby finger at a brightly jacketed book. “Ah, that is one of my favorites, too,” he commented as he pulled ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ from the shelf. “Back outside to the story tree,” Vincent thundered.
Children shot out of the schoolhouse and, milling around, finally settled on the ground in a crescent around an odd looking tree that resembled nothing more than a woody chair. Vincent seated himself in the crook of the tree with little Anah in his lap and began to read. The children quieted down and adults drifted close to hear their lord read to their children. Catherine stood to the side, noticing the absorbed look on the faces of the children as Vincent’s words brought the world of Aslan to life. After reading three chapters, he closed the book, stating, “We will finish this at a later time.” Politely thanking him, the children scattered in all directions. Before placing the child on her feet, Vincent asked, “Anah, can you return the book to the library?”
Vigorously bobbing her head, proud that he would trust her with such a task, she snatched the book from his hands and ran to the school. He climbed to his feet, took Catherine’s hand, and led her to their next destination, the blacksmith’s forge.
As they sauntered by the pyramid followed by a gaggle of children, Catherine was reminded of the first time she saw it close up. After dressing and having breakfast, she went to Vincent’s chamber, hoping to find him awake. Not only was he awake, he was involved in a discussion with Cobix about some project they were both interested in. Vincent’s door was ajar, an open invitation for her to step in. She stood outside the door, listening to his mellifluous voice floating on the currents of air. He must have sensed she was there for he called for her to come in. Cobix excused himself with a murmured good morning and the two of them were left together. A little unsure of herself, after what had transpired between them last night, she aimlessly paced around his room idly picking up and replacing his mementoes, not really paying attention to what she was doing. Vincent watched her from the corner of his eye, wondering what on earth she was doing. It dawned on him that she was unsure of her reception after last night. They both spoke at the same time, “Catherine,” . . . “Vincent.” Each of them looked so miserable that it broke the ice and they laughed together.
“What is it?”
“No, you first, Catherine.”
“Ok. Do you have time to show me the valley? If you have work to do, I can find something to keep me occupied.” Now was not the time to get into a serious discussion about the future; she would find time later, maybe at dinner tonight.
Engulfing her small hand in his, he replied, “I will always have time for you.” Stepping through the open side of his chamber, he led her down a long flight of stairs that had been carved in the rock wall of the valley, a true test of her courage. She could see that his valley was situated in the caldera of an extinct volcano. They ambled along the banks of a small river, through a grove of trees to a garden of corn stalks and other dead plants. Wandering into the garden, she asked him what the other plants were. He told her that they raised two crops of corn, squash, potatoes, and tomatoes in the growing season.
As they approached the small decaying pyramid with a dilapidated temple on the top platform, he reminded her of the legend connected with his birth. Legend also had it that the pyramid was built over a small grotto that contained the Fire of Life that he had told her about. He explained that at a certain conjunction of the moon and a star--he didn’t know which--the rays of the moon would illuminate either a rune of life or one of death. Bathing in the flames would bestow whatever rune was illuminated. But then the fire had died, and after many thousands of years, the people turned to other gods and let the temple and pyramid fall into ruin. He added that no one had been inside the pyramid in thousands of years, and no one knew if the grotto was even there. His people were superstitious about the pyramid and never ventured inside it or the temple. He, himself, had never felt the inclination to find out the truth of the legend. Catherine thought that one day she would get him to take her inside to find out the truth. It was an interesting puzzle.
On the northwest corner(she learned the direction from Vincent) of the pyramid, stood a medium sized house. At one time it was the house of the high priest. Since the people had taken to worshiping the gods in their own way, there was no need for a formal priesthood, and Cobix served as both chamberlain and religious authority.
Then they had visited the school and were now striding on their way to meet the blacksmith, a very important part of the community. He was short like most of the people, only a few inches taller than the woman from outside but was built like a bull with massive shoulders and bulging muscles. Almost as strong as his lord, he sometimes came close to defeating him in the wrestling matches they enjoyed. His name was Andor and he was arguably the most important man in the valley. He wore his mantle of greatness with becoming humility; Catherine liked him immediately.
While at the forge, two of the village elders come to him with a problem. One of the villagers had traded for a pregnant vicuna, the baby was born dead, and he wanted half of his trade goods back. As far as he was concerned, the trade was only half completed. Vincent’s solution was to have the next baby vicuna born in the other villager’s herd to be given to the complaining villager and the goods to be left with the villager that had traded for them. All parties seemed eminently satisfied.
From there Vincent showed her the lake where he and his people swam and caught the fish that was one of the staples of their diet. They had no cattle and the llamas, vicunas, and alpacas were used as beasts of burden and for their milk and wool.
“Do you fish, Vincent?” she asked, splashing in the shallow water like a child.
“No, I have never had the urge,” he commented, his eyes dancing with delight as he watched her cavorting in the water.
“Well, I love to fish. I guess I will have to teach you how,” she stated emphatically.
He filed that statement away as something he would have to avoid.
On the way back to their chambers, they passed a large field that he said had been half-sown in a wheat-like grain–a form of emmer--and the other half in a cotton-like plant. It was the grain crop that gave the bread she liked that delicious nut-like flavor. They strolled through the third and largest village, Catherine stopping often to admire the cloth that both women and men wove.
It had taken most of the day to walk the valley, and they climbed the stairs back to his rocky abode in the bright reds and pinks of a stunning sunset.
“Why doesn’t the altitude bother me?” she mused, halfway up the stairs.
He stopped, turned, and gazed solemnly at her, waiting for her to find the answer.
The solution suddenly came to her and she looked out over the valley. “You mean that’s another aspect of this so-called immortality?” Sometimes she was still assailed with doubts, but then she would remember what he had told her and the evidence of her own senses, and the doubts would disappear.
He nodded and resumed his climb. Deep in her own thoughts, she followed him mechanically and was surprised when she stepped onto level ground.
He left her at the open doors of her chamber with a murmured, “Rest, Catherine. I will see you at dinner.” Then he gently touched his lips to hers and strode away. She watched his graceful, powerful figure moving away from her. Smiling fondly at his retreating back, she thought how wonderful he was. She had seen a different side of him today: authoritative but fair: he moved with quiet assurance among his people, solving their problems, giving advice, meting out punishment; stern but gentle; tender, solicitous but capable of impatience with incompetence or injustice. Still, he reminded them mildly of their duties to each other, as if he knew he could frighten them by with his anger. A legacy of his appearance, she imagined. His people adored him and that feeling was returned tenfold. What a marvelous spirit he had, so loving, so caring. Wait a minute, Chandler, what is it you’re really feeling? You’ve never felt like this before. In her fifty years, no man had ever touched her soul as he did. Was this what love felt like? His name was the first thing she thought of when she awoke and the last word in her mind before she fell asleep. He was a constant presence, always with her. Sighing like a lovesick schoolgirl, she entered her chamber and languidly floated to her bed, thinking joyously, Was it possible to fall in love so fast? Oh yes, definitely. She giggled happily, hugging herself tightly and rolling on the bed.
At dinner that night, seated in the small dining room where they had their first meal together, Catherine brought up the subject of language. “Vincent, I’ve noticed something very strange here.”
“And what is that?” he asked politely, putting down his fork and giving all his attention to her. Sometimes it was most disconcerting to her, she had never met anyone who immersed themselves in another’s conversation as he did.
“Haven’t you noticed? Everyone here speaks English. Where did they learn it? Who taught them?” Her questions tumbled out, one after another.
“No, I’ve never noticed. There have been no strangers here until you came so I never even thought of it. I suppose I could have taught them sometime in the past. I don’t remember much past a hundred years ago.”
“That in itself is strange. You should remember more than that.”
He ducked his head, looking at his plate. “Maybe I don’t want to remember all those lonely, empty years.” Before you came, he thought.
“What if this is a dream or a vision? Is it yours or mine?”
“It doesn’t feel like a dream. I think I’ve had many dreams through the years about people coming here. But this is different. It feels so real. What we are experiencing flows naturally from one event to another. There is not the strange disjointed feeling of finding oneself in one place then suddenly in a different place. There is a logical flow to the sequence of events that has happened.”
“You’re right.” She sat back in her chair a frown on her face. “Does it even matter? It doesn’t to me; I guess my lawyer’s mind saw an inconsistency and wondered about it. Everything here is so strange and I hate to use the word: magical. I’ve never believed in magic . . . before. But magic or no I know one thing only, Vincent, I am glad to be here; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” If this was a vision or a dream, she didn’t want it to end; she wanted to stay here with him forever.
Her revelation stunned him, left him speechless. The look he bent on her held all the longing and devotion that he had for her, leaving her tongue-tied for the first time in her life. The smile she gave him broke his heart when he saw how pleased she was and mended it with the soft sigh that accompanied her smile.
“Vincent, may I ask you something?”
Unsure of what she might ask he nevertheless encouraged her with a nod. “How did you stand being alone for so long?”
He released a breath he hadn’t known he held and answered, “I busied myself with caring for my people, seeing that they had a good life, improving what I could, changing what needed to be changed. But the nights were the worst. So, I buried myself in books and dreams. But you are really wondering how you will cope, aren’t you?” Slowly, she nodded. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Don’t you see, Catherine, you won’t be alone? I am here.”
“Is that why you did it?”
He knew what she alluded to and replied, “Partly. I was selfish, I know, but if I hadn’t you would be dead.”
“I know. You did what you had to and I won’t be alone. Oh, Vincent, how you were able to live alone for so long, I will never understand.”
“I was waiting.”
“For . . . me?” They were coming dangerously close to revealing feelings that they were just now beginning to accept.
“I love you,” she sighed softly, mostly to herself, unaware she had spoken out loud.
“What?” he burst out, half-rising out of his chair, distress written all over his face. Had he heard her right? No, he couldn’t have; he must have heard only what he wanted to hear.
She wilted back into her chair. What had she done? He had heard her and his discomfort was plain to her. She must have misread him, his actions. He needed a friend, a companion, not someone who would upset his life with demands that he love her and kiss her. “Ah . . . I . . . uh . . . love your valley and your people,” she finished lamely, hoping she could set affairs right between them. She would keep her emotions to herself from now on. A hesitant smile trembled on her lips.
He was right he thought with a mixture of relief and disappointment. In his surprise, he hadn’t let her finish. Quickly, he picked up the thread of their conversation, “Yes, they are wonderful people: peaceful, intelligent, loving.”
Her voice quivered slightly, “The children love you very much.” Her voice caught on the word ‘love.’
Lost in the tumult of his own disquiet, he failed to notice her trembling voice or how still she had become. She had lost all her sparkle and animation, afraid she would distress him again.
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence–the first one since they had met–each lost in their own world of misery. Catherine broke the silence, “I’m tired, Vincent. It’s been a long day. I’d like to go back to my room now.”
He had no experience with women, but it seemed to him that something had made her unhappy. Rising, he laid his napkin on his plate and came around the table. His heart was beating erratically, unhappily. She was unhappy. His outburst had wounded her.
“Catherine . . . ,” he began, towering over her.
“Thank you, Vincent. I’m sorry to cut our evening short but I am tired.” She would not allow him to apologize for something she had done, and she would not embarrass him by bringing it out in the open. Standing up, she offered him her hand as a token of her trust in him. Grateful for her gesture, he tenderly wrapped her small hand in his and walked her back to her room. “Good night, Vincent,” she murmured, unable to meet his eyes, and ducked hurriedly into her chamber. Vincent stood bereft. There would be no kiss tonight. Morosely, he stalked back to his room.
Catherine wept bitter tears into her pillow. Why had she pushed him so far? Why couldn’t she be satisfied with the friendship and the love he did offer her? She had erected a wall between them with three little words. Smiling sadly, she thought of the song, but it did nothing to raise her spirits. Her dreams were shattered and it was all her fault. It was long into the night before she dropped into a restless half-sleep.
Vincent spent the night pacing around his room. Had he been wrong? Had he let his insecurities ruin a promising evening? Now that he replayed the evening word for word, emotion for emotion, he was sure of it. How could he have been so blind? She had been so loving before his outburst and so withdrawn after. She had said I love you. He was sure of it. He went over the night repeatedly, each time with the same results. He was a fool. He had hurt the woman he loved more than his own life. Somehow he had to make it right.
Hours later the sun was just peeking over the rim of the caldera. While he still had his courage, he would go to her and confess his love. His future happiness would depend on her reaction. By god, he would go to her now; he couldn’t live with this indecision a moment longer. With determination in every step, he marched to her chamber and boldly beat on her door. There was no movement in the room and he knocked again: this time louder.
“Yes?” he heard a faint, quavering query.
“Catherine? I must speak with you.” He waited impatiently for her to open the door, pacing back and forth in short, choppy steps.
“I’m not dressed; could we do it later?” her voice stronger but still trembling. Oh please, she couldn’t face him now. She was a mess with red-rimmed eyes and a red, runny nose. She had awakened to the knocking, crying. It wasn’t fair for him to see her now. He would know she was upset.
“No, Catherine, I must see you now. Open the door or I will break it down.” This simply could not go on; they needed to talk.
She knew it was no empty threat; he could do it easily. As she unlocked the door–he was shocked that she felt the need to–he shouldered his way into the darkened room. One lone candle burned on the desk and the curtains were drawn, keeping the morning sun out. This alone told him there was something drastically wrong. Her room was always bright with light: either sunlight or candlelight.
“Catherine, about last night . . .” he began as he crossed the room and flung the curtains open to the sunlight.
“No!” Catherine cried, but the deed was done. Spinning around, she turned her back to him. “I’ve ruined everything, haven’t I?” Her shoulders shook from the effort to keep from crying.
“How have you ruined everything?” Her answer puzzled him. He was the one at fault, not her.
“From what I said,” her muffled reply was barely discernable.
“What did you say, Catherine?”
Oh god, he was going to make her repeat it. Shaking her head, she seemed to draw in on herself.
“What did you say, Catherine?” he repeated, insistently.
“Don’t make me say it again. Let’s just forget I ever said it and go on as we were. Please?” she begged.
But he didn’t want to go on as they were. “Catherine,” he said gently, “I need to know what you said.” He had purposely stayed on the opposite side of the room not wanting to intimidate her with his presence, but now he stepped up behind her. She covered her face with her hands as he turned her around. Gently he pried her hands away from her face. Her red-rimmed eyes and tear ravaged face wrenched at his heart. Keeping her head down, she stared at his boots. They were lovely boots, she thought in a moment of lucidity.
“What could cause you such pain, my love?” he asked, oblivious in his concern for her that he had used an endearment. “Tell me what you said that was so terrible?”
She threw her arms around him, holding him as if she was afraid he would fade away. In truth, she was afraid that she would lose him. Slowly his arms came up and he enfolded her in a tender embrace, depositing a light kiss on the crown of her head. “Tell me,” he urged, softly.
He wasn’t going to quit, so she might as well answer him. “I love you,” she whispered, “I love you.”
He tightened his arms around her and threw his head back in elation. She loved him! His soul took flight. He felt so light he thought he might float away, and it was only Catherine that kept him grounded. “Oh, Catherine, how you honor me. I’ve waited to hear those words since the day you came to me. I gave you my heart the first time I saw you lying near death in that bed. I love you.”
Catherine almost stopped breathing when she heard Vincent’s declaration of love. Her heart was beating furiously; she thought she would faint from happiness. Everything was all right. He loved her! “But why did you act so upset when I said I loved you? I thought I had hurt you in some way.” Her eyes reflected the joy she felt along with puzzlement at his actions.
“Forgive me, my love, but I was sure that I heard only what I wanted to hear. I was so surprised. I had dreamed . . . hoped . . . longed to hear those words for so long. I guess I didn’t trust my own ears, and I convinced myself that I had interrupted you. When you continued, I was sure.”
Standing on tiptoe, she reached up and tenderly stroked his cheeks, “No more doubts, no more fear, ever again, love. I love you; I will never leave you.”
As she pulled his lips to hers, he breathed “Never.”
Oblivious to time, they stood in the sunlight, kissing and caressing each other as they never dreamed they could. Now that the tension that had gripped her through the night was no more, Catherine was suddenly tired. As much as she loved being in Vincent’s arms, she wanted to go back to bed even more. He sensed her exhaustion, “You are tired, my love.” She would never tire of hearing him say that. “You should get some rest.” He led her toward the bed.
“Don’t go,” she pleaded, “Stay with me.” She would not be dislodged from her place in his arms.
“Let me sleep in your arms?”
He looked at her bed with a jaundiced eye. “I fear this bed is much too small for me.”
She had an immediate answer. “Then take me to your bed.”
“You want me with you, don’t you?”
“Want you? Of course, I want you. It’s just that . . .” He stumbled to a halt.
“Going too fast for you?” she queried teasingly.
“Yes . . . No! . . .” Making up his mind, he swept her into his arms and marched to his room where he deposited her gently in the middle of his bed.
She moved over, patting the bed beside her. “Your place is here, love, with me.”
Gingerly, he laid his long body beside her. She snuggled into his shoulder, sighed with deep contentment, and promptly fell asleep. Afraid to move, afraid that he would wake her, he lay quietly, looking at the face of his beautiful angel, reveling in the knowledge that against all odds he had found his eternal love and soulmate. His eyes drooped as he gathered her close to him, and he joined her in sleep.
Rising through the cottony mists of slumber, Catherine suddenly felt lonely. When she had fallen asleep, she had been snuggled up against Vincent’s warm body. That warmth was gone. He was not in bed, but he was in the room. She could feel him near; besides, she could hear him softly breathing. Opening her eyes, she found his intent tanzanite blue gaze centered on her. She smiled. How had she been so lucky? After all these years and in such an out of the way place to have found the love she had searched for. “Hello,” she whispered. The love in her voice sent shivers through him, and he took an involuntary deep breath of complete happiness. She looked so soft and sleep-rumpled that he wanted to keep the memory forever.
“Good afternoon,” he replied. Dressed in a royal blue fur-trimmed robe, he was slouching in his large chair, one leg bent at the knee, the other stretched straight out. Bent at the elbows, his arms rested on the armrests of his chair, while his chin leaned on his clasped hands. He returned her smile with one of his own.
“What are you doing?” she asked. His intent stare was a little disconcerting at times, and she wondered what he was thinking.
“Looking at you in my bed.” He sighed contentedly. Happiness radiated from him in waves like the heat from one of his braziers.
“And that pleases you?”
The teasing note in her voice made his eyes dance with mischief. “I don’t know. You’ve rumpled my bedclothes and taken up most of the bed.”
She laughed at him and made a face. “Well, it better please you because I intend to sleep in this bed from now on.”
“Oh, it pleases me, Catherine, more than you know.”
She patted the bed next to her. “Come back to bed, Vincent.”
“No, not yet. I want to look at you.”
“Please?” she begged.
He could refuse her nothing, and coming to his feet, he knelt on the bed. Rising, she knelt in front of him, letting the blankets fall where they may.
“You are so beautiful,” she exclaimed as she threw her arms around his neck and pulled her body against his, setting off flames of desire in both of them.
“I love you, Catherine.” He bent to kiss her.
“I know you do,” she said just before their lips met, “And I’m so very glad you do.”
This kiss left him gasping for air. Catherine rested lightly in his arms, caressing every part of him she could reach. Impatient with his robe, she pushed it off his shoulders. Shrugging out of the sleeves–how he hated to leave off caressing her body–he knelt before her, bare to the waist. She untied the belt and the robe fell unnoticed to the floor. He wore only a pair of white, fine cotton pants, tied at the waist. His manhood was straining at the fabric and Catherine wanted with all her heart to untie the cord, but she knew she would have to move slowly. As many centuries as he had lived, he was still an innocent, bold at times and unsure at other times.
This was one of those hesitant moments. He simply didn’t know what to do and wasn’t thinking too clearly anyway. He sat back on his heels, dropping his chin onto his chest thereby hiding his face from her questioning gaze.
“What is it, love?” Cupping his chin with a soft hand, she raised his eyes to hers. He shook his head, thoroughly embarrassed. She would know how untutored he was in the art of love. “Come on, tell me. What’s bothering you?” she urged.
Looking everywhere but at her, he stammered, “I–I don’t . . . know what to do.”
“Is that all?” she asked, relieved that the problem was so simple.
“I’m afraid I will disappoint you,” he answered, miserable in his ignorance. Oh, he knew about love, how to even make love, but the intricacies of loving Catherine was something he was unsure about. He desperately wanted to please her. He knew she had had other lovers, and he was afraid his loving of her would pale in the comparison.
“Oh, Vincent . . . love . . . nothing you could do would disappoint me. Do you have any idea how it makes me feel, how proud I am to know I will be your first and last lover? I just wish I could give you the same gift. I love you, Vincent, more than you know.” Wrapping her arms around his waist, she laid her head on his breast, hearing the steady, strong beat of his heart.
“Then teach me, love. Teach me how to please you.” Pulling her with him, he fell back onto the bed. She nuzzled beneath his hair until she found his ear. Her nibbling and sucking on the hidden earlobe caused Vincent to shudder involuntarily, bringing a merry snicker of conquest from his tormentor. “Oh boy,” she said, grinning from ear to ear, “Am I ever going to enjoy this.”
Later that afternoon she laid completely satisfied in his arms, thinking that either she was a great teacher or he was a most adept pupil, and she gloried in their equal ability to fulfill the other. Vincent was stunned to discover that he was an extremely sensual man and exulted in the knowledge that he had brought her to completion several times. The icing on the cake came when she turned to him in wonder and confessed she had never been so thoroughly loved or felt so complete as she did with him.
She was laying half on top of him, making whorls in the fur on his chest. “Vincent, are you hungry?”
“For you, always,” he growled as he bit her gently on the neck.
“No, silly,” she squealed, “For food. I’m starved. Remember I need all the energy I can get.”
Immediately contrite, he rose from the bed, pulled on his dressing robe, and padded to the double doors. Pulling them open, he disappeared for a few minutes. Striding back through the open doors, he said, “Someone will come with supper soon. I hope you’re not fainting from hunger yet.” He beamed at her, happier at this moment in his long life than he had ever been before.
“No. Just hungry for another of your wonderful kisses.” She crawled to the edge of the bed on hands and knees, and sitting back on her heels, she crooked a finger, beckoning him to come to her. There was a glow about her that he had never seen before. He didn’t know that it was because she felt loved and complete for the first time in her life. He didn’t know that it was because of him that she eclipsed that pale imitation that shone outside his room, sending beams of sunlight to every part of his valley. She was his sun and he basked in the radiance of her light.
Slowly, tantalizingly, he paced to the bed, bent down, and planted one on her that left her breathless. “Better get dressed. Someone will be here soon. They will be scandalized enough to find out that you spent the day in my bed. And I’m sure Cobix is patiently waiting for me to give him an audience.”
Shrugging into her light, cotton nightgown, Catherine asked, “What are you working on now?”
“We are repairing the irrigation system.” He held a hand out to her. “Come here a moment,” he requested.
Settling an arm about her shoulders, he guided her to the open side of his chamber. Sweeping his arm out to indicate the valley, he said, “This is your domain, my love. I give it to you along with myself, if you will have us?”
Gazing out over the small valley with its gentle and loving people, she knew that with Vincent by her side the centuries would fly by and that when, in the distant future, death finally found her it would take her by surprise.
Vincent felt her answer as soon as she did and, crushing her to him, murmured, “We have all the time in the universe, my heart.” He rested his chin on the top of her head, gazing into the far distant future when time ceased and he and his love, at last, would pass into the other realm.
A loud knock reverberated through the chamber. Vincent hastened to open the doors, allowing two young girls to enter, bearing supper for the famished lovers. Cobix, and an old blind woman bent nearly in half followed closely behind. She shambled up to Vincent, and as she attempted to bow to him, he stopped her with a hand on either arm. “No, no, Old Mother, do not bow to me.”
Twisting her head to the side to be able to peer up at him, in a dry, high whine, she said, “I see I am too late.”
She peered sightlessly into his troubled eyes. “To warn you.”
“About what?” Carefully he led her to his chair. She was lost in it; she was so small.
“Not to love the woman but I am too late.”
“Why? How can loving Catherine harm me?”
“You have traded your immortality for a few years of love and happiness!”
A sharp gasp escaped his lips as hope flared in his heart. The look that passed between the two lovers was a strange mixture of fear and hope. “Is it possible?” he whispered. Was his oldest dream coming true at last: to be as other men–to live, love, and to die?
“Possible? It is so!” she stated. The old seeress could not understand his calm acceptance of the portentous news she had given him.
“I will live a normal span of life?” he asked, hopefully.
“Yes, but it will be a very long life,” the old woman informed him.
With dismay, he thought of the recent gift--or curse--of immortality he had given to Catherine. Would he die before her? “Will Catherine live beyond me?”
Catherine’s eyes became twin pools of misery at the thought, and her frantic voice brought the sightless old eyes to her, “Old . . .” Catherine looked a question to Vincent.
“Call her mother. Everyone does,” he murmured.
“Mother, am I still immortal?” Catherine asked in horror. Fearing the answer, she ran to Vincent’s comforting arms; her fortress in this time of distress. As he held her closely against him, he whispered soothing words into her ear.
Shaking her head, the old sorceress confessed, “I do not know. The witching water was silent when I asked about you. I cannot see whether you live beyond my lord or not. But in a thousand years only dust will blow through these halls . . . so there is hope.”
“Then if only dust lives here at that time, where am I? There must be some way for us to be together.” Imploring the ancient seeress, Catherine asked, “If you can’t see who dies first, can you at least tell us how to die together?” Catherine felt with a certainty that if she had to live without Vincent she would go mad. She couldn’t bear the possibility of living without him.
The old seeress glanced pointedly at Vincent. “Do you remember the ‘Grotto of the Fire of Life or Death,’ my lord?”
The sudden thought lightened his gloomy countenance. “Yes, but I thought the Fire was a fairy tale.”
“No more than you, lord,” she cackled, “The Fire burns again; I know not why.” Explaining to the apprehensive young woman, she said, “At the conjunction of the full moon and the evening star, when the rays of the moon shine through the rift in the ceiling and illuminate the symbol of death carved on the wall, then and only then will the warm yellow Fire of Life become the cold blue Fire of Death. When you tire of this life bathe in the flames.”
“What of my people, Little Mother?” Vincent wondered, worried about their fate. “Where are they? What will happen to them when I am gone?”
“They will leave the valley and return to the outside world with a marvelous tale of a man/beast who could have lived forever but gave it up for the love of a woman. No one will believe them, of course.” Painfully, the old woman rose to her feet with Vincent’s assistance and hobbled toward the chamber doors. She disappeared into the hallway, leaving a dazed pair staring after her.
Seeing that his lord would not be interested in the mundane activities scheduled for this day, Cobix silently excused himself and closed the doors behind him. The lovers never even saw him leave.
“Vincent? Is it possible? Can we go together?” Catherine tried to quell the tremor in her voice with no success.
“Oh yes, Catherine,” he cried, as he hugged her to him. “If the Fire of Life or Death is burning, all we need to do is bathe in the fire together, and we will die together.”
“Will it hurt?” She had had enough pain to last a thousand lifetimes. Still, she felt a small twinge of discomfort at this little weakness.
“No, we will simply cease to be.” He raised her tear-stained face to his, and kissing her gently, he rejoiced, “My prayers have been answered, love. You have been the instrument of my salvation.”
“How?” she squeaked, her throat suddenly dry. Could it be true? Was he free from what he considered the curse of immortality? Was she free, too?
“By loving me and allowing me to love you, you have given my mortality to me. There are no more endless centuries stretching endlessly through time. Death will no longer be a stranger to me. I am like all men; I will live, I will die, but while I live, I will have you by my side. No man can ask for more.”
“I don’t think I understood until now just how hopeless the years must have been for you.” Tears were flowing slowly down her cheeks as she kissed him, tasting the saltiness of his tears combined with hers. “Oh, Vincent,” she cried, suffering with him all the long, lonely years he had spent waiting for her.
“Don’t cry, my love. We have years and years before us.”
“Will we truly leave together, Vincent?” she asked, needing his reassurance that she would not be left behind.
“Yes, when we are ready, we will step into the Blue Fire and go to the other side as one. Until then, let us enjoy what time we have left in this safe, hidden place and, when it is our time, leave joyfully hand in hand, knowing we will always be together.”
A thousand years in the future it was as the old woman had said: dust blew through the empty halls and chambers of the dwelling on the mountain and only crumbling ruins littered the countryside of the valley below. Vincent had finally achieved his long held dream and, with the woman he loved more than life, had stepped into the realm of light and love. And into legend.