Muirgen & Other Tales
From then on, Tristan brought Zecadus her meals and called on her to stop in the evening. She was reluctant at first, but soon fell into routine as he’d hoped. Later, she even took breaks to talk to him when he came up.
He overcame his own hatred of botany to learn how to look after the nursery. He could never cast any magic that the plants there needed, but he was at least able to free Zecadus from most of the mundane tasks.
Together, they grew the forest into a state of glory that hadn’t been seen for generations. The people celebrated them and their marriage, and he was finally given recognition as Princess Consort. Suddenly the servants listened to and respected him. He even passed his old lady’s maids, Sodhi and Irila, who Zecadus had replaced after he had complained about them. This time, they bowed without sarcasm.
Best of all, he claimed Zecadus to himself for the whole day once every week. They could stroll wherever they pleased and sit together well into the night, and he never had to worry that one of the servants would interrupt them with some piece of business to call her away.
But work, marriage and conversation were all that they were joined in. Their bedrooms were still separate. There was still a barrier between them that couldn’t be cracked.
One morning, more than a year after Tristan had come to Shadowfell, Zecadus brought a unicorn to him. “This is Amaranth. She’ll be yours to ride whenever you wish.” She smiled at him. “I remember you saying that you loved riding.”
He was speechless. Although he’d briefly encountered unicorns when they drove him to Shadowfell, this was his first time really paying attention. Amaranth was a huge beast with hooves almost as big as his head. Her coat was whiter than anything he had ever known in his two lives, and her mane and tail fell in long, soft waves from her body, like a child’s dream. She gave off her own light.
Noticing his hesitation, Zecadus gently took his hand and led it to Amaranth’s muzzle. The unicorn watched him almost intelligently.
“Unicorns are powerful and spirited beings, but we’ve lived in harmony with them for thousands of years.” She left her hand overlapped with his. “I think the two of you will get along well.”
“She’s beautiful…” Amaranth whinnied as if to agree with him. “I’m not sure how to ride a unicorn, though.”
“It’s not that different. I’ll teach you.”
He turned to thank her, but stopped when he realised that he was almost pressing up against her. She smiled. The space between them closed, somehow; he was too lost in her eyes to see anything else. Then his eyes slipped close and he saw nothing.
Her lips were as warm and soft as he’d dreamed they’d be. Finally, he thought – and yet he felt sick to the stomach too. Rhea – what little remained of her in his memory – flitted through the back of his mind.
It lasted only a few seconds. She snatched herself back like he’d bitten her.
“I’m sorry, I was caught up in the moment…” She wouldn’t look at him. “Let’s… Let’s go to the music room. Won’t you play for me?”
The way she guided him forward didn’t leave much choice. The music room they ended up in was on the first floor, with its French doors thrown open. She must have seized the opportunity after seeing the entrance.
With Zecadus withdrawn into herself, he uncertainly picked up a violin. He set it into position and brought the bow to it – but there was nothing he felt like playing. He half-heartedly limped through the sombre notes of “Absentia Solis”.
At last, she spoke. “I’m sorry… The truth is, I don’t know if I love you.” He willed his hands to keep playing smoothly. “Not like that – I mean… You’re so much like him. And I like you, but do I like you because you’re you, or because I’m projecting him onto you?”
He snuck a glance at her. She was sitting at the piano, turned away from him. Frustrated, he switched “Absentia Solis” to “Gemitus a Tempastate”.
“You’re not him, I know. You’re different in so, so many ways…” He saw her look to him out of the corner of her eye, but he didn’t turn his head. “And you’re wonderful. Amazing. The most intelligent, dedicated young woman that I know, but… That’s why you deserve someone who really loves you.”
He could have pointed out that, having married her, there was no one else he could have – but he didn’t.
“And I think I love you, but it’s so different… So what if it’s not real?”
He could understand that. His love for Rhea was like the oceans, the bottom so impossibly deep and mysterious that he had never tired of exploring it. His love for Zecadus was like a calm and steady stream running through a summer forest. Still, he knew both were genuine.
She spoke no more. When he looked over, she was staring out into the grounds, lost in thought. He wasn’t eager to call her back from them.
He let his bow guide him into a new song – his reconstruction of “Over the Hills and Far Away” – and gave it his full attention to shut her out. He had carefully pieced it together over a number of years in his childhood, obsessing over every note to recover it. It had been his and Rhea’s favourite song. It was wrong, most likely – half-remembered and disfigured by time and memory, like Rhea herself – but today he played it as if he could summon her back to him with it.
He prayed for it all to go away as he hit the chorus. Twenty years of suffering weighed on him like a headstone. He wanted her, needed her, couldn’t go another day without her back in his arms and telling him that it would all be okay.
“That song…” He snapped his eyes open. Zecadus was standing, stunned, only a few steps away from him. “I know that song…”
He stopped. “You can’t? It was… Something I composed from a dream,” he lied quickly. She was surprised, but he watched her recompose herself in a second. That sick, heavy feeling returned to his gut and spread out. “No, that’s a lie. It comes from another world, just like me.” He spoke quickly – before that old fear that had kept him silent in the past could catch him. “I’m not Muirgen – at least, not originally. I remember a whole life before this one, where I was a man, in a world with only humans and technology…”
He saw hope in her eyes. “Was it Earth?”
“It was!” He brought his violin down to step forward, excited too. “You too?” She nodded. “I came from London, in England – I made custom dollhouses there. You might have seen me in The Times before I died. My name was – “
“Tristan?” He stopped. The blood had drained from her face. “Tristan Burke?”
“Yes, that was it…”
She backed away in horror. “How? Why are you here?” He didn’t know how to reply to that. “You were supposed to be alive… What happened?”
“Rhea?” he tried tentatively. She nodded. He couldn’t help the smile that broke across his face. “There was a second explosion. I died and woke up here.”
“But so many years after me…?” He shrugged. There had never been any answers about his reincarnation. She sank back onto the piano stool, ready to cry.
“You died! You were supposed to stay alive!” Tears welled up in her eyes. “All this time, I thought, at least you were alive, and I told myself that you would move on and be happy, and we’d both try our best…”
“I was alive, technically…” She sobbed. “And we were trying our hardest together? I’ve come a long way, you know.”
But she turned away from him, wiping at her tears.
“Why are you so upset?”
“Everything is so wrong and messed up! You were supposed to be alive! I’ve… I’ve changed so much, I’m not the same Rhea, I… I fought a war!”
He laughed. “I know. But I’ve changed too. I had my own war to fight – though I wasn’t the victor.”
She looked to him with her tears in her eyes, and he saw that same, long-ago Rhea, panicking over a dinner they weren’t even late for. He put his violin down so that he could close the gap between them and take her hands.
“It’s been a long time, my love.” He kissed her fingers. “I’ve wanted to see you again for so long. I can’t wait to learn about the person you’ve become.”
At last he saw the panic in her eyes melt away, replaced by love and joy. Relief unfurled in his belly. For the first time in two decades, he had that feeling of coming home.
She leant forward and kissed him – soft, slow and meaningful this time. There was no sickness, just the salty tang of her joyful tears dripping down onto their lips.
In the back of his mind, he thanked God for giving them another chance.
“Let’s make a baby, Muirgen.”
He snapped his head back to the bed where he’d left Zecadus – or Rhea – sleeping. She was sitting up now, watching him with her voluminous white hair draped over her face like some cheap horror monster. Obviously, she hadn’t fully woken up.
“Good morning, Zecadus.” The name was strange to say, but so were their old names.
He focused on tying the sash of his dress. Usually his maidservants would have done this for him, but he’d requested to be allowed to dress himself a month ago. The dresses he wore in Shadowfell were simple enough that he felt confident reclaiming this little bit of agency for himself. Tying bows in a fashionable manner turned out to be unexpectedly hard, though.
When it was done, he smoothed out the stiff taffeta-like skirt and viewed the results in the mirror. Zecadus had gifted him this dress yesterday, and he’d risen especially early in his excitement to try it on. It flew in the face of Dark Elf culture and climate by being a subtle pearl blue with a fuller skirt and long, fitted sleeves. Somewhere between Shadowfell and Golsennur, as he’d wanted.
While he was admiring the way it accentuated his arms – and they did feel like his arms now – Zecadus spoke up again. “Don’t you want to?”
“You’re being serious?” He turned to her properly. Despite her sleep-addled appearance, she did seem to be. “You’re confident now that you’re not the one who has to carry it…”
“I was confident before,” she said, struggling to push her hair back from her face for a more dignified look. “I always regretted that we didn’t get around to having any in time. Now’s our chance, before it’s too late again.”
He adjusted his cuffs so that he didn’t have to look at her. A long-lost sickness was forming again in the belly that was feeling less like his with every passing second. “Your choice, of course!” She rose from the bed smoothly. “I would never force you to – it’s your body.”
He relaxed. She crept closer, taking strands of his hair to begin styling it. The fourth finger joint made it an easier task, but feeling it still gave him pause.
“Will you think about it?”
He tried. He looked again at his body in the mirror, at its now familiar faint curves and limbs that were beginning to feel like home to his soul. The thought of it being hijacked and changed just when he’d become comfortable made him shudder deep inside.
But he had wanted her children, once. Having to be the one to carry them didn’t scare him as a fact and, as he caught the soft love in her eyes in the reflection, the thought of little Zecaduses running around warmed his heart.
“Maybe in a year or two…”
The braid she’d been in the middle of forming dropped against his back. She hugged him tightly from behind.
“Thank you! I promise that I’ll spoil you twice – no, three times as much – as mother spoiled my mother during her pregnancy!”