Storytime with Stidmama

Sixty Six

The children had gone back to their grandparents. Paul and Gilly were making condiments for the feast tomorrow. The dog was sniffing around under the table and the cat was curled up on the chair in the corner.

Paul resumed his tale.

Ketevan was solemn as they spoke of the trials that had faced the peoples. Aema looked away often, swallowing stiffly...

The intermarriage of their peoples had produced children of uncertain abilities. The bird-people who lived in the mountains and hills had children who could not live in the heights. And the valley people, who dwelled on the plains and had great gifts with machines, saw children who were neither skilled at using nor making tools.

And too many were -- ill. They languished, without energy or initiative. The best healers among all the people could not seem to help them. They did not live long enough to have children of their own, and their parents were left with no one to care for them in old age.

When Ketevan was young, the sad situation had been avoided for a long time. Though romance was hardly dead, the stories about the trials were repeated often in school and around the the dinner table. No young person wanted to marry, only to have their children suffer.

So while the two peoples were friendly, and worked and lived side by side, they did not intermarry.

Aema's family held high status among her people -- keeping the history of the people and maintaining the books that held the laws. Ketevan's family were high placed, coming from the elite of their people, living on the plateau as ambassadors between not only Aema's people but the occasional folk who came into the valley from afar for trade.

Ketevan was still fairly young when Aema was born, and they were good friends, playing together and then learning together. They were happy.

But an illness began, brought into the valley from the narrow pass toward the setting sun by traders. Aema's people caught it first, lying many days insensible and then plagued by sores for weeks after. Some few, the oldest and weakest, did not recover and were laid sorrowfully on funeral pyres.

The smoke from the fires carried the illness into the heights, and Ketevan's people fell ill. But among them, the strongest were taken, leaving the young and the old to wander in a daze, grandparents caring for grandchildren and grieving. Some few adults were spared, but they struggled to provide the necessary services.

The people on the plateau were spared, but for many months did not dare venture out for fear of falling ill. Ketevan's parents, however, had gone immediately to help their kin, leaving their children to stay in the city where it was safe. They were among the lucky ones.

Ketevan and her younger brothers and sister had remained, studying and working. Her sister and one brother were skilled healers. The other brother was apprenticed to a merchant who taught him all he knew of trade and the many lands whose goods found their way to the city.

Knowing not their own kind, and without the reinforcement of the old stories, they had found their own paths in life -- and for Ketevan's brothers and sister, that meant marrying the people they knew. Aema's people. Ketevan had chosen to remain as she was, studying the most ancient texts and learning the music of the ages.

Aema's youngest brother married Ketevan's sister... they left the city and found their way to the mountains where they were received somewhat skeptically by her parents and people. But they soon established themselves as hard-working and knowledgeable, having learned much of the healing arts from the skilled doctors in the city.

Aema's sister married one of Ketevan's brothers, and they remained in the city, Ketevan and her brother having become the next generation of ambassadors. They tried for many years to have children, but after many long years it became apparent they would not and they instead focused on teaching the children of the city.

Ketevan's other brother chose to leave the valley, and traveled as a merchant. He eventually found his way to our part of the world.

Paul looked up as Gilly gasped, placing his hand on hers. "He still comes sometimes, to the market, and watched me grow up, though for many years he stayed hidden."

Gilly nodded, picking up a jar to pour some jelly into, "And your parents?" Her voice shook.

Paul nodded.

Ketevan's sister was thirty years younger, and by the time they reached the mountains of their home, she was ready to start a family. Though the wisest of the elders counseled against it, she decided to try. And with the knowledge of healing arts, she and her husband were confident their child would be strong and healthy.

When I was born, I looked like my mother, so I am told.

The elders of Ketevan's people held a council and agreed that if I showed aptitude, I might be allowed to remain. But they cautioned my parents to wait to have more children until I was proved healthy.

And so my parents watched and waited, hoping against hope that I would prove healthy and strong. But when I was very young -- less than a year old -- I took ill, with the illness that had swept through the valley, and I was banished from the mountain. My parents spent more than a year tending to me, using all their art to keep me alive.

My parents sought refuge in the city once the illness had passed from my body. And the city leaders had agreed I might stay as long as I proved ready to learn. I remembered a little of it -- playing with other children, the elegant light buildings, the sounds and the smells of the flowers that grow only on that plateau. But by the time I was a little older, it seemed that I didn't fit in. The other children I had played with were learning and studying. I was not yet ready.

My parents, I learned, had tried to keep me. But my father died suddenly and my mother lacked the support to fight for me. My uncle, her brother and Ketevan's, agreed to take me to a place I would be safe...

Ketevan's voice cracked as she related these things. Aema finally took up the story, telling me how, after her brother's death, my mother lost her will to live, slowly fading away until her health failed completely and she returned, broken, to die among her people in the mountains.

Paul's voice cracked, too, and the tears streamed down his cheeks. "My uncle brought me here, told me he would be back, then disappeared. I didn't know what sort of people were here, so I kept my memories to myself, and eventually they faded. Though what the memories of a child contain, after years of silence..."

Gilly wiped her hands on her apron and came round behind him, hugging him securely and leaning her head against his shoulders.

"So, banished and abandoned, you came to us. And you stayed as long as you could. And you returned."

He turned and hugged her back, "And I will stay."