.As I said in my previous post, there's been a lot of Stuff going on for me lately. Enough for me to have a personal investment in this initiative, even though this is nonetheless neither the place or time for me to discuss particulars. But this topic is important. The Mental Wellness for Writers panel at ConCarolinas this June was heartfelt, honest, raw, and hands down, my favourite one this year. And out of respect for all who participated and shared, it's not one I'll ever take notes at.
Timing's a funny thing, though. I had recently written this scene during revisions to my novel, SIGN OF THE STAR, which will be on submission soon. And it felt important to share.
Background: A princess with healing powers who escaped murder as a child must choose between being the healer she wants to be and the country that needs her. When she encounters a fugitive nobleman seeking the lost princess, circumstances force them to travel together, and guarding her secret also means guarding her heart. Along the way the two are kidnapped, but before they can escape, the bandits are attacked by a warring group. As a servant of the Land, Janni must deal with.the aftermath—and its consequences.
* * *
Lingering tendrils of clouds, violet-edged with the last of sunset, curled about distant peaks, clinging to them like smoke capped a fire.
My stomach turned. I tasted bile. Grimacing, I glanced away.
“Are you all right?” Concern tinged Brennant’s voice, as it had since we left Karovar.
I ignored him and focused on the road ahead, pressing onward. Shoving away thoughts of the pyre smoke’s stench, of copper and musk, acrid and sweet.
“We should stop before it gets any darker.”
Hmph. Likely Hush would have purred her agreement, but the puma had already gone off to hunt. I kept walking.
Away from the ashes of our work. The grim task I’d suggested, and now wished I could forget. Days had passed, and yet the mindless slaughter still ate at me. Building that pyre after the battle had consumed the rest of the daylight that day. None of the dead had been less than half Baesh’s massive size, and all were far too heavy to drag on my own. Brennant saw my struggle with a corpse and rushed to help me, but then Baesh cursed and sent me into the woods to gather deadfall instead. And when we were ready, both men looked at me to speak.
I opened my mouth—and faltered. This was no Deathswen ritual, where the names of the newly dead were spoken to honour their memory. There were no loved ones to mourn their passing, no scribes to log their fates.
There was only me.
“We stand before the fallen,” I said, grasping for what words I could find. “Soldiers and captives, worthy and wicked. As we release them from the Land into the sky, may their souls find peace.” Spreading my hands, unable I looked at Brennant for help.
He met my gaze with his own, gave a grim approving nod. “May their souls find peace.”
Baesh, torch in hand, set his jaw. “Aye.” He lifted the flame high. “May their souls find peace.”
With that, he set the pyre alight.
The bodies burned until dawn. None of us slept until noon.
Brennant and I stayed another night at the clearing, too heartsore and worn to resume the journey at once. At least, that’s how I’d felt. The next morning, Baesh had taken us as far as the northern Karish border, where the wilds and some semblance of a road resumed at last.
And I still couldn’t shake the ghastly scene, that cloying reek of the dead, from my mind.
So on I walked.
“Janni.” He sped up and grabbed my wrist.
I jerked it away. “Scorch it, Brennant. What do you want?”
“It’s been four days since we left Karovar, and you’ve barely spoken.” There was raw hurt in his voice. “What’s wrong?”
“It doesn’t matter. Come along.” I frowned at the road ahead. Maybe we could make it as far as the next mountain before full dark—
“Night falls quickly around here. You should have noticed by now.” He spread out his cloak, all he had left of the things he’d bartered from Derva. Everything else had been lost when we were kidnapped.
“What are you doing? We have to keep moving.”
Had to get to the vision-lady and her people before anyone else suffered.
He crossed his arms. “No.”
“Then catch up with me tomorrow.” I strode away.
Brennant snorted. “Fine,” he called. “Clearly you’re too foolish to listen to your escort. More proof that Sordinak made me go with you to protect you from yourself.”
That halted me in my tracks. How dare he.
“I have been summoned, Brennant. I have to get there, and soon. There’s nothing foolish about that—”
He threw up his hands. “There is when you won’t listen to reason! How can you help the woman if you’re injured—or worse, dead?”
“If I don’t hurry, who knows what else will happen?”
“We’re going as fast as we can safely. That’s enough—”
“It’s my fault they died.”
There. I finally said it. The truth I’d been holding in since the pyre, since the attack. I collapsed to my knees, my pack hitting the ground with a thud.
Brennant was on his feet and at my side at once. “What do you mean?”
“I keep seeing the bodies. The blood. The pyre. Every time I close my eyes.” I stifled a sob. “And I’m the reason for it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Everyone who died in the battle perished because of me.” I sniffed. “The soldiers. The prisoners. Even Baesh’s men. If he’d paid more attention to them instead of protecting me, they wouldn’t have betrayed him. And all of them paid the price. All so I could live.”
His lips thinned. “That’s where you’re wrong.” Crouching, he took my hand, and as he stroked the palm with his thumb, for once I didn’t flinch. “What the men did isn’t your fault. It’s theirs.”
Bitter and hot, the tears I’d held back for five nights finally broke free. “But—”
“No. They were criminals and traitors. That raid happened so easily, it’s obvious they were colluding with the Korish.” He reached out and gently touched the spot between my shoulder blades, flooding me with warmth. “Besides, think of the good you’ve done. You healed the barkeep’s son. Baesh, too. And if not for you, Elasa’s daughter might have died.”
“That doesn’t matter. All that death—” I choked back another sob.
“You can’t blame yourself.” Shifting, Brennant took both my hands now and squeezed. “The Land has its reasons for all things. We have to focus on the good, and fight for that.”
I bit my lip. The words were a platitude he’d probably picked up in the priesthood, but Zira had often said the same over the years. I never quite understood; I was a healer, not a fighter.
But maybe that’s what they meant. I could help people. That’s all that mattered, and why I’d made my choice.
Releasing a ragged sigh, I squeezed back. Shivered at his intent gaze, and looked to the distant peaks, where the clouds had scattered. “So what should I do, then?”
“As you said, we’ll keep moving forward.” Brennant helped me to my feet. “But first, let’s get some rest.”
* * *About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors, or reach a media contact, go to the #HoldOntoTheLight Facebook group.