Authors: Laury Falter
After swinging my feet over the side of my bench, I heard him demand eagerly, “Double the bet. I double the bet!”
Smiling, I shook my head and stood up, and that was when I sensed him.
It began in my stomach with a blast of heat that seemed to sear upward across my chest. I knew this feeling, this excitement instantly. Having only felt it once before, I also knew its origin.
My head rotated directly toward it and there, standing just a few yards away, was Eran.
While I was in front of the wall closest to us, he faced the opposite direction, so that he could look across to the other side. Even though he wasn’t. His eyes were downcast, addressing the sleeping person on the bench before him.
It was Bailey, his ward, curled up against the back of her bench so sweet and innocent.
He was waiting for her to awake, or surveying her while she slept.
He’d never been here before that I’d known of. So whatever his purpose was now, it would be important.
I inspected him from a distance, noting his hair was slightly longer but otherwise he looked the same.
Just as I remembered, his stance was daunting, ready for anything but at ease until it happened. His arms were crossed over his chest, loose and relaxed. His legs were apart, solidly planted yet prepared to move. I wondered if the man had ever known an existence that didn’t require a constant mental and physical preparedness for battle.
From his profile, by that angle of strikingly handsome features, I could tell his face was drawn into restraint. I had the desire to remain in place and memorize every beautiful peak and valley but that was incredibly short lived.
Gradually, his head rose until his view was of the pockets of scrolls directly across the hall from him. He didn’t appear to see them, though. Instead, as slowly as it had risen, his head turned until his eyes found me.
And deep down, I knew unequivocally, that he had felt my presence as I had done the same with him.
His lips remained taut and his eyes locked on mine, holding me like they had done before, only this time they were obscured by the dip of his eyebrows as he expressed his confusion in seeing me.
The Hall of Records was open to all, but only the messengers awoke here. So the understanding came over him at precisely the same time it slammed into me. There was no denying the truth now.
I was a messenger. And he knew it.
His arms came down and he turned entirely toward me. As he took the first step in breaching the distance between us, I prepared to hold my ground, in more ways than one. He took another step, striding forward with the conviction of a man on a mission. Yet by the third step he came to a stop.
“Eran?” Bailey called out. She was sitting up now, legs gracefully swept over the edge of her bench, hands folded delicately in her lap.
There was something in her voice telling me that her feelings for Eran held more for him than the simple respect for her guardian.
Even though Eran had halted, he didn’t return to her. The two of us stood our ground; me defiant, him undoubtedly thinking through his next action.
His lips shifted as he sighed at me in what seemed to be exasperation.
I didn’t move.
His chest lifted as he drew in another breath. When it fell, his lips dropped with it into an irritated frown.
He was not familiar with the feeling of someone ignoring his commands.
“Eran,” Bailey said again.
And as he turned back to her, I knew I hadn’t won. The certainty of it was there in his eyes. Before he’d completed his rotation, he’d come to the conclusion that eluded him on what his next action would be. This I knew. I also knew I wasn’t going to like it.
Our standoff having ended, I released my appendages and went to work, finding the section with scrolls with locations beginning with the letter H so that I could deliver the message from a woman whose brother recently passed. As I did this, my focus strayed until it landed back on Eran. He was kneeling at Bailey’s bench, holding her hands and speaking with a kind firmness to her. She listened attentively and nodded sporadically, but her expression told me that she was having a difficult time with whatever Eran was explaining to her. Her lips were trembling and more than once she wiped at her eyes. And my heart softened for her. Whatever the subject, it was hard for her to accept. She seemed, however, to come to terms with it just as I swept my finger across the row of words on the scroll I held and the Hall of Records began to dissolve away.
Then she did the strangest thing.
Her face lifted to where I hovered and she watched me, closely, before giving a final, hesitant nod of agreement.
An instant before they disappeared, along with the rest of the Hall of Records, I saw Eran roll back on his feet, a sense of liberation washing over him, just before he made the same motion as Bailey had done. His head rose to find me.
Their actions plagued me as I delivered my messages for the night, stirring debates in my head until I arrived at our training grounds in my part of the heavens.
Hermina had already arrived and was performing a new throwing technique that landed Jerod on his back.
“You look flustered,” she remarked as she straightened herself and caught her breath.
She narrowed her eyes in contemplation. “The last time I saw you flustered was when you interacted with…”
There was no need to say his name. We both knew who it was.
“Can I speak with you?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said slowly, wondering what this was about.
“Yes, go, leave me be,” a voice exhaled from below us. We had forgotten Jerod, who was sitting on the ground with a hand to his lower back.
“Are you all right?” Hermina asked, although she didn’t seem too concerned.
“I hurt in places I didn’t know existed. What do you think?” he snapped.
Hermina chuckled before teasing, “And to think an old woman did that to you,” she said, swiping a lock of white hair from her aged face.
“Old woman my horse’s…,” he muttered.
Hermina didn’t wait for him to finish. She swung an arm over my shoulder and led me to the edge of the clearing. “So how did he discover our secret?” she asked.
I looked at her in surprise.
“It’s the only hold you
you had over him,” she explained.
“Are you saying I never did have one?”
“You’re disrupting my practice,” Jacob yelled in warning from across the clearing.
We ignored him.
“I’m saying you have more than you believe. Now, tell me how he learned of you being a messenger.”
I recounted the details, which left her nodding thoughtfully by the end.
“He’s going to assign one to me,” I summed up my distress. “I saw the look in his eyes, that insult at being opposed.”
“And if he does?” she asked.
My answer shot from my mouth before I knew it, as if it had been forming all this time. “I’m going to deny them.”
“And refute the judgment?” she challenged, shocked but amused.
“Not refute,” I said shaking my head. “I simply won’t acknowledge them as my guardian and will go on with my business.”
“And you think that’s the best approach?” she asked.
“I think it’s the only one.” I pondered it for a moment and then drew in a sharp breath. “That’s what you meant by my having more power than I believe…Thank you, Hermina. I understand now.”
Elated, I kissed her cheek, withdrew my sword, and joined practice, even while overhearing her faint response.
“That’s not exactly what I meant…”
But I was already in the clearing and engaged in a duel, overjoyed at the resolution to my problem and without any preconceived notion that it wasn’t the problem heading my way.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THOMAS JURGEN
In the afterlife, seventeen years on earth is equivalent to the duration of a shooting star, a period so brief it goes by almost unnoticed. This was not the case for me. Living in the other realm, where time is drawn out and marked by calendars and celestial events, it moved slower, much slower.
The muscular man or woman I anticipated would enter my life and demand to be my guardian never came, and eventually I stopped waiting for them.
That duration should also have eroded my memory of Eran, or at least my feelings toward him. It should have given me time to halt his presence from doing what they did to my insides, allowed me to rationalize away what I felt, given me the ability to recover from the sight of him quicker. It should have given me the upper hand. As it turned out, time had done nothing to help me. I learned this when I unceremoniously shot back into my body on what should have been an uneventful morning.
“They have a new boy over there.”
That statement was laced with enough curiosity that I opened my eyes to find Katharina, my oldest sibling at eighteen years of age, and Osanna, the next eldest, neither of whom ever seemed bored with the topic of other boys, standing at the window.
“He looks like our age,” Osanna said.
They had pulled back the drape and were entirely disengaged from the current conversations raging behind them. There were seven of my family members in all on earth, in this lifetime, and they could hold several simultaneous, synchronous conversations at once, which is exactly what they were doing.
“He’s handsome too…” Katharina said, twisting her head for a better view.
Given Katharina’s and Osanna’s good looks, they consistently had several men vying for their attention and multiple marriage proposals, which had all been averted while they collected a greater entourage of suitors. I was the opposite. Every man who had approached me held no appeal. I preferred a more independent lifestyle, leaving my mother to worry over whether I would ever be married off. To her, every man was an opportunity, unless he had the surname Jurgen.
“Get away from that window,” my mother snapped, pulling aside a reluctant Katharina and Osanna. “What kind of insane man builds a house within a stone’s throw of another? Symon you will get down from that table or I’ll…”
“A Jurgen, mother,” muttered Katharina, “that’s who. One who has bore a beautiful line of men.”
My mother’s mouth fell open. “You will not…,” she hissed, but that was as far as the threat went, the upset being too great for her at the idea of her own child disobeying a family tradition requiring anyone in our family find all Jurgens unbearable.
We were at war. And we had been for generations. The family to the north had claimed our family’s land and then vice versa until eventually no one could remember where the original border had been drawn.
It was an old and tired tale but an unwelcome distraction for Katharina and Osanna. “Friedricha, come see,” Katharina urged.
I sat up. “No thanks.”
“Now there’s a girl with a good head on her shoulders,” my mother mumbled, which they both ignored.
“He’s a cousin they didn’t know they had,” remarked Symon, the youngest in the family and the sneakiest ten year old I knew. “He showed up this morning. I heard them talking behind the Big Tree.”
The Big Tree sat at the corner of the disputed property line, nestled between the main road and a poorly tended field of knee-high grass, which lent a perfect place to hide.
“His name is Thomas,” Symon went on.
“Thomas,” Osanna purred.
I rolled my eyes and pulled myself to a standing position. Breakfast, which consisted of day-old rolls and soup, was still on the table. I sat down to eat and watch the morning entertainment.
“He has something wrong with his voice though.”
Katharina became instantly alarmed. “Wrong?”
“He talks funny,” Symon confirmed.
“With a lisp?” Osanna demanded.
“Like this…’My family sends their regards’,” said Symon, in impersonation.
Katharina’s lip curled up in an unsure frown.
I thought it sounded intriguing.
“That’s called an accent, Symon,” said Ensel, our oldest brother.
“Now finish your soup,” my mother interjected. “You too, Katharina and Osanna.”
Symon grimaced and picked up his spoon, but when she wasn’t looking set it back down again.
Katharina and Osanna remained at the window.
“Girls…,” my mother warned.
Slowly and reluctantly, they let the curtain fall, and my morning entertainment ended. We spent the remainder of the day in the fields, farming, with Katharina and Osanna taking repeated glances at the Jurgen’s home. Unfortunately for them, there was no sign of life, despite the nearly constant feeling that someone was watching us as closely as they were watching them.
Personally, I had no interest whatsoever in learning about Thomas Jurgen. There were far more important matters that required my attention such as the safest path to the Hertzog home and how quickly I could travel it. There would be people waiting for me tonight, ready to send messages to those who had departed from earth. And, as usual, I would be going alone, which always required diligence.