I shifted my weight not to cause her discomfort. Through the opening of the cave I could see the sky. It was a beautiful day. I waited for her story to come to its inevitable conclusion.
"We came to the place where the brook crossed the path", she said. "Again he asked me to kneel down. I did. He was standing behind me. I didn't feel any pain. I tried to tell him everything was fine. The front of my dress was all red and wet. I fell and I fell and I fell. My face was in the water, and I watched the thick, red clouds billowing by."
I took a deep breath. Her face was calm.
"From a great distance I could hear my father wail. He started shaking me and calling my name, but I couldn't respond. Then there were other voices, confused and panicked. Hands lifted me and carried me to this cave. I don't know what happened to my father."
I realised that I didn't know either. Something was odd, though. Apparently there hadn't been any eyewitnesses and her body had never been found. And yet King Evazar's Daughter's Tale, known to every storyteller in the land, gave a reasonably accurate account of her death.
"What happened then?" I asked her.
"At first I just lay here and slept, and dreamed.", she said. "Time went by and I was content. Then he came."
I kept silent.
"He woke me up. We were in a palace, as beautiful and opulent as my father's. For a long time I believed that my death had been a bad dream, that I had a husband now and a home among the royalty of a befriended nation. We were so happy. After our child was born I kept more and more to my own room. Everything I could ever want was there, and my husband and son would visit me every day. Years went by in a haze of colour, and music, and love." She smiled at the memory. "We got a grandson. He was such a lovely child, and we were so proud."
Her smile faded. "My husband stopped visiting me", she said, "and so did my son and grandson. I was desperate. I stopped eating, stopped taking care of myself. One day I found a secret door and I wandered out. I got lost and never found my way back again. I tried to retrace my steps but all that I found was this cave. And when I recognised it I realised my life at the palace had been nothing but a lie."
She began to cry.
There were many things I still wanted to ask her and I'm not sure why I didn't. I let go of her hands and moved off her. Still clutching the knife I sat down by her side, wishing I knew a way to end her suffering.
The next moment I was telling her about the war. I started with the loss of my family and my home and continued from there, telling her everything I could remember. My tale was long, distorted and gruesome, but she didn't seem to mind. She had stopped crying and just lay there, listening to me.
"Why did you tell me all that?" she asked me when my tale was finally over.
"I don't know", I said. I thought about it for a bit. "Maybe it's because I'm a storyteller and stories are all I have to give."
She laughed. "Tell me my story, then" she said.
"Tell me the true King Evazar's Daughter's Tale."
"You're mocking me."
"I'm not. Tell me."
"There once was a princess, young and fair… ", I began. I was self-conscious at first, but gradually my training as a storyteller took over. Find words from without, and truth from within... I took all the differently coloured threads she had given me and started to weave them into a tapestry of my own design. She listened intently, her face serene.
"...the princess fell, mortally wounded by her father's knife. As soon as he realised what he'd done the King was overcome with grief. What have I done, he cried. He would have taken his own life if, with her last strength, the princess hadn't stopped him. I don't know what I have done to deserve this faith, she said, but I forgive you. With that she died, and her soul left her body and began its journey toward the light."
I looked at Azeara. She was smiling, her eyes full of tears. "Thank you", she whispered. Then she was gone. Seventy-one years after her death her soul had finally found peace.
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