With Me In Darkness

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2. Chapter Two

      Papa's face looked so pale even in the glow of the orange light. His fingers were thin and not strong and sturdy like they had once been. His back was slightly curving and he coughed frequently. Sometimes in fits, gasping for air and falling over from the rage of his weak lungs. Once she saw him cough some blood into his handkerchief. Mama refused to acknowledge he was getting worse, but Illeana knew what she saw. And she saw every thing. Every heartbreak her family had been plagued with, every tear she cried when they thought she wasn't watching, and every moment that papa was getting sicker, getting closer to death, Illeana saw all of it.

   "Butter Aland?" Mama smiled dimly in the crowded room 

    "No thank you ma'am,"Aland gave a nod not wanting to take something so precious as butter from such a poor and weak family. Mama was having none of it though, her pride standing in the way once more.

   "We can afford it Aland," she slathered the creamy substance on his roll before he could speak.

  Illeana rolled her eyes before locking them with the man next to her.

  Aland gave a wink, causing Illeana's cheeks to brighten. What was it about him that made her feel so, flustered? He was always just a boy to her, but lately he kept smiling at her in a way that was unsettling and almost thrilling. She liked being around him, liked his attention, and his soft mile behind every word he said. Would it be such a bad thing to let him in, to allow him to care for her?

  An explosive noise came from the other end of the table, Papa holding onto the edge of it with one hand and his kerchief raised to his mouth with the other. Just like that, she snapped out of her daydream about boys and remembered her true concern.

 "Papa," Illeana stood abruptly soothing the lines of her tattered dress. She raised a mug of water to his shaking lips and helped him drink slowly; his coughing still pushing through and spilling droplets of water on his face. Finally, papa gave a weak but heartfelt smile towards his daughter, assuring her she could relax and finish the bison and roll on her plate.

  Illeana started, before ravenously eating her dinner, "We have enough wheat for the market tomorrow. Should be able to get a few pounds worth from the crop. Plus, mama is gonna make her pies in the morning and I can take them as well. Might get a few extra coins for the goodies." Illeana shoved another bite in her mouth.

   Mama and Papa shared a secret glance with one another, whilst Illeana unknowingly continued on about how taxes would be paid on time this year, and how helpful Aland had been the past several weeks with the farm work, and how she wanted to start raising corn and squash for next year's crop. Everyone listened as they finished off their plates.

 Mama and Illeana came around and cleaned up the table while papa and Aland remained seated talking about hunting and how taxes had gone up on everything tenfold over the years. They spoke of the king and how his reign had been one of tyranny and more anguish than his father before him. Steaming black coffee was placed down in front of the men, and Mama was now sitting, joined in their conversation.

  "At times it's unbelievable that we've come this far," Mama said taking a sip of the bitter drink.

  The room sounded with the cackling of the fireplace.

  "A miracle is what it is," Papa said after a moment and stared at Illeana, "We've one child left, and I thank God for her each day."

 Illeana gave a beautiful smile and placed her hand over her heart, the elderly man following the same gesture. Aland suspected that was their unspoken way of saying I love you.

  The night drew on, and as Aland thanked the Frost family for a delicious meal, he and Illeana stepped outside. Aland shifted in his sack shoes putting both his hands inside of his trouser pockets. Illeana smiled and crossed her arms against her body from the slight breeze that rolled in. Her clothes weren't made from fine or warm fabrics, which made working in the sun more durable, but during cooler nights she was easily chilled.

 Aland insisted on staring at her in a way that made her feel uneasy, like he had something he wanted to get off his mind, but didn't know how to say it. She glanced to the corner of her eye as he stood next to her, shifting under his weight. Other people's uneasiness made her feel uneasy, and she didn't appreciate it. If he was wanting a heart to heart, or to ask her a favor, she'd beat him in leading the conversation.

 Quickly she found herself breaking the silence, and began speaking hastily. Aland picked up on the fact that she was never much for keeping quiet, not when there was apparently so much for her to say. She excitedly spoke once more of how their taxes would be paid on time this year, thanks to a beautiful crop. She carried on with small talk while looking out across the small field, Aland standing close behind her.

 "Is that all you talk about?" He smiled trying to change the subject.

  "Is what all I ever talk about?" Illeana's face scrunched feeling ready for an insult. Even though she knew Aland wouldn't ever try and be mean to her, or make her feel stupid for being so hopeful.

Aland stepped in, narrowing the distance between the two of them. "Work. There isn't really much else that you speak of; I just wondered if you found enjoyment in other things besides dirt and...work."

 Illeana narrowed her eyebrows, "There isn't much else to think about Aland."

  "What about tomorrow? We could go running through the tall grass, have a picnic, and sit by the stream. We can even play in the water, maybe catch some fish? You used to love doing those things as a child."

 Exactly Aland, a child." Illeana turned on her heel and walked a little further down the hill from her cottage. Her cheeks burned with aggravation. He was acting like a child himself. Didn't he understand she couldn't afford the luxury of playing and wasting away the day?

 Aland slowly followed behind her stopping again a few feet from her. His voice calm and almost a whisper. "What about the future? It holds so many exiting adventures for you, Illeana."

 Illeana gazed out, this time looking beyond her family farm and into the forest that laid beyond them. "Adventures?" Illeana nearly scoffed, but fell silent.

  "Yes," Aland stepped closer, "New places to explore, new people to meet." He grabbed the box in his pocket once more and took hold of his courage. "You can have a family, children...love," His voice straining on the last word. This was going to be it, he had to tell her. This girl who was so young yet so far behind the mindset of a child, had given up hope or the longing of the future. She stopped thinking she could have a happy and fulfilling life. That she had given up on her dreams and thrown them away while trying to take responsibility of her parents. He admired her strength and honored who she was now. But it was his job to show her she could have more, and could let go of her control over life.

  A tall and husky silhouette brought himself around to the front of Illeana's vision. His features dimly appearing from the light of the cottage. Illeana stared down at the small wooden box that he held in his hands. It was wooden and small, and oh so beautiful. He had carved her initial into the top of the box and painted beautiful designs around it's walls. The purple swirls danced against one another on all sides of the case and a bow to match was tied neatly around it. Her breath hitched in her throat at the sight of such a beautiful gift.

  "Illeana, I know that you want so much more than this," Aland began still waiting to open the contents of the box.

 Green eyes shot up from the container to look at Aland. What would you know what I want? Aland ignored her uneasy stare and continued

  "I know I see the longing in your eyes to believe there is more." He said as if reading her thoughts, "And I want to be that for you. I want to open that world of adventures to you, and give you the hope you thought you lost when you lost your brothers."

 Illeana bit her lip fighting back tears at the mention of her siblings.

  Aland stepped in, leaving only inches between them. His hands seemed nervous as he opened the box and lifted the twine. As he raised it, a dark blue hand carved stone dangled from it, causing Illeana's breath to delay once more. He had carved her a beautiful box and along with it, a wonderful necklace. It was more than she ever received for her birthday before, so beautiful in it's simplicity. He didn't have hardly any money himself, no one in the village did, but the way he presented the gift to her now he did so as if it was made of diamonds.

  Aland gave a nod to Illeana, asking if he could have the honor of putting the necklace around her neck. She gave a silent reply, still trying to catch her breath from his unexpected gift, and more so from his words. He wanted to be more for her? To give her the adventures he spoke of; family, children and love. The raven locks were gently pushed from her back to the front of her shoulders as Aland made way to tie the necklace on her; his hands shaky at touching her skin as he did so.

  "Illeana," her name a faint whisper on his lips as her back stayed turned against him. "I love you. I always have." he barely heard the words he spoke, but knew they resonated to her as he watched her body tense at the word love. Whipping around Illeana wore an expression he hadn't expected, anger. Her eyes were blazing and her jaw was clenched. Her hair still tossed over her left shoulder, she looked so young and beautiful, yet full of rage.

  "Why do you have to ruin everything?" she hissed, her voice laced with warning.

   "Illeana I though..."

    "You thought what? That I'd tell you I love you too? That I'd ride off with you into the sunset and pop out some ruffians for you? That I'd just walk away from my duties here?!" Her voice started to raise, and her hands were flying in every direction as she spoke.

 Aland stood erect, acting as if her words were bouncing right off him, but they were cutting him deeper than he imagined they would. He watched Illeana bit her lip holding the back the rest of her rant. Mainly to keep from saying things she would regret. She had a short fuse the past few years and was quick to start an argument, her only way to shield herself from moving forward with her life. It gave reason for her to hold onto her hurt and fear.

  "You won't allow yourself to get out of your own way."

   "Stop it," her words almost pleading.

  "No, you know that I could make you happy, and that I would be a good husband," Aland stepped in, his voice still calm. "And I'll be here waiting for you when you finally accept that." Her eyes watered, threatening to spill over.

  Aland leaned in and kissed her cheek softly, Illeana closing her eyes at his kindness. When she opened her eyes he had already gone past her, leaving the small gift box in her hands. She didn't dare turn around to watch him as he walked back across her farmland; instead she held her head high and headed across towards the small gray cottage.

 

  Mama and Papa had retired for the night, and were laying side by side motionless in their newly made bed. Illeana sighed heavily and sat at the table, the only light in the cottage coming from the small fireplace behind her. The light wooden box shone brightly as she rubbed it's carvings with her hand.

  She didn't mean what she said to Aland, not one word of it. But he was never going to understand, never going to leave their relationship as it was without her convincing him that she wanted no part in a future; with him or any other man. The truth was she had been in love with him too ever since she met him. His floppy black hair shimmering as they all played in the water, his blue eyes mischievous and filled with wonder about the world around him.

  She closed her eyes, a tear gliding down her cheek as she did. The image of her four brothers splashing in the water and mud with Aland and herself flashed in her mind. Their laughter rang through her ears now as if they had all been together only moments ago. Mama would call from the top of the cottage hill to the children to all come in for supper, while Papa appeared in the doorway, strong and healthy. He held onto Mama's waist and spun her around to kiss her, gaining several "Eww's!" from the children watching below, followed by giggles. Her heart had been filled with love and light and family, and during her years growing up she found beauty every single day, and had dreams and hopes that could reach to the heavens.

 She opened her eyes slowly, peering out at the fire place and the painting that hung above it. It was the only image she had left of her family all as one. Her four brothers standing next to their parents, and Illeana sitting on her father's lap. Geoffrey was the eldest and had strawberry curly hair and sweet freckles across his nose. He stood strong backed and proud next to his mother, looking like a knight, protecting his family, at age thirteen.  

  Broden and Bowen were the second eldest, a pair of blonde haired, blue eyed twins. They could barely sit still during their family portrait, and father had to scold them twice; the second time giving them a look that scared them straight into submission. Illeana had giggled at their funny faces they kept making at her, and how Broden put a lizard down Bowen's back.

  The youngest brother, the only one a year older than herself, was Keiran. He had strawberry hair like Geoffrey, and sweet brown eyes like mother. She remembered lying awake with Keiran at night telling each other ghost stories, each of them trying to tell a scarier story. One year Keiran got into a fist fight with a neighboring boy who threw mud at her newly sewn dress. All of her brothers then coming to his aide to help stick up for their sister. She felt so safe with all of them, and when the sickness came, it came so suddenly... She barely had a chance to say goodbye to them.

 Back then, she loved deeply and recklessly. Then she wanted Aland, and hoped to be a bride by the time she was thirteen. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, Illeana had let go of petty thinking, and desired nothing of the sort. Her family came before all else, the only family she had remaining, and a momentary love struck boy would not persuade her in any other direction.

 She stood slowly brushing the tear off her chin, still clutching the box in her other hand. Glancing towards her mother and sick father gave her a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach. She wasn't the only one who had lost hope for a future, who had refused to let love back into her world. They all missed the boys, and soon her mother would be a widow, and with the grief of losing her children and husband, her mother might slip away soon after. Illeana then would be entirely alone, and would have no one, and nothing to keep her sane except for her anger. She would be able to hold onto anger to keep her going. But nothing more. Nothing that Aland could offer her.

 The fire place cackled, Illeana staring up at the straw and clay roofing from her bed. The cold stone seared against her chest, causing her to clasp it in her palm. She felt it with the tip of her thumb, all of it's edges perfectly smooth, until her fingers felt the grooves on it's face. Illeana sat up and glanced down at the pebble and felt her heart twitch at the words etched by Aland.  The one thing she refused to let herself feel for anyone else, but she so desperately needed.

    Love. 

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