“These are the strawberry bushes Mama and I planted when I was little.” It was almost spring, and they already had tiny fruits nestled between their leaves.
“One spring, Vhalla ate them all in one afternoon,” her father spoke to Aldrik, looking at the plants fondly.
“I had such a stomach ache!” Vhalla laughed, remembering exactly the time her father spoke of.
Rex smiled at his daughter. “Your mother had no sympathy for you either.”
“She was so cross.”
“As was I. I wanted one of her berry tarts.” There was still a note of sorrow when he spoke of his deceased wife.
“She did make the best tarts,” Vhalla sighed wistfully.
Vhalla picked three of the fruits for each of them to try. They were tiny and somewhat bitter from not having ripened enough. But, for Vhalla, they tasted of springs long past, seasoned sweetly by reminiscing.
Walking around the flagstone, they came across a tree that Vhalla had planted from an off-shoot of the old oak. She remembered it as nothing more than a tiny sapling, but it was now almost taller than she was.
There was the outdoor soaking barrel, where she and her mother had spent many an afternoon bathing. It wasn’t far from the outhouse. But they passed all these and headed for a low rectangular stone with a dish-like dip in the center of the top. Vhalla looked at the empty bowl thoughtfully.
“Mama.” Vhalla dusted the dirt around the edges, careful not to touch the inside of the dip. “You’re dirty; tell the Mother to send a good rain.”
“The plants could use it, too.” Her father slung an arm around Vhalla’s shoulder.
“Do you still miss her?” Vhalla asked one of their ritual questions.
“Of course, little bird. Every single day.” His longing was as palpable as his heavy sigh.
For the first time, Vhalla realized that she understood her father’s pain. She’d always thought she knew before, but she never had until now. Losing her mother was an exceptionally great pain, but of a different sort than losing the person who held the other part of her soul. Vhalla looked up at Aldrik.
“What was her name?” Aldrik asked.
“Dia,” Rex answered.
“Dia. That is a lovely name.” Aldrik turned back to the marker. “Dia, I realize you are aware, but your daughter has grown into one astounding woman, and I would be lost without her.”
“I’m sure she knows.” Rex squeezed Vhalla lovingly. “Just as I do.”
“We should get dinner started,” Vhalla tried to keep her words light, not wanting to betray the sudden ache of her heart. She remembered how she had sat for the first few hours following her mother’s Rite of Sunset, watching the wind slowly blow away the ashes from the shallow basin at the top of the marker. This was the font of her mother’s winds, so said Eastern lore.
Shortly after, Vhalla found herself side by side with Fritz preparing dinner. Jax and Elecia squabbled around the tall table by the countertop, and Aldrik and her father chatted quietly by the hearth. She kept glancing over her shoulder, trying to pick up what they were saying, but even in the tiny, one-room house, she could only make out every couple words.
“You all right, Vhal?” Fritz asked. He was busy cutting some smoked and salted pork.
“Actually, I couldn’t be better.” She smiled, giving up trying to figure out what her father and Aldrik were whispering about. “Have I cut these right?”
“Yes, yes. Put them in the pot,” Fritz instructed. “I would’ve thought you were a better cook.”
“My mother only taught me the basics,” Vhalla confessed.
“Oh, right, sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Vhalla eased her friend’s mind. “I really do like thinking of her; I remember all the things she taught me. Cooking just wasn’t one of them.”
“Who knows, Vhalla Yarl,” Elecia joined their conversation. “Perhaps you do have a trace of nobility in you yet, for being more accustomed to others preparing food for you.”
Vhalla rolled her eyes. “Well, Lady Ci’Dan, I, at least, am willing to dirty my hands enough to prepare the food that I am to eat,” Vhalla jabbed lightly.
Getting the rise out of Elecia that she sought, soon the other woman was cutting root vegetables at Fritz’s instruction and giving Vhalla free hands to start on the bread.
“Would you look at that.” Jax leaned against the table. “Elecia Ci’Dan, on a dirt floor, cutting vegetables.”
“Enjoy it while you can.” Elecia didn’t even turn around.
“You know I will.” Jax’s eyes moved up and down Elecia’s form a few times.
“You letch.” Vhalla nudged him.
“Can you blame me?”
“Jax.” Elecia paused, flipping the knife in her palm deftly. “Is now really when you want to try to get cheeky with me.”
“Knife throwing only excites me more.”
Fritz and Vhalla roared with laughter.
“It’s good to have the house so lively again,” Rex said as he and Aldrik rejoined the conversation. “Your presence has been missed.”
“Speaking of missing, Mother’s spices are also gone.” Vhalla pointed to the empty windowsill.
“There was a bad drought a year ago. I couldn’t spare water for even them.”