I promise you I will be true, he said, kneeling across from her on the grassy Hill of Ceremony. I promise you, as long as there is breath in my body, I will be yours, and you will be mine. I promise you, no matter what lies in store, I will be true to you, my wife. And he bent to the ground and kissed the red earth, and then Carnelian looked up into her eyes with that smile she loved so well.
All eyes now turned to her, and Ruby felt the blush on her cheeks as she trembled with joy and hope and delight, and she opened her mouth to speak the vow as well –
With the clatter of hooves and the blare of a trumpet, four riders tore into the midst of the gathering, crying, Hear the command of your King!
The priest looked disconcerted; the people started muttering; Ruby did not know if she should rise or stay kneeling – the ceremony was not over yet. A shadow had fallen over their wedding day.
Hear the command of your King! one of the riders called out. We are at war! Every able-bodied man is to gather at dawn. Every able-bodied man is to leave wife and home, to defend our country! Long live the King!
Then they thundered away, onward to bring doom to another village, and the next, and the next. A shadow had fallen, and it would not go away.
Ruby found herself still kneeling on the ground, still trembling, but now no more with joy and expectation – only with fear. She could not look into Carnelian's eyes – for before it had begun, she knew it was over, and she would lose him.
The priest, confused, said the final blessing and let them go – and Ruby realised later that she had never said her vow.
Do not be afraid, Carnelian said, as she lay that night in his arms. But she knew that he was afraid; she could see it in his eyes and taste it in his kiss. I will return – soon, he said. But she knew that he was afraid; she could feel it in his touch and smell it on his breath. It will be all right, he said. But she knew that he was afraid; she could hear it in his heartbeat as he drew her close to him.
Then he spoke those words again: I promise you I will be true. I promise you, as long as there is breath in my body, I will be yours, and you will be mine. I promise you, no matter what lies in store, I will be true to you, my wife.
And Ruby opened her mouth as the tears ran from her eyes, wanting to speak those words as well – but he had fallen asleep.
Days passed with no news. Weeks passed. Every morning when she awoke, Ruby's first thought was Carnelian. Was he alive or was he dead? Would he come home today? Would he never return? And dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought of spending day after day this way, waiting for him into all eternity, while he lay far away, dead in the ground on a foreign battlefield.
The war came closer. Sometimes she imagined she could see smoke rise from the other side of the valley, although the enemy was far away. Sometimes she imagined Carnelian in the midst of smoke and flame, the only thing standing between herself and death. Sometimes she dreamt she was lying in his arms, and he said those words: I will be true. Sometimes she doubted his faithfulness – and hated herself for it.
Then autumn came, and with it an army: allies from the West, tall, on sleek horses, in glittering armour, with golden hair and sky-blue eyes as she had never seen before. They set up camp behind the hill; she could see their tents from her window. Only for a week, the villagers said, only a week and they would be gone, to the far-off place where Carnelian was.
She was out on the fields when they came for her, trying to cut the grain on her own. They looked at her until she asked them, What do you want?
Our king has need of you, they said, He has been watching you all day. Come with us, they said, and, confused, Ruby followed, leaving her scythe in the field.
What could a golden king of the West, with eyes like the sky and an army so great, need a simple peasant woman for?
They led her to his tent, of blue cloth with golden borders, the largest and grandest in the camp. The king was tall, with eyes sky-blue, and the golden locks of the West. A golden beard flowed down his chest. They left her there, alone with the king, and she realised too late what it meant.
He looked upon her with lustful eyes – and she remembered the smile in Carnelian's gaze. He tore the clothes from her body – and she remembered Carnelian's gentle touch. He pushed her onto the bed – and she remembered how Carnelian had held her that night, when joy had been swallowed by fear. He forced himself onto her – and she remembered how Carnelian had wept, how he had said, I promise you I will be true.
When it was over, the king sent her away, and she was left to limp home in the dark on her own. At midnight, in the pouring rain, she reached the Hill of Ceremony, where in another life, a stranger named Ruby had married a wonderful man who was now far away. She fell to her knees and wept, and threw red earth upon her head, and wept and cried out, I promise you I will be true. I promise you, as long as there is breath in my body, I will be yours, and you will be mine. I promise you, no matter what lies in store, I will be true to you, my husband. But it was too late.
The king and his soldiers left soon after; Ruby was glad to see them go. But she was with child. And when her time came, it was a boy, with the golden locks of the West. And she named him Carnelian – for, she said, in my heart I will always be true.
Months passed with no news. Soon it was a year. Some neighbours received news of a loved one dead – but no news came to Ruby. Every morning when she awoke, Ruby's first thought was Carnelian. Was he alive or was he dead? But then the child would cry for milk, and her thoughts went to the child – the child with the golden locks of the West – the child with his name. And dread filled thte pit of her stomach at the thought that Carnelian might never return – and dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought that one day he might come, and see this child with the golden locks of the West, and hate her.
The war came closer. They said all the world was engulfed by it now. They said the Western army had fled. They said the North had come to their aid. Then one day they said a great battle had been fought, though no one could say: had they won? had they lost? And Ruby was afraid – for her home, for her life, for her child, for her husband – was he alive or was he dead? A year had passed, and winter fell.
In the midst of winter he came to her: wounded, half-starved, almost dead upon her doorstep he lay. She could not leave him there – a foreign soldier, probably a deserter, with the dark hair of the North, tousled and tangled, his dark beard clotted with blood and dirt. She imagined him a man like Carnelian: far from his home and his wife. If this were Carnelian, fleeing from war, trying to go home, she would want him cared for – and so she cared for this man, washed his wounds, fed him slowly back to health, sharing the little that she had, until he regained his strength.
And then one night she woke to see him standing by her bed, silent as a shadow, staring at her. Do you need something? she said, but he stood there without a word, and she knew exactly what he wanted.
That moment her child Carnelian started to cry in the next room, and she said, The child is crying. But he stood there without a word, silent as a shadow. Do not force me, she pleaded, as the child's cries grew louder and the man drew her covers aside.
And she thought of Carnelian and the one day they shared, of his smile and his touch and his tears on her skin. And she thought of the king with the golden hair, of pain and her shame and the red earth of the Holy Hill. And she heard the child cry as if sharing her pain, as the man took her by force. And she heard Carnelian weep and say: I promise you I will be true.
She could not look him in the eyes the next day, yet she served him as she had before, preparing food, tending his wounds, and no word passed between them, just as before. But his every movement filled her with dread. That night she could not sleep, for fear he would come again. And come again he did, and again the child cried, and soon she was not sure which Carnelian was crying in the next room: her son, or her husband? or were the cries her own? She dreaded her days, she dreaded her nights, until it became so normal she hated herself.
And then one morning he was gone, without a word – silent as a shadow he left. But Ruby was with child again, and when her time came, it was a girl, with the dark hair of the North. And she named her Rose – for, she said, here is beauty bought with pain.
Another year passed, and still no news. Every morning when she awoke Ruby's first thought was worry. Would the food last? Would her children stay well? Would the war reach the village and destroy them all? Ever nearer it came, and people were fleeing, telling of cruel hosts from the South who took joy in killing and raping and pillaging and burning and would keep no one alive.
Some days, she thought of Carnelian. Was he alive or was he dead? And dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought he might be dead – and dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought that one day, she might forget him – and dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought that one day he might come, and see the child with the golden locks of the West, and the child with the dark hair of the North, and hate her.
Then one cold day they came, lighting the fields and burning the crops, striking down old men in the streets, barging into houses and taking all they found – food, clothing, treasures stored away. Ruby locked the door although she knew it was no use. She told Carnelian to be quiet, and hid him and Rose in a cupboard, praying the enemy would not look there. Then she paced the room, waiting and praying, as she heard them coming closer, breaking windows, laughing and cajoling, singing as though hurting others was a game.
They were upon her like a storm: tall, broad men, already drunk, with the long eye-lashes of the South. They broke down the door and emptied the pantry, broke some furniture for no reason at all. Then one pinned her to the wall and she knew what would happen, and she silently prayed, Just let the children be safe.
And she remembered Carnelian and how gently he held her, and she remembred the king roughly shoving her onto his bed, and she remembered night after night of fear – and Carnelian's words, I promise you I will be true. And in her mind she repeated them, again and again, until all four soldiers had their turn, until they left her huddled on the floor, sobbing but grateful that her children had been spared.
With horror she found herself with child again, and she wanted to die, but she knew she must live, if not for her husband who might never return, then for her children who needed her there. I promise you I will be true – these words were for her children now. She must be true to them.
And when her time came, it was a girl, with the long eye-lashes of the South. And she named her Sorrow – for, she said, I have nothing left to hope for, and all my joy is dead – he will not return.
Three years had passed since Carnelian had left – soon it would be four. Ruby no longer expected news. Every morning when she awoke, she was swamped by a mighty feeling of dejectedness. But every morning she forced herself to get up, to live. She had three children to care for, three hungry mouths to feed – and the harvest had failed and food was scarce, and they cried and she had nothing to give. And dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought that she might lose one of them.
Money was worth nothing now. She bartered away all the silver spoons they had given her at her wedding – a twinge of pain stabbed her heart as she let the last one go for a sack of grain, the last memory of that day so long ago, a day in someone else's life. And dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought that Carnelian might be dead – and dread filled the pit of her stomach at the thought that one day he might come, and see the child with the golden locks of the West, and the child with the dark hair of the North, and the child with the long eye-lashes of the South, and hate her.
Then one day there was nothing left to barter, and all she could do was beg. Merchants from the East were pouring into the land – a sign that the war had been lost. They were the only ones with goods to sell, the only ones with more than enough to eat. So Ruby went to a merchant from the East, afraid but knowing she could do nothing else.
Please, sir, she said, if there is anything you cannot sell – fruit that is ruined, or bread old and dry – please give it to me, for my children's sake.
He looked at her and laughed, and said, I have none of that. But if you paid me just a little bit – I could give you to feed them for more than a week.
I have nothing of value, sir, she said.
You have what I want, he said.
And she knew what he meant and she fled to the street, and she looked to the heavens and wept. Then she thought of her children, and she turned back and said, All right.
And she hated herself, and she hated him, and she hated Carnelian who had left her to this, and she hated the king with the locks of gold, and she hated the deserter from the North, and she hated the pillagers who had come like a storm, and she hated the world full of evil and grief –
And yet she remembered Carnelian's love, and the words no man had ever meant: I promise you I will be true. Where was Carnelian now? Had he not broken his vow, those years ago, when he had left her for country and king? What did it matter what she did, what did it matter now?
The merchant gave her enough for two weeks, and she took it without a backwards glance. And when it was gone she went again, cursing herself, but knowing no other way.
Then spring returned, and her garden bore fruit, and she did not have to go to him again – and once again she was with child.
He came with the summer. She looked out the window and knew it was him, slowly walking up the path. And dread filled the pit of her stomach, for now he would see the child with the golden locks of the West, and the child with the dark hair of the North, and the child with the long eye-lashes of the South, and the child of the East not yet born.
He came up the path, and she stood by the door, and his smile lit his face as he saw her – just as it had done, so long ago intheir previous life, though it seemed they both had aged ten years in four. Then he stopped as he saw them file out the door: Carnelian with the golden locks of the West, Rose with the dark hair of the North, Sorrow with the long eye-lashes of the South, and he saw Ruby was with child. He stopped, and her world stood still.
He stopped and stared, and her heart raced within her, and fear gripped her insides till she thought she would scream. For what felt like hours he stood and he stared.
Then with something like a sigh Carnelian approached, and his smile returned as he embraced one by one each child as though it were his. And he took her in his arms and she burst into tears, for she knew he still loved her the same.
All day she waited, for a question, a word, for him to acknowledge that something was wrong, that something had been broken since the day that he left. But all day he spoke lightly, of the weather, of her garden, of the harvest, and he played with her children, helped her wash the dishes, as though nothing had changed – but everything had changed. So she waited for the night, when they would be alone.
That night they faced each other in silence, neither knowing how to voice the horrors of what they had gone through, neither daring to wake the ghosts of those four years that filled the space between them.
Then Carnelian spoke, his voice tinged with pain: Every day I fought to stay alive for you. Every day I fought to stay true to you. Four years I have loved no other. Yet now I return, and...
Anger flared and Ruby said, Are you accusing me? Every day I fought to stay alive for you. Every day I fought to stay true to you. Every day I fought to believe you would return. Four years I have loved no other. Yet while you were away, one after the other took me by force, against my will. Know this: my heart has been ever faithful to you, though war has destroyed my vow.
Compassion filled his eyes then, and he took her hand, and they sat there in silence until he said, Let us go, then, to the Ceremony Hill, let us speak our vows like on our wedding day, and let us begin again.
So they went hand-in-hand to the Holy Hill, and at midnight knelt there, face-to-face. And she cried as Carnelian spoke again the vow from long ago: I promise you I will be true. I promise you, as long as there is breath in my body, I will be yours, and you will be mine. I promise you, no matter what lies in store, I will be true to you, my wife.
But when her turn came, she could not speak – she opened her mouth, but could only weep. Too much had happened, too much had gone wrong. It is all right, Carnelian said. Take your time. We can wait. Hour after hour they spent kneeling there, as she fought all the sadness and fear in her chest, as she remembered their wedding in a different age, the golden borders on the tent of the king, the tousled beard of the soldier from the North, the smell of burning fields as the pillagers came, the hunger that drove her to the merchant's bed.
And as the dawn broke over the hill, she looked into his eyes, and saw love there. And fighting all doubt and fear she said, as the tears ran down her face: I promise you I will be true. I promise you, as long as there is breath in my body, I will be yours, and you will be mine. I promise you, no matter what lies in store, I will be true to you, my husband. And he took her in his arms, and together they wept, for pain and for joy, for the stain of four years that could not be undone – but they could begin again.
And when her child was born, they named her Grace – for, she said, true love remains, and heals all shame and brokenness.