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the woman who married a star and bore a hero

It takes all of twenty minutes for Kendra to move her things into Percival’s home – hers and his now, he had told her firmly, his thumbs running over the backs of her hands, hers and his, and she thinks her mother would have approved – and five of that is spent with Honoria flitting around her nervously, wringing her hands and asking if there was anything she could do to help.

Eventually, she had bitten back the refusal she had wanted to give, and asked instead for a pot of tea, please?

Honoria is her husband’s sister, and a kind woman, a good woman; it was not her fault she did not understand that Kendra had no need of help. Carrying things is simple, much simpler than the tasks which lay ahead of her.

She wishes her mother were with her, that her mother could see her now, married to an Englishman – Welshman, but what was the difference? He is still tall and white and reserved as she had been told – so that she could ask all of the questions she should perhaps have asked a long time ago, but that the academy would never have allowed.

Will it hurt? Will a child quicken soon? What if she is scared – what will he do then? Is it normal to be nervous, to almost want to sleep and wake up to know it was done, except that at the same time she wants it so very much.

Then again, perhaps her mother would not understand; sometimes Kendra does not understand herself. This world is different, too different in some ways, and there are too many questions she wants to ask and too few words she knows to say them with; too many things she does not think she can ask her new husband.

Slowly, biding the time until Percival returns from work – he had to open the shop, it was needed, and Kendra had been nothing but grateful (three days married and still untouched – she has been lucky, she knows) – she unpacks her things, the dresses and the shoes, the eagle feathers and the beads from her tribe before the white men came, and puts them in their new homes. It is wistful, tender, to be so overly careful but she cannot help it; uncertainty makes her hands shake as she arranges her shoes in a line at the bottom of the cupboard.

Last, at the bottom of the boxes Honoria had lent her to carry her things in, is a small, carved box, metal hinges on one side and a lock on the other. The key, small with two jagged spikes coming off it, sits in an envelope tied with string to the top.

She does not open it; it is not meant for her, she is merely the carrier. Instead, she just stays there, kneeling at the end of her bed, the package in her hands, running her fingers over the carvings – bear, lynx, buffalo, eagle, those long-ago beasts from her childhood.

It is how Percival finds her: box in hand, unopened, and he leans over her shoulder to look, kissing her cheek along the way.

“What is it?” he asks, eyeing it curiously.

“A gift. From my mother to me,” she tells him, her words slow and halting. “It is for a daughter – for our daughter, when she marries.”

Carefully, she opens the drawer and lays it into the small space she had cleared for it, right at the back, tucked underneath feathers and beads and the rest of her memories. It vanishes from sight, and the sight of her new bedroom – clean, neat, devoid now of boxes and petticoats – feels so very final.

A good thing, really; she has a new life now, one she craved, and so she stands and turns to face her husband, close to him, close enough that if he wanted he could kiss her, could touch her, hold her. She hates the clothes she wears then, more than she has done before.

“I made dinner,” she murmurs, suddenly shy, not sure of how to go about this. Honoria had said she had seduced Percival simply by smiling at him, but what if there was more to it? Gestures, actions, words…

“Leave it,” Percival breathes, an arm already about her waist, and she discovers that, really, it is just that easy.

Eleven years pass, quicker than she would have expected, and she settles, finding her new role as wife, as housekeeper, far less complicated or terrifying than it had originally seemed. It is easy enough to do, to adapt: she goes to church with Percival (though she never repeats the prayers, and he does not comment on her silence), she cooks and cleans and twice a week walks to the town to buy bread and milk and vegetables.

Honoria drops by often, and Kendra has come to know her fluttering, flustered nature as something endearing, rather than to be endured; their neighbours are friendly enough, though the smiles Mr Winters gives her are never much or long-lasting, and Percival’s shop is flourishing.

Eleven years and she has everything she could possibly have asked for: a nice house, a kind husband, books to read (she struggles at times, but she has learned and that is that), and yet she is still not happy.

It has been eleven years since she married Percival, and in all those years she has not dreamed and her womb has not quickened.

One night, she slips outside, dressed in only her nightgown, her feet bare and her hair down her back. The cold reaches round her, sliding underneath her dress and over her body with feather-light touches, while the wind plucks at her hair, flicking strands of it over her eyes, darker than the sky. Under her feet, the grass tickles, as though it is greeting her, and if she closes her eyes she can smell the land of her ancestors all around her: the scent of Blue Flax flowers and cedar trees on the breeze, surrounding her as though it were a blanket.

Only then, once she has breathed in deeply and sunk into the grass, burrowing her hands and her knees and her feet into the earth, does she cry.

All she wants is a child, all Percival wants is a child – why can she not give him that? Why can she not give them both that? A little boy, with his hair and her eyes, his mind and her heart… she had not thought it would be so much to ask, to want, before, but perhaps it is.

It is her fault if there are no children, she knows; it is almost as times as though she can feel it inside herself, inside her womb, feel the walls crumbling as her body breaks down, shedding all possibility of a child. She half wishes it were Percival’s fault, that it could be his fault, if only for the fact that then it would not be hers; then, she could scream and rage and cry at the cruelties of life all she wanted, because she would be blameless. 

In the back of her mind, she cannot help but wonder if Percival blames her, if he hates her for it, or if he will in the future when she is old and he is old and there is still no child.

“Kendra?” his voice is loud in the quiet of their garden, and she claps a hand over her mouth, trying desperately to hide her reddened eyes and her hiccupping sobs. It is too late to hide her nightdress – ruined now, no longer anything like the cream strip of cotton it had looked like when he bought it for her – or the streaks of green and brown on her legs and hands.

“I am sorry, I will come inside,” she babbles, feeling more and more foolish with every passing second. There is a concern in her husband’s eyes she does not recognise, and a compassion she does not want; she wants both to throw herself at him and sob until all the liquid in her body is gone, and run to their bedroom and hide from him.

She has not felt shame like this in a long while.

“Kendra,” he interrupts her, more forceful this time, and she looks up at him, expecting to see anger written all over his face.

He smiles, softly and sadly, and reaches out to pull her close, unfazed by the mud on her face and the dew in her hair. He simply holds her, tight and warm, pressing a kiss to the top of her head, even as he tells her over and over again that it is not her fault, that none of this is her fault, that he does not and never will blame her.

This, he tells her, and the conviction in his voice cracks like thunder in her ears, will not break them. It will not.

She believes him – truly, she does – but still, with her face pressed into his shoulder, she begs her Great Spirit, Percival’s God for a child, any child. Just one. Just one, just to be her own.

She dreams, less than a month later, just like she had done back on the Great Plains, back in her old life, before the white men came. There is fire and heat, spitting sparks onto her skin; there is water, roaring up and up and up, so high it brushes against the stars; the earth, solid and dependable, trembles and cracks, swallowing up villages whole.

There is a thunderstorm, humid and thick, gathering strength as the days spin past underneath it, a never-ending rush of light and dark, continually following each other; circling, like a pair of buzzards hovering over a buffalo, collapsed from the glare of the sun and frozen by the moon. Lightning crashes in the distance, and seventeen seconds later, the thunder rumbles in response, dark and menacing.

Within it all, within the carnage, there is a bird flying, red and yellow and orange, and when it caws, the rain falls ever harder, the thunder roars louder, and the lightning gleams brighter. She does not feel it, not really, but something about the way the bird navigates its way through the storm, small and almost delicate against the majesty of the forces at war around it, something about it makes her clench her hands and her heart skip a beat.

In the morning, it lingers at the edges of her consciousness, lingers on the edges of her memory as though there is something important about it, as though it should mean something. She cannot think, though; she is sick to her stomach for the third morning in a row, and the smell of the tea Percival brings her only makes it worse. 

Two days later, she is no better and Percival sends for the doctor. They decide on Albus for a boy, Ariana for a girl.

Their son is born at the height of summer – an Indian summer, Percival is calling it, after the fashion the newspapers have started – and Kendra cannot help but love him more than she thinks she has ever loved anything in her life. Even if he is not exactly what she wanted (he has eyes and hair like Percival, blue and red, but cheekbones like hers and hands which match those of her people), he is perfect.

She tells Percival this often, and each time he smiles, looking at the two of them – wife and son, mother and baby – with a look Honoria labels adoration.

The one thing she is glad for, in all of her son’s perfection, is that his skin is a little darker, more like hers than Percival’s, a blend of the two, but enough for people to notice. He already looks little enough like her that people might talk (and they do behind her back anyway simply because she is not English, not a proper woman), and she does not want that for him.

She does not want him to know suffering. Not until he is ready for it. Never, if she can help it.

As he grows, she shields him from the outside world, teaching him how to read and write his name with a quill and ink and a chubby fist, and she indulges him in all the little whims which come to his mind, unable to refuse: cloud-watching, staring out of the window at the lane to see his father return, showing him how to bake cakes and finding herself incapable of scolding him when he is impatient and sets the oven on fire with blazing, wildfire magic.

He loves stories, listens to everything she says with wide, curious eyes – Percival’s eyes, though they have the look of her grandmother, a shaman’s wife and impossibly wise – and she thinks, in her heart, that he understands, that he hears beyond the words. When he grows older, he asks for the tales, for stories beyond those in the children’s books she bought him.

“I have read them,” he tells her stubbornly, arms crossed and mouth in a pout, storms caught in his eyes, the reflection of a swirling sea. At five years old, he does not want to be an older brother, but manages it with aplomb anyway, dragging his books into the small sitting room to read to Ariana, or helping Aberforth wash and dry his hands (though, truthfully, he is not very good at that). “I do not want to be read them. I want another story.”

So she tells him of free men and women running across open plains and through thick, dense forests, of warriors and maidens, water monsters and thunderbirds which lurk in the deep and the high, watching those on the earth’s surface. She tells him of the legends of her people, those her mother told her when she was a child, those she learned at her grandmother’s knee, and, as he gets older, and more curious, she finds herself saying more.

She talks about her friends – indirectly, discreetly, for she does not want him to feel any more out of place in this world than he already does – those she knew from the tribe, about their traditions, her mother and father, her many cousins and their lives.

He is a wonderful child, her perfect eldest boy, and yet she cannot help but feel more than a little guilty whenever she sees Aberforth and Ariana, a pair almost from the moment the latter was born, playing together because she knows that as a mother she is not supposed to have favourites.

They are their father’s children, though, the younger two: all calm and quiet and stoic resolve, tempered only by the quiet questions they fling at her occasionally, and bouts of temper and tears. Albus is all hers – is more hers than either of the other two – and she tells herself that it is simply a form of homesickness, that she is just lonely for someone to understand.

She knows it is a lie, but still, when Aberforth and Ariana, taller and more inquisitive as they grow, ask for stories, she always fetches a book.

Despair crashes like lightning in the air around her, and the world seems eight shades darker since Percival left – left her, her mind whispers at night, unstoppable and sly like silk, left her alone in this place – more impossible and strange than ever before. Words she knew before now sound odd in her ears, feel heavy and awkward in her mouth and she is restless, trapped in a cocoon of lies she has no choice but to keep on weaving, day after day after day.

Her husband is gone, chained after chasing vengeance in the name of justice. Her daughter is lost, her mind warped and changed so that she is both innocent and monstrous. She will not lose her sons; she will not lose anything more.

She moves house, moves Ariana and Aberforth and Albus to a safer, quieter place, where there is a chance people will not have heard, people will not assume, and they can be left in peace, to live as best they can. It is not much, not really, but it is all she can do.

The new village is small, much smaller than the last, with hills rising up on all sides, their crowns grazing the sky above, always filled with clouds, rays of sunshine bursting through like needles through cloth. Birdsong filters out of almost every tree, surrounding her, and the first day they are there, she spots a fawn in the garden, small and lithe and tan, before it darts away back into the forest beyond. There is nature here, the world itself is closer, and Kendra likes it, can breathe easily here, can see wild, blissful freedom out of the windows, even if she knows she cannot have it.

Ariana needs her, Aberforth needs her; Albus pretends he needs nothing, but that lie does not yet stick onto his tongue when he says it.

She keeps Ariana inside, out of sight and away from danger – from outsiders, from the Ministry, from her own mind at times – and schools Albus and Aberforth in what they must say if asked, in what the truth must become. It is hard for them; she sees questions in Albus’ eyes, though he does not ask, and Aberforth scowls whenever she reminds them because he does not understand, not yet, and she wishes, wishes beyond anything, that there was another way.

There is not, though. There is only what has been sacrificed for Ariana, and what must still be given for her.

Soon enough, Albus goes to Hogwarts, whisked away from her on a brand new red engine with gleams, all brass bars and clean lines, and she finds herself crying when it chugs out of the station, slowly at first but getting faster, and she cannot explain why. He will happy there, she hopes, he is clever and handsome (but she is his mother, and she is biased), there is nothing which will stop him from doing well.

She supposes it is just the idea, perhaps more the realisation, that he is not happy at home, and the following thought that there is nothing she can do to make things better for him.

There is still Aberforth and Ariana to think of, though, so she dries her eyes, pulls herself together and returns home, home to her second son who resembles Percival more and more with each passing day, so much so that her heart squeezes painfully whenever she looks at him, and Ariana, who has only inherited Kendra’s slim shoulders and long fingers, a beautiful porcelain doll otherwise.

If she carefully marks the days of Albus’ return on the calendar and finds herself counting down each morning, it means nothing, nothing at all.

There is a tension in the house – a tension which is there whenever both Albus and Aberforth are home, even if they are not in the same room – a kind of heavy, building pressure, filled with venomous glances from Aberforth and condescension radiating off Albus, dripping off every other word, injected into a smirk she has never seen him wear before.

She wonders when it came to this, how it came to this, and she wonders why she did not notice it before. Was she really that blind? Had she been so obsessed with helping Ariana, with caring for her and managing her that she had forgotten to know her sons?

If only Percival were here, she thinks whenever conversations shudder to a halt and she waits, patient and resigned to it, for one of them to explode at the other, he would know what to do. He would know what to say to each of them, how to make them friends again beyond their blood, but she cannot think of how or what.

She can only react now, nothing more.

“- incapable of such things,” she hears Albus’ voice coming from the sitting room, angry, biting, and she hurries down, thinking that really, if they argue in front of Ariana, she will bang their heads together for their trouble; she has had enough. “What do you think mother would say if she knew how ungrateful you were that you go to school? If she knew the trouble you got in? It’s embarrassing to be related to you!”

“Speak for yourself,” Aberforth sneers just as she reaches the door and looks into the room. Ariana’s in the corner, humming to herself and playing with a couple of dolls; if she’s aware of the pressure in the room, water building up behind a dam and almost ready to overflow, she does not show it. “Don’t think I don’t know about your wild late night activities, and those filthy books you have. What do you think mother would say about those? Which one of us do you think she’d find more disgusting?”

She expects rage, for thunder to crash and the dam to burst, because even if she is not certain what Aberforth means by his comments, the emotion behind them is clear; she does not expect, though, for Albus to flush a deep, bright red, even as he pales to a milk-white colour, all words and fight lost.

It is two weeks before she understands what Aberforth meant, before she understands why Albus did not, perhaps could not respond, and even then it only comes by accident.

There is a box she finds under Albus’ bed – one of his father’s – and she swallows the lump in her throat, even as she runs her fingers slowly, tenderly, over the faded gold lettering on the side of it. She had never thought to tell the children to take some of their father’s things, to keep some of them back if they wanted them, and she wonders, cannot help but want to know what it is of his father’s Albus had wanted to keep.

Inside is a pile of books, a couple from his father’s shop – on magical theory, social theory, the kind they had forbidden him from reading until he was of age for they are dark and addictive ideas – and the others she only knows by reputation of the authors.

Wilde. Rimbaud. An old copy of Homer’s Iliad. Plato’s Symposium. At the bottom, there is a last, plain-bound book, and it is this one she reaches for, flicking through its pages, in the hope that this one, at least, does not follow the pattern of its fellows.

The title inside reads ‘Telery’, but there is no author. Glimpsing only one of the lines, she feels the colour drain from her face – there is no need to see more than one – and hastily drops the book back into the box, shutting it and pushing it back under the bed.

It was wrong of her to pry, she knows, wrong indeed, and she does not quite know what to think next time she sees Albus (though she is sure to smile at him and pretend that she does not know the books he keeps hidden, that she does not now know that he is – how did Aberforth say it – wild, and understand what it means, if not what it means for him.

She is not sure whether it makes things better or worse, easier or harder, that she knows.

Over the summer, she studies him, her eldest son, once her closest and now seemingly so foreign to her. She sees how he looks when he concentrates, eyes intent on swallowing the words, the way he smiles when he talks of his friends, of theories and ideas and spells no one at the table can understand, and she sees how he looks when he walks alone down the street, and in the back of the garden, heading off into the woods.

It is easy, so easy, for her to pick out those features from her and those features from his father. His hair and eyes are his father’s as they have been all his life, but his gaze is still her grandmother’s, and his hands identical to her father’s and hers, with long, clever fingers. He is a strange mix of her and Percival, she realises, a perfect mix, just enough of her blood to make him not quite the same as anyone else, to make his heritage clear if it is looked for.

There is a storm in his spirit, though, visible through his eyes: a bitterness, a resentment of concealment, and a longing for freedom to be nothing more than all that he is and could be. She cannot help but wonder now if that is always what the true resentment has been, what is truly trapping him, and she had just never realised. Internally, he reminds her of a thunderbird, standing on the edge of a cliff, claws scratching restlessly into the dirt, wings beating slowly, ready to stretch and fly and soar away into the distance, into the unknown.

It is beautiful, truly beautiful, but it makes her heart ache.

He has mastered lying, tricks and tales and half-truths in order to deceive – and she regrets her own role in fostering this – but perhaps it is for the best; she knows well how Europeans, how white Americans too, think of someone with Albus’ inclinations. She knows what they would call him, how they would treat him because of it, and whether it is right or wrong, she does not want that life for him.

He deserves better than that, if only because of what he will have sacrificed for others to get there. 

Besides, as she watches him slip down the track round the back of the house to the forest trails and the hills, who is to say what is right? When the white men came, they brought with them their own rules, their own ideals and beliefs, but her people had different ways – better ways, she still thinks sometimes – and perhaps this is one of those.

In her mind’s eye, the two-spirits from her people’s brother and sister tribes she had seen when their paths had crossed, down to the south-west, on the very edges of the Great Plains, appear before her: tall and broad, women in spirit if male in body. One of them had braided her hair for her, once, with a gentle smile and nimble hands, and it had never occurred to her, not until she had been civilised, or so they said, that there was anything wrong about it, that there was anything unnatural. What the Great Spirit gave was what was to be accepted, nothing more.

The white men had taken it, though, had taken two-spirit and love and faithfulness, and replaced it with berdache and sodomy and shouts of sin, just as they had taken so many other parts of her life, of her people’s lives.

Smoothing down her skirts, she glances once more out of the window, feeling a fire in her belly she has not felt in decades, and in her mirror her eyes are a tempest in the night.

No, she is decided. Europe is wrong on this, not her people, not her son.

These people have judged her long enough for not being English, for not being proper, as they think, but she refuses to allow them to judge Albus in the same way.  

The day of Albus’ seventeenth birthday – the day he becomes a man, the day he is given all the freedom of the law – is a dismal one. It rains for most of it; a heavy summer rain which soaks Aberforth to the bone when he runs out to see to the goats in their enclosure, and the skies above are grey, thick with clouds as always, but darker and angrier than usual. Even the birds and the deer hide their faces from the world, choosing to stay dry, away from the sight of the world.

There are no celebrations, not truly. Albus’ friends send cards and gifts – books, mostly, though there is a large collections of sweets, too, which he passes round – but there is no party, no streamers or banners, or dancing and drinking, only a cake she made the day before and iced, carefully.

She gives him his grandfather’s watch, a solid gold mechanical thing which whirrs softly as it goes, magic keeping it going in perpetuity, and it coaxes the first real smile out of him, even if it is tinted by the knowledge that it should have been his father who gave it to him, and she squeezes his hand tight when he thanks her.

She knows what it is like, to feel Percival’s loss. He should have been here, after all, to see his sons become men, and his daughter become a woman.

It is frustrating for him, not to be able to have anything more, to do anything more to celebrate, and it shows, though he tries hard to conceal it. Whenever she turns away, out of the corner of her eye, she can see when his face falls ever-so-slightly, and he glances out of the window, no doubt dreaming of a world where he has birthday parties with champagne to toast with, carefully-wrapped presents, and friends gathered around him to wish him a happy birthday and dance the night away.

The world is unfair, she thinks, as she retires to her room, alone again, just as it is unfair that she has nothing from her people she can give him, nothing to remind him of the other half of his heritage, of the half which forgives more easily and accepts more readily.

She pauses, her hands still at the back of her neck, a trio of pins clutching in one hand. Except that she does. It might not fit exactly – Percival would never have approved, but he is not here now and the decision in any case is hers to make – but if he is two-spirit, then it counts just the same.

Two minutes later, she stops in front of Albus’ door, for once glad to see the flickers of orange creeping out from underneath it; she will not be disturbing his sleep, at least. She knocks twice, quietly, loath to wake up Aberforth only for him to see her giving a gift to his brother he will never get. Aberforth would not need such a gift, nor the message it would bring, but that would not make it any easier, on any of them.

“Mother?” Albus frowns at her once he opens the door, shirt and waistcoat from the day abandoned in favour of a thin sleeping shirt, his voice a whisper. “Is something wrong?”

To think, she spent so much time with him as a child, talking and laughing and playing with him, reading to him and chasing him and teaching him, only for him to assume, when she knocks on his door at seventeen, that something is wrong.

How much more would she find she had lost with the attack, how much that could never be recovered?

“Nothing is wrong,” she tells him quickly, patting his hand once. “I just wanted to give you something. I thought it would be better now than before.”

“I do not –” he begins, but she hushes him.

“I know, but you will,” she says, raising the box into the light and handing it to him. In the dim ember glow, it looks rough, mysterious, the carved figures raw and dangerous, shadow figures which move if you stare for too long. “This is from my mother, from me, for you. I wanted you to have something from my people too, not just your father’s. When you find someone you love, give it to them. In the meantime, take care of them. They are old, and precious.”

For a long moment, he does not look at her, one finger tracing idly over the carvings on the sides of it, rubbing over a corner.

“Thank you,” he whispers eventually, and there is a note in his voice which sends tears to the corner of Kendra’s eyes, though she blinks to hide them. “Thank you.”

She smiles, cups his face with one hand and raises his chin so he has to look into her eyes, and looks at him, really looks at him. In that moment, she sees far more of herself, of her people in him than she ever has done before, he is her son again and nothing more. The storm in his eyes, in his spirit is calmed, but she wonders if the wildness, the freedom and adventure in his heart will ever truly be tamed.

Those are tomorrow’s problems, though, and so she only tells him,

“I want you to be happy, my thunderbird. Nothing else is worth anything if you are not happy, you must remember that.”

A/N: A huge thank you to Treacle Tart on the forums who helped me so much with the Native American cultural references and ideas. I wouldn't have been able to write this without her! :) 

Wilde, Rimbaud and Plato are all real people, and their works (Plato's Symposium) are their own, and not mine. 'Telery' does not have an official author, but is accredited to Wilde and his friends, and is not mine either. The Great Spirit, thunderbird and any other recognisable features are all not mine as well.

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