Days Gone By
It was the second day at Vo Wacune, hiding from the cold and snow in the ruined tower, waiting for Hettar and the Algarian horses to arrive. Durnik had spent most of the first day constructing various necessities to make their stay more comfortable: clearing an area for the fire, pegs in the crumbling wall to hang cloaks, make-shift beds for them to sleep, a store for Mistress Pol to keep the food.
She was different here, he noticed. Ever since they'd left Faldor's farm, she had been different in small ways, but they were all things that Durnik recognized. She had always been aloof and distant, choosing to keep herself busy and be in charge of instructing the tasks of others to ensure they were done well. She had always been somewhat quick tempered and fiercely protective of those she cared about. She had a streak of pride in her that was somewhat foreign in Sendaria, though not entirely unheard of. In various ways, those qualities had come out in stronger force as they trekked through Darine, Camaar, Val Alorn, and now through the forests of Arendia. But there was something about this ruined castle that brought out something in her that Durnik had not seen before; this was the first time he had ever seen her so sad.
They took turns keeping watch. There was no reason yet, here, so far as Durnik knew, that anyone would be looking for them or following them, but it was unspoken just the same that one of them would always be up keeping watch. Barak had taken the first shift, and Durnik took over for him somewhere in the small hours of the morning, still long before sunrise.
He walked through the snow, marveling at the haunting beauty of this place. Even in its ruined state, he could see glimpses of what it once was. Though he was not a builder, per se, Durnik did have an innate sense of how structures were formed. He was a blacksmith, and he created and crafted by trade. And he could look at these ruins and know that this grand castle had been a wonder to behold. Now, covered in snow and overgrown by trees and vines that had been brought bare by the winter, all that was left of Vo Wacune was a forgotten memory.
"It was glorious here."
Durnik's heart jumped at the sound of her soft voice, though he was thankfully able to keep his surprise to himself. He turned to see Mistress Pol standing beside him, her arms crossed around her. She wasn't wearing a cloak. "It's cold out," he cautioned.
She looked at him, searching his face for something he could not discern, and she gave a very gentle smile. "I'm alright. I'm never cold here."
He wanted to know what she meant. He wanted to know what she knew of this place, what it meant to her. But he did not wish to pry. It was not his way to ask personal questions, particularly not to her. He knew his place. He knew that he had no right to expect any more than she willingly gave.
But thankfully, she seemed to know that he was curious and, even more, that he would listen to whatever she would say. She continued, "I lived here. In the palace, for a time, as a guest, and later in a house of my own. It was beautiful. The most beautiful place I've ever been in all my life. Which, as my father would say, is certainly an impressive statement."
She paused, sighing sadly. Durnik felt a powerful urge to put his arm around her in comfort, but he resisted.
"This was a place of chivalry. The Mimbrate Arends are a high-spoken and poetic people, and the Austurian Arends are much less formal though still quite proud. But the Wacite Arends were a beautiful blend. Poetic and beautiful in everything they did. Strong warriors and fiercely loyal, like all Arends, but the beauty of the Wacite life was unlike anything I'd ever known before or come to know since. I loved being here among them, indulging in art and song and elegant opulence."
Durnik recalled the way she had posed as the Duchess of Erat and commanded them all as her entourage and commissioned the most beautiful blue dress he had ever seen. He felt himself blush just thinking about it, though thankfully the cold had already put color in his cheeks so it was not noticeable. But Durnik to very well believe that she had loved that indulgent way of life. It was, in many ways, so different from the practical nature he'd seen in her as Faldor's kitchen mistress. But he could see it. Even in running the kitchens and caring for Garion as a little boy, she had always been clean and uninjured—unlike most of the kitchen staff—and she had an appreciation for manners that seemed now to be very courtly.
She went on, "There were tournaments for the knights. The nobles all had a champion to compete in his or her honor. I always chose my champion well. And then one, I found, was very special." She closed her eyes for a moment to savor the memory. "His name was Ontrose. And at the time, I thought that I loved him."
That caught Durnik by surprise. He had never imagined her with a man before. Though if she were Polgara the Sorceress and had lived more than three thousand years, it was unthinkable that she had spent all of that time on her own. Surely she must have been in love at some point. Durnik felt a churning in his stomach at the idea of her in love with another man, though he would not give that feeling any credence. But equally powerful in that moment was a sinking sensation in his chest at the idea that if she had loved a man once, and she had lived so very long, that love had been lost.
"I did love him, though I've since learned better. And I wanted to marry him, actually," she admitted. "It seems silly now, that I thought I could get married. I had assumed that I had time, that I could take a bit of love and happiness for myself for just a little while. Something of a normal life. My father put a stop that, of course. It was almost the angriest I've ever been with him. Almost. I knew I was being stubborn, as usual. I knew I was digging my heels in, clinging to what I wanted like a petulant child. I behaved awfully. I didn't understand what I was meant for, what I was supposed to do. Things were still so hidden from us then, though not much has been revealed to us since."
"What do you mean?" Durnik asked, blurting the question before he could stop himself.
She smiled at him again and placed a gentle hand on his arm. He felt a shiver at her touch. "I am sorry. I know this is all very new and confusing for you. And you're taking it all very well."
Durnik did not know what to say to that.
"There are things that are meant to happen," she explained. "My father could explain better than I, but in time I learned to not question it. Much of the Events of the world, the moments that change the course of existence, are preordained to happen. Father and I are tasked by our Master to help things along to ensure that things happen as they should. I accept that now. I was less accepting when I could not marry the man I loved and I could not save him and I could not save Vo Wacune. The Wacite Arends were destroyed. This beautiful place I loved and all the people in it were brought to ruin. And I wasn't allowed to help."
"I am sorry," he said, sincere in every word.
Tears gathered in her eyes as she looked up at him, though they did not fall. "It was what was meant to be. And it was a long time ago."
"Even so, it hurts you still. And I am sorry for that," Durnik explained.
"It is not yours to be sorry for," she replied, giving his arm a squeeze.
"I am sorry all the same. Anything that hurts you I…I want to…" He trailed off, not knowing the right words to say.
She blinked back her tears. "You are a very good man, Durnik. And I am so grateful that you are here."
As she leaned in towards him, Durnik reflexively opened his arms to her. She folded herself in his embrace and rested her head on his shoulder with her arms around him. He held her close and was struck with the powerful realization that this was the first time he had ever embraced her like this. The first time he had embraced her ever.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"What for?" he replied somewhat stupidly.
"For listening. For your quiet strength. For your kindness. I don't know what I would do without you," she told him.
Durnik had never believed he would ever hear such words from her, but he felt them in every bone of his body. It was all he ever wanted to be. "I'll do whatever I am able to for you. For as long as I can."
She hummed happily in response. "Yes, I know."
They both fell silent. She stayed in his arms for another moment or so, though Durnik would have been happy to never, ever let her go. But eventually the icy wind kicked up, and she shivered in his arms. "It's too cold out here," he insisted, rubbing her arms for warmth and regretfully pulling away.
"I feel plenty warm," she said in return, a hint of a smirk on her lips. "But I'll go in and sit by the fire. I shouldn't distract you from the watch."
He watched her go back inside the tower. And despite the snowflakes now falling around him, Durnik too felt plenty warm.