Chapter Twenty Six: Rebuilding

The city was in shambles.

Anke heard the number of casualties rise every day for weeks. People from all around were brought in to clear the bodies and count the dead. Thousands had perished in the mere day the creature had blotted out the sun.

It was easier to count the living, those few survivors who had holed up early or never left their homes that fateful morning. Those lucky few who had escaped the notice of the tentacled beasts that went door to door and pulled families to the shadow beast's disposal. Those few that hadn't lived within a block of the harbor or been in the bay. Perhaps one in a hundred lived to see the next morning.

Everywhere they looked, bodies lay in the streets and houses were full of shattered windows and doors torn off their hinges. The city was silent save for the wails of the living over the numerous dead. There were no cats, no dogs, no horses, no livestock.

Or almost none of those things.

One not so memorable morning, in the early hours, Anke heard a scratching at her door. Thoughts of monsters in the alley never left her mind, though she had grown to an uneasy confidence they could never sneak up on her again. Nonetheless, she was not very quick to open the door that morning.

But when she did, in scrambled the little bow-legged mutt, Ratter. He was filthy and limping from a gash in one paw pad, but as jovial as ever. She held him in her arms and he chuffed and licked her cheeks. It was a good feeling having the little dog back.

She hadn't realized before how much she had relied on him. A dog, a little mutt, and he had saved her, in more ways than one. There were the obvious ways, like when he chased away the shadows that first time in the cemetery, but also the way he had leapt to her mind's eye when her mind was overpowered by the beast's thoughts. She knew he was the one who had shaken its hold on her, the reason it lost focus enough for her to take control and push it away, the reason her family was still intact.

Nolke had fallen listless in the aftermath, shell shocked by the enormity of so many memories he couldn't begin to process. But they began to fade, to the point that within two weeks, Nolke transformed into a lively little boy, who knew one word very well. "Mama." He watched her with possessive eyes, wary of her absence, and she thought maybe he remembered their time apart. But he was healing.

Roldan, one evening, as she read to the boy on her lap, observed, "You've spent so long taking care of us, my dear, that you haven't taken any time to say what happened to you." His dark eyes watched her, unwavering. It wasn't a challenge, merely a statement, a chance to open up to him.

Anke shuddered and turned back to her book. She could feel it in her head, miles away. It was asleep. And it was dreaming of her. She was a dream, an entertainment right then. A dream of a happy home. But Roldan didn't know.

"I want to understand," he insisted, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Whenever you're ready, I'm here."

"I know," she said. He smiled down at her and returned to his seat. He watched Anke and Nolke with an unreadable expression on his face, and Anke wanted to tell him but couldn't find the words. How could she even begin to explain?

"Start at the beginning," he said, a day later.

They were in bed together, and the moon was a waning crescent, hardly visible behind the inn that still loomed in the alley beyond. Beneath her, his bare skin still bore the long scar as a constant reminder. It was a dark stain on his skin, but he wore it as a badge of honor, a reminder that he had stood up against the invaders in his home like he'd always said he would. He'd protected them that time, and many times since.

But he couldn't protect her from the monster in her head. She'd told him that, in vague words and misdirected anger, when she tried to open up to him before. He couldn't understand what she barely understood, and didn't want to understand. But he wanted to, so she tried to explain. She curled up naked in front of him, literally and figuratively, and hugged her knees and tried to explain what she had tried so hard to avoid thinking about.

She held back nothing.

As she spoke, Anke feared he would reject her. At first, it seemed a valid concern. He moved away from her, sizing her up. She thought he was pulling away, but she realized, around the time she talked of finding him, and seeing the house in her head through the eyes of the beast, she realized he was only taken aback. He was at a complete loss for words, and she was left to fill the silence with her own babbling.

In the waning moonlight, just before dawn, words finally eluded her and the quiet of the house returned. It was as loud as a battlefield to her ears, speaking a hundred, a thousand worries to her heart. But then Roldan broke the silence with a movement. The sheets rustled as he sat up and wrapped his strong arms around her.

Anke was shocked, and could not control the tears that sprang to her eyes. He brushed them away and pressed his lips to her forehead in a calming kiss and then took her lips just as gently with his. He tasted of her tears and also of him, and it was a confusing tangle of understanding where one ended and the other began. But unlike the echoes of self in the back of her mind and the creature asleep and dreaming of happiness, this was a good confusion. This was goodness and rightness. This was love.

"It doesn't matter to me, my dear," Roldan said, finally. He held her close, her hair and hands splayed across his chest and his arm around her. "I promised you the rest of my life and this doesn't change any of that."

"That reminds me," she said, and rolled off of him, pulling away from the bed and standing naked in the moonlight. She turned to him, hands on her hips, and he took her in casually, confident in the knowledge they belonged only to each other. Nothing would change that if they didn't want it to. "I was told there was a specific reason you dragged yourself to my father's house that morning and asked to marry me. I've never gotten a straight answer from you, not while you were all here anyway."

He raised an eyebrow. "All here?" He paused and exhaled, looking a bit perplexed. "We're talking about something that happened when I was wounded, aren't we?"

"You were mad as a hatter and as distant as the sun, my dear, yes," she agreed, and her smile faded at the memory. "But you said something I wanted to know about."

"And what was that?"

"You said you saw me dance in the street, and you wanted that in your life because it made you feel something you hadn't before."

He hesitated then said, "Yes."

"And what was that?"

"I saw carefree joy." He stood and pressed close to her, taking one hand in his and setting the other on his waist. "It was on your face, in your every movement. I saw it in your eyes and they met mine for just a moment and I found myself staring at a future where I could get lost in those eyes and feel the love of a star every moment of every day." He punctuated the last words with a kiss to her shoulder, to her neck, and between her breasts. She sighed into his hair and he chuckled. "Does that answer your question?"

Annoyed at the sudden absence of his lips when he pulled away and spun her, she eyed him with feigned disgust. "You spin words like a poet but you're all talk, my dear. All talk, and you admire from a distance. It's a bit distasteful, isn't it? What would the neighbors think?"

He steered her to the window and she looked out into the street where the buildings were in all states of repairs. "I don't think they're so concerned with our little lover's quarrel," he pointed out. "We're just us two in this room right now and I think we should use that to our advantage."

Anke chuckled. "Of course you do, but what do you think I want?" She turned to face him again and crossed her arms over her breasts, staring a challenge up at him. "You've always been such a good observer but you wait for my command so much of the time."

"Not that much of the time," he replied defensively.

"Enough of the the time that I want to see you make the first move. So," she challenged. "What do you think we should do right this moment?"

The beast in the depths, in the back of her mind, rumbled a suggestion but she pushed it away. She could almost feel the smile, the affection, in its obedience. In sleep, it was as docile as a kitten. It slept and dreamt of her, every little moment and warm feeling. And it wanted more of that, more of her happiness. And Anke wanted that too right then.

As it turned out, Roldan wanted that as well.

When the moonlight vanished in its arc across the sky, dipping beneath the shadow of the inn in the alley behind their home, it stopped casting its silvered rays into the bedroom, stopped painting their movements in pale radiance. But they continued their slow turning together. In the darkness of the city, unaware of the ugliness of their surroundings and the unhealthy quiet of the streets, they found peace in each other's arms. Anke and Roldan danced in the shadows and afterward Anke hummed a tune.

And in the depths it knew music.

Note: Thank you so much to my readers! You are fantastic, and the reason I kept at this. Please please please don't hesitate to review this chapter's content, but I also have a few questions about the novel as a whole. These aren't mandatory questions, but they'll really help me when I start writing the second draft.

1. Do you have any remaining questions/concerns about things I didn't answer in-story?

2. What scenes/subplots would you like to see expanded? Was there anything you thought was unnecessary/could be deleted?

3. What was your favorite part? What was your least favorite part?

4. Any other comments on the story as a whole?

Again, many thanks to anyone who has read this far and extra thanks to faithful reviewers. This is the first time I've ever posted a NaNoWriMo novel for editing and it has been a really cool experience. Can't wait to start the next step. :)

For Petra