Sex: Yes

Violence: No

Love, warmth and tenderness: Definitely yes


Author's notes:

I wrote this as a work of original fiction. However, if the reader would prefer to visualise the main characters as resembling a certain warrior and her bard, please feel free to do so.

Although this story takes place in southwest England (mostly) and in the present day, the perceptive reader may notice that some distances, towns and historical references have been altered. This is deliberate. There is a real village called Otterhampton, but it is nothing like the town described here.


If you have a moment, contact me at:


Peace, happiness.






Chapter One




Thursday 23rd June, 6 Years before Meeting :


Ember Leaves looked out at the passing fields and farms, hedgerows and woodlands. The sun had gone down over the western hills but the sky was still ablaze with red, yellow and mauve light.

Ember was a young woman of slightly less than average height, with shortish blonde hair and silver-blue eyes. She watched and smiled, delighted by the simple beauty of the passing landscape, a sense of warmth and well-being seeming to come from deep inside her. Even as the colours and light drained from the sky she found herself captivated.

She was barely aware when Mr Fairfax, who had been intending to go to Otterhampton anyway and had offered to give her a lift, looked across at her a couple of times. Nevertheless it registered; and she supposed that, like so many, he was thinking that she was a very odd girl.

An hour later they neared the edge of the small town of Otterhampton.

'Are you sure you don't want me to drop you off at Mrs Waechter's?' Mr Fairfax asked.

She smiled at him. 'I'm sure.' She could see the confusion on his face and perhaps a little bit of concern, but she was used to people being confused where she was concerned, used to people clearly not understanding her. 'Just up here will be fine. It's a good place, and I'll enjoy the walk into town.'

'All right,' he said, and pulled over, partly onto the grassy verge, by a fence that enclosed a field that had been left fallow.

Ember climbed from the car, opened the back door and removed her backpack. After closing the door, she leaned into the open front door again. 'Thank you so much,' she said with a grin.

'You're welcome.' Mr Fairfax smiled back at her.

When she closed the door, he gave her a wave and then pulled away. She watched as the rear lights retreated from her, their red glow leaving her behind, the noise of the vehicle rapidly dying away to nothing. She wondered at Mr Fairfax's simple kindness. She had not asked for a lift, but when he had heard that she was going to stay with Mrs Waechter in Otterhampton, he had immediately offered her a lift. She did not know him well - he had simply been a neighbour, owning an end-of-terrace house next door to the boarding house she had been living in.

The drive had been just over a hundred miles and she was glad to be able to stretch her legs and be under the open sky. Looking around her, she was almost surprised by the quietness of the evening. There was a little wood up ahead, and the field on her left, and a high hedgerow before a sloping field beyond it on the other side of the road. The last of the light lingered in the sky - summer twilight. The night to follow would be short. She wondered if it might even be the summer solstice though she could not remember its date.

Picking up her pack, she walked towards the trees and at a convenient place climbed through the wire fence into the fallow field. Away from the road, where the trees opened into the field, there was a secluded place where she knew she would not be disturbed.

She unrolled her sleeping mat, then opened her pack and took out her sleeping bag. Laying it out on top, she sat down and brought out a bottle of water and a little food - a snack before she settled down for the night.

A small chuckle escaped her and she realised that she was smiling. She had often been asked why she smiled so much and seemed happy in the smallest things. She had never known how to answer, and wondered at the fact that other people did not seem to find pleasure in some of the things that filled her with wonder. On the other hand the reverse was also certainly true: she could not understand at all, nor relate in any way to so many of the things that others clearly found very important.

After finishing eating a sandwich and a couple of biscuits, she stood up and walked a little way along the edge of field, and among a few ash and Scots pine trees at the edge of the wood. She listened to the rustlings of small creatures, the occasional birdsong, and felt the still, soft and warm air upon her skin. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and though she carried a pullover with her she did not need to put it on.

When she returned to her pack and sleeping bag, it was almost fully dark. She sat there happily for an hour, watching as the stars peeked between clouds and the glow of the moon began to light the clouds over the eastern horizon.

Finally she undressed, climbed into her sleeping bag, and pillowed her head upon her rolled up sweater. Lying on her back and staring up into the sky, she wondered at the beauty that was all around her. She listened, and watched, and realised she was smiling again.

At length her thoughts began to drift and dreamlets stole across her mind. Turning onto her side, she briefly took pleasure in how comfortable she was, and let herself slide into a deep and peaceful sleep.


Friday 24th :


Ember woke to the dawn chorus. She listened, awed by the songs of the many birds around her. The air was cool and slight damp against her face but she did not mind. After a while, though she regretted that she would miss the songs that would continue, she allowed herself to fall asleep again.

When she next woke she felt very refreshed. Checking her watch, she found that the time was a little after six o'clock. Deciding to get up, she shivered a little as she climbed from her sleeping bag and the air chilled her warm skin. Dressing quickly, she pulled on her sweater and also shrugged into her lightweight coat, though she left it open down the front.

Looking out into the summer morning, she drank some water and ate a couple of biscuits. The sun was rising and, taking a few steps away from the trees, she was able to stand in the clear golden sunshine. The temperature was rapidly warming, and after a little while she took off her coat.

At length she decided that she would set out for Otterhampton. It would take her about an hour and a half to walk to Mrs Waechter's house. The route was picturesque, and she thought she might stop by a small stone bridge that crossed a stream, to take a break and see if she might spot any fish swimming there.


It was just after nine o'clock when Ember reached Mrs Waechter's place. It was a pleasant home, of brick and carved stone casements, on two floors, with leaded glass windows. A neighbouring house was visible on its right, and on the left was a churchyard.

As Ember walked up the short path across the front garden, the door swung open and a plump woman in her mid seventies stood there, smiling, one meaty hand on her hip over her floral apron. Though she was standing in shadow and Ember was in the sun, Ember could see her clearly enough - she had unusually good vision.

'Ember!' said the woman, brushing back an escaped strand of grey-brown hair that was otherwise tied back in a bun. 'I'm so glad you could come. Did you have a good trip?'

'Hello Mrs Waechter. Yes thank you, it was very good indeed. Mr Fairfax was kind, and the weather has been really beautiful.'

'Come in,' Mrs Waechter said. Her rosy cheeks dimpled as she smiled, her small brown eyes full of light. 'You must be hungry after your trip. Let me make you some breakfast.'


* * *


Six Years Later:

Wednesday 3rd May, Year of Meeting (Year 1) :


Waking and sleeping, drifting and dreaming . . . Ember basked in the comfort of slumber and wakefulness. At length she woke more fully in the light of the window and the drawn curtains against which the morning sun brightly shone.

She had had a dream about being utterly at peace, safe and warm and loved, but she could recapture it, could not fall back into its warm embrace.

'So beautiful,' she murmured to herself. And for a moment she thought that she was actually speaking to someone else. She realised that she must have met someone in one of her dreams - someone wonderful - and that she was addressing her. But she could not quite recall the dream, though she was usually good at doing so. She wondered why this particular one eluded her. Perhaps, when she wrote in her dream diary after getting up, some of it might come back to her - but it seemed unlikely.

Ember found that her thoughts were clear and that she had woken in a mood of slightly heightened perceptions and feelings. Throwing back the duvet with apparent decisiveness - and smiling at the knowledge that she really was not a decisive person - she swung her legs out of bed and stood up. Blinking slightly against the morning brightness, she walked naked and barefoot into the en-suite bathroom, ran the shower, then stepped under the water.

She enjoyed the feeling of the warm cascade rushing over her. After a couple of minutes - she did not want to empty the hot water tank, though Mrs Waechter was always very tolerant with her - she turned off the tap and towelled herself dry. A few minutes later, dressed in pale blue jeans and a brick-red t-shirt, she stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom and brushed her hair.

Standing in front of the mirror she suddenly stopped and stared. Strange feelings of displacement and disorientation welled up within her.

I have forgotten something. The thought came to her with startling power. She felt as if she had forgotten something that she had known all along, as if she had stepped into another reality and could not remember something fundamental about where she had come from. At the same time she wondered if she should not be here - though she was happy here - and should be somewhere else instead - though she did not know where.

The confusion drained from her then, leaving as quickly as it had come.

Coming back to herself, Ember finished brushing her hair, staring at her reflection as she did so.

In the golden light of early morning, her fair skin was warmed and a touch of colour brushed her cheeks. Her short, light blonde hair was darkened because it was still damp. She pursed her full lips and for some reason a giggle escaped her at her expression. For a moment she looked into her silver-blue eyes. They were large and many people had commented on them, saying that they were amazing; though she also suspected that people found her eyes too unconventional in the brilliance of her crystalline gaze for her to be beautiful.


Fifteen minutes later Ember was sitting at the table in the kitchen. Mrs Waechter bustled about, bringing her breakfast with all the pleasure and enthusiasm that Ember had come to realise was normal for her. Though Ember had poured her own coffee, today as so often she was not allowed to help with the preparation of breakfast.

Ember was glad when Mrs Waechter sat down to eat with her. For a little while, as Ember ate fried eggs and sausages, fried tomato, toast and butter, she observed her. She was plump, caring and cheerful, and she could not help but feel a wave of affection for her.

'Thank you,' she said, the words escaping her quickly but sincerely.

'You are welcome.' Mrs Waechter took a took a bite of toast and regarded her, clearly glad that she was there.

After a short pause, Ember said: 'I am going to go on a trip in a few days.' She looked up into the old woman's eyes. 'I am not sure when I will be back, but it will probably be about ten days.'

Mrs Waechter was very interested at this. 'Where are you going?'

'I want to go to Bodmin Moor and explore it.'

Mrs Waechter grinned. 'You can be so adventurous sometimes. You will be careful, won't you?'

Ember nodded and smiled. 'You have always been so kind to me, always wanting to protect me,' she said then. It was far from the first time she had told Mrs Waechter this, but she had meant it every time and she knew that ageing woman appreciated it. 'You have always taken care of me, and I am so grateful for that.'

'Thank you dear.' Mrs Waechter's eyes had become moist with tears at Ember's words. 'You have brought me more than you realise. Like sunshine in my life.' She smiled, then became more serious. 'I know you are going alone. You are young and so full of light and joy. Are there no other people of your age that you would like to be friends with?'

Ember considered this. In the six years that she had lived with Mrs Waechter, the fact that she had no friends at all of her own age had come up in conversation a few times, especially if any of Mrs Waechter's own friends were visiting. 'I like many people. I am not lonely. Most people think I am very strange, and I admit that I do not understand them and think they are strange in the way they live their lives.'

Mrs Waechter nodded. 'It is more difficult to be in the world when you are different. But that difference can also be a sign of great specialness.'

Ember chuckled at this notion, which seemed like it would be true enough for some people, but in her case rather absurd. Then she wondered at what she had said: that she liked many people. She wondered if that was true. She did not really visit people, and no one came to visit her. What conversations she had were always at work, or because of circumstance. Perhaps she did not, after all, like people's company. Perhaps she just liked them in the sense that she felt positively for them and wished them happiness.

Then she smiled again, more widely. I am happy , she thought, and knew it to be true. Even if I have forgotten something .


* * *


Thursday 11th May, Year 1 :


Vibeke Kaestner awoke from a dream in which she had been struggling to find something but had been unable to do so. As she opened her eyes, the details of the dream dissolved and escaped her even while she made an effort to recall them. After a minute or so there was not much left but vague unease and sense of depression.

She was lying on her back and had a slight headache. After glancing at her alarm clock, she climbed out of bed. It was just before 5:30am, and she was able to turn off the alarm a couple of minutes before it was due to go off.

She padded from her bedroom, went a few steps down the hallway and entered the bathroom to relieve herself and splash water on her face. From there she went to the small kitchen and downed half a glass of water and a full glass of grapefruit juice.

A few minutes later, dressed in a faded green t-shirt, black shorts, white sports socks and trainers, she stepped outside and locked the door behind her.

She walked for a minute or so, then began to jog fairly slowly. Gradually she increased her pace until she was at the speed she would hold for the rest of the five miles she ran every morning.

It was a beautiful day. The sky was completely clear, a very deep blue, and golden sunshine shone warm upon her skin. The air was cool and soft and slightly damp, perfect as it flowed over her, pleasant in her lungs. Scents of meadow flowers came to her from the fields at her left, and the richer fragrances of roses - not yet fully open - and other blooms that brightly adorned the gardens, cottages and houses on the right. Cutting along a path, then around a narrow track between a farmhouse and a barn, she turned onto an unpaved road that would take her two miles to an old windmill near the coast.

As she usually did, she cleared her mind of all but immediate sensations. She appreciated all that was around her - the countryside at the edge of the town of Otterhampton, the beauty of the morning, the sound of her deep, even breathing and the steadiness of her feet upon the ground. She concentrated upon the cool air, and the increasing heat in the muscles of her legs, and the strength that she felt. As she turned a steep corner and ran over a low, weed-edged bridge that signified she had run for just over three miles, she felt the first prickling of sweat upon her skin.

Finally, as she neared the end of her run, she increased her pace and found herself smiling at her speed and the ease with which she managed it.

Back at her house, she downed a glass of water, pulled off her trainers and clothes, and took a shower. After drying off and dressing, she brushed out her still-damp hair.

Standing before the mirror, she wondered at herself. Dark red hair; fair skin that was rather tanned from the sunny spring weather and the amount of time she spent outside. Her eyes had a rather unusual colour: an intense shade of mauve, like amethyst; and which, just occasionally and in the right light, seemed to reflect hints of ruby. Some people found her gaze a little disturbing, though the habitual gentleness of her expression and manner usually put them at ease quickly enough. Quite a tall woman, she was slim and strong, with pleasing but not exaggerated feminine curves. She was wearing the usual casual clothes she wore to work: jeans and a t-shirt - light blue and dark blue today - and trainers. She wore no make-up or jewellery, and did not usually do so even when going out - which was very rare.

Vibeke was not sure if she liked herself or disliked herself - the question seemed somehow meaningless when she considered it, which she did not often do - but she acknowledged that she had a good body and a face without obvious flaw.

Setting her hairbrush back down on the dressing table, she went through to the kitchen, prepared her breakfast and sat at the kitchen table, looking out into the small back garden.

Despite her run, despite the beauty of the day, she felt a familiar sense of darkness within her - a sense of pointlessness, a hint of despair, though it was a quiet feeling rather than intense.

She wondered why she ran. It seemed empty in and of itself, and it was rarely enough to make her feel genuinely good despite her sometime enjoyment of it - such as today. She was not particularly trying to stay in shape in order to remain attractive. She realised that it was rather a kind of negative motivation that drove her to do it: if she did not, then she would feel worse and her day might be plagued with depression or discomfort.

With an effort she turned her mind away from such thoughts - thoughts that were all too familiar and insistent. Instead she concentrated upon her breakfast and genuinely enjoyed it: toast, butter and Marmite, orange marmalade, and cups of good tea with milk. Some mornings she would turn on the television or listen to some good music - she usually preferred classical early in the day, though she would turn to rock music later - but today she simply sat and enjoyed the peacefulness and the songs of the birds that came in through the open window.

After tidying away the breakfast things and a trip to the bathroom to brush her teeth, she took her small pack and headed for the door to go to work.


* * *


Saturday 13th May, Year 1 :


Ember returned from her holiday to Bodmin Moor early in the afternoon. She had enjoyed the trip but found it strangely unconvincing - as if it was not really something she had really wanted to do of itself, but rather something that helped her to pass the time while she was waiting for something of much greater importance to happen. Objectively, she realised that this was irrational. If she was waiting for something, she thought, then it was not something from outside her but rather some kind of internal confrontation or acceptance that she needed to reach, and through which she might perhaps change things. In truth she was not sure what she might want to change.

Nevertheless, she was glad that she had gone. She had liked walking over the open expanses of grass cropped by sheep, and heather, and strewn boulders and impressive tors. The weather had been changeable but she had expected that and had been prepared. The jacket she had worn had seemed rather expensive when she had bought it but she was glad that she had.

Now, walking back to Mrs Waechter's place from the railway station, she was rather glad to be home.

Curious, she considered as she thought this. Was Mrs Waechter's house really home for her? She supposed it was. Mrs Waechter treated her like the daughter she had never had, and was clearly very happy that she was there. And Ember in turn loved the lady's calming warmth.

Letting herself in, she realised that there was no one at home. Going upstairs to her room, she unpacked her backpack, then took a shower and changed into some clean and comfortable clothes. She was hungry and rather tired, and thought that she would lie down for a while after some lunch. The day was pleasant and warm, the sunshine softened by a hazy sky. Maybe she would lie down on a blanket on a back lawn and sleep for a while.


That evening, Ember and Mrs Waechter sat in the living room - at the back of the house, its French windows looking out over the small garden. Mrs Waechter sat in her customary armchair with embroidered clothes over the threadbare arms. Ember sat on the sofa.

'Do you want to watch anything else?' Mrs Waechter asked. They had just watched a nature documentary about the fish and birds, dolphins and seals, crustaceans and more that thrived along certain stretches of Britain's coastline.

The news was on next, and Ember was rarely interested in that. She considered checking to see if there were any films coming on on any of the other channels, but decided she was not in the mood. 'No, thank you.'

Mrs Waechter nodded, picked up the remote and turned off the television.

'I think I'll make myself some more tea,' Ember said. 'Would you like some?'

Mrs Waechter looked up. 'Yes please. The usual.'

Ember returned a few minutes later with two steaming mugs, and they sat in companionable silence. Though Mrs Waechter and Ember both liked to read, neither of them appeared to be in the mood this evening.

'It's Carolyn's birthday in a couple of days,' Mrs Waechter said after a little while. 'I sent her the card. She'll be glad you signed it. She likes you.'

Ember saw that Mrs Waechter was looking at one of the framed photographs on the mantlepiece. Carolyn was the lady's niece. 'Have you spoken to her recently?' Ember asked.

'A few days ago, yes. She and the family had just come back from a trip to Catalonia. Michael had some work to do at one of the museums, and Carolyn said she took the opportunity to get some research of her own done there. Apparently the little one had a lot of fun with some new friends at a local playgroup. She said they'd try to visit in the autumn.'

Ember was still looking at the photographs. Mrs Waechter did not have a large family - though it had been very large fifty and a hundred years ago - and she did not see her relatives very often, but she kept up with them and was always glad to hear from them.

For a little while, Ember asked her questions about her parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. Many of them had died during the Great Terror and a few had emigrated. Not many had raised families of their own.

And then, after half an hour or so of talking, Mrs Waechter turned to Ember and regarded her with an uncertainty that was uncharacteristic of her, as if she was considering something that made her uncomfortable but found herself unable to wonder.

'What is it?' Ember asked.

Mrs Waechter brushed a strand of hair behind one ear with plump fingers, and smiled a smile that dimpled her pink cheeks.

'It's all right,' Ember said. 'I promise I won't take offence, no matter the question you ask. I can't promise to answer it, but you can ask.'

Mrs Waechter chuckled at this. 'You know me well,' she said. Then: 'I was just wondering, not really thinking about asking you, but wondering why you haven't met anyone, fallen in love, married and had children. I mean, you are just the most beautiful young woman I have ever seen, and the boys must be falling over themselves to ask you out.'

Ember did not answer for a full minute or so. She felt a little uncomfortable, but it was not that which prevented her from saying anything. Rather, she did not know quite what to say because she did not know what the reason was herself.

At length she tipped her head sideways and gave a half shrug. 'I actually do not know,' she finally said. 'I am not sure that many would agree with you that I am beautiful. I am . . . a little strange to look at. But aside from that . . . In truth I think most men avoid me. I'm not sure why. And it does not bother me at all. I cannot imagine falling in love with anyone I have ever met.' This was true, but she refrained from saying that she could not imagine falling in love with any man at all. She could imagine falling in love with another woman - not that she had met any that made her feel much at all. Looking up then, she gave Mrs Waechter a slightly mischievous smile and said: 'What about you? Did you have some young beau to walk out with when you were a young woman?'

'Oh yes,' Mrs Waechter replied with a chuckle. 'Let me tell you about a very kind young man I met when I was about twenty. He was rather shy and awkward, but I liked him and he seemed to have an internal strength to him. I met him when I worked in a small factory in Winchester. I was at one of the machine benches, pressing these little metal parts that were used in the engines of cars and, I think, fighter planes. I don't know what they were exactly. And Thomas was an assembly engineer. He must have been good because he supervised the controls and testing. I remember how embarrassed he always was when he had to test and check the work that much older men had done. He used to wear loose brown trousers, a heavy shirt and thick suspenders. And he had these rather heavy glasses with thick rims that he kept having to push up his face. He was handsome though, and had thick brown hair that was parted on one side and swept across.'

Ember smiled as she listened, glad to hear Mrs Waechter's story. But, as she had expected, the story did not have a happy ending - the young man had been killed in the war that put an end to the Great Terror. But she was gladdened to see the way that Mrs Waechter smiled and took pleasure in the telling of her short-lived romance with him. Clearly the old lady had long ago largely accepted what had happened, and simply looked back on that time in a positive way.


That night, lying in bed, Ember wondered about the direction their conversation had taken. She considered some of the fantasies that she had had as a child - long stories she had made up that were full of romance. She thought about the more vivid fantasies she sometimes indulged in now, as an adult. They made her smile and she thought that tonight she might like to fall asleep to such musings and imaginings. Strange, though, that they seemed so very far away from anything that she thought she might experience in reality.


Monday 15th :


Walking to work on her first day back after her holiday, Ember was aware of her happiness both in the trip she had taken and in the nature of her everyday life. As the sun shone down she enjoyed the soft warmth in the air, the sounds of the birds that sang, and the quiet prettiness of the cottages and houses she passed.

Ember worked as a dressmaker. She had always had an aptitude for doing fine work with her hands; had always been dexterous and precise. When she had first started work at the seamstress's shop - just a week or so after she had first come to Otterhampton to stay with Mrs Waechter - she had simply helped the customers, manned the till, kept track of stock and, soon after that, kept up the books. Then she had asked Evelyn Compton, who owned the shop, if she might help her with the fittings and cutting, and then with the sewing.

Now it was Evelyn who kept up the books and looked after the stock - though she still liked to sew, and did so when she had time - while Ember made dresses at speed and with perfection. Evelyn still had more say in the designs - though not as much as the customers - but it was largely Ember whose craftsmanship turned those designs into perfectly fitting blouses, skirts, dresses and more.

The bell above the door rang as Ember pushed it open and entered the place. The familiar scents of cloth, wool, cotton and dyes struck her.

'Hi Ember,' said Evelyn Compton, looking up and smiling at her. She was sitting on a stool behind the main counter, nursing a cup of coffee. A good-looking woman in her mid-forties, she had long, fair hair and hazel eyes. Her skin was still tanned after a recent holiday in Morocco. She was moderately tall and quite slim and she always wore stylish clothes - though to Ember they usually looked rather fussy.

'Good morning,' Ember replied, returning the smile. She had always liked Evelyn, though they were very different and tended to spend their time together in comfortable silence rather than in animated conversation. She was aware that Evelyn considered her an incomprehensible eccentric whose personality was so baffling that it was not even worth trying to understand.

After exchanging a few words about orders that had come in while she had been away, Ember went through to the store room and workroom, made herself a cup of tea, then sorted through the work she had been doing before she had gone on holiday. Soon enough she settled down at her sewing machine and set to finishing a long, loose-fitting skirt she had fitted for an elegant-looking woman just before she had left.


At lunchtime Ember sat by the window that faced the tiny, overgrown garden at the back of the shop. She was aware when Evelyn joined her, sitting at her own work-bench, but did not look at her.

'You have been so good for this place,' Evelyn said then.

Ember turned her head and looked at her boss. It was far from the first compliment she had received from her but she was struck by the seriousness with which she had spoken. 'Thank you,' she said.

'Why have you not tried to work for yourself?' Evelyn asked. 'I'm so glad that you work here, but you are a better dressmaker than I ever was. You could become very successful, run your own shop, perhaps make really expensive clothes for the wealthy.'

Ember was slightly amused at this. She tipped her head sideways a little and the corner of her mouth quirked in a half-smile. 'All that does not seem important,' she said. It was an honest answer, though simple. Looking away, gazing out through the window, she watched as a female blackbird and a couple of sparrows pecked at seeds fallen into the unkempt lawn. The grass was a clear emerald green in the sunlight and she was amazed by the movement of the birds and their clear and distinctive colouring. 'Aren't they beautiful,' she said softly, and realised that she had been holding her breath for a few seconds as she had watched them.


* * *


Tuesday 16th May, Year 1 :


Vibeke left the long greenhouse - one of six, the flowers growing within which she mostly tended herself. Stepping out into the direct sunlight, she took a moment to enjoy the warmth of the afternoon and the deep blue of the sky. Behind her to either side were the large greenhouses, which were at the northern edge of the plant nursery. On her right was a small building with a storeroom and packaging room, then a large shed of equipment. Beyond them was a gravel area where the deliver vans would load up. On her left were rows of outdoor beds, and beyond them a small field with specially cultivated shrubs and trees.

Vibeke did most of the cultivation, the planting, and tending and watering and pruning. An older woman called Felicia Harper took care of the orders and the books and the packaging and delivery. The two of them worked well together, though they rarely talked much. Also, a middle-aged man who dealt with general maintenance put in one or one-and-a-half days a week.

Vibeke had worked here for four years. She enjoyed the job for the most part. She liked the quietness of it, she liked the scents of damp earth and the fragrances of flowers. Most of all she liked the work she did on the trees in the field, which could occasionally be physically demanding - and she welcomed that. She liked that the flowers she helped grow here ended up, via various florists, in vases in so many homes in the area, bringing a little colour and fragrance to many people. She knew the work was of no great importance, but it was still gently rewarding.

After brushing off her hands on her faded jeans, she glanced at her watch. It was close to five o'clock and she decided she would go home after checking on a few of the long flowerbeds she had not had time to walk along earlier in the day.

Twenty minutes later, she stepped into the main building to fetch her small backpack and cycle helmet and to tell Felicia Harper she was leaving. 'I'm heading off home now,' she said.

Felicia looked up from her desk, which was strategically placed next to a large window so that it caught plenty of light and had a pleasant view of rows of flowers, then trees and the hills in the distance. 'All right Vibeke. Have a good evening.'

'You too. Bye.' Vibeke smiled and left. Entering the shed to one side of the building, she brought out her bicycle, closed the door behind her, mounted up and checked the strap of her helmet. Then she pushed off across the gravel forecourt and turned left along the road.

Looking about her as she went, she enjoyed the bright and sunny light of the early evening. It was warm and the air was very still, the sky a pale blue tinged with deep yellow. She saw a few small insects, and fluffy seeds turning and floating in the air, bright in the sunbeams or hidden by shadows cast by trees. Fields opened up on her right, and woods and hills on her right. She passed a couple of farms, and some farm buildings. A few cars passed her from the opposite direction, and a couple of vehicles overtook her.

Deciding that she did not want to waste such good weather, she turned left into a smaller road that curled between hedgerows and over a hill. She thought she might cycle for about half an hour before heading back home.

The sun had gone down by the time she pulled into her tiny driveway and left her bike and helmet in the garage. She had been out for longer than she had expected and dusk was drawing in. She was not very thirsty - she had been carrying a bottle of water, and had drained it halfway through her ride - but she was very hungry.

She stopped of a sudden before her front door and a slight frown touched her brow. The muted light seemed colourless after the brightness of earlier, and she suddenly felt as if walls were closing in on her. With startling speed - though it should not have been startling, for it had happened so often during her life - she felt a sense of depression and despair descending upon her. Suddenly she did not want to enter her home. It seemed only to embody the emptiness that always filled her and was now, in her declining mood, once again being revealed to her.

She turned away from the door and looked outwards. There was a cottage at an angle to her house across the road on a corner, and she had a neighbour on the right. Otherwise she could only see trees and the road, a field, and sky.

Her hunger finally drove her to move. Turning, she let herself into her house. She had made a good - and large - pasta dish the previous day and it would only take a moment to heat the rest of it up.



Chapter Two




Thursday 18th May, Year 1 :


Half an hour after getting back from work Vibeke decided to go out instead of eating at home. It was just three quarters of a mile to an Indian restaurant and takeaway that she had often bought food at and which she happily considered to be the best Indian food available in Otterhampton - there were two other Indian restaurants she had tried closer to the town centre.

It did not take her long to get there. The restaurant was at the end of a row of small shops and the scents that came from it were captivating to her hunger-enhanced senses. Despite the sense of depression that had almost frightened her with its intensity just a few minutes earlier, she found herself anticipating the meal as if it was going to be a great event. She even noticed that her sense of anticipation leaked over into a more general feeling of waiting for something good to happen. She was aware that it was illusory but it was still pleasant in itself - though she knew from past experience that hoping that something good was going to happen, especially if it involved waiting, usually resulted in nothing happening at all.

Glancing briefly along the row of shops - all of them closed except for a newsagent that also sold alcohol - she took in the brick façades, the pleasingly-shaped bay and sometimes leaded windows. The bricks were of different colours, for the shops had mostly been built separately and tacked onto each other. Across the road was a pub that was not large but rather grandiose in design, and a post office and bank, then small houses. It was quite a picturesque street she thought.

Stepping within the restaurant, she was greeted by one of the waiters - a quiet and very polite man of about twenty-five years old, dressed in traditional waiter's attire. He recognised her and smiled, and she returned the smile.

'Good evening madam.'

'Hi, good to see you.' It occurred to her that, despite the many times she had been here over the years, she did not know the man's name, nor that of the other waiter and the manager of the place, and if they knew hers - which was likely given the orders she had placed from time to time - they never addressed her by anything other than 'madam'.

'I think I'll eat here this evening,' she said. When he nodded and smiled at her, she indicated a free table for two by a window at the side. 'May I sit here?'

'Yes, of course.'

They stepped across to table and the waiter pulled out a chair for her to sit down, then returned a few seconds later with a menu. 'Can I get you anything to drink?'

'A jug of water please.'

After looking through the menu - she was familiar with most of what the restaurant served - she sat back and sipped from the glass of water the waiter had poured for her and looked around the place. There were three couples eating and a group of three men and a woman who were also enjoying a few beers. Everyone spoke quite quietly and there was some Indian music playing in the background. She liked the décor of the place, even if it was stereotypical in some ways. Candles burned in brown glass holders.

She placed her order, waited for her meal, then began to eat with much pleasure. The food was very good and she was very hungry indeed. Though she did not often eat heavy foods, she was not paranoid in any sense about health or diet and liked to indulge herself from time to time.

Once her initial hunger was sated, she ate more slowly, taking her time and enjoying the flavours. She tried not to listen to the conversations of other people in the place, not because she did not want to eavesdrop but because she wanted to be alone with her own thoughts.

While she ate, three or four customers entered to collect takeaways they had ordered. She did not pay them much attention until a woman of quite remarkable appearance entered.

Vibeke set her fork down and simply watched her. The woman's hair was a light blonde, thick and straight and cut quite short. Her face had quite high cheekbones and an expressive mouth with pleasingly-shaped lips. Her eyes were extraordinary: large and an amazing silver-blue colour like Arctic ice and brilliant winter skies. Vibeke thought that the woman's appearance was fascinating and quite lovely. She acknowledged that it was a rather curious appearance - especially because of her eyes - and that others might feel that she looked rather unusual, but to Vibeke the slight strangeness of her only added to her beauty.

She watched as the woman looked around even as the waiter approached her. It seemed to Vibeke that she was slightly relieved at the waiter's appearance, as if she had felt a little self-conscious coming into this place.

She watched as the woman spoke quietly with the waiter and he led her over to the bar area where she could look at a menu and wait while her takeaway order was prepared.

Vibeke supposed that she was about five feet and four inches tall. She had a figure that was very feminine but also looked quite strong and on the athletic side. She was wearing a long skirt of some loose and lightweight grey cloth that swirled about her as she moved, and Vibeke caught a glimpse of shapely, sandalled feet. A loose-cut top of some blue-grey silk-like material with spaghetti straps revealed pleasingly-shaped shoulders and suggested pleasant curves and a slim waist. She also wore a belt that was quite wide, with many semi-precious stones embedded in swirls, earrings that each consisted of three hanging silver chains that swung and caught the light each time she moved her head even a fraction, silver bracelets on her right wrist and three silver rings - one with small blue stones and one with colourless stones - on her left hand. Vibeke wondered if she wore an ankle bracelet too and realised she would have been almost surprised if that was not the case, though she did not know why she thought that.

Taking her time, Vibeke finished her meal and sat and enjoyed where she was. As much as she could, she looked at and took in all she could about the beautiful woman who was waiting for her takeaway food to be ready. She did not want to appear to be staring, but it was hard for her not to keep glancing at her and watching her.

Once, as Vibeke sipped from her glass of water, she thought that she was being stared at in turn. Looking up and across, she found herself looking into the wondrous silver-blue gaze of the woman. Amazement, wonder and self-consciousness immediately threatened to overwhelm her. Instinctively she looked away, her wish and reflex not to be intrusive winning out - an automatic reaction that she did not particularly like, for she wished she could consciously choose how she might react.

Yet as she failed to see the last of her meal in front of her, or even notice the candle that flickered on her table, and as she became aware of the heat in her cheeks, she found herself considering that the beautiful woman had had an openness to her expression, a candour and curiosity that was not plagued by the kind of doubts that Vibeke had but which, rather, was a simple and straightforward interest in her - though whether it was Vibeke's appearance or manner that intrigued her for a moment, she did not know.

When the waiter brought the woman her meal, handing her a handled bag of sturdy brown paper with trays of food stacked within, she thanked the young man and crossed the restaurant to leave. As she passed closest to Vibeke's table, she turned to her for a moment and smiled - a regard and expression of such innocent and uninhibited joy, delight and goodwill that seemed to be without calculation and without any need for any kind of response, that Vibeke was left marvelling long after she had exited through the front door and had gone to wherever she was going.


It was not long afterwards that Vibeke walked home. She took her time, enjoying the warm, soft air, the clear night sky that was spangled with innumerable stars, and the easy movement after the rich and satisfying meal. She was glad that she had decided to eat out. She was glad of the food she had eaten and the interactions she had had with others. Most of all she was intrigued, astonished, filled with wonder by her reaction to the beautiful woman with silver-blue eyes who had done nothing more than order a takeaway, glance at her and smile at her.

Lying in bed that night, the moonlight shining through two windows upon a rug and the wooden tiles of the floor, she found it difficult to sleep. She was not sure if she felt good, excited, enlivened because of the heightened awareness that the woman had brought to her, or if seeing her had simply brought home to her the emptiness that was so much a part of her life - the loneliness, lack of meaningful contact, lack of anything at all that seemed of true value that was her life.

Not for the first time, she considered the nature of her loneliness. It was not that she could not make friends or that people did not like her. Rather, it was that she felt a kind of hollowness and falsity when she interacted with others, as if she was not really relating to them and they were not relating to her. She was different, she knew.

She wondered if the beautiful woman she had seen at the restaurant had many friends, or was in a relationship, and if she felt much valued and if she much valued others.


* * *


Tuesday 23rd May, Year 1 :


Early in the afternoon, Ember walked to the small park that was barely two hundred yards from the dressmaker's shop where she worked. She should have taken her lunch break an hour or more earlier, but she had been absorbed in her work and had lost track of the time.

Making her way to a bench by the duck pond, she sat down and opened her small pack on the bench beside her. Usually her lunch was rather bland when she made it herself, but Mrs Waechter often took charge of the matter and created a meal for her that was always interesting and carefully thought out.

Bringing out a sandwich of brown bread with lettuce, chicken, mayonnaise and chilli sauce, she munched happily while she watched a dozen ducks swimming and diving in the large, elongated pond, and resting on its banks.

Her thoughts returned to the woman she had seen eating alone in the Indian restaurant she had gone to for a takeaway the previous week. She had not considered it at the time - wished she was better at making decisions, at creating situations for herself rather than just moving through them - but she had come to think since then that the woman had been someone truly extraordinary. Her appearance had certainly been amazing - long, dark red hair, fair skin, eyes the colour of amethysts and a curious, disturbing beauty; and a slim, pleasingly-curved body that suggested, even at rest, that she was strong and powerful and fast.

Ember took poured a cup of coffee and milk from her vacuum flask, took a sip and enjoyed its rich aroma, then tilted her head back and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the bright sunlight upon her face.


* * *


Wednesday 24th May, Year 1:


Vibeke turned off the engine of the van, climbed out, went to the back doors and opened them. She picked up the first of the crates of flowers and leaves and sprigs and potted plants she was delivering, crossed the pavement and entered the florist that was located on Otterhampton's High Street. After greeting the freckled, red-haired man who stood behind the counter making up a large bouquet, she walked through to the storeroom, set down the crate and headed back to the van. 'Is the side door open?' she asked before she left.

The man nodded, and Vibeke noticed not for the first time that he had trouble not staring at her. 'Just leave them on the right,' he said.


Vibeke proceeded to make several trips until she had finished with the delivery. When she had done so she did not return to her van along the alley at the side of the shop but walked through the shop so that she might let the shopkeeper know that she had finished and was leaving.

Stepping through the open door to one side of the counter, she stopped of a sudden when she saw who was standing by a display in one corner of the shop, looking at what flowers and arrangements were set out. It was the woman she had seen and watched in the Indian restaurant. Today she was wearing a loose-fitting beige skirt and a white buttoned shirt, though the silver jewellery that adorned her was much the same.

For long moments Vibeke did not move. It did not even occur to her that she might talk to the woman. Rather she simply wanted to watch her for a few more seconds before she took her leave. When she saw the woman lean down and select three light yellow roses, she marvelled at the grace that was revealed in her simple movements.

Eventually she moved towards the door, though she felt as if she was being a coward when she did so. But even as she reached for the door handle the woman turned and saw her. And when she did, she smiled that full and lovely smile that she had smiled when she had looked at her when they had been at the restaurant. Vibeke saw the surprise in the woman's eyes but she also saw delight there, a happy startlement.

The woman looked down at the roses she was holding. Then she looked up again and tilted her head a fraction, as Vibeke's hand failed to open the door.

'Please don't leave,' the woman said.

Vibeke did not reply and did not know how she could possibly respond.

Then the woman took three steps towards her until she was stood before her. For a few seconds she did not speak but looked up at her, into her eyes, and her expression was one of wonder and did not seem to have any kind of need or agenda at all.

'I saw you in the Ganesha Indian Cuisine restaurant,' she said. 'You looked extraordinary. Later I thought about you. Please do not go. I would like to know more about you. I wondered if . . .' She trailed off, perhaps realising - though not understanding - that her words were forward and might be interpreted by some in a negative way.

At last Vibeke found her voice. 'Would you like to walk with me for a while, perhaps in the park?' she asked, and she almost felt as if it was someone else who was speaking, as if she was merely listening to her words and voice. Her heart was beating quickly and she was amazed at how suddenly nervous she felt, even though it was not her that had initiated contact.

The woman looked down for a moment and Vibeke saw that her gaze seemed almost to slide rather than to jump from place to place. Then, those lovely crystal silver-blue orbs looked back up, fully into Vibeke's eyes, and Vibeke felt her breath catch at their beauty. 'I would like that,' the woman said. And she smiled again, that radiant and so straightforward and sincere smile that she had.

Vibeke grinned too, happiness and excitement welling up within her, amazed at how a simple smile from this relative stranger could fill her with such joy. 'I have to finish my deliveries and drop the van back at work, but I could come back into town in a couple of hours.'

'All right,' said the woman. 'That would be great. I have to finish at work as well. You see the dressmaker's shop just down the road on the right?'

Vibeke nodded. 'Compton's Dresses?'

'Can we meet there?'

'That will be great. I'll be there at about half past five. Is that all right?'

'Absolutely. My name is Ember Leaves.'

Vibeke found herself smiling again - something that she suspected Ember could make her do endlessly. 'Vibeke Kaestner,' she said.

They simply stared at each other then for long seconds, almost completely forgetting about the world around them. Nor did they notice the shopkeeper's befuddled expression and then surprise at their conversation.


At exactly half past five, Vibeke slowed her bicycle and dismounted outside the dressmaker's shop. Even as she took off her cycle helmet, the glass-panelled door swung inwards and the woman she now knew as Ember Leaves left the building.

She could not help but chuckle and marvel at the smile that lit up Ember's lovely face when she saw her.

'Hi,' Ember said, stepping across to her.

'Hi Ember.' Vibeke felt slightly awkward and shy but did not see any nervousness reflected in Ember. She thought that Ember seemed like the most natural and genuine person she had ever met, her responses utterly sincere and very much focused on the world around her rather than on whether she might make a good impression or not. Vibeke found that inspiring.

'Let me just chain my bike here and we'll head for the park,' Vibeke said.

Half a minute later they were walking down the road together, away from the centre of town towards the nearby park. Though they did not say anything, Vibeke felt that it did not matter. She was aware that her initial nervousness had abruptly gone and she did not feel uncomfortable at all.

Shortly they passed through the open wrought iron gates of the park and headed around the edge along a gravel path. Though not large, the park was well tended, and now as spring turned to summer its flowerbeds were ablaze with colours and the many fragrances of the flowers filled the still air. The slanting sunlight was warm but not to hot, and there was plenty of shade. Old trees - oak, yew, Scots pine, and a few birches and rowans grew here and there. The paths took meandering routes and there was a pond by a tiny artificial hill. A few other people were there - a young couple that were holding hands, and three old ladies on a bench, talking animatedly.

'I'm glad you decided to speak to me,' Vibeke said. 'I wanted to speak to you too, but was worried I would be being intrusive. Silly really. I think maybe I was being self-destructive too, somehow convinced that you would not want any contact with me.'

Ember looked across at her but did not speak for a few moments, as if she was considering Vibeke's words carefully. At length she said: 'I wanted nothing more than to have some contact with you. I wonder why you think you are self-destructive.'

Vibeke grinned self-deprecatingly and shook her head. 'You know, just irrational complexes.' As they strolled slowly past a bed of daisies that were laid out in a coloured pattern that slightly resembled a coat of arms, she said: 'This place really has been looked after well this year.'

'You deliver flowers. Do you supply the park as well?'

Vibeke nodded. 'Some of what they grow here, yes, but not things like bulbs and rarely saplings. I like my job,' she said, and was glad it was true.

'You spend most of your time delivering?'

'No, that's only a fraction of it, and lots of our customers collect from the nursery. Mostly I cultivate and look after the flowers and plants.'

'I think I'd like that too,' Ember said, looking across and up at her with a smile.

'Are you a dressmaker?' Vibeke asked.

'Yes. I didn't really plan on becoming one. But once I'd been working at Mrs Compton's shop for a while, I asked if I could try and then she gave me all the work I could handle.'

'Did you make what you are wearing? And what you were wearing at the Indian restaurant last week?'

Ember merely nodded. She did not seem to expect a compliment but when Vibeke said: 'Your clothes suit you just perfectly,' she was clearly very pleased.


As Ember walked alongside Vibeke she was completely caught up in her presence. Though the warm evening and the park around them were very pleasant, she barely gave a thought to them. Whenever she could without seeming to stare, she looked across at her new friend - abruptly realising that was exactly what she was, even after so short a time, and the confidence she had in that knowledge was so great that she did not question it. She wanted to take in everything about her, and she knew that there was a very great deal. She thought that Vibeke's actions and thoughts at different times and places, as they changed and she changed, would always fascinate her.

She found that it was difficult to look at Vibeke without seeming to stare, because Vibeke seemed to want nothing more than to look at her too and they kept meeting each other's gaze. A couple of times they looked away, then the third time they found themselves grinning at each other and chuckling.

Ember much liked the way Vibeke's dark red hair fell about her shoulder and halfway down her back, and the way individual strands caught the sunlight with brilliant red hues. She was fascinated by Vibeke's face - the curious beauty she had that seemed rather haunted or scarred. Her eyes were expressive and their colour was strange but to Ember very appealing, intense mauve that was occasionally touched by a hint of ruby. Her skin was fair but lightly tanned. She was perhaps six inches taller than Ember, and she moved in such a way that there was little doubt that she was very athletic.

Vibeke was wearing faded blue jeans, ankle boots, and a plain, dark red t-shirt that she had changed into since Ember had seen her at the florist's.

Just as when she had first seen her at the restaurant, Ember was very aware not only of a great strength about Vibeke that almost seemed to radiate from her, but also a kind of uncertainty or vulnerability. She wondered if Vibeke had had some bad experiences - or if, simply, she had never been able to find a place and way of being in the world that fit her and brought her joy.

'What do you do when you are not working?' Ember asked.

Vibeke glanced across at her with a half smile. Suddenly she seemed almost amused at her own life. 'I live in a small house at the edge of town. I do quite a lot of exercise, run most mornings, do some weight-training, and practice martial arts. I read, and watch television programmes and films.'

'Martial arts?' Ember said. 'Hmm. I am not surprised, given the way you move. I expect you're really good at it. What kind do you study?'

'Well, I used to take classes in kick-boxing, and then aikido and karate. Later I really enjoyed studying kendo and all the tradition that goes with it. But that was a long time ago. I haven't actually taken any classes in eight or nine years. But I still do the exercises, and I sometimes learn new sequences from books. I didn't much like being in groups of people trying to learn.'

'You're not very sociable?'

Vibeke gave a slight shrug at this. 'I suppose not. I certainly spend most of my time alone, but it's not because I have anything against other people. Rather that I feel as if I am different somehow, and the contact that I do have with people means little to me or to them.'

Ember reached across and gently nudged Vibeke's upper arm with her loosely-held fist. Smiling, she looked up at her and said: 'You're not alone in feeling like that. I quite often like people, but it often feels like it's from a distance. I like Mrs Waechter though - she's an older lady who has been good enough to let me stay with her. She's very kind.'

They walked onwards, and Vibeke said: 'What do you do when you are not working?'

'I paint and write,' Ember replied.

'That's great! I'd really like to have a look at what you've done.'

'It's possible you have. I've shown quite a lot of paintings at the church hall and at the gallery, and sold them when possible, though I always keep photographs of everything I do. I paint all kinds of things - landscapes, buildings, people, and even a few things purely from my imagination. As for the books I write . . . they are only for me.'

'What kind of books are they?' asked Vibeke.

'A mixture. Some adventures, some relationship fiction, some fantasies, and some stories that are just really weird. Actually most of them are a bit weird. I don't think other people would much appreciate them. Also, I think that what I write about relationships and families is a bit curious since my experiences are largely observational rather than actual.'


Vibeke found that she was fascinated by Ember, but she did not ask any more questions for a while. She hoped that she would learn a great deal about her, that they would spend much time together, but right now she did not want her sensitivity Ember's presence and manner to be clouded by simple facts and small talk. Instead she walked along and enjoyed the moment, and sometimes met Ember's eyes, and enjoyed the amazing beauty that seemed to shine from within her.

'Shall we sit for a while?' Ember said after they had walked twice around the park and taken a detour. She gestured to a bench that overlooked the pond. It was in dappled sunlight and there was no one around.

'That would be nice,' Vibeke said. 'I've always enjoyed watching ducks and other birds on the water.'

And so they sat, close but not too close to each other. The sun was lowering through the upper branches of trees on their right and shone brightly upon the wavelets of the pond. A few ducks swam about and dived and wagged their tail feathers and made small chuckling sounds.

Vibeke realised that, in the peacefulness of the moment, she was aware of the slow, steady rise and fall of Ember's chest as she breathed and of the suggestion of her lovely scent, which was not of any kind of perfume.

Vibeke felt as if the whole universe was shifting around her, changing everything that she knew.


They talked for a while longer, and sat in silence as the shadows lengthened. Ember felt a peacefulness within her that she did not remember ever feeling before. There was something about Vibeke's easy manner and presence that spoke to her as nothing else ever had. It astonished her that she could react to her with such intensity; but though it was a little disorienting and even overwhelming, she was not afraid.

After a few minutes, Vibeke and Ember strolled slowly around the park twice more, taking different, meandering routes. They did not speak all that much, and when they did their voices were slightly hushed, for both of them were feeling a near reverence at being in the other's presence, as if they had suddenly stepped into some kind of celestial temple. They mostly talked of small things that seemed, in the moment, curious poignant to them. And Ember discovered that Vibeke had a slightly quirky sense of humour behind her seemingly serious exterior. She had given several of the ducks at the pond names, and had then described a kind of soap opera of relationships and interactions between them.

Back at the entrance to the park, they stopped and faced one another. Looking down into Ember's face, Vibeke said, with an appealing look of nervousness and hope and simple acknowledgement of how Ember felt about her: 'I've really enjoyed meeting with you today.'

'And I would like to see you again too,' Ember replied with a smile. Vibeke's hope was not hard to read. Then: 'I feel I . . . I need to go home now.' Looking down, almost struggling to find the right words, she said: 'I mean, I would really enjoy spending all evening with you but I feel rather . . . stunned. You have a rather astonishing effect upon me.' Looking up again, she saw the sunlight, striking Vibeke from the side, making her eyes glow with amethyst light. The colour and brilliance of her irises was breathtaking.

'You can be sure that it is mutual,' Vibeke replied. 'Would you like to meet on Friday evening maybe? Perhaps we could go for another walk and then get something to eat.'

'I would like that very much. And I have a feeling you know that I would like that very much. Let us walk back to the dressmaker's shop to get your bike.'


Arriving back home, Ember was rather relieved that Mrs Waechter was out at a friend's house, playing cards. It amused her when she considered how, usually at such games, Mrs Waechter would drink a single small glass of cherry liqueur and then, on returning home, would mention her indulgence as if it was scandalous.

Sitting at the dining table and eating a light meal of chicken salad, fresh bread and butter, Ember sat in half-darkness. The twilight lingered outside and she had left a lamp on in the kitchen, but she had not turned the lights on in the dining room.

She ate slowly, letting her mind wander. She felt a profound sense of awe within her, a kind of shifting in the deepest parts of her mind and being. Her senses seemed heightened and her thoughts and emotions amazingly intense and clear - though curiously without clear direction, except in so far as they were all about her amazing meeting and talking and walking with Vibeke Kaestner.

She shook her head once as she sipped from her second cup of tea, as the blue-tinged shadows deepened in the room. She had never imagined that anything like this was possible - that she could feel such a sense of depth and meaning associated with such surging emotions. She had dreamed of meeting someone she could really relate to and care about, but those fantasies had never been like this. This was almost unbelievable, and really quite disorienting.


A little later, as Ember sat in the living room and failed to read a book she had perched on her knee, Mrs Waechter returned home. They greeted each other, and Mrs Waechter joined her for a little while before turning in. They did not say much, but Ember did not miss that the lady regarded her - trying to do so covertly, and always failing - with curiosity on several occasions, including a time when Ember just happened to be smiling quietly to herself, a blissful feeling filling her, as she thought of Vibeke's lovely head tipped at a slight angle, one side in shade and the other in sunlight, her hair falling forward slightly and seemingly illuminated by fire. She remembered the exact expression Vibeke had had: gentle, warm, and also clearly captivated. She remembered the slight pursing of her lips and the faintest suggestion of a smile.

Ember stood up. 'I think I'll go for a short walk before bed,' she said. 'Did you have a good time?'

Mrs Waechter regarded her fondly. 'Yes, it was good fun. Cessy and Emma said to say hello to you and tell you they would love your company any time if you would indulge two old ladies.'

'Thank you Mrs Waechter.'

'Enjoy your stroll Ember. I'll see you tomorrow.'

Ember did not miss the fact that Mrs Waechter seemed rather pleased that Ember was happy and distracted - she was usually happy but rarely distracted.

A few minutes later she was walking along deserted lane, and sometimes looked up into the clear sky, seeing the stars and the overhanging branches of trees but only really thinking of the truly extraordinary thing that happened to her today and the more than extraordinary woman that it was all about.

Everything has changed , Ember thought. Everything .



Chapter Three




Friday 26th May, Year 1 :


Vibeke :


I slow down and count the last few houses to where you live. Being closer to the town centre, it is more suburban here than where I live, but the road is quiet. I stop just before your place and take off my cycling helmet. There is a streetlamp just a few yards from the corner of the front fence and I decide that it is as good a place as any to chain my bike.

Even as I step through the small front gate to walk up the path rather than across the drive, the front door opens. I see you standing there for just a moment, then you are hurrying down the steps and towards me. The early evening sun shines brilliantly upon you.

I take in your loose-fitting dress of pale blue-grey, that is a curious mixture of almost hippy relaxedness and extravagance combined with a near-formal style. I see the way you have clipped your short, pale hair back. I take in the blue stone pendant that hangs just above your cleavage from a silver chain, and the matching stones that dangle upon double silver chains from each of your earlobes. Upon your left wrist you are wearing a bracelet with red stones that is curiously out of place and yet adds a real poignancy to your colouring and the colours you are wearing.

But I see your body more than your clothes and your face more than your jewellery. I like the way you have framed your appearance but it is your own loveliness that enthrals me.

When I look into your eyes and see your smile of excitement and gladness, what is communicated from within you thunders within me, and I am very aware that I have never been to this place of such feeling and awareness before.

When you reach out and take my hand, your touch seems to be transferred through my whole body. I feel a pleasant tingling and shivering sensation across my skin. I am so pleased that you have the courage simply to reach out like that.

I squeeze your hand. 'Shall we wander through the woods and into the fields?' I ask. 'There is a viewpoint that is worth going to. Maybe you have been there but it is nice on a clear evening.'


Later we stand upon the rounded hill and look across the fields and small woods towards the town. The buildings, mostly of brick, are lit by the last of sunlight. The winding river is dark. We have said very little on our way up here, but my awareness of you is powerful and poignant, beautiful and intense.


Ember :


You hold the door open for me and I step past you into the restaurant. I am so aware of you at my side and then behind me as I enter. I feel protected, though there is no threat here. How is it that the simplest thing that you do - or even just your presence - so alters my perceptions and emotions?

I think it is a fine idea that we chose this fish and chips and seafood eatery for our meal. Far better than going somewhere formal. I have never much liked paying detailed attention to form.

We walk up to the bar and, yet again, a hopeless smile is on my face. Damn it, I think with much amusement. I shake my head and consider my happy loss of control. How do you do that to me Vibeke?

I take a look at the menu behind the bar, then look at you while you are studying it. I can see that your awareness is divided between choosing, and the stress of the young woman who is serving up people's orders, and the people and place around us, and me. I feel very special that you are very obviously most concerned about me. I also wonder what the nature of your feelings about other people is. I have seen almost since I first met you that you do not like crowds or people being too close to you, but I am not sure why. I wonder if it is due to some kind of trauma or bad experience, or if it is just a simple preference. I know that I will ask you, or that you will simply tell me, but it will not be tonight.


Later that evening, Vibeke walked Ember back to Mrs Waechter's home. The air was warm and there was little traffic. They passed houses and cottages from which yellow light escaped dimly past drawn curtains, and streetlamps that shone brightly orange with their sodium glow. On one street they passed a small group of boys and girls, supervised by a couple of adults, who seemed to be on the way back from a party - and the noise from the children was abrupt and lively and chaotic, then faded behind them.

Walking hand in hand, Ember guided Vibeke down a section of country lane that took them past a field and some woodland. With a grin she turned off the way, climbed over a gate and led the two of them into the very middle of the field, long grass brushing their legs.

Then she turned and faced Vibeke, and held both of her hands, and simply looked up into her eyes for long moments.

Vibeke returned her gaze, and there was such tenderness and emotion in her expression.

'Can I hold you?' Ember said in a voice that was barely a whisper.

Vibeke smiled more widely then. 'I would like that very much,' she said.

And Ember stepped forward into Vibeke's embrace. She felt Vibeke's arms wrap around her body even as she felt an amazing warmth wrap around her heart. At the same time she held Vibeke about her waist, and squeezed her against her, pressing her head against Vibeke's upper chest. She felt Vibeke's cheek upon the top of her head, and listened to the strong, steady beating of her heart.

For a long time they stood there, simply holding each other close, feeling as if they had come home to a place where they belonged absolutely, though they had never before known that such a blissful haven and sanctuary existed.


Later, Vibeke walked Ember the rest of the way home. She unchained her bicycle and donned her helmet while Ember looked on, then swung her leg over the saddle.

Ember reached out and took her hand, and they were still for a few long seconds, merely looking at each other.

'I'll see you tomorrow,' Vibeke said with a smile.

'See you tomorrow then,' replied Ember and beamed with happiness.

Vibeke pulled away and turned into the road. After a last backward glance and a wave she headed for home. As she watched her go, Ember wondered if Vibeke felt as awed and vulnerable and overwhelmed as she did; and as she considered it, realised she had no doubt that she did.


Saturday 27th :


Vibeke and Ember met just before nine o'clock the following morning, at the corner of the field where they had held each other the previous night. Ember had arrived first, though Vibeke was also a little early. She marvelled as, for a few seconds, she was able to watch the smaller woman before she realised that she was there.

Ember was wearing a white t-shirt with a cartoon rabbit on it, beige shorts that came down to just above her knees and showed off her shapely, slightly muscular legs, thick white socks and beige, suede walking boots. Her hair looked slightly windswept, though there was no wind, and she was wearing no make-up or jewellery. Beside her was a small tan backpack. She was standing leaning against the wooden fence on the inside of the field, gazing towards the spot at its centre where they had stood the previous evening and, for a long while, held each other close. Her fair features seemed to Vibeke to be almost angelic and she seemed to radiate a mixture of excitement and serenity and peaceful joy. When she heard Vibeke walking along the road behind her, she turned to her and grinned.

Vibeke stopped for a moment, looking back at her. 'Hi,' she said. 'You look . . . magical. I'm sorry, I was struggling to find a good word for how you look, but there isn't one that is good enough.' She almost felt regretful about this, because it was important to her that Ember see and feel and understand what she felt in her presence and what Ember made her feel, no matter that it was so far beyond words.

'Thank you,' Ember replied, staring back at her. 'You look magical too. But there seems to be something wrong.'

Vibeke raised an eyebrow. 'Something wrong?'

'Yes. We seem to be standing on opposite sides of this fence.'

'That does seem unfortunate,' Vibeke replied. But she stepped up to it, and leaned upon it so that they were facing in opposite directions but next to each other, all four forearms upon the sun-heated wood. Looking into Ember's amazing eyes - in the bright sunlight, the pupils were dark points in oceans of glowing ice-blue - Vibeke entwined their fingers.

'And the bus stop is on the other side of the field,' Ember said after long seconds, both of them enjoying the gentle contact.

Vibeke nodded, climbed over the fence and dropped down beside her, setting her small backpack on the ground as she did so. A moment later she realised that Ember was regarding her with near wanton appraisal. 'What?' she said with a sideways quirk of her mouth.

'Well . . . I just think that you look amazing when you move. Of course, you look amazing when you don't move as well, but so much strength and grace and coordination is revealed and . . .' Abruptly Ember fell silent and looked down, blushing slightly. 'I'm sorry, I . . .'

Vibeke reached out and brushed her fingertips down Ember's cheek and across her chin. As she had hoped, Ember looked up at her. Very softy, she said: 'I look at you and I see such beauty that I feel it will overwhelm me.'

Ember leaned in and held her close then, and Vibeke held her back. In the bright morning sunlight, Vibeke marvelled at what had happened between them.

At length they reluctantly pulled back from each other. 'Perhaps we should go,' Ember said. 'The bus will be by in a few minutes.'

Vibeke nodded, and picked up her small backpack as Ember picked up hers. After shouldering them, they set off to the other side of the field, to the crossroads of the lane beyond and the bus stop that was just beyond it.

'I like your t-shirt,' Vibeke said, and Ember glanced across at her, seeming to be wondering if she might be making fun of her. In fact Vibeke found the t-shirt amusing and colourful and thought that it mirrored the delight that she had seen Ember had in so many things.

'Thanks,' said Ember, realising that she was being sincere. 'I saw it at a stall at the Tuesday market in town a couple of years ago. There wasn't another t-shirt like it there and the rabbit just seemed like it needed a friend. I've worn it so often that it's getting a bit worn now, but I still like wearing it.' Then she looked at Vibeke, taking in her light blue denim shorts, deep red t-shirt and walking boots. 'Hmm,' she continued. 'You don't seem to be adorned with any kind of animal motif. Are there any animals that you particularly like?'

As they reached the gate on the other side of the field, Vibeke climbed over first. 'I like a lot of animals,' she said. 'Though as far as cartoon animals are concerned, I'd have to say that my favourite is Clyde the Cat. I like his surreal interpretations of things and his weird philosophising.'

Walking across the crossroads, they reached the bus stop and sat down on the wooden bench to wait. Behind them was a steep bank and high hedge, but on the other side of the lane was a view of fields falling away to lines of trees and a little woodland. A few birds could be heard singing. In the distance was the drone of a tractor, but the day was largely quiet.

'It's certainly a beautiful morning,' Vibeke said, and immediately wondered that she had so. It was obviously a beautiful morning and Ember knew it too, so there was really no need to say the words. Indeed, Vibeke had never much participated in small talk, had never had any wish to speak very much, and she felt almost as if she had suddenly become someone else. Then she realised that she had spoken simply because it was important to share her simple appreciation of the day with the lovely woman who was sitting beside her.

Ember did not reply, but reached out and took her hand, and, smiling just as Vibeke was, looked out across the pleasant view.

A few minutes later, the bus pulled up and they climbed aboard, paying the rugged-looking bus driver for their tickets, then choosing seats about half way back - Ember by the window, Vibeke beside her.

'I haven't been to the coast in a while,' Vibeke said. 'And never to where we're going.'

'I hope you'll like it,' Ember said.


Half an hour later, they climbed from the bus and walked across the small car park, down some steps and onto the beach. Stones crunched under their feet, and they headed west, away from the tiny coastal village. Closer to the shore, the stones gave way to sand, and as they rounded a small headland they stepped onto a long, curving beach that defined a small bay. There were dunes at the back of the sandy beach, and then headlands marching away from them, tall hills ending at cliffs.

They stopped for a moment to take off their boots and socks, and then walked barefoot through the shifting, sun-warmed sand.

'This is great!' Ember said with a small giggle.


They walked for about two hours, around the bay and over cliffs and up into the hills. They stopped for lunch on a clifftop that faced northwest. Around them was grass that had been cropped by sheep, a jumble of stones and large boulders, heather and a few wind-sculpted pines.

They found sun-warmed rocks on which to sit, and shared the food they had brought - sandwiches of various types, tomatoes and celery, and Ember much liked the chocolate biscuits Vibeke provided and was clearly delighted that Vibeke liked the coffee cake that she had baked according to a recipe she had looked for and found the previous day. The flask of coffee with milk that they shared, that Vibeke had brought, went down very well indeed.

'I only brought water, but this is great,' Ember said, sipping from one of the plastic cups that screwed to the top of the flask.

Vibeke also took an appreciative sip. 'I do not usually drink much coffee, though it's scent and taste is really wonderful. I don't like the effect it has on me most of the time, making my heart beat faster and my face feel hot. But when outside and walking, it's great.'


After eating they headed back the way they had come. Most of the time they did not speak. Both of them admired the views of the water - grey-green-blue, the sunlight behind them and not reflected upon the sea. Passing through areas of woodland, Ember noticed that Vibeke sometimes stopped and simply took in the appearance of a tree, looking up into its branches or appreciating its leaves, its bark, the colour of the sunlight through or against leaves or needles. 'I'm glad I'm not alone in liking trees,' she said.

'I did not use to notice them so much,' Vibeke admitted. 'But since working at the nursery I've come to appreciate the way every plant is different. There are billions of trees in the world.' She gestured to the tree before them. 'Of this type of mountain ash there are no doubt millions in existence. Yet no two are the same and in the differences I find myself amazed.'

At length Vibeke turned away and they continued on for a little while. 'It is something I notice about you,' she said. 'You take so much delight in so many things. I marvel at the way you find happiness in so much that is around you.'

'Do you usually like walking in mountains or forests, or on the coast, or elsewhere?' Ember asked.

'I've always dreamed of spending some time in a desert,' Vibeke replied. 'A place of dunes, and rare formations of rock, and incredibly clear nights where the stars are brilliant. But here, in Britain? You know, it is your company that defines today for me. On a moor or a mountain or a beach, in a woodland or a field, I would be happy simply because I can experience them with you. The truth is that the most extraordinary desert landscape would not be . . .' She trailed off. How could she express that her awareness of everything was now through the lens that was Ember? Perhaps she could only say it as she felt it. 'In the time I have spent with you, I have seen everything through and in terms of you,' she finally said.


Later, back on the sandy beach of the bay, Ember echoed her thoughts in a slightly different way. 'I've been here once before,' she said. 'I was alone then, and walked three miles or so on the shore, not going up onto the cliffs or hills like we did. Then I sat for quite a while, just over there at those rocks by the water. I had a good day, and didn't really care that there was no one with me. I saw some couples and families, and wondered what it would be like to have people close to me like they did. I did not feel disturbed, did not think of myself as lonely. In fact I was really quite happy.' She fell silent for half a minute, thinking, then said: 'But it's so different, being here with you. If I was with Mrs Waechter or anyone else it would be different too, but nothing like to the same extent. You seem to cast some kind of magical spell upon me, so that the simplest colour of light becomes like the brilliance of the sun seen through a gemstone.'


Making their way among the dunes at the back of the beach, they found a place that was out of the stiff, warm breeze that had risen. They settled down upon the sand, dune grass shifting around them, sand sometimes hissing before the wind. Sheltered and warm, they lay back upon the slope. The sun shone down upon them from the pale blue sky. Little could be heard except the rush of air above them and the occasional call of a seabird.

They were very close to each other, and for a while they simply lay there very comfortably. Ember felt a sense of peace and fulfilment that was mixed with excitement and anticipation - a remarkable, seemingly impossible combination that made the deepest part of her seem to resonate with gladness. After a little while she turned to Vibeke and looked into her eyes. For a moment she was caught in their colour - the pupils were small in the brightness such that the irises were lighter, clearer amethysts tinted as if with pale ruby glass.

'Vibeke?' she asked.

Vibeke's lovely head tipped slightly, her expression suddenly open, vulnerable, even slightly afraid. And Ember found that she could not say anything, though she had been about to ask Vibeke if she might kiss her.

And then Vibeke leaned down and closer to her, and brushed her lips across hers. It was the most fleeting contact, gentle but full of promise. Ember felt a tingling energy rush through her at the contact, an exquisite pleasure that was tender yet which contained immense power.

She leaned in closer, and felt the softness of Vibeke's lips more fully. And then, after a long while, they broke apart and Vibeke took Ember in her arms, holding her against her. And Ember knew that they both wished for the contact to continue, that they both wanted more; but this was something that they would savour, that they would not rush.

As Vibeke lay back, Ember slid closer to her and laid her head between Vibeke's right shoulder and upper chest. She wrapped her arm about Vibeke's waist and felt Vibeke's holding her close. She felt the press of Vibeke's lips upon the top of her head, and then she smiled at the amazing warmth and wonder that she felt, wrapping her about.


* * *


Saturday 3rd June, Year 1 :


Ember was sitting at the kitchen table, sewing a torn seam of one of Mrs Waechter's favourite blouses. She was aware when the there was a knock on the door but did not think much of it. Probably it was their neighbour, or the postman, or one of Mrs Waechter's friends.

She was barely concentrating on her sewing either - it was a simple task that required little attention. Her mind kept wandering to Vibeke and a smile kept tugging at her lips. They had seen each other three times during the week. Yesterday evening they had had a candlelit dinner at Vibeke's house and it had been truly wonderful.

Half a minute after the knock on the door, Mrs Waechter popped her head into the kitchen and said: 'Ember, it's for you.'

Ember looked up, set down her needle and thread and went into the hall.


Vibeke stepped up onto the doorstep, hoping that Ember would not mind that she had come here. She sounded the heavy brass knocker, then waited.

A few seconds later, the door opened and a woman who might have been in her late sixties was standing there. She was plump and had rosy cheeks and her small brown eyes seemed full of humour and light. 'Good morning,' she cheerfully said.

'Hello,' replied Vibeke. 'I just came by to see if Ember is here?'

The woman nodded. 'I'll just get her.'

A few moments later Ember stepped into the hall beyond the front door. On seeing that it was Vibeke that had come to visit, a beaming smile lit up her face.

And then, with a squeal of pleasure, a compact, hurtling blonde form threw herself into Vibeke's arms.


Ember held Vibeke close, her arms around the back of her neck. She pressed her head into the space between Vibeke's shoulder and upper chest and beneath her chin. She held her tight, aware of the press of her body against her, of her clothes, of her warmth and scent.

For a little while there was nothing else in all the world except her experience of Vibeke. She felt Vibeke's breathing and felt a low chuckle, and the press of Vibeke's lips against the top of her head as she kissed her once. She felt so glad to feel the strength of Vibeke's arms about her.

Half a minute later she shifted slightly in Vibeke's embrace and realised that Mrs Waechter had just emerged to stand in the hall by the doorway to the kitchen. She saw Mrs Waechter's cheeks dimple as she smiled, and then the lady ducked back into the kitchen.

Leaning back slightly and looking up into Vibeke's smiling face, Ember said: 'How much time do you have? I thought you needed to make a delivery today.'

'It was set back, but I should get going around half past two. Are you free?'

'Absolutely! And happy you came by. Maybe I could invite you in and introduce you. Would you like a cup of tea?'

'That would be good. I'm sorry I didn't call first but as soon as I realised I had some free time I had this sudden notion that maybe I should come and visit a certain beautiful young woman with pale hair and truly extraordinary eyes.'

'I see,' Ember said, pursing her lips slightly. 'And if you should happen to find this young woman, what are you planning to do with her?' Even as she said the words, Ember wondered at them and blushed, unsure if she had actually meant them to be so suggestive or if they were merely accidental.

'Well . . . Leaving aside many possibilities that might make her adorably pink face blush further, I was wondering if perhaps she might like to accompany me to lunch at a rather nice pub I know of.'

'I think she would consider that a wonderful idea,' Ember said. Taking hold of Vibeke's hand, she led her into the house.

'Mrs Waechter?' Ember said, looking into the living room and then the dining room. Mrs Waechter was just picking up a silver tray, clearly intending to make some tea.

The lady turned and looked up. With a warm smile she approached the two of them.

'Mrs Waechter, this is Vibeke Kaestner,' Ember said, smiling widely.

'It's lovely to meet you,' Mrs Waechter said, looking up into Vibeke's face. She reached out and took hold of Vibeke's upper arms. 'You certainly are a striking and beautiful young woman and I've seen how happy and, well, distracted by daydreams my Ember has been these last few days. I knew something was going on and . . . Well, this is just wonderful.'

'Thank you,' Vibeke said, and Ember did not miss that she was clearly touched by Mrs Waechter's warmth. 'It's very nice to meet you too.'

Mrs Waechter then proceeded to usher Ember and Vibeke into the living room. 'You girls make yourselves comfortable. I'll bring a pot of tea and some lemon cake.'

Ember sat down on the sofa and drew Vibeke down beside her. She still had not let go of her hand.




Continued in Part Two


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