As evening descended upon Lakeshire, the sleepy little town was surprisingly waking up. The carolers were indeed outside town hall - Vandrysse was surprised to recognize most of them, with only three new, young faces in the group. Lights had been set out along the boardwalk and the docks, and several small boats, festooned with magic lamps, decorated this side of Lake Everstill. The restored bridge was nothing short of glorious: a huge illuminated wreath hung from the very center of the span, and more magic colored lamps decorated its sides. Her description of the festivities being like a party was exactly on the mark. People were handing out cookies, treats, and hot apple cider. Vandrysse’s wary attitude began to crumble, even after an embarrassing moment or two when someone introduced themselves as old family friends, and confidently relayed to Ellister how they’d known her since she was “wee” high.
There wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the darkening sky and already the stars were bright - a good sign.
The festival of lights drew a sharp breath from Ellister. How unexpected! There were lights dotting the edge of the lake, their bright reflections dancing on the ripples near the shore. Wreaths and lanterns were adorning several structures, the most notable being the massive evergreen wreath on the bridge; surely an entire tree had been sacrificed for its creation! The decorations were lovely, but it was the people that made the town alive. They were smiling and chatting, sharing and indulging in hot drinks and treats. Everyone seemed at ease with one another. There were no strangers here. Even Vandrysse and himself were apparently welcomed with open arms; a number of townsfolk recognized Miss Dyce. He smiled politely and laughed at the appropriate points in the conversations as these old acquaintances introduced themselves. Yet the most radiant part of these celebrations was Vandrysse herself. He kept himself from staring, but it took effort. She was smiling brightly, a flush of color tinting her cheeks a soft rose. The years fell away effortlessly, revealing the vibrant youth she still kept inside. A thrill went down his spine and a warm sensation bloomed in his chest. Yes, it was the right thing to come here.
After an appropriate amount of chit chat and obtaining a hot cider with a gingerbread cookie, Ellister made his suggestion.
“I’d like to visit the bridge, miss. We could see the decorations up close, and enjoy the view of the lake for a moment.” His expression was hopeful as he cradled his cup of hot cider, the steam forming tendrils before his face.
“Of course, that would be very nice.” Vandrysse, too, had a cup of cider in her hands, though it seemed she only held on to it for its warmth, as it had mostly remained untouched.
Lakeshire had turned otherworldly with the way the lights reflected off the lake. The air was laden with the scent of spices, and the carolers’ voices traveled far. This wasn’t the big city with its pretentious airs - everyone here seemed genuinely happy to be part of the celebration. As they drew nearer to the bridge, Vandrysse already spied several others with the same idea - a few couples and one family with a few well-behaved children. They were gathered in their own private spaces, content to see the sights from afar.
Vandrysse aimed for such a location near the center of the span. The bridge’s significance wasn’t lost on her. Despite how it had ended, she recalled with perfect clarity their first visit here, and their first kiss. It was so hard to believe that almost a year had passed since then! She was hesitant to make mention of it, as the ending of that scenario always seemed to disturb Ellister; so she found herself content to quietly recollect that moment, nursing the cooling cider in her hands. Peering up at the doctor, she smiled happily, the final remnants of her poor mood gone.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it? All the lights? Though it wouldn’t be much without the people.” She turned her attention back on the town. “I forgot how much I missed this. I’ve forgotten a lot of things, it seems.”
They remained quiet as they walked towards the bridge, each seemingly distracted by the sights and sounds around them. Ellister sought to hold her hand, keeping a physical point of contact while they withdrew into their own separate worlds for the time being.
Though he’d taken care to run through the woods prior to this trip, he felt as though it were for naught. The carols surged in volume and he could have sworn they were right next to them. The scents were strong and pungent, though not unpleasant. Even the lights were contrasting sharper than before. He lost himself in the moment, reveling in the cacophony of heightened senses his Curse afforded him. The warmth of Vandrysse’s hand kept him grounded in the sea of overwhelming input.
They slowed their pace, moving in perfect synchrony. Realization of where they were standing cut through his dazed perception with the precision of a scalpel. Here was where they kissed for the first time. There…where he lost control. A quick glance to the hills where he had retreated, so long ago. Yet wasn’t it nearly yesterday, that he could not even touch his beloved without the threat of harming her? A squeeze of her hand reaffirmed that was no longer the case. Her words helped soothe his tumultuous recollections.
“It is stunning, dearest. I am happy we chose to spend the holiday here.” He smiled, the genuine gesture highlighting the lines at the corners of his eyes. “Even if you have forgotten…are you remembering now?” The suggestion was there, though he wasn’t certain Vandrysse would pick up on his meaning. He didn’t know if he wanted her to, either. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her; she was breathtaking in the soft lighting. Unbidden his heart began to race, and heat flushed his cheeks. Looking upwards to steady himself, he inhaled the crisp winter air. The stars were amazingly bright, he mused.
She sat the mug down on the large stone edging, standing close to Ellister. She enjoyed the small things like simply holding his hand - it was comforting.
“Depends on what we’re talkin’ about.” Her free hand ran along the edge of the stonework. “I’m remembering some of the things I tried to forget about this place. Although …” Her eyes darted off to the side. If she turned her head, she could see the place where those fishing poles had been, the ones she tripped herself up on right before he’d pounced her.
“Some of the really nice things I won’t ever be able to forget. Like the time we kissed.” The look in her eyes was far away, even if she squeezed his hand again, wordlessly reassuring Ellister that she still held nothing against him for how things had happened after that moment. “And we met for tea not long after that, and tried to talk about what was and wasn’t normal …” Vandrysse quietly laughed as she reminisced.
Fixated on one of the decorated boats below, she quietly added, “You’ve made this a nice place to come back to. Thank you.”
His mug paired hers on the edge of the stonework. With his free hand he tucked a stray strand of auburn hair behind her ear, then gently stroked the waves falling over her shoulder. The world was in such sharp relief with his preternatural senses, the sensation of her soft hair was exquisite. He could smell her rose-scented perfume from here; it only served to race his heart faster.
“I — I am glad you recall that evening with fondness, rather than fear or resentment.” The cadence of his hesitant voice fell to a deeper tone. These were words meant only for her; not for the couple passing by, nor the children enthralled by the lights across the bridge. The world narrowed until it was filled only with the lights, the stars, and her.
“I am a better person than I was back then. And I’ve you to thank for it.” He lifted her hand and gently kissed the back of her knuckles. “Restoring happiness to your childhood home is the least I could do.” Adrenaline surged down his spine, and his fingertips began to tingle. He kept his intense gaze locked onto hers.
“My life has changed drastically in the past few years, miss.” He swallowed, attempting to keep the butterflies in his stomach at bay. “I do not know which deity or force brought us together, but I sing its praises every day that I am with you.” This was it. This was the moment. All of the planning, the forethought, the dreams and scrapped ideas; it was all falling into place. Time stopped along with the breath caught in his throat.
“I hope you feel the same, Vandrysse.”
Had the cider been spiked? Vandrysse was certain it was not –the Lakeshire celebration had always been a family friendly affair. Such a prank would have been swiftly dealt with, and she’d not heard or seen any commotion. What she was feeling wasn’t drunkenness, anyhow –Light did she know a thing or two about that. No, this was different, as if the stars above had turned their eyes solely upon them, and nothing else existed outside their realm of focus. The lakeside lights had dimmed, the singing was faint, she couldn’t tell if the cinnamon and spice was just the barest trace upon the wind, or her own imagination. Even the air felt weighted in her lungs. Such a potent energy laced Ellister’s words, Vandrysse felt spellbound.
The stolen voices wanted to protest just how good she’d really been for him, but in a rare moment Vandrysse forcibly shut them down into stunned silence; the sharp concentration it took briefly flickered over her features before reverting back to a more pleasant expression.
“Of course I feel the same.” Whatever was going on, it felt important to be honest right now, and brutally so. Her low voice was nothing more than a hushed whisper, still loud enough for his sharpened senses. “You saved me, and not just the …” A hand gestured towards the tattoo’s location.
Then she tried to gently grasp his hand into both of hers. “I know I’ve changed a lot in the past year, too. I’d like to think for the better, but sometimes …” She shrugged. “I have a lot more to think about these days, sometimes I lose sight of that. But I’ve never changed how I feel about you.”
She didn’t force her thoughts on him; instead, she directed their flow so that Ellister – and only Ellister – could detect them if he wished, with very little effort on his part, to see for himself the truth of her sincerity.
By now, she was resisting the urge to levitate up to his height. Vandrysse resorted to peering up at him, her smile encouraging, curious about where this was all headed.
The flash of concentration caused his heart to painfully skip a beat. Why was that expression needed? Her words sounded true, but that shadow of a doubt lurked menacingly. He followed the direction of her gesture before returning his attention upwards again. A slight furrow of his brow formed as he sought to bury the recollection of the night he saved her life…no, he did not want to remember that now. He listened to her describe her conflicting thoughts, her ideas of how she was different.
“I’ve never changed how I feel about you.”
The hints of worry and concern remained. She had always been difficult for him to read, and it was a talent she’d spent years perfecting. But now…now he did not have to rely on muddling through fallible gestures and conflicting words. With a deep, grounding breath, he turned his thoughts inwards. Touching on the subtle threads that were not wholly his, he reached out for her thoughts.
Deeply green eyes widened, and a happy grin chased away the lingering doubt. He let go of her hands, reaching for something within his pocket.
“Dearest Vandrysse. Despite all that we’ve been through, all of the challenges we’ve faced…you truly return the love I have for you.” He seemed to have found what he searched for in his pocket; yet he did not reveal it just yet.
“There is no one else I would rather spend the rest of my life with.” Slowly, deliberately, he kneeled on one knee before her. If this was at all painful, he showed no sign of it. Only a happily apprehensive grin was on his face as he offered a small, darkly colored wooden box to her. The golden hinge opened easily, revealing a ring nestled on a satin cloth.
“Miss Vandrysse Dyce, would you honor me with your hand in marriage?”
No amount of time in the world would have prepared her for this, but she knew as soon as Ellister began to kneel exactly what this was about. It did nothing to stop the air in her lungs from solidifying; suddenly she couldn’t breathe. So many thoughts went through her mind, Vandrysse didn’t know if he’d pick up on them or not, and she was powerless to stop it. The times past when they discussed this very thing - Vandrysse had finally ceased asking, because it seemed he was satisfied with their living arrangements, and she didn’t want to get her hopes up anymore. Before that, the discussion they’d had in the tome (and in person) about living together, how excited Ellister had been … only to have him disappear for weeks almost immediately afterwards. Further back, to the lonely house in Westguard, the day she’d stood in the kitchen and wedged the knife between her fingers, so all that it took was a simple twist - it wasn’t the pain of severing her own ring finger that had endured, it was the sensation of the finger itself separating and that odd, hollow noise the blade made when it finally hit the wooden chopping board. Thanks to the White Sigil, it had been restored.
And, of course, there was the conversation in the Lakeshire Inn where she’d made an ass out of herself, boldly declaring that she wanted to earn his love. She could still recall Ellister’s expression the moment the words left her mouth …
She didn’t know the proper thing to do at this moment, other than she had to find a way to breathe. The hand that reached out for the ring went to her mouth instead. Lightheaded. Was anybody else witnessing this? The world was still tuned out with the stars overhead. Passersby might not have heard their exchange of words, but by the Light they’d see Ellister on one knee and would know what that meant …
Finally! Fresh oxygen filled her lungs; her exhale was shuddered. Vandrysse could only nod at first, then felt compelled to hug him. If King Wrynn had showed up at that moment, she would have happily told him to piss off. It was so strange to be able to reach Ellister like this. She finally managed to whisper a “Yes” in his ear before her arms were tight around him. Vandrysse was trembling all over.
After a few moments, she whispered something else: “You ought to stand up, you’re goin’ to hurt your knee bad doin’ that.
She buried her face against his shoulder, stifling a laugh.
Caught up in her embrace, he couldn’t stop smiling. Even though his face was buried in her hair and he was nearly put off balance by the force of the hug! He couldn’t believe what had just happened. The whisper was loud as a shout in his ear. She bloody well said yes! He’d surprised her, and the image of her wide eyes and covered mouth would forever be locked in his memory as one of his favorite (if rare) expressions she had. He realized she was trembling, and he tightened his arms around her. Lost in the moment, and lost in her touch, Ellister thought of how very much he would love to remain here, frozen in time. The seconds were long yet entirely too short, until her voice signalled that time had not heeded his wish. His own laugh was not held back as she gave a typical jab at him.
“I’d endure much more than just a sore knee for you, miss.” Rather than standing up, he stayed where he was. He leaned back slightly from her, just enough to bring the ring into view for the both of them.
“It took me months to track down the perfect ring, miss. Normally tradition would dictate that I offer a family heirloom; alas, I do not have any.” Oddly enough there was no sadness in his voice. He was stating a fact. It was more fitting this way, anyways. Vandrysse represented new, bold and daring directions in his life; she flew in the face of tradition and expectations. And so she deserved a ring that spoke to those parts of her.
“I do hope you like it. Its an Ethereal shard; as soon as I laid eyes on it, I knew it had to be for you.” The light caught the inner iridescence of the gem, setting fire to the specks and swirls moving within the finely cut gem. With a bit of imagination, one could see the resemblance to a perfectly clear night sky. He carefully took the ring from the box.
“May I put it on for you, miss?” It felt right to ask permission for something that ought to have been assumed in a traditional sense; the symbolism of her newly restored finger was not lost on him.
Her eyes widened again at the sight of the ring - most gemstones were classified as “pretty” to her, but this went far beyond that. The shard was given a critical stare as she memorized the details, then Vandrysse tilted her head back to look at the night sky, drawing the same conclusion. She couldn’t help but laugh in the most delighted way.
“It’s beautiful. Please, put it on.” No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop smiling, and accepted it was a lost cause. All of this felt surreal, like she had stepped into someone else’s story. Surely this couldn’t be happening to her.
But it was. The next logical question began to loom in her mind: What do we do now? She wasn’t going to dare interrupt this moment, though.
Once the ring was placed, she sat next to Ellister, patting the ground to indicate that he should likewise sit. Thoughts of warming up by a nice fire later seemed nice, despite the fact she could feel her cheeks burning red from the excitement of it all.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect.”