The following is Part 1 of a free short-story I’ve written as a thank you to everyone who downloaded my free novella Sing to Me. If you wanted more, well, this is it.
This tale is a glimpse into Freyda and Dóma’s continuing life together as well as another look at the Shadow Garden and some of its residents. As it was intended for people who already know the characters, new readers might end up feeling a little lost. Sorry, but if you’re intrigued, click the link up above, ’cause that’s free too!
Anyway, back to this story – it’s intended to be free and enjoyable, so if you wish to share it with someone, I’d prefer it if you linked them back here. However as long as you always give me credit for the following, then share away.
Warning, this story contains a romantic F/F couple. It is told with love and happiness, but if this is not something you are comfortable with, then I would recommend you don’t read it.
Part 1 is approximately 3,500 words long. I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you find any mistakes or errors, feel free to tell me about them too.
Sweetness and Shadows
Freyda woke in her usual defensive position – curled on her left side, legs tucked up almost to her chest, arms folded so her hands were clenched against her shoulders. Years of being too cold and not feeling entirely safe when she slept had formed into quite a habit. One that twenty-one months in the Shadow Garden hadn’t been able to alter.
Not that she had to worry about her safety, or her temperature here. Tucked under the covers, with the window open on the familiar twilight, Freyda was toasty warm. Smiling, she straightened her legs and stroked the arm looped across her ribs. No matter what dreams or memories stalked her slumbers, she never forgot that she was loved. That someone was holding onto her. Someone cared. Always.
Lifting the heavy arm, Freyda carefully turned over onto her other side. Dóma grumbled, ducking her head down as her support was removed. Though she was still sleeping, Dóma’s hand reached out blindly until she found Freyda’s side again, then shuffled in close. Within seconds Freyda was pinned flat beneath a warm Dóma-blanket, a dark head nestled beneath her chin this time, rather than snuggled against her back.
Exasperated and charmed in equal measures, Freyda rolled her eyes at the shadow-draped ceiling and plotted her next move. She’d never been a tactile person – still wasn’t – but for Dóma she’d made an exception. Well, Dóma was exceptional, so it came naturally to Freyda to let the other woman in. Especially when they were alone. Freyda didn’t feel so vulnerable then. She could treat Dóma exactly as she deserved, without worrying that someone else was watching, plotting, scheming, writing it all down to be written up in a report later.
The Shadow Garden was not the Institute. She wasn’t an experiment here. She knew that, really she did, but ten years of treatment did not just go away. Not when there was always someone else around. Freyda loved living in the Garden and she liked her new friends, but for a place so sparsely populated it was very hard sometimes to spend time alone, to get away, to find some peace. The Aekhartain were a highly social bunch – likely because they’d been dead for so many years and were so shadow-bound bored – but Freyda wasn’t. She liked her friends best in small doses. Very small. Like one visit from all of them combined every other day at most, if anyone had bothered to ask her opinion.
But of course they never asked. Just because the Aekhartain were friendly, didn’t mean they were polite. They were nice too, but not always considerate. Everyone loved Dóma, so despite what Freyda might have wanted she couldn’t keep her partner to herself all the time.
She sighed at the ceiling, making Dóma grumble in her sleep. Freyda smiled and toyed with the spill of brown curls tickling her chin. She loved to lie quietly while Dóma slept. It was such an indulgence – for both of them. Aekhartain didn’t need sleep, not really, unless they’d expended a lot of energy. Though Dóma sang every day, the music was such an integral part of her that it didn’t cost her any energy. If anything it gave her more, but Dóma still liked to sleep every night. Habit, she said.
It was habit that had Freyda yawning after the same amount of woken hours too, though at least her work with Maskai gave her the excuse of being genuinely tired. So they slept. Old habits forming into new ones.
This was definitely something Freyda could get used to, curling up each night with Dóma by her side – or usually attached to her side, sinceDóma tended to fall asleep first and turned into a bit of a limpet when she was unconscious. Freyda had never asked why Dóma was quite so clingy at night, but she suspected that her girlfriend was afraid she would leave, and that was why she held on so tightly.
Even though Freyda had no intentions of doing such a thing, she let Dóma hold her, because sometimes she needed to be held. To be grounded,to feel cared for. It connected them even in the deep dark, when Freyda’s past life came back to haunt her.
How she loved Dóma. She’d never expected to feel this way about anyone, ever, but it felt so right, so perfect. So freeing. Which was a funny thought when she was currently lying wrapped in Dóma’s possessive hold.
Running her fingers through her girlfriend’s curls, Freyda stroked her other hand down Dóma’s back and smiled. Love was a constant surprise to her, full of so many nuances and facets, some easier to adjust to than others. Love hadn’t made her life any simpler; if anything it had tangled it up worse than ever. In the best possible way.
Which was why she needed to get up. No matter how much she loved lounging around in bed, there were things to do, plans to be finalised, surprises to be sprung.
The moment she moved, Dóma tightened her grip around Freyda’s waist and flung a leg over both of hers to pin her down. Freyda huffed a quiet laugh and wriggled her legs free, then tried to prise Dóma’s hands apart.
“No,” her girlfriend grumbled sleepily. “Don’t go.”
Knowing now that Dóma was awake, even if she didn’t want to be, Freyda abandoned all stealth plans. “Come on, Doe, let me up.”
“No. Stay. It’s cold out. Stay where it’s warm.”
It was never cold in the Garden. In a world of perpetual twilight, the temperature was constant and pleasant, never too hot, never too cold. Not that such things mattered to Freyda anymore anyway. Knowing such reasoning would get her nowhere this early in the morning, she turned ruthless by tugging Dóma’s arms apart and slipping swiftly out of reach.
“Come back!” Dóma lunged and almost threw herself out of bed. There was a mildly panicked squeak and a moment of undignified flailing before she regained her balance. Then, rumpled and thwarted, Dóma sat up amongst the covers and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “You are so annoying.”
“I love how much of a morning person you are,” Freyda retorted, swooping in for a kiss.
Dóma’s annoyance melted instantly and she tucked a hand behind Freyda’s neck in a familiar gesture of comfort and connection. In return Freyda cupped Dóma’s face, cherishing their contact. The teasing kiss turned soft, spinning out into uncounted time as they forgot everything but each other.
Just as Freyda was starting to abandon all her plans and surprises, Dóma suddenly yanked on her neck, pulling her back into bed.
Startled, only quick reflexes stopped Freyda from landing hard atop her girlfriend, and turning them both breathless – in a bad way. She thumped down on her hands instead, wincing a little at the awkward impact with soft covers.
Dóma giggled in triumph. “All mine now.” But as she lifted her arms for a victory cuddle, Freyda slipped free and darted across the room.
“You need to be quicker than that,” Freyda taunted, shutting herself inside the bathroom moments before the heavy thud of a pillow pounded against the door. Grinning, she turned on the shower and started planning her day.
* * *
Despite Dóma’s annoyance at her failure to get what she wanted, she fell swiftly back to sleep. One moment she’d been plotting her revenge attack for when Freyda exited the bathroom, the next she woke to silence. The bathroom door stood ajar, all sounds of anyone else moving around conspicuously absent.
“Rubbish,” she grumbled, stealing one of Eddie’s favourite complaint-words with a yawn. Staring up at the shadowy ceiling, Dóma listened to the silence, searching for any clues as to Freyda’s whereabouts, but there was nothing. The tiny upstairs portion of their cottage contained only one occupant – Dóma herself. From the deep quality of the silence, she would hazard a guess that downstairs was empty too.
“Double rubbish.” Throwing off the covers, she got up. It wasn’t like her to waste a day in complete idleness, but when Freyda was still here she could tell herself she was doing something important. Spending time with Freyda was always important, the best possible thing she could do with her day. Without Freyda, however, she just felt lazy.
A soft trill sounded through the window, and Dóma raised her hand just in time for Symphony to dart onto her fingers. The beautiful song thrush whistled at her, making her smile. “Yes, I’m finally up. Go catch yourself some breakfast. I’ll be down soon.”
Chirruping in agreement, Symphony flitted back outside leaving Dóma to study her wardrobe and wonder what to wear today. For some reason she felt the need to celebrate, so she picked out a beautiful walking gown in dark blue with a white lace trim, and dug around for the contrasting parasol. Such things were utterly superfluous in the Shadow Garden, of course, but when had that ever stopped her. Then she decided on her low-heeled button boots and there was probably a hat that would set the whole thing off nicely.
Humming happily, Dóma set about preparing herself for the day. The next time Freyda saw her, her beloved was going to regret getting up so early. Even if it took all morning for Dóma to get ready.
* * *
Freyda had a list. It was quite a long list, and she hadn’t dared to write it down, because even though Dóma claimed she wasn’t nosy, Freyda’s girlfriend seemed incapable of not reading any piece of paper she came across. Even if it was in a sealed envelope addressed to someone else.
So Freyda kept her list in her head, repeating it as she walked, hoping she wouldn’t forget anything. “What do you think, Carroll?” she asked the blackbird riding on her shoulder. “Shall we get the worst one over with first?”
Her blackbird made a squelching sound, which summed up Freyda’s feelings precisely.
“I know, but if we do that first, then the rest of the day should be fun.”
Carroll thought about it for a moment, then chucked his agreement.
“To the kitchens it is, then,” Freyda sighed, and tried to imagine up some confidence and courage as she took the winding path through the woods towards the manor. Bearding Emin in his den was always a risky move, but not so dangerous as finding him outside of it. Or him finding you inside, without his permission.
Grinning at memories of pantry raids with Ollie and Demero, Freyda started whistling. The look on Dóma’s face when Freyda had given her the oven-warm muffins had been worth every moment of Emin’s snarling. She was aiming for a similar result today – without the snarling. Hopefully.
On her shoulder Carroll took up her whistling with more melody and skill, and the pair of them strolled out of the trees and onto the manor path. As the raked gravel walkway curled around the big house, a flash of light caught Freyda’s eye. She reached up for the tiny mirror charm, spinning in an unfelt breeze and her heart clenched with love and memories. Her other hand slipped into her pocket to touch the amethyst heart she always carried there, and she turned to study the other little charms decorating the tree. Well, trees now, since the rest of the Aekhartain had begun adding their own touches after Freyda had moved in with Dóma and this little display became the property of the whole Garden.
So simple, yet so pretty. The glass beads, shards of mirror, pieces of crystal and glitter-covered shapes spun and glinted, sending out rainbows and sparks to bring a little light and colour to this small patch of shadow. Like so many things in the Garden, what had started out as a gesture of friendship and a private prayer of hope, had been transformed into a celebration of life, love and joy.
Catching hold of the tiny blackbird, now hanging beside a miniature song thrush, Freyda smiled. “How could I ever resist you?” she murmured. “Any of you.”
“They do have a way of worming under your guard, no matter how firm you try to hold it.”
Freyda glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Demero. “As if you ever guarded yourself against anyone,” she retorted, since he was the most open and welcoming man she’d ever met. Everyone was a friend to Demero, and those he liked were family.
“I was not always as I am now,” he said quietly, walking over to join her and reaching up to stroke a beautiful white feather. “Friendship is the one thing I’ve never found hard to give, but love, trust…” He caressed the feather and shook his head. “I had to learn to hand over my heart, Freyda. I never thought I would.
“Not that I was given much choice in the end.” Grinning, Demero ran a hand through his dark curls and pulled out a small black feather, a match for the crow riding on his shoulder. “There.” He slid the black quill under the thread holding the white feather. “That’s better.”
“You do know that’s one of Ollie’s, don’t you?”
Freyda glanced over her other shoulder, just in time to catch Shaiel’s wink.
Demero snorted. “No, it’s not. Trust me to know the difference. Would you ever mistake a Mask feather for one of mine?”
“Of course not, yours are mangy.”
“Ha! Says the scurf-ridden magpie.”
Freyda stood back and watched them insult each other, shaking her heads as the pair of them grinned like loons. When things started boiling down to, ‘You’re a idiot,’ ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ and ‘It take’s one to know one,’ she gave a loud cough.
The two men turned to her, heads tilted at an identical angle, eyebrows raised.
“Aren’t you a little old for all this?”
They glanced at each other, back to her, then at each other again. They both smiled. “You’re never too old for this,” Shaiel informed her, perfectly seriously.
“This is how real men greet each other,” Demero agreed pompously.
Unimpressed, Freyda folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t know about ‘real’ men,” she drawled. “But I can see that it’s what idiots do.”
They grinned, taking that as a compliment.
She just shook her head. “You are, and will always remain, a complete mystery to me.”
Shaiel fist-bumped Demero. “Our secrets are safe, my friend.”
“As if anyone wants to know them anyway,” Freyda muttered.
Demero chuckled. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew them.”
“But if you did know them, we’d have to kill you,” Shaiel added solemnly.
“What, again?” Freyda asked.
Demero cackled while Shaiel looked offended. “I didn’t kill you the first time. I was trying to help.”
“Yeah, he tried to help me too,” Demero chuckled, and gestured to himself. “And now look. Eighteen-and-a-half centuries dead, and still counting.”
Shaiel scowled at his best friend, while Freyda just blinked. She knew they were old, of course, but she tried not to think about how old exactly. Neither of them looked older than thirty.
“Laugh all you like now, Demairo, but you were grateful at the time,” Shaiel growled.
“Aw, did my mean words ruffle your feathers, Twinkle?” Demero cooed, throwing an arm around his friend’s shoulders and rumpling his hair. “I’m sorry.”
“You will be,” Shaiel grumbled, pulling free and finger-combing his white locks. “Especially when I tell Nel you’ve been tying your feathers to Ollie’s again.”
Before they could launch into another round of insults and banter, Freyda held up a hand. “Shaiel!”
With Demero preparing a blistering comeback, the two men looked at her again, eyebrows raised, surprised to have their conversation interrupted a second time.
“I won’t keep you, since I can see you’re having fun here, but I just wanted to check that everything’s still okay for later.”
For a moment Shaiel’s face was completely blank and Freyda’s heart sank. Then Demero nudged him and did something complicated with his eyebrows that involved a lot of wiggling.
“Eh?” Shaiel frowned, then understanding dawned. “Oh!” He smiled at Freyda. “Yes. Everything’s ready and set, just send Carroll along to let me know when you want me to bring Dóma to you.”
Freyda glanced at the blackbird on her shoulder to check it was okay with him. Carroll twitched his wings and chirruped, accepting the important duty. She smiled. “Great. See you later then.”
“See you,” Shaiel agreed, he and Demero both raising their hands in farewell as Freyda continued along the path, the sounds of their resumed bickering fading behind her.
“Men,” she muttered to Carroll as she pushed open the front door of the manor, “two thousand years of foolishness.”
“And then some,” Alamé assured her, brushing past on her way out.
“But you don’t even know what or even who I’m talking about,” Freyda called after her.
“You mentioned men and fools, my love,” Alamé laughed, spinning around and making her flaming hair whirl. “It’s something they never grow out of, no matter how long you give them to try. Eternal life is too short for that sort of thing.” Waving, she headed towards the trees.
Unable to find an answer for that, since her experience of men was largely restricted to uncaring scientists and playful Aekhartain, Freyda ignored it. “Hey, Ally!”
The other woman stopped, turning back around and making her dress flare in a scarlet ripple of silk. “Yes, Frey?”
“If you see Dóma today…?” Suddenly embarrassed, Freyda couldn’t finish her request.
Alamé’s expectant expression melted into an affectionate smile. “Operation Distraction is go,” she promised. “The word has been passed and we’re all standing by.”
Filled with relief, Freyda smiled. “Thank you.”
“Any time, sweetheart,” Alamé assured her, walking away with a careless wave. “Anything for Dóma, any time for you.” Spinning around one last time, in a whirl of fire and silk, she vanished amongst the trees.
Relieved and admiring at the same time, Freyda looked at Carroll. He flicked his wings in a shrug. Unable to think of anything else to add to that, Freyda gave a shrug of her own and headed for the kitchen. Time to tackle the one man who didn’t fit in with any of her previous experience, and sadly he was nothing so simple as a silly, playful fool.
* * *
The stars glowed overhead as Dóma finally left home, parasol twirling behind her head. With Symphony on her shoulder, she ambled through the wood singing softly beneath her breath. She was in a good mood and the Garden seemed to be putting on its best show to reflect that. Everywhere she looked tiny star-flowers twinkled in the gloom: scattered underfoot, clinging to rough patches of bark, hanging amongst the trees. There were other flowers too – the purple and silver of Maskai’s power and the exuberant spectrum of Freyda’s Imagination.
“Glorious,” Dóma sighed, so proud of her love, and picked a particularly beautiful star-flower from a tree branch, since it seemed to be dangling right in front of her for that sole purpose. Even after it had been picked, the ivory bell shimmered with pearlescent hues of blue, white and lilac.
Breathing in the intoxicating scent of freedom and wonder, Dóma tucked the flower behind her ear and continued on her way.
A crackle in the branches overhead made her look up, into a narrow black face, surrounded by tufts of russet fur. A pair of pale eyes stared back.
“Suain!” Dóma greeted. “What are you doing up there? Where’s Drae?”
The red-ruffed lemur chittered and scrambled down towards her. Dóma only just collapsed her parasol in time before the lemur dropped onto her shoulder. Symphony darted off in a flurry of scolds, but Suain was too busy sniffing and licking Dóma’s ear to care.
“No, no,” Dóma protested, laughing. “Don’t lick, Suain. Urgh!”
The lemur stuck her tongue right in Dóma’s ear, then scurried off up the nearest tree, chortling to herself. “Lemurs,” Dóma grumbled, scrubbing her hand across her ear. There was a squawk as Suain caught an unsuspecting Symphony in her clever little hands.
Dóma sighed as her song thrush started shrieking out complaints, and shook her head. This day was not turning out quite as she’d expected. “Suain, drop her! Drop her now!”
Pale eyes blinked at her, while Symphony glared, her puffed-up head poking out of the lemur’s black fist.
“That’s it. Drop. Good girl. Just let her go.”
Suain stared thoughtfully at the bird in her hand. Symphony glowered silently back. Chuckling, the lemur scampered off into the trees.
Dóma looked down at her lovely dress, trimmed in such delicate lace, and the fairly sturdy boots she had on beneath. She sighed – this was not going to be pretty. Then she hiked up her skirts and started to run. “Drae! Drae, come and get your blasted fleabag right now!”