‘Each hand holds a secret,’ I said, holding them both out to her, clasped tight. ‘Which one do you choose?’
Hemma cocked her head to one side as she faced me. ‘Do I have to choose?’
‘Everybody has to choose, all the time. It is the choices we make that, in turn, make us who we are.’
Hemma looked at me again. ‘Sometimes, Jelt, I doing know whether you are teasing me or being profound.’
‘Is there a difference?’
‘No, it is a serious question. The world, the universe, teases us with possibilities. What is day? Why is the sky blue? Will the crops fail? Does she like me? Will I live to see my children grow? The world teases us. We never know what the right choice is. Sometimes we don’t find out until long afterwards. Sometimes we never learn what was the right thing to do, and we spend the rest of our lives wondering if we took the right road at the crossroads.’ I looked back into those deep green eyes of hers. ‘Sometimes we wonder if we have married the right person.’
‘A wise man once said you can never step into the same river twice.’
Hemma looked away, back at the river flowing behind us. ‘But the river is always there.’
‘No, the river is different, not just different water. Each second of the day it is wearing away its banks, changing is route. Each season is as different for the river as it is for us. It may look the same but it is different. You are not the same person as you were the last time you stepped into the river. Each moment, each, day, each season changes us. You are not the girl you used to be.’
Hemma turned. ‘I am not a girl. I am a woman now… your woman.’
‘See? Even there, there are changes.’ I held out my hands. ‘Each one holds a secret. Which will you choose?’
‘I don’t want to choose. I want things to stay the same.’
‘Things cannot stay the same,’ I said. ‘You’ve heard the rumours. I nodded to the north. ‘The Northmen are coming. We need to leave.’
‘Or stay and fight,’ Hemma said. ‘Isn’t all this worth fighting for?’
I looked around too. The valley was all she’d ever known. I’d seen the world… and not liked it much. It would be better to stay. But we would die. I’d been north. I’d seen and fought the Northmen. I knew what was coming. ‘It would be worth fighting for if I knew we had a chance of winning.’ I held out my hands.
‘Come on, choose. Which way shall we go?’
Hemma hesitated and then took my right hand in hers. She eased my fingers open. There was a stone in my hand.
Hemma frowned and opened my other hand. There was a stone in that too.
‘Not much of a secret are they?’
‘Ah.’ I said holding up the stone in my left hand. ‘This is a stone from our yard.’ I held up my right. ‘This is a stone from the river. The stone from our home has been here probably forever, like you it has never been elsewhere. It meant we would stay whatever the cost. The stone from the river is from some place we do not know and the river will take it to some other place we do not know. I threw it back into the river. It sank with a plop. ‘Like me, it is going from one place to another. Are you coming with me?’
Hemma looked back at our home, eventually she nodded. There were tears in her eyes and I think there were tears in mine too.