.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 2
The days went on. Archer and I had an understanding and a new respect for each other after that night. As soon as I learned to accept their kindness, suddenly it was like the family I never had. Their close-knit circle opened to let me in and I reveled in their closeness and support, needing it like the very crops I tended needed rain.
When my wound completely healed and required no more patching, I was moved into my own room, no more than a closet big enough for a bed and little else. Even so, I cherished it; it was my own space. However, during the weeks that had passed I had gotten used to sharing a bed and had loved the comfort of not feeling so alone, the warmth spread thourgh the space between us, and his easy breathing which had lulled me to sleep. I mourned the loss of these simple pleasures, but knew when morning came he would be there to wake me up with a gentle nudge to my shoulder or hand on my back. It was enough.
I even fell into my routine so well at times that I forgot my brand was there. I still tried to keep my shirt on around them, however; I didn't feel the need to remind them of what I was. If I could forget for a few hours a day, perhaps they could too.
Cam and Tanner warmed up to me eventually. I tried to hold their stares but they beat me every time, to the point that it became a favorite game of theirs. When I lost, I was in for a tackle and gentle wrestling on the floor, laughing as they occasionally tried to roll me up in the living room rug.
And Aislinn. She proved herself to be an incredible woman, so different from my own mother, or the women I had known at home. She was sharp-witted and funny, and her children were her life. She told me once that, "it may be a man's world but when you're in my house, I rule."
To that her husband rolled his eyes and kissed her hand, saying if that was the case, then he would be in the barn if anyone needed him.
My growing emotional happiness could not outweigh the physical labor, however. My work left me with sore muscles every night and a backache in the morning. My body, which had never been put through a hard day's work in its life was violently protesting to my new lifestyle. Aislinn noticed it and called me into the bedroom one night after dinner.
"Sit down and take your shirt off," she said, rummaging around in her cabinets. I obeyed, hesitantly. She sat behind me on the bed and began to rub an ointment into my shoulders and neck. It made my skin tingle, then seemed to traverse the layers of flesh directly into the muscles themselves. I sighed as my knotted muscles relaxed, feeling like putty beneath her fingers.
"My mother was an herbalist," she said idly. "She made this salve for sore muscles and sold it by the barrel-full."
"Mmm," I mumbled, dropping my head forward. Her fingers trailed down my back, skirting the pinkish brand between my shoulder-blades.
Archer appeared in the doorway, smoking his pipe. The light from the living area behind him gently lit up his hair and his dark amber eyes appeared to smolder from the lamplight of the bedroom. His shirt was open over his chest, all the way down to his belly in fact, and I could see his navel over the ties of his trousers. That's when it stirred in me again.
"The boys are down," he said, looking at her over me. It was as if I were not even there.
She finished her massage and wiped her hands on her skirts, patting my back. "Sleep well, Micah," she said with a lovely, gentle smile.
I took my cue and gathered my shirt. Archer nodded goodnight to me as I passed and shut the door behind me as usual. Not quite ready to be alone in my room, I sat down on the living room floor beside the fire grate and waited for my skin to dry.
I wondered at the tingling feeling in my muscles from the massage and the coolness of my skin. But even more I wondered what Archer's look had meant. Would they make love tonight? They openly kissed and showed playful affection in front of me and their children, but of other such matters they seemed very discreet. But tonight, I just got that feeling.
I looked at their closed door and sighed. I had been here a month already, they certainly deserved their privacy. As I realized that, I also felt for the first time like a fifth wheel. Thoughts of leaving came into my head. Of following my original plan and going into the city to find work. Archer could at least give me a good recommendation.
But it was more because I was feeling my own loneliness I think. Here at the keep I could deny myself the one thing that set me apart from them; my sexuality. I could feel normal here, pretend that the other side of me didn't exist.
But it did exist, and I was feeling it even more now. She had been the one touching me and he was the one I had been faced with, standing there in the doorway leaning against the frame, his smooth, sun-darkened flesh revealed teasingly by his open shirt. His tall, almost lanky figure standing on strong, lean legs.
I closed my eyes and heard a gentle, feminine laugh from behind their door.
Several weeks later, at least another month in fact, I had finished my chores for the evening and had skipped inside to escape the rain that would soon be pounding on our roof. I could hear the rumbling of the thunder getting closer with the storm, so to distract the boys I was sitting down in the living area with them, playing at a puzzle Archer had carved as one of his many talents.
We were just enjoying the crackle of the fire in the grate when the door opened and Aislinn huffed in, her skirts hiked up to her ankles. Archer was not far behind.
"I don't care, Lyinn," he was saying. "You can't go. Not right now." I'd seen him irritated before, but this time he was out and out angry. Though his voice wasn't raised , it'd sunk to a low hiss that somehow betrayed his ire more than shouting. He was shaking the rain from his shaggy hair. Outside the thunder rumbled to angrily agree with him.
"It's not exactly a choice for me. I have to go," she insisted. "And mind your feet, you're tracking mud in."
He hastily removed his boots. "It's not safe," he said.
Aislinn laughed, but it wasn't real. "It's never safe enough for you." She busied herself around the kitchen, oblivious to us three who silently watched from our spot on the living room floor. "That road is traveled year-round, and the guard makes regular patrols. You said so yourself!"
"I don't see why you can't find someone nearer to us; or even why you have to go at all." Archer too, hadn't noticed us. He stripped off his outer work vest, leaving only his white linen shirt, which was soaked through.
She slammed her pot on the counter and spun around at him again.
"Because she brought both Cam and Tanner into the world-"
"No, you brought them into the world. All she did was hold your hands and tell you to push. Why couldn't I do that?" There was hurt in his voice.
"I trust her," his wife said as a last desperate attempt. "I wouldn't have made it without her!"
He held her stare for a tense moment before running his hands back through his wet hair and grabbing his coat again. He got on his boots again and headed for the door. Lightening lit up the windows, followed closely by the resonating claps of thunder.
"It's supposed to be me you trust," he said, slamming the door behind him.
I could hear the rain begin pounding on the roof. Aislinn was left leaning back against the table she prepared her food on, sighing and rubbing her face. It was then that she seemed the realize that they hadn't been alone. Her eyes found mine and she shook her head. I quietly sent the boys off to their room to ready for bed.
Left alone, I ventured up the courage to ask, "Are you all right?"
She nodded, putting herself into action again to fuss with her pots. She turned her back to me. "Never marry a soldier, Micah," she said. "Even if they've retired. They don't change. Always jealous, always suspicious of everything."
I didn't say anything. I just stood there like a dumb animal.
"We have this argument every time I get pregnant," she continued.
"My sister lives in Leavres, you see, she's been my midwife twice now. Archer doesn't like her." I saw her wipe her eyes. For a man so devoted to his family, I had a hard time believing that. There must have been a good reason.
Aislinn busied herself with some mediocre task. "And I admit, she's none too fond of him either, but she's still my sister and he's still my husband."
"How far is Leavres?" I asked.
She turned around to face me. "Two days travel. I have to go now to let her look at me, you know?"
I didn't, but I nodded anyway.
"I wasn't blessed with my mother's hips; childbirth is no easy thing for me." She smiled a bit sadly.
"My mother too," I piped up, trying to find something to add to help support her. Aislinn laughed and ruffled my hair. Her smiled faded when she looked past me towards the door.
"He hates the road to Leavres since it's through the woody country. I can never convince him that it's safe enough."
"Doesn't he go with you?"
She laughed. "Not with Elsa waiting at the other end! Besides, someone's got to stay here and look after things. We all can't just pick up and leave."
I thought for a moment and an idea popped into my head. "I could go with you," I said. "Or I could stay here-"
She smiled again and this time pinched my cheek. "You're so sweet," she said, "but you'll have to convince the man out there."
About the moment she said that there was a rumbling of thunder and lightning. Then came a clap so loud it shook the entire house. Jars rattled on their shelves as the boys in the back room began screaming their fear, and I saw the flash of fire from behind the kitchen window. Aislinn ran for the boys. I ran outside to see what the lightning had set ablaze.
Outside the house in the front there was a large tree that stood in the middle of the fenced yard. The boys had liked to play from a swing Archer had slung over its thickest lower branch, and Archer himself usually wandered out there when he wanted to think. It had been an easy target in the middle of a hammering storm. The great trunk had not been split, but the bolt had shaved off half its substantial branches which had then come crashing down. The remaining burned despite the rain. My heart pounded and my ears still rang as I frantically looked around for Archer.
"Micah!" came a shout in the night amid the pounding of the downpour.
His voice had come from among the branches of the fallen side. In the darkness and rain I could see nothing but the flash of his white shirt when the lightening lit the sky. Archer was on his back, trying to shove the heavy splintered branches off his body. Without another moment's hesitation, I skidded into the mud on my knees and put all my strength into lifting the branches off of him. Rain and flying ash ran into my eyes and blinded me; I could only feel Archer beside me, I couldn't see him. I knew he was hurt but I didn't know how badly.
"Come on, Micah," he encouraged in a hoarse voice, putting the last of his effort into it.
We finally could shove the tree's branches off to the side enough for me to help slide him out from underneath the foliage. I drug him out of immediate danger, my arms under his and wrapped around his chest. He groaned; his legs had been caught under the tree. Mud impeded our movement but finally he was free, and Archer leaned back against my chest as I collapsed back onto the ground. The rain spattered the ground around us in heavy drops.
I could feel him breathing, the expanse of his chest rapidly beneath my arms. When had everything about him become so physical to me? He was badly wounded, could have been killed even, and all I could think about was how deliciously heavy his weight was against me.
He half laughed and tried to wipe his hair away from his eyes. "Never saw it coming," I heard him say.
Aislinn shouted to us, running out of the house after having calmed the children.
"Oh my God!" she cried upon seeing the smoking and steaming tree. She tried to help us up.
"Careful, his leg-" I said.
Between us, we got him back into the house and sitting on the table's bench.
"Boots, Micah," Aislinn said, getting her bandage kit she always had ready for when the boys hurt themselves. I obeyed and removed Archer's boots as gently as I could. His right pant leg was soaked through with dirt and blood. Archer said nothing but just gripped the edge of the table. His knuckles were white. Aislinn ripped the rest of his trouser leg up to his thigh and we were faced with the worst wound I certainly had ever seen. Severed flesh, blood and bruising, but his leg didn't appear to have been broken.
True to form, Aislinn kept her head about her. She instructed me to fetch clean towels and rags and a bucket of warm water. I obeyed and ran into the back room. Armed with the towels, I hurried back into the main room but stopped upon seeing them together.
Archer was gazing down at her as she fussed over him. I couldn't tell if it was sweat or rain on his face; I'm sure it was both. His cheeks were flushed and smudged with ash and dirt. Amid all that and the pain in his eyes, he smiled and touched her hair. Aislinn looked up, surprised by the gesture.
"I love you," he said, his eyes flinching as she moved his leg.
She gave him a reprimanding look, then leaned up into his arms.
Archer was laid up in bed, despite his objections, his leg tightly bound up in a myriad of gauzes and pads. I tried my best to work the place myself while his wife tended him at every chance she had amid her own duties. And I never was more tired than I was by the end of that first day. I couldn't believe Archer had at one time been able to keep the place up by himself.
By the time I had stumbled in for the final time that evening, Aislinn had my meal set out for me. I sat down without ceremony and began eating. Only after several bites did I finally notice how she milled around the kitchen, packing some things up.
"What are you doing?" I asked, my mouth full.
"I'm going to Leavres," she said. "I don't want to wait any longer, and while he's laid up, he won't put up that much of a fight."
I swallowed thickly.
"Besides," she said, "you're here to look after him." She patted the top of my head as she passed. Speechless, I forgot my meal and watched her disappear into their room, presumably to tell him she was leaving. She emerged a few minutes later, smiling to herself. She slapped a small bag into my hand.
"See that he takes one of these at night; they help the pain so he can sleep. I'll be back in a few days."
She kissed my cheek and called to her children to hurry out.
"But you're leaving at night?" I asked, concerned.
She stopped in the doorway. "It's not as hot for most of the trip, and I'm traveling with a friend from down the road. We'll be fine." She patted her belly to make her point. I was still skeptical but soon after, they were gone. I think I began to share Archer's apprehension after that.
I should have been shamed that my main concern was much more selfish than Aislinn's well-being at the time. I looked at the small bag of pills in my hand, and then at the bedroom door he lay behind.
"It's only for a few days," I whispered to myself. Just a few days alone in the house. No children, no wife, just him. God help me not to go insane, I prayed.
"I've never been a nurse before," I said, sitting on the bed next to him. Archer shook his shaggy head at me and smiled wearily. He was bare-chested and his sun-darkened skin contrasted greatly with the white linens. He had good color after such blood loss, and seemed overall in good spirits despite the fact that his wife had used his lameness to sneak out on him.
"It's not like you have to bottle feed me," he said. "Just little things, like keeping me entertained."
I nodded shyly. This was going to be harder than I thought. He caught my blush, I know he did, but he didn't say anything about it. We hadn't spoken anything really about my past, but I felt that it hung in the air between us at that moment. I half-expected him to admonish me right then and there for even thinking such things. But that wasn't like him, to judge so. From the beginning he'd made it clear- he didn't care about such things.
I looked up and caught his amber eyes. He had been watching me. How handsome he looked, I still remember, and oh so unreachable. My heart pounded loudly for a few beats and at the time I really didn't know why. It had to do with the way he looked at me and the way I liked looking at him. But there was something beyond that, past the physical attraction I was beginning to realize had a firm grip on me. But what it was that lay beyond was also beyond my comprehension for the time being.
"Something on your mind?" he said, snapping me from my stare. It was more of a statement than a question and in his amber eyes I could see he knew the answer already, it was just as if he were challenging me.
So which would I choose? Say 'yes', and I felt I would be no better off than I was when I first got here. Called out by my family, hated by my friends, branded for the world to see. Or 'no', and I could stay here in the world I'd built up around myself, safe within these walls from prying eyes. 'Normal' for all accounts as long as I kept my shirt on and my eyes from wandering too far. And I desperately wanted to be normal.
"Not really," I answered, plastering on a smile. "Just wondering how she managed to slip out without you chasing after her on a bad leg."
He leaned back onto the pillows with a smile. "She's her own woman," he said. "That's why I married her."
I closed my eyes for a few seconds as I shared a laugh with him. I was safe. I was normal. Ironically, he made me feel that way.
The next few days he decided I should leave the keep to its devices besides the daily feeding of the animals, saying he would help me catch up when he had healed. I spent that time for the most part sitting on his bed with him, talking, reading, changing the wraps on his leg. Then after supper I would give him his pill and he would drift off to sleep, usually while I still sat there.
It was that time that I liked the best I think, right before he would fall asleep. He would lay his head back on the pillow with lazy eyes and would be keen for jokes and silliness, almost if he were drunk. He would share stories about his childhood, about his experiences in life. Things I couldn't imagine him doing- his years as a soldier, the places he'd been, the fights and wounds that left the scars he showed me, the trouble he'd gotten into as a youth. His family, most of which were deceased but for a distant cousin or two. How he'd met his wife not far from where they'd settled here, sitting in a mud puddle after having fallen there trying to catch the geese that had gotten away from her, the three of which she was to sell in town. He'd helped her out and caught the birds. She'd refused to thank him, saying she could have done it herself if she hadn't been wearing the skirts her mother had forced on her. He said he'd been enamoured of her from the beginning and had bought the geese himself, just to have an excuse to follow her into town. The romance began there and went on for nearly a year, and Archer had laughed outright when he admitted that he'd asked her to marry him three times before she'd given in.
I think that those several days before his wife and children returned were when I really began to fall in love with him, with his kindness, his understanding. His amber eyes and his deep, throaty voice. But it had become, as I had already started to feel, more than a physical attraction. He was intelligent, he was strong, he was devoted and very capable of love. He made me laugh and put me at ease. He accepted me.
And on his side, I believe that time was when he began to really forge a friendship with me, one that would last me a very long time, and take me where I never thought I could go. Through life. And when the time came when he had nowhere else to turn, it was on our friendship he would lean, and I gladly accepted the weight.
However, that came later. I was still but fifteen, not ready for real life yet. A few peaceful months passed after he'd healed up and I found I had really fallen into my groove with them, felt like I belonged there as part of their household. And by the time the year passed, it was like my other life had never existed.
But that part of me was still there, and it manifested every time I looked at Archer. I had begun to pinpoint what it was about him as I studied him with fascination. He was strong and rustic; as virile a picture as I could ever had imagined on my own. I had never viewed him as a father figure, though the things he taught me were the same lessons he passed on to his own boys. Instead, I saw him more as a mentor of sorts, someone who I went to when I needed acceptance, even though we never spoke of it. As far as my attraction to him went, I kept it to myself. Aislinn never seemed to notice, nor did her two boys, who normally questioned everything. I was grateful that I could hide it well enough from all them. I didn't think I could take another ousting like what I'd already suffered.
But he was different. As much as I liked to think I was being discreet, I know he noticed it. Maybe it was all the time we spent together working, but there was little I could have on my mind that Archer wouldn't read into somehow. It was an uncanny gift of his to be able to read voices and body gestures as if they were verbal confessions themselves.
Like a building storm things went unspoken for some time. But that first proverbial lightening bolt struck one day as we were plowing the south field, sometime in the late season after my first year there. The plow was a small one, handled by one man who held onto its two handles and followed behind, putting pressure enough so that the tines dug into the earth, while the horse ahead was reined by another from the ground behind. It was backbreaking work to make sure that plow tore the ground up enough, and as a grown man Archer had more power than I. He took on most of the brute work, while I followed behind with the reins chafing my hands with each sharp tug of the horse's head. But I didn't mind. I watched his back and the movement of muscle, his firm backside, the long legs that trudged through the freshly plowed earth with hardly a misstep. I didn't realize he'd let go of the plow until I nearly ran into him.
"Enough, Micah," he gasped, unable to push on without a rest. I reined the horse with some effort- he was a hard-mouthed brute- and Archer leaned with a heavy sigh against the plow. Reaching for the water jug, he smiled at me, his brow wet with perspiration, his shaggy hair plastered to his forehead and neck. We'd been at it for hours out there, dying in the heat but he wanted to have it done before the rainy days came. I had never seen anyone work himself as hard as Archer did, even when I offered to take over. He would run himself into the ground if need be, if it would get that field finished in time.
I don't know what happened to me really. I suppose I had just forgotten myself. It was just a simple thing to do, to let my eyes stray to his neck, which shined too in the noonday sun and his dusty shirt was nearly translucent. There was the washboard of his stomach where the fabric clung, and the two darker spots on his chest, his nipples, barely visible.
He caught my stare obviously enough I know because his smile faded a bit and he fixed me with a patient gaze. I remember quickly looking away, unable to take that mixture of gentle reprimand and his characteristic, unending tolerance for my sporadic daydreaming. He hadn't said anything, but just put the jug away and carried on. I watched him for a moment before following, ashamed that I'd been so obvious about it and afraid that he was angry with me.
But that night was something different. At dinner he'd hardly spoken to me, instead favoring his wife with a few glances that I couldn't read. Had he told her about me? How much more could he humiliate me if he had? She had kept her own expression cool and sweet as usual, and gave me a little smile as I moved to clear the dishes for her.
Archer stood and wiped his hands clean. He asked me to help him outside after I'd helped clean up and I obediently met him out there. Instead I'd wanted to run, but there was no place for me to escape.
"I need these bales down for tomorrow," he said, climbing up the stout wooden ladder into the hayloft of the barn. Reluctantly, I followed him up. Once up there, he sat back with a tired sigh on the bales we were supposed to be tossing down, and looked at me expectantly until I did the same.
"Micah-" he started.
I couldn't bear it anymore. I was humiliated that he'd even bring it up to me at all.
"It was nothing," I said quickly before he could say any more.
He gazed expectantly at me again, to see if I would interrupt him again. "It wasn't 'nothing'," he answered gently. "I'm not blind, Micah."
I felt my cheeks flush. How could he do this to me?
Archer rubbed his face, a sign of how tired he really was. "And I don't mean to be flattering myself either. But you get... distracted so easily. It's important that you stay focused-" he leaned forward and tapped my hand that covered my face, "if we're going to be able to work together."
I looked up at him, surprised by the lump in my throat. He smiled at me.
"I think I know you well enough that we can speak plainly about it," he reasoned. After a pause, he continued, leaning forward again for intimacy. "I care a great deal for you, you must know that by now." He paused again, searching my eyes. "But my wife does too," he finished softly, making his point in as few words as possible.
"Did you tell her?" I asked sheepishly.
His face softened and he gently shook his head. "No," he said, and I knew he wouldn't lie to me. I could read it all in his eyes- he did care for me, but he could never care for me in the way that I did for him. Not while he had his perfect life here.
Was that it? Was he was telling me to move on? And move on to what I wonder? He had never in all my time here told, or even insinuated to me to deny what I was, or to pretend I wasn't. That was all on my own. But I had to save my pride somehow, and felt that I owed him something. The truth, if nothing else. He had already proven to me that he was trustworthy, but was I brave enough? Still...
I bowed my head so as to not look at him. "I never told you what it meant to me that you let me stay," I said softly. "More than you'll ever know, for me to realize that I wasn't as evil as they made me believe I was."
I looked up to see him watching me intently with dark eyes. There was little light up here which I pitied, because I longed to see his colors right then.
"But I am what I am," I continued. "And I can bury it as much as possible, for your sake, or for hers, but..." I know that wasn't what he'd been asking me to do, but I looked imploringly at him, hoping he could understand what I was trying to tell him. "...but it's like asking me to drown myself. I still have to breathe every now and then."
After a moment he smiled kindly, actually looking a little proud of me. "Then breathe all you want, Micah," he said finally, a little glint to his eye. He clapped a hand on my shoulder. "Just get the work done."
We climbed down in silence a few minutes later. Archer cast an arm amiably around my shoulders and I was grateful for his support. I leaned on him as we walked back in, as I think he wanted me to. I felt close to tears.
But there was one great irony that night that I'll not forget. With an affectionate hand ruffling my hair, he disappeared into their bedroom, leaving me staring numbly into the living area where Aislinn sat peacefully knitting something with her two boys playing at her feet on the rug. I watched her for a moment before going to her and kneeling down. She'd peered into my face and touched my cheek. She looked as pretty as always; the gentility in her eyes, the way her hair escaped its pins to frame her face.
"Are you all right?" she asked. "Did you quarrel?"
Silently, I shook my head. I wanted to say something to her but couldn't find the words. Instead, I let my head down in her lap for a few moments. She stroked my hair and continued her humming.
"Just need loving then?" she asked, playing with my hair. "I can do that."
I think I lost a little of me after that conversation in the loft, though at the time I didn't know it. It's what happens when one falls in love for the first time, I suppose. Made even worse by the fact that I could never have him, though I didn't even understand what that meant either. It just settled into this feeling of partial emptiness, a slight sadness whenever I let myself think on it too long. What was it I wanted? I wasn't completely unaware of what sex was, but to touch him seemed just as alien and unlikely as reaching my hand up and touching the sun. So, so very out of reach.
It wasn't his fault; in his mind I'm sure he thought he was doing what was best for me. However, in my own mind I sometimes think it would have been better had he just violently shoved me away. Set my mind right instead of sharing his family and affection with me. I shouldn't have been part of that, I didn't belong. But if he had, he wouldn't have been any better a man than my own father. I couldn't be cast out of a family again; they were how I defined my existance. I had developed nothing of myself to hold onto yet if I were to lose everything again. My feverish three day wander on the road would have turned into the story of my life, if I even had the courage then not to kill myself out of loneliness and despair.
After the loft, nothing much changed outwardly. I focused on my chores as he'd told me to, and he never brought it up again. But I had to be around him with the knowledge that he knew my thoughts. It was unnerving and humiliating at first, but as time went on, it became just another part of me. He would let me be silently in love with him, so long as I did my share, and respected him for the choices he made in his life enough not to try and disturb them. But more importantly for me, I found that I could bear it so long as I had it in my own head that Aislinn meant as much to me as my own mother had. No, she meant more.
So the only change was in my own mind and I shared that with no one. Not even when Aislinn in her uncanny intuition would sense my lower moments and she would ask what was wrong.
And what could I tell her?
Time went by in a blur after my fifteenth year mark passed.
Aislinn gave birth to a sweet red-haired girl they named Twill who had her face and Archer's colors. I remember Archer beaming with pride when he first held her, a happy father with his first daughter. I knew then that she would be his pride and joy as no son could. I also remember feeling as jealous as the neglected family dog until he bade me to hold her, his arm about my shoulders and a hand to help cradle her head. Looking down at her I supposed then that I learn to could love her too. So long as she didn't pull my hair or cry too loud, I supposed another female around the place would be nice.
That was such a time of great change. The infamous loft conversation, and the new addition to the family. And following the year of Twill's birth, Archer's boys reached an age where they could go on to their own vocations. Time was going by peacefully for all of us, even me.
Cam had grown handsomely tall but retained his mother's beauty as I knew he would. In my seventeenth year he went to live in the city, when it was discovered that he had a knack for books and learning. Tanner grew as well, though he had more of Archer's build and temperament. He eventually went to live as an apprentice in the city to a man who would teach him the art of a blacksmith. We heard little from them; their new lives were full of new friends and plenty of hard work to keep them busy.
That was in my seventeenth year. I would spend birthdays at the keep until I was almost nineteen. And only then did I take my leave of them because Archer wished it so.
I was eighteen. A man by most peoples' standards but I still felt a child on the inside. I had spent almost five years here. Five years; they'd gone by like minutes. It was a change when the boys left, still so young and yet already moving along their own paths, away from home.
I stayed. I was not ready to leave the nest yet. I had so much more to overcome than those boys did and think I will always be bitter for that. But I told myself that I stayed because Archer had become far too used to having help around the keep. How could I leave him to work that by himself?
But as any eighteen year old young man, I was getting restless. For the longest time I had I tried to keep it to myself, but it began to get the better of me. I know they noticed my constant daydreaming and short attention. I couldn't focus on anything, except on the occasion when I was left to watch Twill, who'd latched onto me over everyone else, and I to her. I loved that little one. I would take her on long strolls to be alone in my thoughts, carrying her in my arms, napping with her under the veils of shade trees. I talked to her and she avidly listened, answering in her own language to whatever questions she thought I was putting to her. Those were moments in my sanity, when I could think of something else than him. But eventually we would have to go home, I would hand her over to her loving mother, and meet his eyes over the supper table.
Without Twill around to keep my attention, I was lost. I would watch for that moment in the hottest part of the day when Archer would take his shirt off and toss me a smile and some joke about the heat. Or when he would have occasion to touch my arm, or when I would have an excuse to touch him.
And it embarrasses me to say that my daydreaming became more carnal as that summer went on. When I could get a glimpse of his lean body uncovered I would ache to touch him. Nothing else, just touch every curve of muscle and bone. The ridges of his stomach muscles, the planes of his chest, the gentle arch of his back. I wanted to feel the texture of that thin trail of dark hair that led from his navel downward. I wanted to see, to feel.
In my wilder moments, usually in the middle of the night, I would imagine other parts of him I could touch. But even in my dreams I balked at the idea if the moment presented itself, and I would find myself awake in a hot sweat, as if I really had reached out and burned myself on the sun. He made me afraid, even when he was just an image in my own mind.
The change came about towards the end of the summer. Aislinn suddenly became withdrawn. She took comfort in the little girl who still needed her, but even I could tell that she was feeling more alone than before. The days came when I began to catch her gazing at me for long periods time, but I didn't know what I could do to comfort her.
I thought she missed her sons. How could I know that she was already missing me, and I wasn't even gone yet?
But I would find that out soon enough.
"Do you think she wants another child?" I asked, flipping out the dice.
Archer shrugged and collected his stack of coins from the top of the stock barrel that sat between us. We were holed up in the barn during an evening rainstorm, our play at dice lit only by the lanterns that hung from the rafters. We'd been at it for hours.
He squinted outside as lightning lit up the house several yards away. Inside, we knew she was brewing supper.
"I wouldn't mind," he said finally. "And she always seems happier with the company. Twill would do well with a sibling I think, with the boys gone."
I flipped the dice again and silently cheered my winnings. "You could get her a lap dog," I said, gathering my coins.
He flicked his eyes at me. "I'm serious, Micah."
I set down the dice. "So am I," I said. "What happens when that child grows up then? You'll have another? And another?"
He bowed his head like a beaten child. He clenched his teeth; I saw the muscle jump in his taut jaw.
I relented and reached out to touch his arm. "It hurts you to see her like this," I said. "Me too. You just want to see her happy."
He looked up at me, his rusty eyes and hair lit up beautifully by the lamplight. My insides clenched like they always did when he looked at me that way. How could I know what he was about to tell me?
"And what about you?" he asked suddenly. "Are you happy here?"
I drew back, a bit surprised by his question. "Of course I am," I said softly. But I instantly knew what he meant, if only because it had been on my mind for five years. The mark on my back was still as bright as the day I'd gotten here. It served its purpose as a symbol that I could not change what I was. I was still Geirahöd, no matter how I ignored it, and I wasn't even very good at doing that.
He looked away and seemed hesitant to speak, a sign to me that he'd been thinking about this for a while now. I began to be very wary of what he was trying to tell me.
"You can't ignore it forever," he said finally, eerily echoing my thoughts. His voice was gentle. We sat in silence as the rain pounded on the roof of the barn.
He cleared his throat. "Micah, listen to me."
I looked up at him reluctantly. For five years I had made my feelings reside so deeply in the back of my mind that I had convinced myself that they weren't important. Bringing in the crop, fielding the animals, putting food on the table; that was important.
"There's more," he said, looking uncomfortable. "Aislinn and I have been talking lately about things and we believe that-" here he faltered, looking into my eyes. He got up and began pacing.
I was getting scared. Very little made him uncomfortable like this.
He finally dropped his shoulders and said, "We think you should give the city a try."
I dropped the dice.
"It's for your own good," he added quickly, coming to sit down again next to me. "You're eighteen, a good age to go to work there."
I can't even remember what was going through my mind at that moment. Just shock. I hadn't even seen it coming.
"There's a tavern down on the Riverside, run by a distant cousin of mine. It's called the WaterStreet Mill. Have you heard of it?"
I numbly shook my head.
"It's a good place for you to try and work," he said. "You can make good money that way. You could also start to... meet people. People like you."
Now it clicked in my head. This place he was sending me to was supposed to be a place 'my kind' frequented. Instead of being angry or insulted though, I felt pangs of fear. It came out like anger. I remembered Aislinn.
"She doesn't agree, does she?" I asked. "That's why she's been so moody lately-"
"Yes," he answered, somewhat sternly. "You're right, she doesn't want you to go just yet, but I think it's best."
That hurt the most of all. I hung by head and felt close to tears. It was like I had been betrayed- All I had ever wanted was to belong here with them, and he was going to send me away, just like my real family before. The contentment I had felt only a few minutes before this conversation started now seemed years in the past.
"Micah," he said, touching my shoulder.
I jerked away from him, wanting contact with him so badly but refusing to accept it. The frightened child inside me wanted to be angry and hurt and to do so I had to be alone. I got up and ran outside into the rain to get away from him, vaguely hearing Archer swear to himself and chase after me.
I blindly ran in the direction of the south field with him on my heels, heart pounding in my throat and an all-enveloping wash of betrayal pounding me with the rhythm of the rain. I ran and ran as fast and hard as I could through that muddy field until I finally stumbled to my knees and stayed where I'd fallen, bent over with my forehead to the ground.
I look back now and I see it; I really was still a child on the inside. Like a child I had invested my entire self-worth in the fact that they accepted me for who I was, and here he was ripping it away from me. Like a child I had expected it to last forever.
Don't make me, don't make me, I was thinking. Don't make me leave.
Archer found me like that. He stood behind me for a moment, his hands on his knees. I think he was unsure of how to deal with me at this point.
"Did you think it could be this way forever?" I heard him ask over the din of the rain, echoing my thoughts again. "You don't want to grow old here, Micah! There's more out there for you. So much more!" I felt his hands on my back. "You have to make your way in the world. I did, my sons will. Everybody has to-"
I didn't answer. The difference between his children and me was that they had expected to leave someday. I had already left my family. I hadn't expected to leave again.
"There are people out there, Micah," he said. "People like you and I want you to meet them. I want you to experience the city and make money. I want you to find out what it's like to be on your own."
I was listening but refused to give him a response. He knelt down next to me as the rain spattered the ground around us and tried once more.
"This," he said, his fingers touching between my shoulders where that mark was imprinted, "is not a barrier between you and the outside world. If I have taught my children one thing it has been to honestly believe they have the same chances as everyone else. And so do you."
His hand rested on my cold back. I didn't move. Despite his words, I wanted him to go away and leave me alone. But even more I wanted him to stay and tell me I didn't have to go at all.
"Don't make me go," I whimpered into the grass.
"Come on," he said gently. "Come back to the house."
"Please," I pleaded. I was scared, so scared of what the outside world held for me. My hands clenched fistfuls of grass as if to plant myself there.
Seeing that he wasn't getting through to me, Archer pulled my shoulders back and put my arms around his neck. He lifted me as easily as if I were a child and carried me all the way back to the house. As if it was the last time I would touch him, I buried my face against his neck and unashamedly held on tight.
Once in the house he took me straight to my room, laid me on my bed and removed my wet clothes and boots. I rolled over so as to not look at him as he covered me with the blankets and sat down next to me, wet as he was. He leaned an arm back over me to see my face.
"I'm scared," I said finally.
"I know," he said. "I'll be here." He rubbed my back as gently as Aislinn comforted her own children. He didn't leave me until I'd cried myself to sleep.
I awoke well into the next morning. I squinted at the sun coming through the drapes of my small window, confused and disoriented. It was late morning already; normally my body would have woken on its own at dawn as usual, but I'd been so tired out by the events of the night before that I'd slept like the dead. When I finally made an effort to turn over and sit up, I was startled to see Aislinn sitting there next to me. In the morning sun she looked very pretty but somewhat worn.
I slowly laid back down, not sure of what to say. The look on her face was one of peace and serenity. But her eyes also held a tinge of sadness.
"He spoke to you last night, then," she said softly.
I nodded, trying to figure out if she sounded relieved or even more unhappy that he'd done so.
"Five years," she said with a wistful smile. "You're like one of my own and yet I can remember the day you showed up here. All dirty and scrawny, afraid of your own shadow." I looked away from her eyes and felt my cheeks flush. "And look at you now," she went on. "Tall, lean. A good color to your skin." She touched my hair with soft fingers. "You've grown up quite handsome actually."
My blush deepened and she laughed a little at my modesty. But her gentle mirth soon faded and I was left with that look on her face again. "It wasn't an easy decision for him, Micah," she said. "He feels the same way about you that I do."
I had always known he cared for me. But that was all there was to it; I had no right to ask any more than that. Here was his wife, strong and beautiful; no less of a partner than I'd want for him myself. I was being selfish and I berated myself for it.
She tucked stray wisps of her hair back behind her ear and said, "I don't want you to be bitter about it. He wants you to do this because you have to become your own person, just like everyone has to." She paused and tilted her head. "And I want you to do it because I think you'll be happy."
"I'm happy here," I said softly.
Aislinn shook her head gently and touched me knee. "You think you are, but how do you know? There are people out there for you-"
Here it comes, I was thinking, 'my kind'... But how could I tell her it wasn't about that at all? I knew what I wanted; I just couldn't have it. And that didn't mean I would want something else!
She stood and touched my head with her fingers. "We love you," she said. "We just want what is best for you."
I nodded dejectedly, knowing that I was acting like a child through all of this. Little did I know what I would learn from the moment I set foot in that part of the city. What I would learn, who I would know, and what I would become before I ever saw Archer again.
But again, I jump ahead of myself.
part 3 | back to part 1 | back to main