.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 8
I moved in with Hunter that afternoon, and our discussion over it was the last of its kind. The talk died down, people began to accept the fact that Hunter's roving was over; they would have to be content with their memories. But then again, knowing our society, another star or two would always rise to take his place. Months passed, then the year, and we were happy. Even through the occasional argument- and yes, we did argue, once I found my own feet with him and I began to stand on them. But they never lasted. Hunter wouldn't let me sleep until something had been resolved, a practice I had noticed had kept Archer and Aislinn's marriage healthy and strong as well.
Now, three years later, I find myself twenty-four and a long way off from the boy I'd been. My time here has changed me in more ways than I can recount, yet I can still feel old echoes of the pains and joys of my youth. The abandonment of my family, the encompassing warmth of Aislinn's motherly love for me. The love and desire I'd had for Archer. My pain and confusion in coming here, the horror of my experience with that dark man. The people I had met, the friends I had made. Then the comfort and contentment of being with Hunter.
As the years passed and I matured from no other force than that of time, I never forgot where I came from. Archer and his family was always a comfort in lonely moments for me, something I fell back on at times when I felt insignificant and lacking with the insecurities of fading youth. However, it was less and less I found I needed them. Soon I became so engrossed in my own life that their faces were nothing but fleeting images in my head when I heard someone with Archer's voice laugh out loud, or smelled fresh bread like Aislinn used to bake in the mornings. '
For now these thoughts ran through my head as I sat in Hunter's study, staring at the wall with my chin on my hand, neglecting the figures I said I'd do for him. He was away on some business I hadn't asked about, but it had to do with the Mill. And though there were many aspects of this trade that I wasn't familiar with, it was I who ran the place in his stead when he left on these trips.
I told you a lot had changed, didn't I?
Ghen likes to refer to us as husband and wife, though Hunter turns his nose up at the labels. He'd rather think of us as more of a team, since I had really begun picking up his duties as my own after I eventually stopped working in the bar. And he was grateful too, since it meant he could leave the Mill in confidence to me for his few and far between trips, instead of cutting them short every time to come home.
With a sigh I dropped my pen and stretched back, tired of my seclusion. I laid my head on my folded arms on the desk, listening to the muted sounds of the night crowd outside. I missed Hunter. He'd been gone for four days now and a message he'd sent relayed that he'd probably be gone at least four more.
Reaching into my pocket I pulled out the folded paper, reading his words yet again as if they would change if I wished it enough. No. Still four days.Outside, I could hear laughing and singing; tonight was a good night. The air was crisp and clean and the ale was flowing after two days of religious abstinence of worldly delights, like sex and alcohol. Hunter often scoffed at those practices, but one couldn't put them down too hard, since this was usually one of the busiest nights of the year.
Well, I wasn't going to let a good time pass. I was in dire need of human interaction. Getting up with a sigh and pulling on my outer shirt once more, I stepped out from the study into a throng of people. The air was hot and lively and smelled so familiarly of ale, smoke and the basted meat they had turning on the spit in the main alley. That alone had my mood lightened considerably as I sought out Ghen.
He appeared in the usual way- out of nowhere- with a glass drop of hard stuff already in hand for me. I suppose his height made it easy for him to spot someone if he was looking for them, even someone as short as me who tended to get lost in a crowd.
"Ah, he emerges. To bad, Micah," he said, sipping his drink. "Tonight would have been a real money-maker."
We moved to the bar and I leaned back against it, smiling agreeably to those I recognized. "Then go make it," I said with a leery grin, throwing back my drink and motioning to Josif for another. Ghen whistled at my speed.
"Your better half wouldn't approve of you getting toasty tonight. You're on duty." Contradicting his own admonishment, when I got my second drink he raced me to see who could finish first. Simultaneously we slammed our glasses down.
"Who's getting toasted?" I gasped, wiping my mouth and knowing full well that I should stop while I was ahead. From the very beginning we all knew glass drops had been a weakness of mine, but I was lonely without Hunter and the energy of the Mill was pulling me to kick it back a few notches. How else was I to divert myself? Besides, I also had a certain weakness when it came to drinking with Ghen, so much that Hunter had raised an eyebrow to it on more than one occasion. How many times had we been out so late drinking, and Ghen trying in his own inebriation to help me stumble up to Hunter's rooms? The time we fell in the stairwell and Hunter appeared at the top to see us two, on the lower landing in a tangle of limbs, trying to stifle a drunken laughter that proved impossible? But though Hunter rarely drank in any great volume, he showed remarkable easygoingness when Ghen and I were out together. He encouraged us to have our fun, so long as we stayed together, and didn't wander to neighboring pubs. I think he's actually more amused than anything when I'm finally in for the night, drunk in his arms, warm and pliant and full of giggling.
We slammed a few more, this time my dear friend beating me because he'd switched drinks. In half an hour, my cheeks were warm and I had forgotten my loneliness for the time being and felt like the twenty-four year old that I was.
"Well now, this be a sight," came a familiar voice. "Ya goin' ta save enough fo'the rest of us?"
"Galen!" I jumped into his arms excitedly and he gave a great laugh. He had not been in to see us in weeks, as Avery was secluded at his father's
vineyard during the harvest and stomping season, and he himself had been busy with making barrels for the new vintages.
"'ello me, duckie," he said, kissing my cheek. "Where be yor mate tonight?"
"Away," Ghen said loftily, getting an embrace as well. "And I'm only here to chaperone and make sure this little one doesn't get too lonely without him."
"Ghen!" I hissed, batting away the hand that ruffle my hair, I really hated the height he had on me, but for some reason, it didn't bother me that Galen surpassed both of us.
The smith's sun-browned arm wound around my shoulders and he dipped me back playfully, touching my nose with his. "Ah now, duckie, you be lonely than?" he said slyly.
"You're going to get me in trouble," I laughed, struggling in his grasp and he let me up. Alas, I did miss his strong embrace; he'd always had such a special place in my heart. Now we could only be great friends and nothing more. I did feel sad for him, though. His situation with Avery had gone nowhere that I could tell, and I had begun to wonder if it ever would.
I watched him and Ghen banter over something trivial, lost in my own world. These were the people I loved most, standing in a place I felt so comfortable in. The night was actually quite bearable, despite the absence of my lover, with friends and strangers, good food and strong ale making life pretty perfect at that moment.
However, even as the three of us had a good laugh arm in arm, I should have known the happiness couldn't last for long.
I don't know what got my attention first, whether it was the crowd shifting or the commotion itself coming from somewhere in the front, but Ghen, Galen and I looked up at each other. Something had happened. But what?
Out of the crowd, Dray, our second bartender, came skidding up to me a little out of breath. "Micah, you'd better come see this," she said, pulling my arm. She hastily led me into the entrance room where people had gathered around one corner of the bar nearest the front doors. With Ghen and Galen at my heels, the crowd parted for me as I made my way to the center of it.
And that's where I stood for several interminable moments, disbelieving what my inebriated brain thought it was registering. My heart made a loud, hurried thud in my chest and I think I dropped my drink too; I remember hearing the glass shatter.
There, sprawled on the floor leaning up against the bar wall, covered in dust and mud, wet with blood and sweat. Archer.
He was filthy. Long black streaks and smudges marred his shirt and smeared his hands and arms almost completely black. His shirt and trousers were ripped and spattered with blood underneath, as if something sharp had crisscrossed over his arms and thighs. He had one arm wrapped around his belly and side and the other hand clenched his shoulder. His breathing was labored. I could feel the pain he was in.
"He just stumbled in and fell there," Dray was saying. "The horse outside's been nearly ridden to the ground-"
I barely heard; the world had come to a halt. The background of the Mill became a steady drone of activity and vibration in which my own blood pounding became lost. Archer. In my disbelief I couldn't move and he hadn't seen me yet. Dumbly I watched as others near him reached down to help, and how he violently shied away from them with an expressive rumble of pain in his throat. Wounded and exhausted as he was, he looked like a cornered animal.
Precious moments slunk by while my brain made a few false clicks, like a match that wouldn't light. Archer. My Archer. Bruises and blood. My heart ached with the thousand questions that started pounding in my head- What had happened? Where had he been? Why was he here?
Ghen shoved me forward to break my stupor. I stumbled out into the little clearing the crowds had made around him and I uneasily knelt down. Would he lash out at me as well? I had changed a lot- my hair was shorter and it hung in my eyes; my body was longer, leaner; and my manner was that of a young man, not a boy's. It was clear he wasn't thinking rationally, I could see that in his eyes as they darted around, searching, but not finding. But I was right here, did he not see me?
"Archer?" I breathed, hesitantly reaching out. A murmur in the crowds behind me at my recognition of him as they wondered where I knew this man from. He wasn't a familiar face to anyone else.
At his name his eyes caught mine and my fears were allayed for a few seconds; the recognition was instant. He let his head fall back against the wall in what looked like relief, his chest heaving. His throat was shiny with sweat.
"Micah," he whispered, his voice tortured and hoarse.
Behind me I heard Ghen shouting to clear people out into other parts of the bar. He would take control for me.
I hardly noticed; the only thought in my head was how I had to get him out of here. He was bodily hurt, but what concerned me more was what I was now reading in his exhausted eyes. But I would not be able to move him-
"Galen!" I called, gesturing. My smith knelt down to help me lift him, who was closer to his size than anyone. Without Archer's help- he was simply too exhausted- we were able to slide our arms around and help him to stand, but he was almost pure dead weight. Archer moaned at a sore spot against his ribs that he'd been hiding with his arm and I began to suspect that he'd thrown his shoulder out too. I could smell the sweat and blood on him, and the stench of something burned. Silencing my screaming questions by shouting at others to clear the way, we managed to get him up the stairs to our private halls. I could think of only one good place to take him that would be secluded and empty and easy to get to- my old room.
"Come on, almost there," I huffed, forcing tears of panic to hold until we could get him settled. My voice was shaking with them though; they may have been the hardest tears I'd had to hold back in my life.
I gave his full weight to Galen in order to open doors for us, and the smith bore it without comment, shifting Archer into the washroom easily. Leaning there against Galen, Archer gazed at me through half-mast eyes, his breathing still labored through his mouth. He hissed my name again.
"Here," I said hurriedly. "I'm here. Give me a moment-"
They rested against the door frame while I started the pumps, my first intention being to clean the blood and soot off to know where his wounds were. We would call the physician, but I had to do what I could to prepare him first.
Ghen appeared in the doorway as we were lowering Archer to the floor. I looked up at him as I began to peel Archer's shirt off him.
"Everything all right down there?"
He nodded, staring at Archer. "It's him, isn't it?" he said solemnly, "I remember him-"
"Call for the physician, Ghen," I said gently, gesturing to Galen to get Archer's boots off.
My dear friend snapped out of whatever stupor he was in and made to leave. But he stopped again in the doorway. "Should I send someone to Hunter?" Both he and Galen looked at me. But Ghen knew me better than anyone; he already knew the answer to that question. Why did he have to ask? Why did he have to make me say it aloud?
"No, let's wait," I said quickly, concentrating back on my task. Archer was moving less and less; I was sure he would pass out soon. Ghen nodded and was gone. At that point I didn't want to think about why I'd told him no. For now the physician would be enough, and I wanted to handle this on my own. There was no need to call Hunter home if he was halfway across the region.
Archer didn't put up a fight as I pulled the rest of his clothes off him. It didn't even register for me to realize what I was doing, who I was actually undressing. My mind was only on taking care not to hurt him more, to get him clean and get him to bed so the physician could see him properly.
I didn't realize how rough and frantic my movements were until Galen's hands covered my own. I looked up into his gentle brown eyes.
"Slow, me duckie," he said. "He be impor'nt t'ya than?"
"Yes," I whispered. "Very important."
The tub had filled and he helped me move Archer into it without another word. Galen then stood back as I went to work with a sponge, eerily remembering the night Hunter had done similar for me.
"I c'n leave ya ‘lone now," he said gently, almost as if asking. I couldn't answer him, I couldn't tell him to go away, not when he'd helped me so much already. But Galen had a way about him that let him read people very well, and he made his exit anyway, giving me an encouraging smile and telling me to send for him anytime if he was needed again.
Alone. With a deep, fortifying breath, I began to scrub again. Arrays of little scratches had become visible beneath the layer of road dust, lining Archer's arms and the outside of his legs as if he'd run or ridden through brambles. A large purpling bruise stretched its way around his ribs and side, and he had a harsh gash over his right cheek bone. Had he fallen from his mount?
His breathing had begun to ease with the washing away of dried blood, soot and dirt from his skin and hair. His head lolled back and his eyes closed for a little while, but I kept an eye out to make sure that his breathing remained steady. My head began to suddenly pound as I came down from the unexpected rush of his appearance at the Mill. As if I was being punished further, the ale I'd consumed that night took its toll on my senses, but not enough to affect anything but how tired I suddenly felt, and how sick to my stomach.
I drained the basin and Archer barely woke up enough for me to be able to maneuver him about to dry him off. He sat on the side of the tub and leaned against me while I padded his face and neck with a towel, looking down at him like it was for the first time. The pain was mine then. It hurt to see him. He was still so handsome; I don't know how I'd ever expected him to have changed. His hair was slightly longer now, a little shaggier but that was all, and his chin was roughly unshaven. His form was just as I remembered: tall, broad and darkened all over by the sun; the few years he had put on had only matured his features a little more. He was still so male, so magnificent. And the pain emanating from him only made him that much more human flesh and blood. He wasn't just some image in my head, though I think in the time I'd been here I'd shifted him into a dream, an idea. Something I could have and keep dear to me always as I grew up and went about my own life. He had no business showing up here and making himself real to me again.
With some help from him at last, I moved him towards the bed and got him settled in it. Within a few rises and falls of his chest he had passed out again; my gentle arranging of his limbs got no response. Finally, I sat there looking down at him, fully feeling now the drain in my own body from rushing to take care of his. It was like I'd woken up from a dream.
Oh, why was he here? And where was Aislinn? I suddenly felt so helpless; that hated old sensation I thought I'd rid myself of. I had become able to run this entire Mill, managing a staff of over fifty people, and yet... where had my hard won self-assurance gone? He had given it to me in sending me here, and now by coming here, it was like he'd taken it away.
I stared down at Archer's peaceful face but it gave me no answers or solace. My refused tears stung my eyes again but I knew I still could not succumb to them. That would have to come later, when I was alone.
The physician came in shortly, carrying his bag of instruments and medicines with Ghen trailing close behind. Sniffling slightly, I stood away from the bed to give him room.
He leaned over Archer and peered into his face with little expression but practiced concentration. As he began his examination, I stood behind and fidgeted my fingers. His slowness killed me. Archer's bruised ribs elicited a slight response from the physician when he pulled the coverlet back to see, as with experienced fingers he prodded Archer's sides and ribs, looking for broken bones, I supposed, murmuring to himself and then moving on. My hands itched to reach out and throttle him. God's sake, if he didn't move any faster I was going to scream. Standing close behind me Ghen must have felt my inclination- he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently.
Finally, the doctor turned to us.
"Nothing's broken," he said in an ancient voice. "He's got a good color, breathing soundly… Just a few scratches, but those'll heal right enough on their own. Here now-" he inspected the wound on Archer's cheek bone with a ‘tsk' of breath, and rummaged through his bag. He handed me a small jar of salve. "Just a cut, no bruising, perhaps it wasn't a terrible knock to his head. Put that on to help the sting." The physician then stood back with a sigh and looked him over one last time. "Only thing to do for now is food, water and rest." He fished around in one of his bags again and pulled out another small vial. "Mix a few drops of this with water for the pain if he feels it. It should keep him good and sleepy as well. Send for me if you need when he wakes or if there's a change."
With a slow, calculated reach I took the vial and nodded my thanks as Ghen gestured to the door and followed to escort him out. Food, water and rest. Those were things I could provide, but what if they weren't enough?
Ghen found me sitting on the bed again when he returned. He sat next to me. "What will you do?" he asked.
"Stay with him," I sighed. "What else can I do?"
"I'll watch things downstairs," he offered. "And check on you later?"
I looked down at Archer's face, peaceful in sleep or unconsciousness. "Thanks, Ghen," I said softly.
He kissed the top of my head and left us.
Alone again. There he lay, the object of my affection and love for so many important years of my life. I should have been quivering with joy to see him again. We should have embraced as old friends and had long, intimate conversations about where life had taken us from when we'd first met. Instead, I was afraid to even touch him, terrified of what I would go through when I finally found out why he was here alone so battered and bruised, and why he had sought me out after so many years apart.
"Why are you here?" I asked him, my voice catching in my throat.
There was no answer; I had expected none. I laid down on the coverlet next to him, my tears would have their way. I cried, as a lonely young boy so long ago.
Sometime later in the night, I woke up. I'm not sure what it was that woke me, only that the room was silent as the grave and just as dark. The candles Ghen had lit earlier had long ago burned themselves out. I had dozed off for quite some time but I was still fully dressed and above the coverlet. My fingers and toes ached with cold. Mechanically I reached to kick my boots off.
Beside me in the darkness I could feel the warmth and weight of Archer's body. He was alive and something told me awake as well, though I couldn't see his eyes. Gently I leaned over him and fumbled to light the new candles on the table. When I got match to strike, the room lit up in a dim glow, just enough for me to set back and see him, laying there on the pillow, eyes eerily open and looking at me.
God, how tired and worn he looked. His gaze was unreadable, so much so that I wondered if he even knew who I was. All the things I had ever planned to say to him should we ever have met again were forgotten. There were no words in those first few moments, there were none that would have ever fit. Except his name, perhaps.
"Archer," I whispered after many moments of silence. His listless eyes blinked but held no warmth or welcome. Only a dreary emptiness that was beginning to chill my heart. For whatever he had been through, he was not himself.
With the boldness of my age and position, something I'd never have dared when I was younger, I reached out my hand and touched his face, perhaps in attempt to bring him back to me. His shaggy hair, now dry, brushed the back of my hand. The scruff of his unshaven face scratched the pads of my fingers.
"Archer," I whispered again, leaning closer. "It's me. Micah." I touched him again, a hand on his chest where I could feel the slow lazy thud of his heart, somehow hoping it would rouse him back to the land of the living.
But his eyes only wandered away from me, up to the ceiling as he took in some of his surroundings. I drew back a little, hurt by his lack of recognition and wishing to God I knew what to do for him. Perhaps he wanted me to leave, maybe he was silently telling me he wanted to be alone to sleep.
"Do you want me to go?" I asked softly, not sure I could even if he wished it.
But he looked back at me with the slightest shake of his head. A real response finally; inwardly I felt a wash of relief. Dutifully I pulled the covers closer around him and bit back questions I was sure he could not answer. Not yet, anyway.
"Get some sleep," I said softly, turning and taking off my outer shirt in preparation to sleep for real. "And tomorrow we'll get you something to eat-"
I stopped. Beside me his face had suddenly changed. In the dim light I saw the working of his throat first as he fought back tears, then the sad crease between his drawn up eyebrows and his hand came up to cover his mouth. I watched the tears well up in his wide eyes in slowed motion, as if in a dream. His shock had faded, the facade broken.
I had my arms around him before the first tears slipped down his cheeks and he uttered a low, tortured groan. I put my chin on top of his head, holding his face to my chest as tightly as I could while the racking of his body came with the tears that flowed freely and violently. In all my wildest dreams I never thought it would be like this, that I would be the one holding him as things fell to pieces. It had always been the other way around. But here he was, falling apart in my arms over something he couldn't even speak aloud yet.
How could I take the strongest pillar of my youth seeming so frail and defenseless? Now I had to be strong for him, I had to make sure that my grip didn't loosen around him. He had sought me out and I would not fail him, even if the only comfort I could offer was that of my body and voice. Amid the shaking of his shoulders and those horrible, agonizing cries, I pressed my face into his hair and whispered his name. Would I never think of something better to say?
I awoke early the next morning, a bit disoriented to see and feel my old bed again. Amid the tangle of sheets, Archer lay with his bare back to me. My sleep-heavy arms were comfortably wrapped around his waist and my lips were pressed against the warm flesh between his shoulder blades. How many times had I awakened in such a position? With the Mill patrons of my younger days here? With Galen? Hunter? Now with Archer. Had it always felt quite like this?
Everything about him in those first few moments of waking was physical to me. His skin and hair smelled of the bath salts I'd bathed him with the night before. I could feel his ribs expanding deeply with his breathing in sleep. We had met as old friends in the streets, come to my room swept up in a near-crippling passion and had made a grand night of love, taken comfort in each other’s arms and whispered words of a love almost lost. Except that we hadn’t, it was nothing of the sort. But the way we lay so perfectly together for those first waking moments, I couldn’t help but...
There were differences between the bodies of my lover and Archer. Archer was more broad and hard from his days in the field, built like Galen, though a little older, a little more matured. And though I lay in a lover's embrace, it had not occurred to me to feel like I was betraying Hunter just yet. Archer's presence alone took precedence over all else in my mind at the moment, and I was just glad he'd been able to sleep at all.
I tried to unwind myself from the bed sheets and did my best to do so without waking him. I failed, unless he had already been awake. Awake and aware, laying there with my arms around him.
Archer shifted and rolled onto his back as I sat up, his dreamy amber eyes gazing up at me for a moment before I watched the haze of sleep clear from them. Hours of weeping had taken their toll on him, but he still had a good color to his cheeks.
"Hullo," I said softly to him with a little smile. I wondered how much of last night he remembered.
"Is it really you?" he asked in a soft, hoarse voice, letting his gaze fall from me to look about the room in an almost wondrous manner.
I nodded gently. "You came here last night, do you remember?"
Archer nodded his head numbly and I could tell by his face that the peace of sleep was beginning to wear off. He still knew why he was here; he had not blocked that from his mind. It had not been a dream, whatever it was he had been through. Without thinking I took his hand from where it lay on the coverlet next to my knee, a connecting gesture of mine when I talked with Hunter about serious things. I hardly noticed I had done it but he stared down at our hands as if he’d never felt a human touch before.
"Archer," I said softly, playing with his fingers, "whatever it is, you can tell me-"
Before I could finish he withdrew his hand from mine and stood up slowly from the bed, favoring his bruised side and taking the top sheet to wrap around his waist. Silently, he went to peer out of the window, his back to me. I remained where I was, chilled by the morning air, swallowing whatever words I'd been about to speak. The early sun streamed through the linen curtains as Archer spread the thick drapes away from them and it was then that I got my first good look at him, there in the sunlight. His colors were still so warm; the chestnut red of his hair, the even tan of his skin but for the marring of the dark, purpling bruise around his side. Outwardly he was still very much the man I had loved once. But if his physical appearance was unchanged, what of his mind? Especially now?
"She went to see her sister," he said softly, appearing to study something outside that I couldn't see from where I sat. "She took Twill with her."
"Why did she go?" I asked gently.
His face did not change. "She had wanted another daughter."
My shoulders fell and my sadness rose into my throat. She had gone to see her sister in Leavres because there was another child on the way. It was a trip Archer had never wanted her to make and she'd gone every time for each of their babies. Their heated arguments over this one matter now seemed like the eerie forshadowing of all great tales, but how could they have known? I could see the slump of his shoulders, hear the guilt in his hoarse voice- he blamed himself. He blamed himself for giving her another child, and for letting her make that trip again.
"You couldn't have stopped her," I reasoned softly. "I've seen you try to before-"
He was shaking his head, as if he didn't want me to speak just yet. "I still don't know exactly what happened, it was… hard to tell," he said, his voice breaking a bit. "Someone from the lower village came for me. She hadn't even made it past the Domforty bridge…" He bowed his head for several moments, collecting himself to go on. When he finally continued, I could hear the tears. He still wouldn't turn and face me though.
"I had to carry her, Micah," he said in a tortured voice. "All the way back to the village, all the way back home. I couldn't let them put her in some hay cart-"
My eyes had welled up but the tears would not fall just yet. To hear his voice, rough with anguish and loathing, it was nothing I could ever have imagined in my life, what grief could sound like. All I could think of was what that had done to him, to have to carry her body home. How could he have survived something like that? But then I thought, who was to say he did?
I put my face in my hands for several minutes, steeling my shoulders so they didn't shake with sobs, though the grief had risen in my throat and threatened to escape in a mighty, tortured moan. I couldn’t let myself break down again. I was an adult now, not a child. I had to be supportive to him, even now with the knowledge that the woman who’d been as close to my heart as a mother was… dead. My grief for the moment was more for him. Strong will be damned, even I could not imagine his life without her.
After several moments of trying to compose myself, my breath hiccupping in my throat, I looked up at his form through blurred vision as tears slipped down my cheeks. Hastily I wiped them away. What happened to Twill I could not ask, nor ask the details of anything else. He didn't need to relive them; he had told enough already.
"Did you come here to find Tanner? And Cam?" I asked softly.
Archer was shaking his head again. "They're not here, Micah," he said. "They haven't been for a while now."
"What do you mean?" I whispered, afraid of the rueful tone of his voice. The few moments of silence that followed before he answered were deafening to my ears.
He heaved a sigh and finally turned to face me. "Tanner came home not long after you left," he said, "with a fever and a cough from too many hours working in the coals." He paused to look out of the window again. "He wasn’t able to make it through the winter."
My hands had started to shake. "And Cam?" My voice, too.
He looked back out of the window. "A fall from a horse last year," he said quietly. "We didn't know about it for weeks after."
No. This was the stuff of old tales, not real life! Oh God. I wanted to put my hands to my face again and scream into them. My arms refused to move.
"Why didn't you tell me? How could you not tell me?!" I yelled, desperation and anger causing my voice to crack. "You could have written to me, I would have come home-"
Archer seemed unaffected. It could have been the quiet madness of his grief that made his eyes so calm, but he was beginning to scare me. Before now I had never realized how strongly he’d resigned himself to the reasons why they had kept their family separate from me once I had come here.
"She wanted to," he said after a moment, a little numbly. "But it had been so long, you were here to live your own life."
"But they were still my family," I groaned. "Archer, how could you?"
When he didn't answer, I bowed my head. I hated that I was old enough now to see and understand his reasons. If they had called me back, would I ever have left again? Archer was and always had been a strong believer that my life was my own and no one else's. He knew that my ties to them would have been strong enough to keep me there forever, especially after the loss of their children. I would never have stayed here, never have met Hunter, never have grown up.
That still did not lessen my pain any and that was because I shared it with him. I still loved this man who had completely devoted his life and soul to his family, and had lost them. Lost them all. I was the only one left it would seem that he felt he had any connection to. Is that why he was here? For me?
"I burned everything," Archer said suddenly. "The house, the barn. Everything. Set the stock free-"
I recalled the soot he'd been covered in when he'd stumbled in here. By the looks of that ash and his singed clothing, it was a wonder he hadn't died in that fire himself. Or perhaps that had been his intention?
He was staring up at the sky now, his expression unreadable and his eyes dry. "I was going to stay there, let it take me too-" he said, a bit wonderingly. He seemed to snap back to reality when he turned his head to look at me. "But then I thought of you."
A lump surged into my throat. Part of me wanted to weep, but the other part suddenly flared up in rash anger. How desperately close had I come to losing him? And if he had let himself die in that fire, would I have ever known? Just like his children, just like his wife. How could he have done that to me?
I rose from the bed and faced him, wiping my eyes dry with trembling hands.
"Archer…" I said through a tight throat. He turned to look at me again, thick brows lowered, lids half-mast. As he stood there I suddenly had the overpowering urge to run at him, beat on his chest with my fists in anger and scream at him, demand that he tell me why he would even think of doing something like that. To me!
But his lazy amber eyes were watching me and in them, for those few precious moments between us, I could see years that were not his own. I could see the reason why he very well could have let himself be burned up along with all he had ever known. He had nothing left but a world full of memories.
I stepped closer to him, curbing my fury. Instead of taking out my anger and fear, I just slumped against him. I hugged his waist, unmindful of his injuries, and closed my eyes tightly. There. This was all there was to give him, the only comfort that I could when the anger was gone. After a few moments his arms came about my shoulders and he hugged me close. It seemed enough, for the time being at least.
I left Archer a little later that morning, as my own duties called and I wanted him to rest. I made him promise he would take the medicine the doctor had left, but I had neglected to tell him it would make him sleep, since I doubted he would have done it willingly. As for me, it was difficult to focus on anything at all that morning; my attention had to be called several times over to the task at hand. Everyone that had been around last night pestered me with questions that I couldn't answer.
Only Ghen it seemed would leave me alone and let me work through my confusion on my own. He knew that I didn't need to be babied as I'd once had; things were different now. I was standing on my own two feet and had been proudly for years. But I should have known that my facade would not hold up forever.
It caught up with me while I was alone in the back kitchens. There I was, doing something completely routine, counting bottles I think, when I suddenly found myself on the floor, hands covering my trembling lips and a silent scream rising in my throat. Tears began to flow and this time I couldn't stop them, I couldn’t breathe. The wash of grief had come over me so quickly that I couldn't even explain what it was that was going through my head. She was gone, the babies I'd grown up with were gone. He was here.
Where was I?
"Micah..?" Ghen. "Micah!" Vaguely I was aware of him skidding to his knees beside me, pulling me to stand and leave this place.
"Come on," I heard him whisper around my sobs. "Let's go outside-"
He managed to get me to the privacy of the empty back courtyards and down on a bench. There, he sat beside me and wrapped me in his arms. I felt him stroking my hair. My fists clutched bunches of his soft linen shirt and I buried my face against his neck, sobbing like a child.
"They're all gone, Ghen," I moaned. "Just like that… my family, gone-"
"I'm calling Hunter back," he said softly.
I began shaking my head, silently begging him not to. Undeterred, Ghen took my face in his hands and wiped my tears away with his thumbs. "You need him here," he said gently. "Why do you think you can do this alone?"
"Ghen," I said hoarsely. That was all that would come. What would I do with both of them here, how would I handle that? How would Hunter?
He hugged me again. "It will be all right," he said into my hair, knowing all too well once again the dilemma that I had a fear of facing. "You'll be all right."
God, how I wished I could believe him.
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