.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 11
Tava's story was one we had all heard of in some form or another. It was the next morning when I had stumbled down to the lower bar for coffee and breakfast that I learned it from Ghen, who had stumbled in in much the same manner as I- sore, a little disheveled, and quite sated. Hunter had woken me much earlier that morning when he had gotten up to go about his day. We had not spoken about the night before. He had only kissed my forehead as I lay in the warm spot he had just left, murmuring that he had to be out running errands today while the rain had let up. I did not expect to see him before noonday.
Before heading downstairs I had peeked in on Archer but he slept still, facing away from the door and I had not wished to disturb him. Not yet anyway; I was still unsure of what I would say to him. So instead I had quietly closed the door and headed down to seek out my friend and occupy myself a little longer from my thoughts. Hunter had forgiven me, or at least accepted what had happened- or hadn't for that matter- but I knew I was not out of the woods just yet. There was still Archer to deal with. Boundaries had to be established, I would have to watch myself around him. He would be innocent enough, and trust me to play my part at the correct distance. So far, I had been playing it too close to him, and neither of us had really noticed. But I had to do it, I had to back away a little, though I knew it wasn't just going to be difficult. It was going to break my heart.
Back at hand, Ghen was more than willing to tell Tava's tale, quite incredulous that I did not know it yet, for he'd thought everyone knew. I in turn could only point out that he had as many sources as bed fellows for gossip, and they were often one and the same, whereas I only had him. To this he gave a snort, drank his coffee and began.
She was a sweet young girl in some southern province whose name escaped him. A small village of keeps, probably a lot like the one I had spent so many years on, where he was sure all they did all day was milk cows and pick corn-
"Sure, that's exactly what I used to do," I said dryly.
"Hush now, I'm telling you a story."
"Come on, don't embellish, Ghen, I really want to know what happened."
Ghen's shoulders dropped with his sigh. Storytelling was a great talent of his, especially when he had a real story to build his own on top of. I half expected to hear something about how she'd fought off a pack of wolves to save their only cow, or how her brother had squandered the family's fortune and forced her into prostitution to support her dear one-legged mother, or some other outlandish nonsense of the sort.
After a few tries, though, he finally settled into the real story. Tava was from a very good family whose fortune lay in the vast acres of land they held and leased out in smaller plots to poorer families. Her father, more interested in his racing horses, paid a man to oversee the management of the money flow from these smaller farms; a scholar, who was no doubt intelligent and fine-looking indeed. She'd fallen in love with him, and he had seemed to love her as well. Well, parts of her at least; namely, her belying sweet face and full, rather womanly figure. But above most, he was impressed mostly by what she was willing to give up for him. It has ever impressed the vain man, I supposed, that a pretty young girl would lose herself for him. Whether her feelings were genuine or just as lusty as his, he cared not. And like the dawn waking upon so many girls like her, she was left reaching across empty sheets, while he had taken more than his fair share of the most recent lease payments and absconded.
I don't know if she'd tried to hide her indiscretion or not, but her belly didn't lie, and she'd been tossed out by her family. Not for her imprudence, but for her willfulness and inability to apologize for what she had done. In her mind, she'd done no wrong at all, and for this they'd abandoned her for a harlot, for a girl who sees no wrong in dallying in disreputable men's beds rarely comes under another label. It was something a well-standing family couldn't bear.
As I listened my thoughts drifted. Could I ever have remained so true to myself? Or would I have begged for reprieve? Certainly I did beg; I had thought myself innocent at the time of my branding. Sure, my intentions had been what they were, but the deed had not been done. I laugh now to think of how, in youth, it is so easy to see that imaginary line between what is done and what is wont to be done. With an adult's eyes I can see how often they are the same.
But if I had admitted myself as guilty, would I still have wandered that road with my heart in shreds at my father's actions- then thought so unjust? Or would I have painfully rejoiced at my new freedom and grown into myself years earlier with the pride of having stood for what I was? Perhaps I would have held my chin as I imagined she had- standing there at her parents' gates, defiant, eyes raised to the ramparts of the keep, studying their grain one last time before spinning on her heel to walk out on them.
Apparently she soon found herself within the city walls, belly growing quickly and a need to feed herself for two. As I had already seen a bit of, her personality was not exactly the type that predisposed her to be very good at begging or inspiring pity from on-lookers. She had been run off from more than a few places, her damnable pride being the culprit, as she was unwilling to trade anything of hers for assistance, not her labor, not her body, not the silver bracelets she'd taken from her mother's jewelry box.
Finally, she'd met Avery somehow. Ghen was fuzzy on the exact details, but the blond had taken her in, and she'd established from the moment she'd met him a firm set against Galen, for whatever reason.
"Maybe she likes Avery. Jealousy?"
Ghen pondered for a moment, then shook his head. "She's just protective of him, I think. But Micah you should see them together- like mirror images. She's spit, he's fire and when they're together…" Here he gave a tsk and a roll of his eyes. "Your smith doesn't stand a chance of even getting a word in."
I thought about her large, dark eyes with such spark. I didn't feel like it was much to wonder on, why she and Avery got along so well; each's fire tempered the other's steel. And as the warming days went on I saw how very true this was. Avery would bring her to the bar sometimes and I could see them in action when in debates with his friends, sitting in their own back corner of the upper bar. At times like these Galen avoided the Mill like the plague, and I was sad for this, as I had not gotten to speak to him properly since that evening we'd been ‘caught'.
The one time he did come in he stayed in a different part of the bar, speaking with his own friends and acquaintances, though I did see his head turn more than once in their direction. When I had finally been able to try to make my way across to speak to him, Hunter caught my arm. I had thought him occupied with the preening beauties that inevitably gathered around him, even as I stood there, but it would seem he was just as observant as I. More so, in fact.
"We may have a problem," he said into my ear and gestured with the drink in his hand across the crowded bar to where Avery and Tava's group were gathered. I saw she had sat down, almost doubled over, and Avery was just noticing and bending down to presumably ask if she was all right. I saw her turn her head a little to say something to him, she looked to be in pain.
"You don't think she's-" I started, and met Hunter's nod. "Should we do something?"
At this he shook his head and pointedly looked to where Galen was. The smith, who always had one eye on that corner of the bar had seen it as well, and was watching from his safe distance, concerned, and probably wondering just as we were if he should go to them. I felt Hunter's hand on my shoulder, his warm arm across my back.
"We'll stay out of it," he said resolutely. From here Tava now looked to be in significant distress. Avery was trying to help her up but she was stubbornly resisting any help from him or his friends. I could see he was berating her, very close to her face presumably to keep from turning heads. A pregnant woman in a place like this was one thing, but should she decide to drop that baby right here right now, the talk would never end. I wondered that Hunter would want that, and why we shouldn't at least help to expedite her out of here to a place of more privacy, whether the baby was really coming or not.
But when I looked up at him he pulled me close into his shoulder and kissed my hair, and surprised me once again. "We'll see what kind of man he is."
"Avery? I know what kind of man he is-" I said a little bitterly.
"Not Avery," Hunter said, gesturing with his chin. Galen had broken his distance and was getting through the crowd to them. When he finally stood over them both, Avery said something, and even from here I could see that Tava answered it through gritted teeth. Galen leant down and without words lifted her up from her seated position, quite easily, and carried her right out, Avery on his heels. There was minimal gossiping after that from those who had seen, which quickly died down again and things returned to the normal flow.
Hunter had a half-smile on his face. He kissed my temple again, gave me a gentle, playful shove back into the crowd and followed close behind.
For these past few days I had visited Archer a few times a day and tried to get him to go out, though he had not seemed interested in leaving his room. I had made sure to sit in the chair beside him, not on the bed itself as had been my habit in the past. Whether he noticed or not, I didn't know; he gave no hint one way or the other. He did seem rather quiet to me after the day he'd seen my scar, but he had never asked about it. Instead, during my visits he let me do the talking, answering occasionally but not really contributing.
I didn't mind, or at least I told myself I didn't. He was still recovering after all, and this infernal rain would bring anyone down, especially if one was already down to begin with. We were well into the rainy season now, and the days were getting warmer with each cloud-hidden sunrise.
A few days after Galen had carried Tava from the bar, Archer and I were sitting in a comfortable silence when Hunter came in.
"She had it all right," he said, nodding a greeting to Archer. "Come on, we need to go over there."
"Well-wishing and gifts. It's what you're supposed to do," he said with a smile and beckoned me. I distrusted his easy-going manner, but I supposed he was putting it on for Archer's sake. He hated to make anyone uncomfortable, and liked to keep our business our own.
I patted the bed, following Hunter's suit. "I'll come in later, ok?"
Archer nodded, looking from one of us to the other, then turning his gaze to the window as we left.
"How does he seem to you?" Hunter asked as he followed me down the stairs.
He nodded. "I think so too. He needs to start moving around."
Anxious to stay off the subject of Archer as a rule, I asked, "Are we really going over there?"
"Of course. I already sent over some goods this morning. She could use all the help she can get, don't you think?" He seemed very happy to make a gift of food and credit at his favorite clothier; he could afford it after all, but this cheerfulness seemed very out of place for him, especially after these last few days, when we had both been a little more stoic than usual. Sure, we worked the same, conversed the same, made love and woke up in each other's arms, but something still hung over us. I knew it was there; I wondered if he did.
"Have you never seen a baby-warming?"
"Not really," I admitted. Aislinn had had her baby amid family only, no neighbors had come because of the distance between keeps. But I knew they existed. People liked to make a fuss over childbirths, but we obviously didn't have much contact with women, much less those who would conceive anywhere near our group of friends. "Maybe you should go without me," I said. "I don't know if I'll be welcome there."
"Pish," he snorted, and I had to suppress a smile despite myself, for he never cursed. "He's only threatened by you. If you're there with me, he can't be too jealous." We were now out on the main street. It was drizzling a little, but not enough to make him want to use his carriage for such a short walk.
"Now you're talking ‘pish'. He's not threatened by me. If he wanted Galen he could have him, like that." I snapped my fingers. Despite the ease with which we spoke, it was ice we were treading with this conversation. Keeping to the underside of awnings and avoiding puddles and mud occupied us for a few moments until he was able to put his arm amiably around my shoulders, and I felt the weight over us a lift a little. Maybe it was all in my own mind?
"You don't realize it at all," he mumbled, back to his old seriousness. "What goes on around you?"
I kept quiet. I had always thought him uncannily observant, but lately I had been wondering if I was that unobservant. If I was, it had always been so. And if that was the case, how much had I missed?
"Every week someone or another comes up to me to ask about you, whether they know who I am to you or not. Just last week when the rain broke and we had grilled that bullock outside. You and Ghen were thick as thieves and I was by the fire watching. This tramp sits down next to me and asks if I knew who you were, that he was back in town visiting family, but had heard last time he was here that you were on the game." Here he laughed. "And proceeded to tell me what he would do to you, thinking I was someone just like him, admiring you from far away." He chuckled.
"What did you say?"
"I told him where he could shove it and then went to kiss you, if I recall."
I remembered that night, Ghen and I had been taking bets on whether or not our new friend for the evening would leave with not one but two of the men he was currently engaging. I remembered Hunter coming to us and hugging me from behind, surprising me, and kissing me. It had been a rare display of affection in the open public of the Mill, but I, a little drunk, had loved that he'd done it and had hung onto him the rest of the evening until I had finally persuaded him to take me upstairs. Little had I known he was showing his possession of me in front of whomever might have been watching.
"And the smith, for example. That snap," he said, snapping his fingers, "is something you could do too. That is why you're a threat. Whether you see it or not, Galen does, and so does Avery. Tava too, if I were to guess."
I fought the urge to drop my arm from around his waist. He still held my shoulders, and from that I read his intention to keep me close, to keep his words from being accusatory as they had been in the past, and instead to genuinely try to open my eyes to what went on around me.
"And Archer," he said gently. I sucked in my breath. "I only get worried because you are so unaware of everything sometimes. You think everyone thinks like you do." Here he smiled gently to soften his words, for he had said them to me before. "But some people really are out to get what they can. You don't understand that because you're not that way."
"I'm not?" I was watching his profile as we walked, and here he gave that frank smile again, which he turned down to me.
"You could have had me a lot sooner if you had been. I was waiting for you to come to me."
I felt my cheeks flush, even after all this time. "I did, in a way," I muttered. I had propositioned him, had I not?
To this he nodded. "That took guts. But you weren't ready just yet. You trusted me at that point, but you weren't ready to want me yet."
Suddenly I laughed, the first real laughter that had come out of me in a while. "How can you know all this? Sometimes it's like you can read minds."
"Maybe I can," he said with a wolfish grin. We had reached the door of Avery's modest home, which stood open to allow the flow of visitors. Despite his argumentative nature, Avery actually had quite a few friends and acquaintances who had come and gone all day, bringing gifts and well-wishes, as if he were the proud new father. We saw a lot of the gifts piled in a corner of the main living area, baskets of food, blankets, baby toys and clothing, even a few new dresses for the mother.
Hunter's arm came down from my shoulder but he took my hand and walked in with me. My cheeks flushed again, I fell back into my old virgin in white state of mind. We were outside the Mill grounds, and such a obvious connection between us was wordlessly taboo as a rule. An arm around the shoulder was one thing, could be taken as brotherly if anything else. But this… I gazed up at him as he made greetings to a few folks there he knew. Though he didn't skip a beat in playing his part, he must have seen me through the corner of his eye. His hand squeezed mine, and that was all I needed. I drew a deep breath.
Tava was tucked into a blanketed divan that sat before the lit grate, Avery standing at her side. It was a little shock to me as usual when I beheld her, how large her eyes were and how dark, and how she could look so boyishly feminine. In her arms she held a bundle which she occasionally shifted a little to show some well-wisher. She was a little disheveled but very bright, had a beautiful color to her cheeks. From here she looked like any girl I had seen on the streets, nothing sharp about her at all. At her elbow Avery even seemed quite fair, he was even smiling. I was again floored to see how a different expression can really change one's whole manner. He really was quite fine to look at too, with his feathery blond hair, clever green eyes and cheeky smile.
I was, in fact, perfectly content to admire his pleasantness from afar, but that hand I loved so much that held mine would not let me have it so easy. Hunter pulled me through the people that were there until both Avery and Tava looked up at us together.
"Well-wishes," Hunter said customarily with a little bow. Tava smiled up at him and I was stunned. Apparently his charm knew no differences between the sexes.
"This is Hunter," Avery said to her, grasping my lover's hand in greeting.
"I have seen you before. You own the Mill, don't you?" Tava said, taking his hand as well in a decidedly refined, girlish manner that only Ghen could probably have bested. "Thank you so much for the baskets you sent over, they were too much. But the dresses!" She gave a girlish giggle, and I had to set my teeth to keep my jaw from dropping.
"Not at all," he said smoothly. "May I?" She shifted the bundle in her arms and we saw her child, a girl with red hair, sleeping.
"I named her Gilly," Tava said proudly.
"She's beautiful," Hunter said sincerely and from behind his shoulder I nodded. She really was. He nodded approvingly and then, as if just remembering I was there, he suddenly pulled me forward. "But I don't know if you've had occasion to meet Micah." He held my shoulders, made me face her. "My lover."
She gave me her hand, a particular spark in her large brown eyes that had not been there when she'd spoken to Hunter. "We have, briefly," she said genteelly.
"Well-wishes," I managed to get out. "She truly is beautiful."
"Thank you," she said. "Avery?"
The blond's eyes had not left mine since Hunter had put me in the forefront. It was now or never. I drew myself up and extended my hand to him. "We have never met formally, I believe," I said.
"No," he said, reaching for my arm automatically. "Not in any capacity I care to remember." Beside him Tava gave a laugh again, playing a role to ease the tension.
"Avery's often drunk. That's usually not a capacity in which you can remember, much less care to."
"You would be the same if you hadn't been ‘in the way'," he snorted. "And I expect you will before this day is even over."
She laughed again and looked down at her baby. Then, her eyes came up to mine. "Come by and visit any time, Micah," she said. "You are more than welcome here. You both are, of course."
"I-" I could not find words that wouldn't betray my bewilderment. Why me? I could only thank her in the end, and, avoiding Avery's gaze, let Hunter make a smooth, gracious farewell and pull me away.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" he said in my ear.
"No, not at all. Nothing like facing two hungry jackals and nowhere to run," I muttered. His hand grasped mine again and we stayed a little longer to politely speak to those we knew before heading home.
The next day Hunter received summons from one of his largest wine-suppliers. The vineyard was two days ride from here, and had been flooded by the swollen river. The winemaker had asked him to come out and survey the damages and to give advice on how he could pull his soaked vines through such a disaster. Hunter had only just gotten back from a trip not too long ago, back when Archer had first found himself at our door, so this seemed too soon for me to be able to be without him again, even if it was only for a few days. But the truth remained he knew wine, and his knowledge was actually much sought after. But it was people who usually came to him, not the other way around.
"I have to go," he said at my protest. "Favre is too good a friend for me not to. It's a week at the most. You'll be all right." He kissed me, hands holding my face. We were in the privacy of our room with a drizzling rain pattering the windows. He had already packed before even getting a chance to tell me the news. "You will," he said, nodding. In his blue eyes I read his trust. He had not forgotten what had happened last time he'd left either, but this time he was sure it was different. Was I?
The next morning, I stood on the front porch of the Mill with him. It was very early, the sky had only just begun to lighten and down the steps a stableboy feigning disinterest in our goodbye held the reins to a stamping, impatient horse.
"Be careful," I said, hugging him. I had been sad ever since he'd told me he was going, and I knew it was drawn on my face. I couldn't help pouting, even when he made fun of me for it.
"Micah," he said. "Remember what I told you?"
He gave a dazzling smile in that cool, blue morning air. "That I love you."
I laughed into his kiss. "Pish," I said.
Unable to go back to bed alone, I peeked in on Archer, thinking it would be harmless to merely sit with him for a while. Despite my resolution to keep a friendly distance, I had a sinking guilt that anything less than what contact with him came naturally to me was sharp neglect on my part. I only hoped that maybe he hadn't noticed it.
As expected, he was still sleeping. The room was cool and grey, washed out by the morning light and lack of fire in the grate. This time he faced the door, and had kicked the covers down to expose his torso, a hand curled on the pillow before his face, the other resting limply on his belly. I eased into the bedside chair as quietly as I could, feeling a strange sort of off-balance. Hunter gone again, the distance between us growing with every step of his mount. The distance between Archer and I was only a few feet or so.
The chair creaked as I leaned back into it. Archer's eyes opened lazily and focused on me. They were dark, colorless.
"Sorry," I said softly. "I couldn't sleep. Is it all right if I sit here for a while?"
His eyes remained half-mast, lazy with sleepiness. "Mmm?" he said hoarsely.
I lowered my voice to a whisper to match his. "Hunter's just left for a few days."
He closed his eyes for a few minutes and I thought he had fallen asleep again. I hugged myself. I only wore thin sleeping-breeches and one of Hunter's linen shirts, and it was chilly in here. But the idea of leaving just because of that seemed outlandish. Archer's eyes opened once more. Had I had been staring at his face the whole time?
"Hn," he grunted, reaching behind him and pulling the covers back. "It's cold."
I gazed at him. Was he really awake? His eyes had closed again, but his arm remained on the covers he had pulled up from the bed. The invitation was unmistakable, whether he was talking in his sleep or not. I was chilled, and lonely, and I still loved him, no matter how I tried to deny it, or tell myself otherwise. I could say Hunter forgive me, it is only to sleep, I promise, and it's only because I miss you. That was the truth of course, but not all of it.
My mind felt numb, much like my fingers and toes. Archer lay on the side of the bed closest to the door, the empty side of the bed was against the wall. I leaned over him and pulled the covers back, tucked his outstretched arm under them and pulled them up over his chilly flesh. He barely moved; a shallow sigh and that was all. Gently I tucked the blanket close around him and backed away, making a reluctant escape from the face of his sleepy persuasion.
Our room was chilly too when I got back to it. I stared at the disheveled bed, with Hunter's sleeping-clothes where he'd carelessly dropped them on the coverlet as he'd dressed. I shed the shirt I wore and pulled on the one he'd slept in, wrapping it close and smelling on it lavender and bath salts, the scent he always seemed to carry with him, and buried myself into our bed again.
This was serious. Those questions that had risen when Archer had first come were now at the forefront, unwilling to be ignored anymore. Whether he knew what he'd been asking for or not, the responsibility surely lay with me. And I was afraid that I was incapable of making the right decision, if the question were really put to me. So, the only road to take at that point, whether it was the right one or not, was to avoid the question completely.
With Hunter gone, I needed to distract myself outside my responsibilities at the Mill for the next few days, and I decided I would tackle at least one difficulty in my life head-on. I wanted to see Galen, and to do that, I had to see Avery and Tava as well, for he was a constant visitor to their house when he was not loaded down with projects of his own. It would seem he had decided to tackle some difficulties of his own. When at first I didn't find him at his own home I went to Avery's with that thought.
It was actually he that opened the door at my knock, and a great smile spread when he saw it was me. I had only just opened my mouth to offer an awkward greeting when he swept me up in a great bear-like hug.
"'S good to see ya, Duckie," he said, and swept me inside. I resisted a little- I hadn't really meant to stay. Perhaps I should have followed through with my thinking a bit more when I thought to find him here. However, to escape now was impossible. Tava sat where she had been last time I'd seen her, wrapped up nicely and looking a little less exhausted, with a quiet bundle tucked against her chest. She gave me a cursory greeting before telling Galen to get some coffee roasting. He went to the scullery unquestioningly, and she gestured for me to sit near that furnace of a grate. It was too warm in here for me, but she was still bundled up as if it were snowing outside.
"You didn't come to see me," she said flatly. "But that's all right. I'm glad you came. Now we can talk properly." She glanced in the direction of the scullery, which was partially hidden from our view.
"Properly?" I asked.
"What do you intend to do?" she asked, her brown eyes piercing mine.
"That lily white act doesn't work on me, pumpkin," she said, and I clammed up, stunned. "That one there," she whispered with a tilt of her head towards the scullery. "What do you intend to do? Come, come, he won't be in there forever."
"Galen?" I choked. "I have a lover-" I started.
"Hn, so did I," she came back. "Do you love him?"
"Either of them."
"Of course," I answered.
"One more than the other?"
"In different ways-"
"I think it's the same."
"Have you slept with both of them?" More and more she was leaning in with her questions, and I found myself leaning away.
"You already knew that," I guessed.
"Then it's the same." She looked into the fire for a few short moments, until I had the fortitude to ask a question of my own. We could hear Galen clanging about in the scullery, muttering to himself, so I lowered my voice.
"Why does this matter to you?"
"It matters to Avery, so it matters to me," she said calmly, not taking her eyes from the grate.
I followed her gaze. "I don't understand. Galen cares for him so much, there shouldn't even be the question of who he would choose if he had to."
"That's just it," she said, her head turning at the sound of Galen coming back in. Her voice lowered. "There shouldn't even be a question at all." Galen had reached us but I doubt he had heard anything, as evidenced by his partially veiled look of confusion. For my own part I took the proffered mug of coffee only half paying attention, while her last words seeped in. What had she meant by that?
"Where is Avery?" I asked, clearing my throat to fill the void of conversation. The three of us made an awkward trio at first, and I wondered what the two of them would have had to talk about before I got here and probably made worse.
"On a run," Tava said, sipping her coffee. "He hasn't made any since Gilly was born, I expect he's behind now." There didn't seem to be any regret in her voice for putting Avery behind on his work. But then again, she probably had not asked him to stay home, either.
"'E asked me to come ‘round and check in on ‘er," Galen put in.
"Like I'm an invalid."
"Ya can't even walk across tha room an' not fall over," he said without malice or jest, but only continued to drink his own brew.
"It's both your faults for not letting me try," she came back. "And you left the pot on, I can smell it burning."
With a soft curse Galen got up to remedy the situation back in the scullery. In a few seconds I could smell it too, that putrid odor of scalded coffee. Beside me Tava sighed, and took a moment to touch her sleeping baby's face. I watched her, marveling at this total change in attitude, until Galen came back, mumbling something about his lack of household skills. He knew the perfect color of iron to be tempered and the ways of his coke forge, not how to play host. Tava was saying something about how if he knew so much about fire he should be able to remember to remove a simple pot of coffee from it. At this point, despite myself, I had to suppress a smile. This was but a small picture of the interactions I would see in the future when I made myself return again over the next few days, intent on finding out what Tava had meant about that question, and figure out why it had struck such a cord in me. True enough I was avoiding issues at home the while Hunter was gone, and these three proved a good enough distraction, so long as I kept myself a spectator only, and stayed out of their way.
Poor Galen. I could imagine him constantly caught before her wake, his gentle brown eyes cast down as she railed on him over anything, for not shutting the front door properly to blaming Avery's ever-changing moods on the smith's very presence. But still he visited, if anything just to see the baby Gilly, whom he called the "little girl".
As it was, he was the only one who could settle Gilly, who was usually a quiet baby, but was prone to long crying fits when the moment was right. He could do it with a mere caress, and I saw now that Tava grudgingly accepted his presence because of it. I often thought it was her redeeming quality that she loved her babe enough to bear the presence of the man Gilly obviously loved most. At these moments Avery, when he was home, would always linger in the background, arms crossed, scowling slightly. Here I often wryly wondered if he was jealous of Gilly's pleasure in Galen, or of Galen's pleasure in her. I suspected the latter every time I was able to observe, but Hunter had also once said I had a romantic mind. I dreamed that lovers always got together in the end, and that some great passion could manifest from the ashes of anger between them. I knew they were silly notions, but I had a lot riding on them.
I knew that someday I would see those two lingering in the Mill's square. Avery would be angry and flushed, Galen would be opposite him, his brow glistening from the day's heat and toil. His head wouldn't be bowed this once, but instead high, answering angrily in his defense. Secretly impressed and quickened by the smith's new show of might, Avery would retort wildly and declare their friendship over. Galen would look at him sharply then, catch his beloved's green eyes filled with a hasty and desperate anger at the emotions Avery couldn't understand.
Then the moment would come. That shiny, brilliant epiphany, muted, though, by sudden, lingering tears. Galen would see and recognize it, and he would reach out, slowly at first, unsure and incredulous at the same time. But then he would crush Avery to him in a sudden great passion that had been building for all the years he'd known the boy. Avery's hands would hold his face and touch his good, strong jaw and their lips would meet.
Romantic at heart indeed.
One night, three days before Hunter returned from his trip which had taken a week longer than expected, I heard Avery was gone. Tava and the babe as well. Having not heard from or seen his friend for two days, Galen went to their home and found it locked up and empty. The door, when he kicked it in, swung open like a speechless mouth at the disturbance. The truth was clear enough; Avery had fled again, no doubt encouraged by Tava, who I felt had always wanted to leave here. This way, we all thought, she could have Avery to herself, finally.
I heard only by rumor that this had happened, as Galen retreated to his hearth and did not come out again. By this time Hunter was home again, and my life quietly went on, no longer needing the distraction to keep me away from Archer and the thought of his sleepy invitation that one early morning. Since then I had distanced myself even more, and I know he noticed it at this point. I did my duty to try and encourage him to start moving around, as his wounds had long healed, and he did to some extent. He wandered around the Mill grounds a little, but hardly spoke to anyone. These outings usually only lasted an hour or so before he retreated to his room again. At this point, he had stopped seeking me out as he had in the very beginning of this whole affair. I was sorely aware of it but asked myself what more I could do than give him a safe, quiet place to live, food, clothing, and make myself available should he need me. But this wasn't true at all, and in a day it would be painfully obvious to me how awfully I had wronged him for the excuse of my own feeble self-control.
Thus by the second week of his absence from any place Galen was known to frequent, and the fires of his always-burning forge only cold ashes, I roused myself from my own rumination to check on the sorrows of a dear friend. I was only three blocks from his darkened home when I realized I was being followed. Mindful of it, I turned and gasped to see who stood behind me.
"Archer?" I said, waiting for his sheepish walk to bring him up alongside. He had donned a draft coat against the autumn chill and his hair had grown long, something I had not noticed until I saw him out in the open street.
"Forgive me," he said, his voice hoarse from disuse. "I only thought to take a walk and get some air, and ended up behind you."
I almost had tears in my eyes with the mere thought of him stirring enough to want to go outside again. Indeed, his flesh had paled from lack of sun, and he had the wan look of someone bedridden in illness. But he was not sick, only grieving. Perhaps now that was beginning to abate, enough to allow him a desire for fresh air. I could never scold something like that.
Forgetting my distance, I was so relieved that I wrapped my arm in his and pulled him to stroll with me. His muscles were still firm. All he needed was the sun to be himself again and regain those warm colors that were always so magnificent to me. Nothing had changed, these past weeks had only been a hitch in the grand sight of things, and all would be well.
"Not at all. I was just going to visit a friend."
He made no comment at the arm I'd hooked in his. "What friend is this?" he asked, glancing at the shops we passed in mild interest. The more we walked the better he seemed to me.
"Galen. He has a forge down the lane here." I neglected to tell him that Galen was the one who had helped carry him the night he'd come to the Mill. Instead, we walked on in a bit of comfortable silence. I was chewing over whether or not to divulge Galen's situation. It was not my place to tell a friend of another friend's heartbreak, but Archer was… more than a friend.
"He's had a rough time in the past few weeks," I said, almost to myself. "There is someone he loves who has left without a word. A friend from childhood who just closed up their home and disappeared one day. I haven't seen Galen since, and just wanted to make sure he was all right."
"I don't expect he would be all right," Archer said flatly. I raised an eyebrow at his tone. I had thought he would have more compassion, but had not yet realized that his compassion, for now, was running dry, and a very potent bitterness was beginning to seed in its place. Had I realized it right then, I would have staunched its growth with a fury, like grinding a smoldering ash into the ground.
"Well, I know he will be gloomy," I conceded, "but I want to be sure he is at least eating, and taking care of himself, that's all."
"Mmm. And this one he loves- a man is it?"
I wondered what I was reading in his voice. Glancing askew at him, I chose to ignore the mysterious inflection and answered, "I wouldn't call him that. Avery's more like a rash youth in my mind. He can't see what's in front of him. Galen is so loving and gentle, would give him the world if he could."
"We all feel like that, that we could ‘give the world' to someone," he said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his draft. My hand remained tucked in the crook of his elbow, forgotten. "But then reality hits. The world?" He looked down at me as we walked, flicked his eyes away and shook his head. "Ashes and dust."
With that, he gently, though not unkindly, dislodged my hand and moved on to continue his stroll, as I had suddenly stopped walking at his words. To my left the gates of Galen's shop and home happened to stand in dismal silence. Archer gave me a gentle, beaten smile and moved on slowly down the lane.
This was when it hit. Oh God, what had happened in the days he had shut himself away from me? What kind of bitterness had loneliness and grief festered in his heart, once so open and wise? But no, that was wrong; he had not shut himself away from me. It was I who had done it to him. Me, his only contact in this place, and I had kept him at arm's length for my own selfish reasons, from fear of my stupid inability to refuse him. What had I done in leaving him alone?
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