January 31, 2010

In Which Evaleith Dispels a Musing

December 2, 1164

"...and that should just about do it," declared Nora as she tucked the last of Evaleith's curls into place. "God, you have such lovely hair. Our mother had nice curly hair too, but you can see that none of us got it."

Evaleith closed her eyes. "It can be such a bother, though..."

Nora laughed. "Mother always said so too--of course, that never stopped me from envying her."

Curious, Evaleith turned around; she had just been given a glimpse of a side of her soon-to-be sister-in-law that she would have never guessed existed. "I had no idea you were a woman who cared so much about her hair."

"I'm not," Nora agreed with a grin. "I gave up on it years ago."

"How practical of you."

"Indeed."

Senseless banter aside, Evaleith had gained a healthy respect for Ceidrid's older sister over the past few months. The woman was a widow of not even a quarter of a year, a widow of a man with whom she had shared a deep love, a widow left with two young children and another on the way... and yet, she had not approached anyone for charity, nor had she burst into tears in the company of any second party. There was an undeniable strength about someone who did not allow their own suffering to compromise anyone else's happiness, a strength that one couldn't help but admire.

Of course, this was not the only reason Evaleith had come to enjoy Nora's company. She had a quick, witty tongue, as well as the rare ability to be blunt without being cruel. With Evaleith's own tight funds and refusal to allow Ceidrid to pay for her wedding dress, Nora had been kind enough to let her use one of her outgrown gowns--quite economical, seeing as it was old, borrowed, and blue--and she had just spent more time on Evaleith's hair than she had likely ever given to her own. She was generous, reassuring, and helpful, all while still being clever, humorous, and to-the-point. If Evaleith had ever had a sister--or at least, one she'd actually grown up with--she might have hoped she would have been rather like Nora.

Well, she supposed she had two new sisters now, one of which actually was Nora. And Alsina... well, she would be a good sister too, in her own way.

"You're so beautiful!" she cooed, quickly looking Evaleith up and down. "Just wait until Ceidrid sees you in that--hell, just wait until he sees you out of it!"

Evaleith and Nora shared a quick laugh. In truth, Alsina was close to a year older than she was, but Evaleith had been shocked to learn this; she did seem quite immature at times. Oh well--for the most part, Evaleith liked Alsina well enough, but she was still somewhat glad that the girl and her younger brother had moved out of Ceidrid's house and into Nora's instead.

Her eyes narrowing slightly, Nora gave a sly smile. "She is rather stunning--in fact, I'd say she's almost glowing. Do you have a little secret, honey?"

She could not remember ever blushing and laughing at the same time before then. "Oh--no! At least, not that I know of," she added with a wink, for their benefit.

Alsina gave an appreciative laugh. "I'm sure we'll see soon enough. Anyway, I'm glad Ceidrid's marrying someone pretty--can you imagine the children he'd produce without her?"

Nora snickered. "On his own? Alsina, I thought I already gave you this talk--he wouldn't be having any children at all."

The younger sister rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean. Anyway... when's the ceremony starting? I want to get to the dancing already."

"Fairly soon, I imagine," answered the elder. "Maybe we'd better go take our places. Evaleith, your stepfather is giving you away, right?"

Evaleith nodded; Nora planted a quick kiss to her forehead, then made her way toward the door. "He'll be here shortly, then. We'll see you outside, sister."

Sister. No one had ever addressed her as such--not even her brother. The most he had ever said was 'my sister'--not simply 'sister'. Of course, she supposed one couldn't blame a nine-year-old boy for such a thing, especially considering he was really only her half-brother. Her sisters were worse for it. Little Asalaye was all smiles, but she only ever called her 'Leithie'; Nanalie rarely saw fit to waste words on her at all.

After trailing out of the room behind her sister, Alsina closed the door, leaving Evaleith to herself. She was not a girl who was overly concerned about her appearance, but she was drawn to the mirror regardless--it was her wedding day, after all.

Nora had done a splendid job with her hair; indeed, she would have never believed hair could be made into such art if she had not seen it for herself, having grown up surrounded by pirates and peasants and wenches. She felt almost like a princess, if only princesses waited to be walked down the aisle in the bedrooms of their sister-in-laws' houses, wearing second-hand dresses of a color other than the purest of white.

"Evaleith?" came a voice from the corridor, accompanied with a light knock on the door. "Evaleith, are you ready?"

It was not her stepfather's voice. It was her mother's.

She didn't answer, but her mother entered regardless. She was as queenly and beautiful as ever, her cinnamon hair hanging gracefully over her shoulder and her skin putting the smoothness of her silken, lacy gown to shame. Indeed, even her large, pregnant belly seemed becoming. A smile on her full lips, she surveyed Evaleith with her teal eyes, then spoke. "You look beautiful."

At the very least, Evaleith had to be polite. "Thank you. I could say the same of you."

"Adonis will be here in a minute," she promised, "I just wanted to see you one last time before the ceremony."

"I see." Evaleith had seen her mother a few times over the course of the past few months, and while she had grown civil--perhaps even kind at times--there was still the lingering awkwardness of everything that lay between them. Her father, for one. Her stepfather and his children, for another. And Evaleith didn't even want to think about Honora's earlier denial.

Honora tossed back her head and glanced toward the ceiling. "If only your father could see you now. Where is he, exactly? Is he still alive?"

"So far as I'm aware," Evaleith replied as best she could; it hurt to be reminded that her own father could not attend her wedding, nor even had any idea that she was getting married in the first place. "He's been in prison for four years, and I doubt he'll be out any time soon."

Her mother stiffened. "I see. Nevertheless, I'm sure he's thinking about you today."

"I don't doubt it."

It was obvious to Evaleith that Honora was just as eager to change the subject as she was; fortunately, the other woman was quick to do so. "Anyway, I just wanted to come in and tell you I'm proud of you--and that I'm sorry about everything. Not that it makes much of a difference, I suppose, but..."

"It's the thought," Evaleith finished for her, offering a quick embrace--it occured to her that she hadn't hugged her mother since she could scarcely talk, and she did not want to go into her marriage with such a musing. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm supposed to go get married or something."

NEXT CHAPTER:

January 29, 2010

In Which Geneva Says Goodbye

November 25, 1164

"Still up, I see?"

In the dim light, the nun was scarcely more than a silhouette; there was an almost spectral air about her, a sort of ghastly omnipresence that seemed to summon all the cold in the room and concentrate it around Geneva's spine. She tried to keep her wits about her--this was a Bride of Christ, after all--but she found her rushing heart could not be slowed.

Fortunately, Geneva of Bandera had a gift for being able to maintain the appearance of calmness. "The baby's still awake; I don't want to fall asleep before he does."

Was that right? She couldn't remember; it had been a few years now since she had last mothered an infant, and even then, she had always had a nurse or two at her disposal. Ah, but it was useless to dwell on such things--in the long run, it was a moot point.

The sister nodded. "Fair enough. Is this your first baby?"

"Yes," lied Geneva, the faces of the previous five flitting about in her mind. "Sorry for imposing on you, again."

The nun gave a her reassuring smile--yet, she knew she didn't deserve it. "It's no trouble. What else could you do? Your husband died and your house burned down."

It was a relief to have been reminded of her own cover story. "Yes... still, it was very kind of you to take me in."

The nun turned around and gazed at the restless baby in the crib. "That's what we're here for, dear. My... he's a rambunctious little one, isn't he?"

Geneva stifled a laugh. "Just like his mama."

The other woman placed a kiss on the boy's head, then opened the door and stepped into the corridor. "Good night to you both. If you need anything, don't hesitate to wake me."

"Thank you."

With a last parting grin, the nun walked away, shutting the door behind her. Her smile had been warm, but that had only served to make Geneva herself feel cold in comparison. Perhaps that was her only problem with the woman; something about her made her painfully aware of her own faults.

But alas, she had always been told that a tigress could not change her stripes.

Geneva slung her legs off the bed and lifted the lid from the trunk by the window. Her own dress had been taken by the servants to be laundered, but the trunk must have been there for a reason, and that reason was probably the storage of extra clothing.

Sure enough, it held several assorted garments of reasonable quality; perhaps they were sometimes given to beggars and refugees seeking sanctuary at the orphanage. Geneva dug around for a minute or two before settling on some men's traveling clothes. They were a little on the large side, she noticed as she dressed herself, but they would have to do--at any rate, they were much more convenient than a long, flowing dress.

She folded the borrowed nightgown and placed it in the stead of her new attire. Now all she had left to do was to get her hair out of the way; she bundled it back, then, holding it in place with one hand, snatched a ribbon from the trunk and tied it into a loose ponytail. One shorter lock in the front fell out of place, but she figured it wouldn't be too much of a bother.

Not relatively, at any rate. Now, for the part she always hated most, that part that almost made her change her plans and keep from whatever would have otherwise awaited her next.

Almost.

Seeing that he was still awake, Geneva lifted the baby from the crib and hoisted him to her shoulder. He would be all right--she had fed him shortly before the nun had arrived, and there was a lactating servant sleeping in the room next door--and she knew he wouldn't remember her, but all the same, it felt wrong to leave without saying goodbye.

"You'll be safe here," she soothed him as his tiny fingers curled around her stray lock of hair. "She's a good woman--somewhat scary for a sinner like me, maybe, but you're too little to be a sinner."

"They'll take care of you here, darling. I'd take you with me if I had a home to offer you... but then again, you're better off without me anyway. Now, you just be a good boy for the sister, all right?"

The baby responded with a small whimper. Geneva kissed his forehead, then gently patted his back. "I'm sorry, love. Maybe you'll understand when you're older... but then again, most people aren't really good for the whole 'understanding' thing. Regardless, I imagine you'll grow to be a better man than most."

She looked into his wide blue eyes one last time before placing him back in his cradle. "Goodbye, my angel. I love you--even if you don't remember me, I hope you never forget that. I know I never will."

The child simply looked up at her. Geneva allowed herself to cry a single tear; it was probably a good thing that a week-old baby couldn't understand a word she was saying.

NEXT CHAPTER:

January 26, 2010

In Which Ceidrid Does the Easiest Thing

November 3, 1164

Ceidrid had lost track of how long it had taken him to work up the courage he needed for this task. For the life of him, he couldn't recall ever being so nervous--Ceidrid Wythleit was not ordinarily a nervous man.

On the other hand, Ceidrid Wythleit had never been an unpredictable man either. He'd always been easy-going and willing to take whatever life happened to throw his way, constant and compliant as an old workhorse, and in the eyes of others, probably just as dull. He never took action... never stood up and faced the world and told it what he wanted...

Well, there was no better day than the present--if only he had chosen to begin with a less difficult task. Taking a hesitant step into the dark bedroom, Ceidrid swallowed. "Uh... Evaleith?"

Her face unsettlingly neutral, she pushed herself from the mattress and met his eye. "Yes?"

Ceidrid cleared his throat. He had to do this; regardless of the outcome, he had to do his part. Otherwise, he would never even know. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

"What do you think you're doing right now, stupid?"

It's just her way of showing affection, he told himself, smiling shyly. She doesn't really think you're stupid... does she?

Evaleith tilted her head, a concerned frown twisting her pretty mouth. "Ceidrid? Are you all right?"

He barely heard her. He was about to do the most difficult thing he would ever do--he both fully and barely aware of her presence.

"Ceidrid...?"

Maybe I should wait a while--

The thought died as she wrapped her arms around him, pressing a comforting kiss to his cheek. "Ceidrid..."

A smile blossomed on his previously grave face; he had just had a revelation.

This was not the most difficult thing he would ever do--far from it. As her features all but lit the gloomy room, he realized it was, in fact, the easiest thing he would ever have to do. How had he ever thought otherwise? Good Lord, he really was just as stupid as she said he was.

And he didn't even care.

Choosing to begin with a smile, Ceidrid tried to remember the speech he had practiced by reciting to the chickens that morning. He couldn't recall a word... but that didn't even matter. "Evaleith... you've been living here for close to seven months now, and I think people are beginning to talk, so..."

She reacted with a mere flicker of her eyes. "Oh. So... you want me to leave, then?"

Ceidrid could have sworn his ears were playing tricks on him. "Leave?" he repeated with a laugh. "Leave? Evaleith, the last thing I want is for you to leave! On the contrary, I was going to ask you to marry me."

Now it was Evaleith's turn to be surprised. Her eyes bulged and her lips pursed, but her face betrayed neither ecstasy nor horror--at the very least, he had said it. It was her choice now. "Ceidrid..."

She trailed off on her own, at an obvious loss for words. He closed his eyes, then took her hands in his. "I know we haven't known each other all that long, and it's sudden and we're both a little young, but... well, I've been thinking, and I think we can do this if you want to. You know I had a good harvest this year, and my brother is a steward and my sister married a gentleman, so it might not be long before I'm a gentleman myself. I know you can take care of yourself, and I can take care of myself, but maybe we could both grow quite a bit if we take care of each other too?"

Gradually regaining her composure, Evaleith consented to meet his eye. "I'm not sure I'd be a great choice of a wife for a gentleman. I've been a prostitute since I was ten."

"I know."

"My mother was a prostitute too."

"I know."

"My father is a pirate, and he's been in prison for four years now."

Ceidrid almost had to laugh. "I know--and I don't care. It just doesn't matter to me."

Evaleith snorted. "Damn good of you."

"It never mattered to me," he assured her, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear and running his fingers down the side of her face. "You know that. Anyway... if you need time to think about it, take as much as you need--or if you prefer, you could just reject me on the spot. I'll find a way to cope."

She took a moment to consider, sizing him up with her eyes, her frown deepening with each thorough scan of his body. "Hmmm... you make a good case, actually," she admitted; Ceidrid's heart made an attempt to break out of his ribcage. "I have one condition."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

Smiling slyly, she leaned into him, resting one delicate hand on his shoulder and two beautiful eyes on his own. "We seriously need to get you laid already."

Ceidrid chuckled. "What? Can't wait until the wedding night?"

Evaleith shrugged. "Of the two of us, you're the only one with a virtue to worry about--and you're the man, so no one cares."

"Fair enough," he agreed. "All right, my love--I accept your terms."

Evaleith flashed him her white teeth; it was an immensely satisfying feeling, knowing that she had every intention of flashing him a whole lot more. Regularly. As long as they both lived. "Then we have a deal. Now, less talk--more taking off your pants."

NEXT CHAPTER:

January 24, 2010

In Which Florian Makes an Offer

October 22, 1164

"Good day for a mental breakdown, isn't it, my lord?" teased Florian as he took a seat next to the baroness, noting her husband's disheveled figure sprawled on the desk. It was getting close to midday, but Florian had only just arrived at the castle, as most of his household had spent the better part of a week confined to bed with a dreadful flu. Fortunately, they all seemed to be over the worst of it, and both Evera and Goodwife Noth were now well enough to keep an eye on the others, so he'd figured it would be best if he returned to work for the afternoon; it seemed he had picked the right day.

Neither of the other two seemed to take notice of him. Instead, Holladrin sent a worried glance her husband's way; Florian debated taking the opportunity to observe how her pregnancy was treating her breasts, but ultimately decided against it. "Darling, you've been working so hard. Maybe you should go lie down for a while..."

Octavius sighed. "At this point, I'll sleep when I'm dead--which, at the rate people are getting mauled, poisoned, strangled, and otherwise slaughtered around here, should be fairly soon. Four more unnatural deaths this week in this shire alone, would you believe it?"

It certainly wasn't enviable to be anyone's lord these days, Florian had to admit. Still, there must have been something he could say to lift the man's spirits, if only slightly. "Hmmm... you know, Aldhein said there were a dozen in the king's shire. And at least by the end of September, people had grown wise to that whole routine with the conspicuous people handing around those poisonous roses--I mean, it's a pity the news didn't spread as well as we all might have hoped after they got eight people in that last week of August, but we haven't had any other such incidents in a month now, correct?"

The baron pressed his chin to the piece of parchment in front of him and ran his fingers through his hair. Meanwhile, Holladrin turned to Florian. "Well, yes, but ever since the rose scare ended, the deaths in the forests picked up again, and it would be much easier to catch a suspicious flower distributor than it would be to catch someone preying on lone travelers with no one around for miles."

"And apparently catching the flower distributors is difficult enough," Florian concluded dully. "Damn. I'm sorry, my lord--just out of curiosity, how are the duke and Lord Severin coping with the stress?"

Holladrin rolled her eyes. "According to their wives, angry seething at anything that moves and thrice-daily sexual releases, respectively."

"Well, at least her ladyship is reaping the benefits, then. What about your brother the king?"

"He's fine--he's got the three of them doing the work for him. If I wasn't so pregnant at the moment, I'd ride up there and give him a piece of my mind. I'll have to write a letter and instruct someone to shout it aloud to him."

Florian groaned. "Our king, ladies and gentlemen."

"You took the words right out of my mouth," the baroness agreed. "I kind of wish Aldhein was still working for Roderick, to be honest. He's far more competent than that idiot Eblor, and I imagine he'd deal with Roderick's slack much more thoroughly. Of course, that would leave Dalston in an even worse state."

Considering this, Florian shrugged. "I suppose it can't get much worse for anyone right now anyway."

Octavius pushed himself from the surface of his desk and nodded. "I'll say. If I didn't have a duty to the people here, I would have moved my family back to Dovia months ago."

Florian tossed back his head. "I'd move back to Dovia in a heartbeat--it's a pity I'm an exile, really."

Someone knocked on the door; the baron gritted his teeth. "Who is it?"

"Just me, Papa," piped up his eight-year-old son from the corridor. "Can I come in?"

Relieved, his father closed his eyes. "Of course, son."

Sparron opened the door and stepped into the study, nodding in the direction of the couch. "Florian, good sir. Holladrin, you're looking lovely today."

"What a little charmer," Florian sneered, his eyes narrowed. "I'm inclined to think you want something."

"And why should you think that, my friend? Perhaps I am simply attempting to revive chivalry."

Florian raised an eyebrow. "I wasn't aware that chivalry ever died."

"That's because you wouldn't know chivalry if it stripped naked in front of you and squirmed around on your lap," jeered Holladrin.

"What an absurd hypothetical situation, my lady; chivalry could never take the place of my wife."

Rubbing his forehead, Octavius pulled himself from his chair and made his way around the desk to his son. "Florian, not now, all right? Anyway, what do you need, Sparron?"

Sparron rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. "Can I go for a ride with Jadin? Garrett said he'd come with us, and since he's going, Jadin's cousin Searle might come too."

The baron frowned. "You know full-well that it's dangerous out there these days. I'm not sure I'd feel secure about you riding around aimlessly with only Garrett and Searle for protection, and I'm sure Jadin's father would tell him the same thing."

The boy pouted, his blue-gray eyes wide as he stared up at his father. "Please? We haven't gone for a ride in so long..."

"Sorry son, but you're not going without an adult," Octavius insisted. "I'd take you myself, but I have a lot of work to do. We'll go for a ride when it's safer out there, all right?"

Sparron crossed his arms, stomping his foot in the process. "At this rate, it'll never be safer!"

"I could take him," offered Florian, peeling himself away from the couch and ruffling Sparron's hair--much to the boy's disapproval. "I'll take Garrett too, and maybe a guard if you can spare one. We'll head straight to Lord Severin's castle and get Jadin, and Falidor and Searle if they want to come too, all the while avoiding any remotely forested areas like Falidor avoids his wife."

Octavius took a moment to consider. Then, the corners of his mouth twitched into a brief smile, though his eyes remained tired and frustrated. "I can spare a guard. In fact, maybe take two--and when you get to Veldora, ask Severin if he can send a few as well."

"Fah-ther!" whined Sparron in protest. "That's way too many adults--you're being paranoid!"

"Maybe," he admitted, "but in times like this, one can't be too careful. You may think me a doting fool now, but you'll understand one day. In the mean time, have a pleasant ride; say hello to your friend for me, and make sure you thank Florian--and make sure you're home for supper."

NEXT CHAPTER:

January 21, 2010

In Which Severin Is Not the Philosophical Type

September 15, 1164

It had been nine days. Nine long, painstaking days--and yet, only nine days. A bitter fact of life it was, this fine line between minutes and millenia, and how easy it was to flit back and forth across it at such a rate that one seemed to stand on both sides at once.

And that was just Severin's household; it went without saying that it was insurmountably worse at Nora's.

He couldn't claim to have known Jothein well. They'd spoken on occasion, if Jothein happened to stop by the castle for either his wife or his brother-in-law. Severin had also enlisted his services from time to time, as he had been both conveniently near and exceptionally talented. He'd always seemed a decent man, and Lord knew Nora loved him with every beat of her heart--still did. Perhaps she always would. As a man who had spent nearly twenty-nine years now loving the same woman, Severin might have been somewhat biased, but he saw no reason why the feelings should have to die with the body.

Ah, but perhaps that only made it even more unbearable! He prayed he would never know.

Nine days. Nine fucking days. Either Nora was itching for company, or she still needed plenty of space yet; there was no longer any such thing as good timing.

Poor girl had barely spoken a word to anyone other than her children--not that Severin blamed her. Her husband had been a model of good health, and then an odd run-in with a suspicious flower seller had left him bedridden with a fever of a most violent nature, slipping in and out of consciousness until he grew too weary to keep pulling himself back to life. It had both the sudden shock of Bernver's passing and the anxious dreading the inevitable of Riala's; it almost seemed less agonizing to die twice.

Severin pulled the key from his belt and unlocked the front door. If Nora asked him to leave, he would leave--no questions asked. He already had the answers, even if he knew nothing.

He found her on the couch, asleep. He supposed her daughter and son must have taken over the bed and she had grown uncomfortable. It didn't seem fair to expect a pair of young children who had just lost their father to be mindful of their mother's condition, but beneath the gray cloth of Nora's nightgown, her swelling stomach looked to him to be nearly an entity of its own; for her sake, he did not want anything to happen to this baby.

Nora's eyes flickered open, their brilliant blue bathing him like the light of a weak sunbeam. "My lord? What are you doing here?"

"Just checking up on you, darling," he assured her as she heaved herself upright. "If you want me to leave, I will."

She shook her head. "Please don't. It might be nice to talk to another adult."

Severin shrugged. "If you insist."

He set himself down beside her, then sent her a quick, wary glance. She was simply staring off into the empty space in front of her, blankly, blindly; if he were to spontaneously combust at any given moment, she may not have noticed. "So... you look... well."

Nora sighed, the angle between her chin and her neck decreasing. "Just trying not to think about it, mainly. Truth be told, I haven't cried since the funeral; I have to keep strong for Aldara and Cuthron, and for this little one here," she added as an afterthought, running a hand over the curve of her stomach.

A week without crying? That must have taken an incredible amount of self-control. True, he himself hadn't cried in a good sixteen years or so, but he had never been given any reason to do so. Nora had all the reason in the world.

She seemed to sense his thoughts. "I'm used to not crying. I couldn't cry for Mother in front of my siblings, and I couldn't cry for Father in front of Mother. You get used to it."

"That may just be the saddest thing I've ever heard," he mused aloud, the words prancing about his mind like devils around a fire. You get used to it--not crying.

He found he could only close his eyes and sigh. "I'm sorry, Nora. Just... get some rest, all right? And take good care of that baby."

Once more, he could feel her eyes upon him. This time, they were puzzled--perhaps even alarmed. "My lord? Are you all right?"

What he wouldn't have done to drive all these thoughts of death and love and time and tears from his mind! "I'm fine. Just in a bit of a... philosophical mood."

"Odd," Nora stated, her brow furrowing. "I never would have taken you for the philosophical type."

Severin nodded in agreement. "I'm not--or, not usually, at any rate. Forgive me, I don't know what's come over me today."

"Maybe it's just the gloom. From my experience, it's contagious. And you would know, too--that nephew of her ladyship's who imposed himself on the two of you that time, how's he doing these days?"

Well, at least she was smiling, even if she did have to mention Searle. "According to the last letter from his wife, just as miserable as always, and for no particularly valid reason."

Nora gave a half-hearted attempt at a laugh; if anything, it was a decent first effort. "He'll learn at some point that it's worse when you do have a valid reason--so bad, in fact, that you have to take advantage of every minute you don't."

"So true."

Shaking her head, she leaned into him, resting herself against his side. "You know, sometimes... it doesn't even seem like Jothein's really gone, you know? I still feel him place his arms around me at night, hear him singing the children to sleep. Hell, when it gets to the hour he'd be coming home, I can even smell him--he always smelled like sawdust after a day's work. It's my favorite smell..."

A frown emerging from the depths of his mouth, Severin pulled her into a reassuring embrace. "Nora, I promise you... I'll get to the bottom of this. After hearing Jothein's description of the girl who gave him the roses, I have a theory, and if it's proven wrong, I'll come up with another one; I promise, I'll find out who did this to your husband."

"Thank you," she whispered, wrapping her arms around him to return the hug. She buried her face in his shoulder and did not remove it for quite some time; it wasn't until her tears had soaked through his tunic that he realized why.

NEXT CHAPTER: