Six – 04

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

The sound of Matt’s hammer against the metal stopped and Thom looked up, meeting a gaze that was suddenly concerned.

“What?” Thom asked quietly.

“Right,” Matt said, glancing down at the scythe blade on his anvil before looking at Thom again, harder, more critically, for several seconds before he looked down again, returning to his work. “You’re dangerously introspective and it’s starting to unnerve me.”

“Well, it’s not like this conversation hasn’t given me any reason to be introspective, now has it?”

“Is that your method of telling me to quit worrying because it’s all my fault that you’re acting in ways that would make me worry?”

“Something like that.”

Matt snorted, hammer ringing a little louder than was strictly necessary. Thom winced.

“Seriously. It’s fine. Nothing’s wrong—nothing that you’ve got any ability to change, anyway.” Thom smiled and shook his head, flipping to a fresh page of his sketchbook. “And even if it was, it’s not something to worry about today. Finish that damn blade so we can head in.”

Matt shook his head again, his hammering falling back into its usual rhythm as he settled to the task at hand again, either mollified or at least willing to let it all go for now. Thom exhaled a silent sigh of relief as he turned back to his sketchpad, slowly starting to draw out the lines of their settlement.

If his brother-in-law had pressed for answers, he wasn’t sure what he would have told him. He might have even lied about what was bothering him, if only to keep Matt from joining him in his worry—or to keep Matt from trying to change something that seemed set in stone.

Pray he doesn’t press you on it, a little voice in the back of his head said. Because if you tell him the truth, then that’s another secret he’ll have to keep—and that’s not fair to him.

Then again, nothing was really fair, was it?

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Six – 03

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

“I don’t think there’s a maybe about it,” Matt said, voice firm, half rumbling. “You need to make a map, Thom. I know I at least want to know what’s rattling around inside your head.”

Thom smiled faintly, shaking his head. “All right,” he said quietly. “All right, I can take a hint. Draw a damn map, Thom. Let us know what we need to do in case something goes sideways or just in case you’re hurt and can’t direct us.”

“I did not say that,” Matt said, glancing up from his work. “I just said you should draw a map.”

“Whatever the reason, you’re right,” Thom said. “You’re right. I need to make a map.”

Matt exhaled and tugged the blade out of the forge, laying it on the anvil again. “It’s just good to have a plan, Thom,” he said quietly. “Don’t you think so?”

“Aye,” Thom murmured. “You’re right.” His brother-in-law was right about a lot lately, not that it upset Thom much at all.

They’ll need him someday. I don’t know when, but they’ll need him.

Thom let his eyes slide shut for a moment.

They’ll need him when Marin and I are gone.

It would happen someday, that much he knew. There was no doubt in his mind that it would—he’d seen too much, and somehow he knew that Marin had as well, even though she hadn’t said it. She didn’t have to. He knew her well enough.

Someday, we’ll go, and he’ll be left behind.

He’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.

His lips thinned for a moment as he smoothed his hand over the page, staring at it for a few seconds. I just have to make sure that they’re prepared for that day to come and that we left them with the best possible chances we can.

That’s all I can do.

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Six – 02

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

“You’re dwelling too much again,” Matt said. Thom startled slightly, not looking up right away, though the words sent a shiver down his spine.

Am I?

He frowned at the blank page of his sketchbook, then finally looked up toward his brother-in-law. “You think so?”

“Seems like it,” Matt said, flipping the scythe blade. He studied it for a few seconds before he eased it back into the embers of the forge to heat again. “Figured I’d call you on it before it got out of hand. That’s one of the reasons you keep me around, right?”

Thom grinned. “Oh, is that it?”

Matt shrugged, carefully shifting the blade. “Could be.”

“Not the only reason.”

“I didn’t say it was the only reason.” Matt looked back at him, smiling crookedly. “I’m serious, though. Don’t worry so damn much.   You’ll give yourself an ulcer and I’m pretty sure we don’t have a good way to handle those right now.”

“Probably right,” Thom agreed, taking his pencil from over his ear and setting it to paper again. He started sketching out the lines of a large building, noting calculations along one side of the page, trying to work through in his head how it would be possible to build with the people and resources they had available, trying to sort out what else they’d need. Matt watched him for a few seconds more before he checked on the metal in the heat of the forge.

“You’ve got sketches of so many things you want to build,” Matt said quietly. “So many plans. Is there a list? A map?”

“I haven’t done a map in months,” Thom murmured. “Maybe not since the beginning. And a list…” he sighed. “What good would a list be? Priorities keep shifting.”

“I don’t know,” Matt said. “Reference, I guess. Something to help us set goals and tick off boxes.”

Thom paused, considering, then nodded a little. “Maybe I should,” he murmured softly. “Maybe I should.”

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Six – 01

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

There was no sign of the rain letting up even an hour later as Thom limped back to the opening of the forge, watching the clouds for a moment, watching the rain come down.  Matt glanced his way, working on the blade of a scythe they planned to use in the next month or so to harvest the small stand of wheat they’d managed to grow down near the old greenhouses on the other side of the river.  Thom wasn’t entirely sure how well the crop had done—it had been months since he’d seen it, and he wasn’t sure how much all of the rain they’d gotten that summer might have hurt or helped it, but apparently there was enough left to make the scythe necessary, which he took as a good sign.

“Still bad?” Matt asked, his hammer falling in easy rhythm, a counterpoint to the sound of the rain against the roof.

“Steady,” Thom said, leaning in the doorway for a few seconds, still watching.  “Doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon.”

“Suppose one of us should have brought an umbrella,” Matt said, only half joking.  Thom glanced back over his shoulder in time to see Matt flash a grin before he was intent on his work again.  “It’s all right.  I’ve seen you swing around on those crutches.  You’re quick enough.”

“That was when my shoulders weren’t still half wrecked,” Thom countered, returning to his seat closer to the forge’s heat.  “You’ll be able to make a dash. I’ll hobble along.”

“I could go and get an umbrella,” Matt offered, not pausing or looking up.  He likely wouldn’t be going anywhere until he’d gotten his project shaped anyway, though the sharpening, likely, would wait until later.  Neither of them had eaten much of breakfast and the day was creeping onward toward lunchtime.

“No sense in that,” Thom said.  “I’ll manage.  Always do.”

“Well, then we’ll get soaked together,” Matt said.  “Just make sure you wrap that sketchbook.”

“Always do,” Thom said, then smiled as he picked up said sketchbook again.  “This thing holds a lot.”

“I’ve noticed,” Matt said, grinning as he looked up again.  “I’ve seen your designs, remember?”

Thom inclined his head.  That much was certainly true.  “We didn’t get much of a chance to build them this summer, though, did we?”

“It’s not over yet,” Matt reminded him.  “And we’ll hopefully have another month or two at least before it snows.”

“That’s the hope,” Thom murmured, his gaze drifting toward the rain again.  “We’ll see if we get what we’ve hoped for.”

Sometimes we do, anyway.

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Five – 06

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

“Why then?” Jacqueline asked, glancing at Hecate, her brow arching slightly. “Why when it starts to snow?”

“Because some will wait that long to march, thinking our defenses will be less.” Hecate smiled slightly. “They will not expect what they get.”

“They never do,” Marin said softly, smiling crookedly. “That’s why we’re still here I think.”

“I don’t think you’re wrong on that one,” Phelan murmured, settling into a spot next to the fire, slowly sipping at the mug of coffee cradled between his palms. Despite the season, there was an odd chill to the air, a dampness that settled into his joints.

Maybe I’m finally getting old.

He almost laughed out loud and the expression on his face must have given away his amusement because he found Marin looking at him funny.

“What?” she asked, a wry smile on her face and audible in her voice.

Phelan shook his head, grinning. “Nothing, don’t worry about it. Just thinking things that shouldn’t be nearly as amusing as they are.”

Now Jacqueline was looking at him with an arched brow. Hecate glanced between the other two women and him and just grinned.

“I think you’ll be in trouble if you don’t elaborate,” she said, taking another sip of her coffee.

“Nah,” Jacqueline said, smirking. “I’ll just get it out of him later. If he doesn’t tell me then, that’s when he’ll be in trouble.”

Hecate laughed at that and Phelan just shook his head, rolling his eyes.

“Trying to start something, aren’t you?” he teased.

Hecate grinned. “I’m not starting anything. I’m just picking on you.”

The way she said it, matter-of-factly with a wide grin on her face made Phelan smile. It was a sign of something changing, a sign that yes, she really was comfortable with them.

It made him glad.

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Five – 05

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

“Here.” Phelan brought the two mugs of coffee over, one to Marin and the other to Hecate. Marin seemed to enter some sort of state of bliss as soon as she took the mug from him, while Hecate just smiled faintly and nodded.

“Thanks, Phelan,” she said quietly, settling in a little more. She took a quick sip of the brew and sighed, relaxing slightly. “This is great.”

“What we both needed, right?” Marin asked with a grin, gaze slanting toward her sister-in-law.

“Oh yeah,” Hecate murmured, closing her eyes. J.T. was still watching her, though some of the tension seemed to have eased, as if her reassurance was starting to sink in. “It is exactly what we needed. It’s uncomfortably damp.”

“Only going to get worse when it gets colder,” Jacqueline observed, glancing up from her piecework. “And if last year is any indication, it’ll come earlier than we’d like.”

“Maybe it won’t,” J.T. murmured, staring at the fire again, cradling his mug of coffee between both hands. “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised with something milder this year.”

“I don’t think that’s very likely, do you?”

He shot a rueful grin toward Marin. “Well, no. But sometimes it’s nice to think about. Cold might have helped us more than it hurt, anyway.”

“That’s possible,” Marin agreed, stretching slightly and shifting Lin to rest a little more comfortably in the crook of her arm. “Though it would have been nice if it had mitigated some of the attacks we caught.”

“True story,” Phelan said, then sighed. “Maybe this winter will be better.”

“Do you think we’ve put enough scare into people?” Jaqueline asked, glancing first at Marin, then to Hecate, and finally to Phelan, her brow quirked slightly. “Do you think that maybe they’ll let us alone?”

“The scare’s there,” Hecate said softly, staring at the fire. “As for it being enough? Time will tell that tale. One way or another, when the snows begin to fly, we’ll know.”

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Five – 04

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

For a few seconds, J.T. just stared at her as if disbelieving, as if the words she’d just spoken didn’t make sense. Hecate reached for his hand, squeezed his fingers, and he sucked in a breath, eyes closing.

“I just—”

“I know,” she said. “I feel it, too. But losing yourself over it? It’s not worth it, J.T. We’ll do what we promised one way or another. She’ll understand. She always has—and I know that she will this time, too.” Hecate glanced toward the others. “We’ve agreed to it.”

Phelan nodded slowly. “We have,” he confirmed quietly. “And we keep our promises.”

“That we do,” Marin said, sitting down next to Jacqueline. “We have thus far and we’ll keep on doing it as long as I have anything to say about it.”

“But when?” J.T. asked as his eyes blinked open. “When? And how, dammit? We don’t even—”

“We’ll figure out a way to find her,” Hecate said, her voice firm and certain. It shot shivers down Phelan’s spine, not from any sort of fear or memory, but because it was unexpected and powerful.

Being here has been good for her, I guess. Even when she’d been attacking them, been acting the enemy against he and his family, there had always been a thread of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on at the time but now recognized for what it was—uncertainty and fear.

He watched her for a moment, taking a slow sip of coffee before he turned to fill two more mugs, one for her and another for Marin, smiling slightly to himself. Truth be known, he was much happier with her on their side than the alternative.

The long centuries that had gone before had just been too hard—for all of them, it seemed. Now, times were different, and it was better that way.

Far, far better.

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Five – 03

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

J.T. sighed, still staring at the fire, the look on his face dubious, clearly not buying what Phelan was trying to sell.  “Even if that’s true—and I’m not saying that it is—I still feel like an utter failure.”

“That coffee smells incredible,” Marin’s voice said from nearby.  “And why are you feeling like a failure, Jay?”

Phelan glanced at Jacqueline who blew out a silent breath in relief.  He had to grin and she grinned back.  Her look said everything.  It was all he could do not to breathe a sigh of relief.

Cavalry’s here.

The cavalry was in the form of Marin and Hecate, who both appeared out of the tent’s gloom and into the circle of warm firelight.  J.T. took one look at Hecate and his face fell.

She frowned at him, brows knitting.  “What’s wrong?”

“I haven’t done anything,” he said quietly.  “She’s still out there.”

Hecate took a quiet breath and Marin reached to touch her arm.  Hecate glanced at her and managed a weak smile, shaking her head.  “I’m okay,” she told her sister-in-law before she turned to J.T.  “Jay, I know she is.  It’s okay.  We’ll help her.  You made a promise but I made one a long time ago.  If there’s one person who should be feeling guilty about not helping her yet, it’s me, not you.”

She went to sit beside him, drawing one knee up to her chest as she settled, setting her sketchbook and pencils next to her.  She leaned a shoulder into his, watching him carefully.  “Don’t let it eat you,” she whispered.  “I let so much eat me up inside over the years it left me hollow.  It’s not worth it.  She’d tell you that, too.  It’s okay.  We’ll keep the promise.  Sometimes it just takes time.”

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Five – 02

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

                Jacqueline and Phelan exchanged a look before Phelan cleared his throat.  “You’re talking about Persephone,” he said quietly, watching J.T.’s reaction.  There was no flinch, no wince.  Instead, J.T. just nodded slowly, exhaling a breath he seemed like he’d been holding for perhaps too long.

                “Yeah,” he said, voice quiet.  “She asked for our help—for my help—and I haven’t been able to do anything.  I told Hecate about it, I haven’t done anything else.  What kind of good am I to her if I can’t figure out a damn thing to help her?”

                “Settle down,” Phelan told him, snagging some mugs before he slowly poured hot water over the grounds in the French press.  “It’s not as if we’ve had much breathing room to figure that out.”

                “It doesn’t matter,” J.T. said, staring hard at the fire, as if it would somehow give up state secrets if he glared at it long and hard enough.  “I made a promise and I haven’t kept it.”

                “And it’s eating you,” Jacqueline said quietly, watching him.  Phelan winced, glancing at her again before concentrating on the coffee.  “And you’re letting it.”

                J.T. exhaled a frustrated sigh.  “And if I am?”

                “Then you shouldn’t,” she said, her tone brooking no argument.  “We can only do what we can and trust me, we’ve all been wrapped up in a lot of crap lately and we keep getting attacked.”

                “And we got attacked by someone that’s probably involved in holding her—and we turned them back,” Phelan said, his voice quiet as he started to pour the coffee.  “That has to amount to something.”

                “Maybe,” J.T. said, still staring at the fire.  Phelan started handing out the coffee, studying J.T. as he handed him a mug.

                “Not maybe,” Phelan said quietly.  “It counts.  Don’t try to shoulder all of this alone.  We’re going to help you—helping her isn’t something you have to do alone.”

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Five – 01

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

“You have grass on your shirt.”

Phelan straightened from tending the pot over the fire, brow furrowing as he watched J.T. approach.  The other man looked like he hadn’t slept at all the night before, which was cause for concern enough, but it was less the dark circles under his eyes than the expression on his face that gave Phelan pause.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, not wanting to speculate—odds were good his mind would come up with something far worse than whatever had kept J.T. up.

“Is that coffee?”  J.T. asked, ignoring the question.  That won an arched brow from Jacqueline, who sat cross-legged nearby, settled in to resume work on a quilting project even as Phelan busied himself with the coffee.

“It will be soon,” Phelan said, still watching him as he unceremoniously dropped into a sitting position near Jacqueline.

“Fantastic,” J.T. said, leaning back against one of the split-log benches and covering his eyes with one hand.  “I need it.”

“You realize it’s nearly ten o’clock,” Jacqueline said, peering at him.  “At least as near as I can tell.  What’s going on?  Did you oversleep?”

“Oversleeping would imply that I slept.”

“Well, that answers part of my question,” Phelan said, tone wry.  He started filling the French press with coffee grounds.  “So answer the rest.  What’s going on, Jay?”

“I just—I can’t—” he broke off, making a frustrated sound.  “I just keep thinking and it goes around and around and I try to stop but it doesn’t stop.”

“Now you’re not making sense,” Jacqueline said, brow furrowing deeper.  “What keeps going around and around?”

He shook his head.  “It doesn’t—”

“Don’t lie,” she warned.  Phelan turned away, concealing a wince.  He’d come to know that tone over the last year and it typically didn’t presage much good if it wasn’t obeyed.

“She asked us to help her and we haven’t,” J.T. said.  “And it keeps eating away at me.  I don’t want it to but I can’t help it.  It just keeps bubbling up.”  He sighed.  “I think time is running out but I don’t know what to do about it.  I’m not even sure where to start.  How the hell do we figure out where to start?”

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