My fingers fell away from his arm and he started walking again, toward the bridge. I watched him for a few moments in stunned silence.
What’s he talking about? A reckoning? Losing everything to balance the sheets?
He stopped walking this time, letting me catch up to him before he started walking again. His knuckles were white around the staff in his hand.
I sucked in a breath. Damn. His whole posture was strange—gone was the usual relaxed, easy-going Phelan, replaced by someone else. His shoulders were tight, as if someone had screwed his muscles into a knot. His jaw was tight, face all sharp angles—though the hardness of his jaw, the set of it let me see more than a small passing resemblance to Thom in his features that I’d never really noticed before. Fine lines around his eyes and mouth deepened with his apparent stress and worry and when I put my hand on his arm it was like touching a block of wood.
He flinched slightly away from my touch, then sighed, some of the tension draining from him as we walked out onto the bridge. He looked at me sidelong, gaze tired and haunted.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said quietly.
“But you need to,” I responded, fingers tightening around his arm.
Phelan sighed as we walked to the center of the bridge and stopped there, staring out over the ravine. Water tumbled over the rocks far below us, light splashing through the dying leaves and bare branches to dapple the valley below. “Why?”
“Someone really wise told me that you shouldn’t bottle things up because you’ll rot out inside.”
He snorted softly. “Who told you that?”
I shrugged. “Don’t really remember. It’s not important, since it’s true.” I ruffled his hair gently. “Now talk to me. Why are you so upset?”
“Just what you want to do tonight, risking her appearance. It’s a risk and I’m afraid to take it.” Phelan leaned against the railing, his jaw tightening again and his eyes distant. “Is it so difficult to think that maybe I’m not ready to settle accounts? I’ve watched enough of the people I love die, Marin. Can you blame me if I don’t want to watch that happen to you and Jameson and Thomas and Matthew and all the rest?”
“I thought that’s why you were here,” I said quietly, leaning against the rail next to him. “To make sure that didn’t happen to us.”
He rested his forehead against the chilly metal that separated us from the drop down to the ravine floor. “I don’t know if I can,” he whispered. “I don’t know if I can protect you, leánnan, and that scares the hell out of me.”
Oh, Phelan. I slid my arm around his shoulders, squeezing him against me. “We never asked for that,” I said.
A shiver wracked him. “You didn’t have to. Blood of my blood, bone of my bone. I belong to you as surely as all of you belong to me. Call it patriarchal instinct. Or are you going to gainsay me that?”
I stared at him for a long moment, then reached over and ruffled his hair. “How crazy you’ll make yourself if I don’t tell you to knock it off. You don’t have to protect us. Guide us, maybe. Tell us when we’re about to do something stupid, definitely. But you’re not our guardian angel, Phelan, and nothing that happens to us is your fault. Never forget that.”
His eyes squeezed shut and he exhaled a shaky breath. “Thank you, leánnan.” He sighed. “Damn, but you sound like her. Again.” A smile ghosted across his lips even as a tear escaped from one eye to trickle down his cheek. “Brighid would have seen a great deal of herself in you.”
“You must have some pretty strong memories of her to keep talking about her the way you do,” I said, rubbing his spine gently.
“Mmph.” He rested his chin on the rail, staring at bare branches mingling with autumn leaves still stubbornly clinging to the trees. “You and Thom remind me of her and Finn. And your brother…I see glimmers of Ciar in him. Sometimes I feel like my past and my present are blending into one great big tapestry where I can’t tell the beginning of one thread from the end of another. It’ll pass eventually, I’m sure. If it doesn’t…” His voice trailed away.
I shivered this time. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure what it means. Something good? Something bad? Nothing? I caught my lip between my teeth for a bare moment. Is everything really doomed to repeat itself? Has everything really happened before, only to happen again? I couldn’t remember where I’d encountered the turn of phrase, but it was always enough to send shivers down my spine.
“I don’t mean to scare you, leánnan,” Phelan said.
“I know,” I murmured, leaning against his shoulder for a moment. His eyes slid shut as he rested his head against mine. “But it’s better you talk to me, right? Instead of keeping it all inside?”
“Aye,” he said in a bare whisper. “Aye, it is.” He straightened slightly, looking at me sidelong. “You know that you’re not supposed to have to do this for me. Your husband, maybe. Your brother. But me?”
“Who else could, Phelan?” I asked softly. “It’s me or Kellin, and she’s got her hands full with everything and everyone else. She leaves me my boys—and you’re one of them, I guess.”
A weak chuckle escaped him and he stared out at the ravine again. “I suppose so. Can you forgive my crises of faith?”
“Crises? More than one?” I ruffled his hair. “I only counted one.”
This time he really laughed, and I watched light return to his eyes. My heart lightened and I squeezed him gently. Thank the powers that be.
A howl split the air and we both froze.
A wolf? Here? “Was that a–?”
“I didn’t think you had those here,” he said in the same breath.
I tugged his arm. “Let’s get back. See if anyone else heard it. Someone else must have heard it.”
“Yeah,” he said, his voice a little shaky now. “Yeah, let’s do that.”
We beat feet back camp.
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