Thirty-six – 07

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

The ground had dried out from the last rains, though it would be sodden again soon enough. Phelan glanced down as his boots hit the packed earth and he frowned slightly. We’ll have to figure out something to do about that soon, he reflected, staring at the ground for a moment. Cobbles, broken concrete, something. We’ll need our footing in the yard.

The thought sent a shiver down his spine.

Concentrate on the immediate first, he reminded himself. Don’t get carried off in grand ideas on grand scales like Thom’s been doing. Focus on what the immediate need is—that’s what you keep telling him, isn’t it?

He shouldered the bar up and out of the way, then swung the gates wide, shaking his head at himself as he turned to go, to walk back to the fire. There was enough for him to be concerned with without trying to borrow someone else’s trouble. Somehow, he knew that it would always be that way, as much as he wished it were otherwise. Behind him, as he headed for the tents that still housed much of their day-to-day operations, he could hear the sound of the horses’s hooves against the ground, heard the calls of the others to Seamus even as he walked away. His cousin sounded reassuring, almost cheery despite the outlook and the bad feeling that Phelan knew he carried in his gut, just the same as he did.

He left well enough alone and kept walking.

Either it’ll be something or it’ll be nothing, he told himself again. He just kept repeating that to himself all the way back to the fire.

It’s either something or it’s nothing and we’re getting worked up for no reason. Our paranoia, one of these days, is going to get us killed.

At least it’s not a lack thereof, though.

Somehow, he thought, that would be much worse.

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Thirty-six – 06

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

Thunder growled, near enough to send a shiver through Phelan’s bones. He squinted at the clouds. The light was starting to fade but at the same time the sun shining against those clouds made them seem even darker, more ominous—the black of night, twisting back on itself, gilded by faint flickers of lightning buried deep in the roiling mass. Years ago, the sight may have become the beginnings of a song, but those days were gone now, probably never to return. That past was a yesterday that would not be revisited again.

Or so he thought, in any case.

“Riders,” Seamus said quietly. “Looks like the group coming back from the greenhouses.”

Phelan followed his cousin’s gaze. There they were, sure enough, Paul and Stasia and some of the others, along with a few members of the Wild Hunt. He exhaled quietly, feeling a weight lift from his shoulders, one he hadn’t felt until it was gone. “Déithe agus arrachtaigh. One less thing to worry about,” he murmured, scrubbing a hand over his face.

Seamus nodded slowly in agreement, watching them. “They’re riding easy. Nothing coming from that direction, I’d guess, at least not yet.”

“Small favors,” Phelan said, his gaze drifting back to the clouds. Seamus sighed quietly.

“Go back, Phelan,” he said. “Go back to the fire and wait. They may need you.”

“For what, Seamus?” Phelan shook his head. “There’s nothing I can do there that I can’t do here. It’s just waiting, that’s all. That’s all it is. The calm before whatever comes.”

“Nothing could come.”

“It’s not,” Phelan murmured, his lips barely moving. “This isn’t nothing.”

He almost asked if Seamus remembered when they came, when the Southrons had finally invaded their isle centuries ago. A storm had been the harbinger of their coming that day, too. But Seamus wouldn’t have remembered that. He was gone by then, long gone, sent south into loveless marriage, into a political match that was supposed to keep them safe.

Safe. Is there a such thing?

“Go,” Seamus urged him gently. “I know that look too well, cousin. This isn’t the place you need to be, not right now. Later, but not now.”

Briefly, Phelan wondered what Seamus thought the look meant, wondered what expression he was wearing that brought the words to his cousin’s lips. But it wasn’t worth arguing, either. Seamus wouldn’t let it drop, Phelan knew that well enough. He closed his eyes and nodded. “You’ll sound the alarm if anything looks strange?”

“I think you know better than to ask that question,” Seamus said, leaning against the ledge at the top of the wall. Phelan smiled crookedly.

“I suppose I do. I’ll be back.”

“You always are.” Seamus’s lips twisted into a wry smile, matching his cousin’s.

Phelan clapped him on the shoulder and climbed down. Someone would need to open the gate for the riders anyway, and it might as well be him.

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Thirty-six – 05

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

“How’s Thom?” Thordin asked, hoping the change of subject would quell the queasy feeling that had gripped his stomach and refused to let go. There was something inherently unsettling about Marin not having some sort of plan, even though intellectually he knew there was no reason that she would have to have a plan, nor had she always had a plan going into every potentially dangerous situation they’d run into before—and they’d always managed to escape it alive.

Marin sighed and shook her head. “Neither of us know what’s really going wrong there,” she murmured. “He gets better and then he gets worse.”

“Sounds familiar,” Hecate said quietly, leaning against Matt. Thordin frowned slightly.

“What do—”

Matt just shook his head and Thordin aborted the question before it was fully formed. There was something odd in his friend’s expression that made him keep quiet.

Marin sighed. “Even if it is, it’s not like we have a solution to the problem because we don’t know what the problem is.” She didn’t bother to sit, just paced alongside the fire, clutching her mug between both hands. “And even if we knew what the problem was, that’s not a guarantee of a solution.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine, Mar,” Matt said quietly. “Just give it time. He pulled himself back from the edge once already, didn’t he?”

She nodded, taking a sip of coffee. “Yeah. I just—I don’t know how many more times like that we’ll get.”

Hopefully enough. Thordin closed his eyes for a moment. Hopefully enough.

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Thirty-six – 04

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

“You think it’s something, too, don’t you?”

Thordin took a slow, deep breath, his heart sinking at Hecate’s soft voice. He nodded once, staring into his mug of coffee for a few seconds before his gaze flicked up, back toward her and Matt. “I do,” he admitted quietly.

“Who do you think it is?”

“Leviathan,” he said, surprising himself at his own lack of hesitation. “If it’s anyone, it’s him.”

Hecate shuddered, startling Lin, who started to fuss softly. She rushed to soothe him, seemingly grateful for the distraction. Thordin winced slightly.

“Sorry,” he murmured softly. “I didn’t—”

“It’s nothing we haven’t already considered,” Matt said, shaking his head. “It’s all right. We’re just hoping it’s nothing.”

“That’s what we’re all hoping.” Marin’s voice was heavy, grim as she joined them. Her bow was in hand and she seemed tired—not that Thordin could blame her at all for being tired. “Something tells me it’s not going to be that simple.”

“How do you want to play this?” Matt asked quietly. A rumble of thunder punctuated his words. It hadn’t grown dark enough to herald the storm’s true arrival, but the sound was definitely a forerunner to it.

“Play what?” Marin snagged a mug and poured herself a cup of coffee from the press. She’d taken two gulps before her brother could answer the question.

“How we’re handling the situation, Mar. That’s what I’m asking about. Before anyone else shows up, we need to have that figured out, right?”

She stared at him for a few seconds over the rim of her mug, then lowered it, sighing. “If I knew exactly what the hell we were facing, then I might have a plan. Right now, I’ve got nothing.”

“Par for the course,” Thordin murmured, then sighed. “We’ll figure it out.”

“We always do,” Marin murmured.

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Thirty-six – 03

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

The sky was growing darker, though the wind had barely picked up at all this close to the ground. It was almost enough to set Thordin’s teeth on edge as soon as he emerged from the darkness of the corridor, headed back to the fire where he knew slowly the others would gather before the storm hit—the storm and whatever it brought with it—or didn’t bring with it, as he dearly hoped the case would be.

When he reached the fire, though, the only ones there were there were Matt and Hecate and three of the five infants that had been born to their little community. He blinked, looking between them—the baskets holding Tala’s twins, Hecate with Thomas Merlin in her arms, Matt with his warhammer strapped to his back.

Matt must have heard him coming because he twisted slightly, arm loosening from around Hecate’s shoulders as he looked back over his shoulder toward Thordin.

“Mission accomplished?”

“Something like that,” Thordin murmured, making a beeline for the coffee he could see sitting near the fire. “She said she’d stay where she is.”

Hecate’s gaze followed him, her brows knitting. “What are you two talking about?”

Thordin shook his head. “Just Sif.”

“Oh.” Hecate leaned back, her hand drifting down to pick up the mug of coffee sitting on the ground near her hip. It was as if she didn’t require more explanation than that, which was silently a relief.

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Doing whatever needs doing,” Matt said, then shrugged. “That’s all the answer I’ve got. I’m kind of puzzled, too. Actually, I’m starting to wonder if they all know something we don’t.”

Thordin sat down near the baskets with the twins, peering down at each of them in turn. Kurt was awake, but Gwen was fast asleep. His heart gave a little bounce, imagining a future that suddenly wasn’t so far out of grasp for he and Sif.

Someday.

 

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Thirty-six – 02

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

“I want that,” he said. Her fingers were cool against his face but her hand felt so much smaller than he had ever really thought about. A soft sigh escaped him. Sif smiled faintly.

“So do I,” she said. “When I thought I’d lost you forever then, I—” she stopped, closing her eyes for a moment. She took a shaky breath, then another, clearly trying to master herself again. Thordin leaned in, pressing a kiss to her forehead.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m here now.”

“I know. I know, and I’m so glad that you are.” Her hand twisted in his, fingers tangling in his and squeezing hard. “You’ll never know how glad I am you’re here, Thordin.”

“And I always will be.” He gave her another kiss, this time his lips brushing over hers. Sif sighed again, sagging against the mattress. “Go back to sleep,” he breathed. “I’ll be back soon.”

Her eyes came open again and she stared at him, a flicker of pain and need passing through her eyes before she buried it again. “Promise?”

“I promise.”

She pushed herself up just enough to kiss him one more time, then settled in again, letting go of his hand and tugging the blankets around herself more securely. “Then go, and be careful. I hope you’re right. I hope it’s nothing.”

Thordin nodded, his throat abruptly too tight to speak. He stroked her cheek with calloused fingers and she smiled.

“I love you,” she said again. His heart still soared every time he heard the words coming from her lips.

“I know,” he murmured. His thumb brushed over her lips and she smiled.

“Go on. Standing here all day isn’t going to solve and problems that may or may not be showing up.”

“A weapon rarely solves any problems.”

“Back then, it did,” she said with a weak smile. “Maybe not as much now. Go. The sooner you go, the sooner you’re back.”

Thordin wasn’t sure he tracked her logic, but he nodded mutely and stood up, trudging toward the door, suddenly reluctant to leave her.

Her voice stopped him as his hand fell to the latch.

“Be careful.”

“I will,” Thordin said quietly, then ducked out into the hall.

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Thirty-six – 01

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

“What’s going on, Thordin?”

He froze, damning her ears. He hadn’t lit the lamp on purpose and he’d known exactly where to go to find what he’d come for, but somehow he’d must have made just enough noise to wake her. Slowly, he looked back over his shoulder, seeing her eyes gleaming in the dimness. The window in the back wall of their room was covered, though a little light still filtered through, limning her hair in gold. Thordin’s heart ached.

Christus, she’s so bloody beautiful, even like this. He could see Sif was drowsy, her eyes half-lidded even as she studied him, laying on her side, head slightly lifted from the pillow.

“Go back to sleep,” he whispered. “You need to sleep.”

“What’s going on?” Sif asked again, her brow furrowing. Thordin sighed, crossing from the door to the edge of the bed. He dropped to a knee and was abruptly nose to nose with her, meeting her sleepy gaze.

“It’s probably nothing,” he murmured, reaching up to stroke her hair. His heart rose up into his throat, threatening to choke him. “Just a bad storm rolling in.”

“But you came to get your weapons,” she murmured. One of her hands inched out from under the covers, fingers brushing against his cheek and jaw, encountering the stubble of the beard he wasn’t sure he was going to keep. “You don’t do that for no reason. Not anymore.”

“Training with Matt.”

“Liar.” But she smiled, fingers stroking his cheek. “What are you afraid of?”

“That you’re going to want to get up and fight if there is one. I hope there’s not going to be.”

Sif watched him for a few seconds, her lips thinning slightly. Her fingers went still against his face and her expression softened.

“I love you,” she whispered. Thordin closed his eyes, exhaling softly as he covered her fingers with his, holding her hand against his face.

“No more than I love you,” he whispered back, then sighed. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“I promised you,” she said. “I’ll keep that promise. Trust in that. Forever, Thordin. Forever. Don’t forget.”

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Thirty-five – 08

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

“Don’t let it eat at you,” Seamus said quietly. “And don’t deny that you’re letting it because we both know that’s a lie. It’s in your nature.”

Phelan snorted humorlessly, crossing his arms tightly against his chest. “Yours, too.”

Seamus nodded. “Aye. It is and I know it. I accept it, own it.”

“So do I,” Phelan said. Seamus gave him a sideways look and Phelan smiled ruefully. “Most of the time, anyhow.”

Seamus smirked. The expression faded a few moments later as he surveyed the southwestern horizon again.

“You should go to the fire,” he said quietly. “I can keep watch here.”

“Who said I was keeping watch?”

Seamus looked at Phelan and gave him a familiar crooked smile. “I know you, Phelan, and I know you haven’t changed that much. You’re here keeping watch and pretending to clear your head. I know the latter isn’t happening—if anything, there’s more rattling around in there now than there was when you climbed up.”

“You don’t think that has something to do with the company?”

Seamus shrugged. “It might, but I suspect it would have happened whether I was here or not. Go. You’ll do more good there than here. We both know that.”

“Do we?”

Seamus smirked again, crossing his arms. “Now you’re just being deliberately difficult.”

“Maybe.” Phelan sighed. Another shiver crept down his spine, goosebumps rising along his arms. The wind—what little of it there was—wasn’t cold. “I have a bad feeling, Seamus.”

“We all do,” his cousin said quietly. “We’ve been trained for it, conditioned for it. But if it’s something or if it’s nothing, we’ll survive, as we always do. We’re trained for that, too.” He fell silent for a few seconds, watching the clouds. “We’re meant to.”

“Meant to?” Phelan watched him for a few seconds, saw one corner of his cousin’s mouth quirk upward in a smile.

“Come now,” Seamus said softly, his voice mildly chiding. “We both know that I didn’t tell you everything.”

“Well, no,” Phelan agreed. “But usually you don’t play games like this. What is it, Seamus?”

“All in good time, Phelan,” Seamus murmured. “All in good time.”

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Thirty-five – 07

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

For a few seconds, Phelan stared at the clouds without really seeing them. He took another deep breath and exhaled it slowly, eyes fluttering shut for a second. In a long-ago yesterday, he could hear the sound of blade against blade, of spears splintering against shields. He listened to the cries of the dying, to the sounds of battle all around him.

Then his eyes blinked open and it was gone. Seamus’s hand was on his shoulder.

“You’re surprised,” Seamus murmured.

“Yes and no,” Phelan said. He scrubbed a hand roughly over his face. “I shouldn’t be. I know the bargain we struck. I just—to think of this as their home, too, to think of them having any kind of home again, it’s jarring and strange.”

“A little,” Seamus agreed. “Believe me, I never thought that we—they—would have a home again.”

Phelan glanced at him, his jaw tightening for a moment, then easing. “We, Seamus?”

“It’s still hard,” his cousin murmured, staring out over the field and toward the clouds again. “I’m still adjusting.” A brief smile curved his lips. “Leinth keeps calling me on it. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m free.”

“You are free,” Phelan said, grasping his arm. “Don’t forget it.”

“I know,” Seamus said, dipping his head. “But they’re still a part of me, Phelan. They’re a part of me as much as you and Teague and Neve and Aoife and Leinth are—as my children I never knew are.”

Phelan’s fingers tightened for a moment. There had been a bare trace of pain in his cousin’s voice, one that struck him to his core. “I’m sorry, Seamus.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Seamus murmured. He shook his head. “It was nothing you did that caused any of it. You know that and so do I.”

“That doesn’t mean it should have happened. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything we could do.”

“But there wasn’t.”

Phelan shrugged. “We’ll never know whether there was or not. I still feel like if we’d known, we would have done something.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No,” Phelan said softly. “No, we didn’t.”

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Thirty-five – 06

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

Phelan stood out on the wall, watching the storm roll in. He could feel it in his bones—something was askew, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. It was one of those moments when he wished he had more clues, when he wished everything were clearer.

At the same time, he was silently grateful that they weren’t.

“You feel it, too, then?”

He glanced at his cousin, watched Seamus as he climbed up to the top of the concrete and brick structure from the inside. Phelan’s lips thinned for a moment, then his gaze flicked south and west again. He nodded, but didn’t say anything, not yet.

Seamus came to stand beside him, followed his gaze for a few moments. “The storm will come first.”

Phelan nodded. “But what comes inside of it? What comes after?”

“It could be nothing,” Seamus said.

“You don’t believe that.”

“I believe that any enemy in the cadre would send a storm to soften us up.” Seamus crossed his arms. The storm was nearer now. “But most of them wouldn’t want to fight in it.”

“Some would,” Phelan murmured. Wind stirred in the trees, then died. He took a deep breath, exhaled it slowly. Something seemed to whisper in the back of his mind, a wordless warning—or one that he simply couldn’t quite make out, something that was perhaps a little too far away to hear, to understand.

“But most wouldn’t,” Seamus said. “Either way, the Hunt prepares.”

A chill crept down Phelan’s spine. “For what?”

“For anything that might need to be done to protect them,” Seamus said, crossing his arms. “For anything that needs to be done to protect our home, Phelan. What else would they do? This is home. Those kids—all of them here—those are their family now, too. Their people. They’ll die to protect them, and us.”

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