Going to the graveyard again was good, she thought, closing her eyes to focus on the memory of the gravestones. The throb of her sore feet intruded. Walking Ma to the gates and then walking back, though, that might have been a bit much. I got too used to everything in Frostmoor being just a few minutes walk away.
Dust clung to her dress, kicked up by passing carriages on the busy trade roads. Spring rains hung off the southern horizon, but had not fallen on the gardens outside since her arrival. She could still feel her mother’s cheek against her own, from when they’d embraced at the gate.
Saying goodbye to her was hard, but the calves and colts don’t wait on anyone. Heather smiled sadly, and made her way to the bath, a touch of the runes on the wall sending a torrent of conjured hot water cascading down into the tub. She set the plug, and stripped out of her dusty dress, grateful for the two bathrobes hung on the peg of the bathroom wall. One for before, one for after.
Just as she finished tying the belt of her robe, a knock came at the door. Heather opened it to find Roland holding a small tray of bottles and soaps.
He proffered it with a gentle smile. “Heard the bath running. Thought you might like some different shampoo, today.”
Despite herself and the weight of the day she’d had, Heather smiled back. The scent of Castile rose wafted from one of the scrub pots, and Heather’s smile widened a little more. And a fine tray of soaps and shampoos just happened to be assembled, in my favorite scent, right Roland? Shame to let those go to waste.
“Yes, please. Now how did you find out about Castile roses?”
“Oh, we asked your mother,” Roland said nonchalantly, as he walked the tray inside. He set it down by her bath, and she followed along behind him, a flicker of amusement sending sparks off her fingertips.
Heather let her fingertips linger over the scrub-pot. “She used to make nougat wrapped in the petals,” she told Roland. “When I was a little girl, I’d eat myself nearly sick on it.”
He touched the shampoo. “When I visited the ranch before, I collected some of the flowers, with your mother’s permission. I thought it might be a nice reminder of home.” Then he looked up from the tray, and met her eyes, his gaze both bold and warm. “Would you like me and/or Neela to stay, and help you wash?”
Heather felt a rush of warmth crawl up her jaw. “I…” she said, and then hesitated.
This is what they do, too, Heather reminded herself. They’re not just saintly folks with a kind word and thoughtful gifts. They’re lovers, to royalty and nobility, too. I can’t act like it’s a surprise, or an outrage. It’s not like I never knew what the Circle does, or how many miners took tumbles in their beds back in Frostmoor.
Guilt and desire warred in her belly, and without realizing it, she began to fiddle with the belt of her robe. Her fingers left scorch marks of anxiety and conflicting, turbulent emotions along the soft fleece.
Roland crossed his hands in front of himself, eyes watching her. He kept silent, giving her time to formulate her response. She shot him a grateful look.
No pressure. No expectations, right? They’re here for me, they said. However I needed them. And… and I’m not betraying Stephen, right? Tears began to pool under her lids, as she closed her eyes, and fought to find the calm center of her mind floating atop the rush of her emotions.
I’ve been a widow for four years. And he’s amazingly pretty, and he’s offering, and he hasn’t steered me wrong so far.
Her eyes opened, and she stubbornly wiped the tears from her eyes and searched Roland’s.
His eyes stayed open, something in their softness inviting that search, as if to say: These doors are open. Nothing hides here. All this warmth and kindness is for you.
Heather stepped in close to him and drew a shaky breath, her senses coming alive for both the arcane and for the soft fleece against her skin.
No flashes of magic in his eyes, now. No tricks or spells. Just an offer. I can take it or leave it. It doesn’t have to be anything more than washing, she thought, though a warmth trickling through her belly appreciated lingering on the alternatives. Most of all, I trust him. Him and Neela both.
I just don’t know what I want, yet. Or what I’m ready for.
She lifted her chin. “… yes, I’d like that please, Roland. But would you mind stepping outside until I call you?”
He bobbed his head. “Of course.”
When he’d stepped out the bathroom door, Heather drew off her robe and set some of the rose-scented soap into the bath. Then she sank under the cover of a modest blanket of suds.
Whatever I am, I’m definitely not ready to start worrying about what my body looks like in front of someone new. That’s a whole dose of anxiety and self-consciousness I can do without, right now. She channeled her anxiety through her hands, into the water, warming her bath further.
Sinking below the water gave her a few precious seconds to hold her breath, to hear the thundering of the water hitting the tub, and feel the prickling wet heat of the bathwater soak into her hair. Stephen used to wash my hair, sometimes. Even though I kept it short, so it wouldn’t get grabbed in a fight. I miss that.
She surfaced, and tapped her toe against the rune on the wall, halting the flow of water. “Okay, Roland, come in.”
He returned wearing nothing but a plush, red towel wrapped around his waist. Stripped free of his fine clothing, he had a soft, comfortable looking body that was pleasantly stocky, while keeping an intriguing line of muscle tone that ran through his ribs to his calves. And he had really nice calves.
Heather arched her eyebrows at him. “I don’t recall asking you to change,” she said playfully.
“I judged it best in case you splashed at me,” he replied just as playfully, taking a seat on the warm tile behind her. “Of course, if it bothers you, I’ll go back and get dressed-“
She flicked a little water from her fingers at him and craned her head back to smile. “It’s okay, Roland. But thank you for saying so anyway.”
His hand did something along her scalp, some particular, circular slow drag of his nails through her wet hair, and anything else she’d meant to say flew out of her mind, for a little while. Instead, she just closed her eyes, and let the feel of his fingers working through her hair be enough to melt the tension behind her eyes. Replaying her day in her head.
I spent another day crying at the grave of my husband and son, she thought. I said goodbye to Mom again. Properly, this time. Not like before. What was I thinking, back then? To leave her behind like that without explanation or warning.
I wasn’t thinking, back then. I was just hurting. That’s all I knew how to do. Hurt, and work.
“Don’t frown,” Roland said, very softly, laying his fingers along her cheeks. “Be here and now, not there and then.”
Be here and now… she thought, and had to conclude that being here and now was a fine thing indeed, as Roland’s soft, kind hands drew back to her scalp, and began lathering in the rose-scented shampoo.
But the smell of the roses tugged at her memories of her mother’s home, and she let out a frustrated breath. “Not so easy, Roland, sorry.”
“Then put yourself back somewhere good. Tell me how you met Stephen?”
“Mmn. I met him on a case. I was in my first year with the Knights, had just earned the eye-and-sun on my collar. There was a smuggler on the wharf, a really minor necromancer. He used to keep rats as pets, and I guess he couldn’t bear it when they’d die on him, because his magic and grief kept them around after. So he was using these undead rats to smuggle drugs and contraband around. Nobody pays any attention to rats around a wharf.”
Roland’s thumbs drew slowly down behind her ears and found spots along her upper neck she hadn’t known existed. A pleased breath escaped her, before she continued.
“Well, I’m trailing a secondary suspect, someone we thought was a supplier for the guy. And as I’m tailing him, I watch as this drunk-looking dockman stumbles into the guy, hard enough to knock them both over. And because I’m watching, I see this dockman pickpocket the guy as they go down! They get untangled, the pickpocket slurs an apology, and I watch this thief take off. So, judgment call, I hare off after the thief instead of my surveillance mark. One good running tackle later, and suddenly I’m surrounded by six pissed-off city guards. Turns out Stephen was working with them, undercover, looking for the same guy.”
“Quite a mess,” Roland prompted, as he ran his nails along her scalp pleasantly.
“Well, the commotion spooked the mark, my senior Knight makes the call, busts him. And while the brass is carrying on over our heads, Stephen turns to me, and said that since I’d gone and busted up his case, the least I could do was buy him dinner later.” Laughter spilled gently from Heather’s lips.
How long has it been since I even thought of that story, Heather wondered. The warmth of the memory was unexpected, and the lack of scalding guilt that followed it even more so.
“I’ll bet you kissed him first, too,” Roland said.
At that, Heather burst into laughter, a flicker of sparks and flame licking from her lips, spiralling off in bright, dizzying lines. “Yeah. Three weeks later, he’s needling me over something, I think we were arguing politics. He liked to get my goat, and he was good at it. And I remember that day I’d just had enough of him spinning me up like that, so I leaned in and I kissed him, Roland. And you know what?”
Roland chuckled, and scooped warm water through her hair, careful to keep it out of her eyes. “What, Heather?”
“Well he just sat there for thirty seconds after, looking like he’d just stepped on a rake, and then goes on just like before, saying it isn’t fair that I can distract him so right when he’s getting to a point. So I kissed him a few more times, and then he spent the rest of the night blushing over his wine. A year later we were married. We used to do that, Roland. Bicker, just to make up. He… he used to say I could be a prickly bitch, and that’s what he liked about me. And he’s the only person in my life who ever called me that, that made those words feel right. Like with him I could be… me.”
“You could be the best version of you for him, and when you couldn’t afford to be, it was okay. Because you wouldn’t stop trying for each other, right?” Roland offered.
I never stopped trying for him, she thought. But then I lost everything worth trying for.
Heather nodded to Roland’s question, and then something inside her squeezed up her belly and throat sent a new freshet of tears and soot to her eyes. She turned her head to press her cheek against his hand.
“I miss him, Roland,” she whispered. “I miss him so much. I miss- I miss who I could have been, with him. I remember this person I used to be, and that Heather, she was so happy, she worked so hard and she loved her family. And it feels like she died too, that better me. And it’s just this miserable me, now.”
Roland stood up, and his towel fell from his hips to the floor. “Make room,” he said firmly, and climbed into the tub.
For a moment, Heather stiffened, but the way Roland’s arms wrapped around her wasn’t ardent passion or lust. The touch of his body to hers was intimate, but that was all it was; the touch of a man embracing her, drawing her close in comfort.
A sob shook her, and then she wrapped her arms around him in turn and pulled him in tight. The sensation of pressing her skin to his in the warmth and safety of the water roared through her, flooding into a crater of loneliness that had been blown into her life. Another sob shook her, and Roland’s hands cupped the back of her head, drawing her into the safety of the crook of his throat. Heather began to weep again.
“Was he your first love, Heather? Or just the best of them?” Roland murmured.
“The best,” came Heather’s muffled reply. “Had… crushes. A few dates. But Stephen- he’d argue, and it was always fun to argue with him. He made it fun. We were like sparks and oil that way.”
Roland’s arms relaxed around her, but held her yet, drifting in the generous space of the tub. “He challenged you, and you challenged him, and it made it fun to grow together, right?”
Heather nodded, and it took her a few more breaths before she could bear to lean back and disengage. She rested her head back against the warmth of the tub, and studied Roland’s face again closely. “But don’t you already know all this?”
“I only what other people would share, Heather,” he replied. “But they don’t know about the little things, do they? And it’s the little things that are always the big things, when it comes to people’s hearts. What were they, for you and Stephen?”
Heather shifted in the water, and smiled sheepishly down at the suds between them. “Bandages,” she said, very quietly. “He liked to startle me. Sneak up and pinch my ass, that sort of thing. And well, that usually meant he’d catch a spark or a little bit of flame before I could clamp down on it. And of course you’re not going to magic up some healing for a little burn, that’s just begging for tumors. So he started carrying around a roll of these bandages with him, on his belt. And then one day I caught him spraying some of my perfume on his bandage roll. I ask him what he was thinking, and he says that if he’s going to go to the trouble of getting burned by me all the time, he might as well enjoy the reminder.”
Roland let out a soft and kindly laugh. “That is sweet. How did it make you feel, when he told you that?”
“It shut me up for the day,” Heather admitted, blushing. “I stopped feeling so bad about him catching a stray spark or bit of fire after that. Probably that was the point.”
“He didn’t want you feeling guilty,” Roland said, very softly.
Heather swallowed and dropped her eyes. “We talked sometimes, Roland, shared little jokes about inviting Circle folks. Just young lover talk. No offense. We were always enough for each other. I would have been so happy, all my life, with just him and Anthony and whatever children we could have had next. We never caught each other staring at other people.”
“I’d ask why you never sought out the Circle while you were in Frostmoor,” Roland said. “But I’ve seen their reports.”
Heather made a face. “Not your best and brightest up there, Roland.”
“No, I suppose they aren’t, but they were up in Frostmoor for the same reasons you were, more or less. A place to work, where it was supposed to be quiet and peaceful. Were they so bad, though?”
“Sister Susanne had her good moments, while she was there. All the rest of the Sisters and Brothers that came and went over the years, well, they were just there to work the miners and soldiers, I hardly really spoke to them. Ah, Sister Tanya and I didn’t get along. “
“I believe the specific threat she mentioned in her report, involved bouncing her face off of the back of the coal shed, right?” Roland said, amused asperity trickling into his voice.
Heather looked away, warmth creeping up her cheeks. “I wasn’t at my best, then. Sorry.”
“I forgive you. Those were exceptional circumstances, and I’d have had stern words with her too, back then. And I don’t think you’ll do that again. You’re a good knight, Heather. I really do believe that. You are a good person. Devoted, to your husband and your son, to your faith, and to your service. To the people around you.”
His fingers took her cheek and gently turned her to look into his eyes again.
It was unbearable for Heather to look at eyes that warm and sweet. The sincerity in his gaze was like trying to stare at the sun; too bright and warm to bear. Tears blinded her.
“I don’t know what to do now, Roland,” she whispered.
“Give yourself permission and forgiveness. Nobody else can, Heather. You decide what you’re allowed to feel, and when.”
She drew herself up beneath him, and kissed him, hard. Then a sob broke through her lips, and she turned her head aside. “I don’t– I don’t know if I can. What I want.” Parts of her knew, but those parts weren’t the ones squeezing down around her heart and throat, robbing words from her lips and pushing more tears and soot from her eyes.
Roland took the kiss in stride, and then plucked up a washcloth from the side of the tub, and carefully wiped her cheeks clean. “Would you like me to sleep with you tonight, Heather? Just sleep. Nothing more unless you ask.”
Heather nodded, pressing her forehead against his collarbone. “Yes, please. Would that be okay? You won’t be disappointed?”
“No, not at all. You’ve given us this much trust and faith, Heather. That means more than anything else ever could.”
Heather gave him a gentle, uncertain squeeze. “I still have those nightmares, Roland. I wake up screaming.”
“I know,” he said. “But tonight you don’t have to face them alone.”
She smiled helplessly at that.
Roland lay awake, studying Heather’s face as she slept. She lay nestled in against his chest, her face calm in a way he’d not seen before. She’d put her locket on right after she’d stepped out of the bath, and now it lay open on the mattress.
His eyes studied the faces of two people he’d never had a chance to meet but loved anyway. He’d sat rapt for hours, patiently listening to everyone who’d known them.
Steven, the dockside foundling who went to a life of law instead of crime. Anthony, son of a Detective and a city Guard, raised in a household full of love and joy. You’d have believed in justice, in doing the right thing for those around you. Your mother and father would have taught you that, and did teach you that, in what little time they had with you. I promise you both, I’ll do all I can for your wife and mother. In this life, and every life her soul will know. Rest now.
He laid his finger along the locket, and gently pressed it shut.
You deserve them, Heather, he thought, profound grief staining the thought. He closed his eyes, willing his spirit to bend before the strength of his feelings, and not break. You deserve to be that mother, that wife, that better person inside you. But you can’t be, not for them, not anymore. Maybe someone else, one day.
His thoughts briefly drifted to Neela, alone in her room with a bottle of wine and one of the countless leather-bound dossiers that adorned their walls. Inside each one, broken hearts, wounded souls. A thousand people who hadn’t deserved their tragedies, but had suffered them anyway.
He knew each of them by name, and he loved every one of them, just as Neela did.
Roland’s eyes spent some time studying Heather’s sleeping, restful face, committing it to memory. I will remember your face. Just like I remember all of them. I’ll go on loving you, and so will Neela, and we will never stop loving you. Alektos will it, make of my grief a seed. I carry so many lives. So many loves.
You had to give all of your love to just two people, Heather. How blessed they were by it, and by your courage, your resilience, your unwavering decency.
Her eyes began to stir underneath her eyelids, tracing the ghosts of dreams only she could see. And it was only because he was still studying her up close, in the dark, that he saw the faintest, shimmering glow of magic peeking out from under her hair.
At first, he mistook it for some speck of silver gilt that had come from the furniture. But the glint persisted, shifting subtly, and something about the light made him squint in curiosity.
Disguising the motion as another stroke of his fingertips through her hair, he shifted her hair to get a better view.
That’s not a speck, he thought, curiosity freezing into a ball of icy dread in his gut. That’s a rune!
Slowly and carefully he followed the glimmering lines. Closing his eyes helped, blocking out extraneous light. Now he could see only the lines of magic, and focus on the faint glow he saw. A fine and careful spiderweb of rune-lines hugged the inside of Heather’s skull, nestled close to her brain.
The runes were delicate, channeling so little magic that even this close, the network of lines running tiny charges of electricity around her brain could barely be seen.
I know this magic, Roland thought. The ball of ice in his gut melted into something worse, horror and betrayal rolling through him until he had to turn his eyes and point his gaze out the window, staring at the distant sky. This is old Circle magic.
We used to use this for helping dreams, decades ago. Easing the trauma of night terrors by imprinting a positive memory to replay in dreams. It fell out of favor when behavioral therapies showed better results.
Someone’s used our magic on her, perverted it. Until it comes alive in her sleep, it’s too subtle to find. No wonder nobody’s found it before! I’d have missed it even if I’d been sitting right at her bedside.
His eyes swept back to study the precise, careful network. It was skillfully done, though not perfectly. The sizing was a little wrong, a little too big, hurting the efficiency of the work. Portions had been smudged and damaged since.
Concussions, Roland thought, trying to still his rising breath, the furious pounding of his heart. She reported her dreams started changing more after that incident in the mine, and her major concussion. Nobody in the Circle trained to use this magic would have gotten the sizing wrong like this, though. That’s too basic of a flaw on a high-level work like this. The topography is wrong.
In her sleep, Heather subtly tensed, and began to whimper.
Heat rolled up Roland’s cheeks and crept up the back of his head, hair prickling as his feelings of dread and betrayal began to collapse into a primal anger for the woman in his arms.
They locked her in with her nightmare, all these years!
Roland let his mind grow silent and still, envisioning his anger as a fire burning inside him. He could feel the way magic coiled around his emotions, sought to leap out of him, escape like steam from a boiling kettle.
He took the first memory of meeting Heather in person; a haunted-eyed woman, her skin winter-pale, and her eyes left searching for a cause, a reason, for the kindness that had begun unfolding around her. He pictured that memory as clay, and shaped it into the first brick, laying it down alongside the anger in his heart. You were so used to the world being miserable and dull, Heather, you had no idea that the world might conspire for your joy, for a change.
The second memory he shaped was of Ma Blackthorne’s eyes, the first day he’d met her, huddled alongside the hot iron door of the widow’s cell. While her daughter had screamed and raged within whenever conscious, her mother wept at the door, constantly trying to talk her daughter down, to soothe her madness and grief. They hurt you, Heather, and your family. They hurt you so it would never stop hurting. Then they made sure you would suffer, maybe forever.
He laid more and more memories around his anger, and began to pray:
Make of my anger a hearth. May my wrath harm none, but warm those around me. May I give any hatred I bear in my soul over to ash. May my anger mean only comfort and safety to others. Let my rage be only smoke, that it signal to others that warmth and light and comfort are found here. May they know that my anger will not burn them, but it will burn on their behalf.
Alektos, guide my anger, for I bear it with love. Alektos, gather all hearts to my anger, and make of my heart a hearth.
He held his anger until the pain of it faded, and determination replaced pain.
I cannot undo the past. But this thing I can change. This, I can undo for you, Heather.
The lines of the runes carved onto the inside of Heather’s skull were subtle, and delicate. A flicker of Roland’s gaze, and four quick, precise lines of Earth grounded out the electrical patterns. The rest of the network fell apart, inert.
He brushed a kiss against her forehead, and whispered: “No more bad dreams tonight. I promise.”
Immediately, Heather relaxed in her sleep, and snuggled in closer to him.
Roland did not find sleep for hours.
He woke to Heather’s sleepy murmur, cheek pressed against his chest: “… mmn, thank the Saints… I had the worst nightmare, Stephen.”
A cruel man might have told her none of it had been a dream. A lesser man would have told her he wasn’t Stephen.
Roland drew her in close, and stroked a gentle, easy hand along her cheek. The touch was kindly, sweet, and apologetic. Stephen’s hands had never been as soft as Roland’s life allowed for his to be.
Make of my pain a river, Roland prayed, before opening his eyes. Make of our grief a seed.
Heather’s eyes fluttered open, and fixed on his. For a moment, she stared uncomprehending.
Roland made himself watch what was coming. Know her pain. Feel it with her, bear it with her. Let her see that she suffers in company and in kind. Make of our grief a seed, whose orchard grows the fruit of love. I accept this pain like water. I accept this grief like air.
Slowly, comprehension filtered through Heather’s sleepy, shocked eyes, and then her face crumpled. A hot, angry blush flew up her cheeks and ears, and she shoved herself away from him, curling up in a tight ball of bedding and misery. Sparks began to fly from her in all directions, pitting the bedding and headboard with tiny motes of furious, hot grief.
For just a few heartbeats, you could believe it had all been a bad dream, Roland thought. He counted four seconds, and then his hands burrowed into her blankets. He sought one of her hands, and cupped it.
She gripped it like a drowning woman, desperate for air, as the first sob broke through her. He gave her hand a short, gentle squeeze in return.
“You hated me,” he said. “For a few heartbeats.”
She hesitated, and then nodded miserably.
“I forgive you. It’s okay to let it all out now,” he whispered. “We’ll put the pieces back together.”
“I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry. I thought, just-“
Another hiccoughed sob interrupted her, and he drew her very gently back in, until her cheek could press to his chest and her sobs came freely, tears and soot raining down hot against his skin.
It could have been ten seconds, or ten minutes, or an hour. She cried, and he held her, and then they said nothing for a time as she burrowed into his arms and clenched her eyes shut against a reality too cruel to bear.
“I’m sorry, Roland,” Heather finally whispered, when she could bear words again.
“You don’t ever have to apologize for mourning. Not to anyone.”
Heather shook her head. “I was apologizing because… because I called you Stephen. Just because you were a warm body.”
“I can’t think of many nicer things to be called accidentally,” he replied, fingertips brushing forgiveness along her cheek.
She had no response for that. Hesitantly, she turned and brushed her lips against his fingertips. Then she bit her lip, as tears welled up again, and turned her head away from him once more.
Gently, Roland began to withdraw. “Well, I think I should see about some breakfast-“
Heather’s hand caught his wrist, and she trembled, staring at the bed. “Roland?”
He paused, his fingers carefully closing around her wrist in turn, returning her grip. “Yes, Heather?”
“Stay, please? I-” Heather paused, and swallowed. “Please, if you go, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the courage again.”
“You will,” he said, voice certain. “But I’ll stay.”
It took her a few minutes to gather herself, to wipe her eyes, to breathe clear and free again after her tears. When she’d composed herself, and pulled him a little closer, she brought her eyes up from the bedding to look at him, to study him.
He isn’t Stephen, she thought, but he is beautiful. His caramel-bronze skin was lit by the early morning light, and he had laid himself down alongside her knee, looking up at her through curly black locks. His eyes met her with that ready, earnest openness, admiring her in turn without leering.
It had been years since she’d wanted to think of herself as beautiful. But Roland’s eyes told her she was, and she knew arguing it would be hopeless. She’d seen eyes like that once before.
It was how Stephen had looked at her.
The first kiss she gave him was a tentative, delicate thing. The third kiss she gave him was ravenous, the kiss of a woman untouched in four years. When she cried out Stephen’s name, later, Roland’s eyes and smile forestalled any apology. In those eyes, and in his arms, there was nothing that needed forgiveness anymore.
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