Eldrin couldn’t stop staring at the delicate shadows Sacha’s lashes cast on the curve of her cheek as she slept. She curled next to him on the coach-seat with her head against the wall. It bounced every time they went over a stone, but she managed to sleep anyway, her breath soft and even.
What would it feel like to brush his fingers over that smooth, chestnut skin, to cup her face, to wake her with a kiss? He’d brush his lips across hers and those magnificent eyes would open and gaze at him. Only him. Then she’d call his name.
Eldrin shut his eyes against the daydream and groaned. Right. Like that would ever happen. Why did he torture himself like this? Much better to keep his eyes and mind on the cracked leather seat for six bells straight than indulge in fantasy that did nothing but make his heart race and his palms sweat.
But the truth was, he couldn’t help it. He had spent enough days over the last six cycles learning to ignore those thoughts, to hide them deep down and out of sight, but at times like this, when she was oblivious to him, he couldn’t resist. He was a drowning man gasping for air before being pulled back under the waves. He needed that occasional breath.
He opened his eyes and then dragged his gaze to the mundane view through the window. He had to shade his brow against the slanting sunlight to see out, but when he did, he found himself staring down from the hillside road at the quaint little houses and shops of Bleaken Village.
He sat up. Gods, he must have been watching Sacha sleep for more than half a bell! He’d thought they were only just past the junction, but here they were. Home. He pressed his nose to the glass to get a better view.
Though the coach was only just passing the houses at the edge of the village, Eldrin could make out shoppers strolling down the main lane toward the central square, see the small spire on the meeting hall sticking up past a cluster of trees, and hear cows mooing from the pastures around the village.
He frowned down at the idyllic scene of his home town. Had Bleaken always been this small? The streets and houses seemed to have shrunk since he’d left twelve cycles ago.
He flopped back against the seat, and then stole one more look at Sacha’s curving lashes and rounded lips before reaching out and shaking her knee.
“Wake up, snore-face. We’re here.”
She struggled to sit up, a dream still clouding her eyes. But before Eldrin could respond, she blinked and scooted to the coach window. She pulled it open and leaned out to see for herself that she was home. She stared silently at the village until they were past the outer farms, and then pulled her head back in.
“It’s barely a spot in the road. Was it always that small?” she said.
He was usually the one reading her mind. Nice to have the roles reversed for once.
“A year in Verdigreen and we’ve grown too big for Bleaken, I guess,” he said, shaking his head. “Whether that’s for good or bad, I don’t know.”
Sacha just nodded, a foot anxiously tapping the floor. She reached absently for her hair, but found only the pixie-cut locks, nothing long enough to chew or entwine in her fingers. Sighing, she let her hand fall to her skirts to tug on the folds of the fabric instead.
He loved that about her, how when nervous, her slender fingers couldn’t sit till. But then, what didn’t he love about her? Letting go a sigh of his own, Eldrin gathered their things together, preparing for the end of their four-day long trip from Verdigreen. He tried to ignore his nagging anxiety over how the villagers would react to Sacha’s early return from banishment. But he had no more success in quieting his fears now than he’d had every day since she’d first told him her plans. Of course, she had no choice really. How could she stay in Verdigreen when her brothers had been taken by the same beasts that had taken Zoren?
With a shout from the driver, the horses came to a jangling stop in front of the public ale house.
“Hopefully no one will be drinking this early, except Old Gimpy of course, and he’s near as blind as a gopher. I’ll just grab my things and go down past Betha’s. If I avoid the square, should be able to get through without being seen.” Sacha muttered instructions, more to herself than him, Eldrin thought.
She shoved her hat on hard and pulled the brim down to partially hide her face before turning to him.
“Remember Eld, for right now, if anyone asks, you’re just home to visit Patrin and meet his little one. We’ll decide later what to tell people once I’ve spoken with my parents.” She paused, her eyes growing softer as she gazed at him. “Are you sure you want to do this? They’re not your brothers…” Her voice fell away, and Eldrin watched her struggle to keep her composure.
“We’ve been over this five thousand times. Yes. I’m going with you. Because it may not be my brothers this time, but what about next time? Could be my little nieces or nephews gone missing. And I want to find Zoren as much as you do.”
With what he hoped was an encouraging smile, Eldrin gave Sacha a push toward the coach door. “I’ll come out to the farm tomorrow and we’ll talk more. Better get going; I’m sure the pigeon arrived a couple days ago, so your parents are probably waiting on pins for you.”
Suddenly, Sacha threw her arms around his neck, pulling him into a fierce hug.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her breath tickling his ear.
Just as abruptly, she released him, and then flung open the door, calling to the coachman to bring down her valise. In the next moment she was darting down the side-road without a backward glance.
With the sensation of Sacha’s arms still burning on his skin, Eldrin stepped out of the coach to retrieve his own things. As he hurried through the village square, he was acutely aware of watching eyes—people strolling to their destinations, people coming from shops—he could almost smell their curiosity and surprise in the air. So when he heard someone call his name, he wasn’t surprised.
“Eldrin! Is that you?”
He stopped and turned toward the voice, spotting an old classmate sitting beside the fountain.
“By the Seven Mountains, it is you!” the boy cried, leaping up. “What in the blazes are you doing in Bleaken? And your hair…and you are as brown as me, for Marto’s sake.” The young man ran his eyes over Eldrin, taking in his horse’s tail and bronzed skin.
Eldrin put on a friendly smile and slapped his former classmate on the shoulder.
“Good to see you Samal. You look just as I remember—skinny as a barn cat and rumpled as an unmade bed. And as to why I’m home, surely you’ve heard Patrin and his wife have had their baby; must be three cycles at least now. I want to play with the little cub before he’s a full grown bear. Needs to know his uncle, doesn’t he?” Eldrin chatted easily, despite his desire to hurry on and hide in his father’s shop.
Samal grinned. “Of course he does. Just hadn’t heard you were coming. So ‘twas a bit of a shock when I saw you crossing the square.” The other boy lowered his voice, glancing around as though eavesdroppers were crouched behind the benches.
“What ever happened to that Bleaken girl? We’ve not heard one word from her parents. And now you know what’s happened? Their little twins are gone missing. I guess it’s the family’s punishment for their daughter going off the path. She always was an arrogant one—thought she could do what others couldn’t just ‘cause she was a Bleaken.”
Eldrin’s face grew hot. The little prat! Blathering about it as though he had a clue to what the Coldwights were. As though he had a right to condemn Sacha.
With an effort, Eldrin managed not to punch the other boy in the face, but he did narrow his eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was cold and even.
“Samal, you’re just a school-boy who’s never been out of Bleaken. Like a child wandering into an adult conversation, you’ve no idea what you’re talking about, but prattle on just the same.
“I’ve just spent the last twelve cycles at the Convenium’s school, elbow to elbow with some of the greatest mages in the realm. None of them claim to know what motivates the Savage creatures, so how in the great green earth could you? And as for ‘that Bleaken girl’, she is one of the most talented mages at the School, highly admired by student and teachers alike. She also happens to be one of my best friends.”
The young man took a step back, brows raised at Eldrin’s acerbic response. “Easy now, man. Just saying.” With a side-ways glance at Eldrin, the other boy turned away and Eldrin heard him mutter as he disappeared into the inn. “Doesn’t seem like Verdigreen did you any good…”
Eldrin grimaced, irritated at his own lack of composure. This was no way to start his return visit. Samal was sure to go into the inn and loudly announce the gist of their conversation to anyone who would listen, which would be everyone. If only he’d learned a few of Teacher Ash’s techniques for emotion control as Sacha had, he wouldn’t have been such an idiot.
He hurried on to his father’s shop and ducked through the door without meeting anyone else. Patrin was behind the counter helping an elderly woman with her purchases, but when he spotted Eldrin, he dropped the things, rushed over, and pulled his brother into a bone-crushing hug.
“You are a sight for sore eyes!” his brother said. “I didn’t realize how much I’d miss you until you were gone.” He held Eldrin at arm’s length, examining him.
“Well, you’ve done some growing and changing, haven’t you? Brown as a hen’s egg, and that hair. You’ll be beating the girls off, for sure.”
Eldrin grinned and gave his brother a playful punch. “Yes, just like my big brother did as a young man, eh?”
Eldrin nodded to the woman waiting with her packages. “Best go back and help Mistress Paunchet. She looks like she’s eager to be off.”
After Patrin had finished with the customer, he locked the shop and hung a closed sign. The brothers headed into the back of the store, into a wide, sunlit room which served as their father’s office. The older man sat at a heavy desk littered with papers, his eyes hidden behind a pair of large spectacles. He raised his head at the sound of their entrance, and then stood and pulled off his glasses.
“Good, you’ve made it safe and sound despite the roads. Nice that you were able to come for a visit.” His father’s voice was bland, as expressionless as his face.
Eldrin gave him a quick kiss before stepping back, unsure of what to say. “You look well…Patrin tells me business has been good,” he said eventually. An awkward silence fell for a moment as Eldrin struggled to think of some way to engage his grey, passionless father. Thankfully, Patrin spoke up, his cheerful voice as bright as the sunlight streaming into the room.
“I’ve hung the closed sign, Father. I’ll take Eldrin back to my place so he can meet Parin. Thought he could just stay with us so he can help Merium, and spend more time with his new nephew. Does that sound good, Eld?” Patrin turned, catching his brother’s eye and holding it.
Eldrin silently thanked his brother for understanding; even a couple days spent in the crushing quiet of his indifferent father’s house would have been a torture.
“Yes, I’d hoped to be a help to Merium. She must be exhausted trying to keep house and care for the baby. Father, you’ll join us later at Patrin’s for supper?”
The older man nodded absently, slipping his spectacles back onto his nose and returning to his papers. Patrin hefted Eldrin’s bag and the brothers escaped into the street.
“It’s not you, Eld. He’s like that with me too, you know. Ever since Mama died, I can’t get more than a few words out of him.” Patrin shook his head, frowning. “Like he died with her, really. Don’t suppose you’ve learned a potion for a broken heart, have you?” Patrin asked, glancing hopefully at his brother.
You can be sure I’d be the first to have taken it if I had, Eldrin thought bitterly. But he pushed the thought aside and gave his brother a smile, shaking his head. “Nope. Don’t think even the Convenium mages are clever enough to cure that. Just time, I suppose, and the will to go on living.”
The brothers continued on in silence, lost in their own thoughts until Eldrin reached out and stopped Patrin.
“I’ve not just come home to visit and meet Parin.” He paused, gauging his brother’s reaction. Patrin just nodded, no sign of surprise at Eldrin’s announcement.
“Sacha and I knew about the twins before we ever got the pigeon from her parents. We saw them—in a vision.” Eldrin paused again, wanting suddenly to tell Patrin everything; how Sacha planned to find her brothers, and how he loved Sacha and would follow her to the ends of the earth if need be. But he’d promised not to say anything about their plans until she’d spoken with her parents, and he hardly wanted to admit to himself he was still in love with Sacha, let alone announce it to the world, so he held his tongue.
“I figured that had something to do with your visit.” Patrin arched an eyebrow and held Eldrin with his keen gaze. “You know, she can’t stay hidden for long in this place. Someone is bound to have seen a women get off the coach with you and put two and two together.”
Startled, Eldrin stared at his brother. Was he really that transparent that Patrin understood his intentions so easily? Groaning, he hung his head.
“Blast it to the Seven Mountains! May as well tell you all our plans. Only I told Sacha I wouldn’t, so you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow.”
Patrin smiled and patted his back. “That’s alright. Let’s just get home and spend the day enjoying family, shall we?”
Eldrin readily agreed and the two hurried up the road to Merium and Parin’s welcoming cries.