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Callan squatted down next to his son, who pointed his dimpled finger at a pebble he’d found in the path. Without waiting for his father’s response, the boy picked up the stone between finger and thumb and examined it, his eyes nearly crossing as he brought it close. His soft baby’s fingers pinched the rock over-hard, blanching the nails that were so small and smooth Callan marveled that they could ever turn into wide, ridged ones like his own.
A moment later, tiny fingers moved to lips and his son popped the treasure into his mouth.
“No, Joss, baby.” Callan cupped his boy’s chin and swiped a finger over his tongue to remove the stone before the child could choke. “Not for eating. Just to hold and look at.”
His wife laughed from the open field where they’d been picnicking, and he turned to her with a smile.
“What did he find now? A delicious bug?” Delight hung in her words.
“No, just a rock. You know he has a taste for them.”
The sun shone in his eyes so he could barely make out Jess’s form—she was rimmed in a golden halo. He blinked several times to clear the water from his eyes so he could catch her expression, the quirking half-smile he loved so much to kiss.
“Callan. Callan, man. Do you hear me? For Kor’s sake…Callan!”
Callan rubbed his forearm across his eyes, wiping away the tears. He blinked, then blinked again as the image of son and wife dimmed, and the mottled face of the innkeeper swam up to replace it. The man stood on the other side of the table with hands on hips, shaking his head.
“Callan, it’s time you be getting home. Pay up and go sleep it off.”
For a moment, Callan’s muddled mind couldn’t comprehend why the innkeep was interrupting his family outing, but then memory dropped on him like a stone. Suddenly, the rough sounds of the tavern met his ears instead of Joss’s lisping voice and Jess’s bell-like laugh. In the next breath, the image of their sweet faces melted away and he found himself staring at the scarred wood of the table and at his own hands, with nails stained from the dyed wools he worked every day. The last of the image faded; he never got to see Jess’s smile.
“Not enough, Bort. Never enough.” He pushed the empty mug back across the table at the other man.
“Nay, no more tonight. Get on home before you scare away my other customers with your weeping.”
The bartender gazed at Callan a moment, then leaned over the table and lowered his voice. “Callan, man. You’ve got to get home. You’ve the workshop early in the morning, and if you don’t weave, you won’t have electrum for tomorrow’s pint. Get on now.”
This logic eventually made its way through Callan’s addled thoughts, and fumbling with his purse, he stood and spilled coins on the tabletop until Bort nodded and swept them up.
The innkeeper patted his shoulder, then gave him a push toward the door. “See you on the morrow, man.”
Blinking in the sudden darkness of the street, Callan stood swaying for a moment to get his bearings before stumbling toward home. He only made it a few steps before he had to pause and lean against the wall of a tailor’s shop to steady himself. He had never been much for drink—a pint or two with friends, or a maybe a bottle of Jess’s heavenly berry-mead to end the day. Tonight he had swallowed pint after pint until his body had forgotten how to function, and yet, his memory remained intact. He could still hear the snap of the fire, feel the searing heat on his face, hear their screams.
He pounded his forehead with his fist. He’d not drunk enough.
He maneuvered down the cobbled road, through the alley, to the winding staircase that would take him to the room he kept over the bakery. The smell of baking was the one thing of pleasure in his room; all else was stark utility—stiff-backed chair, unsteady table, single bed with a mattress of ancient straw. He could care less about its comfort—home had ceased to exist when Joss and Jess had. Carefully, like a street performer on his rope, he mounted the steps and pushed open his door. The bottle of brandy stood like a temptress on the shelf, calling to him, promising to dim the never-ending memories.
Rushing for the bottle, he caught his toe on the threshold and fell headlong into the room, landing on the only piece of furniture that stood away from the walls. The snapping sound that preceded the crash of his body told him that his only chair was now kindling. Where would he find another so uncomfortable?
The thought dimmed, and a blissful blackness descended.
“Stop your knocking.”
His voice came out thick and blurred, and he winced as the thumping continued. But before he could call again, he realized the pounding was in his own head. With each beat of his heart, his temple gave an answering pulse, a hammering of fiery pain. With tentative fingers, he explored his head and found sticky, matted hair over his ear. Cracking one eye open, he peered at the blood on his hands.
With a groan, he started to push himself up, and unwittingly put his hand into the wreckage of the splintered chair. The stab of pain in his palm was a butterfly kiss compared to that in his head, but it convinced him to move his hand and turn his throbbing head to look around. The once-disagreeable piece of furniture was destroyed, and several large shards of the remains stuck up like pikes. Too bad he hadn’t fallen on one, sending the stake through his heart. But what could a piece of wood do to a heart that was already ripped to shreds?
He lay back down, and for a long time he focused on nothing more than the beating of his heart and the rejoining agony in his body. He examined texture and quality of his suffering, picturing it as if it were one of his tapestries.
He imagined a different thread for each type of pain. The sharp stab of the gash on his scalp would be a red lamb’s wool, woven through the heavy weft of purple ache that came from too much drink. His hand, knees, hip—all small stings from the fall to the floor—were thin orange fibers of silk, fragile and almost insubstantial when placed next to the red and purple. The ragged splinter of wood in his palm was a stark white thread of hammered silver through the warp of his pain-tapestry, bright and insistent. He was so caught up in his physical torment that, for a little while, the smothering black yarn of his grief disappeared.
But after half an hour or more of the dogged pain, he rolled to his side and vomited, last night’s drink washing over the smear of blood on the floor.
“Shite,” he muttered again, staring at the vile mess a few inches from his nose.
Tortoise-like, he crawled to the bed and leveraged himself up onto the mattress. He closed his eyes with a grateful sigh, letting blackness take him for the second time—the landlady’s sheets be damned.