Laurelyn noted that little changed in Morrow’s Hold – at least in flavor since storms did their share of damage – as Thomis and she walked the lanes to her mother’s house. Even now she could smell the heavy scent of a storm coming in. Softly she said, “I had forgotten what it was like to feel a storm in my bones – no inland storm ever feels this way.” She had chosen back lanes so they could walk – reasonably – unmolested by kin and neighbors, or family friends. And it wasn’t long before they approached the white-washed fence that surrounded the yard to a white cottage. A tri-colored Sheltie, who had been inspecting the wind, saw them and began running along the fence – barking his alarm.
The storyteller smiled nervously at Thomis – her husband she reminded herself with the familar feel of joyous disbelief – and said, “I think it’s too late to turn back now…...”
Thomis slipped one hand into hers, interlacing the fingers, and almost grinned at the dog. “It was too late a long time ago,” he remarked. Grig continued to bark, as if trying to warn away an invading army. He half-suspected that once inside the house, the animal would try to engage either him or Laurelyn
- or both - in a staring contest. He ignored the dog, however, and focused on the woman who appeared at the open doorway, wiping her hands on her apron and looking out to the lane to see who approached. Her green eyes—widened in recognition, first of the auburn-haired storyteller, and then of the broken-nosed man at her side.
“Grig, Shush!!” Emlyn ordered the dog – in order to cover her surprise. The Sheltie gave one last “Whoof!” and went to lay at his mistress’s feet, but kept a wary on these strangers.
The older woman grinned and came to open the gate – making a disgruntled Grig have to get back up to trot along. “Well, Thomis Parch – it looks like you were good to ye’re word and kept an eye for my girl.” “And I had nothing to do with it?” Laurelyn asked, kiddingly – delighted that her mother looked to be hail and prosperous.
Emlyn Merkin laughed and moved to hug her daughter, and said, “Ye’ve no more sense than your father when it comes…..” She broke off when she felt the subtle tension in Laurelyn’s shoulders, and her own grip tightened a fraction as she asked, “Ye did find him alive didn’t ye….?”
“He is at that,” Laurelyn said, furiously returning her mother’s hug, and wondering how to tell Emlyn of the battle at the Dun – where she had nearly lost both husband and daughter.
The older woman pulled free first and said, “Well, I’ll hear the news – for I’m sure ye’ve brought some – but we’ll do it inside. Where I can fix ye both lunch and we’ll be out of the storm.”
As Laurelyn started to follow her mother to the cottage the storyteller looked over at Thomis with a raised eyebrow – for they did indeed bring news. Nor did she remotely think that her mother had missed the fact that the couple walked with clasped hands.
Thomis waved Laurelyn before him up the path towards the cottage, and looked down at the dog. “Sorry, Grig, I left him behind this time.” On his first visit to Morrow’s Hold, the sheltie had tried to stare down Drywen (who had been blissfully unaware that the contest had even occurred). With a final wink, he stepped past the animal – assuming the dog would not feel the need to take a nip at the presumptuous intruder’s heels – and followed Laurelyn and her mother into the cottage.
Grig seemed satisfied to follow the strangers in – sniffing at their heels, and keeping an eye upon them. “Seaweed soup,” Laurelyn said as they entered the cottage – the parlor smelling of both soup and something baking.
“Aye, and there’s a boysenberry cobbler,” Emlyn said, leading them to the kitchen and signaling them both to sit. “Ye can be telling me the start of your tales while I get some tea poured.”
The older woman looked over at Thomis and added, “Last I heard of either of ye was during the hard times in Chatterton….” She waved a teacup towards Laurelyn and said, “What I heard of ye was that you were dancing on the sword’s edge to stay ahead of a Seldez noose – or was it League? And the last I saw of you….,” she gestured towards Thomis, “Was that you had gone off to try your hand at smuggling.” Her expression turned grimmer as she added, “Nor did the news pass us by that Chatterton.”
“We were long gone before that,” Laurelyn said quietly. Though she knew that a telling would be required she still hadn’t found a way to organize the tale – nor a way to deal with the guilt and the horror that would be remembered. She wished she could just jump to the bright news – that she and Thomis were wed. But that brought with it of a nearly hopeless battle and the raising of the dead to win the day.
“Much has happened since,” Thomis added in a masterpiece of understatement. “Though perhaps to shorten the telling of it, perhaps we should start with the punch-line.” He deliberately did not look to Laurelyn, whom he thought might be staring at him in disbelief. “I asked her father for her hand. And the rest of her for that matter. And he kindly agreed.” Remarkably, both mother and daughter were silent long enough for him to add, “He even gave us a flock of sheep.” Grig’s ears perked up at that, and he hurried to correct himself. “No, not sheep. Horses and a broadsword.”
“We were just having nightmares about sheep….,” Laurelyn added – indeed staring at Thomis. But it was Emlyn’s long silence that brought the storyteller’s attention back to her mother – who looked frozen – the teapot nearly tipped to pour.
Then a wide grin came to the woman’s face – and after remembering to set down the teapot – she said, “Thomis Parch I marked you as a man of few words and lot of action! That ‘tis one way to keep an eye on me lass.” She swept down to haul Laurelyn up into a hug – setting Grig into excited barking, and prancing about the table. When she released her daughter she was crying – quite happily – and firmly announced, “I need to let Ceart know….a dance….!”
Laurelyn managed not to look panicked and after giving her mother another hug said, “Could you hold on that – at least a few days? Da did that end of things up proud, and between a clan celebration and hard traveling – we’ve need of some rest and a bit of peace.” She didn’t need to add that her mother’s hug had set her healing shoulder to aching and she was nearly praying for some time alone with Thomis! Even a chance for a private conversation would be blessed – even a chance to thank him for so neatly sidetracking Emlyn. Though she knew that sooner or later her mother would ask for more detailed news of Acair – and would get around to the question of what brought them (plus an assorted group of traveling companions) to Morrow’s Hold.
“Aye!” Emlyn said, “Your Da’s kin will have kept ye awake nights on end with their revelries!!” She reached out to clasp Thomis’s hands, and said, “And ye still are newlyweds – of course ye want a bit of quiet! When lunch is done I’ll get the attic room ready!”
Thomis stood to take Emlyn’s hands in his own, and bowed over them both. “That would be much appreciated,” he said simply.
Emlyn was not a woman normally given to chatter, but Thomis’s announcement had thrown her off-kilter enough that she began to tell of the family events in Morrow’s Hold while she set out the food. A recitation that lasted through the meal. Nor did Emlyn miss that while Thomis added some interesting anecdotes, and Laurelyn commented on the amusing incidents that occured while traveling with a babe and a pup, that neither offered more detailed commentary. Or explained the motley group that they seemed to be traveling with. But she could also see that both looked exhausted, and more so in Laurelyn’s case – there was a haunted look to their eyes. The look that came in a warrior’s eyes – when they had at last seen too much battle. The look that she had started to see in Brion’s eyes, when he had started to spend more time on visits to the Hold, and the only information she pressed for was whether he still lived. Since she had been the one to ask that he go into one more battle – in order to protect Laurelyn. Chatterton might explain much of their weariness, but Emlyn doubted that it was the full reason. But she could wait – now was time for them to rest and just be together. So once lunch was done she fixed them more tea and hurried upstairs, with Grig under foot, to tidy the attic room.
After Emlyn had declared the room ready Laurelyn and Thomis took up their saddlebags, which had been left in the parlor, and headed up to their room. Emlyn’s last declaration was that she’d get water heated for baths. This Laurelyn protested – since filling two tubs with hot water was more than enough work for one person – she wanted Emlyn to let her know when the water was ready. But Emlyn just laughed, and explained that one of the visiting merchants had brought something called “plumbing” to town. So, while chamber pots were still a necessity, the problem of pumping hot water to the kitchen or a tub had been solved by some piping and a heated pot for several gallons of water. She just had to get the fires stoked. And with that – she left Laurelyn and Thomis in the small attic room, which was big enough for a large feather bed, a dresser, and large window, whose stout shutters had been closed to protect against the storm. With a lantern offering soft illumination.
“This was my room…...,” Laurelyn said. She gave up on words and just stood looking at Thomis – her friend, and now husband. He was a gentle sight to her eyes – road grime and all (she knew she looked no better, and with her thick hair – twice as windblown) – and a gentle presence that she welcomed to her heart.
Thomis set their packs to one side, and then perched carefully at the edge of the bed to bend over and pull his boots from his feet. At least he had managed to knock most of the mud loose before entering the cottage, and hadn’t tracked too much into the clean room. Then he just sat for a moment, returning Laurelyn’s stare and listening, gratefully, to the relative silence. “Having second thoughts about this nose?” he asked, touching the scar once more.
“None,” Laurelyn said, “Just considering that you are the most “right” part of my life….”
She had had days to get used to actually being “married” and to Thomis’ closeness as they bedded down for the night, but that had been after long days of riding and making sure that the camp was secured. Laurelyn sat down next to Thomis on the bed – content to have the time to focus just on him; she gently touched his cheek and leaned to lightly kiss the scar on his nose. She leaned closer to seriously kiss his lips.
And from down the stairs Emlyn called out, “The water’s ready – the tub is in the room behind the kitchen!!” This declaration was punctuated by Grigg’s barking.
All Laurelyn could do at that point was lean against Thomis’s shoulder and laugh.
Thomis smiled himself, shaking his head. “Later, Hillrover,” he promised, pulling her closer briefly in a quick hug. “You first. But before you go…” Figuring the bathwater would stay warm long enough for at least one kiss, Thomis tipped her face up and took care of that matter. “Now go make yourself presentable for all the family visiting we are sure to have.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, Parch,” Laurelyn said, regretfully pulling away, “By now word has had to have traveled.” She took long enough to pull clean clothes from her pack, took her boots off, and went to down to the bathing room. When she pulled the door open moist heat enveloped her, though the room wasn’t overly steamy, and she noted her mother had left a pile of thick towels on a chair. The new tub was a large beige porcelain affair, on brass claws, and right above the tub – sprouting from the wall like the nose of some weirdling monster was a brass pipe, and some unwieldy knobs. On a stool lay a dish of newly-bought soap, which caused Laurelyn to smile, since she knew her mother had probably been waiting for the day she could show off her purchase properly. And sadly, there weren’t too many you could show a bathtub off to.
She made good use of the steaming water – though she reminded herself that she would need Thomis’s help on rebandaging her shoulder. And in the heat, wrapped in the scent of soap, every muscle eased in the luxury of the water. It took a healthy dose of willpower to pull herself out when she realized that she had nearly been lulled to sleep. The problem of what to do with the dirty water had been solved earlier, when her toe had snagged on a stopper in the bottom of the tub, and a glance under the tub affirmed that there was a pipe attached at the bottom. So Laurelyn pulled the stopper loose and watched in relaxed fascination while she dried herself as the water slowly drained out. Then she wiped down the tub’s inside, and after a brief experimentation with the knobs, got the hot water started for Thomis.
While waiting for the tub to fill she pulled on clean trousers and a loose tunic – further dressing she could do upstairs. Then padded, barefoot, with her wet hair in a towel, back up to their room, and announced with a grin, “I left you a little hot water.”
Had he dozed? At the sound of her soft footsteps on the stairs, he had opened his eyes, to find himself briefly disoriented at the sight of the small comfortable room. But by the time she pushed the door open, he was sitting upright again, pondering the feeling of complete safety Emlyn’s cottage held. Even with the storm building outside the windows ... “Cold water will do well enough. With soap and a scrub brush.” Before snagging his own clothes, he pointed her to the edge of the bed and took care of the rebandaging quickly, kissed her again, and then headed downstairs.
As always – Laurelyn was amazed by Thomis’s calm efficiency. And after he had headed for his own bath she told herself that she should be just as organized and finished getting dressed. And her hair combed out before she had a mass of auburn tangles – with an equal amount of cursing. But all she managed to do was pat at her wet hair before she succumbed to the temptation of stretching her water-relaxed body out on the bed. The coverlet felt just warm enough to hint that Thomis had also rested – which caused Laurelyn to smile – she hoped he had caught a bit of a nap. She was only dimly aware of the wind rattling the shutters before her eyelids fluttered shut.
The sound of Grig’s barking barely penetrated, but the sound of voices brought Laurelyn groggily awake – drawing her from the mixed bag of disjointed images that a fast, hard sleep could bring. She felt heavy-headed as she sat up and tried to place the voices, and tried to remember where Thomis was. The soft glow of the lamp was reassuring and after a moment’s concentration she remembered Thomis was in the bathing room, and she recognized one of the voices as her mother’s. All she could discern of the other two were that they were women. “Better start with the hard work first,” Laurelyn muttered as she went to dig out her comb.
It took a bit of trickery and lurking about to dodge past the kitchen without the visitors catching sight of him, but as soon as the women’s attention was turned elsewhere, Thomis sped silently up the stairs and slipped back into the room where Laurelyn struggled with the tangles in her hair. “How difficult would it be to sneak out the window and down the side of the house?” he asked, only half-jokingly. He rubbed one hand over his chin, to check his shaving once more, then sat to pull on his pair of good – i.e., unmuddied – boots.
In answer Laurelyn opened the rose-hued curtains just enough to peek out. “We could do it….,” she said, letting the fabric fall back into place. A smile played at the corner of her mouth – “The wind would cover any banging we might make.” Her smile widened as she added, “But you realize that if we do that – we’ll be facing Ceart and all the other Merkins? They’ve surely heard by now. Unless we want to try and hide in the stable?”
Laurelyn resumed her struggle with combing out her hair, and tried to place the voices. At the sound of an energetic, though slightly, nervous laugh she said, “That has to be my niece – Amber – she’s Ceart’s middle daughter….Which means that Aunt Weithra is with her. Luckily – it doesn’t sound like they brought the twins, who should be around nine now.” She continued, “Ceart is the only one of the Merkin children married – or I should say ‘officially’ married. Emlyn is the middle child – and as you know – she won’t say ‘yea’ to Da’s proposals. Jimi and Art were true surprises – late buds as the saying goes, so they’re still a bit wild. And yes – Grandfather and Grandmam Merkin are still alive…...” After a mild bit of cursing at a snarl the storyteller said, her blue eyes twinkling, “You know…outside of Mesani you’ve never mentioned kin…. why do I have feeling that one day you’re going to get even with me for this herd?”
The Oath-bound finished lacing his boots before looking up. “I am afraid the Merkins and Hillrovers have the Parches far out-numbered. Even Mesani’s, if I can count her family as kin by association.” He considered for a moment. “Do you think we could distract them with the firebox that toasts bread?” The jester had demonstrated his wedding gift on the road between the Dun and Morrow’s Hold. “Perhaps we could test it on fresh bread this time.”
While finishing up the combing Laurelyn pondered the question, “That just might do it….. And I’ve no worries Mother has fresh bread around.” With her hair combed Laurelyn could turn her attention to straightening her clothing, and pulling on her own clean boots. “Actually, I’m curious to see what fresh toast tastes like from it…..” Once she had her boots on she went over and dug out the firebox. “Ready to face my female relatives?”
The Oath-bound nodded, and added with a smile, “I will even leave the broadsword here.” They both seemed to be presentable enough to survive any scrutiny reasonably whole. He waved Laurelyn through the door before him and down the stairs, joking that perhaps her aunt and niece would be so focused on welcoming her home that they might overlook him lurking in the back of the kitchen.
”.......I just didn’t think I’d be seein’ this day,” came the somewhat nasal female voice from the kitchen, “Such a wild child – to be runnin’ off with a traveling minstrel to start with….”
“Did they say what type of wedding it was?” came the more breathless voice.
Laurelyn grimaced and stopped at the foot of the stairs – she looked back up the flight at Thomis and mouthed, “Not too late to run for it.”
Thomis glanced further up the stairs, as if contemplating bolting for the attic room, and the escape through the window. But after a moment, he just shook his head slightly, and waved Laurelyn further down the steps.
“It was a mountain handfasting,” came Emlyn’s polite, but short, reply, followed by the sound of a knife cutting something up in a determined rhythm. The storyteller could just picture her mother’s expression of polite neutrality, but with a dangerous twinkle in her green eyes. Aunt Weithra was not one of her favorite women – who flaunted her “respectability” where she could, and had for years. Weithra had started off her career as one of the barmaids at the Laborin’ Goose many years ago, but when she had actually caught and married Ceart Merkin all of that history disappeared. Or at least she pretended it had, since everyone in town knew.
But that didn’t matter to Weithra – she had spent the years looking down her nose at just about everyone. Particularly at Emlyn who had helped with both the fishing and smuggling in her youth, and had refused to handfast to Acair, Chief of the Hillrovers; instead Emlyn Merkin had been content to raise their daughter on her own – except when Laurelyn had been up in the mountains with her father’s kin. Nor had Emlyn said much when Laurelyn had decided to leave both mountains and sea to go off and apprentice to a court minstrel.
“There was little time for elaborate ceremony,” Thomis interjected as he and Laurelyn appeared at the foot of the stairs. Before Emlyn or the other women could ask the reason for the shortness of the handfasting, he had moved across the room to bow, simply but as gallantly as he could manage, over the older visitor’s hand. “Madame,” he said, “it is indeed a pleasure to meet you.” And not allowing Weithra a moment to catch her breath, he turned to the younger. “And you must be Laurelyn’s cousin.” Another bow before he straightened and announced with a perfectly straight face, “Astounding to find such a houseful of lovely women.” The touch of the silver necklace beneath his collar reminded him that Mesani I’Se would have laughed aloud at such words.
Laurelyn bite the inside of her mouth as her mother caught her eye, before Emlyn turned back to industriously finishing cutting up chunks of apple. “Aunt Weithra. Amber,” Laurelyn said, with the warmly, courteous smile she used when performing, “Please let me introduce my husband, Thomis Parch.”
Aunt Weithra looked torn between being flattered and being properly severe, and Laurelyn could guess that the older woman was trying to decide if Thomis was some flowery courtier or a truly courteous man. But from the way the elder Merkin studied the scar across his nose, and the steadiness of his gaze, there was no doubt she was having to rule out foppish courtier. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Parch,” Weithra Merkin finally said.
Amber added, with black curls bobbing, “Oh yes, it is a pleasure!! Who would have thought Laurelyn would have run off and gotten married….. But why so quickly?....” Her blue eyes widened as she stared over at Laurelyn and exclaimed, “You’re not pregnant are you?!!”
Emlyn’s knife made a solid “thunk” as it cut through an apple and hit cutting board.
“Amber! Your manners!” Weithra scolded – at a young woman who was only a year younger than Laurelyn’s twenty-eight years. And Mrs. Merkin’s expression ranged between scandalized at her daughter’s comment, and hopeful that Laurelyn had had to marry in haste. Particularly since Amber was not yet – and in the village’s eyes she was getting past her prime. By traveling away Laurelyn had escaped such a stigma. As for Laurelyn – she had to take a deep breath to keep from choking on another bout of laughter. Thomis and she had barely had time to steal a few kisses!
Another steadying breath allowed Laurelyn to say, “The need for haste was due to the fact we had to fit it between swordswings at the Dun – though we did get a proper celebration after a temporary truce was declared with the McLenans.” She knew that Emlyn was going to have many questions – after Weithra and Amber left, but the storyteller had known that sooner or later they would need to tell some of the tale.
“A truce with the McLenans!” Weithra declared, “Not likely.”
“Sometimes the impossible happens,” Laurelyn said, quietly.
The turn for the serious in the conversation saved him from the mistake of making some weak joke about the life of debauchery Laurelyn had led in her years away from Morrow’s Hold. Probably for the best, anyway, given the speed and force with which Emlyn wielded her chopping knife. Instead, he pulled a chair out and gently directed Laurelyn to it before taking a spot against the wall behind her. “Neither her father, the chief, nor the MacRories would allow her to leave without at least some celebration.” Perhaps that would do to direct the discussion away from the battle.
Laurelyn took the chair and had just begun to say, “Though we kept the dancing to…...” when Grig set up a barking spree that made it sound like he was trying to warn the town.
“Ma!! Ma!!” two young voices sounded in unison – though one obviously male and the other female.
“My…..!” Weithra said, starting to stand – when in burst two more dark-haired young Merkins, though it was impossible to tell them apart since they were both dressed in loose brown tunics and trousers, and smelt of fish. And both had long, wild black hair.
“Ani. Vern,” their mother started to scold.
“There be daemons wailin’ in the ‘Goose!!” the nine year olds both exclaimed. “Smoke is pouring out and folks are spewing their drink all over the street!!”
“Oh!” was Amber’s comment.
“We might want to wander that way,” Laurelyn said softly to Thomis. In even a softer voice she added, “I think Chatterton was quieter.”
“That may be a good idea,” Thomis answered reluctantly. “But first …” He took the firebox from the floor, where Laurelyn had placed it near her chair. As he placed it on the table-top, he explained to Weithra, Amber and Emlyn that it had been a wedding gift from a friend. Begging a slice of fresh bread from Laurelyn’s mother, he drop it into the slot in the top and pressed down the lever on one side. “Very nice with jam or butter,” he explained, before turning back to Laurelyn. Perhaps that would keep Weithra and Amber occupied for a time – and less inclined to grill her mother – while he and Laurelyn went to see what chaos their fellow travelers had caused at the Laborin’ Goose.