Ember trotted over the hard ground, throwing up clumps of frost covered earth from the packed road. Pale sun washed the road in soft light and the first buds of blossoms appeared in white flecks on the trees. The Skyrider could smell wood smoke and see it rising from the chimney between the trees. The road curved before the house on the hill came into view with the barn beside it. The horse slowed without asking picked a careful route towards the open paddocks where Mithril grazed.
Elyna missed the sight of Red, looking up at Ember, as though her mare was coming home to him. It had been Malcolm’s choice though and he’d sold the gelding in favour of the beautiful pale hose with dappled flanks. A horse that Elyna kept her distance from. Unwilling to make another friend, only to lose it again. She dismounted, with a sling wrapped across her chest. Elise peering over her left shoulder, fingers curled in her hair. It was the work of just a few minutes to remove the basket from the front of the saddle and set it down. Then unfasten the saddle and bridle and nudge Ember into the paddock.
Horses secure, Elyna opened the basket and Vara popped out, tongue lolling form her mouth as she peered at the paddock and scrambled out of the basket. As Elyna put the tack away in the barn, the puppy ran circles around her feet. Yapping with excitement before darting off to sniff something new. It had been a few days since Elyna had been home, preferring to spend some time in the city. Elsie bounced against her back and the woman knelt, unfastening the sling and setting her daughter down in the straw.
“Dadadadada!” Elise insisted.
“Yes,” Elyna agreed, “Dadad’s inside.”
They walked towards the house, Elyna holding Elsie up by the hands, bent double to support her as she placed one careful foot in front of the other. Her little legs weren’t strong enough yet to stand alone, but she was determined to walk. Soft leather shoes covered her feet as the toddler fixed her gaze on the door. Vara bounced around the pair of them before diving into a puddle, splashing Mother and Child with a spray of mud. Grimacing Elyna opened her mouth to scold the puppy, who took the opportunity to run out of the water, and then back in again. Another spray of mud, and Elyna sighed.
“Okay,” she wiped most of the droplets off with her shoulder, “One step,” Elsie started giggling, bouncing as she walked, “two step…” The baby shrieked with laughter as Elyna swung her up and blew kisses against her neck and stepped over the puddle before her daughter could learn from the puppy. She set Elsie against her hip and opened the door, Vara bounding between her legs and skidding across the wooden floor.
The puppy ran straight for Vakhanor, barking as it circled the man and then spinning to bound around the house. Elyna, about to shout a warning that the puppy was covered in mud, found herself silenced by the sight of her tall, red-headed friend.
You look like shit.
The smile on her features faltered for a moment before she quickly tucked her hair behind her ear, she tucked her sleeve over her free hand and rubbed it across her face, aiming for the tiny splashes of mud. Sometimes there were just people in the world who said things that stuck, and hurt more.
“Vakh,” she breathed, her eyes fixed on the man. The last time she’d seen him had been before Elsie was born. The baby wriggled in her arms and Elyna bent, setting her down on the wooden floorboards.
“Dadadada” Elise stretched out chubby fingers to Malcolm and swayed, trying to pull Elyna towards the man. Elyna obeyed the child’s wishes and dutifully walked her towards Malcolm until she could pass over the small hands to her lover. It was hard to meet his gaze and she felt embarrassed, heat coloring her cheeks as she straightened and smoothed her shirt. Elise tried grabbing at the Wardens shirt, tugging at the ties.
She wore a pair of dark leggings and riding boots, a loose shirt beneath a sleeveless woollen tunic that almost reached her knees. Her eyes were bright from the cold and she’d braided her hair till it hung down her back, stray strands escaping to wisp over her face. Elyna hesitated between greeting Malcolm and her wayward friend. It was time to make a few things right and she smiled as she approached the Smith, stepping in to hug him and not taking no for an answer.
Finally, she drew back, “I haven’t seen you since the Market?” She could smell tea and saw the cups set out. How long had he been here? Was this her worst nightmare? Probably, or it came close. Her heart felt as though she’d run a marathon. Malcolm knew she’d kissed Vakh and he’d accused her of so much more. What if Vakhanor confirmed those accusations by accident? She lent back against the table with her hands behind her back, anything to hide the way that they shook. So much had happened since she’d last seen her friend.
“Where have you been?” She tried to stop it sounding like an accusation. “This is Elise,” she gestured to the baby and wondered if she was doing this all wrong. Elsie was safer in Malcolm’s arms though. It wasn’t unlike Vakhanor to lose his temper. He’d stood in this very room and caught fire. If…something happened then Malcolm could protect their daughter, far better than she could.