DargonZine 10, Issue 4

Piercing a Steel Heart



She sat at the table and listened to the rain. It had done this for days and she was growing tired of the constant sounds the raindrops made. She looked at the hearth. The fire blazed away and her stockpile of wood was large enough to get her through another night of storms.

 

Lightning flashed, the light flaring in the gap between the shutters.

 

“Farrell,” she said, patting her hand on her thigh to get the hound’s attention. The dog stood and stretched then walked away from its bed near the fireplace. When he got near enough she patted his head and he looked at her contentedly. The lightning flashed again.

 

She stood and the hound made his way back to the fire. The carefree nature of the hound brought a smile to her face. She paused as he circled his bed before dropping to the floor. She walked around him and stirred the stew pot that hung over the fire. The rich smell of the stew made her look at the hound. “Thank you,” she said to him, “your catch will be quite a tasty treat.”

 

She stirred the stew for a while then returned to her chair. Not knowing what to do with her hands, she ran them through her hair.

 

“I remember when Doth used to love to comb my hair,” she sighed.

 

A rapping at the door startled her. She looked at the hound, but he was fast asleep. Then she heard it again. This time a voice followed the sound.

 

“Excuse me sir,” the voice said, “or madam, may I come in out of the rain.”

 

She walked to the door. Farrell had stood and come by her side. “Who is it that has come so far in this night’s rain?”

 

“Madam,” the voice, definitely a man’s, replied, “I am on my way to Dargon City and I have been freezing in this rain for hours.”

 

“How do I know you are not some Beinisonian trying to conquer my homeland?”

 

“Madam,” the voice replied, “even bandits and thieves have good enough sense to come out of the rain on nights like this.”

 

She held back a laugh, but the man had a point. Her hand strayed to the latch and then withdrew back again. For some reason she was both afraid and anxious at the sudden interruption of her quiet rainy night.

 

The man outside coughed. “Please madam,” he said, “the rain is picking up.”

 

She unfastened the latch and opened the door. Surely he was no soldier she thought to herself. A drover yes, but for this man to wield any weapon on a battlefield would be sheer comedy. Dressed in simple woolen clothing and soaked to the bone, he resembled one of the servants her father had on his farm. His only weapon was a sturdy cudgel that was crooked under one arm in order to hold his heavy leather cloak up. Not old by any means, but certainly not a man of physical strength.

 

“Come in,” she said, stepping back to let him pass through the door.

 

“Thank you.”

 

She shut the door and latched it. Looking at him again in the light of her fire lent agreement to her first opinion. He would do her no harm, especially with the hound watching him closely.

 

She turned and walked to the hearth, lifting the lid on her stew pot and savoring the aroma within.

 

“Would you like some stew?”

 

“That would be most generous of you,” he replied.

 

She looked around and found him standing in the middle of the room, water dripping down his body and making a puddle on the floor. He glanced down to where she looked and winced.

 

“Sorry madam,” he said.

 

Ilsande looked up at him. He was genuinely sorry. She smiled.

 

She pointed to the hook at the end of the fireplace and said, “Place your cloak and shirt there. I will go and get you a shirt and some breeches to wear while yours dry.”

 

He nodded and walked over, placing his cloak on the hook. Ilsande replaced the lid and walked into her bedroom. She ran her hand across the finished door of the dresser that Doth had made. It was strong and solid like him. She opened the door and grabbed a clean shirt and a pair of breeches that Doth had worn in the fields. She walked to the doorway and tossed them onto the floor of the main room.

 

“Change into those,” she said, “then knock on the door and I will serve up the stew.”

 

“Again I find myself thanking you,” the drover said.

 

“You can repay me by cleaning up the mess you made on the floor.”

 

She retreated into the bedroom and sat on the bed. Ilsande reached up and twisted at her hair, sending tufts of hair curling at the ends. She leaned back on the bed and absently fluffed the pillow next to her own.

 

“Oh Doth,” she said out loud, “if only you had come home to me tonight.”

 

“Madam,” said the drover, “did you say something?”

 

“No,” Ilsande replied, “I was talking to myself.”

 

She felt her cheeks grow hot and even after he announced that he was dressed, she sat still waiting for the flush to go away. She pulled at her hair and then stood. As she approached the door she could hear him talking to the hound.

 

Farrell was not the most particular animal, but he did not usually warm to strangers so fast.

 

Opening the door, she looked out at him. The clothes she had given him did not fit well and lent nothing to his appearance, but at least he was no longer dripping on the floor. The flush on his cheeks made her well aware of his own discomfort.

 

She crossed to the hearth and dished up a hearty helping of stew for both of them. A bone bobbed to the surface and she scooped it out, setting it before the place Farrell slept. The hound caught the scent of the stew and walked over to the hearth. When he caught sight of the bone he dropped to the floor and started to gnaw at it. As Ilsande walked to the table with the bowls, Farrell wagged his tail, thanking her for the tidbit.

 

“It’s not much,” she said, “but it is better than nothing.”

 

“Madam,” he replied, “tonight even a king would be happy to dine on such simple fare.”

 

She gave him a smile. He nodded his head and then proceeded to eat the bowl of stew. She let him eat several bites before beginning to speak.

 

“How goes the war against Beinison?” she asked.

 

“Not much of one left,” he replied. “Most of their troops have either retreated or are being driven across the country in search of refuge.”

 

She felt her heartbeat quicken. “Then what of the men serving Baranur?”

 

“Most have returned home.” He started to speak, but instead filled his mouth with another spoonful of stew. She waited until he had swallowed and then asked, “But what of the men of Duchy Dargon, can they not return home?”

 

He must have sensed the fear in her words, for he set the spoon down and looked across the table at her. She could tell he was trying to decipher her situation, so she told him about Doth.

 

“He left so long ago,” she said, “and the last word I had from him was that the enemy army was planning on making a last stand against Magnus.”

 

“And that they did,” said the drover. “They burned the Fifth Quarter and rampaged throughout the city, but in the end, the day belonged to the soldiers of Magnus.”

 

He picked up the spoon and sipped at what remained of his stew. “Many men died. They say there were walls made of dead soldiers. Fires raged across the city and the walls of the city sustained much damage.”

 

“But still, shouldn’t the men of Dargon be returning,” she asked.

 

He sighed.

 

“To my knowledge,” he said, “the only men from Duchy Dargon that haven’t returned are riding with me.”

 

“You have companions?”

 

“Not living companions,” he sighed.

 

She wished that she had not asked the question. Her eyes turned to the shuttered window and the wagon that must be parked somewhere outside.

 

Tears welled up in her eyes and for a moment the room swam before her.

 

He laid his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

 

She shook her head and tried to clear her throat. She wanted to ask if he knew the names of the men that he carried, but the words would not come forth. She gripped the edge of the table and finally pushed herself to her feet.

 

“I have to know,” Ilsande said aloud, but thinking to herself she added, if he is dead.

 

“Madam there is nothing to see,” he started to say, but she bolted for the door. The hound sat up from where he was chewing on the bone and went to her side. Ilsande threw open the door and stood watching the rain fall and the lightning flash.

 

She took a step forward and the coolness of the rain startled her.

 

Steeling herself for the wetness, she ran out into the rain toward the ox-cart and the contents that it held. The two oxen munched contentedly on grass and waited patiently for the rain to stop. When she reached the side of the cart, the stench overwhelmed her and she had to turn her head for a moment.

 

When she had mastered her senses once more, she climbed the wheel of the wagon and looked down inside. War was indeed a cruel way to die. She glanced from body to body but she could find no trace of her beloved Doth.

 

“Oh Doth,” she cried out, “please don’t be here. You promised you would come home.”

 

She felt the drover pulling on her and urging her to come away from the wagon, but she fought free and waited for the lightning to flash again so she could make sure that he was really not among those poor souls.

 

“Madam, please come down.”

 

“I must find my husband,” she replied. “I must know if I am to be alone forever.”

 

“Tell me his name,” the drover asked, “and I shall tell you if he is amongst them.”

 

“Doth,” she screamed. It was as much a plea as information. Lightning streaked across the sky in answer and she let go of the wagon to fall to the muddy earth. “He is not there,” she said.

 

“No,” he replied, “that is not a name that I recognize.”

 

“Then I still do not know,” she cried. Her tears tasted so different from the raindrops. Shudders ran through her and for the first time since he had left, she felt afraid. Her whole life was Doth. They had made this place together and now she realized that he just might really be gone forever.

 

The mud and the rain felt cold. She tried to stand, but her legs would not carry her. The drover picked her up and then carried her back to her home. Ilsande felt the heat of the fire. She could feel the love that had made her home. In the dim light of the fire and one lamp that was lit, she remembered back to when the roof had not been set and Doth had chased her into the house and then took her into his arms.

 

The drover set her down in one of the chairs at the table and she rested her head on the solid table surface.

 

“I’m sorry to have upset you,” he said. “I think I had best be on my way.”

 

Ilsande panicked. Between the storm and the thought of Doth being dead, she suddenly didn’t want to spend the night alone.

 

“Don’t go,” she said, raising her head to look at him.

 

He ran his hand through his hair. Shuffling his feet on the floor, he suddenly became conscious of the fact that once again he had gotten the floor dirty. Ilsande looked from the mud at his feet to the mud on her dress and legs and started to laugh.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I will wash the floor in the morning.”

 

He turned as if to leave.

 

“Why will you not keep me company through the night?” she asked.

 

“These are bad times and I’m not the kind of man who would stay past the hospitality offered,” he said.

 

“I have been alone for so long,” she replied, “could you just stay and talk to me for a little while longer?”

 

“What would you talk about?” he asked.

 

“Tell me what the capital looks like, for I have never been there,” she said.

 

“It is not much to look upon right now, but I remember the pennants that flew and the cobbled paths where the children ran and played. It will a long time before the scars of the war fade into the background.”

 

Ilsande winced at the mention of the accursed war. Tears started to roll down her cheeks and she felt as if the world was about to come crashing down again. She heard the shuffle of feet as the drover made to leave.

 

“Please don’t go,” she said.

 

“My animals need tending to and my cargo needs to be returned home,” he replied.

 

“But the rain has not let up,” Ilsande said.

 

“I shouldn’t have stopped.”

 

With that he turned and walked out of the door. Lightning flashed and Ilsande leapt to her feet. Heart pumping, she opened the door and ran out into the rain. The drover had reached his wagon and was preparing to step up onto the seat.

 

“Please don’t go,” she cried out. The rain started to pour down and her dress was getting totally soaked. “Stay with me until the storm passes.”

 

He looked down at her and she could see that he was not without some fear of his own. They both jumped when lightning struck nearby. Seeing that he would not climb down, Ilsande climbed up to the seat and clung to him. He started to push her away and then he bent his head towards hers. Ilsande felt the heat rising within her and could not stop herself from arching herself toward him. In the rain and the darkness their lips met and the fire was unleashed.

 

Ilsande wrapped her arms even tighter around him. He returned hers with an intensity of his own. Suddenly the night sky was full of light. The oxen stirred restlessly. He released himself from her, stepped to the ground and then pulled her from the wagon.

 

“I’m not much to look at,” he said.

 

“Don’t let me be alone,” she said, “for I’ve been that way far too long.”

 

In the rain they held each other until the fire built to a peak.

 

Forgetting about the mud and the oxen, they found a place to lay and she let him take her. After they had quenched the fires within them, they let the rain wash them free of the mud.

 

She grabbed their clothes and led him back to her cabin. After she had set the clothes by the fire to dry, he took her in his arms again. She lead him to her bed and they made love until she fell asleep in his arms. Soft hair lay across his arm and he caressed it softly, then cursed his actions.

 

Knowing he could not sleep, he left her side, dressing in the dim firelight. When she awoke in the morning, the sun was shining, the rain was gone, and not a sign of the man was to be found. When she realized that he was truly gone, she broke down and cried.

 

“What have I done?” she cried. “Oh, my love, please forgive me.”

 

***

 

Doth woke that same morning and looked out over the city of Magnus. People were working again, oblivious of the storm from the night before.

 

He checked his sack and placed it over his shoulder. Soldiers from his unit were already leaving, heading back to their homes. He saw Mefin waiting under a tree and signaled to him. Mefin sauntered over and they started for Dargon. “Methinks that I shall miss the harlots of the war camp,” said Mefin.

 

Doth pounded his friend on the shoulder. “I think that I can not wait to get back home.”

 

“Well,” replied Mefin, “I shall have to meet this beauty that has caused you to be so celibate. Were I from Westbrook, I think that I should follow you anyway, just to meet this prize of yours.”

 

Doth nodded and they started home. It would be weeks before they came to the lands of Clifton Dargon, but already Doth knew that it would be a sight for his battle weary eyes. He pictured his tiny valley and the woman with whom he shared his heart.

 

***

 

Doth rounded the curve in the path and looked out over the valley that was his home. It had taken over a month to get home. Now, looking at the green pastures, he knew it was worth it. He could see the tendrils of smoke that must be coming from his home and imagined the meal that was cooking over that fire. Mefin clapped him on the shoulder and they made their way down the road. When they got to the little stone house, Doth stood in front of it taking in every detail. The roof needed patching, but it could wait a little longer. The unfinished wall he had left to go to war still stood. The pile of stones he had sorted lay nearby and he walked over to it and placed a few into place. Mefin came to where he worked and asked, “Why are you doing this?”

 

“I wanted to feel what it was like to do honest work again,” Doth replied, “I had thought that I had forgotten what it would feel like.”

 

“Who is it?”

 

It was the voice of a woman. Doth stood and dropped the stone he was about to put in place.

 

“I have nothing but food,” came Ilsande’s voice.

 

“Ilsande,” said Doth, “it is I, my love.” Silence followed his announcement and then Ilsande rounded the corner and flung herself into his arms. Mefin stood by waiting for an introduction, but the couple was lost in the arms of the other. Knowing that he was intruding on their reunion, he walked away.

 

Tears of joy streamed down their cheeks and Ilsande clung to Doth. He stroked her hair and whispered in her ear not to cry. When she would not stop, he lifted her in his arms. He carried Ilsande inside the hut and set her down. She trembled at his touch and stared up into his eyes.

 

She spoke, barely making any sound, “I thought you had been killed.”

 

“I promised you before I left that I would return,” he replied. She nodded and started to cry again. “What is the matter?” he asked. She shook her head and refused to speak. Just then Mefin knocked.

 

“May I come in?”, Mefin asked.

 

“Ilsande,” said Doth, “I want you to meet Mefin.” The other man bowed low and blushed at his intrusion.

 

“Pardon me,” Mefin said, “I wanted to know if I should continue on to Dargon or make plans to help you finish your home.”

 

Doth scratched his head, still puzzled by Ilsande’s strange behavior.

 

“No, please stay for a while.”

 

“Yes,” added Ilsande, “please stay. You are my husband’s guest and I would have you share a meal with us.”

 

“He will do more than that my dear,” said Doth. “Mefin and I are going into business together.”

 

While Ilsande tended the dinner, Mefin and Doth recounted their adventures fighting the Beinisons and their visit to the castle of the king. On they talked through dinner and long into the night. Ilsande listened to all their tales with a smile, but Doth could not but help feeling uneasy. There was something that he could not quite place his finger on.

 

After finishing a tale of their escape from the burning Fifth Quarter, Mefin stood. “I have kept you well into the night,” he said, “and in the morning we shall all feel it. Lady Ilsande, it was a pleasure to finally meet Doth’s goddess.” He winked at the reddening man and made his way to the door. “I hope that your dogs do not mind me keeping them company tonight, for I shall bay in my sleep I fear.”

 

Ilsande rose and brought back a blanket from the bed. “Thank you for seeing my husband home safely,” she said and kissed his cheek. Mefin went red and slipped out the door, only to return and get his blanket. Ilsande turned to Doth. “My love,” she said quietly, “there is something I must tell you.”

 

“What is it my love?” he replied.

 

She walked to where he sat and kneeled at his feet. Her long hair cascaded over her shoulders and covered his legs. She lay her head on his thigh and Doth heard her start to cry.

 

“All night long you have been uneasy,” he said. “What is wrong?”

 

“I feared you would never return.”

 

He laughed. “I told you I would return.”

 

“But the war has been over for so long.”

 

“There was much to do in Magnus. We had to shore up walls and rebuild barracks.”

 

“You could have sent word!”

 

He listened to the distress in her voice and it frightened him. She was not a frail woman, but he had never thought she would be so upset.

 

“I was very busy. I concentrated on my work, so that I might get it done all the faster.”

 

“So busy that the woman who loved you never entered your mind,” she asked.

 

“You were constantly in my thoughts. I dreamed of being in your arms.”

 

“Yet you could not let me know you were alive.” She stood and picked up a plate from the table, wiping it with her apron.

 

“I am so sorry,” he said softly.

 

Her tears fell like raindrops and she sobbed uncontrollably. “I have done more wrong than you,” she said.

 

He turned and looked at her. She turned away from him and walked to their bed.

 

“I am pregnant,” she said.

 

Doth laughed. He slapped his legs and stomped his feet. “Oh really, and who is the father,” he mocked her. She stopped wiping the plate and used her apron to wipe away her tears.

 

“Last month a storm brought a traveler to my door. He made it seem as if the war was but a memory.” She paused and turned to face him and she could see that his smile was no more. “I thought you dead.”

 

She watched his hands tremble and knew that he was already picturing the event.

 

“It is not how you think it. All those months of being alone and the thought of you being dead made me feel so helpless. I had worried for weeks when he showed up. He was the first person I had seen since winter. Even as he ate I knew that I did not want to face the night alone, knowing that you lay dead on that distant battlefield. I did not mean for it to go so far, just for him to hold me until I felt better. But when he took me in his arms. Oh Doth I am so sorry, please forgive me. I could not help myself”

 

His head stopped shaking and he stared at her. Ilsande stood waiting for him to erupt, but Doth was silent. She stopped crying and went to him.

 

Doth spoke, “What you say is true?”

 

She replied, “Oh how I wish it were not, but I can feel the baby …”

 

“Stop,” he said, “I do not wish to hear you talk about it.”

 

“I have prayed for an answer, but the gods will have nothing to do with me,” she sobbed.

 

“The gods will have turned their backs on you expecting me to do the same,” he replied. “I should kill you for this, so that they may not be angered. What would you expect me to say? No, even more important, why are you even here? You should have left and saved some of my pride.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” was all she could say.

 

He was quiet for a long time. When he finally spoke again, she knew that his heart had been broken. He reached into a cabinet and pulled his heavy leather gloves from it. Pulling them on, he made his way to the door. He stopped and turned back to her.

 

“I made a vow,” he said. “I made a vow to love you and only you. A vow for life.”

 

“I remember,” she replied quietly.

 

His big hands gripped the door and she was afraid that he would leave marks upon it. His shock had given way to anger. “You made that same vow,” he said. “Or did you?”

 

Ilsande choked on her words, knowing that he was angry. “How can you ask me that?”

 

“How? You carry another man’s child and you ask me how. I was gone but a year maybe and yet you cannot wait to bed the very next sot who says a kind word to you.” He paused. “I will ask you this and more.”

 

“I have no place to argue this.”

 

“Oh Ilsande say it isn’t true.”

 

“You know I cannot,” she answered.

 

“Then it has all been for nothing,” he said. “All those nights of being tired of fighting and wanting to let them overrun us, so I would not have to feel so tired any more. It was for nothing, that I stayed alive.”

 

“I still love you,” she said and tried to touch him. “I want you to love me, but I feel as if your love for me has died.” She walked to him and placed her hands on his chest. “Say that you still love me.”

 

“Leave me be,” he said. She watched as he turned to the darkness and entered it. His words burned her heart and left her cold. She knew deep down that her love for Doth was stronger than she had ever felt it. But Doth; he would not care.

 

Mefin woke to the affectionate licks of a shaggy herd dog. The sun shone down into the barn. The light letting him know it was well past time to break his fast. Shooing away the dogs, he pulled on his boots and reached for his sword. It took him a moment to realize that he no longer wore it, then he stood and walked from the barn. His first sight was that of Doth already toiling away at the wall. By the look of things, the man had stayed up all night erecting the wall.

 

“Good day,” spoke Mefin and Doth glanced up from his work.

 

“We leave for Dargon in the morning,” was Doth’s reply.

 

“So soon?” Mefin asked. “I was just getting used to the fresh country breezes.”

 

Doth continued placing the stones and strengthening the wall.

 

“Then stay,” Doth snarled, “I shall go without you.” Mefin stepped back and looked his friend. His hands were raw and bloodied.

 

“What is wrong,” asked Mefin, “did a courier come for us?”

 

“No!”

 

“Then what is it that drives you from home after only one night in the arms of your love?”

 

“Mefin,” replied Doth, “either help me with this wall or go get something to eat, but do not question me. You are not bound to me. It is only our friendship that makes us business partners.”

 

“Very well, I will get something to eat.” He walked away confused, hoping that Ilsande might shed some light on the bad humor that his friend displayed. When he walked in the door, he could tell that he would receive little to shed light on his dilemma. Ilsande sat facing the hearth, watching the ashes of last night’s fire. “Good morning,” he spoke. “I was not aware of how used to hearing the bells I was, until I overslept this morning.” He picked up a knife off the table and sliced a piece of meat from the leg sitting on the table.

 

“Doth has been out there all night,” she replied.

 

“What? Did he not spend his first night home with you?” asked Mefin, shocked.

 

“He would not touch me.” She sighed and stood. When she turned to him, he could see that she had spent all night listening to her husband fill in the holes in the wall. Tears had turned her eyes red and her face was swollen from crying. “I have some fresh bread, if you would have some.”

 

“Many thanks,” said Mefin. “Why is it that you cry and Doth builds on the night of his homecoming?”

 

He waited for an answer but it did not come. Though the bread was soft and moist, Mefin choked it down as if were a week old and left out in the sun. He found he had no words of comfort and left her standing by her bed. He strode back to where Doth stood and angrily pushed the other man.

 

“Fool,” said Mefin, “has the war rattled your thick skull after all. Your beloved stands inside crying, sobbing with every stone you slam down, yet you stand out here as if you are shoring the walls of Magnus.” Doth straightened and glared at Mefin, then shrugged and returned to his work. Mefin, though smaller by far than Doth, forced the man to look at him.

 

“I stand here asking you for reasoning and you can not even answer me,” said Mefin.

 

Doth sighed, “Ask Ilsande what is the matter.”

 

“I did ask her,” replied Mefin, “and she was even more silent than you. You are not dumb; so quit acting like the rocks you hold and talk to me.”

 

Doth shrugged his shoulders.

 

“I hope you do not think that you will be whisking me away once we get to Dargon,” replied Mefin, “I intend to show my woman just how much I have missed her and that may take days.” Mefin smiled, but it quickly left his face as Doth had dropped the stone he was positioning and glared at his friend.

 

“I care not how long we are in Dargon,” snarled Doth, “just get ready to leave.”

 

“By Stevene’s sacred pizzle,” shouted Mefin, “has everyone but the dogs and I gone mad? I will not travel anywhere with you Doth. I go to Dargon alone.”

 

“Suit yourself,” said Doth.

 

“Have you become crazed overnight and why do you treat me this way,” asked Mefin, “I have stood with you through the blackest of bells and faced horrors with you. What is it that makes you thus?”

 

“Go away Mefin,” came Doth’s reply.

 

***

 

Mefin sat in the tavern sipping his ale and spinning tales of the defeated army of the empire. An enthralled guest ordered another round and Mefin nodded in appreciation. The afternoon faded into night and still he sat at the tavern. He had received a message and it said to wait here, but the cryptic note shed no light on his impending guest.

 

Finally he shrugged his shoulders and braced himself to stand. Coins filled his pockets and men slumped over his table, indicating that the storytelling had been profitable.

 

“Sit back down,” came a voice from the door. Mefin turned to see who spoke and regarded the man in the door. The man had grown since they parted a month before and Mefin guessed that the stone hut must be a palace by now.

 

“I would not speak to me that way,” replied Mefin, “I am a hero of the army of Baranur and I shall slay you on the spot.”

 

“You would sooner piss on the floor than take me down,” said Doth. The two men laughed and embraced. “I have missed your company, oh silver tongue.”

 

Mefin shrugged his shoulders. “I knew you would.”

 

Doth let him go and the two regarded each other.

 

“I have much to apologize for,” said Doth, “and it is hard for me to say the words.”

 

“I often forget my place in the world,” interjected Mefin.

 

“I am no lord or duke,” said Doth, “merely a herder. I should not have given you orders.”

 

“I spoiled your dogs,” countered Mefin with a wink. “Though that one bitch should either have littered or found another stud.”

 

Doth winced and Mefin got serious.

 

“Sit down.”

 

Mefin motioned to the barkeep and he dutifully made his way from behind the bar to the table.

 

“Would you give us some room to talk?” asked Mefin.

 

The barkeep relocated the sleeping patrons and brought a round for the two friends. “What brings you to Dargon?” asked Mefin.

 

“I needed advice,” Doth answered between gulps of ale.

 

“I have answers to all kinds of questions,” replied Mefin cheerfully.

 

Doth looked around and leaned close to Mefin before he spoke. “Ilsande is pregnant,” he said.

 

“Congratulations,” replied Mefin. The look in Doth’s eyes stole the grin from his face. He placed a hand on the big man’s shoulder and patted him. “You are ready for children. In fact, I think you shall make a good father.”

 

“The child is not mine.” While Mefin sat dumbfounded, Doth unraveled his tale and how Ilsande came to be pregnant. When Doth was done, Mefin sat in silence, not even moving when the barkeep announced that he would like to go to bed. Mefin finally glanced up at his friend.

 

“I do not know what to say,” Mefin said.

 

“Then I have no other choice,” came Doth’s reply.

 

“No other choice,” Mefin replied absentmindedly. “What do you mean?”

 

Doth explained how he had spent the day since Mefin left working on the house. The new room was complete and Doth had started on another foundation for the new barn. Yet he and Ilsande had never spoken. Both managed to keep up with their daily activities, but neither would acknowledge the other. Mefin thought of Ilsande and her beautiful eyes, probably swollen even now from crying.

 

“I have to find the man who got her pregnant and make him take her in,” said Doth.

 

“You do not mean that?”

 

Doth looked at his friend, “What do you suggest? That I live with her after she has bedded another man?”

 

“She thought you dead,” argued Mefin, “had you been so, would she have been wrong.”

 

“Yes. She is my wife and I promised to return,” answered Doth.

 

“Yes, and all of the men who left Dargon made such promises,” said Mefin, “I buried them with our other comrades.”

 

“I did return.”

 

“You say that the man told her that the war was over,” Mefin said. “She was already afraid that you would not return. His words only added to her distress. I think that she was alone far too long.”

 

“What do you mean?” asked Doth. “I am not to blame for this. How could I have known that the war would drag on for so long?”

 

“You said it yourself, her only contact was with passersby. I would have taken their word for it too, that the war was over. Even if the man had deceived her, how would she know otherwise?” Mefin’s words struck Doth like a hammer. The big man shook and whimpered, until at last he broke down crying.

 

“I love her still,” sobbed Doth.

 

“She deserves your love, for it is true.”

 

“But she carries another man’s child!” Doth stated.

 

“No one but you, I and Ilsande must ever know this,” replied Mefin.

 

“What if he is different than I?” asked Doth. “What if he is short or slim like a blade of grass?”

 

Mefin thought for a moment. “I do not know of these things, but my brother and I come from the same sire, and yet he is as stout as you are. Look at me, I am nothing like my brother.”

 

“That you are not,” said Doth, smiling for the first time.

 

“I think that you should not concentrate on the child, but on your love for your wife. You are a good man and any child born to Ilsande would bring you much joy. Look beyond the stormy night and try to understand what Ilsande must have felt, to lie with a stranger. Look into your own heart and see if you have the kindness to raise a child with strength and love, knowing these things.” Mefin stopped and tossed back his mug.

 

“But do not wait until the time of child’s birth is upon you, you must decide soon.”

 

Doth nodded and Mefin turned the talk to other events. Doth spoke of how the farm was returning to its fine shape. Mefin spoke of the buyers he had secured on his word of good hides and of the things that a merchant could afford to take home to his stone hut. It was late into the night when they let the barkeep shut his door. Mefin watched Doth as he walked down the street. A heavy burden had been placed on the man’s shoulders, but they were broad and strong. Already the spring was returning to Doth’s step as he made his way down the darkened streets of Dargon.

 

Doth followed Mefin to his rented room and the two men slept peacefully for the first time since parting. Mefin awoke in the early morning and glanced over at his friend. Doth still slumbered, but he talked in his sleep and voiced his fears to the people in his dreams. Mefin held his head and cried. Not because of the baby, but because he knew that for all of his encouragement and talk, he could have never stayed with a woman bearing the child of another man. Doth would though, and he would hold his head high while doing it.

 

In the last few moments before the sun rose, Mefin brushed away his tears and turned away from the rising sun. When Doth awoke he would take the man to every bazaar, every shop, until he was loaded down with gifts and trinkets for Ilsande. By now the poor flower probably feared the worst for her husband. Jailed or dead she doubtless imagined him, her day spent watching for the signs of someone coming from the city to deposit his corpse at her feet.

 

***

 

It was indeed true, for when Doth came out of the trees Ilsande leapt from the shade and ran crying to her husband. Doth, seeing her distress, dropped his pack and swept her up into his arms. She held him close and wet his chest with her tears. He carried her to the shade and sat her down. She clung to him, fearing that he had come back only to say good-bye.

 

“Please, Ilsande,” Doth whispered, “I must retrieve my pack before things get broken.” She let him go and watched as he strode to his pack and returned quickly. How strong he was she thought. Kind and gentle, never quick to anger, but now with her admitted liaison he had become sour to her. Fresh tears rolled down her chin at the thought of the pain she had caused him. He would never speak of it, she knew, but it would be there.

 

“Ilsande,” Doth started, “I found what I was looking for in Dargon. It is all very clear to me now. I have brought some things back from my trip.” She nodded and watched as he pulled them from his overstuffed pack. When she first saw the handle, she was stunned. She wiped away the tears and stared at what Doth held. A pan, He had made the trip to Dargon city for a pan!

 

“What is that?” she asked.

 

“It is a gift,” Doth chuckled, “and there are more.” He pulled object after object from his pack, stopping only to watch Ilsande’s face.

 

“Mefin wanted me to give you this,” he said softly. He pulled the blanket from out of the pack and handed it to Ilsande. She touched it and cradled the tiny blanket in her arms.

 

“I did not go to Dargon for trinkets, Ilsande.”

 

“I know,” was her reply.

 

“I went to find the man who made you this way and convince him to take you back to his home,” Doth spoke. She heard the hurt in those words and more tears welled up inside her. She started to speak, but he went on.

 

“I could not find this man, but I did find Mefin. I urged him to help me and he did.” She shivered at the thought of Doth finding the poor trader, then shivered again at the thought of his turning her over to the man.

 

“Doth, I …” she started, but he cut her off.

 

“Ilsande, I love you with all of my heart.” Doth drew pictures in the dirt as he spoke, never looking up. “I know that the war separated us and made thoughts of each other seem like dreams. There were times when I felt as if there had been no other life, just a constant battle, but I would dream of you all the same.” He looked up and looked into her teary eyes. “I am not a general. I never have been much of a thinker, but my thoughts have always been my own. When I say this to you, I want you to know that it comes from my heart, for no other place could make such a decision and be true.”

 

Ilsande could stand it no longer. Tears streamed down her face and she knew that her love had died in his heart. Sobs wracked her body and Doth stood not wanting to see her cry.

 

“I have some work to do,” he said.

 

She nodded and gathered her gifts to her. New pans and pots, new cloth for clothes, a new blanket for the baby, and spices that she had been wanting. He had given her all of this so that she might take it to her new home with the man on the ox-cart. She broke down, wailing and crying, seeing no end to her misery.

 

“Ilsande,” Doth spoke, “I have to go and hitch up the horses, so go and get some things for us to travel to Dargon. We don’t have much time.”

 

She nodded dumbly and he walked to the barn. From inside the house, she could hear him whistling as he worked the horses. She sighed to keep from crying. Doth had relieved himself of this burden. He had done more than she expected. He could have killed her or just put her out with nothing, but instead he had given her things that she would need to start a new life. Oh how she loved him, his heart spilling over with goodness even with this great barrier thrust between them.

 

“Ilsande.”

 

She jumped at the sound of his voice. Turning so he would not see her shake, she nodded her head. “I am almost ready.” He nodded and stepped back through the door. She gathered a few things and bound her other dress into the blanket holding her meager belongings. She glanced at the mantle. There, over the center of the fireplace set the wooden figurine Doth had carved and given her, when he asked her to marry. He would not want it she told herself. She packed it among her other belongings. She took one last look at their little home and walked through the door, biting her lip not to cry.

 

Doth stood by the wagon, the hides of his latest kills, stacked high in the wagon bed. The leather would bring him a good price, she thought. In time he might become wealthy enough to afford some help around the farm.

 

“Ilsande,” Doth spoke.

 

“Yes, Doth,” she replied.

 

“Forgive me,” he said.

 

“You have done nothing my love. I understand that you cannot live with me any more.”

 

Doth put his hand on her shoulder. “No, that is what I apologize for. I meant to tell you that I had made my decision, but I held off and let you suffer while I loaded the wagon.”

 

“I have suffered since the day you came home.”

 

“But I intend to make that stop,” said Doth. “Ilsande, I love you more than life itself. Your love is what drove me to fight again and again and not let an invader strike me down. I chose to enclose you with my love, when I should not have.”

 

Ilsande looked into the eyes of her husband. Tears hung there, but not a sign of anger showed on his face. She asked him, “What are you saying?”

 

“Forgive me, I do not have the words to make you understand. Only know this. I will always be your husband, that you cannot change. Whatever children you bring into this world are mine. I do this not out of pride, but for love. I promise you that I will always cherish the ground you walk upon.”

 

“What of this child?” she asked.

 

“It will be as if it were my own. I will give this child my heart, just as I give it to you. When I feel myself faltering and letting anger creep up upon me, I will remember that its hand will seek mine for comfort and its smile will reflect my joy. We will not be of blood, but we will share the same soul.”

 

She placed her hand upon his and kissed him gently. She wanted him so, but now was not the time for passion. She craved his tender touch. “Hold me,” she said.

 

“Forever,” he replied.

 

They held each other and cried. Each one spoke words of love and of faith. Finally Doth reached up and pulled her from the wagon.

 

“Where are we going?” she asked.

 

“I never did get to properly welcome myself home,” he smiled.

 

“What about the horses?” she asked.

 

“They will be fine.”

 

He carried her onto the bed and held her to him. They made love until they cried, then laughed, finally feeling as one again. Ilsande lay back on the bed, her hair cascading around her softly. Doth softly kissed her on the stomach. Ilsande felt silly, but she thought that Doth was trying to communicate with the life inside her. Each kiss was as if to say, child you are loved by two people. Finally she interrupted him.

 

“I have but one other question then,” she said.

 

“And that is,” he replied.

 

“Why are we going to Dargon?”

 

“Why to sell these hides and bring home a bed. Mefin has a friend who is going to make us a bed for the new room.”

 

“That is all?”

 

“Well I do have to make some final choices on how I want the warehouse set up and there is the matter of choosing a home in Dargon city.”

 

“What?”

 

“Mefin has already secured contracts with merchants for our hides. There is no reason for us both to live in this shack. I will stay here while I gather the hides and then make the trip to Dargon to stay with you for a while.”

 

“No,” she said.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I want to live here with you, and never be apart again.”

 

“But we can have a fine home in the city …”

 

“It does not matter. Here is our home and if you love me, here is where we will stay.”

 

He smiled down at her. She pointed her finger at him and he grinned. She knew Mefin would be much happier with Doth staying on the farm and overseeing the work. She too wanted this to be the birthplace of their children, all of them. She pulled Doth to her and he tugged playfully at her hair.

 

“We need to be leaving,” he said.

 

“I know,” Ilsande replied, “but I wanted you to show me how much you loved me again.”

 

“I’m tired,” he said through a smile.

 

“Too bad!”

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