The little elfling clutched the hem of his mother’s dress. Keelath had brought the child to meet him, his uncle, and Evelos stared at Tyrdan with one eye as he hid behind his mother.
Keelath has seemed embarrassed, for his part. Tyrdan could’ve told him not to worry. He didn’t much like children, with their sticky fingers and runny noses. That the toddler showed no inclination to meet him was just fine by him.
It was the first time Tyrdan had laid eyes on the child since his birth—and even before. Keelath had given him the news early the year before last, that Mirium was growing heavy with their firstborn child. Tyrdan had sent on the customary congratulations, even as he gnawed on it inside like a bone long bereft its flavor. Keelath had gradually faded from his life, burdened by the worry of caring for his wife and the rapidly swelling life within her, and later, after the child was due, only coming to visit infrequently and briefly, days-old stubble on his cheeks and a preoccupied look in his eyes.
Altogether, Tyrdan hadn’t wanted to be drawn into the drama of a new baby, and he had been happy to stay away until that drama was over. The sore still gnawed at him though, an inexplicable jealousy for a creature who could barely string two words together.
The air was becoming crisper when the carriage stopped outside the Sunwalker cottage. Though normally he would have been springing impatiently out the door, this time it was all the elf lord could do to gather his crutches and get to his feet. The attendant quickly unlatched the door and reached in to help; Tyrdan irritably restrained himself, somewhere between anger at being offered help and knowing that he needed it.
Mirium was waiting at the archway that marked the only entrance into the humble cottage that was now his brothers’ family’s home. Keelath would be by later, she promised; could she get him anything in the meanwhile?
Tyrdan answered no. His broken leg was paining him, and all he wanted to do was sit on the porch and relax, and perhaps get some brandy into himself. The injury was not that bad, he assured her coolly, only a bad fall from his charger. It could be worse. Mirium had eyed him doubtfully, but said nothing, and soon took her leave.
So Tyrdan sat, and he brooded. One of the mares grazed over his way, eyeing him placidly as it munched the last crop it was likely to get of the summer grass. The horses belonged to Mirium, who bred them for both work and for pleasure. They were gentle creatures, and elegant, their single horns curving gracefully from their foreheads, their fur as soft as a doe’s. Not at all like the charger Tyrdan rode into battle against the Amani invasion to the south, and Tyrdan sneered at it. The mare flicked her tail with disinterest and waddled away, her belly rounded with an early foaling.
As if to punctuate the thought, Tyrdan caught movement behind the hedge as the other young thing on the horse farm stirred. Evelos, his brother’s progeny, stared at him, his eyes framed by the leaves like they had once been framed by his mother’s dress. His face has lost some of its babyish pudginess now that he was a few years old, his cheeks sculpted and chin pointed as was fitting for an elf lord. Not that there was much to lord over here.
Tyrdan frowned at him. Evelos regarded him for a few moments longer, then crept down below the curve of the hill and out of sight. Tyrdan scoffed after him and wondered if the boy would grow up as placid and shy as the horses.
Keelath came by late in the night. Tyrdan has been dozing, coming wide awake with a honed battle instinct at the first soft crunch of his brother’s footsteps outside the garden wall. His injury kept him from leaping to his feet as he normally would, and he heard Keelath’s pace quickening, until his brother’s strong arms looped under his and lifted him into a standing position.
“Oh, brother. And what did you manage to do to yourself this time?” Keelath’s tone was surprised, but warm and laced with humor.
Despite himself, Tyrdan was glad to see him and bore his humor with a rueful grin. “You should be asking what I managed to do to the troll,” he answered.
Keelath laughed. “I don’t have to ask. I know.” His eyes glinted with mischief. “You let it kick you up and down the mountain trails like a foot-ball.”
Tyrdan glared at him. Just like old times…for better and for worse. “Have you been doing well for yourself?” He changed the subject, his tone growing polite. “Your mares seem to have all taken up their stud’s seed, well enough,” he said, gesturing at the one down the hill. “One would wonder if you aren’t considering the same.”
Keelath frowned at him, but didn’t rise to the bait. “Well enough,” Keelath admitted. “Let’s get you inside. I can’t believe Mirium didn’t wake you for dinner.”
“She probably forgot I was out here,” Tyrdan said waspishly, but if Keelath heard him, he didn’t answer. His brother offered him an arm to lean on, but Tyrdan stubbornly stumped into the house on his crutches.
As it turned out, Mirium hadn’t forgotten, but had been out tending one of the horses. Keelath and she talked in somber times about how the mare would likely drop her foal too early, and Tyrdan listened with little interest and tried not to yawn at inappropriate times. As they talked, Mirium cobbled together the dinner, setting the table in an imitation of the elven court, but then spooning on fare that was as common as the cottage was.
“Where is Evelos?” Keelath asked suddenly.
“He had been keeping old Wingfoot company, I thought,” Mirium answered, her eyes widening, and Tyrdan wondered idly if more than just his dinner suffered from her absentmindedness.
“I’d better go look for him,” Keelath grunted. “I swear I’m am going to nail his ears to a tree one day to get him to stay put. Tyrdan, do you want any help up to bed?”
“I think I can manage,” answered Tyrdan. He focused on not meeting Mirium’s eyes as his sister-in-law quickly cleaned her plate and got up to join Keelath. He relaxed once she was gone, picking idly at the food he had been gallantly putting away earlier to be polite. He wondered at the nature of marriage and how long he’d be able to evade it himself by continuing his service to the crown on the front. Not that long with the leg, he reflected, and his stabs at the fruit salad became more vigorous.
It was another hour, and the soft, blue light of dusk was being replaced by the warm, amber light of the fire, when Tyrdan realized dully his brother would probably be out for a few more hours yet, still looking for his wayward offspring. One more thing marriage had denied him of, he grumped, even though he knew the thought was selfish; he had been looking forward to the first time in a long time he’d be able to chat with his brother after dinner as they enjoyed a mulled wine together by the fire. Grimly, he instead drained the wine waiting for him and painfully crawled up to his feet. Unlike in the manor, at least there were no servants here to witness his awkward hobble up to the guest room.
Here, at least, was some signs of the hospitality normally granted to him. The covers had been turned down, with fresh herbs scattered across the bed’s foot to give the sheets a good scent. Tyrdan eased himself down on it, pulling off his one boot and fluffing the pillow. He flumped down with a soft sigh, but instead of enfolding him with downy softness, he instead felt something lumpy and hard under his back. He reached down and pulled out a plush, shaped like a charger, its ears floppy and mane almost all pulled out from much use.
“Tyrdan!” Keelath barged in, breathless, then checked himself when he saw his brother lying there.
Tyrdan eyed him drolly from his position on the bed. “A doll to sleep with, brother? Really?”
Keelath colored faintly. “I didn’t put that there. It belongs to Evelos. He likes the smell of the sage Mirium puts in the sheets—he probably just forgot to take it with him.”
Nevertheless, Tyrdan lifted the covers to check for wayward three-year-olds, but the sheets were straight and tucked; no one has laid in the bed since it had been made.
Keelath coughed. “I’ll make him come get it. Just leave it there, on the stand. Do you want any help undressing…or bathing?”
“My leg is broke; I’m not suddenly a helpless child,” Tyrdan admonished him.
“Sorry,” Keelath said shortly, but his frown looked more guilty than annoyed. “Look, I know we haven’t had much time to spend together since Miri got pregnant, bro, and in a certain sense, I feel like I’ve been neglecting you. I’ve just been so busy, what with the harvest and the horses and the boy and—“
“Such common concerns,” muttered Tyrdan. “I still do not understand why you moved out here, when you could have all the luxury and idyllic pleasure you get up at the manor.”
Keelath colored more as his frown deepened. “The manor doesn’t have grazing fit for the horses; you know that.”
“You could always import hay.”
“And Mirium doesn’t like the bustle of Silvermoon—“
“Do you always do what Mirium says?”
“And I wanted the boy raised away from all the political nonsense!” Keelath snapped. “From the elders telling me what to do, from the council playing their political games. I thought you at least could appreciate that!” His voice had risen, and Mirium called concernedly from down the hall.
“We woke Evelos,” said Keelath with a heavy sigh.
“YOU woke Evelos,” Tyrdan corrected him, and Keelath glared as he grabbed Evelos’ stuffed charger and turned to leave.
“Have you seen his Belle?” Mirium asked. She had come to stand in the door, with a fussy child holding onto her neck, his tear-stricken cheeks buried in her bosom.
“Yes,” said Keelath heavily . “Tyrdan was lying on it.”
Mirium cast Tyrdan a bemused glance over Keelath’s shoulder, and Tyrdan saw fit to correct them. “I do not know how it got in my room. And I do not know how you expect anyone to sleep in this house with all this noise!”
Mirium scowled at him, but she took the hint. She also took the plush, tucking it in with Evelos and giving the boy a slight heft as she turned to carry him from the room. Rather than hug it to him, Tyrdan saw Evelos’ blue eyes squinting at him through his mother’s pale red hair as she took him from the room.
“You should rest as much as you can, brother. Broken bones take months to heal properly,” Keelath said, trying to return some civility to the conversation.
“I will, once you leave,” replied Tyrdan. “And I’m sorry for snapping at you,” he added softly, after a pause.
“And I,” agreed Keelath. “You know, it has really been too long.”
“It has,” said Tyrdan. “But you should go see to your wife, and your child.”
He tried to avoid the brief look of anguish flitting in and then out of his brother’s gaze, by burying his face in the pillow. He didn’t think he was tired, but the scent of the sage soothed him, and he didn’t even hear his brother’s footsteps leaving the room before he was asleep.
The weeks had passed slowly. Keelath was often away on business, and Mirium proved to be as competent an entertainer as Tyrdan has first pegged her for. Not that that was her fault, Tyrdan reminded himself: only her breeding, like the breeding of her horses, showing true. She was a country girl, no elf lady, not used to finery or high thoughts beyond common domestic affairs. What his brother saw in her, Tyrdan never knew.
He didn’t see much of their boy, either. Evelos would come to breakfast and stare at Tyrdan quietly from across the table, and Tyrdan had to force himself to not look back at the boy so the child could get some food down his small gullet instead of keeping his lips pressed tightly together from shyness. They would meet again at dinner, but these were somewhat more lively affairs, as Keelath and Mirium would quiz the boy on a horse’s proper confirmation, on herbs of healing and of less practical use, and on the properties of the Light, until Evelos would slip his head down beneath the table to hide his embarrassed face and stutter, and Tyrdan had to refrain from laying his cheek upon the table in boredom.
But then, preciously few times in number, Keelath would push back his plate and open a bottle of wine, and he and Tyrdan would talk as Mirium cleared the plates and herded a sleepy Evelos to bed. They would joke about the old times, reminisce about past shared exploits, and then Tyrdan would tell Keelath about how the war was going along the southeastern borders. Tyrdan did this more and more frequently as they ran out of other topics to talk of, and it pained him that his brother seemed to be able to stand the long talks less and less; Keelath would sink back farther and farther into his chair, eyes hooding, until he let out a snore at the best moment of Tyrdan’s retelling of the rout of Zeb’Hora. Tyrdan would bite back his hurt and let his brother sleep, and Keelath would invariably snort awake some time later, apologizing for his sleepiness before taking himself off to bed, the story of Zeb’Hora untold and forgotten.
It was after one such long night that the outriders came by the cottage. Keelath was still asleep in his room, nursing a minor hangover that his unpracticed consumption of the wine he had once loved bored into his head. Tyrdan was sitting in his usual place on the porch, injured leg propped up by some pillows Mirium had thoughtfully brought him, contemplating his empty glass and if he really wanted to bother rising from his comfortable position to go refill it.
The outriders pulled up their horses, and one or two of them whinnied in protest despite how tired they all looked. The leader dismounted with a thump and tramped up to the house.
“Hallo!” He called. “Is Ser Keelath in?”
“Keelath is indisposed,” answered Tyrdan, “but I am also a Holy Knight of the Light, and can serve you as well as he. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, I didn’t even see you there, Tyrdan, ser, begging your pardon,” said the outrider with a squint in his direction. He paused, clearly hesitant. “I heard you had been injured,” he finally remarked. His stance was apologetic, as he shifted his feet uneasily, but his tone was cool.
Tyrdan swallowed back a growl. “I am growing stronger every day. Now what is it?”
“Not strong enough for this,” the leader answered, and Tyrdan noticed he had forgotten the polite “ser” this time. “I would really like to see your brother. We still hold the trolls back, but the press has grown tighter, and we could use every able-bodied man at the front.”
He didn’t say it, but Tyrdan could hear it echoing in his words anyway. Every able-bodied man, which didn’t include himself. “First door on the left, up the ramp,” he told the outrider. “I would show you, but I’m afraid I am indisposed as well.”
The leader nodded his thanks, giving his reins to one of the others and hurrying inside. He had been telling the truth about the worsening affairs at the front, Tyrdan reflected, for the lead outrider hadn’t even paused to wipe his feet before going inside. Or perhaps it was just a reflection of the backwards part of the country his brother now lived in. Tyrdan hunkered further down in his chair, trying not to glare at the outriders, his eyes instead landing on his crutches.
In less time than Tyrdan had expected, the lead outrider appeared, with a bleary-eyed but determinedly dressed Keelath behind him. “I have to go,” Keelath told his brother. “Will you promise to watch Mirium and Evelos for me?”
Tyrdan looked up at him. He couldn’t staunch the curl of jealousy in his chest as he choked out the hated words.
“Yes. Of course I would. Anything for you, my brother.”
Keelath gave him a strained smile, but he took Tyrdan’s hand and squeezed it. Then he and the lead outrider were hurrying away, down to the stables to obtain a pair of fresh mounts, and then the company was away.
Tyrdan listened to the fading echo of their hoof beats until he could hear them no more. Then he put a hand over his eyes. How much he wanted to scream! And a small, boyish part of him wanted to cry. He dropped his hand and landed on something fuzzy and lumpy in his lap.
He looked down, to find two small blue eyes peering around the little waiting table at him. They flicked to the plush charger in lap, then back to him. Just like at breakfast, they seemed to grow rounder and more anxious as Tyrdan stared back.
Still angry, Tyrdan found the voice to speak. “What am I supposed to do with this thing? Hug it?”
The little elfling quailed a bit, but still stared on defiantly. Tyrdan tried to ignore him, looking back out on the road, though the reminder of his encounter with the outriders didn’t improve his spirits much.
Small fingers pressed into the palm of his hand, and Tyrdan looked down. Caught in the act, Evelos froze, but still stared steadily back at him. The little blue eyes flicked to plush again.
“I thought you might need that,” Evelos murmured. Then he took a deep breath, and said louder, more bravely, “Hugging Belle always makes me feel better.”
Tyrdan blinked. Evelos squeezed his hand but was looking away. Tyrdan held up his hand until the boy released it, but when he set it back down, he ran it through the boy’s hair.
In response, Evelos looked up at him, first in surprise, and then he beamed, like a second little sun. Tyrdan tried not to smile—then tried not to frown when the boy launched himself onto his lap, curling around the doll and then turning up so he could see Tyrdan’s face. He reached out a small hand to touch Tyrdan’s chin—Tyrdan had seen the gesture demonstrated on Keelath before—then Evelos snuggled into him, pushing the plush into Tyrdan’s neck instead of his own. “See? So much better,” murmured the boy.
Tyrdan recovered just enough from his shock to pat the boy’s shoulder. Never mind the well-loved plush stank a bit and Evelos was sitting on his bad leg… He wouldn’t say he liked it, but it wasn’t bad, and besides, he was a little afraid the child might bawl or throw a tantrum if he pushed him off. So there he stayed.
Mirium found them a half hour later. “Oh,” she said, looking down at Evelos snoring and drooling a little into Tyrdan’s collar, fast asleep. “It was about time to put him down for his nap.”
“He’s napping now,” Tyrdan pointed out, glaring at her to dare her to make comment about his situation.
Mirium pressed a hand over her mouth. “You do look cute together. He seems to have really warmed up to you.”
“Charmed,” said Tyrdan dryly.
Mirium smiled at him. “I think I’ll leave him there. He usually naps for a couple hours, and I’ve been meaning to mend that heap of old harness in the stables. Would you mind it terribly?”
Tyrdan was about to say he would, and terribly, but Evelos stirred against his chest. Tyrdan froze, but the boy simply turned over, planting a sleepy kiss on Tyrdan’s neck before settling in again to snore.
Tyrdan looked up to see Mirium watching them with a half-amused, knowing look. “I’ll be in the tack room if you need anything,” she said, before turning away.
Did Tyrdan just imagine it, or was there a smug sway to her hips as she started down the hill? She had to have known he wouldn’t be able to move far even if he wanted to. Which he did want to, he reminded himself.
He looked down at Evelos. His face was smoothed in sleep, and Tyrdan could see the cut of his jaw more clearly, now that it wasn’t hiding behind a table or his mom’s leg—so much like his brother’s. Tyrdan sighed and gently tucked an errant bit of hair behind the boy’s ears. Then he resigned himself to the dull ache of his injured leg, the dead weight of the sleeping child perched on it as it was.
It would be a long few months before Keelath returned.