It was no palace, but it was certainly bigger than many of the noble houses in Aelfric’s keep. She had been to visit at least three in her lifetime, and though they’d been grand, few of them had more than one room for sleeping in.
Judging from the length of the hallway they’d just come from, Logren’s house had at least one spare bedroom, as well as a separate room for little Roggi and a spacious main hall with a long, intricately carved wooden table in the center. Well lit with oil lamps and a blazing hearth to warm every inch of space, it was everything she’d always thought a home should be like when she was a girl. There was no choice but for a family to be close in such a space.
“You think there is food?” Finn crossed his arms over his chest and surveyed the room. His stomach gave a loud, gurgling lurch, and Lorelei tried to stifle her urge to laugh.
“With a child in the house, I imagine so.”
“Oh, right,” he nodded.
“I overheard Logren’s wife say she was going to the market this morning and to gather eggs. Maybe she is planning to make breakfast.”
They were both so caught up in admiring her brother’s home that neither of them heard Logren until he spoke. “Viina usually makes a very big morning meal. There will be more than plenty to fill our bellies soon enough. Eggs, fried bread, all the salted pork and spiced potatoes you can eat.”
“I can eat a lot,” Finn chuckled, rubbing his hand across his belly.
Lorelei shamelessly noticed a hint of muscled skin and that enticing trail of hair disappearing into the waistline of his breeches as the too-tight shirt he wore edged up with the movement. Her belly tightened in that strange way again, like a nervous shock rippling through her, and she steered her attention toward the fire and her brother as Vilnjar walked in behind him.
“My brother speaks true, I’m afraid. He is like to eat you out of your home if you give him an all you can eat invitation.”
“There will be plenty of food and then some, even for an ox like Finn,” Logren laughed, reaching out to clap Finn on the shoulder before steering him toward the table. “Did you all rest well?”
“As well as one can rest in a chair,” Finn grumbled, sliding into the bench and arching his back into a long stretch.
“That bed is very small, I know. Brendolowyn usually sleeps in there when he isn’t preoccupied with his duties at the lyceum. Sometimes he is there for days on end, buried in old scrolls and we barely see him at all.”
“You have a lyceum here?” she perked up, her mind instantly drawn from the tedious monotony of her own guilty conflict upon hearing the mage’s name.
Logren chuckled, leaning across the table to pour them all steaming cups of rick, black kaffe. “Not like the Lyceum in Leithe, no, but it is the tallest tower in Dunvarak, home to eleven of the finest mages in all the land, and fifteen mages in training.”
“Your entire city is maintained with magic,” Vilnjar observed, distaste with the notion curling his upper lip. “That is quite a feat for only eleven mages.”
“In truth it only requires the energy of four mages to keep the weather barrier in place so we might eke out our meager living here. The others educate the students.”
“Eke, you say?” Vilnjar’s disdain for his word choice was evident in the snort of laughter that followed. “I would hardly call the living your people have made here meager, my friend.”
“Your home is nicer than the main hall in Drekne.” Finn reached for his kaffe and sipped noisily from his cup. For a moment Lorelei stared at him as if he were some kind of beast, but before she could ask him where his manners were, he went on talking. “If everyone here lives as you do, Logren, I would have to agree with my brother. You have managed to build quite a city.”
“And all of this is because of the magical barrier?” Lorelei asked.
“The barrier has only provided us with the warmth required to survive in these harsh lands. It has allowed us to grow food, raise animals and ensure that our children grow up healthy and strong.”
“No one knows of this place?”
“No one except the chosen, and of course, the two of you.”
“The chosen?” Lorelei turned her attention away from Finn’s barbaric slurping and focused on her brother. “Who are the chosen, and I swear to gods if you tell me all in good time I will scream.”
Logren laughed heartily, leaning his back against the chair behind him. “The chosen are those the Light of Madra has guided here. In dreams and visions, in moments of darkness and despair, you reached out to them from somewhere beyond this time and showed them all the way home.”
Lorele shuddered inside her own skin, every part of her suddenly feeling so cold that she cupped her hands around the warm mug in front of her and leaned a little closer to the table. “How is that even possible? I still don’t understand it?”
“No one knows how it is possible, Lorelei, only that it is.”
The four of them were just silent around the table, their minds dwelling on that strange reality for a long time before Viina and Roggi entered. She carried a heavy basket teeming with goods from the market, and the boy swung a small, padded basket filled with fresh eggs. He was talking about how many eggs he’d counted in the basket when he looked up and saw her. Squealing excitedly, “Auntie, you’re awake!” the basket of eggs he carried nearly dropped to the floor in his excitement, and breakfast would have been lost had it not been for his mother’s quick hand.
He darted across the floor and threw himself in her lap, nearly knocking the wind out of her with the tightness of his hug.
“I waited and waited so long for you to wake up this day,” he told her, burying his face into her ribs and squeezing even tighter.
“Roggi, I swear! You are going to be the death of me.”
“Reflexes like a warrior, my wife.” Logren’s laughter bellowed through the household as Viina cursed under her breath and scowled at her son. “Roggi, what have we told you about eggs?”
He drew back and scrambled up her legs so he could settle into her lap. Raising his bright stare to her face, he asked, “Did you know that eggs are breakable, Auntie.”
She nuzzled her cheek against his, kissing the cold, pudgy flesh before squeezing her arms around him. Despite all the strangeness of the situation she was in, the sudden presence of her nephew in her life seemed to make the rest of it go away. It made her long for a day when she might have her own family, her own children to coddle and raise.
As if he knew what she was thinking, Finn leaned across the bench and over her shoulder to tickle the little boy in her lap. “The only thing I know about eggs is that I like to eat them.”
The heat emanating from his body into hers was intoxicating, conflicting with the chills that tingled through her and making her whole body feel like a bowl of morning mush. Gone was the momentary annoyance she’d felt with him as he’d slurped his coffee, her hormones immediately steering back to that place that made her long for him. A man like Finn would be as good a father as he would be a husband. A man like Finn would be the perfect match for her.
“I like to eat them too!” Roggi declared, his eyes widening at how much they seemed to have in common. “All chopped up and scrambly. Uncle says eggs make little war mages like me big and strong. Mummy, will you make me eggs now so I can be big as Finn one day?”
Viina’s scowl warmed into a slow smile when she met eyes with Lorelei, the loose tendrils of her blond hair falling into her face as she shook her head. “Eggs for the little war mages, all chopped up and scrambly. It’s on my long list of things to do this morning.”
“Is there anything I can help you with, Viina?” Lorelei slid Roggi off her lap and onto the bench, putting a bit of space between herself and Finn before rising to help her sister-in-law make breakfast.
“Keeping that little monster busy while I get things done would be the biggest help to me right now.”
“I can do that.”
A knock sounded on the other side of the door before it swung open just enough to allow Brendolowyn to peek his head into the house. Seeing him there brought the confusion she’d felt upon waking back to the surface.
“Am I late to breakfast?”
“Uncle is here!” Roggi forgot all about Finn. He jumped down from the bench and raced across the room to throw himself into Bren’s waiting arms.
He scooped the boy up off the floor and spun him around before hugging him affectionately. “My little war mage. Have you been practicing your meditations so I can teach you to make fire?”
There was a brief moment of conflict in Lorelei’s gut, her mind immediately reeling through the fleeting memory of her dream. The two of them running as wolves through the glade, the words his spirit spoke to hers and the declaration she made about belonging to Finn. She didn’t really belong to Finn, so much as he belonged to her, but she could belong to him… if she wanted to.
Avoiding eye contact when Bren spoke, she slid back into the bench beside Finn and scooted a little closer to him. Of all the things for her mind to be preoccupied with, her heart, or rather her hormones, should have been the least of her concerns. Yet the minute the side of her thigh edged up against Finn’s, both her heart and her hormones seemed to leap into overdrive.
“Mesitations are hard!”
“Only because you can’t sit still long enough to concentrate on clearing your mind,” Viina rolled her eyes and lowered her baskets onto the preparation table near the hearth.
“Why can’t I just make fire like you, Uncle?”
“Magic requires a clear mind, little one. And a clear mind comes…”
“From mesitations,” Roggi groaned.
“Meditations,” Viina corrected.
Bren carried the little boy to the table and sat down on the bench opposite Finn and Lorelei. She continued to avoid eye contact with him, though from time to time as the morning progressed, she could feel the heat of his gaze on her almost as strongly as she could feel the jealous surge of Finn’s temper whenever he noticed the mage’s lingering stares.
Despite the tugging on her emotions, sitting down to break her fast with family brought her a sense of peace she hadn’t felt since leaving home with Trystay nearly two weeks earlier. She didn’t know her brother even half as well as she thought she’d known Trystay, but there was a sense of comfort in his home, with his family, that made her feel welcome. She found herself easily laughing, teasing her nephew as if she’d known him all his life and admiring the playful way Logren interacted with his own son.
She couldn’t deny that she envied her brother the brief time he had known with their father; she envied his memories of the man she hadn’t even known existed before she woke up in Drekne with Finn leaning over her like an eager puppy waiting to be acknowledged.
What would it have been like growing up with her brother? Would she have missed out completely on Miri’s life? She couldn’t imagine a life without Mirien in it, or one in which the man sitting at the table replaced her little sister. In fact, were it not for Trystay, or rather, the man she had believed to be her father all her life she and Miri would probably have been sitting together in the garden snickering behind their toast while Pahjah lectured them on their manners.
What would Pahjah think of Finn, she wondered? Losing her appetite when she thought about how much she missed her sister, she’d barely pushed her half-full plate away from her before he slid it in front of him and started shoveling bitefuls into his mouth. A mouth, which by the way, hadn’t stopped talking long enough for him to actually chew his food. She watched from the corner of his eye as he tore a piece of bread with his teeth like he hadn’t eaten in a week.
Logren leaned back in his chair at the head of the table and rested his hands across his full belly before leveling his gaze across the table at her. “You will want to meet with Yovenna this morning, I’ve no doubt. You have so many questions only she can answer.”
“I would like to speak with your seer, but first what I would really like is to take a bath,” she confessed. “And perhaps some clean clothes.”
“Viina can show you to the bathhouse,” he leveled a look at his wife, who only nodded, “and finding you something clean to wear won’t be a problem.”
“Thank you,” she nodded.
“While the two of you are at the bathhouse, Hodon would still like very much to speak with Vilnjar and Finn.”
“For questioning,” she nodded. “Yes, I remember. Could it wait until we’ve had time to wash the dirt from the road from our skin? And I’m sure Finn would like something to wear that fits.”
When she turned to look at Finn, she watched the brothers regard one another. There were subtle shifts in their facial expressions, as if they were holding some secret conversation no one else could hear. Finn even stopped chewing for a moment, and then swallowed loudly. Vilnjar gave an almost curt nod and decided, “We will meet with Hodon. We have nothing to hide.”
There was a hint of uneasiness in his voice, as if he expected her to protest, and then he added, “No harm will come to either of your friends. You have my word.”
“What about the hunters who were pursuing us?”
Logren looked away from her, toward his little boy for a moment and then back to her again. “The same cannot be said for the hunters.”
The brothers regarded one another. Lorelei noticed the shift in their facial expressions, almost as if they were holding a conversation no one else could hear. Finally Vilnjar gave an almost curt nod and decided, “We will speak to Hodon.”
“I would like to be there when…”
“That won’t be necessary, Princess.” Finn held his hand up to interrupt her, the almost dominating gesture evoking an unexpected sense of nervousness inside her. “We can take care of ourselves.”
She knew they could; she had seen Finn in action twice now, but his declaration had startled her, and she actually felt as if he were trying to get rid of her. A self-conscious twinge of anxiety rose to the surface and her breath caught in her chest at the thought of Finn not wanting to be near her. For a moment she didn’t even know what to say or even why it bothered her so much that he’d more or less told her to butt out.
When his hand came down to rest on her arm, she felt almost as if he were using some kind of influence to calm her. She turned her gaze upward to look at him, and he smiled, but she wasn’t in the mood. Worse was the fact that she could feel Brendolowyn watching them, as if he were waiting for the right moment to leap in and rescue her. she turned to look at him he smiled. She withdrew her arm from his touch and rose from the table, focusing her attention on Viina.
“I would give anything to take that bath now.” To relax into the hot pools and let the unwanted tension from her conflicted heart melt away. “You don’t have to interrupt your day to take me. I’m sure you have plenty to do without having to walk me all over the place so I don’t get lost. Just point me in the right direction and I’ll find my way.”
“Don’t be silly,” she smiled. “I have waited a long time for the opportunity to get to know my husband’s sister. I would be happy to take you to the bathhouse, if you don’t mind Roggi tagging along with us.”
“I would love to spend more time with Roggi.”
She didn’t look back at Finn or anyone of the other men around that table, but began walking toward the door to wait for Viina.
“Let me find you something to wear, and we’ll be on our way,” her sister-in-law called over her shoulder before disappearing back the long hallway with Roggi right behind her.
The men in the room were quiet, and she swore she could feel all their eyes on her. She felt a strange shift in her heartbeat that came on so suddenly it took her by surprise and it required everything she had not to react by lifting a hand to her chest to quell the startling surge.
A strange combination of anxiety and fear rippled through her, but it wasn’t coming from inside. It was Finn. He didn’t understand why she was upset and it scared him. He was worried she was angry with him, didn’t understand how she could be, wondered what he could do to make her look at him.
Good, she thought. Let him wonder.
She wasn’t looking back, no matter how much his unanswered fears pained her. And they did pain her. That was the worst part of all. She could feel his emotions tangling with her own and it was torment.
To distract herself she tried to see out into the village through the small crack between the door and its frame. Bodily shadows passed by on the street and she could hear their voices. She attuned herself to them as best she could until Viina finally emerged from the hallway with a simple dressing gown much like the one she wore, Roggi excitedly trailing behind her asking question after question.
“Are you ready?”
“I am,” she nodded, a bit too eagerly.
The pressure of his emotions didn’t lift, even when they stepped outside the house and Viina closed the door behind them, but they lessened a little, and with every step they grew further from the house they grew less and less until she could almost no longer feel them at all. But they were still there, underneath the surface, waiting for her to feel them again as soon as he was near.