Iorveth didn’t often loosen the tight grip of clenched fingers on life, not even when he yielded to sleep. In fact, it was a rare thing for him to ever fully yield at all. He was always on alert, just a breath away from leaping to his feet with both swords drawn and ready for the next fight.
But he was tired, sated, and in her arms he felt free. He felt safe enough to let go of consciousness and allow the slow, constant draw of her breath carry him away. Into the trees, the leaves whispering secrets, the enticing murmur of the forest all around him and somewhere nearby a gurgling stream with a voice that sounded like laughter as it sang and flowed across stone. Spilling through the canopy of the trees, broken but warm upon his skin and the subtle scent of damp earth filled his every breath.
A beautiful dream. His questionable release from the waking world tied him to the warmth of her naked back pressed against his bare chest, the subtle rhythm of her heartbeat. Legs drawn and tucked together, his arm draped lazily across her waist. Chin nestled near her shoulder, the tangled softness of her hair drifted across the pillow and tickled his cheek each time he exhaled. When he breathed in, the subtle scent of herbs mingled with the vague, earthen smell of the streambed in his dreams.
She twined their fingers together in front of her, occasionally tracing her thumb across his knuckles in soothing patterns.
Surely, he was asleep. So many nights he’d lain restless and awake on the cold ground under the watchful eye of his sentinels in the trees, or perched in the branches himself, back pressed against the trunk and his ears attuned to the night sounds around him. On those nights it was that comfort he’d contemplated, the thing he fantasized about while willing sleep to carry him away.
Eye closed, the steady rise and fall of her chest beneath his arm drew him deeper into the trap of contentment. When he woke, where would he be? Surely not there, not wrapped in the comfort of her arms, their daughter sleeping on the other side of the quaint little house with the bright red door on the hilltop in Vergen. Would fate be so cruel as to draw him away from the one place in the world he longed to be?
Further, further away from the moment.
Peaceful reality mingled with often-visited memory that made him feel as though he’d been tugged from his body and floated along without care.
There was no war in her arms. No ceaseless anger or injustice against his people. There was only… joy and peace.
Did he deserve that much? The part of him untethered from earthly concerns wanted to believe he did. After all, what did he fight for, if not for this. That peace was the one thing he longed for above all others, the reason he battled on, but in fighting he had done so many awful things. Things he easily tamped down inside himself and tried to forget, but that always lingered in the back of his mind prompting the same question: was it worth it?
The answer was simple now. Yes. For his daughter, for the woman in his arms, for his people to know more than rare moments of comfort like the one he was experiencing, he would do anything. Kill anyone who tried to wrest it from his hands.
“Iorveth,” soft lips brushed across his, the muscles in his mouth answering without thought. Had she turned in his arms? He felt her leg slide along his, her body inching closer until he felt the bone of her hip nudge across his. The need for her stirred, intensified by the moist warmth of her mouth murmuring across his. “Iorveth.”
“Essea dearme,” he muttered into her tender kisses.
“I know, but it’s time to wake.”
“Essea mor gynnes i dina armar.”
“Squass’me.” It was only a simple phrase, but the sound of his language on her sleepy tongue made him grin. It pleased him even more to know she’d understood him.
Hand sliding up the length of his arm, along his shoulder and into the warm crook of his neck before arriving to rest upon his mutilated cheek, it did not disturb him when she touched his scars, but made him feel all the more comfortable in her embrace. They did not disgust her or make her turn away in fear. She had been there when they were carved upon his skin, had done everything in her power to heal him. He did not deserve her love, and yet she gave it to him anyway.
“Essea llenwi â llawenydd o’r fath yn.”
“Essea heffyd,” she whispered.
“Then why must we wake?” he complained. “If we are warm and filled with joy, let us stay here in each others arms. It is still dark outside, is it not? Surely there are hours left before the sun rises.”
“Only one or two, but Invae will wake soon,” she explained, those gentle fingers tracing across his face, brushing stray hairs away to tuck behind his ear. She moved inward and kissed him again, her warm mouth lingering against his. “She often rises before the sun. It is what children do.”
A heavy dread dropped in his stomach, making his muscles tighten. It was a dream, he thought. A beautiful dream, but he’d been a fool to think it would last. “Must I go?”
“You don’t have to leave, but I shouldn’t stay here with you. It would be strange for her to find us this way. She would have questions I’m not sure I’m ready to answer yet.”
“Of course,” he agreed with a sigh.
His daughter did not even know he was her father, and she might not learn that truth for a long time. Though she knew and loved him, his daughter had been raised by another. He understood the reason for keeping that truth from her, and he wanted more than anything to protect her from hurt, but it pained him nonetheless. He’d missed so much of her life, and even as he was finally a part of it, he couldn’t be a proper father to her. Not until her mother thought she was ready, perhaps not ever.
“I will go and come back to see her in the morning…”
“No,” she stiffened a little in his arms, as if the mere thought of his leaving upset her.
Just hours before they’d argued, the feverish tone of their discussion finally bringing her to admit she was so angry with him, so reluctant because she was afraid of losing another man she loved.
She loved him. That revelation still made his heart sing.
“Don’t go.” She snuggled closer to him, her leg edging further up his thigh, her naked warmth stirring his desire for her again. “Stay. Go back to sleep for a little while. I will go lie down with her. Just get dressed.”
“I need no clothes when you’re in my arms. It’s so warm,” he said softly. “I’ve dreamed this for so long.” Iorveth traced the tip of his nose across her cheek, seeking her lips. She responded with slow, gentle pecks that lingered, growing delightfully lazy and enticing. She surged slightly forward before rolling back and withdrawing her leg from his. Disappointment dampened his spirits. “Will I get to hold you this way again?”
“Yes,” she leaned in to whisper that promise in another kiss across his cheek, then she sat up.
Rooting around on the floor, she gathered her clothing. On the edge of the palette she stretched arms into her dress, ducked her head through the neckline and allowed the fabric to drop down her back and pool around the dimpled curve of her backside. He reached across the warm space where her body had been only seconds before and drew the tip of his finger in a circle around those dimples until the chills of his caress made her spine arch.
“If you wish.”
“I do wish.” She stretched back and rested herself against him and he brought his arms around her. Holding her close, he buried his face in her shoulder. “I wish more than anything. Loving you is all I’ve wanted.”
“Sleep, then,” she turned her head to graze his still grinning lips, “and dream of loving me.”
“I need not dream it. I do love you,” he told her. “I have loved you since you held me in your arms and drew me back from death.”
“I know,” she offered one last lingering kiss, then departed from him in a swift swish of cloth and quiet, careful footsteps padding across the hard, stone floor. He wanted to reach for her hand, to draw her back into his arms, but he let her go. They had time. He would make sure they had time.
Rolling onto his back, he stifled a quiet yawn into his shoulder, then turned to sweep his hand across the floor. Shoving his mail skirt aside, he dug quietly through his things until he found his trousers. The soft fabric was cool, but it instantly warmed to his skin as he wriggled into it and tied the string at the waist before tugging the blanket up over his body. He turned his back toward the wall separating him from the rest of the house.
He nestled his face into the soft pillow they’d shared, closed his eye and let peace reclaim him.
He was safe. The warmth inside the small house was almost stifling, but delightfully so. It had been so long since he’d slept without a houseful of sentries lingering nearby, their watchful eye guarding their commander. The stone beneath the palette upon which he slept was hard, but the pillow was soft and everything around him smelled like her.
In a few hours’ time, a little girl who loved him would come bouncing into that quiet place in which he slept, throw her arms around him and rejoice at his homecoming. He would hold her close and tell her how much he’d missed her.
Eye closed, he was so warm and content the dream swept him away again, lulling him as the gurgling stream rolled ever onward, the wind whispered through the trees. He could almost hear his daughter’s laughter, the endearing music of it filling him with such joy. Maybe he would take her beyond the gate to see the ducklings and they could skip rocks across the slow current. Maybe her mother would come with them and sit beside him on the banks beside the water and let him hold her hand.
It was a beautiful dream, one he hoped he never woke from. For so long, he’d been strong, but without that piece of hope, he didn’t know if he could find the strength to go on fighting.
For the reality beyond the wall at his back, for the woman who’d kissed him awake and the little girl who’d been born of love forged in darkness, he would fight to the death if he had to. To preserve their little family, to give them a chance at something better, he would fight to the death without question or complaint, but more than anything he just wanted to live with them, to enjoy a little well-earned peace.
Elder Speech used in this story:
Essea dearme: I am asleep.
Essea mor gynnes i dina armar: I am so warm in your arms.
Squass’me: Forgive me/I am sorry.
Essea llenwi â llawenydd o’r fath yn: I am filled with so much joy.
Essea heffyd: I am too.
NOTE: I have mentioned before, but wanted to point out again that the Elder Speech in this world is often derived and inspired by the Celtic languages of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In cases where words were not available, I borrowed from Welsh to complete sentences. I am not a linguist, but I did my best. I apologize for my butchery and hope you will forgive me.