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(So I finished up my project for Camp NaNoWriMo early and need to write on something else so I can add some more words to my total to help our cabin out. I’m going to pick up working on Sea Jade. Haven’t worked on this story for awhile, but here’s an edited chapter 21…)

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(end chapter 20)
This time Maree did not pull her hand away. “Thank you,” she said, meeting his eyes, her face unguarded and at ease.

Will blushed. “I think we should get some sleep now. Dawn is not long away. I’ll take first watch.”

Fergus didn’t argue. “I’ll just stretch out here by the fire.” And so saying he grabbed his coat from the chair, folded it neatly, and lay down with it under his head. While they were yet watching him, the bald-headed barkeep began to snore loudly.

“I don’t think I’ll have any trouble staying awake,” Will chuckled. Maree smiled. It was nice to see her smile, he thought. She was very beautiful when she smiled.

“Goodnight, then,” she said, and went to Anya’s room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Will watched her go admiring the graceful way she moved. She could have been an older Brennya, he realized. Same coloring, same gentle manner. Same soulfulness… It had been 22 years since a woman had held any interest for him. And yet it seemed there was something between them. He could feel it stirring in his heart. But he wasn’t ready to think about it — nor the past. He pulled a chair over by the curtained window that looked out upon the porch. It was the only window they hadn’t shuttered. Despite his determination to leave the past buried, as he sat there in the quiet with only the crackling of the fire and Fergus’ snorting to keep him company, his thoughts drifted again to his wife.

Though he’d had no bent toward being a farmer, they’d settled in the beautiful Dor en Ernil valley on a small piece of land given to them by Brennya’s father as a dowry. They were only half a day’s ride from the port of Serni. Overjoyed with the realization Brennya was with child after only three moons, he still hadn’t allowed himself to believe it until he saw her body change from month to month. Their life was good despite his poor farming and animal skills. He could still see her dancing for him in front of the hearth that last night, her stomach, swollen and ripe, silhouetted through the gauze-like thinness of her bed gown.

But in the night the baby came. He knew immediately something was wrong. That spring he’d seen many animal birthings, but none accompanied by so much blood. There had been no warning pains, and no time to ride to the next farm for a woman to help. Brennya was brave. She hardly whimpered through the agony, her thoughts only for her unborn child.

When at last the baby was born, he thought the battle was won. Tired but happy, Brennya laid back to rest as he cleaned the girl child off. Though she never cried, she wiggled and squirmed in his arms. His heart nearly broke under the weight of love as he ran his hand over the mass of black curls stuck down to her forehead. He remembered thinking how odd it must have felt to Brennya to carry a babe with a full head of hair in her belly. Did it tickle? he wondered. Such a silly thing to recall…

He wrapped the babe in swaddling rags and took her to Brennya. Weary beyond measure, she took the the child in her arms and held her to her breast, where she began suckling fitfully. It was then Brennya closed her eyes and passed from this world. No sooner had he realized this than the child, too, grew still and silent and slipped away.

Outside Maree’s cottage horses could be heard clomping through the street, wagon wheels creaking as it rolled along behind. Will lifted the curtains aside and took stock of the travelers. Traders from Colwyn Bay, no doubt. There were children with them. He let the curtains fall back. By the hearth Fergus snorted and rolled over on his side. His snoring settling into a soft wheeze.

Brennya had always teased him about his snoring, though his pride would never let him admit he did. He missed that about her. She was light-hearted, fun-loving. In that, he thought, she differed from Maree. Maree seemed so serious. So focused and intense.

He hadn’t moved from his wife’s side that night. He wanted to be able to recall everything about her. Her beautiful mouth, her raven hair, the way she looked when she was sleeping. And the child… If only he’d known what to do. His arms were haunted with the memory of wiggling new life. They were empty. His heart was empty. His future. He cursed God for taking from him everything that he loved in this world.

When finally he went outside into the early morning light, he took with him a torch meaning to burn the cabin down. That’s how his people honored their dead. But she wasn’t of his people, he realized. And he knew the grief it would cause her father and mother. He rode to the Wheemer’s place over the ridge. He told them what had happened and asked Arthur Wheemer if he could take a message to Serni to Brennya’s family. Then he returned home and cleaned the bodies for burial. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

Agitated now as the memories stirred in his mind, Will rose and walked quietly around the cottage checking windows and doors.

After the burial and a sorrowful farewell, he had set off to do – what? He didn’t know. He only knew he wanted to leave the pain behind. It seemed natural that he would become a Tracker. Single-minded of purpose, they rarely had families or settled in one place. That suited him fine. And yet in the last year he had spent more and more time at the Sea Jade. Khalen even kept a room for him there.

Will stopped outside Anya’s door and listened for sounds from within. Nothing. He was glad they’d been able to sleep. At Khalen’s door he paused, turning the knob to peek in. She was nearly rolled up in a ball with the quilt pulled over her shoulders, one hand curled and wedged under her chin, red-gold hair splayed across the pillow. He hadn’t meant to get so close to her. He’d done a decent job of keeping people at a distance. It had served him well, though made him more reckless at times than he should have been. But the girl had captured his heart that morning in Pelargir when she’d offered him a hot bun and some sticky honey. He smiled at the memory. No one had ever noticed him there before.

He supposed it was the emptiness left by the loss of his child, or maybe the guilt at being unable to forestall the babe’s death that had caused him to let his guard down with Khalen. She was the same age his daughter would have been. And while he was childless, she was fatherless. They seemed to need one another. Perhaps their attachment was foreordained. However it had happened, Will now felt a certain responsibility to care for the young woman. Her well-being was of the utmost importance to him. He vowed to see this mystery through and make sure she had what she needed. And if they should find the answers to why her father was killed, then all the better.

As Will took a seat by the window again, he realized it was already growing light outside. He figured he’d let Fergus sleep. He’d sleep in his saddle tomorrow if needs be. Wouldn’t be the first time.

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