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(Just for Raili. 😀 )

No sooner had the sun begun to peek over the mountain and peer through the valley mist below, than life stirred inside the last cottage on the road to Dungarven. Maree tiptoed quietly from Anya’s room, past the sleeping form of Fergus Frasier lying in front of the hearth. The heart of the fire was barely beating now, and the bald-headed bar keep was curled around himself on the hearth rug in an effort to keep warm. She pulled her shawl from the back of the rocker and draped it lightly over his shoulders.

From his chair by the window, Will smiled and nodded his good morning to the healer as she pumped fresh water into the kettle to set a pot of coffee brewing. They didn’t talk. She went about her business in the kitchen; he rose to stretch his long legs, yawning wide and deep, and felt the kinks begin to unknot in his back and neck. He ran a hand through his straggly chestnut hair raking it back off his forehead. He needed to have Khalen cut it. He grimaced as he scratched at the whiskers beginning to shadow his face. I must look a grievous sight, he thought with considerable surprise. How long had it been since he’d cared what he looked like? Leaning his short-sword against the door frame, he took his great coat from the back of the chair and slipped it on. Then, quietly, so as to not wake the others, he lifted the heavy iron bar that secured the door and stepped out into the looming dawn.

At the stove Maree fed kindling into the firebox and turned to watch him go. She was mildly fuddled at how easy it felt to have this strange man in Nathaniel’s house. Her head tilted thoughtfully as she set the kettle on the stove. Though the night had been short, it was the soundest sleep she had had since reopening the chest. And this morning, in the wake of renewed vigor, her fear and indecision of the past days vanished. It was right to take the orb to Avram, and right, somehow, that the tracker would be the one to take her and Anya there. Maree did not believe in happenstance. She was convinced their meeting was meant to be. And she wondered at the part Khalen was to play in the drama.

Outside, Will strolled the grounds of the cottage croft peeking behind vined trellises of hops Maree used as a remedy for sleeplessness. He peeked beneath the lean-to where dry wood was kept, and into the chicken coop where the hens cooed quietly on their nests. Inside the shed where Maree’s gardening tools hung over a sturdy bench in neatly arranged rows on wooden pegs, he turned clay pots over here and there, in search of what he didn’t know. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Whether the wind weyfs lingered or not, he couldn’t tell in the dim light, though he expected their mischief was finished for now. Pulling his coat more tightly about him against the damp, foggy chill, he rounded the building to the front of the cottage and sat down on the stoop to watch the sun rise over the mountain.

Dawn was his favorite time of day. Full of possibilities, Brennya used to say. She loved to sit with him of a morning and watch as the white morning lilies opened their buds to drink in new life. She was fanciful like that. Poetic, the way elves were wont to be. He smiled remembering her passionate embrace of life. Twilight, on the other hand, was a sad time, she’d claimed. A time of endings and sorrow when unhappy spirits walked Middle-earth in search of what they had lost. But unlike the sad spirits, all their days would be filled with dawns! Right bursting with new beginnings, she would declare, throwing her arms around him and nuzzling his neck. Will sighed. He’d always be grateful she’d died believing she had cheated that unholy darkness. If only they…

A gentle touch on his shoulder startled him. He jerked around to find Maree standing behind him with two cups of coffee. So deep in thought had he been he hadn’t heard her come out on the porch. He was struck anew by how much she favored Brennya.

Handing him a hot tin cup she pointed to the step beside him. “May I?” she whispered.

“Of course.”

“I love this time of morning,” she said, settling next to him. “Everything feels new and fresh.”

Will was taken aback by the echo of Brennya’s persuasions in the healer’s words, and by the very nearness of her. Gawd! It had been a long time since he’d been this close to a woman. It had been a long time since he’d had a bath! He felt the warm heat in his cheeks and was glad Maree couldn’t see his face in the still-dim light. He steered the conversation to safer ground. “The sunrise over the mountain is beautiful from here with its golden glow creeping like a patient cat over the summit.” THAT was lame, he groaned inside… It sounded just like something Brennya would say.

If Maree was amused, she didn’t show it. “Yes. That’s why Nathaniel chose this spot for the house. He said the vastness of the mountains always reminded him of the smallness of his everyday problems.”

To cover his embarrassment, Will sipped the hot coffee and nodded slowly, understanding well Nathaniel’s meaning. It was to the mountains he’d fled when his family died. Nature’s solace had given him a perspective he’d failed to find among people — or from any god.

Maree, sensing the melancholy that had settled like a mantle around him, wondered at the whereabouts of his thoughts. “You have been a tracker long?” she asked, seeking an opening between them. If she was right and their paths had been meant to cross, they needed to know one another, to be able to trust one another. She had been forthcoming with her own story, but she could feel he was a private person. Still she hoped he would as willingly share his past with her.

“Twenty-two years.”

“Not the first desire of your heart, I sense.” She smiled her encouragement.

“No.”

The tracker paused and Maree thought he would say no more. But to her surprise he went on.

“I was a farmer for awhile. And a poor one at that,” he chuckled, looking into her eyes for only a moment before his gaze returned to the horizon.

She kept quiet, cradling her warm cup in her hands, giving him the time he needed to gather the courage to share his life with a stranger.

“We lived in the Dor en Ernil valley, northwest of Serni.”

“We?” she asked. “What is her name?”

“Was. Brennya. Her name was Brennya.”

“And wh…”

“Why in blazes didn’t ye wake me, man?” Fergus growled as he stumbled half asleep and squinty-eyed out onto the porch, wiry red mustache sticking out this way and that.

Will thought he saw disappointment in Maree’s face and wondered at it. Yet she rose from the step without complaint..

“I’ll get you some coffee, Fergus,” she said, and brushed past him into the house, her long skirt rustling as she went.

Will’s eyes followed her, but she didn’t look back. Perhaps he’d been mistaken. Old fool, he thought.

“Wasn’t sleepy, Fergus,” he said, turning to the tall wiry man. “Too tense, I guess. And I thought it best that one of us should be fresh in the saddle this morning. Besides, you were snoring so prettily…” Will grinned and slapped the big man on the back.

Fergus only grunted and fiddled with his mustache.

While the men talked of hiring a wagon, Maree rekindled the fire on the hearth and busied herself in the kitchen. She figured they ought to at least have a hot meal in their stomachs before setting off for Colwyn Bay. Had she been expecting visitors she would have had more salted pork on hand. But there was what there was, she decided, and they would make do. From the cupboard she gathered flour and cinnamon, and from the ice box, milk and butter. She may as well use up as much food stuff she could. There was no way of knowing how soon they would return. The ice in the box would like as not be long gone by then. She set about mixing flat cakes to fry for breakfast, and was just about to go out to the chicken coop when Anya’s door opened.

Anya slipped into her mother’s arms, fatigue plain in her face. I should have given her something to help her sleep, too, thought Maree, but delving into the mystery of the Sea Jade and Captain Ehvens had clouded her judgment.

“Did you sleep much, love?” she asked, brushing tangled ebony hair out of her daughter’s eyes.

“Fitfully, at best.”

“Hungry then?”

Anya yawned and nodded.

“I was just going to fetch some eggs for breakfast. Would you mind?” Maree asked, reaching for a basket.

Anya smiled, unwound herself from her mother, and took the basket.

“I’ll have to ask Jack to see to the coop while we’re gone,” Maree said, forgetting Anya did not know yet of their plans.

“Gone? Where are we going, mother?”

Now was not the time to explain. Maree keenly felt the urgency to be off on their way. “I will tell you all about it while we eat,” she said, and shooed her daughter through the workroom and out the back door. She returned to the kitchen to find a shivering Khalen splashing cold water from the pump on her face.

“Good morning, Khalen. How is your headache this morning?”

“Quite gone! Whatever was in your powder set it at rights for sure. Thank you for your help.”

“That is good. I will mix another batch for you to take with you.”

“I doubt that’ll be necessary,” Khalen said. “I think I was just weary from riding all day and having little to eat. I’m not used to that. Especially not riding up and down a mountain!”

Maree knew they could not let be forever the need to explain the facts of Khalen’s difficulty to her. But for now she let the comment pass and handed the girl a cup of hot coffee. “Could you please take this to Fergus? He and Will are on the porch.”

Khalen took the hot cup in her hands relishing the warmth of the tin and went to find her friends.

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