(Author's Note: Needless to say, the characters, places, and all that are all property of Namco. I don't own any rights here. Except for Travis; I made him up. In case you weren't sure, dialogue/monologues in ~s are internal thoughts. Also, as a caveat, there are inferences that are major spoilers, and some adult matters touched on in the story.
~It's been so lonely, since Claus died. Even when he was still alive, it was so hard; he and Milard kept getting older, and I've hardly changed. And when Milard finally said her farewells, Claus just seemed to give up. And I still have over five years before the others are even born.~
The small house in Lone Valley was no stranger to sadness. Now, its sole occupant was mired in gloom.
~I wish... I wish there were someone... Someone to talk to. To hold hands with. I'm so very lonely.~
Arche Klein had already been all over the world - had helped to save it in two different times, in fact. She'd mastered every known spell, practiced cooking until even her worst critic would be hard pressed to find fault, and kept life exciting for people throughout time and nations.
But who entertains the entertainer?
As she had been doing often of late, Arche stripped completely and studied her naked reflection in the mirror with a critical eye.
~Hmm. Still tight where I should be.~ She jumped experimentally a few times. ~Nicely bouncy. I look twentysomething. I FEEL twentysomething. Except that I'm eighty-four. Claus was eighty-four. I'm the same age he was when he died, and I'm young. And he's gone twelve years. And I've about twice that before they'll know me. And what good does a good body do me if there's no one to appreciate it with me? Not even a lover, even, I'd just be happy to find a real friend.
~That blue haired jerk won't even be born for something like six years, so it isn't as if he'd have the right to be upset. What, am I supposed to be a nun, pining away in my mountain fastness for a man I can't decide whether I should kiss or kill?~
Arche blinked at her reflection. Rarely did she let such thoughts through her head; never once had she dared even think of "the L word" in conjunction with Chester Burklight's name.
"Stupid jerk," she muttered, her face reddening.
"Hello the household!" A voice interrupted her thoughts. A man's voice, and he sounded distressed. "Please, is someone home?"
Hurriedly throwing on a robe, Arche ran to the door.
The man who stood there. For one thing, he was nearly covered in blood. How he was standing was beyond Arche's understanding.
"You should see... the other... guy..." he managed to gasp out, just before collapsing.
"A touch dramatic, are we?" Arche murmured, even as she dosed him heavily with what she found in her meager store of medicines.
Color slowly returned to the man's skin, and his breathing grew easier. "Is there any other way to impress a beautiful lady?"
~Hmm. Classy, even in pain. So maybe there ARE gods listening,~ Arche mused to herself. "Plenty," was all she said. "Can you stand?"
"Aye, I can at that," he said, sounding surprised. Covered in grime and streaks of blood, he didn't make a pretty picture, though the sorceress could tell that he was young and healthy. Quite fit, in fact. She thought his hair was dark blue, but couldn't tell. He'd tucked it inside his tunic, presumably to keep it out of the way during conflict, and what she could see was too obscured with the aftereffects of whatever battle he'd been in.
"Do you, ahh, have somewhere I might wash up?" After showing him her facilities and lending him some of her father's old clothes, which had been carefully packed away, Arche dressed herself quickly.
How had he gotten so sorely abused? Monsters were few and far between, these days. Had he merely been unlucky, or was it something more sinister?
Scraping together the remnants of her larder, while the stranger relaxed and dressed, Arche put together a quick meal.
"I must be wrong. I have, in fact, died. And to you, I apologize, for I have doubted heaven but you must be its very own angel, here before me," the stranger declared. "I have come through hell. Now I am given a hot bath, good food, and by such a stunning womanly creature as I see before me! Surely this can be no less than heaven itself!"
The sorceress, flattered, smiled. "Not hardly," she said over her shoulder, concentrating on her cooking. It had been years since she'd prepared food for anyone else but herself. "As I'm sure you know, this is Lone Valley."
"Then you must be she they call the Eternal Sorceress," the man intoned somberly behind her, "In truth, you have bewitched me, and I and my loyal bow would fight unto death for thee!"
~Bow. Huh.~ "Don't you think you're laying it on too thick?" Arche piled the food onto a plate and set it on the table.
"You think so?"
"Yeah. But go on. I like it," she grinned, taking a good look at him for the first time.
Her grin faltered. ~They could be related! But no, this one has class,~ she reminded herself. Still. Lean, tall, and fit, the man before her was clearly living a very active lifestyle. Now that his hair was clean, spiky bangs of it fell over his face. Deep blue waves cascaded down his back in a tight ponytail that she saw grew longer than her own. It was not as full, though, his hair being finer and straighter. A momentary flash of jealousy caught her, but then she got a better glimpse of his face as he sat down. His face, long and smooth, was almost heart shaped; his high forehead, wide brow, and a mouth that seemed to be ever on the verge of smiling spoke of wit and intelligence. She noticed when he smiled that his eyebrows flew up to pointed arches. She decided she liked that. But there was something bothering her about his face, something that made her feel like she'd met him before.
~Still, if it weren't for the fact that this guy has class and tact, I'd think he was related to Claus.~
About to dig in, the man suddenly flushed. "Gods, you must think me incredibly rude and ungrateful. I have imposed on your hospitality, used your medicines and your house, and I was about to eat your food, and I haven't even introduced myself. I am Travis," he said with a flourish. "Now formerly of the pirate ship _Falcon_." Bowing, he seized her hand and kissed it almost tenderly. "I have seen the error of my ways and fled before the wrath of my captain." He struck a pose, then grinned sheepishly. "Actually, it's not really like that. See, I wasn't even part of the crew for all that long.
"It all started at Venezia about eight years ago. There have been rumors. Nothing substantial, at this point, but the king has decided he wants to strengthen the military. So he's started some training programs, nothing really formal or major yet, and I being young, adventurous, and proud, decided there was none more fit for guard duty than I. Perhaps foolish is a better word than proud; at least that's what my father told me. He said that I as the only son was obligated to carry on the family name and business and all that." He snorted derisively. "Sometimes I think maybe I should have listened to him. Instead, I entered the training program, and began to learn more than just the basic hunting techniques. I was getting good with the bow and picking up some good hand-to-hand fighting skills.
"Then I went to sea. Alvanista had better facilities, so the king had made a deal with that city to send many of us over there for further training. While on board, I got to talking with some of the others. Many of us had never been at sea before, and the experience was novel. Many of us were alone; I myself was orphaned not long before. I had no sisters or brothers, no ties to anyone or anywhere. One of the guys, I think his name was Michael, or Miguel, or Maxwell? No, not Maxwell. That's that spirit from the legend.
"But you know about that one. You were there! Anyway, this guy was truly enamored of the military life. He came from Toltus, to the south. Made it sound like a really nice place to live. Not too big, not too small. He was GOOD. Wanted to make the military his life, was devoted to swordwork. Said he loved the way a blade felt in his hands, though he hated to use it. Me, I wasn't so sure. We had plenty of arguments about which was better, bow or blade.
"It was funny, really." He looked at Arche. "I'm not boring you, am I, milady?"
"No, but your food's getting cold." She smiled warmly at him. He was a good storyteller, but that would be no excuse for letting her cooking go to waste.
He looked embarrassed. "Then I beg your indulgence; I will tell my story later, if you would listen."
"I would," she said.
"Aren't you eating?"
Arche didn't want to admit that the ingredients she'd had for the simple potato stew were all she had left in the house. Though she'd gotten better at cooking, shopping for food wasn't her strong point. "No, I ate earlier." Praying her stomach wouldn't growl and give her away, she stirred the rest of the stew in the earthenware pot. The pot had the patina of age, use, and love; it had come through time with her. Once she'd thought to sell it if she needed money; now she'd used it so much that it had become one of her dearest possessions. It was a reminder of the good old days, a reminder of her vow to overcome the stigma of "Terrible Cook" with which she had once been saddled.
"This is REALLY good! Oh, I could eat this forever," Travis said blissfully, indulging himself fully. "Ah, a sorceress indeed!" After that, he fell silent, intent on feeding his face.
Arche grinned proudly, her back once more to him. ~Definitely not related.~
He'd practically licked his plate clean before he spoke again, several minutes later. Yawning deeply, he ended in a contented sigh.
"Oh my good Lady Sorceress," he half-purred. "I would do anything you asked of me, go anywhere, slay the foulest demon for you at this moment. Well, perhaps after a nap," he yawned again.
Arche giggled softly. "You're too much. Keep it up," she teased. "But here. I've an extra bed. Take a nap, and I'll leave you in peace. I need to run some errands.
"If anyone comes to the door, ignore them. I usually do," she said, showing him the bedroom and the extra bed. "Just so you know, I don't have anything worth stealing." A dusty broom gleamed dully in the corner, but it was clear she meant it. Not having the gift of magic himself, Travis wouldn't get any use of it, and a broom was rather unwieldly to haul around the countryside looking for a place to sell it. Especially since there were none like it in this place and time, and no one would buy something known to belong to the Eternal Sorceress that did not come from her own hand.
"I'll not be long." She took the old broom over one that looked much simpler but less dusty as Travis yawned again and lay down, barely managing to pull off his boots. He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
She flew directly to Euclid, stopping at every store to be on the safe side. Using the last of her Miracle Charms, she bargained the prices down on a full stock of medicines, food, and supplies. A quick thought had her zipping north to Venezia, where she could get other things not available in the smaller city.
Amazingly, it wasn't much more than two hours before she returned to the Valley. Travis was still snoring softly away on her guest bed.
~Gods, he looks good,~ she thought, unable to stop staring at him as he lay there. Nearly forgetting about the bag full of supplies she still carried, she stopped by the doorway, admiring the body of the man sprawled carelessly across her spare bed. His well-muscled chest rose and fell slowly in the deep, even breaths of sleep. One powerful arm was flung out across the bed, while the other crossed over his narrow waist. ~Even his LEGS are sexy,~ she mused.
Almost as if he sensed eyes on him, he rolled over onto his side. Alas for poor Arche, that gave her quite an excellent view of his rear end. Not that she was complaining.
~How... very... grabbable...~ She was almost drooling. Shaking her head at herself, trying to clear it of the thoughts that were threatening to drown her reason, she retreated to put the groceries away. Still, she could watch him sleep for hours.
In fact, when everything was done, she lay down on her own bed, back to the wall, facing him. His eyes were closed, his expression peaceful, as he faced her. He hadn't moved since she'd left him several minutes before. Unconsciously, Arche's position complemented his own. Where he leaned forward, she leaned back. Where his top leg crossed behind his bottom leg, hers would cross over it, had they been lying together. She lost track of time, watching him sleep. She only realized that she herself had dozed off as well when she awoke to find him watching her.
"I think you're a little too far away," he drawled, his intent clear in his expression. He made no pretensions towards gallantry now; his desire at the moment was purely physical and not entirely personal. She was an attractive woman, she was there, she'd made him feel good.
Embarrassed, Arche was up in a flash, rearranging the loose duster she now preferred over the close-fitting tunic and trim pants she wore. She found them more dramatic and comfortable on a broom as well as off. Unfortunately, when the duster was disarranged, her figure was on display all too readily. Red-faced, she glowered at him. "I'm not sure I'm far enough." Confused over her reactions to him, she left the bedroom. Not since Chester had she felt so flustered around a guy - or so furious. And to make matters worse, this one was everything Chester hadn't been: suave, flirty, sensitive... Direct... ~Blue haired idiots, the lot of them! Except Claus, of course,~ she amended to herself. ~Ugh. For the first time in decades I meet somoene interesting and he has to turn out to be a slime!~
"My lady, I'm sorry! I was out of line... Wait, please!" He stood in the doorway of the bedroom, looking at least as embarrassed as she felt - and twice as angry at himself. "I've been so long without a woman's company that I've lost all my manners and reason, and you looked so beautiful, sleeping there, that I couldn't help how I felt, but I shouldn't have said anything, that was stupid, please forgive me."
She stopped, not turning aroumd. It had been so long, and he really did seem sincere. He took a step towards her.
"That's... Close enough." Pretending to straighten up by moving things around on the windowsill, counters, and table, she kept her back to him. ~Then again, perhaps it would be for the best. Better not to let anything out that might hurt me in the future, near or otherwise.~
"Tell me. What is your name? I've spent years hearing stories, and no two of them call you the same thing, save when they call you the Eternal Sorceress. You're a terror to children and a fantasy to young men, a dream for young girls, and... err..." Suddenly he stammered and blushed. "The older men like to brag, and there have been a few who claim they've... argh. I shouldn't have said anything."
Arche stiffened with anger. ~So, now instead of a hero, parents use my name to scare children? Instead of being one of the team who saved the world, I'm a... A wet dream?~ The thought took her aback, and she hesitated. ~Wait a minute... Is that such a bad thing?~ She flushed again, angrier. ~Yes. Yes it is! I helped SAVE THE WORLD! Okay, so maybe we did rush a little headlong into it, and maybe we should have been a little more curious before we went off to kill Dhaos. I mean, he wasn't wrong in his objectives, although his methods could have used a little work.~
Travis watched her from the doorway. ~She's an open book,~ he thought, almost sadly. ~She's so much more than the stories, and yet she's so very human. By the gods. I WOULD get an instant crush on the world's most famously unobtainable woman. She's nearly a hundred years old, by all accounts, and never has anyone heard of her going on so much as date, despite the old men's stories.~
"Any name is as good a name as any other, I suppose." The torrent of emotions had left her feeling sad again. Her earlier depression of the morning (it seemed so much longer!) rushed back in a flood. As she sat, Travis held his breath, afraid to move until she lay her head on the table. Only then did he take a cautious step forward.
"Are... Are you all right?" He was surprised to find himself wanting to go to her, to comfort her. This strange woman he'd not even known half a day had indeed captivated him. She was old, and yet young; her body was that of a young, healthy woman but she seemed not to know very much of the ways of woman with man. "Gods. I'm sorry. I seem to be doing nothing but screwing up. I've taken so much good from you and given you only grief. I thank you for it, but I'll go."
"No!" Suddenly she was afraid to be alone again. So many years. Was it really such a bad thing, that he threw her into such a tizzy? She had been so long without a friend. Maybe that was all it was. Here was this good looking guy paying attention to her, the first person to do so in years, and she was not going to let him off so lightly. "No," she said more gently. "Please don't leave yet. You were telling me what happened to you," she added, looking hopeful.
~So childlike. How long has she been alone?~ Travis wondered. "Where was I, then?"
"Umm. You knew Cre- uhh, a creditable soldier named Miguel?" ~Whew. Nice save, Arche. Real smooth.~
Travis looked at her oddly, completely confused by the odd slip, but shrugged. "More than creditable. The guy was amazing. We all told him he was destined for greatness. He was going to be a Captain at the very least, if not lead the guards altogether. He was really something, and a nicer guy you can hardly imagine.
"We got to be friends, but when the ship landed at Alvanista, we were split up. After all, I was an archer, he was infantry. A few of us tended to hang out by the docks, occasionally slipping down to the guild and having a few, not always in that order. And some of us got to be regulars by the docks.
"That's how I met Antoni. He was a real rough sort, impressed all us young hotheads by being an older but hotter head, with a meaner right hook than anyone we'd ever met. Turned out he was a sailor on this ship called the _Falcon_, and when we asked what kind of cargo they handled, he said, 'Oh, this and that. Whatever comes our way.' A few of us decided to ship out with him one day. We had all been encouraged to berth out on ships if we could, maybe get some sea legs for ourselves if nothing else. Of course, when the military suggested it, they hadn't intended for us to join pirate ships."
Arche blinked at him. "I'd imagine not."
The apparently ex-pirate laughed. "Well, neither did we. But that's what it was, and we couldn't exactly ask to turn around and be dropped off back at port. So we did the best thing we could think of.
"We became pirates. It wasn't so bad, really. The Captain was fairly nice, as pirate captains go, and tried not to kill too many people. He was getting on in years, and the crew felt he had mellowed out. Actually, there were mutterings of mutiny in favor of a harder, more loot-minded captain. But nothing ever came of them, because he was fair in his dealings with us.
"Then this young cabin boy, Ifreed, came on board. The captain took him under his wing immediately. But let me tell you, that boy is a terror. He's going to grow up to be a real scourge of the seas," Travis grinned almost proudly. "For all he's eight, he's really something. Apparently, from what I understand, his mother was a half elf and his father was human. I can believe it; he's got an uncanny knack for grasping the weather and the ways of the world around him. And he's small for his age. While I don't suppose he's got all the abilities and characteristics of a fully half-elven child, I think it's possible that the child of a human and a half-elf still has a longer life and some trace of magical ability. Whether or not they can actually use magic, the way you do for example, is something else."
They both fell into silence. Arche hadn't the faintest clue what Travis was thinking, but she herself was trying very hard not to think into the future...
"Sorry. I was daydreaming." Once again, Travis looked embarrassed. Arche, however, had thought about what he'd said, but then a name had registered.
"Ifreed? The cabin boy? You were saying something about him."
"Ahh, of course. Yes. The Captain all but adopted Ifreed, and even Antoni stopped grumbling - he'd been the one eyeing the captaincy most avidly. I think we all saw it. The captain was going to raise him through the ranks, and we'd all enjoy serving someone as canny as Ifreed. The kid has a bit of a soft side, but he's sharp.
"Unfortunately for me, there was a storm..." Here he looked embarrassed. "And I fell overboard. Just the other side of the island, in fact." Travis pointed out the window. "Over the mountain. I hit land about a day later and couldn't move for most of another. Managed to climb over, saw the house, and thanked the gods for putting me within sight of civilization. By the time I got down here, I could barely stand. Met up with a nest of Raptor Kings up near the summit. They didn't make it, but it was close."
By this time, Arche had relaxed somewhat, and Travis was sitting opposite her at the table. "Wow," she breathed. "That's something... That's incredible." Wide-eyed, she looked at him, studying him in the afternoon light streaming through the window. His hair gleamed with health, and though he still looked a little haggard from his ordeal, she was quite taken with how gorgeous he actually was.
"You must be hungry again," she said abruptly, when the silence began to grow awkward. "There's more stew, or I could make something else?"
"Stew's fine," the traveler said happily.
Arche looked into the pot. "It's cold," she said doubtfully. "I could reheat it in no time flat."
"Oh, it's not really-"
"Fireball!" The sphere of flame that formed all but exploded under the pot, and in seconds the faded embers were once again merrily crackling.
"Just a minute more. I'm going to need to get more wood soon," she said, half to herself.
"Oh, Lady, let me. It's the least I can do. I don't want to leave until my debt is repaid. My Lady Sorceress," Travis said, rising again, all frivolity gone from his expression, "You have saved my life, and more. All that I have, all that I am is yours, until the day you declare that debt repaid."
"Well, I COULD demand the life of your firstborn son," Arche said, a wicked twinkle in her eyes.
"Ha! As if any woman would marry a deserter with no prospects or property and a shady past, much less bear his son." The tall man darkened, though his anger was clearly internalized. "I am thrice a fool, my lady, for I have all but thrown my life away. In a way, I am like you, in that I have no one and nothing now, save for what I give myself, and whatever stories I have left behind to be mangled in the retelling."
Arche blinked, taken aback. It was true. For all the space she had in Lone Valley, she had nothing of value. Most of the meager treasures she had kept from her adventuring days had been sold off, given away, or were purely of sentimental value. Sixty-seven years later, and she had so little to show for it. ~Should I have tried to get rich? Instead of using my abilities I sit here and hope people go away. How am I supposed to make friends if I won't even let anyone near me? Much less make money.~ "Once Claus died, I hid out more and more," she said, not fully realizing that she spoke aloud. "The world seemed emptier. It got scary. And I... I was never very good at making friends on my own." Arche's voice trailed into a whisper.
"But what about the other heroes? There were four of you, no?"
"Actually, there were six, but that hasn't happened yet. Or whatever. But yeah, back then, there were four of us. Claus and me, and then Cress and Mint were from the future. And when it was all over, after we came back from the future, it was Claus and me, here. And Milard, of course."
Her visitor smiled. "Everyone knows the story of Claus and Milard. It's one of the most romantic tales around. He really came back through time just to be with her, even though his dreams were a reality in the future. And she'd waited years for him, even before he left. Even a roughshod guy like me can appreciate that," he said.
She hadn't thought of it that way - but then, she'd counted them both good friends. "They had a daughter. I used to babysit for her, but when she got older, she tended to stay away from me. She wasn't that close with her parents, either. I wonder what happened to her?"
Travis made a non-committal sound. The sorceress eyed him sharply. ~Oh... My... No, it couldn't be. It couldn't POSSIBLY be. That was just me being silly. No.~ Dismissing the incredulous thought before it had time to form, Arche smiled brightly. ~But the blue hair, the passage of time... No! That's just TOO WEIRD to think about!~ "I don't suppose it matters, really. I'm sure she found a nice husband and settled down to a wonderful, happy life in a loving home of her own," she said, trying to seem offhand even as she watched the archer before her.
"I'm sure she did," was all he said. He didn't seem to care about the subject, as if he found it boring and was only humoring her in her nostalgic line of thinking. It was only then that Arche noticed, despite the attention she'd paid to his expression, she hadn't noticed where his eyes had gone. It was flattering, but...
Glaring red-faced at him, she hissed, "I'm. Up. Here."
He reddened as quickly as she had, one hand scratching nervously at the back of his head. "Aah. Sorry, my lady, I, ahh... err..."
She handed him an axe. "Here. Go find some firewood. And don't call me Lady."
Nodding, he all but fled. The late afternoon sun was hovering just on the horizon as he crossed the bridge to where Hamel once had stood. Though long gone, there were places in the still somewhat sparse woods one could find traces of the city that had been. One of them was a gravesite, which he all but tripped over, though it was why he'd come north rather than going toward the better forested areas outside Euclid. The marker said simply, "Here lies Rhea Scarlet." The year was nearly scuffed out, but he was reasonably sure he knew what it said. It had been from the year of the town's destruction. 4202 on the Aserian calendar. Another one of the famous stories, and the names by which some few knew of the Sorceress, was "True Friend." Though the marker was worn and the remains of the town reclaimed by the wilderness, the site itself was well tended, and he knew it to be true.
Sighing, he stared at it for a long moment before moving a little way away to chop wood. Losing himself in the physical excercise, he was surprised at how quickly he was winded, until he realized that having nearly drowned, then come as close to death twice on a mountainside, rather cost him in energy. It hurt, but not as badly as he had feared; when morning came, he knew he'd truly feel it. For now he had all he could carry, so he managed the walk back to the house with his burden at a leisurely pace.
~I can see why some might doubt the stories,~ he mused as he worked, ~but the proof is right here. For all she seems so naive and flighty, she was part of the team that saved the world as we know it. It was she and her friends who enabled us to have magic. Even magitech, although it isn't very stable and probably never will be, is around because of them. She's a hero. She's been on her own for so long. I wonder why? She's beautiful. She's intelligent, she's a good cook, she's sweet, funny, caring, loyal, and devoted. Why is she alone?~
"It doesn't make any sense." He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until a voice interrupted his thoughts.
"Excuse me, boy?"
Travis jumped nearly a foot in the air, barely managing to hold onto the firewood he carried. "What?"
The old man, traveling at a leisurely pace down the road, looked at him oddly from beneath the rim of his hat. "What doesn't make any sense?"
Blinking, Travis shrugged to cover his embarrassment. "Oh, nothing. Women problems," he said wryly.
"Not women problems with HER, I hope," the old man said. By the direction in which he jerked his chin, it was clear whom he meant.
"The sorceress. It's obvious to me, boy, that you ain't dragging that firewood all the way down to Euclid."
He had to concede that point. "It's rather a long story. She sort of rescued me, well, that is, I came to her house half-dead, and she saved me. Well," he said, uncomfortable under the old man's intense scrutiny, "I had been at sea, and nearly drowned, and climbed the mountains over into Lone Valley. She gave me medicine and food, and I'm much better now," he finished lamely.
"HA! Everyone knows that Arche Klein is a terrible cook! She's nearly as famous for that as for her magic!" the old man cackled.
~Arche is her name. Arche Klein. How odd, she seems to prefer that I not know her name. Weird.~ "Maybe she used to be," Travis replied stoutly. "But she's gotten a lot better. I haven't had food as good as hers since... Since my mother died." The thought sobered the young man.
"Hey, now, boy, don't go getting all sentimental on me." They walked together down the narrow strip of beach that lead down from the bridge to Lone Valley. "Like as not, she has gotten better - she's had time. But mark my words, m'boy. That woman's fate has been set as surely as young Scarlet's back there was. Don't fall in love with her, for the one to whom she already belongs heart and soul has not yet been born."
Now Travis was disturbed. They were already at the entrance to the valley. Looking towards the house, he stumbled for words. "You mean... One of the heros of legend? But everyone knows that story. The two who came from the future were meant to be together." He turned back to face the old man, but he had vanished. Typical. "I hate when you do that, Grandfather."
The sun had long since set when he arrived at the house. It had been on the horizon when he left for the woods, after all. The old man's words echoed in his head. Was he falling in love with her, after knowing her less than a day?
He dreaded facing her suddenly, needing to resolve his own feelings on the subject. Still, she'd worry if he said nothing.
"I'm back!" he tried to sound cheerful as he stacked the wood by the door.
"Everything okay?" Arche looked much calmer than she had before. If anything, she looked positively domestic, having apparently dug out a skirt and blouse in the peasant fashion, complete with apron. Her hair, instead of tied back in its usual high ponytail, was bound loosely at the nape of her neck and covered with a scarf. When she turned back to the earthenware pot bubbling merrily over a small fire, he caught a glimpse of bare foot beneath the voluminous skirt. An idle corner of his brain wondered if she knew how utterly sexy that was.
~Why am I suddenly afraid for my life?~ "Yeah. The wood's outside. I can bring it in if you need." Travis eyed the sorceress' back uncertainly.
"No, that's fine. It can wait until tomorrow." ~Why am I so nervous about him staying here? Anything else is ridiculous. It's far too late for him to go traipsing about and setting up a campsite, and he's been through so much he'll probably keel over halfway to Euclid. No, he has to stay. But why is it so different than it was when we were all camping out together?~ Then it hit her: this was her home. This was not some grassy patch of ground in the wilderness, or even a public inn where everyone slept in the same room - and sometimes the same beds. This was her private space, her sanctuary from the world. And she would be sharing one of the most intimate, vulnerable periods of anyone's life with him. Of course, he'd be doing no less with her. ~After all, if we're both asleep, it's not as if anything can go wrong. It's no different from an inn. Except instead of coin, he's paying in work. See, Arche?~ she told herself. ~It'll be fine!~ Smiling brightly, she turned back to the young man, who immediately schooled his own expression into neutrality.
He sniffed. "Oh! That smells GOOD! What is it?" He inhaled again, deeply, appreciating the appetizing scent that permeated the house, originating at the pot Arche stirred.
"I've never heard of that before. It smells positively divine."
"I learned it right here, in this very place. About seventy years from now," the sorceress said, the brightness in her voice a little tight over the uncomfortable expression she covered hurriedly.
"I MUST have the recipe from you," Travis decided after blinking away his surprise.
Arche looked at him, surprised in turn. "You haven't even tasted it yet. How do you know if you'll like it?"
Travis levelled a look at her. "I'll like it. Trust me, I know I will."
Shrugging, the half-elf turned back to the stove. "Well, first, you have to boil water..." Grinning at his flash of irritation, Arche relented and related the recipe over the next several minutes. At last determining that the dish was prepared, she chased him to the table (pre-set, he noticed) whereupon she insisted on serving him.
"Your cooking I trust," Travis quipped. "It's your behavior that's worrying me. The Eternal Sorceress is not known for her willingness to cater to the whims of others." He grinned to show that he was kidding.
She tried to grin back, but Arche found the expression just wouldn't come. "Gods, Travis, it's been so lonely. It's been so long since I've actually done any good for anyone. Even myself. I just want things to be normal, but it's not possible. Not when you're me." A wry smile managed to wrangle its way to her face, but the pain in her eyes as she lowered her guard defeated it quickly. "Even though I'm only half-elven, I've already outlived two dear friends. Others aren't even born yet, and I'm going to outlive them too. I'm not allowed into the Elven colony to visit my mother, and I have no elven friends. Even the other half-elves I've met. They don't seem... to want to know me," she finished barely above a whisper.
"Oh, my lady Arche, please, don't cry. I hate it when girls cry," he pleaded. "I'm no good at it." Uncomfortable, he looked around, but no assistance seemed to be forthcoming.
She looked up through the evidence of tears. Surprise colored her tone as she had clearly been distracted by his "You called me by name. How did you know my name? From the stories?"
Travis took a deep breath. "Actually..." He hesitated, then seemed to make up his mind about something. "There was this weird old guy I met on the way back here who told me about it, but then he vanished."
That news clearly shook the sorceress. "Disappeared?" She had her suspicions, but she doubted Claus would have put Origin up to such paltry spying missions. Or that the powerful, proud spirit would aquiesce even if he'd tried.
"Yeah. That usually is what 'vanished' means." He smirked at her but continued. "I couldn't really see his face clearly. He was wearing this really big hat."
"Big hat?" ~No. No way. No way no how nuh uh. SO isn't possible,~ Arche made a mantra of the denial. ~Please. Claus isn't the only person in the world ever to wear a big hat. Besides. He wouldn't do the whole mysterious ghost thing. Would he? No, of course he wouldn't. Arche, you're being silly.~
"Yeah." Travis shrugged again. "Big, floppy, and brown. Really ugly, actually. He said some weird stuff about destiny and stuff," the traveler said, suddenly embarrassed. He was finding it hard to look at the sorceress.
Arche watched him closely. "That is weird."
"Yeah. He said you were a terrible cook, like in the stories, but I told him he was wrong. I don't think he believed me because that's when he vanished."
"Huh." Arche shook her head, watching Travis as he tugged absentmindedly on a lock of hair that had fallen over one ear. "Thanks," she added belatedly.
Travis smiled. "Sure. No reason to lie, right?"
Arche smiled back. "None at all." She studied him closely, though his face betrayed nothing.
(Part 2 will be posted eventually... And there's more to come. Much more.)