The sun angled into Lone Valley sharply, hinting that it was ready to rest itself for the evening. Red amber light bathed the cavern walls in warm glows and long shadows.
Arche sat back and surveyed her handiwork with a smile. She'd managed to stay in touch with Travis, who had found his friend Miguel again. They'd both settled in Toltus as neighbors. Each was married now, and Miguel's wife Maria had just given birth to a son. Arche, who had taken up knitting as a way to fill the time sometime within the last few decades (she'd lost track), had just finished a baby blanket, to be given anonymously as part of a community gift to celebrate the child's birth. At least, the intention was for to to remain anonymous; more often than not, everyone knew who had given what gift. She was planning to go; the idea of holding an infant Cress was just too tempting. It might make something fun to tease him about, later.
Much later, of course. After he caught up with her in the timeline. Again. Ugh, almost a hundred years later and she STILL couldn't make sense of this time travel thing!
The blanket was nothing fancy, a frothy white confection of soft cotton yarn, with just a bit of texturing and a hint of a ruffle at the edges. But it would be smooth and warm to a baby's skin, without being stifling. Arche was quite proud of it.
"See?" she said proudly, holding it up to the older man who sat across the table from her, a bemused grin under his salt and pepper beard. "I finished it EARLY. And you said I'd never get it done."
"Now, now, I never said you'd NEVER get it done," he teased. "But it is indeed a fine work of art, elegant in its simplicity. I think Maria and Miguel will be quite pleased."
Arche rolled her eyes. "Quite pleased, huh? Master Tristan, you sure don't exaggerate, do ya." They laughed, remembering. Arche had babysat for Tristan, once. Maybe twice. Now the man on the far side of middle age was one of the foremost martial artists in the world. He and Arche had maintained a friendship over the years, and while they had never been truly close, they shared a bond over the two families in Toltus.
Maria was generally a quiet woman and not particularly strong. She was prone to falling ill but when she was well she had an infectious smile and a laugh that carried others along with it. She enjoyed simple things but had a sharp eye for good handiwork, a love of crafts, and discerning tastes. If Tristan who had after all trained Miguel and known him for years thought that Maria would like it, Arche trusted his judgment.
A bird flew down to perch on the windowsill.
Tristan raised an eyebrow, recognizing it as a message pigeon from Toltus. "Well, Miss Arche, I begin to suspect you might have finished only a moment too soon."
"For you to have been right, you mean," she smiled as she unwrapped the bird's message. "Well... It looks like you were right. The child is born and is a son," the smile was enigmatic, "and they're starting the celebration at noon tomorrow. Apparently they either sent the bird late, or it took its sweet time."
"No matter which. Then I suppose we'd best get started," Tristan said, rising. "After all, I'd better be on time to meet my newest student. One must begin training early, you know."
"As if. You just want the free food."
Tristan didn't try to deny it. He grinned, running a hand through his thinning hair. "I fail to see a problem with that."
"Come to think of it," Arche nodded as she packed away the blanket and a few supplies for the trip, "Neither can I."
They set off on the road shortly before dark. "Since my broom was aided by magitech, we'll make much better time if I fly us," Arche pointed out. Tristan didn't look very impressed but couldn't argue the point. Arche's broom could fly straight lines that were simply impossible to walk, crossing mountains and water with impunity. They flew through the night, arriving shortly after daybreak.
"I could use a nap," Arche yawned, apologizing.
"I think that makes both of us. Let's see if there's room at the inn." Tristan led the way to the roomy building. The inn, as it turned out, had been booked solid the night before.
"You're in luck, though," said the cheery proprietor. "What with the babe's birth, everyone is already in the church preparing. We can freshen a bed for you."
Arche nodded around another yawn. "Just please have someone wake us up before the party starts?"
The proprietor nodded. "That can be arranged."
Neither Arche nor Tristan was awake anymore by the time their heads met their respective pillows.
They woke to bells ringing. "What's goin' on?" Arche muttered sleepily, preparing to be cranky.
"The church bells are ringing, Miss," said the maid who had just come into the room. "I'd come to wake you as you wished. The celebration starts in half an hour and we thought you'd want time to prepare."
Thanking her, Arche took her bundle and slipped out of the room. Twenty minutes later, feeling much refreshed and still wringing the water from her hair, she entered the church which was full of people. Snatches of conversation caught her ear as she drifted past, heading for the gift table. She would have to stop coming here soon, she mused, else she ran the risk of recognition. Also, Toltus was just too lovely a place, and she knew what was coming...
"Stop fussing. It's not a religious service," she heard one woman reassuring her dubious husband. "It's just that the church is big enough for everyone."
"What a GORGEOUS church!" one woman was enthusing to her friends. "Why don't we have a church like this in Venezia?"
"We don't have one in Venezia," her friend replied drily.
"Exactly! We really need one because have you heard..." The woman's voice was lost in the background as Arche kept walking. Tristan had entered the church somewhere behind her; she had lost track of him in the crowd.
"There you are!" said a happy voice to her right. Arche turned. The good-looking young man was a complete stranger to her As it turned out, that was fine as he ran to an even better-looking youth ahead and to her left. "Mom said you were supposed to come!"
"Mom's always right," said the other, apparently his brother. "Where is she?"
"I heard that the Mayor of Venezia was supposed to come," an older woman commented to her friend.
"Bah, you believe everything you hear."
Arche smiled amidst the happy hubbub. It was a wonderful occasion. Miguel and Maria were well loved in their town and their reputation had spread; they had had a hand in Dhaos' binding (Arche had chosen not to get involved, as Claus had warned her that would alter history AGAIN and probably not for the better) and were well known throughout the world. It seemed the entire population of Toltus and several other cities besides had turned out to celebrate the birth of their son. Shortly after noon, speeches would be made and the new mother would be carried out of the house, babe in arms, to present him to everyone. Then the feasting and celebrating would begin. Arche especially looked forward to the game of "Pass the Baby" as did many others; it was not only considered good luck for the holder but many believed that it would help the child learn to be comfortable with people at an early age.
Arche wasn't so sure. She did love babies but she didn't think that at a few days old they would retain much memory of being passed around like a hot potato.
Even if they did, why would they want to?
The noon bell began to toll, barely cutting through the general chaos. Someone Arche didn't recognize stood at the podium, banging and yelling for attention. Eventually, everyone around him noticed and started to find seats, spreading the organization slowly through the crowd.
Once again, a happy voice lifted itself to her ears. "There you are! Arche, over here!" She turned to look, a familiar blue head bobbing slightly above everyone else's. A long-fingered hand waved merrily at her as Travis appeared in front of her. "We found you!"
Giggling, Arche shook her head at her old friend's enthusiasm. "Yeah, you found me, when are you gonna put me back?" It was an old joke between them, but Arche's heart trembled slightly at the realization that, since Cress was born, that time was all too soon.
"Probably about a week after you go bad."
"Why so late," she continued the ritual.
"I wanna have some fun with the bad you first!" Rachel rolled her eyes at her husband's lewd wink, although she knew the relationship between them had never been anything other than platonic. Travis had confessed to her his attraction to the half-elf when he'd first met her, but also told her about how his revelation about his bloodline had rightly cooled that down quickly.
"You two will never tire of that, will you," she said, her amusement evident even though the mild exasperation. "Oh, is that for the baby?" She had spotted the blanket Arche carried.
Arche nodded. "I knitted it myself," she couldn't help but brag.
"It's gorgeous!" Rachel cooed over the small blanket, discussing knitting techniques with Arche as Travis trailed behind, his eyes rolling. The two women arranged the blanket carefully on the table, to provide the best possible view of it, and followed the remainder of the crowd to their seats.
The man at the podium welcomed everyone and got the crowd to quiet. After thanking everyone for coming, he introduced the proud father and the three men Miguel had chosen to help him carry the chair bearing his wife and newborn son to be presented. Travis was among them, as was the baby's uncle Olson, and the fourth was a younger man in very good shape. He was introduced as Mars, a fellow of Miguel's. Arche suppressed a shudder; she knew the young man's fate. All of their fates. She sighed.
Rachel's hand was comforting on her shoulder; despite the closeness Arche shared with Travis, it was his wife who understood her better. Though lacking the half-elven woman's experiences, magic, or time traveling past, she had an innate ability to comfort those who seemed troubled. The first time she had met Arche, Rachel was sure that the other woman was suffering more than she would ever let on from her knowledge of the future. Travis had asked, once. Rachel had rebuked him almost before Arche could even react. Arche had never forgotten that.
It wasn't long at all before the audience rose to their feet as the doors opened and a large white chair appeared over their heads. Maria, looking still exhausted but utterly glowing, held a tiny blond bundle close to her heart. No one applauded, but every last person in the room was holding his or her breath with excitement. People were hugging in the pews to keep from exclaiming aloud.
The chair was set down, speeches were made; Arche scarcely paid attention. She was enraptured with the little infant in his mother's arms.
She barely even noticed when everyone started to leave the pews to gather in the square for the feast that had been prepared in the new child's honor.
"Hey, Arche, come on, you're gonna miss the food!" Travis tugged a lock of her hair. She rose to follow.
Rachel looked different, she noticed. A little thicker, a little more settled. Idly, Arche shook her head; the woman had better watch her figure. Unconsciously she smoothed her skirt along her hips. Still taut.
The archer noticed. "Still taut," he said, unknowingly echoing Arche's own thoughts. "That'll change for you one day, just wait." He leered at his wife.
Rachel blushed. "It's okay," she said.
"What is?" Arche was confused.
Travis took his wife's hand, and they shared one of those looks that truly married couples share, a soft significant smile saved specially for one another. "We wanted you to be the first to know, even before Miguel," he said to Arche. "We're going to have a baby soon too."
Rachel nodded. She was glowing. "If it's a girl, we're going to name her Ami. And if it's a boy-"
"It will be," Travis said, all confidence. All three laughed.
Rachel shook her head indulgently, her green curls dancing merrily on her shoulders. "It will be what it will be, and you will love it just the same, Travis Burklight," she chided. Travis merely nodded. "If it's a boy," she continued, "we want to name him Chester."
Arche stood rooted to the spot, struggling not to let her reaction show. Her mind refused to process the information. ~By all the gods, demons, spirits, and whatever else is out there! Claus... And Chester... And Travis! Travis Burklight! I've got to get out of here!~ It all made a certain horrible sense, now, insofar as she was able to make any sense of it. ~Chester's dad, I almost made a huge mistake with Chester's dad, who's Claus' grandson, and he's Chester's DAD and ohmygods I was so BLIND! At least that explains why Claus never took off that damned hat. But why, in all these years, why did I never even find out Travis' last name!~
"Chester. That's... a lovely name," she said, praying it didn't sound as weak as she meant it.
Somehow she made it through the party, not staying long past the end of the conversation. Travis and Rachel seemed to be hurt by her obvious avoidance, but again Rachel had a look of forlorn understanding as she watched the pink hair bobbing across the room. "I think she knows something, Travis. Maybe about us, maybe about our child, but it's something that she can't share with us, and you know that upsets her. Let her go, beloved. It will all work out in the end." Travis couldn't argue with his wife, though he wished he could. Later, they would worry, then miss her. They would never talk about her in front of anyone else after that, and when their own deaths eventually came for them, each thought of Arche if only for one rueful moment.
Not soon enough for her own tastes, Arche was grabbing her broom. She flew high and far, needing to find a way to disappear. Once again she wished that Ymir were open to her. Then she remembered. Arsia and Brambert! Maybe they could take her in and they could hide from the world together. Just until Travis gave up looking, if he'd even bother. She'd send them a blanket for their child and go into hiding. She'd go back to Lone Valley afterward, but first she had to vanish. Just long enough for him to forget about the time they'd spent together, for Rachel to neglect to raise her son on stories of the fabled Eternal Sorceress...