The Pumpkin Patch

The setting sun painted the clouds across the horizon in varying hues of orange, red and purple. The clouds and the sky looked different on land; he'd noticed it before, briefly, when the masts of ships at port obstructed his view of the ocean. Here, further inland, nothing but clouds marred the sky and the horizon did not form a clear, unbroken line, it undulated over distant hills and around stands of trees. Smoke from the village below curled into the low clouds and the colours of the sunset seemed more defined.

Iain crested the last rise and caught his breath as Stormgard came into view. Immediately, his gaze flicked to the west, to the ocean, though he could not see it beyond the low cliffs. Then he turned his attention south once more, to the village itself. His feet stopped moving and the young man stood still, gazing over the rooftops, counting the houses, remembering the names of each family. He looked towards the tavern and the square, the market, the small manor house atop the hill. To the east, the forest rolled back over the hills and, nestled against the bank of the river, lay the sawmill. Further south, he saw farms, like those he'd walked past for the last two hours, the houses surrounded by their patchwork of fields.

Socks yowled quietly and Iain stooped to let the cat climb from his neck. The small creature stretched, arching his back, and padded off to the side of the road to mark his territory. Iain watched his companion for a moment, making sure he did not intend to explore further, and then looked back towards the village. He picked out the roof of the MacKinnon house, towards the top of the village, on the west side, and saw smoke curling from the chimney. He could just make out the door and as he watched, it opened and a figure stepped out. From this distance he thought it might be his mother – the shadows in the yard obscured details. The cat leaned against his leg and Iain smiled down at his friend.

"Come on, Socks, let's see what's for dinner."

He began walking again, and Socks trotted along beside him, happy it seemed, for the excuse to use his own paws for a change. A short while later Iain approached the gate surrounding the yard. Looking through the slats, he noticed the squash vines tangled across one side of the garden. Here and there orange pumpkins and pale yellow squash peeked out from beneath the broad, green leaves. Kneeling in the midst of the patch, pulling at a weed, was Theresa MacKinnon, his mother. She had a scarf tucked over her head, but it barely restrained the familiar blonde curls, so similar to his.

As Iain stood there, hesitating, Socks curled through his legs and slipped through the fence posts. With a friendly meow, he approached the woman in the pumpkin patch, either recognizing her as one of his people or just hoping she'd have a friendly word and a soft hand. Theresa looked up at the cat and smiled.

"Well hello there, who are you?"

The sound of her voice caused an odd squeezing sensation in Iain's chest and a ragged grunt fell from his lips. She looked up at the sound and gasped, falling back on her heels. Neither of them moved for perhaps a whole minute, they simply stared, eyes flicking back and forth, taking in details. Iain stepped forward, his entire manner unsure. He'd not been able to adequately prepare himself for this moment. He did not know if they'd got his letter, or if they believed him dead... Like Rafi. He could only vaguely grasp what it might be like to think both your children gone from this world, never to be seen again. For his part, intense emotion filled him, indefinable, a combination of joy and sadness he could not separate, but only feel together.

With an odd cry, Theresa finally struggled to her feet. Her fingers covered her lips as she whispered, "Iain?"

Nodding, he pushed through the gate, his steps clumsy for no good reason. He shrugged his shoulders, easing the pack from his right side first, before slipping it over his left arm and dropping it to the ground. He didn't have to step forward any further as she was suddenly there before him and he smiled down at his mother as a very familiar expression replaced the confusion and pain that had moved across her face.

"Where...?" Where have you been? A question so often asked and rarely answered adequately. It seemed he'd always been somewhere he shouldn't have been. This time, however, a simple answer, even an easy lie, would not suffice.

As if he'd not been away from home for nearly three years, he said, "Hello, mum."

A wail left her lips and she stumbled forward, throwing herself at her son. "Maker's breath, Iain," she gasped before flinging her arms about him, the wiry strength of her apparent in the firm hold.

Iain hugged her back just as fiercely, his chest heaving with choked breaths. He could feel her trembling and sobbing and it made his stomach knot horribly, it felt almost worse than if he'd never come home. He feared for her, that it might be too much, to have been robbed of two children, only to have one step from the side of the road one day, unexpectedly. His mother soaked his shirt with her tears and her hands kept moving, grasping his arms, touching at his clothes, his hands, his chest and his face, as if to check he was all there, really there. She touched the scar across the left side of his face, her brows drawing together in something more than motherly concern, and she hugged him all over again, her blonde head buried against his shoulder.

Finally, she let him go only to grab his arm and pull him towards the house. Iain reached for his pack and stepped after her. Socks followed along, unperturbed by events.

Once inside, Theresa moved quickly to the kitchen to stir the pot she had set over the fire, muttering as she scraped the bottom. Turning to glance at him over her shoulder, she gave him a weak smile. "I think a few burnt bits are a small price to pay, oh, Iain." Then she was in front of him again, grasping his hands and smiling up at him with such love it made his heart hurt.

"Where have you been?" she finally asked.

Where have I been? Shaking his head, unable to answer such a question easily, Iain let out a breath. "Everywhere, at sea. It's... it's a long story." Had they got his letter? "I wrote to you."

Eyes wide, she nodded and walked to the mantle, her fingers slipping beneath the lid of a small silvered box. She pulled out a tattered piece of parchment. The only words visible on the outside were MacKinnon and Stormgard. That it had been delivered at all amazed him. The inside was a mess of water marks, vague scrawls, holes, stains. It was... unreadable.

"We never knew," she said, folding the wrinkled square back over again. "I... we all hoped, but..." Her tears came again and she stood there shaking her head, tears in her eyes again. Iain took the parchment from her fingers and returned it to the box. His fingers brushed other letters in there and his heart leapt, briefly, wondering if they were from Rafi. He suspected they were older than that though, the dutiful letters home they'd both written from Highever.

Looking down at his mother, he said, "I sent it from Rialto, in Antiva." Her eyes widened and he found himself smiling at the surprise and wonder in her expression. He'd been that far, her eyes said. I've been so much further, he answered. "I'm sorry I didn't write more..." and here he trailed off, brows drawing together as he turned to gaze into the hearth instead. He found it hard to articulate why he'd not written letters every day. At first he'd just been unable to communicate, to anyone. Then he'd wondered if it might be better to let them believe he'd died, a combination of shame over his capture and torture and grief over the loss of his sister paralyzing his hand, stilling his pen on the page. He'd written finally after the pirate attack, when the captain had released him from his oath, when he'd felt as if he might actually see Ferelden again.

Theresa shook her head again, obviously at a loss for words. There was too much to say and it could not be said all at once. It would take more than a slice of time before dinner to tell his story, answer her questions.

Worn by the emotion of the day, the farewells to the crew and the reunion with his mother, he took her hands and led her to the kitchen table. The large, pine surface had become stained over time, but still retained a beautiful honey gold colour. The table legs were strong, yet delicate, rounded and turned, the shape of them enhancing the grain of the wood. His grandfather had made the table as a young man and it had always sat there, in the centre of the kitchen. It was the heart of their household, where they ate, talked, played cards and simply sat. They just sat now and his mother refused to let go of his arm, as if afraid he might disappear if she did.

When the front door opened again, the sound followed by the stamping of two pairs of boots and quiet conversation, Iain steeled himself for the next round. His father and grandfather had arrived home. The voices drew closer as the two men made their way to the kitchen, towards the smell of stew and the warmth of the fire. Both voices broke off as Callum MacKinnon and his father in law, Gavin Morren entered the room. Iain had turned in his chair to face the door. He stood.

"Holy Andraste," Callum swore softly before striding across the room to envelope his son in a hug. Of a height, the two men embraced closely, their chins over one another's shoulders. Iain felt the slight tremble in his father's large, strong frame and he knew he was shaking also. Again, the feeling was terrible, confusing almost. He knew his family loved him, he'd always known, but to be clung to so fiercely communicated it louder than any words might have. Drawing back, his father grasped both his cheeks and kissed his forehead, much as Captain Idowu had done. "My son," he said, dropping his hands to Iain's shoulders, squeezing them, then patting.

Gavin took his turn then and Iain embraced his grandfather more gently, but with no less feeling, the man's shorter, wider body almost more sturdy in his arms than his father's had been. His grandfather knew loss; he might have coped better, outwardly. But he looked no less pleased to see Iain than any other in the room.

Clapping him on the shoulder again, Callum asked, "Where have you come from, Highever? Why did not Sera write us?"

At his sister's name, Iain's lungs refused to work. His body no longer responded to his command. He tried to breathe, but could not, and the only sound he heard was the swish and pulse of his own blood, the soft beat of it behind his ears. Rafi was...?

Finally, his body came back to him, but in a useless fashion. His legs trembled and his lips worked over inarticulate sounds and the rushing blood swirled about his head, causing the room to spin. He stumbled and his father and grandfather caught him, guided him to a chair. Sitting heavily, he dragged air into his lungs, the sound of it ragged. He dropped his head between his knees, combating dizziness and sudden, odd nausea.

He'd hoped, he'd always hoped, but he'd never known. Now he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, his sister, his twin, his other half, was alive.