Hm… Never really dreamed that this year's birthday fic would be about Bronden, of all people. 0.o

I personally blame my brother for this sudden RoR binge of late. I've sort of been re-reading a book a night, and… Just, huh. Bronden is so crabby she probably doesn't get much attention from fans, no matter how few or many there are. And this post-series concept has been in my head since… Um, 2006, I think? It comes back to poke me in the ribs every now and again; but, since there hasn't been a fandom I could readily access until recently, there hasn't been much of a point.

But the stars have just aligned so nicely, so why not? Here's to Bronden, one of the series' least liked and least understood characters. May she gain a little more depth by the end of this blurb.

(Spoiler—totally necessary character death at the end. I'm not telling you who it is, so you'll just have to read and find out for yourselves! :P)

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Wood and Stone

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She didn't like to admit it, even to the few friends she had. But Bronden felt bored, tired, and dare she say it, lonely.

It had been about a year since the long, hard winter, the last time Rin's resident heroes had climbed the mountain—again—and now it was summer. This last winter had gone by so fast, no one could really believe it was true. From dragons to man-eating trees to so-call ice creepers, it seemed there was nothing the mountain could throw at them that small Rowan couldn't fix, with a little time and help from his friends.

And now, after nearly a year and a half of strange things happening every time they turned around, it was suddenly quiet in the hills. Almost nothing of consequence had happened. Perhaps everything that had troubled the land had finally been purged, and the people could relax, at long last. Everyone else seemed fine with this, especially the usual heroes. After all, they all had lives to live. A few of them had businesses to run and young families to tend to. Stillness and no adventures meant they could stay still and do whatever they did best.

It was all good and well for them, perhaps. But Bronden was bored, and still a little embarrassed that she had been of so little use on the last adventure. It still infuriated her from time to time that she had spent most of it bedridden, hardly able to move, while a band of mere children went up the mountain once again to solve the valley's problems. Even now, more than a year later, her old wounds plagued her. And it often made the work that she loved so much difficult.

Not that she could ever admit that out loud to anyone. Anyone. Silent as she remained, the mill twins were always happy to point out that she clearly felt poorly. Val was, anyway, because Ellis remained silent as ever. But at least she was a sensible human being, hardly ever led by raw emotions, and the closest Bronden had to a best friend. She trusted the sturdy woman's opinions, blunt as they could be, but she did not like to hear them.

"I've never been a person to worry about other people's affairs," Val had said in the spring, "but I do worry about you sometimes. After that long winter ended and your wounds finally mended, you were never the same."

"I'm exactly the same as ever," Bronden had insisted defensively. "I gained a few scars, but what of it? Scars are good. They are the mark of courage and strength."

"Or of failure. Twice the mountain has offered you a test, and twice it overcame you. It still weighs heavily on you."

"We had agreed never to speak of that again."

"Yet we must."

"We failed together back then."

"But the boy succeeded where we failed. Twice. And I feel the shock and shame of it, as well. But it's cut you deeper than I."

At that point, Bronden had looked away from her friend and ran her fingers through her thick hair to keep from punching Val in the face. "We're not talking about this, Valerie of the mill. We're simply not talking about this."

Val disliked being called by her full, pretty name, an affront that spelled pain for most people, and so had dropped the subject. She hadn't brought it up since then, but Bronden knew it was still on her mind. And thanks to that conversation, it was still on hers, as well.

Ug. Dreaded sentimentality. She didn't understand how some people she knew dealt with it so well.

As the summer wore on and she tried to concentrate all the harder on her work as the town's only furniture maker, it seemed that her dissatisfaction only worsened. In the past she had been happy to carry on in solitary silence, a small but powerful presence in their community. But recently, it felt like she often contended with Rowan for that title. Given her failures against his successes, it seemed that he was a smaller yet more powerful presence than her, these days. It was humiliating and exhausting, and left her nothing but her work.

To her chagrin, she found herself wondering more and more about what the others were up to. It seemed that they were doing well for themselves. Allun and Marlie's son, Forely, was a year old already, blastedly intelligent as his father and annoyingly strong as his mother. Even now, they were expecting another child in the fall. The role of parents suited them well, she supposed; it would have suited her poorly, in her opinion. Jiller and John were expecting their first child together in the spring, another son with their exceptional luck.

Bronden had decided to look optimistically on this influx of drated children. A thorn in her side, she was certain they would all be. But newborn children meant a market for cradles, beds, tables and more chairs, eventually. The people of Rin—even the ones she disliked—could go on having all the babies they cared. As long as they did, she would always be needed.

How lovely for them, she decided, unwittingly sullen. They seemed constantly busy, with a million more things to do and places to be, but they also seemed very happy. And why shouldn't they? Their work was just as hard and important as hers, and they had been just as alone as she in that. And now they all had children who could help them soon. By the time he turned six, Forley would probably be training beside his clever father as a baker, gaining skills and learning the secrets of the trade—for all trades have secrets. Son or daughter, John's unborn child would be helping him in the orchard in a few years. Hopefully, Marlie would bear a daughter to take up her work, in time.

It wasn't until she thought of this that Bronden realized just how tired and lonely she was. Who would take up her work when her steam ran out? Who would be there to look after her when she needed help? In her true moments of need recently, she had been left alone to face them where others had family and friends to lean on.

She remembered vividly the night that the mountain berry trees had nearly taken over the town, lulling the townspeople into a deep sleep from which there was little hope of escape. She had valiantly fought the drowse to the very last, only to succumb to the forces of nature as easily as everyone else. She had been momentarily terrified at what was happening to her, worried that she might even be dying, and that no one was around to be bothered to help or even care about her. She had collapsed on her front porch, all alone, her terror only building in her delirium. She had woken again hours later, cold, confused, and still alone.

It was a feeling of helplessness that she had no desire to relive. But as she grew more and more tired, and more and more children were conceived, she grew more and more worried. And so grew her only friends. The conclusions her unspoken fears led them to were growing more and more preposterous, as well.

"You ought to find a man of your own soon," Val had suggested a few weeks ago. "To see you all by yourself, day in and day out like this—it's unnatural."

"You first," Bronden had spat back, alarmed and angered by the very idea. They both knew deep down inside, even if the bonds of marriage were completely natural and fitting for most women, it most certainly was not for either of them.

"It could be good for you, even if only to fill your time," Val continued idly. "I know of a few people, if you are interested…"

"Enough!" she shouted, slamming her fists down on the table. "This is stupid and ridiculous! And I have plenty to of work to fill my time with. The last thing I need is a husband and children underfoot. I'm fine with the way things are, thank you very much."

That was a terrible lie, and they both knew it. But Val had rolled her eyes and, once again, dropped the sensitive subject, not to bring it up again.

I should be content with that, she thought. But as the season dragged on, her painful insecurities grew worse, and it seemed like the pressure to find a successor mounted by the day. Bored with her work, tired from her wounds, and lonely with no one to speak openly to, she had no idea what she was to do.

Once again, humiliating and exhausting.

All at once, her thoughts were interrupted by a shaggy, mischievous head sticking through the open window to her workshop.

"How's the day, Bronden?"

She looked up from her work and gloomy thoughts, aggravated that Norris was back so soon.

"What do you want?" she demanded. "Why have you come back to pester me like this?"

"My dear sister and surrogate mother have kicked me out of the house," he explained nonchalantly, "'until I can speak pleasantly,' they said. So I decided to go where no one speaks pleasantly, and not worry about it."

"To me?" she demanded, furious.

"Something to do, I suppose," he answered with a teasing shrug and a maddening grin.

"Get out of my workshop, boy, and go bother your skinny friend in the fields."

"Rowan sent me away, too. He says I irritate the bukshah, and make them nervous, so he doesn't let me near them anymore."

However dumb beasts could be irritated, Bronden did not know and did not care a speck. What irritated her was that Norris could single-handedly be tiresome enough for all his friends to drive him away. To bother her instead. Surely he had something useful to do somewhere. Right?

"Go about your own work, boy. I am busy with my own," she growled, bending back over her work, sanding down a tabletop.

"I have none. No one can seem to stand me. I don't understand what their problem is."

Unable to stand him on top of everything else, Bronden snatched up a wrench from her worktable.

"Lazy as well as useless, get out!" she yelled chucking the wrench at Norris' head. He ducked just in time to miss it and dashed away, laughing loudly to himself. She chased him only as far as the window and stuck her head out after him.

"Until you can speak pleasantly, indeed! You're worse than the meddlesome half-Slip and his ilk!"

Norris didn't look back, only kept running down the lane, hopefully to find someone else to annoy in her place. The town was full of people. Why did he have to choose her to come back to, over and over again? Every day for the past several weeks the boy had stopped by her house, sticking his head through the open window to antagonize her. When she had complained to Val about this earlier, she had laughed, herself—an unusual thing, in and of itself.

"He must like you," she had said, alarmingly amused.

Why must she take such pleasure in my distress? Bronden wondered as she returned to her work. The one person I had expected to count on, and all she can do is mock me mercilessly. Some friend…

Her anger eventually subsided; but her thoughts remained with Norris and what he was doing, wandering aimlessly about the town with nothing to occupy his time. He and his sister had only lived in Rin for a short time, but it was clear that he belonged with them. He was strong, bold, and tough enough. The other children seemed to like him, admiring him as the strongest and toughest of them all; though he didn't seem to call many of them as his personal friends, simply the people he was with the most often. He knew their names, and was happy to help them out in a pinch. But mostly, he stuck with the few people he knew well—being Sharron, Rowan, and that Traveler girl who seemed to follow them everywhere, even when her own people weren't around. (What was her name, again? Oh, Bronden could never remember…)

However, most of the town's adults had a deal of trouble appreciating him much. Norris had a notoriously short temper and a difficult personality. The other children celebrated it; outside of his age group, though, it made him nothing short of a nuisance. Bronden wasn't altogether surprised that no one was willing to take him on.

What did he do with all that spare time? Run around the town, bothering anyone he could find who was busy? It sounded like something Allun would have done, once upon a time. Now that he was busy, with a job and a family, someone had to be the town's resident trouble-maker. Who better than the child he had saved from an enslaved, dismal life? They two were very much alike, in their way. For a moment, it felt as if nothing had changed.

Tough, proud and iron-willed; admired by many, but close to few; loud, short tempered, and a little bossy; shorter and stockier than the other boys, but just as strong if not more so…

Bronden sat back and looked out the window, the way Norris had run off, and sighed to herself.

"Huh…"

He was a lot more like her than she had realized. Even his diminutive, soft-spoken sister, kind-hearted and sweet as any flower. The deep, unspeakable relationship they shared reminded her of… things she preferred not to be reminded of. There were older, deeper wounds more painful than any physical injury she had ever sustained, partially patched over by her refusal to think on them and her will to even forget about them. But trying sloppily to stich them back together again had never been the same as allowing them to heal. In fact, now that it was back on her mind, they felt as fresh as the day they had been cut.

That night, the twins joined her at her home again. She wondered which of her sore spots Val would insist on punching this time…

"Work seems like it's been good for you," she commented, looking around the house and pieces and parts of projects that spilled out of the workroom. "Are any of these close to completion?"

"There are tables and chairs that will be done on time," Bronden answered. "I should have taken more care to clean up before company came over. The whole house is littered with pieces of other people's furniture. I can't always remember which pieces are mine and which are for paying customers."

"If you ever need any help, surely one of us could come over here and help you."

Bronden eyed her quizzically, knowing full well what it did to the twins to be separated for any length of time. "You would do that?"

"We all need the help of friends, from time to time. Would you not come to help us, if we asked it?"

"You would never ask for help."

"But if we ever did?"

"Certainly, I suppose."

A silence passed, and the three of them took that moment to sip their soup.

"Good day, then?" Val asked when she had swallowed.

"That lazy Norris was back today…"

Val smiled, amused again. "I can always track the boy down and beat him soundly. There isn't a grown person in Rin who wouldn't love the chance. Even the baker and his mother are at their wit's ends with him, I believe."

"That is not necessary. I can deal with him, myself."

"You can barely deal with yourself."

"I'll figure it out. Does he have any sort of work to do? Will anyone take him on as an apprentice, student, part-time assistant—anything?"

"Who would do that?" Val asked with a shrug. "No one is interested in dealing with a temper like that for long. There are few in town who could handle a loose cannon like him."

"I'm rather a loose cannon myself…"

"What was that? Speak up, Bronden, muttering is for children."

"If he has nothing better to do, I have a few odds and ends around here that he can manage. It would give the whole town a much-needed break from his shenanigans."

Val grinned, thoroughly amused with where this was going. "Bronden, you don't mean to take him on, do you? Why, that would be comic! You'd lose your temper and throw him out in less than a day."

"Is that a dare? Or a bet? I'll take it."

"You think you can do this?"

"I will tame that boy. I will take him on and I will teach him a thing or two, and then we will see what is comic and what is not."

"I know that he admires you. I had never expected you to admire him, as well."

"I do not! I am only trying to do something productive."

"Of course you are."

That was the absolute last straw. Now she felt more determined than ever. She would all but yank the boy up by his hair and put him to work, whip him into shape, and show him how to be respectful. No matter how irritating or troublesome Norris truly turned out to be, she would be still and sturdy as wood and stone, as always. She would stick to it and deal with him. And she would get all her commissions finished on time. She would make Val sorry for teasing her so.

We will see who is laughing, when he has learnt at my hands to behave, she thought.

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The next day, she was happy to work and wait patiently in her shop for the boy to come by again. And, surely enough, his head soon appeared in her window.

"So, what shall you throw at me this time?" he asked with a smug grin.

Bronden set her tools down and looked up at him with a smug grin of her own. Instead, she picked up a worn apron from the bench beside her.

"I have only one thing to throw at you this day," she answered, tossing the tattered scrap of cloth at him. He caught it easily held it up to examine it, and stared her, puzzled.

"It's called an apron, boy. Put it on and get inside. Now."

"Why…?"

"Because I am tired of you, and aim to teach you a lesson. Now get in here this instant. Don't make me come out there and get you. I am a busy woman, and have no time for chasing you."

Looking a little cowed, Norris slipped the apron over his head and started toward the door to her shop. He came in at once and stood attentively beside her, awaiting some kind of command.

That had been easy enough…

"You see that pile of wooden planks in the corner?" she asked, casting her stubby finger at a pile of jumbled wood in a corner.

"It's a mess," Norris answered, making a face.

"I'm glad you noticed, because you are going to organize it all."

"…All by myself?"

"Naturally," she answered with a calm smile. "And arrange them by the type of wood, if you think you can."

"I think I cannot! I know nothing of wood!" he gasped.

By what magic was this? He sounded alarmingly like Allun, for a split second. He had spent too much time around that silly man, Bronden decided. This training would do him more good than she had thought.

"Well, you'll never know if you never try. That's the way all people learn—they get up on their feet and make an attempt, even if it's a terrible one."

"I'm not doing this," Norris complained, turning away and crossing his arms angrily. "This is stupid."

Instead of being angry with him for contradicting her so easily, she decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity to be cunning.

"Just as well," she said decidedly, returning dutifully to her work. "I had a feeling it would be too difficult for someone as small as you. Beggars cannot be choosers after all, I suppose."

Norris stared at her for a moment, his pride visibly damaged. Without another word, he stormed right to the pile of planks and began to stack them as neatly as he could against the wall. He muttered furiously to himself all the while, but Bronden allowed him that. At least the work was finally getting done. She looked up often to see how it was coming along, usually seeing him puzzling over the neat stacks. So far, he had figured to take the obvious path of organizing them by like colors—a good place for an unwitting apprentice to start, even if he had mixed planks of pine in with oak half the time.

And he hadn't broken or knocked anything over yet, which was impressive in her book. She recalled her first day of training being an utter disaster. Wow, that had been a long time ago. Back before her parents had died in the war, even. How incredibly odd it was to think about…

An hour and a half was entirely too much time to spend on such a simple task, but Norris eventually finished it. He sat back on the floor, trying to pick splinters from his hands, looking over what he had done. Seeing the task had finally been completed, Bronden stood up and strode over to take a look. She felt like a cloud for once, hovering over him as he sat below her, at her mercy. She, too, looked over his work, assessing all that he had done. He had made four stacks of planks, leaning up against the wall, in descending order from the tallest to the shortest. Each stack was several shades darker than the last.

"…What made you decide to arrange them like this?" she asked thoughtfully.

"The colors, I guess…"

"And you assume that each is a different type of wood, I suppose."

"Are they not?"

"Well, for starters, I see four stacks, when there are, in truth, six types of wood in this mix."

Norris' dark eyes went wide. "Six? How on earth is that?"

Bronden selected a plank of oak and a plank of pine from the same stack and held them side by side. "What do you see? Do they look the same to you?"

"They do. There's a difference?"

"A complete difference! These came from two entirely different trees, boy."

Norris gawked at the two planks. "They're exactly the same!" he cried, exasperated.

"After you have worked with them for a while, you will find that they most certainly are not exactly the same," she informed him curtly, placing the planks back where had taken them from.

"You also took too long to finish, in my humble opinion. I could have finished in less than thirty minutes, had I the time. However, I haven't had the time. This wouldn't have gotten done for days, probably. And, mixed up as they still are, you did an alright job getting them untangled without making a bigger mess in the process."

"I did terribly. I told you I know nothing about wood."

"You've done well enough for me, for now. I would say that has earned you a nicer apron when you return tomorrow."

"…Tomorrow?"

She gave him a sly smile. "You didn't truly think I was done with you so easily? There's plenty more for you to do around here, if you've got nothing better to do with yourself during the day. If no one wants you around, I'll put you to work, do everyone a favor."

While he continued to sit and process this, she walked back toward her work area and pulled an old book from a box as well as a blank notebook.

"This was the first book I learned from," she said as he stood up. "Read the first few pages closely, and take notes in this. Come back tomorrow morning with a little knowledge, and I'll have an apron fitting an apprentice waiting for you."

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And, just like that, Norris of Rin became a carpenter's apprentice. And a surprisingly good apprentice, Bronden quickly found. He seldom arrived late, never asked to be excused before she allowed him, and did every menial-seeming chore she assigned him without complaint. She took heart in how it frustrated him, brave enough to want to advance, but knowing he was only equipped to put things away properly. She remembered being similarly anxious, as a girl. And she imagined that all novices must feel the same, when they start out.

Suddenly, the summer that had dragged on and on seemed to fly over her head, and was drawing to a close. Every evening she sent Norris home with an assignment from one of her own books, and he returned in the morning with a little more knowledge in his head. In a matter of weeks, the planks of pine and oak that had looked exactly the same before were as different in his eyes as they were in hers. As the days began to cool down, he was speaking intelligently about the six trees that grew in the valley—pine and oak, birch and elm, maple and willow. He still did not know them as perfectly as she did, but he knew them more and more with every day.

By the time the leaves were changing colors on the trees, she had allowed him to sit beside her at her work table and watch her work. And while he did, more than just explain her methods like a proper teacher, she talked to him about life.

One day when he came in, he brought a brief message for her.

"It's from Allun" he explained. "They had meant to place this order several weeks ago, but they've both been busy and they kept forgetting all this time… But Marlie is due later this month, and they find themselves in need of a small bed."

"What for?" Bronden asked.

"They want to move Forley into the bed so the baby can have the cradle. He's almost too big for it anyway. I hadn't realized how big he's gotten until they mentioned it last night and gave me this order for you."

"Oh. Has it been that long already? I hadn't noticed…"

"They're sorry for taking so long about it and he's paid a little extra for a rush job, but—"

"Never mind, never mind. In fact, it's a simple enough job. Why don't you try it? I'm sure they'd appreciate it more if their son's first bed was crafted by your capable hands, rather than mine, anyway."

Norris' whole face lit up. "You really mean it?" he asked excitedly.

"Certainly. For such a small child who will probably outgrow the thing in a season, you don't bother making it particularly special, merely functional. Coming from you, though, it may as well be the work of a master craftsman to them. Just see that it doesn't fall apart. I don't want people thinking I've trained you poorly, along with my other failures."

He beamed, set the folded parcel of money on the worktable beside her, and dashed off to find the things he knew he would need. He could hardly wait to start on his first paid project. It was… almost adorable. Bronden regarded the parcel on the table, full of the money Allun had paid her… and decided that Norris ought to keep it, if he was going to do the work.

"So," she called over her shoulder as she resumed her own project, "Marlie is having her baby this month?"

"In only a week or two, yeah," he agreed from across the room. "Jiller is betting on a girl, but there isn't a way to know for sure. She's hoping for a daughter, herself, you know."

"I don't suppose they've decided on a name?"

"They like the idea of Leah for a girl."

"That was Marlie's mother, yes?"

"Well, they named their son after Allun's father so it seems right to them. I like it, too. They had thought of Sara, but she is still very much alive. It would only be confusing later."

"You really care about all of them don't you, Norris?"

"They're my family. I know it's not a word the Rinfolk like to use, but I love them. I love them all."

Bronden was silent for a moment. "It's been a very long time since I've really loved anyone…" she said absently, almost unaware that she was speaking.

All at once, Norris was sitting beside her, grinning. "Well, you've got me now."

She was almost moved to reach out and touch him—lay a hand on his shoulder, tousle his shaggy hair. But she stopped herself, remembering that she was made of sturdy wood and solid stone, and that such things do not have emotions.

"I most certainly do," she agreed evenly, allowing herself to grin a little.

"You know, they wonder about you, too," he mentioned. "They ask about you all the time. They're all glad that you're doing well. Ever since last winter, when they came back and found you in such bad shape, they had worried about you a lot."

"…They had worried about me?"

"For a long time. Rowan, especially. He knew what that meant for you. He had wanted to speak to you about it—and still does, I think—but he's never been sure how."

"How like the boy to pity a battered soul like me."

"Not pity. Never pity. He could never disrespect you by pitying you. He just wanted to say that he's sorry."

"For what?"

"He doesn't know. All he knows is that you surely blame him for what happened, and he's sorry for whatever he did to cause it. We could have used your help up there. We needed your help, and he knew it more than the rest of us."

Bronden considered briefly. "…I don't know if he ever really crossed my mind, in fact. I was unconscious all the while. All I had the strength for thinking of was my own sorry self. And then I woke to find most of my own furniture surrounding my house in a blaze! Then I was furious with Lann. Her blessed precautions cost me a lot of masterpieces…

"Rowan is well as the others, isn't he?"

"Always," Norris agreed brightly, rising to return to his work. "I see him almost as much as I see my own sister. His weaknesses are fading, and quickly; I think he is training himself in secret somewhere. He has gotten taller, as well. I think there is a girl he might be trying to impress," he said with a knowing wink.

Bronden allowed herself a short laugh at the idea. Rowan didn't sound quite like the shy little boy she recalled so well. "Sharron, perhaps?"

"She would like to think so, but…" he stared out the window to the horizon, clear and empty but for a wispy cloud or two. "She isn't in Rin right now. But she'll be back, in the spring."

Ah, youth. It was sickeningly sweet, but she decided to allow it for now. She missed that optimism, and wouldn't deny him its advantages. His short laughter cut through her thoughts.

"Wow. Zeel is going to laugh so hard when she hears what I've been up to…"

Oh! Was that her name?

"She is your Traveler friend, is she not?"

"Just more of our family," Norris agreed with an easy smile. "We don't see her as much, but she is family, all the same. We've all been through a lot together."

"I see. You never speak of her."

Norris shrugged as he gathered a handful of nails and a hammer. "I know you don't like them much, so I decided not to bring it up."

"She had stayed here for a while, hadn't she? Right after you came back from the mountain and the folk returned, I remember seeing her around a lot; though I never caught her name, and she took care to avoid me."

"Zeel is no wiser than anyone else our age, but she is no fool. She knows better than to stir up trouble. She had thought about returning to her own people when the adventure was done. But, with a baby due at any moment, she figured that Allun and Marlie could use all the help they could get. She stayed with them, until the Travelers came again, and the returned to her people. She loves us, but she can never sit still for too long.

"Part of me wonders if Rowan was half the reason she decided to stay, after all," he concluded quietly, bowing his head thoughtfully.

Huh. That was an interesting development…

"Then the feeling is mutual," Bronden said, feeling just as thoughtful. "I wish them well in their ways; but, though it is hardly any business of mine, I would personally advise them to be cautious. Surely you know by now what happened with Sara."

"Sharron doesn't like it…"

"This worries you?"

"Deeply. She's my sister, and I hate to see her so distressed. But I don't want to have to be in a place where I have to choose a side."

"Should you ever find yourself in that place, what do think you would do?"

"I don't know… I just want the best for all of them. It's all you ever want for your family, no matter where you are in it. Marlie says that a lot."

"What if that means siding with your friends, instead of your sister?"

"That would just about break me, I think. But, Bronden, I don't want to have to side with anyone! I wish I could just stay on my own side, but I don't know how much longer that will be possible. We are all changing in weird ways that I can't never know to expect. And the other grownups say that this is natural, that they all had to deal with the same feelings, in time; but I don't want to do it, myself. It sounds painful and tiring."

Bronden grunted, unable to be of much help. "Speak more to Allun about this. He found himself trapped in a similar position, once. It's not my story to tell, but I believe he will understand better than I."

"He's rather busy right now. I feel that I shouldn't bother him with my problems, when he has so many of his own."

Oh yes, youth had its pains, as well as its joys. Bronden had never had to deal with such things personally, merely observed the others grappling with them, and laughed at them for being silly and childish. She had fancied herself mature and wise, then. It dawned on her that she had perhaps missed a lot. They had all become better adjusted as adults, even-minded and steady enough to brave parenthood—single-handedly, in a case or two. And here she was alone after all these years, save Norris, and he only recently.

When he returned home that evening, part of the little bed already finished, she watched him walking off and allowed pride to overtake her a bit. Norris was growing well into himself, she decided, even if he had small worries in the back of his mind; she was pleased to have such an influence on him. Over the past few months he had spent as her apprentice, he had shaped up beautifully. He had learned patience and respect, along with the useful skills she had taught him. She liked to think that she was making him tougher, stronger, better prepared for life. The life of a furniture maker was a humble but useful one, and it would suit him well.

What of me, young Norris? She wondered. Am I family to you, as well? Do you love me, as easily as everyone else?

By the powers… Could it be that I love you, in return…?

It was a startling, silly-sounding thought. In the beginning, remaining distant and a little cold as a teacher had seemed easy enough. As time had passed, her guard had fallen remarkably low. Maintaining that distance felt impossible now. When she asked him about his life, about the others and how they were, she found that she genuinely cared. It suddenly mattered to her. Because it mattered to him.

The mill twins marked this as well. Over the weeks they had noticed. And Val seemed proud of her.

"You've been doing better and better since you took that wild boy on," she mentioned, a hint of a gentle, relieved smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Many people thought you were crazy to try it. With your short temper and his wildness, some were sure that you might kill him before the first week was out. Yet here he has been for nearly four months."

"He hasn't been as difficult to train as I had expected," Bronden agreed, realizing for the first time how much better she felt now. How had she carried on for so long that way?

"The folk have noticed that he has improved, as well. He is not as loud and meddlesome as he used to be. It is good that you have given him something to do with himself. He was lost before, and you have given him a direction to go in. You should feel proud of yourself."

"I am proud of myself. I am also proud of him. He is a good student, quick to learn and usually happy to help. He has his moods; but then, I have many more."

"You understand him well, I think. He is a good student for you."

This time, she allowed herself to smile. "He is. I have given him his first real project, and he seems to be doing very well. I am even going to let him keep the commission, if it turns out well. I believe he will have earned it."

Val looked pleasantly surprised. "Earned it by the training that you have given him, or merely by his own skill?"

"…A little of both, perhaps. With the tools he's been handed, I trust he will do well."

"It has never been like you to share, Bronden. Especially not when money is involved. Nor is it like you to trust a person so easily. Not that I particularly disapprove. I feel I rather like it. I swear by the stars, I have never seen you this way. You seem so… happy. It has been a great many, many years since I have seen you at peace, my very old friend."

"Yes… I am happy. Very, very happy," Bronden agreed, letting her smile grow a little.

Val laughed lightly and punched her friend playfully. "I had a feeling all along that you could do this. Norris will make a fine furniture maker one day. And you will be able to sit back and say to everyone, 'I have helped do this. He is my doing.' It is as if you found a son of sorts in him."

Bronden nodded. "It is. He has solved all my problems all on his own. And perhaps, though I am ill equipped, I can help him solve some of his. He has a few, himself."

"Feminine problems?" Val guessed.

"…Of a sort," Bronden agreed slowly.

Val rolled her eyes. Before she could say anything, Ellis suddenly remarked, "You are ill equipped, indeed, then. What shall you do?"

The fact that Ellis had spoken it struck a chord. If it had been Val, it would have been a friendly tease that Bronden was more than prepared to counter with wit. But when Ellis spoke, with his flat, grumbly, seldom-used voice, he meant every word. The remark was not to be met with wit, but with honesty. Earnest, whole-hearted, blasted honesty.

She considered for a moment, this time searching her still-bruised heart. She was changing as well, she realized.

"…I shall try," she answered at last. "I have little skill for this, I know. But I can still try. And, with a little luck and some patience, I just might hit my mark on the first shot. I will never know, if I never try."

The twins sighed at the same time, shaking their heads.

"Suddenly, you are not the same Bronden that I have always known."

"I may never be the same again. And suddenly, I find that I really don't mind a jot. In fact, I find myself excited."

2222222222

Once again, the winter passed so quickly that it may as well have been a mere dream. The planting season came early to Rin, and Norris had a new lesson in store. With the planting season came the time for old trees in the forests to be cut down, to make room for new, young trees. And when the older, seasoned trees were felled and cut into reasonable pieces, they were brought back to the town to be sold.

Much of this wood would be purchased by the folk for their fires or for making repairs around their homes. But, as far as Bronden was concerned, it was like a treasure trove from an old story come to life. This spring, she would teach Norris to purchase lumber for their shop.

Yes, indeed, it was no longer only her shop. He was her apprentice now, and so it was officially theirs.

As she taught him the ins and outs of trading in the market, finding the best product for the best price, she laughed at herself for a silly thought.

"I should join you this year, perhaps, when you come and go from the Traveler's camp," she mentioned.

"Really?" he asked, surprised but overjoyed.

"I should have thought of this other years, but they may bring unusual timber from the east. I know you've flown over Maris once before, but have you actually been there before?"

"I have heard tales from the people who go. Rowan has a few stories, himself."

"Oh, he would. It is a strange and beautiful place. Though I mark the trees best, whenever I go. Pine and palm, mostly. The pine is finer in the east, thinner and weaker in the sandy soil; not much good for making furniture, but excellent I find for incidental odds and ends. They can sell for an amazing price, because they are of rare stuff. And palm wood, spongy and difficult stuff. But the Marisfolk seem to know their way around it. I have often longed to stay there a time and learn how they do it."

"What use could a soft, spongy wood be?"

"Because it is so soft and pliable, is it good for making fortifications and walls. Cannon fire is easily neutralized, because the soft wood absorbs the shock, instead of shattering. A suitable choice, for the first line of defense against our ancient foe across the sea."

Norris shuddered visibly. "I can appreciate that, then. I have no desire for the walls of Maris to be shattered by Zebak cannon fire."

Now that she was entertaining the idea of going up to the Traveler camp this year to hunt for treasures, she found herself curious for the first time in a long while. She had been a stern, serious youngster the last time she had gone. Everyone she knew would die of shock, she was sure.

"I suddenly cannot wait for them to arrive," she said absently. "This could be… fun."

Lately, Bronden found herself going out on her own more and more. She had preferred to keep to herself, drawing as little attention to herself as possible. Some of it had been borne of disinterest in everyone else; most of it had been borne of shame that she now felt was silly. She felt too good about herself these days to stay in her house all the time. So she often ventured into the market in the evening, just to look around, to see who else was about.

One evening, she was surprised to bump into Allun, of all people, and not be annoyed to see him. He looked equally surprised to see her, as well.

"You're alive after all! Fancy that," he remarked with that smile that hadn't changed.

It was amazingly good to hear his voice again.

"Indeed, I am," she agreed evenly. "I understand through Norris that you have been well."

"I have been amazing," he agreed with a proud grin.

"I take it that Marlie and the children are well, also."

Allun sighed a little sadly. "She's missed going to Maris again, because of Leah. We aren't really sure when she would be able to go again. It makes her sad from time to time… But she doesn't truly mind it. Perhaps, when the little ones are older, we can all go together, as a family. She would like that very much."

"Then you've finally conquered your fear of the water?" she teased.

"On the contrary," he said with a nervous smile, "I have had my fill of the water for life, if I can help it. But it would make everyone so happy. I think I can gather my courage, for them. It will do my son no good, having to learn to swim when his own father can barely stand to look at the open sea."

"I am glad to see that you are all well. I feel like I know so much about your lives, because it is all that Norris ever talks about. But it is not the same as seeing you in person."

"He speaks of you all the time, at home. We are also glad that you are doing well, Bronden; but, as you said, it certainly is not the same as seeing you. Once upon a time, you were always out there, a usual face in the crowd that we were familiar with. And then, for a while, you vanished. It was surreal and strange. We all missed you greatly; even Marlie agreed, it was never the same without you."

"I may have needed that time alone. But I am happy that it has passed."

"Don't be a stranger in your own home," Allun insisted with a kind smile. "We are here for you, should you ever need us. We need you, as well."

She had never spoken these words to anyone, really—especially not him—but…

"Thank you, Allun the baker. That… That means a lot to me."

He flashed a final grin and started off. "I do have to be home soon; my beloved is awaiting me, and dinner. I shall tell her I saw you."

"Say hello for me, yes."

Unable to help himself any longer, he suddenly burst out laughing. "She will never believe what has just happened! She would not have believed it if she were standing here, watching it happen! Good evening, Bronden."

"Good evening to you, too, Allun," she called after him, not entirely believing, herself, what had just happened. She had never imagined it would actually be nice to see him again.

Val is right. I should get out more often, she decided. She wondered who else she might run into in her wanderings around.

Another week or two passed, and the two woodworkers settled in to work with their new supplies. They had nearly run out over the fall and short winter, which Bronden informed was good; close, but good. With a little more training, Norris would be purchasing just as wisely as she had learned to. She had partially learned through trial and error, once or twice having to shut down entirely in her earlier years in the trade. She was determined that her apprentice would never have to know such insecurity, if she could help it.

One warm afternoon early in the week, Norris lifted his head to listen carefully. A familiar and welcome cheer was echoing down the lane outside.

"The Travelers are here! The Travelers are here! We've seen their kites! They're coming!"

Bronden noticed her protégé's whole body go ridged with excitement. Zeel, his friend, was the Forerunner captain, and would be there ahead of the others. It had been a full year since he had seen her. Bronden knew well what it was like to miss a dear friend. And he had done well recently, so…

"Norris, you can go early today, if you like."

His eyes went wide. She had never let him go so early before. "You mean it?"

"Work will be here in the morning. You have my leave to go and see your friends. Take care not to be up too late, though. I want to see you refreshed, not weary. And I still want to see your bookwork done."

He looked ready to hug her, but he bravely refrained. Instead, he quickly, carefully put his work away, gathered his things, and was off like a lightning bolt. She smiled to herself, happy to have helped cause such a sensation, and went back to her work. Suddenly, Norris flew back through the door.

"Will we see you tonight, up at the camp?" he asked.

"Tomorrow night, perhaps," she answered, shaking her head. "There is still much to be done around here, and I find myself craving a decent nap. I will turn in early tonight, and stay up all the night tomorrow," she said resolutely.

Norris smiled understandingly. "I shall see you in the morning, then teacher,," he said, and was out the door once more.

I haven't stayed out all night since I was a teenager like him, she thought as she methodically shaped the seat of a chair. Tomorrow night shall be fun, I believe.

She worked quietly and happily for the rest of the afternoon, contemplating what all she might do the following night. Perhaps she would find a few old friends to split a bottle of honey mead with. She also understood there were more recent stories being told around the campfires—one or two of which she was probably included in—and that they were letting Allun take turns telling them, which would be amusing. If he was telling them correctly, which she doubted he was.

I could probably tell them a hundred times better than he, even if only to my points of failure, she thought, chuckling to herself.

Afternoon faded into evening, and the sun was setting when she finished the chair she had determined to finish that day. She stood back to admire her work before setting it aside with its brothers, and set to sweeping the floor, covered in wood shavings and sawdust. It had been months since she had done this herself; now that she had an apprentice, it was Norris' job to sweep the floors and wipe down the workbench and table. Out of the blue, there came a knock on the door—the front door to her house, not the workshop. She set the broom against the wall and started off through the small house to her door, expecting to see Norris, come to check on her.

Instead, she was startled to see Rowan standing on her porch, at least a head and a half taller than when last she had seen him, the previous spring. By what magic had that happened? She almost didn't recognize the boy, at first. Standing a little behind him was Zeel, the Traveler girl, who looked pretty much the same as she recalled.

And they both looked concerned.

"Oh… Hello, Rowan. It's… Been a while," she said slowly, trying to get her head around his sheer height.

"I know," he answered. "I don't suppose Norris is here, is he?"

Bronden shook her head. "I let him go early today, to see the lot of you. I had expected he would be at the camp, with you, of all places. Is he not there?"

"He was; he had been with us the whole afternoon," Rowan agreed. "But we seem to have misplaced him."

"And Sharron, as well," Zeel added. "He said he is working at your side now, so we wondered if he had come here."

"I'm sorry, but I haven't seen him for hours."

The two exchanged a worried look, and sighed.

"How long has he been missing?"

"An hour or two. He said he had some bookwork to finish, that it wouldn't take him long; so he went back to Sara's house and said he would find us again later," Rowan explained.

"But that was nearly three hours ago, and no one has seen him," Zeel continued. "Sara saw him leave the house, when he asked where his sister was. She had gone down to the stream to draw water, so Norris went to meet her. And that was the last anyone remembers seeing either of them."

"That was three hours ago and they haven't come back?" Bronden asked incredulously.

Zeel tugged on Rowan's sleeve. "We should go back to the camp and speak to my father. He often knows things before anyone else. And maybe they've already returned, while we've been away. They could be there right now."

"That's a good idea. We'll do that, then" Rowan agreed right away. "We're sorry for bothering you, Bronden. We'll be on our way. If you do happen to see either of them, send them back to Sara's house, please. She is waiting for them, should they come back."

As the two teenagers started off, Bronden made a command decision. Her nap before bedtime could wait, if her Norris was missing.

"Wait, you two," she called after them. "I will go with you. If no one else knows where my only apprentice has gone, I will find him, myself."

"We could use your help," Rowan agreed with a cautious smile. Zeel only looked nervous, but that wasn't surprising in the least. Together, for the first time in more than a year, they were off on another adventure.

"Rowan, how old are you this year?"

"16, in the fall," he answered, a little fazed that she was taking such an interest in him.

"Already? That can't be right…" she insisted, scratching her head.

"Yet it is. You can ask my mother, later."

"She is at the camp?"

He laughed a little. "Not at all. The baby is so big now, she finds it difficult to move much."

"Any day, now," Zeel added hopefully. "I am excited for her."

"What about those wooly beasts who serve you so well? How are you caring for them?" Bronden asked.

"I, uh… I don't really spend that much time with the bukshah anymore," he answered regretfully. "It is a job for a much smaller person, and I am working in the fields now."

"Oh… That is… Something," she mumbled, at a loss for words. She could scarcely picture Rowan without the bukshah. They were a part of who he was. And what did he mean, it was a job for a smaller person? He was a smaller person, wasn't he?

Oh, yes. He wasn't small anymore. Hang it all, when had he gotten so big without her noticing?

"So, who is tending them now?"

"Leif, the son of another farmer near my house. He's a very small boy with nothing to occupy his time, and I am now a rather large boy with too little time… It worked out, I suppose. I spent a few weeks with him in the pasture, teaching him how to care for the bukshah as I know, and then it was just…. Over."

He sighed, very sadly. "Leif is good with them. But I do not like it. I do not like it at all."

"It was painful for you, I know," Zeel said sympathetically, affectionately taking his hand. "I hurt for and with you, my dear friend. No one will ever tend to them like you have. No one."

"It had to happen," he answered with another heavy sigh. "I am older and stronger than I was then. It is past time I took up my father's work as a farmer. And it does suit me. He would be proud, I think."

"But it is so tiring for you."

"I don't mind it."

"But, Rowan, you are a hero! You deserve a better choice than this," she insisted indignantly.

"There is no guided palace for me to retire to at the age of 16, Zeel. There is only this valley, which I have fought long and hard for. I love my home. And I am happy to finally settle back into it. I never really thought of myself as a hero, anyway."

"After all you done? What else could you be?"

He gave her a bright, comforting smile.

"I am just Rowan of Rin. I am just me. And I am also perfectly content with that."

Now it was Zeel's turn to sigh. "I had not expected so much to change in a single short year. Everything seems so different now. Each time I return to a place, I find it looking more and more strange, and less like the warm, familiar places I remember. It is unnerving. I do not know what I will find when we reach the coast again, in the fall. And when we return here next spring, will I even recognize you if I saw you?"

"Of course you will," he insisted, laughing a little to raise her spirits. "I am the only me there is!"

A final, most uncomfortable question occurred to Bronden to ask. It would likely turn out awkwardly, but she simply could not help herself.

"I don't suppose you deal much with Sheba anymore?" she asked slowly. To this, Rowan grinned.

"I am clean for more than a year. She bothers me no longer," he said grandly, proudly, as if it was the greatest accomplishment to come out of his adventures.

However, something spoke to Bronden that he would have weathered the witch for the rest of his life, if it meant he could have remained close to his beloved beasts. He was taller and stronger than he used to be; but he had a kind, sweet, gentle heart, still. She had once scorned it, passed it off a weakness, a flaw that could never be overcome. Now that her own heart was mending a little, she stood back a bit and truly admired it for the very first time.

It was a little magical.

They were still walking together toward the camp when they heard it. A loud cry of pain and anguish flooded over the hills, hitting them all the harder at the bottom. And it had come straight from the camp. While the two Rinfolk stopped dead in their tracks, startled and confused, Zeel barley lost a beat. She took off toward her home, almost flying, even without her kite. Rowan was right behind her, and Bronden found herself coming in very last.

Sweet beans, he is outrunning me! She thought, wondering if, almost hoping that this was some kind of crazy dream.

When they had crested the short hill and dashed back into the camp, they were greeted almost at once by several other Travelers—but all their faces were grave, somber. Bronden had never seen this before; she hadn't been aware that full-blooded Travelers could look so alarmed. Two of them—the other Forerunners, it looked like—gently hauled Rowan and Zeel aside, whispering something to them. The two suddenly jumped back, their faces pale and horrified.

"No! Where?" she demanded, and her friends led the way forward. Rowan hung back a bit, and held his hand out to Bronden.

"They found Sharron and Norris…" he said in a husky voice, tears filling his brown eyes. "…We have to go."

Bronden didn't like what this was adding up to. She let him lead her quickly, silently through the crowd, back a little to where the tents stood closer to the stream. Behind one of them, they found a cluster of people gathered—most of them the people that Norris called his family, looking as upset and confused as everyone else around them. The teenagers slid to their knees beside a cloth stretcher on the ground, where a body lay.

She realized with a start that it was Sharron who lay there, her body still and her face pale. A long scratch had been cut along her forehead. She was drenched, dripping with water, the blood from her wound mingling with the water on her face. And she drew no breath. There was no life left in her.

"Sharron…!" Zeel whispered painfully, clasping her hands over her mouth, all other words failing her. She looked up wildly at the adults, finding her adopted father among them.

"Dada, how has this happened?" she demanded.

Ogden, the leader of the colorful band—and, more importantly in this moment, the man who had raised her—stepped forward and knelt beside her, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"My child, I am so sorry," he said gravely. "She was drawing water at the water's edge, where the ground is softest. She lost her footing and fell headfirst, hitting her head on the streambed. She lost consciousness, and drowned. The stream brought her body to us, where we found her only a short time ago."

"Is there any way…?"

Ogden shook his head sadly, unable to look at her. "No. She is gone from us. There is nothing more we can do."

Unable to fight the unbearable and sudden loss any longer, Zeel buried her face in her hands and began to weep. The Rinfolk did not believe in tears, when they were of no use to the dead. But the Travelers believed that remaining so stoic was equally pointless, when tears cleansed the soul so well. Himself broken, Rowan held her close and wept with her.

So it was decided. The weaker girl would no longer be in the way of their blossoming, slightly forbidden romance. In a sickening, terrible way, they were free. Certainly, they never would have asked for it this way.

While she thought of all this, Bronden searched the gathering for Norris; but she did not see him among them. She finally spotted him standing away from all of them, staring numbly at the stream that had stolen his sister from him.

Numbness. Cold, lonely numbness. She recognized that look on his face well. She had seen it for many years, herself, staring back at her from her mirror, from glass windows, from the reflection in her cups whenever she had tried to drink. She could easily guess all the hurt, guilty thoughts on his mind. He had failed her, somehow. If only he had been with her, instead of thinking of himself and the things he had to do, he might have saved her. Had he smiled at her recently? What was the last thing he had said to her? Had he done enough while she was still here, to make sure she knew how important she was to him? Had she known how much her little brother had loved her?

A voice broke through her thoughts. A voice that she still knew in a heartbeat, even though she had not heard it since she had been a child.

Go to him, it said. Tell him that he is not alone. Tell him of your pain. Tell him that this terrible accident was not his fault. Tell him that you are still with him. Tell him that you love him, as you once loved me.

"Minnah…"

She hadn't spoken the name out loud since was had been 13 years old. All the old wounds that had begun to finally mend after all these years broke open once again. It felt like a sharp knife had been driven back through her core. But today, instead of anger, she felt something odd that she had never felt before. She felt compassion. Not caring that a hundred eyes were watching her, she went to him.

He slowly registered her presence, as if she had appeared through a thick cloud. His face was blank, devoid of any sort of emotion, a pitiful attempt had hiding the pain that shadowed his eyes. For the first time, she reached out and touched his hardened face, finally able to feel alongside someone else.

"Oh, Norris…"

"I can be strong, like you," he said lowly, his voice nearly breaking. "I am made of wood and stone, just like you. I can be strong."

"Don't be like me," she answered. "You don't have to be the strong one all the time. You've got me, now."

Assured that it would bring no shame to anyone, he fell wearily against her, sobbing into her shoulder. And instead of pushing him away, she held him, too. Now it was her turn to break. Wood shattered, stone chipped and fell away, and, at last, a single tear rolled down her face.

This boy truly could help her heal. He was not to do it by himself, though. He was merely the thread to stitch her broken heart back together; but she was needle that would allow him in and guide him. No longer would she surround herself by hardness and coldness, too proud to admit defeat. After all these years, she was finally ready.

The people who knew her sad story were still watching her in disbelief. They had watched her build her walls, grown used to it, allowed her that vanity. And they had watched it all fall away in an instant. But still, she did not care about what they thought. She had work to do. She gently led him away, a sheltering arm around him.

"I am taking this one with me for a while," she announced. "No one is to come near my house until daybreak, is it understood?"

Still unable to believe what they were seeing, they said nothing. Only watched them walking away.

"I should stay with her," Norris insisted weakly.

"Come away, Norris," she answered. "I need to tell you some things about me. Things that no one else has ever heard. But you must hear them now, before you make the same mistakes I have. Pride and hidden grief have nearly ruined me. I will not allow them to ruin you, as well."

He did not understand, and so remained silent, but for a futile sniffle.

"Norris?"

"…Yes?"

"Understand one thing right now. …I love you, boy."

As tears continued to fall, he nodded his head. "And I love you, too, teacher."

Bronden sighed and smiled to herself, hugging him a little closer.

"We will be alright, in the end. We will be alright."