Well, dear readers, we are almost finished with this story. I've added to this chapter, trying to create a bit more depth to Guy and Saffiya's growing attachment without overstating things. The ending in the previous version did feel a bit rushed. I hope this version is an improvement, and that the next two chapters provide a satisfying conclusion to this little tale.
I thank everyone once again for your excellent critiques and compliments - they really do keep me going.
"Tell me, where do you live? -
Near here, by the fishing-pool?
Let's hold our boats together, let's see
If we belong in the same town."
-Cui Hao, A Song of Changgan
Archer looks out over the field and whistles low in appreciation. "This is a fine sight."
Guy nods, proud and unable to keep himself from showing it. "The land is good, with well-placed waters. The southern fields have produced well in the past. All they need is a bit of tending to."
"And the house?"
"Marked off," Guy says, pointing to a spot in the distance where stakes have already been laid in the ground. "It will certainly not be large, but suitable for a family of perhaps four or five."
"A family, eh."
Guy feels himself gritting his teeth at the sly tone in his brother's voice. "Yes."
"So...you have thought about getting yourself a woman, settling down."
His jaw twitches. "I have," he answers shortly.
"And do you have someone in mind...?"
"I don't know why I brought you here."
"Peace!" Archer laughs. "I will leave it be."
"Perhaps then I will let you into my house once it is completed."
"You are generous beyond words."
Guy drops a slight bow in acceptance of the compliment, and then lets his gaze roam the expanse of his land.
"Autumn is on its way," Archer says. "I think...I will spend some more time here."
"Really?" Guy looks over at his brother. "Is someone else thinking of a family?"
"Robin still has some wine left," is Archer's bland response.
As autumn blows in, his brother is true to his word and stays to help with the construction of Guy's new home, which is situated just within the borders of Robin's recently expanded lands. A surprising number of Loxley's men turn out to lend assistance as well – Guy had not thought his cruelties under the old sheriff's rule would be so quickly forgiven, but, while the men keep mostly to themselves, they do not begrudge him a respectful nod or a word in greeting, and they work with reasonably good cheer. Guy cannot help harboring the suspicion, though, that his roof will cave in on him one day, and the villagers will have had their revenge at last. He says this to Saffiya, who quirks an eyebrow and replies, "I would not blame them if they did."
Sometimes he does not understand her.
She is, in fact, part of the reason he is making haste in getting himself a home of his own. He admits it to no one, but living under the same roof with her for the past few months has become a strange sort of torture.
Her friendship is indescribably precious to him, but at times - and more and more often - he finds his gaze will stray, focusing on the glossy black of her hair or the pronounced curve of her hip, and his mind will be riddled with admiration to the point where he can hardly utter a sensible word. The odd occasion when her hand comes to rest on his shoulder leads to long stretches of imagination, how it would feel to bring her closer, to see how well she would fit within his arms.
The more time he spends with Saffiya, the more he realizes the potential they have to be something powerful together. It moves him, entrances him, frightens him. He watches her now to see if there is any hint that she feels the same, but though she smiles so readily at him and laughs so freely, he cannot shake the feeling that he is deceiving himself.
It is a pitiable business, falling in love.
He has other motives, of course, for wanting to build this house. And whether a family proves to dwell in it with him or not, he is proud to have property of his own. Not something stolen or borrowed – something rightfully his.
Construction slows during the winter, and Saffiya spends some of the season at Bonchurch to be of assistance to Eve, who, as Robin tells it, is having a slightly difficult pregnancy the second time around and who, as Much tells it, might collapse at any given moment. Her absence leaves Guy with conflicting feelings that he tries not to dwell on. He focuses on his property. Eve delivers safely, Saffiya comes back to Loxley, and then Guy finds he cannot focus on anything at all.
Robin gives her the news that Luke Scarlet has come back to Scarborough, bringing with him a wife and daughter, and then he waits, seeming wary of her reaction.
She feels tears well in her eyes – Will's family, his brother; a sister-in-law and niece he never got to meet – and tells him immediately that she will go to them. "I was hoping I would one day see his brother again. I have something of Will's that I would give him."
"I can go with you..."
She takes his hand and gives it a slight squeeze. "You do not have to. I will be fine."
She stays in Scarborough for two days, and when she rides back to Loxley, dusk is falling, and Guy is waiting.
He says nothing as he meets her on the lane leading to the main house. She dismounts, tired but eager to be on her feet rather than on horseback. He searches her eyes, no doubt looking for the fatigue and grief that he fears she would feel, and she lets him, wanting to reassure her friend that she is in fair spirits. When he is satisfied with his study, he offers her his arm. She takes it, grateful for the support, and allows him to lead her back to the house.
After supper, when she is drowsy from her travels and suffused with the relief of being back in a familiar place, she sits by the fire and spends the better part of an hour stroking a cat – Robin's favorite mouser – and reflecting back on her time in Scarborough.
She is hardly surprised when Guy takes a seat on the rugs near her feet, reaches up a hand to scratch under the cat's chin, and quietly asks about her journey.
"It was difficult," she confesses. "Luke sounds very much like his brother. At times I would hear him calling from outside, and it would sound like Will, as if he was right there again..." A tremulous smile appears and fades. She shakes her head as if to scold her tears away. "But they welcomed me. Their daughter is beautiful. We talked of their time in London, and they asked me about my home and what life was like for us in Acre. I am glad to have gone." She smiles again, but it feels forced, obligatory.
She is tired.
She gently removes the cat from her lap and sets him down on the floor. "I must get some rest now," she tells Guy, who stands with her and murmurs his intention to do the same.
But before she reaches the stairs, he reaches out and lays a hand against her cheek. She stills. He takes a step closer and says, "Saffiya...I am here if ever you need me."
She can feel every curve and callous of his palm. His hand and long, fine-boned fingers span the entire length of her face. She covers that hand with her own. "I know."
The smallest of smiles flits across his mouth. She sinks into his touch, and when he takes another step closer, she lets herself rest fully against him. His arms come around to hold her gently - carefully, she thinks - and there is so much warmth in his embrace that she imagines she could almost fall asleep right then and there.
It's a feeling of security she hasn't experienced in years. The stress of the past two days passes over her like a wave of fire, twisting two small tears from her eyes. She turns her face to the side to let them disappear into the fabric of his shirt. Minutes pass, and she settles - her resurrected grief slowly fades back into the dust, and she feels herself return to the present.
When fatigue makes another strong sweep through her body, she pulls away and looks up to whisper a "Thank you."
His breath ghosts across her mouth. His eyes are hooded and dark. His hands linger against her back for a moment longer, and then he steps away to let her walk past. When she reaches the landing, she pauses to look down. He is still at the foot of the stairs, leaning against the railing and staring at the fire with an unreadable look on his face.