Chapter 38 A Different Family

''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''

I stir from my nap and blink my eyes a few times. The sky is as grey and dreary as every day before. Day thirty-three. I blink my eyes a few more times, trying to clear the sleep from them and stifle a coming yawn. I look about, spying Torrance, Locke, and Wessel on their horses a small ways ahead of us as we continue on through the valley. The men had started our morning by spurring their horses to trot, but we have slowed sometime to a leisurely walk. I sit up straighter and push back my shoulders, stretching my back against Eric. As I try to stretch the sleep out of my body, I take in Phenoamen Valley. Though the sky is dreary, the valley floor is blanketed with untouched, pristine white snow. My eyes venture higher to the towering mountains. They are beautiful in their own right with their mix of blue ice, grey stone, and white snow. If only the sun was out, the icy parts of the mountain would gleam blue and gold and the snowy parts would sparkle like white glass. Goodness, what beautiful stained glass these mountains would make.

"Hey lass," Eric says above me.

I hum. "Hey."

A small, breathy laugh escapes him. "How was yer nap?" he asks me with a smile.

Hearing his smile lightens my mouth, letting me smile. "It was good. I got some rest."

"Good," he says, pleased. I hum to myself and rest my head against his chest. One of the horses ahead of us whinnies. Ylva nickers softly and bobs her head a few times. The slight breeze carries a chill with it, but the chill is nothing compared to the hell Eric and I endured the days we spent trying to reach Vilgard.

Wessel looks back at us, his eyes meeting mine. My promise to Locke! Polliard is a day away and is the only settlement that has a candlemaker in the valley. Wessel or I, or us both, just have to convince Eric to let us visit the village for a moment and no more.

I nibble on the inside of my lip and nod once to Wessel. Wessel returns my nod and pulls back his reins, halting his horse and turning him about to face us.

"What is it, Weasel?" Eric grumbles as we draw nearer to Wessel and his horse.

Wessel frowns at Eric. "I have a name, Eric."

"Be kind to each other," I say and look up at Eric. His blue eyes drop down to me. "You call each other brothers after all."

He groans in displeasure, but his eyes soften around the edges. "Aye, right. I'll try to stop callin' him weasel. For ye."

My heart softens and beats harder for the hunter, wanting to be closer to him. "Thank you."

"Yer welcome," Eric says without a smile as we reach Wessel. Wessel turns his red horse back around and spurs him on to ride alongside us.

"So Eric," Wessel starts.

"What?" Eric asks, impatient.

"Eric!" I swat his knee with a small smack, though it's not hard enough to hurt either of us.

Eric chuckles. "We've always been this way, lass. He knows I still like 'im."

I glance at Wessel. He tries to suppress his laugh as he leans towards me. "What he means is I've always been the perfect gentleman and he's always been an ass."

"Ouch!" Eric laughs. "That's almost hittin' below my belt!"

Both men laugh. It's a good brotherly laughter that worms its way under my skin and coaxes some laughter out of me.

As our laughter ebbs, I can't help but tell Wessel, "You're right, Wessel. He is an ass." I point at Eric with my thumb and lower my hand to my lap. "He knows it."

"And he's proud of it," Eric says. The three of us chuckle, bringing a lighter feel to the air. Our laughter ebbs again as silence starts to come between us. Whether intentional or not, Wessel and I have gotten Eric into a passive mood. Now's the time to ask him.

I swallow. Here goes nothing. "Eric?"

"Aye?" he asks, sounding eager to speak with me. My stomach stirs some. His gentler attitude is only because he believes Greta is calling his name. Not me.

"I want to light a candle for Locke's father."

Eric looks down at me, his eyes wide with surprise. "For Halif!?"

My heart grows heavy. So the forgotten man's name is Halif. "Yes. Locke told me about him last night while you were tending to the horses. It troubles me deeply that all memory of Halif was stamped out."

"Tsk!" Eric scoffs suddenly, a look of disdain twisting his face. "That's what most taborans do to men they declare traitors."

My heart stings. "Not all taborans are so cruel."

His scowl softens as he frowns down at me. "I said most, no' all. Ye have a good heart."

I return his frown. I wish he wouldn't see most of my people in such a dark light, but he admitted his past experiences have made him bitter. Perhaps a little too bitter...but my fourteen years of hell did the same to me. I was so cruel to Sara at first before I came around. In some ways, I am still cruel. I swallow again. "I wish to light a candle for Halif to honor his sacrifice for my people." My heart swells so much that it nearly bursts open. I press my hand to my chest for fear that my heart will tear apart at its scars. "I just need to get a candle to light. Wessel told me there is a candlemaker in Polliard. If we were to make brief stop there—"

"Nae!" Eric shakes his head. "We've shown our faces in enough villages! One of 'em was burned to the ground while we were there! Did ye forget were fugitives of that ole hag!?"

Did I forget? His words cut into me. I would retort some defense, but instead I whimper as the horrific memories come rushing back to me. The screams of women and children, the men being cut down, the thuds of Geoffrey's body and severed head striking the floor above us while we were huddled in that pitch black cellar—

"Eric, it would be a brief visit," Wessel says, pulling Eric's angry gaze to him. "You, Locke, Greta and Torrance would stay near the outskirts while I go see the candlemaker and purchase one. So long as you keep your hoods up, no one will look twice at you."

Eric chuckles darkly. "It seems ye have forgotten some thin's, Weas—Wessel. Polliard is a frequent stop for bounty hunters and the like! They tow their day's catch with'em through the streets! I'll no' risk goin' within ten miles of that place. No' with her, anyways." He nods down at me and looks ahead. "Put up some stones for Halif. Or ye can light a rush for him when we get to the cabin."

"I promised Locke I would light a candle for his father!" I say, glaring up at Eric. "Not a rush!"

"Then put up some stones! The thought is still there!" Eric holds his hand out in frustration.

A pang enters my heart. My chest swells up with nigh unbearable heat, pushing against the walls of my restraint. It has to come out, one way or the other! "Eric, I try to keep my promises no matter what! If you won't come with us, then Wessel and I will pay a quick visit to Polliard while you keep heading to the cabin with Torrance and Locke." The thought of Eric anywhere near bounty hunters—surely he sticks out far more than I do! "Actually for your sake, I don't want you to come."

Eric's eyes widen with shock before he scowls. "Ye're no' goin' there!"

I raise my brows at him. I'm more than ready to challenge him! "You do not control me! No man does! If you refuse to let Wessel and I go to Polliard, I will climb off this horse and walk there!"

Eric groans as his scowl deepens, looking almost like a bear snarling. "Ye're off yer head!"

"If I might make a suggestion," Wessel says, drawing both of our heated glares his way. Unperturbed by us, he merely shakes his head. "What if I go to Polliard myself and meet all of you at the cabin? I'm sure you wouldn't be opposed to that." He looks pointedly at Eric.

My heart leaps into my throat while Eric laughs. "Ye want to be the fool, be my guest! But dinnae blame me when ye end up with an arrow in yer back."

"No!" I look between Eric and Wessel, fear filling me. Horrific visions of an arrowhead piercing Wessel's heart flood my mind, the feathered fletchings at the end of the shaft fluttering in the wind as my brother drops to his knees. "Wessel, you are not going there alone. Either you and I go or I'll go alone."

Wessel's eyes widen in horror.

"Ye dinnae know the way!" Eric says.

"It's just down the valley, isn't it?"

"Tsk." An amused grin spreads his mouth, harsh and hurtful. "The valley splits into three ways, then seven. Polliard's after that."

"Greta, I'm sorry but," Wessel starts, pulling my eyes to him, "Polliard may not be worth it."

My heart skips a beat. "But I promised Locke! Wessel please, I must do this! Please!" I hold my hands together, pleading from the depths of my soul. If only I could tell Wessel I need to do this as penance for denying my father and for the injustices inflicted on Locke's father and on Eric's brother. Though lighting a candle will not be nearly enough, it's the start I need. Tears sting my eyes and blur my sight of Wessel. I cannot tell what he is thinking. He just keeps looking my way.

"Wessel," Eric says his name like a warning.

Wessel lifts his chin to Eric and drops his gaze back down to me. "I'll take you to Polliard if you believe the risk is worth it."

"What!?" Eric sneers.

I ignore him. "So long as you are not alone." I drop my hands in relief and tilt my chin back to see the hunter. He looks down at me, silently fuming. I frown at him. "What are you going to do? Tie us down?"

"I might," Eric says.

"Mmm," I hum and shake my head at him. "Eric please just head to the cabin with Torrance and Locke—"

"I'm goin' with ye," he says.

My eyes widen. "What changed your mind!?"

He sighs as his shoulders drop. "I cannae let ye both go there alone! If someone sees ye and recognizes ye—"

"It'd be good to have the other man, one more weapon," Wessel says. "Besides Eric, maybe you could sneak over to the Inn and scope out the local word."

"Wait," I say, glancing between Eric and Wessel, "what happened to Eric staying with the rest of us outside the village?"

"As much as I hate to admit it, he may be right," Eric says, pulling my wide eyes to him. I...I almost cannot believe his significantly changed attitude towards this. "They've seen my face there before."

"They have!?" I say, his words scrambling my mind. "Then they'll know you on sight!"

"Aye, they know me, but only as one of the many huntsmen who come to this valley to hunt the rams in the mountains. At least the village folk willnae question why I'm there."

I sigh. "I suppose I see your point...but what about Torrance and Locke? We never asked them about going."

"I already spoke with them both about this," Wessel says. I look at the redhead. "Torrance will go wherever we go. Locke knows this is for his father, so he is more than willing to join us."

"Alright." I shrug. A sense of triumph fills me, but worry churns my stomach. Eric has a keen sense of where danger lurks. He kept our trek through the dark forest safe for the most part aside from our encounter with that oulinder. He kept my path from crossing with one of the black glass knights in Hymark. For him to be willing to go to Vilgard and not Polliard...that must say something about the village itself.

"Great," Eric says to himself. "We can all be fools together."

I look back at him and frown. "I do not think this foolish. Risky, yes, but foolish? Is it foolish to try and do penance?"

Eric frowns at me. "Penance for what? Ye dinnae destroy Halif's grave."

"But my people did. I want to restore it in any way I can...even if it's as simple as lighting a candle."

His face softens as his eyes shift back and forth in mine, searching for what, I wish I knew. As he takes in his fourth breath, his eyes still in mine. He turns his head to Wessel. "This better be a good candle," Eric tells Wessel.

I glance down at Wessel, seeing him nod. "I'll try my best," he promises. Wessel's eyes shift down to me. A smile pushes into my cheeks. I can see it in his eyes. He is doing this not just for me, but for a man he calls his friend, his comrade, and his brother.

''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''

Our campfire crackles and pops, emitting its warm golden glow that pushes back against the night. Torrance, Wessel, and Locke's horses are tethered to their stakes, their saddles unloaded and their backs draped in animal furs to keep them warm. Ylva stands with them free of any tether.

"Those were the days," Torrance says at the end of Locke's tale recalling a raid the four men and Jerome once did with the dwarves on Sir Henrick's caravan.

Eric chuckles beside me. "Ye cling to our old thievin' ways, Torrance. Ye e'er thought about puttin' them behind ye?"

Torrance shrugs and throws another piece of torn bread into his mouth, chewing and swallowing it. "It's the only way I know that gives me companions. Brothers."

"A family," I say. Torrance shifts his head to look at me from across the flames. I can feel the weight of everyone's eyes on me.

"I guess you could say that," Torrance says, nodding. "I have no other family."

I frown at him. "I can relate. I have no family alive today that I know of, but I had my mother at one point." My heart grows heavy in my chest and sinks so low. God, I never really thought of it until now. I...I really have no family left. There is Wessel, but he...we do not share the same blood. There is something different about that. Something that makes me feel so...alone. My throat tightens and my eyes prickle with the urge to weep, but I swallow it back down. "Did you have a family before this one?" I hold my hands out to the three men sitting about the fire.

Torrance lets go of his breath, his shoulders slumping. He casts his eyes down to the fire. I drop my hands and glance down at the flames. They lick at the thick logs Wessel had carefully arranged, charring them black. "I did until I had ten years."

I lift my heavy eyes to Torrance. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened?"

He shakes his head, still watching the flames dance and writhe on the logs. "My family perished in a house fire. I was the only one left alive because I stole some bread from my sister's plate and my mother sent me out to work the field as punishment until they finished their dinner first." I press my hand to my stinging heart. Torrance nods, still keeping his eyes on the fire. "The house was completely consumed by fire by the time I smelled the smoke and realized what was happening."

"D-do you know what caused the fire?" I ask. God, poor Torrance. I had no idea.

Torrance shrugs. "I don't know. I still don't know to this day. My father had some enemies, so if they started the fire...I don't know. Tsk!" he scoffs suddenly and looks up at me with a scornful look. "Ironic really. My selfishness saved me."

"What!?" I gape at Torrance, hardly believing his words. He is not selfish!

"Torrance," Eric says and leans forward, putting his face closer to the fire's heat. "Yer the best lad I know. Ye've always been there for me. I've no' done the same for everyone sittin' here."

Torrance lets go of his breath as a swirling white mist and looks up at Eric. "Eric, I never blamed you for choosing to leave so you could give Sara a better life. Never." He shakes his head, earnest and resolute. Silence falls amongst us. My heart almost stills and my stomach knots. I look down at the flames and watch them slowly eat away at the blackened peels of bark of the fattest log. I cannot bring myself to look at Eric right now, not with the pang of envy growing in my mangled heart. I hum from the growing discomfort in my stomach. Eric loves Sara. He always will. I grit my teeth. Why does that bother me so!? To be Eric's first love, to be the one to save him, to bring about such dramatic change in him by no extraordinary means, but simply being herself...is that where my jealousy of Sara lies? She never lied to Eric about who she was and he loved her for it.

"My dear, do you remember Hector?" Torrance asks me, startling me.

I glance up at him. "The healer from Vilgard?"

He nods, looking so glum. "I was made an orphan after the fire. Hector took me in and raised me as his son. He taught me everything I know about the healer's work."

"Oh…" I must be careful with my words. I wish not to seem insensitive nor cruel. "I sensed there might have been some shared history between you two, but…," I trail off. What else can I say?

Torrance nods. "You noticed that we don't get along anymore." He draws in a slow, deep breath, preparing himself for whatever he will spill next. "Hector had a daughter when he took me in."

"Oh." I can see this going one of two ways.

Torrance continues, "His daughter and I, we liked each other right away, but we were brother and sister now. As we both grew up, we became attached at the hip. We went everywhere together, shared almost everything together, did almost everything together! One day, we went to the nearby lake for a little swim. There we were swimming around in the warm water, splashing each other, laughing, barely dressed. She swam up to me and kissed me. I kissed her back. No second thoughts. No regrets. Things got," he laughs once halfheartedly, "well, I'm sure I don't have to spell it out for you."

"You made love." The words are out of my mouth before I realize it. Torrance's face softens. Heat creeps up my neck and sears my face despite the chill. Oh God, get a hold of yourself! I shrink back. "Sorry, that was uncalled for—"

"No, that's what happened," Torrance says, completely unabashed. "We made love again and again under the sun and well into the night. When Hector found out about us, he was furious. He threatened to enlist me in the King's army if I continued fraternizing with his daughter," he repeats that word with mockery. It must have been Hector's word to describe their affair. "We didn't stop, though." He shakes his head as he looks down at the fire again. "We planned to run away together and get married, but the night we were going to escape, the Phantom Soldiers descended on us in a swift attack. They grabbed her. We held each other's hands so tight that when they finally tore us apart, we had deep scratches on each other's hands. I still have the scars. See?" Torrance holds his left hand up for me to see. I swallow and dare to lean closer to the fire to peer at his palm. In the fire's flickering glow, I see the four red, claw-like scars reaching from the bottom of his palm to the joints of his fingers. He turns his hand over to show me the back of it. There is another red scar marring the back of his hand. It starts out in the middle of his hand as a crescent shape—the shape of her thumbnail, and stretches to his middle knuckle.

"Oh Torrance, I'm so sorry," I say, my voice growing hoarser. God, this tragedy was before Ravenna stole my father's throne. A new ache sprouts in my heart. She lied to me about who she was...even then.

Torrance drops his hand. "Don't be sorry, my dear. This all happened about fifteen, sixteen years ago. I don't live in the past. I live for now."

I nod slightly, taking his words into my heart. "There are worse ways to live," I say. Truly, there are.

''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''

I toss back and forth, sleep evading me every which way I try to lay. This night is particularly cold. Soon, the pressure grows in my gums and the muffled grinding of my teeth fills my ears. I force my jaws apart and try to relax. Torrance the healer. Torrance the orphan. To have no family in this world...I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. Even though Eric has no family here, he might have family in the north. Torrance truly has no one except for the men sleeping about the fire and the man who is still off somewhere in the cold night keeping watch.

The pressure grows in my gums again and the grinding fills my ears! I let go of a hard breath, my body far too tense. My eyes open. God, I cannot sleep! I prop myself on my elbow and look about the camp. Torrance, Wessel, and Locke all sleep soundly. Wessel is snoring louder than the others. I smirk at him while my heart warms with gratitude. I have Wessel. To have found him again after all these years...not many who have lost all their friends and family are so blessed as I.

One of the horses nickers in the distance. I look beyond the sleeping men. There at the edge of our fire's glow stands the hunter running a brush along Ylva's flank, his hood drawn over his head. My heart beats harder, nagging to be closer to him. If only I could get up and sneak over to him. Maybe...I sit up and look down at my feet, wrapped in thick linen and leather to keep them dry. I let go of my breath, the white mist swirling in front of my face. My breath dissipates as I draw in another chilled breath. I have made considerable progress on my feet, but I still lean heavily on Eric's hand for balance. God, what I wouldn't give to walk by myself again! I need to, if only to prove to myself that I will be able to dance to my heart's content on New Year's Eve. I search about me—there! I reach towards the pile of kindling and grab a crooked, sturdy looking branch from it. I take the branch in both hands and look at it from top to bottom, turning it over slowly. It looks strong enough. I might be able to use this to help me hobble over to Eric.

I turn over onto my right hand and knees and stand the stick up beside me. I cling to the stick with both hands and carefully bring my left foot out from under me, planting it in the snow. A dull ache cuts through my toes—no, I don't have toes. I must keep reminding myself of that. Alright, now all I have to do is stand. Here goes nothing. I grit my teeth and steadily apply more weight to my left foot. The ache grows stronger and hotter. I clench my teeth harder and lean more on my stick as I rise higher. I can do this! Just as my left knee straightens, I press my right foot into the snow. My eyes widen, my heart beating faster as my chest swells. I let the proud smile push into my numb cheeks. I'm standing all on my own! Now, can I hobble over to Eric?—"What're ye doin'!?"

I startle and wheel about, coming face to face with the hunter. "Eric!" I whisper.

His eyes stray from mine and slowly venture down my body. "Ye got yerself up!" he whispers, his blue eyes darting back to mine. A smile spreads his mouth.

He's proud of me. God, how good that feels. I beam up at him. "I was determined to stand on my own...so I could go talk to you away from them." I nod down at the three sleeping men. A sudden piglike snort comes out of Wessel.

Eric peeks down at Wessel. His shoulders start shaking with barely suppressed laughter. As his laughter ebbs, he gives me a reprimanding look, though his smile breaks the facade. "Why're ye no' sleepin'?"

My smile falls. "I cannot sleep. May I speak with you for a moment? Perhaps that will help me...relax."

He looks down at the three sleeping men and glances back at the horses. He turns back to me, nodding. "Aye." He extends his hand to me. "Com'on."

My heart flutters as I take my right hand from my new walking stick and grab hold of his hand. He starts for the horses. I follow after him, waddling on my heels in the snow, but having this stick helps me balance far better. He leads me to the very edge of the fire's light where there is a small collection of boulders. The biggest boulder has a deer pelt draped over, the top of it almost perfectly flat and big enough for someone to stretch out on it.

"Sit," Eric says, guiding me to the boulder. He slowly helps me sit down on the boulder.

"Thank you," I say.

He sits down beside me, keeping my hand in his. "Yer welcome." He turns himself towards me, his knee bumping against mine. "I've never seen Torrance share that much about himself in one sittin'," he says. He carefully pulls my glove off, tucks it safely in his belt, and grabs hold of my hand between both of his.

I drag in his shuddery breath. His hands are so warm. "Really?"

He nods and carefully rubs my numb hand between his, minding my healing fingers. My hand starts to tingle all over.

"I feel awful for him," I say. My eyes drift down to our hands. His hands dwarf mine. "To lose your family in one swift stroke...I think I understand his pain. I lost everyone I held dear the night Ravenna took everything from me."

His hands still, cocooning my hand in warmth. "That's probably why he opened up to ye as he did. Ye both lost yer families in one day."

"Wessel found me." I raise my eyes to him. "It is so good to have him back, but I feel…" So much stirs in me, twisting me around and about until I am nothing but a conflicted mess. "Eric, so few are blessed as I have been, but I still feel...so alone. Why do I feel this way? Is it wrong that I feel this?"

"Nae." He shakes his head, so resolute, so certain that I'm not wrong to feel this way. "After Sara...I had nae one. Aye, I could have turned to Torrance or Wessel and they would've helped me, but nae matter how many times I call 'em brothers, they're no' the kind of family that is a part of me. That knowledge...it made me feel alone and weak." So much churns in his eyes like the raging sea. He strokes the side of my warmed hand with his thumb.

I swallow. "I remember you called Sara your family. What made her different from your brothers?"

His eyes flit about in mine, failing to stray. He takes in a breath, filling his chest. "When a lad loves his wife and takes her to bed, he gives himself to her and she receives him. The two become one, then. In that way, Sara became a part of me and I became a part of her. It's a...different family."

"Oh," I say, no other words coming to mind. My loins swell with hot blood and throb. My heart turns about, feeling strange and uncertain, yet yearning and envious of what Eric and Sara had. To have found each other as they did when they did and to come together as they have done...I want that with him. I want that closeness with him, to become one with him so as to become a part of him—but there is this chasm between us. There is a bridge connecting both sides of the chasm that I might cross, but only if I tell him my true name. If I do, would he welcome me with open arms? Or would he cut the ropes upholding the bridge?

He takes one of his hands from mine and brushes his calloused fingers across my cheekbone. His touch lingers even as he traces his fingers down my cheek to the corner of my mouth and rests his thumb there. His eyes still flit about in mine, the fire's dim glow barely touching his face. My stomach churns, filling me with unease. What is he looking for? His eyes shift down to my mouth. I drag in a chilled, shuddery breath, feeling my numb lips more and more. My heart beats harder and harder until it pounds against my sternum. My head grows lighter yet my eyes grow heavier, stealing my sense of balance. The air becomes thicker, making it harder to breathe.

He draws closer, lessening the space between us. I want to be draw closer to him, to utter my true name so that I might cross the bridge, but he hates lies. He warned me of that when we were in the dark forest. To reveal to him that I have been lying to him all this time...I've seen what he's done to those who have deceived him and invoked his wrath. At best, he would leave me here. God, to have him leave me here, to never see him again...he stops a breath's space from my lips.

"What is it?" he whispers, his eyes filling with concern.

My mouth grows too heavy to hold back my frown. I look down at our joined hands, trying to savor his featherlight touch on my cheek. "I'm finally tired thanks to you. I should get some sleep now...as should you."

The sound of him releasing his breath torments me. "Aye, yer right." He pulls his hand from my cheek, letting the cold air burn me with its icy fingers. "Com'on." He stands up from our boulder, still keeping my hand in his.

I swallow, searching the depths of my soul for the courage to look up at him. Somehow, I find scraps here and there and piece them together. I lift my heavy eyes to him. He is looking down at me, disappointed and glum. He wanted to kiss me...yet he sensed my unease. My guilt. I gather the last of my strength and push myself to my feet, Eric barely helping me to stand. Whether his lack of help is because of my push for independence or for some other reason, I cannot shake the dismal air between us. No doubt he is thinking about my life cut short. A pang enters my heart. That was supposed to be my last lie, yet every word I've ever told him is built on a lie. Every word, every touch, every embrace—it's all built on a lie. Wessel's warning runs through my head. Your happiness can only survive if it comes from an honest start. No, that can't be right. This downward turn must be brief. The happiness I feel with Eric will come back. It has before.

Eric leads me back to my bedroll where he helps me to sit down. He lets go of my hand, his eyes lingering on me as he goes to Locke and shakes his arm. Locke stirs and opens his eyes.

"Yer turn," Eric tells him.

"Mhmm," Locke hums and sits up while Eric sits down on his bedroll beside mine. I set my new walking stick aside and lie down, pulling my deer pelt up to my chin. I shouldn't look at him. I shouldn't...Locke passes by as he heads towards the horses. I presume to sit on the boulder Eric and I were sitting on not a moment ago. Eric moves in my periphery. The pull on my eyes to look at him grows stronger, becoming harder to ignore. Oh God, what's the use of fighting it!? I roll my head along the hard, rolled linen until I see him fully. As he settles back against the boulder he had set his bedroll before, he slows himself as if sensing me looking at him.

His eyes dart down to me. "What?" he whispers.

I swallow and shake my head. I try to ignore my pounding heart that's threatening to break out of my chest. How I want to embrace him, to kiss him, to cross the yawning chasm that separates us. The skin side of the pelt reminds me of where my hands are and where they are twitching to be. I clutch at my pounding, mangled heart beneath my deer pelt. My eyes drop down to his pale lips. My stomach knots a thousand times. That damn burning ache stirs and grows in my loins once more. To finally utter my true name, to pull back the wool from his eyes so that he may see me for the first time—a broken, shattered, sinful woman who cries for happiness and freedom...true happiness that never dips nor fades. And freedom from...from everything that haunts me. Freedom from everything that I have done, from every lie I have spewed. I want to be free. I want to be happy! I want to be free and happy in Eric's arms...but more than that, I want to feel his goodness surround me, come into me, and accept me for who I am. Just as he accepted Sara for who she was. My heart grows so heavy. Sara was so good, though. She was a saint. Then there's me. A selfish woman. A coward. A liar. Eric hates lies. How he could ever care for a liar...I don't see how it's possible. I am the antithesis of him. He hates lies, and I am a liar. Therefore, he will hate me in the end—something clangs!

I startle. Eric and I both look at the disturbance. Wessel stirs as his eyes flicker open. He lifts his head and looks at the fire, an iron pot lying on its side by his boot. He must have kicked the pot over in his sleep. "Oops," he says and looks to us. He blinks his eyes a few more times, trying to clear the sleep from them. "Sorry about that."

"It's alright," I say. My nerves buzz. I dare a quick sideways glance at Eric.

He shakes his head at Wessel as he sits back against his boulder. "Let's all try to sleep," he says. He casts me an almost neutral look, but I catch the sadness dimming his eyes. That pierces my heart like a stake.

"Right. Good night," Wessel says.

"Good night," I say. I tear my eyes from Eric. I cannot bear to look at him anymore.

"Night, lass," he says, the pain in his voice cutting me to my bone.