Haoti Ewhoza is a season into his second life when he realizes he's in love.
It doesn't come as a surprise.
For one moment, watching Valira with muddy knees and a smile on her face, humming as she coaxes a plant onto a new trellis, he calls himself the worst kind of fool. That hot anger at himself is familiar, but where she's concerned, it burns itself out quickly. He isn't a fool to love her. It might, in fact, be the only wise choice he's made since long before he died.
Still, it's not a pleasant sensation, knowing what's in his heart and knowing just how unworthy he is.
She looks up from the garden bed and raises her eyebrows, so he's stood there too long. “Were you looking for me?” she prompts, hands still carefully holding the vines steady.
“Let me help you,” he says, surprising himself, and maybe her too, from the look she gives him. “It's easier with two, isn't it?”
Most times, Valira seems to weigh her smiles before she gives them. Less now than when he knew her on the journey, never around her companions or her cousin, but still with strangers, with those she doesn't trust. Lately, he's had more unguarded smiles from her than he has any right to. This one is small and welcoming. “Most everything is,” she says, and he comes to join her, to crouch in the garden bed and move the trellis to where it needs to go.
When they finish, she brushes her hands off, seeming pleased with a job well done, and stands, leaving him still kneeling in the garden bed. “I'm going to find something to eat,” she says, and he knows it's an excuse and an offer all at once.
“There's a weed or two in the bed. I think I'll stay a while.”
For a moment, he doesn't know if she'll nod and accept the decision or be disappointed. He almost hopes for the latter before he wills that down, and in the end, she surprises him with another smile, this one more tentative. “You garden? I didn't know.”
There's so much of that first life she doesn't know, back when he perhaps might have been worthy of what they asked of him, in those last weeks on the journey. Back when he might have offered. He doesn't know, though, if he can speak of it. “I used to,” he finally says, and her mouth firms.
“Well, you can again. Any time you like.”
Haoti nods, and Valira hovers for another moment like she might have more to say, but it's only moments before she nods in return and leaves for whatever her next errand was going to be.
He stays in the garden bed for most of an hour, pulling out every weed, every stray root and pebble, until his mind is in order again.
Sometimes, being on his own still feels too quiet. Today, the silence in his mind feels like peace.
Quil, in the middle of dishing herself a bowl of soup, frowns, seemingly struck by the question. “I never asked. Unless it was Lolth herself, he betrayed his vows.”
“I'm very sure he did that,” says Valira, but the thought keeps nagging.
“I never saw him cast a spell, I don't think,” says Phi, when Valira finds her later on the walls of the hold and asks her. “And I never heard him pray. I don't know if he's a paladin anymore, not in the way we think of them.”
Valira chews over their answers and doesn't mean to ask anyone else, but she runs into Len in the halls that night, and he's the one to bring Haoti up, bemused but pleased and mentioning that he brought in a harvest of early potatoes from one of the garden beds to use for dinner. Len is kind, and seems a little more likely to trust Haoti than some of Phi's brothers, all of them justly wary of cruel men swayed to the wrong causes. It's a little too easy to blurt out the question.
Len frowns. “He hasn't mentioned. Maybe one of us should ask him. If he wants to … well, it may take him some time, to decide to try, but if he knows we're willing to help him, he might be glad of it.”
The next day, she seeks Haoti out. She only does it rarely. He seems to want solitude, and she understands that, respects it. Still, he never seems unhappy to see her, these days, and perhaps she should let that guide her too.
“You seem to like working in the gardens,” she begins when he squints up at her from where he's sitting under a tree in the orchard.
He ducks his head. “I grew up in one,” he says, and Valira is almost certain it's the first time he's ever told her about anything about his life before he sold it to King Seath. “My mother kept a fine garden. Mostly flowers, but some vegetables too.”
“You're always welcome in these ones. Were you … was your god, is your god, one of the nature ones?” She winces at her poor phrasing, and even more at the way anything like happiness deserts him immediately. “You don't have to answer. But you could, if you like.”
“Obad-Hai,” Haoti says, and it's perhaps the last thing Valira expected. It took her a long time to know much about the gods, when she left the forest, and even now she's content with Yondalla as a patron. In her childhood, though, she remembers that what poor feasts and festivals they had were Obad-Hai's. For the hunt, for the forest that fed them, for the life they led. They weren't devout, perhaps, but they were sincere, and it's been a long time since she heard the name. “That upsets you,” he adds, and she winces for being silent for too long.
“No. It's just … not what I expected, I suppose. Do you—because of your mother's garden?”
“You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, and I'm in no position to tell anyone how to heal a rift between them and their god, whoever it may be, but if you want to join me in the gardens, you're always welcome.” An idea strikes her, and she blurts it out before she can even decide if it's a good one. “I'm planting a dye garden at the sheep farm. Perhaps you'd like to come with me on my next visit. I'm leaving within the week, I think, though it may get postponed.”
Valira wouldn't blame him for a dismissal, when she's overstepped her bounds so much, but instead he seems to consider it. “I'll let you know,” he finally says.
She doesn't ask more than that, and doesn't ask him to join her on her trip around the grounds to check some traps she set out for whatever is eating her cabbage. If he wants to come, he will, but for now, she suspects he might have some thinking to do.
Mostly, when all four of them are together, and especially with the younger girls added on as well, Haoti steers clear. He reminds them, he suspects, of the worse parts of their journeys, and the younger girls have no reason to trust him at all. There was awkwardness when he was introduced, and when he thanked them for freeing his soul to be brought back to the Prime Material Plane.
Of course it's Star he runs into first, hours after they've all arrived, when he's in the garden beds again, vainly wishing for weeds to pull. She looks at him, like she always does, like he's something she scraped off the bottom of her boots, and this time, he even manages to find some humor in it. “You're still here,” she says, flat. “I thought maybe you'd be out redeeming yourself the way they always say you're capable of.”
Star is all sharp edges, but clearly well-loved by her friends and her god alike. Paladine, he thinks sometimes, must have more of a sense of humor than the god of paladins really should, to favor her so. “I don't know what I'm supposed to do,” he says, because honesty can only do him good.
She waves her hand at the sky, a nebulous gesture. “Well, you could always pray about it.”
It's been a long time since Haoti felt Obad-Hai's presence. He'd told himself, in the beginning, that killing dragons would keep evil from the world, but his prayers trickled off as his illusions were stripped away. He'd stopped trying to do magic before Valira and her companions even broke him out of the fire giant's cell, for fear that it wouldn't work. “Thank you for the advice,” he says, and knows that it comes out hopelessly awkward.
Something about it makes her—not soften, exactly, he's not sure he's seen Star anything like soft, only a more concerned type of exasperated, but it makes her relax. “If you ever want to try, I'll help,” she says, stiff but less contemptuous, and walks off down the hall.
It isn't long after that that he runs into Terry, who takes one look at him and frowns. “Everyone is having something to eat. You should join in.”
Sometimes the mechanics of life are bewildering, after death. He forgets to eat, to sleep, and wonders why he's hungry and tired. Today, he's been avoiding people for a reason, but that's no reason to neglect himself, so he nods and trails after Terry when he can't think of anything to say.
The dining room is a mess of people and overlapping conversations. Kithri has three of Phi's brothers hanging off her every word, saying something emphatic, and Quil is next to her, interrupting occasionally to interject some opinions of her own. Wynne and Cordelia are talking to Phi, who seems to be listening carefully and trying not to smile, and Tesni and Star are listening to Gariel as she regales them with what must no doubt be a stream of impressive puns judging by their wide eyes.
Valira is standing with Trilli to one side, fussing over what appears to be a recent scar. He would leave them be, but Valira looks up when he enters with Terry and smiles and waves him over, as natural as anything. “Tell her,” Valira says imperiously when he's close enough, “that she ought to have let Tesni heal her up properly. Scars aren't some kind of badge of bravery.”
It makes him uneasy that he died and still bears no scar for it. He can understand the need for a reminder. “A badge of experience, maybe,” he offers.
Trilli, who usually watches him with suspicion, maybe guessing his feelings for the cousin who may as well be her sister, seems to forgive his presence since it brings victory. “See? Experience. I look dashing.”
Haoti and Valira both look at Cordelia at the same time, and Trilli frowns between them, betrayed. “You'd just better not decide you want to look even more dashing,” Valira says, severe. “Now, let's eat, you were traveling all day and I imagine you're starving and I'm sure Haoti could use some food.”
He trails along in their wake, loading up a plate with food and enjoying the simple pleasure of filling his stomach while the conversations rattle along around him, only occasionally soliciting his input. He catches Star's eye once or twice, but she doesn't seem inclined to repeat her offer in public, and he's grateful for it.
The mechanics of life are bewildering. If he's always hungry but can't remember to eat a meal to solve the problem, perhaps he needs to remember that to get the redemption he's been hoping for since before he died, he needs to go back to serving his god.
She invites Haoti again, during a communal meal, and feels guilty at the way his shoulders hunch up, though no one seems to blink at the invitation. “If I won't be in the way,” he says into the silence, and she feels guilty about that too, that none of them have thought to give him occupation, really, or to ask him what he'd like to do now. They all spoke before they brought him back, all wanted to give him time to be used to living again, and being alone in his head, but perhaps the time for that has passed.
“Of course you won't. It will be nice to have an extra pair of hands,” she says briskly, and he nods, which is all it takes to let the conversation drift on to how Kithri has been lately, as though she would say anything in front of everyone if she weren't doing perfectly.
Talk for the rest of the meal is general, and Haoti disappears when it's over. Valira wonders, not for the first time, where he goes when he leaves like that, if it's outside or to his room or somewhere else entirely. She hasn't dared follow him, but maybe that should change too.
Wherever he goes, he appears before breakfast in the main hall the next day, knowing she likes to get an early start on her time at the farm. He's packed for a few days, since this will be one of her longer visits, and he gives her something close to a smile when she appears. “Did you sleep well?” he asks, and when every word he says seems to have a purpose, it's a shock to get something like small talk from him.
“Well enough. Not looking forward to all the business today. I like the farm, but there are so many people to deal with. Another year or two and I can hand it over to the mermaids and the sheep.”
He opens his mouth and shuts it again, and Valira decides it's best not to explain. The farm makes much more sense when it can be experienced rather than explained. She shoulders her pack and leads him to the tree near the hold that she uses for traveling most often, bringing forth the magic that will let them step into it, hands linked, and out of a solid old oak in one of the farm pastures.
Haoti breathes out when they step out of the tree, right at the same time Valira takes in a deep lungful of salty ocean air. It's a beautiful stretch of land, pastures leading down to a rocky beach and a group of rough buildings just on the other side of a fence. The sheep, from a distance, look like any others, and it's only when Softwool, the flock leader, trots over to them that Haoti inhales sharply, probably noticing the fangs. Valira smiles at him, reassuring, and casts Speak With Animals.
“You're late,” says Softwool. “Bleat has been asking where you are.”
“I had friends arrive. All is well aside from Bleat? I'll see her as soon as I can, I promise. The fish are still plentiful?”
“One of the mermaids brought some kind of magic poisonous fish the other day,” Softwool says, approving. “They know how to find delicacies.”
Valira tries not to imagine the possible consequences of feeding the flock magical fish on a regular basis, much less poisonous ones. Though perhaps it would make the thread spun from their wool sought-after for weaving the cloth to make sorcerers' or wizards' robes. “I'm glad you're enjoying your meals. They're the least you deserve, after waiting so long for me to keep my promise.”
Softwool, now that she's living out in the sunshine, seems sanguine about her flock's time wandering the tunnels of the underdark and the ewes she lost there. “There's plenty of food and plenty of space.”
Valira nods. “And I've brought help here, to plant the dye garden so we'll have an even easier time of selling your wool.” She jerks her head at Haoti. “Tell everyone not to bite him, he's with me. And tell Bleat that once we've finished talking to the mermaids and the shepherds and spinners we'll deal with her troubles.”
“Acceptable.” Softwool snaps her jaws a little at Haoti, who looks confused but doesn't startle, which always makes the sheep respect a person more. “She'll be on the shore, of course.”
“Of course,” Valira says, as gravely as she can, and tugs Haoti's arm so they can exit the conversation together. “We have some mermaids to greet, to check on the state of the fish supplies locally and to get a story about a magical fish that may or may not be a good idea, and then I need to talk to the women who spin the wool about the placement of the garden, and then I have more sheep to deal with. It will probably be afternoon before we get to the garden. You can find a tree to sit under, if you like. Softwool won't bother you much.”
“I used to be able to do that,” he blurts, and seems to realize that she's mystified. “Talk to animals, I mean. I knew the spell. I know it. It's just been a long time since I ...”
Not every paladin knows the spell, and it puts another piece into the puzzle that he's turning into. “Animals are very particular conversationalists,” she offers when he doesn't seem to want to pick the conversation back up. “On my worst days, I often don't want to talk to them either.”
There's something that's almost relief in his face. “Would it be impolite to ignore them, if I know the spell?”
Valira considers. “They don't know that you know it. But you're welcome to try. Softwool is interesting to speak to.”
“Perhaps I'll try later, then. But I'd like the tour, I think.”
She's more than willing to take that peacefully. He's never so much as breathed a word about trying to do magic before, so it's a beginning. Maybe, after months, he's finally healed enough to think about what he wants. “Then I'll show you around.”
There are a few buildings, the largest being the room for spinning wheels where the wool is processed and the others scattered shepherds' huts usually left vacant when Valira isn't visiting. Valira tells him, proud, that within a year they're hoping to build a weaving facility too, and when the wool, softer and stronger than that of regular sheep, grows more popular, she's going to give the farm to the sheep themselves, with the help of translators. He gestures around the land, which must have been expensive to buy, even with the world falling over itself to reward the heroes who saved them. “Surely the money must be helpful?”
She shrugs. “It doesn't matter much to me, not really. I went for the sheep because I made a promise, but it's not anything important to me in itself. Give me a forest and a garden and my friends nearer any day.” Suddenly, she grins. “Though there's one thing I'll miss. Come on, I want to introduce you to Bleat.”
Bleat turns out to be a sheep who looks like all the other sheep on the farm, as far as he can tell. He might have gardened in his day, but he doesn't claim to know much about livestock. She's standing with her hooves in the ocean, down on the beach, and is staring out to sea, where a shark's fin is visible above the water, traveling restlessly.
Valira goes over to her, throwing a smile over her shoulder at Haoti, and crouches down, casting Speak With Animals again and starting a low-voiced conversation with her, not that he'd be able to understand even if they were speaking normally. He thinks, for a moment, about trying to call on the half-remembered magic to eavesdrop on their conversation, but he hasn't done anything yet that would allow him access to his magic again. To try and fail sounds worse than not trying at all.
This conversation seems very grave, though he can see Valira's mouth twitch once in a while. Eventually, she casts a spell he can't recognize at first glance on Bleat, who starts walking immediately out into the water, swimming awkwardly once it gets deeper. The shark fin quickly changes tacks and heads for it.
“She'll get killed,” he says, disbelieving.
Valira, to his surprise, laughs. “No. Teeth of Obsidian is just impatient to see her. When I'm not here, there's no one to cast Water Breathing for her, so they take advantage of my visits.” Haoti's face must be a picture of confusion, because she takes a breath or two, calming the laughter out of her voice. “They're in love. There was a fight over a particularly juicy eel and they've been inseparable ever since.”
In the water, Bleat is pulled under, the fin disappearing as well, and Haoti half expects to see blood in the water a moment later. Instead, there's only the lapping of the waves, still blue-gray without a hint of red. A shark and a sheep in love. It's a ridiculous thought, but it's somehow Valira all over, building a place where that kind of impossible thing happens. “What will happen when you give the farm to the sheep?” he asks. “They'll have to be apart, unless they can find someone close enough who would sell them the spell.”
“The mermaids can do something like it, and seem to be looking forward to a long-term partnership. But it's one of the things I'm trying to figure out. I'd like to find a way to make it permanent, so Bleat could go from land to sea and back again, but that's hard information to find.”
Mostly, it's the gods who can choose to make a spell last forever, and while Valira and her friends are powerful, terrifyingly so, they aren't quite gods. “You're favored of Paladine. You could ask him.”
Valira frowns, considering, still looking out to sea where Bleat disappeared and still hasn't resurfaced. He still feels on-edge at the wrongness of the sight of a land creature going so trustingly under the waves, but he trusts Valira's morals. The sheep will surface when the spell ends, and wait for Valira to cast it again. “He's given us enough favors, and besides. It's not quite his sort of thing. Nor Yondalla's, though that's a little closer. I've thought about asking Kithri.”
It's the kind of thing Obad-Hai might do, but Haoti doesn't know how to suggest that, much less offer it. “You should ask. If they care that much.”
She smiles again. “They really do. Life is very strange, isn't it? And wonderful, sometimes.”
And terrible, others. It seems cruel to say that now, though, when the noon sun is bearing down on them and there's a sheep swimming in the sea, no doubt using her terrifying teeth to hunt down prey with the shark she loves. “Sometimes,” he agrees instead, and Valira grins.
“Come on,” she says. “We won't see Bleat again until tomorrow, and I promised to show you the dye garden.”
Two of the women who spin the wool, one a druid in the making if Valira is any judge, are there too, to learn how to care for the plants, and Valira starts laying out seeds and cuttings, for woad and madder and weld and goldenrod and other plants, wild and tame both, that will make for brightly dyed thread and yarn. Only a few of them grew in the forest she grew up in, but with help, she's found the best dyes. Not all of them are meant to grow where she's planting them, but with her help, they'll take root.
The young women both pepper her with questions, but Haoti just works, quiet and steady. He turns the earth, combing for grass roots and stones, using the stones to make a beginning of a border around the beds of the garden to keep some of the grass out. When she gives him a handful of seeds and tells him it's mullein, waiting and testing, he knows what to do with it without her instructing him.
“Tomorrow,” she says when the sun gets low and their helpers excuse themselves to have dinner in their own homes, “I'm going to spend the day putting some life in the soil. I don't like cheating, making it grow too much past the land's capacity, but it won't hurt anything to do it once in a while.”
“I used to know how to do that, too,” he says, and this time, she's not surprised.
“If you want to help me, I'd be glad of it. Two are always more powerful than one. If you'd rather just help in someone's vegetable garden or go swimming in the sea or make friends with Softwool, of course you can. I didn't drag you here to work.”
“I'm not going to go swimming,” he says, solemn. “There are sharks in there.”
Valira's laugh startles them both. She's never heard him make a joke. She's barely seen him smile, after he stopped smirking. Knowing there's a sense of humor in him, however awkward it is, however unsure, is a relief. She's thought for too long that she resurrected a man who would have preferred to remain a ghost, that she wasted the most sacred magic in the world on someone who didn't want it. Now, though, he wants to put his hands in the soil, and he can joke, and she can almost convince herself that he's going to stay around. “Whatever you decide, I'll be starting soon after dawn,” she says. “For now, I'm going to talk to Softwool for a while. You're welcome to join us.”
Haoti shakes his head, standing and dusting some of the soil from his trousers. “Sylvia said the pantry in the biggest shepherd's cottage is stocked. I thought I'd see about some food for us. There must be fish around here somewhere.”
Another surprise. He learned the name of the girl who might be a druid someday when Valira still has trouble remembering the names of everyone who works at the farm, and he can cook, besides. Every traveler can, at least enough to keep them alive instead of wasting to death just to avoid another piece of jerky and hard tack, but this sounds like more. “If you can't find meat, ask one of the employees or one of the sheep, if you can't find me. But there certainly is plenty of fish.”
“I never quite understood why the sheep wanted to try fish so much.”
Valira shrugs. “They'd lived underground their whole lives. They couldn't understand the sky, but they could understand water from underground springs. The fish almost makes sense, sometimes. Just wait. Next they'll ask for birds.”
“And I suppose one of them will fall in love with a hawk.”
This time, she laughs loud enough that it seems to startle him. “Maybe so. They'll be obliged to work that one out themselves, though.”
Haoti nods, weighing the words, but he still seems lighter than she's known him yet, like spending an afternoon in the garden was of some help to him. “I'll ask someone if I need to, but there seems to be plenty of meat to go around. Come in whenever you like, I'll make something that will keep.”
That's a dismissal, she thinks, but she doesn't mind it. He's made jokes, now, and spent an afternoon in a garden. Maybe it's not quite healing, yet, but it's more than it was. “I'm sure I'll enjoy it,” she assures him, and leaves while things are still good.
Softwool is talking to a few of her flock members when Valira finds her, and Valira quietly whispers Speak With Animals to listen to what they're discussing—their approval, it seems, of the bright sun on the surface of the world, and how it makes their wool more lustrous.
“You don't miss the darkness?” she asks, letting them all know she can hear them.
The other ewes wait for Softwool's answer. “Only sometimes, when the sun is too bright. Did you lose your ram?”
“He's making dinner.”
“A provider,” Softwool says, all smug wisdom. “I hear he was in our garden helping you all day.”
“He was.” Valira wonders if she should demur, tell Softwool that she has the wrong idea, but Softwool won't really care, and Valira is less and less sure that it's the wrong idea. “I'm hoping he'll help more tomorrow,” she says instead.
“Good. Time together makes for a strong flock.”
When Valira goes inside, two hours later, there's a still-warm and mouth-watering fish dish on the table and Haoti is sitting by the fire writing, it seems, one of his infrequent and painful-seeming letters to Solomon. “Did you already eat?” she asks, settling in at the table and dishing herself up. Perhaps she ought to stand on ceremony a little, but she doesn't want to.
“No. I thought I'd wait.” He puts the letter aside, and she begins the internal dance of wondering if she should ask about it, settling on no. Haoti and Solomon have only seen each other once during Haoti's new life, and Valira doesn't know what words were spoken, but she knows there's a lingering awkwardness in Solomon's assumption that Haoti would want to keep resting. “I'll join you, if you don't mind.”
With Softwool's words in mind, Valira makes sure her smile is as warm as it gets. “Of course I don't mind. Come sit down.”
The sheep and the humans alike leave him alone. One of the mermaids, coming ashore to deliver what must have been a night's catch for the flock, gives him a friendly wave in greeting, and he waves back, but for an hour or more, he's left mostly to himself, to look out to sea and think.
He's been doing a lot of thinking since he was resurrected, and not a lot of acting.
Before he can tease that thought into making the decision to act, a shark fin appears on the horizon, and moments after that, a woolly shape appears above the waves. Haoti watches, bemused, as the sheep, Bleat, floats a ways out to sea, apparently having a serious conversation with Teeth of Obsidian, before swimming in to shore. The fin circles a few times before Teeth of Obsidian swims away.
When Bleat comes ashore, she's yards away, but the smell of wet wool still makes his nose itch. She's dripping, and her head is drooping, and before he can think or second-guess, he's whispering words that sound more familiar in Valira's voice than his own, as well as a quick apology to Obad-Hai for asking this of him when he's been so unfaithful.
“Greetings,” he says quietly, and from the way Bleat turns to him, he knows that by some miracle, it worked. “Did you enjoy your time in the ocean?”
“It's always too short.” Her gaze on him is more than a little unnerving, and she trots a few steps closer. “You're Valira's ram. You didn't speak to me yesterday.”
“I wasn't sure the spell would work yesterday.” He's not going to deny the rest of it. Haoti looks away to squint at the sun, still telling him it's early in the morning, that he didn't lose hours the way he sometimes does, answering a knock on his door at Fairpoint Hold to find he'd missed a meal or a spar when he'd sworn he'd only been in his room for a quarter of an hour. “There should be an hour or even a few left on the spell, I think. I'm surprised you're back so early.”
“Teeth of Obsidian worries,” says Bleat, and Haoti never spoke much with animals even when he could do the spell, preferring to use his magic for other things, but he doesn't know if he's ever heard anyone, animal or human, sound so fond. “I'd rather have the time, but my lack of gills upsets her.”
“It isn't the easiest of things. Is it?”
“Of course it's not,” she says, with full implication of how stupid a question it is. “I traveled out of the darkness with my flock, past untold dangers, was betrayed and rescued by Valira, and came to the sky and the sea to meet Teeth of Obsidian. I'd do it all again.”
Haoti wishes he had that kind of unshakeable faith that it was all worth it, but he knows he would do everything differently, if he could go back. “And when it's difficult? When you can't see her for days or weeks at a time, at least not to talk to?” He swallows. “Or when it feels as though you’re too different to understand one another?”
“Then we try harder.” She makes a disgusted sound the spell doesn't try to translate. “You two-legged people are very foolish. I'm going back to my flock.”
“Thank you for talking to me,” he says, a little too sincere, and waves her off. When she's gone, out of earshot, he reaches down and buries his hands in the fine gravel of the beach, the closest thing to soil he can get to without moving. “Thank you,” he whispers, and doesn't know what else to say. For the first time in a long, long time, he feels the warmth like the sun on his shoulders that means Obad-Hai is with him, listening to him and lending him power to do his will. “I'm going to help Valira, if you'll lend me your strength,” he adds, and the warmth intensifies, forcing tears down his cheeks from the sheer immensity of the feeling.
It takes him a few moments to stand, and the flock watches him as he passes. He nods at them all, but doesn't stop to speak—the spell has worn off, and he wants to save his strength, in case it doesn't last. He'll speak to them all when the dye garden and the rest of the surrounding land has been cared for.
Valira is still in the garden, sitting quietly, and will be for most of the day. She looks up at him with a flicker of a smile when he kneels across from her. It takes him a moment to find the shape of the spell, another one he didn't use much even when his magic was working for him well. When he joins his power to hers, plunging it into the soil with more thanks for Obad-Hai, she gasps.
“I'll help,” he says, a belated offer, and the look she gives him is closer to tears than to smiles, but he thinks it's a happy look anyway.
Instead, of speaking, she presses her hands to the ground, palms flat in front of her, not far from him, and he mirrors her, so their hands are almost touching, pouring their power into the earth together.
Valira offers him her hand, and he even takes it, letting her hold on until he's steady enough to take a step or two.
“I think perhaps I should cook tonight,” she says, somewhere between pleased and worried. She wants to ask him a hundred questions, but she knows well enough from Kithri, and is coming to know herself, just how personal a relationship with a god can be. Haoti's may well take some painful repair. “It won't be as nice as yours was last night, but you look like you'll tip over if you stand for too long.”
For a moment, he stiffens, perhaps worried that she's mocking him, but when he looks at her, whatever he sees seems to relax him. “I ate your food on the road a time or two. Not as good as Kithri's, maybe, but we won't die of poisoning.”
“Say that in front of Kithri and she may even make you a pie of your own.” She tries to be unobtrusive about herding him inside, but suspects that a few of the sheep, curious about what they were doing all day, and a few of the lingering farm employees, indulging the same curiosity, are finding it both obvious and entertaining. Haoti, however, doesn't seem to mind her practically shoving him through the door and putting him firmly in a chair before she puts on a pot to boil to make him some fortifying tea. “You haven't done that much magic in a while,” she says when her back is turned, giving him an opportunity to hide his response if he wants to.
“Obad-Hai was kind enough to grant me his help, but I never expected it to be easy. There's still work to do.”
“Of course there is.”
“And we need to do something about Bleat.”
That startles Valira enough that she turns around to face him again, gaping a bit. He ought to be joking, the same way everyone jokes about it when she mentions Bleat and Teeth of Obsidian at Fairpoint Hold, finding it a sweet but funny tale. Haoti, on the other hand, seems to be in deadly earnest. “What do you mean?”
“If you don't know how to make the spell permanent, or change one or both of them into a more convenient form, there must be a way to at least let them talk when you aren't around.”
Valira raises her eyebrows, bemused. “What do you suggest?”
“I don't know. But if water is shallow enough for Bleat when she can't breathe it, it's too shallow for Teeth of Obsidian to be safely in, and I don't know of any land on the farm that extends out into deep enough water for Bleat to stand on it.”
“You're right. I checked, but the slope around here is too gradual everywhere, and Teeth of Obsidian could risk being beached.”
“Then they need a long dock, or a boat that can be operated by a sheep, or some other kind of contraption.”
This, it seems, is a day of miracles for Haoti. He's favored by his god enough to help her do her magic, and apparently enough to speak to Bleat as well, and now he's alight with interest, frowning as he considers the problem, the logistics of it. “I don't know if we could build a dock strong enough that wouldn't disrupt the fishing, but tell me what you think while I cook.”
He does, at length, and an hour later Valira finds herself with a mouthful of savory pie (a recipe begged from Kithri) arguing about how to make a boat that a sheep could steer alone, and whether it's better after all to do a larger working of magic and raise a bar that could be walked on during lower tides, even if the fishing might be impacted.
“But they love each other,” he tells her, frustrated, when she reminds them both that as interesting as the thought of the magic is, it could still hurt the fishing, the whole delicate balance they just spent a day and much of their magic restoring. “The world has rearranged itself and survived because of any number of cataclysms and terrible things. Can't it rearrange itself for something good, for once?”
Valira swallows, surprised by the tears that spring to the surface when she stops short to think about it. Sometimes, even months later, she finds herself tending to pessimism, filling in for herself the acid and quelling remarks the demon would have made if he were there. Of course there will be problems. There always are, changing nature. But then again, bringing the sheep aboveground in the first place was changing nature. “Perhaps tomorrow,” she says, “you and Bleat and I can talk about it all, and see if she likes the solution for times when I can't be here.”
“I don't know how much help I'll be, but I'll be there.”
Silence falls, and it's not altogether comfortable, though Valira couldn't say what's on his mind. She's thinking of her demon, and of his, and how often she remembers Haoti's death and how rarely she remembers the horrors that preceded it. “You're a good man,” she says at last, and after being told so by the gods and hoping for months before and after his death that it was the truth, she knows she believes it wholeheartedly.
His smile is thin, but it's a smile. “I'm not sure of that yet, but I'm trying.”
The silence is easier after that, and they only talk a little throughout the evening while she goes over the accounts, hating every second, and while he meditates or prays. A few times she sees his lips moving, and she hopes that now that the dam is broken he'll find the peace he's seeking, and perhaps the redemption too.
He sits up, trying to think through all that when it came to him in a jumble. He's still exhausted from the outpouring of magic yesterday, but he recognizes it as the good kind of soreness that comes with stretching a muscle in a new way, or regaining flexibility after a wound. Another day on the shore, another day on this farm that is too ridiculous, too wonderful to be reality, and after that the intrusion of his life as it is now, at Fairpoint Hold. It's a good life, but one he's still not sure how to live. This, where every day is different and strange, is easier in some ways.
“Then we'll talk to everyone. Should we collect them all together? You can make it so all of us can breathe underwater, can't you?”
Valira blinks and then laughs. “I can. Did I ever tell you about the first time I used the spell?”
Haoti shakes his head, and Valira tells the story, no doubt embroidered liberally, while he gets up and straightens himself out, eating some bread and cheese for breakfast while she talks about the explosion of the Jeno and the fortune in gold and weapon components that ended up on the bottom of the sea.
She must have been up for a while, because Softwool and Bleat are waiting down by the beach when they get there, and there's a familiar fin out to sea, accompanied by the bobbing heads of a pair of mermaids.
“Are you ready?” she asks all of them, and at the affirmatives she gets, she says the spell. It makes Haoti's lungs tickle like he needs to cough, and he's the last of them to start into the water. Valira and Bleat are fearless, and Softwool more reluctant, but he still brings up the rear.
The ocean water is shockingly cold, and he follows Valira's example, gritting his teeth and walking steadily forward, not bothering to swim when he can walk on the sea floor and still breathe. The first breath of water is terrifying, everything in him crying out to hold his breath, but he keeps his eyes on the other three, all of them breathing without trouble, and trusts in Valira's magic.
When they reach Teeth of Obsidian and the mermaids, he calls on Obad-Hai again, telling him that yesterday was an undeserved favor but that he'll ask for one more, before he begins truly searching for redemption. Next to him, Valira is mouthing the words that will let her speak to them all while she's under the sea floor, and he tries.
It succeeds, and that will feel like a miracle forever, he suspects.
Teeth of Obsidian, swimming circles around the rest of them, is the first to speak that he can understand. “Why did you call us to this meeting?”
Valira jerks her head in Haoti's direction. “At his urging. You and Bleat wish to be together as much as you can, and I can't give you legs and lungs, nor can I give her gills, at least permanently. He wonders if perhaps a sandbar would be better than nothing—a place where the water would be deep enough for you and the land sturdy enough for Bleat.”
The conversation isn't an easy one, especially not when he and Valira have to keep spending magic so they can continue it. The mermaids worry about currents and fish and placement, and Bleat and Teeth of Obsidian are grateful but worry it's not enough, and the sun is shining down strongly through the water by the time they declare that a small sandbar can be made and exactly where.
When Haoti surfaces, he coughs out water with Valira pounding on his back, a necessary evil of the spell considering the rest of the land creatures are following his example. “Happy?” she asks him when they're both breathing, greedy gulps of the air that's so easy for them to breathe.
“Yes,” he says, and the automatic truth of it surprises him as much as it seems to surprise her.
Her smile fades, but she doesn't look unhappy. She just gently touches his wrist and gets to her feet. “Good. Come on, then, you don't know this spell but you can help me figure out what I need to.”
It takes most of the day and several more consultations with the mermaids before Valira is willing to cast Move Earth, and she makes sure flock and fish and everyone else is well out of the way, though Haoti finds himself part of a silent audience standing near the beach, all the employees of the farm and all the sheep lined up to watch her make life a little better for Bleat and Teeth of Obsidian.
Haoti knows that Valira is almost unbelievably powerful, just like all her friends are. She's resurrected dragons, resurrected him. She had a demon whispering in her mind for most of a year and never let it poison her. One dawn, when he was awake and wandering after nightmares kept him from sleep, he saw her pause at the edge of the woods and turn into a deer as easy as breathing, bounding off into the forest, to be a part of it. She's never showy, and only frowns at people when they try to call her a heroine. If he didn't know her, just met her on the road, he would never guess at what she is.
Today, only a fool wouldn't see it, as she stands on the shore with her hands raised, muttering magic and prayers to Yondalla both. He adds his own prayers, appealing to Obad-Hai to ask that her spell lasts, that it helps Bleat and Teeth of Obsidian until another solution can be found.
Others come and go during the two hours it takes Valira to finish the spell, but Haoti sits on the beach and watches the whole time as sand rises to the surface of the water, changing the shape of the incoming waves and reaching out to where the water is deep enough for a shark to swim.
When it's done, Valira gestures Bleat forward, and she walks out as far as the bar lasts. Sure enough, it's only moments before Teeth of Obsidian's fin turns up again. Bleat's conversation seems loud, as it would have to be to break the surface of the water, but they can talk. They can see each other. That's enough of a miracle.
“I'm not going anywhere tonight,” Valira says with a groan, ignoring the rest of the flock and the onlookers to sit down in the sand at his side. “Tomorrow morning, though, it's back to Fairpoint Hold. I'll be lucky if I get to spend a few days with Kithri and the girls before they leave again.”
Haoti likes Fairpoint Hold. The people are good there, even if half of them don't trust him and plenty don't like him. It's been a good place to begin healing, begin learning who he is again. Star is right, though, that he hasn't been seeking redemption in any true way, and it's only been this impossible farm that has allowed him to start. He'll almost certainly never go back to slaying monsters, almost certainly never be sure that when he swings his sword he's swinging it in good cause, but he can plant gardens, and keep an eye on the new sandbar, and perhaps find a new life through it. “I thought,” he says, “that I might stay. At least for a while.”
Valira, who'd started to draw abstract shapes in the sand with a nearby stick, stills. “You're welcome to, of course,” she says, and she sounds careful, guarded, like she sometimes did on the journey. “But do you mind if I ask why? No one wants you to feel unwelcome at the hold.”
“And I don't.” He frowns, frustrated, thinking of how to say it when words haven't come easily to him in any life. “I'm wasting this life you gave me,” he finally says. “It's a precious gift, and I'm wasting it.”
“No.” The response is instant, strong, and something like comforting. “You aren't, you're just healing.”
“I don't know if I can heal any more without trying to redeem myself. I was supposed to do it all along. And here, I can help. It's no great quest, but I think it would help me, to be of use here.”
Valira is silent for a long time, and Haoti almost holds his breath, unaccountably nervous. She wouldn't forbid him to stay (they're all very careful giving him orders, even if the collar he was bound with is somewhere put away and nowhere near him), but she might ask him to come back. He's not sure he would find it in him to say no. “You're wrong,” she finally says. “About any number of things. But most … most that it's not a great quest, to stay here. This matters. They're still getting used to the strange world above the ground. Bleat needs help getting to Teeth of Obsidian. The garden needs weeding. Even when there are dragons to slay, gardens need weeding, and there aren't any dragons right now.”
“Then I'll stay.”
Another silence. “But not forever?” she asks, and she sounds so hesitant. One of the most powerful women in the world, Valira, is asking him in a small voice if he plans to come back.
“Not forever,” he says, and knows it has to be true from her obvious relief.
She reminds herself, more than once, that it's good for him to be away from them, with people who have no idea what he did, and what he didn't do. None of them are holding grudges, but the knowledge of everything must be a weight, and perhaps on the farm he can stop bowing under it.
Both of them go to sleep early, and she's not surprised to find him already up when she wakes just a few minutes after dawn, already warming some bread and boiling the kettle for some strong tea. “Do you have any messages for me to take back to the hold?” she asks around a yawn.
“If anyone asks, tell them I'll be back when I can.”
From the sidelong look that comes with that, she thinks he might be reassuring her as much as anyone else who might ask. “I will. And I'm sure more than a few of them will ask.”
Haoti doesn't have anything to say to that, but the silence that sinks down on them over breakfast is a comfortable one, and when it's done and she's packed her bag to go, he walks her to the tree she'll use to get back to Fairpoint Hold, the same one they came out of together. “I'll tell the flock and everyone else goodbye for you,” he offers.
Most of them know she's leaving, but Valira smiles anyway. “Thank you.” She still doesn't step away and into the tree. “I'll be back soon, probably. And if you want to come home, get word to me somehow. I'll fetch you.”
She doesn't realize what word she used, and what it means, until he ducks his head, looking away from her when he'd been watching steadily. “I promise, I'll tell you if I want to go back. But you should go, or we'll spend the whole day saying goodbye.”
Valira has never been good at saying goodbye, preferring to leave in silence or not at all, but she can tell herself it won't be long, and she does, stepping away and gathering her magic, asking a tree to become something it isn't to let her go back to the hold. “Goodbye, then.”
His “Goodbye” comes just as she coaxes the tree into doing as she asks, reminding it that it's done so for her before, and she turns around to nod at him one last time before she's getting the disorienting feeling of traveling through the roots of the world to step out of another tree in the forest near Fairpoint Hold.
It's raining when she steps out of the tree, just a soft rain that's making the grass wet and the day chilly. No one is in sight, which isn't unusual. She tries to pick out of the way places to leave from and return to, uncomfortable with the way some of the people in the village watch her and her friends, like they're in awe. She doesn't want that, and never has.
Valira walks past the field where Quil keeps her beehives, but on such a rainy day it isn't buzzing with activity, and Quil herself, a creature of warmth, must be inside away from the damp. A few of Phi's brothers, patrolling or out for walks, wave as she passes, but she doesn't stop to see any of them, opting instead to go right to the hold gate, identifying herself and passing through.
When Kithri is in the hold, someone is always in the kitchen, so Valira goes there first, before she even stops in her room to drop off her pack. Kithri doesn't like all the stone walls, the size of the place, but a kitchen is a kitchen, in an inn or a hold or a one-room cottage, and even when she's not cooking she's usually bossing the people who are cooking around.
There's laughter when she's in hearing distance, and Valira smiles and speeds her steps, feeling less unsettled with family so close.
The kitchen is hot and crowded and noisy, and smells strongly of apples and cinnamon, the harvest from some of the orchard's trees bubbling into applesauce, and Valira inhales to the sound of welcomes from everyone in the room. She sorts them out after a few confused moments—Kithri, of course, is stirring the pot, and Quil and Cordelia are in a corner, Terry chopping more apples not far from them and Tesni helping him.
“This is lovely to return to,” she says, when the chorus of greetings dies down a little.
“Just wait till we have to can it,” Kithri mutters, and then peers over Valira's shoulder expectantly. “Did you lose Yahootie?”
Quil and Terry both look up sharply then, like it's a surprise that he wasn't tagging at her heels, and that gets the girls looking too. Valira shrugs, looks at the pot of applesauce instead of at any of them. “He thought he might stay at the farm for a while. I'll tell him you asked after him.”
There's a beat of silence before Cordelia stumbles out with “And how are the sheep? Bleat?”
Valira is glad enough to answer those questions. The girls know the farm a little better than her companions do, because she's taken them through the trees a time or two to get them the chance to get a nearby port and hire a boat, so they know the flock and she can talk about the sandbar, the dye garden, everything else that's happened over the past few days.
“Sounds like he was a lot of help,” says Quil when she trails into silence, and there's something in her voice Valira doesn't quite recognize.
“He wanted to be,” she says, too fast and too strident but hoping it will be an answer to whatever it was Quil was asking.
From the frown on her face and Kithri's too-fast stirring of the applesauce, it wasn't, but Tesni asks a quiet question about the dye garden and Valira lets herself be pulled into that conversation until Trilli, hearing of her arrival, comes crashing into the kitchen and lets her truly forget about it.
He speaks to the sheep. Bleat, when she's not out on the sandbar, likes to talk to him when he can spare the magic to do it, and takes him out a time or two to ask Teeth of Obsidian what it's like under the water. Softwool doesn't have much use for him, but he makes friends with one of the rams who likes watching the mermaids come and go from the beach.
He works in the garden, or hauling in the fish the mermaids bring, or cooking for the workers, where he gets to know them one by one.
“Is it true Valira resurrected a dragon?” one of them, a girl named Sylvia with something of the feeling of magic about her, asks with awe the first day he cooks them lunch.
“Yes,” he says, and because she looks so amazed, he reluctantly adds “And me.”
Her eyes go wide. “You helped her?”
“No. She resurrected me.”
That makes her flinch back, mouth opening around what must be a hundred questions. “Well, I'm glad she did,” she finally says, “if it means you can be here to make lunches for us. And I'll be even gladder if you do the dishes when you're done.”
From the pinched look on her face, perhaps that was too much information for their first conversation, but he still clears his throat and says “I'm glad too.” When she blinks at him, he looks back to the meal he's working on. “That she resurrected me. Even if I have to do the dishes.”
Sylvia actually laughs, like it's startled out of her, and Haoti finds himself smiling. He didn't know he could make a joke about his second life at all, when it still feels so precious, but perhaps he should remember that not everything needs to be taken seriously. He knew it once. He can know it again. “It's a noble purpose,” she says, and wanders back out to the other workers, who are spinning.
When they all come in for lunch, they're all looking at him differently, and he knows it means Sylvia told the others. He decides he doesn't mind, especially when they ask him about Valira and her staff, which stays locked away in the safest room at Fairpoint Hold nowadays, but which is a large part of her legend.
From there, he finds himself stumbling through stories of her and of the others, all the things he saw without paying much attention to while he traveled with them. He doesn't speak much about what he did, lets them assume he was some sort of witness or chronicler for their journey before he died, but perhaps they read something into it, or they've heard rumors, because they don't ask about him, just about the women.
“I'm glad you're staying for a while, sir,” one of the boys says on his way out, and Haoti stares after him, bemused, for a little longer than he should before beginning on the dishes.
He wants, he realizes partway through, to tell Valira how amazed by her they are. He wants to ask Quil if she hates being a legend, and Phi what he's supposed to say if he's worried he doesn't deserve admiration. He wants Kithri to roll her eyes over him having to ask either of those questions.
It's nice, to know that he misses them, that when he goes back to Fairpoint Hold it won't be because he has nowhere else or because Valira asked him. They may not be fond of him yet, may still be trying to find out who he is without a demon in his head and a king in his ear, but that's fine. He's still learning that too.
A few days into his stay alone, Sylvia lingers at the door after telling him that all the workers are going home for the day. “There's a dance in the village tonight, if you'd like to come,” she offers.
Haoti opens his mouth to say no, but there's no reason for it, so instead he nods. “I might not stay late, I'm rising early these days, but I'd like to see the village. And I should stop by someday soon to pick up some supplies.”
The workers bring those in, but Sylvia doesn't say that, just smiles. “Well, I'll linger five minutes or so if you'd like to walk over with me.”
“I'll walk with you, of course, but I should say, I can't—” He trails into silence, already feeling presumptuous.
To his surprise, Sylvia laughs. “You think anyone would have asked after Valira Wayfinder pulled a sandbar out of the sea for you?”
“For Bleat and Teeth of Obsidian,” he corrects, but it's something to think about, that she could have done it all along but did it in the end because he asked her to.
Sylvia doesn't comment, just waits until he's ready to go with her, leading him down the path to the nearby village, a small collection of buildings with an inn. Someone's cleared the floor in the main room of the inn and already at one end there's a motley collection of musicians tuning up.
Haoti settles down in a corner, and Sylvia lets him stay there, but he does dance a little, and speaks to a few people who ask him about Valira and spends time with someone's grandfather who tells him stories about his days in the army and who is glad to hear stories of Fairpoint Hold in his turn.
He walks back to the farm on his own and stares out to sea for a while, praying to Obad-Hai and noticing, as he stands there, that Bleat is out on the sandbar, taking advantage of the low tide.
Valira built it because of him, but he doesn't think she loves him, not the way he loves her. Still, the thought lingers.
“He's only been gone a week. He'll think I don't trust him.” Valira pauses. “And either way, it would take ages for a letter to get to him, unless I used magic, and then he'll really think I don't trust him.”
Phi, sitting with her in a cozy room while the autumn rains continue outside, smiles a little. “You could also write him a letter just because you want to. I did with Terry, even when I knew it could take months for my letter to get to him. It just helped me to write, and to get his letters in return even if all the news was out of date.”
“That was different,” says Valira, and knows how weak an argument it is.
Kithri would snort. Quil would tack around it, try again. Phi presses just a little further. She always knows when she has the advantage. “How different?”
Perhaps not as different as Valira might have thought before they went to the farm together. Before then, she never would have thought to make a comparison at all. Now, she wonders why she didn't make it before, even as she wants to make a hundred excuses—he did terrible things, he's still getting used to being alive again, he has no reason to trust them after they collared him. “I don't know,” she says instead.
“Then perhaps you should find out.”
Phi lets the subject rest, but it nags at Valira, and later, she drags out some paper and sits down for the laborious task of writing a letter when she doesn't know what to say. Her hands are still clumsy with the letters, when she's never had much opportunity to write, but she goes slow and comes up with a few paltry sentences that don't convey any of what's in her mind, and what might be in her heart.
Trilli finds her when she's been trying for an hour and frowns at the sight of her. “What are you doing?”
Valira is glad enough to put her quill down. “Writing to Haoti.”
Trilli wrinkles her nose and sits down next to her. “Him? After everything he did?”
There are things she still can't talk to Trilli about. One of them is the first months after she left their home. The other is the demon and all the poison he dripped in her ear, all the times she was tempted to sell her soul for what would have been noble reasons at first. Trilli doesn't understand the kinship Valira feels with Haoti, much less how it might have grown into something else. Maybe, Valira thinks, she ought to help her try. “If I hadn't had Quil and Phi and Kithri, I might have done much the same. Or worse.”
Trilli frowns. “You wouldn't.”
“With a demon, it's too easy to listen sometimes. Especially when they're offering what you want, or what you think you want.”
That makes Trilli sit up straight, suddenly intent rather than confused, and Valira makes herself explain. She does it poorly, but she talks about things she should have said months ago, and things Haoti should have said months ago that all of them are still trying to piece together. She suspects that Terry and Kithri, of all people, know perhaps a little more than the rest of them, and maybe a few of Phi's other brothers, but she wouldn't ask any of them to break a confidence.
“So you love him,” Trilli summarizes when Valira stumbles to a stop.
“Maybe not yet. I'm not in love with him. But it's hard to understand someone as well as I understand him and not love them at least a little.” She sighs. “I could, someday. Probably someday soon.”
“Well, then.” Trilli frowns. “I suppose I'd better get used to him. Perhaps the next time you go to the farm I should go with you.”
“I think probably the next time I go to the farm I should go alone,” says Valira. She already knows the letter in front of her won't be sent, and will probably be in the fire as soon as the ink is dry. That's fine. It may give her some idea of what she wants, and when she wants it. “Besides, aren't you five supposed to be leaving within a week? You've lingered a while.”
Trilli grins. “We have. Cordelia doesn't want to travel in the rain. But yes, we've got a few things to go looking for. Maybe we'll pass by the coast, though.”
Valira thinks, abruptly, of her young aunt Mira, who'd taken care of her when she was small the way she took care of her cousins when she got old enough, and she thinks of the young man Mira married, who came to the settlement and was sized up by the whole family, all of them stern and laughing at once, a ritual to make him prove himself before she left with him, to help with his herds at the edge of the forest. “You know,” she says, “I think perhaps you should.”
He misses her, and finds that he almost enjoys missing her. He didn't notice emotions leaving him along with whittled-away pieces of his soul, but his new life has brought them back one by one, and the wistfulness, the ache of it, is something he doesn't remember. Something new to this life.
He talks to the sheep and sometimes to the animals in the sea. He talks the mermaids, when they allow it, and to Sylvia and the rest of the shepherds and spinners, who adopt him cheerfully into their conversation and daily work. He goes to the village every four or five days and comes to know the people there.
Once a week, Kithri Sends him a brusque question: Are you ready yet? He hopes it's her idea, not Valira's, and every time he says no.
Three weeks in, one of the flock breaks her leg in a hole in the sand, and Haoti puts his hands on the wound and heals it. He's been practicing his spells, working on all of them, but healing is one of the more sacred of a paladin's privileges and if he's allowed it again, if Obad-Hai has favored him that much, maybe he can start to believe that what he's doing is worthy, if not heroic.
As though it's a reward or a test, Valira's cousin and the other younger girls turn up at the farm the next day, in a clatter of equipment and complaints about some kind of altercation with some bandits. They all greet the flock cordially before they turn to him, standing in the field caught in the middle of an argument about exotic meat supply with Softwool. Trilli is the one to step forward first, with her eyes narrowed at him like they always are. “Valira sent us with some of your supplies. And we've got a few Water Breathing scrolls for Bleat.”
“Thank you. She'll appreciate being able to go for swims again.”
“We're staying the night before we go back out traveling again,” says Wynne brightly. Somehow, even now that they're turning into warriors in their own right, Wynne maintains an air of pleased surprise about all of their adventures.
“If there's room enough for us to bunk,” says Cordelia, and looks relieved when he nods.
“I'll sleep in a smaller cabin so you five can have the biggest,” he offers, and then he's caught up in the tide of them dragging him back, Wynne trying to explain something about the bandits while Trilli tries to explain something about whatever Valira packed for him and while Cordelia nods seriously at each sheep they pass, and just as seriously at one of the workers when they pass him.
Tesni, to his surprise, contrives to be the last through the cabin door, waiting until the tide of chaos has moved inside before turning to him. “You look well. Better than you have. You seem better than you have.”
“I feel better than I have,” he admits, and she nods and goes inside, leaving him to follow her.
They mostly ignore him, and he's happy to be ignored. Star throws him a few searching looks and while she couldn't be called friendly, she doesn't act like his very presence makes her want to hiss like an angered cat. He makes them all dinner and they eat it, and even thank him for it.
When he walks out, intending to go a cabin for the night and see whatever it is Valira thought he might want out at the farm, besides perhaps a few extra pieces of clothing, Trilli follows him, and he can't say he's surprised. He stops walking where they can both look out to sea. “I was glad that she had a new family when I found her,” Trilli says after a few minutes of silence, and Haoti blinks, wondering why that's where she chose to start. “She'll never believe it, but she deserved better than ours. And she'd become a heroine, made a mark on the world.”
Trilli crafts her ballads, but she has a true bard's talent for leading whoever she's talking to down the path she wants them to be on. “She did.”
“And they talked about you,” she adds, nose wrinkling with the remembrance. “Told us what you'd done, and what the gods told them you could do, and how you refused to do it. And when we told them about the succubus we killed, she seemed happy that your soul was free to come back to your body. And I didn't understand.”
“I didn't either. Still don't, sometimes.” Haoti refuses to regret not sacrificing himself for Paladine's and Arfil's sakes, still thinks there must have been some trick to that, but there are many other things to regret.
“That's fine. I don't think any of us understand why we get to where we are, or how. Hells, I still don't believe that a goddess came to me just to send me Cordelia's way to make Quil happy, but here I am.” Trilli, when he glances at her, is frowning. “But Valira, she left because our family said she wasn't worthy of them, once she had blood on her hands. I don't think she'd ever say that to anyone else. She'll give you chances, she'll give you time, but she won't say you're not worthy. You're part of her family now.” She shrugs. “So I guess you're part of mine.”
With that, Trilli spins on her heel and heads back to the warmth and to the laughter that he can hear emanating from the cabin even yards away.
Haoti stays on the cliff thinking of that for a while, about the family he hasn't had in a long time and the one that keeps trying to reach out to him and always falls short because he's not sure they want him to reach back. He shoulders the bag of things Valira sent to him and goes to the nearest cabin.
Once inside, he opens it, sifts through. There's a prayer book for Obad-Hai, newly bought and slipped in the bottom, and the clothes that he'd hoped for. There's a serviceable dagger to replace the one he hasn't bothered to replace in his new life, and some supplies of spices for cooking, a way to say that he can stay as long as he needs.
At the bottom of the pack is a neatly folded note in Valira's careful but clumsy hand. I hope Bleat is well, as well as the rest of the flock. I hope you're getting what you need. You're missed.
It isn't a love letter to be written down in the annals of history, and probably not a love letter at all. Still, by the time he blows out his candle to sleep, it's already creased and worn.
The next afternoon, after he's seen Trilli and the others off to find the nearby port and their transportation to another adventure, he gets a Sending from Kithri, irascible as ever but timed such that she must have asked Tesni to tell her when they left. Are you ready?
Bleat is out on the sandbar, waiting for him to go down and cast one of the Water Breathing scrolls for her. Teeth of Obsidian is swimming nearby, her fin an almost-comforting presence by now. I'll leave in three days, he replies, and starts walking down to let Bleat go into the sea.
“And then ages of travel after that,” Kithri says when Valira tells her so. “Unless you want to go fetch him.”
If he's counting on the travel time as more time of solitude, perhaps she shouldn't fetch him, but the idea immediately makes her settle with relief. “Maybe I'll go in two days, and bring him back on the next one.”
Kithri hums. “A few months ago I would have told you not to do it.”
“I'm not going to tell you to do it either.”
Of course she isn't. Her shouts of “No romance!” on the journey made them laugh, made them bemused, made them grateful. Kithri has her own lovers, her own history and present, and she knows the pain love can bring, in some circumstances. But she nods her approval of Terry at times, and seems tentatively happy about what Quil and Phi and Terry are building between them, and it means a great deal that Haoti has at least her conditional approval. Enough, at least, that it seems she's been asking him if he's ready to come home. “I'm going to do it,” she says, and Kithri rolls her eyes, but she pats Valira's hand before she walks off to do something else.
Valira spends two days ready to vibrate out of her skin with impatience, and if she wasn't sure before that there's something there, between Haoti and her, she is now.
She slips away into the woods the afternoon she's going and comes out in her usual place near the farm. When she gets there, she finds that there's some kind of game of ball going on in the field with nearly all her workers involved, and a few of the sheep as well. She recognizes it as a game she and Trilli taught people at the hold a second before she hears Haoti whoop as he kicks the ball, loping from one end of the field to the other after it.
Valira waits off to the side, drifting a little closer, until one of the boys sees her and calls out her name, happy and surprised. Haoti turns like he's been pulled, surprise written all of her his face, but not, she thinks, displeasure. “I heard you wanted to come home,” she calls, not much caring who hears the baldness of the word. “I thought I'd save you the journey, if you like, and check in on things while I did.”
“Thank you,” he calls back. “It seemed like a long walk.”
He ducks out of the game, over the protests of a few of the workers, who go back to playing reluctantly, all of them darting glances at Haoti as he walks over to her. She waits where she is, at the edge of the field. She can pay her respects to Softwool later.
“I hope you don't mind me coming,” she says when he comes close enough to speak softly.
“How could I?” he asks, and there's something lighter about him. There's still weight on his shoulders, and probably will be until he dies again, but his smile of greeting seems to come to his lips naturally, and he doesn't walk three stiff paces behind her when she starts walking away from the field. “Let's go to the spinning house. You should see the work there, what's been happening with the dye garden.”
Valira lets him lead her, and inspects the thread and yarn they've been making, the experimental colors just starting to take shape. “I'd say I should leave you in charge here,” she finally says, “but I'd miss you too much.”
Haoti doesn't answer, but that doesn't surprise her. They're not full of words, either of them, not when they're with people they trust. When she turns to him, he's watching her, and she thinks the look in his eyes is familiar, that perhaps she caught a glimpse of it a time or two even before he died, but that it's more now, like the weeks of salt air have scoured away some of the blankness in his expression.
Perhaps there are questions she ought to ask. Things she ought to say. Valira's never had a talent for courting, and never needed to.
Luckily, Haoti doesn't seem to expect it. He doesn't approach her—won't, she knows, for a long while—but when she steps closer, he opens his arms. No weapons, he's saying, a gesture she knows, but also Come closer. You can.
Valira does, and their mouths fit easily together, a kiss to begin things, both of their hands hovering between them, not quite ready to touch. A promise, but not an expectation.
She loves him, she thinks, and it doesn't come as a surprise.
Softwool, once they've both said the spell to understand her, is smug enough he almost blushes. “He's a fine ram,” she informs Valira. “Hard worker. The lambs should work out nicely.”
“I'm glad you think so,” Valira says gravely, but her cheeks are a little pinker than the temperature of the day would imply. “I'm only here quickly, but I'll come back in a week or so for a longer visit. Is there anything you need in the meantime?”
Softwool seems glad to settle down to business, and Haoti listens to her and the gossip of nearby sheep, far too much of which seems to center on them.
After a while, he finds himself looking out to sea as he so often does at the farm, and sees a familiar shape cutting through the water, and another one down on the sandbar, waiting.
Valira grips his forearm, and he startles a little, looking at her. “Is something wrong?” she asks, brows knitting together.
Haoti shakes his head and gestures out to sea. “No. Teeth of Obsidian just always seems to know when you're coming. They'll be ready whenever you are.”
Valira looks too, to the triangle of a fin and to Bleat, hooves already in the water, the two of them so eager to see each other they can't stay apart. Softwool, when he glances at her, is watching as well, something like indulgence in her body language. “Then I suppose,” Valira says, “that we'd better go down.”
She starts walking, and Haoti watches for a moment the impossible but familiar scene, the strangest thing he's seen in his second life but one of the best too. After a moment, she looks over her shoulder and stops, waiting for him to catch up.
His life is just as impossible as theirs but maybe, he hopes, no less wondrous. At least it has the potential. He shakes off his thoughts, smiles, and jogs to reach her side so they can walk down together.