“And you know she loves me more than she does you, so why are you spending so much time hanging around her!” Rafe thundered, glaring across the table at Rondey.
Kiesha gritted her teeth and added another layer of reinforcements to her shielding, silently blessing Nightwind’s name as she did so. Sidonie Alder had not been thrilled about Kiesha’s move to spend a week at a time in K’Valdemar Vale, regardless of Kiesha’s arguments that she was still learning from Nightwind and acting as the Vale healer as well as Errold’s Grove’s healer. Their latest compromise on the subject was that Kiesha would make an effort to be present at family meals as often as possible when she was in the village, even if she went back to her cottage to sleep. But even Mother’s cooking isn’t enough to make up for listening to my brothers go at each other like bull moose in season, she thought, keeping her eyes on her plate and stabbing at the nearest piece of salad greens.
“Enough!” her father growled. Ayver Alder was not easily angered, but Kiesha knew her brothers had been pushing him further to the edge for weeks, his tension only adding to her own whenever the family sat down for a meal. “As far as I can see, you boys have both expressed your interests to young Evvie, and she hasn’t chosen either one of you. Until she says anything further, you’ll stop this argument for good. Maybe she’s heard enough about your childishness, and wants nothing to do with the both of you.”
Rondey was caught mid-word by their father’s rant, and snapped his mouth shut with an audible click. Rafe huffed, but dropped his gaze when Sidonie backed her husband’s ultimatum up with a glare in his direction. The silence hung awkwardly in the room, before Trey broke it with a rambling question about why they still had to learn from the fusty etiquette book, and why did it matter if you bowed deeper to a baron than a duke?
Kiesha bolted down the last few bites of her meal, then took her plate to the sink. She was returning to K’Valdemar this afternoon, the only reason the family had gathered for a larger noon meal instead of their normal supper, and she still had to gather her bags from her cottage before a dyheli would arrive to give her a ride back.
Sidonie followed her away from the table, her lips pursed. “I swear those boys lost all their brains this winter over that girl, and as far as I can see she hasn’t the slightest interest in either.” She stopped for a moment from rinsing her dish to glance at Kiesha, “not that you seem to have any time for men yourself. The boys are at least looking, when are you going to do the same?”
Kiesha bit her lip to avoid screaming. This was one of the reasons she refused to let Darian as much as flirt with her when they were both in Errold’s Grove together. Sidonie would move from flirtation to courtship, from courtship to marriage, and marriage to Kiesha sitting at home with fat babies and a spotless cottage in moments, and Darian would surely flee at the thought. Better to keep their relationship quiet while it lasted, even if it meant listening to her mother nag at her about growing old alone. “I’ve told you, Mother, I won’t even have time to look for a man until I’ve finished my apprenticeship with Nightwind and the healers at Sanctuary. I still have too much to learn about my gifts to worry about whether or not any of the village boys even see me as a woman.”
Her mother sighed, and Kiesha could tell that she was gathering her next argument. It was rude, Kiesha knew, but she couldn’t bring herself to stand there and be lectured all afternoon about her priorities. She had her priorities straight, even if Sidonie would never agree with them. So, stepping aside, Kiesha moved back to the table long enough to tell her father and brothers goodbye, and walked out of the family home. She’d see them in a week, and maybe by then she’d be less eager to strangle the whole lot of them.
On the way back to K'Valdemar, Kiesha worked hard to block her irritation behind her shields. The dyheli stag giving her a ride did not need to be getting the full blast of her frustration, not after he had been forced to wait an extra candlemark for her to be ready to leave.
By this point, she was normally swift to pack what she needed to go between the village and the vale, having done so throughout the winter months. But today, of all days, it seemed like half the village had needed something from her in the small span of time she had allotted herself to pack. After the meal with her family, her patience had already been at low ebb, and it had not helped matters any to be constantly unpacking an item that she had just stored away because a mother was worrying that her child's cough was going to turn, "you know how these spring colds are, Kiesha!"
And now she was paying for the delays in another form, as Myren felt the need to lope back to the Vale rather than walk, in order to make it in before full dark fell. She eased herself into Myren's jolting pace as best as she could, and tried to breathe out her anger before it built too far. Just a little bit longer, and she'd be at the Vale. She hoped that Firesong hadn't run Darian too ragged in the past few weeks. She'd missed him, more than she'd let herself think she would, more than she wanted to with their relationship still so new. His presence was soothing, and at this point she could do with an easy and relaxed evening with him. She saw the markers of the vale up ahead on the road, and breathed out one more sigh. The rest of the day was sure to improve, now.
Darian could not wait for the day to be over. He swore there must have been something in the air in the Vale this past week, because everyone was snapping at each other in a way he hadn't seen since the week-long winter snow had kept them all huddled together in a few of the main lodges. Maybe it had something to do with the spring birthing season; he knew several of the younger dyheli does were expecting their first, and new mothers were always under stress and able to share the anxiety with everyone around them.
Even he and Firesong had found themselves on edge with one another, compounded by a frustrating mistake he'd made in his latest lesson, a mistake that had seen both of them with singed eyebrows and a need to re-examine how Darian had improperly grounded for the amount of energy he was channeling now. Silverfox had had to step in, finally, and remind them both that attempting to trace the fault back when they were both worried and angry would only feed back into the error.
It didn't help that Kiesha was late. He'd been expecting her for dinner, and had grabbed plates for the both of them in the dining hall when he'd made it in. By now both plates had gone cold, and he finally resorted to eating mostly his garlic and sausage rolls, as they tasted just as good cool as they did warm from the oven. He looked up at the door every few minutes, but she hadn't arrived by the time he finished his own meal. Finally, he gave up ignoring the nagging worry twisting in his gut, and abandoned his empty plate for the hertasi to clear up while he made his way to the main entrance of the Vale. Rationally, he knew that there was little to no threat on the road between the Vale and Errold’s Grove, and that Kiesha was probably just running behind schedule because someone in the village had needed the healer to stay longer. He couldn’t help but worry, though.
He wasn’t at the main entrance long, he knew, perhaps less than half a candlemark, when he saw Kiesha and the dyheli make their way up the last part of the road and into the Vale. The dyheli waited just long enough for Kiesha to dismount and one of the hertasi to remove her panniers from his back, then bounded off for the dyheli field. He heard Kiesha chuckle, and swung to greet her as she gathered her things. “He had to wait most of a candlemark for everyone and their cousin to finish up their last minute requests from me,” she said, nodding to the hertasi as it moved to take her medical supplies back to the guesthouse she preferred to use when she came. “And I don’t think I was very good company on the road, either.”
“I’m sure you were fine,” he said, moving to grab her other bag when she shifted it. She side-stepped instead, and gave him a swift hug in its place, before starting down the path. He fell in beside her, not quite knowing what to do with his empty hands. “So, a candlemark? What crisis came up now in Errold’s Grove that they couldn’t let you leave?”
She stiffened slightly, walking next to him, but then laughed. Perhaps if he’d been less tired and frustrated himself, he would have caught the tension in her voice then. “Mostly spring colds, mothers wanting to get an extra packet of the preventative herbs if there’s a cold rain while I’m here. Children will go jumping in mud puddles. And Alys from the Fellowship came to set up a time for me to dose the sheep again this year. Nandy Lutter wanted to talk at me about something to do with the Vale, but we were interrupted, thankfully.”
Darian raised a brow. “And that’s what had you getting back a full candlemark late, riding into the dusk by yourself? Couldn’t any of that have waited?” It never ceased to surprise him how much the village could take their healers for granted, though he’d give Kiesha credit that she never let it get as far as old Justyn had.
Kiesha stiffened again, and this time she stepped further away, turning with a colder look in her eyes than he’d seen before. “And which one should I make wait? The last time the Fellowship had a spring issue with the sheep, they might have lost half the herd. The mothers wanting to make sure their children and menfolk don’t get sick if we get another thorough drenching?”
Darian frowned himself, turning to face her. “Not make them wait, maybe, but why would they insist on approaching you when it’s time for you to come back to the Vale? Don’t you think maybe if you did leave on time they’d find a way to manage, or to ask you when you got back?” He wasn’t sure why the thought of the villagers deliberately keeping Kiesha later than she normally was bothered him so much, but it had his temper flaring in resentment in a way he hadn’t felt since he was fourteen and listening to every man in the village lecture him on his faults.
Kiesha stared at him for a moment. “I was annoyed at the delay, yes, but it’s my job to take care of them. You worked with Justyn, you know how much an ounce of prevention saves us when it comes to healing. I’d rather be late, tired, and hungry than skip out on my duties.”
Darian held his hands up to concede the point, but he couldn’t quite keep the edge out of his voice. “Fine. You know how you want them to treat you, I won’t argue with that. I just don’t like only seeing you for a week at a time, and it’s worse when you don’t get in until later than you should.”
He came in closer, reaching to grab her pack again, and continued. “I think the hertasi have already finished clearing out the hot meal, but we can grab something for you to eat from what they’ve left out.” He leaned down to steal a kiss, hoping that would ease the tension he still felt rising in his gut.
For a second, she seemed to relax into it, tilting her head up to join him. But as soon as their lips met, she recoiled, flinching back with a muttered, “Ugh!”
He startled back himself as she continued, “How much garlic was in your dinner?”
Garlic? She didn’t want to kiss him because he’d eaten garlic rolls while he waited for her to get back? Annoyed, he replied, “They were what stayed good once the rest of the food had gone cold. I was waiting to eat with you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, next time you might want to grab a mug of mint tea to wash it down with. Garlic rolls don’t taste nearly so good secondhand.”
He couldn’t even explain why that was the last straw, but his temper snapped then. The last thing he could clearly remember saying from that point started with, “Well, excuse me for caring that you were running late…” before the words disappeared behind the haze of anger. Kiesha snapped back, her voice ice cold and her words vituperative, and it almost felt good to give in to his temper, to take it out on someone who would snap back at him equally.
The fight dragged on until something he said must have hit on a raw nerve, because all of a sudden Kiesha shut up, yanked her bag from where he’d still been holding it for her, and ran off down the path towards the guest house.
That jolted him out of his anger, and he took a step to follow her before he pulled himself back, sinking down on the bench beside the pathway. He could tell he’d hurt her with whatever he’d last said, hurt her in a way he had never meant to, and he couldn’t even think of a reason why he’d started the fight. Had he really snapped because she didn’t like kissing him with garlic on his breath?
He sat there, not quite knowing what to do, as the minutes stretched on, turning the fight over and over again in his head. Finally, he gave up. He didn’t know how to fix this, but he knew where he could go for advice. Snowfire would at least tell him where he’d screwed up, and how to get his head back on straight. And maybe he could send Nightwind on to at least talk to Kiesha before she decided that she’d never be in his presence again.
He took off on the path to the cliff-dwelling where Snowfire and Nightwind lived. They wouldn’t be asleep yet, and Darian knew he wouldn’t rest himself until he’d told someone what was going wrong.
Nightwind stormed down the main paths of the Vale, finally turning onto the path towards the guesthouse Kiesha normally stayed at. She’d left Darian behind to be alternately rebuked and consoled by Snowfire, knowing that if she’d stayed there she’d have said things she’d regret a moment later. She'd already been tired and irritated from a long day of soothing down other people's tempers, and had had to stop herself from snapping at Snowfire twice herself this evening. And now Darian, who on a normal day was preternaturally reasonable and able to resolve most conflicts, was picking a fight with Kiesha.
Nightwind had been half-tempted to drop him off the side of her balcony in sheer annoyance, and even more tempted to tell him to deal with it himself, or ask Silverveil if he needed help. There was a reason she'd chosen not to be a kestrachern to begin with! It had only been the genuine misery and confusion on Darian's face that had stopped her temper, and reminded her that this was Darian's first real love, Kiesha's as well, and that what they needed most right now had to be the listening ear and sympathetic heart of a sibling. Darian was getting that right now from Snowfire, but Kiesha?
Nightwind stopped in the center of the path, one turn before she'd reach the guesthouse, and forced herself to take several deep breaths. From what Darian had said, Kiesha hadn't even been in the Vale long enough to sit down before they'd started fighting, and Nightwind knew full well how insecure Kiesha could be about anything other than her healing abilities. If Nightwind came in to Kiesha's space with anywhere near the frustration and anger she had been battling on the way there, Kiesha would shut down entirely, and nothing Nightwind could say would resolve the issue. She waited another moment, until she was calm and focused, and then walked forward, her shields lowered to try and gauge how Kiesha was reacting.
Blankness. Nightwind frowned. She had been expecting at least some residuals --anger, sadness, wry irritation, or at the minimum the snappishness Kiesha displayed when she missed a meal without planning. Not this nothingness, a void where emotion should be present. More worrie than before, Nightwind rushed down the remainder of the path and knocked briskly at the door.
It took a moment, but before she could worry further, she heard a somewhat shaky voice call out, "Come in!"
Nightwind stepped inside and winced. Kiesha's face showed clear evidence of all the emotions Nightwind had looked for outside: reddened eyes and nose, pale cheeks, tightness at her lips that spoke of how carefully she was holding back emotion. To see that so visible, but to feel the continued blank empathically worried her more than Darian's description of their argument had. She forgot whatever gambit she had planned to start with, as her words jumped from her thoat. "Kiesha, drop your shields!"
Whatever Kiesha might have been expecting her to say, apparently it had not been that. "What?" she asked, confusion briefly erasing the signs of sadness on her face. "What's wrong with my shields?"
Nightwind took another step inside and sat down on the nearest cushioned chair, waving at the one next to it to encourage Kiesha to sit as well. "Your shields are too high. You're trapping everything within yourself. I'm right next to you and I can't even feel you, Kiesha."
"That's probably for the best, right now," Kiesha muttered, but she sat down where Nightwind had indicated.
"No, it really isn't," Nightwind replied. "If your shields are up too high you don't just block out what other people are feeling. You block your own emotions in with you and it becomes impossible to release them. I know before you were in danger without having any shield, but the reverse is just as dangerous to your mind. You don't heal someone who is hypothermic by giving them a permanent fever, Kiesha."
Perhaps the analogy was what broke through, because at that, Kiesha frowned and started lowering her shields, a fraction at a time. Nightwind kept her own shields lowered more than she normally would, setting the example. She kept her face carefully blank as she felt the waves of anger, sadness, frustration, and genuine fear wash over her as Kiesha lost the tight reins she had been holding on each emotion.
Finally, as they were all released, she felt a thread of relief run through Kiesha, as though she had finally unclenched a hidden fist. Kiesha gasped wetly, tears back in her eyes, then sighed out one deep breath, then another. She looked up at Nightwind and asked, "How did you know?"
Nightwind smiled thinly. "I think every Empath ever born has to learn this one the hard way. We all seem to trip over how to keep ourselves stable with what we feel from others also coming in. Mindspeech is easier, I'm told, as they always hear the other voices as distinct voices separate from their own. You'd be surprised how often I still find myself feeding back on what Snowfire is feeling, above and beyond what I feel myself."
Kiesha frowned. "So when I was trying to block my brothers fighting and my mother's nagging today, I trapped in my own frustration as well?"
Nightwind nodded, inwardly noting that Kiesha had also apparently had a day from the seven hells. No wonder both she and Darian had been at the snapping point. "And you were probably so tightly shielded that Darian's worry and anger seemed to come out of nowhere."
"Worry?" Kiesha asked. "No, I didn't get that he was worried at all. He just seemed so frustrated, and then he started sniping about my being late and wasting my time when I was doing my job."
Nightwind frowned at that, and at the renewed wave of frustrated anger coming from Kiesha. "The young man who came sobbing to Snowfire and I was bouncing between worry, sorrow, and an absolute conviction that you would never want to speak to him again. I left Snowfire to talk him down and see what had happened from your perspective."
She paused, as Kiesha's last words echoed in her head, teasing at a memory. "You were late getting back in?" she asked, trying to keep her voice casual as she traced the thought back.
"Yes," Kiesha told her, "a few women at the village came to me at the last minute for some cold medicine packets, and Alys from the Fellowship wanted a word about dosing some of the herds again this year. I didn't get out until about a candlemark behind schedule."
Nightwind's frown eased, as the memory finally connected, along with a few times she remembered Darian being on edge during their years healing the land around Valdemar. "Kiesha, how much do you know about how Darian ended up with the Tayledras? Or with the wizard Justyn, before that?"
Kiesha frowned slightly herself. "Not much, really, outside of the story of the Bear Clan's defeat. That was before my family moved in to the village proper. His parents were trappers and they died, so Justyn took him in and started teaching him healing and some magic. He wasn't in the village when the Bear Clan attacked, and when he ran he found your scouts. Darian helped lead the rescue, and fought the shaman who controlled the change-beast monsters. He left with you because he needed further training in his magic, and no one in the village could give him that."
Nightwind arched an eyebrow sardonically. It was accurate enough, she guessed, and from the villagers perspective, so she shouldn't blame Kiesha for their lack of self-reflection. "Kiesha, his parents left and never came home when Darian was twelve. The first sign he had that anything was wrong was that they were late. And you know as well as I do that pain we learn young stays with us more strongly than anything else."
Kiesha, for whatever else she was, was not stupid. "And I was late getting in, and he was already frustrate about something else. No wonder he blew up at me."
Nightwind nodded. "Now, that's not to say he doesn't have things to apologize for, from the sound of it, and there's more the two of you will have to resolve come morning. But at least now you know where he was reacting from."
Kiesha nodded abstractly herself, then paused. "In the morning?" she asked.
"In the morning," Nightwind affirmed. "You are both too tired and too frustrated to deal honestly with everything right now, and I for one do not need to mediate another argument tonight! I will end up knocking you both out and tying you to trees instead."
She stood up, and Kiesha echoed the motion. "Now, you need to eat something, make yourself some tea, and get some rest. I'll send Darian to you in the morning, when you both are in a better state of mind." And with that she walked out the door of the guesthouse, knowing that Kiesha was sensible enough to follow her advice, if given a chance to think it through.
A knock at the door the next morning brought Kiesha out of her restless stream of thoughts. She'd been sitting with her mending, too focused on the previous day's events to think of anything else for long, but still needing an outlet, something that she was in control of. She set down the shirt and went to answer the door.
Darian was standing right outside, a sheepish smile on his face, and a basket filled with what smelled like sweet rolls in his hands. He held the basket up first, "Peace offering?"
She bit the inside of her lip, suddenly feeling a lot more relaxed than before, even with Nightwind's comfort and advice from last night. At least Darian wasn't giving up on them completely. She opened the door wider, and stepped back, waving him towards the table while she packed her shirt back into the mending basket and tucked her needlecase and scissors along the side pocket.
Darian had by then set the sweet rolls out on the table, and put the kettle back over the fire to heat more water for tea. His movements lacked some of the self-assured grace she was used to seeing from him, as if he too were feeling as awkward and unsure of himself as she was. A part of her that had been holding tight unclenched then, sure that, whatever else happened, they would get through this.
Maybe that was what gave her the courage to start first. "I'm sorry," she blurted out. "Nightwind said you were worried, last night, when I ran late. I didn't think twice about it, my family has always known that if I was late returning it meant that someone else needed me, and I was still safe. I didn't think of how you would take it."
Darian paused mid-movement, his entire focus on her. She bit back a chuckle at the sight of him stopped in the middle of scooping tea leaves into the pot. Now was not the moment for her mostly-absent sense of humor to emerge from hiding. Slowly, he lowered his hands, depositing the last scoop into the pot. When that was finished, he looked up at her again. "Thank you," he finally said. "I hadn't realized how much that worry was affecting me until Nightwind came back from speaking with you and hit me over the head with it.
He paused for a moment then, to grab the whistling kettle off the fire and pour the water into the pot to steep the tea. Kiesha took advantage of the break to eat one of the rolls, knowing she would be far saner and calmer when they continued with food in her stomach. Darian raised an eyebrow when he looked up, but took the break to eat as well.
Once the rolls were devoured, and tea had been poured out for each of them, the tension started to build again. Darian was the first to speak this time. "I'm sorry as well. I should have said that sooner. I was already on edge yesterday, even before you were due to arrive, and I didn't think before I lost my temper."
Kiesha nodded, taking a moment to swallow back the anxiety that had risen as soon as he began to speak. "I wasn't in the best of temper myself. Nightwind helped me see how much I'd been holding on to from earlier in that day." She paused, taking a sip of tea. She could stop there, and they'd have stopped the argument and be back in a decent place again in their relationship, she thought. But...what he said had more than hurt. He'd all but stated he thought that what she was doing was trivial. If he dismissed her work now, how much longer could their relationship really last? Healing was her life's work. She'd chosen it over what her mother wanted for her, over any of the boys her age in the village. She'd chose it over Darian, as terrifying as the thought was.
No, if this was really what he thought about her work, it was best to get it all out with quickly, to sever the relationship when it was still early enough on for them to learn to live with each other as friends. So, "Do you really feel that what I do is so unimportant?" she asked, trying to keep her tone even.
He stared at her blankly, then set the mug of tea down. "Do I think what you do is unimportant?" he asked. "Kiesha, you save lives. You near-singlehandedly stopped the Ghost Cat clan from attacking us, and cured a disease that killed dozens of them before they came here. How could anyone think that was unimportant?" He said it as if it was obvious, as if she'd asked him whether he thought the sky was bright red instead of blue.
She nearly stopped there, with that reassurance. But that was only part of her work, and not the part he'd dismissed as unimportant last night. "You implied that I had wasted my time yesterday, when I was late because I was doing my job. There wasn't a life on the line yesterday. So I still need to know, do you consider my work trivial when it's not about immediately healing someone? When they would live anyway, does that make it unimportant?"
He took a breath, as if he was rushing to respond, then seemed to think better of it, and slowly let it out. She waited, letting him gather his thoughts. Finally, he responded, "Your work is important, I know. I saw Justyn's work with the village, and I know how much impact he had, even with the little things that they would have survived otherwise. It's hard work, but it's all necessary. And I know the little things add up." He paused then, and took another gulp of his tea. She waited, sensing that he wasn't done.
He continued, "But Kiesha, I also saw how much they would take him for granted. How often they would expect him to dance on their schedule, not just for the immediate crises, but for the day to day things as well. No one is going to suffer too much for running out of bruise balm and having to wait until the next batch is brewed, if they don't think to ask for more before they've used up their last." He caught her eyes then, and smiled wryly. "You've been coming to the Vale for one week a month ever since the harvest fair ended. Shouldn't they think ahead and remember to get medicines from you ahead of time, and not on the day you're leaving? It's them not being respectful of your time, to my mind."
She sat back in her chair, rocked for a moment. Somehow Darian had managed to capture everything about why she had been so frustrated with the village women before she left, in words she hadn't thought of. "You're right," she said. "I was irritated with them myself, for that, but I couldn't put it into words. Maybe that was part of what made me so defensive about it last night, because I thought I was wrong to be angry with them, and when you echoed my anger I had to defend them." She shook her head, annoyed with herself at the thought.
Darian smiled more openly, then. "You were right, too. I was getting angry at you for doing your job, and I couldn't have known that it wasn't serious at the time. I let my worry get to me, and then took it out on you."
"So how do we fix this for the next time?" Kiesha asked. "Because you know as well as I do that sooner or later I will end up coming to the Vale late, and it will be a crisis. I can push off giving basic medicines and preventative work, but I can't run out on a patient midway through stitching a wound, or dealing with sick livestock."
"And you shouldn't have to," Darian interjected. "I can learn to deal with it when you have to run late."
Kiesha shook her head again. "You might have to deal with my occasionally running late, but I don't want you to have to worry like that. Not when it pushes against your own history and fears so much." She sighed. "The moments like this are when I envy Shandi's bond with Karles. She's written about how much news the Companions can pass between them, even at distances their Heralds can't reach."
Something she said there seemed to catch hold for Darian, as his face lit up. "But we can send that message!" he said. "The dyheli can communicate over longer distances than between the village and the Vale. We always send a dyheli to pick you up. If the dyheli knows what's going on, they can relay it back to Tyrsell, and he can pass it on to me."
She bit back a laugh at how boyish his face grew in his enthusiasm at solving their dilemma. "So I'll let you know through the dyheli if I can't leave on schedule, and that will give you less cause for worry."
He beamed at her, and then offered, "And I'll back off on telling you how to deal with the villagers and your work. You aren't Justyn, and I've seen how much respect the villagers give you. You don't need me to fight that battle for you."
She smiled back at him. "No, but I might need you to remind me every so often that I should fight the battle myself." And at that, she couldn't stop herself, and leaned forward to kiss the impish grin off his face.
He returned the kiss with enthusiasm, pulling the mug out of her hands and pulling her to stand with him. "Now, how about we finish making up properly," he asked, when they finally stopped for air.
She couldn't quite stop herself from the tease, "As long as you stick to sweet rolls over garlic rolls before you kiss me, I don't see any reason why not." And while he was still laughing, she pulled his head back down for another kiss.