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Corban met up with Coralen at high-sun. ‘How are things, Cora?’ He asked, pressing his lips to her temple.

Coralen smiled. Things had been good. Their colony was flourishing in Gramm’s hold and so was her relationship with Corban. ‘We’ve secured the perimeter, set up communications to Drassil, Jotunheim, and Isiltir, and been able to repurpose the Jotun buildings for our purposes. Most people are situated, too. Sig has already started training the bairns.’

Corban looked at her in awe. ‘You are magnificent.’

Coralen blushed. ‘I had help. And I can’t believe how far we’ve come.’ They looked around, watching people bustle about their day, the shops flourishing, smoke rising from various buildings.

‘I know.’ Corban’s voice was soft in wonder. ‘There is just one more thing we need to do.’

Coralen looked at Corban with a wry smile. There was always just one more thing with him, but that was the purpose of a leader, she supposed. ‘And what is that?’

Corban grinned. ‘Cywen and Veradis.’

Coralen groaned. ‘Ban…’ Her voiced held warning.

‘I know. I know. They are adults and can manage this themselves.’ Corban held his palms up in surrender. ‘But. What if Veradis hasn’t done anything because he is waiting on me? After all, it is customary to ask the girl’s father for permission and since Da is gone, that responsibility falls upon me.’

‘Did you ask my Da for permission?’ Coralen asked dryly. ‘Besides, you know Cywen would not appreciate your meddling, even if you are correct.’

‘That is why I’m not asking Cywen. I’m going to talk to Veradis directly. Man to man. And give him my blessing.’

Coralen sighed. ‘For the sake of your dignity, I hope you are right.’

Corban found Veradis in the dining hall later that evening. The serious man was sitting alone, staring deeply into his mead, food untouched. Corban called out his name as he made his way over.

Veradis looked up in surprise. ‘Ah. Corban.’ It wasn’t often they ate together, despite Veradis being one of Corban’s advisors. ‘Is there something you need?’

There was something not quite right with the older man’s expression. Something akin to melancholy, and Corban knew just how to fix it. ‘No. But it seems there is something you need.’ At Veradis’ confused expression, Corban elaborated. ‘You seem like you are missing something.’

‘Ay.’ Veradis sighed. ‘A brother.’

Corban nearly choked on his mead. ‘What?’

‘You said I appeared to be missing something. You were correct. I am missing Krelis. Today would have been his thirtieth name-day.’ Veradis said.

Corban’s words stuck in his throat. ‘My apologies.’ He said quietly.

Veradis was quiet for a few moments too. ‘We had planned his thirtieth name-day for years. Father had a habit of sending us to Tenebral to train on our eighteenth year. When Krelis went, I’d been so distraught that he’d promised to return and make up for lost time. By the time he returned, it was my turn to serve and we renewed our promise for a later date. We thought, by the time Krelis reached thirty, surely I’d have returned or at least been in a position where I could visit and celebrate. And yet, here we are.’ The words spilled from his lips. Corban had never heard Veradis talk so much but he wasn’t surprised. There was something about grief that was meant to be shared.

‘The God-war stole from all of us.’ Corban sighed. ‘My parents, Gar, Brina, Tukul. We cannot bring them back but we can keep them alive in our hearts and memories. We can still make them proud.’

‘Aye.’ Veradis passed a hand across his eyes discretely.

‘How old were you when you joined Nathair?’ Corban asked.

‘Eighteen summers. I had come to Jerolin and been assigned to Nathair immediately. We met Calidus and Alcyon mere moons after. How old were you when this all started?’

‘Fourteen. We fled Dun Carreg when King Owain from Narvon attacked.’ Corban told Veradis about fleeing, traveling through Domhain with Edana and then to Murias and beyond.

‘The God-war took your childhood too then.’ Veradis said, looking at Corban with newfound respect.

Corban shrugged. ‘Aye. But it gave me my manhood and Coralen. And for that I am grateful.’

It wasn’t until Corban reached his home that night that he realized he’d completely forgotten to talk to Veradis about courting Cywen.

‘So?’ Coralen asked sleepily when he lay next to her. ‘Will we be planning a wedding for Cywen and Veradis next moon?’

‘Well…ah…you see…’ Corban stumbled through his chat with Veradis. ‘But I think we really made a connection tonight! This will serve as a good foundation for future talks.’ He finished defensively.

Coralen laughed so hard she snorted. ‘Well, that’s good then. Perhaps you should court him, with your newfound connection.’
--

Veradis was in the training field the next time Corban approached him. Considering how quickly they had gotten off track in their previous meeting, Corban was determined to approach the topic of Cywen today. He patiently waited for the shield wall drills to finish and watched as Veradis moved on to training a group of men in one-to-one combat, walking between pairs, correcting stances and giving complements and criticisms as needed.

‘Veradis!’ Corban called out, smiling brightly.

Veradis pulled a man, a Jehar, to overlook the training and walked over to Corban.

‘Hallo.’

‘I wanted to discuss something with you.’ Corban stated, walking around the sparring men, Veradis falling into step.

‘I’ve made some adjustments to the shield formations to stop attacks from above.’ Veradis updated Corban. ‘This should give us cover from the Kadoshim while they are in the air. We discussed the usefulness of a wall when our opponents are not fighting using traditional means but I have a plan to use the shields as covers for our bowmen. We’ll have to try it out, perhaps we can ask some of the Ben-Elim to help us practice.’

It took Corban a few heartbeats to understand what Veradis was saying.

‘Good. That’s good to hear. You can tell me more at our next advisor meeting.’ Corban tried to steer the conversation. ‘I was thinking about holding a workshop in the forest to teach some of our less experienced members how to survive in case we are attacked or split up. I thought perhaps you and Cywen may be able to lead this.’ After all, running through the woods with a group of people was how Corban and Coralen had sorted out their relationship.

Veradis frowned. ‘I could. But don’t you think Coralen would be a better teacher? Or Teca? My skills are better suited for armies and large scale battle.’

‘Right. Right.’ Corban scrambled to come up with a new idea. ‘I just thought it would be a nice break for both you and Cywen.’

‘To go into the woods and teach people how to survive?’ Veradis was incredulous.

‘Yes, that was a poorly thought out idea. I see that now.’ Corban backtracked. ‘But, don’t you think Cywen spends too much time in the hospice? I rarely see her anymore.’

Veradis’ expression spoke volumes. Mainly, I don’t know and why are you telling me this.

Corban sighed. Sometimes battles were won with more simplicity and less cunning. ‘Come, Veradis, I need your help with something.’

--

Cywen had just finishing tending to her last patient of the day and was leaving the hospice when she noticed Veradis standing outside the door holding a bouquet of flowers. They were beautiful, a host of greens, blues and yellows tied together with a red ribbon and doing nothing to explain the look of great consternation upon their holder’s face.

‘Is all well, Veradis?’ Cywen asked. As far as she knew, there wasn’t anyone Veradis would be visiting the hospice for, much less bringing flowers to. A small part of her hoped those flowers were for her but it had been several moons since Veradis had joined them and he seemed no more inclined to move past blushes and shy looks to anything worthwhile.

He cleared his throat. ‘Ah, yes. These,’ he thrust out the flowers, ‘are for you.’

‘Oh.’ On one hand, Cywen was happy that Veradis finally seemed to be expressing his interest. On the other, his expression was disconcerting.

‘It’s from Corban.’ And that sort-of explained Veradis’ face.

‘What?’ Cywen’s brows pulled together.

‘Corban. He asked me to pick these flowers and give them to you.’ Veradis was no longer looking at her and was instead glaring at the flowers.

‘Why?’ Cywen turned the flowers around, wondering if there was a note or explanation attached.

‘I don’t know.’ Veradis shrugged. ‘He said he needed my help and that this was very important. Is it your name-day today?’

Cywen hummed, thinking. ‘No. This is strange. I wonder…I will have ask Ban later. For now, I’m going to the dining hall. Care to join me?’

At that, Veradis eyes softened and he nodded. ‘Say, has Corban spoken to you about his new plan to teach people how to camp in the words?’ He asked.

Cywen looked at him incredulously. ‘What? I haven’t heard of such a plan.’

Veradis shrugged, his arm brushing hers. ‘He mentioned it today. He also mentioned that you worked too much.’ He gave her a meaningful look.

‘He’s one to talk. And so are you.’ Cywen sent him back an unimpressed one.

He smiled. ‘Fair enough. So, what did you do today?’

Cywen filled him in. A few pregnancies to manage, some bairns with broken bones, some soldiers with old aches and sprains that had never quite healed fully.

Veradis nodded thoughtfully. ‘We are lucky to have you.’ He said seriously. ‘We had healers in Nathair’s warband but it was so vast we were never seen for long. We all learned to stitch and wrap and set ourselves for the most part. Couldn’t go running to the healers for every little thing.’

Cywen looked at him closely, realizing that there was far more to this handsome soldier than just his true heart and skill with a blade. ‘Is that what happened to your nose then?’ She asked.

Veradis touched the bridge of his nose and laughed. ‘Aye, you’re looking at Rauca’s handiwork and the break was a gift from Alcyon. I got this on my first trip with Nathair.’ He smiled and told her of jumping through the fire, meeting Calidus, being foolish and heedless. His lips curled into a wistful smile thinking back on simpler times and Cywen thought he’d never looked more handsome.

‘It’s hard to believe what you say about Nathair.’ Cywen said quietly, her knee touching his as they sat together eating. ‘All I had ever seen of him was tyranny and arrogance.’

Veradis sighed. ‘I know. He’d changed much since meeting Calidus. I thought he was the bright star when I first met him. I believed it. I swore my first blood oath to him, spent years fighting his battles and standing up to anyone, my own family even, who dared question him. And then I was the one that slew him.’

He pushed his food away and reached for the mead. Cywen nudged his knee with hers more firmly. ‘It’s over. What’s done is done. We’ve all made the mistake of trusting someone we shouldn’t have. Us, for example, we trusted Meical.’

They spoke well into the evening, Corban and Coralen joining them sometime in between- Corban wiggled his eyebrows at the flowers (which made little sense) - then so did Dath and Kulla and Farrell. And as their stories raised in volume, Veradis grew quiet but he never shifted his knee away from hers.

--

The next time Corban approached Veradis, he was pulled into a long and drawn out sparring match. Veradis was fast, decisive and brutal. He made the first move, swinging his sword at Corban’s chest. Corban stepped back easily and brought his sword on top of Veradis’, pushing it to the ground. Veradis disengaged neatly, letting his shield bear the brunt of Corban’s next attack as his own sword slashed at Corban’s shoulder. Corban twisted out of the way. Their attacks slowly built speed and Corban could feel the strain and sweat of fighting a worthy opponent. Veradis jumped back, using the distance to catch his breath and Corban followed, catching his own in the two steps that separated them. He could hear men around them hollering and he couldn’t keep the grin from his face. His muscles burned pleasantly. When he caught Veradis’ eyes, he saw him smiling back. For a moment there, it seemed like the fight could drag on forever, but neither had time for that so Corban hooked his leg against Veradis on his next swing and used the momentum to bring him down. The move imbalanced Corban enough to stumble also and before he could right himself, Veradis had rolled to his knees and his sword was scraping at Corban’s groin.

Corban laughed and accepted his defeat. ‘I’ll get you next time.’ He promised.

Veradis gave him a solemn smile. ‘I have no doubt.’

‘You know,’ Corban started conversationally as he drank from his waterskin, ‘Cywen was planning on taking a break from the hospice and tending to the horses on the morrow. I’m sure she could use some help.’

Veradis raised his eyebrows. ‘Is that an order…or a suggestion?’ His voice tinged with suspicion.

Corban was reminded of the time he asked Veradis to deliver flowers and the poor fool had told Cywen that the flowers weren’t from him. Coralen had howled with laughter at Cywen’s bemusement and Corban’s chagrin.

‘Neither. Cywen told me you liked horses and she does too. Four hands are always better than two. I’ll join you if I have time. I’ve been meaning to check up on Shield. We’ll invite others. It’ll be a bonding event.’ Corban cringed internally.

Veradis merely grunted in response.

--

‘You don’t have to do that, you know.’ Cywen leaned against a stone pillar, watching Veradis groom his third horse of the evening.

‘It’s relaxing.’ Half the hair on Veradis’ face was not his own and it made Cywen’s lips curl into a smile.

‘And you thought I was crazy spending so much time with Shield in Dun Carreg.’

Veradis laughed softly. ‘I thought you were crazy for other reasons, not the horse.’ He looked at her and smiled. ‘I’ve seen many a foolish soldier take on someone past their skill level but never have I seen a knife-throwing stable-hand attempt to take down a first-sword.’

‘Ha!’ Cywen tossed her hair back and puffed out her chest dramatically. ‘You haven’t seen anything yet. I could beat you if I wanted to!’ She crowed.

That really put a smile on Veradis’ lips. ‘Well, you can’t make a claim like that and not expect to back it up, can you?’ Cywen saw a brief flicker of mischief in his eyes.

‘Well…I…’ She took a few measured steps back, Veradis following like a hound with its prey in sight.

She turned to make a run for it but Veradis was too fast. Before she had even taken a couple steps, he’s caught her around the waist and was spinning her in his arms so she was facing him again. ‘What was that you were saying?’ He asked, lips still curled and eyes deceptively soft.

Cywen tried not to squeak. They were so close, her hand against his chest, feeling his heart thud beneath the thin tunic and his hand pressing firmly against her back, holding her in place. His lips were so close and it would take nothing, nothing to close the distance.

Just as she had made up her mind to take make her move, they heard footsteps and Veradis looked at her for a long moment before slowly pulling away. And just like that, the tension she hadn’t even known was there dissipated and Cywen was left feeling awkward and alone.

As she turned to leave, she felt Veradis touch her hand. ‘Stay, please?’ The serious look was back and he was gesturing to the rest of the horses he had apparently decided to take care of for the day.

‘You just want someone to finish your work for you.’ She said half-heartedly.

The soft smile was back as he responded. ‘Or maybe I just want the company.’

Cywen eventually stopped staring at him and started rubbing down the horse next to his. ‘You know, I never did tell you how happy I was that you let me keep Shield. I think he and Buddai were the only things that kept me going after I got captured.’ Somehow it felt easier to talk to Veradis when they were separated by a stall.

‘I was happy to find something to keep you behaving. You may not believe this, but my reputation was on the line.’ Cywen could hear the humor in his tone.

She snorted. ‘Well. You could have let me get one more shot at Morcant. Though I suppose it doesn’t matter now that they are dead. I only wish I could have killed Morcant myself or at least helped, like I did Rhin.’

Veradis was quiet for a moment. ‘Do you feel freed, then, killing Rhin and knowing Morcant is gone? Freed from the need to avenge your first love?’

Cywen paused. ‘Yes. I think I am.’ She rested her head against the neck of the dappled grey she had been brushing. ‘I’ll never forget Ronan. He died in my arms after all. He had asked my Da to court me and he had been the first to support my knife throwing outside of my family. But I’m ready to move on now.’

There was silence for a few moments before Veradis spoke up again. ‘Tell me of your Da.’ They shifted stables, moving on to other horses and Cywen told Veradis about Thanon, his hot head, his love for brawling, his love for their family. She paused from her work to show him the last throwing knife she had that Thanon had made for Gwenith. She kept it on herself at all times, a keepsake, like Corban and his torc.

‘Tell me of your family?’ She asked when she’d run out of things to say. Her heart feeling full and yet lighter than it had in moons. They had finished with the stables and moved outside, sitting against a tree.

Veradis tugged on his beard. ‘There is not much to tell.’ He said quietly, though from the lost look in his eyes, Cywen could tell that was not true. ‘My father was the Baron of Ripa, my mother lost in childbirth when she had me. I had two older brothers, Krelis and Ektor. Krelis, you knew of.’ Cywen nodded, she’d liked him. She’d seen some of herself in him, the way Krelis hoovered around Veradis, proud of his younger brother but also struggling to accept how much he had grown. Cywen had felt that towards Corban more times than she cared to admit.

‘Ektor was not like us. He was a bookworm, intelligent but distant. And father,’ Veradis took a deep breath. ‘Father had his own values by which he judged us. Krelis was his favorite. Krelis looked like him, thought like him and was poised to become Baron after him. Ektor had his uses, with his letters and maps. And I looked like my dead mother.’ He looked at the ground with a bitter smile. ‘And that was all we had to bring to the table. Ektor killed father, pushed him onto my blade, and then Krelis killed Ektor. The God-war killed Krelis. There was nothing left for me in Ripa after that.’

Cywen wanted to wrap her arms around him but from the stiff way he held himself, she wasn’t sure that would be appreciated. She wrapped her arms around herself instead.

‘Not even a lady?’ She asked, trying to lighten the mood.

Veradis’ lips quirked into a small smile. ‘Afraid not. I wasn’t much to be impressed with, certainly not while I was in Krelis’ shadow. And after I’d finally made a name for myself, I’d been bound so tightly to Nathair and his quest there was nothing else that mattered.’

‘So now you are free. Like me.’ Cywen reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

‘Yes. I suppose so.’ He said quietly.

--

‘You still pine for the Bright Star’s sister, then?’ Alcyon rumbled as he sat next to Veradis in the feast hall. His drooping moustache twitched in amusement.

‘Not pining! I’m making progress. We talk now.’ Veradis mumbled the last bit, feeling like a child.

Alcyon’s laughter was insulting. ‘Little man, you spend more time watching your prey and less time hunting it. Your lives are short. You have been decisive in all other aspects. Why not this one?’

‘I don’t know.’ Veradis sighed. ‘Part of it is fear, I think. But a greater part is not knowing what do to.’ He ran a hand through his beard, tugged it in frustration. ‘At this point I would have asked Krelis how to properly court a woman or maybe Alben or maybe someone who wasn’t part of Corban’s band. It feels like I’ve been thrown on a battlefield blind and with an arm tied behind my back.’

Alycon chewed on an auroch leg thoughtfully. ‘Was there no one in Ripa for you?’

‘No one successful.’ Veradis tried to stop the rising heat in his neck. ‘And certainly no one after I joined Nathair’s warband. When would I find the time?’

Alcyon’s moustache twitched as he responded. ‘Many found the time, you just couldn’t see past the one you’d chosen.’

‘You are not helpful.’ Veradis growled and then sighed. ‘And then there is Corban.’ At Alcyon’s raised eyebrows, he continued. ‘He had asked me to deliver flowers to Cywen on his behalf and to help clean the stables and half a dozen other things I don’t understand. The only tolerable parts of his requests are that Cywen is often there. I don’t know if this is politicking going on or if he is getting subtle revenge on my part of the war-’

‘I think.’ Alcyon cut in. ‘That you cannot see what is in front of you.’

Veradis stabbed a piece of meat forcefully. ‘Again, not helpful, Alcyon.’

‘Tell me about the one in Ripa.’ Alcyon said.

‘What does it matter?’ Veradis scoffed. ‘It was long ago and unsuccessful.’

‘Then you know what doesn’t work, little man. And you can try something that does work.’

Veradis told Alcyon of Elysia, what little he remembered of her after so many years and so many wars. Alcyon chewed thoughtfully on a piece of bread. ‘Are you absolutely certain it is the women you are after and not the horses?’ He asked, moustache twitching. ‘Afterall, the only two to capture your heart have been women who spend far too much time around mounts.’

Veradis drained his cup and set it heavily against the table. ‘Not. Helpful.’ He growled.

--

It had been a little over two moons of Corban’s meddling and he could see that Cywen and Veradis were getting no closer to achieve the goal he set out for them. Coralen was amused beyond belief at his lack of progress.

‘Perhaps you should be more direct.’ She offered. ‘After all, I had to kiss you, then threaten you, then rescue you more than a dozen times before you finally understood. It’s a man thing. You cannot see what is right under your noses. It’s not just you, it was like this for Farrell and Dath too.’

‘How much more direct can I be? I send them to one another whenever I can. At some point they need to do their part!’ Corban paced.

‘Do you want me to talk to Cywen?’ Coralen asked, amused.

‘No. I’m going to give this one more shot.’ Corban said. ‘Then, you can talk to Cywen.’

--

Veradis was lying on his back on a grassy hilltop, staring at the stars. Like so many of the other pointless things he had done in the past few moons, this was at Corban’s suggestion. Veradis was frustrated at Corban’s requests and his own tendency to blindly follow his leaders. He thought he’d lost that trait after Nathair but apparently, nothing had changed. This would be the last of Corban’s plans he followed through on, Veradis decided.

He’d somewhat expected Cywen to show up though, that had been a common theme in all of Corban’s plans. What that meant, he was only beginning to understand, and though it made him a little uncomfortable, he was grateful.

‘See anything interesting?’ Cywen’s voice broke the silence.

Veradis tilted his head up at her and smiled. ‘Yes.’

She snorted and laid down on the grass next to him. ‘Do you know how to read the stars?’

‘Some.’ Veradis couldn’t quite remember the lore but he knew enough to guide himself if he ever got lost.

‘Well,’ Cywen gave him a smile, ‘I’ll teach you.’

And for a while, they lay under the stars, Cywen’s voice filling the silence and Veradis’ occasionally interrupting to add his own thoughts and opinions. At long last, Cywen felt silent and turned to face Veradis. She looked at him expectantly. He looked back at her with wide, serious eyes.

She huffed. ‘So? When do you intend to courting me?’

‘Haven’t I already been courting you?’ He asked, immensely grateful at the darkness shadowing the rising heat in his cheeks. When Alcyon had finally stopped laughing at him, the courting advice he had given was similar to what Veradis was already doing at Corban’s behest. Flowers, food, entertainment.

‘No! I mean…have you?’

‘I thought…aren’t flowers something you do when you are courting someone?’

‘Yes, but those were from Corban.’

‘True. Well…you brought me water once, when I was training. That’s courting, I think.’

‘That was also from Corban.’

‘Ah.’ Veradis touched the back of his neck awkwardly.

‘Wait! The stables! You helped me care for the horses. That might count.’

‘Corban suggested I help you.’

Cywen scowled. ‘What about the knives, the escorts, the desserts? The individual training sessions?’

Veradis’s silence spoke volumes.

‘Elyon above. Tonight?’

Veradis cleared his throat. ‘Perhaps we should just thank Corban for doing the courting for us.’

‘I can’t believe him.’ Cywen muttered. She had a feeling Corban had a hand in their meetings but Cywen hadn’t realized just how much.

‘This is unacceptable. We are going to court ourselves, properly.’ Cywen cast Veradis a determined look.

He raised an eyebrow. ‘Alright. And how do we go about that?’

‘First, you have to ask me.’

‘Ask you what?’

‘Ask me if I would like to be courted by you!’

‘I think we’ve established how we feel about one another. At least…I hope so. Or this entire thing must have been immensely uncomfortable for you.’

‘Veradis!’ Cywen hit his arm.

‘I’m not sure I like where this is going.’ Veradis’ grin belying his words.

‘Just do it.’ Cywen grumbled.

Veradis took a deep breath and blew out, like he was gathering his courage, which was ridiculous because in the grand scheme of how harrowing their lives had been, this should have been nothing. He turned so he was facing Cywen and held out his hands, palms up. ‘May I?’ He asked.

Cywen’s belly fluttered with a strange warmth she hadn’t felt in years. She placed her hands in his, feeling the callouses, the rough, warm skin. ‘Go on.’ She hedged, grinning. She knew Veradis was not the most eloquent of men but Elyon above, Cywen was not letting him off that easy.

His face softened and he looked down at their hands, twisting so their fingers could interlace. ‘Cywen. I’ve watched you take on people you definitely should not have-’ he started. Cywen scowled and squeezed his hands warningly. ‘And I’ve witnessed you succeed in ways I’d never thought possible. I’ve worried for you on your way to Benoth, risked being thought of as a love-struck fool at Uthandon, and completely derailed our rescue plans at Drassil for you.’ He swallowed. ‘In Arden, when you were desperately trying to take a piece out of your enemies, you took a piece of me too. I just hadn’t realized it yet. Will you do me the honor of letting me court you?’

‘You’re not going to tell me I’m pretty?’ She asked weakly, trying to ignore the trembling of her heart. ‘I’m pretty sure it’s a requisite to courting.’

Veradis rolled his eyes. ‘Perhaps you should write me a manual. How to Impress Cywen. Then I’ll know exactly what you want.’

‘Maybe I will.’ Cywen turned her head haughtily. But despite the joking manner, some small stupid part of her still wanted to hear Veradis say she was attractive. It was stupid, he’d already said so much but for some reason…

Veradis pulled her into his arms and rested his head against hers. ‘You’re beautiful.’ He whispered and Cywen laughed breathlessly.

‘Finally.’

--

It came to Cywen’s attention fairly early on that when Veradis had said he may want a manual, he hadn’t been teasing. A ten-day had passed from their hilltop meeting and Veradis was back to his old ways, smiling from afar and occasionally joining her in the evenings at the feast hall. Though he did steal away from training occasionally to chat with her and that was nice.

Cywen sighed as she turned to her next patient. She would have to take charge. Perhaps she could ask Coralen or Kulla for some help.

As if her thoughts had summoned Coralen, the woman strode into the hospice. ‘Cywen.’ Coralen had a knowing smirk on her face. ‘When you have a moment, a word.’

Cywen raised an eyebrow and treated her patient quickly. A boy, barely into his second day on the training field, who had twisted his leg. Then she went to meet Coralen.

‘So, have you caught wind of your brother’s meddling yet?’ Coralen wasted no time and Cywen loved her for it.

‘Elyon above, yes.’ Cywen sighed. ‘You’d think he had nothing better to do than follow me and Veradis around.’

Coralen laughed. ‘I don’t envy you. But you should pity me. I hear about his misadventures every night. I think the Kadoshim could attack and he would still be preoccupied with you and Veradis.’

Cywen blushed. ‘Stop him, Cora! Poor Veradis. He never complains but I can see from his face that he is no longer thrilled whenever Ban comes around.’

‘Have you sorted yourselves out then? I told Corban I would help you catch Veradis’ eye since he hasn’t been able to catch yours.’ Coralen grinned.

Cywen’s face flamed. ‘We are trying. Veradis has yet to do anything outside of Corban’s suggestions. Asroth’s beard, he hasn’t even kissed me yet!’ Cywen said, exasperated. ‘Ronan kissed me the day after he asked my Da for permission.’

‘Maybe Veradis is waiting on your Da.’ Coralen grinned at Cywen’s expression. ‘Or maybe you need to take charge. If I’d waited on Ban, we’d still be waiting.’ Her tone turned serious. ‘The same was true for Kulla and Laith. We haven’t gotten this far waiting for the boys to save us. Did you wait for Veradis or Corban at Drassil? No. You made your own concoctions and plans and you saved yourself. This is no different. You want him? You grab him and kiss him and show him how it’s done.’

Cywen felt her blood stir at Coralen’s fierce words. ‘You’re right.’ She stood tall. ‘I’m going to do it. And you can tell Corban we’ve settled it amongst ourselves.’

Coralen grinned back at her. ‘Let me know how it goes.’

That evening, when Veradis met Cywen outside of the hospice, instead of heading to the feast hall, Cywen grabbed his hand and led him to a large tree on the edge of the training field.

‘Cywen. What -’ Veradis started before Cywen abruptly cut him off, smashing her mouth against his.

‘Ow. That didn’t go how I planned.’ Cywen pulled back. Veradis stared at her, wide eyed and silent. ‘Try again?’ She asked sheepishly.

‘Wait.’ Veradis gripped her shoulders. He swallowed twice before continuing. ‘What are you doing?’

Cywen dropped her head in her hands. ‘Asroth’s teeth. I should have known better than to just follow Coralen’s advice.’ She sighed at Veradis’ alarmed expression. ‘I’m sorry. I just…it’s been a ten-night and you still haven’t kissed me or held my hand or -’

And this time it was Veradis cutting her off. His lips gentle on hers, cupping her face with his hands, palms warm. ‘It’s okay.’ He murmured when he pulled back, face hot. ‘It’s my fault. I was waiting for the right moment but this is as good as any, I suppose.’

‘Oh.’ Cywen looked up at him, unable to keep a giddy smile off her lips. ‘What kind of right moment?’

‘Well,’ Veradis tugged on his beard, cheeks bright. ‘Alcyon said it’s best to have a picnic at sunset and that there should be plenty of privacy and mead and perhaps some gift giving. I have a location and I’ve found someone to help me with the food but I’m still working out the details on the gift portion.’

Cywen giggled. ‘You know you don’t have to follow everything exactly, right? I would be happy with just a meal at sunset.’

‘That’s what I thought but he was quite insistent. And between the two of us, he’s the one with more experience.’ Veradis thought for a moment. ‘Though maybe he was teasing.’

Cywen hid her smile against Veradis’ chest, feeling his arms wrap around her back, holding her tightly. ‘Let’s do this again. Often. And we can watch the sunset tomorrow.’

‘Deal.’ His lips pressed into her hair.

When Cywen arose the next morning, she could hardly keep a smile off her face. The day passed in a blur as she waited for the evening to arrive. They hadn’t said much about attire but Cywen still bathed, changed and tried to tame her wild hair. She thought about dropping by Coralen first to thank her but decided against it. There would be time to talk later. For now, she had a plan with Veradis.

A plan that shattered when she saw him. As previously discussed, Veradis was sitting on the grass, a truly exorbitant amount of food in front of him. At his side, however, was Corban.

Cywen took a moment to center herself before approaching them. Her first instinct had been to storm up to them and make Corban leave but perhaps this evening could still be salvaged. Maybe Corban just wanted to chat before he joined Coralen at the feast hall. Then the evening would right itself.

‘Thank you for sharing your picnic with me. I consider you a brother, you know.’ Corban was saying as Cywen reached them.

‘Like a brother, you mean.’ Veradis corrected him. There was a tightening around his eyes that Cywen had learned to interpret after all these moons. He was desperately trying to stave off his displeasure.

‘One and the same.’ Corban smiled beatifically. ‘Ah, Cywen! You are here too? Join us!’

So, Corban had not known she and Veradis had a plan for this evening. ‘I wonder who else will be passing by.’ Corban mused. ‘The weather is perfect. You were really on to something, eating outside today, Veradis.’ He leaned in close to Veradis then, speaking quietly. ‘You should do this with Cywen sometime. She would love it.’

Veradis gave a noncommittal grunt. Cywen coughed and pretended not to hear. Corban continued aloud. ‘This is quite a bit of food, though. Were you expecting company? I saw you alone and didn’t want to just leave you here. You know, just in case you were missing Krelis again.’

Cywen watched the color rush to Veradis’ cheeks and jumped in before he completely lost his patience with her brother. ‘Say, where is Coralen?’

‘Ah.’ Corban sighed. ‘She is leading a tracking party against the Kadoshim. We had planned to mobilize in two ten-nights but strange rumors were beginning to crop up regarding shadows in the woods. We thought it would be a good idea investigate.’

‘You didn’t call a meeting. I’m sure there are plenty who would like to fight the Kadoshim.’ Veradis frowned. I would have liked to, hung silent between them.

‘Cora and I didn’t want to alarm anyone. That’s why I stayed behind. We heard the rumors from children so we thought it may have been a game but we didn’t want to take any chances.’ Corban explained. ‘All will still have a chance to hunt Kadoshim as we planned.’

‘Good.’ Cywen nodded. ‘I would like to join the hunting party also.’

Veradis’ eyebrows lifted slightly in surprise but he had the good sense to stay quiet. Corban, on the other hand, did not. ‘What about the hospice?’ He asked.

‘I’ve trained some people. They will manage in my absence.’ Cywen narrowed her eyes at Corban, daring him to object. Corban glanced at Veradis but he suddenly seemed to be very preoccupied unpacking the food.

There was silence for a few moments while Corban thought.

‘It would be nice to have a healer with Cywen’s skill with us. And her explosive concoctions are unparalleled when it comes to close range, large scale attacks.’ Veradis finally spoke up.

Corban sighed. ‘You are both right. I just worry. I worry for Cora, too. I am grateful to have found you today, honestly. Left to my own devices, I would have worried needlessly. I’ve gotten used to having Cora by my side.’

Cywen felt her heart go out to her brother. She could forgive him for interrupting her and Veradis for one night.

That was, until, Corban saw a group of Javed’s freedmen passing by and motioned for them to join the picnic also. Veradis’ smile was so tight, Cywen was afraid it might fracture.

She grabbed his hand and squeezed. ‘Hey.’ She smiled softly at him while Corban was busy enticing passersby with food. ‘We will do this again another time. I’ll pick the location and bring the meal next time, okay?’

Veradis relaxed and nodded, the smile losing some of its edge. ‘This was the last thing I expected to happen, honestly.’

‘With Ban, there is always a crowd.’ Cywen laughed, leaning her shoulder against his. ‘Why is Ban here anyway? Did he seriously just see you sitting alone and decide to join you?’

‘It’s becoming a habit of his.’ Veradis said dryly. ‘I thought you asked him to come, at first. I thought perhaps you were rethinking yesterday or wanted some space.’

‘No!’ Cywen looked at him in surprise. ‘If anything, I would like some space from my brother. I would tell you if I had a problem. I promise.’

Veradis smiled and gently pulled away. ‘Good.’

By the time the freedmen had settled down, Corban had invited some other members of the colony also. One of many, was Alcyon.

‘So much food.’ He rumbled appreciatively. ‘A nice location, too.’ He looked at Veradis with his twitching moustache. ‘Something seems missing.’

So, Alcyon had caught on to their failed plan and was teasing Veradis. Cywen had never seen this side of the giant.

‘You will be, tomorrow morning.’ Veradis growled back hotly. Cywen tried to hold back her laughter. She had seen very little of this side of Veradis, too.

‘I will not, actually.’ Alcyon’s face had stretched into a full on grin. ‘I am heading back to Drassil.’

‘Surely you can spare me a morning in the training field before you go.’ Veradis narrowed his eyes.

‘I cannot. And I pity the poor fool who can.’ Alcyon’s grin widened.

‘What is your rush?’ Cywen could see Veradis shifting, he looked heartbeats away from launching himself at the giant right then and there.

‘I have a wife. And a child. Perhaps you will understand one day, little man.’ Alcyon taunted with a grin.

Cywen placed her hand on Veradis’ knee before he could do something profoundly foolish. Like attempt to fight a giant in the midst of supper. ‘Eat.’ She shoved a piece of bread in Veradis’ loose fist and passed a plate of meat to Alcyon.

By the time the meal had finished, the sunset had been long forgotten and what was supposed to be a romantic picnic for two had turned into a rowdy dinner for twenty. Still, Cywen had a belly full of delicious food and Veradis’ promise for another evening together soon. She was happy.

--

Sig was the poor fool who bore the brunt of Veradis’ frustrations at the previous night’s plans. Though given her skill and experience, she was less of a fool and more of an excellent sparring partner. They fought longer than they normally would, Veradis giving and receiving blows with alarming frequency and Sig taking great pleasure in an opponent who was finally worthy of her time.

‘Have you finally exhausted yourself?’ Sig asked as they took a break for water.

‘I could do this forever.’ Veradis sighed. ‘Fighting is simple. The rest, not so much.’

‘Ah. So your wooing of the Bright Star’s sister is not going so well?’ She asked.

Veradis rounded on her in surprise. ‘Does everyone know? Are we some kind of public entertainment?’

Sig shrugged. ‘You two dance around one another like bairns. Asroth’s teeth, I’ve seen moves smoother than yours in my training field.’

Veradis sputtered. ‘That – what – no - things are going fine!’

‘Clearly.’ Sig drained her waterskin and stood. ‘Another round?’ She gestured to their weapons lying in the grass.

‘No! I mean, yes. I would like to spar another round. But Cywen is not the problem! Corban is.’

Sig raised an eyebrow. ‘The bright star doesn’t seem like the type to come between the happiness of others.’

‘No. It’s the opposite problem. He is too invested in the happiness of Cywen and myself.’ Veradis sighed. ‘He means well. He just…’

‘Ah. I understand.’ Sig sat back down and gestured for Veradis to follow. ‘We have this problem in our clan. There are many of us and we have long lives. Our families intertwine and the generations overlap. It can get stifling.’

‘Exactly.’

‘We have a tradition, where newlywed couples spend the first fifty moons together alone, far from the clan. They have the privacy to understand and learn one another and build a strong relationship. We call it the sweet moons.’

‘I could use a sweet moon.’ Veradis placed his head in his hands.

‘Ah, but they come after the wedding. Courtship can be difficult. But the sweet moons are a reward. Do not give up, little man. Come, another round.’

‘Only Alcyon calls me little man.’ Veradis grumbled but followed.

High-sun saw Veradis at the hospice. Sig had been kind enough to not to break any bones but their sparing had still left Veradis aching to the point where he thought it would be prudent to ask Cywen for some salve.

With his luck, however, the moment Cywen was available to see him, a group of boys were escorted into the hospice, each with a mild injury, from what appeared to be a fight. Cywen sighed as she gestured to the empty cots next to Veradis. ‘Sit. And no mischief. Veradis is watching.’ She pointed to him and strode out of the room, likely to get supplies.

Veradis was surprised. Sure, he was used to managing large groups of men, but there was a reason he had always turned down Corban’s offer to teach the boys. He didn’t have the delicate touch for children. He and the boys exchanged looks. Veradis tried to make it seem like he had done this before.

‘So. What happened?’ He asked.

‘We fell.’ The largest boy growled, his voice came out muddled due to a broken nose. Three others sat near him. Twisted leg, swollen arm -possibly fractured, dirty scratches against the last one’s cheeks. A tall, lanky child sat alone on the cot furthest away, shoulders hunched, clutching a small hammer. Bullies, probably. Veradis had been on the receiving end a few times as a child. The lanky one was scrappy to have inflicted so much damage on his own. Veradis would have Sig look into this.

He nodded slowly at the largest boy. ‘That happens.’ He spotted a roll of linen in the corner of the room. The boys watched warily as he strode over to pick it up and made his way back. ‘Alright.’ He stopped in front of the boy. ‘Well, no use in wasting time. Let’s set this nose, shall we?’

The boy paled, leaned back and started sputtering. ‘I thought- aren’t we going to wait- I’m sure the healer-’

Veradis placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder soothingly. ‘Relax. Breathe. We do this all the time in the field. One day, you will do this for one of your sword-brothers, I’m sure.’

All the boys had paled and started inching away. The child in the corner watched warily. ‘What do you need the linen for?’ The large one asked, trying to act tough.

‘For you to bite on.’ He placed the roll between the boy’s teeth amid protests and while the child was busy sputtering, he quickly set the bone. The boy screamed.

Veradis removed the linens and smiled. ‘Done.’ He used the linens to stem the fresh wave of blood.

Cywen and another medic rushed into the room in panic. ‘What is happening here?’ She glanced around, no doubt taking in the boys’ terrified expressions, the blood on Veradis’ hands and the large boy’s face. ‘Veradis?’

‘I set his nose. He did well.’ Veradis patted the boy’s shoulder. The boy whimpered, tears streaming down his face.

Veradis watched as Cywen’s face flickered through several emotions at once. It was fascinating. He loved how expressive she was. ‘I was bringing them poppy milk.’ She settled on.

When Veradis’ expression didn’t change, Cywen handed off her supplies to her helper and grabbed Veradis’ arm to drag him out of the room. ‘You can’t just do that!’ She hissed. ‘That poor boy is probably traumatized.’

Veradis doubted that. Broken noses were common enough. Still, ‘I just wanted to help.’

‘Wait for me next time, please.’ Cywen sighed again. ‘It won’t do for the hospice to build a reputation of letting just anyone serve as a healer.’

Veradis tried not to feel defensive. ‘Fine. I came for salve, by the way. Do you have any I can use?’

Cywen shook her head. ‘We just ran out. I’ll have to make more. I can bring some to the feast hall tonight? Or to your home?’ She looked at Veradis closely for the first time, seeing the fresh bruises peeking out from beneath his tunic. ‘Oh, Elyon above, what happened to you?’ Her fingers brushed against his mottled collarbone.

‘Just training. I’m fine. I’ll take the salve at home, please.’ Veradis held her hands in his. ‘And let me make you supper for your troubles, and for last night.’

Cywen blushed. ‘I-’

‘Just supper, I promise. I saw some fresh fish in the market this morning. And no one makes fish better than the men from Ripa.’

‘Okay.’ Cywen smiled.

Veradis left feeling both elated and terrified. Although it was true that men from Ripa made the best fish, he himself had never actually attempted to make any. The sum of his experience lay in merely in eating it. Well, there was some time until sundown, he would get practicing.

He headed for the market, buying the necessary goods. He bought in bulk, knowing many would have to be sacrificed while he practiced. Then, he took his groceries home, to perfect fish making in half a day.

His home was near the edge of the small town, still easily accessible but secluded enough to give him privacy. He had known early on that amongst his neighbors were some of Corban’s childhood friends. Dath and his wife lived on one side, Farrell lived on the other, several doors down. He’d greet them with a nod in the mornings but that was the sum total of their conversations. And Veradis liked it that way.

When he accidently set his trout on fire and heard rapid footfalls approaching, he knew the era of peaceful mornings was over.

By the time Veradis had put out the flames and opened the door to let the smoke out, Dath was already on his doorstep, eyes wide. ‘What happened? Are you okay? Do you need help?’ Dath was small, agile, and before Veradis could say anything, he had invited himself into Veradis’ home.

‘Oh, wow.’ Dath took in the absolute mess in the kitchen. ‘Did you leave any fish for the rest of the colony?’ His asked.

Veradis’ ears burned. ‘Yes. And I’m fine. You can go.’

Instead of leaving, Dath wandered deeper into the kitchen, poking around. ‘So you really like fish, huh? My Da was a fisherman. I ate so much fish growing up. Had to learn to cook it too, after my mom died and my Da-’ He abruptly cut off. ‘It looks like you need help. What were you trying to do here? Are you trying to smoke something? That’s not right. You don’t need that much salt.’

‘Please.’ Veradis gestured to the door. ‘I’m teaching myself. There was a recipe from my childhood I’m trying to recreate. It’s fine.’

Dath looked at Veradis closely, understanding dawning in his eyes. Veradis hated it. ‘I can help. Let’s make a deal, if I teach you how to cook, I get to take a portion home for supper. My skills for your fish.’

Veradis thought about refusing him. Then he thought of Cywen’s face if she had to eat his current creations. He agreed.

Dath turned out to be an excellent cook and teacher. Just a chatty one. ‘You shouldn’t have picked this one, look at the color. This is how you fillet. No! Like this! What are you -? I cook for Kulla and I, you know. Her food is not good. Don’t tell her I told you. The Jehar, they have spices but they have really learned to live without them. I haven’t. Do you really plan on making all of this?’

‘I don’t know.’ Veradis tried to keep up in conversation and cooking. He succeeded in neither. ‘Listen.’ He placed a hand on Dath’s arm, stopping him. ‘I just need to recreate one dish.’

‘Well, why didn’t you just say so?’

‘I was trying but you just took over.’

‘Alright, well. What is it you are trying to make?’ He asked, hands on his hips.

‘I don’t know. I can only tell you what it tasted like. It was smoked, I think.’ Veradis struggled to describe the dish. It had been years since he had last eaten it.

‘That is no help. What kind of fish? What kind of seasoning? I need to know more!’ Dath exclaimed.

‘I don’t know. I only ever ate it. That’s why I bought all this.’ Veradis gestured around.

‘And this needs to be made today?’

‘For supper, yes.’

Veradis watched as Dath deflated, surveying the work he had already started. ‘You can take the fillets.’ Veradis offered.

Dath snorted and rolled his eyes. ‘Generous.’ He picked up a whole salmon. ‘Let’s do this then.’

There were a few moments of blessed silence. Veradis assumed that Dath was trying to figure out what dish Veradis had been describing. He was wrong.

‘So what’s the rush? Are you making this for someone? Are you having guests?’ Dath asked expectantly.

‘What does it matter?’ Veradis tried dodging the question. ‘I have to eat, you have to eat, that is all.’

‘Cywen doesn’t like fish, you know.’ Dath’s voice was suspiciously light.

Veradis nearly sliced his own damn finger off. ‘What.’

Dath backtracked hastily. ‘Corban does! But he likes you anyway. And he eats just about anything. I think it’s from traveling with Gar so much. It’s a Jehar thing-’

‘Wait. Repeat what you just said.’ Veradis set down his knife. ‘Cywen doesn’t like fish? But she agreed! She knew what I was making!’

Dath started shifting his feet uncomfortably. ‘She did? Well, maybe she does like fish? Or maybe she will like it, because you are making it? Kulla once made me a roast pheasant. It was burnt and tasted like ash. I ate it because she made it.’

‘That inspires zero confidence.’ Veradis tugged on his beard, stressed. ‘I have to make something else. What else can you teach me, Dath? What does Cywen like? Quickly. We are short on time.’ He rounded on the smaller man.

Dath seemed to shrink into himself. ‘You don’t have to make anything? Just be yourself? She will love it?’ He squeaked.

‘Dath.’ Veradis took a warning step toward him.

‘It’s okay! It’ll be fine!’ Dath took a step back.

Veradis was about to reach out when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder.

‘What is happening here?’ It was Farrell. Because that was exactly what Veradis needed. More of Corban’s friends.

‘Dath was just teaching me how to cook.’ Veradis said evenly.

Dath squeaked, ‘help!’ at the exact same moment. Farrell placed himself between the two.

Veradis sighed. ‘Fine. Leave. I’ll figure it out myself.’ He turned away.

‘No!’ Dath grabbed Veradis’ other shoulder. ‘We are helping you! We are going to make the best fish ever and Cywen is going to be super impressed.’

‘Cywen?’ Farrell raised his eyebrows.

‘Yeah. Veradis likes her. I mean, she likes him too. That’s why she’ll eat fish if he makes it.’ Dath rambled. Veradis wished Asroth had killed him.

Farrell looked between the two of them, eyes narrowed. Dath’s eyes were wide. They did something with their eyebrows. It was like watching a silent play. Veradis didn’t have time for it. ‘Fine, what next? We need to plan for side dishes and dessert. This dinner needs some redeeming qualities.’

‘When is the dinner?’ Farrell asked.

‘Tonight.’

‘If you help us, you can take some dinner home too!’ Dath offered.

Farrell sighed and stepped up next to Veradis. ‘I can make a passable stew. You can serve it as an appetizer.’

‘Great. Thanks.’ Veradis said. Dath beamed.

‘She’ll love this. You’ve been trying really hard and we all know it.’ Dath offered.

Veradis’ cheeks felt so hot he thought his skin may burn off.

‘Shut up.’ Farrell told Dath. ‘What he means to say is that we all support you and Cywen. Sometimes it takes a little patience for people to come around. Sometimes they can’t see what’s right in front of them.’ He told Veradis.

‘Stop stealing my thunder.’ Dath complained. ‘Look, Kulla used to follow me around for moons before we got together. And look at where we are now. This will all work out. I know it.’

‘You just gave an example of my point, Dath. Laith approached me first too.’ Farrell said quietly. ‘Maybe you are trying too hard?’

Veradis sighed. ‘I’ve known Cywen for three years. I’ve been interested for three whole years. If I do nothing, I’ll be waiting forever.’

Dath and Farrell gawped. ‘When did you meet Cywen exactly?’ Farrell asked.

‘I met her in Ardan. Shortly after you guys fled, I think. I was with Nathair’s army.’

‘You were one of the ones who kidnapped her?’ Farrell asked, looming over Veradis.

‘Technically, Nathair and Calidus did. But yes, I was in charge of her care for a short while after.’

‘And you liked her since then?’ Dath sounded scandalized.

‘Asroth’s teeth, Dath! I didn’t do anything! I had priorities other than pining after my arch nemesis’ sister.’ Veradis could feel his temper fraying.

‘Yeah, like trying to kill us.’ Farrell said bluntly.

‘And I have apologized and changed my ways. Or was the death of my family and king not enough for you?’ Veradis snarled back.

‘I think that’s enough.’ It was Dath who separated the two this time. ‘I, for one, am grateful to have you on our side, Veradis. And I know everyone else is too. Even Farrell.’ He sent Farrell a look. ‘And, I am done. Your stew is done. Whatever it is that you have been trying to make should be done. You will have fruit for dessert so you do not have to worry about it. Anything else?’

Veradis took a deep breath, trying to reel his temper in. ‘No. Thank you for your help. Both of you.’

Dath nodded, gathered his food and left.

Farrell stared at Veradis a moment longer. ‘Good luck, then.’ He said heavily. ‘This life is too short to spend pining.’ And then he was gone.

‘I am not pining.’ Veradis muttered to himself and tried to salvage the mess that was his home.

--

Cywen couldn’t make it to Veradis until well past sunset. When she did, it took Veradis several long heartbeats to open the door. He looked stressed, strands of hair falling out of his warrior braid, clothes stained with all sorts of substances.

‘I hope I’m not too late?’ Cywen held out the salve bottles as a piece offering.

Veradis stared at them in confusion, as if he’d forgotten that he asked for him. ‘No, no, not at all.’ He stepped aside to let her enter.

His home was spacious, but sparse. One table with four chairs, a small seating area, and a couple rooms. Nothing adorned the walls or floor. Everything was meticulously neat and clean to the point where Cywen wondered if he used his home for anything other than sleeping at all. Then she turned to the kitchen and laughed.

Like their picnic, Veradis had far too much food for two people. A couple kinds of fish, a stew and dessert sat scattered across the kitchen. Between his masterpieces, it appeared that some sort of natural disaster had struck his home. Veradis tugged on his beard sheepishly. ‘Don’t look too closely. Let’s just eat.’

But Cywen couldn’t help but stare as she ate. The food was wonderful and the story his kitchen told, even more so. She loved this side of Veradis. ‘Did you really make all this by yourself?’ She asked.

‘I had some help.’ Veradis shrugged and smiled. ‘Do you like it?’

Cywen nodded enthusiastically. ‘You had better be careful, I have half a mind to ask Corban to relieve you of your advisor duties and make you my cook instead.’

Veradis grinned. ‘I should have thought twice before courting you. Now you hold all the power to make me miserable if you want to.’

Cywen laughed.

After dessert, she said, ‘you made the meal, let me help clean up.’

‘You’ll be here all night if you do.’ Veradis stood and gathered their plates. ‘Leave it to me.’

Cywen helped anyway. Their hands touching as they washed the plates, Veradis lips brushing her temples as she passed him. She nudged his hip with hers to move him out of the way, grinning mischievously. When the kitchen was finally clean, Veradis and Cywen surveyed their handiwork, her back pressed against his chest, his arms wrapped around her shoulders. ‘Thank you.’ He said quietly and pressed his lips to her head again.

She felt a warmth spread through her skin, making her feel a pleasant buzz. ‘Veradis?’

He ‘hmmed’ and look down at her.

‘You aren’t very affectionate in public, are you?’

‘No.’ He looked at her. ‘Does that bother you?’

Cywen thought about it and shrugged. ‘Not really. Though it does make everyone wonder whether we are together or not. And Ban is still trying to find a way to meddle in our business.’ Cywen laughed. ‘I guess he didn’t listen to Cora when she told him to leave us alone.’

Veradis groaned. ‘Perhaps we should just send out wedding invitations. That should assuage everyone’s curiosity.’ He was quiet for a moment. ‘I hope you are aware, though, how deeply I feel for you.’

He looked at her with a quiet intensity. ‘When it comes to our relationship, everyone has advice. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone wants to be a part of this but I only want you. When I was a child, if there was anything I truly valued, I had to hide it from my brothers. They weren’t malicious, they just couldn’t care for my things the way I could. And I care for you. A lot. So I want to protect this and keep it private so I can cherish you without having to listen to everyone and their brother for their opinions. Does that make sense?’

‘It does.’ Cywen nodded. ‘But a kiss every now and then would be appreciated too, you know.’

Veradis smiled and leaned in to kiss her softly. ‘I’ll try. Now, let me walk you home. It’s gotten dark.’

It wasn’t until they reached Cywen’s doorstep, an extension of Corban and Coralen’s home that Cywen suddenly remembered something. ‘The salve! Have you used it before? Do you need help applying it?’

‘I’ll be fine.’ Veradis assured her. ‘I had a lovely night with you. Thank you for coming over.’ He gave her that soft smile of his and kissed her beneath the eve of the doorway and left. Cywen willed her heart to stop fluttering long enough to sleep.

--

The Jehar had a tradition of celebrating each year a couple had been married. Corban supposed that in a culture such as theirs’, where battle reigned supreme and lives were frequently lost, celebrating the time they had made sense. Corban’s own parents had loved one another very much but never had they thrown a party on a specific day for the specific purpose of celebrating their marriage. Dath and Kulla, however, did. And they decided to throw their party the night before the big Kadoshim hunting trip.

It was wildly inconvenient. But then, Dath and Kulla had never cared for convenience, the timing of their wedding had been proof of that. And Corban was not cruel enough to ask them to refrain from their festivities, especially not when they had been kind enough to invite the entire colony.

Besides, this would be a great time for Corban to check up on Cywen and Veradis. He had been busy as of late, planning for the expedition. Everyone had been. And when Coralen had told him that Cywen and Veradis ‘had it managed’, well, Corban believed her, of course. But he also liked to confirm with his own eyes.

He spent the night wandering from friend to friend, enjoying the peace and happiness. The calm before the morrow’s storm. He kept an eye out for Cywen and Veradis too, excited to see just what was being managed. It wasn’t until the evening had slipped into night that he finally spotted the couple. By then, Coralen was in his arms and they were swaying. Corban half considered shelving his curiosity for another day, but then Coralen had noticed the excited flex of his arms and turned to look also.

‘Corban.’ Her voice was disapproving as she observed the dancing pair. Veradis had some type of rhythm going, guiding Cywen with one hand against her lower back and the other holding her hand in his. Their faces were turned towards one another, lost to the world around them.

‘Let’s get closer.’ Corban grinned and pulled Coralen along as they weaved through the crowd. ‘I want to see this.’

‘Stop that.’ Coralen hissed, planting her feet. ‘You are going to ruin their night.’

‘I would never!’ Corban was affronted. ‘I care for both of them. We’ll hide and they’ll never even know we were there.’

‘You will sleep in the stables tonight, Corban.’ Coralen warned. ‘Let them be.’

Corban had enough sense to not sleep in the stables the night before the Kadoshim hunt. ‘Fine.’ He pulled Coralen back into his arms to dance, trying to glance covertly over her head.

Coralen huffed but relaxed, resting her head against his shoulder. Just as Corban’s attention was beginning to wander, the music slowed further. Veradis and Cywen stopped dancing, he cupped her cheek and she gripped his shoulders, rising on to her toes.

‘Finally!’ Corban had meant to say it to Coralen but his voice carried too far, dozens of eyes turned towards him. He sputtered, trying to divert attention but it was too late. Cywen and Veradis had been amongst those to look at him, too. They were glaring now.

As he took a step back in alarm, the people around them watched back and forth, knowing smiles and quiet laughs filled the night. Corban’s meddling in Cywen and Veradis’ relationship was no secret. Cywen looked ready to march over and give Corban a piece of her mind (or maybe a bit of her steel) but Veradis’ arm around her waist kept her still. He whispered something into her ear, brushing his lips against her temple. Cywen settled a little.

‘I’m just happy for you!’ Corban called out, unable to keep a wide grin off his face.

‘I’ll be happy when the Kadoshim finally eat you!’ Cywen called back. Between them, people laughed, Veradis’ lips quirked slightly, Coralen poked Corban in the ribs. I told you so.

Corban couldn’t help himself. He was the one to save an angry wolven, raise said wolven’s pup, befriend the giants, fight the Kadoshim and willingly go to the otherworld. By Elyon, he would hug his sister and Veradis, no matter the perils.

When the night came to a close and they finally headed home, Corban couldn’t help but remark, ‘I’m so pleased. This was exactly what I wanted.’

Coralen gave him one of her wicked grins. ‘I’m glad you feel that way. I hope your satisfaction keeps you warm in the stables.’

‘Cora, no!’ Corban begged, but it was too late.

--

The issue with having only one surviving kin was that you couldn’t stay mad at them long. Veradis knew this. He could see it in Cywen’s expression when she saw her brother’s smug face in the morning. Could almost feel her overwhelming need to both throw a knife at him and to hold him tight.

To Cywen’s surprise, Veradis had taken the previous night’s fiasco in stride. He was used to it at this point and it put him in a position to take advantage of the current situation. He was not upset at Corban, not really, and last night had served as a perfect catalyst to announce their relationship publicly and give Veradis the edge he needed to start steering this courting business in the direction he wanted.

They’d split the warband after finding two diverging trails. Corban led one while Veradis volunteered to lead the other. They followed a path of broken leaves, dead animals and torn branches. They traveled north, toward the mountains. Abruptly, at the base of a cluster of small peaks, the trail disappeared.

‘Race you to the top.’ Javed grinned, elbowing Veradis as they looked up.

‘Which top?’ Veradis asked.

He shrugged. Veradis split his band even further. He made three groups of three and one of just him and Cywen. The band teased them mercilessly. ‘You just want some alone time with Cywen.’ Javed accused with a grin.

‘Between our skill set, we are in a good position to take on Kadoshim. I’ve made the rest of the groups based on the skills of the constituents. You know this.’ Veradis explained impatiently.

‘Sounds convenient.’ Javed winked at Cywen. Cywen blushed.

There were no objections, however, so the bands split up and approached their prospective peaks. When Veradis and Cywen reached the base of the mountain and out of sight of the others, Veradis caught Cywen across the waist and pulled her into his arms. ‘Finally.’ He grinned.

Cywen gawked. ‘Javed was right!’

‘Obviously.’ The smile grew.

‘What happened to fighting Kadoshim?’ Cywen asked.

‘Later.’ Veradis laughed and leaned in. ‘I’ve been wanting to kiss you since last night.’

‘Oh?’ Cywen raised her eyebrows. ‘Why didn’t you?’

‘You looked ready to draw your knives. Appealing as watching you is, I’d rather not be on the receiving end.’

Cywen laughed, pleased. ‘Well, I suppose you can be forgive then.’

Sometime later, they began their ascent. ‘Race you to the top?’ Cywen challenged.

Veradis’ lips curled in surprise. ‘Really?’

‘I’ll beat you.’ Cywen said haughtily. ‘Just watch.’

Veradis shrugged. ‘So long as you are not a sore loser!’ He called out as he began sprinting. He veered left, the path before him too steep and the path to the right filled with boulders and a sheer cliff face towards the top.

‘Worry about yourself!’ Cywen called back, heading right.

Veradis narrowed his eyes but kept a steady pace forward. He slowed his sprint to an easy jog, keeping an ear out for Cywen’s footfalls.

‘Cy…?’ He called out, a dozen paces later.

‘Keep going!’ Cywen called back. Her voice far off.

Veradis obeyed, trudging forward until he reached a plateau. He paused for a moment. Something felt off. His hand found his sword, his shield unslung from his back reflexively. He turned in a slow circle, eyes scanning the rocks, bushes, small trees. Nothing. But the stillness wasn’t natural.

He considered calling out to Cywen. Telling her to hide. But if the Kadoshim were nearby, surely they would hear and hunt her down. Alternatively, they may already know he didn’t come alone and Cywen could be in trouble. A trickle of sweat traveled down the back of his neck, his legs shifting into fighting stance. ‘Come face me, you cowards!’ He yelled.

More silence. Well, that tactic only worked about half the time anyway. He forced his shoulders to drop, straightened his back, pretending to let his guard down. Against all sane judgement, he closed his eyes, breathing in deep. Just as he was about to exhale, he heard a whoosh of wings overhead. His sword arm was thrusting upward faster than he could open his eyes, sword tip scaping along leathery flesh. A horrible cry filled the air.

The Kadoshim swooped out of range, the shallowest of cuts painting it’s chest. It bared its teeth, blue black lips stretching horribly as it snarled. ‘I will feast on your flesh.’

‘You’ll have to try harder than that.’ Veradis taunted.

The Kadoshim laughed, the sound grating and harsh. It swooped high in the sky, Veradis’ eyes straining to keep sight of it. He heard something shift behind him. He desperately hoped it was Cywen, though something in his gut told him it was not. The Kadoshim was back into view, wings snapped tight against it’s back as it dived right at him. Veradis waited until the last moment, meeting the Kadoshim’s snarl with his own, sword raised. He was less than a hand-span from the Kadoshim’s claws when he threw himself to the ground, rolling a dozen paces away.

Veradis jumped to his feet to see the Kadoshim crash into the rocks where he stood heartbeats prior. He saw a shadow flicker in his peripheral. He dodged again, knees bent low to the ground. Asroth’s teeth, how many were there? The second Kadoshim grinned. ‘You will be delicious.’ It hissed.

Veradis adjusted his shield, rotated his blade in a slow arc. He needed to buy time for Cywen, wherever she was. And he needed her to get somewhere safe. But how to let her know without alerting the Kadoshim? He yelled and charged the Kadoshim near him, ducking at the last moment, knees skidding against the ground as he swung his sword towards the demon’s knees. It yelled in pain, arm crashing into Veradis’ shield as he slipped by. When he turned and stood, the Kadoshim was slowly advancing. He raised his shield again, only to realize the Kadoshim had clawed it to uselessness. He tossed it to the side and unsheathed his short sword. He charged.

The Kadoshim stayed low this time. Veradis had used his duck and dodge technique one too many times already. That was fine, he was used to being flexible in battle. He veered off track slightly, finding a raised, flat rock jutting out of the ground to jump off from. He aimed his long sword at the Kadoshim’s heart, the short sword held in a defensive position as he hurled toward the Kadoshim below him.

In the heat of battle, Veradis had lost track of the first Kadoshim. It swept up behind him, dragging him into the air before he could hit his target. He yelled in frustration, hurling his sword towards the second Kadoshim like a spear. By some miraculous feat, the sword found it’s mark, embedding itself deep into the Kadoshim’s chest. Then Veradis was being tossed against the cliff edge. He hit it hard, head snapping against the stone. His vision spun. He was lifted again. This time by his legs, hanging upside down, blood rushing to his already throbbing head.

He needed a moment. He needed to shake his head clear. He was too far up to survive a fall now. He tried wiggling. The Kadoshim snarled at him, dropping him abruptly and then catching him again heartbeats before he hit the ground, then taking him high again. Bile rose up to his throat. He was being played with. The headache was pounding. He tried to shift, look for something to use. His eyes caught a blur of movement. A person maybe. Climbing the mountain side, heading to where the first Kadoshim was. His heart dropped to his stomach. Cywen. Of course it was Cywen. He groaned. He’d yelled needlessly while fighting in hopes to warn her way from the Kadoshim but of course she ran towards the danger instead of away from it.

He needed to do something, before she reached the plateau and before the Kadoshim holding him noticed her. He was still holding his short sword in his hand somehow. It was useless at this range, however. With him hanging upside down, there was too much distance between the sword and the Kadoshim’s body. Unless he could swing himself up somehow.

There was only one man to ever slay a Kadoshim in the air. Maquin. Veradis hadn’t seen it himself but he had heard the tale many times from his fellow soldiers. He tried to look up at the Kadoshim. There was no way. Maquin was a beast. Barely a man in strength and skill and suicidal ideations. He looked at Cywen below him, steadily making her way to the plateau. Well, perhaps he could match Maquin in one of those things.

He swayed back and forth, trying to gain momentum as the Kadoshim clawed at his ankles. Just as he curled himself upward, every muscle clenching, short sword ready, the Kadoshim let him go. He went flying, the Kadoshim below him, laughing. He swore. The ground was steadily rising to meet him. One last attempt then, before he joined Maquin on the bridge of swords. He turned mid-air, sword swinging wildly.

Elyon was smiling on him today. The Kadoshim was behind him, Veradis’ sword sunk into it’s shoulder. The Kadoshim cried out, trying to propel itself backwards. Veradis snarled and held on to the hilt, using it to draw himself close and slamming his head against the Kadoshim’s. They went spiraling to the ground.

Veradis and the Kadoshim wrestled in the air. The Kadoshim struggling to disengage, Veradis struggling to use the Kadoshim to break his fall. They crashed into the earth. Black spots danced in Veradis’ vision. There was something wet on his tunic. Vomit, blood, sweat. He tried to move his limbs, nothing responded. There were brief moments of panic, his head fighting his body and losing. A face filled his vision. ‘Run.’ He struggled to say, blood dribbling from his mouth.

He saw a shadow behind the face. ‘Run!’ The gurgled word was more urgent now. The face moved away, the shadow grew larger and Veradis succumbed to unconsciousness.

--

Cywen turned to the Kadoshim in fury. Veradis had done quite a number on the two but they both still lived. What a sight they made. Black veins marring their skin, heavy, leathery wings dragging against the ground, Veradis’ swords protruding from their bodies. Cywen almost pitied them. She tossed her vials at them. Two each and snarled out the word to set them on fire. She watched with dark satisfaction as they screamed and burned.

It was a pity she hadn’t reached sooner. She truly thought she’d be able to scale the cliffside more quickly. Back in Ardan, she and Corban and Dath would climb just about anything but years had passed since. No doubt once Veradis woke up, he’d give her one of his disappointedly amused looks.

When she looked back at him, he appeared worse than she had originally thought. His head still bled profusely, dark red smears had spread over his face. She used linen wraps to stem the bleeding while cataloguing the rest of his injuries. There was no getting him down from the mountain in this condition. She cleaned the wounds the best she could, stitched them and wrapped them before moving on to the rest of him.

She felt for his pulse for a few heart stopping moments. Slow but steady. He would survive. She sighed as she tended to the rest of his wounds. She had half a mind to yell at him for the scare he had given her when she had finally reached the plateau. Body limp, eyes unfocused, mumbling something. But it was hardly his fault that he had to fight two Kadoshim on his own.

When he finally awoke, his eyes were still hazy. His head lolled in her lap as he groaned. Cywen let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. Thank Elyon. ‘Good afternoon, sunshine.’ She teased lightly.

Veradis’ struggled to look at her, settling for somewhere left of her face. ‘What…’ He struggled to say before rolling over abruptly and vomiting.

Cywen stifled a laugh as he almost faceplanted into his own vomit. ‘Attractive. I’ll forgive you since, you know, you took on two Kadoshim on your own.’

The word Kadoshim snapped him into focus. He struggled to get up. Cywen gently pushed him back into lying position. ‘Kadoshim.’ He said urgently.

‘I’ve taken care of them.’ Cywen reassured him. When his expression didn’t change, she clarified. ‘I killed them. I set them on fire. They are gone, we are safe now.’

Veradis’ expression morphed into awe. ‘I think I love you.’ He said seriously.

Cywen laughed. Her heart warm. She loved him too. ‘You’d better make sure.’ She teased softly, running a hand through his hair. ‘You’ve already mentioned wedding invites.’

He looked surprised. The concussion confusing him temporarily. ‘Really? When? We should do it. The wedding. Soon.’ He seemed to struggle with his thoughts, for a moment. ‘Corban.’

‘Corban is taken.’ Cywen stroked his cheek with a smile. ‘It’s too late for you to wed him, I’m sorry.’

‘No!’ Frustration colored Veradis’ tone. Cywen felt bad for teasing him in this state.

She hushed him gently. ‘I know. I know.’ She gave him some water and helped him into a half sitting state. ‘We can have Corban help us. Rest now.’

Veradis’ eyes began to close. ‘Plans. We need plans.’ He mumbled before slipping unconscious again. ‘And a sweet moon.’

--

Veradis’ eyes opened well before the sun rose. His clothes were neatly set out. His home was clean. There were gifts already wrapped and placed about the home. The furniture Cywen had chosen would be delivered on the morrow. Today was the day. He sat up. Breathed deep. Anxious excitement filling him to the brim.

Well, he had nowhere to be until sunrise. He trained in his home, trying to take the edge off. He bathed. He dressed. He took in the signs of Cywen in his home. They’d planned for the wedding here. There were bits of parchment, scraps of fabric, and far too many inkwells and quills from the days and nights they had spent planning this day. Cywen had already started moving some things over, though she always insisted that she had merely ‘forgotten’ them at his home. He had a basket, some scrolls, far too much dishware and a pair of shoes. Those were from a memorable night when Cywen had exchanged her footwear for Veradis’ because his were more comfortable. He’d spent the night barefoot, holding a pair of dainty slippers in his hand as he walked her home.

He’d told Alben moons ago of his plans to court Cywen. They had had a steady stream of communication since Cywen had approached him that night on the hill. Since then, Alben had not only offered advice, but he had also arranged for Veradis’ family heirlooms to be sent from Ripa to Gramm’s hold. The colony had watched in surprise as one wain after another arrived for Veradis. Many of those new possessions were donated to the colony. His father’s swords, Ektor’s personal scrolls, his mother’s fine clothing. He hadn’t known how much of his mother’s belongings had been hoarded by his father after she died. He could barely believe that Lamar of Ripa was capable of such emotion. But then, love had always made him irrational.

He kept his mother’s jewels. So many of them. When and how his father had acquired them would forever remain a mystery to Veradis. But they were beautiful and Cywen deserved all the most precious things in life. They would be his gift to her.

He kept some for himself too. Krelis’ belongings. Krelis’ swords, scrolls (his handwriting was atrocious in ways that made Veradis want to laugh and cry), his shield. He’d sifted through the clothes Alben had sent over, a wistful smile tugging at his lips when he held their kilts in his hands. He’d stopped wearing them for the longest time, in favor of trousers and reinforced shoes. He thought about wearing them again, the freedom of movement with a kilt was unparalleled. He would have to see what Cywen thought.

Finally, he could see the first rays of sunlight peeking over the horizon. He forced himself to dress slowly. Take in the moment. Ensure everything was in its rightful place. Then he made his way to the center of the colony. A square they had made for public events such as these. He did not rush. Not in the least bit. He was a man, not an overenthusiastic child.

He still arrived before anyone. He smiled ruefully at himself. Well, no matter. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, letting the cool air fill his lungs.

‘Cherishing your last breath as a free man?’ Corban’s teasing prompted Veradis to open his eyes.

Veradis grinned in return. ‘I’ve waited for this day longer than I care to admit. An addiction to commitments seems to be a character flaw of mine.’

Corban laughed. ‘Well, I too have waited for this day for a long time. I will be happy to call you brother.’ He placed a hand on Veradis’ shoulder. ‘Oh, and I like the outfit.’

Veradis shrugged. ‘It’s tradition in Ripa. Speaking of starting the day, I do believe we are missing someone.’ He raised an eyebrow. Logically, he knew Cywen was coming. But there was an irrational fear clawing its way up his chest that perhaps she had changed her mind.

Corban gave a long suffering sigh, his grin still in place. ‘Cywen is still getting ready. I do not know what more needs to be done. Fret not, she hasn’t run off on you. Or if she did, she must be far gone by now. I awoke to banging far earlier than I normally do this morning.’

Veradis shook his head with a smile. So, she was as nervous as he. Good to know. Corban slung an arm around Veradis’ shoulder and pulled him into a conversation regarding the expansion of the colony. Veradis allowed it, letting the conversation relax him.

‘Oh, good. We are all here. Shall I hand-bind the two of you, then?’ Cywen’s voice came from behind them.

Veradis turned and grinned. His heart soaring when he laid eyes on her. She was beautiful, of course. Her hair just the barest bit windswept, likely from rushing here. She wore a dress he had gifted her and Veradis could hardly believe he was finally to wed her. He pulled her into his arms.

‘Okay lovebirds.’ Corban’s voice broke them from their embrace. They both blushed as they faced him. He grinned and held out the cord to bind their hands. ‘Let’s get this day started.’

‘I can’t believe you wore it!’ Cywen marveled at Veradis’ kilt.

He rolled his eyes. He knew this would happen the moment he had decided on his outfit. But he was still a man of Ripa and he took pride in it. ‘Of course. I told you I would, didn’t I?’

She grinned. ‘I’m just happy to see it.’

‘If you keep looking, I’ll get self-conscious.’ Veradis’ lips quirked into a half smile.

They reached the training field. Despite being handbound, they had both decided to continue working as normal. Or, as normally as they could while being tied together. All heads turned towards them as they approached. Veradis forced his face to be impassive. He knew this would happen. He was prepared.

Cywen giggled when the catcalls and whistles started. Veradis pinched the bridge of his nose and marched forward. ‘Don’t listen to them. They are just jealous.’ She assured him, stumbling against his side, tripping over her own laughter.

Veradis grunted and helped her straighten. He grabbed a training sword and stood in front of his men. ‘It appears some of you have something you need to get off your chests. Who would like to start?’ He pulled Cywen close. ‘Follow me as best you can.’ He said to her quietly.

His trainees came at him hesitantly, mindful of Cywen. He disarmed four easily, barely shifting to the side. ‘Now, now. Don’t make me sweat.’ He drawled.

The light sparing helped him relax. His focus was kept on Cywen, making sure she was safe. If her laugh was anything to go by, she appeared to be enjoying the training too. Or maybe she just liked the way his kilt rode up when he lounged.

‘That’s not fair!’ One of his soldiers complained half-heartedly when Veradis swept his feet from under him. ‘You never treated Cywen this way. You’ve been playing favorites this whole time.’

‘I don’t have favorites in the training field.’ He grabbed the man’s forearm and helped him up. ‘Off the field, however…’ Veradis let his smirk speak for itself.

As they left the training field and headed for the hospice, they passed a group of young boys. One happened to be the boy who’s nose Veradis had set. His posse seemed to have grown. ‘Someone’s gotten popular.’ Veradis tilted his head towards the boy.

Cywen followed his gaze. ‘Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you. He’s been spreading stories about his bravery. Now any time the boys come to me for an injury, they try asking for you.’ She rolled her eyes.

Veradis laughed. ‘And you said he’d be traumatized.’ He squeezed her hand teasingly.

She huffed but there was no hiding the smile on her face. When they reached the hospice, there was an air of panic. ‘What happened?’ Cywen’s voice was all business. Veradis followed her lead.

‘We’re having some trouble with a delivery.’ One of the other medics said. ‘We could use a hand.’

Cywen looked at her bound hands. ‘Ask the mother if it is okay for Veradis to be there.’

Veradis felt a bolt of dread run through him. ‘Cywen? That’s not very appropriate. Perhaps we should undo the bindings.’

‘Then we will have to repeat this day over again. Is that something you want to do? And who is to say if there won’t be a similar situation like today? No, we stay bound.’ She said firmly. The medic returned with assent from the mother.

‘I really do not think I should be there.’ Veradis tried to protest.

‘We will blindfold you.’ Cywen growled. She led them to a hand washing area. ‘Don’t worry, Veradis. I will protect you delicate sensibilities.’

He tried to stamp down the queasiness as his eyes were covered. Logically, he knew everything would be fine. Cywen and her team had delivered dozens of babies. He probably wouldn’t even need to do anything. He could stand back while Cywen instructed the other medics. Yes, this would be fine.

The smell was what hit him first. Bodily fluids. He breathed through his mouth. He had been on countless battlefields. He had ridden next to Nathair’s draig. He could handle the smell.

Sound was next. The quick murmurs of the medics, the mother’s gasps and cries of pain, the father’s trembling words of comfort. He wondered if his father had been present at his birth or that of any of his brothers.

Touch was last. Cywen’s smooth palms against his sweaty ones.

‘Let’s go.’ Cywen pulled him along and instructed him to kneel. His knee touched hers. ‘Hold your hand here.’ She guided his unbound hand and placed it where she wanted it. ‘Stay. You will help me catch the child.’

‘What?’ Veradis’ voice pitched higher than he thought possible.

‘Don’t move. And don’t drop it.’ She growled.

‘Cywen…’ He tried to protest but she had already moved on.

Cywen coached the mother. ‘Be ready.’ She hissed at Veradis.

Sweat beaded at his temples, the smell here was worse, the cries were deafening. And then something wet, slippery and sticky was touching Veradis’ hands. He locked his muscles to keep from jerking back. A child. A baby. Elyon above, he was holding a newborn and it was so tiny and slippery and it wailed even louder than it’s mother.

‘I’ll take him from you.’ A voice said over his shoulder and the baby was gone.

‘Get ready for another.’ Cywen instructed. ‘Twins.’

Veradis’ hands were already slick and sticky. ‘Are you sure -’ And another squishy body was in his hand.

As the second child was taken, Cywen guided his hand back. ‘Now the placenta.’

What was a placenta? He stopped questioning or protesting at this point. He was just trying to breath normally. He needed to stay focused. It was almost over. The placenta felt similar to the newborns. Sticky and slick. It just lacked limbs and lungs apparently. He moved his hands to give it to the medic but the flesh slipped, falling against his bare thigh. That was it. That was the end of the line.

‘Cywen!’ His voice was urgent. ‘I need air.’ He tugged at their bound hands, intent on ripping his hand free if she didn’t come with him. Thankfully, she did and the moment they were out of the hospice, Veradis was emptying his stomach on the ground.

‘Are you okay?’ Cywen reached out to him but her hand was covered in blood. Veradis’ was too, and so was his right thigh.

‘I am never doing that again.’ Veradis growled, wiping his mouth against his bicep.

Cywen grinned. ‘Well, you did great. We’ll make a medic out of you yet.’

After the hospice mishap, Cywen took Veradis to the feast hall. He needed some mead to steel his nerves. She tucked herself against him, head resting on his shoulder. ‘I don’t think I can ever use this hand again.’ Veradis inspected the hand that had been used for the deliveries. ‘I don’t even know what it has been exposed to.’ He said in disgust.

Cywen snorted. ‘I can tell you if you’d like.’

‘Please, spare me.’

At the day’s end, the whole colony converged at the town’s square. Veradis, Cywen and Corban stood in the middle. Corban had been beyond thrilled to officiate the wedding. In another life, Nathair would have done this for Veradis. But times were different and Veradis thought it only fair to give Corban the honor considering how involved he had been in the entire courting process.

Corban had changed into something more festive. Cywen and Veradis stood in their day clothes, sweat and blood and other stains marking the day’s excitement. They’d tried their best to clean up but with their hands tied, their options were limited.

Corban’s smile was so bright he could have rivaled the sun. ‘Cywen ap Thanon, Veradis ben Lamar, your day is done. You have been bound, hand and heart and lived the day as one. Now is your time of Choosing. Will you bind yourselves forever or will the cord be cut?’

‘I will only agree to this if you promise not to make me help you in the hospice any further.’ Veradis murmured to Cywen as they raised their bound hands in the air.

‘You will agree to everything so long as you value your life.’ Cywen murmured back, grinning.

‘Children!’ Corban hissed. ‘Say the words!’

‘Right.’ Veradis interlaced their fingers and they said in unison. ‘We will be bound, one to the other and live this life as one.’

The colony cheered. Veradis could see the faces of all the people he had befriended since moving to the colony. All those who had invested so much time and energy into cheering him and Cywen on. He didn’t know he was capable of so much happiness. He thought of those who had passed before him. Nathair, Krelis, Maquin, Bos, Rauca, his father. What would they think if they were here? He hoped they would be happy for him too.

Corban held their bound hands in his. ‘Make your covenant.’ He said. If he smiled any wider, his face might fall off.

Veradis turned to face Cywen. He recited the lines he had spent days learning. ‘Cywen ap Thanon, I vow to you the first cut of my meat, the first sip of my mead…’

Cywen responded with her own vows. Something about love and loyalty. Veradis could barely hear it over the fluttering of his own heart.

‘May peace surround you both, and contentment latch your door.’ Corban finished and held out a cup of mead to them. As if they need any, drunk on emotions as they were.

Cywen and Veradis took the offered cup, drank from it, then cast it on the ground and stepped on it. It was done. They were finally wed. In a rare display, Veradis swept Cywen in his arms and kissed her passionately. The roaring of the crowd fading to the back of his mind.

‘Not in front of the children!’ He heard someone shout from the back. He pulled back, cheeks warm. Cywen’s brilliant smile kept most of the embarrassment at bay.

They celebrated throughout the night. Alcyon arrived at supper, having had some delays from Drassil. When he arrived, he hoisted Veradis onto his shoulders as the men danced, laughter filling the air. Cywen ended up on someone’s shoulders too. They rejoiced until the sun’s rays lit the sky.

And when Cywen and Veradis finally made it to their home and collapsed on their bed, they turned to one another, hearts overflowing. ‘Finally.’