Authors’ Note: By now, most readers know how much we love our Ben from Always Darkest. Exploring his human life has become my (Jess’s) favorite part of Fic-mas. You can read more about his youth here and here. This Fic-mas meets Ben in his ancient homeland as Chris will one day describe him, “only barely a man, with plenty of boy left over.” Dreams are a funny thing. It was long ago, but sometimes, in that place between asleep and awake, Ben remembers this, and it gives him a sliver of hope. Happy Solstice, friends.
The Direction of His Dreams
He twitched in his sleep as she leaned in the bedroom to check on him. He moaned softly. “Oh, Beathan, hin, not again, love,” she whispered. She thought perhaps memories of battle invaded his dreams, but she never asked. He hated when anyone heard his nightmares.
The moan became a whimper.
He sounded so lost.
Instead of stepping out, she moved closer. His brow creased. The whimper solidified into a pained mumble.
“Not again,” he pleaded, almost too low to hear. “Don’t!” came out louder.
Flames all around, burning, but not consuming him.
Cinnie sat down on the edge of his bed, and rested her hand gently on his bandaged shoulder. “Ben, hin, wake up.”
His eyes snapped open and his arm wrapped around his middle as a ragged breath pulled at his injuries. “Damn.”
That dream kept coming back. And it felt … real. Sleep was more exhausting than being awake lately. He wished Daira was still alive. She would know what it meant.
His head dropped back onto his pillow. He closed his eyes and willed himself back toward calm. When he felt most of the way there, he pried his eyes open, and started to shift himself to sitting. He got about halfway there before her glare, along with a stern, “What’ve I said, Ben?” stopped him.
His heart was still beating too fast. At least moving was getting easier. But only by degrees.
Still the last day or so … half a day, anyway … had been better. He remembered most of it clearly at least. Prior to that was a bit of a painful, feverish haze. By comparison, he felt great.
He resettled himself with a smirk.
“So, I’m Ben, to you, too, now, am I?” he asked, doing his best to sound like everything was fine.
She smiled, her knowing, big sister’s smile.
“We don’t have Daira ‘round anymore to call ye yer funny names. And they do seem to make ye less like te argue wi’ me.”
She smoothed his hair off his forehead, like he was still a boy, and not the warrior who’d led men into battle since he was fourteen.
His father had stepped aside to make room for his youngest son’s strength and leadership in the field. And, though he’d admitted it to no one but Ben, he couldn’t physically do what needed to be done anymore. Ben had happily thrown himself into the role, leaving his father free to focus on the other aspects of leading their people. At the time, Ben couldn’t understand the toll years of fighting had taken on his father’s body. He thought he understood it better now.
Ben didn’t protest Cinnie’s soothing touch. Under normal circumstances he might have. But not today. Letting his sister-in-law treat him like he was still the child who spent most of his time nicking extra food out of her cookfire was far more appealing than contemplating the road back to battle-ready.
“No fever now,” she smiled, more truly pleased and less indulgent.
So, that’s what she was up to.
“Told ye las’ night,” he said, thinking he sounded a bit petulant, and not caring much. He was tired of being fussed over. Tired of needing it even more so. “I’m alrigh’.”
Her eyebrows went up.
After the last skirmish, the men brought him here rather the cottage he’d claimed as his own when Daira passed. He’d stayed with her during her final illness last Spring, and after she was gone, he just couldn’t make himself leave.
He was too badly injured to do what he usually did. Normally he’d patch himself up, go off into the woods for a night or two and speak to the spirits Daira had taught would help him heal, maybe speak to her spirit a bit, too. Then he’d go right back out to get in more trouble. Er … protect his people.
He’d been in no condition for any of that this time.
They hadn’t wanted his mother to see the state he was in, either. Drustan wisely suggested they bring him to Cinnie. And she’d taken care of him with the same affectionate firmness as always, though it had been coupled with more real worry than he’d ever seen from her before.
But he was fine now.
Well, maybe not fine, but well enough not to need a nursemaid from dawn to dusk, and the stretch in between as well.
He’d been at their house for at least a quarter moon. He was fed and rested and wanted to get himself ready to fight again as soon as possible. He could at least gather the men and talk it over. The foreigners didn’t do well with the element of surprise or the ambush tactics he preferred. There were still very few of them. Just scouting parties it seemed. Ben wanted to use that to his advantage before any more arrived.
The problem was Cinnie. She wouldn’t let him go off and fight in his present state, and he didn’t think she’d let him bring the warriors together to talk tactics either. She appeared disinclined to let him move.
She still saw him as her darling rascal, her little boy, and had a motherly protective streak even his actual mother couldn’t match. Part of him loved that about her. The rest of him was sick of this bed.
Of course, all of him understood. She’d been beside herself when they’d dumped him on her kitchen table and she’d gotten a good look at his wounds. He vaguely remembered her tears as she’d stitched him up, her saying to Drus and Osh who’d held him still that she hoped against hope she was adequate to the task, and that she didn’t believe she could be. He couldn’t deny her initial reaction had been fair. He’d been … not in great shape.
But he healed fast. He always had.
Not that his frequent reminders of that had yielded any less hovering.
She unwound the bandage high on his arm, where an infection had a strong hold for a few days. “Tha’ looks better tonight, too.” She wrapped it back up, satisfied.
He pushed himself up on his elbows, pulling the blanket up over his bare chest a little awkwardly. “Does tha’ mean ye can stop fussin’ an’ lemme get home then?”
“Yer stayin’ right there.” She pointed at the bed he currently occupied, with another, more disapproving, raise of her eyebrows. “At leas’ until after Yule.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she talked right over him with a wry grin. “I’ll not have ye yankin’ out all those stitches. Not after the fuss ye kicked up gettin’ put back together!”
He started to spout off something indignant. But he only got as far as, “I dinnae kick up any kind a…”
“Besides,” she interrupted, smiling sweetly. Time for a distraction. “Ye can’t take off out of bed. Or at least I doubt ye’ll want to. Shay took your clothes.”
This time Ben sat up all the way, grimacing as it pulled on some of the many stitches Cinnie just reminded him about. “That little … Make ‘er bring ‘em back!”
Cinnie just laughed. Worked like a charm. She wasn’t going to tell him the whole family agreed if he went off in his current state he’d get himself killed. And none of them could accept that. She also couldn’t tell him they had news for him. That was for the feast.
“Shay!” he called like all he wanted was to see his favorite niece. He heard a giggle, and the patter of feet outside his room. “Shay-shay! C’mon in ‘ere, lass!”
When the affectionate nickname yielded no results, his brow creased into the expression Cinnie learned meant trouble before the boy had ever gone on his first hunt. “She’s not comin’ back, lad.”
His eyes flashed with a bit of real temper. He’d set his sights on his own bed and the stubborn streak that ran deep and wide all through him was not going to let go of that easily.
“Teasag!” he yelled, hoping to summon his niece back from wherever she’d run off to with the serious use of her rarely spoken proper name.
Cinnie shook her head and smirked. “Yer actin’ like I didn’t send ‘er away with ‘em.”
Ben growled in frustration.
She probably had, too.
Cinnie knew he wouldn’t just run off wrapped in barely more than a blanket. She also knew he couldn’t really be angry with Teasag. These days she was more young woman than little girl. But Ben hadn’t noticed yet.
He was still her self-appointed big brother. She really was his favorite, with the exception of maybe Angus and Enaid’s daughter Fee who he felt sort of responsible for since one of his strange dreams had pretty much saved her life at her birth.
“Ye di’nt need te do that,” he grumbled.
“Because yer always such a sensible lad.” She patted him gently, smiling a little when he flushed at her amused observation.
“I wouldna gone far,” he insisted. “I need to go see to Sioda, and te make sure the lads didna shut Caraid out. She’s too old te jump up te the window and paw her way in.”
“I told ye before. Osh is lookin’ after Sioda for ye.”
Cinnie fluffed his pillows and arched an eyebrow, managing an affectionate glare until he settled back onto them. She was glad he was well enough now to be worried after his animals. But she wasn’t about to let him go care for them himself.
“I’ve made sure he knows how to make up the poultice for her leg. He cares more for tha’ horse than he does for his missus, I think. Certainly more’n’e thinks a ‘is brother.” Ben snorted a brief laugh. “Yer lucky he didn’ let ye bleed ta death out there jus so he could have ‘er.”
“Tha’s a fair point.” He smiled fondly. “I know I been tellin’ ye for goin’ on three winters now, but thanks. Ye’ve always made Yule a special thing, but tha’ … She’s a fine animal. An’ braver than ten of the men.”
“Ye cannae lead our lads on foot agains’ our enemies now can ye, Bean?”
He blushed. She hadn’t called him that in a long time. He gave her an affectionate shove. “Lay off tha’.” He winced and adjusted the pillows. “I wouldna hate some of Daria’s special tea jus’ now. I know ye ran out yesterday. If ye got Shay to bring back my things, I could go get it a’ the cottage an’ be back before my spot here cooled.”
Cinnie chuckled. “An’ he finally admits he’s not some warrior god of the wood!” She patted his hand. “I went an’ got more this mornin’, lad. I’ve some in the kettle on the fire.” She raised an eyebrow again. “So there’s no need for ye to limp halfway ‘cross the village. An’ if it’s yer cat yer worried about…”
She made a gentle clicking noise with her tongue, and the ancient black ball of fur, now marked with strands of silver-grey, waddled into the room.
“Caraid!” he exclaimed in genuine pleasure.
He patted the bed next to him and, though it took two tries, she managed to get up and wedge herself in between Cinnie and Ben. She curled up against his hip, closed her eyes, and started purring contentedly. He petted her head with a gentleness and affection Cinnie wondered at. How could someone with such a soft heart, such a tender soul, be the strongest, most skilled warrior in their clan?
Momentarily distracted from both his physical misery and his desire to get out from under his family’s watchful eyes, Ben truly relaxed. He supposed there were worse ways to spend a couple of days leading up to the Yule feast than in a comfortable bed being looked after by the woman who was basically his second mother. Not many. But he could think of a few. He laughed quietly when her back was turned to rewrap his stitched up leg.
She was glad he’d given up on his most recent push to go off on his own. Even if he was sure he was ready, she couldn’t quite let go of keeping watch over him. She finished checking over his bandages and went to get him some tea.
When she returned, he accepted a cup of the almost unbearably bitter brew Daira taught him to make when he was still little more than a toddler. It always took the bite out of the various hurts he was all too prone to even then. Daira said he had an abundance of brains and courage, just not much in the way of sense or caution.
He tentatively took a drink, knowing it would bring relief, but knowing just as well he hated the flavor, and always had. Then he smiled. Cinnie had stirred in an appropriately excessive amount of honey to cover the objectionable taste.
“Thanks,” he said, hoping the sweetness held to the end.
As he sipped the tea and stroked Caraid, it became clear Cinnie had either stirred in something else, too, or he was still worse off than he’d thought. It always made him relaxed, but not to this degree. He could barely keep his eyes open by the bottom of it.
“Bit strong,” he grumbled as she took the cup from him.
She heard the accusation in his voice but didn’t bother dignifying it. She set the cup aside and covered him with an extra blanket. She chuckled, shaking her head. “It’s just proof your strength isn’t yet what it ought to be.”
“Humph,” he grumped. But he clearly didn’t mean it, since he hid a small smile as he rolled onto his good side, wrapped an arm around an unresisting Caraid, and drifted back into a restorative sleep.
Cinnie watched him for a bit, hoping her presence would keep away whatever kept troubling his dreams. Once his breathing was slow and even, she got up to get back to the business of running the household.
She paused at the door again, glancing back, just to reassure herself he really did look better. Caraid cracked one eye open and the expression on her feline face said all was well.
Cinnie decided to take a walk and let Bean’s mother know he’d turned a corner for the better. They’d already lost three of his brothers in the last year. That was hard enough on her, but Cinnie didn’t think she’d take losing her youngest well. She’d be relieved to hear he was improving. Cinnie slipped out of the house with a word to Shay to keep an eye on her uncle.
When Ben woke again, it was dark, and the house was quiet. Mostly quiet. He could hear Drustan’s snoring from the other side of the cottage. He’d always been a loud sleeper. Ben was glad it had been a good long while since they’d shared sleeping space. He didn’t know how Cinnie tolerated it. Of course, with six girls running around, the youngest of which was only just off the breast, she probably didn’t sleep soundly anyway. He wondered how often she’d been checking on him.
He shifted slightly. For the first time since he’d woken up here after that fight, the movement didn’t set off a cascade of aches. Caraid picked up her head, her eyes glowing green in the moonlight. She stretched and hopped down off the bed, walking out the door with a single backward glance.
She liked to hunt at night. He’d have bet his best knife she was going looking for mice. He thought maybe he should get up and let her outside so she could go to their house. She could get after the mice there, or squirrels, of which there always seemed to be an abundance near the edge of the wood. She still loved hunting the squirrels.
He loved their cottage. He missed Daira, of course. He would have traded the house for his small corner in his parents’ busy home to have her back in a heartbeat. But the place was perfect for his preferences. Cinnie often pointedly remarked to his parents that it was too big for a man alone. If he was going to go off into battle time and again for his people, he ought to have someone to come home to. Perhaps a few wee ones who bore the stamp of his features in the bargain. He’d blush and avoid everyone’s eyes when she said so. But they knew he thought so, too.
He didn’t dream badly when he was home. He no longer had a fever from his injuries and this time the relief he’d gotten from the tea seemed to be holding. Surely, no one would object to him sleeping in his own bed a bit. He started to get himself up to do just that, swearing softly when he remembered he was in a fairly advanced state of undress. He couldn’t go home wearing just a cloth and bandages.
His eyes adjusted to the low light and he squinted around in the darkness. If I were my imp of a niece, where would I have hidden my clothes?
He wanted to be annoyed with Cinnie and Shay for trying to trap him in bed like that, but he had to admit, their experience told them he would probably try to act like nothing was wrong well before it was even close to true. Most of the time that wasn’t a big problem. He’d managed to not get hurt too badly in countless battles. This time though… The way Cinnie had been sitting next to his bed when he remembered waking for the first time… He might have given them enough of a fright to justify going a bit far.
An idea came to him. He wrapped himself in the blanket and levered himself out of bed. “Ow.”
He crouched down carefully to look under the bed. He chuckled softly. Shay really had picked up his sense of humor. Folded neatly, right in the middle of the floor under where he’d been sleeping, were all of his clothes, washed and mended. Even the boots he had no intention of wearing anywhere other than into battle were there.
He picked up the pile and stood, groaning softly as he did so. Maybe home was a bit further than he ought to go. But dressed sounded too good to resist. He sat back on the bed and slowly, carefully regained his dignity. Just those small movements set him sweating again, but once he had his clothes on, the appeal of his own bed was too strong to resist.
He got almost as far at the front door.
“Where’re you goin’ then?”
He jumped in surprise. “Fer feck’s sake, woman! Are ye tryin’ te scare me ta death?”
She laughed softly. “More like I’m tryin’ te keep ye from yer death, ye silly boy.”
He sagged against the wall for a second, then waved dismissively. “Ach, I’m fine. I just … I want te go home fer a bit. See Sioda, let Caraid in the house, like I said before. I’ll come back.”
Cinnie rose from her seat and lit some candles. She took him by the elbow and pulled him nearer the fire. “It’s a howlin’ storm out there, lad. Sit here by the fire or go back te bed.”
Ben sighed. Now that he was listening, he could hear the wind outside. He shivered.
“Bit drafty. Drus’ should see te the roof,” he said casually, though how heavily he sat down on the stool next to the hearth probably gave away how he actually felt.
She laughed lightly. “Drustan? On the roof? That’ll be the day. That’s why I need you aroun’. Yer my little squirrel.”
He grinned and shook his head. There was nothing little about him. And there hadn’t been in a long time. But he had always been a climber. None of his brothers had much of a head for heights. His expression sobered. Alastair had. But he was gone.
“I’ll see te it as soon as the storm clears.”
“Ye’ll not be doin’ any such thing, lad.” She moved to sit next to him. “It’s not the draft.” She rested her wrist against his forehead for a moment. “Yer warm again.”
He ducked his head away from her cool touch. “That’s a grand fire ye’ve built is all.”
“Mmm,” she observed wryly. “Ye have te decide, is it cold an’ drafty, er too hot from the hearth? Ye can’ have it both ways.”
He managed a small smile. “Why not? Things can be more than one thing at a time.” He laughed softly. “That made more sense before I said it out loud.”
“It makes perfect sense. Take you, as an example. Yer still my darling boy who’d do anything te spare me trouble, and the one man I know more stubborn than the old goat out back who likes to cause me nothing but.”
She spoke in a lighthearted teasing way, but he looked wounded nonetheless. “I dint mean te trouble ye.”
She switched seats to be close enough to put her arm gently around his shoulders. “Yer not really trouble, lad. An’ I’m not sayin’ things te make ye feel bad. I jus’ wan’ ye te take a moment te heal.”
He sighed. “I keep tellin’ ye, I’m alrigh’.”
“I hear ye. An’ I’m sure ye believe it. But it sounds to me like those tall tales ye used to come home with about faeries an’ the like.”
He opened his mouth to respond, to perhaps defend his younger self in some way. He stopped. He wasn’t even half sure any of that really happened anyway. Besides, with Daira gone, there was no one he could really talk it over with. Just like there was no one he could tell his terrible dreams. No one he could tell they felt like a warning of things to come. He decided to say something honest about the present instead.
“Cin … Yer right. I push too hard. I know it. But ye haven’ seen what we’re up against. An’ I…”
“Can’t take the fate a the whole lot of us on yer shoulders, lad.”
His brow furrowed and his eyes searched her face. “Then who will? Da’ cannae do it anymore. An’ Angus probably won’ ever get rid a tha’ limp. An’ Osh is … Osh.”
She shook her head. “Drus’ is the oldest, an’ he can lead them when ye can’t.”
Ben shook his head. “Drus has you an’ the girls, an … I’ve just got me. It has to be me, Cin. Whether I’m busted up er not.”
She squeezed his shoulders again. He shifted a little, reminding both of them he was still hurt. “Ye get te take care of yerself, same as any of them. An’ ye have as much te live for, too.”
“Like I said, it’s just me,” he said with a slightly listless shrug.
“Not fer much longer,” she said. Her hand went to her mouth with a little gasp.
He turned on the stool to face her fully, his eyebrows drawing together in a look somewhere between amused and suspicious. “Say again?”
She bit her lips together. “I shouldna said anythin’.”
Ben was not much for keeping secrets. And he hated when other people did. This was a good one, too, because Cinnie was positively squirming. He flashed the charming grin he was used to using to get his way. “How can ye torment a man in my condition like tha’?”
“Yer condition? I thought ye were fine.”
He laughed. “F’I admit I’m maybe jus’ shy a fine, will ye tell me?”
She shook her head. “I cannae tell ye, Bean. Yer mother’ll kill me.”
“Ach, she won’ know.”
He chuckled softly. How often had he said those exact words? He had to admit, secrets weren’t all bad. If his mother had known half of what he’d gotten up to when he was a child, she’d have killed him.
“But … I’ll understand if ye want te keep it te yerself. She’s a right terror when she’s angry.”
She considered him for a long quiet moment. Perhaps knowing what was on the horizon would make him a shade less reckless. She chewed her lower lip. “Ye cannae tell them I told ye.”
He grinned. “I’ll not give it away, Cin.”
She took his hand and squeezed it. “It’s … well, I think it’s what ye’ve wanted.”
She stopped, chewing her lip again.
“Go on then!”
“Yer father’s been … and yer mother…”
“Cin, just spit it, would’ye?”
“They’ve found a bride fer ye, Bean.”
He blinked several times and swallowed hard. “I … Oh.”
He appeared stunned rather than happy. Cinnie got up to tend the fire to give him a minute. When she sat back down, his whole face had become a confused frown. “Are ye alrigh’, lad? I thought ye’d be pleased.”
He didn’t answer right away. Finally his bright eyes found hers. “I … I s’pose I am. I just thought … I knew Daira said it wouldna be up te me … I always thought that was jus’ talk. I thought I’d meet someone and we’d decide … I…” He trailed off.
She thought she understood. She took his hand again. “I never met Drus’ face te face before we married. An’ look at us. Never have two people loved each other more. The same goes fer yer parents.”
He nodded slowly. “I know tha’… But … Drus’ is oldest. He’ll be chieftain one day. The others chose…” He stopped, his frown deepening.
“Ye don’ like all tha’ talk from when you were born followin’ ye aroun’ still. Is tha’ it?”
“Maybe,” he hedged.
Ben hated the idea such a fuss had been made about his birth, that predictions and plans had dictated the direction of his life in so many ways. He’d had several brushes with infatuation when he was younger and something had always put a stop to it. In retrospect, it had mostly been his parents and Daira.
All that talk about Daira’s vision the first time she’d held him, and the vision of the woman he’d marry, had prevented a lot of things. In fact, now that he thought about it, his most serious case of nearly falling for someone had been interrupted by his father asking him to lead the men. He wanted to be angry about it, could feel his temper starting to heat.
Still, he’d always wanted a family. Since before he could really remember. Who knew if those youthful blushing meetings would have ended like he might have hoped. He never had a plan for much of anything. He supposed it was good someone did.
His expression softened. “Do ye know anything about her?”
“She’s Argyle’s niece.” Cinnie proceeded to tell him about the chieftains coming together to talk of an alliance against the foreigners, about Argyle’s own daughters all succumbing to a sickness that took many of their people including his clan’s previous leader early in the fall. About him coming to Donal to broker peace a few weeks ago.
Ben shook his head. “So now I’m a peace treaty.” She looked like she’d say something, probably to rebuke him in some way for his slightly resentful tone. But she stopped when his face slipped into a shy sort of expression. “I meant do ye know about her? Herself, I mean.”
Even in the dimness, she could see his cheeks had colored and she didn’t think it was the fever this time. “Well, I understand she’s been apprenticed to their wise woman since she could walk.” When he didn’t say anything she went on, teasing just a bit again. “An’ she’s a healer. Seems like that ought te come in handy fer ye, Bean.”
He rolled his eyes at her. “I need somebody else fussin’ a’ me like I need a pack a hungry wolves at the door.”
“I think you need at leas’ ten more somebodies to fuss at ye!” she laughed. “But I also don’ think ye’ll mind. I hear she’s very kind.”
“Well, tha’s good, I suppose.”
Cinnie remembered nearly everything her lad had said about his ideal mate when he was growing up and smiled. “I don’ know if she likes to hunt or fight, but I do hear she’s very pretty. And tha’ she very much wants to start a family.”
He flushed crimson then, but he grinned broadly. He hesitated for a moment, before asking, “Is she … Does she want te do this though?”
“Tha’s important to ye.”
“Course it is. I won’ go through with it if her people are makin’ her do it.”
“From what I hear, Bean, it was her idea. She saw ye in a vision.”
“I’ve had enough a visions,” he said with a dismissive wave. He’d had a few himself. Cinnie knew about it; she’d been the first one he’d told about his dream before Fee was born.
He was grateful she didn’t bring that up now, just patted him on the arm. “I know, lad.”
“I s’pose if it’s really her idea, it’s not up te me to worry about why.”
“They’ll make the announcement a’ the Feast. Her people’ll do the same at their own celebrations. She’ll be here after the first planting if everything goes as planned. Is tha’ enough to send ye back to bed to let yerself knit back together, lad?”
He swallowed hard against a dry mouth a couple of times and ran his hands through his hair, wincing when the movement pulled at his wounded shoulder. Cinnie concealed a smile at the nervous gesture. “I think,” his voice cracked and her smile bled through. He cleared his throat and rose slowly. “I think it is.”
She watched him go back to the small room she’d set aside as his years ago. He was moving better. But he was a long way from healed, she thought. He stopped in the doorway and cast a tentative smile back over his shoulder. “Do ye think she’ll be happy with me?” he asked softly.
“Oh, mo a bhobain, how could she not?”
His smile faltered for a moment. “Are ye sure it’s really her idea?”
“Te bed with ye!” she ordered with a smile of her own that brought his back.
He chuckled, shook his head, and did what he was told.
By the time the Feast came around several days later, Ben was managing to move with the slightly coltish grace everyone was familiar with. He’d wince or catch his breath if he moved certain ways, but Cinnie didn’t think anyone but her noticed. He ate the expected ridiculous amounts of food, toasted their successes, remembered their losses, and called for a prosperous year, welcoming back the sun with copious amounts of every available fermented beverage.
Their people had taken heavy losses all around over the last few months and their leader being brought home bloody and unconscious had caused an uneasy silence to fall over the preparations for the holiday.
Ben’s hale and hearty appearance seemed just what the clan needed. Although, the expressions on the faces of the young women soured somewhat when his father announced his betrothal to Argyle’s niece, Elara.
Cinnie laughed softly to herself at the way he blushed when he noticed their expressions. He never let on that she’d told him. His knowledge was well hidden behind his shy embarrassment over being the center of attention at the Yule feast, his thanks to his father, his grateful acceptance of offers from his family to help him prepare his little home to grow.
He’d slipped out the door on the early side, admitting quietly to Cinnie he was worn out and sore. She offered to walk back with him or to get Shay to go and make him some tea. He shook his head.
“I’m goin’ home tonight. I … I need te be alone for a bit. This was … I need some quiet is all.”
“I could send Shay over there with ye, too. She could get yer fire goin’ an’ stay in case ye need anythin’.”
“Cin, I’ll be fine. I love her more than my own life, but Shay is anythin’ but quiet.”
Cinnie laughed. “Alrigh’. But I’ll be over to check on ye in the morning.”
He just smiled and shook his head. “Course ye will.”
Ben had slipped out of the party to gain some time to think. But by the time he made it to his small cottage near the wood, the reasons he’d given Cinnie were more honest. He almost wished he’d let her send Shay along, at least to start the fire.
But, there was nothing for it now. It was too cold to just go to sleep without one, and he was much too tired to either go ask for help or admit defeat and go back to his bed at Cinnie and Drustan’s.
He moved through the dark with the confidence of memory. He hadn’t moved a single thing here since Daira had … “Ow!”
He barked his shins on a stool that wasn’t where he’d left it, and cursed the rest of the way to the hearth. Cinnie must have moved it when she came over here to get ingredients for tea. He flushed when he had the fleeting thought someone was probably going to move stuff all the time soon and he definitely wouldn’t mind. But he smiled, too.
He crouched by the hearth and started building a fire, hopefully one big enough to take him through the night since he had no desire to get up and tend it.
Once he had the fire roaring pleasantly, he lit a few candles. He half smiled and moved one to the window to encourage the sun’s return, just as Daira always had. It was her favorite Yule tradition.
He looked around. He’d hate to leave this place. He hadn’t thought he ever would. But if he was to build a family, the small cottage wouldn’t hold up for long. He’d been resistant to the idea of the marriage at first, not that he’d really said so out loud. But the more he’d sat with it, the more his brothers and their wives had talked about their own unions, the warmer the idea made him feel.
Perhaps he’d see her for the first time and feel the giddy elation he’d always imagined. Falling for someone when you just laid eyes on them was a terribly romantic notion for a warrior to have, he supposed. But it didn’t stop him from having it.
The room was warming nicely. He could, and probably should, head to bed and get the rest he’d promised Cinnie. He did have something other than more warfare to motivate him now. He stooped to add some more wood to the fire and groaned.
He stood slowly. He was moving like an old man. He felt like he imagined one must, too. His father wasn’t really so very old, but Donal moved like he was older than the rocks. Such was the fate of a warrior who made it home past his usefulness in the field. He was still an excellent chieftain though. Measured, calm, diplomatic. Traits Ben envied when he was at his most impulsive, hot-tempered, and quick-tongued.
He should just do what he planned to, and get some sleep. That would help. It always did.
But suddenly he didn’t want to. Suddenly coming to be in this house alone felt like a terrible idea. Those dreams … Even unformed memories of them made his stomach drop. He really didn’t want to wake up alone from that.
He smiled a little when he reminded himself he wouldn’t have to for much longer. Soon he wouldn’t have to take up space at Cinnie and Drus’s when he needed someone.
Still, he was in no hurry to fall asleep. Those dreams fought for his waking attention in the quiet of his cottage. He tried reminding himself he didn’t usually dream badly, or much at all, when he was here. It helped some, but his reluctance to go to bed in the house alone made his various pains all the more noticeable.
He fed the fire for a while, called out the door to Caraid with no success, and changed out his day clothes for his nightshirt. He wouldn’t admit to himself he was stalling.
Eventually, when he’d run out of other things to do, he decided there would be no sleep without some tea. And maybe a few drops of the dark liquid Daira had never shown him how to make, or even told him much about. That would almost definitely knock him out. Better than a barrel full of mead. Even if the nightmares tried to come for him here, he doubted they could find their way through the deep purple haze of that elixir.
He didn’t know enough about it that he’d ever dare share it unless someone was absolutely dying anyway. But he knew he tolerated it. It was how Daira had set his badly broken arm when he was eight. He was contemplating the pots of herbs and the dark little bottle.
“Ach, lad, ye don’ need any a tha’. Not here.”
The voice was almost as familiar as his own, but Ben jumped. He blinked a few times, but Daira still didn’t disappear. Once his initial shock wore off, he realized she was glowing faintly and as she settled into the chair next to his, he could see through her to the room beyond.
He cleared his throat. He felt his face slip into a wry grin, accepting the visitation for what it was quite naturally. “But apparently the charms you made to keep spirits out aren’ worth a damn.”
She chuckled. “This is my house. Ye can’t charm a lady out of her own home, no matter how dead she is, my boy.”
“I hope ye don’ mind tha’ I’m here,” he offered respectfully. He thought perhaps anyone else might be afraid right now. But he’d seen stranger things than the ghost of his friend, and he was suddenly quite sure all those things had been real. “I did go to the wood to ask, but I’ve never been much good at readin’ signs.”
She smiled, a rather indulgent smile he remembered from his childhood. It meant she was pleased with him. “I’d be more upset if ye weren’ here, lad. I heard ye ask. You were always so polite.”
“Ye’ve not visited me before.”
“I have, just not while you were awake. Why do ye think those terrible visions don’ trouble ye here.”
“Here I’ve been wishin’ I could tell ye about ‘em, an’ ye’ve known all along.” He didn’t ask, but the question hovered between them.
“I wish I could tell ye they’re just dreams, lad, but …” She looked toward the door, tilting her head like she was listening. “Caraid wants to come in,” she observed.
Ben started to push himself up out of his seat. “Ah,” he groaned softly.
“Ye stay righ’ there, lad. I’ll get ‘er.”
He frowned. “Don’ take this the wrong way, Daira, but ye look more like ye’ll pass through the door than be able te open it.”
She laughed and went to the door anyway. “I tol’ ye. My house.”
Surprising him completely, she opened the door with no trouble. Caraid zipped around her like she could see her, too. “Can she…?”
“Course she can, ye silly boy. Cats can always see spirits. And your particular cat has one foot in another world anyway.”
He wanted to ask what she meant, but was distracted by a snow-covered Caraid leaping into his lap with surprising agility. Of course, he was on the low stool, close to the fire. If he’d been in his chair, he doubted she’d have made it to his legs.
“Snowing again, is it?” he asked her, brushing her off.
Once she was free of snow, Caraid jumped down and curled up on the hearth. Daira sat back down next to him. He turned back toward her, his expression both hesitant and curious. “What about my dreams?”
She chuckled fondly. “An’ here I thought ye might jus’ let tha’ go.”
“Daira.” One of his eyebrows went up and a stubborn line formed across his forehead.
She smiled at him, but there was a sadness behind it, Ben noticed. “I cannae tell ye.”
His face creased, and he leaned forward, his whole manner morphing into a frown. But when he spoke, his tone was light, familiar, almost teasing. “Ye wouldna said anythin’ if ye weren’ gonna tell me.”
“Ye cannae charm ole Daira, lad. I know ye too well.”
He sighed. “Spose ye do.”
He looked so dejected, Daira reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up when he felt its comforting weight. Despite being able to see the room beyond right through her, her eyes had the old familiar warmth they always had. “Alrigh’ ye can charm me a little.” He smiled hesitantly. “There’s truth in those visions,” she said simply.
He swallowed hard. “But what…?” He trailed off. “The foreigners. War’s comin’. Real war.” He looked to her for confirmation of his interpretation.
She shook her head, but whether in denial of his guess or as a refusal to answer was unclear. “I cannae say. But I can show you what lies beyond those visions, lad.”
He tilted his head. “How?”
She rose and moved to the hearth. Then, surprising him again, she added a log to the flames, sending them higher. “Come. Look.”
Ben obeyed, sitting down next to her on the warm stones. He peered into the fire. “I don’ see anythin’.”
“Look with the eyes that see me, Ben.”
He thought he knew what she meant.
He forced himself to relax, his gaze to soften. This time, as he stared into the heart of the fire, the shifting embers, an image began to emerge.
He could make out himself, smiling broadly. He looked different, not quite right, though he couldn’t have said why. His fire-self reached out his arms and was handed a bundle. He couldn’t tell for certain, but he thought the package might be a child.
The bundle was given to him by someone with a dazzling smile, a beautiful bow shaped mouth. He couldn’t see the rest of her face, but the curve of her jaw, her slender, graceful neck, a profusion of curls flowing over her shoulders … she was beautiful, even made of fire. Her arms went around him and the bundle, and Ben felt like the warmth of it encircled him even in his place on the hearth.
“Daira … is that…?” An unnatural roaring interrupted him, and he gasped as one of the horrible faces from his nightmares erupted, destroying the peaceful vision of his future. The flames burned so high and so hot that for a moment they seemed like they’d engulf the house
“Be gone, ye foul thing!” Daira commanded. “Ye’ll not trouble him here!”
She stirred the fire and the beast disappeared. She smiled at Ben gently. “Tha’s on yer mind a great deal, is it?”
Ben tried to slow his breathing and answer her, but his voice had left him. He nodded.
“That wasn’t really here. It came from yer mind.”
Finally, he was able to swallow and open his mouth past the twisting fear that image had wrapped around his neck. “Are ye sure?”
“I am. Ye have a hard time lettin’ yerself accept that there’s anythin’ good beyond the battle in front of ye. Don’ ye, lad?”
He closed his eyes briefly. “Maybe.” He opened his eyes again and looked at her, his expression serious. “How sure are you tha’ there is?”
She smiled. “Just as sure as I was the first time you opened those golden eyes o’ yers a’ me, Ben.” She put her hand on his shoulder. He was once again startled by its weight. “An’ there’ll be times ahead tha’ll make ye forget such things are possible, love. But they aren’ jus’ possible. They’re certain. Alrigh’?”
He managed a small smile then. “If ye say so.”
He stared into the fire again, willing it to give him another glimpse of that momentary happy vision, but nothing appeared. The warmth and the lulling shifting of the flames made his eyes want to close.
“I’ll make ye some tea, lad.”
He just nodded, and gave in to the impulse to rest his eyes.
When he opened them some time later, he was curled on his side on the hearth. The fire had burned low, but was still warm. He stretched, and pushed himself up to sitting. “Tha’ was quite a dream,” he said aloud to the silent house.
He must’ve fallen asleep feeding the fire. He decided he should should restoke the fire and try calling Caraid again.
He got up with a groan and bent to scratch at his leg. Whether Cinnie liked it or not he was going to sharpen a knife in the morning and pick out all those stitches. He was more worried about scratching himself to death than he was about his insides leaking out at this point.
As he laid wood onto the fire, Caraid twined herself between his feet. “Ahhh!” he shouted and dropped the log he was holding almost on his foot, and narrowly missed her. “How’d you get in here?” he asked, recovering from the momentary fright she’d given him.
She looked up at him placidly and meowed. He started toward the window to see if she’d actually jumped up and pawed the shutters open but she tried to hop up onto the stack of blankets on one of the chairs and couldn’t quite make it. He stopped and boosted her up onto her preferred spot. “Huh.”
He tended the fire for a few minutes. He wasn’t nearly as achy as he’d been a few days ago, or even as much as when he’d gotten home from the feast a few hours ago. But he hadn’t done himself any favors falling asleep on the hearth. He decided to follow his earlier impulse and make some tea.
He turned for the pot of herbs on the nearby shelf, but it wasn’t there. “Huh,” he said again.
He searched around and found it on the edge of the hearth. He also found the pot full of a perfectly steeped pot of the medicinal brew. He was suddenly certain his late night guest hadn’t been a dream. “Well, now,” he murmured as he poured himself a cup. He raised it to his lips. “If it’s already sweetened too, I’ll eat my boots.”
It was so bitter he nearly spit it out. “Well, o’ course she dinnae sweeten it,” he chuckled fondly. Daira always seemed to think making him drink it straight might knock some sense into him.
He put what anyone else would have thought an offensive amount of honey into the cup and sat next to Caraid, stroking her fur as he sipped his tea. Finally he said, “Did we really have a visitor tonight, girl?”
Caraid purred contentedly in answer. He smiled and shook his head. He thought about his talk with Daira, which he had to admit he remembered too much of to have been a dream. The promise of light, of love, of hope was such a perfect Yule gift, he was almost ashamed he’d questioned the reality of it.
“Thank you, old friend,” he whispered, hoping, and being very nearly certain, Daira was listening.
Eventually, he felt as though he could go back to sleep. He thought perhaps he’d get up early, and instead of calling the men together to talk about fighting, he might visit his mother and ask what she thought he ought to work on to make the cottage more welcoming.
He went to bed and burrowed under his blankets and skins, confident that his nightmares wouldn’t come for him here. Daira would keep them away.
He closed his eyes and drifted off. Something told him his feet were finally on the path that would lead him to happiness. It might feel like forever before he got there, but he could hardly wait for the journey.
The vision of the woman’s bright smile, of the child in his arms, came back to him with vivid warmth.
In his sleep, as the earliest rays of the returning sun brushed the eastern sky, Ben smiled.