On absent days I will return to this place
and play a silent colour film within my head
in which the pillow leaves a code upon your face
and all at once it all makes perfect sense.
Once upon a time, in a small cottage in the middle of a wood, there lived a witch. She wasn't really a witch, of course. Rachel—for that was the witch's name—didn't even believe that magic existed. She found wonder in the natural world, but believed that every astonishing effect had a reasonable cause.
However, she had spent too much of her childhood in the woods instead of in church, and she hadn't wanted to marry, and she didn't belong among the villagers where she'd been born and raised, and so she was a witch.
Rachel didn't mind living alone in the woods. She could drink her tea in peace, and walk through the woods studying the plant life, and nobody bothered her. It could get lonely, and she had to read the same handful of books a hundred times each, but that was all right. Better than where she'd been, certainly.
The only really unfortunate part about it was the fact that once every few months—two or three times a year, usually—someone came to try to kill her. They weren't very good at it, obviously, mostly because they believed the priests when they declared unequivocally that a simple blade could not kill a witch. No, it had to be holy water, or the blood of a baptized infant, or some other silly idea, growing sillier as the years passed and she never was successfully killed.
It was hard to keep track of time alone in the woods, though she did her best to count the seasons and the days and nights, but it seemed to Rachel that after she'd been living in the woods for ten years, the attempts reduced to once every year or two. She never bothered anyone, never even left the woods, and she was honestly surprised they hadn't forgotten about her entirely.
So it was that when she was drinking her first cup of the day, standing at the window and watching the late summer woods, it was almost a relief to see a knight skulking around between the trees. He wasn't dressed as a knight, of course, nor was he carrying a sword, but only knights were foolhardy enough to venture into the woods and attempt to kill the witch.
He was tall, but not too tall, dressed in a simple tunic and trousers, both made of soft but durable leather, his muscular arms bare. Most of 'her' knights were barely out of adolescence, killing the witch always an early elimination sort of task, but this one was fully grown, his hair graying. Handsome, perhaps; it had been so long since she'd seen a man her own age.
He eyed the house like it was some sort of castle he needed to breach, when really it was a small cottage with two windows and one door. She had to admire his ambition.
Walking to her front door, she opened it and stepped outside, calling a hello. The knight circled around from the back of the house, eyeing her warily from a safe distance away, and she gestured with her mug and asked, "Would you like a cup of tea?"
"That would make it awfully easy for you to poison me, wouldn't it?"
"Well, yes, I suppose it would. You'll have to come within arm's reach to kill me, though."
He nodded reluctantly, staying where he was, and Rachel sat down in the wooden chair she kept outside her door, her elbows on the arms and her mug clasped in both hands.
They watched each other across the distance in silence, and then Rachel asked, "Do you have a name?"
"Do you need my name to cast a spell on me?"
She laughed, honestly surprised. "I wouldn't know. I don't cast any spells. That's a good question, though, I must admit." After another moment, she asked, "Do you know my name?"
He shook his head. "They only call you The Witch of Halbeard Wood."
"Well, my name is Rachel, in case you would like to cast a spell on me instead."
Narrowing his eyes, he said, "That's ridiculous."
"As ridiculous as a woman who has never cast a spell being known as a witch." She shrugged. Her arms were bare, her muscles defined from having to chop wood to heat her home, and she wondered if he would notice that, wonder why a witch would ever need to use her arm muscles.
"You're very beautiful for a witch," he said, taking one cautious step forward, and she couldn't help but smile.
"Thank you. I don't have much use for beauty, but I suppose a compliment is a compliment."
"It's not magic, then?"
"My face?" She laughed again, lifting one hand and pressing her fingertips to the skin of her cheek. "No, my face isn't magic."
He took another step, and then another. "My name is Thomas," he offered, and she raised her eyebrows, nodding.
"Pleasure to meet you, Thomas."
"People call me Tom," he said, and then ducked his head, like he was regretting sharing that much.
"You do look like a Tom," she said thoughtfully, and he looked back up at her with what could almost pass for a smile. It didn't appear that he smiled very often at all. "Well," she went on, gesturing with one hand, "what have they got you murdering me with this time?"
He jolted a little, like he'd forgotten his mission for just one moment, and then he opened the pack slung across his chest and pulled out a glass bottle. "I didn't ask," he said, shaking it a little. The liquid appeared clear, which hopefully meant she wouldn't have to wash some poor child's blood out of her hair again, but she couldn't tell much more than that. "What else have they tried?"
Bending over, she set her mug on the ground and began ticking off on her fingers. "Holy water, the blood of an infant—alive, as far as I know—, rose water, star anise, holy water together with the flesh of a corpse, the blood of a priest, the blood of several priests, the blood of a witch condemned to die, pure spring water, a pulverized chip of the cornerstone of the church, the pulverized bone of a saint, let me think… dirt from the church graveyard… a wooden cross… they just threw that one at me whole." She shrugged again. "I've lost track, you know."
He frowned, holding the bottle up to the light and staring through it, shaking it again. "None of that worked?" She smiled, and after a moment he shook his head and said, "No, obviously not."
"There are a lot of things that could kill me, if they really wanted to. It's a bit of a game to them now, I think."
Walking forward until he was almost within arm's reach, he asked, "What happens when I don't kill you?"
"You run," she said, miming a person running with two fingers across the opposite palm. "Depending on your strength of character, you either return to the village or disappear, never to be heard from again."
"The death toll," he said, not a question but she nodded anyway. "May I?" He removed the stopper from the glass vial and she held out her arm. Stepping forward, he poured the liquid out over her hand and they both watched as it spilled harmlessly across her skin and was absorbed into the forest floor.
"Thank you," she said. "That will be a much easier clean-up." Bringing her hand to her nose, she sniffed at the residue. "Perhaps… lilies? From a grave, if they've any smarts at all." She shrugged, standing up to walk inside and wet a rag from her reservoir, wiping off her hands. When she turned back, Tom was standing in the doorway, his hands hanging uselessly at his sides, and she motioned for him to enter. "How about that cup of tea?"
He sat down at her table as she put the kettle on, seeming to be in a mild state of shock, and she went out to carry in the other chair while the water heated up. He did notice her arms this time, watching as she easily carried the wooden chair to the other side of the table and set it down. She scooped tea leaves into two mugs, poured the water once it boiled, then carried both mugs to the table and sat down across from him.
She smiled when she found that he was still staring at her, and said, "I'm not terrifying, right?" No response. "I mean, looks can be deceiving, but I'm not terrifying. I've never thought so."
"You're beautiful," he murmured, looking down at his mug finally. "I don't see why a witch couldn't be beautiful, and I'm sure you could be terrifying, but no, you haven't terrified me yet."
"Ah." She sighed, half a laugh. "What a ringing endorsement."
"How long have you lived here?"
She glanced around, finding her leather-bound journal at the side of the table, up against the wall, and pulled it toward herself. Flipping through the pages, she counted under her breath, moving back once or twice to double-check. "I can't be certain, but I would tentatively say… nigh on twenty years? I think I was sixteen, or perhaps eighteen."
"Didn't you have a family? Someone to protect you from rumours?"
She raised her eyebrows, leaning back in her chair and picking her mug up in both hands again, taking a sip. "That's rather a personal question."
"I'm sorry." He shook his head, staring down at his hands, flat on the table top. "It just seems… incredible."
"It does, doesn't it?" She smiled again, this time in pure relief. "You know you're the first person who's ever said that to me."
When he looked up at her again, he was frowning, this desperately sad look in his eyes, and her smile twisted, tears pricking at the back of her eyes. She looked away, taking a deep breath—she couldn't cry, she wouldn't cry.
"Please," she said. "Don't feel sorry for me. I'm used to this life. I'm—" She was about to say that she was happy, and sometimes she was, but… God. She was so very lonely. Another deep breath, and then she said, "Tell me about you. You look a little—I mean, you aren't trying to impress a princess, are you?"
"I look a little old," he finished for her, his tone wry. "I was married, but my wife died and I wanted to… make a difference, I guess. Do something important. I didn't particularly wish to kill a witch, if that's any consolation."
"I don't think anyone who comes here really wants to kill me."
"Doesn't help, does it?"
She smiled a little, dipping her head and shaking it, and he reached a hand across the table. They both recoiled at the same instant, it seemed, and looked at each other with wide eyes. Rachel hadn't touched another human being in… good lord. Her breath caught in her chest, and she put her hand back on the table, staring at it and wondering if he would really touch a witch.
He reached across again, very slowly, and let his hand rest on top of Rachel's. Her eyes closed at the contact and she tried to breathe, holding still for a moment before whipping her hand away again.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's been so long…"
"I understand," he said quietly. "Another time—"
She looked up, eyes frantic. "You won't come back."
He stared at her for a moment, and said uncertainly, "I'd like to…"
"You can't. How could you even think that?"
"But…" He seemed confused. "I want to—"
"You can't. They won't let you. If you try, they'll take everything away from you. They'll put you to death."
"I don't accept that."
She just stared at him and he ran a hand through his hair, frustrated.
"There has to be another way."
"You don't even know me," she said, tone pleading. "Just let it go."
"No one deserves to live like this," he muttered, and pushed his chair back from the table. He stood, and stared at her. "I'll find a way. I'll be back."
He left, and she watched from the window, relief and despair warring in her chest. He wouldn't be back, and she was relieved. Another year, another attempt, back to life as usual.
Despair clawed at her throat. She couldn't even touch the skin of another person without getting overwhelmed, freaking out, and it was fine when she was alone, she was used to it, it was the way it was and that was all. Why did he have to come along and remind her what she was missing?
She started a fresh tally in her journal, pretending she wasn't counting the days since he'd left and she wasn't watching for him when she drank her tea at the window and she didn't think of him before she went to sleep at night, and she certainly didn't lose hope after twenty and thirty and forty days because she hadn't had any hope in the first place.
On the forty-seventh day, she was drinking her tea at the window when she saw him tromping through the woods in his boots, looking exactly the same as the last time she'd seen him. She bowed her head, leaning her hands on the windowsill, and sighed a hopeless sigh before going to the door to meet him.
He stopped just outside the door, staring at her, and she stopped just inside, staring back.
"Hello," he said, and she stepped back, holding the door for him. Neither of them spoke again until they were seated at the table with mugs of tea, and then Tom said, "My father doesn't believe in God."
She blinked at him, her eyebrows drawing together, and he shook his head.
"My mother did, and he humoured her, but when she died he stopped going to church altogether. I worried about him, living alone, so isolated." Pausing, he took a sip from his mug, both his large hands wrapped around the body of it. "My wife and I, we had our own beliefs, we enjoyed attending church and the community of it, and I continued long after she passed. I believe in God, I think, but the God I believe in wouldn't condone the actions of the church."
He shifted his mouth to the side, chewing the inside of his cheek, and she watched him, allowing him the space to speak.
"I know you asked me to let it go, but the only things I had in that village were my father and the church, and I can't live with what I know the church has done. My father will leave with me."
"I don't understand…"
He looked up, meeting her eyes seriously. "I won't stay in that village. I'm not sure yet where I'll go… but I know that I don't want to leave you here."
Gripping the edge of the table, she stared down at her hands and said, "I chose this life."
"Really? Did you? If you want to live in a cottage in the woods, fine, but not alone, or not always alone. I know you don't want that. Let me…"
"What?" she asked tiredly. "What is it you want from me?"
"For you," he said. "For you to spend time with someone who doesn't want to kill you. For you to… be loved… if that is at all possible."
"Who's going to love me? Not you."
"Why not me?"
"We met five seconds ago."
"Five seconds and forty-seven days," he said, and she thought, He was counting, too.
"So, what? You don't love me."
"I could. Haven't you ever heard of true love?"
She cocked an eyebrow at that, slightly incredulous, and he had the decency to look embarrassed. "True love is a bit too reminiscent of magic for my tastes."
"That's fair," he said, ducking his head and rubbing at the back of his neck. "My point was just that… sometimes you feel these things, even right from the start."
"So you'll leave your village, and consent to love a witch, all because you feel sorry for a woman alone in the woods?"
"No!" He was getting frustrated, and she had to smile—she hadn't frustrated anyone in so long. "I don't feel sorry for you. I admire you, and I want to get to know the woman who has survived twenty years in these woods, and countless attacks on her life, by sheer wits and bloody-mindedness alone. I want—" He growled slightly, not looking her in the eye. "I want to kiss you."
"You can try," she said faintly, unsure he would even be able to hear it except that he was immediately on his feet, rounding the table, and she scrambled up from her chair, backing toward the wall as he stalked toward her and gripped her waist, pressing her up against the wall and bending to kiss her, and it was a good thing he was holding her up because her legs turned to jelly before their mouths even met, and then they did and she felt like all her separate parts could easily collapse into a pile on the floor.
He kissed her hungrily and she clutched at his arms, straining up against him, none of this enough but all of it too much at the same time. She couldn't breathe, she didn't want to breathe, but when her chest started to hurt she twisted her face away and panted against his shoulder, her hands fisting in the material of his shirt.
"I'm sorry." He spoke into her hair, his arms wrapping tight around her back. "We can go slow, I'm sorry."
"I don't want to," she said, half-sobbed. He started to pull away and she tugged him closer, said, "I don't want to go slow."
When she turned her face back up to him, he tried to kiss her gently and she surged up against him, certain that a gentle touch now would shatter her. Her hands grasped desperately at the edges of his shirt, the sleeves and the neckline and the hem, and he leaned back to tug it off over his head, letting it fall to the floor and kissing her again.
Her hands roamed the newly exposed skin, from his wrists to his shoulders, down over his chest and up over his back and somehow the skin-on-skin soothed her, some of the frenzy going out of her movements even as she pressed up against him, kissed him hard. He was strong, every muscle defined, and her palms smoothing over the hills and valleys grounded her, reminded her that he was only as human as she was.
She broke away briefly to gasp, and when she kissed him again she could breathe, steady in and out through her nose, her chest loose and her shoulders dropping, more like a person who wanted this than someone who needed this. She wrapped her arms around his neck, her clothed chest pressing tight against his bare one, his hands strong but unmoving on her waist even as she rubbed up against him, reached one hand down to curl under his waistband.
"Rachel…" he said warningly, and she almost broke at that, her name on someone else's tongue, spoken with care.
Dropping back to her heels, she cocked her head, looking up at him and saying, "What?" as her fingers crept down the front of his pants.
"You're—ah." He broke off as she clenched her hand in the leather of his pants, dragging it up and pressing the material tighter against him. "You're playing with fire," he went on breathlessly, and she retracted her hand to his waistband, leaving her knuckles just next to the skin of his abdomen.
He bent to kiss her, the movement putting space between their bodies, and when he pulled away she narrowed her eyes at him.
"If you don't want—" She stopped short, not sure what word to put next, but he answered anyway.
"Of course I want you."
"Do you want this?"
He kissed her again, said, "Of course, of course," softly against her lips.
"Don't stop me again," she said, the warning in her tone this time, and then her eyes widened as he stepped away, expanding the space between them, his hands dropping away from her waist completely before one of them wrapped around one of hers, tugging her gently away from the wall.
He met her eyes seriously, tugging again, and she nodded, moving easily with him to the bed.
The small bed in one corner of her one-roomed cottage, the bed no one else had ever so much as touched, let alone shared with her. He laid her down upon it, slipping her tunic up over her head before lying down beside her, kissing her and cupping her breast, his touch too soft again. She wrapped one hand around behind his neck, pressing her mouth hard to his, and used the other to cover his and press down.
"Please," she said, breathed, gasped. "Hard."
He looked at her, his eyes as soft as she wouldn't let his hands be, and said, "Are you sure?"
"Please," she said again, and he bent his head to her other breast, taking her nipple into his mouth and sucking, his hand squeezing and then pinching, and she arched off the bed, her breaths gasping. He soothed his tongue over her nipple and then traded mouth and hand, and she twisted under him, hooking a leg over his hip in a wordless plea.
He groaned, his mouth still wrapped around her breast, and she let out a keening cry, her leg tugging, her hips pressing up against his. He braced his hands on the bed, staying still for a moment and letting her rock up against him, both of them moaning at the contact, and then he straightened up and unlaced his pants, pushing them down his hips, and she tipped her head back against the bed, biting down on her lips and trying not to squirm.
She felt his hands on her hips and lifted them off the bed, letting him tug her pants down her legs and off over her feet, dropping them on the floor and then stretching out over her, his hands planted on either side of her chest, hovering there until she dropped her chin to meet his eyes, and then he asked again, "Are you sure?"
She nodded too eagerly, said, "Please, please, please," too desperately, but it was all she could do to keep her hips still beneath him, her hands gripping his arms tight to the point of pain. When he touched her, she threw her head back again, her chest heaving with gasps and whimpers as he eased inside her slowly, so slow and she wouldn't complain or hurry him because she could feel the ache of him filling her, her body so unaccustomed, unused, unstretched, and she groaned and groaned, her back arched off the bed and his face pressed to her neck, his strong arm wrapped around her waist where it rose above the bed.
"Are you okay?" he whispered, and she realized he'd stopped moving, fully inside her and holding himself perfectly still, and she exhaled hard, letting her back down to rest on the bed, releasing her grip on his arms and feeling that her nails had been digging deep into his skin.
"Oh my god, I'm sorry," she said, struggling to pull in air, aching and thrumming where he filled her, her heart sitting in her throat.
"Don't be sorry," he murmured, his face still against her neck. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay," she said quickly. "I'm good, I—oh god, please."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"I don't care—I mean, you won't—please, please." She didn't mean to beg, but she couldn't breathe like this, in the middle, held still, and she thought that maybe if he moved she could breathe. She was so wet she didn't think he could conceivably hurt her, anyway, and her hands fluttered from his arms to the back of his head to smooth over his shoulders, and then he started to move his hips and her fingers clamped down there, wrapped around the muscle that connected his neck to his shoulders.
Her eyes were screwed shut and she breathed in panting gasps as he pulled out and drove himself back into her, a hard rhythm she didn't have to ask for, and it felt like seconds before she was clenching around him, her arms wrapping tight around his neck without her meaning to, and after a pause he carried on, pressing kisses to the place her pulse beat in her throat, pushing into her again and again until she shook with a second orgasm and he emptied himself inside of her.
She was a trembling heap of limbs even before he pulled out of her and rolled to the side, and then she was crying helpless, unwilled tears and he wrapped his arms around her, tugging her close to his chest.
"I'm sorry," she sobbed, curling up on her side with her knees between their bodies and her head pressed to his chest, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," he said again, rubbing what he could reach of her back. "Why should you be sorry? It's okay, you're okay."
"I'm sorry," she murmured, the tears still falling even as she steadied out and curled closer to him, letting him wrap his arms fully around her. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," he whispered, rubbing one hand up and down her arm. "Don't be sorry."
She sighed, finally letting her body give in to the physical exhaustion, melting into the bed and edging closer to Tom, little by little until her side was pressed up against his chest, his arms securely around her.
"I'll build a house," he said a while later, as if he was continuing their earlier conversation. "You can live in it with me if you like, or stay here."
"Why?" She said it so softly, barely a question, and he inched his face forward, nudging his nose against her cheek.
"I told you why."
"What if you change your mind."
"Then I go somewhere else in the big wide world. A place is just a place." He nudged her again. "Would you like to be loved?"
Her stomach flipped, her heart back in her throat, and she turned into him, pressing her chest to his chest and wrapping her arm around his back. "Of course," she breathed, "more than anything."
"I will love you," and he said it so nobly, so matter-of-fact, so much like a knight that she had to laugh.
"How do you know?"
"I just know. Have I ever let you down before?"
She laughed again. "I've only known you—"
"—five seconds and forty-seven days, yes."
"Technically an hour and a half, if you count the time we've actually spent together."
"Those forty-seven days were very important," he said in a mock-serious tone that was also real-serious. "I came back, didn't I?"
"You did," she said, her tone awed, "but why?"
He said again, more patient than any man she'd ever known, "I told you why."
Inching back, just enough that she could see his face, maintaining as much contact as she could and raising a hand to his cheek, she said, "I will ask, again and again. I won't believe you. I can tell you that now. This isn't my life I'm living."
"It should be—" That determination was back, the one he left with the first time. "—and it will be. We don't even have to stay in the wood. We could go far from here. There's so much world out there, Rachel."
Hearing her name again, after so many years of it being unspoken like a curse no one wanted to give voice to, and in his voice, that low, careful tone, set her off crying again, her tears so close to the surface.
He said it again, "Rachel," as if his heart was in the word, cupping her face and brushing his thumb through the tracks of tears on her cheek, which only made her cry harder, and she curled up again, hiding her face against his chest.
"I could be dreaming," she said, "I could wake up and find this all a dream. That would be so much more likely."
"Forty-seven days, Rachel. Do you dream forty-seven days at once?"
"I will write it down, then, on the forty-seventh day, and tomorrow I will see if the words remain."
"You can do that," he said, humouring her, "but not now. Now we stay in bed."
"And if I fall asleep?"
He was silent a moment. Then a moment longer. Then he sighed gently and said, "Go and get your journal, then. Write it down."
She slid out from the bed, crossing the room nude—she never had had a reason to cover herself, not really—and picking up her journal from its place on the table. She contemplated the wooden chair, then carried the journal back with her to the bed and curled up against Tom's chest. Opening the book to her marker, she looked at her rough approximation of a calendar, the tally with forty-seven marks, and started a fresh page.
Forty-seven days after the knight stayed for tea, she wrote, he has returned. If I am not, in fact, dreaming, he intends to leave the village and love me instead. You, at least, must understand the incredulity with which I greet such a declaration, but if I am not, in fact, dreaming, it seems my days as a witch are numbered.
I will write again tomorrow. If this missive remains, and I have been awake all this time, then I suppose we shall move forward from there.
He read over her shoulder, pressing kisses to her skin as she wrote, and when she was finished she placed the journal on the floor and turned back to him.
He wrapped his arms around her back, cradling her to his chest so that they could still face each other, and asked, "Do you often have such vivid dreams?"
She wasn't entirely sure whether he was simply concerned or trying to undermine her dream theory, and she wasn't sure how to respond, her eyes dropping to his chin. For one thing, the only way to disprove her theory was to sleep and wake up and she wouldn't be swayed, but for another, more principally, yes, she did often have such vivid dreams. She'd had nightmares as long as she could remember, but after her mother's death and her father's discipline, being expelled from the village and years of attempts on her life, her nightmares had only increased both in number and in immersive quality as the years passed.
"That was the wrong thing to say," he murmured, "I'm sorry."
She tried to smile, dipping her chin closer to her chest, and said, "Maybe someday I'll tell you more of my life before."
"Maybe," he said, cradling her back in one arm and rubbing the other one up and down the length of it, from her tailbone up over her ribs and shoulder blades and then back down, "or maybe we'll leave the past in the past. Maybe it would help you to talk about it, and maybe it would be too painful. I don't want you to ever feel like you have to do something you don't want to do."
Her chest was tight again, tears pricking the backs of her eyes, and she took in several deep breaths, attempting to steady herself before she looked up again and smiled, leaning in to kiss him. Here was the gentle touch she wouldn't allow earlier, the introduction, the greeting, her hand on his cheek and her eyebrows furrowed as she kissed him slow and deep.
When she put her head back a moment later and sighed, her mind felt fuzzy, like waking from a good dream instead of a bad one, and she stared at him like he was something she'd never seen before. "Are you hungry?" she asked, because that was something she could manage, something she could take into her hands and solve.
He nodded, and she slid to the edge of the bed, finding her clothes and dressing and then walking over to the stove while he did the same.
"I hope you like hare," she said, lifting the lid from the pot of stew she'd set on the stove to cook that morning.
"Of course," he said, watching as she leaned over to smell the stew and then fetched two bowls, the second of which she only used when she was too lazy to wash her dishes between lunch and dinner. She ladled out the stew, placing each bowl on the table and then filling two glasses with water from her reservoir and joining Tom at the table. After taking a bite, he stared at her incredulously and said, "This is delicious. Are you sure you aren't a witch?"
It was a harmless joke, but she blinked down at her food, not entirely ready to laugh about it.
"Bad joke," he said quickly. "I'm making a list, okay? Things not to say again. I'm sorry, I've said so many stupid things."
"I don't blame you," she said faintly. "You've never met anyone like me before. No one has."
"I learn quickly," he said. "I'll know you soon." He kept his eyes on her as she poked at her food, her shoulders curving forward over the table, and then he said gently, "Would you tell me how you spend your days?"
She looked up at that, surprised, though perhaps she shouldn't have been. No one had ever cared about that before, but neither had anyone ever sat down to eat with her, or looked at her properly like he did. This was something entirely new, and she really couldn't blame him for making jokes when she didn't even know how to hold a conversation.
Smiling a little, she took a bite of her stew and started, "Well, I usually wake up with the sun and check my traps. I'll put the kettle on and chop whatever I have for stew, put the pot on the stove and make my tea. I drink it looking out—" She twisted at the waist, pointing. "—that window, getting a feel for the forest, though recently…" She glanced up at him, shy, and shrugged one shoulder. "Recently I… also looked for you."
He was watching her closely, eating his meal and listening intently, and she ducked her head again.
"I might have some nuts or berries for breakfast, then check the garden. If the sun is out, I'll sit in my chair, facing east, and read or just feel the sun on my face. I—oh dear, this is boring, isn't it?" She glanced up again, but his eyes were alert and focused and he simply shook his head. "All right. Lunch, then a long walk through the woods, collecting berries and nuts and re-setting traps. Chopping wood, if I need it, and collecting water.
"If the weather cooperates, I'll bathe while the sun is up, and if not I'll bathe indoors. Dinner, and if there's any light left I'll read some more. In the summer I can usually read until I go to bed, but in the winter…" This shouldn't embarrass her—she had to do what she had to do to survive—but still. "When it gets dark," she said quietly, eyes closed, "I will sing to myself the songs I remember, or tell myself the stories my mother read to me as a child… try to remember what it felt like to be loved, to be held… until I fall asleep."
She didn't move, eyes closed and head bowed, feeling ashamed to be so weak, to reveal so much of herself, even if he had asked her to. Then she felt his hands on her arms, nudging her up out of the chair, and he wrapped himself around her, even as she kept her eyes shut and her body still, held her close and gentle against his chest, rubbing his hand up and down her back and then cupping the back of her head, stroking her hair.
"Step one," he said softly, "hold you for twenty years."
She snuffled a laugh, bringing her arms up to wrap around his back and turning her cheek against his chest. "That's not practical at all."
"I know, baby," he murmured, smoothing his hand over her hair again and again, "but I would if I could."
"Thank you," she whispered back, sighing against him, and then her stomach grumbled and he sat her back down in her chair, instructing her to eat. When she'd polished off her meal, she leaned on her elbows, folding her hands over the table, and said, "I was thinking about washing off, if you'd like to join me."
He hummed noncommittally, his eyes drifting away from hers, and she frowned in confusion.
"That wasn't, um, meant to be a strong hint, or an insult—"
He laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he met her eyes again, and he said, "No, I was just thinking more about… maybe... taking my clothes off for a different reason."
Biting down on her bottom lip, she shifted in her chair, feeling the twinge of her muscles and the sensitivity between her legs. "I'm afraid I won't be able to walk tomorrow," she admitted, even as she licked her lips and eyed him across the table, hunger instantly present.
"Want me to give you a rubdown?" he asked, voice low, and she shut her eyes, inhaling sharply.
"Yeah, okay," she said, getting up and shucking her clothes, looking over her shoulder at him before lying face-down on the bed. He followed, kneeling over her hips, and she rested her cheek on her folded arms as he started at the small of her back, rubbing his thumbs gently but firmly into her muscles. He shifted down, working over her ass and then her upper thighs, pressing the heels of his hands into the meat of her thighs.
She breathed through it, laying still, but when his fingers skimmed over the soft skin of her inner thigh she clenched her legs together instinctively and he exhaled her name, sliding his hands up to part her legs and cup her in one of his palms, his other hand curving around her hip and across her belly, urging her to push up onto her knees, her back against his chest as he reached between her legs and stroked her.
She moaned, her head falling back to rest on his shoulder, and he slipped a finger inside of her, muffling his own groan against her shoulder as he pressed his mouth to the skin and then sucked, adding another finger and curling them inside her.
Her eyes opened, sightless, her mind blanked out with pleasure, but she felt him hard at the small of her back and thought—didn't think so much as act, pushing at his wrist until he pulled his hand away and then twisting under him, falling back on the bed and looking up to see him gaping, on his knees, his hand hovering in midair.
Trying to spread her legs, she bumped up against his and nudged, nudged, until he got the picture and slid backwards off the bed, stripping quickly and kneeling again between her legs, easing inside her with less caution this time. She cried out, gripping his hips, and before he could ask she said, "Please," and he stretched forward over her, bracing his hands on the bed and settling his hips.
"Maybe I'm the one dreaming," he muttered, and she stared up at him as he brought a hand to her face and kissed her deeply. "You're a dream."
She shook her head, and he pressed his forehead to hers, closing his eyes and saying her name like a prayer as he started to move over and inside her. Not her father's prayer, but the true and quiet kind you whispered in the middle of the night when no one else could hear you. Every move felt like that now, true and quiet, pure and slow, their faces close enough to share air and too close to focus on features, intimate and real and breathtaking.
He built her up slowly, this time, her inhales and exhales sharp and determined as she made every effort to stay in the moment, not get overwhelmed, not burst into tears in the middle instead of after. She was relieved when she came, crushing her eyes shut and gripping his arms with all the strength in her fingers until he finished and rolled to the side and then—bam. Sobbing, shaking tears as he gathered her into his arms and tucked her head under his chin and rubbed his hand up and down her back, solid and steady and the perfect rock for her to cling to.
"I'm sorry," she whimpered, and he breathed half a laugh, or laughed half a sigh, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
Then, finally, more exhausted physically and emotionally than she'd been in years or possibly decades, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep as the sun began to drop on the far side of the cottage.
When she woke up again (quietly, not with a start, her heart beating slow and even in her chest) it was fully dark, and she said, "Nooooo," under her breath.
"What?" Tom asked, sounding rough and sleepy and incredibly adorable, and she pulled back enough to see his face, which was also sleepy and adorable as he raised one fist to rub at his eyes like a small child.
"I've ruined my sleep schedule," she answered, and he blinked hard at her before glancing to the window that was somewhere behind her head.
"Yeah," he said, before clearing his throat and looking back at her. "Speaking of, the new house will have lamps."
She smiled at the thought, and shook her head. "Lamps are unsustainable."
"Or maybe we'll find a new village and return to civilization."
Narrowing her eyes, she shook her head again, the smile still turning up her lips. "You've been in the woods for one day."
"I'm gonna make a joke, okay?" he asked, and waited for her nod before saying with no comedic timing whatsoever, "And it's been awful I've been miserable the whole time how have you spent twenty years here." Then he smiled, and she laughed out loud.
Tugging her back toward his chest, he wrapped his arms around her and added, "We don't have to have lamps. Obviously, there will be decisions to make, and we'll have to make them together, but you have the experience and the knowledge. I'm not gonna argue on much."
He was silent a moment, and she didn't realize he was waiting for her to continue until he said, "Wow, what?"
"I…" She laughed a little, but stopped short, realizing nothing was funny about this. "I'm not used to people listening to me." Sitting up abruptly, she wrapped her arms around her knees, her back hunching and her head low. "No one even hears me when I speak. In the most basic, physical sense, I speak and my voice only reaches my own ears. I'm a feedback loop."
He sat up beside her, cautiously laying one hand on her back, and said, "Not anymore."
"I don't know. I just don't know if I'm capable of being a human being again after so long as a witch. I don't know."
"Do you need some time? You can have—"
"What if," she started. "How am I supposed to," she tried again. "If I have nothing to compare you to." She chanced a glance at him then, and saw a mouth dropped open, face bereft before he closed it off and presented a blank mask.
"I'm not sure," he said evenly. "I don't know how to make that happen for you."
"It isn't your responsibility," she said, pleading again, back where this all started, and the emotion returned to his face as he turned to her, begging in return.
"Please, I can't leave you here. I can find a way for you to… I don't know, experience other things. I can make it work. Just, please, don't make me leave you to the life you had before."
"It's—" She would defend it again, but by this point it would be more than just a half-truth, it would be a malicious lie. Her life was not better before he came along, and it wouldn't be better if she sent him away. Instead she would be alone again, and accustomed, after one day, to arms around her, to kisses and sex and a voice to speak in return for hers. She sighed, closing her eyes. "I don't want to end up hurting you."
"Do you want to know something, Rachel?"
She glanced sideways at him, her brow furrowing, and he looked back at her with eyes open and soft.
"You could spend the rest of your life hurting me, and it would neither make up for the life you've lived, nor cancel out the good you've already given me. Just… let me try to love you, will you? Let me try."
Pressing her face to her knees, she hid an aching smile and overflowing tears, then leaned to the side until she ran into his body, letting him wrap his arms around the bundle of her. "Yeah," she said. "Okay."
They sat in silence for a while, and then Tom asked, "Do you need another rub?" and Rachel groaned a laugh.
"No more rubbing. I think we've established that rubbing only makes things worse, and I'm already going to be unable to get out of bed tomorrow."
"Fair enough," he said back, laughing too. "Do you have… something herbal…?"
She thought about that. It had been years since she'd so longed for a bath she could lie down in—or even sit. Maybe returning to civilization wouldn't be the worst thing after all. For now, though… "I suppose some ginger tea won't hurt," she said, starting to straighten out her legs.
Putting a hand on her knee, Tom stopped her, climbing out of the bed and standing up. "Point me to it."
She stretched her legs out anyway, shifting back on the bed so she could keep them flat, and gestured to the corner by the stove. "On a shelf, there's a jar full of beige knobby roots. You'll have to wash and chop one of them, drop it in a pot of water and boil it. Not too much trouble?"
He just smiled, pulling on his pants and going about it. While he was busy, Rachel reached for her toes, stretching out her back and neck and shoulders and the backs of her legs, holding the stretch with her eyes closed and breathing through it. Then she spread her legs as far as they would go and reached for the edge of the bed, inching forward until the insides of her feet were pressed to the bed, holding it as her inner thighs and hips stretched pleasantly, if not a little painfully.
When she brought her legs back together and looked up, Tom was staring at her, mouth open and eyes wide, and she smirked a little. "You okay there?"
"Umm," he said, turning back to the stove and then glancing over his shoulder at her.
She flopped back on the bed, doing one last stretch with her limbs spread-eagled, and then rolled over onto her belly and watched him with her chin propped on her hands. Once he had the pot of ginger on to boil, he washed their lunch dishes and served up dinner, handing her bowl to her on the bed and sitting on the edge to eat his.
"Thank you," she said, truly grateful as she dug into her meal. "You're a prince among men." He laughed a little, shaking his head, and she said, "Well, I don't know, actually. Maybe you're a man among princes. Maybe you're actually the worst of the lot. All you do is rub my muscles and bring me food and compliment me and pledge your love. Honestly, you could make an effort."
She grinned to herself, watching him narrow his eyes down at his food, trying to figure out how he could respond without agreeing that, yes, actually, he was a prince among men, because she couldn't imagine in all the world there being a better man than he.
He settled for ignoring her and eating his dinner, and she slipped her arm through his, resting her head on his shoulder briefly before going back to her own food.
When they were finished eating, he got up again to wash the dishes, then poured her tea into a mug and eyed her place on the bed. "This is very hot. I don't want you to spill."
Instead of getting up and moving to the table, she scooted to the edge of the bed with the blanket wrapped around her and settled on the floor, legs crossed, before holding her hand out for the mug. It was too hot to drink and she needed some time to process her dinner, so she set it down on the floor to her side and Tom sat down on her other side, curling his arm around her waist.
Leaning into him, she rested her head on his shoulder and they sat in silence for a while. When her tea had cooled off, she picked it up and took a sip, then said, "How far is the next village?"
"A couple hours' ride, but… I think it would be safer to ride at least a day out, if not two."
"Do you think they would follow us?"
"No." He said it with confidence, but she was nervous now. "Rumours travel, but considering you've lived in one place for twenty years, I don't see why other villages would have any knowledge of you at all. Still, a greater distance can only help."
"Perhaps we should stage my death."
He was silent beside her, and she thought he would likely be blinking rapidly if she could see his face.
"They've never seen a dead witch, since witches don't exist, so I think… a pile of ash… a silver coin… the only question is who killed the witch, and who will come across her remains."
"Do you think… a suicide?"
"I suppose it would have to be, or risk involving another person we can't well trust. A slight indignity for me, after twenty years of survival, to take my own life…" She heaved a sigh. "But then, no one in that village has an opinion that matters in the least."
"Blame it on that final knight," he said wryly. "After setting your eyes upon his good looks, you simply couldn't go on any longer."
"As much as I love that idea," she said, patting her hand on his thigh, "I think we should minimize your involvement."
"I was joking!" he said indignantly, and she grinned, tipping her head back on his shoulder again.
"You mean you don't want me to wax poetic about my star-crossed love for the handsome knight who attempted to murder me in my suicide note? I just couldn't bear to live without him. True love at first sight for a delusional witch."
His arm wrapped tighter around her waist, and he pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "Let's try to hold onto some of your dignity," he said seriously. "Keep it short and sweet."
"I hope they feel guilty," she said darkly, giving in to her anger for an instant before sagging back against Tom and sipping her tea.
Reaching up to her shoulder blades, Tom rubbed his hand across the top of her back, then curved his hand around the nape of her neck and squeezed gently. "I know it's unfair that they'll never have to pay for what they did."
She sighed, pressing back into his hand. "I want to move forward, but I'm afraid they won't let me."
"You can be angry. You can be scared. But they won't touch you again, not as long as I have anything to say about it. I'm not as defenseless as I look."
She could hear the smirk in his voice, and she snorted a laugh at the idea of Tom being defenseless against anything man or beast or, lord knew, probably supernatural as well. "You got a sword?"
"Yes, I have a sword. I'll carry it if that helps you feel safe."
Sighing, she set her empty mug out of the way and turned into his side, curling up and wrapping her arm around his waist. "How long were you a knight?"
He hummed, leaning back against the bed and stretching his legs out in front of him, holding her close. "Not quite ten years. I trained at the castle, was there for some time, actually. Only recently did they decide to send me out into the village, for the priests' use. If you ask me, a priest doesn't need his own knight, but no one asked me."
"Well, sure he does," she murmured, her fingers tracing patterns on his bare chest. "Someone's got to kill the witch."
"If they had an infestation, maybe, but one woman living alone in the woods… I'm sure you don't need to hear this, but even if they had a king's knight come out once a year…"
"This kingdom is a mess," she said jokingly, and he squeezed her waist.
"I guess that's part of why I decided to become a knight, after my wife died. I saw some of the problems and I thought I could fix them from the inside. Obviously, I was wrong."
She was silent a moment, thinking. "What if the next village is just as bad? Are there any good ones?"
"Yes," he said immediately, and she felt a little reassured by his quick response. "King and church are not… entirely aligned, but he's given up on overseeing the villages where they've taken control. He'll send knights and keep an eye on serious crime, but otherwise he lets them run loose. There are villages where the church has no influence at all! Places where the church is simply a community of believers. Hard to believe, I know."
"That almost makes it worse." She turned her face, pressing her forehead to his chest, her fingers curling into a fist. "If I'd just been born in a different village…" Tears seeped out from her eyes squeezed shut, dropping onto his skin and trailing down. "If my father had just smothered me as an infant."
His arm tightened on her once more, and he said, "I love you."
That startled her, out of her thoughts and out of her tears, and she looked up, smearing her palm across each of her eyes in turn. "You mean you will love me."
"No." He looked back at her seriously. "I know it doesn't make sense, and I know it doesn't change what you've gone through, but I do love you. I won't say I'm glad you're alive, because I'm not glad you've lived the life you've lived. But I'm glad to love you."
Her eyes filled up again and spilled over almost immediately, a smile twisting up her lips as she stared at him with her eyebrows furrowed, like she was trying to understand what she was seeing. She brought her hand up to his face, tracing her fingertips along the lines of it and then leaning in to kiss him, her lips salty with tears and her brow staying furrowed as she let her chest fill with that odd static.
When she pulled away, sitting back on her heels, she looked at him and said, "I'm glad you love me, too," and he smiled like he couldn't help it.
Then his face sobered, and he said, "Of course, if you do decide you need to see more, experience more, I'll help you do that. You aren't bound to me in any way."
Finding his hand in the space between them, she pulled it into her lap and held it in both of hers, staring down at it. "The girls in our village were wed at sixteen, with their father's approval. Most of them didn't even fall in love once." Tilting her head, she looked up at him. "Did you marry for love?"
He smiled again, though it was tinged with sadness. "I did, but we were childhood sweethearts. We got lucky."
"So many unhappy people…" she murmured, her eyes dropping back down to her lap. "Maybe happiness is a myth."
He didn't respond, silent until she looked up to find him smiling with his eyes if not his mouth. Squinting back at him, she cocked her head again and he said, "I was married fifteen years. Losing her nearly killed me, but fifteen years is happiness, isn't it?"
"How old are you now?"
He laughed, startled. "Forty-two, why?"
"Do you suppose we could have fifteen years?"
His eyes crinkled harder, his lips turning up even as he pressed them together. "Why not?"
She ducked her head, smiling down at her lap, and he curled his hand around one of her thumbs, bringing her hand to his mouth and pressing a kiss to the back of it.
"Think you could sleep?"
They'd been sitting in the dark, lit up by the moon through the window and the dim glow of the stove she kept stoked. She didn't have curtains, used to sleeping when the sun was down, and she was sure she'd be up with the dawn no matter how much sleep she managed to get.
Uncrossing her legs, she started to stand up, bracing herself on Tom's shoulder when her muscles faltered. She grunted, an attractive sound, straightening up and then immediately reaching for her toes. He stood up beside her, trailing a hand over her back, and did his own noisy stretches before heading outside to water a tree.
Rachel changed into a soft cotton nightdress and Tom climbed into bed in his leather pants. He held her close to his chest and she wrapped one arm around his back and her small bed fit them surprisingly well.
"Comfortable?" he asked, and she hummed and shifted a little closer, pressing her cheek to his chest.
When she woke up, it was not to the blinding light of the rising sun, and she was confused for a moment until she realized that her forehead was pressed to Tom's chest with her thick hair completely surrounding her face. Shifting back, her hair fell over her face instead, and she blew at it futilely before using her hand to scoop and comb it back where it belonged. She was frowning by the time she was done, and only frowned harder when she realized the light indicated it was close to noon.
Looking up with her brow low, she found Tom watching her with an amused cant to his lips and said grumpily, "I've never slept in this late in my entire life."
"A disaster," he said dryly, and she'd already softened, stretching up for a kiss that he was happy to give.
"Don't expect this to become a habit," she murmured, and he stroked one hand up from the small of her back, pressing his palm flat to the bare skin at her shoulders.
"Habits will change, you know. Especially if you want to live in a village."
She was quiet a moment, brushing her fingers back and forth over the stubble on his cheek, and then met his eyes carefully. "Do we have a plan?"
"If you do want to live in a village," he said, and she nodded, "I'll purchase a wagon and horse with my savings. In, say, three days, if that would give you enough time to gather your things," and she nodded again, "we will meet you on the road in the morning. You'll stay covered in the wagon bed until we pass the next village, and then… we'll probably travel until we find somewhere we want to stop."
"Your father doesn't find this strange?"
"My father raised me. He and my mother are the reason I am the person I am. If I'd come back from not killing the witch and told him anything other than 'she needs help and I'm going to help her,' he would have been concerned." He paused, smiled. "Picking up my entire life, on the other hand… we talked it over. A lot. We're on the same page."
"It doesn't feel real," she murmured, dropping eye contact again.
"It won't. But it will be."
She nodded, dropping her chin, and said, "You should go." She rolled away and off the bed, tugging her nightdress down and moving toward the table, already thinking of all the things she needed to do to prepare, as well as all her daily chores—she couldn't very well go hungry just because she was leaving in three days. Finding her journal, she flipped it open, then smiled and looked over her shoulder at him, picking the book up and showing him the page she'd written the day before.
"Wouldja look at that," he said, making his way out of the bed and coming up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. "I guess I wasn't a dream after all."
"You're still a dream," she said, turning around to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him, "just a metaphorical one."
"Good out," he said back, his hands at the small of her back pressing her closer as she stretched up to kiss him, until his stomach growled viciously and broke them apart, laughing.
"You need fuel for the walk back," Rachel said, edging around him to fill the kettle and set it on the stove. "I don't have any grains for porridge, but I can make you my best approximation." She glanced back over at him to see his nod from the other side of the table, then pulled up the section of floor that functioned as a trap door to her root cellar. Sitting down on the edge, she hopped down and fetched three jars, setting them on the floor one by one: preserved berries, chopped nuts, and a jar half full of an off-white powder that she knew was ground nuts.
Planting her hands on the floor, she hoisted herself back out, replacing the door and brushing herself off, and when she looked up Tom was staring at her and she said, "What?"
"You're strong," he said admiringly, his eyes sweeping over her body, and she bent down to pick up her jars and hide her smile.
"A compliment I can use," she said wryly. "Thank you."
Her pot was clean and dry next to her bowls, and she had no idea when Tom had managed to do that but she shot him a grateful smile anyway. Setting the pot on the stove, she poured in a little water, letting it heat up, then added her berry preserves, letting that melt down and mixing in a hearty spoonful of ground nuts and another of chopped nuts. Glancing up to her tea shelf, she found some dried spearmint and crumbled that into the pot, then poured two mugs of tea.
She brought them over to the table, letting Tom catch her for a brief kiss, then went back to the pot and gave it one more stir before pouring the whole thing into a bowl.
"It's hot," she warned, setting the bowl down in front of him and sitting down on the other side of the table with her mug of tea. "Soupy warm, and you kind of have to catch it before it congeals, but." She shrugged, picking up her mug in both hands, and watched him over the edge.
Picking up a spoonful, he blew on it a little before putting it in his mouth, and his eyes closed in what was either bliss or the pain of a scalded tongue. After chewing and swallowing, he gave her a look and said, "That is too delicious to be a breakfast food."
She smiled, sipping her tea. "I don't make it often, but I figured you'd need it."
"Why would you not make this every day?"
He asked it like it was obvious, like he'd never known what it was to ration good things because you had so few of them, and she knew it wasn't fair—he'd had his share of pain in his life—but maybe it was different when it was every day of your life.
She blinked down at her tea. Even that was divided into "everyday" and "special occasion." Anything that made her heart sing—and it hurt to realize that most of those things were consumable—was portioned out, saved for the moment once or twice a year when she really needed it. On a bad day, she'd ask herself if it was bad enough, and usually the answer was no. The longer she could put it off, the longer she could anticipate it.
Tom's hand wrapped around the underside of her wrist, tugging until she put her mug down and let him take her hand in his, and she looked back up at him.
"Maybe," he said carefully, "while you're packing—make all your favourites, and savour them, because maybe—maybe you won't need them as much where we're going."
Her face cleared, relaxing into an easy smile, and she squeezed his hand, shaking her head slightly in wonder. "Yeah," she said. "Maybe."
They had to say goodbye, and she watched him off through the forest before returning to her routine—check the traps, start the stew, clean her body, and then she sat down at her table with her journal and stared into space as she thought about what she should bring with her. Not much—for one, it was supposed to look like a suicide, and for another, she didn't have much of any worth. One change of clothes, leaving the other behind. One of her teas, rearranging the shelf so it wasn't obvious.
Changing tacks, she looked around her and sketched the layout of her home down on the page. She wrote a list of her favourite foods, her favourite teas, her favourite moments in the woods. She didn't want to have any emotions at all about leaving this place, but she did, she did. It had been her home, and she'd done all she could with it. It was evidence of her resourcefulness, her strength, her endurance. This place showed what she'd survived, and it meant something to her.
And she would never see it again.
In the end, she washed one of the bags she used for collecting in the woods and stuffed into it her change of clothes, tea, one single book, and journal. She took Tom's advice and made all her favourites, taking her chair back out into the sun and eating them there before taking her usual route through the forest, picking and eating berries as she went.
On the third day, she woke up and bathed, dressed herself and stoked the fire before putting a freshly dead rabbit on top of it and leaving the cottage for a few hours. When she returned, it was with a damp cloth pressed over her nose and mouth, to shovel the ashes out onto the floor and place the silver coin Tom had given her near the top.
The note she left on the table's surface, a page torn from her journal and on it written, This life is too painful for me. A silver coin under the tongue kills a witch.
Slinging her bag across her chest, she wrapped her lightest blanket around her head and shoulders and walked through the woods to the road, where she lurked behind a tree until she saw the wagon pull up and stop. Tom was driving, an older man she assumed to be his father sitting on the back, and neither of them looked her way as they exchanged some words and then Tom signalled with his hand.
She darted out from between the trees, accepting the hand offered by the man on the back and letting him pull her onto the bed of the wagon.
"Rachel," he said, urging her down into the space between two covered items. "We'll get properly introduced in a bit." He shook out a blanket over her, the wood planks muffled by something soft and the space awarding her enough room to breathe and roll over but not much else. Sitting back down on the back of the wagon, he called out, "Ready," and they started off down the road.
One year later.
It was early in autumn, the sun high in the sky but cool enough for her to wear baby Thomas in a sling against her chest even as she checked the garden for late harvests. He slept calmly, only murmuring a little when she moved from her knees back onto her feet and reached down for her basket.
Carrying it into the house, she moved blindly from the back door to the kitchen table, her eyes adjusting from the bright light of midday to the dim of the indoors. She had three carrots, two small onions, and a turnip, and she left the basket on the table for Tom to take down into the root cellar later. For now, she filled two glasses with water and walked back out the door, rounding the house to find Tom in his workshop at the front, a table on its side in front of him as he worked on its leg.
"Hello," she called as she came up behind him, and he turned his head to smile at her, scratching at his nose and leaving a smudge of sawdust behind. She handed him his water and used her now-free hand to run over his hair, settling it at the nape of his neck as she leaned over beside him for a kiss and then stayed bent over so he could kiss baby Thomas' face too.
"How's the harvest?" he asked, sitting back and taking a drink from his water.
"Small but hearty," she replied, going to her chair positioned just out of the house's shade and sitting down. Her back was just starting to ache, and she sighed, her empty hand cupping Thomas' bottom as she took her own drink. "I'll go for my walk in a minute," she added, not wanting to keep him from his work, and he nodded, taking a breather long enough to drink his water and then picking up his tools again.
Sliding down a bit, Rachel tipped her head back against the wood of the chair and basked in the sun, humming something tuneless to herself and the baby.
Madeline spoke just loud enough to be heard, not wanting to startle the baby, and Rachel sat up again, smiling as their friend walked over from the house next door and stopped in front of her, casting her into shadow so she wouldn't have to squint.
"Good morning," Rachel said back, Tom just grunting an acknowledgement.
"And how's my babe today?"
Shifting the fabric of the sling, Rachel showed Madeline Thomas' sleeping face and she bent for a moment to coo before straightening up again and planting her hands on her hips. Madeline was a stout older woman with children of her own, who had children of their own, but they didn't live quite so near as next door so she'd adopted the three of them as well. (Well, four, but Jed wasn't so easily adoptable.)
"I've come with a mission," she said. "The boys are havin' a boys' night over at Nick's, which your two grown ones are invited to, so I'll be havin' a girls' night at ours, where young Thomas would be most welcome."
"His mum's invited, too, right?" Rachel joked, before asking seriously, "Won't the baby impinge on your girls' night?"
"Lovey." Madeline returned her serious gaze. "We can have child-free girls' nights when the lad's a bit further from the womb. He needs his mum, and we need her too, so we'll gladly take you both."
Rachel sighed, looking down for a moment to keep her emotions in check before smiling up at Madeline. "Sounds grand. We'll be there."
Starting to back away, Madeline included Tom in her next proclamation, pointing between the three of them and saying, "All three of you for dinner at six. Tom can walk with Sam over to Nick's afterward." Sam was her husband, Nick their eldest son who lived a few minutes' walk around the road.
Rachel smiled again, waving her away as Tom did the same, then Tom turned his smile on her and said, "I still don't see why we had to name the baby after me."
Standing up again, Rachel stretched her back carefully, trying not to jostle the baby, then walked over to grip Tom's chin in her hand and kiss him on the cheek. "Because there's no man I love more, and no other name I'd rather give him."
"I just think it's a little early to be Old Tom," he muttered, and her attention was divided as baby Thomas began to fuss a little with his eyes still shut.
Her tone for Thomas but her words for Tom, she cooed, "You can be Big Tom. You like being called big, don't you?"
He reached out to pinch her side, and she swatted him away as she danced back a few inches, laughing.
"Be nice to your wife. We're going for our walk now, anyway, before this one wakes up all the way."
Having caught her hand, he brought it to his mouth and kissed it, saying, "Be safe."
"You too," she said, leaning in for another kiss and then heading out of the workshop. "See you soon!"
She stopped at the side of the road, checking for activity and then stepping out, lengthening her stride so she could walk quickly without the baby bumping around too much. At the end of their road, past their handful of neighbours, was a patch of trees between the road and the farmer's field on the other side. It wasn't exactly a wood, just thick enough that when she stopped in the middle she could see trees for a little while on either side of her, but it was enough to remind her of home.
The good parts, anyway. Sometimes she still longed to lose herself in the miles of woods she knew like the back of her hand, but considering the boy on her chest and the man at home, she wouldn't change any of it for the world.
Here's to the room I can rest in, the door I'll always open,
never to be closed. You as my horizon line, the star I navigate by,
takes me back to hold two hundred perfect bones.