Dianne Hartsock © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Luka settled cross-legged on the hearth with a murmured word of gratitude to the fire as its warmth surrounded him. Keeping a veiled eye on the woodpile, he crumbled a crust of bread and honey onto the stones. The animals had grown skittish of late, and he missed their company on his long tramps through the forest. The cabin had grown lonely without Rhys’s vibrant presence.
The thoughts of his lover sent his gaze to the small stack of books he kept close at hand to leaf through during the long empty nights. He’d rescued the young man from a brutish existence at the hands of a madman, and the stories were all that would ease his frantic, tortured mind. Rhys would sit close to Luka while Luka read the heroic tales until his head would nod, and he’d slump into Luka’s arms, a warm, living presence in his solitary life.
Luka raised his head, attentive. Winter gathered outside the latched door, wind howling through the trees, sending their limbs scratching along the roof. A shiver traveled up his spine. Something darker than the storm was coming.
The fire snapped in a shower of sparks, recalling his attention. He drew a small bundle of twigs from a pocket, cupped it in his worn, nut-brown hands, and breathed in the scent of juniper and sage. Chanting the words his mother had taught him long ago, he tossed the clump into the flames. A tendril of smoke rose, twirled in lazy circles in the air and brushed against his face.
He breathed deeply, holding in his lungs the heady smoke of the sage and grasses he’d gathered by the stream last autumn. His thoughts cleared. He saw everything! Snow whipped through the darkness between the trees, carried on the fierce wind. His beloved animals huddled in the scrub brush for safety and warmth. The village beyond the forest barred its doors, fires lit, safe inside while the storm raged.
His thoughts soared, bursting into the moonlit landscape above the clouds. Laughing aloud, his spirit flew in wonder, heart aching at the beauty of the night. But something tugged at his heart, his name shouted on the wind. He blinked at tears, bringing the fire back into focus, the cabin solid around him. Night pressed on the shuttered windows. Something was in the night…
Luka’s heart leaped. He comes! A soft cry of joy escaped him, and he rose in one fluid motion to his feet. He’d sent Rhys away to find love elsewhere than in the arms of a lonely witch, and yet he came, daring the storm.
“Come to me,” he urged the solitary figure in his mind’s eye, struggling up the path to reach him. A tremor seized him. Long years of bartering his herbs and potions to the villagers had passed while he waited with hope and dread for Rhys’s return, darkness at his heels.
He crossed the wooden floor of the cabin, logs he’d hewn and planed himself, lighting the candles with a word as he passed, filling the room with light. Luka paused at the door, hand hesitant on the latch. He had enemies beyond this safe threshold. What if Rhys had gone to them in his bitterness and returned now for revenge? Luka closed his eyes, seeing again the pain on Rhys’s youthful face, the confusion in his eyes when Luka told him to go, and closed the door on his anguished pleas.
A rap on the door sent his pulse racing. Love and doubt warred inside him, but he had to know, see the truth of it. He opened the door a crack; icy wind whistled in. A figure stood on his step, the heavy cloak clutched against the cold obscuring his features. Who was this? He swung the door wider. The energy was all wrong. But Luka would welcome him in whatever guise he wore.
He opened his hungry arms, but Rhys shook his head and looked up, candlelight spilling on his pale face, grown older. “You sent me away—brokenhearted.” Rhys’s voice was deeper than he remembered. “If I cross this threshold, I won’t leave again. Be very sure.”
Luka trembled, searching the beloved features, and mourned the sweet innocence that was missing. Snow sifted through the trees adding to the weight on Rhys’s shoulders, and Luka swallowed his doubts. “Come inside.” He tugged on Rhys’s sleeve, unable to mask his eagerness. His heart stumbled, then leaped, seeing a flash of elation in Rhys’s eyes.
Rhys stepped into the cottage in a flurry of cold air and snow, and Luka hastily closed and latched the door behind him. He turned, and his lips parted in a startled gasp. Rhys had removed his cloak, snow already melting on the warm floor. His golden hair fell loosely to his shoulders, and his body filled out the tunic and trousers he wore in a way it hadn’t five years ago. He had grown into a handsome man, the fine wool of his clothing attesting he’d done well in the village.
Suddenly conscious of his frayed sleeves and ink-stained fingers, the silver now threading his dark braid of hair, Luka glanced away. His gaze fell on the books and parchment littering every surface, candle wax spilled on the tabletops. A thick layer of dust covered the bookshelves, except for the volumes he used for reference. He chewed a lip, troubled.
“Come to the fire,” he offered, taking Rhys’s cloak to hang on a peg. “There’s a stew simmering on the hearth.”
Rhys touched his shoulder, halting him. “A moment. I’ve come to warn you. Your old enemy—”
“Is coming. This I know. We’ll talk of it later. Please, come to the fire. You must be cold.”
Luka swiveled sharply at the command in Rhys’s voice, a thrill rushing through him. So much courage from his once timid lover. Was this the same man he’d rescued? The young lad of seventeen years, chained and beaten in a dank cellar? Rhys wouldn’t speak of his parents back then, saying only he’d lived on the charity of others—until he’d been snared, captive to a cruel man’s dark appetites.
Rhys’s soul had cried out in anguish from his prison, finding Luka’s heart, drawing him deep into the forest to the monster’s isolated hut. Luka had eluded the dark sorcerer, freeing the lad and taking him into his home. And later, into his bed, a moth to Rhys’s bright flame, his heart opened for the first time in uncounted years to love and promise.
He tucked a hand under Rhys’s elbow. “Come to the fire, dear heart. Let me see you in the light.” He dropped his gaze again, unaccountably shy. “I’ve missed you.”
“And I…” Rhys’s voice trailed off into a sigh and he let Luka lead him across the room. Luka ignored the hurt he had no right to feel. He knew Rhys had been with others after they’d parted, had felt his moments of ecstasy and sorrow while Luka sat at his lonely hearth, unable to bring himself to severe the connection Rhys had no knowledge of and couldn’t remove anyway.
But he’d also suffered Rhys’s loneliness in the dark hours of the night, when Rhys missed him with a physical ache, a longing to see him again, hear his voice, touch his hand. Those times had torn at Luka’s vulnerable heart with sharp talons. It was Luka himself who had at last severed the tie, unable to bear the pain he’d caused.
Rhys took the low stool on the hearth and Luka knelt at his feet, wishing he could put his head in Rhys’s lap, have him loosen his braid and run fingers through his hair, soothe his troubles as he had so often in the past. Instead, he scooped the last of the stew into a wooden bowl and handed it to him along with a spoon.
“Why have you come?” he asked, watching Rhys eat as if ravenous, wishing he had more to offer. He’d make an extra loaf of bread in the morning and perhaps find some winter berries in the snow for him…
Rhys motioned with the wooden spoon to the pile of books against the hearth. “Sir, do you not recognize your white knight, come to rescue you?”
Luka snorted at the old jest between them. “Perhaps I am the ogre under the bridge?”
Rhys shook his head and finished the bowl without answering. He set it purposefully aside and turned a grave face to Luka. Disconcerted, Luka flushed hotly under the scrutiny, and he sat cross-legged on the stones. The fire crackled, and he watched the sparks shoot up the chimney. Luka thanked the flames once again for their warmth, the cold of winter kept outside the snug walls of his cabin.
He heard the moment Rhys grew impatient. The creak of the stool as he shifted, his harshly drawn breath. “Aethan has returned to the forest. Does this not concern you at all? Why do you not flee? With your subtle power you could have a place in the prince’s court itself. Why do you tarry within Aethan’s reach?” Bewildered and angry, his distress vibrated in the air, and Luka quickly shut his mind to the wave of emotion battering his defenses. He would not look into Rhys’s heart. He no longer had the right.
“I have felt his dark presence,” he admitted. “My concern is for you. I wished you far from here when he returned.”
Rhys clenched a hand. “Did you think I would abandon you to him? I was his slave, Luka! Endured his many cruelties. He would gladly see me dead. But you, my love, he will torment and torture until your mind breaks in exquisite pain—” Rhys bit off his heated words, controlling his fear. “He seeks the Well.”
“He will never find it,” Luka vowed, and felt the subtle shift in the world, bending to his will. Aethan was strong, frighteningly so, but Luka had far more to lose, something more precious than life to him.
Rhys watched him and a tender smile curled his lips. “I’m tired, Luka. Do you have a cot for me? Though I would prefer the warmth of your bed.”
Luka blinked, torn. Rhys gave him no chance to answer, leaning forward to press kisses to his cheeks, the eyelids he closed in surrender. Their lips brushed, but then Rhys pulled back, drawing a moan from him.
“No. I think not. Not tonight.” His calculating expression in the flickering firelight smote Luka’s heart. “I believe blankets here on the hearth would be best.”
Luka inclined his head, accepting that Rhys had yet to forgive him. He dragged his own mat of twigs and sweet grasses to the fire, laying out the thick comforter of goose down he’d made that spring. Rhys murmured a goodnight and settled into bed. Intensely conscious of him, Luka added wood to the fire, then took a blanket and his troubled heart across the hearth. Rhys had returned. That was enough.