The light was on.
A lantern hung in the window of the little cabin on Ruby Lake and laughter could be heard all the way out by the lane. The man paused at the gate with his bow slung over his shoulder. His hair and beard made him appear wild; bits of the far Chetwood clung to him everywhere and he pulled his fingers through his the tangled net on his head. His eyes were weary and wary as he looked upon the small dwelling. There was guilt in the way he drug his feet as he approached the door. He raised a fist to knock and then remembered who the house belonged to. He carved a smile into the weathered bark that was his skin and took a deep breath. The latch lifted easily and he pushed the door open.
Inside, a woman and a teenage boy sat facing the fire burning low on the hearth. Smoking nuts sat in a pile between them and as he watched, the boy took one and tossed it into the fire. It popped loudly and the woman batted at his arm.
“Abbi, stop! I want to eat those!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
The boy laughed and tossed a handful into the flames. “They’ll be extra crunchy for you.”
The woman threw a handful the boy. He ducked, laughing, and leaped up and away from her. As he grinned, he spotted the man in the doorway and his eyes lit up.
The boy called Abbi limped over to the man and hugged him. “Brother, it is good to see you!”
The elder brother looked down at his younger and his creaking smile splintered. The boy glistened with sweat and a rash covered the skin exposed by his loosened tunic. Eirikr placed a hand on his forehead before he could protest.
“Abbi, you have a fever. You should be resting.”
The boy smiled. “No, no. I’m fine, brother. Just happy to see you. You look like hell.”
The woman stood and turned to face the reunion. She scolded Abbi gently, “Watch your words, Abiorn.” Eirikr stared at his sister in disbelief. Every time he saw her, it seemed like there was something new. Tonight, the quiet joy he had felt from her was only slightly dampered by his sudden appearance. He hadn’t been sure what to expect. Tears and anger? Embraces and jubilation? He had years of experience dealing with both from her. He did not know how to take a cool and responsible Anya. He looked at his brother for a lead.
Abiorn waved off the gentle reprimand and shuffled to the hearth. “Let me make some tea, Eirik.” He looped his hand beneath the handle of the tea kettle and set it on the rack to heat.
“Thank you,” the man said from just inside the door.
The cabin never felt so small. Anya simply stood, staring, while Abiorn placed three cups on the table with hands swollen at the knuckles. He fumbled and the noise from the clay cup hitting a saucer split the silence otherwise punctuated only by the popping of the fire.
“Didn’t chip,” Abiorn assured himself as he tried to measure out tea leaves.
“Here, Abbi.” Their sister walked over to take the jar of leaves and the spoon. She placed the leaves in the teapot and then replaced it on the shelf. Each movement seemed deliberate. Measured. Eirikr’s chest tightened the more he watched his sister treat him with such wariness. He couldn’t blame her. He had lost track of the days while he traveled the Chetwood and the northern mountain range surrounding Nen Harn. He ate what he shot or fished from the waters. If his bow or hook found nothing, he chewed pine bark or found what he could in the way of greens and mushrooms. He didn’t mind roughing it and he had done it many times before.
The look his sister gave him now, however, made him pause. It was if she thought he might spring at them at any moment. As if he was a stranger.
“I’m sorry it was such a long time,” he said to break the silence between them. “I…lost my way near Trestlebridge. Orcs nearly surround the place. I had to circle around to avoid…”
Anya nodded without looking at him. He felt his stomach drop and he took an involuntary step backwards. His hand reached for the door.
“We were just eating these nuts Anya got from the market,” Abbi interjected. “They’re from down south. Come on, Eirik. Sit down and try some.” He hurried over to the stack and picked up a fistful and shoved them in his mouth. “They’re good!”
Eirikr nodded and moved to sit where Abbi indicated. He watched his sister’s rigid back as she fetched the kettle and made the tea. Her grey eyes shone as he caught a glimpse when she brought him a cup, but she turned away before he could ascertain why.
When the pile of nuts was depleted and the flames of the fire replaced by the soft glow of smoldering embers, Anya excused herself for bed. She hugged Abiorn tightly and then gave Eirikr a little pat on the shoulder. She passed into the sole bedroom and as the brothers watched her form disappear behind the door, Eirikr let out a heavy sigh.
“You were gone a long time, Eirik. Near three weeks, I’d reckon. Hell, she probably didn’t think you were ever coming back.”
“Abbi, your language. You’re still a gentleman.”
“Like you, brother?” Abiorn leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on one Anya had abandoned. “Sorry. Didn’t mean it like that. But I’d like to think I left all that rubbish behind in Dale.”
Eirikr didn’t answer right away. His thoughts drifted north to the woods and the banks of the lake. When Eruviel found him there, he was more wounded beast than man. His pain made him deaf to her concern and imploring. He had hurt her. And he had hurt Abiorn and Anyatka. He did not look at his brother, but he knew the young lad’s eyes were on him. They always were on him, even when he wasn’t here to be seen.
In the quiet that fell between them, he thought he heard a distant howl. “We left a lot of things, Abbi. But we shouldn’t forget who we are.” He rubbed the thick beard covering his chin. “I need a trim.”
His brother grinned and nodded. “Aye. You do, or you’ll scare the neighbors. They’re pretty decent folk, far as I can tell.”
“Think they’d appreciate if we got that tile out of the yard?”
“Yeah, I think so. Eruviel came by the other day and offered to help. We didn’t know when you’d be coming home.”
Eruviel. He owed her so much. He owed all of them for disappearing for so long. He looked over to his brother and together their heads turned to the closed bedroom door.
“She’ll come ‘round, Eirik. She’s been lots better recently and seein’ you back’s probably just a shock, you know?”
He nodded and offered him a meek smile. The muscles around his mouth protested and his cheeks felt unusually hot. Abiorn grinned in return and punched him in the shoulder.
“Just don’t go runnin’ off for so long again, okay? Then she won’t act like she’s seen a ghost or something next time you come back.”
The smile eased and he managed a quiet laugh.
“All right, Abbi. I won’t.”