Abiorn turned the ceramic mug over to inspect each side. The relief of a bears could have been ugly (Anya would have expected it to be ugly), but Lina had found something subtle and quite perfect for Abiorn’s sixteenth birthday. He clearly liked it.
“‘Course, Abbi,” Lina said with her lopsided grin. “Business has been good,” she said.
“You wanna go down to the Cask? Try it out?” Abiorn said eagerly. “Maybe we’ll run into Penn and he’ll be jealous.”
Anya sighed and frowned, but did not say anything to stop him.
“Sure,” Lina said agreeably, “but I’ll meetcha down there. I wanna talk to Anya ’bout sumthin’ first, ‘kay?”
Abiorn nodded and pushed back from the table and his plate, picked clean of his birthday supper.
“All right, meetcha at the Ford,” he said. He eyed the two girls before stomping out the door.
With another sigh, Anya stood to begin cleaning up dinner.
“Thank you for invitin’ me,” Lina said as she watched Anya work. “I, ah, so.”
Anya gave the girl a look. “Of course. Abiorn’s fond of you and you are one of my first friends here, Lina. I wish you came around more.”
“Work,” was all Lina answered. She shifted the remaining crusts of bread around on her plate. “So. Ah, how’re yeh?”
“I am all right,” Anya said and Lina looked up at her sharply. Even though she didn’t come around much, Lina could tell Anya was not quite “all right.”
“Really? I mean, I ran inta Morty at the Pony. I wanted ta come by even if it hadn’t been Abbi’s birthday.”
Lina could see Anya tense immedately. Her friend’s voice strained for control as she answered.
“What did he say? Was he grumpy? I am sorry if he was. He seems to be… under some stress lately.”
Shaking her head with disbelief, Lina replied, “Anya. Look, he said he tried ta break it off with yeh. I couldn’t give a lesser shite what he’s under. I wanna know why yeh want ta be with a man who don’t wanta be with you.”
Anya set down the carving knife and turned to Lina with a cold expression that masked a greater underlying fear.
“Lina, what do you mean? What did he say?”
Shifting uncomfortably in her chair, Lina admitted, “Tha’ he didn’t wanna hurt yeh no more. Tha’ he though’ he was stealin’ the best yearsa yer life or somethin’ like that. He said he tried ta break it off with yeh. Looked real tore up about it, though.”
What little colour was left in Anya’s cheeks had drained from them. She stood as still as a statue, her palms braced on the wooden table before her, as she answered.
“I know he thinks that right now. He does not understand that it does not matter how old he is or what he does when he is not with me. I love him.”
Lina shook her head and said vehemently, “Bu’ tha’s just it, Anya. He knows he’s doin’ yeh wrong and yeh just let him! Yer young an’ pretty, an’ tha’s why he likes yeh. Yeh don’t see him chasin’ skirts’a women as ancient as he is, do yeh?”
“He loves me.”
“If he loved yeh, he’d take better care’a yeh. Anya, girls down at the Mantle’s got blokes’re more attentive than he is. How can he be when he’s got girls all over the place…”
“I don’t want to know about his other girls! I don’t care who they are!”
Lina blinked up at Anya. A dark, angry flush crept up her friend’s cheeks and now she looked like one of the girls before they learned how to apply the paint properly to their faces. Pale and comical and sad.
“Anya. Really. He ain’t all that special. He’s jus’ another bloke.”
“He’s not just another ‘bloke’!” Anya insisted angrily. Lina grew wary as the rush of words included contractions: something that happened when Anya lost her composure completely. “He’s so much more than what he makes himself out to be, I know he is and everyone always leaves him, not the other way around! Well, I won’t, Lina, I just won’t! He deserves to be loved for who he is and what he is and I will always love him! Why don’t you get that? Why doesn’t he?”
The delicate girl slammed her fist into the oak table and immediately let out a harsh cry of pain. She clutched her knuckles to her chest and glared at Lina who had sat through the tirade giving her a sad look.
“You are the one, aren’t you?” Anya accused lowly. Her low, rich voice broke harshly. “You convinced him to leave me. It is why he told you those things.”
Lina rubbed her nose with the palm of her hand.
“Yeah. I guess so, but I hadn’t meant to. He was gushin’ on an’ on ’bout his kids and how much he loved ’em and I told ’em yeh’d give ’em more babies if he’d only asked.” Lina shook her head. “I don’t understand how that made ’em all wantin’ to leave all his women all the sudden. He wanted babies. He’s got women willin’ t’give’em babies. Darn fool seems to have ‘sactly what he wants, yeh ask me.”
The color flamed in Anya’s cheeks and for a moment, she did not look like herself at all. It must have been the cloud that passed over outside or the dark hair from her ordeal with the spirit. But for a moment, her features almost seemed to appear more sharply angled, her eyebrow more dangerously arch. Even the several inches of reddish roots in her hair seemed black in the shadow that passed over the house.
“Anya,” Lina said more cautiously, “I jus’ think…I jus’ think yer better’n what he’s got. When Anric ditched yeh, yeh had Mossfoot. Ditch Mossfoot an’ I’m sure someone’ll come along. I could see if Rush knows anyone, yeh know. Mehbe one’ve his brothers or somethin’.”
“Lina, I think you should go now.”
Startled at the abrupt dismissal, Lina protested, “I’m jus’ tryin’ta help yeh, Anya. He don’t even have it in ’em ta do what’s right when he knows it’s right.”
“Please leave!” In a calmer, though more dangerous tone, Anya added, “Abiorn is probably waiting for you. At the ford.”
Lina stood up and rubbed the back of her head.
“Sorry, Anya,” she murmured before taking her leave.
Anya’s silence as she left followed her all the way through the market and to the ford where Abion was waiting.
“Come on!” he said eagerly as she sauntered up to him with her hands shoved in the waistband of her breeches. “What’s wrong? Let’s go to the tavern!” She hadn’t noticed how much he’d grown since he came to Bree: an inch or two at least. Despite the boyish eagerness of his grin, he looked less kid and more man and Lina sighed and wondered when he’d start looking at women as only playthings.
She rearranged her features into her easy, eager smile. Her eyes lit up with a false fire and reached for Abiorn’s arm.
“Sure thing, Mister Tenorbekk,” she teased. “Whatever yer heart’s desire.”
Beneath the house of the Elf, in a crate and warded safe, a statue of a dragon lay cold and alone. Upon its forehead, an adamant star begins to glow.
A cold wind blows, whispering around the empty home.
Out. Out. Through the spirit and out the soul. Out. Out.