After speaking to Callie, Julen spent the rest of the afternoon doing whatever tasks seemed most necessary. He trained, worked on the fortifications, and helped unload the wagon whenever it arrived back from one of its trips. He even found time to chat a little with the women taking their sewing lessons. Callie’s reaction to him had made Julen realize that most of the refugees were accustomed to thinking of people with weapons as bullies and overlords. Julen wanted to change that perception. He wanted them to think of themselves as equal to the warriors, with nothing to fear from them. So, Julen made small talk, learning the refugee’s names and complimenting their fledgling efforts. At first, the women seemed nervous, answering him with downcast eyes. But after a little, they loosened up. Julen even managed to elicit a few smiles and giggles before other work called him away.
Of all the plunder brought back to the base that day, there was one thing Julen wanted more than anything else. He wanted it more than trophy rings, more than bishani, more than improved weapons or armor. He wanted a bed. Not that sleeping on the floor had been too much of a hardship for Rosemary and him. They were both sturdy. But still, it bothered Julen that his wife didn’t have something softer than a folded cloak to rest on after a long day. Dutifully, Julen distributed the pieces of furniture to those whose needs were greater -- the old and mothers with small children. Until, finally, only one bed remained. It was small, and plain, and apparently made by a drunken carpenter with broken tools. But it was a bed. Julen could hardly disguise his glee when it became apparent that he would be able to keep it.
A bed is not an easy thing to sneak anywhere. But then, an orc is not an easy thing to see around. While Krarug distracted Rosemary, Julen and several of the Lightswords carried the bed up to his room. Soon after that, Tulip arrived, smuggling the fabric scraps and bits of ribbon that she’d promised to bring. Knotting them around the bedposts, Julen managed to create the suggestion of streamers on a colorfully wrapped gift. A few small candles, waiting to be lit, completed his preparations.
It was hard to sit through dinner without giving away any hints. But somehow, Julen managed it. When he and Rosemary had finished their stew, and made a desert from a few of the precious fruits brought by the nomads, Julen escorted his wife up to their room. “Surprise,” he whispered, placing his hands over her eyes.
“Surprise?” Rosemary’s voice rippled with undercurrents of laughter. “What sort of surprise?”
“An anniversary surprise.” In truth, it was nowhere near their anniversary, which fell during the spring months. But Julen was thinking of their wedding night, when he’d covered the bed with wildflower petals, before leading his bride over to it. All night long, each fumbling exploration had stirred a flurry of color and filled the air with fresh floral perfume. “Now, close your eyes.”
When he felt sure that she’d complied, Julen removed his hands, and opened the door to their room. Quickly, he lit the scattered candles. Then he turned back toward Rosemary. “Alright. You can look now.”
Rosemary opened her eyes. And when she saw the bed, and the candles, and her husband’s hopeful expression, tears blurred her vision. Even as she pressed a hand to her mouth, she couldn’t name what emotion she was trying to contain. Her heart felt balanced on a sword’s edge, caught between joy and sorrow.
Not understanding, Julen feared that his gift had been a disappointment. “I’m sorry. I know it’s not much. I had to give the nicer ones to people who needed them more. You were expecting something better, weren’t you? I guess I shouldn’t have made such a big deal about it. I just thought--”
“You foolish man!” And then, suddenly, Rosemary’s body was pressed against his, her arms wrapped tightly around him. “You clueless, stubborn, frustrating man. Don’t leave me. Please. Don’t ever leave me.”
Julen attempted to return Rosemary’s hug, only to find his arms pinned to his sides by the ferocity of her embrace. So instead, he nuzzled her cheek, pressing kisses wherever her auburn hair slid aside to reveal the soft flesh beneath. “Never,” he vowed. “How could I leave? How could I walk away from you? The first step would break my heart. The second step would steal my sanity. The third step would kill me.”
A sniffling sound was Rosemary’s only reply. But after a few moments, she released him. Gently, Julen took his wife’s hand, and lead her over to the bed. “You really like it?”
“I love it.” Smiling, Rosemary toyed with one of the strips of fabric he’d tied to the bedpost. “And I love you. You always take such good care of me.”
“I try.” Julen couldn’t help suspecting that he’d fallen short in that particular area, no matter how much Rosemary might deny it. But it felt good to see her happy. That was all he wanted -- to make her happy, to keep her safe. And the issue of safety reminded Julen of something else. “Rosemary? I was thinking that it might be better if you didn’t leave the compound for the remainder of our time here. We killed most of Snyde’s thugs, but we didn’t get Snyde himself, and he’s going to want revenge. A cornered rat can be more dangerous than a confident one. As far as we know, he hasn’t learned who you are. Still, it wouldn’t be hard for him to find out, and I don’t think we should take any chances.”
The candlelight chased shadows back and forth across Rosemary’s face. “Stay inside? Like a prisoner?”
“Just until you’re able to return to Shim. That shouldn’t be long.” Julen couldn’t bring himself to mention the things Callie had told him about, couldn’t give voice to her graphic description of the horrors that would befall any loved one that Snyde got his hands on. He didn’t want Rosemary thinking about such things, much less fearing that they might happen to her.
“So I’m expected to wait patiently while you march into battle?” Rosemary’s voice had acquired a dangerous sharpness. “But you can’t even survive the thought of me going on a shopping trip?”
“That’s different. I need to fight those battles.”
“And I need to live my life!”
Despite himself, Julen felt his temper rising. “It will only be for a few more days. Why do you have to be so difficult about this?”
“Because it won’t be for just a few more days! So I go back to Shim -- then what? You’ll still have enemies. I’ll still be vulnerable. Being in Shim didn’t protect me from the mercenaries.” Yanking her hand from Julen’s grip, Rosemary placed it on her hip as she glared at him, daring him to deny anything she was saying. “How will you protect me in Shim? Assign a couple of Lightswords to stay by my side at all times? Board up the farmhouse and keep me inside it like a diamond in a miser’s vault? Or maybe, just maybe, you could trust me?”
“I do trust you. I just -- things have changed.”
“What?” Rosemary demanded. “What has changed since you stood before everyone in our village and told them you wanted me for your wife?”
“It was supposed to be easy!” The words burst out of Julen, driven by his panic and desperation. If he lost this argument, if he failed to convince Rosemary, she would be the one to pay the price. His beloved Rosemary would get hurt, and it would be his fault. “Why can’t you understand that? When I took you as my wife, I thought I’d be giving you a good life. A safe home, a child, a husband who was never far from your side. But instead, I stole all those things from you. I made your life miserable. If I’d known -- if I’d known how things were going to turn out, I would have begged to you marry another man.”
The fire in Rosemary’s eyes turned to ice, and Julen knew that he’d said the wrong thing. “Rosemary, please. I just meant--”
“I know what you meant,” Rosemary hissed. “I was good enough to be your wife when you thought I’d never need to face any challenges. But now that things are hard, you’ve lost your faith. You think I’m not strong enough to be your partner. You treat me like a child, or a pet, or a possession. Well, I won’t live like that. Not for you, not for any man.”
With that, Rosemary turned and marched from the room, slamming the door behind her so hard that two of the candles flickered out. Every muscle in Julen’s body wanted to spring up and chase after her. But his mind knew it would be useless. As long as she was shouting at him, her heat could still turn to passion. Now, he’d spoken too unwisely, cut too deeply, and nothing remained but frost. There would be no reconciliation tonight.
Falling back on the bed, Julen grabbed one of its pillows and pressed the cushion over his face, howling his frustration into its muffling bulk.
Eventually, exhaustion dragged Julen down into sleep. But even sleep seemed unwilling to offer him any peace.
Instead, he dreams of standing on a battlefield, chaos all around him. He feels the thick mud sucking at his boots. He feels the sweat inside the fingers of his leather gloves. In the distance, a voice shouts orders, but Julen can’t understand them. They sound like a strange garble of other languages. All he knows is that he must hold his position. To protect his friends, his family, everything he loves, he must hold his position.
A warrior steps from the teeming mass of fighting men. He’s impressively armored, wearing a helm which conceals all his features -- even his eyes. In the dream, this makes sense to Julen. He doesn’t question how a man can fight without seeing. He just knows that he must hold his position.
Sword raised, then shield. Thrust blocked, strike parried. Julen only experiences moments of each action, while other moments are lost to him, like puzzle pieces that drop away into darkness before he can assemble them. Finally, an opening presents itself. Julen swings. And his opponent falls.
Silence. Every other person on the battlefield abruptly vanishes. For several seconds, Julen stands alone, staring down at his slain foe. Then, a cracking noise ruptures the stillness. Thin lines appear in the warrior’s helm, and it shatters, falling away to reveal a horribly familiar face.
Out of nowhere, two figures come running onto the battlefield, throwing themselves down in the mud as they embrace their dead father. “Papa! Papa!” Tears run down Zee’s face when she raises it to stare accusingly at Julen. “Why did you kill our papa?”
Julen opens his mouth -- tries to explain, tries to justify his action. But there is no explanation. There is no justification.
Then Uluki is there, sobbing for her dead husband. “How could you do this to us?” she screams at Julen. “I should have left you in the street to die! I should have left you to rot!”
Trained by years of nightmares, Julen’s eyes snapped open, and darkness rushed into them, obliterating the terrible image of his friend’s hate-twisted face. But her voice continued to ring in his ears. Only lying absolutely still, listening to the raspy sound of his own breathing, finally made it diminish. Julen knew where the dream had come from. And he knew that, no matter what had happened to Callie’s husband, he would never be forced to kill Rollick in battle. Unfortunately, knowing such things didn’t keep his hand from trembling. Instinctively, Julen reached for Rosemary, only to find the bed empty beside him.
“Gods,” Julen groaned as he sat up. His head ached, no matter how much rubbed it, and his body twitched with a restlessness that mocked the possibility of sleep. So, moving as quietly as possible, Julen made his way through the darkness of Lightsword Hall, until he came to an exit.
Slipping outside, Julen found himself standing near the beginnings of Uluki’s garden. Even now, many hours after it had been disturbed, the smell of freshly dug soil hung in the air. Julen inhaled great, gulping breaths of it. Then, he knelt on the ground, breaking a clod of dirt between his fingers just to feel it crumble. The familiarity of the sensation comforted him. This was what he understood, the earth and the things that grew in it. Not the ways of warriors. And certainly not the ways of women.
The voice was so soft that it didn’t even startle Julen. Glancing in its direction, he saw Kaydee standing near him. “Hi. What are you doing up so late?”
Kaydee didn’t answer immediately. Instead, she sat down on the ground next to where Julen was kneeling. “Rollick had a nightmare. It woke everyone up and I couldn’t get back to sleep.”
“Rollick?” Julen would have never guessed that Rollick suffered from nightmares. The elderly warrior seemed so strong, so centered, so confident. Julen was the weak one, the one who allowed his own mind to torment him with grim visions. Yet, it seemed that Rollick shared his problem. Strange. And strangely reassuring. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Uluki said it was alright.” With her finger, Kaydee began to draw in the loose dirt, not looking at Julen. “I heard that Rosemary decided to spend the night with another group of refugees. What happened?”
“I don’t know.” Part of him really didn’t understand. And part of him did, but didn’t want to think about it. “I gave her a present. She seemed happy. Then I said the wrong thing and we had a fight. I don’t know.”
“Do you ever think...do you ever think that maybe it shouldn’t be this hard? That maybe if two people are really meant to be together, it’s easy for them. As easy as Rollick and Uluki. As easy as us, just sitting here, just talking to each other.” Kaydee tilted her head, glancing over at Julen. “This does feel easy, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. It does.” Ever since the ordeal with Snyde, Julen felt surprisingly comfortable around Kaydee. She understood darkness. He didn’t need to paint over shadows or pretend they weren’t there. “But marriage can be difficult. There may be things going on between Uluki and Rollick that we don’t see. My parents loved each other, and it didn’t make everything easy for them. Sometimes, when you really care about someone, you need to endure a few storms. Sometimes you have to fight for them.”
“I guess.” Kaydee scooted back from her dirt drawing, revealing a picture of two people surrounded by giant flowers. For several minutes, she stared down at it, as if trying to reach some sort of decision. Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out a charm hanging on a blue ribbon. “Remember when I said that you deserved a medal for rescuing me from Snyde? Well, I made one for you. I hope you like it.”
Surprised and flattered, Julen grinned as Kaydee hung the medal around his neck. It felt good to be appreciated. “It’s fantastic. Thanks so much. I--”
He stopped because Kaydee’s lips were suddenly pressed against his own. Reflexively, Julen’s eyes slipped shut. Inside his head, he was so busy telling Kaydee how wrong this was, how they could never be more than friends...it took him a moment to realize he was actually kissing back. And the shock of that made him jerk away. Julen’s eyes popped open, and he gawked at Kaydee like a rabbit cornered by an unfamiliar beast. “Kaydee, no. I’m sorry. I can’t. You can’t. We can’t. Not ever.”
Unfortunately, Kaydee leaned closer to him, her face beautiful in the moonlight. “But you want to, don’t you?”
Desperately, Julen shook his head. “No.” And yet, even as he spoke the word, he thought of her in his arms, bits of colored fabric and ribbon stirring softly while their passion made the entire bed tremble beneath them. The image nearly choked him. Since his marriage to Rosemary, Julen had never experienced so much as a flicker of desire for another woman. The fact that he could still feel something like that for a woman other than his wife was deeply disturbing.
“I have to go.” Too flustered to worry about hurting Kaydee’s feelings, Julen scrambled to his feet and fled. He didn’t stop until he reached his room. Once there, he shut the door behind himself, and collapsed on the bed. His heart was beating as hard as it ever had in battle. What just happened? Nothing! Nothing happened. I was tired, and confused, and hurt by the fight with Rosemary. That’s all. Rosemary is the only woman I love. Rosemary is the only woman I’ll ever love...
Sleep did eventually take Julen back into its embrace. But for a long time, he lay awake in the darkness, gripping the medal that hung from his throat where a silver locket had once been.