Uluki forced a grin onto her face when she saw Ian had returned. He'd done quite well-- she was surprised a boy his size could carry so much-- and he deserved praise for his efforts, not to be burdened with her troubles. Uluki had always been a poor liar, but she was used to masking sadness with a smile, and Ian hadn't known her long enough to be able to read her accurately. Her expression of happiness seemed to please him, and he smiled back shyly as she praised him.
"Well done. I'm impressed you managed to bring so much back." He rubbed one grubby bare foot against the other, but did not speak till she had answered his question. "I'd like you to take the bread in with the other food stores, please. I'll show you where."
Once he had set the bread down, he asked, "What do you want me to do next, missus?"
"I'm thankful for your help, but you've done enough for now. Why don't you sit down and have a meal? The rest of your family has already eaten."
"Aw, no, missus. I come here to work. I ain't tired. I still got more work in me. Mister Julen said we was to go to the scrap yard and bring back some stuff for you to use."
"Maybe later. For now I'd prefer you eat. Then you can see to your family. Your father...?"
"He's dead, missus. Been dead five years." No tears, but obvious sadness in his voice.
"It's your responsibility to look after your mother, brother, and grandfather, then?"
He merely nodded in reply, confirming the obvious.
"Well, that duty comes first. You need to eat-- no arguments, Ian, you must keep up your strength-- and then you can go see to them. Your mother has been very ill..."
He raised an eyebrow at the "has been," since when he left his mother had still been tightly in the grips of sickness, but he did not interrupt.
"...And I need you to check and make sure that she's alright. Bring her water if she needs it, and anything else she may require. She's counting on you, and so am I. Can you do that?"
"Yes, missus. I will, missus." He looked relieved.
"Good. Thank you." She gathered up some food for him and left him to eat.
She paused a moment outside the door, considering the boy. He ought to be in school, really. He ought to have a teacher. She wondered if he'd ever even learned how to read.
If she knew more, she could teach him herself. She could read, but she'd never had any sort of formal schooling. It was a rare Duskling child who ever did. Uluki had been apprenticed to a healer and then, when she showed magical talent, to a shaman, but she'd never been exposed to academics. She rarely had occasion to regret that... but this was one of those rare times. Uluki knew she was neither intelligent enough nor educated enough to teach others. She was determined, however, to find some way to provide these children with at least basic education, if nothing more. Surely even a little schooling would help.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the warriors' return with the needed wood. They were unharmed, and seemed to be in good spirits. "Thank you!" Uluki called, impressed with the speed and efficiency of their efforts. "You've been very successful, I see. That's excellent."
She addressed Triarius alone next. "I've splinted Metellus's broken bones. He is healing quite well. He is sure to make a full recovery. I can only imagine it is difficult for a warrior to be confined to bed, though. Perhaps it would be best for you to pay him a visit before beginning another task. It's important to keep his spirits up, as good morale leads to quicker healing."
Uluki then turned her attention to Gaelm, speaking between ax strokes so as not to interrupt his work, keeping her voice soft so only he heard her words. "You were right to be cautious about the forest. I think that was good judgment. I'm very glad to have someone around with such a talent for woodworking, as well. Thank you for all your help."
She nodded to the others in thanks for their efforts, but had nothing particular she needed to say to them, so she turned to her husband, smiling. Rollick scrutinized her face, then asked, "Uluki, can I speak to you alone for a moment?"
Uluki left Martin playing happily on his blanket under his sisters' watchful eyes, then joined her husband into an empty store room, the smile still pasted on her face.
"What in the world is wrong?" He sounded quite concerned.
Of course he'd seen through her expression. He knew her too well to be fooled by such an act. "Metellus is hurt," she said simply.
"Yes, I know. Triarius told me about the fight. It sounded as though his injuries weren't terribly severe, though? I'm sure with your help he'll recover quickly."
"He'd heal faster if I could..." But it was too dangerous even to finish the sentence.
Rollick's expression was sympathetic, but he seemed at a loss for words of comfort. He hugged her, rubbing her back gently.
Guilt stabbed through her like arrow after arrow. She was grateful for his kindness, for his warm and loving nature, but even that was a source of guilt.
If it weren't for her, he could lead a normal life. The children looked strange, but neither he nor they possessed any magic, and they would be safe. It was only Uluki herself who put them in danger. Without her nature-- a nature which currently seemed useless, since she could do nothing to erase even a simple injury-- they could live in peace. Uluki was the stone around their necks.
And Rollick... may the heavens bless him... Rollick loved that stone. She wouldn't blame him for abandoning her, for taking the children and forgetting her. Her heart would break and it would probably kill her, but she wouldn't blame him, wouldn't think he was doing wrong. Without her they could be free. They wouldn't have to hide.
But she was with them. Her presence forced them to live like hunted animals, desperate for a safe burrow. Her kind, good-hearted husband might be hacked to death by a paladin at any moment merely for the crime of existing... and it was all her fault. Rollick loved her. He loved her and would never abandon her, and his faithfulness might kill him.
Uluki pressed her face against his chest, dry sobs wracking her body, but her tears seemed trapped within her, bottled up like her guilt.
Rollick merely continued to hold her, continued to rub her back, trying to relax her. It always amazed her how gentle his strong hands were when he touched her. He touched her like something precious, something valuable. Like someone who mattered.
Uluki suspected Rollick had guessed what was wrong. He asked her no questions, offered no advice, merely said "I love you," as he stroked her back. And that, really, was all she needed. Uluki's breathing gradually returned to normal as the tight knot of panic in her stomach settled back into a dull ache of worry.
"I love you too," she said quietly when she'd caught her breath. "You mean so much to me."
Uluki decided not to say more on that subject at the moment for fear of setting off a fresh cascade of terror and guilt. Instead she said, in as even a voice as possible, "I'd like to make a stew for supper. It would be nice for people to have something hot to eat, and the ingredients will go farther that way than if we just ate them. I saw some scraps of wood lying around the building and yard. They weren't strong enough or large enough to be of any use in fortifying, but we could use them as fuel for a fire."
"Would it be helpful for your husband to build you such a fire?"
Uluki nodded. She knew he could find more impressive and almost certainly more enjoyable work to do elsewhere, but it would be nice not to have to drag all the wood out herself, and she'd need a fairly big fire. "Yes please."
Rollick set to work gathering up the scraps of wood, while Uluki collected ingredients. She couldn't find a kettle large enough to hold enough for everyone, but she managed to borrow several smaller cooking pots, and she could fill all of them.
The stew would take several hours to simmer, and Uluki stood by the outdoor fire, tending her cooking. She made sure to spread the word that anyone who needed her could find her there.