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It's winter by the time
they reach Ari's village.
Johan and Althey and Rakel
have to carry the three littlest children
to keep them out of the deepening snow.
Johan follows what he can remember
of the description of the village and the farm.
There is a boy hauling firewood
with the help of a ruddy mule,
and yes, Johan can see a hint of Ari in him,
his light brown hair cut straight so that it falls
along the edge of his strong jaw.
The mule lifts his head and gives a happy bray,
dancing in the harness until the boy gives up
and turns him loose. Johan and Althey
are nearly bowled over by the mule's exuberance,
his soft nose bumping their chests and hands.
"Reckon Apricot likes you,"
the boy drawls.
"Yes, I suppose he does,"
Johan says with a smile.
There is a subtle brightness
to the animal's energy
that Johan recognizes.
"You miss Shahana, don't you?"
he murmurs to the mule.
"Tell you a secret: so do I."
Apricot whuffles agreement.
"So you're one of Shahana's paladin friends,"
the boy says to Johan. "I'm Larn, Ari's brother."
Johan looks at him, weighing his own response;
nothing feels quite right to say anymore.
At last he sighs and says,
"I am Johan, paladin of Gailah.
This is my novice, Althey."
Johan beckons to the others
and they introduce themselves.
"What brings you to our village?"
Larn asks him.
"I found these folks in an abandoned village,"
Johan said. "Gailah has bound Althey's fate to mine.
We don't want to leave the others by themselves.
I'm wondering if you might have space for them here.
They're old enough to make themselves useful,
and according to Ari, you're the landfather on the farm."
"I'll think on it," Larn says,
which is generous of him
in the face of so many mouths to feed.
"We don't come empty-handed,"
says Rakel, holding up a small bag.
They're laden with all the supplies
they were able to scrounge,
but that's the last of the loot
scavenged from the dead mercenaries:
melted lumps of metal that used to be coins,
blackened gems that might come clean
with a good scrubbing.
Larn takes them to the house,
where they meet a girl about Ari's age,
roundly pregnant, with a long scar down her face.
"Dalka, these folks are friends of my sister Ari,"
Larn explains, though only Johan
has actually met Ari before this.
Dalka waves them inside
while Larn tugs a reluctant Apricot
back toward the abandoned firewood.
She pokes at supper on the hearth,
sighs over it, and puts on another pot of beans.
"Whatever you have will be fine,"
Johan assures her. "We're not picky."
Something about the way she moves
prompts Althey to reach for the curve of her belly
and ask, "May I?"
Dalka crosses her arms
and growls at him.
Her response makes Johan grimly certain
that there's some kind of unpleasant history afoot.
So he unlaces the front of his tunic
to show Dalka the healing scar on his shoulder.
"Althey may look young for it,
but he's a good healer," Johan says.
"Fine," Dalka concedes,
"but he keeps his hands outside my dress."
"Fine," Althey says.
There are spells for this sort of thing,
but Johan doesn't know them
and neither does Althey.
He spreads his fingertips over her belly,
closes his eyes, and concentrates
on his inner senses. Smiles.
"Healthy, I think. Boy, I think."
Dalka can't help smiling back at him.
"Thank you," she says softly,
and goes to look for tasks
that can be done by little hands
to keep the children busy.
"We're staying," Althey says to Johan.
"She's not a week from her childbed."
Johan raises his eyebrows.
"You ever catch a baby before?"
"I've watched," Althey says.
"I've helped," Rakel adds.
"I was the oldest before -- well. Before."
She cuddles the little ones
clinging to her legs, who are not
her siblings or her children
but beloved all the same.
"All right, we're staying, if Larn lets us,"
Johan agrees. "I'm sure we'll manage
to cope with whatever comes along."
Larn lets them stay, clearly relieved
at having a healer in the village
even for a little while.
Dalka gets more work done the next few days,
because she can't card and spin and knit
all at the same time, but now there are more hands.
Rakel takes over the cooking, and she's better at it,
while Dalka sits in the rocker with her needles clicking.
The younger children card the wool, ready
for Rakel to spin after each meal.
The baby comes at the end of the week.
Dalka snarls at Althey, fierce as a wolf bitch,
until he calmly takes out his fallen star
and blows it alight, ethereal glow
filling the whole room with peace.
Shine on, star of health and healing
Soothe us with a soft embrace,
Johan thinks to himself.
He has not taught Althey the hymns,
but he will. It's time and past time
for Johan to quit dragging his feet
and start doing his duty for the boy.
At the end of it, Althey beckons to Larn
and says, "Come meet your son."
Larn flings up his hands in alarm
and says, "Whoa, no, he's not mine!
I didn't get Dalka in trouble,
I just offered her a place to stay."
"Well, you're the man of the house,"
Althey says firmly.
"That makes him yours now."
He shows Larn how to hold the baby.
"Just hang onto him for a few minutes
while Rakel and I get Dalka cleaned up."
Poor Larn looks too terrified to move.
The baby is not crying,
but his little face is scrunched up
and he's making unhappy squeaks.
Althey is busy with Dalka,
so Johan steps up to deal with Larn.
He puts a hand on Larn's back,
and sure enough, the muscles are rigid.
"Relax," Johan tells him. "Rock in place
and he should settle down. Here, like this."
Johan sways a little, guiding Larn,
and the taut body loosens enough to follow him.
"Remember the world is scary and new to a baby.
You want to make him feel safe and loved."
"Do -- do you know any -- baby songs?"
Larn stutters, looking at Johan.
"Lullabies, no. Hymns, yes,"
Johan says softly.
He lifts his voice to sing 'Star of Gailah'
as he should have done for Althey long since.
The baby stops squeaking to listen.
"All right, mama's ready to feed him,"
Althey says eventually,
and Larn hands the baby over.
"Dalka, what are going to name him?"
"Dunno," she says. "I don't have
any family names I really like.
Larn, what about you?"
"You want me to name him?"
Larn says, and now he's squeaking.
"Just give me some ideas,"
Dalka says with a roll of her eyes.
"My father's name was Von,"
says Larn. "I had an uncle called Charo ..."
"Von means hope," Johan adds,
though nobody has asked for his opinion.
Dalka smiles then, star-bright and beautiful.
"Von," she says. "I like it. That'll do."
She cuddles the baby against her breast,
and Johan sends a silent prayer of thanks
to Gailah because he's grateful to see that,
however ghastly the past he's not asking about,
something good has come of all this.
"You -- you can stay as long as you want,"
Larn says. "If I didn't say so before, I mean.
You've more than earned your keep."
"Thank you," Johan says.
"I'm sure Rakel and the children
will be glad to stay her with you.
Althey and I will need to move on
as Gailah guides us --"
A soft ripple of grace touches him, then,
light as a feather against his cheek.
"-- but not just yet.
Larn leans against him.
"Oh good," the boy says,
clinging a little, or more than a little.
Johan goes back to rocking him,
because Von isn't the only one
finding the world scary and new right now.
They'll get each other through it, though.
Johan starts singing again.
After a moment, Althey joins in,
his voice wavering over the unfamiliar words,
but already growing stronger.