The small shed is well-hidden in bushes—much further from the house than I’d expected—and the light is failing quickly. Maybe I should have carried my clothes back and dressed with Torrin—these eyes and this light . . . .
Yeah, and likely passed out. Idiot.
Anyway, Garvey seems to know the way.
Something tall and dark moves away from the shed as we approach. Torrin, I hope. There’s a rattling sound, and suddenly there’s light on the ground.
“Always good to have a torch handy,” he says cheerily. “You manage to find everything?”
I nod, then realize he can’t see me, and say, “Yeah. Garvey helped.”
“Good, good. Follow me, it’s not far.”
I fall in behind him and his pack of dogs. Garvey stays close, but even he seems happy to be nearing home. He trots forward, his tail high, occasionally brushing my midsection.
The ground is mercifully flat and well-trodden. Uneven terrain, just now . . . I don’t even want to think about it.
Of all the fucking days . . . .
Somewhere up ahead, a bright point of light pokes through the trees, then several more. I can hear the river again, too. I guess we must be getting close.
After several more minutes, we step out of the woods into a clearing across from what must be the side or back of the house. Lights shine out through several windows, glowing warmly.
“Here we are,” Torrin announces without turning. The dogs surge past him and run, barking, into the expanse. Only Garvey and what I’m pretty sure is the dangerous-looking setter remain behind—Garvey near me, her near Torrin.
Ahead, off to the right side of the house, the dark silhouette of the tower looms heavily against the deep, almost-black blue of the sky. A lone star shines brightly, just off to its left.
“You probably can’t tell,” Torrin says, “but this is the vegetable garden. Not much left growing, now, but Eoin does a wonderful job with it in the summer.”
“Eoin?” I ask, though I’m not sure I care. My head feels like it’s floating in syrup.
“Oh, you haven’t met him, I guess. Sky let you in?”
“Um, yeah,” I say. “Sky.”
“Ah. Well, Eoin’s sort of my apprentice. Quite talented, really. But, ah . . . yes, well, he does all the cooking. It’s kind of our arrangement.”
He laughs and adds, “Don’t tell him I said so, but, really, I’m getting the better part of that deal.”
I nod, though he’s not looking to see.
We cross the clearing and approach a heavy wooden door, set in a narrow stone archway. Two bright windows are set off to the right. The dogs rejoin us, crowding in around Torrin, but he waves them off.
“Not in the kitchen, guys—you know that! Go on, around to the courtyard!”
He points down the wall, and with barely a moment’s hesitation, they all take off, running happily after each other, racing to be first around the corner. Even the setter goes, this time. Only Garvey stays.
“What?” Torrin asks, turning. He kneels to tousle Garvey’s head, then tries to draw close to his face, but Garvey backs off—into me—avoiding Torrin’s hands. He glances to me, then to Torrin again.
Torrin watches both of us for a moment, then rises, chuckling. “Okay, okay,” he says. “But no grabbing snacks from the counter.”
Garvey starts wagging his tail.
“He seems to have grown quite attached to you.”
“Can’t imagine why,” I reply. “I don’t even like dogs.”
He watches me impassively as I say it, then looks down, away from me, and smiles. I follow his gaze down and realize he’s looking at my hand. It’s rubbing Garvey’s flank. I pull it away, and grin sheepishly.
“Okay, fine. Most dogs.”
He shakes his head, still smiling, and turns to open the door.
“Enjoy your run?” asks a male voice, as we step through. But the heat and smells of the kitchen hit me like a blow, and I almost stumble back from it. I feel a sudden shortness of breath, and I go from syrupy to headachy and nauseous in an instant.
Across the room, a young man—somewhere in his late twenties—turns from his work at the counter and stops short. Flour drifts down from his hands to the floor. “Well, hello!” he says to me, then turns to Torrin. “Nobody told me we had guests.”
“Just found out about it myself,” Torrin replies, laughing.
The young man looks back to me and adds, “Are you feeling alright?”
Torrin turns to look at me, and immediately grabs a chair. “Here, you’d better sit down. You really don’t look well.”
“No, no,” I say, waving him off. “I’m fine. It’s just . . . ”—I pause as a wave of nausea rises to my throat—“the heat, after being outside for so long. Maybe I should just go outside for a few more minutes.”
Torrin nods, and I turn to fumble with the latch. It catches once, then releases, and I stumble through, out into the coolness. The nausea mercifully recedes as I pull beautiful, dense, cold air into my lungs.
I walk out a few steps, then drop down onto a thick stump on the edge of the garden. Garvey trots over and sniffs at me worriedly. I rub the side of his neck, but don’t really pay him attention.
“Set up for three more, will you, Eoin?” I hear Torrin say in the kitchen.
“Three? Are you kidding me?”
“Sorry, Eoin. I’ll talk to Sky later—I don’t know why she didn’t think to tell anybody about them.”
He steps out the door and pulls it softly shut behind him. I turn and pretend I wasn’t listening.
“Just how much did you have?” he asks as he arrives. It’s not an accusation—his voice is soft—but it stabs at me, even if he didn’t intend it to.
I hate it when I’m stupid.
“Too much . . . . ” I say. I blink a couple of times and look away—across the vegetable patch, to the dim glow on the horizon. The quiet closes in around me, and, after a moment I admit, “A couple of glasses full, I guess.”
“Glasses?! Shit, Tiergan, you should have said something before we ran all the way back here!”
I snort. “Yeah. Probably.”
My voice sounds angry and short in my ears, and I realize it must to him, too. I turn quickly, to apologize. “I’m sorry, Sir—I, I mean Torrin. I . . . . You’ve . . . .” But whatever it is I want to say won’t form into words.
“Relax, Tiergan. It’s fine. Stay out here as long as you need to.”—He pauses to laugh.—“I’m sure Garvey will keep you company. Look, I’m going to go in and see to Keely and your cousin. ‘Brennan’, wasn’t it?
“You’ll be staying the night, I presume?”
“Well, it’s dark. It’s generally considered bad form, as I recall, to go traipsing through other people’s territory in the dark. Or has that changed?”
When I fuck things up, I fuck them up good.
I drop my head into my hand and debate resisting the urge to cry.
“Tiergan, really—it’s fine. You can stay the night. I’ve got plenty of room.”
I shake my head slowly, in my hands. The tension that has been growing around my eyes all afternoon tightens into something much more sharp. Garvey seems to sense something’s wrong and tries to poke his nose in, to lick at my face, but I push him away.
The words spill towards my mouth, and, stupid as I know it is to let them pass, I just can’t seem to find the effort to stop them.
“I’ve totally fucked this up, Torrin,” I say, though I can’t imagine why he would care. “Faolan sent me to do the simplest little thing—and I couldn’t even do that right.
“I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me.”
Silence follows, and it grows instantly uncomfortable. I open my mouth to cover it with some kind of joke, but he speaks before I get the chance. “Tiergan . . . . ”
I brace myself for a scathing rebuke.
“Look, I don’t know you, and I don’t know what problems you are dealing with, right now. But I do know this—you aren’t thinking clearly. Do yourself a favour, and give things a few hours to clear, okay? Stay out here, if you want, until you’re feeling better, then come in and have something to eat. I’ll go take care of things with everybody else—you don’t have to worry.
“If you still want to talk about this later, I’ll be around.
He says it so calmly, so matter-of-factly—like he actually gives a shit.
But he’s right. I shouldn’t be talking to a First, right now. Not like this. Not even this First—strange, incomprehensible, packless one that he is.
For no reason I can figure out, he’s trying to save my ass.
I pull in a deep breath and straighten up, then nod slowly.
“Good,” he says, and turns back to the house.
As he reaches the door, I call to him. “Torrin?”
He pauses to look over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
I want to say something that matters. Something to express how grateful I am that he’s been so kind. That he hasn’t handed me my ass, as I deserved.
But I’ve got nothing.
“Thanks,” I say. It sounds ridiculous, even to me.
He smiles, then steps inside.