Theodius already heard the thump-thump-thump of approaching footsteps from a way off and didn’t even flinch as the door to his workspace was slammed open behind him, even though its sheer force made glass bottles rattle in their shelves.
“Daddy!” Hilla shrieked in a voice that only a four-year-old’s lungs could achieve.
“I’m here, sweetheart,” he answered calmly without looking up from his writing. The ink on the page was still gleaming wet and he finished his sentence while small hands grasped his trouser leg and started tugging it vigorously.
“Daddy,” Hilla said again. Patience wasn’t part of her vocabulary just yet. “Up.”
Theodius stoppered the ink bottle and set aside his quill before turning to meet the stubborn stare of his daughter. Hilla lifted up her arms with an expectant expression and Theodius chuckled as he lifted her in his arms.
She was getting too big to be carried around – she was still childishly plump yet tall for her four years, and reached Theodius to his waist already. A nordling child wouldn’t have grown in height quite so quickly, but Hilla was half-elven and the elvish childhood did not follow the same pattern. Children growing up always posed its surprises, but Hilla’s even more so than usual, and her fathers no longer knew what to expect with her. Hilla was both nordling and elven, but neither fully. She seemed to follow some unforetold path of her own, and all they could do was try to keep up.
Hilla’s eyebrows furrowed as she stared at her father’s work desk and all the forbidden items that she wasn’t allowed to inspect without adult supervision. “What does that say?” she asked.
“I’m just taking notes for a potion.”
“Can I taste it?”
“It tastes bad. It’s only meant to be taken if you’ve been foolish and eaten a fly agaric or something else unsuitable,” Theodius said.
Hilla wrinkled her nose. “Yuck.”
“Yep. Yuck. Wouldn’t recommend it.”
She pointed at the potion rack standing behind the desk, upon which stood different coloured glass bottles in a multitude of sizes and shapes. Her green eyes were round with curiousity. “What’s in that big round one?”
“Antidote for viper bites.”
“How about that blue one?”
“Sleeping potion. It helps with nightmares.”
Hilla pointed out each bottle with equal interest and Theodius answered her at least somewhat truthfully – some of the potions had uses that would likely have caused nightmares to someone so small, and he did not miss those times when she had woken up crying ten times a night. They’d had this very same conversation many times already, but it kept Hilla away from independent ventures and, most importantly, a safe distance away from the iron cauldron bubbling over the embers.
Hilla’s tummy let out a loud gurgle.
“How about we go grab something to eat,” Theodius suggested.
The girl leaned her head against his shoulder, pursing her lips. “I don’t wanna go in the kitchen.”
“Because it broke.”
“What did? The kitchen?”
“Well, you see, it actually wasn’t my fault at all.”
“Of course not. What’s broken?”
Theodius lifted his eyebrows, but said only, “that doesn’t stop us from eating, does it? I don’t know about you, but I at least want pancakes with syrup and jam.”
Hilla’s long elven ears twitched and an excited expression returned on her face. “Yeah. That sounds fun. Me first!”
She squirmed her way down from Theodius’s lap and went stomping off the room. Theodius followed her and latched the door carefully after himself, just in case. He noticed at once when he entered the kitchen that one of the embroidered pillows from the couch had encountered a bitter end, for there were feathers here and there on the floor, and the pillow cover looked as if it had been mauled by some large beast. He didn’t have to wonder for long to figure out what had happened; he’d heard a muted bang just moments before Hilla had come into his office and guessed that something had gotten in the way of her temper.
It gushed out of her sometimes, magick. Mostly when she least tried to make it so. Theodius had noticed already when she’d been very small that her powers were unpredictable. In her met two flows of opposite sources – the elven life source and the nordlings’ darker, more corrosive source – and Theodius didn’t know if she knew how to channel both or neither. It was unlikely anyone else could have answered that, either; there were no known unions between their two races in history, or if there were, they were from a time long before such things were written down anywhere. Giendei didn’t have the gift of channelling at all, though he was able to touch his people’s side of the original source, whereas in Theodius the gift was naturally strong. Hilla seemed to have received half and half in this, too. Either or, all or nothing.
What it meant for the girl’s future, Theodius didn’t even dare to guess.
Hilla had already clambered onto her chair. “Pancakes!” she shouted and wiggled her legs so that the entire chair shook.
Theodius spun the tea mug in his hands and didn’t touch the pancakes much at all, to Hilla’s great delight. Outside, dark clouds were swirling across the sky, and even though it was already afternoon, a faint mist floated over the valley and hid the lake from view. Theodius stared out the window with unfocused eyes. Giendei had been gone for two and half weeks. The last of the snows had melted from the valley the week before and all first signs of spring were there, but the road through the pass was unpredictable. The journey back was always an open questions: if the snow melted slowly, it could even take a month.
The waiting was just as unbearable as being apart.
“Daddy,” Hilla said suddenly, as if guessing what was on his mind. “When’s papa coming home?”
“As soon as he can. Just eat.”
Hilla glanced out the window, then turned her attention back to the pancakes. She’d upended approximately half the contents of the jam jar on top of them, for the pastries were covered by a thick blackberry layer. She spooned some syrup over it and mixed it all together while smiling in satisfied manner.
In Theodius’s opinion she looked more like Giendei, in Giendei’s opinion more like Theodius. Her short curls were Theodius’s, but her hair’s flaxen colour was Giendei’s. The eyes were obviously Giendei’s – as green as spring leaves and bright in light and shade both, like only an elf’s eyes could ever be. Her skin was a grayish lilac, like a strange mix between Theodius’s purple and Giendei’s pale gold, and she had freckles. Most of all he could see signs of Giendei in the girl’s expressions; she had the same brows that easily furrowed with worry, the same smile and often the same laughter, too. It eased the worst of his longing when Giendei was gone.
Hilla started and jumped up in her chair.
“What is it?” Theodius asked.
Her ears twitched as she listened. Now Theodius heard it, too – the drumming of a horse’s hooves in canter. Hilla’s face split into a wild smile and she jumped down from the chair, pancakes entirely forgotten.
“Papa arriva, papa arriva!” she squealed. Theodius didn’t know too many words of the elven tongue, but he’d heard these precise words so many times that he knew their meaning.
Hilla had dragged the front door open and dashed to the yard before Theodius had even gotten up from his seat. The girl’s shouts came back as echoes from the hills of Fallgrove. Theodius hastily pulled on the first shoes he found and followed her outside.
Through a thin veil of mist approached a chestnut coldblood horse with a long mane in slow, collected canter. Theodius recognised Giendei sitting astride Virma even before his face came into view – his mid-length, golden hair flowed and his posture was straight as an arrow. He lifted his hand in greeting, smiling broadly.
“You’re early,” Theodius said as Giendei brought the horse to a halt beside them. He lifted Hilla just enough so that Giendei could hoist her on his lap. Giendei laughed as Hilla squeezed her tiny arms around his neck and drowned him in hugs.
“Mi sei mancata,” Hilla said. She was clinging from Giendei’s neck in a way that didn’t look too comfortable, but Giendei was holding her effortlessly and smiling so that his eyes seemed to sparkle.
“Anche tu mi sei mancata, uccellina,” he said gently and kissed Hilla’s cheek. Hilla giggled at the pet name – uccellina, little bird, was Giendei’s nickname for her. “Hold on, I’ll get us get down.”
He held Hilla with one hand and the reins with the other and jumped down smoothly, as if the child weighted nothing.
“Did you bring souvenirs?” Hilla asked, eyeing the saddle bags with interest.
“Certainly I did. Wait.” Giendei put her down and started opening the straps of the bags. Hilla clung to the hem of his coat while waiting and let out an eager noise when Giendei dug out a package wrapped in brown paper from the bag. “There’s a bit of this and that in there. Open it indoors so you don’t drop anything.”
Hilla hugged the package against herself and scampered back in the house.
Giendei shook his head, laughing. “That child has such energy. How have you managed alone with her?”
“Just fine.” Theodius touched his arm and said in a lower voice, “may I now welcome you back in private?”
He pulled Giendei against himself, stood on his toes and kissed him deeply, without haste, and fully enjoyed the warmth of his lips against his own.
Giendei smiled so that the skin around his eyes wrinkled and embraced Theodius tightly, and neither of them let go for a while. He pressed a kiss in Theodius’s hair, breathing in his scent, and at last felt that he’d come home.
“I missed you enormously,” Giendei said softly. He loosened his grasp just enough to look into his husband’s brown eyes. “Light of my life, my treasure. Not one of the elven tongues has enough words for how much I love you.”
Theodius was used to Giendei’s tendency to get poetic during tender moments, but he could feel his face burning up regardless.
“Well, aren’t you being poetic,” he said teasingly, grabbed him by his collar and kissed him once more. He had earned it. “You must have pushed poor Virma to the brink of death to have come home in such a short time.”
Virma scoffed and bumped her muzzle against Giendei as though in confirmation.
“She was in the mood for running,” Giendei declared. “Perhaps we were both homesick.”
There were sounds of something being ripped open and delighted squeals coming from the house.
“There might still be some crumbs left from the pancakes. You can tell us about your journey while we’re eating. I’d very much like to hear more about how you’ve missed me.”
Giendei laughed. “In a multitude of ways, believe me. But I think I’m telling you that part later in private, when the little miss is already fast asleep.”