© Carole Cummings
GETTING PUNCHED in the face, Milo was abruptly forced to admit, hurt just as much now as it had back in primary school. More, even, since this was no pudge-knuckled fist swung with all the strength of a nine-year-old. Though, Milo’s brain took an inconvenient moment to reflect, there was exactly as much surprise involved now as there had been back when Freddy Jenkins dy Moss had decided “by-blow” rolled more easily from his obnoxious tongue than “Milo” did.
Milo had taken exception.
“This is assault, you know.” Milo straightened, hand to chin, fingers tapping lightly at his throbbing bottom lip and coming away unquestionably bloody.
“More like serving and protecting,” was the bored response from the Warden, nothing more than a too-tall, too-broad shape blocking Milo’s way in the fog-drenched pitch.
It was dark, too dark, which was what had started all of… this. No moon, no stars, the indigo of twilight long since fettered shadowy and close by black night misted cold and opaqued by river fog. And these idiots had dropped their lamp. Milo had been trying to be helpful.
The one in Milo’s blindspot had yet to let go of Milo’s shoulder, and the grip was rapidly becoming as much of a problem as the unfurling thump in his jaw. Tendons probably weren’t supposed to grind into bone like that.
“Protecting from what, exactly?” Milo leaned against the hold to spit the taste of metal from his mouth, dabbing at his lip with the back of his hand. “It was a bloody magelight, you great, spineless ogre.”
Indignation was quickly overriding surprise as Milo tried again to shrug away the hand on his shoulder and couldn’t. Fighting harder wasn’t worth the resulting throb of his jaw every time he moved. He could swear the emergent ache pulsed in time to the rippling tempo of the river beneath the bridge—upon which he’d just been assaulted.
He prodded his lip some more. “I swear, if you’ve loosened teeth I’ll have your guts.”
Milo had good teeth. And he’d like to keep them.
“And that’s a threat to a Warden of Wellech.” This voice was female and sounded more irate than the man who’d done the punching. The grip on Milo’s shoulder shifted to the back of his neck. Squeezed. “What d’you say, Andras? That’s enough to charge him with—”
“Hoy, what’s the trouble there?”
It came from across the bridge, loud and deep and somehow arrogant, and Milo could swear he heard amusement beneath it. He couldn’t see for the wide shape of the brute—Andras, apparently—in front of him, but he could hear the hollow clop of hoofbeats on the boards of the bridge as the man approached. At least this one carried a lamp, unlike these other two halfwits, though it was shaded where it hung from a sling across the horse’s withers, and only hemmed at the dense dark.
Damn, now it was three against one. If Milo wasn’t growing so patently furious about the injustice of being accosted then assaulted while minding his own damned business, he might take a moment to cultivate a bit of concern over being so obviously outnumbered.
Rather than loosening the grip on Milo, the woman who had hold of him tightened it, making Milo wince and curl his shoulders up as she said, “Suspicious person caught trying to cross the Outpost, sir.”
This time Milo didn’t hold back—he shot a warding hex at the woman to make her let go, and when she did with a yelp, he ignored the heavy-looking truncheon Andras brandished nearly in front of Milo’s nose.
“I was nothing of the sort!” Milo directed his ire at the man who’d paused in the middle of the bridge to dismount and lead his horse toward them. “I was merely existing—which, last I checked, I’m permitted to do—when these two accosted me and demanded my papers, and when I tried to hand them over, I was assaulted!” He held his bloody fingers out in front of him as proof, though he had no hope anyone could actually see them. “Is this how the Wardens of Wellech always behave? No wonder the rest of Kymbrygh think you lot are a pack of inbred—”
“Yeah, you might want to pin that,” the man drawled as he nudged aside Andras and handed him the horse’s reins. “I’ve a feeling you’ve already made a couple enemies, and....” Gingerly, he set a finger to the tip of Andras’s truncheon and pushed it aside. “Wouldn’t want to make one of me as well, I’m thinking.”
It was pleasant, almost jovial, but threat ran through it as obviously as light through clear glass. He looked like he would have no problem carrying it out too. Not more than a glimmer-limned silhouette in the dark, he appeared not quite as immense as Andras, but this man was still tall and broad, and held himself with the calm authority of one who knew his strengths and how to use them. A truncheon twin to Andras’s hung at the man’s belt, the skirt of his long coat pulled aside to expose it as subtle menace no doubt, and a wide-brimmed hat made it impossible to see anything but a meager gleam of eyes in the dark.
“I’ve made no enemies.” Milo said it evenly but didn’t try to dampen the undercurrent of fury to it. “These two, on the other hand, will be reported directly to the Kymbrygh MP’s office once I’ve concluded my business here in Wellech.”
“Reported for what?”
“Reported for—?” Milo gaped. “Didn’t I already say for assault?”
Proper tamping now, he threw his hands out, refusing to flinch or even acknowledge it when Andras’s truncheon came up again in reflex. The horse blew with a shift of hoofs on the boards, clearly picking up on the tension. The man in front of Milo, however, the one obviously in charge here, didn’t so much as twitch.
“Is everyone here ignorant as well as asinine?” Milo demanded. “I admit I haven’t been to Wellech in years, but I don’t recall it being an actual crime to enter, and I’m quite certain getting punched in the face for trying to comply with a request is not considered serving or protecting by people who are actually sane!”
“Y’ got punched in the face for attempting to use magic for harm,” Andras put in, clearly piqued.
“It. Was. A. Magelight!”
The woman sidled out to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Andras. “It was magic out of the dark with no warning and without permission. You deliberately—”
“Permission? Since when do I need—since when does anyone need—?” The mix of outrage and exasperation was making it difficult for Milo to form sentences. “And anyway, it was magic because it was dark! I was trying to be nice!”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.” The man in charge held up a hand. He waited until all heads turned his way before he said, “Rhywun Andras. Rhywun Bethan.” Calm. Flat. “Where is your lamp?”
Andras and Bethan were silent for a moment, before Bethan cleared her throat and said, “Fell in the river, sir.”
“…Ah-ha. I see.”
“It was an accident.”
“Yes. No doubt.”
“Because they were too busy chatting to each other when I approached,” Milo put in, unapologetically bitter. “I said ‘pardon me,’ and this one”—he pointed an accusing finger at Andras—“yipped like I’d just goosed him, and there went the lantern.”
“Syr.” This from Andras, loud and fairly indignant, and said directly to the new arrival. “He’s wearing… and he’s got....” Andras waved his great hand at Milo. “He’s clearly Dewin Sect.”
It shook Milo rigid. His rage had nearly reached a choke-point, but a small lump of out-of-the-blue fear abruptly sideswiped anything he might have retorted. He was used to people knowing what he was just by looking at him. He’d never once had such in-his-face cause to view it as a possible drawback. Not until now. And the powerless disbelief and newness of it stung.
The high-necked greatcoat had been a fashion that became a conceit then over the years an unofficial livery for the Dewin; the sigil-etched gold earring he wore in his left ear was a right he’d earned through years of study and practice. His dark hair and pale skin… well, he couldn’t really do anything about those, even if he’d wanted to. And he hadn’t wanted to. He’d donned the coat tonight out of pride and probably a bit of vanity it hadn’t occurred to him he might regret—he’d worked bloody hard for it, after all. Prejudice had been an infrequent thing in Milo’s admittedly rarified practical experience thus far, but it wasn’t like he wasn’t aware of its existence. It would be rather difficult to remain ignorant considering what was going on only half a continent away, and with the Purity Party twaddle getting louder every day. Only, he hadn’t thought he might run facefirst into it here.
It was fear, of course. Because Dewin weren’t sorcerers or witches but mages, pulling power from within themselves, from blood and bone, rather than borrowing from the forces around them. Dewin didn’t use magic—Dewin were magic. Milo had never understood how such an arbitrary distinction could hold such importance to some.
But that wasn’t the point.
“I am.” Milo squared his shoulders. “Dewin Sect, that is.” He addressed the man who was clearly a superior to Andras and Bethan, and so far the only one who was actually listening to Milo. “Funny, though. That’s never been cause for anyone to treat me like a criminal before.” He lifted his chin. “Has Wellech taken to outlawing orthodoxies they don’t like?”
The man sighed as though this was all just too trying for him. For him! “Now let’s not get carried away. This is not—”
“It was magic in the dark!” Bethan burst out, overloud and offended. As though she had the right.
It silenced everyone for a moment. The River Aled bustled beneath their feet, all cheerful and minding its own busy affairs. The fog, by contrast, seemed to gain weight and take on an oppressive feel that hadn’t been there before but now sank into lung and bone with a chill that stoppered breath and shuddered right down Milo’s spine.
The man broke the uncomfortable hush with a weary-sounding “Uh… huh.” He dipped his head, rubbed at his chin. “So.” He blew out what sounded like an exasperated sigh. “Am I to understand, then, that this”—he waved to encompass all of them—“came about because this man tried to supply a magelight by which to see the papers you asked him to produce upon broaching the Outpost and attempting to cross the bridge?”
Milo huffed and rolled his eyes to the heavens. “Finally!”
“Hush, you,” said the man and turned back to the other two. “Rhywun Bethan?”
Bethan straightened and lifted her chin. “Syr, we were given instructions to be extra vigilant tonight in light of the coven assembling. Your tad wanted no trouble, and said we were to—”
“Bethan.” The man hadn’t raised his voice, hadn’t moved, but it cut Bethan off clean. “Tell me—who is the First Warden of Wellech? Would that be my tad?”
Bethan’s silhouette slumped. “No, syr. That would be you, of course.”
“Your… tad,” said Milo. “First Warden.” He tried to squint through the dark, but he still couldn’t see anything but shapes. “Is that… is that Elly?”
The man twitched. “It’s Ellis, yes. Ellis Morgan dy Rees.” He paused. “Do I know you?”
“Well, it’s been years, but I should hope you wouldn’t have forgotten entirely. And if you’ll permit me to produce a magelight without getting punched in the face for it, I reckon we can find out.”
Another pause, this one shorter, after which the man waved a hand and said, “By all means.”
Smiling now, perhaps a bit smug, Milo flicked his fingers until a soft little globe flared at the tips, a wash of yellow-blue skimming the faces of Bethan, Andras, and… well. Magelight was always chancy, cutting out shapes in monochrome blues and skewing them with shadows that didn’t belong. But Milo’s memory was already busy filling in blanks that seemed to have shifted beyond it, melding it to here and now, and the result was… interesting.
Ellis had changed. A lot. Taller, of course, and broader—so much broader—and the podge of youth in the brown cheeks had honed to bold angles, nose straight with a slight upturn, and a wide, firm jaw that looked like it could bite through leather. His hair was longer, a crimp-curled sweep across wide shoulders, lighter now than the bark-brown sunstreaked with auburn Milo remembered. The eyes, though… well, Milo couldn’t see them in the dark, really, but he’d wager they were that same fathomless slate, uptilted at the corners so Ellis always looked like he was enjoying a private joke, possibly at your expense.
“Duwies and all the goddesses.” Ellis rubbed at his mouth; Milo suspected it was to hide a grin. Shaking his head, Ellis kept his eyes on Milo but said to Bethan and Andras, “You’ve no idea who this is, have you?”
Andras scowled. “That’s what we were trying to find out.” Petulant.
There were so many retorts Milo could give to that. He kept his mouth shut, and merely shrugged at Ellis.
Ellis rolled his eyes but finally dragged his gaze from Milo to turn it on Bethan and Andras. He opened a hand toward Milo.
“If this man had wanted to attack you with magic, rest assured, you would be nothing more than a couple of greasy streaks of ash right now. And while I appreciate your extra vigilance this evening to keep any threat away from the coven while they meet, you might want to consider the fact that the only reason this man is not sitting Second Chair in said coven is because he’s yet to sit the rites. Also, Meistr Eluned refuses to die, but that’s another matter and not the point. The point is that the only reason he’s not sitting First Chair”—Ellis paused with a grin and dropped his hand—“is because his mam is.”
So, that… was not the way Milo would have liked Ellis to handle this.
Firstly, it was mostly inflammatory, vicarious boasting. Milo was still newyddian, after all; he wouldn’t receive the adept—arbenigwr—rank until after he’d sat the rites this evening, and he had a long way to go to even get within touching-distance of a meistr rank, let alone lead a coven.
And secondly, the instant and shocked regard from Bethan and Andras was already heating Milo’s cheeks and making him want to sink through the boards of the bridge. Fused so abruptly with the lingering wrath and bit of fear, it was all coming together to make his stomach roil.
“Your mam is the Black Dog?” Bethan’s voice was again overloud but her tone this time was eager.
“The Black Dog Corp is a myth,” Milo said, reflex, because it was how his mam always answered any hint of that question, and though the rumors were both consistent and persistent, her reaction to them was always the same—instant denial; instant scorn. He shrugged. “But yes, my mam is C—”
“Ceri Priddy.” Andras was apparently so awed he’d forgotten his truncheon entirely; it hung limp at his side now, his grip loose enough Milo could probably snag it and whack him with it if he wanted to. He sort of wanted to. Almost breathless, Andras said, “The Witch of the Namurs Front, and Angel of Marnet.”
Milo scowled. “She’s Dewin too, since that seems to matter to you, and so prefers the term ‘mage’ over ‘witch.’ And I’d like to see someone try to call the Offeiriad of the Kymbrygh Coven an angel to her face. It’s not even the same sect!”
No one was even listening to him. Bethan and Andras, it appeared, had forgotten entirely that Milo was even there, too busy talking over each other with tales of courage and intrigue involving a woman who Milo knew had trouble remembering where she’d left her spectacles, and who’d cried romantically maudlin tears when Milo had confessed to having experienced his first kiss while away at school. This “witch” and “angel” was not someone Milo knew, even if he’d heard the stories as much as—probably more than—anyone else.
Ellis, though, was smirking quite blatantly, eyes sparking mischief right at Milo. Amused satisfaction was all over his familiar-unfamiliar face as he listened to his apparent minions wax rhapsodic about epic battles in a war they only knew through history lessons, and possibly a few sozzled veteran’s tales at the local pub. Ellis let them run on long enough for Milo to start shifting uncomfortably then held up a finger. Only that, a small, silent gesture, outwardly unobtrusive and benign, but it shut Bethan and Andras up in seconds and had them both straightening their backs. And Ellis wasn’t even looking at them, eyes on Milo the whole time.
When there was no sound left but the quiet rush of the river, Ellis lifted his eyebrows at Milo, and… there. That was Elly. That was the boy who was a little too confident and more annoying for it because his charm combined with his undeniable cleverness meant he was good at everything he tried, and the arrogance was infuriatingly justified.
As though privy to every single thought currently hogtying Milo’s wits, Ellis grinned, though it only stayed long enough for him to turn to Bethan and Andras. Ellis’s whole demeanor slid immediately into disappointment and mild irritation as he stuck his hand in his pocket, and jerked his head toward his horse.
“Bethan, please take Calannog to the stable at West Spring and tell them I’ll pick him up on my way back to the Croft. Andras, I’ve got Dilys on her way to relieve you. Please remain at your post until she does. I’ll see you both in the morning to discuss”—Ellis waved a hand—“this.”
“But, syr,” Bethan objected, even as she reached to take the horse’s lead from Andras. “Dillie’s only still training, and she’s only just—”
“She is, at the moment, more prepared for this post than you,” Ellis cut in, sharp, then flicked his gaze to encompass Andras too. “Than either of you. Wellech has not had the honor of hosting a coven for longer than I’ve been alive, and I won’t have reports of inhospitality preventing us from hosting another.”
With an absent pat to the horse’s neck, he unhooked the lamp from its sling and shoved it at Andras. “Don’t drop this one, yeah?” He turned to Milo. “I see no luggage.”
“No, I...” It took a second for Milo’s brain to adjust to the jag in conversation. “Your mam sent a hire car to the station for us. I felt like a walk so I sent my bag along with Mam and told her I’d meet her at the Bluebell.”
“Ah!” Ellis grinned. “So you’ll both be staying at Rhediad Afon with Mam, then? She didn’t say. I’d been wondering why she’s had the kitchens in a dither, but she wouldn’t tell me.” Before Milo could answer, Ellis gave Bethan a brisk “Off with you, then, quit your gawking” then took hold of Milo’s elbow and tugged. “C’mon, I’ll walk you to the Bluebell.”
“YOU SHOULDN'T have told them what you did. That ‘greasy ash’ thing you said.” Though there was mild censure in Milo's remark, he suspected the grin behind it was audible. “They were clearly keyed up about the prospect of magic in general, and just the word ‘Dewin’ seemed to scare them spitless. Feeding the worry will only make them more—”
“Hidebound?” Ellis cut in. “Narrow-minded? I’ve been trying to nip that kind of twaddle where I can, especially in my own ranks, but it’s getting more and louder, and it just… well, it pisses me off.” It was angry, but the touch to Milo’s arm was gentle and the tone more placid when Ellis said, “Lift that light a bit, would you? I can’t see ten paces ahead.”
Milo gave the magelight a bump; it rose, its glow enhanced to burn more brightly against the fog as they reached the end of the Reescartref Bridge and stepped onto the path eastward.
What memories it brought back, being here with Ellis beside him. The weather was all wrong, nothing like to the summer nights spent traipsing like puerile sharpers askulk, jubilant and bug-bitten, with the whole of the world laid down at their grubby bare feet. The mood was off too, uncomfortably charged and unfamiliar now, when everything Milo remembered about his summers here was sundrenched and silt-scented, hazed with the kind of ingenuous glee one can only truly grasp on that too-narrow cusp before blithesome innocence is bleaked and blotted with threads of gray reality.
“So, what I’ve heard is true, then,” Milo ventured carefully. “You’ve taken the Wardenship from your tad.”
And knowing Folant Rees, it must have been quite a show.
Ellis sighed, breath curling out in a long plume to melt into the fog. “It wasn’t a matter of taking, really. More like just… stepping into the gaps, I guess, and daring him to stop me.” He paused, thoughtful, then said, “There were a lot of gaps.” A shrug bumped his arm into Milo’s. “Things sort of went on, and the title shifted along with them.”
That wasn’t even close to what Milo’s mam had told him, and she’d gotten it from Ellis’s. Obstacles thrown viciously across every path Ellis took for the first few months, trainee contracts deliberately breached, low-ranked novices sacked for following orders, and high-ranking old hands demoted based on nothing more than whim and spite. Until Ellis began to plan around the interferences, thinking around his tad’s corners and cutting him off before he got to them.
Ellis had moved out of Oed Tyddyn—the sprawling estate that was the only thing Folant had really proffered his contract bed besides his contribution to the making of his son—and taken the Croft for his own. It had been, according to Milo’s mam, a quietly violent struggle, carried out through procedure changes and training methods and patrol schedules, and Folant was as unapologetically and publicly bitter about losing it as he was about his once-almost-cariad having no use for him once she’d quickened with Ellis.
“And Pennaeth?” Milo asked. “Will you ta—fill in those gaps too?”
Ellis’s smile was grim. “I guess we’ll see, should the need become more needful.”
He should, really. From what Milo had heard, Folant remained chief of Clan Rees, and thereby the parish head of Wellech, only because Ellis had pointedly allowed him to keep the title. Ellis was the one fulfilling the responsibilities of it—which, Milo now suspected, was the only reason the coven had been extended the invitation to meet here after what could most kindly be called a decades-long snub.
Milo had been a bit dubious when his mam had relayed the gossip, to be honest. He’d known Ellis as a callow, somewhat overconfident boy—eager to shirk a day’s chores for a swim in the river; unabashedly brandishing his family names to avoid all manner of consequences, from getting caught queering the pen latches of Collier’s pig farm because he thought the chase would be fun, to “temporarily borrowing” every onion they managed to dig up from Hollywell’s community garden to see if Milo could blast them out of the sky when Ellis tossed them up. (Milo could. They’d smelled of onions for days.) Ellis never suffered so much as a willow-wand to the bum nor cross word from the locals for any of it. His mam was a different story, but still.
Milo spent a great deal of the summers of his youth wondering why he wasn’t resentful and jealous of Ellis, because Milo would certainly never get away with any of their more questionable adventures on his own. In truth, he hadn’t minded much. He’d benefitted from Ellis’s overconfidence countless times just by being in the same adolescent orbit.
And, every goddess in the pantheon, it had been fun.
Seeing Ellis now, the man he’d become… well. It had only been a small fistful of time, no more than a few furlongs’ walk yet, but there was something about him—the set of his shoulders; the careful expressions; the jut of his jaw—that told Milo he’d missed an awful lot of growing up when it came to Ellis Morgan dy Rees.
“Needs, by definition, are always needful, I think,” Milo said then changed the subject. “Did I hear you say you’ve got someone called Dilys training with the Wardens? That’s not little Dillie Moss dy Rydderch, is it?”
“Ha!” That brought a grin to Ellis’s face, the sternness wiped clean and replaced by open fondness. “She’s not so little anymore. Well, I mean, she is, but you wouldn’t know it by the way she handles herself. Flipped me three times the last time we sparred.”
“Dillie did. Dillie did?”
“And I was trying!” Ellis shook his head. “I admit I was dubious when her application came in. And even more dubious when Dillie showed up.” He turned to Milo with a smirk that looked downright doting. “But she hadn’t been idle, our Dillie. Still a little dab, but stout with it, and balanced out just so. I haven’t set her to train with a rifle yet, but she’s already worked her way through just about everyone in hand-to-hand, and her archery skills are probably the best I’ve ever seen. Even without magicked arrows, she’ll nail the bullseye more than not.”
“She’s always been crackerjack with a bow,” Milo agreed. They’d certainly had their turns at the targets, but they’d never hunted together as children, too young to be permitted out with weapons unsupervised—a trade they’d deemed fair for remaining unsupervised—and they’d only dared the smallest, most benign magics in Folant Rees’s jurisdiction. “Your mam’s training her, then?”
“Well, Mam says it’s more a matter of taking Dillie through the tests and handing over the ‘adept’ marks when they’re through. Apparently, no child of Terrwyn Rydderch will be caught short and without the proper training, so he’s been putting Dillie through her paces since she hit twelve.”
“And yet he still won’t have anything to do with a coven.”
“Well.” Ellis snorted. “A Rydderch admitting anyone has authority over them besides the Queen? Please. Terrwyn barely acknowledges that much.”
Milo laughed. “True, I suppose. Still, though. I wish I’d at least had Dillie at Llundaintref with me. If not for the comfort of familiar company, I could’ve used her on my rounders team.”
“I dunno,” Ellis said lightly, “if she’d been in Llundaintref with you, I wouldn’t’ve got to see her for ten years either.”
Deliberately lightly, if Milo was hearing what Ellis wasn’t saying.
“I wrote you. I wrote you lots.” Milo kept his own tone as unaccusing as he could. “And you never wrote back.”
“I did so!”
“Twice is more than never.”
“Twice. Once for my eleventh birthday, which I’m pretty sure your mam made you do, and one Highwinter card a couple years later.”
“…It still counts.”
“Two posts over ten years does not a correspondence make, Elly.”
Nor a friendship wafted faintly at the back of Milo’s mind.
“You couldn’t have been too broken up about it.” Ellis’s voice was low, night sounds and the damp of the fog nearly swallowing it. “You never came back, after all.”
“I hardly ever even got to go home, Elly, let alone have a holiday.”
“You went home every Reaping and Sowing, at least that’s what—”
“Yes, because it’s migration season, and even before Nain died, there were maybe ten other people in the whole of Màstira who know how to care for old, sick, or crippled dragons besides me and Mam and Howell, and they’re not dragonkin.”
“I… ehm.” Ellis was quiet for a moment before he said, “I was sorry to hear about your nain.”
Milo looked away. All he could manage for a moment was a gruff “Ta, Elly” because it hadn’t been much more than a year yet and it still felt fresh. The loss had only been made more difficult by knowing that through it all—the wake and the funeral and the burial—there’d been a polite yet vicious fight going on behind the scenes between Kymbrygh’s MP and Ceri’s solicitors over whether or not Milo would be allowed to go back to school when it was over and leave Old Forge with no dragonkin. As it was, he’d still been wearing his mourning band when he’d had to sit his final exams.
“I would’ve come,” Ellis said. “It’s only… things were a bit, ehm. Well, everything was very unsettled then, and I couldn’t—”
“I know. It’s all right.”
“You’d’ve come if it’d been my bamps. So I think it’s not, really.”
Milo didn’t argue, though it really was all right. He’d barely made it home in time himself, missing the first days of vigil entirely and only showing up after the wake had already started.
“How is your bamps?”
Ellis huffed something that might’ve been a snort but didn’t sound amused. “Sometimes he actually remembers me.”
Sundown sickness they called it. Old and frail before one’s time, and it might not be quite so heartbreaking if it didn’t start with one’s mind. Ellis’s bamps had been a force back in the day; he’d already been a more-often-dotty-than-not scarecrow of an old man in a bath chair by the time Milo started spending summers in Wellech.
All Milo could offer was, “I’m sorry.”
“Ta,” Ellis said, short and clipped. “You were saying?” Which meant he was done talking about it.
Milo would like to oblige, but—“I forget what we were talking about.”
Ellis laughed then, a quick bark of it, genuine and deep. “You were telling me why my best friend abandoned me for a posh exclusive school miles and miles away on a whole other island, and then never came to visit.”
Best friend. Abandoned.
Milo tamped down the tiny bit of brittle indignation that flared at the accusation. Because it wasn’t actually an accusation, though Milo wasn’t entirely sure what it was. A bid for reassurance, maybe, from someone who’d never admit, even to himself, he might need it.
“…Right. Anyway.” Milo pulled in a rough breath. “There’s no one else in Kymbrygh now, let alone anywhere close to Old Forge. Mam and the Kymbrygh MP demanded a leave at Sowing and Reaping be in the contract when I started at the school. I had no say in any of it.”
You, on the other hand, Milo only just stopped himself from saying. Instead he scowled and watched his boots tromp the muddy path to hide it, deliberately kicking at a clump of rotted leaf-fall so his sigh wasn’t too obvious. Everything was abruptly entirely too serious, and it was stupid.
It shouldn’t still sting the way it did. They’d been children, back when three months of summer once a year was the only worthy sum of a too-young life, and the concentrated companionship therein made a best friend before they’d been old enough to even know what “friend” meant, let alone “best.” Children were capricious and callous, trading companions for convenience, while the memories of it all became fine, gossamer things with age—precious, too-malleable treasures to take out and dote on once the adult had finally arrogated the child and abandoned him to his jacks and conkers somewhere at the twilit edge of grownup reminiscence.
It did sting. As though some part of Milo was still that ten-year-old, all alone in a new school, a new city, a new life—no friends, nothing familiar—and waiting to hear his name called every Midsday when the post from home came. Waiting for a letter from someone other than his mam or his nain. Waiting for something from the boy who’d been hardest to leave, and wondering why it never came.
It took a moment for Milo to realize Ellis had stopped, head down, thoughtful. The magelight was bright, beating back the fog for a good thirty paces around them now, but Milo couldn’t see Ellis’s face beneath the brim of his hat. Not until Ellis huffed and looked up, a smile that was several parts embarrassment tilting at one cheek.
“I suppose I was… angry.” Ellis shrugged when Milo frowned at him. “I didn’t understand why you went away to school. I’d thought you’d come live here, actually. Or at Rhediad Afon, I mean. Have my mam teach you the magic.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. Grimaced. “And then, after I wasn’t angry anymore, it just....” He rolled his hand. “I didn’t know how to… pick it back up, I guess.”
“Elly.” Milo took a step closer. “You know I had to go, right? I wasn’t leaving you, or even—”
“I know. I do.” Ellis rolled his eyes, seemingly at himself. “Llundaintref is the only place someone like you could go. I know that. I knew that. It’s only....” He shrugged again, halfhearted. “It didn’t help. The knowing. Not back then.” He spread his hands. “I missed you.”
You had a funny way of showing it, Milo couldn’t help thinking, that ten-year-old still biding somewhere at the back of his heart, looking for a letter that would never come. But Milo wasn’t that ten-year-old anymore, and neither was Ellis.
Maybe it was the almost forgotten scent of river silt that lifted Milo’s heart just a touch and made him smile. Maybe it was the memory-sound of splashing river water and laughter and hoots of approval for a particularly impressive dive. Maybe it was Ellis—taller, stronger, changed and grown into something… well, proper lush, if Milo was honest, but still Elly beneath it all—standing there with a rueful grin he wouldn’t let quirk and an apology in his eyes he’d never voice.
It had been years ago. They’d been children.
Milo stepped in, slung his arms around Ellis’s wide—great Goddess, the muscles—shoulders, said, “I’ve missed you too,” and waited, abruptly warm and content, until Ellis hugged him back.
It only took a second or two.