Monday, May 2

Swords and shields of a most unorthodox nature.

As he entered through the far end of the darkened hall, something caught in his throat and he coughed; the sound was startling as it echoed upwards and was muffled by the high beams of the roof. In the corner of the room by the dais, a door was lit with torchlight that stopped at its threshold but a comfortable clatter of pots and pans could be heard a little way into the hall as the assistant cooks and scullery maids swept the last round of dishes into the washtub and talked in familiar patters of the events of the day.

He hesitated to step into the light and decided that he would wait until they left to venture forth, noticing as he stood that the stone floor was quite cold to his bare feet. There was a large fireplace on one side of the hall and in front of it was a worn sofa; it seemed as good a place as any to wait, and warm. Wrapping his robe close about him, he sat down on one side of the oversized couch and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and stretched his feet towards the hearth.

The fire was a pile of vigilant embers in the darkness of the large hall, making the objects nearby seem small and disproportionate. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the brightness of the ruddy glow but when he did, he realised he wasn't alone; a familiar figure with her knees drawn up to her chin was on the other side with her head on the arm of the sofa. It looked like she was sleeping.

He didn't particularly feel like conversation and felt himself extremely fortunate to have avoided human contact thus far in his search, so it was ironic when there was a resounding clang as somebody dropped a metal pot or pan (it sounded like a gong) in the kitchen and she awoke. He pretended not to have noticed, and kept looking at the fire. Go back to sleep, he thought, which, of course, she did not do.

"Oh, hello." She saw him, and yawned.

"Hello."

There was a pause, and then an echo of laughter came in from the lit doorway. They both watched the fire for a minute or two before she spoke again.

"I've just recognized who you are, I couldn't see you clearly before, and you weren't sprawling every-which-way like you do normally."

He grunted and wondered if there was something he could say or do to deter conversation without being rude. Unfortunately, he didn't think quickly enough.

"You don't look so good; are you ill?" Her voice was concerned with just enough of a tinge of anxiety that he was annoyed. "Maybe it is the dim light," she conceded with another yawn.

"No," he said shortly, "I've been crying." He could tell she was at least a little taken aback by this admission, and realised that he was rather uncomfortable with having blurted it out like that.

"Oh," she said awkwardly, looking at the couch cushion. "Are you alright now?"

"No." He racked his mind for some other place he could be alone, but the only possibilities were in the biting cold, outdoors. He shivered involuntarily.

"Do let me know if I can do anything for you, then. I'm sorry for being such a chatterbox at you; I can leave you alone if you'd rather be by yourself. I was just waiting for them to leave so I could make myself a cup of hot chocolate." She gestured towards the flickering rectangle of torchlight. At that moment the light dimmed and was snuffed. The laughing voices died away into a farther passage. She got up from where she was sitting, watching him warily as if he might break into sobs at any moment. "Let me make you some hot chocolate?"

"What? Oh. Sure. Thanks." She stole silently into the corner and disappeared into the now-invisible doorway.

There was a short space of time where he felt the relief of being alone and not having to guard his facial expression. It felt strange to him to be suddenly prey to an overwhelming emotion, and in its aftermath he was drained and exhausted. He listened to himself inhaling and exhaling. The air was clear and cold in the hall, and the coals in the fireplace were burning very low. There was a stack of firewood somewhere in the dark; he found it and put a few small pieces onto the bed of embers, stoking it a little.

She presently returned with two mugs of chocolate and offered him one. He took it, and by this time was feeling more in control of himself. "Sit down and finish yours; I don't mean to scare you off of your own furniture."

"That's alright. There is hardly a nook in which anybody can find a moment's peace in this place. I usually keep to my rooms when I can, but people do find you out." She said this with a bit of chagrin, which made him laugh.

"Oh, sit down. I'd rather you stay and keep me company." She sat down gingerly on the other side of the couch. "Tell me; where is Fiona? You shouldn't have to come down to the kitchens for hot chocolate, especially not by yourself, and not at night."

She yawned sleepily. "It's Fiona's day off. Nobody would have known I was here till you came in; and you should let your valet run your errands. Why did you come down, anyway?"

"I can't remember now." He shrugged and inched his feet closer to the fire. They sat in silence, and she was the first to empty her mug.

"I'm going back to my rooms." Standing up, she stretched. "You'd better bring your mug back down in the morning, or they'll complain we've left them more dishes to do overnight; in the morning they don't even notice the extra cup or two." He nodded. The fire crackled and light glinted off of the mug in her hand. "And--you will be alright?"

He nodded again, and gave her a half-smile. "You are very sweet. Thank you."

"It is no easy task to let a friend be alone and hurting, and me helpless to do anything about it! " she protested. "Do get some sleep, ----. Good night."

"Good night," he said, and she disappeared into the shadows and darkness outside the small circle of light around the hearth.

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