“Well?” Eldon sprung from his seat as the door shut behind Mrs. Tate.
“Give me a second, will you?” Her thick rubber boots squeaked across the porch floorboards, and she dropped her medical bag beside the vacant chair. “I’m amazed you fixed your front door so quickly. I’d half expected it to be broken until next summer.”
He rolled his eyes. “I was waiting for you to say that.”
She winked at him as she sat slowly. Eldon just stood there, hands clenching in and out of fists, his shoulders taught with impatience. When she noticed him staring, she arched a dark eyebrow. “Goodness, you’re stressing me out,” she said. “Why don’t you channel some of that nervous energy into pouring me a cup of coffee?”
Clenching his teeth, he reached for the copper kettle that balanced atop the wooden rail and poured her a steaming black cup. It wasn’t like him to ignore manners, but something about harboring an unconscious citizen of Dominus made him forget.
At least the storm had finally passed. To his relief, Mrs. Tate had stayed true to her word.
“Thank you, love.” She took the porcelain mug from his hand and blew on it.
“Welcome,” he replied, reclaiming his seat faster than a kid playing musical chairs.
It seemed to take Mrs. Tate forever to situate herself. Though she never cared about looking good, somehow, she always did. Her coarse, frizzy black hair was pulled into a high ponytail, with two feather earrings dangling from her earlobes. The blue handknit scarf and mustard yellow parka she wore complimented her chocolate brown skin.
Gripping the porcelain handle, she placed her other hand on the side of the mug. “Ah, that’s better. Nice and warm.” She looked at him. “Now, from what I’ve examined, our visitor is as stable as can be. His heart and lungs sound strong, and his body temperature has climbed back to normal. No permanent frostbite damage on his ears or appendages, either.”
“That’s good.” Eldon released a breath, finally relaxing a little. At least the stranger didn’t need to see Doctor Warren. Gossip in the village spread like wildfire; he preferred only Mrs. Tate knew.
She blew onto her coffee and smiled. “The little one is alive too. I heard a small, solid heartbeat.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, trying not to wince. He couldn’t help it. This wasn’t some helpless pregnant woman whose husband had died, or her village had burned down, or the father of her child had left her. No, someone had deliberately put a baby inside that man. Science had taken the time to plan this.
“So… it’s true,” he said, barely able to get the words out.
She nodded, her eyes bright with enthusiasm. “I know. I’m still in disbelief too. I’ve heard so many heartbeats in utero, including my own children’s, and they never cease to take my breath away, but this… this is nothing short of miraculous.”
He scoffed. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“I can’t wait to speak to him and find out how this was possible.”
This time, Eldon didn’t curb his grimace. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Mrs. Tate.”
“Monty,” she corrected. “How many times must I tell you?”
“I know—Monty, I’m sorry. But the less we know about Dominus, the better.”
Her breath fogged the air as she sighed. “It isn’t fair, is it? Choosing ignorance out of fear.”
“Promise you won’t ask him anything about that place, or what they did to him.”
Raising her cup to her lips, her jade-green eyes darted upward.
“Promise, Monty,” he repeated firmly.
She held up a palm. “Alright, Eldon. I promise.”
For a while, nothing but the sounds of the forest accompanied them as Mrs. Tat—Monty, continued to nurse her coffee. A wet chill still hung in the air. Sunlight filtered through the canopy of Douglas firs, playing across the mossy ground in patches of brilliant gold. Birds sang in the distance, a chipmunk scurried across the roots of a massive oak, and gnats darted spastically in the beams of light.
Eldon usually relished moments like these, but he couldn’t bring himself to focus on anything—not until the man in his cabin was out and gone. “When do you think he can go back?”
She jerked upright. “Eldon Miller.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“Then what do you suggest? Because he’s not staying here.”
“Oh yes he is.” Her tone deepened with authority, as if Eldon were her disobedient child. “At least for the time being. You’re the one who rescued him, so he’s your responsibility.”
Frustration ripped through him. “You can’t leave me with him, Monty. I don’t like people. I can barely care for myself.”
“You’ll do just fine. You’ve rescued villagers from timber attacks on numerous occasions, and I’ve seen the tender way you look after that horse of yours. You’re a good man with a good heart. You can’t fool me into believing otherwise.”
How could this woman be so confident? She didn’t know him, not really. Nobody knew him, and he preferred it that way. “Fine,” he grumbled, his voice tight with irritation, “but chances are Dominus is already looking for him. As soon as he recovers, I’m arranging for him to travel to the southern border.”
She huffed. “I swear, you wouldn’t know fate if it bit you in the ass.”
“I don’t believe in fate.”
“Will you ever look at things positively?” she asked, drawing her parka hood up over her head. “Seven years ago, Dominus took something precious from you, something you held most dear.” Her words dropped heavily in the silence. “Now, perhaps, it has given you something back. Maybe you finding this man was meant to be.”
What cruel irony. Every muscle inside him tensed in painful denial. He couldn’t believe Monty had gone that far. She had knowingly breached the boundaries of their relationship. For years, no one—no one—had dared speak to him about his old life. “That… experiment in there is not some divine miracle placed here to save me,” he seethed, shooting to his feet. “It’s an inconvenience, and a danger to the village. I don’t need anything, or anyone.”
“Everyone needs someone, even solitary grumps like you.” She took one last sip and rose from her chair. “You’re going to look after him whether you like it or not. You will do what you must for the sake of that sweet man and his child.” She plopped her mug into his hand. “Thank you for the coffee.”
Eldon stood frozen as she picked up her bag and retreated to her mule-drawn cart.
“Dammit, Monty!” he barked as she untethered the reins from the hitching post. He’d never raised his voice at her, but the fear rising within him had breached his control. “When are you coming back? I can’t do this without you!”
“You’ve already been doing it.” She clicked her tongue and sent the mule into forward motion. “We won’t know how strong he is until he wakes—Which reminds me— you should try and get him to eat and drink something today. He’s been out cold since yesterday morning, and he needs nutrients as soon as possible. I’ll be back in a couple days.”
* * *
“Can you believe this, Deputy?” Eldon grumbled as he finished adjusting his horse’s bridal. “Of all the people in the village, I had to be the one to come across that man in the creek. I’ll probably be killed for it, too. Oh, but it’s fate according to Monty. What the hell did I do to deserve this?”
The animal snorted hot air and flicked his hears.
“My thoughts exactly.” Eldon climbed into the saddle. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t wake while we’re gone.”
They set off on the trail leading away from the cabin. The storm had set him back hunting a day, and his ritual of making camp had been thwarted by his unexpected guest. Now, he’d no choice but to hunt whatever he could in one afternoon. If he was lucky, the rain will have brought the game out to feed closer to home.
When the trail turned into a narrow path and forked, he guided Deputy left. They rode deep into the forest, continuing onward for half-an-hour through dense “cities” of coniferous trees, along glass-like ponds, and through glades of bright autumn foliage. The Cascade mountains loomed in the distance, their snowcapped peaks visible for miles. Hundreds of years ago, before the great collapse, this area had belonged to eastern Washington.
Crisp air filled his lungs. Deputy’s hooves clopped softly atop the leaf-covered ground. Here, in the seclusion of nature, he could finally clear his mind. The howl of distant timber rode the wind like an eerie chill. The beast sounded several miles off, but in a couple months’ time, that would no longer be the case. His watch tower—one of twelve in the area—would become like a second home during the winter. The safety of the surrounding villages relied on the keen eyes and quick reflexes of their guardians.
Suddenly, a large rabbit darted across the rocky trail ahead, disappearing into the boulders and brambles. A stroke of luck. An animal of that size that would make for a good stew. Eldon pulled Deputy to a halt and dismounted. Slowly, quietly, he pulled the bow from the sling on his back and reached for an arrow in his quiver. This time of year, silent weapons could mark the difference between life and death. Guns were messy and attracted attention for miles. Aside from protection, firearms weren’t worth the risk.
He ducked behind a tree trunk, nocking the arrow and waiting for the rabbit to emerge. Soon enough, it hopped out and sniffed the air. Aiming at his target, Eldon pulled the string back, all the way past his ear, letting the tension build before he released. He raised the arrow to meet its flight path and let go. The string snapped forward with the force of twenty whips.
* * *
Milo was trapped inside a dream, and he could not find his way out.
He lay on his back on a cold, narrow medical table. Stark white walls surrounded him on three sides, with the fourth made of glass. A handful of scientists in lab coats stood behind it, watching, observing, taking notes with stoic curiosity. Familiar faces in medical masks hovered over him, illuminated from above by a bright, almost blinding light.
The moments spent in this type of room had been commonplace for as long as he could remember. But today was different. Today, the entire reason he existed would be put to the test. If he succeeded, Mr. Wade would be happy. Milo would be important to him now. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Wade would let him stay in the city, and take him away from these cold rooms once and for all. Together, they could be a real family.
The glass door opened, flooding the room with an even brighter light. Slowly, the silhouette of a tall male figure approached. Milo waited to see the handsome face, the neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, the grin that made his heart flop inside his chest.
He opened his eyes and saw a stranger. Twice as broad as Mr. Wade, the man looked at him with an expression that negated his intimidating appearance. Dark wavy locks rested upon strong shoulders, framing a chiseled, square set jawline peppered with stubble. Thick brows sat above brown eyes, deep and mysterious. The shape of his mouth was a flawless combination of suppleness and masculinity.
Milo shuddered, drawing the bedcovers up to his chin.
“Sorry to wake you.” The stranger’s voice held a rich, deep timbre. “You’ve been asleep for over twenty-four hours. You should… probably eat and drink something.”
Milo blinked. “Are you the one who saved my life?”
“I did what any decent person would have done.” The uncomfortable look remained on the brawny man’s face. “You speak very proper.”
“Do I?” Milo rasped. Every Blyther spoke the same way. “Is that bad?”
“No, I just wasn’t expecting it.” Folding his arms, the man cleared his throat awkwardly. “How do you feel?”
“Tired. A bit weak.”
“Well, there’s a pot of rabbit stew on the stove. I’ll fix you a bowl.” He left the bedside and then turned back around. “If you need to use the bathroom, it’s in there.” He gestured to a door at the far-left wall of the cabin.
“Thank you.” Milo cringed as the man headed for the kitchen. So, there was a restroom. He should have looked for that door the last time he’d woken up.
A savory aroma, rich with spices, meat, and vegetables suddenly hit him, and his mouth watered. He’d never heard of rabbit stew, but he was willing to try anything at this point. For a second, he wondered if it hadn’t been drugged or poisoned, but he thought better of it. If that man had wanted to kill you, he would have already done so.
Milo sat up slowly, noticing the curtains had been drawn, and the strange lamp atop the hearth held a small, glowing flame inside its glass casing. The man returned with a bowl in one hand and a cup of water in the other. The warm light reflecting off his bronze skin gave him a hard appearance, and Milo hoped he might look less intimidating in the daylight. Still, he felt safe in this man’s care.
“Where am I?” Milo asked.
“About six-hundred miles southeast of where you came from.” The man handed him the bowl of stew. “Careful, it’s hot.”
Milo blinked, his throat growing thick with emotion. He had no idea he’d travelled so far. It was a miracle he was alive. “How do you know where I came from?”
The man hesitated. “I just assumed by your accent. It sounded like someone from Dominus.”
“Oh, I see.” Afraid of giving himself away, Milo scooped up a spoonful and blew off the steam. Delicious heat coated his mouth as he slurped, the hearty flavors and drawing a small moan out of him. “My apologies,” he said with a small cough. “It’s just… This is so good. I haven’t eaten anything like this in some time.”
“It’s nothing special, but it’s better than stale bread and peanut butter, anyway.”
Milo winced. “Oh, I’m so sorry. My hunger got the better of me, and I didn’t mean to—”
“Don’t be.” One corner of the man’s mouth raised a fraction. “Enjoy the stew. And make sure you drink this, too.” He placed the wooden cup of water on the floorboard beside the bed. “Rest as much as you can until you’re stronger.”
Milo managed a grin. “Thank you, sir.”
“It’s Eldon,” the man responded flatly. “Eldon Miller. I’ll need your name too eventually, so I can contact your people.”
Milo’s stomach sank. So, Mr. Miller had seen the brand on his neck. He must have, otherwise he would have used a more natural word like “family” instead. Did he somehow know about the baby, too?
Toying with his spoon, Milo forced himself to look the man in the eye. “My name is Milo.”
“And your last name?”
“It’s just Milo. And I have no people. I’m alone.”
Mr. Miller drew his lips inward, seemingly unconvinced. “I see. Well, I’ll leave you now to get some rest. Let me know if you need something.”
He strode back to the kitchen.