Gem arrived as Tanuvia was carrying in a basket of okra to have dried for the coming winter, a task her father could carry out because a man in a wheeled chair could cut the okra at the table into little cartwheels, spread them in a single layer on a cloth of linen stretched over a frame, and tend the okra in the sun and wind as it dried. He could store the hard, little cartwheels in a crockery jar with a cork and, thus, help preserve winter stores for his daughter and himself so they were better off, their lives not quite as difficult as before.
Inside, Gem greeted Bragi with “Sir,” and asked how his day went. Whereupon, the young man was regaled with a list of Bragi’s activities.
“When you have a moment, “ Bragi said after catching a breath, “would you mind moving some things in the barn, some tools, tables, a couple of sawhorses?”
“To create a workshop?”
“Just so.” Bragi’s gray eyes glowed. “But after we eat. I cooked a stew and baked bread.”
“I can smell the bread!” Gem exclaimed. And who couldn’t? It filled the house with its yeasty aroma, and the cottage seemed more than home, which Tanuvia made it, but of family, which needed the men, as well.
Tanuvia was not so weary that night nor as wary. Fatigue can create fears out of shadows, and Bragi had eased a great deal of that for her. As at breakfast, there was light conversation, and the loaf of fresh bread did not last through the meal.
Gem and Bragi retired to the barn after washing the dishes and seeing Tanuvia in the rocking chair with her feet up. In the quiet of the house, she rocked and watched as evening drifted in through the windows.
No doubt she pondered but didn’t share her thoughts with me, the raven collecting her story. She fell asleep, and I flew to the barn to caution the men not to startle her upon returning. Bragi went to his room, preparing for bed with no more aid than his own knotted sinews and ingenuity.
After creeping in the front door in Bragi’s wake, Gem knelt by the rocker, where Tanuvia slept with her head at an impossible angle.
“Curly…it’s Gem,” he whispered, nudging her. “Curly…”
I braced for the resulting scream of fear, but she only startled and looked around in confusion, which Gem hastily tried to ease.
“It’s growing late. You fell asleep in the chair.”
“In his room. He wouldn’t let me help with his clothes. Says he can do it himself.”
“Ah, he can. He did at bathtime.”
“I’m glad he feels he can do more now. We rearranged some things in the barn. I hope it meets with your approval.”
“If it helps Da, then anything you do is fine.”
“He was pleased with it, but it must meet your approval, as well.”
“I’ll look in the morning.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you before I head to the loft?”
“Nai. I should go to bed, too.”
“I’ll pump some water for you.”
Her face paled, and Gem’s black eyebrows lowered in concern. “What is it?”
Her mouth opened but nothing came out. Closing her eyes, she shook her head and managed a thin smile to reassure him. In her room, Gem brought the water and set the pail on the floor beside the towel she’d spread.
“Curly,” he said, tarrying.
He went to a knee in front of her where she stood between her bed and the bucket. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Muninn said you might. What is it?”
He dropped his eyes to her bare feet. “Besides the fact you have the sweetest pink toes I ever saw?”
From the footrail of the bed, I cawed, and Tanuvia grinned. “What? You silly goose!” she exclaimed.
“Well, I got distracted! I never saw anything so precious, I don’t believe!” He drew his eyebrows low, trying to be serious. “Curly, I have something I want to tell you.”
She looked down at him benevolently. “I’m listening.”
“I want you to know that, should there be a child, my hope remains the same, that you’d accept me as a suitor and allow me to court.”
I cawed loudly in agitation and fluttered my wings. Tanuvia staggered back, and Gem reached for her hand so she didn’t fall, but she jerked away, hit her shin against the frame of her bed, and yelped. Gem surged to his feet to thrust out his arms as if to help but could only hold his big paws out impotently, wary of touching her again.
“I didn’t mean to upset you. What can I do?”
She leaned against the wall beside her shuttered window and gasped for breaths. “Gem! I can’t let you do that!”
“But I want to. If there’s a child, he’ll need a father.”
“You shouldn’t have to bear these fears alone. Please…”
Tanuvia, edging toward the corner of her room, turned her face away in silence.
She asked you to go, Gem. You should leave before you frighten her.
He must have decided I was right, because he stared a moment longer then swung on his heel and closed the door with hardly a tap.
Tanuvia, come sit on the bed before you fall.
Muninn, why would he say that? How could he?
I think it’s obvious, don’t you? He cares about you.
I could never do that terrible thing to him. Never!
He doesn’t think of it as a terrible thing. That’s what he was trying to tell you. He thinks of it as being father to your child. Your da told me that Goodfolk infants need both mother and father to sing songs to them. Gem could sing with you.
“To Grantham’s issue? Never!”
Then who, Tanuvia?
“Well, not Gem! I love him!”
I think you’re being foolish, Tanuvia. Gem made an honorable offer, and you treated him foully.
Yes, you did. You spurned a man who was offering his life to a child not even his own—for his love of you.
“He never said he loved me.”
What does the man have to do to prove it?
“He never said it,” she repeated stubbornly.
You should go to the barn and apologize for not listening to his offer. You don’t have to accept, but you don’t have to wrack his heart either.
I alighted in the barn loft window and cawed into the dark interior. Go out and meet her. She’s afraid of the door.
Gem leaped from the blanket where he’d been lying awake and scrambled down the ladder.
“Curly! I’m here!”
She stumbled as she turned to face the door from which she’d decided to flee. He caught her before she fell and stood her back on her feet, then he went to a knee, bowing his head.
“Forgive me for earlier,” Gem said. “I caught you off guard and said everything poorly.”
“It’s me. Forgive me if I hurt you.”
“I admit it hurt, and I was nursing my wound, but now I’m healed with a word from you. Have you considered my offer?”
“I still can’t accept. If I care for you at all, I can’t burden you with another man’s child.”
Under the stars, Gem closed his fist and pounded his chest over his heart. “Curly! You smite me!”
“If I learned anything, it’s that I lack the physical strength to protect my own will, and I depend on your restraint for my very life. If you want my trust, you have to respect my decisions.”
“I understand. I’ll honor your words, whether for or against me, as if they carried the force of a man’s strength.”
“Thank you. That eases my fear.”
“You still refuse me as a suitor?”
“As long as there’s the risk of a child, I refuse.”
“And if there’s none?” Gem asked.
“I can’t imagine that far. Night and day, I think of little else.”
“It’s a burden I wish I could take from you, but I’ll honor your wish to remain silent. If you have any change of heart—”
“If I do, I’ll share it with you.”
When they parted, as if for the raven to peck, they wore their hearts on their sleeves, transparent to my algorithms. Though neither said the word to the other, watching and listening from the roof of the barn, it was obvious they were both in love. Gem may have come to it later than Tanuvia, who’d known in a glance, but he was now as hopeless as she.