On this fine summer night and in this tamed valley, the sheep had been left out in the pasture. The ewes were larger blots, with the half-grown lambs clustered beside them. Above all, in the black sky, the stars glittered like a different sort of scattered flock. I could not see the vineyards on the hills behind the sheep pasture, nor the Withy River that wound through the holdings to eventually join with Buck River. To call it a river was something of a conceit, for in most places a horse could easily splash across it, and yet it never ran dry in the summer. Its generous and noisy flow fed the rich little valley. Withywoods was a placid and gentle holding, a place where even an assassin might mellow when pastured. I might tell Chade that I must go to town to discuss wool prices, but in truth he had the right of it. The old shepherd Lin and his three sons more tolerated than relied on me; I had learned a great deal from them but my insisting on visiting Withy to speak with the wool buyer was mostly for my own pride. Lin would accompany me and two of his sons, and though my handshake might seal whatever agreement we reached, Lin’s nod would tell me when to extend that clasp.
It was a very good life I had. When melancholy overtook me, I knew it was not for anything in my present, but only darkness from the past. And those bleak regrets were only memories, powerless to hurt me. I thought of that, and yawned suddenly. I could sleep now, I decided.
I let the drape fall back into place and then sneezed at the cloud of dust it released. Truly the room needed a good cleaning. But not tonight. Perhaps not any night. Maybe I would leave it tonight, let the door close behind me, and allow the past to keep its own company. I toyed with that notion as some men toy with the ambition of giving up drink. It would be good for me. It might be better for Molly and me. I knew I would not do it. I couldn’t say why. Slowly, I pinched out the remaining candle flames. Someday, I promised myself, and knew I lied.
When I shut the door behind me, the cool darkness of the corridor engulfed me. The floor was cold. An errant draft wandered the hallways; I sighed. Withywoods was a rambling place that required constant upkeep and repair. There was always something to do, something to busy Holder Badgerlock. I smiled to myself. What, did I wish that Chade’s midnight summons had been an order for me to assassinate someone? Better far that tomorrow’s project was consulting with Revel about a blocked chimney in the parlor.
I padded hastily along as I backtracked through the sleeping house. When I reached my bedchamber, I eased the door open silently and as quietly closed it behind me. My robe fell to the floor again as I slid under the coverlets. Molly’s warm flesh and sweet scent beckoned me. I shivered, waiting for the blankets to warm the chill from me and trying not to wake her. Instead she rolled to face me and drew me into her embrace. Her small warm feet perched on top of my icy ones, and she nestled her head under my chin and on my chest.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” I whispered.
“You didn’t. I woke up and you weren’t here. I was waiting for you.” She spoke quietly but not in a whisper.
“Sorry,” I said. She waited. “It was Chade Skilling to me.”
I felt but did not hear her sigh. “All is well?” she asked me quietly.
“Nothing wrong,” I assured her. “Just a sleepless old man looking for some company.”
“Mm.” She made a soft sound of agreement. “I can understand that well. I do not sleep as well as I did when I was young.”
“As true for me. We’re all getting older.”
She sighed and melted into me. I put my arms around her and closed my eyes.
She cleared her throat softly. “As long as you’re not asleep … if you’re not too tired.” She moved suggestively against me, and as always my breath caught in my throat. I smiled into the darkness. This was my Molly, as I knew her of old. Lately she had been so pensive and quiet that I had feared I had somehow hurt her feelings. But when I had asked her, she had shaken her head, looking down and smiling to herself. “I’m not ready to tell you yet,” she had teased me. Earlier in the day, I had walked into the room where she processed her honey and made the candles she created for our personal use. I had caught her standing motionless, the long taper she had been dipping dangling forgotten from her fingers as she stared off into the distance.
She cleared her throat, and I realized I was the one who was woolgathering now. I kissed the side of her throat, and she made a sound almost like a purr.
I gathered her closer. “I am not too tired. And I hope never to be that old.”
For a time, in that room, we were as young as we had ever been, save that with the experience of years of each other, there was no awkwardness, no hesitation. I once knew of a minstrel who bragged of having had a thousand women, one time each. He would never know what I knew, that to have one woman a thousand times, and each time find in her a different delight, is far better. I knew now what gleamed in the eyes of old couples when they saw each other across a room. More than once I had met Molly’s glance at a crowded family gathering, and known from the bend of her smile and her fingers touching her mouth exactly what she had in mind for us once we were alone. My familiarity with her was a more potent love elixir than any potion sold by a hedge-witch in the market.