Summer had come to Ironwood, and it was beautiful. There had been enough rain to keep the hills verdant and the ivy in the arbors resplendent with pale blooms, but today’s heat was dry and pleasant. There was an energy in the air that Anna had missed, as if a parade were about to march through the streets. A returning caravan had been spotted, and there were flags in the air. The muted roar of conversation flowed through the crowd, up and down the town through-way. Some were here to get an early glimpse of exotic goods from the East, while others waited in anticipation of a father or husband too long gone. She was forced to admit, there really was a rustic charm about the town. It had just been difficult to see in a place where she had felt so unaccepted.
Anna smiled as Liliana placed a hand upon her arm, then used the other to point toward the distant hills. “There they are!” her friend cried.
“Yes, and I know you’re excited to tell him the news,” Anna replied warmly. “But in the meantime, you really can sit, if you’re uncomfortable. Most of the ladies are already sipping wine in the shade.”
Instead, Liliana was practically on her toes, peering past the gates. “Oh, but I want to see Erik’s face as soon as he rounds the bend. Don’t mind me, though, Anna. You can sit if you like. There’s no need to keep me company.”
“I’d rather be here,” Anna returned softly. “I don’t mind standing on such a pleasant day, and in this fabulous hat you’ve made me, I don’t even need to raise a hand to ward off the sun. No, I’ll stay with you until you see him, if you don’t mind.”
“Thank you,” Liliana said gratefully, though her eyes were fixed to the distant wagons. “I’m pleased it suits you. It’s a new pattern, and I worried the swan was a bit fanciful.”
“Oh, it’s perfect,” Anna laughed. “Beauty is fancy, as often as it is elegance. It should be enjoyed.”
“Indeed,” Liliana replied. “And you’ve found the perfect dress to match it. You certainly have an eye.” Her own eyes, though, returned to the road, and she lapsed into a comfortable silence.
Anna decided to let it be. Lord Erik’s wife was a joy, and a gift to a Pearl Bay import like herself. Liliana had very much taken her under her wing, especially after Jacob had gone off on that dreadful mission. Until then, Anna hadn’t quite realized how much she had expected Jacob to be the center of her life here. In a world where the sexes were so divided, that hadn’t gone well. It had been weeks before she had realized that much of the blame was her own. She hadn’t wanted to like Ironwood, or respect the ladies here, and so they had left her to her proud self. Liliana had dragged her out of that, had forced her to open her eyes to the people here, and Anna had responded in gratitude.
Soon, she found herself invited to knit, to paint, and to join in other such diversions. Liliana had even gotten her into gardening and the arrangement of flowers. They were a good match. Anna had discovered few of the ladies here could afford more than one servant, much less the half-dozen her father kept at home. Most had food to cook, clothes to mend, children to look after, and finances to keep. Her soon-to-be sister-in-law, however, was the Ironwood equivalent of royalty, and for the moment, childless, though that would change soon, and wouldn’t that be exciting? The slim woman was just beginning to show, and not long after Erik arrived the parties would begin. But until then, the slim Baroness-in-waiting had the means to let her artistic spirit shine. Few of the locals could quite keep up with her, and that left an opening in her heart for the young Lady from Pearl Bay, whom she had embraced as a sister. Quite to her surprise, Anna was starting to feel almost at home here, and without Jacob.
That was another funny thought, because when Jacob was here, Anna had felt lonely and neglected. Yet, while he was gone, she had seen how many women, like Liliana, might spent months in a year with their husbands away. Even those whose men were in town might find them spending a third of the day on watch, and hours more training in the yard. Anna’s complaints about Jacob’s distance had met the sympathy of a shared annoyance rather than the acknowledgment of a grievance, and so she began to view them the same way.
Her thoughts on Jacob were harder to sort. At first, Anna had missed him, but resented him nearly as much for leaving her alone. Then, she had begun to find friends, and dismissed him from her thoughts. Now, though, he was overdue. Men had started to refer to him as “missing”, and ladies mentioned his name with an awkward mixture of pity and reassurance. That was when her wayward heart chose to remember that he had always been a gentleman to her when he was present, always put her feelings first. And so she worried about losing her new friend here, and worried about losing a marriage she had never had. She worried about losing that handsome smile, and a man who, at the least, had made her feel wanted. She tried not to think of all that disappearing, of being cast back into the insecurity of wondering what new man her father would choose for her life and her bed. Her heart pondered too many things to weigh.
Anna was arrested from her reverie when the first of the wagons passed straight through. Beside her, Liliana charged forward to embrace her own husband, a tall man who dismounted his sable gelding to meet her. Yet, her own throat caught as she noticed that somehow Jacob stood directly before her, waiting by his own horse. She walked hesitantly forward, and stood before him. “You’re here,” she breathed. “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” Jacob replied, deep brown eyes fixed on hers, lips slightly parted. “You’re a vision, and I’ve been too long without you.”
Suddenly, the clever and confident young Lady had nothing to say, and no idea what to do. So for long moments they only stared at one another, slow smiles forming unwilling on their faces, and Anna felt her cheeks redden beneath the shade of her hat.
“Hello, my boy!” Anna heard a gruff voice call out suddenly from behind, and the Baron took his son Erik’s hand into his own. “I see you’ve done well, for the wagons look nearly full.”
The tall lord clapped his elder son on the back, then turned to Jacob. “Jacob, my son! I was almost afraid you wouldn’t make it. Why have you come so late to us? Have you failed, then, of your task?”
“No, father,” Jacob replied with a grin, as he turned to remove the Shield of St. Thomas from beneath one of his saddlebags, “I have not. The Shield is here, and the man whose hand killed Timothy is dead.”
“Thank Heavens,” Lord Sterik breathed. “Thaddeus has been speaking some nonsense about nobles of Sarronen perhaps being responsible, or maybe their king. He kept urging me to prepare extra patrols, or even to see to fortifying the town wall.”
Jacob glanced meaningfully at the largely decorative ten-foot circle of stone that surrounded the shops and houses, and thought of Talyk and Haran. Sarronen’s army would have gone through Ironwood life a hot knife through butter. “I take it you haven’t done so.”
“Of course not,” his father replied dismissively, “though holding off the advisory council was becoming inconvenient. So, who really had the Shield, and what took you so long getting back?”
Erik moved to stand by his brother, though Anna noted that he looked oddly amused. Anna longed to add her own voice to the conversation, but instead removed herself to Liliana’s side. Liliana must have sensed her tension, as she patted her hand. Jacob, however, spent only a moment to collect his thoughts, before replying in an ironic tone. “Well, Father, King Haldor may not have ordered the Shield stolen himself, but he certainly knew about it. His adviser, a shaman of the Kharshe Fire God, figured stealing the Shield of St. Thomas would leave us undefended when he sent Sarronen’s army to burn Ironwood to the ground. With a little luck, I was able to find where he hid the artifact, outside the city. Unfortunately, once he found out, the King sent a dozen men to kill us. It wasn’t safe to return home until we settled the situation with Sarronen.”
Lord Sterik’s iron gaze swung from Jacob to his brother, who remained unmoved. Incredulously, the Baron returned to questioning his younger son. “And, yet you are here. How did you manage that?”
“In order to incite conflict between Travan and Kullen, Sarronen captured Lord Northspire’s daughter,” Jacob answered matter-of-factly, carefully avoiding Anna’s stare. “Athena and I rescued her, and returned her to her home. In gratitude, her father helped me gain access to the Council in Travan’s Great Summit. There, I exposed Sarronen’s plans, and challenged their shaman, Innoken to single combat. He couldn’t resist defending the honor of his God.”
Lord Ironwood his head in open disbelief. “And then I suppose you killed him, and Sarronen gave up their evil ways. Erik, is any of this true?”
Erik nodded ruefully. “Quite, though you don’t know the half of it, and this is the easier part to believe. What’s important is I’ve seen hard proof that Sarronen intended to send their armies against us. However, as long as Jacob and the Shield are here, they’ll be too frightened to think twice of it. But you will have to see Jacob in the practice yard: there is no other way you will understand.”
“Please, Father,” Jacob added, “you might want to hold your questions until then.”
“Very well,” Lord Sterik replied, taken aback. Then he met Anna’s confused and frightened eyes, and - uncharacteristically - shared a gentle smile. “Be at peace, my dear. It seems you are about to wed a genuine hero.”
Seeing Jacob’s eyes soften, his dangerous strength receding just for her, Anna couldn’t help it - she lifted herself on her toes to offer him a quick and daring kiss. In response, the gentle laughter from behind her melted all the chill from her heart. In this moment, somehow, all was right.