Dawn of Darkness - Chapter Two
Annie pursed her lips as she laid the table for breakfast. Guilt nagged at her, but she pushed it down. Oh, she’d heard Harlon calling out in the night. She hadn’t gone to him, though. She was just too damn tired.
She knew Julianne didn’t blame her. Hell, she didn’t blame herself, not after the previous weeks. Since the trio of mystics and their funny little companions had barged in, things had been like a madhouse.
Annie had tended to her son most nights, with Julianne at her side. Last night? Well, she just didn’t seem to be able to drag her old bones from the warm blankets.
Harlon shuffled in, his dirty blonde hair matted on one side. “Morning, Ma.”
“Pick your feet up, son, and stop dragging your ass about like it weighs too much. I know you’re tired, but that’s no excuse to walk like a worm-riddled dog.” She softened her words with a smile and tipped her head towards the kitchen. “Bring out the hot food, will you?”
As he walked away, Annie mused that she no longer noticed the bags under his eyes or the hollowness in his cheeks. They were a part of him now, but they wouldcome right, she knew that. She would just have to wait it out, dealing with things as she always did: with hot food and firm rules. She could only hope the cloud of depression that clung to him would eventually lift, too.
“Aye, what a bonnie sight ye are this mornin’, Annie!” Garrett gave her a cheeky grin as he stomped straight past her, into the kitchen where he loaded his arms full of plates.
“Don’t you drop those, rearick,” Annie admonished. The stocky rearick was the shortest man she had ever seen, but he was strong as an ox. An ox in a china shop, she thought to herself wryly.
“Don’t worry yerself, Annie.” Bette, as squarely built and heavy footed as Garrett, went to help him. Between them, the two rearick managed to bring out all the food, Harlon trailing behind with a pitcher of milk. “Ye know I’d break his balls if he broke anything.”
“You’d have to find them first!”
Annie whirled, startled by the new voice. Marcus winced. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to make you jump, Annie.” Now this man, he was no rearick. Tall and good looking, Annie could see why Julianne had set her eye on him. Why, if Annie were a little younger herself…
Francis poked his head out from behind Marcus. Annie hadn’t noticed him follow the strapping young guard in. “Ma? You ok there?”
Annie blushed, but before she could answer, Marcus slid past with a wink. “I’d say your ma is mighty fine.”
Annie raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe you mean that for a moment, you rapscallion.” She eyed him as he sidled towards a seat and, as he got a bit closer, flicked his ass with her tea towel. She hid a smile when he yelped. “Wash first. You know the rules.”
The rearick had been up since well before dawn, tending the cattle and horses. She had heard them clean up earlier, but both obliged her by lifting their spotless hands for inspection. She nodded. Her house might be full, but she still ran it, damned if she didn’t.
“Good morning, Annie.” Julianne emerged and Annie bit her lip to see the dark circles under the young woman’s eyes. Julianne worked hard, not just looking after the townspeople who were suffering like her son, but in the fields and the kitchen and anywhere else an extra body was needed.
“Morning, Julianne.” Annie gave her a nod. “I’ve some fresh honey for the bread. I know how you like it.”
Julianne’s face softened into a smile. “You shouldn’t have… but I’m glad you did. Thanks, Annie.”
Danil and Bastian came down last, the two mystics already in their white robes. Danil’s eyes, white as snow, no longer gave Annie the creeps. He, along with his companions, had more than proved themselves different from the mystics who had ravaged their little town.
Still, it had taken her some time to be comfortable with the visible display of magic. The other mystics tried to avoid using it around her, but Danil had no choice. He was blind, and used his magic to navigate. He could have hidden the telltale change in his eye color, but that wasn’t his way, and Annie appreciated his openness.
Once they were all at the table, Annie glanced at each face at her table. The two rearick, Bette swatting Garrett’s hand as he reached for a second sausage. Marcus, who was carefully lifting some sauerkraut onto Julianne’s plate as she gave him a tired smile. Bastian, his head close to Danil’s as they discussed their plans for the day as they went about trying to repair the village. Finally, her sons. Francis and Harlon sat quietly, eyes on the table.
“Here, Francis. Throw me one of them bread rolls, will ye?” Garrett called.
“Don’t ye dare, lad,” Bette interected. “Ye’ll make a right mess doin’ that, and I know what yer mother will do to the lot of us if yer do.”
The corner of Francis’s mouth turned up, and he gave Annie a sideways glance. She pretended not to see.
Eyes twinkling, Francis lobbed the bread roll. If it had been anyone else, Annie would have called it bad luck brought on by bad manners. Francis, though, was a crack shot. If that bread roll landed straight in Garrett’s milk, it was because he meant it to.
Garrett squealed like a neutered pig and jumped up, patting his beard and shaking the warm drink all over the table.
“Watch it, yer bloody oaf,” Bette yelled. “I dinna want to wear yer damned drink!”
“It’s not my fault!” Garrett said with a wounded look. “He’s the wanker what threw it!”
Francis was silent, face in hands and shoulder shaking uncontrollably. Annie placed her hands on the table ready to leap to her feet, thinking it was some kind of seizure, until he gasped in a breath and erupted into laughter.
Garrett pegged a mushroom at Francis, hitting Harlon in the cheek my mistake. The big man barely reacted, digging his spoon into his porridge for another bite. A moment later, that ‘bite’ was stuck to Marcus’s shirt.
“Oh, you’re on,” Marcus said.
Julianne scooted her chair back in alarm. “Don’t!” she yelped. “That’ll go ev—”
Too late. Marcus flicked his cup of milk at Harlon and the warm liquid showered everyone.
“Bitch help me,” Danil moaned. “I know you’re in love, Marcus, but spraying your milk all over the table is a bit much!”
“Danil!” Julianne snapped, her face bright red.
Annie chortled. That girl was cool as a cucumber in the face of battle. She didn’t think she had ever seen Julianne rattled like that.
Danil ducked the first chunk of bread lobbed at his head, but then Julianne’s eyes misted over to match his.
“What? No fair, blocking me is against—” his words were swallowed as Julianne darted up from the table and dumped a whole bowl of porridge on Danil’s head.
By now, bits of food were flying across the table at lightning speed, and the tablecloth was more ‘shades of sausage and gravy’ than the red gingham it had been moments before.
Annie sat back, suspiciously free of the debris that whizzed past. When a bit of gravy splashed in front of her, everyone froze. Annie eyed them.
“As long as you all clean up after yourselves, I didn’t see a damn thing.” Picking up her plate, she stood and calmly walked out of the dining room.
As she placed it in the sink and ran the water over it, she wondered if, despite the trials facing them all, her house had ever been so full of happiness.