by Startide Risen
I busy myself hemming a skirt while I wait for him to come home.
Night fell over the ranch hours ago, but still I am seated in a pool of candlelight at the kitchen table, bent over my sewing. The needle flashes in and out, in and out, always in the same thin line. The stitches march along in a little trail, neat and orderly. I’ve always found that there’s something soothing about sewing.
He was only going out for a short ride, he said. He’d be home before dark. I knew better than to believe him, though. He rides so often, and every time he roams a little farther and returns a little later. I try to fool myself that I don’t know what he’s looking for out on that empty field. It's too obvious that he wants something more.
This afternoon I watched from the gate of the corral as he swung onto the bare back of a half-broken colt. It didn’t surprise me; he seemed to favor the animals that fought him like demons. He kicked the feisty creature into a belligerent gallop, giving me a quick nod as he passed. I watched him out of sight, and when he was gone I settled in with my needle and basket of thread for what I knew would be a long wait.
Now, a few minutes before one o’clock, the door quietly opens and shuts. He comes into the kitchen, and I act as though I have not been sitting up waiting for him.
“How far did you go this time?”
“I don’t know. A long way.”
“He didn’t throw you, did he?”
“No, no. He’s almost behaving himself now.”
He puts his lips to my cheek, then steals away upstairs.
Not long after, my candle burns itself out and I put away my sewing neatly in its basket. A last glance around the room—spotless, of course—and I follow Link up to bed.
He is curled on his side beneath the blankets, breathing deeply and evenly, but I know he is not asleep. I undress quietly and slide beneath the coverlet next to him. Not too close, though. I don’t blame him for what he does in the grips of nightmares, but I can’t keep waking up with bruises.
Eventually I feel him rolling and kicking beside me, and I know he has dropped off. A long time ago, I would hold him close and suffer his blows in some valiant, futile attempt to soothe him. I had some mad little hope that if I held him tight enough and waited long enough, he would come to himself again and be okay. If I only waited, we would be okay. But that was back before he rode green horses in the dead of night.
I inch a little further away for safety. He murmurs in his dreams, soft, frantic nothings that I can rarely make out. When I can, it’s always a name, her name, and I hate her for it.
I shouldn’t, though. It’s not her fault that I am not enough.
After all, there was a time when I was everything. I was normal, I was ordinary, I was commonplace, and that was exactly what he wanted. No more temples, no more dungeons, no more fights to the death with evil mages bent on world domination. Just a safe home and a warm bed and someone to love him.
A knee rams me in the hip as he lashes out at one of the monsters that live in his dreams. I draw in a hissing breath through my teeth and pull further away from him. He thrashes and cries out, and I brace myself. Then he rolls the other way, taking the covers with him, and I am alone and cold on my side of the bed.
I draw myself into a little ball and shiver while I wait for the nightmare to pass.
Slowly he falls still, and I know it’s all right now. I sneak close and gently pry a corner of blanket out of his fists. Slowly, so as not to wake him, I pull it over me, curling up tight so that I fit beneath it. I pretend there is no gooseflesh covering my arms and legs; I pretend there are no tears on my cheeks. In time sleeps takes me, too.
In the morning he rises first. He rouses me and we make the bed, standing one on each side with the gulf of white sheets between us. Just to hear him lie, I ask: “Did you sleep well?”
“Very well,” he says, fluffing a pillow instead of looking at me. “You?”
My fingers clench white-knuckled in the coverlet as I say, “Me, too.”
I escape outside to the cowshed and he goes into the barn to feed the horses. It’s old routine, natural as breathing, and it should be comforting. But it’s not enough anymore either; his hands are made for sword hilts and not feed buckets.
Afterward I lose him to the woods. He takes his bow with its ninety-pound draw and goes deep in the trees to kill things for sport. I don’t bother to tell him that he won’t find his Something More in another dead rabbit.
Instead I watch him go, one hand resting on my hip, fingers dug into the creases of my skirt. Just beneath the fabric, a purple bruise pulses hot and tender. I once promised myself no more of that.
A sigh slips past my lips before I turn and attend to my chores while I wait for him.