Robin D. Owens

WELCOME!

During this time of Stay At Home, I am offering a daily excerpt of a story from my upcoming collection, Hearts And Stones. 

Fractured Stone (unrevised), finished on May 22, 2020, but can be seen below Stone in Zanth’s Paw below.  I know it will be a long scroll, but I am writing more than tending to this site:

Staying At Home Story 2: Stone in Zanth’s Paw. This was posted on a website,some or all of you might have seen this before, but it’s been revised. It is 14 pages/days long. I hope to have the story collection, Hearts and Stones, up by then. Again, 1 page a day (and this is the final form since this has already been through copy and line edits).
 
STONE IN ZANTH’S PAW
 
**426 Years After Colonization, Ash Family Beach House, South of Druida City, Summer**
Zanth, top Familiar Companion Cat of all of the planet Celta, stomped down the path from his house to his beach. He should not have to do duty on this beautiful, sunny morning.
 
But Mother Turtle, Swift-In-The-Sea, had mentally contacted him a week ago. She’d told him she wanted to inspect her daughters she’d sent two years ago to be cared for by the animal Healer, Danith D’Ash. Danith was one of Zanth’s humans.
 
After two years, the two littlest of the hatchlings now stood and stretched twice as big as he. Still talked in baby-talk, though. Less than half-baked in Zanth’s opinion.
 
Zanth had informed his Family of Mother Turtle’s request. Then the whole Ash Family, T’Ash, and D’Ash and their two sons and two daughters, had come to this southern estate and the large house near the beach where the turtles had cracked out of their shells.
 
Zanth had saved them then, so now he seemed stuck with them. Mother Turtle had not wanted to meet Danith, like most animals in all the planet of Celta should. Otherwise Danith would be doing this duty and not Zanth. He grumbled low in his throat.
 
Even worse, two of Gwydion Ash’s mob of gray housefluff bunnies decided to follow Zanth and turtles from the mansion to the beach. Zanth disliked the fluffs.
 
Anyway, it looked like he led a parade of fools. That detracted from his status.
 
Still, he kept his tail high and waving.
 
As he approached the first dune, he could smell the patch of herb he liked to sleep in. Far away from the scary and restless big water. To his nose, the spicy groundcover smelled sweeter than ever. From the buzzing of the insects that liked to sit on the leaves, the herb had spread since last summer into a nice, big mat for him.
 
But no sleeping this morning.  This morning he had to return the two female sea turtles to the damn damp sand and meet with their mother.  Both now plodded after him.

They lumbered in his wake, sending falls of sand into the scruffy brush, and they were s-l-o-w.  Even the two housefluff bunnies hopped along faster.

And the turtles were loud, both with their swishing walking behind him—he was silent—and with their mental comments.  Every smart being, human and Fam, could hear their mental shouting.

We are going to SEE MAMA! shrilled the first one into his mind and into the air.

Yes, yes, yes we are! the second yelled.  And maybe we will swim with her and sleep with her and BE with her, now.

Zanth grumbled, You should be grateful you lived with Us, that MY FamWoman took you in and helped you survive and taught you stuff and how to talk in words more than squeaks.

Yes, Zanth, TopFam, said the first.

Yes, Zanth, TopFam, agreed the second.  BUT WE ARE SOOOO EXCITED, she screamed to the world.

Zanth winced and tried to fold down his black ears in reaction, but even weighted with his emerald earring studs, they didn’t lower.

You are too loud! screeched one of the housefluff bunnies.

Those Familiar Companion beings hopped behind the turtles, and over them, and around them, getting in Zanth’s way.

The Family had spent much, much gilt—money—on the two immature female turtles. For personal protection spells for them. For trips to the local seaside near Druida City and a cottage on that beach. A place FamWoman Danith had gone alone many a time to take care and check on the turtles as they grew. She left her HeartMate, FamMan Rand, who didn’t like that at all. She left Zanth! For beings who stayed in the big water!

Inconceivable.

All to keep two turtles well and happy.

He snorted. And he smelled—bad odor.

What’s that? asked Housefluff One mentally. His nose wriggled wildly.

I don’t like that smell! said the housefluff’s mate, her own nose moving slightly less.

Zanth stopped himself from wrinkling his own nose.  Dead and rotting thing, he said. Always something dead or dying on the beach. He’d learned that from experience. The big water is tough on beings.  Zanth thought all water was tough on beings. Nasty stuff.

If something not dying on beach today, will tomorrow, he said. He just planned on it never being him.

The female housefluff stopped in her big-footed tracks, one of her large pink-lined ears tilted.  I’m not going up and down dunes to the beach.

Zanth tossed her a glance.  You housefluffs return home, not that far.

The female lifted her foot, stared at her pads. Don’t like this grit.

That’s sand, nothing but sand on the beach. And shells, broken shells that become sand, Zanth informed her. Sand and grit got between pads and had to be picked out. Like these beings littered Zanth’s life. Turtles soon to be gone, though.

Female bunny twirled and hopped back toward the house, round puffy tail twitching.  Zanth stared at it.  He’d always wanted to catch a housefluff by the tail.

Forbidden.

He virtuously turned his back on the pair—good riddance!—and continued down the path.  A path animals and Fams used, not humans.

Reaching his patch of herb, he had time to inspect it, knead it all over so nice scent coated his pads and paws and under his claws, and got rid of some grit.  Then had a short wallow, before turtles caught up with him.

The shelled beings still burbled cheerfully, but this time only in turtle body language and turtle-mind-speak that sounded like a slow rising and falling hum in his head.  Ignorable.

Easier to tune out than the whoosh in and out of the big water, just lurking beyond the last dune.  He dreaded seeing that, growled under his breath, and kept pace with the turtles as they went slowly up the incline.

As they topped the last dune, he didn’t see Mother Turtle.

Bad smell worse up here, probably horrible on the beach.  Zanth trotted down, putting his black and white paws in dents in the sand.  A meter before the beach, the land fell abruptly, cut as if a storm had come through.  He leapt easily down.

The turtles, of course, squealed as they slid down the sand, tipped onto the beach and fell okay on their bellies.

He turned toward the smell … something he’d have to take care of since it wafted over his territory …and stopped.

There, gnawing on a mangled part of a pelican more than a day old, stood a scrawny male wolf.  He stared at Zanth with cold yellow eyes and Zanth glared back.  He could tell this wolf wasn’t smart enough to be a Familiar Companion animal.  Almost, but not quite.  That made Zanth superior in all ways.  He swaggered forward. A strong Fam could always make a regular animal back down.

The wolf growled in a low threatening tone.  Zanth noted one of his hind legs looked recently crippled and dribbled blood.  Too bad.

Zanth showed his teeth and hissed.  In his head he showed the range of his territory, sent warning that the wolf intruded.  That Zanth would not tolerate the gaunt thing here, on Zanth’s land.

Rumbling came deeper from the wolf’s throat.

Zanth sent a clearer picture of boundaries, added words that would cue the wolf of Zanth’s superior status.  Not to mess with him.  Take rotten meat and go.  Away.  Off My land.

Instead wolf tensed, like he would actually defy Zanth.

And another growl came from a burrow in the steep cut of the land.  Another wolf.

Zanth stiffened, alarmed.  Fighting two of them could be tough.

When they’d left the big house, Danith had been taking care of a local sick dog who’d eaten something bad and was puking his guts out.  Still, she or FamMan T’Ash would hear if Zanth called for help, but he wouldn’t.

He couldn’t back down.  Turtles returning to the sea would know he’d not defended his own land, would tell everyone far and wide.

Threat came mentally from the male wolf before him.  Dark intimidation and challenge.

Then a breeze stirred the air and Zanth smelled that the wolf in the burrow had whelped not long ago, and a pup was with her.  Big wolves would protect pup to the death—Zanth’s or their own.

Uh-oh.

Zanth stepped back, bumped into turtles.  They were about as long as the wolf and much wider.  Wolves’ thoughts sounded like they found turtles too hard to kill and eat.

But turtles didn’t seem to sense that.  They squeaked and moved toward the fast encroaching water.

Come with us, Zanth!  We will protect you! the first said.

Yes! the second turtle chimed in.  Water GOOD!

No! Zanth spit out, looking at them, but keeping a wary sideglance on the male wolf.  Zanth let his body ease, friendly.  Best to get through this problem without a fight that would damage everyone but the turtles.

We talk, he sent in words.  Showed image of wolf relaxing, too.  Of everyone respecting each other.

The male displayed his fangs.  Bigger than Zanth’s own.

Making sure he remained just outside claw reach, Zanth pressed his paw into the moist sand, leaving a good print.  Then with his mind he colored the print pink.  The symbol for Zanth’s FamWoman, the Animal Healer that all smart Celtan animals should know.

The wolf sucked in quick breath, lowered his head a little, gaze fixed on Zanth.  He thought of Danith, gave the vision to the wolves, and the large house at the end of the path.

YOU GO.  GO TO HOUSE WHERE HEALER IS! he projected to the male wolf, making sure his feeling of helpfulness would echo through the wolf’s mate bond, as well as reaching the female directly.

In the lair, the female rumbled in a questioning manner.  The he wolf growled, abandoned the piece of dead bird, retreated close to the opening of the den.  Did body talk—tail and ears and fur—and probably private picture talk to mate.

Female stuck her head and neck out, appearing as skinny as the male.  Stared at Zanth, met his eyes.  He sent her his knowledge of Danith D’Ash.  How she loved animals, all animals, not just Fams.  How she would want to help the small Family.

Would coo over the pup.  Would Heal the male’s leg, for sure.  Would feed them all good food.

???  A swarm of questions, requests for confirmation of Zanth’s info, came from both wolves, loud enough to rouse the dozing pup to yip once.

YES! screamed one of the turtles, as if mentally speaking louder would make the wolves understand better.  DANITH D’ASH IS WONDERFUL!   Her image of Danith seemed odd, using muddy tints instead of pink.

YES, YES, YES, said the second turtle, repeating what her sister said, as usual.  But this turtle’s images and feelings were clearer than her words.  She sent memories of deep comfort from Danith, feeling of love cycling between turtle and woman.  Turtle’s adoration of Danith.

And how the woman helped the turtles, then let them go free.  No cages or pens.

GO UP PATH TO BIG HOUSE WHERE HEALER DANITH IS! confirmed Zanth.  Follow housefluff pawprints and scent.  He thought of the housefluffs, fur sleek over plump bodies.

The male wolf’s eyes widened, a small string of drool fell from his open mouth.  Zanth felt the female perk up at the image of fat housefluffs.

Oops.

As Zanth checked mentally on the fluffs, found them safe inside the house, the wolves rushed by him.  The male jostled Zanth, forcing him away from their den and the path.  The female trotted first, carrying the pup in her mouth, but stayed within the sight of the male behind her.

Zanth hopped back, found himself dewclaw deep in water!  He opened his mouth to hiss, then one of the turtles bumped him, slid under him and he danced for balance until she lifted him up on her back.

I’ll save you, Zanth!  Take you safe to sandbar in water where big nasty dog-things won’t come!  Meet Mama, THERE!

Me, too!

NO! Zanth shouted, but the turtle’s head dipped below water … that slid all around his paws, sometimes covering them! 

Already in deep, deep, water.  Take Me back!

She ignored him.

He stuck his claws in the turtle’s leathery skin and she didn’t flinch too much.  Not as much as Zanth shuddered.

A moment later, the turtle slipped onto a narrow sandbar surrounded by water.  Zanth hopped off the turtle’s shell onto the spit of land, barely above lapping water.  The second turtle arrived, and splashed him even more, droplets on his white fur and his black fur!

He let all the Cat curses he had roll out of him in spitting fury.  And the cowardly turtles deserted him!

We be back when you happier, Zanth!  We going to send sounds to Mama for her to come.  They travel better in water, said the smarter one.

Yes! said the sister.

Zanth wasn’t stupid enough to have a hissy fit and thrash around on the sand.  But it took some stalking up and down the very slim piece of land before his anger decreased.  He eyed the mainland beach, many Zanth-cat-lengths away.  Didn’t see hide nor tail hair of the wolves.  Stretching his senses, he felt Gwydion, also an Animal Healer, open the sick animal door to the wolves.  Good enough.

He’d saved them, too.  Was a hero, as usual.

But stuck on this damn piece of land in the middle of the great water.

What was he going to do?

To call FamMan or FamWoman or some other Fam to rescue him would be to lose great face.  The turtles didn’t think about status like other Fams, didn’t realize the position they’d forced him into.

One of them simply had to take him back.  He’d insist.  Then he’d say he’d done all this on purpose to show how strong and brave he was.  By the time he’d told the story often, he would believe it to be true himself.  So he paced until he could send cool, smart words to turtles.

Come on back, now! he called, not putting command in his tone, because turtles responded to coaxing better.  Now that he stared out at the bigness of the huge water with no land, he could sense where they swam, nearly see their underwater wakes.

**********************************************

FRACTURED  STONE

Here’s the Scoop:

DAILY post of a draft manuscript page of Fractured Stone in the upcoming collection. It’s not done and needs work. ONE PAGE IS NOT LONG, but I’m trying to make this last until the collection comes out. I WILL NOT POST ANY REVISIONS, AND I WILL NOT RESPOND TO COMMENTS, NOT EVEN PRAISE.

Intro to Fractured Stone in the collection Hearts And Stones:
This story is a short sequel to Heart Duel, as requested by a friend. Holm has been disinherited and lost his family, status, and basic identity and now must make a new life in Gael City with his HeartMate and their cats.

FRACTURED  STONE

Gael City, Celta, 403 Years After Colonization, Summer

Holm Holly–no, NOT Holly–Holm Apple stood on the wide sidewalk in the small and bustling town of Gael City and stared at the modest building. He’d thought he’d been coping well with his disinheritance, but from the churning in his gut he realized he’d lied … and more to himself than everyone else, he suspected.

This step, the renting of this building as space for a fencing and fighting salon, naturally to be the best in the city, would turn his life in a different direction. A final acknowledgment that he no longer belonged to the Holly Family. That his status as HollyHeir, a man who would become a FirstFamily GreatLord, the highest of the high, had vanished.

“Maybe we’re moving too fast and I shouldn’t have brought you here yet,” said the woman beside him. The absolute best part of this new life, his HeartMate, his Lark. She murmured the statement more mind-to-mind with telepathy than the whisper he heard.

He unlinked their fingers and put his arm around her waist, savoring the feel of her pliant body against his own as much or as more than the brush of her mind, and their emotional connection. “No, you’re right. We must get on with our lives.”

Holm had lost himself, and though he pretended, he hadn’t really made a new self. He’d made plans without expecting them to happen. Now he had to follow through, become someone else. Grow.

Drawing in a deep breath of air not-at-all like Druida City’s, he smelled the dust of a smaller town, the earth of the mountains to the north, a fresh water river instead of a nearby great salt-ocean.

“I think this building will do well,” he croaked, and stepped up to the one story structure that showcased large shop-like windows in the front. He’d have to protect that glass with strong Flair, psi magic, and definitely allow no training to spill over into the front room. Write a stipulation in his contracts with clients that any breakage would be paid for by the culprit.

Lark moved with him, then up to the door. She murmured passcoded spellwords to drop the shieldspell and allow them in.

They stepped over the small ridge of threshold into the space, thick with the scent of cleanser and wood polish.

To Holm’s surprise, the entry room comprised the full width of the building but only extended about three meters deep, making a wide but shallow foyer. The pale blue smooth upper walls accented the dark wood wainscoting on the bottom.

The near wall in front of them sported a pair of double-doors. When he pushed them, they swung back and forth easily on their hinges. He strode into a large, empty room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the left wall, and the right wall interrupted by two doors, one reading “Men’s Dressing Room,” and the other, “Women’s Dressing Room.”

The shining wooden floor smelled new. “Your father doesn’t own this property, does he?”

“I don’t know whether my father owns this property, but he did refer me to it. Actually, I think he consulted with your G’Uncle Tab who runs the fencing and fighting salon in Druida, and asked what was needed,” Holm’s HeartMate said.

“Oh. Good.”

“Father’s note said this had been an exercise space for dance and theater artists.”

Holm stared at the mirrors and figured they’d have to be specially shielded for his business.

At that moment his and Lark’s FamCats, young orange tabby brothers, tumbled into the room. As soon as they all had arrived in a glider, the toms had leapt from the vehicle to run around the building and check out the landscaped grass and bushes. Each storefront on the street stood separate from its neighbor.

Our space! the young cats yelled telepathically. Meserve, lazier and fatter than his brother–Holm’s kitten who’d been pampered and spoilt by the Holly Family–cuffed Phyll. My space. *I* am Trainer Cat.

Holm blinked, as usual his immediate family demonstrated more flexibility than himself. In Druida City, Meserve had been “Flying Cat,” since he and Holm had taken up the hobby of solar sailing.

The cats rolled around wrestling, breaking away, pouncing on each other as Holm prowled to the mirror wall, placed his hand on the glass. He sensed no spells, simply glass. Nothing to protect the wall from flying bodies.

Shocking.

The mirrors needed shielding at the very least. Better would be coating spells that could set various types of walls over the glass–wood or plaster or permacrete–to be cycled as Holm needed.

And that would be expensive.

His brain stopped. He had no money, no gilt, at all.

GreatLord T’Holly, Holm’s father, had confiscated Holm’s personal account as belonging to HollyHeir, as it had. Holm hadn’t separated his own noblegilt salary, the money he’d received from the Councils for any quests they sent him on– minimal–from any other funds.

He’d rarely given personal money any thought. Anything he’d needed had been charged to the Holly Family accounts.

He’d always worked … for his father, GreatLord T’Holly, learning how to be a good lord, how to handle their affairs and property. He’d also worked at the Family enterprise owned and run by his G’Uncle Tab, The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon, training and giving private lessons, taking part in melees, whatever G’Uncle Tab needed. And Holm had performed work for the NobleCouncil for his annual noblegilt.

But Holm had never actually been paid by his Family for HollyHeir duties. Or had a bank account not linked with his Family. Had never had to consider whether he could actually afford to purchase something.

He’d been so blindsided by the disowning, so emotionally staggered, that he hadn’t considered his “individual” money … Well, he’d never considered any of his gilt personal. All went into the Family coffers, and he charged whatever he needed to the Family.

Now he had nothing.

Where would he get the money, the gilt, to pay someone for the shields? And they wouldn’t be the best shields, because the best practitioners with the most Flair for everything lived in Druida City. If he wanted the best, he’d have to bring them down … and he had no idea how to pay them.

“What’s wrong?” Lark asked, and Holm realized he’d folded over, hands braced on knees, panting as if he’d fought several hearty bouts in a row.
“I have no gilt,” he ground out.

Laughter rippled from her, and it speared him that she didn’t share his consternation. She patted him lightly on the back, and sent him a wash of comfort … tinged with amusement. “That’s all right, I have plenty. Not only the noblegilt the Councils pay me for my services, but a very nice salary for being the new head of the Gael City HealingHall.”

“I’m glad you have money. Good,” he said through stiff and somewhat cold lips. Before he could straighten, both young cats hopped on his lower back, crawled up to his shoulders. Fun! said Phyll.

We don’t cost much! Meserve’s whiskers tickled Holm’s right ear. Holm wondered how his Fam knew about gilt and expenses, where he’d learned of it.

Slowly, Holm straightened and his HeartMate continued to rub his back in a soothing manner. Easy to recall that she’d been estranged from her own FirstFamily GreatLord father, married a commoner and lived with that commoner husband outside the Family Residence while they both worked at HealingHalls.

And Lark had handled all the details of this little family’s move. The HealingHalls and the Heather Healing Family had paid for their transportation from Druida City to take up her new position as the Head of Gael City HealingHall.

So she’d help him get through this, teach him, if necessary.

He stiffened his spine, but kept his knees loose and ready to respond to any threat. Plucking Phyll from his left shoulder, he handed the Fam to Lark.

With a controlled pivot, he scanned the room. “This will do very well.” But he wondered how much it would take to shield the mirrors, and the costs of getting a business up and running. Another thing he had no notion about.

Lark nodded. “A good and simple space.” She patted Phyll and his purr filled the room, augmented by his Flair-magic. So Meserve purred too, in competition, bouncing the warm sound off the mirrors.

“Enough!” Lark laughed and put her cat down on the floor. Holm dropped Meserve, who landed lightly.

Holm’s HeartMate and their two kittens had worked together to ease his anxiety, and the very fact that they knew he was anxious, irritated him. Reminded him of the recent past.

He’d thought he’d gotten over having to be perfect as the golden boy of the Hollys, the HollyHeir, fulfilling all such expectations of that status.

Perhaps so, but he’d discovered a new and unwelcome negative emotion seeded inside him.

Feeling useless. Worthless. Like his father, in particular, had made him feel when he’d been disowned. His whole life and purpose ripped away.
Yes, he’d have to follow plans he’d made but hadn’t accepted at an emotional level.

He’d have to accept help just to survive, let alone flourish, and do that gracefully.

He’d have to grow and become Holm Apple.

Also accept he’d create his new life here, in Gael City.

Sucking in a deep breath, he cast a final glance around the main room. He’d check out the dressing rooms … and the plumbing! … later.

“Yes, I think this will do very well.” Holm forced a smile. “I’m sure The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon started out small, too.” Though the beginnings of that generational Family enterprise was lost in history and legend.

“I’m sure,” Lark smiled at him, and he felt her supreme confidence in him. No doubt whatsoever. He swallowed.

Tag, you’re IT! shrieked Meserve and hit the door with enough acceleration to go through and his brother zoomed after him before it swung shut. The front door slammed open with Flair.

Lark shrieked, “The street!” and bolted after them.

Holm hurried after the young cats and his HeartMate. Not much glider traffic here, true, but anti-grav hauling sleds and some beasts and carts from the countryside, even on this last day of the weekend. Holm figured the Fams could dodge or teleport or–but tell that to a Healer like his wife who often saw the worst.
 
And there they stood, all three, on the sidewalk with Lark pointing and scolding and the cats pretending not to hear.
 
He dismissed the lightspells, locked up with key and passcode, and left. Then paused and looked at the small, ordinary structure he hoped to rent and build a business in, somehow. He wondered whether he could make a successful enterprise with only himself as proprietor and single trainer. The task seemed overwhelming.
 
And how long it would take. A month? A year? Five?
# # #
Since Lark had dismissed the HealingHall glider, they walked hand-in-hand through the sunshine of late summer through the compact area of the city’s downtown business sector–Holm’s studio was not on one of the two main streets–and past the Temple and the round green across from it, to the home Lark’s father had given them to live in until … maybe their whole lives.
 
When they reached the house, the young cats scampered to the overgrown side yard high with plumed grass, where they could hide and play and pounce on each other.
 
Lark tugged on Holm’s hand and they circled the two story pale goldish stone house to the back and the grassyard bordered with fully mature splashy flower gardens.
.
She hummed with pleasure and set her arm around his waist, glanced up to see if the floral show eased him as much as her. Naturally, it didn’t since she was the gardener and her personal creative Flair wreath making, but walking in this well-groomed and verdant private yard did relax him.
 
Pulling away, Lark translocated a basket and a ritual knife, walked over to a thick patch of ivy and murmured a prayer, then cut several stalks, sealing the wounds with a touch.
 
Holm watched her select the greenery, Ivy — in the language of flowers, wedded love, fidelity, friendship and affection. All of which she sent him down their bond, and he returned. Then she crossed the yard to the rose garden.
 
He turned and stared at the modest house, not a huge intelligent Residence modeled like an Earthan castle like he–and Lark–had grown up in. The dimensions and proportions pleased him. A two and a half story house of pale yellow stone with four windows on each side and one above the double door. All of the windows on the upper story had small greeniron balconies that echoed the tint of the roof.
 
The half story revealed one large center multi-paned window and two small dormer windows on each side. Each included a fancy molding frame that repeated the arty rectangular designs along the wall under the roof.
 
He smiled, glanced over to Lark who sat on the ground deftly fashioning a wreath from the herbs and flowers she’d harvested, being climbed on by the young cats. Another pleasing picture.
 
As he watched, she wove in white heather. Of course white heather, a symbol of her mother’s Family, meaning protection.
 
His brows dipped when he sensed she made another wreath for him.
 
Then Meserve shot over to Holm, pounced on his boots. Train, we haven’t done a drill today!
 
“You’re speaking for yourself, cat,” Holm said. He’d done plenty of of fighting patterns, katas and drills, today. Morning exercise … though he’d missed the opportunity to test out the floor of his new space. Too damn broody.

But, yes, a fighting pattern including tumbling would banish dark-thought cobwebs.

He gauged the space needed and backed up close to the house. Then he decided on a rarely practiced set of springs and rolls and falls, and began, keeping an eye out for the leaping Meserve.

When he ended, he did feel better, and he noted Meserve seemed to be toning up some … without Holm’s Mama and other Hollys slipping him table tidbits.

Then he looked over to his HeartMate. She’d tidied up her work, and now stood.

With a deep breath, she flung out her arms and spun, and Holm felt the heavy scents of the flowers mix in the wind, then wrap around him. He let the fragrance fill him and smiled.

But when she finished spinning and faced him, her expression didn’t show exaltation, but narrowed-eyed Healer consideration. Uh-oh.

Walking over to him, she placed a wreath on his head. The sturdy green frame of ivy mixed with sprigs of white heather, but deep crimson roses intertwined with that. Mourning.

The wreath hurt. Not the negligible weight of it, and no woody stems poked his scalp, but among the heather and the ivy were apple leaves, and despite the roses, that was the odor that stayed in his nostrils.

“Mourning, truly?” he asked.

She opened his arms and stepped against him, stroking his face. “There are hurts within you that must be acknowledged.”

“Ever the Healer.” He sighed, closed his eyes and let sweat cool on his body, smelled the apple wreath, and the lingering floral breeze, and the herbal spell of his garments that wicked away sweat. He thought the clothes that had shown up after he’d been disinherited were his own, only with all sigils and colors denoting the Hollys changed. Thought he’d felt a lingering touch of his Mama, but who knew?

“What hurts do you mean?” he asked. “I’d rather deal with them … here, outside, than in our home.”

He felt her head nod against his chest. “Very well. It’s an abscess that needs to be lanced.”

“Excellent image,” he muttered, not wanting to visualize some big yellow pus sack inside himself.

“But we can speak of our new home first,” she said with a faint smile that showed she wanted to give him a nice feeling before …

I like it very much,” he said, “Your father obviously worked on this piece of property for us.”

“With the gardens for me, and I like the house, too, but it seems he anticipated what kind of dwelling you’d prefer. Of course, he’s lived in a tall gray stone castle Residence all his life just as you have.”

And Lark had not. She’d been estranged from her father, lived outside the sentient T’Hawthorn Residence first as the wife of a commoner, then as a widow in an actual apartment building.

“I like the house,” Holm repeated. Opened his eyes to look at it’s good proportions and symmetry, then reached up to touch the dark red roses. “Nothing to mourn for there.”

“No. It’s a lovely house. But you must morn for your Residence, the home you miss, as a being. It was as much a member of your Family as the rest of the Hollys. And you must mourn the loss of your Family. You lived with your parents and brother and cuzes all your life. You will have missed seeing your Family at meals, or …” she made a hesitant gesture “training–”

“Sparring with my father and brother and cuzes and G’Uncle Tab.” The words came out roughly as the missing surged through him, whipping him with memory-images. Rawness. He had to sink into his balance, and she came with him, steadied him, his HeartMate, as he shuddered, breathed through both nose and mouth as the grief stormed within him, stung the back of his eyes and emerged as panting groans.

Animalistic sounds of hurt. He did miss the closeness of his Family. Just seeing his relatives in the hall and giving a word, a wave.

It fliggering hurt.

Shudders racked him. Not even in his home city. Couldn’t ignore that he wouldn’t be returning to his Residence at the end of the day, or the end of the next day. Whatever Hollys still supported him, he wouldn’t see often. They lived north and distant, across mountains.

Yes, his Lark was right, he grieved for that, the simple presence of his relatives, of living in his intelligent Residence, talking to it, being answered and instructed and scolded or whatever.

He did mourn for the lost emotional closeness of his Family, having them in his daily life.

“Of course you do,” Lark murmured. “Let it all out.”

He guess she meant for him to weep, and maybe he should have tried, but he just convulsed, grabbing breaths between tremors.

After an eon, he stopped. “Fligger, not sure these clothes will ever be the same.” He’d sweated through them multiple times. Salt water perspiration leaking from him instead of tears.

“We’ll see what the cleanser will do,” Lark said lightly.

Well, she had experience with all sorts of bodily fluids. “Guess so.”

He stretched cramping muscles and the wreath fell to his feet, yet beautiful.

He kicked it to fly and disintegrate. Then flinched. He’d destroyed a gift from his HeartMate. He turned to apologize, but she placed her fingers on his lips.

“The wreath served its purpose.” Linking her arm with his, she began strolling toward the house. “I think I’d like special food from the no-time. Feast-day food, from Samhain celebrating New Year and new beginnings.”

Samhain was over two months away, in the autumn.

Holm grunted, “Having a Samhain feast meal is fine with me. I need to take a waterfall, I’ll join you in a few minutes.” He hoped there weren’t any more pockets of pain within him that she’d feel needed dealt with.

Accompanied by both cats, he trudged through the back door. As soon as they entered the small tiled entryway, lightspells came on and not only in this room, but throughout the house.

A welcoming place. This place, this house would eventually become a Residence over a couple of centuries, if greatly Flaired people lived here and made it–loved it–as a home.

So far Holm had only addressed the house once or twice as “Residence” and asked for something, then stood a few seconds waiting for the being to respond before realizing he’d have to take care of the chore himself.

A fresh energy, maybe a whiff of a scent he couldn’t place, seemed to imbue the atmosphere with not only that trace of odor but a … a delight, a cheerfulness.

Lark stopped, sniffed. “What’s that?”

He found his shoulders dipping in relief, a smile touching his lips. “I think it’s Clam.” Now he moved quickly, through the back mudroom into the kitchen, then down a short hall to the mainspace where a large salt water tank held Clam–really a pearl mollusk–and the sea life he preferred.

The changes of tanks, underwater scenery and the move had invigorated Clam. He’d produced several stunning pearls in various forms that Holm forwarded to his friend T’Ash–jeweler and blacksmith. Clam Apple, an artist who fit in well with all the other creative Apples. The notion curved Holm’s mouth.

Until he realized that if he failed at his business, his only other option was to try and sell his creative Flair work, his brush calligraphy that he’d just taken up again. Not up to anyone’s standards, least of all an artistic Apple.

Even Clam made more gilt than Holm.

He shook the notion off.  Don’t be so damn pitiful.  He marched up to the waterfall to soak sense into his head.  He didn’t need to be perfect anymore.

Note: Several of the following scenes have been completely cut from the current draft of the story.

Lark hummed happily from the kitchen as she pulled meals from the food storage no-time, that kept food the same temperature as when placed in the appliance. Holm smelled the luscious scents of a steaming Samhain feast plate.

The young FamCats zoomed into the large kitchen-dining area, squealing with hunger.

“Your father stocked the no-times, too?” He hadn’t thought of that before, though he should have since they’d arrived two evenings before, and certainly eaten since then. How much shock had fogged his brain to ordinary living? That had to stop.

“Of course.” She glanced over as she set various autumn dishes–New Year’s, new beginning’s foods–on the linen covered table. Holm noted that the cloth appeared to be the finest quality to which he was accustomed.

As would be her father, GreatLord Huathe T’Hawthorn.

Holm had learned that the best businessman in the FirstFamilies bought and sold properties in Gael City.

Lark dished out nutritional dinners and one treat for the cats.

Holm pulled out her seat at the head of the table and waited, the least he could do was to show his beloved standard courtesy.

She dipped her head and sat and he slid her in, taking the seat to her right.
“You say the blessing,” she murmured.

Yes, something ordinary and special all the same. The first blessing he’d say in his–their–new home. “Lord and Lady, watch over us, and bless this food, the bounty of Celta, that many hands have prepared. We are grateful for all of our blessings and we thank you. So mote it be.”

Holm took the knife and cut into the flaky crust of the meat pie, a pie that would serve no more than four, then slanted his gaze to Lark. “And I’m grateful to your father for his generosity.” It didn’t hurt too much to say that.

Lark sighed and added fresh greens to her own plate. “The feud emotionally damaged my Family, especially my father, brother and nephew. Now, I believe he wants to ease our way.”

“Yes,” Holm said. Should his pride be pricked? Should he feel resentful? Feelings mixed within him.
* * *
Before he went to bed, he went downstairs to check on the tank containing the last member of their tiny immediate Family, Clam. Holm had always considered Clam a … neutral or pessimistic being, but the move had brought him joy and he shared that with his Family. Holm thought it to be the location in the busy mainspace of the house, but for all he knew, there’d been new nutrients in the water, in his tank.

As Holm considered this, he could only pray to the Lady and Lord that this new environment of Gael City would be rich with nutrients for him–students, friends, experiences.

He also looked in on the kittens, snuggled in their closet. Lark’s father, T’Hawthorn, recently acquired an arrogant FamCat who insisted on his own closet in the GreatLord’s Suite, so a new special “Fam” closet in their own master sitting room hadn’t surprised Holm or Lark.

Then, in the sitting room, he stretched until his joints popped, sat to meditate and connect with his inner core. His center felt strong at least, and he let thoughts float by … DISOWNED, stab of hurt, over, done. Need to be perfect, never disappoint parents, weariness, but over, done.

Focus on the positive. He had managed to cobble together a self made out of observations: he’d won his HeartMate, he had good friends in the highest status that he’d made himself, as well as a former brother and G’Uncle who loved him ….

Meserve mewed, thrashed around on the soft bed in his and his brother’s closet. Holm could see him through the cracked open door.

And he’d done this before, run down the list of his “achievements” at night.
How long would he be doing that, too?

* * *

Her HeartMate came to bed, and Lark rolled to hold him. Unlike nights before, his body and mind didn’t hum with tension, and she sensed a slight positive note. She matched her resting energy with his, let her calmer thoughts cycle to him.

And a few moments later, he slept, and, she thought, settled into the first good sleep since their move.

So she allowed tears for him, warm and silent tears, to fall. And banished the wetness as it crept down her cheeks.

Who would have thought that her father, once the greatest man on the whole of Celta, would have been more forgiving than Holm’s father?
Now and then she caught Holm’s expression of complete confusion.
Not defeat, not desolation, not despair. Utter shock.

But then the feud had been terrible. Her father’s hubris in believing he could win against the Holly warriors. The terrible accidental knifing by her nephew of Holm’s mother. The loss of her estranged brother, her father’s revenge … blood red events tumbled through her mind.

Finally, her father, T’Hawthorn, had come to his senses and surrendered to the Hollys, reconciled with his remaining relatives. Worked at being a good and loving man.

Her thoughts turned from that awful feud to touch on the one years ago where she’d lost her first husband, when he’d run to help and Heal and been cut down in the street.

Odd that as a Healer, two different feuds had changed her life forever, taking her husband, giving her a HeartMate.

She didn’t think Holm ever compared himself to her husband, as he shouldn’t. Holm knew the difference between the deep connections of HeartMates–where one spouse would die within a year of the other they were so bound–and husbands.

Holm had grown up in a household with HeartMated parents.

She hadn’t.

She’d loved Ethyn Collinson. But their love had been a cool and steady thing, a tame thing. Nothing to compare with this fiery passion with Holm, her belated and beloved HeartMate.

And she had no doubt he would conquer himself and this new world he found himself in. Because he’d already proven how incredibly he could grow, by changing enough in this very lifetime to become her HeartMate.
Life tested him, her Holm … Apple. But she’d stand with him. Help him as much as she could, push him to deal with his issues, but he’d have to continue to do hard emotional work himself–to grow.

And when she felt him fall into sour dreams she woke him with a sure and passionate touch and stoked the fire between them until he took her fiercely like a warrior.

They finished breakfast, their third morning meal together in their own home, and Holm actually liked the healthy and nutritional food Lark insisted upon. Naturally so did Lark and her young cat, Phyll, but Holm’s own ginger tabby grumbled at the mixture of meat and greens and no human table scraps as he’d gotten before.

Continuing to solidify habits in this new life, Holm stood and went to Lark’s chair to slide it back for her, and she took their dishes to the cleanser. He’d cleaned his plate. Little by little, he’d begun eating as much as he had before he’d been disinherited.

When she came back, she wrapped her arms around Holm, hugged. He sensed she wanted to rock together so did that–otherwise she couldn’t move him. “My first full day as Head of Gael City HealingHall, I’m nervous,” she murmured.

She fudged the truth. She’d applied for the position months ago, had been planning on changing her life in a large way before the Hawthorn-Holly feud, and anticipated the job with rising satisfaction. If he hadn’t been disinherited, she’d have withdrawn her name for this position, and lived with him in T’Holly Residence with the rest of his Family. She’d have continued her career at Druida City HealingHalls.

So, though her life had altered dramatically, she welcomed it more, and the move, too. Altogether more sanguine and serene, his Lark. He stepped even closer until their lengths press together. His anchor in the storm his life had become, his Lark, his HeartMate.

Then two young cats landed on Holm’s shoulders, draped over his and Lark’s. We are going to the HealingHall today! Phyll, Lark’s cat said. We will be Healing Cats, I will teach Meserve more.

Meserve swatted his brother.

“No fighting when you’re on the humans,” Holm said, plucking both FamCats from them and dropping them to the ground.

They tussled from the kitchen down the short hallway to the main space where they stopped and stared at a wall. Hello, Clam! shouted Meserve. Hello, Clam! echoed Phyll.

A watery sense of satisfaction wafted through the house. Greeting enough, Holm supposed. He stepped away from Lark, but took her hands, inhaled deeply and said, “I’d like to sign the rental contract for the building housing my studio salon and get started on refurbishing the space. Can I draw gilt from your account?”

Her head tilted, her eyes softened and welled with tears.

Holm squeezed her fingers. “What?”

“I know that cost you in pride. But you asked. You are my HeartMate, we are partners, now and forever.” She clasped his fingers tightly, the golden bond between them cycled with deep love for several moments.

Lark’s calendarsphere popped into existence, whirled slowly and announced, “The glider from Gael City HealingHall should arrive in five minutes.”

“Now I must leave.” She smiled at him as she did no one else. “I added you to all my accounts at Cascara Bank the evening we acknowledged we were HeartMates. Me, under the professional name I prefer, Larkspur Apple and you, Holm Apple.”

“You did that for me?” He’d had no such thought for her.

Her brows raised. “Of course. We’re HeartMates, linked emotionally, we could not betray each other.”

“No, we’d never betray each other.” He couldn’t even grasp that concept. Not when he’d lived with his HeartMated parents who stood as a solid unit.

“I’ll ride with you, and walk to CityCenter to sign the lease for the building ,” Holm said. “Let’s go.”

Standing on the walk outside Gael City HealingHall, he kissed Lark and petted each FamCat, watched as they entered the place.

Then Holm walked to the office of the owner of the building, and spoke with the man’s assistant. At no time in his previous business life had he dealt with an assistant instead of the principal of a business. But everything went smoothly and he left detailed notes about how he planned to shield the windows and mirrored wall at his own expense. He’d gotten a recommendation for such an expert and made an appointment for the afternoon, then transferred gilt from Lark’s–their–account for a deposit and three months rent.

A deposit and three months rent. The amount, two months ago, would have felt insignificant. Today, when he had no gilt, doling it out made his gut churn.

The first gilt spent on his own business. He didn’t feel excitement and anticipation, but low-level anxiety.

Despite emotional and spiritual work, Holm still loathed failing. Creating, growing a successful business–something totally new he could fail at.

He wondered that since Gael City boasted no good training studio, academy, salle, fencing and fighting perhaps others had closed, as had the exercise and dance facility previously in his building. Other people might have failed in the same business, people who’d wanted their own businesses. Even failed in his new space. Terrible idea.

He’d work hard. But the success of a business didn’t solely depend on him, did it? It depended on people wanting to train, be taught. He had to find and keep clients and finding clients might be difficult.

But Holm would work harder at this than any other thing in his entire life. Just the thought made him sweat.

If he failed, he wouldn’t lose Lark.

But he’d lose self-respect, and gilt she’d made.

He already felt as if she gave more to their partnership than he. Another stupid idea, she didn’t tally giving and receiving, and neither had he … before. Now was a whole different matter. The feeling of unbalance settled under his skin and itched.

Holm reached home a few minutes before Lark was due to arrive with the FamCats–an emergency had her running late, and he’d stayed to discuss the shields with the slow but thorough expert a lot longer than he’d anticipated.
Flopping down into a chair in the mainspace, he rubbed his aching head.

Making decisions about gilt had never taxed him so before. But this was Lark’s gilt, and a finite amount. He should have done a budget. He knew how, but he hadn’t before. Something to tackle this evening.

Talk it over with Lark, make it a sharing experience. Fligger.

The scrybowl chimed like clashing daggers. Holm jerked upright, the sound of a call from The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon in Druida City. Either his G’Uncle Tab who owned the place, or Holm’s brother Tinne, who would have taken over that business if he hadn’t now been promoted to GreatLord T’Holly’s heir.

Stupid for his heart to leap, for him to think Tab or Tinne scried because Holm’s father wanted him back as HollyHeir, but that notion hit his emotions and his brain first.

Then pain struck, because GreatLord Holly would not admit any error. He’d been a wonderful father, until that last irreconcilable difference, shocking Holm.

Holm definitely had to change. Had he thought his father would come around? Perhaps. Thought more that his Mama would work on his father to revoke the disinheritance of his first son and heir. Yes.

Even after weeks, he’d believed that. Fooled himself.

Continued to think with his heart and his gut instead of his brain.

Striding over to the scrybowl, he circled his finger around the edge of the crystal to accept the call. G’Uncle Tab’s face formed in the water droplets hanging over the bowl. “Greetyou, Holm Apple,” he said.

Holm’s abs tightened, though he didn’t think his expression changed. And, yes, G’Uncle Tab would understand Holm continued to hope his status as a disinherited son would change, despite everything.

“Greetyou, Tab Holly.”

His expression hardened. “You call me G’Uncle Tab, you hear?”

“Yes, sir.”

A headjerk of agreement. “Now, I went back and figured out how much I could pay you for your help in The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon this year.”

“You don’t need to–”

“I know I don’t need to, but you worked for me, and I paid your father for your services.” Tab’s face creased with a grim smile. “And I told him I wanted my money back.” Tab chuckled. “I insisted. It warn’t me who disinherited you. I presented him with an accounting of what you’d cost me for the whole year, since Samhain last.”

“Nearly ten months” Holm choked.

“Yes, ten months pay for you. Your father, T’Holly, bills me yearly, so I asked for your fees and got them.” Another smile, this one almost cherubic, an odd look on a tough, old warrior. “And I billed him for the absence of services of his new HollyHeir that he now owed me also–”

“Tinne!” Holm’s younger brother.

“Who was my heir who T’Holly took away from me. I had to use cuzes to fill in all the classes and private lessons and whatnot, and I still don’t have an heir yet.” Tab stared penetratingly at Holm.

“I … I can’t.” He swallowed. “And I don’t think T’Holly would allow that, either.”

“I am the master of The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon,” Tab said.

“But it would be awkward … right now. Gotta tell you, though, I don’t think your disinheritance will last.” He lifted a hand. “Holm senior is very hardheaded, and I anticipate that breaking their Vows of Honor–always a terrible thing–will work on him and your mother, so you might be looking at some years there in Gael City. But eventually, he’ll come around.”

Hope hurt too much. Hope, then crashing betrayal of that faith hurt more than anything else in the world. Holm didn’t want to hope. Didn’t hope with his head, and his heart would learn soon enough and stop the cycle of pain.

“Anyways, I sent payment to ya through T’Reed’s bank there in Gael City, and they’ll be holdin’ the gilt for ya.”

“Enough … enough to coat a wall of mirrors with an anti-breakage shieldspell?” Holm would like Tab’s view on the deal Holm had negotiated.

“How big a wall? Tab asked.

“About four meters tall and a quarter of the length of the main fighting area of your salon.”

Tab nodded, “Yes, enough gilt for you to shield a wall of mirrors for anti-breakage. For sure.” Another cool smile. “You were a highly paid commodity. Excellent fighting skills.”

“Thank you.”

“So the check is large.”

“Nice to have some gilt,” Holm said.

Tab chuckled, just as Lark had. “Yah. Prob’ly never thought about gilt a’tall, did ya? Not like the rest of us who’ve worked for our livings outside the Family.”

“That’s right.” Holm tried an easy smile and didn’t think it formed too oddly on his lips. “Hell of a shock.”

“Imagine so.” Tab scrutinized him. “You’ll do, Holm Junior. You got grit enough. You and Tinne showed that when ya walked from the northern mountains back to Druida City.” Another firm nod. “And ya grew enough to find and claim your HeartMate. You’ll do well.”

“Thank you.”

“And how is your Mayblossom Larkspur Hawthorn Collinson Apple–” all the long names of his HeartMate rolled well off the old sailor’s tongue, “–doing?”

“We’re very well.”

“Also good to hear. Merry meet.”

“And merry part,” Holm said. It was almost true.

“And merry meet again. Later.” Tab cut the scry and the water above the bowl stopped holding the colors of his being and dropped down.

Holm stumbled back to his chair. He could pay Lark back, cover all the costs he’d paid for today. Move his share of their funds from T’Reed’s bank, a noble patronized bank, to Cascara’s, that more middle-class folk used.

So he’d have enough gilt for now, to take care of the building and perhaps a few months of startup for his business.
That didn’t mean he, or his fighting salle, would be a success. In his head came the vision of a sandglass, with grains of gilt in the top that simply drained away.

Until he had to use Lark’s money again.

This additional gilt should have been a great relief, but no. If he failed, he’d have lost gilt Lark and his G’Uncle Tab had given him. And Tinne, Holm’s brother, would be aware of the disbursement of funds to Holm, too. So he’d fail a whole lot more beloved people.
# # #

BACK TO FULL STORY
As the next couple of days passed, and he threw more gilt at his business, the process moved apace. Holm figured it was mostly because he paid for services at the time of the contract. Though the fast turnaround might also be due to his former name and status. Or because Lark, as T’Hawthorn’s daughter and Head of the Gael City HealingHall, dropped words-or-two in certain ears. Or perhaps the fact he still had good contacts with important nobles of Druida City. But Holm’s Training Studio–a name he finally settled on–would open the last business day of that very week.

He couldn’t figure out whether that was good or bad.

***

Four days later as she walked hand-in-hand with her HeartMate down their drive to where the HealingHall glider waited on the street, Lark studied Holm.

His night had been restless, typical for any new business owner opening the next day. They’d made love several times and slept in between bouts. She grinned. They’d been noisy enough the FamCats had left in a huff to bed down in the mainspace and the soothing presence of Clam.

Now Holm appeared energetic, with a buzz of Flair running under his skin. Ready and revved for the day. She, herself, felt tired and hoped no emergency came up that she’d have to handle, or use great Healing Flair.

But Lark knew that Holm would do very well today, his first day of business.
He lifted the glider door for her and the Fams, greeted her usual driver, then slid in and made casual conversation on the way to the HealingHall. His body, too, seemed as natural and poised as it should be. Though he didn’t remind her driver that the salon was launching today.
 
Holm must get over his marketing shyness. She understood that he wanted his work to speak for itself, for his clientele to come from excellent word-of-mouth, but he needed to be more assertive in advertising. She’d had to push him to put a single announcement of the start up of his training salle in the newssheets.
 
Naturally, he couldn’t use his former name, Holly, but he’d originally planned on calling the salon The Green Man, a direct reflection of The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon in Druida City run by Holm’s G’Uncle Tab Holly. Tab hadn’t disowned Holm and would have approved of the name. But Holm had stuck to “Holm’s Training Studio” out of sheer embarrassment.
 
And they’d arrived at the HealingHall. He exited and held the door for her and the cats. To keep the Fams out of his way, Lark would be taking them with her today, and they followed her happily out of the glider and shot toward the Healing Grove behind the Hall.
 
Holm swung her into his arms and their golden HeartMate bond wound them close. All she sensed was him, his hard, strong body, his need for her, emotional as well as physical. That met her own needs for him. An honorable man she could always rely on. So sexy.
 
His scent wrapped around her and she dimly noted it had changed when mixed with the air of Gael City. Then she didn’t think at all, only felt his lips on hers, tasting then penetrating, and she gave back the kiss.
 
One last taste for both of them, and they broke the kiss. Lark noted their female driver looking envious. “HeartMates,” the driver murmured, shaking her head.
 
“Oh, yeah,” Holm said, then lifted Lark’s hand to press a tingling kiss in her palm, fold her fingers over the slight dampness. “A kiss for luck.”
 
“Looks like some damn good luck.” The driver glanced at Lark.
 
“Not for her,” Holm said with a devastating smile. “For me.”
 
That got him a long stare.
 
“You will be fabulous,” Lark stated, sending positive energy that should diminish his doubts. If he let her words into his stubborn head and heart.
 
She turned to her driver. “Please take Holm to his place of business which will be opening in a septhour, Holm’s Training Studio, 300 Caer Street.”
 
“Sure thing!” The woman beamed and punched him on the shoulder with congratulations and an airy statement that she’d drop by sometime.
 
And as Lark watched the glider slip away, Holm casual in the back, she recalled that he’d spent many years training in The Green Knight. He’d probably realized this would be more familiar to him than anything else, lately, including having a regular lover and HeartMate.
 
He must have missed the work, as she would have miss hers.
 
Absolutely, he’d be fine. She’d only check their link every few minutes or so.
 
When the emergency alarm sounded, Lark ran to the Hall, focused on her own work.
 
WorkBell rang and the studio opened for business. Holm stood, feet braced, on the polished wooden floor of his new fencing and fighting salon, awaiting students.
 
He swallowed hard, hoping people would respond to his simple announcement in the newssheet.
 
Now, he waited. He’d opened the doors separating the main training room from the entryway, and propped open the outer door to the street, too. He’d wanted to stand near the outer door and welcome people in, but though that felt right to his notion of hospitality, it also felt desperate to be a success.
 
No Holly–hell, Apple–should ever be desperate under such … commonplace circumstances as opening a business.
 
Unexpectedly launched into space to circle the planet then fall back down into untracked mountains, yes. Sinking in quicksand and dying, yes. Not standing alone in a room and looking at the huge block of sunlight stream through the open outside door and waiting for students.
 
He’d placed a sidebar at one end of the entry room and stocked it with caff and cocoa and a pile of freshly baked pastries. Holm waved a hand and sent delicious smells wafting out the door.
 
What if no one came?
 
That would be a blow to his minuscule pride indeed. He’d been considered the second most skilled fighter in the whole world, after his father, FirstFamily GreatLord T’Holly.
 
Hopefully his reputation drew clients.
 
He had the skills and knowledge to train others, he just didn’t know if he had the talent to teach. That took different kinds of abilities, like patience and understanding. Ah, he’d work on those aspects of himself to bring the best to his clients.
 
If students came to Holm’s Training Studio, a name he’d put down on the announcement just to call the place something.
 
Previously, he’d planned to call the place The Green Man Fencing and Fighting Salon. Now that seemed too damned pretentious.
 
And if students didn’t appear, he’d be humiliated as well as pretty battered. His shaky sense of a new self would explode again.
 
What would he do if the fighting studio didn’t work? He simply didn’t know. He had few other skills.
 
“Ahem,” a man coughed, pulling Holm from his thoughts.
 
When he looked up, the middle-aged guy faded back, nearly stumbled. Holm stopped himself from smiling in relief, that would look bad, as if he laughed at the guy’s lurch.
 
 “Greetyou, Sir.” Holm bowed and prowled toward the atrium. “Welcome to my studio. Would you like caff or cocoa?” He gestured to the set-up.
 
The tall and gangly man who didn’t move well, didn’t seem well-seated in his body, eyed the drink and pastries. “Better not. I’m, uh, here for a lesson and probably best to eat afterward?”
 
“Indeed,” Holm said. At The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon one of his cuzes who staffed the reception desk would step forward and get all sorts of particulars, schedule a training course, set up sessions, whatever. From the man’s nerves, Holm didn’t think he dared activate a simple calendarsphere.
 
He held out his forearm to clasp. “Welcome, again. I’m Holm … Apple and I offer hand-to-hand fighting training that will help you with your balance, as well as weapons training. That is, knife, dagger, main gauche, short sword and rapier, broadsword and others of that like, and blazer pistols.”

The man paused in his step to clasp Holm’s forearm, swallowed, then narrow fingers curved softly around Holm’s arm and the guy withdrew. Holm raised his brows.

“Oh, ah, Allspice. That is, newly GraceLord Allspice. Pime. Pime Allspice.”

“Greetyou, GraceLord.”

“Greetyou, GrandSir Apple.”

No one had ever called Holm that, the title of a younger son of a FirstFamily. Never. And now he realized his friends in Druida hadn’t addressed him by any sort of a title at all after his disinheritance and before he and Lark moved here.

Some new pang and assault to his sense of self to cope with every day. Tiresome.

The man walked from the entry chamber into the large room now graced with huge mats in the center and others rolled up against the walls to use as necessary or for, Holm hoped, seating for observers. Pime Allspice stared around as if he’d never seen a physical training area.

Holm let him gaze his fill, as he scanned the man himself.

Didn’t move well, beginning student, but limber and good enough body, Holm sensed potential.

When GraceLord Allspice met his eyes, he smiled and Holm became aware that the shy smile didn’t quite match the studious–and sharp–gaze. “I work with T’Ash. I’m a merchant specializing in gems, stones.”

Holm’s good friend T’Ash sent the man. Holm could only hope it wasn’t part of a sale or bargain between the two. No. Do not take insult that this might be a pity student. Put that out of his mind, and deal with the man as-is. “My first question is what you hope to get out of a course of training with me?

A flush colored the man’s face and freckles stood out. “As you may have noticed, I’m not a graceful guy. I’d like to, uh, get better balance. Move well.” He flung out a hand, barely missed grazing his knuckles on the wall. “Like you.”

Holm nodded. “This we can work on, bringing you to be more physically balanced. How are you at meditation, and emotional balance and grounding?”

This time Allspice’s smile flashed quick and sincere. “I’m good there, and mentally, too.”

“Excellent.” Holm himself had finally become grounded himself in the last couple of months. Didn’t want to think of his past life. Nothing hurtful to distract him from the needs of his pupil.

Allspice cleared his throat. “Also, my oldest daughter has found her HeartMate and we will be having an elaborate wedding ritual, including paired Earthan dancing. This training will help me with dancing?”

“Absolutely, but perhaps you should simply consider working with a dancing master.”

The man stiffened as if Holm had insulted his manhood.

“I’ve worked with many dancers,” Holm said. “They’re fine athletes.”

“I want to learn to fight!” Allspice took a deep breath. “Gael City isn’t the great town with big criminal problems that Druida City is, but I’ve had tough elements come into my store and try and threaten me. I’ve reported them to the guards, but I am not … I am not a man who inspires fear in others.”

“So you’ll also need to have a presence,” Holm said. He stood straight, thought of himself as he’d been as the arrogant HollyHeir, knew that he could fight and win against any man in this city.

“Zow. Yes, like that! A presence so I won’t be seen as an easy person to be intimidated. I’m not, but I need the–”
 
“Attitude,” Holm said, releasing into a more casual manner. He made a show of scanning the man’s body. “I think we’ll have no problem with meeting your goals. I believe you have potential, you just have to be trained into it. You could make a very good hand-to-hand fighter.”
 
“Thanks!” Excitement lit within the man. Holm had done that, and it felt satisfying. In the first minutes he’d met with the man, Holm had inspired his new student.
 
“How long of a course do you wish to sign up for?” Holm asked.
 
“As long as it takes.” Allspice set his chin.
 
“I think you’ll find as we go along, that you will like the movement of your body, the exercise, the discipline, and want to make it a part of your lifestyle. Not only will I be offering lessons, but I will be opening the, ah, studio as an athletic club and offering such things as group melee nights, ah, et cetera. There will be membership levels.”
 
“Sounds really good. Can we start right away? I brought some casual clothes, but I’ll need some standard training robes. And belts, I want to win colored belts as I advance.”
 
More anticipation from the GraceLord.
 
“That will happen,” Holm assured him. Mostly the guy had energy he needed to smooth out, and physical training would certainly do that.
 
After Allspice went into the Men’s Dressing Room, Holm crossed to the front door and closed it, put a keep-warm spell on the caff and cocoa, and placed the pastries in a special glass no-time, an appliance that would keep the food as fresh and the same temperature as it went in.
 
It had been a long, long time since he’d been a raw beginner, beyond his own memory, but occasionally he’d seen G’Uncle Tab give a lesson or two to newcomers. And Holm had listened when his younger brother, Tinne, who was to have inherited The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon, was being instructed by Tab in how to train …

Then Allspice came back … in ragged clothes Holm would never be seen wearing, even within his own home. The GraceLord was sensitive to his physical appearance, and with being thought of as manly, but cared nothing about the statement his clothes made. He also knew his job well, or T’Ash wouldn’t work with him, and Allspice had the pride and confidence of a successful man. Now Holm had to learn that kind of self-made confidence, too.

That he had such an interesting man as his first pupil pleased Holm.
He took the GraceLord back to his early childhood grove study physical exercises and basic defense, then worked up to more impressive moves. By the time they finished a septhour and a half lesson, one hundred five minutes, Allspice could work through a simple drill pattern with enough proficiency that Holm told him he could practice it on his own with few mistakes.

After the lesson he and Allspice talked in the atrium. The GraceLord authorized payment to Holm and signed up for twice weekly private evening sessions for three months. A good start, but Holm had thought he’d have a whole class by now …

Then loud and raucous young male voices projected into the building from outside the front door Holm had opened.

“Food!” One shouted.

A slap. “Not before we test the mighty Holm Apple!” sneered another.

Tension built between Holm’s shoulders. He rolled it out.

When the owners of the voices swaggered into the entryway, Holm saw a group of six expensively dressed and groomed teenagers–perhaps new adults at seventeen. Surviving SecondPassage and becoming an adult tended to put an arrogant step in a young man’s stride.

Holm relaxed. Just. Easy.

He smiled with casual good humor. “Greetyou,” he bowed, “boys.”

Snarling and scowls. The largest, but not the oldest, strode forward, chin jutting and chest out. “We’re here to see your studio and if you can teach us anything.”

Holm could teach him manners, for sure. Instead he raised a brow and said, “Do you have names, or do you prefer to be anonymous?”

With superior attitudes, all of the youngsters stated their names and titles. All Heirs to a noble House, as Holm once had been.

At a couple of the introductions, Allspice’s face went immobile and he faded back against the wall. The merchant had recently gained his noble title, a GraceLord, and Holm recognized higher ranked boys than Allspice and those from longer established Families. Both of which counted in Celtan society.

“Greetyou.” Holm inclined his head. “I’m honored you grace my studio.” Only Allspice seemed to hear the slight sarcasm. That one smiled.

“And how much training do you have?” Holm asked the teens ranged in front of him.

“Enough to beat you, handily,” said the highest ranked one, a GrandHouse Heir of the oldest Family, one whose main Residence was located in Druida City with a secondary estate here in Gael City. Holm knew of the young man’s father, the consort of the GrandLady holding the title, but the guy didn’t patronize The Green Knight in the capital city. Holm couldn’t figure where the youngster got his training.

These young men would beat him? Handily?

Holm suppressed a laugh. He waved to the dressing rooms. “Do you care to change into fighting robes?” If they did, he’d be able to gage each’s skill by his belt. He already knew none of them had a natural Flair–psi power–for fighting, like all of the Hollys.

He noticed GraceLord Allspice staying and watching, lines in his forehead as if worried. Holm winked at him and the man calmed and leaned against the wall.

“Nah,” said the largest young noble. “We won’t be sweating or harming our clothes.”

The most elegant took the time to brush a tiny lint speck from his cloth trous.

So be it.

“All right,” Holm said. “Sounds like you prefer a melee, with the rules as stated in The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon?” He paused, “And followed by other studios, training halls and salles of note.”

The teens shrugged up and down their line. “Yeah, sure,” said the largest. With a Word his shoes fell from his feet and he walked into the center of the training room in his non-slip liners, stretching as he went. All the others followed, Holm noted two didn’t activate spells on their liners to keep traction. The new mats weren’t as slick as the polished wooden floor, but a guy could certainly misstep and slip.

Holm had coated his bare feet with general fighting and anti-injury spells developed by the Holly Family.

First Holm would take the two youngsters foolish enough not to coat their liners properly.
 
Three of the boys stood around, not warming up. He anticipated that all of the teens would make beginner mistakes. Or what would be considered beginner mistakes by his G’Uncle Tab and the rest of the Hollys.
 
Strolling out on the floor and shaking out his limbs, Holm stood before the semi-circle of young men. He didn’t need to warm up since he’d been active the last septhour. With a glance at Allspice, he said, “GraceLord Allspice, would you do us the honor of timing us for a ten minute free-for-all-melee-match and giving us the start notification?
 
“Certainly,” Allspice said, touching his wrist timer. He looked at Holm, who winked.
 
“Go!” Allspice said.
 
Two rushed Holm, he pivoted, blocked their hand blows, grabbed one and spun him into the other, pushed them both at the next two charging toward him. All went down, one tumbled right off the far edge of the mat–out of the fight.
Five.
 
Holm waited and watched the upright two dance forward with poor footwork. He hopped forward, swept out a leg and caught them both. They went down, one with a harsh, “Ooof,” the other with a long riiipp of costly fabric. “My trous!” yelled the most fashionably dressed. Yes, he’d split the crotch seam in the back, showing an ass covered in a pale blue breechclout. Holm grinned.
 
The young man flushed, hurried away to the side of the room, off the mat, clapped his hands to his butt and began muttering a mending spell.
Four.

Who all sped at Holm at once. He moved toward them, fighting left to right, blocking kicks or blows, sending them off the mat and out of the fight, then stood solitary in the middle of the room, not even breathing hard.

“Two minutes gone,” GraceLord Allspice said with a satisfied lilt.

One stayed on the floor groaning, but the rest, with the energy of youth, hopped to their feet and stood on the far side of the room, looking angry and dazed and confused.

Holm clapped his hands sharply, pointed to the space in front of him. “You new adults, come here and make your formal bows to me.”

Slowly, more from their spinning wits than any reluctance, Holm thought, the young men walked to the center of the room and lined up before them. They bowed in a ragged line, but made proper bows to him as Master.

Holm bowed in return, flicked a hand at the dressing rooms, “Clean up. Dismissed.”

The teens galloped into the men’s dressing room to shower–and compare bruises, and brag. Holm went over to where Allspice stood.

“That … that …” Allspice shook his head. “That was an education. Worth the gilt I already paid, for sure.” He held out his arm in greeting-goodbyeing and Holm clasped it after a quick Banish Sweat spell. This time the GraceLord’s grip revealed the underlying firm confidence of the man.

“Papa?” called an even younger voice than the new adults, this one female.

“Coming, Dica,” Allspice called and gangled toward the atrium. Still, to Holm’s eye, the GraceLord already moved better. Holm would settle that always-too-cerebral man into his body.

“You said to meet you here and I came and have been waiting and waiting!”

Holm glanced at the man who gave him a lopsided smile. “Our part-time nanny would have dropped Dica off about five minutes ago. I’m very late in taking her to GroveStudy and arriving at my own shop, but some things are worth changing plans for.”

Holm smiled and a spurt of satisfaction rushed through him. He’d pleased GraceLord Allspice, who’d tell all his friends about Holm’s studio.

Allspice greeted and kissed his daughter who sat on a chair against the wall, a wide-eyed child of about five delicately munching on an almond pastry, then the man went over to pour himself a caff.

Holm crossed to where the girl sat on a gold-painted, tapestry-cushioned chair only a female would choose, and squatted before her and held out his hand. “Greetyou, I’m Holm Apple.” And for the first time ever, it was easy saying those words. Because the child would never have heard of him before, probably never heard of the Hollys, and would judge him only on what she saw and heard and how they interacted.

She took one hand away from the large pastry, looked at cinnamon and powdered sweet on her fingers and said a spellword to clean them, then held out her free hand to him.
He kissed her small fingers and she giggled, high and delightfully. After he let her hand go, she immediately went back to eating, and Holm said, “You know, your father is training with me to learn to move better. To dance better,” he amended.

Dica swallowed and announced, “Papa’s a GraceLord now. He tested and he passed, like in grove study, and we are all nobles. Me, too!”

Holm nodded. “That’s an achievement.”

She put the last, too big bite, into her mouth, chewed and swallowed, cleansed her hands with a spell couplet and jumped down from the chair. “I can dance!” She whirled, then marched, then stepped a partial pattern of a formal dance, and finally hopped up and down waving her arms.

“Very nice,” Holm said. “I can dance, too.” He did the same pattern of the formal dance, suppressing memories of his old life, then smoothly transitioned into a simple fighting kata.

“Oooh!” Dica gasped, put her hands over her mouth,
dropped them and said, “Can I learn that?”

Holm noticed Allspice giving him the beady eye of a man getting hustled. Holm rolled a shoulder. “She’s not too young to start training.”

“Hmmph.”

A roaring group of young men exited the dressing room into the large training room behind Holm and Allspice. There came an, “Oof, watch it, clumsy!” and a body hitting the mat, rolling to his feet and stomping after his friends, then “You watch it, stup!” Shoving.

Holm didn’t see the action but could predict it accurately enough, and he’d heard sounds like that all his life.

Allspice scooped his child into his arms. Holm tucked his thumbs into his teal and red belt — the highest color and level a fighter could wear–it might not be Holly green, but he’d won the right to wear the belt, and would do so. He smiled at the GraceLord.

“Training is good for defending herself, too,” Allspice said gruffly.

“Or just avoiding pushy-shovey.”

“Handling it easily.” Allspice nodded. “I’ll consider it.”

Holm rocked back on his heels, met Dica’s gaze. “You could bring your friends, I could start a Young Beginners group.”

He’d have to tap his G’Uncle Tab for advice, but by the time Holm set up the class, he’d know what to do.

With narrowed eyes, Allspice said slowly, “Training here would also mark my change in status from Commoner to GraceLord.” His gaze flicked to the doorway to the large chamber where Holm sensed the young men standing.

“Duels and feuds aren’t common here in Gael City but a man holding a title must be able to defend himself.” Holm’s voice went flat despite his struggle to pretend to be unaffected by recent events.

“That is so.” The GraceLord stood straighter, prouder. “There are expectations of what a GraceLord is and can do.”

“I’m a GraceMistrys,” Dica enthused. “GraceMistrys Dica Allspice.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Holm said, and bowed to her.

Allspice set his girl down and took her hand, bowed to Holm with the correct inclination of his torso for Holm’s new status. “We’ll think on it.”

“I want to be the only one studying,” Dica stated. “Not my sister. She doesn’t get to come here and learn to dance and avoid pushy-shovey.”

“She must be busy with her HeartMate and arranging her marriage,” Holm said. He and his HeartMate hadn’t had a formal ritual … yet. Something to think of, but the very thought of Lark eased emotional aches.

“That’s right,” GraceLord Allspice said.

The young men hovered around the threshold between the training room and the atrium, several casting glances at the sidebar and drinks and pastries.

Setting his hands on his hips, Holm swung on his heel to snag the gazes of the teens as well as Allspice. “What you all must know is that the final status in this studio depends upon one’s fighting ability, not one’s outside rank.”

A couple of the young men were Heirs to a GrandHouse, a higher level of nobility than Allspice’s new GraceLord title.

“And because you are the teacher, you know the most!” Dica said.

“That’s right,” Holm stated. He rolled his shoulders again and knew everyone in the building now understood that he could take them all, and all at once.

“Come along, Dica, we are late for our daily activities,” Allspice said.

“Yes, Papa.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Merry meet, Holm Apple. That’s the proper goodbye, now, ‘Merry Meet’ and you have to say–”

“Merry part,” Holm repeated the ingrained words, bowed to her as her station allowed.

“And merry meet again!” she caroled, then traipsed with her father outside to the sidewalk and to the north.

Holm waved GraceLord Allspice and his daughter off, well-pleased that he’d gotten their business. The GraceLord would tell his merchant friends of Holm. More, when he began moving better, others would recognize good training and come.

The most skilled, but not the largest, young man paced forward. “I was wrong in thinking I could best you at fighting. My apologies,” he said.

“Accepted,” Holm said. “It takes a strong man to apologize for his mistakes.” Holm’s father, T’Holly, couldn’t manage that, disinherited Holm instead.

The youth relaxed, smiled. “Thank you. I would like to sign up for an intensive course for the full year, and the highest level of membership to the studio athletic club.”

“Fine.” Now Holm conjured the business calendar sphere he’d prepared the day before, and they worked out the details and signed the contracts.

Each young man came forward to apologize for his hubris, either in clear words or a grumble, and set up instruction. Holm quoted the young men the price for a yearly course and membership to the salon, and not one of them blinked at the cost. As he would not have two months before. He’d always been able to buy any item, any service, he wanted at the moment he wanted.

And after the young men tromped out of the building, still loudly discussing the quick melee, the studio fell quiet.

Holm could not recall when The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon had ever been quiet. For the first few minutes he busied himself with refreshing the drinks, and adding tubes of fruit juice, and revealing hearty sandwiches in the glass no-time.

When the studio remained empty, he made notes about his new students–seven–and the fighting levels the teenagers stated they’d attained. He would test them all, and since they liked being in a group, he’d plan more melees for them.

As for Dica Allspice, Holm sensed that her father would enroll her in a young beginners class. Holm would definitely tap his G’Uncle Tab for a class syllabus.

His G’Uncle Tab and Holm’s brother Tinne and his wife supported him. Of his immediate Family and good friends, only Holm’s parents shunned him. Bad enough.

He couldn’t even put on standard music that played through the day, commissioned by The Green Knight. Because his Mama had written the tunes and just hearing them hurt.

The outer door swung open and a middle-aged noble lady and her grown son entered, and Holm picked up one more student, the son. Men would come first, he understood, since Celtan males remained larger and stronger than women, more agressive.

The rest of the day people dribbled in and out, mostly looking around or consulting with him, four signing up for a few months of classes.
Holm stayed two septhours after WorkEnd Bell to enable those with regular hours–middle class and merchant class–to drop by. He hadn’t planned a fancy reception for folk to drop in and look around, and maybe that had been a mistake, but he felt better projecting a business-like image than a social club that offered training. His studio placed the social club factor strongly in a secondary position.

G’Uncle Tab’s The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon, a salle operating for over two centuries, was seen as that, a place where people of a certain social class congregated as well as a learning center. Holm didn’t think he could aspire to that, yet. In fact, he continued to fumble with his social standing and interactions. He’d managed fine today, in his studio, with business and fighting, but a reception that needed fine conversational slipping between social and business was beyond him at the moment.
The evening brought him three more pupils, some referencing Allspice and the young men … and eight full scry inquiries and appointments for the next day by the young men’s relatives, all of whom pre-paid for individual consultations and a lesson.

So by the time Holm’s HeartMate, Lark, and the two cats sauntered into his place of business at MidEvening Bell, he’d booked a full day.

“The rule for Fams are the same here as in The Green Knight.” Holm frowned down at the young cats.

The young cats stared around as if they hadn’t been in the rooms before, sniffing the smells of the people who’d come and gone and left their scents, particularly sweat-odors.

“You will repeat the rule back to me, please,” Holm insisted.

His own FamCat, Meserve, looked up at him with wide eyes and lifted the top of his muzzle in a sharp kitten-smile, but said nothing. He snapped a paw at his thinner brother. You say the rule, first! Meserve insisted. This is My place and My FamMan, and You are the guest! Holm got the idea that Phyll had treated his brother as a “guest” in Gael City HealingHall, a secondary position Meserve hadn’t liked.

Phyll grumbled until Lark picked him up, and held him in front of Holm, saying, “You must repeat the Fam rule in this studio for my HeartMate.”

Fams have to stay off the main floor of the fighting room, off the flat mats and behind any lines, Phyll muttered mentally.

“Yes,” Holm and his beloved said in unison. “And you, Meserve?” Holm prompted.

Fams must stay off of the main floor of the fighting room, off the flat mats and behind the lines, Meserve mimicked his brother. Then sent at glance at Phyll. But I can go into and out of and into the office whenever I want, and YOU can’t. YOU must ask permission.

Lark choked on a laugh, then as the young cats tumbled away and played hide-and-seek among the mats, she asked, “How did it go?”

“Fairly well. Not quite good enough to keep the business going for more than six months, even at the low end of my budget, but … I have clients.”
She laughed, stepped up and hugged him again. “Of course you do. And six months breathing room, right now.”

“I suppose.”

“We will celebrate, I have reservations at the Brigantia on the river.” She tilted her head as if listening to the shrieks of their Fams. “They have an outdoor area for Fams.”
 
“I’m impressed.”
 
“So you should be, it’s the best restaurant in Gael City. Good, healthy food.”
 
Holm grunted. Lark leaned in and kissed him, drew back a bit and swept her tongue over her lips. “Mmm, taste of HeartMate.”
 
Just her throaty voice had him considering other uses of a nearby mat, but she stepped back and waved a hand. “You go take a waterfall and I will close down the place.”
 
“All right.”
 
“More than all right, we are fabulous. Both apart and together.”
That wouldn’t stop her from lancing his psychological wounds.
 
As he strode to the Men’s Dressing Room, his mind focused on business again. “I have a full day tomorrow, Playday, the first day of the weekend. I hadn’t thought of it before, but the three weekend days might be my busiest days. I should stay open.”
 
Before he ducked into the room, Lark hurried up and placed a hand on his biceps. “I won’t let you overwork yourself!”
 
He grinned. “That’s what you think. You overwork yourself.” But he gave a decisive nod. “For the first few months I think I’ll have to put a lot of time into this place.” Even to himself, he sounded cheerful.
 
Looking forward to a good future of sharing his skills, contributing to his Family, if not supporting them.
* * *
 
The young FamCats teleported home before Lark and Holm finished dessert. She urged him to walk home and he agreed. Though the trip from the river took some time, the balmy summer night and the interesting new environs of a slower-paced town and nearly wild green space gave them both surcease for a busy day.
 
She kept an eye on Holm and their HeartBond wide open for any smudges.
 
Animated and enthusiastic, Holm told her of his students, and as she glanced at his profile in the sunset she realized at a visceral level that he’d changed, wasn’t the man he’d been before the Hawthorn-Holly feud.
 
He’d never be that man again.
 
Even now she didn’t think he’d ever have become so unforgiving as the current T’Holly, his father. For one thing, Holm’s composer Mama raised him with music and creativity and beauty. For another, he’d experienced a nearly inconceivable ordeal of being shot into space in a starship escape pod. landing far north of Druida City, and managing to trek with his brother all the way back.
 
He hadn’t spoken of that experience to her, and she thought it might only dribble out of him during the rest of their lives. Since she believed he’d worked through any emotional issues the tribulation had caused, she wouldn’t prod him about them. But she would continue to reveal and help him cleanse his current distress. She wanted them to welcome the future with little thought of the past.
 
Stopping on the top of a high arch of a bridge over a river, she tugged at him to pause, too. He glanced down at her with a quizzical expression.
 
“You will never be as intransigent as your father,” she said.
 
He blinked, his eyes shuttered. When she sent her continuing stream of love to him, he pulled her close, then turned with her and they watched the river burble by, leaves and twigs carried along in a rush.

“You’re probably right, I won’t be as inflexible as my father,” Holm said.

“You’ve had a harder life, as well as a more difficult time in claiming your HeartMate.”

He squeezed her waist. “Got her, though.”

“I have you, too.”

“That is true.”

“You are now, and will be, a far different man than if you hadn’t been excised from the Holly Family.”

She noted the new unsteadiness in his breathing, but continued to spur him to work through his heartaches.

“That’s also right. I’ve changed in two months, drastically.” He sounded bitter. She ignored that. He paused. “And though you’ve been very supportive in my time of trial.” His mouth twisted, but he went on, “You won’t hesitate to inform me when you think I’m going wrong.”

She leaned her head on his arm. “I love you, unconditionally, but I want a whole and happier you.” But she knew he’d referenced his mother. “And, yes, I will let you know if you falter in any treatment of our children.”

He flinched. “We’ll have children.”

“I have no reproductive problems, nor do you. Your parents engendered two children, and so did mine. We should be able to count on two, also.”

“Not ready,” he mumbled.

“The environment of our beloved planet has limited human expansion through sterility and sickness. I’m sure by the time the Lady and Lord gifts us with a child, you’ll be ready.” She felt ready at any time, but didn’t believe she’d quicken soon.

Before she could stop herself, as she had so many times before, she said, “Your mother was wrong to stand by and let your father disinherit you.”

“My Mama–”

“Is wrong.” She sucked in a breath, let it out, but he already disentangled himself and moved away. Not quite loping down the steep bridge. She envied him his sure-footedness. When she caught up with him, she grabbed his hand. He didn’t pull away, but he didn’t look at her, either.

And she felt his ire at his parents. “I know you’ve worked on ridding yourself of anger at your parents–”

“Yes. And it’s returned. Perhaps because you’re furious with my parents, too.”

“Yes, something to work through, together.” She let a smile twitch on and off her lips. “But I have an upside that I don’t dislike my father nearly as much as I did.” Her turn to pause. “And I grieve that my brother died when we were estranged and I was angry at him.”

Holm grunted and she felt the quick pain that shafted through him at the thought of such an event. “All right, you’ve got a point.”

They walked fast, both of them expending the energy of their anger. One way of handling it, she understood. Activity first for Holm, then meditation and contemplation, and finally tremors of emotions wracking him. She rarely saw that particular stage, unless she prompted it like a few evenings before.

She couldn’t help thinking about the mother he loved, and how she’d chosen to stand with her husband and allow the disinheritance of her son.

Lark would never let that happen, and she’d have to work on her own outrage at his parents for hurting her HeartMate. Maybe she’d try Holm’s process.

She managed to keep pace with him and not lose her breath … noted when his temper burned away, and the tarnish on his self-confidence diminished. Still, the smear lingered.

And she assured herself that the gift she’d ordered for him would shrink his self-doubt further.

The next morning, Holm ate lightly and kissed his beloved Lark before he left, holding her, sinking into the kiss for support and comfort more than lust. He muttered, “This second day of my business being open is as daunting as the first. Even though I have a full schedule and think more people will come since it’s the weekend. I might be able to put together a few on-the-spot melees. Fun for all.”

“If you say so.”

“When do you think this, ah, apprehension at going into my work might stop?”

“When do you?” She’d sent the question right back at him.

Firstly, when he could support himself and her and their kittens. Which he didn’t say aloud. Then he seriously considered the question. “Maybe, if I ever get enough students to hold the business together for a full year …” He knew his budget to down to the last item now, and the golden figure that would mean success …

“You’ll do it,” she murmured, hugged him tighter. They stayed together, embracing and rocking, until Meserve whined,  It’s time to teleport to MY studio!

Lark laughed and released Holm, stepped back, but trailed her fingers down his cheek. “I’m working today until standard WorkEnd Bell at the HealingHall to study how it runs over the weekend, but I’ll come over to your place this evening and bring supper.”

“I still have some sandwiches in the no-time.” He paused, considered whether mature men might want to snack on those during the morning and decided they would, though he’d have to check the inventory of the no-time and restock it. And though he’d mostly signed up boys and men as students, he should consider including pretty and delicate pastries that might tempt women. Maybe he should buy a larger glass-fronted no-time, especially if Dica Allspice and other children came to train. Lark would be glad to tell him what to keep for young and growing bodies.

Lark pecked a quick kiss on his cheek. “Should I bring dinner?”

“Yes, I’ll take you up on your offer, my Lark, thank you.”

“And I’ll have a surprise gift.”

His heart gave a bump. He treasured the gifts he received from her, always wonderful. “Great.”

A press of his love’s soft lips on his mouth, then she patted his face. “Later.”

“Later.”

We go now! Meserve projected as he hopped to Holm’s padded shoulder.  I will see all the new clients and observe how inferior they are to My FamMan.

Holm snorted and Lark laughed.

Phyll lifted a leg and began grooming.  I am HealerCat, I will go back to HealingHall today and check on all Our patients.

Smiling at the sibling rivalry, Holm counted down and teleported into his tiny office in his studio. He’d already memorized the light of the windowless office, as well as the scent, but it would take time for him to know the training room in all its sun and shadows and seasons.

And today he found his rhythm, managed to be a lot like his previous self. He did not pretend he interacted with clients in The Green Knight … that could only lead to heartache and disaster.

His manner must have been congenial enough, because he signed up every one of the pupils who came to him.

In the afternoon, lords related to the teenagers who’d come in the day before also paid for a full-year’s membership and the highest level of the social athletic club. Holm had to deflect only a few comments regarding the Hollys and the Apples and his circumstances–through a smile with gritted teeth.

FamCat Meserve, of course, enjoyed all the admiration and questions aimed at him, and confirmed this was his studio, but he would allow other Fams to visit.

The new clients ate all the food he’d stocked, so when Lark arrived with a basket of hot pasta and green sauce, herbed warm bread and fruit for desert, Holm’s stomach rumbled. He stowed the meal in the no-time as he led her into the training room where three groups of students worked.

Along the far wall drilled and tumbled an advanced group of men who’d trained together since grove-study and usually met in parks during good weather. They seemed interested in an actual formal training center, but put the notion in Holm’s head that he should make an outdoor area in the overgrown grassyard behind the building to keep them coming. More gilt to spend.

A few beginners practiced settling into their balance off to one side. And the young nobles he’d met the day before who came with their fathers had stayed to hang around, occupying half of the mat as they squared off in twos as sparring partners.

Stopping with Lark in the center of the room, Holm studied her. The Healer robes she wore gave her good range of movement, but not as much as fighting robes. “Time for your first lesson,” Holm said.

“What are you talking about?”

“All of our women learn to fight,” he stated.

“All of your women.”

“The women who wed into our Family. And if guys marry my female cuzes, they have to hone their skills, too.” He knew his grin held an edge. “The FirstFamily GreatHouse Holly has run to male Heads of the Households for generations.”

“Maybe that’s part of the problem.”

The statement set Holm back on his heels, rocked him back a little. “You think?” Actually made him pause. But he could still feel the press of emotions behind his eyes. And a lack of control here and now was not possible even with his beloved HeartMate, Lark.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said roughly and turned away.

She caught up…she sprang toward him, caught his sleeve, then his arm and sent him enough love to instantly calm him.
He let his knees soften to settle into his balance.

When she came around, and stared into his eyes, smiling, she said, “That’s the first time you referred to the Hollys as your Family and your traditions. I’m proud of you.”

“They’re my former Family.”

Her head tilted. “Perhaps you don’t have the name anymore, but no one can deny that you have the blood, or the Flair that comes down through the blood.”

He grunted, stretched tense muscles. “You stretch, too.”

She nodded. “All right.”

And she did, very well, and he thought of something else. “How long has it been since the Head of your House, the House of Hawthorn was a female?”

Chuckling, she shook her head, “Too long, I think, also, but we are not our Families. We’re younger, more flexible mentally and emotionally,” Her chest rose and fell and she said, “And being able to speak of the Hollys in a near conversational tone, is a big step in our Healing.”

“Ah.” He slanted her a glance, took her hand and sauntered back to the middle of one pad. “Show me your best defensive moves.”

She blinked. He smacked a wet kiss on her lips, murmured to her, “See, you’ll grow, too. You won’t be the same woman as you were before our Families feud.”

Her eyes widened. “You’re right. Though since I’ve received my HeartMate and experienced and Healed during the feud, those events changed me, too. As will being the Head of the Gael City HealingHall and living here, living with Clam, two Fams and you.” She brushed a kiss over his jaw. “But, yes, through this activity alone, I’ll change. I’ll change directly because of you. Because I never would have trained for fighting before.”

He offered the smile he saved for her, along with a little heat in his eyes and through their bond. “You’ll learn better balance and defense …”

“And personally experience how a body moves and feels in a fight,” she responded ruefully.

He angled his head in agreement. “That’s right.”

She stroked his cheek. “Worth it.” Then narrowing her eyes, she said, “I still know more anatomy than you.”

“Perhaps.”

Holm glanced around the area, and people who’d been watching them, most faces showing approval. He took a couple of paces back. “All right, let’s see it.”

Appearing flustered, she adjusted her Healing robes, then did an acceptable basic self defense drill.

Before she turned her flushed face to him, Holm let out a quiet sigh, glad to his marrow that the feud ended.

He applauded, and others followed, and she flushed even more. Then he went up and worked with her quietly for a half-septhour, focusing on her, but aware of most watching his teaching methods. Luckily, he felt as if his G’Uncle Tab looked over his shoulder … and patience came easily for his lover.

She smelled of all the best herbs when they walked back toward the atrium, her Healing robes having released scent when she sweated. When he sniffed, he figured she might just have more herbs bespelled in her clothes than he. And a couple he didn’t recognize as anything except Lark … or Healer.

With one clap of her hands, she gathered their Fams, who’d been jumping and rolling with the beginners on mats behind the sidelines and said, “I’m using your office scrybowl.”

“Right.”

He watched her hips move under her long tunic and trous as she entered his office and closed the door.

Then people thronged around him.

The full club of men came up to him and each bought a year’s membership in the social club. A few asked about training classes for their wives, who would feel welcome here, in Holm’s Training Studio, where they hadn’t in the more informal club.

When he’d filtered through them, the remaining three lords attached to yesterday’s youngsters quizzed him about Family memberships. Holm calculated quickly and gave them a figure, changed their memberships and said he’d notify the Family when he anticipated scheduling women’s classes.

And he thought he’d have to hire a trainer, and she should be female. He’d check at the Gael City Guildhall for merchant guards first.

Talk spilled around the room about having sisters and daughters as part of the social club. Like Druida City society various social clubs existed at different levels, but status in this training studio would be based on skill.

Groups split and mixed. Holm announced the studio would close in a septhour and made sure that the three remaining drilling groups included an advanced fighter. Then he and Lark went out to the small, cracked concrete square that held a rickety wooden table and benches.
 
She opened the containers and the scent of the food hit him like it hadn’t for weeks, and he blessed the Lord and Lady for a full day of good work and ate his full portion of noodles with green sauce.
 
So did she.
 
Then one of the noble heirs popped out of the back door, appearing excited. “FirstLevel Fighter Apple, and FirstLevel Healer, Apple, I believe you’re wanted out front.” He vanished back inside.
 
“Excellent!” Lark stood. With a sweep of her arm, she translocated the dishes, probably back to their house. When he stood, she kissed him and he felt their HeartBond, love washing from her to him, spreading through his body, relaxing the last of the tension in his muscles lingering from self-doubt. Tomorrow should be better. He hoped.
 
She checked her watch. “Ten minutes before you close, and everything regarding my gift is on time.”
 
They went back into the training room and Holm announced a last melee, figuring it would take less than a quarter septhour, and that his clientele would like knowing he’d stay open past his usual hours.
 
 
Lark watched the quick melee and offered to do quick Healing spells afterward, since she’d spent more time as an administrative head that day. Another boon the clients liked, though Holm made sure everyone knew that particular service would not be standard or often.
 
He counted heads for those who’d headed into the Men’s Dressing Room, and knew who remained, then allowed Lark to tug him out to the front, leaving training room and entry doors open.
 
Their FamCats who’d been gurgling and growling and playing hide-and-seek in the bushes, ran to them.
 
Is that it? Is he bringing the present? Meserve shouted.
 
Yes, yes, yes! Phyll answered. See, it floats beside him.
 
At that, Holm turned and stared along the sidewalk. A sturdy man in overalls and a cap marched toward them, carrying a toolbox. The framework of a scaffold on an anti-grav spell accompanied him, and a large wrapped package, also bespelled, floating along.
 
With narrowed eyes, Holm examined the piece’s length, breadth, width, glanced up at the empty spot above the door where he’d planned on having “Holm’s Training Studio” painted.
 
Lark turned to look too, and they stood side by side, their bodies touching.
She beamed at the sight of the workman.
 
He stopped in front of them and inclined his head, “FirstLevel Healer Lark Apple?” he asked.
 
“Yes,” she said so smoothly that Holm knew people had called her that often at her job. She’d adapted more quickly than he.
 
The man grunted. “Got a sign here.” He translocated a piece of papyrus sticking out of one of his chest pockets to Lark’s hands. Holm leaned close to see the writing, but Lark blocked him.
 
 “Yes, this is right.” She handed the order back to him and shimmied in excitement.
 
With careful efficiency the man set up the scaffolding, mounted it, placed his tool box down and opened it. When all appeared right, he glanced down at the package, flicked his fingers and the wrapping completely vanished.
Holm and Lark gasped and the FamCats squealed as the green slab shone with the polished hues of rich malachite.
 
Other people stopped on the sidewalk, gathering to watch the workman attach the stone sign above the door. All his clients flowed from the building to observe.
 
At that moment, the workman yelled, and Meserve screeched, hopping back as a little piece of stone from the lower right corner fell away, broken off the main slab of malachite. It hit with a puff of crumbling green dust.
 
“Lady and Lord!” Lark exclaimed.
 
“Sorry, missus,” the workman said. Lark stared at him, probably due to being addressed in a way she’d never contemplated.
 
The man teleportation-hopped from the ladder to scoop up the bit, and a touch of green dust around it. Staring at them, he said, “We will be glad to re-do the whole piece, and get the sign up tomorrow morning before WorkBell … or … ”
 
“Or?” Holm asked.
 
“We’ll just charge you for the engraving, for the work, you get the material free.”
 
Holm had never haggled for anything in his life. He jerked a nod. “You do that. I want this up now.”
 
With another spit on the softleaf and rub on the corner, The man got to the ground, packed up his gear, gave a courteous tug at his hat to them and left.
Holm’s friend T’Ash could have mended the stone to the molecule level with a spellword, but he held a FirstFamily title and great Flair. This man made do, as Holm did. Lark slipped her arm around his waist, and Holm let his breath sift out as the pleasure of being with his HeartMate banished his melancholy.
He had Lark, his wife and HeartMate, his own small family, and this very business.
“Don’t focus on the crack,” Lark urged. “Did you read the sign?”
He hadn’t. Craning his neck, he saw the golden blocks of lettering, “The Green Man.”
“I–” he began, realized he couldn’t insult her. “Thank you,” he ended gruffly.
Placing her hands on his shoulders, she met his gaze. “You are the Green Man, a fighter of renown who people will come to train with.” She gestured to the boys and a couple of others who’d lingered. “You have a fine reputation.”
“Thank you.” He glanced around the street. People still watching, students yet remaining, the FamCats radiating pride, and words tumbled from him. “My new life.”
“Yes!” Lark grinned.
And the sun hit the sign, made it glow, revealing deeper tones and shiny streaks that had been hidden.
He wasn’t useless.
He wasn’t Holm HollyHeir of Druida City, but Holm Apple of Gael City, but he could still practice his craft, his Flair. Be a good man of good character, support himself and be supportive of his family, his Lark and Phyll and Meserve.
And he–they–wouldn’t just survive, but thrive.
At that moment, his Calendarsphere buzzed in a brand-new pattern. It had totaled up the gilt he’d made, and he’d reached his goal.
How long had it taken him to make a career for himself? With his own rep, his skills, and a little help from his friends … Two. Days.
His future, here with his Family and these students who gathered around him, stretched before him like a wondrous road of adventure.
He turned his back on the past, gestured to the sign above and raised his voice. “Welcome, all, to The Green Man Salon!”
He held his HeartMate as his Fam licked his ear, a couple of his new students thumped him on the back and people cheered.

***************************************************************

May you enjoy all the worlds you visit, especially those I craft for the satisfaction of all of us.   Grab your favorite beverage and take a look.

I hope you enjoy visiting with me!

Robin   

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