Disclaimer: This story is written for an adult audience and contains material unsuitable for minors. Please turn back if you’re not old enough to be here.
This is a spinoff story from my free Love Had No Boundaries story, The Lodestar of Ys (download link) You’ll find a more detailed introduction to the setting in that, but if you want to leap into this one first, you’ll need to know that everyone lives on floating islands and their ships can fly.
Heilyn’s living a free and easy life, travelling from island to island tied onto the side of the floating ships of Ys. Why settle down in one place when you could be painting the whole world? Then an unfortunate encounter with an angry bull introduces him to Emyr, a sad-eyed merchant in the quiet island of Sirig. Heilyn decides that he’s going to make Emyr smile before he leaves Sirig. But will a simple smile be enough for either man?
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© Amy Durreson 2013
Heilyn had just loaded up his brush with the most perfect shade of blue he’d ever mixed when a very polite voice said, “I think you ought to know that field usually contains an awfully bad-tempered bull.”
Heilyn laughed without looking aside from his canvas and the shimmering view before him: the sea, still hazy with early mist, and the morning light catching on the undersides of the islands floating above low-lying Sirig, where the moss, interlocking brass pipes and cisterns, and tumbling streams were garlanded by misty rainbows where the water fell like Dwynwen’s tears. “I’ll take the chance, thanks.”
“I only mention it because he broke the last artist’s arm, and ate his canvas.” After a moment, the unseen stranger added thoughtfully, “Which, in his case, was no loss, but your work is much better.”
Well, that was a new approach. “Thank you, but flattery won’t persuade me to move.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt.” There was a little frost in the tone now. “Pumpkin is going to be in an even worse mood than usual when he gets back, so consider yourself fairly warned.”
“If you want me to believe in the bull,” Heilyn suggested, “you should choose a more likely name than Pumpkin.”
“You don’t believe…?” the stranger said, sounding quite bewildered. “Why wouldn’t you believe in a bull?”
Heilyn sighed and put his brush down. He would have believed it without question at the start of his trip around Ys, but travel, as he’d tried to explain to his protesting family as they gathered to wave him off from the wharf on Rhaedr, broadened the mind and taught new skills. Such as cynicism.
“You see,” he said now, “people like art.”
“They do, yes, on the whole.”
“But that doesn’t mean they like artists. Oh, people like to know what you’re doing, and they love looking over your shoulder to criticize, but after that they don’t really like you sitting around on their land, blocking their view and making them feeling embarrassed to scratch their arses. But Dwynwen forbid they look like they don’t like art, so it’s all, “The light’s bad there,” and, “Oh, the view’s better in that other man’s field,” or “Mind the bull.” Heard them all.” There was a little silence from behind him, and he belatedly realized that might have been a bit much. “Uh, sorry. Didn’t mean to go into that much detail.” He turned to offer up his most charming smile, the one which had gotten him out of trouble in more islands than not, and caught his breath sharply.
The man on the other side of the hedge was lovely — no, not lovely. That sounded too pretty and delicate. This man was stunning. He was all lean clean lines, even his face long and high-boned, with his hair cut close enough to his head to display the perfect curve of his skull. It could have looked too austere, on someone even a shade paler, but there was just enough color to him: a hint of pink in his cheeks and the darker blush of his lips, the dark otter-pelt hue of his hair, and his eyes, the brightest thing in his face, blue as the sky and so sad. Heilyn wanted to put his hands on that face and feel the lines of it under the heels of his palms until he knew how to shape it in clay. He wanted to mix those colors in watercolor or ready to slide straight onto fine china.
“You’re beautiful!” Heilyn blurted out, his heart in his words.
The vision of perfection across the hedge looked a little disconcerted at that. “Oh, Um, thank you. That’s very… I still have to put the bull back in his field.”
“The bull named Pumpkin?” He was slowly coming back to his senses, though he still couldn’t look away.
“Is that a name I would make up?”
That was a fair point, but Heilyn could refute it. “I’ve been painting here all week, and there are no pumpkins in this field.”
“He’s been down at the east end of the island all week earning the price of his pasture in stud fees. Owen Owens Up-the-Hill is bringing him back this afternoon. He’ll be worn out and irritable, poor Pumpkin.”
“And late,” Heilyn added, because he might only have been on the island a week, but that was still long enough to know that the only reason Owens Up-the-Hill was still in business was that he was the only carter on the island.
Those long lips twitched, not enough to count as a smile, but enough to make their owner look smug. “He isn’t late for me. I pay him in whiskey, and take a tot off for every hour’s delay.”
“Is that the secret, then?” Heilyn asked, smiling to see if he could get one back. He wanted to see a real smile on that solemn face.
“Don’t share it, or I may lose my advantage.” His words were all serious enough, but everything he said was tinged with a note of quiet irony, as if he was laughing at the world. Why wouldn’t he smile, if that was the case?
“My lips are sealed,” Heilyn promised, and made a heroic effort not to add, “I’d like to seal them to yours.” A slightly more delicate approach was clearly needed here.
Sighing, he turned back to his painting. There was at least two hours work still to do. “When’s the carter due?”
“In an hour.”
“Let’s hope he’s not too desperate for a drink, then,” he muttered, and picked up his brush again. “I’ll have to paint fast.”
“Do you mind if I keep you company?”
“Mind?” Heilyn repeated, perhaps a little too ecstatically for a casual acquaintance. “Not at all. That would be wonderful!”
He got a quizzical look, and his beautiful stranger said, very carefully, “I have to wait for the carter.”
“I could wait in the opposite corner of the field, but that feels a little awkward. I promise I won’t offer any unwanted criticism, though.”
“Much appreciated,” Heilyn said, and cleared his throat. “I’m Heilyn, since we’re keeping company now.”
“Emyr,” Heilyn repeated slowly, imagining ink and a brush, and this man’s naked back, lit by firelight. He’d paint the name across Emyr’s shoulders in round script, putting curls on the tails and swells of the letters. Would Emyr squirm beneath the caress of the brush? “Are you ticklish?”
“What?” Emyr asked. “Not particularly, no. Why?”
“No reason,” Heilyn said hurriedly, and made himself concentrate on his painting again. He hadn’t spent a week trying to capture those rainbows just to lose it all to an errant fantasy. Finish the painting first, and then flirt with the gorgeous man.
Of course, after that, he finished too soon, long before the bull showed up. In fact, Heilyn had almost forgotten about the bull, caught between the light and the awareness of Emyr’s presence at his shoulder, watching every stroke intently. Triumphantly, he put his brush down and said, “Done! Let’s get a drink.”
“I have to wait for my bull,” Emyr reminded him.
“I’ll wait with you,” Heilyn said at once.
“No, go and get your drink. You’ve earned it.”
“I was wrong. I’m really not quite finished.” He could add a little more mist up in the corner there, and redo the white curls of the starflowers in the the derwen grove so they stood out more clearly.
“No, it’s beautiful,” Emyr said, clearly under the impression that he needed reassurance. “Go and celebrate before Pumpkin gets here to ruin your day.”
“But…” Heilyn started, trying to think of an excuse.
“It was very interesting to meet you,” Emyr said gravely. “I hope we meet again before you leave Sirig.”
Well, that was just pointed enough. Daunted, Heilyn retreated with his canvas held out before him. This, he promised himself, glancing back at where Emyr stood gazing up at the afternoon light on the cliffs of Briallen where it floated above them, was not the end. He’d paint that man yet, and only time and luck would tell whether it would be on canvas or whether he’d be tracing color onto smooth skin.
Heilyn was woken the next morning by the soft sigh of rain at dawn. It pattered down gently on the roof of the attic of the village inn, and plinked off the bedpan Heilyn had put under the leak. It drowned out the snores of the overnighting sailors in the other two bunks, and made the air suddenly taste clean and cool. Strange, he thought sleepily, how rain sounded the same on every island. He had been traveling since the spring, island-hopping on the ropes, and the rain sounded the same tucked into a shepherd’s hut on the slopes of Callestr, high in the sky, or in a shrineside hostel below Luaith, where the priests of Dwynwen lived on actual searocks, lower than any island. Even on the mainland, where he’d spent a bewildered weekend, the rain sounded the same.
Now summer was drawing to an end, and he would have to slow the pace of his travel as the ferry services became less frequent in the face of winter storms. He wasn’t ready to plant his feet in the ground and grow roots, not yet, but it was time to start thinking about his route a little more. Winter wasn’t quite such a forgiving season for just jumping on the next boat out when you were bored of a place.
He thought of Emyr, and smiled up at the scraps of paper pinned over his bed, all covered with charcoal attempts to capture Emyr’s face. Perhaps there was time for one last fling, before summer was over.
With that thought, he slipped back into sleep, and didn’t stir until he was woken by the clang of pots in the kitchen below. The rain was gone, and the sun shone through the open windows as he dashed down the stairs to the kitchen. He was traveling for the sake of his art, but art wasn’t as useful in getting cheap accommodation as a willingness to scrub dishes, so he was working for his stay.
The sunshine came spilling in the window again as he splashed and scrubbed with goodwill, that amazing low island light that made his heart feel light and his fingers hungry for a brush. He whistled as he worked, the music spilling out of him as if he were a lark flitting across the base of a high island, loose and bright and happy.
“You’re in a good mood,” Elin, the innwife, remarked, bustling in with more dirty plates. The crew of the Gylfinir, the trading ship that had docked overnight, were making a good breakfast while they waited for the wind, and everyone in the kitchen was busy.
“I’m in love,” Heilyn informed her happily.
She snorted, dumping the plates beside him, and picking up the clean stack. “Oh, yes. What is it you’re in love with today, boy? The flowers outside the window, is it? The birds in the trees? A handsome sailor?”
“My heart is as wide as the ocean,” Heilyn told her.
“Aye,” she said with a snort of derision. “And as shallow as a puddle.”
He chose to ignore that. Slander! “For your information, I’m in love with a smile I haven’t seen yet.” He thought of Emyr’s mouth, and his sad, sad eyes, and sighed again.
“Dwynwen save us, should I be telling my friends to lock up their daughters?”
Heilyn wrinkled his nose at her. “Girls? No, thank you. This smile belongs to a <i>man</i>.” Emyr was definitely all grown-up, though he wasn’t old, Dwynwen forbid.
“Does this lucky man have a name?” Elin asked, openly laughing at him now. It wasn’t his fault he approached his life with such enthusiasm, was it? Some people would think that was a good thing.
Heilyn was about to answer when he realized that he knew nothing about Emyr except his first name. He clearly lived here, but beyond that he could be anyone. He could even, Dwynwen forbid, be married. Well, today would be for finding out more. To cover, he simply grinned at Elin. “He’s a mystery.”
By the end of serving, everyone working in the inn was teasing him about his mystery man, but Heilyn just felt his mood bubble higher with every joke.
It was mid-morning before he got back to the field, loitering his way along the lane in the hope he might bump into Emyr. He’d taken a little extra care with his appearance, combing his fair curls into a neat tail, and actually shaving before he got shaggy for once. He’d deliberated over which of his three shirts to wear, eventually picking out the green one that made his gray eyes look deep and alluring, rather than the ever-so-slightly too tight one he wore when he was just trying to get into a man’s bed. His Emyr was clearly going to need a little courting.
Besides, the tight one was paint-stained.
When he got to the field, he glanced over the hedge, curious to see what Pumpkin actually looked like, after all that fuss.
There was no bull.
Aghast, Heilyn stopped and stared at the field, mapping every bit of it with his gaze to be sure. No bull. No pumpkins, either.
Emyr had lied.
Righteous anger carried him all the way back to the inn to get his painting, and back to the field again at full stomping stride. He scrambled over the chained gate and set up in the same spot as yesterday, scowling at the view. He’d been satisfied with what he had done, but it wasn’t perfect yet. So he’d make it perfect, and that might ease the sting of being taken for a fool by a handsome man, who probably turned those tragic eyes on any gullible artists he happened to-
There was a noise behind him.
Heilyn turned round. Standing in a gap in the hedge, one which wasn’t at all visible from the lane, was the biggest, ugliest, and most vividly orange bull he had ever seen.
“You must be Pumpkin,” he said to it, guilt surging through him. He should never have doubted Emyr.
Pumpkin let out a noise. It wasn’t the kind of gentle lowing moo Heilyn expected of a cow. This noise was low and harsh and suggested a certain imminent violence.
Gulping, Heilyn stared at the bull.
The bull stared back.
Then, rather delicately, it pawed at the ground beneath its feet and lowered its head.
Heilyn grabbed his painting and ran.
He almost made it. He managed to get one leg over the top of the head-high hedge before Pumpkin hit it like a ship without a lodestone. Yelping, Heilyn threw himself gracelessly over the hedge, painting first. He got halfway over before his legs, his elbow and the back of his shirt tangled in the branches as Pumpkin’s charges shook the hedge hard enough to send leaves falling in showers.
If his hands had been free, he could have untangled himself in moments, but the morning’s rain had left a broad and muddy puddle right below where he was hanging, and he wasn’t going to drop this picture, of them all, into the mud, not after all this grief.
Pumpkin’s next charge made the branches around his left foot snap, threatening to drop him in the puddle anyway, and Heilyn squirmed desperately. “Shit, shit, shit, shitting shit, shit!”
Which was, of course, the moment when someone cleared their throat behind him and said, very politely, “Would you like some help there, Heilyn?”
The best course was usually just to brazen it out. Brightly, Heilyn said, “Emyr! You were right. There is a bull in that field!”
“How extraordinary,” Emyr commented, with a quaver of laughter in his voice he probably was entitled to. He also took the painting out of Heilyn’s hands and set it down gently on the dry side of the lane.
Pumpkin rammed into the hedge again, shaking the branches. There was a creak and ripping noise, and Heilyn’s good green shirt came apart at the seams, dropping Heilyn headfirst towards a very large puddle. He flailed, managed to grab Emyr in time, and found himself, shirt left behind the hedge, caught in Emyr’s arms.
He had a strong grip, and there were muscles under his shirt sleeves. Mood suddenly soaring back up, Heilyn pressed in closer and grinned up at him. “Why, thank you.” He looked up to see a gratifying flush on Emyr’s cheeks, and then got transfixed by those blue eyes again. From close up, he could see that the irises were rimmed with a darker hue. He could see Emyr’s mouth properly too, the faint red chapping which suggested he chewed his lips.
Heilyn’s heart was just starting to beat faster in anticipation when Pumpkin rammed the hedge again, and Emyr said, a little stutter in his voice, “If you were to let go, we could get away and let the poor bull calm down.”
“I need my shirt,” Heilyn pointed out, stepping back reluctantly.
“I think it might be wise to come back for it later,” Emyr remarked, picking up the painting. “I can lend you one, and you’ve got some cuts which need cleaning.”
Heilyn hadn’t even noticed, but now the excitement was starting to wear off and he was suddenly aware that he was scraped and battered and nowhere near as well-presented as he’d been when he left the inn. On the other hand, he’d just been issued with an invitation to Emyr’s home, which was probably more than he deserved, given Emyr had tried to warn him. “Thank you. You’re too kind.”
“It’s my fatal flaw,” Emyr said and headed off down the lane towards the end of the island.
Heilyn scurried after him, surprised. “Aren’t we going to the farm?”
“I’m not a farmer.” After a moment, clearly deciding that needed some elaboration, Emyr added, “I owe one piece of exceedingly bad-tempered livestock. I inherited him.”
“And to think I was aggrieved not to get Gran’s pearls,” Heilyn remarked. “I obviously got off lightly. What do you do, then, when you’re not rescuing artists from hedges?”
“Run the shop.”
“The lady I know is Dilys.” And a very sweet old lady she was, though she had to squint to read the labels on the shelves and had a habit of trapping him at the counter while she told stories about her cats. She had a soft spot for ‘boys with nice smiles’, though, and had been known to slip him an extra honeycake if he looked forlorn enough.
“She’s my cousin. Well, my mother was her cousin.” Then he added, a little defensively, “I pay her a very fair wage. She won’t ever go hungry and she likes to be busy.”
“She’s lucky to have you.”
“Some of the others think I’m exploiting her.”
Emyr gave a faint shrug. “My parents had a lot of cousins. I’m the only one in my generation, since the hard spring.”
Heilyn nodded. There wasn’t a family in Ys that hadn’t been devastated twenty years ago, when a variant on the common spring sickness had cut swathes through the children of Ys. “There’s six years between me and my next eldest brother,” he offered. He’d been born that summer, after the worse was over. How many elderly relatives was Emyr supporting, without any cousins?
“Brothers? More than one?”
“Oh, yes,” Heilyn said, cheering up. He had enough funny stories about his family to last him from here to Challoner if he ever needed to talk to the same person for that many miles. “There’s five of us boys. Should have been seven, of course, Dwynwen cradle them, but five’s a good enough number, especially with the girls as well. I’m the youngest, of course.”
“I could have guessed that,” Emyr murmured.
“And my da was a seventh son too, and Mam’s one of eight. Can’t go anywhere on Rhaedr without bumping into a cousin or two. Which,” he added reflectively, “is part of the reason I left, of course.”
“Seventh son of a seventh son?”
“That’s right,” Heilyn said and unleashed what he hoped was his most dazzling smile. “I’m lucky, see, like a rabbit’s foot. You should stroke me, to see if the luck rubs off.”
After a moment, where Heilyn glanced across to see a definite blush rising over those elegant cheekbones, Emyr said, “I don’t think “lucky” was the word you were looking for.”
“Try “shameless,” instead.”
“Oh, no,” Heilyn said, sidling a little closer. “If I was being shameless, I would have said I was like a wishbone and you needed to spread my legs to have your wishes granted.”
“Heilyn!” And, yes, now the man was really blushing. Excellent.
Widening his eyes, Heilyn added, trying and failing to look innocent, “But I’m not shameless, so I wouldn’t say that.”
“Clearly not,” Emyr managed and stopped by a gate in the hedge. “In here.”
It was a very narrow gate and it led, not to a cottage, but to a derwen copse, the gnarled trees arching closely over the path, heavy with white buds. The starflowers were closed to the sun, their glow dimmed until the moon came out, but their scent filled the air, and the woods were very quiet, with the soft peace that only derwen woods held. Heilyn touched his lips to honor Dwynwen, and followed Emyr along the path quietly, jokes forgotten.
The summer light slanted down between the boughs in slim golden shafts, but everything else was green. A stream was trickling through the woods, its banks mossy, and Emyr held out his hand to help Heilyn across. He looked entirely at home here, like he was one of the old pilgrims who had first settled the islands.
There was a cottage on the edge of the woods, and he could glimpse the sky and the sea beyond it, but its shutters were closed and its door barred. They walked around the side of it, past a neglected weedy garden, and back into the woods.
“We used to have family to stay,” Emyr said quietly, “in the guest cottage there, but all the surviving cousins are too old to travel now, or too local. I remember playing with the others there, when I was a boy.”
When they emerged from the woods, it was at the bottom of a long garden. This one was neglected too, the roses overblown and the borders bright with tatty cornflowers and ragwort. It framed a wide white-walled house with gabled windows and a long curving wall that sheltered apple trees from the sea winds. Beyond the house was the coastal road, and the edge of the island, with wild flowers swaying over the edge of the cliff. Heilyn knew where he was now, not all that far from the village, but he’d always thought this house stood empty when he glimpsed it from the road, as all the front windows were shuttered closed. If it had been his, he’d would have thrown them back to breathe in the view.
“In here,” Emyr said and led him through the back door into a cool, dim kitchen. It was spotlessly neat, but there was nothing in it to hint at any personality. Back at home, the kitchen was always in chaos: nieces and nephews running underfoot, sketches and letters pinned to the doors, ten children’s and twenty-seven grandchildren’s worth of clay models and badly planted birthday herbs cluttering the windowsills, crossed lovespoons mounted over the windows, and usually a few cats sleeping in inconvenient places. Emyr’s kitchen looked like it had never been cooked in, save for a single dirty bowl sitting beside the washbasin.
“Sit down,” Emyr said, breaking through the growing sense of discomfort Heilyn was feeling. “Those scrapes are full of thorns.”
Heilyn perched on one of the kitchen chairs, where he could see out into a hallway that was just as neat and austere. He was distracted enough that he didn’t notice that Emyr was back with a pair of tweezers until he coaxed the first thorn out of Heilyn’s shoulder. “Ow.”
“You could kiss it better,” Heilyn suggested.
“Do you think at all before you speak?”
Heilyn looked down at the sleek top of Emyr’s head where he knelt in front of the chair and wondered if his hair would feel as soft as it looked. “Not usually,” he admitted. “If you stop to think too long, you won’t get heard.”
“You also get into far more trouble,” Emyr commented. His hands were gentle and very steady. Why was this man living alone, Heilyn suddenly wondered. He was beautiful, of course, but he was kind too. Why hadn’t someone snapped him up?
“Life would be boring if I was good all the time. Are you married?”
Emyr went still, his shoulders tensing. Then, he said, all the sly humor gone from his voice. “No. I’m alone.”
“People on this island are obviously very stupid,” Heilyn said grandly and reached out to tilt Emyr’s face up. Why was such a self-possessed man so defensive on this topic? Who had hurt him? How dared they? Captivated by those sad eyes again, Heilyn murmured, “You’re beautiful. Let me paint you.”
Emyr flinched back, scrambling to his feet. “Paint me?”
He’d obviously said something wrong, so Heilyn decided to try caution for a few moments. “If you’d be willing,” he said softly. “I would very much like the opportunity.”
Emyr turned around, reaching out for the empty side as if he was hoping to find something to fidget with. His head turned away, he said, his voice a little stiff. “I’m embarrassed. I thought… I assumed you were interested in something more—”
“Which I am,” Heilyn said, surging to his feet. “And I worried I was being too obvious.”
Emyr turned around a little, his face uncertain. “I thought, perhaps, but you can’t just… One has to be certain, and it’s hard to be sure, even if you think…”
Oh, someone had made a horrible mess of this man, and Heilyn wasn’t going to let it stay that way. He crossed the kitchen in two steps and linked his arms around Emyr’s neck, smiling up at him. “No, with me, what you see is all there is, ask anyone. So, to be clear, I want to paint you and I want to kiss you, and if the kissing goes well, then I’ll want to take your clothes off and kiss you a little more, and then…”
He almost saw it then. The first hint of a smile dawned on Emyr’s face, in a crinkling of his eyes and a softening of his lips. It didn’t blossom, didn’t even last more than a moment, but he saw it, and decided there and then, that he had a new purpose in his life. Before he left Sirig, he would make Emyr smile.
To stop himself babbling, he stretched the rest of the way up and kissed Emyr. For the first few moments, it was a very respectful kiss, soft and gentle and careful. Even that was enough to make the hairs on the back of Heilyn’s neck stand up. Then Emyr shifted slightly against him, his arms coming tightly around Heilyn, and the kiss changed. Suddenly, Emyr was kissing him as if the world was ending, his mouth hungry and demanding. This wasn’t Heilyn’s kiss any more, he realized, his head spinning. He wasn’t in control. This was all Emyr, and it was amazing. He’d never been kissed like this, until his legs went weak and his eyes fell closed and he couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but take it, clinging to Emyr’s shoulders because nothing else in the world felt real any more.
He went happily when Emyr moved them back across the room, pushing him back against the solid side of the table. When Emyr let go of him, pulling back, he barely had the presence of mind to catch himself on his hands. Then Emyr’s hands landed on his bare belly, and Heilyn simply sighed and let his head fall back, rocking his hips forward in invitation.
“Take me to bed, Emyr,” he murmured, his skin prickling under the press of Emyr’s fingertips. “Make love to me.”
And Emyr froze. Then, his hands slid off Heilyn to brace against the table.
Heilyn pushed himself up a little, dismayed. What had he said? “Emyr?”
Emyr had closed his eyes, and his arms were taut, every muscle clenched. Heilyn looked up at him, not sure whether to reach out or not. At last, Emyr said, his voice tired and slow, “Is it that easy for you?”
“It’s not supposed to be difficult,” Heilyn said.
“But what about courtship? What about being sure that it’s right? What about being certain that you haven’t chosen someone who won’t be desperate to get away from you? What if it all goes wrong?”
Heilyn wanted to reach out and just hold onto him, but he wasn’t sure that Emyr wouldn’t just turn and run if he tried. Instead, he said brightly, trying to dispel the tension, “It’s not as if I stay anywhere very long. I mean, I can stay, but if it turns out to be an absolute disaster, I can just move on. There’s always some ship in port that’s willing to let me rope onto the side, and then I just go where the wind takes me. And I think you’re being awfully pessimistic to—”
But Emyr was recoiling back from him, his whole face going hard and unreadable. Heilyn stammered to a stop, not sure what he’d said to get that reaction, and Emyr turned his back on him and said, his voice completely flat, “Get out.”
“Emyr? I was joking! I didn’t mean to—”
Heilyn took a breath, ready to argue, but then looked at the tight line of Emyr’s shoulders and how his hands were clenched so tightly they were white. “I’m sorry,” he said, though he still didn’t know what he was apologizing for. Then, before he broke Emyr completely, he went.
He was halfway down the lane before he realized that not only had he left his painting behind, but he still had no shirt on.
Elin caught him as he came back into the inn that afternoon. She raised an eyebrow at the ragged remains of his shirt, which he had surreptitiously rescued from Pumpkin’s hedge, but didn’t comment. “If you fancy earning a little bit more than just your bed and board, I need someone to wait tables tonight. Aeddan’s wife’s in labor, and he’s needed at home.”
“Dwynwen bring them all safe to morning,” Heilyn said, which got him an approving sniff. “And I’d be glad to help.” He’d planned to spent the evening in the bar anyway, because the idea of sitting alone in his attic after the day he’d had was unbearable, and at least this way he’d be earning money rather than spending it.
He hadn’t got to know many of the locals yet, but he met a few more that evening. Most of the regulars were there, using the excuse of waiting to toast Aeddan and his wife to justify a few extra rounds, and more trickled in in search of news as the evening went on. Heilyn endured plenty of good-natured heckling until he learned to balance more than one drink on his tray, but he answered it all cheerfully enough, and some of locals, at least, seemed to take a liking to him.
“Traveling, are you?” old Math demanded, draining his tankard. “When I was your age, I was holding down a good job, and had been married a year.”
“Only because his Lili was carrying a half-claimed baby, and her da had a punch that would sink a high island right down to sea level,” his brother Llyr, at the next table, confided to Heilyn in a whisper Math couldn’t hear. “Don’t let him bother you, boy.”
“Oh, I’m not easily bothered,” Heilyn said cheerily, and swept up a few more empty cups as he passed.
“I wouldn’t let any son of mine go prancing about from island to island,” Math proclaimed, as Llyr rolled his eyes. “Dangerous business.”
“Ah, people have been taking to the ropes for centuries,” Heilyn said easily. “You can see the world for the price of a few drinks, if your nerves will stand it.”
“Math has a point,” Llyr said, surprising Heilyn. He already knew that the brothers couldn’t even agree on the direction of the wind. “Don’t forget the poor souls on the Gwyfyn, Lady spare their souls.”
Heilyn nodded. It had been almost five years since the cargo ship Gwyfyn had crashed out of the sky in a storm, with the loss of all hands and twelve young travelers who had paid the captain to let them rope onto the sides so they could get to the harvest fair on Blodyn cheaply. To this day, no one was quite sure why the ship had failed. Some claimed that she had been too near the end of her life to sail, and that her wood had lost its virtue on the way across the gulf. Others blamed the storm, or said the passengers had been roped on badly, upsetting the ship’s balance so she couldn’t ride out the sudden squall. By the time rescuers put out to sea on coracles, only the splintered remains of her floated on the sea. No one would have survived the fall, and their bodies had gone to the deep, beyond even Dwynwen’s gaze.
“My mother said the same,” he said, “but it was one ship, and who can remember another disaster like it? I’ll take those odds.”
Llyr shook his head, his eyes sad, and Math added solemnly, “We lost a Sirig boy on that ship.”
“I’m sorry,” Heilyn said. “I didn’t know.”
“Almost lost two,” Llyr added. “And there’d be a lot of folks my age the worse off if we had.”
“Scroungers!” Math proclaimed and banged his tankard on his table. “Serve ‘em right if they were left to their own devices. Another drink, boy!”
“Lemon and tonic, was it?” Heilyn asked, with an exaggerated wink, just for the fun of making Math growl at him.
“Scrumpy, boy, and you should know it! No, I’d pitch ‘em all off the side of the island, if I were young ap Morgan. What a life, eh?”
“He’s a good boy,” Llyr said. “You never were, so you wouldn’t recognize it.” Luckily, his brother was mid-swallow, so he had time to turn to Heilyn and explain, “It was young Aneirin we lost, from down at the farm at the western point. He was handfasted to young ap Morgan-the-shop, of course, and they would have both been on that ship, if old Morgan and his wife hadn’t both died within a season, and left all their troubles to young Emyr.”
Heilyn hadn’t really been listening until then. He’d learned that old men, no matter the island, seemed to think that everyone who passed by knew and cared about the same folks they did. Now, though, the pieces of the puzzle that was Emyr were suddenly clicking together. “Handfasted?” he asked.
“Not by the time he left,” Math put in, putting his tankard down hard. “Broke it off, he did, when young Emyr suddenly got landed with all those old biddies, and that shop which was already run into nothing. Old Morgan was useless, of course…”
“Math!” Llyr protested, but his brother just kept going.
“…and his wife never got over the loss of her girls in the hard spring, carrying on as if she’d been the only woman to lose a baby that year. Couldn’t even stand up without her husband to lean on, which was a wonder given what a weak reed he was. Young one’s the only one in that family who still has the spine he was born with, and that’s not saying-”
“Math!” More than one voice joined in that time, and Math subsided into his pint, grumbling.
Luckily, at that moment, Aeddan’s brother burst in to tell the gathered village that it was a girl, a beautiful girl, and the next round was on him, and so Heilyn had time to breathe deeply and hide the sudden clenching of his heart.
He was still thinking about it when he woke up: orphaned, left by his lover, who then died, and all after losing not just all his cousins, but sisters too. It made Heilyn’s heart ache so hard that he kept thinking it should be raining, even though the dawn was shining palely through the thatch. No wonder Emyr didn’t smile.
And Heilyn had joked about taking to the ropes again.
He was distracted all through breakfast, even when Elin first teased and then fussed at him. He carried it back up to his attic after breakfast. He had the place to himself again, so he sat in a patch of sunshine and doodled with plain pen and ink, trying to find the enthusiasm to step outside.
Knowing what he now knew, he felt guilty, and it came out of his fingers, as most things did, and appeared on the paper as a caricature of himself, looking grotesquely apologetic. It wasn’t much, but he scribbled, Sorry! Didn’t mean to rub salt in your wounds across the bottom and summoned the energy to go out.
He was certain that Emyr didn’t want to see him, so he just slipped it under the front door and walked back down the lane. There were blackberries growing in the hedges, and after a while he started picking them as he passed, staining his fingers purple. That improved his mood a little, until he glanced back at Emyr’s house and saw again how all the seaward shutters were closed.
He imagined walking into his parents’ kitchen and suddenly finding himself the only one there, everyone else lost to time and the sky, and shuddered.
It was a gray day, with the light only breaking intermittently through the clouds, and his mind was still tangled in both Emyr and the painting of the meadow. He sat himself on the edge of the market wharf, and spent the day sketching, trying to capture the lines of the ships at the quay and the ones coming in from the sky, their tiers of sails turning and sloping into the wind. He drew people in too, just odd curves and lines to suggest movement, trying to find a scene he could capture in full and finding nothing quite to his liking.
A little before noon, Emyr arrived, emerging from the office beside the shop with a canvas wrapped painting under his arm. He stopped and Heilyn could see him taking a deliberate breath from the other side of the market wharf. Then he strode towards Heilyn, his face grim with determination.
“I got your note, and brought your painting back,” he said abruptly.
“Keep it,” Heilyn said, surprising himself. It felt right, though, so he didn’t change his mind.
Emyr blinked at him. “But it’s your work. Your trade.”
“Consider it thanks for the use of your field.”
“But…” Emyr started and then trailed off, frowning down at him. There was no hint of a smile on his face today, but he was looking mildly less purposeful than he had a few moments ago. “Someone told you. About everything, and about Aneirin. That’s why the note.”
“I didn’t ask,” Heilyn said, because that seemed important. “Some of the old men were gossiping in the pub. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Emyr’s expression went bleak again, and he looked like only dignity stopped him from bolting. Heilyn had never seen anyone who needed to be held so badly. “If I hug you,” he asked, “will you try to run away?”
The corner of Emyr’s mouth twitched ruefully. “It’s quite possible. I don’t mean to. It’s just… I’m not very good at this kind of thing.”
“Want lessons?” Heilyn asked, and waggled his eyebrows.
Emyr’s mouth did an odd twist, and then he said, that ripple of amusement back in his mouth, “You’re too kind.”
“I just can’t help myself,” Heilyn said, grinning up at him. “It’s all about other people’s pleasure for me. It’s hard. My life, I mean, though other things could be.”
Emyr blushed, and took a nervous step back. “I have to get back to the office. There’s three trade ships in and I have packing manifests, and things to sign, and…Thank you for the painting.”
“My pleasure,” Heilyn said, and picked up his pen again. His mood was lifting, and he thought he could see the beginnings of something worth painting in these sketches.
“Heilyn, are you planning on staying on Sirig long?” It was said with such careful nonchalance that Heilyn had to bite his laughter back.
“Oh, a month or two, at least,” he said rashly, though he hadn’t thought about it until that moment.
Emyr hesitated for another moment. Then he said, a little quickly, “You should talk to the hospice priest at Dwynwen’s shrine.” And, then, a little more slowly than he had approached, he went back to his office.
He didn’t get to the shrine until that afternoon, when his curiosity finally drove him out of the village. It was about twenty minutes walk away, across the midsummer common, currently grazed by what looked like some of Pumpkin’s more placid sisters. The shrine itself was down in a hollow in the rock, next to a freshwater spring that was rumored to have healing qualities. Behind and above the shrine was a hostel which offered shelter and care to those sick pilgrims who came seeking a miracle from Dwynwen’s spring. From the newness of the wood, it was obvious that the hostel had been both repaired and extended recently.
Heilyn wasn’t quite sure why Emyr had sent him here, unless he thought it might be cheaper than the inn’s attic. He went into the shrine anyway, to offer a quick prayer and greeting. Dwynwen was the Queen of Love, after all, and he could do with a bit of her help at the moment. Then he climbed up the shallow steps to the hospice.
“A painter?” the priest repeated, after Heilyn had introduced himself, his tired face lighting up. “And already staying on the island?”
“For a while longer, I hope,” Heilyn said.
“Wonderful. Oh, do you have some examples of your work, something I could look at? If you’re interested, of course, and I should really explain what the job is, shouldn’t I? Come and see!”
He led Heilyn into the new wing of the hospice. Inside, it was clean and empty. There were no beds yet, and the walls had been plastered a plain white.
“We get so many pilgrims in the winter,” the priest said, eyes sad, “and many of them are bedridden, you see, with nowhere else to go. They struggle to make it down to the shrine, and anything further away is impossible, and it’s such a miserable life that I thought they deserved something beautiful to look at.”
“You want paintings for the walls?” Heilyn said, the idea catching his interest. “Something bold and bright, yes? The things they miss when they can’t see the sky.”
“Yes, yes,” the priest said, nodding, “except not small paintings. I heard that in Ynys Llys, in the palace, they have painting that cover whole walls, straight onto the plaster.”
“Murals,” Heilyn said, turning around on his heel to survey the bare plaster with interest. “Big skies, and ships and islands, for a start. Scenes from different islands, to show all are welcome. A bit of humor and life in the detail work. You could have a bit of fun with the refectory, paint big rowdy pub tables on the walls so it looks like it just keeps going, and… Sorry, I’m running too far from the wind again. I have a tendency to do that.”
But the priest was smiling and nodding. “That’s exactly it. I have paint donated, and volunteers willing to help, but I need someone to do the designs and detail work. I don’t really know how they do it in the capital, but surely it’s more than one man’s job.”
“Oh, they get their apprentices to do the backgrounds,” Heilyn said. “And then the apprentices need paying too, though at a reduced rate, and it all puts the price up.”
“No wonder I couldn’t afford their fee, then,” the priest said with a sigh, and then looked anxious. “They all want the journey and their accommodation paid for, you see, and I can pay an honest wage, but it’s all from donations, so…”
“I understand,” Heilyn said, a little amused by the honesty. “Well, I’m planning to stay on the island for a few months anyway, and all my rent is paid in washing up. It sounds like something I would love to do, but you’ll want to know I’m talented enough. If I run back to the inn for my portfolio, you can have a look through overnight and see if it’s the right style for what you want.”
The priest nodded. “That sounds like the way to do it. I have a good feeling about this, Heilyn. I think Dwynwen may have blown you to our doors.”
“I hope so,” Heilyn said, and dashed back across the common in high spirits. A commission, a proper one, and one which suited him so well, would be a far better gift than he deserved from Emyr.
By the next day, he had a job, and spent a blissful day sketching out possible designs, sticking the papers to the appropriate walls with little bits of putty. Father Cian was delighted, but he clearly had a firm idea of what he wanted, and not all of the sketches passed his scrutiny. That was fair enough. Heilyn knew, and he had more ideas than there were walls at the moment.
By the end of the afternoon, he knew roughly what he’d be doing, and that he was going to love the work, and he carried his good mood all the way up the lane and in Emyr’s front door to babble thanks and excitement at him.
Emyr blinked at him from where he was sitting at his kitchen table. “Did I ask you in?”
“You would have done, but I didn’t knock,” Heilyn said. “How did you know there was such a wonderful job just waiting for me?”
“I do live here, Heilyn,” Emyr reminded him. “That’s my local temple.”
“I’ve seen it,” Heilyn told him. “The shrine is lovely, you know. I’m going to put a picture of it in the entrance way, and derwen blossoms on every doorframe, to bless the threshold, if I can get the right paint. Father Cian says he knows a supplier and can stretch to that as an extra, though we couldn’t use it in any quantity. It’s horribly expensive to get the reflective stuff, and…”
“I’m the local trade factor. Who do you think orders Father Cian’s paint?”
“Then I know we’re getting a fair price for it,” Heilyn said and beamed at him. “I like Father Cian. Not as much as I like you, of course, because that would be a little sacrilegious and more than a little inappropriate…”
“Not least because he’s married with five children.”
“Five?” Heilyn asked, distracted. “Dwynwen really does favor her priests, doesn’t she? Unless they’re naughty, that is. You know what they say about priest’s children.”
“They’re nice girls. Very quiet and polite.”
“How boring,” Heilyn said. “I’m never quiet, except when I’m working.”
“You surprise me,” Emyr asked.
“That I talk too much?”
“That you ever stop.”
Heilyn clapped his hand to heart, mock swooning across the table. “You wound me. Come and kiss it better?”
“Kiss what, precisely? Your pride?”
“If that’s the best I can hope for,” Heilyn said lightly.
Emyr regarded him across the table, frustration, temptation and worry flitting across his face.
“No?” Heilyn asked lightly, though it took some of the bright edge off his good mood. “Oh well. Whenever you like.”
“You’re not going to push?” Emyr asked, sounding a little doubtful.
“Oh, I’ll flirt,” Heilyn said, “because I couldn’t not, but you can choose when, or if, you want more. We’ve got time, haven’t we? Did I mention that I got a commission? My first commission! You should buy me a drink.”
“How about dinner?”
“You want to cook me dinner?”
“I was about to start on my own when you arrived in my kitchen.”
“Then I shall wash up afterward,” Heilyn offered. “I’m a professional when it comes to washing up, you know. Oh, do you think I should include a kitchen scene somewhere? I want it all to be familiar comforting things.”
“One with a view out of its window, perhaps,”
Emyr turned out to be a rather good cook. The food was simple, rather than the creative mess that Heilyn usually produced when allowed in a kitchen, but it tasted good and was filling: fish, samphire and wedges of bannock bread. He got a cup of scrumpy too, which made him chatter all the more as he washed up. Emyr murmured the odd response, but seemed content to watch him with a quietly bemused expression.
Heilyn went back to the inn without a goodnight kiss, to his disappointment, but given how well the rest of the day had gone, he was still whistling by the time he got back to the village.
After that, his days suddenly fell into an easy routine. He worked breakfasts at the inn, then headed over to the shrine, and spent his evenings in Emyr’s kitchen. He still hadn’t been invited in, as such, but Emyr never asked him to leave, so he was going to take that as a sign that he was welcome. The work turned out to be far more demanding than he’d expected, and he soon realized that it would only work if he planned every detail in advance. That suited him. He might be spontaneous in the way he lived his life, but he had always planned his art meticulously.
By the end of the first week, he had produced scaled down versions of what every wall should look like, and had started sketching the outlines straight onto the plaster. Once the first few were done, Father Cian’s volunteers set to work filling in the big blocks of sky and grass as Heilyn moved on to the next outline. Some of them he already knew from the inn, but even the strangers seemed friendly enough. They were a mixed group of craftsfolk between jobs, retired fishermen with stiff joints and quiet faith, and a bunch of young mothers who had been fast friends for years and obviously saw this as a chance to laugh together while their babies chuckled in the corner of the shrine with Father Cian and his youngest girls. Heilyn liked them all immensely, and they seemed to welcome him with the same wry amusement that Elin showed him when he stumbled down into the kitchen each morning.
He told Emyr about everything he was doing, and Emyr listened with a look of slight bewilderment, as if he still couldn’t tell why Heilyn was there. He listened, though, and Heilyn surprised him one evening reading a book about portraiture. He set it down on the table as Heilyn commented on the title, and said softly, “My grandfather was an art-lover. You reminded me that I have his books.”
In all, it seemed like things were going perfectly, until Elin stopped him as he came in one evening, and asked, with a chuckle, “So, what’s young Emyr doing these days?”
Well, if Elin knew where he was spending his evenings, the whole village did as well. Hopefully Emyr wouldn’t mind. Well, he couldn’t change that. Airily, he said, “Oh, he’s fine.”
Elin snorted. “That boy hasn’t been fine for years.” She narrowed her eyes at Heilyn. “You be kind to him, hear me.”
“So, is that old fright Berwen still trying to wheedle the house out of him? Oh, and what did he say to the captain of the Hwyad the other day. I’ve never seen the old bastard leave in such a temper. Mind you, young Emyr’s not as easily cheated as his father was, and we all know how much profit the Hwyad used to make on a copper run.”
Heilyn blinked at her. He’d not heard any of those names or stories before, even though he’d been talking to Emyr every night. Or rather, he realized guiltily, he’d been talking at Emyr. At no point had Emyr shared anything about his life or his day, and Heilyn had not even thought to ask.
“You’re supposed to tell me,” he blurted out as soon as he crossed the threshold the next evening, “when I’m being a selfish brat. People normally tell me!”
“Did you start this conversation without me?” Emyr asked, looking puzzled.
“You let me talk on and on about myself!”
Emyr shrugged, not meeting Heilyn’s gaze. “It wasn’t a hardship to listen.”
Heilyn couldn’t quite tell if that had been intended as a compliment or no, so he marched across to Emyr, and put his hands on his shoulders to stop him from running away. “You need to share. So, how was your day?”
Emyr shrugged, blushing a little. “It was good.”
“What made it good?”
He was looking a little panicky. “I don’t really know. I made a profit on selling oats to Briallen and, um, I don’t know- er, Dilys brought me honeycakes for my lunch. There,” he finished so triumphantly that Heilyn wanted to kiss him.
“It does sounds like a good day,” he said instead. “We should do this again tomorrow. I want to know.”
“I’m not very practiced at this, Heilyn,” Emyr confessed. “Talking about myself. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Anything you like,” Heilyn said and did kiss him, just a peck on the end of his nose. He’d never considered talking about himself something that actually required practice, but he would make sure that Emyr got some now. How long had he been coming home to a silent house?
Emyr was definitely blushing now. “I thought you weren’t going to do that sort of thing.”
“I’m not going to seduce you without invitation,” Heilyn clarified, “but I’m still allowed to flirt, and that was flirting.”
“I think you’re changing these rules as we go along.”
“More fun that way, isn’t it?”
For a moment, Heilyn really thought he was about to be kissed, and he was already turning his face up for it when Emyr stepped back, looking away. “I have some leftover honeycakes, and a hotpot in the oven, if you’d like to stay.”
Heilyn stayed, of course, and after that he remembered to ask after Emyr’s day every night. Emyr himself slowly managed to choke out more than the odd strangled sentence about his life.
Summer slipped slowly into autumn. The apples weighed heavy on the bough, and the common was wreathed with mist as Heilyn walked to the shrine every morning. Rain came, soft and quiet, and he took to timing his departure from the hospice so that he got back to the village just as Emyr locked up the trade office. Emyr had an oilcloth cloak which would cover both their heads if they walked close together, and it made the rain something that Heilyn could laugh about rather than a misery.
Emyr still didn’t smile, but some of the ingrained sadness faded slowly from his face. It made him less compelling as an artistic subject, but Heilyn had discovered within himself an insatiable urge to make Emyr happy. He didn’t quite understand where it had come from, unless it had grown from that original desire to see Emyr’s smile, but every evening in Emyr’s kitchen, and every time Emyr blushed or made a dry insightful comment just made it burn brighter.
Heilyn didn’t get kissed, either. There had definitely been times when he had expected it, as Emyr had lingered right at his side a little too long, or stared at Heilyn’s mouth as he blushed. The closest they came was on a night when the storm came rolling in out of the west, tearing across the sky with crunches of thunder and sending the rain spitting down like broken glass. Father Cian brought Heilyn back to the village early, offering him a seat in the pony trap so that he didn’t have to slither across the common where it was already awash with mud.
When he tried the door of the trade office, it was already locked and bolted. He staggered next door into the shop as the wind caught at him, trying to drag him down towards the quay.
“Emyr will be home by now, dear,” Dilys said, shaking her head. Behind her spectacles, her gray eyes were misty and concerned. “He doesn’t care for storms, poor boy. It was a night like this that the Gwyfyn went down and young Aneirin died, poor soul.”
Heilyn swallowed hard, his heart clenching, and dashed back out into the storm. Father Cian and his trap were gone, probably back to the shelter of the shrine, so he simply ran along the coast road. Here, without the shelter of trees or buildings, the wind kept buffeting him into the hedge, tearing at his hair and clothes with cold claws. He had to slow to a walk in the end, but he could feel the island stirring under him, the wind weeping through the hollows in the rock and the waves lashing up to swipe at the base of the isle, hungry to drag it back below the water.
When he reached the house, it was dark. The sky was so heavy he could barely feel his way across the garden, and he could only see by the dim light of the starflowers tumbling across the sky as the storm ripped them off the boughs of the trees. The front door, when he reached it, was locked and he could hear the bolts rattling and straining against the force of the wind. Swearing, he put his hands flat against the wall and fought his way round to the back of the house. Emyr wouldn’t hear him shouting over the noise of the storm, but the back garden was a little more sheltered.
Once he made it round the end of the wall, the tearing of the wind wasn’t so bad, and he sagged back against it with a sigh of relief. He could still feel the air shaking, and the derwen copse at the bottom of the garden was a blur of light as the wind twisted the branches, but he wasn’t scared he would be blown right off the island anymore. Then a late apple, almost as wide as his hand, slammed into the wall beside his head, shaken from the fruit trees behind the wall. Time to move on, and he could make a run for it now, because he knew this bit of ground, even when he couldn’t see it clearly.
He hit the back door at a run, and groaned in relief when it opened under his hand. Dragging himself in, he slumped against it, catching his breath before he called, “Emyr!”
After the storm, the house felt unnaturally quiet. He could still hear the air raging outside, but it seemed dim and muted now. The quiet was stifling. “Emyr?”
There was nothing but silence, and Heilyn began to wonder if Dilys had been wrong and he’d just made a fool of himself. Surely any sane man would wait this out in the inn? They didn’t get storms like this back home on Rhaedr, tucked away in the central isles as it was. He’d heard that storms in the islands so close to the Veil were bad, but he’d never expected this. Someone who had lived here all his life, though, probably wouldn’t be daft enough to go out in it.
Or maybe Emyr had tried to get home and was lying hurt on the road somewhere and Heilyn had walked straight past him.
No, that was panic speaking. Emyr had almost certainly found a bed for the night with a friend in the village. As Heilyn had no intention of struggling his way back down the coast road, he’d have to find somewhere to bed down here (no, not in Emyr’s bed, tempting as it might be, and he wasn’t going to snoop through Emyr’s belonging either, no, definitely not). He needed some light, though, and had been here enough to know where the lantern and its flint lived.
The first splash of light revealed the state of the kitchen. The shutter was open, and the wind had thrown the herbs off the windowsill to spill out of their pots and across the floor. There was a great sweep of storm debris, too, dry leaves dancing across the counter and clogging the sink. Heilyn put the lamp down and headed across to drag the shutters closed. He’d clean this mess up, and see if Emyr had some bread left over, and then he’d go searching for some blankets. Stretching over the sink, he grabbed the edge of the shutter.
Heilyn jumped. Swinging round, he squinted across the room. Emyr was standing in the doorway, his hands clenched on the frame. He looked like a ghost, pale and tense.
“Aneirin didn’t have any shutters between him and the storm.”
Heilyn swallowed, transported for a moment. Riding on the ropes through the sky was fun on a sunny day with a sweet breeze, when you could prop your elbows onto the side of the ship and natter at the sailors on board. In a storm like this…
All the same, the wind was coming in the window now, and as his mam always said, there was a time for sentiment and a time for common sense, and he knew which this was. “I’m shutting the wind out before it ruins everything in here.”
“Don’t,” Emyr said, but it was so soft and hesitant that Heilyn chose to ignore it. He pulled the shutters closed with a heave, slamming the bolt across before the wind could wrench them out of his hand. When he turned round, Emyr had gone, so he picked up the lantern and went looking. He found him in the parlor, sitting on the end of the wooden with his head in his hands. Heilyn put the lantern down on the table and went to sit beside him.
Heilyn cupped the back of Emyr’s head, rubbing a few strands of hair between his fingers, because he had to give him some affection. Then he backed away, and saw to the room. He’d been in here once or twice before and disliked it intensely. It should have been cozy, with the apple boughs and flowers tapping against its south-facing window, and a clutter of bookcases and chairs, but it just felt sad and lonely. It always felt a little bigger than it was, haunted by a hint of an echo. Now it was cold, so much so that Heilyn tried to rub some warmth into his arms. He was soaked through, and he was beginning to feel it.
There was a cold draft coming down the chimney, but even the worst gust wasn’t bad enough to make it dangerous, so he got a fire started and nursed it until it was going strongly and his face felt well-toasted.
Emyr hadn’t moved, and Heilyn decided that he’d respected his grief enough. He headed over to the settle, peeling off his dripping cloak and testing the cloth of his shirt with a grimace. It felt clammy to the touch, so he said, “I’d ask if I could borrow a shirt, except I’m not sure any of yours would fit me. Are you going to be horribly offended if I walk around without one?”
Emyr tipped his head up. “What?”
“Well, I think I’ve brought in enough rain to fill a bathtub,” Heilyn said, making his tone light and bright. “I don’t really look good in rain. It’s not my color, you know, and I don’t want to get pneumonia and sneeze all over Father Cian’s murals, so I’m just going to strip off, if you don’t mind.”
He could manage a smirk at that, though he wanted to do nothing more than wrap Emyr up and hold him tight. “And it’s not like you haven’t seen it before, though I might have to expose my feet as well today, because I have puddles inside my boots. You’re not likely to be driven mad with desire at the sight of my little pink toes, are you? I knew a man once who swore that he would only marry a woman with perfect toes. I mean, I’d look for a pleasant temper and a kind heart first, if I was planning to settle down. I do love a handsome face, but a kind heart’s worth more, don’t you think?”
“Heilyn.” Emyr was staring at him, the despair in his face giving way to a faint irritation.
Good. Heilyn pulled his shirt off, and made himself keep babbling. “Look, no scars. Pumpkin didn’t do me any permanent damage, or maybe it was just because you patched me up so well. I do think that painting in his field was actually the best decision I’ve made since I came to Sirig.” He turned round to pull his boots and socks off, and patted his own ass, making a face. “Sopping. Can’t really strip those off, though, can I?”
“You… You’re ridiculous.”
That stung a little, but Heilyn couldn’t really deny that he’d been trying for that reaction. Emyr stood up, glaring at him, and snapped, “Stay there and warm up! I’ll get you a blanket.”
Heilyn did as he was told, stripping down to his braies and crouching in front of the fire. He was just beginning to worry again when the door cracked open, and Emyr came back. Heilyn heard him stop in the doorway, but the crackle of the fire was too loud to guess why, so he turned around to look.
Emyr was just looking at him, his eyes wide and his lips parted. There was color in his cheeks again. After a moment, he swallowed and held out the blanket he was carrying, letting it spill out of its folds. Heilyn went to him, and Emyr folded the blanket around him, and then, with a little broken breath, wrapped his arms around Heilyn and buried his face against his shoulder with a slow sigh.
Heilyn held onto him, pressing soft kisses to his hair and murmuring vague reassuring things. Emyr was a good man to hug, just skinny enough that Heilyn could get his arms right round him, but still firm and solid and strong. Heilyn could feel the muscles knotted in his back, and stroked warm circles over them until Emyr slowly relaxed.
At last Emyr said, his voice muffled in the blanket, “I don’t understand what you’re doing in my life.”
“I like you,” Heilyn said, “obviously. In fact, I like you so much I’m going to cook you dinner tonight.”
Emyr looked up, his face skeptical. “You can cook?”
“Of course I can cook. Well, I can scramble eggs, at least.”
So they had scrambled eggs, and Emyr sat in his usual place at the kitchen table, and they ate singed and crunchy scrambled eggs as the futile rain hammered at the shutters (Heilyn had never claimed he could cook well, after all, so what had Emyr expected?). It almost felt like a normal evening until Emyr said, “I’ll make up the spare room for you, if you like. Or…”
“Or?” Heilyn prompted, the skin on the back of his neck prickling.
“I… I’m not inviting you to seduce me, mind. It’s just…”
“You don’t want to be alone in a storm.”
“I always thought that was the best way, but…” He swallowed. “You must think very poorly of me.”
Heilyn covered his hands with his own. “I could never think poorly of you.”
But when they climbed up to Emyr’s room, he felt less sure of himself. He’d never shared a bed with someone just for comfort (top to tail in a cheap inn to save pennies once or twice, but that hadn’t been intimate in the way this was). He’d never even stayed until morning with a man before. And this was Emyr, and that was Emyr’s bed, with its sheets rumpled, and this was Emyr’s room, with the books he was reading stacked beside the bed and an empty mug balanced precariously on the edge of the basin.
“If you don’t want to,” Emyr started.
“Just deciding my strategy,” Heilyn said immediately. “I’m an expert blanket thief, I’ll have you know.” And he dropped himself down in the middle of the bed, where he could grin up at Emyr.
“Ridiculous,” Emyr said again, but it was fond this time. “Move over.”
Heilyn rolled over, and shivered a little as Emyr’s weight settled beside him on the bed. He couldn’t quite make his body believe that it wasn’t about to be loved, so he tried to slow his breathing. Emyr snuffed the lantern, and then shifted in the bed again, the pillows tugging slightly under Heilyn’s cheek. The bed smelled like Emyr, apple and dried spices and ink, and Heilyn wanted to burrow into it and never leave. He wanted to turn and curl up against Emyr, run his hands across bare skin, and press quiet kisses to the back of Emyr’s neck. He could hear Emyr’s breathing, slow and steady, and was suddenly convinced that his own heart was beating at the same rhythm.
“He wasn’t kind.”
“What?” Heilyn said. He’d thought Emyr was asleep.
“What you said earlier, about a kind heart— Aneirin wasn’t kind. He was passionate about life, and fun, and he always had a big dream and managed to drag everyone along to fulfill it, but he wasn’t kind.”
“I’m sorry.” Heilyn reached out blindly and found Emyr’s shoulder. He held on, as tightly as he could.
“He was furious when I said I couldn’t go with him, but I had no choice. People needed me here, and so I got angry too, and then he.. he died, and I was never angry enough to want that.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Heilyn thought about it, all the little bits and pieces of the story people had let slip since he arrived on Sirig. “Nor was it his fault. You were both so young, and it sounds to me like you grew up, because you had to, and he stayed a child, and didn’t understand what you had to do. Nobody was at fault.”
“That’s…” Emyr trailed off and went quiet. After a while he said, his voice soft, “He wasn’t, but you are.”
“Are what?” Heilyn asked sleepily.
“Kind,” Emyr said and moved. Suddenly he was on top of Heilyn, their bare chests pressed together. Heilyn bucked his hips up without thinking, his whole body shaking with the sudden contact, and gasped. He could feel Emyr’s breath on his cheek, rough and hot, and knew that he was about to be kissed. Then the hitch of Emyr’s breath and a soft drip on his cheek made his conscience tighten around him like a noose. Putting his hand up, he found Emyr’s cheek and held him a breath away, feeling the slick lines of tears under his palm.
“I’m aware. Let me have some dignity, Heilyn.”
Heilyn swallowed and argued the part of him that was all lust away. He didn’t want to begin like this. He wanted something brighter and sweeter. “When you kiss me…”
“Yes?” Emyr breathed, nuzzling Heilyn’s fingertips.
“I want it to be because I make you happy. Not just because you’re sad.”
Emyr froze. Then, with a groan, he rolled off Heilyn. “You are the most inconvenient thing in my life.”
“This is a noble sacrifice on my part too,” Heilyn said, and curled up behind him, wrapping an arm around Emyr’s waist.
“And inconsistent with it.”
“Your life needs more inconsistencies.”
Emyr snorted at that, but then his hand came up to cover Heilyn’s, their fingers tangling. “Sleep, Heilyn, and stop confusing me.”
And so Heilyn did, as the storm slowly passed over them and faded into quiet rain.
There were more storms, after that, but Heilyn started listening to the weather gossips in the morning, and made sure he could leave early if bad weather was coming in. Father Cian must have realized what was going on, because he invariably happened to have the pony trap out on those days and, more often than not, was heading along the coast road and it was no trouble at all to take them both home.
He stayed overnight through a few storms, though now they sat together in the kitchen and talked quietly through the storm. Emyr didn’t invite him back into bed, and Heilyn couldn’t quite decide how he felt about that. He wanted so badly to touch Emyr and be touched in return, to slide their bodies together and take pleasure from other. Simply lying together chastely had been torturous, and so intense he had been giddy with need by the time the sun crept through the crack in the shutters. It had frightened him a little. He had never simply wanted like that before. His purpose was simple: make Emyr happy enough to smile. He was starting to wonder, though, what changes Emyr was making in him in return.
Emyr was touching him more. Nothing sexual, of course, and Heilyn wasn’t even sure he knew he was doing it. He’d just developed a habit of moving Heilyn out of his way as he cooked by slinging an arm around his shoulder and pulling him across the room. When they huddled under the oilcloth in the rain, his arm went around Heilyn’s waist to keep him close. He summoned attention by touching Heilyn’s arm or turning his cheek to see something interesting, his fingers always gentle.
Heilyn wished he could be as chaste and respectful, but his fantasies were getting more compelling by the day. Even as he wandered across the frosty common in the morning, he imagined just stripping naked as Emyr cooked, spreading himself out across the kitchen table and begging. He invented absurd schemes which would get him into Emyr’s bed (possibly even “accidentally” tied to Emyr’s bed, so Emyr would have to crawl all over him to release him, and then he’d, of course, be overcome with lust and leave Heilyn tied there while he stripped off and nibbled his way down Heilyn’s chest and then pushed his legs apart slowly, those long fingers pressing…and, damn it, he was at the shrine already) or let him fall conveniently onto Emyr’s lap and land on his mouth (or his cock). He could imagine it so clearly he could have painted it: Emyr’s eyes hazy with pleasure as Heilyn stroked him, Emyr’s mouth sliding wetly over the head of his cock.
It made his work a little more challenging, especially now he was down to the fine detail work and needed to concentrate. He was painting fast, aware that the winter pilgrims were starting to arrive. They had filled the old part of the hostel already, and half Father Cian’s volunteers had switched duties to tend the sick. The others were in the rooms Heilyn had finished, varnishing over the pictures.
Today, he was putting in the very last details on the long wall in the biggest dorm. This was the most complex picture of the lot, showing the market wharf, from the ships sliding down from the sky, to the bustling crowds, to the shops and inn along the sides. He painted in all the familiar faces: the fishermen, and Elin in the inn doorway, Math and his brother squabbling by the fountain, Emyr by the door of the trade office, watching the world go by with thoughtful eyes. Father Cian was there, with his daughters flitting around the market, and all of the volunteers who had worked on the walls. They had all been charmed, and quick to suggest more island personalities who would want to be included.
“Heilyn, are you in here?” It was Emyr’s voice, which was surprising because he never ventured into the hostel, but Heilyn was so close to finishing that nothing could distract him. He just grunted a little and focused on touching up the shadows on the sails.
“The wind turned and the Colomen sailed early,” Emyr said, his voice drawing nearer, “so I brought you lunch from the inn and I thought… Oh. Oh.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Arianell, one of the volunteers. “Have you not seen it before, Emyr? I’d have thought you’d be here all the time. Heilyn, sweetheart, your man’s here for you.”
“Ssh,” Heilyn said, sliding along to frown at the edges of the inn roof. “I’m almost done.”
“For the day?” Emyr asked, his voice still filled with a soft wonder. “It’s early for you.”
“No!” Heilyn snapped. “I’m almost done!”
“Oh,” Emyr breathed.
Arianell giggled and said, “Leave the artist to his work, Emyr. I’ll give you a tour while we’re waiting for him to finish up. It really is wonderful, what he’s done.”
Their footsteps faded, and Heilyn lost himself in the work again. There was a particular kind of urgency that came with the end of a long project, one which quivered through him and drove him onward with a growing sense of anticipation. Soon, soon, it would be done, and he stopped thinking about what he was doing and trusted instinct to guide his hand in the last few strokes.
The very final detail was his name, touched in along the curving side of a cloud in the topmost corner. That done, he put his brush and palette down carefully and sat back to look at his work. Done. He was done.
It felt a little like a dream, wonderful and rather hollow all at once. What in the world was he supposed to do now?
Turning round, he saw Emyr, standing in the middle of the room with his hands clasped behind his back. He was facing away from Heilyn, gazing quietly at the walls. As Heilyn stood there, overwhelmed by joy and loss, he turned around slowly, taking a few steps forward to look at some detail.
It came out a little plaintive, and Emyr finished his circle in a few swift steps, turning to face him. His lean face looked softer than usual, and his eyes were bright.
“I’ve finished,” Heilyn admitted.
“And it’s wonderful,” Emyr said. The corners of his mouth were relaxing slowly, and his eyes were crinkled at the corners. “I listened to you talk about it, but I never imagined… It’s beautiful, Heilyn.”
“Beautiful?” Heilyn echoed, and the shock of finishing began to give way to triumph, great swooping waves of it.
Emyr’s lips were curving up now, an unexpected dimple suddenly appearing in his cheek. “It’s going to make people happy.” He grabbed Heilyn’s hand, pulling him along the wall. “Look at Llinos in the market there— she’s here every winter with her arthritis, and she’ll love it. And there’s Dilys, and you put her cats in with her! Heilyn!”
But Heilyn couldn’t move. His breath was all caught in his throat and he couldn’t stop staring, not at the art, but at Emyr.
“You’re staring at me. Did I say something wrong?”
“You’re smiling,” Heilyn choked out.
It was the best smile he’d ever seen. Emyr’s face was transformed, no longer melancholy but round-cheeked and flushed, with that dimple dipping in beside his mouth and his eyes brighter than any shade of blue that Heilyn could dream of painting.
“Am I?” Emyr didn’t stop, and his hand tightened around Heilyn’s, tugging him closer. “Really? It must be your fault.”
Then his arm was around Heilyn’s waist, and his hand was in Heilyn’s hair, tipping his head up, and his mouth was on Heilyn’s, kissing him warmly. Heilyn could feel the smile under his lips, and then Emyr’s tongue was teasing its way into his mouth, hot and demanding.
“Emyr, would you like a scone while you’re wait- oh!”
Heilyn heard Arianell dissolve into giggles and rush away, and it was just enough to make him pull back, though his lips felt cold at once. “We probably shouldn’t do this here.”
He got a kiss nuzzled against his neck, and Emyr chuckled softly and murmured, “Home?”
Heilyn almost fell over twice on the way across the common, just because he couldn’t stop staring at Emyr’s face. The third time he tripped, Emyr caught him, his arm warm and steady around Heilyn’s waist, and his hand firm on his hip. “Careful.” Then his smile sharpened slightly, going hungry at the edges, and he leaned down to kiss Heilyn again. This time it had intent: a slow, thoughtful exploration of Heilyn’s mouth that left his head swimming and his knees weak.
He let Emyr tug him over the common after that, his mind still caught up with the echoes of it. He could still feel the print of Emyr’s mouth against his, and he wet his lips, hoping to catch a taste of Emyr. He was beginning to wonder how much he had underestimated the man. He had forgotten, in all his plots for seduction, that Emyr had not just had a serious lover before, but had been handfasted, which was the next thing to marriage. He must have had far more sex in his life than Heilyn, with his collection of one-offs, had even contemplated. There was, in fact, a pretty good chance that Emyr was an expert.
He was so caught up in the anticipation and anxiety that provoked that he nearly fell into the next stream they had to cross.
“There’s a plank,” Emyr said, and that quiet amusement which always flavored his voice was warm and obvious now. “It would be wise to use it.”
“Somebody distracted me,” Heilyn complained, tightening his grip on Emyr’s hand. “Where are we?”
“There’s a short cut? Why have I been walking home through the village every day, then?”
Emyr’s smile dimmed a little. “I thought you liked walking with me.”
“Oh,” Heilyn said and pulled Emyr close enough to kiss his hand. “I do, yes. Don’t mind me. I’m just wittering. Nothing to complain about really.”
Emyr’s smile brightened and he pulled Heilyn through a gap in the hedge and out onto the back road, between Pumpkin’s field and the house. The wind was tumbling off the sea in quick gusts and the air was full of shining starflower petals. First to flower, last to fall, always, and it meant that winter was almost here.
In the derwen copse, Emyr stopped again. The petals covered the ground like snow here, and fell through the air with a soft sigh like rain, catching in his hair and the folds of his cape. Heilyn’s fingers itched for a paintbrush: watercolor and the finest lines of silver to capture the subtle wonder of Emyr smiling amongst the falling flowers.
Emyr reached for him, lacing his fingers through Heilyn’s hair and dislodging more petals. “For luck, this time.” This kiss was almost reverent, his hands cradling Heilyn’s head as he touched his lips so very lightly to Heilyn’s cheek, his jaw, and his mouth, where he lingered tenderly. Heilyn closed his eyes, letting the imagined picture slide away, and felt the kiss instead, letting it shiver through him until his toes curled.
“Come into the house with me,” Emyr murmured warmly against his mouth. “Please.”
Heilyn wasn’t going to wait for a second invitation. Seizing Emyr’s hand, he took the lead this time, tugging him through the woods and across the garden. The moment the kitchen door swung shut behind them, closing out the cold, Emyr was pressed against him again. He slipped his hands under Heilyn’s jacket, tugging at the buttons on his shirt, and Heilyn yelped and squirmed.
“Sorry.” Emyr pulled his hands back, and Heilyn reacted with thinking, pressing his own hands over them.
“I didn’t say stop.” It came out breathy and rough, and Emyr’s eyes widened. Then he kissed Heilyn again, his hands busy, and within moments Heilyn’s jacket was gone, and then his shirt and vest, and it was his back that was pressing against the polished wood of the door. He yelped at the cold again, lunging forward to wrap himself around Emyr’s warm body, and Emyr chuckled into his ear, and ran a gentle hand down his spine.
“Take me to bed,” Heilyn demanded. He’d wanted it to sound like a mock order, but instead it came out needy and desperate. He had been longing for Emyr’s touch so long that every part of him was alive to it, the hairs raised on his arms and his pulse beating hot and hard.
“You know the way.” Emyr pressed a soft kiss to his shoulder and then another to the side of his neck before he stepped back, his hand lingering on Heilyn’s hip. “Go on, before I convince myself that the table is warm enough.”
“Oh,” Heilyn said happily, “we can do that later.” Then, he made for the stairs. He’d gone three steps before Emyr’s hands were curving across his ass, and he was stopped for another lingering kiss.
Emyr’s shirt fell in the kitchen doorway, and Heilyn’s belt hit the floor halfway down the hall. His trousers went sliding between the banisters halfway up the stairs, and he had to cling to the rail and gulp when Emyr kissed his way down his chest, teasing his nipples to peaks with slow licks and nibbles and then sliding to his knees on the stairs. He rubbed his cheek against the soft cloth of Heilyn’s braies, and Heilyn’s cock leapt at the touch. He was so hard, his balls tight and his breath coming faster and faster with every press of Emyr’s hands (hands which were inside his braies now, kneading his ass and sliding tentatively down his crack).
“Heilyn,” Emyr sighed, kissing him softly through his braies.
“Uh-uh.” He was trembling, shaking in anticipation from his lips to his toes. He’d never trembled for a man before.
“If you want to do this in a bed…”
“..run,” Emyr finished softly, sliding apart the knot that closed Heilyn’s braies.
He ran, the last of his clothes falling off him as he moved. By the time he made it across the threshold of Emyr’s room, he was naked, and then Emyr’s arm was closing around his waist, and he was being tossed down onto Emyr’s crumpled sheets. Emyr’s mouth descended on his, and Emyr’s body pressed him down, and Heilyn simply wound his arms around Emyr’s neck and groaned into his mouth. He needed this, needed so much to be touched – touched by Emyr, beautiful, sad Emyr with his lonely eyes and, oh, wicked hands. He rocked his hips up hard, rubbing his cock against Emyr’s lean thigh in relief that he could finally let the pleasure build and build towards a hot—
“Oh, no,” Emyr gasped, and rolled off him. “Not so fast.”
Heilyn let out a wordless protest and lunged after him, but Emyr pressed him back against the pillows, his hands firm on Heilyn’s shoulders.
Emyr kissed him, slow and hungry, his hand stroking down Heilyn’s body, tweaking his nipples and caressing his cock. The kiss made Heilyn forget what he had been complaining about, and he just sank back against the pillows, rocking up into Emyr’s hand.
“That’s better,” Emyr murmured and moved, pulling his hand away. Heilyn let out a grunt of protest, and then opened his eyes as Emyr kissed down his body again. Emyr had moved round, and his hips were close enough to Heilyn’s face that he could see Emyr’s cock, straining out hard. It was as long and lean as Emyr himself, pink-tipped and damp, and Heilyn had to touch, wrapping his fingers around that beautiful hard heat with a happy sigh.
Emyr’s mouth shook against his thigh, his tongue suddenly clumsy. “Oh. Please, Heilyn!”
“Move your leg,” Heilyn managed, tugging at Emyr’s thigh. “Over me. Yes, there.” He pulled Emyr’s hips down, and opened his mouth to suck in the tip of Emyr’s cock.
“H-heilyn!” It was a real whimper, and Heilyn smiled triumphantly around his lovely mouthful and sucked him in further. He loved doing this. It was so good to feel a man shake and fall apart under his mouth, and when that man was Emyr, his lovely Emyr, it was better still. He let his eyes fall closed, savoring the weight on his tongue and the hint of salt.
He wasn’t ready to feel wet heat wrapped around his own cock, and cried out around Emyr, his hips jerking. Suddenly, he couldn’t think properly. He could only rock into Emyr’s mouth and suck hard around his lovely stiff mouthful. There was heat gathering under his skin, and light blossoming under his eyelids, and all he could do was gasp roughly around Emyr, and sob a little when Emyr’s tongue slid up his shaft.
When Emyr pulled out of his mouth, the loss almost hurt, and when Emyr gave his cock a last sly kiss and pulled off there as well, he shouted in protest.
“Soon,” Emyr gasped, and his fingers were between Heilyn’s legs now, teasing slickly at his hole. “May I?”
Heilyn spread his legs so fast he almost strained something. He couldn’t manage words, but he could put a note of begging into his whimper, and push himself down onto Emyr’s fingers.
“Look at you,” Emyr breathed, and his fingers were busy now, first one and then another slipping in to stretch Heilyn open. It felt so good, and his cock throbbed in response. He was going to come, before Emyr had even gotten inside him, and he wanted to, but he wanted this to last forever too, and the conflicting needs made him writhe his hips and groan.
“Not yet, lover,” Emyr said, and clamped his fingers around the base of Heilyn’s cock. “Hold it back for me, yes?”
“Yes!” Heilyn managed, and tried to think of anything other than this man and this bed: the smell of congealed paint; the evil glint in Pumpkin’s eye; the rush and rage of the storm tearing in (and, oh, that one didn’t help at all, because his body felt just as torn and helpless now, a different type of storm sweeping over him, threatening him with destruction and glory).
Then Emyr’s fingers were sliding out, and there was the warm nudge of his cock pressing in, slow and gentle even as Heilyn opened his eyes to see Emyr’s hands fisting the sheets beside his head. He turned enough to kiss Emyr’s wrist, lifting his hips to meet that first thrust. It felt as if the world was being scraped clean, like an old canvas, and would be transformed into something a thousand times more bold and bright and beautiful. Everything was so sharp and clear right now, with the storm suddenly blossoming into sunlight inside him, and he could see the sweat on Emyr’s brow, the graze on his own knee, pushed up this high, and the flush over Emyr’s cheekbones, all with the same lucid wonder.
Then Emyr moved within him, and everything shattered into light and beauty. His eyes closed, and he managed to raise one hand to Emyr’s sweat-slicked back, while the other slid down to cup his own cock, not even touching himself, just the last press he needed to move against. Emyr rocked into him, a pillar of heat that filled Heilyn, overwhelming his vision with images of clay, dark as Emyr’s hair, and molten glass, as bright and clear as Emyr’s eyes.
Then Emyr shifted slightly, and now he was pounding straight into Heilyn’s sweet spot, and all he could see was color, swirling like the sea, as his body gathered and clenched, his cock spurting as he came and came, wailing Emyr’s name.
He knew that Emyr was still moving in him, but all he could do was cling and sigh until Emyr tensed and shuddered against him. They sank down against each other, untangling their legs until Emyr’s face was buried against Heilyn’s shoulder and their knees were brushing together. After a moment, Emyr’s arms went around Heilyn’s waist, so tightly it almost hurt, and Heilyn hugged him in return, unwilling to let him go.
For a while, they just lay together, the sweat cooling on their skin. Heilyn could only tell that Emyr was even awake by the way he was slowly stroking Heilyn’s back.
Then, just as Heilyn was starting to get cold and remember that it was almost winter, Emyr stirred a little and said, his voice bewildered, “I think I left your lunch in the shrine.”
For some reason that struck Heilyn as being hilarious, and he muffled his laughter against Emyr’s hair, until Emyr wriggled up enough to say indignantly, “Are you laughing at me?”
“You laugh at me all the time,” Heilyn pointed out and kissed that pouting mouth. “You’re amazing, in case you didn’t know.”
He felt Emyr’s smile blossom under his lips again before he pulled back to say, “You too. Heilyn…” He stopped there, looking frustrated. “I can’t think of anything good enough to say.”
“Say it with kisses, then.” Heilyn grabbed the blankets and pulled them up around their shoulders, before he cuddled in and lifted his face. “Go on.”
“Ridiculous,” Emyr said fondly and kissed him lightly, which led to more touches and many more kisses, and the sky was dimming before the growling of Heilyn’s stomach finally forced them out of bed.
He got to the inn in time to do the breakfast washing up the next morning, and sang over the dishes despite all Elin’s teasing. He couldn’t ever remember being quite so happy.
He spent the afternoon back at the shrine, helping varnish over the paintings, and refused to take any further payment for it. Arianell and the other girls laughed at him even more than Elin did, but it was kind laughter, and they all seemed almost as pleased as he was to see Emyr happy. He went home through the village that night, and Emyr smiled at him as he came in the office door and so Heilyn stole kisses from him all the way down the coast road.
After that, once the work at the shrine was finally finished, he went back to collecting sketches of the island. There was a quiet subdued elegance to the morning mists and brown lines of the winter fields. The short days limited what he could see, but he drew from memory as he sat at Emyr’s table each evening, and went to bed early.
There was a little part of him, though, that felt restless. Every time he saw a ship coming in, he paused to watch the sails bellying before the winter wind, and that restless part of him made him wonder what was on the next island. It frightened him to think how hard it would be to leave now. It was going to break his heart to kiss Emyr goodbye.
Or, of course, he could stay.
That was almost more frightening. He had left his home and family without a care in the world. Why should a man he had only known for a few months make him want to curl his toes into the dirt? There were islands yet unseen, and a whole world beyond. There was nothing special about Sirig either: it wasn’t the loveliest island he had ever seen, nor was there much work for a artist here, though the skyscape was unmatched, of course, and he liked the people, friendly and easygoing as they were.
Emyr was here.
It nagged at him, except when he was curled into Emyr’s arms, and the worry lifted away when Emyr smiled at him with that little hint of wonder.
He could do portraits, though they weren’t as fun as painting the land and the sky full of islands. Sirig was on major trade routes, too, so there were plenty of visitors, merchants and pilgrims. He could hire a little display space near the dock and sell his pictures there.
Or he could fly on, to Gwydr and Enfys, and paint new places and new faces.
He wouldn’t decide until spring, he concluded. He could wait that long to choose. He had no desire to sail through a winter storm, and spring was a better season for new journeys. Until then, he would stay here, and be Emyr’s.
He had forgotten, in all his scheming, that other people gossiped, particularly on small islands. It was Elin who pushed the point, in the end. She came and found him where he was perched on the quayside, huddled up in his warmest clothes and trying to capture the way the wind pulled at the market awnings with smudgy charcoal and scrap paper. Coming up behind him, she dropped a small bag of coin into his lap. “Your wages, lad.”
“I thought I was working for a bed.”
“Aye, but you’ve not slept in my attic for three weeks. We’re honest folk here, and you get paid for the work you do.”
“Thank you,” Heilyn said, blushing a little. He hadn’t meant to run out on her, but Emyr’s bed was so much more warm and tempting than the drafty attic, even when Emyr wasn’t in it.
“I’ve been thinking,” Elin continued. “If you’re thinking of staying permanently, there’s a proper job going. Not much more than you do now, mind, but it would pay regularly, and it’s not like you need to worry about paying rent, is it?”
“Stay?” Heilyn said, panicking. He hadn’t thought he’d have to make the decision this fast, and Elin wasn’t the first person he needed to discuss it with, either. No, he needed to talk to Emyr first. He needed to tell Emyr that he loved…
“Heilyn? You staying or not?”
He decided to laugh it off. “Who says I’m staying? The world’s still waiting for me, didn’t you hear?”
Elin pursed her lips at him disapprovingly, and behind them there was a sudden clatter and crash. Heilyn spun round to see Emyr standing there, one of Dilys’ good cake plates shattered at his feet and the cakes it had held rolling across the cobbles.
He wasn’t smiling.
“Emyr!” Oh, shit, shit, shit!
Before he could say anything else, Emyr turned, almost running across the square. Heilyn swore and shoved his sketches into Elin’s arms before he took after him.
He wasn’t fast enough, and the office door slammed before he got to it. He heard the bolts slam across, and swore again, banging his fists against the weathered wood. “Emyr! Emyr, come out! I didn’t mean it!”
But Emyr didn’t emerge, and eventually Elin and one of her boys pulled him away from the door.
“You’ll hurt your hands,” Elin said. “Come away now. You just scared him, you daft brat. He’ll come round.” She marched him back into her kitchen, shaking her head a little. “And we let you play with the poor boy’s heart.”
“I wasn’t playing,” Heilyn said. The world had suddenly gone wrong around him, as if he hadn’t been concentrating on keeping his hand steady, and he needed to put it right. “I thought I was, but I never… I need to talk to him. Let me go!”
Elin sighed. “Calm down, boy. You talk now, and you’ll just panic each other more. Go home tonight and apologize.” She smiled, more kindly than he’d expected. “Apologize for anything you can think of, not just that piece of foolishness, and you’ll be fine.”
But it wasn’t fine. When he got to the house, the back door was locked, and though he could see the light in the bedroom, Emyr didn’t come out for all his knocking and shouting. Heavy-hearted, Heilyn went back to the inn.
It took three days before he even managed to get into the trade office, and that was only by hiding behind two much larger sailors and a very big barrel of oil. He lingered after they left, clearing his throat nervously.
Emyr was sitting behind the desk, his back straight and his face stern again. His eyes had gone back to cool sadness. “Heilyn, you have no business with me. These are my work hours.”
“I’m not leaving,” Heilyn said, the words tumbling out. “I want to stay.”
“That’s good,” Emyr said, turning away to file the papers he had just signed. “I know Elin needs another pair of hands at the inn, and Father Cian speaks highly of your work.”
“I’m staying for you.”
Emyr didn’t look up from his desk. In the dim light of the office, it was hard to see much, but Heilyn thought his knuckles were whitening as his fists curled up against the wood. “Don’t.”
“Emyr.” Heilyn took a step towards him.
Now Emyr looked up, and his eyes were fierce and miserable. “I said don’t. I won’t do this again, Heilyn. I won’t have a lover who’s always looking at the sky and dreaming of the next ship.”
“Who says I do that? I’m not him.”
“I didn’t want to see it,” Emyr said wearily, “but you were looking. You’ll get bored, eventually. What is there here for you?”
Emyr shrugged a little. “That won’t be enough. You need more.”
“I need you.”
“You’re young. You’ve never had a serious lover before, and you feel sorry for me. That’s all it is, Heilyn.”
“No, it’s not!” Heilyn did rush forward then, but Emyr moved before he could get close, stepping through the door to the inner office and letting it slam behind him. The lock clicked, and Heilyn was left standing alone again.
“But I love you,” he said to the empty room, his voice wavering.
He kept trying, of course, but Emyr had somehow managed to disappear inside his own life. He seemed to be simply refusing to see Heilyn, even when they were at arm’s length, and no amount of begging and pleading got past his solemn demeanor. Every night, lying sleepless and shivering, Heilyn felt a little more of his hope slipping away. He wanted to be back in Emyr’s bed, in the warm circle of his arms, but it was starting to seem like an impossible dream. Emyr was so determined to hide from him. Instead, he wrapped the blankets tightly around himself, stealing the spare ones off the other beds when they were empty, and imagined Emyr’s face, lit by a quiet smile. He lost himself in the memory of evenings sitting with Emyr, talking quietly about the business of their days, of squeezing under the oilskin together to brave a rainy walk home, of the growing clutter in Emyr’s kitchen, which Heilyn has stealthily filled with pots of herbs and piles of sketches.
It hurt, in a way he had never understood before. He had always been a little scornful of those who claimed to be lovesick, but his heart simply hurt, a low ache behind his ribs which never went away. He couldn’t paint, because the colors had lost their brightness. He just wanted Emyr.
But Emyr wasn’t his, and never would be, it seemed, and eventually he put hope away, tidying it up as carefully as he had once cleaned his brushes at the end of the day. Time, sympathetic people kept telling him, would heal all. So he would wait, and maybe one day he would feel like making something beautiful again, and be able to sleep without waking up with burning eyes.
Then, just before midwinter, on a day when he had wandered out to the quay to look down at the sea and wonder why he had ever wanted to paint something so gray and dismal, the mail ship Aderyn came skimming down from the sky, her storm sails bright white against the dim winter clouds. Heilyn watched her dock with his hands in his pockets, not really caring but needing something to busy his eye.
As the captain strode past, towards Emyr’s office, he paused for a moment. “You’re not local, boy. Looking to rope on?”
Heilyn couldn’t think of anything worse than tying on to the side of a small ship on a day like this, where the sky was heavy with rain. All the same, there was nothing left for him here, and impulsively, he said, “Yes. I’ve got some paintings and a bag, but no more baggage. What’s your fee?”
“Two for you, and three for your baggage. Discount if you’re the first to shout a storm sighting.”
“Done.” Heilyn offered his hand, and didn’t even bother to wince when the captain squeezed it hard enough to hurt.
“We’re only unloading letters here. Be on board by the hour mark, or we’ll go without you.”
Heilyn nodded and ran for the inn. He gabbled an explanation at Elin, and dashed up the stairs to grab his bag. Elin chased after him, loud and furious, but he didn’t care any more. He was going, and it was almost a relief. Perhaps he could outfly unhappiness. Perhaps he could just leave his heart down here on a low island and there would be nothing left to hurt him when they reached the high sky.
He beat the captain back to the ship, Elin still on his heels, and tossed his bags on board before he turned to face her. “What’s the point in me staying? He hates me.”
“Idiots, the pair of you!” she snapped and reached out to grab one of Father Cian’s girls as she dashed past. “You, go and rouse out Emyr!”
“Don’t!” Heilyn snapped. “I’m going. That’s what he wants. I don’t want to see him glo-gloating.” His voice was catching, despite his best intentions, and he turned into the wind, blinking hard. It was bitterly cold, and he didn’t have gloves, but he’d be tied too tightly to slip. He’d insist.
The last starflower petals whipped past him in the wind, scattered from the almost bare branches of the tree in the center of the square. Looking up, he could see snow on the high islands above them, and he shivered.
The captain was striding back towards them. “Ready, boy?”
“More than,” Heilyn said and turned to take a last look at the village. It looked like it had in his picture, if somewhat drabber and colder. There were familiar faces by every door, many turning towards him and pointing. Father Cian was there, looking troubled, and Arianell and her toddler daughters. Old Math was shaking his stick at Heilyn, and Dilys was in the doorway of the shop, her hands twisted in her apron. It was all so very dear to him, and he would miss them all so very much, but it was time to go now. Enough was enough.
Raising his hand, he swallowed hard and waved to them all.
Then he saw Emyr, standing outside the office with his hand on the doorframe. Heart aching, Heilyn allowed himself a last look. Emyr was still the most beautiful man he’d ever seen, even when he looked as pale and sick as he did today. The color had gone from his cheeks, but Heilyn could remember how they flushed in passion. He would always remember the blue of Emyr’s eyes too, even though Emyr had covered them with his hand now, his head bowing down.
He was crying, Heilyn realized with a sudden swift shock. Emyr was crying. For him? No. Emyr wouldn’t embarrass himself in public for him.
“We’ll tie you on the port side, given the wind,” the captain said. “Look lively.”
Emyr’s hand still hadn’t left the doorframe, and Heilyn realized that he wasn’t just touching it. It was holding him up. Was he ill? Shouldn’t someone go to him?
“Before the wind turns, boy.”
Emyr looked up, and suddenly, even from the other side of the square, Heilyn could see it. Emyr wasn’t ill. He was terrified.
Then he remembered that the last time Emyr had watched a lover rope on to a ship in winter, that lover had died.
He was running before he thought about it, hurtling across the square. The crowd seemed to part around him, probably because half the village had appeared to watch this, and he only had to dodge around stalls and carts and the fountain. Dashing under the derwen tree, he knocked the last flower off the lowest branch and caught it as it floated by. Suddenly, he had a plan, one so ridiculous and impulsive and perfect that it couldn’t fail. With the flower cupped between his palms, trying to float away, he suddenly felt blessed.
Skidding to a halt, he yelled, “Emyr! You wanted to know exactly when I’m going to leave!”
“Right now, clearly,” Emyr said, his voice tired and crumpled.
“I’m not going to leave this island,” Heilyn promised, glad there were witnesses, “until I’ve painted a perfect picture of your smile.”
Emyr frowned faintly, but the color was coming back to his cheeks. “I don’t smile much.”
“In that case,” Heilyn said, walking forward at a gentle pace, “it will take me years.”
Emyr swallowed. “Y-years?”
“And then? On the day you paint that picture— will that be the day you leave?”
“No. Because by then, we will have grown old and happy together. Your face will have changed. Your smile will be different, and so I’ll have to start all over again.”
“Why, then,” Emyr said, letting go of the doorframe and stepping forward hesitantly, “you could be here forever.”
“Forever and ever,” Heilyn agreed, letting the dream of other islands float away on the wind. He had more important things to do with his life.
Emyr didn’t look convinced. “You’ll change your mind.”
“Never.” And here was the moment, and it wasn’t terrifying at all. There was no need to fly any further. Aware that everyone was watching, Heilyn knelt and proffered his cupped hands to Emyr. This was the oldest and simplest way to propose, with the gift of a starflower, and he saw the moment when Emyr realized what was happening, the shock and wonder in his eyes as Heilyn opened his hand and the starflower floated up.
It was a late flower, small and fragile, but it rose with steady determination, its petals spreading as the wind pushed under it. Heilyn watched it go with his heart tight in his chest. If Emyr took it, it meant yes, but if he let it go…
“Trust me,” he begged, as the flower twirled in the air, rising up towards Emyr’s face.
And then, his hand visibly shaking, Emyr caught it. For a moment, he looked as stunned as Heilyn felt, but then, very slowly, Emyr smiled.
Heilyn stood up, his heart pounding, and wasn’t ready when Emyr suddenly reached out and pulled him close. He fell right into Emyr’s arms, dimly aware that people were cheering. Shaking, he blurted out, “I love you.”
“I should hope so,” Emyr murmured into his ear, his voice full of laughter again, “after that display.”
“I’m never ever going to leave you.”
“I know,” Emyr said, and his voice shook a little. “Heilyn.”
“Because you love me just as much, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Emyr said and turned his head to kiss Heilyn, still smiling, as he’d never smiled before.
After a while he pulled back, and said, sounding a little dazed, “I think the Aderyn just sailed away with all your belongings.”
“I don’t care,” Heilyn said honestly, and Emyr kissed him again, his mouth clumsy where it was curving up into a bright and perfect smile.