Gilly is dying. He knows this, and in an act of desperation and grief, calls upon all his strength and the energies of the earth to imbue the twelve stones he’d gathered, shot through with crystals, with the memories of the life he’d shared with Finian, his husband and lover.
With this he hopes to leave Finian, at the very least, with the joy of their time together. But he wishes for more. As a witch of singular power, he risks all he is in this final gamble. To move forward with Finian, or die alone, as he always had been.
“Go slowly, Braedyn, or you’ll frighten him,” Gilly cautioned.
“I will, Papa,” Braedyn promised in his solemn way.
“Let me help you,” Finian offered. He reached down, and Braedyn slipped his small hand in his, leaning against him as they walked toward the young fawn. Watching them, Gilly’s heart melted with tenderness for these two people he loved most in all the world. It was hard to believe Braedyn had been with them almost five years. It seemed like yesterday he’d walked these same paths with Cyntia, gathering mushrooms and planning their fall gardens.
“I know you’re proud of him,” he murmured to her memory, feeling her loving spirit dancing in the cool forest air. Sometimes Gilly’s mother and father walked with him in times of trouble; but Cyntia was never far from Braedyn. Gilly remained unsure if the boy could sense her, but Braedyn smiled often, a cheerful if serious child, perhaps aware of her love and protection. The gods knew he had Gilly’s heart, always.
Finian brought Braedyn to a stop a few paces from the fawn and they knelt, Finian’s arm across the child’s shoulders. Gilly held his breath. Finian had been teaching the child patience, something he claimed he lacked as much as Braedyn. After a long moment Braedyn squirmed, but when the fawn turned its head toward him, he froze. Gilly sensed his excitement, but this time Braedyn kept his place until the fawn nibbled at the grass then moved further into the forest, lost from sight in the fern and underbrush.
They rose, and Braedyn swiveled to him, his young face wreathed in smiles. “Did you see, Papa! He liked me! I didn’t scare him.”
“You did very well.”
Braedyn ran to him and Gilly scooped him up in his arms, swinging him around while the boy whooped his joy. Gilly’s chest swelled with love until he could barely breathe.
“Thank you for this precious gift,” he murmured to Cyntia while he held Braedyn too tightly.
“Papa!” Braedyn laughed and pushed against him. Gilly let him down with a sheepish smile to Finian. Finian came up and slipped an arm around his waist, making Gilly feel safe and secure; loved, as Finian always did. After so many years alone, he couldn’t believe he’d been blessed with this wonderful man and child. How did he deserve ...
Finian held him closer, attuned to his moods, and kissed his cheek, filling Gilly once again with confidence. Glancing at Braedyn, absorbed in an interesting leaf, he turned his head and kissed Finian on the mouth, enjoying the velvet slide of his lips and the sweet tongue meeting his. Feeling brave, Gilly pulled back slightly.
“Do you have any lessons for me today, Finian?” he asked archly, hoping he didn’t sound as foolish as he suddenly felt. A grin leaped on Finian’s face.
“As a matter of fact --"
They jumped apart at Braedyn’s sudden squeal, and Gilly’s heart raced as his gaze searched for the danger.
“What are these, Papa? Dada?”
Finian chuckled under his breath and exchanged a relieved look with him. They both hunched down and observed the two shiny beetles Braedyn had uncovered.
“These are stag beetles. Note those pincers?” Gilly used a thin stick as a pointer, not touching the agitated creatures. Braedyn reached for them and Gilly touched his arm to stop him. “Leave them be, little man. We are here to protect nature, not disturb the balance.”
Finian gave him a dry look over Braedyn’s head, his brows lifting. Finian was far less careful. If Gilly hadn’t been there, he probably would have sat in the moss with Braedyn and played with the insects, allowing them to go on their way only after Braedyn had tired of the game.
Gilly sighed, glancing away to look unseeing into the trees. How tiresome he must be to these two adventurous souls. He suddenly felt as old as the forest; the insular and querulous witch the town thought him. A cave by himself in the hills seemed fitting --
“No. I won’t let you go.” Finian pulled him close to his side. “Whatever is going on in that wise but misguided head of yours, stop it. No, don’t say it,” Finian warned when Gilly opened his mouth to protest. “Your expressive face gives you away, every time. You belong to us as surely as the sun rises.”
Braedyn stood and flung his arms around Gilly, burying his face against his side. “I love you, Papa.” He was silent a moment, then looked up at Gilly, his blue eyes dancing with excitement. “Are you going somewhere? Can I go with you?”
Finian laughed, and the joy in his voice brought tears stinging to Gilly’s eyes. “Of course you can, Braedyn! We’ll travel to the Silver Valley on a quest for the best mushrooms. Come,” he held out his hand and Braedyn took it. “Let’s go pack.”
Finian kissed Gilly’s cheek then headed down the trail toward home, Braedyn skipping at his side. They usually made the journey later in the season, camping several days in the lovely valley filled with wildflowers along the creek, and mushrooms growing under the towering trees. But if his family wanted to go now ...
Gilly drew a shaky breath and walked after his men, giving thanks to the universe for his great good fortune ...