Chapter 3

Nessa only had one chance. She had to prove herself to the Horde. Here in the snowy forests of Tundarc, she would. The barbarian army had amassed in a forest they called the Bag of Bones. The tall trees and naked branches sprawled under the great shelf, a glacial ridge older than the recorded history of the kingdoms. If Nessa was to take back her farmlands from the Automatons, she would need an army as wild, fearless, and furious as her own unbridled revenge. Still, Nessa was on the Out, and she needed to show them her heart beat a berserk rhythm like the Horde surrounding her. Although Nessa had acquired some allies, she had collected double such in enemies. Flat bread, cured meat, and mead had been divided among the massive army. Nessa tucked the food in quickly, breathing deeply through her nose as she worked each chewy morsel over one after the next. Just as she was putting a laddle of mead to her lips, a boot suddenly planted squarely between her shoulder blades. Nessa’s mouth stubbed on the ladle of mead as she sprawled into the snow. She whipped a searing glare over her shoulder, and wiped the back of her hand over her now split lip as she soaked in Susa’s derisive laughter.

The barbarian girl licked her teeth. “You will never know Furthur’s eye, go home. If you even have a home left.”

Nessa swung to her feet, ladle in hand, and the metal belly slammed across Susa’s tattooed face. Susa staggered away, but did not dare cradle the abuse now shining red on her cheek. The barbarians shifted around them in anticipation for a fight, but it was now up to Susa to deliver. Nessa had never attacked Susa before, and the barbarian spearwoman did not know what to do except scowl and storm into the snow drift. Even if Nessa died in battle tomorrow, she at least could carry this victory into the Airther.

That night, before the Horde settled in for sleep, the Furthur took his place at the bonfire. He was not tall, but rather a compact barrel of muscle and scars wrapped in furs and leathers. His long beard was braided like the chief before him, and beads carved by past Murthurs. When he stood, all others paid heed to the Man of the Mountain. He announced the battle formations. The cavalry would leave after day break, and the artillery would leave before them, but the infantry would have to set out at night if they wanted to achieve the necessary flank for the next day’s battle. Nessa was in the infantry, and so was Susa. Nessa was confident: how was that for never knowing the Further’s eye?

Nathan had not heard his wife’s fingertips fly across that keyboard in some time. He always quietly marveled at how swiftly she navigated the board, her hands precisely poised and darting up from her secret weapon: The home keys, baby, as she said. Nothing pleased him more than to hear how her thumb slammed down on that space-bar, pouring her brains out one swift word at a time. She was on a roll, and while he had missed this, he also missed her. The year had been hard, the recovery in the family in the public’s eye was an ongoing journey, and had exhausted companionship from allthem. Nathan was torn between beckoning her with his world famous Spaghetti Night, or letting her work. He slowly crept back down to the kitchen, and flipped through a couple emails on his phone. The one that caught his attention would have to wait as Daniel howled from the kitchen: “Is it ready yet?”

The secret to Nathan’s famous Spaghetti Dinner was letting the kids add one ingredient. Laney said she had researched some of the hottest peppers on line, and naturally Daniel wanted to try one of the top three. He liked the idea of a ghost pepper, because it was spooky and getting close to Halloween anyway. Laney did a little more research, and a butternust squash alfredo recipe had entered the mix, something to keep the heat from going too crazy. So, between Laney’s research and Daniel’s susceptability to dares, spicy chicken alfredo was born. Nathan found the two crowded over the pot. Laney had propped up a stepping stool so Daniel could do all the stirring work on the pasta and sauce.

Laney had a pair of earplugs in, and was listening to a combination of music and audio from the recipe she had found on-line. “I dunno. It says to keep everything moving.”

“But my arm hurts!”

“You wanted spicy butternut pasta,” she retorted.

“No! I wanted spicy, you wanted butternut.”

“Oh, please,” Laney rolled her eyes. “Whatever, it’ll be good.”

“It’ll be gross.”

“You’re gross,” Laney grinned, and Daniel chuckled. Nathan finally stepped into the kitchen, having enjoyed that little moment on the rare threshold of sibling comradery.

“You guys ready to eat?” Nathan called, and Daniel victoriously hoisted a long wooden spoon from the pasta he had been stirring with sauce.

“To the table!”

Laney took out her earbuds. She expertly disguised a blend of dread and foretelling disappointment behind a bored droll. “Mom coming?”

Nathan smiled, and wrapped his arm around Laney’s shoulder. He plopped a big kiss on her head. “We’ll save mom a plate. It’s been a while since she’s written.”

Laney knew it was a good thing mom was writing, but she still wished Abigail would come downstairs…. any second now. A few seconds later, Laney was putting together a plate for mom, and nudging it into the oven to stay warm. She dropped into her seat with a sigh while the others dug into their meals.

“Woof!” Nathan called out, and reached quickly for a bottle of beer he had cracked open in the kitchen. “That is — man, oh man. Is that the — ?”

Daniel fanned his mouth. “Ghost pepper, yeah!”

“Jeez, kid,” Nathan chuckled breathlessly, and took two big draws from his beer. Just around the curve of his bottle, he saw Laney tapping at her spaghetti with her fork, but otherwise uncommitted to taking a bite. He frowned and set the bottle down. He stroked some condensation off the label, and surfaced with a smile. “So, you’ll never guess who just got in touch with me.”

Laney’s stopped picking at her food. “Who?”

Daniel was decidedly more excited, but that was generally Daniel’s default mode. “Yeah! Who?”

Nathan grinned. “Ashley from ABC.”

Daniel’s jaw dropped. “No way!”

“Yep. She said the network was interested in interviewing mom, especially since she’s working on the new book.”

Laney’s lips pursed. “Not because she just got out of the hospital for trying to kill herself or… something?”

Daniel’s exuberance noticeably diminished, and the energy fled the table. Nathan decided to rally the dinner back.

“Hey,” he said gently. “This could be a really great chance — “

“For what?” Laney shrilled, and dropped her fork on the plate. “For everyone to point and laugh at her? Or maybe if we get lucky they’ll just feel sorry for her. Oh, that’s great.”

“Laney — “

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. It could trigger her.”

Daniel whimpered. “Laney, stop… I don’t want to think about that.”

Laney’s lip curled. “Well, you should. Mom is not okay. Mom doesn’t need a bunch of cameras in here.”

“Honey, honey,” Nathan called to her calmly, but his heart was breaking because Laney’s eyes were swimming in tears, no matter how hard a face she put on. Her cheeks were red and tight, her lips trembled with anger, and her brows were pinched together in a determined furrow, but any second those tears would overflow. “I haven’t said yes.” Laney appeared to calm, but her guard was still up. “I haven’t said yes. That’s up to mom.”

The tears finally fell, and Laney wiped at them quickly. “I’m sorry… I just — I don’t know.”

Nathan scooted his chair around the corner of the table and settled beside her. He put his arms around her shoulders and held her tightly. “You just want to look out for your mom. It’s okay.”

Daniel pushed his chair out and trotted around the table. Despite how much they fought, Daniel loved his sister very much, and like dad, hated to see her falling apart. He put his arms around as much of his dad and his sister as he could. “Yeah, Laney, it’s okay. It’s up to mom.”

Abigail’s voice gently floated to them. “I want to.”

All three looked up. Abigail was standing at the base of the stairs. A long sweater was wrapped around a small body that did not want to invade the intimate family moment. This was not the first time Abigail had felt outside her own family. Nathan took a careful step to her.

“How long have you been there?”

“I heard from upstairs. I just got down.”

“Sorry, we — “

“It’s okay, you’re okay,” she smiled, and stepped to meet him. They searched each other’s faces for a moment. There were a few million things to say in the breath of those few seconds. In the end, Abigail managed to feebly ask if there was any left?

Daniel piped up. “Laney saved you some!” He ran over and threw his arms around his mom. Abigail chuckled and swung the wings of her long sweater over his head and shoulders.

“That right?”

Laney scooted from the table. “I’ll get it.”

“Please,” Nathan pulled out a chair for Abigail, and settled her in before taking his seat once more. Daniel hopped back onto his chair, and Laney brought in the plate she had saved. Everyone was at the table together for the first time in weeks, for the first time since Abigail was out of the hospital.