Brance moved toward the door Ineli was tucked behind, and she pulled it open to meet him. She didn’t take her eyes off Aithan until Brance was just beside her, then she looked up as her older brother touched her shoulder.
“Go on,” he said. He nodded back toward the other man. “Decide if you can have him wandering around behind you for a hundred days at a time. If you don’t like him, I’ll just tell Father directly that I think he’s a good man, and you’ll never have to see him again.” Brance winked. Nudging her forward, he traded places with her in the doorway and swung the door shut between them.
Ineli looked blankly at the heavy wood in front of her nose. Then she turned to face Aithan. Behind her, Brance strode across the inner room, shut a second door, passed into his bedroom, and out of range of their voices.
Ineli adjusted the blanket settled across her arm, saw him catch the movement but not question it. He simply saw it, noted it, and quietly met her eyes again.
She folded her hands in front of her. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Twenty-eight, my lady,” he said.
“You don’t want to be sailing?” she asked. She sailed some, on her father’s ships, and she knew there were some at his age who nearly never left the water.
“I’ve been sailing,” Aithan told her. “I started when I was ten, but I came back to land a few years ago when my older brother asked me. He wanted someone to take care of the family holdings here.”
“And you’re going to give that up to follow me around?” Ineli asked.
Aithan bowed. “I could give up many things for the honor of guarding a Clan Lord’s daughter,” he told her. “But in this case, I don’t think I will need to. We don’t have much here.”
“Then couldn’t you tell your brother that you’re not much needed here and get back to sailing?” Ineli asked.
Aithan hesitated, and his eyebrows came together in a gentle question as he looked at her. He didn’t seem to be considering what she asked, but whole of her, as if slowly trying to lay the words in her mind to see where they had come from.
She shifted her shoulders. “I mean,” she began, and stopped herself, because that wasn’t the proper way to start her thought. “I know that Brance can talk people into things,” she said. “Sometimes I think people wanted to do it anyway, and he just gives them their permissions, but…” She watched his face carefully. The question was not lifting from his face and he stayed where he was, examining her. “You said no,” she finished. “Why did you say no?”
Aithan paused. “I would rather tell my lady why I said yes,” he said carefully.
Ineli thought about that. “You could tell me both,” she said.
He smiled, just a little at one corner of his mouth, and looked down. “You’ve been told the stories of the three strong men?”
“Yes.” Ineli nodded. “The hunter who brings down the bear. The soldier who brings down the fortress. The father who brings down the man. None stronger, none weaker.” The stories were always just a little different, and she liked to hear different people tell different sides to the tales, but that piece she’d had memorized almost as soon as she could speak.
“And you’ve found the difference between them?” Aithan asked. He was holding her eyes, a little more firmly now.
Ineli blinked. Then she shook her head slowly. “What is the difference?”
Aithan’s smile strengthened, and he nodded. “I didn’t see it when I was small either. My grandfather sat with me and explained it once though.” He took a breath, resettled himself for a recitation of his own.
“The Hunter is strong enough to walk alone, to fight alone,” Aithan told her. “He answers to none and leans on none.
“The Soldier is strong enough to walk beside a brother. He follows and he leads, takes orders and gives them. He can lean on another strong man and double his strength in the joining.
“The Father is strong enough for someone else to lean on him. He knows weakness, knows what it is, so he knows how to fill in its corners, how to lend strength, how to protect.”
Ineli nodded slowly. She didn’t say anything, feeling that he wasn’t yet finished, even though he had come to a slow stop.
“I have never felt weak,” Aithan said. He lifted his chin a little, pulled his spine up, as if he were admitting a fault that he wished he could scrub out.
“I have always been strong,” Aithan told her. “In arm, in mind and in heart. I have never met a swell I couldn’t overcome. It hasn’t made me a careful man, I think, or an easy one to lean on. So, I said no, because I was afraid to hand a ten-year-old girl into the hands of a man like me.”
Ineli nodded at that too, even slower, because it made sense. She’d seen Brance and Kadie run thoughtlessly through things that came easily to them, and turn back in surprise to find her so far behind when they hadn’t realized she’d need their extra hand. She had never thought of herself as weak, but to say she was weaker was an easy thing, and she knew she’d leaned on many.
“So why did you say yes?” she asked him.
Aithan smiled at her, slowly. “Because I have always been strong enough.”
She shook her head without understanding.
“Because you need someone’s strength. And I have enough,” he explained. “And I think–” He paused, almost stopped altogether, then caught sight of her like she hadn’t quite been standing there the whole time.
Ineli shifted on her heels, but she didn’t think she’d moved.
“And because I think I need you. Maybe just to take away this strange fear of myself,” Aithan finished, voice low.
She felt her lips twist, returning his smile, still not knowing exactly what he meant. But she thought, somehow, they might lean on each other – for a hundred days at a time. She liked the thought. And she liked him.
Brance came back into the room a moment later, tightening the lacing of his jacket over a clean white shirt. His breeches were pulled sharply over his boots, and his hair now curled wetly over his ears. He glanced at Ineli, then at Aithan over her head.
“Still want to go to town with me today?” Brance asked his little sister.
Ineli raised her eyebrows questioningly at Aithan.
He mimicked her expression, returning the question politely to her.
“Yes,” Ineli said.
Brance strode out the door and Ineli spun out after him. In the hall, Aithan fell into step with them, a pace and half behind her shoulder.