Something like a tidal wave of relief washed over General Titus Melamed, retired Commander of the Navarian armies, as he crested the rolling hills that surrounded his land. His home. It had been a grueling journey across the plains that separated Navah from the north of Midvar. A month of dingy inns and sleepless nights. A month of bread too dry and wine too sour. A month of nothing on his mind but starting over.
His horse crested the last hill that separated the wilderness from his land—the land he had inherited at the too-young age of eighteen. His parents had died of the sickness that had spread too quickly through the land, leaving him with nothing but responsibilities. No wonder he had sold his soul to King Derrick. To fight. To win. He had nothing else and wanted nothing else.
The moment his foot hit the earth beneath him upon dismounting his trusted steed, he fell to his knees, breathing deeply, releasing a solemn tear.
He picked up a fistful of dirt, the grit and pebbles grinding against his hand as he let it escape, floating on the breeze like a phantom. The familiar air smelled of summer and sun, cypress and mountain cedar, persimmon and pomegranate. The Midvarish skies shone with lazy vanilla light, the dusk slowly showing her splendor, dancing in a riot of pinks and coppers like a fire waiting to consume the day with one glorious final stand.
The manor was just as he remembered. Moderately-sized. Nothing too ostentatious, but certainly no shack or cottage. “Just right,” Penelope had always called it. The gray stones were covered in moss and lichens, with vines climbing up the walls like spindly green arms reaching for the realm of the gods.
Inviting, that’s what it was. Like a long-lost friend.
She must have caught sight of him before he saw her, for after his eyes had finished surveying the house, the land, he spotted his wife, standing in the front door, looking directly at him. He was too far away to read her expression, but she stood stock-still—a monument to bygone times.
No matter how glad he was to be back, he would never know if she shared in his gladness until he faced her. Would she forgive all those years of neglect? Of pushing her aside for the king’s duties? Would she ever trust him?
Perhaps the most worrisome question of all—would all of his sins come back to haunt him? How would the gods make him pay for his treachery?
The questions weighed heavier and heavier with each step he took to the house, to her, to his future. The future that he had clung to like a rock in storm. The future that had gotten him through the last few months—a light in the darkness. The future that suddenly seemed full of shadows and doubt.
She, too, began to walk to him. Slowly, tentatively. Every step closer tore at him in a way he hadn’t expected.
Penelope. Wife or enemy?
Yes, she had stayed. But why? Out of hope? Or spite?
It might have been an eternity before they reached each other. An eternity of steps crunching across the expanse of summer grasses between them. Fitting, he thought, that his final steps toward her should feel like dragging an anvil behind him, the weight of nearly twenty years of regret and stupidity a vice that would surely determine his fate.
He froze, taking her in. Her long auburn hair pulled into an intricate chignon at the nape of her neck. Her gown falling around her like a field of poppies. There was a little more silver at her temples than he had remembered. Then again, there was a lot more silver in his hair these days.
Beautiful, that’s what she was. Stunning. A shooting star streaking a dusky summer sky.
“You’re really here,” she said so quietly he almost missed it.
Her smile was tentative but true. And it was hope—hope that coursed through his veins like a summer wildfire. So he reached for her hand. “I missed you.”
She didn’t quite return the eagerness of his grip, her hand hardly clasping his. But he held on anyway.
“You look tired,” she said.
He touched the beard that had grown on his face since leaving Navah and looked down to his dirty clothes and mud-caked boots. He chuckled. “I think you’re being generous.”
She breathed a soft laugh, looking down to their clasped hands. When she finally met his eyes again, there was silver lining hers. So Titus threw caution to the wind and took his wife in his arms, holding her close. To his surprise, she returned the embrace, her breath warm on his neck.
“I missed you, too,” she whispered.
He breathed deeply, relaxing at the feel of her in his arms, taking in her sweet scent, the way her stray auburn tendrils tickled his neck in the breeze. “It’s been too long.”