Hilda and Nikola

Floating on her back in the cool water, Hilda watched one fluffy cloud after another drift by and disappear over the tops of the tall pine trees. It wasn’t often that she had a moment to herself anymore and she wanted to soak it up as best as she could. She was half tempted to keep floating down the lazy river, but there were too many people depending on her back at the Pazachi refugee camp. The previous winter had been host to a bloody battle where all of the Pazachi men and most of the women had died fighting for their extremist beliefs, leaving only a handful of brainwashed women and traumatized children behind. Hilda’s heart had gone out to them at once, so she’d eagerly volunteered to help however she could. She didn’t know anything about rehabilitating wayward druids, but she was good with children, she knew how to live off the land, and she could find medicinal plants even when there was still snow on the ground. Her friends assured her that this made her invaluable to the group.

While Takeshi, his sister Natari, and their childhood friend Nikola facilitated the mental deprogramming of five young mothers, Hilda had her hands full juggling daily chores and chasing after sixteen Pazachi children. They ranged in age from a newborn to a nine-year-old, and she was fond of all of them; one in particular. She’d become increasingly attached to a little pixie of a toddler named Violet, who’d been orphaned in the battle. With no one else claiming her, she’d been shuffled back and forth between the weary mothers, who all had three or more children of their own. Watching Violet try to find her place was a bit like watching the runt of a litter navigate feeding time, and failing too often. The constant forlorn expression in her big brown eyes made it clear to Hilda that she needed more than regular meals and clean diapers in order to thrive. After a month of seeing her grow more and more withdrawn, Hilda finally worked up the courage to ask the other mothers if she could take more responsibility for her.

“You take?” they’d asked in surprise as they diapered up their own babies and tried to calm down the older children before bed one night. “You take and no give back?”

“I’ll give her back whenever you want me to,” she stammered, afraid she’d insulted them when they looked at her so suspiciously. The language barrier wasn’t terrible, but it couldn’t be ignored. Flustered, she tended to Violet’s diaper, wrinkling her nose while she changed it as fast as she could.

“She cry. She shit. She cry and shit again. She no doll, Hilda,” one of the women said in a severe tone. More serious murmuring ensued, and then Nikola stepped into the warm and cozy yurt, causing the mood to improve instantly. A few whistles and girlish giggles arose but he only revealed a modest smile from under his horned helmet, then knelt down beside the small fire at the center of the room. The Pazachi believed every man was entitled to at least three wives, and the women seemed more than a little reluctant to give up this custom. There had been plenty of arguments at camp caused by the ratio of available men to women, and it didn’t help that Nikola and Takeshi were both attractive. When Natari explained to the camp that Nikola was just as much of a brother to her as Takeshi and that she had no interest in him whatsoever, it only made the competition for their attention that much worse. Thankfully the young men didn’t encourage it, but they certainly weren’t complaining about the flattery either. As Nikola warmed his hands by the fire, it was impossible to know if his cheeks were red from blushing or just the cold air outside.

“Nikola, can you help translate for me?” Hilda asked him politely. “I don’t know if I’m insulting them or not, but I’m trying to ask if they’ll let me be Violet’s main caregiver.”

“You want to look after her as your own?”

“Yes, if they’ll let me,” she said. He looked up from the fire and studied her with his pale blue eyes, rubbing his cold red cheeks with his toasty hands. When he’d warmed up sufficiently, he took off his ram’s horn helmet and set it at the end of his bedroll beside hers.

“For how long?” he asked.

“As long as they’ll let me.”

“Does that mean indefinitely?” he asked as he took off his cloak. She nodded, hoping he could see in her eyes how serious she was. The minute he sat down, the two little boys lying on the other side of him pounced, knocking him down to his back.

“I know you’ve wanted children for a long time…and you’d be a wonderful mother,” he said as he wrestled with the boys. Eventually he made his way back to a sitting position and peeled their small hands from his shoulders. “You’re not insulting the women by asking to look after little Vi. I think they’re at odds with you because in their culture what you’re asking simply isn’t possible.”

“But she needs more attention than she’s getting,” she insisted, toying with the blonde wisps of Violet’s hair. She waited while Nikola put the boys back in their beds and told them to settle down. “I don’t know why no one else seems to want her.”

“It’s not that nobody wants her,” he explained, making peek-a-boo faces at Violet until she gave him a bashful smile. “It’s that they don’t believe it’s possible for a woman to fully bond with a child unless she’s carried it herself. That’s why none of them have claimed her already…although Takeshi or I could adopt her if we wanted to.”

“Why? Because you’re men and men can do practically anything they want to around here?” she asked, trying not to reveal how much she disapproved of the cultural difference.

“That sounds about right,” Nikola admitted with an apologetic smile, then went back to his game of peek-a-boo with Violet. “Don’t forget that while every Pazachi is a druid, we druids are not all Pazachi. Tak and Natari and I don’t agree with every aspect of Pazachi ideology, but it’s been branded into their minds as the absolute truth. We can’t change their opinions and beliefs overnight, Hilda. It’s all one day at a time.”

“I understand that, but it’s not right that Violet should suffer physically and mentally in the meantime,” she said as he coaxed another smile from the little girl. “She’s too thin, and this is the first time I’ve seen her smile in the month we’ve been here. I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, but something needs to be done. I know I can give her what she needs.”

“I completely agree,” he said to her surprise, and briefly placed his hand on hers. “Let me see what I can do.”

Nikola stroked his goatee while his pale eyes traveled from Violet to Hilda, then back to Violet. Then he spoke to the women briefly in their native tongue. They all clamored for his attention, and he waited patiently until each one had said her piece. They certainly had a lot to say.

“These aren’t my opinions at all; I’m simply telling you what they’re telling me,” he explained diplomatically as he leaned back and propped himself up on his hands. “They’re concerned because you’re a samodiva, not a human, and you haven’t had any children of your own yet. They don’t want you to play with her like a doll, and then abandon her when you’re bored or frustrated.”

“I would never, ever do that!” Hilda said emphatically.

“I know you wouldn’t, Hilda,” he gently assured her. “But this is a serious commitment and it’s well known that samodivi have a reputation for being fickle. Your sister Runa is a perfect example of that. You and Sariel are the only wood nymphs I’ve ever met that were as steadfast as an oak tree.”

“Then can you please tell them that?” she asked, wondering if she sounded as desperate as she felt. “Tell them how Sariel gave up being a samodiva so that she could raise a human family with Justinian. Surely the fact that he’s your brother carries some weight with these women. Tell them that I have close friends who are elves, and that their children are in diapers for over thirty years. Tell them that I’ve looked after seven troll boys, one of which was a baby. Believe me; I can deal with a little human girl.”

“Are you absolutely certain about this?”

“Yes!”

Nikola relayed the information and was met with a variety of reactions, including gasps of surprise, horror, and countless religious gestures. There were also snide comments that appeared to be directed at Hilda, and more giggling directed at both of them.

“You take, she no give back,” one woman called out, and more lively conversation ensued. This time Nikola had plenty to say, and the women sounded much more receptive than before. He spoke with them for quite a while longer. Then he finally turned to Hilda.

“I’m going to catch so much hell for doing this,” he said, gazing at her softly. One of the women rose to her feet and walked up to the two of them, then scooped up Violet. Hilda reached out for the little girl, but the woman held her just out of range and stepped closer to Nikola instead.

“You take, Hilda no give back,” she said to him, then shot Hilda a skeptical glance. When Nikola reached for Violet the woman handed her right over, causing a flurry of hushed conversation among the rest of the women. Hilda turned to him anxiously as he set the baby in his lap.

“What’s going on?”

“I just adopted Violet,” he said, lifting a dark brown eyebrow at her. “And I told them that I’ve chosen you to be her mother. You said that’s what you wanted, so congratulations—we now have a daughter.”

Hilda could hardly breathe as a ball of emotions began to unwind inside of her chest. She’d wasted so many years of her life waiting for Finn to come around, hoping to have this experience with him. Nikola had taken mere seconds to know how he felt in his heart, to see how she felt in hers, and then acted upon it with no hesitation. This wasn’t anything like how she’d expected to become a mother, but her life hadn’t turned out anything like she’d expected anyway. No more waiting in vain for her dreams to unfold. Her dreams were staring her in the face, and they had big brown eyes starving for love. She looked at Violet, then up at Nikola, and took a deep breath. When she let it out there were tears blurring her vision, but she could plainly see the sincerity and affection in his face.

“You take?” he asked, grinning wider as he offered Violet to her.

“I take,” she barely choked as she pulled the baby into her arms and squeezed her tight. Tears of happiness dripped down her chin and fell into Violet’s soft hair. “I take, and I no give back.”

There was so much excited chatter surrounding them that bedtime was forgotten all about, and Hilda was too swept up in her emotions to pay attention to all the advice the women suddenly had to offer. The older children were wide awake too, and the boys next to Nikola ambushed him for another round of wrestling.

“You take?” their mother asked hopefully.

“No,” he laughed as he gathered them into his arms and put them in their beds. “I no take. I give back!”

*   *   *

A month later Hilda had no reservations that she’d made the right decision, and Nikola made it clear that he was just as serious about being a parent. Maybe it was because he felt partially responsible for the death of Violet’s parents. Maybe it was because his own parents were killed by the Pazachi, leaving him an orphan at a young age as well. Whatever his reason, the shy Violet had finally begun to blossom under his and Hilda’s attentive care. She smiled more, she ate more, and she slept more. The parenting was actually the easiest part of the adoption process. It was dealing with the fallout from the Pazachi women that tried Hilda’s patience the most.

“Hilda, why you no kiss husband?” they’d asked her after a while. “Nikola look good. He smell good. Children like. Everybody like. Why you no like?”

“I do like him, but he’s my friend, not my husband,” she’d answered, blushing.

“Nikola give you baby. He your husband,” they would inform her, looking at her as if she were an idiot not to realize this. It seemed nothing made them happier than hounding her. Nothing, that is, except hounding Nikola even more.

“When you give Hilda next baby, Nikola? When you take next wife?” they would constantly ask him. They’d immediately started a campaign for his affections, offering to rub his shoulders or maintain his dreadlocks, but he wouldn’t let the women anywhere within his personal space. Undeterred by his strict ‘no touching’ policy, they’d responded by spoiling him indirectly, going out of their way to cook him tastier meals, patch his boots, or wash his clothes the minute he’d added them to the laundry pile. It became such a contest as to who could steal them first that he’d finally started to hide them until he could wash them himself. That didn’t stop the women from finding them and leaving them on his bedroll clean and neatly folded. Even with all the unsolicited advice Hilda was receiving, she had to admit she’d gotten the better end of the deal between her and Nikola. Still, the women were determined to find the solution to her marital mishaps, and their line of questioning became more and more intrusive as time went by.

“Where is next baby, Hilda?” they’d ask with sly grins. Sometimes they snuck up behind her and poked her gently in the belly, then giggled and ran away. They seemed convinced that she didn’t know how to go about the process, and so they began to get more creative with their advice. One morning they lingered in their yurt while the men and children were at breakfast. Hilda had been crawling around looking for a missing necklace when one of the women put on Nikola’s horned helmet and knelt down behind her.

“Every man like sex like animal,” she’d informed her with a straight face, pulling Hilda’s hips backwards and bumping them against hers. “Make sex like wolf, and you have baby.” Hilda had scrambled away blushing, yet amidst the laughter the women were convinced they were imparting valuable wisdom.

A few more months of relative peace and quiet made Hilda think that they’d decided to drop the issue. She should have known it was only a matter of time before the cycle started up again.

“What wrong, Hilda?” they’d asked with both exasperation and deep concern. “Five month you are mother. Five month you are wife. Why you no make sex with husband? You are virgin? You are afraid of magic wand?”

No!” she’d cried, feeling her cheeks heat up yet again. They were so adept at making her blush…and so persistent.

“Is magic wand too small?” one woman asked with a sympathetic frown, holding her forefinger and thumb an inch apart. “Small wand is bad problem. Is no easy fix.” Hilda buried her face in her hands, shaking her head hopelessly as she tried not to laugh. Seeing her shake her head, the woman hooted, “Ah, magic wand is too big?” and held her hands two feet apart. “Big wand is good problem! Is easy fix. We teach you.” There were howls of laughter that only grew louder as Hilda’s face grew even redder, and all she could do was surrender to the absurdity of her situation. When Nikola had said he was going to catch hell for adopting Violet, she’d assumed he meant he was going to catch it from Takeshi and Natari, not that she was going to catch it from the Pazachi women. At least their reaction was amicable. As unrelenting as they were, they were only trying to help.

They began to debate among themselves how best to solve her intimacy issues. Even with the language barrier, she knew exactly what solutions they were coming up with judging by the variety of obscene pantomimes and hand gestures they were displaying.

“Sex like fast rabbit is causing pain,” advised one of them. “Make husband churn butter like lazy milkmaid.”

“Ride husband like horse,” suggested another.

“First make husband kiss wife like cat drinking cream from bowl,” instructed a third woman, letting her fingers dance from her navel to her upper thighs. “This fix all problem always.” A chorus of enthusiastic and unanimous agreement sounded from the rest of the women.

“For the love of the gods, he’s not my husband!” she finally blurted out, having been pushed so far beyond the limit of her comfort zone that she didn’t know where to draw the line anymore. “We’re just friends! I’ve never even seen him naked!”

One of the shyer women put a comforting hand on Hilda’s shoulder and leaned close to her ear.

“I have secret,” she whispered, grinning mischievously. “I see Nikola take bath…and I see magic wand.”

Really?” she whispered back, nervously biting her nails. The woman nodded her head, and despite her blushing face, thumping heart, and sweaty palms, Hilda suddenly found herself quite curious.

“You have problem, but is good problem,” the woman quietly informed her with a wink. “Is best if Nikola churn butter like lazy milkmaid.”

*   *   *

After that enlightening conversation with the shyest Pazachi woman, Hilda couldn’t spend a single moment around Nikola without getting flustered. Knowing that he had the ability to read minds, she tried to avoid looking at him or being near him, but the weather had become warmer and warmer. That meant he’d taken to wearing his dreadlocks pulled back and off his shoulders and going shirtless around the camp. And that made noticing his lean, muscular body next to impossible. Raising a child together made it even worse. He was always right there with Hilda at dinner, feeding Violet, and then playing with her and the other children until bedtime. Then he’d drape the blankets over all three of them, casting an invisible safety net over his little family. She began to understand the Pazachi women’s frustration; watching this man be so protective and playful with their children, and yet show no romantic interest towards the other women. From time to time he would ask Hilda if anything was wrong. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining it or not, but she swore the tone of his voice was different when he spoke to her now. As if sensing her growing uneasiness, he would occasionally let his reassuring hand rest on her shoulder or brush tenderly against her arm, but that only made her more jumpy.

She never caught his eyes lusting after her, and for all his comforting gestures, his hands never touched her inappropriately. She began to wonder what it would be like if they did, especially at night while their daughter slept between them. She’d seen him shapeshift often enough to know that beneath his calm exterior, there had to be a wild animal somewhere deep inside of him. If they ever found themselves alone together, would he reveal his true nature? Would he beat around the bush, or would he be more direct? Would he be gentle, or would he be rough? These were the questions she mulled over when she looked past Violet’s sleeping body and studied his in the firelight. She loved to let her eyes wander up and down every square inch of skin until his blankets modestly and cruelly covered him.

Unlike his older brother Justinian, who was barrel-chested and broad-shouldered, Nikola was shorter, faster, and scruffier. The one physical feature they shared was something they weren’t even born with—a tattoo wrapped around their left shoulder and upper arm that signified what tribe they came from. And while Justinian prided himself with his broadsword abilities, Nikola only carried a white knife at his side. Hilda had seen him wield the forces of nature with his bare hands; coaxing lightning from thin air or making it rain at his command. He could bring forth a whirlwind strong enough to uproot a tree, or bend the river’s current long enough to return a stray article of clothing on wash day. The latter was the type of lesson he spent day after day teaching to the Pazachi women, helping them hone their skills for good over evil. She wondered how it was possible to feel so safe around him, and yet so scared and vulnerable at the same time. She often heard the echoes of the Pazachi women in her head saying: “Nikola look good. He smell good. Children like. Everybody like. Why you no like?” She had to admit she was having a harder time answering that question as time went on. But time did go on, one day after another just like Nikola said it would, and now it was early summer. Judging by the position of the sun in the sky it was well past noon on this warm summer day. The time to reminisce about how much her life had changed over the past six months was gone.

She watched a few more clouds drift by as she floated along, then exhaled and let herself sink to the bottom of the riverbed, feeling the gentle current pass over her skin through her sleeveless tunic. Her small hands pulled the green sash tighter around her waist and then she pushed her legs up and forward as hard as she could until she shot out of the water and dove right back in. She rose to the surface and crawled to the shallows on her hands and knees, then stood up and whipped her long, honey-blonde hair forward. When the excess water was squeezed from her hair she tossed it back over her shoulder, wringing out her sash as well. Violet had been so fussy on that hot, humid day that when the opportunity arose to wash some clothes, Hilda had jumped at the chance to play in the river. But as she looked down at the basket of dirty laundry that was still waiting for her beside a large, smooth boulder, and wrinkled her little nose.

She was massaging soap into a tiny soiled dress when she heard a familiar squeal. Her brown eyes looked up towards the riverside encampment to see Nikola making his way along the footpath with Violet in his tan, toned arms. The little girl reached for one of his long dreadlocks, then was distracted by the many amulets and talismans resting against his bare chest.

“I’d like to know what you call that thing you were doing in the water, because I wouldn’t call it swimming,” he observed when he reached the river’s edge. “Were you pretending to be an otter?”

“Maybe,” she answered playfully. “Were you watching me the entire time?”

“Maybe,” he said, grinning as he waded into the water and sidled up next to her. “I’ll take over the laundry if you’d like to crawl around on all fours again. I wouldn’t mind.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t mind at all, considering how often you turn into a wolf,” she said, blushing as she looked down. She couldn’t help notice the waistline of his pants, which had fallen dangerously low on his hips from the weight of the water. The V-shape made by his pelvis all but pointed to the trail of dark hair that ran south of his navel, growing thicker the further down she looked. You have good problem, said the shy woman’s voice in her head. Exactly how good? She wondered. She pushed her impulsive curiosity out of her mind and quickly lifted her eyes, settling her gaze onto Violet instead. “Did she nap at all for you?”

“She was too fussy to fall asleep. Her forehead felt warm to me, so I’m here for your expert opinion,” Nikola replied, smiling fondly at the little girl as he leaned against the boulder. Her alert and curious brown eyes had caught sight of his amulet adorned with two jeweled fish swimming in opposite directions. She was entranced.

“Violet, what is this? Is this a fish?” he asked, tapping the amulet lying on his skin.

“No. Dada,” she informed him, making him laugh.

“No, Vi—I’m Dada, but what is this?” he asked as he lifted the amulet slightly away from his body and turned it slowly to catch the light of the sun. She grasped it in her tiny hands and pulled it past his goatee and closer to her face while he pointed to the blue fish. “Look. This little fish is made of sapphire. Sapphire.” Then he pointed to the red fish. “This little fish is made of garnet. Can you say garnet, Vi?” Violet looked at him skeptically and stuffed the amulet into her mouth instead.

As Hilda watched him nuzzle and coo over their daughter, she felt an overwhelming tug on her heartstrings, along with a strong pull of pure, raw desire. She’d felt so much of that tugging and pulling lately, and it was leaving her head and her heart in turmoil. Why didn’t he ever make a move beyond a touch on the hand? Was he not interested, or was his incredible self-control just his way of not making the other women jealous? Maybe the subtle flirting was all in Hilda’s head, but if that was true, what was this sensation that ranged between primal longing and nerve-wracking uncertainty all at once? It was so hard to know…so hard to be sure.

 Hilda rinsed her soapy hands in the shallow water and pressed her wrist against Violet’s forehead. It was a hot day, but her skin was warm enough to suggest there was a slight fever. She watched as the little girl continued to gnaw on the silver amulet.

“She’s probably cutting the last of her molars. Look at all that drool,” she finally said, eying the wet spot among the soft hair on his chest. She lifted a hand to wipe some of it away, strategically brushing against his nipple as though it were an accident.

“As long as she’s healthy, that’s all I care about,” Nikola said, oblivious to Hilda’s wandering fingers. “Although she’s so drawn to this particular amulet that it makes me wonder about the owner of its counterpart. It would be nice to know how Annika’s doing. I know she made it back to America just fine, but I hope she’s alright. I had a dream about her some time ago that you wouldn’t believe. She’s been on my mind ever since.”

“She has?” Hilda said quietly as a painful jolt streaked through her core. She went back to her basket of laundry before Nikola could look into her stinging eyes. “Well…if you’re having such dreams about her, why shouldn’t she be on your mind? She’s been on everyone else’s mind at one point or another.”

Nikola turned towards her, tilting his head curiously to one side. Aside from himself and Hilda, he knew no one from the camp gave Annika’s existence a second thought. He tried reading her thoughts to get to the bottom of her problem, but she refused to look at him.

“Then how blessed Annika is, to have everyone else keeping her in their thoughts at one point or another,” he ventured cautiously.

“Yes…how blessed,” Hilda agreed, and rinsed out the little dress in the water. Nikola watched her in silence for a few moments, waiting patiently for her to look at him, but she suddenly seemed hell bent on doing laundry.

“Why do I feel like I said something wrong?”

She only shrugged and wrung every last drop of water from the dress before tossing it irritably into the basket.

“Hilda, what’s put you in such a mood?” he asked, mindful of his tone as he shifted Violet in his arms. “Your energy completely changed the moment I mentioned Annika’s name. You’ve been acting strange for weeks now. I can’t make things better if you won’t speak to me.”

“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” she warned him, on the brink of tears. Nikola’s eyes grew dim.

“Is this about Annika, or is this about someone else?” he asked delicately. “It’s been half a year. I thought you would have come to terms with things by now.”

“I’ll never come to terms with this wretched curse!” she snapped at him through her tears. She immediately stood up and walked deeper into the water.

“What curse?”

“The one where every time someone else is on my mind, she’s always on their mind!” Hilda shouted.

Before Nikola could respond, she dove into the water and swam furiously until she reached the opposite shore. Without looking back, she disappeared into the woods, leaving him standing there with a baby and a basket of half-washed laundry.

“Mama cry,” said Violet, pointing a tiny finger to the trees across the river.

“Yes,” he said softly, mystified by the emotional outburst as he carried her back to the camp. “But don’t worry Vi. Dada’s going to fix it.”

*   *   *

After her vigorous swim, Hilda hiked through the woods until she found herself in a shady grove of oak trees at the edge of a meadow. Off to one side was a huge fallen log covered in moss that beckoned her to sit and rest. She climbed up and contemplated her actions while she listened to the vibrant birdsong around her. The sunlight filtering through the forest canopy was warm, but she felt cold inside. She heard a playful yip and then a lean, dark brown wolf with golden ears and legs emerged from out of the bushes.

“I should’ve known that no matter where I went, you’d find me,” she said, rolling her eyes. The wolf’s pointed ears swiveled forward and he took a few relaxed steps toward her before bowing down on his front legs and wagging his tail playfully in the air. He leaped over to one side, then the other in a goofy dance while his long tongue lolled out of his wide, open mouth. If it was possible for a wolf to look sheepish, this one was doing a fine job of it, and she couldn’t help but smile. He stepped beside her and gave a pitiful groan when she didn’t pet him, so he scooped his nose under her hand, forcing it to pass over his muzzle. With his furry head in her lap, Hilda pet him absentmindedly, looking off into the distance. Suddenly she felt the texture of his fur change. She looked down to see her hand on Nikola’s damp hair, and him on all fours with his head still in her lap, smiling happily with his eyes closed. She pulled her hand away and he opened them, looking apologetic as he lifted his head.

“Of course I’d find you,” he said. “I’m glad you didn’t go too far. I was afraid you might have kept walking until you were back home.”

“I thought about it,” she admitted. “But I could never do that to Violet.”

“Only to Violet?” he replied with a wounded frown.

“Where is she, by the way?” asked Hilda, ignoring his question.

“I left her back at camp with Natari,” he said, pulling up his wet pants before sitting down next to her on the thick log. “She’s confused why you’re so upset. I am, too. I thought things were going well for you. I thought you were happy. I had no idea you were still in love with Finn, but obviously you are if thinking of him upsets you this much.”

“That’s not what upset me,” she insisted. “I’m not in love with him.”

“You say that, but I can see there’s a part of you that clearly is. Were you with him for a very long time?”

“I’ve known him his entire life. I watched him grow up, and yet…for all the time we’ve spent together, I don’t think I was ever with him at all,” Hilda replied bitterly.

“I don’t understand.”

“We’d always held a deep affection for one another, but he was forever at odds with his feelings for me. I lost track of how often he’d tell me what a fine mother I would be, and then in the next breath he’d say that he needed more time to be certain before making me one,” she explained, trying to remain as dignified as possible. “For all the times he said that he loved me, we never…we were never proper lovers. I waited for him to be sure…and then I waited longer…and then I waited some more. When Annika arrived, I fully expected him to take more interest than everyone else; after all, how could a scholar like him not be deeply curious about someone from the modern world? But then he brought her to the pub one night and—”

She choked back her tears and sniffed before taking a deep breath, then let it out with a shudder.

“What did he do?” Nikola gently asked.

“He sang with her,” Hilda said, trying to keep her bottom lip from quivering.

“He sang with her? That’s not quite what I thought you were going to say.”

“You don’t understand,” she stressed. “Finn hums here and there, but he rarely sings in front of anyone, let alone in front of an audience. He says it’s too personal…too intimate. I heard him once in the woods when he thought he was alone. It was so lovely that all the birds stopped singing so they could listen. And then they began to sing with him! It moved me in such a way that there aren’t words to explain.” Hilda paused as she blinked her glassy eyes, and Nikola patiently waited for her to continue.

“The night he sang with Annika at the pub felt very similar, except it was more intimate than I’d ever imagined. Listening to them make music together was like hearing long-lost lovers find one another. Perhaps I’m the only one who had that impression, although I’ll never forget the way he looked at her that night. Just like I’ll never forget the light in his eyes when he told me that he honestly believed he’d known her in countless past lives.”

“That doesn’t seem such a bad thing,” Nikola observed, but Hilda shook her head.

“You don’t understand,” she said with a hopeless frown. “Finn’s an atheist. He never believed in past lives before she came along, I asked him if he’d ever thought of me that same way and he said it never once crossed his mind. After waiting thirty years for him to feel that way about me, I decided I’d had enough, so here I am.”

Nikola’s sympathetic eyes took in the profound depth of her pain, finally understanding why Hilda had been so eager to leave her family and friends to get a fresh start at life.

“I knew you were patient, but carrying a torch for thirty years?” he repeated, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s five more than I’ve been alive.”

“I know,” Hilda said, burying her face in her hands. “I’m a terrible fool for not walking away sooner, aren’t I?”

“At least you didn’t wait thirty years and another day,” Nikola said, trying to comfort her. “Love makes us do strange things sometimes…things we would never do under normal circumstances. I’m sorry for what you went through, but I’m honored that you told me about it. I’ve never wanted to pry. I just want you to be happy.”

“I have been happy,” she said nervously. She couldn’t help wondering if love made people do strange things sometimes, things they would never do under normal circumstances, what did that say about Nikola adopting Violet? Would he have done it if she hadn’t asked him to? Did he think of her as someone he’d like to be more than friends with? Someone more than a platonic co-parent? There was only one way to know for sure. She took a deep breath and said all she dared to say to him.

“I’ve been happier in the past six months than I’ve been in the past three decades. It’s because of Violet…and it’s because of—it’s because of you.”

“But you’re not very happy with me right now,” he pointed out, nudging her playfully in the arm. “Do you think I’m a little too fond of Annika?”

“No,” Hilda answered just a little too quickly. Her flushed cheeks gave her completely away, and Nikola’s eyes lit up.

“When I said I was thinking about her, I only meant that I keep getting the sense that she’s not well. I had a dream that she was surrounded with darkness. Also, you know that she and I wear sister amulets cut from the same stone and set in the same metal. It’s only natural that I’d be aware of her energy from time to time, and that she’d be aware of mine.”

“So you can read her thoughts even when she’s back home?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t read any thoughts. It’s more of a physical empathy…like a memory of a feeling. When you’re angry, you feel it in your gut. When you’re happy, you have butterflies in your chest. When you want something badly, you hunger for it in your stomach. Sometimes I get this hollow, empty feeling right here…” he tapped between his ribs and sighed. “I can’t help but hope that Annika’s alright. I’m sorry if my comments about her came across as anything other than genuine concern, but that’s all it ever was, and that’s all it’s ever been.”

“That’s all it’s ever been?” Hilda asked skeptically. “It didn’t seem that way when you met her.”

“I won’t deny that I was incredibly curious about her when I first met her. I’d never met a modern person before, and you said yourself that it’s not every day one walks into our world and becomes a part of it,” he reminded her. “Annika definitely changed my mind about a few things. But I can see how my interest might have been misinterpreted as being romantic. Mostly I didn’t want her to have anything to do with Talvi, given that he was sleeping with my girlfriend while I was still with her.” Nikola’s lighthearted tone shifted abruptly as he went on. “I know he’s a close friend of yours, but I can’t believe that Annika married him. She doesn’t deserve a cheating swine like him for a husband. I only want the best for her, just like I only want the best for you, and the best for Violet, and I’ll be hanged before I see our daughter end up with a scoundrel like him. Why, if he so much as looks at her the wrong way when she comes of age, I’ll kill him!”

“Nikola!” she gasped, caught off guard by his sudden intensity. “He’s not that bad! Trust me; he got what he deserved when he got tangled up with Zenzi. I never saw him afraid of a female until she came along. She’s absolutely stark-raving mad! You should consider yourself lucky you’re not still with her.”

“Believe me, I do,” he said, relaxing his gaze. “I consider myself extremely lucky to be exactly where I am right now.”

“Oh? And where’s that? Sitting on this log?” she asked primly.

“Sitting on this log with our daughter’s mother…alone—finally speaking from the heart.” He placed his hand on her knee and raised a not-so-innocent eyebrow at her. “And far enough from camp that no one will interrupt our long overdue conversation.”

While she watched his fingers rest on the damp linen draped over her leg, her jittery nerves immediately awakened throughout her body.

“Why do you become so tense whenever I touch you?” he asked. He lifted his hand away and set it in his lap. “Does it upset you?”

No!” she blurted out, even though her body was trembling.

“Then what is it?”

“I just…I won’t want you to stop.”

His eyes gleamed brightly.

“Do you know why I hardly ever do touch you?” he asked with a serious expression. “It’s because I probably won’t want to stop, either.”

“Then why did you?”

“Because you’re a samodiva, and I’m a human,” he said with a shrug. “I know that any physical relationship that strays beyond a kiss will strip you of your immortality. I can’t steal that from you; to trap you and keep you in a cage. Wood nymphs are meant to be wild and free.”

“And sometimes they’re meant to become human and have families,” she countered, fueled by a fire burning deep inside. “Immortality can be its own type of cage. Do you know how long I’ve waited to have children of my own? What if I told you that the past six months I’ve spent being Violet’s mother was still the most fulfilled I’ve felt in centuries? A satisfying life is about the quality of it, not the quantity…although I’d like to give Violet some brothers and sisters that won’t disappear after the Pazachi move on to new lives,” she said, raising a not-so-innocent eyebrow of her own. “What if I told you that I wanted to be caught? What if I said I wanted you to steal my sash?”

“Then I’d be very tempted to believe you, because I’ve thought about it frequently,” he said, swallowing hard.

“So catch me, Nikola,” she taunted him, waving the end of the long green fabric under his nose. “Steal my sash and set me free.”

Nikola surprised her by shaking his head.

“Why won’t you do it?”

“Because I need to know that your heart is truly free before we do something that can’t be undone,” he said as he looked her up and down. Then he settled his pale eyes onto hers. “Before I came to see you at the river today, I was speaking with Tak and Natari about our progress with the rehabilitation efforts. We all agree that the Pazachi women and children are ready to start assimilating back into society. There’s a large village called Nevshir that’s about a week south of our camp. It’s ideal because it has a very high druid population. My hope would be that after we’ve begun setting the women up with employment and arranging schooling for the children, you and Violet can travel with me to Derbedrossivic. I need to collect my grandmother’s ashes from the Marinossians so that Justinian and I can return her to the earth properly. It’s the perfect opportunity to make sure things with you and Finn are sorted out for good.”

“But they are sorted out. I don’t need to see him again to know how I feel about you,” she quickly countered. “Besides, I feel like enough of a fool for not leaving him sooner. I don’t want to feel that way all over again.”

“That makes two of us,” he said with a resolute expression. “I’ve already had one lover swindled from me by a Marinossian. I’ll be damned if I let it happen a second time.”