But he was home.
When she rode her talbuk up the path, in the late afternoon slant of light, she veered into his stables first. She could see him in the front window, his back turned, feet up, hands on armrests, mug in one, presumably, and pipe in the other, visible. The talbuk was watered, fed, and fresh straw spread in the stall. Her after-burn of disbelief, a sense of shock, handicapped her from doing much else. She snatched a few saddle blankets and went into the barn loft to sleep. She was part animal, after all, and wasn’t fit for human or Dwarven company. Her spirit wolves would appear when summoned, but even they had greater game to chase.
Guarf knew she was there, of course. Nothing escaped him. After a few days of this nonsense, this indulgent self-pity, Guarf’s ironclad patience was etched and worn down by her watery elemental erosion.
Guarf had had enough. Time for the girl to come inside.
He went out to the stables, and found her sitting on the northern side, where there wasn’t much light. She had gotten in the habit of pulling up marsh grasses to chew on. The taste was bitter, but it kept her from more harmful pastimes, numbing her thoughts.
“That’s a nasty habit, that…” he said, tapping her fingers as she held the weeds she was chewing. When he said that to her, something shook loose: a recognition, an awareness: she saw how she was. His one rough finger, tapping her hand, woke her up. He held out his hand to her, and put one hand under her elbow, helping to her hooves. She saw a mild storm in his blue eyes, of deep concern he would never express. His avuncular affection kept her steady as he escorted her inside. The house embraced her.
That was the night they cooked lamb and Guarf gave her the mage’s letter. Perhaps his timing was off, or perhaps it was perfection. Since he saw anger, and not numbness, he knew she would be all right. She was coming around to herself.
And in the morning, when she found the dress, she balled it up and tossed it into the room’s small hearth. Like spider silk, it dissolved instantly in the heat. The sun was rising, in its race with night this time of year. She rolled over, on her back, and absentmindedly put her fingers on her stomach, as if holding herself in, retaining the peace. The veiled ceiling muted her thoughts. Anxious clouds scurried to their next meteorological appointments, allowing the shafts of sun to penetrate through the prisms of the warlock-cut crystal windowpane, reflecting a pool of iris-blue light above her. She spun over to trace the source of the jeweled light. A large turquoise-blue bottle regally postured on the floor.
There was a small card that read, “Drink UU.”
The mage was up to his tricks.
Laughing, she took a swig of the potion, and in an effluvium of blueberry-colored dragon-smoke, she created a mirror image of herself. There was a quick crackle, and out of a bent place in the air, where only a card could slide through, a cornflower blue envelope fell to her feet. It read, “ See, miss, you are double-you! More of you to love, and more of you to try to catch me!” The message and her second self vanished, giggling, into the portal opening. Her hallucinogenic avatar was truly beautiful – was that how she looked? Perhaps so. In the lies of magic, there is always some truth to bind it all together.
Between her ears and horns, a sensitive place, she felt the tingle of presence. She may have lost this one love, but perhaps it wasn’t lost, just misplaced. Years later, he would still seek her out, in friendship, debate, and discussion.
She shrugged, to no one, to nothing. Just a hunch.
At this moment though, it was time to get out of bed.
The kitchen was a carnival act, and Guarf the greasy carnie. Egg shells crackling underfoot, sausages sizzling, coffee boiling, and, was that a string of dead rabbits that needed skinning? She washed out mugs for both of them, and found the sugar pot under a sharpening stone.
“Oh, Guarf…are you making the two of us breakfast, or are you feeding King Wrynn’s army? Perhaps they will come help me clean this up!”
“Ach, lassie – good! You’re up! Got another urgent post for ya. Get your tail moving. Your sister needs you. Eat, eat!”
The places of things and things of places shifted back into order. The breakfast was sublime: chickens would lay eggs for Guarf just for the honor of being included in his cheese scrambles. The coffee was bright and hot. The sausages had a touch of Southern Barrens’ spices, a secret recipe by trolls, so tangy and sweet. And the Widow Shannon sent over sticky buns.
While Matty scrubbed the kitchen, washed and dressed, Guarf brushed her talbuk, cleaned the tack and gear, and packed the saddlebags. A gnome messenger had arrived at dawn with a request from Luperci; evidently, there was a difficult situation with an undead paladin prince that required her big sister’s expertise, a rare occasion indeed, but Mat wasn’t one to turn down a request for assistance and aid. She felt relieved, actually, to be needed again. A passing thought in her heart glanced at a paladin friend she hadn’t heard from in awhile, either, but sure he was fine. She had helped him, too, and he had repaid her kindness a thousand favors over.
Saying their goodbyes, Matty leaned against the talbuk, feeling its soft, flossy pelt. Guarf, not one for emotional farewells, said “Get on with it, girl. You’ve burnt up most of the sunlight. But before you go, there may be something that needs your attention in this satchel here…”
She reached in the smaller of the leather bags, and inside was a hand-carved dark wooden box, with a puzzle-slider opening. Inside the box, a tiny wood frog peeped. It couldn’t be that far from tadpole, it was so small, but, Matty thought, it looked, brave!
“Oh, Guarf! Thank you! He’s, I don’t know, but he is looking at me as if he knows me!”
“Lassie, there’s a bit of lip wax in there, too. You know what they say about kissing a few frogs before you find your prince, and I wouldn’t want you to be getting’ any warts on those pretty lips!”
Matty bent over, held both of Guarf’s ears in her hands, and kissed him firmly on the top of his head. She bowed to him, hoisted up. Guarf smacked the beast’s backside, and off she rode.