The next day, Eldon found any excuse he could to remain outside. He’d tossed and turned all night in the loft, consumed with newfound awareness of the presence sleeping several feet below. Milo. The man had a name—of course he did. And his eyes were bluer than a summer sky. Of course they were. Seeing him awake, hearing him speak, learning he had no surname—it added yet another layer to this strange event bestowed upon him. And all the while, Eldon had behaved like an awkward buffoon.
The enforcers from the ruling capitol possessed the same dialect, so he should have expected Milo to sound the same. But for some reason, it had caught him off guard. That deliberate way of speaking with soft vowels and hard consonants made his stomach wretch. Reminding him of the darkest day of his life. The moment that had stripped her from him forever. He hated being forced to endure that accent twice a year during the semiannual inspection.
He grunted, ripping a potato from the soil and dropping it into the tin bucket beside him. Part of him anticipated Milo waking again, while the other part dreaded it. Most of all, Eldon resented the fact that he no longer felt comfortable in his own home. Deputy had been brushed and put out to pasture, the stable door re-painted, and the saddles oiled, all before sunrise. He’d spent the remainder of the morning up in the watch tower, organizing the logbook and preparing the space for the winter run. Now, he harvested vegetables in the small garden beside his house.
His stomach growled for the hundredth time, reminding him of the breakfast he’d ignored. Pulling off his dirt-ridden gloves, he looked toward the cabin. Ignore it, man. You’re thirty-six-years-old, and you’ve fought off wolves with your bare hands. What’s a little hunger to you?
No, he should go inside. He should force himself to check on Milo.
Reluctantly, as if his feet were made of cast iron, he carried the bucket down the back steps and into the root cellar below the cabin. Dried herbs, garlic, and cured meats hung from the ceiling, while shelves stocked with canned vegetables and jars of preserves lined the walls. He piled several items into his arms, returned outside, and trudged around the side of the cabin.
The aroma of brewing coffee startled him as he stepped through the front door. He froze at the sight of Milo standing in the kitchen, his thick blond hair tousled from sleep.
“Mr. Miller,” Milo stammered, dropping his hands at his sides. The sleeves of Eldon’s burgundy tunic extended past his fingers. He stood barefoot, and his blond hair was sleep-tousled. “You’re back. I attempted to make coffee,” he pointed to the metal percolator atop the stove, “but I’m not certain I did it right. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to drink that.” Eldon hadn’t realized what he’d said until he saw the look on Milo’s face. As if the man weren’t pale enough, his complexion blanched into an even lighter shade. His eyes, wide and laden with dark circles, fell to the floor.
Eldon clenched his teeth. Of all the stupid things to say. He could have decked himself. “Dammit. What I meant is… that… uh… He raised the pile of groceries in his arms. “I’m gonna put these down.”
“I’ll help you.” Milo sprung forward, rushing to help as Eldon moved into the kitchen.
With impeccable dexterity, Milo plucked the meat, cheese, and vegetables from Eldon’s arms and placed them atop the counter. The man was standing too close. Far too close for comfort. Now was Eldon’s chance to run. He could bolt out the front door, head deep into the woods… and then what? Return hours later, feeling even more uncomfortable than he did now?
Scrunching his toes inside his boots, he forced himself to stay. “A friend of mine, she’s a doctor— sort of. I asked her to check you over… make sure you were all right.”
“Oh,” Milo’s eyes dropped to the floor, but he didn’t retreat. “That was very kind of her. I’m only sorry she… She must have been very confused. You both must have.”
“I’d be lying if I said no.”
“I can explain if you’d like—”
“No.” Eldon cleared this throat, repressing the urge to flee again. “I don’t need to know any of that, no offense. It’s best if you keep your business to yourself, and I’ll do the same.”
Milo nodded. To Eldon’s relief, he finally took a step back.
Turning toward the counter, Eldon forced himself to tear his eyes away from the man’s arresting face. “Good. Now that that’s settled, I assume you’re hungry.”
“Hungry, but not starving, thanks to your delicious stew,” Milo said, his voice still raspy with fatigue. “What are you making today?”
“Sandwiches. Salami with spinach, cheese, and mustard for me, and peanut butter and strawberry jam for you.” Eldon’s shoulders tensed as he began slicing the bread. He could barely focus with Milo still close. “I’ll ride to the village later, to fetch some milk and other things you can eat.” He tossed his head in the direction of the small wooden table and two chairs. “Go sit.”
“The village?” Milo’s tone perked up. “What’s that?”
Eldon looked over his shoulder. “Are you serious?”
Milo shrugged with unquestionable innocence.
“A village is like a town, but with less people, and less buildings.”
He paused, visibly confused and unblinking. “I see.”
Oh, dear God. “You don’t know what a town is either.”
“I know what a city is,” Milo was quick to reply.
“A town is a lot smaller than a city.”
“Ah, so a city is the largest dwelling, and a village is the smallest.”
“There you go,” Eldon proclaimed with a flourish of his hand.
“I’ve learned something new today, thanks to you.” When Milo grinned, two dimples appeared as if someone had lovingly squeezed his cheeks. “Will I get to meet others in your village?”
Eldon scoffed, striding toward the pantry for a jar of mustard. “I don’t think so. If they meet you, they’ll get nosy. It would only be a matter of time before someone finds out where you came from, which would create chaos among the people. It’s best I get you back to Dominus’ border without anyone knowing you were here.”
“Get me back?” Milo stood abruptly, causing the chair legs to scrape against the floor. “Please, don’t. I ran away for a reason. I don’t ever want to go back there. I can’t go back…” His words trailed off as he began to sway. “Please, Mr. Miller, I’ll do whatever it takes if you will just consider…”
“Are you all right?” Eldon quirked an eyebrow.
Milo pressed a palm to his forehead. “I… suddenly don’t feel very well.”
Eldon lurched forward, reaching him just in time to catch his fall. Gripping his lean shoulders, he lowered him into the chair, keeping a steady hold until Milo could sit up on his own. He couldn’t believe he was touching him again. The salty, subtle musk of male skin filled his nose. Soft warm fingers had replaced frozen, lifeless ones. Milo felt so—
Eldon looked down at his hands. Milo was clutching them.
“I shouldn’t have risen so quickly,” Milo said with a shaken breath. He gave Eldon a weak grin. “Thank you. And thank you for saving my life. Our lives. I don’t know how I will ever—”
Eldon wrenched his hands away and retreated a step, uttering a curse beneath his breath.
“Did I do something wrong?” Milo asked.
“I don’t like being touched.” Eldon spun on his heel and retreated toward the kitchen, shielding what must have been one hell of a red face. He’d behaved like an asshole in a blind panic. But he wasn’t used to being touched, especially by men who appeared in thunderstorms like angels sent down through lightning bolts—men with mysterious babies in their bellies. “Now stay put, and don’t stand anymore.”
Silence followed. Eldon didn’t dare turn to glimpse Milo’s expression as he retrieved jars from the pantry and began preparing the sandwiches. He had a knack for coming off as a cold and emotionless recluse. At least this time, it might encourage Milo to leave. The man’s reaction at the mention of Dominus unsettled Eldon more than he cared to admit, but facts were facts; Milo didn’t belong here.
He carried the two speckled ceramic plates to the table and placed the peanut butter and jelly in front of his unwelcome guest.
“Thank you.” Milo barely looked at him. “I made the coffee for you, by the way. I’ll do just fine with water.”
“Oh. Um, thanks.” Eldon put his plate down, feeling like even more of a jerk. He poured himself a hot cup and fetched some water for Milo. When he returned to the table, Milo had already begun eating. He took large, determined bites, chewing with purpose, as though he’d never tasted a sandwich in his life. Claiming his seat, Eldon set their beverages on the table. “Must’ve been hungrier than you thought.”
Milo took a gulp of water. “It’s not often I’m privileged enough to chew or taste anything.”
“Hmm.” Eldon lifted his sandwich to his mouth. He must keep from asking a follow-up question. Stop himself from putting his nose where it didn’t belong. Funny how a lack of sleep deteriorated a man’s willpower. Instead, he sank his teeth into the bread—slightly stale, but the savory meat, cheese, and condiments made up for it. “How did you sleep last night?” he asked.
Milo took a moment to finish chewing. “Very well. The best I’ve slept in a long time.”
“I’m glad.” Eldon took a sip of coffee. It tasted good, strong. “You know, if I were in your position, I’d have had a full beard by now. You don’t even have stubble.”
“Male Blythers don’t have facial hair,” Milo said. Then, tilting his head, the corner of his mouth raised into a slight smirk. “But you don’t care to hear about that.”
“No, I don’t.” Eldon bit into his sandwich. What in the hell was a Blyther?
“You brought up the subject.”
“And I instantly regretted it.”
“I promise I am not dangerous.”
“It’s not you I’m afraid of.”
“I cannot imagine a man such as yourself as being afraid of anything.”
“A man such as myself?” Eldon frowned. “I’m a complete stranger to you.”
“I meant it as a compliment. You’re big, callous, and strong.”
“I’m not sure the word ‘callous’ is a compliment.” “When it comes to Dominus, no one should let their guard down. It rules over this country with a cold iron fist. You said you ran away for a reason, didn’t you?”
Milo averted his gaze, but not fast enough. Eldon saw the look of shock and disappointment in his eyes. “You’re under their control?”
“When I breached the perimeter, I’d thought I’d be free.” Milo shook his head and frowned, as though some unwanted thought or memory plagued him. “I’d truly hoped I would be.”
Eldon took another bite of sandwich. He had a thousand questions but kept himself from asking them. No doubt this man had been through hell and back, and Eldon really did feel awful for his plight. But that didn’t mean he could stay. If Dominus found Milo—no, when they found him, the entire village would be burned to the ground for harboring an escaped blither. He refused to put them at risk.
A sudden, ruthless memory of Eldon’s own resurfaced. Three pregnant women in his former village lined up, side by side. Calliope had been one of them. His heart pounding in the crowd as the enforcer held the scanning window in front of each of their wombs. “Twins,” the enforcer had told the chief as he scanned the last woman. Then, pointing to Calliope he said, “This one is the least far along.” The Chief’s terrifying, emotionless reply. “Then that’s the one to cull. Bring her here.”
The images filled his mind like a thick black fog, poisoning him, cutting off all breathable air. He banished them away and finished eating in with Milo in silence. Milo did look better this morning. Better every minute. His pallor had returned to a normal shade, and by tomorrow, the dark circles under his eyes will have faded even more. When they finished, Eldon took their dishes to the sink.
“What is that?” Milo asked, as Eldon drew up water from the iron faucet.
“A water pump,” he replied, rinsing off the plates. “The mountain springs run through the ground, so I dug a couple wells beneath the property to collect the water. It’s fresh, but I rigged a carbon filter inside the pipe for extra measure.”
“You did that all on your own?”
“It’s not hard.”
“There is no electricity here, is there?”
“You noticed.” He stacked the dishes in the wooden rack beside the sink. Then, dragging a sleeve across his brow, he turned. “All those amenities you’re used to beyond those walls—Not a single outlier village or town has them. No vehicles, no technology, no modern medicine. If you live on the outside, you must forgo all of it.”
“That does not sound half bad to me,” Milo confessed.
That smile. It was relentless in its simple, captivating charm. It lanced through Eldon like a spear. He should go back outside and seek another distracting chore.
“Do you need to lie down and rest?” he asked.
“I was thinking I’d like to take a walk, actually.”
“You’ll tire yourself.”
“Not if it’s a short one. The meal helped, and the fresh air will do me good, won’t it?”
Eldon considered the idea. Anything to get him feeling better. When he felt better, he could leave. Eldon would be alone again. Milo had no idea how much each second spent in his presence troubled Eldon, troubled him in ways he didn’t want to explore.
“Fine, we’ll go to the glade,” he said. “The trail leading there is mostly flat, and it isn’t far off.”
Milo’s eyes lit like sunbeams bouncing off ice. “That sounds wonderful.”
For the first time, Milo felt secure enough to face the outside world. Those days spent alone in the wilderness had been but a blur. The nights, dreadful and endless. He looked up at the tall, skinny trees, taking in their splendor. Something resembling a fuzzy green carpet crept up some of their trunks, and bushy plants covered the dark ground.
Mr. Miller trudged down the path several paces ahead of him, his stiff, awkward movements a clear indication he wasn’t enjoying himself. A cold and bitter man, yet for some reason Milo couldn’t explain, he felt completely safe with him.
“Mr. Miller?” he called.
“It’s Eldon.” Mr. Miller stopped and spun around. His ruggedly handsome features looked a bit softer in the sunlight. “Is this too much? Do you need to go back?”
“No. It’s not that. It’s just—”
“When people take walks, aren’t they supposed to walk together, side by side?”
“We’re not together,” Eldon said. “You said you wanted to walk, so we’re walking.”
Milo didn’t cower under his piercing stare. Drawing the man’s heavy wool coat tighter around his chest, he approached him. “Yes, but it might be more enjoyable if we walked correctly. You know, where we talk and share like men. I’ve never done it before.”
“Consider yourself lucky then.” Eldon turned and continue down the path. Then, over his shoulder he remarked gruffly, “Look, I’m sorry you’re alone, but I live alone by choice. You shouldn’t expect companionship from me. I don’t want a companion.”
“You have made that very clear since the moment we met.” And he didn’t like being touched, either. It was the saddest thing Milo had ever heard. “You didn’t ask to save me. I’m sure you wish you had crossed that stream sooner, so you wouldn’t have spotted me that day.”
Eldon stopped, turning again. If Milo had blinked, he might have missed the subtle look of apology as Eldon waited in place for Milo to reach him. Together, they continued down the curving path. The crisp breeze brushed across Milo’s face, the shaded parts of their walk feeling several degrees colder than the sunny portions. Stuffing his hands into his coat pockets, he stole a glance at the remarkable man beside him.
Ah, but Eldon was very fine to look at. He must have stood about six foot three. His long, espresso-colored locks had been tied back with a leather cord; the shorter strands tucked loosely behind his ears. He wore a tan suede coat over an olive-green tunic, gathered at the waist by a brown leather belt. A pair of thick leather boots and brown trousers completed the primitive ensemble.
“What are you looking at?”
Milo tore his eyes away, flooded with red hot embarrassment. “Nothing.”
“Liar,” Eldon muttered. “You were studying me.”
Though he hadn’t raised his voice, Milo could feel the irritation radiating off him like a nuclear reactor. What a shame for someone so attractive to travel through life alone. Why did Eldon hate attention so much? Was he this ornery with everyone?
Good thing that over the past few months, Milo had learned to hide his fear well. Squaring his shoulders, he replied, “Not you. Your clothes. They are interesting.”
Eldon snorted. “Interesting? They’re functional is what they are. We have to cloth ourselves using the limited resources we’ve got. The villages often trade textiles and other goods with each other, depending on what’s needed at that time of year. Most of the clothing in our mercantile comes from Acadia, a big town southwest of here.”
Milo glanced down at his own outfit. “Do you think the mercantile has anything in my size?”
“I really hope that wasn’t a complaint.”
“On the contrary. I feel guilty for wearing your clothes.”
Eldon paused a moment before letting out a hard sigh. “Tell me your size, and I’ll see what I can find this afternoon. I guess you’ll need something to wear when you leave, anyway.”
The words stung like a hypodermic needle. This man really wanted him gone. But how could Milo explain? Should he tell him why he was running? Would it even matter?
Milo hadn’t mattered to anyone before.
His legs started to ache, reminding him of the ordeal he’d endured and how much he’d put his body through. Yet despite it all, the baby had remained with him. She was still part of him; the very reason he’d made the choice to escape when logic had demanded he stay. He didn’t want to be a human pin cushion anymore. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing her forever.
He began to lift a hand to his stomach but stopped himself. Eldon was uncomfortable with Milo’s pregnancy—it was obvious by the way he avoided the subject at all costs. If Milo was going to convince this man to let him stay, he had best tread lightly for the time being.
The canopy of trees deposited them into an open expanse of meadow. It was lush, beautiful, and most importantly, natural. Milo seldom experienced anything natural, right down to his very existence.
As they walked toward the center of the glade, the bright afternoon sun thawed the chilled places on his cheeks, nose, and ears. Trees encircled them for miles, blanketing the distant hills in an endless sea of gold, orange, and red. Beyond the hills, short mountains of grass, and rock kissed the skyline.
“Why do some trees change color, while others remain green?” he asked.
“They’re called evergreens,” Eldon replied, his gaze fixated somewhere ahead of them. “The autumn-colored trees lose their leaves all at once, while evergreens shed their leaves gradually throughout the year and grow new ones.”
“That is very interesting.” Milo shut his eyes and lifted his chin toward the sun, drawing in a slow breath of fresh air. “It feels like we’re the only two people in the world.”
“It’s my favorite spot. I often come here to clear my mind, watch the wildlife, or just journal.”
Milo found himself wondering what this rough, closed-off man could possibly be journaling about. He most likely wrote in fragments and bullet points, noting what he saw that day, or what he’d hunted. The digital logbooks at the science facility probably held more emotion.
Then, far off in the distance, in a small clearing, Milo spotted a wooden tower. Slowly, he scanned the tree line. Another tower loomed several hundred yards to the left, and another to the right. Fear licked up his spine as he considered who might be occupying them.
He pointed. “What are those towers out there?”
“Watch stations,” Eldon said. “Every village in the area has one. Come winter, one person will man each station, watching for timbers and other predators coming down from the mountains.”
Relief filled Milo. “They only come down during winter?”
“For now, yes. They have enough prey to hunt during the warmer months.”
“What happens if you see one?”
“We sound an alarm to alert the other watchers. If the beast comes too close, we shoot it.”
“Who is the watcher for your village?”
Eldon folded his arms across his broad chest. “You’re looking at him.”
Milo’s eyes widened, and he bit his lip to fight off a smirk. “That doesn’t surprise me. And you wonder why I assumed you weren’t afraid of anything.” He recalled the strange gun he had seen in the cabin. “Is that why you live so far away from the rest of the village?”
Eldon nodded. “I volunteered to be the watcher. I enjoy the seclusion.”
“I had no idea.” Milo hadn’t expected the words to leave his mouth, but he didn’t regret saying them either. He turned and walked to a stream several paces off, nearly hidden by a few boulders and tall grass. Beside the bank grew a three-foot-tall plant with long, sharply toothed leaves and tiny clusters of white flowers in umbrella shapes. He reached out a hand to touch it.
“Don’t!” Eldon’s voice boomed from behind. Milo turned as the man approached with fast, determined strides. “That’s water hemlock. The most toxic plant around. It can kill you in as little as an hour if you eat it.” He stepped between Milo and the plant. “Don’t ever, ever touch it.”
Milo frowned. “A deadly imposter that can be found near streams. Like me.”
“Milo.” Eldon sighed. He paused, as though fishing for the correct words to say. “I’m very glad I found you, and I’m thankful you’re alive and well. Just because I’m sending you away, doesn’t mean that I don’t want you alive. I’m sorry if I ever gave you that impression.”
At least the man was honest. But how could Milo reach him? How could he explain? He had looked death in the eye, breached the most impenetrable walls, trekked through endless miles of unfamiliar territory, and for what? To be sent back to a life of servitude? To re-live the painful lies Mr. Wade had told him? To surrender his unnatural, man-made body to more experiments and torture?
A wave of nausea attacked him. Breathing deeply, he fought it hard, conquered it. He had come too far to give into terror now. “Some people fear solitude, Eldon. To some, the very idea of being alone is their worst nightmare.” Milo hesitated, remembering their earlier agreement of keeping their own business to themselves. “Do you know what it is like to exist inside concrete walls with artificial lighting? To have no identity, other than a series of numbers and letters? No family, no friends, no childhood.”
Eldon regarded him with no expression. “No.”
Milo stepped toward him. “You said Dominus rules these lands. If that is true, then you know their selfish minds and cold, merciless hearts.”
When Eldon’s expression darkened, Milo knew his words had struck a nerve. He had hoped he might appeal to Eldon’s empathy, whatever little of it remained. But the look he gave Milo was far from compassionate. Retreating a step, Eldon became even more withdrawn. “I do… which is why you must go back.”
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