tea and cake
Sindy finished changing the girl's bandage and sent her away with a quick hug. Wiping her hand across her forehead, she glanced around the new refugee centre. Winter had been hard. Not many people ever managed to escape the manufactories in Cerne Bralksteld at the best of times, but even less survived the journey in the cold.
The Imperial City of Cerne Bralksteld was much further west than Llanotterly, where Sindy and her husband lived, and so caught more of the cold from Voriias. The journey was hard, and those that made it arrived in Llontterly wounded, sick, and dispirited. Most, to Sindy's despair, were beyond her ability to help. But she kept a smile on her face, and did what she could – even if, on far too many occasions, that turned out to be making their last few days as comfortable as possible.
There were still people waiting to see her, but none who seemed like they were likely to drop in the next ten minutes. She ran her hand over her belly, which at five months pregnant was firmer than she'd ever known it.
"I'm just popping out for some air," Sindy called out to no one in particular.
It was a different world outside the centre. Spring was in the air, the light brighter and friendlier than it had been for months. Following her feet, Sindy wandered away from the centre, to the edge of the town. Her thoughts drifted, as they were increasingly tending to do.
When she and Will had married, she'd thought she'd never worry about anything ever again. But then her sister, Ana, had asked her help getting the refugee centre up and running, and what had started as a small advisory role had morphed into a full-time vocation.
Was that Ana's influence, or her own choice? Sindy didn't really know. She'd always been slightly in awe of Ana... Or, more rightly, slightly terrified of her. But she understood better now what it was that fueled Ana's fire, and with that understanding had come the realisation that she wasn't going to stop helping.
Will had worried about the baby when she'd told him she planned to work more at the centre. But Sindy had held her ground and Will... well, when she'd brought him to the centre and he'd seen the escapees, he'd started helping out as well. He'd built an additional building, and he tended to the garden that provided so many of the herbs she relied on to treat people's physical injuries.
Something tickled the back of Sindy's neck, the strange sense she was being watched. Looking up, she saw a tall, tanned man standing on the edge of the town, a confused look on his face.
For a second, she thought about turning back. And then she changed her mind and walked up to him.
"Excuse me, are you... do you know where you are?" she asked the stranger.
He blinked, frowned, paused. And then said, "Ahh... No. Not really."
"Have you come from, I mean, are you," Sindy lowered her voice, "are you from Cerne Bralksteld?"
A smile darted across the man's face. Sindy had seen some very memorable smiles in her life. Smiles that made you think the person offering it could give you anything, if only you were to ask. Her sister's smile, which always seemed to be thrown at the world like a weapon. And Will's smile, which lifted his homely, plain face and made him the most beautiful man she'd ever known.
But this smile was different. It seemed, somehow, both happy and sad at the same time.
"No," he said, "I'm not escaping anything. Or... I don't think so. I don't know. I don't know why I came here. Sorry. I should go."
"Would you like a cup of tea?" Sindy heard herself asking him.
He seemed startled. For a moment, Sindy thought he might refuse, and she couldn't decide if she thought that might be better. But then he nodded his head and she was leading him back to the refugee centre, past the people waiting to be seen, and into the little kitchen.
She made him a cup of hot, very sweet tea and cut him a slice of cake.
"Oh. Thank you," he said, eyeing the cake with what seemed to be suspicion.
"I made it myself," Sindy offered. "It's fruit. Um. Because, you know, in winter, fruit cake lasts longer."
He smiled at her again. "Sorry. I... I haven't had cake for a long time."
"You don't like cake?"
"Ah. No, I like cake. Honey cake, especially. Or I used to, anyway."
Sindy didn't know what to say to that. She wondered if he was from the south-east, perhaps Sausendorf. They tended to get more sun down there, which would explain his colouring and perhaps also why he seemed so far away from home.
"You said you were lost?" She asked.
He dropped his eyes and began picking at the cake with long fingers, though he didn't taste any of it. "I said I wasn't escaping anything."
"You know," Sindy said, conscious of her tone of voice, trying to keep it soft. She wasn't sure why, but he reminded her of the deer that sometimes wandered into her garden. She felt she needed to tread softly, or he would simply disappear. "We look after people here. Being lost and escaping something, well, I mean, they can sometimes feel the same way."
The man seemed to be thinking. And then he said, "I... I agreed to help someone, but I didn't realise when I said I would what it would involve. I don't know why I came here. I just... I can't think straight. I don't know what I should do."
"Does this person need your help?"
The man laughed, and for a moment his face lit up. "No, no. If there's one thing I'm certain of, it's that she'll do it with or without me."
"So perhaps you could excuse yourself?"
"Perhaps," the man replied, taking a sip of his tea.
"What's your name?" Sindy asked.
He told her.
"Well, Mr. Sinon, I'm Sindy. I'm afraid I don't really know very much about the world. I've never really left Llanotterly. But you seem like a nice man. And I think you want to help this person, but you're worried you can't?"
He put his cup down, drawing his eyebrows together. "I... I think I want to help her. But if I do... I might make it worse. For her. I think I might hurt her. She's better than me, stronger. I shouldn't... I don't know." His voice dropped. "If I help her, she might find out what I am, and then she might hate me."
Understanding dawned. Sindy leaned back in her chair, her hands resting on her emerging bump.
"You love her."
The man's grip on his tea cup tightened, his knuckles turning white. "No... I don't think so... I couldn't..."
"I understand," Sindy said, reaching across the table and placing her hand on his. "It's alright. Life's never easy, is it?"
"No. Not so far, anyway."
"Well," Sindy said, bring her hand back, "I think you have to listen to your heart. She might not love you back, but if you really do love her, don't you want to help her?"
The man's face went blank, and then he laughed. "Yes. Yes, I think I do. But what if I get it wrong? What if I -"
"You can play 'what if' until the day you die," Sindy said. "I very nearly missed out on the man I love because I was worried about what other people thought, what they wanted... because I was worried he didn't love me. But then I realised I had to... I had to be brave."
The man's eyes darted very quickly to her bump. "Thing's worked out for you?"
"Yes," Sindy said, smiling. "Happily Ever After."
She'd meant to cheer him up, but the stranger's face fell. "I think... thank you for the tea... But I should go."
"I didn't mean to say the wrong thing," Sindy blurted out as the man stood with surprising speed and started towards the door.
He paused. And then turned back to her.
"You didn't," he said, another strange, sad little smile darting across his face. "Really. Thank you. The tea was very nice."
Sindy pulled herself to her feet. "There's always tea and cake here, if you need it. You'd be very welcome."
The man glanced over at the cooking area. "Yes, and a hearth for me to sit by."
"Er... yes, if you like."
"Sorry, I didn't mean... Sometimes I don't know why I say things."
"That makes two of us, then," Sindy said. "Please, come back whenever you like."
The man smiled, nodded, and left.
Sindy sat for a further ten minutes, staring at his empty cup and the untouched cake. Love really was a funny thing. She found herself thinking about the strange man for the rest of the day, and hoping he might find his courage, the way she had with Will.
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