He was across the room in an instant, laying a careful hand on her head, as Sarah had done, checking for fever, as his worried eyes searched hers.
She’d already flopped back onto the pillows piled up behind her, it was too hard to hold herself up, but she found the energy for a small smile, “I think you’ve said that a lot recently.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and brought her hand up to his cheek, “I’ve been so scared. You were so ill, and so unhappy.”
Anaria bit her lip at the reminder of her awful mess. It didn’t help, the tears started again.
“I’m so sorry Liam, I made such a mess of things again. I don’t know how to make it up to you but I promise, I only danced with the Duke’s son because he promised you’d not mind and then he’d find me story books for the village children.”
“It’s alright Ana.”
“No it’s not, they were all in the room and they laughed, and sneered and said the most horrible things and it was all my fault. I’m never going to fit in with the village, I keep trying to do the right thing and end up doing exactly the wrong thing.”
Liam huffed, “Ana, it was not your fault. I was there, I know exactly what happened.”
She went white, “What? Where? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I tried, but you ran and I had to get through that stupid crowd to try and follow you.”
“But where? I didn’t see you.”
Liam looked down, then looked up and set his shoulders, “You were dancing with me Ana.”
Anaria looked him over properly for the first time. His hair was its usual tousle but his cheeks were clean-shaven and the clothes he was wearing were not those of a forester. They were plain, almost too simple, and in that showed their quality.
She shrank away from him, he saw, and the hurt in his eyes was almost more than she could bear.
Almost, she needed to understand first, “Who are you?”
He reached for her hand again and she let him take it, needing the anchor, despite the fear and hurt.
“My full name is William James Demerath and I am the son of the Duke and Duchess of Clearwater. My family has always called me Liam, and I prefer it from the people I care about.”
“Then who is my Liam? Is he just some sort of lie? Some stupid way of getting revenge for me being so rude to you at the dance?”
“Ana! You really do come up with some of the most ridiculous conclusions.”
She tried to pull her hand away, he tangled their fingers together and brought it to his lips, gently kissing the back of it. Her eyes filled with tears again. She was so weak.
“I am your Liam, always and completely, I swear. Our family have a tradition of spending time amongst the hardest working members of the duchy as we grow up. It helps keep us humble and aware of what’s important.”
Anaria frowned, a memory tugging at her, “In the travellers’ hut, you said something about it being a mistake to have oversight of something without understanding it.”
Liam smiled, “Exactly.”
“But you were at the town dance as you and then you were in the square and rescued my book as Liam you. How? Why?”, Anaria’s head was starting to ache.
“Maybe we should leave this until you’re feeling better, you look like you’re in pain.”
“NO! I’ll just keep turning things over and over in my head and go mad with not understanding.”, Now her lower lip was quivering.
“Well I can’t do this with you looking so sad and alone.”
With that, Liam moved to sit against the pillows beside her and tucked her under his arm, as he had so often before. Anaria knew she should probably move, but it felt so safe.
“Now, where was I? Ah, yes the dance and the square. My mother had asked me to attend the dance in order to better acquaint myself with the townspeople. I’ve only really spent time with people from either the castle or the forest. Or other castles. So I’m not very good at conversing with the group of people sitting in between.”
Anaria snorted, “Clearly. I still think you looked like a walking bird’s nest.”
“I’d been working on clearing a badly overgrown road for the best part of a month before it, and to be honest, had completely forgotten beards weren’t a normal part of town fashion. They’re more usual than not among labourers.”
“Hurry up, I’m getting sleepy like this and I’ll have nightmares if you don’t get on with explaining.”
“I think you might be feeling a little better, town girl. So there I stood at this dance, with every girl in the place treating me like something you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoe and you came in. There was clearly something going on, you were in such a rush to get away from the door and into the crowd, I was intrigued. I saw the people you came in with, then saw you trying to hide.”
“Normally I hide quite successfully, you’re the one that spoiled it.”
“Well of course. The minute you spoke to me, everybody else decided they could as well. I had no peace all night.”
“Ah, that would explain why you were impossible to get near for the rest of the evening. Which is why I decided to snoop a bit on the people you’d arrived trying to avoid.”
“I managed to gain quite a lot of rather interesting information. Ow! Don’t pinch town girl, I’m getting on with it. Between your friends’ gossip, when they weren’t insulting every possible aspect of my appearance and upbringing, and overhearing a conversation between your father and the father of that nasty blond one, I decided you were about to find yourself in a rather uncomfortable situation.”
Anaria’s curiosity veered towards alarm, “What’s father done?”
“Nothing you don’t already know about. They were simply settling the terms of your inevitable marriage to Sebastian.”
He shifted a little, “You asked in the library about the rumour of us knowing all the goings on. We don’t, generally. But every now and again, one of us will get a feeling, a push that says we need to be in a certain place at a certain time, and I got that feeling that night, listening to your father’s plans.”
“I also got the feeling it would be better not to involve myself as the Duke’s son, it would have been too threatening. So I left, removed what I could of my beard, and switched into my usual clothes. I then lurked in the square until I saw you leave, followed you across it and waited some more. I was just about to give up and go home when that book came flying out of the window.”
“You stood in the rain for an hour, just in case a girl you didn’t know, who’d just been rude to you, needed your help?”
“I was right, you’re far too nice.”
“You were glad of it that night though.”
Liam looked down at the face resting in the hollow of his shoulder, she was all but asleep, “I’m going to leave the rest for later, you’re not going to hear anything else I say now.”
That earned him a sleepy growl and a soft thump on the chest, “And why do boys want to pinch? It’s no fun being pinched and it’s no fun pinching either.”
He leaned down and quietly murmured, “I punched Sebastian.”
“You what?!”, she resurfaced for a moment.
“After you ran, I tried to follow after you but he stood in my way and told me you weren’t worth my time. So I punched him, then tried to catch you.”
Anaria smiled as she sank back into sleep, “Would have liked to have seen that.”