Thorgaut walked out from under the shade of the house and trees. He basked for a moment in the sunshine. Then he took a deep breath and exhaled with a loud sigh.
He barely noticed the scent of the flowers wafting up from the garden. The chirping of the purple birds flitting from tree to tree escaped his senses as well.
His mind was spinning a million miles an hour. He tried to process everything he had learned about the shufflers. So, Halldora had created and surrounded herself with a small group of undead corpses. And she could control them at will.
Vriobrum shuffled by on his way to the flowerbed. Thorgaut watched him go past and then followed from a short distance. Vriobrum glanced back once, but then ignored Thorgaut after that. He watched Vriobrum trying to pick weeds from among the flowers.
It was uncomfortable to watch him bend over and work at such weird, stiff angles. Vriobrum’s clumsy fingers often missed the weeds entirely. Sometimes he would even uproot a flowering plant.
Thorgaut drew closer within talking distance and waited until the shuffler looked up. “Hello!” Thorgaut said as he raised a hand in acknowledgment. The shuffler didn’t say anything but did maintain eye contact.
“It’s a nice day. Huh?” Thorgaut said. He looked up at the light blue sky and blazing white sun above him. He wondered if Vriobrum noticed the details of the things around him.
Vriobrum returned to picking the weeds. Thorgaut took a few steps forward until he stood on the opposite side of the flowerbed. The shuffler stopped what he was doing but didn’t look up this time. Thorgaut reached out a hand and picked a few of the ornery sprouts too.
“So, Halldora tells me that you were a mighty warrior once,” Thorgaut said. Vriobrum didn’t answer. He continued picking more weeds.
“It must be frustrating to be stuck like this,” Thorgaut said quietly. “You wanted me to put you out of your misery last night along with your friends. Didn’t you?”
The shuffler didn’t say anything. It stood up without looking at him and shuffled off towards the house. Thorgaut finished pulling a few final weeds that Vriobrum had missed. Then he walked back to the house too.
Halldora was standing in the doorway watching him. He caught her eye and fixed his gaze on her as he walked toward the hut. He admired her slim, lithe figure. The way her dark hair swirled around her face and neck as she swept the floor.
She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. But she wasn’t ugly either. Her only real defect was her height. She was shorter than he preferred. He liked women who came up to his eyes. He couldn’t complain though. Who expected to get lost in the unexplored woods of the North and then stumble across a pretty woman anyway.
He found her to be pretty in her own way. Maybe it was just because she was different than most of the woman in his region. Most of the princesses and royal women he met were all too pale and pasty looking. They looked like they didn’t get much sun. But he could tell that Halldora spent plenty of time in the outdoors by the sheen of her sunkissed skin.
He stood in the doorway and watched her sweep the floor. Each stroke of the broom bringing her closer in his direction until she was directly in front of him. She was so close the swirls of her dress brushed against him. He caught a whiff of her scent and took a deep breath. She smelled like wild daisies. It was intoxicating.
Thorgaut started to reach out and touch her. He wanted to take her in his arms and draw her in close. Kiss her and be kissed back by those soft lips.
Halldora stopped sweeping just inches away from him. She wiped a few strands of hair out of her face and pulled them back to fix them in place. A few stray strands she had missed still hung over her eyes. She jerked her head to the side to toss them back, but that didn’t work either.
The stubborn strands still stuck to her cheeks. So, she tried to puff at them with her breath to blow them out of the way. Her hands were still busy tying back the rest of her hair.
She didn’t break eye contact with Thorgaut the entire time. He stood mesmerized, watching with bated breath. She had an aura of beauty and charm that left him transfixed.
She noticed the intentness of his gaze and blushed. “What is it?” she asked.
It had been a long time since he had felt this way around a woman. Most of the silly girls who came to see him at his father’s lodge bored him. He realized he had been staring and shrugged nonchalantly. You remind me of someone I once knew.”
Halldora smiled revealing a perfect set of white teeth and finished tying her hair back.
Thorgaut reached out and grabbed the few stray strands that were still there. The hair swayed and escaped his grasp. His large fingers felt clumsy like the shufflers he had seen earlier. He didn’t want to poke Halldora in the eye, so he brushed them to the side with a single finger. The tip of his finger trailed along the edges of her cheekbones. Her skin felt so soft and smooth under his touch.
Halldora caught her breath and closed her eyes. She turned her face up and to the side to follow the trail of his finger caressing her cheek and into her hair. He let the rest of his fingers trail into and down her curls. He squeezed his fingers and thumb together to apply pressure as he pulled down on the locks of her hair.
When he reached the ends of her hair, he played with the loose strands between his fingers. He ran his hand back down through her hair several times, gathering more each time.
Halldora opened her eyes and gazed into his. Thorgaut tugged at her hair, guiding her head closer to his. He glanced down at her lips and then back up into her eyes. Then he slid his hand around the nape of her neck and grasped her gently but firmly.
He pulled her in for a kiss, and his lips almost brushed against hers. But at the last instant Halldora pushed the broom that was still in her hands against his chest to hold him back. She turned her head right before he could kiss her.
“No, Thorgaut. Stop,” she whispered in a low, husky voice. “We shouldn’t. I can’t. I’m sorry.”