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Story Time: Love, Unconditional

I was definitely in an Easter sort of mood when I wrote this one. I’m always looking for new inspiration, so if you have ideas, you can always join our Patreon! Not only do you get the first look at new Story Time and all the benefits of supporting the show, but $20/month patrons get to suggest prompts!

All right, that’s enough schilling, let’s go hang out with Tode.

*

The Crew—the original five plus Cybilene and Killiker—made their way through the winding woods around Touramelle, chatting as they went.

“Then our father doesn’t know we’re coming?” Tode was a little alarmed by this.

“The mail service isn’t exactly dependable out here,” Cybilene explained. “Even if I had sent a letter, we would have arrived long before it was delivered.”

“That sounds like a good way to shock an old man to death,” Zara muttered.

Rosie elbowed her. “You just don’t like surprises.”

“Don’t worry, Papa loves surprises,” Cybilene assured them.

“He threw me a surprise party once,” Killiker said grandly. “Granted, I had lied about my birthday, but it was still very sweet. I was impressed he remembered.”

“I can’t wait for the party,” Rosie said, clapping her hands together.

“What’s a gnome party like?” Castor asked.

“When’s the last time you’ve been to any party, Castor?” Knowles teased.

Castor chuckled. “It’s been a while.”

“And you’re sure he’ll be glad to see me?” Tode wondered.

“Well,” Cybilene said, beckoning the Crew around a corner and into view of a village just downhill, “why don’t you find out?”

Tode stopped, looking down at the village below, which was reportedly filled with his family. The others proceeded down the hill, Killiker telling some funny story about the last time he was here. Tode found himself…afraid. That was unusual.

“Hey.”

Tode looked up and found Cybilene beside him, nearly a mirror. She smiled.

“This will be all right?” Tode asked.

“Of course it will,” Cybilene said. “Our family is the best. You’ll see.” She took hold of his hand, which was steadying.

“I’ve never had a family before,” Tode said thoughtfully, starting off down the hill after the Crew.

“What are you talking about?” Cybilene scoffed. “You’ve had one as long as I’ve known you.”

Tode looked down the hill at all his tall friends, laughing at something Rosie just said. Zara glanced back at him, checking on him, although the quickness of her glance away would belie what Tode knew to be true, that even she, who pretended not to, cared about him.

“Are you scared, Tode?” Cybilene asked.

“I am,” Tode said. “It’s curious. I’m not often afraid of much.”

“Hard to believe you’d be afraid of anything, growing up all alone in the woods, with wolves and such,” Cybilene commented, kicking a rock along the path ahead of them.

“Maybe that’s the thing.” Tode kicked the rock again, farther along. “Maybe only needing to rely on myself has given me an animal’s instincts for people.”

“Are you scared of them?” Cybilene hooked her thumb at the Crew.

“No, but there was no risk in joining them at the beginning.” The rock was in front of Cybilene, but Tode kicked it anyway. “I suppose the risk here is…that family comes with obligation. Obligation that a business partnership or even a friendship doesn’t carry.”

“That’s true.” The rock was in front of Cybilene again, and this time she kicked it. “But for us, family also comes with love. And that’s unconditional.”

“I’d like to believe that, but I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Tode murmured.

“Then it’s high time you did.” Cybilene stopped in front of him and took both his hands. “This will be good. And I won’t bother promising, because I’m very confident that I’m right.”

“Well, I trust you,” Tode said decisively.

Cybilene smiled warmly. “C’mon.”

The village bubbled up in the valley amongst the trees as if from nowhere, cottages and shops in a wide variety of sizes, but most in exactly the right size for Tode’s taste. The village was busy, too, with gnomes and a few other folk scurrying about, several of whom greeted Cybilene and even Killiker as the party passed through. A cabal of children burst out from a building at the ringing of a bell—a schoolhouse, Tode thought, although he’d only seen something like it once—and immediately barrelled toward Cybilene.

“Cousin Cybilene, cousin Cybilene, you’re back!” squeaked the smallest child, a gnome who surely couldn’t be that small, that was impossible.

“Cousin Cybilene, is your friend Killiker going to tell us stories?” said the lankiest of the gnome children.

“Cousin Cybilene, who are all these new people?” said a gnome child with huge glasses accentuating already huge eyes.

“I will answer every single one of your questions if you and your parents come to dinner tonight,” Cybilene said lightly. “Now off you go, tell your folks.”

With various shrieking and shouts, the children scuttled off, and Cybilene laughed. “Wait ‘til they find out who you are. You’ll be completely mobbed, I’m afraid.”

Tode watched the children go with something in his chest like gooey melting sap. “Those are our cousins?”

“They are, and they’re unholy terrors,” Cybilene said cheerfully. “I love them to bits. Come now, this way to Papa’s house.”

The rest of the crew had reached the little clearing down the road before them—Tode could hear Killiker shouting, “Didn’t you have a broken leg?”

“What else is healing magic for if not for fixing up a broken leg here and there?” said a voice that sounded startlingly like Tode’s.

“Cybilene won’t be pleased to see you on that ladder again,” Killiker warned.

“She can come and take me down herself,” the voice grumbled, but with mirth. “Now you all will want the guest houses, I’m sure.”

“Thank you so much for letting us stay with you,” Rosie gushed. “We really appreciate it.”

“I’ll show you to the place.” The voice that sounded like Tode’s was closer to the ground now, but Tode still couldn’t see its owner through the trees and around all his very tall friends.

“Oh, no, that’s quite all right,” Killiker said. “I know where to go. And anyway, old man, Cybilene wants to chat with you by herself.”

“Who are you calling old, elf?” scoffed the voice. “All right, let’s see what I’ve done this time. Off you go.”

The crew chorused thanks to the unseen voice, and finally moved away so that Tode could see its owner.

The sight stopped Tode in his tracks. The man before him was old, older still than Tode, who thought of himself as very aged indeed most days—and yet, the similarities were unmistakable. The apple cheeks underneath the beard, the twinkling eyes, the quick brown hands.

“Papa!” Cybilene shouted, spreading her arms for a hug.

The old man met her embrace enthusiastically. “There’s my girl. Welcome back, Cybby, you find anything good out there?”

“You could say that,” Cybilene said, breaking away from him and waving Tode forward. Tode took a few hesitant steps toward them, close enough that Cybilene could at least give him a little pat on the shoulder. “Papa, this is Tode.”

The old man turned his head sideways, like an animal trying to understand something. “Tode, eh? Looks familiar. Have we met before, young man?”

Tode almost laughed—when was the last time he’d been called ‘young man?’—but resisted the urge and instead offered a hand to shake. “In a manner of speaking. It was a very long time ago. And I went by a different name then.”

“You needn’t tell me what your name used to be,” the old man assured him. “I’ll see if I can remember you.”

“It’s okay, Papa, he doesn’t mind you knowing,” Cybilene said. “His name used to be Bartholomew.”

It took the old man a moment to parse this. “Bartholomew. Bartholomew? Our Bartholomew?”

“As far as we can figure,” Cybilene said, nudging Tode a little closer. “He grew up in the woods where Bartholomew and Mama disappeared. He has a strong magical sense, too, and…well, the similarities are clear.”

“It can’t be,” the old man said, nodding nevertheless, tears springing up in his eyes. “Is it true? How could you survive?”

“I was raised by wolves,” Tode explained. “I believe they saved my life.”

“Did they?” The old man took him warmly by the shoulders before he could pull away, examining his face like it was a sacred inscription. “This is a miracle. Do you know that?”

“We have had a little luck,” Tode said, feeling suddenly very awkward in this man’s gaze.

“Papa, you’re crowding him,” Cybilene scolded.

“Ah, I’m sorry, apologies,” the old man said, pulling away. “I’m…I am simply…” He seemd suddenly overwhelmed with emotion, dabbing away tears before looking back at Tode. “Can it be true? Are you my son?”

That frame of fear that kept Tode rigid held him squarely in place. To be a colleague was one thing, to be a friend is another, to be a cousin a third thing, but to be a son…

He glanced at Cybilene. She was regarding him carefully. Unconditional love. That was what it meant to be a son, apparently.

So Tode shook off that frame like a wolf shaking off the rain. “I am. At least, I think I am. I think I am Cybilene’s twin and that would indeed make me your son—”

The old man’s arms were around Tode before he realized what was happening, and Tode found himself returning the embrace, tears squeezed out of him unexpectedly.

“You were dead, and now you’re alive again!” the old man said through sobbing.

“He’s been alive the whole time, Papa!” Cybilene was crying too, a hand on both their shoulders, steadying their hug without joining it.

“A miracle,” the old man cried, holding Tode as close as he possibly could. “It’s a miracle.”

And Tode discovered a new phenomenon: love, unconditional.

Published inStory Time