The juicy apples near the top of the tree were just out of reach, but Mae was nothing if not stubborn. The pail at her hip was more than half full, yet the deep red apples just above her head waved tauntingly in the breeze. The branches were thinning here, a dozen feet above the ground, but Mae was still a slight woman, despite having lived more than half a century. She narrowed her eyes and took a firm grip with hands that were beginning to be gnarled, then climbed higher, testing each branch with the toe of one scuffed leather boot before committing her full weight to it. Apples were her favorite fruit, and the preserves she would make from this picking would last her all the long Icewind Dale winter if she rationed them carefully. But only if she could fill the pail completely. A stiff breeze from the north lifted the graying hair from her neck as she plucked the apples from the branches one by one. Mae shivered. The wind promised that autumn was nearly at an end. She'd only been out for an hour this afternoon and already her hands were growing numb. But the pail was nearly full now. Just a few more. She squinted upward against the bright autumn sun. Three especially perfect apples crowned a branch just a little higher. She reached up on tiptoe, one hand curled around the tree trunk, but they were out of reach. Not for long. Mae climbed higher. The branch beneath her foot bent slightly but did not crack. Cautiously, she eased herself onto it as near to the tree trunk as possible. Her hands reached for a better grip. There was a sickening crack, and suddenly she was falling, a broken branch in her hand. Rough bark scraped at her arms and face, and a sudden jolt blasted the breath from her lungs while blinding light dazzled her eyes. Apples bounced out of the pail to fall like hailstones. Then there was blackness.
Drizzt tipped his head to the side, holding still as only an elf can. The wind whistled through the dale carrying the sound of birdsong to him, but something was amiss. What had he heard? He slipped a black-shafted arrow from the quiver on his back. There it was again. Something like a deer call, but this was not the season for that. He frowned and ghosted through the forest on silent feet. A gust of swirling wind worked against him, obliterating the sound, but when it finally calmed for a moment, the ranger heard a moan.
"Open your eyes, Miss Mae."
The voice came to her from afar, distorted as though her ears were full of water.
"Can you look at me?"
Hands were touching her neck with a gentle warmth, and Mae squinted up at a blurry figure leaning over her.
"That's right. Try to be still."
Her head was gently raised and something soft was tucked beneath it. The hands moved on to her collar bone, then her arms. Mae blinked, trying to see through the fog. "I was too greedy. So foolish. So foolish!" She tried to sit up, but a firm hand on her chest kept her down.
"Don't worry about that now. Rest yourself while I check for broken bones. Have you pain anywhere?"
The hands were on her sides, testing her ribs. It felt like when Howarth used to draw her close with his work-callused hands. Tears filled Mae's eyes, and she choked back a sob. "Oh my. Oh dear."
Instantly the hands stilled. "Am I hurting you, Miss Mae? Do you have pain here? Where does it hurt?"
She shook her head, blinking fiercely, but the tears kept coming. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. J‑just leave me be."
The face leaned in closer to hers, those warm hands gently gripping her shoulders now. "Miss Mae, do you know who I am?"
She drew a shuddering breath and focused on him at last. "Not Howarth. You're not Howarth." Fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." She closed her eyes tight.
"Miss Mae, it's Drizzt Do'Urden. We live on the other side of the stream, two miles north. Do you remember?"
She put a hand over her mouth, eyes still firmly shut. "You have those nice children who bring me rabbits and venison stew and such."
He nodded. "Yes. You remember. That is well. Did you fall from this tree?"
"Yep. Silly me. Just a foolish old woman. I get what I deserve."
"Enough." His tone was firm, and her eyes flew open wide. "I'll not sit by and listen to you disparage yourself over an accident. Now, do you have pain anywhere?"
"It all happened so fast. At my age, I shoulda known better than to be reckless." Her right ankle felt like it was on fire, but damned if she would admit it to anyone. Mae rolled to her side and grimaced.
Pressure from his hand on her shoulder encouraged her to stay down. The ranger patted her legs gently, and she gasped as he touched her right ankle.
"Did you not feel this before?"
She stared at him for a moment, and her cheeks flushed pink.
Drizzt just shook his head slightly.
Mae scowled. "I do all right. What'll folks think if they hear I fell outta a dang apple tree anyway? You should just leave. I'll manage."
"I'm not letting you crawl home."
"Who said anything about crawling?" She glared at him. "Never been so embarrassed in my life."
"There's no need." He extended a hand to her.
Mae considered that hand for a long moment. Grudgingly, she took it. "Do you always act like such a healer, checkin' every limb?"
The ranger gently drew her to a sitting position. He smirked. "I asked you three times if you had pain, and you wouldn't answer me." He shook out the cloak that had been pillowed under her head and draped it over her shoulders. The smell of woodsmoke wafted up from it.
Mae's eyebrows climbed. "That? There's such a thing as bein' disoriented from a fall, you know."
He nodded. "And there's such a thing as being too embarrassed to admit something. I have a daughter, and I can generally tell when she's being deliberately evasive."
Mae's face felt hot, and she looked down as if to more easily find the edges of the cloak before wrapping it tight.
"Let's have a look at that ankle." He removed her boot with great care.
Mae's eyes stung afresh. She covered her mouth with her hand, but soon her shoulders were shaking, and the tears ran down her face as he felt her swollen ankle.
"I'm sorry, Miss Mae. I'm trying to be gentle."
She shook her head, drawing a sleeve across her face. "It's not that. I can handle the pain. It's just … It's just …" She shook her head.
He looked up. "Just?"
She wiped her face again and huffed a sigh. "Never you mind."
Drizzt tipped his head sideways, as though remembering something. He shook it slightly. "I don't mind."
She gave a little laugh and looked away into the forest. "How bad is it?"
He sighed. "Your ankle is broken. I'll help you home, then see if the carpenter can fashion you a crutch." He loosened her boot as much as possible and carefully slipped it back over her foot.
Mae grimaced but tried to hide it.
Apparently the ranger noticed. "Cattie-brie could come by with some willow bark for tea."
She frowned. "I can make my own tea."
He raised an eyebrow and got to his feet. "Suit yourself, but let me take your arm."
Mae frowned again, but she obliged with a groan. "Too bad most of the apples are bruised." The dented pail was still looped through her belt.
He nodded. "Let's not worry about that now. My children would be happy to pick more for you."
"That's what you think."
He chuckled, then stooped down to put her arm over his shoulders and support her. "You get straight to the point when you want to."
She chuckled as well. "I've lived more than half a century. I think I have the right."
Drizzt grinned. "I've lived over a hundred years myself."
She glanced at him for a moment. "I suppose that's so. And here I was thinking of you as a young'un."
They made steady progress in silence after that, and at last they reached her door. Mae pushed it open with one hand, and Drizzt helped her to a chair. He propped her foot on another chair without asking, and she shuddered again at his gentle touch.
"I'll put the kettle on the fire so you can have your tea and soak that ankle if you want."
"Wrap it tightly after."
She rolled her eyes and waved a hand.
The ranger pressed his lips together, but busied himself stirring up the fire and adding wood.
When the drow stood up at last, Mae cleared her throat. "I weren't crying because of no pain, you understand. It's just … ain't no one's ever touched me in more'n fifteen years. I—" Her eyes welled up again, and she paused. "I forgot how it felt to be touched."
The ranger stood perfectly still for a moment, studying the fire.
Mae realized that her hands were trembling. "Foolish," she chided herself. It was bad enough that she'd needed help, but now she'd gone an alienated the closest person she had to a neighbor. Heck, she'd probably gone and alienated the whole family. No more rambunctious children delivering rabbits for her stew from his snares, or venison shot with the bow he still had slung across his back. Foolish. She cleared her throat. "Get on outta here. I'll manage." She crossed her arms and frowned at the fire along with him.
Then he turned, eyes catching hers before she could look away. "That's nothing to apologize for, Miss Mae." He shook his head. "I didn't understand why you kept saying you were sorry, back in the woods. But hear me now—there is no need."
She looked down, and a teardrop fell onto her lap.
He put a hand on her shoulder. "Rest yourself now, Miss Mae. All will be well."
She nodded, but could not speak.
"I'll see about a crutch."
He was almost at the door when Mae finally found her voice. "Thank you, Drizzt Do'Urden."
He nodded, reached for the door handle, but then turned back. "Violet likes to give hugs, but my children have been leery of your grumpy demeanor."
Her eyes widened. "Now who's talkin' straight?"
He chuckled. "Perhaps she'll get up the courage to hug you some day if you drop the gruff exterior."
Mae's mouth twitched, but her eyes twinkled. "I'll bear it in mind, Do'Urden, but only because it turns out that you're my elder."
Drizzt grinned. "I'll see to a crutch, and Cattie-brie will likely be by to check on you later."
He turned again, one eyebrow raised.
Her cheeks flushed, and she looked away, faking a cough. "I can't afford nothin' from the carpenter. Best you find me a walking stick or some such."
"I could pay for—"
"You've done enough."
The drow tipped his head to the side. He put a hand to the unicorn pendant that hung around his neck, then let it drop. "Very well. I'll find something suitable." He opened the door, letting in a chill breeze that promised snow in the near future.
"Do'Urden!" Mae grimaced at how that came out, her voice even rougher than usual around a lump that had found its way into her throat. She softened her harsh tone. "Best take your cloak. It's cold out."
"That it is." He slipped the bow and quiver from his back and leaned them against the wall.
Mae struggled out of his cloak before he could assist her and held it out to him.
Drizzt took it and swung it over his shoulders.
At the hearth, the kettle whistled. Mae grimaced and shifted in her seat, but the drow held out a hand. "I'll get it." He lifted the kettle from its hook and set it on the hearthstone. "Have you any willow bark?"
She jerked her head toward the countertop. "Wooden box in the drawer."
He took a cup down from the board and found the dried strips of bark. He prepared the tea with a good measure of it. "Have you any honey?"
Mae frowned. "Who needs it?"
Drizzt opened the cupboard doors. "It might sweeten your disposition," he remarked.
Her eyebrows climbed. "Well, I never!"
He chuckled, holding up a clay pot. "Let's try it. You needn't choke down bitter willow bark just to prove something."
She crossed her arms and raised her chin. "Who says I have anything to prove?"
He shrugged, mixing a large spoonful of honey into the medicinal tea.
Mae thought that the corner of his mouth twitched. "Hmph."
He laughed and carried the cup to the table at her elbow.
She stared at it, once again fighting the lump in her throat. "Thank you kindly. But if you'd just go and find me some sorta cane, this would all be unnecessary. Never thought I'd go and do somethin' so stupid. Never thought I'd get hurt from my own folly, but I guess I had it coming."
"Wish I hadn't been so greedy. Wish you never woulda seen me cry like—"
It was his turn to interrupt. "Stop. You were not being greedy, you were preparing for winter. That's wisdom in the dale. As far as feeling embarrassed, I said before that you can let that go. I think no less of you. Everyone in Larch Glen knows you're fiercely independent. Perhaps for a while you'll have to accept some help, but that doesn't mean you're less of—"
"Perhaps you can shut up!" It just came out. Mae's eyes were stinging, and the back of her nose burned. If she let him carry on, she'd break down again for sure. Regardless of what he'd said about not feeling embarrassed, she couldn't help it. Old habits died hard.
"Try again." His tone wasn't a suggestion.
Mae glanced up. The ranger's purple eyes were piercing, his arms crossed. She swallowed. "Wish I could start this day over. Haven't been touched in fifteen years, and I ain't cried in front of anyone for that long either. Didn't wanna let loose again. Guess I shouldn't have taken it out on you. I'm sorry."
His arms relaxed, and he nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss, Miss Mae."
She waved a hand. "Been fifteen years already, like I said."
He nodded again. "Still, it can't be easy, living here on your own."
Mae looked away. "I'll admit it got a sight easier once you started providing my meat." She sighed. "Not that I expect that to continue."
"I expect it to."
She looked up. "I lit into you and told you to shut up."
He nodded. "And I called you on it. When you've lived as long as I have, you don't put up with everything you used to."
"I know something about that. So, like I said, I'll understand if the meat stops."
Drizzt leaned against the counter, resting his elbows on the smooth wood. "Surely in your years of experience you've learned that holding onto anger is like holding onto acid and expecting it to burn the other person."
She tipped her head to the side. "Well put, Do'Urden. Are you sayin' you forgive me?"
He nodded. "Yes. You even apologized."
She chuckled. "Well, I know from experience that apologies do make the whole forgiveness thing easier."
He smiled too, then rocked forward. "I'll fashion you a staff if I can borrow your ax."
"Out back on the chopping block."
He nodded. "Best drink that tea before the shock wears off." He looked down at her ankle, already swollen nearly twice its size. "Do you want to soak your ankle before you wrap it?"
She shook her head. "Cold's the thing for swelling in my books, not heat. Haven't your years of experience taught you that?"
The corner of his mouth twitched, but he nodded. "I can fetch cold water from the stream."
She waved a hand. "You've done enough."
"Best wrap it now, then." He crossed to the woodbox in two steps. "You have any kindling cut?"
Mae frowned. "The fire's fine."
The drow straightened up from foraging in the pile of kindling he found in her metal bucket beside the woodbox. He held two smooth, straight pieces in his midnight-black hands. "I meant for your ankle. Maybe you'd better let me do it."
Mae's face burned. She took a large gulp of tea to cover it—maybe he'd think it was from the hot liquid. "If you touch me again, I might cry like before."
Drizzt exhaled a gentle snort. "How many times do I have to tell you that you needn't be embarrassed before you believe me? After all, I have young children. Tears are something of a common occurrence."
Mae's mouth twitched, but she faked a frown. "I'm no child."
"True, but you are younger than me."
She chuckled. "Sure, rub it in!"
The ranger grinned and set the kindling down beside her. "Tell me what to use for bandage strips, and you'll be all set."
Cattie-brie looked up as Drizzt entered their snug log house. "No luck hunting?" You were gone for at least an hour."
He unslung the bow and quiver, then pulled her into his arms. "Widow Mae fell out of a tree while picking apples. I found her and helped her home."
Cattie-brie's blue eyes widened. "Is she all right?"
Drizzt nodded. "I wrapped her ankle and fashioned her a cane. Even made her some willow bark tea. She'll be fine."
His wife furrowed her brow. "She let you do all that? She's usually so gruff."
He tipped his head to the side, remembering their conversation. "That she is. Let's just say I saw a new side of her today. She'd never admit it, but she probably needs to be visited more often than we've been doing." He pulled a hand through his hair. "Thought I was hurting her when I checked her ankle. She actually cried."
Cattie-brie's eyebrows climbed. "Really? That old woman has the pain threshold of a stone giant. I once saw her scald her hand on the edge of her woodstove, and she never even made a sound, let alone let on. Her knuckle had a blister and everything."
Drizzt nodded. He smoothed a loose strand of hair behind his wife's ear. "I was surprised too, but I didn't let on. Then she told me that she was crying because she hadn't been touched in fifteen years. She'd … forgotten."
Cattie squinted at him. "Fifteen years …" She shivered and pulled her husband closer to her, resting her head on his chest. "I can't imagine."
Drizzt hugged her tight, and his right hand stroked her wild tangle of red hair. He put his mouth close to her ear. "Well, as long as I live, I'll always hold you close." He tipped her head up and kissed her neck just below that ear, and Cattie-brie's lips parted.
Then footsteps pounded down the stairs. They both straightened up at once, but neither released the hug, just made it more appropriate looking.
Drizzt met Cattie-brie's eyes with a look that said, "To be continued." At least, he hoped she read that from his look.
He looked up to see his daughter leaping from the landing.
Cattie-brie had her back to the stairs. She dropped one hand and squeezed his backside briefly, their position blocking Violet's view.
Drizzt had to call upon his drow training to keep his face impassive.
Then Violet leapt into their hug with a ferocity that drove both of her parents back a step. "I'm part of this family too!"
Drizzt laughed and tousled her hair. "You certainly are, my girl."
Zaknafein followed more sedately. He hung back at the end of the kitchen.
Drizzt held out one arm. "Well, come on, Zak. Can't leave out my d'anthe dalharuk."
Zaknafein rolled his eyes. "That's a baby name."
"All right." Drizzt cleared his throat imperiously. "We await your presence, Zaknafein Do'Urden."
His son rolled his eyes again but slouched forward, and Drizzt grabbed him in a firm hug with his free arm. "That's better. No one missing."
Zak smiled reluctantly, then ducked backward out of the hug. "I'd rather spar."
Drizzt turned to him with a grin. "That can be arranged." He raised his hands to grapple and dodged a sweep kick from Zak.
"No sparring in the kitchen!" Cattie-brie pushed them both toward the living room. "And mind you watch out for the fire when you're rolling around on the floor like tundra seals!"
Drizzt grinned. It was good to be home, and it was good to touch those he loved.
His smile turned a bit pensive as he followed his son out of the kitchen. A kind touch was something he'd almost never had in Menzoberranzan, unless he counted the times his father, weapons master of House Do'Urden, had tended his wounds. Since living on the surface, however, and especially since being with Cattie-brie, he'd come to take those touches for granted. He thought again of the widow Mae. Today he'd been reminded to be thankful for what he had. He touched his unicorn pendant. Mielikki help the gruff old lady with what she needed, too.
d'anthe dalharuk = dear son
A/N: Hey, my dear readers. I wanted to write, "Hug the ones you love today," but the current virus situation makes that a bit iffy. Nevertheless, I think you understand. :) Thanks for reading. I look forward to sharing more stories with you in the future.