Durnik's heart fluttered in his chest. He had just jumped down from a tree after a mighty rain washed away those awful mud monsters. Mistress Pol had flung her arms around him, and he'd been too surprised to return her embrace.
But everyone else was right there with them and watching, and she very quickly remembered herself. She let go of him and started scolding him. And he just patiently listened as she berated him for his foolish bravery and lack of care and all that might have happened but did not. It probably wasn't proper for him to take it all with a bemused expression, but he could not help it. Durnik knew now. He understood better now than he had many months ago when they first began on this journey. He knew more of her than he ever had at Faldor's farm.
Yes, let her scold all she wanted. He would happily allow her to do it when in the company of others because Durnik knew what it meant. She loved him and worried for his safety. But the others couldn't be allowed to know that. Durnik wasn't sure if he himself was supposed to even know that. She had let it slip. Or rather she had insinuated it.
It was hard to fathom, really, that she could ever feel anything close to love for him. He was just an ordinary man. He worked hard and he wanted to do things right and help those who needed it. There was nothing special about him at all. Whereas Mistress Pol was always special. Even before he knew that she was Polgara the Sorceress, he had known that she was magnificent in every way. She had always seemed so much loftier than ordinary humans like Durnik. He loved and adored her from afar, as he knew he had no right to even think of pursuing her properly. Especially now, in the midst of this dangerous and vitally important quest he had followed her and Garion on.
But even so, he had gotten to spend this time so close to her, and she had shown him in countless little ways that she cared for him differently and perhaps more than she cared for the others in their party. And this was one of those moments. She was upset he had been in danger. And whether she was hugging him or scolding him, it meant very much the same coming from her.
Thankfully, after Polgara had worn herself out from shouting at Durnik, everyone was able to calm down. The Dryads had not yet found them in the woods, so they would need to have a lookout tonight. They set up the tents and one by one each went to try and get some sleep. Silk was taking the first watch that night, and Polgara waited till everyone but him was tucked away.
She looked at him pointedly, and he looked back, quiet and curious. Her fingers spoke for her. You'll not say a word of this, she warned.
A word of what? he answered back in the secret language, a smirk on his face.
Thank you, she replied gratefully. And with that, she got up and went to not her own tent, but Durnik's.
He was not quite asleep yet when the flap of his tent opened. "What's wrong?" he whispered immediately. He was ready to leap up and find his axe if necessary.
But Polgara calmed him. "Shh, nothing's wrong," she said softly.
Durnik stayed where he was. His heart was pounding again, anxious over what was going on. She had never come into his tent before.
She moved elegantly and lay beside him on her side with one arm under her head. Tentatively, she reached out and placed her other hand on Durnik's arm.
He was not quite sure what was going on, but he did not like that she seemed as hesitant as he. Durnik wanted her to know, as much as he possibly could, that he wanted as much as she was willing to give, that he wanted her to be comfortable to do and say anything she wanted with him, that he would never push her for more than that. He lay on his back, still for a moment, before he picked up her hand from his arm and held it in his. Their clasped hands came to rest on his chest. He thought he could see her smile in the darkness.
"May I…" she began.
He answered before she could finish. "Yes," he insisted.
She chuckled softly. "You don't know what I was going to say."
"My answer is still yes," he replied.
Without further explanation, she scooted herself closer to him so that her cheek rested on his chest. He wrapped his arm around her and held her against him. When she got settled, their clasped hands once again rested just above his heart.
It felt wonderful to hold her like this, to be so close together. It was comforting to be like this in the silence. But Durnik did not quiet understand what was going on. "This is different," he noted.
Polgara smiled, nuzzling into him. "I needed to be close to you after what happened. I was going to ask if you minded, but you said the answer was yes."
"It is," he assured her.
A silence fell between them again. Durnik felt her long, beautiful hair against his hand and he could not help but stroke it and tangle his fingers in it. She made a soft little hum, which made him think she enjoyed what he was doing.
"I was not in danger with those mud monsters," he said, breaking that silence. "I don't quite know why you got so worried."
It probably seemed that way to him, though to Polgara things had been a bit different. "It took a lot of trouble for Father and I to deal with them. Barak and Silk were barely holding their own. And we did not know where you were. I had no way of knowing if you were in danger or not. You went where I could not see you, and I was frightened," she explained.
"You were frightened?" he asked in disbelief.
"Many things frighten me. Everything with what we are doing, the uncertainty of it frightens me. Keeping Garion safe and whole when he seems so determined to be brave and stupid and put himself in danger, that frightens me. And the thought of having dragged you into all this mess only to lose you along the way, that frightens me very much."
Durnik did not know what to say. Perhaps there was nothing he could say. He did not dare presume to understand all that went on around them or all that she knew or all that she had to fear. He had no way to assuage her fears. He had no business making promises he could not keep or making assurances he had no understanding of. But what he knew here and now was that she had sought him out to lie here in his arms. She wanted to be close to him. He could deny her nothing, and he was fortunate beyond belief that what she wanted from him was the same yearning of his own heart.
Polgara knew that Durnik had no way of answering her. She did not expect him to. So she spoke again, softly and gently. "Having you here and whole means a great deal to me, Durnik."
"I would do anything to make you happy," he replied earnestly.
She smiled. "Yes, I know." Very nearly she added, And that is why I love you. But that was not why she loved him. She loved him for all he was and all he did that had absolutely nothing to do with her. That he wanted to do anything he could to make her happy, that was proof of his love for her, she knew. But she did not love him because he loved her.
Polgara closed her eyes. It was rare that she could feel like this without concerted effort. But lying in Durnik's arms, her face resting on his broad chest and feeling his body wrapped up with hers, Polgara felt herself at peace. There was a calm and a safety that Durnik always brought to her and to nearly anyone he was with. Being with him like this only highlighted that wonderful quality in him. And being so close gave her the opportunity to notice things she never had a chance to observe before. Like the way his breathing was steady and even despite the way his heart thundered—probably due to having her so near. And the way he smelled, of a masculine musk without the same stench of filth that other men seemed to achieve so proudly. Durnik was a man who took pride in doing things properly, including bathing. That certainly was one of the things she loved about him. One of so many things.
"Many things," she whispered, nearly asleep.
Durnik was stroking her hair and paused. "What was that?" he asked. He could tell she was barely awake.
"Many things that make me love you."
She must not have realized what she said. But she had said it nonetheless. She had said she loved him. Durnik's heart soared, and if he did not fear waking her, he would have cheered triumphantly. Instead, he just smiled to himself and turned his head to softly kiss her hair. And before he knew it, Durnik fell into a blissful slumber.