12 May 2012

ELVEHELM: Starmeadow II - Rites, Modes and Jitters

            “So,” Breygon said idly, “you were telling me about the choices I have to make.  The rite, and the mode.”

            “Mmm,” she murmured sleepily.

            They were in bed – so to speak.  Shaivaun’s divine power had restored their health, and they had dined quietly with their friends, making plans for the morrow, and speaking as little as possible about the terrible creature they had defeated.  Breygon had kept a close watch on his sponsa’s face; he was exhausted by the day’s events, and could only imagine how Amorda must have been feeling.  As soon as was decently possible, he had excused himself to his comrades, taken her hand, and led her, unresisting, back to the private quarter of the house. 

            There he’d faced a dilemma.  Unable for reasons of propriety (and health, he snorted to himself) to make use of his new bride’s bedchamber, and yet also unwilling to cede either the privacy of the master suite or a night in her arms, the ranger had suggested that they make up a nest on the floor of the study.  It wouldn’t be comfortable, but he’d slept in worse places.

            Amorda had proposed a different plan.  Gathering an armload of blankets from a convenient storage room, she had led him back out into the garden and along the back wall of the house proper.  The darkness was complete; it was a cloudy night, and the moons had not yet risen, and Breygon – his superior vision notwithstanding – found himself having to watch his footing on the flagstones.

            The back wall of Domus Casia was riddled with doors and windows.  At the extreme northern end of the house, however, there was an open chamber; a small room, only half a dozen paces square, tucked in beneath a roof supported by intricately carved marble pillars.  The room contained nothing but a raised dais topped by what appeared to be a large, circular stragulum.  It was concealed from view from the rest of the garden by...by...

            Breygon snorted.  Of course.  Roses. 

            “The Amatorium,” Amorda said with a wink.  The half-elf didn’t need to ask for a translation.  He glanced around the chamber; as he had expected, there was a single candle in the room, standing in a tall holder of beaten silver.

            He didn’t have to light it, he knew.  Not anymore.

            Some immeasurable time later, they lay closely intertwined, breathing heavily and bundled tightly beneath the covers against the damp and chill of a winter’s eve in Starmeadow.

            Breygon nudged the elf-woman gently.  Sponsa,” he whispered, “Modes, and rites.  I need to know what’s expected of me.  We’ve only three days to prepare, and much else to do besides.  Help me, I implore you.”

            Amorda blinked, sighing.  “I should’ve known,” she murmured, “that taking up your rose would leave me with little time for rest.”

            The ranger snorted.  “Getting bound on the Slaughter was your idea, dear heart.  Not mine.”

            “I know,” she nodded.  “The way you lot move around, I wanted to make sure I tied you down before you could escape.”  She poked him gently in the ribs.

            “But, very well,” she sighed again.  “The mode is simplicity itself.  There are only two options: nuptia priscus, and nuptia bellum.  Traditional, as they say, or martial.

            Nuptia bellum you’ve already seen, thanks to Kaltas and Mya,” she shrugged.  “Choice of clothing is at the discretion of the participants, although both white and green are traditional and preferred.  Bride and groom both wear armour.  You should note that mail is preferred, mostly because it’s easier to don and doff, and cooler if the service goes long.”

            “What about weapons?” Breygon asked.

            “Sword and dagger are obligatory,” Amorda replied.  “A one-handed sword; carrying a heavier weapon is considered uncouth.  In some versions, the husband presents his wife with a shield, and she presents him with a spear, in honour of their respective roles in the union.  Both are usually silvered in some way, and bound with green cords or ribbons.”

            “That doesn’t seem too complicated,” the half-elf murmured.

            Nuptia bellum does have the virtue of being simple,” Amorda agreed.  Nuptia priscus,” she went on, “is rather different.  We both wear our finest, in white and green.  I must wear my hair unbound, and decorated with flowers.  For you, flowers are optional.”  She winked. 

            “I might go as far as some oak leaves,” Breygon said blandly.  “But that’s it.”

            “Oak leaves would be fine, love.  No jewellery of any kind, though, save only our rings,” she went on as if reciting lessons at school.  “Commoners may not bear arms, but as I am noble – at least in name – and you are a knight, we are obliged to –”

            “I’m not a knight,” Breygon interrupted.

            Amorda blinked.  “What?”

            “I’ve never been formally...whatever you call it.  Made a knight.”

            “Then how...” she shook herself.  “Excuse me, my love.  That had never occurred to me.  When Kaltas declared you a nephew of House Aiyellohax, I assumed that, since you were not noble, you...you were at least...”  She paused and took a deep breath.  “There has never been a ‘nephew’ of a Great House that has not been either noble-born, or a knight of the realm.  Never.”

            “You’re not noble-born,” Breygon observed, raising an eyebrow.

            “No,” the elf-woman conceded, “I’m not.  But remember, I never really got married, so the subject didn’t come up.”

            “And even if it had,” she went on a little nervously, “it wouldn’t have posed any difficulty.  Love...I’m a knight myself.”

            “Really?” Breygon’s eyes were wide.

            “Really,” she nodded.  “The ‘Dame’ is one part of my background that isn’t false.  It’s a long story.  I’ll tell you about it some time.”  She gnawed a knuckle, perplexed.  “Our immediate concern is you.”

            “Is this going to be a significant problem?” Breygon asked, concerned.

            “Well, for one thing, it precludes nuptia bellum,” Amorda said, frowning.  “Commoners can’t marry under arms.”  Then she grinned tightly.  “Of course, you’re not exactly a ‘commoner’, are you, my love?”

            “I’d rather that didn’t get around,” Breygon said stonily.  “Anyway, I’m not that fixated on the idea of a martial –”

            “I am,” the elf-woman said firmly.  “At least, I don’t want to foreclose the option.  More importantly, I don’t want anyone – anyone! – getting the idea that you’re not the heavens-blessed hero you’re supposed to be.”  She patted his hand.  “Let me think on it awhile.”

            “All right,” Breygon shrugged.  He could feel the tension in her neck, and shifted around so that he could work his fingers into the tight musculature.

            After a few moments of deft attention, the elf-woman sighed and began to relax.  She threw him a grateful glance.  “You’re a balm.  Do you know that?”

            He gave her a mocking nod.  “All of my meagre skills,” he intoned, “are at my lady’s command.”

            Amorda giggled at that.  With a mischievous smile on her lips, she reached for him.

            Breygon caught her hand.  “Tell me about the different rites.”

            A brief moue of disappointment – almost a pout – crossed the elf-woman’s face.  But instead of protesting, she lay back against his shoulder.  “We have more options here in the capital than we would anywhere else,” she said softly.  “Six that would be acceptable.”

            Breygon cocked an eyebrow.  “That many?”

            Amorda nodded.  “They all have their potential benefits, and their potential difficulties.  And they’re all subject to the formal rites required by the Codex.”

            The ranger ground his teeth.  The Codex, again.

            The elf-woman didn’t miss his reaction.  She patted him on the arm.  “I’ll tell you about those later.

            “The first option,” she began, “would be the rite of Hara Sophus, Pater Elvii.  That’s what I’d call the ‘high profile’ approach.  At the Palace cathedral, with Archpriest Elcaradon himself presiding over a long, stuffy service, attended by most of the nobles who are in the city at the time.  Including, quite probably, members of the royal family.  Very costly; we’d have to pay for all manner of decorations and furnishings, and an immense party afterwards, and we’d have to make a rich gift to the cathedral.  And Elcaradon wouldn’t stint his fee.”

            “What about the knighthood thing?” Breygon asked.

            “There’s only one way around that problem,” Amorda shrugged.  “Knight or no, only nobles can be married in the cathedral, according to Hara’s rite.  You’d have to wed me under your true name.  That would solve the knighthood-nobility situation.”

            “Solve it with a spear in my back,” the half-elf muttered.  “Next option?”

            “The Protector,” Amorda replied, ignoring his indignant murmur.  “There’s a chapel at the palace, of course, but Larranel’s temple is in the city proper, and in any case the ceremony would probably be held at the Ancient Grove in the city centre.  It’s probably already booked for Slaughter’s-Eve, but I can have any other couples bumped.  It’s just a matter of coin.”

            Breygon frowned.  “Would that be fair to...”

            His voice trailed off.  The elf-woman was regarding him levelly, without expression.  “Sorry,” he said quickly.

            “Fair,” Amorda said icily, “is whatever I want.  It’s my wedding, lupino, the only one I’ll ever have, and every other woman in the world can go hang.  Also, fair is whatever imprints the fact of our marriage permanently upon the collective consciousness of this city.  And, if possible, the realm.”

            “And Larranel’s Rite would accomplish that?” he asked, startled by her sudden vehemence.

            “It might,” she replied.  “The Protector’s service would be short, with a small attendance, and presided over by Chamhegar Vallees, Larranel’s High Priest.  There’d be no problem convincing him to marry us; he was one of Kaltas’ lieutenants at Duncala, and he idolizes your ‘uncle’.  All you’d have to do is show him your undershirt, and tell him that you’re a servant of the Protector yourself, and all would be well.”

            Breygon nodded.  “Sounds like an easy decision.”

            Amorda shook her head.  “It would be cheaper, certainly.  But the Protector’s a warrior god; it would have to be nuptia bellum, no choice.  Which means we have to solve the knighthood problem first.  Also, you’d have to give a martial speech, replete with the Protector’s call to arms.  And it wouldn’t necessarily have the effect we desire, because the nobility would avoid the service, while Vallees probably wouldn’t allow the unwashed masses to attend. 

            “Remember, love, what I told you before about stealth,” she said urgently.  “There’s no middle path.  Either we’re completely hidden, which we cannot be; or we must shine like a star in the public eye.  It’s when you try to walk in the middle of the road that you get mowed down by a coach-and-four.”

            Breygon nodded.  “We’ll talk about it.  Next?”

            “Next is the woman you just met,” Amorda said.  “Shaivaun Shabat, and the Rite of Istravenya.  The service would be at the Temple, assuming it’s habitable yet, or if it isn’t, at the Lucum Spaðacódru.  About as pricey as getting bound at Larranel’s temple, unless Shaivaun tries to hold us up because it’s me, and she knows the depth of my coffers.  Much the same service, although you’ll have to put up with her fire-and-brimstone preaching about the ‘lists’ and the ‘unworthy’.”  She grinned feebly.  “Hopefully she won’t be looking at you while she says it.”

            “I’m not that keen on getting married at any place frequented by the Lustroares,” Breygon frowned.  “Even if the priestess is one of your friends.”

            “It’s not my preference either,” Amorda admitted.  “Among other things, we have to cut open our palms and mingle our blood with each other, and with the officiant, too.”

            “Really?” Breygon said skeptically.  “That’s not very...elven.  Is it?”

            “It’s very Istravenya-ian,” the elf-woman shrugged.  “The White Fire of the Woodlands has always been a bloodthirsty goddess.  The Wilder Elves who worship her cut a lot more than their palms, let me tell you.  So do her martial servants.  Of which,” she added pointedly, “your sainted grandmother was one.”

            “I know,” the ranger replied.  He grimaced.  “Shaivaun’s still not my first choice.  What are the other options?”

            “The Forest Mother,” Amorda replied. A tiny fragment of a grin seemed to tug at the corner of her mouth.

            The expression wasn’t lost on Breygon.  “What’s so funny?”

            “Well,” the elf-woman began, “getting bound according to Hutanibu’s Rite costs nothing.  We go together, alone, to the Gyropetrum, the great circle of standing stones at the heart of the Hortum Elanadiria, where according to legend the Queen of Summer defeated the demon army summoned by Mærglyn Kin-Slayer.

            “Once there,” she continued, grinning widely now, “we disrobe, enter the Circle, declare aloud our desire to wed ‘according to the Ancient Rite’, and wait for High Priestess Andastyntia to appear.”

            “We have to go naked,” Breygon said without expression.

            “Completely naked,” Amorda smiled.  Completely.  No jewellery, no cosmetics, no arms, no exceptions.  Freshly scrubbed and without a hint of artifice.  Also, having fasted and remained chaste for at least one day.”

            “And this...this Andastyntia...” Breygon asked, perplexed, “she just...what, waits around these stones all day long, hoping for bare-assed couples to show up?”

            “More or less,” the elf-woman agreed.  “She lives there.  She’s a Woodling.”

            “Ahh,” Breygon breathed, understanding at last.  “And what of the service itself?” he asked.  Knowing all that he did about the fey and their ways, he was understandably nervous.

            “I think you’ve already guessed it,” Amorda grinned.  “We follow the prescribed rite.  And then we honour Hutanibu by joining with each other, right then and there, on mother earth.” 

            She poked him again in the ribs.  “How does that sound, my love?”

            “Best option I’ve heard so far,” Breygon muttered.  “Cheapest, too.”

            “That it is,” Amorda agreed.  “No dress, no decorations, no guests, no feast.  Just a few words followed by a hurried rutting in the dirt.”  Her eyes were glittering dangerously.

            Breygon bit his tongue, sensing that he was on problematic ground.  The only safe thing to say seemed to be another question.  “Next?” he asked.

            The elf-woman eyed him coldly for a long moment.  “Next,” she said, “are two...um, ‘non-standard’ options.  The first would be Miros.”

            “There’s a temple of Miros in town?” Breygon asked, astonished.  The worship of the dragon-goddess was one of the most secretive in the world.

            “There’s the Teocalli Mirosata,” Amorda explained.  “It’s more shrine than temple; a big pyramid, near the College, topped by an altar and an enormous statue of a dragon.  Magi get bound there occasionally.  That’s the first criterion, incidentally; both husband and wife have to be spellcasters.”

            “Arcane spellcasters?” Breygon asked.  “Because that would eliminate me.”

            The elf-woman shook her head.  “As I understand it, we both must expend magical power to charge a vessel of blessed wine, which is thereafter drunk.  Plus, because magi are expected to be masters of the written word, we’d both have to pen and recite some fairly epic vows.

            “And it’d be a little pricey,” she added, “because both bride and groom are, through the service, inducted into the cult of Miros as servants of the Art Magic.  To do so, we have to purchase enchanted cloaks from the College.”  She laughed.  “We sort of become honorary wizards.  The irony – in both our cases – might be sufficient enticement to get married there!”

            “Maybe,” the ranger allowed.  “What’s the last?”

            “The last,” Amorda replied uneasily, “is the Den.  The Den of the Maiden.”

            “Which ‘maiden’?” Breygon asked.  Then he blinked.  “You mean, Miyaga?  The ‘Maiden of Blinding Beauty’?  Is this ‘den’ what they call their temples?”

            The elf-woman nodded.  “There’s one in town,” she replied.  “It’s the central temple for the entire faith, or for all of Elvehelm, at least.  One of my friends was recently recruited – Eret Ferrocælestis.  She’s from one of the lesser houses.  She’s a new apprentice there – an ‘infima’, I think they’re called.  I could arrange a meeting, through her, with someone from the hierarchy.”

            “And they perform marriages?” he asked, skeptical.

            “The worship of the Maiden is all about pleasure, and joining, and procreation,” Amorda replied, flushing slightly.  “While the Disciples believe in maintaining their freedom to explore...er...all facets of the...um...‘physical manifestation of love’, as I’ve heard it put...they also understand that many – most, even – prefer to cleave to a single partner.  So they celebrate the bonds of lifemating nearly as enthusiastically as they celebrate...the...er, unfettered libertinism, that lies at the core of their faith.”

            “That,” Breygon laughed, “may have been the most diplomatic mess of euphemisms I’ve ever heard you spout.”

            “Thank you,” the elf-woman replied, dimpling.  “So...should I try to find the Disciples?”

            “I don’t know,” Breygon said, thinking.  “What are the benefits?”

            “Well, it’s not that costly,” Amorda shrugged.  “Reportedly, the participants only need to make a gift to the temple.”

            “That’s not so bad.”

            “And we can invite anyone we like,” she added.  “The Disciples accept all faiths.  They don’t discriminate.  In fact, they insist upon the attendance of friends of the betrothed couple.”

            “How ecumenical of them,” Breygon murmured.  “What else?”

            “Well,” the elf-woman grinned, her nose wrinkling, “there’s the beatitas.”

            The blessing? “What’s that?”

            “The ‘beatitas magnus’, actually,” Amorda amended.  “The ‘great blessing’.”

            Breygon raised his eyebrows.  “And...that is...”

            “That,” his bride-to-be snickered, “is when the assembled body of the Temple celebrates the union of the new lifemates by joining with them.”

            The half-elf froze.  “All of them?”

            “All of them,” Amorda confirmed, quaking with laughter.  “At once.  It’s called an ‘orgy’.”

            “I know what it’s called!” Breygon exclaimed.  “And if you think I’m going to –”

            “Before you make any decisions,” Amorda interjected, cutting him off, “you should know that the Disciples require exemplary standards of physical perfection.  Also that, here in Elvehelm, nine out of ten Disciples are women.”

            The ranger was silent for a long moment.  “Really?” he said at last.


            He cleared his throat once, then again for good measure.  “Are there any down-sides?” he asked.

            Amorda pursed her lips.  “Well,” she said thoughtfully, “you’d have to keep your end up, as it were.  And you’d have to share me with the Disciples.  At least for a few hours.”

            “Nine out of ten of whom,” he mused aloud, “are beautiful women.”

            She nodded without expression, but he could feel that she was quaking with repressed mirth.  “Of course,” she added, barely controlling herself, “you’d have to look at Thanos naked. And Joraz.  And Karrick.”

            Breygon blinked.  He could feel the blood rising in his cheeks.  “I’m...er...” he stammered incoherently. 

            Then, for no reason, a thought struck him.  He turned to stare directly into the elf-woman’s eyes.  “Are you having me on?”

            Amorda burst out laughing, tears streaming down her cheeks.

            Breygon leaned back into the soft material of the stragulum, closed his eyes, and took a number of long, slow breaths. 

            Not for the first time, he wondered whether, in marrying the chortling elf-woman at his side, he wasn’t getting in over his head.


            “So much for the theological options,” Amorda said.  “We need to talk about the service itself.”

            “I thought the type of service depended upon the rite I – we – choose,” Breygon asked, puzzled.  His arm was going to sleep.  He shifted a little on the stragulum; his mate obligingly slid aside, waiting until he was comfortable before rolling until she was half atop him, with her head tucked under his chin.  She seemed determined not to allow so much as a hair’s breadth to separate them for any longer than was absolutely necessary.

            “It does,” she murmured, “at least to a certain extent.  The details differ significantly between faiths.  But there are some specific elements that all lifemating ceremonies have in common.  It’s a legal requirement.”

            “Let me guess,” the ranger grunted.  “The Codex again?”

            “The Codex,” the elf-woman nodded.  “As with every other aspect of life, Dîor set forth his rules for marriage in his Law.  And he patterned them on his own lifemating ceremony to Anyarra, the commoner maiden he espoused.”

            “That’s a little arrogant, isn’t it?”

            Amorda cocked an eyebrow.  “This is the Third House of Ancient Harad we’re talking about, my love,” she chuckled sadly.  “Haven’t you met us?  We do ‘arrogant’ better than anyone else in all the wide world.

            “And besides,” she went on with a shrug, “a little arrogance might’ve been warranted in his case.  While he was younger brother to the greatest mage-king in the history of the realm, Dîor was no slouch.  He was acknowledged the mightiest warrior in the land at the age of sixty-three, when – according to the law that he himself penned – we today are still deemed adolescents.  He was a father before he was a hundred years old, War Chief of Harad at a hundred and seven, a grandfather at a hundred and twenty-one – the age when we are first legally permitted to wed – and dead nineteen years later.”

            She shook her head.  “Dîor was like a shooting star, love, who flared brighter than the Lantern, and then was gone, seemingly in the blink of an eye.”

            “I once heard, someone, somewhere,” Breygon mused quietly, “say that, today, elves live longer than they did in the ancient world.  And that your – our – longer lifespans were Bræa’s doing.”

            “A sentence,” Amorda nodded soberly.  “To give us more time to atone for the misdeeds of our forebears.  Yes, that’s a common teaching among Hutanibu’s servants.  Never seems to make it into the sermons at the temples of Hara or Larranel, of course – but that would take humility, wouldn’t it?”  She snorted.  “Unlike arrogance, humility’s something we’re not especially good at.

            “In any case,” she continued, “Dîor must’ve had a pretty substantial ego.  He killed Chyardan, the oldest and mightest of the Verdant Wyrms – a terrible creature, who was to the green dragons as Scîarratekkan had been to the reds when Miros defeated him in the Age of Making.  The battle with Chyardan cost Dîor an eye and an arm, but he survived.  All dragon-slayers revere him for that.

            Breygon’s cheek twitched involuntarily.

            “And a few years after that fight,” she added with a shake of her head, “he killed a god.”

            “Baluchog.  Yes?” Breygon asked.  The story was unfamiliar, but ancient, and he had heard some details of it.

            “Baluchog,” she nodded.  “One of Morga’s avatars, master of the demons of filth, slime and ichor.  They fought for hours, and killed each other, actually.  But no other elf has ever accomplished such a thing, and Dîor is renowned for it.”  She shook her head sadly.  “He was a hundred and forty years old when he died.  By his own code, he was hardly even a man.”

            “And somewhere in there,” Breygon said drily, “he found the time to write fifteen hundred articles of law.  Including the rules for weddings.”

            The elf-woman smiled.  “Well, somebody had to run the empire while Tîor was busy forging magic rods, learning how to manipulate time, and opening a portal to an endless source of magical power.”

            “The Well of Stars, you mean?”

            She nodded again.  “It’s here, in town.  Deep in the earth.  The College was built atop it.”

            Breygon shook his head in wonder.  “The way you people casually accept the...the presence, of the most incredible arcane relics...”

            “This,” Amorda sniffed, “from the man walking around with a god-wrought wine-cup in his purse.”

            The ranger suppressed a sudden nervous giggle.  She has a point, he thought.

            “Would you like to see it?” she asked.  “The Well of Stars, I mean? Kalestayne is its...well,” she amended, “...no one since Tîor can be called its ‘master’, I guess.  But Kalestayne is the Well’s custodian.  I’m sure he’d allow you to visit.”  She dimpled.  “As long as you promised not to touch anything.”

            “It’s not me he’d have to worry about,” Breygon muttered.  Then he started suddenly.  “Are you telling me that the Master Magister of the greatest school of magic in the world gives guided tours of the mightiest source of magical power in the universe to any rag-tag mob of adventurers that happens by?”

            Amorda sighed, exasperated.  “Of course not!  But he might be willing to accommodate a dragon-slaying hero and a brutally destructive warcaster from our most important military ally.  Especially when both are nephews to an ancient and honourable House of the Twelve, who have just returned a primordial, gods-forged artefact of incalculable value and unspeakable magical power to Her Serene Majesty, the Queen of all the Elves.  Who,” she added mordantly, “just happens to be your great-grandma.”

            Breygon was silent for a long moment.  Then his chest began to shake.  “Well,” he chortled, “when you put it that way...”

            Amorda put a hand on his breast, steadying herself against the tremoring, and looked up at him.  “Love, there’s no other way to put it.  You’re here, you’re a Peer – get used to it.  Everyone else in the realm is going to adjust to your status in less time than it takes you to nock and loose an arrow.  They’ll be jockeying for position, trying to influence and manipulate you, doing their best to obtain your support if they can, and to figure out what you’re going to do if they can’t.”

            She prodded him gently in the ribs.  “Most of the people who speak to you will simply want to be seen doing so, so they can later on say, ‘You know, I was talking to that dragon-slayer the other day – you know the one, Kaltas’ nephew, who just married that dried-up old trollop, Amorda? – and anyway, he told me...’”

            Breygon regarded her with a worried stare.

            “And that,” she said, emphasizing her words with another poke, “is before anyone finds out who you really are.  If word gets ‘round that you’re Szelly’s son, the realm is positively going to explode.  Her running off to make pottery in the woods and marry a human was the talk of this town, not for nine days, or ninety, but for ninety times nine.  You showing up now, with your own party of heroes, a collection of wyrm-heads, a Wilder spear, Arngrim’s panoply, and a noble bride on your arm” – she paused to grin broadly – “or at least, a reasonable approximation of one...well, let’s just say there’s no possible way to overestimate the impact it’s going to have!

            “You’d best prepare yourself, husband-to-be,” she warned.  “The next few weeks are going to be a broil the likes of which you’ve never seen.”

            “Wonderful,” he muttered drily.  “It’s going to be exciting for you, too, I’d imagine.”

            “My darling, you have no idea!” Amorda chortled.  “There won’t be a lady in the realm who won’t want to absolutely murder me.  For the impardonable crime of snapping you up, and taking you off the market before allowing them their chance at you.” 

            Her eyes glittered dangerously.  “Fitting recompense,” she muttered happily, “for a century of being surrounded by the most insufferable crowd of brainless, chattering harpies imaginable.  For a hundred years of snide comments, innuendo, and sly, off-hand remarks about base-born harlots marrying up.  And for having to suffer the company and caresses of the most ineffectual, effeminate, mincing dolts ever to spring from Bræa’s loins.” 

            You, my love – you are the best revenge I could ever have imagined.”  She hugged him fiercely, and he was surprised to note that she was actually quivering with rage.  “The ladies of this city are the worst passel of shrews and gossips the world has ever spawned.  When I show up with a real man on my arm – the greatest hero the realm’s seen since Arngrim, Fineleor and Yarchian – it’s going to absolutely destroy them.”

            “Well,” Breygon said without expression.  Her nails were digging into his chest, and he was doing his best not to flinch.  “I’m glad I could help.” 

            He scratched an ear in momentary consternation, trying to comprehend the ferocity of her hatred, then gave it up as a bad job.  Orcs, magical beasts, dragons – those he could understand.  But the convoluted machinations of the feminine mind were beyond him. 

            Time to change the subject.  “You were telling me about Dîor’s wedding rites,” he said suddenly.

            Amorda blinked.  She’d been a long way away, luxuriating in intoxicating visions of revenge.  “Yes,” she replied.  “Yes.  The Sacra Dîorcan.”

            Her brow furrowed as she struggled to recall the details.  “Now remember, love, that while I’ve attended dozens of lifemating ceremonies, I’ve never gone through this myself.  Moreover, all the ceremonies I’ve witnessed or partaken of have been under the Rites of Hara, Larranel and Istravenya.  I’ve never seen a Wilder wedding, for example, or the joining of two mages at the Teocalli, under the eye of Miros.  Or a ceremony at the Den.”  She grinned suddenly.  “Although I have heard of them.”

            “I’ve never seen an elven wedding at all,” Breygon grunted.  “I’m starting from total ignorance.  Anything you can tell me will be a help.”

            “Well, good, then,” the elf-woman replied.  “First, you should know that there are thirteen steps to the rite that are required by law.  There’s no real need to add anything to these; they are sufficient in and of themselves to constitute a binding, lawful marriage.  But most faiths personalize the services somewhat in order to stand out from the pack.  Some cults add a few steps, some – like Hara Sophus – add a great many.  But none may be subtracted.”

            “Can you list them?” Breygon asked, a little worried.  This sounded a lot more complicated than he had envisioned.  In Zare, peasant couples wed according to the Allfather’s decree: their left hands were bound together by a priest, they jumped over a spear, recited a brief vow of faithfulness, shared a cup of wine, and jumped back.  That was it.  He’d seen a hundred hurried weddings of that sort, on feast and fair-days – and more often than not, the bride was jumping with a bulging belly ill-concealed beneath her apron.  Humans, after all, bred like rabbits.

            But this sounded...a lot more complex.

            “Certainly I can list the steps, although not by their formal, legal names,” Amorda was saying.  “Listen carefully.  First – obviously – is the arrival at the temple or grove of the bride and groom.  Separately.”

            “Separately?” he exclaimed.  “Why on earth...”

            “It’s tradition,” she said with some asperity.  “And by the way, that’s going to be my answer to every question you ask.  So don’t interrupt, or we’ll still be at this when Bræadan broaches the horizon.”

            Breygon barked a laugh.  “I apologize, my lady.  Do carry on.”  For good measure, he pinched her in a vulnerable spot, eliciting a squeal that was more delight than outrage.

            She swatted him lightly on the chest.  “Keep that up, my lord,” she breathed into his neck, a frisson of delight that shook him from crown to heel, “and we’ll end up skipping the legal discussions entirely.”

            The half-elf shivered, and had to shake his head to clear it.  “Talk, woman!” he commanded.  “And keep your hands to yourself!”

            She laughed.  “After the arrival,” she went on, “we must both declare our identities, and our lineage to four generations.  For commoners, that’s a pro-forma affair, with the declarations attested to by witnesses.  But as I told you yesterday – well, this morning, I guess – for noble joinings, especially those involving one of the Houses, it’s done under a Zone of Truth spell, cast either by the priest, or by one of the other officiants.  You have the option, as I mentioned, of whispering your true name to the priest alone – but that will definitely cause talk.”

            “You don’t want me to do that, do you?” Breygon said softly.

            Amorda sighed.  “I want you to do what you think is necessary, my love.  I’ll still wed you no matter what name I must bear.  But you’re going to have to grasp this nettle sooner rather than later, and this is an opportunity to make a clear statement, and avoid having the tale come out in confused dribs and drabs.” 

            She smiled a little nervously.  “It’d be dangerous, yes.  But it could also be useful for the world to know who you are.  And if nothing else, the mob does love a grand gesture.”

            “And archers love fools who stick their heads above the parapet,” the ranger muttered.  “What next?”

            “After our identities, we’ll have to declare that we approach our union free of any prior vows, and free also of influence or compulsion.  Again,” she said thoughtfully, “that’s a pretty straightforward thing for commoners.  If you looked especially youthful, you’d have to provide proof of your age, or have a parent attest to it.”  She winked.  “Neither of us has that problem, regrettably.  And if you’d been married before, for example, you’d have to produce proof of Uxorem.  Divorce.”

            “What of you?  You’ve been wed before, at least legally.  What of Silas, your ‘husband’ gone to wind?”

            “That’s one area where it’s easier for nobles than for commoners,” she admitted.  “The births, namings, matings and deaths of all members of the great and lesser Houses are recorded as a matter of law.  Everyone in the realm knows that Silas is dead, and that I’m therefore free to take a lifemate again.  A simple declaration will suffice for me; if anyone challenges it, it’ll be easy to prove.”

            “Good,” the ranger muttered.

            “Of course,” the elf-woman warned, “that declaration of freedom and free will is monitored by a Detect Thoughts spell, to determine veracity; and by a Detect Magic spell, to ensure that the participants are free from arcane compulsion.”

            “Marvellous,” Breygon growled.  Then a thought struck him.  “Hang on.  That’s a lot of magic just for a wedding.”

            Amorda nodded.  “Spellcasting makes up a significant portion of the bill for the service,” she said.  “If we get married at the Cathedral, it’s going to cost close to a thousand aureae for Elcaradon to cast the Zone of Truth alone.”

            Breygon thought about the going rates for spellcasting services, did the sums in his head, and gasped.  “He’s that powerful a cleric?”

            “No,” the elf-woman snickered.  “He’s that greedy.  There’s an enormous markup built into his numbers, let me tell you.”

            The ranger shook his head.  “Let’s carry on.  What’s next?”

            “Well,” she said, “once our bona fides and our freedom to wed have been established magically, the rest of the service is fairly prosaic.  The fourth step is for us to declare publicly our intention to wed.  There’s a prescribed text for that in the Codex, as there is for just about every step of the affair.  Dîor didn’t leave a great deal of room for improvisation.”

            “There’s a word for people like that,” Breygon muttered darkly.  “Who like things all laid out, just so.”

            “I know, dear,” she said soothingly.  “They’re called ‘kings’.  Fifth, the priest will ask the assembled guests whether anyone objects to our union.”

            The ranger’s eyes widened.  “What happens if somebody does object?”

            “The priest takes the objector aside,” she replied, “and talks to him.  Or her.  Quietly, and in private, in order to determine the nature of the problem, and devise a solution.

            “And by the way,” she said firmly, “when I say ‘talk’, I mean just that.  It is considered very bad form for the groom to kill anyone in the temple.”

            “Really?” Breygon asked, blinking in surprise.  “Always?”

            “Always.”  Then she grimaced and sighed.  “Well, not always.  In the temple of Istravenya, objections are resolved on the spot, by a duel between the objector and the groom.  Or by the bride, if she claims right of response for an insult.”

            “Hmm,” the ranger rumbled consideringly.  “Well, choose your guests carefully, dear heart.  Law and tradition are all well and good, but anyone who insults you on your wedding day is never going to need a hat again.”

            That made her giggle.  Catlike, she stretched her neck and gave him a quick peck on the lips.  “This is why I love you, lupino.

            “Now,” she went on, “parts the sixth and the seventh: sanctification and binding.  The priest will give us a good dousing, knock us about for a while with oak branches, wheat and holly, symbolizing...”

            “Strength, fecundity and dedication to the green,” Breygon interjected.  “I know.  Go on.”

            “Well, assuming I don’t spontaneously burst into flame from the holy water,” she sniggered, “he’ll bind our left hands together with a doubled green cord.”

            She paused and glanced up.

            Breygon was staring at her.  “Flame?” he asked, sounding as if someone were strangling him.

            Amorda sighed.  “That was a joke, darling.  Do try to relax, hmm? 

            “After the binding of our hands,” she went on, “comes the votum parvus, the lesser promise.  We recite our vows, love.  These, we must write ourselves – and collaboration, just so you know, is contrary to tradition.  We each must decide what we shall promise to the other, and shan’t hear the other’s remarks until the day itself.

            “It’s traditional,” she added with a grin, “for this to include an over-the-top declaration of love and eternal fealty.  You must try to put the poets to shame, my sweet.”

            “Poets be damned.  I think I’ll have my work cut out trying to outdo you,” he muttered.

            “No chance of that,” the elf-woman grinned.  “I excelled at poesie in scholae.  After our vows, we exchange tokens.  Gifts.  This can be anything at all, but it’s got to be something small enough either to be worn immediately, or carried for the next few hours without inconvenience.  Greater gifts can come later.”

            Breygon frowned.  “What sorts of things are customary?”

            “Jewellery,” Amorda shrugged.  “Although since we’ve already exchanged rings, it’ll have to be something else.  But it’s not always jewellery.  When Landioryn wed that miserable shrew Annalyszian, for example, he gave her a silver chain bearing the key to Arx Gloriosus.  The official residence of the Crown Prince.”

            “That’s quite a gesture.”

            The elf-woman frowned.  “More than a gesture, dear heart.  The exchange of tokens is a very real gift-giving.  Landioryn was making a dotum of the most beautiful manor in the realm to his new lifemate.  If they were ever to obtain an Uxorem, the castle would remain hers.” 

            She shook her head in wonder.  “I’d kill for that house and those gardens.  They’re positively gorgeous.”

            Breygon’s eyes widened.  “He gave her a castle?  Good gods!”

            “The best gift, though, always comes with royal weddings,” Amorda added in an off-hand manner.  “The king, when he weds, traditionally presents his new queen with the key to the royal treasury.”

            The half-elf choked.  “What if they separate?!”

            “Kings and queens can’t,” she replied soberly.  “They must swear the votum magnus – the great vow.  They have no choice in the matter.  When Landioryn ascends to the throne, he and Annalyszian – assuming he hasn’t dumped her in the Lymphus – will have to appear before Elcaradon, and renew their vows, this time swearing the Great Vow.  Or he won’t be allowed to succede his mother.”

            “What’s the ‘great vow’?” Breygon asked.  He hadn’t heard the term before.

            Amorda looked nervous.  “That’s the next step, love,” she said hesitantly.  “And it’s the only optional, completely voluntary one in the Rite.  After the exchange of tokens, the bride and groom may – if they desire – swear the votum magnus.  That is, they may, if they wish, recite the vows that Dîor and Anyarra swore when they took each other as lifemates.”

            He frowned at her sudden and obvious consternation.  “What’s the problem with that?” he asked.

            The elf-woman took  a deep, shuddering breath.  “Well,” she said, “almost nobody does it anymore.  Because, you see...it’s irrevocable.”

            “Irrevocable?” he frowned.  “How so?”

            “By swearing the great vow,” she replied in a voice approaching a whisper, “the lifemates declare that they will remain bound and faithful to each other even unto death.  A couple that speaks the votum magnus precludes any possibility of separation this side of the Breaking.  They can never obtain an Uxorem.”  She shuddered.  “And if one lifemate goes...goes to wind, the other can never wed again.”

            Breygon noticed that, in addition to trembling, she was very pointedly not looking at him.  “What’s wrong?”

            Amorda’s fingers twitched uncontrollably.  “I won’t...love, I musn’t try to influence you in this, one way or the other!  But this is a decision we shall have to make – to speak the vows of Dîor and Anyarra...or...or not.”

            Breygon blinked.  “Of the two, which would have the greater political impact?” he asked expressionlessly.

            To his astonishment, Amorda burst into tears.

            He put his hand behind her head, and tilted it back so he could see her face.  “What is it?” he asked, astonished.

            She was flushed, her eyes red and overflowing.  “This can’t be about politics!” she sobbed.  Lupino...”  She clenched her teeth and fists.  “Bræagond, my dearest heart,” she amended, “the great vow is forever.  Forever, do you understand?”

            Tears were spilling across his chest.  “There has to be something...for you, and me...after all this is over, after everything is done, and we can...can be just...just us.  Together.”  She drew a deep, shuddering breath.  “At peace.”

            “Yes,” he replied, nodding.  “Yes, I think I understand.”  He reached over and gently, very gently, moved an errant strand of hair out of her face.  “What’s bothering you so?”

            The elf-woman’s lips were trembling.  She stared into his eyes as if she couldn’t comprehend what she saw there.  “Is this...love, am I really what you want?” she whispered.

            In response, he smiled and kissed her gently on the forehead.  “What comes after the great vow?” he asked, speaking in a low voice, as he would to a startled horse.

            Her response was a new flood of tears.  He gave her a moment, holding her tightly, wondering whether exhaustion and injury had caught up to her at last.

            It took some time, but she gradually regained her self-control.  When her breathing slowed again, he asked, “Better?”

            “A little,” she nodded.  “I’m sorry.”

            “What for?”

            She chuckled miserably.  “For gushing over you like a blowsy fishwife.”

            Breygon laughed.  “Yes,” he said with mock severity.  Fine behaviour for the lifemate of the greatest hero since Arngrim, Fineleor and Yarchian.”

            Amorda gasped.  She balled up her tiny fist and punched him in the stomach.  Hard.  “You, sir,” she whispered savagely, “are an ass!”

            “I’m your ass, my love,” he replied, smiling.  Then he winced.  That hadn’t come out exactly as he had intended.

            “You are indeed,” she chuckled.  “For better, or worse.”

            They lay together quietly for a long moment.  After a long silence, she spoke again.  “You haven’t answered me, you know,” she said with false nonchalance.  “About the votum magnus.”

            “That’s funny,” the ranger murmured.  “I was pretty sure I had.”  He gave her a gentle squeeze, which she returned with redoubled ferocity.  “Once again - what comes after the great vow?” he asked.

            “Only three things more,” she murmured. “First, the green cord binding our hands is untied.  The priest separates the doubled strands, and fastens one about each of our throats.  The halter signifies that we have entered into willing bondage to each other.”

            “Appropriate symbology,” the ranger commented drily.  “A rope, around both our necks.  What then?”

            “Then, we sign the temple’s register, if they have one,” she shrugged, “and prick our thumbs to seal the signature with a drop of blood.”  She sighed.  “And then, last of all, comes the part that you dread.”

            Breygon blinked.  “And that is...?”

            “The priest proclaims us to the assembled throng,” she said quietly, “giving our full names.  Including the name of our House.”

            The ranger was silent.

            “This is a decision that only you can make, my love,” Amorda said gravely, when he didn’t respond.  “You must decide how we shall be proclaimed.”  She looked up at him again and caught his eye.

            “What would you prefer?” he temporized.

            “No!” she exclaimed, alarmed.  “No, I won’t do that!  You’re the warrior, dear heart, not I.  I’m a creature of the shadows; I’m not fit to counsel you on this.

            “But know that there’s no middle road.  It’s time for you to decide whether to attempt to continue on in stealth, or whether you’ll take the field with banners flying, damning your foes, and daring them to do their worst.”

            She put a hand on his chest, feeling for his lifebeats.  “Whatever you decide, you decide for us,” she murmured.  “I shall abide by your word, and shall do my uttermost to make it work.”

            “As an obedient and dutiful wife?” he asked. 

            There was a mocking tone in his voice; but the elf-woman knew men, and she knew that it was not her towards her that her lifemate directed this sudden derision.  It was aimed against himself. 

            She tightened her embrace, and shook her head.  “As a partner.  A willing and enthusiastic ally,” she whispered.  “A determined and deadly one, who loves you more than life itself.”

            Breygon felt his throat tighten and found it suddenly difficult to speak.  It was an odd and unfamiliar sensation.

            Her perceptions were at an unaccustomed height, and she sensed his sudden distress.  “What is it?” she murmured.

            He harrumphed, in part to clear his throat, but mostly to stall for time.  It didn’t help.  He decided to say what was in his heart.  “I don’t deserve you.”

            To his astonishment, the elf-woman giggled.  “Of course, you don’t, my love!” she exclaimed. “And I don’t deserve you!”

            He gave her a gentle squeeze.

            “And yet,” she murmured, snuggling into his embrace, “here we are.”

            “Yes.”  Breygon said distantly.  “Here we are.”