11 July 2012

ELVEHELM: Starmeadow VII - Brief Mortality

…take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war:
We charge you, in bright Hara’s name, take heed;
For never two such households did contend
Without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint
'Gainst him whose wrong gives edge unto the swords
That make such waste in brief mortality.
- Ceorlinus Rectinarius
Gesta Tîor Magnus (V)
Peroratio Sponsalis


            Amorda started.  She’d lost track of time, and was conscious of only three facts: first, that the Lantern was higher, glimmering brilliantly in azure-viridian magnificence through the stained glass of the chapel, high above her head; second, that her face was wet with tears (and that the sodden handkerchief clenched in her fist was like to be of little use in drying it); and third, that her knees hurt.

            Before her, the rectilinear wooden altar had been transformed into a bier, and atop it, beneath a simple fall of brilliant white samite, lay the body of her departed ancilla, Reticia.  The girl had been dead five days, but thanks to divine magic, first of the priest of the Protector in Novaposticum, and latterly of the gruff but kindly Father Shields, putrefaction had not yet set in.  The lack of decay, however, could not disguise the pale stillness of the girl’s lips, the hollowness of her cheeks, or the lank lifelessness of her hair.  Just as – Amorda gulped – the sheet could not hide the terrible damage that had been done to her slender body when the dragon Hedfan had struck the Odergrav, collapsing its timbers in upon her, and catching her between deck and head-beams as though between a hammer and its anvil.

            “All will be well,” Shields murmured, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder.  “If you’re ready, we’ll begin.”

            With a grimace, Amorda levered herself to her feet.

            The priest noticed her expression, and a look of concern filled his rheumy eyes.  “Lady, are you well?”

            “Just stiff,” the elf-woman grunted.  “The men of Ekhan don’t believe in padded kneelers, I see.”

            Shields might have taken offence at that, but it was not in his nature.  That was one reason that he had been selected to accompany Cornu to the Realm.  Instead of bristling, he smiled at her words.  “A little mortification of the body,” he replied gently, “is said to be good for the soul.”

            She heard the jest in his tone, and snorted.  “Rejoice, therefore,” she replied with a smile.  “I suspect my future lifemate is, at this very moment, causing mortification enough to purify a thousand souls.”

            “I suspect he is,” Shields laughed.  “Have you brought the sacrifice?”

            Wordlessly, Amorda reached into her purse, extracted a small sack of black velvet, and passed it to the priest.

            “Excellent,” he nodded.  Crouching, he reached beneath the altar and extracted a trio of figured silver vessels – a low, broad bowl; a brimful pitcher; and a censer.

            He held the latter up.  “Lady, I know you have attended the College.  As supplicant, if you would prefer to light the lamp for your friend…?”

            Amorda hesitated.

            “I can provide a taper, if you haven’t prepared the correct spell,” he prodded gently.

            The elf-woman shook her head.  This is for Reticia, she told herself.  Reaching for the flux, she felt its strands writhe in her mind’s grasp, and, bending them into the appropriate configuration, touched a finger to the censer.

            There was a brief burst of fire.  The incense within the vessel began to smoulder immediately.

            Amorda took a deep breath.  Then, without flinching, she looked Shields full in the face.  “And now you too know,” she murmured.

            The old priest smiled again.  “And you feared to reveal yourself before me.  Why?”

             “I was a girl when Mishanirta burned,” the elf-woman said stonily.  “And while I don’t know your tale, father, you’re old enough to have served the Theocracy.”

            “I am,” he nodded.  “More’s the pity. 

            “I began my novitiate under the Hand,” he admitted frankly, plying the censer to cleanse the airs about the makeshift bier.  “But I was fortunate enough to display a talent for protection, and a…a lack of enthusiasm, shall we call it, for persecution.  I was sent to the College of Steel, to serve the magi there; and when I petitioned my superiors for a transfer to Vorwenna’s service, their opinion of me was sufficiently low that my request was accepted.”

            Amorda’s face remained guarded and sceptical.

            “You need not fear me, child,” the priest insisted.

            That made her laugh.  “ ‘Child’?  What is it with you roundears?  Priest, I’ve three centuries on you!”

            “It’s not the years, m’lady,” Shields chuckled, “so much as the long tale of leagues that lie behind them.”  He nodded at the altar.  “Shall we about it?”

            The elf-woman cocked a curious eyebrow.  “ ‘We’?”

            “ ‘We’,” Shields confirmed.  “I can only show your friend the path.  You must give her a reason to take it.”

            Amorda smiled sadly.  “That should be easy enough.  She’s been pestering me about getting oathed for a century now.”  She reached down and took the dead girl’s hand, holding it gently in her own.  “Now that I’ve finally taken up the rose, she won’t want to miss it.”

            The priest smiled and nodded sympathetically.  “Let’s begin, then.”

            “Where do you want me?”

            “Right there is fine,” he shrugged.  “And keep holding her hand, if you don’t mind.  That’ll help.  I’m afraid, though,” he added with a slight grin, “that you’ll have to kneel again.”

            Amorda dropped carefully to her knees once more, wincing a little as the cold stone of the alter steps ground into her flesh through the thin fabric of her gown.

            “All right?” Shields asked.

            “I’ll be fine, father,” the elf-woman replied, shifting to a more comfortable posture.  “It’s just the whining of an over-privileged noblewoman.

            “After all,” she added, “a little pain is nothing, when it’s for someone that we love.  Nec est?”

            E vero,” the priest chuckled.  He picked up the bowl, filled it slowly from the pitcher, and began intoning the words of the great working, in low tones, and slow.


Moments later, as Shields droned through his interminable prayers, Amorda grimaced again.  A sudden, stabbing pain lanced up her leg and into her hip.  The agony was short and sharp, and faded instantly, leaving her feeling cold and slightly nauseated.  Clearly her poor, overfed, underworked mortal shell was unaccustomed to the prostrations of the faithful.  The twinge brought a whole world of discomfort to her attention; her knees were screaming agony at her now, the dull throbbing echoing behind the priest’s monotonous chants like a susurration of drums.

Getting old, she thought with grim amusement.  Either that, or too much easy living.  The rigors of the dance floor – or the stragulum – apparently didn’t prepare one for prolonged devotions on cold, hard stone.

She resolved to ignore her discomposure, for Reticia’s sake; it was the least that she could do, given the unimaginable horror that had consumed the poor girl’s last moments upon the earth.

When it happened again a few lifebeats later – coming this time as a stabbing twinge in her left shoulder – she ground her teeth and tried not to flinch.  Her right hand still held Reticia’s cold, stiff fingers, and Shields had taken her left, and was gripping it tightly while he gesticulated and declaimed with increasing fervour.  She didn’t dare disturb him.

When an axe-bit of agony hammered her in the chest, though, she gasped and pitched forward.  This time it was more than a twinge – it was a bolt, a sudden sharp icicle that struck her between the breasts like the kick of a destrier.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Shields pause and cast an irritated glance her way.  She shook her head, and he held his peace and carried on with his prayers.

Amorda took a deep, shuddering breath, steadying herself.  She could not – she must not – disturb the casting.  Not if she was to see Ret –

“Aaaaaiy!” The burning stab of agony, this time in her throat, came so swift and sudden that she screamed.  Every muscle in her body clenched; she dropped Reticia’s hand, and her own tore out of Father Shields’ spavined grasp.

The priest’s words faltered and he turned to stare at her in sudden shock.  The instant his eyes lit upon her, they widened and filled with panic.  “Lady, you…you’re…”

Amorda looked down.  The front of her gown was sodden, a mass of purple and scarlet that ran with blood.  Her throat ached again, and she clutched at it in agony; her fingers came away dripping.

She held out her hands in silent supplication.


“Lady!” Shields screamed, dropping the silver goblet he had been holding.  Blessed water and the diamonds that he had introduced into it scattered across the floor.

            No!  He’s…NO!

She tried to cry the words, but nothing issued from her mouth; nothing but a spray of bloody froth.  Another shattering blast of agony shot up her arms, tearing through her like the bolt from a ballista, and her vision went gray.

The priest bent over her, his lips and hands moving frantically.  She tried to speak again, to tell him to ignore her, to carry on, to bring back her friend…but there was no air, no breath in her lungs.  She choked, tasting blood copper iron…and…and


            “Are you sure you’re all right?” Thanos asked, concerned.  “We could hire a carriage, you know.”

            “It’s a mile downhill,” Breygon replied sourly.  “Even if my guts were hanging out, I’d crawl it before I’d ride in a coach like some preening popinjay.”

            “You mean, even if your guts were still hanging out,” Joraz interjected helpfully.

            The half-elf shot him an annoyed glance.  “Thank you,” he growled.  “I needed something to take my mind off the fact that my blasted great-grandmother asked me, as a personal favour, to keep my identity secret, and then not ten minutes later, blatherskited it to the whole bloody court!”

            “Yes, she’s unpredictable, isn’t she?” Thanos mused.  “That’s a useful quality in a monarch.”

            “Not if you’re trying to keep arrows out of your back,” the half-elf glowered.

            “And especially when you still haven’t figured out how to keep swords out of your front,” Joraz mused aloud.

            Breygon ground his teeth.  One foot in front of the other, he thought wearily.  That’s the trick.

            The monk was carrying the paired weapons and the hooked rod that his comrade had won in battle.  Breygon had retained the seven-foot great glaive, and was leaning on it like an oversized walking stick.  “I’m so glad I decided not to bring Besar’s spear,” he sighed.  “It would’ve been a shame if I’d had a weapon ready to hand that was specifically ensorcelled to seek Third House throats.”

            “You took the diplomatic course,” Thanos shrugged.  “And all it cost you was a little blood.”

            “When the seneschal sends for mops instead of rags,” Joraz commented idly, “then it’s no longer a ‘little’ blood.  Perhaps ‘deluge’ would be a more appropriate term.”

            “Half of it was Szyelekkan’s,” Breygon reminded them tartly.  “And I still won.  Remember that part?”

            “Yes, of course,” the monk nodded.  “A magnificent victory.  Are you sure you don’t want me to go back and see if we forgot to bring any of your limbs or vital organs?”

            The half-elf stopped, glaring at his comrades with a jaundiced eye.  “This has been a long day already, friends,” he said heavily, “and it’s only half over.  If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you saved the quips and recriminations until after I’m no longer oozing gore from every seam.”

            Thanos nodded.

            “I suppose it’s a stroke of luck,” Joraz observed with a detached air, “that Amorda set up your appointment with the tailor for this afternoon.”

            Breygon looked at his comrade, puzzled. 

            “You know,” the monk went on airily.  “To tighten up your seams.”

            The ranger made a show of examining the pommel-joint in his new glaive, muttering, “How does this thing come apart?”  

            Thanos winked at Joraz.  “You’re a brave fellow.”

            “That is because my mind and body are one,” Joraz intoned, with immense gravitas.

            “Not if I can get the sword off this damned stick,” Breygon growled, twisting feebly at the joint between staff and hilt.

            The trio, with Valaista following close behind, continued their slow progress and easy banter.  Despite his refusal to consider alternate transportation, Breygon could have used it.  His wounds were no laughing matter. 

            Thanos noticed his apprentice stepping gingerly from side to side behind them, and when he shot her a questioning glance, she pointed to the cobblestones.  The warmage followed her pointing finger, and jerked to a halt.  There was a long, winding trail of bloody footprints following behind them.

            He put a hand on Breygon’s shoulder.  “That’s enough,” he said compassionately.  “We’re going to empty the Grail into your gullet.  Then we either hail a coach, or Joraz carries you over his shoulder, or I float you back to your lady’s couch in the tender grasp of Bigby’s Crushing Fist.

            “That doesn’t sound very safe,” Joraz frowned.

            “It only crushes when I tell it to,” Thanos reassured him.

            “No.  No spells.”  The half-elf shook his hand off and plodded on, holding himself upright with the glaive.  “It’s not much further.”

            “You have got to be the most bloody-minded man I’ve ever met!” the warmage exclaimed, exasperated.

            “Thank...you,” the ranger grunted between clenched teeth.

            Thanos glanced at Joraz.  The monk shrugged.

“You’ve got quick hands,” the warcaster whispered. “When he goes down, try to catch him.”

Joraz nodded.

“You know,” Breygon murmured oddly after another couple dozen paces, “if I’d brought Akhir, I could’ve ridden him back.”

“If you’d brought Akhir,’ Thanos sighed, “you wouldn’t have to feed him for the next few days, the Countess of Eldarcanum would no longer be a problem, and you wouldn’t be sponge-painting the Via Alnus in arterial scarlet.”

“Excellent p-p-point,” the half-dazed half-elf whispered.

To Thanos’ surprise, they managed to make it back to Domus Casia, although the return trip took three times as long as the walk to the palace had taken earlier that morning. 

Breygon, to no one’s surprise, collapsed in the foyer.  Joraz knelt beside him, reaching for the Grail, and checking the lifebeat at the half-elf’s wrist and throat.

As the two leaned over their fallen comrade, Cayless bustled up, white-faced and trembling.

Relieved, Thanos sketched a bow.  “Good afternoon, lady.  Please summon a surgeon.  Your master is in dire need of – ”

“The surgeon’s already here,” the elf-woman barked.  She glanced down at the fallen ranger and froze.

“Your master,” Thanos repeated gently, “is in dire need of aid.”

“So’s my mistress,” Cayless breathed.  “Looks like it’s been a bad day all ‘round for House Olestyrian. 

“Pick’im up, would you?” she asked with a worried glance at the two humans.  “And follow me.”


When he came to, Breygon found himself staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling.  Instead of bare, polished beams, the surface overhead was plastered with glaring white gypsum, and was painted in an elaborate maze of brilliant frescoes.  A riot of flowers in every conceivable colour spread above him, and he felt as if he were floating above a garden.  The patterns, he noticed – moving his eyes, if nothing else – carried on down the walls, where they merged into coiled ivy, vast sprays of orchids and chrysanthemums, and paintings of enormous trees and sunlit glades. 

He turned his head to the right, following the images.  He was in a bedchamber of some sort.  Ranged ‘round the walls were innumerable dressing tables, chests, trunks, towering wardrobes and garment presses.  A pair of long, low couches stood on either side of a fireplace with a carved obsidian mantelpiece; and above the mantle there was a painting of a regal-looking gentleman of the Third House, richly dressed, with wisps of iron-gray at his temples.  Breygon didn’t recognize him.  Scanning the rest of the room, he saw an enormous mirror, easily twice his own height and half again as broad, affixed to one wall; and there was even a seamstress’ dummy standing in one corner, draped in folds of rich, heavy silk and velvet of a vibrant, startling green.

The door, he could see, was as darkly polished as the furniture, and was standing ajar.  There was a space behind it.  There, leaning against the wall, he could see the long, deadly shape of his new glaive; and just beside it, somewhat shorter, an unsheathed thinblade.


“Oh hells!” he whispered in strangled tones.

A hand with long, slender fingers, stretched across his chest.  “Mmmhmmm, yes,” a familiar voice murmured.  “It seems you’ve done a great deal of violence to the Codex this day, sponsus mea.”

Breygon turned his head to the left, and gasped.  The movement hurt; one of Szyelekkan’s knife-blows had cut deep into his right trapezius muscle, and although the wound seemed to have been healed, it still ached abominably.

He was unsurprised to see Amorda staring back at him.  Her eyes were enormous, deep, and of a green so dark as to almost be black.  Her hair, he noticed, was unbound and lank, as if she had just come from her bath; and her skin was unusually pale, so pale that it all but glowed in the faint light of the single candle that had been left burning.

He took a deep breath.  “Greet the…the…” he faltered.

She raised an eyebrow.  “Yes?”

“Er...what time is it?” he asked, confused.  He glanced up at the ceiling again.  The room didn’t have a cupola.

“Evening,” Amorda replied.  “Still the eleventh.  The day of your…your great victory.”

The hand on his chest was trembling.  He put his own atop it.  “You heard,” he said softly.

“Thanos told me,” she whispered.  “Love, I…I…”

“I’m sorry,” he interrupted.  “I didn’t want to fight her.  I tried to get out of it, but she…she left me no choice.”

“I know,” Amorda moaned.  “I know!  Thanos told me everything.”  She slid closer and put her other arm around him, holding him tight to her breast, and grimacing slightly as she did so.  “I should’ve warned you!”

“I should’ve expected it,” the half-elf murmured.  “I knew what she was, and I knew how she felt about you.  I should’ve...seen it coming.”

“You couldn’t have done better than you did, my love!”

“I don’t know about that,” he said mordantly.  “I certainly could’ve scored a few more hits, and definitely could’ve allowed her to score fewer.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” she hissed.  She took the sting out of her words with another gentle squeeze.  She winced again.

He noticed it that time.  “Love, what is it?” he asked, concerned.

“Nothing,” she replied.  “A twinge.  That’s all.  It was a…a difficult day.  For both of us.”

Her words sparked a sudden instant of recollection.  “Reticia!” he exclaimed.  “Did it work?  Did Shields bring her back?”

“No,” she replied, biting her lip.  “No, he…we…we were interrupted.”

The ranger frowned.  “I don’t understand.  He didn’t lose the spell, did he?”

“Yes, but not the sacrifice,” Amorda shrugged.  “Fortunately.  Although I’d happily procure more diamonds, if I had to.  The money means nothing.  But...he’s going to try again.  Tomorrow.”

“Who interrupted you?” Breygon asked.

“Love, it doesn’t matter,” the elf-woman said soothingly.  “All’s well now.” 

She smiled impishly.  “Thanos also told me what you told the Queen, and what she said to the assembled Court.  And that she knighted you!  It looks like I’m going to be marrying a prince after all!”

“Yes, and may all the forest gods and ministers of grace defend us,” Breygon muttered.  “Her heart was in the right place, and it’s flattering enough; but the hellcat’s out of the bag for sure and certain now.  I can only just imagine what sort of problems are going to spring up now that my name’s been announced in open court.”

“What on earth are you worried about?” Amorda exclaimed, astonished.  “You think it can get worse than what you just had to deal with?”

“It can always get worse,” he replied, glum.  He levered himself to a sitting position, gritting his teeth as he did so.  “Although if it does, I’m probably a dead man.  I barely survived today.  Your one-time consectatrix is a true master of blades, my dear.” 

He pushed the sheet down to his waist and examined a red, glaring scar that ran diagonally across his stomach, just below the line of his ribs.  “I wish you’d warned me.  She carved me up like a First-Day goose.”

Amorda stared at the dreadful wound, her face white.  Beneath the sheet, she put her hand on her own belly.  “A near-run thing,” she whispered.

“Indeed,” he nodded.  “But that, at least, should be the end of it.  I’ve taken her swords, and if she has any honour whatsoever, she’ll let the matter drop.  Especially as I spared her life, when I might’ve snuffed her like a candle.  Gods know I wanted to.”

The elf-woman nodded soberly.  “Thanos told me that, too.  He said the Queen begged you to spare her.”

“She did,” Breygon snorted.  “But I didn’t do it for the Queen.”  He put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed.

She lay her head on his shoulder and sighed.  “I know you didn’t.”  A tear ran down her cheek.  “And I thank you, husband.”

They lay together in silence like that for a long while.  Finally, however, Breygon moved.  He slid a hand under her pillow, felt around, found what he was looking for, withdrew it, and tossed it across the room.  The object that clattered on the floor was a long, naked dagger.

Amorda looked at him strangely.  “What’d you do that for?”

“Well, you’ve told me how you killed the one suitor who’d violated your bedchamber,” he shrugged.  “I’ve had enough holes poked in my hide today.  I thought it best to eliminate the temptation.”

“I won’t hurt you, you idiot!”  She swatted him weakly on the chest.  “Your friends had to drag you in here.  You were unconscious and looked like you’d just crawled out of an abattoir through a heap of rusty axe-heads.  I certainly don’t blame them; they didn’t know any better!”

“And yet, you didn’t stop them?” he asked mockingly.  “So much for dearly-held principles!”

“I was indisposed at the time,” she said coldly, crossing her arms.

“But you’re fine now, aren’t you?” he murmured, putting his left arm around her shoulders again, and sliding his right hand under the sheet.

The elf-woman made a pretence of resisting for a few brief moments.  Then, with a sigh, she melted into his arms.

Breygon let his hand roam freely until he had found what he sought.  Then he threw the sheet back.  “I thought so,” he said flatly.

Amorda squealed and clung to him.  He pushed her away and ran his eyes over her body.  Flaming, blood-red welts scored her shoulders and upper arms.  Her hips were criss-crossed with scars, there was a dark and deadly line along her throat, and her sternum was scarred and blackly bruised.

“You’ve been wounded, and badly too,” he snapped.  “What on earth happened?!”

“Love, it…it was nothing,” she murmured.  She tried to pull the sheet out of his grasp, but he held onto it with fingers of iron.  “Please, I beg you…do not…”

“Who hurt you?!” he shouted.

 Then at last he saw it; at last, it registered against his exhaustion- and battle-deadened senses.  Releasing his grip on the sheet, he put his fingers on her belly, and traced out a long, angry-looking scar that scored her tender flesh from left to right, just beneath the line of her ribs.  It was identical – identical! – to his own.

“What have you done?” he gasped, horrified.

He stared into her eyes.  They were filled with tears, and with something else, too: a mute, wordless plea.

The sight of her wound and her worried, guilty expression terrified and appalled him.  His hands began to tremble with fury when he realized what had happened.

And, more terribly, what might have happened. 


            When the chirurgen was gone, when the sick-nurses had moved along to other duties, when the Lantern was down and the Lamps not yet risen, and the hall-lights had been dimmed for night-fall…she moved.  Sliding out of her high bed, she put her feet on the floor, steadied herself for a moment…and crashed unceremoniously to the rug-strewn stone.

            The fall dislodged several of her bandages.  They had sent priests to her, priests of the Protector, and of the Forest Mother, and even of Hara Sophus; but she had snarled at them all, chasing them from her presence with threats and imprecations.  She scorned their aid; at her direction, her handmaiden had torn strips from bed-sheets and bound each one of the long, deep cuts and ghastly punctures that the half-elf’s blades had inflicted.  Even more painful were the burns she had suffered on the backs of her legs, from the verruca’s damnable fire-children.

Her own nurse-work had been done swiftly and inexpertly, and several of the cuts were still oozing.  As she lay on the floor, gasping with pain, she could feel the blood start to flow again.  One especially deep stab wound just above her waistband had penetrated deep into her vitals; she had felt the half-elf’s shortsword and knife bite hard, and the bastard half-blood had worked the razor-edged metal around in her guts before yanking the blades out.  It had been that blow that had felled her at last, had run blood-coloured spots before her eyes, giving her as close a glimpse of the Long Halls as she had ever had.

And then – and then, the wretched man had had the temerity to heal her!  To deny her the comforting kiss of darkness, the cool, peaceful embrace of oblivion!  Rest, surcease of sorrow, and an end to the tearing ache in her heart had at last been within her grasp, only to be snatched away the moment the doors to the world beyond the world had opened for her at last.

Was she to be denied everything, everything, that had meaning for her?

No.  No!

Grinding her teeth, a look of grim resolution pasted on her lips, she crawled.  Away from her bed; across the floor, over stone and carpet.  She felt the bandages bound around her waist give way, and the terrible, tearing agony set in once more, gouging at her like the fangs of a wolf, gnawing at her vitals.  She could feel the life oozing from her, soaking the carpets and the thin, coarse cotton of her shift, and painting the stones with that special scarlet that, in the darkness, looked blacker than blackest night.

Away from the bed, and towards the balcony.  And the wardrobe.  It took her most of a half-hour to make the long, painful trek, and by the time she reached the chair where her clothing and kit – or what was left of it, anyway – had been stacked, she was fainting again, spots clawing for position before her eyes.  Her will was stronger than her flesh, though, and she prevailed.  She found her left boot, felt beneath the liner at the top of it, and, from a hidden sheathe, drew a long, straight, narrow-bladed misericorde.

How appropriate, she mused with a pained grin.  She had been in misery for so very long.

It had been months since she had last uncased the thing, but the blade was still bright; and, testing it with her thumb, she discovered that the edge was still hair-splittingly sharp.


Grunting now with the effort and the pain, she angled away from the wardrobe and towards the balcony, reaching it a few moments later.  The flow of blood from her torn belly seemed to have slowed slightly, and she felt light-headed; perhaps the floodwaters were running dry.  If that were the case, then time was truly running out, and she had to hurry.

The balcony doors were unlatched, and she thrust them apart with a shove.  The light of the great capital and the icy air of the Starvale night flooded into the room.  She felt no discomfort; indeed, she scarcely noticed it.  She had been cold for most of her life; the one moment of warmth, of joy, that she had ever known had been denied her thirty years ago, and again yestereve, and again today.  Surely death could be no colder than the life she had lived.

With a muffled grunt of agony, she dragged herself to her knees.  She wanted to climb higher; wanted to stand, to meet her destiny erect and unafraid.  But she could not.  There was no strength left in her, and she feared that, if she tried, she would lose consciousness, and be found, and then be denied any further opportunity to seek solace in blessed darkness.

Her shift was drenched in blood, black and clotted, and she regarded it with distaste.  It would be a poor shroud.  She put her hands to the collar and, with a convulsive effort, tore the thing open to the waist.  Before she could hesitate, she retrieved her knife, felt with her fingers for the gap between the ribs just beneath her left breast, and, with the resolution that marked every one of her acts in life, set the point to her flesh.

She knelt there, stiff and unmoving, waiting for some sign, some omen.  A long, low whistle echoed in the night; the cry of some hunting bird, some kite, aloft and seeking for prey. 

She closed her eyes.  It was wild, free; soon she, too, would be as free…

…free to walk the world, forever hungry, forever cold, craving the kiss of life, the savour of the moons, the taste…the taste of…of flesh

Her eyes flew open, and a gasping sob escaped her lips.  Would she go so far?  Would her dread mother sully even her daughter’s death with her foul magic?  Would she drag her only child, slain by her own hand, back from the maw of the hungry earth, her soul wailing and screaming at the horror of such a violation, to serve the Grim Duchess’s dark desires as a thing revenant?

            She knew her mother; knew her, and her appetites, and her desires, and her aims.  She knew them all too well. 

            She could feel the point of the knife against her skin, quivering with desire; she pressed a little harder and felt the flesh give way, the steel biting into her tender body, stinging only a little, a trickle of blood running down and vanishing into the gory flood of scarlet that stained her bandages and her rent shift.  It would be easy, so easy now, simply to hold fast…to give up her balance, and fall forward, and feel the sharp impact of the stone against her face, the slithering kiss of the steel as it sheathed itself in her body, burying its silver mercy in her heart, stilling it, bring unto her the peace that she craved…

            …as she craved life, the hot, smoking, steaming delicious taste of life, spilling forth from throats wrists thighs torn open by her fangs; feeling the scorching spurt of incarnadine glory, tasting it on the air as she hunted her quarry, bore them to earth, and fixed her incisors in its…its…

            No!  Gasping in horror, she unclenched her fingers and threw the knife from her.  It skittered and clattered across the stones before sliding between the pilasters of the balcony railing, disappearing over the edge and into the night.

            I cannot.  She clasped her arms around her chest.  I cannot...it would not be an ending. 

            Mother…she would bring me back.   Mother would awaken me, as something potent and awful, something warped and fell and cold.  She would make me serve her.  No wit, no will...naught but obedience.  And simply for her own amusement, she would send me against all those who have befriended me...

            A thing, she thought, going cold with horror.  A thing without life, without breath, without blood…without any hope of an ending.  Without any hope…at all.

            I cannot die! she thought wildly.  Not while Mother lives!

            And without hope…without her…I cannot not live.

            Throughout the long hours of the night, she knelt on the cold, unforgiving stones, her blood puddling around her, growing ever weaker, ever more faint; staring up into the sky, at the moons and the stars, and praying that someone, something…anything…might vouchsafe her tortured and screaming soul the slightest measure of peace.

            “It was Shields,” Thanos said matter-of-factly.  “He saved her.  We owe him a debt of gratitude, all of us.  You especially, Lewat.  He saw what was happening to her, and abandoned his casting to heal her.  If he hadn’t…”

            “If he hadn’t, I’d be dead,” Amorda said, her voice quavering with exhaustion.  There was something ghostly and odd in her tone.  Breygon knew what it was; for the first time, she had faced her own mortality.  He felt a chill worm its way down his spine.

            “You came pretty close anyway,” Thanos said, frowning.  “The good father had spent the morning at the Priory, healing the sick.  His resources were fairly well depleted by the time you showed up with Ret…with your friend’s remains.  By the time he got to you, you were suffering mortal damage every few seconds.  It took everything he had left to keep you from bleeding out before his eyes.”

            She nodded, looking chastened.  Breygon, still in shock, said nothing.

            They were sitting in the library.  The half-elf had donned a robe of heavy wool, Amorda a silken dressing gown.  She was perched on one of the long couches, wrapped in a thick bed-spread against the chill.  Her face was still pale and drawn; to the ranger’s eyes, she looked more like a porcelain doll than ever.

            Joraz was nowhere to be seen.  Immediately upon returning to Domus Casia, he had excused himself and strode back to the garden with a sense of purpose etched upon his face.  He was still there, deep in converse with...well, with no one, so far as the warcaster could tell.

            Thanos leaned forward, poured a measure of steaming tea into a fine china cup, added two lumps of sap-sugar and, from a decanter, a healthy measure of fortified wine.  He stirred the concoction and passed the cup to the elf-woman.  She nodded her thanks and took a tentative sip.

            “You warded him,” the warcaster said.  It wasn’t a question.

            Amorda nodded.

            With the air of a professor addressing a pair of wayward students, Thanos continued grimly, “I don’t think I need to emphasize how amazingly stupid that was.”

            Amorda looked tragic.  “I wasn’t –”

            “I had no idea – ” Breygon growled, bristling.

            Thanos cut them off with an angry gesture.  “You,” he said, pointing a calloused finger at the elf-woman, “were meddling with magic beyond your understanding, and it nearly got you killed.

            “And you,” he continued angrily, turning his ire on Breygon, “weren’t paying attention!  Wandering around wearing magic items you picked up here and there, or were handed to you by a pretty girl!”

            “Now just a – ”

            “This isn’t a game!” the warcaster shouted, slamming his palm against the table for emphasis.  The teapot jumped and the wine-flask teetered alarmingly.  “While you two are playing house, worlds are at stake!”

            “We’ve already had this out,” Breygon snapped.  “You know my reasons for –”

            “Yes, I know them,” the warcaster exclaimed.  “I even agree with them!  And despite what you might think,” he added, waving his hands for emphasis, “all ‘reason’ aside, I’m happy for you!  You’re my comrades, and you’ve found love, and that’s wonderful.

            “But,” he continued before they could speak, stabbing the air with a finger, “that doesn’t relieve us – any of us! – of our responsibilities!  The Queen needs you, woman!” he cried to Amorda.  “This kingdom is a mess!  The Great Houses are at each other’s throats, and the last thing she needs is to have your barony up for grabs because you’ve managed to get yourself killed without leaving an heir!”

            The elf-woman bit her lip.

            “And as for you,” he turned back to Breygon, “what d’ye think happens to our quest if you go toes up, hmm?  Do Joraz and I carry on alone?  We’ve relics of terrible evil to find, and at least one dragon to kill.  We have to deal with the Council of the Fang, and Lady Deathscorch, and the Dark Queen in her sunken city.  There’re Powers and demons and angels in this with us, and a pair of deranged revenant wizards, and gods know what else!  The very existence of the Universe may be at stake!  And you risked it all on a duel?  For honour?!”

            “I had no choice,” Breygon grated.

            “There’s always a choice!” Thanos shouted.  “The Queen herself gave you a way out!  D’ye think that crazy bint would’ve attacked you if you’d said no?”

            “She’d have just waited until later,” the ranger growled.  “Until we were outside, and unprotected, maybe.”

            “Perfect!  Then she’d have been unprotected too!” Thanos replied heatedly.  “And I could’ve burned her into ash, or Joraz could’ve kicked her head off and into the Lymphus!”

            “And I’d’ve been branded a coward before all the noble houses!” Breygon shouted.

            Thanos put his hands to his temples.  “Holy bleeding Vara!” he swore, pushed beyond the limits of passion at last.  “Just when did you start caring what the ‘noble houses’ think?!

            “Don’t you understand?” he went on, as the ranger’s face grew increasingly florid.  “You can’t do this!  I need you.”  He leaned forward again, his eyes blazing with unaccustomed intensity.  “Damn it, man…I need you!”

            Strigo!” Amorda cried suddenly.  Her voice was still faint.  “Stop, stop!  Please, I beg you!”

            Breygon glanced at her, alarmed at how weak she sounded.  She ignored him.  Turning to Thanos, she said, “Vent your rage at me, sirrah.  It is just.  This is my fault, not my love’s.”

            “Yes,” he nodded.  “It is your fault.”

            The ranger leaned forward, rage building in his face.

            Thanos held up a hand.  To Amorda, he said, “Are you going to tell him?  Or am I?”

            Breygon blinked at that.  He opened his mouth as if to say something, then shut it again.  Then, almost as if unwilling, he turned to his sponsa.  “Tell me what?” he said softly.

            She reached out and took his left hand in hers, turning it over so that his palm faced up.  She tried to speak, but choked on the words.  Tears gathered in her eyes and, in a sudden flood, ran down her cheeks.  She couldn’t speak.

            Thanos rolled his eyes.  Reaching out, he grasped both of their wrists and raised their hands together.  “Your rings,” he snapped, tapping their wedding bands with a fingertip.  “They’re called annullamiculae.”

            “ ‘Little friendship rings’?” Breygon translated, confused.  “What does that mean?”

            “There’s a spell,” Thanos said darkly.  “An abjuration, called ‘shield other’.  Cornu could tell you more about it, were he here, it’s his specialty.  It’s been embedded into your rings.”

            “What does it do?” Breygon asked, glancing down at his hand.  Then, suddenly, he realized what it had to do.

            Thanos saw the horrified comprehension burst across his colleague’s face and nodded in grim satisfaction.  “Paladins use it,” he explained, emphasizing the first word, “and bodyguards, too – and our warmage shield-bearers, like Karrick – to protect their charges.  It transfers about half the wounds suffered by a protected individual to the protector.”

            The ranger frowned.  Then his face went white.

            “Your fair lady had a pair of such rings,” Thanos went on grimly.  “She was wearing one, and Reticia the other, when Morowaeth Hedfan and his demons attacked the Odergrav.  It’s how Amorda ended up so badly wounded that night, despite hardly having been touched.  When the dragon rammed the ship, Reticia was crushed between the decks – but half the harm she suffered was transferred to your lady.  It hurt Amorda, badly.  But it was enough to kill Reticia.”

            Breygon turned to look at his fiancée, aghast at what she had done.  She would not raise her eyes to meet his.

            “That’s right,” Thanos said grimly.  “She gave you Reticia’s ring.  But this time, the tables were reversed.  Szyelekkan was deadlier than any of us imagined.  The ring was transferring fully half of your wounds to Amorda, and even then, Szyelekkan nearly killed you.  And you’re far more robust than our dear hostess.  The spell is designed to be used by the stronger party, not the weaker.  The wounds that nearly put you in the ground were enough to kill your bride four times over.”

            “Father Shields was there,” the elf-woman whispered, still staring at her hands.

            “Yes,” Thanos agreed.  “Thanks be to almighty Vara, Father Shields was there.  This time.”

            Breygon glared at his sponsa.  “You’re mad!” he gasped.

            “Be polite,” Thanos growled.  “Haven’t you been listening to me?  If it hadn’t been for that ring, Szyelekkan would’ve killed you.  Amorda saved your life!”

            Breygon’s eyes went flat.  “And if it hadn’t been for Father Shields, my…my ineptitude…would’ve…would’ve killed…” 

            He grasped the ring and began to tug it off his finger.

            “Wait,” Amorda said, putting her hand on his.  “Wait, love, please.  Please!”

            “No,” the ranger snapped.  “This is madness.  I should be protecting you, not you me!”

            “You are,” the elf-woman insisted.  “You are, my heart!  You’re protecting us all!  Everybody, everything, everywhere!  You’ve a world to save!”

            She ran her fingers over his until their rings touched with a muted tink.  “This,” she said in a whisper, “this is something, some small thing, that I can do to help you.”

            “I don’t want your help!” he snarled.  “Not this way!  I won’t purchase my life with your blood!”

            The elf-woman laughed weakly.  “You really don’t understand, do you?”

            “Understand what?” the half-elf exclaimed.  “That you’re insane?”

            “I’m not insane,” she insisted.  “I’m a noblewoman of the Realm, a warrior and a mage.  I have as much at stake as you.  And in case you’d forgotten, I’m going to be your wife!”

            There was a fervent light in the elf-woman’s eyes.  Breygon shot a meaningful glance at Thanos.  The warcaster immediately held up his hands in a warding-off gesture.

            Amorda turned her emerald gaze on the human.  You understand.  Don’t you?”

            “I think so,” the warcaster replied, shaking his head.  “But I’m sure as shades not going to try to explain it to him.”

            The elf-woman nodded, acknowledging the point.  She turned back to Breygon.  “The ring’s cursed,” she said softly.  “Now that it’s tasted blood, you mustn’t ever try to take it off.  Not ever.”

            “Why not?” the ranger asked without expression.

            “Just don’t!” she exclaimed, worried. “Love, you must trust me!”

            Breygon frowned.  “I trusted you when you gave me this,” he grated.  He grasped the ring again and tugged at it.

            Like lightning, Amorda leaped from the sofa, seized his hands in both of hers, and exclaimed, “Please!  Please, listen to me!”

            “What’s the curse?” he snapped.

            “I don’t know!” she cried.  “I’ve never risked it!”

            He sighed heavily.  “Why?  Why have you done this to me?”

            “To you?” she gasped.  “I did it for us!” 

            Her whole heart in her eyes.  “And for me.  Do you remember what I told you a few days ago?  The morning after I took up your rose?”

            “You told me a great many things,” the half-elf said grumpily.  “Which one are you referring to?”

            She shook her head sadly.  “I said that there had to be something left for us.  After all of this is over.  When you’re done with gods and fiends and relics and...and errantry, and free again, to be…to be just my lifemate.  Just that, and nothing more.  A future.  For us.”  She touched his ring again.  “This is how I will ensure that.”

            “All I see,” he said darkly, “is that you’ve made it more likely that you’ll die.”

            Amorda nodded.  There was a ghost of a smile on her face.  “That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose.  The way I see it, though, is that I’ve added to your margin of survival.  I’ve made you harder to kill, love.  And…and…”

“And what?”

“And,” she sighed again, “maybe now you’ll be more cautious.  Maybe you’ll think twice before risking your life, or…or throwing it away.  Perhaps the knowledge that, if you suffer great harm, I will almost certainly die…maybe that that will make you more solicitous of your own life.  Which is, after all, far more precious to me.”

Breygon put his hands over his face.  Sponsa mea, it also ensures that if I die, you’ll die too,” he whispered.

“It does,” she said intently, taking his hands and crushing them as best she could in her own.  “In fact, it means that if you die, I’ll already be dead.”

“I didn’t want this,” he husked.  Emotion clogged his throat, nearly choking him.

“I don’t care what you want.  Not in this thing, love.  This is my decision, dear heart.”  She put his hands to her lips.  “I won’t live in a world without you.  I won’t!”

Red-faced, Thanos cleared his throat and stood.  “I think I’ll leave you two to sort this out on your own,” he murmured.

Amorda glanced up at him gratefully.  “Thank you,” she said.  “For bringing him safely back to me.  For…for everything.”

Breygon, not trusting himself to speak, simply nodded agreement.  Thanos bowed and left.

When the door had closed behind him, the half-elf glanced back at his petite, pale-faced bride.  Tears were still running freely down her cheeks, but there was defiance behind her eyes.  Defiance...and a hint of the terrible iron that he had come to realize lay at the core of her soul.

For a long time, just looking into her emerald eyes was enough.  At length, though, he had to take a deep breath and forge ahead.  “You tricked me,” he said quietly.

“I did,” she nodded.  One corner of her mouth twitched.

A sudden rage took hold of him.  “Take your ring off,” he commanded suddenly.

“Never,” she said.  “Never!  And...and even if I wanted to,” she added nervously, “the curse applies to me now, too.”

“Hells,” the half-elf whispered, wracking his brains for a different solution. 

“And,” she snapped when he looked as though he were about to speak again, “before you think about doffing yours and risking the curse, think about this: if you lose that ring and someone else finds and wears it, whatever happens to them happens also to me.  The only way for you to ensure that I stay safe is to keep it on your finger forever, and to keep yourself safe.”

Breygon frowned.  “I could take it off, and destroy it.”


“Melt it down,” he said instantly.  “Cut it in twain.  Hammer it flat!”

She nodded.  “What do you think that would do to me?”

The half-elf blinked.  “I…I don’t…”

“If you don’t know,” she interjected with a lopsided grin, “then you probably shouldn’t experiment on your wife, should you?”

Breygon realized that his mouth was hanging open and promptly clamped it shut.

“What is it?” she asked, her eyes twinkling again.

“You…you’re…” he stammered.

“I’m what?”

“I don’t know!” he exclaimed.  “Diabolical!”

Amorda bent at the waist, nodding her thanks.  “That’s the second greatest compliment you could ever have paid me,” she said with a chuckle.  “To admit that I’ve outwitted you!”

“Oh, really?” he said glumly.  “And what was the greatest?  If one may ask?”

She put her hands in his, and smiled.  “Loving me.”

Breygon shook his head, dismayed.  He held up his left hand.  “I’ll find a way around this, sooner or later,” he murmured.  “I refuse to let you suffer or die for my mistakes!”

She took his hand in hers, kissed his fingers, and pressed his calloused palm to her cheek.  “My darling, the only way to avoid that now,” she murmured happily, “is to not make any.”