“I don’t think so,” Amorda replied, sotto voce. “I’ve never stood vigil before, but as far as I know, we’re only required to remain in the chapel. We’re supposed to be contemplating our responsibility to the defence of the Unity and the green, the realm and our people, and each other, or something.” She smiled feebly. “And remember, we’re supposed to refrain from ‘excess of intimacy’.”
The ranger looked her up and down. “That shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “You look as fetching as ever, love, but it’d take some serious smith-craft to pry you out of that.”
The soon-to-be happy couple were kneeling before the Hearthfire, the harsh chill of the flagstones mitigated somewhat by the roaring blaze in the great bronze bowl, their knees spared by the pair of heavily-embroidered cushions of dark green silk that Mya had thoughtfully provided. Breygon kept shifting his position, moving from one knee to the other, balancing himself with the long glaive that he held in one hand. The shield he had borrowed from Karrick lay on the floor to his left. To his right, Amorda – seemingly more flexible, he noticed wryly – sat easily on her heels. She was serenely still.
As he had done at court the previous day, the ranger was wearing Arngrim’s leafy carapace. Despite the fading warmth of the chapel, he found it as light and comfortable as always. Amorda, in stark contrast, was clad from neck to ankle in an exquisitely-detailed panoply of light mail, overlaid with silver-edged plates enamelled a deep forest green. Breygon had never seen its like, and had told her so as they rode slowly up the hill towards the palace.
“Oh, this old thing?” she’d replied with a smile. “I just threw it on.”
“It looks like it was forged around you,” he’d remarked. It wasn’t an exaggeration; the armour appeared to have been moulded to her body. It must have been made to order.
“Well, ordinary mail would suffice for minor things like swords and arrows, but this has to keep you out, lupino,” she’d said with a wink. “For the next few hours, at least.”
Breygon hadn’t known whether to laugh or frown. Her customary ribald humour seemed unduly forced. Something was discomfiting her, and he’d sworn to himself to figure out what it was before the night was gone.
He had noticed that she was wearing the gray-green clavus of her Eldarcanum knighthood. “Where’s great-grandmother’s virga, my love?” he’d teased.
That had earned him a wink. “Nowhere you’re going to see it tonight,” she’d replied primly.
They’d left their mounts at the stables immediately inside the great gate, walking the few hundred paces to the Commanderie in companionable silence, flanked and followed by the party of green-mantled swordsmen that Salus had sent to their house as an honour guard. Breygon would’ve liked to have been able to hold his sponsa’s hand, but propriety and the inconvenience of his shield and glaive prohibited it.
Salus himself, along with his lifemate, the wizard Onyshyla, had met them at the Commanderie steps. The sight had drawn from Amorda her first genuine smile of the evening. The high wooden doors were open, and long trails of ivy had been woven together over the lintels. Three bronze stands held tightly bound stalks of wheat; and a pair of crossed spears, lashed together at the neck with wreathes of holly leaves, stood between the doors.
Their host and hostess, both dressed in evening clothes rather than in armour, had bowed formally, welcoming the couple to the Protector’s chapel. The wizard had taken Amorda immediately in hand, drawing her off to one side, near a large rack of candles, some of which were flaring. Salus had taken Breygon by the elbow, propelling him gently the whole length of the nave, towards the sacristy and the dome.
Breygon had been struck by the size of that dome. From the outside, the Protector’s temple hadn’t looked especially large; but now, seeing it from within, he realized that it had only seemed small in comparison to the enormity of the Starhall and the rest of the palace complex. The dome was a good thirty paces in diameter, and it stood half that again above the ground.
And yet even so enormous a space was taken up entirely by the thing that stood beneath it.
Of course, he’d thought to himself, chagrined that he was at all surprised. It was an oak tree, one of the largest and most magnificent that he’d ever seen.
“We call him ‘Perfidelio’,” Salus had said in response to his unasked question.
Ever Faithful. Breygon had smiled self-consciously; presumably his expression had been one of idiotic astonishment. “How old is he?” he’d asked.
“Nobody knows,” Salus had replied. “Possibly as old as the oaks in the Ancient Grove.” He’d swept his hand in a broad arc. “This temple was built around him. That was more than four thousand years ago.”
“He’s glorious,” Breygon had breathed.
Salus had nodded. “A most suitable chaperone,” he’d said, emphasizing the final word.
The ranger had nodded absently. “What are the rules?”
“For the vigil?” The General had shrugged. “You must remain in the temple. You should speak with your mate, and open your heart to her. Excesses of physical intimacy are considered inappropriate, for this is your last chance to unburden your soul of worries and fears before you are wed. And of secrets.”
Breygon had blown out his breath in a nervous whoosh. “Secrets, eh?”
“Consider it a cleansing,” Salus had advised. “A mutual one. Happiness cannot live where truth lives not, my friend.”
Breygon had tried. Shortly after this disquisition, the general and his lady had left, locking the chapel doors behind them. Breygon and Amorda spent the next hour kneeling before the Hearthfire, talking of inconsequential things. He’d wracked his brains trying to think of any detail of importance that he’d failed to disclose to his bride. The fact that he couldn’t think of anything – anything at all – made him nervous.
And the fact that Amorda was still acting strangely made him even more so. He decided to try humour. “If you’re game,” he whispered, “I could look around for a hammer and chisel. I wager I could have you out of that ironmongery in only a few hours!”
She turned to look at him. “I know what you’re trying to do,” she murmured, “and I thank you for it. But I have only this night to decide how to…to break an impasse. And it must be broken, before the Lantern rises.”
“If you told me about it,” he said reasonably, “I might be able to help.”
The elf-woman sighed. “You’re the impasse I’m trying to break,” she said bluntly. “You, my love, are the problem that I am trying to solve.”
“How am I a problem?” he asked, doing his best not to let bitterness creep into his voice. “Is it my half-blood status, again?”
“No!” she half-laughed. “No, and no!” She reached out with her left hand. He switched the glaive to his left and took it. They’d both doffed their gauntlets, and the touch of her skin on his was electric.
She interlaced her fingers with his. “I have to tell you the truth, lupino,” she said softly. “My truth. All of it. And I have to tell you before dawn breaks; before we depart, to meet again at noon, and seal our bargain. I owe you that much.”
“I still don’t see the problem,” he prodded gently.
“The problem,” she whispered, “is that when I do, this” – she held up their joined hands –“this all ends.”
He felt as though a mailed fist had wrapped its iron fingers around his heart. “What?” he gasped. “Why?!”
“Because I know what you are,” she sighed, her voice quavering, “and I know what you abominate. So I know that once you’ve heard what I am, you won’t…you won’t want me anymore.”
Breygon felt his bowels turn to ice. “Gods, you…you’re a dragon, aren’t you?” He felt sick. How had he missed it?
Amorda burst into a sudden peal of laughter. His head snapped around to stare at her, and he was astonished to see tears running down her cheeks. “You aren’t?” he gaped, daring to hope.
“I thought you could feel a dragon’s presence?” she chortled. “No, love. No, I swear!” she added insistently when his eyes narrowed. “I’m not a dragon. I’m…I’m something worse. Much worse.”
“Worse?” He cocked his head. “What do you mean, ‘worse’?”
The elf-woman took a deep breath. When she let it out, only a single sob escaped her lips. “Tempus fugit,” she whispered to no one in particular. To Breygon, she said, “My love, my life…promise me that you will listen now, and that you will comport yourself as the son of Dîor and the scion of House Æyllian that you are.” Her shoulders were back, her head up; but she spoke with a resignation that sounded terrible in its finality.
The ranger blinked. “I’ll do my best,” he said stiffly.
“Swear it,” she insisted. “By the love you bear for me, sponsus, swear it!”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Very well,” he said slowly. “I swear it. By my love for you, sponsa, I’ll do my best to play the gentleman’s part.”
Amorda nodded. She held out her hand and laid her fingers gently on the hilt of the sword – the deadly length of the gracilensis, the Queen’s sword – that hung at his side. “Ab veniam?” With your permission?
“Ad libenter,” he replied, puzzled.
She bowed her head in gratitude. Then, with a fluid motion, she swept the long blade out of the emerald-decked scabbard. Holding the weapon flat across her palms, she held it out to him. More puzzled still, Breygon grasped the hilt and took the sword from her.
When he had done so, Amorda closed her eyes. Reaching behind her neck, she grasped the long braid that fell down her back and drew it around to the front. Then, astonishingly, she made deep obeisance, placing her hands flat on the flagstones and bowing forward until her forehead touched the floor.
“What are you doing?” the half-elf asked.
“In manuus tuas deditia, uxor et amator,” she said clearly.
Utterly astonished, Breygon rocked back on his heels. Into your hands I surrender myself, husband and lover, she had said. It was an ancient formulation, and he couldn’t believe that he had heard it. Those words, he knew, were only spoken when one lifemate was submitting to the other’s judgement – generally for some horrific crime.
A chill hammered its way down his spine as he realized why she had abandoned her usual complex hairstyle for a single braid. That, too, was traditional, although he had not understood its purpose until just now.
It was to give his blade – the blade that she had just handed him – a clear path to her neck.
He threw the sword violently away. It clattered ringingly on the floor. “What the hells are you doing?” he rasped.
Without unbending, she raised her eyes. They were red-rimmed and accusing. “You swore,” she said. “By your love for me, you swore! You gave me your word!”
“Bugger my word!” he raged. “I don’t care what you have to say! I’m not going to kill you!”
That made her sit up. “You will keep your oath to me,” she whispered. “You will hear me out, and you will judge me, as is your right before we wed. And as it is my right, under our laws, to judge you.”
“Or we part ways,” she said calmly, nodding toward the chapel door. “Now and forever.”
“Fare you well, then, lady,” Breygon replied stiffly. “Your life is more important to me than any law. I’d liefer lose you than harm you.”
Amorda put her hands over her face. Her shoulders were heaving. He reached up and pulled her hands away. When he saw that she was simultaneously chortling and weeping, he dropped her wrists and leaned back, flabbergasted. “What…what…” he babbled.
“You idiot!” the elf-woman laugh-sobbed. “It’s just a formality! You’re not swearing to kill me! You’re swearing to hear me out, and make a final decision before taking my hand!”
“That’s all?” he asked, sceptical.
“That’s all,” she confirmed. Reaching out with both hands, she grasped him by the ears and pulled him towards her until their foreheads touched. Her skin was soft, smooth and cold. “Hara Sophus!” she swore. “One way or another, lupino, you’re going to be the death of me.”
“If I have to cope with much more Third-House ‘formality’,” he muttered, “it may be a murder-suicide.”
“Don’t say that, even in jest,” she said, swiping at her eyes with the back of a hand. “It’s a formality, yes, but a deadly serious one. You don’t have to kill me if you don’t like what you hear, but you also don’t have to wed me. So listen, please, and judge carefully.”
“Speak your piece,” the ranger shrugged. “The night’s wearing on, and we’ve a wedding to get to. I can’t imagine you coming up with any revelations to change that.” He snorted self-contemptuously. “I didn’t so much as twitch when I thought you were a dragon, did I?”
She shrugged, smiling sadly. “Maybe just a little.”
“Maybe a little,” he grunted. “But only a little. So unless you’re some sort of hells-spawned fiend or something, then as of noon tomorrow, we’re still…we’re…”
His voice trailed off. Amorda had burst into tears again.
“What is it?” he asked, perplexed anew.
She moved her braid away from her neck and bowed again.
Somewhere in the back of Breygon’s mind, a light went on. “Bardan’s balls!” he swore.
“So,” the ranger asked once she had calmed down again. “Who’s your father, then? Morga the Destroyer? Kaaris the Unholy, lord of the walking dead? The Dark Ender himself?”
“How do you know that it comes from my father’s side?” she asked shakily. “For all you know, the Queen of the World might be my mother.”
Breygon snorted. “I’d be more likely to believe you were Miyaga’s daughter, dear heart.” He reached out and took her hand. “And yes, that was meant as a compliment.”
“Don’t make light of this,” she murmured. “I’m serious.”
“So am I,” he replied. “All right, you’re a fiend. Prove it.”
“I will. If you’ll close your mouth and listen.”
Breygon clamped his lips shut and spread his hands, motioning for her to continue.
Amorda sat back on her heels, doing her best to compose herself. “First of all,” she said softly, “my name isn’t Excordia. It’s not even Amorda. Nor,” she took a deep breath, “is it ‘Candida Pellax’, as I told Myaszæron on the day you espoused me. When I was born, my parents named me ‘Alauda’.” She grinned sourly. “One thing I didn’t lie to you about, sponsus, was my age. I’m three hundred and seventy-seven years old. The Queen’s brother Callaýian was king when I opened my eyes to the light.
‘Alauda’ meant lark. “It’s a pretty name,” Breygon said softly. “I like it.”
“My full name,” she went on, ignoring his interruption, “is Alauda Antaíssin Alissa Volo. I haven’t used it, or even uttered it, for more than two hundred years.
“My father,” she went on, “was Kampat Volo, and my mother Lissa Devanault, both of Corymbus. They were nobody special; a merchant and his wife. We were not wealthy, but we were well-enough off. Volo had long been a very minor offshoot of a cadet branch of House Tyllaquinaria, though, so at threescore summers I was fostered to a semi-noble house here in the capitol. Tatobol Gregarsis and his wife, Renada, sheltered me for the whole of my novitiate.”
“I’ve never heard of House Gregarsis,” Breygon murmured.
“They were the last of that name, and it died with them,” she said bluntly. “I passed without the walls in 797, about twenty years after Ælyndarka took the throne. You know what I did that year; I told you how I tried to entice my mystery lover of the Second House, the one I had been following for two decades, into taking up my rose. Somehow he resisted my charms.”
“It must have been difficult for him,” the ranger observed lightly.
She levelled a steely gaze at him. “You jest,” she said coldly. “But I am in deadly earnest. It should have been impossible for him. No other man that I desired has ever said me nay. Not ever. Not once. It is…part of what I am.”
Breygon couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
Amorda waited for a moment, then sighed and continued. “Two years after my saltatio,” she said bleakly, “my parents were lost at sea while returning from Norkhan. Their ship went to the bottom off the Neck. What little wealth my father had managed to accumulate was tied up in the voyage, and by the time the vectigalii were done with his estate, I was left penniless and alone on the streets of Sinulatus.
“By then,” she sighed bleakly, “my powers had come upon me. I didn’t know whence they came, and I didn’t want to know. But it was obvious that, despite their infernal origins, they were an aid and benison to me. I could convince nearly anyone of nearly anything, which made me an able confidence trickster. And, too, I could see in darkness, as well as the dwarves and the sobrinatrii.” She shuddered. “I’ve often wondered if there wasn’t a touch of the Fourth House in me.”
“It would explain a great many things,” Breygon said gently. She was obviously upset, and he tried to take her hand; but she pulled back, out of his reach.
“I relocated to Eldarcanum,” she went on, without looking up, “and established myself there. I forgot my true name, and took a new one, meeter to my skills: to those I employed, and to the rivals I destroyed, I was known only as Candida Pellax.”
“ ‘The Fair Seductrix’,” Breygon translated. He was glad that he managed to speak the words without a hint of inflection.
“I hid under that name for more than a century,” she said with a self-contemptuous snort, “gradually building what you might call a small criminal empire. I did very well for myself. Prided myself, in fact, on annoying the authorities. Problem is, once you start that sort of thing, it’s difficult to stop. I had quite a few adversaries killed, and one – one who had been sent to catch me – was one of the Grim Duchess’ allies. Her lover, some say.” She took a deep breath. “There was a pretty price on Candida Pellax’s head, and a lingering death would’ve been my lot if ever I’d shown my face north of Starmeadow.”
“Only if you were lucky,” Breygon muttered. “Death tends not to be permanent in Eldarcanum.”
“As I learned later, to my sorrow,” the elf-woman nodded, shivering, “when I made the mistake of trifling with Szyel’s affections, and her mother had a pair of bony revenants show me the door.
“In any case,” she continued, “I wasn’t caught, but I was forced out as a consequence of my own success. There’s such a thing as being too clever a trickster, you know. When my activities started to become too extensive for simple crime, I branched out into smuggling. I knew the trade business, thanks to my parents; but Eldarcanum isn’t on any major trade routes, and it’s too far from the coasts. So back I went to Sinulatus, where I bought my father’s old offices, and concentrated on business with Zare and points east. The Eastrislands were a particularly fruitful field, as was Oststrand, and even Jarla. I even opened an office in Asheilagr, in what is now called Mirabilis. And the money rolled in again.”
“I’m surprised Æloeschyan didn’t hunt you down,” Breygon said soberly. “She has a reputation for not forgiving slights.”
“She tried,” Amorda shrugged. “But Candida Pellax was already dead in Eldarcanum, the victim of forced entry, burglary, rape, apparent torture and obvious arson. Slain by the competition, by all accounts, her demise so horrifically gruesome as to appeal to the Grim Duchess’ sadistic tastes.”
The ranger winced, to which her reply was a wry smile. “I know my business, husband.
“In Sinulatus,” she went on, “my name was Tandress Schammanot. Tandy, happily, stands a little higher up in the world. In the east I was respectable, the widow of a High Guardsman who had perished heroically against the Hand, earning his heirs a hero’s comfortable pension, and a generous load of loot from Vara’s temples to boot. My money finally had a legitimate excuse. And so did I; Widow Tandress is well thought-of, a pillar of the community to the common folk – and to uncommon folk,” she winked, “she’s the woman who can get you anything, for the right price.
“Of course, that didn’t last either. Once again, I made too much money. Nobody could refuse me any request, no matter how outrageous, and those whom I could not wheedle into submission or entice with honeyed words, I scorched and terrified with my fire.”
“Fire?” the half-elf exclaimed, glancing at her in sudden alarm.
“Verbal fire,” she said quickly. “It’s a figure of speech, darling. Wait ‘till you see me angry; I’m told it’s truly a thing to behold.
“The end result, unfortunately, was the same as it had been in Eldarcanum; I was raking in so many ‘orries that I eventually had difficulty explaining them. This led, in a moment of inspiration, to a new alias: Amandressa Ammanot, a well-moneyed, if remarkably brainless, high-born woman of Aquoreus, further south. Just north of Eldisle, in fact.”
She chuckled to herself. “I even met Kaltas, once, in that guise. It was decades before we met again, and by then I bore a different name and title. I briefly considered trying to kick his heels out from under him – Amandressa’s a dreadful flirt; I’m quite restrained by comparison –”
Breygon snorted. That indiscretion earned him a narrow glance. “But?” he said, motioning for her to continue.
“But,” the elf-woman went on, coolly, “Rykki was always there. Next to hers, my powers were but a wisp of smoke beside an inferno. I’d rather cuckold the Lantern itself, and dare it to scorch me.”
“What was she like?” Breygon asked, curious to learn more about the woman whose task he had completed in the Deeprealm.
“Rykki? Wonderful,” Amorda said wistfully. “No better friend, no more terrifying foe. Life danced in her eyes. The world grew darker when she passed.”
She tugged at an ear. “Brilliant, too. I think of all people, only Rykki ever knew me for what I really was.”
“She was a first-class mage, or so I was told,” Breygon mused.
“Oh, magic had nothing to do with it,” Amorda laughed, shaking her head in remembrance. “She knew what I was because I was a woman, and women follow Kaltas around like a cooshees after a lamb chop. I was just better at it than the rest of them – and, therefore, more of a menace. Rykki kept a close eye on me. It’s how we became friends. Of course,” she nodded, “knowing what I know now, about her abilities and her level of tolerance for shenanigans, I suppose I’m lucky to be alive.
“In any event,” she continued, “Amandressa did quite well. She managed to make a lot of money through her shipping interests – I visited Sinulatus and my old allies, in disguise of course, often enough to keep trade alive and growing – and she managed to spend it, too, on gauds and geegaws, primping and pandering and parties.”
“Sounds ideal,” the half-elf allowed.
“Doesn’t it?” She sighed. “Doesn’t it just? But once again, I was undone by mine own cleverness. This time it wasn’t an assassin, though, or a business rival, a cuckolded wife, or a psychotic necromancer who caught up with me.”
Breygon nodded. “The Birdcatcher?” His knees were screaming at him, and he gave up genuflection as a bad job. Shifting in place, he plunked himself down on the cushion and crossed his legs.
“The Birdcatcher,” Amorda confirmed. “He’d been looking for me, and he knew exactly what I was. When his agents caught me, I thought he was going to have me jailed or maybe even throttled; but instead he offered me a job working as a spy for the Praecaviorii, the Queen’s secret police. He had me feeding him information from court. Evidently I did well, because he kept giving me more difficult tasks.”
“I’ve no doubt at all that you did very well,” Breygon remarked drily.
Amorda’s smile thinned noticeably. “You needn’t patronize me, my darling; my accomplishments speak for themselves. By my own count, one way or another, I’ve managed to suborn a third of the current membership of the Royal Council. Nine by words, five by threats, four by coin, and two by…” Her voice trailed off. She simply indicated her figure with an eloquent wave.
“I don’t need to know who,” the ranger said quickly.
“I wasn’t offering names,” she said coolly. “That part of my life may be over; we’ll decide that together. But what has already passed is inviolate. I cannot betray the Birdcatcher’s confidence.”
“You’ve never met the man,” Breygon reminded her, frowning. “Are you sure you owe him this degree of loyalty?”
“I’m not loyal to him,” Amorda snapped. “I’m loyal to his mistress, the Queen. Your ancestor, sponsus, and in case you’ve forgotten, our feudal lord.”
The ranger decided it might be prudent to hold his tongue for awhile.
“Thus situated,” she went on, “I was well-placed when Silas died, and I stepped into his shoes with nary a twitch. That was a great relief, I can tell you. For the first time I had a titled estate with a significant and entirely legitimate source of income. I finally had an excuse for the embarrassing amount of money I had made, and was still making, and an equally valid excuse to spend it by the bucket-load. And, from the Birdcatcher’s perspective, I had even higher standing at court. It was perfect.”
“So you weren’t just a spy,” the half-elf mused aloud, “you were a good spy. And you still are. I don’t understand why that should make me want to…to…” He couldn’t say it. Instead of speaking, he waved a hand at the naked sword lying next to him on the floor.
“Then you weren’t listening,” she said, her lips whitening. “I told you about my powers coming on me. It happened when I became a woman; suddenly, everyone heeded my every word, or cowered in fear when I raised my voice. I could force playmates, friends, even animals to obey my will. And not just animals, either; once, as a girl, just before my ninetieth year, while my parents and I were hunting near Sinulatus, we were attacked by a lion. I stopped it just by staring at it, and commanded it to cease stalking us…and it did. It even let me stroke its mane!” A sob escaped her lips. “What kind of normal, mortal creature can do that?”
“I could,” Breygon shrugged. “So could a servant of the
“I’d never been out of the city!” the elf-woman cried. “As far as I knew, beloved, flowers were for gardens, and trees were for shading avenues! I never even learned Hutanibu’s name until I went to school! The man of the Second House – the one I coupled with at Spadacódru’s shrine, ten years after the incident with the lion – he was probably the first druid I ever met. If that’s even what he was.” She clenched her fists. “And besides, how can you serve Hutanibu without knowing it? And what kind of druid can inspire mortal terror, and panic men and beasts with nothing more than a glance?”
Breygon spread his hands helplessly. The kind of powers she was describing were largely unknown to him.
“Since my youth, though,” she said, choking back tears, and continuing breathlessly, “it has only gotten worse. I began, as I said, to see in the dark. And more than that; I can even see through the magical night that mages can create. It’s easy. It takes no effort at all. I can read any language. And I can spook flocks and herds, too, and scatter them. I’ve even done it to street urchins, to keep them from befouling my gowns, or from tumbling under the wheels of my carriage. I can do many of the things that magi do. With these skills, and with my…my gift, for persuasion…I lied my way into a certificate from the College.
“I can even see magic, lupino,” she continued, whispering, as his eyes widened. “I can see it, the way the magi are said to do. I see it all the time. I can see the aura of your carapace right now, and your boots, and the rings you bear, and your grandmother’s blade.” Her eyes grew slightly unfocussed, and the half-elf was stunned by how deep and dark they had become. “Magic looks like skyfire, flashing with power, bottled and preserved, in a thousand different colours.”
Breygon blinked. “Spells,” he said uncertainly. “Just spells. Any sorcerer or wizard could do the same.”
Her eyes, reddened by weeping, locked onto his. “I don’t know any spells!” Without breaking away from his gaze, she blinked once, then twice. Hair rose on the back of his neck as first his glaive, and then Karrick’s shield, rose into the air. They dropped clumsily into a guarding stance, as though wielded by an invisible warrior.
“I’ve seen Qaramyn do as much,” Breygon said defiantly.
The elf-woman’s eyes hardened; her jaw clenched. Without changing her seat, she twisted until she could see his floating equipment. Her eyebrows drew together, and she raised one hand.
Breygon frowned. “What are you –”
Without warning, without even a word, a blast of white-green fire burst from her outstretched fingers. Shrieking like a summer storm, the gout of power howled through the air of the chapel, smashing into the shield like a catapult stone and blasting it backwards through the air. The force suspending shield and glaive collapsed, obliterated by the power of her magic.
The elf-woman turned her red-eyed, devastated gaze upon him again, holding out her hands. To his amazement, tiny, crackling aftershocks of power, green-white and white-green, arced between her fingers.
He opened his mouth; and once again she spun in place. This time, she launched three blasts in quick succession. One after another they smashed into the massive bronze vessel containing the Hearthfire. The figured vase rang like a gong, teetering back and forth on its flimsy supports. A cloud of sparks shot skyward. Smoke curled lazily into the air; and behind it, Breygon could smell the odours of flowers and grass; and a deep, thrilling scent, like spring air after a thunderstorm.
“Sjau feikinstaffr!” he whispered, awed by what he had seen.
“I haven’t done that in years,” Amorda whispered, staring down at her hands.
“I can see why,” Breygon muttered.
“So, beloved,” she said almost inaudibly, without looking up. “What am I?”.
Breygon couldn’t speak. He thought he knew, at last, and he was shocked to his core.
She spun back to face him. This time she screamed the words. “What am I?!”
The half-elf knew that his face was white. “You’re a warlock,” he rasped.
“I am,” she repeated, nodding. “Venefimalicam: a mage of the evil powers, eternally proscribed in the realm, by the written word of Dîor Magnus himself. The only thing worse than a sorcerer. A mortal foe of all that is right and good.” A sob escaped her lips. “A creature of darkness, against whom all hands are turned, and to whom death is a cleansing, and a benison.”
“Look,” Breygon said swiftly, still trying to come to grips with what he had just seen. “Look, I know it –”
“Do you know how warlocks are put to death?” Amorda interrupted. “Not by the Hand, I mean; the humans just burn our kind, all of us, at the stake. It’s horrible, but it’s relatively quick. Under Dîor’s Law, though, do you know how I am to die?”
The half-elf shook his head.
“Sellula incommoda,” she husked. “The ‘uncomfortable chair’.”
Breygon spread his hands in confusion. “I’ve never…I don’t know what that means,” he confessed.
“It means impalement,” Amorda said, looking both terrified and nauseated. “I’ve never seen it done. But I understand that it takes…a…awhile.” Her fingers were clenched in her lap.
“I would never allow that to happen to you,” he said intensely. “Never!”
“Love, you won’t even get a chance to object,” she said sadly. “If you wed me, and I am found out, then you will stand condemned as well. Even had I never told you what I really was, you would still have been guilty of cohabiting with an agent of the Uruqua.”
Breygon nodded. “And you thought that, given that I would stand condemned anyway by virtue of being your lifemate, it would be better to know the why of it.”
“No!” she cried. She rose on her knees and grasped his hand again. “No! I thought that, knowing what I am, you would want to escape! To…to take back your rose!”
The half-elf burst out laughing.
Amorda’s eyes widened. “You think I’m jesting?” she whispered, appalled.
“Not at all!” he chortled. “Not at all! I know you’re serious! I just…I just can’t…”
“Can’t what?” she demanded when he couldn’t finish.
Tears were pouring down his cheeks. “I…I can’t believe,” he laughed, “that you would think that elven law matters an orc’s turd to me!”
“It matters a great deal to me,” she said frostily.
“Oh, I know,” Breygon replied, struggling to calm his jangling nerves. “I know. It’s one of the things that I adore about you. And I’ll respect your…your beliefs, insofar as I can, because of that.
“But don’t for a second imagine,” he went on, seriously now, “that I wouldn’t put the palace to the torch, and my whole family to the sword, and violate every last provision of bloody Dîor’s bloody Codex, if there was even the slightest chance that doing so might save you.”
He took her hand again and gave her a solemn wink. “Lifemate before all. Isn’t that what the law demands?”
To his amazement, she threw her arms around his neck, nearly knocking him backwards. Armoured, her weight was considerably more than he was used to, the more so because Arngrim’s coat weighed practically nothing. As she clutched at him, he pinwheeled his hands frantically for balance.
Eventually he managed to steady himself, and got his arms around her. Her long braid had struck him in the eye, and he had to blink to clear away the tears. “Feeling better?” he murmured.
“Oh, yes,” she mumbled into his neck. After a brief pause, she added, “I love you.”
“I know,” he said immediately. “And I love you, my lady. Even if you are a black-hearted, hell-spawned sorceress.” Immediately, a vision of her blazing, destroying fire, that howling, incandescent blast of white and green, arose before him, and he shivered.
She felt his trembling. “If my heart is truly black,” she murmured all but inaudibly, “then it’s your problem now, lupino. For I have done a sponsa’s duty in trying to warn you, but you – against all reason – say that you still want me. I therefore lay my black, fiend’s heart, and my whole life along with it, in your hands.”
“And my heart is yours, my dear, in uneven exchange,” the half-elf replied gently. “For better or worse, we are one.”
His head came up suddenly. The words, once spoken, galvanized him. He had realized their essential truth the moment they had passed his lips.
“Heart to heart,” Amorda whispered, still holding him tightly.
…look with your heart…
Amazingly, he felt a quiver of laughter ripple through her slender frame. “What is it?” he asked, still holding her.
…if my heart is truly black…
“Do you suppose,” she whispered, her lips tickling his ear, “that Salus might consider this ‘excess of intimacy’?”
…green-white fire, shrieking like a summer storm…
“I doubt it,” Breygon replied, disgruntled. “And frankly, I don’t care. This is hardly the coniunctio I’d been anticipating. I feel like I’m holding a heap of reclaimed ironmongery.”
…heart truly black…
The elf-woman pulled her face back, holding him at arm’s-length. He was relieved to see that the storm of weeping had passed. There was a peculiarly intent set to her expression. “What?” he asked, suddenly nervous.
“Things are about to get a little more ‘excessive’,” she husked. She placed her palms on his cheeks, and their lips met.
…your heart…flowers and grass…the air after a storm…the eyes of the sieulu…
“Stop,” he said suddenly, pulling back from her embrace. “Stop!”
Amorda blinked at him. “Is something wrong?”
“Far from it!” he averred at once. “I just want to…”
…white fire and green fire…black heart…grass…the air…the eyes…his eyes, her eyes…
She waited. And waited. “What?” she asked at last.
“Your fire,” he murmured. “White and green. No warlock…” He pushed her back abruptly. “I’m sorry. I need to know,” he murmured. “Forgive me, my love, but…”
The ranger’s left hand flashed to her wrist, grasping it in a grip of iron, wrenching her hand towards him, her palm facing his breast. At the same instant, his right blurred…and when it became visible again, it held a dagger; a simple, wooden-hilted guardless weapon.
Before the elf-woman could so much as twitch, let alone utter a squeak of surprise, the edge of the knife was against her palm. He reached out with his senses, feeling for the throbbing pulse of bright, sky-blue power that he had always felt whenever he held his grandmother’s bequest. He pushed and strained, feeling for the weapon’s inherent wisdom, its quiet approbation, or its bloodthirsty condemnation.
But that couldn’t be true, could it? Her powers were real! That couldn’t be the whole tale!
Amorda watched him with waxing astonishment, but without alarm. “What are you –”
“Nothing,” he breathed. Defensor laudemus!
He gave the blade a quick twist, holding her hand tightly to avoid cutting her too deeply.
“Ai!” she cried, more shocked than hurt. “Lupino, what –”
“Shh!” he commanded. Dropping the dagger to the floor, he held her hand to his nose. A tiny runnel of blood trickled down her wrist. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply. His tongue flicked out, and he tasted her life, the salt, and the iron, and the thrilling pulse of magic that lay beyond the mundane ichor.
Clean, he thought, exulting. Relief washed through him like a flood. Clean!
“What are you doing?” she cried, finally giving in to her alarm, and struggling to withdraw her hand.
Coming back to himself, he kissed her wound gently, allowing the Protector’s power to flow through him, sealing the shallow cut. When it was done, he released her hand. “You’re clean,” he said weakly. There was a world of relief in his expression.
“I’m delighted!” she gasped, looking at once relieved and alarmed. She stared at her bloody palm, blinking rapidly at the newly-healed gash. “Was there no less painful way to make your proof?”
“No,” he sighed. “And I’m desperately sorry for spilling your blood twice in as many days, my love. But I had to know, and so did you.”
“Know what?!” she half-shrieked.
“That you’re no fiend,” he replied gently. “There’s no taint. No foulness. None. Not a trace. Your blood is as pure as…as…”
His eyes went unfocussed again. Amorda eyed him nervously. “As what?”
Breygon’s eyes went wide with terrifying suddenness. “Sit very still,” he commanded. “Can you do that? Sit quietly, without moving?”
“If I must,” the elf-woman replied, looking askance at him. “Sponsus, you’re frightening me now. What are you trying to do?”
He reached out slowly, so as not to alarm her, and patted her hand with all the gentleness he could muster. His heart was hammering uncontrollably, and he struggled to calm it. “Just sit quietly, my dear. This may take a few moments.”
She shook her head, half-mesmerized by his words. “What may take a few…hello?” She waved a hand in front of his face. “Lupino?”
He didn’t respond. He was already far away, lost in loam-scented darkness, staring, with the eyes of the Warden, the eyes of his sieulu, deep into the heart of kesatuan.
Amorda was frantic with worry. She was about to slap her fiancée awake when he stirred at last. When Breygon opened his eyes, the elf-woman was both amazed and alarmed to see that they were full of tears. “Welcome back,” she said uncertainly.
His first word to her was not a word, but a laugh. It was weak, but, to her infinite relief, it was hearty, wholesome, and honest.
She couldn’t help herself; she had to smile. She put a hand against his cheek. “What’s so funny?”
He shook his head slowly. “Life,” he replied, his shoulders quivering gently. “Life is funny. And fate, too.”
He put his own hand against her cheek. “And love.”
Relieved beyond words, and relieved that she was relieved, the elf-woman collapsed into his embrace again. He held her effortlessly to his breast.
Her lips were against the gorget of his carapace; it felt at once both as hard as adamant, and as soft as gossamer against her skin. “What’s funny about love?” she murmured.
“Sometimes it brings us things,” the half-elf replied softly, “that we didn’t even know we were looking for.” Coming back from the Unity, his senses always seemed extraordinarily heightened; but even so, he could detect nothing beyond his immediate vicinity. She overwhelmed his heart, his mind. He could smell nothing but the scent of her perfume, her hair, and the flesh beneath it; could feel nothing but her warmth in his arms; could hear nothing but her lifebeat against his breast; could taste nothing but her honest love, and the sweet, intoxicating attar of desire wafting on the evening air.
And he was all but blind. His eyes…his eyes were full of her. Both his mortal eyes, and the eyes of his sieulu, too. He felt as though he had been staring into the Lantern.
And now, at long last, he knew why. He knew why he had thought of nothing else since that first night, when a simple trick of chance, an unwonted moment of whimsy, had brought him into her arms. Trust Hutanibu, he thought exultantly, to lead me by the loins towards the truth of my life!
But such was the way of the green, wasn’t it? Did the bee choose the nectar, or the nectar the bee? Did they act out of volition, or longing, or desperate need? In the vast web of life that was the green, was there truly any difference? We desire that which we desire, he thought, amused, because we are made to desire it. Obedience to the
Forest Mother’s will is
its own reward.
And what a reward! he chuckled inwardly, holding his mate gently in the circle of his arms.
“You’re still laughing,” Amorda whispered. “Please, love. Tell me why?”
“Because,” he replied, running his free hand over her head, down her back, and giving her long braid a gentle tug, “I’ve just touched kesatuan, and I know where your power comes from. I know, my dearest heart, what you are.”
Her eyes widened and she leaned back out of his arms, drawing in a sharp, worried breath. Breygon, grinning, ignored her, reaching instead for the buckles of her cuirass. Years of long practice served him well, and they yielded to his experienced touch in fewer than a half-dozen breaths.
When he tossed her breastplate aside with a grin, she turned her eyes up to his, scandalized and blushing furiously. “We can’t!” she hissed.
The half-elf laughed again. Paldrons, epaulets, vambraces, all fell clattering to the flagstones. Her mail-shirt proved somewhat more challenging, but skill, strength and dogged persistence solved that dilemma as well.
When her face, flaming with embarrassment, reappeared from beneath the curtain of enamelled mithral links, she snapped, “Lupino! Stop this!”
“Why?” he laughed. She was down to her arming coat and smallclothes now. He took a moment to doff his own panoply, a matter of mere seconds. Divine workmanship shows, he chuckled to himself.
“It’s forbidden!” she hissed, glancing nervously around.
“We’re safe,” he reassured her, stroking he cheek with a finger. He shrugged his way out of the last of his coverings. “Join me, my lady,” he said, crooking a finger.
Still blushing furiously, Amorda slipped out of her arming coat and smallclothes. He was unsurprised to see that she had bound the virga laetitia – the green sash inscribed with all the names of Ælyndarka’s children – about her narrow waist. The sight of it made him smile. It’s as if she expected…
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she muttered. “I’m normally the one perpetrating the seduction!”
“This isn’t a seduction,” he chided her gently. “It’s a rite. An ancient one.” He glanced up at the vast, spreading branches of the tree beneath which they sat; and beyond them, to the glass-topped temple dome, and the stars beyond. “Maybe the most ancient one of all,” he whispered wonderingly.
“What rite?” Amorda whispered, shivering. “What are you talking about?”
He smiled down at her, enfolding her into the crook of his arm. “Midnight is long past, my lady. The Slaughter is come. Countless thousands of years past, in the mountains at the end of the earth, Eldukaris the Sea-Son bested Mælgorm Kaldtmordr, and won fair Csæleyan from his clutches. They looked upon each other with love; and from their union, Hutanibu drew all the long lines of the woodlands, and made the world of the wild what it is.
“I am his true descendent, in spirit if not in flesh,” Breygon intoned dreamily, still staring up at the sky. Amorda followed his gaze, wondering what he could see that she could not. “By rescuing and caring for Csæleyan, and by loving her and serving her as mate, Eldu became the first of the Wardens of the Woodlands.” He tapped his armour-coat, nearby on the floor. “And my benefactor, Arngrim Half-Elven, was another.”
She wasn’t certain that he was talking to her anymore. A rolling majesty echoed behind his words; a deep, commanding timbre that overrode her thoughts and weakened her knees. She could hear the wind in the treetops, the rumble of the storm, and the scream of eagles in his voice. She was foundering in the tumult of his glory, and clung to him as though to a scrap of debris in a storm.
“I am Centang Lewat,” he laughed, “and on this holy day, I have a duty to perform! I must grant the light of the spirit, welcoming into kesatuan one of the animals of the forest. I must do the same for one of my brother trees. And…”
“I know,” she said solemnly. “I know. You must grant a child to one of the fey folk.” She put her arms around his chest and squeezed gently. “I understand, my love. I really do. I…I’ll step aside. For as long as I must.”
Breygon laughed again. Turning his eyes from the skies to his mate, he arranged the cushions into a makeshift mattress, laid her down upon them, and sat back on his haunches to admire her beauty. “You’ll not have to step aside, daughter of the forest mother,” he said, his eyes shining. “Not now. Not ever. Not for so long as I live.”
The elf-woman frowned, perplexed as never before. “I…but I thought you…you had to...”
The ranger watched her, smiling and saying nothing.
Her eyes widened, the pupils tiny against the immense expanse of white. “What are you saying?” she asked in strangled tones.
“I’m saying,” he murmured happily, “that with the eyes of my sieulu, my lady and my love, I have looked into yours. I have seen how the light of your eternal flame burns, and looked back, and back again, to the moment it was lit. I know,” he said, stroking her cheek with a finger, “precisely what you are.”
“And…and what am I? Precisely?” Amorda breathed.
“Karunia Lewat,” the half-elf laughed. “And so very much more.”
To her astonishment, she found herself laughing with him. The relief, the joy, smashed through the last redoubt of her fear like a ram through crystal haze; and when it did, and the shards of her doubt and worry lay scattered at her feet, she uttered a tiny cry of surrender. She reached up, wrapped her arms around him, and pulled him down towards her; down and forward, ever forward…
“How much more?” she murmured.
“You are everything,” he replied, bending over her and whisper the words into her ear. “You are hutana membelas. The gift of the Forest Mother. A partner fit to stand alongside the last warden.” He shook his head in dismay. “I’m such a fool! This is what old Tua was trying to tell me! He saw what you were – they all did, probably – and I was too dull to recognize it!”
“Well,” she grinned happily, “you’ve had a busy couple of weeks. And you’ve had to deal with an uppity Third House trollop to boot!”
“A task that I have relished like none other,” he added with a wink and a mischievous grin, “my princess, my love, and my life!”
Her eyes shone. “Thank you, my prince,” she whispered. Then she gasped a little as he moved against her, her breath coming more rapidly as she rose up in anticipation to meet him. “Oh…oh! Oh, lupino, I…I...”
“The words…you’re looking for…” he murmured, holding her tightly, and still grinning at the strangeness and joy of life, “are ‘Bless me, Lewat’.”
Amorda laughed at that, too, drawing quick, panting breaths, too delirious with happiness to comprehend what he had said. She cried something anyway, without caring what the words might be, transported by sheer delight.
The gathering storm shattered at last, and the light of the stars, piercing and brilliant, broke through, shining down upon their union like a benediction. The half-elf smiled and put his forehead against hers.
The elf-woman reached up and, with trembling tenderness, ran a finger along his cheek. “What was…that phrase again?” she murmured, still breathing heavily.
He told her.
“And in…the forest tongue?”
“ ‘Memberkati saya, Lewat’,” he replied.
“I’ll never be able…to pronounce that,” she chuckled weakly.
“My love,” Breygon said, kissing her gently upon the forehead, “we’ve our whole lives to practice.”