By the time Amorda left the College by the Sunrise Gate, it was already full dark. The weather had moderated somewhat, and there was a breath of spring in the air; but it was still winter in Starmeadow, and the Lantern had vanished beyond the eastern hilltops some hours earlier, leaving Chuadan to light the night sky with his silvery face.
The streets of the great city were unnaturally silent, for a Freasday eve. Normally the labourers and townsfolk would be carousing to the best of their ability, celebrating week’s-end and letting their hair down in anticipation of the two holy days to come. A little revelry was to be expected; and more than a little, frankly, seeing as how Bræa’s Dawn was only a ten-day off, with its fasting, contemplation and enforced abstinence. Perhaps, the elf-woman reflected, folk were merely storing up their energies in anticipation of the Eve before the Dawn, which – in the elf-realm at least – tended to be a night of carousing, over-indulgence, and general debauchery. All of which, of course, ended the instant the Lantern broached the western horizon, and folk assumed the stolid, pensive demeanour that the day of rededication demanded.
Her meetings at the College had gone more or less as planned. The bowcrafter Carrufex had been delighted to see her, favouring her with a robust hug, and larding his greetings with his customary ribald humour. He’d propositioned her no less than three times. On the third occasion, Cylene – who, ever since Amorda’s brush with death during her lifemate’s battle with the demon Shaivaun, had not left her alone, and who Bræagond had had to order out of their bedchamber at Vespers – had cleared his throat mildly.
Carrufex had raised a gnarled eyebrow at that. “Who’s he?”
His tone had elicited a grin from Amorda. “Carrufex of Arx Calidus,” she’d said, “may I present Cylene Veridus. My prætorian.”
The enormous dragon-elf had regarded the swordsman with one eyebrow bent up into his hairline. Cylene had returned the art-crafter’s gaze with his usual silent equanimity.
“Nice carapace,” Carrufex had ventured after a moment’s regard.
The dragon-elf had scratched his ear. “Iýamman’s work?”
“She’s very good.”
“I’ll pass that on,” Cylene had remarked placidly.
“You know her that well?” Carrufex had asked, surprised.
“Better than anyone,” the warrior had smiled. “We’re mated.”
Even Amorda had started at that. “You never mentioned you were mated!”
That had launched a heated discussion from which the bowcrafter had prudently decided to abstain, at least until it had threatened to interfere with the business at hand. Then he had stepped in, told both the princess and her protector to shut up, and demanded the dragon-claws she had promised him.
When instead of Morowaæth’s claws she had produced the horns that Breygon had struck from Shaivaun’s shadowed brow, Carrufex’s eyes had lit up. His questions had occasioned another stick’s worth of explanation and discussion, which he had summarized by uttering a low whistle. “Cursed Seven! Never a dull moment at Domus Casia, eh?”
“You’ve no idea,” the elf-woman had replied, shuddering. “It’s been a busy couple of weeks.”
Her meeting with Kalestayne had been just as productive, although rather more brief. When she told the ancient wizard that her lifemate had agreed to his terms – a naming for their child, regardless of the price the old fellow wanted to lay on his enchantments – Kalestayne had merely nodded magisterially as if he had expected nothing different.
Amorda, nervous, had waited a long moment. “Was there something else?” he’d asked at last.
“I was...er...just wondering,” she muttered anxiously, “what name you might have in mind?”
“That depends,” the wizard had shrugged. “Is your child male or female?”
His casual query had rocked the elf-woman back in her chair. “How on earth should I know?”
“Then how on earth can you expect me to pick a name?” he’d shrugged. “For that matter, we’re not even sure what species it’ll be, are we?”
Amorda’s jaw had actually struck her breast at that sally. “What?!”
“Yes, that’s about as much thought as I’d’ve expected you to put into this.” Kalestayne had fixed her with a cold and calculating eye. “Your mate isn’t really a mortal anymore, you know. He’s a divine servant. And you’ve got a healthy dollop of the Fey in your makeup.” He’d nodded at her belly. “There’s no telling what’s growing in there.”
That remark had nearly been enough to sunder her tenuous grip on her equanimity, but she’d met his nonchalant inferences with all of the steel that centuries of dissimulation had built into her soul. “Would the Master Magister care to explain that?” she'd - not quite - snarled.
Kalestayne had shrugged his maddening shrug again. “Your prince is many things, woman; half-human, half-elf, a woodsman, a dragon-hunter. But Lewat overshadows all. And if your love-bond is true, then you’re his Karunia. And that means that your offspring could be...well, anything.”
Amorda had all but frozen in her chair. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said,” the ancient elf had replied. “Elducaris was the first Warden, and he fathered the race of dryads upon Csæleyan. And Argrím is said to have had at least a trio of wood-nymphs to mate; and their sielii are so infused with anarchy and the green that they regularly sire woodlings, sprites, nixies, sirenes, and Hara knows what else.”
A sudden movement on the floor near her chair caught her eye. She glanced down, but saw nothing. Megrims, she thought.
Then Kalestayne’s words registered. If her eyes had opened any wider, they might have dropped from her skull. “Woodlings. Really?”
“You can understand my interest, and my offer,” Kalestayne had nodded. “If Breygon is indeed the father, there’s no telling what you’ll whelp, my dear.” He smiled coldly. “I can’t wait to see what it is. It’s not every day a wizard gets to name a new race.”
She’d teetered on the brink of nervous prostration for a moment before forcing herself to chuckle and shrug the tension away. “I suppose we’ll wait until I deliver then,” she’d said with a paralytic grin.
“That’s how it’s usually done,” he’d replied infuriatingly. Then, in a sudden, unexpected segue, he’d added, “Of course, that’s assuming you live to see your child born. How do you plan to survive while your mate is blundering about the dragon-witch’s labyrinth, looking for the hidden temple?”
That had shocked her again. “W-w-what?”
“I know about your rings.” He’d nodded at her right hand. “A noble gesture, my dear, and doubtless well intentioned. But, if I may say so, exceedingly stupid.”
That wasn’t an assessment she could argue with. “Kalena is helping me.”
Amorda had nodded. “She’ll cast the spell in my library, and I’ll enter the thing when Bræagond enters the labyrinth. Hopefully he’ll complete his task before the spell expires.”
“Or before you do,” the old wizard had agreed. “It ought to work. But it’s hardly a permanent solution. You can’t stay locked up in an extra-dimensional palace forever.”
“If you have any suggestions, Master Magister,” she’d fumed, “I’d be delighted to entertain them.”
“If I have a few moments to think between casting spells on necklace and on your lifemate’s bloody bow,” he’d snorted, “I may be able to come up with an answer. I’ll let you know if I do.”
“Thank you,” she snapped.
“In the meantime,” he’d continued with a meaningful glance past her shoulder at Cylene, “you, young man, need to lay in a store of healing potions, and stay close and ready.”
The warrior had tapped his purse and nodded.
As Amorda stood and bowed preparatory to departing, Kalestayne had held up a hand. “One thing more. Have you given any thought to my advice about your...ah, your ‘special skills’?”
“My powers, you mean?” the elf-woman asked. “No. Not yet.”
“You need a tutor,” the ancient wizard had sighed. “Without one, you’re a danger to yourself and others. Including your mate. And you risk being exposed before the ignorant and fearful. The common folk don’t discriminate; they won’t care that your powers are a gift of Hutanibu, rather than the mark of a fiend from the Pit. Especially after all the to-do over on westbank.”
“I’ve managed to keep everything concealed thus far,” she’d replied frostily. She’d had enough of the old busy-body for one day. “And frankly, Master Magister, I’ve bigger problems to worry about than ‘exposure’.”
That had earned her a tolerant smirk. “All right, missy. Your business. Until I have to make it mine, anyway.”
The smirk haunted her as she wound her way back through the dark streets, wondering whether her mate would survive the coming ordeal, and wondering what was growing in her womb.
Cylene followed her with silent steps.
“You want to what?” Karrick asked, taken aback.
“Wrestle,” Valaista replied. “Is that a problem?”
Outside, it was snowing horribly again; Starmeadow was in the grip of yet another blizzard, and the practice ground that Karrick had meticulously cleared was covered in a thick blanket of white flakes. They had commandeered a store-room for their customary training session instead. It was still light out, but dusk was not far off. In a few hours, they had to present themselves at the Shrine of Miros.
The warrior cast a meaningful glance at the girl’s slender frame, then down at his own meaty build. “Could be,” he snorted. “Any particular reason?”
“The master ordered it.”
Karrick frowned. “He ordered you to wrestle me?”
“No, he ordered me to learn from you. His exact words were, ‘For every two days you spend learning my spells, you’ll spend a day with Karrick, learning to fight’.”
“Fine by me,” the warrior shrugged. “But I thought I was teaching you the blades. Why wrestling?”
“The master says it’s because I’m a dragon,” the girl sighed. “I need to learn to fight...you know. Our way. Without weapons.”
“I don’t know how much you’ll learn from me bending you into a noodle nest,” Karrick grumbled. “No offence, girlie, but while you’re the stuff that dreams are made of, and there’s nothing I’d like better than to get up close and personal with you – in a few years, maybe – if you close with me now, I’ll end up pounding you into porridge.”
“That’s what the master said, too,” Valaista replied with a snicker. “So…”
To Karrick’s red-faced astonishment, she shrugged out of her tunic, slipped out of her boots and trousers, and, before he could so much as sputter, doffed her smallclothes.
His jaw dropped. With a mammoth effort, he recovered his equanimity. Feigning a leer, he said, “Should I get some oil from the kitchen?”
Valaista grinned happily. “If you think it will help you.”
And then she transformed.
Her slender frame shimmered, smoked, and finally dissolved. Where the statuesque elf-girl had been standing crouched the darkly malevolent form of an iron dragon. Shivering with pleasure at the change, she shook out her wings, stretching them to their full, ten-pace extent before hunkering down again.
Karrick’s expression, momentarily exalted, came crashing down. “You want me to wrestle you…like this?”
I do not, she mind-sent, sounding prim and offended. I consider it ill-advised. But our master wishes it.
“I’ve never wrestled a dragon,” the warrior murmured half to himself. Almost against his volition, he found his eyes moving over her slate-grey armour, noticing joint configurations, the location of talons and scale-edges, how her wings and fore-limbs bent and flexed…anything that might help him. You’re not actually considering this, are you? he asked himself.
Yeah, his ego answered immediately. Oh, yeah.
Nor have I, Valaista sent with her usual infuriating logic. In that sense, I suppose it will be a learning experience for us both. She stretched her neck sinuously; Karrick noted with glum resignation how short, thick and heavy it looked. Then she yawned, revealing a long, forked tongue and a maw filled with razor-sharp fangs the size of his thumb.
Although he would have preferred a lingering death to revealing any reticence before his charge, Karrick groaned inwardly. Unlike their graceful gold and silver cousins, iron dragons were compact and blocky, seemingly built for close combat. Grappling was going to be painful; each of Valaista’s scales terminated in a hooked barb that looked unpleasantly sharp. Her entire head was a skull-like array of ridged bone, and when she folded her wings and tucked them back along her ridge-crest, they lay flat against her dorsal scales, leaving no purchase to a potential attacker.
At least her horns aren’t fully developed, Karrick thought. Then he remembered her fangs and winced.
Are you ready? The dragon asked. She dipped her head low to the ground, the hornules beneath her jaw grating on the flagstones as she swept back and forth like a snake.
A sudden thought occurred. “Hang on. Why’d you need to get undressed? I thought your...you know, clothes and such...that they became ...ah, part of you?”
They do, she sent, baring her fangs. But I thought it might distract you. And in any case, anything that happens to me happens to them, too, even in this form. I think we’re about to get very dirty. Possibly bloody.
“Only if we do it right,” Karrick snorted. “Okay, then. No biting, no breath weapons.” He rolled his shoulders to loosen them and twisted his head left to right until the vertebrae cracked.
I won’t if you won’t, the dragon replied, grinning evilly.
“You’ve done well.”
Breygon started slightly at Tua’s offhand remark. He hadn’t heard the old torva approach.
“You’ve got a soft step, my friend,” he laughed.
“Old habits die hard.”
The ranger was sitting on the edge of one of a large, flat stone in the garden, enjoying the last watery rays of the Lantern as it tilted towards the eastern horizon. Tua brushed snow from the stone and joined him. “You don’t mind?” the greyhair asked, almost as an afterthought.
“Of course not.”
Tua glanced around. “Where’s Kakall?”
“I’ve no idea,” Breygon shrugged. “Out and about, on some errand I suppose.” He snorted. “I can never figure out how he moves through the city without being noticed.”
“From park to park, I imagine,” Tua said distantly. “There are a lot of trees in Starmeadow, and the forest walkers are pretty good at hiding in them.”
“That’s probably it,” the ranger nodded.
They sat in silence for a long while, watching the sun set over the Mura Xîardathi. When the glowing golden orb vanished behind the parapet, Breygon sighed.
Tua shot him a curious glance. “Something on your mind, Lewat?”
The ranger grimaced. “Too many walls.”
“Say heya,” Tua grunted in agreement.
“Why do you stay?”
The old wilder elf frowned. “Sorry?”
“You heard me,” the half-elf snorted. “What’s keeping you here?”
“I’m indentured to House Olestyrian,” Tua shrugged. “Or...well, I suppose to House Æyllian, now. If milady’s managed to file the paperwork.”
Breygon hawked and spat. “Bollocks.”
Breygon cocked his head. “You’re what the tribes call pelari-kuno, aren’t you? An ‘ancient runner’. A ghost in the trees.” He nodded at the vast expanse of black stone. “You could be over the wall and lost in the forest before anyone noticed. Why are you still here?”
“I like your lady,” the old torva shrugged. “And I like her gardens. And there’re younger tribeswomen here, too, that need an elder to watch over them, teach them.”
“Bollocks twice,” the ranger snorted. “You could free them and take them along with you. Yet here you sit,” he waved a hand at the house, “surrounded by stone, in the middle of a city where half the citizens treat you like dogs, and the other half would string you up, given a moment’s grace.”
“You took care of that last problem,” Tua said pointedly. “After the past two days, I don’t think we’re going to hear much from the Lustroares. They had some protection so long as folks thought they were following the edicts of one of the Forest Gods. Now that it’s turned out they’ve been following a bunch of demon worshippers, even unwitting ones, I’d imagine the Crown Prince is going to do some stomping.” There was a smile of satisfaction on the man’s face. “A week from now you won’t be able to find a White Fire medallion anywhere in the city.”
“I’m none too happy about that, either,” Breygon said gloomily, thinking about his grandmother’s shrine. “I didn’t want to discredit the whole faith. I just wanted to root out the...the pernicious parts of it.”
“And well done, you,” Tua chuckled. “Now you’re wondering what to do about Istravenya’s church, aye?”
“That’s about it.”
“Give it back to the forest. That’s what I’ve come to say, Lewat. Before I go.”
Breygon frowned. “Excuse me?”
Tua stared up at the sky. The colour was deepening from blue to purple, and the first of the stars were coming out. “The White Fire,” he said, a distant look in his eyes, “was never the faith of the cities. She was always the inspiration of the warriors of the woodlands. Of those who – like your nenek, your granny, the one the orcs called ‘the Long Sword’ – shed their blood to keep the green free of taint and corruption.
“You think you feel odd surrounded by stone walls?” he went on, chuckling. “There’s nothing more perverse than building a ‘cathedral’ to the glory of Istravenya. That nonsense is fine for Wise Hara, I suppose. Or stone-working dwarves, or men and their city-gods. But our folk...we shouldn’t stand separate from the glory of the green, Lewat. We’re a part of it. We should revel in it.”
Breygon frowned. “I think the cathedral should be destroyed, too. But I’m going to have a hard time convincing Landioryn of that.”
“That’s because you’re treating this like a temporal matter,” the old torva murmured. “It’s not. Some things are matters of faith. The crown can say ‘no’ to Prince Breygon. But can it say no to Lewat?”
Breygon frowned, considering.
Tua grinned at his consternation. Then he stood. Brushing the snow off his trousers, he strode to the centre of the garden. Once there he stopped and closed his eyes. Clenching his small fists, he raised them slowly to the level of his shoulders.
The ranger frowned. “What are you –”
Bangun! The shout came from Tua, but Breygon didn’t hear it with his ears; it rippled through the air, through the ground, and through his soul with the pounding force of an earthquake.
He leapt to his feet. At the same instant, Tua opened his hands, palms up, straining as if struggling to lift something, something enormously heavy, from the earth.
Bangun! the diminutive elf cried again. Saudara, perempuan...BANGUN!
A burst of fire, green as grass and bright as the stars overhead, radiated outwards from the torva’s slender form. It washed over the garden like a tsunami. Breygon felt it strike him with a cool, cleansing force that nearly bowled him over. He heard a roaring sound like wind in bare branches, and smelt new leaves, and loam, and lightning.
The earth rocked again, and the ranger found himself reeling, pinwheeling his arms to stay upright.
And then it was over. The light was gone; the smell of new grass was gone; the chill, numbing damp of winter had returned.
Breygon shook himself; the afterimages of the brilliant verdant glare had burned themselves into his retinas, as though he had accidentally glanced at the Lantern at high noon.
When his vision cleared at last, he saw Tua down on one knee in the centre of the garden, supporting himself with a hand pressed into the earth. In a wide circle around his feet the snow had melted, revealing green, growing grass bursting with life and vitality. The old elf was pale and panting.
Breygon rushed to his side. He laid a hand on the man’s shoulder, and was about to flood him with the Protector’s healing might when Tua, laughing weakly, knocked his fingers away.
The ranger stepped back, uncertain, and allowed his friend to lever himself to his feet unassisted. “Sorry,” Tua gasped. “Didn’t...didn’t mean to be rude. I’m not wounded. Just...a little tired.”
“What in the Nine Hells was that?” Breygon demanded.
“My gift to you, Lewat,” Tua chuckled. His voice was hollow and the words whistled unevenly. “Or rather, my divine mistress’ gift to you. And also...a little test.”
Breygon frowned. “Explain.”
Still laughing weakly, Tua unlaced his tunic at the neck; then, struggling like a man who had laboured all day in the mines, tugged the worn cotton over his head. He turned...and Breygon hissed in amazement.
The old elf’s back, from waist to neck, was covered with a single, immense tattoo...of a stylized oak tree.
“You’re a priest,” the ranger said, dazed. “A priest of Istravenya.”
“The last one in Starmeadow,” Tua nodded. “The last one who remained, after the magic was broken.”
Breygon blinked. “What?”
The old elf nodded toward the stone bench. “Do you mind if we sit, Lewat? That wasn’t easy, and I’m a little...”
“Of course.” They walked back to the bench. When Tua stumbled, Breygon caught him by the elbow.
Once securely seated, the old torva drew in a deep breath. “In some ways,” he said, sounding more contemplative than Breygon had ever heard the earthy fellow sound before, “the servants of the Forest Gods are more like mages than most priests. Just as they’re tied to the flux, we’re tied to the glory of the green. It makes us more powerful in natural surroundings – as you’re finding out, I’d imagine,” he snorted.
Breygon nodded. That was true, at least.
“But it also makes us more vulnerable to...to disruptions. Disruptions in the natural order.”
A light went on in the ranger’s mind. “Like Anamblor. And Auranitoris.”
“Those are extreme examples,” Tua shrugged. “I can’t begin to explain what went on there. But what happened at the Lucum, your grandmother’s shrine...that’s a more localized problem.
“When Shaivaun...or whatever her possessor was called; we might never know its true name...when the demon established itself on the centre of our divine power, our link to it was severed. The magic was broken for us. We knew instantly what had happened, of course,” he shrugged, “but there was nothing we could do about it. Our power was gone. The White Fire was quenched.
“We had only two options: to stand and fight – which, without our link to the green, meant to stand and die – or to flee.”
“And you fled,” Breygon said, cocking an eyebrow.
Tua nodded. “I was ordered to flee. Of all of us, I was the only one who’d been a tribal runner. I’d been a woodsman, like you, before I became a servant of Istravenya. Our Hierarch thought that I had the best chance of surviving, of staying close and watching, waiting for our chance to strike back. He stayed and fought, and died; so did all of my brothers and sisters. They all died. The demon who’d possessed our Arch-Priest burned them all down with unholy fire. Without the aid of the green, they didn’t stand a chance.”
“But they fought anyway,” Breygon said thickly.
Tua chuckled weakly. “They had a pretty stern example to live up to,” the old elf said sadly. “The grove was established in the name of your sainted grandmother, Lewat. She had no chance when she faced Shadow-of-Midnight. But she fought anyway. We couldn’t do a disservice to that memory.”
“Gods,” the ranger breathed. “And you stayed? Here?”
The wilder elf nodded.
“Why at Domus Casia?”
Tua smiled. “Can’t you feel it?”
“The currents.” Tua held out a hand, palm down. “Kesatuan is strong here, Lewat. It’s why there are so many of my folk among your lady’s servants. It’s what drew her here in the first place, when she could’ve bought any house in the city. A palace, even, instead of an old-fashioned Low House.” He waved a hand around the garden. “It’s why Kakall and the others, the fey folk, and the animals, are drawn here.”
He snickered. “It’s not just your winning personality, oh mighty servant of the Forest Mother!”
Breygon laughed weakly. “That’s a relief.”
“It was the perfect place for me to hide,” the old Torva went on. “My power was gone, severed, until the usurpers could be dispelled, and the Lucum cleansed. I’ve been waiting for a deliverer for a score of years.”
The ranger sighed. “You might’ve warned me what we were getting into,” he said, perhaps a bit more bitingly than he intended.
“That was part of our curse,” the old elf shrugged. “We had failed, my brothers and sisters and I. Our failure condemned us to play no part in our deliverance. All we – all I – could do was stand aside and allow the true champion of the green to redeem us.” He poked Breygon in the chest. “You, Lewat.
“And your friends, of course,” he added with a nod at the house.
“Plus, you had to keep an eye on my bride,” Breygon said stonily.
Tua nodded. “A lesser task, but an important one nonetheless,” he agreed. “I knew what she was the moment I met her. She thought she purchased my indenture on her own initiative.” He shook his head, grinning again. “The green leaves nothing to chance.”
“I’m beginning to understand that,” the ranger sighed. He rubbed the back of his neck, not wanting to ask what he knew he had to ask. “So...you’re leaving now. Is that it?”
Tua nodded. “As you just saw, my powers are my own again. When you destroyed the interlopers, you restored the life of the green at the Lucum. Kesatuan burns for us once more. Thanks to you all, the truth of the White Fire has returned to Starmeadow.”
“And you have to be the Hierarch now. Is that it?”
“No,” the old torva chuckled. “I have to go find her.” He stood again, looking shaky.
“You need rest,” Breygon said automatically.
Tua grinned. “There is no better rest for me, Lewat,” he replied happily, “than resuming the duties of which I was bereft so long ago.”
The ranger nodded. There was obviously no dissuading the man. He stood and held out his hand. “We’ll miss you.”
“Not too much, I hope,” the old torva replied. He waved a hand around the garden. “I’ve left you some new friends.”
Breygon looked around...and gasped. The half-dozen oak trees that stood near the river wall were awake, their branches moving gently, staring down at the two elves with enormous, jade-green eyes.
“Better than a troop of the High Guard. And all female, of course,” Tua said with a mischievous wink. “Kakall’s been a good friend.”
“Of course,” Breygon said faintly. He did his best to return the old torva’s grin. “Thank you. I think.”
“It was the least I could do, for my deliverer, and his Karunia,” Tua said. He bowed suddenly. “May the green fill and sustain you, Centang Lewat.”
“And you, servant of the White Fire.” Breygon grasped the man’s outstretched hand. “And good luck in your search.”
Tua put his left hand over his heart. “When I find her, I’ll bring her by. She’ll need Lewat’s...ah, ‘blessing’, if she’s to serve our divine mistress properly.” He winked again.
Tua laughed. Spreading his hands, he cried Berjala Angin!
Before the half-elf’s eyes, the old torva’s body became misty, insubstantial, like smoke on the breeze...a wispy white column that climbed high into the sky, soaring like a bird, and vanishing into the night air.
The ranger held up a hand. “Farewell, pelari,” he murmured.
Breygon spun on his heel. Kakall was climbing stiffly over the alley wall, his limbs creaking, and his eyes wide with astonishment. He was staring at the clustered grove of oak trees near the river wall. And they were staring back at him. “What’s all this, now?”
The ranger laughed. “Your harem. It seems our friend Tua was a druid of the White Fire.”
“Ah,” the towering oak murmured. “Er...good evening, ladies.”
The earth shook slightly as the newly-awakened treants thundered forward, clustering around Breygon’s thunderstruck gardener, their emerald eyes gleaming in the darkness, and their leafy limbs waving gently.
“Oh my,” Kakall hooted softly. “Oh my, oh my, oh my!”
Breygon had had his fill of the bizarre for one day. He bolted for the house.