Monday, April 29, 2013

Chapter 38: Like the Spirits that Made Us

Ametair's fists hover above Morvyn's face. "Your fault," he growls as he punches, again and again, "Your fault."

Morvyn's hands fly up to defend himself from the blows, but he doesn't fight back. This was the reaction he expected from Aymeri when he told him how his secret affair with a mortal girl played a hand in Talfryn's death, this was the punishment he craved. Aymeri tried to tell him Talfryn's death wasn't his fault, but Morvyn is not yet ready to accept forgiveness for his mistake; he wants the anger, the blame, directed at himself. And from Ametair, it's exactly what he's getting.

"Filthy wolf, take your paws off him!" Tania's shrill voice cuts through the soft song of rain fall.\, "Leave him alone."

Ametair leaps off Morvyn, snarling at the fairy intruder, "This is not your concern, Summerdream. This is my den, and you aren't wanted here."

"This forest was mine before any of the rest of you came here," Tania says sharply, waggling an admonishing finger at him, "I go where I please, wolf, and you can do nothing to stop me."

"Run along now," she continues, dismissing Ametair from his own house, "I must speak with Morvyn."

Her condescending tone chafes at the werewolf, but there is little he can do against her power. Glaring and growling under his breath, Ametair lopes off into the forest off his own free will before she bends him to her will as he knows she could. 

"Did that filthy beast hurt you?"Tania says, her voice trembling with concern as she kneels in front of Morvyn.

"Tania, please," Morvyn sighs, "This was really none of your concern, and I didn't need to be rescued."

"But he was hurting you!" the fairy protests, "If I hadn't come---"

"He wouldn't have done me any serious injury, Tania," Morvyn says, "You don't understand dragons."

"But he's not a dragon," Tania points out.

"Ametair is different, but he's still one of us. What is it you wanted anyway?" Morvyn finishes, and moves on to her purpose. He hasn't seen her for at least a century or two, maybe more, and he can't even guess as to what would make her seek him out now.

"I just missed you," she says, smiling suggestively, "I wanted to see you."

"I don't believe that," Morvyn says, standing up, "I know you, Tania. You want something. And not just my company."

"Ico is pregnant. Have you heard?" Tania says, taking Morvyn's arm as he tries to walk away.

"Yes, I did hear. And I'm sure you didn't come looking for me to deliver news I already know," Morvyn says, trying to wrest her fingers from his arm as she tightens her grip on him.

"It's not fair," the fairy complains, "I've wanted a child for so long now, and Ico didn't even care if she had one or not. I want a baby, Morvyn. I want your baby."

Morvyn shakes his head, "Tania, we've had this discussion before. We had our time, and it's done. To be honest, I'm happy that no child ever resulted from our play, because that's all it ever was between us."

"I'm a fairy, not a dragon," Tania pouts, "I'm not asking to join your nest and live with you like Ico does with Aymeri. I just want a baby!"

Morvyn turns, pulling her hand off his arm forcefully, since she won't let go, "And that's precisely why you won't have one from me," he growls, showing an anger he normally keeps hidden under a calm facade, "I've had many lovers, but I won't be a father unless I have a mate."

Tania's lips tremble as though she's going to cry, "Can't we at least be lovers again?" she whimpers.

Morvyn rolls his eyes, "We haven't seen each other in well over a hundred years, Tania," he sighs, "I don't believe for a second that you actually want me now. And even if you did, well..." Morvyn doesn't bother to finish the thought, refraining from expressing his complete lack of desire to be with her again, "But, I must thank you, Tania, for reminding how pathetic self-pity can be," he finishes, walking off this time with determination, "Sitting here letting Ametair beat me up was pointless and helped no one."

Aymeri was right about one thing; it was a human who killed Talfryn, a human who hunts dragons for sport, with weapons made of a metal that weakens his kind, taking away the natural advantage his kind have over theirs. When he first met Kelyn, after his escape from the dragon slayer's prison, Kelyn told him that dragons in the north have learned to use weapons. Morvyn intends to never put himself in a position to be captured again, but if another dragon slayer ever comes after him or his kin, he'll need to be better prepared.

Half way back to Aymeri's nest, he runs in Kelyn herself. "I was just coming to lok for you," he says in greeting.

Taken by surprise, Kelyn finds herself flustered, and stammers, "Me?" She had been out looking for Morvyn when she ran into him, and blushes at the thought that he'd come out with the same purpose.

"You fight humans with weapons. I want to learn how," Morvyn explains.

He was looking for her, but not with the same purpose, she thinks, and is oddly relieved at that thought. She's not as ready for this as she'd thought. Kelyn nods, her confidence bolstered by the fact that she does have the skill to teach him, and that would at least be a first step in getting to know him.  "I killed one dragon slayer, but another always rises where one falls," she says,  "Your sister wanted to return here because she thought this land was safe. But I say, wherever there are mortals, there is danger, and we must be prepared."

"You can teach me to fight with a weapon?"

"I can."

They begin the lesson right away. The sword feels odd in Morvyn's hand, and his defense is weak against Kelyn's attack.

"You're getting better at deflecting my blows," Kelyn notices after some hours of practice, "But all you are doing is defending yourself. You have yet to strike your own blow at me. Now, try to hit me."

Morvyn raises to swing, unsure of himself, and as Kelyn raises her own sword in defense, her foot slips on the wet ground, turned to mud by the morning's rain, and she falls.

Morvyn drops his weapon to extend his hand to help her up.

She takes the offered hand and pulls him down, pinning him to the ground beneath her.

"Never let your guard down," she says, "The mortals will use any opening to attack you. And you must learn to do the same."

"You aren't my enemy," Morvyn points out, "But in the future, I'll remember not to trust you." He speaks with a smile, to show he's joking.

Her earlier embarrassment returning as she notices the position she's put herself in, Kelyn rolls off him. "This is serious," she says harshly, "The dragon slayers are not a joking matter."

"I know," Morvyn say, his voice growing grave, "I was taken prisoner by one, and  I saw..." he stops, unable to speak about watching Talfryn's death, "You've lost loved ones to this dragon slayer?" Morvyn continues,  wanting to understand her distrust for all humankind, "Your mate?" 

Kelyn looks sharply at him, "I never had a mate to lose," she says defensively,"And you're hardly in a position criticize, still living in your mother's nest."

Morvyn raises an eyebrow, knowing that what she just said could, and would be, construed as an insult by most males. But he shrugs it off, and laughs lightly, "I wasn't criticizing you," he says, "I suppose I shouldn't have assumed you'd taken a mate. I just never heard of an adult female who hadn't taken at least one. But then, it wasn't until I'd come of age that I learned that the nest I grew up in was so incredibly out of the ordinary. I was surprised to discover that Aymeri's nest was the only one in our whole history to have fairies in it. Or to be lead by a male, for that matter."

"And that's why you've never your left your mother's nest?" Kelyn asks pointedly, "Your sister has told me that you turned down many offers."

"I'm surprised that I'd be a subject of gossip up where you come from," Morvyn says, "What else does Inira have to say about me to dragons I've never met?"

Kelyn looks away, mumbling, "Nothing really," wishing she'd kept her mouth closed. What Inira had told her about Morvyn was meant both as an enticement and a warning. "My brother would be difficult to get," Inira had said when she and Fearghus invited Kelyn to journey south, back to their homeland, with them, "But if you mean to finally settle on mate, you would do well to consider him."

"Well, to answer your question," Morvyn carries on, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had risen, "Growing up the way I did, in a nest of dragons paired with fairies, and my own parents mated exclusively to each other, did color my view of the world and my expectations. When I came of age, I started getting offers from females from around the area. Some I barely knew, some I'd never met, some were powerful with large nests, some were just starting out and had only one or two mates, but in all cases, I just couldn't see myself adapting to the traditional lifestyle. And that is why I still live in what you call my mother's nest."

Kelyn nods, growing more uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation. Like her, he'd chosen a a path others of their kind had never considered, but unlike her, he'd apparently hasn't had to justify himself over and over again. Her eyes downcast, Kelyn picks at the grass beneath her hands, saying nothing. Inira had told her much about her brother, but now that she's in his company, nothing of what Inira said seems to matter. She had said he was handsome, but the description did not prepare her for the way that just looking at him can take her breath away. 

"You must have had to explain yourself over and again," Morvyn says after a long silence. Kelyn looks up, startled, as he speaks what she had been thinking, "I've had to justify myself more times than I'd like. So I won't ask you to explain yourself to me. Even if I am curious," he finishes with a teasing smile that makes Kelyn blush, and smile herself in return.

"Maybe I'll satisfy your curiosity someday," she says, standing, "But right now, you still have much to learn about swordplay."

Treveur stops to pull Gaelle into his arms for kiss. It's not a log walk from his farm back to her father's house in the village, but the frequent stops they make along the way adds an hour at least to the trip.

Ametair guards the forest from human intrusion, and never leaves it. But tonight is different. The humans have not satisfied themselves with keeping to their place, staying out of his forest and out of the way of his kind, dragons and fae alike. They took Morvyn captive, they killed Talfryn, and they've crossed the line, and they need to be punished. So tonight, Ametair has come out of the woods for the first time in a very long times, longer than human memory, to find the girl that betrayed Morvyn, and make her pay for the death she brought to them.

When he gets the girl in his sight, he howls, summoning his pack to his side for the hunt.

"Did you hear that?" Gaelle whispers, trembling as she stands behind Treveur for protection.

"Wolves?" he gasps, "Wolves rarely come this close to the house." 

"What should we do?" Gaelle asks.

"Run! Back to the house!"

Running would do them no good against Ametair's incredible speed, but just as he begins the chase, he's pulled back by arms as strong as his own.

"Let me go," he growls, struggling to break free of his father's grip.

Riain pins his son against the barn wall. "Would you expose yourself to their kind?" he snarls.

"I would kill them. Both of them," Ametair growls in return.

Riain holds Ametair back, listening as the couple make their escape, only loosening his hold on his son when he hears the heavy wooden door close with the humans safely behind it.

"If there's to be revenge, it's Aymeri's decision to take it, not yours," Riain says, keeping his voice low.

"I'm not a dragon; I'm not bound by your laws," Ametair snarls.

"You're my son," Riain answers, "You are not alone in this world, and you do not act alone. We don't leave the forest, and we don't interact with the mortals."

"They struck first," Ametair protests.

"The one who killed Talfryn is dead, killed by a dragon," Riain says, "You will leave these humans alone."

"What can you tell me about your people?" Ceyrth asks Ico. He'd come all this way to meet one of her kind, and learn about them.

"I don't have people?" Ico says, making a question of the statement, not understanding Ceyrth question.

"He means your kind. Fairies," Aymeri explains, and then turns to Ceyrth, "They're a lawless bunch, without clans, nests, or even families."

Ceyrth's eyes widen as he takes in this information. "But you must have a history," he says, "Where did you come from?"

"I was born from the waters," Ico says simply, "That is where I am from, and what I am."

That was not at all the answer Ceyrth was expecting, and her story, brief as it was, opens up a whole new set of questions. "You have no parents," he says, and she shakes her head slightly.

"Water has no mother or father," she says.

"And the rest of your kind? Where are they from?"

Ico tilts her head to the side, "We are what we are," she says, as though that is explanation enough.

"My people have a story," Ceyrth says, "The world, in the beginning, was full of life, the animals, the birds, the forest itself. And there were spirits who dwelled in this world, who were the world, or aspects of it, in conscious form. The spirit of the world decided to create a new kind of life, so he went to the great tree at the heart of the forest, and told her of his idea. His words took form inside the body of the tree, and she gave birth to the first alfar. Dragons, I am told, have a similar story, of the first dragon nest being born from a volcano. But you fae don't have one story of the creation of your kind. Like the spirits that made us, you simply are."

Ico shakes her head again, "You should speak to Auberon. He knows all our histories."

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Chapter 37: What Dulls the Pain of Loss


"Sterren," Marrec greets his niece at the entrance to his great hall, "I thought you still in Odet."

Sterren had spent two sleepless nights in her home since her return from Odet, but she had not yet resumed her normal routine or even been able to muster the strength to go out of her house, save the one visit to Taran, so it's not surprising that word of her return had yet to reach to the Lord of Avendale. Looking over his shoulder, she she's he has guests, obviously noble from their dress, but Sterren can't name them. The woman seems familiar, but Sterren has met so many of their ilk in this hall, and tends to forget heir names and titles as soon as they are out of her sight. 

Sterren wore one of her finest gowns for her visit, and brushed her hair up as elegantly as she could without the help of a maid, an effort she normally doesn't bother with even when visiting her noble relations, partly because she's never been comfortable in finery, but also to serve as a reminder that though she is their family, she's not truly one of them, that she's free of the duty to politics that they serve under. Today was different, however, and Sterren dressed the way she knew her uncle would prefer to her dressed all the time as a somewhat vain attempt to appease him before she tells him she's spurned the suitor he intended for her and instead will marry one of his own peasants. Though it likely won't make him any less displeased with her decision, Sterren is now glad she chose this dress so that she at least won't embarrass him when he presents her to his guests as his niece.

"I returned just a few days ago," she answers, fidgeting nervously with her sleeve, gathering her words together as she prepares to give him her news.

Marrec stands firmly in front of her, as if he means to block her entry into his home. "Sterren, I am, of course, pleased to see you safely home," he says, and Sterren's brow furrow, wondering what bad news is going to follow that opening, "I know that it was I who pushed you toward the Landgraab. I welcomed him into my home and gave him every encouragement to court you. But, with the situation as it is now, Sterren, if you are his betrothed, I must ask you to leave. I will not be able to welcome you into this hall, though we are blood. If you are to be a Landgraab..."

"What?" Sterren nearly sputters.

"I am sorry for this, Sterren, truly," Marrec says again, "I wish it did not have to be this way. But I must ask that you leave now and hurry back to Odet."

"Uncle, I am not going back to Odet," Sterren says, amazed at his sudden change in attitude toward the whole Landgraab family. "I have refused Reinier's offer and will not marry him. I was tempted, I admit, by his charm, but in truth, my heart was given long ago to one of our own village, Taran Madec. I m with child, Uncle, Taran's child, and I will marry him," Sterren rushes out the last her news, hoping Marrec's pleasure at the fact that she's not betrothed to a Landgraab will at least help him accept, iif not rejoice, that she's to marry Taran.

"A peasant?" Marrec sighs in heavy resignantion, "I shall never hear and end to Gwencalon's complaints, my dear niece. But, you will marry who you will, I know that, and Taran is a good man, if lowborn. You will marry quickly I suppose, before...?" he gestures at stomach, still flat and not yet showing the child she carries inside.

"Yes, I went to Odet to ask Fransez Le Bihan to officiate at my wedding," Sterren says, piling lie on top of lie. She will have to get a message out quickly to the old priest to make this lie come true.

"While you were there, you must have visited the Landgraabs?" Marrec asks, "You must know some of what happened, spoke to some of the family?"

Sterren nods, "I was a guest in their keep for  few days," she admits, "I was there when the elder brother was murdered."

"My guests would hear your tale, then," Marrec says, leading her into the hall to introduce her to the Lady Galena Penguilly and her son, Sir Alain. As Sterren gets close to Lady Galena, she sees why her face seemed familiar, as she bears a very close resemblance to Edelina Landgraab, the widow of Diedericx. Sterren remembers Reinier's mention of cousins of Edelina who would challenge his claim on Odet, and understands, now, Marrec's sudden change of heart. He means to ally Avendale with the Penguilly family against the Landgraabs.

So Sterren tells Galena and Alain what she can about the assassination and Reinier's subsequent usurpation of his brother's title and claim on Odet, leaving out the more fantastical details of the involvement of the fair folk in her own escape from his grasp. "I had to escape through a window," she lies, getting used to it, now, "He meant to keep me prisoner." 

"And what of Edelina, my niece?" Galena asks, "We have heard she was sent away somewhere, but could not get more information than that."

"He sent her to a convent in Den Bosch, in the Landgraab homeland," Sterren says, remembering what Reinier told her. When she explains, as he had done, what a convent is, Galena gasps and chokes on a sob.

"How could he?" she moans.

"Reinier Landgraab is capable of many cruelties," Sterren says grimly, wishing she had seen that much sooner than she had.

"Did he hurt you, niece?" Marrec asks quietly, hearing the sorrow in her tone.

"Oh, no, not...not as such," Sterren says, understanding his meaning, "He meant to marry me, and held me under guard until I would agree. But he did no physical harm to me."

"How many men does he have?" Sir Alain interjects.

As the evening wears on, Sterren does her best to answer their questions, though she didn't see much of use while he was Reinier's guest.

The night grew late as she answered what questions she could, and her uncle bid her to spend the night in his house rather than send her home. 

Sterren curls up on the bed where she first made love to Reinier, wishing she could forget the pleasure she took in him. Right there, she had lain right there, and told him a story. Right there, he'd lain on top of her and asked her to be honest with him. He asked then, but never told her that the asking was just a formality, that he would take anything he was refused anyway, 

Sterren tries to sleep, but catches only brief moments of slumber before her grief wakens her again, and her night is spent on a pillow wet with her tears.

"We have my uncle's blessing," Sterren says, taking Taran's hand as she steps quietly beside him.

"Truly?" Taran asks in surprise.

"He is making an alliance with the Penguilly family against the Landgraabs," Sterren explains, "So he took the news of our betrothal well enough. Marrec is my mother's brother, he's not so rigid about title and class. Of course, my aunt will be another matter. She will likely refuse to have you for dinner."

Taran laughs, "That's something of a relief. Come, we should tell Elara this news together."

Together, Taran and Sterren tell Elara of their upcoming marriage, saving the news of the new baby for another day.

"Will you brush my hair for me, like my mother used to do?" Elara asks. She was very young when Briec died, and has only a few memories of her mother.

"Of course I will," Sterren promises, "And you may brush mine as well."

"I'd like that," Elara smiles, giving her approval.

"I'll leave you two to talk while I get dinner," Taran says, smiling at his daughter's happiness, and at his own.

After they've shared a meal and put Elara into bed for the night, Sterren lingers at the door, knowing it's past time she went home, but not able to bring herself to leave.

"Should I walk you home?" Taran asks, though Sterren is well known to brave the road to village even on the darkest nights, unafraid.

"I---I---" Sterren fumbles for words, and starts sobbing, "I haven't been sleeping well," she finally manages, "I cannot...I don't want..."

"Sterren, you can stay here, if you don't want to be alone" Taran says gently, understanding what she can't quite say. "You have a broken heart. I know how long that takes to mend, and how the loneliness eats at you. Stay with me, I'll keep you company."

"Thank you," she sighs, pressing her face against his chest as he holds her, "I can't bear another night like last night, or the night before, alone in the dark."

Her mood reverses from sorrow to contentment as she lays back against Taran's chest, just from knowing she won't spend the night alone in bed she once shared with Reinier.

"I'm not normally prone to such a depth of self-pity," she murmurs with a light laugh, "Or to such a copious amount of tears."

"Briec was much the same when she was pregnant with Elara," Taran says, "She'd cry for no reason."

"You must miss her terribly," Sterren says, moved to pity someone besides herself for the first time in the days since she escaped Odet.

"After she died, I could barely sleep for the grief. And when I did sleep, I'd wake expecting to see her in bed beside me, and grieve anew when I'd remember she was gone forever. It was like that for over a year after she passed. They say time heals all doesn't truly. There is a part of me that will never stop hurting for what I've lost. For Elara's sake, I had to put on a brave face and carry on. That routine, more than time itself, is what dulls the pain of loss. Your life moves on, and it carries you along with it. I often thought I should look for another wife, so Elara could have a mother, but that is the one thing I could not bring myself to do."

"Are you certain you want to marry me?" Sterren asks.

Taran rests a hand above her breast, "I do, Sterren. You are as close to my heart as Briec ever was, and I look forward to being a father to your child."

Nestled against Taran's chest, held in his embrace, Sterren sleeps soundly for the first time in days.

Reinier lets the scroll roll back up after he reads the message inside. The Lady Galena Penguilly and her son have been seen visiting Marrec of Avendale. His enemies are gathering to make a move against him, which means he'll have to defend himself from traditional armies as well as assassination attempts from the wilders and their allies amongst the dragons and fair folk. Sterren, he thinks, what role does she play in all this? Was she part of the captive wilder's escape? Did she play a role in his brother's murder? Does she conspire with her uncle and he Penguilly family now? She is connected in some way to each of his enemies, and though he cannot quite piece together the puzzle of her involvement in it, the coincidence of that is too great to overlook. Did she ever love him, or was it all a ruse?

It doesn't matter, he tells himself. Whatever she was, whatever might have been, she is an enemy now.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Chapter 36: I Have Been So Blind

Reinier pulls himself up to a sitting position, his head throbbing from being thrown down to the floor. "Sterren," he murmurs, worried she might be hurt by the fall. But no, he realizes as he looks in her direction. The ...creature...obviously not human, who appeared to disrupt his wedding so violently now kneels before Sterren, taking her hand to help her up. Whatever he'd done to Reinier and his men, Sterren was untouched. 

With the same flash of light that accompanied his appearance, the strange creature disappears, taking Sterren with him.

Father Loyset, thrown back against the altar, groans, and Reinier helps him to his feet, while his men also rise. None of them were seriously injured by their falls.

"That woman is witch, my lord!" the old priest exclaims,  "A practitioner of the black arts! She summoned a demon. Here, in this sacred place! You must not think of marrying such an unholy creature. She is an abomination, and must be destroyed!"  The priest finds his courage now, when Sterren is gone and Reinier cannot force him at sword point to perform the marriage rite.

"I knew she had a gift for healing, but I never thought her to be a witch," Reinier muses, growing thoughtful as he re-examines every conversation he'd had with Sterren in the short time he'd known her.

"She's ensorcelled you with her magic," the priest says, "Seduced you to gain influence with you..."

That possibility had crossed Reinier's mind. After she'd bandaged his wounds, he spent days thinking of nothing but her, and his subsequent visit to Avendale was more about meeting her again than his avowed purpose of hunting dragons. And when he did see her again, he threw himself at her feet and offered her his hand in marriage. And that's where the love spell theory begins to unwind. She took him to her bed, but she never wanted to be his wife, fighting against that even here in the church where he would have wed her, and resorting to summoning one of the Old Ones, ancient demons the people in these parts call 'the fair folk', inhuman, magic wielding beings who existed before the birth of mankind, both worshipped and feared by the ignorant and superstitious, before the grace of the Watcher enlightened them, to rescue her.

So, if not the power and influence that would come from being his wife, what did she want from him?

Reinier turns to Anselm, the knight who's been with his brother the night he was attacked. "You said the creature that struck you down had, pale, odd colored skin, pointed ears, and his face was marked with designs, " he says, rubbing his chin, "Was it the same creature as appeared here today?"

"No, my lord," Anselm answers, "This one was nothing like the other."

When he'd captured the wilder, a dragon came after him. The night the captive was rescued, his brother was assassinated by a wilder woman and one of these fair folk. 'You'll never kill another dragon' was what the wilder said to Deidericx as she sunk his knife into him. Reinier had sensed some connection between the wilders and the dragons, and now apparently the fair folk were involved as well. He remembers Sterren's reaction to his captive wilder, her demand that he free his prisoner. She followed him to Odet then, he had vainly thought in pursuit of his affections. But on the night she arrived, his prisoner was set free, and his brother murdered, mistaken for himself. He'd been in Sterren's bed that night, and cannot directly tie her to these events. But still, her association with the fair folk, her use of magic, her sympathy for the all points to the possibility that he'd been her dupe the entire time.

Sterren had barely gotten to her feet when her rescuer suddenly transported them both back to the Lady's sacred grove in Avendale, and as they arrived, she lost her balance and fell softly into the grass. He reaches a hand out to her, and once again, helps her to her feet.

Until very recently, Moth was the only example of the fair folk Sterren had seen. Meeting Ico had given her a new perspective on what their kind might be like. Whatever image she might have formed of them is shattered as she stands face to face with her savior. " are him, aren't you?" she gasps in reverent awe, glancing at the statue of the Lady beside them.

Auberon smiles slightly. He knows the mortals' stories, and the role he plays in them, so he does not have to ask Sterren who she means by 'him'. There is only one 'him' she could be referring to. "I am," he says, and then has to stop her from dropping to her knees before him, "That is not necessary, daughter," he says, "You are safe here?"

Sterren nods, trying to find words, anything to say to this prince of the fair folk, consort of the Lady herself.

"Then I will go," he says, "I have seen already by too many of your kind."

"May I---may I ask your name?" Sterren manages to get out before he disappears again.

"I am Auberon," he says, and then is gone.

She walks home, numb, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, just walking, to get to her house her bed. Once she's there, she breaks, curling around herself, alone her bed, crying.  The whole day and night is spent in sorrowful lament, crying as she thinks of his touch, the sweet words he'd whispered to her, all lies. In the morning, hough she'd eaten nothing since her last breakfast with Reinier, she retches up everything inside her, as though her body wishes to purge him from her.

She must go to her uncle, she thinks, steeling herself as she dresses, he'll want to know she's home. And she'll have to tell him...what? How much of this sorry tale does Marrec need to know? Her hard won composure breaks and Sterren falls to the floor, weak, crying. She will have to see her uncle, as Lord of Avendale, he'll need to be informed of the happenings in Odet, but she's not ready to face his disappointment in her. He wanted a marriage, an alliance with the Landgraab family, and she not only refused, but mat have made them enemies instead. In this state, crumbling into tears at just the thought of Reinier's smile, she cannot muster the strength to defend her actions. What she needs is someone she can confide in without judgment, a friend who had nothing invested in her possible union with Reinier. Sterren gets up, washes the tears from her face once again, and takes the road leading to Taran Madec's farm.

Taran listens to her tale, how she set out to rescue the dragon slayer's wilder prisoner, with the aid of the fair folk, ad all that happened in Odet. "And then, when he dragged me into the church of his Watcher, meaning to force me into marriage with him, I saw that I had never really known him at all. I thought I was in love with him, but I never knew what he was, never believed..."

"How could I have been so blind?" she sobs, falling into Taran's arms, "How could I fall in love with such a man?"

"It's in your nature to see the best in people," Taran whispers, holding her as she sobs into his chest, "When we last spoke of him, you had your doubts about him. Your were not blind to his faults, you just gave in to the hope that his better nature would overcome them. I am sorry, so sorry, that he hurt you, but I would not see you change, become bitter, or afraid to love. If he has damaged your spirit..." Taran cannot continue, because a peasant like himself poses no threat to a great lord, and he can do nothing with the anger that burns inside him, the desire to strike out against the man that had the love of a woman like Sterren and abused it.

Taran's sympathy and the warmth of his embrace, brings her more comfort than his words, and her tears for the moment abate. But even as she begins to find her strength again, another wave of nausea crashes over her. She groans as she turns away, clutching her roiling stomach.

"Sterren?" Taran calls to her gently.

She rushes out of his arms, out of his house, and heaves violently into the bushes. As a healer, she knows the ways of the body, and while there is a poetry in thinking hers is trying to rid itself of the poison of Reinier's false love,  she knows better than to believe it.

Taran follows her, concerned. He's no healer, but he's a father, and has seen these signs before, when his wife was pregnant. "Are you with child?" he asks in a whisper. It would be a terribly personal question, one he would never broach with any other woman.

Sterren breaks into sobs again as she falls onto a nearby bench. Taran is right, she's with child, there is no doubt. "What am I to do?" she cries, "He can't know, can't know this child is his."

"You'll need another man to claim paternity," Taran says.

Sterren thinks of Gaelle and how she's duped Treveur Brannon into believing she carries his child. "I would not be capable of such deceit," she murmurs, thinking out loud.

"I know the child is not mine, but I would be its father, Steren," Taran says, his voice quiet and grave.

"Oh," she gasps, realizing what he's offering to do for her, "I couldn't ask this of you, to raise another man's child."

"You aren't asking it of me, Sterren," Taran says, taking her hand, "I am offering you what help I can give you."

"You are truly the best friend I could have," Sterren says, managing a smile behind her tears, "But you cannot take this burden on yourself."

"What burden, Sterren? Your child needs a father, and my daughter needs a mother. My burden has been raising her on my own. I would not marry just any woman to take that role, but Elara adores you, and we have long been friends. You need me, and I am here for you."

"And do you think the people will believe I carry your child? I know my aunt put out the word that she expected a marriage between myself and Reinier. It may be that people will suspect the truth even if we did arrange a hasty marriage."

"Before the dragon slayer ever set foot in this village, there was gossip about you and me, Sterren. The widow Cariou actually demanded once that I make an honest woman of you."

Sterren giggles at the mental image of the old woman poking her bony finger at Taran. "Truly? Where do they get such ideas?"

"They see a man and a woman spending time together, and that's all they need to spread gossip. So, yes, a hasty marriage between us, followed quickly by the birth of a child, will be believed by the village without question. You being pregnant with my child could even be the reason the expected alliance with the Landgraab fell apart."

Sterren nods, seeing the wisdom in his plan. "Thank you, Taran," she sighs, glad of his friendship and the affection they share, "I am lucky to have you."