"I hope everything in the manor is to your satisfaction," Marrec says, "I've left the position unfilled for so long, I'm afraid the house may not be in the best condition." Avendale has always been an easy village to run, and its lord has had little trouble managing his peasants or his estate. When his last reeve passed on, Marrec had meant to nominate a replacement, but some years had passed with the estate manager's house left empty.
"It's nothing that can't be set right with a little labor, my lord," Taran answers, "You do me a great honor, naming me reeve. I was not expecting, that is, I'm not marrying your niece in expectation of..." he adds, nervously, uncomfortable with the sudden social elevation that comes with his bride.
"Sterren told me you would accept no dowry. You love my niece, and that's all that matters in the end," Marrec says with an understanding nod as Sterren nestles beneath Taran's arm. Since they made their betrothal public, the couple has made public show of their affection, nothing ostentatious or unseemly, just enough so that all the village was convinced that they had truly been lovers long enough that when her pregnancy becomes obvious, none would suspect any other man to be the father. "And, the other peasants respect you. They've gone without a reeve to manage the land for too long. I am pleased to have you in my service," the lord continues, "I just came to see that you were happily settled in the house. And to tell you that the Penguillies have asked their priestess to officiate at your wedding, since your friend in Odet may not be allowed to travel into what will be enemy territory to marry you."
"Thank you, uncle," Sterren says, taking Marrec's hand in gratitude before he leaves, "I wouldn't want Fransez to risk the anger of his Landgraab lord by traveling here when war is imminent."
"Or, more importantly, his lord's suspicions," Marrec adds, thinking about his own war preparations. "All travel between our villages will have to banned from now on, anyway."
"Elara seems to have taken to the chickens," Sterren comments after Marrec takes his leave, Taran had kept no livestock on his small strip of land, so the chicken coops that came with the manor were a wonder for his daughter.
"Mmm," Taran nods in reply, his mind clearly elsewhere.
"My uncle is right, you know, you are very well respected, and no one will resent your elevation to the reeve position," Sterren says, trying to allay the concerns she knows he still harbors.
"They may respect me, but they'll all believe I married you for position and wealth. And our betrothal is the true reason behind this elevation, no matter how your uncle puts it," Taran says.
"It is true that my uncle would prefer to have me living in a manor rather than a peasant's cottage, but he wouldn't have given you this title if he believed you unworthy of the responsibility. Everyone in the village knows you, Taran, and none will question my uncle's choice for his reeve. And anyone that knows you knows also that you are too honorable to ever marry except for love," Sterren says, her earnest speech ending with a blush as she realizes that her last statement was not entirely accurate. "I mean, of course, I know you do not love me, but your motives..." she stammers, trying to correct herself.
Taran's hand moves to her waist, drawing her in closer as he leans forward, meeting her lips to his in a gentle kiss.
Surprised by his own boldness, he pulls back again quickly, but Sterren does not let him go, caressing his cheek as her mouth follows his, refusing to be parted after such a brief meeting.
Her lips find his again, her arms wrap around his chest, gripping his back to keep him from pulling away again.
They do not speak a single word as they go up to his room, his bed, and make love. It is only after they've lain in silence, bodies wrapped around each other, that Taran finally speaks his mind, "I proposed marriage as your friend, to help you in your difficult situation. But if I am to be honest, I must admit that I did hope that it would become, in time, a true marriage of affection. Do you think that is possible, Sterren? Do you think you could love me?"
"Since we announced our betrothal, we've been putting on a show for the neighbors," Sterren answers, "But there are times that I'd forget our affection was pretense, because it felt real."
"I was never pretending," Taran admits, "But knowing you loved another, I would not impose myself on you."
"I loved a fantasy, an image of a man I never truly knew," Sterren whispers with a sigh, "But I know you, Taran. You are real, and this is real."
"I love you, Sterren," Taran whispers, "I wish I had spoken of my feelings to you before the Landgraab came."
Sterren caresses his hair as his lips move to her breast, and smiles. Before her affair with Reinier, she might not have been so disposed to falling in love with anyone, she thinks, and though it ended badly, she has some memories of their passionate romance that she would not willingly lose. "What matters is what we have now," she murmurs in response, "Let's have no regrets for what has come before."
"Is he everything you expected?' Ceyrth asks Kelyn with a teasing smile.
Kelyn frowns thoughtfully, taking his question more seriously than he'd meant. "I'm not sure what I was expecting, in truth," she answers. She had simply mentioned to Inira that she'd been thinking about the possibility of finally finding a mate and starting a nest and after that she could not have a conversation with her that didn't bring some mention of Morvyn and all his fine qualities. "I don't know him well enough yet to speak of such things."
"You don't have to come with me tonight," Ceyrth changes the subject away from a long discussion about the mating habits of his dragon friends. The alfar are not immortal like they are, yet even so, they are long lived enough to understand how time changes themselves and the world, and they generally do not engage in permanent relationships. Ceyrth himself has been in love more than once, and has had two mates in his lifetime who lived with him long enough to raise their children before moving on to new relationships. In her youth, Kelyn had seemed to be of the same mind as the alfar, and unwilling to take mates she would be paired with for an eternity, and Ceyrth understood that sentiment well enough; her sudden desire to conform to the standard dragon nest was a new thing, and while he would always support her choice, he would never understand it.
"Of course we're going with you," Kelyn says, "It's not safe for any one of us to go out into the human lands alone."
"Are you ready?" Morvyn asks, approaching the pair, "The villagers will all be long asleep by now."
The circle of stones on the ancient hilltop was constructed by mortal hands, but Ceyrth can feel some lingering magic vibrating here. It is an old place, long abandoned by the descendants of those that built it. Ico had told him only that that stones marked a tomb, and that the place was special to Auberon, and served as a portal to his realm, for those who possessed the knowledge to enter it.
Stand in the center of the circle, Ico had instructed him, face the tall stone with the writing carved on it, call Auberon's name, and ask for a door. He will be expecting your visit.
Ceyrth wasn't sure what sort of portal he expected, but when it appeared, it was obvious what it was. He hesitated for only a second before stepping into the glowing purple cloud he'd summoned.
When he stepped out of it again, Ceyrth was in a completely different place. And time, he realises, seeing the sun sinking into a distant horizon.
"I prefer the twilight hours," Auberon says, giving no introduction, "Dusk and dawn, night's beginning and day's end."
"Is this real, or a dream?" Ceyrth wonders aloud.
"Real or dream, it's all the same," Auberon answers, "Ico tells me you wished to ask me something?"
Just being here in this place that is not truly a place, a waking dream he entered with his body rather than with just his mind presents more questions than Ceyrth can form words for. "I wanted to learn of your history," he answers, falling back on the question that originally brought him here.
"My history," Auberon says, as though the word was spoken in an unfamiliar tongue, "Mortals have histories; I have only a story. I was, for a very long time, alone. Lying on the waters of time, I dreamt many dreams."
"And then I was awakened with a kiss. Summerdream, her name is Tania Summerdream, and she was the first to visit my realm. From her, I learned how to move as she does, through this world and yours, to exist here and there. And that is my story, young one."
Ceyrth waits patiently for the story to continue, but Auberon sits silently by him, finished. "It's a fascinating tale," Ceyrth finally says, "But I was hoping for the history of your kind. Where the fae come from, who created you."
Auberon remains silent for several minutes. "Who created me?" he asks, and thinks, as far back as his mind can go, "No, I don't believe I was created. I simply was, as I am, always."
"Ico told me she was born from the waters," Ceyrth continues, "That she has no parents."
"I remember that day," Auberon says with a nod, "I was watching the light play on the water, enjoying its beauty. And she was there, lovely Ico, lady of the waters."
"So, it was your thought that created Ico," Ceyrth surmises, a new story taking form in his mind.
Auberon doesn't answer, lost for a moment in the vastness of his memories. While he remains silent, Ceyrth tells him the story of the alfar, who were born from the creative desire of a spirit like Auberon himself.
"I feel that I have heard this story before," Auberon says, turning his glance to Ceyrth, "Or perhaps it is something I dreamed...?"
After Ceyrth disappeared in the portal, there was nothing for Morvyn and Kelyn to do but sit and wait for his return.
"You don't find it strange that this fairy would chose a human place to meet Ceyrth?" Kelyn asks.
"When I was coming of age, the humans would bury their dead in in a cave beneath this circle," Morvyn tell her, "One of those who lies buried here was Auberon's lover once. That was before my time, but I am friends with their daughter, a fae like her father." Thinking if Evenfall brings a heaviness; he has not seen her since Talfryn's death, and he knows how much she must be suffering.
"Lovers? With a mortal?" Kelyn asks, barely able to contain her disgust.
"They are not all dragonslayers," Morvyn says gently. Kelyn does not know of his own human lovers, Morvyn has kept them all secret from everyone save his closest friends, Talfryn and Ametair, until his recent confession to Aymeri. "We've had no real trouble from the humans here, until your dragonslayer came. What happened there, to create such enmity that the humans in the north hunt us?"
"I only know that men have hunted dragons since before I was born," Kelyn answers, "If there is a cause for their enmity toward us, no one has ever told it to me."
"We aren't so very different from them," Morvyn says, stretching to lie on the grass beneath the stones, "It's unfortunate that we should have so much mistrust for them. And them for us."
"How can you say that, when they killed your friend and took you captive?"
"That was one man, and his followers," Morvyn says, "They were strangers to this place. I suppose if I'd grown up as you did, hunted by them since birth, I'd feel differently. But I cannot hate these people for what foreigners to this place have done." He cannot even hate Gaelle for her betrayal, he thinks, for she never knew what he truly was, or what the dragonslayer wanted from him. He would like to know her reasons, but he will never be able to ask her.
"You are an elder," Kelyn says, changing the subject suddenly, pausing in the middle of her statement as though to carefully choose her next words.
"No one has ever called me an elder," Morvyn says with a laugh, not waiting for her to continue, "How old are you?"
"Only a few centuries," Kelyn answers.
"I suppose I am an elder then, compared to you. But here, I am the youngest of the nest, and the my elders are far far older than I am," Morvyn answers.
Whatever Kelyn had meant to ask him is interrupted when Ceyrth reappears jut minutes after he disappeared.
"He is a witch!" Father Loyset says, pointing his finger at Fransez in accusation.
"I am a servant of the Lady," Fransez defends himself nervously.
"Your kind are all witches!" the priest insists, "Summoners of demons, practicers of the black arts!"
"What do you know about my brother's assassination?" Reinier demands, "Are you in league with the wilders? With the old ones?"
"No, my lord," Fransez sputters, the questions coming fast and hard at him, like blows knocking him backward.
"Look, my lord," Jakob says, moving toward Fransez's implements, "These are the tools of wickedness, and the proof of his perfidy."
"They are simple curatives," Fransez explains, his voice shaking in fear.
"Lies and trickery! The people turn to this man and his false goddess when they are in need, rater than seeking solace in the Watcher."
"My brother was lenient with his people, allowing you to carry on with your beliefs. And he was murdered by a wilder in the company of an old one, a demon much like the one summoned by Sterren of Avendale, defiling the Church of the Watcher with her foul magic," Reinier says.
At the mention of Sterren's name, Fransez sighs and closes his eyes. "She did not summon a demon, my lord," he says, voice quavering, "She does not have that power, none of us do. The old ones do as they please."
"You would deny what I saw with my own eyes, witch?" Reinier demands, "Understand this, I will not sit by and allow you to continue your false worship, while conspiring with demons against me. Take him to the Tower," he ends with a command to his men.
Reinier's soldiers close in around the old man, defenseless against them.
"As my lord commands."
Jean watches through the window as the soldiers take his grandfather away, take all his things, his wonderful books and mysterious potions, leaving nothing behind.
His grandfather was a kind man, gentle and good. Even when Jean misbehaved, his grandfather's reprimands were delivered with kindness. Jean cannot imagine why the soldiers would take him away, and he wishes he could do something to stop them.
He's only a child, he has no weapons, no magic, that can save his grandfather. On impulse, he kneels before the small pond in his grandfather's yard, where he once saw the most beautiful creature, one of the fairies he's read about in his grandfather' story books. Desperate, with nowhere else to turn, Jean sinks his hands into the water and calls to its lady, begging for her intercession.
Aymeri and Ico make love in the water, as they did on the day they met, joining together in the element they share.
Ico stands suddenly with a gasp.
"What is it, my love?" Aymeri asks, holding her face in his hand.
"Someone calls to me, through the water," she says, her brow knitting in confusion. "A mortal child."
"How? They don't know you."
Ico shakes her head, "Only once has one of their kind called to me like this. That was Uvie, who knew me," she says, remembering, "Auberon has told me that the humans call to Uvie still, and that hears and answers their prayers. I must speak with him about this."