The messenger came early in the morning after Treveur and Gaelle's wedding, asking Sterren to come and tend to the new bride, who was feeling ill.
"It's like a fire in my womb," Gaelle tells her with clenched teeth, "I'm burning up from the inside."
Sterren is feeling a little of that herself this morning, truth be told. "It could be those sausages you served at your wedding feast," she suggests, clasping her own stomach as it roils in protest at the memory, "They were quite...spicy."
"Gaelle barely ate a bite at the feast," Treveur explains, "I'm certain she didn't touch the sausage."
"This isn't just heartburn," Gaelle growls, her torso lifting as she rises in pain, "And it's not the damn sausages! I want this thing taken out of me!"
"Beloved!" Treveur hisses in a distraught whisper, "You are speaking of our child!"
Sterren looks down at her patient, undecided if Gaelle is just exaggerating the natural discomforts of her pregnancy, or if there is something truly amiss. The burden of carrying such a lie as Gaelle carries, of sharing a bed with a man she deceived would eat at Sterren, even to the point of causing such symptoms. But Gaelle is a very different sort of woman, and her guilt may have nothing to do with this.
"I can give you a draught to cool the burning," she says, hesitantly. Gaelle insists it isn't heartburn, but she's at a loss to prescribe any other remedies, "And I have a tisane for nausea. But you've already been taking that...Perhaps a sleeping potion? Sleep might give you some relief while I research your condition further."
Gaelle takes both the draught and the sleeping potion, and Sterren gives Treveur more of the tisane for her if she wants it when she wakes, though Gaelle insists the pain is like a fire inside her, and not just the same nausea she'd felt earlier in her pregnancy.
"Could our encounter with the wolves have caused this?" Treveur asks in quiet voice once Gaelle has drifted off into a medicated sleep.
Sterren bites her lip, hating the lie she and Gaelle concocted to deceive this man, "I--I can't say," she mumbles in a faltering voice. "There is a priestess and healer coming from the Penguillies, to officiate my own wedding. I expect her tomorrow and I will consult with her about Gaelle. Perhaps she might see something that I am missing."
The only theory she has at the moment is one she cannot voice to Treveur. The child's true father is a wilder, and if the savages in the woods are just humans as her people have always believed, it should not be a problem. But what if Reinier was onto something in this suspicion that the wilders might be more than they appear? Living as they do in the enchanted forest among the fair folk, the wolfen and even dragons...even if they are just men, they might carry some magic, have some difference about them that would make a crossbreeding difficult for the woman who bears the child.
"My spies tell me that the Penguillies are gathering allies to move against us," Reinier tells his father and his prospective father-in-law, "We're in their territory here, and most of our allies and their armies, like yourself, Lord Goth, live at a distance, while their friends and allies surround us. I think it would be best for us to make some preemptive strikes on those who have joined forces with them, sending a clear message to those who have not yet committed their aid that the Landgraabs will show no mercy to any who stand against us."
Reinbolt Goth nods his approval, "That's a good plan. Have you chosen a target for the first strike?"
"What about Marrec Avendale?" Gherrart suggests, "He was first to ally openly with the Penguilly cause. Making him the first to fall would make your message quite clear to the others."
"I want more than just a symbolic victory," Reiner says, "Avendale is small and unimportant in the larger scheme. Summer is ending and winter will be on us before this war is done. If we start taking the ports, we can cut off the Penguilly's supply chain, so that their allies starve while ours feast." It's purely strategy that is sparing Avendale from the first wave of this war, Reinier tells himself. He would not be so sentimental as to turn his army away because of the feelings he had for one girl.
"Good thinking," Gherrart says, his approval for his younger son clear and unmistakable, though he's not the kind of man to lay such praise on his children. "Port-de-Lanne, Geaune and Cadillac have all declared for Penguilly, and all have thriving ports." Gherrart may not be native to this area, but he makes a point of learning the strengths and weaknesses of any lands he visits, because war is always a possibility.
"Before you march off to battle, I'd like to see my daughter wed," Reinbolt interjects. "The union of our families is the center of our alliance."
"And you want to be sure of my heir before I risk my neck in battle," Reinier expresses what the Lord Goth would not say out out loud, "I have no intention of dying in this war. I'll return safely to marry Agneta."
"None who die in battle rode into it with that intention," Reinbolt answers, "I have every expectation of your victory, Reinier. But I would not risk my daughter's future on my expectations alone. Surely you can have no objection to this? Or were you planning on breaking our alliance after the war is won?"
Gherrart glares at his son, silently demanding the expected reply.
"Of course I have no objections. I'd marry your daughter here and now if it pleases you. I was only considering her feelings. Her wedding would be overshadowed by battle plans if we held it now. If we waited, she'd have her wedding during a time of celebration and victory," Reinier says, still putting off the inevitable, though it's well past time that he can ever hope to have any other bride than the one his father procured for him.
Gherrart snorts derisively, "Honestly, Reinier, sometimes I'd swear you were the girl your mother always wanted and not one of my sons," he says, ever ready to reprimand his children even as he withholds his praise. "This is war; we don't have the time or luxury for romantic notions and maidenish nonsense."
"As you will," Reinier nods, accepting what he can no longer deny or delay.
With the meeting done, Reinier strolls through the marketplace with his betrothed as the sun begins to set.
"I am sorry that our fathers want to rush our wedding. You won't have much time to plan the festivities," Reinier apologizes.
"Celebration and festivities don't mean as much to me as seeing my new husband off to battle with the affection of his bride, and the assurance of his heir," Agneta answers, her voice giving no indication if she speaks truly or just mouths what she is expected to say. Reinier's own mother was a master at this, and his father never cared either way what his wife's real thoughts were on any subject. Sterren, Reinier knows, would never hold back her true feelings.
"My lord?" Agneta's voice trembles hesitantly as she stops, and her fingers play with the jewels at her neck nervously.
"You wish to say something?" Reinier asks, "Never be afraid to speak honestly with me."
Agneta smiles, gaining confidence, "I hear things, whispers and talk from the servants in the keep," she tells him, "That witch you hold in the tower...he is beloved to many here, and his imprisonment has become a rallying cry for those who would resist the gaze of the Watcher. I fear that when you are gone away to battle, those that are left behind may rise up to free him."
Reinier nods solemnly, "Yes, I've been worrying about that myself. Father Jakob has pressed him, hard, but the man refuses to recant. Something will have to be done. The law is clear; witches are an abomination and must be burned."
Agneta lets out a small gasp, and Reinier takes her hands in a gesture of comfort. "We have offered the man mercy if he will confess and recant. I would not leave him to endanger you while I'm at war."
"I know, my lord," Agneta whispers, sighing in resignation, "The Watcher is merciful to those who ask His mercy. But to those who turn away from him...This witch is too powerful a symbol to be allowed to persist in his defiance unchecked. He becomes a beacon of hope for those who would resist us. If he will not recant, he must be burned, in accordance with the law, and as a message to his followers."
"There aren't many of these ancient places left to us anymore," Cecilia muses as Sterren shows her the old grove behind the house, "It's lovely place for your wedding. But it is rather small..."
"I'm not planning on a lot of festivities," Sterren tells her, "The Brannons just had their wedding and the village is still recuperating from that feast. Taran and I would prefer to just have a small ceremony; he only has his daughter for family, and mine...well, my uncle will attend, but a peasant wedding is too far beneath my aunt."
The priestess presses her lips together in a tight smile, "Sometimes it's easiest to just forgo the pleasures of family and devote yourself to the Lady," she muses.
"Speaking of the newlyweds," Sterren broaches the subject of Gaelle's illness, "Gaelle Brannon's pregnancy has been more difficult than normal." Treveur had sent her a message just this morning saying that Gaelle's condition was no better, and that she complained constantly of feeling like a fire burned in her womb. She describes her condition to her fellow healer. "She has no fever at all, and her husband says she's barely eating more than plain bread and cheese," she concludes, "I've given her cooling draughts, but if they work at all, it's only for a few hours."
"I've never heard f such a thing," Cecilia tells her.
With a sigh of regret, Sterren reveals to her Gaelle's secret. "I thought perhaps, if the wilders are more than just men, if they are of the fair folk, or some other enchanted creature, that might explain the unusual nature of Gaelle's pregnancy."
"I suppose that could be true. You have spoken with this wilder?"
"I have...but not about his child," Sterren says, "I promised Gaelle not to speak of it. And, I don't know how he would react to knowing she carried his child, what demands he might make. If the village knew, if her husband knew...I fear for the child's future."
"Yes, it is a complicated situation," Cecilia agrees, "I will pay the girl a visit and see if there's any help I might offer. Otherwise, if you won't bring the true father into it, you may just have to wait and see how the pregnancy progresses."
"I've been hearing things from Odet," Cecilia changes the subject, "You know the Landgraabs have locked Fransez away?"
Sterren nods, "I wish there was something I could do for hm. Besides just praying."
"Indeed. But we have no army do we? The Penguillies and your uncle mean to face the Landgraabs in battle, but rescuing one priest is not their priority. Lady Galena has even given up hope of retrieving her niece, Edelina, the one Reinier sent off to their convent. Even if we prevail in battle her, invading the Landgraab territory up north would be far more than Lady Galena could expect from her allies."
"Politics is an ugly business," Sterren muses, "No one seems to care about justice."
"The situation in Odet is worse than just Fransez being imprisoned," Cecilia continues, "They've outlawed any worship of the Lady, and labeled us all witches, abominations who must be burned. There are some who still meet in secret, putting faith above their lives. I've tried getting word to them, but the Landgraabs are on the lookout for spies, and getting anyone in is too perilous."
"It's scheduled for tomorrow," Gillis tells his wife, not have to say what 'it' is. The execution of her father has been rumored for weeks, and now that their Lord is preparing to set out for battle, that rumor has become reality. Fransez has refused to recant and accept the new religion, and he's been accused of witchcraft. "I will have to be there," Gillis continues sadly as Melisenet stands quiet in his arms, "They can't have any question about my loyalty, not now with war coming." The Landgraabs have their own blacksmiths, but with tons of this strange blue metal being brought in from their homelands and their orders to have every sword and dagger, every shield and piece of armor, even every horse shod in the stuff, their smiths are not enough for the work. Every smith in or near Odet has been tasked with working the new metal in the service of their lord, Gillis among them. "But you should stay home," the smith finishes, "You should not witness your father's death."
"No, I must go with you," Melisenet sobs, falling into his arms, "I should be with my father in his last moments, even if I cannot speak with him or embrace him."
His parents' words are muffled, Jean can barely hear what they're saying, hiding behind the door. It's been tis way since the guards took his grandfather away, his mother crying, his father trying to comfort her. And the same guards coming here, bringing his father more metal, giving him more work.
The clearing is small and well lit, with a spring of fresh, exactly the kind of spot dragons traditionally have chosen to make their nests in.
"What do you think?" Morvyn asks, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and kissing her cheek.
"We could pitch a tent and set our own fire, just like the ancient dragons," Kelyn laughs, "I'm surprised you'd be so traditional. Even Inira and Fearghus built their house right by Aymeri's."
"I grew up in a tent," Morvyn whispers in her ear, "And I am one of those ancient dragons. This land is still in Aymeri's range, and we'd always have a place in his house. But I thought we should have a nest of our own, and the privacy being at some distance from the others affords."
They share a moment of laughter, and then grow serious as they move to the ground, embraced. "And we are to have a nest? You will be my mate?" she whispers as her lips meet his.
"I will," Morvyn answers, working his hands around her back, pulling off her clothes as she pulls off his.
"The mark on your hip..." Morvyn notices, seeing her unclothed for the first time.
"It's an alfar design, " Kelyn explains, "Ceyrth gave that one to me. They mark themselves with ink and needles. It's slightly less painful than how we make our dragon markings."
Morvyn would ask her more about this alfar custom and the meaning of the bird symbol Ceyrth gave her, but Kelyn silences him with a kiss, wrapping her legs around his waist. Questions can be asked later, he thinks, supporting her by the small of her back, holding her as she takes him inside her.
Kelyn is shy and reticent when it come to talking about the act of love, but Morvyn quickly learns her shyness only extends to talk. She moans his name as she rocks her hips against him, calling for him to take her and make her his.
Human girls have said similar things to him, but they never meant it the way Kelyn does. They have both played outside the normal rules, but their union is pure and traditional, a bonding between dragons that doesn't break. She is his mate, and he is her First, and love is no longer a game to be played at.
"You already wear a mark on your arm," Kelyn notes, stopping short of sealing their own bond with her mark of ownership on him, which would be the traditional conclusion of a dragon pair's first mating.
"I've never been claimed by any female," Morvyn says, "I marked myself. Despite the changes to our ways, going around with an unmarked arm made me feel like a juvenile. It was the same with Talfryn, he'd marked himself in the same way."
"And now?" Kelyn asks, laying a playful kiss on his lips.
"I am yours, Kelyn," Morvyn says, "I want you to mark me. Claim me for all the world to see."
Kelyn smiles, and kisses him again. "Underneath it all, you really are just an old dragon, set in your ways and stuck in ancient traditions," she whispers, making him laugh. "I've worn my own marks for centuries. Maybe it's time we both changed things up a little, and marked each other."
"I don't understand," Morvyn says. Females choose their marks when they come of age, and then mark each male she takes as a mate to match her, a sign of claim warning other females away. The idea of a male marking a female seems almost absurd.
"Open your eyes, old dragon," Kelyn whispers, ticking him with feathery kisses, "Open your mind. It shouldn't be so hard to understand. You marked yourself, as did I. Together, we can make a new design, and each mark the other with it. Not my claim on you, or your claim on me, but a sign of our bond."
"That would suit us," Morvyn says, once he gets his mind around the idea. "Ancient as I am, I'm not quite as stuck in the traditional mindset as you think."
Creating a new pattern for their shared markings would take more thought than either is prepared for, so they fall asleep together as lovers rather than as mates in the traditional sense, but neither of them require the bonding ritual to know that what has passed between them this night is anything less than a true mating.
Morvyn wakes in the early hours of the mornng to the sound of his own name, but it isn't Kelyn who's calling to him.
"Evie?" he murmurs, opening his eyes and lifting his head. He hasn't seen her since Talfryn was killed. "Evenfall, I'm sorry for..." he begins a heartfelt but awkward condolence, on to drift off into silence as he notices her belly, round and, well, pregnant. "Are you...you're with child," he whispers, as Kelyn stirs beside him, waking to the sound of their one-sided conversation. If Talfryn had known, would he have still flown off so rashly to chase after the dragonslayer? Morvyn sighs to himself, knowing the answer would most likely have been 'yes'. Talfryn was over-confident and could never be talked out of any bad idea.
Evenfall sits before the couple, letting out one piteous sob. "It hurts," she whispers, "It hurts so much, I don't know what to do."
"Of course it does," Morvyn sympathizes, "You and Aymeri both have--"
"No," Evenfall cuts him off, "That's not what I mean. The child, Morvyn, Talfryn's child--she burns for vengeance. Her spirit claws inside me, demanding the blood of the man who killed her father. I sing to her to try to soothe her, but she is so angry, nothing but vengeance will calm her."
Morvyn lays a hand on her shoulder, hoping his gift as a healer might make sense of her words. But Evenfall is a fairy, and her body doesn't respond to his magic. "We can get vengeance, for you and for your child," is all he can promise. The dragonslayer is past due for his rightful punishment, for Talfryn and all their brethren.
"Vengeance is done," Kelyn says, confused by Morvyn promise, "I killed the dragonslayer myself."
"You killed the wrong man," Morvyn tells her, "You killed his brother. Reinier Landgraab still lives."
The marketplace is as busy as ever, but today it is not commerce that brings the people out to gather in the tow's center. Today they've come to witness the execution by fire of a man they've all known, trusted and loved, by the order of their lord and the priest they've been told to follow.
"This man is a witch!" Father Jakob proclaims, preaching to the gathered crowd, who murmur in disbelief but do not dare protest the judgment of the Landgraabs, "He has practiced foul arts in the nam of a false goddess, and has deceived you all."
Gillis holds his wife close, supporting her so she doesn't fall to her knees in her grief.
"I can't look at him, tied to the stake like that," she moans, and her husband presses her even closser to his chest. She had insisted that she needed to be here for her father, but now that she's here, she cannot bear the sight of him, of what they've done to him.
"Don't look, then" he husband advises in a sad whisper, "I will hold you, and I will bear witness for you."
"The law of the Watcher is clear; witches may not be allowed to live. Their magic endangers us all," Reinier proclaims. Except wen it heals, he thinks, remembering Sterren's hands, bandaging him, "Fransez le Bihan," he calls to the trussed captive, "You have only to recant your beliefs, give up your witchery and swear allegiance to the Watcher, and you may live. What say you?"
Take what I'm offering you, old man, Reinier thinks, trying to will the old priest to do his bidding. One way or another, this man and his religion must be dealt with, Reinier would much prefer to be able to show mercy today, and bring this whole town into the Watcher's fold, and thus under his own sway with one public conversion, but if the old man refuses that mercy, there will only one choice left. Letting the witch live despite the laws would be a weakness that would be exploited again and again, and Reinier Landgraab is not about to appear weak before his people.
Fransez keeps his silence as he has throughout his imprisonment. He doesn't look up, knowing his daughter watches in the crowd below. To look at her now might destroy his will, lead him to say whatever they ask just live, for her sake. For his grandson. The old priest moans as he thinks of his grandson, how much this death will affect him. Will he despise his grandfather as a witch, or will he look up to him for keeping his faith? Or will he just be saddened and broke by the cruelty of men?
For Jean, he thinks, and begins to move his lips. His voice is gone, a croaking rattle that no one hears above the din of the crowd. It's too late, now, he realizes, too late to say the words.
Gasps of horror mingle with the murmurs of approval that come from the most faithful of Father Jakob's flock, those higher up in society and most eager to please their lord, as the priest sets the fire alight beneath the condemned.
Gillis shields his wife from the sight of the flames with his own body, holding her as she sobs helplessly into his chest.
His parents had told Jean to stay inside today, and not come outside for any reason. Which was all the reason the boy needed to sneak out to the marketplace. He'd been hearing whispers, snippets of sentences, enough to tell him that something was happening to his grandfather today, but not enough to understand what.
For as long as he can remember, he'd been taught to pray to the Lady, to look to her for comfort, safety and help. Recently, his parents had been teaching him to pray to the Watcher instead. Faced now with the terror of seeing his grandfather put to the torch, Jean cannot choose between Lady nd Watcher, and simply prays for help to anyone or anything that will listen.
It had been a clear and cloudless morning, but the skie open with a sudden crash of thunder, pouring a heavy rain down on the square.
"Impossible!" Father Jakob shouts as the fire turns to steam.
"We are truly blessed, to witness such mercy from the Watcher!" Agneta proclaims, her voice lilting with happiness. Reinier wonders how anyone could be so naive and innocent as to believe this sudden rain a true miracle.
Then she turns to him, her eyes shining as she gives him a knowing smile, "Isn't it wonderful, my lord?" she asks, her voiced pitched low so only he can hear her, "That the Watcher could show even a sinner such as this man His mercy, and spare his life?"
She's a clever one, Reinier thinks, understanding her meaning, and the opportunity she's offering.
"We are witness to a miracle today," Reinier declares, standing to make a speech, his voice rising above the crowd, stilling the shouts and chatterings below.
"The witch has sinned against the Watcher, but even he is not beyond His divine mercy. None of us, no matter how great our transgressions, is too low, too depraved or too far gone for the Wacher to notice, and aid." Of all the role Reinier has take in his life, warrior, son, brother, lord, lover, and dragonslayer, the one he'd never imagined was taking that of the preacher. But he finds it coms naturally to him, as the crowd turn their attention to him, hanging onto his words, being fed on his lies and begging for more. This is power, he realizes, not to compel with his sword, but to convince with his words.
"My Lord!" Father Jakob protests, "Who are we to question the laws of the Watcher? This man is a witch, and he must burn."
"It is not I who questions the will of the Watcher," Reinier answers, feeling the approval of the crowd, "We condemned this man, and the Watcher demanded we spare him. I would not be such a fool as to test His will any further." Shouts of joy ring out from the crowd; they are his now, and Reinier will make use of their loyalty.
Melisenet collapses in her husband's arms, the relief almost too much to bear.