A winterwill cried out twice.
There was nothing untoward about that, the winterwill—a smallish, gray-gold lark—was one of the few birds that did not migrate south in the winter.
Aralorn didn't shift her gaze from the snow-laden trail before her, but she watched her mount's ears flicker as he broke through a drift of snow.
Winterwills were both common and loud . . . but it had called out just at the moment when she took the left-hand fork in the path she followed. The snow thinned for a bit, so she nudged Sheen off the trail on the uphill side. Sure enough, a winterwill called out three times and twice more when she returned to the trail again. Sheen snorted and shook his head, jangling his bit.
“Plague it,” muttered Aralorn.
The path broke through the trees and leveled a bit as the trees cleared away on either side. She shifted her weight, and her horses stopped. On a lead line, the roan, her secondary mount, stood docilely, but Sheen threw up his head and pitched his ears forward.
“Good lords of the forest,” called Aralorn,. “I have urgent business to attend. I beg leave to pay toll that I might pass unmolested through here.”
She could almost feel the chagrin that descended upon the brigands still under the cover of the trees around her. At long last, a man stepped out. His clothing was neatly patched, and Aralorn was reminded in some indefinable way of the carefully mended cottage where she'd purchased her cheese not a half-hour ride from here. The hood of his undyed cloak was pulled up, and his face was further disguised by a winter scarf wound about his chin and nose.
“You don't have the appearance of a Trader,” commented the man gruffly. “How is it you presume to take advantage of their pact with us.”
Before she'd seen the man, she'd had a story ready. Aralorn always had a story ready. But the man's appearance changed her plans.
Though his clothes were worn, his boots were good-quality royal issue, and there was confidence in the manner he rested his hand on his short sword. He'd been an army man at sometime. If he'd been in the Rethian army, he'd know her father. Truth would have a better chance with him than any falsehood.
“I have several close friends among the Traders,” she said. “But as you say, there is no treaty between you and me; you have no reason to grant me passage.”
“The treaty's existence is a closely guarded secret,” he said. “One that many would kill to protect.”
She smiled at him gently, ignoring his threat. “I've passed for trader before, and I could have this time as well. But when I saw you for an army man, I thought the truth would work as well — I only lie when I have to.”
She surprised a laugh out of him, though his hand didn't move from his sword hilt. “All right then, Mistress, tell me this truth of yours.”
“I am Aralorn, mercenary of Sianim. My father is dead,” she said. Her voice wobbled unexpectedly — disconcerting her momentarily. She wasn't used to its doing anything she hadn't intended. “The Lyon of Lambshold. If you delay me more than a few hours, I will miss his funeral.”
“I haven't heard any such news. I know the Lyon,” stated the bandit with suspicion. “You don't look like him.”
Aralorn rolled her eyes. “I know that. I am his eldest daughter by a peasant woman.” At the growing tension in her voice, Sheen began fretting.
His attention drawn to the horse, the bandit leader stiffened and drew in his breath, holding up a hand to silence her. He walked slowly around him, then nodded abruptly. “I believe you. Your stallion could be the double of the one cut down under the Lyon at the battle of Valner Pass.”
“His sire died at Valner Pass,” agreed Aralorn, “fourteen years ago.”
The bandit produced a faded bit of green ribbon and caught Sheen's bit, tying the thin cloth to the shank of the curb. “This will get you past my men. Don't remove it until you come to the Wayfarer's Inn — do you know it?”
Aralorn nodded, started to turn her horses, then stopped. “Tell your wife she makes excellent cheese &dmash; and take my advice: Don't don't let her patch your thieving clothes with the same cloth as her apron. I might not be the only one to notice it.”
Startled, the bandit looked at the yellow-and-green weave that covered his right knee.
Softly, Aralorn continued, “It is a hard thing for a woman alone to raise children to adulthood.”
She could tell that he was reconsidering his decision not to kill her, something he wouldn't have done if she'd kept her mouth closed; but she could clearly remember the walnut brown eyes of the toddler who held on to his mother's brightly colored apron. He wouldn't fare well in the world without a father to protect him from harm, and Aralorn had a weakness for children.
“You are a smart man, sir,” she said. “If I had wanted to have you caught, it would have made more sense for me to go to Lord Larmouth, whose province this is, and tell him what I saw — than for me to warn you.”
Slowly, his hand moved away from the small sword, but Aralorn could hear a nearby creaking that told her that someone held a nocked bow. “I will tell her.”
She nudged Sheen with her knees and left the bandit behind.
She crossed the first mountain pass late that night,; and the second and last pass before Lambshold the following afternoon.
The snow was heavier as she traveled northward. Aralorn switched horses often, but Sheen still took the brunt of the work since he was better suited for breaking through the crusted, knee-deep drifts. Gradually, as new light dawned over the edge of the pass, the mountain trail began to move downward, and the snow lessened. Aralorn swayed wearily in the saddle. It was less than two hours' ride to Lambshold, but she and the horses were going to need rest before then.
The road passed by another small village with an inn. Aralorn dismounted and led her exhausted horses to the stableyard.
If the hostler was surprised at the arrival of a guest in the morning, he gave no sign of it. Nor did he argue when Aralorn gave him the lead to the roan and began the task of grooming Sheen on her own. The warhorse was not so fierce that a stableboy could not have groomed him, but it was her habit to perform the task herself when she was troubled. Before she stored her tack, she untied the scrap of ribbon from Sheen's bit. She left the horses dozing comfortably and entered the inn through the stable door.
The innkeeper, whom she found in the kitchen, was a different man than the one she remembered, but the room he led her to was familiar and clean. She closed the door behind him, stripped off her boots and breeches, then climbed between the sweet-smelling sheets. Too tired, too numb, to dread sleeping as she'd learned to do in the last few weeks, she let oblivion take her.
The dream, when it came, started gently. Aralorn found herself wandering through a corridor in the ae'Magi's castle. It looked much the same as the last time she had seen it, the night the ae'Magi died.
The forbidding stairway loomed out of the darkness. Aralorn set her hand to the wall and took the downward steps, though it was so dark that she could barely see where to put her feet. Dread coated the back of her throat like sour honey, and she knew that something terrible awaited her. She took another step down and found herself unexpectedly in a small stone room that smelled of offal and ammonia.
A woman lay on a wooden table, her face frozen in death. Despite the pallor that clung to her skin and the fine lines of suffering, she was beautiful; her fiery hair seemed out of place in the presence of death. Arcanely etched iron manacles, thicker than the pale wrists they enclosed, had left scars testifying to the years they'd remained in place.
At the foot of the table stood a raven-haired boy regarding the dead woman. He paid no attention to Aralorn or anything else. His face still had that unformed look of childhood. His yellow eyes were oddly remote as he looked at the body, ancient eyes that revealed his identity to Aralorn.
Wolf, thought Aralorn, this was her Wolf as a child.
“She was my mother?” the boy who would be Wolf said at last.
His voice was unexpected, soft rather than the hoarse rasp that she associated with Wolf.
Aralorn looked for the owner of the second voice, but she couldn't see him. Only his words echoed in her ears, without inflection or tone. It could have been anyone who spoke. “I thought you might like to see her before I disposed of her.”
The boy shrugged. “I cannot imagine why you thought that. May I return to my studies now, Father?”
The vision faded, and Aralorn found herself taking another step down.
“Even as a child he was cold. Impersonal. Unnatural. Evil,” whispered something out of the darkness of the stairwell.
Aralorn shook her head, denying the words. She knew better than anyone the emotions Wolf could conceal equally well behind a blank face or the silver mask he usually wore. If anything, he was more emotional than most people. She opened her mouth to argue when a scream distracted her. She stepped down, toward the sound.
She was naked and cold, her breath rose above her in a puff of mist. She tried to move to conserve her warmth, but iron chains bound her where she was. Cool metal touched her throat, and Wolf pressed the blade down until her flesh parted.
He smiled sweetly as the knife cut slowly deeper. “Hush now, this won't hurt.”
She screamed, and his smile widened incongruously, catching her attention.
It wasn't Wolf's smile. She knew his smile: It was as rare as green diamonds, not practiced as this was. Fiercely, she denied what she saw.
Under her hot stare, her tormentor's yellow eyes darkened to blue. When he spoke a second time, it was in the ae'Magi's dulcet tones. “Come, my son, it is time for you to learn more.”
Something shifted painfully in Aralorn's head with rude suddenness and jerked her from the table to somewhere behind the ae'Magi, whose knife pressed against the neck of a pale woman who was too frightened even to moan.
Truth, thought Aralorn, feeling the rightness in this dream.
The boy stood apart from his father, no longer so young as her earlier vision of him. Already, his face had begun to show signs of matching the Archmage's archmage's feature for feature‐except for his eyes.
“Come,” repeated the ae'Magi. “The death you deal her will be much easier than the one I will give her. It will also be easier for you, Cain, if you do as I ask.”
“No.” The boy who had been Cain before he was her Wolf spoke softly, without defiance or deference.
The ae'Magi smiled and walked to his son, caressing his face with the hand that still held the bloody knife. Some part of Aralorn tensed as she saw the Archmage's caressing hand. Bits and pieces of things Wolf had told her coalesced with the sexuality of the ae'Magi's gesture.
“As you will,” said the sorcerer softly. “I, at least, will enjoy it more.”
Rage suffused her with hatred of a man she knew to be dead. She stepped forward, as if she could alter events long past, and the scene changed again.
The boy stood on the tower parapet, a violent storm raged overhead. He was older now, with a man's height, though his shoulders were still narrow with youth. Cold rain poured down, and Wolf shivered.
“It's power, Cain. Don't you want it?”
Slowly, the boy lifted his arms to embrace the storm.
But that taint of wrongness had returned, and Aralorn called upon her magic, girded in the truth of natural order, to pull it right. She had no more magic than the average hedgewitch, but it seemed to be enough for the job. Once more, the scene shifted subtly, as if a farseeing glass were twisted into focus.
“It's power, Cain. Don't you want it?”
“It comes too fast, Father. I can't control it.” Wolf spoke the words without the inflection that would have added urgency to them.
“I will control the magic.” When Wolf appeared unmoved, the ae'Magi's voice softened to an ugly whisper. “I can assure you, you won't like the alternative.”
Even in the storm-darkened night, Aralorn could see Wolf's face blanch, , though his expression never altered. “Very well, then.” There was something quiet and purposeful in his voice that Aralorn wondered at. Something that only someone who knew him well would have heard.
Wolf bent his head, and Aralorn was aware of the currents of magic he drew. The Archmage closed his hands on his son's shoulders; Wolf flinched slightly at the touch, then resumed passing his power on to his father. Lightning flashed, and the magic he held doubled, then trebled in an instant. Slowly, Wolf lifted his arms, and lightning flashed a second time, hitting him squarely in the chest.
He called it to him on purpose, thought Aralorn, stunned. If he had been wholly human he would have died there, and his father with him. For a green mage, whose blood comes from an older race, lightning contains magic rather than death — but he would have had no way of knowing that. He didn't know what his mother had been, not then.
For an instant, the two stood utterly still, except for the soundless, formless force Wolf had assembled; then a stone exploded into rubble, followed by another and another. The broken bits of granite began to glow with the heat of wild magic released without control. Aralorn couldn't tell if Wolf was trying to control the magic at all, though the ae'Magi had stepped back and was gesturing wildly in an attempt to stem the tide. Shadow was banished by the heat of the flames. Aralorn saw Wolf smile . . .
“No!” cried the ae'Magi, as molten rock splattered across Wolf's face, from a stone that burst in front of him. Wolf screamed, a sound lost in the crack of shattering stone.
The ae'Magi cast a spell, drawing on the very magic that wreaked such havoc.
A warding, thought Aralorn, as a rock fell from a parapet and bounced off an invisible barrier that surrounded the ae'Magi as he knelt over his unconscious son.
“I will not lose the power. You shall not escape me today.”
The scene faded, and Aralorn found herself back in the corridor, but she was not alone.
The ae'Magi stepped to her, frowning. “How did you . . .” His voice trailed off, and his face twisted in a spasm of an emotion so strong she wasn't able to tell what it was. “You love him?”
Though his voice wasn't loud, it cracked and twisted until it was no longer the ae'Magi's voice. It was familiar, though; Aralorn struggled to remember to whom it belonged.
“Who are you?” she asked.
The figure of the ae'Magi melted away, as did the corridor, fading into an ancient darkness that began to reach for her. She screamed and . . .
Awake, Aralorn listened to the muffled sounds of the inn. Hearing no urgent footsteps, she decided that she must not have screamed out loud. This was not the kind of place where such a sound would have been dismissed. She sat up to shake off the effects of the nightmare, but the terror of the eerie, hungry emptiness lingered. She might as well get up.
She'd begun having nightmares when Wolf disappeared a few weeks ago. Nightmares weren't an unexpected part of being a mercenary, but these had been relentless. Dreams of being trapped in the ae'Magi's dungeon unable to escape the pain or the voice that asked over and over again, “Where is Cain? Where is my son?” But this dream had been different . . . it had been more than a dream.
She pulled on her clothes. Her acceptance of what she had seen had been born of the peculiar acceptance that was the gift of a dreamer. Awake now, she wondered.
It had felt like truth. If the ae'Magi were still alive, she would have cheerfully attributed it to an attack by him &mdash a little nasty designed to make her doubt Wolf and make his life a little more miserable. An attack that had failed only because she had a little magic of her own to call upon.
But the ae'Magi was dead, and she could think of no one else who would know the intimate details of Wolf's childhood‐things that even she had not known for certain.
It was a dream, she decided as she headed out to the stables. Only a dream.
The path to Lambshold was all but obscured by the snow, but Aralorn could have followed it blindfolded even though she hadn't been here in ten years.
As Sheen crested the final rise, Aralorn sat back in the saddle. Responsively, the stallion tucked his convex nose and slid to a halt. The roan gelding threw up his head indignantly as his lead line pulled him to an equally abrupt stop.
From the top of the keep, the yellow banner emblazoned with her father's red lion, which signaled the presence of the lord at the keep, flew at half mast, with a smaller, red flag above.
Aralorn swallowed and patted Sheen's thick gray neck. “You're getting old, love. Maybe I should leave you here for breeding and see if I can talk someone out of a replacement.”
Sheen's ear swiveled back to listen to her, and she smiled absently.
“There's the tree I found you tied to down there, near the wall.”
She'd thought she was so clever, sneaking out in the dead of night when no one would stop her. She'd just made it safely over the wall — no mean feat &msdash; and there was Sheen, her father's pride and joy, tied to a tree. She still had the note she'd found in the saddlebags with travel rations and some coins. In her father's narrow handwriting the short note had informed her both that a decent mount was sometimes useful, and that if she didn't find what she was looking for, she would always be welcome in her father's home.
The dark evergreen trees blurred in her sight as Aralorn thought about the last night she'd lived at Lambshold. She swallowed, the grief she'd suppressed through the journey home making itself felt.
“Father.” She whispered her plea to the quiet woods, but no one answered.
At last, she urged Sheen forward again, and they walked the perimeter of the wall until they reached the gate.
“Hullo the gate,” she called briskly.
“Who?” called a half-familiar voice from the top.
Aralorn squinted, but the man stood with his back to the sun, throwing his face into shadow.
“Aralorn, daughter to Henrick, the Lyon of Lambshold,” she answered.
He gestured, and the gates groaned and protested as they opened, and the iron portcullis was raised. Sheen snorted and started forward without urging, the roan following behind. She glanced around the courtyard, noting the differences a decade had made. The “new” storage sheds were weathered and had multiplied in her absence. Several old buildings were no longer standing. She remembered Lambshold bustling with busy people, but the courtyard was mostly empty of activity.
“May I take your horses, Lady?”
The stableman, wise to the ways of warhorses, had approached cautiously.
Aralorn swung off and removed her saddlebags, throwing them over one shoulder before she turned over the reins for both horses to the groom. “The roan's a bit skittish.”
Not by word or expression did the stableman seem taken aback at a “Lady” dressed in ragged clothes chosen more for their warmth than their looks. By then, both the clothes and Aralorn, had acquired a distinct aroma from the journey.
Knowing the animals would be well cared for, she started toward the keep.
“Hold a moment, Aralorn.”
It was the man from the wall. She turned and got a clear look at his face.
The years had filled out his height and breadth until he was even bigger than their father. His voice had deepened and hoarsened like a man who commanded others in battle, changed just enough that she hadn't recognized it immediately. Falhart was several years older than she was, the Lyon's only other illegitimate offspring. It was he who had begun her weapons training‐because, as he'd told her at the time, his little sister was a good practice target.
“Falhart,” she said, her vision blurring as she took a quick step forward.
Falhart grunted and folded his arms across his chest.
Hurt, Aralorn stopped and adopted his pose, waiting for him to speak.
“Ten years is a long time, Aralorn. Is Sianim so far that you could not visit?”
Aralorn met his eyes. “I wrote nearly every month.” She stopped to clear the defensiveness out of her voice. “I don't belong here, Hart. Not anymore.”
His black eyebrows rose to meet his brick red hair. “This is your home — of course you belong here. Irrenna has kept your room just the way you left it, hoping you'd visit. Allyn's toadflax, you'd think we were Darranians the way you . . .” He stopped abruptly, having been watching her face closely. His jaw dropped for a moment, then he said in a completely different voice, “That is it, isn't it? Nevyn got to you. Father said he thought it was something of the sort, but I thought you knew better than to listen to the half-crazed prejudices of a Darranian lordling.”
Aralorn smiled ruefully, hurt assuaged by the realization that it was anger, not rejection that had caused his restraint. “It was more complicated than that, but Nevyn is certainly the main reason I haven't been back.”
“You'd think that a wizard would be more tolerant,” growled Hart, “and that you would show a little more intelligence.”
That turned her smile into a grin. “He's not all that happy about being a wizard — he just didn't have any choice in the matter.”
“You could have won him over if you had wanted to, Aralorn.” He had not yet decided to forgive her. “The man's not as stupid as he acts sometimes.”
“Maybe,” she conceded. “But, as I said, he wasn't the only reason I left. I was never cut out to be a Rethian noblewoman, any more than Nevyn could have lived in Darran as a wizard. Sianim is my home now.”
“Do they know you're a shapeshifter?” he inquired coolly.
“No.” She grinned at him. “You know that the only people who would believe such a story are barbarians of the Rethian mountains. Besides, it's much more useful being a shapeshifter if no one knows about it but me.”
“Home is where they know all of your secrets, Featherweight, and love you anyway.”
Aralorn laughed, and the tears that had been threatening since she heard about her father fell at last. When he opened his arms, she took two steps forward and hugged him, kissing his cheek when he bent down. “I missed you, Fuzzhead.”
He picked her up and hugged her, stiffening when he looked over her shoulder. He set her down carefully, his eyes trained on whatever he had seen behind her. “That wolf have something to do with you?”
She turned to see a large, very black, wolf crouched several paces behind her. The hair along his spine and the ruff around his neck was raised, his muzzle fixed in an ivory-fanged snarl directed at Falhart.
“Wolf!” Aralorn exclaimed, surprise making her voice louder than she meant it to be.
“Wolf!” echoed an archer on the walls, whose gaze was drawn by Aralorn's unfortunate exclamation. The astonishment in his voice didn't slow his speed in drawing his bow.
Lambshold had acquired its name from the fine sheep raised here, making wolves highly unpopular in her father's keep.
Aralorn threw herself on top of him, keeping herself between him and the archer, knocking Wolf off his feet in the process.
“Aralorn!” called Falhart behind her. “Get out of the way.”
She envisioned the large knife her brother had tucked in his belt sheath.
“Hart, don't let them . . . ooff—Damn it, Wolf, stop it, that hurt—don't let them shoot him.”
“Hold your arrows! He's my sister's pet.” Falhart bellowed. In a much quieter voice, he added, “I think.”
“Do you hear that, Wolf?” said Aralorn, an involuntary grin pulling at the corners of her mouth. “You're my pet. Now don't forget it.”
With a lithe twist, Wolf managed to get all four legs under him and threw her to one side, flat on her back. Placing one heavy paw on her shoulder to hold her in place, he began to industriously clean her face.
“All right, all right, I surrender‐ish . . . Wolf, stop it.” She covered her face with her arms. Sometimes he took too much joy in fulfilling his role as a wolf.
“Irrenna.” Aralorn turned to look up at the woman who approached. Wolf stepped aside, letting Aralorn get to her feet to greet her father's wife.
Irrenna was elegant more than beautiful, but it would take a keen eye to tell the difference. There was more gray in her hair than there had been when Aralorn left. If Irrenna wasn't as tall as her children, she was still a full head taller than Aralorn. Her laughing blue eyes and glorious smile were dulled by grief, but her welcome was warm, and her arms closed tightly around Aralorn. “Welcome home, daughter. Peace be with you.”
“And you,” replied Aralorn, hugging her back. “I could wish it were happier news that brought me here.”
“As do I. Come up now, I ordered a bath to be prepared in your room. Hart, carry your sister's bags.”
Futilely, Aralorn tried to keep her saddlebags on her shoulder, but Falhart twisted them out of her hands as he said in prissy tones, “A Lady never carries her own baggage.”
She rolled her eyes at him, before starting up the stairs into the keep.
“Dogs stay out of the keep,” reminded Irrenna firmly when Wolf followed close on Aralorn's heels.
“He's not a dog, Irrenna,” replied Aralorn. “He's a wolf. If he stays out, someone's going to shoot him.”
Irrenna stopped and took a better look at the animal at Aralorn's side. He gazed mutely back, wagging his tail gently and trying to look harmless. He didn't quite make it in Aralorn's estimation, but apparently Irrenna wasn't so discerning because she hesitated.
“If you shut him out now, he'll only find a way in later.” Aralorn let a note of apology creep into her voice.
Irrenna shook her head., “You get to explain to your brothers why your pet gets to come in, while theirs have to stay in the kennels.”
Aralorn smiled. “I'll tell them he eats people when I'm not around to stop him.”
Irrenna looked at Wolf, who tilted his head winsomely and wagged his tail. “You might have to come up with a better story than that,” Irrenna said.
Hart frowned, but then her brother had seen Wolf when he wasn't acting like a lapdog.
Having heard the acceptance in Irrenna's voice, Wolf ignored Hart and leapt silently up the stairs to wait for them at the door to the keep.
Aralorn stepped into the great hall and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She could pick out the earthy smell impregnating the old stone walls that no amount of cleaning could eradicate entirely, wood smoke from the fires, rushes sweetened with dried herbs and flowers, and some ineffable smell that noplace else had.
“Aralorn?” asked her brother softly.
She opened her eyes and smiled at him, shaking her head. “Sorry. I'm just a bit tired.”
Falhart frowned, but followed Irrenna through the main hall, leaving Aralorn to fall in behind.
The cream-colored stone walls were hung with tapestries to keep out the chill. Most of the hangings were generations old, but several new ones hung in prominent places. Someone, she noticed, had a fine hand at the loom‐she wondered if it was one of her sisters.
She tried to ignore the red carnations strewn through the hall: spots of bright color like drops of fresh blood. Red and black ribbons and drapes were hung carefully from hooks set in the walls, silently reminding her of the reason she had returned to Lambshold. The joy of seeing Hart and Irrenna again faded.
This was not her home. Her big, laughing, cunning, larger-than-life father was dead, and she had no place here anymore. Wolf's mouth closed gently around her palm. A gesture of affection on the part of the wolf, he said, when she asked him about it once. She closed her fingers on his lower jaw, comforted by the familiar pressure of his teeth on her hand.
The hall, like the courtyard was subdued, with only a minimal number of servants scurrying about. On the far end of the room, the black curtains were drawn across the alcove where her father's body would be lying. Wolf's teeth briefly applied heavier pressure, and she relaxed her hand, realizing she'd tightened her grip too much.
At the bottom of the stairs, Irrenna stopped. “You go on up, I'll let the rest of the family know that you're here. Your old dresses are still in good condition, but if they don't fit, send a maid to me, and I'll see what can be done. Falhart, when you have taken Aralorn's bags up, please attend me in the mourning room.”
“Of course, thank you.” Aralorn continued up the stairs as if she had never refused to wear the dresses fashion dictated a Rethian lady confine herself to‐but she couldn't resist adding, dryly, “Close your mouth, Hart, you look like a fish out of water.”
He laughed and caught her easily, ruffling her hair as he passed. He drew his hand back quickly. “Ish, Aralorn, you need to wash your hair while you're at it.”
“What?” she exclaimed, opening the door to her old room., “And kill off all the lice I've been growing for so long?”
Hart handed her bags to her with a grin, “Still smart-mouthed I see.” When Aralorn tossed her bags into a heap on the floor, he added “And tidy as well.”
She bowed, as if accepting his praise.
He laughed softly. “Irrenna will probably be sending something up for lunch, in case you don't want to eat with the crowd that will be gathering shortly in the great hall. I'll see that someone carries hot water up here as well.”
“Falhart,” said Aralorn, as he started to turn away. “Thank you.”
He grinned and flipped her a studied gesture of acknowledgment (general to sublieutenant), then strode lightly down the hall.
Aralorn stepped into the room and, with a grand sweep of her arm, invited Wolf to follow. As she closed the door, she glanced around the bedchamber and saw that Falhart was closer to the mark than she'd expected. Her room wasn't exactly as she'd left it — the coverlet was drawn neatly across the bed, and the hearth rug was new — but it was obvious that it had been left largely as it had been the last time she'd slept here. Given the size of Lambshold and the number of people in her family, it was quite a statement.
“So,” commented the distinctive gravel-on-velvet voice that was Wolf's legacy from the night he destroyed a tower of the ae'Magi's keep, “tell me. Why haven't you come here in ten years?”
Aralorn turned to find that Wolf had assumed his human shape. He was taller than average, though not as tall as Falhart. There was some of the wolf's leanness to his natural form, but his identity was more apparent in the balanced power of his movements. He was dressed in black silk and linen, a color he affected because it was one his father had not worn. His yellow eyes were a startling contrast to the silver player's mask he wore over his scarred face.
It wasn't actually a player's mask, of course: no acting troup would have used a material as costly as silver. The finely wrought lips on its exaggerated, elegant features were curled into a grimace of rage. She frowned; the mask was a bad sign.
Aralorn wasn't certain if he'd chosen the mask out of irony or if there were a deeper meaning behind it, and she hadn't thought it important enough to ask. He used the mask to hide the scars he'd gotten when he'd damaged his voice — and to put a barrier between himself and the real world.
It was her vexation with his mask rather than a reluctance to answer his question that prompted her to ignore his query and ask one of her own. “Why did you leave me, again?”
She knew why, she just wondered if he did. Ever since he'd first come to stay with her, even back when she'd thought he really was a wolf, whenever they grew too close, he would leave. Sometimes it was for a day or two, sometimes for a month or a season. But this time it had hurt more, because she thought they had worked past all of that — until she awoke alone one morning in the bed she'd shared with him.
She might not need him to tell her why he'd left &mdash but she did intend to discuss it with him. She needed to tell him, if he didn't already know, that the change in their relationship meant that some other things would have to change. No more disappearing without a word. Anger would distract her from the bleak knowledge that her father was gone, so she waited for Wolf to explain himself. Then she would yell at him.
He caught up her bags in a graceful motion and took them to the wardrobe without speaking. He closed the door, and, with his back to her, said softly, “I . . .”
He was interrupted by a brisk knock at the door.
“Later,” he said, then with a subtle flare of shape and color, he flowed into his lupine form. She thought he sounded relieved.
Aralorn opened the door to four sturdy men bringing in steaming buckets of water and a woman bearing a tray laden with food.
Watching them pour water into her old copper tub in the corner of the room, she rethought the wisdom of pushing Wolf. He was a secretive person, and she didn't want to push him away or make him feel that there was a price to pay for staying. She didn't want to lose him just because she needed to yell at someone before she collapsed in a puddle of grief. She stuffed both anger and grief down to pull out later. She wasn't entirely successful, judging by the lump in the pit of her stomach — but the tub offered an opportunity to find another way to relieve her emotions.
When the heavy screen had been placed in front of the tub to reduce the cold drafts, she dismissed the servants.
She stepped behind the screen and began stripping rapidly out of her travel-stained clothing. Perhaps it would be best if she answered his question, it would give him a graceful way out of answering hers. Now, what had he asked?
“It seemed best,” she said with playful obscurity, stepping into the tub.
“What seemed best?” From the sound of his voice, Wolf had moved from where she'd last seen him, curled before the fire with his eyes closed — a pose that seemed to reassure the servants, who had eyed him uneasily.
“That I leave here and not come back.”
“Best for whom?” He is closer now, she thought, smiling to herself.
Sinking farther down in the luxuriously large bathing tub, she rested her head on the wide rim. Should she give him the short answer or long? She laughed soundlessly, then schooled her voice to a bland tone. “Let me tell you a story.”
“Of course,” he replied dryly.
This time Aralorn laughed aloud; a great deal of her usual equanimity restored by the hot water and the macabre voice of her love. She chose to forget, if only for a while, the reason that she was here, in her old bed chamber.
“Once,” she began in her best storyteller manner, “and not so long ago, there was a lord's son who, for all that he was still but a young man, had already won a reputation for unusual cunning in war. Additional notoriety came to him from a source no one had reckoned upon.”
At last, with a bare touch of amusement, he said, “Which was?”
“'Twas a night in midwinter with a full moon in the air when a servant heard a thunderous knocking on the keep door. A man clothed in a close-woven wool cloak stood before him, carrying a covered basket. `Take this to the lord's son,' he said, thrusting the basket at the servant. As the servant closed his hand on the handle, the man in the cloak stepped away from the door and leapt into the air, shaping himself into a hawk.” She splashed her toes, enjoying the feeling of the water washing away dried sweat. Bathing in a tub wasn't quite as good as the Sianim bathhouses, but it was a lot more private. “The servant took it to the lord's son and described the unusual messenger who had delivered it. The young man removed the cover from the basket, revealing a girl-child with the peculiar gray-green eyes common to the race of shapeshifters. Next to her, tucked between a blanket and the rough weave of the basket, was a note. He read it, then threw it into the fire.
“Taking the baby into his own hands, he held her up until she was at a height with him. `This,' he announced, `is my daughter.'
“He introduced the baby to her three-year-old brother and her grandfather. Her grandfather was not pleased to find out his son had been meeting a woman in the woods; but then, her grandfather was not best pleased with anything, and as it happened, died of apoplexy when he was served watered wine at a neighbor's banquet only a few months later, and so had little influence in his granddaughter's life.
“The young man, now lord, decided he needed a wife to care for his children and to bear heirs for the estate. Presently, he found one, several years younger than himself. She looked at the trembling waifs and promptly took them under her wing. The children were delighted, and so was the lord — so much so that in due time there were twelve additional siblings to play with.”
Aralorn ignored Wolf's choked-off laughter and explained blandly. “In most households, the life of a bastard child is miserable at best. I can't remember not knowing that I was illegitimate, but I never minded it much. As for being half shapeshifter . . . I've already told you that my father did his best to make sure that I was aware of my mother's people. Other than that, it was no more than an unusual talent I had. The people in the Rethian mountains are used to magic — most of them can work at least some of the simpler spells. Since the Wizard Wars, seven ae'Magi have come from these mountains. If anyone had ever felt I was odd, they'd grown used to it by the time I was grown. The worst problem I had was convincing Irrenna that I didn't want to be a Lady. Falhart taught me swordplay and riding, real riding, and by the time my parents found out, it was too late. Father said I might as well know what I was about and had the weaponsmaster teach me, too.”
“Idiot,” commented Wolf, sounding much more like his normal sardonic self. “He should have beaten you and sent you to bed without supper. Ten years in Sianim, and you still can't use a sword.”
“Not his fault,” replied Aralorn easily. “The sword never felt right in my hands, not even Ambris, and she's an enchanted blade. Hmm . . . now that's a thought.”
“I wonder if it has to do with the iron in the steel. Green magic doesn't work well with iron, while it has an affinity for wooden things . . . maybe that's why I'm so good with the staff. But it doesn't seem to affect my ability with knives.”
“I have always found modesty becoming in a woman.”
“Best staffsman or — woman in Sianim,” she said, unruffled. “Including longstaff, quarterstaff, or double staves. Now hush, you've interrupted.”
“I shall sit quietly and contemplate my misconduct,” he replied.
“That should take a while.” Aralorn sank down until the warm water touched her chin. A benefit of having large people in one's family was that all of the tubs were big enough to stretch out in. “I guess I can wait that long — but the water will get cold.”
There was a long pause. Aralorn stifled a giggle.
“Finished so soon? I would have thought such a grave task would have taken longer.”
“Aralorn,” he said gently, “Please continue. You were telling me of your wonderful childhood and why that meant that you had to stay away from your family for so long.”
“My story,” she continued grandly. “Where was I? It doesn't matter. When I was eighteen, my oldest legitimate sister, Freya —mind you she's still younger than I am — was betrothed in one of those complex treaties Reth and Darran spend months drawing up every few years or so and break within hours of the signing. It seems that a rather powerful Darranian noble had a mageborn second son who needed a bride.”
Aralorn took a moment to rub soap into her mouse brown hair, hoping to evict the fleas that had taken up residence from her brief stay at the inn. Despite her joking with Falhart, she didn't think she had lice. “So Nevyn came to live at Lambshold. He was shy at first, but he and Freya turned out to be soul mates and fell quietly in love several months after they were married.”
She ducked under the water to rinse the soap out of her hair. She didn't particularly want to continue, but some things would become obvious ‐ and it generally wasn't a good thing to take Wolf by surprise. As soon as she was above water again she continue “I liked him, too. He was quiet and willing to listen to my stories. He had this air of . . . sadness, I suppose, that made us all treat him gently. He was the only one who defied Irrenna's edict about animals in the castle. He didn't keep pets, but anyone who found a hurt animal brought it to him. At times his suite looked more like a barnyard than the barnyard did.” Aralorn hesitated, and said in a considering tone, “At the time, I was afraid I liked him too much. In retrospect, being older and wiser now, I think I wanted what Freya and Nevyn had together, rather than Nevyn himself.”
She soaped a cloth and began scrubbing on the ingrained dirt in her hands. “Now, I had long since gotten out of the habit of using my shapeshifting abilities at Lambshold. Father was very good at spotting little mice where they didn't belong. Irrenna was very clear on what was polite and impolite: turning into animals in public wasn't polite. It never occurred to me that Nevyn didn't know what I was.”
She examined her hands and decided they were as good as they were going to get. “I did know that he wouldn't think it proper for a Lady to fight, so I talked Falhart into practicing with me in the woods. It wasn't too difficult, because he was starting to get teased when I beat him.”
Her hair still felt soapy so she dipped her head underwater again. She cleared her face with her hands and continued. “Nevyn didn't like girls who ran around in boys' clothing and would have been horrified to know that his wife's sister could best him in a fair fight — even with a sword. If you think I'm bad. . . ” She let her voice trail off suggestively.
“Swordsman or not I thought Nevyn was the epitome of what a young hero ought to be.” She smiled to herself. “I admired his manner of seeing things in black and white‐which was very different than the way my father saw things.”
Aralorn paused. “About half a year after Nevyn came, Father drew me aside, and told me that Freya was concerned with the amount of time her husband spent with me. When you see Freya, you'll understand why I didn't take that warning too seriously. Even if I had a crush on Nevyn, I knew he couldn't possibly look at me when he had Freya. But my younger sister is a wise woman.”
Aralorn waved her hand in the top of the cooling water and watched the swell dash against her knee. “It seems that Freya was not mistaken in her apprehension. Nevyn had been flattered by my worship-from-afar, something that Freya was too pragmatic ever to do. I think he was a little intimidated by Freya, too.”
“He attempted you?”
Aralorn snorted., “You make it sound like I'm a horse. But that's the general idea. He was teaching me to speak Darranian in Father's library. I was too stupid—”
“Young,” corrected Wolf softly.
“— young and stupid to read his earlier manner correctly. It wasn't until I examined the incident later, I realized, that he could have misinterpreted my response to several things he said. He could very well have thought that I was eager for him.”
Wolf growled, and she hurried on. “At any rate, he tried to kiss me. I stepped on his foot and elbowed him in the stomach. About that time, I heard my sister's voice in the corridor. Knowing that no good could come from Freya's finding me with Nevyn — even though nothing happened — I turned into a mouse and escaped out the window and into the gardens.”
“And how did your Darranian take that?” asked Wolf.
“Not very well,” admitted Aralorn, smiling wryly. “Obviously, I wasn't there for the initial shock, but when I came in to dinner, Nevyn left the table. Freya apologized to me for his behavior — all of it. From what she said, I understand that he confessed all to her, which is admirable. He also claimed that it was my evil nature that caused his `anomalous' behavior. She didn't believe that — although Nevyn probably did — but Freya wasn't too happy with me anyway.” She smiled wryly. “But Freya wasn't why I left. I'd seen Nevyn's face when he saw me: He was afraid of me.”
Wolf walked around the screen. He wore his human form, but the mask was gone, and his scars with it. It could have been illusion — human magic — but Aralorn sometimes thought that it was the green magic that he drew upon when he chose to look as he had before he'd burned himself. Surely a mere illusion would not seem so real; but then maybe she was prejudiced in favor of green magic.
The unscarred face he wore was almost too beautiful for a man without being unmasculine in the least. High cheekbones, square jaw, night-dark hair: His father had left his mark upon his son's face as surely as he had his soul.
She would never let him see the touch of revulsion that she felt for that face, so close to the one his father wore. She knew that he wore it now in an attempt to be vulnerable before her, so that she could read his emotions better, for the scars that usually covered his face were too extensive to allow for much expression.
“It hurt you,” he said. “I am sorry.”
Aralorn shook her head. “I've grown up since then, and learned a thing or two along the way. I've stayed away from Lambshold for my sister's sake, and, I think, for my father's as well. He loves . . . loved Nevyn like another son. My presence could only have divided this family. And Nevyn . . . Nevyn came to us broken. One of us had to leave, and it was easier for me.” She thought a moment. “Actually, looking back, it's rather amusing to think that someone thought I was an evil seductress. It's not a role often taken by folks who look like I do.”
Although his lips never moved, his smile warmed his habitually cold eyes. “Evil, no,” he commented, his gaze drifting from her face.
“Are you implying something?” she asked archly, not at all displeased. She knew she was plain, and her feminine attractions were not enhanced by the muscles and scars of mercenary life‐but it didn't seem to bother Wolf.
“Who me?” he murmured, kneeling beside the bath. He pressed a soft kiss on her forehead, then allowed his lips to trail a path along her eyebrow and over her cheekbone. Pausing at the corner of her mouth, he nibbled gently.
“You could seduce a glacier,” commented Aralorn, somewhat unsteadily. She shivered when the puff of air released by his hushed laugh brushed her passion-sensitive lips.
“Why thank you,” he replied. “But I've never tried that.”
“I missed you,” she said softly.
He touched her forehead with his own and closed his eyes. Under her hand, his neck knotted with tension that had nothing, she thought, to do with the passion of a moment before.
“Help me here, love,” she said, scooting up in the tub until she was sitting upright. “What's wrong?”
He pulled back, his eyes twin golden jewels that sparkled with the lights of the candles that lit the room. She couldn't read the emotion that roiled behind the glittering amber, and she doubted Wolf could tell her what it was if he wanted to. He reacted to the unknown the same way a wild animal would‐safety lay in knowledge and control; the unknown held only destruction. Falling in love had been much harder on him than it had on her.
“I wasn't going to ask you again,” she said. “But I think I had better. Why did you leave?”
Wolf drew in a breath and looked at the privacy screen as if it were a detailed work of art rather than the mundane piece of furniture it was. One of his hands was still on Aralorn's shoulder, but he seemed to have forgotten about it.
“It's all right,” said Aralorn finally, sitting up and pulling her legs until she could link her arms around them. “You don't‐”
“It is not all right,” he bit out hoarsely, tightening his grip on her shoulder with bruising force. He twisted back to face her, and his kneeling posture became the crouch of a cornered beast. “I . . . plague it!”
Aralorn scarcely had time to realize that her cooling bathwater bath water had become scalding hot before Wolf pulled her out dripping like a fish onto the cold stone floor. She took the time to snatch the bath sheet and wrap it around her twice before joining Wolf near the tub, watching as the water erupted into clouds of billowing steam. After a moment, she opened the window shutters to disperse the fog in the room.
“I could have burned you,” he said, looking away from the empty tub, his voice too quiet.
“So you could have.” Aralorn pursed her lips, and wondered how to handle this new twist in their relationship.
She knew him well enough to know that heating the water hadn't been a bizarre practical joke: He had a sense of humor, but it didn't lend itself to endangering people. It meant that his magic was acting without his knowledge — sternly, she repressed the tingle of fear that trickled over her. Unlike Aralorn, his magic, human or green, was much better than the average hedgewitch's. But her fear would hurt him more surely than a knife in his throat.
“I should have told you before,” he said without looking at her. “I thought it was just my imagination when things first started happening around me. They were little things. A vase falling off a table or a candle lighting itself.” He stopped speaking and drew in his breath.
When he spoke again, his ruined voice crackled with the effort of his suppressed emotion “I wish I had never discovered I could work green magic as well as the human variety. It was bad enough before, when I was some sort of freak who couldn't control the power of the magic I could summon. At least then it only came when I called. Ever since I started using green magic, I've been losing control. It tugs me around as if I were a dog, and it held my leash. It would be better for you if I left and never came back.”
As he spoke the last words, he made a swift gesture, and the steam clouds disappeared from the room. Aralorn stepped in front of him, so he had to look at her.
Smiling sweetly, gently, she reached up to touch his face with both hands. “You leave, and I'll follow you to Deathsgate and back,” she said pleasantly. “Don't think I can't.”
His hands covered hers rather fiercely.
“Gods,” he said, closing his eyes. Aralorn couldn't tell if it was a curse or a prayer.
“Green magic has a personality of its own,” she said softly. “One of the elders who taught me likened it to a willful child. It responds better to coaxing than force.”
Yellow eyes slitted open. “Do you not have to call your magic? Just as any human mage would do?”
“Yes,” agreed Aralorn, though reluctantly. She hated it when he shot down her attempts to make him feel better.
Wolf grunted. “A human mage is limited by the amount of pure, unformed magic he can summon and the time he can hold it to his spell. The magic you call is already a part of the pattern of the world, so you have to respect that limit. I tell you that this magic”‐he spat the word out‐“comes when it wills. If you are not frightened by that, you should be. Remember that my magic is not limited except by my will. This does not heed my will at all. I cannot control it, I cannot stop it.”
Aralorn thought about that for a moment before a cat-in-the-milk-barn smile crossed her face. “I do so hate being bored. You always manage to have the most interesting problems.”
She caught him off guard and surprised a rusty laugh out of him.
“Come,” she said briskly, “help me dry off, and we'll eat. My mother's people live near here, maybe they can help. We'll stop there before we go back to Sianim.”