The Lesser KindredElizabeth Kerner
Table of Contents
i - The First Morning of the World
ii - The Place of Exile
iii - So Much to Know
iv - The Mercenary’s Tale
v - Endings and Beginnings
vi - Recovery
vii - Salera
viii - Journeys
ix - Life, Death and Fire
x - The Price of Belts and Bright Days
xi - The Wind of Change Blows Icy Cold
xii - Of True Names and the Web of Fate
xiii - The Wind of Shaping Like Fire Burns
xiv - The Telling of Tales
xv - And the Walls of the World Came Scattering Down
xvi - The Nameless One
TOR BOOKS BY ELIZABETH KERNER
Praise for Song in the Silence
To the glory of God
the men in my life:
My partner Steven Beard
strong and loving, valiant and true,
who holds my heart in his
and is a wildly brave man
to love and live with a writer;
my father Chan Ewing,
scientist, loved and honoured Papa-san,
who for so many years has tried to fight the good fight;
my brother Lester Ewing,
rally driver, husband, father and occasional dentist,
whose love and friendship
and memories of home
are so precious to me;
my brother in all but blood James Quick,
composer, singer, hearth-companion,
soulfriend of many years,
who always makes me laugh;
clear reason to my emotion,
friendship deep beyond all reason,
I dedicate this work.
The First Morning of the World
I woke with the late winter sun in my eyes and smiled because Jamie had let me sleep.
Let us sleep.
It was the first morning of my wedded life, and my impossible beloved lay beside me. His long silver locks fell like water over the creased linen pillowcase. Typical, I thought, smiling. He has been human for less than three moons and already he looks better asleep than ever I could waking. Look, not a tangle in all that mane of his. I pulled my long frowsy braid around to glance at it. I’d seen better-groomed tails on horses. Ah, well. At least Varien—my husband—didn’t seem to mind.
Dear Lady. My husband.
I gazed down at him, drinking in the physical warmth of his nearness, breathing in the smell of him. There had been only one or two nights, in our mad rush to get here from Corl, that I had caught him sleeping when I finished my turn at watch; he tended to hear me coming and was almost always sitting up when I came to wake him. Those few times he had genuinely been asleep we were both so exhausted I’d barely had time to wake him before I fell into the warm patch he left and into dreamless sleep myself. We had only just arrived from the Dragon Isle when we had to leave the port of Corl at a run, doing our best to escape my wretched father Marik’s hirelings. We had assumed they sought our lives, for they had nearly killed our companion Rella; we managed to get her to a house of healing but we didn’t dare wait to learn how she fared. As best we could tell, we had eluded them.
The sun, gathering confidence as it rose, streamed through the gap in the shutters and shone in his hair, silver taking fire from gold. It was like nothing I had ever seen—ah, save once! With a shiver the memory rose before my mind’s eye. Before he was changed, while still my dear one had the shape he was born with, I had seen full daylight glinting off his silver scales.
I lay back slowly, gently, so as not to wake Varien, while the vision of him on that day rose bright before me. He stood then on the Dragon Isle, the home of his people, and his name was Akor, the proud Lord of the Kantri, those creatures whom men call the True Dragons. He was the size of a house and purest silver from the hammered metal of his horned face to the delicate scales of his tail, save only for the deep green of his eyes, and his soulgem like living emerald gleaming in the centre of the great mask of his forehead. I gazed at him now, fully human, changed beyond believing, gone through death and fire—but there was still a faint mark, barely visible, in the centre of his forehead where his soulgem would have been. Blessed Lady, what we had been through!
Varien sighed in his sleep and turned his head. He was so very beautiful. His skin was as soft and smooth as a child’s … .
Suddenly I had to try very hard not to laugh and shake the bed. Sweet Lady, that I should ever be so besotted with anyone! Me, with my man’s height and strength, my plain face and my foul temper. I almost pitied Varien. The only decent traits I have ever possessed have been strength and what Jamie would call determination, but everyone else would call bloody-mindedness. I had never thought so soft a heart dwelt hidden in me; it had most certainly been hidden deep beyond finding until now.
In my own defence I can only claim to have been brought up motherless by a father—well, I had always thought Hadron was my father—who grudged every breath I took and kept me a virtual prisoner at Hadronsstead, the horse farm where I grew up. When he died, no longer ago than the summer just gone, I learned to my great relief that Hadron was no part of me, and I had left Hadronsstead in the hands of my cousin Walther to find if I could truly live the life I had always dreamt of. From my earliest memories I have longed in the deep heart of me to travel the length and breadth of Kolmar, and to seek out the Great Dragons living on the mysterious Dragon Isle far away, west across the sea. I found them, true enough, but the tale that unfolded then changed me forever, and all the Kantri along with me.
Varien stirred and moved. I held my breath to let him settle again into sleep. So dear to my heart, so valiant, so kind. His bravery I had seen while still he kept his dragon form, for he had defied the laws of his people to meet with me, to talk, to learn, and although we did not mean it, to love. A kind of madness had come over us both, for within the space of a few days we who had never met knew in our deepest hearts that we each had found our match. It was wonderful and terrible both together, to know that you have found the one soul in the world that is the completion of your own, and to know that you must remain forever separate in body. This we had known without question, but we also knew that for us there was no other choice. We plighted our troth one to another, Kantri and Gedri, dragon and human, doomed to be forever separate but matched in our hearts and minds.
I reached out to touch Varien, stopping myself just short. In that golden moment I did not wish to wake him. It was a still and breathless time, watching him sleep, seeing the gentle rays of the winter sun strike gleams from his eyelashes, glorying in the simple smell of him. Hardly breathing, I followed the contours of his face with my hand an inch away from his skin. Here and now, after all these years have passed, I remember that moment as if it had been this very morning. My body has changed as time has taken its toll, and both joy and sorrow greater have followed, but that first morning of my new world shines in my heart yet new-made, as though the sun that blessed Varien’s face had never shone before on living man.
I sat back, hugging myself, longing to be in his arms again, knowing I would be there as soon as he woke, enjoying the longing for itself. I had never dared to let myself imagine that such a love would come to me. In the years before Hadron died I had tried not to think of love at all. In the Kingdom of Ilsa, where I was born and raised and had spent every moment of my life until the autumn just gone, if you were not married by your twentieth year you were like to live alone forever. I h
ad turned twenty-four on the Balance-day last autumn and I had expected to sleep alone all my life—but behold, here he was, the Lord of the Kantri lying beside me.
The Lord of the Kantri. The King of the Dragons. He told me that among his people kings are chosen, not born. They had hailed him as their king in his youth and he had come to the flower of his age with the good of his people foremost in his mind. His concerns for them had not ceased with his transformation: he feared still for their future. While I was on the Dragon Isle I had assisted the Lady Mirazhe with the birth of the first youngling for five hundred years; had I not helped her, at the expense of horrible burns to my arms, both mother and child would have died. Still, five hundred years is far too long a gap even for that long-lived race. Unless that changed, and swiftly, the Kantri were doomed, and Varien never forgot it. When he became human he surrendered his kingship to his dear friend Shikrar, the Eldest of the Kantri, but his people in Council had acclaimed him their king even in his new form. Shikrar had said that the Kantri would have to work out the details later, but we had heard nothing so far. I was lost in thought, lying there, but then Varien moved slightly and I gazed down at him again.
His eyes opened slowly, deep startling green beneath the silver of his lashes. When he saw me, a smile that glowed as bright as the morning lit his eyes and transformed what had been merely handsome into love itself made human.
The people of his birth have a gift known as truespeech, the speaking of mind to mind. I had been astounded to learn that I too possessed it, for it is known among humans as Farspeech and is matter for fireside tales, not for broad daylight. He had truespeech still, but now it was nearly as hard for him as for me, and much use of it brought on blinding headaches. One blessing we had been granted, in that he and I could still hear one another without effort and without pain.
In that sunlit morning, lying beside me all gold and silver, he opened his mind to me. There were no words, but there was his soul, full of love—and there was music. Sweet Shia, Mother of us all, there was music! When we had joined our hearts and minds in the Flight of the Devoted, there in his dark chambers on the Dragon Isle, we had made a new song between us, and that simple melody spoke the truth of his love to my heart more surely than any words ever could. I could hardly bear the beauty of it.
“Good morrow, my dearling,” he said then aloud, grinning as he drew me to him and kissing me soundly. His body felt strong and warm and welcoming against mine, and my longing melted into simple joy. “So glorious a morning for the first of our wedded life! Though I fear me it is long past time for us to rise.”
“I expect Jamie is being generous, love,” I murmured, smiling as we held each other close. His heart beat against mine, and in his arms was home and safety and love and all. I kept my voice light, for I could hardly bear the weight of that bone-deep joy. “If he has not sent for us yet, the morning is ours.”
“Your heart’s father is generous indeed,” said he playfully, his hands beginning to rove. “And what shall we do with so great a gift?”
She wrapped her long arms around me and held me with all her strength, and to my astonishment I found that she wept.
“And still your eyes leak seawater, littling,” I murmured, which made her laugh as I had hoped it would. Before I had learned the Gedri word for tears she had wept for joy to behold me in my true shape after all her years of dreaming, and those were the words I had used.
“Oh, Akor,” she breathed, somewhere between tears and laughter, “Akor, I cannot believe you are here, here, human, and my wedded lord!”
“Yours as long as life endures, my Lanen,” I replied, stroking her hair, revelling in the feel of it on my skin. “May the Winds and the Lady grant us many years together, that I might show you the long truth of a dragon’s love.”
She laughed at that, hard enough that I had to release her from my embrace, but once she had explained the joke to me I laughed as well. “Well, my heart,” I said, stroking her shoulder gently, “I say again, what shall we do with so glorious a morning?”
She thought for a moment and laughed. “You’re not going to believe me.”
“Very well, I will not believe you,” I said, mock-solemn, and gathering her close to me. “What do you wish to do that I will not believe?”
“I want to go riding in the Méar Hills, up in the forest.”
I thought she spoke in jest until I saw the joy in her eyes at the very thought. “The sun doesn’t shine much in winter here, and I—oh, Akor, I never had the chance to go riding in winter while Hadron was alive,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to. The Méar Hills are so close by, and the Lady knows we have enough horses.”
“Surely one each will be sufficient,” I said, laughing and not releasing her.
“Ah, but when your new wife is the mistress of her own breeding stables, and they the best in all of Kolmar, the choice isn’t as simple as it might be.” She grinned. “So. Are you going to let me go, or am I going to have to force you?”
I was intrigued. “And how would you do that? Your abilities are admirable, my heart, and you have not yet ceased to surprise me, but I have still some measure of my old strength. I do not believe that you can break free.”
“Power isn’t always the answer,” she replied, as I yelped. She had barely touched me, just under the ribs, but the sensation was remarkable and it certainly broke my hold on her.
“What did you do?” I demanded. “What was that?”
She laughed, long and loud. I could not help but join her, though I knew not what amused her. Her laugh was joy made sound and completely irresistible. “I never thought,” she managed to gasp out. “Dragons aren’t so easy to tickle, are they?”
“Tickle.” I tried the sound of the word on my lips.
“Yes, tickle. Like this—” She reached for me again and produced that extraordinary twitch. I decided that acquiring this skill would be a useful accomplishment and tried the same on her. It seemed to work and made her laugh again. After a very pleasant diversion she stopped me with a kiss, told me we could indulge our other inclinations after the sun was down, and hurried to dress.
I was proud of my simple accomplishments. Clothing no longer held terrors for me. It was familiar now and my skin had become accustomed to the cloth, so that I no longer raised a weal from simply being dressed. I had managed to find boots to fit me when we passed through one of the larger towns on the way north from Corlí, and to my astonishment my blistered, aching feet had recovered swiftly without the need for a healer. I was delighted. I had not known that the Gedri, my new kindred, healed so quickly and without assistance. The Kantri require months or years to heal, depending on the severity of the wound, and we must enter the Weh sleep to allow our bodies to repair themselves. It might seem a terrible weakness—indeed, the Weh sleep is the single greatest weakness of the Kantri—but the time it takes does not concern us, for we are a long-lived race, and we are naturally so well armoured that we are not often injured.
I sighed and Lanen turned to me instantly. “What draws a sigh from you this bright day, my love?” she asked as she sat on the edge of the bed and laced up boots lined with soft fur.
“Ah, dearling. I am still of two worlds,” I said. “A moment’s thought of my Kindred, and ‘they’ becomes ‘we’ between one breath and the next. I am glad enough to be human, believe me, but my heart is taking its time to learn.”
She came over to where I stood dressing and kissed me soundly. “Your heart can have all the time you like, my love, as long as you’re here with me while it’s learning.” She whirled away to open a chest that stood against the wall and drew out a long, heavy woolen tunic dyed a rich blue. “It’s cold out there, you’ll need this. Do you want another shirt?”
“I thank you, no.” I said. “I shall wear the tunic, but I have no need of another garment. I am overwarm as it is.”
“I swear, Varien, are you certain you’re really human?” asked Lanen, grinning. “I thi
nk you’re still one of the Kantri inside and have just taken human shape. Have you tried breathing fire lately?”
I laughed. “Yes I have, and could barely speak for an hour after!” I caught her as she passed and held her to me. “I am fully human, my heart. Shall I prove it to you?”
She kissed me again lightly and drew away, pulling me after her. “Not now, man! Restrain yourself. I told you, the sun doesn’t shine very often or very long in the winter. Come out with me, it’s a glorious day. You can prove whatever you like later but if I don’t get out soon I shall burst!”
It seemed so simple a thing, but I was reminded yet again of the brief lives of my new people. This swift heartbeat, so short a time in the world—so short a time would I have my Lanen beside me, so short a time might I live myself, who should otherwise have known a thousand years yet under the sun.
“Then let us go forth and glory in the day!” I cried, my heart racing with hers, but I pulled her to the side as she made for the outer door. I dragged her laughing into the kitchen, loosed her hand for an instant as I disappeared into the larder and emerged bearing some aging apples and half of yesterday’s loaf. “Now for it!” I cried, taking her hand again and running out the door.
I had never known so extraordinary a joy in such ordinary actions. We laughed as we saddled the horses, who seemed to catch our mood. We were barely on their backs when they broke into a canter along the track leading to the northern hills. Lanen had told me of the Méar Hills, of her dreams of walking in them when she lay lonely in her room. So much of her life had been lived through dreams in the dark, but to the honour of her soul it had not soured her spirit or brought untimely bitterness to her heart.
We gave our horses their heads as they hurried along the road. Either they needed the exercise or they were simply trying to keep warm, for they kept up a canter of their own accord for some time. The hills rose before us, the skeletons of the trees drawn stark and sharp on the high ridges and merging into brown on the flanks. The horses dropped into a walk and we rode side by side. The air, touched now and again with wood smoke from the scattered farmsteads we passed, was a little warmer than it had been and the wind had dropped to almost nothing.