The Lesser Kindred, Page 2Elizabeth Kerner
As we came closer to the edge of the winter wood we dismounted, tethered our horses loosely, covered them with blankets and left food with them while we walked deeper into the wood. I noticed, scattered among the bare branches, that there were trees that kept their leaves, deep green and glossy among their sleeping cousins. I asked Lanen about them.
“Those are my favorites,” she replied, grinning. “Come, smell,” she said, crushing some of the greenery. A delicious scent came wafting up from the broken pointed leaves.
“What is that?” I asked, delighted.
“Ilsan pentram,” she said. “It’s one of the few trees I know; I almost never got out in the woods with anyone who could teach me about trees. One year at midwinter, though, Alisonde brought in boughs of this stuff and put it all round the house, stuffed in odd corners. It smelled wonderful for weeks and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s better outside, though, in the cold.” She laughed and hugged me, and I heard in her mind a deep delight that warmed the very air. “Oh, Varien, it’s all too wonderful!” she cried, breaking away from me. “I can’t bear it. Come, I’ll race you to the top of that rise!” She ran off at a good speed. I started to follow, but my legs were still learning their new gaits and I soon realised I would never catch her that way. So I tried the other.
What a fool I was. I should have known.
I heard Varien cry out behind me. I ran back faster than I had come, to find him kneeling on the cold ground staring in horror at his hands. They were slightly scraped—he’d obviously fallen on them—but nothing to be distressed about. I looked at him, appalled as he stared at his own body, and knew that for the moment he was beyond words. The Language of Truth can be incredibly useful.
“Varien, love, what is it? Whence this deep distress?”
At least, I tried to use the Language of Truth. This had never happened before. He was closed, I could not bespeak him. My words returned to me like an echo from a cliff face.
“Varien, talk to me. What happened?” I said aloud, really worried. For answer he stumbled to his feet and put his back against the nearest tree. He was shaking all over, pale now. I think he would have fallen save for the tree holding him up. He still hadn’t looked at me. As usual, my worry and my love for him roiled about in me and turned into anger. I went close up to him and whispered his full name furiously. “Varien Kantriakor rash-Gedri, Kadreshi naLanen!” He looked up at that, caught my eye at last. In a more normal tone I continued, “If you don’t speak to me this instant I swear by all that’s holy I will shake you until your teeth rattle. Talk to me, man. What happened?”
He was breathing hard, like a man who had run a desperate race. With a terrible effort of will I kept my mouth shut and waited. Finally he managed to force a few words past his lips.
“Running—after you—too slow.” His face contorted again, pain and shame mingled; his hands clenched and unclenched as if he were trying to master them and failing. I did not reach out to hold him, much as I longed to. I knew as if the Lady had spoken to me that he needed to go through this himself. I waited.
“Then—I knew how to catch you, be there first, waiting for you—ahhh!” He tossed his head as though he were being struck by invisible fists, and his throat tightened so terribly that he had almost to yell to get the words out. In a dreadful voice he croaked out, “Lanen, I tried to fly!” He gave a great cry and fell to his knees again, or they gave out from under him. That had been the worst of it, and now that it was out he wept, great sobs racking his body. I could do no more than hold him close.
If Varien had not been in so terrifying a state I would have laughed, for it seemed ridiculous, but I didn’t dare. Bless the Lady for the right instincts just that once. I didn’t know exactly what he was grieving for but grief it was without doubt. I said nothing. I simply held him.
Finally words came, all rough from their passage through that poor throat. “I fell to all fours and tried to fly, and they were gone. They are gone, Lanen! Ah, my heart, it is hard, hard to bear,” he groaned. “They are gone forever. I am a creature of earth from this moment unto my death, the life of air is closed to me.” He seemed to collapse into himself, sinking away from me back on to his heels and turning his head away from me; but he held on to my forearms in a grip so strong I feared for my bones. “I am nor Gedri nor Kantri but some lost soul caught between—oh my Lanen, what have we done?”
For an instant I thought of the words of Rishkaan, one of the Kantri who had bitterly opposed the union that Varien and I had forged. The Lady knows I had tried to forget his words but they weighed always on my heart. Where Varien and I had seen in our joining a healing for Kantri and Gedri, Rishkaan had the opposite vision. His words were clear in my mind, as though he had only just spoken them to the Kantri assembled to determine my fate and Akor’s. “I too have had Weh dreams, Lord Akor, but mine have been of death and ending. My people, she would mingle the blood of Kantri and Gedri! Her children will be monsters, the world will fill with Raksha-fire and none to stand between because of her!” Dreams that come during the Weh sleep, when the Kantri are healing or shedding their skins, are taken very seriously by that people. Rishkaan had died fighting a demon master, a noble death, and the shadow of his dream was not easily dispelled.
Varien had me terribly worried now. Had he had some vision the equal of Rishkaan’s?
Even as I thought that, bless the Lady, he rallied. He loosed his tight grip on my arms and knelt more upright. “Forgive me, my heart,” he said quietly, and let a little of his thought through the strong shields he had put up.
I wish he hadn’t. I had never thought before how devastating it could be to hear another’s true thoughts without the softening that words can provide. His outer thoughts were not so painful, but the underthought explained much, and for the first time I even caught, at the end, a soft whisper of the deep sensation that is less than thought and more like feeling.
“My wings, my wings, alas for what is gone they are gone Iam broken I am bound to the earth, bound to you I have paid a terrible price for love but I do love you in the deep heart of me at least that has not changed nor ever will forgive me this weakness I cannot fly my back is bare alas for what is gone I am crippled for life [It is because of her].”
The Language of Truth is just that, more’s the pity. Truth is not always easy to bear, and after all we had been wed less than a day. Dear Lady Shia, was our joy so easily broken?
“It is not my fault, Varien,” I said, suddenly angry. My new-wedded husband had killed the delight that had filled my heart moments earlier with his strange turn, and now it seemed that in the depths of his soul he blamed me for all his misfortunes. “Did I force you to become human?”
I shook him off and stood up. He rose immediately and put his hand out to me. I turned away.
“What is it? What did I—oh!” He sounded so surprised that I looked at him once more. “Ah, my dearling, I understand,” he said, his voice a little less crippled now. “You grow stronger in truespeech very swiftly, Lanen. I am astounded! Only Shikrar has ever read me so deeply before. It is the terishnakh, the hidden words, that you have heard. Forgive me, dearling.”
“Hidden words?” I cried. “Then I’m glad I heard them! I’m not a mind reader, Varien, even if I do have truespeech. If that’s what you really think—”
“Please, Lanen, hear me,” Varien interrupted. “You are new to this level of truespeech, and you do not yet understand. Those thoughts, they are—unbidden, to say the least. Have you never had unworthy thoughts occur to you, only for them to be rejected by your waking mind? I can no more control the murmurings of the terishnakh than I can stop a sneeze, but they mean little more than that. Unworthy musings that are dismissed even as they arise.”
I whirled on him, furious. “You said I crippled you for life! That is not a sneeze!”
I could not help myself. I laughed.
My soul to the Lady, I would have struck him then
and there, but then I heard the words I had just spoken repeated to me in truespeech, lighthearted and loving.
Dratted dragon. He always could make me laugh, especially at myself.
Then he drew me to him and kissed me, long and deep, his strong arms holding me close, and I melted a little. I was still angry at him, but—well, a passionate kiss from the one you love most does much to disperse anger. When we stopped for breath I put my hand to his cheek. “So, Varien. Do you forgive me for costing you your wings?”
“No, kadreshi, I do not forgive you.” I started to pull back, but he continued, “I cannot forgive you what was never your deed to begin with.” He took my hand and kissed my palm, sending a shiver down my spine. “You did not change me, my heart. If you recall, all our meeting and our joining seems to have been arranged by those greater than we, the Winds that my people worship and Lady Shia of the Gedri. How should two such mortal souls as we stand against the gods?”
I kissed him lightly and drew away, smiling again at last. “By going somewhere a lot warmer,” I replied. “I don’t know about you, Deshkantriakor, but I am freezing solid while we stand here and there’s not a dragon in sight to start a fire. Let’s go back.”
That made him laugh. Deshkantriakor was the name that his oldest friend, Shikrar, had given him in jest when first he became human. The name means “strange king of the Kantri” and certainly suited him, though in the end he chose another to protect himself.
We walked swiftly back to where we had tethered the horses, folded the blankets and made our way back to Hadronsstead. The winter sun shone yet, glorious in its setting as in its rising, and the tingle of the clear cold air mingled with the scent of warm horse and the occasional waft of winter rot that their hooves stirred up as they walked through autumn’s fallen leaves.
I was content for the moment to let things rest even though I knew that this was not resolved; it stood now as a shadow over us, small as yet, and as Varien did not speak much of it for some time I let it lie. I think partly I did not pursue it because I had never truly known that depth of sorrow and loss and the anger that goes with it, and I was shaken in the face of such violent and unknown emotions.
Ah now, truth, Lanen. I did not know what to do, so I did nothing. If he felt in the depths of his heart that his transformation was my fault, there was nothing I could say in my own defence. Had I not gone to the Dragon Isle he would certainly have been there yet as its king, and in his own form. It was foolish and cowardly of me to leave things thus, I know, but what would you? I was very young in many ways; I had hardly left my home before I went out adventuring in the autumn, and even though I woke each morning to this changed world, it was still difficult to believe. Perhaps the ballad makers would have me ever wise, but I am not nor ever pretended to be. After all, the makers of stories are the worst liars I know of.
The sun was down and the twilight fading by the time we returned. Jamie welcomed us at the door with a grin, sat us down by the kitchen fire and set bowls of good thick lentil and barley soup before us, with great slabs of bread and butter. We set to with a will. Jamie was in a strange mood, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. He kept bursting out laughing at nothing, and when I asked him to take food with us he laughed the harder.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, my mouth full.
“My girl, I thank you, but I am not presently insane with love. I made a good noon meal, and it’s hours yet before I’ll need my dinner. I’ll wager you’ve not et a thing, either of you, all day.”
Varien and I looked at each other. In the rush of the day, in the midst of storms of emotion, we’d missed breakfast and completely forgotten the food Varien had brought along with us—it was still in the saddlebags. We grinned at each other, and when I glanced back at Jamie, his eyes twinkling in the firelight, I knew that I would live this down in, oh, a mere ten years or so. Still, I suspected that all fathers—or in his case, nearly fathers—must have some such stories to tell about their daughters when they wed.
I have said I thought Hadron was my father—so I did, until Jamie told me the tale of my mother, Maran Vena. He said I looked like her, tall and strong and grey-eyed. I would not know, as she had left me with Hadron when I was but a babe. Jamie, it seems, had been devoted to her and had been her lover for three years as they travelled the length and breadth of Kolmar. Then she had met Marik of Gundar, a Merchant, and for some reason I could not understand (for Jamie didn’t know it) she left Jamie and took up with Marik for three months. She was never entirely comfortable with him, and it was just as well: her curiosity had saved her life, for she had overheard Marik plotting with a demon master. Marik promised the life of his firstborn child to the Rakshasa, the Demon-kind, as the price for a Farseer, a glass globe in which he could see anything he chose anywhere in the world, and thus gain power over his enemies. My mother Maran and Jamie stole the Farseer just moments after it was made. They only just escaped with their lives, and by pure chance—I almost said “evil chance”—they found themselves, six weeks later, in the village where I grew up, and Maran met Hadron the horse-breeder. He adored her from the moment they met, or so Jamie says; but she was already pregnant with me when she wed Hadron. She left when I was less than a year old, and for love of her and because I might just be his daughter—for even Maran was not certain who my father was—Jamie had stayed on at Hadronsstead, never speaking of the past out of respect for Hadron, always there for me to turn to when Hadron turned me away. Too tall, too man-like, too plain, too strong, too wild: nothing I was or had ever done had pleased Hadron and I had lived a desperately confined life, abandoned by my mother, rejected by the man I thought was my father. Little wonder that Jamie’s gentle love and kindness had been all the world to me from my earliest memories. I had not learned the truth until my adventures began, not six months past—I only knew that I had always loved and trusted Jamie, always relied on him, and bestowed on him all the love that Hadron rejected.
I had learned since, to my deep sorrow, that my father was indeed Marik of Gundar, and that he still sought me as payment for the Farseer. I had met him on my travels. It was his ship that took me to the Dragon Isle, it was his demon-master who summoned the Raksha to take me, it was he himself who tried to make me betray the Kantri and who gave me of his own free will to the demons. It was Akor, Varien in his dragon form, who had saved me from that, but Marik was too great a fool to let it rest. He tried then to steal a great treasure—the soulgems of the Lost, not gems alone but the very souls of some of Akor’s people—and to protect himself he had all but killed Akor. I closed my eyes briefly and shivered at the memory. The battle had been dreadful, and I still woke terrified from time to time with the vision of Akor’s silver scales drenched with bright blood. In the end Akor and his soulfriend Shikrar had found a way to defeat Marik. I don’t know how or why it worked, but they broke his mind. He was mad and helpless, and like to remain so as long as he lived.
I never lost any sleep over that.
Perhaps it seems unnatural, to feel so little for him, but I had never known him until that journey, and he had tried to kill me and those I loved more than once. What would you? To my sorrow, he was, with my mother, the creature who made me—but in every sense that mattered, my true father sat now across from me, an eyebrow lifted, amusement dancing still behind his eyes.
“And where have you been wandering, my Lanen?” he asked, smiling. “I know that look. You’re a hundred leagues away from here.”
“You know me far too well,” I said, grinning. “But I’m back now, so no matter. Is there any more of that soup?”
Varien and I helped Jamie with some of the chores—feeding and brushing the horses, cleaning tack, spreading straw—until Varien walked up to me and gently but firmly took the pitchfork out of my hands, took me by the arm and led me into the house. I was confused, for I tried to ask him what he was thinking and he would not answer aloud, and hushed me when I tried to speak. He seemed both intense and amused, a most curious c
ombination. When I finally thought to bespeak him I was astounded by the depth of the feelings that I sensed—his mind roiled with his longing combined with the greatest good humour as we moved into the bedroom and he shut the door behind us.
I could hardly believe the passion in his kisses, in his body as we moved apart only enough to undress. It felt—I shivered—somehow, for the first time it felt like the depth of passion that had joined us in the first place, love and honour and desire strong as the bones of the earth. I was moved almost beyond words—how can I describe it to you? It was the first time I realised that the impossible was true: I was wed to Akor, a thousand years old, wise and strong—and celibate until very, very recently.
I laughed in the midst of our passion. “You do learn quickly, for such an old man!”
He smiled, a fierce joyful smile, and replied—well, you may imagine as you will what he replied, for the sweet things said in a marriage bed are not to be repeated.
The Place of Exile
Hear now the words of the Eldest, the Keeper of Souls of the Greater Kindred. Here I commit my soul to the Winds and give you my name for truth-fasting: I am Hadretikantishikrar of the line of Issdra. Hear now the truth of those times that changed the world.
I woke in darkness with a start and knew that something was wrong. I had been drowned deep in the healing Weh sleep, so that struggling back to awareness was not unusual in itself—but the air tingled and the ground felt strange beneath me. The Weh always leaves a feeling of new health and strength, especially in one as old as I, but this was different. My heart was pounding and fire grew within me, a reflection of what I could only think was fear. Why?