Disclaimer: All characters and locations, as always owned by Tamora Pierce.

Chapter One: A Struggle

Midsummer. The one day of the year both lovers and loners alike hold their breath in anticipation of 'unexpected' declarations of love and affection. A time of passionate embraces, impromptu swooning, copious amounts of roses and in the case of a certain black robe mage…unrequited love.

Swirling waves threw themselves at the mercy of the cliffs overlooking the Emerald Ocean, pounding at the breakwater of Port Legann like a stricken page strikes the door on his first summons to the Kings Chamber. Come closer ashore and you'll see a lone figure riding out Port Legann's main gates atop an enduring painted gelding while a falcon negotiating the sea air current can be seen wheeling above. Numair Salmalin admittedly was not the realms strongest rider, but he liked to think he made up for it in other areas… Shielding his eyes from the sun with a large hand the mage searched the sky for his companion, he couldn't help but be worried for Daine each time she took to the air as countless dangers lurked where he couldn't follow. She always insisted she was much more useful when able to provide a 'birds-eye view' of their situation - the latter was always accompanied by a grin, but somehow he failed to see the jest. How could he protect her if she was being so gods-cursed obdurate? Numair smiled bitterly. Someone had to carry their supplies, and strangely it always ended up being him.

Shifting his eyes from the hunting bird soaring ahead to the dusty southern road Numair's mind raced over the mornings events, almost blurry as they had taken place with such haste. Earlier that morning he and Daine had been summoned to Jonathan's quarters following a report of a strange sighting to the south of Port Legann. An army was gathering strength beyond their walls. More recent messages – the latest conveyed by Ulmer of Greenhall – told of strange creatures that tore the skin from whatever they touched, including a knight who had been dispatched to confront them. Numair recalled the way in which Daine's eyebrows drew together with worry, no doubt over her animal friends who were in danger, he doubted whether she would much care for the late Sir Hallec's fate. Skysong was also not yet recovered from her ordeal with the wyverns, the mage knew seeing the little dragonet so drained had placed extra stress on a tired Daine. Tkaa had assured her Kitten would recover, and that seemed to put her at ease for the moment.

Not for the first time, Numair wished he could comfort her. Endless conflict throughout the realm meant that Daine and himself were worn nearly to the bone from the dispatches they had received, so much time spent together meant that during the past few years their relationship had grown from travelling companions to fast friends. At least, he'd led her to believe that he was content to simply be her friend. In all honesty whenever Jon sent the Wildmage out on an assignment a most peculiar feeling of emptiness threatened to overcome him. It was this feeling that first made him aware his affections were far more than platonic. Gods how he loved her. His façade was beginning to wear thin, there were moments when he had lost control and given her insight into his true feelings for her from which she emerged looking shaken, short of breath and uncertain of why her body had unexpectedly betrayed her. What if…what if she was to love him in return? Focus mage, nothing can ever come of it. Numair took in a deep breath and turned his immense mind to the task at hand. One last pesky thought snuck through his mind before years of meditation and training took over – Is it possible to die for want of someone? He was perfectly sure it was. Gods bless it! He shook his head to clear his mind. There was something he was far more likely to die from if he didn't concentrate. The Skinners.

Hearing a cry from the east, his head jerked up in time to register a falcon tumbling from the sky...something was wrong! He wasn't sure if it was his heart or Daine that fell faster, urging Spots into a gallop he raced to where she looked to have fallen.

Looking back upon the following events, the black robe would wince at his foolishness, he should've acted faster, although perhaps that wasn't possible…as it stood his memories were blurred anyway. So poor was his horsemanship that by the time he and Spots finally came upon the fallen Wildmage, the Skinners were already gathering. Throwing himself off Spots' back he rushed to her side. Spelling Daine's arrows with a Word of Shakith was the only thing he could think of to counter attack the strange immortals that were fast swarming around her. But Words of Power were such complex workings, it wasn't long before lavishing his gift upon the Skinners began to have an adverse effect on his body. His breathless lungs near screamed for air, oh Gods he was tired, almost drained of his magic. Grant a boon on a Midsummer's day. Please Goddess, let that stop them. Turning to Daine he found exhaustion was riding hard upon them both, with crossbow in hand she was almost grey with fatigue. He heard her gasp and bravely re-arrange her stance as half a dozen more Skinners exploded out of the earth to their right, and began to advance.

Oh gods, there were too many, what…? Daine? He had to squint to look at her, as a blinding white light was slowly beginning to surround his love, an enemy mage? No, even with the miniscule amount of magic he had left he could sense it was divine power. There it was again, that familiar tightening of his heart, the sheer force of emotion he felt at that moment summoned enough energy to throw himself towards his Magelet. After everything they had been through he would not, could not, lose her now, not even to the Gods. Wrapping his arms around her fading form, Numair had just enough time to commit the feel of her to memory, with the impression it would have to last him for a very long time. As he felt himself swallowed up by the foreign magic Numair thought he heard a familiar sound broaching the impending darkness. "Curse you follow them, follow, follow, follow"… the mage knew that voice, but the memory faded into hazy darkness and was lost as pain finally overcame him.