Chapter Sixty-eight

Lily did not recall being brought to the castle. She did not recall what conversation, if any she'd had with Schneider and Lady Nei on the night-dark street beyond the tavern. It was all a blur of hazed memories and confused, terrified sensations. People moved around her, spoke in hushed voices about her, or about the events of the night, or about gods knew what else and she couldn't find it in herself to gather an interest for it. She sat curled in a chair with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, shivering, eyes huge and blank, reliving over and over those last terrible, helpless moments. She could not get out of the loop. The recollection of her own powerless body moving forward, speaking not of its own accord, beckoning him closer by her very oddness. The look on his face when he'd recognized the Master. The utter shock. Fear. Even a little betrayal to see her standing passively in the monster's employ. Magic had happened, most of which she was blatantly unaware of, and then she was free. By then it was too late. He forced her away, she knew very well it had been him and not the master. And when she had the nerve to scramble back -- there was nothing. Nothing but the sibilant promises the master had made. Nothing but the overwhelming anguish and dread certainty that if she saw Kall-Su again, it wouldn't be him. It would be a fiend wearing his form and that thought was more than she could bear.

Yoko hovered about her now and then, worried and gently urging her to take hot tea and to eat. She refused the food, but the tea felt good on a throat raw from crying.

"You could have told me." Yoko said once, soft reprimand. "I could have helped if I'd known."

She didn't respond. She didn't know how Yoko could have helped. Her mind kept circling back to the Master's threats. She couldn't shake the depression that began to shadow her heart. The concrete assurance that there was no hope. She had lived too long under the Master's thumb, under his all controlling influence to assume he would not get what he wanted.

It was day again -- or perhaps the day after -- she might have sat the morning, afternoon and night in a stupor, lost in her own fearful contemplation. She was so tired her vision swam. Yoko tried to get her to climb into bed. She didn't know whose room this was, it was not the one she had used when she was a servant here. She had not seen Yoko's wizard, or any of his brethren since she had been brought here. They had disappeared with the night and she'd not had the presence of mind to inquire. Yoko might have mentioned it, but Lily did not recall.

She slept and awoke to the whispering of girls. Two of the upstairs servants at the door to the room, one with a tray in her hands. Both caught in the midst of speculation about her presence. One of them said her name, when they saw she was awake and smiled a little nervously. Not malicious smiles, but curious ones. She wondered what rumor had spread about the castle by now. She didn't know what time it was. Or how much had passed.

"Has lord Kall-Su come back?" she asked softly, not caring what they thought of that unsubtle question. It blared too persistently in her head not to ask it. They shook their heads, wide eyed.

"Is it true?" One whispered. It was not the Master's appearance or the subsequent disappearance of their lord that they asked about. Lily was silent on that, pushing away covers. She still wore the red skirt she'd performed in.

"Who's room is this?" It was someone's room, for it had accumulated possessions sitting about that did not collect in the guest rooms.

"Lady Yoko's."

Oh. They set the tray down, but she had stopped paying them heed. She was staring out the window, which had the faint light of morning seeping through the leaded glass. Where was he? Was he even still what she knew and loved? A chill swept over her body, so harsh and violent that she bent double, wrapping her arms about herself. Goose pimples rose on her skin, her teeth chattered uncontrollably. A sign, she thought, panicked. A dread sign of death. The coldness of a grave. But he'd never see a grave, at least not his body, that would come back with the Master behind those eyes and it would wreck vengeance upon her. And upon all the others the Master considered enemies. Yoko.

She jumped off the bed, ran down the hall looking for Yoko. Calling her name in desperation. The maids, who had been talking around a bend in the hall looked at her as if she were insane. But, down at the end of that corridor Yoko stuck her head out of a door. Lily ran to her, grabbed her arm with frantic, clutching fingers.

"You've got to hide. He said he'd come back for you. He said he'd kill you."

"Lily. Lily! Who said?" Yoko stared at her wide eyed.

"The Master." Lily wailed. "He'll destroy him first and then he'll come back for us." She started sobbing again. Heartwrenching, hurtful sobs. Gods she hated crying. Yoko wrapped her arms around her, trembling a little.

"Rushie won't let him." She promised. "Rushie will stop him."

"How?" Lily cried. "How can he, if he has all of Kall-Su's power?"

"You underestimate Kall." Yoko whispered, but there was fear under her veil of assurance.

"You don't know the Master. You don't know how powerful he is."

"I know. I know very well."

"If he comes here it will be too late. We've got to hide."

Yoko held her at arm's length. "I can't hide. If you're right -- if he takes Kall and he gets past Rushie -- then still I can't hide. He killed my baby. He's hurt us so badly -- I'll fight him to my dying breath if I have to, but I'll never give him the satisfaction of seeing me cower."

Lily shook her head, numbly. She could not understand the mindset of sorcerers, of warriors, of people who refused to bend even when the wind would surely break them if they didn't. Kall-Su was the same. She's seen that from the very first. He fought until he shattered and then there wasn't anything to fight with anymore. She loved that stubbornness no matter that it frustrated her. It occurred to her that it was fear of the Master coming back and taking out vengeance upon her that made her insides crawl up and quiver. It was the thought of him doing it in Kall-Su's body; the thought of knowing what she loved was gone, and seeing the reminder of the theft in soulless, blue eyes. She did not ever want to see that face with the Master's evil mind behind it.

She wished she had Yoko's faith, but she'd only starting believing in something -- in someone -- very recently. She didn't have the practice Yoko did. The only thing she knew how to do was run. Better not knowing, than to face that which would break her heart.

The western mountains shivered. Their evergreen covered spines became weighted with more than dirt and stone and grasping tree roots. Ice sank its claws deep into the skin of the earth and clung there. It spread like disease, stopped on one side by the sea, racing along in the other three directions unhampered. Nothing survived in its path. The vibrant spring lands were decimated, flattened by the ferocity and the weight of snow and ice. Villages were frozen over, people caught unawares trapped in the maelstrom and frozen as surly as the trees and animals caught in its path. It grew, slowly marginally as the width of destruction became wider. Twenty miles from the eye of the storm. Fifty. The ocean didn't freeze but ships as far out as ten miles were caught in the cold fingers of storm, crusted and weighted with ice and drawn under the waves by the sheer added weight. A hundred miles out and it threatened the sea port cities of the south western coast. It had already covered Keladedra and Sethapia and various towns and villages on the plains to the east of the mountains.

One did not have to be particularly sensitive to magic to sense it. It blared power across the lands like a sieve. From the moment it had begun Schneider had felt it. Two weeks and it hadn't let up. Had grown wilder and more unrestrained. An elemental power gone crazy. It hammered at the senses until one had to consciously try and block it out. Even then it got through.

He sat at the edge of it now and looked into a swirling panorama of white. Snow and ice driven by galeforce winds that slowly advanced. The land on one side was green and growing and then began a jagged line of white. Horses stomped their hooves in abject terror, equine minds being wiser than human ones and wanting far away from the edge of the storm and as quickly as possible. He stared up into the heights of the storm, drawing breath, brows knit as he tried to pierce the fabric of the thing that drove it. Not one of Kall's spells. Oh, most certainly not a thing to be mastered by any wizard, but something sympathetic to the essence of his magic. A thing most definitely not sympathetic to the essence of his own.

Arshes' horse shifted up beside his. He couldn't see her face for whipping black hair. He didn't need to. Her worry was clear in the tenseness of her body, in the way he knuckles gripped the reins. They'd ridden hard and fast, the three of them. Using magic to sustain their mounts, using magic to take routes normal riders could never have managed. There was no doubt to their goal. They were drawn to it like moths to a flame. Anyone with a shred of magical sensitivity could have found the center of this disturbance. Anyone who had the strength to survive the storm raging around it.

"Gods." Arshes said, voice carried away by the winds. It was an adequate statement. They were having to erect shields to protect themselves from the wind and ice now. It was advancing that quickly.

"There's no way we're getting through that." Gara said from behind them.

"No." Schneider agreed. Not considering how far it was to the center from this the outer rim. The further in it got, the more intense the weather and even though it was slowing along the edges, it showed no hint of stopping. And since none of them had a chance in hell of reasoning with an ice elemental, it had to be driven away by force. It was not the confrontation he had been anticipating.

He flipped the reins over his horse's head and handed them to Arshes.

"Shield yourselves."

She stared at him, ready for argument. "But you can't --"

"If you don't, the storm will eat Gara."

She had no argument for that.

He swung down, forgetting them altogether and walked to the edge of the storm. The winds attacked him. He couldn't see from hair in his eyes, so he lowered his lashes and sent out mental tendrils, searching out the heart of the elemental who was wrecking so much havoc.

There, closer to the heart of this thing, a simmering, powerhouse of boundless rage, lashing out at the world. The rage was all it knew. Rage and fear and hatred. All human emotions. It had picked them up from somewhere and took them to heart with all the passion of nature.

He stepped into the storm. Everything was white fury. He shielded, rising high and fast, homing in on the power behind it. He gathered power as he went, hoarding it and holding it simmering and restless, waiting to be released. Over countless miles, all obscured by driven ice, and something insubstantial and yet overwhelming loomed ahead. It stirred from its mindless litany of destruction, aware of something fleshy and warm within the boundaries of its presence. It did not like the warmth. It stirred against him. He was ready for it. He mouthed the words that would release his gathered power in a spell. The world shook. The whiteness was obliterated by a blossoming corona of black power. Heat came with it, volatile and unforgiving. Schneider was a tiny speck at the center of it. The spell could have destroyed a city. Or a mountain. The winds howled their fury and the snow crept back, swarming with pelting ice, like a hive of bees shaken out of their nest. The elemental swelled with the offended outrage. Something like a fist of concentrated ice and wind came out of the storm and slammed into Schneider. It shook his shields to the core. Another of the same power struck him from behind, then another from a different direction. He bled from the impacts. He felt the blows in his bones, even though not a chip of ice got through to actually touch his skin.

He hated dealing with elementals that weren't tamed, that had not taken the physical form that man required of them in order to control them. It was damned hard to hit an insubstantial foe with a concentrated spell like Exodus or Zako-Damero. You had to use the all encompassing, power eating variety of magic that a body just could not fire off one after the other without a chance to recuperate energy. He summoned a fireball spell just to piss the thing off and it was swallowed by the storm in moments. But it didn't like it. Ice elementals didn't like fire. He didn't have a fire elemental in his arsenal powerful enough to best this thing. He didn't know if he could destroy it. Which meant he had to annoy it enough to make it give up its present tantrum and drive it away to more peaceful climes. He needed heat. Persistent, white-hot heat.

He took a breath, formulating a spell, devising a slight variation in the casting. He gathered power, opened himself wide to keep it coming -- and he started to burn. His shields were blasted out from the inside. His clothing was burned away in the first flash of bluish flame. A small sun flared in the midst of the blizzard. A man writhed at the heart of it, drawing power from inner sources that most wizards couldn't even dream of matching. And still it seemed hardly enough. The spell was designed for a great blast of flame that would explode outwards, quickly consume anything in its path and recede. He was keeping it fueled, not allowing it to dissipate and it was sucking power from him so quickly he felt lightheaded. He moved ponderously into the heart of the elemental. It raged against him, but it couldn't keep him out. All the bits and pieces of it melted at his touch. It hated him. It was determined not to be overwhelmed by him, but it hated the heat of his flames more. So it retreated. He followed. And it retreated further, but did not flee outright.

In frustration he demanded more power, drawing it from the eather, from the air, from the distant and closely connected aura of Arshes Nei, who sensed his need and opened herself freely. The globe of fire expanded, heat and width doubling, until it licked the earth and ate at the substance of the dark clouds that had gathered the elemental's bidding. The tundra beneath it melted and wet earth sizzled and smoked. The elemental screamed in fury and aversion. It had come out of curiosity after all, and the emotions it had picked up that drove it were fading in lue of the discomfort it was experiencing. It rather disliked humans.

It gathered itself into a wispy current of cold air and power and sped away back towards the frigid north that had spawned it. The winds slowly began to cease. The mini sun flickered and burned out. Schneider barely controlled his plummet to the earth. He came down on hands and knees, naked as the day he was spawned. The snow continued to fall, but it was a light, drifting snow, not a driven, ice laced one. The ground was wet and muddy, but starting to freeze over again. The elemental might be gone, but the cold system would take a while to dissipate.

He hated the cold. He especially hated being naked in the cold without the energy to do a Sartor spell or even a decent warming one. He wrapped his arms about himself and shivered, thinking dark and evil things about ice elementals and mad men who thought they spoke the word of god.

He looked about himself. He was in the lee of a mountain, but the earth was as desolate as the ice fields of the far north. Trees were nothing but toppled, ice crusted shapes that lined the mountain side. It was that way for as far as he could see. Nothing but razed land. This had not been Angelo's doing. If Angelo had survived the release of this thing, he would be surprised. He hoped Kall had -- if for no other reason so that he could smack him repeatedly for summoning something he had obviously not been able to control. First rule of wizardry, don't summon a creature you aren't damn certain you can overcome if need be. Hell, he hadn't over come it, he'd merely driven it away and then more because it hadn't really had its heart in the battle, than anything else.

He sighed, rubbing his arms for circulation and managed to gather just enough strength to heat himself. Then he started walking.

He found Kall-Su before Arshes and Gara found him. An hours walk from where he'd come to ground and he saw the ice covered bones of a decimated fortress. It was not recognizable as Angelo's. He'd only seen glimpses of it then after it was destroyed by its own warding spells, before he'd been snapped back to Sta-Veron by his counter summoning spell. Now it was nothing but blocks of ice that looked different from the more natural shapes of iced shrouded trees around it.

He climbed up amongst the haphazard blocks, slipping here and there, cursing the ice soundly and just happened to come upon something that was not ice, but flesh and blood.

Kall-Su sat against a man high chuck of ice or stone, with his arms around his knees, staring blindly out across the distant, white valley. He was scuffed and bruised, dried blood smeared his skin. Half healed cuts and abrasions marred his face and hands.

Schneider stood there for a moment, half afraid that it wasn't Kall at all, then common sense set in and with it the realization that it could be no one else, for certainly Angelo had more sense than to just sit here lackadaisically while the world was eaten up by ice around him.

"Are you fucking insane?" He snapped, angry and miserable and testy with the surge of relief that flooded him.

Kall slowly turned his head and looked up at him, squinting at the sun behind his shoulders. He blinked. His eyes were bruised, but sane.

"You don't have any clothes on."

"No shit. You don't have the slightest bit of sense. Why are you sitting out here doing nothing? Why didn't you try and get home? Where the hell is Angelo?" He crouched down to be eye level.

Kall shook his head, at a loss for reasonable explanation. He unfastened his overtunic instead, slipped out of it and handed it to Schneider. Schneider grimaced and accepted it. He would rather have had answers.

"Why didn't you make new clothes?"

"Because I spent all my energy chasing away your damned elemental."

"Oh. . . . . . . . Angelo's dead."

Schneider sat back. He'd thought as much, but to hear it confirmed -- he didn't know whether he was elated or disappointed. He would have dearly loved to kill the bastard himself.

"What happened? Why the hell did you summon something that goddamned huge? Do you have any notion what its done?"

Kall shivered, looked away from him as though he were ashamed. "I -- I didn't mean to. He got inside my head. I panicked -- I was reaching for anything and that responded. I couldn't control it afterwards. I couldn't even sense it. I didn't know until a few days ago it was still active."

"Why?" Schneider raised a dubious brow.

"It took me that long to get out of the tunnels."

"Again, why?" Something was wrong here. Something more than shell-shock and guilt. "Its been two weeks, Kall. Why did it take you that long to get out? Why didn't you just blast your way free. How the hell could you not sense the damned elemental freezing the west coast solid?"

Kall hugged his knees tighter, opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out, then he shook his head, took a breath and blurted. "He burned me out, DS. And I finished the job when I tried to stop the elemental. I can't summon any power. It just won't come. I can't sense anything. Its like I'm blind." He said this last with his forehead pressed against his knees, miserable and forlorn. Schneider stared at him, stunned, not quite believing it. Probing himself to see what signs he could of such a claim. He could fix almost any physical ill, but the mental ones were beyond him and the channels that focused power and magic were purely mental. He could sense the scarring though. It pulsed with heat and dull residue pain. It was why he hadn't been able to sense Kall before this -- there had been nothing of his unique power signature to latch onto. It was all locked away behind mangled mental amplifiers.

"Oh my god." He said softly, aghast. A deep set, helpless rage began to build. Angelo had done this and Angelo was beyond his reach. He needed something to strike out at in his fury. He cursed and Kall flinched.

"I'm sorry." Kall said.

"What the hell for?"

Kall just looked at him. He was dirty and injured, looking hardly older than the day he'd found him and just as miserable. He gathered him into his arms. Kall went stiff, not expecting it, then he shuddered and relaxed, pressing his face into Schneider's shoulder.

"It'll be okay." Schneider promised. "Yoko's better at the mental stuff than I am and her damned father's even better. We'll fix you."

"What if you can't?" Dully asked, more than a little fear behind it. "What good am I without my power? I can't protect Sta-Veron. They won't have me without it. You won't --- have any use for me without it."

Ah, back to the old fear of abandonment. Understandable fear, at least as far as Sta-Veron went. Schneider felt a little miffed that Kall thought he was so shallow as to extend it to him. But, he'd never gone to lengths to dispel that myth.

"I stopped having a use for you a long time ago, remember? So if that were the case then I wouldn't have bothered to come all the way out here looking for you. And if you tell anyone I said this I'll deny it vehemently, but I love you the same with or without it. So get over it, Kall, I'm tired of boosting your ego."

Kall-Su didn't say anything to that. Just took a few breaths and pushed away from him. Sat back against the icy stone and looked at him skeptically. Schneider put his back to against the adjacent corner, putting out a little more effort on the personal heat spell. The over tunic wasn't long enough come between his bare ass and the damn frigid ground. He sent out a little tendril of power towards Arshes, just to make certain she knew where to come and hoped she didn't waste any time about it. Maybe in a little while he'd have the energy for a Sartor spell.

Arshes showed up about half an hour later, airborne and worried. And very, very relieved when she saw the both of them. Gara was somewhere behind her, making slower time with the horses. She looked Schneider up and down dubiously, lifting her arched brows at his bare legs. She started to offer her cloak, but he waved her away, having had enough hand outs for one day. With her here, he didn't particularly care if he drained himself of the energy he'd managed to recover. There was nothing alive in these white sheeted mountains that she couldn't handle. There might not have been anything alive for miles and miles. He cast the Sartor spell as simply as possible. Black, black and black without a speck of ornamentation.

She asked Kall to retell the story he'd already told Schneider. He did, haltingly, giving her an under the lashes belligerent look, as if he dared her to criticize him for any of it. She didn't. She just stared at him, narrow eyed, then surprised the both of them when she swooped down and hugged him. He was more uncomfortable with her embrace than he had been with Schneider's and she broke it quickly, a little embarrassed herself and scooted back. The two of them, Kall-Su and Arshes, had never particularly shown affection for one another -- they'd fought like cats and dogs for most of their lives -- and grudgingly backed each other up when the occasion warranted, during the rest.

There was no need to make Gara cover the inhospitable distance with horses in tow. Arshes took all three of them up and across the mountain and valley. It took her almost two hours to reach a perceivable end of the path of icy destruction. She was exhausted by the time they spotted Gara and the dark forms of horses against the snow. Somewhere along the way, they'd flown over the collapsed, frozen bones of a shanty village, probably a logging camp, or a trading outpost. There was nothing alive there now, and Kall had gone deathly silent at the sight of it. It must have began to occur to him, what else the elemental storm he'd brought about had done along with turning a good deal of the western mountains and coast into tundra. He wasn't talking much by the time they set down and Gara had to get the details second hand from Schneider and Arshes Nei.

It was not a particularly pleasant trip back home. They followed the edge where the storm had stopped. There were refugees quick enough, or close enough to the outer rim of the maelstrom that had escaped, that had set up desperate, threadbare camps with what little they had been able to save from their villages, waiting for the hot sun to make the ice recede. Their eyes were dull and bewildered. They were more than willing to part with a mount for Kall for more gold than they'd probably seen their whole lives. Enough to buy a new life somewhere, since the old one had been eaten away by ice.

It was a week into true summer when they came within view of Sta-Veron's walls. Aside from the gate guard who were plainly jubilant and sent runners ahead to the castle, no one on the streets paid them heed. They were travel worn and dirty, save for Schneider, who couldn't abide filthy clothes and created new ones when it suited him.

Kiro had the gates open and waiting for them. The castle staff turned out in high spirits, Yoko hugged them all, even Arshes, babbling almost incoherently between breathless kisses with Schneider.

"I'm so glad you're all back. Is he dead? Do you know what I did? You'd be so proud of me."

They took it inside the cool shadows of the main hall. Kiro was more informative than Yoko. Kiro had the faded traces of a slice along his jaw and limp when he walked. The bandits had attacked the city while they were gone. Brazenly, bolder than they'd ever been in the past with nomad shamans to back them up. The north wall had almost been breached. Men had been killed, but not many on their side. Yoko who had been the only one with sorcerorous skills available had done admirably in shielding Kiro's men long enough for them to take out the shamans and drive away the marauders. Yoko was terribly proud of herself.

"You'd all have done better than me, but I think I made a pretty good showing. Kiro wouldn't let me take up a sword."

"Smart man." Schneider remarked casually, but Kall grew paler than normal and looked visibly shaken. He looked like he wanted to be elsewhere. But he latched onto Yoko and urged her a few steps away from the gaggle of listeners and asked.

"Have you seen Lily? Do you know what happened to her?"

Yoko's face fell. She had never been good at hiding her emotion. It showed through now like a shroud of doom and Kall almost took a step back from her in denial.

"She's gone, Kall. She left almost a month ago with her minstrel friends. She was afraid --- she was afraid Angelo would come back instead of you."

She might as well have said Lily was dead. Kall shut up then, slipped through the people in the hall to the silence of the upper floors. No one saw him for the rest of the day, until Schneider brought Yoko to his room to see what she could make of his mangled power channels. She sat in a chair opposite him for a long time, her eyes closed, a light sheen of sweat making her skin glisten, then she opened her eyes and said uncertainly.

"I think maybe we ought to get Father to take a look. There are a few channels that are just singed and raw that will heal on their own, but most of it is just terribly mutilated. I'm sorry, but its beyond me. I -- I don't even know if father can do it and he's the best mind healer I know of."

And that was that. If Kall-Su had an opinion about her declaration he kept it to himself. He showed no emotion whatsoever in face or action. No depression, no anger, no uncertainty of the unknown. Just cold neutrality that no one could see past.

For three days he hermited himself in his room, not even venturing into his library to read, although Yoko had privately surmised to Schneider that he probably had a head ache severe enough to make the one Schneider had boasted seem inconsequential. Then one night he knocked for entrance to Gara's rooms. Not surprisingly, the Thunder Empress was in attendance, and the both of them looked to Kall-Su expectantly, it being the first time in all the months they had been here that he had ventured into either of their rooms.

"You said, before this happened, that if I needed your help here, you would freely give it." He said softly. "I need it now."

Gara stared at him, sword across his crossed legs, polishing rag in hand. He opened his mouth, but Kall held up a hand.

"Protect these people. Schneider does not have the sense of responsibility to do it. I cannot. I cannot be lord here if I can't defend this land."

"Don't be stupid, Kall-Su." Arshes snapped. "You'll heal and you don't need magic to rule a land. Only a handful of rulers do, the rest get along fine."

"We're not talking about them. We're talking about me." He didn't return the rancor that had been in her tone. "Will you do it?" he asked.

Gara drew his brows, catching something subtle that Arshes in her irritation did not. "You asked. You know I will. What are you going to do?"

Kall shook his head. "I don't know." Then he was gone and Arshes and Gara were left to ponder the burden they had just accepted.

The town of Tardash Knoll had been built, predictably enough around a gentle knoll in the north western plainland south of the Great Northern Range. A large, centuries old oak tree dominated the small hillock and under its spreading branches many a town festivity was held. The houses spread out around it, all humble, but well made abodes with neat thatch roofs and sturdy walls. Tardash Knoll was a farming village and the fields spread out beyond the town, well tilled and well planted. It would be a prosperous year. It was already prosperous, at least for the taverns and inns and general stores, for a great many refugees from the terrible and unnatural winter that had struck the western plains and mountains had drifted into town, looking for shelter, for food, for a place to build a new home. Tardash Knoll was a small town, but there was room for growth and not so many had come that the town was at a disadvantage. Most would probably return to remake what they could of their homes since the summer sun was quickly melting away the ice.

It was a good town for minstrels to ply their trade. Devastated people were always in need of good cheer. And the humble folk of Tardash Knoll were elated at the passage of well traveled and talented bards. They were as hungry for gossip from the world outside their small village as they were for the songs and dances the minstrels delighted them with.

It was the sixth town they'd passed since leaving the foothills of the Northern Mountains. Every village had welcomed them with open arms. They'd left with pouches full of small coin. Not wealthy by any means but enough to buy them comfortable beds and hearty meals where ever they stopped. Enough to buy trinkets at markets, fine gauzy scarves and bells to enhance the lively dances that the townsfolk seemed to like so much.

And still it wasn't enough to stop the tears that ushered Lily into sleep every night. The applause, the coin, the freedom of the road, the camaraderie of fellow musicians, all the things she'd always wanted and none of it could wash away the heartache. They tried to help - Dell, Crayl, Allen and Thizura - but they were, being artists, romantic enough at heart to realize that hers was hurt that would only heal with time. Kind words and sympathetic ears were only temporary balms. She could not have asked for better friends than what she found in them. They even put up with her sad songs. She hadn't the heart to sing the happy ones. Even her dances were achingly sensual.

She walked through the muddy streets now, up towards the knoll, her lute under her arm, a gaggle of town children skipping beside her chattering noisily, asking if she'd play this song or that for them. Asking her to tell them things about the great wide world outside. It had rained hard during the morning, and a fine mist still drifted down, keeping everything drenched. She wore a all weather cloak that kept her clothes mostly dry, but her hair hung in sodden strands about her face.

There were venders up under the shelter of the great oak on the knoll. Tents where savory food could be smelled all the way down in town. There was a festival of sorts going on, despite the weather. It was end of first harvest day. The newly picked crop had been sent to market just yesterday and today the townsfolk celebrated. Allun and Thizura had been up all night and well into the morning carousing with the harvesters and were still asleep back at the inn. Crayl and Dell might have been playing a few songs at one of the two taverns the town boasted. She thought she might go up the knoll and sit under one of the awnings and strum a few tunes. The rain made her melancholy worse. She had a few tragic ballads scratching to come out and tavern patrons generally didn't have the tolerance for more than one sad song in a row. No one up on the knoll could chase her away, it was common ground.

So she went up there and played. The children stayed for a while, but soon drifted away, looking for more uplifting things to entertain them. Some of the refugees gathered around her, welcoming the mood, needing to wallow in it. They didn't have coin to give her, but she wasn't playing for coin, she'd do that when the festival began, now she was merely playing to relieve her own emotional strain.

"Sad songs." A woman said. A woman with patched clothing and weather worn, wrinkled skin who sat under the canvas roof of one of the tents, minding a kettle of simmering stew.

"Yes." Lily said, half smiling, softly strumming strings with callused fingers. "I've got to stop singing them."

The woman shrugged. "Sometimes they're appropriate. Sometimes they're all a heart can bear to hear. I lost my oldest boy a year ago, and I still feel the way you do now. Nothing light-hearted will do. Who'd you lose?"

Lily blinked at her. "I don't know." She said helplessly, voice trembling. "I ran away before I could find out."

The woman stared at her, not understanding. Lily got up and left, dreading she might be asked to explain.

Down the hill, down the street with mud squishing in her shoes. The mist had turned into light rain. She sheltered the lute under her cloak. She moved around an empty wagon pulled by two swaybacked, draft horses. Another horse plodded through the mud towards her. Head down she reflexively moved out of its way. Only it stopped and its rider swung down and she had to look up then because her way was half blocked. She blinked water out of her eyes, peering past dripping hair.


Oh, gods. She stood rock still, clutching the lute under her cloak so hard the strings bit into her hands. Her heart beat so hard she thought it would burst from her chest and dance around in the mud at her feet. She couldn't form a word. All she could do was stare, half in fear, half convinced she was in the midst of particularly cruel fantasy. Kall-Su. Wet, mud spattered, hair two shades darker from the rain, lashes blinking water out of uncertain -- oh so very uncertain, blue eyes. Not the eyes of something she should be afraid of.

"Is it you?" she found her voice.

He nodded, whisper of a smile crossing his lips. "Just me."

"Oh --" she felt weak in the knees. She felt like she wanted to run and hide from shame. How did she explain to him her cowardice? How could she justify her lack of faith? She couldn't. "I'm sorry - -" her voice choked up.

He shook his head. "Don't be."

"No." She whispered. "You don't understand --"

"Then I forgive you." Very softly spoken. She hardly heard it over the rain.

A wagon passed by close enough to spook his horse and the animal shied a little, making him take a few steps to the side. It broke the spell that rooted her to the ground. The lute fell to the mud, forgotten. She rushed forward, wrapping her arms around him, pressing her face into his shoulder and holding on with all her strength just to convince herself he was solid and real.

"I thought you were dead. I thought if I ever saw you again it would be him and I couldn't bear that."

"He's gone now. Dead."

She sobbed her relief. "You came after me." She was amazed at the notion. If he wanted her to go back, there would be no resisting him. Not now that she'd gone through the hell of believing him lost to her.

"I love you." He said, simple explanation. There was nothing he could have done that would have bound her heart as unconditionally to him as that plain statement. She almost started sobbing -- it wouldn't be noticed in the rain -- but she hated crying and she'd done so much of it lately. So she swallowed it back, and pulled a little away from him, looking up to study his face, to see what scars were lingering in his eyes. He almost looked peaceful, wet hair mingling with his lashes, water dripping off his elegant nose, down the fine line of his jaw. An all weather black cloak hung about him, but under it he wasn't armored, or dressed in a manner particularly fitting his station. There was a sword in a harness on his saddle, but he was otherwise unarmed. She wanted to ask what had happened, but she was afraid to. He would tell her if he wanted her to know.

"We should get out of the rain." She said lamely, struggling even for those words. There was a stable by the inn she was staying at. She led him there. It occurred to her that he was alone. No escort, which was unusual. She peered down the street in both directions, half expecting to see men at arms waiting at a discreet distance.

"You're not alone?" she asked.

They passed under the thick beamed doorway of the stable. A sleepy stableboy stirred on the pile of straw he'd been dozing and ambled towards them, eyes widening a little as he recognized the high quality of the steed which had entered his domain.

"I am." Kall-Su said.

She couldn't comprehend why. "They let you --?" she faltered, uncertain how the mechanics of being a ruling lord worked, but absolutely certain that such a being never undertook expeditions without some sort of honor guard or escort.

He wiped dripping hair out of his eyes, handing the stable boy the reins to the horse along with an unidentified coin. The boy was as impressed by the coin as the horse and promised the best of care.

"I neglected to mention I was leaving." He remarked carefully. "It was preferable to an argument."

She blinked at him, amazed. "But -- won't --? They'll be --? You'll want to hurry back."

"No. No particular hurry. Circumstances have -- changed."

She didn't understand. She stared at him, blinking. "But, what will you do?"

He glanced away from her, using the boy unsaddling his horse at the back of the stable as a distraction. The uncertainty flickered in his eyes again briefly.

"I thought --" he looked back to her, voice soft, like the brush of velvet across her flesh. " -- I might stay with you for a while. If --- you have no objection to my company."

An almost hysterical laugh escaped her. If she had no objection ---? Oh, gods, if her lungs didn't need air to breath or her body blood to keep it warm and pliant.

"Why?" she whispered, huge eyed and trembling. "Why would you want to, with all the things that you have?"

"Not so many things. Let me tell you later. Not here."

He was a little scared, she heard it in his voice, saw it in his eyes. She was terrified. And rapturous and shivering from more than cold and rain. She stepped in close and pressed her lips lightly to his. Not as much as she wanted to do, but there was no need to entertain the stableboy.

"All right." She agreed. "I can't think of a single objection to save my life."

Of course she didn't know what the minstrels would think, she was part of a troupe now, but she rather thought they'd be relieved to have her sing things other than sad songs. She felt a rather joyous one bubbling up in her now. She let out a little squeak of dismay as she recalled her lute, discarded in the street outside and dashed out into the rain to retrieve it. Kall-Su followed her, looked down at her muddy, instrument in concern as she hastily tried to wipe it clean with her cloak. He extended one side of his own cloak to shield her from the driving rain as they walked towards the inn proper.

From within the lighthearted strands of music could be heard. It drifted into the street pulling other traveling in towards it. She thought it would be a very good night.

The End of Aftermath

Author's note

If you got this far, congratulations. It was a long haul. I can't quite believe I got all the things I planned so long ago actually accomplished. Reward me for my efforts. Let me know if you loved it, hated it, what you think of it. Do you want to hear more from my own alternate section of the Bastard Universe? There are other tales swimming around inside my head.

Thanks all