Recap: Alys has been having romantic and sexy dreams about Selendrile, something that makes her worry that she might be the next target of a coven of witches who use the dreams of young girls to kidnap them for nefarious purposes.
Selendrile has also just brought in a swordmaster to teach the men and boys of the village how to fight.
She needed back into the dream. Now. Her skin was heated in something between a flush of excitement and an embarrassed blush. Her heart thrummed in her ears, and she felt as though she had been ripped through a narrow, dark tunnel and out the other side was a world where nothing made sense.
Where was Risa to talk her through this with riddles? Those were far more comforting than these dreams with Selendrile that seemed to be escalating into something she couldn't even understand.
What WAS that? She wondered, shivering at the memory of Selendrile's hands closing around her arms. It was nothing new, but the novelty of allowing herself to feel for him remained even after being awake. They just seemed to be getting more and more detailed, showing her exactly what she wanted, what she yearned for, but never allowed herself to think of while awake. Every time she looked at him she wondered if they could transition their relationship from a few kisses into something more powerful, and now in dreams he was making promises to her that the two of them could be more.
He was promising her everything and it was confusing.
It was completely erotic.
But was it real in any way? In the dream, and if she was honest in the few moments after waking, she had thought he was really in her subconscious through some dragon magic, and had really said those things. Truthfully, it was probably just her subconscious playing with her feelings of unrequited love.
Alys struggled to put the thought into the back of her head, telling herself it wasn't fair to either of them to hope for something he had made clear couldn't happen – even if a few situations between the two of them had completely showed her the contradiction between what he did and what he said. No matter how often he made overtures towards her that made him seem interested, her mind always went back to the moment he broke her heart and told her a dragon and a human could never be together. She rationalized every kiss away with that rationale, even when it became obvious that it might not have been the truth.
Selendrile wanted her just as much as she wanted him, she was sure of it.
She just wasn't ready to believe it.
Sighing, she slipped out of bed, the floor cold beneath her feet. The castle was silent as her soft footsteps fell across the corridor. She didn't know why she was out of bed, as the smart thing to do would be to stay in the warm cocoon of her blankets and hope for sleep. Instead, she pushed open the heavy wooden doors to the upper battlement, the ledge making a flat surface so she could look over the town. Besides in her dreams, she hadn't been out here in a while and she enjoyed the solitude with the stars as silent and distant company.
Sometimes, she would survey the view with a warrior's eye, figuring out the best places to defend against ambushes. Tonight, she made a mental note to make sure the new instructor was shown this area during daylight hours. Other times, she would observe the town from the viewpoint of the poor peasant girl and tinsmith's daughter she was before Selendrile. From here she could see the roofs which needed hatching, or whether a section of fencing had let go.
Tonight, she looked at the view like a woman might, a little regretful of the things that had gone wrong in the past few weeks as her eyes scanned across the Smith home, but hopeful for the future as she looked upon the fertile lands. Mostly, she just enjoyed the beauty of the view.
Somehow, Alys managed to drift back to sleep despite these thoughts circling through her mind. When she woke up, the sun had been in the sky for a few hours and she was lying sprawled across the roof of the castle, her body shaded by one of the turrets. The new instructor was already at work with the town's men, fathers and sons alike, and she hadn't realized how much she expected him to be Jorge, her old mentor, until she realized it wasn't.
She wanted to stay and watch, but she could see that the class was still going over the very basics, things she already knew or would be able to pick up within moments of seeing more advanced stances. She wanted more than anything to be able to don her boy's clothes and go down to blend with the crowd, but she knew the people in this town all knew each other intimately, and a strange face would be obvious. She had her own responsibilities anyway.
The moment she stepped back inside the castle one of the servants drew her attention away from frivolous things, showing her a broken candlestick whose matching piece was in pristine condition. Alys yearned to work with the metal herself, knowing she could repair the filigree seamlessly, but instead she sent it off to the local metal worker with the hopes he had a good eye for detail. The rest of her day was full of similar choices and more evidence that her life had irrevocably changed and her responsibilities had fallen away from taking care of herself and her father, or herself and Selendrile, and now became taking care of the estate.
Weeks later, the men were still working on basic training, taking days to learn maneuvers Alys had learned in hours with Conrad and Jorge. She only dreamt sporadically of Selendrile, each one leaving her heart pounding rapidly, her mouth dry, and a sense of urgency in the air around her.
Selendrile didn't seem to notice the change in her behavior, even when she started to avoid seeking him out just so he wouldn't hear the obvious quickening of her heart when he was close.
"The problem is that the men can't see how effective the moves I'm teaching them are," Eric the swordmaster told Selendrile one evening at the supper table. Alys paused with her eating utensil halfway to her mouth, keenly listening to the conversation despite not technically being included in it. Eric believed that anything he had to talk about was limited to the menfolk, and that the women should make conversation with themselves. Eric's wife Elisabeth wasn't a great conversationalist, which suited Alys fine as she didn't want to talk about babies anyway.
Selendrile's pointed his knife at Eric casually, as a human might when making a point. Alys, as she usually considered when she noticed things like that, wondered if he was doing it on purpose or just didn't notice anymore. "What did you have in mind?"
"A demonstration!" Eric exclaimed, throwing his arms out wide, a little sauced off the wine and mead that went along with dinner. He never seemed to notice Selendrile barely touched either of his, and Alys only ever had one glass of wine. "A big one. Like a challenge between knights with swords and hand-to-hand combat and real stakes."
"Do you mean a fight to the death?" Alys asked, her fingers tightening imperceptivity around her knife as she shot Selendrile a meaningful look before turning her attention back to Eric. "That sounds dangerous. An unnecessary danger for the purpose of exhibiting fighting moves. Surely some kind of choreographed demonstration would suit your purposes-"
"No!" Eric interrupted, slamming his fist down on the table so that all the dishware rattled against the flat surface. Alys's grip tightened even further around her knife in anger as Selendrile returned her look with one of warning. He then turned his attention towards their swordmaster, a disapproving frown on his face. Eric continued without heeding the cautionary look of his lord. "It has to be a real fight or else the men will never witness exactly what they are supposed to learn. They'll never understand the true danger of what I'm teaching them if they don't see it first hand and that will put them at a major disadvantage when they go to fight themselves. I can teach them defense and offensive moves but if they don't understand that a real fight is spontaneous and dirty and a warrior does everything necessary just to win then I'm not teaching them anything at all."
Finally, Eric wound down his rant and finally noticed the disapproval on Selendrile's face and the fearful look on his wife's. He didn't look to Alys to see her silent fury, and for once Alys was glad to be ignored. She thought Eric misogynistic, but she also thought him right.
"You will never interrupt or disrespect the Lady Alys again, do you understand? She is my sister and your mistress. You have no status in this household except as a servant, so you would do right to remember your place." Selendrile's face did not change out of the disapproving glare and his tone remained firm, even as he moved from berating Eric to agreeing with him. "I understand the truth to your argument, but there is one problem. We have no trained warriors to battle with you. If we did, there wouldn't have been a need to bring in an expert swordmaster."
"My lord, if I may? You're a knight. Fight me. Just for show of course."
Alys looked into her lap. Let me do it, she tried to communicate to Selendrile through her mind. I will pummel Eric to the ground in your name. She smiled at the thought.
Selendrile's eyes shifted towards her for a fraction of a second as she watched him through her eyelashes, not wanting her palpable excitement evident to the rest of the room. For a moment she wondered if he heard her plea and then dismissed the idea as ludicrous. If he could read her mind, there were a lot of other things he would have reacted to over the time they had been together.
"I don't believe that's a good idea," Selendrile quietly claimed.
"We could have a tournament!" Alys blurted out the moment the thought entered her head. "You would preside over it and all the minor lords and interested warriors in the area could attend for and compete for the title of being your steward, or head of guard, or—"
"A tournament would be perfect!" Eric interrupted and then immediately turned red and stammered his apologies to Alys.
She hadn't even noticed the slight so soon after Selendrile had warned Eric to respect her, she was too excited at the prospect of the tournament. This wouldn't just be her informally battling Eric in front of the townsmen, but she'd be able to really test her prowess for the first time since the previous winter. Then she'd know for sure whether she really was skilled at fighting and if all her practice was keeping her in shape. Winning the tournament would be a major coup.
Alys turned to stare at Selendrile, wondering if he'd be able to read her mind this time. She couldn't think of anything better than a tournament to take her mind off the stress of waiting for the witches to reappear and the monotony of her day-to-day life as mistress of the household.
"I'll consider it," Selendrile promised, standing from the table with his meal only picked at. Both Eric and his wife stood to show their respects. The first time this had happened, Selendrile hadn't known what to do but today he dismissed their deference with a wave of his hand and a careless "carry on" as he left the table.
Alys excused herself from the table the minute she finished eating, leaving their guests to decide whether it was acceptable etiquette to continue eating with neither she nor Selendrile present. He was missing by the time she reached his rooms, and Alys turned on her heel and hurried outside, impatient to speak to him.
She snuck through the side door and down the hill as quickly and silently as she could. One thing she had never been very good at was tracking, but she had picked a few things up from Conrad and later Sir Guy. It took her longer than it should have to find the pile of clothes Selendrile left at the edge of the forest, and she knew that if she pressed ahead it would be less skill and more blind luck if she actually managed to find him. More likely, he would find her.
The when depended completely on whether he wanted to talk to her or not. If he did, he would appear shortly, but if he didn't then she wouldn't see him until it was time for him to leave the forest and return to the castle. He'd never leave her in alone in the forest looking for him and she was sure he knew the moment she stepped into the woods that she was there.
Alys paused beside his clothes wondering if she should wait, but the prospect of trying to find him was too strong of a lure. She had always been more curious than cautious, sometimes detrimental to her safety.
The forest was dark, but she could see by the light of the quarter moon. She walked confidently over roots and fallen branches, avoiding a small sink hole between two rocks with ease. Alys didn't notice clouds covering the moon, she was so intent on searching her surroundings for Selendrile.
A warning growl rumbled behind her and Alys swung around quickly, dagger clasped in her hand. A lone wolf was standing atop a small incline, watching her through intelligent eyes. She couldn't see the color, but she could tell by the way it watched her that it was no simple animal.
"I'd like to talk to you," she told him, relaxing her stance slightly. "Once you finish hunting supper, of course."
The wolf growled, eyes following her dagger as she lowered it a fraction.
Suddenly Alys was concerned. Selendrile never cared if she aimed a weapon at him, always thinking it more amusing than threatening. Her grasp tightened and she stared at the wolf. He growled again, teeth barred as he backed up a step and disappeared over the back of the incline.
"Selendrile?" Alys demanded harshly. He growled again, teeth barred as he backed up a step and disappeared over the back of the incline.
"Selendrile?" Alys demanded harshly, though she was now convinced it wasn't him.
"Here," he said from behind her, half the word more of a purr than something vocalized by a human. She turned to see him morph mid-step and fall beside her fully human.
Alys wordlessly handed him her shawl, and he twisted it around his hips without comment about her modesty or even a smile. She wasn't sure if that was because he was accustomed to her or if the situation was so grave teasing her was the last thing on his mind. They both stared at the empty spot where the wolf had just stood.
"Who was that?" she asked, assuming now that he had seen the wolf.
"I have no idea. Probably just a wolf," he shrugged. "You wanted to talk?"
Alys wasn't sure she believed that the animal was merely a wolf, but she understood Selendrile well enough that she knew he wanted her to let go of the subject. He was probably right. Finally she nodded. "About the tournament," she told him.
"I'm not convinced there will be a tournament. It will cost us more than it's worth, our privacy will be compromised, and there is always the possibility someone will recognize us as being interlopers instead of the heirs to this land. Give me one good reason to agree to this madness."
Alys gave him a level look. "It will be fun." She followed this with a grin.
"If that's the best you can do, then my answer is no," he told her, bending to look at the ground beside one of the trees. In one quick movement he lifted a mouse by the tail and presented it to her. "What do you think, supper?"
Alys straightened her shoulders, not allowing herself to become squeamish with the idea of him eating the mouse in front of her raw. If he could watch her eat stew without gagging then she could certainly do this. "Looks a little sparse," she informed him, "but go ahead if you're hungry."
"I am," he purred, focus resting on the mouse for a moment before turning to her, the exact same expression still on his face. "What do you think Alys? There's only one other thing around here edible to me, and you did interrupt my hunt with your need to talk. Should I have you for supper? It would be a lot more satisfying."
He licked his lips and Alys closed her eyes in response, her body reacting to him so sharply that she had to subtly pinch her inner arm to make sure she wasn't dreaming. He didn't mean it like that, she told herself. As her eyes were closed she heard the crunch of mouse bones and she kept her gaze averted until she couldn't hear him eating anymore.
When Alys opened her eyes his lips were smeared with blood and he was looking rather pleased with himself. She swallowed heavily, thankful for the reminder that he wasn't the clever human with the handsome looks that she sometimes mistook him for.
They stared at each other levelly for a moment until Alys picked up the conversation from before he decided to provoke her. "If you won't accept fun as an argument, then consider how wonderful an opportunity it will be."
"How so?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow as he licked his fingers clean.
Alys only had the vaguest idea, and it was becoming fuzzier by the moment. "Well, the witches will think that we're distracted by the visitors and the games, but really we'll be ready and waiting for them. It's the perfect opportunity for a trap."
Selendrile nodded once. "You may have a point."
"You know I do," she argued. "Plus with an entrance fee and our lesser hall turned into a tavern with food and drink, we could possibly generate more revenue than we lose with the prize." Alys knew how Selendrile felt about his treasure horde, and thought appealing to his capitalistic side would help her win the argument. Now that he could see the value of his treasure through prolonged exposure to the human world he was even less likely to part with it.
Selendrile smirked, seeing right through her. "I'll think about it," he promised.
Alys grinned, trying to hide her self-satisfied response by nodding and turning to look at the moon. "I should get back to the castle. Just promise me you actually will think about it, yeah? I'll let you get back to hunting."
Selendrile grabbed her wrist, turning her sharply around to face him. "You can't hide anything from me, Alys," he informed her. "Don't assume I don't understand your selfishness in wanting a tournament. You won't be participating."
"No. You will NOT be entering any of the competitions. If I decide to host this, you will be by my side throughout the entire thing."
Alys glared up at him. "You don't understand," she said stubbornly.
"I do understand," he responded quietly, his voice allowing for no argument. "But you will not risk your life for anything as foolish as a game. There is no honour to be won by pretending to be a man in order to prove your own skills and there's too much risk you will be found out. Right now you're my pocket ace."
Alys stared up at him, confused.
"I like people underestimating you, Alys. You won't do anything to jeopardize that."
She looked at him and finally nodded, conceding though it was the last thing she wanted to do. "Same goes," she told him crisply. "You will not do anything to put yourself in danger or allow anyone to find us out."
Selendrile grinned. "Deal," he told her, letting go of her wrist and taking a step back. All of a sudden, he was no longer standing there and in his place was a mountain lion.
Alys smirked. "Good kitty," she said, reaching out to pet him. Selendrile growl at her, swiping with one of his big paws but missing her hand altogether. She laughed at him and scratched behind his ear, surprised at how soft his fur was. He purred beneath her fingers, neck vibrating. "Watch out for human hunters," she told him. "You have a rug that looks like your cousin right now."
He nuzzled slightly against her palm and turned, running into the dark forest. She stared after him for a moment before turning and making her way back to the castle.
The next evening Selendrile announced the tournament.
My thanks go out to everyone who waited (im)patiently for this chapter and who still enjoy this story enough to continue reading it despite the fact I haven't updated. I cherish readers like you more than you can know.