She felt him in the doorway.
"Why am I afraid of him after all this time?"
But time is just time; to the elves 1000 years was like a series of summer evenings. Even almost endless time does not change love or anger or jealousy.
"You are making a brideshirt?" his voice was quiet.
"Making a brideshirt" in elf culture meant a woman had found a mate, a man she wanted to share a bond with and bear children by.
She was the last of her ladies to sew a brideshirt. She shook her head and smiled without humor at her belief she could have, "this one secret"
"Do I amuse you?"
"Brother is it now?" he circled the room not looking at her, "and as your brother," he spat the word--"you should know never to use that word with me"—-"shouldn't I know your choice?"
She saw what had happened just minutes before. Saw him in the ring fighting with a short staff, when his opponent—Danu—open, friendly, stupid Danu- said, "So, at last your lovely sister is to wear her brideshirt—
She reached up to feel if there was blood on her face. In her mind she watched her brother storm toward her rooms.
He still wore black trousers and boots, but he was shirtless under a borrowed cloak.
"Come sit by the fire," concern flowed through her as she looked at him. He was breathless and sweating. "I will call for some wine and fruit," she moved to him.
"I will know anyway," his eyes watched her, his body still.
"Then why are you asking me?"
"Because I must."
He grabbed her wrist hard and held her, searching her face, his eyes almost grey as he stood with his back to the fire.
"I am stronger," he said like a man trying to get his footing on a cliff face.
"Your body is stronger" she whispered to the room.
"No, I am not making a shirt," she said. His whole body and mind relaxed at her words.
"I made the last stitch some time ago," she spoke as if to herself.
"To make the last stitch" was to pledge to the gods that, whatever came of it, this was her choice. In normal times there would be a great feast for the last stitch of the Princess's brideshirt.
She felt him in her mind, demanding to know her choice.
"My ladies teased me for so long," she continued, ignoring him. "They were forever asking me about which man I preferred"—again she felt his need in her mind—"and when I would bond--All of the other ladies of the court have been mated since even before the human wars, long before this shadow time--"
She looked directly in his eyes for the first time,
"How many times have we sat together as the lights burned down after a feast and watched as, two by two, our hearth companions left the darkening hall for better company?"
His longing to come to her bed, not to only to mate, but to sleep with her in the blue darkness, overcame her. She saw what he wanted as though she stood in the room:
she saw the two of them sleeping the casual sleep of bonded lovers: he stretched out on his back, she just beside him, her hand on his chest. She could almost feel his sleep-warmed skin. She looked out the open window at the stars, and felt the breeze as it filled the curtains by her bed. Oh gods, she thought, it is my bed. Before she could panic, she saw the flickering of a low fire and smelled the clean animal smell of the two of them and just a whisper of her jasmine oil.
She knew from the depth and texture of his thought that he had passed it through his mind every night for hundreds of years.
She looked down and steadied herself.
She was so tired. She knew he was honorable. He had his honor and she had her will to be good. They just had to live through each night—not even the whole night, just that moment each night when they chose not to be together--his blue vision of the two of them together in the night, quiet except for the trill of crickets and the small sounds of their shared sleep, filled her mind again.
But making the shirt had saved her—
"Fianna kept telling me to cut the cloth for the brideshirt even though no man had asked for me," she paused, the old hurt welling up in her. She knew that her brother was fierce, but that no man had ever found her fair enough to even ask for--
At that moment she felt a jumble of his guilt-flecked memories through their bond. She saw Thyrnan, Nodes, Eamon bloodied in the sand of the arena and her brother glowering at them, willing them to their feet so he could strike them again.
He did not meet her eyes, but his grip on her wrist changed and his mind soothed her with soft images of the times when they still shared a bed.
Even after they were old enough to have mated, during the slow afternoons they would lie in Nuala's cupboard bed-- fully clothed atop the covers-- and dream together,
He lay on his back, his hair spread around him. She curled at his side, her head on his shoulder.
"When I am king I will—"
"When you are king, you will what?" she laughed, threading her hands through his hair enjoying the feel of him and thinking how strange it was that he so rarely touched her.
She ran her finger over his dark lips like a curious child, delighting in how different the two of them had become.
She saw the hint of a smile in his eyes, "You are softer now," he caught her hand and held it in both of his own.
She pulled it away to touch his cheek,
"And the sweet-faced golden boy is gone," she thought in mock sorrow.
As they matured, male elves darkened all over. Where her lips and eyes were honey colored, his were almost black.
"And you are not soft anywhere except here," her finger rested just on the indentation of his upper lip when she felt—-in her body and her mind—-how still he had become,
"What has he done to himself?" she thought, startled at the change in him. The eyes that glowed in the blued shadows of twilight had nothing of her brother in them. "Nuada" she thought.
"Say my name aloud," he breathed. She tried to sit up. She never said his name. Even to think it revealed too much. For the elves revealed all their emotions-good or bad—in the speaking of names. To say the name of your beloved was like a deep kiss or the prelude to bedding. She swallowed, knowing that she could not get away from him if he did not choose to release her.
"Nuala" his voice sang through her like a warm mist.
"I do not love you as a brother loves," he said, and then he was above her. His desire for her shimmered through their bond; she turned her mind away.
He held himself on one elbow and touched her face. For a moment, her love for him almost overcame her reason, and then she shut her mind to him—to both of them.
His face took on what she would always think of as his "black look." He never came to her bed or beyond the door to her rooms again.
"But he is here now," she thought, trying to find a way to live through this night.
"Fianna told me to just listen to my mind, that I would know my mate—-that it would happen as I sewed as it did to Aineaghsa in the Old Tales-"
He nodded like a traveler being given directions in a language he only pretends to understand.
"And on the night after the King, our father, last returned from battle I knew who it must be"
He remembered that night as she spoke.
That afternoon there had been tournaments to celebrate their father's return. He had fought in her name, wearing her ribbons on his arm. Everyone knew he was the finest fighter among them. Any other man who fought for a lady would receive a kiss or a favor—-it was only their Prince who fought only to fight again.
That night he watched for her to guide her to her place at the feast.
She had worn blue. It was the first time he understood the full nature of their adult lives together.
She arrived a few moments late with her ladies ("Never alone," he thought) He looked up and saw her walking to him, all of her goodness and love shining through her eyes.
"My champion," she said and kissed him on the point of his jaw—as she had done since they were children and she thought that this point was a cheek.
He knew then that he would be the man who fought for her, shared his rule with her, held her, sat beside her, danced with her, lived with her, listened to her, comforted her, and yet was never a man to her—-only a brother.
He had known no peace since that moment.
She could hear his teeth grind like ice breaking over a furious river.
She was so tired. She let the full measure of her sadness and longing, her weariness of fighting him, flow to him through their bond. She let all of her mind flood into his.
His eyes widened.
"Where is the shirt?" he was full of movement now,
Her eyes darted about the room. "You must not find it."
"I will," for the first time in 500 years his thoughts had laughter in them.
He rifled through her clothing chests, wool and silk in shining piles at his feet. He looked in the window bay and behind the tapestries, his hurried searching making the riders seem to race across the wood.
"He will find it," she thought far inside herself. Her body slid down to the floor, her knees bent to one side as she stared into the fire.
"Why is it black?" he wondered, as he probed her mind to find the shirt's hiding place.
"Because it's for you," that small voice inside her said, but he was too busy searching to hear.
All knew that when a woman met the man she would marry she would make him a shirt of fine cloth to wear under his armor. Usually white or pale green, this shirt was to be embroidered with patterns as old as the elves themselves: flowers and birds and words and his name and her name to keep him safe and show her love.
The first time a man saw the brideshirt was when his bride wore it to bed on the first night of their bond.
At that, her brother ran to the bed, pulling shirt from inside her pillow.
"Oh, do not. Please." She ran to the shirt, forgetting everything but the years and nights and dreams spent sewing her love for him.
It was beautiful--of heavy black silk embroidered in black with pomegranates, the sacred tree, his name and her name, and true lover's knots in deep blue.
She held the shirt with both her hands, but dared not move for fear he would tear it to nothing.
"Wait," he said.
She wished to be anywhere, anyone else.
She released the black silk and he pulled it to him.
His eyes focused to read the black on black:
"Nuada--Nuala--the gods keep him safe to come back to me. I love him—lover—mate—I will warm his bed while this silk warms his heart"
He stared at her in wonder.
"You shared what I felt." It was an accusation.
She had always behaved as though she did not see the way he watched her; did not notice that he held her overlong when helping her on her horse; did understand his jealousy when he declared a flattering new dress "scandalous;" or that he always made sure that it was his arm she took and his cloak that was wrapped round her shoulders to warm her.
She acted as though all brothers warmed a sister by placing her hands inside his jacket flat against the warmth of his chest; or that most brothers rode half the night to find her the blossoms that meant what they wished according to the elves' flower lore.
He had given her violets (secret affection—I wish to be with you alone) when there was snow on the ground, and wintersprite (you are in my mind in every season) in the blaze of summer.
"And you did not see what I felt," she smiled a tiny smile remembering how she clung to him on those nights she ran to him to soothe her night-fears; the way she blushed when he looked at her in a new gown; the warmth of her voice when she greeted him; even the way she watched the way his back looked in the sun, and then she dropped her eyes for fear he would think her wicked.
"You? Wicked?" he said aloud, moving closer to her,
"Everyone knows that it is only The Prince who is ever wicked."
He ran his hand over the words on the shirt, reveling in her love for him, soaking in all the nights she sat by the fire thinking without words about him: About how his body moved as he fought before her; about the way he pushed the hair back from her face when she was sad or thoughtful; of her delight in his rare smiles--
"You didn't know," she thought again, proud she was able to keep some part of her life from him.
"But I know now," he said, leaning in, cupping her face.
She hesitated and then kissed him back as he drew her to him.