Magic is the life-blood of mages and the never-ending fascination of elves. A wilder mage is one who is born with a physical affinity for magic and energy that allows them to wield spells of amazing power. Wilders are subjects of scrutiny, envy, and terror. Through training and discipline there is little magical that is beyond their grasp. It is unfortunate that the power often makes for an isolated existence. Most of my life I have been a source of apprehension and tension, my own mother and members of my family often flinched at my touch--fearing the accidental release of my power. It is something I will always regret.
--Kalindinai T'Evagduran, High Queen of Malan
A Distant Rumble
Bannor Starfist crept up and hid in the shadow of a tree, watching for any members of the royal guard who might be patrolling southern perimeter of Green Run. He swallowed, looking up into the shifting foliage, watching the leaves of the giant scalebark shimmering and rustling in the breeze. Running a hand through his dark hair, he glanced back to the rosewood walls of the outbuilding that formed the first of several tiers that made up the eastern portion of the Malanian citadel. Wisps of mist still trickled the down tree-shrouded hill, filtering through the rings of buildings and lance-like minarets interconnected by a web of narrow walkways and flying buttresses threaded amongst the ancient evergreens.
Drawing a breath, Bannor scanned the gates and paths. No one was coming up behind him. He turned his attention back to the maze of trelliswork that formed the gateway to the Queen's contemplation grove, a collection of rock mosaics, outdoor atriums, and flower gardens. Few save the queen and her closest family entered this place, making it an excellent spot to hide out.
With a final guilty scan to make sure he wasn't observed, he leaped up grabbed the top edge of the gate, swung over, and dropped on the far side. His heels hit the packed turf with a thud that sent a twinge of pain shooting up his back. Clutching his side, he leaned against the hedge with teeth gritted against the discomfort. The wound from being impaled on Odin's spear had been slow to heal. It might be three or four tendays yet before he regained full mobility.
After the agony subsided, he pressed on, taking rights and lefts through the sculpted garden. He breathed in the sweet aroma of flowers, spice vines, and incense trees. No matter how many times he walked through this place, the artistry never ceased to amaze him. So much time, heart, and thought had been put into each tiny arrangement of stone, in every statue and bit of foliage. As a ranger for the Barony of Tenax, he had seen many a natural vista that made his stomach tighten with its beauty; soaring mountain peaks, placid lakes, and lush faerie glades. This place was living art made possible by the incredible patience and creativity of elven artisans, a symmetry of colors, shapes, textures, and smells that soothed the senses of the observer.
Lords how he needed it. The wedding preparations, the constant push-pull between the royals and gentry, all of it just sucked the strength out of him. He'd rather fight a dozen demons than endure those demeaning dinners on display for the gentry. The patronizing tones they used, the thinly veiled sarcasm and references to uncivilized humans. It made him want to break their heads. Did those fops think him totally stupid?
Bannor stumbled to a stop, feeling an ache behind his left ear. Wincing, he pressed his hand to the spot and staggered back a step. The garden in his view did a slow roll.
Eyes were watching him. He felt their gaze like needles on his skin. A presence, cold and mist-like seemed to billow around him. The threads of thousands, no--millions of life-forces flickered and danced around him like rainbow-hued pin-wheels. He gasped, his heart beginning to pound. What was happening? A roaring filled his ears like the crashing of waves on a rocky shore. His view of the garden flashed, every leaf, branch, and stone suddenly transparent like glass. A pale green light, soft and unfocused back-lit the spectral surroundings.
Creation. The word suddenly rang through his body and mind, a resonance that made his bones tremble. Annihilation. Perpetuity... The voice trailed off. A brilliant red flash lit up everything around Bannor, forcing him to shield his eyes. There was a blare of raw noise that thrummed and went silent.
Reeling from the barrage of sensory images, breathing hard, he fell against the trelliswork gripping it with trembling hands to keep himself from falling.
Birds chirped. The breeze hummed. Off in the distance, a bell rang.
Blinking, he looked around, taking forced breaths. Everything looked the same. Not a single thread of magic lingered in the air to suggest what he had just experienced. Creation? What was that all about? He swallowed and shook his head. He gritted his teeth. Things were bad enough with the wedding and adapting to the new routine here in Malan. He certainly didn't need strange experiences like that to add to it!
He pushed himself upright and stood wavering and unsteady. It took a few moments to be sure of his balance. Such miserable timing. He didn't need more grief. Drawing a breath, he calmed himself. He followed the sound of water gurgling over rocks that indicated the center of the garden. He bent low to duck under the arch of the arbor and brushed aside the vines.
Broad stone cobbles formed a wide hem around a pond fringed with ferns. A small stream bubbled through a tumble of mossy rocks and emptied into the further side. Bent frond trees leaned over this secluded spot, forming pockets of shadow against the sun. Birds flitted through the branches overhead, and stinger-bugs buzzed around the flowers sprinkled around the periphery.
With a sigh, he headed for one of the nearby benches and thumped down on it. He removed his satchel and put it on the stones beside him. Damn, maybe the stress was getting to him. Still, that hadn't seemed like a hallucination. What else could that be? It made no sense. Was some pantheon lord playing mind games with him? That seemed so far fetched. The Aesir were well satisfied to be rid of him.
He looked up to the sun, feeling its warmth against his cheeks. He shook his head. He needed rest. He needed peace. Pulling his knees up, he put his hands behind his head. Just lying down on a hard rock slab felt good. He didn't sleep well in the beds the royals used. It was too comfortable. It left him with the irrational fear that he would sleep so deeply that he would fail to hear an enemy creeping up on him.
Bannor let out a breath. He wished a bane on a life and experience that would leave him so knotted up inside that he couldn't even enjoy a fine bed. A double bane on a wedding ceremony so elaborate that he had to sneak around and hide to have any time to himself. He thought about the lessons he had skipped out on. He was in for scolding for sure. It would be worth it, just to have a few moments peace amidst the chaos that was 'royal responsibility'.
He pushed the unusual experience to the back of his mind. Listening to the birds chirping, the low sigh of the breeze, and the sway of branches he let himself drift off.
An indeterminate time later a jingling he recognized as tassel bells roused him. It didn't feel like he had napped long. Bannor frowned. He didn't think anyone knew that he hid out here. After all, he didn't have the key, and no-one would have the audacity to enter the queen's garden without permission. Fear of warding magicks kept most people from even entertaining the thought of entering something belonging to the queen without her permission. Sometimes being the garmtur had its advantages. Not only could he see the wards, he could slip through them without disruption when he put his mind to it.
He caught a whiff of star-petal perfume and knew who it was. She must be keeping closer watch on him than he thought. Summers of ranger training and experience and he would have sworn no-one saw him. What did it take to get some privacy in this crazy house of elves?
The person stopped over him and let out an exasperated breath.
He was knew that sigh well. It was a good thing he loved the owner of it so much. Without taking his arm from over his face he could see her features clearly, silvery hair framing a narrow face with high cheekbones, glowing violet eyes narrowed in annoyance, small mouth set in a frown. She was big for an elf woman, or a human woman for that matter, almost able to look him in the eye when they stood together. This trait was a lasting side-affect of the magic of the pantheon lords. Once slight of body, she now cut a figure of long sweeping curves. Her once flat stomach was now showing the barest hint of a bulge from the child, his child, that she carried inside her.
She was wearing the tassel-bells that meant she had on some official court regalia. From the swishing sound, probably the lacy gold satin and silk blouse and skirt that she seemed to favor. Lately, she'd taken to wearing white high-heeled boots that made her tower over all the other court people except for her father who was exceptionally tall as elves go.
When she spoke, her voice sounded resigned and only a little annoyed. "My One, what are you doing?"
He drew a breath. "Trying to relax."
Bannor couldn't see it, but he sensed her purse her lips and inwardly draw on some resolve. "All right, why are you relaxing? You were supposed to report to the Maestro at the first bell after the noon meal."
Bannor sighed. "Star, perhaps you hadn't noticed, but as a musician I make a great carpenter. It's a waste of time."
He heard her toe tapping on the flagging. She probably had her arms folded. "The Maestro said you'd made excellent progress."
"All right, I'll grant the dogs have stopped howling in agony every time I blow those silly pipes. That's hardly progress though."
"They're not silly, Bannor, it's part of the ceremony." Her voice didn't sound nearly as annoyed as he expected. Was something wrong?
"Star, can't we do something else? If I try to blow those things in front of ten thousand people, I will embarrass us both."
"Bannor, you won't embarrass us if you practice like you should. He can't do his job if you don't show up. Hey." She poked him in the ribs.
"What?" He pulled his arm away from his face, and stared up into Sarai's always beautiful countenance, even when she was frowning like now. He discovered that his surmises had been correct. Gold blouse and skirt, white boots, staff of state in the crook of her arm. Her cheeks and eyes had been highlighted with make-up, softening the severity of her features.
Sarai pushed her waist-length hair over one shoulder, bent down, took the sides of his face in her palms and kissed him. Her lips were sweet and moist, the remnants of honey-nectar lingering on her breath. "I love you."
He swallowed. "I love you too."
"Over." Sarai swung his feet off the bench and sat down heavily. She leaned forward, drew a breath, and rubbed her eyes with a weary moan.
Bannor put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her against him. Sarai relaxed against him and lolled her head against his chest.
"Are you okay?" he asked. He reached down and brushed his fingers across her abdomen. With his garmtur sight, he looked into her body and the ever-more-complex whirl of magic and life that was their child. She wasn't even born yet and she was beautiful.
Sarai looked down and put her hand over his. "We're fine. I'm just tired." She let the ivory staff-of-state fall to ground with a clunk. She drew a few breaths. "Mmmm, the sun feels good."
"I thought so too." He debated whether to tell her about the strange vision he'd experienced. No. She was already half crazy with worry over a thousand other things. That would just add to it. It probably wouldn't happen again anyway.
Decision made, he scooted around to sit behind her, and massaged her tight shoulders. Sarai's whole body felt stiff and tight. It had been a rough morning for her apparently.
"Oooh...ahhh," she sagged back against his pressing hands. "Don't think for a moment--mmmm...that--" She caught her breath. "That--nngh--you can get out of this. You're still in--in trouble."
"Yes, Dear," he said dutifully, searching out the tight muscles and loosening them with a steady rhythm. "You know I do have some advice."
"Advice?" She let out a weak laugh. "Okay." She moaned and pushed back against his fingers. "Oh that feels good, where did you learn to do that?"
"Your sister taught it to me." He grinned. "Said to use it when you were being difficult."
"Hmph," she grunted. She did not, however, ask him to stop. "So--this advice?"
"You're a princess for light's sake. You must have a hundred subordinates. Delegate."
She reached up and touched one of his hands. "My One, I am delegating."
"I must see you do a dozen trivial errands a day."
She sighed. "For every errand I do, there are ten others being done by my maids and stewards. There's a lot to do. Not all of it is the wedding. You must know the mess that Hecate's forces made in the south. There's reparations and all manner of details. Four fifths of the royal family simply disappeared. The people need some reassurance after all that's happened."
He nodded. "I know. I've been going on my share of reassurance missions. I'm glad your father knows me well enough to keep it to the ranger corps and border guards. I don't mix well with merchants and nobles."
She turned in his grip, leaned into him, and gave him another warm kiss. "You'll have to learn eventually, my One. Not so long from now you're going to be a Prince Conjugal of Malan. That felt marvelous, I think I can get through the rest of the day." She hesitantly disentangled herself from him and picked up her staff. She started patting her hair and garments into place.
A prince. He would never get used to the idea. It simply didn't fit his image of himself. He'd always seen himself as a simple man of simple means. Of course, that was before the garmtur changed his life. As he stared into Sarai's glowing violet eyes he knew that as much as the nola power had changed him, his love for this sometimes surly, always passionate, royal lady had affected him far more profoundly.
He rose and gave her a hug. "There was something else you wanted to tell me, right? It wasn't just the Maestro."
She smiled and touched his cheek. Her smile faded. "It's Daena."
"Daena?" His brow furrowed. "Everything I've heard is what a model court lady she has become."
Sarai pursed her lips. "Oh, to be sure, my sister is a superb coach and Daena is a brilliant girl. Their behavior has been exemplary, which is exactly what made me suspicious."
Bannor rubbed his forehead. He understood the words, but not what she was getting at. "So?"
"Coormeer. That's where they decided to misbehave."
"Coormeer? That's three hundred leagues away, I see Janai and Daena in court every day, how could they..."
"My One," she gave his cheek a firm pat. "Think. We found out that Janai has mage training, a fact she had been concealing to get out of doing service in the militia. Daena can teleport. I'm certain of it. If she didn't already know how, Janai probably taught her. We both know the child's potential. She only needs to be shown the ways to use it."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fine, them teleporting around certainly isn't out of the question. I just don't get the connection. Why, Coormeer? Isn't that where Lord Duquesne, that fop that gave us so much trouble, came from? I think you'd be happy she was giving them a hard time."
"Yes, Duquesne was a lord of Coormeer. Our kingdoms are on good terms with each other. In fact, Janai holds the title of Duchess in Coormeer from her marriage to the Duke's son. She owns a lot of land there."
"Okay." He still didn't get it. Was there something he was missing? "And they're causing some kind of mischief there? Something you can point to?"
Sarai's chin dropped and she bit her lip. "Not yet. I have some unconfirmed rumors is all. Things that have come to me through Laramis, you know his family owns a large vineyard there, right?"
"Seems I've heard that." He narrowed his eyes. "Why are you telling me this?" He paused, as the possibilities turned in his head. "You want me to spy on them don't you? I'm the only one that can track Daena."
"Darling, 'spy' is such an ugly word. I prefer to think of it as protecting our interests in that region. We wouldn't want some kind of incident."
"I still don't understand why you even care if the two of them take over the place. What does it matter to you?"
"First of all, I think Daena is a dangerous weapon, and I think Janai should be discouraged from using her like a thug to intimidate her enemies. I also don't think it's setting a very good example for a young and impressionable girl."
He frowned. "I agree with you on both points. That's not the reason you want me to spy on them. You're just hacked that your sister is off having fun in another kingdom without you."
"Bannor," she thumped him in the shoulder, an indignant expression on her face. "It's not that at all."
"Did she steal your toys as a child or something? Is that why you've always got to uncover and unravel all her little plots? She's not hurting anyone."
Sarai raised her finger. "That is where you're wrong. You are lucky. My sister likes you. You see only the face she shows you. People that get in her way get hurt--a lot. I think it best she be headed off before gets going too fast."
"Going too fast, what, you think she really is going to try to take over Coormeer?"
Sarai pressed her lips to a line. "She already owns a quarter of the land there anyway. Why not the whole thing?"
"But you don't know anything!" He thrust his hands into the air. "This is all just guessing."
She nodded. "That's why I want you to find out." She kissed him on the nose. "Please, Darling. If they aren't doing anything, then you were just checking up on them, right? No harm done."
"No harm done," he echoed. Bannor felt his stomach twist. "I suppose... On one condition though."
"You come back to the chambers early tonight, and we eat a nice quiet meal together. I want it to be just you and me. No guests, no servants, just us and the fire. I miss you."
She leaned on her staff and pushed out her lower lip. After a moment, she smiled. "Done. Six bells in our bed chambers." She hopped up and kissed him on the nose. "Now, I have to fly to get everything done early." She rushed off. "Bye."
"Bye." His voice trailed off as he watched her sway down the garden path. Why did he think this wouldn't come out the way either of them expected?