Elfin Prince Thomlin Merripen smoothed his blue satin tunic and scrutinized the bouquet of yellow flowers he clutched. Satisfied there were no dead leaves, he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and stepped into the TravelPortal, manipulating the TravelStrands to take him to Ravenscroft, Bailiwycke, and the seaside cottage of his 'Uncle' Quinlin Thomarius.
He arrived in the Portal vestibule a moment later. Quinlin, a tall well-built elf, looked up from the sea charts strewn across his desk. "Hoi! Happy Birthday, Thoms! My, my," he exclaimed, his green eyes twinkling. "Don't you look nice? But you're about two hours early for the Spring Birthday Festival. It doesn't start until three."
"I know," Thomlin replied. "I wanted to talk with Enid. Where is she?"
"She's down on the beach with Reya, Keelin and the children," Quinlin said.
"Mmmm, what a wonderful smell!" Quinlin's wife, the wizard Drisana, stepped into the study. "Ah! Karsaban Yellow Star Clusters! My favorite." She crossed the room to take another deep breath of the highly fragrant flowers, then glanced at Quinlin. "You used to bring me Star Clusters. It's been awhile since I've seen some."
Quinlin grunted, reseating himself at the desk. "That's because I can't use magic to fetch them. I have to climb for them."
"I climbed for these, too," Thomlin said quickly. "I didn't want to use magic for this bouquet. But I need a yellow ribbon. Do you have one, Aunt Drisana?"
"See?" Drisana said teasingly to her husband. "At least the romance hasn't faded from their relationship." She looked back at Thomlin. "Yes, I have a yellow ribbon. Come along."
Quinlin grimaced, whispering to Thomlin as he passed. "Now, look what you've done."
Thomlin winced. "I didn't mean to,"
"Ah! Forget it! I'll make it up to her later," Quinlin said with a wink and a grin.
Thomlin frowned, puzzled, but followed Drisana to her room. She opened a drawer, revealing an array of different colored ribbons.
"Are these all Reya's?" Thomlin asked in amazement.
"They were. Now, her two girls wear them. Here." Drisana drew out a bright yellow satin ribbon.
Thomlin took it and tied it loosely about the flower stems. "Yellow is Enid's favorite color," he mumbled, looking at his work worriedly. "But do you think this is too much? Maybe I should go with a white ribbon. What do you think?"
"I think yellow is beautiful," Drisana said with a trace of a smile. "It'll look lovely in her hair as well."
Still, Thomlin hesitated, his heart pounding. It had to be perfect. Today it had to be perfect. "What color is she wearing today? Maybe I should match the ribbon."
"She's wearing yellow and white," Drisana told him, amusement dancing in her amber eyes. "Now, quit stalling." She pushed him toward the front door of the large cottage.
"I'm not st--" Thomlin started, then broke off, blushing. He turned to the diminutive woman next to him. "Gods, Aunt Drisana, I'm really nervous."
"Why? You've asked Enid to marry you how many times now?"
"Every month for the last three years," Thomlin replied. "And her answer is always the same. Ask me when you're a man. Well, now I'm eighteen. What if that's not yet a man to her? What if she says no?"
Drisana sighed and kissed his cheek. "Then I'll be here to talk to. Now, go on."
Thomlin drew a deep breath and stepped out into the spring sunshine. He could see Quinlin's daughter Reya, her black-elf husband Keelin, their brownling twin daughters, Ana and Aria, and Enid, all building sandcastles on the wide stretch of white sand. For a moment, Thomlin merely stood and watched Enid with the two small children. She'll be a wonderful mother, he thought. She's gentle, warm, thoughtful, giving, loving. He stumbled forward as Drisana gave him a nudge. He tossed her a sour look and walked down the wooden boardwalk to the beach.
"Hoi! Thoms!" Keelin called. "Happy Birthday!"
"Thank you," Thomlin returned, his gaze on Enid.
She rose and brushed the sand from her skirts. She had never been comfortable in the form fitting tunic and hose worn by most of the women Thomlin knew. Though on those occasions she had worn them, he had liked what he saw. Enid was a muscular woman, sturdy and well-proportioned. Most of the other females around her were elfin or dryad - small and lithe. Thomlin suspected that was one reason why Enid preferred to wear dresses or skirts. Which didn't bother him in the slightest. It just meant that her fine attributes were for his eyes alone. That is, he frowned, if she says yes.
"Uh, Keelin," Reya said, rising and pushing her copper hair aside, "I think we should put the twins down for a short nap."
"Why?" Keelin asked. "We'll just have to wake them for,"
"Keelin!" Reya said firmly. "Naptime!" She scooped Aria up.
Keelin looked at Thomlin, then hastily picked up Ana, understanding registering in his blue eyes. "Right, Reya. Sorry, Thoms. It's...uh...naptime."
Reya rolled her eyes in exasperation and herded the others up the boardwalk. Enid grinned and approached Thomlin. "Happy birthday," she said softly.
"Thank you. These are for you." Thomlin held out the flowers.
Enid took them and inhaled deeply. "They're beautiful, Thoms. Thank you." She kissed his cheek lightly.
"Enid," he said, taking the ribbon from the flowers, "I'm eighteen today." He turned her back to him and gently tied her long, wild, brown curls with the ribbon.
Thomlin took a deep breath and turned her to face him. "Enid, you said in three years that you'd answer my question."
Enid eyed him coyly, her brown eyes dancing with mischief. "And what question would that be, Thoms?"
His mouth twisted into a small smile, his blue eyes holding her gaze. "Will you marry me, Enid?"
She placed her free hand against the back of his neck and brought her mouth close to his pointed ear. "Yes."
Thomlin took one trembling breath, then clutched her to him, quite forgetting the flowers.
"Thoms!" Enid cried, pulling back. She stared aghast at the bright, yellow pollen stain on his dark blue tunic. "Oh, no, your," She brushed at the sticky pollen to no avail.
"Who cares?" Thomlin cried, giddy with relief and joy. He grabbed her again and kissed her soundly.
"I'll tell you who cares," Enid chastised. "The laundress cares. It won't come out, Thoms. I've never gotten it out of my red dress. It's ruined."
Thomlin laughed. "Do you remember how it got onto your red dress?"
Enid's round cheeks went red. "I certainly do, M'Lord," she said.
He wrapped his arms about her waist and peered into her face. "Well, there won't be anymore sneaking away to be alone. We'll have our own solar and bedroom for that."
"No more meadows?" Enid asked. "Now more lofts? No more sea-caves or grass mats in the wheat fields?"
Thomlin grinned and glanced toward the cottage. It appeared deserted. No one watched. He clasped her hand and pulled her along the beach to a rocky outcropping. They reached their private little sea-cave in moments and Thomlin pulled Enid close in a tight embrace. She dropped the flowers and, in the dark privacy of the cave, responded to Thomlin's kiss with a passion he had never experienced. He pulled back, heart and hormones pounding.
"Gods, Enid," he breathed. "Where did that come from?"
She gave him a sly grin. "I've been saving it for our betrothal."
Thomlin drew a quivering breath, wondering what she had saved for their wedding night. The mere thought sent excitement racing through him. He pulled her close, savoring her touch, her smell, relinquishing his body to all of the sensations he had denied it for so long. He gave her a series of soft kisses along her cheek, jawline and neck, his hands tangled in her tresses. He wanted this moment to never end. He brought his mouth to meet hers again. "I love you so much," he whispered. "When? When can we get married?"
She leaned into his embrace, her breath soft and warm against him. She smelled of star clusters, and Thomlin closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
"Whenever you want, Thomlin," she whispered. "That part is up to you."
Thomlin opened his eyes to look at her. "Then, whatever I decide, you'll agree to?" His father's earlier words hammered at his mind, A betrothal at eighteen, I will allow. A marriage at eighteen, I will not.
Enid smiled at him, running her finger lightly along his jawline. "Yes."
"Then today, Enid," he told her, his father's words pushed aside. "Today at festival."
Enid stared at him, surprised. "Today! But Thoms, I don't even have a gown. And what of my friends in Dalziel? I'd like some of them to come."
Thomlin groaned. "I can't stand this! I've waited for three years, Enid."
"Then what's a few more days?"
"Torture! That's what it is, torture!" He shifted away from her lest she feel just what torture his young body was going through at the moment.
Enid laughed and stroked his face gently. "Please, Thoms? I'd like Landis and the coven to witness our vows. And, of course, Anwyl and Glenna. Please?" She kissed him on each cheek. "Please?" And again on the chin and the tip of his finely boned nose. "Please?"
Thomlin sighed heavily. "All right, all right. We'll wait." He was loath to tell her just how long his father would make that wait. He pulled her close to him, nestling her soft, warm, body against his and burrowing his nose into her sweet-scented hair. "We have almost two hours until everyone else arrives. What shall we do?"
"You're creative," Enid said. "Think of something."
Thomlin groaned. "I can think of lots of things, none appropriate for an unmarried couple."
Enid giggled and returned his kiss. "Did you know that there is a race of people on Dalziel who would never think of getting married until they had laid together? Until they'd gotten past the stage of desire and lust."
"Really? Remind me never to meet them."
She looked up at him, surprise in her brown eyes. "Why not?"
"Because I believe in making a commitment. If one bases a relationship simply on sexual enjoyment, there is no relationship. Lust and desire have nothing to do with true love."
"Nothing?" she teased.
Thomlin flushed. Obviously she was well aware of just how much lust was affecting him just now. He grinned down at her, and kissed the tip of her up-turned nose. "All right. A little bit of lust," he conceded.
She laughed. "I love you, Thomlin Merripen." She paused reflectively, then added, "Enid Merripen."
"I've always liked the sound of that," Thomlin said.
"So have I," Enid agreed. "So have I."
Thomlin pulled her down onto the sand, wrapped his arms about her, and kissed her again and again, until both were breathless with passion.
Away to the east, two boys, one human, one brownling elf, were busily arranging a sturdy raft with foodstuffs and supplies. Although the raft was tied securely, the powerful current of the Kedar River tugged and pulled at it, making for unsteady footing.
The brownling glanced at the afternoon sky. "We'd better get back, Brann. We're supposed to be in Ravenscroft at three. It's about that now."
Fourteen-year-old Prince Brann van Tannen nodded and pushed his curly, brown hair from his forehead. "All right. I think we've about got things set here anyway. I wonder why Elek moved everything around. I thought I had it pretty well arranged." He gave the raft another scrutinizing gaze, then nodded. "Let's go then. Maybe we can get more food from the party. It looks like some is missing."
"Gods, Brann, we've enough food on here already to last a month. We're only going to be gone for a few days."
Brann shrugged. "Well, I like to be prepared. And, besides, who knows how much food those stupid guards will eat."
"That's not nice, Brann!" Tavin gasped. "The guards are far from stupid."
"Well, I just wish they didn't have to come along, that's all."
Tavin rolled his eyes and shook his head. "We wouldn't be going at all if it wasn't for them coming."
"I know," Brann grumbled, then sighed. "Let's get going. I don't want to miss the celebration. We'll tie the crates down better when we come back."
They walked together to their horses and quickly mounted. Once on the trail home, they decided to race and kicked their spirited horses into motion. As usual, Tavin's horse far outdistanced Brann's, and the brownling arrived at the stables well ahead of the young prince. Brann slid from his mount's back, staring in true awe at Tavin's horse.
"I want that horse," he said pointedly.
Tavin laughed and patted his horse's side. "No chance of that, Brann."
They turned their horses over to the stablemaster and ran up to the palace, reaching it out of breath and sweating. Tavin's father, King Kyel Sylvain, waited on the porch, a frown on his face. He was an imposing figure, dressed all in black, well muscled but lithe. His features were finely chiseled, his dark hair hanging in soft curls to his shoulders, his eyes the clearest blue Brann had ever seen. He knew the blue eyes were a sign of renounced dark magic, the magic Kyel had been raised to practice, and occasionally still used when circumstances made it unavoidable. Three of Kyel's four children also had the blue eyes. But not Tavin. His were green. A striking emerald green inherited from his mother, and set in a face so beautiful it rivaled any woman's. Tavin knew this and despised it, wishing time and time again that elves could grow facial hair before they were in their eighties or nineties. Both of us are outcasts, Brann thought as they climbed the steps to the fieldstone porch. Tavin for his green eyes and me for my lack of musical prowess.
"And where have you two been?" Kyel asked.
Brann winced, darting a sidelong glance at Tavin.
"At the river," Tavin mumbled.
"I see." Kyel drew a slow breath, clasping his hands behind his back. "I don't remember giving you permission for that. Nor do I remember assigning guards to accompany you there. Perhaps you can explain both."
Tavin sighed, his shoulders sagging, but he was spared any explanation by King Jansson van Tannen's arrival on the wide porch.
"Ah, there you are," Jansson said, licking icing from his fingers. He took a bite from the large sweetroll he held and talked around it. "Cook has a tray of hot sweetrolls just begging for young mouths."
Brann brightened at that and would have bolted into the kitchen had not Kyel's stern glance stopped him. The elfin king turned to Jansson.
"Were you aware that Brann and Tavin were at the river?" he asked.
Jansson shrugged and swallowed his bite. "So?"
Kyel drew an annoyed breath. "Then they sought your permission?"
"No. Why?" He took another bite of the sweetroll, making Brann's mouth water.
"There were no guards assigned," Kyel said pointedly.
"Oh." Jansson swallowed, his gaze moving from Kyel to Brann, to Tavin and back to Brann. "Probably not the wisest choice of action, Brann, but you're here now and everything is fine. How's the raft?"
Kyel let out another sigh and shook his head, but Brann leapt in with an answer before the dark elf could begin a lecture.
"It's fine. Elek untied everything to rearrange it for some reason, so we have to make sure everything is secure again. But we can do it after the party. And I'll make sure to have some guards along." He looked up at Kyel. "I'm sorry we worried you. It's just that we go to the river so often, I don't think of it as being dangerous."
"You and Tavin must be more aware of your positions, the challenges and the dangers of being who you are," Kyel said.
"But, Grandpapa, the Kedar River is in the heart of Odora Dava," Brann said. "How much safer could it be?"
"He's got a point," Jansson said, finishing off his sweetroll.
Kyel shot him a resigned glance, before addressing the boys. "Nonetheless, proper protection is essential. I expect you to understand that and take the appropriate actions."
"Fine," Brann mumbled. "I'll make sure guards go with us when we go back."
"And I should allow you to go back?" Kyel asked. "When you have yet to actually seek my permission to be there in the first place?"
Brann caught at his breath, alarm rushing through him. "But we have to finish with the raft!" He turned a desperate gaze on his father. "Please, papa?"
Jansson looked up at Kyel. "I don't see why they can't go back if they have a guard with them."
"They did not ask," Kyel pointed out.
"I'm asking now," Brann pleaded. "Can we go back after the party?"
Jansson nodded. "It's all right with me. Come on, Kyel. It's a beautiful day. What better place to be than at the river."
His panic easing, Brann turned his most pleading gaze on the black elf before him. He knew that Kyel didn't really have the authority to deny him, but he could deny Tavin. And it just wouldn't be as much fun without Tavin along.
"Please, Father?" Tavin put in. "We just really need to get things done. I should have asked. It was wrong of me to just leave without informing you. And I should have made sure that we had a guard along. I apologize."
Kyel hesitated a moment longer, then gave a curt nod. "Very well, since you feel that you must get things finished, you may go back."
Brann couldn't help his sigh of relief, and looked to his father. "Can we go for the sweetrolls now?"
Jansson shrugged, deferring an answer to Kyel. The elfin king nodded again, and Brann and Tavin hurried past him and toward the kitchen.
Kyel looked to Jansson once they were alone. "It makes it incredibly difficult to discipline my children with your interruptions."
Jansson grinned. "Thank you."
Kyel tried again. "Jansson, I realize my rules for my children are somewhat... different from yours, but,"
"Thank the gods," Jansson interrupted, still smiling.
"Please remember," Kyel continued, ignoring him, "my children are elfin. They need,"
"To be children, Papay," Jansson interrupted again, linking his arm through Kyel's. It was the best he could do since Kyel, at over six feet, towered well about his small stature of barely over five and a half feet. "You raised me and I turned out pretty well and you did it without all of that strict elfin discipline your uncle is so fond of."
Kyel looked at him, the edges of his well-formed mouth turning up just slightly. "Perhaps I was in error."
Jansson chuckled. "Come on. Quinlin's expecting us. And if I know Drisana, there'll be enough food there for half of Glede."
"Or one King of Odora Dava," Kyel retorted as they walked inside.
"Point given, Kyel." Jansson laughed. "See? Living with me has done you some good." He stopped as Treyas Merripen entered the room, trailed by his son, Elek. "Trey! What are you doing here? Oh, oh, why the frown?"
Treyas looked at him, his mis-matched blue and green eyes holding worry, but he glanced down at Elek. "Go on, go do whatever it is you came here to do. Just be ready to leave when I am."
"I will, papa," the boy replied, and rushed away.
Treyas waited a moment, then looked back at Kyel and Jansson. "I just got a message from King Prytell. Apparently the Rendars are once more on the move."
"The Rendars?" Jansson echoed. "Gods! They haven't been active for years."
"Exactly," Treyas replied, brushing his blond hair from his face. "But it seems they've resurfaced with a vengeance. And they have help. They've enlisted the assistance of Kartonn mercenaries to help in their search for victims. They pretty much laid waste to T'own. Every man and boy in the village was taken. Most of the women were killed. The only ones they didn't hurt physically were the little girls, but they left them in a dead village. The Karkadann got some, but Prytell managed to rescue about twelve. They're at a monastery in Anrofia."
"Firesass," Jansson breathed, his heart aching for the children.
Kyel frowned. "King Prytell wants us to do what?"
"Nothing. He's not asking for our help. He just wants us to be on guard where the Kedar runs through our respective provinces. A few elfin units might be a deterrent against further raids in both Pendorelle and Anrofia."
"Treyas, you know of the Rendars' penchant for iron use," Kyel said. "Any units deployed would have to exercise extreme caution. They would have to go on horseback. Pendorelle is just not very conducive to elfin magic, especially as far south as T'own."
"I understand that," Treyas replied. "I've asked for volunteers. Unfortunately, it appears the Rendars have expanded their territory. King Prytell says there have been sightings in Eltair along the Elkarr River. What looks like a Kartonn supply barge, could be something entirely different. Given that Kartonn's are now in the employ of the Rendars, it's only natural to assume that the Rendars are in Kartonn as well."
"Gods," Jansson said. "What's this big uprising with them all of a sudden?"
"They must have found a lucrative new market for their wares," Kyel replied grimly. "Very well, Treyas, allow the volunteers to go, but keep in mind that Lidgerwood is responsible for not only Aelfdene Valley, but Midway Vale and Bailiwycke as well. Don't spread our protection too thin. We all know of the Rendars' appetite for elves."
Jansson grimaced, his thoughts flashing back twenty years when Kyel had stood ensconced in a Rendar captivity net. He shuddered the unpleasant memory away and made a mental note to speak to Brann about not playing near the river for a while. He just hoped they wouldn't have to call off the raft trip. Maybe a river in Kartonn would be safer. He made another mental note to ask Darosenim Quartermane, Karsaba's king, about that.
"I'm sorry I had to spoil the day," Treyas said glumly.
"Well, I have to admit your news did temper it a bit," Jansson replied, then clapped him on the shoulder. "But as far as spoiling it? No. I want to get over to the beach and see if there's a wedding in the works."
Treyas laughed. "Thomlin is probably too exhausted to even think of it for today. He went to Karsaba early this morning to get a bouquet of Star Clusters for Enid. He climbed for them, no magic."
Jansson groaned. "Gods, just the thought of climbing that high exhausts me."
"That's because you're basically lazy," came a voice from the hallway.
"Ah, Dar!" Jansson greeted. "Always a kind word."
"Well, here's another one," the King of Karsaba said, his blue eyes twinkling. "You're late. Get your," he shot a glance at Kyel and quickly amended his words, "self moving. The food is waiting."
That was enough to prod Jansson to action. Within moments he'd gathered his and Kyel's clan. The library resonated with the squeal of excited voices, high pitched chattering and Ghel's squalling. Children milled about poking and jostling each other good-naturedly, while the cook held firmly to a large tray of iced rolls. Jansson tried to count heads as he herded everyone toward the Portal. "How many can this thing take at one time?" he muttered absently.
"Let's just do ten at a time," Treyas said. "The last thing I need is severely warped TravelStrands."
"All right then. Zira, we'll go first. Kyel and Willow can follow up."
"Papa," Brann suddenly said. "I forgot that crystal I was going to show to Kye. I want to go get it."
"Go get it then and come over with Kyel. Elecka, why don't you take his place with me. Watch cook! No one needs icing in their hair!"
"What's that smell?" someone asked.
"Oh, good gods," Zira exclaimed. "No wonder Ghel is screaming. He needs a change of clothes. I'll be right back. Send someone in my place, too."
"Just grab a pack," Jansson said. "He's going in the water anyway." He sighed as his wife darted off with the baby. "Let's see, why don't,"
"Oh, just get inside!" Treyas interrupted. "All of you! Go!"
"We will see you there," Kyel said, then gripped his wife's hand and cast his own TravelSpell.
"Deserter!" Jansson yelled to empty air. He looked at the children. "All right, all right, everyone in. Brann! Zira!"
"Here, Jans." Zira hurried toward him clutching a small pack.
Jansson gathered her close, regarding the mixture of dark clan heads and even darker brownling heads. "Whose idea was it to have so many babes anyway?" he teased.
Treyas laughed, shook his head and manipulated the Strands to Ravenscroft.