Free Short Story: A Wedding at Faxinor by Michelle Levigne

A Wedding at Faxinor

By Michelle Levigne

 *This story takes place between Chapters of Heir of Faxinor.**

 

Andrixine greeted the morning in quiet contemplation, sitting on the wide windowsill of Kalsan’s room. She wanted to think of it as their room, because after all, they were married now, but “their” room was a suite of rooms, waiting for them. Tonight. After their official, public marriage ceremony. She much preferred the private ceremony they had last night, just the two of them, saying their vows to Brother Klee and Yomnian.

She had her back pressed to one side of the window frame, her toes against the other, and bent over, resting her cheek on her upraised knees. She watched the sunrise, crimson and gold streaks penetrating the thick barrier of forests that surrounded the meadows and fields of Faxinor Castle. The thin white shift she had worn to bed last night was nowhere near warm enough against the refreshing chill in the air. She smiled and thought about climbing back under the covers where it was warm. Next to Kalsan.

Anticipation made experiences more intense, her father had always told her. Andrixine thought of how it would feel to curl up next to Kalsan again, soaking up the warmth of him under the covers. Maybe he would put his arm around her before he even woke up. Yes, she could understand exactly what her father meant now. And that made the chill air creeping up under the edges of her shift that much more pleasant.

Kalsan groaned. She sat up and looked into the room, in time to see him reach up from under the pile of covers and pull the pillow over his head.

Andrixine had thought her new husband was someone who woke up smiling. And laughing. They had laughed quite a bit last night, turning their first time making love into a giddy tussle that took her breath away. Kalsan hadn’t been joking, when he said her kisses would make him a drunkard, because she had felt dizzy and breathless when they slowed to rest at one point, and it seemed the bed had rolled under them like a boat on a stormy lake. She wondered if they had time for more kissing and laughing before the day fell on them.

It was their wedding day, after all.

Yes, they were married, simply and secretively, saying their vows before Brother Klee. However, all the guests who would descend on Faxinor Castle today didn’t know that. Andrixine thought of the dancing and feasting, which she had anticipated with dread, because she hated being on display. Because she had anticipated her wedding day as yet another step down a road she hadn’t wanted to take.

Until last night. Until Kalsan convinced her that he wanted to marry her, Andrixine. Not the heir of one of the largest and most prosperous estates in the central plains of Reshor. Not even the Swordbearer. He wanted Andrixine, his oath-friend.

Andrixine smiled, anticipating the jealous looks she would get from the other noble daughters who would take one look at her husband and wonder how she had ever caught him. Even though there was nothing she wanted more than to spend the day curled up next to Kalsan, there were some benefits to submitting to their duty. Knowing prettier girls envied her would be a novel experience, and she looked forward to it. Yes, she really should forget about climbing back into bed next to Kalsan and whiling away the morning hours with newly discovered pleasure.

Besides, she wanted breakfast, and for that they had to leave their bedroom.

But only after a few kisses. Some laughing. Holding each other close until she could feel Kalsan’s heart beating against hers.

“Kalsan?” She scooted over and swung her legs off the sill.

He sat up straight, eyes wide, staring at her. A wide grin split his face and then he closed his eyes and shook his head and flopped backwards among the blankets again. He let out a sound that could have been laughter or another groan. Or maybe both.

“What’s wrong?” Andrixine scurried across the floor, the bare stone cold on her bare feet, and jumped up into the bed, to kneel over him.

“I woke up and you weren’t here.” He rolled over and snatched at her wrist, holding it tight. Mischief glittered in his eyes, despite the growl he put into his voice. “I thought last night was nothing but a dream. That’s enough to make any man want to go back to sleep for the rest of the day.”

“Sorry.” She tried to tug free of his grip when he started to pull her down next to him. “Kalsan–”

“Prove you’re sorry.” Now he had hold of her other arm, and she hadn’t seen his hand move.

“But–” Andrixine muffled a shriek, mostly laughter, when he whipped a leg around and hooked it around her hips, knocking her off balance. In mere seconds, she lay sprawled on her back with Kalsan on top of her. He pulled her arms up over her head, making it impossible for her to move. It was ridiculous, she knew, but she rather liked feeling helpless. Another novel experience in less than a day, just as exhilarating and unexpected as the sweetness and growing heat in her belly when Kalsan kissed her.

Yes, she could like being helpless. Especially when Kalsan wore that wild, hungry, laughing look. Especially when the warm weight of him pressed her down into the mattress and brought back memories of caresses, kisses, whispers and laughter in the dark watches of the night.

“Good morning, wife,” Kalsan whispered. He lowered his head to kiss her, soft and sweet and warm, before she could do more than take a breath to respond.

That was exactly how she had imagined it would be, to wake up next to him. When Kalsan released her hands, to enfold her in his arms, Andrixine slid her arms around him, to hold him as tightly and as close as she could. She liked the feel of his sleek muscles under her hands, the heat of him, soaking into her flesh. She wriggled a little, trying to adjust how she lay under him. Kalsan laughed, the sound vibrating pleasantly in her mouth, and turned them so they lay on their sides, chest to chest, legs intertwined.

Perfect. She didn’t even mind the chill air curling over her bared skin. It felt rather pleasant, counterpoint to the heat spilling through her blood under Kalsan’s caresses. She had never thought she could feel that way, giddy and breathless, ready to fall and to fly at the same time.

“Andrixine?” A tapping on the door accompanied the sound of her mother’s voice.

“No,” Kalsan groaned. He pressed his face into the curve of her neck. “If we pretend we’re asleep, do you think she’ll go away?”

Andrixine muffled her laughter by kissing him. Her mother knocked again.

“We could go out the window, climb down the wall, maybe hide in the woods like we did last night,” she whispered.

“But I don’t want to get out of this bed.” Kalsan sighed loudly and sat up. Lady Arriena knocked again. “Just a moment, mi’Lady,” he called. Then he looked down at Andrixine and grinned. “Tomorrow–”

“I’ll threaten them with the Spirit Sword if anyone interrupts us,” she promised.

“Now that’s a use the Seer who forged the Swords never imagined.” Kalsan grinned at her as he slipped out of the bed and bent to pick up his scattered clothes. “Protecting young lovers.”

Andrixine caught her breath and stared at him. Her stomach felt as if it had dropped all the way to her knees while her heart tried to leap out of her chest. Kalsan tugged his pants up to his hips and turned back to her.

“Andrixine?” He climbed back into the bed and reached for her.

“We are lovers now, aren’t we?” She choked, trying to laugh. “Everything has happened so quickly, there hasn’t been time to really think…” She shook her head and managed to smile. “Maybe that’s a blessing. I’m sure I’d turn coward and run if I had time to think. Reshor would be in a sorry state, don’t you think, if the new Sword Bearer was terrified of marriage and being a mother and, well, everything involved.” The cold spot in her chest melted when she saw the concern wrinkling his face, which had been so relaxed with laughter just a moment ago. “You rescued me from foolishness, Kalsan. Yomnian sent you to me, and I know I don’t deserve such a great gift.”

“A gift, am I?” His cocky grin returned and he turned her in his arms to face him. “Talk like that, my lady, will get you–” He stopped, his last few words muffled by her fingers against his lips.

“If we kiss, we won’t leave this room for another hour,” she whispered. Andrixine laughed when Kalsan just waggled his eyebrows and grinned wider. “My mother is outside the door, and while I’m sure she would understand–”

“If we wait any longer, people would see you leaving my room, or wonder what the bride was doing wandering the castle so early in the morning. We don’t want twisted stories circulating that the holy Sword Bearer slept with her oath-friend before the wedding ceremony.” He released her, with a teasing tug on one of her warrior braids, then rolled out of the bed and went to open the door.

Andrixine didn’t even have her feet on the floor before her mother hurried in with clothes for her to put on over her sleeping shift.

“I’m sorry, my dears,” Lady Arriena said. “If it weren’t for the people who have traveled a day or two already, I would gladly cancel everything and let you be alone.” She sighed, but a tiny quirk to the corner of her mouth told Andrixine her mother was enjoying, just a little bit, the silliness of their situation. She had to muffle laughter as she pulled her dress over her head. “Perhaps it was the wrong choice, bringing you together last night–”

“No, Lady.” Kalsan shook his head so hard, Andrixine’s neck ached in sympathy. “That was exactly the right thing to do. We made our vows in private, instead of sharing with half the kingdom. We needed last night to seal our marriage without feeling as if half the kingdom was looking on. If we had waited until tonight…” He shrugged.

“We both would be exhausted from the festivities and wound tighter than a crossbow with anticipation and imagining a hundred things going wrong,” Andrixine finished for him, and bent to slide shoes on her bare feet.

“Brother Klee and Lord Jultar were more right than they knew, when they said you two were created for each other.” Lady Arriena shook her head. “Enough of this. We’ve lost enough time as it is. And Kalsan, please remember to address Lord Edrix and me as Father and Mother from now on.” She and Andrixine both had to muffle laughter when Kalsan just nodded, eyes wide.

Lady Arriena allowed them a few last kisses before hurrying Andrixine away through the awakening castle. They reached the suite of rooms that would soon be Kalsan and Andrixine’s, just a few steps ahead of the maidservants bringing buckets of hot, scented bath water to fill the enormous brass tub. The girls exchanged grins with Andrixine and muffled excited laughter as they hurried away.

“Mother, do you think–”

“They’re excited about the wedding. If you haven’t noticed, Kalsan is quite the handsome young man. They’re more impressed with him as your husband than the fact that you’ve been entrusted with the Spirit Sword.”

“Right now, that seems like a far greater accomplishment to me, too.” Andrixine settled down on the bench at the foot of the wide bed and stared at the steaming water. She wondered if she would be allowed to soak long enough to fall asleep. Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t had more than four hours of sleep, the entire night. And today would be a very long day.

*****

Kalsan was grateful when Brother Klee and Jultar enlisted him in talking with Derek about his duties as Andrixine’s page and standard bearer. It took some of the attention off him and let him at least attempt to forget that he was in the center of the festivities that already filled the castle.

Going to breakfast without Andrixine had been difficult, at best. He wanted to walk into the hall with his arm around her waist and sit at the high table with her, to put some distance between them and everyone else having breakfast. They would have been watched, but at least they would have had a semblance of privacy.

He gave up that wish the moment one of Jultar’s band offered his first bit of wedding night advice. Kalsan had wanted to laugh and tell his friends and teachers that he didn’t need their advice, that everything had been absolutely perfect between him and Andrixine from the moment he lay down next to her and she turned over to smile at him. Eagerness covered over awkwardness and let them laugh about things that probably would have had her in tears and him cursing his clumsiness and haste, in any other situation.

Then Kalsan thought of how he would miss the teasing and encouragement if Andrixine had been there. Or would he? Jultar’s warriors were comfortable with her, and after the shock of learning she was a maiden and the Sword Bearer, they had fallen back into the ease of the journey when they still thought her a talented boy named Drixus. Would Andrixine have laughed or been embarrassed by the things the Oathbound warriors said?

That didn’t matter, Kalsan decided. He took the teasing, the advice, and bit his tongue to keep from retorting that some of the things the men said were totally wrong. After all, as far as the world was concerned, he and Andrixine hadn’t become lovers last night.

All in all, he was very glad to let the attention focus on Derek, who was so eager and nervous, his voice kept breaking every time he dared to ask a question. The four of them settled down in the shade of a spreading oak in the meadow that would be devoted to dancing after the vowing ceremony. Kalsan laughed when Jultar made him recite the long passages of history that dealt with the Sword Bearer, focusing on the actions of their pages and standard bearers. So, those hours of wracking his brains to memorize hadn’t been wasted after all.

An added benefit of the activity was that it kept his mind off Andrixine, the warmth of her curled up next to him, the feel of her sleek skin and taut muscles under his hands, the breathy little moans she made when he caressed her, the surprise in her face when she realized that lovemaking was fun as well as pleasurable.

“Lord Kalsan?” Abner, who had met them at the gate the day they first arrived at the castle, approached their little group. Derek looked relieved at the interruption and Kalsan winked at him. “Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but Lord Markus of Sesseron wishes a word with you.”

“I don’t know–” Kalsan began.

“Sesseron is the estate along our southern border,” Derek said. “Abner, please tell me they weren’t invited to Andrixine’s wedding?”

“I’m sorry, Derek.” The gangly young man shrugged and offered an apologetic smile. “Lord Edrix insisted, even though Lady Arriena feared there would be trouble. They agreed that not inviting Sesseron would be more trouble than having Lord Markus here.”

“The least he could do is have the sense to stay away,” Derek grumbled.

“What’s the trouble?” Kalsan glanced at Brother Klee and Lord Jultar, who both looked as lost as he felt.

“Lord Markus has been as insistent a suitor as Lord Feril,” Abner said. From his grimace, Kalsan guessed Faxinor’s closest neighbor had been just as unpleasant when it came to forcing Andrixine to marry him as her fat, greasy cousin had been.

Kalsan almost blurted that he wished they could deal with Lord Markus as easily as they had dealt with Feril, but he caught himself in time. It was hard to remember, in all the sweetness of discovery last night, that Andrixine’s cousin was dead. He had caught her and Kalsan kissing in the moonlight, called her a whore, and attacked. With the aid of two henchmen, of course. Feril wasn’t so foolish as to go hunting the bride who refused him without some muscle to support him. Kalsan had dispatched Feril’s henchmen while the Spirit Sword had appeared from thin air and Andrixine had killed her vicious cousin. The fact that the Spirit Sword had come to her was proof that Andrixine’s life was in danger, and not even the High Court with King Rafnar as judge would fault her. Not even if Lord Maxil was cleared of charges of treachery and he insisted that Andrixine be charged with murdering his son. Kalsan still shuddered, remembering how Feril had vowed he would rape Andrixine before he killed her.

He couldn’t say anything, because as far as he could tell, very few of Faxinor Castle’s inhabitants knew Feril was dead. Lord Edrix had asked that the news be kept quiet until after the wedding, so as not to spoil the festivities. Kalsan agreed, and admitted that he hoped Feril knew how little effect his death had on anyone. He suspected the only person who would mourn Feril would be his father, and no one had tracked down Lord Maxil once he escaped Faxinor, so there was no knowing when the news would reach him.

“That bad, huh?” was all he said as he climbed to his feet. Better to deal with this unpleasantness before Andrixine heard about it. “Is he at the gate?”

“I wish,” Derek said. He pointed.

Kalsan turned to see several men walking across the meadow. From Abner’s grimace before the young porter schooled his face into a neutral expression, Kalsan guessed he had told the unwanted guests to stay at the castle, but they had followed him instead.

Brother Klee and Lord Jultar got to their feet and took up position behind Kalsan. He was grateful for their support.

“At least he had the decency not to come courting Lady Lorien when everyone thought Andrixine was dead,” Kalsan muttered.

“And he let everyone know that he was being very considerate,” Derek grumbled. “He likes to tell everyone what they’re doing wrong. Andrixine says his favorite word is ‘propriety’.” The boy spat, then colored and offered a lopsided grin and shrug to the other four. Kalsan grinned and rested a hand on his new brother’s shoulder. He could imagine Andrixine having a similar reaction.

“I assume Lord Markus insisted it was only proper, to strengthen the friendship between Faxinor and Sesseron by letting him marry Andrixine?” Brother Klee said.

“And it wasn’t proper for her to wear trousers or study with the Sword Sisters or ride astride or have warrior braids,” Derek added.

“Do you think he knows she’s the Sword Bearer?” Jultar said. “Do you think he’s come to convince her to relinquish it?”

Kalsan sucked in a breath of pure horror. There was no record of what happened to Sword Bearers who tried to deny the call of the Spirit Sword, but there were plenty of stories, either recorded in the histories of Reshor or passed down by word of mouth, of the disasters that struck Bearers who failed the Sword and Yomnian.

Then there was no more time to talk, because the three men who approached were close enough to make out their faces and hear what the five said under the oak tree. Derek named the three newcomers for them, talking quickly and pitching his voice low.

The big, barrel-chested, white-haired man with the red face was Lord Horace Sesseron. The red-haired man strolling behind him, head and shoulders taller and just as powerfully built was Lord Harrol, his heir. The pair drew closer and Kalsan estimated Lord Horace was in his fifties and maybe his son was in his early thirties. The third man who stomped along at Lord Horace’s elbow, who by default had to be Lord Markus, didn’t look like he belonged to the Sesseron family. He had a beaked nose and dull blond, straight hair, narrow shoulders, a pinched mouth and a potbelly. Kalsan looked between him and Lord Harrol and thought Markus was the elder. Either that, or he had suffered illness and hard living. How could the younger man be the heir? He asked Derek in a rapid whisper.

“He’s Lord Horace’s nephew,” Derek explained just as quietly. “His sister’s son. Nobody talks about the lady, but they say she doesn’t know who Lord Markus’ father is.”

“So the young man feels duty bound to make up for his mother’s failings,” Jultar rumbled. “Makes sense, unfortunately.”

Kalsan tried to imagine Andrixine enduring a marriage to the dour man for the sake of a family alliance. He couldn’t imagine her letting Markus touch her hand to dance, much less laughing and wrestling with him as they had done last night. Then again, Kalsan couldn’t imagine Lord Edrix asking such a thing from his daughter.

Derek had the duty of introducing the three newcomers to Kalsan, Brother Klee and Lord Jultar. Kalsan gave nodding bows of greeting and silently scolded himself to be careful of what he said. He and Andrixine were a part of history, now. It wouldn’t do to have a fight recorded as the highlight of their wedding day. Even if that wasn’t a consideration, Lord Edrix had to deal with the neighboring nobles and estates after Kalsan and Andrixine rode away to war. Kalsan wouldn’t be doing his new father-by-law any good service to leave ruffled feelings behind him.

“We hear your nephew has tried to persuade the Sword Bearer to consider him as a husband,” Jultar said, when the courtesies had been taken care of.

Kalsan flinched, but managed not to laugh. Leave it to Jultar to make the first strike and take the battle out of the opponent’s hands.

“We still can’t get over the news,” Lord Harrol said with a grin.

“There’s been a flood of news, lately. Sad news, then very glad,” Lord Horace said, nodding. He never took his gaze off Kalsan, but there was nothing threatening about his blue-eyed stare, only a sense of weighing and testing. “Faxinor has been allied with Sesseron through twelve generations. We sorrowed with Edrix and his family, and rejoiced when the news came. You and your brothers should be proud of the honor given to your entire family,” he added, turning to Derek.

“Preposterous,” Markus said with a delicate snort. “Andrixine–”

“Lady Andrixine,” Brother Klee corrected gently. “Lady Andrixine Faxinor, Bearer of the Spirit Sword, chosen by Yomnian, and heir to Faxinor.”

“Surely you can’t expect me to stand on ceremony with a girl who should have been betrothed–”

“Lady, not girl,” Kalsan said. “And yes, I expect all due respect be shown to Lady Andrixine. It is my duty as her oath-friend and sworn follower as well as her betrothed to ensure everyone shows her respect. No matter how familiar someone imagines himself to be with her.”

Markus tipped his head back and his nostrils flared as if he smelled something foul. His uncle and cousin wore flat smiles.

“Whether Lady Andrixine should have been betrothed to you is a moot point,” Jultar said. He stepped up next to Kalsan and rested a hand on his shoulder, signaling him to silence. “She has chosen Kalsan of Hestrin, Oathbound warrior, as her husband. Her parents approve. I approve as her warlord and advisor, and Brother Klee as her spiritual advisor and teacher approves of the match. And I daresay the Spirit Sword approves, as well, or it would have given some sign by now that Kalsan of Hestrin was unworthy.”

“But…it isn’t right for…she should never have picked up a sword,” Markus insisted, his voice turning into a tight whine.

“Indeed?” Brother Klee said. He stepped out ahead of Kalsan, into the empty space between the two parties. Lord Horace stood still but Lord Markus took two quick steps back, as if he feared the holy scholar would strike him. “Andrixine Faxinor was born to carry a sword. Holy Writ says her hand was fashioned to hold the Spirit Sword. I knew her parents before they were married, and I saw a bright destiny for their descendants. She was chosen for her duty before Yomnian formed her in her mother’s womb.” He paused and clasped his hands in front of himself. “Or do you presume to correct Yomnian’s leading?”

“Uncle, I insist that you demand our rights as allies and neighbors,” Markus nearly hissed. He plucked on his uncle’s sleeve as Kalsan had seen nasty children do.

“We have the right to request a marriage alliance, yes, and to be given first consideration, but I would rather bring Lady Lorien into our household than send you to Faxinor,” Lord Horace said.

“Harrol is already married, and I don’t like the girl.”

“She doesn’t like you, either,” Derek said. “And Andrixine can’t stand the sight or the smell of you, so–” He stopped with a grunt when Kalsan slapped him lightly in the chest. The boy glowered, but Kalsan winked at him, his head turned so the Sesseron delegation couldn’t see. Derek subsided.

“This is ridiculous.” Markus moved sideways, bypassing Brother Klee so he could stand face-to-face with Kalsan. “I demand you relinquish your claim on Andrixine…Lady Andrixine,” he corrected with a snarl, when Kalsan opened his mouth to remind him.

For a moment, Kalsan toyed with the idea of telling Markus that he had slept with Andrixine and she was no longer a virgin. That would probably send the sour-minded man into apoplexy. He didn’t want to do that, however. Last night was a precious secret between him and Andrixine, a treasure they could laugh about and remember in years to come when it seemed the rest of the world followed their every word and action.

“Prove you are a better man. Can you ride with her into battle and guard her back? Tend her wounds and guard her sleep when you’re ready to collapse? Make sure she is fed when everyone else goes hungry?” he said instead.

“Prove?” That sulky expression slowly melted into dismay.

“An excellent idea.” Jultar gestured behind them, across the flat meadow. “A contest. First archery, then battle on foot, then a test of horsemanship.”

“No,” Brother Klee said. “First battle on horseback, then on foot, then archery, when their arms are trembling with exhaustion. That is how a battle progresses.”

“Battle?” Markus said with a gulp.

“Shall I lend you my sword, cousin?” Harrol said. His innocent expression and tone would have been believable, but mischief glimmered in his eyes.

Kalsan wished he could have laughed, as Markus sputtered and stammered his way through a refusal. He actually felt sorry for the self-centered, self-righteous, unhappy man. He only felt tired when the Sesserons made their farewells, thanked them for their time, and crossed back the way they had come.

“I don’t suppose it’s any good to hope they won’t stay for the wedding,” Derek muttered.

“Maybe someone should watch Lord Markus, to make sure he doesn’t poison the wedding cup,” Kalsan said. He groaned a little as he settled down on the grass under the oak tree again. He felt as if he had fought a pitched battle, without armor.

“I’m sorry, lad, but that’s just the beginning of what you’ll face.” Jultar sat down with his back against the tree. “It’s bad enough the Sword Bearer is of noble blood, with duties to her family estate. Imagine the frenzy the Court will go into, trying to form alliances to gain some influence with her.” He nodded to Derek. “Don’t be surprised if your father is offered brides for you and your brothers and your pretty sister has a dozen more suitors before midsummer.”

“Brides?” Derek choked. “I’m not old enough to get married!”

“Betrothals,” Brother Klee said. “Indeed, that is a consideration. Imagine the consternation of the Court when they realize they can’t force Andrixine to take a husband they have chosen. When I first presented myself before the king as Sword Bearer, four ambassadors tried to arrange a marriage for me with their princesses. Flattering, but impossible, and ridiculous to even consider. There was no time for me to meet the girls, with the Thirty-Year War almost on us.”

“Will foreign kings try to marry Andrixine?” Kalsan said.

“We will make sure they know she is married to an Oathbound warrior, chosen servant of Yomnian and approved by the Spirit Sword, almost at the same time they learn her name,” Jultar said. “Don’t worry about foreign kings and ambassadors. The ones you need to worry about are the nobles who will try to punish you because you put the marriage band on her wrist before they even knew Andrixine existed.” His grin had a nasty, satisfied gleam. “You’ve taken a weapon from their hands, and destroyed their hope for powerful influence over the king and the entire country. Already, you have done Andrixine a greater service than taking a sword thrust meant for her.”

“Politics,” Derek muttered. “Lorien likes it. She acts like it’s a game. I can’t stand it, all the heraldry and ranking and forms of address and using an hour to say something that should only take a few minutes.”

Kalsan shared the boy’s sentiments exactly. He fought down a tremor of dread. Jultar was right, of course. He was there as Andrixine’s shield. If he could deflect harassment from her, just by being her husband, he would gladly endure all the political scratching and courtly manners required. He just hoped they didn’t have to spend more than a few weeks at a time at Court. They were warriors, weren’t they? That meant they could retreat to the battlefield for safety, right?

*****

“How can you eat?” Lorien exclaimed as she pushed the door of Andrixine’s suite closed. “If it was my wedding day, I’d be so tied up in knots I wouldn’t even be able to walk.”

“I’m hungry.” Andrixine scooped up a string of cheese that had melted off the thin flap of bread, wrapped it around the chopped sausage, and took another bite. She sank a little lower in the tub and wriggled her toes. There was something absolutely decadent about lying in a tub of hot, rose-scented water and eating with her fingers.

Not quite as decadent as lying curled up with her new husband, kissing him until her mouth was sore, melting under his caresses, but she was willing to accept the substitute. For now, anyway.

“Aren’t you nervous?”

“A little,” she admitted. Andrixine muffled a chuckle when Lorien scooped up some honeyed strawberries from the bowl with her fingers and delicately ate the pieces. Obviously, her sister wasn’t feeling any nerves on her behalf.

“Do think…” Lorien blushed and her fingers trembled as she sucked the juice off. “Kalsan is your friend. He’ll try to be gentle, don’t you think?”

“Oh. That.”

“Andrixine?” She frowned and scooted off the bench where she had perched, to kneel within arm’s reach of the tub. “Haven’t you been worried at all about…well…going to bed with him?”

“I was.” Andrixine filled her mouth and closed her eyes, to keep even a hint of her secret from escaping. Lorien was unusually perceptive, sometimes.

“Why aren’t you now?” Her sister knelt and rested her arms on the side of the tub with her chin on her arms, visibly determined not to move until she got the answer.

“Because…” Andrixine put the remainder of her bread-and-sausage on the platter sitting on the low table on the other side of the tub. “Well…”

“You’re blushing.” Lorien sat up. “What did you do?”

For a moment, Andrixine contemplated either diving under the water and staying under as long as she could, or pulling her sister into the tub with her. She wished her mother had stayed in the room with her, but Lady Arriena had to see to several more details before the ceremony at noon.

“Kalsan…is a very good kisser,” she said, deciding it was at least part of the truth.

“How good?” Lorien giggled and hunkered down to lean against the tub.

“Good enough that I realized I had nothing to worry about tonight.” Andrixine decided the tub wasn’t as warm as it used to be. She sat up and reached for the towel sitting just beyond her breakfast tray. “Lori!” She stared, aghast, when her sister snatched up the towel and scampered across the room with it.

“How good?” she repeated. “How can you tell from just kissing him that he won’t hurt you?”

“Kalsan is my friend, before everything else. He would never hurt me.” She climbed out of the tub and reached for the robe her mother had brought, so she could lie down and rest before getting dressed. That would dry her just as well as the towel.

“But how can you tell, just from a few kisses that–” Lorien stopped and laughed at the same moment Andrixine realized her face was blazing hot. “It wasn’t just a few kisses, was it?”

“No. It wasn’t.” She wrapped the robe around herself and darted across the room, catching Lorien by surprise so she was able to yank the towel from her hand. “It was quite a lot of kissing. We went down to our special place under the pines and we talked and kissed and…kissed.” Andrixine sat down on the end of the bed, wrapped her head in the towel and vigorously rubbed at her hair to dry it.

It was silly, she knew, but she hoped her mother could do something with her hair to hide the fact it was cropped so short.

“Is it nice?” Lorien asked, and the mattress sagged, meaning she sat down next to her sister.

“Lovely.” Andrixine sighed and tugged the towel down. She saw nothing but envy and curiosity on her sister’s face. “Incredibly lovely. And when he puts his arms around me and holds me tight against him and… Oh, Lori, don’t ever let a man kiss you unless he’s your dearest friend and you trust him with your life. Otherwise, it would all be horrid.”

“Do you love him? Like Mother loves Father?”

“No.” A funny little pain shot through her when the word came so easily. “Not yet. But I know I will, someday. And he’ll love me, too.”

I hope. Please, Yomnian, let Kalsan love me someday.

“It just takes time, that’s all,” she added, and pulled the towel over her hair again. After all, the morning was half gone and she had hours of work ahead of her if she wanted to be beautiful for Kalsan, when they made their vows at noon.

*****

The vowing ceremony took place in the main courtyard of Faxinor Castle. The paving stones gleamed in the noonday sun, still wet from being scrubbed. Garlands of flowers hung everywhere until Kalsan thought there wasn’t a single flower left within three leagues of the castle. Benches were provided for the wives and daughters and sisters of the noble guests and everyone else stood.

An altar sat in front of the steps coming down from the massive double doors into the castle. Covered in a white cloth, it held the marriage cup of spiced wine and the marriage bands, hidden somewhere under the flowers.

Kalsan stood five steps back from the altar, held back by a garland of flowers that circled the altar. Jultar’s war band served as the guards and they stood proudly with the delicate rope of flowers in their big hands. Brendan and Marfil stood on either side of Kalsan, muttering under their breaths. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he suspected they teased him. He had a sneaking suspicion that when he grasped the garland to break it and step through to meet Andrixine at the altar, he would find a rope or even a chain hidden under the flowers. His brother and sisters stood with him. He felt another twinge of regret that his parents couldn’t be there, but Lord Hale and Lady Miria were in Eretia, serving as Reshor’s ambassadors, and it would take months for the news to reach them and for them to return.

He grinned and snorted as he held back a laugh at the sudden mental image of his parents finally arriving for the wedding, and Andrixine hugely pregnant. After last night, Kalsan knew he wouldn’t be able to leave her untouched until his parents arrived. Besides, she was already his wife. This ceremony was to satisfy all the friends and allies and relatives who had come. Before Yomnian and Andrixine’s parents, they were already married. Who else mattered?

The image of Andrixine pregnant stuck in his head, distracting him from the murmuring of the crowd and the stares of so many strangers. Kalsan was grateful, because he had overheard enough remarks from people who weren’t happy at the rapidness of the marriage, and even less happy that someone they didn’t know was marrying their lord’s heir. He couldn’t care less about their opinions, the uneasy feeling driven away by the thought of Andrixine, pregnant. With his child. They could have conceived their child, her heir, last night.

Marriage was easy and simple compared to the idea of being a father. What kind of father would he be? He had spent the last ten years of his life learning how to be a warrior, trying to focus his mind and spirit on serving Yomnian and Reshor. Nothing he had learned could possibly have prepared him for fatherhood. A tiny thread of panic coiled through his belly, winding tighter like a rope on a windlass for a catapult. The creak-bang of the castle doors opening shattered that train of thought, and Kalsan was grateful.

The four Faxinor boys came out through the double doors. Kalsan barely recognized them, with their faces washed and their hair wetly combed down flat on their heads, wearing their best clothes and walking instead of running. He met Derek’s gaze, then went down the line, ending with little Pollux. The youngest boy grinned at him and tried to duck under the garland to cross the open space to him. Jultar had claimed the right to stand at Andrixine’s side of the altar, and he restrained the little boy, but barely in time. Pollux started to pout, but Jultar offered him the garland, to help him hold it up.

Maybe, Kalsan thought, being a father was close to being a good leader and warlord. If he could follow Jultar’s example, if he could learn from Lord Edrix, then he supposed he wouldn’t do so badly as a father. Kalsan wished he had paid more attention to his own parents, had watched his own father at work.

He wished he had sent a letter to his parents already, telling them about Andrixine. He wished he had…

Lorien appeared in the doorway and danced down the steps. Blue flowers filled her hair and her sweet, young face glowed with excitement. Kalsan felt something jolt inside his chest. Lorien’s appearance meant Andrixine was coming. He raised his gaze to the doorway, and thought his heart had stopped.

Andrixine walked arm-in-arm with her parents. Her pale gown glowed in the shadows, then seemed to burst with light as she stepped outside and sunlight flashed off the silver and gold threads. The gown was long and simple, with wide sleeves and a shallow neck and no sash at her waist. Her hair was a mass of curls twined with white roses and ivy. Two spots of color brightened her cheeks and her eyes seemed enormous, dominating her face.

She smiled, eyes sparkling, the moment their gazes met.

“Not so fast, lad,” Brenden rumbled, and grabbed hold of Kalsan’s arm. Marfil gripped his other arm and a few titters rippled through the crowd.

Kalsan looked down to see he had grasped and torn the garland, trying to break through to Andrixine. His face felt like coals when he raised his gaze again and met hers. Laughter spilled silently out of her. Kalsan remembered how she had laughed last night, their limbs entwined, her mouth soft and warm and sweet, the sound vibrating through him. Their vows had taken too long already, and Brother Klee and Shepherd Mardon had yet to step up to the altar and begin the ceremony. He needed Andrixine in his arms, right this moment. As soon as they had finished their vows, Kalsan promised himself, he would snatch up Andrixine and run away with her. He wished he had saddled Fala, to have his mare ready for just this need. He would hold Andrixine tight against his chest, perched on the saddle in front of him, and they would flee far away from this party and scores of people he didn’t know.

Brother Klee approached the altar, breaking Kalsan from his hungry dreams. Shepherd Mardon came down the castle steps and stopped directly behind Andrixine. He rested his hands on her shoulders while her parents each kissed her, then released her arms. The Shepherd then guided her through the frail barrier of the garland, to stand before the altar. Kalsan thought it was the hardest thing he had ever done, to wait until the holy man held out a hand to beckon him up to the altar to stand next to Andrixine.

“Do you approve?” she whispered, while Brother Klee raised his hands to the sky and led in the first ritual prayer.

“And so do a dozen other men who wish they had betrothed you before you left home last fall.”

That earned a burst of laughter from her that she barely muffled with a choking sound. Her eyes watered and the merriment in them gleamed all the brighter.

When it came time to take hold of her hands, Kalsan lifted them to his lips and brushed kisses across her knuckles. A chorus of sighs and murmurs in feminine voices startled him, so he almost turned to look, and almost dropped her hands. He was glad he didn’t, when he realized his gesture set off a trembling in Andrixine.

The ceremony was taking far too long. Kalsan toyed with the notion of flinging her over his shoulder and stomping through the crowd, finding Fala and fleeing bareback. He was sure Andrixine would laugh and encourage him, and probably most of the war band, and maybe even Brother Klee. His brother and sisters, Andrixine’s parents and all their guests, however, would not.

This is for history, he reminded himself.

Andrixine fumbled the marriage bands when she picked them up off the altar. Brother Klee was beside her and he caught the bands before they hit the cloth and chimed against the wood underneath. Kalsan answered her wide-eyed, shaky grin with one of his own. The last thing they needed was someone seeing ill omens woven through their marriage ceremony.

He was glad to go to his knees when he had accepted the band from Andrixine, before he slid it onto her wrist. It was a relief to move, and to get off his restless feet for a moment. Then Andrixine put the marriage band on his wrist. He snatched at her hands, determined not to let go. She twisted her hands in his grip before he was quite secure, and her fingers clasped his wrists in turn. Kalsan felt the skipping of her pulse under his fingers, and knew she could feel the same in his wrist. They were fully matched, whether for nerves or excitement, it didn’t really matter.

All that mattered was that this ceremony was almost over.

“Do you swear before these gathered witnesses, before your families, before Yomnian and on the Spirit Sword which has called you to holy duty, that you are today and forevermore bound together, one heart, one mind, one body, until the day you are called to Yomnian’s Rest?” Brother Klee asked, and clasped his hands over their joined hands.

That wasn’t the final ritual question. Kalsan felt Andrixine flinch, heard her soft little gasp. She looked into his eyes and nodded.

“One heart,” he whispered, “one mind, one body.” And nearly laughed when a delicate blush touched her cheeks on the last words.

“Forever, into Yomnian’s Rest,” she said, just as softly, so only Brother Klee could hear. “One heart, one mind, one body.”

“Children, you need to speak so everyone else can hear,” Brother Klee said after several more heartbeats of waiting.

Andrixine laughed. “Yes, I do swear!”

“I swear, on my honor and strength and my vows as Oathbound, as oath-friend, as follower of the Sword Bearer.” Kalsan swallowed a groan as he pushed to his feet and his knees protested. “On my vows, on my honor, as your husband.” He twisted free of her grip and caught her hands to raise them to his lips again. A wistful brightness in her eyes stopped him. Kalsan stepped forward and flung his arms around Andrixine, lifting her off her feet, catching her up tight against him, and kissed her.

Andrixine laughed and took handfuls of his coat, holding on tight as she returned the kiss with all the sweet eagerness of the night before. Her mouth tasted at first of the wine they had shared from the same cup just moments ago. Then the sweet, clean taste of her came through and the flames in his belly roared into a bonfire. Kalsan deepened the kiss, forgetting their witnesses until mutters and then spurts of laughter broke through the thundering of his heart in his ears. Reluctantly, he set Andrixine back on her feet again, but he kept his arms around her.

“If there was any doubt about your willingness,” Brother Klee said, his words nearly drowned by the cheers from the crowd in the courtyard, “you have dispelled it.”

Kalsan didn’t want to look at Andrixine’s parents, though he was sure they approved. He couldn’t look at his brother or his sisters, who had teased him that he would never find a girl who suited him. He suspected if he kept looking into Andrixine’s eyes, one of them would fling propriety to the winds and leap into more kisses.

Propriety. As if the word was a lodestone, Kalsan felt his gaze drawn out into the crowd. He found Lord Horace Sesseron, first. The big man grinned broadly and winked when he caught Kalsan’s gaze. Behind him, peering over his shoulder and looking as if he had a mouthful of moldy bread, was Lord Markus. He looked slightly nauseated. His gaze met Kalsan’s, but he didn’t seem to realize it. Was that jealousy or disapproval in his eyes?

That didn’t matter. Andrixine was his wife, heart and mind and body. Now their bond was sealed before hundreds of witnesses.

*****

In theory, having the festivities spread across the meadow beyond Lady Faxinor’s gardens was a simple, sensible idea. Two bands of musicians sat in opposite corners of the meadow, providing music that didn’t clash or confuse the two groups of dancers. The tables laden with food were in the middle of the meadow, and benches and cushions were scattered around in small groups for the guests to sit and talk and eat at their leisure. Andrixine welcomed the escape from having to sit at the high table after the vowing ceremony where everyone could see her and Kalsan and she could feel their gazes on her. Weighing, guessing, speculating. She had attended enough wedding feasts to know that some of the cruder men–and the women, when they had indulged in enough wine and beer–would be placing wagers on how soon Kalsan would lead her away from the table and up to their new suite. And to bed.

It didn’t matter to her that she and Kalsan had made love last night and there had been few if any wedding night nerves. The thought that people would speculate on how well or how badly she would fare when she lost her virginity irritated Andrixine.

She had been delighted when her mother explained that because of the warmth and the number of people who had accepted the invitation to the hurried wedding, they would entertain their guests outdoors. Andrixine was still delighted when she and Kalsan linked arms with her parents and led the way through the castle gates to the feast spread across the meadow.

Then she realized what a protective wall the high table had offered a newly married couple. A protection she and Kalsan didn’t have.

They shared a meat pastry and a goblet of wine, to the whispers and giggles and cheers of their guests standing only a few steps away. Holding the warm pastry dripping with gravy to Kalsan’s lips didn’t have the same charm that she had imagined while she soaked in her bath that morning. Didn’t anybody have anything better to do than watch them eat? Didn’t they know it was rude to eat and talk at the same time? She nearly choked when he held the wine to her lips and Andrixine clearly heard the man behind her speculate on how much wine Kalsan would have to give her before she would allow him more than kisses.

“Let’s dance,” Kalsan said, when they had both only managed a few mouthfuls of food.

Yes, dancing would let them escape for a while. People couldn’t dance and watch them at the same time.

Kalsan wasn’t an elegant dancer, but the lively tunes Lorien had chosen for the festivities weren’t meant for elegance. They required energy and coordination and Kalsan had those in abundance. Andrixine laughed as they spun through the first reel. She had always preferred dancing to lively songs that didn’t require any more contact than to hold her partner’s hands and didn’t allow time for conversation. This dancing, however, looking at Kalsan and feeling his arm around her waist, the warmth radiating from his body, this dancing was completely different. Her dress spun around her, light as milkweed fluff, and didn’t threaten to tangle around her legs at the worst possible moment. Her feet didn’t tangle and she didn’t trip on Kalsan’s feet. In essence, everything was perfect.

Her heart jolted every time Kalsan drew her up close against him in a turn or a spin, and that was perfect, too.

“Andrixine?” Selena, niece by marriage to Commander Jeshra, slipped through the knots of dancers during a lull in the music. The girl was perhaps seventeen, slim and red-haired and dressed in the pale lavender allowed to girls who lived among the Sword Sisters but who hadn’t made the decision to officially join their ranks. She blushed when she glanced at Kalsan. “Could I–it’s good luck–will you let me dance with your husband?”

“Ah. That. I forgot.” Kalsan rolled his eyes in amused exasperation. He released Andrixine’s hands. “I would be honored, Lady.” He bowed, which just made the girl blush even deeper.

Andrixine had forgotten, too. Most likely because she had never taken advantage of the tradition–or was it a slightly nasty game?–of unmarried girls and young men dancing with the newly married couple to gain some luck or blessing in the coming year. Andrixine thought it was simply an excuse to keep the bride away from her husband as much as possible. For some girls she had watched at wedding feasts, it was a reprieve. Keep her busy dancing, and she was kept too busy to think about the wedding night awaiting her.

Now, however, she realized that it was an utterly, completely nasty trick. She wanted Kalsan all to herself today.

“Andrixine?” Abner stepped in front of her and bowed. He looked stiff and self-conscious in his best clothes. “Would you dance with me?”

Abner was one of the few young men here she didn’t mind dancing with, but Andrixine knew better than to tell him that. She smiled and curtsied and let him take her hand.

It was nearly two hours later before she found Kalsan again and rejoined him in the dancing. In that time, her feet were trodden on by seven of her twelve partners. Two men she barely remembered, but who claimed they had adored her when they were children, tried to steal kisses during slow moments in the dancing. Eight had damp hands. Five of those were damp from wine and food, rather than nerves. Andrixine had never cared about her clothes before, but every stain her dancing partners put on her wedding gown added another coal to the fire of frustration. She thought about the look of stunned wonder and hunger that made Kalsan’s face glow, when he first saw her come down the stairs. She didn’t want her pretty dress ruined, because Kalsan thought she was beautiful in it. She took revenge by stomping on feet and guiding her partners so they backed into and tripped over other dancing couples. When she could manage to make her current obnoxious partner trip over a previous unpleasant partner, all the better.

“Rescue me, my lady,” Kalsan groaned, as he slipped an arm around her waist and led her closer to the feasting tables.

Andrixine laughed and gladly let him lead her away, because Lord Markus now approached her, clearly intent on demanding a dance. From the sour, pursed look of his mouth and the determined glint in his eyes, he was probably going to lecture her on the impropriety of either her hurried wedding or the fact that no one in this part of the country knew Kalsan or the Hestrin family. Or, he would again urge her to give up swords and horseback riding and wearing pants as totally improper for the heir of a noble lord. She would have thought that hearing she was the Sword Bearer would have given him apoplexy and sent him to his bed for a month or so.

“How many pretty girls have stepped on your toes today?” she asked, as the music swept them up and Kalsan spun her into the first reel.

“I lost count after a giantess insisted that I could persuade you to make her a Sword Sister and let her ride in your honor guard. I’m still trying to decide if she smashed my feet on purpose or not.”

“Ah. Glienna of Traffel.”

Andrixine actually felt sorry for the young woman. Tall, built like a blacksmith, she was the only girl in her generation. Her uncle, the Lord of Traffel, had seven sons and fourteen nephews, and refused to let Glienna pursue studies or train as a Sword Sister because he needed her for a marriage alliance. Unfortunately, no noble offers of marriage had come and Glienna was twenty-six, untrained and unhappy. She still held onto hope of persuading her uncle to let her join the Sword Sisters, but Andrixine doubted even Glienna’s stature would help her if she started training so late in life.

“What did you tell her, when she asked?” she asked after a few more steps.

“That you would defer to Commander Jeshra’s wisdom and you wouldn’t consider an honor guard until you had presented yourself to King Rafnar.”

“Coward.” Andrixine took advantage of the momentary pause to go up on her toes and brush a kiss across his mouth.

That was a mistake, she realized, when warmth spilled through her and Kalsan’s eyes lit up and they were trapped among dozens of other dancers and no hiding place in sight.

“Hmm. That’s what Lady Glienna said, too.” He gripped her waist a little tighter, pulling her closer against his hips, and spun her through the next two turns in silence. “I might have need of the Sword, if we get separated again.”

“What?” She laughed loudly enough to make a few heads turn.

“Several young ladies who claim to be your dearest friends are trying to persuade me that in this part of the country, the new husband grants kisses, not just a dance, to give good luck to all the unmarried girls.”

“My dearest friends wouldn’t presume…” Andrixine teetered a moment between anger and laughter. She chose laughter. “You want me to chase them away before you’re ravished and humiliated?”

“The only ravishing allowed today is when I finally get you alone,” he growled on a whisper against her ear.

“Fine words, my Lord Kalsan, coming from a man who kissed every girl in every village we passed through.”

Kalsan stopped them short, so three couples nearly bumped into them before he blinked and looked around and guided her out of the dancing ring. He kept one arm around her waist and his other hand tightened around hers. Andrixine had to fight to keep meeting his gaze. She couldn’t read the expression in his eyes. Surprise, yes. A little laughter, yes. But there was something hungry and a little confused in his expression, and it deepened with every second of silence between them.

“By your leave, Lady Andrixine?” A heavy-set man who smelled of spilled beer and musk bowed to her, but she ignored him. He waited a few seconds, while she and Kalsan continued to study each other. He cleared his throat. “Pardon me, sir, but will you allow me to dance with your bride?”

“No. We…have a matter that needs discussing.” Kalsan barely nodded to the man before turning and leading Andrixine further from the dancing. The only place to go was closer to the feasting tables.

“Thank you,” she offered, and the laughter felt thick and forced in her throat. “I don’t remember his name, but–”

“Did it bother you, when I danced with those village girls?”

“Bother me?” Her smile widened and felt a little more natural. “Why would…” Something turned heavy and twisted inside her. “A little, I think. Which doesn’t make sense, because you thought I was a boy and I know it didn’t mean anything to–”

Kalsan kissed her, not nearly as fierce as she needed him right that moment, but his mouth was warm and clean and demanding. The scent of Kalsan, clean sweat and clean linen and leather filled her senses, wiping away the unpleasant miasma of musk and salt and beer and unwashed hair that had clung to her from all the men who had claimed dances. Andrixine slipped her arms around his shoulders and closed her eyes as tightly as she could and prayed that the sounds of voices talking and laughing and singing and music and the smells of the feast and the sensation of dozens of bodies moving around them would suddenly vanish. She wanted it to be nighttime and she wanted to open her eyes to find she and Kalsan stood alone in the clearing among the pines, with nothing but the stream and the moon for company.

“Please,” Kalsan whispered as he released her mouth. His breath was hot against her skin. “Please tell me you were jealous, even just a little bit.”

“You, my Lord Kalsan, are an arrogant man,” she whispered, and laughed. Then squeaked when he dug his fingers into her ribs, right where she was ticklish.

She had hoped that he would forget that ticklish spot he had discovered last night.

“Enough of that, lad,” Jultar said, and slapped Kalsan on the back so hard, Andrixine felt it. They separated, laughing. Fortunately, only a few of their guests were watching them. Most of them were smiling. “And to think we were worried you two wouldn’t be happy together.” He winked at them, half-raised his mug of ale in a toast, and continued his stroll through the festivities.

“If I had any sense back then,” Kalsan said, “I would have asked you to dance and no one else.”

“Oh, yes, asked a boy to dance with you?” She laughed and let him take her hand and lead her to the tables, which were rapidly being decimated by hungry revelers.

“Well…”

“I think maybe I was a little jealous,” Andrixine admitted, and turned her hand in his grip so she could twine her fingers through his. “But I didn’t realize it at the time.”

Their guests allowed them time for a few mouthfuls of food and a cup of wine between them before they were again separated for more obligatory dances. Andrixine watched the sun whenever she could and begged it to fall faster in the sky. Dusk would never come quickly enough.

*****

Dusk came when Andrixine stopped looking for it. Thinking back on the misery and delights of the long, warm, exhausting day, she laughed about that tiny lesson learned.

One moment, she and Kalsan danced across the meadow closest to the castle entrance. The next, he whisked her through the thin line of onlookers and no one tried to stop them or made comments. Andrixine marveled at that change, until she blinked and realized that the sunset had faded and the shadows around them were from the castle walls, only a few running steps away. Kalsan released his hold around her waist and gripped her hand. She caught up her skirts with her free hand and in a moment they were fleeing through the open gate, through her mother’s garden.

No one followed them. No servants called out greetings, or even stepped out of the shadows to watch them scurry through the public hallways and up the stairs that led to the private family quarters. She laughed when Kalsan stopped short at the top of the stairs.

“From this point, I’m lost.” He bowed to her…and the next moment scooped her up in his arms, wringing a tiny shriek of laughter from her, which she muffled by wrapping her arm around his shoulders and pulling herself up to reach his mouth for a kiss. “Oh, be careful, my lady.”

“Why?” She laughed and pointed to the right. “This way.”

“We might never make it to our rooms, and then what would poor, scandalized Lord Markus think?”

“I don’t care. Turn left here.” She pointed down a short hallway, with only one door at the end. She knew the door wasn’t latched, and shoved it open with her foot when Kalsan paused and tried to free a hand.

In moments, they were inside. Kalsan put her on her feet and turned to close and latch the door. A flash of blue caught her eye and Andrixine turned to look through the next doorway and into their bedroom. The Spirit Sword glowed brightly through its sheath and the embroidered sling it hung in, on the wall at the head of their bed.

“No, please,” Kalsan moaned. He offered her a crooked grin. “Of everyone and everything here today, I thought the Sword would at least give us some peace.”

“I don’t think it’s…” Andrixine shook her head and closed her eyes to concentrate on the image that flickered through her mind even as the radiance of the Spirit Sword vanished. “Do you remember what Brother Klee said, at the end of our vows?”

“The Sword calls us both to service.” He nodded, his gaze turning thoughtful as he looked at the Sword. “We still haven’t finished our marriage vows, you think?”

He pulled out a chair for her and offered her a hand to step up, to reach over the bed and bring the Spirit Sword down. A soft, golden radiance filled Andrixine’s eyes even before she sat down on the side of the bed and unsheathed the blade. Kalsan knelt before her and offered his hands as he had done for the vow of fealty.

“No, this is different,” she whispered, and lay the blade flat across her lap. The silver and gold threads in her dress sparkled in the soft light from the blade. She rested her hand flat on the blade near the pommel and the light shifted to brilliant, lightning blue, so her dress seemed to turn blue. Kalsan hesitated a heartbeat or two, then rested his hand over hers, so only the heel of his hand and his fingertips touched the blade. The blue light rippled, white to gold to white to blue and back again.

“Does that mean it approves?” he offered with a crooked smile.

“I pledge myself to you, Kalsan of Hestrin. My heart and mind and body, my strength and honor and loyalty.” Andrixine smiled to hear her voice wobble, just the tiniest bit. She cupped his bearded cheek with her free hand, and Kalsan pressed his hand over hers. “Let the Sword witness there is no one with any claim stronger than yours, and there will never be anyone to make me regret my vows. Just as my body is pure and reserved for you alone, so my heart shall always be pure and yours alone.”

“Andrixine–” His voice broke. The Sword’s light flared brighter, so they both had to close their eyes. He turned his head, to press a kiss against her hand. “I swear, everything I am, everything I will ever be, is yours. I hunted but I was never satisfied, until we met. My heart and life are yours, clean and pure for you alone.”

Blue radiance pierced her closed eyes and Andrixine glimpsed a vision that faded as quickly as it came. Kalsan inhaled sharply and yanked his hand off hers before twisting and falling backwards to land on his rump on the floor.

“Kalsan?” She put the Sword aside and started to slide off the bed, reaching for him, but he stopped her by getting up on his knees again.

“Did you see it?” He shook his head and the dazed look left his eyes.

“You had a vision?” The concept that the Spirit Sword spoke to someone besides her and Brother Klee was startling. And yet comforting. The Sword accepted her husband so thoroughly, it gave him a vision. “What did you see?”

“We’re riding with Jultar and Brother Klee, facing into the sunrise. Dressed for travel.”

“Ah. That’s clear enough. We must ride to Cereston as soon as possible and present ourselves to King Rafnar.”

“But not yet.” He rested a hand on the side of the bed to help him get to his feet. “How do I get those flowers out of your hair? They look…uncomfortable.”

Andrixine laughed and reached for the ribbons twined through her hair at the back of her head. “Lori very cleverly fashioned a crown for me, so it comes off like a hood.” She lifted the weaving of roses off her head, wincing a few times when curls of hair caught on the leaves and wilting flowers.

“I think Lori is my favorite sister.” Kalsan frowned a little when she handed him the roses, then laughed when she turned to put the Spirit Sword back into its sling. Andrixine was relieved to see the light had faded completely. When she turned back to him, he had put the flowers on the chest against the wall and reached to enfold her in his arms again. “Promise me something?”

“That depends.” She muffled laughter in kisses.

“Don’t get out of bed tomorrow without waking me.” He scooped her up and walked two more steps to put her down on the bed. “I didn’t like waking up this morning and reaching for you and thinking you were nothing but a dream.” He paused a moment to toe off his boots.

“Then let’s watch the sunrise together.” She sighed as he stretched out next to her. “Every morning.”

“Just as long as it’s under our nice warm blankets.”

“Agreed.”

One kiss turned into many, and then there were no more words.

 

END


About the Author

 

Michelle lives in Ohio, just about half an hour from Lake Erie and Cleveland. She graduated from Northwestern College, Iowa, with a BA in theater/English, and from Regent University, Virginia, with an MA in communication (film/writing). She has over 40 short stories and poems to her credit in fan fiction–Star Trek, Highlander, the Phoenix, Beauty & the Beast, Stingray, among others. Her first professional sale was also a first-place win in the Writers of the Future Contest, with the short story “Relay”.

Michelle has written a number of series set in very different “Universes”.  To make them easier to keep track of, I have detailed the four universes currently available/or becoming available from Writers Exchange below (including all known book titles).  Below that are detailed descriptions and cover art for each of her books.


Faxinor Universe

Legend says long ago Yomnian gave to each country its own Spirit Sword, entrusted to a Sword Bearer to lead in the defense of each country, and also to provide spiritual guidance. If necessary, the Sword Bearer could overrule the word and authority of the king, but those to whom the most power and authority have been entrusted have the highest standards and the most expected of them. As the centuries passed, Sword Bearers fell and the Spirit Sword for each country was lost. Now only the country of Reshor possesses a Spirit Sword. Its bearer, Rakleer, has vanished into mist and memory, waiting until need and danger awaken the sword to choose a new Bearer and lead in the defense of Reshor.

 


The Hunt Universe

Who are the Hunt? Children sent from an endangered world in another universe/dimension of reality, to protect them from a despot who wants to command their Talents. Given into the keeping of the Hounds of Hamin, the members of the Hunt have been separated by time as well as distance. They know each other by the scars–rows of teeth marks–on their wrists. Some have been in our world for decades, others have only been here for a few years. They have to find each other–and soon, before more enemies show up to destroy them–and find a way back home to save their world.

 


Wildvine Universe

In multiple worlds, universes and dimensions of reality, there are tales of Hub Worlds where many different realms can meet and intersect. Some travel between worlds through the power of the mind and with Talents born into the blood, while others are chosen through vision and prophecy and step between worlds with the power of talismans. None can go to the others’ worlds, except when they meet in a Hub World.

Wildvine County, somewhere in the United States, is that pivotal point where the travelers from multiple worlds and universes meet.

 


 

Commonwealth Universe

Before the Commonwealth, there was First Civ and then the Downfall, an age of barbarism when the galaxy-spanning civilization shattered and colony worlds learned to survive by their own strength…or were abandoned to die.

 

AGE I

Before the Commonwealth existed, there was an expanding, multi-galaxy civilization referred to by its descendants/survivors simply as “First Civ”. Due to the combined effects of a too-aggressive policy of expansion, civil unrest, the inequality and abuse of the classes, and the categorizing of augmented humans as a slave class, First Civ disintegrated.

 

The period of darkness and barbarism that followed is referred to as the Downfall. Various groups of people fled First Civ as they became endangered or more powerful people tried to have them classified as mutants or non-humans, and either sterilized or made them into slaves. Among them were the Khybors, the ancestors of the Leapers.

 

Some groups of people managed to get hold of ships and flee to distant galaxies.

AGE II

The planet Vidan, presumed to be the center of First Civ’s government, degraded into a world ruled by superstition and fear, filled with petty city-states, and battles fought with gunpowder and swords. Tales of traveling to the stars were considered fables and mad dreams within only two generations of the onslaught of the Downfall. Colony worlds were abandoned to starve or die of mutated diseases. The genetically manipulated inhabitants abandoned there by their creators/masters were left to build their own way of life.

 

From the chaos on Vidan, a holy scholar named Kilvordi discovered the legacy of their ancestors’ arrogance lived on. He and others he gathered around him were the Undying–able to regenerate at an incredible speed. Long-lived, seemingly young forever and impervious to all but the most devastating diseases, only drastic injuries could kill them.

 

Kilvordi and his followers put their legacy to good use, taking great risks and devoting lifetimes to regaining the lost knowledge and technology of First Civ.

AGE III

Vidan was again reaching out to the stars: sadder and wiser…and cautious, unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the ancestors. The Commonwealth was born, reaching out to lost colonies and establishing new ones, rediscovering lost technology and how to navigate the star-ways. Many of the lost colonies not only survived but thrived–and they remembered their abandonment and the harsh centuries of the Downfall…

 

 

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