Season One, Episode Six
It was like a lullaby, almost impossible to resist nodding off, letting the angry, scared parts of you inside drift to sleep, or out to sea and the waves whispering so rhythmically: let go, let go, let go…
The ferawicce felt it too.
Oh, not the way her fellow squires did. Even well on a month later the men treat her with gentle distance. It’s not warmth, or kindness, or even acceptance really, but it’s jarring: from their rabid response when she first walked into the training yard to this… careful consideration. They treat her exactly as Queen Kaia instructed them. They treat her as though, truly, when they face her with a weapon, or their fists, they consider that she is the very same as the Queen before them. And so, while they must train with her, and it is in fact their duty to spar with her and spar honestly, to the best of their abilities… even hit her, even slip their swords within her foolish openings and leave her with bloody lines crisscrossing her ribs, her arms, her chest… They are so very, very careful to be sure they do her no permanent damage. It would do her permanent damage to do less than their honest best to train her – she’d die the first time she faced an opponent beyond their walls. But while they swing fists and swords at her with grunting sincerity… they do not take the opportunity to slake a hundred years of men’s rage.
Because… they don’t feel it.
Kaia… stole it from them.
The ferawicce doesn’t know what to make of it. Kaia was always talented in Waterwei magic, to be sure. As children, it was always Kaia begging her father for another word, begging the horse hands, begging even the strangers they might meet on a lane, though that was ‘highly inappropriate behavior for a young lady,’ Kaia’s mother used to so bemoan. Yet that didn’t stop Kaia. Nothing stopped Kaia. And as soon as she heard the word whispered, only once, she would taste the syllables carefully on her tongue, roll the breath around in her mouth and gently test the vibrations of her vocal chords and… The ferawicce never saw her fail at a word, even the very first time she spoke it. A few of the more complicated magics, her first word was weaker, the Waterwei magic may have shivered a moment before flowing forward. But always, even her very first speaking, Kaia would call, and the Waterwei magic would answer.
The ferawicce would have thought, had she ever dwelled on such things, on the blond she was never, ever to think of again, she snorts to herself now… She might have thought Kaia was a water witch, perhaps. That she would grow up to lead water traders to waters with particular properties, be perhaps a still more skillful guide because she knew so many of the magic words, collected so carefully like other young ladies might have collected beads, or jewels, or dried flowers. But that she should grow to be…
What is ‘this’?
The ferawicce might be a monster of the greatest and bloodiest fables, but Kaia is…
So deep - and therefore also probably so dark, right? So deep sunlight, moonlight, no light can penetrate to the depths of her… So deep no man may say what lies at her core, what type of beating, breathing, sparks of electricity are animating this flesh and bone puppet you see before you.
The ferawicce is not sure she’s human.
The lullaby she’d whispered to the entire courtyard of squires… The siren’s call to let go their anger, to drift off to sea…
She’d sucked the souls from those men. At least some parts of them. Dark parts, perhaps. Parts the world is better without, perhaps. But still parts that belonged to those men. Parts the ferawicce had seen them sweating to hold to, straining not to let go, let go, let go…
The ferawicce can suck the life from you, the golden stream that keeps up your beating and breathing and tiny sparks of electricity contracting your muscles…
What a darker creature still that can suck the soul from you…
Kaia does not strike the ferawicce as a monster, though of all people in the world, surely she should think it so…
Kaia has grown… quiet, solemn… sad… careful… gentle. Like she has seen some darkness in herself that frightens her, perhaps. Like she is listening for far off screams so she will know to reign in a destruction she never knew she possessed in her fingers, in her bones, in her whispered words. And she never meant to let it free. It’s like… Like she’s remembering a promise she made to herself so long ago the riverbeds cut across the lands in different veins and the oceans roared with younger waters. She seems suddenly… ancient. Wise but wizened by eons of everyday, tiny heartbreaks, and the great, tearing devastations of the souls you twined with yours, pulled asunder by time, or bloodshed, or merely that you are too different to stand too close for too long.
When Kaia pulled from those men their rage and their hate, it was much the way she used to speak a Waterwei word for the first time, making the sound and forming the word, and her intent, so instinctively it was like she had done this so many times it was muscle memory… It was a man who had been a blacksmith his entire life, only moved to a new town now, a few weeks on the road without a smithy, and picking up a hammer again, for the first time here, now, in this particular smithy with this particular fire roaring but… for the ten thousandth time. For the time so many times into his life and his careful creations that he has long since lost count. He has shod enough horses that he has covered the whole of the world in his metal workings. He has crafted enough swords that he has felled whole generations of men. This is both the first and the infinite time he has plied his craft of equal parts life and death… It was like that when Kaia pulled from those men their rage. Like both the first and the infinite time she carried men’s souls to sea.
Even Kaia had seemed carried off with her own power. She’d looked at the men so oddly. Not like a Queen in that moment. Not like the girl the ferawicce knew once so very, very long ago. Not like… Like nothing the ferawicce can think to compare to. Like a God, maybe. Like a little girl looking down on her dolls. Like a man looking at an insect he might choose to step upon, or over. Like fate were a game she played.
And yet for all that -
The ferawicce laughs aloud as she pulls out the many tools and trappings of her new vocation, lays them out on her bed in her careful order so she doesn’t forget how to put on the armor, in what order to tie the layers and where to tuck her sharp metal edges…
For all that power, for even Kaia herself pulled a little out into the hazy sea of her own beckoning…
The ferawicce hasn’t lost her own rage.
She goes after the squires in the practice yard with full enough rage for both opponents. Where the men feint and parry and carefully keep their cutting skin-deep, the ferawicce does her very damnest to kill every last man she circles in the ring.
She’s proving to be rather clumsy with the heavy swords of a King’s fightingman, so no harm done, but she has certainly been trying to do harm.
And it’s not even the men she’s angry with. Not really.
It’s the blond girl who broke her heart.
And the Queen who’s making her question whether broken hearts can be mended, whether unforgivable betrayals can be forgiven.
The ferawicce doesn’t want to wonder, doesn’t want to hope, doesn’t want to care that Kaia tried to visit with her a few times her first few weeks in the castle barracks but not since the leaves started changing. In a way, never thinking about her little blond love kept that childhood romance pure and perfect, and the memory of the day it ended cut sharply apart from the rest, buried deep, deep, deep beneath a hundred good memories of a hundred good days before the morning she lost every good thing she’d ever known. The ferawicce hadn’t had to sort through the memories, weigh the good against the bad, realize the scale still wavers, despite how horrible that last morning was, all that pain counterweighted by how much love had come before it…
As much as the ferawicce wants to deny it, as much as she rages against it…
There is still something between them.
Something strange, and deafening, and magic.
Even sitting alone in her room, carefully dressed for her mock battles, pulling out her practice sword and whispering the word to clean it - “Rensaaire…”
Something swells within her that she has never felt before, some Waterwei magic roars from the depths and the ferawicce feels suddenly like the cliffs where white foam forms like the sweat at her brow and she knows she can only hold back the ocean for so long before the thundering waves turn her stone to sand and beckon her out with the tide.
Perhaps Kaia is dragging them all out to sea.
Perhaps Kaia is the sea.
The ferawicce whispers the word for cleaning once more and she feels the unmistakable swell of more Waterwei magic than she has ever held in her own reserves, and she hears the ocean noises that echo throughout the castle rise in crescendo and -
She only meant to clean her training garb.
But her entire chambers have been rendered spotless to shining.
Kaia was always gifted with Waterwei magic.
But the ferawicce was always a clumsy student, and an even worse practitioner.
The ferawicce whispered the word.
But somehow the magic that answered…
It is not her magic.
Or at least not only hers.
And, of course, that makes no sense at all.
She’s not very good, is she?
As she falls to the ground again, again, Boone is forced to answer his own question.
No, no she’s not.
It seems the ferawicce’s weapon’s training is actually going quite slowly. It looks like she’s being pulled with the momentum of the blade as often as she’s actually wielding it, and she’s so dead set against letting her opponent get even slightly to the side of her that she’s missing half a dozen good openings for every one she takes. And the ones she takes are… Obvious. Head-on. All brute strength without finesse, without the careful calculations, the psychological manipulations, of a true swordsman.
Boone winces as she falls to the ground again.
And yet, how odd that watching her cough back to her breath, push herself slowly back to kneeling, to a wobbly and wavering standing before her opponent once more, her outfit more dust than fabric at this point, dirt golem of a woman in the yard…
It does not diminish his admiration for her at all.
What a novel sensation to see his hero in the form that falls to the ground again and again… and yet always struggles to rise again.
What a startling contrast to the hero who came before her.
The last time Boone came to watch a practice in the squire training yard, he’d come to see Garrik giving a demonstration of fighting on horseback. Looking back now, Boone can’t understand why he didn’t scoff at the notion then. Of course Garrik looked so effortlessly superior from the privileged position of horseback. Of course he won every one of his demonstration bouts. He had carefully arranged before the fighting had begun that it must be so. A knight fighting against squires. A man on horseback fighting against men on their own two feet.
How odd that we are so enthralled within each moment, each conviction, in our lives. That only a season past Boone would have sung to you of his gallant Knight Garrik and his bravery and cunning and skill with a blade. And how he has fallen, just as the leaves have fallen too, just as fully into the conviction that Garrik, perhaps, was never a hero at all. And here is his autumn hero, as different as any man could imagine from the fabled character who stood in her place in summer. Who was hero has become brigand in disguise. Who was monster has become savior, friend, a woman who is beginning to teach him what it means to be a good man. A hero who would teach Boone to be his own hero.
She’ll hardly look at his mother, hardly speak with her, but she always smiles at Boone when she sees him, always takes the time to speak with him if they ‘happen’ to run into each other in the hallways, always says to him something that strikes him as common sense when he thinks on it, and yet he’d never thought on it before…
Perhaps he can give her some common sense wisdom this time, he muses, as he watches another squire catch her, coming up beneath her guard and rapping her soundly on the head with the broadside of his sword. She’s not moving her feet enough. She’s lunging forward too aggressively, so eager to swing her own weapon that she’s showing none of the wisdom Boone has heard her murmur to him in conversations he’s beginning to collect like his father so carefully collects precious tomes in his library. She’s falling into obvious traps. She’s advancing when she should parry. She’s fighting with a hell of a lot of heart, an angry heart, but no brains.
The sword is also too heavy for her. She needs to do strength training on her own. She’s lean and muscled more than any lady Boone has ever seen. But she’s not fighting against ladies. She’s fighting against men who worked their way up to those swords they’re wielding after years with progressively heavier practice swords. The ferawicce started right out the gate with a fully-weighted weapon. And she hasn’t been doing all the odd exercises of the squires for years either, Boone would guess. They use their own body weight to build muscles, pushing themselves up from the floor, pulling themselves up to bars they bolt across the tops of their doorways. They have a whole bevy of tricks to train their muscles, and Boone knows the most ambitious of the squires do their exercises the same way other men make their careful affectations in the chapel each evening.
The horn sounds for the final match. Boone watches as the squires rotate, as the ferawicce limps to the new challenger to her left…
One of the largest squires, the one who stared at Boone’s mother defiantly long after all the other squires were quiet and quiescent that day in the yard when the Queen… spoke with them. It was Bruss who strained to raise his arm against Boone’s mother’s magic, and her will, and whatever it was that was passing between her and the squires, her and their hate.
Boone doesn’t know.
And he tells himself, firmly, that he doesn’t care.
His mother is a powerful Waterwei practitioner. There were whispered rumors about her long before they took on the nasty tones of these past few months. What a beautiful Queen. What a powerful Queen. What a Queen was theirs, with Waterwei gifts no other man could boast… Who knew how deep the magic ran in her veins, how deep the well of magic within her, how much power and mystery she will pass down in her lineage to the Kings and Queens she bears…
Lately the rumors are more about how she stares after the ferawicce with some of the same longing Boone feels… And something else…
The servants and the townspeople make it all about sex, of course.
They’ve been making uncouth references to female dogs, and rutting season, and the sorts of houses rich men visit late at night with coin in their pockets and alcohol in their blood.
Boone tells himself, firmly, that he doesn’t care about that either.
The mystery of what his mother is.
The mystery of what it is she wants from the ferawicce, just what sort of longing it is that undeniably turns her body to face the ferawicce like a plant will rotate to face the sun, every time they are in the same room, and sometimes even when they’re not, like she can sense where the ferawicce is without sight.
Boone loves his father, and loves his mother, and loves the ferawicce.
So he does not care about things that might waver him between the loyalties of his many loves.
He believes this is perhaps a rare moment in which ignorance is wisdom.
Ignorance cannot deny how he looks at the ferawicce even now.
Oh, it’s not the same wild rage that had him snarling across the training yard that first day, pressed nearly to touching the tip of Keagan’s sword and glaring at the ferawicce so hard it was almost as if he hadn’t noticed the blade puckering his flesh…
But it’s still rage. There is no mistaking to Boone, not now, what born and bred hate looks like. He’s had too many days to study it since the ferawicce was brought to the castle. He has seen too many faces he has known as sweet and earnest, twisted suddenly by what looks like a fetid odor only they can smell: noses curled, eyes squinted against the fumes, lips pulled back and tongues testing their teeth as if to see how sharp, how deadly, thrown back in this moment, in this emotion, to a time when they would fight with these enamel edges, instead of the ones they have made themselves of steel…
The strength of this man’s soul, this man’s hate, is full as strong as his strength of arms. Even after Boone’s mother gave her warning, he still holds to a thread of rage: enough to lift his arms now, enough to charge with deadly intent.
He swings a wide blow low to her left, high to her right, a direct thrust to her chest.
The ferawicce manages to block these blows, but only by steadily giving ground.
He tries a backhand to her left shoulder and -
The ferawicce rears back, stumbles away.
A line of red soaks through her dirt-crusted clothes like a bold sash.
Bruss presses his advantage.
Another left! Low, low, low, high!
The ferawicce can’t keep up with his speed. He is big and strong and brutal and ten years into his training. She is lithe and quick-footed but exhausted, and this sword is the only one she has ever held. Her callouses are still bleeding, still building. Her muscles have strained against hacking brush to make a path through the woods, pulling back the string of a bow to shoot a bird from the sky, tying a snare taut against the force of a bent sapling…
But not this.
Stomach! Shoulder! Stomach! Legs!
Bruss’s blade is a searing blur in the afternoon light.
The man lets out a battle roar as he hits the ferawicce’s raised sword again! Again! Again!
The cut across her shoulder is dripping blood down her hand to coat her own blade red, driping from its tip to water all the plants that have never grown here.
The ferawicce is forced to turn when her back hits the wall.
Boone shouts, but the knight who’s supposed to be supervising the training is coaching another pair, his back turned, and the rest of the squires are occupied with their own battles.
As though the word can do anything. As though even a King’s command can stop death.
But, miraculously, it does.
Boone can feel the strange sensation of a current tugging at his Waterwei magic inside, just like it did the day his mother came to tie her favor around the ferawicce’s waist… Only this time Boone lets go. Boone shoves his own magic along with the current, praying that it might help, however small his own reserves…
And it does.
Bruss’s raised sword falters. The giant man takes a step forward only to stumble back, forward, back, forward, back. His sword wavers too before…
It falls to his side.
He stares up at the sky, at Boone, at the castles turrets, with an equal lack of recognition or feeling.
All that rage… washed out to sea with Boone’s Waterwei magic.
Boone falls back to his seat.
Bruss stands for a moment, swaying with the breeze, and then he too sits, right there in the middle of the training yard.
It’s an eerie sight, this enraged man emptied, quiescent, sitting like a child in the sand.
Boone doesn’t care about that either.
All he cares about is the ferawicce struggling back to her feet, holding her good arm across her wound like she can apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding herself. Finally, the supervising knight notices the ferawicce. He glares at her like the entire situation is her fault, glares at Boone sitting on the spectator benches, glares at Bruss sitting in the sand. For a moment Boone is afraid he’s going to draw his sword next.
But apparently it hasn’t come to that yet.
They haven’t reached the point where fear catalyzes outright treason.
He gruffs something to the ferawicce and one of the other squires helps her out of the yard.
He still doesn’t trust the healer.
There’s a bubbling, a boiling, a brewing in the streets.
Coattael and his Raiders have ridden the Road between Pöeddae and Rasvii a half-dozen times since the night hanging, and each time the fear has festered deeper in the hearts of these villagers, the doubts have grown longer like shadows fading into night, the anger has sparked a brawl here, a furtive discussion there…
There are men lurking in doorways, meetings in alleys, pubs that turn away a man with coin.
There are plots brewing. There are treasons being dreamed and the words tested before the deeds.
Coattael has decided he’s glad the ferawicce didn’t die that night. The fact that Pöeddae is still standing… Each time he has returned from a raid it has surprised him a little less, made him think a little more. There must be more than just beast to the woman he pulled from a far off mountain lake in the cold of spring and the northern forests. That the King has let her live, and that she has let his village live in return, speaks to a kind of understanding, even an ethics of sorts, that are only the domain of men.
So he is glad that the village did not hang a creature both man and beast, for no other reason than an instinctive fear of a golden gaze.
But he does not want to be here for the reckoning.
He does not want to witness what happens when Pöeddae drinks the noxious potion they’ve been brewing. He does not want to witness the downfall of a village, and the downfall of what he truly believes is a wise King, and the downfall of a beautiful, golden-eyed beast, or woman, or both.
So he spurs his horse faster across these cobblestones.
And they’ve made it - almost - to the edge of town, before they come upon a crowd whose angry voices are too loud to ignore. More than the random gaggles of men pocketed here and there throughout the city, muttering one to his neighbor, to their sons and cousins and closest friends, circles of confidants confiding that they question their King, that his wisdom, this time, is perhaps so far from their own reckoning of the world that they cannot reconcile it…
It is fair for a man to question any man, as it is fair even for a man to question the very Gods themselves. But it is another thing entirely to take those mutterings from your closest associates, and whispers, and wonderings, and instead shout your fears to a crowd as anger and a call for blood instead. That is the gathering Coattael and his Raiders find blocking the last rode before the village gate. There is a man in black wool with his beard the same shade to match. He is standing atop a wagon. He has his hands and his voice raised above the grumbling and growling of the crowd.
“We can tolerate this madness no longer! We cannot so vaunt our King’s wisdom that we will follow him into the very depths of damnation for fear of questioning his reason! The ferawicce has bewitched him and the Queen whom all have heard tell follows her steps, sleeps at her door, like a dog! Our monarchs have been magicked. They are no more than puppets on the ferawicce’s strings. She plays them to her bloody ends and makes a mockery of our monarchy and our lands! It is our duty as men of the realm to take back the crown from the control of that beast! It is our duty to save our most exalted King and Queen from their follies and the blindness that has been a plague to them in this matter! We must march to the castle! We must beg our brothers at the gates to let us in!”
A great roar goes up amongst them. Only a couple of dozen men, but enough to rattle the windows in this narrow lane, enough to gather curious gazes from dozens more lingering in side streets, listening, watching, waiting, deciding…
A mob forms as a snowball down a mountain. First there is a small clump of men, and then they gather momentum, gather speed as they roll their way through town, picking up an odd man, and another, and another, and another, until they are pulling into their growing mass every man they roll past, until they are the whole of the mountainside barreling towards the keep. If this man atop the cart says the right words, if his tone is galvanizing, if only a few of the people lingering in the side streets are swayed this direction… They will be the start to the snowball rolling. They are paused, here, now, roaring, at the precipice.
Coattael does not want to be here for the reckoning.
He does not want to see Pöeddae drink its poison potion.
These are the only reasons he draws his sword.
No others. No lingering lusts or admiration. No tender feelings like those he can only vaguely recall from when he was a boy tied to his mother’s apron strings.
He simply does not want the bother of being in Pöeddae when the city crumbles just as surely as if it had been shaken down to the very last loose rock the day the earth bucked beneath them. And, surely, it will be less profitable to raid villagers fleeing from a burning village than merchants traveling abroad to sell their wares…
Coattael mutters this last bit of reasoning to the leader of his Raiding band.
A sound bit of reason, it must be, for Coattael can hear other hooves follow behind him as he spurs his stallion to trample the men in his path and -
He drives his sword through the careless throat of the man in black wool.
He pulls his sword free with a flourish so the entire crowd can hear the haunting gurgle a man makes as he drowns on his own blood.
There are the curses and groans of men who found themselves knocked aside by a stead, stepped on by an iron-shod hoof, or hit with the pommel of a Raider’s blade…
But there is also this quiet sound of dying that cuts across all the others like a whisper of truth amongst a chorus of lies.
The man in black wool holds his hands to his throat, wide eyed and desperate, but he cannot catch his own blood, flowing through his fingers and filling his lungs…
He falls to the ground with a resounding thud that startles the crowd into still, a more profound silence.
Coattael urges his mount to step upon the wooden wagon until Coattael faces the crowd exactly as the man in black wool, except Coattael is atop a horse and his sword is already dripping with blood.
“This was the fate that awaited each of you, if you were stupid enough to actually march on the castle gates.”
He fancies his voice holds more authority than his predecessor’s. He imagines he cuts a far more imposing image than the sallow orator.
But one man still cries back, “The ferawicce must be stopped!”
No roar this time. These are as much sheep as they are men. They would follow the man in black wool into treasonous and murderous waters. But they are just as happy to let Coattael become a new fear, and bow as readily to this fear as to their others. At least for now. At least in this moment when the ferawicce is only a shadow and a ghost story and the possibility that she lingers behind the castle walls. And Coattael is here, now, before them, his sword still dripping the blood of a man he has slain before their very eyes.
Coattael promises they will die now and here if they disobey him.
The ferawicce is the fear of death tomorrow, or tomorrow, or tomorrow stretching off to the end of their days.
In general, Coattael finds that men will pick a possible, future death over a guaranteed, imminent death, every time.
Still, the only sheep with the slightest backbone baas once more. “The ferawicce must be stopped!”
The man who leads Coattael’s Raiding party unsheathes his knife with a raised brow.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s the only way to be sure the sheep remember the lesson.
Another man gurgles as he drowns.
There is another thud as another body falls.
It is a quiet end to a very short rebellion.
No doubt lives have been saved this bloody night.
It is possible this is merely an amusement.
It is possible his lover is deliberately pitting him against King Abelard in a fight that may reveal itself to be far more fair than Réavos ever intended, or indeed, perhaps, can win.
It is possible his lover has nothing to do with this at all and, truly, it is only fate, only the inevitable flaw in any tapestry, the fabled child the story always spares, the obstacle every great man must overcome to prove his greatness.
There is simply no way to be sure.
The impetus he cannot know; the results he sees all too clearly, or hears, rather, as the Shadows hiss and growl what she sees from the window.
Where the morning light should stream in, instead there is gloom through the tower window. Even the harsh sunlight of Réavos’ desert kingdom, as it encounters the immutable force, the immutable dark of his lover, falters. While it is not the deepest pitch black of heavy clouds and night, what should be a strip of light across the hardwood floor is instead a strip of dim and depression. And silhouetted against the window itself, a darker form amongst the dark… A woman leaning against the windowsill, peering out so intently, Réavos is struck by the irrational fear that she might fall. As though this would do her any damage.
As though there is really a ‘her’ to do any damage. She is not human, she is not of actual form or flesh at all, and so he is not sure such plebeian things as pronouns apply to her. It is part of her appeal: his heart beats in equal parts terror and infatuation. While she feels full as real as any woman, she is something more like a God, or a storm, or a spirit, than merely a lightening bug life and flittering form. Truly, a worthy lover to a King. A lifelong confidant, and a woman he would crown, were she a woman, and were there any head he could place that crown upon…
The Shadows laugh at something only she can see.
But she shares her laughter with him, and her great, and terrible, and far-reaching vision.
“Should you ever face this ferawicce in combat with a blade, I’m hardly sure she would manage to draw her own before you cut her to the earth.”
But it’s not a comfort. Oh, how he wishes it was! Shivers of delight to hear her husky voice, thousands of ants of magic and the life-force of every bleating beast on this earth, all coax him to laugh with her, to take her into his arms and join in her amusement, and join them together in other ways… But Réavos’ mind cannot let go of the obvious, the bitter: This other ferawicce shouldn’t have a blade at all, let alone have any knowledge of how to draw it in combat.
How has Abelard heard tell of ferawiccen as warriors? Will he train her - Does he know how to train her? - in ferawicce battle techniques that need no sword, and, indeed, do far more destruction than any mere man with a blade? What prompted him to train a full-grown ferawicce amongst his squires, when his many great fathers before him were instrumental in the culling of the species? This ferawicce not only survived her infancy and grew to adulthood somehow beyond the sight of Réavos’ lover, who sees everything far off beyond any horizon, but now the ferawicce trains as a squire in another King’s court! And for that matter, what would drive the ferawicce to live in the court, and serve the kingdom, of a man whose laws would have her executed, nearly did see her to her death, as Réavos has confirmed that much of his lover’s windowsill stories for himself… What inner voice, or outer perhaps, would counsel this other ferawicce to train in the arts of battle in another King’s court?
Réavos cannot help but wonder if his lover is setting the two Kings up against one another.
Réavos cannot help but wonder, wail, if only to himself, if his lover has taken another into her confidence, into her arms, into her… love? Réavos does not think you can call it love, not really, not the way he has seen the word defined in books and bards’ tales and men speaking to one another in rare moments of honesty and emotions lain bare. His lover is not capable of the tender emotion the word depicts when uttered by a common tongue. A polyseme, perhaps. When men speak of love, they speak of doting consideration, gentle cultivation, growing another life like tending a newly-sprouted sapling so the trunk will grow to twine with your own and together you will be a mighty tree, a tower amongst the forest canopy of men. When Réavos’ lover speaks of love, she speaks of war, of a fierce battle of wills until the one or the other submits, and lies prostrate, and is rewarded with touch and taste and sound to make his heart race.
When Réavos speaks of love, he speaks of submission, and lying down, and taking his reward as one of the fiercest joys in his life. Devouring his lover gives him strength and satiety the same as devouring the men who present themselves as prey before him. One to feed his body, the other to feed his soul. The truth is, a truth Réavos cannot escape, even as he chafes against it: a man cannot do without food for his soul, any more than he can do without food for his body.
So perhaps his questions, and his doubt, do not matter. It is true that his lover is duplicitous and fickle and cruel and perhaps, even the very instrument of his destruction just as he is on the verge of his lifelong triumph. But he will continue to abide by her counsel. He will continue to listen to the woman-shadow that leans agains this windowsill. He will love her, and follow her, and fight for her, even to his doom. He has given her his soul long since.
So he speaks, interrupting deep thoughts, apparently, as the woman’s form of shadows startles at the window before turning to him when he says, commands, pleads: “Tell me more of what you see.”
“I see that though she trains with squires, the ferawicce is too weak to wield a broadsword effectively. Her body is lean and quick-footed and suited better to other weapons, but she, and that fool ‘wise King’ are too stupid to see that she cannot be trained with the rest, that she is not like the rest, and so it follows.”
Is that admiration Réavos hears in his lover’s voice? Is it lust? When she speaks of the other ferawicce’s body and skills, does she wish he possessed the same?
But, oh, she sees so much more than merely the happenings beyond the horizon, doesn’t she?
“I see,” she murmurs, the shadows breaking from the window and walking through their strip of gloom to stand close, to breathe the words against Réavos’ throat, “I see that you doubt me, Love. I see that this other ferawicce frightens you. I see that you think a King with a ferawicce in his Guard could be the equal to a King who is a ferawicce. I see that you think a King can possess a talent as fully by finding it in others to serve him, as by cultivating it in himself. These all, Love, are fallacies.”
Réavos does not know if it is courage or recklessness that wags his tongue. Often, his impulses are hard to distinguish in this way.
“Are they?” he asks.
The Shadows run her hands down his chest, to rest low on his stomach, to slide around his hips, to pull his body close to the cradle of her hips, the soft press of her breasts against his chest…
“I will kill King Abelard’s ferawicce right now, this moment, Love, if it is truly your wish. But it will be your opening salvo. There will be no more secret war, and only open fighting. It is perhaps more honorable,” she muses, “but less intelligent.”
An offer, and an insult, spoken in precisely the same tone, as though they are of precisely the same import.
“Indeed, if you are only patient,” she muses aloud, slides her hand to the front if his trousers, squeezes, smiles as the shadows of her form an intricate sculpture of shades, lighter where lips curve, darker as her mouth opens… “The city of Pöeddae may kill her, and perhaps even King Abelard for you.”
It’s hard to think as she strokes him, as she presses closer and her lips feather against the edge of his jaw, but what she’s saying makes sense, might even be an honest offer and wise counsel, just as she has, he reminds himself, provided him wise counsel so many times in the past. He would not be the King of even one kingdom, let alone on the verge of being the King of many lands, if not for her. And while she feels cool to the touch, as shadows do, she also feels firm to the touch, and lusciously curved, and pressing closer…
As he did when they discussed this ferawicce the first time, Réavos is forced to concede that the best course of action is, “We will wait. And see.”
There are things he would rather be doing than talking.
There are more pleasurable things to contemplate than his doubts.
He chooses to believe in his lusts, and his Love.
‘Love’. If she throws that word around enough, perhaps he will believe it, believe it is an emotion she can feel, would feel, about him, if she could. Perhaps if she speaks the word as if it is his name, calls him by it, and he answers as though it is a designation, perhaps it will be as true to him, as absolute, as his very name. A fact. A word he has carried pinned to his breast since infancy and now he associates it with her, uses the letters, stripped so carefully to their fibrous insides, to weave a rope between his heart and her wrist. A gentle tug here, a firm pull there, and she can steer him like a ship.
That is all he is, after all. A very useful tool, like a man uses a ship to travel across the waters far less arduously than if he was forced to swim. Her goal would be to a man a swimming of a great and terrible ocean. A task that might be completed, perhaps, and she has the advantage that she cannot die in the attempt, but a task far easier to complete with a ship, no doubt.
For eons she labored alone. For eons she failed to achieve her ends.
She has seen remarkable progress since she took the role of fate herself and saved that first child, that first one child the fable spared…
That was her.
Amongst all the ferawiccen dying their terrible deaths, she chose to spare one. One with promise. One with strength. One she knew, one day, she could press against, and whisper, and mimic a woman’s shape against his man’s shape, and a woman’s lips agains his jaw and he would do anything she asked.
The others she may have driven to a more obvious madness, but Réavos… Couldn’t it be said that ‘love’ is only a more subtle madness?
For a hundred years, he was too blind to see it.
But now, this… other.
This other has prickled at the edges of Réavos’ awareness, has made him question so many things he once took for absolute truths, has made him… wavering.
She is a weakness to him, this other ferawicce. In both subtle and obvious ways. If Abelard does choose to train her as a true ferawiccen warrior, she will be an obvious threat to Réavos’ physical domination, his battles to be fought on land with men, and beasts, and the earth shaking, and the sky raging and perhaps the whole world shattering to ruin…
But she is also a weakness to him mentally. Making him question himself, the Shadows he has always taken for granted are all but an extension of himself, a strength he possesses as surely as though he possessed all her many strengths himself…
Foolish. But there is a type of strength in believing in your own strength. Even if that belief is misguided.
She is not entirely sure she spoke the truth when she told Réavos she could kill the other ferawicce at his command. Oh, she would have tried, if he’d really insisted. But it would have been a calculated gamble on her part. She is utterly earnest in her desire to destroy the other ferawicce. She is a threat to Réavos’ plans, but also to her own plans. But this other ferawicce… This other ferawicce almost makes her question if she should have waited a hundred years more before she chose her ship. This other ferawicce may more than match Réavos in strength of will and mind and magic. And given the way she reacts so explosively to the Queen Kaia, she suspects this other ferawicce might be fully as easy to manipulate with a woman’s form and a woman’s lips…
She suspects the other ferawicce would be very difficult to kill. A ferawicce who shook the earth with no training, harnessed a great draw of power with a body that had no conditioning at all, with a mind that should have been stressed beyond all sanity… And yet she did not succumb to the madness the Shadows have injected deep into the golden veins of life and life-force. Even weakened by lack of training and loss of blood, she clawed her way back from the cliffs of unbridled rage and lusts, pulled herself back into her own being and her own reckoning, though the Shadows call, cloying, from deep within the very veins of life.
That is a creature that earns a wary respect; even as you circle it, looking for an opening, looking where to place your knife, you admire the lean and deadly form, claws against your blade, bloodlust against bloodlust.
She would have tried though, she would have earnestly tried to kill the other ferawicce.
She chose her ship long ago, and now she must sail on it to the ends of the earth.
For indeed, that is precisely where they are heading.
Réavos grunts in his sleep behind her now, and turns his lumbering form until his broad back faces her, the form of him pleasing, she acknowledges, if not particularly exciting. That would be an accurate description for the whole of the man and of his actions. Pleasing but dull. A King like a thousand Kings before him except his gaze is golden and he shares his bed with Shadows.
The Shadows turns back to the window, resumes her vigil sitting on the sill. She knows her constant watch to the north hasn’t been helping Réavos’ suspicions. He thinks she’s obsessed with the northern kingdom, and truly she is. But his suspicions can only build from what he knows, and he knows so little. So he paints it as courtly intrigue or rogue lusts. He thinks she is watching the northern kingdom so carefully because she looks to amuse herself by making his empire building a bit more of a challenge, because she wants to act as a director to a stage of bloody actors, calling forth first this man, and then his challenger, first this kingdom, and then another, pitting them against one another with a careful balance of skills and vicious intent. Or, he thinks that she is, perhaps, intrigued by the northern ferawicce for more than her strength and magic.
She is lovely, no arguments there.
She is, even, exciting. Her mystery. All the very beautiful destruction she could wreck on Réavos’ plans and the Shadows’ both. A deadly creature, the Shadows finds, is always more tantalizing.
She would never bore the Shadows, neither out of bed, nor, she wagers, in.
But that is not why she watches the northern kingdom at every moment she is not counseling Réavos, nor catering to his insecurities.
Her interest is neither lustful, nor machiavellian.
Far more mundane, in fact.
She felt, in the high heat of summer, a power awaken.
A power she has not felt stirring in centuries.
A power she had thought snuffed to rotting the last time she’d kept such careful vigil, watching, waiting, for an opening for her proverbial knife.
As much as the northern ferawicce threatens the careful balance of the Shadows' plans… The power the Shadows felt breaking free of centuries of ice, trickling free, just the first thaw of a high mountain stream as spring breaks across the snowcaps…
It is an ancient power.
It is an infinite power.
It could destroy all her careful plans entirely.
It could even, perhaps, destroy her.
So she watches, day and night, even as her King, her pawn, grumbles and glares and grows sullen.
She’s searching, straining her far-reaching gaze, wondering, so simply, so profoundly:
“Where are you, sister?”
A whisper to the dusk finally setting on another desert day.
But no one in the northern kingdom seems to hear.
The chambermaid startles where she was folding towels, refilling the many vials of powders and salts a Queen employs in her arsenal of beauty and seduction. Of her King, is the obvious target. But Kaia finds far more frequently that the seductions of court are a more subtle and varied affair. A Queen seduces her way into the hearts of the people, into the considerations and lusts of noblemen, into the confidences of noblewomen, into the reverence of the serving staff… All of this relies on beauty and the careful cultivation of poise. And smelling like flowers, or rain, or something else poetic, never hurts.
This particular chambermaid is very talented at carefully mixing the various bathing powders so Kaia makes the whole of the castle swoon in her fragrant wake. Though based off the way she’s been eyeing Kaia over the course of the summer, it’s more likely she’s mixing those powders now to make her smell of skunk and scat.
Kaia shakes her head to clear it. She hasn’t been sleeping. She thinks she’s starting to lose her mind. She isn’t even sure it’s true as she murmurs to the chambermaid: “You said something?”
And indeed, the chambermaid intones, “No, Your Majesty.”
“Just now?” Kaia was certain the woman spoke, asked her something.
“No, Your Majesty.”
The words speak of respect, but the tone suggests the chambermaid has no questions at all about Kaia’s sanity. The whole castle thinks she’s mad. The whole city.
Queen Kaia, the Queen who would lie with the beast.
Denigrating the honor of a Queen with talk of promiscuity or sexual perversion is a storied pastime, of course. What makes the rumors so stinging this time is…
Not the way the people sneer the words of course. There is nothing sordid, nothing depraved about Kaia’s desire for the ferawicce. But she is a married woman, she supposes. And she longs to be intimate with someone other than her husband. But…
Intimacy is not an emotion, not a shared state between souls, necessarily, or even frequently, associated with sex. Far more often men are merely rutting with their spouses the same as the village whores. Couples who speak nothing of their hearts. Husbands and wives who live their lives, day by separate day, return to the same room in the same house each evening, but this becomes, over the years, all they know of one another. That there is a reality, a person, a soul beyond the slowly sagging form they see washing in the bedroom basin each night… This is forgotten, if it was ever known. They become simply the body that rests in bed beside yours. They become only the wet heat wherein you spill your seed, or the weight atop you, rocking rhythmically, and the tight pressure inside you, spiraling.
This is sex. It is not intimacy.
It is not, not at all, what Kaia wants from the ferawicce.
Kaia wants whispered words in the darkness after. Kaia wants their fingers twined together in mimicry of their bodies, hands clasped tightly to stop one, or the other, or both of them from being lost in the wild storm they are stirring to screaming between them. Kaia wants smiles that have no thought and no intention behind them; they are only pure reaction to your presence, the body speaking with more truth and sincerity than words. Kaia wants to hear stories of the far northern woods, and she wants to tell the ferawicce every detail of Talvin Island until it is as familiar to the other woman as her very own homelands.
So, yes, Kaia feels a shivering heat when she looks upon the ferawicce.
Kaia wants, very much, to see those golden eyes wide with pleasure.
But she wants a thousand things besides. More.
It’s embarrassing that the people know her secret heart.
It’s enraging that they would so debase her tender longings.
And yet she’s too tired, and too dispirited, to do anything about it at all.
All she can do is follow the rote routine of the bath, watch with tired eyes as the chambermaid pours in another vial, scrub carefully at her hair, her hands, her feet, step from the tub and let the chambermaid rub her gently with a towel, like someone cleaning a statue. She dabs the perfume to her wrists, behind her ears, in the valley between her breasts. And then she lets the chambermaid drape her form in silk and sheer lace.
She stares at her own form in the mirror for a long and lingering moment, wondering what the ferawicce would think of her, face twisting in a grimace to remember: the ferawicce will probably never look upon her in her night silk and laces. The ferawicce has no desire to. And even if she did, Kaia is the most precious jewel of the King. She belongs to him as surely as his shining treasures. This sight is for his eyes only. Though she can stand before a mirror and look at this body, draped so provocatively in these expensive fabrics… This much even, is not truly her own. She is the ocean that rages deep in the heart of this shell, and no man can ever own her crashing waves, and dark-deep chasms, and playful eddies… But the shell he might hold to his ear to listen to those ocean echoes… That shell belongs to him. To Abelard.
He has called for it this night.
She doesn’t want to go.
Kaia’s ocean soul rages against the thought. Her heart cries out against his touch, whispers words of longing and counsel to sleep and dream of the touch of another, even if it will never come to pass. But -
The ferawicce does not want her. Does not care.
She turns away when Kaia comes to the practice yards. She looks to Kaia’s feet, instead of her eyes, when they chance to meet.
Kaia has not felt so bereft, so lonely, in years. To hear a glimpse of her soul’s longing song, but to be denied…
She walks down the hall this night, a willing Queen, a willing woman.
She walks willingly into Abelard’s arms.
Lays down willingly on his bed.
For weeks she has felt every wave that echoes in her chest washing away another breath from her body, another beat from her heart, another whisper of her soul out to sea.
This seems only another whisper of her soul, lost to the ocean the ferawicce will never share with her.
She feels small and scared as he presses her into the mattress. There’s a sharp stretch as he enters her and his fingers are bruising on her hips. But she says nothing.
She does not cry until he’s snoring loud enough that no one will hear her.
Every day she can feel a hundred souls straining against her reins, the hundred squires in the training yard, fighting to feel their hate again, fighting their way back from the tranquil sea.
Every day she can feel that her hold on her own soul weakens, as the hundred pull her further adrift, into waters too deep to keep her footing and soon she may be lost entirely.
Every day she wonders why she doesn’t let them go.
Every day she hears anew how silent it was when Elois stopped screaming.
Every day she remembers how it felt to ride back to the castle with the injured ferawicce cradled in her arms. She remembers how it felt when the sound of the ferawicce’s soul faded to whispers as the noose tightened. She remembers how it felt to tie her sash around that slim waist, to smell a faint musk and clean pine needles, such as no vial or bath salts could ever compare.
Every day she wakes up and digs deeper into Abelard’s library, trying to find a Waterwei text that explains what she’s doing and how she’s doing it.
Every day she finds nothing.
Every day she wakes up more tired, more hopeless, more alone, more adrift than she was the day before.
Every day she wakes up and tries again, and tries harder.
Abelard turns in his sleep.
He throws a proprietary arm over her, as he is wont to do, as it is his right to do.
She can’t stand it. Not tonight. Not after what she has let him do. Not after what she had no choice but to let him do.
She fights free of his somnolent hold, stands, swaying, steps…
Falls to the carpeting.
She hears Abelard exclaim, but the sound is muted by a hundred sudden miles between them.
The strange, strong current that rushed her out to sea this afternoon, the wave of hate that nearly pulled her under…
It weakened her hold on herself.
It pulled her to a tenuous sandbar.
Some final whisper in the night, a gentle shifting wind, or only that last little piece of her soul that she felt fleeing to sea at Abelard’s touch…
It was the fatal step into oblivion.
She is absolutely certain she hasn’t closed her eyes.
But the room is dark.
Abelard’s frightened shouting fades to nothing.
And there is only the sounds of the ocean, and the waves, and finally the still and ponderous silence of the deep.
In that silence, in that perfect silence beneath the sea, she hears the faintest voice whisper.
She would know that voice anywhere.
She must be dying, and the bards that tell fantastical tales of a life beyond this life and souls everlasting and joy to follow on the heels of death…
They were right.
There is a paradise of souls beyond our brawling earth.
She is there, and she is waiting, and she has forgiven Kaia her unforgivable betrayal.