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DarkFyre Chapter Eighteen

After a desperate gamble, Rael and Silmaria discuss plans and honorifics.
DarkFyre

Chapter Eighteen

The next day, Rael was a busy man. Silmaria sat back and watched him with a sort of amused fascination. After a long night of rest, Rael was renewed and overflowing with energy and robust health. They’d discussed with disappointment how much of the bear meat was going to go to waste as its spoiling became eminent, but Rael gave a good effort at consuming as much of it as possible that morning. Silmaria was shocked and very nearly appalled, and couldn’t quite keep herself from laughing at the Nobleman as he ate more and more. He was a big, hearty man, true, and she’d always known him to have a healthy appetite, but this was something else.

“How are you not even sicker than you were before? I mean gods, you’ve got to be close to your own body weight in bear meat right now. And none of it’s terribly fresh. And you weight quite a lot anyway,” Silmaria said with a laugh.

Rael chuckled softly around the mouthful of bear he was already working on, swallowed it, and gave her a wry smile. “This is pretty normal for me after a Mending. My body uses a huge amount of energy and resources. I have a lot to replenish. I could eat for days.”

“Good to know. I guess if this kind of thing ever happens again I’ll have to find another bear to feed you,” Silmaria said with a playful smirk. “Maybe a fresher one.”

“It’s passable,” Rael smirked. Then made a face. “For the moment.”

Finally eating his fill, Rael then spent time stretching, working the last of the ache from his long limbs until he moved free and limber once again. Silmaria watched him with admiring eyes for a time, then rose and joined him. It felt good to stretch and work out some of the stiffness from her joints and muscles. She’d not realized how much the cold had made her body tight and stiff and achy.

By the time they were done, Silmaria felt truly better. Her body was back to the usual easy grace she hadn’t even realized was being sapped away by the cold and cramped conditions of the cave. Rael and Silmaria sat around the small, crackling fire, and Rael studied their remaining supplies with a grim look on his face.

“We only have another day or two of firewood left. I don’t think I would chance the meat past tomorrow, and we have no other food. Water won’t be a problem. But we can’t stay here any longer. Even as much as the cave is holding onto the heat from the fires, it won’t take long for the cold to settle back in here after the fire runs out. After that, the rest of our stay is going to be cold, wet, and hungry. And probably very short.”

“What do we do?” Silmaria asked.

Rael looked out the gaping cave entrance, past the long crystalline teeth hanging from the gaping cave maw, shining and pointy and transparently dangerous. The storms raged outside, the wind howling like a mournful beast searching for prey to devour. Snow and ice flittered and flurried, an undulating wave. A billowing shroud of white washed emptiness happily swallowing the world.

A muscle jumped in his firmly set jaw, and his silver eyes went hard with conviction. “We’ll have to brave the storm.”

Silmaria held silent as she stared at him, studying the contours and angles of his handsome, strong face, the solidness of his jaw and determination of his brow.

“Going out there may be the end of us,” she said slowly in a tone that was not a question.

Rael met her eyes. “Yes,” he said simply, for there was no hiding that truth, and no way to soften the blow of it. “But at least that way, there’s a chance. Better to struggle on and take our chance in the blizzard than to face a slow, starving, frozen death in here.”

The Gnari girl took a deep breath, then stood. She went to him, and sat in his lap with her head curled to his chest. “I don’t want to die. Not after I’ve finally found something and someone who makes me truly alive.”

Rael wrapped his arms around her, and he was a warm, solid, comforting shelter around her, his strength rushing into her through his touch and the steady beating of his heart against her cheek.

“Then we just won’t die,” he said.

Silmaria smiled a grim smile tinged with foolish hope. “Simple as that, huh?”

He reached up and ran thick, roughened fingers through the blackness of her curls. “Yes. If you think about it, when we put all other details and factors aside, living is the simplest thing anyone does.”

“You’ll have to teach me how to see the world in such simple shades of black and white someday,” she mused as her eyes grew heavy. Silmaria hardly understood how they could talk about something so frighteningly real and immediate as their own mortality, and yet she felt utterly relaxed and calm and at peace. She should be terrified. On some level, in some part of herself, Silmaria was positive she was.

But Rael was here, and his arms were around her, and he was alive and well and strong. She didn’t know if she could feel any less calm and centered and right if the bear had come surging back to life just then.

“Oh, the world is full of more shades of gray and blackest black and purest white than I have words for,” Rael chuckled softly into her ear in that deep, rumbling tone his voice took when he spoke quietly, for her ears only.

“But in the end, in matters of battle and survival, so much of the grays and shades between can be filtered down to two very simple absolutes. The blackest black, and the whitest white. Die, or live. Death, or life.

“I choose life,” he explained somberly. “For both of us.”

“A good choice, my Master,” Silmaria nodded slowly. She turned her gaze, quiet and serene and trusting, up to Rael’s intense, focused silver eyes. “I trust you, my love. And if you choose life by going into the roaring mouth of a wintery old god, then that’s what you choose, and I can do naught but follow.”

Rael stared down into her eyes, and his thumb softly traced the vibrant black of the stripe on her cheek. “I swore that I would let no harm come to you. I’ll honor that vow. I swear it. Even the old gods will not make me break it.”

Silmaria shivered softly. Some people would say he spoke blasphemy. Any other time, given what he proposed, she could say he spoke insanity.

Just then, staring into his eyes, she saw only the truth of his words

***

Rael had spoken of facing the storms of the old god of the pass with fierce conviction and deep belief. And each word had been honest and sincere; he truly believed that braving the wrathful blizzard and proceeding through IceMarch Pass was their only hope, and that staying in the cave held nothing but slow death for them. He also believed, with everything he was and would be and had ever been, that he would keep Silmaria safe and whole through it all. He must.

Even filled with belief and conviction, however, he was not a fool. He knew the near suicidal dangers the storm presented and how narrow their chances were. One mistake would be their undoing, and there was so very many mistakes that could be made. Rael believed in himself, and he was brave, but his fear was nonetheless very real.

But he didn’t let it show. He didn’t have the time or luxury of giving into his fear as they crawled and slogged along the pass, facing the full fury of the storm that swallowed them up like the ferocious force of nature it was. Resolute, Rael pressed on, battered and buffeted by the driving gale as he waded through snow piled up to his thighs.

Silmaria clung to him, gripping his cloak and shuffling along in his wake, her jaw set grimly. The winds pulled and tugged at her, and the slippery path was treacherous even under her sure footed stride. The Gnari girl was terrified. Her teeth chattered and as the terrible moments passed. Chilled numbness spread through her limbs by the moment. The winds, ice and snow threatened to send her tumbling off the Cliffside, promising a swift and sudden end. Alternatively, the wickedly relentless cold would make an end of her just as surely, if much more gradually.

Despite her terror and the hopelessness of the situation, Silmaria pressed on, driven by Rael’s stubborn defiance of the storm. The Nobleman bore the brunt of the storm’s wrath and the hard work of forward progress, and not once did he slow or hesitate or complain. He stoically trudged on, determinedly meeting the storm’s rage with an uncompromising will.

Silmaria would not slow him, and she would not be left behind. If her Lord pressed into the storm, she would follow until the last spark of her life was snuffed out.

Savagely, the old god’s storm did its utmost to accomplish just that.

Rael reached a hand back to grasp hers and clutched her wrist in his unforgiving grip. He didn’t look back, did not acknowledge her in any other way. He clung to her, pulling her along after him, and bent his complete will and all his focus into meeting the storm and pushing forward.

The storm pushed back mightily. It howled, it blustered, it bore down on them with implacable fury. Snow filled the air so densely the airy powder had become a heavy, oppressive mass, screening the world behind an impassable sheet of white.

Rael would not yield.

The winds blew hard enough to make each and every step a tortuous effort. It was as if they were trying to press back a solid stone wall. It pushed and pulled, spun around them so forcefully that Silmaria could barely keep her feet under her even sheltered behind Rael’s broad body. It buffeted them, pounding with the force of striking hammers, until every muscle and tendon and sinew strained against the wind just to take the next solitary step.

But Rael would not yield.

The storm blew clusters of freezing ice. The small, jagged shards smashed into them, pricking, piercing little needles of purest cold that lance right through the heavy cover of their bundles of clothes. Like a hail of arrows the ice came, riding the fierce winds, formed so hard and thick that they had to shield their eyes with their hands lest they be damaged. Silmaria almost feared she’d actually been punctured by the little icy lances, and she’d come out the storm to find she was bleeding out from ice piercing her flesh.

Yet still, even facing elements any man would be crushed by, Rael would. Not. Yield.

Faced with a man who was as stubbornly unbending as the iron his will was made of, the old god’s storm, at last, yielded.

The fury of the storm spent, it faded into nothing, leaving naught but the softly promising threat of snowflakes, drifting on a sleepy breeze, merrily haunting their exhausted steps.

***

Two days after their desperate departure from the shelter of the cave, Rael and Silmaria emerged from IceMarch Pass. The land that greeted them was hilly and untamed, with high golden grass and many groves of trees with hard gray bark and thick low hanging branches. There were small wild things that scurried about furtively unseen in the tall grasses and steered far clear of them.

The change in climate and temperature was startling. Oh, it was still cold this high in the hills and close to the mountains, certainly, but compared to the mountain pass, or indeed near anywhere in the North, these southern lands were distinctly warm. Before their first day on the south side of the Teeth was through, Silmaria had shed the heavy piling of clothing she’d grown accustomed to until she was down to a single layer and her cloak.

Escaping the death trap of the pass was invigorating and refreshing. The air seemed clearer, the world less oppressive, and the shift from bleakly snow covered overcast to the clear blue skies of the south was stunningly beautiful. Silmaria could have spent days simply enjoying the change, and appreciating the beauty of the south that she’d never known.

Except in those first few days, she had no time to truly enjoy the changes. For all his strength and indomitable will, forcing their way through the oppressive storm had spent Rael immensely. He’d stubbornly pressed on after the storms relented, unwilling to be caught in a resurgence, and made it through the pass and into the hills on the other side of the mountains before collapsing, drained of all energy.

Rael fell ill for several days, passing in and out of consciousness. He was so weak he could hardly lift his head. And he developed an intense, racking cough that left him shaking at times with fatigue. Almost, Silmaria thought he was going into another Mending as his fatigue was so intense he was hardly able to stir enough to acknowledge her. Despite her own exhaustion Silmaria mustered the strength to care for her lover Lord.

Blessedly, after three days of misery, Rael seemed to rally. He remained too ill to travel yet, but he was awake and aware, at least, and able to move about some and help with a few things here and there, though Silmaria insisted he rest as often as possible.

While they rested and recovered in the hills, Silmaria took up hunting once more. She found that perching up in one of the hardy trees afforded her better hunting opportunities than stalking in the high grasses. She took down a number of small prairie animals, as well as a rangy and long legged goat that she found contentedly munching away at a cluster of grass. The Gnari also foraged about and collected a good many nuts, berries, fruits and small roots that she took back to Rael, who helped her identify those unfamiliar to her.

It was a slow, quiet time. After the madness and terror and heartache of their trek through the mountains, slow and quiet was a welcome change.

They savored the peace, knowing it would be as fleeting as it was precious.

***

“We are here,” Rael indicated a circle he made in the dirt with the tip of a small stick. He drew out a range of peaks and points to represent the mountain range at their backs.

“Just a short ways east and south from IceMarch Pass. The Pass empties out in the northwest corner of the Johake Grasslands. The FrostFall Mountains on the West border of the Dale meet with The Teeth just north of us. The Teeth divide the southern reaches of DarkFyre Dale from the northmost territory of the Johake Grasslands. IceMarch Pass circles west and then south through where the FrostFall and the Teeth mountain ranges meet.”

“Right,” Silmaria nodded, studying the scratches and markings he made. “I’m pretty familiar with that. It’s south of the Teeth that things get fuzzy.”

“Mmhmm,” Rael nodded. He continued to scratch out lines and territories in the dirt.
“This area of the Grassland’s is called the Boar’s Back. The Grassland’s spread out south of us, and to the southwest and east. To the southwest is the Ghostwood, a sprawling and dense forest where the Johake believe the spirits of their dead who do not receive proper burial rites go to wander, lost.

“West of the Ghostwood is the vast Jade Sea. SouthWest from the Ghostwood, along the coast, is StillWater Bay.”

“I’ve never heard much of StillWater,” Silmaria said.

“They’re a major power in the west,” Rael explained. “One of, if not the largest port cities on the Jade Sea coast. It’s a republic ruled by a council of elite, wealthy trading families. Many goods pass through StillWater on their way to and from the Jade Sea. None of it goes through without passing through the Trader’s hands in one way or another.

“Here, to the east and southeast of the Grasslands, is The Reach. Mountain country, but not like the mountains of the North. They are hot and arid and rocky, full of canyons and valleys and peaks and solitary crags. It’s not a wasteland, but The Reach a harsh, treacherous place and very difficult to travel through. The Reach is mostly the SkyRacer’s domain, and the Kingdom of Ser is their seat of power.”

“I’ve seen so few SkyRacer’s,” Silmaria commented. “They’re beautiful. Rare. But they seem… hostile.”

“Rightly so, more than like,” Rael nodded. “Their people were almost wiped out a thousand years ago.”

“I didn’t know,” Silmaria replied, her brows raising. “What happened?”

“It’s not surprising that you’ve not heard of it. It’s more part of southern history. The Dale wasn’t really involved. As far as what happened, that depends on who you ask,” he replied. “The histories I’ve read are incredibly vague and indecisive about it. Many who follow the legends say the SkyRacer’s once ruled much of the land south of The Teeth. Their society was advanced beyond Mankind and the other Demi-races, and the winged folk held dominion over the skies. With those advantages, they subjugated the other races, until the races rose up as one to strike the SkyRacer’s down. Fallen from power, the other races feared the SkyRacer’s so much they hunted them all through the lands and nearly wiped them out.

“Of course,” the Noble went on, “The SkyRacer’s claim otherwise. They say they saw the primitive, barbaric ways of the GroundBorn, as they called the other races, and held themselves separate and isolated. They lived apart, and in peace. Until a group of SkyRacer’s sympathetic to the GroundBorn made contact with intention of forming peaceful alliances. The other races used the fools to find the SkyRacer’s and strike at them through surprise and treachery, and eventually butchered them to near extinction.”

Silmaria was gutting a GrassHare. Rael had taught her to make a simple snare just yesterday, and Silmaria had been proudly satisfied when she found the Hare snagged in it when she checked on it that evening. She began to skin the GrassHare, moving the sharp blade of her hunting knife along the animal’s pelt carefully while Rael followed her blade with watchful eyes. “So which side do you think is telling the truth?”

Rael shrugged. “Neither. Both. Tyranny and bloodshed are rarely a one sided affair.”

The Nobleman went on, scratching more figures into the dirt as Silmaria watched. “Here to the south is the Ashlands, a great desert wasteland of hidden riches. Its wealthiest city is RedStone, jewel of the Leftin Empire.”

Rael drew a huge circle on the southern portion of his dirty stick-scratched map. “This is roughly the extent of the Leftin Empire’s influence. In terms of riches, territory, and military power, the Leftin Empire is the most prominent force in the lands.”

Silmaria studied the rough map for a moment, then pointed to the untouched middle. “Ondaria must be somewhere here, then?”

“Indeed. Very good,” Rael said with a small smile. “Here at the middle of the continent is The Weeping Land, a collection of swamps and bogs fed by Vierra’s Road, the many great rivers running westward to the Jade Sea. The Weeping Land is home to the alliance of city-state’s that form the Ondarian Federation, which is also called Ondaria as a whole. None of the city-state’s are especially powerful on their own, but together, the small armies they command are formidable. And more importantly, they are at home in the swamplands surrounding them, which have swallowed invading armies innumerable. Every attempt to conquer Ondaria has met with disaster. Even the Leftin Empire has been held at bay by the swamps of The Weeping Land.”

“So if the Ondarian Federation is surrounded by a bunch of swamps, why would anyone want to live there. Or take it over, for that matter?” Silmaria asked.

Rael looked at her, and one corner of his lips quirked upward in a challenging smile. “You tell me. Figure it out.”

Silmaria made a face at him, which only made him grin the wider. But she did as he bid, her eyes downcast, watching her hands work at cleaning their dinner while she puzzled over the answer.

Then she had it.

“It’s in the middle of everything. Everywhere meets in The Weeping Land. The Federation is the crossroads of the entire realm.”

“Exactly,” Rael gave a satisfied nod.

“Which is why the Library is there,” Silmaria continued slowly. “No one can invade the Federation because of the bogs and swamps, so it’s safe… and it’s in the middle of everywhere, so it would be a natural gathering place for knowledge from all areas of the continent. Right?”

“Just so,” Rael said with a wider grin, nodding to her. “Very smart, my girl. The Ondarian Federation is also a neutral country. Outside of the city-states in the federation, Ondaria holds no alliance or interest with outside powers or governments. Anyone from outside nations can come to Kahrthen Library to share and explore knowledge freely, without bias.”

“That makes sense, yes,” Silmaria nodded thoughtfully. She studied the map, then returned to preparing their dinner, sticking the small, skinned GrassHare on a spit and placing it over their small fire. “I suppose we’re going to cut south through the Grasslands, then?”

“No,” Rael shook his head. “It would be much faster and more direct, but we can’t risk it.”

Silmaria’s brow furrowed for a moment, and then she understood. “The Haruke?”

“The Haruke,” Rael agreed.

“Do you think they would attack us? Even if we pretended to be simple travelers?”

“Perhaps not us,” Rael said thoughtfully. “You they might allow to go unscathed. I don’t know that Haruke have any kind of vendetta against Gnari. Me, however, they would know for a Daleman, and kill on sight. And more than likely, if they saw you with me, they’d kill you for being my companion and ally.”

“Well, after the whole cheating death in the Pass, I don’t much feel like now’s a better time for it,” Silmaria decided. “So let’s avoid all that.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Rael chuckled. He scratched a line on his dirt map. “We’re going to have to go the long way. Skirt the majority of the grasslands. Going around west and then south would be quicker, but it’s not safe. The Ghostwood lies that way, and the Haruke have several permanent encampments near the wood to keep watch over the restless spirits of their dead.”

“East and Southeast, then?” Silmaria guessed.

“Yes,” Rael confirmed, “East along the foot of The Teeth, and then south along the border of The Reach. Then we will cut southwest and into The Weeping Land. It will be a longer road, but a safer one. Our best chance for getting there unscathed.”

“It’s going to be a long time before I see a bath and a bed again,” Silmaria sighed, and wiped her forehead with a bloodied hand.

***

Nightfall the next day found the couple sitting around a small, pleasant fire, finishing of a rather satisfying stew of goat meat and squirrel with root tubers. Silmaria wiped her mouth on her sleeve and leaned back, staring up at the wide open night sky. “You can’t see as many stars on this side of the mountain,” she said offhand.

Rael stared up with her. His strength was returning, but he was still tired often and in need of more rest than he liked. He also couldn’t quite seem to shake the annoying, persistent cough he’d developed. “The skies in the south aren’t as clear as the ones of the Dale. Less of the star’s light shine through.”

The Gnari turned curious eyes to him. “Can you still use them to navigate our way?”

Rael nodded slowly. “I can. Most of the major constellations are recognizable.”

He pointed, and Silmaria followed his finger as he indicated different clusters and groups of stars. “There’s the Bear. And the Bastard’s Tower. Izendor, the great tree. Gemil the hunter. The Traitor’s Mark. The True Star. They’re all here, if you just get used to seeing them from a different angle. And there are some you can only see south of the Teeth, too. Like there, the Asp Tamer. And that star is Terin, the hawk of Bealorn of The Twelve.”

Silmaria followed, studying the skies and his words. “After Trelling became a god and joined the twelve, Baelorn, who had been guardian of the empty North, left the Dale to Trelling and went south of the Teeth to visit his sister and lover Vierra, who was goddess of the sea,” she recited the old tale.

“But Baelorn became lost. Terin was his god-hawk and companion. He went up into the sky and become a great star to show Bealorn the way, and there he remains.”

“Just so,” Rael nodded and smiled lightly. “Bealorn meant to call Terin back down from the heavens after he reunited with Vierra. But the sailors and sea folk that worshipped Vierra and sailed the waves on her back had come to use Terin to chart their courses, and so associated the god-hawk with their goddess. Vierra begged Bealorn to let Terin remain in the heavens as her Guidestar the rest of the world’s days. The god finally relented, but not until after Vierra gave him a fortnight of such debauchery and sex that the storms of their passion sank a score of ships.”

“Seems a waste. All those lives, for a silly star. I don’t understand the gods and their ways,” Silmaria sighed quietly.

Rael lifted a stick and poked at the fire, shifting the wood into better position to be caught and consumed by the shifting flames. “Who truly does? Knowing the tales and legends of the Twelve, their deeds, the old stories and small wisdoms of the old gods, the piety and sacred rites and endlessly divine rules of the Highest Holy… none of this means we know the gods. None of it is understanding them. All of it, mere touchstones. Small and insubstantial ways of relating to things beyond true knowing.”

Silmaria regarded him curiously across the fire, and tilted her head in gentle thought. “You don’t believe in the gods, do you?”

Rael reached for his greatsword. He pulled the huge length of steel from its sheath and balanced it across his lap. Taking a whetstone from his pack, he began to run the smooth stone slowly along the great gleaming blade in slow, smooth, repetitive strokes, honing that powerful blade. Silmaria watched him, the firelight gleaming off the impressive sword in dazzling little flashes.

“I believe that the gods are not what we think they are,” he said at last. “I don’t believe the old gods are present in every facet and phenomenon of the world around us. Nor do I believe the Twelve are a group of benevolent beings who are us, but not us, watching down on the mortal world and occasionally dropping in to use us as their playthings. Nor do I believe there is a High Holy that watches every facet and miniscule detail of our life, judging the steps we take and whether we draw our next breath with ill intentions or a pure heart, waiting in hopeful silence to damn us for breaking a list of rules so staggeringly heavy it carries the weight of mountains. No. I do not believe in those things.”

“Then what do you believe in?”

Rael was quiet for several moments. Then, he balanced the greatsword on both palms, and lifted it, holding it slightly forward. “This.”

“The sword?” Silmaria asked quietly.

“The sword shapes the world,” Rael explains. “Men don’t live and die by the whim of the gods, old or new. They live by their sword, or they die by someone else’s. The sword is power. Nations are built on the back of it, and crumble on the point of it. The sword can punish, and the sword can redeem. Evil men slay with it. And good men defend with it.

“A sword can be a thing of ruin. It can be used by conquerors and tyrants to rule over hundreds of thousands. It can be used by them to end scores of lives. A sword can make a fair man cruel, and a cruel man an abomination.

“But a sword can be a righteous thing, too. A sword can give a weak man courage. And a sword can enable a courageous man to defend those things that are right and good in the world. A sword can maintain order. And a sword can be a tool for justice. It can be the steel in a man’s spine, and make him stand up for what he believes in where he would hesitate without one.”

Silmaria drew her knees up to her chest, regarding the man across the fire. She loved him. And she knew he was a good man, a man of kindness and intelligence and honor. But she was reminded then that he was a hard man, too. Beneath his kindness and his good heart there was a hardened mettle, a stoicism that was forged in fire and battle and blood. Though it was frightening at times, she was glad of it; it was that hardened part of him that was keeping them alive now.

“What happens to people who don’t believe in swords, then?”

“Those that believe in swords defend them,” he said, “Or those that believe in swords kill them.”

Silmaria’s lips quirked in a wry smile. “You’re speaking in black and whites again. Where’s my Lord of gray, whose hand gripped the pen as well as the sword?”

Rael smirked lightly, and he ran the whetstone along the blade of his greatsword again before raising his eyes to meet hers across the fire. There was humor and self-deprecation in his smile. “I’m still here, my love. Culture and learning and knowledge and etiquette will always be a part of me.

“I believe in the pen and the page and knowledge and reason. They are what make men better. What help us strive toward a more civil world. They help us to understand deep mysteries, and teach ourselves about wonderful facets of life unseen and unexplored by most. They are as important as the sword. But in their time. In their place. And this is not the time or the place for pens.”

Silmaria stretched out, her body curled toward the warmth of the fire, basking in it as she arched her back sinuously. “You are a strange, complicated man, my dear Master Rael.”

Rael grinned, arching a brow at her as he slid the greatsword back into his sheath, and took out his dagger and began to sharpen it in turn. “Me? I’m the complicated one? This from the woman who is fierce and aloof and self-confined, yet shares her deepest self until her heart bleeds. A woman who has been raised in the ways of the servant, yet can read and write and reason like a scholar. A woman who has been beaten and battered in body and spirit and yet has the tenacity to brave the kind of storm that would kill a strong man, and the courage to face down a raging bear.”

Rael rose, and stalked over to her side of the fire. Silmaria stared up at him, sprawled out along the ground, and her smile was slow and sleepy and entirely welcoming. The swell of her breasts pressed at the neckline of her shirt, and it had ridden up to bare the taut, flat expanse of her belly, where her pelt was a fine, pale white fading into orange at the outside of her rounded hips.

“From a woman who desires sweet nothings of love whispered into her ear,” he said, his voice dropping into that low tone as he crouched over her, bending down to hover his face over hers. His eyes took on a wicked, wanting glint, and his smile was taunting. “Mixed with kisses and curses and hands that are cruel.”

“What can I say?” Silmaria murmured as her lashes shadowed her narrowed eyes alluringly. “I never was very good at keeping things simple.”

Rael smiled, and bent down to press his lips to hers. Then he quickly sat up and turned his head away, and began to cough heavily, until he was near out of breath from it.

Silmaria sat up and rubbed at his back, and then chuckled softly, “I think maybe you need to sit this one out.”

When his coughing fit was finally past, he took a deep breath and scowled unhappily. “Unmanned by a damn cough, like some frail sickling. The hells is wrong with me?”

The Gnari girl laughed softly and hugged him, and pressed a kiss to his cheek just above the coppery growth of his beard. “Don’t worry. I’ll never tell.”

They bedded down shortly after that. Rael laid on his back with Silmaria’s head resting on his chest, with the small woman curled around his side. Her tail flicked idly under their shared blankets, thumping lightly against his leg. Rael’s arm wrapped around the Gnari, and his hand lightly caressed along her back, tracing the fine, delicate contour of her spine, rubbing in slow, lazy circles between her graceful shoulder blades.

“You’re beautiful,” he said softly into her ear.

Silmaria squirmed slightly against his side. His breath tickled the sensitive hairs of her ear, but not unpleasantly so. “I’m not beautiful. Just different.”

“Beauty isn’t made by being different. Nor is it unmade by being different. Beauty just… is. You’re different. And you’re beautiful.”

The Gnari shrugged, and scrunched up her face. “I’ve never thought of myself as beautiful. If I were beautiful, people wouldn’t hate me so much.”

“That’s the being different part,” he replied. “Most people can’t understand or accept people who are different. It’s ignorant. And foolish. And none of it makes you any less beautiful.”

She smiled, a trace of sadness at the corner of her lips. But she was warmed by his kind words kissed his chest softly. “Thank you, Master.”

Rael’s hand raised and he ran his fingers through her hair, his fingertips pleasantly grazing her scalp as he looked down at her. “You don’t have to call me that, you know.”

Silmaria turned her eyes up to him, her brows raised. “What? Master?”

“Yes,” he nodded, looking into her eyes in his intent way. “Or Lord. Or Sir. Any of those honorifics.”

Silmaria’s brows furrowed in thought, and she carefully said, “But you are my Lord. And my Master. Why should I not call you those things?”

“Because I’m not a Lord anymore. I’m a fugitive. And you’re not my servant anymore,” he said, thinking it obvious. “You’re my partner. My lover. My love.”

“Yes,” Silmaria agreed, her eyes never leaving his. She raised her hand to cup his cheek tenderly. “And you are my partner, and my lover, and my love. And you are also still a Lord. My Lord, and rightful head of House IronWing, which is still a Noble House no matter the horrible things that have happened. And you are still my Master, too.”

“But…” Rael began.

“Listen,” she interrupted him. “My mother once told me something, shortly after we began serving in House IronWing. She said, no matter how long I am a servant, no matter how long I work to serve Nobles and Lords and Ladies, to never call a man, ‘Master’. A man can be a Lord, and a man can be a Noble, and you can be his servant and do his work and tend his House and his lands and his holdings, and that is a fine thing, a respectable thing.

“But when you call a man Master, she said, you have given him more than a Lord’s due. Call a man Master, and he is more than a Lord. He is more than a Noble. And you are more than a servant. Or maybe less. When a man is a Master, he owns you in deeper more meaningful ways than a Lord ever could. A Master possesses you completely, without reservation. And you serve him without reservation. With everything you are. Blindly, even. Knowingly blind.

“That kind of devotion, and that kind of possession, comes from two things, she said. Deep fear,” Silmaria explained, “Or deep love. And sometimes, in some people, from both. Both of them, fear and love, can be equally dangerous if you let those things settle deep in you and you allow a man to master you through them.”

Rael studied her closely as she spoke the words, his eyes tracing her earnest face. She could tell he was struggling to understand.

“It’s a surrender,” she told him. “It means that I have accepted your total control and power over me.”

“But you don’t have to do that,” he said gently. “I told you. You’re not a servant to me anymore.”

“But I am,” Silmaria replied, and she smiled softly up at him. “Understand, my Master Rael. I am a servant. I have been for almost all of my life. I loved your father. Very much. And he loved me. But even as I loved him, and he me, I continued to serve him. Not because he required me to, but because I wanted to. Because I needed to. For me, part of loving a person is serving them. Whether it be serving them in the mundane duties of a servant tending a house and estate, or with my body, or with my heart and my presence and my kindness and support. It is an expression of my love. It is my way. And it’s no different with you.

“I was your servant,” Silmaria said as her hand rubbed gently along his chest, tracing the solid shape of toned muscle. “And I still am. I am also your lover. Your companion. Your partner. And you are my Master. Not because you are a Lord and I am a servant with no choice but to serve. But because I choose to. Because I choose you to be my Master, and to have all of me. Every piece of me, every last facet of my flawed and loving and devoted being, I place in your hand.”

Silmaria leaned up and brushed her lips to his, softly, tenderly.

“I want you to have me. All of me. I yield myself to you, in my completion, because I trust as my Master, you are strong enough to hold all those fragile pieces safe from the world, and wise enough not to crush them in that same strong grasp.”

Rael kissed her, firmly and softly at once. He tasted her lips, and her hair was between his fingers. Silmaria, true to her word, yielded to him, and gave herself over to his kiss.

When he at last pulled back, he drew a deep breath, and the breath tasted of her, and it was her he drew into his lungs, filling his being with the essence of her. He pressed his forehead to hers, close. Silmaria gazed into his eyes, bright and shining with emotion.

“I understand the gift you are offering me,” he said somberly. “I understand the faith, and the trust that requires. I accept your gift, and I promise you that I will always try to be worthy of it, my lovely one.”

Seeing the understanding, the acceptance, and the love in his eyes made Silmaria’s smile radiant indeed. “You are already worthy, my Lord Rael. I would not offer all of myself and all of my love to you if you were not.”

Rael kissed her once more, and squeezed her tight.

They lay together that night, quiet and at peace, under the bright light of the god-hawk star’s ever watchful gaze.

***

Thank you as always to my loyal readers, and those who continue to send me their feedback, good and bad. I know this one took a bit, I fell a bit behind because of real life concerns, and also reasons. I know there wasn’t a whole ton of eventful stuff in this chapter. I’m a sucker with a guilty pleasure for lore building, and was in that mode.

I received some feedback, both positive and negative, regarding the ‘Master/Lord/Sir’ title usage in this story, specifically after Rael and Silmaria have gotten together. Believe it or not, the above scene was planned and almost entirely written before those bits of feedback were received, but that showed me I was on the same wavelength I guess. I hope the explanation cleared things up a bit.

Please continue to tell me what you all think! Feedback is important, and really helps me gauge if I need to make adjustments or I am hitting all the right spots! More to come soon.

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