By Myranda B. Kalis
"Vereesa Averalan Foxlane!" Reesa and Scathan both reflexively cringed, both at the stentorian voice and the dreaded use of the Full Name. "Just what do you think you're doing, young lady, riding off like that with no one to--Scathan!"
Scathan attempted to wave casually at the trollish knight astride his massive pleasure-riding horse, pinned as he was to the ground beneath said knight's giggling daughter. "Hello there, Gwyrith. I understand you and Barangaria have been in a frenzy to see me."
Gwyrith shook his shaggy blonde head, the beads woven into his heavy beard clattering gently together. "I should have known you'd just show up one night. Vereesa! Get off you uncle and let the poor man breathe." Pouting, the trollish girl-child did as she was told and Scathan's ribcage uncompressed noticeably. Her father, meanwhile, had dismounted and pulled Scathan helpfully to his feet and from there into an embrace that displaced nearly as much air as Reesa's headlong dive had. "Hah! You should know by now, sidhe, that Barangaria is always in a frenzy to see you! Particularly when the rumors start flying around again."
"It's good to see you too, Gwyth." Scathan finally managed, once the troll released him and his breath came back out of hiding. "I came as soon as I got your letter. And since when have rumors not flown about me? You'd think these upright Seelie types would eventually find something more interesting to talk about than mostly-harmless me."
"It's the `mostly' part in that statement, Skye, that keeps them wondering." Gwyrith's moustache-ends turned up in a manner that Scathan interpreted as a smile.
"And talking, and plotting, and scheming, and trying to convince me to kill their otherwise perfectly adequate paramours over certain public indiscretions." Scathan completed with some disgust. "Why does everyone assume that I'll cut someone's throat for a relatively minor offense and an extremely paltry amount of money?"
"Because that's what most assassins do," Gwyrith pointed out cheerfully, boosting his daughter back into her pony's saddle. "You just have to be difficult about it."
Scathan snorted and reclaimed his own horse's reins, the animal lifting its head from the stream with a pitiful look. "I didn't ride you to death so stop acting like it. How is Barangaria, anyway? She mentioned that she might be increasing the size of your family again...."
"There will be a new babe by the end of the autumn," The troll's deep blue eyes shone with unconcealed joy.
"You think a boy this time?" Scathan swung into his saddle and tapped the reins.
Gwyrith smiled shyly. "It is too early to say, but the village midwife thinks that three is a fortunate number in this case."
"Hmmm.....Scathan Foxlane has a ring...."
"So does, `We named you after your late uncle, my son....’ "
"You have a point...."
The cock was crowing at far too early an hour. Scathan rolled over in the huge bed that was accorded his use whenever he turned up at the Foxlane estate, burying his face in one feather down stuffed pillow and covering his head with the other, to no noticeable effect. That damned bird still sounded as though it were saying a last tragic farewell to this world...directly beneath his window. Disentangling himself from the thick down comforter and homespun sheets, he crawled across the bed and pushed open the window casement, peering down at the puffed up bird just as it let loose another burst of morning cacophony. The sky in the east, he noted, was not exactly roseate with impending dawn. "I'm going to take enormous pleasure in stir frying you presently," he assured the obnoxious bird, which had the desired effect of shutting it up, but not putting him back to sleep.
With a sigh he surrendered to the inevitable and crawled out of bed, fishing a fresh change of clothes from the travel bag beside it and dressing in the relative gloom without noticeable difficulty. He carried his boots as he padded barefoot down the stairs, stepping reflexively around the loose boards that might have woken any other resident of the house, and padded across the receiving room into the kitchen. As he'd half-suspected, Barangaria was already up and seated in her chair next to the fireplace, a cauldron of cereal large enough to feed the entire family and staff of the estate heating over the small blaze, a folding work table opened before her as she methodically diced apples on the cutting board. "Good morning, Scathan."
"Good morning, Barangaria. You know, I can't prove it, but I strongly suspect that you have that bloody cock magicked to wake me and no one else in this house at this godawful hour." Scathan placed himself in the chair opposite her own and slipped into his boots.
"Would I do that?" The troll-woman regarded him with eyes the color of innocence itself, smoothing back a few strands of honey-colored hair that escaped the heavy plait hanging down her back.
"If you wanted to talk to me alone badly enough, yes, you would." Scathan snorted, and caught the short-bladed knife she slid across the table to him.
"Then I must want to talk to you rather badly." She smiled sweetly. "Be a dear and start peeling those apples."
Scathan muttered something under his breath about the sense of humor of trollish sorceresses and reached into the bushel. Several moments passed in companionable silence broken only by the sound of dicing fruit and the subsequent sounds of it being poured into the waiting porridge. Then Barangaria gave loose a gusty sigh and pushed aside her chopping board and knife. "I'm worried about you, Skye."
"You say that every time I come here," Scathan pointed out, not looking up from his apple, which was beginning to resemble a sculpture more than a piece of fruit.
"That's because every time you come here, it's true." Her tone mixed amusement and irritation in equal parts. "Look at me."
Scathan looked up, a crooked smile curving his lips. "Is that because I'm becoming predictable, or because you've always had strong maternal instincts?"
"Both," She reached out and smoothed the dark hair back from his face. "I know you don't want to hear this--you never want to hear this--but how long do you think you can keep going the way you do?"
"More or less indefinitely--sidhe lifespans tend to function that way," He reminded her, a bit more sharply than he intended, and he smiled softly to take the sting from the words. "You know what I mean, Garia...."
"Yes, I do know what you mean--I you know what I mean, too, so don't give me that innocent look Scathan Aerith Valcour!" A smile of her own crossed his face at the reflexive cringe. "I know exactly what you mean." Her voice softened. "You mean to be alone for the rest of your life, and we both know that Walker wouldn't have wanted that."
Scathan turned his head away quickly and squeezed his eyes shut, the curtain of his black hair falling across his face and hiding they spasm that crossed it, but not the trembling of his hands. "Garia, please, don't do this to me now."
"Scathan," her voice was gentle, "He wouldn't have wanted you to bury yourself in the same grave. You've mourned him as faithfully as you loved him. But it's been thirty years! A heart can forget how to see the love that's right in front of it in that time. Have you thought about--even considered--finding someone else?"
"I can't." Scathan's throat constricted painfully, but no matter how much he wanted it, needed it to happen, his face remained dry, release in that direction completely denied.
"You mean you won't."
"It's the same thing. When Aurys killed him--" He cut off, breathed in sharply to regain some semblance of self-control, and resumed in a low, taut tone, "When I watched someone I had trusted with my own life, with the keys to my soul--and the look in his eyes when he saw me--he died thinking I had betrayed him, because the vows I swore to the Order were stronger than the ones I had given to him. And Aurys, that bastard--" His hands shook more violently, rage warring with grief and winning. "One day, he'll know how I felt as I watched him tearing my heart out, without thinking about someone else. But until that day, I will not leave someone else's throat open to the Order's blade, for the sake of loving me."
"And what if, by then, it really is too late for you? If you've let the love that could have made your heart whole again pass--because you couldn't be sure that A--that he wouldn't be there waiting for it?"
He looked up, then, and met her eyes with a soft, tired smile. "Then I'll still be the very proud uncle to all my friends' children."
"Skye, wake up." A vigorous shaking ensued, one that rattled the contents of his brain so thoroughly that, even if he had managed to ignore the bass voice, his body would have continued vibrating nonetheless.
"Huh--wha--?" Scathan responded in a less than completely suave manner, blinking owlishly in the suddenly bright lamplight and shivering as his mostly-bare skin contacted the cool night air.
"There's a messenger from the Count downstairs," Gwyrith's face swam somewhat woozily into view. "He has an urgent message from Valgalant."
"Valgalant?" For the briefest of instants, Scathan suspected he was trapped in the wheels of some enormous plot, then immediately dismissed the notion. Not that he'd put it past his mother, but Barangaria was far too direct and upright to resort to trickery--particularly when she already had him exactly where she wanted him.
"Valgalant," Gwyrith confirmed, handing him his night robe, "He rode one horse to death getting to the castle and I won't swear for the condition of the one he rode to get here."
An ice cold hand clenched tight around his heart as he slipped into the robe, and clenched tighter still when he reached the bottom of the stairs and got a good look at the bedraggled messenger. "Vortyl!"
"My lord!" The Eshu would have leapt to his feet had Barangaria not been holding him down, hands pressed firmly to his shoulders over the blanket she'd draped on them, a flagon of her best warmed cider in his hands and his feet already being soaked in a basin of warm, herb-scented water. Her two daughters milled about following their mother's clipped, precise instructions for dealing both with the messenger and his mount. "Thank the gods! The Lady sent me to find you more than a month past--there was snow in the highest passes yet--"
"I understand, Vortyl--the winter was unusual hard this year?" Scathan forced his voice in a calm and soothing timbre despite the odd way his heart was beating.
The messenger nodded, then sneezed violently. "We had first frost just after Highsummer last, if you can believe that, and the snow was already laying thick by Samhain. Your Lady Mother didn't want to worry you, so she didn't write of it, and didn't pester you to come home for worry that you'd be caught by a storm in the mountains and frozen before you could find shelter." He sipped at the hot cider. "Then your father took ill and--"
"What!" Scathan's voice drilled through the background commentary with little effort and startled the messenger so badly he nearly dropped his cup. "My father's ill? When? How badly?"
"A f-f-few months, my Lord. He took ill shortly after Midwinter--"
"You have a message for me?" Scathan put out his hand and the beleaguered Eshu placed a single thin sheet of parchment in it, stamped with the arms of Valgalant. His mother's form of the arms. His hands shook as he broke the seal, scattering bits of silver sealing wax all over the floor. The missive was short, terse, completely unlike his mother's usual rambling letters with their subtly embedded attempts to get him to come home and get married, two short lines, followed by her name and lineage block and seal: Your father is very ill. Come home at once.
"I have to go!" Scathan practically threw the letter at Gwyrith and sprinted back up the stairs, not caring particularly how much noise he made in the process. More than a month--Valgalant was at least a three week ride from the Foxlane estate itself, longer if he detoured back to the Count to give an accounting for his prolonged absence. More than a month. His whole body shook as he peeled out of the robe and began pulling on his riding leathers, and it had nothing to do with the night chill.
"Scathan," Barangaria's voice.
"I'm such a fool--I should have gone home when it was first suggested." Scathan laced and tucked and buckled furiously, wondering how he had ever managed to fit everything he had brought with him into that bag. "More than a month! He could be dead by now--if my mother was desperate enough to send for me to help--"
"Scathan," Her hand rested gently on his shoulder. "Bide a moment. Let me put together some provision for you before you go galloping off to the mountains. If the winter was that hard, you're not going to find much in the way of forage once you get there. Wait until dawn--"
"Dawn--" It was a half-despairing wail.
"Dawn," the troll caught his eyes, her tone firm to the point of finality. "I know you're worried, Skye, but use that brain of yours for something other than keeping your ears from imploding."
He stopped, and drew a soft breath, then another, and another, until he felt something like calm coming over him again. "You're right. You're right. I'm sorry--it's just--"
"Your father has never been so ill that your mother alone couldn't handle the situation."
"She's the most powerful sorceress in Valgalant, Garia. The most gifted healer. I'm flattered when people say I've inherited her gifts. If she can't help him...." He let the thought trail off, his dark eyes resting on hers.
She squeezed his hand tightly. "We'll make sure you get there as quickly as you can."
Scathan's anguished scream was lost in the higher, thinner cry of the wind, roaring across the heights of the mountain that cradled the ducal seat of Valgalant, shrieking and wailing around the sculpted spires of the keep further up the incline, and clawing both at him and the mutilated body bound to the wardstone at the center of the small town that had sprung up in the castle's protective shadow. The wardstone had stood there longer than anything else, the fortress that stood over it was new by comparison, and the town less than an eyeblink in the ages of its existence. Generations of its guardians had shed their blood in its defense, since before there was even a duchy named Valgalant, and its legend was that only the blood of one of those guardians could break the magic of its enigmatically inscribed surfaces.
The wardstone lay riven, broken into three large unequal pieces and dozens of smaller ones, some no larger than a pebble, the sleeping glamour it had held dispersed and the protection it afforded the valley gone with it. Scathan fell to his knees, black ice shattering under his weight as another cry welled inside him and he struggled to hold it back, and to keep the tears turning to ice on his cheeks from freezing his eyes closed.
It was a week until Highsummer.
The sky overhead was black with the swirling clouds of some terrible storm, the wind carrying a fierce, killing cold more savage than anything he had felt as a child, growing up here.
His father lay dead before him, hands spiked with cold iron bonds to the largest surviving piece of the wardstone. His heart struggled with his mind, unable to marshal the clinical detachment of the warrior who had seen ugly death in nearly every imaginable variety, and the well-trained killer who could deliver it without a twinge of conscience. Blood was frozen black in puddles and rivulets, the body itself so badly hacked and mutilated that Scathan had not initially recognized it--only when he saw the bond-ring that his mother had given at their wedding had he known.
Scathan's body shuddered with a wracking sob, clenching his fists over his eyes and letting his gloves absorb the tears before his entire face became a mass of ice and almost-frozen skin. *Great Mother, what happened here?!*
The crunch of ice and broken stone underfoot was the first warning he had, daggers falling into his hands as he twisted to his feet and pivoted in the direction of the sound. Around him, the windows and streets of the town remained as dark and empty and dead as the body at his feet, and the lights burning cheerfully in the tower-spires of the keep mocked him. Black armor and cloth and fur and the heavy, serrated blade of the Kithain regarding him over the shattered remnants of the wardstone mocked him further, as he recognized the crest they wore as the ducal guard of Valgalant.
"Well," the voice came from behind him, and a flick of his eyes showed that, whatever they were, they were melting out of the darkness like living extensions of the night and the storm. Surrounded. "Look who's finally come home."
The ice-coated stone of the courtyard was only slightly less unyielding than the frozen earth itself, and Scathan barely managed to swollow a cry of pain as his thoroughly pounded body struck it, reflexes too slowed by shock and the bitter cold to catch him. His chest clenched tightly around the stabbing pain in his ribs, broken bones grinding close to a lung, muscles too tremblingly weak to even think about rising. Through the blood pounding in his head, he heard the familiar sound of the court barbizan swinging open, a lance of golden lamplight falling over him, the jingle of armor and weapons and the tread of almost-silent footfalls. His body felt cast from lead, or stone, or some other immovably heavy substance as he forced his eyes to open, face pressed against ice-cold stone, vision darkened and distorted by whatever venom their blades had been coated in.
"Where, might I ask, is the rest of your patrol?" The voice went with the ice under his cheek, smooth and dark and burning cold.
"Half-way down the mountain," One of the two survivors of the eight-man patrol, whom Scathan thought of, for convenience's sake, as the Captain.
"And our guest?" "Scathan Valcour."
"Well, I suppose that explains the patrol." The angle of the light shifted slightly, accompanied by the unseen rustle of a cloak and the creak of leather; the whisper of fur across steel. A gloved hand wound itself into Scathan's long hair and pulled his head--and most of his upper body--up in one smoothly powerful motion. Molten silver hair poured around a face of vulpine angularity, a wide, thin-lipped mouth set in an expression that defied easy analysis, steeply angled eyes catching the lamplight and returning it in an iridescent blue-green flash beneath expressive brows. His eyes. Scathan let his breath out in a nearly soundless sigh, watching as the night-attenuated pupils dilated into feline slits. Sithi.
"Your portrait does not do you justice," There was something like regret in his tone--then the arm holding Scathan's head punched down with brutal force and the last thing he saw for some time was red-splashed darkness.
How long he was unconscious, he didn't know. He had no sense of the passage of time, and no way to tell how much time had passed in any case. He woke in darkness as complete as the blackness of total senselessness, brought back to awareness by the terrible dryness in his mouth and throat and the throbbing ache in his jaw. A gag. Somewhere along the line they'd taken that much in the way of precaution against his talent for getting others to listen to him, or, failing that, do what he wanted. He coughed, and his broken ribs induced a low groan as feeling slowly returned to his numbed senses. No blood in his mouth or throat, and no (further) trouble breathing, which at least meant he hadn't punctured a lung. He was sitting upright, a wooden chair, arms and legs bound securely to the matching elements on his seat, and his shoulders bound back to hold him erect. Every inch of his body ached, from the roots of his hair to the tips of his toes, tremors running through him from time to time, shock-reaction and withdrawal, and every unbandaged, untended, and unsplinted injury added individual and unique pains to the general misery. Scathan let his mind focus on the physical pain, since it distracted from the worse one, and then began to try to focus beyond it.
Dark. The room where he was being held was utterly dark, but he sensed a great deal of space around him, the air seeming to whisper of relatively wide, open dimensions. The air itself was dry and cool, but not unpleasantly so, and held a distinct and familiar tang that he struggled to place. Apples. Wine apples. One of the storerooms beneath the kitchens, then. Valgalant had not come equipped with a dungeon, and none of the various lords had felt it necessary to construct one on the premises.
A soft sound reached his ears. A door opening, feet on stone stairs, the soft murmur of barely intelligible voices. They grew steadily closer and more audible, shafts of light falling through the door seams. He recognized the voice of the silver-haired Sith, and several others that he didn't know, the chime of metal-on-metal, and the bolts on the door being shot.
Scathan winced as the light from the hall washed over him, stinging his right eye almost blind, and his left, swollen almost totally shut, tearing slightly as well. Four household servants, each one carrying a lit lamp and trying not to look directly at him, entered first, hanging their lamps on the hooks provided on the smoothly milled stone walls. He wondered idly if he looked as awful as he felt, and was answered by the horrified intake of breath from the fifth servant, a young woman who stood frozen in place at the door until one the guards prodded her to move. She was carrying a ceramic pitcher that sloshed heavily when she moved and a worked metal goblet, both of which she set on the floor almost at his feet, the horror and pity etched on her face speaking volumes. One of the lamp-bearers returned, carrying a heavy, elegantly upholstered chair, which he set opposite Scathan's own, followed by a long trestle table and several long, shallow trays, the contents of which he couldn't get a decent look at. The servants were then ushered from the room by the guards in the hall, and a familiar figure took their place.
The silver-haired Sith smiled pleasantly at him and padded across the room with that distinctive, soundless grace and settled into the chair, gleaming hair and pale skin accentuated by clothing of black silk and leather. Behind him, four others entered, their long, utterly shapeless brown robes offering no hint of gender, deep cowls pulled high and shadowing their faces. Their hands were long and slender, however, the skin dead-white and bearing a sixth finger on each, the joints oddly positioned and sitting like tiny knots beneath their flesh. The door swung shut and relocked.
"Good evening, Lord Valcour. I hope you slept well," the Sith's smoothly modulated voice drew Scathan's attention back to him, lounging in his chair and toying idly with the pendant earring dangling from one elegantly canted ear. The iridescent eyes settled on his own, glittering. "Or, failing that, at least don't begrudge me the necessity of your confinement. Your reputation precedes you by quite a bit, and, well, you killed eight of my men already. It really wasn't very nice of you to stick them all with something slow acting, then force me to render you unconscious before I could learn what the antidote was."
Scathan gave him a look that required no verbalization to get the point across, and the Sith chuckled softly. "If looks were as effective as your blades, Scathan, all you'd have to do would be to get past the guards. I am, incidentally, sorry about the gag, but, as you saw, I didn't have the resources to bring servants along on this little expedition, and I couldn't have you convincing one of them to let you go--or commanding one of my own men to do something equally foolish." There was the soft hiss of steel against leather as the Sith drew his dagger, the fine blue steel gleaming in the light. "And, I'm sorry about your lovely face. I'm fairly certain nothing's broken...." He reached out, and Scathan held completely still, the point tracing down from his hairline, past his eye, and down over his cheek. A swift downward motion cut the gag without touching skin and a second flicked the pieces away, his mouth gratefully snapping shut and easing the tension in his sore jaw. "Much better, don't you think?"
Scathan tried to work enough moistured into his mouth and throat to manage a semi-normal voice and, even so, it was little more than a rasp. "You have a strange definition of `better.'"
The Sith's smile widened fractionally. "A point. You could, however, be dead."
"So that's your standard of comparison." A dusty cough crawled out of his chest, wincing slightly as the involuntary motion twitched his ribs.
His captor leaned down and picked up the goblet and pitcher; his nostrils flared at the scent of cold, pure water as it was poured. The Sith took a long sip and then touched the metal rim to his lips. "Drink--it's not poisoned, and, in any case, it would have been more effective to kill you while you were helpless."
Scathan mentally conceded the point and took a cautious sip, then another. The Sith tilted the cup until he had drained the entire thing, then set it aside. "You've been unconscious for the better part of a day. I sometimes don't know my own strength."
Scathan's good eye settled on the signet gracing the Sith's long finger--the ducal signet of Valgalant--and growled softly, "Who the hell are you?"
"You couldn't pronounce my true name." Scathan's heart twisted and he had to block out the memory of the last time he'd heard those words.
"What do you want here?" Scathan couldn't keep the tightness from his voice.
"I already have what I want--well, most of what I want." He amended. His head tilted that achingly familiar quizzical manner, and Scathan squeezed his eyes closed quickly. "Neither of us is a fool, so I'll do you the honor of speaking frankly. You're the last of your kind, Scathan Valcour. There's no one left here for you to save, except yourself."
It would have hurt less had he used the knife. "Liar."
Scathan actually heard the blow before he felt it, the backhand rocking his head back with stunning force, driven by a strength that could have easily broken his neck had that been the Sith's desire. "I do not lie. Not when it's so much more effective to tell the truth. Your parents are dead. Your siblings are dead. And you yourself only continue to live because I will it. I have a...bargain to offer you."