A Swain of Kneaded Moonlight
by Dave Smeds
Long ago, silver dripped from a crescent moon. The drops fell upon the land and became the glimmering brides. They were magical women. The great men of long ago won them as consorts — whether by force, seduction, or contract — and sired children upon them.
The brides lingered in the known realms until their children were grown. When their mortal flesh had aged and its grip upon them loosened, they slipped away. Now they are the stars that wander in the skies.
Or so they say.
I know there is some truth in the tales, because the moment I met Lissa, I saw the avatar marks. The color of her irises churned through shades from gold to burnt umber, as though smoke was pulsing in front of a setting sun. Her fingernails appeared to be mother-of-pearl. I admit those details fascinated me as they would anyone. But it wasn’t our differences that mattered to me. It was how we were the same.
We were both eight. Both of us had lost our mothers to the cinder pox the year the Silk Coast traders brought it to our shores. And now we were both dwellers under the same roof.
That was a happy time.
Lissa was the ward of Firin, Lord of Osprey Harbor, who had been her late father’s friend. She slept in a bedroom she had known since age five. She was free to step out on her own balcony and wait for the fog to roll in and kiss her cheeks. She was able — with an escort — to explore the tidepools north of town or go out sailing on the bay.
I was Wyvva, the scribe’s daughter. Of an afternoon, I would visit the chamber where my father composed the lord’s bills of lading and copied ships’ charts, and he would give me tea and candied lime and ask about my day. Of a morning, I would help Lissa learn the thousand runes of the North, the seven hundred glyphs of the East, and we would practice side by side with our quills and our iron-gall ink.
In the beginning, those lessons were my duty as a servant. They became a pleasure. All Lissa and I had lacked was a best friend, and now that lack was cured.
We played. We laughed. We became inseparable.
But eventually, the world around us turned to shit.
Now we were grown. My father’s corpse had long since been heaved from the funeral bluff to join my mother’s among the kelp and starfish. Lissa’s foster father had gone into debt to his liege lord, the Duke of Mareswold, and been given little choice of what to surrender in payment. To me, Lissa was a sister of the heart. To others, she was a commodity.
Now our life was this tower room, with no view, and every breath heavy with inland heat. Now, we were in the clutches of a maggot.
In a few minutes, we would meet a man who might, if luck continued to run sour, take her away to a worse place than this one.
“How do I look?” she asked.
Her gown was dark as coffee. That and its cut took attention away from her curves. The wimple concealed her hair. Yet…
“Still worth throwing on a bed, I fear.”
She turned green in the gills. I thought she might vomit on me. I stopped adjusting her sleeves and moved to the side. Unfortunately that meant she glimpsed her reflection in the mirror.
We had tried to dim her beauty, but take a butterfly out of the sunlight and it is still a butterfly.
“I truly do not deserve this,” she said.
“You truly do not,” I replied.
A knock announced the arrival of our escort. Wood grated on metal brackets as the bar was lifted. A heavy key turned in the lock, and the door swung out into the sentry vestibule — in the manner of a dungeon door.
The man in the vestibule was a guardsman named Obber. For all his muscles, he was a eunuch. The duke seldom trusted an intact male with the key to this chamber. I liked Obber. For all his leathers and the crook axe at his side, he was softspoken.
“His Grace summons you.”
Had we been able to decline, we would have, but it was no good thrashing against the tide. We thrust our feet into our slippers and strode from our prison, faces smooth, postures stoic. Then it was down, down, down the steps of the spiral we had come to know too well these past many weeks, Obber clanking in our wake.
“Ah, here we are,” I heard the Maggot say as Lissa crossed the threshold into the lord’s parlor. “You can see every word I’ve told you is true.”
I kept my eyes on the floor as I slipped into the maid’s nook by the door, and Obber into the guard alcove. Once in place, I dared to level my gaze and take in the scene.
The Maggot was in his finest parlor wear, his shoulder cape embellished with gems large and small. He never dressed this way outdoors for fear some of his wealth might slip off and be lost in the mud. His guest was surprisingly shabby by comparison. The latter’s ensemble was unadorned and, though made of expensive cloth, looked as though it would hold up on long campaigns spent in the saddle of a warhorse.
“His lordship Count Urley. The lady Lissa of Osprey Harbor.” As usual, the Maggot was efficient in his introductions.
The count had perhaps once been handsome. Now his skin was tight against his bones, and creviced from weather, wear, and war. Perhaps when he had been seventeen, admirers might have called him slender. Now he was just gaunt. If he had anyone left who claimed to be admirers, they were remembering a man who no longer existed.
I could say one thing for him. His blood could still flow. He stared at Lissa as would a man half his age. Many who meet her find themselves disconcerted by the mutable quality of her eyes. Urley, however, gazed right back.
And licked his lips.
“Turn around. Let me see the other side,” he commanded.
“Bend over a bit.”
Lissa spun back around. Her spine had already been straight, as those things go. Now it straightened even more. Meanwhile I was trying not to choke on my own spit.
“No need for that,” the Maggot told his guest. “Have no fear. I’m sure you’ll find her mountable enough, should you make me a serious offer.”
“I made an offer. Did it not sound serious?”
“It was inadequate by quite a margin,” the duke informed him. “Or do you think an heir to be worth so little?”
“I’ll pay more once she’s proven herself.”
“You can see the Brides’ Marks for yourself. Has any woman bearing those signs ever failed to give her husband a son?”
“There’s always a first time.”
“In that unlikely event, you are free to demand a refund. But until I have payment in full in my treasury, you’ll not so much as pluck a hair from her scalp.”
They paused to exchange scowls, and Lissa saw her opening. “Your Grace? Do you need me any longer?”
The Maggot didn’t bother glancing at her. He just waved his hand in dismissal.
Lissa retreated to the door before he could change his mind. I exited behind her, Obber dutifully ensuring that we headed back to the tower and not to the nearest way out of the castle.
Getting to the top level seemed to sap the last of the strength from Lissa’s legs. I supported her by the elbow as we headed for the divan.
I had never seen her as listless and spent as this. But how could she not be, after the previous few minutes?
Obber’s gentle comment caught up to us. “Do not fret, m’lady. His Grace won’t let that scabby goat have you.”
Lissa jumped. She had not realized our escort was still standing in the open doorway. Somehow even with his girth, he had the knack of disappearing from one’s view.
Lissa tilted her head. “Will he not?”
“No. The goat’s too cheap. Won’t offer more than he already has.”
I chuckled. How had we missed it? It was plain enough.
The worry lines in Lissa’s forehead smoothed out. “Thank you for that, Obber.”
“You are most welcome, m’lady.” And with that he closed the door. The key turned in the lock, the noise reverberating off the gaps between the tapestries.
By bedtime, it was clear Obber’s assessment had been accurate. No summons had come up ordering Lissa to prepare to leave with the count. Lissa fell asleep at once, making up for the anxious wakefulness of the previous night. She was still asleep as I slipped out of my cubby into the main chamber the next morning.
I poured water from the ewer to the basin and washed my face. I tried to keep my mood high so as to greet my lady with it, but I knew too well the reprieve was temporary. There would soon be another suitor to take the count’s place. He would surely be as old. Perhaps older — a greybeard desperate to make an heir while still capable of plowing the furrow. A younger nobleman could afford to select a wife from among the usual candidates, but not so with the ones who came, money in hand, to try to convince the Maggot to grant their petition. A woman who bore the Brides’ Marks always conceived easily and always produced a firstborn son. That son bore the peculiar grace of his mother’s heritage, and grew up robust, bright, able-bodied, and, if rumor was to be believed, unusually lucky in the face of chance. In short, he was progeny of the sort any lord or king wished to see as his heir. It didn’t matter that subsequent children were more often than not female.
Lissa stirred. When I turned, I was surprised to find as radiant a smile on her face as I had seen from her since her foster father had confessed his inability to shelter her any longer.
“What is it?” I asked.
“My deliverer is on his way.”
“Your—” I blinked. “How do you know?”
“I have dreamed it.”
My insides bounced like sand fleas. This was what I had been fearing would happen. The ordeal had unhinged her mind.
“Um. When is he to arrive?”
“Soon.” She brushed away the pillow-tangled hair from her face. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips plump, as if she had just been kissed.
“Wh-who is he?”
She closed her eyes, rolled on her side, and within moments was breathing deeply and regularly.
“Lissa?” I murmured.
She did not respond.
I decided it was best to leave her as she was. She slept soundly for another hour. Then, after a few minutes of tossing and turning, she sat up. Only then did she open her eyes.
She craned her head to gaze through one of the windows that ringed the chamber.
How those windows taunted us. Because summer was upon us, they were unshuttered, yet the ventilation gave us only minimal relief from the heat. The sills were set at half again the height of a man, so we had no view of anything but sky unless we shoved a chest against the wall and climbed upon it. Most of all, the openings gave the illusion that escape was within reach. But no. Even if we had possessed rope with which to rappel down the outer walls, it was a forlorn prospect. Lissa and I were both petite, but we were womanly enough that neither our bosoms nor our hindquarters would fit through such narrow apertures. They were pigeon’s gates.
“Shall I ring for breakfast?” I asked, hand poised by the pull cord. I wasn’t at all hungry, but at least the question might bring her home to port.
“Four days past full,” she said. “That’s good.”
She was still staring upward. I sat on the bed next to her and was finally able to see what she was looking at. She was facing west. There through the window was a waning gibbous moon, a disc of silver within a rectangle of cerulean.
“Why is it good?” I asked.
She turned to me, as if just realizing I was there. “I don’t know.” She rubbed grit from her eyelashes. “Was I talking in my sleep?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What did I say?”
I told her.
“A deliverer. Wouldn’t that be nice?” She mimed an executioner slitting her throat. Delivering her from this life.
She was her old self. Suddenly I was wistful for the Lissa I had so recently seen. The hopeful one.
“Breakfast?” I repeated.
“Bath first,” she said.
“No exercise today. I feel as though I spent all night hard at work. I want to do a lot of reading today. The Tale of the Handsome Bladesman, I think.”
“Don’t you know that one by heart?”
“It gets better every time. Don’t you think?”
“I do,” I admitted, and went to her cedar box to locate the book.
The day passed slowly, as every day of our imprisonment had. The maidservant who brought our supper let us know the Maggot had departed to visit the king’s court. He would be gone four days.
“That’s something to cheer,” I said as we sat down to the meal.
“No, it’s not,” Lissa countered. “He’ll use his time there to peddle my womb. There’s no better place for that than court.”
I patted her hand. “Then live in the present? Four days is four days.”
She nodded, but without vitality. She ate only the soup and a few bites of bread.
Some time in the night, I woke with a start. Lissa and I were not alone. I was sure of it.
Heart pounding, I carefully, as surreptitiously as possible, parted the gauze curtain that isolated my sleeping alcove.
A man was standing by Lissa’s bed. Moonlight glinted off the hilt of the sword at his belt.
Lissa thrashed and sat up, crying out.
I could not account for what I saw then. The intruder vanished. Not by ducking behind the bed. Not by running away. He had simply ceased to occupy the place he had been standing. The moonglow had been too bright and my eyes too well adjusted to the late hour to blame the effect on dimness.
The bar clanked to the stone floor outside. The key clicked sharply in the lock. Obber burst into the room, his axe in his raised hand. “M’lady? Are you well?”
“Yes,” Lissa replied, with a calmness I knew was false but which would fool most who did not know her as well as I did. “It was just a dream.”
The guard raised an eyebrow. Lighting a pair of chamber lamps, he made a quick inspection of the wardrobe, my maid’s alcove, the privy nook, and the underside of Lissa’s bed — the only places in our suite where anyone could be hiding.
He grunted. “Sorry to disturb. Good night.”
As soon as he had secured the door behind him, I rushed to Lissa’s side.
“Did you see him?” she asked. “The bladesman?”
“I — ” Her question made me see what I had missed in the midst of my fright. The silhouette had been that of a lithe man wearing a sword, the hat on his head embellished with a peacock feather.
As in the book.
“Was he handsome?” Lissa asked.
“I… I believe he was,” I whispered.
“Then for all that you love me, don’t scream next time.”
She fell back on her pillow, eyes closing. It was then I realized she had not really been awake.
In the morning, she said nothing of the incident. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that she moved around the chamber with a briskness she had not shown in weeks. Her brow was unfurrowed. She expressed interest in what clothes to put on for the day.
I hesitated to disturb this development with pesky questions, but at lunch I asked, “Your foremother. She had many powers.”
“So they say.”
“Do you think it’s possible you inherited more than you know?”
“You mean, more than the part that makes men want me as their broodmare? More than this?” She held out her hands, displaying the glistening nacre of her fingernails.
“I have no idea. I was so young when my mother died. She had no chance to tell me. Why do you ask?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” I said.
That night, I waited until I was sure Lissa was asleep, then I pulled away the gauze curtain and sat on my bunk, watching. The hooting of an owl filtered in through the windows. The air wafting down took on a trace of coolness, though it was inadequate by my harbor-rat standards.
The moonglow began to shine directly into the chamber, and I thought to myself, a waning moon rises at night, so it is always in the sky during the hours before dawn, when dreams are richest.
Lissa’s chest began rising and falling as dramatically as if she were engaged in heavy labor. Her mouth opened.
Her breath was visible. Grey mist. With each exhalation, the cloud grew at her bedside. Gradually, the cloud’s shade deepened, and its shape grew more defined.
The cloud became the handsome bladesman. Tones of color inhabited his complexion. The metal of his accouterments began to gleam. He became as solid as any real man would be, lacking only motion to seem alive. And then he turned to me, lifting a finger to his lips for silence.
Lissa’s breathing returned to normal. No more mist. Yet the bladesman remained. He caressed Lissa’s check with the lightest of strokes before he quietly eased away from the bed and approached my alcove.
Gales of the north, he was handsome. Suddenly it occurred to me that my nightgown was clinging to my upper body like skin. I pulled the bedsheet higher.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Do I need a name?” As I had, he kept his voice at low volume — quiet enough not to startle Lissa awake, and quiet enough that Obber would not hear us at all through the thick door and stone walls.
“Of course you do.”
“As you wish. Do you have one to give me?”
I hesitated. The bladesman in the story was unnamed, save by description. That had been part of the character’s allure. But I wasn’t going to have a man in my bedchamber at night without knowing his name. “Vannen,” I said. It was the name my father had told me would have been used for my first brother, if my mother had lived long enough to bear a son.
“Vannen it is,” he said.
“Why are you here, Vannen?”
“To rescue you.” He drew his sword and thrust at the air.
My breath caught. He moved with such sureness I knew he could deliver a lethal blow to an opponent almost before a bout had begun.
“If you are ready, give a scream to draw the guard in, and I will dispose of him.”
The thought made me hiccup. “No.”
“Eh? I promise you it will be quick. Turn your gaze away, and I will be done before you turn it back.”
“You cannot kill Obber,” I said. “Kill the duke. Kill the chamberlain. Kill any of those spawn of privy piles that fetched us from Osprey Harbor. But not Obber. He has been kind to us.”
Vannen swished his weapon right and left. He held it up to the moonglow. It shone. He had a right to admire it. It was a fine key to unlock our prison. Under other circumstances.
“It would trouble my lady greatly to think her liberty had been won at the cost of Obber’s life,” I said firmly. “Surely you were not made to bring her such pain.”
He sighed. He thumbed the opening of his scabbard, poising the sword to slide it back in.
“You vex me.”
“If I am to spill no blood tonight, what am I to do?”
I barely had to think about it. “Spill sweat instead,” I said. “Show me your dance.”
He cocked his head and gave me a smile. It was just like the smile in the story, the one that made the damsel give up her plan to remain a maiden all her days.
“As you wish,” he declared.
He began the dance slowly, displaying the techniques in a way I could follow. Then he repeated them at speed. He thrust. He parried. He charged. He withdrew. I had seen fencing dances before, but not of this level.
Truly, Obber owed me his life.
After a quarter hour, the heel of Vannen’s boot happened to bump against the corner of the wardrobe, a sharp thwack of hardened leather against oak. Lissa gave a soft cry and opened her eyes.
Vannen disappeared. A faint haze of mist lingered for an instant, then that, too, was gone.
Lissa lifted her head from the pillow. “What’s going on?”
I rushed to her side. “We need to make some plans,” I said.
The next night, Lissa understandably could not fall asleep right away, but ultimately she managed it. Her breath turned silver. Our visitor manifested.
He was just a boy this time. Eleven, perhaps twelve years old. Mature enough to have some strength to him, but with none of the bulkiness of a man’s physique. He had a long coil of rope draped over one shoulder.
I was sitting on the divan, the better to watch the magic occur. As soon as he was capable of movement, he joined me.
His smile was the same as it had been. He was still Vannen, even if he had no beard, no sword at his belt. In some ways, I found him more approachable. Not so intimidating. I put my hand on his knee as he sat down.
“I feel so much lighter this way,” he said.
“Well, that is the idea,” I replied. I gazed up at the row of windows.
He studied the openings as well, then measured out the width of his hips. “Yes. I think I will fit. Only one way to know.”
We moved a trunk against the wall and he hopped onto it. He tied one end of the rope securely to a torch bracket and tossed the coil through a window.
Getting through the narrow aperture took him several minutes. Even if Lissa and I had been as skinny, neither of us could have managed it. Vannen had to twist, hold his body in position with the support of torso muscles alone. He had to grip masonry with supple, strong fingers. He had to somehow keep from falling until he was all the way out and could at last seize the rope properly.
Finally he was suspended above the moat, ready to rappel down and swing to a courtyard or a lower window. Only his head remained visible. In the dimness I made out the white of his smile.
I blew him a kiss.
I could only wait after that, until my yawns torqued my jaw and I had to lie down. At first light I stirred. Vannen was back, worming his way into the tower as laboriously as he had exited. He was puffing and sweating. He almost fell as he got his last leg inside.
I helped him off the table.
“I couldn’t get far enough,” he reported. “I would have been seen. You would not believe how many sentries there are. What’s the Maggot afraid of?”
“Thieves,” I said. “He’s always thinking about his riches.”
“I see. Well, I’ll have to try again tomorrow night. Maybe they won’t be as vigilant.”
The next night he did not even get as far as the first time. Our plan had several weaknesses. Vannen could not be both a boy slender enough to make it out the window, and a mighty swordsman capable of surreptitiously killing guards all the way up to the top of the tower as he infiltrated the castle. And if he did make it to our door, what of Obber? Slip Obber a sleeping potion? Well, yes, if we had a sleeping potion. Lissa could dream that Vannen had such a thing in his pocket, but how would we get Obber to consume it?
And then the Maggot returned. Later that day, he summoned us. Our first thought was that Vannen had been seen, or perhaps the rope had been spotted dangling from the window. But no, our tormentor was in far too good a humor.
“My time at court was well spent. I have not one, but three wealthy lords prepared to make offers.” He rubbed his palms together. “Now I get to play them off each other, until I get the best price possible.”
Numb, we said nothing as we climbed back to our chamber. Once there, we silently sat down at our work table and picked up our bead-weaving, resorting to our old standby to keep us occupied with something other than our desperation. The pastime was one of the few bits of Osprey Harbor culture we had been able to bring with us.
“Time is getting short,” Lissa said.
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“There is one thing we haven’t tried. Please know I am serious about it.”
“What is it?” By that point, any option was welcome, but her steely tone alarmed me.
“If I were already pregnant, the Maggot would have to stop offering rich oafs the chance to get me pregnant.”
The bead in my hand slipped free and tumbled noisily off the table. “Wh-, wh-, what are you suggesting?”
“That Vannen lie with me, of course.”
“Would that work?”
“If my foremother could become so much a part of this world as to breed with a human man, I don’t see why Vannen’s seed would not quicken once it’s inside me.”
“But what about the — you know. Do you think you could stay asleep while… while…”
“While the deed is being done?”
“I will have to find a way.” She drummed her fingers on the table. “Tell me, do you think we could convince Obber to sneak us an entire jug of wine?”
By the time Lissa retired that evening, she was so drunk she needed my help just to make it from the divan to her bed. I helped her get undressed — no nightgown for her tonight — and covered her with a sheet.
Beneath the covering, she flopped her limbs apart so that she was lying spread-eagled. “There,” she said, as if she had completed her part, and the goal was all but accomplished. She was snoring in less than a minute.
Hands shaking, I put out the lamps and tapers. I retreated to my cubby and pulled the drape closed. A real drape, not the gauze curtain that normally hung there. Something opaque. I lay back and stuffed cotton in my ears.
I didn’t see how I was going to get through the night. I knew perfectly well I wasn’t going to be able to sleep, no matter how it might help the cause of discretion.
The plugged ears only made my restlessness worse. I took the cotton out, hoping that if I were comfortable, maybe I would in fact fall asleep. But of course, I was wide awake when I began hearing rustles of movement from the middle of the room and knew that Vannen had materialized.
A soft whoosh told me the sheet had slid to the floor. I tried to banish the vision in my mind’s eye of Lissa lying there as Vannen’s shadow loomed across her.
The bed creaked as it coped with the addition of his weight. Subtle sounds of movement followed. Was he shifting her? Was he priming her? Was he already inside?
A garbled cry raised hair on the nape of my neck.
Suddenly it grew all too quiet.
After a few moments came the sound of a pillow being thrown at the wall. I heard Lissa muttering, and the sound of her pacing back and forth — I recognized the rhythm of her tread. Candlelight began to glow around the edges of the drape. Finally the partition was thrust aside. Lissa stood there in her nightgown, neck stiff, eyes bloodshot.
I didn’t ask how far things had gone. Obviously not far enough.
“There’s a tiny man inside my skull trying to bludgeon his way out,” she whimpered.
“Shall I brew us some sailor-ashore tea?”
“Yes. And next time we get wine, don’t bother serving me any. Just hit me over the head with the jug. It will save time.”
The tea leaves were a little stale. Lissa’s hangover was still plaguing her in the morning. She was petulant with me even when I was reading from The Sailmaker’s Wife, one of her favorites. But as the day went on, stage by stage her mood shifted. She lingered in the bath. She stayed in front of the mirror after I had combed her hair, turning her body this way and that. Evaluating.
She dabbed scented oil behind each ear. I tied a ribbon around her neck, crafting the knot just so. After dinner, she chewed fresh mint leaves.
This time she needed no help getting into bed. In fact, she banished me to my cubby even before she retired.
I had promised myself I would fall asleep. I think I may have succeeded. But I snapped awake after midnight, suddenly sure that Vannen was in the tower.
Yes. I heard subtle indications of movement. But no creaking of a bed. In fact, no sound at all from the part of the room where the bed was.
I couldn’t stand it. I lifted a corner of the drape and peeked out.
Vannen was sitting on the divan. He beckoned me with a gesture.
I joined him. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Waiting. A little later in the night will be better. She’s less likely to wake then.”
He was of course no longer the boy who had squeezed through the window, but he was not quite back to being the bladesman. He was less muscular, less impossibly handsome. Now he was appealing in a grounded way, an honest village man worth marrying and making a family with, not some charmer about to dash off to another adventure.
He smelled like mint.
“She dreams me well tonight. Last night her slumber was impaired.”
“We thought the wine would help.”
“No, she has to be alert enough to welcome me within her body. Otherwise the penetration is too startling.”
I felt a blush coming on. I turned my face away.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m fine.”
“If it would make you feel better, you might like to know I’m embarrassed by this as well.”
I turned back. “You are?”
“I have yet to prove myself in bed. What man wants that? And if things continue to go poorly, I have not one but two women privy to my failure.”
“For what it’s worth, it’s not my idea to be able to know so much. I’d be happy to let it be a secret between the two of you.”
I waved at the windows. “This would all be simple if she could just dream us far from here, where we were already safe. Beyond the duke’s reach.”
“If she had that sort of magic, she would not need my help. Are you weary of my company?”
My hand shot to my mouth. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Good. You don’t want to make me feel unwanted. I don’t think it would help.”
“You should never feel unwanted. Until you appeared, the tide was over our heads.”
He smiled at me. It was difficult not to blush again.
“What do you think he will be like?” Vannen asked when the pause grew long.
“I couldn’t say. How could I know?”
“Boys think like their mothers, even if they do it in a male way. You know Lissa. Therefore you know how her son will perceive the world.”
I wasn’t sure he was right, but I had to admit he had found a way to keep me talking.
He poured what little wine was left into a pair of goblets and we sipped as I spoke of this trait or that, whatever I judged to be the sort of thing the child might inherit.
The child. Somehow he already seemed to exist.
Eventually I had nothing more to say. I closed my eyes. I yawned.
He leaned over to whisper in my ear, “Thank you, Wyvva. I enjoyed this.”
I felt myself being lifted in strong arms, to be deposited on my bunk. “Good luck,” I murmured as he closed the drape.
He did not approach Lissa’s bed while I was alert. It happened some time later, when my pillow had become a chariot to elsewhere, and I could not tell a human sigh from the flutter of a bat’s wings.
At breakfast, Lissa looked incredible. “You’re glowing,” I said.
“I am not,” Lissa replied.
She smiled like wharf pelican. “Maybe you’re right.”
“You know I’m right.”
“Well, it is how I’m supposed to feel, isn’t it?”
“Ideally,” I admitted.
“I hope it’s like this every time.”
I almost choked on a piece of melon.
“You did realize we’ll have to keep doing this every night until we’re sure I’m pregnant?” she asked.
“Your foremother was a glimmering bride. Isn’t once enough?”
“Maybe. But I have to be sure.”
I carefully swallowed the piece of melon. Lissa stole a second piece from my bowl.
“You really slept through it all?” I asked.
“If I hadn’t, ‘it all’ would not have been possible.”
“It is odd, though, to know I have lain with a man, yet never spoken with him. Thank goodness for you. Tell me what he said last night.”
I paused, spoon raised. “We didn’t talk. I fell asleep before you did. I slept all night. It’s better that way, don’t you think?”
Lissa gazed at me so steadily, I lowered the spoon back to the bowl.
“Wyvva. I want to know what he said.”
I hated that she knew so immediately whenever I lied. Conceding, I told her how Vannen had asked what traits his son-to-be might inherit, how he had gazed at Lissa so fondly. But I did not tell her how long we had spoken, nor of how he had carried me to my bed, nor of his whisper in my ear.
That part was for me alone.
True to form, the Maggot could not help but play his prospects against one another as long as possible. Each time he received a better offer, he would summon us to his hall and cackle about it. Finally he intimated that he would probably accept the next one, and told Lissa to air out her best dress.
Meanwhile the nights went on, through the phases of the moon. Lissa’s breath no longer had to be anointed by the orb’s glow to make Vannen appear. He manifested as soon as she slipped into unconsciousness. He and I had more and more time each night to talk. I was always bleary-eyed in the morning from staying up late; I compensated with naps rather than have to retire when Lissa did.
Each night, he lay with her. We never resumed our conversations afterward; I did not want to sit there while he was fragrant with her scent. I stayed in my alcove.
Sleep seldom came quickly. From time to time, a soft masculine grunt would filter through the partition, or a drowsy feminine sigh. Inevitably, I sometimes could hear other sounds, ones more primal and rhythmic. Wet sounds.
Not once did I nudge the drape aside and peer out, but it hardly mattered. I could see Vannen so plainly in my mind’s eye, his hair tousled, the sweat glistening on his shoulders, the muscles of his hindquarters tightening and relaxing. And then his whole body shuddering.
Lissa had always had more than I. But never before had I envied her.
Finally Lissa began throwing up in the morning. It confirmed what we’d been suspecting for some time.
She sent a note downstairs saying she was pregnant. Within an hour the local birthwitch visited the tower and gave Lissa an examination. The Maggot barely waited until she was done before he burst into the room.
The birthwitch gave the sign of a swelling belly. The duke rounded at Lissa.
“Who did this?” he demanded.
“Count Urley,” Lissa said. I nearly coughed out loud to hear her say it so calmly, unable to quench the awful image of that old man climbing into Lissa’s bed, even knowing no such thing had ever happened.
The Maggot’s mouth dangled open. “Count Ur — ”
“He wouldn’t meet your price,” Lissa added. “But he met mine.”
The duke’s face purpled to such a degree I thought a blood vessel would pop. “He will not make a fool of me!” He whirled around and stalked from the room, slamming the door.
After Obber had reopened the door and let the birthwitch out, Lissa and I were finally free to burst into laughter. We muffled the noise as best we could in our sleeves.
It was worth dying now, if we had to.
That night, I keened my ears for the whisper of Vannen settling onto the divan. When I thought I heard it, I burst from my cubby.
“I have such news — ”
The rest of the words lodged in my throat. Vannen was not there. The chamber was empty of anyone except Lissa, asleep in her bed, and me, teetering on the balls of my feet.
There was no reason to continue toward the divan. Chin down, I returned to my bunk.
At first, I told myself the night was young, and I had simply been impatient for him to arrive. But Lissa slumbered on, her exhalations never taking on their magical glow. No version of Vannen, be it bladesman or boy or lover, put in an appearance.
I stayed up until dawn, wondering what sort of good-by I might have composed, if I had known one was necessary. None seemed adequate.
As the next day wore on, we expected a summons. The need to punish us was surely burning a hole in the Maggot’s bowels.
“If it happens, so be it,” Lissa said aloud. She was exuding a sort of peace unlike any I had seen from her, even in the happiest portions of our girlhood.
More hours passed. It seemed the duke was reacting as we had thought he might. Inasmuch as we were his captives, he had plenty of time to concoct just the right revenge. At the moment, his anger was directed outward — at the supposed perpetrator of his ills. We had time for developments to fall in our favor.
Hopeful as we were, the form those developments took was a surprise. As evening deepened, a knock came on the door. A few moments later, Obber let himself in.
“Hurry,” he said. “His Grace is off to demand satisfaction from Count Urley. He’s all but emptied the castle of guards. If you come now, I know I can sneak you out.”
“You’d do that?” I asked.
“I would.” He waved his thick fingers in the direction of the door. “I have transportation arranged to get you down the road a ways, but you have to be aboard within the hour. Take what you can carry. Nothing more.”
We didn’t need to hear it again. Lissa and I scurried about the chamber, gathering up necessities. We nearly collided as we both remembered the most important — the purse she’d hidden in a compartment of her cedar box. Wherever we went, gold would help smooth our way.
It felt wonderful to put on footwear meant for the outdoors.
Obber was true to his word. He knew the servants’ corridors and the archers’ crannies, which together became a route to an unwatched sally port. We were slipping into alleys in the mercantile district in less time than it took for the solitary sentry on the battlements to pace out a full circuit. All we glimpsed of him was the back side of his spiked helmet.
Finally we approached a large wagon. A pair of oxen were already hitched to the yoke. The load was covered by a thick tarp.
Obber lifted the back end of the tarp. A rich aroma of beer escaped. On the wagonbed was half a load of kegs and barrels.
“Brewmaster is sending this all the way to Rowan Hollow. Load has to go in the cool of the night. His boy owes me a favor. He’ll not say a word about carrying any passengers. From Rowan Hollow, you’re on your own.”
“We’ll manage,” Lissa assured him.
He grinned. “If I know the old goat, he’ll put up quite a fight. His Grace will have to lay siege. Your trail will be cold before he gets the chance to go sniffing along it.”
I kissed his cheek.
“We can never thank you enough,” Lissa told him. “You are taking quite a risk.”
“Worth it,” Obber said firmly. “I lost my balls fighting in my master’s Ten Valleys campaign. He never thanked me for it.”
“How like him,” Lissa said.
Obber gazed at Lissa’s belly as if able to see a bump there already. “I don’t know how you managed it. I’ve never seen His Grace yank his own beard so hard.”
He giggled. It was infectious.
Our eyelashes wet with tears, Lissa and I climbed into the gap between the barrels. Obber gave us one final nod and tied down the tarp over the top of the load, concealing us. His heavy bootsteps faded away.
Soon came the sound of someone climbing onto the driver’s bench. A snap of the lash and we were on our way out of the alley and down the street.
The wheels, despite a recent greasing, groaned from the load as the oxen pulled us along, and the barrels, despite being well secured, rattled with each bump. The noise ensured our conversation would not be overhead.
“We can’t go back to Osprey Harbor,” I said. “They’d look for us there.”
“Agreed. We’d only get Lord Firin in trouble. No, we have to leave Mareswold entirely. At night, if we can manage it.”
“Assuming I can sleep on the road.” She placed her hand upon mine. “Don’t you agree it would be prudent to have a male escort?”
“I didn’t consider that it was possible.”
“You thought me done with him?”
I didn’t answer. I was glad she couldn’t see my expression in the darkness beneath the tarp.
“With him around, things seem to go well for us. I see no reason not to keep bringing him back as often as possible.” She paused. “Do you have some objection to him accompanying us?”
“No,” I answered at once. “Not at all.”
“Then it’s settled. All we need is a destination.”
Strange as it may seem, we had never discussed this. Maybe we were afraid to contemplate the endpoint of our escape so completely, and be hurt all the more to be denied it. But now I believed we could make it whatever distance we needed to go. With hope as tangible as that, the answer came to me at once.
“I know a place.”
I awoke to the sound of owls tucking themselves in for the day in the upper recesses of the shack, amid the tangle of myrtlewood branches and thatch. I inhaled air perfumed with the scents of clover and elkbroom. For a moment, I was ten years old again, waking up on this very pallet during the one summer I had spent away from Osprey Harbor.
I rose and parted the curtain that ran down the center of the shack. Lissa, face already washed, already wearing her day dress, was combing her hair. She beamed at me.
“This is a beautiful place,” she said.
“It is,” I agreed. “Have you seen the ocean?”
“No. It’s visible from here?”
“Just up the hill.”
“You’ll have to show me.”
After we breakfasted on cold porridge and blackberries, we climbed up. As soon as we reached the crest of the ridge, the wind thumped us like a family hound left alone all day and eager to show his love.
Off in the distance, blue water stretched to the horizon. We were too far from the shore to hear the waves crash, but we smelled the salt. The pores of our cheeks opened to drink in the moisture. We were inland exiles no more.
Not one human structure intruded upon our view. Not one sail. This stretch of coast was rocky, bereft not only of harbors, but of beaches upon which to pull a fishing boat ashore. It was not a place for lords to covet. Only shepherds saw its value. Of a winter, the winds here blew with fleece-thickening briskness.
We smiled as we took our fill of the scene. But in some ways, the view the other way soothed us just as much. For Lissa, it was the first chance for her to take in the full extent of our surroundings. For me, it was a sweet revisiting. Downslope lay the shack, where a small spring bubbled up, and outcroppings blunted the force of whatever breezes made it down from the ridgetop. A rolling terrain of pastureland stretched inland, the heather interrupted here and there by blackberry brambles, copses of myrtle or ash, and vernal ponds. By a small creek, its outlines hazy with distance, stood the farmhouse from which we had come on foot late the previous afternoon to arrive at the shack at dusk.
The time had come to retrace our steps. We picked our way down the slope and headed hand in hand across the fields toward the house.
We arrived just as my aunt Nebba was removing the day’s batch of bread from the oven. We helped her finish churning the butter and sat down at the table with her and my uncle Foxmo. My cousin Mibb was out with the flocks, but his wife Taney sat with us when she was not having to get up to keep her toddlers out of mischief. The air grew addictively braced with the aroma of fresh loaves breaking open.
“Did you like the little place, m’lady?” Foxmo asked.
“Please call me just Lissa,” she replied with cheer. “For now and for good. And yes, I liked it a great deal.”
“Be good to have someone out there again full time.” My uncle gazed out the window toward the coast. We let him savor whatever memory had bubbled up. I knew he had lived in the shack as a young man. It had been little more than a shepherd’s cote back then. He had expanded it when Nebba had become his bride, crafting it into a bower that sheltered them through their newlywed days. But when Mibb was a year old and Nebba pregnant a second time, the old shepherd who had held tenancy of the land had passed away, and Foxmo and Nebba had occupied the main farmhouse, a better accommodation for a growing family. “It’s not too isolated for you?”
“Isolation is what we want,” Lissa said.
He nodded. “You’ll have it. Even the king’s tax collectors don’t bother coming out this far. We pay our tithe at the village.”
As I chewed on warm bread and butter, it seemed to me the most sustaining food I had ever eaten. We had reached a haven where the Maggot’s trackers would never look. A bounty hunter clever enough to imagine Lissa and I had sought shelter with my mother’s kinfolk would be unlikely to find anyone left alive back in Osprey Harbor to recall what village my mother had come from, and if he did, there was no one left alive in that village who knew to what far-flung corner of the realm Foxmo had drifted off to after he and my grandfather had quarrelled.
The whole way here, I could not vanquish the fear that we might be recaptured in the midst of our flight. Now I could. Now I had.
“We are in your debt,” Lissa said.
“Pfff. Won’t be long until I am in yours. I met your young man last night. Strapping fellow. Quite an archer. He’ll have no trouble helping keep the flocks safe.” My uncle pointed to a large pumpkin on the sideboard. The outline of a wolf had been painted on it. The hind half of an arrow jutted from the wolf’s heart.
Lissa smiled. She had needed to hear Foxmo say it, for last night, we had suspected him to be a little unsure of us. It was all very well to speak of having a dream man in our service, one who could roam the fields at night, guarding against the predators that regularly swept down along the coast from the north, reducing the number of sheep the pastures would otherwise support. It was another thing to meet the man himself, shake his firm hand, and witness his skills.
“Did Vannen give his own word?” I asked. “Aloud?”
“As a matter of fact, he did.” My uncle blinked. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“What was that about? Vannen. Giving his word aloud?” Lissa asked as we stored crocks of olives and rounds of cheese in the root cellar in the hillside near the shack. My cousin Mibb was a full thirty paces away, making repairs to the hen coop so that of a morning, we could have eggs. It was the first time Lissa and I had been alone since we had returned.
I kept my face turned toward the shelves, pretending that wiping dust and cobwebs from the shelves was of greater import than the question. “It occurred to me Vannen might have other plans.”
Lissa stayed so quiet I wondered if she had slipped out of the root cellar. I turned around. With the sunlight of the doorway haloing her, I could not read her expression.
“Did he speak of other plans?”
“No.” I bowed my head. “I just got to wondering. What would some other man want, in his position? If he were just anyone, he might have any number of ambitions.”
“He can’t have other plans. I need him. We need him.”
“I know. Of course I know. He is as you need him to be. But… is there more?”
She took both my hands in hers. “Wyvva. What troubles you? Tell me.”
“Do you remember Frisk?”
“Your father’s dog? How could I forget?”
“He was old when we came to Osprey Harbor. My father tried to leave him at a farm, where he would have fields to roam for the last fraction of his life. Frisk wouldn’t have it. He wanted to be with my father. He cleaved to him out of love.”
“Yes. He did.”
“And do you remember that pup Kodder the Innkeeper had, the one we would see by the wharf?”
“Yes. Poor whelp.”
“He stayed because he was tied up.”
Lissa blanched. “Sister, if you think me evil, I could not bear it.”
“When it comes to you, I only ever think of love,” I said. “That’s how it will be until I’m too old to chew a soup bone. I am like Frisk that way.”
She hugged me. “I will do all I can to be worthy of that love.”
Throughout the week that followed, Lissa and I were preoccupied with nesting in. After our months of idling while confined in the tower, it suddenly seemed as though there was so much to do. We ended each day tired, and I slept all the way through most nights. Even when I did wake, I did not see Vannen. Mott was staying up after the rest of us retired in order to instruct him in the places where the flock should be, where wolves or grass panthers might turn up, and then Vannen would roam through the small hours of the night, taking the full measure of the territory that fell within Foxmo’s tenancy.
But then came a night when the moon was at its fullest, and my restlessness would not cease. I rose, threw on the sheep-maid frock Aunt Nebba had given me, and slipped out of the shack.
Something whisked by my head, and I blurted an unladylike word.
It fluttered by again in front of me. A hawk moth. It continued on its way out across the fields, and as I tracked it, I saw many more of its kind, travelling in their swooping way, or poising like hummingbirds, or landing upon moorflowers to harvest nectar.
My breath caught at the beauty of it. I had forgotten the moths. Of a moonlit night in late summer or early fall, waves of them flowed over the heather like sea foam.
Over on the crest of the nearest knoll I made out Vannen’s tall shape. He had one hand poised on an unstrung bow, the other hand holding up a sprig of elkbroom. A moth settled upon the sprig to feed. He bent his head to study the patterns of its wings.
I followed the path down from the shack and then up the gentle slope of the knoll, keeping alert for gopher holes and stones that might be hidden in the pasture’s verdant mat.
Vannen watched me approach. With his face in shadow, I did not see how wide his grin was until I got close.
“You’re in a happy mood.”
“Your aunt left me one of her mutton pasties. And a cup of her cider. It was wonderful.”
It was the emotion in his tone that made me realize, worldly as he might have been in other respects, he had never before eaten.
“She doesn’t need to waste food on me,” he added. “But I won’t be the one to tell her so.”
“Then neither will I.”
He held out his bow to me. “Hold this, please.”
After I had taken it from him, he ambled to the nearest clump of elkbroom, and headed back with a fresh sprig in his hand. A dirt clod crunched beneath his foot. Where he had stepped, the grass remained crumpled. He was solid. The things he did had an effect on the world. It did not seem possible that when Lissa woke, he would vanish.
I ran a finger along the bow. Fine yew, well crafted. As far as I knew, it materialized with him each night. If I took it with me to the shack, would it still be there in the morning?
“What are you, Vannen?” I finally dared ask. “Are you only her dream?”
His brows rose. He grew very still as he pondered.
“More than that, I think.” He spoke softly so as not to disturb the especially handsome moth that had found his offering. “I suspect that I am not made, but taken from some other place and reshaped. But if I have another existence, I do not remember it while I am here.”
“Doesn’t that trouble you?”
“Do you mean to ask, am I content?”
He gestured at the silvered expanse of terrain, at the moths in flight. He drew breath until his chest broadened. “When I am here, I know I exist. I smell the heather. I hear the sheep bleat. I have a purpose and the skill to pursue it. So, the answer is yes. I am content. I would rather be alive than not. I am grateful for all that I have.”
His voice mesmerized me. Its timber. The sincerity in its tone.
“I will tell Lissa you said so. She will be glad.”
I toyed with the loose bowstring.
“There is one thing I want,” he added.
I looked up. My mother’s ghost watch over me, when I saw his eyes again it was all I could do not to untie my frock, place it on the ground as a blanket, and invite him to share it with me. “Yes?”
“I am lonely, of a night,” he said. “I would have you join me more often. I would like to know you much better, Wyvva Scribe’s Daughter.”
I hiccupped. “I… I could only do that if Lissa has dreamed it.”
He chuckled. “Silly girl. Of course she has dreamed it.”
Suddenly I was having to wipe wetness from my eyes, and my heart began thundering in my chest.
Vannen removed his quiver of arrows from his back and rested it on the grass. With a nonchalant stride, he halved the distance between us.
I halved the rest. And kissed him.
Seven Tales of High Fantasy
by Dave Smeds
$3.99 (Collection) ISBN 978-1-61138-168-9