Fantasy Fiction

By Any Other Name
The Towers of Zolyniak
A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
Marion the Unmagical
The Road to Udupi
The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)
The Treasure of Totowa Hills (Part 2)
Seeress (Part 3)

By Any Other Name

©Melissa K. Michael 2003
ca 5780 words

By Any Other Name
by Melissa Michael

"He's a nice boy, isn't he?"
Keef's drunken head swiveled to study the bearded white-hair seated across the narrow table from him. The tavern's din dimmed away. The wenches had forsaken him since the old man with the tiny boy was forced to share his table in the crowded common room.
Keef experienced a piercing stab of clarity through his self-induced, work-week's-end beer haze. The elder's hair was white like the purest snow. His smile was gentle, kind, and his sparkling blue eyes full of merry warmth faded the crowsfeet beside them. Oh yes. Keef would love to do anything this man asked of him.
"Yes sir. He's a right fine boy. That he is." Keef's gruff baritone sounded surprisingly steady to his own ears. He'd quaffed two pitchers of the dark home brew already and had a good start on his third.
"I need a trustworthy man, such as yourself; a bold warrior, seasoned in battle, brave, courageous . . ."
Keef beamed, drunkenly sure he deserved all the praise this man could voice.
"But mostly, I need a man of his word."
Keef nodded. "You're looking at him!" he declared proudly.
The white-haired man in the light grey cloak smiled brightly. "Good. I knew I could count on you."
"Damn right!" Keef gruffed, pulling on his stein.
"He needs transport to the north. To Mount Meru. Here is payment. With this, you can travel quickly and light. Speed is of the essence." The man plunked a bag of coin on the table within Keef's reach. "Another bag like this awaits your arrival at Mount Meru."
Doubts buzzed futilely on the far reaches of Keef's mind, like mosquitoes kept out by a screen.
"Check it. It's good." The white-hair motioned to the bag. "You'll leave at first light."
Again Keef felt the buzz of doubt. He was a Captain of the Crossroads City Guard. But no, this was an important trust placed in him by a venerable, aged, wise man. He loosened the purse's strings and pulled at a coin fully expecting the white shine of silver or even the orange glint of copper. It was a large bag and would make three of the purses of more common usage. Instead, the gleam of solid gold met his weary, jaded eye. He checked it on his teeth. It even tasted like the real thing. Keef looked up to find the man gone. He quickly returned the coin and slipped the purse into his shirt then regarded the tiny boy.
"Reckon you'd be ready for bed, uh?"
Soulful eyes regarded him in turn, as drained of emotion as those of a refugee.
The child could hardly keep up with Keef's guardsman strides so he carried the little slip cradled in one arm back to the barracks. As he was Captain, Keef rated his own room and privy and even a bucket of hot water delivered every morning.
He made a nest of blankets for the boy on top of a pile of soiled uniforms and laid himself down on his narrow cot. Keef thought he heard the alarm bell ringing but reckoned it was a dream and he was off duty in any case.

"The Queen summons you," Stifin called from the door to Lyara's student cubicle in the 17th tree.
"Oh! All right." Lyara was surprised. What could Queen Ennyeva possibly want with her? "I'm coming," she said but Stifin remained unmoving, his face an emotionless mask. How Lyara wished she could master that Warrior self-control. But no, she had to be born a touchy-feely Healer with every nuance of emotion clearly visible on her face.
She wouldn't dare let Stifin see Mistress Mouse, so she had to leave her. Lyara's peers teased her that Mouse was her familiar which was silly for Lyara was no Mage, and Mouse was no familiar. She was a friend, a confidante. Still Lyara would die before she'd let Stifin see her consorting with a mouse.
Lyara smoothed her silvery hair behind her pointed ears and tried, to no avail, to tuck the stray ends into the thick braid as she hurried out. Stifin led the way, quickly jumping branches and climbing vines to the Queen's High Council Chamber in the First Tree.
Lyara smoothed her palms over her tan tunic and breeches. Sometimes the Queen might call a student into her private chambers to gain the viewpoint of the young generation, ascertain for herself the quality of its training, or simply to bestow benedictions. But students were only called to the High Council Chamber to receive awards of great merit or punishments of great shame. Lyara entered the hall with trepidation.
Stifin rejoined the circle of Warriors surrounding the Queen who sat at the head of an empty council table. Lyara dropped to one knee her eyes on the floor of the great hollow at the top of the eldest and blackest gabbro tree in all the Western Forest.
"Rise child. Come. Sit." Queen Ennyeva gestured beside herself.
Lyara did so with wide, incredulous eyes. These seats were sacred, sat upon only by the most qualified and revered of all elfin elders.
"You know the way to the Wilds?"
"Yes." Lyara nodded cautiously. North from anywhere led eventually to the snowy wastes.
"Um, Lost Hope Pass, to the peak of Mount Meru?" Ennyeva clarified.
Lyara closed her eyes a moment and verified that yes, she perfectly recalled the lessons. She repeated her nod while qualifying it. "Of course I've never been there."
"She's never been out of the Forest, Your Highness," Stifin's steely tone rang out though his voice was low.
Lyara stiffened in her seat.
The Queen merely glanced Stifin's way. "I need your service as a guide, Lyara."
"Of course, Your Majesty."
"Good. Leave immediately for the Northern Road. You will seek and intercept a man carrying the sole surviving heir of the High Wizard of Crossroads. Aswin's daughter is only four. You will guide them to Avalanthalin's Hold at the peak of Mount Meru. Avalanthalin has laid a geas on him but you know that will draw him in a straight line which is impossible to traverse."
"Me?" Lyara was shocked. Such a mission would be a test for the most veteran Warrior. Now she understood Stifin's disdain. And heartily agreed with it!
"You've passed all the tests," Ennyeva said.
"Then why was I not named Warrior?" Steel shivered in Lyara's tone.
"Lyara," Ennyeva said in exasperation. "You're a Healer. No amount of hard work or training can change that."
"Then why am I given a Warrior's quest?" It was her turn for exasperation. To be given the responsibility without the recognition. The queen's demeanor grew reserved again. Lyara feared she'd overstepped and given offense.
"Due to excesses in the Gateway War, we have no contact with humans and they are highly mistrustful of us, and will not tolerate dealing with a Warrior. Perhaps a female Healer can accomplish this task."
"I'm to go alone then?" Damn the Goddess why did her voice have to quaver? Right in front of Stifin!
"Yes. A small party will travel swifter and be a smaller target for whoever or whatever is hunting. I've a small horse for the child. You can use it as a pack horse until you reach them. Here's gold for whatever you need on the way."
"And if he refuses my guidance?"
"He will. You can count on that. Avalanthalin sent this. Simply show it to the human."
Lyara accepted the rock crystal numbly. To impart a glamour on top of a geas . . . why, it was cruel beyond words. The humans were right to mistrust elfkind.
"A Warrior," Stifin said in disgust.
"This is the child of prophesy!" Ennyeva said, taking Lyara's hand. "She is 'Avalanthalin's distant daughter saved from a murder by a murder.' It was a murder of horrendous giant crows that slew her family. At the King's table! We never suspected that interpretation. We still don't know who is behind it or why. Her father was the most beloved Wizard of all Westmarch and one of the few truly powerful."
"Of course, Your Majesty. I depart within the hour."
"Stifin will saddle and stock the horses."
"A half hour then."
Lyara dropped swiftly from the High Council Chamber and took a hearty meal, following the most popular rule of the road if not the first and foremost: Leave With a Full Belly.
She tucked a large crumb of bread and a small chunk of cheese into her pocket for Mistress Mouse. She collected Mouse, her own heavier traveling clothes, a bedroll, and her Healer's kit. Soon she was at the stables. Stifin packed her small bag and bedroll on the smaller horse and gave her a leg up onto Snowmane's back.
"For the Queen," she heard his soft steely voice.
"For the Queen," Lyara answered and rode east.

Keef woke to the hammering of his customary restday hangover. He stumbled into his privy and began his morning toilet with the bucket of now tepid water. He was dressed and forcing down his first cup of scalding tea before he heard of the High Wizard's murder. Bloody slaughter by the description floating around the mess. Scuttlebutt was that the youngest daughter was missing. The bodies of the other eight children were accounted for.
Keef sat upright nearly spilling his tea. He bolted for the barracks. The boy was still there. The brunette, short-haired boy; not the missing long-haired, blonde girl. Keef heaved a sigh of relief.
The boy ate quickly. Keef guided him to the privy where he squatted. Keef didn't know much about children, to his undying regret. He supposed this one was too young to stand while taking care of business and probably couldn't dress or bath himself as well.
Gods, but he must have been drunk to have agreed to this.
Keef helped the clothes off the child, and using a small dipping cup, poured water over the boy's head. He reached for the soap then started and landed on his hip. Black rivulets ran down the boy's emasculated body. Keef took a deep breath and thought a moment before lathering. No, the child hadn't been castrated. This was a girl-child, fast becoming a blonde girl-child.
"Oh no," he muttered. "Not me. Where's your grandfather?"
Keef tried to remember the old man who'd given him the child and the gold now tied in three separate bags to his waist string hanging next to his skin.
That face. That kindly, benevolent, wise, trusting face. Keef had given his word. . .
King wanted his High Wizard's only surviving daughter protected.
Keef hurriedly finished bathing and dressing the child. He buckled his broadsword around his lean hips. Tea of a morning, beer of an evening and not much food in between. And Kalira had married that fat merchant. Six months before Keef had made Captain, doubling his salary. Four years ago. Keef spent his restday drunk and his workdays mercilessly grinding the troops under him into Crossroads' top Guardsmen.
He hoisted the girl onto his hip and hid her in the wrap of his cloak. He picked up his heavy wooden shield and headed for the barn. Officers got horses and Midnight was the best charger gold could buy. He stopped by the Seamstress' house for he had no proper clothes nor bedding for the girl; no provisions at all. No plan. No map of the northern mountains. Hell, he'd never been out of Crossroads but for one trip south. They'd make a clear target for sorcerous murderers on the Northern Road.
"What you be needing today Captain Keef?" Seamstress called from her door.
Keef dismounted, one hand cradling the girl. He strode to the door, forcing Seamstress back in.
"Traveling clothes for this mite." He swung the child out of his cloak. "Anything you've got ready. And food, provisions."
"Well, I ain't got much," she began.
"For good gold," Keef hissed, fishing around his trousers until he pulled out a goldpiece.
"What's come over you, Keef?" she stared at him.
"Clothes and any travel food you've got. Name your price."
"Well I . . . ten would buy my place and I wouldn't have to rent no more."
"Done. And not a word to anyone."
"'Done', he says," Seamstress said in astonishment. "C'mon chick." She led the girl into her fitting room.
Soon they crossed the river by the rarely-used gate where the city's open sewers drained. Midnight swam easily despite his burden and quickly reached the far bank. Keef pressed him into a trot heading north through the surrounding woods.

Lyara heard a warg's scream of rage ahead of her, then the bugling warcry of a stallion. She debated whether to investigate when she heard a child's shriek and a man's hoarse shout. She kneed Snowmane forward and knocked an arrow to her short bow.
In the blink of an eye she saw the stallion rear and brain one warg that was nearly shoulder to shoulder in height with it while the fierce man astride its back met a leaping warg with a one-armed upstroke of his broadsword that cut the creature into two writhing pieces that vanished with a puff of foul black smoke. Poof! Before his idiotic bravery stunned her further, Lyara loosed three arrows to three warg eyes and Poof! Poof! Poof! they were gone. Two remaining wargs slowly dissipated with growls of frustration.
She watched the man regard her. So hairy, dark, and fat. Why he'd make three of Stifin, the heartiest Warrior of the Forest. Blood ran freely down the man's side below his swordarm. Lyara started forward toward him.
"Back Hellspawn!" he yelled, raising his sword again. "I want none of yourn."
"You're hurt," Lyara couldn't help the indignation in her tone. "Your horse, too. I'm a Healer."
She saw a tiny head peep out from behind his shield. "Who's that?"
"You have her," Lyara sighed with relief. "Is she well?"
"Me and my horse will tend our own scratches. Begone with you, Hellspawn!" His eyes blazed with fear and anger. "The child is no business of yourn. Thank you for shooting the wargs and all like that. G'day to you." He kneed his horse forward.
"But--but--," Lyara stammered, helplessly watching him depart. Remembering Stifin's sneer, she kneed Snowmane to follow. "Wait sir!"
"Can't stop."
Lyara barely caught his words. He swayed in his saddle. His sword dropped with a clatter. "Got to get the child north." He clutched the child close and hunched over the pommel. Feeling the odd shift in weight, his stallion stopped, precipitating the man's slump into a fall. Lyara sprang to the ground but she wasn't fast enough to stay the mountain of flesh. Luckily he managed to land on his back, cushioning the girl.
"Are you all right?" Lyara asked while hefting the wood shield off the child and then off the man's arm.
"Dear Goddess, he's bleeding like a stuck pig," she swore and drew her dagger. She sliced away his shirt and forcefully probed the wound with her fingers. She pulled her consciousness in toward her center and sent it into the man's alien body. A warg had stuck him a goodly swipe, its claws slicing through muscle and organs, leaving filth in its wake. Lyara prayed the Goddess use her instrumentally and sank deep into the Healer's trance. She drew out poisons, patched organs, and bound muscles. The skin, easiest to mend, she left open to allow drainage. She returned to awareness of her hands resting on hard male muscle. This man wasn't fat at all.
"Is he dead?"
Lyara turned to see the child's serious gaze. "He'll be fine now. Let's look to his horse." She easily closed a flap open on the stallion's rump. She unloaded the horses and prepared a poultice in her pot on a small fire. She cut his shirt into strips to bind the poultice onto his wound. As she slipped the cloth under him she was struck again that he wasn't at all fat. Furry as a bear, her nose wrinkled with distaste, but solid muscle. How could they be so wide? Surely their feet must ache from bearing so much weight. Lyara sighed as she set grains to cook.

"Do you mean it? Can I really ride that horse?" Keef heard a child's voice. He took a deep breath and assessed his situation.
"Of course you can. The Queen of the Forest sent it specially for you. Her name is Winsome Dinsome for she is beautiful and when excited makes quite a noise."
Damn his body. Keef sat bolt upright at the sound of the Hellspawn's silvery voice. Surprisingly his side hardly hurt at all. He'd have sworn the warg tore him nearly in twain. Keef pulled at the bandage around his middle. Hellspawn's work that. He wanted it off.
"What's your name," the she-elf asked the little girl.
Keef grunted. "She hasn't spoken a word to me and I've had her five days gone now."
"My goodness, Bavani!" the she-elf exclaimed. "You must have been scared and shy wasn't it?"
The child nodded solemnly.
"Now you must thank the nice man. What's your name, good sir?"
Keef glowered at the she-elf. "No need of that," he said as he cut the bandages from him with one slice of his dagger. "I thank you for your help but we'll be on our way now. Don't let us slow you down."
"Captain Keef," the little girl supplied.
"You must thank the brave and courageous Captain Keef for rescuing you from Crossroads, for saving you from the wargs, and anything else he's saved you from."
Bavani did so, enumerating quite a list of brigands, natural disasters, and undescribable demons.
"Drilled her for everything while I was out, eh Hellspawn?"
The she-elf's face remained completely impassive. Such stark, cold beauty raised gooseflesh on Keef's arms.
"My name is Lyara. I know who she is. Avalanthalin contacted Ennyeva, our Elfin Queen, and requested she send you a guide. We know that you are headed for his keep on Mount Meru and that you haven't the slightest notion of how to get there."
Keef rose and drew his spare shirt from his bags then drew it over his head. He used the bandages to clean his sword now covered in clotted warg blood.
"I've made stew. I thought we might as well camp here and let you rest. It's almost eventime."
Keef picked up Midnight's saddle and tossed it over his back. "How long till your people get here?"
"There's no one but--"
Swiftly, Keef left the saddle to grab the she-elf roughly and hold his dagger against her gut. "My Grandfather was there, Hellspawn. He was a child, acting as my great-grandfather's squire. He was there. He saw what you demons did to Gateway."
"It was a mistake!" Her inhumanly silver eyes sparkled with sympathy. "Demons came to us in the guise of humans! We didn't know! We've made reparation. We've done and given everything asked of us. How long must we beg forgiveness?"
"Have you been there? Have you seen the graves at Gateway?"
"No. I haven't--"
"That's how long, Hellspawn. That's how long you treacherous beasts must beg forgiveness. As long as there are acres of graves at Gateway. As long as mankind remembers your betrayal."
He looked into her eyes now shining with tears. Such delicate childlike features on a full grown woman. No, a full-grown Hellspawn. Her eyes were even with his, yet the wrist bone he crushed with his grip felt like a tiny bird's.
"We're going north without your help. Don't follow us and don't get in my way. I'll kill any of your Warriors on sight."
Keef dropped her hand and turned to finish loading his horse, keeping an eye on the Hellspawn. The she-elf, Lyara, rubbed her wrist and looked at Bavani. She smiled and put a hand to the pocket in the middle of her tunic. Out came a mouse. "I want you to meet Mistress Mouse."
Bavani yelped in delight and took the rodent from her. Lyara reached into her pouch again and withdrew a stone. A glimmering, sparkling quartz. She held it up to catch the fading afternoon sun. It warmed and pulsed with life, with satisfaction. Keef felt himself drawn to the crystal. Time stopped. The old man was there before his eyes, murmuring something. Keef bent forward to hear.
"You will let the elf guide you. You will place all trust in the elf to guide you to Mount Meru."
"I tried," Keef's whisper was strangled with emotion. "I tried but there were too many enemies, too many delays."
"You have done well, extremely well, but you must trust the elf. Follow the elf. Listen to the elf. And soon, you and my granddaughter will be here with me and you'll receive any reward you desire."
Keef let the stone fall from his grasp. He woodenly unsaddled Midnight and rolled out blankets for himself and the girl. He sat by the tiny fire and numbly accepted a bowl from the Hellspawn.
"We'll make Wysteria Falls tomorrow. There we can buy a pack horse and more food."
Keef nodded without looking at the Hellspawn. Bavani looked happy enough playing with the rodent. He felt somehow cheated but if the she-elf could get them to the godforsaken mountain sooner, then Keef supposed he was all for that. He studied her. Stick figure. If she had curves, they were hidden by her tunic and cloak. Yet the features of her face, sharp though they were, undeniably radiated femininity. Knife-thin nose, beady eyes, tiny cupid's bow mouth; all unearthly pale. She looked like she wanted to say something more. Keef turned to his stew. Plain but hearty.
"I've always wanted to ask . . ."
"What's that?" Keef returned without looking up. He sensed Bavani's tension.
"We're always told that the Gateway War ended when the Elves realized they'd been fooled by base black sorcery--"
"Ha!" Keef interjected derisively.
"But I read--in my studies as a Healer I perused the Healer's diaries written at that time, and they spoke of great numbers of wounded and killed elves, and of a cease-fire and surrender, then the Talks wherein the Elf/Man Pact was agreed upon. It's all there very clear. But we are trained to leave the humans alone because we are so much superior to them, we run faster, see better, are much quicker with arrow, sword, and hand-to-hand. Plus we have the Healing and recuperative powers that humans do not. So . . . I've always wanted to ask, how it was that humans actually won the Gateway War?"
"Endurance," Keef answered simply. The she-elf looked at him expectantly so he continued despite his reluctance to converse with one of the Hellspawn. "Your kind are good in the short-term, campaigns lasting a week. Sure, if I stand a man against an elf in a footrace, the elf will win, even if it's an all day race. But load them up with gear and quickmarch them for a week and the elf will keel over. We've got reserves." He patted his broad shoulder. "Load a man up with a full kit and he'll march from the northern mountains to the southern ocean at any pace you set him, and be ready to start back. An elf can't do that. Same for our horses. My charger looks tired now but he'll be prancing by morning and that's after five days of carrying me, the girl, and our bedrolls, and fighting. Your horses are faster in a short race but your military maneuvers require too many pack animals. Your army moves too slow, in the long term.
"So after the slaughter of Gateway, you slogged it back home ready to collapse and sleep for a week. That's when we attacked. Elf wars are always short, unbelievably bloody affairs, decided by numbers and ferocity; while human wars drag on for months, even years, and are decided by the produce of the growing season or the transport of food more often than not.
"So they teach the elfkin they won the war, eh?"
"Well, they describe the prowess of our Warriors in glowing terms," the she-elf replied.
"Nobody wins in any war, Hellspawn."

"Oh Goddess, not again," Lyara begged silently. Keef led the way up the icy Mount Meru trail. Snow showed on the horse rumps in front of her. Keef on Midnight leading the pack horse, Bavani, then Lyara bringing up the rear. The trail itself was dangerous enough without snow sprites and ice demons.
Another attack by the snow sprites. They pelted the small band with white powder, stirring up a miniature blizzard. Snow melted on Lyara's hands and face. They'd been so cold for so many days now. Only her elffire burning on her small stock of wych-elm kept them alive through the nights. They had to be close by now. It had been weeks since their stop at Last Hope at the foot of the mountains.
She'd tried reasoning with the snow sprites. Explaining their destination and how displeased the Great Wizard Avalanthalin would be to find they'd been thus abused. But the sprites only laughed and threw more snow.
They'd been tormented with hallucinations of warm shelter and wind demons periodically nearly blew them off the mountain.
Lyara saw a shadow to her left come flying down from above. then she was knocked into the snow where she rolled twice before slowing enough to gain her feet.
"I'll kill her!"
Lyara gasped, "No!" and started forward but hands gripped her from behind and foul breath panted at her ear.
Likewise a dark shape held Bavani with a small blade at her throat. Keef had not been unseated. Rather, he'd managed to unsheathe his blade. But now, taking in the six men surrounding them and the knife at Bavani's throat, he resheathed it.
"We only want the horses!" the band's leader said near Keef. The others grunted agreement.
Keef dismounted. "Take the horses but let the women be."
"No!" Lyara cried impotently.
"If you harm them I'll kill every last one of you." Keef promised.
He watched motionless as their horses were led away. Finally Lyara and Bavani were released and their captors fled rapidly up the trail.
"Keef, that was everything," Lyara said. "Our food, our blankets. I can't start a fire without wych-elm. And I don't know how far we still have to go."
Keef said nothing. He merely picked up Bavani and settled her on his hip before swathing his cloak about her, then trudged on up the trail. Lyara sighed, realizing that if he'd tried anything they'd have killed Bavani and probably her, too, even if he could then kill all the six and regain the horses. She trudged along behind muttering, “Glamour on top of a geas.”
Hours later, just as the sun began setting, Keef called from his position several paces ahead. Lyara dragged her lethargic legs to see.
"It's an empty cave. We have shelter for the night."
Lyara stepped in. It didn't seem any warmer. In fact it felt colder even than the outside wind. She pulled off a glove and reached out to touch the smooth wall. Ice. "It's ice. We'll die if we sleep here. We've got to keep moving."
"I need a rest. A short break at least," Keef let his body slump to the floor. Bavani peeked out from his cloak. Lyara let herself sink down beside him. At least the wind wasn't slapping her face for the moment. She felt Mouse rustling around in her tunic and opened her cloak to see what she wanted.
"I've a bit of cheese and bread here if Mistress Lyara could wish it bigger."
Lyara nearly cried in exhaustion as she accepted the crumb of bread and the smidgen of cheese. "I can't. I just can't. Without wych-elm to warm me and our food gone, I just haven't the strength left for anything."
"Wait," the mouse said and dove back into the pocket. She resurfaced and held out a splinter. "Here's a bit of wych-elm for you, Mistress Lyara."
Lyara took it in the hand with the crumbs. She laid her head back against the icy wall and tried to call on some reserve of energy from somewhere.
Rustling cloth woke her from a light doze. It was full dark. "Keef?"
"Right here. I've a plan."
"You must take the girl and continue on. It is death to stay here. You'll make it. We can't be at all far. Then, perhaps, the Wizard might send a search party for me . . ."
Keef crouched down beside her. She felt his breath warm upon her face. "I'll not leave you behind. Not now. Listen." Lyara felt his hand groping until it found hers. His was hot like he'd been in front of a fire the last hour instead of in a subfreezing cave.
"Gods but you're cold as a fish! Listen. I have the strength you need. I know you can take it. Take it from me and use it to make the fire and the food from the crumbs the mouse saved. She told me you can do it."
"No!" Lyara felt the strength to protest that. She couldn't do that. Not now, not on a man with not one, but two glamours laid on his soul. "No. It is forbidden. I'm not trained in that. I'm a Healer, not a Mage."
"You wanted to be a Warrior, didn't you? So fight! Do you want me and the girl to freeze out there ten steps from the Wizard's castle? Use my strength. I give it freely. . . Hellspawn."
Lyara heard the smile in his voice. She'd never thought that name could sound so . . . endearing.
"Feel me!" he whispered, finding her other hand with his. "Feel my heat and strength. I can keep going for days, but the girl cannot."
Lyara reached within to her center and steeling herself for intimate contact of a radically alien sort, felt him. She felt the fierce rush of his hot, passionate blood, so different from the smooth flow of her own cool blood. His heartbeat resounded like a copper kettledrum while hers flitted lightly like a dancer's step. And because he was so honestly willing, to give his life's blood to his sworn enemy, it’s power flowed freely into her like water flows downhill. She quickly dammed the rush, pulling her hands away to sit up.
"Please Lyara, do it." Now his face was level with hers, his lips nearly brushing hers.
"I did," she said and then laughed. "But you've so much to spare, you didn't even notice."
He sat back as Lyara called warmth to surround them but kept it from melting the ice floor. "Now where is that wych-elm?"
"Here Mistress," Mouse called from her pocket. Lyara took the splinter and breathed on it, the crumb, and the smidgen of cheese chanting, "Grow, grow, grow."
With a snap she held a loaf of bread, a round of cheese, and a bundle of wood on her lap. She quickly lit the first piece of wych-elm with elffire and laid it down. Keef took the bread and cheese and woke Bavani to eat. Lyara fed the fire as Keef cut their meal and passed it between them. Soon everyone had their fill and were drowsing, contentedly warm.
Lyara's eyes met Keef's. "Thank you, human," she whispered.
His eyes came alive and sparkled with devilish merriment. "Anytime, Hellspawn."

"There it is," Lyara announced gesturing at the golden glow ahead rising from the white horizon.
Keef looked back to her and felt himself smiling triumphantly. When she smiled in return, she didn't look so distant and cold. Then he realized he'd never seen her smile at him. She was always smiling at the child or the horse or that rodent. But this smile was only for him. Bavani stirred on his hip. He opened his cloak to let her see the approaching golden glow.
By late afternoon they'd struggled up the last slope and passed down into a little valley where spring held eternal. They passed farms and gardens and pastures until finally, they came to the front gate of Avalanthalin's Hold. Two greyish stone towers spoked skyward from the top of a palatial stone building and were joined to each other by three arching bridges. Keef saw a sprightly elder striding briskly toward them. He stopped still and let Bavani slide from his grasp. She turned to look questioningly at Lyara who was gazing at Keef with some concern.
"Ah, safe at last. We're so relieved by your arrival. I'm Avalanthalin. Welcome. Welcome." He spoke easily but Keef was immobilized by that voice. The man reached their party and without slowing stretched out his right hand to touch Keef's temple. He whispered some phrase that sent Keef staggering. Keef found Lyara under his arm supporting him.
"It is over. You have done well," the wizard said, nodding. "Come in. First you must eat and rest, then you can tell us of your travels."
"First I must return for our horses that were stolen on the pass," Keef answered.
"Oh dear, did you have a rough time then?"
Keef blinked then looked at Lyara. They both laughed. Keef swept Bavani up. "You could say that, yes."
The wizard seemed quite distressed. "At least rest the night. Then you are of course free to do as you please, although I think it would be of benefit to little Bavani here if you and Lyara could stay for some time, until she adjusts to her new surroundings."
"That sounds fine. The King of Crossroads has done without me this long. I can't get in worse trouble."
"Oh no, you're not in any trouble," the wizard looked scandalized. "King Dishtra has been informed all along of your mission and you have his complete support. Whenever you do return to Crossroads you'll be greatly rewarded."
Keef was surprised and made happy by this pronouncement. He felt eyes on him and turned to face Lyara's sober visage. "And what of you, Hellspawn?" he asked brazenly.
Avalanthalin seemed to have trouble breathing.
Lyara's face broke into an almost human smile. "Whither thou will, Dungheap."


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