Finn’s hand offered a gentle nudge, and she stumbled forward, shooting a quick look over her shoulder at him only to find him grinning encouragement and the promise that he would still be there for her to cling to when she needed him. Lorelei took a step toward the boy as Logren rose, hoisting him against his hip.
“Hello,” she swallowed hard against the ache and tickle lodged at the back of her throat. “My name is Lorelei.”
“Are you my auntie?” he tilted his head and rested his temple against his father’s shoulder, those large, brown eyes blinking at her and practically breaking her heart into a million pieces.
“I…” she didn’t know what to say. “I suppose I am.”
Leaning up to whisper in his father’s ear, she heard him say, “She doesn’t look like a light, Papa.”
Logren laughed and shifted his body higher. “The light lives inside her, my boy.” Returning his attention to the task at hand, “Come, let us make way to the hall so we can warm the chill and rest the weariness from our bones. I hear there is to be a feast.”
“A big feast for the Light of Madra!” Roggi cheered, his excitement ringing laughter from the throng of people who’d come out to meet them at the gate.
She was grateful when Finn moved in behind her again, returning his hand to the curve of her hip and guiding her after Logren. Her legs trembled so much every step was a challenge, but she met that challenge by promising herself that soon she would be resting and that rest would give her the strength of mind to sort through the overwhelming reality of the world around her.
Hodon led the way, drawing their entire party through the gates and along the glorious main street of the city of Dunvarak. Swaying lampposts filled glowing golden balls of magical energy lined the cobbled street, shedding light on the colorful homes and buildings leading toward the grand hall at the end of the path. Within the walls, all traces of the cold, wintry weather disappeared, allowing for patches of blue-green grasses and rich gardens filled with colorful herbs and flowers, fruits and vegetables in front of nearly every building.
“Magic has made all of this possible,” Hodon explained with pride, as if the wonder in her expression demanded an explanation.
She’d grown up in a glorious city, Rivenn being considered well beyond advanced when compared to the four surrounding cities Aelfric and his father had raised during their reign. Where, Krepl, Hedrl, Bokolnel and Fenkolven were strong, hard military cities meant to defend Rivenn upon attack, Rivenn itself still held the delicate air of grace and beauty of the Alvarii who built it centuries before while the world was still new. Traces of that elven beauty and grace lingered in the architecture of Aelfric’s palace and the great gardens of Rivenn, but over the years the king worked diligently to wipe every last trace of Alvarii strength from his city. Entire buildings had been torn down, a power play meant to remind the thousands of Alvarii slaves that had been captured when Leithe was taken that they would never rise to power again. Only one elven building, aside from the palace, remained in Rivenn. The most glorious structure of them all, the Mage’s Lyceum stood dormant and empty like a dark shadow looming over the city because one of the priests told Aelfric a great curse would come down upon him if he ever tore it down. More times than she could count, she’d heard Aelfric grumble that magic and sorcery was the dark and treacherous curse of lesser races who couldn’t defend themselves by force. He let the Lyceum stand, but its doors remained barred to the public and all the Alvarii slaves in the city were fitted with collars of red moonstone, the only jewel in all of Foreln known to stifle the natural ability to wield magic.
Maybe that was why she was so fascinated with Bren, she thought. Pahjah had told her many stories about the elves and the power they once possessed, but Brendolowyn was the only elf she’d ever seen without one of those awful collars around his neck. He was the only one she’d ever met who could actually use the abilities he’d been born with, but then he wasn’t a full-blooded elf, was he? Turning her gaze back over her shoulder, she found him quickly. He stood several inches above everyone else and immediately met her stare with those intense, lavender eyes. She shivered uncomfortably; he’d been watching her, almost as if he’d been waiting for her to turn around and seek him out.
Finn nudged her forward again as they were approaching the doors to the main hall, but even when they entered the vast, warm open hall she could still feel Bren’s eyes on her.
The main hall contained five long tables stretching the length of the room, all of them already covered in heaping plates of food. Roasted meat and steaming plates of vegetables, warm, fresh bread and sweet treats that made her mouth water and her stomach grumble in reminder of just how much of her energy she’d expended during the last two days of travel.
As everyone began to file in behind her, settling into the benches nestled against those five tables, Logren and Hodon led her toward a sixth table positioned across the ends of the others. The wall behind that table was painted with the wolf and moon sigil she’d seen on all the banners outside, the massive fire in the hearth beneath it making the wolf look like it was glowing. Logren sat her just beneath the wolf, in the very center of everything and Finn quickly crowded onto the bench at her right before anyone else had the chance.
Logren’s little boy insisted he sit next to her as well, and when Hodon called for everyone to fill their bellies it was all she could do to force herself to eat even though she felt like she was starving inside. The hall quickly filled with hundreds of chattering voices, and a quartet of musicians filled that vast space with song, but even as she tried to focus on the food in front of her there was just too much going on. Finn seemed to have lost all his self-control, filling and refilling his plate twice before she’d even choked down more than a few bites of bread.
Roggi asked her dozens upon dozens of questions about everything from the ring on her finger to the sword in her belt, and even when Viina leaned across her husband to scold him and apologize for the child’s never ending curiosity, Roggi talked over her, asking his auntie if she had ever seen a real Drakkir or if she thought there were Dvergen sleeping under the mountains like his papa said.
Between him and Finn she actually felt a little comfortable for the time being, but a part of her really was beginning to fret over just how comfortable she felt with Finn. Glancing over at him, he caught her stare and sheepishly grinned at her before reaching out to tear another hunk from the loaf of bread in front of him. He ripped into it with his teeth, crumbs tumbling down the front of his too-tight tunic and disappearing into his lap. She hadn’t noticed until then just how absurd he looked in those borrowed clothes, the scruff of facial hair patched across his chin and cheeks in desperate need of grooming. He was so barbaric at times, so unrefined that it should have turned her off completely, but instead she found it adorable to the point of endearing.
Just when she’d started to realize she stared a little too long, Roggi tugged at her sleeve to draw her away and she was actually a little grateful for the unending stream of questions that poured forth for a while. She still hadn’t eaten much, her stomach was a twisted, empty void of nerves and tension. When Roggi started asking questions she had no answer for, she found herself pushing her plate away and leaning back to allow Finn to reach over her and take bites of her food that shouldn’t go to waste.
“Auntie, is you true that saved my Papa when he was a little boy.”
She had never done the things Logren confessed to her, had never saved anyone. She had barely even managed to save herself the night she ran from Trystay; in truth it had been Finn who saved her. Maybe it was him they should be looking to for answers, she thought. Glancing over at him again, she watched him suck the grease noisily from his fingers before he dropped a pile of clean pheasant bones onto his plate.
“Roggi,” Logren scolded. He leaned over to gather the boy and hoisted him into his lap even as he squirmed. “I think you’ve asked enough questions for one night.”
Viina leaned into her husband’s shoulder, a lazy hand lifting to tuck a curl of her son’s hair behind his ear. “Maybe I should take him home and put him to bed.”
“But Mama, I’m not tired,” he stifled a yawn and swatted her gentle hand away from his face, evoking a hard, serious look from his mother.
“Those are words you say even in your sleep, little one,” she chuckled. “Come on, into your mother’s arms so she can carry you home to your bed.”
He writhed away from her, crawling across Logren’s lap and into Lorelei’s to escape his mother’s reach. He settled with a hard drop that nearly knocked the wind out of her. “I want Auntie to take me home.”
“Your auntie doesn’t even know where you live.” His father reached for him, but he scrambled away with a piercing whine of protest that made Lorelei’s ears ring. Logren tilted his head apologetically, and pushed away from the table to stand and grab for him.
“It’s all right.” She shook her head and brought her arms up around him to cradle him close. His little body was so warm and soft, and when he snuggled in against her as if he’d known her his entire life she felt her throat tighten with emotion. She caught Bren’s eye when he leaned out to see what the all the fuss was about. He smiled at her and wiggled his fingers at the boy, his stare lingering with a strange sense of peaceful longing. “He can sit here with me until he falls asleep.”
“At that rate you’ll be holding him in your lap for three days straight,” Viina said, moving into Lorelei’s line of vision and blocking Bren from view. “I swear that boy has more energy than an entire pack of wild dogs on the hunt.” Redirecting her attention to her son, she pinned him with a very serious look. “You sit still, do you hear me?”
He didn’t sit still though, but Lorelei didn’t mind. She shifted to accommodate him every time he moved until Hodon finally rose from his chair and banged his cup on the tabletop calling, “Could I have everyone’s attention?”
Roggi stretched and pushed himself upright as he leaned forward for a better look, his little boots digging painfully into the tops of her thighs.
Within in a matter of seconds everyone in the hall grew silent. Even the children seemed to stop squirming as all eyes turned toward the main table in anticipation.
“Thank you,” he conceded, clearing his throat. “We don’t generally gather this late in the day because a lot of our families have small blessings who enjoy sharing in our celebrations just as much as the rest of us. However, this night is a special night. A night many of us have waited nearly a lifetime to see. Those small blessings among us have literally waited their entire lives to finally witness the coming of her light, so let us take a moment to welcome and rejoice in her presence among us.”
Every body in the hall turned toward her, their cups raised in her honor and for a moment Lorelei felt like she might be sick with nervous tension.
“All hail, the coming of the light.” Yovenna lifted her cup beside Hodon’s and everyone in the hall chimed in unison, “All hail.”
She couldn’t even make eye contact with any of them, but when she caught the shadow of Finn’s movement beside her she turned her eyes to him. He held his cup out to honor her, and her eyes stung with unshed tears. She didn’t understand how such a thing could even be happening, not to her. All those people looking to her for guidance, answers, hope. What if she let them all down?
“And now,” Yovenna spoke after lowering her cup to the table and scanning her old, serious eyes throughout the room, “a story for the children, so they might never forget where our people came from.”