Finn watched the surging wave of bodies rush out the doors on the other side of the hall, tired children mumbling and whining as their parents pushed them out into the chilly night. What would happen to them when it was time to head back into that night? Logren and Hodon had already made it relatively clear that he and his brother were only allowed what little comfort they’d been offered because of Lorelei, but she couldn’t protect them forever. Besides, he wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about being under the protection of his mate. Where he’d come from men and women were equals, especially if they were mated, but he couldn’t help feeling like he had to protect his princess.
He didn’t trust Logren even half as far as he could throw him, and for a moment he felt conflicted about that. As much as he hated to admit it, Logren and his party had saved their backsides in the Edgelands, and they’d led them to a safe haven in Rimian. Had they never happened upon the half-breeds, they would probably be struggling their way across the mountain, assuming they’d actually survived their own execution.
The woman, Viina, approached and stood with her arms crossed as Logren scooped their son carefully from the cradle of Lorelei’s arms. There was a hint of sorrow in Lorelei’s expression as he lifted the boy away, and then it disappeared when Viina said, “I hope he didn’t make you too crazy.”
“Of course not,” Lorelei shook her head, a quick smile drawing at her lips. “It was a joy getting to know my nephew. Considering I never even knew I had one.” She turned a slightly bitter look in Logren’s direction and then returned her eyes to Viina.
“He was so very excited to finally meet you,” the other woman told her. “As were we all. It seems a lifetime we have waited for you to come.”
“I only wish I’d known better what to expect.” That time when she spoke, she purposely avoided Logren’s stare, and Viina held her arms out to take their son.
“I have prepared the guest room in our home for you and your mate.” Viina’s words clenched the muscles in Finn’s stomach, and he quickly looked away. “You are all welcome to stay with us as long as you are here.”
Lorelei didn’t even acknowledge what she’d said. She only nodded and said thank you before the other woman nestled her little boy’s head against her shoulder and leaned in to say goodnight to her husband. Finn watched Logren lean in to kiss her cheek before whispering in her ear. Whatever he’d said made her snicker and playfully nudge her shoulder into his before she turned away and sauntered casually toward the doors to go home.
When the last few bodies lingering at the exit filtered through the doors, Bren closed them against the cold night and headed back toward the head table. The old storyteller sat down at the end of the table with an exhausted sigh. Every one of her bones seemed to creak like the floorboards of an old house, and when she lifted her gnarled fingers into the wispy white locks of her hair, she confessed, “I am getting too old to tell such long winded tails to sleeping children.”
“It’s not just the children you tell those stories to, and you know it,” Hodon chuckled. “We all need a little reminder now and again. We spent centuries listening to the U’lfer, believing we were no better than the mud caked on the bottoms of their wretched boots, but we are so much more than that.”
“That story you told,” Vilnjar leaned forward in his chair, his folded hands gliding across the table with the movement of his body, “I have never heard it before. Where did you learn it?”
The old woman turned to look at Lorelei, her intense, white blue stare making the girl shy back as if she’d been slapped. The back of her shoulder bumped into Finn’s arm, and he brought his hand up to rest on her opposite shoulder to reassure her that he was there. His touch seemed to startle her, her gaze shooting left to look at the hand touching her. Her heart sped up several paces, he could feel it pulsing, but as soon as she realized it was only him she relaxed a little.
“When I was a young acolyte on the Isle of Dorayne the Light of Madra came to me in a fever dream. She rode through a veil of stars on the back of the Great Stag, Llorveth, to meet me. She held her hand out and I took it. Together we walked through the sky until we came to the river of Madra’s tears where we sat together for a lifetime beside the water.”
“The Light of Madra,” Lorelei repeated softly just before Finn heard her swallow, a hard gulp in her throat as the muscles in her body tensed. “Why is it you call me that?”
“Because you were chosen by them, a daughter of their union. Compassionate as Madra and as willing to sacrifice yourself as Llorveth, you are the embodiment of their greatest qualities. The light of Madra’s love flows deepest in your heart, and only you have the power to save all of Llorveth’s children from the dark passages of a history unwritten that will drive our kind to extinction like the Dvergr, the Aqatiiri, the Drakiir…”
She shook her head slowly, the waves of her bright auburn hair catching the light from the blazing oil lanterns dangling from every post in the hall. There were much more important things going on, but for that brief moment the only thing he could think about was her hair. Like fire, he thought, his twitching fingers longing to reach out and see if it burned him. Even when the seer began to speak again, he could barely attune himself to her words.
“While we sat together you told me everything. The story of Llorveth and Madra, the other children like me born of their love for one another and the place in the south where those children should hide until you came to us. You appeared to each and every man and woman in this city at one time or another and guided them to this place. You reached across time and saved many of their lives because our people have been chosen.”
He looked toward Logren, remembering the story he’d told around the fire and wondering how such a thing could be true.
“You even told me the manner in which you would arrive here, the exact date you would come, how old you would be. With two black wolves and a host of a soldiers led by her own half-brother, Logren Bone-Breaker and an elven mage named Brendolowyn Raven-Storm. And here we all sit, together now in the hall of Dunvarak where I am to tell you the road you must walk in order to lift our people from the shadows to glory.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She was so much older than you are now, Lorelei. So much stronger. She had seen so many things. Love and war, birth and death, ”
“I left Dorayne after that dream and traveled southeast by boat with a band of Kivtaryn pirates to find Dunvarak and make it my home.”
The sound of Vilnjar’s scoff echoed through the silent hall, rising above the crackling fire until the seer turned to look at him.
“You do not believe, Vilnjar, son of Deken and Eornlaith, but you will see.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Finn had never heard such disrespect in his brother’s tone. Viln, who put honor and duty above all things, would never be so flippant with a seer, even if he did take little stock in their visions. “Everything Rhiorna told us was true, Viln,” he said over his shoulder. “And you saw with your own eyes what happened in the council chamber. There was a god’s light inside her.”
“I saw a clever trick, and so did you. You simply choose to believe it meant something more.”
“Oh, come on, Viln. There’s a big difference between clever sorcery and divine presence. We’ve both seen enough sorcery to be able to discern between the two. Whatever happened to Lorelei in Drekne was not sorcery, and you know it.”
He scoffed again, the irritated sound scraping through his throat as he sat back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “You may know that, brother, but I’m not so certain.”
“You do not need to be certain in order for the Light of Madra to complete her task,” Yovenna told him before returning her attention to Lorelei. “You told me that it was from this place you were meant to embark on the greatest journey you will ever take. You, your mate and the Alvari mage.”
Again she seemed to ignore the implication of their connection to one another. Shaking her head, she said stiffly, “I think I’ve journeyed far enough.”
Glancing toward the mage, Bren seemed almost smug after hearing his name spoken. Finn smirked and rolled his eyes, catching a swift elbow to the ribs from Vilnjar. He drew back and scowled at his brother, the wolf beneath his skin just itching for an excuse to tear into him. Viln sensed this, but didn’t back down, tilting his head in that condescending, scolding fashion that never failed to make Finn revel in his own guilt.
The old woman laughed, a long, dry sound that soon mingled with short coughs like bones rattling in her throat. “Your journey has barely begun, child.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound very encouraging,” she started to relax in her chair again, but he could still feel the tension of her muscles, the stiffness contracting his own until he felt completely on edge.
“When you came, I was to tell you everything you’d told me and prepare you for the road ahead. That is my great gift from this life, and I have waited many years to claim it.”
“What if I choose not to walk that road?”
“You will make the right choice, Lorelei,” Yovenna assured her. “I have seen it, and what has already been written cannot be changed.”
“I don’t think that’s true.” She shifted uncomfortably, her nostrils flaring a little as she drew in a discouraged breath and looked down at her hands in her lap. “I just want to go home.”
“Wherever you go from this day forward, you are already home.” The seer turned her gaze on Finn, the power of her stare calming the instant flare of nervous tension rising in his chest. “Home is not a place, but a state of mind my child. Your home will always be with you.”
Frustrated with that response, Lorelei pushed her chair away from the table, the feet scraping across the wooden floor beneath it. “I am so weary of riddles.” Rising, she looked particularly at her brother, her amber eyes narrowing into two angry slits. “Every single one of you talks in riddles, like I’m supposed to just know what it all means. All the way here, Logren told me everything would be clear in time. That you could tell me all I needed to know, but nothing you or the seer in Drekne has said makes even the slightest bit of sense whatsoever. How could I come to you in a dream decades before I was even born to tell you when I would come to this place on this day so you could tell me what I’m supposed to do? Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?”
“Yes,” Yovenna nodded. “Though ridiculous as it all seems, it is truth. You were born, just as Llorveth promised, just as you promised me in that dream. Here you are now. Your brother has led you to this place. Your wolves have come with you.”
“Why wouldn’t I just appear to myself in a dream if I wanted to tell myself something?”
“How sure are you that you haven’t appeared to yourself in dreams?”
When the old woman asked that question Lorelei was so stunned she dropped back into her seat again and just stared off to her left, as if she were expecting something magical to appear there and give her all the answers she so desperately wanted. Finn could feel just how desperate she was, her frustration coursing through him until he felt his own hands clench atop his thighs beneath the table.
“If you search inside yourself, you will know that what I speak is true, Lorelei. Just as you know the truth about who you are. Daughter of Ragnar and Ygritte, a child of Llorveth and Madra’s love with the power to drive back the darkness in this world and bring our people to glory.”
“And how am I supposed to do that? I don’t suppose unborn me told you that, did I?”
“Only that you are meant to embark from this place on a perilous journey to retrieve the sacred horns of Llorveth from the sacred grove where Foreln cut them off before driving his blade through his own brother’s heart. With those horns, our people will possess the power to embrace the wolves that sleep beneath our skin so that we might rise and hold a hand out to our brother U’lfer and reclaim everything we have lost to mankind.”
Lorelei sighed, a deflating breath that brought her shoulders to a sag as she hunched forward in the chair and dropped her head. “Aren’t all those stories just symbolic? I mean, even if all you say happened between Llorveth and Foreln, why would Llorveth’s horns be here in our world?”
“Because they were hidden in our world until the chosen one arrived to claim them.”
Finn swore she muttered under her breath that she didn’t want to claim anything, and then she lifted her head again. For a moment the weariness and doubt was gone from her face, and in its place a newfound sense of purpose. Odd that employed that purpose to put an end to their day, but he was grateful nonetheless when she said, “I’m too tired to even process any of this.”
“Of course you are, my dear child. Forgive me. Tonight is not the night for telling you everything that waits. You’ve traveled long and far and you are weary. I have waited so long for this time, for this moment of mine, that I have forgotten my manners.” Yovenna pushed herself slowly from her chair, her bones cracking again like dried corn over a fire as she groaned the details of her age. “In all my excitement, I think a part of me feared I would not get to live out the final moments of my task, but there will be plenty of time on the morrow to give you the finer details of the task that awaits you.”
Lorelei didn’t seem so sure of anything Yovenna had said when they finally left the hall. Parting ways with Brendolowyn and Hodon, the three of them followed Logren through the peaceful, empty streets of Dunvarak until they arrived outside a quiet house with a single candle burning in the window. He unlocked the door and ushered them inside, then offered them a mug of ale, which Lorelei turned down.
“I am very tired, brother. I only wish to sleep the tangle of this day away so I can look at it all again with a fresh perspective in the morning.”
“Of course,” Logren nodded, glancing toward the hallway. “But be forewarned, mornings come quick in this house. Roggi is generally up before the sun, and when Roggi is up, everyone else is up too. The boy is a terror.”
“An adorable terror,” she laughed softly, and then followed his gaze toward the hallway. “Logren, why didn’t you tell me about them? Your wife, your son?”
“There are a lot of things I haven’t told you, Lorelei.”
“You and everyone else,” she muttered, turning a quick glance in Finn’s direction before Logren spoke again.
“I don’t know, I guess there was a part of me that just didn’t know what to say. There was so much I wanted to tell you the very moment I first saw you, but in the grand scheme of things none of it felt even half as important as getting you here safely.”
That answer didn’t satisfy her, but the level of his obvious discomfort kept her from pushing the issue. “Well, I hope that in time you can tell me these things. It seems unfair coming to a place where everyone knows all there is to know about me, but is completely unwilling to share any part of themselves in return.”
Reaching up to stroke his finger through the long, red mustaches trailing into his beard, Logren’s face twisted with unspoken conflict. “You are right, sister. It was unfair of me, and tomorrow after you sit down with the seer, we will have plenty of time for me to tell you everything you want to know. Come, let me show you to your room.”
Finn hesitated at the end of the hallway when Lorelei followed Logren into the shadows, the light of the candle he held illuminating the darkness as he led her into a bedroom at the end of the hallway. She stopped outside the doorway and looked down the hall for Finn, gesturing with a tilt of her head for him to follow. Vilnjar nudged him after her, and he nearly tripped over his feet, not sure why he was feeling so nervous.
They had slept curled up together for the last few nights, but sleeping beneath a roof together in the same bed would be strange. Even if they were supposed to be mated.
“Sleep well, sister.” Logren nodded once in Finn’s direction, a lingering look that seemed to speak volumes on the kinds of things he would do to Finn if he ever hurt the sister he barely knew, but it made his stomach tighten nonetheless. He glanced past him, toward Vilnjar standing in the hallway and wondered if he would shove him into the room with them as well to make sure they didn’t cross any lines.
As if he ever would…
Though when he pulled the door closed behind them, leaving them truly alone together for the first time since they’d been by the stream his heart skipped a beat. He listened to the sound of their receding footsteps in the hall before attuning his senses to Lorelei’s unsteady breathing.
“Well… this is… awkward,” she laughed nervously, but kept her voice soft to keep from waking the little boy sleeping somewhere in the house.
Finn snorted a low chuckle and turned around to face her, though he avoided her eyes. “A little bit.”
“I mean, I’ve gotten so used to… I don’t know, you always being there that now someone’s put us alone together in the same room and closed the door I feel like…” Her voice trailed into silence, the tension in the room growing exponentially as she exhaled a hitched breath.
“Like what, Princess?”
He didn’t realize his own hands were trembling until he reached out to grip her chin so he could lift her face to look at him. She didn’t fight the glide of his hand, but refused to meet eyes with him, her beautiful amber orbs flitting around the room and catching the light of the single lantern on the table. She was shaking too, as if there were some expectation she faced that she simply wasn’t ready for.
“I don’t know,” she shook her head again, gently jerking her chin from his grip. “There’s so much I just don’t understand.” She paused there for a moment, finally lifting her gaze to meet with his. “About all of this. My life, my path, about you and me. Since the day I woke up in Drekne on the healer’s table and first looked into your eyes, I felt like you were hiding something from me. I think I finally know what it is, but I don’t understand why you would keep it from me.”
“It’s not exactly the kind of thing you just say to a total stranger,” he muttered, his arm dropping at his side as she slipped her face from his grip. “And it’s complicated. It’s not as cut and dry as you think.”
“Maybe not, but I felt it when I woke, no I felt it before that when I was running for my life. A great shift. I thought it was just everything else going on, but I realize now it was you all along. I could feel your heart beating, your energy merging with mine. All that talk about mates by the stream, and I heard you and Viln when we were in that cave. I didn’t want to believe it, but it’s true, isn’t it? We are mated.”
“It’s only true so long as you choose it for yourself, Princess. My heart,” he began, the words lingering painfully at the back of his throat. He hadn’t wanted her to find out the way she did, from someone else, but for her to grow into it over time and fall in love with him. It was far too much to ask, and he knew it, but the romantic he liked to keep hidden beneath his tough facade really wanted that kind of love with her. The gradual kind that built up so strong it was impossible to resist and even more impossible to ever turn away from.
“My soul, it is yours and yours alone. I could not turn my back on you even if I wanted to, but you…” He paused, shaking his head as the possibility of her not choosing him sunk in. There was a brief flashing image, a reminder of the way the mage seemed to look at her, the way he lingered near her every chance he got, and Finn’s jealousy flared to the surface. He felt his fist clench at his side then, causing her to tense silently when she picked up on his anger surge. “You are not full-blooded U’lfer like me, so you’re not bound to our bond. You have the spirit of Madra in you, and you are free to mate with whomever you wish.”
“It still sounds so barbaric when you put it that way,” she scoffed a little, the nervousness of her energy quickening in his gut. “Mating. It sounds more like something two people do, rather than what they are to one another.”
“Mating means so much more than that to us, Lorelei.” He wanted to reach out to her again, to quell the nervous flutter tickling deep in her gut with a touch of his hand, but he was so afraid she’d push him away he kept his hand down at his side. “Two people can be mated and know that bond without ever even touching each other, though I’ve heard that once it’s recognized it’s almost impossible for them to keep their hands off one another.” He chuckled again, more nervous to be having that conversation with her than he ever expected to be. “And you have to know I would never… I wouldn’t push you into anything like that. For now I’m just content to be near you, to be your friend and follow you on this journey the gods have destined you for.”
That confession seemed to both surprise and relieve her. “That is why you let them exile you from the Edgelands without a fight,” she finally looked up at him, “isn’t it?”
“I was looking to be exiled anyway, I figured why not jump on the chance for great adventure with the woman my heart belongs to. It seems my soul picked the right mate. You’ve got nothing but adventure waiting for you.”
She sighed and drew back from where they stood, turning toward the small bed in the corner of the room. “I always thought I wanted adventure when I was a girl. I just never imagined it would be like this.”
“It’s never like we imagine it, Princess.” He stepped forward and put a hand of comfort on her shoulder. For a long time they stood that way, neither of them speaking but both of them playing over the words he’d just spoken. Finally Finn surveyed the room, his gaze lingering over the bed. A real bed had never looked more comfortable to him in his life, but he’d be a fool if he really thought she’d welcome him into it with her. “It’s been a long few days and it doesn’t seem like it’s about to get any easier. You should get some rest,” he suggested. “You take the bed. I’ll make myself comfortable in that chair over there.” He looked toward the high-backed wooden chair, every muscle in his already achy body cringing at the prospect of a night propped against the wall.
“Are you sure?” There was hesitation in her voice, her stare lingering on the mattress before she started toward it.
“I’d barely even fit in that bed, and besides it wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of me to take a bed from a princess, now would it. Anyway, I’m getting so used to sleeping sitting up, I would probably keep you awake all night tossing and turning.”
When she glanced back over her shoulder at him, he could see she wasn’t convinced by his story, but she sat down on the edge of bed and let her shoulders sag beneath the weight of the world she was carrying.
He picked up the chair and carried it over beside the bed and sat down, the floor boards creaking beneath his heavy weight as he settled in. Every muscle in his back ached in protest, longing for the comfort of a soft mattress to rest on, but he would suffer before he’d ever tell her as much.
For a long time she just sat there, her face long in thought, her lower lip disappearing between her teeth as she nibbled away pieces of dry skin. Finn leaned back, stretching his long legs out into the room before crossing his arms over his chest and tilting his head back to rest on the wall behind him. The house and the night were so quiet he could hear the quiet mutter of his brother’s voice somewhere beyond the walls and wondered if Viln and his long lost friend were sharing another bottle of wine and old memories.
“You should sleep, Lorelei,” he turned his head to look over at her again, the gruff sound of his voice startling her from her reverie. “Tomorrow seems as if it’s going to be another long day.”
“I know I should sleep,” she confessed, stretching her arms out behind her and reclining onto her elbows. “I’m so tired, but my mind… It just keeps turning over thought after thought after thought. There are so many thoughts in there, I don’t know what to do with them all.”
“Do you want to talk about them?”
She seemed to consider his offer for a moment, her head tilting thoughtfully and her hair drifting across the quilt behind her, and then she exhaled a long, breathy sigh before dropping back into the straw-stuffed mattress to stare at the shadows on the ceiling. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going through her mind, though he could sense the fluctuation of her mood and her emotions inside himself. Her energy felt like a whirlpool, anxiety and fear mingling with grief and confusion until it threatened to pull her into complete despair.
He didn’t know what to say, but he wanted to say something, to reassure her that it would all be okay, but he couldn’t make a promise like that without the proof to back it up.
Instead they sat in silence, listening to the unfamiliar noises of Logren’s house until she finally drew her legs up into the bed and laid on her side facing him. He didn’t have to look down at her to know she was staring at him, didn’t have to be a mind reader to know what she was thinking about. She’d said almost nothing about them being mated. About how she felt about his soul being bonded permanently to hers. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected from her when she found out, but it wasn’t silence.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for this,” she yawned when she spoke, distorting the words into a near unintelligible jumble of sounds that took him a second to piece together coherently.
“No one is going to push you into anything, Princess,” he muttered, tilting his head back to rest against the wall. “I won’t let them.”
It occurred to him after she grew silent that perhaps she was talking about him, that she wasn’t ready for him, but he wouldn’t push her into that either. He’d just stand with her, be there for her when she needed a friend, and when the time… no, if the time came, he would embrace her as his mate.
He was going to have to get used to that if because no matter how much he wanted her to be his, there were no guarantees.
He looked over at her, watched her eyes grow heavier with every blink. He listened as her breath slowed and matched the rhythm of his own exhales to hers. It wasn’t long before she drifted into a fitful state of sleep. She didn’t relax and neither did he, and for a long time he sat in that uncomfortable chair just watching her sleep, listening to her breath and wondering where they were supposed to go from there.