Popular songs and tales uphold romantic, heartfelt, blind love as the only worthwhile kind. All others are supposed to be inferior. Yet is it not true that it is the supposedly inferior loves that keep the world working? Consider the love between husband and wife, after the initial flush of romance is worn off, or the love between friends, whether it has a sexual component or not, or the love felt by parents towards their children.
It is our affection for our friends that colours our everyday lives, not the grand passion that perhaps comes but once in the lives of most mortals. Friendship has truly been called by the wise ‘the greatest benison’. When a man who has been alone finds someone whose soul talks to him, the resulting friendship may be much deeper and stronger than ordinary friendly companionship, in the same way that a lyubon bond is closer and more intense than the tie with a casual lust-partner. Such was the case with the Emperor.
Forath ys Jarain – History of the Emperor Vordath I
Fluin had immediately noticed Steppan when he first came into the public room. He had an air of power and mystery. He was different and interesting. His good manners and sophistication barely concealed a tough, feral strength. Perfectly polite, he nevertheless managed to be daunting and thrilling, in a way the village toughs weren’t.
All evening, as he worked, Fluin kept on stealing surreptitious glances at him, trying to place him. He didn’t seem like a trader – more like a warrior. Yet why would a warrior be travelling alone, so far from the capital? And he was clearly a rich man, the sort of rich that in a merchant would have led to flamboyant finery, gleaming silks, ostentatious gold and jewels. Yet his clothes were plain. And though there was a hardness about his eyes, he’d also looked at Fluin as if he noticed him, and his face had softened a little, even though he’d said nothing. He appeared to be in his late twenties, yet he had the cynical air and world-weariness of an older man. He had an aura of power, the look of a man who is used to giving orders and having them immediately obeyed.
The most disturbing aspect of his appearance was his eyes – dark, glinting topaz when the light caught them, with slitted cat-like inverted triangle pupils.
Fluin wished that he could be like Steppan, strong and confident and tough. He wasn’t aware that to many, he already gave that impression. He had learnt to defend himself in the village streets, against bullies and later on, unwelcome suitors. His fists and feet protected him. The hard carapace he developed to hide the hurt made it easier to keep his distance. He had never been accepted into the village community. He was too strange, too clever, too different. At first, he had wanted desperately to belong. Later he realised that he never would. By then he no longer wanted it.
Fluin hated his life in the village. He wondered what it would be like to live this man’s life, to be a sophisticated denizen of the capital. He briefly considered begging Steppan to take him as his servant, and go away with him, to any place that was more interesting than where he was.
Yet now that he had fallen into this warrior’s orbit, Fluin was afraid of the man he was meekly following up to his room. He did not know why he had been helped, and he had suffered enough to learn to fear and suspect others’ motives.
He went anyway, his heart pounding.
They climbed the stairs in silence. Once inside the room, Steppan closed, locked and bolted the door. “Sit down,” he ordered, and Fluin squatted on the floor. There was nowhere else.
Steppan fetched some salve, and crouched down. He infused his voice with the calm confidence and warm affection he used with his horses, his dogs and his familiar. The youth studied him, his grey eyes shadowed with mistrust and wonder.
Steppan cleaned a split on the side of the boy’s head and another on his cheek, and put the salve on them. Fluin winced only slightly, though Steppan knew from personal experience how much it hurt.
“Your nose is unbroken, but you will have some scars. You’ll survive. Are you in pain anywhere else?” He spoke bluntly, but with a slight smile, reinforcing his demeanour with a far-thought suggestion: <<Calm. Safe.>>
Fluin shook his head. He found it hard to believe that this man radiating concern and kindness had given every appearance of being a lethal killer only a few minutes earlier, terrifying him as much as he had frightened his attackers. He did not allow himself to relax into Steppan’s smile, but remained silent, his face grim, anger, defiance, and despite himself, fear, still shadowed in his eyes. He could feel Steppan’s appraisal, his thoughtful inspection, and it made him squirm.
By Steppan’s guess, the youngster no more than eighteen, thin, but with the beginnings of the broadening shoulders and firming muscles of manhood. The grey eyes, and the angular bones gave his face distinction and beauty, despite his youth. His mouth was set in the same line that it had been in the public room when he faced down the rowdies. There was a desperate bravery there, the heart-breaking courage of a defender of a lost cause, strength and fortitude in his expression and intelligence in his eyes.
The power! Untrained, unaware, ignorant, yet this boy had more raw magical ability than Steppan himself, even though he was a fifth level initiate. Even before tonight, it would not have been long before he was found out, and punished for being different. With a corpse in the stable-yard, and a noisy, well-remembered quarrel in the inn, suspicion would soon fall upon this outsider, this ‘witch’s spawn’. He would be hanged or crucified as a murderer. Inconvenient to Steppan though it was, the boy couldn’t stay here, in this village. Steppan sighed at the realisation that he would have to take Fluin away with him.
The youngster looked back at him without hope or belief in the likelihood of fairness or justice, but also with a desperate, defiant courage.
He seems harmless, now, thought Fluin, though he reeks of authority. But he could not forget Steppan’s face as he had faced the bullies, the utter ruthlessness and determination, the hard line of his mouth and chin, the cold ferocious glare of his eyes. Steppan was different to anybody else he had ever met. He trailed danger and ferment like a scent. The fine lines of laughter and resolution, etched around his mouth and eyes, showed that he could also have fun, too. Life would never be dull with this man. He wondered whether Steppan would help him, and how. Most of all, he wondered why.
“Do you have any idea of exactly what happened, down there in the stable-yard?” Steppan inquired.
“Yes, I know what happened,” Fluin replied, defiance overlaying despair. “I killed someone.”
“It was a mistake. You were afraid. There were five of them and one of you. Your powers just evened the odds a little.” Steppan paused for a moment or two. “I meant the magic. Has something like it happened before?” Steppan tried not to put too much pressure into his voice. Better if the boy worked out these things for himself.
Fluin was silent for so long that Steppan was going to repeat the question, when he muttered, “Yes.” He paused, kneading the knuckle of one hand into the other. “I know. I’m a witch, and I’ll be burnt.”
All too likely, thought Steppan, angry at the stupidity and ignorance and cruelty of the many, afraid of what they didn’t know, and assuaging their fear with the suffering of others. These days, throughout the duchies and counties of the empire, more and more ‘witches’ and ‘wizards’ were being burned or stoned to death. Naturally, there were those who made it their business to ferret out these miscreants, as there always are, spiteful busybodies who fill their inner emptiness with gossip and tittle-tattle and malice, who buttress their own worthlessness by trying to take down others. He loathed them with every particle of his being, and not just because he himself was also endangered by their folly.
“Not if I can help it!” he said out loud, anger making his voice harsh, his eyes cold. Fluin involuntarily recoiled. Steppan gave him a small crooked smile. “You will be safe with me!” he said more gently. He hoped that was true. “Have you felt that power before?”
Fluin thought for a bit. “Magda used to say I was lucky. Things I wanted often seemed to happen. It was never obvious, but . . . .”
“The woman who brought me up. My true mother, in everything but birth. She died. Just a tennight ago.” He looked away, and brushed his sleeve angrily across his eyes.
Steppan waited patiently.
“The day she died, some people came and broke into our cottage and tried to steal our stuff, and pushed me around and spat on me. They wanted her money. For some reason they thought she had piles of gold pounds hidden away.” After a moment, he shrugged. “If she did, I never found them. They said she was a witch. Just because she could read, and knew about herbs and sicknesses. And they said I was a witch’s brat. ‘Witch spawn’. And a few said that I was a witch too, and should be killed.” There was incredulity and a bitter, piercing fury in his voice. “The . . . magic that happened tonight almost happened then. I could feel the power, and I was afraid of what I could do. Afraid of summoning demons. I hit them with the club we kept for bandits, and chased them away.” The fury and the pain were deep, and again Steppan felt a muted echo of the previous vigorous waves of sorcerous ability.
“Go on,” he said, impassively. Expressing any sympathy might bring on tears, which would humiliate the youngster. Better to keep it unemotional.
Fluin looked away, ashamed to admit to weakness, and angry because of it. “They were so afraid of her – they hated her, even though she helped them and healed them. She was always giving them herbs and extracts for their sores and illnesses. Those phanastha” – he jerked his head sideways – “have been working themselves up to this since then.” He put his finger to the split next to his ear. “They were there at our home. But I don’t know why he went flying. I don’t know how I did it.” He was silent again, for so long Steppan thought he had finished. “I didn’t mean to kill him,” he said at last, softly.
“I know that,” said Steppan briskly, waving it off. “Did you feel the magical flux when you did it?”
Fluin nodded gloomily, though he hadn’t known that that was what it was called. Again there was a silence.
Steppan felt an unexpected compassion. Patrika always said that his heart was too soft, for one of her operatives. She was much more ruthless, yet she had a soft spot for him and his many scruples. Steppan imagined (and it was easy to draw on his own experiences) this lonely child, alone except for an old woman, who didn’t even talk with the same accent or use the same words as the villagers. Weavers knew how many children there were across the empire suffering this mage-touched loneliness! How many had ended up dead, stoned or burnt as witches by the credulous and fearful, because of their unfocussed power?
Steppan remembered the first stoning he’d witnessed. He’d been travelling with Nefta and Harith in the countryside, two days’ ride from Cappor. They were in an inn, in one of the upstairs rooms, which overlooked the square. The town had been strangely excited, he could sense, though they could see no obvious reason for it. A crowd had assembled in the square, and there were strong undercurrents of anticipation and pleasure and a dark, sadistic satisfaction. A woman, dressed only in a torn shift, was dragged out and tied to a post in the middle of the square. A space opened about her, then in an eerie, almost total silence, the stones began to fly. Steppan wanted to go down at once to interfere.
Nefta warned him not to. “They will just stone you, too” she’d said.
They watched from the window as the woman started to bleed from the head, and slumped against the bonds that held her upright on the post. Then Nefta said, “Now, ease the pain in her mind, and push her gently into the arms of the Great Spirit Mother.” So they did. Steppan had been so angry and disgusted with humankind, that he’d pushed a touch of shame and self-disgust into the minds of everyone who had seen and rejoiced in this hideous spectacle. Nefta had rebuked him for that, but mildly, her heart not really in it.
“She was one of us,” Steppan had said, heatedly.
“Yes,” sighed Nefta, “and they are doing this all over the empire.”
“How come Panthra Aliya doesn’t stop it?”
“The laws are there – and they are flouted. This is far from Cappor. Other rulers hold sway here.” Nefta, kind, warm-hearted Nefta, shrugged. Steppan had been horrified.
Now he was faced with a similar situation, and the need for his own decision. The fate of the world and its peoples, and the civilised values he and others like him espoused, rested on finding the Bearer and his Sword, and taking up this boy might prevent or nullify the search. On the other hand, he knew, from Patrika’s vision, how much Fluin’s power would be needed for the ordeal ahead. He knew, too, that leaving Fluin here was a certain death sentence. It was in his hands – would he shrug like she had, and walk away, too? Take this child away from this town and risk his mission, or to leave him to his fate?
Despite all the high-minded reasons for and against taking Fluin with him, Steppan knew in his heart that he was going to take him for very personal motivations, some of which wouldn’t bear too close a scrutiny.
In truth, he had already made up his mind. By taking up Fluin’s cause in the stable yard, he had made himself responsible for him. No longer some anonymous misfit, he had become an individual, he had a name, he had been entrusted into Steppan’s hands. He was plucky and intelligent and a fighter, and Steppan admired that. Steppan didn’t consider that a more ruthless man than he, wouldn’t have cared about the boy’s fate. He knew in his heart that what he was going to do felt right.
He was within a day or two’s ride of his goal. He would take Fluin with him, and start training him as soon as he had discussed the matter with Nefta. He had no real doubts that both Patrika and Nefta would approve, eventually, but whether they did or not, he had made up his mind. In the end, they might even thank him, when they also felt the power he had sensed. But if they didn’t, his shoulders were broad enough to bear that burden.
“Fluin.” He stopped for a moment, while he made his final calculations, before they both stepped through the door of fate from which there can be no return. To his surprise, he could feel the subtle, nerve-tingling buzz of future-change. He could sense the many possible futures lying in limbo, ready for one to align and crystallize out of the void, turning from possibility to probability to truth. The threads in the Tapestry woven by the Weavers were being moved and cut, and new threads inserted. Why? It could only be because what he was about to do was going to change the future drastically. He tried to feel gently along the paths, to sense what was right, but the forces and the uncertainties were too strong.
Clenching his fists and jaws, which were shivering with the future-flux, he said, “Your power is dangerous. We saw what could happen, tonight. You must learn to control it. You need to be taught how to channel that strength and ability safely, before you kill yourself or someone else. You’re wizard-touched. You have the gift, the talent for magic – you’re a natural. Yet, it’s unfocussed and because of that, very perilous. I offer myself as your teacher. Would you like to come back to Cappor with me, as my student and assistant?”
Fluin knew that he was taking a chance. He knew nothing about this stranger. But he guessed that he had no realistic alternative. Perhaps if he had known more of the world, of the predators who enjoy defiling innocence, of the dark sorcerer-priests of the death-god, of the necromancers and their need for flesh, he would have been more mistrusting, and perhaps, all that happened afterwards might never have been. Whatever the reason, he took that first step across the void, and the world changed. Yet he had enough caution not to want to seem too eager.
He looked at Steppan, then said, “Thank you for your offer, my lord, but I don’t know who you are, or why you are here, or anything. And I don’t know why.” This opposition was unexpected.
Steppan looked at Fluin in silence, then said, “Why I am helping you? I understand your reticence. I could be anything – a slaver, a necromancer, a boy-lover.” He took the dagger from his boot, and nicked his wrist. He held the trickling cut out to Fluin, and gave him the blade. “I, Steppan ys Jorac, swear by the Great Spirit and the Weavers, to always be true to you, Fluin ys Byon, and not to harm you. I swear this with a blood-oath, and offer you blood-bond, in Mara’s name.” Mara, the warrior Weaver, the goddess of war and love.
Fluin studied Steppan’s face for what seemed like ages, before nodding. His intelligent eyes looked into Steppan’s, assessing him, with an awareness and insight that were beyond his years. He took the dagger, and nicked his own wrist, and they pressed the cuts together. “I, Fluin ys Byon, swear to be true to you, Steppan ys Jorac, and never to harm you. I accept your offer of blood-bond. I swear this in Mara’s name.” He looked deep into Steppan’s eyes.
This was well done, thought Steppan, suddenly, though he had no idea what had prompted him to do something so old-fashioned, like a story from a melodramatic boy’s book.
“Now,” said Fluin, “You had better explain who you are.”
At this moment, Steppan found it hard to believe that Fluin was just eighteen.
“I can’t tell you everything. It’s enough to know, for the time being, that I’m a wizard,” Steppan replied. “It is our duty to train anyone with ability we find. It was done for me, and in turn I will do this for you.” He paused for a minute while he debated how much he could say. “I would not conceal from you that your power will be desperately needed to fight threats against the empire and its peoples. Your life will be at risk, from attack by our enemies.”
“You are more than just a wizard,” Fluin stated flatly, his eyes glimmering with excitement.
“Yes. When you are ready to know how much more, I will tell you. Until then, can I ask you to trust me?”
Fluin knew his life was in this man’s hands. He was afraid to trust him. Yet he knew he had no alternative. He decided for his own piece of mind that he would find out more. He hadn’t promised not to do that.
Steppan interrupted his thoughts. “We should leave immediately, just in case they come back. But we’d have to get my horse from the ostler, and pass through the gate in the stockade. So, on balance, it will be best if we leave tomorrow, just before sunup. No-one will find the body for many hours, maybe days. We’re safe in this room from those fools,” Steppan continued. “I suspect they’ve gone home. But we must leave early on the morrow, before the body is discovered. But if they should be so stupid as to try anything . . . .” He stroked his dagger “ . . . this should keep them away.” His grim smile was terrifying.
Steppan moved to the door and checked that it was firmly bolted. He repeated this at the window. “These should keep out any intruders.” He thought of the many terrifyingly powerful necromancers of the enemy and with a repressed shudder, wondered how much of Fluin’s magic had already been detected. It would not take long for a trained death-magic adept to find Fluin, if the ripples he had created had been sensed. How they would slaver over his innocence and beauty! How strong the power they would create by ritual sacrifice!
“Against others we will have to trust to luck and the protection of the Weavers and the Great Spirit, and to our weapons,” he explained. “Now – we will leave early tomorrow morning, while your friends are still in bed nursing their sore heads. You had better sleep here tonight. It’ll be safer, I think.”
There was just the one bed, not very wide, and with an uncomfortable sag in the middle. Steppan decided they’d be better off on the floor, and pulled the straw-filled mattress off the bed. Some beetles, and worse, skittered off into the shadows in the corners. He spread the inn’s filthy blankets on the floor, making a thin and uncomfortable pallet, and took his own covers, fur over-blanket and thick woollen cloak, and spread them on top.
“Come,” he said. He hadn’t ever shared a bed with someone he wasn’t having sex with. It was common to share beds among the poor, and when travelling, but Steppan was rich, and could afford not just his own bed, but his own room, his own keep, where he was the only occupant except for the servants. So this was a generous offer, designed to help put Fluin at ease.
Fluin grinned sardonically. “I thought you weren’t a boy lover!”
“I’m not!” Steppan snapped irritably.
Fluin was amused at his discomfort. “We’ll be warmer if we share,” he agreed, with an ironic smile. They slipped underneath the layers.
They lay side by side looking at each other, then Fluin surprised Steppan greatly by saying, very softly, “Thank you for saving my life.” This youngster had seemed too tough to think of thanks. “They would have killed me, I think. I’ll never forget what you did tonight. Never.”
His intensity embarrassed Steppan. “You saved my life too. Think nothing of it. Weavers keep you,” he added.
“Sleep well,” said Fluin. He turned over, and in a few moments he was asleep.
Steppan envied his equanimity. He took longer to sleep, his mind troubled by all that had happened, by his responsibilities, now increased, and by the way events no longer seemed under control.
In the middle of the night, he awoke ice-cold and scratching. His body was covered with raised bumps that itched intolerably. Groaning, he levered himself up and reached into his pack. Fluin started awake with a ripple of power, which set Steppan’s teeth on edge.
“What is it?” hissed Fluin.
<<Nothing – calm down – you’re safe>> Aloud he said, “I’m being bitten alive – I’m looking for some salve – relax.” He found the jar and rubbed it on his bites, with immediate relief. “Want some?” Fluin shook his head. “I don’t get bitten”. Steppan was astonished. To repel fleas and bed bugs just by magic, while you were sleeping, was extraordinary. He couldn’t do it. Yet this untrained boy did it without even being aware of what he did. This was power indeed!
“That’s handy! Sleep well. Weavers keep you!” he said, already drifting off before Fluin’s soft reply.
They slept peacefully, free of dreams, cupped in the hands of the Mother.
Inside the room, their breathing was regular and their sleep undisturbed. Outside, the sky cleared and frost coated every surface with a silver film, ghostly gleams in the bleached moonlight. The piles of manure and straw and horse-piss in the stables steamed, and the horses dozed. Owls hunted hapless mice in the frozen fields. Ordinary people slept and dreamed, unaware of what had begun.
The ripples of the new future-path that Steppan had chosen moved inexorably away from that vile inn in that inconsequential hamlet, out across the empire and the world.
The Weavers had begun to weave a new pattern into the Tapestry of Life.
Patrika smiled coldly across her dinner-table at the panthraska. The Panthron’s sister, Makala, was an odious mixture of ambition, hypocrisy, and stupidity. Her body was tinctured with the odours of necromancy, faint but unmistakable. She was stupid enough to think that Patrika wouldn’t know. She had been passed over for the succession for excellent reasons. Her mother the Panthra had thought her relatively harmless. Patrika knew better, but it had been hard to tell the mother that her daughter was rotten. Now it had become essential to know what she was planning. Much depended on it.
Varda, her smile glimmering seductively, her luscious green eyes warm with passion, sat at Patrika’s side, eying the princess. Even Patrika could feel her allure, the soft scents of a woman’s body, gentle with lust, liquid, warm, tender. The subtle drug slipped into the princess’s drink had reinforced the princess’s desire. Yearning glowed in Makala’s cold, hard eyes, without softening them. Varda was primed to draw the princess into her coils, to discover the truth, to find the princess’s plots.
Instead, the princess seemed to have taken to her, Patrika. Patrika was disgusted. A wizard could feel and taste the perversions of death-magic, like bitter, nauseating cinders in her soul. To be polite to the princess was difficult enough. To touch her was intolerable.
Varda might despise those she took to her bed, but she was no wizard – the taints would not nauseate her. And why had the princess such poor taste, to prefer an middle-aged woman to someone as sweetly curved and roughly dangerous as Varda? She met Varda’s sardonic, amused gaze, her own eyes conveying distaste and dismay. She had no intention of bedding the princess, no matter how necessary. She cast an obscuring spell on herself, that made her uglier, subtly enhancing her warts and wrinkles, lengthening her nose, thinning her lips, adding blemishes to her skin, and a smell of graveyards to her breath. She was relieved and amused to see the princess’s eyes drift over to Varda.
From his place next to the panthraska, Tilthon watched this exchange through slitted eyes, an ironic curl taking life on his lips. He ran his elegant warm hand gently down the princess’s cheek. “Perhaps,” he suggested softly, “you would like Varda and me to . . . . play?” The panthraska’s eyes glittered with suppressed passion. Patrika, stood up, bowed, and left the three of them at it, her self disgust rank in her throat, her distaste for her necessary but repugnant activities stronger than usual.
© 2007 Nigel Puerasch. All rights reserved. Romantic m2m fiction at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Nigel_Puerasch/ and at http://groups.google.com.au/group/Nigel_Puerasch
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