Clatan 14, 1015
Another day, another … what?
Some might say another copper. Some might say another task accomplished, another check to mark on the great list of life. Some might even point to all the things they had enjoyed, all the little bright spots that shone like stars in a darkened sky.
Delyth was not one of those people.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day …
She wished those words would stop clanging like a church bell inside her mind. She wished she could find something, some core, some center to give her life meaning. Instead she felt hollow and empty and useless, like the space inside her where her womb ought to have been.
And to make things worse, the days to when she would have to pick her major, the focus of her studies for the next two and a half years, were growing shorter and shorter. Her supply of tomorrows stretched infinitely before her, and she had no idea what she was supposed to fill them with.
She leaned back, sighing, resting her head on the short, prickly grass. Her dress would be dirty and stained when she came home, but she was hard-pressed to care. More importantly, it was a black dress, and black hid just about everything.
Hiding … that was what she felt like she was doing, all the time, these days. The only person — other than Lady Morgan and Clarice — who knew her secret was Dilys. She couldn’t bear to tell anyone else. Mostly that was because of duty: she owed it to her mother to tell her first. Perhaps she owed it to Aglovale, too, but Delyth had a hard time picturing any kind of reasonable duty that required her to be raked over the coals by her too-practical, too narrow-minded, too short-sighted brother. If Lamorak was still alive …
Delyth, if you’re going to go wishing, why don’t you wish that Papa was still alive?
Papa would have known what to do. Or if he hadn’t known — and maybe he wouldn’t have known — he would have known how to give Delyth the time and space she needed without making her feel that not making a decision would mean she’d spend the rest of her life as a maiden aunt. Aglovale would only see that a lack of decision meant exactly that fate, and since he knew as well as Delyth that she didn’t want that, he’d be pushing her to get over her squeamishness, pick an order, and start her novitiate already. Time was wasting.
Aglovale, put short, would not want to deal with the problem she presented. Delyth couldn’t blame him. Some days, she didn’t want to deal with the problem she presented either.
Not for the first time, she wondered if she was making the right decision, staying here in Camford. She knew that her father had paid all their fees upfront, and that those fees were non-refundable. If that hadn’t been the case, she probably would have left already. What was she getting an education for? What was she getting an education in? She didn’t know. And unlike Dilys, who had chosen geometry to help her study her art; or Cherry, who had also picked geometry for similar reasons; or Ravenna, who chose to study logic because she said anyone seriously considering a lifetime spent with George needed all the logic and clear thinking one could muster; or even George, who was cagey about his planned course of study but nonetheless had one, Delyth was alone and adrift.
Trying to think about what interested her didn’t help. The truth of the matter was that when she tried to bend her mind to that task, very little did.
It all just seemed so pointless …
So for now, she would lay here and watch the sunset. At least there was beauty and a kind of truth in that. The sunset didn’t have to pretend to be something it was not. The sun didn’t have to search for meaning in its life. It got up in the morning, did its job, went to bed at night — and there was an end of it. No muss, no fuss, nothing to worry about or ponder.
She knew she ought to get up and go back to the house. The girls would worry if she stayed out too late. Dilys was already getting jumpy whenever Delyth was more than five minutes late for anything. It was irksome as hell. And even more unfortunately, Delyth knew that Cherry and Ravenna were feeding off Dilys’s anxiety. Delyth had already walked into several conversations in which Ravenna was whispering “my mother” quite fiercely — and which came to an abrupt halt the minute she stepped into the room.
It was easier just to lay here and watch the clouds change color as the sun slowly slipped under the horizon. Only when the sky darkened to deep blue did Delyth begin to stand up.
“Oooh! Here’s a pretty one!”
Delyth’s heart did not start to race. Her palms did not sweat. Her breath did not come in gasps, and all of her muscles refused to bunch and tense, ready to go out running or go down swinging.
For there was one common element to all of those things, and that element was fear. Delyth felt no fear.
She would later wonder why.
But at the time, all she did was turn around and blink at the figure rising up on the ridge. She blinked — there was no question that this figure was female — and swayed her hips. The pointed fringes of her skirt fluttered around her knees. Blond hair shone in the starlight, and somehow the woman’s smile seemed to hold within it a few stars of its own.
Then another voice spoke. “Oh, come now, Corrigan, let’s not go scaring the mortals.”
Another figure was climbing the ridge. Delyth turned to look at him (by the voice, it was most assuredly a him). When she saw …
Her heart beat fast. Her palms began to sweat. Her mouth went dry. Her muscles tensed and locked, and she was frozen in place.
But still she felt no fear. No fear at all. Just …
The young man — male — seemed to sense her … whatever-it-was, and he smiled at her. Delyth’s heart gave a leap, but her mouth could not even move enough to answer the smile. Instead she only stared and gaped, like a foolish child.
The young male picked his way down the ridge, sleek and sure-footed as a young stag. While the young female seemed barely dressed at all, he wore white stockings, a doublet of orange and gold, and — pantaloons? — in the same fabric as the doublet. It was the stupidest thing to wear when picking one’s way through nature. But on the young male, it seemed no more out of place than a ballgown in a ballroom. Wherever he was, he fit in — and whatever he wore fit in, because it was on him.
The young female skipped down the ridge, her bare feet twinkling and flashing as she moved from spot to spot. Yet, like the young male, there was no sense that she might put a foot wrong, slip or fall. Wherever she put her foot down, there was firm purchase and footing — perhaps only because no ground was foolish enough to turn treacherous or slippery under her foot.
Yet the young male arrived first. He bowed to Delyth, taking her hand to his lips without so much as a by-your-leave. “Well met by moonlight, little one.”
Now that he was closer, she could see his hair was red — no, auburn, like Dindrane’s was and like her mother’s had been before it turned white. It was straight and impossibly smooth and silky, covering his head like a cloth cap. Except for the part where … were those this ears sticking out?
Pointed, blue-green ears …
“No fair, Mallebron!” came the female’s voice. “You’re already buttering her up, and I haven’t had a chance!”
The male — Mallebron — did not drop Delyth’s hand by any means, but he did roll his eyes and sigh. Delyth stared into those eyes. The whites were nothing of the sort — black — which lightened to charcoal for the iris — then darkened again to pure inky black for the pupil. But inside those eyes was a light that was more than reflected starlight. It twinkled out at Delyth and made her smile, a smile that seemed to come from her heart and her soul, not simply her face.
Mallebron blinked, and his grip on her hand loosened. His mouth opened, as if he would say something —
But he never had the chance. A feather-light but steel-strong hand closed over Delyth’s shoulder, and before she could blink, she was turned around and facing the young female.
“Well met by moonlight!” She grinned. “Wouldn’t you love to dance with me, child?”
Her voice was high and fluting. Her eyes were like Mallebron’s — black and charcoal and black again. But Delyth could see no inner light in them, just the starlight reflecting back at her. Delyth licked her lips and tried to take a step back.
“Oh, come now,” the female pouted. “A pretty, sweet little mortal like you — you don’t want a big, hairy, rough man, do you? Don’t you want someone like yourself? Soft and smooth and tender?” One finger reached up to stroke Delyth’s cheek. If any woman had done that to Delyth — and Delyth was not naive enough to think that was a merely friendly stroke — she would have recoiled, shaken her head, done everything in her power to show that she was not that type of woman. She could not find it in her to do that now. But all the same … there was no attraction there.
“I–I’m sorry,” Delyth managed to say. “But I don’t think–I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?” The impish female danced closer. “Are you certain-sure? Come now. You might think I’m not to your taste, but how can you know unless you take a lick?”
“Ahem!” Mallebron snapped. Delyth watched him glare at the female. “You know the choice is hers to make.”
“Of course it is!” the female snapped back. “But nowhere in the law or the lore does it say that I am not allowed to employ gentle persuasion –”
Mallebron’s eyebrow lifted.
“Or even blatant sex appeal to make her choice be me!” the female finished.
“The choice is hers to make,” Mallebron repeated. “And beware lest you push that ‘gentle persuasion’ too far. Remember, it was not long ago that one of our number –”
“STOP!” The female’s nostrils flared. “Do you think I do not know the difference between persuasion and drugging? Have a care, sir, have a care.”
“You know I am only trying to look out for you.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” sighed the female, rolling her eyes. “But next time we go a-hunting, my friend, we will spend much time a-watching, and we will not show our pretty heads to any sweet, smooth maidens until we are quite sure that the choice she will be having is me!”
“So long as the choice is genuine, and genuinely offered, all shall be well in the law and the lore,” shrugged Mallebron. He turned to Delyth. “So, pretty one. Am I more to your taste?”
Delyth blushed, grateful for the low light that he wouldn’t see it. But Mallebron smiled at her, and something in the set of his grin told Delyth that he saw it anyway.
“You must think I’m a ninny,” Delyth mumbled.
“A ninny?” Mallebron took both her hands in his and drew her closer to him. Delyth barely waited for his arms to bend before skipping to him. “Nay, pretty one. We all have tastes. Yours is simply … exceptionally fine.”
“I heard that!” said the female as she started to walk away.
Delyth couldn’t help but look over her shoulder, a faint twinge of pity rising within her. The female seemed to sense her gaze. She bounced into a cartwheel, her fringed skirt rising over her head to show thin, sparkling thighs, then — Delyth turned away with another blush.
“And you’ll not be having any of that, then?” called the female. “Pity! And you say her taste is exceptionally fine!”
“Taste, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” replied Mallebron. He took Delyth’s hands and drew her closer again, before letting them go. “So, pretty one. Shall we dance?”
Delyth laughed and threw herself into the dance with him.
There was no music, no harmony, no melody, nothing to even keep the time but the pounding of her heart. But Delyth’s feet always knew just where to go and when to be there, and when Mallebron again took both of her hands in his, she followed him step for step.
She hadn’t felt this full, this exhilarated, this — alive since … when?
“Are you having fun, my pretty?” asked Mallebron.
“Good,” he answered.
And they went on dancing.
Then — just when Delyth’s breath was beginning to come a shade too fast for her liking, just when the time kept by her heart was growing too quick for even Mallebron’s feet to keep up with it — Mallebron’s steps slowed, then stopped. He put one arm around her waist, another hand once again in hers. He drew her closer.
Delyth had no idea that her heart could even beat faster until it did.
“Shush, my pretty one,” Mallebron hushed, though Delyth hadn’t said anything. “I shall not have you fainting away in my arms of exhaustion. For C–my friend should come back, then, and accuse me of using you too rough.”
“You–you couldn’t be too rough,” Delyth answered.
“Unless you wanted me to be,” Mallebron shrugged.
“What?” Mallebron repeated. “Do you think there are not those who like it rough?”
“I … well, no … why would they?”
Mallebron tilted his head to one side, his eyes seeming to take her every measure. “Are you a virgin?”
If a man had asked such a question of her, Delyth would have slapped him for his presumption. But the way Mallebron said it, so frank and unassuming, seemed to request a similarly polite response. Delyth shrugged. “Yes, of course.”
“Of course,” replied Delyth.
“Of course,” repeated Mallebron, rolling his eyes. “I will never understand you mortals. You are only given — what — fifty, sixty, seventy seasons in which to live? Less than that to truly be able to enjoy? And you refuse to pluck the sweetest of life’s fruits until you say some words under an arch and let some shriveled old man or woman bless the tasting.” He lifted one arm and spun her. “What a waste!”
“Of–of what?” asked Delyth.
“Of time. Of life. Of the greatest of all gifts, that neither magic nor love can give back if squandered totally. Only She can grant a second chance at life — and She grants it very rarely.” Delyth came back to rest in Mallebron’s arms, looking again into his eyes.
“So–what–are you saying a woman should go out and spread her legs for the first young man who catches her fancy?” Delyth felt rather proud of that; it was something Cherry might say. “That’s daft.”
“Daft? Daft how so?”
“Well–what if she becomes with–with child?” Delyth tried not to choke on the words. But somehow, despite all of Mother Julian’s strictures, despite her mother’s quiet promise that the act was best with someone whom you loved and who loved you in return — despite even Lady Morgan’s diagnosis — this was the most cogent argument for the preservation of virginity that came to her mind. “And the man isn’t able to support her and the child? Then–she’s gone and ruined her life, and the child’s life — and for what?”
“For what,” repeated Mallebron. He said nothing more, but Delyth could almost hear thoughts clicking in that handsome head of his. Unfortunately for her, they were too faint to make out. “But would it so bad, to bring a child into the world? A child … that could not have existed, but for you?”
Delyth had no answer for that.
“And … say that the father of that child … came from a race that was slowly dying … and say, even, if things got so difficult that you could no longer cope, that your life was too hard to be lived, he would come back, swoop in, take you and the child to his land of magic — would that be enough, you think, to have a child for?”
Delyth looked away.
“Come now, what is wrong, my pretty one?” Mallebron held her closer. “I know you are a woman of — of breeding, of culture, of class. I am not saying it would be easy for you. But are there not hard things that are worth doing?”
“I can’t,” Delyth finally whispered.
“Why not? I know you come from the land of magic just to the west of here. You would not be the first there to bring a child of my people to birth. You will not be the last. And if you do–”
“I can’t,” Delyth repeated.
“Pretty one –”
“No. I–I can’t. Not won’t. Not–don’t want to. Just–can’t.”
“And why do you say that, pretty one?”
“Because,” Delyth whispered, “I don’t have a womb.”
It was the first time she had said those words since she had told Dilys. When she had told Dilys, she wanted to scream and cry and rage. Now, she was just … sad. And not only sad for herself, but sad for Mallebron, sad for his people, sad that they would have to find someone else to bring their child to bear.
Mallebron blinked, his lips opening and shutting. Then he asked, “Will you–permit me?”
She didn’t know what he was asking, but she nodded.
Mallebron rested his hand on her stomach, just below her waist. Delyth felt a ghost of a tingle, then, nothing. “My–my Lady,” he whispered. “I am so sorry, pretty one. I am so sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry–”
“No–no, you, you have no reason to be sorry.” Mallebron shook his head. “You–you of all mortals, you can understand our pain. You, too, weep for the children you will never have. And–and I know not if a mortal life is long enough for a solution for you to be found, as it was for us. I am so sorry.”
“Don’t–don’t pity me!” Delyth snapped.
“Pity you?” Mallebron dipped her without a further word. “Oh, no. No, pretty one. There are some sorrows that go too deep. Pity is an insult in the face of that. No. But know this — I, every one of my people, we understand.”
He kissed her. The touch of his lips was light, but firm. And there was something in there — not pity. Empathy. He knew exactly what she felt, and how she felt it, for he had felt it before himself —
And that empathy, it seemed, would be his gift to her, because when Delyth opened her eyes …
He was gone.