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Alys & Nika: Love's Labors


Wind rattled the shutters as Alys Maldon sat sewing in the small front room of Tarran Glennis' house. She sat close to the fireplace, which did little to warm the room more than five feet away from it. Outdoors was bitterly cold.

Fleetingly, Alys longed for Elverson. Winter it might be there, but at least Elverson lay in the lowlands of Calypsa and not in a mountain valley of L'Montaigne, where wind blew straight down off the mountaintops into Highgate Vale. She wondered how Tarran had been able to stand living here. He'd grown up in Dakarta, a land of muggy, dim swamps, as far removed from high mountains as the White Knights were from Morgausite priests.

Even as she thought that, she could see him in her mind's eye--clad in his dark robes, fiddling with something at his woodworking table or brewing tea. Where in the names of the Three was he?

Why am I even asking myself that? Alys wondered. We're nothing to each other; just captor and captive...

And yet they weren't. He had not trusted her with his house; he had given it to her, key and all--and half of his coin. And then he had left---on some mission he had not wanted.

To this day, the sense of how much he had not wanted to leave flooded her mind--his irritation, the distress barely hidden beneath it, the way he had looked at her as if drinking her in, the feel of his hands on hers, closing her fingers over the coins and key he had placed in her palm, the way he had shot one last, lingering glance at Jorys before turning on his heel and not looking back.

The memory flowed through her, as vivid as if he had left the day before.

You didn't want to leave, so why did you go?

Knowing that he had considered it his duty gave little comfort. Alys sighed and tied off the thread she was using to hem the trousers in her lap.

Since arriving in Highgate several months before, she had begun to take in sewing. In Elverson, she'd have had a booming business sewing for the wealthy women of the area. In L'Montaigne, the wealthy women were few and far between. However, unmarried men were plentiful and in great need of clothing--and wives. Alys grimaced at that thought. L'Montaigne's single men were mostly soldiers from Tolan's army or men who had cashiered out of Thera's army before her departure. There were men of the Fianna, too, but they tended to keep to their own people. Certainly, the Fiannan women never hired others to do their sewing.

A knock sounded at the door. Alys glanced at Jorys, who was already running toward it. "Jorys, slow down!" she ordered. She laid the finished trousers aside and went to see who her visitor was.

Alys recognized her visitor the moment she looked through the front window. She grinned and pulled open the door. "Come in, Nika; you must be half-frozen."

"I am!" Nika McCorley mock-whined as she stepped inside. She pulled the thick hood down off her head and looked down, beaming at Jorys. Alys shut the door.

"Don't you go running outside there!" she scolded and picked the little boy up. "That storm last night was a real bugger," Nika said as she hugged Jorys and then put him down. "Snow everywhere. They're having to clear the gate roads, once again."

"How do you stand it?" Alys asked as she went to get the clothing she knew Nika had come for.

"Oh, I grew up here. My family were freeholders before L'Montaigne was more than a dream in anyone's eye. Papa liked living far away from settled folk."

Alys nodded and didn't ask anything more. She knew the rest of Nika's story. Her family had died during an incursion of undead, and she was now somehow the housekeeper for the Duke of Greenwall, L'Montaigne's current ruler in the absence of the rightful monarchs.

"How's the Duke liking the weather?"

"Oh, he hates it," Nika said. "He says it never, ever gets this miserable in Castelle."

Alys blinked. "Castelle?"

"He's Dakartan," Nika told her. "You've been living here this long, and you didn't know that?"

"No..." Alys replied, feeling her gut churn. "I don't get out much, don't gossip. Is he Morgausite?"

Nika shook her head. "Nope. I can't figure out what he is. He goes to the Trinist temple, sometimes, and the Mistan, but I don't think he's either."

"Then how do you know he's not Morgausite? He wouldn't exactly tell you, if he were," Alys pointed out. "He wouldn't let you see him going to...their gatherings."

Nika gave her a funny look. "Alys, if Duke Myradin were a Morgausite, that would be the complete opposite of everything he is. He does swear by the Seven when he's ticked off, but that's how he grew up cursing. I don't think he even allows Morgausity here."

"He doesn't?" Alys relaxed a trifle at that information.

"He doesn't. Besides," Nika went on, "isn't it written in the Book of Jobak: 'By their labor shall you know them?' His labor is running the kingdom and working in the hospital. He doesn't sacrifice people's children or do any of that other bizarre stuff."

"Good," Alys breathed. "Why don't you sit down and have some tea? I've water heated."

"Tea would be good. Thanks!" Nika peered at her, concerned. "Did they hurt you?"

Alys hesitated for several moments before answering that. "Yes," she finally said. "Morgausity killed my husband. Cut him into piecees and--and..." Alys swallowed hard as she bent over the tea kettle and moved it closer to the fire.

"How did you and Jorys survive?" Nika demanded, horrified.

Alys blinked at Nika and fought to stay focused. She took a deep breath. "The killer was more merciful than his religion," she said at last. "He delivered Jorys, in fact."

"He what?!" Nika stared.

"He did--complaining all the while." Despite herself, a momentery grin flickered across Alys' lips at the memory of Tarran's grousing when her water broke. But she stifled it, knowing Nika wouldn't understand.

"Anyway, Jorys was safely born, and he's doing fine. Aren't you, Jorys?" she said to her son, who was tossing a stuffed toy horse about the room.

"Want to go outside," Jorys complained.

"It's too cold out there; you'll freeze your nose off," Alys said.

"Won't freeze it!" Jorys protested.

"What happened to him?" Nika asked quietly. "The killer, I mean?"

"He disapeared," Alys said firmly. It was the truth--sort of.
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Homeward Bound

Tarran departed Thera's settlement on the first day of the new year, having spent a bare two days resting and reprovisioning himself for the journey.

It was madness to set out in deep winter, he told himself. But he was travel-hardened after the months of journeying with Kali, and the settlement, which as far as he knew still lacked a name, held little appeal for him. Aside from Thera and a few people he had befriended while he and Alys had lived together, there was no one in the place who he cared about. So he loaded his pack-horse, a mountain pony, really, then mounted his riding horse, and left. He pulled the latch-string out so that others could move into his and Alys' cabin after he had gone.

The journey to Highgate took weeks. Even in the best weather, it was arduous going. In deep winter, there were ice and snow-drifts to be navigated, and the bitter cold seemed to eat into his body, no matter how well he kept himself bundled up. The mountain pony did fairly, but his horse, Tarran thought, must feel as miserable as he himself did. All he could do was cover it in blankets. and cast warming spells. Even those were not enough, and he couldn't use them when snow fell.

The Morgausite prayers he had learned as a priest, of course, were no longer available to him.

Slightly more than a month's travel brought him to one of the mountain passes that led into Highgate. Tarran studied it and swore. Nothing and no one had passed through it since Oklemer, at least, he estimated. Rising up before him was an immense, smooth, mound of snow, gleaming with the hardness of ice, where it had melted and refrozen through numerous temperature changes.

Tarran chewed on his lip and studied it some more. If he used his mountain-climbing gear, he could scale it on his own. But he would have to leave the horses behind. He grimaced at the thought of doing that. Leaving the animals to freeze to death seemed poor repayment for their service to him over the past two years. He supposed, if he were still a proper Morgausite priest, he wouldn't allow that to matter to him; they were just animals. But he wasn't a proper Morgausite anymore, Tarran reminded himself. So he studied the pass some more and thought. At last, he made camp for the night.

The next morning, he took his pick-axe and went to work, cutting a path through the packed ice and snow. He had to cut straight through one of the sides, as there was too much risk of avalanche if he cut a shallower path across the width of the pass. His horse wouldn't like the steep trip down, he knew, ut at least the mountain pony would be able to navigate it comfortably.

When it snowed two days later, wiping out nearly all of his work, Tarran suspected he might not be as un-Morgausite as he had thought--because he dearly wanted to murder something, anything.

The hell of it was, he dared not use magic to melt the snow and make his work easier. He had learned that during his two years of travel with Thera's servant. Ice was an even worse problem than mere snow, and getting wet in the middle of nowhere during winter was a death-knell. Luckily, the previous night's snowfall was not hard-packed, but it still annoyed him to have to contend with it before he could make further progress.

Tarran thanked the Seven for his annoyance. His rations were low, and he wanted to preserve the horses. Annoyance gave him an impetus to continue that food could no longer provide.

After five more clear days, Tarran saw a storm brewing in the distance. He packed up his travel things and led the two horses into the cut.

The storm hit while they were still in it, with mountain to their right and a wall of snowy ice to their left. Tarran decided the creature he ought to murder was his riding horse. The icy wind whistling through the cut made it buck and and fight Tarran's lead.

"Stay down, dammit!" he snarled at his horse and yanked hard on the lead reins to keep the gelding from bucking once more. The gelding obeyed, but it trembled beneath its blankets, and its eyes were ringed with white.

Tarran sighed and rubbed the gelding's neck. "We've gotten through worse," he said to it, though he couldn't actually think of any worse travel conditions, at the moment.

They trudged on in the darkness. Tarran dared not allow them to rest, for fear he or the horses might fall asleep and freeze to death while snow piled on top of them.

The trip down was every bit as bad as he'd feared. He hadn't had time to flatten out the cut, just to gouge rough grooves into the snow and ice to give himself and the horses footing on their way down. Horses would not go down stairs, however, and the steep grade he had cut terrified his already spooked gelding. Tarran wondered if he should have had the mountain pony lead the pair, as it was quite sure-footed. But he couldn't change the travel order now; the cut was too narrow. He spent the hours soothing his gelding and praying it wouldn't dislocate his shoulder in its struggles.

At some indefinable point, the howl of the blizzard died away, and Tarran became aware once more of the sounds the horses' hooves made as they crunched on snow. The incline also began to rise again, and Tarran realized they must be near the end of the cut, for snow would have drifted in from the Highgate side, as well.

"Come on, we're almost there," he told the gelding and grinned as he brushed snow off its back. Behind the gelding, the mountain pony whinned as if to second the encouragement. Or maybe it just smelled the fresher air. Tarran could see light up ahead, and he led the horses forward to examine what lay on the other side.

A wide expanse of pristine snow spread out before them. Only the highest landmarks were visible, now; everything else was covered in snow. But seeing the landmarks was enough. Half a day's travel would see them in Highgate.

Tarran looked about for a place to make camp. "Let's rest a while, shall we?" he said to the horses. "I think we've bloody well earned it."
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Not a Homecoming

~ From the Diary of Tarran Glennis ~
Daktremer, just after Wilomater
Encampment of Thera and Vassily

There was a prophecy once that I would not come back here. It was wrong.

I don't know what has become of Kali since we parted company a few days ago. Once we finished our errand, I had only one thought on my mind.

It was the same thought that has ocupied my mind ever since I left--getting back here.

I used to lie awake on nights when I was so exhausted I couldn't sleep. I would look up at the stars and wonder how Alys and the boy were. Could he speak, yet? Could he walk? What might she be cooking for dinner, that evening? Were her eyes still as blue as I remembered, or had I only imagined their color?

I would lie awake at night, and all I wanted was to be with her again.

So damned insane. Alys isn't my wife; she isn't 'my' anything, nor would I ever be fool enough to ask her to be. I killed her husband, so I cannot ever ask her to become my wife.

Yet I wish she were.

I have asked myself time after time over the past few months whether it truly is Alys I love, or simply the idea of marrying her? I hope not the latter, as I would never want to be such a fool.

I never thought my feelings for Thera would become a pale thing, but they have. I never once wondered, during all these months away, whether Thera was safe, what she might be doing at any time of day, whether she sang as she worked. I never imagined her smile, never feared that I might have forgotten to repair something that she would need fixed.

So I came home today.

And I knew, as soon as I caught sight of the yard. I knew, when I saw no woodpile by the door, no path cleared to the well or the outhouse, no lanterns lit inside, no scent of smoke from the chimney.

She and her son are gone.

There was a prophecy once that I would not come back here. It was wrong.

I will not stay.
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Doing What You Need to Do

Tarran stalked into his and Alys' cabin, fuming. He couldn't recall when he'd begun to think of it as 'his and Alys',' but it felt more right than thinking of the place as merely his.

Alys shot him a startled glance from where she stood, changing Jorys' diaper. "What's wrong?" she asked, after one look at his face.

The wary look she would have given him a year ago had eroded over the intervening months. A long bout of pneumonia the past spring and the need to trust him with the baby had seen to that.

"I'm being sent away--on some errand for Thera," Tarran said. He paused. "I'm told I probably won't be coming back here."

Alys caught her breath. "What? But why?"

"Damned if I know!" Tarran turned on his heel and yahked open the lid of his clothes press. He removed a rucksack from inside the chest and shook it out.

"Are we to come with you?" Alys set Jorys down in his cirb. "When do you have to leave?"

"Right away, apparently," Tarran said. He looked at her. "No, it's best if you and the baby stay here. I don't know what we're going into."

"We?" Alys echoed.

"Some other servant of Thera's. I've never met her, before. For all I know, she could be some delusion of the mind."

"I never met a delusion who could put a man into a temper and induce him to pack every stitch of clothing he's got," Alys commented dryly.

"Well, then, perhaps I'm not entirely insane. I was beginning to wonder." Tarran shoved a pair of boots into the rucksack, then grumbled when they wouldn't fit. He pulled them back out, rearranged a few things, then stuffed the boots back in.

At last, there was only one more item left to deal with, in the bottom of the chest. Tarran lifted out a leather pouch. Inside it lay a cache of coins and a key. Tarran poured the coins onto the dinner table and hastily counted them, then swept half to one side and returned that half to the pouch. He dropped it into the rucksack, along with everything else.

"This is for you," Tarran said. He slipped the remainder of the coins into Alys' hand and closed her fingers over them. "And so is this." He gave her the key. "I own a house in Highgate, on Swan Street. I want you to have it."

"Alys shook her head. "Tarran, I can't take all this--"

"Yes, you can. It doesn't bring your husband back, but it's--it's something. I've been away for two years, so the yard will be a mess. The house is probably dusty. And there's a loose stone on the front walk--"

She stared at him, shocked at his sudden discomfiture, at how badly his voice shook.

"If I can get there, I will--at least to see how you're doing."

"We'll be fine, Tarran," Alys said firmly. She took his hand and clasped it for a long moment. "Do what you need to do."

He held her gaze, to remember how blue her eyes were--as if he could forget. "I am doing it," he said simply, and then he was gone.
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Tarran, Myradin: On the Day of the Dead

"Myradin?" someone said.

Myradin blinked. It sounded like--no, that was
impossible, but he had to see. He scraped away more
of the tendrilly stuff from his face and stared.

His brother looked horrible--gaunt, paler than usual,
his black hair tousled, and one wrist hanging at an
odd angle. A bloodstain ran down the front of his
robe, and Myradin saw with a chill that Tarran had
been stabbed through the chest.

"What happened to you?" he demanded.

Tarran gave him a wry smile. "It's a long story,
Myradin, and I don't have time to tell it."

"It's Siomhalor. You have eight hours," Myradin shot
back. "Talk."

"Siomhalor is the Night of the Dead, and I'm not
exactly that," Tarran said. "Frankly, I expected to
find Father here, not you."

Myradin flinched. "Who killed you?"

"No one. I told you, I'm not exactly dead. But if
you mean the person who left me this--" Tarran
gestured at his stab wound--"someone I meant to kill."

"I...see," Myradin replied. "So if you aren't exactly
dead, what exactly are you?"

"Trapped, in some hidey-hole of the Seven." Tarran
massaged his injured wrist with his good hand. "I
refused to kill the person Mortos wanted me to--I let
her stab me, instead. But, for some reason, Mortos is
unable to take my life; someone has...interceded."

"For you? Who might that be?"

Tarran shrugged. "I have no idea. I hoped Father
might be able to find out."

"What good would it do you to find that person?"
Myradin asked.

Tarran gave him a wry look. "Presumably, Mortos would
kill him. All promises are null and void, once the
promisee is dead, yes? With the intercessor dead, I
could at least die true death."

"But...That would land you in Hell, Tarran. Eternal

Tarran gave him a hard stare. "I'm a priest of
Morgause, Myradin, even if I don't give a damn for
him, anymore. I've been Hell-bound since I swore the

"The hell with Morgause!" Myradin stared back at him.
"You're still my brother, and I'm not going to help
you get yourself killed. Not for this."

"It's either death or remain in this half-existence
for all eternity!" Tarran hissed. "I _surrendered_ my
life for something I believe in. My victim killed me,
fair and square. If it weren't for this damned
intercessor, I _would_ be dead."

"There's one other choice," Myradin said slowly.

Tarran gave Myradin an impatient look and turned away.
"And that is?"

"Life." Myradin replied.

"What, you think to suture me back together?" Tarran
spun on his heel, about to launch a further retort,
but something in Myradin's gaze stopped him. "That
isn't possible," he said quietly. "It would require
an act of Azrael, and Azrael has no involvement in
this. As far as he is concerned, my soul is forfeit
to Morgause and Mortos."

Myradin took a deep breath. "If you could have your
life again, what would you want to do with it?"

"I didn't come here to voice fantasies!"

"Just answer the question," Myradin prodded.

Tarran glared at him, then turned away again. After a
painfully long silence, he spoke. "I'd want to serve
Thera. Not Morgause. Just--Thera."

Myradin let out the breath he'd held. "Stand like
that," he told him. "Don't turn around."


Tarran gasped as white-hot pain wracked his body,
suffusing it with heat, as if he were being swallowed
up in a wave of it.

The last thing Tarran was aware of was the feel of
Myradin catching him as he passed out.
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A Choice of Vengeance

Alys shivered as she walked outside in Queen Thera's encampment. The air was crisp and cold, colder than she was used to even in late Oklemer, having lived in Calypsa at a lower altitude for most of her life. She hugged Jorys closer to her. He was swathed in two of her shawls and fussed at her for taking him out into the cold. Alys glanced at the cabin that she shared with Tarran and wondered if she dared go back inside.

He'd been undressing her with his gaze all morning--or some part of him had; Alys wasn't quite sure how to describe it. He seemed to be a man of infinite moods, now, rather than simply the normal, somewhat testy man she had cautiously grown used to.

Lately, he could be anything--openly lusty; oddly considerate and helpful with the cooking and with Jorys--while at the same time staring off into the distance with smouldering eyes; mocking; timid and cowering; almost like himself, but emotionless; or, the most terrifying--just purely unpleasant--as if he despised her and had nothing but contempt for the rest of the world.

Even the lear was better than that.

In her arms, Jorys let out a squawl and pressed at her nipple. Alys sighed and headed back toward the cabin. It was far too cold to nurse outside, but even in warmer weather, nursing one's baby in public just wasn't done.

But consorting with Morgausite priests is? Alys asked herself.

She rolled her eyes at the thought and went inside. Tarran sat at the table, replacing a spoke in a spinning wheel that had been knocked over and broken. "Hello," he said and gave Alys and Jorys a brief glance as they came in. "Cold enough out there for you?"

Thank the Three, Alys thought, wanting to faint with relief. He seemed himself, for the moment. "It's windy out, and Jorys is hungry, so I decided to come back in." She sat down on her bed and began to nurse Jorys.

The sight didn't embarrass Tarran; he'd seen his mother and older sister Irel do the same thing countless times. "Be thankful he hasn't learned to walk and talk yet, or he'd be running about the cabin, driving you insane," Tarran said. He finished sanding a replacement spoke and tried to fit it into the holes made for it.

"Still too thick. Damn!" he muttered. Frowning at it, Tarran cut a wafer-thin sliver off with his penknife and finally grunted that it was satisfactory. He began sanding the slender piece of wood until it was smooth once more and at last got it to fit snugly into its holes.

"There. Just needs staining and some varnish, and Melora can have it back," Tarran said. "Maybe then, Garen will cease badgering me about his wife having too little to do."

"I think he beats her," Alys said in a low voice. "When I see Melora at the well sometimes, she has bruises."

Tarran gave her a sharp look. "I didn't realize," he said, "but I think you're right. She was falling all over herself to apologize for the trouble, when she and Garen brought this to me." He frowned, then began to brush the wood stain onto the new spoke.

He finished applying the stain, then brushed his fingertips lightly over the spinning wheel as if he were a blind man, or like someone carressing a lover. Alys stared. "What are you doing, Tarran?"

"He will pay," Tarran murmured in a determined, self-assured voice that chilled Alys' blood. "When I show myself to her, she will ask, and I will grant it. And then he will pay."

If she could be sure of one thing, Alys thought, she could be certain that Tarran Glennis was no mad crusader burning to avenge the sufferings of battered women. "Who are you?" she demanded and set Jorys down.

Tarran turned on his heel and smiled at her. In that moment, he looked oddly...beautiful, his green eyes somehow larger and more lustrous than usual, his entire demeanor filled with confidence and a glowing intensity at complete odds with his normally more restrained self. "I am She who is Vengeance," Tarran said. "And I will give you yours, if you wish it. You are deserving."

Alys went dead-white, and her legs felt as if their bones had vanished. She stared at the person who was not Tarran. "I-I--how? How am I deserving?" she breathed, and her voice shook.

The stranger smiled at her through Tarran's face. "You killed him, once. Had someone not...interceded, he would be dead. You took action against the man who killed your husgand, but you were cheated. You are not a sniveling little coward. You deserve satisfaction."

Alys trembled. "I deserve justice. Jobak says vengeance is for the Three to take."

The person who was not Tarran brushed off that comment as if it were a speck of dust on his sleeve, then laughed. "Justice is what we make of it, child. I am Matog, and Vengeance is mine. You deserve vengeance, and so does he, So did the woman who bore him. So many are afraid to take it."

Suddenly, Matog-Tarran stood directly in front of her and brushed Alys' forehead with a feather-light touch. "Have you forgotten how you felt, child?"

Alys squeezed her eyes shut and fought not to relive Jorey's death or the hours she had sat sobbing nearby as the bodies of both her husband and his killer lay sprawled around her. Despite her best effort, she relived watching Tarran stir and sit up.

"He didn't kill us," Alys said in a broken voice. "He--delivered my baby, and he hasn't done a thing to me, since. I don't know why!" She was crying now, but Alys didn't care. There was no woman in the encampment to whom she could explain the situation, but the goddess sounded as if she knew about and understood the entire thing. "There are times when I like him, and I don't know why. I should hate him! Why don't I hate him? He does loathsome things!"

"Sometimes, people who are taken captive come to sympathize with their captors," Matog pointed out.

"That's insane!" Alys gave Matog a horrified look.

"Perhaps, but it's also true," Matog said. "There might well come a day when he asks you to assist him in a High Revel, and you agree to it."

Alys went rigid. "No way in hell would that happen!" she retorted. "Tarran would never ask that of me! He's--"

"A decent man?" Matog asked gently.

Alys glared at Matog, aware of the irony. She made a frustrated gesture, then finally burst out with it. "Yes! He's a royal pain, and he does things I hate, but at the core of it--yes. He's a decent man. He wasn't acting like himself when he killed Jorey. He was acting more one of you."

Matog positively beamed at Alys. "Not only are you strong, but you are intelligent, as well." She straightened and for an instant, looked slightly more, yet somehow less, like Tarran. "You shall have your vengeance, Alys Maldon, though it is I who will exact it. And may it be the best vengeance of all--a happy life despite the heartache."

The goddess paused. "But, for the moment, I have someone else's to see to." Still wearing Tarran's form, she glided out the door.
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