Authors: Barbara Campbell
“—and I love you too much to let that happen so I say stupid things like ‘be a Memory-Keeper,’ even though it’s not stupid, you could do it, you can do anything you put your mind to, and if being a great hunter is want you want—”
“You love me?”
“Well, of course I do, you great fool. Are you blind as well as crippled?” She looked up at him, horror-stricken. “Oh, gods forgive me. I don’t know how I could have said such an awful thing.”
“But … how?”
“I don’t know how!” Anguish changed to rage so quickly that he instinctively backed away. “You think
I was looking at you one day and a pink cloud appeared around you and the sun rose and set on your face and I thought, ‘Oh, I love him’?”
“I only ask because … well … I think that’s what happened. To me.”
She went very still. A deep red suffused her cheeks and crept slowly down her throat. She stared down at the ground and said, “Oh. I see.”
He sighed, relieved of the necessity to frame the words.
“That’s why you could never speak her name. Forgive me. I never realized how much you loved Maili.”
“I understand now. Why you didn’t want to come back. Not just because you didn’t want to leave Tinnean or because you were worried about your future, but because you were afraid I’d … make things difficult. That you’d have to hurt me. But I’ll be fine. I am fine. Nothing has to change between us. We can still be friends and I can tend your wounds, and look in on you now and then, and make you supper although you always complain about my cooking, and—”
Her mouth snapped shut.
“It’s you. Not Maili. You.”
She shook her head.
“When I said it happened to me, I meant now. A few moments ago.”
A pulse beat frantically in her throat and her eyes, already huge in her narrow face, became enormous.
“There weren’t any pink clouds or sunsets, but I couldn’t breathe. And my skin hurt. Oh, gods, don’t cry.”
She covered her mouth with both hands. It seemed to take him forever to cross the three steps separating them. At the last moment, he hesitated, afraid to touch her. She solved the problem by flinging her arms around his neck. He rested his cheek against her hair and breathed in the scent of her.
Then she reared back.
“I’ll not have you because you’re lonely. Or because you’re grateful.”
“Any more than I’d have you because you feel sorry for me. Being a helpless cripple and all.”
She punched him. “I said I was sorry. For that. Not for you.”
“So.” Her eyes narrowed. “If you don’t stop grinning, I’ll kill you.”
She was still threatening him when he pulled her back into his arms. His fingers slid through her soft hair as his mouth found hers and the homecoming he longed for.
The familiar voice came from behind him. “What a relief. I thought you’d never get around to kissing her.”
Fellgair leaned against Tinnean’s tree, buffing his claws on the trunk.
“I might have gotten around to more if you hadn’t showed up.”
“Don’t mind me. I’ll wait.”
“So will I.”
“Hello, Lord Trickster,” Griane said.
The golden eyes flicked toward Griane, then back to the tree. “Odd-looking thing, isn’t it?”
“It’s beautiful,” Darak said.
“I am not speaking to you.” He sniffed. “Your companion has proved even ruder than you, Darak. She left the Summerlands without a word of farewell.”
“I had to get back. You know that.”
“And after I saved her from Morgath, too.”
“I thanked you then, Lord Trickster, and I thank you now.”
“Did your companion tell you about our time together, Darak?”
“Aye. Well. We talked. A bit.”
“And did you tell her about Morgath?”
Darak found his unease reflected on Griane’s face. Fellgair smiled broadly. “Well, you’ll have a lot to discuss when you get home today.”
“Unless you prefer to remain here?”
To face the stares and the questions. To relive the grief and the fear. To start life again with no clear idea of where he was going.
“Why now? Why not yesterday or moon ago?”
“Because I say so.” Fellgair smiled. “And because you’re ready now.”
To see his folk, perhaps. But not to leave Tinnean. Then again, he’d never be ready for that—and the longer he stayed, the harder it would get.
“What is the price of our passage?”
“I’m feeling especially generous today. I will accept a kiss. From Griane.”
Darak glanced at Griane, who nodded. She stood on tiptoe, her cheek upturned. With a quick twist of his head, the Trickster captured her mouth. His long arms swept her up, pressing her body against his. One hand traveled down her back and over her buttocks before he released her, licking his whiskers. Griane stumbled backward, only to have her hand snagged by the Trickster.
“You will have many years with your Darak. You will shout at him when he tries to bully you, slap him when he becomes insufferable, and wrap your long legs around him when he becomes frisky.”
“You’re the one who is insufferable.”
“But magnificent. And you, dear boy. Shall I offer you a prediction?”
“That depends on what I must offer in return.”
The Trickster laughed. “Your hand will do. What’s left of it.”
“What’s left I offer freely. And with it, my thanks for all you have taught me.”
The Trickster squeezed his hand gently, although his eyes widened in mock amazement. “The hero gains wisdom and the girl. Happy ending, indeed.”
“But not the end, I think.”
“No.” The Trickster’s face grew solemn. “I predict we shall meet again, Darak. Until then, guard the portal’s token.”
His hand tightened convulsively on Fellgair’s. With all that had happened since he had returned to the grove, he had scarcely spared a thought for the strange little ornament. Now his suspicions were confirmed: somehow, his destiny was linked to the people he had seen through the portal—and to the Trickster.
“As long as you do no harm to me or to mine, you will always be welcome in my house.”
The Trickster nodded once. Challenge made. Challenge accepted. Then he grinned. “How kind. I do love travel. So broadening.” The clawed fingers flowed through his as if his grip had no more strength than a child’s. “Well, as much fun as this has been, it’s getting late. You’d best toddle along, children.”
Darak hesitated. “I need … may I have a moment, Lord Trickster?”
At Fellgair’s regal wave, he slowly approached the tree. He stroked the lowest branch of the Oak, tracing the shallow grooves with his fingertips. The little sprig of holly was too high to reach, but it bobbed toward him, as if Cuillon were saying farewell. Perhaps Cuillon could see him, even from that distant Mountain of his.
Finally, he laid his palms against the trunk and whispered his brother’s name. A faint tingling warmed his fingertips. He told himself that Tinnean recognized him. He told himself that he would always feel his brother’s presence, even if he couldn’t cross the veil separating their worlds or stand before the tree and stroke its smooth bark. He told himself that it was enough that his brother’s spirit was safe. And he knew it was a lie.
Griane touched his arm. “Lisula will open the way.”
It took a moment for the words to reach him. When they did, the upwelling of relief left him weak. As difficult as it would be to open his heart and mind in Lisula’s presence, at least he would see Tinnean again. And while they were apart, the Oak and Cuillon would watch over him.
He squeezed Griane’s hand before nodding to Fellgair. “I’m ready now.”
Fellgair sketched a rectangle in the air, then grasped one invisible edge and peeled it back. At first, all he saw were trees, bathed in the same half-light as the grove. As the light grew brighter, he realized that the shafts of sunlight came from the east, although it was nearly sunset in the First Forest.
“I don’t usually muck about with time, but I couldn’t resist the image of you striding out of the forest with the sun shining behind you. Never underestimate the power of drama, children.”
Darak bowed. “As long as the sun rises and sets, my people will tell the tale. And all will speak of the Trickster’s cleverness and his generosity.”
“And you say you have no gift for words. However, I must insist that you forgo any mention of generosity. I can’t have people thinking I’m a slave to my affections.”
With that, Fellgair shooed Griane through the portal. Darak took one last look behind him and froze.
Speedwell sprang up at the base of the tree. More shot up from the earth, a living blue pathway, straight as an arrow, leading right to him. Hairy stems clustered around his feet, heart-shaped leaves opening from them and then the flowers themselves, bright blue with round white centers.
Fellgair’s smile was gentle. “It seems your brother also has a flair for the dramatic.”
Remember his eyes, as blue as blossoming speedwell.
Darak bowed his head.
“He knows you, Darak. He will always know you.” Fellgair sighed. “A lovely gesture. Horribly sentimental, but still lovely. Don’t weep. You’re forever weeping these days.”
Darak scowled and dragged the sleeve of his tunic across his eyes. “I thought that was what you wanted—to see me weep and break.”
“I’ve seen quite enough of both, thank you.”
“Damn you.” The curse sounded much less effective because of his laughter.
The Trickster plucked a single blossom of speedwell and handed it to him. “One should always bring back a token of the great quest.”
“Will they welcome us, do you think?”
“They’re already flocking out of the village.”
“I sent a few dreams last night. To your chief. To that ripe little Grain-Sister. Lisula, I think her name is. And one more. Let’s see. Who was it?” Fellgair paused, tapping his claw against his ruff. “Ah, yes. The incredibly ancient Sim.” Fellgair winked.
“You’re as bad as Griane.”
“High praise, indeed.”
Darak stepped through the portal.
“When you tell the tale, do try to work in magnificent.”
The Trickster’s teeth gleamed. The portal closed.
They walked through a forest of budding trees. Patches of speedwell blossomed on either side of the trail, their blue contrasting sharply with the white of the snowdrops and the yellow of the primroses. Water dripped off branches from melting icicles. The air smelled of damp earth and new life.
“It’s just like my dream,” Griane whispered.
Astonished, he stared at her. He’d had the same dream these last three nights. A vision made real by Tinnean and Cuillon. By Struath’s sacrifice and Yeorna’s. By his father who had guided him through Chaos. By the Trickster and his vision mate who had taught him about himself. And by the girl walking beside him who had restored his body and his heart.
They emerged from the forest to see their kinfolk surging through the field. He raised his hand in salute and was greeted by a great shout of welcome. Griane smiled up at him. With the speedwell pressed between their clasped hands and the morning sun warm on their shoulders, they came home.