The Mage's Heart
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Don't stray from the path… When Siorin encounters a mysterious black-haired mage in the forest on her way to the local good-witch, she knows better than to stray from the path. Doing so would be inviting trouble from the fairy brethren with whom mankind shares their world. His plight, however, moves her, and she rescues him despite misgivings. Rivyn has cast a destiny spell which he believes brought him Siorin, so he doesn't hesitate to steal her, well and truly taking her off her path when he does so. The mage irresistibly draws and seduces Siorin as he leads her on an adventure that transverses their world, encountering all manner of brethren, for Rivyn is on quest is to rebuild his power so that he can return to the Fae Court and reclaim what has been stolen from him. But what Rivyn has lost is not what he needs to seek. Will Rivyn choose his power, or his heart?
Through story, we teach the rules by which we share this world with the brethren. Around the dying coals of the evening fire, we spin tales of naughty children stolen never to return, of the brutal punishment of liars, and of trespassing travellers going astray.
Tales teach us to seek out good-witches to tend to sore teeth or to help with difficult births, and diviners to foretell the weather, but to fear sorcerers or sorceresses who prey upon the unwary, sprites who blight the crops, and mermaids who drown sailors.
Most of all, the tales teach us to fear the Fae with their deceptive beauty, costly altruism, and cruel punishments.
“That is not my child,” my mother’s denial was final and broken. “It’s a changeling.”
The maids had let the fire die down to embers, distracted by the demands of a new baby upon their time, and the cold had seeped into the gloomy room, the dark wood of the furnishings and the floor fading into shadow, and the fragile light captured by the small windows warped and greyed by the thick glass.
My breath hung before me as I fed the hearth from the wood box, shedding splinters of bark to disappear into the shadows of the floor. A spider, inadvertently carried in with the wood, froze when it was exposed and then scurried away, its long hairy legs disappearing back into the pile from which it would, no doubt, launch a surprise attack on one of the maids later. The wood smoked as it caught, carrying damp from having been fetched in from the wood store outside.
Once, this chamber had been elegant and fashionable, with the heavily carved dark wood bed dressed in rich fabrics. The fabrics now had faded and become threadbare, and had not been replaced by new, the occupants of the bed no longer caring about upon which they lay. It was no longer a room for lovers, but a room of disappointed dreams and sorrow.
During my mother’s latest confinement, she had developed a distaste for the interruptions of cleaning, therefore the surfaces were dusty, the floor crunched with debris, and the room carried with it the scent of stale body odour and unemptied chamber pots. The only people happy about mother’s room, were the maids who no longer had to clean it.
My father had taken to sleeping elsewhere most nights.
A winter born babe will have a summer temperament, the wizened grandmas with their toothless gums and twisted fingers remarked upon hearing of the birth of my brother, Fiane. He gave challenge to that with the screams that pierced through the house and out onto the street. He had reason, however, for his grievances.
“Now, Narie,” my father’s voice barely carried over the babe’s cries. My father was a handsome man, gone slightly to seed. His belt did not tie as tightly as it once had, and his dark hair held more silver, but he still carried the broad-shouldered height of his youth, and his strong boned face carried his beard well.
He held the screaming baby against his shoulder, his big hand cradling Fiane’s head. I could see the little face, screwed up and reddened with fury, and smell the soiled rags he wore. So new to the world, and so hungry for his mother’s milk and love, but my mother would have none of it.
“We’ve put out milk and honey every night, and his basinet has red ribbon. No one has done anything to anger the Fae Court or any of their critters, have they, Siorin?” My father turned to me.
“No, father,” the floorboards had a chip in them that caught my skirt as I rose, and I pulled a face as the material tore. I would have to darn it before it frayed.
“See, Narie,” he turned back to my mother.
She laid herself back against the soiled cushions, her face pale against the night darkness of her hair, her one remaining beauty. Years of miscarriages and stillbirths had stolen the colour from her skin, the light from her eyes, and the flesh from her bones. She was feverish. The birth had not been easy for her. She had not allowed the maids to wash her since, nor brush out the long locks of hair, and the tangles were beginning to matt in a way that might be unsalvageable.
“He’s not mine, Hylan,” she whispered. “The Fae Court have stolen my baby. You must believe me.” Her nightdress was soddened with the milk she refused to give to the hungry baby. She smelled of body odour, illness, old blood, and now sour cream. I kept to the fireplace, nearest to the chamber door, where the smell of the chamber and my mother was less poignant.
My father sighed and his chin dropped to his chest as he pondered the problem. “Alright, Narie,” he sighed, wearily. “You give me no choice.” He wrapped the baby in the blanket lovingly woven by my mother during her first pregnancy, and used briefly in infancy by myself, and not since. My father met my eyes as he walked from the room. There was a desperate despair in his expression, a terrible grief, and a farewell.
I ran to the window as the front door slammed, rattling the trinkets on my mother’s dresser. Through the small, rippled diamond shaped panes of glass, I could see my father, his cloak dark over his shoulders, striding off down the street. The afternoon was fading into evening, but his passage with the screaming child brought the neighbours to the windows and onto their stoops, and I saw him pause to answer a query, shaking his head grimly.
A sparrow had made a nest on the window frame, and there were three little speckled eggs caught in the weave of fine sticks and down feathers. I wonder where the parent sparrow had gone, or if, like my father, they had left not intending to return.
“He has gone to her,” my mother murmured. “Gretha.”
Gretha was an open-faced widow, her body soft and round and her face quick to laugh. She had always been kind to me. She had a six-month-old baby that was widely known, but never openly acknowledged, to be my half-sister. She would have milk to spare for my father’s precious heir.
Tears ran down my mother’s cheeks into her hair; I wondered if its frequent watering was what kept the locks so lush. Once, I was told, my parents had loved each other, before time and my mother’s failure to bring a living boy-child into the world had taken their toll.
“Come here, Siorin,” she pleaded, patting her hand against the stained bed clothes. I came and sat cautiously, repelled by the smell. I was not often invited into her company as she had come, in recent years, to resent me for living when the boy children had not, but she had summoned me here today, and my arrival had caught the end of her discussion with my father. She had a purpose in calling me into her presence, I knew, and dreaded what it was.
“You must... you must save your brother,” she told me, fervently. “You can do it. Offer them yourself in exchange,” she gripped my hand.
“Mother,” I stared at her, appalled. By them, she meant the Fae. Story told that they were partial to stealing mankind maidens from where-ever they could get them, only to return them, twenty-years older the very next day, grieving being parted from Fae children and husband alike, but cast out for no longer being beautiful. The Fae were cold, cruel, and unfeeling.
We avoided angering the Fae or bringing ourselves to their attention. The only thing worse than being stolen by one as a wife, was being a recipient of their costly altruism. A gift from the Fae would come at an unpayable price, and the punishment for not paying, was harsh and unyielding.
“You are to be married anyway,” she breathed. “Why not to one of them? They’ll be more handsome, and younger than Tilef. It’s better for you, and with my boy back, your father will love me again, I know it.”
I looked away and swallowed. I had memories from childhood of my mother where she had been beautiful, bright, and smiling. She had lavished me with attention, teaching me to read, to sew, with gentle kindness, and loving looks. She had taken care of her appearance and overseen the house, so that the maids had never been slovenly. The house had been bright, warm, and the envy of our neighbours, and my father had been loud, and strong, and happy to come home and greet his little ladies, as he had called us.
Slowly, as pregnancy after pregnancy passed without a baby or a son, those things had changed, and the house was no longer the envy of our neighbours, no longer clean, no longer bright, and no longer home to my father. He blamed her for the losses, and they both blamed me. Something in my birth, had changed their fates for the worse.
“From my chest,” she had not released my hand and her nails dug into my skin in clawed demand. “Take my cloak, the blue one. They favour blue. Go to the standing stones of the Graceplains, at midnight, like they say.”
“Mother...” I would not do it. I would not tempt fate and the Fae by wearing blue on the Graceplains. But I was trapped. My home was falling apart around me, and I had only the one suitor in the village, Tilef, twenty years my senior and who had already buried two wives. I had turned him down, but perhaps I had not been wise in doing so. I had to believe that there was something more for me than the miserable future Tilef offered.
“Take the household money,” she released her grip, exhausted by it. “Don’t fail me.”
“No,” I told her, firmly. “Fiane is yours mother. This is just... motherly misery. It happens.”
“You owe me your life,” she whispered, angrily, a vehement hiss of sound, like the boiling of a kettle. Her eyes glittered with her fervour. “It was having you that ruined me for bearing sons.”
I looked away, shamed. She did not lie. My birth had been a difficult one, and she had almost died bringing me into the world. If it hadn’t been for the good-witch, Isyl, neither of us would have lived. Isyl… Isyl would help us, I was sure. She came every year to the village to tend our ailments, and had once been friends with my mother, when my mother had been young and full of life, love and laughter.
She always came in her visits, to see to my mother in the house, so that mother did not have to come to her. She had witnessed the slow decay of the household, a reflection of the decay of the marriage between my parents. The last time she had been here, she had told me to be strong, that all things passed, and not to marry Tilef. It was her saying so that had made me brave enough to decline his offer.
“I will compromise, mother,” I replied after a long moment. “I will go and fetch Isyl. If she says Fiane is a changeling then I will do as you ask.” Perhaps I could apprentice myself to Isyl, offer to keep her house for her in return for lodging. Perhaps I would not need to return to this miserable house that was no longer a home.
“Thank you, Siorin,” she was contented with this, and her eyes closed. After a moment her breathing eased as she succumbed to sleep. I sat gazing at her, my heart tight within my chest. I loved the mother she had once been to me and grieved that mother as if she had passed. Perhaps mother was right, and there was a changeling in the house, but it was not Fiane.
I went to my room and changed my clothing, discarding dress and slippers for trousers, tunic, and boots. I wrapped my green cloak over my shoulders and belted my dagger to my waist. Into the satchel I normally reserved for foraging trips into the forest, I placed a change of tunic and some handkerchiefs, as well as a fire striker from my bedroom hearth.
My mother’s maid, Yena, was on her way up with my mother’s evening meal as I exited my chamber. “Miss?” she asked me, seeing my clothing.
“My mother wants me to fetch the good-witch Isyl to attend her,” I explained. “Let my father know I have taken Coryfe.” If he returned.
I ran down the stairs, and turned to the back of the house, where the kitchen was located. My sudden entry startled Anre, our cook, taking a moment for herself, her feet up at the table. “Miss Siorin,” she scolded, dropping her feet to the ground. “You know your father does not like you back here.”
The kitchen was the only place in the house that had remained unchanged, under Anre’s demanding eye. The pots still shone with polish, the floor was swept and mopped so clean we could eat off its bricks, and the table was scrubbed. The fire here was always bright and well attended, and always held something cooking over it. It smelled of drying herbs, savoury food, and beeswax.
I would live in the kitchen, if my father would let me, sleep before the warmth of the fire, in the place where my happy memories rose easiest, and I could pretend that the grimness of the rest of the house did not exist. In the kitchen, I was a child again, not a woman on the edge of an uncertain fut
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