Authors: Anne Bishop
itting cross-legged in the middle of the bed’s sagging, lumpy mattress, Lyrra brushed her dark red hair and studied the small room she was sharing with Aiden. At least it was clean. The floor was swept, the sparse furniture dusted and polished. And the tavern owner’s wife had proudly claimed that she always put fresh sheets on the bed, even if a guest spent only one night.
Despite the mattress, this room was luxurious compared with the one they’d been in two weeks ago. There, a bold little mouse had run across her foot while she was washing herself in the chipped basin that was as close to a bath as that particular tavern offered. Her shriek had woken Aiden from a sound sleep, lifting him out of bed in a tangle of covers. At least he’d landed on the bed — mostly — and didn’t hit his face on the floor.
He wrote a song about it that made men roar with laughter and women give her sympathetic smiles. The wretch.
A burst of male laughter rose from the tavern below.
Lyrra wrinkled her nose, then smiled. Aiden must have reached the point in the evening’s entertainment where he was singing a few of the bawdy songs he knew. And the Bard knew plenty of them.
But there were some bawdy songs he didn’t sing anymore. Whenever someone asked for one of those songs, he’d say he didn’t know it. Which was a lie, of course. Aiden was the Fae Lord of Song. It was part of his particular gift of being
Bard that he knew the words of every song, could play any tune he’d heard.
She could guess when he’d stopped singing the more …blatant …songs about men and women because of the one song he
sing at every tavern or inn they stopped at for food and lodging.
“I gave her kindness, courtesy, respect, and loyalty,” Lyrra sang softly. “I strung them on the strands of love. ‘These are the jewels for me. These are the jewels for me.’”
The song was called “Love’s Jewels.” The Fae had called it “The Lover’s Lament,” and most still did. But Aiden now sang it with the extra verses he’d learned last summer. Learned from a young witch who had tilted their understanding of the world and had left some of them scrambling to set things right again.
That hadn’t been Ari’s fault. She hadn’t asked for the Fae to intrude in her life. But they had, and in doing so learned more than they had bargained for.
Sighing, Lyrra set her brush on the wobbly table beside the bed. She closed her eyes and sat quietly for a moment. If she reached out with her gift, if she let it drift through this small village and the surrounding farms until it touched an open, willing heart, what would that person receive from the Muse tonight? A poem, a play, a story? It could be any of those things. But it would be a poem, a play, a story about sorrow and regrets. These people already seemed to have their share of that. When Aiden had sung his song that was a warning against the Black coats, she’d seen the way the men’s faces had turned grim — and she’d seen the tears, and the fear, in the women’s eyes. This place hadn’t been touched by the Inquisitors, but villages just to the east of here had suffered. After that, she and Aiden had kept the songs and stories funny or romantic, things that would lift the spirit or nurture the heart.
Since nothing she could send tonight would lift the spirit, she kept her gift to herself. But withholding it made
her sad, and she wondered if a story filled with tears was better than no story at all.
She shook off the feeling when she heard the footsteps outside the room’s door. By the time the door opened, she’d worked on presenting a smile of greeting.
That smile faded when the black-haired, blue-eyed man stepped into the room. His harp case was slung over his shoulder by one of its straps. In his hands, he held a steaming mug and a small plate containing two slices of buttered bread and a piece of cake.
“I thought you might like a cup of tea and a bit of a nibble,” Aiden said, pushing the door closed with his foot before taking the couple of steps that brought him close enough to the bed to hand over his offering.
He looked tired, Lyrra thought as she accepted the cup and plate. Well, they were both tired, and she’d been traveling with him only for the past few weeks, ever since he’d come back to Brightwood to find out why she hadn’t met him as planned. But he’d been traveling since last summer, singing songs in the human villages to warn people about the Black Coats, the Inquisitors — and traveling up the shining roads to tell the Fae Clans that the witches who lived in the Old Places were the descendants of the House of Gaian, and their deaths by the Inquisitors’ hands were the reason pieces of Tir Alainn were disappearing. It was physically wearing to stay in the human world and travel from place to place day after day, singing the songs and telling the stories. It was emotionally wearing to pass through the Veil that separated the human world from Tir Alainn to visit the Fae Clans and see the stubborn faces and hear the dismissive remarks when she and Aiden tried to tell them the witches needed the Fae’s protection.
“Drink your tea while it’s still warm,” Aiden said. He bolted the door, then crossed the small room to carefully set his harp beside the table and two chairs placed beneath
the window. He undressed with his back to her, leaving his shirt on until he got into bed beside her and was covered below the waist.
Disturbed by this new modesty of his, Lyrra sipped her tea and ate a slice of buttered bread. They had been lovers on and off for several years, whenever they were both staying with the same Clan in Tir Alainn and during the times when they’d made brief journeys together in Sylvalan. Then, he’d been brash, arrogant, sure of his welcome as a lover. And he hadn’t thought twice about undressing in front of her.
She handed him the cup to share the tea and insisted he have the other slice of bread and half the cake. She was hungry enough to eat it all, but so was he, despite a hearty dinner they’d been given as part of the fee for their performance. There had been too many lean meals lately.
When they finished, she put the cup and plate on the bedside table, next to her brush and the candle she’d lit when she’d come up to the room — and decided it was time to find out what had been preying on his mind lately. It was something more than the loss of another piece of Tir Alainn, something more than the loss of another Daughter from the House of Gaian.
“Aiden, what’s been troubling you these past few days?”
He stripped off his shirt, tossed it on one of the chairs, then lay back. He tucked one arm under his head. The other lay across his belly. “What isn’t troubling me these days? I’ve spent almost a year talking and talking and talking — and no one has listened. The Old Places are still unprotected, the witches are still unprotected, and the Fae sit above it all in Tir Alainn, expecting everything to go on as it has for so long without making any effort to make sure it
go on. The foul thoughts and feelings the Inquisitors brought with them from Wolfram last year haven’t been cleansed from people’s hearts and minds. If
anything, those thoughts are spreading, slowly seeping into other parts of Sylvalan. Those words are still poisoning men’s hearts against the Great Mother, women in general, and the witches in particular.”
“That’s been true for months,” Lyrra said softly. “But there’s more now.”
“Yes,” she said dryly, “and pigs can fly.”
He gave her a shadow of one of his old smiles. “Perhaps they can in some far-off land beyond the sea.”
Lyrra stiffened, recognizing it was her heart more than her pride that was stung. She had asked a serious question, and had, by the asking, offered to share whatever troubled him. And he was going to brush that offer aside as if it were whimsy. Very well, then.
She leaned over to blow out the candle when he said, “It wears on a man when fear is his constant companion.”
She turned to look at him. “You’ve been afraid you might meet up with the Inquisitors?”
“No. I’ve been afraid you would.”
She didn’t know what to say. Pleasure at hearing he cared lifted her heart. Fear of the things she’d heard Inquisitors did to women accused of being witches churned in her belly, making her feel a little sick.
“Late last summer, I visited a Clan about half a day’s ride east of here,” Aiden said, not looking at her. “They wouldn’t listen to me. There were two witches living in a small cottage in the Old Place that anchored that Clan’s territory to the human world, and the Fae wouldn’t listen to me when I explained the danger that had crept into Sylvalan because of the Inquisitors. When I came back this way on my way to Brightwood, men were in the Old Place cutting down thetrees. The witches were gone, the shining road was gone — and another piece of Tir Alainn was gone with it.
“I thought of you, Lyrra. If you’d left Brightwood to meet up with me as we’d originally planned, you might
have stopped at that Clan’s house to rest. If you’d stopped there at the wrong time, you might have disappeared with the rest of the Fae who had lived there, and there would have been nothing I could have done.”
“Someone else with the gift of story would have ascended to become the Muse,” Lyrra murmured.
“She wouldn’t have been you,” Aiden said quietly. He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “A few days before I reached Brightwood, I passed through a human village and saw a little girl with red hair. And I thought…if you had a child, that’s what she would look like — a darling little red-haired girl with a sweet smile that would grow sassy in a few years.” He swallowed, the muscles in his throat working with the effort of it. “And I thought if I was the man who had sired your child, I wouldn’t be content with knowing your male relatives would help you raise her. I’d want to be the one to rock her to sleep at night and teach her the songs and kiss the scraped elbow or skinned knee. I’d want to be her father instead of just her sire.”
“That’s not the way the Fae live,” Lyrra said. She felt tears sting her eyes and wasn’t even sure why she wanted to cry.
“That may be, but the ways of the Fae may not suit
of the Fae,” he replied a little sharply.
“There are good reasons for our living the way we do,” she said, her own voice taking a sharper edge. “The main one being that Fae males aren’t capable of keeping themselves to one lover.”
A long pause. “I haven’t been in as many beds as you seem to think,” Aiden said, turning his head to look at her. “And I always came back.”
“To dance with the Muse.”
“To be with you, Lyrra. And you haven’t been without lovers when I wasn’t there.” An unspoken question shimmered in his eyes.
“I —”Something was happening here. Something between a man and a woman, not between the Bard and the Muse. “I haven’t invited as many men to my bed as you seem to think.”
He sang quietly, “I gave her kindness, courtesy, respect, and loyalty. I strung them on the strands of love.”