Celine knelt in front of the brick-lined bread oven, her head and shoulders halfway inside the fire pit. Her probing fingertips scraped against a cracked, unevenly heating floor tile. She took out her stone-wand, hoping she wouldn't have to dismantle the entire oven to make repairs. Nestled in a bucket of warm ashes, her salamander kept up an incessant grumble.
“Fire-go-out! World end!”
The string of bells on the front door of the bakery shop chimed gently, accompanied by the creaking hinge. Celine crawled backwards out of the oven and clambered to her feet. Basalt stood just inside the opened half-door, feet spread apart as if braced against a storm, an expression of disapproval twisting his thin lips.
As if I didn't have enough troubles! First, my moon cycles, then this accursed oven, and now him!
Celine tucked a stray curl back under her widow's coif and tried to pretend Basalt was really here to buy bread. There were a few long-loaves left, arranged on their wooden racks like giant's matchsticks, plus the raspberry tarte her friend Annelys had asked her to make for Herve's name-day and then not picked up. If Basalt would take the tarte and leave, he could have it.
“Cold-cold-cold!” Fireling insisted. “Waiting here for-ever!”
“Salamander in a snit again?” He leaned on the counter with what he clearly imagined an engaging leer.
“Did you want something?”
The leer deepened. “You know I do.”
The curl of hair had unaccountably come loose again and Fireling's grumbling escalated to an outright whine.
“A long-loaf?” she asked. “Or this fine raspberry tarte?”
“Just say yes. You're already the envy of half the maidens on Merchant Street.”
“FIRE-GO-OUT!” Fireling yelped.
“Either buy something,” Celine snapped, “or get out!”
With a sigh he handed over the sols for a long-loaf. She wasn't quick enough to snatch her hand back and so he caught it and kissed it. When she retreated at last to the back room, her temper was as foul as the salamander's.
Long past dark, with Fireling once again settled in a bed of gently glowing coals, Celine carried the raspberry tarte down the narrow lanes to the inn owned by Annelys and her brother Herve. Throonish laughter filled the public room, with its low beamed ceiling. The dwarfish caravaneers were, Celine saw at a glance, already half drunk. The inn's ale-imps squealed in protest from their barrels as they churned barley-malt mash into more of the tangy brew. Herve's half-wit son moved through the room, placidly refilling tankards. Annelys, holding a tray of bread and cheese aloft in each hand, cast Celine a despairing look and shouted above the din. Celine shook her head, I can't hear you, and made her way to the private living quarters. Two stools and a narrow table, set with cheese and a few apples, sat against the outer wall. Celine put the tarte down and sank onto the nearest stool.
Herve followed her with a tankard, which he placed before her, grinning. “All the luck!” He angled his chin back toward the public room as he sliced off a hefty portion of the tarte.
“Yes, you'll make a year's profits from just tonight,” Celine said, grinning back. “Are you charging them double or triple? By the by, blessings on your name-day.”
He planted a moist kiss on her cheek and hurried back to his customers. If Basalt had half his good nature, she might consider marrying him just to not have to work so hard.
What was she thinking? She'd already had one solid, decent husband. Oh, Jehan had meant to be kind, beating her less than another might and then only when he was drunk. The best thing and the worst thing he'd ever done for her was to leave her the bakery. So far, she'd managed to keep it going alone...
Annelys bustled in a short time later, flushed. “They'll be at it all night!”
“Yes,” Celine said. Ale-warmth seeped through her tired body. “Herve and I already discussed how much profit you'll make.”
Annelys took a slice of the tarte. “Bless you! I haven't had a moment to eat. I was sure you'd sell it to someone else, I was so late.”
“I almost did.”
“I'd rather have splattered it across his face,” Celine admitted.
“At least it's the shop he wants and not you.”
Celine sighed and picked at a stray berry.
“What is it, my dear?” Annelys said.
“I don't know; I have been feeling tired with all the work. But Lys—my moon cycles, I've missed them twice now.”
“Mother-of-God!” Celine sputtered.
Unspoken words hung between them. Instead of an unwanted pregnancy, did she face the wasting curse that had carried off Jehan's mother?
“Then you can do no better than to ask Old Magdalie. If anyone knows the truth of such matters, it's her,” Annelys said, adding, “I'll go with you.”
Close to midnight, Celine made her way through the hills above the town. Occasionally, she stumbled and sent a rain of pebbles down the rugged slope. Annelys hummed and strode along, surefooted as the goats who'd made the path. Once Celine too had walked these hills as if night-nixie magic guided her steps. Now her body had turned clumsy as her own dough.
Along the path, night dew coaxed wild sweet smells from the sleeping flowers. Here and there, a herders hut or troll gate gave off flickering light. Goats shifted in their pastures.
Celine inhaled, feeling memories stir. She remembered as a child lifting her arms on such a summer breeze, taking aim with the bow she'd carved and strung herself. She'd painted eagles and dragons on her bow, pretending to give it enchanted powers. A willow branch, stripped to its pale core, became a milk-white steed to carry her on her adventures.
Where had those dreams gone? In the three years she'd been struggling to keep the bakery going, they had faded, as colorless as the petals of last summer's wind rose. All too often, these days, she longed only to sleep.
“There!” Annelys pointed.
Celine, seeing the spark of yellow light, felt something lift within her. She would have the truth from
Old Magdalie and know what she faced.
The hut fitted snug against the rocky hillside, running into the body of the earth. A cat came running to them, collar bells tinkling. Annelys bent to pick it up and stood aside.
Backlit, the wise woman came forward. “Is that little Celine? And Annelys of the merry laugh? Oh my dears, it has been too long since these eyes beheld you.” With a firm grip, she pulled both young women inside.
Celine smiled despite herself to see how little Magdalie had changed over the years. The old woman still had the same shriveled sweetness, like a sun-dried elf, the same bright eyes, the same wisps of hair which, so like her own, would never obey the dictates of modest city dress. Magdalie's fingers, smooth and hard as carved wood, cupped her face and Celine felt the sting of tears.
“Tell me, child.”
Celine sat beside the fire, burning with a strange golden light so unlike the smoldering embers of the herders and villagers. Words spilled out of her mouth, out of her heart. The long days of sameness, the beatings, the slow grinding days, the endless work.
At Magdalie's urging, Celine stretched out on the thin pallet. Those hard fingers touched her with wisdom and knowledge, gentle even when the insistent probing brought pain.
Celine closed her eyes and began to drift, as if she were a mote on a river woven from the sound of Magdalie's voice and her own breathing. Eddies and swirls caught her up, carried her along. She felt none of the heaviness that had sapped her strength these past months. How she longed to rest, to lie safe and cradled in her grand-dam's arms...
She awoke to the sound of her own name. Magdalie bent over her, one hand clasped in hers. Beyond, Annelys held the black cat in her arms, her brow furrowed.
“Have I—I must have fallen asleep.” Celine struggled to sit up. “I didn't know I was so tired.”
“'Tis more than tired,” Magdalie said. A strangeness in her voice stung Celine alert.
The world reeled in Celine's vision, but only for a moment. “My husband's mother died of the wasting curse, though she was a virtuous wife. I nursed her through her last days. I know what to expect. I will grow more tired with every passing moon and my body will wither away. There will be great pain.”
“That can be eased.”
“Can it?” Celine searched the wise woman's bright eyes for any hint of deception and found only kindness. Yes, she need have no fear of pain. And there would be no more struggle, no more unending days gnawing away at her spirit. No more Basalts.
“Is there nothing that can be done?” Annelys cried, as if the pain were her own.
“Nothing more I can do,” Magdalie said, her eyes still fixed on Celine's. “There is something you can do, if you have the courage. Your death springs from your flesh, this much is true. But as a curse, its power is more than earthly, for the womb is the seat of birth as well as death. The old tales speak of a journey to the heart of the curse, a way to enter into its womb even as it has entered yours, to face whatever lies there. But this path is not for the irresolute. You will be tested in ways you cannot imagine.”
“Tell us!” Annelys said.
“Do you wish this path?” Again, that piercing look.
“What's the problem?” Annelys demanded. “It's a chance!”
“Leave it alone,” Celine said, getting to her feet. “Life and death are not all that different. Why choose one over the other?”
“Why? Why? Are you moon-mad?” Annelys followed on Celine's heels.
It seemed the easier thing to let Annelys rant, to spew her own fears into the sweet night air. They will lay me in the earth, and I will rest, Celine thought. Whatever sustained her during the climb now left her utterly. She was tired, so tired.
Hot white light poured into her eyes. Celine struggled upright, slowly recognizing her room in the attic above the bakery. Someone—Annelys—had opened the shutters wide. Laughing voices echoed from the street below. Breezes bore the promise of the day's heat.
“I should have been up hours ago,” Celine protested.
Annelys proceeded to haul Celine out of bed and into her overskirt and sabots. “It's Tourney Faire. Come on!”
Celine had intended to bake extra sweet twists to sell at the Faire. How could she have forgotten? There was no point in trying to start the day's baking now, so with a sigh, Celine allowed herself to be led into the brightness. Annelys tucked Celine's arm in hers and they went along as sisters through the gathering throng that wended their way past the town gates, over the bridge with its mill and raft of shallow-bottomed barges, over the range of gentle hills and out to the great field. A miniature town had sprung up overnight, with pavilions, shade screens, pole corrals for the horses, flimsy booths and carts. Tinkers and traders called out their wares.
Celine knew many of the people gathered there, either from the bakery or the inn. Strangers smiled and waved, everyone on holiday. Annelys bought strips of striped ribbon, yellow for herself and blue for Celine. Tying hers in the loose curl that had escaped as usual from her widow's coif, Celine gazed at the mountains that lay on the other side of the town. How far away they seemed now.
Ryneld, the other public baker, had set up trays of meat rolls and fruit bread, charging extra. He smiled at Celine, once he realized she was not here to sell, and offered her an apple bun. She was about to ask where he'd found cinnabark so smooth on the tongue when she noticed his gaze. Basalt stood a little ways apart, talking with a man in Duke's livery.
Celine eyed the other baker speculatively. He had a son still young, but growing. Would he buy the bakery from her and run it with an extra apprentice as a second heritage? Shaking her head, she set aside the idea. He was not a man to try something new. And what did it matter what happened to the bakery?
Let Basalt have it, and every morning may he taste Fireling's wrath!
The thought of the temperamental salamander lightened her step. She and Annelys squeezed between the onlookers to watch the contests. Men and a few women, some in their masters' livery, sparred with staff or wooden sword or shot at targets set into bales of straw. Most used curved bows set with charms in carved shell or wound with colored threads for luck. In Tourney Faires past, archery had been Celine's special pleasure. She'd even entered a round or two, although her plain bow could not stand against the spells carved into a truly fine weapon.
Annelys clapped as the miller's son landed an arrow in the red zone. Celine, who had never much liked the miller's son, let her eyes wander toward the waiting archers. One man stepped away from the next group, drawing her attention. He alone wore neither livery nor ordinary clothing, but a long vest of studded black leather over crimson shirt and leggings. Even from half the length of the field, she felt his eyes lock onto hers. She became aware of the milky skin at the unbuckled neck of his vest, the midnight hair tumbling over the broad shoulders, the slow curve of the lips as if in recognition. She swayed on her feet.
“What is it, my dear?” Annelys asked.
“Nothing.” Doubt swept away the moment. He must have thought I was someone else. It could not have been me such a man would want.
And yet, her heart beat unaccountably fast when he stepped up to the line and dipped his bow in her direction in salute. Sun flashed on spiraling runes in silver wire as he took aim. His arrows went straight and true. The crowd cheered wildly.
Celine stood motionless as the victorious archer walked toward her. He bowed as if she were a great lady and not a widow with a shop. With sweet words he begged her pardon for his forwardness, asking only her name and the privilege of carrying her favor into the next round. While Annelys watched, open-mouthed, Celine gave him the ribbon from her hair, which he tied to a metal ring. His name, she found out, was Ian Archer, and that explained the odd lilting accent.
What was it Fireling chirped when she was warm and happy? Fire-burn-bright! World-ever-flame!
The salamander's joy filled her as she watched Ian Archer advance to the next round and the next. As if by magic, he always knew where she was standing, when she was looking at him. He would turn his head slightly, as if to say he were shooting just for her. All her life, it seemed, she had been waiting for something to happen to her, to carry her beyond the mountains, beyond the village, beyond the unceasing drudgery of the bakery, and here, on the eve of her taking leave of this life, he had come.
He went up to the dais where the Duke and his lady presented him with a purse and a garland of lilies twisted into a golden circlet. Then the crowd closed around him, as if he had been no more than a dream. Afternoon shadows lengthened across the tourney fields as the last rounds began. Faire-goers streamed back to the town to continue their celebrations.
“Ay me, I'm late!” Annelys said with a happy sigh. “We'll be all night working. Did you ever see such archery? Did you see how he looked at you? Oh, you did!” She giggled and threw one arm around Celine's shoulders.
“I feel—so strange. Lys, do you think he bespelled me?” Celine's feet lagged, as if something invisible tugged at her, pulling her back toward the mountains.
“If he did, it's one of the best, the kind to keep your dreams warm all winter! Your cheeks are brighter than cherries! You don't think—the pain, is it still there?”
Celine dipped her head. But not for long. Now she had a reason to try Magdalie's path.
Magdalie had left the door wide open to the patterned starlight. In the hearth, embers dimmed and hushed, falling silently. Only whispers broke the stillness as Magdalie recited words so old that no one now living had ever heard them spoken as language.
Once more, Celine lay on the pallet, her stomach still churning from Magdalie's concoction of herbs and ground resins. She clutched a talisman of intertwined hairs, one from the head of a crone who had died peacefully in her sleep, the other plucked living from her own head. This would serve as her guide for the inward journey. Returning to her body would be more difficult, Magdalie had warned her, for if she could not separate the hairs, or if she chose the one from the dead woman, she would wander lost between the worlds forever.
Dizziness crept over Celine, at first only the slightest sensation of whirling movement. She'd felt this way before, just as she was falling asleep. Only this time, instead of fading into unconsciousness, the vertigo intensified.
Celine tried to open her eyes, but could not move. She could not swallow, could not see, could not breathe. She could no longer hear her heartbeat or the rush of blood through her ears.
Suddenly, she found herself sitting up. Her body, naked, had become pale and translucent as glass. Below her lay a fleshly form, eyes closed in a tranquil face, breasts rising and falling gently. Her ghostly fingers held the talisman, now no longer two entwined hairs, but a glowing rod of braided metal. It tugged at her grasp, as if eager to be off.
Moving cautiously, she got to her feet, letting the rod draw her toward the opened door. It pulled her down the path and straight for the steepest edge of the hill. But she did not go tumbling to her death on the rocky slopes below. She soared, spreading invisible wings across the sky.
The starlight intensified and with it came a sense of freedom, of leaving sorrow behind. Here she felt only peace, only stillness, and finally, as she grew quiet enough to hear it, the eternal, joyous song of the stars. A wordless song of delight filled her spirit even as the light filled her body.
By slow degrees, the light grew less brilliant and Celine became aware of a velvet darkness beneath her. By the time she touched the ground, she was once again solid flesh.
She landed with a jolt on a barren mud flat, clutching a tangle of greasy string in one hand. Wind howled through her ears. With an effort, she forced herself to her feet, looped the string around her neck for safekeeping, and began walking.
Celine had not gone more than a few paces when a flurry of ice pellets pelted her body. She gasped, doubling over and clutching her arms. Her skin burned with the sudden, biting cold.
Snow joined the hail. She hunkered down, hugging her knees to her chest. Her shivers grew more
violent and then began to abate. Moments later, she lost all feeling in her fingers or toes. She knew
from her childhood winters in the mountains what that meant. The end was not far off, but at least there would be no pain. Soon she would feel calm and warm as her body surrendered to the storm.
As Celine drew her arms hard against her body, her fingertips brushed the string around her neck—the talisman, the guide that was to lead her back to life. Instead it had brought her here to die.
I was ready to let go of living. Now, for the first time, I wanted something for myself, something more than work and more work, men who want me only for what I can bring them—
It was so unfair, to have such a slim hope snatched from her.
I want a chance!
The string glowed between her fingers, by degrees warm and warmer. Her trembling slowed and then stopped. The storm passed as quickly as it had come, the snow rapidly melting. She knelt on a shallow, pebble-strewn cup before the entrance to a huge cavern.
She stood up, still holding the talisman. As she moved toward the cavern, it gave off a sweet yellow light. When she turned away from the cave, the light dimmed. A guide she had been promised; a guide she had been given. Her heart lifted.
She stepped over the threshold. The arching doorway of the cave was the same grayish stone as the mountainside but inside, the rock turned blood red. Another step, and she was caught, jerked forward as if the cave had sucked her into its belly.
Celine stood about halfway down a slope leading to a cavern so vast she could not see its borders.
Stalactites hung above her, so distant they resembled dangling threads. On the rocky floor below lay a huge lump of stone.
Like a skull it was, distorted and leering, far less human than the Throonish dwarfs. It stood about twice the height of a man, and its gaping maw was large enough for her to pass within. Two blunted, downturned horns adorned the top of the skull, and the deep-set orbits were tilted downward, the better to watch her approach. Poison-yellow light flickered within the eye sockets. Glowing saliva dripped from the stone fangs.
Her feet froze to the path. The skull sat in front of her, unmoving and pitiless. Any moment now, her courage would surely break, and she would turn and run. There was nothing this lump of rock could do to stop her. But if she did that, she realized, or even if she stood here forever, she would never return to the human world, never stroke Fireling's smooth hide or smell the spice-buns she had made with her own hands, never travel beyond the mountains. Never laugh, never dream. Never see Ian Archer's slow smile.
All because she was afraid.
She had thought she had nothing to lose by undertaking this journey. Now, she saw as clearly as if engraved in letters of flame, how much she risked.
As she passed beneath the teeth, a drop of saliva spattered her shoulder. She screamed and clawed at it, but went on. The interior of the skull was still and black. Not the wondrous, living dark of the stars, but an utter absence of light and form. The stone skull, the red light of the cavern, even the glow of the talisman, all vanished as if they had never been.
Slowly her fears seeped away. She felt warmer, as if the darkness itself cradled her in loving arms. Her knotted muscles relaxed. Her eyes focused on a filmy wisp that suggested the lines of a kindly old face. Closer and closer the image came, until Celine felt the silken whisper of lips on brow, as she had often been kissed as a child.
A well-remembered voice murmured music to her heart, “Celine my baby, Celine my love...”
It was not mere longing that put those words into Celine's ears. She actually heard a voice—distorted and breathy, a melding of every loving phrase she had ever heard. She was a child curled in her grand-dam's lap, pressed against the softness of her body, fingers stroking her hair.
No drudgery, no worry, only peace...
She reached out, but her fingers grasped only air. She stretched further and took a step, then another, all the while finding only emptiness. There was nothing to touch, nothing to hold on to.
“Celine...” The voice seemed less human now, more like a twist of wind.
“No!” Celine screamed from the bottom of her lungs. “Don't leave me!”
Then Celine was alone in the darkness. Loss, sharper than the ice storm, swept through her. Wildly, she sobbed that she could not bear it, that she would give anything to be back in her grand-dam's arms...
Celine stood again in front of the skull rock, only now there was no light in the eye sockets and dull gray chalk filled the mouth. She could not travel that path again.
She still held the talisman, but the hairs were no longer tightly entwined. As she looked down at them, they separated entirely. They looked identical, two strands of colorless filament.
It would be so easy to throw one down without thinking, hoping it would send her back to her grand-dam and this time she would stay with her forever. She could convince herself that she had tried, but luck had been against her. It wouldn't be her fault she'd guessed wrong.
There would be no guessing. She must choose with all her heart and soul. The uncertain tides of life...or the empty promises of the dark.
Celine crouched on the threshold to Magdalie's hut, sipping goats milk from a horn cup. How thick and warm it was, with a tanginess that lingered on her tongue. One moment she felt weak as a baby, the next she wanted to dance. The heaviness, the unrelenting bone-deep tiredness of these last months, had lifted with the morning mist.
Here came Magdalie up the trail, mounted on Pierrot's donkey and using a willow switch freely to keep the beast moving. She helped Celine on the back of the sturdy beast, which sighed in resignation. The thick wool riding-pad looked as if it had been freshly brushed.
“Pierrot will come to collect him tonight,” Magdalie said. She tied two cloth bags, one on either side of the donkey's rump. “Now, you will prepare these herbs as I told you, and take them faithfully and—”
“Yes, yes!” Celine laughed.
She let the donkey set its own pace, watching the tapering ears bob with each stride. The sun was well up, and she wondered how she had never noticed the intense blue of the sky, the bright green of grass and vine, the almost-black green of massed evergreen forest. Night-nixies had left strands of glowing dewdrops wherever shade lingered. A tangle of wildflowers, grasses, fragrant herbs, mosses, and rotting wood lined the narrow path. Birds sang as they swooped and darted across the sky. She sang with them.
As she neared the town, though, she grew quieter. She felt remarkably well, but this changed nothing. Bread still must be baked, a temperamental salamander to be appeased, Basalt to be reckoned with...
With the thought of Basalt came that of Ian Archer. She smiled.
The town sparkled in the noonday sun, pavilions and booths still standing for a last half-day of merriment and trade. A pair of half-grown boys darted toward her, calling.
“Mistress! We'll keep your donkey safe, only five sols!”
“You give me the five sols and I'll let you ride him,” she called back.
“Oh, it's the baker lady.” One of the boys broke off the chase, his face falling. “She's a hard one.”
A hard one. Is that what people thought of her? Ah yes, she must have been, to have endured first Jehan and then widowhood.
I did not come back from the skull cave to do more of the same.
Celine left the donkey at the inn, happily munching oat hay in one of the stalls reserved for travelers' mounts. Annelys was at the farmer's market, restocking after the Throons and faire-goers had eaten out their pantries. Herve nodded at Celine, beaming. A good soul, a simple soul. She wanted to kiss the bald spot on his head, but it would embarrass him too much.
The bakery welcomed her like an old friend, sagging against its neighbors as if it were too tired to go on alone. And yet, they leaned on one another, each knowing its own place—bakery, butcherie, epicerie, wine shop—each filling the street with its own constellation of fragrances. From the back, she heard Fireling's plaintive whine.
“Fire-go-out! World end!”
No, the world wouldn't end, but she hurried to the back of the shop to ease the little animal's distress. Behind her, the string of bells chimed gently. She paused with one hand on the bellows, knowing that this time it was not Basalt.
“My lady.” Eyes of green flecked with gold like a far-off sea regarded her with a twinkle. A pulse leapt in the hollow of his bared throat.
But now she saw the shadows beneath those eyes, the tiny lines, the tightness, the tracery of silver in the midnight hair. The black leather vest was worn raw in places, and the ring where he'd tied her token bore a tangle of faded threads.
“I have no bread to sell today, sir.”
“I have not come to buy bread.” It was just the sort of phrase Basalt might have used, had he been a bit more polished. In a rush, as if looking into a mirror, she knew what Ian Archer had seen in her.
Not her, Celine. Any lonely, overworked widow, starved for a bit of romance, would do. But he would leave in a day or three, taking his tourney prizes with him. On to another faire, another widow, and then another.
For a moment, she considered, for Ian Archer was not Basalt. He would pay in earnest coin with those eyes, that hair, that musical voice. Those arms were yet strong, those hands skilled, knuckles not yet swollen with joint-ill. And if he found a night's solace in her bed and offered illusion in recompense, what harm could there be in that?
On the freezing plain, in the cavern, within the skull rock, everything had been so clean-edged, almost featureless. Even her emotions had been uncomplicated—hope, fear, love, loss. The outer world wasn't like that. Weeds grew in the cracks of weathered granite, dust fouled even the most carefully oiled gears. People said one thing and did another, meant well and yet brought sorrow.
While she was thinking, Ian Archer leaned on the counter, face tilted away from her. He took in a deep breath, released it in a sigh. The lines of his face and body softened. She brought out a short loaf from the last day's baking, one too stumpy for ready sale, and offered it to him. The crust crackled as he tore a piece off.
“'Tis good bread.” He paused in his chewing, eyes thoughtful. “The flour is harder than we use in the Isles.”
“We call it frost-wheat,” she said, accepting a morsel in return. “It's a winter wheat, slow to ripen but with good bones, or so the miller says when he asks an extra sol for the grinding.” Inside the shell of crust, the bread was still tender and faintly fragrant, reminding her of fields of waving stalks lightly dusted with snow. “But how does an archer come to know of such things?”
“In the village where I grew up—oh, a handful of cotts, not a grand place like this—my mother's family made the bread, everything from running the watermill to the real baking. I had no sisters, just a handful of rowdy brothers. We worked in the bakery from the time we could stand. The smells here remind me...I can almost feel the dough all silky in my hands...but that was long ago.”
“And the archery? You could not have come to that late.”
Dark brows tightened. “When the Boat-riders came sweeping down from the north, we all of us stood to the palisades. One day, I carried my father's bow.”
And the luck-tokens carved into it had been real, so that even a young boy shot straight and true. But the father did not.
Celine saw what happened in his face, They burned the mill, the cotts. I alone, I was left to make my way in the world. Sadness shot through her like one of Ian Archer's arrows. How had he managed to live with such a burden? She felt a strange kinship with this man who had no place, she who had one that held her in a merciless grip. Once she would have turned away with a few meaningless phrases, to remember him only on the loneliest of nights. Now, on this day of all days, the rich chaotic pattern of her life came clear.
“Ian Archer, Ian...Baker.” Gently she laid one hand on his, as if he were her brother. “I have a proposition for you.”
Tiny brass bells jingled from the gray mare's harness as Celine rode briskly down the road that would take her away from the village. The long black vest fit surprisingly well when laced to her shape, and the bow case settled across her back as if it had always been there.
She'd left Ian Baker crouched over the fire pit of the main oven, getting acquainted with the salamander. Fireling, after yowling her distress, had favored him with a flick of her slender tongue, just quick enough not to sear his skin. He'd laughed, a merrier sound by far than all his flattering words. When Basalt came by the shop, expecting an even more worn-down Celine... Ah, but she left that moment to Ian to relish.
Overhead, the sky grew warmer and brighter, quivering with light. Within its case, the bow hummed sweetly to her in its own language; she remembered how it had warmed under her touch, inviting her to string it, test it, draw out its power with her own.
“No more tourney-faires for you, my beauty,” she'd sung in her turn. “And no more endurance for me!”
Fire and moon! Dance through the air!
They were two of a kind, this enchanted thing and her. They needed only an adventure worthy of their mettle. And if one did not come to them...well, then they would go out and make it!
From Pearls of Fire, Dreams of Steel. (Available from Book View Cafe, Amazon.com, and Barnes and Noble). First appeared in Sword and Sorceress XX, 2003.