Part Five: Farewells
I didn't see as much of Maron over the winter, just as I saw the slate grey flash of dragon's wings against the sky less and less frequently. I never saw the dragon up close, for all that I knew who he was. Just glimpses at a distance. He joined me on the occasional walk, and even ventured into the Greening itself a handful of times, sitting far closer to the fire than seemed wise to me, although he never burned or even went red from being near the heat, just as he'd never become sunburnt in the summer.
Hessa nodded politely enough to Maron when she saw him, although she didn't ask for his name. It was as though she didn't notice, as I had, that he wasn't one of the guards of Fiacra's March, or perhaps she simply didn't care. She dedicated almost every waking moment to the care of Naji. If she ever wondered about him, she never said so. Najwa, on the other hand, assessed him the second she saw him enter the building, her eyes narrowing slightly when he smiled at her. But she said nothing to me, simply went to see her brother's friend, the Marquis, and the next time she saw him she smiled in return.
"I'm not sure how it happened," he told me one day, the fire at his back making his dusky hair look like the lingering remains of a sunset. "It was back when the Wilds were young, before there was even the idea of a place like the Tamelands, where there could be more than tribes and bands. Before there crops were planted on purpose and trees of a kind planted in orchards. Before houses were truly built, rather than set up in caves or against cliffs. My people fought with another kind, sometimes little spats and at other times towering wars in the skies, for our foes were winged and feathered, like birds.
"There was a man, a human, who claimed to have received the blessing of a god. Perhaps he had, perhaps he hadn't. But it was true that he had great power, which all of the tribes of humans recognized and respected. He was meditating at the top of one of the Thorns when our war started up again. He ignored us just as we had always ignored humans, but when we got too close to him, he demanded silence. We laughed at him and asked him to give us a reason to do so. And then he cursed us, so that we were like him, without any hope of ever reaching the skies again. Many died, for they had been flying at the time, and many more were badly injured. We begged him to return our wings and shapes, but he refused.
"Finally, one of the eldest, a dragon so old that she hadn't flown in decades, came to him and offered a trade. We could have our wings back, but one of us would carry the burden, to remind us of the price of ignorance. She offered to be the first of those dragons, and it has passed through her bloodline ever since. I was the last shape-changer's only grandchild, and though it has always been a female who has held the brunt of the curse, it came to me when she died."
"Do you miss you kin?"
"A bit. But I think I always knew that I would end up like this, so I spent most of my childhood flying over the March. Sahale believed me when I met him… I was seventeen then, just after my grandmother died. He welcomed me into the March, gave me food and shelter when I had none, found a healer for me when I needed one and gave me a friend when I was set apart from everything I'd known in the world. Sahale has done his forefathers proud. He's a good man, and Fiacra's people and the Wild folk who know him recognize that."
He was. He was the sort of leader that I'd always tried to be, fair and just, beloved by all of his people even when he had to refuse their request. Even to those who weren't his people, I corrected myself. He'd known that Hessa wasn't the Lady of Marae and had allowed us to stay anyways. It seemed as though he'd been doing it since the Wilds were wild and, more importantly, he seemed happy doing it.
Winter melted into spring, as it always did, and I found myself sitting in the sun once more. Iamar was with me, her arms bare to the cool wind but for the cloak she'd brought against the possibility of rain, the tattoos of red and black that crept up her arms visible for all to see. She only carried one spear with her today, which meant our usual game was out of the question. She stared out towards the Greening, her reddish eyes unreadable, and then turned to look at me. "When?"
"A week or two," I replied. "Sahale has it from Najwa, who has it from one of her friends in Terrentor. They're starting to wonder just how long it will be until they see the child. He says that he will argue with them, because, like all men, they'll attempt to enter the March without disarming first, which will give me maybe an extra week. But I'll be gone before the end of the month."
"You could stay. Leave your husband, stay in the March. Sahale will let you, and Altair seems reasonable enough. Or come with Enea and I. You're a friend to Fiacra's people and to Maron; the bloodsworn will welcome you. Even with Maron's kin, perhaps."
I shook my head. "Then all this was for naught. Hessa's child will go unacknowledged, since my leaving my husband before he can see Naji will erase that part of his heritage."
"Then go back and give him his son. Return to us afterwards."
I sighed. Iamar's words were persuasive, and their effect had been strengthened by the simple fact that I wanted to stay in Fiacra's March. I could very easily return to Marae for a year or two and watch my nephew grow to the point where it was obvious that he would live, then leave Altair to come to the March. But even that wouldn't be enough, I worried. I needed to be sure that the bloodline would be safe and strong, so that Altair wasn't forced to bond to another noblewoman, one who would look very little like Hessa and I, in order to keep the family safe. I needed to make it so that Altair and Hessa could have their bonding.
"I'll take it all the way to the king if I have to, but I'll have your child recognized in this family," I'd told Hessa the previous spring, back when she'd announced her pregnancy. The king wouldn't do anything now, since his law had made her son a bastard. But it was in my power to make Naji the uncontested heir, and I had sworn it. Would he become bloodsworn if I broke that oath? I didn't know. I didn't want to put him through the anguish that Iamar and Enea had suffered.
Iamar seemed to sense what I was thinking, for she settled back, resting her weight on her splayed and tattooed hands. "You will go home," she finally said in a queer voice. "But you'll come back to us. Just remember that the safest part of the great storms is in the center." Then, in her usual voice, "And don't forget what you promised me. Don't let fear hurt anyone else."
"I won't," I assured her. "Not as long as I'm the Lady." My hands were in my pockets, for although the snow was almost all gone, it was still quite cool. The bloodsworn never seemed to notice, though; even in winter, the only reason they seemed to wear a coat was to blend in with the rest of us. The opposite of Maron, really, whose pride permitted him to continue to wear gloves, for all that even I had long since stopped. "Have you seen Maron?"
She shook her head. "He's gone to visit his kin, I think. He disappears sometimes, for weeks or months or more. There was a time where he was gone for an entire year."
"Ah," I said, pretending not to be overly bothered by this, just as Iamar pretended not to notice my sham. An entire year. I didn't even have a month.
The message came a few days later, carried by a scarlet vested guard of the March. There was something akin to amusement lingering in his eyes when he handed me the letter, and I knew that the original messenger had been caught up in the age's old argument over whether or not armed men could enter Fiacra's March. But unlike Najwa's husband, the messenger didn't have a Marquis to vouch for his behaviour, and Sahale wasn't particularly inclined to trust the Lords of inner Danash, as he didn't know them as more than names and lordings. I wondered if Altair would actually disarm and leave his guard at the border of the March, or if he would simply wait for Hessa and I at the station through which the two of us had entered.
"We're going back soon," I informed my cousin as she cradled Naji, crooning songs and nonsense into his delicately shaped ears. "I've received a letter from Altair. There are a few parts that he addresses to 'the beloved mother of my child,' which I assume is intended for you. There's nothing in the letter that you shouldn't see, so don't worry about skimming through it to find the parts for you. And he also says that the Lord of Este is going to be here when we leave the March, because he wants to see Marae's heir. He'll be here in a few weeks."
Hessa looked amused, which surprised me. There was a time when she would have been alarmed by such an announcement. "It would seem that the Lord of Este has guessed that there's something a bit funny about a Lady running of to Fiacra's March of all the places for the birth of her firstborn. Probably thinks that Altair isn't the father, and that you're going to pretend that he died in the winter."
I hadn't considered that. But Naji, as grey eyed as Hessa and I, was very much his father's son. Though it wasn't obvious because of the baby fat that padded his face, his features were Altair's, and the red-gold hair that had started covering his head was almost the same colour as the Lord's. No, no one would wonder if Naji was truly his father's son.
"Where's your friend?" my cousin asked after scanning the letter.
"She's gone home, most like."
"No, the other one. The one with the dusk-coloured hair."
"He went to visit his kin. No one knows when he'll be back." She nodded to show that she'd heard, but there was something all too knowing in her eyes.
I said farewell to Enea, who made no attempt to persuade me to remain in the March. It might have been because he knew that I was determined to go home and fulfill my duty to my cousin and nephew, it might have been because Iamar had told him. It might have been that he simply didn't care where I went, although his goodbye was kind enough that I doubted that last was true. And I waited at the sandstone mound where I'd gone almost every day for most of a year, sometimes with Enea or Iamar or both, sometimes alone. I could have better spent my days packing for the return trip and helping Hessa, for I never saw the dusky haired man or a flash of a slate grey dragon's wings. But I waited all the same.
It was raining that day, slices of lightening dividing the dark sky, and so I remained in the Greening, something I had done so little since my arrival that I paced like one of the Wild folk. I was measuring the length of my window for the hundredth time when there was a knock at my door, followed by the Marquis of Fiacra's March. There was an apology in his dark eyes, and I knew what he had come to say.
"He's at the border, with the Lord of Este. They are trying to enter armed, as I guessed, but it cannot be very long before they simply send for you to come and join them. A day or two at the most. They say that the Lord of Este is the one who convinced the king to make half of Danash into bastards, you know. He is one of the king's acknowledged relatives, and by cutting out most of the competition, he put himself in a more favourable light. The world will change around that one." There was distaste in Sahale's voice.
"Thank you." He raised an eyebrow, much as he had on our first meeting. "For everything. You welcomed us into your March even though you didn't know us, you gave us shelter in your Greening even when you knew that we came to bend the law and you found a companion for Hessa. You've been so kind to us…"
He smiled, the first full smile I ever saw on his face, and though it was as handsome as I had guessed, it didn't make my heart skip a beat. "My Lady, don't concern yourself at all with it. You've done favours for the Marches too – gave Najwa a friend who was also undergoing her first pregnancy, gave us the tales of inner Danash from one who lived there, gave me someone to play i'dair with some evenings. You will always be welcome in any March you go to. I know you won't stay in the March, Rahima, and I didn't expect anything less from you. But if you ever wish to return, for whatever reason, Fiacra's March is open to you."
"Thank you," I said again. "Thank you…"
"And again, I assure you, there is nothing to thank me for. Will you join me for one last game?"
I stood at the entrance of the Greening, uncertain as to what I wanted to do. Sahale knew men well, or perhaps he had a touch of magic within him to reveal the future, for Altair and the Lord of Este had finally relented and offered to enter the March without weapons. The Marquis, seemingly as fickle as the weather, instantly decided that anyone who said such a thing after refusing to leave their weapons behind for days had merely found a way to conceal their weapons, and would not let them pass. The guards, I thought, knew what was going on, and found it all to be a grand jest. I didn't have much longer in Fiacra's March, and a half hour's hike to the sandstone pile could end up being nothing more than a pleasant walk. But…
I didn't think that I would ever return to Fiacra's March, for all that Iamar had insisted that I would come back some day in a voice that permitted no argument. I had fallen in love with the half-Wild place, with the dancers that I'd seen once or twice after that winter night, with the pathways and the hills and even with the evil-eyed goats, but my duty rested in Marae. For all that he hadn't been present for weeks, I still hoped that I could see Maron once more, either as a dragon or a man.
So I walked the path that I'd walked so often, over and around grassy hills, past goats and sheep and armed shepherds, by guards and the occasional tree, until I could see the dark smudge of the Wilds on the horizon. South, then to the sandstone, an interruption of reddish orange in a world of greens and blues and browns. By that point my mind had wandered away from the landscape and into thoughts of what it would be like to return to Marae after a year's absence, and it took me a few seconds to realize what had changed.
"Rahima?" It wasn't Iamar. It wasn't Enea. Maron was there, not sitting or laying on the sandstone but standing next to it, coat closed against the breeze.
"You came back?" Relief swept through me. I could say goodbye. I wouldn't have to worry about his coming here and wondering why I never arrived, until he was finally moved to go and ask Sahale or one of the bloodsworn what had happened.
"Of course. Why wouldn't I?"
"I'm going home." Puzzlement made his eyebrows draw together slightly, but he nodded in much the same way he always had, an offer to accompany me. He didn't understand, I realized. He thought that I was going back to the Greening. "Not to the Greening. Back to Marae. I found out a few weeks ago, but you were gone; visiting your kin, Iamar said. I didn't know if you would be back before I left."
"I'm sorry. I… It doesn't matter. I should have let you know that I was leaving." No hint of a smile on his face now, just something solemn and sad that made my heart skip a beat all the same. "At least I made it back," he added softly, although he said it more to himself than to me.
"I'm leaving tomorrow. Probably. Sahale says he won't be able to argue with them any longer without starting up feuds that he can't afford. I wanted to say goodbye..." I wondered if he could hear the quaver in my voice as clearly as I could. His expression showed no sign of it. "Walk with me?"
"I didn't really think about your leaving," Maron admitted, a self-depreciating smile twitching his lips. "You've been here for most of a year, but of course you needed to make sure no one guessed who the true mother was. It was just as though you would always be here." That one statement hit me with more force than all of Iamar's arguments rolled together. If I could have stayed and hadn't already been convinced, he could have done it with those words alone.
"I wish I could. But I'm the Lady." There was nothing more I could say.
"That you are," he agreed. "And I'm the legend. I can't really leave…" He hesitated, slowing his stride until he stood at the intersection of two paths. Then he kissed me, softly, uncertainly, and if his smile was enough to make my heart skip a beat, this was enough to make it stop forever. It was ridiculous, a part of me protested weakly. This would be the last time I saw him, not a time to start something. I ignored it, wrapped my arms around him and kissed him back, simply hoping that it wasn't a farewell that I was completely misinterpreting.
"I'm sorry," he murmured after, arms wrapped around me. "I know this doesn't change anything. It's just… I love you. I love you, and if I'd known that you were leaving so soon, I would have stayed in the March until the day you left. I couldn't just let you go away, not when you might never return."
"I love you too." Thorn and Wilds, how I loved him. "I wish…" But he was Fiacra's legend, and I was the Lady of Marae, and neither of us would leave our home. "Visit me. Visit me in Marae. Please? You don't have to do it often, maybe once a year… High Summer, maybe, when everyone is distracted with the dancing in the feasting."
"I will," he promised. And in a place where the bloodsworn walked, a promise was more than words.
I left Fiacra's March the next day, mounted on Hessa's placid mare and carrying Naji in my arms. Appearances were important, after all, and it might raise suspicions if my cousin were carrying my 'son.' Altair and the Lord of Este were there, neither looking particularly pleased with the fact that they'd been kept out of the March, even threatened with arms. They didn't look twice at the man next to me, and Sahale's eyes gleamed wickedly. No, they didn't guess that he could be the Marquis, for all that the other men bowed to his judgment. He could have been a captain. He could have been the most experienced.
"The Marquis apologizes for any inconvenience he may have caused you," one of the guards said. I looked at him closely and realized that he must have been the man who'd greeted Hessa and I when we'd first come to Fiacra's March. Or his brother – he looked almost identical, although he seemed decidedly amused. "However, he was decided whether or not he trusted you to accompany the ladies back to Marae. Or if he intended to let her return home just now."
"He could be killed for kidnapping the Lady of Marae and her heir," the man I didn't know, who must have been the Lahthan of Este, informed us curtly, as though we weren't already aware of the laws involved.
"But the Marquis wouldn't abduct anyone," Sahale said shortly. If Altair or Lahthan would have ever guessed that he was more than a captain, that would have been the moment. But no, he was simply a captain defending his Marquis's honor. "In any case, one would assume that it would be best to give the new mother at least until summer to recover and adjust to her child. It's a common enough habit in Fiacra's March." He bowed from the saddle to Hessa and I, his dark eyes kind. "Farewell, my Ladies. Travel well."
As we rode away from the border of the March, Lahthan of Este announced that he had been made the king's heir, and that he would be ascending the throne of Danash in a few years. I made the appropriately impressed sounds, although I was halfway turned around under the guise of searching my packs for a headscarf to protect my head from the sun. Sahale waved, once, and then turned back to his March, followed by his men. I watched the border recede, wishing fiercely that I could return soon…
"Thorn and Wilds, what is that?" Altair demanded, and the rest of us shielded our eyes and looked at the sky. Something the colour of the great sheets of ice in the north soared overhead, beating its wings almost lazily and circling overhead once, twice, three times. I smiled up at the dragon.
"That's Fiacra's legend," Hessa informed the men pleasantly, ignoring my surprise. "I think that the Marquis said that it would defend against the Lone Guard when it felt like it." I wasn't quite certain what had inspired her to say that, but when the two men began conversing in low tones, she flashed a smile at me. "They'll never follow you back if you decide to go," she said happily, albeit quietly.
"Thank you," I replied, just as softly. And so I left Fiacra's March.