Disclaimer: Characters are original and bear no resemblance to anyone living or fictional.
No violence. Sex between two women is expected after the story ends (or in a longer version if I expand the story).
Sten’s head came up abruptly at the sound of approaching horses and his hand tightened on the pitchfork. In recent months there had been a steady stream of men passing through the valley. The war was over and most of the survivors were going home to wives or parents they hadn’t seen in five years. But others had survived the war who were not so harmless. He waited to hear if the horses continued beyond the inn. When they didn’t, he stepped out of the stable with the pitchfork still in his hands.
He saw one rider and six horses. Although the gate to the yard was open, the stranger had stopped his horses just outside the fence surrounding the inn and stable. His hands were clearly visible and far from his weapons. As Sten watched, he slowly raised a hand to the hood of his jacket, pushing it back to reveal a thin face and long, dark hair tied loosely at the nape of the neck. It took Sten a moment to realize the rider was a woman. She waited silently for the innkeeper to finish his assessment.
Sten saw a woman dressed in boots, pants and a jacket that were dusty and threadbare but relatively clean. A faded patch on her right shoulder bore the badge of the Duke of Merion. The duke had supported the queen until her death and then had fought for her young son. The supporters of the young king had won the war but at a terrible cost. Sten’s son had fought under the duke’s banner.
The woman was too thin and there was no softness or warmth in her gray eyes. Everything about this woman made Sten uneasy. He would have said she was a foreigner except there were no foreigners after the Wizard War.
“Have you seen enough, old man?” The impatience in her voice didn’t hide her weariness.
Sten looked at her gray eyes and dark hair again and felt a sudden fear. “You may water your horses then be on your way. There’s nothing for your kind here.”
The woman’s jaw tightened in anger. “And what kind am I?” she asked softly.
Sten felt a sudden wind pressing against his back, pushing him toward her. It stopped as she continued to speak, “Do you think me a demon? A murderer perhaps? Or only a thief? If that’s what you fear, you’re too late. I took what I wanted from this valley six years ago.”
The color drained from Sten’s face. Six years before a clan of horse-traders had come to the valley. When they left, Sten’s son had gone with them.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Sten whispered fearfully.
Disturbed by the anger and fear in the air, the rider’s horse pawed the ground nervously. The woman quieted him with surprising gentleness before turning her attention back to the innkeeper.
“I’m only a ghost, old man, and ghosts can’t harm you. Garth asked me to tell you if anything happened to him. And he asked me to give you this.” She tossed a small leather pouch to him.
Sten caught it automatically but ignored it. His fear changed to confusion and then to grief. Tears sprang to his eyes but he refused to let them fall. “How did he die?”
Bleakness settled over the woman’s face. “He died two days after the last battle. He was killed by a wizard who didn’t know the war was over. He didn’t suffer.”
Sten’s mouth tightened with angry disbelief. “Are you telling me my son died by magic?”
“Wizards use weapons made of iron as well as those of magic. The results are the same.”
“My son could not die by magic,” Sten said stubbornly.
An unreadable emotion flickered in the stranger’s eyes, “Only wizards are immune to death by magic, old man, and your son was no wizard. He’s dead, whatever the cause, and no words you say can undo that.”
Sten stiffened. The woman’s coldness at the death of his son was another reason to desire her absence. “Thank you for coming to tell us.”
The woman shrugged. “You don’t owe me thanks. I’m here for his sake not yours.” She lifted a hand to touch her forehead with a fingertip, “I’ll not keep you further,” and turned the horse toward the road.
The stranger turned her head to look at a short, slightly plumb woman standing in the doorway to the inn. There was nothing of Garth in either the innkeeper or his wife, but she had never expected there to be.
Although clearly nervous, the innkeeper’s wife looked at her husband with slight exasperation, “Where are your manners, Sten? It’ll be dark soon. Invite the woman in for the night.”
Sten frowned, “Sarah, you don’t understand…”
“I’ve eyes in my head,” she interrupted, “I can see what she is, but she’s the reason Garth left. I want to know her and I want to know about my son’s life these last six years.” She looked back at the stranger, “Will you stay? We can offer food and a soft bed with clean sheets.” When the stranger’s expression didn’t change, she frowned for a moment and then offered another incentive. “Would a bath with as much hot water as you want help you change your mind?” she asked softly.
A wistful smile appeared on the stranger’s face, “For a hot bath I would do almost anything. I can stay the night but no longer. There’s a wizard in the valley and I have no fondness for wizards.”
Even that slightest of smiles transformed the stranger’s face into an image of beauty, and Sten blushed as if he had glimpsed something too private to be seen, but her words caused the blush to quickly fade to paleness, and his breath caught in a fear he did not fully understand.
Sarah ignored her husband’s reaction, “I’m Sarah and my husband is Sten. You’re welcome to stay however long you want. The wizard won’t harm you. He’s a good man and would want to hear what you have to say about Garth.”
The stranger frowned, unhappy that a wizard might be interested in her, no matter the reason. But she had known the wizard was here, had known she would have to talk to him.
She dismounted slowly, stiff from long hours in the saddle, and led her horses into the yard, stopping in front of Sten. On horseback she had appeared tall and menacing. Standing, it was easy to see that she was no more than average height, slender and far less formidable. She glanced at Sten but spoke to Sarah.
“My name is Raen.”
Sarah nodded, “Thank you. Sten can take care of your horses, if that’s all right.” She waited to see if the woman would object, then continued, “The bathhouse is behind the inn. Take as long as you like, then come to the kitchen. We’ll have dinner and talk. Oh, and if you see a snow cat, don’t be alarmed. She comes here sometimes. She won’t hurt you.”
During dinner Raen had spoken easily about Garth and what the two of them had done in the six years since they had left the valley. She spoke with humor and an obvious love of the time they had spent with the horse-traders. With words she drew them pictures of their life together and shared with them memories of their son to keep as their own. As she spoke, her not-quite-dry hair framing a face softened with remembered happiness, it was easy to see why a young man might leave his home and family to be with her.
They remained at the table after they finished eating and Sten filled their cups with more ale. It was early yet and most of the tables were empty. Only a few villagers sat at the tables that were occupied. They were there to have a cup of ale and relax before they went home to their wives and children. Later when the serious drinkers and gamblers arrived, the main room would be nearly full. The noise would make it almost impossible to have a normal conversation, and Sten and Sarah would be busy filling ale pitchers and serving food. Now the room was peaceful.
“There was a letter inside the pouch. Do you know what it says?” Sten asked Raen quietly.
She shook her head, “He wrote it over a year ago, but he never told me what he wrote and I can’t read your language.”
Not ‘I can’t read’ but ‘I can’t read your language’. Sten felt the return of his previous unease. Raen spoke the language of Almedia better than most who had been born to it for all that she was traveling with horse-traders when she met Garth. If she could not read Almedian then what language did she read? What was her native tongue?
Or perhaps not. Sten cleared his throat, “Garth wanted you to have his land. He wanted you to be able to raise horses even if you couldn’t do it together.”
“I can’t stay here.” Bleakness had replaced the pleasure of happy memories. “If Garth had lived, we would have come back here and stayed the rest of our lives. With him I could have stayed here, but not without him.”
“Where will you go that’s safe?”
Raen was on her feet so fast she knocked her chair over and had to kick it out of her way. The knife she had left beside her platter was now in her hand and she moved so the table was no longer between her and the front door.
A man stood in the doorway of the inn. His hair and beard were white and sparse. He was tall and might have been heavy-set in his youth; now his skin was stretched tightly over his bones. His robe, two hundred years out of fashion and shabby from long use, was made from a fabric so prohibitively costly that only a wizard or a king could wear it.
Sten looked at the man in quiet concern. “You should have sent word. I would have come for you with the wagon.”
The wizard shook his head, “I appreciate the offer, Sten, but it’s not you I’ve come to see.” He looked at Raen in wonder, “Where did you come from?”
“Stay away from me!” There was an edge of panic in her voice.
Sten stared at her in disbelief. “This man is a wizard, the last of those who survived the Wizard War. You will show him respect.”
Raen turned slightly toward him without taking her eyes off the wizard, “I don’t have to show him anything but my back. I’m leaving now. Don’t get in my way. And you, sir,” she directed to the wizard, “stand away from that door.”
Sten moved in front of her. “And where will you go while a wizard wants you to stay?”
The wizard chuckled softly, “Sten, didn’t anyone ever tell you not to stand in front of a knife? Step away before she kills you by accident.” He turned his gaze back to Raen. “I’m called Stone. I mean you no harm. I’m too old and too tired to force a binding. That’s what you’re afraid of, isn’t it? I only wanted to see you, to talk to you.
“It was you six years ago, wasn’t it? I was away from the valley that day or I would have felt you and would have known. The presence of a dreamer was the only explanation for what happened, but that couldn’t be possible because you were all dead a hundred years ago.”
Raen stared at him, trembling slightly. “A few survived, including my grandparents. Now, I think I’m the only one,” she whispered. She felt her hand holding the knife waver and dropped it to her side. After a moment she carefully laid the knife on the table. “My foster uncle taught me how to fight, but I’ve never killed anyone. I’m not sure if I could.”
“What did you do in the war?”
She blinked. “I took care of horses. It’s all I really know how to do.”
The wizard nodded. “A useful talent in wartime.”
She drew a deep breath, “I made a mistake six years ago. I didn’t know what I had done until it was too late. That’s part of the reason I came back. To try to undo the mistake.”
Stone frowned, “Were you trained?”
“By my mother, yes. But without a believer it was all theory. I had no practical experience.”
The wizard nodded again. “Did Garth tell you about Caitlin?”
“He told me that he and Caitlin were twins, but that she had all the power.”
Stone sighed, “It’s normal when twins are born to a wizard that all the power goes to only one of them. I’ve always thought it was because wizard power is already divided into believer and dreamer and it just refuses to be divided again. Do you think you can change her back to a woman?”
Raen nodded, “If you can create the image of what she looked like, I can make that image real.”
“You do know that you’ll have to bond with me first, don’t you?”
“Garth told me you were an honorable man, and I don’t think you have many years left to you. I’ll take the chance.”
Stone nodded. “Tomorrow we’ll see what we can do.” He looked at Sten and Sarah with a weary smile. “I’m a little tired. I think, Sten, I must impose on your generosity and ask you to take me home, and, if you will, pick me up in the morning.” He looked at Raen again, “Your presence should be enough to draw Cait to you and keep her here until I arrive. Get some rest.”
By the time Sten left to pick up the wizard, Raen had finished her morning meal and was having coffee. She had slept without dreams or nightmares and counted the absence of both a gift. Now, rested and alert, she simply waited for Stone and thought about the day six years before when everything had been so wonderfully good and so terribly bad—the day she had met Garth and Caitlin.
She had told Sten that Garth was not a wizard and that was true, but wizard blood flowed through his veins. Enough wizard blood that she could bind with him and that bond was in some ways stronger than love or desire, although, according to her mother, it could encompass both. She had never been in love with him, or felt desire for him, but she did love him.
That day she had felt an attraction to both of them, a feeling she had never felt before, like warm honey in her blood. It had made her giddy and careless. Without thought she had touched Garth and allowed the bond to happen. It was only then that she saw the snow cat. The residue of physical and emotional attraction was still there, overlaid with an emotional anguish that was almost unbearable. Again without thought she had reached out and touched the snow cat only to have the animal scream in pain and run off into the nearby woods. It wasn’t until much later that she realized she had touched a young woman who wore the image of a snow cat as if it were a costume, an image the young believer had created, and Raen’s touch had made real.
It should not have been possible. She was already bound to a wizard and should not have been able to dream another wizard’s creation into reality. But it had happened that one time, perhaps because the wizard and the almost wizard had been twins.
The bond with Garth had protected her from loneliness, but more importantly it had protected her from wizards. Now she was vulnerable again. An unbound dreamer was like a siren-call to any unbound within a hundred miles. And all believers were unbound. The first wizard she met could force her to bond with him, or her, she thought as an image of Cait appeared in her mind, if she didn’t do it voluntarily. Her mother had explained to her that a forced bond was the same as being raped every day for the rest of her life. And there was nothing she could do about it except give up her sanity and lose herself in her own dreams. She couldn’t even kill the believer. The bond wouldn’t allow it.
She heard the kitchen door open and looked up expecting to see Sarah. Instead she saw the snow cat. She was as beautiful as the first time Raen had seen her and the siren-call that beckoned was just as strong. She stood warily, watching the animal watch her, and, even after the eerie, bone-melting scream, she was unprepared for the cat’s sudden leap into the air, unprepared for the searing pain in her shoulder, unprepared for the weight of the cat’s body holding her to the floor, and only able to see an open mouth and teeth moving toward her throat.
Sarah burst into the room screaming as she flung herself at the cat, “No, Cait, stop now! Don’t hurt her! For the love of El, don’t hurt her!”
The snow cat made the same blood-chilling cry as before then whirled toward the front door and was gone.
Feeling lightheaded and nauseous from the pain in her shoulder, Raen sat up slowly and carefully. Only then did she become aware of the blood soaking the front of her shirt.
“You’re covered with blood,” Sarah cried fearfully. “I don’t understand why she attacked you. She’s never done anything like that before,” she said as she helped Raen stand.
Leaning against the table until a wave of dizziness faded, Raen made a wry face, “She has no reason to remember me with kindness.”
The gash in Raen’s shoulder was long but not too deep. Sarah cleaned it carefully with water, poured a small quantity of brandy along its length, and dried it gently. She spread a green ointment on a clean cloth before pressing it to the wound. “If you’ll hold this in place, I’ll secure it with these strips.” As she worked, Sarah continued talking, but it wasn’t clear if she was trying to reassure herself or Raen that the wound would be all right. “Cat scratches can sometimes be dangerous, but the ointment should prevent any problems and it will also help with infection and scarring. There, that should do it. Don’t force it, but move your arm as much as you can so I can see if the wrap will hold the bandage in place. Good. I’ll change the dressing in the morning.” She frowned at the bloody shirt on the floor. “I’ll get you one of Garth’s shirts, unless you have another clean one?”
When Sten had returned from the wizard’s house, he had calmly informed Raen and Sarah that he had found the wizard sitting by his fireplace dead. He had just as calmly sent the stable boy to the village to inform them of the wizard’s death. He had, in fact, remained calm through the funeral service and burial, but since then he and Raen had been matching each other in drinks.
After they passed out, Sarah left them in the main room of the inn to sleep it off with a few of the valley’s other residents who couldn’t make it home. When she went down to wake them the next morning, she found Cait curled up asleep a few feet from the sleeping Raen. Even after both were awake, Cait stayed near Raen. She was never close enough to touch nor far enough to be out of sight.
Raen continued to stay at the inn, not even sure why she stayed, and Cait was always near, watching. Each night Raen would decide to leave the next morning, knowing there was no reason to stay. Each morning she decided to stay one more day, despite the pain of Cait’s presence.
An unbound wizard, either believer or dreamer, could perform magic in countless ways but could not change reality. A believer could create a perfect illusion and a dreamer could dream that illusion into reality – if they were bound. The binding changed the two separate parts of magic into one magical whole. In their need to form a whole, the pieces of magic, residing in a believer and a dreamer, exerted a powerful attraction upon each other, and that attraction could take the form of a pleasant awareness, if they were far from each other, or a painful, almost sexual, arousal, if they were very near.
At the distance Cait maintained, she and Raen were painfully close. The one time Raen had tried to leave the valley, Cait had followed her. Rain had returned to the inn and the war continued.
To occupy her time, Raen helped Sten or Sarah around the inn, but by the end of two weeks she and Cait were so short tempered that the innkeepers would not allow either of the wizards near them. They were both forced to stay in the stable.
As another week slowly passed, Raen began dreaming again. As always the dreams were filled with a young woman with dark blonde hair and amber eyes. For six years she had dreamed of this same woman. The dreams were quite ordinary: walking hand in hand with Cait in the woods, laughing as they watched squirrels play in piles of leaves, eating together, watching Cait bathe by the light of the fireplace. Many of the dreams had children in them; in her dreams she witnessed Cait giving birth to two of the children and lived through the birth of the other two. In her dreams she watched the children grow to be adults and have children of their own. Her grandmother had had dreams that came true. Until Stone died she had thought perhaps her own dreams would become truth. She no longer saw how that could happen.
Raen tried to reason with Cait, explaining that she could do nothing for her unless a believer wandered close enough to the valley to feel Raen’s presence. She explained to her that even if that happened, which was unlikely since wizards usually stayed within their assigned areas, she could still do nothing for her because she would not be bound to a stranger and if forced into a bond would choose insanity rather than a lifetime of emotional rape.
Another week passed. The dreams did not stop. But now sometimes with the dreams came a voice, a voice like warm honey that flowed through her body warming her, comforting her, “Don’t forget, I may have the body of a snow cat, but I have the mind of a wizard.”
Another week passed.
You are undoubtedly the most stubborn, unimaginative dreamer that ever existed. How long do you intend to torture both of us?
She glared at Cait, “Why don’t you kill me and put us both out of our misery?”
I didn’t want to kill you. However, I do apologize for attacking you before.
“What do you expect me to do?”
You could bond with me. It might not be so bad. The words were colored with sadness.
Raen refused to answer.
Another week passed.
Go to Sten and Sarah’s bedroom.
It’s too difficult talking to you this way. I need a long mirror and the only one is in their bedroom.
Sarah stared at them when they entered the inn. “Are you in a better mood?”
Cait growled and Raen frowned. “Not especially. We need to go to your bedroom. Cait wants a long mirror.”
“You can communicate with her?” Sarah asked in bewildered surprise.
Ignoring the question, Raen almost snarled, “May we use your bedroom?”
“Yes, but if you destroy anything, I’ll beat you both with a broom.”
“I think you need to put clothes on,” Raen stammered, blushing.
Cait smiled in amusement, “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were modest.” A dress shaped itself over her nude body. “Is that better?”
Raen shifted uneasily, “Yes. Why are you doing this?”
Cait sighed, “We need to talk seriously and it’s easier for you to talk to me if I look human. And I wanted you to know that I do still have a human mind. I’m still a wizard, quite a powerful one, actually. You don’t need another wizard to change me to what I should be. I could easily force a bond with you and I could probably stop you from becoming lost in your own dreams. But I don’t want you to be my slave and I don’t want you to make yourself insane. I don’t want to hurt you. There are very good reasons why you should bond with me, you know.”
“It’s not that I object to bonding with you, I don’t want to bond with anyone. I don’t want anyone inside my mind.”
“But you would have bonded with my father,” Cait said thoughtfully.
“Your father was old and about to die. The bond wouldn’t have lasted long. I could have done it for a short period of time if it meant giving you back yourself. But I can’t do it with you. We’re both young and a lifetime could be a very long time.”
Cait moved a bare foot in small circles on the floor almost absently. “You bonded with Garth.” There was a hint of jealousy in her voice, but her eyes showed no emotion.
Raen sighed in exasperation. “That was an accident. Neither one of us knew what we were doing. We eventually came to love each other but it was never an easy pairing.”
“You were accident prone back then, weren’t you? Were you and my brother lovers?”
“You could have as many lovers as you wanted, you know. I might not like it, but I wouldn’t try to stop you or fight about it.”
“Would you import them into the valley for me?” Raen asked sarcastically.
“No!” Cait spat out angrily. A hand clinched into a fist and she whirled away from Raen before she lost complete control of her emotions. Several moments later she turned back to face Raen, her composure intact.
“I can offer you protection from any other wizard. You’ll never have that on your own. I’ll give you as much freedom as you need. You don’t have to love me. You don’t even have to like me. I just don’t want to be alone. Is that so hard to understand?”
“I do und…”
Cait raised a hand to cut her off, “I can’t do this much longer. Please let me finish.” She took a deep breath to stop the trembling of her voice, “You wouldn’t have to practice magic unless you wanted to. I happen to think the world is a pretty well off the way it is, and what needs changing doesn’t have to be changed by magic. This valley is a beautiful place, and its people are decent and hardworking. It’s a good place to live. It’s a good place to raise horses. It’s a wonderful place to raise children, if that’s what you want. Those are all my reasons.”
Raen felt as if her heart was being ripped out, but she couldn’t say yes. Cait had not offered her the one thing that would have made it possible to stay with her and she couldn’t ask for it. “I can’t.”
Cait flinched at the words, but she nodded in acceptance. “I’ll let you go, and I won’t follow you. I don’t think I could, anyway. This is my home and I don’t think I could live any place else. But I would ask one favor of you.”
“If I can do it, I will.”
She smiled sadly, “You can live without me, but I don’t want to live without you. I’ve suffered enough for your mistake. I don’t think I deserve to suffer for another two hundred years. Would you kill the snow cat before you leave?”
This time Cait didn’t flinch, “Please leave quickly. I can’t stand the pain any longer.”
Raen stopped at the door. She couldn’t force herself to open it. Without turning around she whispered, “Do you have any other reason that might make me want to stay with you? Any reason at all?”
Cait frowned in confusion, “The only reasons I left unsaid are personal, and they would only tell you why I don’t want you to leave. I didn’t think you wanted to hear them.”
“Tell me one of them,” Raen pleaded softly and turned to face Caitlin.
Cait caught her breath and began walking toward her. She stopped just before their bodies touched and placed her hands lightly on Raen’s shoulders. “I fell in love with you the first moment I saw you.” Her hands tightened their grip. “Is there anything I haven’t already offered that you might want?”
Raen smiled. “There is.”
Cait slid her hands to the back of Raen’s neck. “My heart, my body, and my soul?”
Laughing, Raen slipped her arms around Cait’s waist, pulling her snugly against her body. She leaned forward to kiss her, but before their lips met, she whispered, “You may keep your soul.”
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