Recorded by Lady Eleanor Baxstresse, taken from the verbal accounts of Ailynn, the Witch's daughter
One year. Twelve torturous, lonely months apart from my beloved.
I do not like to think of that year. Like the seemingly endless plains, the villages I stayed in and the people I interacted with blurred together. I missed Rapunzel terribly. A year of my life - our life together - was gone, and I grieved its passing. Although the search was a part of my life, it was never a part of my story.
My memories of that time are gray, colorless recollections of little importance. They did impart one important lesson to me, though, and it was one that I never forgot. Living without Rapunzel was not really living at all. I existed, I breathed and slept like any other person, but I did not feel the full spectrum of emotions. I was a cracked, brittle shell of myself.
Alone for the first time in my life, I sank into a deep depression. Only thoughts of my waiting love kept me from complete despair. I refused to give up hope that I would find the spell I needed to free Rapunzel. I became a wanderer, traveling across the central part of the kingdom, seeking out everyone who studied magic. Someone, I knew, would be able to help me. I could not bear to think of the alternative.
But the Kingdom was changing.
There were whispers of black sorcery rising up from the darkness to consume the white-cliffed city of Kalmarin. A proclamation was issued, and it was so startling that even I, in my haze of pain and loneliness, took notice. Amendyr had a new Queen. The King had died under mysterious circumstances, and his second wife (whom most of Amendyr had not even known about since the marriage was so recent and so sudden) took over his duties to the crown.
Then, strange things began to happen. Tales of weird, twisted creatures began to spread. Giant, demonic dogs with eyes of green fire were attacking villages. No one had ever seen their like before, but they quickly earned themselves a name - the Shadowkin.
The Shadowkin did not hunt alone. Sleek, brown creatures made from mud and dust and human ashes accompanied them. They were the Kerak, a much more ancient creature, but just as deadly. They were almost human, but their limbs were stretched grotesquely and they could run on all fours. Their hands bore scythe-like claws perfect for ripping open the abdominal cavity or slitting throats.
There was talk of rebellion. Everyone was sure that the Queen was behind the terrible massacres that were happening across Amendyr. She did not bother to hide it. Wherever I went, I saw able-bodied men leaving their wives and children behind to head for the Rengast Mountains where the rebels made their camp.
Fear blanketed each city and village that I visited. As I traveled along the border of the forest and over the flat plains at the heart of the kingdom, I felt its choking grip settle over my shoulders like a heavy cape. Fear has a taste; a dry, bitter taste that clogs the nose and throat and cuts off the breath.
Three times, fate chose the town I was passing through for its next cruel blow. The first time, I barely escaped with my life. I awoke to the unforgettable scent of burning flesh and the coppery smell of blood. My heart jerked in my chest and it took me a moment to remember to breathe. Scared and confused, I looked out the window to see what was happening. When I opened it, the smell crashed over me in a powerful wave, almost sending me to my knees. Then I heard the screams.
The shouts and cries of men, women, and children blended together into an inescapable wall of sound accompanied by the crackling of flames and the roaring of great beasts. I was beyond fear now - I was panicked and terrified.
But I had not been raised a fool. I was smart enough and quick enough to realize that they - whoever they were - wanted everything burned to the ground. It would only be a matter of time until they got to the boarding house where I was staying.
I used a Word of Power, almost putting too much magical energy behind it because of my fear. My skin began to flicker and shift, bending to the shadows. I opened the door to my room, not bothering to be quiet because of the loud, unbearable noises coming from outside. It was a difficult spell, one that required a good deal of focus and life force, and I hoped that I would not have to use much more magic.
I crept down the stairs and out the back door. None of the terrifying creatures or the men in black armor with torches in their hands saw me, or if they did, they chose not to pursue me. Perhaps they thought they would round up the escaped villagers later. Not me. I was too clever, too skilled for them. At least, that was what I told myself. It was less frightening to believe that lie than to admit that I had just been lucky.
I still carry the memories of that night. Images of it, flashes really, haunted my waking hours as well as my dreams for the next several weeks. Memories of a hand, detached from its host, lying in the middle of a road, and a child with half of his face gone. I wished that I could do something to help, but there were too many. The villagers put up no resistance. They were totally unprepared. Although my heart screamed with guilt, I reminded myself that I needed to stay alive - if not for my own sake, than for Rapunzel's.
Despite the increasing danger, I continued traveling. The going was rougher now. People were less hospitable to strangers, fearing that anyone they did not know - or even those they did - might be a spy for the queen, or one of her soldiers come to burn them out of their homes. I did not blame them.
The second time that I encountered the Queen's forces, I had time to prepare. I was already leaving the village and I saw them coming as I stood on a high hill, a large dark block of them against the horizon line in the south. With hatred and regret stinging in my eyes and on my tongue, I turned away and urged the horse I had bartered for into a run. I knew there was nothing I could do. The villagers had seen them, too, and warning bells rang from the church towers, so there was no need for me to go back. I ran as fast and as far as I could, but not far enough to escape the flicker of burning houses in the distance later that night or the screams in my mind.
I regained some of my honor during my third encounter with the Queen's creatures. It was only three weeks after I saw them marching across the downs from my hilltop perch. I had been traveling quickly for most of that time, hardly stopping to sleep. I stayed in the small villages and towns I visited for no more than one night, only long enough to ask them where the most knowledgeable magical person in the area was.
Some of these people knew what I was speaking of when I mentioned the binding spell, but could not help me. Unfortunately, many of the powerful magic-doers had left to join the rebellion or gone into hiding. I considered that maybe I, too, should go to the Rengast and seek out the rebellion. As the Maker would have it, they found me first.
It was the scent that I recognized first; the clawing, biting scent of blood and fear and hopelessness that burned through the throat with each breath. I smelled it over the meat in my stew and all thoughts of dinner in my room for the night were forgotten. I felt it congeal in my chest and prepared to run, barely pausing to grab my pouch of jewels and gold. But this time, I was too late.
I noticed the heat as soon as I opened the door. It coated my face and hands, and I pulled back immediately and ran to the farthest wall in my room. There was no visible fire, but I could hear smell and feel it only a few rooms beyond mine. It was somewhere across the hall. Even though I was on the second floor of that particular boarding house, I knew that my only chance was to climb out the window.
Grabbing my cloak in case I needed to cover my face and protect my lungs from smoke, I tossed it over my shoulder and unlatched the window, pushing it open and gasping for fresh air. It was not much better outside. Other houses were burning and the streets were filled with screaming masses of people all trying to run away at once. Mothers called for their children and the old were shoved and pushed aside by the more able-bodied. It was pandemonium.
Ignoring the rest of them, I put one foot over the windowsill and looked down, reeling with vertigo as I realized how far I would have to jump. There was nothing for it. I swallowed, took a deep breath as though I was about to submerge myself in icy water, and hopped over, gripping the windowsill with my hands and hanging as far as I could before dropping to the ground.
I hit the hedge beneath the window with a rustling crash, but the chaos around me prevented anyone from noticing. I tried to get to my feet, but a wave of dizziness and nausea made me clutch at the wall. I cried out when I realized that my shoulder was throbbing - probably the cause of the dizziness. I gritted my teeth, pushing the pain to the back of my mind and focusing on survival.
They were everywhere, the men in black armor, with swords, maces, clubs, and axes drawn. I wondered where they had come from. Some said they were enchanted Amendyrri, others said they were mercenaries from across the sea. I did not care. Many of them held torches. I was cautious, but not as frightened of the men as of the demon Shadowkin and the Kerak that I knew had rushed into the town ahead of them. I caught a glimpse of a giant, hulking shape further down the street chasing after a pack of villagers and quickly turned to run the other way.
In my haste, I did not notice the group of five that broke off from the sea of marching men to pursue me. I hurried back the way the invaders had already come, crawling along walls and over several still, bleeding forms, some alive and some already cooling with death or left to burn. "There is nothing I can do for you," I panted breathlessly, not to the dead and dying, but to myself. "Be peaceful, brothers and sisters... but there is nothing I can do..."
When a black, gloved hand clamped tight over my mouth, I could not scream or speak a Word of Power. All strength left my body, and there was a strange silence all around me. The only thing I could hear was my hammering heart and the scraping voice that shouted,
"Ay! I've got a fresh one."
My eyes veered wildly in their sockets and for a moment I could only see blurred streaks of dark color. There were more of them, all around me, then a flash of white skin. I bit down, hard. My captor, who had been moving his hand, pulled back and swore. To my right, another man drew his sword. I stared directly into his cold blue eyes and prayed for a swift death. My last thought was of Rapunzel, who would wait for me in vain and never learn my fate.
Red… a red-black gush spurting from the man's throat. He crumpled to the ground like a limp doll, the life snapped out of his neck. The creature I saw behind him was even more frightening.
She was tall, taller than all the men and covered in red fur. I could only tell it was a she because of the small, high breasts perched on her torso just below a mane of red fur at her neck. But my eyes, for the most part, stayed focused on her huge mouth and the long, dagger-like teeth smeared with thick black blood. The other four men began shouting, quickly deciding to turn and run back to the main group. That was when I noticed there was no main group.
The creature I was facing was not alone. There were others like her, at least two score of the giant beasts, and they were not the only ones pouring into the village. Among them were men and women, some of them armed, some of them using magic. The smell of it did little to cover the gore and smoke, but the humming energy was a comfort. They were fighting the army, and the army was actually retreating into the gutted buildings, trying to find positions of defense. I suddenly realized that I was not going to die.
I looked back at the red beast, which had pointed ears like a fox. No, a wolf. Still, there was something overwhelmingly human about its green eyes. I was amazed when it - she, I reminded myself - inclined her head. I was frozen stiff and did not move to respond.
It was only then that I noticed the area around us was clear. There were still a few scuffles going on, and corpses of all kinds littered the streets, but a little of the unbridled panic that had swallowed the little town was receding. A few wary faces peeked out from behind piles of unburned wood and stone, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I could not make sense of it myself, and I had witnessed it. How had everything happened so quickly?
I suddenly found myself flat on my behind in the middle of a puddle. Someone had tried to stop some of the fires that were spreading. I was wet, covered in ash and blood, and shaking all over, filmy-eyed and half-delirious. Who were these things, these people?
A low moan startled me from my daze and my head snapped up. I looked in time to see the creature begin to... change. It was a sharp, cracking, jerking process, but also smooth like the blowing of melted glass. The last thing I remembered before darkness swallowed me whole was a fiery-haired naked woman and a pair of bright green eyes staring down at me.
"Wake up, Ailynn."
I breathed deep, a smile twitching at the corners of my lips as Rapunzel's golden voice spoke to me. Her soft white hand touched my shoulder, gently pressing against my sleeve. "Rapunzel?" I murmured sleepily, turning toward the sound of the voice, seeking it, seeking her.
"Ailynn... wake up..." She was farther away now, as though calling to me from a great distance. "Wake up..."
I tried to lift my hand, but my arms and legs were coated in lead and could not move. Once again, I tried to reach out to her. My hand hit something soft, and then it was gripped firmly. "Wake up..."
Finally, I opened my eyes. My heart cracked and splintered when the hair that I saw was the wrong color, the shape of the face was more pointed, and the tone of the skin and the color of the eyes were different. Tears welled up, pressing out against my eyelashes. "I thought we had lost you," said a voice that was not Rapunzel's. "You breathed in a lot of smoke, Ailynn. You are lucky to be alive." It was the woman that I had seen before I... what had happened to me? Where was I? I tried to sit up and realized that I was on a bedroll inside of a tent.
I suddenly noticed that I was holding the hand of this strange woman - was she a woman at all? - and quickly let go. She did not react and simply allowed me to reclaim my arm, although she did put pressure on my upper chest and forced me to lie back down. It was a wise decision for my head was spinning and my shoulder ached terribly.
Despite the strange surroundings, my instincts told me that I was not in danger anymore. The smell of fear and blood had faded, and I could only smell the good, strong scent of a human camp with cookfires.
Knowing better than to try and rise again, I remained lying down on the bedroll and stared up at the stranger who, if I remembered correctly, had saved my life. The startling green eyes were familiar, as was the color of her wild red curls, but they were confined to her head this time and did not cover her entire body. "Who are you?" I asked. "What are you? How do you know my name?"
"My name is Cate," she said, giving me a tired but genuine smile. There were dark half-circles under her eyes and I wondered when she had slept last. "My mate, Larna, leads the Farseer Pack. We fight with the rebellion."
I suddenly realized what manner of creature this strange woman was. I felt a little stupid for not guessing immediately, but there had not been time to analyze her during the chaos I last remembered. "You are a Wyr," I said, blushing at the breathless wonder that I heard in my own voice. I had read enough bestiaries and magical texts to recognize a Wyr now that I was no longer running for my life.
Cate nodded, lifting the hem of her shirt slightly to reveal a thin strip of fur around her hips. Because of the enchanted wolf skin belt that was permanently attached to her flesh, she could transform into a wolf or take half-shape, the half-human, half-beast form that she had rescued me with.
"I owe you my life. Thank you," I said, meaning it. Seeing death in the eyes of that soldier and imagining the afterlife without Rapunzel had terrified me, and I was relieved that my time had not ended.
Looking surprised, Cate blushed, the shade contrasting with her red hair. "You are welcome, Ailynn." Her accent was similar to mine, an unusual mix of Amendyrri and Serian. Perhaps it was a product of the border between the two countries, like my own, or perhaps she had lived in both countries.
"How do you know my name?" I asked again.
Cate thought for a moment, searching for the words to explain. "I am a shaman, a daughter of the Seventh Daughter. I was supposed to rescue you that night... the spirits showed me in another realm." There was power and magic in her voice, and the force of it made me gasp.
I knew the history she was speaking of, the seven siblings that had begun the Amendyrri tradition of magic centuries ago. The Wizard, the Shaper, the Enchanter, the Oracle, the Druid, the Necromancer, and the Shaman: seven of the Blood that were called to spread high magic, for both good and evil purposes, throughout the entire known world.
"What do you know of me?"
Cate pressed her lips together, looking unsure of herself again, and I realized that she could not be much older than me. She was only a young woman again, and if I had not seen differently with my own eyes, I would not have believed that she was a Wyr and a shaman. "I know your name, Ailynn Gothel. I know that you are seeking a spell, one that will free the mate that waits for your return. I can help you."
That, perhaps more than anything else, shocked me. My heart swelled with a fierce joy and laughter bubbled up in my chest as I processed what she was saying. "You have it?" I blurted out, unable to hold the questions back. "You can help me? What kind of spell is it? Where
"So many questions," Cate sighed. "Wait, stay on your back. I will show you what you want, but please hold still. I worked hard to fix you and I do not want your body broken again so soon."
Quivering with excitement, I tried to see what my host was doing without lifting my head or neck. Frustrated and unsuccessful, I contented myself with listening, all sorts of thoughts running through my head, but one standing out above the rest: I can go home! I can go home to Rapunzel!
When Cate sat back down beside my bedroll, she was carrying a large leather-bound book. "I have carried this with me for months," she said. "Its owner, a dear friend of mine, risked much to have it smuggled across the border from Seria. I knew that you would need it, and she gave it to me when I asked, despite how protective she and her wife are of their library. It is yours." She passed the book to me, and I almost dropped the heavy tome as I took it from her with trembling hands. "What you want starts on page one ninety three."
I flipped through the yellowed pages so fast that I almost tore them, but Cate did not complain. Perhaps she considered the reason behind my urgency a valid excuse. The object of my search was on page one ninety-three, just as she had said. My heart leapt into my throat as I read through the spells and enchantments necessary to bind a person's aura to a place or an object. No longer caring what the book said now that I had it, and too frantic with my success to read the words anyway, I threw it aside and sat up despite Cate's protests, throwing my arms around her neck and squeezing her tight.
"What is this?" a low, teasing voice called out from the open flap of the tent. "Do I see my mate in the arms of another woman?" Startled, both of us pulled back. Blushing an even deeper shade of crimson than before, Cate adjusted the front of her tunic and turned to look at the newcomer. One of the warmest, loveliest smiles I had ever seen broke across her face as she stood to greet the tall, lean figure entering the tent.
They melted in to each other, embracing tightly, with Cate's face buried in the warmth of the taller woman's neck. I must have been staring for a long moment, because both of them realized that they were being watched and turned back to look at me. "Ailynn," said Cate, not leaving her lover's arms, "this is Larna, my mate."
"Arim dei," I said politely, even though I was not sure whether the sun was out or not. In fact, I realized that I did not even know what day it was. I decided that I was too happy to care. After a year of grief, frustration, and fear, I had finally found what I was looking for. Although the sight of Larna and Cate, who were obviously a closely bonded pair, would have made me sick with loneliness only a short time ago, now the sight of them reminded me of the woman I would be returning to. "My name is Ailynn. I promise that I was not trying to steal your wife."
Larna smiled at me over top of Cate's head, brushing a kiss over her mussed curls. "Good. I am honored to meet you, but I think I will be staying over here. When she is in a sickroom, Cate hates it when anyone comes near her patients."
"You have her well trained, Cate," I joked, feeling so light that I thought I would float through the top of the tent and touch the moon. Both of them laughed and soon I was laughing with them, tears spilling freely from my eyes and my shoulders heaving with release as I sobbed into the traveling blanket draped across my lap.
Concerned, Cate hurried over to comfort me, Larna following. I sensed rather than saw their movements because my vision was still blurry. Soon, soon, the voice in my head kept chanting. Soon, you will be home. Home. Home with Rapunzel... All of the emotions that I had locked inside myself for over a year came spilling out, flooding me with so many sensations at once that I could not make sense of them all.
"I'm sorry," I said, my voice breaking as Cate handed me a proper cloth to dry my eyes. I did not ask where she had produced it from. "I'm just... I'm so happy I..."
"It's all right," Cate whispered, rubbing small circles on my back until my heaving sobs calmed to small hiccups. "I do not know all of your story, Ailynn, but I hope you will tell it to me someday. For now, I am glad you are happy and you do not have to explain anything."
I smiled at her, grateful, for I had no words. Not only had she saved my life, she had given me back my soul.
I stayed with the rebellion for several days, regaining my strength and learning about the people that I was traveling with. There were almost two hundred in our group and this was only one part of their force. I had not suspected that the rebellion was already so large and so well organized from the rumors I had overheard.
Larna was obviously one of the leaders of the group. Although she was young, Cate explained to me that she was the Alpha of all the Wyr in camp - and there were several. I could always tell which of the many humans around me were Wyr. There was a quickness in their movements, a primitive aura that surrounded them. They were powerful, connected to the earth in ways that I did not understand. However, I was not afraid of them. After all, I owed them my life.
Cate revealed that they were marching to Kalmarin, trying to cut off the Queen's probing forces before they could ransack villages. When they could, they stopped the men and creatures before they reached their targets, but sometimes they arrived right in the middle of the destruction. That was how they had found me.
"We were fated to meet," Cate told me. "It is part of the Maker's web. We cannot see the strands as they are being woven, but they form a pattern that connects everything to the center."
"Wise words," I said in my most serious voice. "Do they teach all shamans deep, meaningful sayings when they are apprentices?" Cate rolled her eyes and tapped my shoulder, the one that I had not dislocated in my fall from the second story of the boarding house. I tapped her back. Days after my discovery, I was still in a state of ecstasy. I could joke, laugh, and smile again. Colors seemed brighter. Food tasted better. The air was sweeter. Since Rapunzel was not with me, I rejoiced with my new friends, comforted by the fact that I would soon be reunited with my love.
We stopped to make camp for a few days while the rebels helped the villagers to rebuild their town. Larna spent much of her time working in the city itself, leaving Cate to tend to the injured, including me. Now that I was mostly well again, I helped her, since I also possessed a good deal of magical, herbal, and medical knowledge.
For the moment, we were taking a short afternoon break outside. Cate even found a patch of grass for us to sit in that the fire had not destroyed. Over the past few days, I had opened up to my rescuer and nurse, telling her some of my history. Rapunzel was foremost in my thoughts and I found myself talking about her frequently. To my relief, Cate accepted my rambling with polite interest and did not try to discourage me.
"When will I be well enough to travel?" I asked her. "I want to see her again as soon as possible."
Setting down her mug of tea, Cate ran her fingers through her hair, attempting to bring some order to her wild red curls. The color of her hair and her bright green eyes made her look like a true child of Amendyr. Although my hair was not the same rich hue and I was far taller, we did not look entirely dissimilar. "Soon, I hope," she told me. "I know you are anxious to return to Rapunzel."
I had not touched my own tea, which Cate said would help me to sleep more peacefully, and she nudged it towards me, a not-very-subtle reminder.
"I am," I said with a sigh, accepting the tea and taking a small sip. The taste was not unpleasant, but I was too preoccupied to enjoy it. "It's been so long... I wonder if she has changed. Part of me is absolutely certain that she will welcome me when I return, but I am still afraid. What if something has happened to her? What if she blames me for leaving?"
Cate took another long drink of her tea, closing her eyes and enjoying the warmth. The steam rising from the cup washed over her face, bringing more color to her freckled cheeks. "Rapunzel is a woman now, Ailynn. You cannot always be her keeper." Confused, I waited for her to elaborate. "I know that you blame yourself for abandoning her, even after all these months, but I think you needed to leave."
I felt uncomfortable with the conversation, but did not try to change the subject since I had introduced it in the first place. "I know I needed to leave. I had to find a way to break the binding spell
"That wasn't what I meant," Cate interrupted. "I'm going to give you some advice. It has nothing to do with clairvoyance and everything to do with your own descriptions of your relationship."
Feeling defensive, I almost told Cate that her advice was unwelcome, but her attitude was open and relaxed, not aggressive or irritated. Since she was offering the guidance in a calm, friendly spirit, I relented. "All right," I told her.
"Don't allow Rapunzel to become swallowed up in you, Ailynn. She was only a baby when you first met her, and you became her whole world. Give her a chance to grow up and become a person apart from you. Granted, that is difficult to do while you are trapped in a tower, but she is eighteen now."
I flinched at the mention of Rapunzel's age, acutely aware of the year that I had lost with her. "She has had to stand on her own for a year without you to guide her and protect her. You have been her sister, guardian, friend, and mentor in addition to courting her, and having so much of yourself wrapped up in another person can be frightening."
For some reason, I sensed that Cate was not just talking about Rapunzel and me anymore. The past year had taught me many things about social interaction, and I could tell that she was speaking about something she had experienced in her own life.
"Is that what happened with you and Larna?" I asked hesitantly, not wanting to pry.
Cate nodded. "To a small extent. We fell in love quickly, and I was still emotionally weak after recovering from painful events in my past. My friend Ellie, who owned the book I gave you, had just started to show me how to be my own person with my own wants and needs. Then I went and fell in love before I had a chance to discover who I was." She smiled. "I was consumed by Larna. I was deliriously happy, but a small part of me was still discontent."
"But you worked through your problems?" I asked.
"Yes. Our love was more than strong enough, but there were a few times when I had to remind myself that I was more than just half of a whole. It was difficult finding a balance at first, and Larna and I had our fair share of fights, but she was supportive and attentive to my needs."
Secretly, I was relieved that Cate and Larna, who seemed like the perfect pair, sometimes fought and struggled. It made me feel more confident. "Maybe being Tuathe doesn't guarantee that everything will be perfect," I said aloud.
Cate leaned back onto the grass, her hair spreading out in an auburn fan behind her head. "Nothing can guarantee happiness, Ailynn, even a soul mate. You must seek it within yourself. But being Tuathe, having a love that you can depend on and draw strength from, should be a help instead of a hindrance." Cate sounded wise far beyond her years, and I was struck once again by the strange, ageless quality of her knowledge. Perhaps it was connected to her Sight and shamanistic powers, or perhaps it was a personality trait.
"So, you are telling me not to stifle Rapunzel's growth as a person, even if I feel intimidated by it?"
Cate turned her head to look at me and grinned. "And once again, you have summarized several minutes of complex advice into a single sentence. You make me sound foolish, Ailynn."
Her good mood was contagious, and I found myself grinning back. "Shamans can't help making long speeches when they impart their sage advice to unwilling recipients."
"Both of us use too many big words," Cate sighed, staring up into the sky, which was a brilliant shade of blue. White clouds floated across the landscape of the sky, carried by the breeze. "Oh, that one looks like a hare!" she said, pointing excitedly.
I was amused by the sudden change of topic
and mood. "As long as you don't try to eat it." The first time I
had seen Cate devour raw meat had been both shocking and
unpleasant, to say the least.
"No," she said. "I am happy with my tea for now. You, however, still haven't finished yours. I made it just for you so that you would be able to sleep well tonight."
Guilted in to action, I took a second, longer sip from my mug before returning to my contemplation of life and the clouds.
Although her manner and words were much simpler, Larna also imparted some knowledge to me on the night before I left camp. We were cleaning up after a large dinner, gathering bowls and simple traveling cutlery to be washed.
"Cate tells me that you are leaving us tomorrow," she said, breaking the silence between us as we worked. I adjusted the weight of the dishes in my hand, turning to face her. Although I had formed a quick friendship with Cate during the past several days of my recovery, Larna and I were not able to spend as much time together. She was always busy organizing something or helping someone, the responsibilities of leadership.
"I need to go back," I said, allowing Larna to relieve me of my stack of dishes and set them beside a large black cauldron. An hour ago, it had contained stew, but two strong young men had refilled it with water for washing. During dinner, I had observed Larna picking out the bits of meat in her stew to eat first, reminding me of a child that started with their favorite thing on a plate.
Together, we began rinsing out the bowls, using some damp rags to wipe them clean. The simple chore, almost automatic, reminded me of home. Although I missed Rapunzel terribly, I was surprised to discover that I also missed the mother who had raised me. A different creature entirely than the present Mogra, if she was even still alive, the mother of my memory had taught me everything I knew.
"Ailynn? Be you all right?" she asked. I looked up at her, staring into concerned brown eyes. I found it touching that someone who did not know me very well was concerned about my happiness. Despite the horrible things I had seen, perhaps humankind still possessed a core of goodness.
"I am worried," I admitted. "How did you know?"
Larna shrugged. "You were after washing the same bowl three times." Her accent was much more pronounced than Cate's or my own, indicating that she had grown up somewhere along the coast or closer to the center of Amendyr, away from the border.
"I don't know what is troubling me," I lied, not really wanting to discuss it. Truthfully, I was thinking about Rapunzel and how I had left her. Cate's conversation from earlier in the day played in my head. Although I wanted to return to my Tuathe with all my heart, I did not know what kind of welcome I would receive. Perhaps she would be furious with me for leaving without a proper goodbye, even though I had been trying to spare us both the pain of a final farewell. What if she felt cheated of her final moments with me? What if she was upset that I had been gone so long? Worse, what if I had been wrong, and Mogra did find a reason to hurt Rapunzel. Did a madwoman really need a reason?
Larna shrugged a second time, seeming to dismiss the subject. Relieved, I picked up a new bowl, dirty this time, and began cleaning it. "You feel guilty." Again, Larna's voice made me look up, although I did not stop the motion of my hands. I chose not to answer her. "Well... stop." The rest of her comment remained unspoken, but I still understood. You did what you needed to do. She will understand. I could only hope that Larna was right.
"You look tired," said Cate, brushing back a lock of my hair and tucking it behind my ear in an affectionate gesture. "There are dark circles under your eyes. Will you be all right on a horse?"
"More than all right," I assured her. I had been unable to sleep during the night, too preoccupied with what the morning would bring. Of course, the passionate sounds drifting over from Cate and Larna's tent, which was beside mine, had not helped my situation, but I was too embarrassed to mention that.
Studying me doubtfully, Cate handed over the reins of a middle-aged quarter horse, patting him affectionately on his rump. The horse twitched, uncomfortable with Cate's touch, and she sighed. "Horses have not liked me since the change... I wish that my friend Ellie were here. She can speak with animals. She might be able to convince the horses that I only want to ride them, not hunt them."
"He still lets you handle him," I pointed out.
"They are even more frightened of us when we change. They start whickering all through the camp. Sometimes it takes an entire candlemark to calm them down." I could not blame the horses, I thought to myself. I had only seen Cate's half-shape form once and I still remembered the terror it stirred in me.
Careful to move slowly so that she did not startle the horse, Cate began checking my saddlebags and traveling packs. "Do you have everything?" she asked, reminding me of a fretting mother.
I rolled my eyes. "Yes," I sighed. "This is the third time you have asked."
"You have the book I gave you?"
Cate frowned as the horse stomped one hoof uncomfortably. "Well, I went through a lot of trouble to get it for you and I don't want you to leave it here." A curious look crossed her face. "I am sure that Ellie will forgive you if you lose it, however." I rolled my eyes at Cate. That book was the answer to my prayers. I seriously doubted that I would be careless enough to lose it after only a few days.
Placing my foot in the stirrups, I swung my leg over the large creature's back, shifting in to a comfortable position in the saddle. Riding was another skill I had gained during my year away from home. I still remembered the first time I had dismounted a horse and discovered that the most difficult part of the process was walking on sore legs afterwards.
"Larna and I will be traveling to the west, past Catyr Bane, on a diplomatic mission. Jett Bahari wants us to ask the Liarre for help. If you need to find me, that is where I will be." The curious expression of secret, guarded knowledge had remained on her face, and I wondered for a second time if Cate knew something I did not. However, I knew better than to ask.
"Have you seen the Liarre before?" The half-human, half-animal hybrids had always fascinated me from a historical standpoint as well as a magical one. They had their own territory to the west, and although they were not aggressive towards humans, they were not overly friendly, either.
"No, but we have been in communication with them for a while. We think that they will receive Wyr diplomats better than human ones."
"Aren't you a little young to be a diplomat?"
Cate grinned. "Were you picturing an old man with a gray beard?" I shrugged sheepishly. "One more thing," she said, squeezing my thigh affectionately since I was too high up to give her a hug. "After you finish playing the knight-errant and rescue the maiden, you might consider coming back to join us. We have need of skilled Ariada in the rebellion. You would not need to see combat directly if you wished, I promise that you would be more than welcome in my sickroom... to help," she added quickly as an afterthought.
"I cannot leave Rapunzel again," I said, although the idea of joining the rebellion intrigued me. Although we had only known each other a short time, Cate and Larna already seemed like friends and I did not have many of those. Besides, I liked the idea of helping to undo some of the damage caused by the Queen.
"Bring her with you. There are several women and children with us now that stay away from the scouting parties and fighting units. Honestly, there is no safer place for you to be. With the Queen burning cities and destroying villages, you stand a better chance with an army to protect you."
"I will ask," I promised. I would follow Rapunzel wherever she wanted to go once she was freed, but mentioning the idea seemed reasonable. "Cate... thank you. Thank you for giving me back my soul."
Cate accepted the words with a small smile. "You are most welcome, Ailynn Gothel. Let the Maker watch over you. I am sure that we will meet again." I prodded the horse's sides with my heels and urged him into a brisk walk, turning around to give my friend a last wave goodbye. Although I had no trace of the Sight, I also suspected that we would see each other again.
The journey home was surprisingly short and thinking of Rapunzel made it seem even shorter. With a clear destination, I could ride in a straight line instead of traveling in zigzags from village to village. The quarter horse that Cate had given me was not very quick, but what he lacked in speed he made up for in strength and endurance. I struggled far more than he did after a long day of riding. The extra hours that he was able to travel quickly added up and within six days I found myself nearing the edge of the Forest.
The sights, sounds, and smells of the Forest were like a welcoming embrace to me. Suppressing feelings of nostalgia, I dismounted and led my horse carefully through the trees. Clearly uncomfortable in such close quarters, he shuffled forward and back nervously, resisting when I tried to guide him with a tug on his reins.
"Sorry, boy," I murmured. "I promise we won't be staying long."
Traveling on foot was much slower going and it took me most of the daylight hours to penetrate the Forest's outer edge. Once he became accustomed to the terrain, the horse began to pause near trees that he found appealing, stopping to munch on the leaves. My scolding had no effect on him.
The deeper into the Forest we went, the more familiar it became. There were the giant's-hands trees where the evil man had attacked Rapunzel over six years ago, and there was the small brook where I used to gathered watercress.
Before I knew it, I was following the familiar forest path that I had traveled so many times before, the one that led to Rapunzel's tower. I had created the path during my frequent visits, finding it convenient to travel the same way every time. I realized, sadly, that Mogra had been too consumed by whatever dark energies lived in her to notice or object. That is, if she still lived in the forest at all.
As I approached Rapunzel's tower, I battled feelings of disbelief and doubt. After waiting so long for this moment, it almost seemed impossible that I was finally here, finally home. It looked no different than when I had departed on that gray morning over a year ago. The same slender ash trees surrounded the magically aged tower and the same ivy crawled up the familiar stone walls. Hands shaking, I tied my horse's reins to the branch of a tree. He seemed content to wait.
With my hands free, I opened my mouth, trying to call out, but my voice would not come. Clearing my throat nervously, I tried again. "Rapunzel!" There was no answer. "Rapunzel, let down your hair to me." I waited for several heartbeats, hearing loudness in the silence and stillness.
Perhaps she was asleep, I thought. For one brief moment, I wondered if Mogra had taken her somewhere else so that I would never see her again, but I wrestled that fear into submission. I would not worry until I climbed up to the tower and saw for myself.
The ash trees, though slender, had supported my weight once before. Determined to climb to the top of the tower and silence the frightening questions racing through my mind, I hooked my fingers over the sturdiest looking branch I could find and hoisted myself up. It was not too difficult to scale the trunk.
Balanced carefully in the branches, I leaned over to grab the balcony and look inside. I nearly fell out of the tree. Rapunzel was there. She was not alone.
A nightmare. It had to be a nightmare, some twisted construct of my imagination.
A man was on top of her. The pale skin of his naked back burned into my eyes. Hips pumping and thrusting in a jagged rhythm head was thrown back, eyes closed, blonde hair tossing as he moved. I realized that I was crying when I felt hot tears streaming down my cheeks.
It was disgusting. My head spun and I wanted to vomit. My hands clenched tighter and tighter around the slender branches of the ash tree, wishing they were his throat. Then he said her name. Her name... heart cracked and I wept all the harder.
I could not watch it anymore. It was done. I hated him. I hated myself. I hated the Maker for forcing such a vile, unnatural image on me. The broken pieces of my heart sank to the bottom of my chest and I realized that I would carry that image with me for the rest of my life.
As I reached for the lower branches and began to climb back down, the trunk of the ash tree swayed, leaves rustling. Below him, I saw her jerk as she looked towards the noise, towards me. Our eyes met and locked, her perfect, pink mouth forming an 'o' of surprise. Color bled into her pale cheeks. She screamed. He stopped moving and looked as well.
I have no idea why I climbed onto the small balcony of the tower. I wanted to leave, to run as far and as fast as the winds took me. Twenty-three years. Twenty-three years I had waited for this moment, for this woman. He had stolen it. He had stolen it and I hated him.
For the first and only time in my life, I wondered if my mother had been right to lock Rapunzel away from the world. She should have been mine. She should have been kept safe for me... for me only.
I did not realize that I was speaking aloud, screaming, until I felt her hand on my cheek. She was touching me for the first time in a year, her face a painting of surprise and confusion, as though she was staring at a ghost. I shuddered; jerked my face away. She had betrayed me. I did not want her touch anymore.
He stood there, stupid as stone, not even bothering to cover his manhood. The sight of it, of him, sickened me and I trembled with rage. My mother would have killed him. My mother would have cut off his hands. That was a punishment fit for a thief. I could always adapt it to suit the circumstances and cut off something else.
He must have read my murderous intentions in my eyes, or I was still shouting my thoughts aloud, because he shoved me aside and leapt, naked as a dog, over the side of the balcony and into the tree I had just vacated. He practically slid down the trunk because it refused to bear his weight, and I hoped every twig peeled off skin on the descent.
That left me alone with her, my Rapunzel. But no longer mine, not anymore. She was speaking, but my ears were filled with the loud, wordless roar of anger. I watched her lips move, mesmerized and furious, still shaking terribly and crying a river of tears. They coated my cheeks and chin, running down because I did not bother to wipe them away.
"Don't My voice broke. I swallowed against the burning dryness in my throat.
I gripped the hair at the back of her neck, dragging her head forward and taking her lips with mine. The kiss was hard, bruising, possessive. She melted under my touch, falling into my arms, quivering with what could have been pain or fear or love - I had no idea anymore.
"I hate you," I whispered, biting the plump curve of her lower lip with my teeth, tasting the tang of blood. She flinched against my chest, but did not pull away.
"As long as you feel something."
I felt... I felt too much. Those eyes. Her face.
I turned her around and shoved her in the middle of her back, sending her sprawling onto the bed stomach-first, unable to look at her. I tore off my clothes, ripping the fabric, but she did not turn. She held completely still, waiting for a kiss, a blow, something. I hated her for making me love her. I wanted back the piece of me that she had stolen. I raked my nails down her back, tearing overheated skin and not caring. She whimpered as my breasts pressed into her shoulder blades, pushing her down into the mattress.
I took her throat in my teeth and nipped the white, unblemished skin, making her gasp and mewl like a kitten. I would leave my mark on her, the woman that should have been mine. As my lips claimed her throat, my fingers claimed the rest, thrusting inside of her with one rough stroke, remembering every touch I had seen him give her through that window.
"I wasn't good enough to wait for... am I good enough now?" I tried to hurt her, I wanted to hurt her, but though I handled her roughly, I could not cause her any real pain. Something in my heart blocked me from satisfying that fearsome urge.
I hated the way Rapunzel's hips moved against me, the way her warmth spilled over my hand, the way her wetness clutched my fingers. I hated that I wanted her, that she wanted me, that she was taking pleasure while I released my anger. But I could not continue touching her in anger. I loved her.
My hand slid underneath her torso, caressing a breast, twisting its peak hard enough to make her draw in a short, sharp breath, her body bucking violently beneath mine.
"Tell me." I recognized my own voice, but not the command. What did I want her to tell me? Clear gloss traveled down her legs, coating my thigh as I pressed tighter against her.
"I love you. I'm yours."
My heart stopped.
"Tell me again."
"I love you, Ailynn. I'm yours."
Drowning. I was drowning. I thought I felt the pain of my heart breaking all over again. Or was it mending? I did not care. Shockwaves rippled through my entire body, radiating from the aching pool between my legs to the very tips of my fingers and toes. I wrapped my fingers in her hair, feeling the silk of it, noticing with surprise that it was only to her shoulders, but dismissing it immediately.
Mine. I floated in the sensation, soaked in the pleasure of owning this woman. I would make her forget. Erase him from her memory and sear myself into her until she could not part herself from me.
Her face. Before, I had not been able to look. Now, I wanted her eyes. I wanted her to see my face whenever the lids closed. I flipped her over easily, tossing her like a rag doll and climbing over her, settling myself tightly in the 'v' of her thighs and grabbing the backs of her knees, wrapping her legs around my waist. My fingers thrust back inside, gentler this time, as I kissed her breath away, making sure that her eyes were open so that she could see and remember exactly who was making love to her.
"Ailynn..." she whimpered, but I refused to give in to her, swirling the pad of my thumb around the throbbing bundle of nerves without stroking its tip. I increased the speed of my hand, using my thigh to press harder against her, deeper inside of her.
Her body went rigid as her release came crashing down. She clung to me as though I was her only tie to the world, her small, soft hands leaving grip-marks on my shoulders. Her hips stopped their rolling motion as she panted heavily against my neck, her face buried in the curve of my shoulder. Our hearts beat together.
She looked up at me, lips curved in a wide, relaxed smile, eyes bright and shining. It was a truthful face, overflowing with love and joy. "I never loved him. I love you."
I buried my face in her hair and cried, allowing her to cradle me in her warm arms and stroke my back. There would be time for explanations later. For now, I lost myself to the love and wonder of being with Rapunzel again. I would not be foolish enough to lose her a second time.
I was not sure how long we lay there together, just breathing, just being. A large part of me was overjoyed to see Rapunzel again, amazed that she was finally here, solid and real, in my arms. But I was still haunted by what I had seen. It burrowed into my mind like a parasite, eating away at me from the inside out and leaving me hollow.
"Why?" I asked, the lonely word hanging above us in the silence and stillness. I loosened my grip on Rapunzel's naked form and she turned to look at me, refusing to let me pull away.
"I had to find a way out," she said, pushing back a lock of brown hair that clung to my cheek and tucking it behind my ear. The tender gesture almost made me break into a fresh round of tears, but I swallowed them back. "I thought if Byron..."
Byron. The image of a small blonde boy with a turned-up nose came flooding back to me. The memories stung. Him? How had he even found her after all these years? Why had Rapunzel chosen him over me? "What?" I whispered, feeling empty. "What about him made you... Why couldn't I..." Hard as I tried, I could not form sentences. The questions were a painful tangle in my mind and I could not pick out the knots.
"I thought you were dead." The quiet statement stole the breath from my chest. Rapunzel thought that I was dead?
"What on earth made you think that?" I asked, unsure whether to be surprised or angry. Even if I had died, it hurt to know that Rapunzel had let go of my memory so quickly. Had I meant anything at all to her? Did she still feel something for me? I knew that I still loved her, as much as I wanted to deny it. I wondered if returning had been a mistake. Maybe I should have left her for Byron. She might have been better off that way...
"Mother Gothel told me. Ailynn, she's... gotten worse..."
I squeezed my eyes shut, tears leaking out despite my best attempts to hold them back. I did not want to know what was happening with my mother. I would deal with her as little as possible. She had lost my respect and trust long ago. I still felt guilty for leaving Rapunzel, trapped and alone, in her power.
"She told me that you were dead, that you were never coming back," she continued. "I couldn't stay in this tower forever. When Byron found this place, I hoped... I hoped I could convince him to buy off Mother Gothel. You know how she is about her treasures. If he offered her enough..."
I swallowed down the lump that had risen in my throat. "So - what I saw... was..."
"Me trying to negotiate for my freedom." There was a long pause, more melancholy than awkward. "I don't love him, I never loved him. I'm not proud of letting him... it was not indescribably terrible, but I took no pleasure in it. It was uncomfortable, so I tried to imagine you... You are the only one I ever wanted, Ailynn, I promise."
I had no idea whether this made things better or worse. I was relieved that Rapunzel still loved me, but disgusted at the means she had used to try and secure her freedom.
But could I blame her? If I was locked away in a tower with almost no hope of escape, and believed my love and only possible savior was dead... The logical part of me understood that Rapunzel had seen a chance and taken it, but my heart... My heart did not understand at all, and I was still deeply hurt and betrayed. I also felt pain for Rapunzel. It must have been terrible, waiting in the same room day after day, knowing that she might have to spend the rest of her life here. Just the thought was almost enough to drive a person insane. Lying with Byron was probably also horrible.
"I I don't know what you want me to say," I mumbled in a confusing, sensitive mess of words and feelings. I had no idea what to think or what to do.
Rapunzel cupped my cheeks with her small hands and kissed me with a light, soft brushing of lips. It was a contrast to my violent taking of her, which I was beginning to feel guilty for instigating. "Don't do anything. Don't think about the future. Just tell me that now, in this moment, while we are alone together and there is no one else to come between us - tell me that you love me."
"I love you," I told her, and it was the truth. But I did not know if love would be enough. I kissed her. Properly this time, as gently as I could. A year's worth of pain, worries, and tension drained out of Rapunzel's body, leaving her limp. Her cheeks were wet, but this time I knew that she was crying tears of happiness. In that moment, looking in to each other's eyes, our souls recognized each other.
She loved me. It was enough.
Cautiously, my hand caressed her bare side, amazed at the warmth of her body and the softness of her skin. Even though her appearance had not changed much during my absence, there was something different about her. Cate was right, I reflected. While I was gone, Rapunzel had become a woman.
"I want to spend time getting to know you again," I whispered.
As always, Rapunzel was in tune with my thoughts and fears. "Oh, Ailynn... please don't be afraid. We aren't children anymore, but my feelings haven't changed."
"What do you dream of?" I asked her. "What do you want for your future?"
"I want to see places," she confessed shyly, almost embarrassed by the admission. "I have always wanted to visit Kalmarin, the city of white cliffs. I want to draw all the plants, animals, and people of the world."
I raised my eyebrows, surprised. "You want to draw them?" I repeated, making sure I had heard her correctly.
"Yes." She shifted beside me, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and standing up. I could not help admiring her retreating form as she walked over to the writing desk where I had left my goodbye note. Her figure was rounder, fuller, with a slight curve to her belly, which I found strangely attractive. It had been over a year since I had left. That day seemed a lifetime ago now. Holding something in her hands, she turned around to face me. "Here, look," she said, holding out several loosely bound sheets of paper.
I took them from her and examined the first page, surprised to see my own face staring back at me. The detail with which she had sketched out my features was amazing. Carefully, I turned to the next page. Another drawing of me, all of my body this time and there was a forest background behind my figure. My heart stuttered.
I flipped through the pages eagerly, unable to stop myself. There were a few other drawings - a butterfly, a sunset, landscapes. Aside from them, the entire collection featured me. "These are amazing," I breathed in wonder. "I can't believe you drew all of these."
Rapunzel gripped one elbow awkwardly, embarrassed by the praise. "I didn't want to forget your face. I was so terrified of that... I had nightmares about it." She blushed.
"There are, um, more drawings on the bottom of the stack."
Curious, I turned to the last few drawings, my mouth falling open. These pictures were also of me, but they were clearly not from any memories of our shared past. Me - unclothed, posed on my side and smiling. Me - sleeping, sheets tangled around my ankles, revealing everything. Me straddling Rapunzel, holding her wrists over her head as my hand worked between her legs. It was the first time Rapunzel had appeared in her own drawings. She was in the next one, too, with her head buried between my thighs. I looked at image after image of us laughing, touching, making love. It was beautiful.
"Oh my." I blushed, embarrassed by my own surprised exclamation and acutely aware of the fact that both of us were still naked. That embarrassment quickly transformed into something else. I was sitting in bed, naked, with the woman I loved only a few feet away from me, and I was looking at drawings? Wonderful, fabulous, beautiful drawings, but nevertheless... Oh my, indeed.
Shyly, I snuck a glance at Rapunzel, who was staring at me with a longing expression on her sweet face. Although I knew that it was not a good idea - what we had already done was not a good idea - I could not say no to her. Not now, when we were finally together again. Not when we loved each other, wanted each other so desperately. The rest of the painful discussions and soul-searching could wait. It would take time to repair the damage that had been done, but for now, there was only us.
I opened my arms, welcoming her as she slid gratefully into them, her clever fingers weaving in my hair and pulling me into an eager kiss. "I love you," she murmured over and over against my lips. Each time she said those words, a tiny part of my broken heart began to heal.
Our mouths collided in another urgent kiss, one that quickly spiraled beyond our control. As our lips played together in an endless game of tease and taste, my hands explored the soft, smooth landscape of her back, every caress an exciting new discovery. I memorized every inch of skin I could reach. With my hands over her hips, I pulled her on top of me, letting her straddle my waist. I gasped as a pleasant warmth pressed against my lower belly.
Rapunzel was on top of me, but her shuddering breaths and half-closed eyes revealed that she felt as nervous and unsteady as I did. Wordlessly seeking permission, she traced the curve of my breasts, seemingly in awe. Her curious, hesitant touch was too frightening, too powerful. I pushed her away. She was disappointed until I cupped a hand between our bodies, finding her with my fingers. I smiled, the proof of her desire coating my hand, spilling over my fingers and filling me with pride.
Struggling for balance, Rapunzel was forced to lean back. Locking her arms and using them to stay upright, she hovered over my stomach, rocking urgently against my hand and setting a much faster rhythm than I expected. This was an exorcism, I realized as two of my fingers probed forward, swallowed by a heated silken glove. Just as I had tried to claim Rapunzel roughly before, wanting to drive out the memories of Byron's touch with every thrust inside of her, she was reclaiming herself with each tilt of her hips.
For the moment, the painful memory was eclipsed by pleasure and love. Seeing my Tuathe taking her pleasure from me, giving herself to me, was breathtaking. I could think of nothing else. Nothing else mattered. Watching Rapunzel impale herself over and over again on my fingers made my heart skip and my mouth go dry. She was beautiful, her hair streaming in a golden river between her shoulder blades, halfway to her hips already even though it had been trimmed to her shoulders before. With her chin tilted back, I could see the curve of her white throat and the purple shadow that pooled in the dip of her collarbone.
The most amazing feeling, a tide of warmth in my blood, rose in me when my lover stiffened; tight, slick inner muscles clutching at my fingers and fluttering wildly. She let out a choked sob, legs trembling, and almost collapsed. Her back arched, pushing her breasts forward, and I could not resist taking a pink nipple between my lips. The new sensation, enhanced by the thumb that rolled over the swollen pearl just above her entrance, was too much. She screamed, releasing for a second time, the sound making heat rush between my legs.
Drained, she fell on top of me, trying to catch her breath while I stroked her hair and murmured sweet words against the pink shell of her ear. Slowly, I coaxed her down from her high. As she came back to the world, her eyes focused on my bare form, running over my breasts, stomach, and legs. I observed her in return, pleased to notice that she looked disheveled and very well loved.
"You needed that," I said, letting my hand rest over the swell of her bottom as she curled up against my side. The weight in my chest already seemed a little lighter.
Rapunzel smiled, tracing patterns against my thighs with her fingertips that made my legs twitch. "I did. But now I want to please you."
Her hand crept higher, but I caught her wrist, stopping her. "Ailynn... Oh, Ailynn. Let me touch you," she pleaded.
"I-I can't," I stuttered, ashamed of myself. The look of disappointment on my lover's face was a knife in my heart. "I want you to..." I tried to retrace my steps and erase the damage, but it was too late. "I'm still hurting. Give me give me some time. Please."
Although she did not pull away from me, Rapunzel turned her head so that it was buried in a pillow, hiding her eyes. Her hand found safer territory, wrapping around my waist instead. "I'm sorry..." I said.
"No, I'm sorry," Rapunzel sighed. "I hoped..."
"That everything would be all right now," I finished for her. "I hoped that would happen, too. I still love you. I want to try and be with you. But I need some time." I paused, wondering whether to give voice to thoughts that I knew were true, but had not yet accepted in my heart. "I know that you only did what you thought you needed to. It was not your fault. But..."
"But it still hurts."
Raising her head from the pillow, Rapunzel looked me directly in the eye. I could tell that it was difficult for her. "I will do everything I can to ease your doubts, Ailynn, no matter how long it takes. I want to spend the rest of my life proving how much I love you."
I awoke, startled and bathed in a cold sweat. For a moment, I did not remember where I was, but the memories came flooding back as something warm moved against my side. Rapunzel was still next to me, sleeping peacefully. Leaning over, I brushed my lips across her forehead and stroked her hair, which was past her hips now. She did not move, and I decided not to disturb her. The sounds of the birds outside told me that it was early morning, and I shifted across the mattress, trying not to wake Rapunzel.
"The only bird I want to hear right now is an owl," she mumbled into the pillow, trying to loop an arm around my waist and pull me back to bed.
I did not let her. "No," I said sadly. "It's a nightingale. You can stay in bed, darling. I need to get something."
Rapunzel had not asked about my search for the binding spell during the time we spent together. We had been distracted, but I was surprised that such an important subject had not come up. My eyes widened as I realized something further. Rapunzel considered me more important than her freedom. She had been so afraid of losing me that all thoughts of my quest seemed unimportant in comparison.
Shivering as my feet touched the cold floor, I stretched my arms up to the ceiling, popping the vertebrae in my back with a loud crack. Rapunzel opened one eye to watch me. "Where are you going?" she asked, still groggy.
"Go back to bed," I repeated, bending over to pick up my discarded clothes. They were in poor condition. The waistband of my leggings was stretched out of shape, and one sleeve of my shirt was torn.
"But I am enjoying the view."
I snorted, secretly pleased. "I am only going outside." For some reason, I did not want to tell Rapunzel about the book yet. Although I had skimmed the relevant section several times, I still needed to examine the specific spell linking Rapunzel to the tower. In theory, I understood what needed to be done, but putting magical theory into practice is not always simple. I was relieved that Rapunzel did not question me further. Perhaps she sensed my reluctance to talk about it. I was confident that, given a little time, I could release her from her prison, but I did not want to raise her hopes only to disappoint her if I failed. Both of us had already been through enough already.
As I put on my shoes, one of which had been kicked into a corner, Rapunzel's breathing evened out as she drifted back into a light sleep. I could not help glancing over my shoulder to smile at her. Soon, I thought. Soon, I will be able to take you away from this place. And then...
And then what? Where would we go? What would we do? I was not sure, but I wanted to leave the tower as soon as we could, before we attracted unwanted attention. As I approached the balcony, I noticed a pile of colorful material near the edge. Bending down to examine it, I discovered several skeins of silk. Moving them aside, I realized that some of the silk had been fashioned into several linking pieces. I unrolled the bundle, its softness reminding me of Rapunzel's silken hair. To my surprise, the interwoven strands took on a familiar shape. A ladder!
At first, I wondered why Rapunzel had bothered weaving a ladder of silk. Where had she gotten the silk in the first place? Since Mogra's magic still trapped her in the tower, the ladder was not for her use. My stomach flipped as understanding dawned. The ladder was for Byron. The reminder of him made me feel ill, and I almost threw the ladder over the side of the balcony. Then, thinking better of it, I unrolled the rest of the silken ladder. I might as well make use of it, I decided. I was here to make sure that Byron Wylean-James the Third stayed far, far away from now on.
Using the hook that Rapunzel wrapped her hair around, I secured the silken ladder and tugged it, making sure that it would hold weight. It was very cleverly made, the connecting triangular pattern lending more support to its structure. Rapunzel had probably designed it herself in addition to piecing it together. I forced myself to forget the ladder's original purpose as I swung my leg over the balcony railing and began my descent.
My faithful quarter horse was waiting for me, and since I had left him plenty of rope, he had been able to graze and move around during the night. "I'm sorry, boy," I said, stroking his nose and allowing him to lip at my fingers. I felt guilty for neglecting him.
After I had fed and watered him with my traveling supplies, I searched in the discarded saddlebags for the thick book that Cate had given me. Feeling the texture of its binding as I pulled it out strengthened my resolve. I would be able to free Rapunzel. I had come too far to fail now.
I took a moment to trace the flaking gold lettering that named the book's title - Elementary Majicks. It was a book that I was familiar with. Mogra's library contained a copy, but the pertinent pages had been torn out and burned. As I flipped open the book to page one ninety three and began reading, a strange sound came from behind me, startling the horse and making me look up after a few sentences. However, the noise did not continue for more than a moment. Seeing nothing, I decided that it was some small animal moving in the undergrowth and bent back over the page.
Linking spells, or Binding Spells, are used to create a magical 'chain' between two objects, forming a strong bond between them. There are several variations of this spell, which may be used to transfer the properties of one object to another, or may act as a physical tie to make two objects inseparable.
I frowned, not wanting to think of Rapunzel as an 'object'. Unlike Mogra, I still remembered that Rapunzel had a soul. Maybe... maybe it was the other half of my own soul. I blushed, dismissing those thoughts. Skipping a paragraph that referred to linking two magical objects together, I read on.
A binding spell may also be used to make an object immovable - a famous historical example being the Sword of the Templars, which cannot be removed from its monastery home in the Northern Sweep. No single Ariada has been able to break that binding spell, because it was made using the combined skill of several monks.
To create a binding spell, the magic-worker must take part of the first object that they wish to bind, and combine it with part of the second object. In the aforementioned example, a jewel was taken from the hilt of the Sword of the Templars and submerged in melted glass from the monastery's famous stained-glass windows. Pieces of glass were taken from windows in all parts of the monastery...
I stopped reading, scanning the page for more relevant information.
... must use shape-magic, the art of 'seeing' magical auras with the senses, to tie a knot of magical energy around both small pieces of the objects to be bound, and place these objects in a safe location so that the knot may not be untied. The location must be close to the bound objects...
My frown of concentration twitched, the corners of my lips curling upwards in a smile. It seemed that undoing a binding spell was not as complex as making one. If I understood the text correctly, Mogra had taken something from Rapunzel, perhaps her hair or clippings from her nails, and combined it with something from the tower. Then, she had woven knots of magic around them like a tangle of string. All that I needed to do was untie the knot.
I felt strangely confident. Although Elementary Majicks said that the spell binding the Sword of the Templars to its monastery had not been broken, I doubted that Mogra had enlisted the aid of other Ariada to create Rapunzel's binding spell. She was a loner, and did not like associating with other magic-doers unless it was absolutely necessary. Also, the sword and the monastery were sacred historical objects and landmarks, respectively. I doubted that anyone wanted to break the spell, considering its historical significance.
Shape-magic was a concept that I was familiar with. With some effort and practice, an Ariada could learn to 'touch' magic with their senses. Although everyone that used magic sensed it in some way, feeling the vibrations of its energy, tasting its tart flavor, smelling its warmth, those who knew shape-magic could manipulate the patterned 'threads' that wove together to make up spells. I had used a rudimentary form of shape-magic to feel the ropes of magic that bound Rapunzel to the tower. Now, I knew how to untie them.
Closing my eyes, I opened the rest of my senses, paying attention to the vibrating hum of magic that always surrounded the tower. It was like soft music, a sound that you could not distinguish from other noises unless you made a conscious decision to focus on its unique timbre.
I took a step towards the tower, tucking the heavy book underneath my arm and preparing to climb up the silken ladder. As I came closer, the buzzing sounds of magic grew louder. Very carefully, I began to scale the tower's stone wall. Because I also needed to balance the weight of the book, it was slow going.
When I had climbed half way up the balcony, I noticed that the hum of magic was quieter. Its warmth, which had brushed over my skin like a caress as I opened myself to it, had faded, and I felt colder. Thinking carefully, I started to climb back down again. After a few steps, the vibrations felt stronger. They continued to increase in speed and power as I returned to the ground.
When my feet touched the forest floor, I tossed the heavy book on top of my traveling sack. I felt slightly guilty for handling it so carelessly, but I was excited. Stretching my hands out and extending my fingers, I tried to feel for the strands of magic that swirled around the tower in a cloud. To any observer, I might have looked like a blind man groping along the tower walls, but I was too focused on my task to worry about looking foolish.
Whatever the source of the magical energy was, it had to be near the base of the tower, where most it had collected. It was like a game of blind man's bluff, following the voice of a hiding playmate with closed eyes, listening carefully to choose the right direction. After I had circled the tower three times, I decided that the magic felt strongest at its back-left corner. The entire tower was a square shape that narrowed closer to the top, although the sharp edges had been softened into curves.
I ran my hands along the smooth stones, pushing aside crawling ivy to feel the rock beneath, which was surprisingly warm. I paused, considering. Slowly, I bent my knees, following the side of the tower down, down, down with my fingers. The texture changed, becoming rougher and pockmarked, as though tiny sparks of... something... had eaten away at the stone.
I buried my hands in the soft earth. The magic felt even stronger. The game of follow-the-voice was almost over. I began digging with my hands, pulling up clods of grass and tearing ivy roots, using the cracked earth around the foundation stones to work my fingers deeper into the soil.
Soon, my pants and sleeves were dirty and there were black lines under my fingernails. I had made a shallow, sloping trough of a hole, but I still found my lack of progress frustrating. Unwilling to give up, I brushed myself off and ran back to my supplies. They remained where I had left them, undisturbed beneath one of the ash trees. The quarter horse whinnied a greeting. I began rummaging through my saddlebags, searching for the small shovel that I used to dig fire pits when I slept in the open.
When I found the shovel, I hurried back to the humming cornerstone of the tower where I had been digging, holding the handle high above my head. As I drew closer, I was doubly sure that I had chosen the right place to look for the binding spell. The going was much faster with the help of the shovel, and soon I had dug an even hole almost three feet deep. The shovel's blade was coated in damp earth, and since it was small, I tapped it against the tower's stones to clean it and continue digging. A pile of dirt grew steadily beside the hole, and I began to worry that I would have to move it when, finally, the edge of the shovel collided with something. Tossing it aside, I returned to using my hands, tossing aside earth and brushing the soil away from a flat wooden surface.
As I exposed more of the wood, the pulses of magic grew stronger, vibrating in the air around me like a deep, calling voice. Hunched over the small pit that I had made, I finally managed to reveal the smooth edges of a little square box. Filled with excitement, I tugged until the box came loose, pulling it out of the hole and setting it in my lap, not caring about the dirt that clung to its sides. The wood of the box felt warm to the touch, almost like heated skin. There was an old lock on it, but a few sharp taps of the shovel's blade (which came away dented) broke the lock's rusty neck. Triumphantly, I pulled open the box.
Inside, perched on top of a soft purple cloth, was a lock of golden hair wrapped around a piece of gray stone. Automatically, I untied the hair, which looked as fresh and healthy as the locks attached to Rapunzel's head. The shade was identical - I would recognize that color anywhere. It came loose from the stone, but the steady, insistent hum of magic pouring out of the box did not cease. Closing my eyes again, I reached out with my smudged and dirty hands, trying to feel the threads of magic that bound the hair and the stone together. It felt like a tangle of yarn after Diath, my mother's cat, had made knots and loops playing with it. Sighing, I went to work and began untangling the magical strings.
After a minute, my fingers began to grow sore, but I ignored the stiffness in my joints, wishing that I had some invisible scissors to cut through the knots. Not wanting to use magic, just in case it set off some kind of energy reaction, I carefully untangled the mess of knots and twists. At last, the final knot came undone and I felt the humming vanish. My head started to ache from the sudden lack of comforting magical energy and I realized that I was exhausted. Using shape-magic to feel out the threads had tired me.
Filled to bursting with excitement, I threw off my weariness and dropped the chipped stone and lock of hair onto the ground, forgetting them completely. "Rapunzel!" I shouted from below even though I was not sure that she could hear me. "Rapunzel! I've done it!"
Immensely pleased with myself, I brushed my messy hands on my shirt and found the silken ladder that Rapunzel had made. It was just as I had left it, still dangling precariously down from the balcony, its soft texture belying its sturdy design. I scrambled up the ladder like a spider running along a wall, eyes fixed on the balcony railing above me. My wide grin made my cheeks ache, but I did not care. Everything was going to be all right now. None of the bad things that had happened in the past mattered anymore. Rapunzel was free and I was going to take her away from her prison forever.
"Rapunzel!" I called again, swinging onto the balcony with a surge of energy. "Come here!" There was no answer, but what I saw almost made me stumble backwards and fall back down to the ground.
My beloved was not alone. Mogra was waiting for me inside of the small room. In her hand was a knife and it was pressed against Rapunzel's throat.
"Ailynn," she purred, her black eyes cold and unfeeling, "I am not surprised to see you here." She was in her youthful form, and even though I wanted nothing to do with her, seeing my mother's familiar face made my heart stop.
"You would fetch your dearest," she continued, mocking me, "but the beautiful bird is no longer singing in the nest." Rapunzel trembled in Mogra's arms, her brown eyes pleading with me to do something, anything.
My jaw and hands clenched so tightly that I began to shake with rage. "Let her go," I demanded, raising my fists. I had almost no experience with physical fighting, but I was not a Witch's daughter for nothing. My mind ran through spells of disabling, spells of pain, and protective spells.
Mogra laughed; a deep, throaty sound that made my stomach flip and my skin prickle. I shivered. She was beautiful again, like a poisonous frog with its lurid colors. In fact, now that I looked more closely, her form was not exactly as I remembered it. It was a little like a caricature painting from memory, with the details exaggerated.
"Oh, no, no, no... I don't think so. The cat has caught your bird and will scratch out your eyes as well. Rapunzel is lost to you. You will never see her again." If I had any hope left that my mother would regain her sanity and her honor, the last of it was snuffed out like a dying candle. But that did not matter. My first priority was Rapunzel.
Remembering the time that Mogra had raised her hand and conjured a ball of fire, I spread my fingertips, watching as cold blue flames engulfed my hand like a gauntlet. I felt no pain, only a cold, stinging sensation. Conjuring fire and light was one of the first things I had learned to do - it had amused Rapunzel when she was a child. Now, maybe it would serve to protect me.
Mogra looked surprised, but not at all afraid. "You dare to use magic? Against me? You foolish girl... I am more powerful than you will ever be!"
Tired of her posturing, I charged, prepared to burn Mogra's face or arms with my hand in order to take the dagger from her. Inches away, I rammed into an invisible wall, unable to move forward. The gauntlet of fire that coated my hand flickered and my wrist throbbed with pain, the old injury making itself known.
She laughed again, but this time the sound only served to make me angrier. I tried once again to press through the invisible barrier, but with no success. After another push, Mogra appeared to grow bored with me. "You are becoming an annoyance," she said dryly. Rapunzel began to struggle against her grip, pressing into Mogra's side and causing a startled look to cross Mogra's face. "You can't possibly..." she muttered to herself, and then turned back to me.
"Hold still!" she shouted at me, lifting her hand and pointing it at me, palm facing outwards. The air was driven from my chest as a heavy force tossed me backwards, pinning me against the far wall of the bedroom. Dazed, I tried to move my arms, but my weak attempts were useless.
"Now, about you." Mogra began a curious examination of my lover, checking her pulse, her temperature, and even looking under her tongue and into her eyes. I tried once again to free myself as she cupped Rapunzel's breast in one hand, the other trailing along the strip of skin between her hips. Even though the touches did not seem sexual, they infuriated me. I did not want Mogra to touch Rapunzel for any reason.
"I thought so," she said to Rapunzel, all of the dark amusement gone from her voice. "I was going to separate you from dear, precious Ailynn forever, but I think I will keep you together. It will be much more satisfying when she realizes..."
Finally, she turned back to me. I made one last attempt to free myself, but I was still helplessly stuck to the wall. It felt as though a giant boulder was sitting directly on top of my chest and it was hard to breathe. "I have decided to let you keep your little whore after all. She is tainted and worthless to me now. Both of you will be gone soon. I can't leave you here to disrupt my plans." Again, Mogra lifted her hands and dropped the knife, her lips forming ancients Words, Words of Power that ran together like a song. Finally free, Rapunzel ran to me and clutched my hand.
Before I could move to defend myself, a loud howling sound exploded in my head. Both of us were whipped across the room, over the balcony, and up, up, up into the sky, carried by a strong gust of wind. Rapunzel screamed, but the sound was lost in the cold air blasting across our faces and arms. She squeezed my hand, which had miraculously stayed in hers, and I squeezed back, unable to do anything else.
I turned my head down and saw... nothing. There was no sign of the ground below us, just an endless expanse of blue, only broken by the occasional wisp of white cloud. I panicked and started to struggle away from Rapunzel, but she pulled me closer. 'Don't look down!' she mouthed, keeping her eyes shut tight.
Too late, I thought. I followed Rapunzel's example and closed my eyes so that I would not have to see how high up we were. If we were going to fall to our deaths, I did not want to watch. Slowly, the howling tongues of air that licked at my skin and tore my clothing like claws began to soften, drifting farther and farther away. I sank deeper into the darkness behind my closed eyelids. The last thing that I was aware of was the tight grip of Rapunzel's hand.
I awoke next to a river, my face warmed by the bright sun above me. The grass was soft and comfortable, and I took in a slow breath through my nose, enjoying the sweet, earthy smell. I could not remember losing consciousness, but the aches and kinks all over my body told me that I had probably fallen here.
Some adventurer and rescuer I am,I thought, disgruntled and irritated with myself. This is the second time I have passed out now... first when I saw Cate in half-shape and again after that terrifying flight. The flight... Rapunzel!
Frantically, I opened my eyes flung out my arms, searching for Rapunzel. I was relieved when I felt a warm body pressed next to mine. I sighed gratefully when I felt her even, steady heartbeat against my shoulder. My frantic movements had not roused her.
Slowly, I pulled myself up into a sitting position and looked around. We were in some kind of beautiful hidden clearing. There was a bright, clear river that gurgled cheerfully along beside me. The grass and sky were beautiful, too, and the colors were vivid. There was also a small, neat little cottage nearby. "It's beautiful," I whispered to myself. I could think of nothing else to say as I took in the wondrous scenery, which was tinted with the excited hum of spellwork.
Finally, I felt strong enough to try and stand up. I stumbled to my feet, ignoring the painful stretching of my muscles. Suddenly, a voice called out to me, and I whirled around to see who was there. Standing several feet behind me was an old man wearing shabby brown rags. He grinned and I noticed that he had only a few of his teeth left.
"Arim dei," he said, greeting me politely. I glanced worriedly at Rapunzel, who had not yet opened her eyes. However, the stranger did not seem threatening, although the scent of magic clung to him strongly. "Isna every that two lovely girls are falling into the middle of my back yard. No indeed, not every day."
"Well, it certainly wasn't a pleasant experience," I mumbled, not sure of what to say.
The old man laughed, but it was not a cruel laugh. His eyes crinkled at the corners, further reassuring me of his good intentions. "Flying in the sky is for birds, not young ladies. Dinna worry. I will be seeing to you and your friend. I was after knowing your Maman."
My eyes narrowed. "I would appreciate that," I said, wondering whether I should mention that it was my mother's fault that we were here in the first place. I finally decided that he deserved to know, since Mogra might come looking for us at a later date, although I could not fathom why she had sent us here to meet this strange man. "You should probably know that she is... not the same. She sent us here."
"Ah, no, she wasna sending you here. I was doing that my own self."
I frowned at him, confused. My aching back did nothing to improve my mood and I was still worried about Rapunzel. "What do you mean?"
"Your Maman was trying to send you to the timeless sands of the Old Desert. I stopped the great wind and called it here instead."
My eyes widened. Bordering the southwestern part of Amendyr, the Old Desert, much like the Forest, was so large and well known that it did not need an official name, although many colorful descriptions like the timeless sands were often attached to it. Although I knew many advanced magical spells, conjuring something from nothing was impossible, and if Rapunzel and I had landed in the desert, which was inhabited by nothing rolling grains of white sand, we surely would have starved without food or water.
He seemed to sense my nervousness, because he said, "dinna worry, er... sorry, I am not knowing your name."
Questions swirled wildly in my head, almost reminding me of the wind that had carried us here. I studied the strange old man, trying to remember if I had ever met him when I was very small. "My name is Ailynn. You knew my mother? She never told you about me? Should I know who you are?"
"I loved her once," he said, a shade of regret darkening his features, although he still seemed far from menacing. "Many, many years ago. But she would not have me. She would not have anyone. She was a great woman. I am sad to be seeing her consumed by the darkness."
He noticed the surprised, almost pained expression on my face and reached up to pat my cheek with a twisted old hand. I accepted the gesture of comfort, feeling leathery skin touch me briefly before pulling away. "The fault was not all hers, little one. Her only sin was greed. That was the doorway through which the darkness was entering her. It overpowered her."
"I have no idea what you are talking about," I admitted, but paused when I felt a cool shadow pass overhead and looked up into the sky. Dark clouds were beginning to drift in front of the sun, blocking it from view. Immediately, I sensed the loss of it and gave Rapunzel another worried glance.
"Will you help me take her inside?" I asked, gesturing at the cottage. "I assume you live there."
"Of course," he said. "Rain's comin'."
"Rain?" Rapunzel asked, stumbling over the word as though it tasted strange in her mouth. "What?"
"Falling water from the sky," the old man said teasingly.
I looked down at Rapunzel and smiled, relieved that she was all right. I started to approach her for an embrace, but something cold and wet fell onto her shoulder, diverting her attention. She reached over to brush it off, but more of the drops started sprinkling her skin. "Here, let me help you," I said, bending to my knees and helping her to stand. She grimaced with discomfort, probably feeling just as battered and bruised as I did. The old man, despite his slightly hunched back and thin shoulders, also offered a hand to help steady her. She accepted it politely, pulling
"Thank you, sir," she said. "I hope you don't consider me rude for asking, but who are you, exactly?"
"Sometimes I am hardly remembering my own name nowadays," said the old man. "But it's Doran. Now, follow me." With those words, we hurried through the rain and into the little cottage.
"Thank you for taking us in," I told Doran, my hands wrapping around a steaming mug of tea. Rapunzel and I were seated at the old wizard's table with warm blankets draped over our shoulders to help us recover from the cold rain.
"You are welcome." He set a mug of tea in front of Rapunzel as well. She smiled gratefully, imitating me and folding her hands around it to keep them warm.
"We are both very grateful," I said, including Rapunzel in my thanks. "I promise that we will not intrude for more than a day." I did not want to unintentionally strain the old man's hospitality.
He shook his head. "You will be to stay for longer than that," he stated matter-of-factly.
My eyebrows lifted in surprise. "I will?"
Doran nodded. "You must be learning to defend yourself, young witch. I will teach you battle magic."
"Battle magic?" I parroted, blushing when I realized that I was only repeating his words. I had plenty of my own. "Why do I need to learn Battle magic?" I asked him, not oblivious to the worried look that flashed across Rapunzel's face before she lifted her mug of tea to hide it.
"For fightin'." The obvious-sounding answer made me feel foolish. I knew why I needed to learn battle magic. Remembering how easily Mogra had immobilized me was frightening and embarrassing. If she had not changed her mind about killing us... I recalled her strange examination of Rapunzel, but pushed those thoughts aside. There would be time to think it over later.
As though she was reading my thoughts, Rapunzel added, "She won't leave us alone. When she finds out that we weren't stranded in the desert, she will come after us." My stomach flipped nervously. It was not a matter of if Mogra found out, but when. There was no question that she would follow and confront us, if only to regain her pride. It would be bad for her image if her enemies began escaping alive - even when those 'enemies' included her own daughter.
"I think that learning some battle magic would be a good idea," I said cautiously. I was sure that Doran's teaching would benefit me, but I had not been able to make many decisions for myself recently. The last two days had been unpleasant to say the least, not counting the brief hours that Rapunzel and I had stolen in each other's arms. After a year of waiting, everything seemed to be happening at once, and I felt like I was spiraling out of control. Even though I did want to learn new ways to defend myself, I felt like I had not been given the option to refuse, only adding to my helpless state of mind.
"You will stay for a while," said Doran, leaving no room for argument. "I will be teaching' you how to protect yourself, Ailynn. Then, I am thinking that you should go and find your friend Cate." I was surprised that he knew Cate, and took it for granted that I knew her as well. I shouldn't have been. He was a wizard after all, and although I doubted that he could see into the future himself, Cate could. Perhaps she had told him that we would fall from the sky in his back yard. That must have been an interesting conversation.
Rapunzel turned to give me a questioning look. "A member of the rebellion," I explained. "She saved my life." That answer seemed to satisfy her for the moment and she faced forward again. It surprised me how little time we had spent talking after my return. Most of it had been spent making love, sleeping, undoing Mogra's binding spell, and riding on the wind. I resolved to tell Rapunzel more about my year of traveling later when there was time.
"If she is a friend of yours, then she is my friend as well,"
"I would like to see her again, but we will go wherever you want to..."
Rapunzel shrugged. "A camp full of fighters and Ariada sounds like a safe place to be if Mogra decides to come after us."
I turned to Rapunzel, studying her curiously as I realized something. "Wait, you know what the rebellion is?" Trapped in the tower with no one but Mogra and a lustful nobleman's son to talk to, I was surprised that Rapunzel understood what I was referring to. I had not heard of the rebellion until I left the lonely Forest and traveled out into the neighboring villages.
A frown tugged at Rapunzel's lips. "Mogra told me. She was very excited about the new creations she made to fight them. I suppose I was the only person she could tell."
"She is still experimenting with magic?" I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.
"Yes. She enjoyed describing them to me."
"No more questions tonight. There is a mattress and blankets in the next room by the fire that you are welcome to," said Doran, sounding weary. He got up from his chair, putting a hand to his lower back. I did not take the abrupt departure personally. I knew that aging was hard on the body. He probably wanted to rest, especially after using his energy to redirect Mogra's magical wind. "Sleep well, young witch," he added, looking at me. "I will be teaching you tomorrow and you will be your strength."
When we finally retired for the night, Rapunzel and I shared the mattress that Doran had left on the floor by the fireplace. It was comfortable despite its small size. "It feels strange to be sleeping somewhere other than my bed," Rapunzel said quietly as we lay in each other's arms. "I can hardly believe that I am finally free."
"But you believe the part about riding on a great wind and landing in a magical clearing made by a funny old wizard?"
Rapunzel sighed and shifted closer to me. In the dim light, I noticed that she was frowning and used my thumb to smooth out the worry lines that creased her forehead. I felt guilty for teasing her. Staying in one room for that long was unimaginable to me. I had spent a lot of time in the tower as well, but at least I was able to leave at night. "Are you frightened?" I asked. "This is your first night away..." I hoped that Rapunzel had not grown afraid of the outside world during the time she spent locked up.
Rapunzel shook her head. I could feel the movement against me. Her hair was long again and I reminded myself to trim it for her tomorrow. "No. I am a little unsure of myself, but not afraid. I am glad to be out of that tower... but mostly glad to be with you again." Her whispered words warmed my cheeks and made my heart beat faster. "I will miss my drawings, though. I wish I could have brought them with me."
Remembering the drawings made my eyes widen in the dark. It pleased me to know that Rapunzel had missed me enough to draw so many pictures. Coming from her, they did not seem threatening or invasive, even the erotic ones. It had also boosted my confidence when I noticed that there were no drawings of Byron in the stack.
"Maybe they are still there," I said, trying to offer her some comfort. I doubted that Mogra would take the time to destroy them. She did not go out of her way to cause destruction unless it benefitted her.
"I don't want to go back there. I never want to see that place again. I can make new drawings." A soft hand made contact with my side, rubbing in a slow circle. I shivered at the touch. "My drawings of you will be even better now that I have seen the real thing."
"You can draw anything you want," I said, kissing her forehead as my fingers traced a line along her hip. "I am sure that your new drawings will be beautiful. You are beautiful."
"I want to draw everything... but you are my favorite subject." The fire had almost burned to ash and embers, and so I was surprised when her lips found mine in the dark, but not unwilling. It soothed some of my hurt feelings to know that Rapunzel wanted me enough to initiate contact.
Despite my better judgment, I let her leave a trail of kisses along my jaw and throat, making me sigh heavily against one of the blankets. When her hand slid under my shirt to caress the bare skin of my stomach, I flinched and pulled back. "Stop," I said, gripping her wrist. Even though it was dark, I could tell that Rapunzel was hurt. "We are guests in Doran's house," I mumbled, offering a pathetic excuse.
Disappointed, Rapunzel shifted on the mattress and turned away so that her back was facing me. Now, I was the one who was hurt, but since my rejection had caused her bad mood, I could not really complain. "I am sorry..." I whispered.
Rapunzel reached behind her, taking one of my arms and draping it over her waist in an attempt at reconciliation. I felt a little better as I pressed against her back, giving her a reassuring squeeze.
Words began to build inside of me, but I did not know how to sort through all of them. I did want to make love with Rapunzel again, but I was afraid, not of the act itself, but of exposing all of my heart to her. Seeing her with Byron had nearly destroyed me and I was still emotionally sensitive. Beneath that ran a much deeper fear. I was terrified that once she saw into the depths of my soul, Rapunzel would think me a coward. Even though she had broken my heart, I was the one who did not feel worthy of her. Even though my quest had been successful, leaving her alone and unprotected had been a mistake.
"I love you," I murmured against her hair, not wanting to fall asleep without telling her. Despite my secret fears, I did love her very much. I wanted to stay with her for as long as she would let me. I hoped that would be forever, but I worried that she would leave me if I let her get too close. What if she did not like what she found?
Rapunzel squeezed the hand that was draped over her stomach, our fingers tying together. "I love you, too," she said. Both of us closed our eyes and tried to find a few fitful hours of sleep.
I woke screaming in the dark, my arms thrown out to all sides as I struggled with the blankets. "Ailynn! Ailynn!" I ignored the voice calling out to me, trying to push away clinging hands. Instead, the hard grip tightened, holding me down against a mattress. Breathing quickly, I pushed at the attacker's arms. When that failed, I went limp, trying to get my bearings.
After a few moments, I remembered that I was safe in Doran's house with Rapunzel. For several terrifying minutes, I had been back in Mogra's tower, watching as she held the knife against Rapunzel's throat. Crimson blood pressed out from either side of the blade's edge, red wetness smeared over white skin and silver metal in a shining crimson stain. The memory of it made me tremble.
Slowly, I became aware of soothing words and soft touches coming from beside me. Realizing that it was Rapunzel, I relaxed and let her stroke my face and chest as she reassured herself that I was all right.
"Ailynn, dear heart, open your eyes..."
Realizing that my eyes were squeezed shut, I opened them. The fire had died in the hearth, and the room was almost completely dark. Still, faint traces of starlight that seeped in through the windows illuminated Rapunzel just enough for me to make out her silhouette. She was hovering over me, concern rolling off of her in waves even though I could not see her expression. Her touch and her voice told me everything.
"Stay with me," I gasped, surprised by the desperate, breathy quality of my own words. I had not chosen to say them. They had a helpless quality to them that embarrassed me. For some reason, I was still afraid that Rapunzel would decide that she did not want to be with me after all and leave. She was free to do so now.
That one word was all I needed to hear. My heartbeat slowed down, my breathing grew even and deep and I felt myself drifting into a much more peaceful sleep. For now, I believed her. For now, she was here and she was mine.
"No, concentrate harder!"
I groaned from my hunched over position, resting my hands on my knees and bending down to catch my breath. For an old man, Doran had a surprising amount of focus and stamina. I was already exhausted, but he was ready to continue practicing. Biting back a plea for mercy, I straightened my spine and prepared for another assault.
Today, I was supposed to be learning how to shield myself against magical attacks, but it was difficult. The technique involved shape-magic, feeling out the threads of energy and pulling them together into a barrier. Ideally, it would deflect any missiles coming towards me. However, it was difficult to react fast enough to Doran's attacks. The task was made even more complicated by the Word of Power that Doran had taught me - Secutem, from the ancient word for shield. Theoretically, if I spoke the word while performing the magical action, the two would eventually become linked in my mind. Then, speaking or thinking the word would act as a trigger, helping me to perform the spell faster.
It had started simply enough. The old wizard threw various objects at me, and I tried to create a barrier before they could make contact. Gradually, the game grew more complicated as Doran substituted rocks and handfuls of gravel with bolts of magical energy.
"I'm finding it difficult to close all of the holes," I admitted. While constructing a barrier was relatively simple, it was difficult to cover my entire body with only a few seconds notice. In a real fight, I knew that I would not get that much warning.
"Protect your chest and head first," said Doran. "They are the most important. Better to be losing a few fingers than to fall over with a hole through your middle."
I scowled, pressing my lips together. I did not like the idea of leaving any part of me unprotected, but he was right. It would be quicker and easier to block the center of my body instead of worrying so much about the extremities. I was fast enough to dodge smaller missiles anyway.
It was difficult for me to abandon my perfectionism. My background in magical theory was useful, but putting what I had read about in to practice with such urgency and speed was tiring.
"Again," said Doran.
This time, I gave the threads of magic surrounding me a solid tug, yanking them together in time to create an admirable shield. As I pulled at the magical energy, I repeated the word - "Secutem!"
Unfortunately, Doran's bolt of energy was aimed at my legs this time and I fell backwards onto the ground. I found myself staring up at the sky, rubbing my aching head with a dazed expression on my face. So much for that attempt.
"Here," said Doran, offering me his hand. I took it, gratefully accepting his help. His old age and feeble appearance certainly belied his power. Although he lacked youthful energy and quick reflexes, he more than made up for it with his experience and skill. I was soundly defeated for at least the twentieth time that day. "Dinna worry," he said, "that shield was a good one."
I groaned, giving my head a brief shake to try and clear away the blurriness at the edges of my vision. "A good shield in the wrong place is not very helpful."
"You will learn." I was already learning a lot from Doran. I just wished that the lessons did not always involve injuring myself.
By the time we were done, my muscles were shaking with exertion and my head was swimming. The harmless looking old man had used wind to blow me off balance, lobbed balls of fire at me, and even hurled bolts of energy directly at my chest. I had several scratches, bruises, and even a few burns along my upper arm.
"Better," he said, giving me a satisfied look. "I will be teaching you more tomorrow." Despite my exhaustion, I felt the warm glow of pride in my chest. One day would not make a fighter out of a magical scholar, but I was improving. I had managed to deflect a few of Doran's attacks near the end, although I was sure that I looked the worse for wear.
"Ailynn, by the Maker, what happened to you?" Peering out at me from the front door, Rapunzel was staring at my disheveled appearance with horror.
I flinched at the note of panic in Rapunzel's voice. "I'm fine," I insisted.
Doran laughed as he gently pushed her to one side and entered the house, leaving me to face my lover alone. "She missed," was the only answer he gave.
Staring at the retreating form of the old man, Rapunzel glanced from him back to me, looking bewildered. "He did that to you?" she asked doubtfully, gesturing at the burns on my shoulder and the streaks of dirt that covered my face and clothes.
"Trust me," I muttered, "he is much more dangerous than he looks."
"It looks like I need to take care of you," she said, cupping my cheeks and pressing a kiss to a miraculously clean patch of skin on my forehead. "Come inside and let me help you clean up."
Although I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself, I was more than willing to accept Rapunzel's assistance. "Who am I to reject an offer of help from such a beautiful woman?" I teased, managing a tired smile.
Enjoying the warmth of Rapunzel's hand as it held mine, I allowed her to lead me inside and seat me at the table. Doran had retreated to his bedroom and I suspected that he was eager to get some rest. "Stay here," she said, pressing a kiss to the crown of my head. I closed my eyes, leaning my weight against the back of the wooden chair. While not fancy, it was sturdy and well balanced. I sighed happily. It felt wonderful to sit down.
A few minutes later, Rapunzel returned with some hot water and a cloth, which she used to clean my face and the burns on my arm. I relaxed, enjoying the pampering without protest. Once most of the dirt had been wiped from my face, hands, and arms, she pressed the line of her body against my side. "Here, let me get you some new clothes," she said, her hand resting on my shoulder.
As she shifted against me, I noticed something strange. The feel of Rapunzel's body against mine, even while seated, was unfamiliar. Perhaps I had been too distracted to notice it before, but now that we were relatively safe, it leapt to the forefront of my mind.
Curious, I stood up and pulled Rapunzel into my arms. She did not object, staring silently at my confused expression as she wrapped her own arms around my waist. As she pressed close against me, I noticed it again. Despite the newness of our physical relationship, we had shared a bed for years before that. I was intimately familiar with how her body fit against mine. Her breasts were fuller, her lower abdomen swelling out into a soft, womanly curve...
Suddenly, Mogra's strange inspection in the tower made sense. I shrugged out of Rapunzel's embrace, ignoring her protests. I was too startled and angry to feel remorseful about hurting her feelings. She gave me a wounded look and reached for me, but I backed away.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I demanded, pointing at her belly, which was only just starting to expand. Only a keen or experienced eye would have noticed, but my mother had treated several women at various stages of pregnancy while I was growing up. I knew what to look for. I felt like a fool for taking so long to notice. It was so obvious, now that I was really looking...
Realizing what had caused my reaction, Rapunzel's expression screamed guilt and terror. When she did not offer an explanation, I continued. "You lied to me. You hid this from me..."
"You have only been back for a little over two days," Rapunzel said. "Exactly when was I supposed to tell you? The moment you came through my window?"
Reminding me of our unpleasant reunion was a mistake. This time, I was the one who gave her a wounded look. Remembering her and Byron together cut me even deeper. "I can't... I don't..." I stuttered, upset and unsure of myself.
"Just listen to me for one moment," said Rapunzel, her words coming all in a rush, "then you may be as angry as you like. The Maker knows your feelings are justified." I nodded stiffly. I did not know what else to say anyway.
"I knew that this might happen when I made the choice to be with Byron. It was a calculated risk. I hate that I have hurt you, Ailynn. I never meant for that to happen. This doesn't change how I feel about you, but I won't blame you if it changes how you feel about me. I was going to tell you once I figured out the best way..."
Both of us knew that there was no best way. I did not think that Rapunzel had deliberately hidden her pregnancy from me. The pain in her voice was genuine. "When I... realized that I was expecting... I pretended that the child was yours." This last sentence was spoken in a quiet whisper that broke my heart all over again.
So many emotions were storming inside of me that I could scarcely rein them in. Carefully, I reached out to press my hand against Rapunzel's stomach, acknowledging the life within her. Part of me was amazed that this miracle was happening inside of my lover. A larger part of me felt betrayed.
I had to leave. Anywhere would be better than standing here, frozen, while Rapunzel stared at me with that broken look of sadness. "I'm going back outside," I said stiffly, removing my hand.
She flinched at the rejection, but did not try and stop me. "If you need me..."
"I will find you," I mumbled, wanting to tell her that I loved her, but too confused to let the words out. They were true, though. They would always be true.
Turning away from her, I wandered out of the front door, only glancing over my shoulder once. Rapunzel was crying quietly, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders shaking. Even though I hated myself for it later, I left her there without turning back to offer comfort.
Outside, the weather was sunny and cheerful, an irritating contrast to my dark and gray mood. I sat by the brook, trailing a finger loosely in the water to disturb its glassy surface.
Despite how angry I was, the last thing that Rapunzel had revealed echoed in my ears. 'I pretended that the child was yours...' She really did love me in spite of how much pain she had caused me. She loved me enough to want children with me. If only the child were mine, I thought sadly. Now, if I stayed with her, it would be impossible to erase the memory of Byron from our lives.
Staring down into the water, I caught a glimpse of my own heartbroken expression. It reminded me of Rapunzel's. I splashed the image away with my hand. In addition to being angry with my lover, I was angry with myself. I had already abandoned my lover once. Could I survive another separation?
Children had never been a part of the future with Rapunzel that I had dreamed about. My own mother was certainly not the best role model to follow. With some surprise, I realized that I was already considering the best way to raise the child. I did not remember choosing to act as a second parent. Perhaps that meant that there was no decision to make.
I sighed. Being with Rapunzel meant accepting her child. Perhaps this was my punishment for abandoning her when she needed my protection. Immediately, I felt guilty for viewing the unborn child as a punishment. None of this was its fault.
I wanted someone to blame. It was a complicated situation. As much as I wanted to put all of the blame on Rapunzel's shoulders and hold her responsible, I could not bring myself to think of her that way. She had made a choice - a choice that hurt me deeply - and I needed to accept that if I wanted to stay with her.
A feeling of helplessness crashed over me. I felt like I was drowning, gasping for breath beneath the surface of a great ocean. Once again, I wondered if Rapunzel would have been better off without me - if I would have been better off without her. But we had both waited too long to throw away what we had now. I owed it to her and myself to try for an 'us'.
Everywhere I turned, things were happening to me that I could not control. I just wanted some quiet, peaceful time with Rapunzel so that we could get to know each other again. I had not asked to fall in love with her. I had not asked for my mother to lock her in a tower like a madwoman. I had not asked for my lover to betray me, however understandable her motives were, and I had certainly not asked to be roped into raising a child. Instead of living my life, my life was living all on its own and dragging me along for the ride. The only other option I had was leaving Rapunzel and just thinking about it made my heart ache twice as much. It was not really an option at all.
I did not speak to Rapunzel for the rest of the day. Respecting my space, she did not try to talk, only giving me longing glances whenever I passed close to her. We ate in silence, but I forced myself to share the table with her, not wanting the rift between us to expand. Rapunzel seemed grateful for the small concession.
The wall between us crashed down when I climbed into bed with her that evening. I had thought about taking a blanket and settling on the floor somewhere, or even going outside, but images of Rapunzel sleeping alone, curled into a tight ball and wrapping her arms around herself, haunted me.
She was cautious when I joined her on the mattress. She did not move to touch me, unsure if I would allow it, but she did give me a warm smile to let me know that she wanted me to stay. I was the one that finally made contact, curling an arm over her hip and pulling her against my side. I felt her muscles tighten briefly before she melted into me. Our bodies fit together, two halves reunited. Even the curve of her belly matched the shape of my side. The physical reminder of her pregnancy made me flinch and Rapunzel froze, worried that she had done something wrong.
Propping myself on one elbow, I touched Rapunzel's shoulder, urging her to look up at me. Behind the fear, the sadness, and the loneliness in her expression, I saw love. Despite everything, she still loved me and I still loved her. I was not ready to forgive her, not yet, but I could not let the distance between us continue to grow, either.
Bending my head, I caught her lips in a forceful kiss. She whimpered at the sudden contact, understanding and accepting what I was asking for. There was no slow burn, no torturous anticipation, only need. She did not make me wait, helping me to remove her clothes as quickly as possible. Perhaps later I would regret rushing to possess her, but in that moment, I was too far gone to care.
Although she was not corseted (neither of us had been as children), the laces on her dress were difficult to untangle. I wondered why she was still wearing it until I remembered that neither of us had brought a change of clothes. Growling in frustration, I ripped the laces with a swift tug, ignoring her startled gasp. A small, gentle hand reached up to stroke my cheek, but as soon as it made contact, the timid fingertips vanished. There was uncertainty in Rapunzel's eyes. She did not know if it was all right to touch me.
Craving more of my lover's skin, I slipped the loosened fabric of the ruined dress from her shoulders, pushing it down to reveal her breasts. I shivered as the tips hardened into small pebbles, loving that she responded to me so quickly. Dizzy with want, I nipped at a soft place just over her cheekbone, leaving a mark beneath her eye. Her breathing sped up, but she did not try to stop me. Pleased that I had marked her in such a visible location, I stroked her there with the pad of my thumb, enjoying the way she trembled for me.
I left more red marks along her , down her neck, and across her collarbone, trying to burn my presence into her skin with teeth and lips and tongue. I wanted everyone who saw her to know that she was mine. When my mouth finally reached her breasts, she forgot her caution and wrapped her arms around me, hands stroking over my back in gentle circles.
Too impatient to wait any longer, I pushed the dress down further, dragging it over her hips and leaving it tangled around her knees. My hand crept lower, pausing briefly at her stomach, exploring its unfamiliar shape. Rapunzel's lips parted, preparing to speak, but I silenced her with a kiss. Whatever she wanted to say, I was not in the mood to listen. The only talking that I wanted to do was with our bodies.
So beautiful, I thought as my hands wandered... smooth legs, pale skin, flared hips, soft golden down... My thoughts were disjointed. Even though I was the one touching Rapunzel, I selfishly remained focused on my own desires. I crave...I want... I need...
I slid inside of her, taking her with no preparation. She gasped and adjusted the angle of her hips, pressing down. I was caught for a moment before her muscles accepted my touch and released, still gripping and pulling at my fingers. "Mine," I breathed against her cheek. Exactly what I wanted.
"Yours," she agreed. She did not hide the tiny gasps that she made with every thrust of my hand.
My chest could have been gaping open, the way her touch saw into my heart. Rapunzel's mouth latched on to my neck, suckling the skin hard enough to leave a dark purple bruise. I allowed the contact, taking pleasure in it, but kept my focus on the hand working steadily between my lover's thighs, cradling her like a treasured possession. She shuddered in my arms, but I only held her tighter.
The first time, I had taken Rapunzel in anger. Now, I took her in desperation, not bothering to hide or suppress the storm of emotions between us. I needed her. I craved her like water and air. Not just physically, although my body screamed for her, but spiritually. I needed her to need me. I felt a strange mixture of satisfaction and sadness when her body seized up, muscles locking tight as she whispered my name.
She fell into my arms and sobbed. Suddenly unsure of myself, all I could do was hold her until the storm of tears passed. "I understand if you want to leave, but please... please don't..." I rocked her gently, murmuring love-words in her ear that neither of us would remember later, holding her tight against my chest. My heart's wounds began to heal. Rapunzel still loved me, still wanted me. She loved me enough to set me free, but I would never leave. "I am so sorry..."
"Shh. Not now. Later. Just... later."
"Ailynn, do you trust me?" she asked, gazing directly into my eyes. I tried to look away, but her hand cupped my cheek, holding me in place. The touch of her palm burned and I felt myself blush.
"I love you," I said, my voice cracking as the words caught in my dry throat. My heartbeat sounded unnaturally loud in my ears. I was terrified.
Did I trust Rapunzel? Could I trust her not to hurt me again? Was I ready to give her all of my heart, to take that leap of faith? She had the potential to cause me so much pain.
"I-I suppose that love and trust... are the same thing..." I stuttered.
My lover shook her head, blonde strands of hair catching the firelight. Her hair had been trimmed today, but it was already to her shoulder blades again. "Please, Ailynn. Tell me you trust me, or at least tell me how to help you. I hate seeing you in so much pain."
"I'm not in pain," I lied.
"Then why won't you let me make love to you? Why do you look at me with sadness in your eyes?" I could not answer her questions. "I have promised over and over again that I only love you, only want you. What else can I do to convince you?"
I stared down at my hands, which were folded in my lap.
Rapunzel's hand drifted down from my cheek, resting on my shoulder,
still warm against my skin. "I
- I just..." I could not finish the sentence, feeling
foolish. After everything I had done to be with Rapunzel, was I
going to deny myself pleasure because of my fears? Yes, Rapunzel
might hurt me again... but the broken bond between us hurt more. I
wanted to repair it.
I dissolved in her arms, letting our bodies come back together. She was slow and patient with me, covering my face with light butterfly kisses that flared like firesparks against my skin. As her gentle palms explored the strip of flesh between my pants and shirt, I reached out to touch her as well, curling my fingers in long, luxurious golden hair.
I cried out when the contact stopped, a soft, wordless protest. "No, it's my turn to make love to you. I have been very patient," she said, removing my hands.
I stiffened, unsure of myself. Rapunzel held her breath, waiting to see if her touch was welcome. I sighed, forcing my body to go limp and stretching my arms above my head. If Rapunzel wanted to be with me despite everything, how could I say no? Swallowing down the nervous knot in my throat, I whispered, "I trust you." The warm smile that curved Rapunzels lips was my reward.
Reverently, lovingly, Rapunzel helped me out of my shirt, pulling it over my head and past my outstretched arms. Straightening my mussed hair, I noticed Rapunzel staring at my breasts, lips parted and eyes hungry. I shivered under the intense, heated gaze. "Shhh, Ailynn," Rapunzel silenced me, her mouth placing a line of quick kisses along my shoulder. "Let me make love to you. You are so beautiful." For the first time, I believed those words. I was beautiful in my beloved's eyes.
Rapunzel's fingers traced curious patterns against my sides, her hands stroking up from my hips and caressing my ribs. I sighed, letting my eyes drift shut as she palmed my breasts, cupping them with one smooth motion, gentle but decisive. With my eyes closed, the low, satisfied groan that escaped her throat seemed loud in my ears. I was a little embarrassed when Rapunzel trapped the hardened tips of my breasts between her fingers, coaxing more soft sounds of pleasure from me.
I tugged at my pants, pulling them off and leaving the rest of my clothes on the floor in a heap. Half-lidded brown eyes traveled up the line of my body, starting at my ankles and tracing over my legs and stomach, lingering on my breasts, which were still covered by Rapunzel's hands, and finally stopping at my face. I trembled. Those eyes felt like two small circles of flame crawling over my skin.
Sometimes I forgot just how beautiful my lover was and how much power she had over me. It took me several moments to catch my breath and still the rapid beating of my heart. Rapunzel seemed amused at my loss of control, but was content to wait for me instead of simply claiming what she wanted.
The first touch was cautious, her hand barely brushing a naked hip. The second touch was comforting, a soft trailing of her fingers down the side of my arm. Our lips brushed as she settled comfortably between my legs. How did she always know just what I wanted? For a moment, I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the warmth and sweetness of Rapunzel's kiss.
The kiss was not enough. I wanted another, and another. Our mouths fought, struggling for control, but I knew that I would let Rapunzel win this time. My teeth scraped her lower lip and she gasped against my mouth as her hands wandered down my back, pulling me impossibly close.
I closed my eyes as she trailed kisses down my throat and across my chest and stomach. A startled gasp spilled from my lips as she took the sensitive tip of a breast in her mouth, making me tremble fiercely. Rapunzel opened her eyes and the familiar shade of brown made my lips curl in a smile. Familiar. Some people feared becoming too familiar with a lover, knowing them too well and growing bored, but I could never have enough of this. This love, this connection.
Taking pity on me, she eased one of my legs over her shoulder, her left hand trailing up and down my thigh in one long, comforting stroke. She started behind my knees with warm kisses that made me shiver above her. Slowly, achingly, she ran the tip of her tongue in a teasing line along my inner thigh. "Please..."
Now that she had me pleading for her touch instead of just enduring it, Rapunzel was satisfied. My back arched and I smiled as she buried herself in the soft wetness between my thighs. I stiffened at the first touch of her mouth, letting all of my muscles relax as I surrendered. My head fell back, leaving my throat exposed and my hair tossed over the pillow.
"You taste... mmm
- wonderful..." she murmured, sliding her
tongue inside of me and finding a sensitive spot, one that made my
breath hitch and my stomach muscles jump. A curious hand crawled
over my torso, returning to my breast.
Only when I was ready did she kiss upwards and lash at the straining, sensitive bundle above, pleased by my very vocal reaction. My fingers slid into her hair, gripping tightly as she took me in her mouth.
One last stroke and I was lost to another world, head falling back again as waves of bliss broke over me. My hips lifted to follow her mouth, my hand tangling deeper in her hair and pulling her tighter against me. This, I thought to myself before her movements began again, was all I needed for the rest of my life.