Mastery

This is a fantasy story I'm working on. It's a bit hard to explain so just give it a go and see what you make of it.

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6. Chapter Five

Chapter Five

Gaeldum explained that this was a peaceful visit, that it was he who'd personally ensured no more attacks over the past days and how he wished to promote a trusting, friendly relationship. Morella vouched for his character and urged her leaders to repay fully the care Gaeldum had shown her. They all knew exactly how Lady Aluna would respond if she ever heard of Gaeldum, Lord of Fire-breathers being entertained in a camp of her own front-line soldiers. However they were principled men, unless Gaeldum caused them trouble, they would not harm him.

Shortly after this discussion, Gaeldum's guards were resting in the tent they'd been shown to and Morella had taken Gaeldum beyond the camp to a secluded spot near the river. There she had never even taken Dathan, she knew it was the best setting for a private conversation.

“For your sake those attacks stopped. And you know I am a man of practicality over sentiment.” His face contradicted his words. His eyes were fixed on her, full of feeling. “Come back to me.” Those words he whispered nearly too softly to be heard. She felt them more than heard them. “I shouldn't say this now- you'll not believe me. You'll think I must be lying if I say it so soon. I shouldn't, I mustn't, I can not. Still, the words, they come. Morella, must I suppress those words any longer? If I was to say them before I was certain I'd be wrong. But I am certain. Even now I am certain.” His voice was growing stronger and stronger. Without a thought, she moved closer to him.

“Say it, or I will not let myself dare to presume the words to which you hint.”

“I love you.”

As she stood, contemplating, the first drop of rain fell onto her forehead and ran down her nose. For now she only felt. There was too much for her to analyse, but since the overwhelming surge of emotion was by no means unpleasant, she stood and enjoyed the simplicity of just feeling.

Before she'd chance to question herself, to work through her confusion, the mood was lightened by the rain's sudden intensity. Laughing, Gaeldum pulled Morella into his arms. The way she looked at this precise moment, water streaming down her face, running over her eyelashes, her hair hanging in soggy strands about her face, water dripping off the ends, he found oddly attractive. And so he could resist her no longer. Closing up every slight gap between them, he pressed her snug into his chest.

To begin with she was stiff and awkward, unsure where to put her arms, taken by surprise. Soon enough, she stopped analysing, too eager to savour the moment. In actual fact, for something that would have seemed so peculiar, she settled naturally there, his chin propped on the top of her head. She didn't need to see the longing in his eyes, she could feel his stare. He pulled back, ever so slightly, so he could look into her eyes.

Then his gaze dropped to her chin. Resting on his thumb was her stubborn little chin with the dimple. He lifted it, bringing her face close to his. Staring at each other they both prepared themselves. One breath later and their eyes had fallen shut and their lips were meeting.

His grip started out firm on her shoulders, as if holding her in place, until he relaxed. Then as the tension left his hands he ran his finger tips along her spine making little sparks flicker over her skin. They weren't hot enough to hurt but they tingled so that she pressed herself closer against Gaeldum, her bone curving more than usual. As he kissed her, she actually started glowing, feeling his warmth spreading through her. Every time he let out a breath, heat ran in, along her nerves and into every deep cold corner. She felt statically charged, buzzing with energy that crackled and burst whenever they made contact.

Tugging away, he turned and let go of her completely. With an odd look in his eye, he stared at a huge fallen tree trunk. So soon after that tender kiss, he looked all at once angry and in pain. His eyes were so set the fallen tree they didn't move at all. Morella found it intimidating how still he was; she couldn't understand why he was so focused on this old lump of wood. It burst into flames. Glaring at it, the noise grew unnaturally loud. Morella could feel the blaze from where she stood, already missing Gaeldum's arms around her. What was he doing?

“Sorry about that. I've never done that before. All this energy built up and I needed to release it somehow or I was going to die. I don't understand.”

“I sensed it, something strange happening. Just make sure we have a bucket of water handy next time...” He cut her off at that.

“Next time?” His grin had an effect on her stomach that was usually reserved for when she jumped off the camp walls. She wondered if she could raise one eyebrow the way he so often did. He could control the shape to make so many different expressions, it was fascinating to watch.

“Next time,” she said casually, as if he'd simply been checking he'd heard her correctly. He loved how she could do that, the way she was always kept in control.

“Tell me, what did you do to me when you came and visited? I couldn't stop thinking about you.” Usually Morella showed very little emotion, now, once again, this man had reduced her to tears. Gaeldum connected with her so deeply that, without trying, he penetrated all the layers of pretence and reached into the core of her true self. Something inside her had broken free, a power of feeling she'd never encountered before. Well, except, perhaps to some extent with Dathan. Not like this, only glimpses of what she could experience if she allowed herself. With Dathan though, everything was always all or nothing. She'd not allowed herself to feel anything too completely in case she ended up hurting that completely when things had to end. And things would have to end.

This was different. If she so chose, she could have Gaeldum forever. Maybe she did want him after all. Maybe? Of course she wanted him. The only problem was all the other things she wanted. Her life as a soldier, her independence, the relationship she had with Finian. Obviously it wasn't nearly as intense as how she felt with Gaeldum, but in a way she liked that. Being with Finian was comfortable: things were always easy and light. Sometimes the way Gaeldum could be so forceful frightened her. The way he made her feel was scary too, what they had was deep.

That night, she was restless. So much had happened in one day, she needed to think things through. Since she couldn't sleep anyway, she went down to the forge and worked on her new sword. If she had to rely on an object to keep her alive, she had to trust it's maker. Hence she'd never taken a sword into battle that wasn't the work of her own hands except her first- the one her father had made for her when she came of age to fight. And one other. Dathan showed her how to make her own armour and weapons. She helped him forge a sword as practice and he gave it to her as a gift. Although she claimed she didn't want it, she occasionally took it out on patrol late at night when she was sure no one would see. After all, it was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship; Dathan worked with unusual precision, attention to detail was important to him.

Comforted by the clamour of metal ringing against metal since it distracted her from all the noise inside her head, she attacked the blade. Watching the sparks fly off reminded her of Gaeldum flicking fire from his fingertips. Too unfocused for the intricate work the interwoven gold and silver handle would require, she kept on persisting with the blade, hammering it into shape.

Focused on her project, Morella'd not noticed Dathan appear in the doorway. He'd watched her at work awhile, without interrupting, amused by how much she showed focus in every inch of her face, her body, her every slight movement. She would never be beautiful but she was still captivating.

“I'd best watch out or my prodigy may well overtake me.”

Placing her hammer down on the anvil before she dropped it, she turned to face the intruder. Why did he always have to show up everywhere?

“When are you planning on telling Finian that you kissed him?”

“I have absolutely no I idea what you are talking about Dathan,” she replied rolling her eyes.

“Very well, perhaps I did judge too quickly. There could be some other reason why you came skipping back from nobody knows where, well after curfew, with a grin too big for you little face, glowing red and so giddy I thought for a second you'd had drunk all the beer in the camp.” At least he was looking out for her, even if she found it irritating how observant he always stayed.

“Fine. But don't tell Finian. Nothing's certain yet.” Dathan came right into the room and stood behind her. He wrapped his arms around, his hands clasped over her ribs and propped his head on her shoulder.

“If nothing is certain, I suppose I even stand a chance.” He dropped a kiss on her cheek. “I will always love you.” After letting go of Morella, he walked over to the sword she'd been working on. Her technique had improved so much. Picking it up, he balanced it on his fingers to check the weight was distributed properly across the sword. It felt perfect.

“I see you're trying to catch me out.”

“Never! I knew the structure would be fine, if I was seeking to criticise I'd have taken a closer look at that handle. Decorative finery was never your strong point. You always concentrated on practicality, making something that'd save you in a fight.”

“I liked the hilt of the sword you made me. The butterfly in amongst that leaf pattern.” The compliment took him by surprise.

“If we're going to dwell on the past,” he whispered the words into her ear, so close she could feel his cool breath against her cheek. Unlike Gaeldum who dived straight in, his passion uncontrollable, Dathan moved slowly. First he ran his lips down the side of her face to her neck, so gently they barely touched her skin. Then he pressed his lips down ever so slightly firmer and nuzzled her neck.

Pausing a moment, he placed his face level with hers. Gaeldum was quick and impulsive; Dathan wanted to take his time and think things through. First he moved his body, close to her without quite touching. Next he considered his hands. In the end, without an original idea, he decided to leave them at his sides. Very slowly he leaned forward until their foreheads touched. Then he pressed his nose against hers. Next would be the lips. He'd move down once more and put his lips on her mouth. He left it too late.

Before he was brave enough to make the last move, she was already there. Impatiently, she'd reached up and found his mouth. To begin with, he kissed her back gratefully. For months now he'd kept on hiding his longing, now so much suppressed emotion had found an escape. Affection, tenderness, concern, frustration, desperation, despair, jealousy, adoration, he worked systematically releasing them one by one. Eventually though he got to love. He stopped kissing her and stepped back abruptly.

“Why'd you stop.”

“Because I love you.” Noticing her blank stare he continued, “I don't want you getting hurt. I don't want to put you in this position all over again. You're happy with Gaeldum. You're future's with Gaeldum. I won't make you choose between me and your future again.”

He left the room. She put her sword back into the fire. Too unfocused for the intricate work the interwoven gold and silver handle would require, she kept on persisting with the blade, hammering it into shape. Comforted by the clamour of metal ringing against metal since it distracted her from all the noise inside her head, she attacked the steel.

By the time she left the forge, she only had two hours to sleep before the morning gong. Exhausted, she slumped into the great hall, regretting working through the night. She looked terrible. Black shadows had grown under her eyes like some sort of plague spreading over her skin. The callouses and burns on her hand added to this illusion.

Dathan was waiting for her in front of the doors leading to the hall with a glass of brandy. Morella gulped it down immediately.

“Thought you might appreciate that.” She thanked him, then marked into breakfast powered by nothing but her own will-power.

Gaeldum's eyes were on her the moment the door swung open. Even he had to admit she didn't look beautiful today, still he was impressed by how strong she looked, fighting the weariness, still coated in soot and grime, looking the coming day defiantly in it's face. He thought back to how she'd appeared in his war chamber. The way she dominated a room. Despite being small, she could make her presence known, she could be intimidating.

Somehow she ended up in the most uncomfortable position, right between Gaeldum and Finian. Having still not mentioned anything to Finian she had to try hard not to give to much away. She had to talk to him and fuss over him as if everything was normal between them, practically ignoring Gaeldum. He wouldn't have grown suspicious if she'd been able to sit and chat to Gaeldum casually like any other normal person. Morella knew that she'd never be able to do that though, things were getting awkward enough anyway.

“I've been meaning to talk to you about last night.” Before he could say any more she took over.

“Ah, yes, don't worry about it. Nobody was hurt but you should be more careful in future. The Lord of fire can't help but be a dangerous man.” At first he thought she was referring to that episode with the tree trunk but he caught on quick enough. Clumsily they stumbled through an attempt at conversation. Finian didn't notice anything unusual in their behaviour, he was more concerned with his food. Eventually, Braig saved them both by coming up and asking Morella to come out and practice some hand to hand combat with him.

She was more than glad. Getting out in the fresh air helped her headache and she badly needed to move around. It was also helpful being away from all the men in her complicated feelings tangle.

After working all night, her muscles ached and her balance was not so secure as usual. Even with these disadvantages, she performed well enough. In hand to hand fights, Morella always struggled the most. She was so good all the weapons she used, it compensated for her size. Without a weapon though, she really struggled. Braig could lift her up off the ground with relative ease while it was enough to do any good when she threw her whole weight against him. Her footwork was quick. Most of the time she could skilfully evade his blows and escape his hold before her found anywhere he could grab onto her. A few punches landed on target but all they did was make her know she had to fight back harder. Adrenaline fuelled, she didn't notice her skin sting or feel her flesh bruising. There would be a couple of purple marks on her face the next day, nothing worse than she regularly carried.

Once, long ago now, the men would be careful not to actually do her any harm. Then they saw her determination, the way she fought actively tackling the enemy and knew they'd be kinder to make her training as intense as possible. To hurt her in practice enough she understood what she'd be dealing with on the field. To teach her lessons without the instruction costing her life. She'd become as any other of the men, they gave her their very best.

She responded likewise, always ready to give them a challenge. For instance, in this fight with Braig, she knew he relied to heavily on his physical strength, always focused on the attack. Altering her technique, she helped him learn to stay alert and defend himself. Throwing quick punches all over, then, when he was distracted by whatever her arms were doing, she'd kick at his shins. Morella was flexible. Stepping back made Braig relax, he presumed the speed with which she'd delivered her hits had left her tired. One swing of her leg and her foot made contact with his stomach. Straightening her knee, she pushed him back with immense force.

His reactions had improved since she'd last fought with him. The time he saved registering the situation left him with those few seconds necessary to make the most of her poor balance. With her leg extended so high, and balanced all on one foot gave him the ideal opportunity to knock her down. Using his foot, he pushed her supporting leg along the dusty ground. At the same time, he was grabbing hold of the foot still sunk into his stomach. He pushed her back, hard enough for her to drop down into the dirt.

“What's the matter with you? I never win.”

“Congratulations, you must have improved while I've been away.” Already she'd stood up and was brushing away the dust and dried mud.

“Fine, you don't have to tell me. The way everybody's started looking at you lately, I suppose the last thing you need is someone else trying to get involved in your life. But if you ever need a friend, and just a friend, you know where to find me.” She gave him a hug. A warm, friend hug. It was good to have simple human companionship, no complications, no messy feelings. It was comfortable.

“Thanks. I do need a “just a friend” friend.”

“I know. It must be so difficult having the whole world fall in love with you. How do you cope with all that adoration?” Wearing a mock distressed face, she slapped him jokingly for the sarcasm. He smiled, glad he'd lightened her mood.

That evening she was put on the furthest guard post. Gaeldum joined her, half because he wanted to talk with her properly and half in case she fell asleep. They already sat like a couple. Her heavy head rested snugly against his chest, she lent back against him peacefully. She liked how he felt. He wrapped his arms around her, to keep them both warm. Also because it seemed like a protective gesture when she was small enough he could bring his arms right around her body. The tightness of his hold was secure, comforting rather than unpleasant.

There was so much he needed to tell her, so many words he'd prepared. It seemed he was doomed never to have the chance to actually speak to her though. All these years they'd been fighting Gaeldum's men. With Gaeldum here with them, there should have been no threat. Unfortunately someone in the camp had been particularly loyal to Lady Aluna and sent word to her of her own soldiers betrayal. Gaeldum himself was being merrily entertained in her own front-line barracks.

It had to have something to do with the little usurper. It was her camp. Maybe she'd turned the men to her side. They could have already come to some agreement with Gaeldum to have her made Lady of air. Still, some part of her couldn't bring herself to believe this level of treachery could be possible amongst her own men- some of her very best. After years of defending her, of risking their lives protecting her supreme authority, surely they could not be so easily swayed. If she believed Lord Gaeldum could actually be residing undisturbed in her own camp, she would be admitting to total vulnerability.

Nevertheless, she sent a small group of her most loyal, personal guards to check on the situation. Really she wanted to send an army to deal ruthlessly if any betrayal was discovered but she was too afraid to show her fear. It couldn't be known she doubted even the front-line warriors, fighting and dying for her.

“I'll deal with them, you run and get yourself and your men out of here. Now.” Gaeldum had to fight his protective instincts. Programmed to stand and fight, running felt unnatural.

“Gaeldum, this is the best way you can protect me. Go quickly, Aluna shows no mercy to traitors. Go!” She jumped down from the battlements. “Who goes there?”

“We come from the lady Aluna. Let us pass, we have urgent business.” She led them, slowly to give Gaeldum time to get out out of sight, into towards the camp walls. This was going to be tight. When they reached the tower, they'd have a wide view. Gaeldum had no chance of out running their sight, she could only hope he'd found a hiding place by now. Realising how many factors had to miraculously fall into place with improbable precision, her blood pushed harder through her body, like an internal dam had been released it gushed through her veins.

She was a brave warrior but this scared her. It wasn't about her. Normally it was her fighting for her survival , she'd learned to cope with that. Having other people's lives in her control was so much more difficult. It brought back memories of Bax. Knowing exactly how blood guilt felt left her terrifying. That one day had ruined her life. It was all she could think about. On occasions like this it undermined her judgement. She was obsessed with her own worthlessness.

Morella urged herself to think harder. At the moment she'd vague ideas swirling about her mind as if swept along by a storm. She still needed a solid plan, something she could grab hold of, scrutinise, follow through. For now she had these translucent images, odd words, fragments of a solution. With her and Aluna's guards already on the stairs, she was leaving it late.

“Excuse me if we go through additional security, we weren't informed of your visit. Obviously we will have to be satisfied that you are, indeed, who you claim to be before you can be admitted into the main camp.” Taking a long route through the outermost buildings of the camp, Morella found more guards to escort Aluna's men at the other posts. “Please Gaeldum, please have found a way,” she thought desperately when she couldn't buy any more time without arousing their suspicion. The whole situation was, by far, suspicious enough without her being unnecessarily clumsy.

By this point, Aluna's men were outnumbered. Morella was preparing herself for a fight, not that she didn't trust Gaeldum, it was important to be ready in case. This was a very delicate situation. Through all her doubts, she had to appear confident. That would be the best evidence of their loyalty. These were her allies, for all they knew, they were on the same side. A mistaken belief Morella was not keen to correct.

Without Gaeldum and fire-breathers in the camp, what reason was there to fret? The fact that there were actually fire-breathers in the camp was a fact best overlooked. The less anybody focused on it, the less likely they were to draw attention. She was only nervous because she knew the danger. These men surely had no reason to expect any betrayal so they'd not be looking for signs. Unless, of course, she gave them reason to.

“I'm sure all the men will be eager for news of home. We've fought a hard battle not long ago, your visit is well-timed, many of them badly need to hear some good news.”

“There's not so much of that as they may hope. The great Lady Aluna is constantly under threat. Recently we have received the most disturbing reports. Treachery amidst her own ranks. A usurper, trying to claim the title. It's ridiculous. Can you even imagine such things?”

“Surely not! But if she can't trust even her own, loyal soldiers, those who've given up everything and sworn the oath..”

A few of the men gave her looks that seemed meaningful, while subtle enough that she couldn't be sure they were intentional. How much did they know? In the end, she decided it was safest to say nothing at all.

Although in theory a good tactic, it was the only way to ensure she gave nothing away, it grew more and more uncomfortable so rapidly Morella was forced to keep on biting back the urge to speak. She didn't have anything to say. Only an urge to fill the space. Suspended in the unnaturally vast silence she wanted to say something for herself rather than for them.

Thankfully Gaeldum had pulled his companions out before Morella reached the main part of the camp. She walked them into the courtyard then positioned her guards around them while she went and sort someone who could vouch for their identity. Really this was another time buying tactic, in case Gaeldum still needed to slip out a back exit. This turned out to be a needless precaution. Gaeldum's timing had been perfect. He found a place to hide and remained there only a little longer than Aluna's men would be able to see him running from the walls. He'd ran quickly, knowing if he caused harm to her friends, Morella would never be able to look at him again. He burst into the tents of his men and, with no time wasted on an explanation, dragged them out and made them head out deep into the wilderness between the realm of fire and Aluna's domain.

Cleverly, though putting himself to great inconvenience, he did not take the direct route home, in case his presence at the camp had somehow been whispered and rumoured right through to Aluna's own ears and her men sent to investigate. He realised they may send out a search party. Especially if Morella deliberately wasted time, then checking Gaeldum was not escaping home would be the obvious thing to do. However there weren't enough to scatter over any significant area of the marches, only the likely paths.

A few of the men stationed at the camp had, for a time, served in Aluna's personal guard. These came out to confirm their guests were indeed friends. They were received into the great hall and given some food and ale as refreshment after a long journey. After eating to satisfaction, they were led to their rooms. There was no evidence to suggest anything remotely odd about the goings on inside the camp. This was subtly celebrated with beer and even more cheer than usual at dinner. It didn't seem strange to Aluna's men. They had visitors from home, news of their families to justify the sense of relief and happiness.

As everything seemed to have resolved itself, it was discovered that one of the fire-breathers had been careless. Leaving in haste he'd forgotten the dream-ring he'd left under his pillow. Thorough in their duty, their guests had carried out a complete search unnoticed. The ring was found. Dream-rings were a practice of the fire-breathers only. Never were they found in Aluna's territories. It was an art of fire. This degree of betrayal in a military unit was simply unpardonable. When Aluna heard of this, the punishment would be severe indeed. Treason from those responsible for the protection of so many. To betray the Lady Aluna was unthinkable but to do so after swearing the oath was beyond shocking.

It was painful having to stay amongst such disgusting traitors. If they left suddenly the men would know immediately some proof of their deceit, of their wickedness had been discovered. They were outnumbered, the soldiers could easily catch them up and kill them to stop the news getting back to Aluna. Easily enough they could find some excuse, enemies patrolling the marshes perhaps. As unbearable as it may be, they had to keep up the pretence, convince them they were on good terms.

If not for one lapse of self-control, they would have succeeded. One of them chose the wrong target to unleash his hidden anger. Minutes before curfew, there was hardly a soldier about, one of Aluna's guards found the ideal recipient for the rage he needed to let out. A girl, small and fragile. He'd kill her. Leave her body out on the marshes- let Gaeldum's men be blamed. After all, they were meant to be the enemy.

“We're not stupid,” he said, spitting on her. “We know what you've been up to, don't think you won't be brought to justice for this.” He stared at her, daring her to deny it, waiting for her to try to tell him she had no idea what he meant. Instead she kicked him, hard.

Stumbling back, he recovered quickly. The private guard were the best. Mirroring him, she whipped her dagger from her belt. Grabbing her arm roughly, he pulled it out her hand leaving her unarmed. Placing his own blade against her neck, he brushed the cold metal down along her collar bone, its sting skimming over her skin.

“You are a traitor. I want to see you die. To watch every gory detail of your decapitation.”

“You will not frighten me.”

“Really? Is that a challenge?” With a flick of his hand, he cut into her arm. As she struggled to free herself from his hold, he sunk his nails deeper into her skin. Eventually his grip loosened a little. His hands slid up to her throat. He stopped there, totally still. The pause gave her imagination a chance to predict his next move. Imagination awakened, the fear took hold. Her mind was busily anticipating the pain to come whilst making some weak effort to come to terms with death. It was hard when her thoughts felt like they were rushing past, behind her eyes. It was like reading a book while someone flicks the pages. She couldn't focus long enough. Death seeming inevitable, there was so much she needed to think about. The situation didn't feel real enough for her to do all the necessary analysis when her head already throbbed.

So distracted by the dull ache and absorbed in her half-reality, she didn't even register the arrow pass her and settle deep into the flesh of her attacker. The aim was so precise, only one person could have made that shot, so close to Morella but missing her entirely. The ruthless metal was buried in his heart, it had pierced between his ribs. When she looked up, she was already safe in Dathan's strong arms.

“Sorry that took so long. I didn't want to risk throwing my knife and it didn't look like he was going straight for the kill.” She didn't respond, she was still in shock. Instead she clung tighter to him resting her head on his chest. Prepared to sleep, he was wearing a loose, open necked shirt. Some of her cheek made contact with his bare skin but she didn't bother to move away.

“Perhaps now you will thank me for keeping check on you.”

“Thank you Dathan. You know, I've always appreciated it. Even if I didn't always want to admit it to you. I've never felt alone. Not when I have you. And I've always had you. However horribly I've treated you, however many times I've tried to send you away, however many times I've broken that heart I claim not to care about, I've always had you.”

“You always will. I am yours. That is a basic truth. I will always be yours, the only choice is only if you will ever be mine. Whatever you do, or say, or feel, I'm still yours.”

They walked back in awkward silence. Dathan worried he'd said too much, been too blunt. Morella still had a lot to think about and he'd given her more.

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