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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3. Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Aluna paced. Unusual, she was always calm, not even the most unpredictably volatile of situations registered on her demeanour. Today she paced. Her agitation rippled through the stone and deep into the earth. Reacting was bad for the Lady Aluna, to anything. Unfortunately, she could never afford to give in to emotion. Power, for her, came with a great cost since she always had to be in total control of each thought and action. Allowing herself to become unsettled would make all her elements rebel. Only her steady, stable grip gave her the natural authority, the firmness earth, water, air couldn't resist.

Finally she was facing the test that could break her. She's spent years conditioning herself to always feel empty. Suddenly it was falling apart, she was facing problems. She descended directly from all three masters, Cathox, Koidis and Vadirrie. Recently though, she'd discovered a minor issue in the line of succession. She'd inherited the air from the Lord Cathox through her grandmother, Elwenora. However, Cathox and Erinlore had a son, a son who, by his fathers wishes and the usual custom of things, should have inherited his fathers position and mastery. Yet, nature and then society rejected him. Instead Elwenora became lady of air and rightly so for she had the skill and the strength. Artoth was not suitable. Unworthy and incapable.

Still, there were some who resented the new arrangement, still harboured the old grudges and resentment between divisions. Harmony between all elements would become frail without one master or mistress binding all within themselves. She believed she was Lady Aluna, Mistress of earth, water and air. Those who sought to undermine her had to accept she was indeed lady of earth and water but lady of air? Perhaps she had learnt the skills of the air, was capable yes, but there were many, many prodigiously talented wind drivers in the division. Some had the great advantage of being trained by Cathox himself. Elwenora, first Lady of air, did not even have that privilege: Cathox made it clear he did not want the daughter to inherit. Yet all that did not make them masters.

Naturally these rumours had been in existence for years. They weren't a serious threat before. Even if they could prove the title should have passed through Artoth's line, with Artoth dead, Aluna remained the rightful heir. There was no alternative. Either Aluna was mistress of air, or it would again flow free for no other descended from Cathox' line.

Then the threat became dangerous. Aluna's enemies had been searching and now had found a daughter. There had been another woman all along. She'd remained concealed for she was defiant and sought love. Refusing to bind herself to a master, she disguised herself as a man and ran. Artoth's daughter. Born on a battle field into the arms of an insignificant woman, a woman who'd rejected society and the natural order becoming a solidier. A girl who shouldn't have meant anything, shouldn't have survived, was now Aluna's greatest fear.

Quickly she'd tried to have the girl destroyed but a small group of Artoth's warrior friends protected her. Before she was born her father perceived the eventual danger in which his daughter would find herself. When Mo announced her pregnancy, Artoth instructed every man he could trust what ought be done if this child ever became an orphan. She did.

Strangely, a daughter from the line of mastery would be safer in the realm of fire than in her own division. From infancy, she should study the fire-breathers. Gaeldum. It was he who could secure a future for her. That she was a threat to Aluna would hardly bother Gaeldum. The man who stood alone against her. When the time came, Morella would have to make a choice. To reclaim her place, to fight for the title her grandfather intended for her and join in the great war. Or to leave that society and stay concealed amongst the fire-breathers. Create a life there. Even if she didn't try to take power from Aluna, she'd still be useful to Gaeldum. The only master not yet to be saved, to have produced heirs. Fire could not be let lose. Artoth couldn't bear to think of his only daughter as he would a sheep or a cow. Good breeding-stock. If only she could learn to love him. Gaeldum just didn't seem like a lovable sort of man.

For someone who'd spent their childhood travelling about with soldiers, as Morella had, it was rather peculiar the way she hated waking up in an unfamiliar place. Taking a few seconds to readjust and realise where and why she was here, she sat up.

A tray with some food and a drink she'd never encountered before, served hot and steaming, had been left on the wooden bench at the foot of the bed. Folded up beside the meal were some clothes. Men's. Obviously. But they were clean and comfortable so she could hardly complain. No, for indeed she was pleasantly surprised by how well she'd been treated. The reality of Gaeldum's fortress was far different from the rumours circulating in the rest of the world.

His manners too came as a shock, difficult at times but there was a gentleness so totally opposite to what she'd heard of him. The man she'd spoken to the night before was certainly not cruel.

Staring at the canopy above her bed, she thought about home. She knew her friends would be worried about her, especially Finian. He'd grown particularly attached to her lately. Back home on the borders, his uneasiness was beginning to irritate the whole camp. Pacing about in a ridiculous manner, he refused to see sense. Naturally everyone was concerned about Morella, yet it was clear she was quite capable of looking after herself.

Finian's obvious self-interest made his companions even less sympathetic. True, they were all concerned about Morella's welfare; Finian seemed more anxious about the possibility of her marrying Gaeldum. If he really loved the girl he should acknowledge her right to make her own decisions. None of them could imagine Morella marrying anybody, certainly not Gaeldum, still if she chose him it'd be up to her to find her own happiness.

There'd only been a few attacks in the days she'd be gone. Despite her size, she was one of their best and they were already struggling without her. Hopefully she'd come back to them. Nevertheless it was by no means certain. Her father seemed convinced she'd find security with Gaeldum, so it hardly seemed likely she'd return to this perilous, uncomfortable life. They were doing their best to stay positive though. Already having to cope with Finian's nonsense, they could hardly bear any more emotional outbursts.

“She's not coming back.” Repeating it over and over didn't make it any easier to accept. He believed it. He always believed the worst. Finian was a natural pessimist and one of those people who seems to need some stress or drama to make their life more exciting. Not that his life was short of adrenaline. Fighting was different: he was totally desensitised to the danger. It was a risk he'd lived with long enough to ignore.

Nearly as soon as she was dressed and fed, there was a quiet tap on the door. In such a majestic room, a large and intimidating space, the soft knock seemed so out of place.

“Do come in.” When Gaeldum himself entered, she was not entirely sure how to react. Gaeldum was the only fire-breather she knew and the only person who'd any business with her. Surely she needn't be caught off-guard by his arrival. Who else could she have been expecting? Then again great men and women always seem to keep others around to do the unimportant tasks.

“I am in a state of shock. I walk straight into your room. Stand here for at least ten seconds and you have not a word to say to me. Are you sure you are well? Or does your personality often vary from day to day?” She actually smiled. Gaeldum, the vicious, inhuman master of the deadliest weapon imaginable had made her smile.

“Indeed I have much to say, but this is not the setting. Please, my Lord, reassemble you war council that I may speak to all of them.”

“That is not possible.” He turned to leave, sighing. Morella didn't know why. The emotion was too hard to detect in it.

“Wait,” she called out, “I've remembered that there is actually something I need to discuss with you. Privately.”

“Well, well, you are a mystery. I am all attention.” Why had she said that. There was only one topic she could’ve been alluding to. She hadn't made her decision yet, however this always seemed the least likely of her two options. Feeling responsible for the war, knowing her mother could have done her duty and married Gaeldum (she'd lied the night before about her mother being able to win but she hardly wanted to bring up the subject of Gaeldum needing a wife) she'd always wanted to end the war. To fight. Her views had only altered slightly in all these years. The end the same, the means slightly different. She wouldn't try to earn peace the same as way as the first women tried. All the power in one person was dangerous. Aluna demonstrated that.

Besides, her father had made it quite clear, she was only to marry him if she loved him. Now she seemed to be headed in that direction after knowing him less than a day. Even if there was a possibility she could eventually learn to.. to have feelings for him, you can't love somebody you scarcely know. Then there was Finian, of course, but that was complicated.

“Again. Speechlessness. Am I always to bear either a tirade of words or stubborn silence or is there any sort of middle ground. A more reasonable compromise.” At his words she laughed aloud. When the time came to leave and go to the land of fire, she'd never expected to laugh.

“I'm sorry. I... It's that. I can't get started, that's all. I have so much to say, I can't seem to find the logical starting point.”

“Allow me to assist. Your father always thought you could marry me but only if we fell madly, unshakeably in love. You never expected this to be the case but on actually seeing me here all your prejudices were melted away by my handsome face and natural charm. Is that it?” At this point another of her prejudices dissolved. Gaeldum smiled. Lady Aluna was emotionless but Lord Gaeldum had a warm face. Yes, he could do all the stern looks and piercing glares she'd expected. He could smile too. That she had not anticipated.

“Something like that.” Looking again at the man before her she was deeply perplexed. The problem was, she didn't really know how she felt about him.

“You say I vary from day to day, you on the other hand, Gaeldum, vary from minute to minute.” She stopped herself realising that this comment came from her own reflection and not the actual conversation.

“Maybe you change me.” Now he was definitely wearing that mischievous grin and raising an eyebrow. His voice went even lower than usual, but softer.

“Is Lord Gaeldum, supreme master of Fire, last of the original tamers, flirting with me?”

“I never flirt. I am simply seeking my own ends. You know I need you.”

“You know I am under orders only to marry you if I fall in love and that's hardly likely. I don't know, threats of death and imprisonment before even an introduction is hardly what I'd call love at first sight. I'm sorry but men who want me dead simply aren't my type.” Her breathing had sped up. Desperately, she hoped she wasn't showing how much his words had struck her. In any other context, “You know I need you,” would be too irresistible to her. Waiting for her composure to return so she could speak once again in an even tone, she stared at him. Without thinking, only looking, for the first time not distracted.

“Told you I was handsome.” Looking at him, she did secretly admire. Somewhere deep there was a suppressed desire to run her hands from the thick black roots down through to the burning red tips of his hair. The tanned appearance of his skin was not only from it's being dark, but it had a radiant gold glimmer. Brilliance sparkled in his eyes, their expression wise, thoughtful, whilst passionate and wild. Warrior strength shown in his body, but not in a threatening way. Not at this particular moment at least. He could never know these thoughts.

“Your eyes have red in them. Bleeding into the iris, all different shades. Your finger tips also, they are reddy brown. It will always remind me how much blood shed your eyes have seen and of the blood that stains your hands.” However unjust her accusation, she'd left him so drained he couldn't be bothered to argue any more.

“Think of me what you will.” He tried to say the words lightly, but there was a sorrow to his voice.

“Listen, I'm sorry. Really. I guess I should be more careful, you've already made me look a fool. Please, I need some time to readjust my ideas, that's all.”

“Come with me.” Knowing she wouldn't get any more information out of him until he so chose, she followed. “You trust me then. That is good. Not what I'd expect from you. Maybe I need to readjust some of my ideas too.”

Eventually they reached a large chamber, up high, full of maps, drawings and old books. Gaeldum rubbed his hands in a circular motion then flicked the glowing ball he'd created into the stone fireplace. Soon the entire room was flushed in a hazy glow. Morella was relieved to have the eerie silence filled by the cracking of burning logs.

Gaeldum motioned for her to take the chair. Although she felt vulnerable, a tiny person swallowed into such a gigantic chair, she obeyed. After climbing so many stairs to reach this place, it was a pleasant relief.

“Have you made your decision yet?” Whatever she chose to do, he would support her. She was useful either way. Obviously, he had surprised her but she was hardly what he had expected either. He asked the question in a way that didn't demand an answer. At least, not immediately. Reaching up, he took an old manuscript from one of the shelves. Lowered onto the table, it made a thudding sound against the oak. Particles of dust rose into the air illuminated as they passed the fire. They both noticed them; Gaeldum blew softly, igniting them so they brightened and expanded. Looking like fire flies they flew gracefully about the room until they burned out.

“That was beautiful.” A tear formed in her eye. Gaeldum was a mystery. How could an evil man do such wonderful things. Fire, the most destructive power, he could also use so delicately.

Unrolling the sheets of paper, he revealed an image of the world before the taming. It had to be. Why then, was the date recent? There were people in the painting, stood amidst the elements they didn't look afraid. Huge swirling winds, fire balls exploding, waves of water rolling onto the mainland and the earth itself forming strange new shapes under their feet. In this strange setting, they looked at ease. Rather than fighting the elements, they submitted to them, allowed them to move freely around them.

“The whole world has not been tamed. There are those who can live peacefully with the elements. They live outside our divisions but are kept secret. We only held power by making people believe we were necessary, that death would come if the elements were let free once more. Aluna, with three elements under her sole control needs to keep that belief stronger than we ever did. She has enemies, they would soon overthrow her if they realised Caleddrielos can survive without mastery. It was a mistake.”

“She was dying, too weak to survive in the untamed world. You could have saved her.”

“Natalia wasn't weak. Like you, she was small and fragile looking but her courage made her strong. I thought she was weak, I never believed in her enough. I tried taming the world to try to save her but she died. She'd been sick all along. If I'd put all the energies I'd put into the taming into medicine and herbs she might have lived.” His groan echoed around the stone room; he wasn't trying to hide his emotions. Watching a great master cry was definitely an odd experience for Morella. Instinctively she reached out her petite hand and lifted it to his face, stroking her creamy palm against his coffee coloured skin. Realising what she was doing she tried to retract her fingers, stopped only by the speed with which he caught her hand. His fitted right around her clenched fist, the enormity of his hand could easily have crushed the delicate bones. She panicked. Sensing her fear he let go and took a small step back from her.

“You do know I wasn't trying to hurt you?” It made her feel somewhat guilty hearing the pain in his voice but she'd forgot herself. Naturally she didn't trust him, they barely knew each other and he still considered her an enemy. He didn't know about the assassination attempts. She was more Aluna's enemy than he.

“No. You don't honestly expect me to trust you. If it wasn't for my little demonstration with the tree, you'd probably have killed me already. We are enemies.”

“What reason do I have to trust you? You could kill me any time but I didn't flinch the second you touched me. I brought you up here to my own private study with no guards, putting myself at your mercy and this is how you repay me. With suspicion. I should repay the favour by putting you in a high security dungeon, starving you and depriving you of sleep until you are too weak for your power to be a threat. I won't. I have affection for you, don't you see. I sense fire in you, Morella. Please, is that not reason enough to trust me. Believe me, I have better ways to hurt you if I so wished.”

“Why does your attempt of reassurance sound like a threat?” Stepping closer to him again, she slid her hand back into his. She'd bruised him enough. Accepting her hand, he slowly lifted it to his lips and kissed it tenderly.

“I shouldn't, that was wrong of me. Forgive me.”

“Yes, that was totally inappropriate behaviour,” her voice dropped into a whisper, “but I rather enjoyed it.” Although she held her mouth set in a straight line, the twinkle in her eyes betrayed the smile. Soon it broke free all over her face. Together they stood and laughed. Regrettably, the mood was only briefly lifted. Their enchantment was abruptly interrupted by the horn, the drumming and the shouts below. The battle had begun.

“It's a shame I have to do this. If you were any other woman I'd tell you to go seek safety but not you. The moment I turn my back you'll go charging onto that battle field. As much as I wonder which side you'd fight for, I can't let you leave.”

Before she had time to come back to her senses and act he'd stepped out the room and locked the door. She was trapped. “Or so he thinks,” she muttered to herself, her eyes sly. “Leaving a wooden door between me and freedom, not such a clever idea for that clever man.” By twisting her finger she made the wood wrap itself round and round, ravelling tighter until it resembled a tree trunk, space around it for her to leave.

Gaeldum was a clever man. Knowing the door would never hold her, he'd filled the staircase beyond the door with flames. A furnace burned beyond just a step away. Closing the door was more to keep her away from the heat than inside the chamber. She could not leave, the blaze was abnormally hot.

“Gaeldum!” she screamed enraged. So soon after that fond moment, she hated him. He'd said he's sensed a fire in her and right now she was containing a smouldering rage. Never again would she grow to trust that wretched, devious, deceitful, impossible man. Impossible, he was always so impossible. Left alone she had no way to act on frustration. There was nothing more important to her than to humiliate him for humiliating her, to scream and kick and break him. She really needed to hurt him.

Of course, his books. Irreplaceable documents, some looked ancient, full of every sort of knowledge. It was the only thing she could do to him, so out of reach. In her right mind, when governed by all her senses she would never have considered it, let alone gone through with it. The anger had taken over making it too hard for her to stay still, to think rationally. Whatever her mind willed, her body was set on doing some damage. Any damage. Those immeasurably valuable books were the only piece of Gaeldum at her disposal. She hurled them all into the fire, watching the edges curl and blacken, the paper fragment, crumbling till they were no longer recognisable.

At first it gave her the satisfaction she'd needed, used up her energies by releasing the anger. Eventually though, when enough time had elapsed for her to view things in clear perspective, she was repentant. Despite the insult, he'd tried to act in her best interests. Even if some anger could be justified, her reaction was shameful. Realising she'd done a terrible thing she curled into a ball on the floor and cried despairingly. She didn't believe she'd ever be able to face herself again, not now she knew for certain that she was a bad person. It vexed her further that she hadn't even tried to stop herself, to be reasonable. Letting her instincts take over, she'd given up.

Worse still, she'd have to face Gaeldum soon enough. How would he react? No doubt he'd hate her, turn her out. Or worse. Rolled up on the cool stone slabs, her sobs grew so boisterous that she didn't even hear him come in. Although she'd been running her apology through her head, practising each word while she waited, on actually seeing him she froze. It was at that moment she realised that no apology could be accepted; she could not give an explanation when there was none.

“So I gather you burnt the books. Shh, shh, don't worry about it. I was nearly certain you would, I expected it. Don't cry. I'll feel awful when it was all my fault. If I cared that much, I could have prevented it.” What could she say to that? She was overwhelmed.

“Don't try to speak, you don't look in any state to.. well I was going to say to speak but looking at you again you're really in no fit state to do anything.”

“Were they very valuable?” All her preparation for that. Probably the most pathetic words she could have used.

“Yes, so much so that their exact value could never be calculated so at least I don't know how much I've lost. I am relieved all the same for you did not destroy the most valuable thing I left in this room. Burning the books was my own decision, I had to chose what was worth saving. It was a choice between you and the books. This was, regrettably and I do apologise, the only way in which to keep you safe. I never doubted your reaction, if you stayed there was no way they could survive.”

“You chose me?”

“And it was easy. You are far more precious than those books. You are extraordinary. They were mainly history but you... you're the future. Whenever I look at you I see so much complexity and depth and richness, not even I know what you can become. Do not doubt yourself, you have so much to give.”

“You're just trying to make me fall in love with you because you need a wife.”

“You burn my most valuable possessions yet still you insist on being cruel to me. Do you doubt me still?” Knowing how he could have punished her, she was too afraid to answer, fearing his anger so much more than usual. “Fine, I'm assuming that means a too scared to say yes. I can prove it if you want. Not that I'm a good, trustworthy man but at least that my compliments are not inspired by your usefulness.”

“I don't doubt you. I'm sorry, I've been ungrateful. When I think of what I deserve from you and compare it to the way in which you've treated me. Gaeldum, you have been kind to me. No, more than that. I didn't expect your forgiveness.”

“But I gave it. Willingly. I'd forgive you far worse for I know what it is to be emotional and to act on desire not reason. When your mind forgets sense and... I've done worse things. The moment takes you. I can't describe it but I do understand. It's a shame you didn't need to be convinced of my sincerity. I was looking forward to presenting my evidence.”

“You can still tell me whatever it was.”

“I wasn't going to tell you anything.” There was mischief in his eyes as he gave her a meaningful smile.

“Well what were you going to do?”

“I was going to kiss you.”

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