Numair Salmalín hunched over, bracing himself against the icy gale that was trying to sweep him off his feet. His long dark hair, never easily tamed, quickly filled with snow and slapped into his face.
Somewhere nearby there was a Scanran mage with a most peculiar style of magic. Numair had almost been enjoying himself, fighting with her, while his lover Veralidaine Sarrasri dealt with the rest of the raiders.
The Scanran had trapped him in blocks of ice a few times, which he’d melted easily enough. Yet whenever he’d tried to direct his magical fire at the mage herself, his attacks had dissipated seemingly without any effort on her part. The vines he’d called to life had frozen solid before they could touch her. It was like nothing he’d seen before.
This blizzard she’d thrown at him was dampening his scholarly curiosity, though. It felt like an ordinary snowstorm, but it was resisting all his attempts to smother or direct it. At a guess, the Scanran mage had somehow combined the essence of a storm with a resistance spell, perhaps storing it inside a crystal. Again, fascinating magic, but his ears and nose were now very cold. Numair had had enough.
Closing his eyes, he pictured his magic as a thin layer over his skin, gradually pushing outwards to form a spherical shield. The wind cut off. Numair straightened up as he opened his eyes, but still couldn’t see much.
He expanded his shield until the storm was only hitting it from one direction. There you are. He grinned and everted his shield so it became a wall, closing in on the Scanran mage. With luck, her mysterious immunity would not extend to her own spell.
Something struck his thigh. Numair stumbled but didn’t look down: the Scanran had chosen that moment to attack his shield. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on his magic, pulling it tighter and tighter while the other mage fought back.
A surge of energy tore through the sparkling black sphere, very like a crystal rupturing. He flinched. When the air cleared, he could see the place where the Scanran had been standing was empty.
Numair sighed in relief, lowering his hands, and felt a sharp burst of pain in his leg. He glanced down and saw a small black arrow lying on the ground. He frowned. When did that get there?
“Numair!” Daine came running towards him, cradling a bird in her arms as the rest of the flock wheeled above her. “I think their arrows are poisoned!”
Fear ran its icy fingers down his spine. Numair tried to bend his knees, wanting to sit before he started healing himself, but his legs wouldn’t move. He tipped sideways, his arms too sluggish to break his fall, and landed in a puddle of melted ice. Suddenly he was having difficulty breathing, like someone was squeezing his ribs too hard.
Paralysis, he thought, and reached for his Gift. Sending his awareness deep inside his body, he found the invader at once: a tarry substance racing through his blood and seeping into his muscles.
Numair used his magic to burn it away, clearing his chest first before directing the black fire through the rest of his body. He had almost reached his toes when his magic ran out, and the shock of it snapped him awake.
Daine was leaning over him, brown curls framing her pale face as she muttered under her breath. “Thank the Goddess,” she cried, seeing his eyes open. “Are you alright?”
Numair smiled and opened his mouth to reassure her, but his freshly cleansed lungs decided that talking was too much effort. His whole body felt so heavy, and the ground so comfortable, that he quickly sank into unconsciousness.
Daine emerged from her meditation to find Numair still hadn’t woken up. He was breathing normally, at least, not wheezing like when he’d first collapsed. Presumably he’d managed to rid himself of the poison, but then fainted before he could tell her anything. Typical.
She found herself wishing, not for the first time, that she could heal humans as well as animals. When she opened up her senses she could hear the crows who had helped in the fight, now guarding their camp, and countless woodland People beyond those. But the man she loved, lying just in front of her, was beyond her reach.
Her fingers closed around the silver claw hanging from her neck, and Daine smiled. No doubt the badger god, if he were here, would shake his head and call her an ungrateful kit. And he would have a point: not that many years ago, she couldn’t heal anyone with her magic. Now she was known throughout Tortall as the Wildmage, shapeshifter and healer, and had friends among the immortals and humans as well as the People.
Daine sighed, leaning over to stroke Numair’s hair. If only some of those friends had come with them, and could distract her from worrying over Numair. Cloud was very good at knocking sense into her, but she’d stayed behind in Corus. The pony was getting older, though she strenuously denied it, and Daine preferred to only bring her on short trips. The Queen’s Riders were busy with their own work, and Kitten was spending the month with her grandfather in the Dragonlands.
This situation was similar to how they’d first met, actually, when Numair had been trapped in hawk-shape and Daine hadn’t known what to do with the strange bird. At least her patient was less confusing this time around, though just as frustrating. Daine did not like being unable to help folk who needed it.
She was just considering going to look for firewood when Numair stirred. Holding her breath, Daine sent a silent prayer of gratitude to whichever gods were listening as Numair opened his eyes.
He looked at her almost immediately. “Magelet,” he said softly.
“I’m twenty-four,” said Daine, before she could stop herself.
Numair grinned. “I’m still taller than you.” He lifted his head and looked around. “Speaking of which, how did we get here?”
“I changed into a bear and carried you. Then I bandaged your leg, cause I wasn’t sure …”
“Ah. Yes, it’ll be a day or so before I have magic again.” Numair tried to sit up, and fell back with a grunt. “Hag’s bones, I’m stiff. Whatever poison those Scanrans tipped their arrows with, it’s nasty.”
“I know.” Daine hugged her knees. “I barely managed to save my crow friend, and the arrow only grazed him. Do you have any idea what it was?”
“Most likely, it was some kind of powerful paralytic drug. But all the ones I’ve heard of are distilled from tropical plants, nothing you’d find growing in Scanra.”
Daine scowled. “Seems to me that country only grows bitterness.”
“Hah.” Numair coughed, and Daine helped him sit up and drink from a water flask. He handed it back and wiped his mouth. “Have you sent a message about our encounter yet?”
“Yes, the crow I healed offered to carry it to the nearest town. Pay off his debt, you know. Oh, that reminds me …” Daine looked up at the surrounding trees, and addressed the birds within them. Thank you for keeping watch over us, wing-brothers and -sisters. My friend is awake now, so you’re welcome to return to your nests.
The head female flew onto a low branch, where she could see Daine clearly. We had a good time fighting alongside you today, she said. Let us know if you have any other entertainment planned.
Daine shook her head as the crows flew away. Entertainment, indeed. “Let’s hope those poisoned arrows aren’t too common,” she said aloud, to Numair. “Or we might have to spend Midsummer festival chasing Scanrans across the countryside.”
Numair groaned. “And I was going to–” He stopped talking abruptly, and when Daine glanced at him he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“What? Were you planning to make some grand romantic gesture?” Daine teased.
“Well …” Numair looked down, hands fidgeting like a boy who’d been caught raiding the pantry. “Yes, actually. I was going to ask … what your current feelings are towards us getting married.”
“Oh.” Daine wasn’t sure what to say; it had been years since Numair had spoken of marriage. “And then I put my foot in it. I’m sorry, Numair.”
“See, I–” He paused again, and then spoke very fast. “I would like us to have children, you see, one day – only if you do too, of course – and, well, I’m quite certain your parents will kill me if I don’t do things properly.”
Daine could only gape at him, stunned, while her thoughts stampeded and her heart beat far too loudly in her chest. Children? With Numair? Sure, she’d occasionally daydreamed about it, but hearing him say it aloud made it frighteningly real. Finally Daine realised she’d been silent too long, and searched for something to say. “My parents weren’t married, when Ma had me.”
“Your parents had an unusual arrangement,” Numair admitted. “But I don’t want to assume–”
“And what are we, if not unusual?” said Daine. “We’ve made our own space in society. Why should we start bowing to others’ expectations now?”
“Because–” Numair burst out, fists clenched, and then took a deep breath. “Because if we don’t marry, some people will think that means I’m ashamed of you. I know you don’t pay much heed to court gossip, but …” He sighed. “I do.”
That wasn’t quite true, Daine thought to herself. She’d grown up in a small town, and knew very well just how damaging bad gossip could be. That Sarra’s no better than she should be, no decent man will marry her bastard daughter … oh, but just think of their faces when they heard Sarra’s child had married the most powerful mage in the country!
Daine smiled slightly, and then shook her head. Petty revenge was not a good reason to get married. She reached over and squeezed one of Numair’s hands. “I love you,” she said, looking into his warm brown eyes. “But I’m just not sure about this. For some people, the bonds of marriage become chains weighing them down.”
“That won’t happen to us,” said Numair firmly. “Marriages often go sour because the couples don’t know each other very well, or they don’t talk to each other properly.” His mouth quirked. “We do know each other, and you always tell me when I’m being silly about something.”
“Even if you don’t always listen to my excellent advice.”
Numair shrugged, his face bright with mischief. “Nobody’s perfect. And we’re forgetting the most important part of getting married: the huge party the King and Queen will throw for us!”
Daine rolled her eyes. “You know I don’t like fancy parties.”
“Maybe not, but Kitten loves them. Just think how disappointed she’d be if we deprived her of such a celebration.”
His mock-earnest look made her laugh. “You’re being silly again,” she told him.
Numair clutched at his chest in exaggerated despair. “My sincerest apologies, dear lady.” Then he sobered and covered her hand with his own. “Whatever you decide, my love, I’m with you.” His brows pinched together, and he added hesitantly, “What do you think about the other part of my proposal?”
Daine had been doing quite well at not thinking about it. Like marriage, she was both drawn to and worried by the idea; her belly fluttered with excitement even as fear pricked the sweat from her palms. But voicing those worries was harder, somehow, like they came from a place much deeper inside her.
She breathed in slowly, and fixed her eyes on Numair’s long brown fingers. “I’m not normal, Numair. I’m filled with a magic I can’t fully control, that used to send me mad until you shielded me from it. What if …” Her throat went tight, and she had to whisper her next words. “What if something goes wrong with the baby?”
Numair gave a protesting sound, and cupped her face in his hands so he could hold her gaze. “It won’t. I promise.” He leaned forward and kissed her, slow and gentle, sending warmth rushing down her tensed body.
When they finally broke off for air, he rested his forehead against hers for a moment before pulling away. “You are the most remarkable person I’ve ever met, Veralidaine Sarrasri. And I’m, well, me.” Numair laughed as Daine swatted his arm. “Imagine how wonderfully talented our children would be!”
Daine considered this. “I reckon they’d be very stubborn,” she said seriously. “And impossible to keep out of trouble.”
Numair grinned. “Very true. But think how clever they’d be. Not to mention strong, charming, good-looking–”
“I suppose. Just not too humble.”
“Of course.” Their children would not grow up in the dark, as she had done; they would know exactly who they were, and what they were worth. Daine turned her face into a gust of wind, enjoying the rich forest scents, and then remembered something. “Before the fight, I was thinking we could pay a visit to Maura and the wolves at Fief Dunlath. Since we’ve come so far north.”
“Good idea.” Numair poked at his bandage and grimaced. “I don’t think I’ll be doing much walking tomorrow, though.”
“I could change into a horse and carry you.” Daine cut off Numair’s protest with a stern look. “I’m fine, I was mostly using my bow today. And we need to keep you occupied while your magic returns, or you’ll fret yourself into an even worse state.”
Numair gave her a rueful smile. “You know me too well,” he said, and tweaked her nose. “Right now, though, I’m more concerned about keeping my stomach occupied.”
Daine felt her own stomach rumble, as if in agreement. “You get started on dinner, then, if you’re up to it.” She put her pack within Numair’s reach and then stood up. “I’ll go and gather some firewood.”
Numair caught her wrist as she stepped away, pulling her down into another kiss. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me, magelet.”
A delicious shiver went through her, and Daine had trouble restraining her smile so she could kiss him back. “You too.”