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Hopes Unmarred

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Ijada gave Ingrey credit. When the graciously-worded letter arrived at their Easthome residence, written in Princess Fara's own hand and requesting their presence at the country estate to which she'd retired, he'd asked her only once if she would be comfortable speaking with the princess again. Between the myriad of tasks they'd taken up and Fara's self-imposed widowed seclusion, they'd had little enough chance to meet since the uncanny events that had thrown them together at Bloodfield.

"I've made my peace with Fara, love," she'd replied, taking his hands in hers. "It's been over a year since she left me to Boleso's questionable mercies. Whatever harm her misplaced jealousy did me, I might never have met you without it. A more than fair trade, as far as I'm concerned." And she'd once again savored the delicate joy of watching startled wonder soften his dark eyes. You lived too long alone, half of my heart.

Ingrey accepted her reassurance, but the men that rode with them gave her more worried glances the closer they came to the Stagthorne lands that King Biast had given over to his sister's direction. They were all known to Ingrey, assigned to their task by Lord Hetwar, but the leopard spirit within Ijada could scent their uneasiness. She wondered what garbled rumors of magic, madness and defilement had come to their ears to cause it. Did they imagine that the wolf-shaman's cat-consort would exact some bloody revenge on the hallow king's own sister for handing over Ijada to Fara's younger and madder brother? And was their assigned task truly to guard Lord and Lady Wolfcliff, or to guard others from them?

Some of both, probably. Ijada sighed, then deliberately loosened her grip when her mare shook her head, confused by the brief tightening of hand on rein.

Whatever nerves the guards nursed, the princess herself showed no sign of sharing them. She greeted them in the front courtyard of her mansion with a grace and serenity that were all but worn away from her a year ago, broken down by the disdain of Earl Horseriver, her husband. Perhaps Fara kin Stagthorne had managed to make a certain peace with herself.

"Please forgive the lack of ceremony, Lord Ingrey, Lady Ijada." Fara pulled on walnut-brown riding gloves that matched both her riding dress and the tack of the little roan mare her grooms brought out for her. "But if you are not too weary from your journey, I thought we might attend immediately to the reason for my calling you here. We'll only have to ride a short distance."

"I've never been inclined to stand on ceremony, lady." The piercing gleam in her husband's eyes belied his dry humor; Ijada recognized all the signs of Ingrey intent on satisfying his curiosity. "Lead on, by all means."

Fara swung into her saddle without a groom's assistance and instructed the servants surrounding her to look after both their guardsmen and the horses under them. Having thus dispensed with all their attendants, she urged her horse to a trot and led her two noble guests from the courtyard. Ijada and Ingrey shared a glance that said so this is to be a most private conversation, then.

As Fara promised, they did not ride far. A mere ten-minute jaunt along a stream and into the forested foothills brought them to a glade where Fara held up her hand, urging them to stillness and silence. Ijada's leopard-enhanced sight adapted quickly to the dappled shade, but her cat-within still scented the approaching creature before she saw it.

Across the stream, a magnificent stag stopped just short of stepping into the clearing, watching them in evident mistrust from the trees just beyond. It wasn't the beast's grace, strength or elegance that made Ijada's breath catch in her throat, however, but its strange density, felt only with the senses her leopard gave her, the mark of an animal bearing more than one soul of its kind. Ingrey tensed beside her, and she knew he felt it too.

"I understand why your letter was so vague," he breathed, causing the creature to make a threatening gesture with its rack.

"The wise-stag." Ijada too pitched her voice low. "The spirit beast that Wencel—that Horseriver was trying to create, before you set it free, Ingrey." To little effect, since the tortured being in possession of Wencel kin Horseriver's body had already decided that the much older wise-wolf in Ingrey's blood would serve him better in his quest for suicide and oblivion. As it did, though it served the Weald far better.

"Yes," sighed Fara. "How it escaped the city, I do not know, nor do I have any idea how it came to me. Or ... why." Her anxious eyes searched Ijada and Ingrey. "We three are the last known bearers of spirit animals. It seemed wisest to consult with you before coming to any decision on what to do with the creature."

"I think that we three alone should not be the only ones consulting, lady," Ingrey cautioned. "Have you mentioned this to your brother yet?"

"Oh aye. Biast agreed that I should speak to you privately, while he assembled as many of the earl- and archdivine-ordainers as he could secretly call to conclave."

A wince escaped Ingrey's cautious control. "We'll be up to our necks in argument as soon as we return to Easthome then."

"No doubt." Fara's eyes still measured the both of them; Ijada wondered how the princess' spirit horse, inflicted on her by Horseriver, perceived both her leopard and Ingrey's wolf. "But my brother made it clear that the opinions of the Weald's only shaman and bannerwomen would be given weight in his councils."

Ingrey looked no happier. Ijada laid a soothing hand on her husband's arm and smiled at the princess. "Then if it please you, let us discuss what opinions we shall give this conclave of hopefully high-minded officials over a meal. A private meal," she added prudently, to which Ingrey and Fara both firmly agreed.

 

******

In addition to Sealmaster Hetwar and archdivine-ordainer Fritine kin Boarford, King Biast called in Earl Badgerbank, the twin kin Boarford earls and Earl Amit kin Foxbriar to private conference in the hallow king's hall. To Ijada's undisguised delight, also present to give testimony and offer opinion were the learned divines Lewko, Hallana and Oswin. Altogether those present formed a very odd quorum indeed, though well-suited, she thought, for the debate ahead. Fara greeted the divines with her usual reserve, then drifted to the head of the table to speak with her royal brother. That in doing so she gave the five friends time to confer...might have been her intention.

Ingrey looked tense and troubled to Ijada's eye, and had since their first sighting of the stag. He produced a strained smile, nodded at the ordainers gathered around Biast and asked, "So which way does the wind blow?"

Lewko made a weighing motion with one hand. "I suspect Fritine wishes the old forest magics had remained buried for his lifetime at least, but the presence of so many high-level witnesses to the cleansing of Bloodfield will keep him circumspect. His Boarford nephews have followed King Biast's political line most scrupulously of late, and will likely keep a sharp eye on which way he leans here."

"As for Earl Foxbriar," Oswin murmured, "He'll be the one to declare himself defender of the status quo if anyone does, mainly out of bitterness that he wasn't able to garner more political power for his kin at the last election. The landslide for Biast rather took the wind out of his sails."

"Earl Badgerbank, on the other hand, may look to curry favor with his kinswoman and her husband, who have so unexpectedly gained the hallow king's ear." Hallana gave Ijada the dryest of smiles. "If the opposition is not too strident."

Ijada snorted. "He showed little enough concern for me and mine before last year."

"Yes, dear, but he's better as even a vacillating ally than as an enemy." Hallana cocked her head and gave Ingrey and Ijada one of her bright, inquiring smiles. "Have you decided which side you will choose yet? Will you say yea or nay to the nurturing of this wise-stag?"

Ijada cast a worried glance at Ingrey, whose face had turned mask-like. "We're not--"

"Learneds? Lord Ingrey and Lady Ijada?" The voice was Hetwar's, who sat at the King's left hand. "If you'll take your seats, we're ready to begin."

 

******

The debate fell out precisely along the lines the three divines had laid out, at least until Fritine brought up what were likely honest worries about the precedent that would be sent if the cultivation and harvest of the stag were allowed. "It is mine to think of Temple concerns, my lords, and the Temple is deeply concerned about any magic that risks the sundering of souls from the gods, as this does." He glanced warily at Fara, Ijada, and last at Ingrey. "I realize that we have at least one soul present who will face such sundering if no more new shamans are made, but-- my apologies, Lord Ingrey –does that justify bringing the old magics back? Increasing the chances of more souls being lost? What would the Five say to that?"

Lewko spoke up mildly. "The temple already risks such losses with their sorcerers, as we all know. Surely we can learn to manage spirit magics as usefully as we already manage demon magic. And as we also know, it takes nothing more than one renegade sorcerer to place an animal spirit in someone. Shamans and spirit warriors working within Temple disciplines seems the surest way to establish what control we can over the old magics."

"Perhaps one of the Five has already spoken, Archdivine." Ijada glanced in surprise at Fara, as did the rest of the room. "That the stag should have escaped Easthome at all seems unlikely enough, but the fact that it then found its way a year later to the one Stagthorne who bears a spirit animal beggars coincidence." Fara's gaze circled the room, watching each person there follow her thought to its conclusion.

"Stags for the Stagthornes," Biast murmured, his eyes thoughtful. Ijada worried her lower lip. Did the King still feel some itch of competition with Ingrey? Did he think to emulate his unpredictable wolf-shaman, and if he chose to try, who would defy his order?

"With respect, Sire," Oswin interjected, "The old ways have been outlawed for a very long time. Any reintroduction of them into our lives should be handled with scrupulous care, to gradually overcome the suspicions of those who still see them as anathema." He made an elaborate shrug, both hands held out. "Placing any kind of spirit animal in the highest lord of the land, when rumors still run riot about the causes of Wencel kin Horseriver's madness and suicide, does not strike me as being at all careful, or gradual."

Biast made a waving-off gesture, as if conceding the point, but Hallana chose to drive it a little further home. "That stag should be sacrificed into at least a few more new generations before it would be ready for investment in any would-be shaman, at any rate. We could even maintain it, or other great beasts, unused for many human generations without any cause for alarm on the part of the Temple, for any sin inherent in spirit magic occurs only when the animal spirit is sacrificed into a human being." She once again turned her unsettling smile on Ingrey. "I do have that correct, do I not, Lord Ingrey?"

If Hallana sought to draw Ijada's wolf-warrior into the debate, she failed. Ingrey stared down with dark eyes and a blank face at his hands, which were spread on the table. Earl Foxbriar, however, vented a bark of laughter at the physician-sorceress' suggestion. "Bastard's Tears, I didn't think anyone who can successfully control a demon could be so naïve! If these wise kin-beasts grant so much power, they will be used, not maintained as some kind of trust over generations!"

Ijada's head jerked around at that, her eyes blazing. "The Old Wealdings maintained many such trusts, until Audar forced their hands." Unrepentantly, she locked gazes with Foxbriar. "Are we so very much less than they were?"

Foxbriar's eyes slid away first, but he dismissed Ijada's point with a slash of his hand. "We can talk in circles for days and still miss what I see as the heart of the matter." He jabbed one finger in Ingrey's direction. "There sits the only man who can answer our questions, my king. Ask him if he intends to continue the serial sacrifice of this stag. Ask him if he intends to make even more spirit beasts and shamans. And while you do your asking, ask yourself this: if he says yes, who can stop him?"

That brought Ingrey's head up at last. Ijada felt the hairs on the back of her neck stir as her husband confronted Foxbriar with a smile as black as his mood. "Well, there's always assassination," he said, his tone utterly bland.

Though Ingrey sat perfectly still, Hetwar flinched, visibly. Earl Badgerbank ran one finger over his upper lip. Still trying to determine which way the wind will shift, and how he should face in relation to it, Ijada thought, gritting her teeth in frustration. The kin Boarfords looked to Biast, who watched the confrontation with keen interest and little other expression. Fara, oddly enough, wore the faintest of smiles, while the divines kept their eyes intent on Ingrey.

Foxbriar's shoulders hunched mulishly. "I stand by my questions," he growled. "This side of death, what will restrain you from doing anything you choose with your powers, no matter what others might say about a return to the old ways?"

Ingrey's hands pressed a little flatter to the table, his only movement. "Do you doubt my loyalty to the rightful hallow king, my lord?" he asked softly. "Or do you simply fear any power you do not control?"

Biast raised a restraining hand, looking from old fox to young wolf and back again. "Peace, both of you. The matter is complex, and not likely to be resolved in one afternoon." Turning more fully to Ingrey and Ijada, he continued, "I do not doubt your loyalty, having witnessed the sacrifices you both have made for the Weald and my own kin." He glanced at Fara before refocusing on the Wolfcliffs. "And yet, all this discussion must in the end hinge on you, Ingrey. If the old ways will return, they will return through you, the last shaman. If they will die, they'll die with you, unless some other great kin-beast emerges from long hiding, like your wolf."

No one needed to elaborate on the unlikeliness of that happening. Leaning forward, Biast asked, "What do you believe should be done with this wise-stag? As hallow king and for the sake of all under my protection, I ask you to speak plainly."

The question hung in the air, implacable and unavoidable. Ijada drew a worried breath as she watched Ingrey grip the edge of the tabletop. Her husband looked as if he were being slowly crushed under a boulder's weight, and only Ijada knew the cause.

Enough.

She rose from her chair, drawing the eyes of all in the room. "If we may have your leave, Sire." Ijada's words showed deference, but the set of her chin offered no compromise. "I would speak privately with my husband. For a short while only."

Biast's eyes widened in surprise, but he nodded his royal permission. Ingrey's eyes narrowed as he stood to follow his wife from the chamber, and he showed no surprise at all.

 

******

Ijada located a private corner, where any who might seek to eavesdrop would be heard or scented by their animal companions. Once within, she pulled her husband into a frantic, trembling embrace, much like the one they'd shared after their vision of meeting the Son of Autumn face to face. Ingrey stood stiffly for only a moment before burying his face in her shoulder and hair, venting a groan that was nearly a growl.

"Talk to me, Ingrey!" she breathed in his ear. "I think—no, I'm sure I know what tears you to pieces right now, but only you can tell me the whys."

"Do you know? Do you?" He dropped into a chair and pulled her onto his lap; her height nearly knocked him over. "Fritine has the right of it. So does Foxbriar, Five Gods help me. My redemption requires someone else's destruction. If not some future shaman who cleanses me, or the one who cleanses him—or her—than someone. Some last shaman in the chain." He looked up at her, wild-eyed. "I've known this for a year, but to have Biast look me in the eye and demand to know what my decision would be ... if I return to that room and say yes to the continued strengthening of that stag, who would believe that I had any reason other than selfish fear of the long death of sundering? Except for you."

"The number who'd believe otherwise is larger than you think." She smoothed a hand over the darkness of his hair, wishing for words that could smooth away his pain as easily. "But it's not what others think that eats away at you now."

He stilled suddenly. "No. No it's not." He spread one hand flat over her stomach and shuddered. "You have the right of it too, beloved. Confronting all this only a week after learning that I'm to be a father has dredged up vistas of potential horror for me."

"You're thinking of Horseriver," Ijada whispered.

"How can I not? Hallana called the geas he placed on me a parasite magic, but he was the true parasite, bound against his will to survive by consuming his children. My father died beyond death; wouldn't it be perfectly symmetrical for my child or grandchild to make the same sacrifice, all in an effort to save me? Or perhaps you, if I die first?"

Ijada stayed silent, aching for both Ingrey and the growing babe her leopard had sensed within. He went on. "And even if the shaman who pays the price were no kin to me, maybe someone far in the future, still they would be some parent's child, lost to the Five forever. One eternity traded for another. I told you once that I would send no one into this state unless I knew that they could find a way out, but no way out exists that I can see." He shook his head, staring off into that bleak future.

She cupped his face in her hands, bringing him back to look at her. "And I told you that you cannot dictate the hearts of those not yet born, Ingrey. Nor can you dictate their choices, any more than the Gods can."

"I can in this." His jaw set. "I can refuse to make more great beasts, or the shamans that would come from them."

"So then." She met his stubbornness with harsh, simple truth. "I remember how distraught you were when you could not send your father to his god. Would you wish that same devastation on our child or grandchild? Or any parent's child?"

The breath huffed out of Ingrey, as if from a blow to the stomach. Or the heart. "You are ruthless, leopardess."

"When needs be, my wolf." Ijada traced his cheekbones with her thumbs as her hands slipped around to the back of his neck. "Ingrey, choice is the blessing and curse that comes with free will, which even the Gods will not deny. Follow their lead in this matter. I too believe that the stag came to Fara for a reason, a reason that we maybe cannot see yet."

While Ingrey pondered her words, Ijada's lips curved up at the very corners. "And while we search for that reason, we can also search for alternatives."

That claimed his attention, and put furrows in his brow. "Alternatives? What alternatives?"

With a snort of fond exasperation, she leaned their foreheads together. "This selective memory of yours makes me want to shake you at times. I recall very well your description of your first meeting with Prince Jokol and his men, and how you got so resoundingly drunk with them. He told you that he'd heard a weirding voice before, spoken by a woman from his homeland."

"Yes." The furrows deepened. "The singing woman at the forest's edge, he called her."

"Did he at any point tell you that her powers came from an animal spirit?"

"He didn't, no." And then, being Ingrey, he had to add, "Of course, I never asked..."

This time, Ijada did take him by the shoulders and give him a shake. "Ingrey! Can you at least concede the possibility that other traditions for spirit magic may exist in other lands?" She was laughing now. "And through them we may learn ways to cleanse a kin beast from a departing soul without risking another soul for that cleansing."

Ingrey lips also quirked upward, almost in spite of himself, it seemed. "It sounds ... not unreasonable."

"So then."

"So then indeed." He answered her smug smile in the only reasonable way he could, by covering her mouth with his own. Silence fell for a time, or at least no words were spoken. Ijada felt her own heart lifting with the slow easing of her beloved's tension that she could feel under her fingers. Ingrey would always be Ingrey, too often preoccupied with the worst possibilities a situation could offer. But for this deep and subtle terror, he now had the tantalizing hint of a solution. A furtive hope of heaven, unmarred by future loss...

When the kiss had wound to its mutually pleasurable conclusion, he said lightly, "I suppose it would be foolish of me to plan a trip to Arfrastpekka to see Jokol and his singing woman on my own."

"Exceedingly foolish," she agreed. "Not only are you not to go on any adventures without me, I still want to meet the indomitable Breiga. I wonder if they're married yet?"

Ingrey chuckled, warming her heart still more. "Perhaps we should invite them to visit? But then I wouldn't want to be responsible for the fracas if Jokol were to visit Fafa and start pining for the beast." He smiled up at Ijada. "Shall we table these discussions for another time, and get back to the one that we interrupted? I'm surprised they haven't come hunting us yet."

Ijada's smile turned a shade wicked. "They might have to resort to drawing straws to determine who would hunt down the wolf lord and leopard lady, beloved. Or they could just send Hallana."

Ingrey gifted her with one of his most devastating smiles as they rose. Each with an arm around the other, they returned to the council chamber, there to debate the Weald's future, and their own.

 

FIN