Thorns and Roses


There were many stories told of the old ruins near Novoros lands, how they had been haunted for centuries. No one could remember who had built it – at least, no human could. Every lar who knew their history could tell you the place was built by a long-dead family back before humanity forced them further north. One could have tea with Queen Neimnas, and she would talk about the last lord of the place and how his gardens had produced the most beautiful roses. But then, no human ever asked a lar about anything, so they went on in ignorance.

A human, Lloreil, favored the place with grim satisfaction and unshouldered her haversack. She approached the rusty gate barring entrance to the inner courtyard and keep, studying it for a moment. The girl flung back her arm, and with a mighty heave tossed her haversack over the gate, watching it soar over and down and land with a dusty thump a mere seven feet from her. She nodded, satisfied, and tackled the climb over.

"It's almost like he doesn't want visitors," she mumbled to herself, her tone suggesting she did not understand why. With a grunt, she landed soundly next to her haversack, taking it up and shouldering it once again.

She was no thief: this was not breaking and entering. Besides, she had not broken anything. Yet. No, this was business, of a sort. She was here on behalf of her people to settle things with the mad magician rumored to be living in the ruins. Her haversack contained supplies, in case she needed to hang around the place. She thought she was very prepared.

It had not yet occurred to her that she was going to face down a man who used lixos with no more than a stale loaf of bread and her own foolish courage.

Lloreil, curious, ducked inside the rotting stables, almost expecting to find a horse inside. There were none. There wasn't even any tack or feed. She smacked herself on her forehead. Of course he has no need for a horse. He can go wherever he wants with a snap of his fingers or something.

Leaving the small, ominously-creaking building, she upset a small herd of ranging chickens. She stopped to blink at the birds, and they proceeded to ignore her. She shook her head and proceeded next to the kitchens, and was actually surprised to find it clean and apparently in use. There was even a stew boiling over the fire in the hearth. Lloreil grinned and sauntered over, gingerly lifting the lid and taking a deep whiff of the contents. She wrinkled her nose at the displeasing odor. She replaced the lid and moved on. I did not see any lizard tails or eyeballs. What does this guy eat?

The cupboards were full with clay jars, some of them sealed with wax, some with cheesecloth around a cork. They were all labeled, but she did not recognize the language. It could have been Torric for all the good it would do her, she could neither read nor write, despite the King's efforts to educate his people. The Otherworlders had been pressuring him.

Bored of the kitchens and remembering her purpose there, Lloreil mounted the stone stairs up to the main building.

"Hello?" she called, furrowing her brows in an attempt to seem tough. "Lord Magician, come out so that I may speak with you!"

There were torches lit, and natural light shone down from holes in the roof. With this illumination, Lloreil could make out thick vines crawling around flagstones and pillars. They curled around the table in the center of the Hall, however, as though something were keeping them at bay, keeping the dining space clear for use.

The girl called out once more, and was about to mount the staircase towards the second level when a voice rang out behind her.

"I hear you, human. What do you want?"

She missed her footing and slipped, landing hard. "Ow."

Standing and turning, Lloreil looked over to the doorway she had entered from, and saw a tall, slim man in robes staring coldly at her. She suppressed the urge to shiver and approached.

"My name is Lloreil, I'm from the village-"

"Nice to meet you, Lorry, you may go now," the man interrupted, turning and striding towards the gate.

"I wasn't finished!" the girl sniffed, stomping after him. She made to grab for his sleeve, but the man deftly evaded her grip, snarling at her as he stepped out of her reach.

"Do not try to touch me, and I will listen to you for another thirty seconds. Go."

Needing no further cue, the girl took a large breath and launched headfirst into her explanation. "Three girls have disappeared from the village and no one knows where they went and they have not come back they've been gone for a week and some people say it's you but no one really knows and everyone was too scared to come so I decided to come and ask you if you were taking them and if you could please return them and what in the world do you eat?"

She finished at last and took a huge gulp of air. Meanwhile, the man stood staring at her, mostly in a shock, and a little bit with offended indignation. Then he shook his head strode once again towards the gate, and called back to her over his shoulder.

"I did not take the girls. You may return to your people and tell them that. I hope you find them. Good day."

He waved a hand and the gate unlocked, swinging open. He looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to leave.

Lloreil frowned and crossed her arms. "No way. I don't believe you."

The man rolled his eyes. "Well I'm sorry, I can't help that you don't believe me. It's better if you leave now."

To reiterate his point, he swung his arms from her to the gate several times. She arched a brow.

"Is that some spell to make me walk?"

"What? Of course n-Yes! Yes it is. And if you don't heed it, I will do something much worse to you."

He seemed to have changed his mind part of the way through his sentence, and now he was smiling unconvincingly at her. She walked up to him and he took a step back.

"Okay, try it."

"What?"

"Try to do something to me."

"I don't-" he stammered. "I don't think you want me to try it."

"I do," she said firmly, poking his chest with her index finger. That's when things got really weird.

The man just dissipated, faded away like he had never been there. Her finger had passed right through him. Behind her, Lloreil heard a foreign word that had the tone of a curse.

She whipped around and saw something truly horrible. Coming towards her was a tall figure in a ragged black feather cloak that effectively hid its body. Its face was covered by a mask that left only a mouth exposed, and the eye holes dark.

"Stupid girl!" a male voice cried, roughly grabbing her arm and yanking her towards the gate, "I told you to leave. Now leave!"

He pulled her forward and she stumbled to the ground, regaining her feet in time to see the dark feathered man wave a hand, closing and locking the gate behind him as he walked away towards the ruined keep. He was grumbling something in a language she did not understand.

"Maybe he didn't do it," she mused out loud. "But he can use lixos, so maybe if he did not do it, he can help me find the missing girls..."

#

"Don't know how she got in here..." Gawen growled to himself, stoking his fire with a wave of his hand. He collapsed into his armchair and lifted his mask just long enough to scratch his forehead. "At least she won't be back."

An airy sensation tickled his ear beneath his cowl: the signal someone had crossed his perimeter. Again.

Gawen cursed again and angrily pulled the bowl of water on the side table to its edge so that he could look at it sitting down. Sure enough, he saw an image of the human girl striding through his hall in its depths. He shoved the bowl away and sighed, not rising immediately. If she had had the courage to come back once more, she was not going to leave him alone.

He stood and smoothed out his cloak, readjusted his mask, and went to meet his intruder.

Lloreil met him on the stairs with a smile. "Greetings."

He stared at her, and grunted in response. She took this as a sign to talk.

"Okay, so I guess you didn't take the girls. But, you use lixos, right? I saw what you did with the illusion and the gate. Can you help me find them?"

He blinked at her once more, though she could not see it. "No." He turned and made to ascend the stairs.

"Wait a minute!" Lloreil whined, running up around him so that he was forced to stop and talk to her, "Why not? It would be easy, right?"

He sighed, putting a hand over his masked eyes. "No, it wouldn't be easy. And if I tried it, I would get found."

The girl frowned. "Found by who?"

"Whoever is taking people from your village, for all I know. I'm sorry they disappeared, all right, really. I'll, uh, keep an eye out for them." He sidestepped her and continued up the stairs.

The human frowned at him, puzzled. "You're not gonna throw me out again?"

He chuckled hollowly. "I can see that's pointless. You know the way out." Probably better than me, he thought.

"What's your name?" she called, her hopeful voice echoing around the eternally silent keep.

Her question caused him to stop. No one had asked his name in....well, ever, now that he thought about it. Even before he'd run away, he was introduced by someone else when he met new people. That was, if they did not already know who he was.

"Gawen," he replied, surprised he answered, and even more surprised that it had been with the truth. Maybe he was getting lonely? Fifty years will do that.

"Gawen. See? I can say it right. Could you say my name correctly now? Lor-ae."

On second thought, no, he was not lonely. At all.

#

"What are you doing?"

"Cleaning. What's it look like?"

Gawen blinked at the human girl who was sweeping the floor of his Hall. He had not recalled having a broom, and he doubted if she could recall how to use one. She was sweeping the dust to the sides of the room so it collected instead at the base of the walls.

He had come downstairs the morning after his apparent failure to get rid of the girl, expecting to feed his chickens and collect eggs and tend to his vegetable garden in his normal quiet morning routine. Yeah, right.

"Okay," he said slowly, doubtfully. "What are you really doing?"

She stopped to scowl at him. "You can't talk to people like that, Gawen. You were human once, surely you remember how to be polite."

He coughed nervously. "Uh, yeah, human. Right."

The magician watched her attempts to sweep a few more moments before he realized what he was letting her do.

"Now, see here!" he suddenly shouted, wagging a finger at her, "I don't have to be polite to you! You came to my keep uninvited and started doing things without my permission. When did I say you could stay here?"

She smiled patiently at him. "When you did not tell me to leave."

"What?" he sputtered. "Yes I did!"

"Nope," she intoned. "Not the second time."

He paused, growing red beneath his mask, because it was true. He had not actually told her to leave the second time.

"Would you like leeks or potatoes in your soup?"

"Both," he said before he could stop himself. Then: "Wait, what? Are you cooking for me now too?"

"Us," she said simply, returning to her chore. "I brought some things with me, thought I'd cook while I was here."

"And how long are you going to be here?" he questioned uneasily. She was surprisingly prepared...

"Oh," she started vaguely, "Couple days. It's up to you, really."

"It is?" He did not like where this was going.

"Yup. When you agree to help me find the missing people, I will leave you in peace."

The man frowned at her, which she could see, and arched an eyebrow in response. He figured it was time to play the intimidation card.

"You and your people know me as a magician, right? Aren't you afraid of what I might do to you if you make me angry? Like, if you stay here when I do not want you?"

He even used some of his illusion to make himself grow taller as he spoke.

Lloreil seemed unimpressed. "If you were going to do that, you'd have done it already. I'm on to you, Gawen. You're actually a nice guy. Telling me you were sorry my people disappeared was the first true thing you told me, so I figure I'm not wasting my time trying to convince you to help me."

He deflated – physically to her eyes, as he let the illusion spell go – and only sighed. She had him pegged.

"Fine," he said firmly, his next words dispersing the hope in her eyes. "You can stay here and, uh, clean and cook, if that's what you want. But I cannot help you."

With that, he turned, and was stalking away when her irritated voice stopped once again.

"No. Oh, no, my lord Magician. You are going to help clean up this place right with me."

He turned to frown at her. "I have not cleaned in the fifty years I have lived here. You won't be convincing me to help you with your self-assigned chores now."

She grinned. He stood firm.

#

The soup was good. The girl knew how to cook.

"Ah," Lloreil sighed happily, sipping at her creation with a look of bliss, "Mother's recipe came out just right. Tastes a lot better after a long day of work too. Wouldn't you agree, Gawen?"

He ignored her bait and changed the subject after taking an appreciative sip of his own. "Does your mother know you're here?"

That caused her pause, and the girl suddenly looked thoughtful. A dangerous activity, he suppressed the urge to say.

"Yes. Well, no, I mean...she knows I went looking for the missing girls. She knew better than to try and stop me."

Yes, I imagine she did. "You should probably go tell her where you are," he suggested instead, trying to keep the hope out of his voice. If she left, he could place wards against her re-entry, maybe grow the thorn vines up around the walls-

"No," she said contentedly. "It's fine. She'll figure it out."

He sniffed, a little annoyed his fledgling plan had failed. "You don't mind staying cooped up in here with a mean old man?"

She laughed, and he decided he liked the sound. He smiled into his spoonful of soup.

"No way! You can't cook worth a shit, and I can tell I'm wearing you down to help me. I'm not leaving just yet."

Gawen choked into his soup and fisted a hand at his sternum.

"You're not," he stuttered, trying to get a lump of potato to go down the right pipe, "You're not the most...feminine woman I've known."

She arched an oddly accusing eyebrow at him. "Oh? And how many women have you known, my lord Magician?"

"Uh..." he replied smoothly.

She nodded, satisfied, and went back to her soup. "That's what I thought."

Gawen looked down at his half-full bowl, suddenly not hungry anymore. He stood and strode out of the Hall, dumping what was left for his chickens to come and peck at. He then disappeared into the kitchens, and re-emerged without the bowl.

"Thanks for dinner," he mumbled, retreating up the stairs.

"You're welcome..." he heard her voice trail after him, confused.

A thought occurred to him, and he stopped, turning to address her awkwardly.

"By the way, there's a – a room up here. I made it sort of tidy. You can sleep there."

Without waiting for a reaction, he turned again and disappeared into his chambers.

#

Lloreil sighed happily as she strode through the overgrown garden. Well, 'overgrown' might be an understatement.

She had discovered a garden behind the keep. There was no way to get to it from the courtyard, but there was an entrance from the room Gawen allowed her to use.

She could tell that it had once been beautiful – not that it wasn't now, in her eyes, but it would have been more, had it still been kept. The gravel path was splattered with small tufts of wild grass and weeds, sometimes even moss. The large, green, thorn-covered lumps that abutted the path in places seemed to collect the moss. She guessed they had once been fountains, but now the plants had reclaimed the water for their own. It was a nice effect, though, because it was also on these fountains that beautiful roses bloomed.

There were red, black, yellow, and even blue roses, they never grew together on the same fountain, and the flowers were positively huge. Lloreil measured one against her hand, and found the flowers were about the same size.

She had been at the old keep for over a week, elbowing Gawen into helping her tidy up his home and using his foodstuffs to increasingly delicious effect. She wondered what he did with his days, since he refused to use his power to help her find her missing companions. She sneaked around one afternoon, following him, and found his study. Lloreil had never seen so many books in her life, which wasn't saying much, considering she had previously seen none at all.

She wandered down a side path that seemed to have been kept up – no weeds in the gravel, no thorny vines creeping across the way. It wound through the huge rose bushes, and a feeling of melancholy descended upon her. When she reached the end, she was unprepared for what she saw.

Gawen, dressed as ever in his black feather cloak, was bowed down on one knee, his head bowed beneath his cowl. He looked to be giving honor to a rose bush that bloomed white. A modest pile of stones was stacked before it.

Her foot scuffed the gravel, and Gawen started in surprised. She felt her heart palpitate in what she imagined was fear when he stood and whipped around, probably ready to hex someone. She took a surprised step back, and his form relaxed. He looked to the rose bush and pile of stones.

Lloreil had to spend a moment collecting herself. She wanted, not for the first time, to see the rest of the man's profile. He said he had been here fifty years, but the half of his face she saw was so young...

"I, uh, I've never seen white roses in here."

He did not look at her as he answered. "I planted this one. White is the death color."

"A grave?" she asked softly.

"Yes," he replied with more sadness than she'd seen in him. "For a woman."

He sighed deeply, and the human had the feeling he was hiding tears. Before she could say anything, though, he was speaking in a rush of words, the most he had ever spoken in her hearing.

"I did not love her, but I was supposed to. I liked her. She was murdered, she and...friends. I did not know them. My aunt did, they were her warriors. This woman was her heir. They did not deserve to die, and I did nothing about it, I just ran away. So I made this." He indicated the bush and stones.

Who are you? the girl wondered, not for the first time. But she said nothing, only stepped forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. She smiled when he looked at her, and she saw the corners of his mouth twitch.

"Dare you not to smile," she joked.

He put on a failing frown instead. It did not last long. He chuckled.

"Thanks," he said, and she missed the thought that flashed across his face, and the red creeping onto his cheeks too.

"Would you like to learn to read?"

She gaped at him. "Really? You – you would teach me to read? Isn't it hard?"

He twisted a wrist. "Not really. Not if you practice. Not for you," he answered, and then blushed again where she could not see.

"I would love to."

#

They ate their dinner upstairs in Gawen's study. He wrote out the Torric letters for her and sounded them out. She of course could reproduce the sounds perfectly – it was the language she spoke – and after about an hour, she had memorized which letter had which sound.

"Consider yourself lucky your language is phonetic. This would be much more difficult if it weren't," he said conversationally.

"Your language is not?" Lloreil asked, catching on to the implication in his words.

He was momentarily speechless, suddenly forced with a situation in which he could either lie, make half a lie, or tell her the truth, which would probably lead to him exposing all of his secrets to the girl who had been kind enough not to ask before. With her brow eyes favoring him, however, he found it hard to concentrate on that train of thought.

"Um," he said smoothly.

She arched a brow at him. "Is my question difficult?"

More than you know.

"Hey, read this word," he suggested, fingering something difficult on the page before them. He was proud he had changed the subject so flawlessly.

The girl furrowed her brows and struggled to pronounce the syllables together. Gawen was suddenly struck with how satisfying it was to teach someone to read, especially someone who wanted to. He smirked, remembering his own tutor. He had put that poor woman through so much...

Gawen nearly fell over when Lloreil touched his cheek.

"I'm sorry!" she squeaked immediately, withdrawing the limb. "You looked distracted."

"That's all right," he replied, berating himself for both his reaction and for being caught off-guard. "Did you need something?"

"Sort of," she said, and something glittered in her eyes he had not seen before. The expression reminded him of guile. Gawen braced himself for her question.

"It's...kind of...distracting."

"What is?"

"The...uh...cloak."

"My cloak?"

"Yes."

The man looked down at himself, pondering. It wasn't as if he was naked beneath it. He guessed...he didn't really need it...if it would help her learn better...

But my secret! part of him whined.

"How distracting?" he asked, nervous.

He could tell she was fighting not to smile, and he wondered how his cloak was involved in whatever she was trying to get him to do.

"Very."

He made a small distressed sound in his throat, and looked down at his attire once more. He didn't need to wear it all the time. He did not wear it when he bathed or slept. What did it really do for him? Made him look scary to any human who came snooping by? Apparently not, as proved by present company. Kept his identity secret for anyone who tried to scry the ruins? How likely was that, though, fifty years after he ran away?

Gawen gulped. Nervously, he undid the ties at his throat and draped the ungainly feathery mass over the back of his chair. He forgot too late that the cloak included the cowl.

"Gawen, why do your ears look funny?"

He blinked at her – not that she could tell – and was far too nervous to reply.

She gasped, and clapped a hand over her mouth. "Gods, you're a lar!"

He found it in him to smirk. "You think the world revolves around humanity?"

It wasn't entirely fair to berate her for her ignorance of his race. She had assumed he was human, and he had done nothing to discourage that.

She blushed. "Of – of course not. About this word..."

The reading lesson continued, and Gawen soon forgot that he wasn't wearing the cloak. He also remained ignorant of the fact that she wanted to ask him to take off his mask, too. She did make jokes about his long, pretty hair though.

It was nearly midnight when Lloreil declared that she could not think about Torric anymore.

"I think we need a late-night snack."

"You never stop eating, do you?" Gawen suggested.

Lloreil mock punched his arm, and he laughed.

"I'll get some fruit."

She flounced from the room, leaving him once again to his thoughts. Gawen looked over the letters and words he had written, realizing that he had actually had fun. How long had it been since he enjoyed life like this? He looked at his cloak, surprised he was so comfortable without his disguise. Placing a hand on his mask, he began to wonder if he should even be wearing it. He found himself glad that Lloreil had come to him for help.

For help.

The lar man was struck suddenly with the cruelty of the situation. There he was, having the time of his with a girl who had come to him for help finding people who had disappeared, and he was withholding that help for – what, to spend more time with her? He couldn't help her. To use his power that way would risk his exposure and his life. He had been stringing her along by not refusing more forcefully.

Gawen was a runaway, son of Queen Neimnas. When her Council, originally meant to advise her, grew far too autonomous and even malevolent under her rule, he had feared for his life and run. He was her heir, it would do them well to terminate him. His mother, certainly, could take care of herself. But not him, he would be at their mercy if they really wanted him dead. That was why he lived on the old lar ruins, forbade himself from working largely with his lixos, and wore the cloak and mask. He did not want to be spotted by unfriendly eyes.

Lloreil saw the thunderous self-hate expression on the half of his face that was visible. Fruit forgotten, she was all concern.

"Gawen, what's wrong?"

"I cannot help you, Lloreil," came his cold words.

"What?" she asked, afraid suddenly of his tone.

He went to his chair and drew his cloak again about his shoulders. "I cannot keep you here, because I will not do as you ask. You should leave."

"What?" she breathed again, clearly shocked by what she was hearing. "You want me to...leave?"

"You want to find those women, right?" he snarled, unintentionally looming over her, "Well, you better get moving. You've been here a week. What do you think has happened to them?"

He could see the mix of anger and sadness in her eyes, and he realized how he must sound. Gawen opened his mouth to reply, but just then he felt the tickle at his ear.

Lloreil caught the distraction in his movements and forced her angry sorrow down. "What is it?"

"Intruder," he hissed, and swept from the room. She had no better plan than to follow him.

They crept together down the staircase, and the human wondered briefly if this was how he had first seen her – just an intruder, another pest to get rid of. Do you still see me that way?

Gawen halted, holding up a hand to get her attention. He pointed to a man who was snooping around the entrance to the Hall.

"Do you know him?" he whispered.

Lloreil squinted her eyes, and found she did indeed recognize the man. She nodded.

"Roric, a Novoros' bastard," she whispered. "All the village girls want him."

She missed how the lar beside her stiffened up, which was not surprising, given the size of his cloak.

"I see," he growled, and broke cover.

Roric started when he saw the black feathery figure coming towards him, much as Lloreil had when she first saw him, and he drew the sword at his side.

"But that away, boy, before you hurt someone," the lar hissed. "What do you want?"

Roric did not sheath the sword. "I'm looking for a village girl. Lloreil. Have you seen her?"

"I have," the other man said coldly. "Why are you looking for her?"

"Her mother is worried about her. I want to bring her home."

I bet you do, you little whelp, you probably want to put your hands all over her, Gawen thought sourly. And she probably wants to go with you.

"She's here."

"She is?"

Roric followed his gaze, and Lloreil was forced to abandon her hiding place. Something in her felt hurt that her friend had revealed her like that, though she was not sure why she felt that way.

"Hello, Roric," she greeted calmly. Truthfully, she was a little surprised he came after her. He had not been willing to spare her a second glance before...

"Your mother wants you home," the handsome man said again, glancing sideways at the smoldering Gawen. "Come quickly."

"Oh..." the girl breathed, not liking how she was suddenly bade to return home. She glanced at Gawen.

He snorted. "Go on home. You tried. You just overestimated my kindness."

She stared at him some moments more. She wanted him to ask her to stay, not tell her to leave. She wanted to see his eyes. She wanted to look into his eyes when he told her to leave.

"I guess so," she said, regretting the hostility in her voice and yet unable to remove it. Her haversack floated over to her, no doubt Gawen's power. The fact that he used it now...

"Keep it," she hissed, feeling her eyes itch.

"I insist," the lar replied instantly, and the bag bumped against her lrg.

"Fine." She grabbed it and shouldered it, glaring at him.

Roric looked between the two of them for a moment, thoroughly confused and ignored until that point.

"Let's go, shall we?" he said suddenly, reminding the pair of his presence. Lloreil nodded and headed for the old rusty gate she had not looked upon in over a week.

Gawen remained still, his eyes riveted on the girl's back. He was angry, angry, angry...and suddenly not. The gate squeaked shut. He fled the Hall and retreated to his study.

The lar spouted every curse he knew, in every language he knew, crumpling up the parchment that just minutes ago had been a source of happy memories and throwing it in the fireplace. He collapsed into his chair and held his head in his hands. He was hurt and jealous and sad. He should never have let Lloreil leave with the boy. And he should have helped her find the lost women.

Something tugged at his memory, and Gawen at first ignored it, until he realized that he recognized Roric. The whelp had broken into his keep before. How long ago had it been? Five weeks ago?

Another memory surfaced, of Lloreil, telling him that the women had all disappeared a week apart on the day he had agreed to at least think over the situation with her.

"All the village girls want him."

Gawen sat up at the thought. What did all these details mean?

His ear tickled for the second time that evening. Snarling, Gawen stood and went to meet his tactless intruders.

He had just left the Hall when he saw them, all twenty angry people with torches.

"What?" he gasped, surprised.

"It's him!" a male voice cried. Someone shot an arrow at the lar, but he evaded it easily.

"What the hell do you people want?" Gawen shouted. He did not have time for this!

"Our daughters back!" Another voice shouted. "Give them back to use, demon!"

"I did not take your women!" he cried in reply, dodging another arrow, glad the gates were keeping them at bay. "Ask Lloreil!"

"Bastard!" a woman shouted, pushing her way to the front of the crowd and reaching through the rusty bars. "She's one of the ones you took!"

The woman looked eerily similar to the girl he knew, and suddenly Gawen had a very, very bad feeling about what was going on. Roric. He doubted very much Lloreil's mother had sent him to retrieve her.

#

Lloreil and Roric walked in silence, the man slightly ahead of her. Her pace, naturally slower than his, was even slower now. She wasn't paying attention to which direction they were walking, only following the young man.

Why had Gawen pushed her away like that? He had seemed happy with her only moment before...what had changed so quickly? Why had he suddenly gone on about being unable to help her? She was on the verge of tears and she didn't know why.

"So, Roric," she started with what cheer she could muster, "Why did you come alone? Did no one else want to come?"

He did not look back at her. "Everyone else was too afraid."

She smirked. Gawen's not scary. He's just shy. Her smile fell. Shy and stupid. Like me.

She hissed in pain as something in her haversack dug sharply into her back. She stopped, and Roric stopped with her.

Lloreil unshouldered the pack and opened it up to find the offending object. It was right on top.

"Heh. He sent you home with a rose?" Roric chuckled.

Lloreil carefully picked up the blue rose, studying it. What did this mean? Gawen was a lar. Did he know what it meant to humans to give a girl a flower?

This is stupid, she thought irately. They had fought – sort of – and had not had time to talk it through. Lloreil did not want to part with him on such terms. She sighed, and shouldered her pack again, cradling the thorny flower carefully.

"Thanks for coming to get me, Roric, but I can't go with you right now. You'll just have to tell my mother I was busy. I'm going back to the keep."

She turned and started back up the path.

"No," Roric's voice commanded, cold, "You won't."

Lloreil's world went black in a wave of pain.

#

"What is he doing? Is he putting a spell on us?" cried a frightened woman.

"I am not!" Gawen hissed at the offending human from his seat on the ground. "I'm scrying for Lloreil."

"Scrying?" her mother asked, doubtful.

"Using lixos to find her," he provided irately. "Now please, I need to concentrate."

He closed his eyes and delved within himself to find his pool of power. He still wasn't sure that this was a good idea – this was the very thing Lloreil had asked him to do to find the missing women, and he had refused on the grounds that the task was too big – any lar searching for him could home in on his spell, know it was him by the flavor, and find him. He knew this was a bad idea, but it was also the only way he was going to save his love from Roric, the lord's bastard serial killer.

He sent his mind out over the land in many different directions, scanning for any sign the two had passed by. He knew how far they could have gone in the last hour, and knew that the townspeople must not have seen them. That narrowed down the area somewhat, but it was still a lot to cover.

Gawen saw a flash of blue.

"There!" he hissed suddenly, eyes shooting open. He leapt to his feet and strode purposefully towards the gate. With a wave of his hand it unlocked and opened, forcing the people back.

"You found her?" Lloreil's mother asked fearfully.

"Yes," Gawen said tonelessly. "She's alive."

He spread his arms and threw back his head. The feathered cloak seemed to crawl around his body, and his mask likewise molded down over his chin, and moments later, he was flapping off into the night as an eagle. He wheeled towards the nearby coast.

He had lied to the girl's mother, in that he was not actually sure she was alive. He had seen her prone body being carried by Roric, unable to see her well from the distance. Clans help the boy if she was dead.

#

Lloreil groaned as she regained consciousness. She was aware first of the throbbing in her head, and second of the fact her body was swaying slightly. Peering around gingerly – it hurt to keep her eyes open – she saw Roric was carrying her. Fear filled her at once as she remembered what had happened.

"You took the girls!" she cried, struggling against his grip.

The man snorted and dropped her on the ground. Lloreil tasted salt on the air. The sea?

"I did. Miss them? You'll see them soon."

She looked to him, horrified. "So you're going to kill me?"

He smirked. "After a fashion."

If she needed even one reason to fight him, it was that sentence.

With a cry that was half fear and half anger, Lloreil charged him. Roric was surprised enough that he did not dodge her, and she bowled him over.

He landed on his backside with a grunt. Lloreil did the only think she could think to do, and hastily extricated herself. She began to run.

Something hard collided with the back of her head, and she screamed and fell: her cantine.

Roric was upon her in a moment, straddling her hips. He smacked her hard and she sobbed, trying in vain to push him off. The strength was fleeing her limbs with every second that ticked by, and panic was flooding her system. She knew she was doomed if she lost her mind, but it was happening anyway.

"You won't get away with this," she stammered for lack of anything else to say. She hoped that he replied, and that she could collect herself in the time it took him to do so. Of course, whatever he said might make her panic more...

He roughly pinned her wrists to the ground, smiling maliciously at her. "Are you in jest? I left just as the villagers were talking about invading that old ruin. They think your friend took the girls. He's probably dead by now."

"Liar!" she screamed, the last of her logic fleeing and triggering another bout of struggling. Her plan was not working.

The noble's bastard only laughed at her efforts. The laughter died, however, and Lloreil saw his eyes widen in disbelief. What was quite possibly the biggest eagle she'd ever seen dive-bombed him, its talons ripping him away.

Lloreil struggled to her feet the moment she was free of his weight, scrabbling for her cracked clay cantine. Hefting it as a weapon, and watched the scene unfold before her.

The eagle was gone. Instead, she saw a panting Gawen, complete with cloak and mask, facing down a bloodied and torn Roric. The latter had a sword to hand, and the former had empty hands. She hoped he could fight with his lixos.

The human had no sooner gained his feet than a powerful gust of wind knocked him aside. Another buffeted him, and another, and another, every time he tried to stand. Gawen was screaming incoherent words in his rage, hands working wildly to manipulate the wind. Lloreil had never seen him like that, and it was frightening, but also comforting, because he had come to save her.

Roric had caught onto the pattern, and wisely attacked from the ground. He flung his sword at the lar before the latter had a chance to react. The revolving metal scored his arm, and he cried out in pain. It distracted him for the split-second Roric needed to tackle him to the ground and start laying in the blows.

Gawen snarled and shouted something in lari, jabbing his thumbs at the human's eyes. His opponent shrieked and stumbled away, holding his head. Gawen gained his feet in an instant, and grabbed the discarded sword.

"Don't kill him!" Lloreil screamed. "We need to question-"

Roric, alerted by her cry, and whipped around to tackle the lar once again. Gawen was ready for him this time, however, and with a upthrust hand, a fist of earth tripped the human. He fell with a cry of despair, knowing this was the end for him. The blade in Gawen's hand rose and fell, and Lloreil's breath caught in her throat.

The blade gleamed cleanly in the moonlight. Roric lay, stunned, unconscious, on the ground. He had been struck with the flat of the blade.

Gawen tossed the weapon away with disgust, turning finally to look at Lloreil.

The girl let out a sob of relief and stumbled over to throw her arms around him. He returned the embrace fully, burying his masked face in her hair. His arm hurt and his lungs were burning, his split lip stung awfully, but Lloreil was safe, and she seemed not to dislike him.

"Gods," she breathed, tightening her embrace, "I thought they'd caught you – thought I was going to die – I thought I was never going to get to see your eyes!" Suddenly, she had a name for the emotion he evoked in her.

"Done," the lar man grunted, ripping off his mask. His disguise really didn't matter anymore.

Lloreil gazed wide-eyed upon his bare face. A blush flooded her cheeks along with a smile.

"I knew you weren't a mean old man."

"Come back with me," he pleaded with crystal-blue eyes she could see. "I didn't want you to leave, I was just angry at myself for keeping you from your task. Clean all you want. We can cut back the bushes in the garden, it'll be pretty again. I'll teach you to read all the languages you want. I'll teach you to talk to birds if you'll just – just-"

She stood up on her tiptoes and placed an awkward kiss upon his lips. He shut up immediately, looking a little dazed.

"Clearly," she mumbled, "Homicidal maniacs could not keep me away."


AN: I know, I've been writing like crazy the last few days. You guys are probably wondering if I can keep this up. I can't. But do enjoy it while it lasts.

If you like this story, check out the other ones I've written for this universe.

-Alexis