Keelath was quiet as he retrieved his things and his pay — and his new rinaan — and began the long march home, several days later. In deference to the rinaan, he didn’t ride, and Rosen skipped around gaily like a foal on the end of its lead. After a few hours of his still-sore sword arm being jerked about, Keelath unsnapped the lead and let Rosen wander as it willed.
“Payback for my poor riding, I expect,” he grumbled, and Rosen dipped its head, letting out a smug whuff. “I don’t suppose you really would run off on me though, seeing as you’ve made your ‘Choice’?” He was answered by a whicker.
Keelath’s homecoming was celebrated with jubilation, though also with consternation on what they were to do with the rinaan. In the end, he let Rosen go into the woods behind the Dawnmist grounds, expecting it to get along as one of the wild herd. Their guttural snorts and horn clacks carried to the house that evening, which Tyrric jovially compared to the new tough guy on the street settling scores at the local tavern.
“You’ve never lived on a street with tough guys on it, so how would you know?” said Keelath irritably. He was feeling ill, recalling his captain’s remarks about studding, and he wondered what he’d do with a bunch of new foals on the property. Tyrric murmured something from his bunk, but Keelath said nothing, turning over and trying to find sleep.
That winter brought both joys and heartaches. Mirium came to visit for the solstice, and Keelath proudly showed her the new addition to the rinaan herd. Rosen was ill-inclined to let them near its mares, and Mirium said it acted like an overprotective father, but the rinaan did allow Mirium to stand close to it and stroke its nose. It even dropped its head against her, begging for scratches, and Mirium’s bright eyes, looking at him over Rosen’s frosted mane, reminded Keelath why he put up with it all.
There were other troubles however, beyond the keeping of the rinaani. Keelon had planned to retire that winter, but he couldn’t with Keelath active in the military and he still distrusted Mirium as a potential baroness. Keelath’s mother was ailing too, now rarely leaving her bed, and Keelon spent more time tending her than he did seeing to the needs of the barony.
Reluctantly, Tyrric and Keelath helped pick up the slack. Tyrric was now courting suitors, too, but he seemed incapable of making a decision, flitting from one to the other, often without fully informing the first he had decided to move on before kissing the second. Keelath had to break up more than a few fights, and he felt less rested and more harried now than he had while out on patrol with the akor’mari at his heels.
Mirium proved to be his savior in those days. Though raised as a commoner, she had a good head for numbers and quickly picked up on the barony’s accounting. She stayed at the cottage now whenever her troupe rolled in, picketing her wagon on a patch of ground that seemed less muddy than the rest. On some nights, when they were working long hours together in Keelon’s study, she would lean her head against Keelath’s chest and doze. He felt as proud as Rosen was when it was courting a mare at those times, though Keelath didn’t let out any loud snorts.
Just when the foals dropped that spring, Keelath wasn’t entirely sure. The herd had migrated up into the lower hills of the caldera ring, out of the bogs and onto rocky slopes. Keelath and Tyrric would take long rambles to find them each morning, checking on their well-being and monitoring the progress of the mares. Rosen was more tractable now that the breeding season was over, and the rinaan had a way of pointing Keelath out to any of the herd that needed tending, long before Keelath noticed himself. He was coming to better understand the rinaan’s signals, though he still hadn’t achieved the seemingly telepathic bond the other riders had had with their mounts.
To his chagrin, Tyrric picked up on rinaan body language even quicker than he did. He first noticed it when one of the mares came down out of the crags with a new, wobbly, white foal at her side. As was the way with equines, the mare had given birth alone, and now that the foal was a bit steadier on its feet, she had returned to the herd. The little foal, on spying Tyrric, had wandered right up to the wuyon’mar and bit him on the rear.
Tyrric reacted with delight rather than with anger, and Keelath had a sneaking suspicion rinaan or rider had just made their Choice, much like Rosen had with Keelath. Tyrric took to calling the little foal “King”, after its regal arrogance, and he got along well with the dam as well. When the foal grew to be a little more independent, Tyrric took his first rides on her back, until it was common to see both of them trotting around the grounds together, with King keeping pace at Tyrric’s knee.
The cavalry captain came to visit in late spring, inspecting Rosen’s get and its (lack of) accommodations. Keelath was prepared for a chewing out for not having a stable built yet, but instead the captain seemed pleased, saying the wild-bred, as Rosen’s herd was, always seemed to be faster and stronger than those rinaani kept cooped up in a stall all year long. He stayed a couple weeks, teaching Keelath — and Mirium and Tyrric too, for they were eager to learn — the finer points of horsemanship, including training the foals to take a noseband and harping on the use of saddles for healthy spines and backs.
Spring turned into summer, and the military draft went out. To Keelath’s dismay, he wasn’t chosen to return to the front. Perhaps the captain thought he was taking pity on the green rider, but Keelath could only think of the lost money and clench his teeth. His mother’s medicine was becoming increasingly expensive as well, and the long gaps between visits from Mirium were beginning to depress him. Even Rosen’s obvious delight at kicking its colts and fillies into shape as they matured had barely an impact on him.
Another breeding season was looming before them, and even though the wild herd had produced some acceptable rinaani, Keelath was expected to put his stallion to stud that year. He wondered if Rosen felt as trapped as he did, as a leader of horses, expected not only to mind his lands but also produce heirs on demand. Though Mirium’s father was healing, she showed little interest in taking their relationship any further. Would he have to take another as wife? Keelath dreaded the thought.
Mirium and he sat entwined on the covered porch of the cottage one evening. They had been speaking of administerial things, like repainting her wagon or fixing the broken shutter in his father’s bedroom. Keelath wished they could move from those chaste talking points, as her scent surrounded him in the late autumn air, her hair a wave of shiny orange across his chest.
“What did you say your mother suffered from?” asked Mirium into his inappropriate thoughts, effectively distracting him from them.
“Old war wounds,” said Keelath. “She was struck by a spear enchanted by evil magic, and it poisoned her ability to heal. One of the Yohon’nai priests put her on the wrong herb for the pain then, and she still suffers withdrawal from it even years later.”
“Yet she doesn’t go back to it?” Mirium exclaimed. “She is a strong woman!”
“Yes,” answered Keelath quietly, “but not a happy one.”
Mirium gazed at him sadly. “On the contrary,” she said finally. “I see her eyes light up whenever you are in the room. You are her joy now, Keelath.”
“I only hope I can also be her pride,” said Keelath thickly.
“And why not?” Mirium relaxed back against him, one finger finding his cheek, but her question had roused anxiety in him again, and he couldn’t settle. How could he explain it to her?
“I want to marry you, Miri,” he said, “but Father is expecting someone more… well, another aristocrat. He doesn’t place much stock in the quality of commoners.”
“Yet he treated my father with all courtesy when they met,” answered Mirium. “Perhaps he should think of me as ‘wild-bred’, no? There are much worse pairings to be had.”
“I see it that way, but he does not,” replied Keelath.
“I wonder.” She sat up. “This akor’mar magic. Did you happen to see the enchantment used?”
“Not personally. I wasn’t even born yet,” replied Keelath.
“But your father… There’s old herblore among the people who live outside the caldera, Keelath. It’s part of the songs we pass down that you nobles, perhaps, have long forgotten.”
“I’m not sure I’d want to repeat what my mother went through with the Yohon’nai herbs.”
Mirium shook her head. “When they lace them with their arcane magic instead of the Light, it’s no wonder they go so badly wrong. I’m quite serious, Keel. You helped my family in much the same way. Let me help yours. It won’t repay the debts you owe the priests, but at least I’d feel better that we are even.”
“And perhaps Mother could walk again,” said Keelath wistfully. He paused. “Will you sing me the old songs? Even if we choose another path, I’d like to hear them — this wisdom you tell of.”
So she did. He soon got lost in the ream of plants and minerals, with such fanciful names as Pincress, Sweetroyale, and Brightmount. He instead fell to watching her lips move as she chanted, the expression on her face one of perfect focus. He smiled. She was no soft noble lady, but he had never wanted that type. He would have married her just for her voice, but like the heshti, her troubadour’s mask had hidden all kinds of surprises behind it. Good ones.
She let the last line fade away, retaking her place snuggled into his side. They gazed across the grounds, and a cold wind began blowing up from the south. Keelath considered tugging out the blanket stashed under the porch seat, but he was too lazy to rise.
There was also something enticing about that chilly wind. Instinctual, like the breath off of the ice of the Glass Sea that their people had once called home…
“Do you know what marriage is to a noble?” he asked finally, when nothing else stirred.
“A granting of the title,” said Mirium almost immediately, and she shifted enough in her spot she could look up at him. “But that’s not all, is it?”
Keelath shook his head. “It’s also responsibility, and… well, an heir.”
Her eyes grew glassy, and he saw she understood. He clasped her hand, bringing it before him to kiss, then looped his arms comfortably about her waist. Mirium laid her head on his chest without a word.
“It wouldn’t have to be immediate,” he said. “You know, of course, that we might take many years to conceive.”
“But eventually, conceive I would have to,” said Mirium softly.
“I’m not sure ‘have to’ is the right word,” said Keelath. He paused. “Do you think you would never wish for children?”
“I’ve thought about it, especially since we’ve grown close,” answered Mirium. “It is not so much that I don’t want them as that it… scares me.”
“Why?” said Keelath. “Its a natural thing to do, to have, is it not?”
“Yes,” said Mirium, and he felt her relax. “And I think of how cute those foals are. But it would mean I couldn’t travel. I would have to stay here, until the babe was grown, and then there would be others after that.”
“I like when you are here,” said Keelath softly.
“You are not likely to be here as often, until your service is up,” Mirium whispered back.
His heart was racing despite his calm words, and he spread his hands down the small of her back, along her thighs. He felt all of her pressed against him, heart, stomach, legs, and it kindled a fire in him, though he tried to not let his desire show.
Mirium sat up suddenly anyway, and so did he, about to apologize, but she looked down at him without fear. “Yet if I did not choose, I’d eventually wander those roads, barren and alone. I grew up seeing what the road did to my kindred, breaking us apart, spreading us out all across the map, not letting some relationships even form if they could not keep up with the wagons… I wouldn’t want that for all my life.”
“You would not have to give the road up entirely,” said Keelath. “Whenever I travel, so could you. We only have need of the one heir, and we may yet live for centuries to make it happen.”
Mirium smiled. “Certainly I’d find no better husband than you in all those centuries.”
It lit off a roar of triumph inside him, down near his belly. He leaned her back, and she readjusted so her legs were about him. They breathed each other’s breath as they quested across each other with their fingers.
“I love you,” said Keelath huskily.
“And I, you,” whispered Mirium. “If its that important to you, I’ll try. What else could I do, since you shackled yourself to the Council for my father’s sake?”
“It wasn’t meant to have strings attached,” Keelath muttered.
“Wasn’t it?” said Mirium with a grin. “And I suppose we will settle that debt soon enough. Yet there is another…”
“Um?” inquired Keelath, as she seized his collar, but she didn’t answer the question immediately, stifling his query with a kiss.
“If we are to talk of heirs, it’s time we Marked one another,” she explained. “I don’t know about children, but I am certain of my choice in you, Keelath. I am ready to make that commitment now.”
He was about to tell her that without the promise of an heir, marriage and Marking would be meaningless to his father, but it suddenly didn’t seem so important. When she kissed him again, she opened her lips to him, as she never had before. Keelath lost himself as she invited him down onto her, hands spreading to areas once forbidden. Then the heat was back in his heart and belly, and he was the one who led her.
Once decided, the act was quick. Keelath later collapsed on her as his passion played out, kissing her neck and feeling all was right with the world. Mirium’s soft breath was in his hair.
“Now we are Marked,” he murmured. He gave a shiver, though it was just as much his feelings as it was cold air against exposed skin. “Will you be mine, for as long as we might live, Mirium?”
“Yes,” Mirium answered, still breathless. He shifted so she was pillowed against his chest again, his heartbeat in her ears. “O Scourge of the Sea,” she murmured, and Keelath startled to find her saying the lines she had refused on that disastrous stage so long ago.
Or was it so disastrous, considering she was in his arms now? He grinned.
“O Scourge of the Seas, I see the curtain has parted, your true form at last revealed to me. And though our end may approach, I go now to your arms to await it with contentment, for your love was ever more precious to me than a long life without.”
“You have long held that I saved you from the maw of the dragon turtle,” replied Keelath, dredging his memory for the play’s end. It came easier than he expected, almost as if they were living the part, and he could almost taste mana in the cold wind. “Yet it is you who have saved me from this dreary existence as a roving monster of the Spirit Sea. We go now in peace before the Light.”
He smiled at her. She returned it. “Blessed be,” declared Mirium, then, softer, “I love you, Keelath.”
“And I, you, Fair Miri,” said Keelath, and he kissed her as he reached down, drawing the coverlet folded under the seat over both their heads. It fell across their faces like a wave, but unlike in the play, they were safe underneath its embrace, curled together with many a hope for the future.