Joreth knew when Maia entered his father’s smithy, despite having his back to the door. Her honeysuckle scent wafted through the smoke and curled like a fist in his gut. He yanked the rope to squeeze the bellows, but the rush of air couldn’t block out her voice.
“Good day, Halbor,” she said, addressing the master smith.
“Miss Maia,” Halbor replied between hammer strokes. “Acolyte Maia, I should say. The White becomes you.”
Joreth squeezed his eyes shut. Why couldn’t she just stay away? She’d made her choice. Did it give her pleasure to torment him?
Well, he wasn’t going to give it to her. Joreth released the rope and turned, touching his hand to his forehead in the expected gesture of reverence to an acolyte of the Sunspire.
She stood on the far side of the counter, a perfect vision in her spotless white robe, mahogany curls loose under a silver filigree circlet. Beautiful, but a stranger. His Maia wore homespun wool, her hair in braids, and was most at ease in the high meadows, surrounded by the wildflowers she wove into chaplets to sell in the square on market days.
Maia waited under his silent scrutiny. A scarlet flush inched its way up her cheeks. She blinked as if she had a speck of dust in her eye, but Joreth knew better. If she didn’t blink, the tears she held barely in check would fall.
He sighed. Even now he couldn’t bear to hurt her. “Congratulations, Maia,” he said. “Father’s right—the White looks well on you.”
She smiled and tugged at the wrought-silver chain that held her spire-gem. It hung around her neck and disappeared beneath her robe. One of her curls tangled in the chain as she pulled. Joreth fought the urge to fix it. Soot clung to his sweaty hands. What if he accidentally sullied her robe? Besides, a Sunspire warder hovered behind her—a silent, looming threat.
“Look,” she said, pulling the pendant free from where it nestled between her breasts. Brilliant light almost blinded Joreth.
He squinted and forced himself to smile. “You’ve already kindled.”
“No one’s ever done it faster.”
Joreth wasn’t sure if it was pride or sorrow that tinged her voice. It had been less than a month since she turned away from him to enter the Sunspire, and already she was altered.
She dropped the pendant back beneath the robe. Joreth blinked to clear the purple-rimmed holes that danced across his vision and tried not to think about the soft skin the pendant was touching, or the fact that now that she’d kindled, his last hope was gone. There was no going back.
He turned away and pulled a glowing rod of steel out of the coals and began to pound it, hard and fast. Sparks flew as the metal flattened under his blows. His breath rasped. If only he could remember what he was supposed to be crafting.
A few more strokes, then Joreth stopped, panting. It was useless. Punishing the rod wouldn’t solve anything. He wiped his forehead on the back of his sleeve, painting his face with a gritty smudge.
“Will you walk with me, Joreth?”
He tried to bite back a grim laugh and choked. “Will your shadow let you walk with a peon like me?” he asked, gesturing to the warder who looked past him in return as if he weren’t worthy of so much as being noticed. “Isn’t he supposed to guard your virtue?”
Maia stared up at him with wide silver eyes. “Would you harm it?”
Joreth clenched his hammer so hard his arm trembled. He would never harm Maia and she knew it. He glanced at his father, hoping against hope to be forbidden to leave. Halbor shrugged and turned back to his work. There was no escape from this invitation.
“As you wish.”
Maia led Joreth past the market square, through the bustle and din that hushed as they passed by, then rose again two-fold. He could feel the townsfolk’s judging stares and caught the voices of goodwives muttering how sad it was to see Halbor’s only son pining after a dream.
Maia kept her head high and walked toward the outskirts of the town and the blooming meadow that carpeted the hillside above. Easier to do when a spire-gem flared at your touch than when you had to return to your life and listen to wagging tongues you could do nothing to silence.
The warder strode just behind Joreth’s shoulder, grinding small pebbles into the dirt beneath his boots. His presence cast a pall as dark as night-clouds. Despite his forge-wrought strength, Joreth couldn’t help but feel outclassed and outmanned without a weapon and with no battle training.
Joreth tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. No one was going to be stupid enough to attack a warded acolyte. Not even a kindled acolyte. Still, he couldn’t help seeing every person they passed with suspicious eyes. It didn’t matter that he’d known most of them all his life. Acolytes were rare and they were valuable. That value made them a target. He lengthened his stride until he walked just ahead of Maia. Even an inexperienced shield was better than none.
At last they left the thatch-roofed buildings behind and started up the grassy slope. Maia led the way toward a stand of birch trees. Her brown hair caught in the breeze and the white robe tangled around her legs. As they climbed, she bent to pluck yarrow, lupine, and forget-me-nots, braiding them together with deft fingers. If only the warder weren’t with them—if the White didn’t clothe her in impossibility—it would be just like before.
By the time they reached the copse, Maia had finished the circlet. She rose to her tiptoes and settled it on his head. Her white robe grazed his forearms, which he’d crossed over his chest. Warmth radiated from her skin. One of her fingers curled briefly in his hair, the gentle tug reminding him painfully of how, in their other life, she would have drawn him down for a lingering kiss.
Seeming to realize what she was doing, she dropped her hand and stepped back, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.
Joreth stared, unable to look away from the scarlet flush that painted her mouth.
The warder strode between them, taking up position beside the nearest birch, reminding them both of his presence.
“Sit?” Maia asked, looking up at Joreth from beneath her long lashes.
Joreth settled himself on the grass and Maia dropped down beside him. A pair of bees took flight, their humming drone fading as they flew off to find new sources of nectar. The warder remained standing, his gaze never seeming to leave the horizon, but Joreth knew he was seeing everything and would not hesitate to intervene if he saw anything untoward.
The town spread across the valley below like a patched quilt. In the distance, beyond the far ridge, the Sunspire speared towards the heavens, a gleaming golden beacon. From its peak a beam of light pulsed skyward so bright Joreth couldn’t look straight at it. Blue sky spread in a wide circle surrounding the beam, but beyond that ring a roiling mass of heavy purple, green, and charcoal clouds fought to break through the Sunspire’s barrier and blot out the sun.
Sitting at Maia’s side, the spectacle took on a new meaning. All his life, Joreth had understood that the Sunspire brought daylight to the world. Without its beacon, they’d be trapped in unending darkness. The First Priestess had kindled it in the time before memory and it must be tended for all time by those who could harness its vast power.
The Sunspire meant life. Joreth understood why Maia had left when the Priestess claimed her, no matter how much he hated it. But now?
“Why did you come back?”
Silence stretched between them. Maia looked down at her hands, clasped together in her lap, and shivered, despite the afternoon’s warmth. “I had to,” she said at last. “The Priestess commanded it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m so sorry, Jor. I begged her not to make me. I knew how much it would hurt you. I just didn’t—” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I didn’t realize how much it would hurt me, too.”
Joreth’s throat clenched. “Do what you must quickly, then,” he replied, his voice a low rasp.
“She told me to end it with you.”
The circlet of flowers suddenly felt too heavy. Joreth pulled it off and held it between his hands. “We did that already. Once was enough.”
“It wasn’t. Because I can’t forget you.”
“So what does she want me to do? Leave the valley? Travel so far I lose my way and have no hope of coming back? Find a willing girl and get myself safely married off? Doesn’t she trust me to keep my distance? Have I once tried to find you?”
He couldn’t keep the anger and frustration from his voice, and once he started, he found he couldn’t hold back the stream of words—not even when tears began to seep from the corners of Maia’s closed eyes.
“What have I done wrong, Maia, besides love you?”
Her eyes flashed open, their startling gray glimmering like quicksilver. “It was never wrong to love, Joreth. Neither of us could have known I’d be chosen. That I’d kindle.”
She took the flower circlet from his hands and held it up between them. It cast an oblong shadow that ringed his chest. “Look at the stems. See how they intertwine? Each one by itself has some strength, but when they’re plaited together, how much stronger is the whole? That’s what you are to me, Joreth. You’re the lupine to my yarrow. You weave through every thought. Breathe in every word.”
Maia traced one finger over a trembling yarrow petal. The scent of honeysuckle that followed her everywhere danced on the breeze. Joreth drew it in, letting the subtle flavor linger on his tongue. He ached to pull her close, to tell her how her memory never left him, waking or sleeping, but the warder hovered nearby, just visible out of the corner of Joreth’s eye, naked blade in hand.
With a choked sob, Maia lowered the circlet. “As an acolyte, there should be nothing between the spire-gem and myself. Those Joreth-stems should be replaced with webs of power and light, but it’s not happening.”
With one hand, she pulled her pendant from beneath her robe. Joreth glanced to the side, sparing himself from the blinding glare. “Watch,” she said, and began to hum.
Her voice rose and fell in a modal tune unfamiliar to Joreth. The lupine stems flared gold, then dimmed. Ashes blew away, leaving silvery threads in place of the braided wildflowers. “This is what I’m commanded to do. To burn away your love until all that remains is the Sunspire and my allegiance to it.”
“Maia…” He had seen the spire-gems’ power before, used to punish the worst of criminal offenders. Their bodies remained whole, but after being subjected to the power of the Sunspire, little remained of their minds. And this was to be his fate? For daring to love a girl he had no reason to fear?
Tears rolled unchecked down Maia’s face. The circlet fell from her hand, landing in a twisted pile. “I’m sorry, Joreth,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”
Even then, he wished he could comfort her. It was absurd and he knew it, but as she raised the pendant towards him—as she began to hum again—all he wanted to do was wipe away her tears. It wasn’t right that his last memory, before all memories were lost, would be Maia’s sorrow.
He reached toward her. The warder shifted closer, a black cloud on the horizon of Joreth’s vision. Invisible wings fluttered against his eardrums, beating out the melody of Maia’s song. Darkness blurred his sight, creeping inward until all that remained was Maia’s swimming silver eyes, then nothing at all.
Silence fell at the same moment he felt her gentle touch against his cheek. His eyes flashed wide. “Maia?”
“I can’t,” she whispered, her lips so close to his face they grazed his stubble, her breath warm against his ear. “I can’t do it.”
Joreth smoothed a trailing tear from her cheek with the pad of his thumb. “It’s all right,” he said, although he had no way of making it true. “It’ll be all right.”
The warder grunted. Joreth looked past Maia’s shoulder in time to see him lunge toward her unprotected back.
Joreth shouted wordlessly and shoved Maia behind him. He barely heard her shriek before the warder’s sword pierced his chest. Pain speared through him, hot and slick. Blood soaked into his tunic.
He looked down at the protruding blade. Saw the scarlet stain spreading down his chest. Where was Maia? Who was screaming?
With a jerk, the warder pulled the sword free. Joreth fell forward onto his hands and knees. Buzzing filled his ears. His mouth tasted of soot and steel. He toppled onto his side.
Maia’s face filled his vision. Honeysuckle-scented curls tickled his skin. Something salty and wet fell on his tongue. He swallowed convulsively. It hurt.
Why couldn’t he hear anything? Where was the warder? Why had he attacked? Was Maia safe? Joreth struggled to rise.
Butterfly wingbeats pulsed at his eardrums. A flare of heat shot through his chest. He arched and ground his teeth together so as not to scream. After a moment, the burning pain dulled, spreading outwards towards his limbs in a wave of banked flame.
Joreth fell back against the grass, gasping for breath. Sweat soaked him and a heavy weight lay over his chest. He reached up and his hand caught in a tangle of curls. “Maia?”
She pushed herself off of him. Blood mottled her white robe and smeared her cheek. “Joreth? Are you…?”
He touched his chest tentatively. The tunic was torn, but the wound which had been there moments before was gone. “I’m all right,” he said, hardly believing the words as he spoke them.
“The Priestess was right.”
It took Joreth a moment to realize it was the warder who spoke. He stood three paces away, the sword still red with Joreth’s blood.
“What do you mean?” Joreth asked, staggering to his feet. He took one swaying step, placing himself between the warder and Maia.
The warder slowly lowered his sword and laid it on the grass. “The acolyte spoke truth as far as she knew it. An acolyte binds with the power of the Sunspire, twining to make herself stronger. But two threads are never as strong as three. Look at this,” he stooped to pick up the forgotten circlet. “Lupine and yarrow, yes, but forget-me-nots as well. The strongest acolytes are bound both to the power and to another. The one whose love is stronger than life. Their true warder.”
Maia rose and stepped closer to Joreth, a hand at his waist to steady him, her sharp gaze daring the warder to object to the contact. “She expected this?” Maia said, a rush of red flaring in her cheeks. “She expected me to fail?”
“And commanded me to try to end your life if you couldn’t bring yourself to burn away his memory. If he loved you enough, you would live.”
Maia surged forward, a bloody finger outstretched towards the warder. “You nearly killed him!”
“And you are a kindled acolyte. She knew you could save him. Now, he’s bound to you.”
Joreth straightened, the residual heat of whatever Maia had done to save him pulsing strength through his veins. “I’ve been bound to her since the day we met.”
For the first time, a smile crossed the warder’s face. “You gave your life for her and through the Sunspire she returned it to you. She’ll hold it for the rest of your days.”
“It was always hers for the asking.”
The warder glanced up at the sky. The surging night-clouds danced ever closer to the Sunspire’s beacon, heralding the coming of evening. “We’d best be off. Your father will be wondering what’s become of you.”
As the warder led off down the hillside, Joreth rested his arm around Maia’s shoulders, leaning on her for support. Deep within him a new flame burned, hotter than the smithy’s furnace. Like the lupine, he’d been seared by the Sunspire’s power and come away transformed.
Maia was his lodestone. His world. Invisible webs bound them, rooted deep within, and Joreth sensed that he would feel her presence no matter the distance. He was her shield, forged and tempered to her service. He would never lose her again.
Strands of Maia’s hair drifted toward Joreth in the breeze, wrapping around his neck. He let the sweet smell of honeysuckle envelop him. With Maia tucked in the circle of his arm, Joreth smiled.
Everything was just as it should be.
© 2014 by Rebecca Birch
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