An original story by Zoi no Miko
Used with permission. All rights reserved
I never would have stayed.
The village was too quaint for me, too full of cows and horses and chickens and large, happy families for my taste. But it was nearing November, and the days were growing colder and whiter, too cold for a traveler such as myself to stay a traveler for much longer, as the village headman pointed out.
"We are in a position to offer ye a house as part of our payment, Lady," He, who had introduced himself as the headman Arslan, told me.
I raised an arching eyebrow at that. Lady in appearances I was, but because of my past, Lady I most definitely was not. Still, as a mage, even a wandering mage, I was appropriated that title by those whom I dealt with. "A house?"
"Complete with furnishings and firewood to last ye through the winter. The townsfolk will, with no doubt, pay for your services in food and services - that is more practical and more abundant than coin around here." He paused for a moment, then added, almost as an afterthought, "The mage that lived there had quite an extensive library. It would be yours, too."
I blinked. The offer of an extensive library was nothing to be sniffed at, especially for one such as myself. The mageborn had a history of loving books, especially those on magik, and as a traveler I had no chance to acquire books of my own. But.... "The mage that lived there?"
"Yes. Mage Marek. He died quite suddenly and quite mysteriously last year."
The headman gave a shrug. "We're not sure. We simply found his body in his cellar early one morning, after an ordinary night, and without a mark on it."
I made no reply to that, but my mind began to race with possibilities. I was a mage, and an Adept at that, but because of my youth and my.... past, I had relative little reputation and respect among the mages of this world. If I was able to find out what caused the death of this mage, who was also an Adept, as I had had heard, respected but not well known, it would gain me some of the respect I craved. "Well, Headman, I believe I will take you up on your offer, at least until spring.
The headman was visibly very relieved. "Thank-you, Lady.... I beg your pardon, but what was your name?"
"Kourin," I replied. "Mage Kourin of Tallah."
"Thank-you, Lady Kourin. I am very grateful."
The house was well kept, with decor that showed a little taste of the city. That was nice. I had been afraid that the former mage would have had the taste of the country folk that he served among. I settled in quickly, quite satisfied with the house. It was warm, in good repair, and just cozy enough to be comfortable. And I was pleased to find that the headman's report of an extensive library was a little bit of an understatement - the house was littered with books on all kinds of subjects, with shelves, it seemed, on every available wall. So between my newfound trove of reading material and the little needs of the villagers, I put off my investigation of Marek's death.
A soft voice interrupted the hazy idleness of my dream, making it more substantial, more real. It came from the shadow, the form of a man that had been flitting through my dreams for a while now, becoming more substantial every night.
It had been over a month and a half since I came to the town, and a month since I realized the odd energy contained in the house to be what it was.
Or rather, an earthbound spirit, tied to this house for who knows how long. He (for the presence was undoubtedly masculine) was unlike any spirit I had ever encountered before, and my simple cleansing spells had not been enough to rid the house of him. I began to search for a better, stronger spell amongst the books in house, wading through the volumes of spells slowly. I was about three-quarters done at this time, with no hint of a spell that would work. But now....
Now I wasn't sure I wanted to rid this house - my house - of the spirit that followed me. Followed, not haunted, because this was not a vengeful spirit. In fact, he was quite the opposite, and as he began to visit my dreams he proved to me that my imagination was not running away with me as it often did....
This spirit was courting me! I was shocked as well as thrilled. I was far from homely, with a delicate femininity that often betrayed my personality, but because of the choices I have made, I have had few suitors. And as time went on, I was becoming more and more convinced that this was the spirit of the village's former mage. And he was also, now, tied to me, in some way that I did not understand, but that pressed me to help him, and not to push him from my dreams.
The dream was vivid tonight. I could feel his hand as it brushed my cheek, feel the silkiness of his hair, bleached white through magik use, when I dared to touch it with eager finger tips. Our eyes never once broke contact, continuing with the non-verbal communication that had been established the first time those beautiful, blue-green eyes met my brown ones.
He needed me. Caught between the world of the living and the world of the dead, I was his only chance at freedom. But I was young, and inexperienced for all my power. And for all his eyes pleaded for me to help him, I could only give him the same answer I had in past nights.
"I can't. I'm sorry." My heart ached, hurt by the bond that drew us together. I wasn't sure how, but I was tied to this man.
The shadow, Marek, gazed at me, eyes dulled with disappointment. Moving his soft lips slightly, he whispered, "why?"
"I don't know how to free you."
He smiled then, a smile I had never seen, and very slowly, very deliberately, drew my face towards his and pressed his lips against mine. I closed my eyes, feeling his passion as strongly as my own, and returned the kiss.
When I awoke seconds later, my lips were still tingling. I lay still for a moment, the soft quilt bundled around me, and made note of my dream as I always did so that I would remember it, though I doubted I would forget this one. Marek....
And yet I knew I could never love him, for both obvious and not so obvious reasons. And there was still the matter of his death. I had begun to make inquiries to the villagers about it, and from what I gathered, it was most likely a spell gone wrong, one that had torn his spirit from his body and trapped it here while his body died.
But what kind of a spell could do that to an adept?
This man that had visited my dreams with pleas to be set free - what had he been dealing with?
I rose to dress, and felt the energy that was Marek's spirit leave the room respectfully, as it - as he always had. That I was glad of. Of the few things I valued, physical privacy was the one of the ones I valued the most.
I made my way downstairs, taking care not to step on the hedgehog that had claimed this house as its home long before I came, and lit the fire in the kitchen stove with a quick spell. I had herbal elixirs and potions to brew today, so I would have both the kitchen stove lit as well as the central fireplace, the warmth from which I had magikally routed to warm the whole house. I hated the cold.
Nabbing the remains of a loaf of bread from the pantry, the only room not heated in the house, along with a hard boiled egg, I walked into the kitchen to eat breakfast before starting to work.
I froze. Lying next to my plate was a single, waxen white lily. Setting the food down, I reached for the flower with trembling fingers, bringing it to my face to breathe in the gentle scent.
The stirring of energies to one side of me brought my attention to the spirit's presence. A tendril of thought brushed my mind. ('??')
I smiled. "Thank-you." I told him softly, "The gift is appreciated."
I placed the bloom in a glass with some water and turned my attention to my breakfast, giving a piece of the bread to the hedgehog when he came scuttling in, begging for attention.
At my elbow still, Marek gave the general impression of being antsy. Finishing my breakfast with a sigh, I addressed him again. "I suppose you want my attention?"
('.') A feeling to accompany him followed, and I rose from my chair, moving through the house and into the library. The potions could wait.
I entered the library and looked around, instinctively looking for something out of the ordinary. Sure enough, a large volume I had not yet read lay on the floor, apparently fallen from its place.
I picked it up. The book was so obscure that I had deliberately over looked it several times, sure that nothing in it could help me. The spells were old, and the methods they use to deal with magik were unfamiliar and risky. But they weren't beyond my ability.
Seeing a thin leaf stuck in the book like a bookmark, I opened to that page, removing the leaf to finger it idly as I read the spell.
My heart sunk. It was a spell to send a lingering spirit onto its proper place. The leaf crumpled between my fingers. I had become accustomed to having his spirit with me, detracting from the solitude of the life I'd chosen to live. But if that was what he wanted, then as long as he was happy....
With a tingle of energy, the page lifted and turned before my eyes, turning to the next spell. A spell to... I blinked. A spell to bring the mage-born back to life who had died before their time, or died in a noble act. I compared the two spells. Both were equally risky - in fact, they were identical save one word. Both had to be done on the obscure date of Candlemas, which was scarcely a week away. I swallowed. "Which one?" I addressed him. My only answer, however, was a tingle of energy on my cheek before the spirit left the room.
Well, I knew which spell I wanted. I wanted him here with me, this shade who had won my heart in the past month. But I wasn't sure that was the best choice for him. For though he had been with me for a month, in this very house, he did not know of my past, of the secret I hid so carefully from the villagers. You see, my name was not always Lady Kourin....
Marking both spells with slips of paper, I left the library to attend to the days work. There was only a little over a week until Candlemas. A week to make my choice....
The room in the basement had been used for spells before, I could tell. It was probably the room that Marek had used for the spell that had taken his life. I shivered slightly and went to work casting my circle, setting my candles where countless others had burned over the years. My shields formed with the circle easily, helped by the residual magiks in the room. They would serve to protect me from any outside attack (which was highly unlikely) while I was casting, and more importantly, protect the house if the spell was to backfire.
I could feel Marek's presence outside the circle, waiting patiently. I had deduced, from talking to the villagers and a hedgewizard nearby, and, of course, Marek himself, that he had been trying to calm and control node of energy that was going sour, but the spell had backfired and would have done substantial damage to the earth and the villagers had he not sacrificed his life to dissipate the energy. A noble act. Which made him a candidate for the second spell, if that was the one I was to choose.
And it was to be my choice. He assured me of his love for me, but that if I do not return it, to send him on.
And I hadn't told him.
I bit my lip, awash with shame. He'd know soon enough, anyhow, if I decided to bring him here. I didn't want to send him on, but I knew that if I brought him here and he refuted me....
The circle set. I stood in the middle and began to chant the spell. I had it memorized - I must have read both versions a hundred times. The power built, seethed with life, threatening to tear itself from my feeble control, and I could feel my energy drain as I fought to control it. I chanted the spell quickly and perfectly - the sooner this was over, the easier it would be on me. But my words slowed, almost faltered as I reached the word where I must choose.... oh Marek, forgive me for being selfish....
With one word I bid him come, and closed the spell before the wild thing could come crashing in on me. Still, the backlash of energy was too much for me, and I was barely able to lower my shields and break the circle before I stumbled and blacked out.
The first thing I became aware of when I faded back into consciousness was warmth and light. I blinked several times, taking note of my surroundings. I was wrapped in one of my quilts in front of the fire in the main room of my house. I started to sit up and immediately found Marek at my side, supporting me and pressing a cup to my lips. "Stay still," he instructed, "You're still weak. Drink this."
The cider was sweet and warm, and just spiced enough to clear my fuzzy thoughts. And to make me remember my stressful situation. I finished the dregs of the cider and looked up at Marek.
It didn't help any.
He was incredibly, insanely beautiful, a hundred times more than he had been in my dreams. And he was young, despite the deceptive white of his silken, magic bleached hair. He was wearing one of my robes, which was a little small on his slender form, held together with only a tie and.... I swallowed, my heart pounding. He won't.... he can't want me once I tell him....
His fathomless teal eyes met mine, but I suddenly found that I could no longer hold his gaze, and turned my head away with a slight whimper, my stomach in a dozen knots.
He touched my cheek. "Kourin? What's wrong?"
"I - " I started, then pulled away from him, hugging my knees.
"Kourin...." His brow crinkled. "What... I...."
I realized that he must think that he had done something wrong. I sighed. "I - I'm not what you think, Marek. I've misled you, I..."
"Lady, whatever it is..."
"I'm not a Lady, Marek!" I interrupted, my throat dangerously tight. "I'm not even Kourin! I was born with a different name. Kourin was my sister, who died because her stupid brother was too stubborn to learn to control his magic...." I started to sob, my heart plagued with painful memories.
Marek moved to kneel beside me, a hand on my shoulder. "I don't care if you're not of noble birth, Kourin. I don't care if your entire life is a play! You brought me back, brought me here to be with you, and I love you, I -"
"You can't!" I almost wailed, choking on my tears. "I'm not a Lady, Marek! I meant that literally!" I buried my face in my arms. "I'm... male."
Marek's hand fell from my shoulder.
I continued to sob for a few seconds, trying vainly to pull my self together. "I'll leave as soon as the snow melts," I managed to tell him, still not looking up. "I'll stay in the attic until then, and try not to get in your hair, I-"
I raised my head, still avoiding his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"You can't go...." his voice was quiet, and a little too calm. "I.... I'm tied to you. Magically. Because of the spell. I always will be."
My shoulders sagged and I buried my face in my hands with a sob, wallowing in feelings of guilt and despair. "I'm so stupid - selfish! First Kourin and now this... because I'm to selfish to..."
"Kourin." He gently pulled my hands away from my eyes, raising my face and forcing me to make eye contact with him. "Kourin," He repeated, and swallowed, smoothing a lock of my long, black hair away from my face with trembling fingers. "I said that I loved you. I - I meant it. And I still do."
I stared at him in half shock, half denial for a few moments before finding my voice. "You.... you can't."
"....I do. I'm sure of it." He leaned forwards to kiss me gently, holding me as if I might break. "I love you."
I buried my face in his shoulder and began to sob again, holding him tightly. "Marek...."
He stroked my hair softly. "Shhh.... I'm here. I'm not going to leave you, not ever." A pause. "You're exhausted. We need to sleep."
Strong arms picked me up, carrying my shaking body to the bedroom where he laid me down on my bed and curled beside me, blowing out the candle and pulling the quilts over us before we both slept.
Authors Note: The idea for this story was inspired by a poem by Mercedes Lackey, "Lammas Night", and a collection of stories by several different authors written around the theme of that poem, "In Celebration of Lammas Night". The poem was thus - a young woman, a mage, comes to a village and is offered a job there as the Village mage. However, the house she is given is haunted. It is either the spirit of a former mage, or something dangerous. The woman is lead to two spells, differing by one word, which will either banish the spirit or give it physical life, whichever she chooses. The poem ends with her in the spell circle, about to speak the word, make the choice, and having no idea what her decision is. The stories written varied, and were of love and hate, happiness and tragedy both, and always about a young, beautiful female and a male spirit. So I changed it - made romance and heartache in another sense, and though some have said that I've ruined the story, I think it's perfectly sweet.
How about you?