Red Velvet


by
Creyr



13 Vows

His resistance crumbled after a fortnight . . . he could no more survive without his lover than he could forgo the very food that sustained his life. He waited until the sun sank into its nightly bed before he took the secret paths into Bodlith.

The sun was turning toward summer and Will no longer needed the cloak. Xander found him quickly and questioned neither his absence nor his reappearance. William clung to him, taking the strength that Xander offered him and letting it clear away his fears. He and Xander lay amongst woven strands of honeysuckle and sweet briar. The flowers scented their bower, crushed under their bodies by their loving.

“Were you cursed?” The question had been nagging at him in the long stretches of the night in his solitary bed, while he had foolishly denied himself the one thing that he needed more than anything else.

“Cursed?”

Will said, “I have heard tales from distant lands of men who were cursed to be beasts in the light of the full moon.”

Xander scoffed, looking disgusted. “No, I am no beast. I am. . . the forest is alive, we are the essence of that life. My spirit is of a wolf. My shape is a reflection of my spirit.”

“What is it about you that makes you the wolf?” William couldn’t keep the flirtatiousness out his voice.

He found himself on his back quickly, Xander’s weight pressing him down. “Wolves are smart and loyal. And they take only one mate, for their entire lives.”

His hips reacted without his volition to the familiar sensation of Xander pushing against him. “Am I your mate?”

He didn’t know what to hope. Part of him knew that he was already lost to Xander, had been for some time. But the church said their love was wrong and Will didn’t know if he wanted his life tied to a creature such as Xander.

Xander growled against his throat. “Yes, you are.”

When he heard the confirmation, William felt good, realizing that he longed to dwell in peace with someone who would claim him utterly, who would not turn away the fatherless boy that he had been. He would cope with the world’s scorn of their union. He smiled against Xander’s dark hair.

“And I aver that I am yours while my life lasts.”

He slipped back into the house in the hour just before the sky blushed pink. He’d told Xander that he must away earlier and the forest spirit had made no demur. Will thought he’d gone unmarked, but someone shifted on the settle. It was Yonary, a piece of mending on her lap and her needle threaded.

Yonary watched him as he crossed the hall on the way to his garret, her eyes hard. He resolved to ignore her at first, but she had done him no ill and he would feign bring any upon her.

"Mistress?"

Her shoulders tightened as though she was expecting a blow and William thought the sight would break his heart. Had he become a creature that none recognized in such a short time? He saw his face in the mirror when he shaved every week and he seemed no different. He could not bear her fear and went to kneel beside her.

"Your servant, Mistress."

Her fingers jerked, the needle sticking her finger and a drop of her blood oozed down her finger. She put it in her mouth to suck and he waited, knowing that he was in her power for good or ill. Finally she looked up at him with her clear brown eyes, the eyes that saw more than what was in front of her. He knew that she feared him for no reason, it was he who should fear her, for here was no Helygen, her sight clouded by the muddled wreck of her mind. Yonary was as sharp and bright as the swords her husband made. She could see into his heart, he did not doubt, but it was what she would do with that knowledge that he questioned.

"I do not know what glory you have found, for glory it is, there can be no question. I see it shining out of you. But I doubt not that such is not the fodder for the priests and nobles, and your path is hidden from me."

Her fingers went to her skirts, tangling in the fabric, the small motion saying more than words that her heart was unsettled. He couldn’t think what to say to her, not knowing how he could give up the beauty of the forest for his place in the town, but knowing he must in the end, else forfeit his life.

"I ask you only this, young Will . . . that whatever evil lights on your head, that you not allow it to touch my family."

He knew that she would not consider Xander evil, for she saw too much of the world and her mind was not limited by the mutterings of the priests. But here again was the way that could cost him dear and he had not thought, but it was true, the brush of heresy could taint all he held dear. They would come for him and everyone he knew. But he would not allow it.

"They shall have my life before I let them reach you and yours. I swear it."

Yonary nodded solemnly. "That may well be the price you pay for your bliss. Enjoy it while it lasts."

He rose and turned away, but sleep was long in coming to him that night, for his mind was troubled by visions of black-clad hunters.





14 Power Dream

William lay back on his pallet, watching the moon cross the opening in the roof. The air was warm and scented. He was eighteen this night, a man now, no longer a boy. His eyes grew heavy.

He was running. He tore through the house, feet moving frantically. He thought at first that he was hunted, for black shapes trailed him, huntsmen in black robes. But they soon disappeared, falling behind his furious pace.

And still he ran, now seeking. Now the hunter.

He burst out of the house, following the twisting streets of the town, never questioning the direction his steps were leading him.

Flowers cropped up in his path and he trod on them without concern. But then he ran out of the town and into the forest. He halted then, unsure. But he spied a blossom of hawthorn lying on the duff where it did not belong.

He was running again, following the flower trail deeper into the forest. The trails twisted and turned, far into the tangled brakes and briars. He caught a glimpse of his prey, golden hair flying like a gonfalon with her speed.

She was waiting for him, perched on a sprawling limb of an oak. Flowers wove through her hair and fell from her gown. William stopped, panting.

“I am Olwen the Hawthorne. You are one of my people.”

He had heard of Olwen, but her legend said that she was the daughter of a giant, not a tree. William wondered in what tale he had become enmeshed.

She laughed then, clear like silvery rain on a spring morning. “They shall not have you, the men of the dead god. We are all part of our mother.”

“The virgin mother?” William was confused by her, his mind overwhelmed by her beauty.

“No, my child, our mother is all around us. She is the light. She is the earth and the moon and the stars. My eyes do not deceive me. You are filled with her light, a proper supplicant. Come and greet her.”

The golden maiden placed her hand on a large twisted elder tree standing nearby. A tremble ran through the elder and it shuddered, bark rippling. William told himself desperately that he walked in a dream and no harm could come to him from such a tree.

A face appeared in the bark, wizened, wrinkled, full of valleys, but still yet a face like those dried apple dolls that Agatha had made for the village children after the last harvest was in. The tree grew eyes in its face, opening wide.

William feared it though his mind knew he was dreaming still. When she spoke, his knees weakened under him and he dropped, unwilling, to kneel before her. For here was power indeed, that even he with his limited experience could feel. Power such as Robert and his ilk hardly dared dream, but sought in the destruction of other men.

“Thank you, Olwen, my dear. He is as you have said.”

She stepped forward then, bark showering around them as she moved and Will ducked his head, fearing some blow. When he dared to look he saw a woman in the height of her life, clad in green raiment with flowers falling from her golden-brown hair. Her dressed seemed made of leaves and moss, and her skin was lightly brown. Her eyes were green and gold, as deep as any forest pool and yet contained more secrets.

“I am Gwraig Uaine. The Lady of the Wood.”

Will had no idea how one greeted ancient and powerful gods who came to life in one’s inner eye. He tried to speak, but his wits had deserted him. “William of Wyre,” he finally managed.

“Yes. The trees speak of you, the child from the outer darkness who dares to enter our precincts. Tell me, William, do all men have your bravery?”

He would flee, if he could, but her power pressed upon him, forcing his tongue to move. “Say not bravery, Lady. Say instead foolishness. The foolish bravery of a man in love.” For no other inducement would have kept him coming through Bodlith. No lure but love.

“And few men dare love as you do.”

He stiffened. Would she condemn his choice too, as the rest of the world outside the wood did? Xander had never treated their union as anything out of the ordinary, so he had assumed the old ones accepted such matters.

“I think that one has little choice in where one loves. Perhaps the gods know better.”

“Well thrust, my child. You have found the true power in this world which those who serve the dead god will never know. Though he tried to tell them. We shall, in time, defeat them for this reason. And they shall not have mastery here.”

“But you are losing against those priests that you disdain so,” Will protested. “Losing the forest to axes and fire.”

“We never fight directly. It is not the way of the forest lords. We fight instead with guile and trickery. The forest will endure.”

She seemed to go dim at that point, the light in her dying a little.

“I asked Olwen to bring you because the wolf is one of my most blessed children. Forgive me, but I doubted that any child of the other world could love him as he deserves.”

“He is beautiful and powerful. I take what he gives me willingly against the day when he tires of my limitations.”

“You have your own power though, child of the air. I will gladly claim you as one of my own. Do not turn away from the other side of your heritage.”

William felt again the bitterness of the bastard, raised without knowledge of his father. “I have no heritage.”

Her eyes were deep as still pools in the forest with sunlight sparkling on them. “If the eyes cannot see, and the ears cannot hear, then the mind cannot think. Open your eyes, William.”


William started, feeling as though he was falling from a great cliff, but he did as she had said, opening his eyes. But he was in his own bed beneath the rafters, not in the ancient forest hall. And he was still nameless and powerless, and in love with a forest lord who would either get him killed or tire of him, leaving him heartsore and broken.





15 Cynydd

Will walked with as much woodcraft as he could manage toward the glade where they usually met, through the golden falling twilight that limned every leaf with fire. It had been several weeks since he had been able slip away. Both his heart and his loins ached for the embrace of his mate.

Though he passed light-footed, he knew he could never match the forest sense of the wolf and he expected Xander to be waiting for him. When he stepped out from under the boughs of the great beech, Will saw that it was not his lover who lingered there, but someone else.

The man had moon-pale hair and equally pale skin. Great blue eyes seemed to take up most of his face above sharp cheekbones and a small mouth that folded in upon itself. Will stopped, seeing the stranger made him feel as though some weight pressed against his chest and he feared that doom stalked him, though he could not say what brought such fear in him.

"Who are you?" Will was afraid to ask for Xander, afraid that his lover had traduced some unknown law and had been punished for dallying with a mortal.

"I am Cynydd. Xander thought you might be of my get and bid me greet you. I see that he did not mistake it."

There was a roaring in his ears and a bitter taste in his mouth like bile or betrayal. Xander, he wanted to wail, how could you?

“You know nothing of me.”

“Not you, perhaps, but I knew your mother well. Once.”

The man seemed intolerably smug and arrogant, and there was light in his eyes when he spoke of Drusilla that Will did not like. This stranger had sullied her, impregnated her, sent her unstable mind spiraling into a madness from which she had never recovered. He did not doubt that Liam had questioned her about the identity of her lover with his fists. Her father’s ire and the changes in her body brought about by her pregnancy would have been too much for her to bear. Will regretted that, not his fatherless state, but that he never knew his mother when she had been in full possession of her wits. He had loved her as she was, but thoughts of what she might have been tormented him.

“You had no business linking yourself to one of us. Why would you do that?”

"She wandered in here one day. It was no great chore to seduce her."

Will stifled his anger and hurt. He could imagine that Drusilla, fleeing Liam's impotent rage and harsh fists, would be easily swayed by such a beautiful creature. He ached for his mother, wishing he could comfort her in her grief and madness. But that possibility had ended long ago, so he concentrated his abused feelings on this brute who seemed to so easily dismiss what Drusilla had given him.

“She might have a made a good life, if not for you.” The arrogance of the pale wight had Will in a rage.

Cynydd snorted. “I fitted her with a proper marriage bed without her having the bother of a husband to tend.”

“She meant to be a bride of Christ, to enter a convent! You ruined that for her.”

“A cold welcome she’d find in the arms of your dead god. Your mother was full of passion and she’d die a slow death murred away from the world. Besides. Where would you be without me?”

“I am bloody well tired of people telling me to thank my father for my life. I am not thanking you. Go away!”

Will glared and Cynydd glared back. And William had an odd moment of disorientation as though he was staring at himself in a mirror and not arguing with the man who sired him.

Xander picked that moment to show himself, as Cynydd turned away in disgust. “I wish you joy of him,” he muttered. He turned his face skyward and put his arms back, fingers lengthening into feathers, his eyes growing. The owl drifted on quiet wings over the trees.

“Will,” Xander started, but William would not let him speak.

“Whatever possessed you to spring that on me?”

“You’ve always wondered about your father, I thought you would like to know him. I knew you must be his as soon as I met you.”

“His. I’m not his.”

But something else Xander said teased out a memory. “Wait. That first night. You pounced on me. You said . . . you said you thought I was someone else. You thought I was him!”

“Yes, you’re quite like.”

“And you always greet your friends in such a familiar way?” William sneered. “Do you come howling under him? How often do you let him have you?”

“No! It’s not like that, we are friends, no more. You are my mate, no other.”

“You were no virgin when we came together.” Will thought that he might have swallowed a stone, dragging him to the earth, so heavy was his stomach, knowing that he’d been betrayed by the one he loved more than anything on life.

“I’d coupled before with others, yes. But it meant nothing, the instincts of the body, nothing else. Not till you. Not till we mated. And never with Cynydd.”

“I don’t believe you,” Will said shortly. “You can get out of my sight, too.”

He turned, finding the path for home, thinking that they hadn’t lied, the superstitious villagers who claimed the forest was dangerous. It was a trap for the unwitting who walked its paths. But not for his life, for his heart instead.

Briars lashed at him as tears blinded his eyes. Will ignored Xander’s calls which seemed to echo against the ranks of trees. He wished it had been his life that had been taken. He was certain that it would hurt far less.





16 Confession

The following days were difficult and he missed his lover with an ache that would seem to never cease. He slept little, tossing in his narrow pallet and wanting the warm bulk of Xander beside him. After he had given time for rational thought, he saw that Xander had meant no harm, though he could not have known what it had been like for Will to grow up fatherless. Xander cared only for his happiness though his methods were lamentable.

His distress did not go unmarked however, and when he cursed in front of a lordling for whom he was measuring a baldric, he had stepped too far athwart Master Bels.

“Your prentice lacks manners, good smith. Perhaps I should school him.”

Master Bels raised an eyebrow at that, but he intervened nevertheless. “I think not. I was about to send him to confession. No doubt the priests will sort out his impudence.”

The lord seemed satisfied with that and Will was grateful once again for his master’s understanding. He welcomed the opportunity to ruminate on his own and suspected that he would be given plenty of time on his knees for his latest slip.

Will made his way to the church and was presently surprised to see Robert and his companion in the narthex.

“Robert!”

“Greetings, Will. What brings you here?”

Robert’s grin was large and part of Will was very glad indeed. Here was a friend who was nothing more, and things between them had never been complicated. Unlike the confusing forest lord to which he had given his heart.

“Ah. My grasp has fumbled of late and my master bids me confess to clear my mind and steady my hands. And you? Are you back long?”

“I go where I’m sent by God. We’ll bide here a few days. You remember Friar Thomas?”

Will nodded, although the other man brought a shiver of unease across his neck. Friar Thomas had a strange light in his eyes, that of madness or fanaticism. The man made him uncomfortable.

“Well, go on then, Will. You cannot keep your master waiting.”

Will moved quietly along the gallery, hating the purpose of the small closed spaces.

He'd been careful all his life, around the priests. Careful to confess his sins at regular intervals, ordinary mundane sins that surely bored the men. It was nothing he particularly decided, but the blind animal instinct of a child that had been uncomfortable with the seemingly compassionate questions about his father. But somehow, even very young, he had sensed the underlying avid hunger beneath the caring. So he recited a litany of bad thoughts . . . jealousy of a peer's fine jacket, or greed for an extra sweet. As he grew older, he admitted to lustful thoughts about the baker's daughter or sins of action that the whole village knew about, such as the time he broke the arm of a youth who doubted that his small size hid a fierce fighter.

By now, this caution was part of his constitution. He sat quietly in the dark, gathering himself while the other waited. I let one of the woodland spirits that you fear so take me. I’ve copulated with a beast. I've let him into my body and found heaven far beyond your barren dreams. But no, that would earn him a trip to the stake so fast that they wouldn't take much time to torture him.

So instead he said carefully, silently begging Yonary’s forgiveness, knowing that he must explain his agitation with something serious, "I desire the body of my master's wife. I've . . . touched myself with thoughts of her in my head."

The penance was nothing he hadn't expected, far more severe than he was used to though. And then came the question.

"My child, have you discovered any knowledge of your father in your new life?"

"No," Will responded shortly. And truthfully in his mind. Contributing seed didn't make anyone a father. That creature in the forest may have sired him, but Liam was the only father he'd ever known.

Telling about Cynydd would not save himself either, if they decided to target him. They'd execute him for being the product of such an unnatural union, and then they'd make war on the Old Ones in the forest. Despite his anger at Xander, Will didn't want to bring destruction to the forest.

He went into the church and prostrated himself as directed, the cold of the stone floor seeping through his clothes.

Perhaps as the good wives said, that confession was good for the soul for he felt calmer after that. Perhaps too, it was his narrow escape from more terrible chastisement that settled his mind. But it gave him a peaceful place and time to think.

Xander must have thought that he could mend some of Will’s pain by introducing Will to his father. But Xander had no concept of human suffering and what Will had endured at the hands of the villagers. The sorrow that Cynydd had caused both him and his mother could not be so easily dismissed. Perhaps Xander was not to blame for his attempt to help, but it would be a long time before he could forgive Cynydd.

Will could not deny that separation from Xander was painful and knew it was up to him to heal the breach between them.




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