Unable to sleep, Casidhe carried his bedroll off into the woods, dumping it on the ground before drawing his blades. Working his way through the positions usually cleared his mind, and he still had a long way to go before becoming the duelist he was meant to be.
As he moved through each stance, he remembered Brandeouf’s words from his dream: You should focus on the things you can help with. Now that he had Geoffrey sorted, kind of, his mind returned to Teresa. Segonal and Lothaire were right; he had to find her. He had to make amends for what he’d done. He had to –
He heard something behind him and nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of Gheris. The elf’s expulsion of air mingled exasperation and superiority. “Jumping at shadows, are we?” she said.
Recovering quickly, he pivoted away from her, executing a perfect lunge. “Some shadows are more dangerous than others.”
“So why is does it have to be you I run into out here?”
“Couldn’t sleep. Too much on my mind.”
“Poor baby! Waaah! Do you need Mommy to tell you a story? Did you wet your bed again?” She placed her hands on her hips, weight shifted to her left leg.
“I never knew my mother before today,” he replied, still not looking at her. “And I quit wetting my bed weeks ago.” His movements were precise, perfect.
She snorted and leaned against a tree, tapping one foot quickly, steadily. The very air around her hummed with anxious energy.
“So what are you doing still up?” he asked her. “Hating the stars one by one?”
“The stars, I can stand. It’s you people that are impossible. I suppose you’ll say you’re not surprised and then you’ll feel superior about it!” Her tone was callous, but lined with a hard edge that told Casidhe she was not just flapping her lips.
He spun around to face her, still about twenty feet away, “I don’t feel superior to you, Gheris.”
“Like the Fade you don’t.”
Let it go, he thought. “Which people do you mean? Humans?”
“No, dwarves! Idiot.”
“I thought you might have meant males. Why? Did someone rile you?”
“Riled? Me? Nonsense!” She drew her daggers and pointed one at him, practically shaking with impatience. “You strike at the air, Casidhe. Are you afraid to fight an actual opponent?”
“Not a’tall. I’d prefer that you use the flats of your blades, but in your current state, I’ll forgive you if you cut me. You know, by accident.”
“I don’t need your forgiveness!” She dropped into a half-crouch.
Casidhe returned to his basic defensive position, and Gheris snickered at his uncharacteristic formality. “You look like a fool in that stance. Finally matches your speech.”
“And I’ve already tricked you into overconfidence.” He whipped his sword through his salute. “En garde.”
She rolled her eyes and stepped within his range. They circled a bit – Gheris searching the environment for advantages, Casidhe fixed on her alone. Casidhe led with a deliberately careless lunge, just to see how quickly she’d react – and she easily knocked it aside and resumed her stance.
“Are we cat and mouse now?” she said.
“Just feeling you out.” He cleared his throat, acknowledging the suggestiveness of his words.
She snorted again. “I knew it! All human men are the same.”
Casidhe’s dagger lashed out – much faster than the sword – and she darted to the side, not bothering to block it. “How’s that, exactly?” he said. “Fond of dirty jokes?”
“That, and more.” She lunged low, slashing at his legs; Casidhe leaped over the blade, higher than he’d planned, and came down a bit off-balance.
“Tell me,” he said, turning to minimize his profile.
She pulled back to find an open area, still electric with energy. “Could you be a little more vague? Tell you about what? Humans? Men? Liars? Lechers? Look to yourself for those answers.”
“Never mind.” As he followed her, almost leisurely, Casidhe said “I’ll tell you this: it’s because of you that I can’t sleep.”
“You poor fool. You may be a whore, Casidhe, but I’m not.” She darted in for a quick slash, but didn’t stick around to see if it landed before resuming her position. She didn’t see how close she came to his arm.
“That’s not what I meant. Earlier today, while you were busy not caring about my life’s story, I told you that I thought I loved a woman. Now I realize that I do love her.”
She wore a wolf’s snarl. “Love! Love! What is this love! I only ever hear men mentioning it! Does it really exist? Or is it just an excuse to creep up a woman’s skirts!”
“You sound just like a damned fool I used to know,” Casidhe sighed.
“Perhaps her father caught onto this LOVE of yours. Or perhaps it was the love of two whores!”
Gheris lunged in and scraped a dagger off his chainmail. He looked down at his chest, and she smirked. “Catch up, boy, or you’ll lose your throat.”
“Teresa Corwin is no whore.” He dove into a flurry of attacks, the blades fairly singing in his hands; Gheris lost ground defending herself and ducked out of his range.
Her smirk gave way to anger. “Oh, so she has a name! I thought you’d forgotten it in all this time apart! Still, I would bet my blades that your fondest memory is of what’s between her legs, not her face.”
He kept on the offensive, growling, “My fondest memory is of her laugh.”
“Ha!” Gheris mocked, leaping lightly onto the boulder behind her, easily parrying Casidhe’s attacks from the higher ground. “HA! And when did she laugh for you? As she feigned interest in your drunken stories? Or as you held her down and she tried to think of better things, wishing you had any power to please her? I cannot imagine what she saw in you…did you tell her you had money? Did you hire a mage to bewitch her? Or is she a whore, just like you!”
“SHE IS NOT A WHORE!” Casidhe screamed, throwing his blades to the ground and walking away from Gheris, balling his hands into shaking fists. He made it six paces before falling to his knees, pressing his hands to his face to muffle his further shouting. He sat like that for a moment, with no knowledge or care for Gheris, until he finally admitted “You’re right,” his voice breaking on the words.
“Is that a forfeit?” she asked from the boulder. “Surely you have more fight within you? Is that how you defend this precious love?”
“I hurt her,” he said, as if he didn’t hear Gheris. “I don’t deserve her.”
She celebrated her apparent victory by shouting, “You give in so easily! How shameful! Tell me, do you still insist you don’t hate me? Or has that changed just as easily? You are a child pretending to be a man. You have no spine! And this love of yours, I can understand it now – warring nations have love, those humans who enslaved the elves had love, and there is love when someone is left behind.”
“She’ll never forgive me. I ran away, like a rat… Maker’s blood, what have I done?”
He looked up to see that Gheris had come to look at him. He also realized that he was crying. So be it, he thought. I deserve whatever venom she flings my way.
But Gheris was no longer victorious – she was curious. Still infuriated, too, but for some other reason Casidhe couldn’t discern. “What good is this love if it causes you pain? If it causes her pain? Is that what it is?” When he didn’t reply, she added, “You are crying. That is not an answer! That is a childish response. A frail maiden’s. Speak! Is that what love is?”
Maybe, while he was in the grip of sorrow and her curiosity overwhelmed her rage, Casidhe could actually get through to her. “I don’t hate you, Gheris. I’ve never hated you. And I don’t know why it’s so important to you that I do – that everybody does.”
“I find that hard to believe.” That sounded better than liar!, anyway. “Pretending you don’t hate me to make yourself feel better does not make you better.”
“Believe whatever you want. As for me, I believe that the Templar’s daughter made me happy. Happier than I’ve ever been – than I ever thought I could be.”
He stood up to find her staring. “A Templar’s daughter?” Gheris said.”Does she know what those bastards do?”
“Yes. Her father… he isn’t what I expected at all. Hard as it is for me to say, the Templars aren’t all bad.”
“LIAR!” She dropped her daggers and shoved him hard in the chest. “You said they came the night Gialinn left! You said they tortured you! She died from severe wounds! Her death is THEIR doing!”
“I know that! And I also know that my father couldn’t save her! It’s because of the Templars that my life is…” He waved his hand around. ”Is this! But I also know that Jaedar Corwin is a good man!”
She was close uncomfortably close. Were those apples he smelled on her breath? “Good man? Good men do evil things, and you’d best let go of the fantasy that good men run around and rescue princesses! He’s a good man that kills innocent people!”
“He regrets the sins the Templars have committed – that he’s committed. Nobody’s perfect. You have to find good wherever you can, I think.”
“What do you know? Casidhe can think. There’s no point in looking for good or bad; you make do with what you’re given! You survive!” She prodded him in the chest and repeated, “Survive.”
He looked down at her hand. “And what sort of life is that? Surviving. That’s all I’ve been doing, all my life. I’ve lost everyone I’ve ever cared about, and now I’m arguing with you in the woods in the middle of the night. Forgive me for wanting something more, even if I don’t deserve it.” She was still scowling. It was time to stop being nice. “You sure as the Fade don’t.”
She inhaled sharply, as if she had finally heard the right words. Her hand wavered over his heart before she pulled it back, clenching and unclenching both hands. “Then if I am so loathsome, go back to Teresa, bury yourself in her, and leave me alone. Being rid of you would make my life easier! But you just don’t go away! But now that you’ve said it, there’s no need for the pretense!” She seemed to border on the edge of hysterics.
“I told you, I don’t hate you.” Casidhe closed the distance between them. ”Not as much as you hate yourself.”
“Don’t talk like you know me!” she shrieked. “You guess right a few times, and suddenly I’m an open book to you? Think again, if your mind can handle the effort!”
“I see more than you think. I see how afraid you are.”
She raised her chin proudly. “Don’t project your cowardice onto me, ponce!”
“I’m not a ponce; I’m just flamboyant.” There; he was done joking. Let her see how serious you really are. ”And you are afraid. Afraid that you’re wrong about humans. That you won’t find any purpose. That you aren’t good enough. And maybe what you’ve fallen into is too big for you to handle by yourself.”
Her hands went to her hips for her daggers, but she’d thrown them aside. “What do you CARE! If I go and ruin my life, that doesn’t affect you!” She raised another hand, as if to slap him – or even punch him again.
“Because I can help you, if you’ll just swallow your pride and let me!”
“I DON’T NEED YOUR HELP! Get over yourself! Get over your stupid idea that you’re here to rescue everybody and HELP YOURSELF!”
“I’m trying, damn you! Why do you think I’m out here practicing in the middle of the night? And I could use your help, too! I don’t dare ask for it, though, or you’ll just call me weak again!”
She swallowed, and her hand lowered slowly. Prophet’s tears, was he getting through to her? “What could I possibly ever help you with?” she asked. “Why should it matter to you what I call you? Do you listen to every elf you find in the streets and what she might call you?”
“Because we’re both afraid,” he said. “But that doesn’t make us cowards. Cowards give in to their fear. People like us do what needs to be done anyway.”
“Don’t fool yourself! You’re a coward. You’re afraid of a woman. A single, stupid woman.” She was shaking. “You’re not looking for help,” Her voice cracked and was almost…quiet. “You’re looking for someone to tell you you’re okay and worthy and good. You won’t find that here.”
Damn it, she was right, wasn’t she? “Teresa’s not stupid,” he said, changing direction. “And I’ll face her when this is done, never you fear. And what are you looking for, then?”
She met his eyes for a second before casting her gaze away anxiously. “I’m…nothing. I’m not looking for anything.” Her answer rang false, recited.
“Someone to tell you you’re just an elf? That you’re worthless? Useless? Because I won’t do that.”
He reached out and touched her on the chin to turn her face back to his. She flinched, but didn’t resist.
“Then you’re a lying bastard,” Gheris said, “just like I said before.”
“Don’t you ever tire of all these little battles? How can I convince you that I’m telling the truth?”
Radiating shame, she yanked his hand away from her face – and his fingers closed over hers. She was trembling, “You shouldn’t concern yourself with strangers,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. It was, without question, the quietest he’d ever heard her. “It can get you killed.”
“You’re not a stranger to me, Gheris.”
“Then you’re a stupid, spineless bastard.”
“Being this close to you requires great courage, believe me.” He brought his hand back to her face, and this time, she seemed to lean into his touch.
“Idiot. Drunk. You’re annoying. Hate you.”
“And only a brave soul would dare something like this.” He kissed her, and not tentatively.
Gheris stiffened, scrabbling to pull herself away with one hand, while clutching at him with the other. She seemed to vibrate anew with whatever energy she’d had before.
She wasn’t going to destroy him – not yet, at least. He poured himself into kissing her for a miniature eternity – and then she tore herself away.
“Worthless drunk,” she sighed. “Lecherous –“
“Shut up for once.”
“As you like it.”
As Casidhe kissed her again, Gheris threw her arms around him and allowed him to lead her toward his bedroll.
- – – – -
The next morning, Gheris woke up in Casidhe’s bedroll, the duelist spooning her from behind. She realized they were both naked. She closed her eyes again momentarily and swallowed as the previous night returned to her memory with a definite foreign taste. She opened her eyes again, and her fingers brushed Casidhe’s arms lightly. Her jaws clenched. “Was it funny for you?” Her voice was hoarse, perhaps from all the yelling, and bitterly angry, though quiet. “When I didn’t know what to do? Was the victory twice as sweet because I had never done this before?”
The duelist stirred behind her. “Of course not. You were exquisite. Experience is no match for passion, and you have more than enough of that.”
Her fingers, still moving along his skin, suddenly clenched into his arm viciously before she sat up and looked down at him. She drew breath to yell when she spotted the bruise on his chest from her blade. Her hand drifted over to it, “You let me hit you all the time. And I know you can stop me. I don’t understand.”
“I’m not sure I understand either. I don’t want to fight you… and if it helps you to lash out at someone else, it might as well be me.”
Her eyes flicked to the scar on his shoulder. “Is that what you told the Templars?”
“It didn’t matter what I told them,” he said. “I didn’t know what they wanted to know.”
“How can you not hate them?” Her voice was vicious. The night’s activities didn’t seem to have diminished her energy. “They tortured you! I don’t expect you to give half a shit about my mother, but what about that!?” She slapped his chest over where the scar should have been.
“I did hate them. I suppose I still do… But it doesn’t hurt like it used to.” Whether he meant the scar or the memory he didn’t say.
She pulled back. “Well, I do! They killed my mother. They ruined my life!” Her voice seemed to have returned. She roared and slammed her fists to the ground beside her. “No, she shouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place! What was she doing with Segonal!?” She looked down at Casidhe, her eyes widening. Her face collapsed, and she turned away. “What am I doing with you!? I…I swore! I swore! I swore!” She scrabbled at the ground and found only dirt, but threw it at him anyway. “I HATE YOU!”
Casidhe raised his hand to cover his face, but he was too slow. Dust found its way into his eyes and mouth, and he sat up, coughing. “I’ll tell you what Segonal told me about Gialinn,” he said once he cleared his eyes, “if you’ll listen.”
“Listen? LISTEN? AGH! The last time I listened to you, I… we…!” She gestured vaguely.
“Spent a wonderful evening together? Reached heights of passion, hitherto undreamed of?”
She shrieked, slamming her fists down onto his chest again and again. “I SWORE I WOULDN’T BE LIKE MY MOTHER! Give back what you took from me, you bastard! GIVE IT BACK!”
“I wouldn’t, even if I could. I didn’t take it. You gave it. You could have said no, but you wanted the same thing I did.”
She wrenched away from him, putting her hands over the back of her head. “No! NO! Why would you even offer!? What kind of perverse path to redemption and worthiness is that!?”
He seemed a little surprised. “Because I thought it was what you needed.”
She jerked up, staring at him with incredulity. “What?”
“You’re so angry all the time… I’ve wondered if you’ve ever known a moment of joy in all your life…” He waved a hand to help the words come out. “I hoped that feeling good about something would help you feel… better.”
She stared, silenced. Swallowed. “Why…?” She shook her head. That question never got anywhere. “You’re a human, Casidhe. This…I’m an elf. The results could be… And if anyone found out. Ever.” Her face felt hot and her eyes tinged. What was this? “What the Fade made you think sex was going to make it easier on me?” She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes.
Casidhe released himself from the bedroll and placed his hand on her bare shoulder. “Gheris, I’m sorry.”
She jerked away. “Don’t.” She removed her hands from her face. Any tears had stopped before they had even fully formed. “I…” The words couldn’t seem to come out. She was not even sure what they were. She remembered what he had said the night before about fear and felt like a coward. Her eyes scouted around anxiously. “It’s cold.”
“Of course it is. You’re naked.” He busied himself with gathering her clothes.
She let out a puff of air, incredulous. “And you’re an idiot. Thank you for stating the obvious.”
“You’re the one who said ‘It’s cold.’”
She struggled, but could not contain a weak tilt of the corner of her mouth. “I’m not at my best this morning, thanks to you.”
“Again, I am sorry.” He handed her her tunic. “But you were at your best last night.”
Her expression dropped as she began dressing. “Keep talking about it. I dare you.”
He looked to her knives, discarded on the forest floor, and wondered how quickly she could get to them. “Fine,” he conceded. “But not talking about it won’t make it go away.”
“Killing you might,” she responded simply. “Then no one ever knows.”
“You could sell me to the pirates. I’d be dead and you’d get paid.”
“Don’t tempt me,” she warned seriously. She searched around and scooped up her daggers. “But there are also better topics. Like my mother. And Segonal.”
He nodded and began putting his own clothes on. Gheris stood uncomfortably, but then gave up and watched him as he moved around, and not without interest. But her attention was only in part to him telling her everything that Segonal had said.
When he was done, Gheris pressed her lips together. “That bitch. She threw away her family’s reputation, and it wasn’t for anything worthwhile! Although…” she paused. “There’s no knowing that Segonal is being honest. Or that you are, for that matter.”
“That’s occurred to me,” Casidhe said. “The former, I mean. He had no reason to lie to me that I can discern, though. And as for me, why would I lie to you about something this important? I believe you deserve the truth.”
She exhaled slowly. “I have no idea what to believe anymore. You’ve gone and screwed that around.” She then snorted. “Poor choice of words.” She faced him. “Let’s assume I don’t reject the idea immediately for its questionable source. Sources are important things, I’ve found. Bad sources lead to bad goods. Did he say what they were looking for?”
“The Wardens? Not exactly.” He told her about the missing spies, but admitted that he hadn’t pressed for more about Gialinn’s agenda.
“I’d like to hope my mother at least had a reason to keep him around. But I guess not. Stupid.” Gheris tapped her finger to her nose thoughtfully. “I’m guessing they never found anything about the spies. So…” She gestured, searching for the words. “All these…magical…shenanigans… they could be connected to that?”
“That could be, yes. Could you pass me my boot, please? Over there.” She looked about to snap to him to get it himself, but then conceded and picked it up, tossing it forcefully to him. “Thank you,” he grunted as he absorbed the impact. “I wanted to ask Segonal about all that, but we had more important things to talk about.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Like…”
“My mother. Your mother.”
“Right. Mothers.” She seems to deflate. “I hope yours was nice.”
“I believe she was,” Casidhe said, a bit wistfully. “There may still be more to yours than what Segonal knows.”
“Like that she probably passed on her crazy to me.” She sighed, then folded her arms across her chest defensively. “I…” She gritted her teeth. “I guess that means…Segonal… is alright. And that… that makes everything stupider than before.” She tumbled over the words. They were foreign on her tongue, but if she was to be honest with herself, there wasn’t much Casidhe hadn’t seen. She did not wish to be honest with herself.
“It’s no small thing, admitting that you might have been wrong.”
She growled and punched him in the arm. “Shut up.” Her eyes turned down to her feet, however.
“Make me?” he teased.
She glared at him, about to snap back, but then seemed to rethink her strategy. She seized him by the shirt, and pulled his face down to hers. She hesitated, but only for a second, and kissed him. Casidhe was shocked, but returned the gesture gratefully. When she broke it off, he said “We should… we should go see what everyone’s up to.”
She blanched. “Say anything, and I’ll skin you. And sell you to the pirates. And get rich on your corpse. And you won’t even get a funeral.”
“Gheris, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to keep a secret.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And I’ll bet no one is too keen on asking me.” She gestured behind her as she began walking. “Don’t forget your…” She snorted. “Love-mat.”
He watched her walk away, trying to convince himself that all of this had really happened.