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Edward woke to a red sky. The sun was just peeking over the western mountains. They were nearing a glittering tower, fire flashing from every facet. The dragon veered to fly nearer and shot a long blast of flame. A light flashed several times from the tower's top as they dropped suddenly. Edward's stomach felt very peculiar. He sighed and stirred and felt Moraelyn shift so that his right arm now held Edward. He stretched and yawned.
"We're not stopping at the Tower? I'ric---"
"Do not use that name so lightly, not even to me. The ArchMagister will not return for days yet. Unicorns are brothers to the wind and travel as fast, even burdened, but not as fast as dragons fly. You see the Elven homeland at dawn from the back of a dragon. Count yourself fortunate among men."
Edward's gaze roamed the deep green woods and rugged hills. There was no sign of habitation. "It's lovely," he said politely, "but not so beautiful as High Rock," he added out of loyalty and truth. "Are there no towns or villages or farms?"
Indeed, the air was as heady as the wine Edward used to sip from his father's cup, before ... "I'm hungry."
"I expect so." A bit of shifting and Moraelyn's left hand produced a small leaf-wrapped package. The dusky hand was large and strong and looked neither human nor animal. Edward stared at it with revulsion, then took the package gingerly so as not to touch the hand. He felt Moraelyn stiffen and the hand that held Edward relaxed its grasp a bit. Edward felt ashamed of his reaction. It was neither kind nor wise to give offense in the circumstances. Moraelyn could quite easily drop him overboard. "I need to bathe, but so do you," he said stiffly. Moraelyn was deliberately misinterpreting the reaction, Edward knew. "Yes, I'm very dirty," Edward bit into the cake which proved much better than it looked. "My lady mother's used to seeing me like this--at least she used to be. But perhaps I should bathe first?"
"I think you will not be offered that choice. Ah, at last!" The dragon spread his wings, sent a huge gout of flame soaring skyward and dropped to earth in a large clearing. The landing was abrupt and jarring. Elves appeared quite suddenly and arms reached up to take him and Shag, who woke at last, ran frantically in circles, and then sat panting at Edward's feet.
A tall elf with fiery hair like copper greeted them formally. "Greetings, my lord King. Your lady wife awaits you. Prince Edward, I welcome you to the land of the Firstborn on behalf of all its people. May your stay here prove pleasant and productive."
Moraelyn nodded deferentially. "Thank you, my host. My Queen has waited long enough; we will go to her now." Moraelyn's hand on his shoulder steered Edward toward the largest tree he'd ever seen. The trunk was hollow; steps inside led up; openings gave out onto more steps and bridges along and among the mighty branches. They proceeded along these until they reached a large canopied platform, furnished with seats and chests as if it were a room. A golden skinned woman smiled at them and waved them in, then left. A tall slender, pale-skinned, dark-haired human woman paced toward them, her eyes on Edward. Only Edward.
"Why did you leave us!" The cry came from deep inside, ringing through him. It stopped her several paces from him. Now her eyes lifted to Moraelyn, who said in a harsher tone than Edward had yet heard from him. "Thou wilt address thy Mother with respect, cub!" A glancing blow made his eyes water.
Aliera crossed quickly to Moraelyn and placed her hands on his chest. "Greeting, my husband. All praise to Notorgo for bringing you and my son safely to me."
"Thank also the Lord of the Dragons and the Bandit, who could not have lifted the boy more neatly himself. The ArchMagister had somewhat to do with it as well." Moraelyn's dusky hands came up to hold her bare arms lightly and tenderly. He laughed, looking relaxed and happy. But the hands against his chest formed a barrier as much as a caress.
"I am blessed indeed. But it has been long since my son and I have spoken. We may find words more easily if we seek them alone together."
Moraelyn's smile vanished instantly. "Are words then a thing which two can find more easily than three? Well. Perhaps. At times. Wife." He turned on his heel and left. The bridge swung and creaked, but his feet made no sound at all.
Aliera watched after him, but he did not look back. Edward felt again the curious mix of satisfaction and regret that came with giving pain to his enemy. "Edward, my son, come and sit by me."
Edward stood where he was, "Madam mother, I have waited many years and travelled many leagues to have an answer. I will wait no longer, nor go one step further."
"What have you been told?"
"That you were most treacherously kidnapped by night with the aid of magic, while my father slept, trusting in the honor of his guest."
"Your father told you that. And Moraelyn?"
"Said that you came full willing. I would hear what you say."
"Would you hear why I left your father or why I did not take you with me, having chosen to go."
Edward paused, thinking, "Madam, I would hear the truth, therefore I must give the truth. I would hear why you left me behind. The other, I think I know, as much as I can or would know, unless you wish to tell me more or other."
"The truth? Truth is not a single thing existing apart from those who apprehend it. But I will tell you my truth and perhaps then you may arrive at your truth.
Aliera walked back to a softly pillowed chair and composed herself. Nearby a small ruby colored bird settled on a branch and trilled an accompaniment to her soft voice.
"My parents arranged my marriage as is the custom of our homeland. I did not love Corcyr, but in the beginning I respected him and tried to be a good wife. He did not care for me, nor did he take care. And so he lost my respect and I died a little each day, withering like an untended plant. I was happy only with you, but Corcyr thought I was making you too soft. "Womanish," he said, and so, after your third birthday I was allowed to spend only an hour each day with you. I listened to your cries and sat weeping, without heart for anything. Finally, you ceased crying and asking for me, and my heart was left empty. I formed the habit of walking and riding much of the time, alone save for a guard or two. Then Moraelyn came. He wanted to mine for ebony in the Wrothgarian Mountains. The land he wanted to use was part of my dowry. He was willing to train our people in the arts of its use and even to give them weapons of Dark Elf making. In return our people were to aid him in keeping the goblins away, and allow him to form a colony of his people in High Rock. Corcyr had no use for the land and he wanted the weapons very much indeed -- there are none better -- so he favored the proposal. There were many details to be discussed and arranged and it fell to me to conduct these negotiations. Corcyr despises Dark Elves and he was jealous of Moraelyn, who was already famed as the finest fighter in all Tamriel.
"But Moraelyn is more than a skilled fighter; he's well-read and interested in everything under the sun. He sang and played as if taught by Jeh Free and Jhim Sei both. He was a companion such as I'd only dreamed of ... that and no more, I swear. We both love to be outside, so our discussions took place while riding and walking, but always accompanied by his men and Corcyr's. When all was arranged, Corcyr gave a great feast to celebrate the treaty. All of High Rock nobility came and many from other provinces. At the end Corcyr was deep in his cups and let fall an insult that could only be washed out in blood. I had long since retired with the other ladies so I know not what it was, but I'd heard enough in private to know that Corcyr had a store of such to choose from. Moraelyn gave the challenge and gave Corcyr until noon, that he might recover such wits as he had.
"Then Moraelyn came to me, alone in my chamber, and told me what had befallen. 'Milady, I think he will choose your brother as his champion; in any case there will be a river of blood between us that may not be crossed in this life or any other. I can live without your love, but I would not have your enmity. Come with me now, as wife or honored guest, as you choose. And you shall serve as blood price in stead of your kith of kin.'
"And there, in the moonlight, in my terror, with my ladies sleeping about me, I knew I loved him. Doubted that I could live without him. And yet, I loved you more! 'My son,' I whispered. 'I can't--'. 'Milady, you must choose. I am sorry.' You see, don't you, Edward? If I stayed, it meant my brother's death -- his innocent young blood. Or your father's! Or possibly that of the man I loved, though I counted that most unlikely. Moraelyn's fighting skills alone were supreme, and in an affair of this sort he would be entitled to call on magic aid as well. 'We could take him with us.' But Moraelyn shook his head sadly, 'That I will not do. It would go against my honor to part father and son.'
"Leaving love alone, I am trained to duty", Aliera said proudly. "Should I have robbed you of your father or your loving uncle? And I thought it likely that Corcyr, should he survive, would somehow blame me for the affair and use it as an excuse to put me away. I thought that Corcyr would be pleased to have me gone. I knew he wanted the weapons very much. I could trade them for time with you, I thought." All this passed through my mind while Moraelyn stood waiting, not looking at me.
"Lady Mara, help me to choose wisely, I prayed. 'You truly want me as wife? I--I could bring you nothing but trouble.'
"Aliera, I would have you to wife. And I want nothing but yourself." He shed his cloak and wrapped it round my body, pulling the bedclothes away.
"Moraelyn, wait--is this right, what I do?"
"Milady, if I thought this wrong, I should not be standing here! Of the choices you are given, this one seems to me most right." He swung me up in his arms and carried me to his horse. And so I left your father's house, clad only in his cloak and riding before him. And wild joy mixed with my sorrow, so that I scarce knew how I felt. That is my truth."
Edward said quietly, "But he has parted my father and me in the end."
"With great reluctance. And onlythe dragon says that you and your father were in truth already parted in heart. It is only a matter of more leagues. Which provide a measure of safety for you. Moraelyn insisted that you should freely consent to come. You are as free to return any time you wish."
"Moraelyn would have just taken me! It was I'r--I mean, the ArchMagister, who insisted that I must consent."
"He's not a patient man by nature. And he is anxious to do Corcyr no harm. Doubtless he felt the discussion could be carried on as well elsewhere."
"He called him King of the Small Cock. And laughed. Why? Are Daggerfall cockerels smaller than Ebonheart birds? And what does it matter, anyway? My father was very angry; I think he would have liked to fight. But it's true he hates me. I knew that, but I didn't want to know, so I pretended not to. I don't suppose Moraelyn would do that."
"He'd lie, though. He thought about telling me he was my father. I could see it."
Aliera threw back her head and laughed her pretty rippling laugh; he remembered it from long ago, and it sent shivers down his back. "He must have wanted to claim it very badly indeed if he let you see it; he's usually quicker than that. And he does not lie under oath, or to hurt those he loves."
"He doesn't love me; he doesn't even like me."
"But I do, my dear son. You--" Edward thought she was going to say he'd grown; adults always remarked on his growth, even if he'd just seen them a week ago. Very strange, since he was small for his age. Instead she said, "You're just as I thought you'd be," with deep maternal satisfaction.
"And he loves you. But he said he was no one's errand boy. Yet you dismissed him as if he were."
Aliera's face and neck burned a deep crimson.
"Nay, though I am reduced to serving man, it seems." Moraelyn had entered silently, bearing a huge tray piled high with food. "Get me a stool, boy, you can play page if I can play server. You must be famished and I thought I'd best return before my wife gets round to the rest of my faults. Could take her most of the day listing them." He'd shed the mail and bathed and dressed in fresh black jerkin and hose with a silvery sash tied round his narrow waist. But the black sword still swung by his side.
"Mara help us, you've enough food for a small army. And I've broken my fast." Aliera's small hand reached for the elf's arm, slid down it caressingly, then clasped his hand and squeezed it, lifting it to her still hot cheek, brushing it with her lips. Edward looked away quickly, discomforted by the sight of his dusky skin against her fairness.
"This's for me, and a bit for the boy. But pray join us, my dear. You've grown thin. Pining for me, no doubt." He wrapped a lock of her dark curly hair around a finger and tugged at it, grinning, then fell on the food like a starving wolf, attacking it with small silvery weapons instead of eating with his fingers as humans did. The food was -- wonderful. Edward ate until he could eat no more.
"Eavesdropping," he murmured thoughtfully. He'd been mulling over a list of Moraelyn's faults while he ate, and realized too late that he'd spoken aloud.
"By Zenithar, boy, if you humans will shout your privy conversation all over the tree, d'ye expect me to shut my ears with wool?" He tapped one of his large pointed ears. Edward hurriedly tried to remember what they'd said. What he'd said. Lying. Oh dear. Maybe he hadn't heard.
"So I'm a liar, am I, boy?" Vir Gil help him, Edward felt he was drowning. Could the Elf read minds? He hoped that wasn't the insult his father had used! "I -- I meant I thought that you were thinking about it. You did hesitate," Edward gulped. He was making matters worse.
"Possibly, I was trying to remember ... " the sardonic tone was back.
"You don't even like me!" Edward burst out.
"That doesn't seem to have stopped your true father from claiming you."
"Moraelyn! Don't!" Aliera interrupted, but the Elf held up his hand to quiet her.
"I'm not so sure." Edward flashed.
"Why do you say that?"
"I don't know--Roane says--things--and I'm not at all like him. Everyone remarks on it. And then stops talking."
"What--things? Speak, boy!"
"About how fond Mother was of her brother when they were young. How sad and angry he was when she was carried off. More like a lover, she said, than a brother. She says it very sweetly, but like she means something by it. Something too dirty to say. Other times she talks about how elfin I look. And how quickly after marriage I came. Not as quickly as her first son, though."
Moraelyn leaped up. "By the Avenger, I will go back and wring the vixen's neck! The human--", he bit off the insult, but his red eyes flamed rage; his muscles swelled and his hair stood on end. "You do not look half-elven. I never met your mother until four years after your conception. Roane, it seems, cannot decide which lie she wishes to use. But incest! May Kel strike her down if I may not." The tall elf paced furiously about the room, lithe as a Khajiit, hand fondling his sword hilt. The platform swayed and dipped.
"She's ambitious for her sons, at Edward's expense. The question is, how many will believe her. Not enough if she was planning to have him killed instead." Aliera's smooth brow wrinkled a bit. "I never disliked her, you know. Nor she me. She wanted my place and I was glad enough to let her have it save for Edward."
"You want me to be king so I'll let you have the ebon mines." Edward had just worked out the puzzle.
"Oh, devil take the ebon, which he probably will. I've a better chance of getting co-operation from Roane's boys once your father's dead. They'd have reason for gratitude and the bargain's a good one. Although the chances they could keep a civil tongue long enough to sign a contract seem poor, given their parentage."
"Then why? You don't even like me."
"Mara, help me! 'Liking' a person is a human concept. One day they like you, the next day they don't. On Tirdas they're back to liking you again. My own wife does this to me, but claims to love me even when she doesn't like me. Except of course on the days when she doesn't do either, and talks about joining the Order of Riana. Fortunately that only happens once a year or so. I go hunting until she comes to her senses."
"You exaggerate; that only happened once, and well you know it."
"I remember enjoying the recovery period. Maybe it should happen more often." They grinned at each other.
"But why do you want me to be King?" Edward persisted.
"I told you; it's Akatosh's notion. And the ArchMagister's. I just came along for the ride. Ask them."
"I shall ask the ArchMagister when I see him."
"An excellent plan. You'll spend a few weeks at the Tower before heading north with us."
"Does the prospect of spending the winter with your mother and me displease you so much?"
"No ... no, sir. But I agreed to go with I'ric." Not you. The words hung unsaid between them.
"You will, in time. A few weeks there now will fit you to begin your training in magic; I can teach you spells. But you need hardening; your body must catch up to your mind. It is the ArchMagister's will."
"Fighting magic? I want to learn other things. How to call beasts. How to heal. And float..."
"You'll learn that, I doubt not. And d'ye think a fighter can't Heal? It's the first spell you'll learn. But a King must know how to fight."
"I'm not good at it."
"Dragon's Teeth, boy! Exactly why you must learn!"
"If I cannot?"
"You've courage and a clear head and the potential to learn magic; that's more than most people ever have. I can teach you the rest."
Edward's head whirled with the unaccustomed praise. "I do? I have? You can?"
"D'ye think any of your father's fool court would stand naked before a dragon, a unicorn, the ArchMagister, and the Champion of Tamriel and demand justice of them? Justice! Faced with such, they might have managed to beg for mercy, if they could speak at all, which is doubtful."
"I did that? I did, didn't I?" Edward was astonished; he wanted to add that he hadn't known, hadn't thought about it ...
"Aye, you did. And it's a deed that shall be sung from here to; I'll compose the ballad myself--as soon as I have a nap. I don't sleep as sound as some on dragon's backs."
"You enchanted me and Shag asleep!"
"And the rest of the castle, with the help of my friends."
"Ooooohhhh. Can you levitate? Will you show me?"
"Not so fast. I kept a holding spell on us all night to keep us on the dragon's back. Until I'm rested I couldn't light a candle with the aid of a match."
"Oh. Well, I'd still rather be like the ArchMagister than be a fighter."
"Hah! It'll be news to the ArchMagister that he cannot fight! I hope he'll find time to show you how to wield a staff. No better weapon for early training. And no better trainer. Now, of the four you saw before you, which would you say could best the others?"
Edward thought carefully for several minutes. "Sir, my judgement is poor indeed, but if you would still have my answer, it would seem that the one who claims the title Champion of Tamriel must be the best. Yet must not the ArchMagister be your master in magic? And trained to arms as well, it seems. So which should prevail? Could any mortal stand against the dragon's fire and claws and teeth? And I know naught of the unicorn, save that it is fleet and has a very sharp horn, and hooves as well. So I will guess the unicorn; it had the mildest manner. And since you asked the question it seems the unlikely answer may be correct."
"Well answered, youngling! The unicorn would win easily in any single close combat. No mortal or even dragon can move quickly enough to land a blow and it cannot be burned or touched by any magic or elemental power. It's hooves are deadly and a single touch of its horn will kill any enemy, although the horn itself will burn away. The most powerful can regenerate it within moments, however.
"And of the four the Champion of Tamriel would probably be the loser against any of the others, although the title is no idle boast! Moraelyn is not accustomed to being so outclassed. My manners may have suffered in consequence."
"Milord King, I am most deeply in your debt. You have done me great honor and service. If ever I can repay you, I will. Forgive my brash words and ill manners. I have dwelt among the rude and boorish. And it seems I have no father, unless I may call you so?" The elf held his hands out to the boy, who placed his own in them. Edward's feeling of distaste was quite gone...as if by magic...the thought drifted through his mind ... and then he released his hands and clasped Moraelyn about his waist. The elf's hands stroked the dark hair and clasped the thin shoulders.
"I thank you, my wife. After only five years of marriage, you have presented me with a fine son, nine years of age. Remarkable. In fact...magical."