Weaving the Strands of Love
He had asked Pelias why that always happened, but his younger brother just shrugged the question away. Idas suspected that the conditions reflected Pel's moods. If so, that boded ill. Pelias was on his way to becoming the most powerful magician in the world. However, training someone with such inherent ability was dangerous. So Pelias lived alone in his far tower.
"Damn weather," Idas mumbled as the clouds opened up yet again. He grabbed at the slick pommel of the saddle, and cursed again under his breath.
Marl, the Centaur he rode, looked back at him with a flick of his head. "You say that every time. You still come up here once a month. You might think about taking one of the horses next time, and at least let me stay dry."
"You know a horse won't come near this place because of the magic."
"Oh, that's true. You'd have to walk, wouldn't you? What a horrible thing that might be, the fine prince putting his dainty feet in the dirt."
Idas refrained from pushing his not-so-dainty feet into the Centaur's ribs. He'd learned not to give in to Centaur wit, because a Centaur would leave even a Prince of the Line sitting in the mud. Marl's grandfather had once bucked off the King himself, and lived to tell the tale to several adoring generations of off-spring. It hadn't done much for the relationship between Centaur and man.
He was, nevertheless, grateful for Marl's companionship, which took his mind off the reason he came up here. Even now, Prince Idas's fingers touched the pouch beneath his cloak. The silk was so fine that he could feel the small mass of ten long, golden hairs where he'd wrapped them in a circle and placed them within. These were the last ones he would have to bring to his brother. Soon the spell would be finished.
Marl stomped through the mud puddles, either having a lot of fun or hating it. Idas could never be sure of Centaur temperament, even though he and Marl had grown up together. Idas had actually spent more time with Marl then he had with Pelias, who was five years younger.
He looked up the trail, hoping to see his brother's tower. He couldn't judge the distance from the castle to that place since it changed from trip-to-trip. That was another vestige of his brother's vigorous magic. He didn't know if the tower's movement was Pel's plan, or some misfire of the power he was learning to control.
"I think we're getting closer," Marl said. He lifted a hand to the air, and felt for the magic that a Centaur could sense, but not a magicless human.
"Good." Idas pulled at his cloak and tried not to think fondly of the castle hall, and the warm hearth he'd left behind. He'd be glad to see Pel. He missed his younger brother. It was unfair that they'd both been forced to make such drastic changes so quickly. Pel had come here when the High Priest realized that his magic was getting out of hand. And Idas...
Idas's life was changing because their father was not well. The Prince was already handling most of the daily work. The King wouldn't live through the next winter, and then Prince Idas would be King Idas of Dendari. He shivered at the thought.
"You can't be that cold, and I know you aren't afraid of Pel, so what's bothering you now?" Marl asked.
Damn the Centaurs, who never missed anything. He started to shrug off the answer and then said, "I'm thinking about the future, Marl."
"Ah." Marl stopped and looked back at Idas, turning his head so far that it must have been painful. "You'll make a good king."
Idas couldn't have been more stunned if the Centaur had thrown him in the mud. "Thank you," he said. "It helps. Everyone just accepts, and I doubt they've thought about what will happen when the time actually comes."
"Oh, some of us have thought about it," Marl said, starting up the trail once more. He still found every mud puddle. "The general consensus is that you'll throw a damn big party. You won't disappoint us, will you?"
"Ha," Idas said. Everyone knew that he loved gatherings. "We'll just have to wait until it's ... seemly. I'll need time to settle in."
"Just don't settle in so well that you're no fun any more," Marl answered. He sounded serious. "We've had enough of dourness with your father. Even when he was young, he wasn't much for enjoyment. He should have remarried."
Prince Idas didn't answer. The conversation was uncomfortable on many levels, especially since it touched so closely on why he was making this gods-be-damned trip again.
His fingers brushed the silk, and he thought about his wife, waiting for him to come home. He wished he could trust that she would always be there.
"You're too quiet," Marl complained.
Idas was saved from further conversation by a clap of thunder that even startled Marl. Idas grabbed at the pommel, wishing once again that Centaur saddles were a bit more generously proportioned. He suspected the Centaurs made them this way because they liked to dump humans who annoyed them.
"There it is," Marl said.
Idas looked up, startled by the sudden appearance of his brother's keep. He couldn't get used to the magical materialization of something that was so substantial, and should have been rooted in one place. There was, however, a friendly light in the tower window; a promise of warmth and someplace dry, at least for a while.
The gate opened, though there was no one around. They entered the courtyard just as the storm let loose again. Idas scowled up at the sky, growling a little curse at the weather. He slid down from Marl just as Pelias hurried out into the rain.
"Welcome!" he shouted above the rolling thunder.
"Idiot," Marl said. "Get in out of the weather!"
"Come in, come in!" Pelias said. He grinned brightly, and looked so happy that Idas refrained from complaining about the ride, the weather, and all the things he usually did.
"Is Ela down at the stables?" Marl said, looking off to the left where a light flickered.
"I think so," Pelias said. "If not, come back and join us. I'll leave the door unlatched."
Marl nodded and pranced off toward the stable. Idas grinned, watching him go. No wonder Marl had been so willing to bring him up here. He'd heard Marl was courting the pretty young Centaur, but hadn't realized he was that serious.
"I wasn't sure you'd come back," Pel said softly.
"Is there something I should know about?" Idas asked, looking back at his brother. "And is it something that has to be discussed in the rain for some arcane reasons that are beyond poor, magic-less humans?"
Pel grinned and looked up into the sky, shaking his head. "I don't know why it keeps doing that. I had lovely weather this afternoon. Come on in. The fire's warm."
Pel led the way through the door that opened and closed for them. He started up the stairs, wringing water from his long hair and Idas followed. There was one part of coming to see his brother that Idas always enjoyed, despite the weather. Pel didn't treat him like the heir-apparent or the soon-to-be-king, bowing and simpering at his presence.
Well, maybe the most powerful mage in the world didn't really need to bow and simper to the king of any country, even the one at the base of his mountain. That was a humbling thought. He needed humbling now and then.
The tower was warm, but he couldn't say it was comfortable. Idas was used to the trappings of civilization. This place was bare and empty. There were no tapestries on the walls. The tower room held two chairs placed by the central hearth and a table stacked with books and papers sat by the open window. A breeze blew softly through, though no rain penetrated his brother's warding spell. A parchment lay half uncurled and weighed down with an odd shaped rock. He wondered what Pel was studying.
Pel reached the fireside and looked back, damp dark hair falling across his eyes. Idas couldn't make out his expression, though from the sudden flash of lightning and the crash of thunder, he could guess that it was troubled.
"What's wrong?" Idas finally asked. "You're bothered by something."
"I -- there's nothing you can help with."
"Not surprising. But that doesn't mean you can't talk to me about it. Pel, I've been worried about you up here alone. It can't be easy, even with magic."
"It's --" he began and stopped himself yet again.
"You could always talk to me," Idas said. He settled into one of the chairs by the fire.
"It's empty here," Pel said softly.
Idas suppressed the urge to answer with something trite, or to order Pel to come back home. Neither would help. "I thought it was empty, too," Idas said. "You should get a servant or two at least."
"No. I can't. It's not safe," Pel said. He finally threw himself into the other chair, pushing back wet hair and shaking his head. "I'm not safe. You know that. Even the Centaurs, with their own magic, have to be careful around me."
"After all this time you must have gained some control," Idas said.
"Some," he agreed. "Otherwise even you wouldn't be safe here. But there are times when I can't control what happens. It's frightening. I could hurt people. That's why they made me come up here, and why you're the only one who visits."
"The only one?" Idas frowned. "I thought you had friends who would visit. And surely the High Priest. He said you needed teaching. He must --"
"The Temple sends me books by Centaur. No other humans." He stopped and took a deep breath. "It has to be that way."
"No it doesn't!" Idas was unexpectedly angry for Pel's sake. "You were not that much trouble at home!"
Pel laughed suddenly. "I took half the roof off-the keep, Idas."
"But you never hurt anyone!"
"Because they got me away in time," he said. "No, this was the best answer. It's just not ... a comfortable one. But enough of that. Do you have the strands?"
He still wanted to argue, but he refrained. He did know Pel was dangerous. He couldn't pretend otherwise.
"I have them," Idas finally said, and pulled the pouch from his belt. He always felt the same surge of guilt as he handed them over. At least this would be the last time.
Pel took the pouch and looked into brother's face. Idas couldn't remember the last time his shy brother had looked fully at him. He'd forgotten that Pelias had their mother's bright green eyes.
"You don't need this spell," Pelias said.
"I can't risk it," Idas said, giving voice to the thoughts he'd only harbored in the dark of the night. "I don't want to be like our father. If Vania left me like mother left him --"
Pelias winced. He'd been very young, and Idas didn't think the boy remembered the day their mother had packed up her belongings and her servants. Her parting words had been that she'd done her duty, and given the king two sons. Their father let the woman go. He never trusted another one.
And never cared much for her sons, either, though he did his duty to the Prince Heir, and made certain he was ready to rule. Pelias, though, had gotten nothing from the man and precious little notice from anyone else. Even Idas had been too busy, half a decade older, heir to the throne --
"Idas?" Pel said, drawing his attention again. "Will you take my advice and drop this?"
"I can't risk it," he said automatically. "Dendari has suffered enough, don't you think?"
"The land is at peace, the people prosperous and content," Pel answered. "It isn't Dendari that has suffered for our father's lack of love."
"But you've suffered for it, or else you wouldn't be up here, would you?"
"Maybe not. If someone had taken the time, and noticed my powers when I was younger, I would be doing better." He stopped and waved those words away. "But the real truth is that you are the one who wouldn't be here if you hadn't suffered for it."
"You wouldn't want a spell to ensure the love of a woman who has already given you all her heart."
"I can't risk it!" Idas said, fear and frustration pushing him to his feet. "Our parents had an arranged marriage, like mine. How do I know theirs didn't start out this way? Pelias, I couldn't risk -- I couldn't bear it."
Pelias nodded, his face grave. "Sit down. Let me explain to you how this spell works. It's time you understood all of it."
Idas sat down in the chair, his heart unexpectedly pounding. He knew that such magic never came without a price. When Pelias had accidentally destroyed that roof at the keep, the boy had been ill for days afterwards.
Pelias reached toward the right; a little flicker of light appeared, and then he held a small canvas in his hand. The likeness was of Vania. A very good likeness, in fact.
"You've never brought something to you like that before," Idas said.
"You can learn all manner of tricks from books." He shrugged and held the portrait out to the light. Idas remembered that his brother had been very good at drawing. He'd gotten better. "I've woven her hair into the canvas. These last ten strands will complete the spell, and it will be set before you get home. But it's time we talk about the price this magic takes. It's not something that's paid in gold."
"I know," he said softly, and felt a little surge of dread this time.
"Love spells are especially complex because love is a magic all it's own. It's the only magic all humans have the ability to create. There is a kernel of love in everyone that can blossom, but like all magic, it is finite. A mage can create a spell to give someone more than their share, but to do that he must take it away from someone else."
"What does that mean?"
Pelias looked up into his brother's face once more. "You take more than you create, and deny someone else their share of love."
"They'll never marry?" he asked.
"Love is more than just the relationship between a man and a woman, Idas. All love this person might have created with others will be gone. Ties of friendship, family, and marriage."
That bothered him, but not enough to stop what he knew must be done. He'd been trained to be king, and he knew about difficult choices, and matters that would not always be fair to all sides. Idas had accepted such burdens and responsibilities. There would be worse decisions to be made when he was king.
"I understand," he said.
Pel held his look for a long moment. The storm raged again, and then subsided as his brother looked away. Pel pulled the first strand from the pouch and laid it against the canvas. Sparkles of light traced where his finger moved, enspelling the hair.
"Once completed there is no going back," Pel said as he carefully smoothed the strand down into the cloth.
"Good. I want this finished."
Pel nodded, carefully straightening another strand before he placed it beside the last. A soft glitter of light brightened the strokes as his brother meticulously worked it into the portrait. The work was slow, and Idas suddenly found he was very bored. He wanted to go home, and smiled at the thought of Vania waiting for him, his forever.
Another strand. Idas stood and started toward the door. No reason to stay. Pel didn't need his help.
He was a dozen steps away before he looked back at his brother. Gods! A truth Pel hadn't said finally reached him. He froze.
Pelias looked up. His face was very calm. "Yes?"
"You know from whom you are taking the love, don't you?"
"And it began to work as soon as you began weaving the spell months ago, didn't it?"
"No." Idas took the steps back and grabbed his brother's arm. "Not you. I can't do that to you."
"And I can't do it to some poor stranger who might have a real hope of family and friends." He pulled away and his finger wove a little more of the strand into the painting.
"You are the only one who ever came, Idas." He stopped and looked back at his brother. "Even before the spell. It's the best choice."
Idas took the canvas from his brother's hand and tossed it into the fire. "No. That's the best choice."
Pel stood, a hand on the chair arm. He looked stunned and unsteady as he turned to his older brother. "I -- I never thought you really loved me."
"Gods, boy," Idas said, and just held out his arms.
Pel took a step forward and collapsed against him. He was nearly limp and unexpectedly cold and trembling.
"A moment," he whispered and waved a hand toward the fire. "That was a harsh way to break a spell."
"It's all right." He laughed suddenly. "It's wonderful!"
Idas stayed, talking with his brother all through the night. They'd never done that before. It helped them both. When he and Marl walked out of the courtyard that next morning, the day was bright and free of even a hint of clouds. He and Vania would come back and visit soon.
"Lovely day," Marl said. He looked back at the tower that had, remarkably, stayed in place as they walked away. "About damn time he settled down. Now we just have to find him a woman."
Idas started to berate him for his usual crass irreverence, and changed his mind. "Yes, Marl," he said as he walked beside the Centaur. "I think you're right."
Ms. Gifford has published several short stories on the web, and in March 2001 her first e-novel, Silky, appeared from Embiid Publishing. She is the managing editor for Holly Lisle's Vision: A Resource for Writers (http://lazette.net/vision), and is also a moderator at the Holly Lisle Forward Motion for Writers (http://hollylisle.com/fm), which was listed in the May 2001 Writer's Digest Magazine as one of the 101 Best Web Sites For Writers.
Published by permission of the author.