The Heart's Desire
"Wake up, Ritha Firehand. I know you can hear me."
So she wasn't dead after all. Damn it all to the frozen hells.
Someone seized her hands in a cold, dry grip. "Look at me, Ritha. Now!"
She levered her heavy lids open. Definitely not dead. Nowhere on the five planes was there a hell cruel enough to harbour Panveryl's sour face. At his shoulder hovered the rest of the Council of Wizards, their expressions gravedigger solemn.
Ritha shifted. Pain lanced through her shoulder and ricocheted inside her head.
"Here, dear." Mistress Chrysanthe brushed the First Wizard aside, slid a motherly arm round Ritha's thin shoulders and held a cup to her lips. She gulped, the liquid cool on a throat raw from screaming spells.
"Did we do it?" she husked.
"Yes, sweetheart," said Chrysanthe. "Xotcl the Red's as dead as a demon can be."
"How many-" Ritha took another sip. Her throat felt as though it was lined with sand. "How many came back?"
The silence stretched. As she scanned the circle of faces, only Panveryl met her gaze. The First Wizard ran a hand over his tripartite beard. "Only you."
The irony of it made her want to crow with laughter, to rail with rage. Of the seven sent to slay the demon, the only wizard who courted death was the one who'd escaped it.
Panveryl cleared his throat. "In recognition of your courage and skill, the Council has decreed you receive your Heart's Desire."
What use is that? she thought bitterly. The Heart's Desire can't give me back my baby.
"Brant offers his life to power the spell," the First Wizard went on. "It's a sacrifice freely given. The will to fight the wasting sickness has left him since Elkereth... Hmpf." He fished something from under his robe.
"Here." Lifting her limp hand, he slipped a square ruby ring onto her thumb and clamped her fingers over it. "We'll use his wizard's ring for the focus."
Panveryl began a low-voiced chant, the men providing the bass groundwork, Chrysanthe's contralto weaving and circling. It thrummed in the bones of Ritha's skull and she fell towards the dark. The spell unravelled Brant's soul and spun it into filaments that wove themselves through fevered dreams full of colours she couldn't name and alien shapes that writhed in gut-wrenching arabesques.
Brant had loved her once and she'd been ... fond of him. It had been a pleasant season, companionable, they'd warmed each other's flesh. And he'd given her Elkereth, her darling, her joy, the child of her autumn years. Elkereth, whose absence was an aching sorrow at her centre, a place so flayed, so bloody, she could scarcely bear to touch it.
After two interminable days of fussing in the infirmary, Chrysanthe allowed Ritha to retreat to her tower rooms. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it. The chamber smelled stuffy. Striding to the double doors that opened onto her small private balcony she jerked them open. Hundreds of feet below lay the maze of the Wizards' Enclave, clear-edged in the sunlight. Temptation transfixed her.
One step, just one small step.
She stood, panting, twisting the ruby ring on her thumb. A decision crystallised deep within. With cold deliberation she spoke the words aloud, so they were explicit. "Give me an end to the pain. This, this, is my Heart's Desire."
Power pulsed in the air and dark, bloody lights swirled in the depths of the ruby.
It was done. All that remained was the waiting.
Feeling strangely detached, Ritha reached for pen and paper. In her square, upright script, she wrote the first line. "I, Ritha of Little Hamton, known as Ritha Firehand, bequeath-" There was a heavy thud on the balcony.
Irritated out of her reverie, she brushed a strand of mouse brown hair out of her eyes-and stared. A vast shadow stooped through the doors and flowed toward her out of the sunlight. Instinctively she raised her hands, gathering her forces for a fire spell.
"Hold," rumbled a deep voice.
The shadow advanced. Ritha caught her breath and her eyes opened wide. Gods of the Outermost Plane! She set her jaw.
"I sent for no Aetherii," she said and was pleased to note her voice hardly shook at all. She'd never seen one close; the Aetherii shunned cities, preferring the pure air of their mountain eyries. Ritha inhaled with great care, making a conscious effort to stiffen her spine and stop her knees from trembling. He was just another kind of man, she shouldn't feel disconcerted, intimidated.
But she did.
It had to be the wings-the glorious, tawny wings that flared at his shoulders and towered a foot over his head. The FirstComers had wrought skilfully with their gene banks all those millennia ago. The weight of the wings was supported by the massive musculature of his chest and the breadth of his shoulders. All of which was easy to see, because he was bare save for a kilt plaited of strips of a soft, dark skin and a belt pouch. A wicked scar, barely healed, snaked across his ribs. Her gaze dipped past the long dagger strapped to his brawny calf, to the clawed toes gripping the thick rug, then skittered up to large eyes, dark and proud as an eagle's. Each iris was rimmed with a ring of yellow as hard as topaz.
Strange, tufted brows drew together as he cocked his head to one side, considering her. It was the piercing gaze of a raptor and it gave Ritha a sudden insight into the mortal terrors of mice.
"Nonetheless, I am here," he said. His plumage rippled, and she tried to estimate his wingspan. Huge, absolutely huge. A tremor ran down her spine. Whether it was fear or excitement, she couldn't tell.
"You don't look to be of much use." He examined her critically. "You're as scrawny as a late-born chick."
Ritha felt an ugly flush stain her cheeks; she was suddenly conscious of her shoulder blades jutting against her plain gown, of the frown marks graven between her brows. "What do you want?" she demanded.
Before he could reply, there was a timid knock. The winged man stalked past her and whipped the door open to reveal Sim, her apprentice. In the Aetherii's wake drifted a strange spicy scent, like nothing she had smelled before. The closest she could come was fresh rain in the dust, mingled with cinnamon. And warm man.
Sim gawped, nearly dropping the tray he carried. The Aetherii plucked it from his grasp and shut the door in the lad's astonished face. He placed the covered dishes on the desk, pulled out a chair and turned to Ritha. "Come. Eat."
"No." She pushed out her chin. "Who are you?"
The Aetherii's lips thinned. "Very well." He drew himself up. Ritha fought a battle with her feet-they wanted to take a step backward and she didn't.
Placing a hand over his heart, he bowed with an ironic flourish. "Talon, Lead Pinion and Advance Scout for the Eyrie." He straightened and those incredible wings twitched. She'd seen disgruntled cats swish their tails in exactly the same way.
She arched a brow. "So?"
Talon glared down at her a moment longer. Then he sighed and ran a hand through his thick russet hair. At his temples, it merged with mahogany-red feathers, fine as down. Their softness contrasted strangely with the harsh lines of his face. Ritha jerked her fascinated gaze away.
"They didn't tell you, did they?" he said.
"Tell me what?"
"I'm..." He paused. "...your diplomatic liaison."
Talon's patience evaporated. "Your liaison!" He grimaced and gestured to the scar that marred the smooth skin over his ribs. "Light duties because I was careless." He regained control. "You must surely know the Grounded cannot destroy Xotcl's Brethren alone."
The topaz eyes shuttered. He shrugged and his flight feathers whispered across the floor. "Those who cannot fly." His head lifted. "Like you."
Ritha chuckled, the sound rusty with disuse. "Are you absolutely certain you're a diplomat?"
Talon set his hands on his hips. "I'm a warrior, I've no time for fancy speeches." After a beat, he said abruptly, "The woman called Chrysanthe told me why you grieve. The winter ague has no pity. I'm truly sorry."
She couldn't speak, snared by those hard eyes, caught by the flash of understanding that lurked there. He knew something of grief, this man.
His gaze sharpened, became frankly disapproving. "You will be of no use to me if you do not eat."
"I'm not hungry."
"Ah, you are as stubborn as you are brave," he said and his lips curved very slightly. "Share food with me and tell me all you know of Xotcl the Red."
He was clever, she had to give him that. Rather than appear churlish, Ritha sat and nibbled half-heartedly while Talon jotted notes on a tablet he took from his belt pouch. Relentlessly, he extracted from her every detail of the battle with the demon. No observation was too insignificant to be of interest.
"My thanks. Till tomorrow." Nodding a farewell, he padded out to the balcony, stepped over the rail and flexed his shoulders. Ritha gasped. The wings spread in a great, graceful, tawny arc, patterned with the living colours of the earth-umber, russet, smooth chestnut, burnt sienna. His flight feathers were a creamy buff tipped with the same mahogany as the curls at his temples. With a snap of displaced air, he was gone, wheeling smoothly over the Wizards' Enclave and out of sight.
Bemused, she stacked the empty dishes. Between them they'd eaten every crumb. Something caught her eye, gleaming on the rug, dancing in a current of air. Ritha stooped and retrieved it. The feather was strong and supple between her fingers, each silky filament hooked firmly to the one beside it. It had a glossy sheen that was simply sumptuous, a warm cream banded with russet.
She sighed with wonder. What an amazing creature. No, she corrected herself, he was as human as she. What an amazing man. Unable to resist, she ran the plume across her cheek. Her nerves quivered.
In the half light before dawn, Ritha woke to a strange noise, a fractured keening, and realised it came from her own throat. As she groped for the glass of water on the chest beside the bed, her hand fell on the feather; she couldn't mistake the strong, silky feel of it, even in the dark. Nor the musky, sweet-spice smell. She ran it between her fingers, over and over.
Holding the feather to her breast, she drifted into sleep. And dreamed of Elkereth, a good dream.
She blinked her eyes open late in the morning, smiling, remembering her daughter's chubby little hands patting her cheeks. It was so real. The memory of it got her through the hour till she heard the thump of Talon's arrival on the balcony.
As the month of the Snowbird wore on, the days grew colder and still Talon came with his endless questions, his dry humour and his yellow raptor's gaze. The lights of the dark spell swam in the ruby ring, but there was no sign of her Heart's Desire.
By the end of the month, Ritha had collected three feathers. She found a carved box of candlewood to keep them in and felt like a fool. But they gave her beautiful fragments in her dreams, pieces of Elkereth so vivid they were a balm to her soul.
After a little, her sleeping patterns returned to normal and she put the feathers aside, but she couldn't bring herself to throw them away. Whenever her eye fell on the candlewood box, she smiled.
On a cold rainy afternoon, Ritha crouched close to the fire, huddled in a heavy shawl. Talon sat bare-chested, scanning an ancient map, casually magnificent. His skin was as smooth as gold-washed ivory in the light of the flames, save for the fine russet down scattered over his pectorals-and the red ridge of the scar on his ribs.
She spoke without thinking. "Why don't you wear more clothes?" When he raised a tufted brow, she demanded, "Surely you must be cold. What are you trying to prove?"
He took a minute to arrange the map four-square on the desk. "My body temperature is higher than yours," he said evenly. His eyes gleamed yellow as they held hers.
A wave of heat tingled up Ritha's spine and spread across her breasts. Impatiently she shoved the shawl away. The hard, topaz glint in Talon's eyes became more pronounced.
Mid-way through the month of the Ice Bear, they were plotting the course of a river when Sim knocked to ask if Mistress Ritha required tea. Mistress Ritha did not.
"That's the third time today," she snapped, bolting the door. "Why doesn't he leave me in peace!"
"He can't." Talon tapped a long finger on the map and frowned. "This ford is in the wrong place. It should be closer to the foothills."
Ritha refused to be diverted. "Why not?"
At that, he glanced up. "The boy's infatuated with you." His wings twitched.
Ritha's mouth dropped open. "Don't be ridiculous! I'm old enough to be his mother!"
Now Talon looked amused. "So?"
"And I'm not-" Flushing a painful scarlet, she gave him her back.
She heard the whisper of plumage and his warm, piquant smell enveloped her. He growled softly in her ear, "Not what, Ritha?"
Helplessly, she flapped a hand. "You know. What young men want. I'm all dried up, used up. After Elkereth..." Tears choked her.
There was an instant's silence. Then his hands fell to her waist and spun her round. "You think so?" The air rippled. "This is probably too soon, but-"
Open-mouthed, she watched his wings sweep round to enfold her in a living cocoon, spiced with his body heat. Behind her, feathers pressed from nape to heels, sliding smoothly across her skin, brushing her shoulders, her bottom, the backs of her calves, setting up delicious eddies of sensation. Muscles strong enough to break bones held her gently, as though she was precious.
Long fingers cupped her chin, tilting her face. "Talon," she whispered, but whether his name was the question or the answer she didn't know.
When he bent his head and kissed her, Ritha gave herself up. Lost as a silly girl, she clutched his shoulders with desperate hands, whimpering, warming her frozen heart with the heat of his mouth, luxuriating in his vitality and strength. She'd never tasted a man's soul in his kiss, not even Brant's.
Coherent thought left her.
When she came to, endless minutes later, she was leaning against Talon's massive chest, completely limp. One big brown hand cradled the back of her head and all the time those diabolical feathers wrapped her up, caressing her flanks with whispering strokes that set her on fire.
Talon looked down at her and one russet brow quirked. "Dried up?"
Ritha dropped her head and stared at her feet, a scalding tide of scarlet flooding up over her throat and cheeks. Her fingers and toes tingled with heat. Then, just as abruptly, it receded and a black wave engulfed her. She swayed. "I forgot," she whispered, appalled.
Talon shifted his grip to her forearms, steadying her. "I'm sorry," he said ruefully. "I should've waited but I needed-"
"I forgot, I forgot her," Ritha's voice was a grating rasp. She shut her eyes. Elkereth, oh my darling!
He took her face between his palms. "Ritha look at me." He dragged in a breath. "Tell me, where is she, your Elkereth?"
She was cold, so cold, despite the heat radiating from his body. "Dead, she's dead." She swallowed.
His lips brushed her hair. "And where else is she?"
"Here." Ritha took his hand in one of hers and laid it over her heart. "And here." She touched her temple. "Everywhere that I am."
"You carry her within you, a piece of your very soul. It's not possible for you to forget her. Ritha, you're allowed to be happy." He smiled crookedly. Then he bent and kissed each eyelid in turn, softly. "It takes courage to start again." He shifted her hand so her fingers brushed the soft down on his chest. "Fire wizard, you were brave enough to face a demon and win. Face this. For me."
"Let me go. I have to think." Ritha pulled herself away and collapsed into the chair by the fire. She put her head in her hands.
How had he known? Elkereth danced through her memories, inexpressibly dear whether she was as bright and sweet as a new penny, or whining with tiredness. She seemed to hear a high, little voice, telling a long, incomprehensible toddler story, feel the child's soft, firm weight rest heavy against her shoulder.
She looked up and saw Talon in profile. He stood braced with one hand on the wall, looking out over the Enclave. His face was bleak, his wings tightly furled against his back.
She forced her lips into a smile. "Talon," she said gently and he turned, visibly bracing himself. The expectation of hurt in his hard eyes pierced her. She pressed the heel of her hand against the hollow spot that ached.
"I'll... try, but-" She raised a hand and he halted in mid-stride. "You should know, it won't be for long." Tears streamed down her cheeks so that she could barely make him out, head cocked to one side in puzzlement. "I was granted a spell and I asked for my Heart's Desire."
"Couldn't that be me?" Though he ruffled his feathers, preening, his eyes were utterly grave on hers.
"No, it's a spell. What I wanted was to die. I asked for an end to- Oh!"
"An end to the pain," she said slowly.
Brant's ring slid from her thumb and plopped into her lap. When Talon picked it up, the ruby was as dull as sandblasted glass. The lights of the spell had fled.
Their eyes met.
He held out his hand. "Come, sweetheart, fly with me."
Ritha clutched his fingers. "Yes. Oh Talon, yes!"
© 2006 Reproduced with kind permission of Romance Writers of Australia.
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© 2006 Denise Rossetti
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