Wlvn and Riah brought the group to the Pert River bridge, a fine-looking stone bridge with high sides for horses. Wlvn asked who built it. “Dwarfs,” Riah explained for whomever might be listening. “They trade with us and with the villages upriver and are not great on horseback. They have trouble crossing this fast-running river at certain times of year.”
“Like now.” Thrud said, and they all took a good look at the late spring rush which was both fast and deep.
“Well, good for them,” Wlvn concluded and started across the bridge with another thought. “Let us hope no trolls have taken up residence beneath.” That caused Vinnu, Tiren and Fritt to all glance out over the edge of the bridge, but Wlvn knew it was too small for a troll.
Once beyond the Pert, the forest changed subtly. There were more fir and pine trees and the hills seemed steeper, closer to the mountains, while the lowland between the Pert and the river that Riah called the Sware bogged down into swampy and soggy places. An overcast day might have brought nothing to cheer about, but with the sun shining, spring stayed heavy throughout the day. Thrud and Vinnu still talked, but now they included Tiren and Gunder. If the boys responded, it had to be too soft for Wlvn to hear. Vilder and Pinn also rode side by side, and while they said nothing, the vibe of desire between them pulsated strong enough for Wlvn to feel.
At lunch, Wlvn put his back to a tree where he faced the fire and watched Riah prepare some of the food brought from the elf camp. Kined and Fritt finally came to corner Wlvn while everyone else wandered out into the spring among the trees and meadow flowers. Wlvn expected the boys on the first day, especially Kined. He did not exactly understand what took them so long, but he sat, game to their presence, willing to listen to what they had to say.
“Flern and I have always been close, since we were children.” Kined started things before he looked at the ground and pulled up a handful of grass to watch the wind take it. “I do not understand you and the other people she has been or why she cannot come back, but I have to ask. Will I see her again?”
“That is my hope,” Wlvn responded as he turned to look at Fritt.
Fritt looked startled for a moment, like no one ever asked his opinion about anything, but he opened up. “I have never made a secret about how I feel about Flern. For years, I fought Trell and Tird for her attention and I started thinking that now that they have settled down, I might have a chance with her, to tell her how I feel.” Fritt clearly fought the anger that came up into his face. “But now you are here, and you say you don’t know if you can get her back and I don’t understand where she has gone, and I might never be able to tell her; and it isn’t fair.”
“You can tell me. Even if I can’t reach her right now, I am not cut off from the Princess and the others you have met. She will hear your words, eventually.”
Fritt looked at first like he wanted to say something, but instead his face contorted to keep his tears at bay. “I hate you,” he shouted as he stood and ran off.
“No, stay!” Wlvn spoke quickly to Riah and made it a command. The elf stopped in her tracks. In the empathy of the little ones, Riah had in mind to comfort the boy, but Wlvn knew the complications that could lead to. He could not afford to have an elf and human fall in love. “Finish what you are doing here. Fritt will have to work though his feelings on his own.”
“Lord.” Riah lowered her eyes in submission and went back to the fire, but there were tears in her eyes.
Kined spoke again. “I don’t hate you. I don’t think I could ever hate anyone who is as close to Flern as you are. It is true, I cannot look at you without seeing her. I believe you when you say that you and Flern are really the same person, though I don’t understand how that could be. You are very different.”
“I grew up a slave under the eye of a Titan. It was a harder life than you can imagine. And from the day Poseidon brought me those horses, I got thrust into a leadership position that Flern would never accept. I had no choice but to learn to lead. She wants no part of leading.”
Kined smiled. “I understand. She is a young fawn, like her name, a gentle flower with a soft and tender heart. It is one of the things I love about her.”
Wlvn smiled but repeated himself. “You know; whatever you tell me she will hear eventually.”
Kined just returned the smile. “I understand. I don’t care. Flern and I have always been straight with each other.” Wlvn cocked one eyebrow and stared down the young man. “Okay, in every way except how I feel about her.” Kined smiled again. “You know, you and Flern are very different in some ways, but very much alike in others. She would never let me lie to her, either.”
“So, what honest thing do you want to tell me?” Wlvn knew he had to get to the point. Riah finished her preparations and stood ready to call the others to lunch.
“That I have loved her since we were babies. That she is the only person I want to be with for all of my days. That I was always afraid to tell her because I knew in my heart that she was special.” Kined raised his own eyebrows at that thought. “Of course, I had no idea how special.”
“You know,” Wlvn interrupted. “If you marry her, it will only be her you are marrying. The rest of my lives will not be there to fix everything for you or her. If you have a baby that dies in childhood, Doctor Mishka will not be able to fix that. If you have a bad year with the crops, Nameless cannot come and fix it. If you ever have a confrontation with a stranger, Diogenes cannot step in and fight your fight for you. If you ever have lustful thoughts about the Princess, Flern will beat you up.” Wlvn paused to scratch his chin. “Though I suppose lustful thoughts about the Princess might be hard to avoid.” He knew the Princess was attractive almost beyond reason. “Still, if you ever hit Flern… Well, in that case I might be tempted to beat the crap out of you, but you know what I mean.”
“I understand.” Kined nodded his head, vigorously. “So Flern, will you marry me?”
Wlvn froze like a statue for a second before he answered, and not without a smile. “I will pass on the message when I can, but I am sure she would prefer you ask her directly.”
Vinnu heard, and she shouted with glee as Thrud arrived. “Kined just asked Flern to marry him.”
“Well, it’s about time,” Thrud responded with a look at Kined that made him turn his head in embarrassment.
Tiren and Gunder were there, and Tiren spoke. “You owe me one.” Gunder nodded and braced himself while Tiren hit him in the upper arm, hard.
“Ouch.” Gunder rubbed his arm. “Now we are even again?” Gunder wanted to be sure, and Tiren nodded.
Vilder and Pinn came in and said, “Congratulations,” but looked at Wlvn who merely shrugged. Vilder saw Fritt by the horses and went to him. The others left Fritt alone. They knew it was something Fritt would have to deal with in his own way.
After lunch, Kined felt too good to sit still. He helped Riah clean up and got a surprise when he handed the pot to her and she responded with, “Thank you, Lord.”
“If you are going to marry my Lady, that makes you my Lord by extension. I feel it. I cannot help it. And that will probably include any children you have, too.”
Kined paused to search his own feelings. He had to pause at the thought of children, but then he responded. “I feel it, too,” he admitted. He suddenly felt very protective about this elf maid and loved her like she was his own in some way. He grinned more broadly than he had before. “Do you think that means she might say yes?”
Riah looked up at the man and matched his grin and then some with her elf grin. “Oh, I hope so.”