Fantasy Romance magic children fatherhood Parents elemental

Fatherhood

By Steven Harper
Aug 4, 2019 · 6,002 words · 22 minutes

Elemental

 

From the author: I'm back from a month in Germany! Now I can get back to posting more stories. "Fatherhood" was published in MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY'S FANTASY MAGAZINE. It started during a night walk in the woods when I found myself at the edge of a cliff staring down at the trees, an oddly compelling sensation. The story, however, stalled out about halfway through, and I set it aside for almost a year. I finally figured out how to finish it.


Thelan fell through the warm evening air. He could feel the earth below waiting for him to hit, but he swooped upward long before he came close to touching the ground. He skimmed the treetops, arms stretched straight out from his sides, chest just brushing the highest leaves, laughing at the sheer feeling of freedom.

Then he sensed the woman on the path below.

He felt the summer breezes swirling gently around her body like a second skin, rippling her dress, stirring her sweet-smelling hair. He grinned an exuberant grin and dove straight down.

This was, after all, why he had chosen to be male.

Wind rushed past his ears and air swirled about him as he landed on the path behind her, though only the sharpest observer would have noticed his feet didn't actually touch the ground--they remained the tiniest fraction of a thumblength above it. Thelan moved his legs back and forth and "strode" forward without a sound, but before he got three steps, the woman spun to face him.

"Who's there?" she demanded.

Thelan, startled, tensed to flee back to the summer skies, but then he paused. Something about her scent drew him, something he couldn't quite identify. He decided to stay.

"Hello," he said.

The woman drew back. "Who are you?" Her voice was deep and powerful. It also sounded vaguely familiar. But that was impossible. He was never drawn to the same person twice, and this woman's heady scent pulled at him. Strongly. He let his voice go soft and husky, the register that always attracted females.

"My name is Thelan." He stepped forward into a pool of moonlight, fully aware of the way it would show his strong, even features, raven-black hair, and well-developed body.

The woman shifted her basket and a variety of smells tinged the air--sharp rosemary, pungent sage, earthy mandrake. She was apparently gathering herbs by moonlight. This particular facet of the situation also seemed vaguely familiar, though Thelan couldn't think why.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, a little less belligerence in her voice.

Thelan put an easy grin on his face. "Is this private land?" He stepped forward. "I'll leave, if it is."

"I--"

"You're very beautiful," he said, taking another step forward. "What's your name?"

"Where did you come from?" she asked. Thelan didn't fail to note the breathlessness in her voice. "I didn't hear--"

"Does it matter?" Thelan glided close enough to put a hand on the smooth warmth of her bare shoulder. She trembled at his touch but didn't pull away. An intoxicating scent rose from her skin. "Does it matter at all?"

The woman looked up at him for a moment, eyes glassy and vacant, then stepped into his arms. Thelan embraced her with a sigh and ran his hands through thick, glossy hair that smelled of sweet herbs and wood smoke. Desire surged almost uncontrollably, making him shudder, but he forced himself to go slow, to prolong the pleasure. His hands moved lower, but she abruptly took the initiative and brought his arms around so she could kiss his palms. Thelan closed his eyes, enjoying the play of her soft lips on his hands--

--and screamed as something cold and burning clamped around his wrist. His feet slammed into the ground. Jolted, Thelan lost his balance and fell to the hard, dusty earth.

The woman poked him with a foot. "Get up," she growled.

Thelan lay motionless, unable to move or think. Pain pounded his limbs where they touched the ground.

"I said, get up," the woman said, prodding him again.

Thelan tried to speak, but his voice caught in his throat. His wrist throbbed with a cold heat. He coughed and tried again.

"What did you do to me?" he moaned. "Sacred air--what did you do?"

"The same thing you did to me," the woman replied with satisfaction. "Now get up. You can't fly anymore, but I know you can walk."

Thelan tried to leap into the air. Nothing happened. His body remained heavy, chained to the earth. He managed to push himself into a kneeling position with his arms, suddenly realizing he was completely naked--his conjured clothes had vanished.

The woman watched dispassionately as Thelan staggered upright. The bottoms of both feet were planted firmly in the dust and his skin itched with it. He held up his left wrist, which still burned and chilled at the same time. An iron bracelet gleamed dully in the moonlight.

Iron. Distillation of the earth itself.

"What did you do?" he whispered.

"I told you, sylph," the woman replied. "Exactly what you did to me. I've chained you down. Here--take this. We're going home."

She thrust her basket into his hands and strode up the path. Dazed, Thelan clutched the basket and stared at her retreating back for a moment, then stumbled after her. He had no choice--if she had chained him, only she could set him free. He wanted to ask the woman questions, but he could barely breathe, let alone speak.

Moments later, Thelan realized he was in worse trouble. Walking--real walking--was an entirely new sensation, and Thelan didn't like it at all. Dirt and small stones ground painfully into the soles of his feet and he constantly teetered on the edge of falling. He was glad to have chosen a well-muscled shape, or his legs would doubtless be as sore as his feet. The basket prickled his bare arms and chest, and sweat dripped down his face and body, both made gritty by the dust.

The dusty, silent journey went on and on. Just when Thelan was sure he was going to collapse, they came upon a small cottage. The woman wordlessly herded him inside and shut the door.

The cottage's single room was lit by a small fire in the fireplace. Thelan dropped the basket and collapsed panting on a wooden chair. The woman set the basket on the table and took up the chair opposite him. Herbs hung in great bunches from the ceiling.

"Tired?" she asked mildly. "In pain?"

Thelan nodded, still too out of breath to speak.

"Then you have some idea--only some, mind you--of what I went through." She leaned forward. "My name is Kolete. Do you remember me yet?"

"Remember you?" Thelan gasped. With an effort he heaved his arm up and let the bracelet land on the tabletop with a heavy thump. "Should I remember you?"

Kolete's eyes flashed and she crossed her arms.

"Let me go," Thelan abruptly begged. "Please. You don't know what it's like. It hurts. My body is so heavy."

"So was mine."

A wail pierced the cottage. Startled, Thelan twisted in his chair. "What is that?"

"That," Kolete said grimly, "is your daughter."

Thelan blinked. "Daughter?"

Kolete went to a cradle in the corner and picked up a small bundle. It was squalling lustily. Kolete opened the front of her dress and the squalling ceased, replaced by greedy suckling noises.

"This is Noira," Kolete said. "Your daughter. Now do you remember me?"

Thelan stared at her in the dim light. Kolete had a round face with wide, dark eyes and curly brown hair. The flush of youth had long passed, but it still left strong traces.

"I don't remember you," he said at last. "But I'm a sylph. We don't--"

"Is that an excuse?" Kolete demanded, still clutching Noira. "Look at me--I'm almost forty years old. Not two years ago, you caught me out gathering herbs and you seduced me, right there in the damn woods. Even while it was going on, I couldn't believe I was doing it."

"Your scent draws me, just as mine draws you."

"And then I turned up pregnant," she continued bitterly. "How was I supposed to be herb woman and midwife to a village with a bastard growing inside me? When my body grew heavy and the people lost their respect?"

Thelan shook his head. "What does this have to do with me?"

Kolete's eyes flashed again. "I want a father for my child."

Thelan's mouth fell open. His mind spun in circles, trying to assimilate this entirely new concept. Well, not entirely new. He knew he must be a father--several times over, in fact--but it had certainly never occurred to him to take responsibility for it. That wasn't the way the world worked.

"But I'm a sylph, not a mortal," he protested weakly, hating himself for the whining tone even as he spoke the words. "I know nothing about fatherhood."

"You should have thought of that," Kolete growled, "before tupping me in the woods."

"I can't--"

"You don't have a choice." Kolete shifted Noira, who was still nursing, and sat down. "I had a lot of time on my hands when I was pregnant, and I spent it learning all I could about you and your kind, sylph. I learned how you seduce people and how to counteract it. I learned what scents draw you and what time of night you like to fly. I learned that earth and air are always at odds, just like fire and water, and I guessed--correctly--that earth would bind you. You will stay with me as my husband and you will be a father to my child."

"But--"

"We'll tell the village that you left but felt guilty and came back," she went on. "So, husband--wash yourself and we'll go to bed."

She put Noira back in the cradle, gave Thelan a basin of water, and dressed for bed as he clumsily washed the grit from his face and body.

"Put this on," she said, handing him a nightshirt. Then she slid into bed and turned her face to the wall. Thelan hesitated, then climbed into bed next to her and surprised himself by almost instantly falling asleep.

*

"What does a father do?" Thelan asked the next morning as Kolete simultaneously nursed Noira and ate her own breakfast. Thelan, of course, didn't need to eat.

"You help raise the child," Kolete replied. "You protect her from danger and teach her what she needs to know. You feed her, take care of her when she's sick, and you change her."

Thelan wrinkled his forehead. "Change her? You mean transform her?"

"Change her diapers."

"What are diapers?"

A mean smile slid across Kolete's face. "As it happens," she said, "I can show you right now."

And over the next two weeks, Thelan learned all about diapers--and their horrible, cloying smell. Then he learned how to chop wood and draw water. He learned how to slaughter a chicken and weed a garden. He learned how to repair thatching and mend a fence. And the hated iron bracelet dragged at him through it all. When Kolete couldn't see, he dug and tore at it until his wrist was raw and oozing tendrils of mist. The sky called, the clouds whispered, the breezes caressed, but his cracked and blistered feet remained stubbornly on the ground.

*

"Does a father hold his child?" Thelan asked one evening as Kolete finished yet another nursing session with Noira. The baby certainly drank a lot of milk. She also put away a surprising amount of solid food.

Kolete looked at him sharply. "What do you mean?"

"For two weeks I've been doing things you say a father does," Thelan said, "but you always hold Noira. Does a father hold his children?"

"Yes," Kolete answered, but she clasped Noira closer to her breast.

Thelan came around to Kolete's side of the table. "Then teach me how to do that, too."

Reluctantly, Kolete slipped Noira into Thelan's outstretched hands. "Be gentle," she said sharply. "Don't drop her. And don't--"

"I won't hurt her, Kolete," Thelan said. Noira made a warm, milk-smelling bundle in his arms. "I'm not angry at her for what her mother did to me."

Kolete flushed indignantly. "And what about what her father did to me?"

Noira laughed and put one tiny hand up to touch Thelan's face. Thelan looked down at her, and was hit by an odd realization. This baby had come from him. Without him--and without Kolete--she would not exist.

Noira grasped Thelan's finger with a surprisingly strong grip and babbled at him. She had sky-blue eyes and dark hair. Like he did. Like her father. Thelan looked at Kolete and noticed her face was tense and filled with unpleasant emotion. He blinked, puzzled.

"Is being hated by the mother part of being a father too?" he asked.

Kolete clamped her lips together and wordlessly took Noira back. She didn't speak for the rest of the evening and, as always, she turned her face to the wall as Thelan climbed into bed.

*

"I want to go down to the village today," Kolete announced. "Get Noira ready."

Thelan gathered extra diapers, Noira's carrybasket, and a winged horse Thelan had carved out of wood while Kolete packed herself a lunch. Noira laughed when she saw the horse and promptly put it into her mouth when Thelan gave it to her.

The road to the village was quiet and shaded. Thelan's soles had toughened in the past few weeks, so walking didn't bother him anymore, but he couldn't get used to the gritty feel of earth on his skin or of the cold, burning bracelet clamped to his wrist. He looked up between the trees to the sky and felt such an intense longing it brought tears to his eyes. But Kolete didn't seem to notice.

The village itself was surprisingly large and noisy. Powerful smells washed over Thelan as he followed Kolete toward the marketplace. Spicy cooking mingled with sweet fruit, smoky charcoal, and the caustic smell of chamber pots emptied into the street. People shouted at each other and horses clopped past, their sweat adding to the smells that clogged the air. Noira fussed in her carrybasket and Thelan swayed dizzily. It was too much. The air suffocated him, left him no freedom to move. He plucked at Kolete's sleeve.

"Get me away from here," he said hoarsely. "Please."

Kolete opened her mouth to refuse, then looked at Thelan's pale face. Her expression softened and she nodded. Kolete took Noira's basket, towed Thelan into a nearby tavern, and quickly shut the door.

The smells were different inside--roasting meat, spilled beer, smoke. Not pleasant like Kolete's cottage, but not overwhelming, either. Thelan sighed in relief.

"Midwife Kolete!" A thin man with a large nose and bald head hurried over and blocked their way. Thelan supposed he was the tavernkeeper, but he made no move to show them to a table. "It's been a long time. We haven't seen you since. . . " He glanced pointedly at the basket then looked over his shoulder, obviously hoping no one had seen Kolete yet. Noira babbled and waved her winged horse.

"Yes," replied Kolete. "I've been very busy, Edlin."

"Of course," Edlin said dryly. "And who is this? A new. . . escort? Someone to keep you company besides the little one?"

"This is my husband," Kolete said loudly. "Noira's father. He came back and we married."

Conversation at the tables died. For a brief instant the tavern crowd was staring at Thelan. Then they all realized they were staring at Thelan and quickly looked away. Conversation resumed, though the customers continued sending furtive glances in Thelan's direction.

"Your husband?" Edlin echoed. "I see. Just married, then? I didn't see any banns published."

"That's custom, not law," Kolete said. "Could we have a table, please? I wouldn't want to block the door if someone else comes in."

Edlin gave her a sour look. "Let me see if there's anything available."

He left to confer with one of the barmaids, then returned and lead them to a tiny table almost hidden in the corner.

"Dinner rush will be starting soon," he said as they sat down. "Don't you think the noise might upset the bas--baby?"

"Don't worry, Edlin," Kolete said tightly. "We won't be staying long."

Edlin, muttering to himself, withdrew.

"Why are they all looking at me?" Thelan asked in a quiet voice.

Kolete lifted Noira out of the basket and checked her diaper. "Because you're young, handsome, and paired with an older woman who has a baby. Of course, now that people know that I'm respectable--" her tone made it acidly clear what she thought about the concept "--they'll come to me for midwifery again and I won't have to worry about starving. That was the whole point of coming into town."

Noira squirmed out of Kolete's arms and crawled across the table toward Thelan. Before Thelan could pick her up, however, she reached out a hand and clearly pointed at him.

"Da," she said. "Da-da."

Kolete gasped. Thelan picked Noira up and tickled her, something he had learned from Kolete.

"Da-da," Noira giggled.

Kolete stared. Thelan looked at her.

"Kolete?" he asked. "What's--?"

"Excuse me, Midwife Kolete," broke in a new voice.

Kolete's expression instantly cleared and she turned to face the newcomer, a stocky young man with sandy hair.

"Hello, Brant," she said. "What do you need?"

The young man twisted the cap in his hands. "Midwife Kolete, my. . . uh, that is, my wife is, well--"

"Is going to have a baby?" Kolete supplied.

The young man nodded gratefully.

"And you'd like me to midwife her?"

Another nod.

"Tell her I'll come by this evening to have a look," Kolete said.

Brant nodded one more time and backed away, still twisting his cap.

"Shy boy," Kolete commented. "Amazing he ever managed to propose."

"Why do I make you respectable?" Thelan asked. "You're the same person with or without me."

"Not according to them." Kolete jerked her head toward the room at large. "It's a great shame to be an unmarried mother. It doesn't help that every couple years, someone's cow dies and I get accused of witchcraft. It doesn't keep them away when they need a midwife, but once the baby's born, they seem to forget what I did for them." She leaned across the table. "And don't you breathe of word about your origins. There'd be a burning for sure."

"Da," Noira said happily, and a sharp, all-to-familiar smell filled the air. Thelan sighed and Kolete laughed.

"What's so funny?" he grumbled.

"The look on your face," she said, still grinning, and Thelan found himself beginning to grin back. Kolete didn't seem to notice.

"What about the look on my face?" he asked, trying not to smile at her.

"You get it every time you know it's your turn."

"It seems like it's always my turn," Thelan muttered. And Kolete laughed again.

*

Over the next several weeks it became more and more Thelan's "turn." Kolete's cottage was inundated with visitors--blushing men seeking advice on fertility, swelling women looking for a midwife, concerned mothers with injured children. It was Thelan's job to keep Noira quiet and out of the way when Kolete had a client, though Kolete stole every moment she could to be with her daughter.

Thelan also noticed how Kolete underwent an almost startling change now that she was working. Her eyes sparkled, and her movements snapped with energy. She often hummed or sang as she worked, and her voice was low and sweet. He found himself looking at her more often. The iron bracelet that dragged unceasingly at his body killed any ability he might have had to act on a physical attraction, but he sometimes found himself wishing Kolete would pay the same attention to him that she payed to Noira. It was very strange.

It was also strange to Thelan that while Kolete had plenty of clients, it was obvious none of them really liked her--or him. They didn't spend any more time with Kolete than they had to, and none spoke more than two words to Thelan. More than one remarked in Thelan's hearing that there must be something wrong with a man who cared for a baby while his wife supported him. Kolete, however, didn't seem to notice the phenomenon, so Thelan decided to ignore it.

Noira, meanwhile, grew with a speed that Thelan found amazing. She could already toddle about the cottage and yard with astonishing speed, and the word "da-da" was quickly followed by several more. Although Thelan was initially entranced with her ability to talk, it wasn't long before he wished she could just as easily learn to be quiet.

"I don't know what to do sometimes," he complained after one particularly trying day. In the space of an hour, Noira had managed to upset the tin of goat's milk, pull a sack of flour off the table, spread a bundle of herbs from one end of the cottage to the other, and climb out of her clothes so she could run shrieking around the yard just as one of Kolete's clients dropped by.

Kolete, who was brushing her hair in preparation for bed, smiled softly, and Thelan's heart skipped a beat. None of the human females he had encountered were anything like Kolete, and with the bracelet binding him to earth, his memory had improved to the point where he could recall them. His previous partners had tended to be weak, easily giving in to their baser desires. But Kolete was stronger, which made her intriguing. Thelan could see the strength in her hands, hear it in her voice.

"It takes patience," Kolete said. "You have to teach her control. And it makes sense that the daughter of a sylph would be at least a little difficult to handle."

She slid into bed. Thelan climbed in beside her, an odd hope rising within him. Maybe tonight they could talk for a while. Maybe Kolete would let him touch her hair. Maybe--

Kolete turned her face to the wall. The bracelet burned on Thelan's wrist, and he felt suddenly empty and alone.

*

Noira giggled and stretched out her arms. "Higher!" she squealed. "Higher!"

"That's high enough," Thelan called. "Come down now."

"Higher!" Noira insisted. The rope around her waist tightened as she tried to float toward the sky, but Thelan refused to let it play out any further.

"I said it's time to come down," Thelan said firmly.

"Thelan," Kolete said, coming around the corner of the cottage with a bundle of mugwort, "where did you put--"

"Look what I can do, Mama!" Noira shouted.

Kolete screamed and dropped the mugwort. Startled, Noira dropped like a stone. Fortunately Thelan was ready and caught her before she hit the ground. Behind her, bushes rustled as some startled animal went crashing into the woods.

Kolete ran forward and snatched Noira from Thelan's arms. "What the hell were you doing?" she cried. "What did you do to my baby?"

"She's my daughter," Thelan replied in surprise. "Why are you surprised that she can fly? You told me to teach her the things she needs to know. And she needs to know this."

"It's fun, Mama." Noira's voice was slightly muffled by Kolete's body.

Kolete swallowed hard. "I--I'm not--" She licked her lips. "Will she be able to do more than fly?"

"Powerful sorcerers always have some elemental blood," Thelan said. "Noira is half sylph."

Noira squirmed away from her mother. "It's fun, Mama," she repeated, toying with the rope around her waist. "I want to do it again."

Kolete's eyes flashed. "What if someone else had seen her?" she demanded. "How do you think the villagers would react if they saw something like that?"

"No one saw," Thelan said, though a note of uncertainly crept into his voice as he remembered the animal that had gone crashing away. "And better I should teach her how to control herself now before she does something by accident in public."

Kolete pursed her lips, but Thelan could see fear, not anger, behind her eyes. She stroked Noira's black hair. "What would happen if I forbade her to fly?"

"You couldn't," Thelan said softly.

"Good," Noira asserted with a firm nod. "I like flying."

Kolete looked away for a moment and ran a shaky hand through her hair. Thelan waited.

"I'm scared for her, Thelan," she finally said. "I'm her mother and I don't want to see her hurt."

"I don't either, Kolete. I'm her father."

"Can you fly, Daddy?" Noira asked.

Thelan looked down at the solemn face ringed with black curls. "I used to, sweetie. I can't anymore."

"Why not?" Noira asked.

"Do you miss it a lot?" Kolete asked suddenly.

Thelan looked up at the clear blue sky, at the clouds he used to be part of. They were a long way off, but he could smell their damp, cool freshness. His entire being longed for the total freedom of feeling nothing above, nothing below. But the bracelet on his wrist always weighed him down.

"Yes," Thelan said in a quiet voice.

Kolete's dark eyes met Thelan's blue ones. "If. . . if I removed the bracelet," she said, still stroking Noira's hair, "would you fly off? Would you forget me--us?"

Thelan's breath caught in his throat. He could see it. All he had to do was say no, that he would stay, that he wouldn't fly off and forget, and Kolete would let him go. He could fly again, vanish into the clouds, be free of the hated, burning bracelet.

But sylphs lived from one moment to the next, inconstant as the breeze. What if he did forget? Would he forget his daughter's sweet scent or the soft touch of her hand? Would he forget the beauty of Kolete's inner strength or the low sound of her laughter? What would his life be like then?

He stared into Kolete's eyes for a long moment.

"I don't know," he admitted.

Kolete nodded and the moment passed. Without a word, she took Noira's hand and lead her into the cottage.

*

"Kolete?" Thelan, arms loaded with heavy, scratchy logs, pushed open the cottage door with his foot. "I couldn't find any applewood, so I brought--"

Something smelled wrong. Kolete and Noira's scents were very faint and the sour odor of strangers washed over Thelan. Startled, he dropped the wood.

The cottage was a shambles. Herbs lay scattered over the floor, furniture was smashed and overturned. Thelan stared for a brief moment, then rushed into the cottage, pawing through mess, searching madly through the ruin.

"Noira!" he shouted. "Kolete!"

A small moan caught his attention. Thelan automatically tried to leap toward it--

--and promptly crashed to the floor. He picked himself up, ignoring the bruises, and scrambled across the room. Kolete's warm scent grew stronger. He flung aside a broken bench and found her lying beneath it. Her face was bruised and her arm jutted at an odd angle.

"Kolete!" he said, dropping to one knee beside her. "Sacred air--what happened? Where's Noira? Are you--?"

Kolete looked dazedly up at him. "Thelan?" she whispered.

Thelan's heart was pounding and his hands shook. Kolete was here, but Noira's scent was still weak. "Kolete, what happened? Where's Noira?" he repeated, forcing himself to keep his voice calm.

"Noira?" Kolete echoed stupidly. "She's--" Kolete shook her head and suddenly clutched at Thelan's shoulder with her good arm. "Thelan! They took her. She's gone!"

"Who?" Thelan almost snapped. "Kolete, who took her?"

"Edlin," Kolete said, and words tumbled out of her in a rush. "He saw you teaching Noira how to fly and he went back to the village and told them she was a witchling so they showed up with knives and pitchforks and when I tried to stop them they were going to take me too but Brant said I wasn't to blame because Noira was your daughter and they took her away."

She struggled to her feet, gasping when the effort jarred her broken arm. "Thelan, we have go get her. Those bastards are going to burn my baby!" She staggered toward the door, but didn't get three steps before leaning dizzily against a wall.

Thelan's head spun with rage and frantic worry. He would tear the village apart, stick by stone. He would snatch up the men who had dared touch his daughter and his wife--yes, his wife --and he would smash them on the rocks.

But the bracelet still burned cold and heavy on his wrist, weighing him down, holding him back.

He crossed the room and helped Kolete sink to a bench he hastily set upright.

"My head hurts," she said, leaning on his shoulder. "I can't focus."

Unthinkingly, Thelan stroked her hair. Kolete closed her eyes and relaxed under his fingers, but only for a tiny moment. She straightened. "We have to go, Thelan. Noira--"

"Kolete," Thelan interrupted, "you have to let me go." And he held out his wrist.

Kolete stared at him.

"I can't do anything when I'm bound like this," he told her. "And even if both of us were uninjured, we couldn't fight the entire village. You have to let me save Noira."

Kolete hesitated. "You might forget us. Once the iron is gone, you might fly off. There's another way. We just haven't seen it yet."

"I might forget. I might not." Thelan's voice began to shake, though whether with apprehension or anticipation, he couldn't tell. "Kolete, we have to hurry."

"What if you leave me?" Kolete almost whispered. "I'll lose my daughter and. . . and I'll lose you, too."

"I'm taking the same risk," Thelan said softly. "Please, Kolete. Let me save our daughter. I'll come back. I promise."

Kolete looked at him. A dozen emotions crossed her face, but eventually she slowly nodded. "All right."

She took Thelan's wrist in her lap and, fumbling a bit with her single good hand, opened the clasp. Thelan trembled as the bracelet fell to the floor with a clank. The cold, burning weight vanished and Thelan sprang away from the bench. He was free! No part of him touched the ground, nothing met the earth. Senses long imprisoned sprang into being and Thelan could feel the air swirling around him, taste it currents, hear it whisper. Without looking back, he fled out the open door and soared into sky, arms outstretched, completely free.

Laughing, he somersaulted into the center of a passing cloud and twisted the mists into a personal cloak. The breezes answered his call, welcomed him back with a gentle caress. Thelan laughed again and dove toward the ground, trailing bits of cloud behind him.

Below, he could see a large group of buildings clustered together. In the center was an open space. A crowd of figures had gathered around a pile of wood, where another, smaller figure was tied to a stake. Thelan shook his head. Strange mortals.

He circled the village once, turned toward the distant mountains, then paused. Something tugged at him, tentative as a tendril of fog. A trace of a scent wafted by and Thelan seized it. The scent conjured the image of a warm place, an important place. One with many interesting smells.

Below, tiny bits of torchlight flickered among the crowd of mortals. First one, then another and another threw their torches onto the pile of wood.

Thelan twisted his head around, trying to locate the source of the maddeningly familiar scent. A strand of hair caught on his shoulder captured his eye. He pulled it free and sniffed it. More images poured into his head. Working, sweating, longing. Laughing, singing, playing. Thelan hung suspended between the images. They called to him, made him feel full somehow. Yet they also dragged him down, pulled him back to the hated earth.

Beneath him, fire crawled hungrily toward the figure tied to the stake. Shaking, Thelan twisted the single hair around his wrist like a bracelet and inhaled its scent again. A face popped into his head, quickly followed by another. A woman with a low laugh and a child with dark hair, raven-black like his own. Part of him wanted to push the image away, but another part rose up and sharpened it. A child's laughter, a soft hand--

"Noira!" Thelan cried, and he shot down toward the village. He heard Noira's terrified scream as the flames licked at her dress and the mob of villagers cheered.

"Burn her!" shouted Edlin the tavernkeeper, and the rest of the village took up the chant. "Burn her! Burn her! Burn the witch!"

Thelan, still diving for the square, reached out with both hands and pushed. A powerful wind lashed downward, whipping the flames away from Noira and blowing most of them out. Thelan landed on the pile of wood.

"Daddy!" Noira shrieked, and Thelan smelled the salt and soot that streaked her face.

The crowd, startled into silence by the sudden wind, stepped back a pace, uncertain what to do. With a strength too-long denied him, Thelan snapped the ropes that held Noira and she flung herself into his arms. He took a moment to inhale her sweet, familiar fragrance.

The villagers muttered among themselves. "It's her demon father!" Edlin suddenly shouted, and brandished an ugly-looking axe. "I saw him teaching her to fly, and now the monster comes to claim his daughter. We have to kill them! Kill them both before they do the same to us!"

The crowd edged forward, brandishing iron pitchforks, hatchets, and knives--all weapons of earth that could cut him and Noira to ribbons. But Thelan wasn't afraid. An ugly anger rose in his chest instead. These were the people who had beaten his wife, tried to murder his daughter.

"Get back!" he thundered, and swept the crowd with a wind of hurricane force. Weapons flew from clenched fists as bodies tumbled and fell about the village square. Screaming in fear, the people tried to scramble to their feet in a suddenly desperate attempt to get away. Thelan caught sight of Edlin crawling toward shelter between two buildings. He shifted the air, sculpting it into a whirlwind that lifted the tavernkeeper bodily off the ground and left him suspended in mid-air. The other villagers scattered the moment Thelan's wind let up, leaving him alone in the square with Noira and Edlin.

"Mercy," Edlin blubbered. "Have mercy!"

Thelan raised his hands and Edlin's voice thinned into a wail as he shot higher into the sky.

"You want mercy?" Thelan shouted, knowing the air would carry his voice to Edlin's ears. "What kind of mercy did you show Kolete and Noira? What kind of mercy would you have shown me? I'll show you that mercy, little man."

"Daddy?" came a small voice beside him. Thelan looked down into Noira's concerned face. "What are you going to do?"

"I'll let him fall," Thelan answered. "And he'll never hurt you or your mother again."

Noira nodded with satisfaction. "Good. He hurt Mommy. Kill him, Daddy, and make it hurt. He deserves it."

And Thelan paused. You protect the child from danger, Kolete had said, and teach her what she needs to know.

Was this what Noira needed to know? She would be a sorceress one day, a sorceress with greater power than his. What did she need to know about the use of power?

Thelan reached out to the wind again and the swirling air slowed. Edlin drifted gently downward. Ten feet above the ground, Thelan stopped the air dead still. With a squawk, Edlin fell straight into a reeking, wet pile of garbage. Whimpering, he got to his feet and scuttled into the gathering shadows.

Noira pouted. "Why didn't you kill him, Daddy?" she demanded. "Why?"

Thelan picked her up and held her close. "Because no one really deserves it, Noira. You didn't, and neither did Edlin. Not really. Now let's go check on your mother. I think we'll be moving to another village in the morning. One far away from here."

"Where, Daddy?" Noira asked, excited about the prospect.

"Wherever the wind takes us," Thelan replied, rising into the air. "Or maybe wherever your mother decides."

He twisted a cloud around them, and they were gone.

This story originally appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust.


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Steven Harper

Steven Harper is well-known for his fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk.