Gaia

Prysma's personal playground world

1993, October 10, early morning

1993, October 10, early morning

“Brad.”

Brad blinked, looked around him. This looked like Skyreach, like the cliff, except that the entire sky was shimmering with shifting rainbow colours, the sunlight filtering through and creating odd effects.

Nor was he alone; sitting across from him on the green almost-grass was a WindDancer clad in snowy silks, with huge wings, the feathers a rich gold frosted with bright silver; even less than usual could he distinguish gender.

This had to be a dream, everything felt just slightly unearthly, but he couldn’t recall ever recognizing a dream as such while in it before.

The winged ‘Dancer smiled, and it was the warm friendly smile of an old friend. “L’ya, you’re dreaming.”

Skydancer, something in Brad’s mind whispered. This couldn’t be anyone else.

“Alex has been asking me repeatedly for help, to make this easier on you and Michael, and offering to pay all necessary prices alone. I think, however, we can save him from the consequences of his own concern for you both. You are lover to one of my ko’valha. Do you intend that to continue for some time?”

“As long as possible,” Brad said. “I knew that as soon as he came back.”

“You know that, while he is free to make his own choices, his gifts come from following the rules, which may at times seem arbitrary, and that includes a responsibility to Skyreach? And can accept that?”

“Sooner or later, he’s actually going to tell me everything. But I don’t think there’s anything I’m going to have a problem with.”

Skydancer chuckled. “Then I think I can reasonably conclude that it is in the best interests of one of my chosen to do what I can for you and your brother. Besides, I have a notorious weakness for musicians and dancers. I think, though, there is much less need for me to intervene than Alex believes.” The amusement faded into sympathy. “You’ve had a difficult night, as have others. You are, however, past the worst of it, and by the time you wake, after some true deep restful sleep, I think you will be feeling much better. Your brother is asleep as well, and is not dreaming. You will both, I think, find it easier to deal with the future if you are not tired as well.”

“The future? Oh.” The night was dreamy and indistinct, but there were bits that were clearer. “Alex said… I have changeling DNA?”

“You do. Of an unusual and remarkable kind. Almost all changelings descend from humans and others who were trapped and changed by wizards directly, or from those who were close enough to those changelings in the first generations after the War that they picked up changeling traits. On Earth, it’s called horizontal gene transfer, but it has never been seen, there or on Gaia, to anything remotely approaching the extent that it still happens in the Hills, let alone just after the War.” That smile came back. “You look surprised. Firstborn cannot leave Gaia, but Alex is not the only one of my chosen to live in both worlds, and what my ko’valha know, I know. There are a very few changeling races who appeared via different routes, and one of those are the draconan, who are very much the children not of the wizards’ tyranny, nor even of the War itself, but of the efforts of the dragon prides to protect Gaia.”

“How?”

“The energy unleashed by the War would have devastated Gaia at least as badly as the Sunfall. It would have destroyed all civilization in the Dyaura immediately, and it would have spread beyond and twisted all life as it spread. We feared it would destroy even the Clans, or at least weaken them so badly they might not recover, and I think you’ve seen enough by now to know that would be bad for Gaia.”

“Definitely.”

“So, those of us who have been on Gaia for much longer than humans, the Firstborn and the dragons and the faerie and the dulhanei, we united and we gathered all the energy and we channelled it all into the Shadowed Hills. The population has always been relatively thin, and it was close to home: the western side of the range is where the dragons mainly live, and Firstborn and dulhanei have often spent time with them when not among humans, and the Isles of the faerie lie both off the coast and on the opposite coast off Merienis. Among other prices we paid for it, many dragons spent hours in the heart of the gathered energy. The offspring of the females who did were born different. Dragons live for several centuries, much of it spent in a state of physical torpor while they think and communicate among themselves, they tell stories and play games but also contemplate questions that interest them. They have very powerful abilities that you could call magic. Their offspring after the War had a much more rapid metabolism and with it a lifespan roughly equivalent to a human or WindDancer’s, and lost most of the magic, but kept some empathy and telepathy, along with many of the physical traits that make dragons extremely tough and highly adapted to living in mountains. And they gained a natural ability to change to human form, much the way the tantarra do. It is uncomfortable for draconan to live among full dragons, on both sides, so most left their home prides and ventured into the Hills. Given how slowly dragons reproduce, there have not been a large number of original draconan, though they’ve had many more descendants of their own, and while never common, there is little chance of dying out altogether. Being so few, they typically end up with mates of other races, and it typically takes no more than three generations for the dracona genes to go latent again, and they can stay dormant for many generations intact. Something triggers them, like coming to the Hills, and they wake.” That beautiful voice gentled further. “There should be little or nothing that anyone would spot on Earth, but there will be a few adjustments you will need to make.”

Brad pondered that for a moment.

“If it doesn’t mean losing my mom or my friends or Alex, and it isn’t going to stop us from having a band and working towards making a living off our own music, then it might be seriously weird but I bet I can deal with it. After all the crap I’ve kept Michael more or less in one piece through all our lives, at least this isn’t dangerous or violent or anything.”

“I can think of no reason why any of those things should happen. Alex’s impressions of your mother suggest great strength and a willingness to adapt for the sake of those who matter to her.” The smile came back again. “Much like her son, I suspect. Your other closest friends are, I believe, generally Gaian or crosser at this point, and many are not human themselves. There should be no need to change your plans. You will, however, find your metabolism remains somewhat faster than before, and that you can digest very nearly anything organic. Your night vision will decrease somewhat, but your daytime vision will become sharper. You will be much stronger than before, but with significantly less mass. There is a thing I think you may come to consider to be an advantage rather than an inconvenience.”

“Oh? What?”

“Draconan have large lungs, generally at least a quarter again what a human might have, or more.”

Brad blinked, thought about that. Big lungs meant being able to take very deep breaths, which for a singer could mean…

“Draconan also tend to have, in dracona-form, the ability to make some extraordinary sounds—they are a very vocal race, with an extremely diverse range, many of them impossible for most races. That is less pronounced in human form, but to some degree it does carry over in some subtle differences in larynx and pharynx in particular. You already have a very rich voice and a broader than usual range, which you use very well thanks to lessons and dedication, and which would I think only have grown deeper and richer over time even without ever coming to the Hills. You are almost certainly going to find your range can expand significantly, and that you can learn some unusual vocal tricks. One of the most remarkable singers I have ever heard was a dracona. She was fond of harmonizing with herself during particularly intense emotional passages, she could go very high and very low with little strain, she could hold a note or do a long intricate passage without needing to pause for breath, and she could alter the timbre of her voice so well that if you couldn’t see her singing both halves of a duet, you’d believe it was in fact two people.”

“That almost feels like cheating.”

“Did I say it would be a free gift? It will take at least a little time to adapt immediately and regain even the control you’re accustomed to, though I don’t believe it will take you long—certainly before you’re due at the Roe Deer. Beyond that, it will take work to extend your range and work to learn what else you can do. It is, however, going to be possible to adegree it was not before. It is not cheating. Remarkable voices turn up in those who are entirely human, if differently than in a dracona. With work and luck and the right choices, they may be able to make themselves heard, but many others never do. It has no bearing what you can do with a guitar, or how you write, or for that matter how well you work with the rest of your band.”

“Right now, what you need is sleep.”

“One more thing?”

L’ya?”

“What does a dracona look like?”

Dark-golden-skinned hands cupped the air, and silver and gold light swirled between them, coalesced into a cat-sized image. He studied it intently.

No scales, just smooth hide, a rich deep purple like a strongly-coloured amethyst. Long, rather serpentine, neck and even longer tail, and the head was something like a snake’s elongated but also a bit horse-like, certainly broad and deep enough for a decent-sized brain. The overall proportions of body and legs, including the thickness of the latter, made him think of a tantarra furform, but those weren’t paws, and it was the same on all four. Wings folded back against shoulders in the small image, but as he looked, they stretched and unfurled, and must have been about as far from tip to tip as from nose to tail; they were, well, dragon-wings, supported by a sturdy-looking arm that, at the wrist, became very long thin fingers supporting a fragile-looking membrane. That same membrane merged into the skin of the flank from that shoulder-joint almost all the way to the hips. The tiny image moved again, reared up to climb a shimmery, barely-visible vertical surface, and he realized that it had hands on all four feet—a thumb and three fingers, shorter and broader than human. Reaching the “top,” it spun sideways, wings partly flexed, neck drawn back in an S-curve that protected the underside of the throat, and that long tail swung back and forth in what he could only interpret as a threat, the thin whip-like end snapping though the air.

“Like that,” Skydancer said. “But about this big.”

The little dracona image leaped to the ground beside them and began to grow. And grow. And grow.

Brad stared in shock at the huge image. “Oh my god. How big is that?”

“Generally in the range of twenty-five to thirty feet, about, hm, seven and a half to nine meters, with females at the larger end and males at the smaller. Actual mass, however, is far less than it seems. Now.” That gentle voice turned firm. “You do need to rest. You are asleep now and that is cushioning some of the potential shock, though at least it’s giving you a chance to begin to accept it. It will not be easy, but you have friends, more of them than you think, who will do all they can to help you through this.” Skydancer smiled, reached out to close a hand over his, and those brilliant wings spread, wrapped around them both. “Bright dreams, kiaru.”


1993, October 09, continued once more

1993, October 09, continued yet again

WindSpinner had explained to Michael how what she called farsight and foresight typically worked. The former was basically perception of the present that wasn’t anchored to physical senses; most people were restricted to one or two senses, and range varied between individuals. The latter normally turned up as an extremely refined ability to put together information gathered via all other channels into predictions; less commonly, it provided genuine glimpses of events that would come to pass if everything stayed on the current course. In most cases, unlike a mindgift like empathy that appeared early and fully-formed but could be exercised and refined, only traces of it showed up young, and it frequently strengthened with age as well as practice.

Michael wasn’t even twenty yet, and felt rather apprehensive about what it might be like when he was forty, but that only gave him more motivation to master WindSpinner’s lessons in self-discipline.

He was getting reasonably good at focusing on a single target in his immediate area and seeing it with his eyes closed. Applying the same sort of technique, using the earlier dream and the lingering feeling from it as a guide, kept bringing him frustratingly close—he was sure it was right there, if he could only reach it, and then he’d know what was going on, he’d be able to be certain Brad was going to be okay.

He shifted position a bit, made sure he was completely relaxed physically, and took a slow deep breath, gathering all the threads of his attention together and turning them resolutely inwards.

Focusing on that dream and its afterimage wasn’t all that pleasant; he could feel his heart-rate start to climb and his breathing quicken in worry for the best friend and brother who mattered more than anyone ever could. He forced his breathing slow and even, matching the rhythm to a song as WindSpinner suggested.

Stay calm, stay focused…

It slipped and slid maddeningly, as he chased after that dream, struggling to get back inside it, to make it real again, so he could use it as a launching point.

Right there, almost got it…

The mental image of Brad, lying upstairs in Alex’s bed under a lot of blankets and restlessly asleep, Alex sitting on the chest with his knees drawn up against his chest and his arms wrapped around them and his expression distant, vanished under an overlay of branching paths, each one dividing and re-dividing on and on infinitely into an endless web.

He could see that for less than the span of one breath, before reality fractured and exploded.

The five of them on a stage, Michael himself behind a bank of multiple keyboards, Trill off to his right with a more elaborate drum kit than her current one, and past the blinding lights was an impression of considerable space, of a large number of people, and with it an overwhelming sense of unity and fierce ecstatic joy…

Brad and someone Michael didn’t recognize, male and tanned and brown-haired with a lean and superbly fit build, maybe thirty or so but Brad looked older too, neither wearing much but each with a small silver pendant dangling from his left ear-lobe, leather cuffs around wrists binding them to a pair of rings overhead face to face, and Alex and another WindDancer, both in white leather, each had a short multi-tailed whip and they were using them in perfect synch, but neither apparent victim showed any indication of anything but bliss…

A big black tourbus, and on the side ‘Amethyst’ in a flowing script, with a stylized logo of what had to be a dragon in the same deep amethyst purple as the name…

… and the name and logo splintered further, doubling and multiplying and spreading into a million forms spread across futures, and intertwined with it was music that sounded so perfectly right

He heard Leatha say his name in alarm, felt her shake him.

Leatha vigorously washing a very small and possibly just-born kitten with black-on-black spots, lying on a bed in a cozy bedroom…

Leatha and Trill, posing flirtatiously together in front of an open doorway: Leatha, in something sleek and glossy and black that fit like another skin, the top high-necked and sleeveless with a cutout showing cleavage, the skirt hugging her hips and flaring out to mid-thigh, wedge-heeled boots laced to just below her knees, her bronze hair in a smooth tail; Trill, in a black leather corset with straps over her shoulders and pants that had lacing all down the outer seams and chunky-heeled boots, her black hair held back by a heavy silver hairband; Leatha’s lips were as bronzed as her hair, and Trill’s eyes were lined heavily with black…

Trill, in ripped black jeans and a worn blue tanktop that stretched tight over her breasts, a few threads of silver in her black hair, handing him a plate of sandwiches and a condensation-beaded bottle of water as he sat back from working on a beautifully well-kept sleek black and silver motorcycle, her smile affectionate and indulgent, and a sense of his own mischief as he caught her around the waist and pulled her down onto his lap for a hug and a long intense kiss, and under it all the certainty that she was as solid and fundamental a part of his world as Brad was…

The flood of images and sound was too strong and he couldn’t get past it to answer her.

“Okay, need Alex,” Leatha muttered.

Alex, much older, arguing vehemently with a WindDancer Trill had introduced as another ko’valhai called Moth who was one of Alex’s closest friends, and the force behind it was that of an ongoing disagreement on which neither could or would compromise, one that had taken over whatever relationship had existed before…

The sound of his own name being screamed merged and blended with more visions.

An immense creature that by any logic shouldn’t exist, all neck and tail and legs and wings, no scales, only smooth hide the colour of dark amethyst, somewhere with dense but odd-looking greenery, and the dragon that somehow was also Brad was turned sideways so his body was between Alex and Michael and what was probably a child but no race he could name on one side, a quintet of extremely alien-looking and hostile humanoids on the other, that long purple tail swaying threateningly, and Brad screamed a warning that echoed off the mountain slopes around them and brought Trill and Leatha furform at a dead run…

Liore, with two knee-height reddish-bronzy-coloured dragons, spiralling down out of the air towards her, but as they touched down, they became a pair of WindDancer children who ran to her open arms for a simultaneous hug, while she praised them and told them she loved them…

“Oh, what the hell.” Alex’s voice. “What is with these two?”

“He’s not answering me,” Leatha said.

Leatha, furform, sprawled on her side and purring madly, while a kitten with black-on-black spots and a similarly-sized wolf-cub with fur of a dark burgundy-wine colour, both still baby-fluffy, nursed side by side…

“Michael.” Alex’s voice, close to his ear, but with an unfamiliar tone, oddly emphatic harmonics, a command. “Wake up.”

Michael shuddered, felt the visions ripple and try to fade, but at the same time, Alex’s proximity only strengthened the cascade that involved him.

Alex, in sleek white leather, and Brad, in lightweight amethyst-purple pants open up both outer seams with purple leather around wrists and throat, the latter kneeling on a large flat stone within a building of sorts, expression tranquil and blissful at once while Alex did something with a knife and his Healing gifts and a silver earring…

“Okay, that should’ve worked and didn’t. Oh, good, Sheryn, you’re back. I take it you heard that.”

Names echoed, connected to faces, which triggered more images. The brown-haired man he’d seen bound with Brad, but dressed in a deep red dress and with every detail perfectly feminine, teasingly fluttering a matching fan in front of his face while Brad, in good blue jeans and a white short-sleeved shirt with throat-laces and a black vest with beads of countless colours adorning the fringes, laughed and not far away, people Michael knew within that future but not in the present worked on getting video cameras set up, and nearby Alex and this same WindDancer were perched on a couple of canvas chairs, each with a drink, watching the pair in visible amusement…

Kiaru, most of Skyreach heard that. I already asked Skydancer to let the others know that there is no crisis.”

“Alex?” Kallir’s voice, from the direction of the stairs.

Elisabeth and Kallir, in Kallir’s living room with the heavy curtains drawn back and sunlight glowing through the bright-coloured lighter ones, playing with a group of children, WindDancers and not, and there was a black kitten and a wine-dark wolf-cub among them…

A girl who might be just coming into her teens, with shaggy shoulder-length dark-wine hair, in blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a purple dragon logo, flashing him a brilliant smile as she drew back from a hug, and the feeling was overwhelmingly of love and pride…

A very small baby cradled in his arms, still red and flushed with birth, sleepy now wrapped in a soft wool blanket and smelling of milk, and the absolute certainty that if anyone ever dared to hurt her, he wouldn’t ignore it or laugh it off, he’d tear them apart and not care about the consequences, but only if he beat his currently exhausted mate to it…

“We’ve got it, Ama, it’s okay,” Alex said, then, more quietly, “We have got it, right?”

L’ya, we have. Alex, watch. Consider this a last resort. It is not dangerous if done right, in itself, but it is a shock and it is unpleasant.”

Light cool fingers touched Michael’s forehead, one set or two he couldn’t tell.

Something like a static shock zapped through his body, starting somewhere in his head; every muscle spasmed painfully in reaction, and instantly the flood of visions dried up into dust and vanished.

Michael blinked dazedly at Alex, kneeling in front of him beside an unfamiliar WindDancer. “What the hell just happened?” The hoarseness of his own voice startled him.

“For the love of, well, everything,” Alex said, “no more trying to see what’s happening with Brad, okay?” There was exasperation in his voice, but a kind of gentleness too. “It’s bad for you and bad for him. I probably would’ve done the same. But for whatever reason it’s not going to stay under control and just give you answers. Thanks, Keris.” Alex accepted the cup his brother handed him, passed it to Michael. “Drink that. Someone’s going to find you something to eat, because your body just used a huge amount of energy and sleeping without replacing that is dangerous. Do what you’re told. I’m going back upstairs to Brad.”

“Dragons,” Michael said. The sweet juice, undiluted, would have been cloying under other circumstances, but right now it was a struggle not to gulp it all in a few swallows. “I kept seeing dragons.” He frowned, trying to remember, but it was all too tangled together, too much of it to make any sense out of it.

“You dreamed about a dragon,” Leatha observed. “Just before we came here the first time.”

“Yeah. There was… I think there was one big one and a small one, or maybe two small ones. It’s all tangled up…”

“Let it go,” the unfamiliar WindDancer said gently. “Glimpses of what will happen can be useful as a guide, but too much information is of no more help than none at all. What you saw is what is currently probable, but any of that can change easily.”

“I think it was mostly really good,” Michael said softly. He was certain Trill and Leatha had been there, and Alex too, that music was a huge part of it for the five of them, and there was a lingering sensation of a baby in his arms and fiercely intense protective love. “I hope it doesn’t change much.”

“Mostly good and included dragons,” Alex said. “Hold onto that thought, okay? Please? Was I still in there?”

“Yes.”

“Hold onto that one, too.”

“Why? What am am I going to be pissed off at you for that much more than normal?”

“Alex, go back upstairs to Brad,” Sheryn said quietly. “Michael, Leatha, why don’t you come to the kitchen while I make tea for Brad, and I’ll explain?”

“I probably should,” Alex said.

“You’re too close to this to do it well. Go.”

In Michael’s experience, Alex was very bad at doing what anyone else said; it surprised him quite a lot when, visibly torn, Alex obeyed.

* * *

“In one sentence,” Kallir said, one arm barring Alex from the stairs.

“This is why most ko’valha live alone or with another ko’valhai,” Alex muttered.

“It’s a little late to think of that now.”

“Brad’s got changeling genes and they’re awake, and the link between them is wreaking havoc as usual. Trill and Lio have gone out for food Sheryn says will help. Brad’s going to be eating a lot for a little while, apparently, so we’re probably going to end up stripping the kitchen bare.”

“Thank you.” She let her arm fall. “Go look after your mate, and let the rest of us do what we can.”

* * *

Brad heard Alex coming back, opened his eyes, for whatever help that was—it was frustratingly dark, but he could see outlines, at least.

What he saw was Alex pausing, halfway through the curtain, for a couple of beats before coming all the way in. Once he was close enough to see properly, Brad thought he looked tired and stressed.

That was probably his fault, but since right now, he felt utterly exhausted, and he was obviously delirious because attempts to move sent absolutely impossible messages back to his brain and the bed that could hold him and Alex cozily felt weirdly small which was impossible, he really couldn’t do much about it.

At least that utter terror for Michael had finally eased up. Whatever it was, Alex must have taken care of it. Which meant that the raging hunger had come back to the forefront of his thoughts, dominating anything else. He probably would have ventured downstairs, since the travel bars were all gone, but his reflexes were all messed up and he couldn’t move right and he was sure he’d fall down the stairs.

“My bed is not big enough for this,” Alex muttered. “Brad, love, I want you to do something for me, okay?”

Brad groaned, but was sure that what came out sounded wrong.

“I know, you feel like shit and you’re having a horrible night. You can thump me later for bringing you to the Hills. But right now, I need you to concentrate as hard as you can on how it feels… um, let me think.”

“Alex?” That was Keris’ voice, but it trailed off into a startled squeak.

“It’s okay, Keris,” Alex said reassuringly. “Leave the bowl, and thank you, and why don’t you run back down and listen to Sheryn?”

“Um… l’ya…”

Bowl? Food? Brad tried to shift position and reach for it, but something was wrong, and he was definitely hallucinating because that did not look like his hand, three fingers and a thumb but shorter and broader, and his wrist didn’t bend like that, and he was quite sure his skin had never been darker than Alex’s.

“You can have that as soon as you do what I tell you,” Alex said firmly. “I need you to think very hard about how it feels to sit downstairs on a cushion, with your legs crossed and your guitar in your arms. Think as hard as you can about the exact fingering for, um, Defiance, and about singing it. Every note, every breath, every pause, and sitting up straight so you can do it right.”

Puzzled, but trusting Alex, Brad heaved a weary sigh but closed his eyes and obeyed.

Somewhere in the middle of it, everything turned intensely strange, like the world was twisting inside out. He didn’t like the sensation at all, it made his bones feel like they were being painlessly disconnected and rearranged. It didn’t last long, though.

“That’s better,” Alex said, and he sounded deeply relieved as he came over to join Brad on the bed, retrieving the bowl of food from the chest on his way.

“Food?” Brad said hopefully.

Not stew this time, some kind of meat and veggie and grain mix. Alex steadied the bowl for him, and caught the spoon a couple of times.

“Better?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Good. Hold still and let me check how you’re doing. There’ll be more food coming soon. Some of it specifically what you need right now.”

Sleepy now, with his stomach temporarily full, Brad leaned against Alex and let him do whatever he wanted.

“Your fever’s down,” Alex observed. “And you aren’t flinching now when I touch you.”

“Still achy. Still tired. Still hungry. Still wanna know what you’re not tellin’ me.”

“You’re not coherent enough to listen right now, love.”

“Then tell me ‘gain later. Why’s Michael so mad?”

Alex sighed, cuddled him close, and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Do you remember, before we came to Skyreach the first time, Michael asked me if it was safe here?”

“Mmhmm.”

“And I said that the Hills magic field couldn’t do anything unless you had changeling DNA already?”

“Mmhmm.”

“And that it was extremely improbable?”

“Mmhmm.”

“You have changeling genes,” Alex said gently. “And they’re waking up and doing some renovations.”

“Oh.” Brad contemplated that. Probably it should have felt like more of a big deal, but distracted by fatigue, aching muscles, incessant hunger, and Michael’s anger against his mind that he couldn’t seem to shield out, the force was rather muted. “Into something that can’t sing?”

“No. We can keep right on with plans pretty much as they are.”

“Into anything you won’t like?”

Alex’s arms tightened around him again, enough to hurt a bit but it was rather reassuring. “Not possible. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Mmkay. That wasn’t a ‘lucination, was it? My hand was diff’rint.”

“Yes. You’re a shapeshifter.”

“Like Trill ‘n’ the cats?”

“Yes, but not wolf or cat.”

“What?”

“Dragon.”

“Dragons exist?” Brad thought about that, shrugged. “Is Gaia, why not? Dragon. Right. Um. Help?”

“With what?”

“Can’t block Michael out. An’ he’s really mad.”

“Sure.” Alex stroked his hair gently, and a little at a time, the spillover emotions faded away, leaving the inside of his head much less hot and murky and roiling. He’d forgotten, since Alex had taught him how to shield, just what it was like being open to Michael’s often strong and volatile feelings all the time.

No wonder I learned to stay calm, he thought fuzzily. His emotions and mine bouncing back and forth in my head together would’ve driven me off the edge.

“Thanks.”

“Any time, love.”

“He’s mad ’cause I’m a changeling? Nope.” He sighed. “He’s mad at you. Thinks you hurt me.”

“I think so, yes. Sheryn is explaining.”

Brad sighed again. “Somebody hurt him. Can’t tell, he made me promise. Wouldn’t’ve told me either if I didn’t. He’s scared I’ll get hurt. Or scared I’ll choose you ov’r him. Don’t have t’choose. C’n love both.”

“And more besides, with a heart like yours.”

“Know it sucks, how he acts sometimes. ‘N you usually growl back. Isn’t you he’s reactin’ to. ‘N he’s not a threat to us, not goin’ to leave you. He doesn’t r’ly want me to, knows I’m happy. Just try’n chill out.”

“I’ll try,” Alex said softly. “I think sometimes it isn’t him I’m reacting to.”

“Great pair,” Brad muttered.

“Alex?” That was Keris, right outside. “Sheryn said to bring you this.”

“C’min,” Alex said.

A bit cautiously, Keris ducked past the curtain with a wooden bowl.

“Trill just got back. She detoured past Lio to get what she’d collected so far. Sheryn said to steam most of it to make it easier to eat and digest, but he said to bring some up now.” He gave the bowl to Alex, gathered up the empty dishes, and left.

“Woke up everyone?” Brad asked fuzzily.

“‘Fraid so. No one’s mad. They’re helping. Here, I’m not sure what you’ll think of the taste, but try to eat it anyway. It’ll help.”

The silvery-sheened green stuff in the bowl certainly didn’t look especially appetizing, or smell very appealing, but it was food—even if it did look rather a lot like wide-bladed grass, with about the texture of coarse grass too. He made a face as he chewed and swallowed it. What taste it had was rather bitter.

He licked his lips, uncertain how he felt about that… but he realized that he wanted more of it. A lot more. He grabbed another handful and stuffed it in his mouth.

Under it lay cubes of something with the texture of raw potato, a scent like raw meat left out too long, and a distinctly metallic taste. That was harder to choke down.

Alex gave him a gentle sympathetic squeeze. “Try, love. Sheryn wouldn’t have sent Lio and Trill out for it without a very good reason.”

After the first couple of cubes, that same switch clicked into place: it still tasted ghastly, but every instinct screamed for more. That made it at least possible, if still not pleasant, to finish the contents of the bowl.

“Wha’s it for anyway?” he asked, around a final mouthful.

“There are some specific minerals Sheryn says you need right now. They aren’t ones that are normally present in most food, or only in very small trace amounts. Having what you need should make the feeling-awful phase end sooner.”

“Mmkay.” Brad snuggled against him, and Alex began to stroke his hair again.

“I’ll look after you, love,” Alex said softly. “I promise. No matter what.”


1993, October 09, continued again

1993, October 09, continued again

Trusting Trill to look after Michael, Alex went back upstairs. He paused for a moment to check, but his family—minus Tizzy, who was currently at her father’s house—remained peacefully asleep. Always tricky in houses that had only curtains for walls, trying not to disturb everyone else in the middle of the night. As it was, Brad remained deeply shy about sex, despite all assurances that Skyreach lacked specifically sexual taboos and recognized only consent and courtesy.

Of course, he had to make sure Brad was okay before they could get any farther on that one.

He sat down on the edge of the bed again, straightened the blankets and tucked them more closely around Brad. “I’ll make it okay, love,” he whispered, running a hand over sweat-damp brown hair. “I promise. No matter what I have to do.”

Brad flinched with a small whimper from Alex’s hand on his forehead—given that fever, it probably felt either very hot or very cold. Contact was necessary, though.

All right. A quick check of essential systems gave him reassuring results: heart-rate was rather fast as a resting rate but no worse than during exertion, blood was flowing cleanly through all major vessels, his lungs were providing a comfortable oxygen level, insulin/glucose levels were out of balance but not critical, enough oxygen and nutrients were reaching his brain. Nothing that suggested immediate life-threatening danger.

No foreign presence in his bloodstream, so none of the Hills-mutated viruses or bacteria or the bizarre crosses between them that sometimes turned up. No elevated white cells to counter an infection he wasn’t seeing directly, maybe lurking in a single location. Whatever this was, it was unlikely to be caused by something restricted to a single system anyway, it was too widespread. Adrenalin and endorphins and cortisol and other stress-response chemicals were all extremely high; that wasn’t much of a surprise, but they did muddy the waters and make it a lot harder to see what else was going on in his blood.

Metabolic rate was distinctly elevated, including the normal breakdown-buildup of muscle—and of bone as well. That was rather worrying. Energy for that had to come from somewhere. Digestive tract…

Okay, that’s seriously weird, I’ve never seen that before. And there’s no way this is a food reaction, scratch that idea.

Brad’s digestive and urinary tracts, rather than trying to dispose of anything, were both reabsorbing and reprocessing the waste currently in his body, and drawing considerably more out of them.

Crap, there’s where the energy is coming from: his body’s using fat reserves right now, but Skydancer knows what it’ll do when it runs out. He has more of that than a WindDancer does, but it’s not infinite, especially at this rate, and he needs to keep some! Need to wake him up and get some kind of food into him now!

Travel bars for the camping trip. Perfect. Lots of highly concentrated good stuff.

He left the bed to retrieve his pack from the chest, rummaged in it for the leather bag, part of it stiffened and part of it supple, that he’d stashed there. The bars inside, half an inch thick, an inch wide, and four or five inches long, were Skyreach’s answer to pemmican: meat, both muscle and organ, dried thoroughly and ground into powder, mixed with similarly dried and ground berries and fruit, all blended with rendered fat and a bit of honey. He knew from personal experience, it was quite possible to survive on it for an extended period if necessary.

It was also a bit of an acquired taste, and he was unsure how readily Brad would take to it. On the other hand, Brad seemed to have adapted fast enough to ClanChipmunk’s foraged diet, and had no problems Alex knew of with Skyreach’s mostly unique food sources. Right now, it would actually be more effective than fresh food

“Brad?”

Brad mumbled something incoherent.

“C’mon, love, I need you to wake up and eat.”

That sound had a distinctly negative tone, and Brad curled into a tighter ball, with a small moan.

“Please, love. I know you feel awful. I need you to trust me. I’m going to take care of you, I promise. Everything’s going to be okay. But right now, you really need something in your stomach.”

Brad groaned, but reluctantly uncoiled enough that Alex could help him sit up, keeping the blankets wrapped tightly around him.

“Eat,” Alex said firmly, handing him one of the bars. “Chew it enough to soften it so you don’t choke.”

Brad bit obediently into the bar, balked when he had to work at severing a bite of the gummy stuff, but Alex prompted him, and with a sigh he did so. He made a face, blinked at the bar in puzzlement as he chewed.

“Travel food. Extremely concentrated. You can eat less and get what you need.” He stroked Brad’s hair reassuringly. “I know, not what you’re used to. But try to get it down, okay?”

Brad leaned against him, still chewing, and finally swallowed. He eyed the bar with clear misgivings, but sighed again and took another bite.

That kind of trust and obedience is so…

Stop that. Getting a bit ahead of yourself, there, aren’t you?

He checked, while Brad was still eating, watched his digestive tract start processing it rapidly, watched the rush of energy and materials hit his system.

“Need more,” Brad said. “Really hungry.”

Alex fished another bar out of the bag and gave it to him, losing track of what he was monitoring while he did. He’d just never gotten the trick the older ko’valha had of being able to do both at the same time, though Sheryn assured him that he would eventually, if not this time then in his next walk or the one after.

“How are you feeling otherwise, love?”

He had to wait while Brad finished that bite. “Ache bad all over. Cold. Very tired.”

“Thirsty? Need the bathroom?”

“No. Hungry, though.” The zeal with which he tore off another bite underscored that: so zealous he actually dropped the bar, though Alex caught it and gave it back. “Hills flu?”

“Maybe. I’ll figure out exactly what it is and fix it. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

“I know.”

Alex switched his attention back to what was happening within Brad’s body.

That the new supply of resources had sidetracked attempts to cannibalize itself was extremely reassuring.

That the resources were allowing whatever process was underway to accelerate was less so.

Okay, stop thinking like Brad’s lover, stop thinking like a Healer-gifted musician, and think like a ko’valhai. Even if you have a lot less experience and perspective to use than most. They started somewhere too.

What process, exactly, is underway? Start somewhere and check absolutely everything that you can check without exhausting yourself.

“More?” Brad said hopefully.

Alex dragged the bag closer, set it on Brad’s other side so he could reach it for himself. Brad fumbled for one, promptly dropped it and snatched for it. Alex helped him find it on the blankets, in the dim light, and folded the soft part of the bag further back to make it easier to get at the bars inside.

A huge amount of resources is going into that muscle rebuild. No wonder he’s aching so much, that must feel like massive overexertion of every muscle in his body. Every muscle? Well, all the voluntary ones, anyway, no sign of anything going on with involuntary ones like his heart. Still, that’s a massive effort. Now, why is his body doing that?

Not just muscle. Bone is rebuilding too. Don’t forget that, it’s bound to be relevant.

What else is going on? Any other changes? His digestive tract is pulling a pretty remarkable amount out of those bars and not leaving much waste. Most of which is going directly to that rebuild.

Which isn’t just a straight rebuild as-is.

Muscle tissue is actually changing. More compact, and holy crap it has a lot of attachments to bone, and I bet not all of that high food and oxygen usage is strictly because of being mid-change. And how the hell does his blood have that kind of oxygen saturation anyway? Hemoglobin just can’t carry that!

Except that whatever’s going on in his red cells, that isn’t exactly hemoglobin at this point, it’s changing too.

And holy crap, his lungs are larger. Ten percent, maybe? And not necessarily going to stop there. That is one immensely sensitive network of capillaries, but I bet horribly reactive to airborne irritants.

This isn’t a reaction to something external. This is a deep-level physiological change.

Which means…

Oh fuck.

Changeling genes.

At the moment, he was extremely grateful that Brad’s empathy didn’t work here.

“Love, I’m going to go see if I can find you something fresh to eat and something to drink that’ll make you ache less, okay?” He pressed a kiss to Brad’s forehead, tightened the arm around him.

“Mmkay.” Brad let Alex help him get settled leaning against the head of the bed, with the bag of travel bars in easy reach.

“I’ll be right back. Don’t eat so fast you choke.”

“I’ll be careful.”

Trill, lying on her back with Michael cuddled against her with his head on her shoulder, looked up immediately.

“Sheryn,” Alex said flatly, keeping his voice low. “Now. I don’t think he’s in immediate danger but I’m guessing at this point and I really don’t want to screw things up.”

Trill nodded. She didn’t need to ask Michael to move: he’d roused as soon as he’d heard Alex’s voice. Naked already, she shifted to furform and darted to the nearest curtain, nosed it out of the way and was gone. On four feet and at a run, it would take her very little time to reach Sheryn. A bit longer for Sheryn to get here, but ko’valha were very good at going from asleep to alert and responding quickly.

“What’s going on?” Michael asked.

“I’m not saying anything when I don’t know for sure,” Alex hedged. “Telling you the wrong thing isn’t going to help.” And even the truth is going to make you resent me even more than you already do. “I need to go make Brad some pain-killer tea and something to eat.”

He was grateful neither Michael nor Leatha followed him to the kitchen, and made no effort to understand the low-voiced conversation behind him. He put the kettle on, rummaged on the shelves for the local equivalent of aspirin, something that should help dull the aching somewhat without interfering.

Please, he whispered silently, knowing he’d be heard anyway. Not again. Don’t let Brad pay because I screwed up again. He wanted to come here, I told him he’d be safe, but I was wrong. Please don’t let it happen again. Anything, any price, absolutely anything, but don’t let him suffer because I misjudged again…

Between one heartbeat and the next, he was no longer alone in the kitchen; strong arms wrapped around him, holding him close against a WindDancer body dressed all in soft white. Huge wings of white feathers dancing with silver and gold light folded around them, isolating them from the rest of the world.

“Hush, chosen.” No one else could have heard that beloved voice, he knew it was entirely in his own mind. “This is less of a crisis than it seems. You have everything you need to deal with this. Brad can be much stronger than you or he have yet seen.”

He shouldn’t have to be strong, not just to visit my family. Why do you keep me around, anyway? I never get anything important right.

“The things that matter the most, you always get right. The rest, you’ll learn, just like the others. Not even my first chosen got everything right all the time. And neither do I. It’s only and ever a matter of how much information is available to base decisions on. You’re on the right path, asking for help and minimizing the strain on his body. Now that it has begun, there is nothing I could do to halt it, for any price. He will not lose anything that matters to him. Beyond that, support and love will go a very long way. But he and his brother are both going to be looking to you for some idea how to react to something entirely outside their experience.”

And if I act like it’s catastrophic, they’ll take it that way. If I can stay calm and practical… well, at least Brad will probably go by that. Michael’s going to hate me no matter what I do at this point.

“I think an empath would not love someone so much who was inclined to hate. It was not the expectation that Michael would hate you that made Brad stay silent about your relationship so long, it was worry about Michael’s emotional state. I think it is more likely old pain and fear. You understand those. Old wounds and fear cause more hostile behaviour than anything else, in my experience. From what you know, I think Michael has had love and support from few people in his life, unlike you. That would make it very easy to fear a threat to or loss of one of those few.” The embrace loosened, enough for his beloved Firstborn to tilt his chin up gently with one hand and give him a brief kiss. “Do your best, Alex. That’s all I ever ask. I’m never farther from you than the nearest Portal to Gaia.”

Bright wings folded back, and he was alone.

Alex took a deep breath, then another. All right, if the best thing he could do for Brad right now was admit that he was out of his depth but stay steady for him to lean on, burying his own leftover issues that were from another life and could never have any resolution, then that was what he’d do. He’d done harder things.

He found a couple of flatbread rounds left from supper. The flour wasn’t from any sort of grain, but from something closer to lentils, rich in protein and amino acids, and this particular batch had been made with finely-chopped dried vegetables, one leafy and one a root, mixed into it. He piled one with strips of cold leftover venison and hastily-chopped fresh vegetables, laid the other over it, and cut the whole thing into quarters—flatbread wraps had a tendency to lose all the filling out the bottom if you weren’t paying attention, and he figured this would be easier for Brad to deal with.

What he should have done was graduate from high school as his mother had asked and then built his life primarily around Skyreach. Found an empty house to share with Trill, devoted his time to his responsibilities here, instead of trying to straddle both worlds. Then Brad would be safe, would never have had to wait for the return of a lover who kept too many secrets.

Or, quite likely, Brad or Michael or both would be dead or living with such profound psychic scarring that they’d wish they were. He had, at least, prevented that.

And having met Brad, could he have kept from falling in love with him? No, not from that first night in the moonlight.

He poured boiling water into the cup with the tea mixture, stirred it around until it looked right, then poured the mixture through a fine wire strainer into a second cup and rinsed the first clean. A large spoonful of honey should help hide the less-than-pleasant taste.

With plate and cup, he went back through the living room.

Michael, sitting up now, opened his eyes. “I can’t see anything else,” he said. “Almost but not quite.”

The edge to his voice made Alex want to growl, but he forced his voice to stay calm. Old pain, and he’s worried about Brad. “Be careful. If you keep trying, even if you don’t get any results, you’re going to use a lot of energy. Eat something, okay? Sheryn will be here soon, and he knows a lot more than I do.” It would be unforgivably rude to tell anyone that only Dalisyn, of those currently around, had been ko’valhai longer than Sheryn. Skyreach wasn’t supposed to care, was supposed to consider all ko’valha essentially equal—though, as one of the youngest, Alex was acutely aware of how useless that was under extraordinary conditions, which weren’t so unusual in the Hills.

Michael nodded curtly.

Alex went back upstairs.

Brad, not surprisingly, hadn’t moved, but even at a glance, the bag of travel bars was considerably lighter than it had been.

“Something a bit fresher and tastier for you, love. You can start on the sandwiches while the tea cools a bit, but you’ll probably want to keep a bit of sandwich for after it. Even sweetened, it doesn’t taste that great, I’m afraid.”

“Worth it, if I hurt less.”

Alex arranged himself so that Brad could lean against him again, and settled the plate securely on his lap.

Brad fumbled the sandwiches so often that Alex decided it was wiser, when they got as far as the tea, to keep one hand almost touching the cup just in case—and it turned out to be a good idea.

Muscles rebuilding, probably messing with nerve connections and signals. That will be temporary, almost certainly.

“Alex?” Liore’s voice, softly. “What’s going on?”

“Everything’s okay, go back to bed.”

Liore stepped through the curtain wall, wrapped in a loose onuri-wool robe against the chill, and paused to take in the scene. “I’m not five years old. Stop acting like I am.”

Alex sighed. “Brad’s not feeling well. I don’t have answers. Trill’s gone to get Sheryn. Michael and Leatha are downstairs. There is no reason to believe that this is a life-threatening situation, just an odd one. I was hoping not to wake anyone else up.”

“Brad’s all right?”

“Just hungry,” Brad said for himself. “Tea’s helping some. Not as cold. Just really hungry.”

Liore gave Alex a questioning look.

“I think, under the circumstances, he gets as much food as he wants,” Alex said.

“You can’t be here and in the kitchen both. I’ll check on Ama and Keris, and then go see what I can find.”

Alex surrendered. Who said help had to come from ko’valha? She was already awake and not likely to fall back asleep readily. “Thanks, Lio.”

D’riyes, kiaru.”

Brad groped for the bag of travel bars again.

Alex let him eat, since dropping that couldn’t do any harm, and checked again.

Same process he’d already seen, drawing what it needed from the food and even from the tea, using everything else as fuel with rather mind-boggling efficiency. Muscle and bone, primarily. His lungs were a little larger yet. Blood chemistry shifting to support the rest.

What kind of changeling genes? Now there was the scary part of the thought. There were a lot of different kinds of changelings, some of them believed extinct, some lingering in the Deep Hills, a minority like mhaurri and WindDancers thriving and expanding. The wizards had terrorized the Dyaura for a very long time, after all, and for some reason, once the energy hit on a stable and viable form, it repeated it over and over. Most of them were vaguely humanoid, but very few could pass outright on Earth without clothes, cosmetics, cheat rings, or some combination.

Brad finished that bar and snuggled against Alex, eyes closing, drifting off into, not exactly sleep, but a drowsy half-consciousness at least.

Skydancer had said Brad wouldn’t lose what mattered to him. There was no race that would make Alex break up with him, and he figured it was no more likely Michael would leave. Elisabeth would be upset for Brad’s sake, but she would never abandon him. Race certainly wouldn’t matter to Hawk or to Trill, and probably not to either tantarra. Which left… what? Only music. It wasn’t something that would interfere with being able to stand on a stage and sing?

Did cheat rings work to deceive video cameras? he wondered. It wasn’t something he’d ever thought to ask, since neither he nor Trill needed one.

He felt the light touch of Sheryn’s mind against his, an empathic greeting, and sent back relief and welcome; Sheryn’s reply was all calm reassurance.

A moment later, Sheryn stepped through the curtain into the room.

L’ya, kiaru?”

“I woke up because I sensed something wrong with Brad,” Alex said in Hillin. “Michael’s Sight seems to have reacted at about the same time, given when they got here. I’m not sensing anything life-threatening, but I’m quite sure this is outside my experience. I’m almost entirely certain that he has changeling genes and they’re waking up in full force.”

“Hm. Specifics?” Sheryn perched on the chest.

Alex gave him the full list of everything he’d observed so far, which was actually easier in Hillin than it would have been in English since the ko’valha had inevitably developed their own jargon.

Sheryn nodded slowly, expression thoughtful. “And considering how much exposure he has had to the Hills as well, I think it’s very likely that you’re correct, and that food was the best thing you could possibly have done. Bone rebuilding as well? Replacing itself on a cellular level?”

“I didn’t look quite that deep. I didn’t want to wear myself out with no one else here in case of something going wrong.”

Sheryn moved over to kneel on the floor next to the bed and laid a hand over Brad’s on top of the blankets. Brad twitched, but Alex stroked his hair soothingly and he relaxed again.

Silence for a long moment, while Sheryn tracked changes.

“Well done, kiaru, you were right.”

“Oh, l’ya’rae, messing my lover’s life up is brilliantly well done. I mean, what are the odds?”

“Low, in general. For this particular race, even lower, since they have always been uncommon.”

“You can tell what?”

“Most of the changes are distinctive, but the one thing that is diagnostic beyond doubt is those bones. Take a closer look. Cellular level.”

Alex would have preferred a direct answer, but wasn’t going to get one until he obeyed.

Htana va gaetha… bones can do that?”

“Under only a single set of circumstances that I’m aware of. That is not calcium, it’s primarily organic aluminum-silicon. Calcium would break under the strain of those muscles without becoming very dense and thick, and that would make it impossible to get in the air.”

“Flight adaptations? But what has aluminum-silicon bones?”

“A dracona.”

“Dracona. I only know anything about them from songs.” What he did know was in agreement with what Skydancer said: life might get interesting and hold some surprises, but it wouldn’t keep Brad from doing what he wanted to do.

“I think we haven’t had any on Skyreach for a long time. It’s a shame, Skyreach suits them well. The original draconan were not human victims of the wizards or of the War, they were the mutated offspring of those dragons caught in the energy field while they helped the Firstborn and faerie and dulhanei to contain it here. Thus, the unique physiology. And the rapid metabolism, although not typically as high as currently. That would explain Skydancer suggesting I bring the leftovers from my kitchen. It would be a good idea to locate as much silvergrass as possible, not the young shoots we normally eat, the mature blades. Bloodflower roots, as well. Aluminum and silicon are not readily available from a typical Skyreach diet, and he needs them.”

It was an odd combination. Mature silvergrass was tough and bitter, though the young shoots were tender and tasty; bloodflower’s flowers and seeds were distilled to make the most commonly used antiseptic and astringent, but the roots were normally useless.

“I’m sure we could talk Trill into another run, but no one’s going to have either on hand. I wonder if she can recognize either, wild.”

In the living room, they found Michael sitting very still, legs crossed and eyes closed; even superficial mental contact revealed intense focus and determination.

Sheryn sighed, shook his head, and beckoned to Trill to come to the kitchen with them. Liore, efficiently dicing vegetables into a large pot, listened quietly to the discussion.

“I’ve been helping you with gathering forever,” Liore pointed out finally. “I know what bloodflower looks like.”

“And I’ve eaten enough silvergrass to be able to identify the scent,” Trill said. “I take it we’re raiding gardens and not going looking for wild patches?”

Sheryn nodded without hesitation. “This counts as medical necessity.”

“How much?”

“How much can you carry?”

“Seriously? Can I ask why?”

“Brad’s got changeling genes,” Alex said with a sigh. “He needs what’s in it.”

“And also a great deal of food,” Sheryn said. “Because as long as he is eating, his body is not feeding on itself for the energy it needs. But there are some specific minerals that are absent from or present only in trace amounts in most food.”

“So we need to supplement them. Got it.”

“Dariel is, I think, the closest who has bloodflower. There’s a large amount of silvergrass growing wild near the trail to Dalisyn’s house from mine, and Nelys planted it this year as well.”

Trill nodded, accepting the bag and knife Liore handed her. “Right. First trip, then.”

“Birdsfoot tea,” Sheryn said, as the two women left.

“What do we need an antibiotic and antifungal for?” Alex headed for the shelf that amounted to a medicine cabinet anyway, even as he asked.

“We do not, but it does have some of the minerals Brad needs. Not in much quantity, but it’s a start.”

“There isn’t any.” Normally, where any ko’valhai lived, some things were always available, but restocking herbalism supplies hadn’t been high on his priority list lately.

“Hm. Irielle isn’t far, and she’ll have it.” Sheryn nodded towards the stove, where two substantial pots rested. “How warm they are isn’t going to matter. Take a bowl of one or the other and go back to Brad. I’ll be back soon.”

One pot held leftover stew from earlier that day—leftovers rarely lasted long around here; the other was a mixture of vegetables, meat, and a pearl-barley-like grain in sauce, which must have come from Sheryn’s house. Because the former was warmer and would be a bit more pleasant, he filled a bowl with as much as it could hold and went back past Michael, who hadn’t moved, upstairs.

Warily, he supported the bowl and stayed ready to catch the spoon.

Brad wolfed it down, with a little help, and cuddled against him drowsily again.

“Alex?”

“Mmhmm?”

“Don’t need second opinion for the flu.”

“Who’s the Healer here, hm? You matter too much for me to take even the slightest chance with symptoms I don’t recognize. Sheryn’s been around a lot longer than I have. Of course, almost everyone’s been around longer than I have.” He pressed a kiss to Brad’s forehead. “I promise, love, on anything you want, you’re going to be okay. This is going to pass, and a lot more quickly if we can track down the right stuff for you to eat, although I can’t promise it’ll taste all that great.” He would never have considered bloodflower root edible at all, and mature silvergrass only at dire need.

“Too hungry to care.”

“Do you want more?”

Brad sighed. “Gonna gain a hundred pounds in a day.”

“Your body’s using it as fast as you’re replacing it. I’ll go get you another bowlful.”

“Michael’s gonna wear himself out. Is trying to see stuff.”

Alex extricated himself gently, picked up the bowl. “Do you really think he’s going to listen to me if I tell him to stop?”

“Not really.”

“He’s worried about you, even though he already knows you’re not in danger.” And how in hell do I tell them both the truth? “I’ll be right back.”

Leatha, furform, still lay next to Michael, eyes mostly closed but Alex had no doubt she was more alert than she looked; Michael still hadn’t moved.

“As soon as he comes out of that,” Alex said quietly, “make him eat, even if he doesn’t want to.”

Leatha opened her eyes and gave him a slow blink, her ears flicking, which he figured was an acknowledgement.

Brad finished the second bowl and wanted to lie down, so Alex tucked him in carefully. Another check found more of the same, but Sheryn was right, the rebuilding of bone was faltering, probably unable to find anything to use—that it had as much as it did suggested that Brad’s body had been accumulating it, either lifelong or just since first coming to the Hills he wasn’t sure.

He perched on the chest, watching over his sleepy lover and lost in his own thoughts, hoping it wouldn’t take long for at least Sheryn to return.

Michael!”

Alex jolted back to alertness, shaking his head in an instinctive attempt to clear the lingering effects of that shriek. He very much doubted he’d ever heard one voice, unamplified, reach anything near that volume.

More to the point, what had made Brad wake in enough of a panic to scream like that?

“Alex!” That was Leatha, only partway up the stairs. “Possible problem.”

Oh, like we need another one? There was no way Kallir or Keris were still asleep, so he called back, “Coming!”

He did a brief check on Brad first, who was thrashing against the blankets though not really conscious; he found everything still safe but stress chemical levels had spiked and were continuing to climb.

Which probably was because of whatever he was picking up from Michael.

He bolted down the stairs, pausing only long enough to tell Keris, “In a minute.”


1993, October 09, continued

1993, October 09, continued

Michael bolted awake, heart thumping.

The utter dark of Trill’s room, in a place with no light pollution to speak of, wasn’t an obstacle to him, particularly: though the Shadowed Hills messed badly with his other senses, they didn’t stop his ability to see regardless of physical light levels.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about the fact that otherwise, here, he no longer had the peculiar ability that for most of his life he’d wished would go away. Now that WindSpinner’s explanations and advice and exercises had actually been helping him gain a little control over it, he resented and feared it much less than he had and was beginning to see it as both useful and a part of himself—and now the future looked likely to involve long periods without it.

Apparently the bit about dreams still worked just fine.

Trill murmured something sleepily in Hillin, then asked, “What is it?” She snuggled closer, tucked am arm over him.

“Something’s wrong. It’s Brad, I’m sure of it.”

On Trill’s other side, Leatha yawned audibly. “I thought your Sight didn’t work here.”

“Yeah, well, dreams have always gotten through even when nothing else does.” Like the dream that had driven him to Brad’s door, desperate to apologize, and with plans to make sure he could never betray his best friend and himself like that again.

“Not much is going to get through Alex,” Trill pointed out. “And anything trying to do Brad any harm would have to. No matter what you think of him personally, he’s ko’valhai, and if they couldn’t do their job, Skydancer would have found another option by now. And this is Skyreach, not the Deep Hills or something.”

“Something is wrong,” Michael repeated. “I know it.” He drew away from the warm cozy spot beside her—not without a twinge of regret, since night-time was rather cool and he was starting to really like that particular location—and groped for his clothes.

Trill sighed. “All right, let’s go check it out.”

Trill really didn’t need to see, padding along beside him furform—she knew the way, and her sense of smell was so acute she could function on that alone. Leatha, also furform on his other side, had feline hearing and whiskers to enhance her better-than-human night vision. Since Michael could see perfectly well, it took them no longer to reach Kallir’s house than it would have during the day.

I have a big cat and a wolf, more or less, for company and these are the two women I’m sleeping with, Michael thought, not for the first time. And either is a million times more amazing than any girlfriend I’ve ever had and a billion times better than I think I really deserve. Life is weird. The weirdness, however, was largely eclipsed at the moment by the dead certainty that something had gone wrong, that Brad was… in danger?

No, that wasn’t it. Something was happening, something unanticipated, something that was going to have consequences, but there was no sense of actual danger accompanying it. Which made no sense at all. What could be so wrong it woke him from sound sleep—thoroughly worn out by the day and then by Trill and Leatha—yet wasn’t dangerous?

Trill led them partway around Kallir’s house. There was light, though not much, behind one of the second-floor curtained arches; under it, she stopped and gave two short sharp barks.

A moment later, Alex drew back one of the ground-floor curtains and beckoned them inside the kitchen, a single quartz light in one hand. He’d dressed, sort of, but Michael thought he’d grabbed mismatched pants and sweater more against the chill than any version of modesty.

“What are you doing here?”

Trill changed to human. “Michael was sure we should come.”

“So much for your Sight not working here. Maybe just because it’s Brad.” Alex shrugged. “I just woke up not too long ago, maybe about long enough for you to get here. Something’s up, that’s for sure. Brad’s got a medium-high fever and his whole metabolism is running fast. He’s still asleep and I don’t want to wake him up. Vital organs are all functioning just fine and the fever isn’t so high it worries me in itself. My current best guess is that it’s a reaction to something he ate and his body’s trying to isolate and dispose of it. I’ve checked, and I can’t find any kind of foreign organisms in any of the usual ways. I’ll start trying the less common ways if I have to, but that’ll tire me out and I’d rather use the energy for monitoring symptoms.”

“This isn’t a go-get-one-of-the-others level event?”

“Not at this point. We probably aren’t going to be going camping in the morning, but so far I don’t have any reason to think this isn’t something that I can deal with.”

“To prove you can?” Michael muttered.

Alex gave him a dark look. “I will not take chances with Brad’s safety. The minute I see anything alarming, I can and will have half the ko’valha on Skyreach here, and that is one hell of a lot of experience to draw on. I don’t have anything to prove to them or to Brad.”

“If it’s something he ate, can’t you clean it out?”

“Sure, as soon as I can identify it. He was hungry tonight and had a rather large supper that included at least half a dozen types of vegetables along with rockrodent and a sauce that includes a handful of spices, and two cups of tea that’s a mixture of three different plants, and flatbread made with two other sorts of vegetable matter mixed in. Since his body’s working on processing the rest, trying to untangle exactly what is causing the problem, when I can’t even be a hundred percent sure at this point that it is causing the problem, is going to be a little tricky. Triggering a massive overall purge might work, and if I was absolutely sure that it’s a food reaction I might, but that’s tough on the body and I’d rather not do it unnecessarily. Picking out toxins like alcohol and specific chemicals is a whole lot easier.”

The reminder of his worst mistakes, and of Alex’s part in fixing them, made Michael wince.

“Would you quit both trying to be alpha?” Trill said in exasperation. “Michael, I’ve seen Alex yell for help before, for less cause than the safety of his lover. Alex, what could it be other than something he ate?”

Alex shrugged. “Contact allergy? Reaction to the Hills environment in general? An insect bite? One of the really odd, and incidentally really uncommon, infections that turn up now and then? There are a lot of possibilities. The most probable are all systemic reactions to something that his body considers foreign and hostile. I’m not seeing elevated white cell counts or anything, but his blood chemistry is a bit abnormal and I was about to start trying to identify specifics when I heard you.”

“All right. Then the best thing we can do is let you get back to that. Are you okay with us falling asleep in the living room so we’re close? In case you need me to run and get Sheryn or something.”

“Sure. Won’t be the first time my family’s woken up to find you sleeping here.” He met Michael’s eyes levelly. “I honestly do not believe he’s in any danger at this point.”

Michael sighed. “Neither do I,” he admitted. “That’s not the feeling I’m getting. Something very big, something wrong, something we aren’t expecting, but not danger.”

“Come tell me if that changes. Obviously whatever connects you two is strong enough to work despite the strongest ambient energy field on Gaia.”

“We will,” Trill said. “Now, go on back to Brad.”

Michael curled up in the living room in a nest partly of pillows and partly of one furry feline body, his head on Trill’s shoulder, hoping that there weren’t going to be any more dreams—not because he didn’t want to know, but because no more dreams probably meant nothing more to trigger further warnings.


1993, October 09

1993, October 09

Alex slept a long time the next morning; Brad, instead of getting up, reached for one of Alex’s books and spent the time practising his very tentative command of the Dyauran alphabet. It was like trying to read something written in a cipher, as long as he stuck with books written in Connaran which was basically English, but not impossible once you got the trick.

Finally, Alex stirred, right while Brad was in the midst of puzzling out a story about an amethyst dragon that also included the lyrics and music to a rather long song that appeared to need multiple voices. The Healer rolled over, gave him a shaky smile.

“You okay?” Brad asked softly, closing the book.

“Yeah. Or I will be, once it stops feeling so raw.” He looked down, up again. “I needed that. Thanks.”

Brad felt like collapsing in relief. Alex wasn’t mad at him for the trick, then. He leaned down, kissed him warmly. “D’riyes.”

That got him a more honest smile. “You learn Hillin fast.”

“The equivalent of ‘no problem’ is something I’ve heard often enough to catch it. Feel like getting up?”

“Mmm… nope.” He slid a hand around the back of Brad’s neck and gave him a much more meaningful kiss. “I feel more like turning you into whimpering jelly,” he murmured.

Brad considered that. For about two seconds. Then he dropped the book on the floor and responded.

All the tension from last night had fled utterly by the time they wandered downstairs—not only for Brad, but Alex looked more like himself, too.

“Well, good morning,” Trill greeted them. She and Liore looked quite comfortable on two cushions, stringing colourful beads from a shallow pottery bowl onto two fine cords. “We got to sleep late last night, did we?”

“We don’t know what all of us were doing, but we know that some of us were talking,” Alex said dryly.

Brad saw relief flash through the expressions of both women, but Trill only said lightly, “Talking? You can’t think of better ways to spend time than that? Gaetha, Alex, you’re going to ruin the ko’valhai reputation utterly.”

“Oh, I don’t know…” Brad said, and grinned when Alex threw him a dark look. “Where’d you lose Michael and Leatha?”

“Lia’s out hunting, she promised not to go very far down. Michael’s hanging out with Gayla. He seems to be finding leatherwork quite fascinating. Gayla made me a new whip, I’ll have to show you later.”

“Whip?” Brad asked.

Trill grinned. “Kinky thoughts? I knew I liked you for a reason. Not that kind of whip. We’re talking eight feet of braided leather that can do a lot of damage. My old one was twelve, but this one’s much nicer. And she made it out of black leather. I’m going to have to get back into practice.”

“Have fun,” Alex said. “Getting back into staff is no picnic. At least you’re less likely to get bruises. ‘Scuse us while we go find breakfast.”

* * *

Hours after breakfast, Brad went wandering around Skyreach. The easiest way to find someone was to ask, so he asked the nearest person where Gayla’s house was. The WindDancer helpfully listened, then asked him in strongly accented Connaran to wait and beckoned over someone who might have been human; the latter, once she understood, detoured out of her way to show him where.

With no doors to knock on and no doorbells, about all one could use was one’s voice. “Gayla?” he said, tentatively, but loud enough for it to carry.

L’ya? Tharai,” answered a female voice from within. He frowned to himself, thought he recalled tharai as welcome, so he ducked past the curtain.

Seated in the middle of the floor on a cushion, quite intent on doing something arcane with leather straps that appeared to be becoming an animal-halter, was a woman who had little horns peeking through her shoulder-length curly brown-and-black hair; woolly fur of the same colours covered her from about her lower ribs downwards as far as Brad could see, and since she was wearing only a leather halter supporting substantial breasts and a short leather skirt or loincloth or something, he could see a lot. She looked up, nodded greeting.

“Is Michael still around?” he asked.

Gayla shook her head. “Not at present. He has gone to the cliff. He said he needed to think.” Her English (or Connaran) was heavily accented, but quite understandable.

“Thanks.” He thought he could remember how to get there. He couldn’t resist asking, “He’s been having fun?”

She chuckled, a fascinating sound, with a hint of goat-like bleating in it. “Your brother has for leatherwork a fair talent.”

“I’m not surprised. Anyway, thanks.”

D’riyes.”

Brad dug back in his memory, found a path leading the right general direction.

When it opened onto the cliff, he was impressed with himself.

Michael was there, sitting alone, gazing out over the countryside below.

“Michael?”

Michael glanced towards him, smiled. “Heya.”

Brad took that to mean he wouldn’t be intruding if he stayed. He settled himself beside Michael on the drying grass.

“Have you been as busy as I have?”

Michael laughed. “You could say that. Trill and Nirain are teaching me a lot about self-defence, Gayla’s showing me leatherworking, all three keep hauling me off to show me this or get me to listen to that. Did you know there’s a play in the theatre soon?”

“Skyreach has a theatre? And who’s Nirain?”

“Nirain is a friend of Trill’s. He’s halesian. The eagles? I seem to be hanging out with shapeshifters a lot. He’s very cool, he’s part of the group that generally get called Gayla’s crowd. And yes, there is a theatre. It’s weird, like everything else, but watching a play done there should be interesting.”

“I’ll have to see if Alex knows. Sounds fun. Except that we’re going to lose a lot if it’s in Hillin.”

“Everybody keeps telling me that it won’t matter. What’ve you been doing?”

“Hanging out with the ko’valha. One of them has a t’vari, that’s a lifemate with some kind of bond I’m still working on grasping, his name’s Sunlark. The ko’valhai’s Dalisyn. And god, are they ever incredible musicians. I think they want to meet you and Lia before we leave. And learning herbalism from Alex and Irielle, she’s another ko’valhai. All really cool. Other than that I’m starting to feel guilty spending all this time with Alex and none with you except when we get together to practice.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it. We’re both busy. Getting interested in separate stuff for a while isn’t the end of the world. Either world. Speaking of Alex, though… I should probably tell you that Trill’s worried about him.”

“Over not talking about what happened? Mmhmm. So were all the ko’valha. I took Sunlark’s advice and tricked him into it last night.” Brad wrapped his arms around his knees, looking out over the vista without really seeing it. “They locked him up underground. Among other things.”

Michael shuddered. “That’s a damned sadistic thing to do to someone from a culture so claustrophobic their houses don’t even have walls.”

“Yeah. Anyway, he isn’t mad at me for tricking him. But it feels so awful, that I had to do that, and now everything’s all ripped open because of me and I can’t do anything to make it stop hurting…”

Silence, while Michael considered that. “How do you know you aren’t helping?”

“What?”

“He’s got more pride than a dozen lions, but he’s still smart enough to know what it took for you to do that. Which means he knows you love him that much. That’s one thing. How many times have I been hurting? And what have you always done? Given me a hug, listened to me while I told you everything that was wrong, gave me a shoulder to cry on, and made sure you told me you loved me and would always be there. That’s a hell of a lot more help than you give yourself credit for.”

“I don’t know,” Brad said doubtfully.

“Well, I do. You can’t just drown inside hurts in peroxide and stick a band-aid on them. They have to heal over alone. What you’ve always done for me is the best way you can help.”

Brad sighed. “I never felt like it was enough with you, either.”

“I’m still here.”

“True, which is one hell of an accomplishment for both of us.”

“Mmhmm. I’m glad I didn’t miss this, though. Skyreach is utterly bizarre sometimes. But it’s probably the most welcoming place I’ve ever been, ClanChipmunk aside. Nobody cares what kinds of stupid things I’ve done. Just what I do now while I’m here.”

Brad hugged him. “I know. Hanging out with the ko’valha and their mates is the first time I’ve ever been around a lot of other people who’re gay and bi. Neat feeling.”

“I bet. Things are looking pretty awesome for the future, y’know? Our own house, a band I bet’ll be great, Skyreach to come to…”

“Uh-huh. Now we just need to find you a lady-love…”

“Um…”

Brad pulled away, gave him an arch look. “We don’t? Trill or Leatha?”

“Um…”

“Both?”

“Yeah.”

“Michael, really. Aren’t you supposed to be the normal one around here?”

Michael shrugged, spread his hands. “What can I say? I was sleeping with Leatha once in a while, nothing serious on either side, and I kinda knew she was sleeping with Trill too. Then a couple of nights ago she invited Trill to join us…”

Brad couldn’t help laughing, although he tried not to. “God, Michael, can you see how funny that is?”

“Yeah, I can see it.”

“So is this something serious and committed, or just casual and open, or what?”

“Nobody’s quite sure at the moment, and I’ve got my doubts about Lia following any rules but her own. Trill and I got talking, though, and what it looks like is sort of a triangle. Lia can do what she wants, but Trill and I are both thinking just each other and Lia.”

“Sounds very very cool.”

“I was worried, for a while. That romantic stuff inside the band might be bad. I mean, breakups are bad enough without it destroying everything else along with it. From what Trill says, that’s basically a cultural thing. Wolves may do casual relationships with whoever but for anything serious they deliberately choose people they’re going to be working with. Apparently it’s fairly common in the whole Dyaura, maybe because there are wolves all over but who knows. And if the emotional connections involved are strong ones to begin with, working together tends to just make them stronger. You and I always planned on a band together. Trill and Alex have been just as close forever. Assuming Alex doesn’t drive you completely crazy and Trill and I do okay, that sounds like a pretty good foundation. And Lia, well, she’s a cat.”

“Very cool idea.” If there was a single fracture anywhere within the group, it lay between Michael and Alex, but he had to give both credit for making an effort to keep conflict minimal. He was personally still hoping fervently that they’d accept that he didn’t have to choose one over the other. “So everything is heading towards perfect. And all that nonsense you used to give me about how hard it’d be to find a girl who’d take you as you are and not care about the past obviously was as silly as I told you it was.”

“Yeah. Although I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of a relationship with a werewolf and a mountain lion.”

“No worse than a ko’valhai. I haven’t seen half the strangeness of that yet, I’m quite sure. Trill saved Alex’s life, y’know. When he and Trevar were locked up. She got them out. I seriously can’t imagine anyone less like your mom.”

“Yeah. Anyone thumping on her kids would be lucky to survive it. And good luck trying to thump on her.”

They sat quietly for a while, until the lowering sun made the temperature drop and hinted that they should go find supper and think about practice.

For no readily apparent reason, Brad couldn’t seem to get the fingering right, the handful of times he pulled out his own guitar to help with working out the best way to do something or to see how it sounded with the extra instrument. Even more annoyingly, his voice wandered off-key to a degree it hadn’t done since it broke during puberty. Alex checked to see if he was getting sick, but found nothing out of the ordinary, and it was concluded that he was simply tired from doing so much lately. Which led to the question of whether they needed a vacation from their vacation.

They talked again about Trill’s hope that they could go camping overnight in the valley, and heeded Kallir’s advice that if they were going to do so, they should do so as soon as possible: they decided to go the following day.

Brad stumbled twice on the way up the stairs; Alex fixed the minor damage without comment, but Brad thought his expression looked rather puzzled and maybe slightly worried. He wouldn’t discuss it, though, only helped Brad get safely into bed and cuddled him close until they both fell asleep.


1993, October 08

1993, October 08

“Alex?” Brad murmured, nestling against him comfortably, his head on Alex’s shoulder.

“Mmhmm?” Alex was sleepy-satisfied, but not anywhere near asleep; both liked to spend a while just cuddling and talking after making love.

Brad couldn’t help feeling guilty that he was about to completely shatter the comfortable peace… but he’d spent a long time thinking today, through everything else: helping Irielle with an ointment for open wounds, watching Moth and Alex work out, watching Trill teaching Michael basic self-defence and being coaxed into joining in himself.

“Will you tell me something?”

“Sure.”

“Anything?”

“Anything. Promise.”

Brad bit his lip. His own instincts confirmed Sunlark’s words: Alex had to talk. “Tell me what happened to you and Trill and Trevar while you were gone?”

Alex flinched, pulled away, rolling over to put his back to him. “No.”

“You promised.”

“That’s not fair.”

Brad sat up halfway, bracing himself on his hand, and forced his voice to steadiness. “Neither is the patronizing attitude you get into just a little too often. Neither is being shut out of something that had that much of an effect on you. Neither, for that matter, was you going off to hunt this blood-wizard and not giving me any way to know if you were alive or dead. Life’s not fair.” The guilt hurt, but with it was anger, at the one who hurt Alex so badly, at Alex for being so stubborn and making him go to such lengths.

Alex twisted around to face him. “You have no gaethani idea what you’re asking.”

“Oh, of course not. I’m completely innocent, I was in an ivory tower when you found me and it’s up to you to protect me from the harsh realities of life. I’m so sheltered that I have no clue what it means that you still wake up from nightmares that half the time leave you shaking for an hour and that you still can’t walk inside a normal house without using more self-control than I’ve ever had to keep from running back outside. I have absolutely no clue what all the scars and the fact that you were nothing except skin over bone might conceivably have been caused by.”

Utter silence for a long moment.

Alex moved back towards him, pressing close; Brad hugged him hard, but waited.

“Please?” Alex whispered. “I don’t mean to be patronizing, I’m sorry. Don’t make me keep that promise.”

Anger would have been easier to fight than that. Brad kissed him gently, but said firmly, “Tell me.”

* * *

Now what? Alex wondered. He’d promised, he couldn’t break it. And he knew he needed to tell it to someone…

So why not Brad? asked the reasonable part of his mind.

The protective part rebelled at the very idea.

Do you want a partner or not? the reasonable part said. If you want a partner, then listen to what he’s saying. He’s not that innocent, he grew up helping Michael, and you know worse happened there than you’ve heard…

But oh, gods, to deliberately face the memories he was trying so hard to pretend weren’t there…

Come on, ko’valhai. You don’t heal a wound with the knife still in it. You’ve held enough people while they cried over something that hurts to talk about.

Brad included.

Falteringly, Alex closed his eyes, and reached back to the memories he’d been desperately avoiding.

* * *

Brad listened silently, sometimes losing the sense of the often disjointed phrasing that had a few unfamiliar words thrown in, but he comprehended enough to get the idea.

The blood-wizard was protected against any form of scrying, and a massive manhunt would only have driven him into hiding. A small group was the only solution. They’d tracked this blood-wizard, always pretending to be doing something else to avoid drawing attention, struggling to catch up and identify him, and it just got worse every time he moved on to another town and left behind small bodies. They had permission to cross borders as necessary, the prince who had sent them having been in quiet contact with his counterparts in the nearby countries, and they needed to do so. Everything else ceased to matter; there was only finding and stopping their target. They got close, and gave him a bad scare: the werewolf sense of smell was legendary for a good reason, and Trill and Trevar managed to catch his scent.

The blood-wizard somehow managed to convince an outlaw group that they should admit him, and had more or less taken over. They had a base in an old, theoretically abandoned tower. Somehow Brad wasn’t quite clear on, the outlaw group managed to ambush Alex and the two wolves. Trill had escaped; Alex and Trevar had been captured. The blood wizard wanted information from Alex, something Alex referred to only as what Skydancer gave us to protect Skyreach, and which he would have stopped his own heart to keep from giving up to someone who would use it to torture and kill. Blood-magic wouldn’t work on a ko’valhai so he couldn’t be forced directly; being chained in one of the rooms under the tower was a less direct attempt to convince him to cooperate. Only Trevar’s presence, though they couldn’t touch, and the knowledge that Trill was free kept him from making himself die in the utter darkness underground; as it was, he was sure that there were long stretches of time missing entirely. Memories of life outside, of music and moonlight, helped in the more lucid moments.

Trill had devised a distraction and got them out, barely, and they’d spent an extended period on a guerrilla war, lurking in the wilderness and picking off the outlaws one at a time until they finally turned on the blood-wizard, who chose to leave rather than fight his erstwhile allies.

This time they were too close behind him for him to have the chance to establish bolt holes anywhere. They cornered him finally, and with considerable difficulty killed him and made sure he would stay dead, and then stumbled back into Shilayan in search of the first village they could find.

Alex had no memory of getting from there to Skyreach. When he woke later, with Liore there, she told him he’d been unconscious almost constantly for a full sennight, waking only enough to stumble to the bathroom, responding when coaxed partially awake to eat, then drifting off again. Kiall, the prince they worked for, had been horrified by the condition they were in and had sent his most trusted friends to get Alex and Trill home.

It took several more days before he was anything like functional. Only then did Kallir tell him about a message that had arrived on Skyreach from ClanChipmunk, that she hadn’t yet decided how to answer. Alex left within the hour. That was only likely to be one person. He’d Pathed it directly—he’d automatically worked out the Paths long long ago because Renee was in the area. He’d intended to take Brad along that same route in the other direction, someday, carefully.

And, soon, he knocked on Brad’s door with his heart pounding, deathly certain that Brad would have forgotten him or moved on. But Brad greeted him with a hug fit to strangle him, and they no longer had to pretend about feelings, and Brad already knew Gaia and other than the damage inside and outside to himself, everything was right with the world…

Brad wished with all he was that he could take some of the hurt, but he couldn’t, so he did the only thing he could do: hug him hard, let him bury the sobs in his shoulder, make sure Alex knew he was there.

Alex wept himself to sleep, in fact. The tears stilled, the sobs quieted, his breathing slowed and evened out.

It took Brad longer to get to sleep. He had too much to think about. Part of it was trying to reconcile the fact that the same hands that were so gentle with him had, not so terribly long ago, killed more than once. He agreed that in all cases it was well-deserved and necessary, but it was a disturbing thought. So were the references to what Skydancer had given the ko’valha. There were mysteries upon mysteries to Alex.

Was he getting himself into something more than he could handle?

He wasn’t going to reach any conclusions tonight; he closed his eyes, and would have been surprised at how easily he fell asleep.


1993, October 07, continued

1993, October 07, continued

Michael sprawled on his back across ‘his’ bed, wondering where Leatha would choose to sleep tonight: here with him in what was technically Trill’s bed, or downstairs furform with Trill.

Some time ago, Leatha had invited herself into his bed, and he hadn’t seen any particular reason to refuse. Okay, so, she was technically not human, but she was intensely physical and responsive and playful. Tantarra in Felithan, apparently, saw sex as purely for making kittens, something brief and direct, and even then was less about choice than the overwhelming urges of being in heat; given Merra with Hawk and Brad, and his own experience with Leatha, they seemed to be taking to the idea of sex as enjoyable and voluntary with enthusiasm.

It had been a little disconcerting when he’d realized that she spent as much time with Trill as with him, but only for a short time. She was a cat, she had no concept of shame; what made her incredible in bed also meant he could put no chains on her.

He decided on sleep, stripped, and nestled between the blankets. One tap darkened the quartz light—marvellous inventions, those. Warm and comfortable, he closed his eyes, let himself relax.

His hearing picked up the faint sounds of motion; it couldn’t be anything dangerous, so he tracked it without opening his eyes. Coming near the side of the bed, behind him…

“Michael,” Leatha purred. “You aren’t asleep, are you?”

“No,” he told her. “Well, getting there, but I can wake up for a good reason.”

“I have two good reasons.” Her slender weight settled on the edge of the bed, and she leaned down to kiss him, her long hair tickling his shoulder where it was partially bared.

“Two?”

“Me.”

Sudden weight on the other side of the bed, and a very different kiss—more skillful than Leatha’s, just as passionate. “And me,” Trill chuckled, low in her throat. “Lia invited me along.” She shoved the blankets back, and he was too startled to protest; she ran one finger in a lazy circle around his nearer nipple. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“Um… no, I don’t think I do…” Leatha’s hand went lower, with her usual directness, tickling his balls briefly, then stroking with her fingertips. It didn’t take much for him to start getting hard under her hand.

What is this supposed to be? Throw ’em both out, this is too weird and too kinky.

Then again… Trill is fucking gorgeous… they sleep together without me… why not all three of us?

He failed to come up with a reason before being distracted from such abstract concepts. Trill made an exasperated noise at his inaction, grabbed his hands, and slid them up under the loose linen shirt she was wearing. “You do know what to do with a woman, O’Connery?” she asked challengingly.

He untangled from both, sat up, and slid his hand around the back of her neck to steady her for a deep kiss, ran the other up her back under the shirt, stroking the smooth skin. She allowed that only briefly, before pulling her own shirt off impatiently and dropping it on the floor, and following it with the remainder of her clothes. Michael gave himself a moment to appreciate the sight, unhindered by the darkness—lighter skin where it wasn’t tanned, the soft curve of wide hips to full waist to large breasts, the areolae large and dark, but not half so dark as the triangle of curly pubic fur. He knew she could take him down in seconds, but right now, she only looked beautiful and sensual.

The contrast of the two naked women, dark-tanned bronze cat with her spare athletic build, lighter-skinned black wolf with her generous curves, was absolutely breath-taking.

Trill knelt on the bed, then stretched, arching backwards, showing off. “Like what you see?” she asked archly.

“Very much so.”

“Good. It’s mutual.”

Leatha made an impatient noise, pushed Trill down on her back, and lowered her head to lick one nipple. “You get the other side,” she told Michael.

He rearranged himself on his knees, leaned down, bracing himself on one hand. Carefully, he ran his tongue over the nipple nearest him, then circled it a few times. Trill stretched her arms over her head, yielding utterly with little whimpers of pleasure. He sucked on it, got a stronger reaction—at least, he thought it was him and not Lia. A repetition got the same response, a twitch, a low moan, so he took as much of that breast in his mouth as he could, sucking on it and flicking the tip of the nipple with his tongue.

Trill gave a soft cry, then a breathless laugh. “Gaetha, Michael, you learn fast. You can’t hurt me that way, I don’t mind teeth.”

Teeth, huh? He backed off just a little, gently bit the nipple, toying with it with teeth and tongue and lips. Gradually he got a little rougher; the rougher he got, the more she encouraged him, interspersing it with praising Leatha as well.

Enough of that. He rocked forward, kissed her again, stretching out beside her and stroking her stomach and thighs with his free hand. Leatha nudged Trill’s legs apart, moved, and buried her face between Trill’s parted thighs, the low thunder of her purr now quite audible.

That was distracting, curiosity made him want to watch that instead, but he kept his attention on kissing Trill, on his hand roaming around her body, on nibbling he throat so she gasped in helpless laughter that this wasn’t fair. Her hips bucked a bit, as she moaned more loudly, the nails of one hand digging into his back and those of the other into the bed. Violently, she shuddered, her breath catching hard, then she relaxed again, chest rising and falling quickly.

“Lia, slow down,” she growled. “I don’t intend to get worn out that fast.”

Leatha raised her head, licking her lips in satisfaction. “Just warming you up,” she said innocently.

“Wench.” She pushed Michael away, then looked at him thoughtfully. “How many times can you do in a night?”

“Two or three?” With this pair here, he was pretty sure being sufficiently turned on wasn’t going to be a problem.

“Glad to hear it.”


1993, October 07

1993, October 07

On Skyreach, it seemed like there was always much more to do than there was time to do it in.

Brad had spent the morning with Irielle, doing about the same amount again of the ointment and then sharing lunch with her. Sunlark had left a message with her that if Brad were willing, he’d like very much for them to get together and talk music.

Trill was planning on the five of them doing a camping trip down in the valley, just for one night, sometime very soon before the temperature dropped any further.

There was always practice, when all five could be pried away from their various pursuits long enough, which Brad predicted was going to become increasingly difficult as Skyreach reached out to include them.

Presently, he was sitting on the grass, watching with fascination as Alex and Moth attacked each other with five-foot staves of smooth wood, Moth’s golden-brown, Alex’s pale and creamy. Even to him it was obvious that Moth was doing much better than Alex was, and could have defeated him readily had he so wished.

They finally backed apart, both panting.

Gaetha, mehru,” Moth said. “One would never know there was a time you could beat me with staff. How long since you held one last?”

Alex shrugged, ran his sleeve across his forehead to catch the sweat. “When did I get home?”

“No one will ask you to do any further work for the Shi’kiyans, but do you think it is wise to allow your skills to slip so badly?”

“I think it’s incredibly stupid. The whole defend Skyreach to the death thing becomes a little too easy if I get myself killed immediately.”

“You have, truth, been in no condition for it. Well, if you like, we can start working out every day while you’re here.”

“Oh, I’d like. I’ll probably lose it all over again, living on Earth and concentrating on music, but let’s see if we can minimize it.”

“Then guard yourself.”

And they went at it again.

Brad glanced up when a shadow fell across him, and saw mostly scarlet and yellow silk in the sun. Sunlark sat gracefully beside him, and cocked his head sideways to watch the two ko’valha for a moment. Then he shrugged.

“Did Irielle pass on my message?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“I’d like that.”

Sunlark smiled. “Good. Now? They’ll be at this quite some time yet, I think. Or later, if you prefer to stay and watch.”

“Now,” Brad decided. “Once they stop, so I can tell Alex I’m going instead of vanishing on him.”

“Quite fair.”

It took a few minutes before the next pause. Brad called to Alex, and his lover came over immediately, greeting Sunlark with a nod.

“I’m going to steal your mate away from you for a time,” Sunlark said. “We’ll be at my house. Try not to get beaten so badly that you are of no use to Brad later, hm?”

Alex ignored that last, looked to Brad instead. “You’ll be all right?”

Sunlark rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“I’ll be fine, don’t worry so much,” Brad assured him.

“You have my oath as t’vari that if Skyreach should be invaded by an enemy this afternoon, I will defend your mate to my last breath,” Sunlark said dryly. “Gaetha. Ko’valha. On second thought, let Moth beat you a bit, maybe it will help.” He rose gracefully, held down both hands to Brad. A little hesitantly, Brad accepted them, let Sunlark help him to his feet with surprising strength.

Alex stole a quick kiss. “See you later on. Have fun.” He turned back to Moth.

Brad kept pace with Sunlark to Kallir’s house.

“You like teasing Alex, don’t you?” he said finally.

Sunlark laughed. “The ko’valha take themselves much too seriously. They do have much power, and memories of other lives, but they tend to forget that they are in this life and mortal and fallible with the rest of us. They need to be reminded of that.”

“Is that what t’vari do?”

“It is a part of what we do, yes, but being t’vari is no requirement for knocking Alex back a step once in a while. They all need it. You can ask any t’vari and get the same reply.”

“Oh, I believe you.”

They collected Brad’s guitar, Sunlark calling a greeting to Kallir who was sitting outside in the sun sewing something, which she returned. Most of Skyreach, it seemed, was of similar mind, doing whatever small tasks they could outside where they could absorb the late fall sun. Even the ones sitting alone weren’t really alone, between people wandering by en route somewhere and neighbours who were close enough to be aware of, though not close enough to talk.

“Have you been on Skyreach a long time?” Brad asked, wondering when Sunlark was going to tell him to mind his own business but curious anyway.

“Oh, quite some time. I lost count. More than a decade.”

“Did Dalisyn bring you?”

N’lai, he was not even on Skyreach at the time. A performing troupe found me and two other younglings being abused, and the WindDancers and ylandisi who were part of it could not look the other way. Only I survived, and that while wondering what the mysterious WindDancers might want of me. Dal came home, took one look at me, chased everyone away, and spent the next year and more winning my trust and my heart, not necessarily in that order. Were we not lifemates, I am not sure he would have been able to at all.”

“Wait a minute.” Inwardly he groaned. Was he ever going to sort out all the details of the obviously complex nature of ko’valha and t’vari? Every time he thought he was beginning to understand, someone threw something new at him. “How could you be lifemates before you ever met?”

“You know the ko’valha come back between lives?”

“Yes, Alex got that far.”

“T’vari stay with their mates. Dalisyn and I first lifemated several walks, several lifetimes, ago. He remembers, and always recognizes me. I do neither, though sometimes I dream those other lives and occasionally touch them at other moments. It makes no real difference, other than that Dal tells me that each walk it takes less time for us to bond. Each walk, until that time, I am free to walk away. I choose to stay at Dalisyn’s side, and for all the prices, I’ve no regrets.”

They walked quietly for a while, Brad mulling that over, well outside the central cluster of houses to a smallish one standing on its own.

The living room was cluttered and comfortable, strewn with instruments: Brad saw Sunlark’s harp, Dalisyn’s pipes, a shiri a bit larger than Alex’s, a wooden flute trailing feathers, a silver flute, a small wooden drum with leather stretched over the mouth, a guitar-shaped case with startlingly familiar stickers plastered all over it. His attention was caught by another instrument, a shallow four-sided wooden box with wires stretched across it, wider at one end than the other, making the wires vary in length.

Sunlark noticed his interest, and chuckled. He sat down, took a triangular amber-clear pick from under two of the strings, and played a brief pretty tune. “Dal keeps it for nostalgic reasons. The design has been much improved since he first learned to play it.” He shrugged, grinned. “When I say anything, he kisses me and tells me I taught him to play one while we were courting the first time and he likes the memories. What can I say to that?”

“Not much,” Brad agreed. “You can play all these?”

“At least a little, yes, although harp is definitely where my skill and heart both lie. Dalisyn prefers wind. I prefer strings.”

That led into a discussion of various types of instruments, then various types of music, and experimenting with a few songs. Brad worked out guitar chords to go with a harp-and-vocal piece, and Sunlark improvised a harp background to one of Brad’s favourite songs.

Curiously, in a pause, Brad ran a hand over the guitar case, looked to Sunlark for permission. The t’vari nodded, smiling, so Brad drew it nearer and opened it.

Reverently, he traced the sunburst pattern in the rich tawny wood with one finger. “Gibson?”

“Yes. Nineteen-fifty-eight.”

“God, it’s gorgeous. May I?”

L’ya.”

Carefully, he lifted it out, settled the heavy guitar in place, and ran his fingers over the strings. It was more of a challenge to play, but the sound… he closed his eyes, losing himself completely in the so-beautiful sound.

When he opened his eyes, Sunlark was sprawled on one side, listening with a contented smile. “You do it justice.”

“Where did you get this?”

“Dalisyn first took me to Earth many years ago. That was our lifebonding gift to me, as Dal’s was his silver flute. We spent some time performing as a duet in a number of clubs, in fact, though not at first with those.”

“It must have cost a fortune.” With great care, he laid it back in its case, closed the lid.

“There are those who can and will exchange money into endless forms, or provide ID for Gaian-born who need it—l’ya, not precisely legal, but necessary of late with this increasing obsession with legal proof that you exist. As for where we got the money to have changed… Skyreach jewellery is prized in the lowlands and beyond. We have some very pretty and unique varieties of agate locally, and we trade with allies deeper in the Hills for some very unusual gemstones, and we have some very skilled crafters. A few friends, Kallir included, donated one item each, and combined it was more than enough.”

“That’s wild.”

Sunlark smiled. “Skyreach is not paradise, but in some things, at least, there is never want. Play it again.”

That request he could hardly refuse; on a few, Sunlark improvised accompaniment on his harp, the combination creating a fascinating effect.

Much later, Brad looked up, realized it was dark outside the colourful curtains and that the quartz lights had gradually increased their glow to keep the light level within fairly constant. “Oh, god, is it ever late. Alex is going to throw fits.”

“If he does, he has no right to. Your time is your own, to do with as you wish. You are perfectly safe on Skyreach so long as you do not go down the mountain much lower than the Portal alone. All of Skyreach is aware of you by now. Still, I think we’ve spent long enough at this for today. Another time, perhaps?”

“I’d like that.”

“So would I.” Sunlark stretched, and in his left ear metal glittered, the ring he’d noticed before that Sunlark and Arolie and Cryssa had. Daringly, he shifted position so he could reach, cupped it against his palm so he could see it clearly. Sunlark held still, in fact tilting his head to make it easier.

The dangling pendant was a circled crest, different from the one on Brad’s necklace but not entirely unlike it.

“Dalisyn’s crest,” Sunlark said, confirming Brad’s guess. “He put it in the day I was recognized as t’vari, and nothing save a knife can remove it. A long-time mate might wear a similar one, with a normal clasp that can be removed, but always in the right ear. Only t’vari wear a crest in the left.”

“I’ll remember that.” Brad let go, automatically closed his hand around the silver medallion he still wore. Maybe there remained layers of meaning to it he didn’t know yet?

Sunlark’s turn to reach out and cup it gently, then turn it over. “Alex gave you this? When? Before he was called away or since?”

“Before.”

Smiling, Sunlark released it. “Do not take it off, ever, when you are here. It marks you as the beloved of a ko’valhai, and that is no small protection in the Hills for some way around Skyreach and in some other areas.”

“I hadn’t really planned on taking it off anywhere, but that’s interesting to know.”

Sunlark sobered, rearranged himself with his feet tucked under him. “I am going to be somewhat nosey, but I am also going to plead concern for a friend as my excuse. I know Alex went through a great deal while he was gone that only Trill and Trevar know of, and perhaps they not even all. Has he, perhaps, opened up to you and told you of it?”

Brad shook his head. “No. I know he came back incredibly claustrophobic, which is better now but still worse than he wants anyone to know, and he wakes up from nightmares every two or three nights. I’ve seen the scars, and he lost scary amounts of weight. But he won’t actually say anything about it. Lately I’ve started asking a bit, very carefully, but he just goes distant on me and says there’s no point giving me nightmares too.”

Sunlark sighed. “That was what we feared. It is unfortunately a ko’valhai trait to be very stubborn about wishing to stand alone, though they will drain themselves utterly to help another. One would think a Healer would know it cannot heal locked inside.”

“Any ideas?” Sunlark was probably the best one he could ask for advice of that particular kind—and it was a profound relief to have someone to ask, instead of being alone with the increasing fear of whether Alex would heal or break.

“Make him talk—and be prepared for anything that comes. By fair means or foul, make him talk. If he will not do so easily, then catch him unprepared in a quiet moment alone, five minutes after making love if you must. Should he force you to it, use guilt or tricks or blackmail or anything else that comes to hand. I will warn you not to lie directly or to bluff, I have never met a ko’valhai who falls for either.” Sunlark met his gaze with deep blue-green eyes, his expression more sober than Brad had yet seen. “It is not an easy thing, I know. I still feel bad when I must use such things on Dal—but he would tell you himself that there are times nothing else works on them.”

Brad faltered, looked away, uncomfortable memories stirring: get it together or get out, I can’t stand back and watch you kill yourself while I help you do it. “He’s not necessarily going to forgive me for that.”

“Truth. Is the risk worth it to you?

“I… think I need to think about that.”

“Should you decide not, then tell me. Sheryn may be able to persuade him to talk, or Moth or Irielle. You, however, have the best chance. So. Shall we get you back to your lovestruck mate? I do not think you will find Kallir’s house alone in the dark, and I do think Alex would flay me if I let you even make the attempt.”

“Sure.”

Sunlark was uncharacteristically quiet during the walk, but it was a friendly silence, not a cold one. Brad decided he liked having another friend on Skyreach, even if Skylark’s sheer flamboyance would probably have scared him off in any other circumstances. Something to think about. Like he needed anything more to think about right now.

Alex greeted him with a hug, abandoning the book he’d been lying on the floor reading. “You were gone a while. You were having fun, I take it.”

“Lots,” Brad said contentedly, and glanced back to thank Sunlark, only to find him gone already. “Sunlark’s very cool. Didn’t see Dalisyn at all, though.”

“Dalisyn might be working, might be hanging out with his family. For all I know, he might be sitting alone at the cliff, he likes to do that occasionally. Sunlark is weird, extravagant, often annoying, and deliberately as flighty as possible, but yes, he’s an awesome musician and neat to talk to when he can be persuaded to settle down long enough.”

That didn’t exactly tally with Brad’s observations, but he let it go. “Have a good work-out with Moth?”

“I’m going to be in serious pain tomorrow. Can I maybe talk you into a backrub later?”

“‘Course you can.”

As usual, another busy day ended with supper and practice.


1993, October 06

1993, October 06

Someone called Alex’s name from outside, while he and Brad cleaned up breakfast dishes and tried to decide what to do today.

Alex stopped, listening intently, and the call was repeated.

“Come in,” he answered, loud enough for it to carry.

The person who ducked through the curtain was certainly interesting: not as tall as Alex but taller than Brad, lean but something in the way he moved, graceful and self-assured, made Brad suspect he was stronger than he wanted to seem. Long raven-black hair was braided with ribbons, beads, and feathers, mostly bright scarlet and sun-yellow, matching the loose silky clothing he wore. He crossed the room directly to Brad, and—why wasn’t he surprised?—hugged him.

“I’m Sunlark naDalisyn. You have to be Brad. Enjoying Skyreach? It’s a fascinating place when you’re new here, n’lai? I still have very vivid memories of the first time I saw it. But I’m not going to tell you how long ago that was. So. I’ve come to invite you both to a party, and you may not decline because the party is for you. And bring the instruments of your choice, because I’ve been hearing some bragging that I have a rival, and if I do I want to know about it now.” He grinned, tucked a fluttering feather behind one ear. “Well? What are you waiting for?”

“A chance to get a word in edgewise,” Alex said dryly. “Did you breathe at all in there?”

Sunlark looked sulky. “I’m going to tell Dal you were mean to me.”

“He’s not going to care.”

Sunlark laughed merrily at that. “True, but it’s amazing how many people get scared when I say that.” He gave Brad a saucy wink. “Let’s just say ko’valha get a little possessive of their t’vari. Everyone’s waiting. Move.”

“Right,” Alex said. “Back in a minute.”

They went to the living room to get their guitars.

“He’s crazy, but he’s been Dalisyn’s t’vari for years,” Alex murmured. “He’s older than he looks. I was wondering when they’d do this.”

“Why not last time?”

“Dalisyn, Taryl, and their t’vari were due back soon, for one thing. For another, because they wanted to give you a chance to catch your breath and get a little used to Skyreach first. And Skydancer, the fit Sunlark would’ve thrown if they hadn’t waited for him…” He shook his head. “They’ll want to meet Michael and Leatha later, and hear us all together, but right now it’s you they want to meet.”

Brad had no time to reply; they were back in the kitchen, and Sunlark urged them outside.

“Everyone really wants to meet you,” Sunlark said, while they walked through the dying grass. “It’s not every day one of the ko’valha brings home a mate none of us have met. One of the Skyreach ko’valha, at that.”

“Um, aren’t all ko’valha…”

“Technically, yes, but in actual fact there’s a sort of core group that stay on Skyreach or visit often, and a few living in Windsong which is much smaller and newer than Skyreach, a long way north of here, and a number who are all over. A few wander with performing troupes, a few are spending extended periods working for the Shi’kiyans either travelling with the peacekeepers or looking after a Hills community, a few are currently elsewhere for various reasons. It stretches us a bit thin at moments, but some will be back for the winter and that will help. We could, I think, have twice the ko’valha and still keep them all busy, but we manage. Even with an unusually low proportion currently who have t’vari to help. Currently, there are eleven who base strongly on Skyreach, not including Alex.” He wrinkled his nose at Alex. “This one’s sort of a borderline case.”

“I’ll borderline you, t’vari,” Alex growled, but Brad didn’t think he was serious.

“Anyway, everyone’s very curious about you.”

“Is it too late to run for home?” Brad asked.

“There’s nothing to worry about. We couldn’t even arrange for everyone to be there, and none of the young ones still in training will be. In all, there will be seven ko’valha there and the mates or t’vari of six of them, and you’ve already met Moth, and me, so only eleven left. That isn’t so bad.”

Brad wasn’t so sure, but he stayed quiet.

Sunlark didn’t take them far, only to a house that was a little outside the main cluster.

“This is Kathyr’s house,” Sunlark said. “She and her t’vari Arolie are senior of the three mated pairs here. So we use this as our centre for parties a lot.” He pulled back the curtain, shooed them inside. “Found them,” he sang out.

“Of course you did, peacock,” said one of the far too many WindDancers sprawled on cushions around the room. Not all WindDancers, there were a few of other races, but they were the clear majority.

Interestingly, the WindDancers present each had a clear area of personal space immediately around them, into which the non-WindDancers could apparently trespass freely but not each other. It wasn’t all that large a circumference, which was just as well since it was a lot of people in a single room and trying for more space would have been impossible. He made a mental note to ask Alex about it later, or maybe Trill. The non-WindDancers present had settled themselves wherever there was room remaining.

WindDancer ages and sexes were hard to judge, but if he had to guess, Brad would have said they were a mix of male and female, with ages ranging between roughly his own quite some way up, since a few had considerable silver in that distinctive dark auburn.

A tanned woman with shoulder-length greying blonde hair, in a loose belted hip-length off-white tunic and beige leather trousers under it, sat upright with her legs crossed, a carved wooden cup resting on her ankle with her hand supporting it. The WindDancer nearest to her was, probably, one of the older ones present, and similarly in leather trousers but with an off-white top that might be knitted or something to fit so closely, leaving her lower arms bare; one hand was planted on the floor for support, probably not coincidentally directly behind the blonde woman. Sunlark introduced them as Arolie and Kathyr, which meant this was their house and they were the senior pair.

A light-skinned younger woman had much longer hair of a rather remarkable blue-green that looked natural and that went with the delicate webbing between her long fingers; she was wearing loose-fitting pants woven in bright multicoloured triangles and a white short-sleeved top with a drawstring neck that was embroidered with matching triangles, and her hair was braided with ribbons that matched the colours. She was lounging more casually, to what extent she could, both feet tucked up beside her, and actually leaning against the WindDancer beside her, whose hair was all dark and who was wearing a similar style but the pants were muted tie-dyed swirls in shades of blue and white, and the top was simply pale blue. According to Sunlark, Cryssa and her mate Taryl. Hadn’t Moth mentioned her when doing the run-down of who was where? The name sounded vaguely familiar, at least.

He didn’t recognize Moth, with no other cues and in the midst of a group of multiple WindDancers, until Sunlark’s offhanded, “You met Moth.” Beside him was a strong-featured, broad-shouldered man with hair so dark a gold as to border on bronze; there was a sense there of physical power, though Brad doubted he was any taller than him. He was clad in loose pants that seemed to be open up the outside seams and tied at the waist, and a kind of wrapped shirt to match, both of some soft-looking brown fabric. Davin, Sunlark said, who must be the halesian Moth had told Alex about, the silversmith who had his own shop somewhere else.

There was a more ordinary-looking man, too, light ash-brown hair pulled back into a neat tail Brad couldn’t see the length of, probably not quite ‘Dancer tall but that was all lean muscle that showed under his clothes—more of that probably knitted stuff, in this case both trousers and a sleeveless top in a soft grey with an abstract mossy-green design in it. He had one knee raised, his arms draped over it, and had apparently been talking to both the WindDancer nearest him, who was in silvery-coloured leather trousers and a short-sleeved forest-green top, and to another close to them, who was in much darker leather trousers and a matching halter top. Caolan, Sunlark said, and Brad made a mental note of the first vowel, very much hoping he could get it right and not offend or hurt anyone; his mate was Sheryn, which was another name that faintly rung bells, and the one in dark leather was Irielle.

Only one person present looked truly alien: she resembled a cross between a human and a black and white housecat, feline ears parting thick jaw-length bi-coloured hair, eyes as feline as Leatha’s gazing at him inquisitively out of a basically human but bi-coloured face, wearing snug black shorts that left room for her tail and a white halter-top. Her feet resembled feline paws, though her legs were otherwise human, and her hands looked more or less normal other than the slightly claw-like nails. He couldn’t be sure but thought she had fur at least some places.

“That’s Dart, she’s a mhaurri and don’t feel bad about never seeing one before because there certainly aren’t any on Earth and as far as I know they tend to be only in the Dyaura. And that’s her mate Breyanne beside her. The gorgeous one over there is my lord and love Dalisyn.”

That one was in blue and green silky stuff similar to Sunlark’s, and there was some silver in his hair.

Lord and love? Brad thought in amusement.

They were greeted with enthusiasm that reminded him very much of ClanChipmunk, though fewer hugs. Given how often he’d seen WindDancers hug, including Alex, that seemed odd. Maybe it was a ko’valhai thing. But blonde Arolie and blue-haired Cryssa both gave Brad very pleasant hugs. Each, Brad noticed, had a similar earring on the left, a ring with no obvious clasp through the lobe with a dangling pendant that reminded him a little of the symbol on one face of the pendant Alex had given him, though the actual design was different; Sunlark had one, too, but not the others.

It took only moments for Sunlark to produce a small harp of wood that had a red-gold sheen to it, bright ribbons fluttering from the soundbox, and Dalisyn a set of panpipes trailing strands of beads.

“I think we’ve been challenged,” Alex commented to Brad.

“I think so, too.” This, at least, was familiar ground. Musically, he had no doubt he could hold his own. He took his guitar out of its case, checked the tuning to be sure it had held, and settled it on his lap to wait for Alex.

“Would you like to start?” Sunlark asked graciously.

Alex glanced at Brad, who groaned to himself when it occurred to him exactly what was going on. Sunlark’s challenge was for the newcomer personally; Dalisyn and Alex were going to leave it up to them, simply providing back-up.

“Thank you,” he told Sunlark gravely, and began the opening chords to one of their own best. Alex joined in promptly. Brad put as much power behind it as he could, determined not to be taken lightly musically, whatever else they might decide to think of Alex’s lover.

He had the satisfaction of seeing Sunlark’s eyebrows rise and his expression turn thoughtful, as he listened intently with his arms crossed on top of the harp.

They finished the song, and Brad laid his guitar across his lap with more calmness than he actually felt and gestured an invitation to Sunlark.

The t’vari grinned, shifting his position so he could run his fingers lightly over the strings. “This, I think, is going to prove most interesting. Your own?”

“Yes.”

“All the more fun.” He glanced at Dalisyn, said, “The Silver Wind.”

The harp’s tone was as silver as the wind Sunlark’s rich voice described for them, with the pipes twining through it like the wind itself; the song was the work of a master poet and musician, with vivid images that Brad could see as easily as if he’d been there the night the idea was born.

A trifle intimidating… but he could feel himself answering Sunlark’s grin when the song ended. This was, in truth, going to be a most interesting contest.

They alternated back and forth, their audience cheering both impartially and teasing Sunlark affectionately but rapt with attention during each song.

Sunlark had two clear advantages: more time to master harp and voice, and a degree of smooth partnership with Dalisyn that went light-years beyond even what he and Michael could do, each predicting the other effortlessly.

Still, it was Sunlark who finally called an end to it.

“Enough,” he said, laughing, tossing his head to get hair out of his eyes. “You can’t steal my crown yet, kiaru, but I think you will make me work to keep it until you can.”

Alex echoed the laugh, stretched carefully. “I’ve been playing electric too long, I’m getting lazy. Wait ’til you hear all five of us.”

“You may look for me to be there the first night you are on a stage,” Sunlark promised. “And I may drop by to hear you practice.”

Arolie brought Sunlark and Brad each a carved wooden cup of sweet cold water, Cryssa cups for Dalisyn and Alex. Brad accepted it gratefully, set it down beside him long enough to put the guitar away, then sipped it slowly.

Moth and Irielle, started comparing notes on memorable musical occasions; that spread, until all the ko’valha, Alex included, were in on it.

Sunlark caught his hand, drew him aside; the mates had pulled away a bit, forming their own circle, with a place clearly left for Brad.

“Let them go,” Cryssa said, amused. “They’ll be at it forever, arguing about who actually heard this legendary musician and all details thereof, halfway back to the War.”

Someone just outside said something urgently that Brad couldn’t understand, and a teenaged WindDancer ducked through the curtain, expression distressed.

“Party’s over,” Sunlark said quietly, getting up. Dalisyn rose simultaneously, and the two of them left with the teenager.

“Hiretha’s fever’s up again,” Arolie translated. “Ah, that always happens just when we’re having fun.” She sighed. “I suppose we should all get back to work.”

“True,” Kathyr agreed. “There are still three kinds of ointment that need to be made, soon. And Shina and Nimal both to be checked on, since they’re near due to bear. And a handful of half-trained who need lessons. And Gannis’ injuries to be checked. Who wants what?”

Alex came over to kneel behind Brad. “I should really help,” he murmured. “Turning herbs into ointment is easy. You can stay and help or find something else to do, it’s up to you.”

That sounded interesting. How did one do that, anyway? “Stay and help.”

Alex raised his voice. “We’ll do one of the ointments.”

The others divided up the jobs between them neatly, and scattered, in pairs for the most part. Irielle lingered to help Alex.

Kathyr had a room sectioned off curtained with heavy black to keep the sun out. Within were two racks of wooden shelves, and on each shelf was spread a strip of loose-woven wool covered with a thin layer of dried leaves or flowers or roots. A third, crosswise set of shelves held opaque ceramic jars of varying sizes labelled in that unfamiliar Dyauran alphabet.

Kathyr rolled up some of the wool strips and tied each loosely, then tucked them into a large net bag and handed them to Irielle. Alex she handed two large glass jars, one of something thick and white, the other liquid and clear gold, and a net bag of small ceramic jars.

“My place?” Irielle suggested; Alex shrugged.

She led them some distance around the outside of the densest cluster of houses to a fairly small one.

Alex set the jars on the table, and turned to the shelves nearby to get a large bowl of heavy white ceramic.

Into that went measured amounts of oil, beeswax, and the half-dozen herbs, Alex and Irielle taking turns explaining the uses of each. The finished ointment, Irielle said, was a marvellous cure for skin dried and chapped by the winter winds, a better cure—and preventative—than repeated visits to a Healer. Since the ko’valha, with the help of a few non-ko’valha, needed to make enough to supply anyone on Skyreach who needed it, they had to make it in large quantities.

Once that bowl was full, Irielle put it on the stove and recruited Brad to stir it while it boiled and simmered, and she and Alex began on a second.

They were supposed to simmer for an hour, so Irielle left Alex stirring the second one and went to get a book from upstairs—in fact, another copy of the same old herbal Alex had. She found the pages with the plants they were presently dealing with, showed him the pictures, and read the captions and margin notes aloud translated into English.

It was all utterly fascinating. They hadn’t gone through them all yet when Irielle’s clock rang to let them know an hour had passed—a small dial clock not drastically unlike an old wind-up one from Earth.

Irielle laid down the book, got a wide pottery basin, and set it on the table, then laid over it a double layer of finely-woven pale cloth.

“Hold the edges of it,” she directed Brad, shooing him over to the table while she used two small towels to pick up the hot bowl. “It has to be strained.”

He obeyed, held the cloth tight against the edges of the basin while she poured the mixture slowly onto it. Once the bowl was empty, she set it down at the far end of the table and took the cloth from him, shaking it and then squeezing it, until it stopped dripping.

“There,” she said. “We divide it into jars, and let it cool, and we have ointment. And the herbs can be used to make another batch.”

Brad was delighted with the sheer simplicity of it, helped Alex strain the other bowlful into a second basin through a second folded piece of cloth.

The herbs were returned to their bowls with more oil and wax, and Alex stayed to keep an eye on both while Irielle and Brad ladled hot ointment out of the basins into the small jars Kathyr had sent. The jars were to be sealed up still hot, they had bronze lids that fit tightly.

They finished the herbalism lesson before the second batch was done, repeated the process, then cleaned up. The bundles of herbs, which also contained any impurities in the wax, were simply thrown out, having exhausted their use. Irielle’s table, once they were all done, held about three dozen of the little jars, full.

Alex picked up one of the earlier ones, testing it to see if it were still hot, and handed it to Brad. “For you. Don’t argue, just take it. Go show your mother that you’re becoming an herbalist.”

“I am no such thing.”

“Stay with Alex a while,” Irielle said. “You will be. It’s hard to escape it if you’re with a ko’valhai a lot.”

“Oh, well. I can live with that.”

“Let it cool completely before you open it.”

“How many do you need?” Brad wondered.

“For a population creeping towards two thousand? With winter coming? A lot. Once winter really hits, everyone will want it. Living on a mountain, the wind blows rather strong and cold.”

“There are enough herbs stored that we can always make more,” Alex said. “It’s a good idea to have about a thousand around when winter starts, though. What’ve we got now?”

“Breyanne and Midori I believe did quite a lot yesterday, I don’t know how many. Others have been working on it.” She shrugged. “We’ll have enough, there’s still time. I’ll likely do more tomorrow, if you want to come back and help. I prefer this to teaching, truthfully.”

“Teaching’s fun,” Alex objected.

“Then you go teach and leave Brad here with me.” She grinned. “I promise not to try to steal him from you, kiaru.”

“That’d be okay,” Brad said.

“Stay for supper?”

“Sure,” Alex said.

Later, while they were walking back to Kallir’s house, Brad opened the jar and sniffed curiously at the contents. It smelled richly green, like cut grass. He rubbed a finger over the now thick stuff, then rubbed the ointment between his fingers, found it quite smooth.

“Useful stuff,” Alex said. “It works on sunburn, too, although there doesn’t tend to be quite such a high demand for sunburn cures. Dry skin of any kind. Very handy. If you want, ask Irielle for another one tomorrow and give it to your mother. You keep that one. You helped make it.”

Trill, Michael, and Leatha were there waiting.

“Taryl and Cryssa brought your guitars back,” Liore told them. “They said you left them at Kathyr’s house.”

“Must remember to thank them,” Alex said.

They practised for a while, then Brad and Michael wandered off together to talk about what they’d been doing. Michael, it seemed, had gotten lured into learning a few knife-fighting moves from Trill, while supposedly watching her work out with a friend to see how much she’d lost. And the three of them together had been coaxed into an impromptu performance for a small group of Trill’s friends, which had been well received.

It was a long day, but it was a thoroughly satisfying one.


1993, October 05

1993, October 05

The next morning, Alex suggested they spend the day roaming around the mountainside.

“I can think of a couple of cool things to show you that we can see and be back by the time the others are expecting us.”

“Sounds fun. Let’s.”

They took lunch with them, in a leather pack Alex slung over one shoulder, and departed.

The first place was a high cliff, bare rock for some six feet from the edge. Brad gazed down in wonder over what seemed like it must be the whole of the Dyaura, green and blue and gold and brown, fading off to purple-gray in the distance.

“How high are we?”

“Very,” Alex said. “Close to the top of the mountain, in fact. At night, you can see Herra’Shi’Kiyan, the capital. Well, you could see it now if you knew where to look, it’s easier at night. There are quite a few legends about this cliff. One is that from here, a group who were practising a play saw danger coming to Skyreach, back in the days before the Ski’kiyans when that so-called king kept trying to tell us we belonged to him. That gave us enough warning that we were ready when they came.”

“I can believe it.”

“Most of the others are rather morbid.”

“I would imagine falling off would be extremely fatal.”

“Just a tad. It’s beautiful when the moons are all bright.”

“Y’know, I think that’s what I like about this world. There isn’t just one moon to drive me wild, there’s three.”

“You’re three times the lunatic here?”

“Something like that.”

They wandered on.

A somewhat overgrown path led to whatever Alex had in mind; Brad followed without asking, though curiosity was tickling his thoughts. Instead he concentrated on branches that amused themselves by smacking the unwary across the face, and vines that considered it great sport to trip anyone who dared try to walk by.

The path opened onto another meadow.

The forest curved around it about half the perimeter; the other half of the meadow was bounded by a steep cliff face, with a sharp overhang high above.

Built against and into and up that cliff face was… well, what was it?

“This is the old village,” Alex said quietly. “This is where we started, back at the time of the War. Having separate houses all over the mountain is relatively new. For a very long time, literally every single living WindDancer lived right here.”

Brad eyed the structure, which presented the world with a single massive outer face, with terraces running the full length of each floor, the inner wall behind them broken only by windows that looked small and deep and by very few larger openings. All in all, it resembled a fortress more than a home. “What about the whole claustrophobia thing?”

Alex shrugged. “Generally, going inside and wandering around isn’t a problem. Most of us sneak out here as kids in the middle of the night sooner or later. I wouldn’t want to be snowbound inside, though, especially not with four or five hundred people. We are reasonably sure that WindDancers are a mix of multiple kinds of changelings, so Skydancer only knows what’s lurking in our genes that can come to the surface, maybe they used to not have a problem with enclosed spaces.”

“Is it okay to look inside?”

“Sure.” Alex gestured invitingly to the immense archway that was obviously the primary entrance.

The square room within was large enough to feel more like a courtyard; equally large archways pierced the other three walls. The one to the left went to a sort of semi-enclosed animal pen, the first of a long row; the one to the right to another large square space with a slate floor, the purpose unclear. Straight ahead, dimly visible in the light trickling in through the courtyard, was an even larger space. The only feature he could see, other than archways to the sides, was a stairway up; cautiously, he prowled over to test it.

“It’s safe,” Alex said. “It probably will be for centuries yet. Somehow, despite the superficial damage, they built this whole place as solid as the mountain. If you look up, you can see the holes where there used to be a pulley system of some kind, and it’s gone, but the floors and stairs are completely safe. There’s nothing much on the second floor except storerooms. It doesn’t start to get interesting until the third floor or so.”

There was a barely-perceptible note of strain in his voice; Brad glanced at him, noting the carefully casual pose, leaning against the edge of the archway. Being unable to pick up Alex’s surface feelings here still felt odd, but he figured he knew which emotions went with those cues.

If this had been here this long, it would be here to come back to later, once Alex could relax and enjoy exploring with him.

He drifted over to the nearest wall, reached out to trace a line engraved in the wall, though he stopped just short of actually touching it. It looked like it outlined an area of much-faded colour.

Alex rummaged around in his pack. “Catch.”

What he tossed Brad was a lens-shaped disc of milky quartz, concave on one side, convex on the other. Alex had explained these last time: the quartz held energy, which could be activated to make it glow; though Alex insisted it wasn’t magic because magic wouldn’t work properly in the Hills, it certainly looked like it to Brad. He turned it so the convex surface was up and stroked it with two fingers.

Dim light awoke within it, growing brighter by the second. When it was at a comfortable level, Brad stopped and held it up so it could illuminate the wall.

The coloured area looked like it might be part of a painting; he could make out what might have been human-like head and upper chest combined with a wing-like arm, but it was faded so badly he wasn’t certain. Eroded lines carved into the wall helped outline and define whatever had been there, but they weren’t complete outlines and were more of a tease than an answer.

“The whole place is like that,” Alex said softly. “Every possible surface. Paintings highlighted by a very little three-dee stuff, mainly just lines. And all so damaged that it’s practically impossible to figure them out. I think a lot of our lost history used to be right here but it got lost while we were busy elsewhere.”

“History’s awesome, but look what you guys did with the present,” Brad said. “I bet I’ve hardly started to see how amazing Skyreach really is.”

“Well, that’s certainly true.” His voice was coming from a different direction now; Brad spun around, found him waiting at the bottom of the stairs. “Coming?”

“I can wait. Really.” He scrambled for a believable reason other than, Because being inside walls scares the crap out of you right now.

His own empathy didn’t work here, but Alex’s did. In the crystal’s light, he saw his lover’s expression tighten. “I’m going upstairs,” he said flatly.

Damnitall, Alex, what is it with you and this macho thing? You never used to be like this!

Brad ran after him, caught up before he reached the next floor.

“Stubborn,” he muttered, making no attempt at all to hide either worry or exasperation.

Alex ignored it. “This would have been pretty defensible. The one stairway here, one more at the other end, a relatively small number could defend both. Something with wings is always possible, but the terraces only have one door at each end and they look like they used to have actual doors on them that presumably could be closed and barricaded or something.”

“Were things really that bad?” Maybe distraction would help.

“Probably. There are things in the oldest songs that don’t make any sense and I can’t think how the first circle, that’s the earliest ko’valha, could possibly have done some of what they’re claimed to do. It’s hard to know what to trust out of them. But even if you gloss over the details, well… something made them keep all the livestock on the ground floor and I strongly suspect the terraces were for growing food, medicine, or both in a protected and accessible spot while they were all piled into one anthill to live and work. I rather doubt they were doing it for fun.”

Sobering thought, that.

The third floor had what Alex said was a stillroom, along with large open rooms that Alex figured were communal workrooms; on the fourth, they began to encounter living space, single rooms on either side of a corridor. The rooms on the outer face, which had deep bed alcoves built into the walls, three in each room in a standardized layout that didn’t look at all primitive, at least got some light from the small deep windows in the thick outer wall. The inner rooms, however, were windowless and intensely dark; they looked more organic, size and shape varying with the cliff face, and lacking the alcoves, only a kind of long curved bench circling the entire room, broken only by the door. Both inner and outer had what Alex said were the ancestors of the ceramic heater in the middle of modern houses.

As Alex had said, every reasonably flat surface showed signs of having been painted and engraved, but only fragments remained, like a handful of pieces from a jigsaw puzzle.

“I keep expecting to come into one of these and find the people who lived there,” Brad said softly, not sure he wanted to break the stillness.

“There’ve been ghost rumours, once in a while, and just in case each time a ko’val’hai checks it out. But the last true restless dead were laid to rest within fifty years of abandoning the old village and moving to new Skyreach.”

“That’s reassuring.”

“Want to find somewhere to sit and have lunch?”

“Sure. Let’s go outside. I don’t think I could eat, feeling like I’m in someone else’s home without them knowing.”

They got comfortable on the grass within the clear area in front of the old village.

Lunch was sweet chewy bread, and slices of cold cured meat that was similar to ham and Brad decided not to ask, and a sizable chunk of strong-tasting cheese that was probably onuri or goat, and a couple of tangy local fruits, washed down with a leather flask of cider. Alex had a knife at his belt, which they used to divide and share it.

“Why doesn’t anyone try to preserve any of that?” Brad asked.

“I honestly don’t know. I know there are books with drawings of the original artwork, but it doesn’t have nearly the force of the real thing. Maybe because most of the memories here are dark ones, and although we remember and respect, no one wants to make those times real again even in illusion. The ones who lived here, they didn’t choose to be changeling, they didn’t choose to be cut off from normal society as freaks. This place is soaked with tears and blood.” He laughed. “Or maybe it’s just that no one’s volunteered for the job yet.”

They lingered over lunch, then packed up and wandered on.

It was a pleasure in itself, just walking with Alex. Nothing here triggered Alex’s darker moods, and it was peaceful and beautiful and, to Brad, still all new. One of the four-footed birds found them and coaxed them into playing, for which it rewarded them with a double-clawful of tasty nuts.

The path they were on veered to run parallel to a steeply vertical rock face maybe eight feet high.

Brad gave it a quizzical look, then glanced at Alex. “Is that Dyaura writing?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a lot of writing to put on a cliff. What does it say?”

Alex smiled, closed his eyes. “Skyreach lies under the wings of Skydancer, always, and Skydancer created the ko’valha to act directly. As long as even one WindDancer lives, we will be with you. We are to be Healers and teachers and guardians to you, for all our lives and for all time. We are not called to command or to judge, but to advise and to care for. There will be those called to walk with us, and the power of the whole will be far greater than that of the halves. They will walk with us to death and beyond, in…” He hesitated. “Damn, I can’t think of a decent translation for ali vaya ar maurel ar tir’dana. English is missing some really important concepts.”

“So get it as close as you can.”

“To death and beyond, in love and trust and… and balance. Together, we will always place Skyreach’s good above all else.”

“You memorized all that?”

“It’s one of the first things I ever learned. The one who said it was Jahna, one of the first ko’valha, and the first to find a t’vari. The oath she and Rowan swore right after she said that to all of Skyreach is still used today. Legend has it that Skydancer personally put this here. I’m more inclined to believe Skydancer told somebody to do it, which amounts to the same thing.”

“Cool. Still weird to put it on a cliff.”

Alex laughed. “I’ve heard it suggested that it’s so we can’t forget. Especially the part about, we are not called to command or to judge, but to advise and to care for. We can get a tad arrogant, when you get too many ko’valha all excited about something at once. There’s a house farther along this path where we generally go to get all worked up over things and don’t want to do it in public just yet.”

“Does it work?”

“Usually. I can think of a few episodes when Skyreach in general told us very clearly that we were acting like morons, mostly before my time. Don’t ask, they’re embarrassing to all ko’valha.”

“That bad, huh? But it shouldn’t be embarrassing to you if you weren’t even around.”

“Um.” Alex turned away, tracing letters near the end of the inscription. “I… really should tell you something.”

“Something wrong?”

“Well, no… pretty much anyone on Skyreach for long knows this, I’m just not sure how you’ll take it. And we’d rather it didn’t become common knowledge, although I’ll tell Michael and Lia.”

“Just say it.”

“Do you believe in reincarnation?”

“Never really thought about it, but I suppose so, yeah. Nobody’s ever given me any sensible reason to believe otherwise.”

“We choose to be born ko’valhai. Occasionally someone stops after one, but normally, we come back, still ko’valhai, over and over. And we keep the memories from the times before. Well, more like, the memories are there if we bother trying to reach them, but only the really vivid emotional ones surface alone. Keep the same crest, too, although obviously names and stuff are going to change.”

Brad considered that for a long moment. “So how many lives do you remember?”

“This is only my second. I was in that rebellion I told you about. A couple of years after it, I… made some really really stupid decisions, and it wasn’t all that long a life. Part of why Moth and I are so close is that he was there. The older ones keep saying the first is always the worst, like with lots of other things. I sure as hell hope so.”

Aha. That’s what he meant before, about more bad memories, I bet. Bad memories in this life to go with the ones from this other life. It’s going to take a while, but sooner or later I’m going to get all the pieces.

“Well, I’m around, this time,” Brad said cheerfully. “And I’m not going anywhere, and I’m hardly about to stand back and let you do anything sublimely stupid. Where would I find another guitarist? And who’d keep me warm at night?” He hugged Alex hard. “You were scared to tell me that? How many other silly things are you scared to tell me?”

“I haven’t counted lately.”

Hands linked, they started walking again, following the path around the rock face, and at the next branch in the path Alex took them onto the side-path instead of continuing on.

It led through more gorgeous scenery, and they passed a few isolated houses and went through a few more forks in the path.

This one took them to a familiar house with goats playing in their pen.

“Huh. Nobody here,” Alex said, but he didn’t sound all that surprised. “Any idea where Michael is?”

Brad closed his eyes, concentrating on his inner awareness of Michael. “That way.” He pointed, opened his eyes, found he was pointing directly into the forest.

Alex looked thoughtful. “What’s that way… oh. They’re probably at the cliff, that’s the only place I can think of in that direction that would be any use. Want to wait or go home?”

“Home, I think. I’m kinda tired.”

“Okay.”

Back at Kallir’s house, Alex sent Brad over protests to the living room with a cup of hot sweet green tea of some sort and helped Liore with supper.

Shortly after they finished, Trill and her shadows showed up. They spent a couple of hours practising and experimenting with that Skyreach song, much to the delight of Alex’s family, then parted ways again.