“You stink of weeds and humping hedgehogs, you have green pond water flowing in your veins, and a farmer’s crotch after a day of plowing under the sun is far sweeter than the air that breathes from your mouth. Begone from my lands!” The King of Winter swung his short sword, sending his crown of holly shifting sideways on his black curls.
The King of Summer danced backward and raised his own blade, ready to parry. Lamplight shimmered in the circlet of gold oak leaves on his close-cropped head. “They are your lands no longer, you mud-slimed, claw-handed corpse! You have the skin and the humor of a fish three days old, and a cock the size of a frozen snail.”
“I can’t help that.”
The King of Summer lowered his weapon and tilted his head. “It shrank in the cold?”
“It broke off.”
The gathered crowd howled with laughter, and for a moment Terix—playing the King of Winter—caught my eye, and I saw the gleam of mirth in his own.
“Better to have it made of mighty oak, like mine,” Arthur—the King of Summer—said, his lips trembling as he tried to keep a straight face.
“That’s fine if you like walking around with a tent pole in your breeches, frightening the ladies.”
A not-so-ladylike female voice called out, “It won’t be frightening me! You bring it on over, your summer lordship. I’ve got a tent in desperate need of a pole.”
More howls of laughter.
Beside me, wide-eyed Daella whispered, “Does she mean what I think she means?”
Una, on her other side, snorted. Una had seen far too many poles seeking tents in her thirteen years, and had vowed to forever remain a virgin. “There aren’t enough poles in the world to hold up that tent.”
“Una,” I chided.
“What?” She gave me a practiced look of innocence, somewhat ruined by the black spirals covering the top half of her face. The look had worked better before Maerlin had given her the tattoos she had harassed him for. The dark spirals were a dramatic contrast to her eyes, with their irises of glacier blue struck through with shards of ice. With her long white hair on top of all that, she unnerved people. She looked like a vengeful ghost, peering through a mask of black filigree.
“Be nice. Or at least be mean in a voice that can’t be overheard.”
“That tent,” she whispered, “would need a whole fucking forest.”
“You’re terrible,” Daella whispered on a giggle, her cheeks pink with embarrassment, her eyes darting to me for reassurance that I didn’t think less of her for laughing.
I smiled vaguely and turned my attention back to the mock battle. Today was the winter solstice, and the King of Winter would lose this battle to his bright twin, the King of Summer. With Winter’s slaying, the sun would be reborn and increase in strength for the half year until the summer solstice, when the two would duel again and Winter would win.
“Today I take back what is rightfully mine,” Summer said as the two kings struck and parried and leapt over the members of the audience sitting on floor, making them sigh and cheer and draw in their breaths. I recognized Terix’s touch in the planned moves, full of comic moments of exaggerated surprise, fear, bloodthirsty glee, and tragic dismay.
My eyes, though, were all for Arthur. I was grateful for the chance to watch him openly, instead of sneaking furtive looks. I’d been back from the Isle of Mona for over a month, and my feelings for him had not lessened. If anything, they’d grown stronger under the constraints we’d placed upon ourselves.
I’d caught his eyes on me as well, and there were times I thought that if I approached him, it wouldn’t take much to seduce him past his good judgment, as I had along the river. Maybe I would have done it, too, except for a twinge of fear inside me at what might happen the next time I took a man to my bed. I feared losing control as I had in Mona, and there was no Tanwen here to pull me back from the edge.
“You never say anything new,” Winter complained in the petulant tone of a young girl. “Every year, it’s the same old thing, ‘I take back what is mine.’ ”
“Give up the fight, then, for you know that every year it ends the same way,” Summer said. “Release the Summer Maiden and lay down your sword.”
The maiden in question was a buxom creature from Corinium, lush enough to portray the earth mother herself, and she gave a squeal of happy fright as Terix swept her into the crook of his arm. “Never!” He bent his head to her open neckline and rooted his face into it, making piggy grunting noises of pleasure.
“A withered old man like you has no right to such fair flesh,” Summer said in pompous disgust.
A male voice called out, “She was happy enough with old snail-cock until his gold ran out!”
“Better be sure you want her,” someone else said. “You know she’ll leave you once his pockets are full again.”
“Ah, but six months to plow those fields is worth it all,” Arthur said with a leer, to hoots and howls.
Terix buried his face more deeply in the maiden’s breasts and her face twisted in mock revulsion. She lifted the back of his tunic and made a show of pointing out to Arthur a good target on his bare skin.
“Typical woman!” a man said. “Faithless!”
“Typical man!” a female voice countered. “Too busy chasing cunny to save his own skin!”
Arthur struck, the blade of his fake sword retreated into its haft, and a gush of mock blood spilled over Terix’s back. Terix staggered about in his death throes, then tumbled to the mosaic floor. Bone whined beside me, then scrambled across the slick floor to sniff at Terix and lick his face.
“Let the dogs have him, then,” Arthur said, barely managing to keep in character as Bone slobbered on Terix, whose face was twisting under the onslaught. “It’s no better than he deserves.” He swept the girl up into his arms and started to carry her away.
“I’m yours, I’m yours!” she cried. Then she said in a loud aside to the audience as they were about to disappear out the doorway, “For half a year, anyway.”
There was laughter and applause, and the actors took their bows. The audience broke up, people moving to food and drink, games and conversation. Ambrosius Aurelianus seemed to have invited half of Corinium to his villa for days-long festivities that were both Briton in origin as well as Roman, including much of the cheerful mischief of Saturnalia.
Daella led Una off to join in a divination game, Daella having been forced out of her usual shyness by Una’s being even more bashful than she. They’d formed a tentative bond of friendship based on their close ages, ferocious independence, and feelings of being outsiders. I doubted that they actually liked one another, but feeling understood mattered more.
I caught sight of Maerlin’s red-gold locks, and to avoid him I turned my footsteps out of the banquet room and into the shadows of the peristyle courtyard garden, with its columned gallery lined with more of Ambrosius’s collection of Roman statues. Moonlight brightened the snow-covered garden and marble carvings into a crisp landscape of white drifts and black shadows, the mounds of snow turning perfect gods into misshapen beasts. The cold air was a welcome slap against my skin, refreshing after the close heat of people, lamps, and braziers indoors. I’d grow cold quickly, but for the moment the winter air felt pure and light in my lungs, and the statues were blissfully silent.
I should have known better than to try to escape Maerlin’s eye, however. I was on my second circuit of the gallery when one of the pale statues moved, reaching out to touch my hand. I made a noise like a squished mouse and jumped half out of my stockings. “Calling my name is too difficult for you?” I snapped as my heart pounded. “You have to pounce on me from the shadows?”
“And give you the chance to slink off ?”
“I don’t slink.”
“You’ve been avoiding me,” he said.
“You haven’t been around, so I think it fair to say that you’ve been avoiding me.”
He pulled my hand into the crook of his arm and rested his bare palm on top of it as we began a slow stroll down the gallery. His grasp was light but firm, telling me that he would not allow me to escape. I knew he wanted that contact, that unique Phanne-to-Phanne sharing, to remind me like little else could that he was not my enemy.
And to remind me that I had made him a promise that I had yet to fulfill.
“I haven’t wanted to press you, after what you went through on Mona. There was still work that Brenn and I wanted to do on the forge and on the formula for the alloy, so there was no harm in waiting. But it’s time to call the storm now, Nimia. Everything is ready.”
“I’m not.” Cool, languid desire was seeping from his hand into mine, spreading up my arm and down my side, sinking into my loins with a fullness that made my thighs weak.
“Putting it off won’t make you any more so,” Maerlin said. “If you wait much longer, you’ll let your fears grow too large to ever overcome.”
“I was hoping to get so sick of them that I wouldn’t care anymore.”
“Lust has a way of erasing fear. You’ll be glad enough to continue, once we begin.”
“That confident of your sexual skills, are you?” I said archly, even as our continuing contact was swelling my sex and making my breasts ache for his touch. “You’re the gods’ gift to women.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said, stiffening.
I poked his arm with the tip of a finger, and had to keep myself from running my hand over his chest. This cursed Phanne contact: my palm was itching to feel his bare skin, the warm planes of his torso, the thickness of his rod . . . “I was trying to be funny.”
A pause as he considered. “Oh.”
“Clearly, I should leave the joke-telling to Terix.”
There was no love between Maerlin and me; there wasn’t even lust in its usual sense. This consuming passion was something unique between us, a rare male Phanne with powers and a Phanne female. We could hate each other, be physically repulsed by each other, and still this yearning desire would flood in and drown us whenever we touched skin-to-skin, as unstoppable a force as the rising tide.
In exchange for his taking me to the Isle of Mona, I had promised to lie with Maerlin and, together in the trance of passion, use our combined powers to call up a storm. The storm winds would power a uniquely designed furnace, as Maerlin had seen done on an island in the distant east where they harnessed seasonal storms. The high winds worked as a gigantic bellows, blowing air into a fire burning his own special substance derived from coal, the combination building the furnace’s temperature so high that metals and earth substances that couldn’t otherwise be melded together would blend into one material. The resulting metal could be used to forge a sword blade with that rarest of combinations: strength; a keen, long-wearing edge; and most unusual of all, flex.
For years Maerlin had worked toward forging such a blade for Arthur. Together with Una we had laid hands on the mystical green stone that would adorn its pommel, and in a shared vision we had heard the sword’s name: Skalibur. In Phannic, it meant “immortal.”
As Maerlin had said, all was at last in readiness. And I wanted Arthur to have Skalibur, the only blade that could be worthy of him. And yet . . .
“I don’t think I’m the same as I was before Mona,” I said softly, voicing the fear that haunted me. “During that orgy something was building inside me, and I couldn’t stop it. Mostly I didn’t even want to stop it. But what it would lead to . . .” I shrugged, remembering the golden wall I had been building around myself with the sexual energies I drained from others. I had thought them the walls of a hive, its sides coming inward, narrowing, to form a dome above me. That dome had almost been complete, needing only a few more bricks to seal out all the world. If Tanwen hadn’t put a stop to what was happening, I don’t know what would have happened to either me or to the people around me. “I’ve been scared to touch a man, or even to touch myself, ever since.”
“Then I’m the safest choice you could make. I’ll be beside you in both mind and body, and you know I’m strong enough to rein you in.”
“You’re more skilled, certainly. But stronger? This was something different, Maerlin. Something enormous about to come unbound, like a great beast breaking free of its chains.”
“There’s an obvious solution.”
“I’m glad it’s so clear to you!”
He arched a brow at me. “You should never have sex again, nor should you seek to use your powers. Henceforth, live as if you are not of the Phanne, as if you have never seen a vision, as if you have never felt the waters of this earth respond to your call. I’m sure we can offer you a place in the kitchens, as you won’t ever be suitable as anyone’s wife or lover.”
I tugged my hand free of his, angry enough to shove back the seductive lust. “I was trying to share my feelings with you, Maerlin. I was hoping you, of all people, would understand. I didn’t say I wasn’t going to call the storm; I only wanted you to know what I was feeling, why I’ve been hesitating.”
“I already know what you’re feeling. It hasn’t changed for weeks. What’s the point in talking about it again?”
“You make me want to strangle you.”
“I do seem to have that effect on Phanne women,” he mused.
“And yet you neither wonder why, nor learn from it.”
“I’ve learned well enough to keep my distance.”
“Maerlin! What I want from you is some sympathy. Some consoling. Reassurance.”
He stopped and stared at me, two male statues behind him staring with equally blank gazes. “I gave you that. I told you I’d be right beside you. If there truly is some great beast of power to be unleashed, we stand a better chance of taming it together than you do on your own. And if we can’t tame it . . . Well, we’ll go down fighting together, won’t we? I won’t abandon you.”
I chewed my upper lip. I supposed that was marginally reassuring, and the best I was going to get from him. “Are you afraid?”
“Because you’re so confident?”
“Because the purpose of fear is to keep us from doing dangerous things. We’re going to do this anyway, so there’s no point in wasting energy on an emotion that can only hinder our chances for success.”
“You can shut it off that easily?” I asked.
I sighed, the fight going out of me. My fear said this was dangerous, but he was right: I was going to do it anyway. “I don’t want anyone to know exactly how we call the storm. I mean, that we’ll be joined together when we do it.”
“You don’t want Arthur to know.”
I had told Maerlin before that I was half in love with his brother. “He wouldn’t understand.”
“He’ll most likely marry Wynnetha, you know.”
“Until the day of their betrothal comes, I can still hope for a different future.”
“I don’t know that what he wants has much bearing on what he’ll do,” I said.
“Duty has always been Arthur’s foremost concern. He could never be happy with you, if it meant failing in his duty to the tribe.”
“Which is why I’m walking circuits around a frozen garden with you, instead of burrowing under the bed furs with him. Please don’t let people know how we’ll call the storm.”
“No one ever wants to know what I’m up to. You have nothing to worry about.”
“At the end of Saturnalia. Let everyone enjoy the festivities in fair weather. Does that work with your monthly cycle?”
I nodded, my cheeks heating, although discussing the timing of my flow was hardly the most intimate thing Maerlin and I had shared or would share. He told me some of what he planned for where and how, and by then I was shivering and begged to finish our conversation later. He would have gladly talked all night, but each word was a thorn prick to my skin. I didn’t want to think about lying with him, didn’t want to talk about it, certainly didn’t want to imagine it. It felt like a betrayal of Arthur, even though I knew that in all the most important ways, it wasn’t. It would be a different type of betrayal were I to shy from this task and leave Skalibur unforged, and the destiny of Arthur and the blade unfulfilled.
We returned indoors and I shed Maerlin in the chaos. Wine, mead, cider, and beer all flowed freely, and a stable boy had been chosen as Master of the Revels. Servants were waited upon by their betters with much laughter and reprimands for shoddy work as the world turned upside down for this night between seasons. I saw Terix in a corner with the Summer Maiden, who had already abandoned her new king in favor of the fondling hands of the old.
It was a happy night, but my talk with Maerlin had spoiled my mood and my feet were nigh frozen. I retreated through the villa toward my small room, craving only quiet and a warm blanket.
I had just stepped into a dim corridor when hands came down on my shoulders, spun me around, and then pressed me hard up against the wall. A man’s mouth came down on mine, swift and furious, with the sweet flavor of cider still on his tongue.
It ended as quickly, and as he drew back I breathed his name. “Arthur.”
“One kiss, on a night when rules are upended,” he said, his voice rough and deep, and not wholly sober.
“I swore it was all I would allow myself, until you are mine.” He bent his head to the side of my neck, his warm breath sending delicious shivers up over my scalp. He sucked the lobe of my ear into his mouth, released it slowly, and whispered, “I have word that Mordred spends the solstice at Calleva, the invited guest of Horsa.”
I drew in a breath. “So Horsa may have chosen him for Wynnetha’s hand.”
“May have. Or may do so shortly.”
I slid my arms around his neck and felt a bubble of joy rising in my chest. It frightened me; it was so fragile, so tremulous, and yet so beautifully bright. “Then you are free.”
He gently drew my hands from him, kissed their backs, and then held them pressed against his chest. “Not yet. But gods willing, I soon will be.” He cupped my cheek in one hand, his thumb brushing over my brow. “And when that happens, Nimia—when that happens, you shall be mine.”