The Lady of the ForgebySabledrake©
Author's Note: this story is a sequel to "Maidenstar," set a few years later. It's for all of you who were interested in learning a little more about these characters and their world. One of these days, they'll be in a fantasy series of their own, to go along with my MageLore and ElfLore books. Thank you for the many great comments and feedback on the previous story; I'd appreciate hearing what you think of this one! – S.
"It is, I am told, truly amazing to behold," Rodenveld said as they strode side-by-side down the corridor. His was the accent of his people, rich and rolling and clipped. "But then, as you well know, my brother … she is an amazing woman."
"I do," Karandis said. He reached briefly over his shoulder to touch the amethyst pommel-stone of the truesteel greatsword strapped to his back. "And she is."
He felt perfectly at home for one of the few times in his life as he walked the stone halls of the castle … perfectly at home except for being nearly two full feet taller than his companion and most of the people they passed.
There had been a time in when Karandis had hated and despised all things dwarven. He had fought them during the ill-fated war between the Emerin and Montennor, the magic of the elves and the war machines of the dwarves clashing in terrible carnage and destruction. He had suffered in that war … but had come to realize that the wounds of the body, inflicted by the enemy, paled in comparison to the wounds of the spirit inflicted on him by his own side.
And now, these many years later, here he was. Soul's brother to the thane of Tumblund. A man in the eyes of dwarven law. He was one of them, adopted into the clan Warsmith with every legal claim to kinship and citizenship. He'd earned his way into status in the Explosivists' Guild. He had been guided by the warrior-god Karzok, was bearer of a fated weapon, and deliverer to Rodenveld of the thane's own fated weapon.
For an elf, he made a pretty respectable dwarf, all things considered.
"Of course, there was no shortage of volunteers," Rodenveld went on. "This has become among the guilds one of the highest, and most eagerly sought-after, honor that any smith, armorer or metalworker could hope to win. They say that there is something about her that helps them to be faultless in their work, to finish projects with uncommon swiftness and skill."
Rodenveld, who was a dwarf, made an even more respectable one. In his gold circlet and casual around-the-castle breastplate, he was the very ideal image of a thane. Young, strong, powerful, determined. His hair and beard were black as obsidian, his eyes like gasflames behind panes of cobalt blue glass. He moved now with no trace of a limp, of the club foot that had plagued him for most of his life. A miracle, the Tumblunders said. The hand of Karzok.
True. But Karzok's miracle had been in bringing Karandis and Rodenveld to the same place at the same time. To the great cliff known as Karzok's Ladder. The climb. The test of faith and fortitude. The greataxe from the ruins of Stone's Deep, Karandis had carried across half a world to be given into Rodenveld's hands.
Only then had he taken Rodenveld to his other friends. Tavelorn's surgical skills and bone-shaping spells had done the rest, turning a crippled youth into a whole and hearty dwarven man.
"It is what she was meant to do," Karandis said. "Thank you for making it possible."
Rodenveld scoffed and flapped a hand. "Believe me, my brother, it is my pleasure and that of my people. She is a living legend among us. As you are well on the way to being, yourself, I suspect."
"Not quite in the same way," Karandis said. "Even Rae thinks I'm a relentless, ruthless, tyrannical killing machine now."
He did not know why it was that he should have been drawn to this path. From everything he and his friends had learned in their travels, it was apparent that the elves and dwarves followed the same gods, albeit by different names. Saint Rubia and the goddess Shannia were both the patrons of beauty, love and artistry. Saint Tobin and Valannin of law, order and reason.
Yet he, Karandis, served Karzok. Not Kaledhol. It was the dwarven aspect of the Great Protector that called him. He was at home among the dwarves in a way he had never been, and could never be, at home in the Emerin. His uncanny bodily strength and health, hard-won through untold amounts of training and battle, had left him their physical equal as well, able to withstand their medicines, their alcohol, their amusements, even the spices of their food, which were all so potent they risked being fatal to any other elf.
Now, it seemed … though he hardly dared to hope … that he was not so unique, not so unusual, as he had thought. That the one person he most wanted to be able to share this with him, would be. If she would only choose to take the chance …
"Dame Fethilde says that Saint Agatta's fire burns in her," Rodenveld said. "My father, Baron Cort, and all the others who escaped from the Mountain Kingdom said the same. They did not know how it could be so, but none of them could deny it."
"Audra says that Livana's light shines in Dame Fethilde." Karandis shrugged, his mouth twisting in a wry grin. "We don't have an explanation for that, either. Livana's the goddess of magic. But Dame Fethilde is not a mage, not in any way we can determine or recognize."
"Unless it is that elven magic and dwarven creativity are the same, at their core." Rodenveld shrugged as well. "We need not question it. What matters is that, however it came to be, it is true. The blessings of the gods are to be accepted as thankfully as they are generously granted."
"I know." He touched the sword again, keenly aware and keenly grateful.
His fated weapon … his truest love. He had spent years in an agony of wanting what he thought could never be. And then, surpassing all hope, he had been given what he wished for more than anything else. The sword with the mind and spirit of a woman had become a woman in fact and in flesh. She had been more beautiful than he had dared to dream … more passionate … more giving. She had fulfilled needs he hadn't even known he'd had. With her, he was finally complete.
He would have been content to leave it at that, with Audra able to transform between the one and the other. A weapon in his hands by day, a lover in his arms by night. He would have given up the sword forever if that had been the only way to free her from the enchantment. It would have been enough for him.
Not so for Audra. The sword was her masterpiece. She could not consign it to oblivion, even for the sake of herself. Finally, she had decided that she could no longer live that double life. Part of it was her chagrin at what she called the "imperfect" enchantment, a failing of her skills that she could not tolerate.
And so she had sought to undo what had gone wrong, a century and a half ago in a land few Emerinians had ever seen.
A prisoner of the Mountain King, a slave, she had been forced to craft armor and weapons for his armies. Her final project was to have been Maidenstar, and once that task was done …
Karandis' fist curled. His jaw tightened. That Mountain King was dead, generations of his descendants having ruled since. Audra had escaped him before he ever had the chance to carry out his black intentions. It had all been long before Karandis had known her … long before Karandis had even been born.
Which changed nothing. He still wanted to find the man who would have dared even think of doing such a thing to her. Find him, and kill him.
With her masterpiece completed and her future unbearable, Audra had taken what she'd seen as the only way out. She had braced the sword and thrown herself upon it. Yet, instead of dying, she had somehow merged her body with Maidenstar, the two becoming one.
It made him heartsick to envision. He could see her lovely face, resigned, knowing that the first blood her life's work would draw was to be her own. He could see the knowledge of her death shadowing her silver-grey eyes. But she had never faltered.
The wound …
When she had resumed her elven form, there had been no trace of it. Not so much as a scar.
But when, seeking a way to have the best of both worlds – sword and woman, free from the enchantment that had bound them – Audra had come to a grim realization. The scales were unbalanced. The equation unequal. To undo what had been done, to undo the spell, meant sustaining that wound.
She had not fully realized what that entailed. Had not realized that the moment she broke the spell, she and the sword would revert to that very moment in time when they had merged.
If she had known the extent of what would happen, would she have done it? If he had known, would he have let her risk it?
Had it been only his decision, if he had believed for even an instant that Audra was doing this just for him and not for herself, not because it was what she wanted, he might have refused. To regain Maidenstar but at the cost of Audra … he could barely bring himself to think of it.
They had been ready for the wound. Tavelorn had been there, and the deed had been done in the best, perhaps one of the only places to give her a reasonable chance of survival. The ancient healing-tables of the Shannianites, coupled with Tavelorn's expertise, made the risk just barely acceptable as far as Karandis had been concerned.
None of them had anticipated what would come next.
There had been a flash, a burst of magical force, and the sword had appeared … the long truesteel blade transfixing her body. Run through. Impaled.
She had given him the choice of whether to be there or not. Knowing, as she did, that he hated even the idea of her being in pain, that he would sacrifice himself without hesitation to save her, that his very soul would be torn in half to see her suffer and be unable to do anything about it.
But of course there was no choice. There was no question. He had to be there, could not leave her to face such a thing alone. Not after losing her so soon before, when she had been abducted, drugged, and nearly killed. He would not have left her. Not for all the world. Not for anything.
And as it turned out, if he had not been there, she surely would have died.
The memory, he knew, was never going to be far from reach. He could never have conceived of a more horrific scene than seeing Maidenstar's bright blade driven through Audra's slender form. His own sword, his own fated weapon, killing the only woman he would ever love. It was a nightmare-made-real that could have destroyed his mind in one rending stroke, had he not seized fast to his will and his faith with every fiber of his being.
Audra had fallen backward, clutching feebly at the hilt, and he had been to her before she was halfway to the floor. Catching her. Lifting her. Holding her until Rae could support her by magic. With such caution, such care not to jostle her, not to move her more than he had to.
And all the while she had been conscious, aware. In mortal agony.
Only someone of his strength and skill could have drawn that blade from her in a way that was sure, quick and smooth enough. He had known even before he saw the expression on Tavelorn's face that if he let the edge stray a hair's breadth to either side, Audra would be dead before even the most powerful healing spells could save her.
Once again, Karandis had reached deep into himself, seeking the mental peace and inner discipline he had been studying. A single word-thought-concept had tolled in him like a bell – seema, that which was balance, that which was serenity.
The world narrowed around him and it was as if everything in his prior life had been leading up to this moment. This one act, on which hung the fate of everything else. If he failed now, he knew he would have to go on without her. He had promised Audra that he would not follow her into death until it was his own time. That he would carry on all that he had begun, and not forsake the people who would still need him, once she was beyond his help.
The rest of his days would be hollow, and when his end did come he would welcome it, but he meant to keep that promise … if he had to. He meant even more to make sure that he never did have to.
He … would … not … let … her … die.
Seema, and he had been ready. Poised with perfect balance above her, and gripping the familiar hilt of the sword he had used to kill so many enemies. Gripping it now not to kill, and not an enemy, but to save the life that was most precious to him in all the world.
There had not been much blood before, not more than a faint trickle, the rest held in place by the blade. But when he had pulled, when Maidenstar had come out in one flawless motion, then there had been blood. A torrent of it. Audra's blood, splashing over him, so much of it, so dark-hot-thick-scarlet, and she had screamed …
He shook himself, realizing he had been lost once more in the memory. Rodenveld was looking at him with steady concern.
"We are here, my brother," he said. "Come and see her. Come and look upon her."
Karandis was suddenly struck with worry that his remembered anguish had reached Audra, had interrupted her.
Somehow, through no means that either of them completely understood but which they had both gladly accepted, when she had been separated from the sword, the bond that had previously existed between weapon and wielder had been partially restored. So long as Maidenstar was in his possession, he could hold it and use it to touch her mind, and hear her reply. Even when not actively using the sword's magic in that fashion, they sensed each other's moods.
He quested and found that he had not disturbed her. It was only lately, since the advent of this rapport, that he had a glimpse of understanding what it was like for her when she was enmeshed in her work. When she was casting … when she was creating … her concentration became focused like a pinpoint beam of light, as honed and precise as a truesteel arrowhead.
This time, though, as he opened himself to her mood, he was rocked by her energy, which struck him as being even greater, more potent, than he had sensed in her before. Her brilliance … her magic … she was doing what she was meant to do, and it exalted her.
Rodenveld nodded to a guard, who opened a heavy iron-bound metal door. An orange glow baked out at them, smelling of coal and smoke and oil, awash in the rhythmic sounds of a smithy.
They stepped inside. Karandis' gaze peripherally took in his surroundings – anvils and worktables, muscular dwarves bent to their work with hammers all striking as one, hot metal hissing into cooling buckets, the bellows gasping and wheezing to fan the flames, molten steel like liquid fire – and then he saw her.
The Lady of the Forge.
Livana was moonlight and Agatta was fire … but Audra, his Audra, was both.
The sight of her took his breath away. He had never seen her like this before, and even had he not already loved her, heart and mind and body and soul, he would have been hers forever in that instant.
"Karzok's thunder," Rodenveld said in a tone of low marvel, and Karandis heard him as if from very far away.
The many long, thin, beaded braids of Audra's glorious ivory hair were twisted up in a large sloppy bundle at the nape of her neck, hanging down her back. Her skin was ruddy from the heat and shining with sweat. Her arms were bared to the shoulders by a leather vest that molded to her figure. She was facing away from him, and Karandis followed the line of her back, past her slim waist girded with a toolbelt, to the sweet flare of her hips and her long legs, likewise molded into tight leather.
What he felt then was nothing so pure as desire, something beyond passion. Even to call it lust was to understate its power. It did not build in him, but overtook him immediately and at once.
Near her, a bellows rose and fell untouched by any hand, and a hammer struck steadily at a sheet of steel as if wielded by an unseen smith. Tools floated up at her glance, went where her commanding gaze directed. There seemed to be a pulse coming from her, unheard but felt, resonating throughout the room. It enveloped the working dwarves, pulling them together into a unison that even ordinary dwarven craftsmanship could not match, so that they never missed a stroke.
This was her true self. This was the essential Audra, the Lady of the Forge. This was what Dame Fethilde had recognized in her. Agatta's fire, burning in her like an inferno. The Audra that no one in the Emerin had ever seen … had ever suspected.
She sensed him then, sensed the roaring flame of his own emotion, strong enough to break through her creative fervor. The pulse in the room faltered, her control slipping as only he could make it do, as he loved to do.
Audra turned, a single loose braid swinging beside her head, purple and silver beads glinting in the firelight. Her face was flushed, lips parted, eyes blazing. A smudge of soot and oil streaked her brow. Her breasts rose and fell rapidly, straining at the confines of the vest with each sharp inhalation, cleavage glistening with beadlets of sweat.
Their eyes met. The contact struck him like a physical shock and he felt something leap from him, leap between them, some unstoppable and overpowering force. Audra's body shook. A cry was torn from her throat, a low and throbbing cry that he knew very well indeed. From across the room, without so much as touching her … with nothing but the power of that look and the power of his emotion …
It nearly undid him, as well.
Then he was crossing the room, heedless of the smiths and their startled looks, heedless of Rodenveld's exclamation, heedless of everything but her.
Karandis reached her even as she was steadying herself on the edge of her worktable. His fingers hooked into the deep neckline of her vest and pulled. Little metal fastenings went popping and pinging off in all directions. He buried his face against her breasts, tasting the smoke and saltiness on her skin.
Her fingers raked frantically through his hair, holding his head to her so hard that he could have suffocated and didn't care. She was soft but firm flesh, and taut nipples begging for the slick caress of his tongue, her voice a gasping wordless affirmation.
He wrenched at her belt, flung it aside. The trousers went next, Audra helping him by kicking her legs loose as he stripped them off, dragging her low boots off with them in his haste. Then she was naked but for the vest, which hung open. Her pale, smooth body was bathed golden in the glow of the coals.
With one arm curled around her waist he lifted her to him, their kiss a hot urgency of wet open mouths. His other arm swept the worktable bare in a jangling cacophony of tools.
Now it was his own clothes that were in the way, and in that moment he couldn't be bothered with more than was necessary. He did not – could not – pause even long enough to unlimber the straps that crossed his shoulders and chest, holding Maidenstar's scabbard to his back.
Still holding her to him, their mouths still locked, he managed to free himself enough to do what he so desperately needed to do. He lowered her onto the table and thrust into her, both of them arching as he plunged forcefully, as she bucked her hips to meet him.
She was the heat of the forge, she was slippery oil and tight clasping ardor. He couldn't be sure if it was many climaxes quaking through her or a single encompassing one that went on and on; all he knew was that she had never been reticent before but neither had she ever surrendered to him in an abandon so wild as this.