Author's Note: this story is set in the world of my ongoing series of fantasy novels, the MageLore and ElfLore books.
"Audra," she said. "My real name is Audra."
How strange to hear it spoken aloud after all this time, even in her own voice. A moment later, he echoed it, and she briefly closed her eyes as a shiver ran the length of her body.
"Audra," Karandis said. Thoughtfully, as if weighing it, testing it. He nodded, and the hint of a smile softened his lips. "Audra."
Strange, too, to be Audra again. To be flesh and blood. To see with her own eyes, hear with her own ears. To be alive ... to have smooth, pale skin instead of a shining truesteel blade ... to breathe and eat and drink ...
She had, as an enchanted sword, been able to perceive her surroundings in a way that she could not describe even to herself. There had been sensation of a sort, yes ... the strong grip of his hands on her hilt ... the shearing of her edge through armor and bone ... the hot gush of blood ... she had experienced these things, relished them. She had been able to understand what was said, and communicate, and recognize those around her.
Now she was here. With them in person, in the flesh.
With him. With Karandis.
The others were there as well, Tavelorn and Rae and Menleh, and she was glad of their acquaintance, but she found it difficult to take notice of them. It was all but impossible to look away from Karandis. And his gaze never strayed from her ... as if no one else was in the room ... as if no one else existed in all the world.
His hand covered hers, that familiar, callused warrior's palm. His touch was so gentle. She knew he could crumble bricks in his fist, but his touch upon her was so, so gentle.
He was not, she supposed, what most elfmaids of the Emerin would consider conventionally handsome. Tavelorn, lean, slim and elegant, with his fair complexion, jet-black hair and glacial eyes, fit that description far better.
Karandis was broader through the shoulder, deeper through the chest and more powerfully muscled than any elf save perhaps the king. Where not traced white by scars old and new, his skin was bronzed by the sun. The sun had also lightened his already blond hair, which he wore short and indifferently combed. His features were strong and chiseled, his jaw perpetually set with determination. His ears, showing to great advantage, were swept and tapered in a way that left her more than a little breathless.
But it was his eyes, most of all, that stole her breath and replaced the beating of her heart with a hummingbird's flutter. They were the warm, clear blue of a summer sky, darkened with intensity as he looked into hers. There was no uncertainty in his eyes. No hesitation. Not a trace of doubt, not a single question. Only a calm and steady knowing, a desire so forthright and foregone that it transcended anticipation.
They would make love. Soon. Tonight. Without any need of the coy flirtations and flatteries of the Emerin's courtship games. It was as inevitable as moonrise, as unstoppable as the tide. They could not have resisted it, even if either of them had had any slightest wish to resist.
This unexpected chance had been given to them, given like a gift. They could not let it go to waste, could not let this singular opportunity pass them by.
The moment Karandis had stepped through the doors of the white tower with his greatsword strapped to his back, the overwhelming magic of the place had battered through the imperfect enchantment that held her. One moment, she had been only Maidenstar, six feet of honed truesteel with a hilt of ivory and amethyst, and in the next moment there had been a wrenching, spinning impact ... and she had struck the floor as Audra.
Her shock at the abrupt transformation had only been exceeded by theirs, as they gaped in astonishment at the sight of a woman where there had been a sword an instant before. At the sight of Audra, of a tall and slender elfmaid rising naked before them, her only adornment the truesteel and amethyst beads woven into the many long, thin braids of her ivory-colored hair.
They had bustled and fussed about her, Rae taking charge and having Menleh fashion her a gown, Tavelorn using his physician's knowledge to assure himself that she was what she appeared to be. They had shared a meal, and good wine, and conversation here in this mysterious magical tower.
And through it all, coursing like a current of flame, this same heart's desire passing between her and Karandis. This same wanting, this same surety.
The others noticed it, of course, and were Emerinian enough to take a friendly spiteful glee in dragging the evening on, delaying the moment when Audra and Karandis would at long last be alone. But there was little sport in it for them, Audra knew; she and Karandis were all but oblivious to anything but each other.
He held her hand, studied it, explored it with that gentleness no one else would have believed from a warrior like Karandis. He stroked her long, graceful fingers, rubbed the ball of his thumb along the delicate ridge of her knuckles, turned her hand over to trace with a fingertip the lines of her palm and the intricate path of veins in her wrist.
It was her hand, only her hand, an innocent enough touch, and yet Audra found the caress to be erotic beyond belief. Unbearably so. She laced her fingers through his, and held fast.
Karandis lifted his gaze to hers again.
Once, as a little girl, she had nearly drowned in a lake while on a family holiday. She'd begged her brother to take her swimming with his friends, and he had only agreed when their mother intervened. The older children had swum out farther and faster, headed for a raft, leaving her paddling along behind. She had tired, had gone under.
The water closing around her had been a pressure, surrounding her, robbing her of strength. Her lungs had demanded a breath of air, demanded it on pain of death.
She felt that way now, craved and needed Karandis the way she had craved and needed that breath of air.
Without a word to the others, he rose from the table and drew Audra with him, her hand still held firmly in his. She went on legs that barely supported her, on feet that she could not have confidently said touched the floor. Peripherally, vaguely, she was aware of Tavelorn, Rae and Menleh looking after them with varying degrees of amusement, understanding, and perhaps even envy.
And then they were alone, a door closed between them and the rest of the world.
In here, nothing else mattered. Not their journey, not his turbulent past and troubled memory, not her secrets about her family, not their enemies ... nothing.
All that mattered was that she was here with the man who loved her. Who had loved her since long before he ever saw her face or knew her true name ... loved her although he'd thought it was hopeless. In love with his sword? A sword with a woman's mind and spirit, yes, but still a thing of cold metal and sharp edges. Though he had often held her across his lap and rubbed her blade in slow, steady strokes with warmed oil and polishing clothes, a kind of lovemaking in itself, a sword was not something he could embrace, or kiss.
And oh, how desperately he had wished it could be otherwise. He had made no secret of it, not to her, not to the Maidenstar who shared his thoughts through the magical bond between weapon and wielder. The other women he'd taken to his bed had been mere substitutes, satisfying his physical need but leaving his soul empty, searching for and not finding the intimacy he had with her.
She had wished it too, but had at the same time been so afraid ... a shameful fear that someone like Karandis could never fully comprehend. As unfeeling truesteel, she was invulnerable, unbreakable, safe. Living elven, she could be hurt, could bleed, could die. It was as much cowardice as magic that had kept her locked in sword form for so long. She told herself it was part practicality as well – as a sword, a weapon, she was useful to him and not just one more person he had to protect – but her heart knew she was reaching for excuses.
Karandis turned to her. He touched her temple, trailed his fingers down over her cheek to the corner of her mouth, then followed the line of her jaw to her earlobe. His movements were unhurried and deliberate. His other hand came up, raised her chin. He inclined his head and brushed his lips against hers, not a full kiss but that light, tender brushing.
Audra closed her eyes. She was trembling. Only a little, a faint quiver, but trembling, it was true.
If she had let herself think about it, let herself wonder what it would be like with him, she might have thought their first encounter would be a thing of haste and urgency, a passion so long denied that it had to be consummated with quick fervor. She might have expected torn clothes and frantically seeking hands and eager, open mouths and bodies falling together in a writhing tangle. She would have welcomed that ... but this, this slow and sweet almost-kiss ... the tender touch on her earlobe ... this was better.
He breathed her name against her lips. "Audra."
She set her palms against his chest, not to hold him away, never that, but to feel the warm and solid reality of him. Here, the calm deliberation of him was belied by the strong and rapid drumming of his heart.
"Oh, Karandis," she sighed, and slid her hands up to his shoulders. He was trembling, too ... for all his strength, his undefeated battle prowess, he trembled at her touch.
His arms went around her and gently drew her close. Audra gasped, and it was the life-winning gasp of that drowning girl-child breaking the surface of an Emerinian lake so many years ago, a wonderful and inexpressible relief.
Her back arched and her head fell back, exposing her smooth throat. The beads in her braids clicked and rattled as her hair spilled over his arm.
Utterly vulnerable now, utterly helpless ... he could have crushed her, snapped her bones ... he was so strong, so powerful ... and yet, here in his arms, she had never felt safer or more protected in her entire life. He would never hurt her. Would die a thousand times himself to spare her a single moment's pain.
The passage of time, which was supposed to have so little meaning to elves anyway, seemed to cease altogether. It might have been hours he stood there holding her, it might have been days.
All Audra knew was that his hands were moving over her back, warm through the cloth of the simple gown, cupping her shoulderblades, running the length of her spine, settling on her hips.
He bent and pressed a soft kiss into the hollow at the base of her throat and she skimmed her palms from his shoulders up the sides of his neck, sinking her fingers into the coarse-but-silky thickness of his hair behind his ears. Her thumbs flicked the lobes and she felt his breath quicken, felt the hot puff of it against her collarbones.
She brought his head up and kissed him. This time the kiss was deep, a claiming kiss, a yearning and heartfelt kiss.
When it broke, he drew back a little and they looked solemnly into each other's eyes.
"All this time I've called you 'handsome,'" she said, "and now I finally see how very right I was. You are a wonder, Karandis."
"I knew you had to be beautiful," he said. "You already were. But ... Audra ... you're more ... more than I even dared to hope you'd be."
His hands slid higher, up her ribcage, bunching the fabric. Audra smiled at the absurdity – here was this gown, getting in the way. She plucked at the laces, loosening them, and then it was only Karandis' hands pressed to her sides that kept the gown from dropping straight to the floor.
She met his eyes without a hint of shyness – what call was there for modesty? What need for self-consciousness between them? How many times had she been with him, a weapon-presence but herself nonetheless, when he was undressed? And she had, after all, just appeared before him out of thin air, bare as the day she'd been born.
Karandis stepped back, holding his hands up with the palms toward her. The gown fell away with a whispery rustle, pooling around her feet.
Though the spell that connected their minds had been severed when she had transformed, she thought for the barest instant that he spoke without voice and that she heard him. Moonlight on ivory, as his gaze slowly traveled her body from head to toe. He lingered where any man might be expected to linger, on her high firm breasts and her loins and her long shapely legs, then walked around to survey her from the back. Audra crossed her arms behind her neck, scooping up her many braids to assure him an unobstructed view.
He completed the circuit, standing before her again. She had never seen such pure soul's desire as she saw in him, as she let her braids fall free again, the beads clicking, the ivory plaits swinging.
"Now you," Audra said, not quite trusting herself to speak steadily.
It had been Rae's insistence that they change for dinner that was to thank for the fact that he was in humble shirt, vest and trousers rather than his customary armor. He undressed with none of the hurried fumbling a man might show in the company of a naked, expectant woman, but with an economical swiftness. Karandis had never been much of a one for modesty in the first place, and understood, as she did, that right now it was a more meaningless affectation than ever.
Audra stood and watched him, watched as he revealed a body that she had perceived, in her sword's way, but not yet fully seen. The promise of his incredible physique was fully realized, every muscle defined.
She saw, too, the faint but numerous scars, and her breath caught. It was one thing to know how often and how badly he'd been wounded ... it was another matter to see with her own eyes this legacy of warfare. Tavelorn prided himself on his surgical abilities, which meant that the only remaining visible scars were from injuries so severe they had challenged even his gifts.
Yet, somehow, the sight of these many paler lines and marks on Karandis' bronze skin did not make her see him as more vulnerable. If anything, they only accentuated his invincibility, proclaiming that he had withstood these hurts and survived, and thus could survive anything.
As she had done, he stood still and let her look at him, let her walk around and view him from all angles. When she finished, feeling both light-headed and weak-kneed with longing, he opened his arms to her and she all but fell into them.
First with hands, and then with lips, they each repeated what they had just done with their eyes. She knew his mind so well, and wanted to know his body with equal completion.
At last he knelt before her, lavishing slow and probing kisses over her most sensitive flesh. Tasting her. Making her quake with need.
She could no longer stand upright but he supported her easily in his strong arms, held her and lowered her. Their gazes locked, warm blue to silvery grey. Still so slowly, so gently, he eased her down until she felt him first nudge, and then part, and then fill.
Their sighing breath mingled as they kissed. Now she knew what it was to be the sheath and not the sword, knew the fulfillment of being joined with him. She cradled his head against her breasts and stroked his ears.
Somehow he got to his feet without slipping from her, and carried her effortlessly to the bed. Audra neither knew nor cared if the bed had been there when they entered the room, or whether it had manifested as part of the magic of this place. Karandis stretched out upon it, holding her atop him. She glided up and down, sweet waves of joy crashing over her again and again.
Then he grasped her hips, pushed up hard with his own. His cry of release and the feel of him throbbing and surging within her wrung an answering cry from her throat. Her braids flew as she tossed her head, the beads clicking, whipping smartly against her flesh, but even those brief stings were ecstasy.
Finally the tension ebbed from their bodies. Audra settled forward, braids fanning in ivory strands across his chest. She rested her head on his shoulder, her brow against his jaw. She rose and fell with the ragged tide of his breath. He caressed her in long sweeping strokes from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. Tingling thrills ran through her in deliciously dwindling tremors.
Eventually she slid off him and lay at his side. They held each other in a sublime contented silence broken only now and then by moist kisses or wordless sounds of pleasure.
Soon he was ready again, and Audra was more than willing to receive him. But when she sought to coax him to roll atop her, she encountered hesitation for the first time. It dawned on her then – even in the depths of his passion, he was concerned for her, concerned that he might harm her. She was not as fragile as some elfmaids, not as fragile as the lithe willow-reed that was Rae for instance, but ...
"Please," she said, gazing up at him with nothing but trust and desire. "You will never hurt me. Please."
And she wanted to feel him like that, wanted to be pinned beneath his weight. To give and be taken. To surrender and to be swept away.
He swung over her, braced above her with the muscles of his arms and chest taut. She opened to him, embraced him, lifted herself to meet him as he entered her and drove deep.
At first he tried to hold back but Audra would not let him. She pulled him down, wanting to feel crushed. Her legs wrapped his waist and urged on his steady, forceful thrusts. His mouth sealed hers in a fierce kiss.
She clutched his shoulders, his back, felt the play of muscle under sweat-slick and shiny skin. He kissed her lips and her neck and her earlobe. He stroked the sweeping curves of her ears in time with his pace. Audra's breath came in moans and gasps and finally she could only cling to him helplessly, shuddering in climax.
"Audra, oh, Audra," he sighed, drawing out her name into an impassioned groan. He strained against her, strained into her, and she felt him melt and loosen and flow.
For a moment, spent, Karandis sagged onto her unable to move. Then, with an effort, he levered himself up. He collapsed onto his back, chest heaving.
Audra crumpled beside him. She felt more alive than she ever had, even before the enchantment that had turned her into Maidenstar. More alive, more complete, more fulfilled.
Another unknown span of time passed as they lay, their bodies cooling, their racing heartbeats slowing. Then Audra raised herself up on her elbow, looking down at Karandis. His head was to the side, his eyes shut, but as he felt her gaze upon him, he stirred and opened them.
"Tell me," she whispered. "The words have been in your mind so many times ... I want to hear them in your own voice. Tell me, Karandis."
His hand slipped up and cupped the side of her face, fingers twining in her braids. "I love you, Audra. I love you."
A rush of emotion nearly brought her to unaccustomed tears. "Yes ... oh, Karandis ... thank you."
"Now you tell me," he said huskily.
"I love you," she said. "I do. So very much."
He drew her down, and kissed her, and they made languid, dreamlike love again before finally, blissfully, falling asleep in each other's arms.