A Map Through a Cold Winter’s Night

SPENDING THE Samhain break at home in Eiran had been lovely. Painful and cathartic, but lovely. Torrant and Aldam remembered all over again why finding the Moon home after their exile from Clough had been the proof of Joy’s mercy. Returning to school at the end of the week was difficult, but not nearly as difficult as the first departure, and since their rush back to Triannon was so flurried in order to avoid the snow, Torrant and Aldam didn’t have time to dwell on the leaving.

Torrant kept safe the stiff card Yarri had stuffed in his pocket as he and Aldam had mounted their horses that cold winter morning. It was a picture of him, singing in the family room. The focus was on his eyes—hazel, a strange mix of brown, green, and gray, and shiny in the firelight.

“Remember that’s how I see you.” Yarri’s face had been serious and sober as she’d wrapped her arms around his neck. “Remember that I’m never sorry that you’re not Ellyot.”

He’d smiled gently. “Yarri—I’m never sorry that I got to grow up with you.”

But she hadn’t been fooled. “Say it.”

“I’m not fourteen anymore—”

“Say it.” She pursed her lips and narrowed her brow, and he was reminded, yet again, that she only looked like an angel.

“Yarri, it’s—”

Say it!” she barked, and Torrant had flushed as the rest of the family looked their way with raised eyebrows.

Goddess, he loved them all.

“Fine!” he snapped, mortified but knowing at the same time that he had lost. “I’m not sorry that I lived and Ellyot didn’t. Are you happy now?”

“I’ll be happy when you believe it.” She’d burst into tears then, and he’d held her and comforted her, stroking her curling autumn-colored hair and whispering into her ears all the things she’d forced him to say, just to make her stop crying, just until he could believe it.

“You won’t forget?” she whispered. “It’s a long time until spring.” Odds were good they wouldn’t be coming back for the winter Solstice. Because of his heavier course load, he would still be finishing up finals, and the snows would make the trip difficult with the wagon. Lane promised them that for next year, he would make skids for the wagon so they could use it as a sled.

Roes and Aldam embraced quickly, bodies barely touching, and then the rest of the family was caught up in hugs as well. When Roes came to hug Torrant, she stepped on his foot to get his attention.

“He’ll follow you to the nadir and back, right?” She was not smiling in the least; she crunched her tanned, freckled face together at the brows in anxiety. “You need to lead him back to me.”

Torrant grinned. “Roes, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he could no more wander away from you than the moons could leave their orbits.” But to his dismay, this only made her cry.

“Don’t you understand, cousin? The Goddess moon doesn’t wander because she’s faithless. She wanders because she follows her brothers. You’re his brother, and he’ll wander away from me if you don’t send him back.” She dashed her hand across her eyes, and Torrant grimaced and hugged her close.

“Right, little rose, right. I’ll send him back when we’re done with our wandering, I promise. You just remember that he might want you to wander a little on your own.”

Roes sniffled against his shoulder in response, and then it was Stanny’s turn, and Cwyn’s and Starry’s and then Bethen’s, who sniffled too. “It won’t be Solstice without you two.”

“We’ll be back for Beltane,” Torrant reassured her and then nodded at Lane, who had already given his permission. “And we’ll bring friends, right?”

“Aylan can stay with me!” Stanny said excitedly—meeting someone from out of town had sounded very exotic to Stanny.

“And Trieste can stay with me,” Roes said sententiously. Bethen elbowed her and shook her head in warning. There were more hugs and kisses all around and then….

They were off, and Torrant was touching the card inside his cloak pocket as though it were his last link to everything he loved.

THE NIGHT Torrant and Aldam got back, Trieste greeted Torrant with such a fervent kiss that he found himself closing his eyes in odd moments just to savor her taste.

They continued kissing, learning the joys of bodies pressed close in corners, of the brief touch of lips in greeting and farewell, of cold hands on warm tummies and the squealing and laughter that ensued. He loved the way her eyes closed before he put his lips to hers, and the feel of her breath on his face just before that happened. He enjoyed the dark feeling of her fine hair as it spilled around his fingers, and the terrible sensitivity of his body, hard and full and aching under his clothes, as she pressed on top of him. One touch, he often thought in a delicious ecstasy of agony, one touch of her soft cool hand against his bare skin and his body would explode in a scorch of fireworks behind his eyes and in his pants and possibly even out his toes.

The anticipation was as wonderful as the smug knowledge that someday soon, it would happen, it would happen between them and he would feel her skin on his without interruption or excuse and the thing, the glorious warmth between them, would wash over his body like a velvet wave.

Aylan watched them with amusement, indulgence, and a certain amount of patient jealousy.

“Why don’t you just do it and get it over with!” he demanded one day in exasperation. Torrant and Trieste had met as Torrant was sprinting toward their fencing class—after a brief kiss and rolled eyes to indicate that it wasn’t enough, Torrant caught up with Aylan, and they walked shoulder to shoulder to the changing rooms.

“Maybe, Aylan,” Torrant said smugly, “it’s not just something you ‘do to get over with.’ Maybe it’s something special.”

Aylan grunted with disgust, and Torrant urged them faster. The fencing practice room could only be accessed from outside the building, and the snows had come. They were gentle and forgiving snows in the Triannon valley—not even comparable to Eiran’s sea-cold, and certainly nothing to Clough and Hammer pass—but the young men were outside with nothing but scholars’ robes and scarves to protect them from the cold.

“Besides,” Torrant continued when they were inside undressing, “it has to be her decision. She’s still at risk for getting her head lopped off in a public ceremony if she’s wrong about Alec of Otham.”

“I doubt it—Alec’s a nice enough sort, if you like benevolent rulers bent on changing backwards countries.” Aylan donned his fencing tights in record time and leaned back against the wall to enjoy watching Torrant struggle into his. Most noblemen were not as broad shouldered as Torrant, and their chests weren’t thick with the muscle gotten by wrestling and hauling crates in warehouses. Torrant may have lost a great deal of weight, as well as his self-consciousness around Aylan, but Torrant got the feeling that Aylan’s perusal of his body was still a treat.

Torrant noticed his regard and flushed, more so when his body began the stirrings of a response, something made obvious by the tight fencing clothes. “Knock it off—I thought we were over that shite.”

“I’ll never be over that shite,” Aylan returned seriously. “If you don’t want me to look, then go dress somewhere else, but don’t expect me to just turn the whole works off because you’re about to get a woman. My offer still stands, and probably always will. Just because I’m not stalking you anymore, Triane’s son, doesn’t mean I’d mind if you wandered into my room one night and dropped your drawers.”

Torrant grimaced at the crassness of the offer but looked seriously at Aylan because he respected that Aylan was serious. He also knew, now that Aylan had become a friend, that his friend’s heart was probably as engaged as his desire, and Torrant wouldn’t hurt him for all the world. “I appreciate that,” he murmured, “but now is not the time.” There was a quiet between the two and then Torrant came to himself to stand and pick up his mask. “What was that bit about ‘Triane’s son’?”

Aylan laughed and picked up his own gear. “You’re gifted, you’re a midwife and a healer, and you wouldn’t mind kissing another boy. If you’re not the son of the Goddess, I’ve got no idea who would be.”

“Get stuffed!” Torrant replied amiably and went off to beat Aylan soundly in three matches.

THEIR CLASSES grew busier, more intense, as everybody prepared for finals after the Samhain break. Finals came, and even though his schedule had calmed down, Torrant still grew so lean studying that Trieste, Aldam, and even Aylan took to bringing meat pies to their classes so they could urge him to eat. He rolled his eyes at them—“Not one of you looks like Auntie Beth!”—but he still ate the food. It was bad enough Professor Nica had started giving him food in the library—the room he loved most in the school, and the one place he was not supposed to be eating. Of course, he wasn’t supposed to be sleeping there either, but four nights out of five, one of the three would go fetch him from the stacks, where he was quietly snoring in the clutter of bound parchment.

And still he passed his finals—in all classes—with marks high enough to make Aylan sigh with disgust.

“I’ve been working this system my whole life, and I don’t get marks that good!” he complained at dinner when the term had ended.

“You’ve been interested in other things,” Trieste replied with so much dryness that he threw a roll at her. She ducked and stuck out her tongue, and Aldam tried to make the peace.

“If you’re going to throw food, throw some more at him. He’s still too thin, and I don’t think he’s slept in four days.” Instinctively all three of them looked over to Torrant to make sure he was eating. He wasn’t. His head was pillowed in his arms and around his stew, and gentle snoring issued from his slightly open mouth.

The three of them hung their heads and sighed. “Weren’t you two planning to leave tonight?” Aylan asked, grimacing as Torrant let out a particularly loud snore.

Aldam sighed so heavily that Trieste patted his back in sympathy. The snows had come late, and for a breath they thought they might have a chance to go home, but a big storm was rolling in from the west. The hard truth was, if they didn’t leave in an hour or so, they wouldn’t get another chance to see home until spring.

“He can’t go like this,” Aldam said fretfully. Another five months before they could return home. Another five months without seeing Roes. He swallowed hard, and Torrant suddenly jerked awake.

“Goddess, Aldam—we’ve got to leave!” he said clearly, focusing his eyes, and Aylan and Trieste both looked at Aldam questioningly. Aldam winked at them.

“Certainly. Is all our gear upstairs?”

Torrant had to think about that; it was clear the effort was painful. “Except for what I sent last week.” They had sent their gifts ahead of time with the militia messenger, in case the snows got there before they were allowed to leave. He nodded decisively. “I’ll go upstairs and look.”

He still wasn’t quite awake. In fact, he stumbled a bit and bumped his knee on the bench as he stood to leave. Aldam turned toward Aylan and Trieste and gave them a small nod to follow. When they got to their room, Torrant bent over to get his duffel off his bed, and Aldam put his hand on the back of his neck and whispered, “Sleep” in his ear. Torrant’s weight carried him all the way over, and Aylan deftly pulled the duffel bag out of his way before he hit the bed.

“I did well in my finals too,” Aldam said with a certain amount of pride, and Trieste and Aylan nodded in bemusement. Aldam bent and started stripping Torrant of his shoes and his sweater so he could sleep more comfortably.

“But, Aldam…?” Trieste asked softly, folding the sweater and putting it on his desk chair. “Doesn’t this mean you can’t…?”

Aldam shrugged unconvincingly and looked outside, where the dark was beginning to fall and the snow was beginning to dump down in great drifts. “He would have ridden tonight until he fell off Hammer, and then he would have turned into the snowcat and finished the ride.”

“What are you doing?” Trieste asked Aylan sharply, and Aylan hushed her and continued to strip off Torrant’s breeches.

“I can’t sleep in them, and I’d bet he can’t either. Turn away if your maidenly modesty can’t take it.” The breeches came off to reveal two leanly muscled legs with a smattering of fine hair up the calves. His shirt came down to barely the tops of his thighs, teasing her eyes with what wonders lay beyond that Trieste, at the least, had never seen, and she made a little whistling sound in the place between her nose and her throat. A little slower than her usual movements, she covered him with a green-and-tan throw that was obviously well worn and hand knit.

“You enjoyed that!” she accused weakly, and Aylan rolled his eyes.

“And you didn’t?” With that—and a last, lingering look—he clapped Torrant’s brother on the back. “Aldam, my boy, are you aware that after the younger ones have gone to bed, during the breaks the kitchen serves hard cider?”

“I’ve never had a drink like that,” Aldam confessed shyly, and Trieste came beside him, wrapping a companionable arm around his waist.

“Well, it’s time we all did, isn’t it? And you know, the cider they serve pales in comparison to the store that Aylan has stashed in his room.”

“You know about that?” Aylan asked, closing the door quietly behind him with a pained expression.

“Oh, Aylan, even the professors know.”

LATER—MUCH later—Trieste tiptoed down the hallway in the dark between midnight and dawn. Her feet were exceedingly steady: she made sure of that. Yes, she had drunk more than usual—Aylan had, among other things, this very tasty almond liqueur she had never had before that packed a little bit of a kick—but she had stopped drinking as soon as the idea had possessed her.

She liked this idea, and she didn’t want to be drunk when she thought about it again.

So she’d sat and sipped water, and chatted idly with the blonde daughter of some Lord of Clough, and together they’d watched Aylan lose to Aldam on purpose through several games of backgammon and one painful game of chess. But Aldam was simple and not stupid. After the chess game, he looked reprovingly at Aylan and said, “I am not drunk enough to believe that.”

Aylan had apologized and proceeded to get Aldam just a little bit drunker.

When Trieste had slipped quietly out of Aylan’s room, Aldam was curled up in a well-sedated ball, whispering “Roes” to himself as he fell sadly asleep. Aylan had given her a little bow and a salute and had smiled at the lord’s daughter who was plump, not too bright, and obviously not leaving soon, and Trieste knew her time had come.

Apparently so did Aylan.

“Trieste?” he’d murmured as she opened the door.

“Hmm?”

“Let him lead.”

She’d flushed and shut the door, but she hugged that bit of advice close as she walked down the hall.

Now, before her courage could fail her, she turned her hand on the knob and whispered into Torrant’s darkened room. Triane loomed large through their window, so close that she could be seen even through the sheeting snow and frosted by the cold that made even the bowl valley frigid. Trieste said a little prayer to her namesake. Please, Goddess, just a little joy that I’ve chosen for my own before the life chosen for me begins. Just a little. Just let it be joy.

The Lady was so close that Trieste could swear she actually winked and then closed sleepy silver-cream eyes. That was a sign if Trieste had ever seen one.

Breathing in shallow hushes, she undid the button at the neck of her simple, blue wool dress and pulled it over her head, and then she pulled off her girdled stockings and her panties. She stood a moment, stark pale in the moonlight, and looked at Torrant, who was still asleep, the sharpness of his cheekbones casting shadows against his intriguingly sculpted mouth. He looked tense and intense, even in sleep. She wondered if she could ease a little of that, calm some of that drive, yet leave a little of that flame burning for later, so when Yarri came of age, he wasn’t yet all burned out.

She could try.

TORRANT WOKE up abruptly when Trieste’s cold and pointed nipples brushed up against his bare back. He said something witty, like “ergglapek?” and heard her soft laugh behind him just as her hands came up to his abdomen and pushed the front of his shirt up as well.

“My pants….” Because her cool legs entwined his from behind and then a soft kiss was planted directly between his bare shoulder blades.

“Believe it or not, Aylan took them off,” she murmured. “Right after Aldam willed you to sleep.”

“Why would he do tha-at?” He finished with a squeak because, of all things, her hand was on his stomach, and then it was not, it was lower, it was under his undergarments, and it was… cool… and firm… and stroking…. “Goddess…Trieste… don’t you have a betrothed king and a virginity law…?”

“It’s been repealed,” she breathed into his ear. “And right now”—stroke—“right here”—stroke—“you need rest”—stroke—“and you need to relax.”

“Ahhh-ahhhh….” He was not feeling relaxed, nor like resting, and he certainly did not feel like arguing. He didn’t want this moment to end quite as soon as Trieste was bent on ending it, either. “Ah gods.” He rolled over and over her, fitting his hips between hers and rubbing up against the juncture of her thighs, getting slick with her. He smiled into her grave eyes as she “Oohed” into the night.

“I don’t want to relax right now.” His movements were slow and controlled, but his jaw was clenched, and his teeth were gritted against the wildness that wanted to take him where they both wanted to go.

“Fine. Great. Good.” She gasped, arching up against him, her body pleading for the act between them that had no words.

“But first….” And he slid down her body, kissing, tasting, and looking at her curves in the moonlight, touching softly everything that looked like it might have nerve endings, tasting everything that made her hiss or pant.

Trieste had spent a great deal of her life in the school, where sex was spoken of in hushed tones, as gossip, or in the occasional, awkward class. Torrant had spent his life among the Moons, both in Clough and in Eiran, with unapologetic girls who would discuss frankly what it was a lover should do and with gleeful older brothers who would explain in graphic detail how that should be accomplished. Although technically a virgin, by the time Torrant slid his body up along Trieste’s and kissed her on the mouth, allowing her to taste herself with a wicked and sober little shiver, he made it clear he had studied the charts of this unfamiliar country, and he was definitely more qualified to lead their exploration therein.

“Are you sure?” he asked, poised at Triane’s gate.

“Are you mad to ask that question right now?” she groaned, wrapping her legs around his hips and doing her best to sheathe him inside her as he held himself steady.

“We could keep doing what we were doing….” But now he was teasing her, because he knew she was sure and because he knew she was ready and because now that he knew it was going to happen, he could linger a moment to watch her want him in the moonlight.

“Oh gods, Torrant!” she practically sobbed. “Please….”

And then there was no more talking because he was sliding, and it was heaven, and the gates were already stretched by his fingers and tongue and they parted as though they had been oiled by their desire. And then he was in, and she was biting his shoulder and urging him with her hips and her feet wrapped over his buttocks and he was moving and moving and moving, and the night spun away as they shuddered and moaned and spent.

And again.

And playing, touching fingertips to skin, murmuring, laughing softly, watching the moon set in the window, watching the window turn an opaque gray.

And again.

And sleep.

TORRANT WOKE up with the sun glancing in through his window, feeling as though a horse were sitting on his chest. He looked sideways, and Trieste was sleeping peacefully, but even as he stretched a tender finger to stroke her cheek, he fought for a panicked breath, and another, and he pulled back that tender finger to run his hands through his sweat-soaked hair and wonder what was wrong.

Instinctively, he looked to Aldam’s bed. The covers were pulled up neatly to the pillow, and the throw Roes had made him for their second Solstice (not as polished as the one Bethen had made, but by no means no less loved) was arranged squarely at the foot.

“Aldam?” Torrant breathed and felt him, on the edge of his gift, and Aldam was cold, and he was frightened.

“Trieste!” Torrant wrenched her name from his tortured lungs. “Where’s Aldam?”

He stood up, finding his breeches and pulling them on, while Trieste sat up, pulling the covers up to her chest and pushing her dark hair out of her focusing eyes.

“Torrant?”

“Aldam!” He could hear the desperation in his voice and couldn’t find words for where the desperation came from.

“Aylan’s room?” She shook her head muzzily and his bare feet thudded on the hardwood floor as he pounded down the hall to Aylan’s quarters and hammered on the door.

“Torrant? By Dueant’s balls, brother, show a little compassion!” Aylan’s eyes were bloodshot, his curly yellow hair was standing straight on end, and his breath could have knocked a sparrow out of her tree from a mile away, but all Torrant could see was the color of Aldam’s fear.

“Aldam?”

“He’s here… he fell asleep on my floo….” Aylan looked behind him to where the lord’s blonde daughter had rolled over in his bed, her breasts covered by his pillow. She met his eyes in a furtive, half-fleeing sort of glance, and Aylan blinked in puzzlement when his eyes scanned the pallet of blankets on the floor and realized Aldam was not there. “Gods! Where?”

But Torrant was sprinting back toward his room and the parchment on his table. When he got there, Trieste was dressed and looking unmistakably mussed, but Aylan didn’t even look at her ironically when he came pattering in, barechested and just as mussed as she was. “Aldam’s missing, and you’re writing him a letter?”

“Maps,” Torrant muttered. “We need a map.” With rude slashes of his pen and ink, Torrant drew a big square and labeled it “school” and then drew an “x” and labeled it “Aldam,” with another one in the school that represented himself. He closed his eyes and whispered, “Aldam… where are you?” Then he stumbled a little because his worry had shot an awful lot of will through the parchment, and the map he’d created was so detailed that the pictures on it raised themselves and formed geographical features on the paper. Trieste and Aylan gasped at the Goddess’s magic, but Torrant wasn’t even paying attention to the miracle he’d wrought with desperation.

“Torrant, it’s worked its way into the wood. It’s part of the desk now!”

“Here’s Aldam! Gods, he’s outside the bowl valley—what’s he doing there? And who are these….”

But the map was still forming as they watched, and even as he saw Aldam’s “x” turn into a tiny, pebble-sized figurine of Aldam himself, he watched other pebble-sized figures rise out of the map and turn into mounted horsemen. They were moving east, and they must have been outfitted for snow because they were moving quickly. The one in front had Rath’s teal-and-black banner.

“Rath!” Torrant’s voice shook, and Aylan and Trieste stepped back because it held an unmistakable yowl and growl in it. Torrant’s shirtless back was suddenly not smooth, brown-tinted skin anymore, but mottled white-and-black fur.

“Torrant?” Trieste was terrified, but she risked a touch on his back. “Torrant, sweetheart, you need to calm….”

Rrowwrrll!” His howl shook the window, and before the echoes had died down he was fully a snowcat, hurtling down the halls of Triannon.

“Goddess!” Trieste breathed, trying to fight tears. “Aylan—what do we do?”

Before he answered, Aylan wheeled around and started pounding down the hall. “Get dressed, get Prof Gregor, and get me my clothes off the floor!” he ordered as his bare feet made panicked slapping sounds down the hall.

Trieste padded next to him, breathless because she didn’t fence like the boys did, but she did have just enough breath to ask a question. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to go let him out of the damned school before he makes some poor teacher piss himself!” Aylan answered back, disappearing down the stairwell and leaping the steps four at a time. “Now move!”

And Trieste had no choice but to obey.