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The Hero's Road

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She had begun dreaming of Luthe.

She had dreamed of him many times since their parting, of course; but those had been the ordinary sort of dreams that anyone might have, kelar or no.

These were not that sort of dream. These were true dreams. She had not dreamt true in many years, but the feeling was unmistakeable. Even if it were not, things in ordinary dreams stayed the same as in her memories.

In these dreams, Luthe had not. He looked no older, but the shirt was different than those she had seen him wear in their time together; and yet it was not a Damarian style. Aerin saw herself there, as well, wearing clothes whose like she had never seen, in a style which would have set dear Teka, gone these many years, to clucking in dismay. And in these dreams she rode not old Kethtaz, nor her current mount Dgheera, but a horse she had never before seen. Gonturan was not there. She knew that the sword was not merely out of sight, but out of her possession.

She knew what it meant.

Tor was dying. Her husband, the father of her children, her lover, her oldest friend. He had lived a long, fruitful life; but all mortal lives end. And at the age of eighty-seven, the healing arts she had learned from Luthe so long ago were of limited use. There was no great illness, no mortal wound, but each day Tor's strength ebbed a little more.

Once that ebb had reached its lowest point, Aerin's time in Damar would end, and her own mortality—or pretension to it—would fade as well, though in a different way. She had put the Meeldtar's gift aside these many years, but it would not be denied forever. Tor would die, and Aerin would leave, and she would go to Luthe.

She did not now wish to think of a life beyond that which she shared with Tor, but with age had come the knowledge that even the deepest griefs fade with time, and life goes on regardless. And her life would go on for a very long time.

A discreet knock on the door roused her mind from its wandering, and she glanced over at Tor. Though he refused to take to his bed during the day, the couch in their office was very little short of it, and he slept as well there as he did in bed. Better, sometimes. He did not wake at the sound.

"Yes?" she said.

Telnos, her oldest daughter, entered the room sedately. It was hard to see in her the loud, demanding child she had been six decades ago, but Aerin's mind had spent much time in the past, these last days. "How does our father fare? The Council wishes to know if he will join them, or if they should come to him."

"Neither," Aerin said. "There is no pressing business of state, and even if there was, your brother Perlin could handle it. Your father requires rest more than anything, and in a Council meeting he would not get it." She picked up the little figure she had been carving earlier, and her knife, and began to work on it again. It would be a yerig when she was done.

"Ah," said Telnos. "Will you be attending, then?" For though Aerin had always avoided the duties of rule which she considered Tor's rightful position (which, coincidentally, she found dreadfully boring), she was Queen and equal in rank and power to her husband.

"No," Aerin said. "Perlin shall preside. I will remain here with your father." Telnos turned to go. "And tell your siblings that I wish to speak with them before dinner," Aerin added. They would wake Tor for dinner; he would be alert then, and as sharp as ever he was, these days.

"Yes, mother," Telnos said.

Aerin shook Tor awake. "Tor? Tor, it is time to wake up."

"Hm?" he said, drowsily. "Oh." His face turned to the window and took in the lengthening shadows. "Why, I've slept the day away. You shouldn't have let me; I'll be awake all night."

"No, you won't," Aerin said. She put her hand on his shoulder and lent him a bit of strength. Not enough to overwhelm his fragile constitution, but enough that he was able to sit up and move to the chair that the hafor would carry him into the hall on.

"I suppose you're right," Tor said with a sigh, pressing a hand to his face. "Growing old is a difficult business. I don't recommend it."

"I wish I could share it with you," Aerin said.

"No, you don't," Tor said. "Or if you do, it is because you have only seen it from the outside. It is a great comfort to me to know that you stay strong as ever, even as I weaken. You went where I could not follow, once; now it is my turn. You fought your dragon; this one is mine."

"I killed my dragon," Aerin said.

"Yes," Tor said, "and mine shall kill me. And then we will travel again on separate roads, and although it is the best gift I could imagine that you have walked mine with me to this point, your road was never meant to end within Damar's borders."

Aerin closed her eyes against the tears that wanted to come. "I wish it was. But my wishes have never guided my destiny." She shook her head. "I shall not long remain in Damar, after you leave. Things are wakening in me that have been quiet these many decades."

"Ah," Tor said. "The children will miss you, to have both of us gone."

"True," Aerin said. "And I shall miss them. But it must be done. I had thought to tell them now, if you feel strong enough."

"Better now than later," Tor said. "My strength diminishes daily."

Aerin nodded, and called the children in from where they waited in the antechamber. Though, children they were not; even her grandchildren were adults now. Many had lands and duties throughout the kingdom, but all had been called back for Tor's decline, however long or short it might be.

They came in and settled themselves around the room, some standing, some sitting. Aerin herself took up station behind Tor, with a hand on his shoulder to lend him whatever strength he required, as she explained that she would be leaving once he died.

"But … what about Damar, mother?" Perlin said, shocked. "You would abandon your country and your rule?"

"You shall rule, and rule well," Aerin said. "I will always be here when Damar needs me, in one form or another; but right now it does not. And over the long term, I do not believe I would be well suited to reign, even if I wished to do so without Tor. People change; countries change. Those who are not quite mortal … largely do not." Luthe hadn't, that she knew of; nor Agsded.

"Mother, you are old," Garelth said, fidgeting with her bracelets as she always did when she was upset. "You can't leave. What if something happened? What if you broke a bone, or grew ill, far from home?"

"I am not old," Aerin said. "You know I am not quite mortal, any longer; I told you the story of how it happened often enough when you were children." It had seemed like a story, even to her, when she had told it to them in their cradles; something she knew to be true but not quite relevant to her daily life. Now she remembered it all with a clarity she had thought lost to her.

"Aerin, you have worn the guise of a mortal all their lives," Tor said quietly. "A childhood story is one thing. The evidence of their eyes is quite another. They, at least, should see you as you really are."

"Oh," Aerin said, dumbly. Her mortality—or lack of it—was to her such a part of her that it had not occurred to her that her children might see differently. She looked down at hands darkened with age spots. It was but a moment's thought to remove the illusion.

As she stood before them in her own skin for the first time in years, she was conscious of the now-obvious contrast between herself and Tor. She had learned how to look mortal from him; it was his gray hairs she had mimicked, his paper-thin skin she had copied, his stiffness she had feigned. But under it, her flesh and muscle had always been hale and hearty.

Gasps and muffled oaths filled the room, and for the first time Aerin realized that her children had never quite believed her stories. And that she had been relieved it was so, for they looked at her and saw their mother, not the great hero who saved Damar.

Now, they saw Aerin Dragon-Killer, Aerin Firehair, Aerin who found the Hero's Crown. She did not care for it.

"I do not age," Aerin said. "Except in pretence. I cannot stay here forever; and I have no wish to rule without Tor. But if I stay, Perlin's rule shall always be questioned as people look to me. I am not abandoning you; you shall still be able to visit me. I will tell you how to find me—or how to find Luthe, at any rate, who shall always know where I am. And I will miss you all so very, very much. But I cannot stay."

"Why did you make yourself look old, mother?" Telnos said.

"I do not like being stared at," Aerin said. "Nor whispered about, nor called a witch. It was easier to look as a woman my age should."

"I don't want you to go, Mother," Perlin said. "If you really don't want to rule, I will take the crown; but I don't care they'd be looking past me to see you. I would rather have you here."

"I cannot," Aerin said. "I was born to Damar, but that tether was snapped when I put off mortality. I bound myself to Damar again when I married your father, but that tie, too, is breaking. I cannot make another. There is something waking in me that cannot be put to sleep again. I will always be your mother. I will always love you. I will always come when you need me, or Damar does. But I cannot pretend to be mortal, again; and I cannot stay here, immortal."

There was much arguing after that, and crying; but eventually they accepted Aerin's words, or at least accepted that they could not change her mind. Dinner in the banquet hall that evening was strained, and for several nights thereafter. None but her descendants knew she would leave when Tor died, and she wore old age again like a cloak, but all knew that some change had happened.

Tor died six months later.

Aerin wished she could have died with him, for her heart was broken in two. For many days thereafter, she drifted aimlessly from room to room within the palace, picking up one object or another, running her hands over pieces of furniture, trying to recapture Tor through the life they had shared.

She stayed for the funeral rites; for Perlin's coronation; for the birth of a great-granddaughter whom they named after her; for the end of the formal year of mourning for her husband. And then she could stay no longer.

She rode out at dawn on Dgheera, in her own skin once more, with Telnos and Garelth and many others of her children and grandchildren with her and those of the hafor she deemed most trustworthy. Perlin stood at the gate and watched them, as long as he could, for his duties prevented him from following.

Gonturan stayed in the City, for Aerin gave the sword to Perlin's wife Shanama, whose skill with a blade was greater than any of Aerin's own daughters.

Aerin had some vague thought that it would be hard to find Luthe, for the last time she had made this journey there was a forest and not a desert. But she had come to Luthe the first time without any guide or knowledge at all besides her instinctive use of kelar, and her kelar was much more practiced now. The way was easy to find, and she showed her children and grandchildren the knack of it.

Luthe was waiting for them when they reached the top of his mountain. Aerin climbed off Dgheera and embraced him, but there was a reserve there that had not been when they last parted. She did not know if it was him, or herself.

Introductions were quickly made, and then there were horses to be seen to in the barns that were much larger than the last time she had seen them. "You've been busy," she muttered to Luthe as she curried Dgheera, the others busy with their own horses.

"It took no great foresight to know they would not let you leave alone," Luthe said with a shrug, "nor that they will want to come and visit you; and thus, if you stay, I will periodically be invaded by people who will need a place to put their horses. It would not be my first choice, but there are many worse things."

"If I stay?" Aerin asked, for she had not thought beyond coming here.

Luthe shrugged again. "I would have you stay, but you may find you wish to wander; there is much to see in the world, beyond Damar's borders, and you have no tethers now. I do not care to travel, but you are not me. And so long as you come back to me occasionally, I am content to stay here and be with you when you will."

"Ah." They would know each other, Aerin assumed, for a very long time. What were a few years of journeys compared to centuries? She should not consider this on a mortal scale.

That night at dinner, everyone watched her and Luthe, and Aerin was reminded how little she cared for being watched.

"Mother," Telnos said quietly as they got ready for bed, "is Luthe your lover?" She spoke quietly, for all of the women who had travelled with them would be staying in the same room. Luthe's home could house many people, but favored communal bunkrooms rather than individual bedchambers.

"He was, once, before I married your father," Aerin said. "And no doubt we shall be again someday; but not soon. I loved Tor very deeply, and a year is not enough time for my heart to heal."

"Ah," Telnos said, relaxing a bit.

"Does it bother you?" Aerin asked.

"A little," Telnos said. "I know it is not fair—I should not wish you to be alone forever, and I know Father would not, for he said so himself. But neither do I wish to see another man take his place."

"That will never happen," Aerin said. "Luthe and Tor have very different places in my life, and in my heart. There is no competition, and there never was, for my heart and my life are large enough for more than one." She paused, considering. "Though perhaps not more than one at the same time. But they always knew of each other, though they never met, and neither was ever jealous."

"Oh." Telnos said dubiously.

"But do not worry," Aerin said. "You shall never see me with him as I was with Tor; and Luthe has no desire to be your stepfather."

A week passed very pleasantly, and Aerin enjoyed the time spent with her family outside the pressures and scrutiny of the City; but Luthe began to have a pinched look that she knew meant he was finding the company a little overpowering. And in any case, they needed to return home to their regular lives. So the day came when they disappeared down the trail, and Aerin was left alone with Luthe.

"Will you be staying in the East room?" Luthe asked.

"For now, I think," Aerin said. "I was not lying when I told Telnos that it is still too soon; I would not have you be a stand-in for Tor, for I love you for your own self; and if we shared a bed now, I think that is what would happen. In any case, I have been thinking. I have only seen Damar, and Agsded's tower; I would like to see more of the world beyond Damar's borders. I think I will travel for a while; and then, when I come back, I think I shall be ready for you."

"You should keep an eye on your children, so that you can be here when they come to visit," Luthe said.

"Of course," Aerin said. "You do not mind?"

"Aerin, excepting the time you spent fighting Agsded, you have only lived the space of one human lifetime," Luthe pointed out. "I will miss you; but I know how to wait very patiently, and although I am happier with you my life is full and complete even when you are gone. You will be happy, and you will have time to heal, and you will have time and perspective to grow in ways you have not had, before now. And when you come back to stay—or even if you wander forever, only alighting here between journeys—our relationship will be the stronger for it, because you will be the stronger for it. I have never wanted you tied down; Damar did that quite enough."

"Very well, then," Aerin said, and a part of her was disappointed; but a greater part of her was relieved, and even a little excited at the prospect of travel, in ways that she did not know if she had ever been. "I think I shall start by going east, to see where Gonturan was made."

"It has changed greatly from what it was then, and they do not make such things there now," Luthe said.

Aerin shrugged. "It shall still be interesting."

And so, some months later, Aerin rode away from Luthe again, to the east this time instead of south to Damar. She had not known there were so many varieties of people and language and custom, and it was good that Luthe had taught her the skill to learn a language quickly, for none there spoke Damarian and Aerin had, till then, spoken no other language.

In the East, she stood out, for although there were some as pale as she, their eyes and noses were different, and none had red hair. People watched, and sometimes stared. But as she was merely a stranger passing through, with no greater significance, it was a different sort of watching than the wary disdain she had grown up with, or the deep reverence of her adulthood.

She returned to Luthe, periodically, when she knew her children were going to visit; the table by the bed she used gathered small trinkets she had brought back from her travels, though not many, for she travelled light.

As time passed and their visits grew less frequent, her journeys became longer. Twice she found a mage willing to teach her, and learned things that Luthe did not know. She supported herself through various means. Sometimes she slew monsters; sometimes she sold Dgheera's stud services. (Once she took one of the Dgheera's foals as payment, for Dgheera was getting old.)

Aerin had not meant to wander for so long, but she did. She had loved Damar, but it was only now that she realized what a weight it had been. She loved her children, but they did not need her. Luthe and his home were good to come back to, but he put no expectations on her, and it was a relief she had never imagined.

"I do not think I shall be here when next they visit," Aerin said thoughtfully some three decades later as the last of her great-great-grandchildren disappeared down the trail. None who were yet hale enough to make the journey were old enough to remember her in Damar; to them, she was a legend only, a goddess of flame and sword and horse. It was everything she had tried to leave behind.

"What do you want me to tell them?" Luthe said. "Or should I deny them entrance altogether?" He was not surprised at all.

"Their welcome here is yours to decide," Aerin said. "For it is your home, and not mine."

"It is your home as much as anywhere is," Luthe said.

"But never as much as it is yours." Aerin shook her head. "They may come, if you do not object; and you may tell them whatever you like. They will probably hear whatever they wish to, whatever fits the stories they tell themselves."

"That is true," Luthe said. "But if your visits are not timed to theirs, when will you come?"

Aerin smiled, and took his hand. "I think I am done wandering, for the moment; and I am done grieving for Tor and all my life that was. That part of my life is over, and I am ready to begin a new one."

Luthe smiled and stepped in closer to embrace her, and that night the mementoes from her travels moved to his bedchamber. And although Aerin continued to travel, both beyond Damar's borders and (suitably disguised) within them, she spent most of her time with Luthe. And slowly, her former life in Damar grew more distant and dreamlike, for the mortal part of her did sleep, that she might love her new life.