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The God Who Climbs and Falls and Saves Damar

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"It's only a headache," said Aerin.

"It's been only a headache for four days."

"I know that very well. It's my head the ache is in, after all. I'm fine, stop fussing."

"I'm not fussing," protested Tor. Aerin gave him a tired half-smile and snuggled in close so she could rest her head on his chest.

"You are. Worse than Teka. Cold, please."

Tor had to concentrate for a few seconds before he could get the charm to set, but it was worth it for Aerin's relieved sigh when he placed a cold palm on her forehead. It was one of the most difficult things to do with his Gift, though he doubted that Aerin knew it. With a Gift unlike his own she'd never had a good sense of what was easy or difficult for the rest of them. It was easier to work with the nature of something than against it; air wanted to be shaped, fires wanted to be lit. Bodies did not generally want to be cold.

Still, it was even more of a struggle to keep the charm going than it should have been. Tor was exhausted. The four days since the arrival of the delegation of the west had been grueling, especially without Aerin by his side. No one could seem to agree on anything, and he kept catching hints of double-dealing that he could never quite pin down. It was enough to make him mistrust his entire court just on principle.

Beside him, Aerin shifted sleepily to rub at her chest with one hand, a gesture that was becoming familiar. Her breath came easy, but all the same Tor was gripped with the fear that this was some resurgence of the illness that had nearly claimed her life after Maur. He resolved to talk to her about it in the morning. Aerin would never admit anything was wrong until pressed.

In the morning, he'd forgotten.

 

"Majesty, are you well?" asked Rogenth, jumping gracefully to his feet as Tor entered the room. "It would be no trouble to postpone this business."

"Merely tired," said Tor, waving him back to his seat. "I'm not so young as I once was, and I find that with every year the mornings seem to come earlier, don't you?"

Rogenth smiled politely, although he probably didn't find anything of the sort. They were nearly of an age, but Rogenth was the picture of alert good health, brown skin nearly glowing against a meticulously fashionable blue tunic. Tor resented him just a little.

"And what is this morning's business?" he asked, accepting a cup of malak from one of the hafor.

"Ah. Allow me to introduce Baron Anned. His lands lie directly on the border in question; perhaps he can illuminate our present danger in more precise detail," said Rogenth. Tor took a long sip of malak and waved the man forward.

"Welcome to our court," he said, struggling for attentiveness. "Please, proceed."

The politics of the western barons currently visiting the capitol were threefold. The charming Rogenth was the successor to Nyrlol both in his lands and position as chief of the council of barons, a complicated appointment when Nyrlol had died without an obvious heir. His presence in court was partially for Tor to acknowledge and approve his new position, partly for Rogenth to publicly renounce his predecessor and the trouble he'd caused- an act which involved rather more sycophantic groveling than Tor generally cared to entertain- and partially for him to petition for the provision of a standing army to guard the border with the North, which he claimed was growing both restive and ill-defended.

None of it was so unusual, except for some of the particulars of the proposed army. It was larger than Tor was entirely comfortable with, for one, and some of the training measures Rogenth claimed were necessary made him a bit uneasy, though he wasn't quite sure why. It made sense for a force that would be fighting on the border to train in the conditions they would be facing.

The entire process was causing much more difficulty then it should have. The court seemed to have suddenly remembered every petty grievance that had ever troubled it and Tor was kept busy trying to soothe tempers and monitor alliances. Galanna, who he might have counted on to assist him in Aerin's absence, was suddenly cold and cutting to him in a way she hadn't been since Perlith's death, for no reason that Tor could discern. By the end of the day he was exhausted again and a headache was beating insistently at his temples. He wondered if Aerin's mysterious ailment was catching.

She was already asleep when he finally retired to their rooms. She was even paler than usual, brow furrowed in her sleep. When he climbed into bed she stirred, rubbing at her chest, but didn't wake. It occurred to Tor that he'd meant to talk to her about seeing a healer. He didn't want to disturb her rest, though. It could wait until the morning.

In the morning he'd forgotten again.

He left Aerin, who was not a naturally early riser even when well, grumbling and cuddling up to the foltza that had claimed Tor's still-warm side of the bed. He smiled at the sight. It wasn't a bad way to begin what was sure to be a frustrating day.

He didn't expect to see Aerin again until the evening, but that afternoon he was escorting Rogenth on a tour of the grounds when he spotted a shock of red hair over by the pastures. She appeared to be watching some of the sofor training a young stallion. Tor steered them in that direction. It wouldn't be the most stately introduction for the Queen of Damar, but it certainly wouldn't be the worst she'd ever managed, either.

Enough of the court had taken advantage of the opportunity to get some air that they weren't a quiet group. Aerin heard them coming and turned before half of them had even realized she was there. Tor, who had been watching her- he'd never really learned how to look away from her when they were both in the same place- saw her turn and stiffen, reaching for Gonturan at her hip and swearing when she realized that she wasn't wearing her sword belt. She took off toward them at a run, which drew the attention of even the least observant solas.

"Aerin, what's wrong?" he asked, taken aback. She made no reply, but tugged his own sword from its scabbard and immediately rounded on Rogenth with it.

Rogenth seemed to be the only person prepared for this; he'd drawn as well, and the court watched them exchange the first few parries in stunned silence.

"Somebody help me!" cried Aerin, who was really only a mediocre swordswoman without Gonturan guiding her hand. Several of Tor's guard made motions toward their own weapons, but no one seemed quite sure of what to do. Tor was about to order them into the fight- he had no idea what was going on either, but he trusted Aerin more than anyone in the world- when Aerin danced back into a foot of space and shouted a word that seemed to shake the very air, something he heard in his bones rather than his ears. The force of it grabbed Rogenth up and twisted him, and when it faded there was no more of the charming, graceful baron Tor had spent the week talking to. Some of the same features were visible in the face of what remained, although its teeth were too sharp and its limbs overlong and jointed oddly, tipped in short, curving claws that clattered against he hilt of Rogenth's sword.

"Now will you help?" panted Aerin. She'd been blown back by the force of the word as well, but she was still Aerin, winded and pale enough to be alarming.

There was no more delay; courtiers and guards alike rushed toward the battle. The thing that was Rogenth laughed, a shrill, grating sound, and waved its sword toward them in a wide arc. What felt like an icy wind flowed over Tor, though it didn't so much as stir the leaves of the surrounding scrub, and when it passed he found he was frozen where he stood as sure as if he'd been carved from stone. His Gift didn't even touch it.

Aerin seemed to be the only one not affected. She took advantage of Rogenth's distraction to land a shallow cut across his arm, which oozed thick black blood onto his sleeve. The fight twisted strangely before Tor's eyes as he struggled against his invisible bonds. Sometimes it was simply Aerin wielding his sword against a demon thing, but sometimes they seemed to have other weapons, or to fight with nothing at all but strange ripples and shifts in the air. They stood in the desert, or in the thick Damarian forest that had been gone since Maur's battle, or on an unfamiliar, darkened cliff. He thought he saw Aerin astride Talat, though Talat had died peacefully many years before. The thing that was Rogenth twisted and writhed into nightmare forms he couldn't quite comprehend. It threw up a wall of crackling fire and Aerin walked through it, sword glinting, face set. The last thing Tor remembered was laughing at Rogenth inside his own head, thinking that Aerin had tamed fire long ago.

For a while, he dreamed.

The dreams were sharp and true and awful. He heard Maur's laughter, walked the halls of an empty castly heavy with dread, watched an endless inhuman army fill the desert, emptied Damar's stores and turned the people away still starving, lost Aerin screaming in a sandstorm, and on and on. Real sleep never seemed to come, just a gradual seeping of world into world, until he finally opened his eyes to what he thought was the right one.

He was in his bed, the heavy weight of his favorite yerig pup across his feet. It seemed to be evening. Aerin was sitting in a chair by the window staring out at the grounds, as still as he'd ever seen her.

"Aerin?" he asked. It came out a little hoarse.

"You're awake!" A smile wiped away all traces of whatever solemn contemplation she'd been engaged in. She dragged her chair around so she could sit next to him.

"I certainly hope I am. How long has it been?"

"Three days. I've had to do all your duties myself; I think the only reason they haven't thrown me out on the accusation of having ensorcelled you to steal the throne is that most of the rest of the court has been just as indisposed as you."

"You don't really think that, do you?"

Aerin cocked her head to the side, considering.

"No, I suppose not. They do seem to have warmed up to me a bit. It helps that most of the sofor were well enough to remember me killing that thing. A bit of Northern blood doesn't seem as bad when it only gives you pale skin and red hair, not fangs and extra limbs."

"I'm sure they would look charming on you," he said, just to make her snort with laughter. "What was that, though? Was Rogenth even real?"

"I don't think so, no," says Aerin, sobering. "The men with him, though- they were human once. They hadn't been for a long time. I suspect that any army you sent to him would have turned out much the same, and probably come marching against us before long."

Tor shuddered. "I'm glad you took care of him, then. How did you know what he was? I spent four days with him without the slightest idea."

"Well, he was poisoning you."

"What?" cried Tor.

"You and most of the court. I only escaped it by hiding up here with the miserable headache he gave me. Don't worry, everyone is perfectly fine. Most of the others woke yesterday- I think it took you more strongly because of your Gift. You've been having visions?"

"Awful ones."

"I thought so." She ran a comforting hand over his forehead, brushing his hair back into place. "There's no sign that any of it is real."

"It felt real. Almost like chewing surka."

"It would have. I think he found a spring of the Water of Sight, only one that was poisoned or corrupted in some way, to show nightmares rather than truth. Someone really ought do something about that."

This last was not addressed to Tor, but to the empty air above his head. Aerin's eyes were sharp and distant, like she was looking at another room entirely, and Tor found himself thinking about the blond man the surka had shown him, the one glimpse of the other world she'd entered and never spoke of. He hoped that whoever he was, he was able to do something about the spring. Tor didn't any idea how to even find such a thing, let alone fix it.

Aerin shook herself abruptly, gaze focusing backing on Tor.

"I'd forgotten I could do that," she said, sounding a little bewildered.

"It seems that you can do a great many things that you often do not," he said, thinking of the word that had revealed Rogenth's true form. "If you being something of a mage prevents us from being overrun by an army of demon-creatures, I hardly think anyone will mind."

"It's not only that," said Aerin. She took his hand and turned it over in her own, looking down at their twined fingers instead of his face. "It seems that I am not entirely mortal anymore."

"Good," said Tor, fierce and immediate, remembering a poison-nightmare of Aerin dying in childbirth like her mother, remembering the months of watching Maur's fire slowly consume her from inside.

"Good?" repeated Aerin, eyebrows raised.

"Unless you are unhappy with it, in which case we will do everything we can to restore you to the same poor mortal state the rest of us suffer."

"I don't think this sort of thing is reversible," she said. "And I'm not...unhappy. I suppose I hardly remembered it, until I saw Rogenth."

He ran a thumb over the back of her hand she looked up with a weak smile.

"It's only that, well. I'm afraid I'm not the same Aerin you knew."

"Nor is Damar the same Damar I knew," he pointed out. "But its people are still Damarians, and it has lost none of its history or its memories, for all that we are learning to live with the sand in our shoes and the heat of the sun and no surka at all."

"I don't mourn the surka overmuch, I must admit," said Aerin.

"Nor do I," said Tor. He tugged on her hand. "Come lie down, unless you have more work to do."

"No. You don't want malak, though, or something to eat?"

"Later, perhaps." He tugged again and she laughed and obliged, dislodging the yerig on his feet as she curled in next to him. It gave them an affronted look and settled on her abandoned chair instead.

"I like this Aerin," Tor told her. "Though I don't think you're so different, really. We all knew you had some destiny waiting for you, it's just that you've stopped hiding it."

She poked him. "Now I know you're making that up. No one ever looked at the awkward, Gifltess witchwoman's daughter the king was stuck with and thought, 'that one will do something great.'"

"Teka did," said Tor. "Your father did. I certainly did."

"You've just named every last person in this castle who had any affection for me. I don't think you knew anything at all, you were just hoping I'd somehow grow up to be interesting so you could justify spending your time on me."

"Aerin, of all the many things you are and were, uninteresting has never been one of them."

She made a face. "That's true enough. I would have given a lot to be uninteresting once."

"And now?"

"I'm afraid there's just no way around it anymore."

"Doomed to be interesting forever," Tor pronounced, and she laughed.

"There are worse fates."

"There certainly are. Imagine if you'd decided to pursue an uninteresting life instead. There'd be nothing left of Damar."

"I'm sure-"

"It's true. This is the fourth time you've singlehandedly saved all of us, isn't it?"

"Tor-" protested Aerin, who had resigned herself to being interesting but not to being thanked for it.

"If you keep on like this for more than one lifetime you'll be Damar's favorite legend," he told her, only half teasing.

"The God Who Climbs and Falls and Saves Damar," said Aerin.

"What?"

She frowned. "I'm...not sure what I meant by that. Something I dreamed, maybe."

"Maybe," agreed Tor, and tucked away The God Who Climbs and Falls with the word that made Rogenth appear and the surka-vision of the blond man by the lake and the other scraps that Aerin never seemed to remember of her other life, the one it seemed she might go back to after he was gone. He was glad of it, both for the sake of his country and for his own selfish heart, that he might live a long life and never grieve her.

"What do you think?" asked Aerin, propping her head on her arm to grin down at him. "Would I make a good eighth god?"

"That is blasphemy."

"Only a little. I'm sure the Seven Perfect Gods have much more important business than listening in on the two of us, anyway."

"I'd rather not chance it. Some of us here are mere mortals, you know, and not nearly as fireproof as you."

She laughed, scrambling over him on her hands and knees as if shielding him from enemy fire.

"I'll protect you," she promised. Some of her hair swung forward in front of her eyes and Tor reached up to tuck it behind her ear. He could barely remember the way it used to curl.

"Yes," he said. "You always do."