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An early winter threatened Bronherrn when he and Wilhelm parted. He half thought of backtracking to the Ferillians. The idea of spending the cold months by a roaring fire with Janif tempted him, but he knew better. She was not for him and he could not conform to her ways.
Moving on offered no easy path. His feet grew raw with frost. The unfamiliar formations and turns confused his senses. When he stumbled about a path that looked familiar, it led him to a rocky wall. Dangerous ledges hid corners and turns.
Rest became impossible. Bronherrn grew anxious to return home. He dared it to call to him, but no inner sound jolted his instincts.
The snows began, and he trudged on. They picked up, mixing with freezing rain that beat against him. His muscles cramped and he strained to continue. He trudged a little further, but his knees locked and he slipped on a patch of ice. He hit the frozen layer beneath him and his spine popped. His body went numb. He shaded his eyes and looked up from where he lay, only to watch feel his body disappear under the fast-growing accumulation.
How stupid I have been, he thought.
The sky became a blur of white. He forgot why he left Janif and the mines. Forgot the Zuthans and their constant threat. All he could remember was the sound of his mother’s voice.
He thought he could hear her tone nearing him. The sound grew closer, but when he brushed the ice and snow from his eyes, he found himself startled by a vision. In the hazy falling mess, Xanthu drew near. Beside her walked the priestess, Aethelwyn, as calm and majestic as ever.
Her slight feet were barely dressed in smooth animal hide. He stared at her light steps. She moved closer pulling a sled behind. The glow of the overcast storm wraped her in a brilliant beam that made him strain to recognize her features.
She stooped down and brushed the ice and snow from his body, then shook her head. “What are you doing out here alone, trying to die?” Flakes clung to her fur cloak and twisted in the ringlets of her hair.
“Aethelwyn.” He meant to explain himself, to plead that he had no choice. He did not wish her to think him a fool, but as he tried to sit up his head swirled and Xanthu growled a note of warning.
Aethelwyn pulled a sled beside the warrior. “She is very angry with you. You gave her quite a scare.”
“Xanthu?” Bronherrn coughed with a slight laugh.
“She cares for you deeply.” Aethelwyn frowned at him. She grasped his body and slid him on the wooden planks, guiding him up little by little.
Once he lay on her sled, he closed his eyes. “You have saved me yet again.”
“Not I.” She wrapped the rope at the top of the sled, placing it around Xanthu’s muscular shoulders and looked down at him for a moment.
Bronherrn desired to tell her everything, but his lungs were frozen. Each breath burned his chest deeper. He met Aethelwyn’s gaze and held it as if to offer a mute apology. Whether she understood or not was impossible to determine. She directed her gaze ahead and walked alongside him as Xanthu bore his weight.
Most of the journey was lost to Bronherrn. His body shut down beneath the cold. He caught a few eyefuls of the scenery, but grew too exhausted to recognize any of it.
“Lay back. Give me your trust,” Aethelwyn said.
The loyal cougar pulled Bronherrn along until they reached the comfort of the holy land. Aethelwyn released her pet atop the naturally cut stone steps and Bronherrn struggled to pull himself from his stupor.
Xanthu bounded along, clearing any remnants of the foul weather in the enchanted chasm that radiated a comforting warmth.
The priests ascended the stairs and greeted Bronherrn without any questions. Hefeydd helped to carry him into Aethelwyn’s home and left him there to rest. There was no ceremony of greeting, no chanting of welcome. Bronherrn realized how close he had come to freezing to death as he lay in the warm confines of Aethelwyn’s bed covered in her sleeping furs.
She set a blaze going. It quickly illuminated the leathern walls supported by simple woodland beams.
Xanthu sniffed Bronherrn’s head and moaned in concern.
“Do not worry he is in our hands now,” Aethelwyn said. The musical tones of her sweet voice were enough to revive Bronherrn’s mind but he found his body still weak. He stared at her as she removed her coverings.
She walked around the bed and came to lay behind him. Her soft skin soothed him. The warmth of her body mingled with his and he felt her healing energy.
Bronherrn was not sure how the spell worked, but he knew her magic well. He lay still and sank into her embrace.
This process repeated for days. Bronherrn had no idea how far he had taxed his strength. Each time he grew conscious, he struggled to get up, but a fever had caught hold of his body, and he fell back, weak and tired.
After the third day, he finally found the constrictive pain letting go. “Is this the hereafter?” He rolled toward Aethelwyn and rubbed his hands over her divine skin.
She snickered to herself and sat up. “Do not be blasphemous. You still have your life.” He went to pull her into his arms again but she stood. “I have herbs to collect.”
He grumbled to himself and Xanthu leapt into the bed to nuzzle his face. “At least you care about me.” He rubbed her pelt.
“She is the one who saved your life. Not me.” Aethelwyn stepped out.
He sighed and laid his head on the cougar’s belly. She licked her rough tongue along his forehead matting the hair around the edges of his face. The comfort of his animal friend offered little consolation. “Why does she always act this way?”
Xanthu prodded him with her nose and gave a light moan before resting her head against on his.
“I know, I know. She is no more human than you are a dumb animal.” He reached up to pat Xanthu’s head.
Bronherrn pretended to be asleep when Aethelwyn returned. He listened to her gentle movements and tried to understand why she kept her distance. She came close and he had to concentrate on his breathing to keep steady.
She leaned over him and kissed his brow. “If you pretend to sleep all day, you shall not be able to eat much.”
The word eat spoke to his stomach. It instantly rumbled in response. He opened his eyes and smirked at her. “If you knew I was awake, why did you not say so?”
“You are ill. It is my purpose to heal you how I can.”
“Speak plainly.” He sat up attempting to swing his feet to the ground, but stumbled too weak to stand.
Xanthu reached his side at the same time as Aethelwyn. “You pretended to sleep, so I let you believe you had fooled me.”
He rolled back into her bed of furs. “But I knew you were not fooled.”
“Then why did you not say something, yourself? You are just as elusive as I.”
Bronherrn hated to admit it, but she was truthful. He grabbed the bowl she held out to him and spooned a thick soupy broth into his mouth. He ate and ate, then eyed her questioning what to say. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome.”
He winced at the inviting sound of her voice. “Why do you say it like that?”
“As if I am…welcome.”
She walked forward and knelt beside him. “Bronherrn, you are more to me than you know.”
He refused to let the moment pass. He reached over, pulled her head near his, and leaned in to offer the kiss that he had been craving since she had come to him in the snow. Her returned caresses were all he needed to rest easy. When she pulled away, he caught a light in her eyes making them as violet as the flowers near his home. She crawled into bed with him and cradled his head in her arms.
The next few days were easier. Aethelwyn massaged Bronherrn’s legs and offered him more food. She also allowed him to hold her, which aided his recovery better than anything else. He finally grew able to move as himself after waking from yet another night of sharing her bed. He stood when he found Aethelwyn reaching for her cloak to cover her divine curves.
“No.” He gently stopped her hand.
She turned to him as he ran his fingertips over her glowing skin. “I tempt you too much.”
“You radiate light. Brighter than ever.” He ignored her.
She blushed and he smiled at the sight of goose bumps blooming all over her body. “I have come of age. There is much that you will not understand of me.”
He pulled her to him with a force of longing. His mouth met hers and she reciprocated his efforts. Rubbing his hands over the curves that had enticed him for years, he possessed her for a time. Just as their bodies were nearly joined, she stepped back. “I cannot.”
“What is the matter?” he asked.
She caressed his cheek. “I will not be your weakness, nor will I allow you to be mine.”
He kissed her again and sent her a pleading gaze.
“Bronherrn, when we do come together it will be a spiritual event.”
“I know,” he whispered in her ear, nuzzling against her cheek.
She hit him playfully. “One that I am not yet prepared to experience.”
“Why?” he asked. “Are we beasts? You know how I feel for you and I thought…” he stopped as her face filled with worry.
“We are more than mindless creatures romping through life.” She kissed his forehead. “We are so much more. You must fulfill your purpose first.”
“My purpose?” He worked to swallow his anger. “Am I just a tool to you?”
“No, my love.”
He found himself trembling as he listened.
She sighed. “But I will not be the woman who shares your glory.”
“Why? Have me now and I shall never leave you.”
She rubbed his lips with her finger. “There are things that I have seen. Things I cannot control.”
His fighter’s instinct took over. He jetted for his sword lying in the corner and moved it with skill. “I will cut down anyone who stands in our way.”
He smiled with a charm that caused her to break her serious stance. Throwing down the sword, he picked her up in his arms and kissed her.
She laughed at his enthusiasm. “You know that now is not the time. You are barely healed.” She got up and walked out, leaving him to wonder.
Xanthu brushed against his leg and he scratched her neck.
She pawed at him and he cocked his head. “What is it?”
She nodded toward Aethelwyn and whined.
“Do not worry. I shall always take care of her.”
Xanthu made a low rumbling growl and batted at his hand.
Unable to understand her, he lay back down to rest, but something stirred within. An uneasiness gripped him and he had trouble getting settled.