I opened my eyes at a sound close to my ear. It was still nighttime, since the cabin was almost too dark for even my eyes to see. I was lying on my side, and Vall was facing me, our noses almost touching. Her thighs pressed against mine, and, as my vision cleared from sleep, I could see that she was awake, and that she was watching me.
“What is it,” I said in a low voice.
“You say you love me. Why?”
I moved my free hand to touch my chest. “I know it in here.”
Vall placed her hand over mine. “I don’t understand. You do so much, I hear your words, but I feel nothing. Shouldn’t I feel something, too?”
My heart sank, but I tried to keep my voice level. “Maybe you have to choose, and then the feelings will follow.”
“I hurt you when I say I don’t love you. Why do you not send me away?”
“Do you mean to hurt me?”
“No.” Vall bit her lip as she thought. “You have been good to me. There is no reason to hurt you.” She looked at me, her eyes searching mine in the dim light. “Perhaps you should kiss me. I’ve seen lovers do that. Maybe that will help me feel something.”
I moved my head toward her, and pressed my lips to hers. She stiffened, and I moved back a little. She licked her lips, and moved toward me. Our lips touched, and I took her lower lip between mine. The contact was wonderful, and I pressed a bit harder. Vall made a faint sound, and breathed in through her nose.
I broke the contact, and moved back to where I could focus on her eyes. “Was that okay?”
“I ... have never kissed anyone before, not willingly.” Vall breathed out. “Will you do that again?”
I did it again, catching her lower lip between mine. This time, I applied a gentle suction and a bit more pressure. I felt warmth in my chest, and I reached over to caress her face as we kissed. Vall froze for a moment as I touched her, and then she relaxed. I felt my manhood rise and press against her thigh, but Vall made no sign that she was offended by it.
She moved closer to me until we were touching from knee to breast. She draped her arm over my back, and I caressed her face and hair as we kissed. My prick was pressed tightly against her belly, but again she said nothing. Her nipples were hard pebbles, and I could feel them rubbing against my chest.
I was content to kiss her and explore this new sensation, and so, for now, was Vall. I sucked and nibbled at her lips, and she followed my example. I felt the urge to do more, but I fought it down. Until I was sure she was ready, I would not press her. She had been through bad things, and I was determined to not take liberties that Vall was not willing to grant.
We stayed like that for a while, just experiencing these new feelings. We went from exploration, tasting this new thing, to rising passion, where we pushed hard against each other, and then we went beyond that, into something I had never experienced. I ran my fingers though her hair while I touched her lips with mine. Then, I pulled back just enough to look deep into her eyes.
I could see tears tracking down her face. “Are you okay?”
“I am afraid, Ornthalas.” Vall said in a broken whisper.
“I – I don’t know,” she cried softly. “I feel things, and I don’t want to feel those things.” She closed her eyes and cried harder.
“I love you, Vall.”
“I know you do. Don’t you see?” She opened her eyes to stare at me in the darkness. “I can’t feel those things. I just can’t!”
I moved toward her, and she rolled away from me to lie on her other side. “You can’t love me!”
“But I do, Vall. I swear it to you.”
She curled into a ball. “You cannot love me, and I cannot love you! Because all who I have loved, and all who loved me are dead!” She wept then, her sobs shaking the bed.
Shocked understanding struck me like a fist, and I rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling. There were no words I could offer that would be the least bit truthful. No one knew what tomorrow would bring, and my promise to stay with her forever would be worth nothing against what her life must have taught her in blood and pain.
I wiped at my own tears, for I had no words to comfort her, nor would be probably accept my touch. So, I lay there in the darkness and listened to the woman I loved weep, while I could do nothing to ease her pain.
Somewhere in the night, we both fell asleep again.
When morning came, Vall rose without a word and went to prepare our meal. I washed up, and dressed as she gathered fruit, cheese, bread with honey, and cider for us. She set out two trenchers with the meal and turned to me. “Good morning, Ornthalas.”
“Good morning, Vall,” I said quietly. She was clad in one of my shirts, and I could not help the urge in my belly at seeing her.
She read my eyes, and bit her lip as she looked down. “We should eat. Nilyn will be here soon.”
“Sit with me?” I made room on the bench for her.
She sat down, and we began to eat. I applied myself to my meal, and Vall did the same. My thoughts tumbled about in my head, but I kept them to myself. The light of day had brought with it no answers to Vall’s fears. We had just finished our meal when a voice called from outside.
“Ornthalas and Vall. Get dressed and come out here!” It was Nilyn.
We cleaned up our breakfast, dressed and gathered our belongings, and stepped outside. Nilyn (thankfully) was wearing traveling clothes instead of the regalia from the inn, and she greeted us with a broad smile.
“Good morning!” She looked closely at each of us, and her expression smoothed a little. “Did you rest, then?” We each nodded wordlessly, and she studied us for a moment longer. “Well, then, let’s be off.” She started toward the ridge we had scaled on the way back.
“Where are we going?” I asked as I moved off to her side and brought out my bow. I stopped for a moment to string it, and then trotted on to catch up.
“There is a hamlet south and west of here, near the trade road,” Nilyn said as she walked along. “It is too small to even boast a name, but it is the last place I saw the book we seek.”
‘The Trade Road’ was the busiest road in the land, carrying merchants and travelers from the cities of the west to the eastern lands. It wound its way through the mountains west of the forest, and skirted the forest proper to the south, along one of the rivers that flowed southwest to the sea. A great bridge south of the forest allowed passage across, and the road continued far to the east from there. I had seen the bridge but once, and I had never set foot on the trade road.
“Do you know where it went from there?” I asked.
“No. That is where you must start your search.”
We made our way up the ridge, to where Vall and I had encountered the wolf. It, and anything else threatening, was absent as Nilyn led us onward. We descended the ridge on the western side, picking our way down through the forest, skirting rock faces and deadfalls as we descended. The air was warmer on this side, and a light wind rustled in the treetops. Further down, we came out of the trees and onto a plain of grassy hills, dotted here and there with groves of trees.
I had not been this far west, so I knew of only what I had been able to see from the ridge behind us. The morning faded in the heat of the midday sun, and we marched along, keeping to the low ground as much as we could. The plains were watered by a series of creeks every league or so, and we would find shade in the trees congregated along their banks, where we would refill our waterskins, and rest briefly.
We ate our lunch along one such creek, and Nilyn sat across from us as we rested on a group of rocks beside the creek.
“So, she said at length, “what is the trouble between you?”
“There is no trouble,” I said much too quickly.
Nilyn smiled easily. “I don’t have to use magic to see through that illusion.”
“He doesn’t know anything,” Vall blurted. I started and twisted to stare at her. “No, I don’t mean that way. I mean you don’t know anything about me.”
“Of course he doesn’t,” Nilyn stated. “Have you told him about yourself, or what you’ve been through?”
“I’ve told him he can’t love me.”