Ailsa Wintersong stared out over the dark forest, her eyes full of tears. She wrung her hands together, her nails cutting fine lines into her delicate fingers. The woman beside her took hold of them and pressed them against the window sill. “Ailsa, he's not returning,” she said, her voice carrying her irritation. “Why don't you accept that Illior has other plans for you?”
Ailsa pulled her hands free. “You're wrong.” Her voice choked in her throat. “The High Priestess confirmed that Torgeir and I are soul bonded. He's coming back. He has to.” She turned and fled back into the house.
“That was incredibly stupid, Rada,” Kelledron said. Ailsa's elder half brother, and heir to the Wintersong line, was leaning against the gleaming wall of the House's hereditary manor.
Lady Rada Wintersong glowered at her stepson. He took every chance he could get to remind her that, while Ailsa was a highly honored member of the Wintersong household, Rada herself was considered little more than an outsider by the rest of the House. The Law of Blood granted familial rights to the children of a second mating, but not to the mate in question.
“Well, oh wise one, what do you suggest?” she asked, biting off her words.
“I was going to suggest asking Aunt Eliana and Aunt Hania what to do,” Kelledron said. “They've been out in the world more than the rest of us. Perhaps they have some ideas.”
“Then go pester them,” Rada said. She turned on her heal and flounced off. Kelledron ventured deeper into the house until he came to the parlor where his twin aunts were sitting.
“Aunt Eliana, Aunt Hania, are you busy?” Kelledron asked, keeping his tone respectful. Of all his family members, his twin aunts were his favorite. His own mother died when he was very young and the two of them took over raising him, teaching him all there was to know about being a Day Elf. Once he was old enough to pass into the care of a proper tutor, the two Bards once again left Sunhaven for the farlands. They returned every few seasons to let their loved ones know they were alive.
“What is it Kell?” Hania asked.
“It's Ailsa,” Kelledron said, sitting down between the sisters. “She's soul bonded to Torgeir Darksun, but Rada keeps trying to force her into another marriage.”
“Was it confirmed by the High Priestess?” Eliana asked. Kelledron nodded. She shook her head. “We have noticed Ailsa looking more and more distraught. What's happened?”
“No one really knows,” Kelledron said. “There was a small group sent to establish the new waypoint at the other end of the forest. Father told me that Torgeir and Ailsa were going to be asked to be in charge of it. Two survivors made it back to let us know that the Crimson Elves attacked the caravan. They swear that Torgeir and one other were taken prisoner.” He shook his head. “That goes against everything we've ever been told about them.”
“The Crimson Elves are insane,” Eliana said. “You never know what those – those beasts – are capable of.”
“Eliana's right,” Hania said. “The question remains though, what do they want with living prisoners?”
Before Kelledron could answer, a terrible cry filled the house. The voice, familiar only to Kelledron, was full of such grief, rage, and pain that the three elves broke into tears. “Ailsa.” Kelledron was on his feet in an instant, knocking servants aside as he charged down the corridor, his aunts right behind him.
Ailsa was lying at the foot of the stairs, blood trickling from her nose and head. “He's dead,” she wailed. Her whole body shook. “He's dead.”
“What's this nonsense about?” Rada asked as she came to her daughter's side. She reached down and slapped Ailsa. “What are you talking about?”
Hania's sword hissed as it left its sheathe. Rada gulped hard and backed away from Ailsa's prone form. “The Law of Blood doesn't apply to you, Rada,” Hania said. With a flick of her wrist, she slashed Rada's face.
“What's going on here?” Thanolos Wintersong asked. He was Kelledron and Ailsa's father and the head of the House. “Hania, why is my wife bleeding?”
“She assaulted Ailsa,” Hania said. “Who is clearly suffering from a rather violently severed soul bond.”
“What?” Thanolos asked, turning his attention to his two children.
“Torgeir was captured by Crimson Elves,” Kelledron said, reminding his father of the recent tragedy. “I think they just killed him.”
“They slaughtered him, like an animal,” Ailsa said, whimpering. Her eyes were wide. “I saw it. I felt it.”
“Eliana, can you - ?” Thanolos asked.
“Kell, carry your sister up to her room,” Eliana said. “I'll be up in a moment.”
Kelledron lifted Ailsa into his arms. He looked at the stairs for a moment before summoning a floating disk in the sapphire and silver hues of his House colors. He stepped onto it. It lifted him up the stairs without jarring his sister. Eliana took the more conventional way up.
“Now, Hania, why is Rada bleeding?” Thanolos asked.
“Rada, or so I've been told by the servants, didn't approve of the match that Illior decreed for Ailsa,” Hania said. “Kell told us that Rada wanted Ailsa to choose another husband. Torgeir's disappearance was tearing Ailsa apart.”
“Do you know what happened to her?” Thanolos asked.
“She must have fallen down the stairs when the Crimson Elves killed Torgeir,” Hania said. She lowered her sword and looked over at her brother. “Thano, it's very rare that the surviving member of a shattered soul bond lives long past the other one.
“I know.” Thanolos looked down at his hands for a moment. “How long do you think Ailsa has?”
“It depends on her spirit,” Hania said. “If she wants to live, a moon or two. If not, I'd give her no more than a sennight.”
“What are you talking about?” Rada asked. “There was no soul bond. That was just the Darksun's way of trying to take control of this House. Ailsa's not going to die just because he's dead.”
Thanolos turned to Rada. She could see the barely controlled rage on his face. “Leave my House,” he said. “I took you as my second mate only because it was required of me by the Council. Your father got his male heir, and I was given my daughter. The contract was satisfied. You are no longer necessary.” He turned to his sister. “Hania, if she's not out of here in one mark, kill her.”
“As you wish, Thano,” Hania said. There was no disguising the satisfaction she felt at that command. She put her hand on the hilt of her sword. A bloodthirsty smile twisted the corners of her mouth up. Rada realized that there was a chance Hania wouldn't wait for the mark to be up. She paled and, not stopping to collect any of her things, ran from the manor.
Thanolos made his way to his daughter's room. Kelledron was standing outside, his pale blue clothing stained with blood. “Aunt Eliana said no one's supposed to go in right now,” he whispered. “She's trying some complicated magic on Ailsa. She says that soul bonding isn't unheard of among the Plains Elves, and that they have ways of preventing the death of the other half.”
“I hope it does,” Thanolos said.
“I overheard you ordering that woman out of our House,” Kelledron said.
“If she returns, she's dead,” Thanolos said.
“At least we're rid of her,” Kelledron said. “I wouldn't have put it past her to have me murdered so Ailsa's husband could have inherited House Wintersong.”
“We'd never allow it,” Hania said as she joined them. “Eliana's working something unusual I take it?” Kelledron told her. “If that doesn't work, nothing will.” The three of them retreated to the small chapel dedicated to Illior to pray for the souls of the dead and the life of one young Elven woman.
Ailsa opened her eyes onto a darkened room. She knew without calling her mage lights that she was alone. She rose to her feet and drifted out onto her balcony. She looked down, judging the distance to the ground. It was far enough that she would die when she struck the courtyard below. She rested one hand on the smooth marble rail. Not that way, ne salan, a voice whispered into her mind.
“Torgeir?” Ailsa whispered, her disbelief plain.
The pale spirit of her murdered soul mate appeared before her. Not that way, ne salan, he repeated. Your father seeks comfort from Illior, and he finds none. He will find even less in the sight of his beloved daughter's body should you jump.
“I can't live without you,” Ailsa said. She began to sob. “It feels like my own soul has been ripped out of me. I can't breathe and I feel so cold.”
Illior does not require such a thing of either of us, ne salan, Torgeir assured her. Go to the garden. He faded away.
Ailsa crept out of her door, her slippered feet making no more than a faint hiss against the stone. Kelledron was sleeping in a chair beside the door. She held her breath as she moved past him. She ran down the stairs. There were no servants with prying eyes to see her.
No one was in the hall leading to the nursery. Since her departure from there some seasons earlier, it was left empty. She made her way out of the glass doors that led into the garden. She made her way to her Life Tree, where Torgeir's spirit awaited her. “I'm here,” she said.
Ne salan, Torgeir murmured. He smiled at her. Will you place your trust in Illior?
“Yes,” Ailsa said without hesitation.
Then come to me, ne salan, Torgeir said. He held out his arms. Ailsa trembled as she stepped across the short distance into his arms. As their hands met, she returned his smile. He pulled her into a loving embrace. Soon all she could see was light.
“Father, Ailsa's gone. I can't find her.” Kelledron was frantic. He ran into his father's study. Thanolos and the twins were brought to their feet. “She got past me somehow. I swear I cast the wakefulness charm but something put me to sleep.”
“Illior only knows what kind of strength Ailsa has in her madness,” Thanolos said, absolving his son of any wrong-doing in his sister's escape. “We have to find her.”
The whole family split up, looking for any sign of the missing girl. Kelledron searched the garden. In the corner, next to her Life Tree, he found his sister's favorite bracelet. “Father.” His voice rang through the air.
Thanolos, Eliana, and Hania hurried to join him. Ailsa's Life Tree withered, showing that she was dead. Ailsa's sunstone bracelet gleamed in the light of the moon. “She's gone,” Thanolos said. His voice broke.
“Where's her body?” Eliana asked, tears falling down her cheeks.
Something brushed against Kelledron's hand. He looked down to find himself staring at a flower he didn't know. He called up a mage light so he could see them better. They were delicate blossoms of the palest azure with startling golden centers. They smelled of sunlight and his sister's favorite perfume. Just looking at them comforted him. “Father, look.”
“Where did these come from?” Thanolos asked.
“Lycantha,” Eliana said, her voice full of wonder.
“What is that?” Thanolos asked.
“Illior took Ailsa,” Hania said. “He wasn't going to force her to live without Torgeir. He's left us this flower in exchange for her body. It is called a lycantha blossom, a spirit flower. It will wrap around her Life Tree and flower during the warm seasons. Its seeds can be planted elsewhere, the vines growing up in the garden. A lycantha only grows in the ground of the House the spirit came from.”
There was nothing else to say. The twins returned to the manor while Kelledron and his father stood beside each other, staring at the blooms. Kelledron reached down and hooked the vine over one of the branches. “There,” he said. “Her Life Tree will continue to live, if only in these little flowers.” The two men walked back to the house.