Later on, when they're about to end me, the Keeper's priests will ask what it's like to know the future. I reckon I'll spit in place of answerin'. None of them warrant the truth of me. But if somebody good was to ask, I might say it's like this:
On a night of no particular moment, I'm laying out the buckets to dry before dawn, and I'm seein' the wood rot on the one in my hand, thinking how I'll need to get our smith to replace the band near the bottom. And all the while, tilting off from that bucket stretch a thousand strands, like fae lacework, glimmering just in my periphery. They got beads strung all along, them strands, and on the curve of each I see a scene. On one's my mam at the hearth indoors, knotting a rug, her big knuckles creaking in the quiet. Flashing bright on another one's my brother Dal, frowning hard in his sleep, with his padded chausses loose but still tied on, so that he can leap up and fight at his captain's trumpet.
Other strands tie me to the past, my own and more, all the lives I've seen but mostly forgot. Strung along a few strands, them's paler and less substantial than the others, are some few baubles that mean nothing to me. I don't ken their folk or the places, and the strands they linger on are so light the beads might as well be loose. I count these as the possible, things Fate han't quite decided to string on permanent. In one, a ginger-haired babe, just walking and tottery still, reaches hard 'neath a dusty chair and rears back with a scepter too heavy for his fist. In another I see tall boots half caked in mud, steaming by Mam's hearth. Still one more shows the life ebbing from war-inked eyes that don't look like anybody's I know. They're pure white, them eyes, like the Southron Hunters, and when it comes to the fore of my sight, I shove that bead hard to the side, where I can't see it so clear.
Where the beads leave off, the strands keep on, though, winding and weaving all over each other, making up this nightmare tangle in the distance. They're also moving, those strands, and I can't pinch any particular one fast enough to hold it for seeing clear. Trying to suss out just one life, where it's been and where it's goin', is a mite like braiding cooked noodles.
Still, ever since I were a wee thing, I've had one of them fae strands wrapped snug around my heart, and I untie it sometimes, when I dare, and look at it long in the starlight. It's my deepest treasure, strung with so much beauty I ain't got the words to tell. I know each bead on that strand by memory, like an elder's song.
That's Orin's strand, and I never told a soul about it, not the war-captains come lookin' for wisdom, not the priests come lookin' for magics, and sure as sin not the Hunters who came in the dark of night with their white eyes shining. And no, I didn't tell him neither, my Orin, not even when he begged.
Late autumn bit hard that year, and I went out poking the ground for chantarelles. Mam had a knack for pickling them things was known all up and down the river vale, and while she was off I'd a thought to fetch some home for her. They grew in flurries on the far side of the mountain, and with winter so near, we folk of the water were flurried up ourselves, putting goods away afore the snows. But on about noontide, my basket weren't half full and I'd snagged holes all over my mittens. My fingers ached with cold. I paused against a leaf-bare alder to inspect the damage and stuff some wadding into the finger parts.
"Somehow I thought a lass who claims to ken the future would know when I've been looking for her all morning," he said, his mulled-cider voice lickin' me like I were naked, despite the cold.
I damn near jumped out my shoes. "Orin o' the River Lynd, you sneak up on me like that again and I'll box yer ears."
I narrowed eyes on a lanky critter, all arms and legs and sass. He would put his meat on later, after he went out to the wilds and found the lost Orb of Sanctuary and won the Lady, the Keeper's own daughter, for his bride. Still, right then Orin were still a skinny thing yet, for all that dark hair and them burning eyes.
He sauntered right up to me, grabbed one mitten, and fitted it back on my hand snug. I felt warmer right away. And here was I the one claiming magics: that Orin could sorcel my whole body through with nothing more'n a glance, and he knew it.
When that mitten were buttoned, he didn't drop my hand. He wrapped it up in both of his. "So, did you?"
"Did I what?"
A smile bloomed, starting in his tea-brown eyes and unfurlin' all the way to his mouth. "Know I was coming."
Well, the truth on it was that I had seen things. Things about him. But with him lookin' down at me like that, my thoughts all cracked against each other and broke clean to pieces. I might've blinked. He chuckled, low and sweet.
Then he leant down and dropped a kiss on my forehead.
"I'm just teasing you, Agatha. Anybody seeing your face like that would think I was about to eat you. Breathe easy, girl." He dropped my hands and bent to the basket, which I'd set on the forest loam. "These mushrooms?"
Basket. Mushrooms. His mind always did hop from one thing to t'other like a bunny.
I gathered my wits and snorted. "You don't scare me, Orin." Oh, for certain I'd felt a tremor having something to do with that mouth, but tremor didn't mean I feared him.
"Well, you terrify me, true enough, little witch. How you been, this half year and more?"
I let him pick up my basket and lead me back down the mountain, to the river vale and our village. We talked along the way about the winter comin' and the Keeper's new holy tax and how long it'd been since a good bard had come our way. I told him that Wole Sally'd headed down the river, married a sea captain, and walked the porch in waiting for his come-back, though he hadn't yet. And would, if Orin saved our realm by findin' that Orb, but I didn't say that.
Orin didn't once mention the Hunters that were after him, them’s I'd seen in my strands. He didn't talk about the priests neither.
Autumn had turned our valley gold, but it'd been green when Orin'd left, half a year back. He'd gone with two others, woodland folk and not from around here. The big one had carried a sword; the smaller one'd worn a halo of magics that I don't figure most folk can see -- just us ones with gifts of our own. I'd followed Orin on his adventuring, after a manner, counting the beads in his strand each night, far into summer, but on midsummer or thereabouts, the beads had run out. Hadn't started seeing him again until the fortnight before that morning on the mountain, and that fortnight had been hard lived. He went alone now across the wilds. Oh, he could laugh at my elbow now and tease me much as he liked. I knew what he'd seen, what he'd done. He might've guessed as much, but he didn't let on.
He sniffed the air and looked around as we came up on the cottage I shared with Mam.
"If you're huntin' out the waft of Mam's stew, you can let that go. You'll have to settle for one of mine," I told him. I stepped 'neath the lintel, cloaking myself in shadow, and turned back to look at him. "Mam ain't here."
His gaze locked with mine when I said them words, and I swear he could see all the mischief lived in my soul. He didn't smile this time, though. His dark eyes laid hot all over me. He'd put one foot on the stoop but ventured no further. In the raw light of autumn, he looked old, tired. On an edge. We were of an age, Orin and me. As younglings we'd played naked in the river and never had a fash over it. Weren't like that now, though. Now, with him all growed up and home, I realized I wanted him powerful, wanted him naked, wanted him all over my skin, inside my body, snug in tight around my soul. Wanted him here in this cottage and safe and never leavin'. Wanted him like I'd never wanted a thing in all my life.
Wanted him, all the time knowing he weren't for me.
"Dal went out to a Captain Hisel when the Keeper called muster," I prattled half-breathless, shucking my long split-kirtle coat and hanging it on a peg, setting my mittens on a pile of mending. "Them bitty garrisons ha'nt good supplies, so Mam and some other goodwives from the vale make hazelnut biscuits and leave 'em in blinds near the camps. A war's everybody's effort, she says. Well, that and we all have a powerful want for Dal to come back from this one safe."
"Which he will."
I turned to Orin with a grin on my mouth. "Oh, aye. I got this gift, y'see." I'd meant it as a tease, but even when I started talking I knew Orin weren't in a teasing mood. Not anymore.
“Agatha...” His face was glazed with serious and promise, and I reached back to touch its finish.
"Come on in," I told him in a whisper, every word knocking hard in my throat on the way out. My heart thunked so hard 'neath my ribs I wondered that he didn't hear. My mouth had gone dry, and I took a hard swallow and ducked back into the cottage, thankful for the dark of a cold hearth and no torches lit. I'd tied the windows shut on the off chance of a morning snow, and now I went from one to the other, slitting them just enough to let some air in.
Didn't help none. I still couldn't hardly breathe, just knowing he was there. I heard him scuff the front door shut.
Even as I looked back at Orin, a tall, narrow shadow with his head bumping the hanging herb baskets, I saw the bead showing his Lady smiling, thanking him for saving her father's realm and people. On that curved surface of the future, Orin blinked against the sunlight, grasped her pretty white hand, and placed his other palm atop the Orb. With its magic in place, hindering our enemies and their Hunters, our people could have peace. Dal could come home and repair all Mam's buckets. Wole Sally's husband could put in port safely and not have to brave a blockade just to see her.
There weren't a place for me in this future. I knew it, always had, and I reckoned Orin did too.
"Have missed you, Agatha." He unfastened the buckles on his pack and set it by the door. Sword too. The straps had been so long over his tunic that they'd formed stripes across his chest, showing where his clothes had been dyed red. Only the wandering had darkled them brown. Been a long time gone, my Orin, and darkled in my Sight as well. What all he'd been up to had changed him, and it was everything I could do not to reach over and dust off his shirt, try and uncover some more of that old red.
I grabbed onto the side of the wood table there near the hearth. Felt splinters slide into the meat of my palm. "Orin..."
"I came here for your prophecy." He stood like he'd been planted by the door, straighter now without the weight of pack and sword. His long hands clenched to fists. "For your guidance. Was wanting you to tell me if I must complete this quest or whether I could just…run. I thought, on a night with no sleep and many nights of such afore, that I might beg you to come with me if I did run. We could go down to shore, hire a boat and make for Kiln Island, off the coast near Arthos. You might ... you might marry me."
I thought hard right then about telling him his future, but if I told him, if I even got close to tellin' him, the strand quivered. And when his strand shook, all them baubles shook. I never seen such tremor in the future. Felt like the whole of Fate might collapse on itself. Even that knot at the end, the giant mess of tangled threads and unknown faces, throbbed angry at the thought of me telling Orin his path. So I kept my mouth shut. Never did want to anger Fate. I'd rather treat her nice and then ask my boon.
And that boon? Just the one, that Orin would come on the other end of this, strong and safe. And that he might look back kindly on the memory of me, far in the future, when he were happy and surrounded by all the world had to offer. In that future that didn't include a scrap of coast life near Arthos nor the two of us together.
"That ain't what I see."
"I suspected as much." He did move then, coming to me in the shadow but halting, slow, like he didn't know his welcome. He yanked a fist through his hair and frowned. "I know what I must do, what I'm sworn to do. I was just hoping you'd tell me otherwise."
Truth said, I saw so much pain on his face that my hands worked without me even having to tell 'em. They framed Orin's jaw, pulled him down. “Shh, now.” And I laid my mouth against him, nudging his lips apart with mine, drinking his sorrow and hoping he'd be lighter for it. Knowing he wouldn't. Knowing that this would only make his decision harder. Knowing I couldn't elude this lure of wanting him even so.
Weren’t the first time I’d laid lips on Orin, but it was sure the sweetest. And saddest. When we was younglings by the river, I didn’t know what all those strands meant. I didn’t know they was permanent, that I han’t a slip of power over them. That they owned me just as surely as I owned the Sight of them. Back then, I still thought I could change the future, that the bead with the ginger-haired babe might string on Orin’s strand, and on mine. Now I knew better. But that knowledge sure didn’t stop the wantin'.
He whispered something against the corner of my mouth, and then he did open for me. Fate forgive me, I fell in. He'd gotten stronger out in the wilds. I felt it when he hooked an arm around my waist and hauled me tight against his body. He seemed carved of stone, so hard and sharp-edged I knew I'd slice myself clean open were I to grind against him too hard. Didn't matter, though. I wanted the pain. I wanted all of him. My hands slipped back, fanning over his ears, one around the curve of his head, grabbing his hair to hold him steady. He bent above me, pouring hot kisses onto my mouth, my face, my throat. With a low mumble -- some word I couldn't make out, might have been Southron cant -- he lifted my backside with that strong arm behind me, set me up on Mam's wooden table, and moved in snug afore my knees. I parted for him, bracketed him against my body's core. I thought there might be more kisses, and all gods knew I wanted them, but I also wanted more. A kiss is like painting the outside, and I wanted Orin all in and through me. Wasn't sure how to tell him that, though, so I wrapped my legs round him, threaded my hands in his hair, and sought in every way I knew to bind this man to me.
I weren't too prideful to beg, and I had a sense he wouldn't refuse. "Make love to me, Orin."
Even with my eyes half hooded and my blood thrumming a heretic's dance, I could see them strands all around us, reaching at us. To knot us together or haul us apart? Surely the latter, knowing all they held for him, and for me. I tried to brush 'em away, but they laid out bright afore my eyes. I saw Mam running in a thicket and shadows chasing her; I saw Orin's dead parents and brothers, flayed and gutted after the Hunters' raid three summers past; I saw a stamped florin tossed onto a cask of gems and wealth someone like me couldn't begin to count. I saw somebody pass a thumb over the Hunter's white eyes, closing them in death.
Orin fisted my skirts in back, and I shifted, letting him pull them up, baring my skin for his touch. He slipped a palm beneath me, keeping my bum from table-top splinters. With the other he delved into the mass of skirts, finding the slip of want between my legs and tracing it to its source. Direct route, sure fingers. I about came out of my skin when he flicked one spot, that same spot I felt for myself from time to time, especially on thinkin’ of him. Couldn’t control my grunt of pleasure, nor the way my body wriggled in closer to his fingers, rutting against the touch. He pushed a finger inside, and that was near the end of me.
On the side of my vision rose his strand, winding out from its usual anchor inside my chest, coiling and reaching behind Orin, bright as a lick of fire, lighting up the dusty cottage, mayhap the river whole. Didn't surprise me that I'd send it after him, to bind him to me in a moment like this one. I knew that I oughtn't do such a thing, but will ain’t never been my strong suit. I watched it knot on him, knot on me, tug us closer. Each new tangle warmed and riped and burst on my soul the way hot summer fruit would do on my tongue. He bent his finger against the wall of my quim, and all those knots tightened. All my body tightened, too, clenched in timeless, darkless joy, and the strands floating round us burned so bright I felt lit afire.
Orin held me till it was over, stilling his fingers there until I could breathe again, and then he moved again, but slow this time, letting me come down from that unexpected flight. Kept his his other hand on my arse, too, holding me, not letting me fall.
When he finally moved away a bit, I felt heavy, couldn’t force my eyes to open. I reckon he went on to untie the belt on his braies, and fact is for all he’d just given me a little slice of wonderful, I knew there was more to it. I didn’t want just his fingers fucking me, after all, and I sighed with happy and I felt the warm scuff of his short hairs, coarse against my thigh. I set my hands flat on the table beneath me, and leant back, offering. My legs spread wide like that, and the smell of ready woman on the air, nobody, not even Orin, could mistake the invitation.
When he didn't come at me right away, I opened my eyes a slit and sought his face in the half-light. He stood between my knees, close enough that the wet on my quim weren’t cooling, close enough I could feel the heat off his skin and could smell the wood and man, and all the gods knew how much it hurt to have him stop there. I wanted him home, filling up my body, thrusting till we was both spent and sated. My own womb throbbed in wanting him, and it was all I could stand not to beg him right then to fuck me. Fuck me, Orin. Not a fated princess, not a lady with soft white hands and hair like Southron silks. Just me. Because I want you, and damn any fate tells me I oughtn't.
"Agatha, I-I cannot offer you a pledge," he told me, his voice choked. His eyes blazoned like stars, even in the low light, burning through the whole of the firmament just to gaze down at me. "I can't even promise you tomorrow. I don’t know what I ..."
I hefted an eyebrow high as it would go and shifted my hips, bringing our bodies together. Still not connected, just touching, painting him with the wet of my wanting. That noose of a strand just tightened all the more, binding us together, stealing my breath and my better sense. I could feel the surge of his cock against my leg, questing on its own, not abiding by his pause. I sought it, wanted it.
"Did I ask for your promises?" Was a trick, letting him know at once that this moment was special but also that I didn't expect a wedding party or knotting ceremony. I held my breath, not sure that I hadn't run him off, or worse, made him think I put my heels up for every adventurer passin' through.
"You have a right to.” And that answered me fine. He didn't harbor no low thoughts of me. Opposite was true, in fact. Oh, he always did have an overdeveloped sense of honor, did Orin. But that’s what made him such a hero.
I sat up a mite straighter, slipped one hand between us, nudging his dyed leather chausses aside. I grasped him in my fist, surprised by the weight and smoothness of him, surprised even more when my mouth wetted hard as my quim, wanting to taste him just as much as I wanted to take him. I saw the bulb in his throat move when he swallowed. "Don't matter what you came here for. This is what I got for you. Take it, Orin. I hold you to nothing, after."
He didn't resist when I guided his cock where I wanted it, fitting him into me, shifting so’s the angle were right, so he rested, still, against that spot inside, the one that still throbbed from his earlier work. And then, when he was seated fully on me, I sighed and closed my eyes.
Released of promises, and I hoped from guilt as well, Orin arched over me, pressing his forehead to mine. His breath smelled of wood bark and berries, and he muttered beneath it, hoarse whispers in a tongue I don’t know. We was too close to see each other clear, but in the blur of heat and slip and savor, our strands, all glowing again, wrapped close, and I saw he'd done more than adventure work on all his travels. Either that or he had an instinct for fucking, 'cause he knew just right how to work me till I was panting wet and hungry for it. Long, slow strokes, exploring my womb, finding the places inside that caused me to groan. His hand below, shielding my rear from the rough of the table; his hand above, slipping along the wet, stroking the tight, hot bead of sensation -- ah yes, that one -- even as his cock stroked hard inside. How Orin knew what got a girl so far out on her edge of control I'll never know, but I blessed all gods for his knowin'.
The strands of Fate took over, braiding, pulling, branding us where they wrapped our skin. The beads that showed future scenes grew hot and hard as rubies, some poking into my skin, hurting and burning and tellin' me without words that it weren't right to defy destiny like this. Orin weren't meant for me. But I tugged them strands closer, harder, twining and hoarding. Tugged Orin closer, too, setting my hands on his taut arse and pulling him into me right in time with his thrusts.
"Let loose, Agatha girl. Holler if you need to, but don't hold back. You deserve this." His thumb printed hard against that hot bead betwixt my legs. I 'bout came off the table, surging like the river at snowmelt, hollering again without any sense of what I was sayin' or even what I was thinkin'. I never had a moment like that afore and thought that I was dying. Orin worked me right over the edge and past the veil, and I clamped him deep inside, tight as my body could hold him.
Orin stilled, just like he had before, and waited for me to come down off my fit. I blessed him for it. Closed my eyes, and a bead flashed: this skein of velvets Mam had traded for at the market by Ports Mir when I were small. She hadn't gotten much, not near enough to stitch it into something fine, but I used to pull it out just the same, set it on a stump in our garden, and let the sun warm it up. And then, on the wane of an afternoon, I'd bathe in the tub by our well, leave my body to dry in the last of the sun, and then lie atop that slip of velvet, rubbing it all over my skin. I'd close my eyes and imagine I were lying in clouds. Warm, gentle, soft clouds higher than I had any warrant to be, but ones that'd never let me fall.
Having Orin inside me, sun-warm still after setting my body ablaze, felt a lot like that. I wrapped my whole self up in his velvet touch, cuddled it snug and formed a bead sturdy and inviolate as diamonds, strung it on my memory and let it all wash over me. His name slipped out my mouth, and my body shook in stutters for some long moments afterward.
"All gods, Agatha," Orin murmured as my trembles lessened. "You can't know how many nights I imagined your face just so, how often you got me through to dawn, thinking about that face right there." He waited, and then anon moved shallow inside me, letting me furl and unfurl all around him, squeezing and loosing his cock until the velvet pulsing eased. He shifted his feet. I heard the whisper of his boots on the dirt floor.
And then he was fucking again, this time harder, deeper. I tensed back at first, thinking that it might hurt, but soon I saw it didn't really. It was a different sort of sweet, and soon the roil of pleasure stirred again down low of my belly. I grasped the table top, scoring the wood with my nails.
Orin said my name again, bit it like bark, and I opened my eyes in time to see him plunge into his own cloud of bliss. I saw all that glory break across his face, felt it surge hot against my womb. His mouth opened and his brow furrowed, but he didn't say anything else. His strand leapt and coiled in the space between us, drawing patterns, knotting and unknotting, furious and always, always binding us closer. Tighter, so tight I couldn't gather breath, so tight my eyes hurt and my pulse thundered. But that strand was the surest thing my all my world, save his hands, and I wrapped myself in the safety of both.
The echo of my name rang in my ears and in the tiny cottage room. A thrust more and he stilled, buried to the hilt astride me. He leaned forward, curving his body over mine, resting his forehead atop my pleated bodice. I could feel his sweat seep even through the two layers of dyed linen. My hands came up, tethering in his hair, working the damp locks at his nape.
We stood there, bent over that table, for a long time. His smell draped me, his wet still drying on my thighs, but I'd no hurry to clean up. All around us was peace. So much that I thought for a heartbeat there that Orin’d fallen asleep, and I nudged him a bit with my shoulder. He made a low sound not unlike a growl, and my skin prickled hot all over.
“I'll be ready to go again in a bit, but have a touch of patience, will you?" he murmured. His mouth slipped upward of my collar, and I felt his breath beneath my chin. I shivered, but not from cold.
"Aye, if you can endure me. I wasn't lying when I said I'd missed you."
Felt good, nuzzled in close with him after, waiting out the storm and bound to each other in a way that seemed so permanent. But two bodies weren't made for bending over a table like that, I got to tell you, and he didn't show no hurry to start up a new round of frolic. It weren't long before we were shifting, moving apart. I missed him the moment his cock slid free. Even then I knew how silly it was, wanting him to stay there fitted snug inside my body forever. But I still wanted it.
Orin ha'nt no qualm at lacing up right in front of me, but I couldn't look at him right away. What we'd just done had been so intimate, so tangled up in magic, that coming back to my homely cottage was hard. I shrugged my skirts down and chewed on my bottom lip. It occurred to me that afternoon waned and the cottage was cold but for the sparks we'd just set on each other's skin. I got a fire going under my pot on the hearth and tried to avoid the look I could feel him laying on me.
“What you on about now, Agatha?”
“Fetching my leaves, aren't I? Said you were here for a prophecy. Well, I aim to give you one. Hand me that pouch tethered on by the window, will you? The blue cloth one.” Blue for counsel and the unknown sky.
“I never thought you read leaves. Don’t you just somehow... know?”
I’d started usin’ leaves and stillwater mirrors a few years back. Nobody would understand about the strands anyhow, and age-old seer’s tools gave folk a sense that I knew my trade. Made ‘em comfortable. Made those passin' through more like to pay. For a moment there, I’d forgotten how well Orin knew me. How even when he were facing the sort of future I knew he was, he could still keep detail in mind like how I kenned things. He knew me too well.
“Never mind.” Now he’d gone and mentioned my craft, I was seein' them strands all over again, glowing with a leftover bright that pulsed right in time with the throbbing ache in my womb. As if all of history and all the future were a dance and Orin played the drum for it. I couldn't focus on counsel now if I tried. My body was too worked up over his, and I thought my own soul might catch on fire if he touched me again. But I had promised. "And don't you be tellin' me my own business. Now quiet while I stir us up some soup and think a spell. About that Orb…"
"But you needn't…"
"You don't need to see where the orb lies, Agatha. I already have it."
Oh. I stopped stirring. Stopped breathing for a beat or two. Time was movin' faster than I'd reckoned, then. I tried not to think what all that meant for me. Instead I watched silent whilst Orin went over to his pack by the door, dug into it, and produced a wee package about the size of a plum and wrapped in a strip of undyed leather. Twilight had settled round my cottage, and the light filterin' in was heather-pink and dim, but it reflected off the sphere in his bundle, turned it to starlight in his hands. It weren't even a perfect sphere, that Orb, not something pretty that would sit in a scepter or serve any of the functions I thought of when I pondered orbs. It had a bump on one side and scratches on the other, and the surface was far from smooth even on the prettiest side. Worst of all, when it caught that early twilight pink, it gave back, reflected the color of bile off its murky surface, and something right below the crust of it seemed to swirl, melt, glow. That Orb looked like a Hunter's white eye. "That's the Orb of Sanctuary? Sure don't look like much."
"One thing I've learned about magic is that it rarely comes in a wrapping you'd expect."
"You're talking about me now." I nearly reached out to touch the thing, but the crackle of magics leaping off it convinced me to keep my hands to myself.
"Agatha, I talk about you a lot." He was smiling now, that smile I knew so well and wished for hard when he was gone. He acted like all we done was natural, and I guess it was. Still struck me as something beyond the regular, though. A bright bead for me to haul out of memory and cling to in the dark future.
"Yeah, well, you oughtn't." My voice might have been grumbly.
"That word again. You gonna tell me what else I oughtn't do?"
I'd rather show you. Well, that's what I thought, but I knew if I said it out loud we wouldn't be talkin' future no more. Wouldn't be talking about anything. We'd be ruttin' like springtime rabbits, always assuming that smile meant he was ready to go again.
Orin wrapped the Orb back up and shoved it deep in his pack. "Now I just need to decide what to do with it."
I picked up the stirring again, so I didn't have to look at him straight. "Weren't you sworn on taking it back to the Keeper?" I had to swallow a bulb in my throat when I spoke. A bulb right about the size of the one on his strand, the one showin' him and the Lady. I knew how that delivery would play out. How many times had I looked on the bead that showed it?
At a gesture, he handed me a pot of red savory seeds, and I squashed a couple with my spoon, to let the flavor out. If I were reading for a stranger, those'd open pretty at the bottom of a cup, showing things like long life and healthy cattle, but they also smelled nice in a stew. It occurred to me that I han't eaten all day, and for Orin it might've been longer. He didn't need me to read seeds and leaves, fine. He would believe whatever future I told for him. Fine. But I was going to bring him all the comfort I could manage first.
"True, I made a pledge to locate and return the Orb of Sanctuary, but that was before…"
I fluttered over the cottage, collecting more bits to feed us. We were putting up stores, and the dried herb and smoke-cured fish were laid out like a market stall on a rack, all for me to choose. I'd spent some moments poring over my selection before I realized that Orin hadn't finished his sentence. His thoughts had gotten pinned on something, and I nudged him. "Orin?"
"You remember the other adventurers who went with me? The two, Bitrik and Daog, from up near the Evenwood, on the far side of the mountain? They were with me down south in late summer, when we found the Orb. We hadn't encountered Hunters for days afore that, and we didn't again all the way back up to Leets Nair, and us carrying that Orb the whole while. About a month south of here, though, we were attacked."
"Not by Hunters." The salted strip of fish felt heavy in my hands. This was a bead I knew, but not from Orin's strand. From mine.
"No. The Keeper's priests. I told them that we were headed to Ingot anyway, that we were on service to the Keeper, but they wanted Bitrik. Said they knew he had magic and the Keeper had put out a call for such as him. We all fought, but they still took Bitrik. Killed Daog."
I weren't surprised. The Keeper'd sent out whole orders of priests, all searching for a magic that would save us, he was that desperate. And by "searching" I mean yanking folk out their beds, poking them until they confessed to some magical talent, and then leading them back to Ingot and gods-knew what sort of torments. I seen such a thing on my own strand, close now and near the end, but I wasn't about to tell Orin that.
"I'm sorry about your companions. And I know you want to avenge them. But you're thinkin' what, Orin? That out of spite for the Keeper you'll take the Orb back south and deliver it to the Hunters, them's killed your parents? Don't tell me that."
"No." He fisted a hand in his hair and slouched against the table. "I don't know what to do. Seems clear that the Keeper ain't on the side of good in this, and I know the Hunters aren't."
I tossed the meat into my pot and let it simmer with the herbs and savories. A whiff of comfort invaded the cottage, and this close to the fire, I realized how cold the place had been before. Weren't no more. We'd heated it up fine.
"Know what I think, Orin? That you don't have to make that choice just right now. Untie them chausses, stretch out your legs. Take a rest here and let me comfort you. Mam ain't home till late tomorrow, earliest, so you got time. Bring that pallet over here near the hearth, where it's warm."
Together we laid out a hillock of blankets by the fire, and I wrapped him up in the comfort of good food and good chatter, too. Right there next to peeled carrots and a fistful of fresh-pulled onions, I stirred in every protection verse I knew and a thousand strands of fate. The strands wouldn't stay, they had their own will, but for a night at least I aimed to offer more comfort than the damned Orb of Sanctuary.
Orin helped with peelin' the carrots and fetching things, and we tossed memories back and forth over nut biscuits and tea, and then stew when it was ready. Didn't talk about his choices, though, nor where we was headed. Such might've intruded on our warm spot.
The strands retreated so long's we kept ourselves from touching. But I could tell they were circling, writhing. I still felt they was too tight on me, but for a while there I blamed the breathlessness on just being that close to Orin. That happy.
I didn't have a bit of notion what I ought to tell him. He'd come to me seeking wisdom, but I han't none. He had a lot of struggle upcoming, a lot of suffering. I could see it. Still, the end, for him, would surely make his struggles worthwhile. I turned the bauble showing him and the Lady over and over in my mind.
Orin deserved such a golden future. He deserved all the blessings a body could endure. Still, when I looked on that bead, I couldn't see his face clear, had no notion whether life with the Lady would bring him the joy it ought. The beads just show me things that happen, not how them things make folks feel. I knew that handing off the Orb to the Keeper wouldn't settle Orin, not now. He would always know what kind of wicked man the Keeper was, and he'd always feel like he should have done different with the Orb. But we can't fight what's comin'. I couldn't make the scene of him and the Lady disappear. I'd seen it all my life.
And then I noticed a crack in that bead.
During our romp earlier, a length of Orin's strand had wrapped around the back side and was squeezing that bead that showed him with the Lady, his future. I traced the line up, back, and saw the network of knots that were crushing it. Them same knots bound him to me.
Up to this point, I hadn't thought about my own place on this tapestry of strands. I mean, I had seen my own and knew where my last bead placed me. That time neared, and I was terrified of facing it, but I'd long accepted that there weren't no running from it. What was bound to happen was bound to happen.
But that crack glared back at me, as if it meant to make me feel guilty. Well, I didn't. Instead, seeing it I felt a little bit of ... hope.
Orin had noticed the pause in our chatter, and my face must have seemed strange because he was looking at me quizzically.
"Be still just a moment," I told him. He'd shucked his quilted wool gambeson and sat there just in his shirt, knotted up near his throat. I rose up on my knees and scooted toward him, reaching for that knot. I grew up on the river, so my fingers knew about knots, and it was quick work undoing his, even if it were old. I brushed his golden skin with my knuckles and didn't even blush at touching him like this. Was only what I'd wanted to do all my life.
At even that slight touch, though, our tangled strands quivered, and the crack in his bead lengthened.
I knew then, clear as if somebody'd told me, that I could change his future. Here, tonight, I could break that bead. I could give Orin a choice, not just a prophecy. And the moment I had that thought, the whole skein of strands, bundles and bundles of them, shuddered low, like a giant stirring in sleep.
Maybe it were madness set me to mucking with the future that night. All gods knew I could have ruined things not just for Orin but for Mam and Wole Sally and Dal as well. I knew what I was risking. But I also knew this: if I had to choose between some faceless destiny sorting how we was all to end and Orin deciding the same through his own actions, I'd pick Orin every time. Never met a better man.
The ties at his throat yawned open, and I laid the flat of my palm against his chest, felt the strong drum of his heart against the pads of my fingers. Felt him breathing, steady. Where my hand pressed, our two strands twisted like they was soldered in fire together. I could see the knots forming between my palm and his chest. Something about the press of skin on skin worked Fate up to a froth. On the far end, the pressure on his final bead, that one showing him and the Lady, tightened all the more. "Lie back," I told him. "I got to see something."
Orin smiled, probably the easiest he'd looked all day, and he leant back against the hillock of blankets. "Trade you a sight for a sight? I'll lie back as you say, but you got to shuck some of those clothes you're wearing."
I thought of the surge of strands when we'd touched skin on skin, and naked sounded good for a thousand reasons. I nodded and yanked my dress and shift up over my head, kicked them to the side. Firelight and his gaze licked my body bare, and I couldn't say which was hotter. I thought about using my hands to cover them parts were private, but Orin's look didn't feel like an invasion. It felt gentle, right, warm. Sweet as summered velvet.
"You got no idea how beautiful you are, Agatha." He just lay there when he said it, didn't even reach up to touch. But the words were a caress all on their own.
I didn't know what to say to that, other than it near wrung my spirit and made me weep. Instead I chewed my bottom lip again and set to work hauling off his chausses. They were heavy, caked with mud where the boots were stitched in. His feet bore signs of blisters over blisters, a testament to all the ways he'd walked in search of that Orb. I dipped the seam of my shift in some water and cleaned the dirt off him as best I could. Sometime in there he'd removed his shirt, and we faced each other before the fire, both of us naked as fishes.
"I asked you before to make love to me," I told him. "And you done a fine work of it. Now I aim to return the favor."
His grin bout lit up my whole night sky. "More trades? Just be prepared for riposte. But don't let me stop you, little witch."
The strands never made noises at me before, but they did that night. As if they knew what I had planned, they writhed like a nest of snakes, hissing and horrible, setting up a ruckus that made it near impossible for me to hear my own self think. Watch this, I told them silently. Watch me undo all of you.
I think I touched every part of Orin was bare for touchin', starting with them poor feet and tangling my own strand all round his skinny legs and hips, his chest and shoulders, looping behind his ears. And where my fingers drew patterns, my mouth followed, laying in the seams, binding us together. He tasted of the wood more than the river, of far-off places and spices that made my mouth wet. I'd thought earlier about taking his bold, beautiful cock into my mouth, and this time I made it more than just thought. I figured Orin might come unfastened when I leant over him and blazoned a trail of kisses over the bone on his hip, down to his thigh, and inward.
He smelled like leather and dirt and man, and I buried my face in the thatch of hair at the base of his cock. I fisted him there and worked my mouth up the length, tracing the blue veins with my tongue, with my teeth. Orin grabbed a hank of my hair and lifted it aside. To see better what I was up to? I didn't ask. I loved the feel of him pulling it, though, moving my head how he wanted it, seeing to his own pleasure through me. I loved the feel of my bare skin, my shoulders and arms and belly all pressed against him, naked to naked. I loved the way those strands grew and pulsed and tied us closer every place we touched.
And they weren't just hissing now; they was screaming like a storm. And they blurred together in a tight, tight skein, pressing in on me from all sides till I couldn't make out the single room around us for all the pulsing and movement of them strands. About all I could see was Orin. And me. And this gorgeous knot we was building between us.
I lowered my mouth over him, sucking him deep into my throat like I took him in my nethers earlier, clasped my lips around his girth and pulled, dragging him against the bulge of my tongue, my teeth tucked behind lips to spare him scars. I thrust my mouth over him in rhythm, trying to match the even strength he'd used earlier to fuck me. That Orin was about the most delicious meal a girl ever know'd, and I gorged myself on it.
His hand, tangled in my hair, followed that rhythm, but I could feel when he closed in on his moment, when he was near ready, 'cause he wrapped that length of hair around his fist again, tugging it taut till it hurt and pressing down, forcing my mouth wide, plunging so deep back into my throat that I couldn't gasp breath. My body tried to rear back, but Orin held me steady over him, and our strands twisted round each other till they were more one strand now than two.
All the rest of the skein howled its fury, but just as I felt Orin's cock twitch in my mouth, just as I felt him release his seed against the back of my throat and the shudder that wracked his whole body, I also heard a cracking sound, like a lightning strike. I didn't have to be able to see, didn't have to be able to breathe, to know that what I heard then was his bead shattering.
Orin's hand released its grip on my hair, fanned out over the back of my head, kneading and thanking. I waited till his cock was good and empty before I slipped my mouth off it, cleaning up the dribbles and working warm kisses up his chest. I stretched out alongside him on the pile of quilts before the hearth and nuzzled my body against his. We fit together fine.
And then I noticed that the storm in those strands hadn't stopped with just the one bead. All over in a wild dome like shooting stars above me, beads were exploding, forced together too tight by the knots I'd wrought with Orin. I didn't have the energy or the courage to hunt down and see what all blissful scenes I'd just destroyed, but it didn't feel tragic. Felt good, like getting rid of them beads opened up a whole range of paths that folks might take now. I watched the free beads, the ones that had been strung on ephemera and not been part of set stories before, the possibilities, attach themselves to strands, settle in, and then detach themselves again, as if they never had a chance to attempt it before and was just seeking out where they belonged. I found the end of my strand, the place that had held the bead foretelling my death, and felt like crying when I saw it bare. My own future lay wide open now, a whole strand of unknown. The not knowing thrilled me more than I can say.
I watched the whole storm settle, and Orin stroked my hair the whole while. "My prophecy is this, that you will be a great hero for our realm, Orin o' the River Lynd. And you'll get there making your own choices. I got trust you'll make the right ones. For all us."
"That's it? Sweet, whether you say the truth or not. You've always been too good, Agatha, but I do love you for it," he murmured, and I didn't worry over whether he meant them words. They glowed all over me anyhow. Anon his breath came in thick pulls, even and deep. He slept. But I couldn't. There was one more part to this, and I knew I needed to do it, even if I didn't want to. Wasn't enough to release him from Fate. I had to release him from me, too. Already I could see new beads growing in, scenes that soon I'd be able to see and worry over. I couldn't have Orin bound to those beads as well.
I stared into the shadow between my chin and his chest, stirred the hair around his nipple with my breath. And then I began my real work that night. I stayed awake until the wee hours, patiently backtracking and untangling, yanking hard at them knots, unwinding each one that bound him to me. My insides felt raw, like my fingers would be if the knots were real and in my hands. But at the end, as dawn bled in through the window slits, I watched it slip free, Orin’s strand. I could have reached out and grabbed it, tied it tight to my soul again and held it fast. I let it go.
“You’re free, my love. My own Orin. Now you go do all them great deeds.”
And I watched his strand hard until it disappeared, all on its own out the wide-open window.