Blessings Of A Curse - 2012 USA Edition - chunk 06
“Talia told me of your thoughts, about letting the binding of your wedding vows affect you.” Yazadril told Mark as he fetched an item from a workbench and held it up. It was a ten inch long, one inch wide, thin steel band with rounded ends, bent smoothly into a C, with five thin steel tines protruding from the middle of one edge. “Now, when I cast a mild Tranquility upon you yesterday, I altered my own vibration, and so the vibration of the spell, so that it could affect you. It’s a different thing to change your vibration, to negate your special quality and allow magic to affect you. None-the-less, if I’ve transposed the notes I used correctly, and made no mistake in the theory, the mathematics, or the crafting of it, this should do the trick.”
He plucked the ends of the tines, all five at once, and the notes they made formed an eerie, shimmering chord. “If this works, as long as you’re wearing this and the tines are ringing, it will alter the vibration of the most crucial parts of your brain, and hence your nervous system, and magic should affect you. It will be most effective as the tines are first plucked, and the effect will fade as the sound and vibration fades. So, if you want a spell to affect you at a somewhat constant rate, strum it like this;.” He brushed his fingertips rapidly back and forth over the five tines like he was strumming a lute, and the chord rang out constantly.
“If you want to wear it without it affecting you, slide this little velvet envelope over the tines to damp their vibration. Let’s try it, shall we? Could you bend down a bit?”
Mark bent down, and Yazadril slid the band onto his head. The ends squeezed the side of his head at the top of his temples, holding the metal in firm contact across his forehead, with the tines encased in black velvet sticking up from the center. It was uncomfortable, but not greatly so.
“Now we will test your heat tolerance.” Yazadril explained. “I will lightly hold your left index finger close to this candle flame, far enough away that it will not hurt at first, but close enough that soon the pain will make your arm pull the finger away. Just let it do so.”
They conducted the test, and when Mark jerked his hand away and stuck his fingertip in his mouth, Yazadril nodded. “Just short of six seconds. A bit longer than I expected. Dry your finger with this handkerchief. Now I will create another burning candle entirely from magic, but otherwise identical in every way to the mundane candle. Do you see it?” Yazadril asked, holding it out to Mark.
“No. To me your hand is empty, though curved to hold something candle shaped.”
“It looks exactly the same as the other candle to me, Father.”
“Excellent. Now give me your finger again, Mark.”
He held the tip of Mark’s finger in the center of the flame for ten seconds. “You feel nothing?”
“No. Just you holding my finger.”
Talia whistled softly, eyebrows raised. “Now to me, that is spooky!” she commented.
“All right.” Yazadril released his hand. “Now take off the velvet envelope, and pluck the tines. Tell me what you experience.”
Mark did so. “Whoa! It’s very loud when you’re wearing it! It kind of sounds nice, but it kind of sounds scary, and in a way it seems to be rattling my skull. But I can see the magic candle! Though it doesn’t seem very, uh, substantial. And like you said, it’s kind of fading away with the sound.”
“About what I expected. Now strum the tines. Try to keep the sound constant and even, so that the image of the candle is also constant and even.
Mark experimented with it a few moments, until he had selected a technique and stabilized it. “That’s about as good as I’ll be able to do without a lot of extra practice at it.”
“It sounds very smooth.” Yazadril nodded. “This is the important part. Maintain the strumming, while I hold your finger exactly the same distance from the magic flame as I held it from the mundane flame for the first heat tolerance test. It will take a lot longer for you to feel the heat this time, so just keep concentrating on keeping the strumming constant.”
They conducted the test, and the moments passed, until finally Mark gave a yelp and jerked his hand away.
“Two minutes and four seconds.” Yazadril stated thoughtfully. “Here’s what we’ve learned, children. Within the margins of error for this test, it is safe to say that while strumming the tines, Mark is affected by magic at about one twentieth the normal amount, all other things being equal. That should hold for all types of magic.”
“I have a spell of another type I would like to try.” Talia giggled.
Mark gave her a bit of an apprehensive look.
“Don’t worry, it’s harmless!” she re-assured him. “And I think you’ll like it. Kneel down please.”
“Remember, you’ll need to use twenty times the power you normally would.” Yazadril cautioned. “Be careful of the consequences of either overpowering or underpowering the spell.”
“Yes Father.” Talia nodded.
With a shrug, Mark knelt and strummed the tines.
Talia put her hands on his shoulders, whistled a complex melody, and gave a jerky nod. “That’s it. You can stand up.”
He did. And every hair on his body below his neck fell out.
“It worked!” Talia laughed, clapping her hands. “I can’t believe it! You are even more handsome without all that coarse fur!”
“Thanks!” Mark chuckled in amazement as he brushed off loose hairs that still clung to him.
“Can I do one more?” Talia eagerly asked.
“Where you were covered by your hair and beard and clothes, you’re quite white, while your hands, shins, and around your eyes are quite tanned. I would like to make you evenly and lightly tanned all over.”
“Oh, well that would be okay.”
He knelt down and strummed, and in a moment it was done.
“Perfect! Now you could not possibly be more handsome!” she laughed as she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him.
“And you found the twenty to one power requirement ratio to be consistent?” Yazadril asked.
“Yes Father, as near as I could tell.”
“Well my boy, that is all I can do for you that way today. There will be five times as many guests as we expected at Talia’s wedding, and since Alilia is inviting the most powerful eight thousand from her people’s hundreds of thousands, the average Power of the guests will be much higher as well. If they are all four times as powerful on the average as a typical elf of The High People, your vows should affect you equally as powerfully as most elves of The High People are affected by their vows. What will actually happen is impossible to say. It’s your choice whether to wear this and strum it, or not, as you take your vows.
“Now, behind that door is a privacy, and you should go there and shake all that hair out of your new clothes and sandals!
“While you do that, I will cast invisibility and inaudibility on this tine band, keyed to Talia and I. Only we two will be able to see it, or hear it’s sound through the air, and of course while you are not wearing it and strumming it, you will see it and hear it as well, since those spells will not affect you. But, I cannot key it to you unless you are wearing it and strumming it at the same time that I’m keying it, and that could be dangerous. So, when you wear it and strum or pluck it and are thus affected by magic, if you look in a mirror you will not be able to see it. Also, while wearing it and strumming it you will not be able to hear the sound of it through the air, but that is of no consequence, because most of the vibration, and the only part that matters, is the vibration you’ll hear through the bones of your head.
“The point is, you’ll be able to use it without giving your secret away or anyone realizing it, if you so choose. Except that they will see your fingers move as you pluck, so try to keep that unobtrusive. If you wear it too long it will make a slight red mark from the squeeze on your skin. As for carrying it without using it, I suggest you put it on your upper arm, it should hold there firmly.
“Thank you Yazadril!” Mark said as he took the band off. He slipped the velvet envelope over the tines, and handed it over.
“You’re welcome.” Yazadril absently acknowledged, already reviewing his spells.
Mark shared a smile with Talia and turned to go to the privacy.
Half a minute later Yazadril finished, and handed the tine band to Talia. “And now I must go make ready before Nemia comes looking for me! Talia, bring him upstairs when he has the hair off him.” He tossed that last over his shoulder as he jogged out the door and up the stairs.
Mark soon returned from the privacy, a bemused smile on his face. “There’s a big mirror in there, though not full length.” he said as he went to one knee and gave her his hands, and she placed her tiny ones within them. “Thank you very much. I hate to sound egotistical, but I am honestly so surprised at how nice I look!”
“You’re welcome. You do look wonderful.” she shyly smiled.
“So do you.”
“Thank you. Could I have a kiss? A very, very nice one?”
His smile was just as shy. “I’d like that.”
She slowly leaned forward, and softly brought her lips to his as she closed her eyes.
A minute later she leaned back, and they were both a little short of breath. They relived the experience for a moment, then their eyes re-focused on each other. They grinned like schoolchildren as she took the tine band from the back of her neck where she’d placed it, slid it onto his bicep, and they went up the stairs.
When they reached the landing at the top, she stopped and turned to him without opening the door. “It seems incredible, considering everything that’s happened, but I think I am starting to fall in love with you, Mark Longstrider.” She informed him with an excited smile. He was still three steps below her, so she didn’t have to look up at him quite so much.
“And I have fallen completely in love with you, Talia.” he returned with the same smile as they joined hands.
“Oh? So soon? Are you sure?” she teased.
“Should we cancel some of the plans to have so many reinforce your vows? It is an unknown, a danger, and since you love me already and we have Father’s latest invention, we might not need so much.”
“It’s probably too late to cancel any plans. Besides, I think it will work, I think the danger is small, and as you said, eternity is a very long time. I think we should take every little bit of help we can get.”
With a twinkle in her eye, she subtly leaned forward and raised her chin.
He understood the gesture immediately, and leaned forward to give her another kiss.
“Ah, we are all so lucky you came here yesterday Mark, in so many ways.” she chuckled a few moments later. “Especially me.”
She caressed his face with one hand, then opened the door and led him through.
Nemia and Hilsith sat chatting on the couch, and rose at their arrival.
“My!” Nemia exclaimed. “He just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t he?”
“He does!” Hilsith agreed. “Your husband again shows new talent, an ability with cosmetic magic!”
“Yes, having obviously found a way to affect Mark’s skin and hair!” Nemia laughed.
“You two are both very pretty as well!” Mark complimented.
Hilsith and Nemia both wore evening gowns that were much as Mark expected ladies of nobility to wear, their floor-length flared hoop skirts stuffed with petticoats, their short sleeves puffed, the necklines low and rounded. Both dresses had many accents; tiny pearls and gems, and delicate ribbons and bows. Nemia’s was a very light pink, while Hilsith’s was a bright white with a blue tinge that matched her hair and skin.
“You are indeed very beautiful, both of you!” Yazadril smiled, emerging from the hallway.
“Oh my!” Nemia breathed as he came to her side.
“Yazadril? Is that you?!!” Mark asked in amazement, for the ancient elf was barely recognizable.
He wore a gleaming suit of golden armor, plate over mail, with white ceramic accents, and a white cape trimmed in gold embroidery. The hilt of a matching two-handed sword was seen over his left shoulder, the tip of the scabbard almost touching the ground by his right foot. His gauntlets hung from his belt, and a small but very ornate crown graced his head, gleaming gold and silver and studded with jewels.
But his transformation was far more complete than that. He no longer looked ancient, and instead appeared to Mark to be about forty-five years old. His long beard was gone, and his clean-shaven face had only a few fine lines. His hair was now a dark steely gray, and his aura of ‘humble old elf’ was completely gone. His bearing was now straight and strong and full of the command of nobility. For the first time, Mark realized that here was one of the most formidable warriors that had ever lived.
“Oh, it’s me, all right.” Yazadril chuckled. “For the last millennia it has suited my purpose to have a demeanor that encouraged my people to find me very approachable. For the same reason I have often appeared to be less magically skilled than I am. Now, I think events call for something else, and so I have reverted to my more military image.”
“But you look so much younger!” Mark stammered.
“Yes. The appearance of age is a harmless affliction that comes upon us very slowly, and it’s few elves who are of such an age to be able to achieve that look. But, we can choose to heal from it. If I wished, I could appear as young as Nemia, but that would not help me to be taken seriously in councils of war. And I must admit that the age I allowed to slowly come upon me must have affected more than my appearance, for now that it is gone, I feel more fit and vigorous than I have since… Why, since I last looked like this!”
“Oh my husband, I have loved you so much!” Nemia sobbed as she hugged him, moved to tears by him. “But I never knew I could desire you so much more! If this wedding were not so important, I would drag you down the hall to our bedroom this very instant!”
“Why… I had not considered that!” Yazadril chuckled.
“And you’re glowing brighter than Nemia and Talia, and they’re the brightest I’ve seen except Alilia!” Mark revealed.
“I expect I am. This armor, the crown, and most especially the sword, are all among the most revered treasures of my people, and they are items of serious power indeed!”
“Oh Father, you look so fine and handsome!” Talia marveled.
“Thank you. And now our preparations are complete, I think. Shall we go?”
“We shall!” Talia eagerly agreed. “And I think that I should hide Mark from sight as we travel, so we can make a more grand entrance when we step out into the chapel.” She gestured at Mark’s chair and whistled a melody.
“Good thinking.” Yazadril nodded. “A little showmanship can only aid our cause.”
“What did you do?” Mark asked his intended as he seated himself, and Talia curled up in his lap.
“I cast an Illusion. To other eyes, this platform now has a wood frame around the chair, sporting a roof and curtains all around, of brown cloth with gold thread embroidery.”
They smoothly rose and floated over the balcony railing, Yazadril and Nemia taking a position to the left as before, and Hilsith to the right.
“You can fly if you want. I trust it now, and I’m used to the height after being on that balcony so much.” Mark murmured to Talia. “I mean, you don’t have to go along the ground like before.”
“Excellent!” Talia laughed, and they sailed off into the wide spaces between the great trees, gradually gaining altitude.
When they cleared the tops of the trees, still rising, the ground below was beginning its incline to the pass into the next valley. Soon they sailed far above the pass and into the valley beyond, though they were still far below the tops of the mountain peaks all around.
“This is incredible!” Mark shouted over the howl of the wind, for though they felt very little of it, Talia was deflecting a mighty blast of air. “I don’t even want to know how high up we are! How fast are we going?”
“Every minute, we travel about a league.”
“A league a minute? But that’s…” he had to pause to calculate it. “That’s one hundred and eighty miles per hour!”
Mark looked around in wonder, for at their height the speed was not as apparent. Furthermore, the three flyers around him were standing at their ease, and since they chose to block the wind completely, they sailed along without a hair out of place. He shook his head in amazement.
“Why did Dilimon fly the way he did, instead of standing up like that?”
“He flies three times as fast as this. At that speed he must minimize the wind he must deflect, or the noise would be deafening and the cold would be dangerous. He is very skilled at it.”
Now they were over the next valley, which was also perfectly round and hemispherical except for the flat of the valley floor, though it was somewhat smaller than First Valley. And where the trees around Yazadril’s home seemed to be of every variety that Mark had ever seen, those in the second valley were all of types that shed their leaves in the fall, with none of the evergreen varieties.
“That oak is the oldest tree in The Nine Valleys.” Talia told him. The one she pointed at stood by itself in the exact center of the valley. Mighty it was, the highest in the valley, eighteen hundred feet tall and fully as wide, with only grass beneath it, surrounded by a clearing five times as wide as it was. “It was planted soon after my people settled here, when there was nothing else but blasted rock. Most of the first trees died early, till there was a sufficiently nutritious soil base, but that one has survived, and thrived. It has a very long name in my language, but we simply call it The First Tree.”
They curved gradually to the right, aiming for the pass to the third valley beyond. This pass was long, and had a road that climbed as it wound between five mountains, each higher than the one before. Talia flew them up and up, over the second and third peak, between the last two.
“This is Laylas Valley. It is the largest of the nine. The chapel is at the center.” Talia explained as they flew over the last high notch of the pass.
“Wow!!” Mark exclaimed as the valley came into view. It was five times as wide as First Valley, and five times as deep as well, fully twenty-five thousand feet from the valley floor to the jagged rim. It was more of a bowl than the other two, since the flat at the center was a smaller proportion of it, and the rim much more consistent in height. And in contrast to the previous valley, every one of the great trees here was of a single variety of redwood fir. They were more closely spaced as well, and in many places the tips of their branches intermingled. They smoothly rose in height toward the center, forming a round peak.
Now they flew down into the valley. Soon Mark noticed swarms of elves flying about the center, and as they drew closer, he saw that there were throngs of them on the ground. “Sweet mother of all! I never knew ten thousand could look like so many!”
Yazadril frowned. “That’s because there are far more than ten thousand here already! And more arriving every moment!”
They flew above the trees to the center of the valley, where a perfect ring of twelve redwoods, each exactly the same height and shape, towered over all. A somewhat shorter ring of twenty-four surrounded them, with another ring of thirty-six around and below that. Around the three rings the symmetry was lost, for though the trees around them continued to smoothly decrease in height, they were positioned more randomly.
Talia came to a stop in mid-air above the center of the innermost ring, then descended into the round space between them. Now they were veritably surrounded by flyers, though all maintained a discreet distance. Some who recognized Yazadril, Nemia or Hilsith called greetings, which were fondly returned.
As they neared the ground they approached the east side of the clearing, then slowly settled toward a huge deck twenty feet up the trunk of the easternmost tree of the inner ring. Talia kept the chair hovering a foot above the deck as the others alighted, and Nemia opened the large, windowed, double doors with a gesture. Talia floated the chair in after them, and Nemia used another gesture to close the doors and draw the gauzy curtains.
Within they found a large, round, elegant room, with a high ceiling graced by a magnificent and delicate crystal chandelier. Like the rooms in Yazadril’s home, it was a natural seeming hollow, and it’s floors, as well as the walls that curved up to form the ceiling, were surfaced by the highly-polished living wood of the great tree. On one side was a row of elf-sized dressing tables with padded stools interspersed with wall mirrors, so the bridal party could do last-minute touch-ups to their appearances, and on the opposite wall was an open cabinet with an assortment of fine spirits and beverages, surrounded by groupings of small armchairs and side tables.
On that side, Alilia conferred with several other elves, all attired in magnificent array. She wasn’t damping her glow to Mark’s sight, and a few of those with her were almost as bright, but he had come upon it gradually this time, and his eyes seemed to be more able to adjust to it now. He found that by narrowing his eyes a bit, he could look upon the group without too much discomfort.
At the rear of the room, near a door that led deeper into the tree, stood Theramin, Dilimon, and two female elves Mark hadn’t yet met.
Theramin looked agitated almost unto apoplexy. “Finally you are here, Yazadril!” he exclaimed as he hurried over. “I’ve been casting Speaking at you for forty minutes or more!”
“I was working on something delicate, so I blocked communication.” Yazadril told him, vexed. “I’m sorry I didn’t restore it afterward, but why didn’t you simply use an Official Priority Speaking?”
“Because officially speaking, there was nothing unusual happening until just now!” Theramin said as he threw his hands in the air in frustration. “Those within the inner ring are the only ones who are officially within the chapel, and they are all invited guests; all of The High People, and those Alilia invited from her people on Talia’s behalf. Everyone outside the inner ring are from her people as well, and they are, so they say, ‘just visiting’, as is their right under the terms of the alliance! It looks like the entire nation of The People of Life will soon be ‘just visiting’ around the chapel! Of course, it doesn’t really matter that they are outside the chapel, because unless you expressly forbid it, everyone outside will be taking a Reading from someone inside!
“Word has spread like wildfire! About the deaths of Dalia and Bezedil, about Mark, about Alilia’s curse, and about this wedding and how many have been invited! Rumors are spreading like a plague, and many of the young hot-heads are talking all sorts of foolishness!
“And this is spreading around the world! Those are the Princes and Princesses over there with Alilia, and they tell me that millions of elves from all over the world have asked for permission to come here! Just for a visit, of course! Alilia had to invoke the charters of war to insure that none spoke of any of this to any but elves! She had to actually declare a state of war in order to ensure compliance from the plains elves, just a moment ago!”
“Let them come.” Mark said as he stood and Talia banished her illusion. His powerful, rumbling voice drew every eye in the room.
He looked to Talia. She smiled and nodded, and offered him her hand. He returned her smile as he gently took it, then met the eyes of those around him one by one “They must each swear to keep the peace, and to not crowd into the chapel or do anything else that would disrupt the ceremony, or the celebration. But on those conditions, we extend an invitation to any elf who wishes to come to our wedding.”
“Done!” one of the elves with Alilia shouted, loudly and triumphantly. “Let all see the truth, whatever happens!”
As he spoke a flash had lit in the room, so bright that Mark blinked hard and rubbed his watering eyes.
“I hope you’re satisfied.” Alilia declared in frustration. “For better or worse, there will soon be over two million elves in attendance!”
Mark nodded as his eyes cleared, and he gave her a smile.
Despite her ire, she was magnificent, her beauty easily outshining any he had seen except Talia and Nemia. And despite everything else, he could not help but be struck by it. She wore a white silk blouse with ruffled lace on the front, form-fitting black velvet pants tucked into high, black leather boots, and a black velvet cape secured with a gold chain over it all. Atop her gleaming white hair was a shimmering tiara of some white metal, centered with an oval sapphire as big as a chicken’s egg, and she held a black staff of power topped by a diamond as big as her fist.
“Wow Alilia, you’re really beautiful! I mean, that’s a nice outfit!” he blurted, then blushed at his own youthful impetuousness.
Alilia’s eyebrows rose in surprise, and then she could not help but chuckle at him. A quiet laugh went around the room as the tension was suddenly released, and everyone relaxed a bit. “Ah Mark, you are such a good boy.” She told him with a smile of her own. “And I will have you know that this is the raiment of a Battle Wizard of The People of Life. But thank you.
“We speak Trade Common around Mark, as he does not speak Elvish.” Alilia said to the royalty around her. “You all know Yazadril of course, and you met Nemia at their wedding. This is Hilsith, Master Healer of The Warm People. This is Talia, daughter of Yazadril and Nemia.”
Yazadril had given a shallow, dignified bow at his introduction, and the ladies gave a curtsy.
“And this of course, is Markhan Reginus Longstrider the Fifth, Forest Ranger of Shinosa Valley in Finitra, of whom we’ve been speaking.”
As he’d done before, Mark made his courtly bow and politely declared; “I am entirely at your service.”, before smoothly standing again.
“Mark, this outspoken fellow is Prince Jaromer of The Elven Peoples of The Empire of Thon, Viscount of that realm and Imperial Wizard to His Excellency Osbald the Eighth. He’s feeling a little defensive right now, because he’s just learned, under a provision of military secrecy, that Yazadril and I were cursed from the vicinity of his homeland.”
Jaromer stepped forward and shook Mark’s hand as a man would. He was tall for an elf at five and a half feet, with dark brown hair and eyes, and wore very ornate red robes of state. “Hello, young fellow!” was his jovial greeting. “My people have benefited greatly from our association with the humans of our country, and we’re of the opinion that the other elven nations could do the same. Segregation leads to conflict, we think, so I’m quite glad to see you come to dwell here! Hopefully this will lead to more pleasant relations between our more rural and conservative cousins and the human nations they share borders with.”
“Nothing would please me more, Prince Jaromer.” Mark returned. “And I’m glad to meet you!”
“I hate to risk breaching any royal protocols, but we must prepare for the ceremony.” Nemia politely interrupted.
“She’s right.” Alilia nodded. “Mark, you will meet the rest of these august personages after the ceremony, but for now, I will show them to their places, and check on the progress of the preparations and the feast.
“And by the way, Yazadril, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you looking as you should.”
Mark gave the group a smile and a polite bow. “Thank you all for coming.” he told them as Alilia led them out the door and down a set of stairs.
“Actually,” Dilimon remarked as the door closed behind them, “Over three-quarters of an hour remains before the ceremony begins. I assume you will be using our people’s ceremony, which is not lengthy or complex, so you should have plenty of time to coach Mark in what will be required of him.”
“We will use our people’s ceremony, though we will be conducting it in Mark’s language.” Nemia told him, then laughed. “I simply couldn’t abide having to listen to a political debate right now!”
“Thank you, Mother.” Talia smiled. “I’m nervous enough without being surrounded by royalty!”
“Me too!” Mark laughed. “So, how exactly does the service go?”
“At the appointed moment, the chandelier there will chime, and out by the podium, the Orchestra of The High People will begin to play the music that Talia and Nemia have chosen.” Yazadril said, falling habitually into his teaching manner. “We will then proceed down the stairs to the room below at ground level, and while we are doing that, the bridesmaids and groomsmen will take their places on the third tier of the podium at the center of the chapel. As Theramin will be conducting the ceremony, he will be the first to emerge from the room downstairs, walk down the aisle, and take his place atop the topmost tier of the podium. Then you, with Dilimon as your best man, the two of you constituting the immediate party of the groom, will walk down the aisle and take your places to Theramin’s right on the second tier of the podium. Then Talia, with Nemia and I as her parents and Alilia as her maid of honor, and thus constituting the immediate party of the bride, will walk the aisle and take our places to Theramin’s left on the second tier.
“Theramin will then begin speaking the ceremony.”
“Right. And I will say… Please correct me if you think my translation could be better.” Theramin said as he stroked his chin. “Welcome, gracious people, to an event of great joy and importance. We gather here in this revered place to join two lives into one, and to join two hearts into one, with bonds and oaths of love and honor, proudly sworn in assembly to be witnessed by all.
“Who speaks for the bride?
“And Yazadril will step up to the top tier and say…”
“I will say that I speak for the bride, and introduce myself as her father.” Yazadril said. “And from there we must be brave, for much that follows may be difficult. All know of the deaths yesterday, and of the curse. When I speak, I will have to squelch the rumors, and explain enough to make them see the necessity and the rightness of this marriage.
“I still wish as few as possible to know that you passed the barriers. But, they will need to know the reason why you were here in the first place. I will tell them that as you approached the border, I detected that you were unaffected by most spells, and that you agreed to stay here so that I could study your unique properties. Skirting the truth to be sure, yet true enough to avoid compromising my honor, I think, because even before you passed the border I could tell that the Illusions and Force barriers of the Wards were not affecting you. I will explain your feelings about sexual intimacy outside marriage, so that they can understand why you would ask a girl you do not love to marry you, and that the curse has driven you to it.”
“I do love Talia.” Mark quietly interjected. “It’s come upon me quickly, but she is beautiful and adorable. Though I must admit, after losing my family and after six months of solitude, my heart is as ready to find new love as it’s possible to be. And while I first asked her to marry me so that what we must do for the curse would at least not be a dishonor, it’s more important now that the vows help to insure our happiness in the future, no matter how long that will be.
“How long is it, Yazadril? How long will it be, until the end of days?”
“Ah, that’s difficult to say.” Yazadril said as he considered it. His hand automatically rose to stroke a beard that was no longer there, giving him a momentary start, then he put his mind back to the problem. “Hmm. You know that a thousand thousands is called a million?”
“And that a thousand times that, a thousand millions, is called a billion?”
“A thousand millions? No, I’ve never even considered such a big number, so I didn’t know that. But now I do. A billion.”
“Yes. This world has had simple life for at least six billion years, and complex life such as exists now for about two billion. It will be habitable for at least another four billion years, and perhaps for as long as seven billion. After that, the sun will start to grow. Life will adapt to it for a while, for it will be a slow process, but eventually all life will be exterminated. If the curse can somehow keep you living after that, you will have some eight to ten billion years in total before the sun grows enough to envelope and consume the world. And that will be the end of days.”
“Huh.” Mark grunted after a moment. “Knowing the answer does me no good, because it’s inconceivable. Four to ten billion years! I simply can’t grasp how long a time that is!”
“No one can, Mark. No one.” Yazadril told him gently. “But back to the subject at hand. I will speak for the bride, and then I will step back down to the second tier, and Theramin will ask; ‘Who speaks for the groom?’ At that point, since you have no close family here, you can have Dilimon speak for you, or if you so choose, you may speak for yourself.”
“Ah, no offense Dilimon, but I think I’ll speak for myself.”
“Likely a wise choice, Mark.” Dilimon grinned. “If you manage to make as good an impression on the rest of your guests as you made on the assembled rulers of the elven nations, you’ll be well thought of indeed!”
“Yes? You think I did okay with them?”
“You were wonderful!” Nemia assured him with a smile.
“You were.” Yazadril agreed. “So, after you speak for the groom, so to speak, ahem, then you will step back down to the second tier, and Theramin will say…”
“Then let the bride and groom step forth, that they may be joined in matrimony.” Theramin continued. “The two of you will then step up onto the top tier and join hands.”
“I don’t want to seem like I’m looming over you too much.” Mark mused. “Do you think it would be better if I went to one knee at that point?”
“I think it would be a seemly gesture. I’ll make sure there’s a small cushion to rest your knee upon, for the podium is hard stone.” Theramin smiled. “Then I’ll say; Do you, Talia, take this male; Mark, to be your husband? And she’ll say; I do. And I’ll say; Do you solemnly swear to love him before all others, and to strive to bear his children, and to care for him as best you are able, and to seek always to bring him happiness, for as long as you both shall live? And she’ll say; I do so swear.
“Then I’ll give her a moment or two to regain her composure, if necessary, for it’s a powerful feeling when the oath takes affect, and it can take your breath away. With so many in attendance, you should be ready to steady her, in case she needs it. Then I’ll say; Place the ring, which symbolizes love without end, upon his finger. Alilia will hand her your wedding ring, and she will place it on the third finger of your left hand.
“Then I will ask the same things of you, in exactly the same way, except that you will swear to strive to give her your children, rather than bearing hers, of course. And you will answer in the same way as well.”
“I do. I do so swear.” Mark repeated, feeling more nervous by the moment.
“When you say; I do so swear, Yazadril and I and half the groomsmen will stand ready.” Dilimon chuckled. “For if you falter badly, it will take all of us to catch you!”
“After Dilimon hands you her ring and you put it on her left ring finger,” Theramin continued, “I’ll say; And so let it be. Let all who are present bear witness, for I now pronounce you to be husband and wife. At that point it’s customary for the groom to kiss the bride, while the bridesmaids and groomsmen toss flowers upon you and the guests all cheer and call good wishes.”
“Do you have a ring?” Mark asked.
“Yes, and Alilia already has the other.” Dilimon answered as he reached into his pocket and drew it forth. All gathered close to see it.
It was a fairly wide gold band sized for Talia’s finger, encircled by a narrower complete ring of faceted diamond that flashed in the chandelier’s light. Talia sighed at the beauty of it.
“Yours is exactly the same, except of course that yours is sized to your finger.” Dilimon revealed. “Perhaps the only two complete-ring shaped diamonds in existence. Certainly the only ones I’ve ever heard of. Alilia provided them, and they are magically enhanced in the same ways as Talia’s engagement ring.”
“How did she know my size?” Mark asked. “Even I don’t know it, for I’ve never had a ring.”
“The measurements that Yazadril took of you, and passed to Alilia when she made your conveyance, were complete. They included the size of your fingers.” Dilimon explained, then pocketed the ring again as Theramin concluded his itinerary.
“At any rate, after you’ve kissed the bride, I’ll conclude the ceremony by saying; Now let us rejoice with feast and celebration! Then we’ll descend the podium to the tables that have been reserved for us. Most will serve themselves, as we agreed on a buffet style feast, but some of Talia’s friends have agreed to serve the head table. Anyone else important enough to have staff will probably be served by them. You’ll choose from the many dishes available from a menu that Alilia’s cooks have provided. After most have finished eating, there will be dancing and mingling for hours, and the bride and groom are expected to lead the first dance. When you two feel that it’s a good time for the presentation of wedding gifts, let me know, and return to your table. I’ll call for the presentation.
“After that, when you’re ready to leave, let us know. We’ll go back to First Valley, to the land set aside for Talia’s home a few hundred yards from Yazadril and Nemia’s. There we will make you a home as our wedding present, and provide it with any furniture and accessories that you need right away, but were not given as wedding gifts. And after that, we will leave you to enjoy your wedding night.
“Now, do you have all that? Do you have any questions?”
“I’ve got it. How much time do we have left?”
“Oh. If we may, I’d like to spend that with Talia. We still know little about each other.”
“One moment first.” said Dilimon. “Do you still wish us to find the most powerful eleven males and females of all those attending to be bridesmaids and groomsmen? It will be a bit more challenging with so many more here, but we can do it.”
“Actually, only ten for bridesmaids.” Talia decided. “That is, Hilsith, if you would consent to being my second bridesmaid?”
“I would be honored.” the Healer smiled.
“All right. Ten females, eleven males.” Dilimon nodded. The girl beside him lightly elbowed his side with a smile. “What? Oh. Sorry dear.
“Mark, I would like you to meet my fiancé Yalla, Second Force Wizard of the Sentry Corps of The High People.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Mark smiled with a bit of a bow.
“Though we haven’t met, I’ve seen you, for I helped scout you, before Yazadril spoke to you the first time. You… You are ever so much more handsome, now.” Yalla smiled nervously.
“Thank you. And while we are about introductions, who is this lovely lady with you, Theramin?”
“Ah, I have been as pre-occupied and remiss as Dilimon.” Theramin chuckled. “For this is the love of my life, my beautiful wife, Yzell.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Mark smiled and bowed.
“And I you, young man.” Yzell said with a big smile as she stepped forward and squeezed the edge of his hand for a moment. “We haven’t had excitement like this in The Nine Valleys for over a thousand years! Actually, we’ve never had excitement like this!”
“Ah, well we never had excitement like this back home, either!” Mark laughed. “And how are your children, Lady Yzell?”
“Quite well, and growing like sunflowers, thank you for asking! And I’m pleasantly surprised that Theramin mentioned them, he almost never does once they’re out of his sight!”
Theramin blushed a glowing pink and ducked his head a bit, and Mark laughed.
“Actually, there was a manner about my mother and the other mothers of Shinosa Valley that the lasses didn’t have, a mother’s way, a kind of no-nonsense friendliness that I recognized in you immediately, and so I knew you had children.”
“I love them dearly!” Theramin protested defensively. “But we have had four children in only twenty-five years! That is as rare as a marriage among your people producing twenty children!”
“Yes, I can see that!” Mark laughed. “A man could get mighty tired of hearing; ‘Wow! You have twenty children!”
“Exactly! Once they know, they can’t seem to talk about anything else!” Theramin agreed, pleased to have elicited some empathy.
“Perhaps you sensed my motherhood because it is my profession, as well as my domestic situation.” Yzell smiled. “I study every aspect of it; fertility, conception, pregnancy, birth, and rearing. My own fecundity is no accident, but a hard won achievement, and I think it speaks well of my expertise. I believe that every thinking people should be able to control their fecundity, either to reduce it, as some human women are starting to do, or to increase it, as our people sometimes need to do to recover from devastating war or disaster.
“Interbreeding between elves and humans tends to be even less fertile, far less, than between two elves. You may wish to see me in this regard in the days ahead. If you choose to have children, and you have the courage to try new techniques, you have a chance to become parents while making a huge contribution to our knowledge of interbreeding between the races, and the workings of conception in general.”
“We’ll have to, perhaps tomorrow.” Mark answered thoughtfully. “As we’ll swear in our wedding vows to try to have children.”
“Yes, but you will not swear to strive to have them immediately.” Yzell chuckled. “It’s recognized that it takes a few years for a marriage to be ready for young ones.”
“Ah.” Mark nodded.
“We’ll give you some privacy now. You’ve about half an hour remaining.” Nemia assured them.
Dilimon and Yalla left by the doors to the deck, already mumbling as they magically communicated with the other Sentries who would assist them in their scan for the powerful.
The rest moved over toward the liquor cabinet, and Nemia called; “Would you like something to drink?”
“Just water. Better yet, some of Hilsith’s herbal tea, if we can get it.” Mark answered, and Talia called; “Me too please.”
“I’ll brew some.” Hilsith nodded.
Talia led Mark by the hand to a spot near the doors to the balcony. For a moment, they simply smiled at each other, and they could hear Nemia say; “I didn’t know Dilimon and Yalla were engaged!”
And Theramin answered; “He bent his knee to her only an hour or so ago, and she was delighted to say yes. I think he was affected by the ambiance of the chapel, but I think Yalla has been waiting for him to ask for a long time.”
Then, over the murmur of many voices heard through the doors from outside, a girl elf’s voice was heard crying out in anguish, followed by two angry males, then they faded into the background noise. Though Mark didn’t understand their Elvish, Talia did, and what she heard made her shiver, and her skin went a shade paler.
“What is it?” Mark asked in concern.
Talia swallowed hard. “I know them. They are friends of mine, and of Dalia’s. The first said; “I tell you, Dalia couldn’t have killed herself! She was the happiest person I’ve ever met!’ And the second said; ‘I tell you, the human must have killed her, and somehow made Alilia cast the curse, so that he could have Talia! Nothing else makes sense!’ And the third said; ‘Be quiet you fool, they are right up there!”
Mark could find no answer to that.
“So much of our happiness in the days ahead depends on what you and father say to all our guests.” Talia quietly mused. “You must find a way to win them over, and to convince them of the truth. We cannot be happy together if there are so many who are against it.”
“I’ll try, Talia. I’ll do my very best, and so will your father.”
They were silent for a moment, then Talia asked; “Could you pick me up? It’s so nice when you hold me like that.”
“It’s as nice to hold you.” he told her sincerely as he gently lifted her, and held her close so she could hug him around his neck. “You’re… You’re wonderful Talia. You’re wonderful and magical and beautiful and adorable.”
“So are you, Mark. You’re all of those.”
They shared another warm moment.
“I’m a wizard, by inclination and talent and profession.” Talia then softly told him. “And I’d be a fool to choose otherwise, and pass up the opportunity for my parents’ training. I spend much of my days in the libraries and workshops of The Hall Of New Magic, learning. I haven’t chosen a specialty yet, but then I’m not expected to for a few centuries at least. Even Mother hasn’t chosen her specialty yet. Dalia and I… We were lucky to inherit Mother’s strength in the power, even more than we did Father’s intellect, because Mother is first in raw power among The High People. Dalia and I… Well, I’m right behind Mother, and I’ll probably equal her when my power has finished maturing in a decade or so.
“It’s very hard to talk about Dalia, but I must, if you are to know me, for she was half my soul. She was my boldness, and I was her thoughtfulness, we always said. We did everything together, and we were never apart except when she was with a boy, and she and I were equals as wizards as well. She made sure I was included in everything, for when I was too shy to ask, or to even bring myself to the attention of others, Dalia would drag me along, and I was always glad she did. We loved to go flying and swimming and to do other sports, to paint and sculpt, to sing and dance, to simply sit and enjoy the sun or the moon or the breeze, to laugh together about silly things, to visit friends.
“I need you for many things, my handsome great human, and I hope you don’t mind that one of them is to fill the hole in my heart and the empty place by my side left by her absence, for before, Dalia was always there for me.”
“I’ll do my best for you, Talia.” Mark murmured soothingly.
Just then Hilsith came over with a smile and two cups of tea. She handed them up to Mark and Talia and withdrew without a word.
“I also need you to help fill the absence of my family, for we were close, and got along well, and I loved them dearly.” Mark thoughtfully revealed. “My mother’s name was Helem. She was a trapper’s daughter, she was from the valley, and it’s from her I get my black hair, though I get my blue eyes from my father. Mother had brown eyes, and the most beautiful smile. She’d gone down to Finitra proper for a year when she was seventeen to attend school and find a husband, for there was no one for her in the valley.
“She came back with my father, who’d been a Ranger, a Scout, and an officer in the King’s Military. He had dark brown hair and just a bit of a limp, from an injury he’d gotten in the king’s service. He’d used it as an excuse to retire early so he could come to the valley with my mother, for he was only twenty-six at the time. He retired from the army that is, he remained a Ranger. I was closer to him than anyone, and I took after him a lot. The last few years I spent most of my days with him, learning my trade; learning to hunt and trap, and when not to hunt or trap, and why, clearing fire-breaks in the forest, felling the occasional tree and hauling it behind our mule to the mill, and much else as well. And I learned the ways of a warrior, in case there were poachers, or in case the king called forth the muster to defend the realm. So I learned the bow, as a hunter and as an archer as well, and the sword and the spear and shield, and how to fight unarmed or with anything that was handy. In the late afternoon we had book lessons.
“Not that there was no time for leisure, there was, and we had a wonderful life. I had a little brother, Steb, who was thirteen, and a little sister, Shelvy, who was ten. We and the others of the valley had plenty of time to go swimming and sliding and what have you, to build tree forts or snow forts, to go hiking and climbing and picnicking. In the evenings we’d play cards or dice or puzzle games, or read, sometimes to each other, or tell stories, or make music and sing. Every two weeks, everyone got together for a dance in the Tinlo’s barn. All the musical instruments in the valley were like community property; we all borrowed them around and learned them all. My father and I were making me a harp, with extra space between the strings for my thick fingers.”
He fell silent, and finished the rest of his tea.
Hilsith had noticed him tipping the tiny cup back, and she came over with the pot to refill it and Talia’s, smiled, and again left without a word.
“Did you have a sweet-heart?” Talia asked in a teasing voice.
“Kind of. Marja Dobbim was the only girl about the right age for me in the valley, and she realized it before me. When she was six, she told me I would marry her some day. I was nine at the time, and I told her she was crazy, and it was kind of a friendly joke between us for a long time. Then a year and a half ago, when she was twelve, she started dropping by for visits a lot more often. At first she said it was so she could visit my sister, but she somehow ended up spending most of the time with me, and after a while I noticed that my family always seemed to leave us alone together when Marja was over. We never even thought of kissing or anything, or even holding hands, but I had to admit that she was fun to spend time with, and I liked the special attention she gave me. I eventually came to realize what everyone else already seemed to know; that it really was almost certain that she would be my wife. She was thirteen, and just getting to the point where she was alluring, when… When… Sweet mother of all, Talia, she died right in my arms!” Mark broke down, sobbing and gasping. “She screamed and screamed, and everyone was screaming, and there was nothing I could do, and then she died, so horribly… so horribly.”
“Shhh.” Talia gently soothed as she caressed his cheek. “I’m so sorry Mark. I know it’s hard. Thank you so much for telling me that. And I know I can’t replace your whole family, but my family is here for you, and with the new friends you’ve made, and a new life here with me, we will find happiness again. I know we will.”
“I know Talia. I’m so glad and thankful to have you.”
He took two steps over to the nearest dressing table and sat on the top of it, and they simply sat and cuddled, until Nemia came over.
“Things will be beginning soon. And we all must have our minds and thoughts in place for it.” she brightly advised.
“You’re right. Thank you Mother.” Talia nodded, and smiled at Mark. “We are soon to be married! Just the thought of it sets my heart aflutter!”
“I know.” He nodded, and gave her a bit of a smile as he wiped his eyes. “We should spend the remaining time mentally rehearsing what we will do, and say, and when. I’d hate to do it wrong, that’s for sure!”
“Good thinking.” Talia smiled.
They spent five minutes doing that, then Dilimon and Alilia returned.
“It’s incredible out there!” Alilia told them all. “It’s like a pilgrimage! Almost every elf alive is here, over three and a half millions of them! They fill the whole floor of the valley!”
“We’ve got everyone settled into a place, and made sure everyone has Tongues for Trade Common, and that everyone will receive a Reading from someone near the podium.” Dilimon related. “And the bridesmaids and groomsmen have been chosen, and are in place. None refused the honor, and a more powerful group has never been assembled! Some of the Princes and Princesses made the grade, and some did not, so in order to avoid any ruffled feathers, we gave them all an equal place of honor. When the ceremony starts, they will array themselves around the fourth tier of the podium, one step below the bridesmaids and groomsmen. They seemed to think that was just fine.”
“Yes. And the feast for the first ten thousand is coming along nicely, and will be ready when the ceremony finishes.” Alilia added. “The rest have agreed to stay out of the chapel proper. Most of them have brought their own provisions, and the shortsighted who did not can do without! And Theramin, I was told that all other preparations are complete.”
“Good. We’ve got about two minutes.” Theramin nodded.
“Then I have time for one more cup of tea.” Mark smiled as he held his cup out for Hilsith to refill. “They’re really not very big.” he added, a bit sheepishly.
“Don’t be bashful about your appetites, dear boy.” Yazadril chuckled. “For I’m sure they’re quite natural.”
“Yes, well…” Mark began, then took a drink of tea while he ordered his thoughts. “Thank you. Thank you all, so much, for everything.”
“On that note, I must hurry to join the other bridesmaids.” Hilsith smiled. She set the teapot down on the nearest end table, and ran lightly out the door.
“You’re most welcome, Mark.” Nemia smiled. “We have much to thank you for, as well. You were thrust into difficult and strange events, and have met the challenge with decency, kindness, and honor.”
“You’re very welcome.” he nodded. “Alilia, I don’t want there to be anything but friendship between us. I don’t think I’ve told you this already, but I want you to know that I do forgive you for the curse. I’ve no hard feelings toward you, and I don’t feel that you owe me anything. Because of what you did, Talia is going to be my bride, and that balances everything.”
“Thank you.” Alilia nodded, and swallowed hard. “But you’re wrong about my owing you. You’ll see that, later.”
“Well if I do, I suppose I could have you come over and wash my dishes. I’ve always hated doing that.” Mark told her with a grin.
“What? You want me to wash your dishes? By hand, like a human drudge?” Despite her best intentions, Alilia was almost sputtering with indignation.
“Of course, it’s a moot point, since you don’t owe me a thing!” he laughed. “And it’s just as well, don’t you agree?”
She paused in surprise, then could not help but laugh with him, and shake her head at his blatant attempt to maneuver her. “No. Nicely attempted, but no. If you ask me to wash dishes, I will do so, and no doubt you would find a way to make me laugh about it.”
“You know, Alilia, I do believe that having him around will be good for your disposition!” Yazadril chuckled.