Helkryvt Moothvaler was a man of incredible talent and extraordinary intellect. All his life, he'd prided himself on his ability to rationally assess any obstacle that lay in his path and come up with the perfect solution. He was like a dragon in that way: cold and calculating, resolute and ruthless.
But never, in all his twenty cycles, had he encountered an obstacle like Beledine.
Nor was she something he would even define as an obstacle—at least, not in the traditional sense of the word. She was . . . an enigma. A puzzle he had yet to piece together. A mystery he had yet to pick apart.
She was as strong a mage as ever he'd encountered, and he had encountered more than his fair share. The greatest of the human nations—Allentria, Jaeln, Syngra, Syrion—were magnets for mages. Every city hired expert wielders to build towers and bridges, to create irrigation systems, to weave protective enchantments, or simply to ward off attacks from neighboring tribes. In larger metropolises, there was fame and fortune to be won for a savvy mage.
Beledine could have gone anywhere in the world and made a name for herself. The people of Syngra would have showered her with treasures and riches if she'd had a mind to take up residence there. She wove threads in a way Helkryvt had never imagined possible. Her technique was almost inhuman. Yet whenever he spoke of going to such places, she turned him down.
“You could be out there, making a difference,” he told her one morning, trailing her as she made her usual rounds of the settlement.
She glanced over her slim shoulder and favored him with a fleeting smile. “I am here making a difference.”
“Yes,” he continued doggedly, “but out there it would matter.”
“It matters here. Arguably, it matters more.”
“Because they need me.”
And that, it seemed, was the beginning and end of her entire argument. No matter what he said or did, she refused to leave her tribe.
Helkryvt had spoken the truth when he'd said the Araxi valley was better than most of the southern human territories, but Beledine had also struck a chord of truth when she'd said it was too far from civilization. Despite the valley's many merits, it lacked something that Helkryvt needed. The longer he stayed, the more restless he became.
The suns grew short and the world grew cold as winter dug its claws into the land. The gatherers collected stores for the long moons ahead. The hunters had to work harder to find meat to sustain the twenty-odd companions, but in the bountiful mountains they were never forced to range too far.
In the evenings when the Araxi people gathered in the main mountain hall and ate around the fire together, Helkryvt regaled them with tales of his exploits. The tribe had quickly grown to love him, for he'd made himself indispensable with his earthmagic. They listened with baited breath as he painted pictures of staggering cities and fantastic adventures in their minds. He made sure to leave out no tantalizing detail of grandeur—for as much as everyone hung on his words, he was really only speaking to one person.
And she cared not a whit.
“Well?” he asked one evening, catching up to her after she'd extinguished the bonfire and seen everyone to their respective caves. The weather was so cold now that they'd all had to retreat into the mountains to sleep, though they hadn't had to excavate far. Beledine had woven an enchantment across every entrance to the outside world, a spell that kept the bitter frost at bay.
She always played this game with him—she acted innocent, pretending not to know what he was talking about, forcing him to spell everything out . It was infuriating.
“My story earlier, the one about Allentria. I promised you I'd tell it. What did you think?”
“It was exciting,” she replied. “You have a beautiful way with words. The way you speak, it's as if I can see the places you've been. Allentria sounds fascinating. I'd love to go there myself.”
“You have but to say the word. We can leave tonight.”
Beledine's laugh was as delicate and ethereal as chimes in the wind.
“You don't think I'm serious?” Helkryvt asked, smiling to emphasize his point. His smile had worked wonders on women before—a handsome face, he'd found, was better than most lifemagic enchantments in terms of making someone do what you wanted. Beledine, however, seemed immune to his charms.
“I know you're serious. But I can't leave.”
She rolled her amethyst eyes, but he saw the corners of her lips twitch reluctantly as she fought off a grin of her own. “I am chieftain. I cannot abandon my people.”
“Name a new chieftain,” he said dismissively. “Embre, perhaps. He's got a decent head on his shoulders. Or Mota. He can get things done.”
“It isn't that simple, Helkryvt.”
Why did she insist on fighting him? He had never encountered such pushback before. People were usually desperate to please him—when he said jump, they asked how high. As a mage, perhaps Beledine had a misguided idea that she could take him in a real fight if it came to that. She was wrong, of course, but she didn't need to know that.
“It could be that simple,” he argued mulishly. “You don't owe these people anything. You're free to live your own life. I see the spark in you, Beledine—the same spark lives in my heart. You want adventure. You want to see the world. You want to be part of something greater than yourself.”
“Right on all counts but one,” she returned, breezing around a corner and wielding vitality into one of the torches she'd created to illuminate the warren of passageways.
“I owe these people everything.”
It was Helkryvt's turn to roll his eyes. Beledine saw, and she was not pleased.
“You spoke of lofty ideals when you first joined. You wanted to make this tribe great. You wanted to turn our valley into the best city in the world.”
“I did,” he agreed. He left unspoken the sentiment that had been growing and festering inside him: But now that I know these people, I know they cannot be great.
She seemed to sense what he was thinking. They paused just before they reached the entrance cavern, stopping in a shadowed alcove, and she turned to face him fully.
“We both want adventure, but our definition of adventure is quite different. You enjoy conflict. You like danger. You want to be given insurmountable odds, only to prove you can beat them. You desire constant challenges, because for you there are no stakes.”
“You can't tell me you don't like to be challenged,” he said, arching a brow.
“Of course I like challenges. Working to heal Falme's lungs when they have filled with too much liquid—that's a challenge. Scoping out terrain with Kibar and Badger, finding places to build when the world thaws—that's an adventure. Tutoring my tribesmen in the arts of weaving spells—that makes me feel I've accomplished something. I don't need to pick fights and battle demons and rescue damsels in distress to prove my worth.”
She had touched upon a nerve. A slow burn began to simmer in Helkryvt's gut. He crossed his arms, digging his nails into his biceps to keep himself from throttling her for her insolence.
“If you were my woman,” he growled, “I would never allow you to speak to me in such a way.”
“Even if I were your woman, I'd still be your chieftain,” she retorted. “And I will put you in your place when you are ignorant.”
Helkryvt barked an incredulous laugh. Ignorant? She dared call him ignorant, he who'd taught himself to speak four languages flawlessly and read two?
Seeing his visible upset, Beledine relented. She reached out and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I didn't mean to make light of your accomplishments. You are a great wielder. Without you here, I don't know what I'd have done. You've wielded wonders for us. You have helped me beyond measure.”
“I've done nothing to help you,” he said, and it was true. He had shadowed her every move since the moment he'd arrived, looking for an opportunity to swoop in and be the hero as he had done so many times before. But Beledine needed no hero. Everything she desired, she procured on her own. Every obstacle in her path, she figured out the perfect solution. Why would she have need of him when she was, in essence, his equal?
“You have helped my people,” she clarified. “And that is the best way you can help me.”
There were many things Helkryvt could have said, but they all sounded churlish and petulant when he auditioned them in his mind. How was she always able to turn the tables on him? He'd been furious enough to attack her mere moments ago—now he felt ashamed of his outburst. She never apologized for anything, but somehow she spun her words in such a way that they left Helkryvt feeling . . . something. Accomplished? Fulfilled? Happy?
He doubted it was the last one. Even on his most thrilling adventures, happiness managed to elude him. It was, perhaps, the thing he strove for: the sunset on his horizon, the beacon in his endless night. But if he hadn't been happy sculpting cities and defeating dragons, he knew he couldn't possibly be happy in a settlement of twenty misfit weaklings, hidden away in the remotest corner of the world.
“You said I desired challenges because for me, there are no stakes,” he began. “What did you mean by that?”
He didn't know why he was circling back to this point. Something about it needled at him. He sensed there was an unknown fragment of his personality buried in the answer—and if there was one thing Helkryvt desired above all else, it was answers. Truth was the most powerful thing in the world. Truth was knowledge, after all, and knowledge was power.
Beledine smiled again. There was a strange shine in her eyes, a cross between regret and something he couldn't identify. He prided himself on reading people, but he couldn't get a handle on her. She was alien, mystifying. Frankly, it was unsettling.
“I shouldn't have said that,” she admitted. “I didn't mean it.”
“I don't even know what you intended to mean. I want you to explain it to me. Please,” he added, when he saw the much more familiar emotion of irritation playing across her fine brows.
“For you, nothing is enough. You need big, exciting things in life. You're always hoping you'll find that which you seek. When you don't, you move on to the next thing—the next city, the next adventure, the next thrill. You can pick yourself up, leave everything and everyone you know, and move on without a second thought. You can risk everything, because you have nothing to risk.”
Helkryvt wanted to scream at her, but her words had paralyzed him. Why was he angry, when everything she said was true?
“I am fully aware we can't give you what you seek,” she admitted, casting her eyes down to the smooth stone floor. “We are a small tribe, and we are still healing. Skyrel's death took a toll on us all. We have lost much.”
“You gained me,” he pointed out.
“But I cannot keep you here.” She let her hand drop from his shoulder, and suddenly it seemed the winter wind had crept through her spell and seeped into the caves, latching onto Helkryvt. “You're also free to live your own life, and I would never stand in the way of the things you want. You came to us when we needed you, and you've done what you would have done in any of your grand cities: you saved us. I know you don't see it, but it's true.”
She had rendered him speechless. Before he'd come here, he had always known exactly what to say—now, more and more, he was finding himself at a loss when he verbally sparred with Beledine. How had she gotten under his skin so quickly? Why did she rattle him so?
“Now that you've accomplished your aim,” she continued, “I can't imagine you'd want to stay much longer. You've been asking to leave for quite some time. I just haven't listened, because it wasn't something I wanted to hear.”
“I haven't asked to leave once,” he countered.
“You asked me just a few moments ago.”
“That's different.” But he couldn't tell her why it was different. He wanted to leave, and at the same time, he didn't. He wanted . . .
I have no idea what I want, he realized, feeling something deflate inside him. He sagged as the concept crushed him. Everything he thought he knew about himself and everything Beledine had brought to light came crashing together in a whirlwind.
How was it possible? He had always been the man with all the answers. Why was he now beginning to question himself? His motives? His needs? Why was Beledine Arowey so easily able to unravel him, when he was supposed to have been the one to unravel her?
There she stood, back straight and eyes clear, defiantly independent and unrepentantly right.
Helkryvt found he was angry with her again.
“I will not stop you if you leave,” she finished softly. “My people would miss you, but we would survive. You need to roam the world and make a difference in it. So go.”
She nodded to the entrance cavern. Warm torches blazed in intervals along the walls, and the cold night yawned beyond the arched opening. He could just see the lake glittering through the trees. The wild stirred, whispering promises of things to come—the next thrill, as Beledine had said.
For the first time in his life, Helkryvt didn't heed the call.
Then a pale, ghostly shape broke the sable stillness. Bat-like wings whipped dust eddies up at the cavern door, and a powerful tail swayed to balance its owner, rustling the dry brush. In the silence of the night, the crackling sounds were deafening.
Beledine nodded to Helkryvt, then swept out to meet her dragon.
Helkryvt let her go, watching from his shadowed place as she joined Ghokarian. The beast bent his head to hers, touching his snout to her brow. She lifted her hands and cupped his strong, reptilian face. They smiled at each other, and though they spoke no words aloud, it was obvious they were communicating.
Ghokarian crouched and Beledine leapt onto his back, settling in a place that seemed like it had been sculpted into his skeleton just for her benefit. Then, with one more mighty wingbeat, he was aloft again.
Once the dragon was gone, Helkryvt dared to exit. The cold slapped him as soon as he crossed the threshold of the cave, passing through Beledine's enchantment. He squinted up through the darkness and caught the glimmering shape of dragon and rheenar carving through the low-hanging clouds. This was part of their nightly routine, doing a pass around the settlement to make sure all was well.
Helkryvt was a mage of unparalleled skill. He was smarter than any pompous city scholar. He was clever enough to understand the quantum-magical laws of the universe, yet this girlchild baffled him.
She was stubborn, obstinate, trying, and impertinent. She clung to her pathetic, broken tribe for no good reason. She was bonded, yet all her choices seemed to stem from a place of irrationality. The things she said were wise; the things she did were anything but. She was incorrigible. She argued with everything he said. She was a thorn in his side, a thorn that had lodged deep, a thorn he couldn't extricate no matter how hard he tried. In fact, the more he tried, the deeper she dug.
She wasn't an obstacle. She was a challenge.
Perhaps that explained why he had fallen so madly in love with her.