Southern Corruth was very pretty country, with all the blue-grey shadows of hills and the shadow-shadows of still more distant mountains. But it certainly left an ache in the bones. Underneath the pleasant folds of gold drygrass and the wild tramples of gumtrees over the ridges, the heavy suck of iron in stone made the Flow gurgle and vomit in the air.
All the year-shifters were unhappy about being here, needless to say. That didn't stop them saying it. Cochalyon was getting a bit fed up with all the complaints, particularly as very few of them seemed to acknowledge that his
stomach was churning and his
wings were seething just as much.
can't we just fly on and rendezvous further ahead?" Espayon gnarled on the morning of the second day, waist-deep in water. The full column had stopped beside a creek for a rest, and the entire year-shifter contingent had promptly immersed themselves and their throbbing limbs. "There's no danger to us flying fast and low. No, I'll tell you why it is - it's for their
Cochalyon was, of course, of exactly the same opinion. Earlier this morning he'd asked Espayon to say something to the effect, in fact.
"Stop grousing," was his actual reply. He stopped to duck his head under the water, wiping the trails of wet hair out of his face. The sooner the Flow started to thin for autumn, the better. "If there's too much more iron in the vicinity, we could just as easily get confused and fly off any old direction. We're better off on the ground, for now."
"Gah!" Espayon slapped at the creekwater, then flurried it up into an angry froth with his summer-bronzed wings. "Listen, featherless, wipe off those smirks before I do it for you."
The near knot of six moon fae on the bank made little effort to hide their rare smiles. Entertainment was, after all, hard to come by on the march. Cochalyon just hoped they wouldn't actually laugh
at Espayon, because then there really would be some smile-wiping.
"You," said Espayon, pointing a finger. "Bones-for-legs. How much longer until the rock's wholesome again?"
"Three days?" The child-shaped fae addressed gave a light shrug and a boyish grin. Only his eyes stayed old and war-sharped. "Four? It's hard to say."
"Harder without teeth," threatened Espayon, sinking under the water's surface.
Cochalyon sighed, feeling the unpleasant chaos-current of the Flow more strongly than the pull of the water. The Flow should be more like
the water, steady and even and strong, swirling gracefully with - or through - the contours of the landscape on its own intricate laws of motion.
Three or four days, was it? There'd been nothing like that
said to him before. He couldn't guarantee it wouldn't become longer, either, in the event of a sudden battle or a change of tactics. They'd have left already if they'd known this country ... but they didn't. She was clever like that, Yurahaina.
He didn't think she'd risk their lives, though. 'Careless' was not a description he'd ever applied to her in his mind.
Espayon breached the creek's surface again, the water rolling down off his shoulders and showering from his unclenched wings. "I'm starving. Yurahaina needn't think I'll spend any energy throwing off ironbloods for her until we're well out of this."
"That's not very charitable," Cochalyon replied, benign. "We won't sit out a fight unless we really have to."
He didn't say 'we won't sit out a fight'. He didn't plan to say it any of the other times he'd have Espayon raise the issue, either. Being taken advantage of from time to time was fine - it was a way to keep score, really - but being exploited outright called for firm correction. Yurahaina presumed too much.
Still thoughtful, Cochalyon took his own turn to duck again under the water's surface. It was shady and cool down below, smudged with the paler, submerged shapes of his people, but it still wasn't an escape. The Flow sucked and whorled around him, around his wings, churning and rebounding in iron's proximity. He could be grateful, at least, that they weren't facing the overpowering tides of spring.
He stayed under for a while. The weeds on the bottom waved filigree fingers at him, and the loose tendrils of his hair waved back. Finally, he stood up again, happier to feel the receeding slide of the water over his skin than the Flow.
As the quiet, hoarse water-sigh drained from his ears, he emerged halfway into a conversation.
"- make you feel better," a soprano child-voice said.
Espayon's grunt brought him nicely up to speed. "We're stopping on the march to celebrate Midsummer Night?
"Of course! A war's not a reason to stop celebrating, feathers. It's a reason to celebrate harder."
"Because the fighting's that much fun, is it?"
The soprano voice on the bank turned sour. "No, ironbreaker," it said witheringly. "Because there's more of a chance you won't get to celebrate again. Hell-in-iron, what rainshower did you come down in? You must just love living in Never-Die Land over the sea, eh?"
It was supposed to be a shade derogatory, but it made Cochalyon smile. Yes,
he thought, indulging in a bit of homesickness for the quiet safety of his country. He hadn't realised Midsummer Night was so close. Mithyaron Midsummer was like the stars coming to nest in the trees, a whole celestial spray of festive illumina.
His brother was going to have to bear Father's megalomaniacal organising alone this year, too. Cochalyon cackled evilly at the thought, and aloud.
"What's funny?" asked Espayon in a sour voice. "Midsummer's going to be just one long, blurry headache this year."
"No, not this year," Cochalyon replied. "Father's back in Mithyaron, remember?"
Espayon snorted on a slightly treasonous chuckle at the description of his king, but still appeared little mollified. "It's not safe. Not safe and not even worth it. All we'll be doing is stopping for a half-baked pause to think how we could all really
"It's safe enough," said the same moon fae lazily. "Only little ironblood towns near here. They wouldn't dare come out to play."
Espayon grunted, ever the optimist, and ducked under the creekwater again.
When the column stopped, it was spread out across three neighbouring hills, covering every space not already filled with hairy jarrah-trees. The great dragon, Spathcora, took up another, rockier hill on its watch, and its huge, sea-green eyes blazed as brightly in the background as any of the illumina the moon fae started to sing up around them.
Cochalyon and all his year-shifters sat on the highest hill with Yurahaina and her household, settled on the leafy ground or up in the trees. The place had been chosen carefully, he acknowledged. Nothing could remove the unsettling churn of the Flow in this iron country, but the hill itself was a high piling of shale; the discomfort and pain up here were less.
Illumina were still being sung across the ground, through the air and into the trees; fine cerulean lines split and twined with summer-sky tones over branches, pouring down in strands, and sprays of darker azure clung to the leaves amongst ambient clouds of white. The moon fae seemed to prefer white and silver lights, and all those myriad shades of blue.
Hard-hide Amira, disconcertingly innocent and cherub-faced at this phase of the moon, had sung up a corruscating silver globe over her mother's head, an approximation of the moon. They seemed to treat it as more of a joke than an affectation, though.
It would be strange to sometimes see your mother in a child's shape,
thought Cochalyon, idly singing a few slithering lights of gold and white over the leaf-litter. He paused, then sang a few more out to bob like fireflies in the air, trying to outdo Tathrinnas. Her hair was one gaudy net of spangled light by now.
Yurahaina, sitting crosslegged while her daughter Lacrallame wrapped her shoulders in winglike swirls of silver, looked at Cochalyon with half a smile. "A bit subpar, really," her clear voice piped.
"Oh, we'll be merry enough," he assured her.
Her deceptive child-face smiled girlishly. "I was talking about your illumina."
"Queen of Inyaron!" exclaimed Tathrinnas, star-crowned herself, and flared back her wings. Her raised voice startled a cloud of Cochalyon's firefly-lights away. "I respect you greatly, but you shall not speak slander of my prince in my hearing!"
Yurahaina pointed a small finger at one flittering spark. "What colour would you call that?"
"Um. Orange ... orangey ... orangey-yellow...-y?"
"Don't go challenging me
to the first illumina contest of the night," warned Cochalyon.
Yurahaina tipped her head. "Why not?"
"Because I'll sulk," he replied. "I do that when I lose."
"So I've noticed."
The reference was obvious ... to certain attentive listeners.
Cochalyon sat a little straighter, laughing on the inside. He'd called a truce on the real game, just in case she'd wanted rest for the celebrations, but she clearly found it as much fun as he did.
This wasn't a bad Midsummer at all. He was still surrounded by people he cared for - more than I should,
he thought, but without regret - and he still had someone to wrangle goodnaturedly with, an easy match for his brother. And there were still the lights.
All that was really missing was food and a fatherly headache, and the iron-pain was close enough.
"Are you sure the ironbloods won't cause trouble for us here?" Espayon was asking one of the generals now, restless, but it was Amira who answered.
"All other obvious factors ignored, the ironbloods celebrate Midsummer as well," she replied, braiding light into her dark hair. It was strange to see the severe woman at such play. "Indoors, though."
"Yes. The Truce-by-Wattle was concluded on a Midsummer Night."
"Even the most rabid man of iron would think twice about going outdoors on our night," added General Saryan. "Indoors is theirs, outdoors is ours, and we leave each other alone."
"Be nice if that were how things usually went," Cochalyon remarked.
A few of the moon fae had very hard, adult smiles on their juvenescent faces.
"It probably would be if humans had oaths," said Amira first. "Hah, no-one would ever have sworn the Truce-by-Wattle if they'd realised humans don't have oaths."
"I thought they did."
"No, not real ones. The words don't bind them. They're free to do as they please."
"Not if we can help it," Amira replied, and a short laugh went up amongst the generals and the Queen's children.
Cochalyon sat quiet for a while and watched Tathrinnas fussily start to net Espayon's wings with brilliant webs of green light. She always did go completely overboard.
On the next hill, laughter and soaring voices rose, and so did a sudden shower of silver light.
has started the illumina fight," observed Yurahaina, smiling as she looked down through the trees. "A pity the soldiery have to show us up."
"I always prefer the more dignified traditions," Cochalyon said with gravity. "It's not princely to sparkle too
much. Perhaps you'd care for one of those other Midsummer games instead, Yurahaina?"
She laughed in leaping girl-bubbles. "I can easily guess the one that appeals most to you
, Cochalyon. By all means, let us play ... but I trust you'll not sulk if you lose?"
"I couldn't really say, Yurahaina," he replied with an innocent smile. "I never have."
Yurahaina laughed again as she reached for the corruscating globe over her head, singing it a sketchy form and shape. Then she threw it like a ball for Cochalyon to catch. "You may start, then."
The ball winked and gleamed up at his face as he held it and pondered a moment, shifting thoughts and voice into the standard metre. There were memories in those old patterns - warm nights, rippling lights.
This was going to be fun.
"Yurahaina, heart and soul of Inyaron!
Summer-glows gleam in the trees
But yours dismisses them with ease!"
"Conventional, but pretty enough," said Lacrallame at her mother's back, grinning faintly as they all were. It was rather pleasant to see them with less formal carriage.
"It's not good form to show off from the start," Cochalyon replied with a smirk, throwing the bright globe back to Yurahaina. She caught it in her pale child-hands and held it a moment, as he had.
"Hail, Cochalyon, prince and son of Mithyaron!
Your birth-song proved a mighty spell -
Cochalyon and his voice as well!"
The moon fae - and a few treacherous year-shifters - grinned more archly this time. So she was already getting clever, was she?
"Oh," said Tathrinnas airily, loyal to the bone, "don't moon fae have the no repetition
Yurahaina laughed out loud again, those airy child-bubbles, and threw the ball back.
Cochalyon already had his answer ready, but made sure it was a more oblique
parry. One had to hit one's stride first.
"Yurahaina, light to shame the silver moon!
No sculpture's face was fairer wrought -
Nor hid more closely all it thought."
"That's a compliment
here," pointed out Amira.
"Well, of course," Cochalyon laughed, throwing back the ball. "I couldn't throw back a gibe after your mother's lovely compliment, could I?"
The heckling - as much a tradition as the cross-flung verse itself - went on cheerfully for a little while between the other moon fae and year-shifters, but quieted quickly for Yurahaina's voice:
"Bright Cochalyon, fairest guest from over-wave!
My hands a thousand spears have flung
None sharper than your mind - or tongue."
He laughed at that and found his answer almost immediately, waiting only to feel the smooth light-stuff of the ball in his hands:
"Yurahaina, queenly daughter of a queen!
Could such doll's hands a spear employ?
They want not weapons, but a toy!"
The moon fae sucked in disapproving (but appreciative) breaths through their teeth. The year-shifters whooped and cackled, and Espayon gave General Saryan's hair an obnoxious old-uncle ruffle.
Yurahaina was smiling as she looked out from behind the ball at him, her sky-blue eyes sketching out the lines of his face and form. Soon she sang her reply:
"Bold Cochalyon, farer through the vaults of sky!
My want of age I grant, though loth,
But greater still is yours for cloth."
He snorted and grandly spread his wings as the ball flew back.
"Yurahaina, star-eyed wonder of your court!
I tell you plain what each here sees:
I need no clothes for limbs like these!"
He swept a hand down his front with a flourish, guiding eyes from shoulder to waist as the laughter began - from the moon fae as well. Tathrinnas sent another one of her excessive illumina orbiting around him for extra emphasis.
Yurahaina listened to the general mirth a moment, her own confined to her eyes, and then spoke up again with a sly wring of her lips.
"Fair Cochalyon, feather-mantled season-lord!
Full manly is your sun-gilt chest
Yet we give thanks you hide the rest."
The hilltop promptly erupted with moon fae delight. A few year-shifters chuckled along, as did Cochalyon, though he doubted that all his retinue fully understood why the moon fae found it funny. Even now, they still weren't entirely
clear on what made it necessary to wear pants in Inyaron.
"Yurahaina, ruler of a noble race!
Your every word is ably said
But should not children be in bed?"
She arched a brow, clearly ready even before the ball came back to her, and countered:
"Sweet Cochalyon, friend to all in every land!
The hour is late indeed, I see;
You've no fresh barbs to cast at me!"
"That's five calls each," Amira declared. "Who should we let cast the vote?"
Cochalyon waved a hand. "Five calls? You stop at five?"
"I daresay a year-shifter contest would be far
longer," said Yurahaina wryly, "but we've also a war to wage."
"It'll be a bad omen if you can't defeat me in a contest first," he replied, smiling wide-eyed.
"Oh, I thought I already had," she returned.
"It was a nice enough finish you had, true, but your start was ... well, you know."
Tathrinnas gave a little snort. "We settle at five," she interrupted firmly. "Definitely
five. Mithyaron tradition is to carry on until someone concedes, and quite frankly I can't see that happening."
Cochalyon drooped a little. The contest had just been getting interesting.
"It just doesn't feel like a real win," he sighed.
"There is a reason for that," said Yurahaina.
Tathrinnas and Amira both shared a rather uppity glance, Cochalyon felt.
"Let's skip the vote," Amira said. "It's a draw. One war is enough."