I closed the doors of the temple firmly, barred them, and then walked back toward the altar and knelt before it, deep in thought. Every bit of instruction I had ever received was warning me against this, but it was beginning to look as if I had no choice.
At last I rose, unable to justify any further delay, and retrieved the chalk and candles from the supply closet. I spoke a prayer in the Old Tongue, slowly and rhythmically, while I traced out the relatively simple summoning pattern on the floor of the temple. Lighting the candles, I then returned to the altar, knelt, concluded the prayer, and waited. There was a low humming sound, a flash of red light, and then...
"Raven, my child! This is a pleasant surprise."
I bowed a bit lower. "You honor me with your presence, my Lady."
"You are most welcome, my child. It pleases me to see these sacred chambers once again." I felt a ripple in the Keep's aura just then, as though Kyia were nodding in acknowledgment to the goddess. "But come now, look upon me and name your desire."
Obediently I lifted up my head and gazed upon the Goddess of Love. She was, of course, beautiful -- beautiful far beyond my poor means to describe. Her long golden tresses fell like waves over her shoulders, shimmering with a light that seemed to come from within. Her eyes, which on this occasion were a profoundly rich, deep blue, radiated joy, but behind that front there was a kind of subtle, questioning expression.
I clenched and unclenched my hands, feeling more nervous and unsure of myself than I had in a long time. "My Lady ... I would beg a favor of you. You know Charles the Wanderer, of course."
She smiled and nodded. "His apologies have not gone unheeded in the divine court," she said. "Though she once claimed a grievance against him, my cousin Artela has now seen fit to spread word of his repentance to all the Heavens." Her eyes sparkled. "It is fitting enough, considering she is the Lady of Mercy."
"It comforts me to hear that," I said, smiling a little. "But be that as it may, he seems unable to accept the mercy that is offered to him." I looked down, shaking my head. "I don't understand it, but he seems not to believe that I have forgiven him -- that I love him. It may be that he cannot believe by words alone." I looked up again, tears beginning to brim up in my eyes again. "And so, my Lady, I come to you. You know the truth of hearts ... and you can reveal it to others."
At once Velena's expression turned grave. "You wish for me to perform the Communion between you?"
"Aye, my Lady," I said, unconsciously lowering my gaze. "I know that you prefer to exact your ... recompense ... through long and faithful service rather than a momentary sacrifice. I only pray that my efforts at faithful love in these past weeks are cause enough for you to overlook my years of neglect."
"Forget the recompense," Velena said. I heard the rustle of silk, and then saw her hand touch my cheek. Even through the fur, I felt a wave of power wash over me. Looking up, I saw that she was kneeling before me atop the altar, eyes full of concern. "This is a grim choice for you, Raven. I would gladly offer this boon to one such as you, but you know the dire consequences that could result. Charles will see your present love for him, aye, but he will also see every last shadow of darkness within your soul. What is more, you shall see all the dark and painful things in his own soul that he has sought to hide from you, not least of all for your own sake. For many, such a revelation is more than they can bear. I beg you, do not make this request lightly."
"I do not," I said, shaking my head slightly. "I know the danger. But if I cannot put Wand'rer's heart at rest I fear he shall go mad. I could not bear that, nor can I bear for him to remain as he is, steeped in guilt and pain. I must do this -- even if it should cause him to hate me," I added softly, looking down yet again.
I heard her rise again. "Very well," she said. "I shall do as you ask. For his sake, though, I would ask that you obtain his consent before performing the ceremony. I have granted this boon in times past without the consent of the beloved, when the supplicants could not approach them, but the purpose in this case is rather different from most. I am sure you understand."
"Of course, my Lady. And thank you."
The low humming sound came again, and Velena dissolved into light and vanished. I rose, took nine steps back from the altar, and then turned and opened the left door again. Wanderer was still lying outside, curled up on the far side of the hallway, and when I opened the door his ears perked up and he gazed at me questioningly.
"The Lady Velena has agreed to help us," I said. "Since the offense you seek to repay was one made against love, it is for love that you shall make your sacrifice."
*And what sacrifice is that, my lady?* he asked, looking almost eager. "Honesty," I said. "There exists a ceremony, seldom performed, whereby two souls may enter into a state of Communion. When this occurs, all of one's thoughts, emotions, and memories -- one's whole being -- is exposed to the other, and vice versa. No shadow of darkness or glimmer of light shall remain hidden." I clasped my hands before me. "Your offenses were steeped in lies -- and, in a way, so were mine, as I hid from you the feelings my heart longed to express. If you consent, this Communion will bring the truth fully to light, and neither of us shall be able to hide any longer."
He looked at me for a long moment in thoughtful silence. Then, resolutely, he rose to his feet and approached me.
*Show me what I must do,* he said.
The next several minutes were a blur, as I laid out the intricate lines of power for the Communion ceremony. I was beyond thinking on it -- the decision had been made, and I simply fell back on my training, drawing the circles and placing the candles from memory while my mind floated in a nervous haze. At last he and I stood facing each other and I drew Elemacil from its sheath. I sighed, shaking my head as if to clear it from the shadowy fears that clawed at the corners of my mind.
"In all my life, I did never expect to perform this rite," I said, staring hollowly at the stones before me. "Cautionary tales of it have been told within the Order for centuries. It has left supplicants broken in mind and spirit, shattered hundreds of lives. Nevertheless, I believe it is the only hope now for either of us." I looked up at him, feeling a new and sudden wave of fear wash over me. What would he think when he saw me from within? Would he embrace the fact that I truly loved him?
Or would he turn away in revulsion at the darkness I had kept hidden for so long?
"I must ask you again, Charles, if you will consent to this," I said, my voice feeling hoarse. "The trust I ask is great, but it is no less than I offer of myself."
The wolf nodded resolutely. "I told you I would pay any price, Raven. This scarce seems judgment enough."
My heart ached at the irony of his ignorant words. So many souls had been crushed in this rite... "I should wait until after the ceremony to judge that, were I you," I said. "Very well. It begins."
I recited the invocation from memory, scarcely even hearing my own words. Forcing back my fear of the consequences, I stretched out my hand and drew my sword across its palm. The circle flared as my blood bonded with its enchantments. Wanderer lay down and bit his own paw, likewise adding his essence to the spell. There was another flash of light, and then I felt my consciousness being drawn out of my body, as in the Light Healing. But as my mind spun down and to the left, spiraling into Charles's mind, I felt another shaft of consciousness pass by my own, reaching up from the wolf and into my own body.
There was a sudden, churning sensation, as I felt my soul being peeled apart like the layers of an onion. Wanderer's mind was driven deep inside my own, and I felt a wave of vulnerability like nothing I had ever experienced as my deepest thoughts and memories were laid bare before him. I wanted to recoil in fear, to raise up a wall that would shield me from that questing, probing tendril of thought, but I was utterly powerless to do so. The ceremony had completely nullified my defenses, and I was open -- helpless -- before the wolf's gaze.
Before I could think on it long, however, I felt my own mind being driven into the wolf's, bypassing the plane of conscious thought to bury itself deep in the dark recesses of his memories and emotions. A cascade of alien thoughts washed over me, and then... And then...
At last, and truly, I knew him.
Charles Carter, the son of a man as strong and burly as his appellation implied. A child who, inexplicably -- unlike his cousins, certainly unlike his father -- had been small and spindly, a boy more interested in books and music than the hard labor and keen craftsmanship that defined him. I saw a boy trapped in a family where none understood him, whose mother had died in giving him birth.
The boy was told that his mother had gone away. My heart was torn by the sense of rejection he felt at those words. His mother had not wanted him. She had gone away, left him ... alone...
Finding his one and only son to be of no use to him in shop or field, the cartwright sent him to school. His reception among the children there was not much better than among his own kin -- the children, being children and, what was more, largely the children of nobility, were cruel to the small, bookish child. Though many of them were in little better health than he, they at least were of noble blood, while he was but the son of an admittedly successful merchant. Having been well-trained by observing their parents, they treated him with the contempt those of his station deserved.
All except one.
She came into his life like a deva from the Ninth Heaven. Beautiful, kind, and compassionate -- she was the daughter of a Lightbringer priest, and she floated among the spawn of the nobility like a butterfly among roaches. Young Charles never understood why she had chosen him as a friend, but even the sight of her smile caused his spirits to soar. In those brief moments, he felt as though he could walk among the clouds.
But that friendship was not fated to last. She was too high above him, as inaccessible as Velena herself. As much as she lifted his spirit, when the butterfly departed he felt all the more like a common grub. She left one day to pursue her calling as a priestess, and he never saw her again.
Yet the boy had learned one lesson in school, other than cruelty. While his classmates spurned him and his father found him incomprehensible, his teachers came to adore him. The boy soon learned that gaining their favor was the easiest thing in the world; all he needed was a little poem well-recited, a song well-sung, a speech well-given, and they showered him with praise for his cleverness and skill. I shared in his surge of pride each time a performance earned him the accolades of his audience. I saw his epiphany, the underlying chord of realization that his teachers struck with each measure of well-earned praise: *People like me when I talk. When I recite, when I speak, when I sing, I am accepted. I am praised. When I talk, I am loved.*
Inwardly, I shuddered at the ominous message in those thoughts.
The memories rushed on, and young Charles's skill in performance grew ever sharper, driven on by his subconscious belief that this was how he would gain recognition and approval. In addition to recitation, he expanded his skill to playing and composing, taking to the lute like a bird to the skies. But while he grew ever more to be the darling of his tutors, the contempt of the other children turned to something even uglier: jealousy. They saw the praise heaped on the cartwright's son by their teachers, and they hated him for it all the more. Their jibes and taunting turned to curses and slaps in the face, carefully orchestrated so that the instructors would never see. Charles, a merchant child in the midst of a sea of noble brats, could do nothing but cower under their words and blows, fearful of what would happen should he strike the son of a baron or a magistrate. But while outwardly he submitted to their abuse, inside a fire was building -- and every foul word was a pump of the bellows, every petty injury a stoking of the coals. One day, inevitably, that hateful fire broke loose.
I winced and shuddered as I watched Charles turn suddenly on his arrogant, fat little oppressors, striking out with the ferocity that would one day earn him the title of Lovell, the Wolf. With a strength and fury that belied his stature -- somewhat improved from his early years, but still rather slight -- he beat two of the wretches senseless in the town commons with a fallen tree branch. That episode might have been the death of him, if not for the sudden intervention of the local Lightbringer -- indeed, the very priest whose daughter had befriended him years before. Quietly, begrudgingly, the nobles dropped their case against the boy, and Charles was allowed to return to the school. From then on the other children kept a wary distance from Charles the Wolf.
Time marched on and Charles became a man, but he never succeeded either in gaining the acceptance of his peers nor, truly, the approval of his father. There was always the quiet sense about the old cartwright that his son should have been a craftsman, a "real" man -- and that subtle insult grated on Charles and kept alive the angry flame burning in his heart. With his violent estrangement from the nobility, Charles had even lost much of his teachers' praise, as they feared to give public acclaim to one whom the lords and ladies saw as a criminal. Upon graduating, with nothing further to tie him to his home town, the young man took his lute, packed his bags, and struck out for wherever the road may take him.
That road took him many places, both high and humble, and in most of them he was well- received. With a song, a poem, a bit of lore shared before a pub's hearth, Charles could garner a meal, a night's rest in a warm bed, a bath, even a few coppers and silvers ... or more, if the audience was wealthy. I followed the young bard on a whirlwind through Elvquelin, Ellcaran, Giftum, and countless smaller cities and towns besides, as he plied his "wit and wind" all around the Sea of Stars. Some folk saw him as a rogue and a troublemaker, reviling him and even locking him away in jail on the flimsiest of pretenses, but there were far more who embraced the bard for the entertainment he had to offer. For every hard spot that his fiery temper drew him into, his eloquent tongue eventually got him out again. And every step of the way, with each new performance, Charles the Wanderer became more and more convinced that his talent was the key to acceptance.
No, it was more than that. He was his talent. He had no identity apart from his skills. If he had nothing to offer -- no song or rhyme or jest or fable to capture the hearts of his audience -- then he would be given nothing. He would be nothing. He was a slave to his giftings -- and when I realized that, I wept, for I knew what lay ahead.
The Wanderer continued on his lonely road, moving on to the next town when he wore out his welcome in the present one. Sometimes he would find himself among those with no use for a bard, and he hired himself out as a scribe, a messenger, even (as unlikely as it once would have seemed) a warrior -- anything to keep his belly full and clothes on his back. He looked for opportunities for steady work, but none presented themselves; Metamor, the greatest patron of the arts in all the West, already had a court poet who served them well, and had no need for another. The other lands whose nobles supported artists all said much the same. Court entertainer was, unfortunately, one of those posts that one was often born into. And so Charles wandered.
The bard's fortunes took a sudden turn in the aftermath of Nasoj's invasion. Word swiftly reached him that the court poet of Metamor had perished in the attack, leaving no heirs. Here, at last, was the opportunity he had hoped and prayed for. Ignoring the fearful and outlandish tales of the peasants about some sort of Curse, Charles made his way north, working once again as a scribe to pay for the cost of passage.
Through the Wanderer's eyes, I saw the strange fate that had befallen the people of Metamor Valley -- and yet, in spite of the all-too-reasonable fear he felt when he first laid eyes on us, the opportunity for a steady income and a stable home was too much to pass up. I relived the bard's confrontation with Jack that had been talked of so often in the years since, and felt for the first time the intense anger that had flared up in Wanderer's breast when the castellan questioned his courage. The heat of that rage ... gods, I had never imagined...
In spite of his temper Charles found a place here among us, quickly accepting his new form ... once he had learned how to play with his new paws, of course. I watched as he quickly bent his "wind and wit" to the making of friends: Fox Cutter, Christopher... And myself.
Seeing it from his side, I could not help but wince anew at the way I treated him. He was taken with me almost at first sight, and pursued me with a tenacity that I now found amazing to see. He bent all of his skills to the task, using music and poetry and eloquent tongue in equal portions in an effort to...
To prove himself worthy of me.
Gods, was that what he thought love was? An unending mission to show himself loyal, valuable ... useful?
As much as it repelled me, I realized it was the truth as soon as the thought came to me. His whole life had been one long attempt to prove his value, to persuade people by words and notes that he was someone worth keeping around. He had left his father's house, but the cartwright's values still hung over him like a spectre -- a spectre that demanded, above all, that he be useful.
And so he continued doggedly (inwardly I groaned at the pun) to show me that he was, after his own fashion, useful. Every gift, every kind word, every poem written in my honor was, to him, the worship of a private goddess who would banish him from her presence if he ceased to bring his offerings.
Unfortunately, that was essentially what I had done. I felt his sorrow and desperation as I withdrew from him, hardening my heart in an effort to pursue my work without its distractions. I saw the nights he spent awake in his room, pacing back and forth among the clutter, feverishly trying to think of some way to win back into my good graces. But I offered him few opportunities, and eventually he began to despair of my ever being more than a friend.
There was something else I noticed in those memories, as well -- something not immediately obvious, but full of portent. Since he had come to Metamor Wanderer had remained faithful in his worship of all the gods but one: Artela, the Goddess of the Wild. I felt an undercurrent of fear that ran through him every time her name was mentioned, for he associated her with that wolfish nature in himself that he feared so greatly to unleash. In all the years since the Curse befell him, the bard had never once taken on the full shape of a wolf, never experienced the wildness that his own heart called him to. His hands and his voice were everything to him, and the thought of taking on a form that had neither was nothing less than terrifying; and so he avoided it, and with it the goddess whom he in some measure blamed for his wolfish impulses. It was, I realized, the seed of the grievance that had eventually developed over him between Artela and Velena.
Perhaps in part because I had cut myself off from him, Wanderer directed himself more energetically into his friendships with others, especially Chris. The two of them shared a love of words and knowledge that knit them together like no friend the bard had ever known, and every hour they spent together was like salve on the wounds I had unwittingly rubbed raw. The bear, at least, was someone who still found his skills valuable...
Given the bond that developed between them -- and the way that I had increasingly isolated myself -- Wanderer's response to Christopher's paralysis should have been obvious. I shared in his pain as he literally worried himself sick over his friend's plight. With a slowly building sense of desperation, the wolfish bard sought out one avenue after another in an effort to make Chris well. He spent hours poring over dusty books in the library, looking for some course of action he could take to help his ailing pack-mate. And there, at last, when he was nearly at his wit's end, he saw it: Akkala would, on occasion, allow a third party to bear the cost of a healing...
Wanderer seemed almost overjoyed at that discovery. Quickly he began putting his plan into motion, pressing me insistently to allow him to take the geas so that Chris could be well. I resisted, telling him that Chris had already become dangerously entangled in the affairs of the divine court and had decided that he wanted nothing more to do with them. All of that was true, but Wanderer ignored it, feeling certain that this was the way Chris would be freed to walk again. At last I consented, allowing him to seek out the bear and ask for his permission.
Christopher's refusal devastated the bard, sending his already-fragile psyche reeling. What I saw horrified me: Wanderer once again pacing his room, frantic thoughts running through his head: *I am Christopher's friend. Friends help each other. But Chris doesn't want me to help him...*
To Wanderer's mind, conditioned by every experience from childhood until his arrival at Metamor, there were only three possible explanations. Either Chris did not want to walk again; or Chris was not truly his friend; or Chris truly did want to walk again, but was too modest to admit it. The first was quickly stricken from the bard's list as an absurdity. He wondered about the second for a time, but thinking on that possibility brought him so near the brink of madness that he decided he would have to cast it aside, as well. Clinging tightly to the third option, Wanderer pressed forward with his mad plan ... a plan to deceive a goddess.
And, nearly as frightening for him, a plan to deceive his own personal goddess -- me. I stood back and watched, dumbfounded, as he carried out his plot to give Chris back his legs whether he wanted it or not. An actor's mind is truly a frightening thing, for it is capable of holding a lie to be true for as long as it is necessary to do so; and so, with the ease of a theatrical performer, Wanderer came before me and spoke his lines, leading me on with the apparent sincerity in his voice and aura. Not realizing how close he lay to the brink of madness, I believed him and carried out his plan...
And then, abruptly, there was nothing.
After such a long period of deep communion, it was a shock to see his human mind utterly cut off from my perception, vanishing into thin air as the goddess changed him into a wolf entire. Looking back the way I had come, I saw Wanderer's own mind -- here, now -- marveling at my own distress in that dark hour.
Marveling that I had lashed out at him, not for lying to me, but for leaving me alone. I floated there on the edges of Wanderer's mind for what seemed like a long time, watching him watching me, seeing my own life play out through a curious sort of double- vision. Occasionally a flicker of consciousness would emerge from the grey haze of the wolf's mind -- the sight of a full moon, the mourning of the Keepers at the news of the Patriarch's death, the sound of a familiar song -- but it would last for only an instant before sinking back into nothingness. Then, abruptly, Wanderer's memories returned in full, flooded with animalistic rage toward a lutin who had dared to strike me. I shrank back from the sight, startled at the mixture of human and bestial thought as Wanderer's mind had reintegrated itself with his wolfish nature. That battle was won, of course, and the wolf had faithfully guarded me as they brought me back to the temple to recover. At first he seemed joyful to be with me again, and my confession of love that evening seemed to give him hope ... but then, when it seemed that his fully wolfen body was destined to be more than just a temporary condition, his hope had dissolved into torment. There are few experiences as frightening as being immersed in the mind of one who is consumed with self-loathing. Waves of black, ugly emotions beat down upon my mind, angry voices of self-rejection that told Wanderer that he was nothing, he was no one, he was worthless. He had lost his hands and his voice, the only tools he had with which to ply his trade -- the only things that made him useful. Trapped as a wolf, he had nothing to offer anyone. He deserved to be thrown out, like...
I wept as I saw Wanderer torture himself with those terrible emotions. No wonder he had seemed distracted and distant since the battle! He was ashamed to let me see him in his present state, thinking that this time I would do far worse than neglect him. A thousand horrible visions ran through his imagination, images of being driven out into the wilderness by woman he loved, with a crowd of angry Keepers throwing rocks to make sure he kept on running...
Turning away from that sight, I looked back at Wanderer's own inspection of my memories from that time. At last I understood why he seemed so stubborn in his refusal to accept my love and forgiveness: he had done nothing to earn them. Because of his experiences as a boy, Wanderer had grown into a man with a view of love so twisted that he could understand it as little more than a business transaction. He had nothing to offer me -- so he thought -- and so I could not love him. And now, as I watched, he gazed in utter confusion at my own heart, unable to understand how, impossibly, I still did love him.
*HOW CAN SHE LOVE ME?* his mind screamed, oblivious to the fact that I was watching him. *I am useless, refuse, something to be tossed into the midden and forgotten! My voice was my entire being, all that anyone ever cared for beside my wit! With it gone, how can she love me? HOW!?*
With as much strength as I could muster, I sent my answer back to him, my inner voice echoing through every fiber of his being: *Because I do. Because you are the one I love, the one I have loved. Not your voice. Not your wit. Not your hands, or your human shape. You. The you that exists beneath all those outer trappings. You.*
And then the truth seemed to reach him at last. He broke down and wept, not understanding this new notion of love but desperately wanting to believe in it. My heart surged with hope -- I knew that here, with the truth presented so strongly before him and no way for either of us to deceive the other, he would be unable to deny what I had been trying so hard to tell him. I wept along with him, feeling a profound sense of compassion for this man who had gone through so much of his life without ever understanding what love truly was. Immediately, though, my deep connection to him told me that pity would do nothing to end the separation between us. Pity looks downward; love comes from alongside. I knew that I had committed my own set of offenses against love, trying to still its longing in the name of duty. In my own way, I had as much to learn about love as he did. As my mind wrapped around his, assuring him of my love even as he still struggled to understand it, I knew that there was only one way we could face the path before us: Together, as equals.
No sooner had the thought run through my mind than I felt a sudden lurch. My consciousness spun up and to the right, disentangling itself from Wanderer's, snapping back into my own body--
And then, for a moment, nothing.
The voice echoed softly inside my mind. Who...?
In a moment, it was obvious. Charles and I, after all, had just seen our souls laid bare before each other. Of course he knew my childhood name.
Opening my eyes, I saw his own yellow ones staring back at me. There was a profound sense of revelation in those eyes, and I felt as though they were gazing right through into the deepest part of me. Which, in a way, they were, for I could see in them the inner struggle he was still fighting to put to rest. I held his gaze for a long moment, until at last we seemed to reach an unspoken agreement: a covenant to walk this road together, wherever it led us.
Wanderer got to his feet and limped over to me, laying down at my side. I wrapped my arm around him and hugged him tightly, pressing my head up against his neck.
*It doesn't matter what you look like,* I thought, wondering if he could still hear me. *I don't care if you can never sing another verse or play another note. I love you, Charles the Wanderer ... for now and always.*
Koinonia: Greek, "communion".