Lessons of Solitude

by Raven Blackmane

Shadows lengthened as the sun began to slip slowly behind the western mountains, casting the walls of Metamor Keep in alternating patches of rose-pink light and deep blue shadow. High atop the dividing wall that separated the town of Metamor from the castle itself, a lone figure sat, legs crossed, the wind softly blowing through her long, black hair.

Raven hin'Elric, Lothanasa, High Priestess of Metamor, stared into the distant haze that hid the southern end of the valley from view. A radiant swath of colors filled the evening sky, but she felt as blind as Christopher had recently been lame. Silently, futilely, she struggled to reconcile herself to all that she had been witness to this day.

Christopher was healed. Stuck in a rather different form than he was used to, aye, but healed. Lurene, his ward, had somehow defied conventional wisdom and become entangled in a second of the Keep's three spells, apparently due to whatever meddling she'd been engaged in with Christopher's curse when he was healed. The mages would be puzzling over that one for a while, she guessed.

And Wanderer...

She bit her lip and winced, trying to force back the angry tears that had suddenly sprung to her eyes.

Raven remembered when a certain bard named Charles had first loped into Metamor Keep, far happier to be there than most of the Keep's natives had been in the months after the Battle. He'd had a bit of wolf in him even then, she supposed -- the fire with which he'd answered Jack's challenge in the throne room had been spoken of highly by the Duke. Still, she'd paid him little attention until the Keep's curse finally took hold of him. Even then, it had been he who had sought her out ... despite her best efforts to dissuade him.

Not three months had passed since she'd scattered her father's ashes over the Vyaldi River when Wanderer had come along, strumming that lute of his and vying for her affections. She'd been angry, hurt and resentful of her lot in those days, and she'd pushed him away with a ferocity that would have kept most men at a distance forever. Not Wanderer -- he had sensed a damsel in distress behind the priestess's cold, impersonal exterior, and he labored tirelessly to bring that fair maiden forth into the light. Raven felt a choked laugh rise through her tears as she remembered the night he'd come to stand below the window of her room, lute in hand, singing a ballad in her honor in a voice loud enough to wake the dead. Still, it was a beautiful voice, despite its volume -- which was probably why she had reached for the pillow, rather than the flowerpot, as she slipped quietly out of bed to the edge of the sill. Raven's well-aimed missile hit him squarely on the tip of his muzzle, and he let out a rather interesting sound that was totally inappropriate for the song. He snapped at the pillow, perhaps instinctively, and soon had a face-full of goose down to match his sore nose. Raven looked down at him, mirth dancing in her eyes, then had to stifle a giggle as the poor bard very deliberately blew a wad of feathers out of each nostril. He met her gaze, and the makings of a very ... unusual relationship had suddenly begun.

But the relationship was over now, a bitter voice in her mind told her harshly. Wanderer had lied to Akkala -- no, to the Ninth Hell with that. He'd lied to her. The wolf-man had been near the top of the very short list of people Raven would have trusted with any secret, any confidence -- the only man she trusted with the innermost feelings of her heart. And now he'd thrown that all away, lied to her, and for what? To go spend his days curled up at Christopher's feet. To live out his life as a senseless animal, as some nearsighted tutor's pet.

She rubbed at her eyes with one hand, feeling ashamed at her own bitterness. She cared greatly for Chris, and he was as close a friend to her as his distrust of the Order would allow. She had no quarrel with him, and she was glad to see him healed. But all the same, Wanderer had sacrificed himself for the ursine sage -- and had sacrificed his love for her along with it. What did that say about their relationship, that he would favor the bear so dramatically when forced to choose between him and her? Was she worth nothing to him? Did her feelings count for naught against his idiotic, self-imposed sense of pack responsibility?

Had he ever truly loved her?

She didn't know -- couldn't know -- and her tears flowed quietly but freely as she realized that she may unevern know. Akkala would not speak of her reasons or her methods to Raven, and the goddess had given no indication of whether Wanderer's sentence would ever be served out. And so all that Raven was left with were questions and doubts...

And loneliness. Again.

The dusk had faded into night when Raven heard a rustling nearby. She cast a sidelong glance at the young woman who sat down beside her, short silver hair undisturbed by the breeze. The girl pulled her thin gray robe up closer around her neck, then turned her soft, gentle eyes on the wolf-woman, giving her an appraising look. A half-smile played at the corners of her lips.

"You're in Merai's spot tonight."

Raven said nothing, focusing on a distant star that had just recently come out. She sat nearly motionless, but her hands clenched in agitation.

"Karenna?" The woman's voice was more concerned now, and Raven let out an exasperated sigh at the sound of her childhood name.

"Damn it, Kyia, why'd she have to do it?" she exclaimed, her voice quavering with barely controlled emotion. She turned to face the nymph-girl, her expression pleading and lonely and angry all at the same time. "She didn't have to take Wand'rer's offer! She knew he was lying! Why'd she have to let him throw his life away, to leave me--" She broke off, waving a clenched hand inarticulately in the air, then hung her head and pounded her fist into the unyielding stone. "--alone," she whispered.

Kyia drew a little closer to her then, putting a comforting arm around her. "Akkala felt that she had to resolve an argument between her sisters," she said quietly. "Velena and Artela were at odds over what to do with Wand'rer. His 'punishment' put an end to that dispute."

Raven shook her head. "It isn't fair," she sobbed.

"No, it isn't," Kyia agreed soberly, holding the wolf-woman a little tighter. "It isn't fair at all. But there's naught that you or I can do about it."

The priestess was silent for a moment, save for her sobs. Then, in between her quiet gasps for breath, she said, "I am so ... damn ... sick ... of being smote on the jaw ... every time the blasted gods think it convenient."

Had Raven's face not been buried in Kyia's shoulder, she would have seen the nymph's eyes go distant. "I know how you feel," she murmured. After a moment she seemed to shake herself, then turned her attention back to Raven.

"Wanderer shall be returned to you," she said, stroking the back of Raven's head softly. Though she looked like a teenaged girl, perhaps seven years the wolf-woman's junior, the nymph now expertly played the role of mother for the hurt, confused and tired mortal woman. "Have faith. It shall all come aright in the end."

"Don't speak to me of faith tonight," Raven said softly, looking up at Kyia's kind gray eyes. "Just ... don't leave me here alone."

She put her head on Kyia's narrow shoulder, and the nymph-girl held her close.

"I won't," she whispered.