1. Glad Tidings
The Mountain of Glass, time irrelevant
“Elspeth!” Anne scrambled up the shining peak of the inner Mountain, feeling light with excitement and expectation. “Bethie! I have the most wonderful tidings!”
But even though Anne knew her younger sister to be within hearing distance, the girl did not respond. Anne scowled, then lifted herself off the ground and flew the last few feet to the Mountain’s summit. This was a plateau of about ten feet across, perfectly circular, and with a small pool of water at its centre. From here one could see the tiny streams of water trickle from the pool down the sides of the Mountain, turning into streams that flowed through the vast Garden surrounding them, then into mighty rivers that ran underground throughout the Other and the normal realm, if only one knew how to look for them.
But Anne was not looking for them. Rather, her attention was fixed on the small figure of her half-sister Elspeth who was sitting beside the pool, staring into it with a most enthralled expression on her face. Next to her sat a handsome, pale boy in plain white garb. He was talking quite closely into Bethie’s ear whilst gesturing at the pool, and neither of them had noted Anne’s presence.
Anne coughed loudly, and finally the two of them looked up. “Did you not hear me calling?” she asked irritably.
“You were calling?” Jon replied blankly.
Anne scowled again. “Indeed I was, sirrah, although I sought my sister rather than you. I now see you have held her attention instead. And what might you have been saying that required you to sit so very close?”
“Anne!” Elspeth blushed deep pink, gazing at her reproachfully, although she did shuffle just a little distance from the boy. “You need not glare at him so, for we were merely speaking. We’ve been watching your two odd friends, Ashlea and George, and ’tis the strangest thing! They are together.”
Anne pondered that a moment. She had not laid eyes on those two since their sudden expulsion from the Mountain some weeks before, but Bethie’s news surprised her not at all. “Of course,” she replied. “There are gateways between their times left by the Eternity Stone, so any separation would be from their own choice. Although I note they have not attempted to return here. But I did not climb this Mountain merely to discuss the lives of others!”
“You didn’t climb it at all,” Jon pointed out in a most irritating fashion. “You flew.”
Anne waved a hand dismissively. “Nevertheless. I have most glad tidings to share with my little sister, but you may also listen if you wish. Amaranthus has offered me immortality!” She waited with bated breath for their excited congratulations, but Elspeth merely looked confused. Jon looked bored, as was his fashion.
“This is a very good thing,” Anne persisted. “I could become one of the everlasting People, and live here in the Mountain, and never have to return home to the stinking sixteenth century! And if I might, then you might too, Bethie!” She paused. “Oh, and you too, Jon. If you must.”
The other two exchanged a glance that Anne did not understand. Elspeth said, “That would be a fine thing indeed, sister, although Amaranthus has already told me I do not have to return home.”
“Did he promise immortality?”
“Well, not in such terms-”
“Then ’tis not the same,” Anne finished decisively. “But he has given me tasks to perform on behalf of the Mountain, anywhere across time or space by use of the remnant gateways. Oh, I am most excited! He said I may go at once if I wish. There is a gateway open at the south end of the second vineyard. I merely wished to advise you before I left.”
“Oh,” Elspeth said. She smiled, looking very pretty with her light green eyes and dark hair, and Anne realised why Annoying Jon insisted on spending so much time with her. Oh, Anne did hope that she protected herself. Even in this place, the life of a bastard could not be a good one.
“Then I do wish you the blessings of the Eternal One, dear Anne. We shall await your return with interest.”
Anne nodded, ignoring Jon’s half-hearted shrug. And so they should. “And you two, stay in public places!”
Elspeth watched her sister’s red head disappear over the steep side of the inner Mountain. At this moment she felt that her own cheeks must match that colour. “My apologies for her insinuation,” she said to Jon. “She is only six months my elder, but does think herself my keeper also. I know you are most honourable.”
He shrugged in that casual manner he had, smiling at her. “Never mind Anne. She’s off to have an adventure, and she’s welcome to it.”
“Indeed.” Elspeth felt a pang of anxiety at the thought of her petite sister braving the wilds of the world all alone, but then recalled that with Amaranthus, no one was ever truly alone. If he had sent her, then he would also protect her. “But I confess I’m surprised at her. I would have thought she’d want to watch the wedding.”
Jon shrugged again, then turned back to the pool, waving a hand over its surface. The reflection changed from the ever-blue glass dome above them to an image of two familiar figures, standing hand in hand in an unfamiliar setting. The dark-haired girl wore a long white gown, and the fair-haired boy… ah, who cared? No one ever looked at the groom. “Then we’ll watch together, shall we?”
“Oh yes, let’s.” Elspeth did so love weddings.
The registry office, Whiteside, Leicester County, Angland, mid 2013 AD
“I do solemnly declare,” Ash repeated after the Registrar, “that I know not of any lawful impediment why I, Ashlea Jane O’Reilly, may not be joined in matrimony to George William Seymour.”
Whew. She’d got through those old-fashioned words without stumbling. Her fingers tightened on George’s, and she smiled at him. He was smiling back, as he had been through the whole short ceremony. Oh, he looked so handsome in his formal wear borrowed from 1818, although perhaps a little out of place in this modern registry office. As if anyone cared beside the two of them. As if anyone else mattered.
“I call upon these persons here to witness,” the Registrar continued, and Ash repeated the words, ignoring the sound of sobbing in the background. They had as witnesses one of her co-workers from her old administration job, and a neighbour they’d become quite friendly with. They weren’t the ones sobbing.
But then the two of them said the last few binding words, put on the rings, kissed, signed the documents and were congratulated by the witnesses and Registrar, and their time was up.
“By Jove,” George said as they exited the building, laptop in one hand and her hand tightly in the other. “That was an odd thing, wasn’t it?”
“Do you mean my mother sobbing over the webcam because she couldn’t be at the ceremony? Or the Registrar in her pink suit? Or your birth certificate being forged? Or the fact you just married someone two centuries younger than you are?”
“Lecherous old man that I am,” George agreed happily, leaning in to give her a brief kiss, public be damned. “All of the above, really, never mind the documents. But I say, your parents do like me, do they not? They always said they did, but it’s most difficult to tell when one can’t meet face to face…”
“They like you,” Ash assured him. “They’re always saying how lovely your manners are. Besides, Mum would have cried even if Dad hadn’t just had his knee surgery and they’d been able to come. She always cries at weddings.” Or christenings. Or the sad bits in children’s films. “If only your family liked me as much.”
“They like you,” George said staunchly. “Or once they know you, they’ll like you. How can they not?”
Ash’s hand tightened on his, and her smile faltered a little. Judging by the cool reception she’d had from his brother and sister-in-law just before they’d left, the Viscount and Viscountess Morley hadn’t found it that hard to dislike her. It was a time travel thing, she’d decided. For George going forward to her time, everyone found him delightfully old-fashioned (or stuffy, but she wasn’t going to tell him who’d said that). For her going back to 1818, she came across as very uncouth…or so she’d been told. Thanks a lot, rude house-party people.
“At least we’ve got our finances sorted,” she said instead, changing the subject. “Isn’t it great how you can just bring things from your own time and sell them as antiques online? Along with my contract work, we’ll do just fine.” She had another month on her current landscaping contract, then she’d agreed to go back to Regency Angland for a ‘visit’. Hopefully they could keep it short. Hopefully she wouldn’t screw up too badly.
“Don’t let it be said I live off my wife,” George said a little less cheerfully. Her working was one of the few things they’d disagreed about. In his time ladies did not perform menial labour. “But when we go to my time, we’ll live off my allowance until my business proposal takes off. But never mind that now, Mrs Seymour. We’re on honeymoon, and finally we’re morally entitled to…”
Ash coughed as he whispered in her ear, feeling her cheeks turn pink. That was one of the reasons they’d got married so quickly. Not the only reason, but for him it was a big one. One did not become intimate with a lady outside of marriage. And he’d decided she was a lady. It was rather nice, actually, especially compared to how things had been when they’d first met.
“Oh alright, if you insist,” she agreed happily. Now, off to find that hotel they’d spent a week’s wages on…
…and the rest of it would sort itself out. Right?
The Chosen Compound, The Secular Republic of Lile, Eastern Europa, 2597 AD
The night was starless and still, the surroundings lush and green, and the half-dozen huge bonfires lighting the whole area flickered orange onto the hundreds of people surrounding them. They were quiet, but there was a strong sense of expectation, of excitement.
But then the Elder said his piece just like he did every Summer Solstice, and the enormous cauldrons of cold water held just for that moment were tipped over the bonfires. There was a hiss as water turned to steam, screams or squeals from people who’d been too close to avoid the flood, and general laughter as the lights switched back on and the real fun began.
Coryn Regindotir leaned back just in time to avoid being run over by her younger brother Ladon in his hurry to reach the centre of the steam – where all his friends were, and where they’d all get a lovely steam burn if they weren’t careful. She’d learned that the hard way in her younger years.
Just then a teenage boy came up beside her. He was the same age as her – seventeen – but where she was fair, he was brown. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin with a vaguely bark-like pattern that spoke of his half-inhuman heritage, and the loveliest smile…but then perhaps she was biased. “And the Fire Lord is defeated yet again,” he said dryly, slipping his hand into hers. “Gotta love the symbolism.”
Trennan referred to the whole reason for this celebration – that some ancient Fey tyrant had been destroyed aeons ago before he burned the whole world to a crisp – as if it mattered here and now. Coryn squeezed his hand and beamed at him, uncaring of who could see. Displays of open affection weren’t encouraged here in amongst the Chosen, since they said singular romantic attachments were bad for the soul.
Eh. Whatever. If Coryn could have felt her soul, she would have said it was in excellent shape. “I’m just happy we’re here. You’ve qualified for your knight’s trial, and once you pass the endurance test…”
He squeezed her hand back. “I’ll apply to handfast with you.”
And they could finally be together as they’d planned all along. It was that thought that made her just about explode with joy – and trepidation, since the knight’s trial was dangerous, and not everyone made it. Trennan would have to spend thirty days in the cold darkness of the Other realm, unaided by human or Fey. The things that happened in that place… But he would make it. He had to.
Now Coryn was a girl (obviously) and so didn’t have a knight’s trial. She only had to make it to seventeen without dying or being kicked out of the Compound – which she’d done – and now had to stay on the good side of the Elders so that when Trennan made his application, it would be accepted.
But there’d been another application that had been accepted, and she’d barely got out of that one. The reminder had her scanning the crowd anxiously. “Do you see Aras?”
Trennan shrugged a shoulder towards the other side of the bonfires. “There, with the other handfasted couples. But you’re not scared of him, are you Cory?”
Well yes, actually she was, just a bit. He was so big: tall and muscular, and with the scars that came from his years as a soldier. And while other, older girls might think his longish blond hair and silvery prosthetic arm were somehow appealing, his grimness had always made Coryn want to run a mile. And the way he’d always watched her with that cold intensity made her so nervous.
Still, she hadn’t expected him to apply to handfast with her right on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, right after she’d pre-applied to handfast with Trennan! And then the Elders had approved it… By the Fey, if it hadn’t been for her dear friend Kamile stepping in and making a cross-application for Aras, and the Elders changing their mind…well, she might have been stuck with him for the next twelve months until the handfast period expired. Talk about a lucky escape.
But all she said was, “I hope he doesn’t think I tricked him.”
“Eh. Probably.” Coryn glanced at Trennan in shock, and he just grinned in that Trennan-like way, slightly lopsided and with a dimple in one cheek. “He might feel that way, but it’s legal now, him and Kamile. At least until next Solstice. So if he’s mad about it, he should just be mad at the Elders, not you. Oh, and himself for agreeing to handfast with Kamile instead. No one forced him.”
Coryn bit her lip, not reassured. She’d spotted them now, sitting in the half-dark along with the other newly handfasted couples. Kamile was so much smaller than her temporary partner; slim and delicate enough that she looked younger than Coryn even though she was several years older. Although Coryn couldn’t see it from here, she knew they’d have one hand bound together with red ribbon, so everyone could see that for the next year each were off-limits to anyone else. That was the point of handfasting. Well, that and making babies, of course. Coryn made a sidelong glance towards Trennan. She sure wasn’t ready to be a mother, even if the Chosen laws would allow it…but she couldn’t mind trying with Trennan. Ha, ha.
Just then Kamile saw her looking and smiled ruefully, waving her free hand. Coryn waved back – but then Aras looked up. His light blue gaze was as cold as ever (did the man even have emotions?) and Coryn let her hand drop awkwardly, dipping her head and turning away. Trennan might say that she hadn’t tricked Aras, but she would still always feel like Aras was angry with her.
“Of course he can’t complain,” she agreed with Trennan, deliberately turning away from the couples lined up alongside the glowing coals. “He just needs to wait out the year. Be faithful to Kamile for that time, and then…”
“And then we’ll be handfasted already,” Trennan vowed. “And that’ll be the end of that.”
For a year, anyway. But they’d deal with what came after after.
Coryn glanced over his shoulder to where some older men were preparing horses, their ceremonial black armour gleaming in the firelight. “It’s just about time to go,” she said wistfully. She wanted to kiss him goodbye, but everyone was watching and they were at least pretending that they weren’t together.
“Oh, wait, I have something for you.” Trennan fumbled in his pocket, pulling out a tiny cloth bag. He tipped a small silver object out into his palm, holding it out to her. “For you. If you wear it, I’ll always know where you are.”
It was a ring, simple and pretty with three almond-shaped light blue stones set neatly on top. Coryn felt a tingle of alter-power as she touched it, and knew it must have been created by one of the Chosen. None of the Sec society outside of this compound would have known how to imbue an object with alter-power like this. When Trennan said he’d always know where she was if she wore it, he meant it.
“It’s so small because you wear it on your fourth finger,” he quickly explained, “rather than your thumb like most rings. It’s an old tradition, or so the maker told me.”
Coryn eyes almost filled with tears, and she slipped it carefully onto that little-used finger, trying to show through her expression how much she appreciated the gift. “Thank you,” she whispered. “It’s beautiful.”
“Not too strange?” he asked with a crooked grin.
She waggled her fingers, watching how the ring caught the light as she moved. “Not at all. It’s perfect.” Then she said loudly for the benefit of those around; “Good luck with your knight’s trial, Trennan Halfling. We’ll see you in thirty days.”
“Thirty days,” Trennan echoed, and then after a final glance he turned to head off with the knights. They’d accompany him across the border into the darkness of the Other, making sure he went all the way in and didn’t simply duck back into the normal realm once he was out of sight. She watched him go, heading away through the Compound’s old buildings until they reached the forested Borderlands. Even though it was dark here anyway, she knew once they’d reached the Other. They all blinked out of sight….and it was up to fate whether she ever saw him again.