Finally. I've been fighting with this one on and off for over a year and a half now. It's as good as it's probably going to get here, so I figured I'd call it good. Heh.

Title: Heartwood
Rating: PG-13
Universe: Wyrldwood
Characters/Pairings: Gethyd, Laerin, Haelin, Caerwynn, Taelian knights including Elys the quartermaster. Gethyd/Laerin, Haelin/Caerwynn.
Summary: The wyrldwood, the last forest that stretches along the northern edge of the world along the boundary between it and chaos, is nothing any sensible person wants to tangle with. Though it's been quiet for the last four centuries, since the last great incursion of chaos was vanquished, it still evokes nothing but madness and monsters for most people. Unfortunately, when your partner and the love of your life is a wyrldwood fae by birth, sooner or later even the most sensible person might end up daring its confines. With Laerin as her partner, Gethyd has little choice, and all she can do now is weather the cavalcade of secrets the promise of that vast northern forest draws forth.
Wordcount: 9541
Warnings/Notes: Fantasy, fae/faeries, elves, forests, magic, chaos, love, comrades in arms, confrontations, meeting the parents, backstory, war, sacrifice, body horror, rescue, unicorns, champions, falling in love, hope, romance, confessions. WARNINGS mostly for angst and insecurities and tragic backstories, with a bit of body horror in one particular case. Also, for clarity's sake, 'faer' in the story mostly means 'male fae'. Um. Sorry about that.
Claimer: MINE

Heartwood

The road climbed roughly west to east, rising steadily as it traversed the shoulder of the northernmost foothills of the Wymbroch mountains, heading for the plains and the great seas of Hanuest beyond. It clung to that shoulder like a child to a mother's skirts, holding tight to a stone fastness lest it slip and stumble instead into the silence that waited, always and eternal, to the north. The Last Forest, the wyrldwood, stretching northwards to the edge of the world, where fire and ice and chaos played in the darkness beyond the light. Even the road shuddered away from it, from the silence waiting and watching among the trees, and clung instead to the comfort of southern stone.

It was just a pity, Gethyd thought wryly, that their company wouldn't be able to do the same. All the terrors of that northern forest would be theirs for their very own before too much longer. Oh joy.

"Not too much farther now," Laerin murmured beside her. "We'll meet the old north road just over the rise, and from there it's all downhill until we meet the trees." He sat straight in his saddle, his eyes fixed on the dark march of the treeline below them. Indeed, he was all but quivering with anticipation. If he'd been anyone else, she'd have looked askance at him, but you couldn't blame a man for being happy to be home.

Well. Not much, anyway. The wyrldwood might be a step too far, even still.

Gethyd shook her head, nudging her horse sideways a little so she could flick Laerin's shoulder and pull his attention back her way. He blinked at her, startled, and something in her chest hitched a little at the look in his eyes. The shadow of the forest was upon them, but in Laerin's face there was nothing but joy, a deep and dawning happiness like winter sunlight. He looked ... he looked happy. Open, free, in a way she'd never seen before. Her strange, fae companion, the idiot immortal who'd plied sword and coin with her from one end of the Salt Road to the other for the past six years. On this haunted path, he looked more at home and more blindingly joyous than she'd ever seen.

"Something wrong?" he asked her, steering his horse towards her until their knees bumped gently, and Gethyd blinked, realising with a start that she'd been staring stupefied at him. Laerin raised his eyebrows inquisitively, and a shot of annoyance went through her that, even though he'd been the one daydreaming about fatal forests, somehow he'd contrived things so that she was the one getting looked askance. In all innocence, and with no fore-thought whatsoever.

Honestly, there were times when she truly wondered why she loved him.

"You might want to tone down the cheeriness a bit," she groused at him finally, steering her horse back into the centre of the road while he ambled along the verge. She waved a hand around the rest of their cavalcade pointedly. "You're worrying the knights, faer. The wyrldwood may be home to you, but for the rest of us it still means monsters and madness most of the time. Not something most people are cheerful about."

He blinked at her. "The Sickness was vanquished four hundred years ago," he said, rather carefully for him. "The wood has been hale and hearty since, if perhaps not as tame as the rest of the world might like. If they are so frightened by the mere sight of it, that doesn't bode very well for this trade delegation, does it? Surely an ambassador and an escort of Taelian knights shouldn't be quaking for ghost stories four hundred years dead."

Gethyd stared at him. She shifted sideways in her saddle, even, the better to grant him the full force of it. He stared back, blithe and bemused. And watchful, in that way of his that was never quite as innocent as it seemed. Hmm.

"The wyrldwood is the boundary between us and crawling chaos," she reminded, with some care herself, wary in that way that only he could sometimes make her. "Even if that outbreak of it was defeated, even if the Corruption was destroyed, the edge of the world cannot be taken away. I'm sure you know that better than anyone, faer. Are you going to tell me there aren't still monsters there? That chaos doesn't come creeping down every so often to see how strong you still are?"

Laerin looked away from her. There was something sharp about it, bitter and darkly amused, and it gave a glimpse of the part of him that was so much older than he looked, the part of him that was so very fae. She saw it in him sometimes. Less often now than at the beginning, when he'd been harder and more wary of her, but even still. Four hundred years, he said, since the Sickness was destroyed. There were times when she wondered how many of those centuries he'd seen.

There'd been hints, over the course of their partnership, that it may well have been most of them.

"They come, yes," he said, soft and with a curve of his lip. "You'll see what meets them soon enough, though. We're not so pure and innocent as we were before the Sickness took us. Chaos finds itself not the only monster in the woods these days."

"... A reassuring thought," she noted dryly, and he turned back to her, startled once again, and then rueful, shame-faced. She shook her head in amazement, and he waved it away with a sheepish smile, fluttering his fingers at her.

"We've been killing things together for six years now, lyeth myne, you can't be surprised that I had to learn it somewhere," he muttered, looking at his hands and his horse's ears and anything well away from her. She rolled her eyes, and tried to ignore how fond it made her feel.

"I'm not," she assured him, very dryly. "And neither, I think, is anyone else. Four hundred years of relative peace is enough to make kings try for trade agreements, Laerin, but it's not enough to make them forget what they're trading with. There are things that come out of your woods, even still, that are much less fair than you, even if they're maybe not more dangerous."

He chuckled at that, just a little bit. "And which is it you love me for?" he asked, sliding a sideways glance her way. "That I'm more fair, or that I'm more dangerous?"

She snorted at him. "I love you," she said, and it had a spark to it even when they were only joking, "because you're stupid and purehearted enough to offer up your life for a stranger, and sensible enough to let her rescue you again afterwards without too much fussing over it. The fair is a nice bonus, don't mistake me, and the dangerous at least makes you less likely to be killed out from under me, but believe me. They're the least of your charms, oh faer of mine."

Winter sunlight shone in his eyes at that, bright and joyous just for her, and her breath caught. It wasn't as open as his joy in the forest, it wasn't quite the light of homecoming, but it was something close to it, and it was all for her. It was something she drew from him, something she made, and it made her feel things she'd long since forgotten could be felt. The Salt Road wasn't kind, no more than the wyrldwood maybe, but that didn't mean kindness couldn't be found upon it. That didn't mean some idiot stranger couldn't stumble across your path and draw sunlight in his wake.

"I want to bring you home, Gethyd," Laerin said suddenly, leaning half out of his saddle towards her, that thing in his eyes that wasn't the least bit tame. "As dangerous as it is, I want to show you my forest. I want to make you part of it, even just for a moment. Will you let me? Will you trust that it will not kill you, save that it first goes through me, and come with me into the heart of it?"

She stopped, pulled her horse to a halt just below the rise of the road, and looked at him. There was something ... She'd known he wanted it. He'd wanted this from the moment the Taelians had approached them, knowing a wyrldwood fae when they saw one and wanting a guide to the Forest King's halls, but there was an intensity about it now that hadn't been there before. Or that he hadn't shown before. But here, almost under the eaves of the forest, there was something stark and yearning in him that strained towards her with every breath. It felt ... it felt permanent. It felt like a promise made in more than blood, and it frightened her more than the chaos said to crawl beneath the trees.

And yet ...

"... I will," she said, slowly and carefully, her eyes fixed on his. There was an oath in it, one she didn't fully understand, but she said it anyway. She gave it, because at the end of the day she didn't fear him, not Laerin himself, and she never would. He'd bled for her on the Salt Road, he'd given a heart into her keeping, and all the madness of the edge of the world would not stand between them. She wouldn't let it. "I trust you, Laerin. I'll follow you off the edge of the world if you want me to. Just ask."

His lips parted. There was that thing in his eyes, that shining, and he opened his mouth to give voice to it. To answer her, she knew. To ask what they both needed to have asked. But before a sound could emerge from him, a shout arose from the head of the column, and the twin figures of their front scouts came pelting back across the rise as though chaos itself were after them.

And in that supposition, she found out shortly, she hadn't been that far wrong.

The scene below the rise was a battlefield. That was their first impression. The ground was a churned mess of mud, blood, scattered body parts and, further off, where they'd been dragged, the actual bodies of the combatants themselves. There must have been fifteen to twenty of them just within sight, mounded and thrown together with no care whatsoever for the dignity or even integrity of the remains. Had the bodies been human, that might have been a greater insult, but it was quickly apparent that they weren't. The grey, glistening skin and the curled arc of horns gave that away almost immediately. These warriors, whoever had sent them and whoever had killed them, were obviously stone demons, and had been treated as such.

Even that knowledge couldn't completely prevent the instinctive rush of horror and of fear at the sight of so many jumbled bodies, though. Demons or no, the casual disregard displayed towards their remains sent a chill flash of warning through the party.

"What in Talman's Name happened here?" one of the Taelians rasped, his voice falling emptily into the wary silence. "Those are brochans. A full raiding party at least. What in the abyss managed to slaughter them out of hand like this?"

"They've been dragged back off the crossroads," one of his companions said, dropping heavily out of his saddle and skirting cautiously around the edges of the field towards the bodies. "I can't tell from here how many did the dragging. Somebody get that fae over here. They're good at tracking, aren't they?"

"Not necessarily," Gethyd noted, her voice a little clipped, but she glanced a silent question in Laerin's direction anyway. He nodded, equally silent, and hopped down to get a closer look at the field. "Luckily for you, this one isn't half bad."

"Yes, yes," Cambric, the company commander, snapped impatiently. "Whoever does it and however they do it, somebody get me an idea of what we're facing and how many of them there are likely to be!"

"It's not going to be many," somebody said softly from further downslope. One of them had moved out to the company's edge, dismounting and moving silently to the lower edge of the field. Elys. At sixty-three, the quartermaster was the oldest and most experienced member of the group short of Laerin, but that wasn't why her voice seized the attention of everyone in range. Elys had a tendency, bordering on premonition, to be eerily correct about things. If she said something, people tended to listen.

"Why do you thin--" Cambric started to ask, and then cut off abruptly as he followed the line of Elys' sight. She'd been staring downslope, the opposite direction from where the bodies had been dragged, towards a rocky outcrop just above the treeline. It had been catching more eyes than hers, Gethyd realised. They'd all been glancing at it on and off, herself included, and for no discernable reason. There'd been nothing there. She'd been sure there was nothing there.

There was something there now.

"Myredd preserve us all," Ambassador Kalaen whispered harshly. It only barely carried over the rasp of metal as anyone who hadn't already drawn their weapon at the sight of the brochans rapidly drew it now. A stir carried across the entire company, a slow ripple of fear and anticipation, and Gethyd could hardly blame them. Her own sword had found its way to her hand the second she realised what she was looking at, and she wasn't going to be letting go of it any time soon. Not without some very persuasive reasoning.

The figure that stood in front of the rocks was pale, draped in some yellowish, off-white piece of cloth that looked like nothing so much as a shroud, darkly stained in several places. Its hair, if hair it was, was equally yellowish, falling the full length of its body, and haloed out around it in blatant defiance of wind and gravity alike. Two bony antlers speared out through the mass, curving up from behind its ears to spread pale branches over its head, the short spikes incongruously covered in greenery. The creature itself was manlike in shape, broadly speaking, and perhaps even manlike in face, except that something was very, very wrong with it. They couldn't see what, exactly, not from so far away, but the shadows didn't fall right over its features. There was a blankness to that distant face, a wrongness, that spoke with extreme eloquence to the fine hairs on the back of Gethyd's neck.

Not many, Elys had said. A single figure. Not many indeed. Yet no one there doubted that they were looking at the author of the slaughter behind them. The bodies heaped beyond the crossroads were demons. This thing, resting patiently against its rock and within sight of its forest, seemed like nothing so much as the spectre of death itself.

"Oh."

Gethyd turned at the voice. Instantly, in spite of every last instinct insisting that she not take her eyes from that thing, she looked back to the mud and debris at the centre of the field, and to the quivering figure of her partner as he crouched there. Even as she turned, Laerin was coming to his feet, his eyes fixed on the spectre and a curiously blank expression on his face. Recognition. Nothing else, nothing to tell her if this creature meant good or ill. Just that Laerin recognised it.

"Laerin?"

He didn't look at her. He didn't look at any of them. Several of the knights closest to him had begun to turn as well, looking away from the threat in front of them in favour of the strangeness in their midst, but Laerin didn't seem to notice it. Something passed over his features, a flicker of anger or worry or fear, and then his expression cleared, opened, and Gethyd abruptly recognised the same emotion that had accompanied their first sight of the wyrldwood, their final approach to its confines. It wasn't fear. It was the furthest thing from fear that was possible.

"That idiot," Laerin muttered, bright and disbelieving and incredulous. "That idiot. I'm going to kill him."

And then, without further ado or any warning whatsoever, he sprang forward and bolted down the slope towards the rock and the spectre in front of it.

For half a second, no one reacted. In sheer confusion, Gethyd thought, at the fae's apparent berserker rush towards an enemy it would be stupidity itself to face. Even she didn't move immediately, despite six years worth of instincts telling her that she should, that it was never, ever wise to let Laerin run off by himself into gods-knew-what. The action was simply too sudden and too nonsensical for even her to keep up with it.

That half-second was all the shock held for, though. She was moving without thought the instant it broke, pounding downslope in Laerin's wake, slower and considerably less graceful than the hairbrained fae but no less determined. She heard several of the company pile in behind her. More cautiously, all of them, probably taking time to build a formation, but they didn't leave Laerin and herself to face a spectre alone. As useless as Gethyd generally found Taelian knights to be, she allowed that at least they didn't abandon their companions out of hand.

Not that Laerin appeared to need them, mind. Not that the fae appeared to need anyone to rescue him at all. He was cursing steadily and audibly as he pelted downhill, and the pale figure seemed to react to that with some amusement. It looked ever more terrifying in appearance the closer Gethyd came to it, gaunt and skeletal and wraithlike, but it made no move to strike as Laerin barrelled closer. Instead, it stood out from its rock, straightening to its full height in the process, and spread its arms wide in welcome. Even that much was more than Gethyd's beleaguered instincts wanted to believe, but then Laerin let out a hissed snarl of fury and closed the last few feet to fling himself angrily into those same arms. The figure snatched him close, curled around him and swung him joyously in the air, and the sound that came from it was delighted and curiously manlike laughter.

Gethyd heard the Taelians stumble and stagger to a confused halt behind her. For her own part, she kept going that little longer, came in close enough to back Laerin should everything not be as peaceful as it seemed. Even she drew to a halt, though. Even she stumbled in shock, and some vague notion that she should give Laerin a minute or two to have this apparent reunion in some semblance of privacy.

"What were you thinking?!" her fae hissed furiously, as the wraith finally slowed its spin and lowered him back to the ground. He pulled back from it slightly, their hands drifting down to curl around each other's forearms, and growled in determined anger up into the spectre's ... oh gods, Gethyd thought. Into the spectre's face. What there was left of it. Oh gods. Laerin didn't seem even remotely perturbed, though. At least not by that. Even as stunned as she was, Gethyd spared an instinctive, familiar wince for the sheer hypocrisy of him. "Tell me, tell me you didn't come out here and take on a cadre of demons by yourself. Of all the hairbrained, stupid--"

The wraith laughed again, interrupting the tirade, and let go of Laerin to hold up both hands in the gesture of peace. "Of course not," it said, its pale lips curled gently in a smile beneath the horror of the rest of its face. "Peace, Laerin, I'm not that foolish. Caerwynn was with me. She just went to check their back trail, make sure no further sorties would disturb us. She should be back soon. I only stayed to wait for you."

Laerin blinked, and seemed to uncoil slightly. "Alone?" he asked pointedly, but it seemed the name Caerwynn was enough to largely reassure him. It poked at something for Gethyd, too, stirred some vague memory, but she couldn't grasp it, and at the minute didn't care to. Laerin sighed heavily, shaking his head in lingering aggravation at the spectre before him. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you knew we were coming. Or that you wanted to greet us, either."

The figure chuckled. "You've walked in view of the forest for leagues now," it agreed mildly, and hesitated a moment before reaching up to feather one finger lightly across Laerin's cheek. "It's been ten years, Laerin. Of course I wanted to greet my only son as he returned. Of course I wanted to be sure that he was safe. That's not so strange, is it?"

Son. My only son. Laerin, my ...

Gethyd felt her thoughts stutter to a halt. Even as Laerin softened completely at last, even as he curled back into the monstrous figure's arms, Gethyd felt her own eyes widen in ...

It shouldn't be horror. It shouldn't be. Even as she grappled with it, Gethyd could already imagine Laerin's hurt should she welcome his ... gods above, his family that way. His father. By the manlike voice, definitely the father. However horrifying said father might be, she shouldn't flinch from him. However fearsome and terrifying and ...

And wrong. To someone born south of the wyrldwood, so very, very wrong. This was nothing anyone of the south knew how to face.

And he'd ... he'd expected it, she realised distantly. Laerin. He'd known. That careful, cautious prodding on the road, that not-quite-innocent curiosity. Which is it you love me for? he'd asked. That I'm more fair, or that I'm more dangerous?. He'd asked that for more than just his own sake, hadn't he? Because he'd known that this was coming. He'd known that she'd shortly meet ...

Well. Not quite as shortly as this, she thought. He hadn't thought that his father would be hairbrained enough to come out, fight off a force of demons, and then stand around waiting for them on his own. Though if they were blood related, he really ought to have done. Gethyd would have laid odds on that inheritance herself. Regardless. Laerin'd thought he'd have a bit more time, before he had to introduce ... his lover and his father. His lover and his monstrous father. His lover and ...

She looked at them. Forced herself, made herself. Not just skimmed across them, the fae swordsman wrapped in a spectre's arms. She made herself look. She made herself try and see.

It might have been a fae once. He. Laerin's father. If she looked at him, the jaw, the mouth, she could see the hints of Laerin about him. The curve of his lips, the wry smile, there was Laerin in that. He might have been ... Oh. Oh, and Laerin had said that too. Hinted at that. We're not so pure and innocent as we were before the Sickness took us. Chaos finds itself not the only monster in the woods these days. He had been, hadn't he. He'd been a fae. He'd looked like Laerin, and then ...

Then the Sickness, or something like it. Something had sickened him. Something had changed him, turned him into ... into this. That face. Above the mouth, the echo of Laerin, that face. Eyeless. Blank. That's why it had looked so wrong from the crossroads. Something had eaten away its eyes, and then papered over the ruined hollows with ... it looked like bark. Thin, papery bark, like birch. The hands, too, they looked like wood. The antlers. Not bone. Branches, truly branches, not strewn with greenery but sprouting it. But for the hair, she would have said that something, some force, had tried to forcefully merge the faer with a tree. The hair was wrong, though, even more so than the rest. The hair shifted and stirred of its own accord, hollow yellow strands that drifted with odd intent about him. It was nothing she had ever seen. It was wrong. All of it was wrong. Everything about the figure, the spectre, the fae.

And yet ... yet it didn't matter, did it? Laerin turned to her. She watched him, saw him release his father at last and turn to face her, saw the careful, not-quite-innocent way his eyes tracked to her face, to try and judge her expression as his father could not. She saw the blankness in his eyes, and the not-quite-hope. She saw his fragility. She saw ...

She saw her partner. She saw her fae, her idiot, who had fought beside her for six years, who had introduced himself by selling himself for her and then by letting himself cheerfully be rescued from it. She saw the creature who had looked at her so fiercely and intently on the road above, hope and joy and winter sunlight in his eyes, and asked her if she would follow him to the edges of the world and more. She saw her partner, his arm around his father, asking her that again now. She saw him. She saw Laerin.

And seeing him, she knew her answer. She always had. She always would. She'd chosen him, all of him, as wild and as fierce and as almost-innocent as he was. As foolish. It would take more than a father scarred by chaos to change that. It would take more than the wyrldwood, however deeply it frightened her. She had promised him that. More than that, she had promised herself.

And besides. Besides. Whatever he might look like, this father had more than some lingering features in common with his son. He had the same laugh, the same fragility. He had the same stupid, hairbrained idiocy, to come out here next to alone and do battle with demons only to see his son safe. Oh yes. Laerin clearly hadn't come by those tendencies dishonestly. It seemed his father was cut from very much the same cloth. And knowing that, with that in mind, could she really justify being afraid to face him?

She shook her head, more at herself and perhaps the whimsy of fate than anything else, and moved the last few steps to stand before them. She reached out her hand, raised it automatically, and Laerin caught it with that wild, fierce shining in his eyes.

"Gethyd," he whispered, fierce and joyous, his hand tight in hers. "I knew. I hoped, I knew. Thank you. Oh, thank you."

"... Laerin?" his father asked, slow and thoughtful, his head tilted so that absent eyes would once have almost faced her. Gethyd felt a shudder run through her, felt it and allowed it, and then cast it aside. She held out her other hand towards the father, and trusted to her partner to answer for her.

"My partner, father," Laerin said, his voice hushed and blindly happy. "This is Gethyd, my Gethyd. Her hand is in front of you. She's ... I've brought her home with me. We have company, a mission, but ... Gethyd is why I'm here, why I returned. She's my Caerwynn, father. I found her. And she ... she came home with me. She's here."

A stillness fell at that, a strange hush, and Gethyd felt a ... a coiling before her. A gathering, strength or power or anger or ... or something. His father straightened slowly in front of her, his not-hair flaring about him in what might have been startlement, and then ... then it drifted towards her. The not-hair. It crept out around him, curious, pale tendrils, and wrapped itself around her outstretched arm. Gethyd didn't flinch. Not quite. Only barely. The yellowish strands curled delicately across her fingers, up her arm, over her shoulder. Carefully, hesitantly, when she neither moved nor flinched, they brushed gently at her face. Gethyd looked at Laerin. She flashed him a confused, desperate look, and found only hope and happiness looking back at her. She looked back to the eyeless face, and let the faer do as he willed.

What he willed was to draw back, his not-hair coiling back along his spine, and to reach out cautiously with a hand instead. He touched pale, woodlike fingers to hers, and seemed to slump slightly when she curled them warily but willingly together.

"Gethyd," he said, as though tasting the name. "You love my son, Gethyd? Enough to follow him even here, where monsters walk and chaos threatens?"

Gethyd couldn't help looking at Laerin there. Again, once again. She looked at the well of winter sunlight in his eyes, the joy and the hope, and again, and always, she found the same answers there. The only ones that mattered.

"Your son assures me that he is more dangerous than chaos," she said, looking back at the eyeless face and finding it curiously less fearsome every time. She smiled, faintly. She gripped both hands and held them tight. "I'm not so sure of that. He's very foolhardy, your son. He gets himself into trouble. Knowing that, how could I fail to follow him? Someone must look out for him, even if she is mortal and probably a good deal more fragile than he is. Sense has to count for something, I guess. We just have to hope that somehow between us we might be dangerous enough to manage whatever comes."

He laughed. His mouth spread into a radiant, disbelieving smile, and Gethyd knew a moment of sudden, intense grief at the loss those papered hollows represented. She had no reason for it, she'd never seen the missing eyes, but she had an idea now that they must have looked very much like his son's. She thought that had they still existed, there would have been winter sunlight in them to go with that smile, and knew a moment of strange, gaping loss that they did not.

"I'm sure you're perfectly dangerous when pushed to it, my dear," he said wryly, his stiff fingers gentle and warm against her skin. "We tend to be drawn to that in my family. I'm glad that you seem kind as well. And brave, to face something like me without qualm." That was wry, self-knowing, and Gethyd flinched a bit in shame. He squeezed her hand gently, denying it. "I hope I shall have the chance to get to know you, Gethyd. I can hear already the happiness you cause my son. I hope you might be willing to share a little of it with his family?"

Gethyd blew out a breath, and shook his hand gently before drawing hers away. She leaned into Laerin for a moment, nudged her idiot fae gently in the side, and drew him back alongside her. She was conscious of the Taelians still behind her, silent and bemused and quite possibly horrified by the proceedings. She was conscious suddenly that she really didn't give a shit how horrified they were. She tangled Laerin's arm in hers, and smiled rather uselessly up into his father's face.

"We've got a job to do first," she told him honestly. "We've got a delegation of Taelians to escort to the Forest King. We promised that, and we'll do our best to deliver. After that, though? After that I promised Laerin that he could show me his forest, his home. I'm happy to keep that promise too. And I think I can say, sir, after meeting you, that I almost look forward to it."

An odd expression flickered across the eyeless face. Gethyd might have missed it, might have thought that it was because of the lack of eyes that it looked odd, but she caught the way the once-fae's head twitched for a second towards Laerin as well. She saw how the not-hair stirred in startlement and fluttered towards her partner too. Laerin's father straightened up, and she thought she could see caution in the stillness of his mouth and the curl of his woodlike hands.

"... The Forest King," he repeated carefully, and even without the eyes she could see how dubious an expression he turned towards his son. "My son promised to escort you that far, hmm? Laerin. Laerin, your own partner? Honestly."

"I didn't want to complicate things," Laerin answered sheepishly, flinching away a little from the narrow-eyed stare Gethyd found herself suddenly offering him. "I didn't expect you to be here, either. I thought I'd have a chance to explain before I ... before we actually reached you?"

Gethyd stared at him. His father stared at him. The Taelians, she thought, were staring at him too, and a good deal more suspiciously than the rest of them. Gethyd at least had enough experience of idiot fae to know that this secret, whatever it was and by gods she hoped it wasn't what it sounded like, was likely more irritating and/or infuriating than dangerous. His father, for all his open disapproval, hadn't reacted as though Laerin were leading them to their doom. He'd only reacted as though ...

"Ah, there you are," a new voice called out, to the distinct alarm of the entire company of knights, and Gethyd turned to watch a new figure come down from the crossroad and stride through them as though they weren't even there. Which they might as well not have been, since the knights practically dived out of the intruder's path as she came. Gethyd couldn't fault them, though. She wouldn't have stepped into this creature's path either, even had she not recognised it, even if she hadn't suddenly recalled the name Laerin and his father had mentioned earlier and tied it here to its legendary, infamous manifestation.

"I followed the brochans all the way back to their caves," Caerwynn, black unicorn, the mythical Knight of Bone, said as she stomped to a halt in front of Laerin's father, just behind Laerin and Gethyd herself. Gethyd stared at her. She couldn't help it. "They ran from me the whole way. Scared. Hah! Trust demons to be cowards. I doubt we'll be seeing a sortie of that size for some time, Haelin."

"I'm not sure I'd call it cowardice," Laerin's father, apparently Haelin, answered wryly. "You slew the Corruption itself four hundred years ago, and you were a legend long before that. I'd call fleeing before you more sense than cowardice, wouldn't you?"

Caerwynn laughed, and gently steered Gethyd and Laerin out of her way until she could lean forward and rest her forehead gently against Haelin's own. In her human skin, or mostly human skin, she could manage it. The great whorled spike of bone that was her horn lay in her hand as a sword instead, and it was only the white-starred black fur of her brow to rest against his. She kissed him lightly, and leaned away again.

"Says one of only two men in all the world who did not," she said lightly, scarred and fearsome and massive before him. Haelin chuckled softly, and seemed to twitch his head slightly Gethyd's way.

"Ah, but we're foolhardy," he said, and yes, yes he was talking to Gethyd as much as ... his wife? His lover, at least. "I have it on good authority that neither myself nor my son have any sense at all. Even if we hadn't been desperate, it's hardly surprising that we wouldn't run, not even from you."

"... Perfectly dangerous," Gethyd muttered disgustedly, and tried not to flinch too much when Caerwynn turned to glance at her. "I guess you really are drawn to that in your family, aren't you?" He beamed at her, wry and joyous, and she shook her head in raw exasperation. Oh yes. Laerin had come by absolutely nothing dishonestly. "Though I have to say, I hardly compare to the Knight of Bone, slayer of nightmares, dragons and demons. As well as Corruption, apparently. I'm only a sellsword, sir. Your son doesn't have quite as ... as dangerous a taste as you."

Caerwynn raised both eyebrows, thick and heavy in her strong-boned face, and turned to look between Gethyd, nervous and exasperated, and Laerin beside her, who had ... oh. When Gethyd looked at him, he had the strangest expression on his face. Soft and hopeful and tentative and proud. Gethyd blinked at him, and remembered suddenly that he'd called her his Caerwynn. He'd introduced her to his father as ... as being to Laerin what this mythical, impossible woman was to his father.

"... You've found her then?" the black unicorn asked him softly. "You've found the love you were willing once to sell, save that your father sold himself for you instead?"

"I have," Laerin answered, equally softly, even as Gethyd startled and Haelin slightly flinched. Caerwynn moved slightly in front of her lover and looked steadily at his son. Laerin, for his part, raised his chin and met her dark, ancient eyes firmly, but it was neither fear nor defiance in his own. Only joy, and only gratitude. Caerwynn curled her lip softly, and somehow not ungently.

"And would you sell it now?" she asked, with the air of an old argument, and Gethyd had the strange impression that it was Haelin she fought it for, that it was somehow Laerin's father she defended by it. Laerin only shook his head, and rested his hand on Gethyd's shoulder.

"I would not," he said, and there was ... there was an oath in it, a promise, wild and shaking, like the one Gethyd had made to herself on the road across the mountains. A promise to follow her through chaos and over the edge of the world if need be. There was a promise for her, and something else for Caerwynn too. "You're right. You were both right. I would die before I sold this now. But I wasn't wrong then either. My father makes a habit of selling himself. I wasn't wrong to fight that. You could have been so much worse than you were. It shouldn't always have to be him."

And there was ... there was something in that, worlds in that, horrors in that. Just the edges of them, but Gethyd heard them nonetheless. Saw them. She looked at Haelin, at Laerin's father, with his corrupted form and his ruined, papered eyes and his apparent history of selling himself, standing patient and gaunt and monstrous before her. She looked at Caerwynn, a legend so old that all the world still feared her, though she hadn't been heard from in ... in four hundred years. Four hundred. Ah. Caerwynn, the black unicorn, seeker of death and purity, who had apparently destroyed the Sickness four centuries ago, and found herself both a lover and a home in the process.

She looked at Laerin. Looked at him long enough and piercing enough that he looked at her too, the defiance in him faltering and uncertainty creeping in behind it. Her faer, who had introduced himself six years ago on the Salt Road by selling himself to save her. Her faer who apparently had a habit of that, inherited from and in competition with his father's, which had led him four hundred years ago to try and ...

To try and buy a champion against Chaos, against the corruption that was killing his home and his father. The greatest champion in all the world and the most fearsome, in some eyes still the most monstrous. Because Laerin and his father had both thought it their responsibility. Because they were both ...

"... There's a reason you didn't want to tell me until I'd seen it, isn't there," Gethyd asked him, realising with a rush of pained amusement that his earlier exchange with his father had been exactly what it sounded like. "There's a reason you wanted me to see it first before you told me. So I'd know why it mattered, why it was so important, and why it frightened you so much to try and explain it." She felt her expression falter, felt a crooked, sideways smile slide across it. "That's right, isn't it. Your Highness?"

Laerin flinched, ducking his head and biting his lip, and Gethyd knew in that second that she was right. She'd been exactly right. Laerin had promised the Taelians that he could get them an audience with the Forest King, and Gethyd had stood there and told the king himself about it, entirely unknowing, and said damned blasted king had been more ashamed about that than her stupid, idiot ...

Prince. Her stupid idiot prince. By all the gods. She should have killed him six years ago. She should have let him get himself killed on her behalf and saved herself all the trouble and all the perturbation and ...

And all the love. All the joy and the warmth and the winter sunlight. All the promises made in more than blood, more terrifying than even the wyrldwood. All of that.

"I didn't want to complicate it," Laerin pleaded, grabbing her hands and fretting them desperately with his own. "Gethyd, it's ... It was a secret. We didn't want anyone to know while I was out there. And I know, I know I should have told you, sometime before we were actually ... but you're not, you're not the best at nobles, you're not even the best at knights, and I was afraid ..."

He stopped, fought with himself, and Gethyd wasn't sure if she'd ever seen him so bare, so utterly terrified. Only once, maybe, that winter where her wound had become infected and she knew he'd almost lost her. To sickness, and in hindsight now, having seen his father, she had an idea how deeply that must have stricken him. He looked that terrified now. He looked as bare and without artifice as she'd ever seen him.

"It's so much," he said at last, watching her with desperate eyes. "All the world is afraid of the wyrldwood, Gethyd. All of you, and not without reason either. I knew that. I'm not so stupid as that. I did know. Even to come here, it was so much to ask you. I wanted ... to break it up? To challenge you with only a piece at a time? I don't know. And then you came, you let me bring you, and we were getting closer all the time, and I thought, I'll tell you soon, I'll tell you in just a minute, but then ... Then my father, and you hurdled that, and then Caerwynn, and you hurdled that, and now--"

He stopped. Really stopped, not even daring to ask, to finish the question. All the world was silent around them. His father had drifted to Caerwynn, leaning against her strength, his ruined face careful and still. Caerwynn herself was imperturbable. Even the knights were watching them, and to be honest Gethyd had all but forgotten them. Their expressions were an education now. Gods only knew what they'd been thinking throughout the bulk of this mess. Though Elys, still the closest to them, had an oddly sympathetic expression on her face. Gethyd blinked at her, and the quartermaster smiled encouragingly. It was almost stranger than anything else had been so far.

She looked back at Laerin, and felt like shaking her head. Felt like laughing. It was so absurd. The question, it was so ridiculous. He looked so terrified, and she'd only ever had one answer. To any question, any real question, that he'd ever asked. She'd promised on the road. In truth, she'd promised long before that, if only to herself. He'd been hers for years now. He'd sold himself for her, offered himself up for a complete stranger, and he'd been hers almost ever since. She only had one answer.

"... I told you, faer," she said quietly, smiling oddly up at him. "Off the edge of the world if you want me to. Prince or no prince, you only have to ask."

And this, this was not winter sunlight, nothing pale or delicate at all. This was a blaze, all the world set to burning in his eyes, and all of it for her. All of it hers, all of it for that oath and that promise and that terror. All of it worth it. Without any question at all.

"Right," said Caerwynn behind them, abrupt and startling and decisive. She looked, rather randomly, towards Elys, and addressed the quartermaster as though she were in charge of men as well as stores. Gethyd could see Ambassador Kalaen looking somewhat out of sorts about that. "So that's sorted then. You'll want to head back upslope and grab your horses again. I've got to get their highnesses back to the Hall and you might as well all come along as wait here. The brochans won't be back but there's no need to tempt fate. You've already seen them at their most embarrassing anyway, there's not much point trying to stand on ceremony now."

"We're hardly the most formal of courts anyway," King Haelin said wryly, though he did gesture apologetically down at himself. "Though if I'd known you were a formal delegation, I might have worn something other than my battle shroud. That said, I suppose there's not much point trying to dress up a rotten tree stump, so maybe not."

"Hush," Caerwynn growled, before Laerin could do more than open his mouth, and swooped in to swallow her lover's protests in a brief kiss. "You are the Forest King, embraced and empowered by the wyrldwood, chosen by the Knight of Bone, hated by all chaos and loved by every creature in these forests that stands against it. If I will kneel for you and offer you my horn, no representative of a mortal kingship will dare to mock you within my sight. Wear what you like. You would only have stained the others with demon blood anyway. All right?"

She was looking at the Taelians as she said it, standing seven feet of coiled and ancient power and menace before them. There was the darkness of death in her fathomless eyes, and the horn in her hand had slain chaos itself in its time. They nodded hastily to a body. Ambassador Kalaen inclined his head in hurried assurance, and Commander Cambric rapidly dispatched people to fetch horses rather than stand and face her. Caerwynn, to Gethyd's private amusement, only snorted in unsurprised contempt.

Elys, mind you, only nodded mildly to her before she ambled back upslope herself. Maybe it wasn't so random that Caerwynn spoke to her first. Elys had that way about her, after all. When she spoke, people tended to listen.

And then, when they'd all moved off back towards the crossroads, there was only Gethyd, her faer, and his strange, terrifying family once again. His hands were still tight in hers, and there was an odd sort of gentleness to the other two as they ... listened, Gethyd supposed, rather than watched over them. She should move to get their own horses, but she thought Elys at least might do that for them, and she didn't ... she didn't want to leave yet. She didn't want to break this moment.

Haelin drifted towards them. His not-hair flowed out around him, tracing ground and air alike around him as he moved. Gethyd watched it curiously. She wondered if something, some force of his forest, had gifted it to him in attempted repayment for the loss of his eyes. He touched her lightly on the arm as he reached her, with not-hair first and then a gentle, careful hand. She let go of Laerin, at least one hand, and wrapped it around his father's instead.

"I'm sorry for your welcome," he said, with a soft, lopsided smile. "If it's any comfort, I don't think it was worse than Caerwynn's. We have a tendency to be both foolish and foolhardy, my son and I. I apologise for it, and I ... for my son's sake, I thank you for bearing with it. From the bottom of my heart, Gethyd. From what I have seen of you so far, I truly believe my son could not have chosen better."

"Not had I searched for four hundred years more," Laerin agreed softly beside her, and drew her back to rest against his chest, his arms wrapping around her shoulders. His father let her go, seeming to know what was happening even without touch to confirm it, and smiled at them both as he stepped back. Caerwynn behind him had regained her unicorn shape, a monstrous, massive horse with a horn upon her forehead. She leaned down to nudge him very carefully with her nose.

"Come," she said, and Gethyd had a moment of disconcertion as the sound came not from her mouth, but seemingly from the air about her head. "These two need a moment, and the mortals will be back soon. Lets get you mounted, oh King, and return to your halls in some semblance of state."

Haelin grimaced doubtfully, and Gethyd silently marvelled at him. Two thousand years of a legend knelt down patiently before him, the last and fiercest of the black unicorns, and when she rose back up beneath him they stood as a perfect image of all the danger and sacrifice and willful, prideful endurance the wyrldwood, the bastion between the world and chaos, could offer. He was a pale spectre, yes, gaunt and ruined, but he had faced corruption and death and could handily terrify an entire company of knights merely by appearing in front of a rock. No one in their right minds could fail to respect him. He had nothing to fear, and Gethyd was tempted briefly to tell him so.

"The world is not as the wyrldwood is," Laerin murmured softly behind her, his cheek pressed against her hair as he watched his father. "You said so yourself, lyeth myne. We are monsters and madness to them, and while we might be feared, that does not mean we are respected. My father knows that. We're not kings by blood. He was the first. He was a sacrifice to the wyrldwood when the Sickness became too much, bound to her to bear it alongside her, and he's only king still because he had the strength to endure it until Caerwynn came and destroyed the Corruption. He lasted more than a hundred years. His eyes were the last thing it took. I ... I went for Caerwynn then. I sought her out, I begged her to destroy it before it took any more of my father from me. Unicorns may be paid in purity or death. I offered her either or both, anything she asked. I offered to be her consort or her sacrifice. I still don't know which she might have taken, if either, had my father not offered her something of his own instead."

He paused, as though waiting for a question, but Gethyd couldn't offer one. In truth, she could barely breathe. She could hear the flat, pressed anguish in her partner's voice, the echo of a despair and a desperation four hundred years gone. Caerwynn and Haelin had ambled a little way away from them, seemingly oblivious. She stared at them, and let Laerin shed the last of his seeming innocence behind her.

She'd always known this was there. She'd seen it, all along, that bitter, wary thing, wild and ancient beneath his careful facade. He wasn't human, her faer. He was five, six, seven hundred years old, maybe more. His heart was pure, even still, but he wasn't innocent at all, no more than she. The Salt Road and the wyrldwood both had seen to that.

"He wanted me to know love," Laerin started again at last, something deeply shaking in his voice. "As he had with my mother. He loved her so much, Gethyd, long after she fell to the monsters under the trees. He wanted me to know the same. He wouldn't let me sell the promise of it to Caerwynn. Not for necessity. Not even for his life. I was the last thing he saw before his eyes were taken. He asked me for that. He wouldn't let her have me. He offered her everything he was in that cause. And unicorns ... unicorns yearn for ..."

"Purity," Gethyd whispered, her voice raw and crushed in understanding. "They yearn for purity. What purer sacrifice could anyone make than that?"

"He was afraid she wouldn't take it," Laerin agreed softly. "He's not pure. You can see him. The Sickness corrupted him from head to toe, twisted him and merged him with other things. The wyrldwood did too, trying to fight it. The wyrldwood gave him his hair. She was trying to apologise, I think. She was trying to protect him. Physically, my father is one of the least pure things beneath the trees. He knew that. He knows it still. He thought she would refuse him. He thought she would have reason to."

He thought anyone would have reason to, Gethyd realised, with a wrenched surge of understanding in her chest. That was what Laerin meant, what he was trying to tell her. To explain. The wyrldwood was ... neither safe nor pure. Those who fought for it weren't either. They knew why the rest of the world might reject them.

"... But she didn't," Gethyd rasped. Meaning Caerwynn. Mostly. "She didn't refuse him. She knew better than that. She saw him for what he really was." Purehearted, and so determined to offer themselves up for the first stranger that crossed their path. Oh, Caerwynn must have known. A unicorn, the last and greatest unicorn, surely she of all creatures must have known.

"... But she didn't," Laerin repeated carefully, and Gethyd knew he'd heard it too. Knew he'd understood that it wasn't only Caerwynn she'd meant. "She didn't refuse. She slew the Corruption for us. She fought for weeks. She took such wounds. I've never seen a more terrible battle in all my life, Gethyd. She fought for us, and she won. She saved my father's life, and so much more than that. And when she returned, still wounded and bleeding ... she offered my father her horn. He thought she would take him, or take me. She did neither. She offered him her horn, and asked only to stay by his side, to make the wyrldwood her home as it was his."

Gethyd bit her lip, nodding against her tears. "She fell in love with him," she said quietly. With absolutely certainty. "She saw him for what he was, and she fell in love with him."

Laerin coughed out a laugh, ragged and choked, and leaned down to press his head against her shoulder, to hide himself beneath her hair. "She fell in love with him," he agreed, his arms shaking around her. "And Gethyd ... He wanted me to know love. Love like that, love he somehow won twice. I've been looking. He lets me. Encourages me, really. That's why I leave the wyrldwood at times. For years, sometimes. When I went south, that was what ... But I never thought I'd find it. I'm not him. I'm not ... but you came home with me. You made me that promise on the road. Not because I was fair. Not because I was dangerous. But because ..."

"Because you're stupid," Gethyd finished for him, her voice somehow wry and light and not pressed flat by the weight of all she felt. "Because you're foolish and foolhardy and purehearted. Because you jumped into the pit for me and let me pull you out again afterwards. Because you've been there, because you've fought beside me for six years, because you never flinch and you never falter. Because you've never denied me anything, except maybe some rather pertinent pieces of personal information." He laughed raggedly, and she grinned out across the road towards the Taelians approaching once more. "I love you, faer, because you're the stupidest bastard I've ever met, and your heart is the purest I've ever seen. Don't doubt it, love. Never again. The worst is over, and it takes more than mere chaos to turn me away."

He paused for a second, an endless, endless moment, and then he turned her. Carefully. He put his hands on both her shoulders and turned her gently around to face him. The Taelians clattered in around them, King Haelin and Caerwynn moving to herd them immediately away again, and Gethyd only barely noticed it at all. It was Laerin she was looking at. It was that thing in her fae's eyes, that blazing, untamed thing.

"... So I see," her partner said softly, with that wry, not-quite-innocent smile, ancient and purehearted and as foolhardy as the day was long. "So I see."

And then, thankfully, before she could kick his shin to hurry him up about it, her partner kissed her and, for all the many and varied troubles of the day, Gethyd found herself at last wholly and completely content.

They were worth it, you know. As foolish as they were, the wyrldwood fae were worth every moment of trouble they caused.

Or at the very least, both Gethyd and an ancient black unicorn thought so.
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