Following his principles will break two hearts.
Forester Veld loses a piece of himself to mute baker Oren when they first meet, but Oren is vowed to Haram. When Haram is killed, Veld denies his heart to respect the mourning period. It’s the right thing to do.
During Haram’s funeral, Oren proudly bares the brands that show the nature of their love; Haram owned him, heart and body. The elves pity Oren and think he’s broken.
Veld has no intention of dishonouring Haram’s memory, but his death may not have been an accident. Only a forester can learn what the trees have seen. However, Oren’s independence is threatened, and if Veld does not offer what Oren needs, Oren may never be his to claim.
WARNING: includes some BDSM in the form of a D/s relationship and scarification.
My head bowed, my hands folded within the sleeves of my cloak, I hummed along with the Prayer of the Dead as I followed Oren in the procession. As long as I kept my head down and didn’t look at him, I wouldn’t have to bear seeing him mourn, wouldn’t have to think about how the moment I’d catch the sorrow in his eyes, my feet would take me to him and my hands would reach out. I couldn’t let myself lose control. He wasn’t mine.
I didn’t look up when Oren stopped, and I nearly bumped into him. I chalked it up to nerves, emotions. Any moment now, we would round the corner to lead Haram’s body through the centre of the village. There, everyone could wish his departed essence farewell one last time as we led him to his pyre.
The shuffling of Oren’s feet seemed at odds with his mood, and, in the end, I had to look up. I barely kept my jaw from dropping. Oren had taken his shirt off. Before I had time to process his actions, we moved on. With great reluctance, I dragged my sight away from Oren’s gorgeous, broad back. I had no right. He wasn’t mine.
My resolve lasted as long as it took for us to reach the centre, where a collective gasp greeted us. Everyone looked away from Oren. Everyone but Oren’s sister, Ajuna, who walked next to him, her hand firmly planted at the small of Oren’s back to support him. I swallowed and raised my eyes to Oren’s glorious, bronzed shoulders. I wasn’t going to give the tribe the impression I agreed with them. Of course, staring at him made me ache for him even more. I clenched my hands within my sleeves. As much as I wanted to reach out, I couldn’t. He wasn’t mine. Ajuna would have to be the pillar Haram had always been for Oren.
The guide, a pale, slender cloud elf, preceded us with wings folded, head bowed, his long, white hair bound back, and his voice dark and clear in the unnatural silence. He didn’t look around, didn’t look up, he merely led the way, ignoring the reactions of the tribe to Oren. Walking shirtless and proud as he led his lover’s body to his pyre, showing his love for Haram for all to see, was a sign of respect for the bond they shared.
The ones who looked away didn’t understand, couldn’t grasp what he was showing them. I could see it in their averted eyes: their shock, their disdain. They thought abuse, but I knew better. I saw the wonder of the art he carried: Haram’s art. Oren’s bared upper body showed a mass of ridges and bumps, all carefully placed, creating a beautiful picture.
I couldn’t deny it; Oren was a gorgeous tree elf. He was tall and built like a sturdy elm, with messy, short, golden curls, and the most beautiful blue eyes that always reminded me of the sky on a sunny day.…
Kicking my feet into the ground, I lowered my head again, though the image of Haram’s designs on Oren’s bare back was burned into my mind. If only I could touch him, could touch his art. If only I could add to it. I bit my lip and pushed my sinful thoughts down. On the day we brought Haram’s body to his pyre, I should not be thinking these things. I should be praying, should be respectful of the dead. Haram died barely a quarter moon ago, and Oren was mourning. We were all mourning.
I fell back a step or two and laid my hand on the edge of the cart to pay my own respects. Haram had been my healer and my friend. One of the closest friends I’d ever had, one who had never held my desire against me, though he’d made it very clear Oren was never to learn of it. Haram didn’t share.
Haram was a force to be reckoned with, and it was difficult to believe a stray arrow from a hunter’s apprentice had been all it took to defeat him. When the cart stopped, I kept my gaze on my hand resting on the edge of it until a sob tore my view to Oren. Oren gathered Haram up in his arms. My heart broke when he touched his lips to Haram’s forehead, weeping freely. Ajuna glanced at me then, a clear question in her eyes, and I swallowed. Oren was my friend as much as Haram had been, and here I stood, awash with feelings I shouldn’t have, while he suffered.
I nodded at Ajuna and stepped around the cart to help Oren carry his burden. Oren barely acknowledged me, but I felt his grip on Haram loosen as I helped him place Haram on the pyre. The care, the love, with which Oren righted Haram’s attire, pulled and shifted the bearskin covering him until it lay just right, brought a smile to my face. I let Oren work at his own pace and kept others with less patience away. This was Oren’s right, and I was going to make certain he’d have all the time he needed.
The guide moved next to me. We stared at each other for a moment, a wordless conversation that resulted in him nodding at me and moving to Oren’s other side to shield him from nosy well-doers. Ajuna stood behind her brother, her hand, once again, at the small of his back in support. I pushed down the urge to swat it away. He wasn’t mine, I reminded myself. If only my body would listen for once. It had made its mind up the moment I’d spotted Oren in his bakery over two turns ago.
When Oren finally stepped back, the guide lit a torch and looked at Oren expectantly. Oren took a folded piece of paper from inside his sleeve and pushed it into my hand, his bronzed fingers a stark contrast to my dark palm. I started to shake my head, but Oren’s pleading eyes stopped me, and I could do nothing but accept it. Ajuna would have been a far better choice, but he wanted me to be his voice. Who was I to disrespect his decision?
I unfolded the paper and read Oren’s meticulous scrawl. An elf of few words—no one would be surprised at that—but his writing was full of heart, full of love and respect for the elf he’d shared his life with for over ten turns.
“You were my love”—I read the first line aloud—”my life, my keeper. You saw me for who I was, and helped me be who I wanted to be. I am proud to wear your marks, to show my bond to you, my vowed.” I paused and took a deep breath. “And one day, my handsome Haram, with Ma’terra’s blessing, we will be together again.”
Tears streaked Oren’s cheeks, and his hands trembled as he took the torch from the guide and lit the pyre. He stood there, frozen, watching the pyre burn, with one hand stretched towards it. My heart burned for him.
The guide started up the Prayer of the Dead again, his voice almost too loud in the silence. Oren staggered back. I reached out to steady him, nodding to Ajuna to let her know I had him. She stepped back, but Oren didn’t even seem to notice the lack of her touch. He just put his head on my shoulder and cried.
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Blaine D. Arden is a purple-haired, forty-something author of queer romance mixed with fantasy, mystery, and magic who sings her way through life in platform boots.