Friday, March 25, 2016

Love of a Seer

Love of a Seer is a Shadow Sprawl Setting story, by Terri Pray

Artwork by Samuel Pray, using Daz3d, Photoshop, Filter Forge and Amberlight.

Music filtered past the thick sun baked stone walls, a jangle of notes that shattered her thoughts, drawing her back from the death cold hold of the visions. Darkness. A choice. Something she was a part of but had no control over. It was coming for her, coming for all of them. She shuddered, trying to tear herself free. The heavy ropes of dream fog tangled around her, trying to hold her a little longer, voices that she couldn't quite hear called out, desperate for her attention but the noise from outside continued, growing with each passing moment. She blinked, trying to bring her sight, her normal sight, back into focus. Sand, grit, whatever it was, left her eyes scratchy and no matter how much she blinked, it didn't ease. She rolled out her shoulders and rolled up from her knees and back to her feet, the vision had been lost and there were other things she needed to take care of before the sun set for the day. Pain burned behind both knee caps and she shifted her weight, trying to work out the stiffness. Odd, it had crept up on her, growing a little more with each new moon.

It wasn't just in her knees now, but her shoulders, back and hips. She couldn't deny the need to soak in a hot bath, or seek out the skilled touch of one who knew the body and how it could be stroked and worked to ease movement. With the right oils and under the correct hands, she would regain some of her movement once more. All she had to do was take a little time for herself and was that such a bad thing to do at the end of the day?

Work. No matter how much she took care of there would always be more work waiting for her at the end of the day. The duties of a seer went far beyond looking into the smoke or mists to find an answer on behalf of a seeker. Disputes, advise, the problems of the pack mingling with those who would never be pack and so much more. Seers, magic users, even some who had affinities with other animals had found their way to Rome but so had some humans.

"Lady Althea?" A soft voice, little more than a whisper, called to her from the entrance. "I am sorry to disturb, but I've been sent with a message."

Althea, lady of Rome and First Seer to the Pack, turned to face the intruder. She knew the voice, of course, knew it as well as she knew her own, but the intrusion wasn't welcome in this moment. "Yes child?"

"He has requested that you attend him as soon as you are free to do so."

She nodded, once, taking a moment to form her reply. "I will be there shortly. There are some small things I need to see to first." Romulus - he snapped his fingers and expected her to respond. No, that wasn't fair. He was a reasonable man and even the message made it clear that he understood that there were things she had to do first. She'd known of men who expected women to jump at their command but Romulus wasn't like that, he accepted that she was a Seer, and gave her the respect due her rank. "It will be a candle mark, two at the most. Please let him know."

"Yes lady." The child, a girl who had yet to hit puberty, ducked her head before darting away to find Romulus. Even this young Althea could see the promise of grace and beauty in the young messenger. When she came of age there would be offers a plenty for the child. Something she would have to keep in mind as the girl was under the shared protection of both herself and her mate.

Her mate, her loving, caring, over protective mate - and the law behind the walls of the settlement that they had come to call Rome. Though still small it had the potential to grow and with each new birth, each new shifter or potential mate who entered the city walls, it continued to expand. At this point she counted - a rare skill at best - over three hundred men who now answered to her mate and another two hundred women. Once you counted in the children that brought their number to over seven hundred shifters, potentials and the none shifters who had sworn their loyalty to Romulus. Far more than they had ever thought possible - more than she'd known about when she'd first pledged to become his mate. Not that it would have changed things, she'd been destined to be his, a fate she had seen in the dream smoke before he'd faced off against Remus so many years ago.

Twenty, no - twenty-two years had passed since she had pledged herself to her mate. Ten children, nine of which had survived - their youngest daughter would see her tenth year at the Summer Solstice - and he still turned to her on occasions, albeit rare ones, for the comfort that only a woman could offer a man. That only I can offer him. Oh, he had others he tumbled, that was his nature. What bound them together wasn't the bond of true mates, that she had seen occur but rarely amongst his kind, but a bond of lust, love and power.

With one last look into the chamber she used as a place of work and focus, Althea lifted her shawl over her head and headed out into the street.

Eyes watched her from the shadows of doorways and spaces between the houses. She knew that, she didn't even have to turn to check. They were always there, watching, protecting, ready to step in if something happened. Not that there had been trouble behind the walls in the last eight years or so. Before then, yes there had been raids. People and shifters both who had sought to bring down the city before it had even begun. Now, though it was still small, they were growing and the walls were protected. Soon - perhaps not in her lifetime - they would grow beyond the first set of walls and then there would be a second, and third, or more. The few hundred people that lived here would be forgotten amid the numbers who would take their place. Men, women and children who might not even remember the ones who had built this place. Slaves, there would be many slaves, and seers who protect the people but there would be grief as well.

Death. Betrayal. Hatred. Anger. Then the lighter side. Joy. Marriage. Children. Love.

So many lives and dreams.

She shook off the mini vision that appeared and vanished within moments. This wasn't the time or place for such things, not when she was needed by her mate.

Small stones and sand shifted beneath her sandals. Stones had been placed to form pathways with sand and pebbles between the larger stones. Not all of the streets had been paved as yet, but they were slowly growing much like the city itself.

A child's cry drew her attention. Not pain, but happiness. A squeal of joy mingled with the laughter of another. Life continued all around her, spreading out from the narrow streets to the walls and the fields beyond. Olive groves, vines, grain, apples and pears, all growing beyond the walls under the protection of the guards. Mostly human but with a few shifters thrown into the mix so they could lend their extra abilities to the guarding of their food sources. Some worked with the herds, both sheep and cattle. Pigs were kept well away from the city, unlike the cattle and sheep which were brought into pens each night in order to be kept safe. The pigs were kept in the same areas as the tanneries, some distance from the main walls but still within the safety net of the city.

Footsteps, hooves, laughter and shouts, the sound of grain being ground mingled with the play of children. This was home, her home, even if she could never, would never be one of the people. Her gifts frightened people, and even when they came to her for answers, they made warding signs against evil when they thought she wasn't watching. They needed her, needed her abilities but they tolerated her presence within the walls and then only because Romulus had claimed her as his mate, his wife and the mother of his children. Some of his children.

Bound by duty.

And love. At least on her side, lust and need on his - she never hoped for a love returned not when it was a Seer's lot to serve. Marriage was... rare for her kind. She knew that, accepted that and had planned for nothing more until she'd found herself bound to serve the pack. It was my choice, I could have walked away from him. The idea of leaving him, even back then, had sickened her. Romulus - her life revolved around her mate and their children, with the city coming a close third.

"Lady, he waits for you," a shifter, a man with dark hair and a slight olive cast to his skin, placed a hand over his heart and gave a slight bow as she approached the entrance to the small courtyard. A flicker of uncertainty and distrust moved across the man's amber eyes. He straightened up, the leather of his belt creaked as he shifted his weight, his sandals scuffing the small stones beneath his feet.

"Thank you." Her heart raced and she inhaled deeply, bringing her emotions under control. Even after all of these years he still had the same effect on her. Her body tightened at the thought of seeing him again, their work kept them apart so often that they were in some respects new to each other whenever they were in the same space. Even the way the guard had looked at her did little to distract her from the pleasure of seeing Romulus again. "You serve him well."

"He was in the main room when I last checked. I'll let one of the girls know that you've arrived." The guard inclined his head before turning to vanish within the house. With a soft nod Althea lifted her head, squared her shoulders and walked into the home of Romulus, lord of Rome and Alpha of the pack.

His home, not mine.

They had an odd relationship, of that there was no doubt. Mated pairs lived together, but her gifts required space lest he trigger or be drawn into a vision. They ate together, most days - at least when he was in the city and they raised their children together as much as possible, with the assistance of other pack members. Yet her gift meant that after the first month any child had to be handed off to a wet nurse - one of the downsides of her gift. One of many.

"Lost in thought again, my mate?" The deep, warm familiar voice of Romulus tugged her back to the present. "Or are you on the edge of a vision?" Concern touched his words.

"Just thoughts, my love." The visions frightened him, though he would be the last to admit it. "All is well."

He smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes. "Come here, my mate." He opened his arms, tight muscles rippling beneath a sun touched skin and off white linen tunic. Like the guard he wore a simple leather belt and sandals, a dagger hanging from a sheath at his left hip. "It has been too long since I last held you."

"Ah, but you have not lacked for comfort," her tone light as she walked into his embrace.

"They are passing moments and know it, and they come to me because of what I am, not who I am." His arms tightened around her, his chin resting on the top of her head. "You are my mate and they are moments in time."

Perhaps, if she had been another, the words would still have hurt - but this was who he was and she'd always known this about him. His kind were few enough number and if he found a potential who wanted him he'd share a moment with them. It was the same with any male shifter who had failed to find their true mate. "Will any of them bring new lives into the pack?"

"Perhaps one, maybe two."

Do I want to know how many he enjoyed this time? The honest answer was no. She'd have to know of the ones who had children, but the rest - no, she wouldn't torture herself. She'd known, long before she agreed to be his mate, that this would always be a part of his life. Love and lust weren't enough to bind a shifter, true mates - that was the only bond where neither mate could or would turn to another. Perhaps now that she gave herself a moment to think about it, with the shifters being such a small group, this was the reason why true mates were so rare? Perhaps that is something the gods will one day share with me, until then I will live with the life I have chosen and with the mate I love more than he will ever understand.

"Are you regretting your choice, little Seer?" He brushed one hand over her hair, pushing back the shawl she'd used to cover her head until he could trace a path down the length of her braid. "Picking a life with the pack Alpha, knowing that the drive to find potential breeders would always be there? I wish that I could give you the bond of a true mate, that the need to sire new life only happened with you, but that's not the way I was meant to be. If I have a true mate out there, I've never caught a hint of her and in truth, I would be empty without you, and the children we've had together, in my life."

Her stomach lurched even as he tightened his grip on her. "Regardless of what you feel, I know - I've always known - that I love you." Her throat threatened to close, the words difficult to utter and yet she found a way.

"I know, and it is my deepest regret that I can't say the same words back to you without lying." He worked his hand back up her braid before taking hold of it at the nape of her neck, his grip tight, almost painful. "You've brought so much joy into my life. You and the children. Each one of them a shifter, able to take full wolf form, showing the strength of their blood."

"It is the combination of both of us, my mate." She let her eyes close, refusing to give into the shiver of fear that threatened under his grip. He wouldn't harm me. I've done nothing to warrant such and if I had betrayed the pack then he would take me in front of all of them before casting judgment. There was no reason to be afraid. Not when she was within his arms.

He released his grip on her hair. "My second says I should be free of you, but to do so would kill a part of me."

"Be free of me?" She took a step back, freeing herself from his grasp. "Why? I don't understand why he would say such a thing?" The vision. The memory of the vision returned to her. All of the darkness, the cold power, it clung to her, seeping into her bones until she shivered and wrapped her arms about herself.

"You're aging, like so many others around us, those who are not of the blood, who have a touch of the magic like you but can't claim a full connection."

Anger bristled beneath her skin. "I am a seer."

"Yes, a seer. One who can open themselves to the magic but can never control it. Every time a vision hits you, it owns you. You have no way of stopping it, no way of protecting yourself from it, instead it runs through you and leaves you shaking from the aftermath." His voice was calm, detached. "Look at me, my mate. Truly look at me. See me the way others see me."

This isn't happening. Althea swallowed hard and stepped further away from him, letting the shawl fall to the floor. She closed her eyes, stripping away the lingering shadows of visions that she lived with and only then did she open them once more and look at him. At Romulus, her handsome, athletic mate, with well defined muscles and black hair. Hair untouched by age, lacking even the barest hint of gray. Her hands went to her braid and she tugged it forward. Gray strands, more than strands. White, silver and gray mixed with what had once been black. She swallowed hard and looked back at her mate, her gaze moving to his hands. Smooth, strong, filled with youth but her own - those she lifted and looked at the backs of her hands. Veins stood out through wrinkled skin, swollen knuckles reminding her of the pain she lived with on a daily basis. For the first time in years she took in the differences between them.

"What happened to me? To you?"

"I am a shifter, born of a wolf and touched by the gods, my mate. What was gifted to me, was never going to be shared with you in the same way. That - it only happens between true mates."

"I am old."

"No, my mate. You are human." He closed the gap between them once more, pulling her close. "I will live for many more years and for the time you have left I will claim no other mate. I will not set you aside, no matter what is said. I owe you that much. I only wise I could have given you more. That I could have found a way to trigger the bond that would have given you many more years."

She wanted to cry, to scream at the sky that this was unfair, that she had given her life for the pack and her mate and she deserved something more than age claiming her, but what would have been the point. "There is nothing we could have done to change things, my love." She swallowed hard, her knees trembling as she leaned against his chest. "If I had any sense I would leave you, but I find myself wanting to be selfish."

"And I would not let you go," he grabbed her braid, tugging it sharply until she lifted her gaze. "For you are my mate, the mother of my line. You're bound to me and I to you, for the rest of your life and I will not set you aside as a child might with an older toy, for you are so much more to me than that." He cupped her chin with his other hand as he used the one in her hair to hold her in place. "You are mine." He growled out the words before he claimed her lips.

Heat rippled through her body as she curled her arms around his neck. Her back arched, body arched to press against his. Years stripped away as his tongue parted her lips, seeking, tasting, claiming her mouth, dueling with her tongue until she whimpered, submitting beneath his sensual assault. Her skin tightened, hips pressing against him as she fought against the shudder that threatened beneath her skin. His, she was his and she had long since accepted that. His kiss. She didn't want it to end but like all things it had to.

Romulus sighed and broke the kiss, easing his hand away from her hair until he was able to scoot his arm under her knees, lifting her up into his arms.

"Romulus?" She whispered. Her heart raced, her body aching with a hunger she hadn't known in years. Reality and desire fought, struggling for dominance as he carried her through his house, away from the public rooms and beyond into the private quarters he had long since called his own. Candles flickered in alcoves, fresh linen and furs decorated the bed platform, dried flower petals heaped in open bowls, adding their scent to the room. She looked up at him, knowing that confusion claimed her features. "I don't understand."

He settled her down onto the furs, cupping her cheek softly, his voice pitched low before he gave life to words she had prayed for and long since given up on. "What years you have left I will share with you, from this moment until your last breath I give you my time, my dedication, and my loyalty. No matter the temptation be it here or when I have to leave to tend to the business of the city, for this time I am yours and yours alone. This I so swear from this time until the day we say goodbye."

Tears stung her eyes and she blinked, unable to give him any words. Instead she did the only thing she could, she opened her arms to her mate, welcoming him and the time they had left together, understanding at last the vision that had claimed her before she'd been summoned to his home. The love of a seer was a finite thing and with it came the knowledge, the painful understanding, of how much - or in this case, how little - time she had left with him. And it is the one vision I cannot, dare not share with him...

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