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A Love To Keep

When life in the city falls apart, Tazalea chances everything by answering a missive to restore an old castle and finds new love and new danger in a far-off village.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Drunken orcs ruined my life. Just like Tome warned me. “Tazalea, whatever you do, don’t let the orcs get too drunk, or they’d burn the place down.”

And so they did.

 

Rain soaks me sodden. Ash smears my face and arms. My tavern, my livelihood, is a blackened skeleton. The Tipsy Tankard has poured its last draught.

 

“Hey, uh…” The book in my leather satchel expels a long sigh. “I’m sorry about this.”

 

“Even though you were right?”

 

“I mean, you’ve studied orcs and how much they love playing with fire—”

 

“I know.” I pat the satchel. The thick volume within couldn’t be more reassuring. “Let’s go home.”

 

I want to hurry to my beloved and fall into his arms, but when I reach Wellington’s house, he is in someone else’s.

 

“Tazalea, my darling, listen.” Those blue eyes and those blond locks… How can I deny them? Those rippling muscles … How can I resist?

 

But I realize he’s wearing the short-cut robe that belongs to Esmeralda of the Green Reach.

 

The gorgeous elf stands behind him, on the threshold of the thatched cottage that was to be ours, wearing my silverscale dressing gown. The one Wellington bought for me when I opened the tavern. She’s my opposite with white hair, pale eyes, and pearly skin.

 

“Please understand,” Wellington says. “I need a younger woman.”

 

“Younger? I’m twenty-four.”

 

“Twenty-four centuries.”

 

“So? She’s one thousand-years-old!”

 

“I’m nine-hundred-seventy,” Esmeralda snaps.

 

“You’re not listening,” Wellington whispers. “There’s no future in taverns. Esmeralda is a sorceress.”

 

“Have your sorceress conjure a new gown, because I’m taking mine.”

 

“You wouldn’t dare.” Esmeralda plants her hands on her hips. The silverscale catches the morning sun.

 

I strip the robe away and shove her into the mud, then storm away from the house—and my life. I only glance back once, satisfied by the puzzled look on Wellington’s face.

 

The gown earns me a handful of gold. Not enough to rebuild, even if I want to, which is why I find myself at an unburnt tavern, bleary with wine, reading the posters nailed to the message board.

 

There it is—a wild chance, as if Fate had ordained my next steps.

 

“See?” I rip the poster free and shove it against Tome’s open pages.

 

“Mmph.” His muffled tone isn’t optimistic. I pull the poster back. “Thanks. Huh… ‘Behold! Castle is yours to keep. Majestic estate in need of a visionary lord or lady. Village of Sheyheath.’ Terse, isn’t it?”

 

“Five days east of Tiriande. It can be mine, Tome—free of cost, free of spoil.” Free of Wellington. “We leave at dawn.”

 

“Whoa, wait. What do you know about castle restoration?”

 

“I built my tavern.”

 

“With help. And last I checked stones weigh a ton more than wood.”

 

“Ye of little faith.” I drain the last glass. Hiccup. “Tomorrow. Dawn.”

 

Tome groans. “You’d better read up, then.”

 

***

 

I do. Every word Tome produces on his pages about Sheyheath, its forests, its fields. Five days later cottages appear over the last hill nestled among orchards and wheat fields. My heart lifts.

 

Until the castle peeks over treetops.

 

“That’s a dump,” Tome says.

 

A single crumbling wall encircles a tiny keep three floors tall. No windows.

 

“At least there’s room to tie up the horse,” Tome says as I dismount. “Barely.”

 

“It has character.” I touch damp stone. “We’d better buy supplies.”

A door creaks on rusty hinges. I spin and reach for a long dagger secured to my belt.

 

An elf stands at the keep, one hand splayed on the door and the other holding a thick book. He glances up at me, sunlight glinting off broad cheekbones. Azure eyes watch me standing there watching him. His hair is short and curly, brown like farm soil.

 

“Who are you?” His voice is mellow and deep.

 

“Tazalea of Tiriande, formerly of the Tipsy Tankard.”

 

“Well, Tazalea of Tiriande, you’re trespassing.”

 

“I can’t trespass on my land.”

 

“Your land?” His nose wrinkles. The book slaps shut. “I arrived here two days ago with the claim to this keep.”

 

“A lot of that going around,” Tome mutters.

 

If this man is bothered by my talking book, he doesn’t show it. I slowly reach for the poster folded beneath my belt and open it inspection. “This claim?”

He steps nearer. I try to ignore the fragrance of oak and sweat. “Well. This is a conundrum.”

 

“One we shall solve by visiting the magistrate. Care to accompany me?”

 

“As if you know where it is.”

 

I hold his gaze. “Tome, mark the magistrate’s house for me.”

 

“As you wish, milady.” His reply is a bit theatrical, but it’s worth the look on the man’s face as Tome floats from my satchel and, pages fanning, casts a hazy image in the air between us as if suspended on a cloud.

 

The man lifts his chin. “I shall accompany you there.”

 

“You are…?”

 

“Galen Kelhorn, keeper of the books from Anyvethhyr.” He strides past me, heading for the gates. “And this is my next library.”

 

***

 

The magistrate is dead.

 

“Haven’t had one for, oh, six months.” The old woman with the eyepatch sitting on the house’s stoop clucks her tongue. “Head to Sachester for adjudication of your claims.”

 

Galen and I scowl at each other. “That’s twelve days each way,” I say.

 

“It’s not like Sheyheath needs a castle or a library—whatever that is. Off with ye.”

 

That is that. No chance for legal reprieve.

 

“I’ve already unloaded ninety volumes,” Galen says, “With thrice as many expected on the next wagon in a fortnight.”

 

“But I have plenty of gold for repairs.” I jangle the pouch. “Plus magical resources.”

 

“Yep, that’s me, your willing stonemason,” Tome quips.

 

We reach the village’s edge. Galen clears his throat. “I propose we work together on the castle’s restoration. You provide the gold, while I instruct. Upon completion, we share the space until an adjudication can decide the rightful owner.”

 

“I accept.” We shake hands. His palm is hot and rough against my skin. He must be a half-elf, then, unlike Esmeralda.

 

Seeing that trollop again, wearing my robe, while Wellington equivocates is enough to set my blood boiling—and grant me

strength for the work ahead.

 

***

 

Galen is true to his word. He sets volumes onto a lopsided wooden table held up by four rotting buckets. We pore over the texts together for hours until we fall asleep in the waning candlelight.

 

The next few days find us working side by side—I use Tome to levitate stones back into place, while Galen offers advice from musty books on stonemasonry. His expected wagon arrives on schedule, delivering among its loads another ten volumes with construction plans among their pages.

 

From time-to-time Tome floats over the open books, their pages flipping in fast unison to his, as he absorbs their content.

 

Three weeks later a letter arrives by traveling merchant. It bears Wellington’s crest. Galen is in town, bartering for supplies. I unseal the paper.

Darling, I was a terrible fool. Esmeralda is gone. Come back to me.

“Wow.” Tome whistles, his pages rustling. “Sure knows how to apologize, doesn’t he?”

 

“His words mean nothing.” I crumple the letter and hurl it across the yard. “His actions spoke volumes.”

 

The days plod on. Galen’s tone is at times condescending as we work, which grates my nerves, but then he helps me lift hefty slabs with the vines he summons from the earth, a green glow suffusing him as he casts the spell. Tome and I assist with his studies, finding buried trinkets of knowledge. We read later and later into each evening.

 

“If I stuff more schematics into my mind it will burst.” I rub my eyes one night a few weeks later.

 

Galen pushes a steaming mug toward me. Candlelight dances across his eyes. “This will keep your mind sharp.”

 

The aroma seduces me. “One of your concoctions?”

“Tome told me of it. Hot chocolate.”

 

“Tome, you kept it from me?”

 

“Hey, if you’re not looking for spells or weapons or wisdom—lame stuff—you’re not interested.” Tome closes his cover.

 

“Poor fellow.” I turn to the next page and wince at a sudden pain between my thumb and forefinger. Blood wells.

 

“The bane of scholars. Allow me.” Galen pulls a rag from a nearby bookshelf and cradles my hand in his. He daubs the wound, pressing against it. “We’ll wash it in a moment.”

“Yes.” I curl my fingers around his before I realize what I’m doing. “A moment.”

 

Our faces are near enough I feel his breath, sweet with chocolate. His lips part. He speaks a husky, “Tazalea…”

 

I reach for his chin.

 

Shutters crash open. Frigid wind barges into the room. Pages and candle flames dance.

 

What am I doing? I jolt. My chair squeals on the stone floor.

 

“Ah… Sorry.” Galen reddens. He pats the rag and leaves it in my hand. “Better clean that up.”

 

We continue reading without comment.

 

***

 

Three days later, we stand atop the wall. The doors have been barred. The shutters replaced. The stones wedged into a strong barricade.

 

“Not perfect.” Galen’s words are soft. “But close.”

 

“It’s wonderful. Aren’t you pleased?”

 

“That the work is near done? Yes.” He examines his boots. “But… Tazalea, once we are finished, must we be … finished?”

 

“I assumed so.” I turn away. Wait. Who is that figure approaching the walls?

 

“What if I were to tell you I wished otherwise?” He touches my paper-cut hand. “Please.”

 

“We… That is…” I meet his gaze.

 

“Tazalea of Sheyheath!”

 

Wellington? He stands below, wearing all black garb. He doffs his hood. His face is gaunt. Shadows haunt his eyes. “Come back to me, darling.”

 

“That’s bad timing,” Tome says.

 

“Your beloved.” Galen withdraws his hand, his expression pained. “Who you supposedly left.”

 

“I did leave him, because he discarded me.”

 

“He seems to think otherwise.”

 

I sigh and lean back over the wall. “Wellington, you betrayed me.”

 

“Tazalea, you don’t understand.” Wellington presses his hands to his vest. “I know I made a mistake. I need you. I’ve come for your heart.”

 

I catch Galen’s questioning expression and hope I don’t have to spell it out for him. “My heart belongs to someone else now.”

 

His arms loosen. He parts his lips, as if to ask, but Wellington interrupts with, “You still don’t understand me—or what I’ve become.” His eyes go black. The edges glow red.

 

“Um,” Tome says, “That’s not good.”

 

“Esmeralda taught me great power that surpasses even death.” He throws back his head and roars a litany that shakes the stone underfoot. Black clouds turn day to night. A purple glow streaks between homes deep into the forest, converging on the cemetery.

 

Tombstones topple. Putrid corpses break through the ground. Hundreds of the undead shamble toward Sheyheath and our keep.

 

Our?

 

“Listen,” Wellington snarls, “I’ve come for your heart. Once I tear it out of your chest, the power to keep the dead as my servants will be unstoppable.”

 

“No, Wellington.” I reach for Tome. His pages spin until he vanishes in a golden flash, becoming a broad oval shield that I slip my arm behind. “You won’t.”

 

“Oh.” Wellington’s expression sags. “Um… You’re armed?”

 

“And she’s not alone.” Galen puts an arm around my waist. He curls his left hand’s fingers. Vines erupt from the ground as crevasses split open, keeping the village walled from the horrific forms lumbering towards it.

 

Wellington stamps his foot. “Not fair! Not fair, I tell you!”

 

“Life rarely is, darling.” I gaze into Galen’s eyes and brush my hand across his cheek. “You are wonderful. Not perfect. But close.”

 

He grins.

 

I leap from the wall, landing in a golden spray of light as Tome cushions my fall. I brandish the shield. “If you want my heart, Wellington, you’re too late.”

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