This is not the spirit realm, Kvornan decides, watching the windows of the tall stone huts twinkle with the flames of many candles.
But if it is not the spirit realm, then where is he? Nothing in his father's lore has prepared him for this, nor do his mother's few tales about the fair folk that share the forests with men say anything about villages of stone. Through their windows, Kvornan has seen people, mortal, like his tribe, though oddly dressed, but real flesh and blood, unlike the ghostly pair he witnessed when he first arrived. He'd like to go in to one of their tall stone huts, to see who they are and how they live, but simply walking in and asking questions seems a foolhardy thing for a stranger to do.
"If you were a bird, you could fly right up to their windows and see for yourself. They don't take any notice of our kind," a voice croaks beside him.
"Well met, Raven," Kvornan greets the black-feathered bird. Talking animals was exactly what he expected to encounter on his spirit journey; perhaps this is the spirit realm after all. His father did say it would be different for every spirit walker. "Could you show me how to be a bird?" he asks of his new found friend.
"That's what I'm here for," the Raven croaks.
And so the Raven teaches Kvornan to take his form, so that he may fly up to the windows of even the tallest hut, and see inside.
Kvornan flies up to one brightly lit window, and rests on the ledge as he peers in to the room. A girl is sitting just below him, her hands busy scribbling symbols on a scroll with a feather as white as the feathers he wears are black.
At first, she takes no notice of the large bird looking in at her, and Kvornan would have gone unseen if he had not decided to peck at the glass and draw her attention to him.
"A raven," the girl muses, rising to take a closer look, "I suppose you'd like to warm yourself by my fire?" she asks as she opens the window for him, and coaxes him in.
"You are no ordinary raven, are you?" she asks once he's securely inside and resting on her arm.
You are no ordinary girl, Kvornan thinks, but since the Raven did not teach him to speak like a man while wearing the form of a bird, he cannot give voice to his thoughts, and merely croaks at her in her response.
"Let's see what you really are," the girl says, setting the bird gently on the floor so that he might cast an unraveling spell on him.
The spell forces Kvornan back into his true form.
"Oh," the girl gasps when he stands revealed before her. "You are not what I was expecting. In the stories it's always either an ensorcelled prince looking for a lissome maid to break the enchantment, or a lecherous old sorcerer looking for something far less savory."
The girl laughs, and gathers herself, "I am Jennail, of House Tricou," she introduces herself, holding her hand out to touch his, "You are no prince, clearly. Tell me, did you take the form of a bird with your own magic, or were you put under a curse? Are you a sorcerer, or the hapless victim of one?"
"I don't know what a sorcerer is, or a prince," Kvornan admits, "My name is Kvornan. I am a spirit talker, making my first spirit journey. Raven taught me to take his form, so that I could look into your window."
"You've journeyed through the spirit realm and learned to take the form of a raven just so that you might look in on me at my studies?" Jennail says with a smile that makes his blood rush to his head.
Before he can explain that his purpose was not to look in on her, exactly, his journey ends abruptly and he finds himself back by his father's side, with only the memory of eyes as green as spring leaves haunting him.
"I still don't think it was truly the spirit realm I was in," Kvornan concludes after telling his father all the details of his journey.
"There was the Raven," Ardax says.
"Yes," Kvornan agrees, "But everything else, the ghostly murder scene, the girl in the tall stone hut..."
"No one has ever made a spirit journey quite like yours," Ardax says, "But you carry gifts from your mother that no spirit talker has ever carried. Perhaps there are realms open to you that have never opened for any other."
Late in the morning, Talfryn strolls into his mother's nest, hoping Tearhne will be too distracted with her new baby to question him too much. But of course, Seirian is in his face before he's two steps into the perimeter.
"Where have you been all night?' the older dragon asks him.
"Hunting," Talfryn answer with a sullen frown, "Can I please just get some sleep?"
"Hunting?" Seirian laughs, "I can smell your 'prey' all over you. If you're going to lie with fairies, you must know you can't lie about it afterwards, not to another dragon. You're as flowery as a spring meadow."
"I know," Talfryn sighs, "I bathed for hours. Otherwise I'd have been back here before dawn. It just doesn't come off."
"It would be best for you to sleep in your father's nest until it wears off," Seirian says seriously.
"Why?" Talfryn asks, "There's no law against being with a fairy now, is there? My father---"
"You've broken no laws, but your mother won't be happy with your choice, nonetheless."
"But she stood with my father to change the old laws," Talfryn protests.
"Aye, she did. We all in this nest stood on the side of change...but that doesn't mean your mother wanted to throw tradition to the wind. Her hopes for you were to mate with another of our kind and join a nest. She'll come to accept the idea of you following Aymeri's path if that's what makes you happy. But it would be better if she heard it from your lips, and didn't smell it on you before you could get the words out."
"Understood," Talfryn agrees, knowing his mother's temper well, "I'll go stay with my father for a few days.
"I'll bring Tearhne there for a visit in a few days," Seirian says, "She'll want to show Irina off, anyway, so she'll be eager to make the visit. And since Aymeri's nest smells like some overgrown flower garden all the time anyway, you can talk to your mother without worrying what scents you're putting off."
"You did the right thing," Ico assures Evenfall when the young fairy tells her about how she took her sister's memory of seeing her with Talfryn away. "Your mother's people would not fare well at all against the dragons."
"But why are they so set on not being seen?" Evenfall asks, "What could the humans possibly do to them?"
Ico laughs, "If you are going to love a dragon, be prepared for a lifetime of unanswered questions and unexplained laws. They are what they are, and you just have to find a way to live with what you can't understand. Maybe someday, when the dragons who are children now are old enough to have a voice, perhaps they will demand change as Aymeri did. But until then, it is best you never mention that your sister saw Talfryn, no matter that she didn't know he was a dragon or that you took the memory of it from her. Just the hint that one of your tribe may have seen a dragon could spark the wrath of some of the older dragons."
"I was hoping you could tell Aymeri, and that he could give Talfryn a sterner warning," Evenfall admits quietly, "Nothing I say will stop him from sneaking into the village at night to wake me."
Ico frowns, "Telling Aymeri of this might not have the outcome you are looking for," she says, "He might forbid his son from seeing you at all."
"Oh!" Evenfall gasps, and shakes her head sadly, "I don't want to lose him. But if we go on like this, he will end up exposing himself to my mother's people eventually. Maybe...maybe it would be better for me to come live with you, Ico. I can't see any other way to protect the tribe."
Ico smiles, "You are welcome here, you know that, daughter of Auberon."
In the evening, Aymeri returns from his hunting to find two new faces at his fire.
"Seirian thought it best for me to stay here awhile," Talfryn explains, "When he and my mother bring Irina to meet you, I'll tell her about Evie and me." He carefully leaves out any mention of tell tale scent of fairy arousal; apparently, the fae don't have as sensitive a nose as dragons, and were unaware of the perfume their bodies produce during moments of intimacy, and they find the topic too embarrassing to discuss.
"And you're here to be with him," Aymeri says to Evenfall.
"I...yes. Yes, I'm here to be with Talfryn," Evenfall answers nervously, unable to look Aymeri in the face as she peaks the half-truth.
"We fairies will do anything to be with our dragons," Ico laughs, using the joke as a cover for Evenfall's difficulty at maintaining the lie.
"You are welcome at my fire any time, Evie," Aymeri says, "But you'll speak the truth to me, understand? Why have you left your mother's tribe?"
Flustered, Evenfall fidgets as she stammers out a half-response, her eyes darting from Talfryn to Ico as though she could determine what she should and should not say. "I...that is..." she tries, but nothing of any sense comes out of her, until Ico finally ends her misery and tells the truth about the girl's fears for her tribe's safety after Talfryn's recent night visit.
And as Ico suspected he might do, Aymeri rises in anger and pulls his son away from the group around the fire.
"You know that going so close to the mortal camp is forbidden!" Aymeri growls at his son.
"I was careful!" Talfryn protests.
"And yet you were seen," Aymeri points out.
"Evie took care of it," Talfryn answers, "Her sister will never remember she saw me."
"That doesn't change the fact that what you did was wrong," Aymeri says.
"Well, wasn't what you did with Ico wrong?" Talfryn shoots back, "You broke more laws than I ever did."
"You dare talk to me like that?" Aymeri growls, his hand rising to strike the boy. Talfryn flinches, prepared for the blow, while Evenfall and Riain both rush over to his defense.
Evenfall's cries fall on deaf ears, but Riain's hand on his shoulder and gently spoken, "Brother, you don't want to do this," pull Aymeri back before his arm can complete the swing toward Talfryn's face. Given this reprieve, Talfryn and Evenfall scamper off together, out of Aymeri's sight.
"I didn't mean to hit him," Aymeri groans.
"You didn't," Riain reminds him, "You stopped before you struck."
"I can't let anger rule me," Aymeri goes on as if Riain hadn't spoken.
"Let me," Ico says, coming between the brothers. Riain nods, allowing Ico to lead Aymeri away to comfort him in private.
"I've become my mother," Aymeri says quietly, "I let my anger overcome my sense and I struck my child."
"You exaggerate, my love," Ico says, laying a gentle kiss on his forehead, "I saw what your mother did to Kirwyn, and even if your hand had finished the blow it was raised to give, you still would never be capable of that kind of cruelty."
"I know," Aymeri admits, "But I've fought so hard to rein in my nature, to not strike out of anger, to think before resorting to violence. And the one time I show weakness, I do it in front of my son. What kind of example am I setting?"
"Talfryn has his whole life's worth of examples of your wisdom and forbearance, my love," Ico says, "His recklessness could have brought war and death on the whole tribe of humans, if Evie hadn't taken the girl's memory away. After what we all went through to stop the war brewing between dragon and fae, you had every reason to be angry at him."
"Come," she whispers, gently pushing him to the ground as she removes her shirt, "You should not be so hard on yourself. In all the world of fae, dragons and men, there is no one that can match you, my love, none as honorable, or as strong..."
"I think you're the one who's exaggerating now," Aymeri says, rising to kiss her as she presses herself against him.
"I speak only the truth," she whispers.