"Do you really have to go?" Kirel asked again, clinging to his lover.

"You know I do, love," Sylvan replied. "I'll be back. It's not forever. We've been over this all before."

"Yes, I know," Kirel sighed. He took some comfort from the fact that Sylvan's arms clung to him as tightly as he held the Bard. "You go out with the group, start making a name for yourselves. I stay here, finish out another annum or so and train up someone else to take my place. Then you come back and bring me along with you. But that doesn't mean I have to like the annum apart. Does it?"

Sylvan chuckled, although it sounded suspiciously thick. "No, love, you don't. And neither do I. Now you let go of me, and I'll let go of you, and I'll get in that carriage and not look back. Because if I see you standing there, watching me leave, I don't think I can do this."

"Then don't," Kirel suggested, but he wasn't serious. He kissed Sylvan, then forced himself to step away. "Be safe, my Bard, and enjoy your journeys. Hurry home to me."

"I'll be back before you know it," the Bard promised, then turned and left, taking Kirel's heart with him.

Kirel watched Sylvan get in the carriage, but he couldn't bring himself to watch the carriage, groaning under the weight of New Sound Rising's equipment and personal belongings, rumble through the gate and down the south road. Instead, he turned and plodded to the stable, where he readied Dapple in a daze and climbed aboard. He guided the horse to the aquaduct, the bizarre structure that had so mystified him when he'd first arrived. It brought water down into the valley from the lake, half a day's walk away on foot, less than half that by horse. Sylvan had shown him the lake during the winter. They'd slid around on the surface ice and peered through the thick crust at the glow below, where a permanent elemental spell kept the lower regions of the lake at a constant temperature, so the spring-fed waters never froze solid and left Scholastica without water.

Now the greenish waters, no longer iced over, danced and sparkled with tiny wavelets under the cloudless sky. Once again, Kirel's life had come to an end on a perfect spring day.

Well, okay. His life hadn't ended. But now it hung in limbo, waiting for Sylvan's return. Would he return? Kirel hoped so. Many hazards troubled travelers on the road, the reason most people remained safely in their homelands their entire lives. And, too, there were many reasons for a lover to never return, not least of which were loss of interest and acquiring a new love.

Kirel sighed. Coming to the lake let Dapple stretch his legs, but provided no other benefit. The deep green waters only reminded him of Sylvan's eyes. They'd spent every possible moment together these last few weeks, as the date of departure drew closer, but perhaps that only increased the pain of separation.

Dissatisfied, Kirel turned Dapple back towards Scholastica. At least the horses offered a distraction.

And so Kirel buried himself in the stables, only coming out for meals. He gave up all pretense of studying and moved out of the cozy room in Ellsworth Hall, where he and Sylvan had first loved each other. He took a room in the stable complex itself, intended for people like him that lived, breathed, and dreamed horses. Up with the sun, or before, he helped with the morning feed, then caught a meal at the worker's kitchen. By the time he finished, the horses had digested their meal, and the grooms had begun their work. Over the last several lunations, Kirel and Rashka had worked together and mapped out an effective strategy for using the available hands in the best, most efficient manner. Now inexperienced, but enthusiastic, workers handled the mucking; more experienced folk managed the grooming and saddling the horses scheduled for exercise; and about twenty-five riders of varying degrees of skill took the horses out. Each worked his assigned hours, completed his assigned task, and each horse received something approaching the proper degree of care. Horse owners willing to exercise their own mounts got them according to the schedule, allowing each owner to spend time with their beast after the Scholastican day officially ended. Kirel arrived long before the official day began, and remained long after it ended. If he went by the clock, which he seldom cared to do, he rose at about four thirty in the morning and began feeding by five. Then breakfast about six, on a horse half an hour later, and by the time the first helpers arrived, he'd already brought his first steamy horse back in for its rubdown. All very efficient now, all very effective.

And none of it a replacement for Sylvan.

One benefit of all the work, Kirel reflected as he lay down, was that at night he felt tired enough to fall asleep with no problem and stay that way. He woke each morning with a dull ache of loss when he found himself alone, then pushed it aside and threw himself back into his work. Days sped by, filled with whuffled greetings, green slobber, and brisk gallops through the fields.

Spring dribbled with rain. Kirel sought out Arven, of the high mountain gear, for advice, and left with an oiled cloth cape. The hood helped improve his mood somewhat. He felt miserable enough on his own, he had no need of cold rain drooling down his neck and spine.

Time passed. How long? Kirel didn't know, and he didn't care. He only cared about Sylvan's absence, and the gaping, aching hole in his heart where warmth and love belonged.

And so matters continued, until the day Kirel spotted a strange horse in Dapple's stall. Dapple himself was safely in the pasture, turned out to graze, but who was the dark bay cob stolidly munching his way through a heap of grain and hay? Kirel consulted the feeding schedule, and Dapple's name was still there, as well as on the list of horses to bring in before the evening feed. Someone must have made a mistake. Kirel set off to find the Stablemaster, who should know where the horse properly belonged.

"I don't know what a horse is doing there," Rashka said, shrugging. "Mind leaving Dapple out tonight, until we track down who it is and where it goes?"

"I guess not," Kirel said. "Dapple's a big boy, and he's still got some of that impressive coat he grew. He'll be okay."

So he scratched Dapple off the feeding list and the pull-in list and forgot about the incident.

Then he got home.

Kirel frowned at his door. A light flickered there, at the crack between door and floor. Why? He thought fire! and threw the door open.

It was a fire, a tiny little fire, flickering at the end of a candlewick, and casting bits of shimmering light over the smiling features of Sylvan the Bard.


Kirel flung himself into the room and caught the Bard as he stood up. Laughing, Sylvan staggered back and tripped on the hard wooden chair he'd occupied, nearly falling backwards. Their lips locked together, even as Sylvan sought to detangle himself from the chair.

"By the gods, Kirel, I've missed you!" Sylvan broke free long enough to look at Kirel, grinning widely enough that it must have hurt. Then they kissed again, devouring each other with barely contained passion.

"What are you doing here?" Kirel panted, his hands moving frantically over his lover's body. "You've lost weight."

"So have you, love." Sylvan stroked Kirel's cheekbone, far more prominent than he remembered. Then he traced a gentle finger over the dark circle under each eye. "You've been pushing yourself too hard again, haven't you. And why in all hells did you change residence? I nearly had heart failure when I found a wet behind the ears dolt in the space you once claimed. I had a terrible time tracking you down."

"Sorry. It's easier to get to work from here. Now, enough about me," Kirel said, still breathless. He stole a quick kiss. "You now. Why are you here?"

"I can always leave again," Sylvan said, and moved one leg towards the door.

"Don't you dare!" Kirel wrestled his lover to the bed, only a few steps away, and pinned him down with hands and knees. "Now tell me!"

"Oh, all right, if you insist. I missed you."

"I missed you, too," Kirel choked out around the sudden painful lump in his throat. "So what happened?" He relaxed his grip and collapsed atop his lover, sighing with pure pleasure as their bodies molded to each other.

"That's it. I missed you unbearably. We'd been on the road for maybe a week before the ache became intolerable. And then the group started having problems. Caro, as I'm sure you'll believe, was the cause. She started fussing about my position in the group. Why was I the soloist, why were we catering to my ego, blah blah blah. Never mind that the group was my idea, and I wrote two thirds of the music. Add that to everyone's constant whining and griping, because travelling by coach is nowhere near as comfortable as we'd expected, and I just didn't want to be with them anymore. The performances were suffering, the people we played for didn't understand us... and you weren't anywhere near. So I set off one night, while the rest of them were sleeping, and didn't look back. I walked, at first, but that was too slow. So I got hold of a horse. Yes, that's right, me on a horse. You might have seen him, I put him up in Dapple's stall. I doubt we would win any awards or anything, but old Darkie and I made it back here to you. And Kirel," Sylvan prodded him until he raised his head from the Bard's shoulder and looked at Sylvan, "I will never leave you again. I love you, and I want to be by your side, now and always."

"That's fine by me," Kirel said dreamily. "I never want to let go of you. Never. You might disappear."

Sylvan kissed him. "Never," he started to say, then the word turned into a yawn. "Sorry," he managed to get out, around another yawn. "Suddenly very, very tired..."

"Mmm, me too," Kirel agreed. "But not too tired to know we belong under the covers, not on top of them. Join me?"

Sylvan smiled. "With all my heart."

Kirel pulled himself to his feet with an effort, forcing himself to take his hands from Sylvan's body. "A moment."

He banked the fire quickly, then blew out the candle. Where had Sylvan dug up the archaic thing, anyway? Nobody used candles these days. Then he removed all of his clothing with a sigh for his various aches and pains.

When he returned to the bed, Sylvan waited in it, yawning again. "I may not be up for much, love. I ache all over."

Kirel slid under the red comforter. "Sylvan, I don't care if nothing at all happens, so long as I get to hold you in my arms and wake with you here beside me, where you belong."

"Good," Sylvan said, around another yawn. "Because I really think I'm done for."

"I love you," Kirel said, which seemed like the most appropriate reply he could make. He snuggled close to his lover, whose breathing already slowed into sleep. Kirel rested his head on Sylvan's shoulder, rubbing his side. He felt content just to lay here beside his Bard, knowing the man was safe and here and still in love with him. That was enough.