Wishingsdale was just as Telkarnith remembered it. He and his faithful canine companion, Helkhar, walked down into the valley side by side, in no great hurry, taking in the sounds and smells of late spring. The human villagers reacted to their appearance with surprise and suspicion.
"Who is that man?" said one of the villagers.
"Is that a wolf?" said another.
"That thing is huge!"
"It better not eat my sheep."
"Wait a minute. I daresay that's our boy, Telkarnith Chelseer!" That was from the baker, Armin. "Telkarnith, where've you been, it's been years? You've become quite the man!"
"Hello, Mr. Baker," Telkarnith said. "Are my mother and brother well?"
"Well as can be," Armin said, "I daresay she's been waiting for you, son. Got big plans for you."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Telkarnith said with a smirk, and headed for the Chelseer House.
"Well, now, who's this stranger in my house?" Tevriel said as he came inside. Then her eyes widened and she blinked as the large snow wolf came in after him. "I see you've certainly got a tale to tell, too."
"Mother, this is Helkhar," Telkarnith said. "I raised him from a cub."
"I'll make a note to have plenty of meat available," his mother said with a chuckle.
In the time he'd been away, his little brother, Kior, had grown to become a strapping young lad of fourteen years. Despite his years away, Wishingsdale still felt like home to Telkarnith, and he settled in again readily enough. He was the man of the house, now.
He had been home for about a month when a pair of familiar faces turned up on his doorstep. "Donna? Winder? What are you guys doing here?" Telkarnith said.
"Hey," Winder said. "Can't old friends come to visit without you wondering why? We haven't seen you in over a year, since you left to wander around the whole of Kalor. We heard you were back in the area, so we thought we'd drop by."
"He's just avoiding his wife," Donna put in.
"Winder, you're married?" Telkarnith said.
"Yup," Winder said. "Got a wife and a little boy back in Roulden. But you know how it is, I'm sure. You think a girl is nice, and the minute you get married, she turns into a shrew and starts telling you what you can and can't do."
Donna snorted softly. "Well, if you were ever willing to take any sort of responsibility, you wouldn't have that problem."
"I wouldn't know," Telkarnith said. "But you two are welcome to stay in my home so long as you're in town. There's plenty of room, and you're friends, after all."
His friends had been in town for a week when his mother came up to him and said, "Oh, Telkarnith? I have someone here I'd like for you to meet."
In the foyer of the Chelseer manor, a striking young elven girl sat along with an older man. She couldn't have been older than sixteen. She had long, blonde hair and light blue eyes, and she held her hands composed at her lap as if in hopes of hiding how nervous she looked.
"Telkarnith, this is Rianath Tatalkhan, and his daughter, Thalayal, your betrothed."
Telkarnith stared at the young woman for a long moment before saying, "Oh." He stood there awkwardly for a few moments more, before, without another word, he turned and left the room.
Tevriel caught up with him in the stables a little later, where he was tending to the horses, and said, "Telkarnith, that was very rude. Here I've gone to all this trouble to find you a suitable wife, and she and her father have travelled all the way from Desahn Deruna to meet you."
"Desahn Deruna?" Telkarnith said, turning to look at her. "What did you do, send out word for them to come the minute I arrived back in town? Were you planning on this the entire time I had been away?"
"She's a well-bred girl of good lineage and strong blood," his mother said.
"She's a scared little girl," Telkarnith retorted. "Didn't you see her? She looked as though she was about to faint right then and there!"
"She'll get over it," Tevriel said. "She's just nervous. She's most priveleged to marry one of such high standing as you."
Telkarnith sighed, shook his head, and said, "I'll speak with her." He went off again, leaving her there.
He found Thalayal in the sitting room with her father, looking as though she were about to cry. "Rianath, sir," Telkarnith said quietly. "May I speak with her for a moment?"
Rianath gave a small nod and moved off to the other side of the room to give them some space while still maintaining dignity. Thalayal looked up at Telkarnith hesitantly, and he sat down next to her.
"Hello there," Telkarnith said gently. "Are you alright? It's okay. No one's going to hurt you."
"Oh, I'm... I'm okay," Thalayal said haltingly. "I'm just so excited! This is all so amazing!" She giggled girlishly.
Telkarnith restrained a wince. This was really not what he had had in mind at all. But he had best at least try to be polite about the whole business. "Of course, of course," he said.
"Are you excited too?" Thalayal said, looking at him in wide-eyed admiration. "I can't believe we're actually going to get married! I thought I was going to get stuck with a nobody like Daver Caldene or Keldar Kedaire."
"Oh... yeah..." Telkarnith lied. "I'm positively speechless."
He thought the girl was about to swoon, and excused himself again, nodding politely to Rianath on the way out. He slipped outside again, and located Helkhar nosing around out back. He went over to scratch the wolf behind the ears.
"Ah, that feels good," Helkhar said in the canine language. "Is something wrong? You seem a little distraught."
"I'm getting married, apparently," Telkarnith said.
"You're going to take a mate?" Helkhar said. "Why is that cause to be sad?"
"I didn't choose her, and she's not the sort of person that I would choose were it up to me."
"Why would you mate with someone you did not wish to?"
"Chalk another one up to strange two-legs customs," Telkarnith said with a smirk. "All concerned with keeping the blood pure and all that. I don't really have much choice in the matter."
"Seems very strange to me," Helkhar said. "I'm hoping to meet a nice female snow wolf one day, and have lots of little cubs."
"I'm sure they'll be adorable, Helkhar."
"Telkarnith!" Donna said from behind him. "What's this about you getting married?"
Telkarnith turned around to see the young brown Hlayan girl standing with her hands on her hips. He was puzzled by how vehement she was about the matter. He might not appreciate it overly much, but it was hardly anything unusual for elves of his lineage.
"I just found out myself," he said. "What of it?"
Donna strode up to him and slapped him across the face, then turned and stormed off, leaving him blinking.
"I am so very confused," Telkarnith said. "What's going on here?"
"Don't ask me," Helkhar said. "I'm just a wolf. Two-legs are confusing."
Shaking his head a bit, Telkarnith frowned and went off to try to find Winder. He was down near the village, sitting under a tree and munching on a basket of worfberries. Winder waved over to him, and Telkarnith approached and sat down next to him.
"Winder," Telkarnith said. "Why did Donna slap me? Does she hate me or something?"
"Huh? She did what?" Winder said.
"She just slapped me. I suppose she must have been upset about me getting married, or something, but why? It's not like it was my idea or anything."
Winder practically choked on a worfberry. "Oh. I see."
"I don't even like the woman I'm supposed to be marrying," Telkarnith said. "Very pretty, nothing in her head." He paused. "Don't tell anyone I said that, alright?"
"Do you mind if I tell Donna?" Winder said with a smirk.
"Does it matter?" Telkarnith said. "Why did she slap me?"
"Tel, she's hardly stopped talking about you ever since you left Roulden."
"What do you mean?"
Winder laughed aloud, almost spilling the basket of berries. "You really don't see it, do you. I know what they say about love being blind and all, but she's completely smitten for you. You'd think the availability of more likely and attainable candidates would have dissuaded her, but no, she's nothing if not stubborn."
Telkarnith blinked at him. "Donna is in love with me?"
"Hey, don't look at me. I tried to tell her she never stood a chance, to appeal to her unwavering sense of logic, but did she listen? No!"
Telkarnith smirked. "I never really thought of her that way, but I'd honestly much rather marry Donna than Thalayal. Realistically that's just not possible, though."
"Mind if I tell her that, too?" Winder said with a smirk.
"If you want," Telkarnith said, shrugging. "I hate to disappoint her or anything. She's a dear friend and I wouldn't want to hurt her."
Donna caught up with him in the stables the next day, while he was tending the horses. "I'm sorry I slapped you yesterday," she said.
"It's alright," Telkarnith said.
"I guess I didn't realize that people still _did_ arranged marriages," Donna said. "The Hlayans certainly don't practice that custom."
"Not all of the elves do, either. But my family are distant descendants of important people. Not that anyone in this part of the world even cares about the royal bloodline of Kedresida, but it hasn't stopped my family from shipping in brides from the next continent."
"It just doesn't seem fair, you know," Donna said. "And I know, I know, life isn't always fair. But why don't they give any consideration into what _you_ might want?"
"Donna," Telkarnith said gently, reaching out to put his hands on her shoulders and look at her. When learning shamanism with her father, he'd hardly thought of her as anything more than a sister, but he'd been gone for over a year and she had changed during that time. She had filled out, and was quickly becoming a woman now.
"But then, why would you even look twice at me?" Donna said, looking away. "She's a beautiful elven woman, and I'm just a _human_."
"She's also a complete ditz," Telkarnith said with a snort.
"Telkarnith, you shouldn't insult her like that," Donna said gently, looking up into his eyes.
"Well, it's true."
Donna kissed him. He blinked for a moment as he found Donna's lips pressed firmly to his and her arms wrapping around his waist, but he didn't try to push her away. She broke off after a moment, a little embarrassed.
"Donna, we shouldn't," Telkarnith said quietly.
"I know," Donna said, pulling back and hurriedly stumbling out of the stable.
She and Winder left town the next day. Telkarnith was sorry to see them go.
Telkarnith was married that summer in a grand ceremony. He held no real ill feelings against Thalayal, of course, and he knew his duty to the family. Early the next spring, Thalayal announced that she was pregnant with Telkarnith's child.
As the winter snows receeded, a man on a donkey rode into town. It was Winder Sarn, and he was alone this time. Telkarnith was surprised to see him coming from the east rather than the south.
"Winder!" Telkarnith called to him. "Good to see you again. How is your family?"
"They're well, last I was in," Winder said. "Got another one on the way. How's the wife?"
"We're expecting one ourselves," Telkarnith said. "I can't help but notice you've come in from Hannaderres. What's up?"
"Trouble, from the sounds of things. Hannaderres is getting worried about Unar. There've been some strange things afoot, some persistant rumors that can't quite be dispelled, and I don't like the sounds of it. I wanted to see if I could lend a hand, myself, but I didn't want to head into trouble without my favorite sword-slinging shaman at my side." He grinned at Telkarnith. "You up for it?"
Telkarnith thought about it for a moment, frowning deeply. "That doesn't sound good. I'll go, most definitely."
He went and prepared for the journey, and saw Thalayal off, explaining in terms she could understand what was going on in the outside world. She didn't seem overly upset about it, if anything, she was proud to be the wife of such a mighty warrior and didn't seem to expect him to spend a lot of time at home. In fact, she seemed more than a little relieved. She had never gotten on well with Helkhar, and was openly terrified of him whenever he was near.
They packed, and headed out of Wishingsdale. They were heading for Roulden Trisa first for a quick stop, and then it was off to Hannaderres. Helkhar was practically bouncing with glee, and said to Telkarnith, "Ride!"
"What?" Telkarnith said. "You don't find it demeaning or anything?"
"Of course not," Helkhar said. "I find being around _her_ anymore than necessary to be demeaning. I don't know why you put up with her. But come on, climb on! Let's ride!"
"Heh," Telkarnith said with a smirk, then shrugged and climbed onto Helkhar's back. The wolf set off like the wind to the south.
"Hey!" shouted Winder from behind them. "Wait up! I'm on a donkey! I can't keep up with a wolf!"
They stopped in to stay the night at the Sarn family farmhouse. Telkarnith had to admit that this had been, in part, an excuse to get away from home and quench his lust for adventure. But he was more than glad to see Donna again, even if their meeting was a little awkward.
"So, you're back," Donna said uneasily.
"I would hate to go the rest of my life without seeing you again, Donna," Telkarnith said with a small grin.
"But what are you planning on doing now? You're married."
"I know," Telkarnith said. "But I won't let that stop us if you don't."
"Why should I agree to something like that? How do you know I haven't gotten married myself while you were gone?"
Telkarnith looked away, taken aback. "Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest--"
Donna was kissing him again before he could finish. "And no, I'm not married. If I can't marry the man I love, then why should I do it at all?"
Telkarnith put his arms around her. "When I'm in Wishingsdale, I must be with Thalayal. But anywhere else, I'd much rather be with you."
"Excellent," Donna said with a grin. "Let me go pack my bags, then."
"Wait, what?" Telkarnith said.
"You're heading off to Hannaderres with Winder, aren't you? I'm coming with you. I'm a shaman, too, you know. Besides, you'll need somebody with brains along if you're going to have any hope of succeeding at anything."
Telkarnith laughed aloud and kissed her unashamedly. "I love you, Donna."